A boy. A girl. A series of hissed whispers.
"Did you bring it?"
"Maybe. Depends on what you're planning."
"Don't be stupid. I can't tell you now..."
Would things have been any different if Clare had kept listening? More to the point, could anyone honestly argue that she should have? For it was a truth universally established that you did not want to eavesdrop on your students' conversations. Mostly because you were likely to find out what they were up to. And you were then very likely to discover that what they were up to was more often than not a bad idea. Often a remarkably bad one. In fact, the smarter the student, the more downright awful their ideas were likely to be. But it was one of the great joys of college teaching that you were not legally obligated to discover what those bad ideas really were. In fact, you were more or less legally obligated not to. So, as far as Professor Clare Malley was concerned, as she spun away from what could only be described as an uncomfortable situation, keeping the caterer from decking a lingam with a light-up condom had more than exceeded her bad idea quota for the day.
The Folly was one of the many remnants of a forgotten time that dotted the Bronx - traces of a not-too-distant past when the borough was a rural tapestry of rolling farmlands and country estates. The only difference was, the Folly was uglier than most of the others. Half a day remained before Clare was supposed to give a brief, informal fundraising chat to the alumnae of Maryknoll College, and she still had nothing to say beyond that.
"Ought to raze the damned thing," the provost had agreed with Clare. "Keeps falling apart anyway. Hasn't been twenty years since the last restoration."
"Maybe you should check beneath the paving for a red and white dragon fighting for supremacy," Clare told him.
The provost blinked at her - as people often tended to do with Clare. "I'm sorry?"
"Nothing," she said. "Just moonspinning."
It was one of the perils of being a medievalist - or maybe just a peril of being Clare Malley - that you tended to forget everyone else wasn't as up on jokes about the infancy narratives of Merlin as you were. Or that a nineteenth century architectural monstrosity that seemed to have been modeled on Stonehenge would have immediately called Merlin to mind. But while Merlin might have moved the Giant's Dance from Ireland to Salisbury Plain with a few magical passes, the old robber baron Erastus Grinnell had used cold, hard American cash to import the eyesore from Europe piece by piece and reassemble it here in front of the college that he had also founded - a temple-like monument to the temple of learning that was Maryknoll. At least, that was what Clare was going to say to the alumnae. The checklist of what she was not going to say was far more extensive. She was not going to bring up the rumors that Erastus Grinnell's ghost still haunted the campus. Or those that claimed that the Folly kept collapsing because Grinnell had been cursed by an angry father who could not afford the medicine that might have saved his children from the Spanish Influenza. Nor was she going to mention that the stone that stood in the center of the circle of ornately carved pillars could only be described as... priapic.
Which meant inevitably that the caterers were fascinated by the stone. One of them was approaching it purposefully, a handful of fairy lights clutched in one hand, when Clare managed to step into her path. "I believe it's meant as a lingam," she warned the woman helpfully. "A representation of a god's - often Siva's - penis. Might not want to call any more attention to it than you can help. The guests are already likely to be... giggly."
And indeed, the guests were indeed giggly - to the point where Clare watched each woman's foray across the uneven paving stones toward the open bar in awe. The students who had begun the evening by playing at being waitstaff had snuck off to smoke cigarettes by now, leaving the alumnae to cope with their own stilettos. At least, most the waitstaff had disappeared, save one familiar figure that still circulated through the fairy-lit Folly with a mysterious smile and a dancer's grace.
Kerrie-Anne Philips. Clare's jaw set as she watched the girl offering around her tray of champagne - adorable in her black shorts and sneakers. Teachers were supposed to be dispassionate about their students. And Clare was. But that wasn't the same as liking all of them. And Kerrie-Anne was not a student she had liked at all.
Which did nothing to justify the way Clare stiffened with the sudden certainty that it had been Kerrie-Anne she had overheard that afternoon. Or the way that Clare found herself wishing she knew whether Kerrie-Anne had gotten her way with the boy she had been talking to. For Kerrie-Anne usually got her way with boys. Like the boy who had insisted on taking full responsibility for the group project Clare had failed for plagiarism, while Kerrie-Anne had just looked on with her irritating, mysterious smile.
Damnit. Clare wished she knew who the boy had been. And why his voice now seemed so naggingly familiar.
Clare was staring, and the girl seemed to sense it. Turning so fast that she lurched off-center, nearly spilling the tray of drinks she was carrying in the process, she flashed Clare a glance of near-palpable venom.
Or was it panic?
"Time for a toast!" Marie Grinnell Carey, the tallest and tipsiest of the alumnae called out. And when Clare looked back at Kerrie-Anne, the girl had her tray perfectly balanced, and was headed straight toward them.
