NOTE: When I discovered my daughter liked to read ‘bodice rippers.’ I created the rough draft of a story that grew in size. It was 1 part bodice ripper, 1 part international murder mystery, 1 part esoteric lore, and 1 part magical realism. It waited impatiently while I did other things. Now it insists I tell the tale of a 3000+ year old feud between two immortal women and the related fate of a 20th century woman, Perdea Brentain, who defied the odds and lived authentically. This is a saga of lovers lost & rediscovered, of secrets and self-serving lies, disguises and inventions, costs and prices paid…revealed by a cast of characters that impacted Perdea’s life as much as she did theirs.
Perdea knew revealing the intimate lives of others came at a high cost, extracting a payment not unlike what was paid to Charon the Ferryman. She knew powerful stories create meaning from a chaos of information, emotions, events, memories, and dreams. She knew tales possess a terrible power; people lie, cheat, and kill to ensure messages are repeated to their specifications. Myth becomes truth—the gospel of a culture and race; one changes or questions a word at peril of death. Sometimes, however, someone listens carefully and questions tiny gaps and inconsistencies; sometimes that person is ignored, or worse, declared mad. Once in a blue moon, what was questioned is pondered by others that also see holes in recorded truths. Perhaps that’s why Perdea produced a TV show that exposed alleged truths—in as large a dose as people could tolerate. She could have been equally successful writing fiction or selling anti-wrinkle rejuvenating cream, but that would have been the same as telling lies.
In the days leading up to the fire, she readied herself. As those before her had done, she didn’t immediately snuff out the light. She left clues, crafted in the green language, the occult argot of outsiders, the art gothic adepts left as esoteric bread crumbs, the language known before the fall of babbling towers. She left one person she had loved Deianera’s words so that person might connect the arcane lore and fathom what she’d learned—the ability to transform. So pour a wee dram and sit as enchanted creatures do, dangling limbs in the branches of this story. Listen well for “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”
“You see,” Perdea said to her oldest friend Vivienne a few weeks before the fire, “everyone thought it was about the lineage, the pedigree, their rumored immortal flesh, despite the corruption and dilutions occurring over these many millennia. That’s all that mattered, no price or sacrifice was too great. But Viv, that wasn’t it at all. It really was much simpler. The answer was hiding in plain sight. Once I had Hekate’s Clavis, I knew what to do. They got it so wrong Viv. This will change everything.”
“What can you possibly tell me I don’t already know Cheri? Hekate’s key, pishoosh! Who understands you better than I do? We comprehend more about the ancient bloodlines and royals than most, except for your grandee, and she . . . “
Perdea waved her hand excitedly. Viv stopped talking. “My discovery has nothing to do with grandee, or grails, dragons, conspiracies, royal bloodlines, or pseudo-churchy Brigida theories. No.” Perdea banged a fist on the table, which caused a tiny silver spoon to leap from her saucer and make a curious tinkling sound as it landed upside down atop a plate of iced cakes. “Not another word or hint. Everyone got it so wrong—you’ll all be stunned. . .”
London, England—March 1999 Griffin Garner Northfield hadn’t visited America in years—his business interests were centered in England and France now. America—that was where she was. When the package arrived at Wynn-Lennox headquarters, he immediately recognized the handwriting. His face suffused with heat; the intensity startled him. It was another reminder of her hold on him, despite the passage of 25 years. Garner snatched the bulky package from his assistant’s desk and hurried into his office. The door slammed shut. His fingers traced the backward slanted letters, and smoothed the brown paper, twine, and thick cellophane wound round the box multiple times.
He stared at letters that formed his name and warned others—CONFIDENTIAL—Eyes Only: Garner Northfield. Deep furrows radiated from his eyes and created a webbed map that atop an interior few ever penetrated. His face was seasoned by weather, time, obligation, and—something less definable—deep sadness or dolor. Garner massaged his temples, willed his hand to be steady, and reached for a heavy pair of stainless steel shears. Could he do it? How could he not?
Why now—after what was it—seven years since their last encounter, and twenty five years since their first meeting? The question evoked a memory from a poem written by one of Britain’s finest poets, Cecil Day Lewis, “ . . . how selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go . . .” Hadn’t he proved his love? Hadn’t she let go? That last night, he stood immobile, watching her shadow swell then dwindle until it merged into darkness, while the pale glow of a rising moon filled the space where she’d been. The sound he made alarmed him; it was the cry of a wounded animal.
