Willie set his hands around the bottom of the crate and carried it out the door of the liquor store with as much care as he would have had he been holding a baby. That the box carried only liquor and not a live child did not matter. The liquor was old, old brandy, some Madeira older than that, and several bottles of wine that Barnabas had bought on auction. The payment for all of this had already been made, Willie had seen the receipt. The dollar amount contained very many zeros. He wasn't going to drop it. He told himself so.
As he passed through the breezeway under the overhang on the way to the parking lot, he saw a man coming toward him, pipe in mouth, keys jingling in his hand as if he'd ruther have something else in them. A paintbrush, maybe.
Willie'd not seen Sam Evans in forever. And that certainly wasn't because Willie'd been avoiding him, oh, no, no. Since Maggie had died and gone away, Sam Evans was simply not a fixture in his life anymore. As Sam came closer, the sudden strong smell of oil paint and dust on canvas whisked through Willie's memory. That Sam had not, by all accounts in the village, been painting all that much since last autumn, did not matter. While Sam had painted at the Old House, Willie had been at all odds trying to hide from the man the fact that his daughter was being held captive only one floor above him and the smell of paint ran strongly through those dark times.
He did not want to think of this now as Sam came up to him, the smile hidden by the rough, somewhat grey beard.
"Hey, Willie," said Sam, looking into the box and jingling his keys. "Going to get loaded, I see."
Willie shifted the crate in his hands. It was heavy and bulky and he was not going to drop it. "Hey, Mr. Evans," said Willie, nodding. "No, this ain't for me, it's for Mr. Collins and Mrs. Stoddard."
"Didn't realize they were such sots," said Sam.
It took him a minute to realize that Sam was joking. He tried to laugh, shifted the box once again, and then shifted his shoulders to indicate that the box was getting heavier. Which it was. "Oh, no, not them. This is for the party Mr. Collins is giving. I think it's to celebrate how well the house is coming along. Or something."
"Sure, sure," said Sam, "and he's not inviting the hoi polloi, I'll wager." He jingled his keys again and then shoved them in his pocket. The pipe he lifted from his mouth to wave at Willie. "Well, I better let you get going then. See you around, Willie."
Nodding, Willie walked as quick as he could out to the truck. He was able to set the box in the truck bed just as his fingers gave way. They were ridged and numb and white in spots, but, at least, he'd not dropped the crate. Seeing that the box might move around some when he drove, he shifted it to the corner right behind the driver's seat, and used the rope he kept back there to tie it down nice and snug. When he'd done that, he took the folds of the tarp he used to cover loads with and softened the area between the crate and the truckbed sides. Nothing, save a direct hit, would get at the crate, he was sure.
Just as he was about to get in the truck and drive off, Sam Evans was there, fresh from the liquor store, brown bag in hand, the pipe balanced in his teeth. He put the bag on the pavement between his feet, and then began tamping the tobacco in his pipe.
"You heading off, then?" asked Sam.
For a brief second, Willie wondered if Sam Evans was caging a ride, then thought against it. Sam didn't live far, it was a nice day with a little breeze, any bad weather a distant and almost impossible danger. If Sam wanted anything from him, it wasn't to save him from a hard walk. Though why he felt he could ever put himself out to do that, blizzard or no, he could not figure.
"Yeah, I got some fancy smoked salmon to pick up, and stuff."
Sam Evans paused, the smell of oil paint and turpentine almost a part of him, as though, by many years of use, they had soaked into his skin, his bones, even. The good sunlight could not bake it out of him, and Willie wished he would go away. The memories attached to those smells were not good. No, they were not good at all.
"Can I do somethin' for you, Mr. Evans?" Willie asked.
Those brown eyes appraised him. Brown like Maggie's had been, though perhaps not as large and clear, age and grief having left their mark. Age and grief and the drink, most would say, though Willie didn't care anything about that. Sam Evans had a right to drink himself to death if he wanted to, and hang who said any different.
"Well," said Sam, tipping his head to one side as if to catch a thought that had been racing around in his brain for quite some time. "Well," he said again, "I wanted to thank you."
"Thank me?" Willie could not swallow his shock. "What for?"
"Yes, thank you." With one hand, Sam Evans took his pipe and tapped it against his chin, as if debating the form and reason this thanks would take. As he did it, Willie caught a whiff of the tobacco he used in his pipe. The pipe was not lit, but it had been recently, and the odor of spice and ash were suddenly quite strong. But Sam, with his other hand, touched Willie on the arm and would not let him leave.
