No other utterance came from Amber—not that it could be heard. Harder rain had unleashed a fury over the parking lot, leaving the rooftop signage twanging on its tension wires. The weather urged him down the metal stairs, and once removed to his car, he sulked over a half-turned ignition key.
Momentarily, Miss Monet, shielded by an umbrella, descended the same steps with her empty suitcase. With little delay, she was away across the splashing lot in her Lexus, leaving Aloysius to follow at a guarded distance.
The road forward captured his frayed nerves. The storm’s savagery caused rain to repel off the pavement with velocity, thereby vaporizing the lower half of vehicular traffic. Regardless, the motorist’s gaze stayed fixed on Amber’s taillights, even while he continued to mull over what had passed for confession between prostitute and client. Orange flares interrupted this meditation, and then the flashing light of a service truck emerged on the shoulder. A billboard for Peek-a-boo Putt-Putt had fallen in the wind to bring down phone lines. Workmen used a winch and rope to hoist the obstruction and clear the highway, which allowed Amber to squeeze through the bottleneck before him. When he reached the place where the old and new highway forked, he had no idea whether she turned toward Stonesthrow or back toward Chicago.
The rain mostly subsided once Aloysius crossed back into town, and where he lost one trail he set off after another.
It was difficult to assess the Bowles’ residence in grey dusk, whether it possessed charm or crudeness, but in passing its bay windows and eldritch porch, movement in an upstairs window was detected. Even under dim wet panes, the whitish, ghostlike form provoked him.
He did not drive far but parked up the block. The professor’s studio window was readily identified, though, of the form, he was less certain. The voyeur waited on movement, and when it did not come, he thought he witnessed a statuesque pose. He convinced him Emma was modeling in a white dress. Without compunction, he stepped to the side of the property less exposed to the street. Divots from his accomplice’s mismatched high heels were still turned up in the soft earth around the rear door where they had made their dramatic exit days before.
Ducking out of a thornier drizzle was excuse for cover. The stranglehold past this sheltering doorway offered little deterrent against climbing its steep-pitched stairs. Conversation was not heard on the other side of the door at the top, and this was fortuitous since Aloysius inadvertently shoved it open. He stepped into better light and was dismayed to find himself draped in cobwebs. It occurred to him that this rear entrance to the house provided means for the philandering professor to come and go from his studio with minimal detection, although, by evidence of the light infestation, he had not used it that day.
The ‘dress’ in the window proved to be only a white drape, although its delicateness looked out-of-place against Bowles’ muscular black canvases. The trespasser scanned the walls, but could not recall precisely where its door connecting to the hallway resided. It hid under one of several oversized paintings. There was no compelling reason to linger on the property, but anger made Aloysius reckless. A utility knife sat on a worktable, yet if an act of desecration crossed his mind, a reckoning of footsteps checked this impulse. What he heard was surely the tap of a walking cane on stair treads, indicating the presence of Mrs. Bowles in the house.
This methodical sound was at first consistent with a slow careful ascent, but suddenly the stick began to rap wildly and rapidly, increasing in volume as its wielder approached the studio door. Immediately one of the black canvases began to shimmy—an unseen doorknob rattled behind it. How was it possible that the resident invalid could make it up the stairs so quickly, and assault the door with such ferocity? The large painting was on the point of toppling; Aloysius dropped the knife and was already falling backwards through his exit and down the dark stairs. His brazen intrusion only caught up with him at the car.
A quadrille of dead leaves whirled on the stoop around the front door of Spyglass Darkly House, and this was, with any mercy, the last hurrah of the cloudburst. Past the foyer, light had returned to the stairs. A note was taped to the newel: Came by to check things out. A breaker tripped in the fuse box and I reset it. —Andrew Tommen
A loud splat greeted the resident at his bedroom doorway. The bedside lamp revealed a water spot spreading outward from the ceiling light fixture; a second bigger spot was on the bedspread. Aloysius stared up with wan expression. He rushed to the hallway and up the second flight of stairs. The skylight was closed, and no water was on the floor.