His desire had never diminished. It was the one constant in his life. He knew what to do now. He even knew what he’d say to Meredyth—how he’d exit a life and a marriage he’d been feigning for decades. Why had she waited so long to contact him? It didn’t matter. He buzzed his assistant, Donna, and gave uncharacteristically curt instructions he wasn’t to be disturbed. No one was to interrupt him. Garner turned back to the package. Sturdy shears and powerful hands ripped through the brown paper, tore through the sloppily applied layers of tape that protected the battered cardboard box. He lifted the lid of the box, and the world he knew, had paid for in full measure—exploded before him.
PART 1: GET YOURSELF GONE
‘Wintertime nighs; but my bereavement pain it cannot bring again: twice no one dies . . .’Thomas Hardy (In Tenebris)
“If the story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.” John Steinbeck
Langley. Loudoun County, Virginia. “Mother said her bedroom was the dead skin capital— the place most touched, awash with bits of her. The remaining rooms were its counties. I’m dubbing the garage County ‘Kill-dare.’ It’s full of someone’s greasy ashes and …” Langley’s voice cracked. She spun round and stared at the detective climbing the stairs behind her. He tilted his head slightly, waiting for her to continue.
“This is where mother exhaled the most. She thought the house had lungs, and its rooms were its bellows. The house’s state bird is the raven, insatiable patron and harbinger of all things dead. Mother kept one stuffed in the library.” Langley pointed towards the library’s double doors, with its ornate stained glass art deco panel inserts. Then she pointed in the opposite direction. The live birds in the back yard are stuffed as well—with her exotic birdseed.” She paused; did the detective appreciate her wry humor? “What nasty, greedy creatures—always cawing and complaining. The house’s motto, detective, is Beauty’s only skin deep; its theme song: I’ve Got You Under My Skin. This house doesn’t make much sense, does it? All these rooms—her homage to the weird. Mother calls her manor Aisling Gheár; I think that translates to terrible beauty in the language Grand Sebastian speaks sometimes.”
“Cripes, am I losing it Detective?” Never mind—I don’t care.” Langley rubbed a fist against her forehead. “Can you guess what the theme poem of this damn house is?” Outside the door of her mother’s bedroom, she paused before the man who’d asked her to confirm the incinerated body in the garage was Perdea Brentain, her mother.
“Nevermore, that’s the house’s poem—isn’t that priceless?” Her voice quivered as she fought for control. She waved a finger inches from the detective’s chest. “And here’s a final, fascinating fact. Mother said daily we shed enough skin to fill a duck’s egg. Is this what you wanted to see—her dead skin sanctuary?”
With lips pressed together tightly, Langley swallowed and turned the brass knob of the oversized oak door. Below her, men barked orders and went about the business of investigating a crime scene.
The detective hesitated, murmured a quick apology, and leaned over the balcony. He yelled for someone downstairs to find his partner Theo and send him up. He cautioned Langley about touching anything in the room.
Langley circled the room, and wondered if more of her mother really was captured here . . . No, that can’t be . . . Of course, there are parts of Mickey here and Terroir, and probably Perry, last season’s love de’jour. I cheered when you booted his ass mother. I’m here too, and as usual, mixed up with everyone else. The skin tally will soon include cops, firemen, a medical examiner and a nosy, hot, dark skinned detective. I don’t see any dusky dust. Perhaps, under our skin, we’re all colorless.
She addressed the detective again. “Mother said the Irish were more “people of color” than Indians or Africans or—we’re pink at birth; red in the face when mad or in our cups; yellow or green in the gills when sick; tan or orange after a day in the sun; and black and rotting when we die—whereas, darker skinned folks remain more even toned. Cripes, why am I thinking about that now? Everything dead is grey, like dryer lint. Did you ever notice no matter what colors you throw in the wash, lint’s always grey—like my frigging life today?” She spun in a circle and addressed the room. “Your shade of skin, mother, is damn selfish. What color is selfish detective?”
She continued without waiting for a reply. “You self-centered bitch; mother, what did you do now?”Langley flung herself onto the unmade bed. She plucked at the raised red silk rosettes on the dark burgundy comforter, then pulled the cool material over her.
The detective observed her outburst from the doorway and frowned. Clearly, she was in pain—and lost in memories. He was about to remind her this room was a potential crime scene when she jumped up and circled the room again.
