Harcourt Manor

Harcourt Manor

Illustration by Shane Watson

by Dean P. Turnbloom

 

The letter itself was strange. After all, who writes letters nowadays? An email would have been the norm for communicating with an old friend. But then, an email is much easier to dismiss—easier to forget about. A letter is a very deliberate thing.

In the letter my friend divulged that he was quite taken by surprise when he was contacted by his great-grandfather’s lawyer, or solicitor as they are termed in England, and even more surprised to discover he’d been bequeathed a sizable estate worth a substantial sum of money. My friend was the only child of an only child and both his mother and father had died tragically in an auto accident some five years past.

Even more surprising, he had been bequeathed the estate, all very properly and legally, with the title and deed signed and sealed, even though his great-grandfather was still very much alive, if not well, and residing on the estate.

If it were just the letter that would certainly be strange enough. But Charley had enclosed a coupon good for a one-way ticket to London, England.

Charley and I had been best friends at college—roommates in the dormitory our freshman year and roommates in a small apartment off-campus the remainder of our days at old Indiana University. More than once, we’d sworn that should one of us ever need the other, never mind the reason or the hardship it might impose, we’d answer the call unhesitatingly.

Still, after so many years, years in which neither of us had heard from the other, I was inclined to deny the oath taken in such youthful exuberance, and throw the letter, coupon and all, in the trash. I would have done just that, except my personal circumstances, coincidentally, suddenly lent themselves to taking a trip.

Susan and I had been dating for over a year, and I suppose I just assumed I could continue to string her along indefinitely. But it had very recently come to my attention that Susan had taken matters into her own hands in a way that was sure to upset the status quo. I discovered quite by accident that Susan was sleeping with our mutual friend and my teaching partner, Ted.

Rather than suffer the humiliation of being a cuckold, I fabricated a story about a research grant that I could not pass up. I told Susan we would have to put our relationship on hold for a year, while I pursued this wonderful opportunity. I then arranged to take a sabbatical in pursuit of the supposed grant to write a treatise on English literature of the eighteenth century.

I thought it would do me well to get away and I had been meaning to write a book on that very topic, so my story had a ring of truth to it.

The opportunity to actually begin the book by first taking a trip to England was irresistible to me. I was certain that in addition to fulfilling my oath to my dear friend and cheering him out of his obvious well of depression I could use the occasion to prowl the aisles of London’s best research libraries.

I determined to go at once and replied via email to the address my friend conveniently included along with his telephone number at the bottom of the letter.

I was met at Gatwick Airport by a bespectacled middle-aged man with a mustache in a dark brown uniform. He was my driver, James, engaged by Charley to make sure I arrived safely at his estate. The ride from Gatwick Airport to Harcourt Manor was picturesque. The scenery was pastoral and quite beautiful as the sun set on the horizon.

With the gathering darkness it became increasingly difficult to discern the countryside, then impossible. Just as James announced we were on the private manor road, the moon rose. As we approached the manor, the trees grew thicker and the shadows darker. What little light penetrated the blanket of leaves only served to heighten the sense of gloom.

Abruptly we came into a very large clearing. There in the middle stood what could only be Harcourt Manor. The expanse of stone and mortar that appeared to gleam in the soft moonlight stood in stark contrast to the dark forest beyond and the terraced lawn in front. The low ground fog gave the entire scene an eerie, ethereal quality.

James pulled up to the entry. As I emerged from the auto he retrieved my bags from the trunk, placed them neatly by the door, and then returned to the limo and drove away without a word. I watched as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I drew back an enormous iron knocker, letting it swing against the door. It struck the door with enough force, I thought, to send the reverberations throughout the sizable manor house. I waited, not wishing to appear impatient. The door creaked as it was slowly opened from within.

At first there appeared to be no light whatsoever from inside the manor (I say manor because “house” is woefully inadequate to describe it, and “manor”, although it may be somewhat lacking, brings to mind a structure more closely akin to what Harcourt is). As the door swung inward, I became aware of a dim flickering in the entryway, which grew brighter and warmer. Its source then became fully visible as a tall, gaunt but smiling man holding a candelabra greeted me most congenially. So emaciated was he that he appeared mere days or perhaps hours even from the grave. His skin had an ashen quality, his thinning hair was unkempt, wild even, and even in the pale candlelight the rheuminess of his eyes, wide and animated, was clearly visible.

The combination of these factors gave the impression of a man near madness. As he greeted me, however, there appeared no trace of madness in his voice—nothing about its tone or quality that betrayed any trace of insanity.

Could this be my friend? It had been twenty-five years since we had last seen one another, but my friend (and I by now realized this was Charley) with whom I’d lived for four years while we were in our salad days, appeared to me to be fifteen or more years my senior.

Greeting me in the warmest fashion possible, “Come in, Winston, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Charley,” I said, “it’s been a long time,” and I took his frail hand in mine, shaking it gingerly, afraid I might damage it. I must admit, though, his grip was surprisingly strong.

“How’s your family?” he inquired as he led me through the foyer, down a long hallway, and into the drawing room. There he had prepared a roaring fire. “And Jack, and Alice, do you see much of them?” he continued, asking about friends long forgotten. “Please, sit here by the fire,” he said, inviting me to sit in one of two chairs situated on either side of a small table on which was arranged a light repast of cheese and wine.

“Thank you,” I replied, looking around the room in which the only light came from the fireplace and the candelabra Charley had placed on a table. The furnishings were old, but obviously of great quality and probably valuable antiques.

He laughed nervously, then said, “One of the many annoyances in a house as old as this one,” he explained, “is that you have to put up with frequent interruptions in the electrical service.”

As my friend poured the wine, I sampled the cheese, and we talked about old friends we’d known, reminiscing about our youth. My friend showed none of the frenetic anxiety displayed in his missive. I asked him about the letter, “Charley, you seemed so distraught and troubled in your message, I couldn’t help but come. But you…”

He interrupted, “Oh, the letter. Yes, well, I was a bit upset. My great-grandfather had recently passed you see, and I was feeling overwhelmed… lonely and melancholy. I’m afraid it got the better of me,” he said apologetically. “Just seeing you here, though, is like a tonic for me.”

When he spoke of his great-grandfather, he looked away nervously. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I distinctly remembered it later on.

At a little past nine my friend suddenly arose, yawning. With the promise to continue our conversation in the morning, he said, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long trip. I don’t wish to overtax your energies here on your first night. We’ll have plenty of time for chit-chat tomorrow.” Rising and fetching the candelabra, he said, “I’ll show you to your room. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

“After the airplane, I’m sure it’ll be heaven,” I replied.

He led me down the corridor and up a stone staircase to a second-story room. Placing the candelabra on a table, Charley removed two candles. One, he placed in a candle holder beside the door leading to the hall, the other in an identical holder leading to the adjoining bath. He then bade me goodnight and disappeared down the dark hallway.

The room and adjoining bath appeared surprisingly modern. There was a king-sized bed, a large overstuffed chair for lounging and a smaller straight-backed chair at a desk with a reading lamp. My bags, which I had left in the foyer, were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly finding myself to be very tired, I retired for the night.

At about two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud voice. It sounded as though Charley was having an argument over the phone, as his was the only voice I heard with pauses where another voice should have been. I arose, but as soon as I opened my door, the house grew suddenly quiet again.

The next morning I awoke, showered, and made my way downstairs before 8 o’clock. The electricity had been restored sometime during the night. I explored more carefully the path I’d taken to my room the night before. A fortune in antiques, paintings and artifacts lined the corridors and the walls of the drawing room.

One painting in particular caught my eye, as it appeared to be a portrait of my friend, but not as I’d seen him last night. This portrait was of a much younger, more robust man, a man of my own age. I realized this was the man I had expected to see when I arrived, not the shadow I’d seen the evening before.

The painting was nearly life-sized; a full-length portrait of my friend standing before an antique globe in front of a shelf of books. The painting itself and the frame that held it also appeared to be antique, but the clothing he wore was of obvious contemporary fashion. As I stood examining its intricate detail, my friend suddenly spoke my name from directly behind me.

“Good morning, Winston,” he said, “I trust you slept soundly.”

Startled, not having heard his approach, I jumped and turned to face him. The look on his face was fearful and a tic appeared in his left eye that immediately brought the letter to mind. This was the face of the man who’d written me. “Charley, you startled me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be very welcome. I was just admiring your portrait.”

Casting his eyes downward, in a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “I didn’t commission that; it came with the house. Tradition, you see.”

After a moment he looked up at me smiling—the wide, toothy smile of someone hiding something—and invited me to the dining room for breakfast.

As we sat down to eat, I asked, “Charley, who was that you were on the phone with last night?”

“On the phone?” he asked, seeming genuinely surprised by the question.

“Yes, I heard you about 2 a.m. It sounded as though you were in violent disagreement with someone.”

Looking a bit shocked, he said, “You must be mistaken.” Then, gaining some of his composure, he posited, “Perhaps it was the wind. It sometimes howls through the house. It can play havoc with a sleepy mind.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I was sure he was lying.

As the days passed, my friend’s health and vigor appeared to quickly mend. By the end of the first week of my visit I felt he was sufficiently well enough for me to venture into London. I wanted to at last begin the research I had hoped this trip would enable. When I’d arrived his health had appeared so precarious that I was uneasy about leaving his side. But with each passing day he looked stronger. Equally important, his spirits seemed brighter.

I approached my friend, “Charley,” I said, “since you appear to be feeling so much better, I thought I’d pop into London to do a little research.”