"I never did thank you," he said. "For the wood, last winter."
"Yes, yes, the wood." The pipe was waved around, a signal that Sam was irritated. "You remember the wood, don't tell me you don't remember?"
It took Willie a minute, but the memories came. Somewhat darkened by time and a strong desire to forget, it seemed, but they rose up like dank bones through tannin-darkened water. The oak tree that was about to tumble into the house, and Willie taking it upon himself to do something about it. The wrong something, it turned out, but that was neither here nor there nor anything that Sam needed to know about.
"Uh, yeah, Mr. Evans, I remember."
"Do you remember that you gave me a great deal of it? Do you remember that?"
That memory came clearly. Oddly standing out as if there were nothing guarding it from being remembered. He, Willie, had taken a truckload of wood to Sam Evans house in the middle of the night. Or had it been just before sunrise? He'd unloaded the wood, and then walked into the little Evans cottage through the unlocked front door to see Sam Evans asleep in the easy chair in front of the unlit fireplace. The living room had been littered with ashtrays and tumbled ash, empty highball glasses and bottles of scotch with only the lightest film of liquor along their insides to indicate that they'd ever been full. Willie had cleaned up, never saying anything about it to anyone, imagining that Sam would wake in the morning to think that the fairies had visited him in the night.
"Yeah, uh--yeah, Mr. Evans, I remember."
It was a sad memory, though, for all it was so vivid. Mr. Evans would not have been in that state if he, Willie, had not assisted Barnabas Collins in the kidnapping and eventual destruction of his only daughter. That was clear, as was the feeling that he hated himself for it. He couldn't look at Sam then, turning his head to look at the truck, at the crate of wine and brandy, at the parking lot just filling with people as the working day drew to a close. People who wanted cold beers and cheap wine to blot out their nasty, gut-scraping, fish-packing lives.
"So I wanted to thank you," said Sam. He put his pipe between his teeth again and sucked on the stem. "It was a nice thing you did there."
Willie had to look at him then. He wanted to shove his hands in his pockets or pick up a tool and start working with it. Anything but to stand there and look at a man kind enough to thank him for a gesture that was purely motivated by guilt.
"You don't have to thank me, it was Mr. Collins' idea." That was the story, anyway, going around town at the time. He might as well continue it.
"Mr. Collins?" Sam laughed, taking the pipe from his mouth and using it to point at Willie and the truck. "His hands never touched that wood. I've never seen a man with hands so uncalloused, for all they were so hard." "Sure, Mr. Evans, sure, I carried that wood to your house, but he was the one--"
Sam almost groaned in disbelief at this. "Never his idea in a million years, Willie, and I know that. Just like Mrs. Logan knew it."
Willie's mind skipped over the name as if he were scanning it in a list.
"How do you figure that, Mr. Evans?"
Now Sam laughed. It was a deep laugh, not sounding very nice, but it was real. "I know Mr. Collins as well as anyone in this town, and you can't say any different. Why, I worked with him night after night in that drafty house, and we had ourselves a few conversations. Maybe not as many as he has with that family of his, but more than anyone else from here to Bangor. Except you, of course."
Willie nodded to show he was listening, but he didn't understand where Mr. Evans was going.
"And I know him well enough to know that if he'd done me any kind of favor? I would have heard about it. From him, directly."
"From him, Mr. Evans? I don't get what you're saying, you--"
"From him, Willie. And Mrs. Logan said so, too."
There was that name again. Of course he knew it. Mrs. Logan had moved to San Diego some time in the spring to be near to her family. He'd written to her a few times, and she to him, but it hadn't amounted to very much and in the end, the letters had trickled off.
"She said," continued Sam, having gathered up enough steam and perhaps realizing that Willie was going to hear him out, "she said to me, when we talked about it, she said that man wouldn't own up to being a bastard but he sure would take credit for letting it shine instead of rain, if he could. Now doesn't that just sound like her?"
"I didn't know you knew her," said Willie, his voice sounding faint to his own ears.
"Well, I didn't really. But we had, as they say, a passing acquaintance. And when she heard that I got wood, just like she did, why, she caught up with me at the market. And we talked. Agreed that the wood was all you, and that Collins was just taking credit to make himself look good."
