It's just over two weeks now before my new novel The 'Geisters hits the ground. We've got a music video, and some interesting blog tour stuff lined up, and hopefully a review or two on its way. Now, there's also a bit of the book--right here. This is the first part of the first chapter. It picks up... right at the beginning.
* * *
A Glass of Gewürztraminer
Was it terror, or was it love? It would be a long time before Ann LeSage could decide. For most of her life, the two feelings were so similar as to be indistinguishable.
It was easy to mix them up.
“Family, now . . . family is far away,” said Michael Voors, and as he said it—perhaps because of the way he said it—Ann felt a pang, a prescience, that something was not right with him. That perhaps she should leave now. Until that moment, she’d thought the lawyer with the little-boy eyes was the perfect date: perfect, at least, by her particular and admittedly peculiar standards.
To look at, Michael was a just-so fellow: athletic, though not ostentatiously so; taller than she, but only by a few inches; dirty blond hair, not exactly a mop of it, but thick enough in his early thirties that it would probably stay put until his forties at least.
He’d listened, asked questions—the whole time regarding Ann steadily, and with confidence.
Steadiness and confidence were first among the things Ann found attractive in Michael, from the night of the book launch. He’d approached her, holding her boss’s anthology of architectural essays, Suburban Flights, and asked her: “Is it any good?” and she’d said: “It’s any good,” and turned away. He hadn’t been thrown off his game.
She had been enchanted by this easy confidence. After everything that had happened in her life—everything that had formed her—it was a quality that she discovered she craved.
But now, that confidence crumbled, leaving a man that seemed . . . older. And somehow . . . not right.
It hadn’t taken much. Just the simple act of asking: “What about you? Where’s your family from?”
He tapped his fingers and looked away. His suddenly fidgeting hands cast about and found the saltshaker, a little crystal globe the size of a ping-pong ball. His eyes were momentarily lost too, blinking away from Ann and looking out the window of the 54th floor view of Toronto’s financial district, a high hall of mirrors up the canyon of Bay Street. They were in Canoe, a popular spot for lunch and cocktails among the better-paid canyon dwellers. It should have been home turf for him. “Just my father now. In Pretoria. But—” and he twirled the nearly spherical glass saltshaker, so it spun like a fat little dancer “—I don’t hear from him. We have had—you might say a falling out.”
“A falling out?”
“We are very different men.”
Their waiter slowed as he passed the table, took in Michael’s lowgrade agitation and met Ann’s eye just an instant before granting the tiniest, most commiserative of nods: Poor you.
He picked up his pace toward the party of traders clustered at the next table, and Ann suppressed a smile. She was sorely tempted to stop him and order a big, boozy cocktail. But it was early—in the day, and in the relationship—for that kind of thing. Particularly because the way things were going, she didn’t think she’d stop at one.
“He is an Afrikaner,” continued Michael. “You understand? Not just by birth. By allegiance. When the ANC won the elections in 1994 . . . He wasn’t a bigot—isn’t a bigot, I mean. But he’d seen the
things that the African National Congress could do—the business with the tires . . .”
“The tires?” Ann said, after a heartbeat.
Now Michael made a half-wise smile, set the saltshaker aside. His hand must have been trembling: the shaker kept rocking.
“My God,” he said, “you’d think I’d been into the wine already. I’m sorry. They would put tires around fellows they thought were traitors, and light them on fire, and watch them burn to death in the streets of Soweto. And then they became the government. You can imagine how he felt.”
“I remember that,” said Ann. She nodded in sympathy. That was real terror, now. In the face of it, her own inexplicable instant of fear vanished. “I was small. But didn’t Nelson Mandela have something to do with that?”
“His wife. Winnie. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?”
Ann smiled reassuringly and they sat quiet a moment; just the chatter in the restaurant, a burst of boozy mirth from the day traders; the pool-hall swirling of the saltshaker on the glass tabletop.
The waiter scudded near and inquired: “Need a minute?”
“Just a minute,” she said, looking at her menu.
Michael studied his too, and without looking up, said: “Share an appetizer?”
“Is there real truffle in the wild mushroom soup?”
“You want to share soup?”
“Is there a law says I can’t?”
That, thought Ann as she regarded Michael, was how you kept it going on a second date: make a little joke about the appetizer. Don’t talk international politics. For that matter, don’t start asking a lot of questions about how international politics and tires kept father and son apart for so long.
