Still Life With Devils Excerpt

Theresa Gabriel, eight months pregnant, was on her way home.
Despite her advanced pregnancy, she was walking as fast as she could. She had good reasons to hurry. The grocery bag she carried was heavy. The fog was in, curling around her ankles, obscuring the lights of Fulton Street. Also, it was nearly full dark. Common sense should have prevented her taking this short cut through the western end of Golden Gate Park, especially at night.

None of those reasons—there were others, less benign—had been enough to outweigh the fact that she’d run out of eggs.

This wasn’t as silly as it sounded. Tonight was the Gabriels’ fifth wedding anniversary, and Jerry Gabriel was a fan of his wife’s cooking. Theresa had planned to surprise him with his favorite dinner, a soufflé, but she’d run out of eggs. And she couldn’t make a soufflé without eggs.

She hitched the grocery bag higher, wincing at the pain of a stitch in her side. Her bright red jacket was a splash of color against the thickening darkness. Jerry would be home in an hour. She kept walking.

The bag, which contained not only eggs but milk and wine, was putting a cramp in her shoulder. She stopped and set it down, panting. Maybe she should have taken the car. But driving a sports car at eight months pregnant wasn’t easy. The last time she’d tried to wedge herself into the low-slung seats, she’d hurt her back and it had taken her nearly ten minutes to extricate herself. Besides, the doctor had told her that walking was good exercise.

She wiped her sweaty palms on her jacket, and decided it was time she stopped coddling herself with these little rest stops. Home was five minutes away; she could see the lights of her own kitchen windows through the trees.

Theresa bent to retrieve the makings of Jerry’s favorite dinner. As her hand closed on the bag, something rustled in the thick shrubbery to her left. A shape materialized out of the fog and the encroaching night. A black-gloved hand, holding something thick and heavy, came down hard.

The single well-placed blow to the back of her skull took her down into the darkness. She fell face-down, one arm hitting the grocery bag, smashing the eggs that had brought her out to meet her own ending.

Theresa Gabriel had no time to understand how and why death had come to her. She had no time, either, to realize that of all the reasons to have avoided this excursion, the most basic had never even occurred to her.

The weapon that had taken her down was slipped into a deep pocket. In that same pocket was a long length of clear nylon cord. It was carefully, lovingly taken in hand.

The killer cast one considering glance around, at the deserted path, the deepening fog, the lack of traffic. They might have been alone together, hunter and prey, alone in a damp chilly universe.

The nylon cord went easily, too easily, around Theresa Gabriel’s neck. The ends were crossed, tightened, and mercilessly held in place while the dying body bucked feebly, fighting for air and life.

But that battle was lost before it began. In moments, the cord pushed Theresa over the edge of nature’s waiting dark place, and into the world of light.

The killer straightened, breathing heavily, a slight figure in black cotton trousers and jacket. These articles of clothing were cheap and nondescript, obtainable anywhere in Chinatown. San Francisco was full of people who wore these things, right down to the cotton shoes with the plastic soles. The only odd touch was a fisherman’s cap, angled low.

For a moment the shadowy figure stood, staring down at its sacrifice to mortality. But the pause was brief; there were still things to be done.

Swiftly, and with curious grace, hands slipped beneath Theresa Gabriel’s limp shoulders, pulling until the dead woman lay on her back, her head pointing toward the apartment she would never see again. Living hands manipulated dead ones, and folded them across the swollen stomach. Then, the ritual of death and victory complete, the dark form stood up.

The air was foggy, growing darker with every passing moment. Hunter and trophy were alone together.

The killer walked away, back turned, as if that now death had been given, the abandoned envelope of skin and bone was pointless, worthy not even of contempt. On the ruined body of Theresa Gabriel, partially concealed by the shadows of tree and sky, the fog settled like a cool wet shroud.

Chapter One

“Damn!”

Leo Chant fumbled with her keys as the last light faded. She was hurrying, trying futilely to manipulate the double bolts and the heavy door. The city of San Francisco was wrapped in fog. Evening had come on, the normal vivid colors lost under a dense layer of grey that sat, unmoving, across the city’s face. The tops of Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid were invisible; the city lay marooned in its own sightless universe.

“Come on, move it, open up now open come on… .”

Leo despised fear; not even to herself did she admit that a woman might have good reasons for wanting to get indoors quickly in an inner city neighborhood. Her brother Cassius, a cop of thirteen years’ experience, had long ago given up regaling her with his opinion of the South of Market area as a place to live. He knew his sister Leontyne. As close as they were, her mind was her own, and he had never once changed it for her.

