Short Stories

The Promise Ring

by Joe Williams

1992 by Joe Williams. All Rights Reserved.

1

My basement office under the university was quiet, secluded, and very dark. I could have done with a window or two, but some of my clients insisted on dim lighting; it made them feel more comfortable, they said. I kept a photograph of a sunrise on my desk as a reminder of what the world up top looked like.

I wasn’t looking at the photo this evening, I was watching the woman sitting across from me. Nor was I bashful about putting on my glasses, she was that easy to look at. I counted myself lucky, some of them are outright horrors.

She was telling me her problems. That’s the only reason they ever come to me. Either they can tell I’m a sucker for a sob story, or else they can locate me by some sixth sense that I could never figure out in all my years as head of the anthropology department.

Her name was Tessa Pagenwood. She was young, no more than twenty, and had a figure that was so perfect I longed to touch it to make sure it was real. Her golden hair tumbled over delicate shoulders, framing eyes more blue than the sea. Her legs, sheathed in blue jeans, were long and intoxicating. I had to keep reminding myself the beauteous ones can be even more dangerous than the ugly ones.

From the aura of sadness that clung to her, I pegged her as a remnant, a little bit of something left behind. Like all of her kind, there was something she couldn’t let go of, and she wanted me to help her take care of it.

“Life always seemed uncomplicated to me,” Tessa told me in a soft voice, like a distant breeze. “I was happy growing up in the small seaside town of Baycroft. As an only child, my mother doted on me after daddy died.” She raised her hand to quiet me before I could give her my condolences. “It’s not such a tragedy. I barely remember him. I was only eight when it happened.”

I let her go on with her pitch.

“One day was pretty much like another in Baycroft, until just a few months ago. First of all, I graduated from Baycroft High School.”

I winced. She was younger than I had thought, a whole world of experience before her. That made it all the more tragic.

“My mom cried as I gave my valedictorian speech. That made me proud. I’d been a little unsure how she’d take the part about the aliens from outer space and the lessons we could learn from them.”

“Not everyone is as open as they should be on the subject of the unknown,” I said.

“That is one of the reasons I came to you.” And she went on to tell me about her story.

2

After graduation, Tessa went to a pizza party with her friends. She decided to live a little, so she didn’t get home until after midnight, the smell of lemonade and pepperoni still on her breath. Sneaking into the darkened house, she was surprised to hear her mother’s soft voice beckoning her from the darkness.

A nearby lamp illuminated her mother and a small ratty shoebox she carried. “I’ve never spoken much about your father,” Martha Pagenwood began, “since his life’s work always embarrassed me and kept us poor. But after listening to your speech tonight, I realized that you are truly his child, and it would be wrong to keep his legacy from you.”

Tessa’s father, Raymond Pagenwood, was, in his way, a brilliant scholar. Even I had heard of him. His specialty was in the area of urban legends, folklore, and the occult. His problem was that he was just too naive. He’d believe anything he heard, and that made him the laughingstock of the academic community. In my early years, I’d read a number of articles in the Fortean Times by him, and about half the time they would turn out to be hoaxes he had gullibly believed.

Raymond moved his family to Baycroft when Tessa was quite young in order to research a book. It had something to do with the history of the area, although neither Tessa nor her mother knew the subject. Unlike his other projects, he kept this one very quite. All he would tell his wife was this book would open up a whole new epoch in psychic research.

Martha feared Raymond was reaching the limits of his sanity, so she wrote to some of his old colleagues, beseeching them to talk him out of his delusion. Professor Boris Banner, his old history teacher, came to visit, and spent an entire night talking to him about his theories. But Raymond wouldn’t listen to reason. After Banner left, Raymond grew worse. He began to make veiled references to a conspiracy and how his life was in danger. He even accused his wife of working against him.

It took Raymond two years to complete his book, and when he finally did, he was so worried that someone would steal it, he insisted the printing be done in Baycroft where he could supervise every detail. It was a small run, only one hundred copies, which he intended to send to libraries. When the first book came off the press, Raymond scooped it up and told the printer he would be back in just a few minutes, after he had hidden the book in a safe place. He never returned. On his way back to the printer, he was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

They never caught the man who killed Raymond Pagenwood. In the end, maybe he did have psychic powers, for he was right, his wife did betray him.

All his life, Raymond was laughed at, and Martha didn’t want Tessa to grow up with that kind of stigma. The same day he died, she had every copy of his book burned, and the plates destroyed. The only copy she couldn’t find was the one he hid before he died.

“But who knows?” Martha sobbed quietly before her daughter on that graduation night. “Maybe his life’s work was something great, something really important. I’ve always wondered what possessed me to destroy his book. At the time, irrationally I suppose, I felt the book was evil, that it had to be destroyed just as it had destroyed him. Now all that is left of his research is this box of notes. I want you to have it.”

Tessa opened the musty old box and discovered a pile of loose papers. Picking up a few, she began to read. It seemed to be some sort of code, with scribbled notes here and there. Excitement coursed through her veins. Maybe her father did unlock an important secret! She started pawing through the box a more frantically, and her hand brushed against something cold and hard. Pulling it toward her, she discovered a small ring set with a crystal. A chain was threaded through it to form a necklace.

Noticing Tessa’s interest, her mother said, “That was your father’s. He called it his lucky charm and wore it around his neck. He said it was his inspiration to write the book. I don’t know why he liked it so much. It couldn’t be valuable. He bought it for only a few dollars in one of the local antique shops.”

Tessa decided to wear the chain to inspire her. Maybe it would help her follow in her father’s footsteps.

After a sleepless night, Tessa started her research, but her father’s notes made little sense. One page listed residents of Baycroft, mostly fishermen, but they had all since passed away. Another listed historical sites in the area. As the days passed, Tessa found herself spending more time in the Baycroft library than on the sunny beach. She read so much about mysterious creatures and other dimensions that her head began to swim. Miss Gertrude Pickles, the librarian, was sympathetic. She used to help Raymond Pagenwood, and knew what his work meant to him. She offered Tessa all the assistance she could.

Weeks went by, and Tessa was no closer to interpreting her father’s notes. Taking a new tact, she wrote Professor Banner, the last man to talk to Raymond about his theories. Banner was more than eager to meet with Tessa. He soon arrived in town, and after hearing the full story, he suggested she try to find the one book that had been spared. Since it hadn’t been found at the scene of the accident, he reasoned, Raymond must have deposited it some place safe, and since he had only been gone a few minutes, it must still be in Baycroft.

Professor Banner wasn’t able to enlighten Tessa any further on what Raymond had been working on. However, he and Martha hit it off fabulously. He swept her off her feet, and after a whirlwind courtship, they married in the little chapel on the beach. Tessa was a little worried about this sudden romance, but Martha seemed happy so she vowed to give her new stepfather a chance. It was a little weird having a veritable stranger in the house, but she got used to it. In any case, she was so busy there was little time for fretting.

Tessa exhausted every avenue in her search for the missing book, trying everything from posting lost and found signs on telephone poles to combing every inch of the house, from the dusty attic to the moldering crawl space. Finally, just as you were about to give up, Gertrude called from the library. “I found it! Your father must have thought the book would be safest surrounded by other books. It’s been in the stacks all these years.”

In a twinkling, Tessa jumped on her bicycle and pedaled to Baycroft Library. Sure enough it was her father’s book: Mysteries of the Past Explained Today, by Raymond Pagenwood.

Thanking Miss Pickles, Tessa hurried home, the book clutched to her breast. Her thoughts were far away when Boris interrupted them. “Congratulations!” he boomed heartily. “I see you found your prize. This calls for a celebration. Come into my study, and let me give you a little something.” Although Tessa desperately wanted to read the book, she went into the room with Boris. It wouldn’t hurt to be nice to the guy.

