Echoes in the Dark
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by Janis Susan May
Category: Mystery/Crime/Historical Fiction
Description: In 1963, famed photographer Alix Whittaker has problems -- hallucinations from a head injury, a broken leg, an ex-husband with a new fiancée, a job with a third-rate archaeological dig, an unexpected murder and an overly attentive new suitor. Then she sees a very real ghost, and her problems really begin!
eBook Publisher: Vinspire Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [433 KB]
Reading time: 277-388 min.
Even though the hallucinations still occurred with distressing frequency, I knew without any doubt it had to be Zach in the flesh leaning against the doorjamb. Of all the things I had expected to see and all the weirder things I thought I had seen, Dr. Zach Hathcock, scientific genius and my ex-husband, was the most surprising.
Zach had hardly changed at all since our last, carefully unemotional meeting. He was still tall and lanky, still giving a vague impression of untidiness. His cavalier attitude toward clothes had been one of the continuing points of contention between us...one of many.
Arms crossed, he sagged against the doorframe and studied me with the same dispassionate interest he would have shown one of his experiments. His eyes, unwinking but not unfriendly behind their screening spectacles, were still the bright and startling blue of a sunny sea.
"You don't look well at all."
That was Zach all over, and I felt a ghost of ancient anger. After almost two years--one of separation and one of divorce--his first words were to comment disparagingly about me. The fact that they were indisputably true only made me feel worse, and my well-developed self-pity turned prickly. I gestured toward the heavy plaster cast which encased my elevated leg from toes to knee.
"And how am I supposed to look with one of these things hanging on to me? Like Miss America?" I snapped belligerently. With my leg in a cast, my hair cropped short to accommodate the stitches they had put in my scalp, and the ghosts of a black eye and other bruises, I had never felt more unattractive in my life.
His shaggy head shook sadly, his salt-and-pepper hair looking like it had been cut with a hedge trimmer. "I see time hasn't sweetened your tongue any, Alixandra," he said regretfully, and I shivered with the memory of the other tones--happy, sensual, furious--in which he had used that name.
Oh, it was my name all right, one of a very impressive string--Alixandra Nicole Catherine Hortense Whittaker and at one time, Hathcock. In a burst of enthusiasm at having at last produced a long-desired baby and unable to decide between any of the favored names, Mother had stuck me with all of them. In a character less strong, my father had said, such a move could have induced schizophrenia. Early on I had become used to Alix. It was short, cute, and could be more or less pronounced by the servants in whatever country we happened to be at the moment. Zach had been the only one to insist on using Alixandra.
"What the devil were you doing sky diving?"
So I was not to be spared the ignominy of his knowing the cause of my various afflictions. Somehow an auto accident or a plane crash seemed so much more respectable than a parachuting mishap. I didn't question why, after all this time, appearing respectable to Zach Hathcock should be the least bit important to me. Perhaps some ghosts never die.
"What else?" I answered with an ugly flippancy. "Shooting pictures. For a color spread on state parks in Pete Kellagher's new glossy magazine, if you want the details."
"Which glossy magazine?" he replied easily but with equal bite. "As I recall, Pete Kellagher starts one about every six months."
"Now just because you never liked Pete is no reason to be..." Suddenly racked by coughing, I fell back against the pillows and gasped for air. Extended time in a hospital bed does not put you in top trim for even verbal combat. It was unbelievable, but after two years and only a few more sentences, Zach Hathcock and I were fighting again.
His reaction was instant. He might look like Mr. Lazybones, but he could move like lightning when he wanted to. He propped up my shoulders and held a glass of water to my lips with all the warm human sympathy he would have shown one of his laboratory experiments.
"Take it easy. You aren't back up to your fighting weight yet." He added in a surprisingly gentle tone of voice, "Drink some of this."
I sipped obediently. I had no idea of what he was doing here, and I really didn't care. After a long stretch in a flower-filled hospital room, I was glad even of his company.
"Shall we start over?" I asked weakly. At one time it had been very important to me to have the last word in any confrontation with Zach; now I couldn't remember why. "How are you doing?"