Willie couldn't bring himself to agree out loud, but Sam nodded at him, eyes glinting with dark humor, and Willie was sure his agreement showed on his face.
"So if your boss had actually thought this thing up? I would have heard about it directly from him, you see? But he never mentioned it to me, not ever, and so, well, Mrs. Logan and I are sure you are entirely to credit for our being warm all winter long. Why, I even have enough for this winter too. Though it seems a shame to burn such good oak instead of making something out of it."
"It was riddled with rot, Mr. Evans, and splitting, and Mr. Collins said I couldn't very well--"
"Yes, yes, you go ahead and keep pretending, but I know different, and Mrs. Logan does, too. She thought the world of you, you know."
"Of me?" Somehow the thought of this didn't please him as much as it ought. Or that it would have someone else.
"Yes, indeed, you." Sam lowered his head as if thinking about it, and Willie could see the grey hairs covering the top of Sam's head, mixing with sparse ginger ones over the shine of his scalp. He remembered, suddenly, Maggie kissing the top of that head, her hands on her father's forehead, laughing and scolding at the same time. He had to look away.
"She thought, that is, Mrs. Logan thought, that you were a fine and decent human being. Why she told me--"
A dark hand moved across Willie's brain and he realized he ought not to be standing here letting the heat do bad things to old wine. Nor should he be listening to the wild and vaguely realized accolades, as Barnabas would call them, from a woman he'd once known, but whose memory was long in the past.
"Now, I'm not quoting her exactly, mind you, but she said to me once that she would rather have you standing guard at her door than anyone else."
Standing guard for Mrs. Logan? Why would he want to do such a thing for someone he hardly knew?
"You deserve to hear nice things that people say about you, for all they aren't so many." Sam patted him on the arm and laughed again, half in good humor, and half, Willie suspected, in slight embarrassment. Sam Evans was never one to care about what polite society thought, but he had enough feeling to realize that what he said might have been somewhat rude, even to someone like Willie Loomis.
"Thank you, Mr. Evans," he said. "I appreciate that. But I gotta go, gotta get this stuff up to the Old House before it sours or somethin'."
Sam waved his pipe at Willie and picked up his brown paper bag. It carried, most likely, the same brand of Scotch that the man had always drunk, and would be finished up before the weekend was out. If it gave him some respite and not too bad of a headache the next day, Willie wished him well. He was hardly the person to say anything about it, remembering his own bout with the bottle not too long in the past. Barnabas had cured him of it in a nasty way, perfectly working it so that Willie could only stomach the odd glass or two of cool beer at the end of the day and seldom anything more potent.
"Yes, well, you go on then, and maybe I'll see you around. Maybe come winter, you'd like to come have a drink with me and sit in front of my fire while I burn some very good, very well cut oak." Another laugh from behind that beard, and Willie suspected that Sam enjoyed poking a little fun at the whole idea of Willie letting his boss take credit for an act of kindness. Whether the invite was seriously meant was another matter. He suspected it was not, for who, in their right mind, would invite Willie Loomis into their home when the option of keeping him out was available to them?
The house was quiet as he carried the crate into the butler's pantry. There he would decant the stuff, or Barnabas would, depending on how the vampire felt about it when the sun went down. In the meantime, it was up to him to start the little burners under the chafing dishes, to make sure the napkins were piled just right, and to start unpacking and arranging the salmon and other odd and expensive tidbits that Barnabas had ordered. They'd been delivered earlier in the day in white boxes and Willie had kept them stored in the cellar piled on the table at the bottom of the stairs. Barnabas wouldn't mind that he'd shared his day with canapés, but he'd never know the difference.
Willie carted all the boxes up the stairs and into the front room where he'd lined up two tables to hold all the food. Another table across the room held all the rented glassware and would soon hold the liquor. Once Barnabas got up. Willie hurried to wash up and put on a clean shirt and apron, slicking back his hair with damp hands. The time had gone, as it always did, in his rush to tend to the thousand details, one wave after another of small but important matters, that Barnabas had deemed important to the success of his party.
He'd arranged all the glasses and counted them and unfolded the linens and was about to spread them out before laying out the food when there was a knock at the door. He glanced without thinking at the curtains, half-drawn against the heat of the day. It wasn't quite sunset, and all the deliveries had been made. The guests, made up of the Collins family, the Sheriff, and a lawyer or two, were not due to arrive until after sunset, for the obvious reason. Which was why he was hustling. He'd not have much of a chance after sunset and after Barnabas came up the stairs but before the guests got there to makeover any mistakes he'd made.
