Authors: Graham Masterton
The elevator went bing! and stopped on the sixteenth floor. The doors slid back, revealing another abandoned reception area, with a sign saying
KINGS COMMUNICATIONS, INC
. This floor was much gloomier than the floor above, because all of the blinds had been drawn. There were stacks of plywood chairs all the way along the corridor.
"Come on, for Christ's sake," said Jimmy, and prodded the button for the twenty-third floor.
The doors began to close, but as they did so, he heard a rushing noise, like somebody running. He prodded the button again, but he was too late. The red-faced man came hurtling through the gap between the doors, with both arms raised high above his head. In each hand he was holding a large triangular butcher's knife…
The miracle happened early on Tuesday afternoon. It was the tiniest of miracles, and it appeared to be a happy one. But it was only the first of many more miracles-miracles that grew darker and more frightening by the day-like statues that turn their heads around and baths that fill up with blood and dead people seen walking through the streets.
It was the second week in May. Molly was painting a scarlet rose with a yellow ladybug crawling up its stem. Sissy came into her studio and stood watching her for a few minutes. Molly was sitting next to the open window, so that a warm breeze blew in from the yard and the sunshine fell across the gardening book that she was using for reference.
An oval mirror stood on the opposite side of her desk, and Molly's painting was reflected in it, as was her hand, busily washing in the petals with a fine sable brush. She wore silver rings on every finger, including her thumb, and her fingernails were polished in metallic blue.
She was also wearing a spectacular antique necklace, more like a charm bracelet than a necklace, hung with bells and mascots and stars set with semiprecious stones. It flashed and sparkled and jingled as she painted.
"How about some more wine?" asked Sissy.
"Just half a glass. I always zizz off if I drink too much."
Sissy came back with a frosty glass of Zinfandel and set it down on the windowsill. "That's beautiful," she said, nodding at the rose.
Molly tinkled her brush in a jelly jar full of cloudy water. "'Mr. Lincoln,' they call it. It has a wonderful smell. I just wish I had a green thumb, and I could grow some in the yard. But everything I try to grow dies of some kind of horrible blight, or gets eaten by caterpillars."
"Being a gardener, you know-it's like being a nurse," Sissy told her. "Your plants are your patients. They need constant fussing over if you want to keep them happy. Me, I always sing to my flowers."
"You sing to them?"
"Why not? My climbing roses love 'Stairway to Heaven.' Trouble is, I'm always gasping for breath by the time I get to the last verse."
"You shouldn't smoke so much."
Mr. Boots, Sissy's black Labrador, came trotting into the study with his pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
"Hey, Mister, I suppose you're pining for a walk," said Sissy, ruffling his ears. "Well, it's too hot right now, but let's go sit outside in the shade."
Molly said, "I'll come join you, soon as I've finished this. My deadline's next Friday. Fairy Fifi in Flowerland, this one's called. You should read the text. Or rather you shouldn't, unless you have a strong desire to barf. 'Fairy Fifi skipped and danced, all around the roses. She had bellses on her fingerses…and bellses on her toeses.'"
"Saints preserve us."
From the day that Trevor had first brought Molly home to meet her, she and Sissy had become the most comfortable of friends. There might have been thirty years between them, but they were both spectacularly untidy, and they both dressed like Gypsies, and they both liked wine and fortune-telling and jingly-jangly 1960s hippie music. "Hey, Mr Tambourine Man!" they would sing in chorus, arm in arm.
Such was the warmth that had developed between them that they could sit for hours together saying nothing at all, but occasionally smiling at each other, as if they shared a secret that they would never disclose to anybody else, not even Trevor.
Ever since he was in grade school Trevor had complained to Sissy that she looked and behaved like a fortune-teller from a traveling carnival, with her wild gray hair and her dangling earrings and her black flowery-printed dresses. But Molly was a free spirit, too, and Sissy believed that Trevor adored her all the more because she was just as unconventional as his mother.
