Stars of my youth,
So far, so high,
Beckon to me
From a purple sky
“I’ve got a freelance assignment for you, Newson—and it will pay very well.”
I figured Ward Pendleton had an ulterior motive in inviting me to lunch—I had hoped for Sassafraz, or at the very least, The Arts and Letters Club—but The Dancing Skeleton Pub was an accurate gauge of where he saw me relative to his society.
I was famished though, and the prime rib sandwich on a nicely toasted crispy roll was excellent, as well as the hot beef au jus for dipping it in. I was sipping a large Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale but Pendleton was imbibing a liquid lunch consisting of whisky sours—he had already downed two and a third was on its way.
“Those were Hemingway’s favorite drinks,” I smiled, pointing to the two empty glasses on the table. He seemed unimpressed.
“It’s just booze, Zach—it all goes down the same way.”
I grinned at him genially, trying to size him up and anticipate what he might have in mind.
His eyes were glassy and his breathing heavy. I figured he was savoring that fleeting glow that’s impossible to sustain—much like life on its happiest days.
“Mind you, speaking of Hemingway,” he continued, “ I see you more like that type journalist than a reporter—if you get my drift. I’ve been reading your features on Haunted Toronto and I’ve got a mystery for you that might be right up your alley.”
That soupcon of flattery made me wary, but I had to admit I was intrigued. Why would a hard-as-nails real estate developer like Pendleton give a damn about a mystery, much less pay well to investigate it?
The waiter dropped the third whiskey sour and Pendleton’s swollen right mitt grasped it possessively. He was a huge intimidating man with a bulldog face and a pug nose that he breathed through noisily. I winced at the thought of being dealt a blow by one of those gnarled fists.
The whisky sour was downed in an instant. He leaned back in the tooled leather tub chair, one hand still firmly grasping his glass, and his eyes bore into me.
“I’m going to tell you something confidential, and when I get through, you can make up your mind whether you want to take the assignment or not. All I ask is you never disclose to anybody what I’m about to tell you—whether you take the job or not. Fair?”
“Fair,” I replied, and sat forward to listen.
“I’m concerned about Tara, my wife—she’s been acting very strange lately, saying and doing things totally out of character for her, and frankly, she’s worrying me.”
“It sounds like an emotional problem. Have you considered consulting a psychiatrist?”
“No, no,” Pendleton grumbled irritably, “when I tell you what I’ve been observing you’ll probably be thinking I should consult a medium or spiritist—but frankly, they’re all con artists and would be after my money. Anyway, that’s why I chose you—you’ve investigated a lot of supernatural phenomena and I trust you.”
“Thank you,” I nodded, wondering what on earth I was getting involved with.
He gave me that hard stare again just to let me know his guard was still up, and then continued his tale.
“Tara has moments when she seems to transform into a totally different person—she used to be bright and vivacious, but lately she’s become dark and moody. She spends hours staring at the lake and poring over picture books of fine art paintings. She disappears for hours and comes home late and won’t tell me where she’s been.”
“Hmm, it still could be some sort of mood disorder, or neurosis—I’m no expert in that area, but I think she should at least be assessed by a psychiatric specialist, if only to rule that out.”
“I don’t think you get it, Newson—I’m a pretty practical man—there’s a helluva lot more to it than just some sort of mental condition.”
I had to ask. “But how can you be sure?”
“Do mentally ill people suddenly begin speaking fluently in a foreign language—or disappearing into thin air?”
I felt a sudden chill.
Pendleton’s eyes were boring into me, waiting for an answer. I shook my head slowly, “Well, I’ve got no explanation for strange happenings like that” I confessed.
“If I didn’t know from touching her that my wife was flesh and bone, I’d think she was a ghost.”
I was perplexed. Pendleton didn’t strike me as a man easily deluded, but what he was saying defied common sense.
“Where do I come in?” I asked him.
