By ANDREA JANES
“Do you know who that was?” asked Grace, after the silvery-haired woman had left.
“Who?” Chris barely looked up from his book.
“Joan Hassell. I thought so when I saw Joan H. on the chalkboard, and now I know it. I recognize her from her author photos.”
“Are you going to ask for her autograph?”
“Don’t be silly.”
Grace and Christopher had arrived the night before. It had been raining – a foggy, pernicious coastal drizzle – and the old house was dimly lit.
In the front hallway they saw a chalkboard with four names written on it, each name followed by an initial: Joan H., Lisa D., Mallory M., Grace S.
Chris had laughed. “They’re all girls’ names.”
“At a quaint bed and breakfast by the seashore? Shocker.”
In the light of morning, Grace waited impatiently to go to the beach – Chris had been leafing through A History of Montauk since they finished breakfast nearly an hour ago – when the silvery-haired woman walked into the room, or rather, glided. She had a pretentious, self-conscious way of moving that announced itself by saying, “Don’t look at me.”
Grace said shyly, “Hello.”
The woman glanced at her and returned the greeting with the cautious defensiveness of celebrity. She turned her gaze to the books on the shelf, sweeping her eyes over the paperbacks.
Grace, rather embarrassingly, jumped up from her seat. “Try this one,” handing her Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. The woman regarded it with an odd smile. “What kind of book is it?”
The woman turned it over in her hands. “Oh? Maybe I’ll give it a try.” There was something curious about the expression on her face. She seemed to find the presence of the tattered volume inordinately amusing.
Suddenly Grace was embarrassed. (This is Joan fucking Hassell; of course she’s read it before.) She blushed and lowered her gaze, then shifted it over to the window. Outside, the hot, clear sky shimmered over a blue sea – the kind of summer scene that seduces editorial assistants to spend half a month’s rent on a weekend in the Hamptons.
(Grace and Chris had felt like interlopers when they came downstairs that morning and saw the other guests already eating breakfast. They had hesitated, unsure of how to proceed. Should they help themselves from the breakfast table strewn with sticky jam jars and half-opened packages of English muffins? Or did they wait to be served?
Grace noticed that one of the guests, a little boy with dark hair cut in a shaggy Eton crop, had been staring at them.
“My name’s Mila,” the child finally said.
Mila. She was a girl. Grace looked at her. Her small, pointed face and narrow eyes looked rather wizened and elfin, and seemed to carry a look of profound skepticism.
“Have you ever been to a beach before?” asked Mila.
“Yes, lots of times.”
“You’d better watch out, the waves here are really big.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll be careful!” Grace widened her eyes in exaggerated fright. Mila’s skeptical look remained.
“Never turn your back on a wave,” she said.
Grace was so lost in thought she didn’t realize the silvery-haired woman was still talking to her.
“Are you a mystery fan?” she repeated.
“I like all the canonical stuff,” stuttered Grace. “Conan Doyle, the usual. Poe, of course.” (Canonical. Ugh.)
“Mmm. Poe gets a lot of credit for inventing the detective story. Of course, he was predated by Ann Radcliff.”
“Mm-hm. Emily St. Aubert was an amateur detective in her own way. Without her we wouldn’t have Dupin, Holmes, or Miss Marple. The genre simply wouldn’t exist.”
Grace didn’t want to admit she didn’t know who Emily St. Aubert was, so she said tentatively, “I’ve heard rumors that your next book will be your last Inspector Rector mystery. Is it true?”
“Well, I hate to spread rumors, but perhaps there is a chance that I’m ready to move on. After seventeen years and thirty novels, don’t you think it’s time we lay Rector to rest?”
“I suppose so. I mean, that makes sense.”
The woman smiled at her, more warmly than before.
“Are you a writer, too?”
(Of course I am. We’re the only ones who read any more.)
“Well, it really is nice to meet another writer. We get so many of them here. At least one comes up every summer.”
“Joan, let’s go.” A tall, fit-looking man in his seventies loomed into view and took the woman gently by the arm. He looked like he played tennis every day and starred in vitamin advertisements. Together they gave off an air of robustly preserved good health.
Joan wrapped a towel around her slim, almost androgynous, body. “Well,” she said, “I’m off to brave the surf.” She smiled at Grace and walked away with her companion.
* * *
“Yup, she’s definitely Joan Hassell.”
The beach was across the street, accessible from a narrow pathway that cut through a green tangle of bramble and dune grass. Chris underestimated the sharpness of the grass until a blade sliced into him. “That’s bush league,” he said, blood trickling from his foot.
“Chris,” said Grace absently as they picked their way among the dunes, “Did you notice the scars by her ears?”
“She has tiny scars, like from a facelift. She’s definitely had work done.”
“I’m sure she has.”