His face grew suddenly pale and wan and he appeared near fainting. I ran to get him a glass of water, “Are you all right?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, I’m sorry,” taking the water, sipping it slowly. “It’s just that your proposal to leave caught me off guard. I know it’s silly, but I suddenly felt anxious. Alarmed, even, out of fear you might not return.”

Reassuringly I said, “Charley, I have every intention of returning. I promise I’ll be back this evening.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for being such a pain,” he said, seeming genuinely contrite. “Might it not be possible to postpone the trip? You haven’t even visited the manor library.”

“Manor library? You mean you have your own library here?”

“Of course. It’s quite extensive, actually. In bygone times, it was quite common for rich aristocratic sorts to build their own private libraries,” he confided. “You could start your research here, until I’m a bit stronger perhaps, and then go to London.” He grasped my hand, “It would be a great comfort to me.”

“I didn’t realize you had a library, Charley. Of course I’ll wait to go to London, if you like. I’ve read that some of these old private libraries are quite extensive. I just hadn’t thought to ask.” His mood improved immediately.

That evening as my friend and I sat before a roaring fire, I inquired about the history of the manor, “This old place must have a lot of stories attached to it, Charley. Have you learned much about it?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he began. “The manor itself, although renovated, updated, and added to over the years, dates from at least the early sixteenth century—handed down father to son, generation after generation.” Somehow he sounded a little detached, like a bored tour guide, “The estate encompasses over 300 acres of woodlands surrounding the manor. Beyond that I’m afraid I know of no remarkable events having occurred in or around the estate.”

“Considering it’s age, that seems a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Not really. It’s pretty quiet in this area and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.” Again, I had the feeling he was hiding something.

At about nine o’clock I rose saying, “Well, I’m off to bed. I’m going to need a good night’s rest,” I yawned, “if I’m going to get an early start investigating your library in the morning.”

“By all means, Winston. And, thank you,” he said looking at me with sad eyes.

Looking up at the extraordinary painting of my friend, I paused for a moment as I was walking out of the drawing room, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. I asked my companion, still seated, “Charley, do you see anything different about this painting?”

He stood, walked over to where I was standing and gave the portrait a long look. I thought I could detect a glimmer of a smile come over his face, a smile originating not on his lips, but more in his eyes, then it was gone and he turned to me saying, “No, it looks the same to me as it always has.”

I mentioned, “I was under the impression that the painting was much more detailed, but now the face and figure appear less distinct than before.”

“I think you’re wrong,” my friend again insisted. “I’d say your memory is just playing tricks on you,” he said with a smile.

I relented, “I suppose that’s what it is.” But I was sure it had changed. And what’s more, I was sure Charley noticed it too. “Oh well, goodnight, Charley,” I said and continued to my room.

As I was walking to my room, through the corridors and up the stairs, I felt the air in the corridor rush past me, much like someone having opened a door on a blustery day, and I assumed my friend must have done that very thing, or perhaps a window. I thought to myself that the very house itself appeared to be drawing a breath.

The next morning I met up with Charley in the drawing room. As I entered, I was awestruck with how much better my friend looked. His face appeared fuller, with good color and he had begun to put on weight. “You are looking very well this morning, Charley,” I commented as we turned to go to breakfast.

“I have you to thank for it,” he replied earnestly.

As we turned to leave the drawing room, I glanced up at the portrait, stopping dead in my tracks. It had definitely changed. The face was undistinguishable. It no longer bore any resemblance to my friend whatsoever. Now it appeared as only a smudged mass of flesh-toned paint, blurred and out of focus, bearing none of the sharp detail it had possessed.

“Charley look,” I said. “You can’t possibly fail to see the change now.”

Charley took a long look. “You’re right,” he admitted stone-faced. “It’s certainly not as distinct as before. Perhaps the fireplace, or its smoke, has damaged the pigments. It is rather close.”

Had the entire painting suffered the same damage this argument might have been plausible, but it had not. The rest of the painting maintained the sharpness of detail about which I had first remarked. Resignedly, I feigned acceptance, “Yes, that must be it.” Wondering why Charley would offer such an obviously poor explanation and determining to inspect the painting more closely when Charley was not around, I proceeded in to breakfast.

The peculiarities of the painting faded from my mind as my excitement about the prospect of digging into the manor library grew. After breakfast, my friend led me down the main corridor to an oaken door at the rear of the manor. Behind the door was a narrow staircase. It led to the library.

As I entered, I was impressed with the size and sheer number of books it contained—there must have been several thousand in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At the far end of the library was a massive, antique, and beautifully carved wooden desk, beside which stood a large wooden globe. I knew instantly it was the same globe as in the portrait.

As he turned to leave, my friend said, “If you should need anything, you’ll have to return to the main floor. The staff isn’t allowed access to the library. There are far too many rare and valuable books here.”

“I see. No matter, I’m sure I’ll be all right.” I barely noticed his departure as I began perusing the shelves. There were volumes dating back to the 1600s. Here was The Book of Urizen, by William Blake, circa 1818; and there was The Ornithology by Francis Willughby from 1678. Every shelf appeared to have a treasure trove of books in various languages. I gathered half a dozen and took them to the desk for further examination.

After about twenty minutes it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to look in the desk to see what treasures might be hidden within. Opening the six uniform drawers on either side of the leg well, I was disappointed to find them all empty.

Then I noticed that the bottom drawer on the left side appeared to be shallower than its counterpart on the right side. Pulling it out to its limit, a small notch in the bottom of the drawer appeared.

Excitedly I pulled out the drawer and turned it over on the desk top. A leather-bound journal fell out of the hidden compartment. Upon close examination, I discovered this was the journal of my friend’s late great-grandfather.

Stuck in the middle was an old photograph. It was of a portrait very much like the one of my friend in the drawing room, but the subject was bald and bearded. Scribbled on the back of the photo was the name of my friend’s great-grandfather and the date, 1917. A flash of dread came over me. Examining the photo more closely I became convinced that except for the central subject the portrait was identical in every detail with the one in the drawing room. I tried to convince myself that this might indeed be some quirky family tradition as Charley had said, but something deep within told me it was more. I turned to the front of the journal and began to read.

The first few entries in the journal were innocuous enough, detailing how he had inherited Harcourt from his father, who had become quite reclusive. It recounted some of the business and financial interests of the time. I thumbed my way toward the end of the volume, looking for more current entries. One of the last entries was dated 13 November 1938; it read:

It is with great satisfaction that I have taken this course of action. The curse of Harcourt Manor will end with me. Once I’m deceased, so will it cease to be. What I was unable to do during my lifetime, I will accomplish after death—the total dismantlement of Harcourt, every last brick and stone. My regret and heartbreak is at having to banish my only son to the foreign shores of America. This is surpassed only by my joy of not subjecting him to this curse. My time, I feel, is near. I’ve only to wait.

 

The final passage was written by a hand less sure, but undoubtedly of the same person, dated just last year. It read:

 

My beloved son, grandson or whomever this cup must pass,

 

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

You will find within the contents of this library as complete a history of Harcourt Manor and its former residents as exists. Once you have familiarized yourself with it, I’m sure you will add this journal to the many you will find on the shelves here.

 

These portfolios are compilations of the preceding owner’s statements of apology, lament, or revenge to their unwitting successors. A great many have been from father to son, but on occasion the ownership has changed from one family to another—or rather I should say the manor’s occupancy, for no one truly owns the manor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

In this most recent entry, while I await your arrival, I shall attempt to relate a synopsis of the history of Harcourt, derived through long years of reading and re-reading the aforementioned journals and regional histories. My own journal will not be concluded, I’ve come to accept, until after the manor has changed hands once again.

 

I had hoped to let the manor and the curse die with me, but at one hundred thirty-seven years of age I have come to accept that the manor won’t release me until I release it.

 

The origin of the curse dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century when the manor was held by the first Baron of Wexley. A cruel tyrant, he was renowned for the evil he visited on the serfs who worked his land. Very much hated, the baron levied taxes so steep the only way the peasants could survive was to hide at least part of their crops and livestock from his equally cruel tax collectors.

 

On those occasions when they found a peasant cheating on his taxes, the collectors burned the offender’s crops and homes to the ground. Then the head of the household was tarred or killed. If there were a young girl in the family it was not unusual for her to be raped and savaged before the eyes of her family. Should a peasant protest or dare even to cast a scornful look at the baron he would feel the sting of the baron’s “cat”, a stiff handled whip with three barbed tails.

 

Frequently as entertainment for himself or friends, the baron would summon the prettiest of the young girls in the neighboring villages to the manor. On one particular occasion a young orphan girl was brought to the baron. She was taken from her grandmother’s hut while the grandmother was away. A particularly beautiful and virtuous young girl, the baron was pleased and dragged her to his quarters.

 

It is said she put up a valiant fight. At the last, rather than surrender her virtue, she jumped to her death from the baron’s window high in the manor. The baron, untouched by this, had his servants carry off her body to be dumped at the doorstep of her grandmother’s hut.

 

Upon seeing her dead granddaughter, the old woman, who many claimed to be a witch, shed not a single tear. Instead, she retrieved a hollowed-out gourd from her hut and a knife. With the knife she opened a vein in her granddaughter’s arm, collecting her blood in the gourd.

 

After walking all night, she stood outside the manor the next morning, the gourd of blood, not yet coagulated, in her hand.

