Carson was drunk, but not so drunk that he didn’t know it was time to get the hell out of there.
What’s-her-name—the girlfriend of the guy who owned the house—was drunk too, and she’d cornered him in one of the upstairs bedrooms. She tasted like eggnog and pine-scented aerosol spray; her panties were black with tiny sprigs of holly printed on them.
Afterwards, she’d passed out across the bed, her mouth hanging half-open, pink lipstick smeared across one cheek. Carson had zipped his pants and crept into the darkened hall, feeling a little dizzy and too warm in his bulky black sweater. He didn’t think anyone had seen him.
He went downstairs, where the Ramones were blasting out of the stereo—Merry Christmas baby, I don’t want to fight tonight. Carson slipped through the crowd of acquaintances and near-strangers, and went out the sliding glass door at the back.
The deck outside was mercifully empty, and though it was well past midnight, the shorefront was ablaze with light and noise; Christmas lights, white and multicolored, pulsed and flashed on all the ritzy beach houses, while torches were balls of yellow flame dancing in the humid Florida night. The beach below looked darker, the water black and somehow inviting, so Carson went toward it.
He hadn’t walked far before he was stricken with the sudden urge to sit down. He heeded it immediately, hoping he wasn’t going to throw up or pass out. Maybe he was drunker than he thought. He breathed in and out a few times, experimentally, but no nausea manifested itself, and he sighed with relief. The sand was pleasantly cool beneath his hands, the water cold but barely reaching him with its foamy tendrils. The surf eased in, and then out.
The woman’s face appeared in the sand, where the water had been moments before. She was inches from his left hand.
Startled, he tried to leap to his feet, but only succeeded in tangling his legs together, and falling heavily on his side. Loose sand puffed up in a corona around him. Now he was sure he was drunker than he thought.
He looked at the spot in the wet sand again, the spot right near his handprint.
The woman’s face was unmistakable. There were deep pits where her eyes should be, and at the bottoms of the pits Carson swore he could make out a hint of long black lashes, with grains of sand stuck in them here and there. The nose protruded completely from the sand, the nostrils like tiny twin tunnels that filled with water like irrigation pipes as the tide washed in again. As it washed out, Carson could see the mouth, which appeared to be smiling.
His senses dulled by alcohol, Carson nevertheless realized the need for intervention. The thought that the woman could be dead did not really frighten him; nor was there any urgency in his willingness to help. He was drunk, and this seemed like an interesting enough pastime, it was as simple as that.
Crawling back toward the face, the ocean rushing in his ears, he began digging in the sand with his clawed fingers, first unearthing the eyes and mouth of the buried woman, then scooping out handfuls of sand around the neck and shoulders. She was a young woman, from the looks of it, with blonde hair and skin that appeared smooth as polished marble. She didn’t look dead, but Carson couldn’t see how she could be alive.
He’d removed almost all the sand from around her head when she opened her eyes.
They were bright, those eyes, bright and hot and yellow as dual suns, glowing orbs of flame in the darkness.
He reared back, his capacity for shock seemingly returning. The ocean was roaring behind him, the sound of a furious and wrathful god, and he looked over his shoulder at it, mostly so that he could look away from those eyes, the candlelight eyes of the woman in the sand, and then he saw the water rising up in a wave, black and gigantic, so tall that it was blotting out the moon. Icy drops rained down upon his forehead, and then the ocean fell upon him, dark and heavy and hungry.
He rolled out of bed, his feet making a damp-sounding splat on the hardwood floor. He was naked, and he noticed his skin smelled vaguely of sweat and salt, and a hint of fishiness. The beach…?
He looked around, confused. Yes, right there by the hamper was the black sweater, and the jeans and socks he’d been wearing the night before. They were still wet, and sand clung to them in grainy white clumps.
Carson dragged himself into the bathroom and stood under the shower for nearly fifteen minutes, letting cold water pound down on his aching muscles. It was Saturday, only a week before Christmas—he had planned on doing some shopping today, maybe head over to the frame shop to see if those dozen paintings were ready for pickup yet, but at the moment he felt so wretched that all he wanted to do was brew up a giant pot of coffee and zone out in front of the TV. The day was mostly shot anyway, since he’d slept so late. Feeling a little better now that he’d effectively postponed the day’s responsibilities, he turned off the water and toweled himself dry, pulling on the paint-spattered T-shirt and sweat pants that had been hanging limply on the doorknob since sometime last week.
As he padded back out through the living room he remembered the sound that had woken him, the flap of the mail slot, so he diverted his route to pick up the few scattered envelopes.
Junk, crap, catalogs—he sighed and headed for the trash can in the kitchen. At the bottom of the pile was a hand-written envelope, and he glanced at it without much interest. MR. CARSON SLOANE, the top line read in very neat, black ink. He flipped the envelope over; no return address. He wondered if it was a Christmas card from somebody. Tossing the rest of the mail aside, he tore open the flap of the mysterious envelope and pulled out two pages of stiff blue paper. “Dear Mr. Sloane,” the letter began:
I have seen many examples of your portrait work, both in collector’s magazines and in person, at the Formby Gallery show this past July. I feel that you have the qualities I desire in an artist, and I would like to commission you to paint a portrait of my wife.