She walked past the loudly painted furniture, and rearranged a collection of cut glass perfume vials when the detective wasn’t looking. Despite aromas of lemon wax and sweet incense, Langley smelled her mother’s perfume, the same heady scent she’d worn since forever. “Mother’s left the room as if she was just here a moment ago, tossing lacy undergarments in the air, whirling like a dervish, aiming vaguely for the wicker hamper.” Langley stood next to the detective. “Mother likes to—she’s fond of candles, incense, and roaring fires. Hmmm, do you smell hyssop and sandalwood? She’d drape that nude sculpture with scarves, and whatever long, dangling necklaces and talismans she was wearing that day. Isadora Duncan, I suspect, would have killed for a few of mother’s scarves.”
“Ms. Brentain, when was the last time you saw your mother?”
“What a bitch; it bears repeating—and repeating.” Langley spit the words, indifferent to how it the slang might be received. She hugged one of the scarves, and stared at the detective. “My mother lost her mother when she was still a child. No warning—mother didn’t warn me either. She promised she would. So is she really dead? Our family possesses uncanny gifts, heavy fey skills that help—or destroy other folks, but not us. Damn you mother. So, to answer your question Detective, I haven’t seen mother in months, not since New Year’s. We were planning to have dinner next week to celebrate her frigging birthday.”
She couldn’t hold back the waterworks. The scarf sparkled with her tears. The detective scanned the room, searching for a box of Kleenex.
“At least she waited until I was grown. Am I grown? Damn you to Hades, damn you to a place worse than the one you made for me.”
As she reached for something to throw, the detective grabbed her arms. “I’m sorry for your loss, Ms. Brentain—Langley, but this is a crime scene. Nothing should be touched. I’d be happy to call your family.”
She sank to the floor, atop a richly detailed rug. More glistening gobs cascaded down. Langley dug her fingers into the deep pile of the hook rug her grandmother Aubra had made over 40 years ago. A fierce looking dog, which Perdea had named Terroir, poked its massive head into the room and timidly scurried over to where Langley had collapsed. Gently, it nudged her shoulder with its wet nose. The dog’s rough, warm tongue licked her tear streaked face. Through sobs she mumbled, “go away oaf,” and weakly pushed the dog backwards. It didn’t obey. Terroir made a rather human exhale sound and lay down next to her, flopping onto a pile of discarded clothes. The dog waited—for the crying to stop, for his master to return, for someone to feed this hungry, groggy 80-pound animal.
Langley wanted to ask the detective if his mother had loved him, but he’d left the room. “You know I’m allergic d-o-g. Go away.” Her pushes turned into kneading, then stroking of his glossy coat. Finally, she pulled the animal to her, and held on tightly.
From the doorway, Detective Eam Able observed Langley attempt to contain her distress. He inhaled the signature fragrance of the room’s owner. It lingered like a hymn to flowers, heat, and passion. This room was full of eye candy, loud colors, and multiple textures and shapes. And yet—the overall impression was harmony, vitality, and an embracing of all things strange and wonderful. Langley’s light brown hair was streaked with honey hued strands. It framed an oval, perfectly symmetrical face. Odd, he mused; her face seemed as familiar as his own, though softer, luminous, far more delicate.
He cleared his throat. “Ms. Brentain, please come downstairs. They’re removing the body, and we need to ask a few more questions . . . As I mentioned, your mother’s dog needs to be checked by a vet. It’s curious; I put the dog in my van; it seems someone let it out. My mother will take good care of your dog.”
Langley sat up stiffly. She smoothed her clothes, and tucked loose hair behind her ears. Looking directly at Detective Able, with glistening, pale blue eyes, she said in a monotone. “He’s not my d-o-g.” Terroir tried to lick Langley’s hand and made odd, cooing sounds. “You’re thirsty, aren’t you? Come on then oaf, let’s see if Mother left you some treats. Lead the way Detective.” The trio exited the bedroom and Langley paused to pull the door shut. “It’s Langley, just call me Langley. I don’t want these goons messing with mother’s things any more than necessary. Pass the word.”
“Langley, this is a crime scene—at least until it’s determined it’s not. I’ll tell everyone to be careful.”
“The frigging crime scene’s in the garage. What’s your game? First you say she committed suicide, now it’s a crime scene. Death isn’t a crime─but I suppose murder is. You think you’ve single handedly solved the mystery by declaring she’s dead—a suicide no less—but you haven’t. How typically chauvinistic…and …and arrogant.”