 

Murmuring in an incomprehensible tongue, she dipped her fingers into the gourd of blood and slowly walked around the manor. As she walked, she flicked droplets of blood along the ground. When she’d gone full circle, approaching the point where she began, the baron emerged from the front of the manor and demanded to know who she was and what she was about.

 

As the old woman completed her circuit, she obliged the baron, telling him it was her own granddaughter that had died by his hand the previous night. The baron reared back and laughed mightily saying the old woman was better off without such a worthless harlot.

 

The old woman’s eyes flashed. Her toothless grin became a grimace. With a voice strong and clear she swore, telling the baron that since he was so proud of his riches and his manor, she would see to it that they would never be parted. Intoning a short curse, she looked at the baron, spat on the ground, and said, “It is finished.” Without another word, she turned and walked away.

 

The baron, unused to having anyone turn their back to him, started after her, his “cat” aloft his head ready to tear into her back. But once he advanced to where the blood of the old woman’s granddaughter had been sprinkled, he could advance no further. His feet were unable to cross the line formed by the droplets. The old woman turned back toward him. As the baron cursed and ranted, she laughed. Finally, she said, “You shall remain always a prisoner of your own evil deeds,” and then she vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again.

 

The baron spent the rest of his life within the confines of the manor. When he died, his body was removed, but his soul remained, inhabiting the manor.

 

Empty for many years, its grand style eventually attracted a new owner, a man named Ezra Harcourt, by whose name the manor has since become known.

 

Ezra Harcourt had of course heard of the curse. But over a hundred years had passed since the death of the baron. Fear and curses fade with time.

 

When he moved into the manor, he was astounded by the painting on the far wall of the foyer. The similarity between the likeness of the baron and Harcourt was uncanny. This surprised Harcourt because he had always heard the baron was tall and thin with dark wavy hair, but the baron’s portrait showed him to be portly with thinning hair. Harcourt had the painting moved into the main drawing room and made certain all who visited observed the resemblance.

 

Harcourt, who had always been an active, outgoing man of business began, shortly after moving in to the manor, to become reclusive and withdrawn. He was never seen outside its confines and his behavior began to become erratic, even paranoid. He lost weight.

 

Within six months after taking occupancy, his once robust countenance took on the look of a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former self. He appeared to have aged twenty years.

 

His worried son moved his small family into the manor to care for his father. So frail was the elder Harcourt by this time that his son was unable to leave his side. The elder Harcourt survived another three decades with his son by his side throughout. By the time the father died, the son was well past his prime.

 

This pattern of the hermit-like occupant of Harcourt passing the manor on to his son, who in turn becomes a hermit, repeated itself, with few exceptions, for nearly three hundred years. It appeared that the curse the old witch had put on Baron Wexley was passed on to whomever inhabited Harcourt Manor.

 

I spent many years studying the bounty of rare books in this library before I happened upon two of the journals. After having read them, I began an earnest search for others. All totaled I found 37 such journals. There may be others. From these journals, I discovered that rather than a curse on the manor, it was Baron Wexley himself that turned the occupants into hermits.

 

The evil that is Baron Wexley gets its sustenance from the inhabitants. Like a blood-thirsty monster, he feeds on the very life-force of the imprisoned occupant. If one listens carefully enough, one can hear the baron’s voice within these walls.

 

I determined to end the curse, my life, and the manor all at one time. After preparing the necessary paperwork with instructions to tear down the manor after my death, I took poison, enough to kill ten men. Although I lingered near death for nearly a month’s time, I did not die. Several other attempts to end my own life also failed. Finally, I resigned myself to live out the remainder of my days at Harcourt. In the end, I judged, I would win the fight. No one lives forever.

 

Or do they? At one hundred thirty-eight years, I’m no longer so sure.

 

I also discovered something else that was very interesting. I discovered the painting, that so delighted Ezra Harcourt because of its resemblance to himself, takes on the image and likeness of whatever occupant from whom the manor feeds…

 

As I read these words, my heart stopped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I leapt to my feet, flying down the stairs through the long corridor and into the drawing room. As I ran, I felt the air in the hallway moving first with me, then against me as the house inhaled and exhaled. I ran to the portrait and stood there. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gazed upon it. There I saw staring down at me my own image.

The scream that tore from my throat echoed throughout the empty manor. To my surprise, it was answered by the whisper of a baritone voice I didn’t recognize laughing as it called my name, “Winston… welcome home…” it said, over and over, laughing maniacally. My knees suddenly became weak. I reached for the chair by the secretary near the portrait.

As I sat, I noticed a letter addressed to me, written in my friend’s hand. With trembling fingers, I took it and tore open the envelope.

 

My dear friend,

 

 

Please forgive my hasty departure. I came up to the library to see how you were getting along and noticed that you had found my great-grandfather’s journal. Although I didn’t think you’d come across it quite so soon, I was gratified that I had the foresight to prepare for the eventuality.

 

You will find in the drawer of the secretary beneath my, or should I say your portrait, a signed deed giving you complete claim to Harcourt Manor and all lands in title. I’m sure you will find all is in order.

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

I’m sure you recognize those words from my great-grandfather’s journal. Don’t be fooled; I was. What my deceased predecessor did not tell you about the curse of Harcourt is that the sustenance and life the manor derives from the occupant flows both ways. Evil is infectious. I neither expect nor ask your forgiveness. What I’ve done to you is unforgivable.

 

If you are so inclined, you will find my grandfather’s journal on the shelves of the library, secreted there by him before he ran away to America. Undoubtedly, my great-grandfather didn’t know it was there or he likely would have destroyed it. My great-grandfather was preparing to pass on the manor to his son when my grandfather learned of the curse. He ran away before the portrait had transmuted. Because of my great-grandfather’s advanced age when he passed my “inheritance” on to me, the manor began sucking the life force from me at a startling pace, which is why I was so emaciated when you arrived.

 

Now you know the true curse of Harcourt. I’ve no idea if I can truly escape. If others have escaped by foisting this curse onto some unsuspecting tenant they have left no written record. But I am determined to try. I pray that the evil that allows me to pass this curse on to someone for whom I once had such genuine affection will eventually dissipate as I distance myself from its source.

 

I earnestly wish you all the best.

 

Your devoted Friend,
Charley

 

After reading the letter I spent the next three weeks in bed, suffering from an acute case of depression. Finally I determined there was no use crying over spilled milk. I knew what I had to do.

I ordered my solicitor to give me a full accounting of my newfound wealth, which is considerable. A good deal of it is in perpetual trust to the Harcourt Manor Estate, but there was enough liquidity for me to provide myself with a hefty bankroll to live for the rest of my days, once I am rid of the curse. I also had papers drawn up to transfer the estate.

But you’ll please forgive me now, Ted, if I continue this explanation a bit later, as I believe the limo bringing you and Susan to me has arrived.

 

Negotiating With Ants

by Kenneth Rutherford

 

Amber sits at her desk at work, reviewing a stack of purchase orders. She pushes a strand of her disheveled, platinum blonde hair behind her ear while frowning at Billy, who sits at a nearby desk. He winces as he rubs white cream all over his welt-ridden right hand.

Billy whines, “Amber, do we have any more Cortizone?”

“Try looking in the first aid kit,” she replies, rolling her eyes.

Amber tries to refocus her attention on her work but is unable to do so. Her thoughts wander to an encounter she had with Billy two days earlier.

* * * * *

She was sitting at her desk looking at an invoice when Billy peered over her shoulder.

“Okay, Amber. When US Foodservice comes tomorrow, there should be fifteen extra boxes of chicken carnitas, and I ordered ten boxes of parboiled rice yesterday evening to be shipped on the truck, too. Are you listening?”

Amber glares at him. “Yeah, I’m listening. I’m just waiting for you to take your hand off my thigh.”

“You mean that bothers you? I didn’t realize I’d struck a nerve.”

“Uh, yeah. I’d think after two sexual harassment complaints you’d realize that. But for some reason, the Office of Discipline Management has a habit of losing… Billy, why is your hand on my back?! Ugh.” Grabbing a pack of Marlboro Lights, Amber storms out of the office.

Billy yells after her, “The ODM office works for me, darlin’.”

* * * * *

Amber’s thoughts are interrupted as Craig, the supervisor, enters the office. “Okay, people. What are we going to do about our ant problem? They’re already eating through boxes and gorging themselves on our food. If I can’t eliminate this problem, I’m out of a job. I won’t lose my livelihood to a bunch of ornery ants!”

Amber replies, “We’ve tried everything. Two exterminators refuse to return, and Billy’s idea sure didn’t work.” She grins at him as he nurses his hand.

Billy exclaims, “I’ve never seen ants act like that! They were all over me in seconds. And fire ants… we don’t even have fire ants in this area. Where did they come from? Craig, why don’t we let Amber take a shot at it?”

Craig replies, “Okay, Amber. You’ve been drafted.”

“But…”

“No buts! Talk to your friend at EntoTech and report back to me.”

Her voice falters as she says, “Okay, but I’ll have to re-examine the entry site.”

“Fine. Do whatever it takes.”

* * * * *

Amber squats near a hole in the concrete floor. Boxes of twenty-four ounce cups tower above her. Struggling in the darkness, she presses a button on a lamp clamped to her clipboard. The light continuously flickers as it illuminates the clipboard, her pale, tired face, and the hole in the floor. She scribbles down a few notes on a clean piece of paper that reads “Distribution Center Report,” which sits on top of a two-inch stack of papers. Writing a report would be fruitless. The ants manage to elude all exterminators, leaving no sign of their whereabouts. As Amber peers into the opening, a pair of antennae emerge.