But doors had to be answered, even if the knocks came at the wrong time. He wiped his hands on the towel he had flung over his shoulder and strode to the door. Unlocked it and turned the knob with a flick, as Barnabas did, to open the door easily and wide. Barnabas was striving for normalcy these days, and wide was normal, at least in a village as small as Collinwood.
There on the porch in the drifting breeze that had caught itself up around the massive pillars was Mrs. Stoddard and daughter Carolyn. Both were dressed for a casual cocktail party, but, as was befitting the descendants of the founding family, casual included French silk and Italian leather, if Willie was any judge. Which he was, seeing as both could be bought and sold on the black market in Tobago or San Francisco or anywhere else ships came into port. What they were doing at the Old House so early was another thing altogether.
"Hello Willie," said Mrs. Stoddard, as prim and as formal as if he'd been a business associate of hers. Not as warmly as might be for a family member or a close friend, but enough so to worry him. Barnabas might not like it if he felt Willie was getting too friendly with those he was supposed to be waiting on.
"Hello, Willie," said Carolyn, not quite chiming in. "Let us in, will you? My dress is getting dust on it from the yard."
He looked at them a minute, his worries about what Barnabas would have to say if he let them in clashing mightily with his worries about what Barnabas would say if he didn't let them in. The deciding factor was Mrs. Stoddard adjusting her grip on her purse and the bundle she held under her arm. Carolyn, as well, had a bundle, and a little carrying case that looked as though it held something expensive.
"I ain't--" he began and then stopped. "It's not, that is, I haven't--"
Carolyn stopped him by shouldering her way past her mother and walking into the foyer as if she had lived there always. Divesting herself of bag and parcel, she unrolled the little bundle under her arm to shake it out. It wasn't until she put it on that Willie realized it was an apron. Mrs. Stoddard was doing the same, and it was all Willie could do to close the door behind him. Speechless.
"You can't possibly do all this preparation by yourself," said Mrs. Stoddard as if he'd asked her a question. "Though by the looks of this hallway, you've been at it with plenty of elbow grease for days."
"And what mother isn't saying," said Carolyn, straightening her hair above the collar of the apron, "is that she doubts entirely your ability to arrange a table. Not having a woman's touch, and all that."
Glancing into the front room where the party preparations looked more like a storm had hit them, he didn't know whether to nod or shake his head. Still, there was nothing he could do, at least nothing he could think of as a reason for refusal. And after all, wouldn't Barnabas want him to be accommodating? Let them in rather than shut the door in their faces? It seemed the right choice, though only by inches, and he waved his hand at the tables and piles of linen, and glasses and boxes of eats and treats.
"I'd be obliged, ma'am, though I'm thinking that Barnabas, I mean, Mr. Collins won't like me taking--"
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Stoddard. "I've not had a chance in years to do help with something like this. He'll be doing me a favor."
"Here, Willie," said Carolyn, flicking the towel from his shoulder to lay it over her own. "You go do what you do best, and we'll do what we do best."
"What I do best?"
"Yes, what you do best. Be the man. Build a manful fire and struggle manfully to bring in extra chairs and some little side tables for people to put drinks on. Manfully light the candles and pour me and mother some wine."
Both women were walking into the front room with all the air of ownership, leaving Willie with his hands empty of every last task he'd thought to put them to.
Carolyn closed the front windows with a short giggle and flipped her hair and it was clear to see that she was in a partying mood. Willie went to get some extra chairs, as he was asked, so that even if he'd guessed wrong in letting them, at least he was doing what they wanted him to do. When he finished bringing in chairs and some extra little side tables, Mrs. Stoddard had him move two of them together, and then sent him to the kitchen to get the ice that had been delivered that afternoon.
In the kitchen, he suddenly realized how dark it had gotten, and in spite of the clouds that had rolled in to cool the air, the sweat popped out on the back of his neck even before he heard the door to the cellar stairs open and shut with a click.
"What are you doing in the kitchen?" came the demand. "Why isn't every thing set up yet?"
Willie tried to turn before the hand landed on his shirt collar, but he was three seconds to late. A cold fist pulled him up tight to face those eyes, slightly red, even in the half-dark, and the pale line of jaw and brow. Of course the vampire would assume that everything was not set up, even if it had been. It was like him to pounce first and ask questions never.
