Phantom in the Pond
Red candles in ornate brass holders cast a glow on the tablecloths, deepening the forest green and scarlet colors of the plaid. The centerpieces were baskets filled with gilded pinecones and decorations that resembled leaping flames. The effect was festive—Christmas-in-July festive—or would be until one noticed the Gothic-lettered sign: Welcome to Hell.
“Oh, my! It’s all so beautiful.” Lucy Hazen reached out to touch one of the burning pinecones, and the gold Zodiac charms on her bracelet jangled in alarm.
“Careful,” Brent Fowler said. “That’s real fire.” Quickly she withdrew her hand.
“Not really, Lucy,” he added with a devilish wink. “It just looks real.”
“Everything is perfect,” she murmured.
“Anything for our famous horror writer. I even ordered a thunderstorm for the evening.” A roll of thunder underscored his words as rain pounded on the windows.
We had gathered at the Hunt Club Inn to celebrate the premier of the movie based on Lucy’s young adult horror novel, Devilwish. Filmed in Foxglove Corners, it featured familiar places and locals in walk-on parts. The event, movie and celebration, was the highlight of my summer, made more special because my husband, Deputy Sheriff Crane Ferguson, was able to accompany me.
I freed my hand from his warm grasp and
patted raindrops from my hair. A little rain couldn’t spoil our evening. On the contrary, it added to the ambience.
Camille, my neighbor on Jonquil Lane and aunt by marriage, started as thunder crashed over the inn.
“Everybody, let’s sit,” Brent said. “Lucy at the head of the table. Annica, you’re with me.”
My sometime partner-in-detection positively glowed to be thus favored. We women had agreed to wear red or black in honor of Lucy’s movie. Annica had chosen a shimmery dress of crimson and garnet chandelier earrings to complement her red-gold hair, while I wore my favorite black dress with crystal jewelry.
Brent indicated a space in the middle of the table, in front of the largest basket. “Helena, you’re right here.”
A stunning beauty with auburn hair, warm brown eyes, and a rare peaches and cream complexion, Helena smiled and lowered herself gracefully into the chair.
Helena Millay was not one of Lucy’s intimates, which prompted Brent to make her feel especially welcome. She had joined our group in a move to placate the Fates. I smiled as I recalled Lucy’s apprehension when she learned that our party would number thirteen.
“Thirteen is an unlucky number,” Lucy had declared. “We can’t afford to jinx Devilwish now that it’s been safely released.” She referred to the series of setbacks and tragic happenings that had accompanied the making of the movie.
Brent was unimpressed. “Superstitious claptrap.”
“I’m serious, Brent.”
Mentally I reviewed the guest list. Relatives, friends, and fellow members of the Lakeville Collie Rescue League. Yes, with myself and Crane and me, we were thirteen.
“It wouldn’t hurt to invite a fourteenth guest,” I said.
“Okay, but who?”
“There must be someone who’d love a nice prime rib dinner, good wine, and devil’s food cake.”
Reciting the Inn’s renowned menu, I could hardly wait to eat.
“Mmm. Who?” Brent stared into space as if to find the answer there. Finally he said, “I have it! Helena Millay. She boards her horse at my barn. Helena just moved to Foxglove Corners and probably doesn’t know many people yet.”
“That’s perfect,” Lucy said. “Please invite her.”
That was how Helena, a virtual stranger, came to join our group. Crane pulled out the chair next to her for me, and I slipped into it, wondering how fake fire could look so realistic.
“This is an elegant place,” Helena murmured.
“Let’s see. You’re Jennet.”
“And this is my husband, Crane.”
No need to add his title as he was off duty.
Crane reached over me to shake her hand.
“Welcome to Foxglove Corners, Helena.”
A somber young waiter moved silently around the table serving garden salads. Another followed his steps, pouring the wine.
“A toast,” Brent announced. “To Lucy Hazen, our one and only celebrity.”
A faint blush stained Lucy’s cheeks. “And to good friends. I couldn’t have done it without you.” That was Lucy, retiring and ever-gracious.
I took a sip of wine and turned to Helena.
“Have you read Devilwish?”
“Not yet, but I loved the movie. That Mr. Horn was so sinister, and those poor kids…They fell so
easily into his trap.”
“Lucy writes for young readers, but people of any age can enjoy her books,” I pointed out.
One subject down. I floundered, wondering what to say next. How do you like living in the country? Have you ever gone fox hunting? No, notthat. The sport, long established in Foxglove
Corners, was too controversial. Brent was a fox hunter. I and most of my friends championed the fox.
Horses? Helena boarded her horse at Brent’s stable.
“I take it you like riding,” I said. “Sue Appleton has horses.”
Sue was seated at the far end of the table with her young summer helpers, Diane and Kristie, and Ronda Leigh, a fellow member of the Lakeville Collie Rescue League of which Sue was president. If Sue were seated closer to us, we could discuss horses.
Helena’s face lit up. “I just bought my mare, Bonny, and in a few days, I’m going to have a dog.” “What breed?” I asked.
“A rough collie.”
Ah, I thought, thinking of my own seven collies. The magic word.
When collie lovers meet, they form an instant bond. Was Helena buying a puppy? Who was the breeder? What color was the dog? What was his or her name? I didn’t know which question to ask first.
“Arden is a retired show dog out of a
Wisconsin kennel,” Helena said. “She’s a tricolor. I almost bought a puppy, then I heard she was
available. I had to have her.”
“Are you having Arden flown to Michigan?” I asked.
“I’d be afraid to do that. No, I found a pet land transport company on the Net. It’s called Sea-toSea. It’s more expensive, but Arden will be safer.” “You’ll have to come visit my collies,” I said. “Halley came from a breeder, but the rest are rescues. I have one of each color,” I added. “Even a bi-black.”
Brent’s booming voice drowned out our conversation. “Here come the prime ribs—and the whitefish for you vegetarians. Both of you.”
I pushed my salad to the side. I’d only eaten a bit of it, a tomato slice and an olive. Now that the prime rib had arrived, salad was a lost cause.
~ * ~
The rain continued throughout dinner, enhancing the atmosphere with rumbles of thunder and lightning flashes. In keeping with the mood, orange frosting flames decorated the two devil’s food sheet cakes with their simple message: Congratulations, Lucy.
Annica volunteered to cut the cake, dividing it into several large slices and a few slivers for those who’d eaten their fill of prime rib. As she passed the plates around, Helena asked Lucy a question often posted to writers.
“Where did you get the idea for Devilwish, Lucy?”
“I borrowed it. The plight of the individual who makes a bargain with the devil occurs throughout literature.”
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, I thought. More recently, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Stephen Vincent Benet's classic short story was part of the American Literature curriculum at Marston High School. As a teacher in the English department, I had taught it almost every year. “I just transferred the story to a modern school. The devil appears as Mr. Horn, a charismatic college professor who tempts students by offering them their hearts’ desire. Beauty, popularity, a dream career, their true love.”
“For a while I was afraid the students would lose their souls,” Helena said.
“I write horror, but I also write happy endings.” “How wonderful to have your heart’s desire,” Annica said.
Crane laid his hand on mine and whispered, “I do.”
“Not when it came time to give the devil his due,” Lucy pointed out.
“Hell,” Brent said. “If you want my opinion—”
Before he could complete his statement, the power went out, leaving only the red candles for illumination.