Carson raised his eyebrows. A commission would be a huge boon right now; the work had dried up somewhat after an initial flurry of interest in his first gallery show. He read on:
I would like very much for you to be a guest in my house, for as long as it takes to complete the portrait. All of your expenses will of course be taken care of, and you will be amply compensated for the painting.
The letter writer then named a sum that made Carson whistle low between his teeth. It was more than anyone had ever paid for any of his paintings—in fact, it was far more than his paintings had fetched all together.
He kept reading, his skin going hot in his growing excitement. Apparently the guy was richer than God, and lived with his wife and servants in a remote chateau on some tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico. In his neat hand, the benefactor described the surroundings, mentioning the pleasing north light in the room where Carson would be working, then detailing travel arrangements, including a private plane that would retrieve Carson from the airport and would return him to the mainland once the painting was completed.
Please contact me as soon as possible if you agree to these terms. I hope that we can have a mutually agreeable working relationship, and I look forward to your answer.
The letter was signed Tom Lancaster. An address was spelled out beneath the signature.
After he’d finished reading, Carson nearly laughed out loud. If this proposition was on the up and up, then the gods were certainly smiling down on him today, and had evidently chosen to ignore his transgressions at last night’s Christmas party. “A holiday miracle,” he said to himself, and chuckled. Then he read the letter again, his heart beating faster with each paragraph. Apparently this Tom Lancaster was looking forward to Carson’s reply, and damn it, that reply was going to be lightning-fast in coming. Forgetting about the pot of coffee and the TV, Carson grabbed a pen and some old stationery out of a drawer, and sat down at the kitchen table to write.
He dropped the letter into the box with a hopeful little flip, checking the hatch three times to make sure it had fallen all the way down.
As he walked back to his apartment, feeling better than he had all week, he happened to glance over at the decorations festooning the small cathedral across the street.
And there she was. The woman in the sand.
She was actually more of a girl than a woman, he decided, now that he could see her in a more normal context. Her hair was very blonde, and pulled back in a loose ponytail. She wore an orange coat.
At first Carson thought she had been staring at him, but when he looked at her again she had turned her head, and was climbing the steps toward the opened doors of the church. He felt a little chill, and imagined he smelled salt for a moment, but then he chided himself. Maybe he’d seen the girl before, walking around the neighborhood.
Maybe he’d seen her without registering it, then later dreamed about her. Stuff like that happened all the time, didn’t it? And she was very beautiful, now that he had seen her properly, so he might very well have noticed her at some earlier date.
Still moving with a jaunty bounce, he crossed the street and went into the church. He didn’t really know why he was following her, but it seemed the logical thing to do. There had been some Christmas pageant in the cathedral that morning, but it were over now, and only a few people whispered among the darkened pews.
Even after his eyes had adjusted to the dimness, Carson couldn’t see the girl at first. The light was shifting and spectral, casting phantoms upon the walls and statues. Candles flickered, and the gray glow from outside was filtered as rainbows through the high stained glass windows.
Then he spotted her. She was up near the altar, drifting slowly as if in a trance, moving sideways with a graceful shuffle that made it appear that she was floating a few inches above the floor. Carson could only see a quarter of her face, a pale cheek stained yellow by candlelight.
He drew closer, trying to keep his own footsteps quiet. The girl seemed to be praying; at any rate, her lips were moving, silently, and one hand was pressed to the lapel of her coat.
Carson decided to speak to her, and he took a few steps closer. But then he saw clearly what she was doing.
The candles at the front of the church had been purchased and lit by parishioners, who hoped that the candle flame would speed their prayers toward the heavens. Their prayers, as Carson knew, inevitably involved loved ones who were ill or dying.
The blonde girl was looking at each candle in turn, muttering to herself. Her eyes were very rapt, and focused on her work. She would skip this candle, and then that one, but then, with her shuffling sideways movements, she would stop in front of one that she had chosen by some criteria known only to her. And then she would lick her thumb and forefinger, hold them over the candle flame, and very deliberately pinch her fingers over the wick, snuffing it out with a wisp of smoke and the faint odor of burning wax.
Carson, disturbed, turned and left the church.
The day after Christmas, Carson found himself seated on a plastic chair in a tiny regional airport, a battered gym bag and a small suitcase resting between his feet. The weather had turned very cold, oppressive—the sky seemed a blackening bowl, closing down upon the earth. The effect was unsettling through the massive windows.
The airport was nearly empty, and Carson stared out at the tarmac, trying to get excited about all the money he would soon be making, but instead distracted by thoughts of the blonde girl, who he hadn’t seen since that day in the cathedral.