"A toast to my great-grandfather, Erastus Grinnell!"
And after the toast, it was time for Clare's impromptu chat. She moved over to take her place beside the Congressman's wife with as much enthusiasm as if she were being invited to testify in front of a subcommittee.
Swiftly, slyly, Kerrie-Anne moved toward the center of the Folly as well, that same mysterious smile playing across her lips. And Clare had to fight down the sudden, superstitious conviction that Kerrie-Anne knew Clare was unprepared. Just as she knew that, to judge from the smell, the glass Marie Carey had been holding wasn't the first the Congressman's wife had raised that night. In fact, she seemed to have a taste for pregaming that an undergraduate would envy.
Clare reached for a glass.
Only to have Kerrie-Anne lurch and pull the tray away.
Instinctively, Clare reached out to keep her from careening into Marie. Instead, Kerrie-Anne's eyes widened in fear.
"Stop it!" she cried. "Go away! Leave me alone!"
And she heaved the tray of champagne glasses straight at Marie Carey.
Alumnae shrieked as Marie fell backwards, breaking one stiletto heel and sprawling into an ungainly, champagne-sodden heap of broken glass. And Clare just had time to wonder unworthily whether this meant she would not be required to make a speech after all, before Kerrie-Anne turned and bolted - not so much running as lurching and weaving. As if, as they liked to say, the hounds of hell were following her.
Or maybe she had simply been sampling the contents of the tray she had been carrying.
"Be careful," Clare cried. "I think she may have been drinking."
But it was too late. The girl's foot caught, and she sprawled straight into the mercifully undecorated lingam, her skull landing against its jagged edge with a sickening crunch.
All began with a single note. A pure perfect pitch, it echoed alone through the darkness that was to give birth to the world, calling out for a fellow, a companion. Only when it reached the edge of darkness, about to die out in despair, did it hear a distant echo, and the first note burst back into life, this time not just in song, but in light. A light that summoned forth all the other lights and songs that lay hidden in the darkness, awakening first in strophe and antiphon, and then finally chorusing in heavenly harmonies, out of which an angel, the first angel, the light-bearer and the leader of the celestial choir, was born.
from The Secret Testament
Clare tried not to look at the Folly as she hurried toward the front gate of Maryknoll College. It was only two days after the elegantly-planned fund-raiser had run so spectacularly off the rails, and the College's well-oiled public relations machinery had already swung into motion. A press release had been issued, announcing the tragic death of Kerrie-Anne Philips, a senior whose bright future would alas never now extend beyond a stellar internship in Congressman Trey Carey's office. The suggestion of any other connection between Kerrie-Anne and the Congressman was carefully avoided, as was any mention of any untoward encounters between her and the Congressman's wife. Nor was any mention made of a lawsuit by her grieving parents - presumably in consideration of the former. A candlelight vigil was planned, as was a memorial fund. Grief counselors had been made available. The response was dignified, sympathetic, and appropriate, just as one would expect from a college that had been established as a finishing school for the daughters of the rising Catholic upper class back at the turn of the last century.
Secularized and co-educated now, the College's campus dominated the crest of a hill in Riverdale, the Folly forming a miniature plaza in front of the College's elaborate wrought iron gates. But that gracious glimpse of a vanished age was quickly overtaken by the urban reality that surrounded it. The leafy Victorian boulevard of what had once been faculty houses that extended away from the Folly had now been largely converted to medical offices - dotted with the occasional law office or Pentecostal church. And the ornate old gate was never opened anymore; the business of entering and exiting was done at a security kiosk discreetly tucked next to one of the massive stone pillars that flanked the entrance - into whose shadow Clare hurried, immersing herself in digging through her shoulder bag for her ID, which was, as usual, buried somewhere among pens, coins, and library call slips. It was a daily headache that usually made her wonder whether she was congenitally incapable of buying something as simple as a change purse. But today she welcomed the distraction; anything to avoid looking at the Folly and remembering what had happened there.
Then music suddenly wafted through the soft, spring air, stopping her in her tracks and forcing her to turn despite herself. A shabby fiddler in a threadbare coat had set up shop in front of the stone circle - and was spinning out an achingly sweet, achingly sad melody that cast a glamour across the plaza, demanding that the whole world pause to mourn a young girl's death.
It was an odd sort of memoriam, but Clare strolled over to drop a few coins into the battered case that lay open at his feet when he was finished.
"It's beautiful," she said. "What is it?"
"It's called 'Niel Gow's Lament for his Second Wife.'"
"Second?" she said. "What about the first?"