“Hello, human.”

Amber looks behind her to see where the voice is coming from. Seeing no one, she continues to fill out the report.

“Helllooooo, human! You aren’t dreaming. I thought human females were like their counterparts in the ant world, reasonably clever, and more intelligent than the males. Was I mistaken?”

Amber stares in disbelief at the ant who is talking through a megaphone. “What do you want?”

“Food.”

“Why our food? Can’t you find something to eat outside the warehouse and someone else to aggravate?”

“Ha! And miss out on terrorizing you humans? That one guy is particularly amusing.”

Her mouth shifts from a grimace into a grin, “Billy?”

“Yeah. What a schmuck! Typical male—convinced of his superiority and deserving of punishment.

Chuckling, she agrees, “I don’t deny that Billy is an arrogant schmuck. But why punish everyone because of one man? Your little occupation has wreaked havoc on our warehouse and cost us nearly a hundred dollars a week in food.”

One man?! He flooded our home with kerosene, killing all our male drones and a few female workers. How are we supposed to mate without males? We cannot mate if we cannot eat, so…”

“Okay, okay. I get the point. Hmmm…” Amber presses her pencil’s eraser against her lips, “Would providing a fifty-pound bag of sugar to your colony adequately sustain it until you emigrate?”

“You’re not listening. The only way our queen would move the colony would be if we avenged the death of our comrades.”

“Oh. Well, what if I locked him in the warehouse for you to do with him as you please? He is allergic to insect bites, after all.”

The ant’s antennae rise in interest. “Loosen the caps on six half-gallon jugs of honey, the third container from the left, and we have a deal pending approval from my queen. I’ll leave a sugar cube in the pencil mug on your desk if we get the go ahead. Do we have a deal?”

Amber’s eyebrows rise and she smirks, “Deal.”

* * * * *

Later that evening Amber stands by the door, waiting for Billy to lock it. He presses buttons on the security panel with a perplexed look on his face.

“It’s not accepting my pass code. What’s wrong with this thing?”

“Maybe you entered it incorrectly,” Amber suggests.

“No. I’m the assistant supervisor, damn it!” He makes an about-face, takes a deep breath, and turns back towards the panel to try again.

“Have a good evening, Billy,” Amber says, skirting out the door and slamming it behind her.

Click.

“Amber! Let me out of here!!”

Amber pops the sugar cube into her mouth as she walks through the parking lot to her hatchback. Revenge never tasted so sweet.

Soon, screams are heard from inside the warehouse. Covered in honey and fire ants Billy drops to the concrete floor, writhing in agony.

With his maroon Polo lying crumpled in a sticky heap, Billy fumbles with his belt. He unfastens the shiny, eagle head buckle; manages to unbutton and unzip his pants, chucking them half-way off; and rolls onto his forgotten glasses, crushing them. However, the ants seize the opportunity to migrate to his partially exposed legs. As the ants eat away at his skin, his body spasms and welts begin to form. They crawl into every hole and crevice, entering his ravaged body, knowing that their suicide mission will avenge their comrades.

A seemingly endless parade of ants streams into the room following a trail of pheromones and honey. Sweet revenge.

 

Girl in a Mask

by Gregg Zimmerman

 

1. Epiphany

The evening wind picked up, sending waves and furrows racing through the wheat fields, and mountainous cumulus clouds scudded across a sky of deepening blue. Leaves rustled and the loose doors of barns and sheds rattled as the dying reds and yellows of a beautiful sunset faded in the west.

The two sisters, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, whirled in the wind in ecstasy, aprons and colorful sashes flying behind them. Never since the innocent days of childhood had they felt such elation: it was if the world had arrived at a new beginning and the horrors of war and a brutal occupation were things of the past.

“The Nazis are gone, the Nazis are gone!” sang out Angelika in a sweet-voiced but unmusical chant, while Serafina, two years younger, sang a provincial folk song full of joy and happy expectations from her youth.

The young women waltzed and pirouetted, bumping each other and giggling like schoolgirls as the impact nearly knocked them sprawling in the tall grass.

Angelika, ever on the alert, stopped abruptly and stood staring as she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye; Serafina kept singing and twirling, waving her slender arms in the air like flashing bronze-peach colored stalks in the last rays of the declining sun.

Angelika took one half-running step toward the farmhouse which was concealed from view behind the milling shed. But she could not abandon her little sister, even to summon help.

Three men had slouched into view from the field behind the tool shed. Ragged, scruffily bearded, and grimy in their worn Russian military fatigues, gaunt and pale as if they were half-starved, the three advanced slowly with the downcast demeanor of beaten mongrels.

“Ladies, beautiful ladies,” said the man in the lead, raising a dirty white hand in a gesture of supplication. “We have walked for days and days, and have not eaten.” The man, whom Angelika noticed bore a jagged scar high on his cheekbone, half-concealed beneath a frayed beret, spoke Russian in a soft, plaintive voice. Both women, of course, spoke Russian fluently.

Serafina stopped twirling with a gasp of alarm, which quickly gave way to another emotion when she recognized the men as belonging to the Soviet military.

“Soldiers, Angelika, Russian soldiers!” she said in an adoring tone, as if she were addressing war heroes from her homeland. She moved toward them with a greeting on her lips. Angelika looked on with trepidation, her mouth forming a severe line.

Suddenly, as if at a pre-concerted signal, the two soldiers behind the leader sprang forward. Serafina made not a sound, and Angelika’s warning cry was cut off by strangling fingers at her throat as the men grasped the two women and hustled them after the man with the scar, who had kicked open the door of the nearby tool shed.

2. Horror

The two girls, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, crouched against the shed wall beneath a broken horse yolk that was suspended by pegs. Their lower clothing lay in a tangled heap just beyond their reach; their upper clothing had been clawed to tatters and no longer concealed their breasts or privates, which they both felt a desperate need to cover. Neither woman reached for the discarded clothing.

The man with the scar favored the girls with a leering look as he stood, slowly fastening his breeches. His two companions lay back against a pile of leather harnesses, passing back and forth between them a water bottle filled with contraband vodka. Unlike their leader, they avoided eye contact with the women and made no remarks to them.

Serafina sobbed quietly. Angelika stared at their persecutors with eyes of stone.

“Ladies,” said the man with the scar. “That was a very kind welcome, I’m sure my comrades will agree. Your country women are renowned sluts, and as I expected it was not the first time for either of you. But now with deepest regrets we must be leaving.”

He lazily withdrew a German Luger from his pocket and pointed it about in an offhand manner as he spoke.

Serafina’s eyes opened wide, she inhaled loudly to launch a scream. The man with the scar lowered the pistol and shot her through the temple.

Serafina slumped sideways against Angelika, splashing her neck and breast with blood. Angelika shuddered with a spasm that she quickly suppressed. She said nothing, cradling her sister’s bleeding head in her lap and fixing her stony, menacing glare on the man with the scar.

The two other soldiers leaped to their feet and put away the bottle. The discharge of the gun sounded like an exploding mortar round in the confined space of the shed. One of them fastened his eye to the crack at the edge of the shed door, checking if the coast was clear.

The man with the scar approached Angelika in an unhurried manner and placed the gun barrel against her forehead. Angelika neither flinched nor blinked, continuing to fix his eyes with her stare.

“Andrey, the other one!” hissed the man at the door. “They will be coming!”

The man called Andrey caressed Angelika’s cheek gently with the gun barrel. “Blondie would have talked,” he said with a grin that revealed large, stained, horse-like teeth. “But not this one. She is proud!”

“Andrey!” the man called again with a note of panic.

“She would kill me with her look if she could, this one. Sweet-faced vixen, remember me by this,” and he took Angelika’s chin in his hand and tilted up her face. He pointed the gun barrel at the lightning-shaped scar high up on his right cheekbone. Then he brought the handle of the pistol down with a crack on the crown of her head. Angelika’s world exploded into blazing stars, followed by darkness.

3. The Mask

The Leather Flask was a run down public house at the edge of the city’s business district that was heavily patronized by the newly arrived Soviet soldiers, mainly because it was close to their base. The soldiers threw around their scanty silver half-rubles as if they were Dutch guilders, as they may as well have been with their power to purchase the services of the aging hookers with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes and missing teeth or the scrawny half-starved village girls with their frayed sleeves and dirty necks who had begun to congregate there.

The less inebriated regulars noticed the recent attendance of a girl of a different class, well dressed with a statuesque figure and auburn hair that gleamed like fine golden mesh in the harsh light of the incandescent bulbs without shades. She came in regularly at the fall of darkness and sat for a couple of hours at a corner table away from the others, spurning company but watching the comings and goings of the soldiers with the fixity of a spy from the central government. She always left alone.

On the third day of her presence a non-commissioned officer by the name of Egor, who wore the characteristic red breeches of the hussars—a great bear of a man with a kindly face and a twinkling eye—threw down a few extra brandies and water and determined to make a pass at her. He approached her table and sat down, blocking her view of the entrance. Leaning forward, he caught her upper arm in a familiar grasp and whispered his proposition into her ear. His offer was answered with a resounding slap on the face. Egor’s bushy mustache rose to reveal an indulgent smile and he began to move away when the lady caught his upper arm in turn. “Wait,” she said imperiously.

He looked into the glacial grey-blue eyes that stared coldly into his own and for a passing moment he felt something akin to fear. He also noticed the surpassing beauty of the woman and quickly banished any reservations.

