Monthly Archives: September 2016

Synurbization

It was in the stairwell coming back from lunch that Bethany found the spider. Well, her head found an outlier strand of the web. The spider, incensed at the slight, vibrated like a plucked guitar string.

“Oh!” Bethany said from shock. Then, “sorry!” because she was startled again.

The spider gleamed in the middle of the web. As Bethany craned her head to look closer, she realized the spider’s abdomen was covered in mirror-bright patches. She’d never seen a spider like that, not ever.

She brushed against the web again. The spider scuttled into a corner.

Bethany walked in the office door. “There’s—”

“Thank God. Here.” Bob shoved a stack of proofs in her hand. Bethany instantly forgot the spider.

She remembered when she heard Aja shriek and topple over a stack of bygone magazines.

Devon beat her to the scene of the crime. Aja had her back pressed to the wall of the copy room, one hand extended in bony accusation. The subject of her ire reclined at a slight angle on the wall.

Bethany and Devon bent close.

The small fence lizard gave them an apathetic glare before closing its eyes and settling itself.

“This what you’re afraid of?” Devon asked. “This li’l guy?”

“It’s a freaking lizard!” Aja’s polychrome leggings flexed like the warning display of a cuttlefish as she scooted away. “It’s not supposed to be inside. Doesn’t it belong in a zoo?”

Devon and Bethany exchanged a look.

“I’ll get it,” he volunteered, trying to cup his hands around the little reptile. The lizard sensed his hands and scooted down the wall so rapidly it appeared not to move at all.

Aja shrieked.

Bethany dumped her Starbucks cup out and handed it to Devon. Through some careful coordination, they got the lizard under the cup and a sheet of bristol board under the lizard.

Aja’s nose wrinkled. “Kill it.”

Devon rolled his eyes and left for the stairwell. Bethany followed, dragging her feet.

Devon did not kill the lizard. Rather, he shook the cup over the ornamental hedges at their building’s entrance. The lizard held on for one moment to its invisible prison and then disappeared into the bark covering the ground.

Devon straightened, shaking his head. “Belongs in a zoo.

Bethany smiled faintly. She felt unmoored this afternoon, like something had been confided in her and she hadn’t fully understood at the time. She stood, just absorbing the minutiae of their surroundings. The ticking of the crosswalk indicator. The multilayered sound of people walking past. The bright glare of their building.

“I don’t like what living in the city does to people,” Devon said. He wasn’t looking up at the building. He was looking down where he had last seen the lizard.

Bethany felt she had to respond. “I don’t like what it does to animals.”

As if awaiting some comical cue, a bird thumped into the glass facade of their building. Both of them started, Devon shouting a hearty “fuck” and laughing. Bethany did not laugh.

“See? That bird probably never would have flown into anything. Then we stuck glass windows right in its way—”

Devon was shaking his head again. “No, see, I believe in survival of the fittest. Adapt or die. The bird that flew into it might not ever live to reproduce. But the bird smart enough to detect glass will live to mate another day.”

This seemed to her a gross oversimplification. But the nagging feeling came back and she looked up at the building again.

“I found a spider in the stairwell,” she said, grasping for what exactly she was trying to say, “it was shiny. Like a mirror.”

Devon looked at her oddly.

“You think I’m mistaken.”

Devon shook his head again. “No, I’ve seen spiders like that. They exist. But I thought they were only in the Amazon.” He absently flicked the rim of the empty cup. “They use it as some kind of invisibility cloak. Makes hunting easier.”

When Bethany went to show him the corner of the stairwell, some enterprising hand had swept the web away. The spider was nowhere to be found.

Devon gave her shoulder a squeeze and went back to proofing.

Bethany hovered on the edge of activity. The entire office was working on the next issue, pawing over glossy mock-ups, sorting through photographs. She couldn’t bring herself to join.

It was like a sound that hovered at a frequency no one else could hear. Like a faint smell. Like a touch that brushed almost-but-not-quite against her skin.

Bob sat at his desk. Mesoamerican art references littered the space as he drew chunky geometric swirls on the paper.

“I saw a spider today,” she said softly, not expecting him to respond.

To her shock, Bob looked up. His pen ceased. “In the stairs? Yeah, I got it. No need for another Aja alarm.”

Bethany felt a little excitement. “You saw it too?”

