Extract / Preview: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

CB - DR - Jul - The Supernatural Enhancements NOVEMBER 4 , 1995
A.’S DIARY
Above us lies suspended a gold-trimmed cloud the size of one of the big states (say, Arizona), threatening to plummet over Virginia. The low sun beneath casts its rays along the dirt road we travel, exalting the yellows and oranges, turning aluminum into gold and the skin on Niamh’s arm into apricot. Crop fields dash across her irises as she feasts on the continent. She’s going to be difficult not to fall in love with.
The road goes on from Point Bless in a westward direction for miles.
“How are we supposed to come and go when we’re on our own?” I ask.
“Just stay on the good road,” Glew replies. “Don’t worry; in your car it’s a ten-minute ride.”
“We have a car?”

*
“Two, actually. Your cousin’s—an Audi—and a Daewoo he bought for the butler.”

“We have a butler!”

“Strückner. He is closer to a housekeeper, actually. There used to be other servants, but reading your cousin’s will to the letter, ‘the house and all of its contents,’ it was interpreted that only Strückner came in the package, for he is the only one to live there. Anyway, I am not sure you should rely on his assistance.”

“Why’s that?”

“He is missing. Left in mid-October without a word. I’ve been trying to contact him since.”

Niamh scribbles on her notepad and shows me: The butler did it. I smirk. Glew hasn’t read it, but he guesses something.

“I suppose he needed some vacation,” he says apologetically. “He seemed fairly upset. After all, he found the bodies.”

“Bodies? I thought Ambrose Wells committed suicide all alone.”

“He did. In the same fashion as his father, thirty years ago.”

About three miles from the center of Point Bless, the car takes a right turn down the stem of a T; then we travel along a gravel driveway that shoves the house deep into the estate, hiding it from the main road. The roadside crop fields have been replaced by untamed woods that might once have been gardens. But then the trees halt well before the building, respecting the vast empty court at whose center sits Axton House.

The house must have looked Georgian on the blueprint, three stories high, with a mansard roof. From the front yard, however, it shows none of the comforting Greek sense of proportion. It had a rather somber effect upon us, with its boasting grandeur and excessive verticality. Doors and windows and windowpanes consistently push the golden ratio a little further, stretching higher and narrower. The stone skin of the building seems able to adopt the hue that best fits the landscape. It looked dirty gold when we first saw it. Only the hedge maze beyond the conservatory dares to green the place. The estate teemed with the voices of birds and trees.

Two sets of French windows open on each side of the front door onto the November-carpeted platform. Three windows on the second floor stand on each side of the protruding spine that rises from the portico. On the third floor the front wall recedes, yielding room for two balconies. The attic has only two dormers, and the spine in the middle peaks in a mansard, then rises a little farther, then ends for good in a sort of belfry. Inside this stands what must be a weathercock, though it more closely resembles a sailor’s sextant. According to Glew, it is both a weathercock and a calendar: When its shadow licks the foot of a certain oak in the front line of the woods, it is signaling the winter solstice. The design was first patented by Benjamin Franklin.

 

LETTER

Axton House

1 Axton Rd.

Point Bless, VA 26969

Dear Aunt Liza,

 

I’m aware that the occasion calls for filling several pages of this luxurious letter paper found in Mr. Ambrose Wells’ desk with a thorough description of Axton House.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you that. I am indeed writing from Axton House, about to turn in for the very first night; Niamh and I share a bed big enough for each of us to throw an orgy without her guests disturbing mine. Glew gave us a tour around the house this evening, but we haven’t really seen it. Not in the way you meant that day, when you said that a passenger on a ship doesn’t see the ropes the way a sailor sees them. Having seen the house would mean to be able to go around it and predict which room awaits behind each double door.

Having seen the house would mean to understand the use of each room and each piece of furniture. We haven’t seen the house. We have merely perceived a circular sequence of empty halls, large windows, fireplaces, chandeliers, spiderwebs, canopies, and a cluttered desk on every floor.