He had been waiting a little more than half an hour when he heard echoing footsteps, very loud, approaching him from behind. The man, when he appeared, was chunky and dour, dressed in black slacks and a simple white polo shirt that gave the impression of a uniform. Carson stood, understanding that this was one of Tom Lancaster’s servants; specific travel arrangements had arrived in his mailbox only two days before. Carson nodded to the man, but said nothing, and did not offer his hand to shake. The man didn’t speak either, simply motioned for Carson to follow.
The plane ride was only an hour, and uneventful save for the impending stormy weather. The man who had picked him up at the airport sat in back, his face expressionless. The pilot had said a brief hello, but then fallen silent also. Carson, who wasn’t much of a talker anyway, looked out the plane’s window and saw stiff peaks of white churning up the Gulf, and the sky growing darker by the minute.
By the time they landed, the sun had nearly set, and Carson saw little of the island itself as he stepped off the plane onto a small patch of blacktop. The wind was harsh, and cold rain had begun to fall; he dug another sweater from his bag, shivering.
When the pilot spoke near his ear, Carson almost jumped out of his skin. “There will be a car waiting for you just on the other side of that building,” he said, pointing to a small structure some yards away. Then, his duties apparently fulfilled, he turned on his heel and climbed back into the plane.
Carson was struck by a profound sense of isolation as he crossed the tarmac; there seemed to be no sound other than the wind through faraway and unseen trees, and the beat of the rain on the ground. The lights that shone down on the little island airport were yellow and too bright, like interrogation spotlights. He felt exposed out in the open, and walked faster toward the building, pulling his sweater tight around himself.
Just as the pilot had promised, a charcoal gray car idled in the parking lot on the other side of the structure, its windshield wipers thumping back and forth. It was too dark for Carson to see the driver, but he made his way toward the car, arranging his expression to display friendliness, a look of belonging here. Before he had got all the way to the car, the driver’s side door opened and another man got out, dressed in the same outfit as the other two men. Carson couldn’t help but be impressed; his patron evidently had a whole fleet of servants at his disposal.
He slid into the car, which was expensive but not showy. Without a word, the driver started the car and turned out of the lot onto a dark road with trees close on both sides.
After ten minutes, Carson finally spoke. “Is there anyone else on the island?” He hadn’t seen any other houses or any signs of human habitation at all; just the trees pressing in like vast green armies.
“Only Mr. Lancaster and his wife,” answered the driver, somewhat tersely. “And us, of course. It’s a very small island.”
Carson was going to ask how they got their food, and what they did for fun with no one else around, but the driver’s tone seemed to discourage further inquiry, so Carson settled back against the seat and stared out into the dark again.
The house loomed up in the headlights less than five minutes later, and Carson found himself straining his eyes to take it all in, unable to wrap his mind around the size of the thing. It towered out of the ground as though it had grown there, an oddly organic structure of wood and natural stone and seemingly acre upon acre of glass.
All the windows on the lower floors were ablaze with light, and Carson suppressed a smile. If he was going to be staying in this palace, then he’d certainly take his sweet time finishing the painting—two or even three weeks could easily become a month or two of luxury, being waited on by servants, eating the best food, swimming in the no-doubt fabulous pool, lying on the beach during off hours with a cocktail in hand—yes, his life was definitely looking up. This was all far, far more than he could have ever imagined.
The car swept through the inevitable wrought iron gates, and came to a stop before the massive edifice. The driver got out and came around to open Carson’s door. Yes, he thought, he could definitely get used to this.
He climbed the front steps, which looked to be made of marble, while the driver followed with his bags. The front doors were standing open, and warm light flooded out, flickering like the glow from a huge fireplace. A slim, diminutive man was silhouetted in the doorway, dressed in a casual gray suit. Carson knew immediately that this must be Mr. Lancaster. The man was much younger than Carson had pictured him, probably only in his mid-thirties, with auburn hair cut in a hip, European style. He was smiling broadly, displaying teeth that looked perfect, not through expensive dentistry, but rather fortuitous genetics.
“Mr. Sloane.” Lancaster stepped forward, his arms extended. “Welcome. I hope it wasn’t too much of a trial coming all the way out here in this weather.”
“Not at all.” Carson shook hands, unable to help himself liking the man immediately. “And please, call me Carson.”
“Of course. And you must call me Tom.” He peered over Carson’s head at the driver. “Briggs here will take your things up to your room, and I’ll take you to meet the lovely subject of your impending masterpiece.” He gestured for Carson to follow as he turned and went into the house. Carson quickly crossed the threshold after his host, trying not to gape at the tasteful opulence that surrounded him. Briggs disappeared up a narrow staircase that was almost hidden behind a large grandfather clock.
“We’ve laid out a late supper, so I hope you’re hungry,” Tom said, glancing over his shoulder and smiling brilliantly again. “I’m sure you’ll find yourself well looked after here.”
“Yes, I can see that already,” Carson said.
