September . . .
She’d made such a horrible mess of things. . . .
Catherine rode in Earl’s motorboat to Echo Island, her mouth set in a grim line. With all her good intentions in trying to save her charges from heartache, ridicule, and pain, she had only made things worse. She’d been so relieved after that monster Justice’s death that she’d relaxed her hold on the gates of Siren Song, briefly, but when her lack of vigilance had started leading to anarchy, she’d clamped down again. Now, though everything was locked up tight, the work and rules restored, there was a restlessness within the girls that was not to be denied. It simmered below the surface, and Catherine knew the order she had preached, had tried desperately to instill, was forever broken. Ravinia was champing at the bit to leave; the others would follow.
It was to be expected, she supposed. They’d been sheltered from the real world so long that when they’d realized how their sisters had melded into society—Rebecca with her husband and little girl, and then Lorelei, saved by that reporter Harrison Frost—the remaining sisters behind the gates of Siren Song had been swept away by the fantasy and romance of it all. And that they knew Harrison had risked his life for Lorelei? Well, it was the stuff fairy tales were made of.
As Earl guided the boat to the small dock, here on Mary’s island of exile, her “Elba” she’d once called it, Catherine wondered what she would say to her sister, how she would explain her change of heart. After all, her charges weren’t even her own issue. Mary had given birth to each and every one of them, though there had been a long line of fathers, studs whom Mary had used and tossed aside. Catherine was their guardian, yes, but still only their aunt.
Could she now admit that she’d been wrong? That perhaps Mary should return to Siren Song and, as far as anyone knew, from the grave? Of course that wouldn’t work. There were laws about those kinds of things... laws about faking someone’s death, she supposed.
She would have to think of something else.
The sound of the sea was louder here, the tides splashing around the rocks and shoals. Mary had always said she’d found it comforting.
But if she was happy, so be it. Of course, Mary had always been delusional…It ran in their family….
“I shouldn’t be too long,” she told Earl as he cut the engine and tied up. “Half an hour, maybe.”
The handyman nodded. “I’ll wait. Got my pole.”
With his help, she climbed onto the dock and left him opening his cooler of bait. Holding her skirt so that the hem of her dress wouldn’t skim the dirt and bird excrement on the old boards, she bustled along the sandy, overgrown path that wound a hundred feet to Mary’s home. The cottage was little more than a one-room cabin with a sleeping area, even more austere and cut off from the world than Siren Song. It was no wonder no one had ever found her here. . . . But then Catherine knew from her own experience that even the most bizarre circumstances did exist. . . . How else to explain all the gifts the girls had received?
There were rumors in Deception Bay, of course, of a hermit who lived on the island. An old hag that ran sightseers off, but if anyone had made the connection between the recluse and Mary Rutledge Beeman, Catherine didn’t know about it.
She swatted at a fly as she walked, the sun hot against her face, beads of sweat forming on her brow. It was late summer now, going on September, one of the few times of the year you could actually trust to not have your boat dashed against the forbidding rocks that surrounded Echo.
A fly? she thought. Out here?
Then again, what wasn’t odd these days? Everything about her sister had been “out of sync,” “a little off,” or “odd” since her birth. Upon her exile, the cover story was that Mary had fallen to her death on one of her solitary walks, though another version suggested she’d died from a miscarriage, which was somewhat closer to the truth. Neither, however, was accurate, and the solitary figure sometimes seen on Echo Island, according to the rumors Catherine made sure were spread, was believed to be the bereaved, reclusive wife of one of the lighthouse caretakers from nearby Whittier Island who had died from misery after the death of her only child. In truth, no one really paid attention anymore. Everyone today was all caught up in their own lives, too interested in themselves or celebrities or television reality shows to do more than gossip about the weird old lady of Echo Island.
Catherine hurried on. Squinting against a lowering sun, she noticed that Mary’s garden, usually so perfect, was untended. Beach grass had taken over, and the tea roses were leggy, the blooms dried and dying. “Mary?” she called as she walked toward the front door and saw the boxes of supplies left on the porch. The cardboard was sun bleached, the fruit and vegetables had gone bad, and the stink of rotting meat was overpowering. And there were more flies.
What the devil?