“I know you are unlike most youngsters, and never indulge in a drink,” Boris went on. “But I really would like you to partake in a toast with me. After all, you are on your way to college, and entitled to a drink now and then, hmm?” Boris poured a strange green liquor into two small glasses. As he handed one to Tessa, she noticed the glass seemed oddly warm to her touch, as though it had just come from the dishwasher.

“I propose a toast to you and your future,” Boris went on, raising his glass. “May you find exactly what your father found.” And with that he drank. Tessa looked at the drink in her hand. What could it hurt? In one gulp she downed the beverage. Instantly, her throat burned and her stomach heaved. As she slumped to the floor, the last thing she saw was Boris holding Raymond’s book, laughing maniacally all the while.

3

The gloom within my office seemed even more depressing than usual. In the silence following Tessa’s story, I could hear pipes dripping on concrete, and the smell of mold was strong.

“Not a pleasant way to die,” I remarked.

“No it wasn’t.” Her mouth drooped, and a wrinkle divided her brows. It wasn’t right for someone so lovely to be frowning. “I feel like such a failure. I worked so hard to find my daddy’s book, only to have it snatched away from me before I could read it. Now I cannot rest until I find my father’s book and learn his secret.”

Even with the lights turned down, my office was well illuminated by the glow from Tessa’s luminous body. I could see through her, discerning the back of the chair through her torso.

I didn’t want to look at this sad remnant any further, so I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. The room returned to its normal state, a dimly lit hovel in a basement. Without my glasses, Tessa was gone, her glowing form now invisible to my unaided vision. While I could not hear or see her, I could still sense her presence, a touch of perfume that reminded me of young violets. Consciously or not, she was using one of her powers to make certain her closeness was etched always upon my mind. I returned the glasses to my eyes so I could again communicate with my guest.

“When you died, did you bring anything across with you? Your father’s notes? A copy of the book itself?”

“No. Just the ring.” She undid the top button of her blouse and pulled out a silvery chain. An opal ring depended from it. Like her, the jewelry was translucent and luminous. This wasn’t the real ring, it was just an ectoplasmic copy Tessa had unconsciously created upon her death. It was made of the same incorporeal substance as Tessa herself, and it was just as tenuous. Even with my glasses on, I could no more touch the ring than I could Tessa’s perfect lips. My flesh would pass through her as if she were mist.

I shook myself, taking my eyes off the ring and the view beyond it.

“Have you tried locating your father on the other side?”

“I did, but he’s already come back. His life force is now in a centipede in Brazil. He can offer me no guidance. My only hope is you.”

I could feel the room growing thick with despair. Resisting her plea was hopeless, and helping her was just as futile. Why did I spend my life helping the dead? I was going to die some day too, and there’d be no one to put me to rest.

“Now stop that!” I shouted, steeling myself against the sorrow emanating from Tessa. “Making me depressed isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself. I feel so sad, and sometimes it just spills out.”

“I’ll help you as much as I can. You said that you had the book for a short while. You must have looked in it.”

“Yes, I did flip through it. I remember one sentence in particular. It said, ‘The most important secret of the occult world was revealed to me on Peach Tree Island.’ There was more, but I didn’t read it. I wanted to get home right away.”

“Peach Tree Island? Where’s that?”

“It’s a island just off Baycroft. I remember we used to vacation there at our cottage when I was young. My daddy and I would comb the beach together . . . looking for I don’t know what.”

Raymond Pagenwood must have found what he was looking for. I doubted it was “the most important secret of the occult world,” that sounded too much like a typical Pagenwood exaggeration, but it might be worth further investigation. Whatever Pagenwood had discovered, it was now known to Banner as well. He’d already proven himself an unscrupulous sort, and any secret of the occult could be dangerous in his hands.

I assured her I would check into the situation just to put my own mind to ease. The smile my promise brought to Tessa’s face was another irresistible reason to make arrangements to leave the very next morning.

4

It was a six hour drive to Baycroft. Tessa couldn’t come with me, the sunshine would have melted her like wax in a furnace. She promised to meet up with me as soon as possible.

Cresting a ridge, I saw the entirety of Baycroft huddled below me, clinging to the shore of a cove. Off the cost several miles, a lush island rose against the horizon.

Tessa’s parents lived in a weather beaten house on the outskirts of town. Even this far from the beach, the soil was sandy, the grass wiry, and the bushes scraggly. The house looked like someone had tried to sandblast the yellow paint off it, but got only halfway before deciding to give up. No one answered my knock. Through the cracks in the drawn shades, I could see no one.

I found the key under the flowerpot on the left, just as Tessa had told me I would, and let myself in. The house was utterly silent. From the sheets on the furniture and the lack of perishables in the refrigerator, I figured no one was planning on coming back for some time. A note on the refrigerator confirmed my suspicions. It read:

 

Dear Peggy,

Mrs. Banner is so distraught over the recent death of her son I’ve decided to take her away for a few weeks. Please continue your chores and forward our mail to The Windswept House on Peach Tree Island.

Boris

 

A search upstairs brought no answers. The master bedroom contained nothing of interest. I spent more time in the only other bedroom, a small loft plastered with UFO posters. Brick and board bookshelves held a profusion of books on bigfoot, ancient civilizations, and other oddities. I smiled with admiration. It wasn’t a discriminating library, but it was almost as large as the one I had at her age. Only she wasn’t going to have a chance to improve it any.

Boxes rested on the floor and on the bed. The cartons contained the vestiges of Tessa’s life, packed away for storage in the attic. I searched through them, but her father’s book, notes, and necklace-ring were all missing.

I stopped when I found a perfume bottle of something called Spring Violets. Even without opening it, I could smell its scent. On a hunch, I put on my special glasses.

She stood in the far corner, by the bed, as far as possible from the shaded window. Even in the diffuse sunlight, she filled the room with a innocent radiance.

“Are you having fun going through my personal belongings?” She looked truly hurt.

“I was searching for your father’s book. It doesn’t seem to be in the house.” She looked at the perfume bottle in my hand, and I guiltily placed it back in its box. “Boris must have the book with him on Peach Tree Island. I’m heading there next.”

“I just wish I could be the one to face Boris. I’d like to tell him what’s waiting for him on the other side. But I can’t go out now. You know what the sun does to me.”

“The sun will be going down soon. We can go then.” Already, the sun’s rays were glowing red against her window-shade. I didn’t bother to tell her that confronting Boris wouldn’t do her any good. Boris might catch a hint of her perfume, but like other mortals he could never see or hear her.

“Ghosts are supposed to be so powerful,” Tessa complained. “It’s not until you’re dead that you find out what a piece a crock that is.”

I tried to cheer her up by telling her that the longer she stayed a remnant, the more powerful she would become. Or, once she found peace, she could accept reincarnation and start her life anew. Tessa was unimpressed. “Great. Just like my daddy, I too could be a bug crawling through some jungle.”

I explained it the best I could, using the limited understanding my research had granted me. “He came back a centipede because he didn’t die satisfied with what he had accomplished in life. You’re lucky. Your determination has given the opportunity to finish your life’s work in the afterlife.”

It’s just not fair. People like Boris go on living while my father and I die.”

“I read a book once that said death was like life, it could be heaven or hell, depending on which you made it. Once you complete your unfinished business, you might find it more restful.”

Tessa tried to touch her belonging, her books and other relics of her life, but her hand could not connect with these reminders of her past. She couldn’t pass through physical objects, she wasn’t that powerful, but nor could she affect them. She was cut off from her past, and it obviously frustrated her.

I peeked out the curtain. “It’s dark enough now for you to travel safely. Let’s go.”

On my way to the front door, my foot kicked a pile of letters scattered under the mail slot. The name Gertrude Pickles caught my attention. It was written on the upper corner of a letter addressed to Martha Banners. Pickles was the librarian, the one who had first found Pagenwood’s book. I decided to graduate from trespassing by ripping open the letter.

