Turner shook his head. “You’re like kids who got caught raiding the liquor cabinet.”
Alex’s mind sped through possible strategies, excuses, elaborate lies. “Both of you stay out of sight until I take care of them.”
“Just let me handle them. I’m not going to punch anyone.”
At least she hoped she wasn’t. Translating Latin and tracking down Bible quotes weren’t in her skill set, but she’d been lying to parents most of her life. The problem was she was short on information. Darlington had never talked about his mother and father, only his grandfather, as if he’d sprung from the moss that clung to the stones of the old house and been carefully tended to by an aging and cantankerous gardener.
She needed the old man. The one she occasionally saw lurking around the house in his bathrobe, a pack of crushed Chesterfields in his pocket.
Come on, Alex thought, trying not to panic as she hurried down the stairs. Where are you?
She could hear the Arlingtons pounding on the kitchen door now. She glanced at Dawes’s phone and saw their frustrated expressions.
“The Mercedes is in the drive,” his father muttered. “He’s making us wait on purpose.”
“We should have called first.”
“Why?” his mother complained. “He never answers.”
Alex yanked on her sweater, though she was still covered in perspiration from the heat of the ballroom. She needed to cover her tattoos, look respectable, authoritative.
There. The old man was sitting in the sunroom with Cosmo at his feet.
“I need your help,” Alex said.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” he asked plaintively.
So Alex had been right. He wasn’t some Gray who had wandered in and liked the atmosphere. Ghosts weren’t drawn to empty places naturally. This had to be Darlington’s grandfather.
C’mon. She held out her hand and tugged. The man’s mouth made a startled oh, and then he was rushing into her with a rattle like an old cough. Alex tasted cigarettes and something tar-like. Cancer. She was tasting cancer. He’d been weak when he died, in terrible pain, and his rage had burned through him with such glowing heat she could taste it too. She didn’t need his strength, she needed his memories, and they came on clear and fast, just like the Bridegroom’s had when she’d let him into her mind.
She was looking at Black Elm, but it was beautiful, alive, full of light and people. Her father’s friends, the old foreman from the boot shop. She was running through the halls, chasing a white cat out to the garden. It couldn’t be Cosmo, this was too long ago, and yet … the cat turned to look at her with one scarred eye. Bowie Cat.
There had been no brothers and sisters, just a single son, always one boy to tend to the business, to Black Elm. He wasn’t lonely. This was his palace, his fortress, the ship he captained in every game. He was smoking stolen cigarettes up in the tower room, looking out over the trees. He hid his treasures beneath the loose windowsill—comic books and slabs of taffy, then whiskey and smokes and copies of Bachelor. He was watching his father weep as the old man signed the papers that would close the factory. He was pulling Jeannie Bianchi down a dark hall, panting in her ear as he came in her hand.
He dressed in a black suit and grieved his mother. He wore the same black suit to put his father in the ground. He bought his wife a maroon Mercedes and they made love in the back seat, right there in the driveway. “Let’s go to California,” she whispered. “Let’s drive there today.” “Sure,” he said, but he didn’t mean it. Black Elm needed him, as it always had. He was watching her from the doorway to the den, feet curled under her, listening to music he didn’t like or understand, drinking from great big glasses of vodka. She looked at him, stood on unsteady legs, turned the
volume up. “It’s going to kill you,” he warned her. “It’s already got your liver.” She turned the music up louder. It did get her in the end. He had to buy a new black suit. But he couldn’t blame her for not being able to stop. Things you love, things you need, they don’t stop taking.
He was holding a child in his arms, his son … no, his grandson, a second chance to get it right, to forge this boy from factory steel, a true Arlington, strong and capable, not like his fool of a son, weak-willed, flitting from one failure to the next, an embarrassment. If Daniel hadn’t looked so much like an Arlington, he would have suspected that his wife had found some weak-chinned artist to spend her afternoons with. It was like looking into a fun house mirror and seeing yourself sapped of all spine. But he wouldn’t make the same mistakes with Danny.
The house was different now, quiet and dark, no one but Bernadette humming in the kitchen and Danny running through the halls as he once had. He hadn’t expected to grow old. He hadn’t really understood what old was, his body in gradual rebellion, loneliness crowding in as if it had just been waiting for him to slow down so it could catch him. He had been fearless once. He had been strong. Daniel and his wife canceled their visit. “Good,” he said. But he didn’t mean it as much as he wanted to.
When had death crept in? How had it known where to find him? Silly question. He’d been living in this tomb for years.
“Kill me, Danny. Do this for me.”
Danny was crying, and for a moment, he saw the boy as he was, not the Arlington paragon, but a child really, lost in the caverns of Black Elm, endlessly tending to her needs. He should tell him to run and never look back, to be free of this place and this withering legacy. Instead he seized the boy’s wrist with his last bit of strength. “They’ll take the house, Danny. They’ll take everything. They’ll keep me alive and drain it all away, saying it’s for my care. Only you can stop them. You must be a knight, just take the morphine and inject it. See, it even looks like a lance.
“Now go,” he said as the boy wept, “they mustn’t find out you were here.”
He regretted only that he would die alone.
But death hadn’t been able to keep him from Black Elm. He found himself here again, free of pain and home once more, forever wandering up and down the stairs, in and out of rooms, always feeling like he’d forgotten something but unsure of what it was. He watched Danny eat scraps from the kitchen, sleep in his cold bed, buried beneath old coats. Why had he cursed this child to serve this place the way that he himself had? But Danny was a fighter, an Arlington, galvanized, resilient. He wished he could speak words of comfort, encouragement. He wished he could take it all back.