“Andrey with the scar,” she said, “do you know him?”

“Andrey, Andrey, there are a hundred Andreys, dearest lady—”

“Andrey with a jagged scar like a lightning bolt above his right cheek.”

“I’m afraid, sweetest love—”

“Find him for me and you can do what you will with me. And you can keep your dirty kopeks.”

Three days later Egor the bear-like hussar led a slim village errand boy wearing an oversized hat with earflaps through the encampment to the motor pool. A mechanic and his helper were leaning over the engine compartment of a transport vehicle, working on the engine block with a pair of wrenches.

“Andrey with the scar,” muttered Egor, and he felt the slim figure beside him give a sudden start as if of recognition.

Later that night in an un-mown hay field behind the makeshift barracks, Egor the hussar grasped in his arms the most delectable, frigid woman he had lain with during the course of a long and hideous war.

* * * * *

Tomas Stefanik, biochemistry professor turned house painter, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and climbed down the scaffolding to the dusty street. A well-dressed woman noticeable for her profusion of auburn-golden hair was waiting for him at the curbside.

“Tomas,” she said in a hushed voice that was familiar to him.

He gave a start, staring at her face. “Angelika, my God, I have not seen you for—it must be more than a year now!” And he hugged her to his breast, the joy of this unexpected meeting overwhelming his usual circumspection.

“My god, the Nazis are gone, can you believe it! At long last life can return to normal, and no one has risked more for this moment, has sacrificed more, than you—”

“The Russians are worse,” she said.

“No, no, Angelika, they are a little crude, perhaps, a little ill-mannered, but—”

“The Russians are worse. The rest of you will find out in time what I know now.” And then she related to him her story in as few words as possible. The joyous smile on Stefanik’s face melted away, a growing horror overspread his features, his hand went out to her with fingers splayed apart as if beseeching her to end the assault her words were making on his sensibilities.

“I, I have to sit down,” he said, slipping to the pavement. “How many atrocities can a man bear in one lifetime? She is—was—more than a daughter to me. She was the savior of my family!”

He rocked back and forth as if in physical pain. “Serafina!” he whispered.

“Yes, Serafina,” she said, dry-eyed.

“Oh, oh,” said Stefanik, making an effort to regain his composure. He owed these two women—Angelika and Serafina—a debt of gratitude that time would never efface and that he would never be able to repay. In the dreadful days of 1939 when the Nazis stormed into Poland, Tomas Stefanik was verging on world recognition as a research biochemist in his professorship at the University of Krakow. He had made breakthroughs in the function of the adrenal gland and was delaying the publication of his results until he completed his investigations into certain practical applications of his discoveries.

The invasion could not have come at a more disruptive time for him. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, it was Angelika Pacek, his brilliant undergraduate student and research assistant who stepped forward to assist him in protecting Jolanta, his Jewish wife, and their two daughters when all the others turned their backs. She hid the family in a cellar on the family farm for six months, and when Angelika went off to join the partisans in their unequal struggle against the occupiers, her angelic sister Serafina served as the lifeline to the concealed family, bringing them food and supplies and keeping them informed of the great, tragic events happening in the outside world. For six months the family knew no greater joy than Serafina’s regular visits when she gave all she could of herself to cheer them up, even teaching the two girls, who adored her, folk songs and keeping them amused by telling them fairy tales and ancient legends of the Polish countryside. At the end of six months Angelika returned to the farm bringing the official papers after having established the needed contacts to spirit Jolanta and the two girls out of the country to a safe haven in Sweden. Stefanik, less worldly than his young protégée, never fully understand how she had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat; all she would ever tell him about it is that he would sleep better not knowing. To this day, Stefanik’s family awaited the coming reunion in their tenement in Stockholm.

“Now,” said Angelika, “my mentor, my esteemed professor, my friend, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do a thing that only you can do.” And she kneeled down beside him on the curbside and whispered her request into his ear.

“No!” he cried, “it cannot be done! The science is not perfected—”

Again Angelika made her request, and again he protested. “It would kill you, my dear, kill you, do you hear? Request anything, but not that!”

“Very well,” she said coldly, rising to her feet. “Tomas, be easy. I will never again trouble you with a request.” And ashen-faced, she turned from him and began to walk away.

Tomas Stefanik, scientist and now house painter, found himself crawling after her on his hands and knees. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around her legs and brought her to a halt.

“A week from Tuesday, 3:00 pm, at my studio on Lubicz Street,” he stammered. “It will take me that long to gather supplies—and even that is only possible because of the disorganized security of the Soviets. Come alone, and please, oh please, try to change your mind.”

* * * * *

The studio was tiny, and the truckle bed had to be collapsed and turned on its side to make room for the medical equipment and chemical supplies.

Angelika sat on the edge of the coffin-like wooden box that would have to serve as a surgical table for the upcoming operation.

“When I complete the procedure that will stimulate your adrenal gland, the production of adrenalin will be constantly elevated. Your rate of metabolism will increase, and you will need to breathe a richer mix of oxygen than the atmosphere provides. So you will have to wear an oxygen cylinder and a gas mask wherever you go.” Stefanik held up the mask for her to view—a conventional army-issue combat-green gas mask with a tinted glass eye plate and a breathing port from which the activated carbon had been removed. A small, malleable copper tube provided a connection to the oxygen tank that would need to be strapped to her back.

“I smuggled out six oxygen tanks,” Stefanik resumed. “At the feed rate we must set, each tank will last you 24 hours. You’ll use up one per day, and have to change them. That gives you six days. I will try to obtain more tanks in the meantime. Remember, without the oxygen you will quickly grow lethargic and suffocate within an hour. When you finish your mission come back here and I will try to reverse the procedure. You know about the adaptive memory of our biological processes—I’m not sure I can do it. If not, oh Angelika,” and he squeezed her hand, “this will be irreversible—a death sentence.”

“I have fought beside the partisans,” she replied quietly. “I am not afraid.”

“When you wake up your strength and speed will be abnormal, incredible. But you are still made of the old flesh and bones. You can break your own as easily as your opponent’s.”

There was a silence. Stefanik was clearly reluctant to start the procedure.

“If that’s all, let’s do it,” said Angelika.

“I just can’t bear the thought of losing you both. Can’t you get the partisans together again? There should be a sniper who can take care of your mission by the more conventional means.”

“Where they are all now,” Angelika replied, “Serafina has joined them there.” She lay back on the box while Stefanik applied the anesthetic.

4. The First One

Oleg Pravdin, assistant mechanic with the Soviet Infantry, walked through the un-mown hay field behind the garrison’s barracks. He felt the desire to have a woman strongly tonight, and had meant to remind Andrey of the “girling” expedition he had been promising to lead for a week now. Andrey’s girling expeditions simultaneously satisfied Oleg’s two most pressing cravings: the thrill of the chase, and the sensual bliss of having his way with a woman. It was far more rewarding than throwing away his scant earnings on aging whores or village sluts that smelled of garlic and onions at low dives like the Leather Flask.

But Andrey was stubborn, maintaining that girling must not be done too frequently. “These war-ravaged peasants,” Andrey had observed, “are used to a few dead women popping up here and there, but too many and they will revolt.” Oleg had come to consider Andrey somewhat of a barrack room philosopher, and it was rumored that he had picked up some university education somewhere along the way. At any rate, it was Andrey—and of course he had the final word on the matter.

Andrey had disappeared from the motor pool an hour earlier than usual. So tonight Oleg would be on his own.

Descending a shallow declivity that put him out of sight of the garrison, he thought that he heard a noise to his right. A burnt and abandoned building left by the Nazis, little more than a foundation with a couple of fire-scarred crumbling block walls rose from the weeds at the edge of the field. A rather small, strange figure stepped out of a ruinous doorway and stood facing him.

Oleg’s mouth fell open and he craned his neck forward. At first he took the figure to be a soldier who had somehow emerged from the front line of battle. Dressed in green military fatigues, the figure wore an outlandish head gear that Oleg recognized after some effort as a gas mask. Some sort of metal cylinder rose up from behind the shoulders and was connected by a gleaming copper tube to the gas mask. “Hell’s devils,” Oleg muttered as he discerned, both by its slender build and by the cascade of golden-red hair that surrounded the mask, that it was a woman. The distinctive color of the hair told him which woman.

“You,” he said.

“Yes, me.”

“What do you want?” He fumbled for a moment and drew a Soviet issue Tokarev pistol from the ill-fitting German holster he had pilfered from an abandoned Nazi encampment.

There was no answer.

“I don’t want no trouble, miss.” He pointed the pistol in her direction with a trembling hand. “It was Andrey who offed your friend. I didn’t want to do it. Why the mask—”

The figure lunged to its right with blinding speed. Then it darted to the left. Oleg did not realize, did not have time to notice, that the two movements had also eliminated the distance that separated them.

The handgun was struck from his hand with a force that broke three of his fingers and sent the weapon spinning over the top of the scorched wall. Then Oleg experienced a series of sensations unlike anything he had encountered before. It was as if some sort of lethal machine clasped and crushed his body with unfathomable strength. He felt himself shaken as a mastiff shakes a kitten, and heard his own bones popping and cracking and felt his flesh being mashed to a pulp through waves of unbearable physical agony.

In the morning they found Oleg Pravdin’s corpse at the foot of the ruined wall. Every bone in his body had been broken and splintered and his rib cage was crushed in as if he had been hurled from a vast height. In fact there was some speculation, soon discarded as implausible, that he had been dropped from an airplane. It was also noticed that high on his right cheekbone there was a large jagged wound in the shape of a lightning bolt, apparently carved with a knife.