"It is s-set up," said Willie, feeling the coldness banking off the vampire that was colder than the bag of ice he held against his hip. "I hadta get this ice first and then--"
"Your errant judgment is about to ruin my nicely planned evening, do you realize that? You will get back to the front room at once and finish setting everything out."
That other hand was raised to strike, brown eyes flashing a familiar bit of fire when footsteps clicked in the hall and the door to the kitchen opened. Mrs. Stoddard was there, smiling and holding out her hands. That her apron was cotton, probably borrowed form Mrs. Johnson did not detract from the contrast she made, her elegant form against the rough edges of the kitchen.
"There you are, Cousin Barnabas, just in time."
The vampire's hand dropped from his shirt collar without a single sound or flicker of movement from the vampire.
"Don't hold that ice so close, Willie, it's melting. Here, give it to me, and see if you can't find another platter. We've more salmon than can feed an army, but I don't think it will go to waste."
Willie turned to do as he was told, wondering if he'd be proven right that an order by Mrs. Stoddard outranked an order by Barnabas Collins. It seemed that it did, as Mrs. Stoddard marched out of the kitchen, bag of ice in hand, followed by her cousin who, if not meek, was certainly silent. Willie found the platter and two others just like it, of good, dense china with a faded pattern of sailing ships and birds. He wiped them down in the sink, dried them and then carried them to the front room.
There he found Carolyn, glass of wine in her hand, leaning against a pillar, looking sleek and well groomed, and utterly charmed by the change of scene. Her mother was bustling over the canapés and Barnabas was lighting candles.
"Platters are here, mother," said Carolyn, taking a sip of her wine.
"Give them to me, Willie, or, rather, put them here on this table. Could you open this box for me? And then could you build and light the fire?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Willie, trying to do his best to not stumble over his feet or bump into Barnabas, who had moved to light the candles on the stand by the wall. He was able to light the fire in short order, half of his mind listening to Carolyn chatter and insert her ideas about how the napkins should be laid out. That Willie had already laid out the napkins did not come to light, and hopefully would not, in the course of the evening. She wanted a pattern of white against blue, with the triangle edges overlapping each other. Willie had merely stacked them, but apparently that was too ordinary and not fancy enough.
When that had been arranged, Mrs. Stoddard stepped back from the effect, which Willie had to admit, had a certain glimmer it had been lacking before. The woman's touch, so recently applied, added a spark of light and movement, making the old tables and old-fashioned wallpaper seem intimate.
"I do think…" said Mrs. Stoddard cupping her chin with her hand and tapping her cheek with the edge of her finger. "I do think, one more candle stand, don't you Carolyn?"
Barnabas' party was no longer his to plan or arrange, even as Willie cast a careful glance the vampire's way, thought there was nothing he could do about it.
"Why," he said, as if delighted, "I believe that is a splendid idea. And I should have thought of it myself."
"Two," said Carolyn. "You need two, one at either end. Behind the tables and out of the way, but it will make this old place seem even that much more glamorous."
"Yes," said Mrs. Stoddard. Then she turned. "Willie? Could you find us two more candle stands that sit on the floor like that? And bring some more candles, of course. They must all be lit when the guests arrive."
Willie ran to get them. If Barnabas was irritated that his party had been taken over, even by a favorite cousin, Willie was going to do his darndest to make sure that the sure-to-explode temper didn't happen because of anything he'd done. Or not done. But another knock on the front door stopped him and he opened it with one hand, twisting the knob the right way out of reflex. Victoria Winters stood there, apron folded in her hand, purse in the other. Wind whipped around her skirts, and tossed her hair over her shoulders. She too was dressed as though for a cocktail party in New York City. Willie only hoped the apron would be enough to protect her.
"I seem to have brought the weather with me, Willie," she said, looking up at him through her lashes. "But the Old House is so bright with candlelight that any rain will add to the romance of the evening."
Trust Victoria to find the story in a storm. Willie flicked his gaze up at the sky, at the grey boulders of cloud twisting overhead.
"Yeah," he said. "It'll be alright, I've got fires going."
She stepped across the threshold as he waved her in, and he closed the door behind her, wondering if anyone else would show up ready for work and would there, indeed, be any guests at all who did not also wear aprons. Then he followed her into the front room where Mrs. Stoddard and Carolyn greeted her as though they had been long parted for months, instead of only an hour.