The note inside was written in small, precise letters on peach stationary.

 

Dear Mrs. Banner,

I was so sorry to hear about the death in your family. The suicide of your daughter was a terrible thing, but you cannot blame yourself. No doubt she discovered the book I had given her was missing a page. The strain of learning her search had been in vain must have caused her to snap.

As Boris requested, I searched the stacks for the missing page. I found it this morning in back of a bookcase. Please tell Boris he can pick it up any evening before nine.

Sincerely yours,

Gertrude Pickles

 

I showed the letter to Tessa. “I didn’t have a chance to examine my father’s book,” she told me, “so I didn’t know it was incomplete. How could a single page have been torn out like that?”

“Your father might have removed it on purpose. He might have felt it was so important that it had to be hidden separately.”

5

The Baycroft Library was located about fifteen blocks from the Banner home, in a small brick building next to the post office. I held the door open for Tessa and followed her in. Her spectral condition invited gallantry. Since she was made of ectoplasm, Tessa couldn’t move material objects, not even to open a door for herself.

 There was only one librarian on duty, an elderly woman who wore her long grey hair in a bun at the back of her neck. Her pursed lips and wrinkled face gave me a good inkling that this must be Gertrude Pickles.

Tessa raced to the librarian. “Gertrude! It’s you must help me!” Faltering before Gertrude’s indifference, Tessa allowed her shoulders to sag. It was no use, a ghost couldn’t talk to the living. A customer stepped right through Tessa in order to have his stack of library books checked out. Tessa moved back, frowning with frustration.

I stepped before the counter. “Excuse me, are you Ms. Pickles?”

“Please keep you voice down,” she whispered to me. “Yes, I am Miss. Pickles. How may I help you?”

I dropped my own voice to a whisper. “I’m running an errand for Boris Banners. He sent me over to pick up the missing page from Raymond Pagenwood’s book.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone named Doris. If you’d like to look for a book, the card file is over there.”

“Boris,” I repeated, more loudly. “Boris Banners sent me for the page.”

“Young man, this is a library. If you insist on shouting, I will have to ask you to leave.”

Keeping my mouth shut before I said something I’d regret, I picked a pen off her desk, wrote briefly on her notepad, and turned it to face her.

She peered at my message and then scowled at me. “You tell Boris if he would like the page, he should come himself. He told me it was very valuable, and I’m not about to trust it to a stranger I’ve never seen before. “

“She always was a by-the-book kind of gal,” Tessa told me. “You won’t get the page from her. Why don’t you give her your glasses, and I’ll ask her myself? If she sees me, she’s bound to agree.”

She’s bound to have a heart attack, I thought to myself. Right then, I couldn’t tell Tessa that the glasses only work on certain receptive people, and even then, their minds must be properly prepared and attuned to the ethereal plane. I doubted very much Gertrude Pickles would go through the weeks of effort required.

“I’m an old friend of the Pagenwood family.” I said to Gertrude. “I knew Tessa especially well. If you don’t believe me, ask me anything about her family. Maybe that will convince you that it’s all right for me to take the page to Boris.”

“If you’re really Tessa’s friend,” Gertrude said, “then you know the hamster story. She was so embarrassed by it that she only told me if I promised not to tell anyone else.”

“Ah yes, the hamster story,” I said, stalling as I waited for Tessa to fill me in. She was notably silent. “That’s a good one,” I added, “and I’m certain I’ll remember it in a moment.”

Reluctantly, Tessa began to tell me the hamster story, which I relayed to Gertrude as though I were recalling it from memory.

With Tessa whispering in my ear, I made quite a convincing pretense at being an close friend of the family, and in the process I learned several interesting facts about Tessa that she would have been reluctant to tell me, had necessity not required it. Before long, I had Gertrude treating me as though I were a lifelong friend.

“Talking about her like this almost makes me feel like she’s here with us.” Gertrude sighed. “You must have known her very well.”

She leaned over her filing cabinet, pulled out a folder labeled “Pagenwood Papers,” and handed it to me. I glanced inside to confirm that it contained a single sheet torn from a book.

“Open it up so I can read it!” Tessa shouted in my ear. “I can’t wait any longer!”

I didn’t want Gertrude getting suspicious, so I didn’t read the page right then. I carried it out to the car with me. I opened the passenger door for her, then sat down next to her and held the folder open so we could both read.

The top of the page was marked “Chapter 10: The Secret of Peach Tree Island.” Tessa and I read it at the same time.

“I originally came to Baycroft to study the oral traditions of the seagoing folk. It seemed as though the answer to all my questions could be found in a local legend. Old timers speak of the days when Peach Tree Island was settled by thieves and pirates. They lurked there knowing that ships had to pass close by on their way into the bay, and that the treacherous waters often caused them to sink. These settlers were expert sailors and would go out in their dinghies to meet those who managed to stay afloat. Alas for them, their rescuers would quickly strip them of their goods and leave them to drown.

“One day, a great passenger ship sank in a storm. A beautiful lady was swept ashore and was found by one of the citizens of the island. Looking up into the cutthroat’s eyes, the woman must have foreseen her fate for she tried to forestall it: ‘Good sir, please do not harm me, for I come from a family of wealthy courtiers, and I can promise you riches beyond your dreams if ye spare my life!’

“The pirate might have listened to her, but when she held up her hands to beseech him, he saw a magnificent stone on her finger. Greed overcame him and he sliced her finger off to gain the ring! The woman shrieked and his next move was to cut her throat. It is said that the ghost of this woman still haunts the island, looking in vain for her lost ring.

“When I heard this story, I knew I was close to my goal. I bought a vacation home on Peach Tree Island in order to facilitate my search. I knew the ring must have been found and lost many times over the centuries, until its significance would be all but forgotten. Finally, I tracked it down to an old woman in Baycroft, who willingly sold it to me for fifty dollars.

“All the pieces began falling into place. Now all I needed to prove my theory was to find the location of the threshold, and the Legend of the Raven which had started me on this quest in England would be shown to be based on fact. My excitement knew no bounds as I asked Max to ferry me across one more time. If my calculations were correct, the answer would be found at the . . .”

And that is where the text ended.

“A fat lot of good this does us,” Tessa said, her arms crossed.

“Actually, it does give us a couple of leads. Let me see your ring again.” She held up the necklace and I examined the ring more closely. It was a black star opal, and even this ectoplasmic copy possessed a compelling, if unnatural, allure. I could almost feel myself being drawn into the void within the gemstone. “This must be the ring your father was looking for, the one that belongs to the ghost of Peach Tree Island. That could be helpful. What about this Legend of the Raven? Do you know anything about it?”

“Yes. He talked about it in his notes. It’s a old, seventeenth century legend from English folklore. Let’s see if I can remember it. It’s the story of a princess who fell in love with a raven. The king disapproved of their relationship, and plotted a way to stop it. One night, the raven said to the princess, ‘Your father is coming to imprison me. But we will fool him. Use this key to release me, and together, we will rule the kingdom.’ And he gave the princess a silver key.

“Just as the raven had predicted, the king sent his soldiers to lock the raven in a gilt cage. There the raven waited until the princess came one night to free him. She turned the key in the lock and the raven flew out. ‘Free, free at last!’ he cawed.

“But the king was old and wise. He saw the key still in the lock and he threw it into the cage. The raven saw the glitter of silver and, as was his nature, he flew down to pick it up. The door slammed shut behind him, locking him and the key inside, where his key could never do him any good.”

“It’s interesting, if not immediately enlightening,” I told Tessa when she had finished. “Pagenwood must have found a connection between Peach Tree Island and that old legend.”

“What do you think it was?”

“That’s what we need to find out. Your father mentioned a fellow named Max. Do you know who he is?”

“Max is the sailor who operates the ferry to Peach Tree Island. He’s been running it for as long as I can remember.”