I believe I have caught some patterns, though—such as that the whole house seems to revolve around the library on the second floor, its central and largest area. I mention this, perhaps, because it suits your notion of the Wells as people who lived and died for their studies.

Other features (such as the great number of long galleries whose only purpose seems to be the exhibition of curtains) bewilder me.

I don’t think I’d be able to find any of those rooms right now if my life depended on it. In fact, I wouldn’t dare go to sleep had Niamh not laid a trail of chickpeas to the nearest bathroom.

No trace of ghosts so far, but we’ll stay alert.

Tomorrow morning I plan to start socializing around. We also have to find the missing butler, Strückner. Niamh and I agree it’s not a good name for a butler.

We wish you were here, but purely out of courtesy; truth is we’re managing quite well. Niamh says she’d like a dog. Can we?

 

Kisses, A.

 

 

NIAMH’S NOTEPAD

—What’s the most formal clothing you brought?

—Green summer dress.

—Good. We’re going to church tomorrow. I guess you have no problem with that.

—I think they Baptists here, but I’ll live with it.*

—Puritan.

—I have a bad feeling about the butler.

—Me too.

—But he wasn’t in the will, so he free of suspicion?

—I guess so, but something doesn’t fit. I don’t know what kind of bonds people have with their servants, but if you lived with some- body for fifty years and left him nothing, you probably didn’t like him that much, and sympathy tends to be reciprocal. So why is the butler so deeply affected?

 

<*  Niamh often excludes the verb to be in writing. Also, she ends sentences with a question mark whenever she expects feedback. Consider it an abbreviated tag question.>

 

N O V E M B E R   5

A.’S DIARY

Despite my reluctance to borrow any clothes from Ambrose Wells’ wardrobe, which fell out of fashion together with pocket watches and airships, we succeeded in getting noticed in church. I was the guy disguised as a history professor from midcentury Oxford (with sneakers), and Niamh was the kid with her hair hoisted in a loose ponytail like an explosion of blue-violet ribbons, and a green dress too short for both the season and the occasion. I noticed some curious looks during the service, and on our way out, the human flow lingered in too small groups, gossiping in unnecessarily low voices. Niamh greeted them all with dazzling smiles and had even the most uptight judges eating out of her hand.

Nobody tried an approach in church, but later in the day we received three visits.

 

The first of them were the Brodies, at about five o’clock. Their farm is visible to the south from the higher windows. They’re our closest neighbors; in fact, their land used to belong to the Wells. Actually, from what I understood, Mrs. Brodie’s family worked that land before the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but I didn’t dare to confirm that for fear of having misheard and sounding rude. Truth is I felt pretty lost during our introduction: She had a very tough accent. Anyway, whatever the relation between Brodies and Wells was in the past, I gather it was a pretty warm one in Ambrose’s times, and Mrs. Brodie meant to keep that friendship alive.

Mr. Brodie was clearly not so keen on the welcome visit, but he did open up when, after my asking Niamh for drinks and her returning from the kitchen with half a bottle of 7UP, he pointed out that Ambrose used to keep some bourbon in his office.

He meant the first-floor office, the one used for “public” business— one of the rooms I don’t like. The perfectly hexahedral anteroom, with its gondola chairs in every corner and double doors on every wall, is just too symmetrical, and the office’s dark paneling and grumpy-looking books remind me of a school principal’s den. Brodie didn’t seem intimidated, though; he just walked straight toward the American history volumes displayed on the back shelves to impress visitors and pulled out Champfrey’s Rise and Fall of the South. The panel on his left opened with a click, and from the secret compartment he produced a bottle of fourteen-year-old Wild Turkey. He said Ambrose revealed it to him the day they sealed the lease for the orange grove. I said I ought to invite him more often, just in case the house held any more secrets. He solemnly replied, “It does.”