"You beat the rain, I see," said Carolyn.
"Yes," said Vicki, putting her purse down on the settee and putting on her apron. "And Barnabas," she said, now looking up, her face glowing, "what a wonderful idea for a party."
"I have begun to feel for some time that it would be appropriate," said Barnabas, taking her hands in his. "Even though, as you can see, there are still repairs to be done." A glare was sent in Willie's direction, and Willie shifted against it. He worked sunup to sundown and most times longer, and Barnabas knew it.
"It will come," said Victoria. "Though I had imagined that since Gina Lee had left, Willie would have had a bit more time to concentrate on his work." Her eyes sparkled with grey lights as she looked at him, and Willie, though he could hear the tease in her voice, and the kindness behind it, could not for the life of him figure out why she would say such a thing. She was the second person to mention the woman to him, and it was giving him a headache. A sharp driving one that pushed its way up from his heart to the center of his brain.
"Say, Vicki," Carolyn said, pouring herself some more wine. Willie began to realize that she wasn't here to do any actual work, she was only here to pose and polish off glasses of wine. "Do you mind? I know Willie has some towels in that kitchen of his, and we'll need them to mop up this ice that mother and I spilled."
"Certainly," said Victoria, turning at once on her heel. And on her way past, she gave Willie a light pat on the arm. This didn't help his headache any and he turned away, as she walked down the hall to the kitchen, and brought his hands up, looking for something to occupy them.
"And how is your friend, Gina Lee doing out in California?" Mrs. Stoddard asked this, as she handed him the folded wax paper no longer needed to cover the salmon tarts.
"Who?" he asked, before thinking, reminded again of his earlier conversation with Sam Evans. Again, he knew the name, but could not quite place why everyone expected he'd know any more details than that. He took the waxed paper, folded it into even smaller squares. Looked down at his hands. They were shaking. Three times was a charm, though, and the headache that had only hinted at its presence was now fully borne, and his stomach rolled.
He knew who Gina Lee was. Right at that moment, he knew he knew. He knew.
Only he wasn't supposed to. Not any more.
"Oh, Willie, what a torment you must be to Barnabas, being this oblivious all the time." Wine had smoothed the excited edges to Carolyn's voice, and made her loose, as well, with her opinions and her willingness to express them. "You know very well who mother means, you and Gina were practically engaged at one point, if I recall. Till she went gallivanting off."
Barnabas cast her a look, indulgent as always he was in matters to do with his family. Then he turned to Willie. "Take that rubbish into the kitchen, and tell Miss Winters she is expected to join the party, not wait on it."
"Yes, Barnabas," Willie said, a pale rush running through him, the tips of his fingers tingling. He walked down the hall to the kitchen door, now well lit, dozens of tapers on tables lining the wood-paneled walls.
A house. A small house, with firewood piled up inside and out. Good wood that, when it burned, cast the scent of joy and hope around it.
He opened the kitchen door. Victoria turned to him, dishtowel in hand, smiling.
Danny curled in his lap, the firelight flickering, the rocking chair a soft sway, back and forth, the coolness of the air offset by a child's warmth.
"I didn't hear you come in, Willie," she said, in her way, ignoring the darkness of the kitchen, and the dampness of the walls.
He could barely look at her, shivering as his head pounded, as the slate covering his mind broke away in wide cracks, letting the underside show through. Letting the memories of earlier days, memories he somehow knew he should not be having, slide into light.
"Willie," she said, stepping close. "Are you okay? You look pale."
Polly sat at his feet, cross-legged, looking up, crayon smears across her chin.
The door to the kitchen opened, bringing with it the tender, golden scent of brandy, of food laid out, of a fire warming the air. And Barnabas. Dark outline, shoulders broad, and Willie looked away, not wanting to have Barnabas pretend to be concerned.
Polly. The hospital. Cousin Irene at the sink, the bald joy of the rescue of money. Real money. Lots of it.
But the vampire was there. Turning him with a hard hand, moving between him and Victoria.
"You are pale, Willie," said Barnabas, the pretence twinged with what might be, by any other, taken as real concern. "You have worked overly hard to tend to the needs of this night's festivities, I think." Placing the fault with Willie, where it should, by anyone's account, properly sit.
