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This was the last time I would drive it, this meandering, rural, meaningless stretch of State Highway 301 between Emporia and Jarrett, and the last time I'd visit the "death house," as they like to call it in their over-blown testosterone way It's full of show-off bruisers in Sam Browne belts who will, by God, show us today just how tough they are when they stick a needle in her tender arm, and kill my Madam.

I wiggled into the plush car seat and adjusted the little pillow, trying to find some comfort—I'm quite certain at least two of my disks have ruptured, which has resulted in a whole new program of medications: In addition to my allergy pills, I'm now forced to take four or five anti-inflammatories every morning, which makes it necessary for me to chew up an equal number of antacids, and I won't even begin to tell you the hell that plays with my systems, if you know what I mean. Maybe when all this is over, I'll go see a physician. When all this is over, I'll have time to do a lot of things, but there'll be no joy in their doing.

I pulled out of town and pointed the rented Taurus due north. As I gained speed down the lonesome highway in the mid-day heat—I-95 would have been quicker, but there was really no hurry—the sun broke through the trees and burned through the side window and, for a second, reflected off my watch into the rearview mirror, blinding me the way Ryder McCormick's good eye did the last time I saw him, when it twinkled with such triumphant evil as the verdict was read. Oh, Lord, I shuddered. The triumph of evil. And all the while his glass eye remained dark, unfeeling, solid, as cruel and implacable as Darth Vader's mask.

The quiet, Southern Virginia farmland flowed by and I watched the trial again, as I did every day in my mind's eye, trying to figure out how he got away with it.

No one stood up for her at the trial, or the sentencing hearing. No one. No one but me, and who am I? No one but the butler. Ryder had worn an eye-patch throughout the entire three-month ordeal, lest a single juror forget for a single moment that he was half blind. A half blind man who had cared for his invalid and dying wife. Not just any dying wife, mind you, but Mary Anne Schlumbacher McCormick, a delightful, wealthy, brilliant—let me say it again—invalid, who had only weeks at the most to live, anyway. The prosecution claimed that my Madam, wild with jealousy, had cold-bloodedly and maliciously shot Mrs. McCormick in the head and dumped her out of her wheelchair into the lake. Madam and I knew it was a lie. I had served them tea that afternoon on the dock at Mrs. McCormick's farm, and Madam and I had left together. I'd been with her the whole time. Well, just about the whole time.

"We'd both become afraid of Jackie," Ryder mewled about Madam from the stand. He had worn the same clothes to court every day—a rumpled sport coat with a buttoned cardigan vest and a knit tie. The sight almost made me laugh out loud. Ryder McCormick, the biggest sartorial snob on the face of the earth, in a cardigan vest and a knit tie? Please. "She was stalking us. My wife was terrified and I know the fear intensified her illness. The doctor said she had only weeks, maybe just days, to live. And then, to come home and find her floating in the lake, her wheelchair over-turned on the dock. She was as frail as a dove. Oh, God, my beloved, beloved Mary Anne..." Then Ryder fell apart. It went beyond losing his composure, he just flat out burst into tears and blubbered like a big baby. And the judge called a recess. What absolute crap.


"This'll be your last visit." The guard checked my driver's license and one of his side-kicks frisked me while another guided a German Shepherd through my car.

"Next to the last," I said.

"You coming back tonight?"

I nodded.

He breathed out hard and shook his head. What more could he say? "You're clear to enter Mr. Weatherby-Smythe. Follow the road to the first right, through the gates. The guard there will tell you how to proceed. Welcome to Greensville."

He'd recited the same instructions every day for four days, ever since they'd moved her down from women's prison in Fluvanna for her execution.

Madam had never looked or acted afraid. I could not imagine what she was made of that gave her such strength, beyond her adoration of the Blessed Virgin. But you'd think, even with that, she'd give up a tear or two.

The door of the visiting room opened with a slow click and she shuffled in wearing her orange jumpsuit and white Keds scuffs, her wrists caught at her waist with a heavy shackle belt that rubbed them raw, her ankles circled with bruising steel cuffs and joined with a short link of chain. The light shone off her hair as off wet coal, and her hooded dark blue eyes gazed at me peacefully. She held a thick manila envelope in her hands and waited patiently while one of the burly female guards removed the shackles. Then, she sat down across the table and lit a cigarette. "How are the dogs?"

"Fine, Madam. As naughty as ever." My jaunty answer was hollow. I struggled not to cry.

Madam smiled and handed the envelope to the heavy-girthed matron who outweighed me two-to-one. Her only weapon, beyond arms and legs as thick as tree trunks, was a small solar-powered microphone clipped to her shirt collar. She opened the envelope and riffled through the pages, looking for contraband, before putting them back in and passing the packet to me.

"You don't need to look at those now, Nigel," Madam said. "Just some last minute papers. But, listen to me, my darling friend ..." She gave me a look so drenched in love, I could feel my heart begin to swell with tears. My chest tightened and I couldn't breathe. Her voice was calm. "That envelope also contains my will and I've left every thing to you. You'll be able to live very comfortably."