“I wonder how old she is.”
“Hmm,” said Chris, limping.
The surf was as rough as Mila had forewarned.
“I’ve never seen it like this!” Grace exclaimed, laughing. Chris looked nervous. They cavorted in the sea for as long as they could bear it but eventually relented, breathlessly pounded into submission by the wall of white water. It was impossible to get beyond the breakers and truly swim, so they sat on the sand in the searing sun until they could stand no more.
* * *
Grace was starting to hate this place. She’d been sitting on the porch for the last half-hour, bored and staring jealously at the sprawling family-style motel next door, with its rather immense swimming pool. You had to choose the “quaint” place, you sucker.
Chris had declined to sit and read on the porch with her. “You’re not coming with?” she’d asked.
He held up the remote. “Yankees game.”
The sun was setting, but Grace couldn’t see it since it was on the other side of the island. Her pen rested idly upon her notebook, atop a blank page. She sat there until all was dark except for the moon slowly rising. There was something about the emptiness of the countryside, something about the silence broken only by surprisingly noisy crickets that gave her the unpleasant sensation of being watched. By the time she left the porch, she had written a single word in her notebook: crickets.
* * *
“Grace. Do come in.”
The door to Room Number One was ajar. Joan sat with her companion, who waved her in.
“Share a smoke?”
“Should I close the door?”
“Oh, nobody minds.”
Grace couldn’t believe it. Smoking pot with Joan Hassell! She looked around the room as though trying to commit the moment to memory. She ran her eyes over the mess of clothes on the floor and wet towels strewn thoughtlessly over wooden chairs. A laptop lay on the bed and a lot of very expensive-looking leather luggage was scattered about the room. A small wooden box rested atop the dresser. It looked antique and was made of what appeared to be ivory. It was ornately carved with what seemed, to Grace’s untrained eye, to be designs of vaguely African origins; beneath them was a date: 1795. It was quite a fancy place to keep a stash. I should go get Chris, she thought. And then her eyes fell on something that made her reconsider: a manuscript.
With horror, Grace recognized it as one of her short stories. A particularly shitty one she’d brought with her to edit on the train. I will absolutely kill him. Chris always said her biggest problem was one of self-promotion. They had to make friends in the literary scene, he said – ironically aspirating that word, “scene” – though they never did anything at parties and book launches but stand to the side and talk to one another.
She picked up the flimsy sheaf of paper. “Oh my gosh, Joan, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe he gave that to you.”
“Don’t be. You’re not bad.”
“Well, there is room for improvement, of course, but you’re certainly… adequate.”
Adequate! Gee, thanks lady.
And then something else caught Grace’s eye. A bit of plastic sheeting was poking out from behind the bed, the kind you get at the dry cleaners. Actually, lots of plastic sheeting, yards of it heaped in a pile beneath the bed. That’s a hell of a lot of dry-cleaning, she thought.
The room had become silent. Joan was staring at her. Even in the darkness, Grace could see that something metallic gleamed in the author’s hand.
“I gotta go,” she said.
Grace left the room but never made it back up the stairs.
As she walked through the front room, her legs felt less and less steady. She sat down heavily on the edge of the sofa. Yesterday’s books still lay on the coffee table, only now something seemed different about them. “The History of Montauk” was now “A History of Haiti.” She shook her head. That didn’t seem right.
“What are you doing here?”
Mila stood behind her, black eyes glinting in the dark. With her shaggy hair and luminous pupils, she looked just like a little raccoon caught pawing through somebody’s garbage cans.
Grace hated being stoned in front of children. It seemed so indecent.
“It’s raining again,” Mila said and walked away.
Grace exhaled. She really was way too stoned. Something didn’t feel right. She was numb and dizzy.
Somewhere, laughter echoed – laughter and voices. Mila and… someone else, someone with a deeper register. A man. Grace listened, but the voices seemed to be fading into the distance.
Joan’s companion loomed into view. “Come, my dear, you’re ready. Come.” Grace acquiesced. Standing very close to him, she noticed he, too, had the scars behind his ears. He caught her looking. “Cosmetic surgery wasn’t always so sophisticated as it is now,” he smiled.
He took her to Joan’s room. He lay her down on the bed, which was encased in the plastic sheeting. Joan stood at the side of the bed, towering over her.
“What’s happening?” Grace murmured drowsily. She felt her eyes fluttering and tried desperately to focus on Joan, who leaned down and caressed her face. Her hands were as cold as the bottom of the sea. Grace shivered and Joan laughed cruelly. Her eyes flickered, enlivened by a strange light.
“Come, Joan, quickly now – prepare the girl,” her companion said. “While she’s still alive.”
“Yes, my dear. Sit up Grace; I want to show you something. Sit up.”