Tonight the door took longer than usual, the task made more difficult by the fog. Leo had not expected to get home this late, or this thick, paralyzing darkness, claustrophobic as cotton wool. She swore, set her artist’s portfolio and a bag of groceries on the pavement, and wrestled with the locks. After a moment they yielded, and, with a breath of relief, she stepped into a home designed to meet an artist’s fondest dreams.

Leo’s sanctuary had been built some years back, not as a residence but as a compactly sized warehouse, designed for storing beer, street drugs, or crates of the cheap clothes made by the illegal immigrants the city sheltered. Just before the city’s dot-com industry in the South of Market area had sent real estate prices through the roof, and long before the subsequent economic collapse had turned those same companies into picturesquely named memories on ghostly billboards, the building’s cash-crunched owner had tried to burn it to the ground three times, and failed each time.

Something about the place had appealed to Leo. It refused to be destroyed, no one wanted it, and the insurance company had correctly fingered the three fires as arson and insurance fraud. Bankrupt and prison-bound, the owner had signed title over to his brother and his brother had sold it to Leo for pennies on the dollar, with the proviso that she was buying it in its “contractor’s special” condition. This meant that she would have to make the necessary repairs herself, and at her own expense. Seeing the potential and correctly guessing the direction in which the city’s real estate values were heading, Leo had jumped at the deal and dug into her savings.

The warehouse was a long room, forty feet by seventy. Its vast bathroom was badly plumbed and equipped with only an ancient toilet and a tiny sink. The walls bore the scars of the arsonist’s kiss; the skylight was nothing more than shards of glass that threatened to fall at the rumble of every passing truck. Only the warehouse’s windows, each fitted with a roll-down metal shutter, had remained intact.

Leo had co-opted the whole of her enormous acquaintance, several of whom were architects and interior designers. They stripped wood, laid natural brick flooring, installed tiers of subtle track lighting that could be raised and lowered and focused at a touch. The new skylight was protected by a sophisticated burglar alarm; the redesigned bathroom was a sybarite’s dream. The fire-scarred barn had been transformed, into something as luxurious as it was functional. Leo Chant, at thirty-seven, liked her creature comforts.

She entered her alarm code and flipped the switch that controlled the lights. At once the room was bathed with a soft phosphorescence that lit every corner. There were no shadows in Leo’s nest, and no place to hide. The central heating, left on low this chilly October day, kept the place at a livable temperature.

My God, she thought, home alone with nothing to do. The evening was her own, there was nothing to press her and, for once, no deadlines to meet. And she was home.

She headed into the bathroom, just long enough to grab a hand towel from the rack and rub the fog out of her hair. She spared a thought for the 1990s, when women of color had wasted time and energy on elaborate cornrows, or beaded dreadlocks, and grinned. Leo had never fallen for that one; her hair was as close to a buzz cut as a black woman could get. With her bones and beautifully shaped skull, the look was as effective as it was low-maintenance.

An hour later, she’d eaten dinner and was considering a bath. It occurred to her that she hadn’t checked her messages. The phone and answering machine lived on a table at the far end of the room. Since there was nothing else to engage her attention there, she constantly forgot about the phone, sometimes collecting messages four days old and then only when the instrument rang and jarred her memory.

The light was blinking, showing four messages. She ran the tape back.

Beep. A resonant male voice, hurried and harassed.

“Hi Leo, it’s Cass. Can you ask Mara over for dinner tomorrow night? There’s been another murder and it looks like a couple of all-nighters at the station. I’d ask Mom, but they’ve been getting on each other’s nerves and I think they could both use a break. Give me a call if there’s any problem. ‘Bye. Oh, sorry, it’s Tuesday, ten-forty pm.”

Something cold moved down Leo’s back. While she avoided the news whenever possible, she knew as much and probably more about the serial killings frightening the city than the most avid media hound. Her brother, after all, was in charge of the investigation. There was a dark, nauseating flavor to these killings of pregnant women, bitterly underscored by the panic and tension that built with every new death. Cassy’s message brought the total to six, and what the police had in the way of evidence, Cassy had told her a few weeks earlier, wasn’t worth the price of a postage stamp.

There was another issue, more insidious. The city had seen nothing like this since the Zebra killings, many years earlier. There was no reference point to help them cope with the mounting fear. If this crazy bastard wasn’t caught soon, something was going to snap…

Leo took herself in hand. She wasn’t pregnant. There was nothing to fear and nothing she could do to help, either. She reactivated the tape.