"I guess she was less... lamentable," the busker said. Slipping a neatly pressed handkerchief from one pocket, he began to wipe the chin rest with quick, practiced gestures.
"Did you know her?" she asked.
"A girl died here. Just a couple of days ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that," the fiddler said.
Which Clare noticed wasn't exactly an answer to her question. "When I heard you playing that, I almost thought you were waking her."
He shook his head with a quick grin. "Kind of early in the day for whiskey. And it's scarcely a proper wake without," he pointed out. "Assuming, of course, that is what you meant, rather than me fighting my way through a hedge of roses and kissing her out of an enchanted sleep."
Clare was appalled to feel herself blushing. "I meant the former," she said stiffly.
His grin only deepened. "Smart choice," he said. "I've been told I play much better than I kiss."
Somehow, she doubted it. But that was not a place any wise woman in New York wanted to go with a street musician. Still there was something that appealed to her about the busker, something that set him a cut above any ordinary street performer. Shaggy-haired, half-shaved and with a pair of dark sunglasses obscuring his face, he still had the bruised, blond perfection of a fallen angel.
In other words, another out-of-work musician. After all, this was New York, where poets and philosophy professors drove cabs. And out-of-work medievalists, if Clare wasn't careful. But still there was something about the man that nagged at her. Almost as if...
"Do you know if we've ever met?" she heard herself ask.
"I'm guessing we don't much move in the same circles," he laughed.
Of course. What had she been thinking? "Well, at least we share the same taste in music," she said, as she turned back for the college gates.
"And a man can always dream," the busker called after her.
But if she had looked back, she would have seen that his face was troubled as he tucked the fiddle back beneath his chin. And that trouble only deepened, when a shadowy presence suddenly materialized from the depths of the Folly before he could pick up his bow. A shadowy translucent presence that none of the passersby seemed to notice, despite the fact that blood was coursing down his face.
"And so the endgame begins," he said.
The fiddler set aside his instrument with a sigh. "Do endgames really begin? Sounds like an oxymoron to me."
"You're the expert," the other conceded. He hesitated, then added, "I've missed you."
"Innit supposed to be me that misses you?" the fiddler asked. "You being dead and all that? At least the way I heard it."
A trace of a smile might have been visible beneath the ghost's bloody features. "Apparently, I'm a little harder to get rid of than you might have hoped."
"Unfortunately," the fiddler agreed.
"Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit," the ghost said. "Summoned or not, God is present."
"Then if you ask me," the fiddler retorted, "he's nothing but one interfering son-of-a-bitch."
It was getting toward midterms, the point during the semester when a teacher finally had to concede how genuinely unprepossessing even the most gilded of college youth was. It was also the point during the semester where Clare's students finally were forced to concede the fact that there were never going to be any Barbary pirates ripping the bodices off their enticing captives in a course entitled Introduction to Romance. That the details of the Arthurian cycle found in Excalibur were substantively different from those in Chretien de Troyes and Malory and Marie de France - and that those differences were obvious enough that Clare was not disposed to pass quizzes that substituted the former for actually reading the latter. And matters were only likely to get worse, now that they were moving on to the poems of the troubadours and such stimulating topics as the technical differences between tensos and planhs and viadeiras and desdansas - and the various hermetic interpretations of the mysterious form known as the trobar clus. In other words, Clare may well have been only a decade or so older than most of her students, and still so slight and slender that the only thing that distinguished her from one of her students was her long, red hair and general air of unworldliness, but she was distinctly beginning to feel like an old fogey.
They trickled in as they always did, immersed in their cell phones and even more deeply immersed in themselves. Sorority girls largely. All of them pretty. All of them interchangeable. And all of them apparently oblivious to the fact that one of their number had just died. Nonetheless, Clare dutifully distributed the memo from Mental Health Services about the availability of grief counseling.
"Fuck grief counseling! Isn't anyone going to admit the truth?"
Clare glanced up unhappily as the answer to the lingering question of who she had overheard plotting with Kerrie-Anne manifested in the door to her classroom. Jonas Croswell. Of course. How could she not have recognized his voice?
Tall and thin, he swayed over to the seminar table, his eyes glittering, sweat beading across his forehead. The only male in the class, he tried to make up for the fact that he was at least two years younger than anyone else by cultivating a permanent sneer and a fashion sense that hovered somewhere between that of a poet and that of a vampire. And, according to the special accommodations letter from the Student Disabilities office that he had handed her without comment at the beginning of the semester, he suffered from the unholy combination of a genius-level IQ and a spectrum of unspecified behavioral issues. In other words, he was natural prey for someone like Kerrie-Anne.