Grace was limp; Joan had to maneuver her into a sitting position and hoist her up to standing. Her legs buckled and she staggered as Joan practically dragged her over to a small closet in the corner of the room. She stood there, swaying, her knees dipping down toward the earth as Joan forced her head up. “Look!” she rasped. “What do you see?” Joan’s spindly thumbs propped her eyes open.
The image swam before her but soon came into focus. Books. Nothing but books – shelves of them.
“I see…” Grace couldn’t remember the word for books. “Them.”
“Mine. All mine!”
“She doesn’t understand, Ann,” her companion said.
(“Ann?” thought Grace.)
“You see, little Grace, this is my glory, my greatest project. I wrote them all – every single word in these pages, all of it belongs to me – I perfected the form, you know, and it can never really be equaled by anyone else.”
These books were not Inspector Rector mysteries – or at least they didn’t look like them. Grace couldn’t be sure of anything anymore, but these were not the fat paperbacks with the embossed spines she was used to. She reached for one, numbly.
“Yes, that’s my girl. You want to look at them, don’t you?” Joan thrust one into Grace’s hands. Grace swayed unsteadily, concentrating furiously on the title of the thick leather volume. The Mysteries of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe, it said.
“You didn’t write this.” Grace mumbled thickly.
(He called her “Ann.”)
“No. No… too old.”
“1791… a good year.”
Grace just shook her head. No, no, no. Vigorously shaking.
“It always takes them a while to figure it out. You seem to be a little duller than the rest…“ Joan shot a look at her companion – “Darling, I really worry a bit about this brain, you know” – then put her face very close to Grace. “I’ll spell it out for you. Since the clock is ticking on your inadequate little cerebrum.”
Joan jabbed her finger at the books on the shelf. “Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Poe, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie! I wrote them all!”
Joan slapped her, but Grace hardly felt it.
“You little idiot, you couldn’t understand.”
Joan grabbed The Mysteries of Udolpho and opened it to a well-worn page. “’She had passed the spring of youth, but her wit prolonged the triumph of its reign, and they mutually assisted the fame of each other…’”
Her companion interjected. “It isn’t worth telling her, Ann.”
“I suppose not. Look at her gaping. Have you figured it out yet, child? Of course she hasn’t! Come bokor, let us begin!”
Bokor? Grace didn’t know the word.
“It’s a voodoo priest, you simp,” Joan snapped. (“Did I say that out loud?” Grace wondered.) “He’s the one who came to me with a proposal in the last years of our eighteenth century. How would you like to live forever, Annie? How would you like to write and write and never stop? Never feel the ideas fade away! Never feel your power wane! To be revered and celebrated… A little ‘voudou’ trick picked up among Caribbean slaves, tested on them, guaranteed to work. The poison is willfully ingested, but controlled, you see! Everything in just the right dosage, just the right amount – like the anesthesia his colleagues would eventually begin to understand.”
“It isn’t simply a matter of ingesting the substance,” her companion said. “It all comes down to the right proportions in the toxins and, of course, to timing. And eating the brain of another writer, naturally. My dear, if you will.”
Joan moved Grace over to the bed. “Down you go, little chicken.”
Suddenly, Grace grabbed her wrist. “Wait – wait – is this true? Really true?”
“Why would I lie?”
“But… Poe? Doesn’t make… sense… he’ss’a… man…”
“Should I happen to possess the characteristics of both Hermes and Aphrodite, is that any reason to discriminate against me?”
“But you look… not… like him.”
“It’s amazing what you can do if you only have enough… skin.” She flicked her finger against Grace’s cheek, which elicited not even a wince.
“She is ready,” said the bokor.
Grace felt the blade of a knife-like instrument cutting into her skull. (A scalpel, that’s what it’s called.) That was the metallic thing she’d seen gleaming in Joan’s hand before.
Grace managed to gasp out a weak “please-no.”
“No?” said Ann. “Don’t you see, my little poppet, this might be your only chance…” Her mouth curved sardonically. “Haven’t you always wanted to become a writer?”
It became difficult to see when the blood began streaming into her eyes, but there was no doubt of what was happening. Ann and her bokor used knives and forks to gouge out parts of Grace’s pulsating brain and ate them with great delicacy.
“Well, she put up less of a fuss than Josephine bloody Tey did,” the esteemed authoress remarked.
“She’s passing over, Ann,” the bokor said.
“Ann,” whispered Grace.
“I was never out of print, you know,” she said soothingly, taking another mincing bite of cerebellum. “Not for two hundred years.”
Things began to go dark for Grace; that is to say, darker.
“You have a very lovely face,” Ann said. “I look forward to wearing it.”
She turned to her companion and bokor, and smiled. “To another hundred stories.”
“To another hundred years.”