But how was that possible? How in the name of God could there be ice here, in a well-heated house and on a night when the outside temperature was at least twenty degrees above the freezing point?
The electronic squeal began to warble faster, but it was no quieter, no less bone-penetrating than it had been.
, Vivienne told herself.
Get away from here. Get out as fast as you can
But she ignored her own advice. She pulled her blouse out of her slacks and used the tail to protect her hand from the icy metal doorknob. The knob turned, but the door wouldn’t open. The intense cold had caused the wood to contract and warp. She put her shoulder against it, pushed gently, then harder, and finally the door swung inward.
was the most entertaining Vegas show that Elliot Stryker had ever seen.
The program opened with an electrifying rendition of “That Old Black Magic.” Singers and dancers, brilliantly costumed, performed in a stunning set constructed of mirrored steps and mirrored panels. When the stage lights were periodically dimmed, a score of revolving crystal ballroom chandeliers cast swirling splinters of color that seemed to coalesce into supernatural forms that capered under the proscenium arch. The choreography was complex, and the two lead singers had strong, clear voices.
The opening number was followed by a first-rate magic act in front of the drawn curtains. Less than ten minutes later, when the curtains opened again, the mirrors had been taken away, and the stage had been transformed into an ice rink; the second production number was done on skates against a winter backdrop so real that it made Elliot shiver.
excited the imagination and commanded the eye, Elliot wasn’t able to give his undivided attention to it. He kept looking at Christina Evans, who was as dazzling as the show she had created.
She watched the performers intently, unaware of his gaze. A flickering, nervous scowl played across her face, alternating with a tentative smile that appeared when the audience laughed, applauded, or gasped in surprise.
She was singularly beautiful. Her shoulder-length hair—deep brown, almost black, glossy—swept across her brow, feathered back at the sides, and framed her face as though it were a painting by a great master. The bone structure of that face was delicate, clearly defined, quintessentially feminine. Dusky, olive complexion. Full, sensuous mouth. And her eyes . . . She would have been lovely enough if her eyes had been dark, in harmony with the shade of her hair and skin, but they were crystalline blue. The contrast between her Italian good looks and her Nordic eyes was devastating.
Elliot supposed that other people might find flaws in her face. Perhaps some would say that her brow was too wide. Her nose was so straight that some might think it was severe. Others might say that her mouth was too wide, her chin too pointed. To Elliot, however, her face was perfect.
But her physical beauty was not what most excited him. He was interested primarily in learning more about the mind that could create a work like
He had seen less than one-fourth of the program, yet he knew it was a hit—and far superior to others of its kind. A Vegas stage extravaganza could easily go off the rails. If the gigantic sets and lavish costumes and intricate choreography were overdone, or if any element was improperly executed, the production would quickly stumble across the thin line between captivating show-biz flash and sheer vulgarity. A glittery fantasy could metamorphose into a crude, tasteless, and stupid bore if the wrong hand guided it. Elliot wanted to know more about Christina Evans—and on a more fundamental level, he just
No woman had affected him so strongly since Nancy, his wife, who had died three years ago.
Sitting in the dark theater, he smiled, not at the comic magician who was performing in front of the closed stage curtains, but at his own sudden, youthful exuberance.
The warped door groaned and creaked as Vivienne Neddler forced it open.
Aiii-eee, aiii-eee . . .
A wave of frigid air washed out of the dark room, into the hallway.
Vivienne reached inside, fumbled for the light switch, found it, and entered warily. The room was deserted.
Aiii-eee, aii-eee . . .
Baseball stars and horror-movie monsters gazed at Vivienne from posters stapled to the walls. Three intricate model airplanes were suspended from the ceiling. These things were as they always had been, since she had first come to work here, before Danny had died.
Aiii-eee, aiii-eee, aiii-eee . . .
The maddening electronic squeal issued from a pair of small stereo speakers that hung on the wall behind the bed. The CD player and an accompanying AM-FM tuner and amplifier were stacked on one of the nightstands.
Although Vivienne could see where the noise originated, she couldn’t locate any source for the bitterly cold air. Neither window was open, and even if one had been raised, the night wasn’t frigid enough to account for the chill.
Just as she reached the AM-FM tuner, the banshee wail stopped. The sudden silence had an oppressive weight.
Gradually, as her ears stopped ringing, Vivienne perceived the soft empty hiss of the stereo speakers. Then she heard the thumping of her own heart.
The metal casing of the radio gleamed with a brittle crust of ice. She touched it wonderingly. A sliver of ice broke loose under her finger and fell onto the nightstand. It didn’t begin to melt; the room was
The window was frosted. The dresser mirror was frosted too, and her reflection was dim and distorted and strange.
Outside, the night was cool but not wintry. Maybe fifty degrees. Maybe even fifty-five.
The radio’s digital display began to change, the orange numbers escalating across the frequency band, sweeping through one station after another. Scraps of music, split-second flashes of disc jockeys’ chatter, single words from different somber-voiced newscasters, and fragments of commercial jingles blended in a cacophonous jumble of meaningless sound. The indicator reached the end of the band width, and the digital display began to sequence backward.
Trembling, Vivienne switched off the radio.
As soon as she took her finger off the push switch, the radio turned itself on again.
She stared at it, frightened and bewildered.
The digital display began to sequence up the band once more, and scraps of music blasted from the speakers.
She pressed the ON-OFF bar again.
After a brief silence, the radio turned on spontaneously.
“This is crazy,” she said shakily.
When she shut off the radio the third time, she kept her finger pressed against the ON-OFF bar. For several seconds she was certain that she could feel the switch straining under her fingertip as it tried to pop on.