Beep. “Good morning Miss Chant, this is Susan Ortiz at Inside Look. I know I said two weeks for those book sketches, but the printer’s union is threatening to strike and we may need them by Monday morning. Call me if that’s a problem. It’s Wednesday, noon. You have the number.”

“Damn it! Susan, you bitch, don’t do this to me!” So much for not worrying about deadlines. Leo jabbed viciously at the button and moved on, to message number three.

Beep. A languid female voice, pitched low and sensual.

“Aunt Leo? It’s Mara, Wednesday afternoon, I don’t know what time it is because I’m in a phone booth, I forgot to charge my cell phone. Look, I know Dad called you, but don’t worry about having me over, I can arrange something with a friend. Just because Dad gets frazzled doesn’t mean you have to get frazzled, too. Go take a hot bath and curse at your deadlines, or whatever. Talk to you, ‘bye.”

Leo’s eyebrows went up. Her niece had this unnerving habit of leaving soothing, sleepy little messages that recommended courses of action long decided on by Leo herself. It could get on a person’s nerves. Leo decided to leave Mara to her own devices; there were times when a fourteen-year-old girl, even one as self-contained and “old soul” as Mara, was too much to cope with.

The fourth caller had left no message, hanging up before Leo’s taped demand for a name, date, and number could cycle through. Leo erased the tape, sighed, and checked the clock.

It was nearly eight, which meant that Susan Ortiz would have left her office hours ago. Six illustrations by Monday morning, Leo thought bitterly. Bang goes my nice relaxing weekend. Damn that stupid magazine. Is that a problem? Now, how could that much work in five, no, four days, possibly be a problem? Damn, damn, damn. She wandered the long room aimlessly, glancing around without seeing, trying to capture the calm that had been shattered by the intrusion of the real world.

She stopped, her eye caught by a stack of canvases in one corner. Those were the still-life oils for the Kepple Gallery showing. A good show. She’d not only sold three canvasses, she’d spent an uproarious weekend with Davis Grieg, the gallery owner. He was not ideal, being too neurotic and too yuppie and too white generally, but he was a good connection and a basically nice guy and not too bad in other respects, if only he would stop taking everything, including himself, so seriously.

Leo grinned at the memory. Carla Morisco, the other featured artist at the Kepple show, had made a few pointedly funny comments about sleeping with the enemy, and the two painters had shared a good giggle over it.

Those pictures, now. There they stood, painted surfaces against the wall. Leo stared at their blank, uninformative backs. What were they again, the few that hadn’t sold?

A still-life of nuts, the bowl and table extremely realistic, the nuts impressionist; she’d been experimenting with multiple styles in a single context, not entirely successfully. Another painting, a vibrant white wicker cage with exotic birds flaunting their colors. Why hadn’t that one sold? Perhaps the vicious tilt of the beaks, the attack stance of the winged furies, had frightened the buyers off. Two others were smaller and less memorable.

Leo made up her mind quickly. She flipped through the stack and found the canvas of the Rembrandt table and bowl with the Monet almonds. Pulling it free of the others, she set it on the easel directly under the skylight.

She checked the door, making sure that the bolts were shot and the chain in place. The iron-shuttered windows, always left down when Leo was out, protected her from prying eyes. Breathing slowly and deeply, she walked to the painting and sat in the hard wooden chair that she always kept in front of the easel.

She fixed her eyes on the painted bowl, the dense lines of her own vision catching and holding her. There was a liveliness to this piece, something both restful and alert; you could almost smell a September day. The background was a soft wallpaper effect, the painting lit from an unseen window somewhere. Colors. Yellow ocher, French ultramarine, a streak of Payne’s gray that had blended with the yellows and whites, speckling the lit side of the bowl, echoing, singing, resonating with a kind of visual laughter. Sunlight, and the smell of fruit outside that hidden window…

Leo Chant, staring wide-eyed, motionless, and barely breathing, walked out of her body and into her painting.

. . . .

Lieutenant Cassius Chant, Cass or Cassy to his friends and colleagues, rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on one of the nastiest photographs he’d ever seen.

The insides of his lids felt gritty, and focussing was getting harder every day. Six killings in ten weeks made for sore eyes when you were in charge of the city’s Homicide Division. Killing in any form was an affront. But this kind, pregnant women nailed by a lone operator with a screw loose, was nightmarish. One death, three deaths, and suddenly the deaths themselves became almost incidental to other things: the pressure, the media, the mounting panic registered by the upsurge of scared calls to the police department and the increase of petty crimes all over town.