“Hmm?” Bob’s attention was buried again. He was looking at a smeared photocopy of a picture of a stirrup vessel. “No. I got the web.”

Bethany felt oddly disappointed. Why was it so important that someone else saw the spider? It had something to do with the feeling she couldn’t quite place.

Aja shrieked again when she found a dead bird. This was not the bird that had hit the building earlier. This one was a sparrow. However it had gotten into the building, the body was now swaddled with cobwebs.

Bob frowned down at it. He stooped and grabbed it barehanded, over Aja’s protesting squeak, and lobbed it out the window.

“Back to work, all of you,” he said, shaking his hand as if to dislodge bacteria that way.

Bethany disobeyed. She stayed behind as Bob washed his hands at the breakroom sink.

“Think I’ll get some exterminators in here,” Bob said offhandedly, “sorry if it seems cruel.”

The phrase that leapt to Bethany’s mind was not cruel. It was too little, too late.

“Sir,” she said, “the spiders—”

Bob was shaking his hand again, aiming it at her like a fleshy tamborine. “I’ll take care of it, Bethy. Can you get me Todd’s snaps from the fountain square shoot?”

Defeated, Bethany nodded.

She saw the spider again, this time in the hallway just before the stairs. It gleamed in its new web like a fallen star.

Bethany looked up at it, an odd sort of reverence filling her.

Aja clattered up, her wedge heels slapping the linoleum as if it had offended her. “Not again!”

In the space of a blink, Aja swept her designer bag up and obliterated the spider. Bethany felt a sense of steep loss coupled with annoyance.

“Thanks,” she said flatly.

Aja did not appear to detect the sarcasm.

The office diverged at the sidewalk. The photographers were going straight home after a long day of travel. The purely office drones were going to drink. Bethany, neither one nor the other, remained indecisive on the sidewalk.

Bob saw her waiting and brushed her shoulder with his hand. “It’s okay.”

She wasn’t sure if he was referring to the spider, or the deep feeling of unease that had permeated the air. She could see the restlessness spread to her fellow workers, saw them check watches, fuss with their hair, look around frequently. However unnerved they were, though, it did not stop them from congregating on the sidewalk while she lagged behind in the safety of the building’s entrance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

Bob nodded as if he understood it. “You’ll survive.”

Bob left her standing in the entrance and joined the others on the sidewalk. Bethany stood with her wordless questions, her unease and her loss, apart from all the others.

So she was the only one who noticed when a massive section of the building broke away and crept with a silent eight-legged gait down to her coworkers.

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The 10,000-Year Sarcophagus

The hieroglyphs were dull in the halogen of the lamplight. Bill hardly dared breathe as he followed the expected progression of birds, beasts and baskets to a single glyph.

A figure with no clear separation of head and neck, featureless save for a single black bar where eyes would be. The thin wash of black gave it a gunmetal grey coloration, but the figure was limned with gold to show it was an important figure. He hit the shutter button once, twice. The flash lit up and down the halls of Djefere’s tomb. Everything about it—the ornamentation, the grandeur of the architecture—bespoke ‘king.’ Yet there had been no record of him as a ruler.

The grey figure progressed along the wall like a flip-book character. Here he addressed the king, wearing the red crown of lower egypt. Here he offered a stone with rays emanating from it. Here he oversaw workers at a forge. Here he submerged a pot into water.

Hailey ran, stooped, down the hall. “Sir! Come look.”

The lock on the tomb itself was almost laughable, a simple mechanism of rope and wood. What gave them pause, however, were the pictographic warnings on the doors themselves. It showed brown, old-kingdom men opening a box and then recoiling from the gold rays emanating from within.

The others hovered around the sarcophagus. The lid had been prized up and set to the side, the outer coffin shone gold in the lamplight.

Hailey signaled  him closer. With a knife, she dug a chunk from the dull metal.

“Gold-plated lead,” she murmured, “and there’s more.”

Bill drew closer to the coffin. Djefere’s imago smiled benignly up at the ceiling. He clutched a tube and a disc, not the usual symbols of kingship.

As Bill watched, they passed a handheld geiger counter over the coffin. It clicked like an amorous cicada.

 

Many millennia ago, on the same spot, the silver man walked up the hill.