“Maybe he can give us some answers on the way to the island.”

6

Max Cline lived in a hovel by the dock. His “ferry” consisted of an old motorboat. My car would have to remain on the mainland.

My pounding on his door pulled Max away from his evening television shows. For a special fee, he agreed to take me to Peach Tree Island that very night. It was more than I could afford, but I would need Tessa’s help once I reached the island, and she could only travel in darkness. Lucky for me Max couldn’t perceive Tessa, or else he would have certainly charged me double.

The provisions on the launch consisted of a case of scotch. “Helps keep me warm,” Max explained as he pulled on a bottle. “I’d give you a bottle ‘cept we don’t serve refreshments on this trip. You’re welcome to bring your own, though.”

“Max has a reputation for being crotchety,” Tessa explained to me as she sat next to me in the stern.

Shutting his eyes, Max shook his heard sharply and took another quaff of liquor. Swearing softly under his breath, he cast off from the dock, putting out onto the black sea, his wheel in one hand and his bottle in the other. He muttered something I couldn’t quite hear.

“What was that?” I asked, looking for any opportunity to strike up a conversation with Max. Before we reached the island, I wanted to know everything he did about Raymond Pagenwood and the mystery of Peach Tree Island.

“Just telling my pals to keep their opinions to themselves. Don’t you mind any. They can’t hurt you none.”

Tessa shuddered next to me. “I always thought he was a bit creepy.”

“Now don’t you go calling me names!” Max bellowed.

His outburst startled Tessa as much as it did me. “It almost sounds like he can hear me,” Tessa said.

“You can’t get away with whispering behind my back,” Max grumbled, talking into the night sky. He might have been able to somehow hear Tessa, but he certainly didn’t know where she was.

“Max, you’ve got to help me!” Tessa blurted, clapping her hands and rushing over to him. “Boris Banner is an evil man, and he must be stopped!”

Max laughed. “Now, I ain’t gonna fall for no more of your jokes. Last time you told me who really killed Kennedy, and all it got me was a week in the home. I ain’t gonna listen to your tom foolery, and I ain’t gonna buy a gun no matter what you say.”

“Max,” I said, to divert his attention from the voice in his head. “Do you often hear voices?”

“Ever since the war. Had a steel plate put in. Mostly it’s radio stations, but sometimes I pick up other stuff.”

“What kind of things?”

“People asking me to do stuff. They want me to take care of some orphan, or talk to some widow, or even kill somebody. They keep me company, but after all the trouble they’ve gotten me into, I don’t do as they ask no more. Let them come down in their ships, get on out, and take care of their business themselves.”

“You think they’re aliens?”

“What else could they be? I figure this plate picks up their transmissions. Read about it in some old magazines Professor Pagenwood gave me.”

“I’m not some alien,” Tessa said. “I’m a ghost. Boris Banner killed me.”

Max took a hearty swig from his bottle. “Talk all you like. I ain’t gonna listen to your lies.”

I regained his attention by calling his name. “Max. You mentioned a man named Pagenwood. Was that Raymond Pagenwood? He used to come across a lot about ten years ago.”

Max’s eyes glazed with the working of his memory. “Sure, that was his name. He was real interested in my ability to hear voices. Used to give me old copies of Fate Magazine. He was a real prince of a fellow. It’s a shame he died so soon after his discovery.”

When I asked him to elaborate, Max merely shrugged. “I dunno what it was, only it made him real excited. One morning I picked him up at the island and he said, ‘Max, I finally figured it out. At exactly midnight, I went up to the place where the dead can’t rest, and you’ll never guess what I saw: the answer to the darkest secret of the afterlife. But I mustn’t tell you any more. My knowledge could easily destroy all life as we know it.’ I never did get the rest out of him.” Max chuckles. “And they call me crazy.”

As we approached, Max told me a little more about the island. Reefs ringed the island, making it a dangerous place to approach or even pass. A small ridge ran down the center of the island. A summer cap lay on the east side of the ride, while on the other side was dotted with vacation homes. Trails led to the top of the ridge, to a place called Lookout Mountain. Campers often rode their horses up there.

Max didn’t like the island, and was eager to get us off his boat so he could leave again. He refused to set foot off the dock. “I hear evil things here,” he said. “Crazy stuff. Last time I walked on the shore must have been five years ago. A bad headache came over me, must have knocked me out. When I woke up, I found myself digging in the sand, looking for I don’t know what. I couldn’t help myself. A voice in my head told me I was gonna keep searching the island until my fingers turned to bone and my eyes fell out of my head. What’s worse, something in me wanted to keep looking. I don’t know how I managed to drag myself back to my boat. I’ll tell you this much, ain’t all the booze in the world could get me back on that island.”

With this advice, he cast off into the night, leaving me and Tessa alone on the dock.

7

“I’m sorry if I’ve gotten you into danger,” Tessa said to me. “I’ve not been thinking much about others, I’ve been so wrapped up in my own problems.”

“Don’t worry about it. Lots of people come here every day, and they don’t end up digging their fingers to the bone. Max has a metal plate in his head. It must have made him susceptible to whatever aura pervades this place.” I didn’t add what I truly thought, that Raymond might have also been touched by the same fever.

“But you also have powers,” Tessa observed. “And if anything, they’re greater than whatever Max possesses. You can both hear and see ghosts. Won’t that make you even more sensitive?”

I had to admit this was a possibility, one I would have to face. As a precaution, more to ease Tessa’s mind than my own, I agreed to remove my special glasses before stepping off the dock, on the condition Tessa stayed with me. Even without my glasses, I could still talk to her, and if she needed to contact me, she had ways to make her presence know.

It was with some regret that I took off my glasses. I felt utterly alone upon that deserted dock, until the faint scent of violets reached me, and from this, I knew I would not be facing the mysteries of Peach Tree Island alone.

My first footstep on the sand of Peach Tree Island was met, not with an urge to dig in the sand, but a sense of the absurd overreaction I had allowed myself to be pulled into. I started in the direction Tessa had told me Windswept House was located, accompanied on my journey by the aroma of the girl.

The shortest route was along a trail bordering the beach. I followed this path for about a mile, the wind off the sea growing colder every minute. Tessa, of course, wouldn’t be able to feel the cold, but my flesh and blood told me I should have dressed warmer.

The darkness was near absolute. It took all my concentration to keep on the footpath. Tessa could see in the dark, and if I were wearing my glasses, I could have seen it by the glow of her radiance.

The smell of flowers grew abruptly stronger, almost dizzying, and a wave of depression crashed over me. I quickly looked around but saw only the surf, the beach, and the rolling hills further inland. Tessa was urgently trying to attract my attention, but to what? Was she in danger? I no longer cared what happened to me, the thought of Tessa being in danger compelled me to jam the glasses back on my face.

She stood right next to me, her head no higher than my shoulder, both her hands on my arm — a touch I could not feel. Her eyes were fixed on something approaching from across the beach.

It was a woman dressed in white. She looked to be in her early twenties, and she was dressed in the high fashion of the mid seventeenth century. Her black hair shone in the moonlight like the wings of a raven. Although she looked solid, I knew she hadn’t been there before I put on my glasses. As she approached, I saw a gory mark across her throat, the splash of blood forming a red scarf about her shoulders. Her dark eyes were locked on us as she glided across the sand.

“She’s a ghost, isn’t she?” Tessa murmured. It wasn’t really a question, for the answer was self evident. In fact, this wasn’t just any ghost. A close look at her hands confirmed her left ring finger was missing. There was only a raw stump.

When she was only ten feet away, the dark haired lady raised her hands in supplication. “Help me,” she whispered, her voice thick with an old english accent. “Help me find what is mine.” She spoke to Tessa, as though knowing a mortal such as I would not be able to hear her.

Despite the wounds of her death, the woman was alluring in the fashion of the dark haired beauties of Spain. My heart went out to her.

