Saturday, Late September
The tapping of steel on stone, followed by running footsteps, drew Jan to the porch railing as a spotlight illuminated the strange statue on the lawn. After scanning the darkness for a moment, the light switched off, leaving only the full moon to illuminate the scene below. When the moon-cast shadow detached itself from the statue and slid across the lawn, Jan’s rational mind dismissed what he saw as a trick of the light, but a seed of fear was planted deep in his subconscious.
He heard a muffled curse from the ancient Crown Vic cop car that was the source of the dazzling light. More indistinct mutterings cut off as the driver’s window rolled up. Exhaust fumes blurred the taillights of the cruiser as it pulled away, descended the hill, and disappeared around a bend. Jan’s eyes followed it, then tracked further down the hill to where the moon reflected off the waters of Lake Wallenpaupack.
Wind-blown leaves, their fall colors turned to shades of grey by the moonlight, danced around the enigmatic statue standing proudly on the lawn. Like a magnet, it drew his eye. As he had many times before, Jan wondered about its origins and why it seemed more alive than simply a chunk of granite.
--Damn, it’s getting cold.
He rubbed the gooseflesh on his arms and suppressed a shiver.
--I hope that Tomlin couple is done, well, “coupling”, so I can get some sleep.
Turning to his laptop sitting on a table, which had long since gone to sleep itself, he sighed and closed it. The new novel it contained just needed a final polish before going back to his publisher.
--I’ll wrap that up tomorrow after I head home.
Scooping it up, he re-entered his suite and stopped to listen. The century-old floorboards in the Mackey House bed-and-breakfast announced hurrying footsteps in the hall outside, which were followed by the squeal of the Tomlins’ door closing, then some rustling and murmuring, the squeak of bedsprings, and ultimately silence.
--If they start up again, I’m going to bang on their door. Maybe they’ll let me join them.
He chuckled to himself. It had been two long, lonely years since he returned home from a writing retreat at this very bed-and-breakfast to find an empty house and divorce papers on the kitchen table.
--I should write more, now that I’m up, he thought.
But he had nothing to write. He should be drafting his third novel, now that the second was nearly finished. His agent talked about his growing readership, and her expectation that “the next one” would be a bestseller. Her encouragement was a much-needed boost to his chronically deflated ego, though he knew the reality of his “success” was but a shadow of the publisher’s expectations.
--I can’t. I just can’t. I’ve got nothing to say anymore.
Each time Jan sat down to write, his mind wandered. When he forced himself to reread what he had written so far, he ripped it apart and littered it with comments and corrections. As edits piled on top of edits, he realized the story was tedious and worse, boring. His agent insisted his growing fan base would eat up whatever he wrote. The book contract that launched his second career, and probably saved his life, led to a second one and a third. Even though this third novel was barely begun, his publisher was already pestering him for progress reports.
--It’s crap. Everything I write now is crap. It was all luck before, not talent.
What he couldn’t explain to his agent or publisher, though, was that his previous stories had evolved in his head for years before he put fingers to keyboard. They’d still be floating in there if he hadn’t lost his wife, his house, and his job in the space of a month. He couldn’t just spit out another one. So, he fled to here, where this new career that he had sacrificed everything for had begun, looking for inspiration.
At least here, in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, he felt a semblance of peace. In the past, in this place that was the antithesis of his “real” life, he had the solitude he needed to capture his dream life in words. Not this trip, though.
Perhaps it was the company of his fellow guests, the strange Tomlin couple whose noisy sexual antics in the suite next door had driven him out onto the chilly porch an hour ago. Jeff’s loud, crassness and Naomi’s tittering, faux-girlish laughter set Jan’s nerves on edge.
Jan looked to the bottle of bourbon on the sitting-room table, then tilted his head to listen.
--I guess they’re done.
With a goodnight wave to the bottle, he turned into his bedroom.
--I’m leaving tomorrow. Maybe when I get home, I’ll be able to write something, or at least get a decent night’s sleep.
Sheriff’s Deputy Kathy Jensen cruised the dark, lonely roads of Wayne County. These midnight shifts suited her disposition best. Alone, drifting through her duties as she drifted through life, she had always found it easiest to fulfill others’ low expectations of her, rather than try to prove the worth of the intellect and ambitions she kept locked away out of the world’s view.