In fact, don’t start talking about family at all. Because as grim as the tale of Michael Voors’ own family turmoils might be—if Michael then started asking after the LeSages, and she was compelled to tell that horrific story . . .
Well. He was already thrown enough to fidget—she could hear the rolling sound of the saltshaker again.
“What about the salmon tartar?” she asked before he could answer. She allowed herself a smirk: why, Mr. Voors was actually blushing! “We don’t have to share soup.”
“No, I—” he was frowning now, and looking down at the table.
“My goodness,” he said softly.
“What is it?”
Ann lowered the menu, and looked down at the table. And froze.
The saltshaker was dancing.
It twirled in a slow loop across Michael’s place setting, rolling along the edge where the curve met its base. Then it rocked, clicking as the base touched the tabletop, and rocked the other side, turning back. Michael held his menu in his left hand—his right was splayed on the tabletop near the fork. His pale cheeks were bright red as he stared. First at the saltshaker, then up at Ann.
“Isn’t that incredible?”
Michael set the menu down, well away from the perambulating saltshaker.
“Incredible,” said Ann quietly, not taking her eyes off the shaker as it continued to rock.
The Insect, she thought, horrified.
It was back.
No, not back.
Really, it had never left.
Ann wanted to reach out—grab the shaker in her fist, stop it physically. But she knew better. Already, she could hear the rattling of glasses at the long bar. Two tables down, one of the traders commented that the air-conditioning must have kicked in. One of his lunch-mates asked him if he were a woman and everyone laughed. Michael’s eyes were wide as he watched the saltshaker.
Ann reached under her chair and lifted her handbag. “Don’t touch it,” she said.
He looked at her and asked, “Why not?”
“I’m going to the ladies room,” she said and stood. “Now please—don’t touch it.”
Ann drew a long breath, and pushed her chair back to the table.
Michael didn’t stop her, and he didn’t try to touch the spinning saltshaker either.
Their waiter, carrying a tray of two martinis and a fluted glass of lager, stepped past her—and without her having to ask, directed her with a free hand to the restrooms. “You have to go outside,” he said. “By the elevators. Just past them.”
Ann smiled politely and, shoulders only slightly hunched, head bowed only the tiniest, hurried between the tables, out the doorway and past the elevators—and there to the women’s washroom where she finally skulked inside. It was as safe there as anywhere, now.
One blessing: the washroom was empty but for her. She made her way to a sink, spared herself a glance in the tall, gilt-framed mirror. Her makeup was holding. That was something.
Ann fumbled with her phone.
It was a new one, and she hadn’t had time to program her numbers into it. Not a catastrophe—she knew the number she had to call now like she knew her own name—but speed dial would have helped.
Finally, a signal. One ring.
Would the glasses still be on the rack now, or sliding, one by one, along the rails, crashing into the plate glass windows overlooking Bay Street?
Would frost be forming around the edges of those windows, irising a circle of white, evil crystals to block out the sun?
Would one of the traders hold up his hand, wonderingly, examining the steak knife that had penetrated the back of it as he sat, turning it this way and that while his mind processed the impossibility of it, and itself began to unravel?
The first might be dead—the only question would be who . . . who it would choose. Not the waiter! Not Michael Voors—
Oh God . . .
“Come on, Eva,” Ann said to the empty washroom. “I need you.”
And click: and five. And . . .
“Ann?” Eva Fenshaw was on her own cell phone—she’d obviously figured out the intricacies of call-forwarding since last they spoke—and her voice crackled. She sounded as though she
might be in some large space—maybe the Wal-Mart where she liked to spend hot afternoons before her consultations started in the early evening. Ann should have remembered, and called the cell phone first. “Ann, how nice to hear from you!”
“Not so nice, Eva,” said Ann.
“Are you all right?” Pause. “Ann, dear?”
“It’s coming,” said Ann.
“Oh oh. The Insect.”
The acoustics shifted—maybe as Eva moved down an aisle,
someplace more private. “All right, Ann. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. It’s back, it’s coming out, I can feel it.”
“Where are you? At work?”
“At lunch. With a date.”
“With that Michael?”
“Dear Creator,” Eva whispered. She had, of course, warned Ann about Michael; Eva Fenshaw had a lifelong distrust of lawyers, born of the needless troubles in her divorce thirty years ago. When Ann told her about Michael’s interest in her, Eva had had some unkind things to say.