They entered a long dining room, whose walls were lined with paintings—mostly portraits, but Carson spotted a few more modern abstract pieces in the collection. The dining table in the center of the room was large, but not so large as to be impersonal. In fact, despite its size, Carson thought the whole room rather cozy. A white brick fireplace glowed cheerily at one end.
“Darling,” said Tom, “this is Carson Sloane, our resident artist.”
A woman that Carson hadn’t noticed before rose from an armchair before the fire, and began to come toward them. She too seemed very young, her pale skin flawless, her blonde hair pulled back to accentuate her aristocratic forehead. She was clad in a simple black wrap dress with long sleeves, and wore it with no jewelry except for a small diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand.
And she was, Carson realized, the spitting image of the woman in the sand, the woman he’d seen snuffing out candles in the cathedral.
For a moment he froze, his sense of reality deserting him. What was she doing here? What kind of game was she playing with him? She must have known about the commission, and flown over to spy on him, to check him out before he came to the house. But why? Why would she do that? She didn’t know him from Adam. The whole scenario sounded incredible, but what other explanation could there be?
Then, as she emerged fully from the shadows, Carson saw to his chagrin that it was not the same woman at all. The resemblance was striking, that was true, close enough so that the two of them could have been sisters, but not exactly the same. Something in the eyes was different, and the turn of her mouth.
“This is Victoria,” Tom was saying, seemingly unaware of Carson’s discomfort. The artist offered his hand to her automatically, hoping that his palm wasn’t sweating.
She took his hand in hers and squeezed it, her smile less ostentatious than her husband’s, but just as welcoming in its way. Perhaps even more so.
“I hope I’ll be a model worthy of your talents, Mr. Sloane,” she said. She had a wonderful voice, soft and throaty, and Carson found his skin tingling at the sound of it. He knew before he even started that this would be the best portrait he would ever paint; how could it be otherwise?
“Please, it’s Carson,” he said. “And I’ll try my hardest to capture your radiance on canvas. I hope my skills are up to the task.” He thought he sounded overly stilted and formal, but his words seemed to please her.
“Well, shall we have a bite?” Tom gestured toward the table. “I don’t know about you, Carson, but I’m absolutely ravenous.”
“Now that you mention it, I’m starving,” Carson replied, realizing as he said it that it was true; he hadn’t eaten since that morning, before he’d gone to the airport.
He glanced at Mrs. Lancaster—Victoria—and she smiled again, a secret smile this time, that seemed meant only for him.
That night, nestled among perfumed cushions in a huge four-poster bed, he dreamed of the party he’d gone to a week ago, the one where he’d slept with what’s-his-name’s girlfriend. Only this time the girl was Victoria, and instead of passing out halfway through the act, she stayed wide awake, urging him on, whispering commands in his ear with that throaty voice. He obeyed her without question, his body aching with the contact, and then suddenly they were both naked on the beach, rutting in the sand like crazed animals. Victoria was laughing into the night, the sound punctuated by flares from the torches that surrounded them with wild orange light. Carson rolled on top of her and she sunk into the sand, shrieking laughter all the while. Panicked, Carson began digging to free her, not stopping to wonder how she could laugh when her nose and mouth were packed full of sand, just needing to save her; but her laughter grew louder and mocking as he dug and got no closer to her. A familiar roar in his ears alerted him to the encroaching sea behind him, and he just had time to turn before the water fell on him like a solid curtain of wet cement, cutting off his oxygen, making him senseless to all but the keening sound of Victoria’s laughter.
He snapped awake, his fingers still curled and claw-like before him. The room was dim, but a reassuring moonlight peered in from around the drapes, helping him to establish his surroundings. The house was quiet and still, the only sound a steady tick from the mantel clock across the room. He tried to relax, shifting his position among the cushions. It had only been a dream. He was far from that horrible beach, safe in a beautiful house, and clearly among friends.
Still, it was several hours before he was able to fall asleep again.
The next day he was allowed to sleep late, and then a servant came with breakfast on a silver tray. After Carson had eaten, he cleaned himself up, and followed another servant downstairs to the room where he would be working. Carson had of course brought some of his own materials, but he saw that the Lancasters had planned for everything; the room where he was to paint already had a top-of-the-line easel set up, a set of the finest brushes laid out in a wooden box, brand new tubes of every imaginable hue, and large unopened bottles of various oils and mediums, as well as a selection of solvents. Carson was a little overwhelmed, and also a bit ashamed of his own rather scruffy supplies, which he’d thrown haphazardly into his gym bag. Inspecting the things Tom had left for him, Carson decided to just ditch his old stuff and work exclusively with the new, which was of a far higher quality than he could normally afford.
He was examining the already primed canvas on the easel when he heard soft footsteps behind him; he whirled and saw Victoria Lancaster standing there, clad only in a blue silk robe. “I hope I didn’t startle you,” she said.
Carson couldn’t help his eyes traveling up and down her body; he felt his face grow hot. “Uh…no. I was just…you know, checking out the materials. The supplies, I mean.” His blush deepened.