(Of course, he doesn’t know them, but his faith is a good enough hint. I know how deeply this man can believe in what he hasn’t seen. I saw him in church.)

As he closed the panel, I noticed an envelope on Ambrose’s desk. I wonder how I failed to see it before, because then and there it so loudly announced itself that I would have banged my head on a wall for missing it, had someone else not found it and opened it already. I have the envelope in front of me now, empty. The outside reads “Aeschylus.”

I just slipped it under a pile of papers then and postponed the thinking—it would have been discourteous to leave the women alone too long, even though Mrs. Brodie seemed the kind able to chat for hours before realizing that her interlocutor is mute.

She had just found out when we joined them in the music room (long hall across the foyer with a piano, hi-fi, and TV). We arrived in time for her delivery of the well-known line, “But you do hear me, don’t you?” in a very loud voice, carefully shaping each phoneme (a considerate effort on her behalf—see accent issue), and I had a new chance to see Niamh’s nod and silent laugh before I covered the customary explanations— that she’s mute, not deaf-mute; that it’s an acquired condition; that her English is actually better than mine, for she’s from Dublin, whereas I only took it up in high school, reading classics; that she communicates through mime, mouthing, or writing, plus a whistle code and a knock code; that she carries a notepad and pencil with her at all times, and she spends the evenings filling the gaps between her own lines with the answers she got, thus recording long dialogues by doing just fifty percent extra work, and keeping a complete log of every significant conversation she’s had across every notepad she’s ever used, each page notated for where the conversation took place, when, and with whom; and that they would never have a quieter neighbor.

That last thing I said on purpose, and it caused an awkward silence. Mrs. Brodie tiptoed around the subject. I chose to feed her some of the existing rumors: half lies in exchange for half truths. I listed Ambrose’s odd habits, the noises, the lights, the rites held in the house, and even mentioned the ghosts en passant. Mr. Brodie quickly said, “The noises bit is not true.”

His wife made a heartfelt apology for Ambrose Wells, claiming that “people in town” might have considered him a bit of a hermit, but she would often stand up for him, pointing out that his door was always open and he had been very generous to them. In her words, “He had learned from his father’s mistakes.” She regretted this phrasing a second later, on remembering Ambrose’s end.

I availed myself of the opportunity to ask about John, Ambrose’s father. Her words:

“John was an even more obsessive scholar. He lived for his studies.”

“And for his son,” Mr. Brodie added. “But that was a close second.”

I asked about the nature of those studies. They hesitated. Then they mentioned some scattered disciplines: history, geography . . . anthropology? Mrs. Brodie remarked that Ambrose used to go on long trips. “He’s been to Asia and Africa. He quit traveling when his rheumatism got worse.”

“The father was interested in math too,” said her husband, as if having spotted an incongruity. “He was a cryptographer in World War Two.” I brought up the odd habits and rites again. Again they looked embarrassed. Again Mrs. Brodie vindicated one’s right to do whatever they please at home, as long as it doesn’t disturb the peace of the community. Once she’d run out of fuel, I cued her: “But . . . ?”

She gave way at last, much to her husband’s contrariety:

“The Wells used to hold some reunions. In December. I guess there would be nothing weird about it, but it’s because they had so few visits during the year that suddenly so many cars parked out front called people’s attention. Some would lose their way and reach our farm, and we’d give them directions. They were always men, traveling alone. They used to stay for two or three days.”

“Until Christmas?”

“No, they’d leave just before Christmas.” Niamh lipped for me the words winter solstice.

“Maybe they were celebrating Ambrose’s birthday,” I said.

They gave the idea some thought, but then Mr. Brodie recalled that this tradition stretched back to pre-Ambrose times. They didn’t seem aware that Ambrose’s birthday was in February.

“And those were the only visitors in the whole year?”

“In such big groups, yes. At other times, they’d drive by one or two at a time, but that didn’t happen often. Some did come more often—like that young gentleman Caleb . . . something. They went on trips together, Ambrose and him.”