"Olive branches? You have changed. That was always your mother's forte." His eyes flashed, then as scalding memory rose, he looked away in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I forgot. That was uncalled for, and I apologize. All right, let's start over. How are you feeling?"
"Rotten. I can't decide what is worse--the aching in my leg or the weird things I see."
I had expected some sort of reaction to my bald and deliberate announcement, at the very least a scathing reference to my theoretical mental instability, the probability of which had caused a great deal of lively conversation in the old days. His face did not change; obviously he had been well briefed by someone.
"Still having those hallucinations, huh?"
"About every other day or so now. Who told you?" I squirmed into a less uncomfortable position and tried to look him squarely in the face.
A ghost of the pixie smile he had once had flashed over his features and vanished into a cynical chuckle. "Aunt Cat called me."
"Yeah. Didn't she ever tell you that we sort of kept in touch after the divorce? By phone and letters, I mean. Not her other way."
I could only stare in open-mouthed amazement. Of all the odd pairs to stay in contact, I could imagine none more misfitted than skeptical, pragmatic, scientist Zach and my Aunt Cat. Catherine Honoria Bellingham was my mother's younger sister as well as a practicing medium, complete to crystal ball, Tarot cards, and trailing draperies.
"I can't imagine Aunt Cat and you keeping in touch by any method. Besides, she's in Europe right now."
"In Budapest, and as you know, they do have telephones over there, no matter how badly they seem to work at times. She called me day before yesterday and told me about your mishap."
"Day before yesterday? I've been here almost three weeks."
In actuality, it had been nineteen days and a little over five hours since the rescue helicopter had deposited me at the hospital--and without a newsman in sight, my father would have scolded. On the other hand, since I had been unconscious through the nastier parts of putting the various pieces of me back into place, I could only claim seventeen days of staring at this determinedly cheerful, sterile room.
The flowers helped a little; the nurses said they had never seen so many from so many places, but in spite of being beautiful, bouquets and house plants still make mighty poor conversationalists. Aside from the staff, I had only talked with the police, my shame-faced sky diving instructor, and a rather bored stringer from one of the smaller news services.
"I know. That's why I'm here." Zach was looking at me strangely. "Don't tell me Aunt Cat hasn't talked to you..."
"Not since a couple of days after I was admitted," I said, a strange feeling of suspicion beginning to grow. Aunt Cat was quite capable of anything. In the past I had suffered several consequences of her having arranged things as she thought best. "What have you two been plotting?"
"Come off it, Alixandra! Don't be melodramatic. We just want what's best for you."
I bristled. I have always been suspicious of that phrase ever since my parents used it before allowing a white-jacketed team of yellow men to carry me away. Of course, if that team of Japanese doctors hadn't operated so quickly, my appendix would have ruptured and I might have died, but adult logic can never quite dispel a seven-year-old's terror. I was never really comfortable in the Orient after that.
"And what do you think is best for me?"
Zach clawed at his hair. "God, I wish Aunt Cat had called you! She said she would explain everything so you could understand it..."
Since our divorce, I had made a real attempt towards controlling my sometimes explosive temper, a decision spurred by his endlessly controlled, emotionless statements that had cut so surprisingly deep. The effort held me in good stead, for my voice shook only a little while forcing the words through gritted teeth. "Understand what? Tell me!"
"You want it straight? That doesn't sound like you..." He took a deep breath. "Sorry. I wasn't going to be nasty, but--"
"I make it so easy." The words popped out unbidden.
"Sometimes." For one brief moment Zach grinned, making my treacherous heart lurch as it always had. Then it was back to business as usual. "Let's talk sensibly about your immediate future. Have you really thought about what you're going to do?"
I really hadn't, not seriously; the whole idea was much too scary, but I would have died before admitting it to Zach. "I'm going to go home, rest up for a while--"
"And your hallucinations? What if you see another boa constrictor?" Zach paused then plunged in with only a slight grimace. "Or your father again?"