“Mary!” she called again and pushed on the door. How long had it been since she’d been here?
It was unlatched, and from within the stench was worse. It hit Catherine with the force of a malodorous tidal wave. The buzzing of swarming flies competed with the sound of the surf. They swept outward from the door of the sleeping area like a black tide. Catherine’s stomach revolted as she pressed forward, ever more concerned, her eyes growing accustomed to the darkened interior.
Pulse rising, she forced herself to enter the bedroom.
On the bed lay a corpse.
What was left of her sister was little more than dried, rotting flesh and exposed bones. Mary’s face was unrecognizable, her eyes gone, two dark, exposed sockets where those beautiful blue orbs had once been. Her hair was brittle, long tufts jutting from a skull of darkened, dried skin.
Her lips had rotted away, exposing her teeth in a ghoulish, wicked grin. Her cheeks were only bone.
“No . . . oh, dear Lord . . .” Revulsion squeezed Catherine’s stomach as she tried to process the horrid sight.
The hilt of a knife rose from Mary’s chest. The skeletal fingers of her right hand surrounded it, as if she’d tried to yank the blade out and failed. Hanks of old flesh hung from her fingers and arm.
A scream boiled to the heavens. A wild shriek of pure fear.
It took Catherine a moment to realize it came from her own throat.
“Holy mother of God,” she whispered, retching, backing away.
But the vision of Mary was burned in her brain as she scrambled backward, nearly tripping over her own skirts. Trying not to vomit, she turned blindly and ran for the door.
What in God’s good name had happened to her sister?
This has nothing to do with God!
Running out the door, she half tripped, half fell down the steps and the path toward the boat, another scream churning upward from within her soul. The vision of her sister’s rotting corpse blinded her to the ocean and this rocky shelf of an island. Mary, she thought on a choked sob. Mary . . .
She felt someone reach for her and flailed at them in terror.
“Stop, stop!” she wanted to shriek, but her body shuddered with fear and her cries now were no more than whimpers.
“Miss Catherine . . .”
She peered around herself but couldn’t see for her sudden, all-encompassing blindness.
“Miss Catherine . . .”
Earl. Of course, it was Earl . . . who’d rowed her to Echo Island with supplies for Mary. Only, Mary was dead. Stabbed through the heart.
“Earl?” she whispered feebly.
“Right this way,” he told her soothingly, and his hands grasped her by the elbows.
She collapsed into Earl’s arms and quavered, “Take me back. Please . . . take me back. . . .”
“What did you behold?” he asked as he helped her into the boat.
Death, she thought, a chill as cold as the deep settling into her soul.
Now the memory faded away, and Catherine opened her eyes in the dark to find herself in her own room at Siren Song. Her vision had returned from that momentary blindness, but currently all she could see was a faint strip of light slipping in through the small window above her bed. Lifting her head, she realized she was alone. No Earl . . . no corpse of her sister. The dream was fading. With trembling fingers, she lit the oil lamp on the nightstand beside her bed.
It had been the same each night this week, ever since she’d returned from Echo Island. The memory of what she’d seen and her own reaction to it was caught in a recess of her brain, and her subconscious pulled it out every time she went to bed.
“Earl?” she said now, unable to stop herself, even though she knew there was no one there. She peered anxiously into the dim corners of the room. She had done it each time she’d woken, and had been met with the same response: nothing.
Of course, he was not there. Earl was the only man allowed on the Siren Song grounds by her own decree, and even he would not be on the second floor and certainly not in her bedroom. She was merely reliving those terrible moments after she’d found her sister. Again.
Awake now, she remembered how her blindness had receded in time for her to see Earl’s eyes lift from her shivering form and move back toward the cabin as he rowed with strong arms away from the deadly stony shore. She’d looked back, too, toward her sister’s cabin, the only building on Echo Island, the place where she’d exiled her sister, whose mind had rotted long before her earthly body.
What did you behold?
Now Catherine climbed from her bed, her bones feeling as old as time, though she was scarcely fifty-one. Earl, truculent at the best of times, had asked her what she’d beheld. She’d been unable to voice the words. It was beyond belief, but she, who had commanded and ruled her family with iron surety and a belief in the rightness of what she’d done, had been reduced to a quivering mound of flesh on that boat ride back to the mainland. She couldn’t tell him that she’d left her ailing sister on that island and that some-one—something—had driven a knife through her chest and left her to turn to dust.