“I don’t want you shadowing her like a gumshoe. I could hire a private detective to do that. I was hoping you might try to befriend her. My wife reads your feature articles in The Telegraph, so I was thinking if I invited you to one of our parties, she’d naturally be drawn to you and might even open up about her experiences.”
I didn’t want to probe into indelicate matters, but my curiosity was piqued.
“Doesn’t your wife confide in you?”
A cynical smile swept across Pendleton’s features. “We don’t have that kind of relationship, Newson.”
“So, would you be willing to take the assignment and see what you can find out?”
Part of me wanted to run, but something about the business intrigued me.
“I’ll try my best, Mr. Pendleton, but I don’t offer any guarantees.”
“Your best is good enough for me,” he smiled.
Two days later an invitation to a cocktail party at the Pendleton estate came in the mail. I was a little apprehensive, but decided to reserve judgment until I met Tara and saw for myself what the assignment might entail.
At eight, on the Friday night, I was standing outside the Pendleton estate on Lakeshore Road. Pendleton’s home was a stately Victorian manse, of a type I forgot existed—a relic of a bygone time.
I was captivated by the baronial style of the architecture—it seemed more a castle than a manse. I wandered through the downstairs rooms, champagne flute in hand, entranced by the ambience.
“Zach—there you are!” I turned to see Pendleton dressed in a tux and on his arm a beautiful woman I thought too young to be his wife.
“I’d like to introduce Tara, my wife. I’m sure she needs no introduction to you, however, since she reads your articles all the time.”
Tara smiled graciously and extended her hand. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Mr. Newson.”
“Oh, please, call me Zach,” I smiled back.
“I see you’ve been admiring the place,” Pendleton chuckled, “it’s unique in terms of the local real estate.”
“It’s breathtaking,” I enthused.
“Well then, you’ll have to be given a tour.”
Pendleton turned to his young wife, “Darling, would you mind showing Zach around?”
“I’d be glad to act as guide,” she beamed.
She gave me such a dazzling smile my stomach flipped and I could barely catch my breath. Before I could reflect on what was happening, she took my hand and led me away.
I was in a dream and had no desire to awaken.
We ascended the huge circular staircase and went through some French doors out onto a balcony. The Moon was up and leaving a silvery track on the lake.
The cool spring air brought me back to my senses.
“It must be magical living here,” I whispered, staring out at the black waters radiant with stars.
“The lake belongs to everyone,” she replied. “I don’t really feel comfortable in the house—it’s strange, but I feel I don’t belong.”
I was taken aback by her directness—I wasn’t anticipating that. I suppose I should have been more discreet and reserved, but she had opened a door, and I decided to see what other secrets were on the other side.
“When you say you don’t belong, I assume you mean you feel overwhelmed living in such a huge house.”
She sighed, and stared up at the stars. “It’s partly that, I suppose, but sometimes I feel this house is haunted. Can you feel that too?”
“Haunted? No, I don’t think so—at least, I don’t feel it right now. Mind you, I’ve been distracted by the house’s beauty ever since I arrived, so I may not be as sensitive to subtler vibes.”
I stared into her eyes—truth was, I was distracted by her beauty, and seemingly oblivious to everything else.
“Would you be willing to come back, Zach, when all the people are gone—come back when the house is quiet, and tell me what you observe?”
“Yes, of course, if it will settle your mind about the place.”
She touched my arm. “It would settle my mind.”
“Well then, it’s decided,” I laughed, “Just pick a day and a time.”
“How does tomorrow at ten sound? We could have breakfast on the patio and then you could wander the house and grounds and see if you feel what I feel.”
I was trembling like a schoolboy inside—giddy at the thought of being with her.
“Tomorrow at ten will be fine,” I managed to say.
The next morning the maid admitted me and led me back through the house to a shaded flagstone patio where a table was set and Tara was waiting.
She looked even lovelier than the night before. Her long chestnut hair was swept up and caught into a loose pony, with one disheveled braid loosened and allowed to cascade down the right side of her face. The effect was disarming—she looked elegant, yet vulnerable.