Overhead, the three model airplanes began to move. Each was hung from the ceiling on a length of fishing line, and the upper end of each line was knotted to its own eye-hook that had been screwed firmly into the dry wall. The planes jiggled, jerked, twisted, and trembled.
Just a draft.
But she didn’t feel a draft.
The model planes began to bounce violently up and down on the ends of their lines.
“God help me,” Vivienne said.
One of the planes swung in tight circles, faster and faster, then in wider circles, steadily decreasing the angle between the line on which it was suspended and the bedroom ceiling. After a moment the other two models ceased their erratic dancing and began to spin around and around, like the first plane, as if they were actually flying, and there was no mistaking this deliberate movement for the random effects of a draft.
Ghosts? A poltergeist?
But she didn’t believe in ghosts. There were no such things. She believed in death and taxes, in the inevitability of slot-machine jackpots, in all-you-can-eat casino buffets for $5.95 per person, in the Lord God Almighty, in the truth of alien abductions and Big Foot, but she didn’t believe in ghosts.
The sliding closet doors began to move on their runners, and Vivienne Neddler had the feeling that some awful
was going to come out of the dark space, its eyes as red as blood and its razor-sharp teeth gnashing. She felt a
, something that wanted her, and she cried out as the door came all the way open.
But there wasn’t a monster in the closet. It contained only clothes. Only clothes.
Nevertheless, untouched, the doors glided shut . . . and then open again. . . .
The model planes went around, around.
The air grew even colder.
The bed started to shake. The legs at the foot rose three or four inches before crashing back into the casters that had been put under them to protect the carpet. They rose up again. Hovered above the floor. The springs began to sing as if metal fingers were strumming them.
Vivienne backed into the wall, eyes wide, hands fisted at her sides.
As abruptly as the bed had started bouncing up and down, it now stopped. The closet doors closed with a jarring crash—but they didn’t open again. The model airplanes slowed, swinging in smaller and smaller circles, until they finally hung motionless.
The room was silent.
The air was getting warmer.
Gradually Vivienne’s heartbeat subsided from the hard, frantic rhythm that it had been keeping for the past couple of minutes. She hugged herself and shivered.
A logical explanation. There had to be a logical explanation.
But she wasn’t able to imagine what it could be.
As the room grew warm again, the doorknobs and the radio casing and the other metal objects quickly shed their fragile skins of ice, leaving shallow puddles on furniture and damp spots in the carpet. The frosted window cleared, and as the frost faded from the dresser mirror, Vivienne’s distorted reflection resolved into a more familiar image of herself.
Now this was only a young boy’s bedroom, a room like countless thousands of others.
Except, of course, that the boy who had once slept here had been dead for a year. And maybe he was coming back, haunting the place.
Vivienne had to remind herself that she didn’t believe in ghosts.
Nevertheless, it might be a good idea for Tina Evans to get rid of the boy’s belongings at last.
Vivienne had no logical explanation for what had happened, but she knew one thing for sure: She wasn’t going to tell anyone what she had seen here tonight. Regardless of how convincingly and earnestly she described these bizarre events, no one would believe her. They would nod and smile woodenly and agree that it was a strange and frightening experience, but all the while they would be thinking that poor old Vivienne was finally getting senile. Sooner or later word of her rantings about poltergeists might get back to her daughter in Sacramento, and then the pressure to move to California would become unbearable. Vivienne wasn’t going to jeopardize her precious independence.
She left the bedroom, returned to the kitchen, and drank two shots of Tina Evans’s best bourbon. Then, with characteristic stoicism, she returned to the boy’s bedroom to wipe up the water from the melted ice, and she continued housecleaning.
She refused to let a poltergeist scare her off.
It might be wise, however, to go to church on Sunday. She hadn’t been to church in a long time. Maybe some churching would be good for her. Not every week, of course. Just one or two Masses a month. And confession now and then. She hadn’t seen the inside of a confessional in ages. Better safe than sorry.
Everyone in show business knew that non-paying preview crowds were among the toughest to please. Free admission didn’t guarantee their appreciation or even their amicability. The person who paid a fair price for something was likely to place far more value on it than the one who got the same item for nothing. That old saw applied in spades to stage shows and to on-the-cuff audiences.
But not tonight.
crowd wasn’t able to sit on its hands and keep its cool.
The final curtain came down at eight minutes till ten o’clock, and the ovation continued until after Tina’s wristwatch had marked the hour. The cast of
took several bows, then the crew, then the orchestra, all of them flushed with the excitement of being part of an unqualified hit. At the insistence of the happy, boisterous, VIP audience, both Joel Bandiri and Tina were spotlighted in their booths and were rewarded with their own thunderous round of applause.
Tina was on an adrenaline high, grinning, breathless, barely able to absorb the overwhelming response to her work. Helen Mainway chattered excitedly about the spectacular special effects, and Elliot Stryker had an endless supply of compliments as well as some astute observations about the technical aspects of the production, and Charlie Mainway poured a third bottle of Dom Pérignon, and the house lights came up, and the audience reluctantly began to leave, and Tina hardly had a chance to sip her champagne because of all the people who stopped by the table to congratulate her.
By ten-thirty most of the audience had left, and those who hadn’t gone yet were in line, moving up the steps toward the rear doors of the showroom. Although no second show was scheduled this evening, as would be the case every night henceforth, busboys and waitresses were busily clearing tables, resetting them with fresh linen and silverware for the following night’s eight o’clock performance.
When the aisle in front of her booth was finally empty of well-wishers, Tina got up and met Joel as he started to come to her. She threw her arms around him and, much to her surprise, began to cry with happiness. She hugged him hard, and Joel proclaimed the show to be a “gargantua if I ever saw one.”