He had been well briefed! I hadn't even told Aunt Cat about seeing Father while I was in the recovery room.
"They didn't tell you about the camel in the hall," I said with heavy flippancy. "Or the--"
Zach raised a weary hand. "Please. I don't want all the gruesome details. What I mean is you can't stay by yourself. It would be difficult enough if all you had to worry about was that leg."
He had touched a nerve. I had never had any doubt of my hallucinations being just visions (with one startling, heart-rending exception) without substance or reality, but that had been only because of their very incongruity--a camel calmly going down the hospital corridor, a mermaid in the reflecting pool below my window. I am not completely heedless, no matter my reputation in certain quarters; the possibility of another, more dangerously realistic kind of hallucination had worried me. If you can't trust your own senses, what can you trust?
I had not been looking forward to going home alone anyway. "All right. I agree."
"You do?" He sounded dumbfounded.
"I'm not completely a dunce. If it will make you and Aunt Cat any happier, I'll stay here. Or move into a nursing home. Convalescent home? Something like that. Maybe even a residence hotel."
For some reason he didn't look any happier. "On what?"
"Money. Cash. Assets. You never did have any sense when it came to money, Alixandra. You've never had any health insurance. You've never saved anything."
Save? my father had boomed. What for? For all your chicken-livered relatives to fight over after you're gone? Enjoy it! That's what the damned stuff's for.
"Are you all right?" Zach's tone was anxious. "Have you had another hallucination? You look awfully white."
I shook my head, trying to rid it of the memory of that first, horrific vision and the implications it entailed. "I'm fine. I've just gotten out of the habit of your raking me over the coals for my financial habits."
"Don't get defensive."
"Don't do this, don't do that. We're not married now, Zach Hathcock! You can't order me around any more!"
"I never could," he muttered, but I decided to ignore that.
"Why don't you just say what you have to say and be done with it?"
"I'm trying, if you'd just shut up a bit! To put it bluntly, you're broke. According to Aunt Cat, what money you do have is going to be wiped out by your stay here. You can't afford a rest home or convalescent home or whatever."
Put like that, it was devastating. I disliked hearing the stark reality almost as much as I wondered how Aunt Cat knew so much about my finances. Not that I ever really believed in her reputed powers, but it did seem that there was never anything she didn't know!
"So I'll stay with friends."
"Anyone in particular? I know you've had so many visitors."
Curse the man! He had always had a positive genius for picking at my weak spots. "Don't be bitchy. It doesn't suit you."
"Sorry." He didn't sound it. To him, facts were just facts to be handled as dispassionately as tools.
"You seem to be remarkably well-informed about the rest of my life, including my financial situation, so you probably know I haven't had any visitors."
"I suspected as much." He poked an inquiring finger into a pot of fat-leafed caladium, giving that rather commonplace plant a great deal more attention than it deserved. "Aunt Cat said that she could cover your apartment rent for a month or so," he went on, obviously ill at ease. "But no more. Apparently people aren't buying that bunk of hers like they used to. Anyway, that's why she called me."
"What does she have in mind?" I asked with no little trepidation.
His expression was almost comical in its discomfort. "She asked that you stay with me until she can get back from Europe and look after you."
I almost choked. Aunt Cat had never pulled anything nearly this audacious! I reserved a few choice words for her ears after her return.
"Well," I said at last, "you must admire her nerve. You can see what's going on in her mind."
"She never gives up, does she?"
"You mean that's what she's been talking to you about?"
He nodded, but he still wouldn't meet my gaze. "Sort of. Most of the time she hasn't been anywhere near this outrageous, though. That's what makes me think this time it's legit. You never were any good at managing money."
"What do you get out of this? I mean, it can't be very pleasant for you to think about the prospect of me hanging around for a couple of days or weeks or however it takes Aunt Cat to get back." It was an ugly question, but I had to ask.
"Do you think you're still so important to me?" His dispassionate words were surprising in their sting. "Anyway, she promised she'd be back in about a week or ten days."