With one eye on the dashboard clock and the other scanning the countryside, she turned onto the Mackey-to-Dundee road for the first time that shift. The Mackey House, its Mission style architecture and vibrant gardens, now withered and brown awaiting the onset of Winter, glowered down at the Deputy as her ancient cruiser labored up the hill. Its normally welcoming countenance, which had greeted Kathy on the many occasions when she visited its proprietors, Dan and Sandy Adams, loomed sinister in the darkness above. Its upper and lower porches protruded like a pair of pouting lips, while its roofline formed a scowling brow ridge.
Her instincts alerted by some unconscious difference, Kathy focused her attention on the most famous feature of the Mackey House: the granite statue incongruously overlooking the front lawn. In contrast to the subtle, almost demure architecture of the house, the statue that had come to identify the place, was almost obscene.
Dressed in a flowing, diaphanous gown, the voluptuous Roman goddess stood proud. An ever-present wind, captured by the sculptor and as frozen in time as the statue herself, pressed her thin shift tight against the sensuous curves of her legs, hips, belly, and her breasts, whose nipples rose to meet the sculptor’s chilly wind. Rendered as it was from native granite, her body nevertheless appeared as soft as any woman of flesh and blood. With her back arched, her head tilted skyward and her lips parted, the young goddess stood, frozen forever in a moment of pure ecstasy.
Kathy knew this form almost as well as she knew her own body, although the difference between them could not have been more pronounced. What drew her attention this night, however, was not the erotic nature of the statue, but the movement she saw behind it. Something rhythmically rose and fell as if a hammer tapped a chisel.
Flicking on her door-mounted spotlight, Kathy expected to see local kids bolt for the woods bordering the property. Instead, to her surprise, a single large male figure ran around the side of the house and disappeared into the shadows. Panning the spotlight across the lawn, Kathy drifted her car forward until she could illuminate the side yard. There was no trace of the vandal, though.
She looked at the thick line of brush that separated the well-tended expanse of grass from the thick woods.
--Whoever it was is long gone, and I ain’t traipsin’ through the woods in the middle of the night chasin’ them.
She glanced at the dashboard clock again. It read 2:40 AM.
--I’ll stop by to talk with Dan and Sandy tomorrow.
Turning off the spotlight, Kathy stepped on the pedal and the wheezing cruiser rumbled toward Dundee.
Sunday, Late September
When Jan came down to breakfast the next morning, Jeff and Naomi Tomlin were already eating. He poured a cup of coffee from the pot warming on the sideboard and took a seat at the dining table, as far from the Tomlins as possible. This put him to the left of Dan Adams and across the table from Sandy Adams, co-owners of Mackey House.
Sandy stood as he sat and asked, “The usual this morning?”
Jan nodded, “Please,” and she headed for the kitchen, rolling her eyes as she passed behind the Tomlins. Jan hoped to avoid Jeff’s attention, but the eight or ten feet of separation was not nearly far enough.
“I was just telling Dan, here, but I don’t know if I’ve told you,” Jeff said around a mouthful of scrambled eggs, “that I have a special connection to this place.” He had, in fact, told Jan this, and anyone who would listen, multiple times in the past two days. “We came up here this weekend to check the place out and kinda connect with my family history, you know?”
Naomi gave one of her fingernails-on-a-blackboard laughs by encouragement.
“I had always heard growing up that my great-something grandparents were filthy rich, but lost it all in the stock market crash and Great Depression. I always figured the family legends were just stories you tell the kids to impress them so they didn’t think we had always lived in a shithole.” Naomi tittered. “Oh, sorry. Not proper breakfast language, is it?”
Dan frowned and Jan almost did a spit take. Undeterred, Jeff continued, “Anyway, I always thought it was a load of bullsh—crap until my Mom died this past summer. She had been living alone in the family rowhouse since my Dad drank himself to death when I was in college. Since my good-for-nothing brother had moved south, I was stuck with cleaning the place out and putting it up for sale. The little shit didn’t want to do any of the work, but he sure as hell wanted his cut of the profits. Since I was the executor, though, I fixed his wagon. I got my drinkin’ buddy, Joey, who’s a contractor, to write up a bunch of receipts for work he never did—a new roof, plumbing, electrical, all kinds of stuff. Joey made some nice cash for doin’ nothin’ and most of the sale price just, ya know, evaporated.”
Jeff smiled proudly and Naomi let loose with her loudest “hee, hee, hee” yet. Jeff took a break to shovel more eggs into his mouth, as Sandy backed through the swinging door from the kitchen holding a plate of eggs-over-easy, rye toast, bacon, and hash browns. As she set the plate in front of Jan, his mouth watered in response to the delicious aromas wafting up from the plate.
“Mmm, this smells delicious,” Jan smiled up at Sandy, who beamed in response.