Charles Grant - Night Songs
He propped his feet on the bench's high end and stared at the curtained window to the left of the door. "I'm not rich yet, if that's what you're asking."
Cameron laughed, a series of seal-like barks that never failed to sandpaper his nerves.
"Or maybe," he said, "you want me to make a speech at the bash on Saturday. You know, give the folks a little excitement in case the party gets too dull."
The laughter again, though this time he sensed strain and immediately stretched an arm over his head, list toward the ceiling, a silent celebration for scoring a point.
"Hey, you're welcome to come, you know that," Cameron said once he had sobered. "The party's open even to the opposition. Besides, it isn't a political thing anyway, for crying out loud. It's a celebration for shucking the tourists."
Colin nodded to himself. Sure, and I just know you have some swampland in Georgia you're eager for me to see.
"But that's not why I called," Cameron continued when he heard no response. "I, uh, I was wondering if you had plans for after the funeral tonight."
"Why?" Colin asked warily.
"Well, it's like this-I got a couple of friends over today from Trenton, and I think you ought to meet them. They might change your mind about the casinos and what they'll do for the island."
"What they'll do is ruin it," he said flatly.
"So you say."
"So I say, so the Chief of Police says, so says half the island, if not more."
"You're making this awfully hard on yourself, Col. And it isn't doing the island any good, either."
He sat up, his left hand a fist on his thigh, his right strangling the receiver. "Don't," he said quietly. "Don't you dare blame me for what's happening here, Bob. I'm not the one who's promising pie-in-the-sky riches if the casinos come in. I'm not the one promising bigger houses and bigger cars and fancier clothes and all that other nonsense."
"Colin," the man said, his voice straining to hold back anger, "all I want is what's best for Haven's End."
"Jesus," he said in disgust. "Jesus H. Christ, Bob, this is me you're talking to, not some goddamned fisherman who can barely make ends meet."
"My friends from the mainland-"
"Yeah," he interrupted, "I know all about your so-called friends."
The year before Colin moved south, Peg's husband, Jim, had decided to investigate Cameron's somewhat dubious mainland connections. For months he had worked alone, and for months had held his silence, but it was inevitable that word of his preliminary findings would finally leak to the grapevine. Cameron grew increasingly defensive, the islanders increasingly hostile, and late in April Fletcher's car had blown up while waiting for the ferry on the island-side platform. Jim had been in it. Five and a half years later there were still no arrests.
Cameron had instantly disclaimed responsibility, his rapid backpedaling so skillful that people believed he'd only gotten in over his head. Nevertheless, when he tried once again to bring in the casinos, to make the small sheltered island a refuge for the high rollers discouraged from visiting Atlantic City to the north, Colin didn't trust him, didn't like him, and in a brief moment of weakness agreed to oppose him for the Board of Governors' top position.
"Listen, Ross," Cameron said, civility abandoned, "you've no call bringing up stuff that's dead and buried."
"Poor choice of words, Bob," he said lightly.
"Faggot painter," Cameron snapped. "I'm giving you a chance to get the truth, and all you can do is throw mud. And if you think I'm going to stand by and watch this island go to hell in a handbasket because some goddamned jackass who wasn't even born here thinks he knows better than me what's good for this place, you've got another think coming."
"Bob, you really are a shit, you know that?"
"Ross, I'm warning you…"
He had had enough. "Warn me all you want, Bob," he said, "but if you so much as look cross-eyed at me between now and the election, I'll knock your fucking teeth in."
"Peg," the man said righteously, "doesn't approve of violence."
"And you leave her out of this!"
He slammed the receiver onto its cradle and glared at his fists. He knew there were still a few who would never think of him as being really "island"; but there were also enough who had sufficient faith in his judgement-and in the future of Haven's End without the casinos-to back him all the way. There was no denying the fact that Jim Fletcher's murder bothered him. There was also no denying the fact that coming to Haven's End, working with the schoolchildren, meeting Peg and the others, all served to heal him inside as nothing else had.
To his mind that meant he had an obligation.
And if he was ever going to be able to call this place a home, he would have to discharge that obligation before the temptation to flee grew too strong to resist.
He rose suddenly and crossed the room to the narrow, white-curtained window on the left hand wall. Below it was a chipped cherrywood table. On a strip of white linen in the center was one of Gran D'Grou's carvings.
The Screaming Woman.
Abruptly, the election, Bob Cameron, and the nastiness were gone. In its place a reminder of the funeral, and he hugged himself absently as he realized it was almost twilight.
A car horn blared in the distance. Another answered. A third buried them both.
He backed away from the table.
The figure was carved out of gray-and-black driftwood. It was fifteen inches high, a naked woman standing with her hands at her sides, her head tilted back slightly. At a distance she seemed to be singing; closer, and she could be screaming as her neck was encircled by what appeared to be a headless serpent growing up and out of the base of her spine. Her eyes were blank. Her legs merged at the knees into the body of a second, larger serpent that formed the statue's base.