What fun was the money without her? The brown paper felt like ashes in my hands.

"Do you promise you'll come tonight?"

I nodded.

"You'll bury me at the farm?"

"Yes, Madam," I whispered.

"You'll stay at the farm forever?"

"I promise."

She stood and ground out her cigarette and focused her eyes on mine. The matron re-hitched the chains.

"I love you, Nigel."

"I love you with all my heart, Madam."

Now, I am going to tell you my story, straight out. I won't pull any punches and I don't care if you believe any of it or not.

Chapter One

Three Years Earlier

"Who was that?" Madam's voice came around the corner from her dressing room and sounded hopeful. God knows, we could use a little joy around this house at the moment.

I hung up the phone.

I lacked both the heart and the guts to tell her it was the bank. My pay check had bounced. Again. What some would call my spinelessness, but which I preferred to regard as amenability, has ceased to concern me. I am what I am. And, in fact, I think it this ability to be amenable, my willingness to be the second fiddle, to hold the towel for the victor or the vanquished, to soldier on—loyal, steadfast and true—that makes me a good servant. Perhaps even a great one. "Wrong number," I answered.

It was a perfect country morning. Sunlight filtered through lacy branches of the dense hardwoods that towered over the house and down the hill. The trees were now mostly bare after a spectacular Virginia autumn and gave a glimpse of the clear, sharp sky. The sun had forced a velvety mist from heavy dew that blanketed the fields overnight, and beyond the shimmering fields, where the ground was wet and cobwebby, thick with fallen leaves. All the night creatures had retired, leaving only an occasional red fox scurrying home to its den, turning the turf over to the few remaining songbirds and our herd of pet white-tailed deer. The mist was bright and patchy. It danced over the meadow and flirted with the trees before vanishing into thin air. Sometimes, especially on silent mornings such as this, I found our forest as magical as that of Titania and Oberon, where little was what it seemed.

Much like our illusory life, filled with phonies of little substance, pursued by others who would go to any extent to join this fake, glittery world. A world where people appear to have unlimited time, money, and happiness. A world of danger and hidden traps...of silly, vain, reckless flatterers. A world of sophisticated fools. But, I mused—enjoying the moment of quiet as I gathered up Madam's breakfast tray—they were our fools and their vanity paid our bills. So who was I to judge? And frankly, today, with our finances in the state they're in, we could use another fool or two.

I watched three of the white-tails—a young stag with furry antlers just budding from his head and two wide-eyed does—tentatively enter the meadow, their black noses shiny, ears and tails twitching, their footprints as distinctive in the dew as if it were snow.

"The deer are here," I said.

"I can't even begin to imagine what they think they're going to find until that hay's delivered—they've already inhaled every leaf on the property. Did you get a good price on it?"

"Pretty fair." See what I mean? We're down to worrying about the price of hay.

It had been a rough few months. Madam's mother had died and—in a letter delivered from her solicitors the day after her death—informed Madam she had left the bulk of her estate, which consisted primarily of her gigantic, demented, and wildly overvalued canvases, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This upset Madam so much she locked herself in her room for two days and refused to attend her own mother's funeral, a massive blow-out at the Musee d'Orsay. I went, just so I could report the details, in case she asked. Which she did. The minute I returned to the Place Vauban apartment where her mother had lived and painted for forty years, and where Madam had grown up, the only child of Constanza di Fidelio, one of the Twentieth Century's most famous painters, and her late husband, Rubirosa.

Constanza was a raving mad, lunatic bitch. She had been cruel and jealous and, in most people's opinions, maybe even borderline psychotic. She ran her studio like an old-fashioned opium den where any and every mind-altering substance known to mankind was not only available, but bountiful. People came and went around the clock, eating, sleeping and fornicating whenever and wherever the urge overtook them. For my Madam, it must have been like growing up in Bedlam, so I didn't find it at all surprising that now, as an equally famous, much-in-demand portrait artist, she was a little off-beam, a little cock-eyed herself. Who wouldn't be, under the circumstances? I loved her because of, and in spite of, her vulnerabilities.

We'd been back stateside, at Madam's small farm in Middleburg, Virginia for several weeks, struggling to keep up appearances. She'd counted on more from her mother, but actually, to tell the truth, I myself wasn't a bit surprised at the mean-spirited inheritance: the Paris studio and a handful of minor works, which—if Madam sold them judiciously—could help bridge the span between what she made and what she spent.

The few works of Constanza's had previously given her daughter as gifts during their occasional periods of reconciliation, and that hung in our house—the Zodiacs, twelve separate works that when hung together theoretically made up a single piece, although I personally could never figure them out, and Andromeda, a gigantic, ochre-colored mess—were fakes. Madam had sold the originals before they'd even made it through the front door, spending the money on mortgage payments and gardenias.

We'd been living without a net for quite a while. What we needed was a rich man. She kept herself in tip-top shape but who's kidding who: time was running out.

"I'll be out in the studio, Nigel," she said, entering the bedroom in her work uniform: a loose linen shirt over a Lycra body-stocking—today's was black—and soft leather ballet slippers.