She didn’t seem to notice. “I hope you’ll have everything you need. Tom wasn’t sure what to get, so he sort of bought some of everything.” She smiled brightly. “He’s very thorough.”
“Yes, well.” Carson wasn’t sure what to say next, so he pretended to be engrossed in the contents of the turpentine bottle.
“Tom did tell you this would be a nude portrait, didn’t he?”
Carson closed his eyes, forcing himself to stay calm. He had started to sweat, even though the room was cool. “No, he didn’t, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, I hope it won’t make you too uncomfortable.” Her eyes twinkled.
Carson still couldn’t look at her directly. He had, of course, painted plenty of nude women in his day, both girlfriends and paid models, but this was different somehow. He breathed slowly, through his nose. “Not at all. It’s a…common subject of mine.” This wasn’t entirely the truth, but it was close enough to it to reassure her, he figured. Although really it was he who needed the reassuring.
“Yes, the one at your gallery show was most extraordinary,” Victoria said. She was right behind him now. “It was that painting that gave Tom the idea for a nude. And what Tom wants…” She let the sentence dangle, but Carson could hear the wicked smirk in her voice. Then he heard another sound, a soft whisper like fabric sliding down a body and pooling on the floor. Then her voice came again. “Shall we get started?”
He wasn’t sure how he managed to do it, but finally Carson turned to face her. She was trim and attractively pale, her skin glowing yellow in the north light from the large windows. He wanted to look at her breasts, but he forced his gaze up to her eyes. He was here to paint her, and he couldn’t afford distractions. He swallowed hard and affected a businesslike tone. “Any particular pose you had in mind?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll leave that up to you,” she said, clearly amused by his awkwardness. “You’re the artist.”
So he proceeded to pose her, trying to contain his haste, wanting more than anything to be across the room in front of the canvas. Victoria barely spoke, obeying his command to put that arm there, that foot here, tilt the head a little farther to the right. At last he had her positioned in the way he wanted, and he quickly mixed together a dab of burnt umber and some turpentine, then chose a large brush from the box and set to work on a rough under-painting.
He didn’t see Tom all day, and even though he wondered why, he thought it might be presumptuous to ask his whereabouts. The hours flew by, and by dinnertime Carson had blocked in the entire painting and was quite happy with how it was turning out. A bell rang somewhere in the house, and Victoria got lazily to her feet, stretching, obviously in no hurry to put her robe back on. “That’ll be dinner served,” she said, finally shrugging back into her clothes. “I’ll go get dressed while you clean up here. Do you remember how to get to the dining room?”
Carson said he did. He tried not to stare at Victoria’s retreating back as she sashayed out of the room. Once she was gone, he took one huge, deep breath and let it out. Then he laughed out loud. This was going to be a very interesting few weeks, to say the least.
The days continued with little variation; painting all day, then dinner with Tom and Victoria. On the weekend he was given a break while the Lancasters flew to the mainland for some charity function. Carson spent most of the time poking around the massive house, or watching the movie-screen-sized television in the sitting room on the second floor.
When Monday came, he was back at work. He was no longer quite as disoriented by Victoria’s naked presence, although her stunning beauty and flirtatious manner still had the power to befuddle him. Victoria herself had grown more comfortable and easygoing as the days passed, and chatted with him about various topics as she posed, even occasionally laughing at his lame jokes. The painting progressed nicely, and Carson could already tell that it was going to be his very best portrait.
Eventually he felt enough at ease with Victoria to ask her why Tom never seemed to be around to look in on them.
“Oh, he’s never in the house during the day,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. Carson thought he detected a note of forced casualness in her voice. “He mostly likes to mess about on the other side of the island.”
Carson had left it there, but his brain had raced for hours afterwards. Was there some reason Tom deliberately stayed away? He thought of Victoria’s lingering glances and seductive smiles. What harm would it do, really, to return her obvious affections? If what she said was true, Tom was on the other side of the island, and the fact that she’d made a point of mentioning his absence suggested that she would probably be open to Carson’s advances. Perhaps the Lancasters had one of those open marriages he had always heard about…
But no. He was paid to do a job here, and he couldn’t risk screwing it up for a piece of tail, even if the tail was as delectable as Victoria’s. This gig was paying a huge amount of money, and such a prestigious commission would undoubtedly advance his flagging career. He just couldn’t take the chance.
Carson’s steely resolve lasted until Thursday of that week. The previous afternoon had seen the finish of the second layer of flesh tones; the painting was still relatively sketchy, but was shaping up to be, as Tom had predicted, a masterpiece. Victoria, still naked, had stood behind Carson, admiring the portrait, gently touching the back of his neck with her fingers. He had clenched his teeth together, trying to ignore the tingle of her skin against his. That night in bed he could think of nothing but her taut, pale body, and his hand had worked feverishly beneath the covers. He knew he would not be able to resist her for much longer.
Thursday morning, Victoria strode into the room in her robe as she usually did, but today she carried a bottle of wine and two glasses. “I thought we could celebrate the progress you’ve been making,” she said in response to his questioning glance.
