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PETER STRAUBTHE HELLFIRE CLUB

 For Benjamin and Emma

Hallucinations are also facts.

LOUIS ALTHUSSER, The Future Lasts Forever

SHORELANDS, JULY

An uncertain Agnes Brotherhood brought her mop, bucket, and carpet sweeper to the door of Gingerbread at nine-thirty in the morning, by which hour its only resident, the poet Katherine Mannheim, should have been dispatching a breakfast of dry toast and strong tea in the ground-floor kitchen. Agnes selected a key from the thick bunch looped to her waist, pushed it into the door, and the unlocked door swung open by itself. More uncertain than ever, Agnes bit her tongue and braved the interior.

She put her hands on her hips and bawled out the poet's name. No response came from anywhere in the cottage. Agnes went into the kitchen and was dismayed to find on the floor an enormous coffee stain which had dried during the night to a tough brown skin. She attacked the stain with mop and bucket. When she had worked her way upstairs, she aired out the unused bedrooms and changed the linen on the poet's rumpled but unoccupied bed.

On her way to Rapunzel and its two terrible occupants, one a penniless ferret, the other a pitted bull toad with wandering hands, Agnes ignored a Shorelands commandment and left Gingerbread's door unlocked.

An hour after lunch, the novelist Mr Austryn Fain carried a chilled bottle of Shorelands' best Puligny Montrachet to the same door, knocked, tried the knob, slipped in, and peered into every room before taking the bottle back home to Pepper Pot. There he swigged half of the wine and hid the remainder in his closet to protect it from his more successful fellow novelist Mr Merrick Favor, Pepper Pot's other inhabitant.

After dinner the following night, the Shorelands hostess, Georgina Weatherall, led a deputation of anxious guests across the lawn from Main House and up the path to Gingerbread. Georgina trained her flashlight on the keyhole and declared the door unlocked. Directly behind her, Mr Fain wondered how she could tell this from a merely visual inspection. Georgina banged the door open, stamped into Gingerbread, and threw on all the lights.

The search party found some of Miss Mannheim's clothes in her closet, her toothbrush and other intimate things in the bathroom on the landing, a photograph of two small girls, pens, nibs, and ink bottle on the bedroom table, a few books stacked beside the bed Agnes had made up the previous morning. Over the coverlet lay a slate- gray silk robe, ripped about the arms. Georgina lifted the robe with two fingers, pursed her mouth, and let it drift back down onto the bed. 'I am sorry to say,' she announced, not at all sorry, 'that Miss Mannheim appears to have jumped the wall'

No manuscript complete or incomplete was ever found, nor were any notes. Agnes Brotherhood never spoke of her misgivings until the early 1990s, when a murderer and a kidnapped woman were escorted into her invalid's room on the second floor of Main House.

BOOK I

 BEFORE DAWN

In a time just before this time, a lost boy named

Pippin Little awoke to deep night.1

At three o'clock in the morning, a woman named Nora Chancel, soon to be lost, woke up from the usual nightmares with the usual shudder and began for the thousandth time to check her perimeter. Darkness; an unknown room in which she dimly made out two objects which could have been chairs, a long table mounted with a mirror, invisible pictures in frames, a spindly, inexplicable machine out of Rube Goldberg, and a   couch covered in striped fabric. Not only was none of this familiar, all of it was wrong. Wherever she was, she was not safe.

Nora propped herself up on an elbow and groped for an illicit handgun on permanent loan from a neurosurgeon named Harwich, who had rotated back to a world neither one of them could actually remember. She missed Dan Harwich, but of that one did not think. (Good old Dan Harwich had once said, A bullet in the brain is better than a bullet in the belly.) Nora's fingers slid across the sheet and rifled beneath pillow after pillow until bumping against the mattress seam at the other end of the bed. She rolled over and sat up, having just heard the sound of distant music.

Music?

Her own dark shape stared back from the mirror, and the present returned in a series of almost instantaneous recognitions. At home with her chairs, pictures, striped couch, and her husband's unused Nordic- Track, Nora Chancel had again murdered the demons of the past by scrambling out of sleep in her bedroom on Crooked Mile Road in Westerholm, Connecticut, a fine little community, according to itself a completely dandy community, thank you, except for one particular present demon who had murdered a number of women. Someday, she hoped someday soon, this would end. Her husband had spent hours reassuring her that it would end. As soon as the FBI and the Westerholm police did their job, life would go back to normal, whatever that was. The demon would turn out to be an ordinary-looking man who sold bug zappers at the hardware store, who trimmed hedges and skimmed pools on Mount Avenue, who came to your house on Christmas morning and waved away a tip after fixing your gas burner. He lived with his mother and worked on his car in his spare time. At block parties, he was swell behind the grill. As far as Nora was concerned, half a dozen oversized policemen were welcome to take turns jumping up and down on his ribs until he drowned in his own blood. A woman with a wide, necessarily secret knowledge of demons, she had no illusions about how they should be treated.

The music downstairs sounded like a string quartet.

Davey was up, trying to fix things by making endless notes on a yellow pad. He would not or could not take the single action which would fix those things that could be fixed: he refused to confront his father. Or maybe he was lying down on the family room sofa, listening to Beethoven and drinking kummel, his favorite author's favorite drink. Kummel smelled like caraway seeds, and Hugo Driver must have reeked of caraway, a fact unmentioned in the biographies.

Davey often reeked of caraway on the nights when he climbed late into bed. Last night, it had been two when he made it upstairs; the night before, three thirty. Nora knew the hours because both nights the familiar nightmares had sent her galloping out of sleep in search of an automatic pistol she had dropped into a latrine one blazing June day twenty-three years before.

The pistol lay rusting at the bottom of what was by now probably a Vietnamese field. Dan Harwich had divorced and remarried, events for which Nora considered herself partially responsible, without ever having stirred from Springfield, Massachusetts. He might as well have been rusting beneath a field, too. You couldn't fall in love that way twice; you couldn't do anything the same way twice, except in dreams. Dreams never gave up. Like tigers, they simply lay in wait until fresh meat came along.2

Davey had known Natalie Weil, too. Half of Westerholm had known Natalie Weil. Two years ago, when she had sold them the three-bedroom raised ranch with downstairs 'family room' on Crooked Mile Road, Natalie Weil had been a small, athletic-looking blonde perhaps ten years younger than Nora, a woman with a wide white smile, nice crinkles at the corners of her eyes, and a former husband named Norm. She smoked too much and drew spirals in the air with her hands when she talked. During the time when Nora and Davey were living in the guest wing of the Poplars on Mount Avenue with Alden and Daisy, the older Chancels, Natalie Weil had intuited the emotional atmosphere within the big house and invited her grateful charges for dinner at her own raised ranch house on Redcoat Road. There Nora and Davey had eaten chili and guacamole, drunk Mexican beer, and half-attended to wrestling matches on cable while Natalie anatomized, to their delight, the town where Nora's new husband had grown up. 'See, you're from Mount Avenue, Davey, you see this town the way it was about fifty years ago, when everybody dressed for dinner and everybody stayed married forever and nobody knew any Jews. Forget it! These days they're all divorced or getting divorced, they move in and out of town when their company tells them to, they;

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