He had appeared to the people forty days ago, speaking haltingly, mispronouncing many words. It was he who had told them of the sun-god’s rock, ingratiating himself with the king. He had spoke sweet words, painting a glorious kingdom they would build  when the sun was in their hands. It was he who had lead them against the nomadic tribes many day’s journey to the west, who taught them to dig for the dull grey metal that they could not touch barehanded. It was he who taught them more sophisticated smelting techniques, how to alloy metals that could hold their dangerous new treasure. It was he who had watched as a jar capped with clay submerged into a pool of water, heating it and sending it up channels to spin a crude turbine.

Now he took off his helmet, the action akin to the removal of a cooking pot lid.

“Phew!” He said. His crew-cut was wet as if he had been showering. The air in his suit practically steamed.

There was a machine he had stored in a hidden place, a thing where he now hung his helmet. He touched a pad that lit up with blue LED.

“Come in, Newton?” he said jocularly.

“Copernicus, can you hear me?”

“Clear and plain as day, Mister Ansel. Wow, I didn’t think a radio to the past would actually work.”

“Oh, it’s all very technical Adams, quantum superpositioning and the like–but tell me, what is your success rate?”

“Oh, beauteous. Once they wrapped their heads around the concept, the rest came in leaps and bounds. Notice any change on your end?”

“Change?” There was sound in the background, something other than static interference. “No change. Ansel-Kittering are a legacy company, and have existed for hundreds of years. We are the foremost authority on nuclear applications and have the monopoly on all uranium deposits.”

“Right, right.” Adams laughed. “I suppose that makes sense. I guess I’ve done it right, then. I’m just glad I didn’t somehow make it so my great-great grandfather was never born.”

“Adams, causality being what it is, you would always have existed. Even if you had a different grandfather due to some little change, you still would have been around to send you back.”

“Right, yeah, it hurts to think about.” Adams wiped his brow. “I got my degree in engineering, remember, not physics.”

“Ah, well, just remember that your existence means you’ve succeeded. You’ve made a visible difference, Adams, not many people can say that.”

“And how did you find a solution to the ontological paradox, sir?”

Empty air. There was a pop and laughter. A get-together of some sort.

“What?” Ansel said pleasantly, the fizz of champagne so close Adams could almost taste it.

“Well, if time travel worked, why don’t I remember historical evidence of time travel, sir?”

There was a long pause. Adams imagined sipping something cool. Egypt was about a hundred degrees in the shade, and the suit’s fluid channels could only do so much.

“It’s all quite technical, Adams, and nothing you need to worry about,” Ansel said finally. “If you feel you’ve established a strong enough tradition, all you need to worry about now is the journey home.”

“Yes, sir. It must be strong. I mean, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?”

“Then you know what to do.”

Adams readied the dummy plugs, swapping them out for the machined aluminum pieces that had been screwed in place. He climbed into his seat and strapped himself in, smiling proudly. Five minutes later, a neutron-chain burst inwards, generating a wave explosion that spread over the hilltop. Adams was blown into smithereens, leaving no big pieces to puzzle future archaeologists.

 

“Now, they tell me you’ve made a monumental discovery in lower Egypt.” Charlie Hawthorne, host of the hit talk show Thorne In Your Side mopped his face with a blue handkerchief.

Hailey sat sidesaddle in one of the set’s chairs, glistening beneath the studio lights. She sat next to a celebrity chef and a religious leader who had just published his 38th consecutive book. Hailey had been chosen because they deemed her the most photogenic of the archaeological team. She was flop-sweating through her dress shields.

“That’s right,” she said, voice thinned with nervousness. She cleared her throat. Someone passed her a bottle of water.

“That’s right,” Charlie repeated, leaning emphatically on the words, “and you’ve come today to let us all know what you’ve found.” He turned to the audience.

Hailey straightened a little. “We found evidence of early nuclear technology in the old kingdom.”

There was a little uproar. Charlie gestured and a handheld microphone was brought to Hailey. She held it too close to her suit mic and there was a feedback whine.

“That’s it, child,” Charlie encouraged, “and tell us all just what you found about this early nuclear power.”

Hailey cleared her throat. The mic picked it up.

“It was given to them,” she said, “by an external force.”

The audience took a composite gasp. Charlie nodded encouragingly.

“Tell us who you believe it to be,” he orated.

Haley llicked her lips and held the microphone close.

“We believe it was given them by God,” she purred.

The crowd went wild. The author stood up and gave her a hug. Charlie waved the crowd higher, fanning the flames of adoration.