"You sound upset," Clare said. "If you feel you need to head over to the counseling center, I'd be happy to excuse you..."
"Fuck counseling! How about getting her justice? Why won't anyone listen to me? It wasn't a fucking accident. She was fucking murdered."
And then he burst into tears.
"Something's wrong with him," a girl pointed out the obvious, as Clare sighed in dismay. For a kid sicking up in your classroom was a lot more serious than when she had been in grade school and it had been occasion for nothing more than the school janitor to show up and sprinkle the mess with a bucket of sawdust. Especially when the campus was in the throes of a collective trauma. "Look, I really think you're in no shape to sit through the class..." Clare began.
"Fuck that! I'm fine. But Kerrie-Anne's not fine... Fuck, Kerrie-Anne's dead." He swallowed his tears in a single gulp of snot, before he added, "Kerrie-Anne's dead and he killed her."
"Who killed her?"
"The priest. The ghost of Old Grinnell. Hell, maybe fucking Azrael himself. All I know is he came for her. Just like he's going to be coming for the rest of us."
The half of Clare that was still stringing together lucid thoughts found herself wondering exactly how much havoc a rumor that the Angel of Death was on the loose could really wreak on a college campus. And whether there was still time to squelch that rumor before any of her other students thought to Google the name Azrael. The rest of her simply sank beneath a meaningless cascade of names and terms, most of them straight out of the countless memos from the Dean of Students and the College's Mental Health Services. Newtown. Columbine. Aurora. Virginia Tech.
Students at risk. Grief counseling.
Words. Not reality. But somehow that detachment made it easier for her to react. "Jonas, would you please sit down?" she said. She indicated a chair, and held her breath until he slid unsteadily into it. Then she turned to the rest of the class. "I think you all should leave right now," she said, keeping her voice calm, matter-of-fact.
She didn't need to give the instruction twice. They were already clattering toward the door with the cheerful alacrity of students who had just been given a snow day. She supposed it was to their credit that only a few of them were dialing their cell phones, but that was at least a reality she knew how to deal with, and she rounded on it gratefully. "I trust," she hissed at the offenders, "you are calling for help. Because if I see one picture of this on the internet, I will personally have you expelled. Do I make myself clear?"
Shock, anger, and maybe embarrassment flashed across their faces, and she just had time to note with grim satisfaction that for the first time this semester, she seemed to have their complete attention, before they bundled out the door, and she was left alone with Jonas.
Wondering what the hell she was supposed to do now. And wishing she had never overheard that damned conversation.
"Now that we're alone, can you tell me what's going on here?" she said, trying not to notice the way his fingers ran across his collar and sleeves as if he were tracking down an elusive itch. "Did you take some drugs? Because if you did, you should know the campus has an amnesty policy when it comes to drugs or alcohol. We can we can report it anonymously..."
He laughed out loud. "Campus might well have an amnesty policy, but my father sure as shit does not."
Okay. Great. So now she was supposed to sort out his family dynamics on top of everything else. "Listen to me. That doesn't matter right now. Whatever you think your father might do to you is not as bad as an overdose."
Irritation flashed across Jonas' face, and then he drew a deep breath, self-consciously controlling himself. "I'm not high," he said. "Or drunk. Well, maybe a little drunk. But it was just cooking wine. Grocery store never bothered to ID me..."
Cooking wine. Lovely. She supposed she should count herself lucky it wasn't Sterno. "All right, then maybe you're having a bad reaction," she improvised. "Some kind of allergy, you know?"
"I'm not having a reaction," he snapped. "I'm trying to tell you what happened to Kerrie-Anne. She was fucking well murdered. Is that so hard to understand?"
Sanity required that she treat that as a rhetorical question. And resist the urge to call him a sarcastic little bastard. Or simply wash his mouth out with soap. "Jonas, I was there," she said. "And I can promise you it was nothing but an accident. She tripped and fell and hit her head. It was sad. And shocking. And more than a little bit frightening. But I'd be willing to swear in court that there was no-one there who pushed her."
"Doesn't matter," Jonas said with a stubborn shake of his head. "He got to her somehow. Maybe he's one of those people that kill you with just a touch - and you die hours or even years later. You know, like how they got Bruce Lee. Or maybe telekinesis."
Telekinesis? Not even six degrees of separation and had they already arrived at Carrie from Kerrie-Anne?
But in Clare's opinion, Kerrie-Anne was by far the more dangerous of the two. Especially to a kid like Jonas. She thought back to the kid who had been Kerrie-Anne's catspaw the first time, wondering what had ever happened to him. "Jonas," she said carefully, "was Kerrie-Anne planning to do something at the party that night?"