Grabbing up a shawl, she pulled it over her nightgown and cracked open the door to the second-floor hallway. It was dark as pitch, and she relied on the weakening light from her oil lamp and the rail guiding her hand to move along the upper hall and then down the stairway to the first floor, where the generator supplied power and illumination. In the kitchen she snapped on the overhead light, and the shadows were chased back, revealing a black stove— once wood, now electric—and a long pine trestle table with rows of wooden chairs. They had a refrigerator and a deep porcelain sink, but no automatic dishwasher. The lodge had been designed and redesigned and retrofitted and changed, but when Mary’s mind had weakened and her lovers, and children, had grown in numbers, Catherine had been forced to take charge. She’d stopped everything.
What did you behold?
Earl had helped her kidnap Mary years before. He’d seen the need, too, though he said nothing, and when Catherine had asked him to ready the abandoned cabin on Echo Island—a small rock jutting from the Pacific, not horribly far out to sea, but treacherous and private and left alone by the superstitious locals—he’d silently nodded his agreement. The island was owned by the Rutledge sisters and was rarely visited. The last time a couple of drunken teens had tried to put their boat ashore, the craft had smashed against the rocks and they’d died for their efforts, their bodies floating to the lighthouse on a nearby spit of land that was islanded at high tide. Their parents set up a hue and cry, wanting something to be done, trying to blame everyone and anyone other than their foolish children, who’d stolen someone’s boat and rowed out to try to see the old woman on the island. The sheriff’s department sent out a boat, which was subsequently ripped from stem to stern on the submerged rocks and nearly caused more deaths. After that Catherine merely received a call, as she was the owner of record. She’d lied, saying that she sometimes stayed at the cabin and the overworked county deputies had given up any further attempts to reach the island. Earl, an accomplished seaman, would not go to Echo unless the weather could be counted on, and even then the crossing could be dicey. The summer months were the best, but there was really only one place to dock safely and you still had to know how to approach it.
Earl had spent the better part of the year before Mary’s incarceration preparing the cabin, getting to the island whenever he could. Both he and Catherine had been much younger then, and when the time came, they merely gave Mary a mixture of narcotic herbs to lull her to sleep. When her latest lover finally roused himself and realized he couldn’t wake her, he’d stumbled from Siren Song, blinking in fear. Catherine had locked the gates behind him, the last man. She and Earl had then packed Mary into his truck, and he’d done the rest, while Catherine stayed at the lodge with Mary’s children, the girls, who were now women.
She’d lied to them, too. Told them Mary had died from a fall and was buried in the graveyard behind Siren Song, their lodge. They were young enough to accept it, and though they’d cried, Mary had always been less of a mother to them than Catherine and they’d accepted Catherine’s story without question. They sometimes knelt beside the grave and left flowers for their mother, and every time Catherine’s heart gave a little clutch, but no one knew the truth except for Catherine and Earl and, of course, Mary.
But now Mary was dead. Killed. Stabbed through the chest and left lying on her back in her bed, her skeletal hand still around the knife’s hilt. Catherine knew the corpse couldn’t have remained in that position. Someone had staged her. Had murdered her, then had come back at least once and molded her hand around that knife. Catherine had been too terrified to look closely the day she discovered Mary. She had screamed and thrashed her way outside—her mind trying to shut out the sight—and hadn’t been back since. But she knew the staging had been purposely done, and she suspected it was a message meant for her . . . or maybe all of them at Siren Song. A message to Mary’s children, the women of Siren Song, the women with the “gifts.”
She shivered, wondering if she knew, but as her thoughts turned in that direction, she forced them back to the furthest recesses of her mind. No. No . . .
Sitting at the table, she watched the sun rise through the east window. It had been the better part of a week since she’d found the body. Today she would tell Earl what she’d beheld. And she would ask him to bring Mary back to Siren Song, and they would bury her somewhere in the graveyard behind the lodge, not in the grave with her name on it, unfortunately, as that one was already filled with another’s body.