Molly reminded Sissy of a young Mia Farrow, from Rosemary's Baby days, with hair like little brown flames and a heart-shaped face and enormous brown eyes, and a coltish, apple-breasted, skinny-legged figure that always made Sissy think to herself that she used to look like that once-but that was when the Platters had just released "Only You" and her father used to collect her from high school in his new powder blue Edsel.
Sissy went outside, into the small backyard, with its redbrick paving and its terra-cotta plant pots. The sky was hazy but cloudless, and the humidity was well over 80 percent. She sat in the shadow of the vine trellis at the far end of the yard in front of a small green castiron table, and took out her Marlboro cigarettes and her DeVane cards. Mr. Boots flopped down at her feet and panted.
Through the open window, she could see Molly's reflection in the oval mirror, and she waved with her cigarette hand. Smoke drifted up through the vines.
Sissy began to lay out the DeVane cards. They were huge, much larger than tarot cards, worn at the edges, but still brightly colored. They had been printed in France in the eighteenth century, and even though they were called the "Cards of Love," they were also crowded with mysterious signs and veiled innuendoes, and omens of impending bad luck.
The DeVane cards might well predict that a young girl was going to meet a tall, handsome stranger and plan to get married before the end of the year, but they might also predict that her wedding car would overturn on the way to the church and that she would be seriously disfigured by third-degree burns.
This afternoon, Sissy wanted to ask the cards if it was time for her to return to Connecticut. After all, she had been staying in Cincinnati for almost seven weeks now, and she was beginning to suspect that Trevor was growing more than a little irked by her being here so long.
She laid out the cards in the traditional cross-of-Lorraine pattern. Then she laid the Predictor card, which represented herself, across the center. Her card was la Sibylle des salons, the Parlor Fortune-teller, depicted as an old woman in a red cloak and gold-rimmed spectacles. Sissy had been able to tell fortunes since she was eleven years old, and she could interpret everything from tea leaves to crystal balls. She had never asked herself how she could do it. To her, seeing how tomorrow morning was going to pan out seemed as natural as remembering what had happened yesterday afternoon.
The first card came up was les Amis de la table, which showed four people sitting at a dinner table laden with roasted pheasants and joints of beef and whole salmon decorated with piped mayonnaise and slices of cucumber. Every place at the table was set with seven pieces of cutlery, and this was a clear indication that she would be welcome for at least another week.
The pretty young woman at the head of the table was holding up a pomegranate and laughing, and the young man sitting next to her was laughing, too. Pomegranates were a symbol of purity and love, because they were the only fruit incorruptible by worms, but they were also a symbol of blood, because of the color of their juice.
Although the young woman and the young man appeared to be so carefree, there was an older woman sitting close beside them, and the older woman's expression was deeply troubled. She had her left hand pressed to her bosom, and she was frowning at the fourth dinner guest as if he frightened her. However, it was impossible to see his face, because he was wearing a gray hooded cloak, like a monk's habit, which concealed everything except the tip of his nose.
On the table in front of him there was a shiny metal dish cover, and his face was reflected in that, but the reflection was so distorted that Sissy was unable to make out what he looked like.
So here were four companions eating their evening meal-but one of them was a mystery guest, and his presence was clearly disturbing one of the others. There was another strange element in the picture, too: a red rose was hanging upside down from the candelabrum just above the center of the table.
Sissy turned up the next card. La Blanchisseuse, the Laundress. It showed a young woman in a mobcap lifting a white dress or a nightshirt out of a wooden tub. The young woman's eyes were closed. Either she was very tired, or she was daydreaming, or else she didn't want to look at the horror of what she was doing, because the wooden tub was filled to the brim with blood, and the nightshirt was soaked in blood, too.
A small side window in the laundry was open, very high up, and a man was looking in. Presumably he was standing on a ladder. He had staring eyes and a ruddy face, almost as red as the blood in the wooden tub. All around the window frame, red roses were growing.
Sissy stared at the card for a long time. Mr. Boots realized that she was unsettled, because he lifted his head and made that mewling sound in the back of his throat.
"What do you make of this, Mr. Boots?" Sissy asked him, showing him the card. "It looks to me like somebody's going to get badly hurt, and somebody else is going to try to wash away the evidence."