Mrs. Brodie seemed to foresee a quarrel with her husband when they got home, but she said this nonetheless:

“Some people think they’re Masons.” Her husband dived into his palm.

I feigned surprise and appeared to meditate for half a minute (which I really spent imagining how fourteen-year-old Wild Turkey would taste mixed with 7UP) and then said, “Well, if that’s the case, we’ll find out soon, won’t we? By Masonic law, a Mason is allowed to identify another Mason only after that other Mason is dead. So when a friend of Ambrose’s turns up, I’ll ask him and will report to you.”

I think my tone served to thaw the ice; Mr. Brodie laughed at the prospect. They were about to stand up when Niamh showed them her notepad: What about the ghosts?

Mr. Brodie said cheerfully, “That’s probably false too.”

 

LETTER

Axton House

Axton Rd.

Point Bless, VA 26969

Dear Aunt Liza,

 

[. . .]* The second visitor arrived at dinnertime. We were sitting at the table when we heard a car braking on the gravel. Niamh meant to take his picture for you, but I told her not to. Mr. Knox (so he introduced himself) epitomizes the anachronistic Virginian high class I told you about when describing Glew: Nothing about him belongs to this era—not his car, not his hair, not his handshake, nor his accent (says Niamh). However, framed in the doorway of Axton House, he fit perfectly. Had he rung the doorbell of my old apartment, I would have mistaken him for a time traveler.

He apologized for the late hour; he was just driving past on his way to Lawrenceville (about thirty miles northeast) when Glew informed him of our arrival; naturally, as an intimate friend of Wells’, he wished to welcome us. He wouldn’t join us for dinner, but he didn’t mind watching us eat. He’s younger than Ambrose was, somewhere in his forties. Reminds me of Jeremy Irons.

Niamh took some Polaroids of the dining room (second door on the right from the entrance) so you can picture the scene. I doubt we’ll be using the room a lot: The pink arras and high, dark beams seem to stare down on our food with disapproval. The Gothic atmosphere demands a bleeding carpaccio; instead, we were having spaghetti and meatballs. Picture us sitting at the north end, Knox at the south, near- est to the fireplace. He seemed surprised that Niamh was laying the table.

“Shouldn’t a servant be doing that?”

 

<* Some paragraphs in these letters are omitted to spare the reader redundant information. All omissions will be signaled like this.>

 

“If you mean the butler, he deserted even before seeing how we leave the bathroom in the morning.”

“Strückner has resigned?” I think he regretted the incredulity in his pitch as soon as the sentence parted his lips.

“Do you know him? If you see him, tell him he won’t get his job back easily—Niamh cooks like God.”

Niamh was anacondaing a meatball as big as her head. Knox watched us eat like we were on the Discovery Channel.

“It’s funny. I knew Ambrose for so long, and yet he never talked about you.”

“It’s okay; he never mentioned you either. Of course, we never talked much, what with having never met and everything.”

“And what exactly was your kinship?”

“Ooh, wait, I know that one—I’m his second cousin twice removed. Meaning his grandmother Tess and my great-great-grandmother were sisters.”

“Mm-hm. I suppose I could have a second cousin twice removed myself and not know about him.”

“It came as a surprise to me too.” “And he left you this house.” “And all of its contents.”

“Was that the extent of his will?”

“Oh, no, there was more. There was us, then something about the lands… Glew is working on it. I’m told I have the last word on that, but I guess we’ll just give it away to its current tenants.”

“Give it away,” he parroted. “Do you know how much that land is worth?”

“Very little, compared to what we’ve got now. You must understand: I just realized I don’t need to work again in my life. Not that I’ve worked a lot, really.”

“What did you used to do?”

“I was a student of geography.”

“Ambrose liked geography too,” he observed, while his mind attended some less trivial matter. “Didn’t the will say anything else?”

“You’re certainly curious. Did you have your eyes set on the silver- ware or something? Because we can talk about it.”