“We’ll do what we can,” I said.

My words surprised her. She looked closely at me. “How can a mortal communicate with the dead?”

“It’s my job,” I said. “Let me see if I understand. Your ring was stolen by a pirate, and now you want it back. Is that correct?”

“You know much of my plight, sir.” Her eyelashes shaded her green eyes. “What else do you know?”

“Not much. Maybe you can fill us in on the details.”

Her eyes flickered up, revealing pools as green as deep water. “Perhaps, kind sir, you know this. My name is Lady Mary Sweetchild, and I have been trapped on this island for three centuries. When I was alive, I was falsely accused of witchcraft. The magistrate banished me from my home in England and sent me to the colonies with little more than the clothes on my back. The only valuable I possessed was a promise ring my betrothed had given me.

“My ship sank in a storm off this tiny island, but I was rescued by a man named Rufus. When I begged him for mercy, he cruelly cut off my ring finger, slit my throat, and left me to die.”

Tessa asked, “If you had your ring back, would you be able to stop haunting this island?” She stood slightly behind me, as though afraid to stand before Lady Mary.

“It is the only memento I have of my lost love,” Lady Mary whispered through her damaged voice box. “I shall never find peace without it.”

“Then take it,” Tessa said. She pulled the ring-necklace over her head and held it out to Lady Mary.

Her green eyes flaring, Lady Mary lunged for the necklace. “Yes, that’s it!” She broke the chain and placed the ring on her right finger. She held the ring tightly, then her smile turned slowly to a scowl of disappointment, and taking off the ring, she hurled it against the ground. “This is not my ring! It’s useless!”

I felt compelled to help this tragic figure. “You would never be able to wear a physical ring. An ectoplasmic copy is as close as you will come.”

Her eyes flashed green venom. “Damned be your accursed imitations! I must have my ring! Help me find it, and I will worry about the rest.”

 “It’s on the island,” I told her, unable to stop myself from lending her what assistance I could. “In the possession of a man named Boris Banner. He’s in one of the vacation cottages, a place called Windswept House.”

Lady Mary laughed sharply, the edges of the slit on her throat jiggling like an extra pair of lips. Her laughed remained even as she vanished into a cloud of slowly dispersing mist, ending only as the last tendrils of mist disappeared toward Windswept House.

I collapsed as though the stings of my muscles had been cut loose from their moorings. Darkness clustered around me, threatening to cut me off from the world.

Tessa’s glow fought back the blackness, and when I opened my eyes (I didn’t remember closing them), I saw her kneeling over me, calling my name.

 I struggled to a sitting position. “We must help her find her ring,” I said, the words echoed in my head, giving me a headache.

“What about my father’s book?” Tessa looked hurt, and puzzled. It didn’t matter to me.

“The important thing is Lady Mary’s ring.” I began feeling around myself. “It must be here somewhere.”

“She’s done something to you. How can I help you?”

“Nonsense! She’s just a lovely woman in need of assistance.” I cut my finger on a broken beer bottle, but that didn’t stop me from continuing my search.

“Your glasses, you must take them off.”

“No way. I can see much better with them. And I need to be able to see if I’m ever to find that ring. It’s so small. It could be anywhere.”

Tessa reached for my glasses, but her hands passed through my face as though she were made of mist. She made a whimpering noise in her throat, her frustration bursting from her in a wave of despair. Gloom clutched my chest. It was hopeless, I would never find the ring. It made me sad, yet I could not stop. I began to weep.

My melancholy stopped as quickly as it started. “All right,” Tessa said. “I’ll help you look.”

Her search took her away from me. Soon she was at the edge of the sea, her feet washed by the waves. She winced — from what I understand, the feeling of water moving through a ghost’s ectoplasmic body is unnerving and unpleasant. Yet Tessa must have been determined to find the ring, for she waded deeper into the water. The waves rolled through her, dispersing her ectoplasm while her will to live tried to maintain her shape. If a large wave hit her, it could easily disrupt her ectoplasmic form altogether. It might even reincarnate her. Tessa must have wanted to find the ring for Lady Mary as badly as I did to risk reincarnation.

At last Tessa called, “I’ve found it! Come here quick, before it washes away! I can’t pick it up myself.”

The ring! I had to get the ring! I raced across the beach and dove into the surf next to Tessa. The water knocked the glasses from my face. I grabbed at them and broke the surface sputtering water.

My compulsion to find the ring was gone, broken the moment my glasses had come off. I wondered if it was permanently dispelled, or if it would return the moment I put my glasses back on. I decided to look though the lenses of my glasses by holding them up to my eyes, that way, if I should be overcome by an urge to find the ring, I would have to lower my glasses again to free my hands.

Through the water-splashed lenes, I saw Tessa wading back to shore, her teeth gritted against the uncomfortable feeling of the water moving through her. The urge to find the ring did not revisit me. Tessa waited for me on the sand as I staggered ashore.

I didn’t know what to say to her. If she hadn’t lured me into the water where the waves could knock off my glasses, I would still be under Lady Mary’s power. I’m usually the one who saves lost souls, not the other way around. I said what I could. “Thank you.”

“Are you all right?”

“Just wet and cold. How about you?”

“I wouldn’t want to go swimming again, but I’m all right now.” She appeared completely dry. “Are you sure you want to wear your glasses? It could put you at risk.”

“I think I’ll be all right unless I run into Lady Mary Sweetchild again. If you see her, let me know and I’ll take them off.” I walked back up to the trail, hoping the exercise would warm me. “She must really need her ring, in order for her to unconsciously affect others like that.”

“Unconsciously? I’d say she did it on purpose!”

“A lovely woman like that? No, I can’t believe she’d do anything intentionally harmful.”

Tessa stared at me. “Are you sure you don’t want to take off your glasses before you say that? Just in case?”

I did as she suggested. “See? I’m not under her influence. I just think this is a simple case of emotional projection upon the living. Nothing malignant about it.”

Tessa shook her head. “Malignant or not, I don’t look forward to meeting her again. Now that you told her where Boris and the ring are, I’m certain we’ll be meeting her once more. I hope you’re prepared for it.”

8

We picked up our pace, although we both knew we could never reach Windswept House before Lady Mary. The path turned inland, joining a dirt road. We followed the road past an occasional isolated cottage, making our way to the far side of the island.

I saw street lights ahead, and we came to a paved road. It was as much of a main street as Peach Tree could support. The gas station, grocery, restaurant, and barber shop were closed for the night.

Moths fluttered beneath the cones of light from the three lamps lining the short stretch of pavement. A hunched figure waddled from one circle of light to the next, his back bent under the weight of a bulging sack. A low moaning came from the figure as he stumbled wearily along the road.

I had no illusions that this was a resident of Peach Tree. The strange figure was vaporous, with a misty consistency that marked him as one of the dead.

Tessa halted at the sight of the vapour. After our encounter with Lady Mary, her reluctance to meet another of her kind wasn’t surprising. But this lost soul wandering the street of Peach Tree intrigued me. Like Lady Mary, he wore archaic clothing, including baggy breeches, wide topped boots, and a long coat. From a sash around his waist a cutlass hung. If, as I suspected, this vapour came from the same time period as Lady Mary, he might be able to give us important information on her history. I hurried to overtake him.

In response to my hail, the vapour turned to look at me, and I would have been gladder if I had never seen his face. His skin was decayed and dotted with open sores from which rivulets of red trickled down his white flesh.

“Leave me to my penance,” the vaporous pirate moaned, and he kept walking.

“Perhaps we can help you,” I called, knowing all lost souls require some sort of assistance to accomplish the unfinished business that held them to the earth. I fell in stride next to him, but no so close that the smell of his open sores would overcome me.

“No one can help me. I must walk always, and carry this sack forever.”

“Whatever for?” Tessa asked.