Langley rubbed her temples; at the top of the stairs, she spun round. “I’m sorry; that was awful. But detective, if those are mother’s remains, she was murdered. If you knew her, you’d know she could never off herself. No one loved life more than mother. Life—not the horde of men she bedded—was her frigging lover. We need to find the fucker who . . . Sorry.”
She grabbed the bannister, and headed back to the main level. “She’ll turn up detective—and explain what happened. It will be a doozy of an explanation. So do what you have to do.”
Downstairs, she sank into the familiar, lipstick red couch that took up one third of the space in an alcove adjacent to the kitchen. It even resembled a pair of pouty lips. She stared at nothing, vigorously rubbing the fleshy pad of skin between her thumb and index finger. It was a technique she’d been taught to ward off the occasional headache; it was more effective than a couple of pills. Today, she feared nothing could prevent the pain still to come.
I should call Grandee and Grand Sebastian, but it’s going to get so complex once they enter the picture. I need to think. I’ll call Viv—I can absolutely trust her.
Her mind drifted to what she’d been doing before the nightmare call transported her mother’s world. She’d been home debugging a web site her team designed for a virtual real estate company. It incorporated a sophisticated database that matched needs to wants of potential clients. How perfect—mother had an endless array of needs and wants. Will I need to solve a mystery—who killed mother and why, or did she kill herself or put someone else in the driver’s seat of the car in the garage? If only I hadn’t answered the phone.
The caller, after establishing she was Langley Brentain, informed her of a serious incident that occurred at her mother’s house. The caller was sending a car to pick her up after verifying that the address Mrs. Lorry had given the police was correct.
Langley murmured an “um hum” and repeated the name Mrs. Lorry several times before processing her initial shock. “She’s really done it this time, hasn’t she? Who did she off─Mickey—or did she threaten the neighbors? What did you say your name was?”
“Eam Able, Ms Brentain, Detective Eam Able. It’s your mother whom we think─ah, I’ll fill you in once you’re here. You may want other family members join you—someone close to you. Is there a loved one I can call, a husband?”
“Loved one! Damn her! I’m not married. Mother did the marrying, and all that implies, Detective Able. Most people have a ‘to do’ list. Mother had a ‘men to do it to’ list. I can deal with anything she throws my way. Send your car; I’ll be in the lobby.”
Langley immediately phoned her mother’s house and was greeted by Perdea’s latest pre-recorded message: ‘Greetings, you didn’t catch me. Few do. At the tone—let go.’ So vulgar Mother, so typical.
* * * * *#####*****
She sprang from the squad car before it came to a full stop. A tall man, with straight, ebony hair pulled back in a neat ponytail stepped forward and identified himself as the detective that had called her. His skin resembled the Louisiana café o’lait Langley sipped as a child with her mother’s best friend Viv. His jeans were freshly creased and his thick, hooded Virginia Department of Criminal Justice sweatshirt looked brand new. “Miss Brentain?”
It took her a moment to absorb the extent of the damage. About 2/3’s of the oversized two-car garage had collapsed inward. Most of the gabled roof was gone. Shrubs, a tall holly tree and artfully sculpted bushes around the right side of the garage were either burnt, covered in ash, or had been partially trampled. “I’m Langley Brentain. What in blue blazes happened? Where’s my mother? Did Mickey burn down the garage?”
“Please calm down, Miss Brentain. Let’s go inside and talk. We’ve secured the . . .”
“It’s Langley, call me Langley, and I’m calm—under these friggingly unsettling circumstances. Where’s mother?”
“It appears your mother has had an unfortunate accident—or─she may have taken her life . . . We don’t know. We discovered a body in the driver’s seat of the Lexus parked in the garage. Did anyone else live in the house with your mother, this Mickey person perhaps? Did you mother own a Lexus? Let’s go inside and sit down”
“No, it’s not mother!” She backed away from the detective. Bright yellow tape wreathed the area. Firemen in heavy jackets and boots clumped through the debris. “It’s not her body; it’s someone else. You see . . .” Her voice cracked, her eyes threatened to tear. Reality rushed at her—and transported with it reeking odors: burnt grease, charred wood, acrid smoke and—death. She sucked in air through clenched teeth and swallowed. “You see, mother was always bringing home strays, human and animal. Where’s the medical examiner, the coroner? Let me speak to the coroner? He’ll confirm it’s not her, sure he will.” Langley’s hand flew to her lips, as if to filter her words.
“She feeds strays and asks them questions. Then she writes about them—for her show Eyes on Everyone” In a low voice, as if to herself, she added, “That’s it. It’s a stray person, not mother.”