Carson knew immediately where all of this was going to end up, but he resignedly let himself be led over to the chaise that Victoria had been posing on. She sat very close to him, so close that the blue silk of her robe overlapped the paint-spattered denim of his jeans. She filled his wine glass almost to the rim, her sparkling eyes never leaving his. “Cheers,” she said.
Two full glasses later, she reached over and took Carson’s hand, guiding it under her robe to the cleft between her legs. Even though Carson had been painting this same body in some detail over the past two weeks, when he touched her she still felt new to him, and thrilling. In seconds they were intertwined, the silk robe whispering to the floor, the glasses falling from their hands and shattering merrily to pieces.
He had never experienced anything like it, and even many hours later, as he lay in bed (how he had managed to paint afterwards, and then face Tom across the dinner table, he still couldn’t fathom), he kept reliving it over and over in his mind, remembering the taste of her, the sound of her little cries, the feel of her body pressing up to meet his. She was extraordinary.
The painting began to take on more of a finished look over the next several days, although when Carson thought about it he wasn’t quite sure how he was getting any work done at all. He and Victoria were at each other almost from the moment that she walked into the studio each morning, and sometimes they would lie for hours on the chaise or the floor, sweating and spent, and stare into each other’s eyes until the inevitable hunger struck again.
This blissful arrangement went on for two more weeks, and judging by Tom’s endlessly friendly demeanor at dinner, he didn’t suspect a thing. Hopefully, Carson thought, Tom wouldn’t suspect a thing until after the painting was finished, and after he’d collected his hefty fee and made his way back to his normal life on the mainland.
One night in the middle of the fourth week, Carson heard a soft knock on his bedroom door. When he rose to open it, he found Victoria standing there in a different, plainer silk robe, her eyes puffy and red from crying. Carson looked past her out into the hall. “Are you crazy?” he whispered harshly. “What are you doing here?”
“We had a fight,” she said, sniffling. She didn’t seem concerned at all. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to see you.”
He pulled her roughly inside and closed the door as quietly as he could. By the time he had turned to face her she had already crossed the room and sat down on his bed. “What did you fight about?” he asked. “Because if Tom knows about us, then I am seriously fucked.”
Victoria looked up at him, a wicked smile curling her upper lip. “What if he did know?” With one fluid motion she slid the robe off her shoulders. She was naked underneath, her skin glowing softly in the dimness. She lay back against the tousled covers. “You shouldn’t be so nervous. Come here.”
Carson’s sudden and unbearable lust was also spiked with anger, and resentment of her attitude. “Don’t you care about how this might affect me?” he hissed, still trying to keep his voice low but finding it very difficult. “We can’t do this now, not with Tom in the house. He might come looking for you.” He stayed by the door, further enraged by her mocking smile and his erection, which was becoming painful. He clenched his fists by his sides, trying to bring himself under control. “Does this get you off, is that it? Things got boring already and now you’re trying to spice them up with a little danger?”
“Danger does have its charms,” she purred, lazily circling one nipple with her finger.
Carson put his hand on the doorknob. “All right, Victoria, please get out. I’ll see you in the studio tomorrow, just like always.” He turned the knob but didn’t open the door.
Victoria made no move to leave. Instead she crossed her legs languidly and folded her hands behind her head. “This could look very bad, if Tom were to come down the hall right now,” she said. “What do you think would happen? Would he be angry, slap me around a little? Or would he want to join us, do you think?”
“You bitch.” Carson had never felt quite so helpless in his entire life. He was on an island with no way off, practically at the mercy of this woman and her husband. Even if he could get to the phone, who would he call? A horrible thought crossed his mind then. “Are you setting me up?” he asked, his hand sweating on the doorknob.
The sound of rapid footsteps in the hall made his stomach drop down to his shoes. This was bad, very bad. Carson looked frantically left and right, searching for some escape, some place to hide. He even looked to Victoria, pleading silently with her. Don’t do this to me. I thought I was your friend. She simply smiled, giving him no quarter. Swearing, Carson lunged toward the closet, but it was already too late; the doorknob was turning. He cursed himself for not locking it, but what if he had? He was only postponing the inevitable.
“Victoria!” The word was almost a roar, and for a moment Carson was stunned at the sound of it, emerging as it did from the throat of the small and previously good-natured Tom Lancaster. As Victoria’s husband burst through the door, though, he looked anything but small and good-natured. He looked feral.
Carson stood to the right of the open door, praying fervently that he would somehow become invisible. Victoria seemed not to have reacted at all, and still lay sprawled on Carson’s bed, nude and completely calm. “Hello, darling,” she said.
“I knew it. I knew something like this would happen again.” Tom was wearing flannel pajama pants, and his normally immaculate hair was sticking up in back. Under different circumstances he might have looked comical, but now his disheveled appearance contributed to his look of utter madness.
“And yet you keep on hiring them,” Victoria said. She looked at her fingernails, apparently unconcerned by her husband’s wrath.