“This leads into the prayer I have written for today,” he said, adjusting his wide, circular collar. “If you all would be so kind…”

Guests and audience alike sat silent. Some mouthed the words. Some, like Hailey, closed their eyes.

“Our father who art in heaven,” Charlie intoned, “who holds the gold disc of the sun in his hands, who journeys through the dark underworld of the night, Ra be thy name…”

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You Could Be Next!

The host tripped out to the middle of the stage with an almost balletic walk. He did a little bobbing bow to the studio audience, blowing air kisses to their shadowed faces.

“Hello, and welcome to another show!” he said when the in-house band wound down. “Now, you folks playing at home probably already know this, but we have three special guests in the house this evening!”

The audience shared a knowing laugh.

“We’ll be talking to Maureen, an anti-vaccination advocate, and Bill, a politician in our very own state senate! After that, we’ll be getting a visit from one of our in-house techs that makes it all possible.”

The host bowed to the renewed applause as the in-house band played smooth, featureless jazz.

“I’m Chad Huntington and with us tonight is our first guest, Maureen Collins.”

The woman they ushered on stage was wearing a pageant smile and a recent perm. Two hectic spots of blush stood out on her cheeks. Chad met her halfway and dropped a kiss to either side of her face.

“So, Maureen, why do you think you’re here?” he asked when they were both comfortably seated in the stage’s armchairs.

Maureen smiled smugly. “Well, Chad, I think big government really—”

“We’re not here to talk about government,” Chad cut in, “I asked you a question.”

Maureen was thrown for a loop. She fruitlessly mouthed a few words. “I thought—I’m here to debate the ethics of remaining vaccine-free.”

Chad waggled his eyebrows to the audience. A titter spread out like ripples on a lake.

“I believe I have a right to parent my children as I see fit,” Maureen said. The blush was lost in the sudden heat of her face. “I don’t think big government should interfere in the divine right of the parent, and more studies need to be done on the harmful effects of pharmaceutical medicine.”

Chad nodded, holding up a sheath of papers to read from. “Of course, of course. Maureen, you are aware that you live in a single-party consent state?”

Maureen grew very still. Her pupils widened and her jaw went slack.

“You said in a telephone conversation with another mother at your son’s school—and I quote— ‘I don’t care, I hope the little expletive deleted croaks?’”

Maureen was silent.

“And you are aware that the student in question, who is a classmate of your son Peter, has auto-immune deficiency from a blood transfusion at the age of two?”

Maureen was shaking her head. Her shoulders trembled.

“Oh, but we know you do, Maureen. You were sent a form in the beginning of the school year, and we have your signature on the line. Remember? Cause no undue harm? What would you call knowingly and maliciously sending a child sick with a communicable disease to school?”

“I want my lawyer!” Maureen squeaked.

“You’ll be wanting one, yes,” Chad said as he stood. Uniformed policemen appeared at Maureen’s elbows, taking hold of her arms as she rose. “Peter’s family is feeling litigious, Maureen, and the government is concerned with more than your medical history.”

Maureen howled as she was led offstage, dropping her legs so the officer on either arm had to stoop and grunt to pick up the slack.

Chad gave her a wave from the wrist.

 

“Next up, we have our own Big Bill Cobb, a representative of the lovely Lake District. Bill!”

The man took a measured pace onto the stage, nodding with great gravity to the applauding audience. He arrived from a different entrance than Maureen, one quickly hidden by curtains.

“So, Bill, you had a rocky start to your term, didn’t you?” Chad asked once they were seated.

Cobb nodded. His large, bristly eyebrows contracted, giving him a sensitive air.

“Taking over for Keith Langscomb wasn’t easy,” he said, “no one knew the wifi password.”

This joke earned only a small murmur from the audience. Cobb scanned the audience; as a public figure he was far more sensitive to the temperature of a room than Maureen.

“I guess nothing following Keith Langscomb has been easy,” Chad said conversationally, flipping through a series of cards, “after being caught with a male escort—”

“Allegedly,” Cobb put in smoothly, smiling at the audience. Someone coughed.

“Allegedly,” Chad repeated in a soothing voice. “But no sex scandals followed you, Bill. A one-woman man, aren’t you?”

Cobb visibly preened. “Yessir. Going on thirty years now, Phyllis.”

Chad grinned, nodding. “So what do you think you’re doing here?”