Langley staggered backwards, swaying, arms grabbing only air. Detective Able caught her from behind, and helped her inside. He placed her on a bright red sofa and elevated her feet. His gold and brown-flecked eyes were what she saw first when she attempted to sit up.
She rubbed her temples. “You don’t understand. Mother’s much too clever to… Trust me on this. Suicide─isn’t mother’s shtick, seriously. If that is her body in the garage, then someone murdered her. I’ll find the bastards and rip out their organs with my …”
The detective’s eyebrows arched. Should he attribute her strange words to her understandably anxious state of mind?
“We found a partially finished note in the kitchen. It may be a suicide note. I’m very sorry; the medical examiner tentatively confirmed the body is that of a woman in her forties to sixties, but there are some anomalies. I need to ask some tough questions. Do you need a few minutes alone? I promise I’ll be brief.”
Langley looked at him with wet, luminous eyes that begged him to tell her what was happening wasn’t real. “Show me the note Detective. Ask your questions, then I’ve calls to make.”
He went to the kitchen and retrieved the note, which had been sealed inside a clear plastic envelope. He also picked up an ornate, silver framed picture of a stunning red haired woman wearing a form fitting teal silk suit. The padded shoulders and general design had been popular in the 1940’s. Her hair was pulled back in a black net snood, and the merest hint of a hat, draped with dark netting, covered part of her forehead, contrasting sharply with her red hair. The woman’s face was incandescent and there was something else─a sense of resignation─or remorse? She was seated in a booth in a posh restaurant, and held a bowl shaped cut glass sniffer filled with amber liquid. He handed the picture and the note to Langley. “Is this your mother? Is this your mother’s handwriting?”
She smiled at the photo and placed it besides her, then held the plastic sealed paper with both hands. The note was scrawled across a scrap of yellow paper about the size of a paperback novel page. The words ran the length of the page. A few words veered off in another direction. Langley scanned the contents and a grin spread across her face.
“The photo, Detective, is of my grandmother, Aubra Aria O’Hennessy Brentain. She was beautiful, wasn’t she? She died when mother was about ten years old. Great Grandad Sebastian says mother strongly resembles her—Grandee, my great grandmother, disagrees. There are only a couple of pictures of my grandmother. This was mother’s favorite—taken in the 50’s, at a restaurant in NY City. Mother keeps the photo albums in the library. Choose whatever pictures of her you want. I warn you though─it’ll be hard to find a picture of mother alone. There was always a man next to her, or in back of her, or on top of her.” As for the note, listen carefully detective.” She read it aloud:
Decisions Dorothy . . .
Shall it be with sheers?
No, dear, messy and cold,
A killing fast–I’ll fade sideways. Will they buy it?
A rope, a hole in a boat; or liquidly chugged dreams?
A gun─a high magnum caliber one;
A swift trip down crippled creek, mid-winter, in short sleeves?
Soon or next full moon? Quick and sharp, a sudden stop
Or shall we die as we go . . .
The sideways writing was blurry and smeared. Langley deciphered a few of the blurred words. “Well, that’s very bad verse; she must have written it sober. It’s not a suicide note. The Dorothy mentioned is Dorothy Parker, one of her favorite poets. Dorothy really is dead, though I think she died old, and very pickled. Part of mother’s job is to be creative and inventive. She often scribbles lines of poetry to stir the flow of ideas. Open almost any drawer—you’ll find her peculiar poems. Some weren’t bad─though like I said this one is awful. She said it helps loosen her up; she was probably researching a new story about suicides.
Ask her partner at Lazer Licks, Tallin Anders. There’s a logical explanation why this note was on the counter. If you haven’t noticed, mother’s messy. Look around; she’s careless too. There’s open books on the floor over there, an empty wine glass on the hall table, and Terroir’s chew toys are scattered all over.” Langley flapped her hands. “She’s just—theatrical.” A dimpled smile appeared at the corner of her mouth.
“Who was your mother’s dentist?”
Langley raised her eyebrows and squinted. “Dentist? She didn’t—we don’t have a dentist. We both have perfect teeth—perfect health for that matter. See.” She opened her mouth, exposing a perfectly aligned set of pearly whites. “It’s weird, I know. Actually, mother took me to an orthodontist once, and I was fitted for a retainer I was supposed to wear for about 18 months. She ended up doing an expose on dental practices, and needless to say, that dentist doesn’t practice anymore. My teeth were straight—I didn’t need a retainer. I’ve had cuts and bruises, but otherwise perfect health—never missed a day of grade school or college due to illness.”