Gina Lee marched forward, putting a cup of coffee in front of him in a kitchen he almost did not recognize. Black and white checked floor. Sunshine barreling through the windows as she made him eat a sandwich before finishing the painting job on the second floor.
"I, uh, I'm fine, Barnabas, honest, I--"
"You are not fine, Willie, quit this pretense. When did you last eat?"
Macaroni and cheese. Made by hand, fresh, from government-issue cheese and butter. Tended to, served up. Months ago. Eons. Gina. Spoon in hand, apron stained, her smile, dark hair spilling over a fading bruise.
That's the first time I ate.
And after that, roasted chicken. Wine. Potatoes in a bowl, buttery. Filling the corners of his stomach. His soul.
That's the last time I ate.
Since then, he'd starved, even if not on purpose.
"Willie, you will answer me."
"Um--" He tried this. Barnabas gave him a shake, and he tried again. "This morning?" He had eaten. Eggs and bacon. Old bread toasted over the coals of the stove.
"And not lunch or supper?" The care was a sham, but only he knew it.
"Been busy, I guess." Willie shrugged, trying to cast off Barnabas' fake concern and the genuine worry that now had settled over Victoria.
"Take the night, then," said Barnabas. He unfolded some bills from his wallet and thrust them at Willie. All to do with Victoria standing there, of course, to show off to her and maybe to get Willie out of the way as well. Both could be served the same method. "Go into town, get some of that fried food you enjoy so well. We will not miss you till midnight."
Get out and back by midnight, then. Willie nodded, and pulled his jacket off the chair. It would not be much help against the rain that he now noticed was pounding against the windows, but it would be enough. Had been enough. Would always be enough. The keys were in the pocket, and he hurried out the door, doing his best to miss Victoria's protests about sending him out in the rain. He didn't hear them. Maybe she never said it.
But he could not drive into town, could not even think of eating. Even though the driveway to the main road, now well-graveled, would handle the wheels of the truck. Even though the Blue Whale or the café at the hotel would welcome his business on a slow, damp night as it was.
Bring those pants the next time you come over, Willie, and I'll mend the tear for you.
Rain hurtled down from the edges of the roof of the Old House as though shot from a scatter gun. Willie stepped away from the house, and away from the truck, letting his feet take him up the path to the cliffs of Widow's Hill. Mud slipped beneath his feet, his pantlegs were wet within minutes, hair dripping down over his eyes.
He banged his knee hard as he clambered over the rocks on the path and slipped, thinking, only briefly, of Josette and her poor flight, and how it had ended. Rubbing his knee, which only pushed the mud through the cloth, he straightened up, and made himself not think of such things.
You will eat me out of house and home.
Wind plowed up over the rocky edge of the cliff. Willie paused at the edge and stared down at the foam, black rocks dancing beneath the white, cornered edges sharp, reshaping each heartbeat, vanishing beneath the blinding surf. Sending up the spray of salt and deep, the darkness that sucked each wave back down.
Be still. Stay there. I'll bring you some pie with custard. Cream for your coffee? A hug to see you off. A scarf to keep you warm. Come sit by the fire. Linger. Let me love you.
He shivered, deep from within his bones. Hearing the crack as something broke away. The rain slanted down, a grey sheet of misty drops. Gina's face played in front of him, marching along, leading her children, as if walking back into his mind whether he willed it or not. He was left breathless by the speed at which it happened.
Then, within a breath, Barnabas was there. Standing on the rocks next to him. Eyes dark in the dark night, rain flattening itself against him, and being repelled, of no consequence.
"Why do you tarry here, Willie?"
"Is it midnight?" Confusion fogged him.
"Just past," said Barnabas. "You've been out here some time, by the looks of you. And doing what, might I ask." Not a question. A demand.
Willie wanted to shrug, but did not dare. Then he spoke the only words he could. "What's happening to me? Why am I remembering her like this?"
Barnabas gazed at him, taking a moment to look down at his cane as he tapped it once or twice, and then placed both of his hands on it. The greatcoat swept forward, rain beading off the tight weave.
"The fault must lie with you Willie," he said, his voice coming out a still, level thing, and Willie realized that Barnabas must have known what had been happening to him, though how, Willie did not know. "I attempted, at your request, to help vanquish those memories of her from your mind. But either there is something wrong with you, or you did not really want to forget her."