Cobb gave him a wary look. “I’m not sure about your question, son.”

“Oh, well maybe this will give our viewers a clue.” At a signal from Chad, a photograph appeared on the overhead. A younger Cobb grinned at the camera, arms looped around two klansmen.

Cobb whistled through his teeth. “Sonovabitch.”

“Funny story, the men under those hoods also went on to have political careers. That man on the left was recently elected sheriff of your very own district.” Chad pointed to the image. “In fact he recently came under investigation for corruption charges.”

Cobb was sweating through his pancake makeup, giving him a waxy sheen. “This is entrapment.”

“No, sugarplum.” Chad was shaking his head. “You have to be a cop for that to apply. I’m clearly a dental model.”

Chad flashed a white grin at the audience as Cobb found himself ushered offstage by the very same policeman. He did not resist, but stammered pleas for understanding to the unresponsive officers until they zip-tied his hands behind his back. The audience mixed a few hoots in with their cheers.

“And don’t forget, your bail will be set at a minimum of five million dollars because you’re considered a flight risk,” Chad called after them. He waved bye-bye with his fingers only.

 

“You folks at home may not know what goes into the making of a show,” Chad said, sipping from a bottle of water. “The unsung heroes, the countless workers who make this all possible, operate behind the scenes. We have Josh here with us tonight. Josh is one of our computer techs, aren’t you Josh?”

Josh smiled shyly, displaying a chin dimple. He was dark-haired and handsome. He wore oblong glasses with black frames and his stage mic clipped onto his breast pocket.

“Could you take us through a few things, Josh? What do you normally do for a show?”

Josh adjusted himself in the seat. “Well, I can recover data, I can install various surveillance programs and tap phone lines.”

“Law permitting.”

“Law permitting,” Josh agreed with a laugh. “I see some serious shi–stuff in my job, I can tell you.”

The audience laughed too. Chad nodded keenly.

“So, you’re quite the computer expert yourself, aren’t you? You know how to cover your tracks and so on?”

“Oh yeah, you don’t want them finding out where you’ve been. That can blow a whole investigation.”

“So you’d be able to do that for yourself?”

Josh nodded once before he caught himself. “I’m not—what do you—”

“Well, one of your coworkers had some suspicions recently. We asked the rest of the team to take a look on your PC.”

Josh froze. “You what?”

“And if you read your employee contract, you’ll know that we were completely within our rights to do so, Josh. I’d show the viewers at home what we found, but it was all quite explicit.”

Josh’s face switched from confusion to rage with frightening speed. “You fuckers—god damn, you don’t go after one of your own!”

Chad raised his voice to speak over Josh. “What lead you to believe looking up explicit materials of minors was a smart thing to do on a work computer, Josh? Did you think you were untouchable?”

Josh lunged. The two officers returned, accompanied by a burly security guard. The officers got Josh’s elbows. The guard stuck two fingers in his nostrils and pulled his head back.

“Well, this is yet another reminder to the folks at home, no one is beyond judgement,” Chad said over the incoherent frothing of Josh being pulled offstage, “no matter your station in life, you too have a chance to be caught.”

The lights behind him dimmed as Chad stood up on stage.

“That concludes another program,” he said cheerily, “I’ll be seeing you again when we talk to a Rabbi with a secret, and a wealthy widow who has a surprise waiting for her! I’m Chad Huntington and who knows? You could be next!”

The audience slavered laughter. Chad blew a loud, smacking kiss at the camera before it cut to black.

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Skipping Stones

Elvira, Ohio has the dubious honor of harboring the only known instance of a completely child-based cult. When it began or who started it is up to the unknown. But from May-August of 1965, the entirety of Mrs. Hardin’s fourth-grade class became participants in a bizarre series of rituals that shattered the peace of the small town forever.

The first instance of the cult manifesting itself was what appeared to be a simple playground game not unlike hopscotch. 20 children marked out a series of squares in chalk on the blacktop and numbered them. Stones were tossed into the field, and for each number a cryptic phrase was called out. “Violet—down to the west! Ian—curl through and out!” Elora Hardin noted that the game would disperse immediately as she approached. The children would lie when asked the nature of the game, denying they had been playing anything.