No less anxious, he returned to the bedroom and contemplated the bleak prospect of a burst pipe between floors. Another note for Mr. Tommen was in order.
The caretaker’s cottage was dark, though its door was unfastened. Aloysius creaked on the threshold and attracted the attention of a figure sitting in an armchair past an entry area. Face to face with the bereaved father, he could not bring himself to mention Brae by name. He waved his silly note and bumbled to explain the leak.
Mr. Tommen’s posture could only be described as tragic. He explained, “There aren’t any pipes over your bedroom.”
“The water spot is huge. It has been seeping for over an hour. I am surprised you didn’t see it.”
The caretaker stared curiously. “The bedroom door was closed. I assumed you were asleep.”
Aloysius corrected the impression. “The door was open. You would have seen the bed, and the leak, from the hall when you check the light bulb. Your note…”
“I checked no light bulb,” interrupted Andrew. “I checked the mousetraps, and saw that a circuit had tripped in the fuse box and reset it.”
“Sleep in the guestroom tonight. There is fresh linen in the chest of drawers. I will see to the leak tomorrow.”
Aloysius felt foolish for his complaint, so withdrew.
In retreat he shuddered to realize that, perhaps, Mr. Tommen was aware of his acquaintance with his daughter, and that the odious detective may have mentioned to him that the new tenant was the prime suspect. (There was also Brae’s drawing on the refrigerator to consider.)
He was halfway up the walk when he heard hard-soled shoes gaining on him. Looking over his shoulder, he was surprised to see the caretaker catching up. “I will sleep in the guestroom,” Aloysius volunteered heroically. “It can wait until tomorrow.”
“No, no,” mumbled Andrew. “It is better I do it now.”
No other words were shared between the men. Mr. Tommen went upstairs to the guestroom. The resident heard him go into the secret passageway, and then enter the crawlspace where a minute later he was over the bed in the ceiling. He had carried no flashlight with him, but knees and palms were pictured thumping along the planks until all went quiet. When this quiet stretched beyond a sensible duration, Aloysius traced the man’s path into the passageway and called up into the dark hatchway. “Hello…? Mr. Tommen?”
With no response being given, the resident returned to his bedroom in a state. Both pieces of the sleeping tablet were still on the bathroom basin where he left them. “No, no, no,” he groaned, realizing the subtle act perpetrated against him. “The antihistamine… the antacid…”
Neither knife blade nor marble had dropped because he precipitously extinguished the candle on the nightstand when Amber called, so the wick was lit to restart the clock, and the lamp switched off. Pushing the camcorder aside, Aloysius recoiled on feeling its warm casing—it was in record mode.
In the transition from bulb to flame, tallow shadows of the candle slipped sluggishly into unfamiliar grooves. A snapping flicker directed Aloysius’ attention again to the water spot on the ceiling, which began to move in time to more squeaking planks. It was abruptly a shadow, one somehow cast from below by the candlelight. Momentarily he thought the moisture made the ceiling plaster permeable to light, and that the outline belonged to Mr. Tommen still in the crawlspace. He was about to speak the caretaker’s name again with the dark form turned unintelligently, as by rotation, until the foreshortened silhouette of a man was its one undeniable feature. Its legs were not stationary but also swaying…
Cringing, the painter picked up on a second outline between the bedposts at the footboard—it moved under the same influence as the flame. When he dared look, the ghastly reflection of Jacques Cretier stared back at him from the dresser mirror. The grey dwarf creaked at the end of a rope tied to the ceiling light; urine dribbled over his briefs and knees and splattered on the bedspread.
Aloysius careened into the recorder’s tripod—man and contraption fell banging to the floor with a scream. Jacques was no longer in the mirror. The shadow—or any other discoloration—was no longer on the ceiling. Wisped ringlets of hot vanilla scent rose off the candle, and were late bringing the ceramic plate to his attention: Marble and razorblade now sat in it.
Chapter Twenty/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.