The photo was only one of a dismal series. Some had been taken at the crime scene in Golden Gate Park, others on a mortuary slab. The face was blank and pop-eyed, crumpled like a tissue, hideous with the blue lividity of suffocation and early mortification.

“Nice night for it.”

Cassy looked up. Jim Delgado, one of the fourteen homicide inspectors under his command, was leaning against the door frame, a cup of coffee in each hand. His thin build usually seemed too slight to hold the energy packed inside. Tonight, he appeared to need the door frame just to hold him upright; the wilt was visible, and growing worse every day. Energy was just one of the minor casualties inflicted by the killer known strictly to Homicide as Captain Nemo.

“Not for Theresa Gabriel.” Cass dropped the photos and closed his eyes, resisting the urge to knuckle them. “Not for the baby, either. I thought you were off duty tonight. Where’s Shansky?”

“In bed with the flu. So are Soufriere and Jackson, which, in case you’re wondering, is why I’m here. I’m not on duty, but at least I’m healthy. ‘Tis the season for vitamin C and chicken soup. You know something? Captain Nemo is beginning to get on my nerves. I never thought I’d find myself hankering after a nice old-fashioned gang killing.”

“Or even a drive-by. I know what you mean. Is that coffee for me? Nice guy, and a mind-reader, no less.”

Delgado passed over a cup. “Hell, I’m just sucking up. The way I see it, if I’m nice enough to the head honcho, he’ll see about transferring me to Lost Luggage or Missing Parakeets or something less stressful.”

“We don’t even have a division for—” Cassy caught Jim’s eye and grinned. “Nobody’s transferring anywhere, not with half the department down with the flu. Anyway, you want out of this hell-hole, don’t be so good at your job.” He swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“You needed that more than you think. Rumor has it the chief wants to throw a little party, you know? A conference for the Dogs of War.”

This euphemism, coined by Homicide’s receptionist Elena Gonzales, referred to the media at large. Cassy groaned.

“Jesus, Jim, what does he want to tell them? That there’s been another killing? They already know that, it rated a special bulletin during Survivor XXVIII or whatever crapola show was on last night. That we don’t know what sex, age, color or species Nemo is? Hell, they know that, too. I can just hear him, or is it only me who’s supposed to host this party?” His voice took on a pompous overtone, unctuous, bitterly edged in sarcasm. “‘Members of the press, on behalf of the commissioner and the mayor’s office, I’m here tonight to announce a major breakthrough in the Maternity Murders. We have determined beyond any possible doubt that the perpetrator of these heinous crimes is, in fact, a carbon-based life form. I can’t praise the forensics people highly enough for their unflagging energy, their tireless efforts, their unceasing cooperation, their brilliant insight, their—”‘

“Hey,” Delgado said, startled. Cassy’s voice had begun to spiral out of control. “Hey, whoa, easy. Calm down, Loot. Chill. Just breathe.”

“Right.” Cassy let his breath out. “Right. Jim, do you know what I’d like to do right now? More than anything?”

“Go fishing,” Delgado said immediately. He was a passionate, obsessive devotee of the sport. “Someplace where they don’t speak any English and no one ever heard of the Maternity Murders. Antarctica, maybe. Or Cameroon.”

“Nope. I’d like to find the guy that came up with this ‘no smoking in the workplace’ shit and get him addicted to nicotine. You know? Just tie him to a chair and blow smoke at him, twenty- four-seven, for a few weeks. Then I want to put his interfering, self-righteous ass in charge of this investigation. After that, I’ll just sit back and see how he handles this kind of pressure without something to fall back on.”

Delgado, who didn’t smoke but wasn’t too bothered by people who did, grinned. He’d heard Cass sing this particular tune before. “I know, I know. Serve the bastard right. I hate busybodies too. Meantime, why not go take a breather outside? Or should that be a choker outside?”

The phone rang before Cassy could annihilate him. “Homicide, Chant speaking.”

“Daddy?”

At the sound of that slow, easy voice, Cassy relaxed. It was hard to admit, but it was true; if Nemo killed nothing but pregnant women forever after, he would be frightened for his daughter. Maybe every parent in town felt that way. Or every parent on earth.

“Mara, honey. How you do?”

“I do fine.” This ritual greeting dated back to Mara’s first experiments with speech. Although she had outgrown her eccentric use of verbs, the greeting remained as a private joke between them, as intimate as a goodnight kiss. “I’m over at Shelly’s house, for dinner and homework.”