More memories. "A week or ten days. She told Father something like that once. I was supposed to stay with her while Mother and Father went to Sri Lanka. That was when he wrote the book that won his first Pulitzer. It was supposed to be unhealthy for children or some such nonsense, so they had decided I should stay in the States with Aunt Cat. As I recall she got married to some South American instead; we didn't see her for almost a year, and that's how I got to celebrate my tenth birthday in Sri Lanka."
It had been a beautiful birthday, too, with streamers and noisemakers and a baby elephant complete with howdah for me to ride. Those had been the days. Suddenly my eyes misted with tears, something they hadn't done since the day of that dry telegram and its awful, impossible message of my parents' sudden and unexpected deaths. I willed them away, not wishing Zach to see the effects of my weakness.
"Well, I certainly don't intend to take care of you for a year." He blinked several times as if the idea were totally ridiculous, which of course it was, and then shook his head to dispel it entirely. "I don't intend to take care of you at all, not really. I came to offer you a job."
Whatever I had been expecting, that wasn't it. The whole idea came from so far out of left field that I simply sat and stared. The Zach I remembered had been a relic from a thankfully distant past where women never worked outside the home, to which I had replied, "Of course they didn't, they just slaved away inside it."
Zach had always been lukewarm about my photography, regarding it as merely an inoffensive hobby, sort of a chemical cousin to the traditionally ladylike pursuits of quilting and embroidery, but acceptable because it wasn't a 'real' job.
Until I had started winning awards.
Until there had been regular assignments from TOWN AND COUNTRY and LIFE and McCALL'S.
Until I had started being recognized as Alix Whittaker the photographer instead of the wife of that scientific genius, Dr. Zachary Hathcock, or as the daughter of Constantin Whittaker, the prize-winning novelist.
Until Zach had once been greeted as Mr. Whittaker.
Then the fur had really started to fly and, judging from this meeting, there were still a few scraps floating around in our individual psyches.
Back then, Zach and I had been very much in love; Heaven only knew how we had gotten that way since it didn't seem we had anything in common except a healthy interest in sex. Blinded by what I thought then was true love, I had almost hindered my career in an effort to please him.
I don't know what last gasp of individual pride kept me from it; some of my father's arrogant and self-centered blood, perhaps, but having once had the heady recognition of the world, I could not give it up for the confines of a kitchen.
Yes, I had known of Zach's naive and unrealistic view on what constituted women's place when we married. After what could best be termed an unusual childhood with my larger-than-life father and gifted, beautiful mother, I thought the cozy, structured life Zach believed in incredibly attractive.
For his part Zach found my independence, self-reliance and unconventional upbringing intriguing. We had a brief courtship and a halcyon honeymoon period before we settled down to the business of real living and started acting like ourselves. It was a match doomed from the start; my father had always said it was, but Zach and I had been too stupid to realize it.
And now he was offering me a job.
I guess since I was no longer his wife it didn't matter if I worked or not.
"A job? What kind of a job?"
"Photography, of course."
Curiouser and curiouser, as the man said.
I gestured toward the large lump of plaster that imprisoned my leg. "What about that?"
"It won't matter. Most of the stuff is tabletop work. I'll warn you the pay isn't very much, hardly anything and not anywhere near your standards. Room and board are included, though. And everyone understands the circumstances."
He said it gently and probably meant it very kindly, but my overly sensitive feelings immediately sprang into overdrive. Everyone understood the circumstances...it made me sound as if they were expecting me to be some sort of moon-mad charity case.
But wasn't that what I was?
For one minute a great lump of self-pity grabbed my throat, and I thought I just might die of it. Fine effect Zach was having on me! I had been doing just fine until he had showed up. No crying, no maudlin emotionalism, then he appears, and I turn into a weak and weeping female. My father would have disowned me then and there.
I looked over at him in a businesslike way. "Perhaps you'd better explain what it's all about."
"It's all fairly simple, really. I'm doing a field research project--"
"Field research? In molecular microbiology?" I blurted out in utter astonishment. Zach's field is one of the more delicate and esoteric in science, and getting him out of the laboratory even to come home for dinner had been an effort. The idea of him doing in-field research was incredible.