5. The Second One

Andrey and Pavel the gunner sat on a wad of disheveled blankets that served as a bunk in the corner of a barrack building. The room was lit by a kerosene lantern as the high command had not bothered to extend an electrical feed to the barracks. Pavel was pale and agitated, swiveling his head at every sound, real or imagined, and shuffling his feet or twitching his hands. Andrey, on the other hand, appeared calm and unperturbed as he meditatively smoked a small briarwood pipe.

“You saw the scar,” Pavel uttered abruptly.

“Yes, shut up, be quiet. Do you want the whole garrison to hear us?”

“The body was smashed—like a fly—smashed!” The last word was almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“It had to be—because of the woman. The blonde woman you shot when we were out girling.”

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“Well, we’re next, you—don’t be stupid!”

There was a silence that Pavel once again felt constrained to break.

“How did they do that to him?”

“That’s the only mystery.”

“You should have shot the other one, you stupid bastard! Like I told you.”

Andrey grinned, revealing his great horse-like teeth. “They may get you, but they won’t get me.”

Pavel lunged at him, but Andrey moved deftly aside.

“Pull yourself together, you fool. I am not the enemy.”

“This girling business was your plan, you brought this upon us.”

“You were not complaining when you were riding the little mares with their legs in the air.”

“Go to hell and be damned, you devil,” said Pavel, but his tone was conciliatory.

“Anyway, it won’t help things to let you know, numbskull, but I have a plan.”

* * * * *

At a discrete distance, so as not to be recognized, Andrey and Pavel watched the roaring flames that consumed the Pacek family’s farmhouse lick upwards into the night sky. The farmhouse which had endured six years of Nazi occupation did not survive six weeks under the Soviets.

“Well, they weren’t home, what did you expect,” grumbled Pavel. “So this is your plan? A lot of good it will do us.”

“They know we struck back, and that the Soviet military is on to them. Let’s go.”

The next morning Andrey submitted a request for a transfer to the Warsaw garrison. He said not a word of it to Pavel.

For his part, Pavel made a concerted effort not to be alone. Wherever the soldiers congregated, that was where he would be found. This was after hours, on his own time. But while on duty he was subject to the orders of his superiors.

The Soviet authorities had begun rounding up the Polish intelligentsia: doctors, university professors, and highly educated professionals that Stalin’s government anticipated might interfere with their plans for Poland. As the jails and prisons were not spacious enough to accommodate these detainees as they awaited transportation to destinations still being worked out—Siberia, military detention centers, or oblivion—the military units were called upon to assist in creating temporary local detention centers.

Pavel’s superior officer knew that he had carpentry and building experience in his private life before the war, therefore he was co-opted to join a team of two other soldiers and a supervising lieutenant to inspect and report on the condition and suitability for use of an abandoned spa and resort complex twenty kilometers outside of Krakow.

Upon arrival of the transport vehicle on the grounds of the resort, the lieutenant dusted off and unfolded a set of blueprints for the facility that he had somehow acquired. To Pavel’s chagrin, the lieutenant dispatched the three soldiers to inspect the buildings separately.

Pavel argued, irrationally the lieutenant thought, to be allowed to team up with one of the others. His request was denied, and the three were ordered to return from their assignments with logged inspection reports by 4:00 pm. The blueprints were distributed and each man provided with a kerosene lantern.

The weather was cool and drizzly as Pavel set out on foot across the overgrown entrance drive to a large deteriorated building at the rear of the compound. The structure still retained the vestiges of luxury, although it had been in disuse since the Nazi occupation.

Electric power had long been cut off, which made the building, whose window spacing was designed for incandescent illumination, exceedingly gloomy inside. Just as Pavel closed the grand, nine-foot tall entry door behind him and prepared to light his kerosene lantern, he thought he heard a sound common enough along the busy streets of Krakow, but out of place in this secluded place—the rumble of a motorbike. He quickly opened the door again—silence. Shaking his head, he lit the lantern and set to work.

In spite of his strained nerves, Pavel soon became immersed in his work, and made his way through room after room, inspecting walls, flooring, fixtures, and making notes. His focus was interrupted by the distinct sound of the opening and slamming shut of the entrance door. Dropping his log book and snatching up the lantern, Pavel rushed into the corridor and called out “Who’s there?”

There was no answer.

Instantly apprehension transformed into icy terror, causing his knees to wobble and beads of cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

He must get out and join the others at all cost. There would be protection where there were numbers.

He sprinted toward the entryway, the kerosene lantern swaying and causing crazy shadows to rush up and down the walls. Then he stopped short with a gasp.

A solitary figure in military fatigues and wearing a gas mask stood against the door as if barring his exit. It occurred to him that, caught by his enemy like a rat, he would be gassed and suffocated in the corridor. With a shout, he pulled his handgun from the pocket of his uniform jacket and fired off two rounds. But the figure was no longer in the doorway.

Was he seeing things? No, there it was, springing out from behind an ornamental column. But the rapidity of it movements! The unbelievable, shocking quickness!

Disconcerted, he dropped the handgun rather than the lantern as he intended. He darted up a high-piled carpeted staircase with a rich mahogany banister, and wheeled around at the top. His pursuer was almost upon him; he dashed the lantern into its face and rushed through a heavy-paneled oak door into one of the upstairs luxury suites. Slamming shut the door, he noticed a heavy metal latch which he shot into place. Immediately a thunderous impact rattled the door in its frame. The doorknob was twisted and he heard metal snap within the lockset. Next there was a second impact against the door and an upper panel buckled inward but did not give way, as if it had been struck by a battering ram. There was a high-pitched scream of pain—could that be a woman’s voice? Pavel turned and raced in almost total darkness down the hallway. A band of light could be seen beneath the door at the far end. Once past that, he might be able to exit the building and hide among the overgrown bushes and trees in the landscaped yard.

Another explosive noise, and—was it possible?—something seemed to be inside the annular space of the wall on the left side of the hallway. He heard wall studs cracking and breaking at the impact of an irresistible force. He threw open the door in front of him; a flood of daylight entered the hallway. A brief glance over his shoulder revealed a large chunk of plaster falling from the wall and crashing to powder against the floor boards while an ominous moving bulge in the plaster followed in the direction of his flight. Internal boards and studs cracked and splintered as a large body made its passage through the annular space in the wall. It appeared that only the strength of the heavy oak wainscoting prevented his attacker form bursting through the wall and into the hallway. It was the vision of a nightmare.

Pavel ran toward the balcony, fully prepared to hurtle over the balustrade to drop down to the overgrown sward below. He flung open the French door leading to the balcony. With a horrible crash and explosion of plaster, the wall behind him burst outward. He once again whirled around—he could not help himself.

There before him, fatigues covered with plaster powder and the splinters of wall boards, and with a splash of kerosene flaming above the left breast, stood his attacker. Brief as the vision was, he could not be mistaken—the figure was a woman.

* * * * *

The lieutenant saw it first—a cloud of smoke rising above the building Pavel had been assigned to inspect. By the time he and the two remaining soldiers reached it, the entrance corridor was fully involved in flames. He now regretted not investigating the two earlier popping sounds that could have been distant gun shots.

“Pavel, Pavel!” the lieutenant shouted. There was no response. He took a step as if to enter the inferno, then thought better of it.

“One of you, go around the back!” he ordered. “There may be a way in from that side. You, help me here,” he said to the other soldier.

The two of them moved in opposite directions along the ground floor, breaking windows with a shovel and a garden hoe they had found and peering inside the rooms shouting Pavel’s name. They had not proceeded far when the lieutenant heard a voice behind him.

“Sir, it’s no use going in.”

He faced the speaker. It was the soldier who had made the circuit of the building. The lieutenant started—the last time he had seen such a horror-stricken face was when he had led teenage boys into a fire fight for the first time.

“Sir, follow me, you’ll want to see this.” Without another word he led the lieutenant and the second soldier around to the rear side of the building. There, beneath an overhanging second floor balcony with an ornate limestone balustrade lay Pavel’s body. It was nearly unrecognizable, having been crushed and pulverized to a near jelly-like state. The lieutenant observed, high on the right cheekbone, a jagged cut in the shape of a lightning bolt. This wound did not seem to be related to the other injuries.

6. Andrey with the scar

The day after word came back of Pavel’s hideous death, Andrey sat alone in the barracks. He rolled the notice carrying the denial of his transfer request into a tight tube, lit it with a match, and applied it to the tobacco packed in the bowl of his briarwood pipe. He drank shot after shot of straight vodka until his lips pulled back to reveal his horse-like teeth in a sardonic grin.

He held his hand straight out in front of him—it did not quiver.

“Ha, ha,” he laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! For once justice is being done; I thought I would never see the day. Well,” and he rose to his feet, “let’s finish this. If I have to go, I hope it’s my little red-haired vixen who takes me out. Because,” and he wobbled on his feet for a moment before steadying himself, “because of all women I love her best.”

He marched with two duffel bags brazenly into the armory, throwing into them a protective vest, a submachine gun and two ammo belts with a hundred rounds, two handguns, and a battle helmet. He was not able to lay his hands on any grenades, which had been at the top of his list. It is a testimony to the utter lack of discipline among the Soviet occupiers that he was neither stopped nor challenged as he made this unauthorized appropriation of military hardware and walked slowly out of the armory and then the garrison half carrying and half dragging his heavy bags.