Mr. Boots barked, just once. Sissy slowly put down the laundry card and picked up the next one. This was even stranger, le Sculpteur-showing a young sculptor in his studio. The sculptor was slim, with long hair, and strangely androgynous, so that he could have been a girl in boy's clothing.
He was chiseling the naked figure of a man out of a block of white marble. The figure was holding up both hands, as if it were surrendering or appealing for understanding, and both of its hands were bright red, as if they been dipped in blood.
All around the studio ceiling, there were stone carvings of roses.
"Somebody is going to get badly hurt, and then somebody is going to wash away the evidence. But it looks to me as if a third person is going to create an image that shows who really did it. Now-who do we know who can do that, Mr. Boots?"
Sissy picked up the cards and was about to take them inside to show Molly, when she saw something bright and red and blurry out of the corner of her eye. She turned, and there it was, in one of the terra-cotta pots. A tall scarlet rose, its petals almost tulip shaped, with a yellow ladybug crawling up its stem.
She approached it very slowly, took off her spectacles, and peered at it. She hadn't seen it on her way out. In fact, she was absolutely sure that she had never seen it before, ever.
She sniffed it, but it had no fragrance at all.
"Molly!" she called, too softly the first time for Molly to hear her. Then, "Molly!"
"I'm in the kitchen," Molly called back. "I'm just getting myself some clean paint water."
"Forget the darn paint water. Come out here."
Molly appeared on the back porch. "What is it? I really have to finish this illustration."
"I thought you couldn't grow roses," said Sissy.
"I can't. I told you. I'm the Angel of Death when it comes to gardening. Even my fat hen curls up and dies."
"So what's this?"
Molly came barefoot into the yard. She stared at the rose in disbelief. Then she laughed and said, "Oh, you're nuts! You stuck it in there yourself, just to fool me!"
Sissy shook her head. "Look at it, Molly. It's the exact same rose you've just been drawing. Right down to the yellow ladybug."
Molly took hold of the rose by the stem and gently tugged it.
"You're right," she said, and her wide eyes widened even more. "It's rooted. And it is exactly the same. Exactly. Look-this is insane!-it even has brush marks on the petals."
"It's not possible," said Sissy. "But it must be possible. I can see it."
"We should show somebody else," Molly suggested. "Maybe there was something in the salad."
"Something in the salad like what?"
"I don't know. Jimsonweed or something. Maybe we're, like, hallucinating."
"How could Jimsonweed have gotten into your salad? I watched you make it. It was nothing but rocket and scallions and sliced beets and hard-cooked eggs."
"But how can this rose possibly be real? I didn't grow it, I painted it!"
"Maybe it's a miracle," said Sissy.
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
"If it's not a miracle, what else could it be? Maybe it's a sign from God."
"Why would God send us a sign like this? I mean, even if he did, what's he trying to tell us? We don't have to grow roses from cuttings? All we have to do is paint them?"
Sissy said, "Maybe it's more than a miracle. Maybe it's a warning." She held up the DeVane cards. "I was just reading my immediate future. Look at this-four people sitting at a table, but one of them looks as if he's some kind of threat to the other three. Then there's this-a washerwoman rinsing blood out of somebody's clothing. And this-a sculptor carving the likeness of a living man, but the man has blood on his hands."
"I don't understand. What does it mean?"
"I think it's something that's going to happen to us…or something that we're going to find ourselves involved in. Somebody's going to get hurt, maybe killed even."
"Not one of us?"
"I surely hope not. But this sculptor-I think he might represent you. Whoever's responsible for this wounding or this killing, the police are going to ask you to sketch his likeness."
Molly shook her head. "Come on, Sissy-I haven't been asked to do any police sketches for months. February, I think, was the last one, when that teacher got raped at Summit Country Day School. The CIS prefer computers these days."
"It's here in the cards, Molly. The cards don't have any reason to lie to me."
"Well, maybe you should read my tea leaves, too, just to make sure. The cards may not be lying, but they could have made a mistake, couldn't they?"
"Molly-there are roses in all of these cards, and they mean something, too, although I don't know what. And what do we have here, blooming right in front of us?"