"Yes, it's sort of hush-hush, but I'm coordinating my own independent research with the lab's backing and cooperation to test a new dating process for organic materials. We're working at an archaeological dig, coordinating our molecular research with traditional dating methods to see if we can guarantee a fixed point of reference. I had to politic like hell to get the deal," he added with a smug kind of pride.
"Don't sound surprised. Don't you remember I've always been fascinated with archaeology?"
No, I didn't remember, because I had never known. It made me feel oddly guilty, which made me angry, because I wasn't his wife any more, and he had no right to make me feel guilty. For a minute I cursed my feckless way with money, Aunt Cat's meddling, Zach's collusion in her meddling, that dratted sky diving accident, any and every thing which had conspired to put me in this decidedly uncomfortable position!
"So what will I be doing?" I asked, gasping only a little as I squirmed against the pillows. The new position wasn't really any more comfortable than the old, but I had come to the conclusion that when one is wearing several pounds of plaster there is no comfortable position!
"Photographing our finds. We've been working for almost a month now, since the start of the school's summer break, so there's a lot of backlog waiting. Somehow Galliard's Polaroids just didn't cut it, so we left it all hanging until we could get a real photographer."
"You mean you started without a photographer?" I was incredulous.
Zach shrugged. "We had one lined up at the beginning of the dig, but... Can't really blame him; he got a better offer. I told you there wasn't much money in it," he added defensively.
"What about site shots?"
He looked startled. "You know about site shots?"
I nodded and tried not to feel that I had scored one for my side. True, I had never worked as a dig photographer, but while shooting a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC assignment in Egypt, the writer and I had spent the night at a dig in the Siwa Oasis. Since there is absolutely nothing to do in that small green island set in an ocean of sand, I had spent the evening talking with the dig photographer. I am extremely quick at picking up catchphrases that make it appear I know more than I really do; the bad habit of using them has gotten me out of almost as much trouble as it's gotten me into!
"A little," I said modestly, "but site shots require a lot of activity. How are we going to hoist that..." I gestured disdainfully toward my emplastered leg, "...on camels and over sphinxes?"
Zach stared at me, then blinked, and then blinked again. "What are you raving about? Camels? Sphinxes? My God, woman, we're going to Arkansas, not Egypt!"
Now it was my turn to stare. "Arkansas? What can you dig up in Arkansas?"
It was a stupid question, for I could see the light of an impending lecture gleaming in the blue depths of his eyes. "There's lots in that area. Early settlements, old Indian sites...just across the border in Oklahoma there's even a stone marked with runes that appear to be of the Middle Viking period...that's around 800 or 900 AD. Now the runes are of a transitional type thought to be of a much later time, so they have been questioned by some scholars, but when translated the runes tell..."
I had learned early on that if you don't forcibly interrupt Zach in the middle of one of his intellectual effusions, you have to wait all the way through it. Sometimes they can last for over an hour, and I swear it seems that he doesn't even pause to take a breath.
"Zach Hathcock! You're trying to dig up a Viking runestone in Arkansas?"
He stopped almost in mid-word and looked at me as if I were delirious. "No, of course not. The odds of finding another rune stone within a thousand miles of the first are astronomical. We're doing a Civil War site."
"Civil War? That was just a hundred years ago."
"It ended ninety-eight years ago, to be exact, in 1865. There's this legend of a lost patrol," he began.
Then Nurse Ryan, a massive woman more suited to drill sergeant than ministering angel, came in and announced in ringing tones that visiting hours were over. Not even one of Zach's extemporaneous lectures could stand up against her redoubtable presence. Just to be sure, though, she stood in the doorway waiting to be obeyed.
"Take care of yourself, Alixandra," Zach muttered then surprised the heck out of me by bending over stiffly to plant a shy and awkward kiss on my forehead. "You really don't look well at all."
I didn't know whether to thank him or curse him, and he was gone long before I decided.