Madam is what we refer to in England as an 'exotic,' with looks that teetered just on this side of good, a coin-toss that had landed in her favor, a fluke of the draw. Her coal-black hair that, but for chance, could have been drab and coarse, instead was thick and wavy and, today, instead of being pulled tightly into a chignon and hidden under a cluster of gardenias, it tumbled in a ponytail mid-way down her back. And her eyes—wide, unreadable, so dark a blue they were almost black—were heavily hooded and slightly tilted. With five seconds more or less gestation, they could have been heavy, lethargic, froggy eyes. Instead, they shone with intelligence and always glittered just a little on this side of danger. And her mouth, full-lipped, always ready to laugh or cry, would have been wrecked by a set of perfect teeth, and we would have been robbed of her slightly gap-toothed grim. She was as lush and volatile and alluring as a gypsy.

I've never been too clear on where her father, Rubirosa, who died when she was a child, came from. Some days he was portrayed as an Argentinean playboy, others as a Mexican freedom fighter, and still others as a Philippine lumber baron. Whatever he was, he was swarthy and there had been a good deal of money involved. Now all gone, of course, pissed out the window into the Place Vauban by Constanza's stream of needy lovers.

Not surprisingly, Madam, herself, was a keg of nitro that pulsed like an African drum. She was wild and unpredictable, funny and charming, morose and maudlin, bold and direct, timid and withdrawn. The only qualities she had not inherited from her mother, as far as I could tell, were cruelty and vindictiveness. In fact, she was just the opposite: Madam was way too easily manipulated, she had far too much need to be liked and far too little confidence in her own strengths. In my opinion, she was a perfect candidate for Multiple Personality Disorder but, according to my Family Medical Reference Guide, which I kept with me at all times, she did not exhibit any of the symptoms—fragmentation, delusions, detachment, and so forth. Not yet, anyhow. As it was, she could have been the poster girl for Bi-Polar Disorder, complete Manic-Depressive lunacy, but of course when she went for her annual physical she was as normal as pie. I think a little Lithium would have helped her a lot, but then, again, it probably would have stolen her talent. So I kept my mouth shut and soldiered on, ready to catch her at the fall.

She had been born in France, named Jacqueline in honor of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis), and was educated from the seventh grade on in America, at an exclusive girls' boarding school in Virginia. So when she as in America, she was American. In France, French. In Bolivia, Bolivian. And so forth. Of everywhere, and yet, nowhere. A true exotic.

An exotic with all the good humor of a bear with sore toenails. My Madam, who could charm the birds out of the trees if she wanted to, had—as I mentioned—been in a ghastly mood since her mother died and left all her money to the museum. This bad humor was exacerbated by the fact that Madam was locked into a sick affair with a rogue named Ryder McCormick, one of her own late mother's long-time lovers. Ever since Madam entered puberty, there had been an unrelenting sexual undercurrent between them—dark and forbidden—never satisfied, never consummated until those final, endless days of Constanza's life when, as she lay on her deathbed, eaten alive by lung cancer, contorted with pain and unable to move, her lover and her daughter surrendered to their passion, fucking each other insatiably right outside her door.

Ryder McCormick, with his bloody good looks and that bloody glass eye that glittered as hard and cold as ice, was bad news. His charm and manners were polished and flawless. He was elegant, graceful, overpowering, and had the sort of domineering effect on men and women that dared them to challenge him because he had no money of his own. He was a sycophant and he was the first to admit it—proud of the fact that he'd always been a kept man.

But no matter how great and long-awaited the sex between them was, something much darker lurked below the surface. Some element of Ryder's personality enabled him to gain a malignant, almost Rasputin-like power over certain people. Constanza had been unable, or at least unwilling, to stand up to him. He had dominated her in a way that demeaned and degraded her and now that mantle had slid as silently and invisibly as toxic fog from mother to daughter. Madam had willingly surrendered the keys to her psyche, unwittingly inviting him to come in and become her jailer. And now, barring some cataclysm or catastrophe, it looked as though there would be no escape.

Well, be that as it may, no matter how horrible or wrong it was, it was also none of my knitting. My opinion had not been solicited, and even if it had, I wouldn't have offered it. Madam's frequent trysts with Ryder inevitably left her feeling angry, betrayed, empty, guilty, and wanting more. I knew. I was always there for the stormy aftermath—a depth of damage and frustration that exceeded the perennial and pathetic humiliation of the single woman in love with the married man. She careened like a caged canary between the warpath and the love nest. I was the one who jollied her up, playing a few hands of gin or having a cocktail with her in the library while we watched Biography. But her need for him sat there in the room with us.

I prayed for relief.

"And who's this?" She stopped at the window and frowned, her fists jammed onto her hips. The Yorkies started barking like lunatics.

A dull gray sedan approached down the long gravel driveway. I'd watched enough American television to know no one you ever want to see appears in a gray sedan. A man and a woman got out.

"I'll send them away."

There would be no joy in Middleburg today.

© Marne Davis Kellogg

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