"I do want to forget her," said Willie, his voice breaking, and how like Barnabas to state that the blame was in his servant rather than himself.
"Apparently you do not."
"But I do. It hurts to remember her."
"Then you must let it." The words struck him like a blow, though Barnabas did not move.
"But why?" His brain raced at this thought, to let the pain in was to die.
Barnabas looked at him, silent through the falling rain. Then he said, "As water wears away stone, so does time wear away grief, until only love remains." The vampire's voice broke over this as Willie had never before heard it. And there was a twitch of an eyelid, and it could have been a trick of the rain, but with that brief flash deep within the well of the vampire's eyes, Willie could swear that Barnabas knew exactly how he felt. Exactly.
The memories came back with a thud. Every single one of them. Painful, rasping memories edged jagged like a saw, grinding with rust that as the memories slid into him, fell away into diamond dust. Bright flickers, reels of tape, Gina and the kids. The kitchen. Polly at the table, drawing away, Danny at his feet, tumbling his cars, Carla in his arms, chewing on his shirtcollar. The beach, the seashells, gathered in sandy hands, the roar of the waves pounding over Polly's delighted screams as he lit off one firecracker after another.
Noon meals in a kitchen warm and moist from baking, the windows steamed up so that the winter's day came through silvered and white and soft. Pie and custard, stew and dumplings, glasses of milk, and cups of coffee, lathered with cream and sugar. And Gina, bending close, a cool hand on his forehead as she pushed away the hair from his eyes, almost absently, as if she'd done it a hundred times, and would do it a hundred times more.
How could he? How could he have thought to throw all that away? To waste it as he would waste a pile of brush, burned on the gravel drive of the Old House as daylight sauntered into darkness? A cavalier heart, his, to remove such a large chunk of himself just so as to disconnect him from those he loved most simply because they were removed from him. And why? To save himself from pain. But what was that, compared to the joy Gina's smile had brought to him, the unexpected rush, the pleased thing that had lived within him when he knew she loved him? That her children loved him. That he was loved.
He bowed his head. Rain fell on the back of his neck, shirt soaked through, jacket no longer any use against it. He felt bare, felt his skin shiver, felt the vampire's gaze upon him. Knew that he could not look up, even as he was watched, for if he did, to see those eyes, he would surely come apart.
"Willie," said Barnabas.
Willie hunched his shoulders, not quite a shrug, but a sign that he was listening. Worthy of a reprimand any other time, he could not even bring himself to respond as he should.
"Willie, I return to the house, and you, will return as soon as you may. And then--"
There was such a long pause, then, as the rain pattered down, and Willie, looking at his feet, realized he was standing in a pool of water. That they were both standing very close to the edge of the cliff, and that in an instant, he could throw himself over and Barnabas, even Barnabas, with his vampire-fast reflexes, would not be able to stop it. He shivered as he felt this idea race through him.
Then Barnabas moved. Between him and the edge of the cliff, his dark shape made even darker by rain, the silver of his cane flashing as lightning edged the sky. Thunder boiled over the sea and almost hid the vampire's sigh.
"And then, you will deal with this as mortals do. You have come by this friendship through much hardship, you are lucky, indeed, to have it. Do not force me to educate you as to how dismal your life would be without it."
Dismal indeed, without Gina Lee and her babies. Even the memory of them was more than he'd had before he'd met them. And, beyond that miracle, was Barnabas' allowance for it. His insistence that it be maintained.
Willie looked up. The vampire eyed him now as he usually did, with some distaste and much lack of tolerance, his gaze hardened with it, rain slipping from his dark hair to cast silver lines across his face. He seemed not to notice this, but assayed Willie much as he might a new delivery in his front room.
"You will take this rendezvous to heart, I trust, and will return to the Old House in due time to ponder the future course of your life. Either that, or I will set it for you."
The threat was clear. Either shape up and quit moping or he would be taken to ash at the vampire's hand and cast into the sea.
"Yes, Barnabas." Willie swallowed, tasting the rain in his mouth, and the cool, salty air across his face. The rain was not letting up, and a gust of wind tore at the hem of the vampire's greatcoat.
With a nod, Barnabas gathered himself and moved past Willie to go down the muddy path to the Old House. Willie watched him go, shoved his hands in his pockets. Looked at the cliff's edge, then took a breath. Turned his face up to the rain, and waited while the stone melted from his heart.