* * * * *

Andrey had not forgotten his vodka, and had consumed a dangerous, near lethal dosage when he rose to his feet once more. He had been sitting with his back against the Pacek farm tool shed where all of this had started only two weeks ago. For over an hour he had seen no human beings. His liquor was now gone, he saw no reason to protract things.

He put on his battle helmet, then the protective vest which weighed like lead. He thrust the two handguns into his large pockets, and inserted an ammo belt into the submachine gun, throwing the strap around his shoulders. Being a veteran soldier, he accomplished these preparations successfully in spite of his inebriation.

“Ladies,” he shouted, “or shall I say lady. I’m back. This business between us is not finished. Come out, wherever you are.”

He pointed the submachine gun into the air and fired off a burst of rounds.

“Come out now,” he resumed. You’ve traded kiss for kiss with your other two boyfriends. Now it’s my turn. Best for last.”

He skirted the milling shed and was next to the foundation of the house now.

“I know you’re here watching me. You’ve been watching us all along. You Polish girls can be coy, but no need for that now. We know each other like husband and wife. Like husband and wife, I say, you know it’s true. There are no secrets between us.”

Silence.

“I miss you, you fiery-haired virago. I want to marry you, that’s why I’m here. Ha, ha!”

Time passed, the hot sun beat down on his helmeted head. His mood changed.

“Your friend, the blonde—was she your sister? Now there’s one, I tell you. But she got what she deserved. None of us—your three boyfriends I mean—thought her performance was very good that day. Now, you… that’s another story!”

Andrey suddenly noticed a solitary figure standing at the edge of the wheat field. He did not see how it arrived there. He squinted and began walking toward it.

“You are the most vile scum of creation,” said a woman’s quiet voice.

“Oh, it’s you at last!” Andrey cried. “I knew you would come. Having once tasted, how could you resist!”

“I am going to kill you now,” she said.

“Ha, ha! Maybe that’s better than marrying you after all. Marrying you would be a living death.”

She came for him, and for a moment he was taken aback by the rapidity of her movements. As she darted from side to side in a tacking motion, drawing ever closer, he sent a spray of rounds in her direction. He lost sight of her as the gun stock kicked against him.

“Drunken fool,” she said from her place of concealment. “You have the arms of the Kremlin with you, and I bring only my bare hands. Still, I will kill you now.”

“Where are you?” he muttered, moving in the direction he had lost sight of her.

There was a frenzied motion among the wheat stalks and he discharged a second prolonged spray of rounds into the field.

Suddenly she shot out of the wheat field and ran behind the tool shed. He strafed the shed with rounds until the ammo belt was empty. He suddenly recalled that the other ammo belt was in the duffel bag. Angelika stole out of the shelter behind the shed and raced to the duffel bag. “Are you looking for this?” she said, withdrawing the ammo belt and flinging it into the wheat.

Roaring wordlessly, Andrey threw the submachine gun from him and pulled out the two pistols from his pockets. He began firing at her with both hands. But Angelika had retreated behind the shed again.

Andrey stalked forward, meaning to circle around the shed and flush her out. He told himself that if he could get between her and the field and cut off her retreat he would have her where he wanted her.

As he rounded the corner of the shed he noticed that its door was hanging ajar. “Stupid slut, I have you now!” he yelled triumphantly, running to the doorway. He was convinced that she was hiding inside.

The loud metallic squeak of a hinge caused him to look up in time to see the open shed door swinging toward him with incredible velocity. He half turned; the wooden door slammed into him and exploded into fragments. Andrey was thrown headlong into the shed. The two guns flew out of his hands at the impact of his heavy face-forward fall to the floor. He lost consciousness momentarily, reawakening to his own retching. He wheezed amidst the puddle of vodka he had made, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him. He spit several splinters out of his bloody mouth which he became vaguely aware were broken teeth.

When he was able to direct his attention to external things, he saw before him in the doorway the girl in the mask.

“What’s your name?” he asked thickly, trying to navigate his words around the ruins of his mouth.

“It won’t matter, where you’re going.”

She advanced toward him in a slow, deliberate manner.

Appearing to awaken at last to his predicament, he thrust out his left hand in a placating gesture. “Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, a plaintive quaver in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with silky sweetness. “You can bring back my sister that you stole from me.”

“I can do it! I have the power to do it, to bring her back to you!” With his right hand, which had been hidden from her behind his outstretched arm, he flung the thin-bladed knife that he had withdrawn from a compartment in his boot. The half-obscured light from the doorway was sufficient for him to see the knife sink to the handle in her side below her left breast.

“But you would not like her smell,” he finished in his old taunting tone.

Angelika gasped, fell back a step, dropped to a knee, fought to suck in a breath of air. Then gathering herself, she was on him like a tigress.

7. Epiphany

The moonlight streamed down on the village cemetery that had grown greatly in size over the past six years. The chirping crickets stilled their song at the sound of an approaching footstep. A strange figure came into view. It was a woman dressed incongruently in battle fatigues and wearing an army-issue gas mask. Blood streamed from a wound in her side and she moved as if she were at the end of her strength. She dropped to her knees when she reached the most recent grave site, then unhooked and flung away the gas mask, revealing a face pale with suffering, but filled with a sort of ethereal beauty. Angelika lowered her face to the ground, her spreading auburn tresses looking spectral in the moonlight. Then she wept for the first and last time, her tears mingling with the freshly placed soil over her sister Serafina’s grave.

 

A Fragment of Hell

by Dave Hebden

 

“Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now, I think. I’ll bet you have been very anxious. After all, why would you have become conscious while you are still in your suspension pod, right? I know you have probably been struggling and can barely move in that snug little padded vessel so just lie still and my voice will explain everything. It took me quite some time to get this recording just the way I wanted it. I hope it suits.

Now, you know how upset I was when Brenda and I broke up. I will always remember how supportive you pretended to be. My goodness, it was very impressive how well you hid your secret. I thought Brenda’s performance was admirable as well but you see, we had been together for so long that she really couldn’t hide anything from me.

It was such a messy process, wasn’t it? What with you being what I considered a good friend at the time and Brenda being the only love I have ever had, I’m sure you knew it would be difficult for all of us once the truth came out. Of course, that didn’t stop you. Nothing ever stopped you from getting what you wanted, now did it?

I’m sure you remember that day when I finally started to act… what did you call it… “civilized”? Yes, I just suddenly stopped making those annoying calls and leaving those terrible messages all over the place. Perhaps you thought it was because of the success you had in getting me locked up a couple of times. Maybe you were thinking that I had finally come to my senses, that I finally realized that my crude behavior was going to get me nothing but trouble. Well, I’m afraid that wasn’t it at all. Actually it was on that day that I proved out the feasibility of my retribution plan. It took a lot of hard work but, well, here we are.

Where to begin? Well, I recall how elated you were when you were chosen for the Second Colony mission. And when you were able to pull your usual strings to get Brenda to come along you must have just been in Seventh Heaven. How exciting! Being chosen to be on board only the second ship of colonists ever to leave Earth bound for a new world must have been quite a feeling. To be going on that marvelous adventure with someone that loved you so much… how unspeakably wonderful!

I know those poor devils that went on the first ship so many years ago must have been very nervous about their mission. After all, they didn’t know what to expect. They could have awoken to find that Vita Nova wasn’t a habitable planet after all. They would have been doomed to live out their lives in that ship, just floating about a dead world that would remain dead. That not being the case, though, at least they got to spend a little time on the new world which certainly made it far from a wasted mission. I mean they all perished but the information they sent back has made this second mission possible and virtually sure to succeed. To be a member of the first generation of humans to establish a permanent colony on a new world would be an honor unequaled in the lifetime of almost anyone. However, you were afforded an honor that far surpasses that, Frank, and yet you never returned that honor.

Having Brenda fall in love with you was something that you took for granted, that you felt was somehow expected for a man of your stature and importance. Yes, I am sure you loved her as well but as with any other relationship you ever had, it was on your own terms and in your own selfish way. You knew she was enamored by your wealth, your fame, and your good looks and you took full advantage of that fact. You never respected her, simply holding her up as a trophy whenever the cameras were on you. Right to the last, as you were stepping into the suspension module with her, you couldn’t help turning her by the shoulder as you turned yourself for one last wave to the adoring masses, so beautifully adorning the final image of you here on Earth by having that angel at your side. Well, Frank, I am afraid your arrogance has cost you dearly. You see, you are never going to see that new world and you are never going to see Brenda again.

Now, please don’t think I would do something as primitive as to just murder you. That would be much too simple for me and far too lenient a punishment for someone like you. You have spent most of the years of your life using people for whatever they could do to help advance your selfish goals and boost your enormous ego. You have lived almost every waking moment in control of everyone around you. Well, not any more. Even though I am trillions of miles away right now, I am in total control of you. Fancy that.

You see, I had been working as a contractor on the software for this suspension module you are in right now. I saw you many times during your training sessions at the mission center. I know you thought I was far, far away so it is no surprise that you didn’t recognize me in my disguise. Perhaps you recall that man with the oddly puffy face, the full beard, and the port wine stain on his forehead that sat at the console closest to the water station on the promenade? That was me! Yes, I could have done my work from anywhere at the center but it was so much fun to watch you every day as you orchestrated the lives of so many others; smiling and laughing when you were obeyed, scowling and cursing when you weren’t. All the time, I knew that when this moment came, I would have been watching you do more and more to deserve it.