“To atone for my evil ways. In life, I was a pirate, preying upon the unfortunates who wrecked off Peach Tree Island.”

Tessa’s eyes widened. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Rufus?”

The vapour gazed at her with watery eyes. “Aye, it is.”

Tessa beamed at me. “Then you’re the one who cut off Lady Mary Sweetchild’s finger!”

Rufus spat a yellow wad of ectoplasm onto the ground. “I curse the day that witch washed upon shore! When I found her after her ship wrecked, I didn’t kill her — at least, not right away. I was smitten by her beauty! She begged me to help her in exchange for . . . considerations. I didn’t rightly believe her promises of riches and power, but I did as she asked, for more earthly favors.

“She had me swim out to her sunken ship and find the body of the priest. I brought him ashore, and she drained his blood into a bowl. Then she made me build her a pentagram, while she painted symbols with the priest’s blood. When I was done, she laughed and said she didn’t need me anymore, her demon lover would soon be by her side. She pointed her finger at me and started mumbling an incantation. I didn’t hesitate — I cut off her finger in one swoop! She shrieked and came for me, so I killed her. I buried her, but kept her ring for my troubles.”

“Well done!” Tessa cheered. “She got what she deserved.”

“But killing her didn’t stop her half-finished incantation.” Rufus moaned. “Within a few days, I died from a wasting disease that left me looking the way you see me now. Even that wasn’t the end of her curse. I found I was fated forevermore to carry my sins upon my back.”

“That explains why she wants her ring.” I told Tessa. “Your father must have stumbled upon Lady Mary’s pentagram. It must be a gate to bring her demon lover into the physical world. And I told her right where she could find the key!” I clenched my fists and threw back my head. Above us, I glimpsed the moths circling the street light overhead. The light must have attracted every moth on the island, so numerous were they.

Tessa looked pleased. “So now do you agree that Lady Mary isn’t as lovely as you thought.”

“All right. She’s a witch. We can deal with that. If we can find this gate of hers before she finishes with Boris, we may be able to destroy it before she even gets her hands on the ring. What did your father tell Max?”

“He said he went up to the place where the dead don’t rest at exactly midnight.”

“Why mention midnight? Could it be the gate only appears at certain times? It’s eleven o’clock now. We have one hour to find out.”

Tessa turned to Rufus. “Where did you build the pentagram?”

“Why, that’s easy. It’s still right here on the island. It’s on . . .”

Before Rufus could finish his sentence, a swarm of moths alighted upon his ectoplasmic body. He dropped his sack in order to swat at them. The moment the sack left his hand, his let out an awful scream, the wounds on his face erupting in ghastly suppurations.

Tessa stepped forward, her hands raised to bat at the white moths, but I warned her back. “Don’t touch them! They’ll destroy you too!”

Hundreds of the soft white bodies crawled over Rufus, their small mouths nibbling at his ectoplasmic form. They would have attacked Tessa too, if I hadn’t warned her. Since I was flesh and bone, I was immune to their nibbling. I waded in, smashing as many as possible. They were made from something that was neither matter nor ectoplasm, a kind of unnatural blending of both. Their wings, each marked with a tiny black skull, tickled my skin as they attacked my nose and mouth, attempting to smother me with their soft bodies. I soon found myself fighting as much for my own safety as Rufus’.

I’ll never know whether the moths devoured Rufus’ will to live, or if it simply leaked from the sores in his face. He gave a final horrible scream, assumed his new incarnation as a maggot, and vanished. Upon his reincarnation, the remaining moths fly away. I coughed up a few soggy insects, but was otherwise unharmed.

Though Rufus was gone, Tessa was still with me. She looked happy I was still alive. If she had been more solid, I do belive she might have hugged me.

“Someone didn’t want Rufus talking to us,” I told her after I had cleared my throat. “Someone with enough supernatural powers to send those funeral butterflies to finish him off.”

“Lady Mary,” she said, unnecessarily.

“In any case, he’ll make a fine maggot, wherever he’s reborn.”

All that remained of Rufus was his ectoplasmic sack. “What do you suppose is in it?” Tessa wondered.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know. I’m surprised it’s still here. The last time I saw a spirit reincarnated, all his possessions vanished with him.”

“There could be something important in there. It might even help us find Lady Mary’s gate. I’ll just take a quick peek.” Tessa knelt next to the sack and lifted its mouth open with two fingers. I bent behind her and looked in too.

No wonder the sack was so heavy. The bag contained a number of gravestones, each painted with arcane symbols in what appeared to be blood turned brown with age.

“Ugh,” Tessa gasped, letting the sack drop closed.

Then she, like Rufus before her, screamed and clutched her face.

Her beautiful, radiant face.

Tessa’s countenance erupted in open sores, the pustules bubbling painfully, growing ever worse. She writhed in agony.

“Pick up the sack!” I ordered her. If I could have picked it up myself and placed it in her hand, I would have, but it was incorporeal, while I was material, and I could not touch it.

The second time I shouted at her, Tessa heard. Something inside her, a small shred of consciousness that hadn’t been wiped out by the pain, trusted me enough to reach for the bag and grab it.

The wounds stopped bubbling, and Tessa lay quietly resting, her chin upon her bosom and her golden hair across her face. Just as I figured, she had inherited Rufus’ curse by touching the sack. And like him, she would suffer whenever the bag was not in her hand. Damn it, there was nothing I could do to help her! There was no way I could carry the bag, when I couldn’t even touch it!

Even resting in one place was dangerous. Rufus had insisted on continually moving, so I suspected the curse was working on Tessa even now, although maybe not to the same degree as when she had released the sack. Looking closely, I saw the wounds on her face slowly dripping, releasing her will to live drop by drop.

“Get up,” I told her. “We’ve got to get moving.”

“It’s no use,” she wailed. “I can’t carry this bag of tombstones, and if I let it go, the pain will drive me mad.”

“If you stay here, you’ll be destroyed, if not from the curse, then from the sun when it rises in six hours. You must at least try to get up Tessa, and drag that sack with you.”

“Why bother? Maybe it’s time I was reincarnated. I can’t go on like this.” She looked up at me, briefly revealing the sores covering her face, then turned away again to hide behind her hair.

“If you perish under this curse, there’s no telling what you’ll be reborn as. Rufus came back as a maggot.”

“At least a maggot doesn’t know it was once a human failure.”

“There’s got to be a way to break this curse. Let me see, this sack didn’t vanish with Rufus. That means it didn’t belong to him. So it must belong to Lady Mary. She’s the one maintaining the sack, it’s the vehicle of her curse. When she’s reincarnated, the sack is sure to vanish, and the curse will be broken.”

“What about my face? Am I going to have to go through all of eternity like this?”

“The sores are part of the curse. They’ll heal once the curse is broken.” I wished I felt as confidant as I sounded. The truth was, I could only guess when it came to witches and curses. This was all new to me, and was well beyond anything my reading had prepared me for.

Tessa’s eyes were still as clear and blue as ever, like diamonds set in a tarnished setting. “I’ll try. I won’t give up.” Climbing to her feet, she started dragging the sack after her with both hands. I watched her face, and was relieved to see the sores stop bleeding.

“You’ve got to go on ahead,” she told me. “I’d only slow you down. Stop Lady Mary.”

“I’ll be back for you,” I promised. I had no idea how I was going to stop Lady Mary when I couldn’t even touch her. I had some half formed notion that I could talk her into releasing Tessa from the curse. But what about the gate, and Lady Mary’s intention to unleash her demon lover from whatever plane of the abyss he resided on?

It was all well beyond my abilities to handle. If a witch alone could outclass me, a demon would be a hundred times worse. I was up against diabolical powers, and all I had was a pair of tortoise shell glasses.

9

I decided to continue on to Windswept House in hopes of reaching Banner before Lady Mary did, and perhaps convincing him of the grave danger. He might be able to help me defeat the witch. In any case, Lady Mary couldn’t use the physical ring in her incorporeal state. If the ring was the key to the gate, then Lady Mary would have a hard time using it.