“You’re absolutely sure? Your mother never saw a dentist? She never had dental x-rays taken? That’s—unusual Langley. Also, it appears her dog was drugged. Do you know why anyone would sedate your mother’s dog? Did your mother have access to any, that is, did she take any medications, or narcotics?”
“I won’t discuss mother’s use of herbs, pills, or any other kind of medication. I’ll take the 5th if I have to. No way, that’s a subject strictly off limits, nope.” Langley jumped up. “Terroir, where is he? This is frigging un-be-live-able.”
“He’s in the back of the police van, sleeping off the effects of whatever drug he was given. I’ve called a very dependable vet to come pick the dog up and check him out. This vet happens to be my mother.” Eam smiled and revealed a set of straight white teeth, and a hint of several small, silvery fillings in the back molars. “She’ll give him a thorough checkup. Langley, I have just a few more questions. Did your mother have any enemies? We’re treating this as a suspicious death, but there are some inconsistencies. Your neighbor, Mrs. Lorrie, was paying your mother a visit. She heard a car engine running in the garage. She became concerned.”
“Ha, there’s your first suspicious piece of evidence. Frieda and mother weren’t friends. She would never have stopped by to visit mother. She was snooping again. I suppose she could have drugged Terroir. No, I take that back; she’s not a mean person. She’s just a busybody who never approved of mother or her life style, though I think she envied it. She certainly didn’t endear herself by suing mother.”
“I see.” The detective, frowning, jotted information in a tattered brown leather notebook. “It was Mrs. Lorrie who discovered the body. My partner, Theo Armstrong, is interviewing Mr. Lorrie now. I talked to Mrs. Lorrie briefly before you arrived. She stated… Are you ready to hear this?”
“Sure, spit it out.” She squeezed a plush throw cushion.
“Mrs. Lorrie entered the garage via the door at the back of the garage—that is—it appears she crawled through a doggy door. She immediately noticed heavy smoke inside the garage, but was able to make out the image of someone slumped over in the driver’s seat. She couldn’t be sure who it was because of the tinted windows and smoke. Mrs. Lorrie shouted, and tried to open the driver’s door, but it was locked. She realized she was quickly being overcome by fumes, and in her panic to find the exit, she may have knocked over a metal can. We think it might have contained something flammable. The last thing she saw before escaping out the back door was a line of fire rushing towards the Lexus. She claims she also saw something burning in a corner of the garage. She’s hazy on that part, the smoke was thick. She remembers hearing an explosion once she was outside, and then she passed out.”
“You mentioned your mother and Mrs. Lorrie weren’t on the best of terms. Do you have any reason to believe─?”
“She’s just a nosy old fusspot, harmless, I would think. She babysit me a few times─years ago. But that’s not mother in the garage; it’s not. I’d know. I’d feel it here.” Langley thumped her chest; her voice sounded squeaky. She pressed her lips together. “If it is Mother─then Frieda didn’t do it. Neither did Charley, her husband. He’s a sweetheart. Mother did have enemies. She discarded men like samples of cheap perfume. She was barely on speaking terms with anyone in our family. She was tight with her business partner, Tallin, but most everyone else at Lazer Licks had issues or steered clear of her. At least that’s what she told me. Mother got even with anyone who pissed her off. She’s always taken care of herself. I don’t know who hated her enough to do this─if it’s mother’s body in the garage.” Langley stared out the window.
Would you like me to call someone? We can stop for now.”
“Uncle Martin, I could call Uncle Martin or Geneva.” Langley grabbed an ornate framed photo off the teak book shelf and handed it to the detective. “They’re my aunt and uncle; he’s Mother’s older brother. He’ll call Grandfather Mitchell. No—not a good idea. Mother would be furious. Grandad can’t know about this yet. He’s not very well . . .” Langley’s voice trailed off, as she quickly tried to evaluate the best plan of action. ‘I want to see the body up close—now.”
“Not a good idea. The body was burned beyond recognition. It was a very hot fire. Do you know your mother’s blood type?”
“Yes, it’s O negative. I’m O positive. Mother’s a universal donor.”
“Thanks. Langley, it would be better if you wait, and with the support of your family, identify the remains at the coroner’s office. I saw a phone handset in the kitchen. Stay here; I’ll bring it to you.”