She stood to greet me, giving me a chaste hug, while allowing her lips to lightly brush my cheek.
“I’m so glad you could come,” she whispered.
I smiled and shakily took a seat opposite her, trying to conceal my trembling hands, by placing them in my lap.
The maid poured coffee, and we engaged in polite chitchat while she set out two elegant plates of Artichoke-Scrambled Eggs Benedict.
“This is not my usual breakfast,” I laughed.
“It’s not mine either,” she said, and I caught a suggestion it meant more than that—or maybe I was looking for a deeper significance—and that bothered me as well.
But face it, I was here on assignment, and she was another man’s wife. End of story—or was it? I was feeling totally off balance.
I decided to come to the point.
“Well, how do you suggest we go about discerning if there are spirits in the house?”
She paused, fork in hand, her brow furrowed in thought. “I always sense them when I’m alone—just sort of browsing around—cutting flowers or sitting down by the lake.”
“Good! Then, I think you should keep to your usual routines and I’ll browse as well and see what I observe.”
“How long should we give it?” she asked, eyes dancing.
“Oh, I’d say, give it until noon. We’ll meet back here and compare notes.”
“Fair enough,” she smiled.
I had to force myself to separate from her and begin exploring the rooms of the house.
But my so-called investigation was a ruse—I was mainly preoccupied with Tara herself and excited to be able to surreptitiously observe her whenever I could.
The first hour was incredibly ordinary and mundane—watching the maids doing their chores and watching Tara sitting alone by the lake.
The grandfather clock in the downstairs study had just chimed eleven when I saw Tara come in from the patio, and walk down the long hallway. And then, without warning, she disappeared into thin air right before my eyes.
I was so astounded it took me a few moments to process what just occurred.
I walked back along the hallway hoping to find Tara in an adjoining room, but she had truly vanished without a trace.
My snooping caught the attention of the head housekeeper—a grim looking Spanish lady of indeterminate age.
“Can I help you, Sir?”
“I was looking for Mrs. Pendleton—I saw her walk down this hall but she seems to have completely disappeared.”
The woman eyed me suspiciously. “I don’t concern myself with where Madame goes—it is her affair.”
The way she said the latter word and the bitter tone of her voice conveyed more than words alone could say. It was like seeing the world reflected in a raindrop. I deduced she mistrusted Tara—probably seeing her as a trophy wife and viewing my presence here in the house alone with her as evidence of Madame’s many suspected affairs.
I wanted to talk further, but the taciturn housekeeper abruptly turned on her heel and walked brusquely away.
I continued searching the house and gardens to no avail, but when the clock chimed noon, Tara was back on the patio waiting for me as planned.
“Did you discern anything, Zach?”
I didn’t want to alarm her, but couldn’t lie either.
“I did pick up on some unusual vibes—I can’t be sure exactly what’s going on, but if it’s okay with you, I’d like to come back another time.”
Her face lit up and she hugged me. “Oh Zach, thank you so much for believing me. I knew there was something wrong in this house.”
I told her I’d be in touch the next week, and resolved to contact Pendleton as soon as I could.
Pendleton was strangely unaffected by my report.
We sat again in The Dancing Skeleton Pub, and I again enjoyed the prime rib sandwich, and he again imbibed a liquid lunch.
“So, I’m not going out of my mind,” he growled.
“No, there’s something very strange going on,” I conceded.
He nodded, lost in thought.
“I told your wife I should return another time and continue to observe things.”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered, “ I’ll have to get back to you on that—in the meantime, you kept up your end of the bargain, so you’ll be receiving a very generous honorarium in the mail.”
He stood up, signaling the end of the meeting. “Thank you, Newson—and as I said, I’ll be in touch.”
Two days later I received a very generous check in the mail, but I somehow suspected I would not hear from Pendleton again. When three months passed with no further contact, my suspicions proved correct.
But then, totally out of the blue, a shocking event occurred.
Pendleton’s photo glared from the front page of every Toronto newspaper along with an account of his arrest by police.