Windswept turned out to be a small vacation cottage on the far side of the island. It was near the ocean, in a well secluded dell from other houses. Although no one answered my knock, I could see lights on inside. I tried the door and found it unlocked.

The living room was strewn with maps of Peach tree Island, books on the occult, and papers full of occult symbols. A middle aged woman lay on the living room couch. From the family portrait on the wall, I guessed the woman was Tessa’s mother, Martha Banner.

At first I feared she was dead, but a quick check showed she was still alive, although in a deep stupor. Probably drugged, maybe even poisoned. I brought some ammonia from the kitchen and used it to wake her into a semi-conscious state. Then I forced some salt water down her, and held her as she thew up on the nice carpet.

While Martha regained her strength, I took a closer look around the living room. Mysteries of the Past Explained Today, by Raymond Pagenwood, was not among the books scattered about.

A tape recorder sat on a desk next to two empty tea cups. A tape labeled “My Struggle to Attain Greatness” was lying in the recorder. I pressed the play button.

A man’s voice said, “ . . . Raymond thought to outsmart me by tearing a key page from the book. The wretch may have foiled me for now, but there is one significant passage he missed. It reads: ‘I have discovered the gate to the afterlife, which was built sometime in the early seventeen century. I must keep the secret from people who would misuse it, but I like to contemplate my discovery, so I have a little memento of it at my vacation home. I gaze upon it and laugh at all those poor scientists who will have to eat crow once I’ve published my book.’ I must find the clue. I will stop at nothing. After all, the murders of two people were nothing to me . . .”

His voice was interrupted by another voice, a woman’s. “Boris, what are you doing? What do you mean, you murdered two people?”

“Let me explain over a drink,” Boris replied, his tone oozing charm. And there then tape ended.

Martha moaned, swearing gently, “Damn that man!” I figured she was awake enough to give some answers, so I went over and sat on the overstuffed chair next to the couch.

“How do you feel, Mrs. Banner?”

She looked at me with surprise. “Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Tessa’s.”

She covered her eyes. “The funeral was two days ago. You missed it.”

“I know. But it’s lucky I came. You’ve been very sick.”

“Yes. I know.”

“What is your doctor’s telephone number?”

She gave me his name, and I had to look him up in the directory. He lived on the mainland, and it would take him twenty minutes to reach Windswept House. I assured him it was an emergency — a poisoning.

After I hung up, I brought Martha a large glass of milk and made certain she drank it all against her protests. It was the best I could do until the doctor arrived.

Martha sobbed softly. “I was such a fool to love that man, and to let me use me so. Now I know what a beast he really is!”

“You should tell me what happened,” I said. “It’s important.”

“It’s embarrassing. When I came into the room, Boris was talking into the recorder he always carries with him. I heard him mention something about murdering two people. He said he could explain, and he was so calm that I expected him to amuse me with a funny explanation of my misunderstanding. I sat down and sipped the tea he offered me as I listened to his story.

“He told me that when he learned of Raymond’s important discovery, all those years ago, he went mad with jealousy. He couldn’t stand the thought of one of his students achieving greatness in excess of his own, and so he came secretly to Baycroft and ran Raymond down! He didn’t care about learning Raymond’s secrets. He only wanted him out of the way.

“It wasn’t until Tessa called him to ask about Raymond’s work that Boris started to dwell on Raymond’s discovery. He decided to let Tessa continue her research, and then steal it from her when the time was ripe. So he could keep a close eye on her, Boris courted me. I, the lonely window, was easy prey for the cultured professor! I had no idea of the monster I was allowing into our household.

“By this time, my mind was growing confused and foggy. He must have put something in my drink. I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t rescued me!”

“You’ll be all right now. Do you know where Boris went?”

“The last I saw, he was standing by the mantel, looking at one of the pictures. Then I must have passed out. One other thing. I don’t know if it’s important, or just a hallucination. Right before I fainted, I thought she heard the front door swing open. I sensed, more than saw, a woman come in. She had long black hair, and white clothes. Mostly, I remember a pair of the deep green eyes.” She smiled weakly. “I must have been delirious.”

On the mantelpiece was a picture of Raymond standing next to a small stone grave marker that appeared to be over a two hundred years old. He was smiling broadly, an open can of paint at his feet. The epitaph on the stone read, in fresh paint, “Here lies Mary Sweetchild. May her secret rest with her.”

In the background, other gravestones were visible, along with a glimpse of the sea, and far beyond I saw part of Baycroft on the distant shore.

Now I knew. Somewhere on Peach Tree Island was a cemetery. Checking the maps on the living room floor, I found the location of an old graveyard atop Lookout Mountain. It was an ancient boneyard where victims of the pirates were buried hundreds of years ago. It didn’t look to be much of a tourist site, since no trails led to the graveyard.

I glanced at the clock. It was fifteen minutes till twelve. If my guess was right, and the gate only appeared at midnight, then time was too short to walk.

I turned to Martha. “Do you have a car, or better yet, a four wheel drive RV?”

“No. But Raymond kept a dirt bike in the garage. He used it for his explorations of the island. I always told him it was too dangerous, but he wouldn’t listen to me. You’ll find the keys on a peg by the door.”

The keys were where she said they would be. A moment later, I was riding back into town.

10

I found Tessa dragging her sack along the road to her parent’s cottage. She had made good time on foot. She made even better time with me on back of the motorcycle. I had her put her sack on the seat in front of her, then I sat right on it. In effect, the sack and I occupied the same space.

I drove as quickly as I dared up the twisting paths of Lookout Mountain. There was very little foliage hardy enough to survive the sea winds, making it easy for us to cut cross country when necessary. The single headlight picked out the curves, safely guiding us to the peak. We were at the top of the ridge.

I looked at my watch. We were too late, it was already midnight.

The headlight gave just enough light for me to determine there was no cemetery atop Lookout Mountain. Below us stretched a dell overgrown with hardy brush. It was toward this valley that Tessa pointed.

As midnight struck, five red runes glowed in the darkness, forming the spokes of a pentagram. From the light cast by the runes, I could see they were drawn upon tombstones jutting from the undergrowth. The wind roared constantly along the valley, blowing the sandy soil from the tops of the graves and causing the markers to wiggle as though those buried below were struggling to escape. The restless dead, as Raymond had put it.

It didn’t take an arcane scholar to realize this was the gate Rufus had constructed for Lady Mary.

And, speak of the devil, I saw the witch standing outside the pentacle next to a white haired man. She whispered into his ear, and the man lifted his left hand toward the night sky. The runes blazed with unearthly light, and I saw the blaze reflected in the black opal on the man’s ring finger. Unable to wield the ring in her incorporeal state, Lady Mary must have enlisted Boris’ aid. She whispered into his ear and as Boris repeated the words of the incantation in his booming voice, the darkness within the pentagram began to whirl and spin.

I gunned the motorcycle and charged down the slope. I don’t know how Tessa held on, but I could hear her voice in my ear. “You stop Boris, I’ll take Lady Mary!”

Since there was nothing I could do to Mary, I didn’t argue.

It might have worked, if we had been a few minutes earlier. From out of the shimmering pentagram, a huge figure strode. It appeared to be a knight clad in black plate mail. A plume of dark feathers adorned his helmet, the visor of which completely concealed his features, and his shield bore the crest of a raven. In one hand, he carried a sword longer than I was tall.

What distressed me more than his formidable armament was his incredible size. He was well over ten feet tall!

For good or ill, Lady Mary’s demon lover had entered the physical world. I held faint hope that it would be naught but evil.

“Success!” Boris cried to the night sky. “By all the occult gods, I have done it! As was promised me by the spirit of this isle, unsurpassed greatness heretofore unknown to mortals shall be mine!”