As soon as the detective disappeared around the corner, Langley bolted down the hall and mounted the curved, arched stairway to the second floor, which contained Perdea’s bedroom, a guestroom, Langley’s old bedroom, and a narrow door leading to the attic. Her mother had decorated the attic years ago like a bohemian artist’s loft. It was cold and damp in the winter and hot enough to steam dim sum in the summer, despite several Casablanca fans, a ridge vent and a window air conditioner. It was also Langley’s favorite place in the entire house.
The detective watched Langley head upstairs. He replaced the handset and followed her. A few minutes later, a groggy, foreboding looking dog entered the house unobserved, sniffed the carpet and ascended the stairs. The dog lurched slightly. Its head hung lower than usual. Its nose, however, was functioning as well as ever.
* * * * *#####*****
In the wake of a death, we search for understanding and closure. We juggle multiple thoughts about a subject we prefer not to think about otherwise. We may ask why have communications stopped and has death permanently broken all connections? We wonder if we fight so hard to be born, why do we acquiesce in death? Langley sought answers to questions she never thought to ask her contrary, complex mother. Eam Able had confidence his instincts and background in scientific and forensic investigation would enable him solve the mystery surrounding the death of a women who was as elusive in death as she was in life.
Friends, family, and more than a few ex-lovers would seek answers and closure. For some, a conclusion of suicide would reassure─confirm they had been right to avoid, snub, or dismiss Perdea Brentain. Her influential family would try to cover up or downplay unfolding details. Many would mourn and many would curse or malign and misinterpret her final actions.
Her family was part of an international, moneyed class of power brokers. In the 20th century, each of her parent’s families added to their sizeable fortunes during steel and plastics boom days. Perdea, who insisted on being called Dea, was an elfin, strawberry haired sprite of a child. The first word she spoke was ‘why?’ If it had more than one part to it, she disassembled it until she understood how everything fit together. If it was alive, she’d examine it and get to know the physiology. She would poke, prod, nudge—try everything short of dissection. She had an uncanny ability for finding and fixing lost things—eyeglasses, stray puppies, a misplaced diamond earring, and especially—lost souls. In them, she found great value. In them, she discovered a wisdom few others possessed. She was never impressed by privilege and luxury. From an early age, she used her discretionary money and position to help others. But she was no altruist. She did it for a selfish reason; these good works pleased her.
Dea the woman was a holiday from care, an adventurer, a risk seeker, of her times but not of her generation─she was someone you could not help feeling deeply about. She thought by understanding something, by discovering its inner truth, she might be forever linked to that thing or person. I suspect in her quest to know and comprehend the whyness of life, she forgot about the aweness, that crazy emotion called love. She was fascinated by a theory posed by psychiatrist Theodor Reik, one of Freud’s most brilliant pupils. Reik said “there is no such thing as a love story. Love is a story within a story.” He theorized we fall in love because we’re dissatisfied with ourselves. He suggested being loved was a form of validation many can’t do without. Few have the will required to throw off the conditioning we received as children, and continue to receive as adults. Few can love themselves as they are. Dea was determined to fully realize the non-negotiable price of this profound truth.
Once the flurry of investigation into her suspicious death had initially run its course, life seemed quieter, duller, slightly out of tune. A few people swore her ghostly presence hovered still. The vibration of her cool breath was sensed on the back of necks at certain moments, in certain in-between places she loved. Her distinctive scent, her cool touch was felt─or imagined by the people she had cared about. They were determined to unravel the mystery of her life and death. This quest would also hasten the death of one of them. It wouldn’t stop there. This story wouldn’t end until the person who tried to destroy Perdea Brentain paid—in full—a fitting price.
* * * * *
Translated from copper plates attributed to the daimona Peitho. It was there all along, as she said. If you studied the right sources, armed with the right questions, you found it. Their genealogy didn’t resemble a tree. A truer word was whirlwind, which deliberately muddled and obscured pedigrees, bloodlines, and appellations. They carried their secrets forward from time forgotten, when life was measured in eons—intimately joined above and below. They could assume any shape—defy universal laws. They became our custodians and protectors, and sometimes—our executioners. Their feats were recounted orally for millenniums by seanachies’ entrusted to convey their messages and teachings. These immortals gave us knowledge of the elements, of how to share the land and its gifts, and they encouraged joyful expressions. People were at peace, though the immortals warred among themselves about how much to divulge and share with humans. On one subject all immortals agreed—mortals couldn’t be trusted to use magic—and would be punished if they tried.