Danny was standing in the kitchen, mixing up some foul concoction. He could feel his grandson’s desperation, the misery in him as he stood over a bubbling pot and whispered, “Show me something more.” He’d set out a fancy wine goblet, but he paused before he poured that odd red mess into it. Danny set down Bernadette’s old Dutch oven and jogged down the hall.
The old man could sense death in the pot, catastrophe. Stop. Stop before it’s too late. He swiped at it, trying to knock it from the stove, willing himself back into the world, just for a moment, a second. Just give me the strength to save him. But he was weak, useless, no one and nothing. Danny returned, carrying that ugly keepsake box, Arlington Rubber Boots emblazoned on the porcelain lid. He’d kept it on his desk. He’d let Danny play with it as a kid. Sometimes he’d surprise him by putting a quarter in it, or a piece of gum, a blue pebble from the back garden, nothing at all. Danny had believed the box was magic. Now he poured the poison into it. Stop, he wanted to cry, Oh, please, Danny, stop. But the boy drank.
Alex stumbled forward, knocking into the dining room table and nearly toppling before she caught herself on the edge. It was too much, the images too clear. She crumpled to her knees and vomited on the inlaid floor, trying to get her head to stop spinning, trying to peel away all of the past Black Elms and only see the present.
The doorbell rang again, an accusation. “Coming!” she called.
She made herself stand and lurch to the powder room by the kitchen. She rinsed her mouth, splashed water on her face, drew her hair back into a low, tight ponytail.
“For fuck’s sake, Cosmo, get away from that.” The cat was sniffing around the pool of vomit. “Help me out here.”
And Cosmo, as if he’d understood, did something he’d never done before: He leapt into her arms. She tucked him carefully against her, hiding his singed fur.
“The barbarians are at the gate,” she whispered. “Let’s do this.” Again the bell rang.
Alex thought of who she wanted to be in this moment, and it was Salome, the president of Wolf’s Head she’d had to frighten into giving up use of the temple room. Rich, beautiful, used to getting her way. The kind of girl Darlington would date if he had no taste.
She opened the door slowly, in no rush, and blinked at Darlington’s parents as if they’d woken her from a nap. “Yeah?”
“Who are you?” The woman—Harper, the name came with Alex’s doubled vision, her sight coupled with the old man’s eyes—was tall, lean, and dressed in perfectly tailored wool trousers, a silk blouse, and pearls. The man—contempt, pure and seething, rose up at the sight of him. He looked so much like Danny, Daniel, Darlington. So much like me. And yet he looked nothing like any of them. Alex had met a lot of low-level cons in her life, people who were always looking for the shortcut, the easy fix. They were perfect marks.
“Alexandra,” she said, her voice bored, her hand stroking Cosmo’s fur. “I’m watching the house for Darlington while he’s in Spain.”
“I know who you are.” She tried to soak the words with equal parts disdain and disinterest. “He doesn’t want you here.”
Daniel Arlington sputtered. Harper’s eyes narrowed, and she raised a perfect brow.
“Alexandra, I don’t know who you are or why our son appointed you watchdog, but I want to speak to him. Now.”
“Out of money again?”
“Get out of my way,” said Daniel.
Alex’s impulse was to give him a good hard shove and watch his bony ass land on the gravel drive. She’d seen these people in the old man’s
memories, barely a word for Danny, barely a thought. Even if her mother was terrible at paying the bills or providing anything resembling stability, she at least gave a damn. But Alex had to stay in rich-girl mode.
“Or what?” she said with a laugh. “This isn’t your house. I’m happy to call the police and let them sort it out.”
Darlington’s father cleared his throat. “I … I think there’s been some kind of misunderstanding. We always hear from Danny on holidays and he always takes our calls.”
“He’s in Spain,” Alex said. “And he’s seeing a therapist now. Setting boundaries. You should think about that.”
“Come on, Daniel,” said Harper. “This little bitch is high on her own power. When we return, it will be with a letter from our attorney.” She marched back to the Range Rover.
Daniel wagged his finger in her face, trying to get some of his own back. “That’s exactly right. You really have no business—”
“Run home, you weakling.” The words came out as a snarl, deep, grizzled. That wasn’t Alex’s voice, and she knew Darlington’s father wasn’t seeing her face anymore either. “You held me hostage in my own house, you sniveling shit.”
Daniel Arlington IV gasped and stumbled backward, nearly went to his knees.
Alex willed the old man to recede but it wasn’t easy. She could feel him in her head, the ferocity of his determination, a spirit forever at war with itself, with the world, with everything and everybody around him.
“Stop screwing around, Daniel!” Harper shouted from the car, gunning the engine.
“I … I…” His mouth gaped, but he was just seeing Alex’s placid face now.
The old man was like a barely leashed dog inside her mind. Pussy. Candy-ass. How did I ever raise a son like you? You didn’t even have the balls to face me, just kept me drugged up and helpless, but I got you in the end, didn’t I?
Cosmo squirmed in Alex’s arms. She raised a hand and waved. “Bye-bye,” she singsonged.
Daniel Arlington made it into the car, and the Range Rover took off in a spray of gravel.
“Thanks, Cosmo,” Alex murmured as the cat leapt from her arms and pranced toward the back of the house to hunt. “And you.”
She shoved the old man out of her mind with all her might. He appeared in front of her, bathrobe flapping, his naked, emaciated body peppered with white hair.
“That was a one-time ride,” she said. “Don’t think about trying to hijack this particular train again.”
“Where’s Danny?” the old man growled.
Alex ignored him and marched back to Dawes and Turner.