“Never again, Victoria, do you hear me? I put up with it for so long, but it will never happen again.” It was only then that Carson noticed, to his horror, that Tom’s hand was curled around a small black pistol, which he had been holding almost behind his back. Carson tensed his body to run, but Tom whipped his head toward him. “Never,” he said, his mad eyes dancing in the dimness. He then raised the pistol, turned his head, and shot his wife twice in the chest.
Carson felt waves of unreality washing over him as Victoria’s body snapped back, as her blood sprayed across the sheets he’d been sleeping on less than an hour ago. The report from the shots rang in his ears. His legs buckled under him, and he went to his knees on the floorboards. His vision swam, but he was able to watch Victoria’s limbs shudder convulsively before falling still forever. Her silk robe was still beneath her, half on and half off the bed. In his confusion, Carson thought of his painting, which would never be finished now. The realization made him far sadder than it probably should have, considering his death was likely imminent.
“And you.” Tom was towering above him, the gun clasped tightly in a hand that looked steady as a rock. Carson looked up, slowly, barely able to register what was happening. Tom’s voice came again, like a god’s from on high. “I’ve got worse in store for you,” he said. Carson cringed, not understanding the import of the sentence, and then Tom’s gun hand was swinging, and Carson felt a hard crack against the side of his head. Then, again, blackness.
When he came to, for a second he couldn’t even tell if he had actually awakened, because it was just as dark with his eyes closed as open. The only noise was the rushing of the sea, very close by, but somehow hollow sounding.
His head was killing him. He couldn’t remember exactly what had happened at first—his memories were fuzzy, like fragments of dreams. Slowly, though, images filtered into the darkness before his eyes: Victoria, and blood, and the insane expression of his benefactor, holding a pistol in one steady hand.
Carson stumbled to his feet, suddenly terrified. His consciousness faltered for a moment, and he reached out for a handhold to keep from falling. His fingers met what felt like wet sand, very tightly packed. When he had regained his equilibrium, he began feeling around in the dark. The wet sand was all around him, extending as far above his head as he could reach. With dawning horror, he realized he must be in some kind of pit.
What the fuck was going on? Calm, now, calm, he told himself. He had to think, had to concentrate. He looked up toward the top of his prison. He could barely make anything out; it was so dark. He closed his eyes, shook his head a few times hoping to clear it. The dull ache where the gun butt had hit him made him dizzy and nauseated. When he opened his eyes again and looked up, he thought he could see the barest suggestion of a ragged lip, and beyond it a blacker sky. If he focused very hard he almost fancied he could see stars twinkling in the distance. This might, however, have been his imagination.
Something that definitely wasn’t his imagination was the sound of the ocean, which was getting appreciably louder. Carson didn’t know quite what was going on or exactly where he was, but he knew he had to get the hell out of here now—Tom might be roaming around somewhere nearby, his lust for blood still not sated.
He hooked his fingers into claws and tried to climb up the vertical sides of the pit, but after a few frenzied attempts, he had nothing but a face full of sand for his troubles. He then thought of tunneling his way out, and proceeded to dig at a small section of wall, but in due course it quickly collapsed on itself, and Carson gave up, exhausted.
Should he call for help? Maybe he wasn’t far from the house; maybe one of the servants would hear and take pity on him. Then again, maybe Tom would appear at the top of the pit, point his pistol downwards and blow Carson’s brains all over the sand. He decided to keep his mouth shut for now.
The rush of the sea was getting very loud, but the significance of this didn’t quite dawn on Carson until a second or two later, when he was suddenly splashed with freezing water, raining down on him from above. In an instant he understood—Tom had thrown him in a pit on the beach, and as soon as the tide came in… Spurred on by the thought of a slow drowning, Carson began clawing frantically at the walls again, tearing out handfuls of sand and flinging them in piles at his feet. Victoria’s voice kept echoing through his head like a mantra, telling him how Tom liked to spend his days poking around at the other end of the island. Is that what Tom had been doing, digging a pit in preparation? Something Tom had said before shooting Victoria came back to him: I knew something like this would happen again. Was this beach studded with the corpses of other men who had gotten a little too friendly with Victoria? The thought pushed him to greater action, and Carson dug and dug until his fingers were raw. But still the lip of the pit got no closer, and now even more water was beginning to spill into the hole, cold and salty in his eyes and mouth.
Finally he fell back against the wet pit floor, wheezing and choking. He could have screamed, and even sucked in his breath to do so, but in the end he couldn’t quite bring himself to make a sound. He was still afraid of Tom hearing him, although he had to admit to himself that being shot would probably be a quicker death than drowning.
He was still lying there panting when he thought he heard a voice, coming to him from beneath the now-deafening roar of the ocean in his ears. He got to his feet, wet sand squishing between his toes, and cocked his head to listen. At first he couldn’t hear anything, but then it came again.
“Carson,” it said. It was a woman’s voice.