She didn’t repeat them in the Wal-Mart. “All right, Ann. Were you drinking?”
“Good. Now. How did it manifest?”
“The saltshaker,” said Ann. “Moved on its own. That’s for sure.”
“In the restaurant.”
“In the restaurant!”
“Don’t shout,” said Eva. “Stay calm. We’re going to visualize the safe place.”
Eva gave a yogic huff, and Ann drew a deep breath.
“It hates him,” she said. “It’s the same as before.”
“Ann!” Her voice was sharp this time. “Visualize the safe place, Ann. It can’t harm you there. And if it can’t harm you . . .”
“I can control it. All right.” She shut her eyes.
“Good, dear,” said Eva, in a voice that seemed to recede down the long corridor that was the first part—the gateway to Ann’s safe place. Eva had helped her construct it—how long ago? Not important. Ten years ago. At the hospital. You remember the hospital, don’t you, little Annie? I know I do—
Ann concentrated on opening herself up, seeing the hallway, walls made of cut stone with bright, leaded glass windows along both sides. There was a sunrise—Ann was always happier with the onset of light than she was the spread of darkness—and it manifested in pinkish rectangles along the flagstone floor.
The safe room was at the far end of the corridor. It would take a moment to walk, but by the time she had made the journey, she would have shed the tension that had brought her here. That was how Eva had explained it, all those years ago as they sat together in the lounge in Fenlan, waiting for word of her brother, of Philip after the crash.
“You’re going to walk as slowly as you need to, and at each window, you can pause and throw any worry you have out there into the light.”
“Light of the rising sun?” young Ann had asked, and Eva had replied: “Just the light.” And she had held Ann as Ann described how that hallway would be: like the hallway between high towers in a wizard’s castle.
The wizard wasn’t there, because she was the wizard.
This was Ann’s castle.
She stopped at the first window. Ann always had a leather satchel with her when she walked the Hall of Light, and she reached into it this time. She found a small parcel, wrapped in a dark, oily cloth. It was warm to the touch.
It wasn’t important—it might even be counterproductive—to try and determine what worry, exactly, was contained in this package. Whatever it was, it was heavy, and warm, and alive. She pushed open the first window, and threw the package out. It fell into the hot sunlight, down the mountainside, and disappeared.
She was inclined to hurry, to the thick oak door at the far end of the hallway. She certainly could do so; the castle existed only in her imagination, as guided by Eva’s own counsel. She could simply imagine herself all the way down, in the tower room, her fears cast from windows in retrospect. She could simply say to herself that she had unlocked the twelve sturdy locks, and removed the bar, and raised the miniature portcullis that led to the tower chamber, where it—the Insect—was contained.
And I could, she told herself, watch as the whole, fragile construct collapses to dust. While God—excuse me, Creator knows—what havoc the Insect is wreaking in the restaurant.
So, meticulously, Ann went window to window, tossing cloth packages and poisonous apples and broken daggers and twisted candles from her bag, until it was empty, and then removed the
key ring, and set to work on the door. And then, free of all burdens, she stepped inside—to the tower room.
“Do you see it there?”
“I don’t.” The chamber was a circular tower room, with a single window overlooking a bright kingdom, far, far below. There was a chair. A table. A little flask of iced mint tea (in the past, matters had gotten uncontrollable when there was wine in the room). It was otherwise a bit of a cliché: but what was to be done about it? They’d devised it during the depths of Ann’s teenaged Dungeons & Dragons obsession. And circular tower rooms in wizards’ castles, as Ann had explained seriously at the time, were both pretty comfortable safe places, and made awfully good prisons. Good, but obviously not perfect.
“It’s gone. It’s escaped.”
“Look up, dear.”
“Of course.” She looked up, into the rafters of this room—where just a few years ago, during the big blackout, when she was sure the thing had gotten out again, running amok in the dark corridors of her residence, flinging knives, she’d found it hanging like a great chrysalis, grinning down at her, long hair dangling like the tentacles of a man-o-war.
Not this time, though.
“Not this time,” said Ann.
“Keep at peace,” said Eva. “All right dear, let me tune in.”