Something, that is, beyond throw a tray full of champagne glasses at the wife of the Congressman she worked for?
Jonas' face set. "I don't know. She wouldn't tell me."
And as far as Clare was concerned, he should count that a blessing. "Well, what do you know?"
"Why should I tell you? You're not going to believe me anyway."
"Because maybe I can help. But only if you're honest with me. So will you please tell be the truth? Was Kerrie-Anne planning something you were uncomfortable with?"
It was a question out of half-a-dozen information sessions and manuals, and just the syntax made her cringe. But then Jonas' face twisted and Clare worried that he was about to cry again. "Fuck uncomfortable," he said. "You want to help me, why don't you tell me what this says?"
He pulled out a battered book and threw it onto the seminar table, cracking its already broken spine and scattering yellowed pages and dust everywhere. The professor in Clare surged with irritation and a crisp lecture on the proper handling of archival materials. And then she caught a glimpse of the frontispiece that had fallen out.
It was a scientific illustration, like something out of Da Vinci's notebooks - a man, circumscribed in a circle and a square, with meridians and notations inscribed around the edges. Except the circumscribed figure was two figures, a man and a woman, at once androgynous and highly sexual, not so much superimposed as inhabiting each other - the woman's long hair weaving seamlessly into the man's rippling chest; the boundary between his muscled thighs and the soft curves of her hips impossible to trace - and the curve of his vast wings as they folded across both her swelling breasts at once protective and shockingly erotic. Hastily, Clare moved to turn it face down - no point in fuelling any more flames...
"Filii caeli," Jonas noted the title beneath the picture before she could. "Filiae terrae. It's Latin. Translates as 'sons in heaven, daughters on earth.' I googled it."
Which was probably the first real piece of research that had come out of this classroom, Clare thought grimly. Too bad it looked more like a genitive than a dative to her.
"You speak Latin, don't you?" Jonas said. "You could tell me what it means."
Yes, but the question was, should she?
"What is this book anyway?" she asked, turning it over so she could read the peeling gilt letters embossed on the crumbling leather. "Occultum Testamentum"
"It means 'The Secret Testament,'" Jonas informed her.
Well, God bless Google Translate. If he kept going at this rate, he'd be reading Catullus in no time.
"Where did you get this?" she asked.
"From my father."
"And was it Kerrie-Anne who asked you to borrow it?"
"I didn't borrow it. I sto... took it."
In other words, the sneaky bitch had manipulated the gawky sixteen-year-old into stealing from his own father. Christ in heaven. This was way out of Clare's league. "Then I think it would be a very good idea to return it," she said. "Would you like me to do it for you? Student-teacher confidentiality would apply. I don't need to explain how I got it."
Jonas cocked his head, studying her. "Do you know my father?" he countered.
"I don't think so. Should I?"
"He's on the science faculty here. Got an endowed chair."
As Clare most emphatically did not. Which made this entire situation only more unpalatable. "Maybe I bumped into him in a faculty meeting," she suggested.
A strange expression twisted Jonas' mouth. "I doubt it. He doesn't go out much."
Of course not. Why should he if he had a library like this at home? Still, facts were facts, and there was one inescapable fact that trumped everything else here. "Jonas, if you believe that Kerrie-Anne was planning something that might have gotten her into trouble, we should have someone look into it. And I will. But I have to tell you, I was standing right next to her. I saw her fall. And there was no priest. No ghost. No angel of death. Nothing unusual at all."
Nothing beyond her heaving a tray of glasses at another woman.
"Liar," Jonas said swiftly.
"No, I'm not," she said. "Look, it was dark. And everything seemed to happen all at once. So I wouldn't be surprised if there were some... mistaken interpretations." Somewhat like his mistaken interpretation that some video game called Assassin's Creed being a legitimate guide to understanding the history of the Crusades.
But before she could enter into the niceties of that particular exegesis, an engine finally growled to a halt in the tiny parking area just outside her classroom window. Car doors slammed, followed by heavy, rubber-soled footsteps crunching across the gravel.
At the sound, Jonas glanced around wildly and lunged for the book, but Clare snatched it away before he could reach it. "Jonas, I need to give this back to your father."
He sprang to his feet, and Clare braced herself against him physically attacking her. But almost immediately his shoulders slumped, and he seemed dangerously close to weeping once more as he shoved his shaking hands back through his hair.
"Fine. Go ahead. Keep it," he snarled, as he threw himself across the classroom, and out through the open window. "But keep in mind I warned you. He wants that book back. And he doesn't care who he needs to hurt to get it. Which means I don't think I'm real mistaken in interpreting that if you keep it, he's going to be coming after you next."