His heart quickened. The only woman on the island who knew his name was Victoria, and Tom had shot her dead. He had seen it with his own eyes, hadn’t he? So it was either her ghost calling to him, which was honestly pretty unlikely, or Carson was losing his mind. This latter scenario, as much as he hated to admit it, was probably far closer to the truth.
But then a third option occurred to him, one that made his fingers curl into tight fists. Maybe Tom had only pretended to kill Victoria, as part of some elaborate game the couple was playing with him. The fact that there was no apparent motive for any of this didn’t make Carson’s blood boil any less.
As he stood there, wet and shivering and seething with growing fury, he thought he saw a vague movement far above him. He squinted up into the darkness. A face had appeared at the edge of the pit, round and lit by what appeared to be candlelight. It was a woman’s face.
“Victoria!” he screamed up at her. That bitch had set him up right from the beginning, and he had fallen for it like the sucker he was. She had come on to him, encouraged him even, made a point of telling him about Tom being away…
But then the light above him flickered, and he saw that it wasn’t Victoria who stared down at him. It was her—the woman from the beach back home, the woman who’d been snuffing out prayer candles at the church. For a moment Carson was seized with a horrible sense of dislocation, and he thought he might pass out. What the hell was that girl doing here? When he’d regained some of his composure, he managed to sputter, “Who are you?”
“I’m Moira,” she said, and Carson realized it was the first time he’d really heard her speak. Her voice was soft, yet somehow boomed and vibrated like a huge brass bell.
“What’s going on?” Another rush of water poured into the hole, and Carson covered his face to keep the salty sea out of his eyes. When he had recovered, he looked up to see Moira still peering down at him, as though the water had not affected her.
“Don’t worry, Carson,” she said, the sound of the ocean seeming to strengthen her words rather than drown them out. “When the tide comes in, you can just wait for the pit to fill with water, and then swim to the top. All you have to do is wait, Carson.” He thought he saw her smile in the weird flickering candlelight that illuminated her face. Then another wave came, cold and black and crushing.
Carson blinked and breathed in suddenly, coughing and spitting out the sand that filled his mouth. It was still dark, but now the stars seemed much closer, a dazzling white spray across the heavens. His wet clothes seemed to press down upon him, pinning him to the ground.
At last he struggled to a sitting position, still hacking up sand and salt water. He turned his head to the left and right, wincing at the pain, which felt like a mallet blow to the nape of his neck.
He was on the beach. Back home.
Behind him, houses lined the dunes, their windows brightly lit, shadows moving behind them like black paper cutouts.
He staggered to his feet. How could he be back here? Had the Lancasters’ plane brought him back from the island?
He turned in a complete circle. The house just behind him was ablaze with light and music and laughter; the sliding glass doors were open onto the deck, which was flanked by gaily burning torches. As Carson watched, a silhouette separated itself from the others inside, and made its way out onto the deck. For a moment the man’s features were illuminated by the flames, but then they plunged into darkness again as the figure came down the deck steps and began walking on the beach, toward Carson.
No, no, no, Carson thought, wanting to move, to run, but finding himself rooted to the spot. I shouldn’t even be here, I’m supposed to be on the Lancasters’ island…
Again he tried to hobble away, but his legs felt as though they were encased in lead. He looked down, and nearly screamed, because she was there, Moira, the girl in the sand. Her laughing face protruded only an inch from the ground, as did her hands, which encircled his ankles like steel leg-irons.
Carson began shaking his head, no longer sure what was real anymore, not even sure if he was real anymore, and then the figure from the house was before him, and the figure was what’s-his-name, the guy who’d given that party that Carson had been to forever ago, and what’s-his-name’s face was nearly purple with rage. “Did you think I didn’t see you with Shelly?” the guy said, and Carson just had time to think, So that’s what her name was, Shelly, before what’s-his-name punched him hard in the mouth.
Carson went sprawling into the sand, and found himself face to face with Moira, who had been in the sand that first night when he’d been drunk, who had been in the church stifling all those people’s prayers, who had somehow been on the island saving him, and all so that she could bring him back here, to meet his fate in this appointed place. For a second he wanted to ask what’s-his-name if he could see her too, but he thought better of it. He already knew what the answer would be anyway.
He thought of beautiful Moira in the cathedral that day, pinching out the candles with her fingers, cutting off the lives of the people for whom the candles had been lit. Like one of the mythological Fates, she chose the right moment to sever the thread.
Carson realized this now, and the eyes of the girl in the sand seemed to light up with tiny flames, as though she had read his mind and was pleased by what she’d found there. Carson had a clear vision of a burning candle, and of Moira’s graceful fingers poised above the wick.
Then he felt what’s-his-name’s hand on the back of his head, and the cold shock of seawater covering his face. A deep breath through the nose, a brief struggle, another onrushing torrent of darkness.
Moira’s fingers closed over the flame, and the smoke spiraled up and out, until there was nothing left but the twinkle of the stars and the smell of cooling wax.