“Who the hell is—oh, you mean Shelly Wilson. The girl with the weird hair, sticks out in front, like a quail?”

Mara snorted. The elegant exhale was idiosyncratic; she’d never giggled in her life, at least not within her father’s hearing. The snort was uniquely Mara’s. Another enigma, another mystery. He sometimes wondered if she was really a teenage girl.

“Yes, Father dear, a quail. Anyway, I’m having dinner here and then her mother’s driving me home. And she’ll get out of the car with me, and walk me inside, and help me turn on the lights, and make sure there’s no one hiding in the closet. And don’t worry, she definitely isn’t pregnant.”

“That’s not funny. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a psychopath running around town, killing women—”

“Pregnant women. Very pregnant women. And I can assure you, in no uncertain—”

“Mara.” The snap in his voice was a warning, and Mara stopped teasing. She never pushed too far unless she considered the issue a matter of moral importance. It was something that Cassy, as a single father, had reason to be grateful for. There had been no tantrums from Mara, no spoiled sulks, not even as a toddler. His mother, a firm disciplinarian who had helped raise the girl from infancy, summed it up perfectly: Mara always knew when enough was enough.

“All right, Daddy. I won’t tease anymore. And I was only teasing, you know. I don’t really think all these precautions are silly. Believe me, I take them as seriously as you do. I mean, suppose I was wearing one of my big oversized sweaters, and he saw me in profile, and thought—”

“Hush. You just hush.” Cassy saw Delgado, who had been idly flipping through a stack of reports, turn to stare at him. He caught the look on Cassy’s face and hastily turned away. Cassy had heard the naked emotion in his own voice. It couldn’t be helped; the picture Mara had conjured up was horrifying.

He swallowed hard, suddenly furious with his exquisite, inexplicable daughter. Why did he have to love her so much, when just a little less feeling would have made his life so much easier? He pushed the anger away.

“I’m glad to hear you’re taking it seriously. You call me once you’re home, okay?” A sudden thought occurred to him. “Hold it. How come you’re not at Leo’s? I left a message on her machine, asking her to invite you over.”

“I’m not there because I left her one, too, telling her I was going over to Shelly’s and she didn’t have to worry about it. Don’t get antsy, Daddy, I’m fine. And I promise I’ll call when I get home.”

“Good. In the meantime, give me the number at Shelly’s, and yes, I know you have a perfectly good cell phone, it costs me enough every month. Oh, wait, never mind, it’s here in my rolodex. If you get scared, you call me. Okay?”

“Okay.” The smooth, calm voice never flickered; heaven only knew what was going on inside her head. She was about as easy to read as a lead-lined coffin. “See you ‘bye.”

Cassy hung up. At his elbow, the stack of reports, the photos, the memos from the assistant district attorney’s office, made an unwieldy pile. His head ached, and his hands were damp and unsteady. Hell, he thought, too much tension is a bitch and no mistake. It was definitely time for a smoke and a breath of night air.

“Did I hear you mention Leo?”

Cassy, reaching for his jacket, turned to Delgado. He had not missed Jim’s tone, offhand and too casual. Jim’s admiration for Leo had been noted and remarked on by everyone except Leo herself. “Probably. Why?”

“Just wondering how she was. She hasn’t been in here for a while. Those head shots she drew, when Friedman was on vacation last year, they were great.”

“Nothing for her to draw on this one, or for Friedman either,” Cass said grimly. He saw something on Delgado’s face, an unspoken sentiment wanting out, and paused at the office door. “Spit it out, Jim. What’s on your mind?”

“Oh, nothing.” He met Cassy’s eye, and his ears turned red. “Oh, hell, and you called me a mind-reader! It’s just that, you’re pretty worried about Mara—”

“Of course I’m worried about Mara,” he snapped. “Wouldn’t you be worried about your daughter with this crap going on?”

“If I had one, you’re damned straight I’d be worried. But Leo’s even smaller than Mara is. Hell, she just tops my shoulder, and I’m not starting at center for the Lakers any time soon. Don’t you get worried about her, too?”

Cassy considered him, a reluctant grin dawning.

“Jim, if there’s one person on earth I don’t need to worry about, it’s my sister. I know artists are supposed to be weird, but not Leo. Leo’s depressingly normal. Nothing ever happens to her; she’s too real to be real. Look, I’m going outside for a smoke. I’ll be back in five if anyone calls.”