But I digress. As you are well aware, I have always been quite adept at all things technical, especially when it comes to software. I started to conceive my plan as soon as I heard that you were chosen for the mission. I’m not sure how but it just came to me. I had to take the job under a contrived identity but that was not so difficult for someone like me who has done so much work for the security industry. Once I went in and had a look at the suspension module’s control systems, I knew my plan would work. It was then that I stopped harassing you. I’ll bet you were quite pleased that day and probably thought that your conquest of Benda was complete. In retrospect, though, it was the most terrible day that you had ever had for it was precisely then that your fate was sealed. Go figure.

So here you are, Frank, lying in this padded shell unable to move anything but your eyelids. My program is controlling your pod and everything it is doing is masked from the main system by a very fancy little subroutine that I planted there. It will always report all things normal for you. As far as anyone or anything knows, you are and will be soundly in suspension sleep for another 72 years. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is going to happen is that my program is going to keep you in a nice, healthy cycle of eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours awake. It is going to provide all the nourishment, muscle stimulation, and waste management services that your body needs to live. I do realize that you will be drawing from the nutrient and oxygen banks and burdening some other systems much more than you would have had you remained in suspension. However, my calculations show that none of these excesses will adversely affect any of the other twelve hundred forty-nine colonists to the slightest degree. The variance will also be within the parameters that the main system has been programmed to handle autonomously without sending out notifications that there is a problem of any kind. I don’t think it would matter if anyone did find out what I had been up to anyway. After all, even in these modern times I am pretty sure no one has ever bothered to put a law on the books that would make it a crime to keep someone alive. Isn’t that deliciously ironic?

You are going to live out your natural life right where you are, Frank. Once you expire, my program will shut down your support system and then it will delete itself without a trace. Although you will probably get agonizingly close to your destination, you will not survive the entire journey as I don’t think you will make it to the ripe old age of one hundred and fifteen. And speaking of ripe, I do pity the poor other colonists that are going to have to open your pod when the ship arrives. That should be a very unpleasant experience to say the least.

You know, there is a Tradition of the Prophet stating that every journey is a fragment of hell. Boy, I guess he got that right in this case, huh? Perhaps at some point you will feel that you are better off dead. I can’t say that I would even hazard a guess as to whether someone like you, no matter what the situation, would ever consider ending their own life. No matter, though, as you have absolutely no way to do so. You could attempt to hold your breath even to the point of unconsciousness but your body will always begin to respire again. You are going to be in control of absolutely nothing except your own thoughts… unless you count blinking, of course. And the thing that satisfies me above all is that you will not be in control of Brenda. She will be very sad, I am sure, when she finds out what happened to you. You can rest assured that there will be no trace of my software and no one will ever know just how it happened. Eventually, she will get over it and I am sure that she will find that one of the other colonists can fill the void. In fact, she might end up with someone a little more selfless and realize that she is actually better off without you. I know I am.

Oh, and one more thing. I remember you telling me more than once that you never wanted me to speak to neither you nor Brenda again. You said in a very angry tone that you could not even stand the sound of my voice. Well, I suppose I could have sardonically granted your wish since having you lie there in silence could become unbearable and even drive you quite mad after a while. I do find that a pleasant thought but here’s something I find even more amusing. Ready?

Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now…”

 

Debbie Does Deuce

by Diane Arrelle

Hanna studied her opponent.

She watched as chubby, acne-scarred Debbie Shuller tossed the tennis ball low and come down too hard with her racket. Smack… into the net. Debbie shrugged and smiled that sickly-sweet smile that always made Hanna want to puke. Then Debbie carefully set up her second serve and sailed a soft easy ball over to Hanna’s side.

Hanna saw the approaching shot and literally crowed as she ran forward to slam it back. Only… the ball must have had a spin to it. Instead of bouncing back and into Hanna’s waiting, big head, extra-long racket, it bounced sideways and forward… just out of her reach.

Debbie smiled even more sweetly and yelled, “Deuce.”

Hanna gritted her teeth. How could it possibly be tied, she thought. Five minutes ago she’d been leading forty-love, whacking those first three balls back at that cow, Debbie, before she could even blink. Now they were at deuce, forty-forty. “Well, I’ll win this one, Debbie,” she muttered. “I always win.”

She waited as Debbie crossed the back of the tennis court. Debbie seemed to be moving in slow motion as she got into position, stretched up, tossed the ball high and then hit it out of bounds.

“Long!” Hanna shouted, waiting impatiently for the second serve. “Come on already,” she muttered as Debbie seemed to slow down even more. Finally she hit the second serve low and into the net.

Debbie still smiled, seemingly unruffled. She appeared cool and collected as she yelled, “Your add, guess I’m a little rusty. Oh well, plenty of time to warm up.”

Hanna wiped the sweat from her upper lip. She snarled at her old school adversary and squinted at the halo the sun made around her mousy limp hair. “No time for you, honey, I’m gonna put this one away and win.”

Debbie stopped preparing to serve. “Did you say something?” she asked, lowering her arm.

“Yeah, I said serve already.”

“All right,” Debbie sighed. “You always were impatient.”

“Well, you know how it is, I’ve got to get home to Timothy,” Hanna shouted back. “He can’t stand when I’m away too long.” She felt immense satisfaction as she watched Debbie quickly blink her eyes a few times. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she called. “I forgot that Timothy was your husband first.”

Debbie served the ball, crossing the net at a sharp angle, just grazing the line. Hanna ground her teeth harder, wanting to call the shot out but knew she didn’t need to cheat to win. “It’s good!” she announced.

Debbie crossed the court again. “Back to deuce.”

After the sixth return to deuce, Hanna knew the pattern. Debbie would blow the first two serves, letting Hanna have the point, then she’d win the next shot taking the game back to deuce.

Frustrated, Hanna wondered why Debbie had called her and asked her for this match. They hadn’t spoken since she’d taken Timothy away from her. It had only been this past morning when the phone rang.

She remembered it vividly because she was almost involved in a head-on with a tractor trailer. She didn’t know how it had missed her, but she was still shaking when the phone beeped. She’d been so surprised to hear Debbie’s voice that she didn’t react as she normally would have—with enough sarcasm to put the cow in her place forever. In fact she had been mildly surprised because she sort of thought that Debbie had died or something. Obviously she’d been wrong, but after all, who had time to keep track of all the losers in the world.

Her hands had been shaking from her near miss when the call came so she slowed to a stop on the side of the road. “Hello,” Hanna barked into her cellular phone, suddenly and irrationally impatient to get where she was going.

“Hello… uh… Hanna.”

“Yes,” Hanna replied trying to place the weak voice.

“Hanna… this… this is Debbie, Debbie Shuller.”

Hanna’s voice frosted over, icing the conversation. “Debbie, what do you want? And don’t say Timothy, he’s mine now.”

She heard Debbie’s quick intake of breath. “Hanna, there is no need for hostility. I’ve missed you, and… and I wanted you to meet me for a game of tennis. It’s been so long and we were once so close. How about meeting me in a few minutes. I’m at the courts at the end of Mountain Side Road. That’s right near where you are now, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” Hanna said, wondering how Debbie knew where she was, then shrugged it off. Probably called Timothy and he told her that she had just left. She saw her racket in the back seat next to her gym bag. She had been planning to work out, so a quick match would fit right into her schedule and playing Debbie was always quick. The bitch had no style or form. “I’m not familiar with the courts, but I’ll look for them and meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

“That’s fine, Hanna. Take your time, after all we’ve got plenty of time.”

Hanna hung up and figured that Debbie called and challenged her because if she could just beat her at one thing, like tennis, then Deb could feel a little vengeful satisfaction. Hanna had to smirk. After all, she’d always beaten Debbie at everything ever since grade school. She never could understand how Debbie had gotten the guy they were both after. It wasn’t fair and it took Hanna five years but she’d finally won at the marriage game too, stealing Timothy away.

She started the car and headed slowly down the road. She was surprised that there were new tennis courts in the park at the bottom of the road but she parked and met Debbie.

 

* * * *

“Add out… Deuce”

Hanna’d lost count of how many times they’d tied the game. Debbie had to be doing this on purpose, but how’d she get so good? She’d always stunk at sports and Hanna had enough trophies to line a room. How, she wondered, wiping the sweat off her face, how could Debbie be doing this?

“Deuce!” Debbie yelled. “Again.”

“Just serve!” Hanna snarled as she struggled to catch her breath.

“Getting testy, aren’t we?” Debbie cooed. “Don’t you just love tennis? Why I could just play it forever.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hanna yelled back. “You may want to play forever, but I’ve got a life. Let’s stop screwing around and end this.”

Debbie laughed and lowered her racket. “Why, how appropriate, you’ve insinuated that I don’t have a life and you’re right. I was so depressed after Tim left that I moved to Colorado and splat, got hit by a truck last month. Lord, I was nothing but road kill. But what does that matter anyway, you were too busy living your own life to notice a dead Deb. Bet you didn’t even notice Tim’s been upset the last few weeks.”

Hanna put down her racket. “What are you talking about?”

Debbie continued smiling. “Why, Heaven. You see we play tennis in heaven. That’s how I’ve improved so, eternal practice.”

Hanna laughed. “You are nuts! If you are so damned good how come we can’t get out of deuce?”

Debbie joined Hanna’s laughter. “Because I’m not damned. But you are. Tennis is my heaven now, and deuce, why Hanna, deuce can be such an infinite hell!”