Their tale began before time was measured as it is now, with atomic clocks, international time zones, and digital calendars. The dancing moon, smiling sun, waving fields, stately forests, stoic stones, and rising and ebbing waterways recorded deeds of these legendary beings, whose actions intimately affected humans. When written down, in altered form, adapted to suit rulers’ political ambitions and the type of message their audiences demanded, the tales only faintly resembled what transpired in the long ago time. Until now—until this time of absolute accounting—when the tallying of costs, prices paid, losses and gains, and payment in full was demanded. Their story, as intricate as a withering, entangled nest of snakes, was deftly woven into 1,111generations of descendants.
In the luminous, mirage like margin between reality and lore, odd fact and curious circumstance, I recorded the ultimate reckoning. I am Peitho, a humble seanachie, chosen to carry the ancient messages, which have served as oral medicine to heal old wounds, recall lost wisdom, or remind when reminding was needed. I carry within a story begun in the chaotic dawn time—of two timeless women of prodigious willfulness and power. Eons after first blood was drawn, they roused slumbering immortals to finish a contest that would decide all their fates. These two women were, even among immortals, outsiders and outcasts, sworn adversaries. But I stray, this is not merely a tale of two women. It is the outcome of an eternal war; a mastery of time, space, and magic—1,111 generations later.
Long ago, humans imagined primal elements (fire, air, water, earth, aether) as gods forms, and later as gifts from gods. The most tangible, coveted element was earth—and its bounties. People who were one with the land were drawn to natural beauty. Everything expressing that beauty was prized—communicated via music, poetry, laughter, joyful dancing, arts and crafts or eloquence of speech. Eventually, people questioned the purpose and meaning of everything—beauty and ugliness, empathy and apathy, love and fear, the worth of material objects, the concept of morality, of right and wrong. They desired more. They reflected on the inevitability of death and pain, and demanded the knowledge and secrets the immortals possessed.
Humans forgot the warnings of the price and consequence of seeking absolute knowledge. They shunned the gods, and corrupted their words. Some experimented with psychoactive plants and fungi to unlock lost ancient knowledge and secrets. Others discovered how to transmute metal into weapons and wealth, and blood and sweat into gold. The immortals withdrew; they didn’t respond when humans invoked them. The world lost its sparkle and dimmed. People became drugged by the narcotic of religion, mistook technology & science for magic, and coveted the heavens.
They developed their own stories and dogmas to assuage their questions and fears—to suit the political directives of those attempting to rule as the immortals once had. These tales were a terrible corruption of the deep knowledge once shared with humans. They invented belief systems and concepts like faith, grace, and sin. Oppression was used to subjugate and dull the imagination for countless centuries. Revered seanachies were forced to falsify lessons and chronicles from the long ago. Always hungry for stories, people listened to the bastardized tales. A few instinctively sensed the hollowness and corruption, the twisting of facts. They suspected the ancient teachings were not lost. They knew at certain points on the wheel of the year old knowledge reemerged, carried on the wind, or resonated from dolmans, cairns and secret springs. Many of those who knew were declared to be mad, or were silenced.
A few immortals had not given up on humans. They disguised their messages and waited to see who might translate truths that rode the white froth rising above indigo waters or seeped from cracks in the earth. Keepers of the stories began to decode the sounds and symbols. Messages were symbolically carved into mountains and hillsides and onto stone markers. Keys were left where sacred wells renewed those who sought refreshment.
Humans have craved legends nearly as much as they’ve needed sustenance and shelter. They will travel great distances to seek each other out and hear stories that inspire and stir deep emotions. A great storyteller bridges cultural identities, linguistic, moral, and generational gaps. An equally compelling need to seek truths and receive ancient wisdom remains. People seek out storytellers trained in the oral tradition of the seanachie—entreat them to ‘give it out,’ divulge magical stories and lessons, extraordinary feats, and problems encountered and solved. They want to hear both glorious and grim tales, of a hero’s quest and hubris, and how a chosen few can heal, destroy, and resurrect. It is my task to document the journey of those few that dared to demand answers, and paid the price of initiation and discovery. What they choose to do with the answers they received remains to be seen.
Next up this month: Part 1, Chapter 2 of Remains to be Seen and the rest of Dea’s Yuletime Ghost Story (part 1 released in July). Meanwhile, Peter Dan is working hard to solve the Grave Goddess murders before anyone else is killed; and Nora and Dmetri put themselves at further risk trying to get to the bottom of Chaz Delacroix’ fiery death and Dorian’s murder in Act of Ambition…