He went quickly through the pebbled glass doors, leaving Delgado staring after him.

Usually, when Leo walked into her own fourth dimension, it was as easy as passing through mist. So it was tonight; there was nothing different, nothing alarming, nothing new.

It didn’t always work. Leo had learned years before that she could not walk into a picture without a scene. A nude with no background, an anatomy sketch, a page full of hands or feet or noses, were locked doors granting her no entry. But a landscape, a still life, anything where she had painted a setting, were open country.

Her body stayed behind, limp and relaxed. Since no one knew of her strange ability, she’d never had to explain either the mechanics or the sensations involved in this psychic travelling. Had she been asked, she would have found herself hard-pressed.

She might have said that she could enter no work that had not come from her own hand. She might have said that the hands of her mind, or her consciousness, clasped a thin colorless cord, a cord that linked spirit to body and acted like a velvet-covered rope in a theatre queue, keeping her attached to the essential something that was Leontyne Chant. She might have added something about the way her senses worked in the shadowlands of painted reality; that while all five served her in that odd place, sounds were muffled and booming, colors filmed over, smells fleeting. Beyond that, she would have had no words.

Tonight the cord lay against her, a tow-rope back and forth between dimensions of an artist’s reality. She could feel herself, both ends of herself. She was present faintly, distantly, both in the silent, unblinking shell that waited passively in a hard-backed chair, and present, too, in the painted kitchen where freshly picked almonds lay in a bright bowl, waiting for a hand to come and take them. The hand would never come, for Leo had not painted it. And yet, following the line of power between self and self, Leo herself could taste them.

She did what she always did on these journeys. First she found a center, a focal point, and established her spirit there. From there she could stand safely and allow, without fear, the bombardment of her senses. Tonight she knew at once that this would be a pleasurable hour. The bowl, the almonds, the wallpaper dappled with day, were all benign.

She hovered in her own painting like a ghost, waiting.

Sound came first. It washed over her as if from a vast distance, a soft muffled whispering she identified as a tiny breeze. It held its own reality, that gentle blowing breath of air, and hard on its heels came smell: warm, tantalizing and familiar, something that did not come from the painting itself.

Wrapped in a peace outside of temporal considerations, Leo was puzzled. She forced away the impatience, the wanting to know. She never strained toward knowledge or forced her own understanding at these moments. It could not be done safely; she had tried it once and found herself back in her body, lying bruised and nauseous on the studio floor, sweating with cramps and fever. Passivity was another condition of this odd talent; she was welcome to what was offered, but must not ask for more. Sometimes the anomaly would resolve into firm identification, sometimes not.

Tonight the elusive scent clarified. Apricots, she thought distantly, that’s the smell of apricots. So there’s a garden or an orchard outside that window I suggested but never painted. Would I smell them so strongly if they were alive and growing, still on the tree? Probably not. So the fruit had been picked, or fallen from the boughs, hitting the ground, splitting the rich skin, staining the fertile earth of the orchard with juice, delighting the birds…

Another sound, close yet far away. Singing. A human voice? No, she thought, birdsong. Birds in the orchard, pecking, shrilling, offering thanks for nature’s gift.

Something moving across her skin, warmth followed by a short quick chill. The breeze that could be implied but never painted had found the backs of her hands, laced her briefly within itself, moved on.

The almonds, misty and sketchily painted, beckoned to Leo. She thought about them, and felt her mouth water. She summoned them from their charming vivid bowl, tasting one, delighting in her detachment at their firm texture, their crunch, the oil, was it oil paint or almond oil that left a faint spectral touch against her palate…?

When she finally felt the tug of her body, the sudden jolting of a small pain somewhere within herself, she had reached a level of tranquility incomprehensible to another mind. With no regret, no sense of loss, she gave herself to the imperative wrench of the weightless, colorless cord that linked her to the physical world. It was time to go.

A tremble, a sudden thickness behind her eyes. The cord was solid against her, tangible in its meaning.

She faded, dissolved, and followed it home.

Leo found herself sitting in the wooden chair, her right hand cupping her left elbow, rubbing the ache and the tingle away. As she’d stood and crunched nuts in another place, leaving her body behind, her arm had fallen asleep.

Secure and serene on the wooden easel, the almonds rested in their bowl, dappled with sun, kept fresh by the breeze from the hidden window. Somewhere in the painted reality that was only one small dimension in Leo Chants’s universe, birds sang and ate apricots.

Copyright © 2007 by Deborah Grabien
All rights reserved.