The demon’s sword lashed out, the blade cutting an silvery arc that burst into red gore as it passed through Boris’ midsection. His severed torso toppled backwards, his legs collapsing in the opposite direction. Though my glasses, I could see Boris’ struggling life force scream in misery as it was sucked into the blade, to what eternal torment I didn’t want to imagine.

Lady Mary cackled with unrestrained glee. “Now the others, Malphas my love. Their souls shall feed you, and we shall be together once more, king and queen of the mortal world!”

A dirt bike isn’t much could for sneak attacks. I bent my head against the wind, accelerating the bike to its greatest speed in hopes of reaching Lady Mary before the demon Malphas could intercede. But the creature from the nether regions was inhumanly fast. It leaped before the motorcycle, its shield held low, and easily knocked us aside with one sweep of his arm.

The dirt bike spun though the air, hurling me in one direction and Tessa in the other. I landed near the top half of Boris’ body. Looking back, I saw Tessa sprawled on the ground, the bad lying a dozen feet from her, well out of her reach. The sores on her face bubbled, and she winced in agony. I scrambled to my knees, intent only on reaching her, not knowing what I could do to help her once I made it to her side.

“The ring!” Tessa screamed at me through her pain. “Throw it into the pentagram!”

I recalled the legend of the raven, and realized she was right. Only I could throw the ring.

I rolled aside just as the point of the demon’s sword buried itself in the ground where I had crouched. My roll ended against Boris’ corpse. His hand was still warm. I pulled at the ring, but it was stuck on his dead finger.

One step carried Malphas after me, his sword cleaving the air with a ghostly whoosh. Refusing to release Boris’ hand, I twisted to one side as the blade came down with all the force of a guillotine. The point cut open my sleeve, the edge hacked into Boris’ arm, hewing muscle and bone.

I fell back, Boris’ severed arm clutched in my grip, blood draining from its stump. The revulsion of the thing almost compelled me to hurl it from me, until I realized that with the arm, I hand the ring!

At any moment I expected that unearthly blade to end my victory, but the anticipated blow never came. Malphas stepped back from me, his sword pointed to one side, and within the grill of his visor, I thought I recognized a glimmer of fear. I cocked my arm, preparing to throw the hand and ring into the still shimmering pentagram.

What was I doing? The ring didn’t belong to me. It belonged to Lady Mary Sweetchild. She needed it to find eternal peace. I had to give it back to her.

Lady Mary stood within the field of stones, grinning with ugly triumph. I tried to resist the compulsion to return the ring, but my will, I fear, was not strong enough to overcome her supernatural powers. I held her in stalemate for only a few moments before my arm dropped to my side and my feet, against my will, carried me step by step in her direction.

Lady Mary’s green eyes filled my vision. Beyond her, I could barely glimpse Tessa struggling to reach her accursed bag. Once her hand reached the sack, Tessa collapsed on her side. She must have sensed my distress for I felt a wave of despair — a sense of futility that was directed not at me, but at Lady Mary.

The witch glanced back at Tessa and laughed. “Your powers are nothing compared to mine. You think you can cause me to despair in my moment of exultation?” Again that sharp laugh, like the crack of a devil’s whip. “You are a helpless lost soul, too weak to change anything in this world. Malphas will find your soul an unsatisfying morsel.” She turned her green eyes back to me, reeling me in with her haunting allure. “Come to me little one. Lick the feet of your queen.”

Her back was too Tessa. What did she have to fear from a helpless ghost?

Tessa lunged to her feet, the heavy sack in both hands. She swung it with all her strength, running full tilt at Lady Mary.

The tombstones made a noise even I could hear as they struck the back of Lady Mary’s. The witch staggered, her concentration momentarily broken. The weight of the sack carried Tessa to the ground.

Malphas, with all the unholy speed at his command, leaped at Tessa, his sword a blur that could not be stopped, and could not possibly miss Tessa, who lay helpless before him, her strength consumed in that last effort to distract Lady Mary.

Tessa’s efforts were not in vain, for she gained me the moment of self determination I needed to break free of Lady Mary’s spell. With an instinctual yell, I hurled the severed hand, and the ring it wore, into the whirling vortex of the pentagram made from tombstones and priest’s blood.

White light flashed from the gate, striking me like a physical force and washing over Malphas. He began to change, his sword melting into a beak, his plume becoming a wing, his black armor shifting into sleek feathers, until at last with a fluttering of his new limbs, he assumed his true form, that of a hellish, gigantic mockery of a raven. He raised himself into the air upon enormous wings, his head turning toward the pentagram.

“No, my beloved!” Lady Mary shrieked, clutching the raven’s claw with her white hand. “You shall not leave me again!”

The ring summoned Malphas back to his prison dimension, the force of is call greater even than his powers. Perhaps the ring, having been made by the demon, was a part of him, and as long as the ring was within the prison dimension, he had to be with it.

The raven flew across the boundary of the pentagram, formed by the glowing runes of the five tombstones, dragging Lady Mary with him. Again the light within the pentagram flashed, and when the white blindness passed, Lady Mary and her beloved were gone. The tombstones no longer glowed. They were once more normal rocks dabbed with old traces of blood.

I hurried to where Tessa lay. The sack was gone, vanished with Lady Mary, and Tessa’s face was clear and beautiful. To my great relief, she was unharmed, Malphas having transformed before ever touching her. I knelt next to her as she sat up. Without thinking, I tried to help her up, but my hand passed through her.

We found Mysteries of the Past Explained Today, the book by her father, on Boris Banner’s body. The motorcycle was a complete wreck. We walked back to town on foot, and made our way to Windswept House.

11

The doctor had left Martha Banner out of danger and sleeping in her room. I didn’t wake her, and left Tessa alone with her to commune as best she could with the sleeping living.

I was sitting on the couch, having just finished cleaning up the stains on the carpet from my earlier meeting with Martha, when Tessa came downstairs, her eyes red but dry. She joined me on the couch. “Sometimes, I feel so alone,” she said.

“You need rest.” I laid my hand on the cover of her father’s book, which rested on the coffee table before us. “I think we already know everything this book has to tell us.”

“I still want to read it.” The lines of Tessa’s jaw were firm. “It’s what has kept me here all this time.”

I nodded. And once she read it, her only tie to the mortal world would be broken.

She hesitated. “Would you . . . turn the pages for me?”

To help Tessa find peace, I had faced witches and demons. Still, turning those pages was the hardest thing I had done.

The book confirmed what I suspected. By throwing the ring into the pentagram, it not only forced Malphas back to the nether regions, but since there was no key on the mortal world, it also permanently locked Malphas in his ethereal prison. This time he would not be alone. He would have Lady Mary, and maybe that wasn’t such a hell after all.

As for Boris, I still wondered what became of him. Does his life force reside forever with Malphas and Lady Mary in their prison dimension? I shudder to contemplate how they must treat their unwilling guest.

When Tessa finished her father’s book, it was almost dawn. Whatever sacrifices I had endured that night were repaid double by the expression of ultimate peace that lit her features, brought, in some small part, by my actions.

A round opening about ten feet in diameter opened behind Tessa. The mouth of the tunnel was pitch black, and its walls were like dark, swirling clouds. I had seen such things before. I called them tunnels of light, after the bright point of light at the tunnel’s end. Where the tunnel led, I could not go. It was the path that welcomed those contented souls who found peace on earth, and were ready to rise to a greater plane.

Tessa leaned toward me. “Thank you,” she whispered, and for a moment, as impossible as it sounds, I thought I felt her soft lips touch my cheek. Then she stepped into the glow of the tunnel, and was swiftly carried to the light at the end, growing smaller and more distant until I could see her no more. The tunnel faded from view.

Sighing, I removed my glasses, stowed them in their protective case, and tucked them into my pocket. Alone, I faced the long trek home.

 

THE END