Ann couldn’t help imagining Eva in the Wal-Mart, moving her hands so they hovered inches apart from one another, eyelids fluttering . . . the little rituals that she invoked, to tune in to Ann, and her safe place, and the prisoner that she kept there.
Imagining Eva in Wal-Mart, or indeed anywhere but in the circular tower room, was of course exactly the wrong thing to do.
The safe place was an unreliable construct . . . a lie, really, although best not to think of it in those terms. Hurrying would knock it over, and so would distraction. Start thinking of some other place, particularly a real place (like the Wal-Mart) and that place intrudes.
“Stupid,” she hissed, as the door to the stall farthest from the door slammed shut and her eyes opened. “Sorry,” she said to the closed stall door. The woman who’d presumably gone inside didn’t answer, and suddenly Ann felt nothing but foolish—imagining how she must have appeared to the woman now sequestered in the stall, a moment earlier quietly passing the sinks, and wondering: what a strange young woman, leaning over the sink with her eyes shut tight. Some of us can’t hold our liquor. That’s what she would think.
“Ann?” said Eva, and Ann said, again: “Sorry.” She shut her eyes, and reassembled the tower room, re-inhabited it. “Got distracted.”
“All right,” said Eva, “now hush. I’m sending you energy.”
Indeed, as Eva said this, the tower room flooded with light—appearing through the mortar between the stones, and the narrow slit-like windows that gave a tantalizing view of the realm. Ann thought she’d have a look at that realm—cement some details in her mind—the bucolic roll of hills, a silver river that wended between them . . . that mysterious, snow-capped mountain range in the distance—and take in the energy that Eva insisted she was sending her.
Was she really? Sending energy? From Wal-Mart?
Questions such as those, Ann had long ago learned to suppress.
And she did so now. After all, they did nothing to help her take control, to give her the strength she would need to wrestle the Insect.
A clank, as the door to the stall rattled. And a voice—echoing off the tile of the washroom. “Are you all right out there?”
“Fine,” said Ann, keeping her eyes shut this time, “thank you. I just need a moment.”
“Don’t we all.”
The hollow rumble of toilet paper unwinding now.
“You know what you really need?”
“I’m fine,” said Ann, while on the phone, from Wal-Mart, Eva said: “Shh.”
“That fine-looking young man out there. He’s a crackerjack!”
The door to the stall rattled fiercely. It slammed open, and closed again, and somehow Ann was turned around, the cell phone on the floor. Watching as the door to the stall slowly rebounded
open. Showing nothing but an empty stall, with a long line of toilet paper, draped over the toilet bowl in a mandala form.
From the floor, Eva’s voice buzzed. Like a bug, Ann thought crazily (like an insect) and she watched, transfixed, as the silver button on the side of the tank depressed, and the toilet began to flush.
“I am satisfied,” said the Insect, as it settled back into its chair in the shadowy part of the tower room, crossing its hands on its lap, slender fingers twitching and intertwining. “I approve.”
“Thank you,” said Ann when she’d collected her phone from the floor.
“Did that do the trick dear?” asked Eva, from Wal-Mart.
“That seemed to do it,” said Ann.
“You sure now?”
“Sure,” she said—not sure at all.
Eva sighed. “I’m glad, dear. Be at peace. Now you call, if—”
From one tower to another, Ann LeSage made her way back. She could find no evidence of mayhem en route. The glasses hanging over the bar gleamed in the afternoon sun, which shone through windows clean and clear. The traders gesticulated at their tables, hands unblemished, while their cutlery stayed safe in front of them. The waiter was cheerful and intact behind the bar, tapping lunch orders on a computer screen. And Michael sat back in his chair, ankles crossed, hands palm-down on the table, while the saltshaker sat unmoving between them. His face was strangely, beatifically calm.
When Ann recalled that July day—months later, outside Ian Rickhardt’s Niagara vineyard, while she cradled an unreleased Gewürztraminer on the south-facing veranda and looked down upon the rows of grapevines, with just a moment to herself before their other guests arrived . . . this moment, not any prior or subsequent, was the moment that defined it. She, folding her skirt beneath her as she resumed her seat; Michael, looking steadily at her, unblinking, as he lifted one hand, and lowered it on top of the saltshaker like a cage of fingers.
“Gotcha,” Michael said as he lifted the shaker off the table and studied it with real glee.
Was it terror she felt looking at him then?
Was it love?
Love, she guessed.