More and more of the children’s time became devoted to the series of games. They would walk in form from the school to their homes, refusing to acknowledge any children from the other grades. They were closed off and emotionless, speaking only when spoken to. One parent jokingly referred to them as the Kinderarmy. The humor covered up a deep-running concern within the town. The children began eating only in shifts, some fasting for a day before allowing themselves to feed. A child on a fasting shift could not be forced to eat, not through threat or physical punishment.

It was during the 4th of July picnic that the falling ritual was first discovered. Pastor Eames observed the children clustered by a nearby bridge spanning a dry creek. As he watched, the children picked a participant through unknown means. Henrietta Marley stepped forward, crossed her hands over her chest, and hurled herself backwards off the bridge. Eames made it to the bridge in three large steps. Anthony Brown had stepped up to be next. Eames reached out to grab the boy. Heady Carcer dove forward. Eames reached out to catch her. Anthony, no longer restrained, fell backwards off the bridge.

No one knew what to do. Child psychology was in its infancy. While the children who had dropped from the bridge were not seriously injured, the rest showed a startling lack of empathy for their fellow nine-year-olds.

The town instituted a curfew. The children were put on lockdown at their own houses and not allowed to see each other. Somehow cult-specific terms still managed to travel among the imprisoned children. Joe Ramsey, a traveling salesman, witnessed a gathering of children on the village green as he drove home in the early hours of the morning. Parents checked the next day, but could find no evidence the children had left their rooms.

School had adjourned for the summer, and so parents were hit with a dilemma. Did they dare keep their children locked in their houses all summer long? Or could they risk unleashing them for further strangeness?

A compromise was reached. The children would be let out for specific hours of the day, to interact in supervised groups. The children’s first act on being reunited was to separate into groups of three or four and stand silently, staring at the ground between them. The children did not speak at these meetings. They communicated by touch and followed an unknown set of instructions. Their games were highly structured and complex. As their parents watched, the children walked in kaleidoscopic patterns

The children stopped communicating with their parents. The few with siblings would act as if the other child did not even exist. No technique the parents tried worked on their children. Punishment, positive reinforcement, all fruitless.

On August 18th, the children clustered in the corner of the field instead of dividing into groups. There was a moment’s whispered conversation. Violet Parker broke away from the group and approached the adults.

“It’s been decided,” she said, her first words in over a month, “it has to be me.”

Violet’s eyes rolled back in her head and she began choking. Violet’s mother and two other parents rushed her to the nearest hospital, a whole county away. Doctors could not find the cause of her sudden fit. Despite their ministrations, Violet Parker died at precisely 3:15 in the afternoon. Left behind in the distraction, the remaining fourth graders stepped into the long grass surrounding the field and were never seen again.

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Scary Story Competition

It’s that time of year again! As the weather turns cold and various species of plant life get crunchy, we like thinking of a good scare. Scary Movie Sunday is running a story competition.

More into at their blog

I’ll be entering, and I hope some of my readers will also give it a go.

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A Portrait of the Leith Family

[John Alan Leith. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Zeiss Ikon camera. Leith poses with five business associates, cigar held up to his mouth. Leith does not look directly at the camera, but at a focal point to the left]

John Leith made his fortune in oil. He quickly became known for his business tactics of sinking a massive amount of money into a well and then selling it at what appeared to be the zenith of its production. Buyers would be astonished to find that not only were the wells tapped out, but that the yields had been inflated on paper.

Leith was a fixture at gentleman’s clubs and social events. He bragged of touring the world and going on frequent safaris, though his escapades were easily debunked due to his complete lack of geographical knowledge. When Leith built Montbello, the 120-room house in the Catskills, he populated it with hunting trophies he purchased overseas.

[The Ladies’ Auxiliary, group photo. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Kodak “brownie” camera. Margaret Cornelia Van Allan stands seventh from the right, third row. She is wearing an empire-waist gown with a frilled lace collar capped by a pearl pin, and her hair is loosely marcelled. Margaret does not smile at the camera, only squints as if caught between expressions.]

Margaret Leith was almost 30 years her husband’s junior. The decade between their union and the birth of their first son led to gossip about her inability to produce an heir. Whispers abounded about Leith’s infidelity, unspeakable illnesses caught in his youth rendering him sterile, or even Margaret’s own illness. Whatever the cause, Margaret produced only two children and then retired from motherhood, choosing instead to busy herself with various goodwill societies. When John Leith died in 1954 of a stroke, he left her several business debts that ate into what little personal wealth she had left. Margaret set up a trust with an oddly vague purpose: “to maintain the household.” The named trustee was Abigail Reyes.