“No, no, not at all.” He almost blushed here. “I am just looking for an explanation for what Ambrose did.”

That invoked a mournful silence. We tried to suck pasta quietly. “So, nothing else? Not a note? No instructions for Strückner or anybody?”

“I’m afraid not. Although . . . Wait, what was your name again?”

“Knox.”

“Caleb Knox?”

“No, Curtis Knox.” “Oh, nothing then.”

“But I do know Caleb. If you mean Caleb Ford.”

“Ford! That was it. My mistake—Ford, Knox . . .” I realize I was behaving like an ass, but that’s fine. It proves I have many registers.

“What was in it for Caleb?”

“I don’t know. Glew is looking for him; he’s missing too.”

“He’s on a field trip.”

“Really? Please tell Glew; he’ll be glad to know. Where is he?”

“Africa.”

“Where in Africa?”

“Central Africa.”

“You can be more specific; I’ve seen a couple maps in my life.”

“Kigali.”

“Wow.” He almost got me there. “Rwanda.”

“That’s just where he started; his work must have drawn him deep into the country. He can be untraceable for months during these excursions.”

“How long has he been gone?” “Since April.”

“He might not even know of Ambrose’s death.”

Knox just nodded irrelevantly. After a minute or two he resumed: “It’s funny he left you this house.”

“Didn’t we go through that just now?”

“No, I mean . . . not in that sense. Somehow, Axton House is a poisoned gift.”

This silence here was somewhat heavier, lonelier than the preceding one. The former was an elevator silence; this one was a walking-through-the-woods-by-night silence.

“I mean,” he clarified, “that this house is not a real treat.”

“Excuse me; could you speak a bit louder? I didn’t hear you from this end of the room.”

“Yes, I know: the three-story mansion, the ten-thousand-volume library, the conservatory… But besides that, the house comes with a dark background.”

“I see. The rumors, the nocturnal noises . . . The secret rites . . .” He didn’t even blink. On the contrary, he added, “The ghosts . . .”

“Bullshit.” I would have never dared to say that in front of the Brodies, but I could afford it now.

“Sure, nothing but fables. But they make one of Axton House’s features; fables come in the package. ‘A house with supernatural enhancements,’ as I think Edith Wharton put it.”

“They don’t affect me.”

“They did affect your predecessor,” he replied, visibly grateful for my walking into that. “And his father too.”

Niamh asked on her notepad, Did they really kill themselves the same way?

“Yes, they did,” he said, leaning back after squinting at the message.

“Same age, same time, jumped from the same window.”

“Which window?”

“Third floor, third on the north side, main bedroom.” That’s where we sleep. It’s where I’m writing this now. Mostly to deflect his attention from the deep impression on Niamh’s face, I challenged him:

“How come it affects members of the Wells family and nobody else?”

“Who else is there to be affected?”

“Strückner?”

“I would have admitted he was not affected until you told me he resigned.”

“Touché. What about the women?”

“Ambrose’s mother died when he was a child. Breast cancer. His father raised him. Well, mostly the Strückners did: Strückner senior as a nanny and male figure, then Strückner junior as his butler and friend.”

“And higher in the family tree? Ambrose’s grandfather Horace?”

“Sadly my knowledge doesn’t reach that far back.”

“Isn’t it more reasonable to take Ambrose’s death as a consequence of his father’s death, i.e., to assume that he was traumatized and bore the scar throughout his life, until he reached the same age, and the old wound reopened, and he followed his father’s steps just to end the pain, rather than speculating that two different people were independently induced to commit suicide the same way at the same age by some unknown agent?”

“Good application of Occam’s razor,” praised he. “How old was Ambrose when his father died?”

“Eighteen.”

“And they died at the same age, you say. Fifty, isn’t it?”

“Correct.”

The only argument I could come up with to comfort Niamh and myself was that I still have a twenty-seven-year grace period.

 

NIAMH’S NOTEPAD

(In bed.)