Pendleton was being charged with the murder of his previous wife, a beautiful young French woman named Signe de Neuve.
Signe was a well-known actress before her mysterious disappearance more than ten years ago. But the reasons surrounding Pendleton’s sudden arrest were unclear, and the public clamored for details that could explain the mystery.
I was fascinated, but the details in the press were repetitious and sketchy.
But that very afternoon I got a phone call from Tara asking if I could meet with her in the evening at the rooftop lounge of the Park Hotel. I readily agreed.
It was a clear spring night, filled with stars and seemed to heighten the excitement of seeing Tara again.
She looked lovely as I remembered, although sad and upset. She fell into my arms and clung to me, and I held her tightly and tried to soothe her.
We were out on the terrace at a small table overlooking the university grounds and Queen’s Park Circle.
It was strange in a way—the candlelit tables, and the romantic ambiance, contrasting with our reason for being there—her husband’s mysterious arrest.
“I suppose you’re aware of the scandal in the news,” she began.
I nodded sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Tara—I know this must be hard for you. How’s Ward holding up?”
She looked at me with tear-blurred eyes, “I have no idea—I haven’t talked to him in months”
I was shocked. “I don’t understand.”
She took a sip of Shiraz and shook her head as if trying to clear her thoughts. “No, you wouldn’t know—Ward served me with divorce papers the day after you were at our house.”
“Why—did something happen?”
“Apparently, he felt I was becoming unstable and my ‘scandalous behavior’ as he put it would embarrass him in his social circle.”
“I saw no inappropriate behavior on your part.”
She smiled and reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Thank you, Zach—I appreciate your support.”
I stared out at the twinkling lights of the Toronto skyline as the purple twilight deepened into night.
“It was Ward that was mad,” she whispered. “He was ranting like a man possessed.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was scary, Zach. His eyes were glassy and he had this crazed look on his face. He kept saying, you’re not going to haunt me—it’s not going to work.”
“It got worse. After a week, he got in touch with me and offered me huge sums of money to stay out of his life. He was deluded. He thought I was stalking him somehow. He claimed he’d see me sitting by the lake or walking down the hall.”
“Do you think he was suffering some kind of mental breakdown?”
She shook her head. “No. I think it was a guilty conscience, Zach. He said to me, I know you can’t come back. I made sure of that.”
“You think he was referring to his missing wife?”
She nodded. “She’s no longer missing, Zach. The police dredged the lake and found her near the very spot where I used to sit staring out into the lake.”
“How did they find out—did you tell them your suspicions?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t have to—Ward confessed. They interviewed me, of course, and put it all together and figured out where he concealed the body.”
I gently touched her arm to console her.
“It reminds me of Hamlet when he says, murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.”
She nodded. “It was a crime as nefarious, but so insane, Zach—Ward claimed his murdered wife was talking through me—speaking in French and demanding he confess.”
She began to sob. I slid my chair beside hers and put one arm around her and waited for her tears to subside.
“Well, the nightmare’s over,” I reassured her, “and you can get on with your life.”
“I suppose. I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I loved Ward for a time—I really did. Everyone thought because of the age gap between us I was just a trophy wife—a gold digger. But I never cared about things like that. And I never really felt comfortable in that huge house, or playing the role of hostess or trying to act the perfect wife.”
“So what do you think you’ll do?”
“I don’t know—get a small apartment somewhere—go back to my job working in a publishing firm.”
“Will that make you happy?”
She gave a little chuckle. “You know, I think it will. I miss the simple life.”
“You’ll start over—make new friends.”
She reached across and grabbed my hand. “I think I’ve already started in that direction.”
“I think you have,” I smiled back.
A whole new world was opening for her—a golden opportunity where she could again grasp for Life’s elusive brass ring. Her future was close enough to touch, but temptingly just out of reach.
And in the whirl of possibilities I saw a chance for me as well—to grasp for her hand and place on it something more precious than a mere brass ring.
© 2016, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.