This not be snake here, it is tail. She is sea woman. Eye cut out? No, no, Colin, it is shadow. You put a light here, the eye come back. You want a big monster, you stick it in the closet; you want a beautiful woman, put it on the television.
Jesus damn, Colin, you got no imagination.
He switched on the lamp standing beside the table and hurried into the bedroom to get dressed.
He didn't blame the island a bit for wanting Gran buried right away. During the last year he had changed, and for the worse. His role of benevolent despot had darkened, and no one had thought it amusing anymore. He snarled, except at the children and Lilla. He spent more time in the woods, more time at his shack, less time at the luncheonette unless he wanted to talk with the young ones. When he looked at passersby it was from the corner of his eye. When he spoke, his voice took on indecipherable insinuation.
And he demonstrated suddenly an uncanny ability to make himself appear to be something he wasn't- instead of an embittered failure, an exile from his home, he was a mysterious figure from an exotic foreign land known for its cultivation of supernatural shadows; instead of a man who steadfastly refused the polishing of his raw artistic talents, he was a worker of dark miracles so convincing even Warren Harcourt thought his dead wife could be brought back.
The dead birds hadn't helped at all.
Lilla's singing was even worse.
And tomorrow, Colin thought, they would look up at the sun and really feel silly about letting themselves be spooked-spooked by a drunk who didn't make sense even with his carvings.
But that was tomorrow.
There was still tonight to get through.
The beach continued on for a half mile below the last jetty, to the sharp slope where the land rose and the sand gave way to boulders, barnacled and slick, providing throats for the breakers that shattered against them. Down by the beach there were gaps, for tide pools, children, the occasional lovers. Fifty yards more and the gaps closed, the boulders becoming jagged and massive. And at the southern tip they rose to hundred-foot cliffs fringed with wind-twisted trees and tenacious straggly shrubs.
There were sand dunes as well. Two parallel rows spiked with sharp-edged sawgrass, broken and nearly leveled at several narrow places by wind or stormtide or the persistence of walkers.
And there was Dunecrest Estates, the only homes outside town-larger, newer, bespeaking wealth and position in fieldstone and brick. There were fewer than two dozen, half of them facing the ocean, the rest fronting a woodland arm between them and Neptune Avenue, which itself ended where they did, at a street called Surf Court. The development was twelve years old, long enough for the townspeople to call it simply the Estates.
And there was Gran D'Grou's shack.
It stood on a raised spit of land where the dunes met the slope, hidden by dying shrubs, scrub pine, and a colony of weeds. There was no litter, but the ground seemed cluttered just the same, and the roof that pitched away from the ocean was tarpaper-patched, breached at its peak by a rusted stovepipe chimney.
Lilla D'Grou, ignoring the dampness that seeped through the cracks in panes and thin walls, stood at the front room's sand-pitted window and stared at the beach. A wave rose, crested, hissed toward the pines at the end of the front yard. She ignored it. A stiff-legged tern raced the bubbling foam, head bobbing, legs reaching, its tracks in the wet sand fast disappearing, and she ignored it.
She realized with a start that she was staring at her ghost in the window., A lean face, and soft, high cheekbones, and a rounded chin made for a palm to cup it; deep brown eyes slightly raised at the corners, half-closed now in a look that might have been seductive in another time and place, the whole framed by luxuriant black hair parted in the center and settling on her slender shoulders in tangled natural curls. Not beautiful, but arresting, a face and lithe figure that turned men around ten minutes after she'd passed. But the black dress she now wore rendered her sexless.
She signed, her gaze shifted, and the ghost vanished.
To her left she could see the small fishing fleet moving ponderously homeward. Just over a half dozen boats, but they would work until November to drag the last of the harvest into their holds. Patiently. Confidently. Once each day drawing into a large circle for a laughing mealtime rendezvous if all was well, somberly trading well-worn and well-known gripes if their nets remained empty. Most had lived on the island since birth and could, if they'd a mind, trace their lineage back to the original inhabitants-brigands and smugglers and a few honest settlers, who lived on the island in an uneasy truce.
They fished, gossiped, and few ate what they carried back to Fox's Marina. Most of the catch was swiftly unloaded and packed into refrigerated crates, the crates labeled and thrown onto a truckbed for the mainland. What remained was sold to Naughton's Market or the Clipper Run. And if it were not worth the selling, it was thrown to the gulls.
The gulls that stalked them like winged hyenas.
Lilla watched them without a glimmer of caring, while the shadows of the trees behind the crumbling shack lanced toward the water, jabbed at the darkening sand. Shadows that would last until the night fog rolled it, riding low on the waves like a massive prowling beast, silently pacing the island in furtive spurts of roiling grey. It was treacherous even for the landed-blotting out the stars, defying the bright moon, sifting through the woodland to curl low in the streets, scrape noiselessly at chilled panes, fade the streetlamps one by one to slow sifting spots of diffused white haze.