[A candid moment: Margaret Leith, mouth open, hand pointing to a place somewhere out of the frame. Abigail Reyes, in a white headscarf and maid outfit, is nearly invisible due to the poor exposure of the film. A penciled message on back proclaims this photo the work of John Alan Leith, jr. This is the only known photo of Reyes.]

Abigail Reyes had been born in a small village outside of Manila. Her parents sold her to the Leith household with the understanding that she would get an American education. Abigail never set foot back in the Philippines, never learned English above a sixth-grade level. Associates of the prickly Margaret vouched that the maid was the closest thing she had to a friend. Indeed, something deeper seemed to bind them together. Even after dismissing most of the house staff due to lack of funds, Margaret retained Abigail at cost. Reyes would outlive most of the Leith family, dying in 1989 in a hospice.

[Black and white, tinted by hand. Taken with an Argoflex. John Alan Leith and son both shoulder rifles that would never be fired. John jr wears a coonskin cap and a rawhide jacket two sizes too large for him. Beneath a smattering of freckles, his smile is cocky.]

John jr. always expected to come into wealth on the day he reached adulthood. It was often said that he was the biggest casualty of John sr’s lies, for he was the only family member who believed them. After an idyllic youth filled with surprise gifts and long holidays, John jr. found that his 18-year vacation was funded by his father raiding the inheritance set up by his maternal grandfather. Dreams of living the high life in Monte Carlo and other such exotic locations evaporated, and John jr. found himself living at home well past thirty. After several ill-advised business ventures, John jr. died running his cherry-red mustang into an embankment. His death was ruled a traffic accident, though absence of brake marks belied that.

[The first color print, taken with a handheld Kodak. Maretta Jane Leith sits atop a Shetland pony in jumping gear. Maretta sticks her tongue out at the photographer. The buttons on her red hunting jacket are unbuttoned.]

It was always said that what little love remained in Margaret Leith was squeezed out in her second birth. Maretta was a rebellious second child. Ignored by a father who favored his only son, and shunned by a mother who palmed her off on a revolving series of nannies, Maretta was the most ambitious of the Leiths. From an early age she set her hopes on Olympic competition. Her father indulged her by building a show-jumping arena and purchasing a number of horses for her. However, her career was cut short by a pelvic fracture at fifteen. Like her brother, Maretta turned her hand to a series of unsuccessful bids to reclaim the Leith fortune, increasingly stymied by her mother spending all available cash for the upkeep of the Montbello house. Ironically enough, Maretta had purchased IBM stocks that, had she not died of cirrhosis of the liver at 45, might have replenished all her money and more.

[Montbello. Taken by a professional photographer for a magazine spread that never materialized, the photograph captures the house in its most endearing light. The architecture is based on French chateau style, with extensive manicured lawns and a carriage house just visible beyond the side of the house.]

Montbello’s future was uncertain. Margaret Leith had outlived both of her children, but not her husband’s debt. After Margaret was given a city funeral at the Leith family plot, Abigail Reyes retired to live a life of quiet anonymity in the Los Angeles suburbs. After her departure, she left a cryptic note reading, “all this and no more.”

Executors of the Leith estate found little of value in the late John sr’s paperwork. Forged checks, doctored bank balances, and a birth certificate of Margaret Helen Leith, a stillborn from the early days of their marriage. The furnishings and architecture of the house, save for a few repairs, still held value. An estate sale was in the works. However, two hurdles remained before the sale could be complete. The first was more minor: the house had an odor that would not go away no matter how they cleaned. The second was an architectural error: one room had a wall far thicker than normal. It was the maid’s quarters.

Examination of the wall found a loose patch of wallpaper. When peeled up, it disclosed not bare wall, but a door.

[Taken by a police camera. The wide shot completely discloses the metal cot and crude toilet structure in the corner of the room. The ceiling, glimpsed in the upper-right corner, is abnormally low. The cot holds a woman. She has been shackled at her wrists to the bed and wears a crude rope harness. Her unkempt hair and long fingernails speak to a long-term imprisonment. Though she has been dead for some time, the  drawn nature of her flesh tells that she died not from any illness, but dehydration. She wears a pinafore in a child’s size, one that barely fits her stunted frame. Closing the neck is Margaret Leith’s pearl pin.]

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