—You forgot to ask if they Masons.

—You’re right. Anyway, if Knox is a Mason, he didn’t seem the kind who would be open about it.

—I don’t like him.

—Nor do I.

—He doesn’t like us either—like we’re in his way.

—You mean, like he wanted the house for himself? Why?

—I think Knox part of the Xmas party group, & Wells their leader. K. expected W. to pass him the baton.

—Right. That’s why he kept asking what was in the will. Or if there were any messages for him, or Strückner.

—Maybe Strückner & Knox in cahoots?

—Or Knox hoped to be handed the baton through Strückner.

—You made him jealous. Now thinks Caleb the one to succeed Wells.

—Yeah, I just said that to probe him. But it’s true there was a Caleb in the will. I’d forgotten until the Brodies brought up the name. It’s exotic.

—I think I’ll like Caleb better.

—There’s a better prospect yet. If Wells runs these yearly meetings that Knox and Caleb attend, and now Wells is dead and Caleb doesn’t know… how many more don’t know?

—You mean they coming back for Xmas?

—Why not? Ambrose wasn’t a notable man, just rich. His death didn’t make the papers. It was unexpected; he wasn’t ill or anything. Most of his associates drop by only once a year. Caleb was one of the assiduous, and he knows nothing. Conceivably, neither do the others.

So, we don’t interfere? We stay silent & have the dining room ready for winter solstice?

—Could be fun. Tomorrow I’ll go through the office. I might find a guest list or something. You search Strückner’s room: Check if he did receive any instructions. Any questions?

—Can we move to another room?

—Why?

—I’d rather have you sleep on the 1st floor.

—There aren’t any beds on the first floor.

—Isn’t it like tempting fate?

—That’s why you’re here—to protect me.

 

A.’S DIARY

I woke up after midnight. I’m not sure about the time. The bed is so vast that lying in the middle of it my elf eyes can’t read the LCD clock. Niamh must be sleeping somewhere else on the mattress, in hollow silence—not a swish, not a breath. Outside the canopy lay the immeasurable dark void.

I rolled over to my left and sat at the edge of the bed, ready to leap into space. I almost didn’t expect to touch a floor under my feet. I stood up and went for a glass of water.

Luckily, the bathroom is just across the hallway. Like a bat, I guided myself by sound: first the creaking floorboards of the hallway, then the silent tiles of the bathroom. I did have some trouble finding the light switch (they’re all too high). With the lights on, I noticed for the first time that the ceiling is vaulted like a tunnel. I drank some water from the sink and glanced at the mirror. I could see my skin with outstanding detail. I checked the bulbs and saw the light grow brighter. I squinted at the white glow reverberating on the sink, the wall tiles, and the shower curtain, haloing them all with an aura that seemed to corrode the out- line of all objects and that of a shadow on the curtain. Not my shadow. A shadow behind the curtain.

As soon as I understood that, the bulbs went out.

I stood there, waiting, until my scorched eyes got used to the dark. Quietly the moonlight redrew the room: hardly a whisper, compared to the recent electric cry.

Then I strode to the tub and pulled the curtain open.

 

It would be stupid to pretend I found anything. I couldn’t even tell whether the whole episode had been a dream when I woke up in the morning twilight, next to Niamh wrapped up in the quilt like an insect in a cocoon. But I did remember the shadow. I remembered the position of the light above the mirror and I knew it couldn’t have been my shadow. There had been somebody standing inside the tub.

Niamh stirred, stretched herself out of her patchwork chrysalis. She turned over, and a good-morning nive froze on her lips.

I asked what was wrong. She ran to the dresser and brought me a mirror. I have a burst vessel in each eye—both my sclerae dyed crimson.

The bathroom lights are burned out. And of course there’s no trace of anything or anybody in the tub.

That was the third visit.

 

***

 

You can read more on THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS on our Jul-Dec 15 Del Rey Books page or our July New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero