IT HAS BEEN SAID REPEATEDLY BY TOURISTS DRIVING past Lickin Creek on the Interstate that one can smell the grease from Lickin Creek's dozens of fast-food restaurants for miles before the town is visible. To celebrate my good news, I stopped at one of the eateries that Lickin Creek is so well known for and purchased dinner: two hamburgers, a double order of fries, a fried apple pie, and a Diet Coke, which I ate in the car while watching the ducks from the Lickin Creek comb the parking lot for crumbs.
Back in Moon Lake, the cleaning crew had finished its work. Ethelind wasn't happy with the lingering smell of smoke, but they had assured her it would dissipate if she left all the windows open. Neither was she happy with the repairs made to her parlor floor, since the carpenters had used a wood that didn't exactly match the existing hundred-year-old planks, and she wasn't happy with me, either, on general principles. The cats took refuge under the bed in my room while I changed clothes. Although I wasn't exactly thrilled with what I had to do tonight, it was a lot better than staying home with my infuriated landlady.
When I entered the kitchen, Ethelind turned her scowl on me, stared for a moment, then burst into gales of laughter. She clutched at her chest and collapsed into a chair, straining to catch her breath. “Oh, my, Tori. I've seen you wear some god-awful outfits, but that one takes the cake!”
I stared down at the voluminous blue skirt that lay in ripples on the floor around my feet. “I didn't have time to shorten it.”
Ethelind stopped laughing long enough to say, “Please tell me that isn't the latest thing in cocktail gowns from Barney's.” Impressed with her own wit, she blew her nose into a paper napkin and laughed some more.
“I'm a nun,” I explained.
“A bloody Flying Nun, I'd say.”
I adjusted the enormous wings of my starched white cornette. “A Sister of Charity,” I said with great dignity. “You can call me Sister Camilla O'Neil. I died of blood poisoning while tending the wounded at the Lickin Creek College for Women during the Civil War.” A brief biographical sketch had been enclosed with the costume, with a note telling me how to act and what I should say whenever someone entered the attic.
With yards of navy blue cotton bunched up on my lap, I drove to the college, thinking that it was all worthwhile if my costume had brought the smile back to Ethelind's face. At the college, I was directed to a parking place behind the administration building. Thankful I wouldn't have to hike up the hill from the visitors’ lot, I got out, shook the wrinkles out of my habit, and entered the building through the back door. A group consisting of nuns, Union and Confederate soldiers, and college girls in long gowns was gathered at the foot of the stairs, listening to Helga Van Brackle give directions.
“You're late,” she said to me.
“Only a little,” I said with a smile, determined to show everyone she didn't intimidate me one bit.
“I'll get to you in a minute, Tori. Please be patient while I tell the girls what to do.” Even though she spoke to me as if I were a freshman, I kept smiling. One of the gowned students winked and handed me a program, and I read The Lickin Creek College for Women presents the Annual Harvest Time Legends Tour featuring Tori Miracle as the Nun in the Attic.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What's this ‘featuring Tori Miracle’ business?”
Helga simpered as the girls giggled. “You're our Celebrity Ghost this year. I thought you knew that.”
“I didn't expect this,” I said gruffly, but way down under my habit I was tickled with the attention. Maybe I wasn't a big name in the literary world, but at least I was recognized in south-central Pennsylvania.
The girls were to be the guides and ticket takers, I learned. They represented the six original students who had been brave enough to seek out higher education equal to that offered to men. A man in a black suit played the part of the Presbyterian minister who had founded the college in 1860. Another man in black, with a stovepipe hat and a beard, was obviously portraying Abraham Lincoln. Keeping a low voice, I asked one of the guides, “What's he doing here? I never heard anything about President Lincoln coming to Lickin Creek.”
Unfortunately the acoustics in the hall were very good, and Helga threw me a dirty look. “If he hadn't died at such an inopportune time, I'm sure he would have visited our town when the war was over.”
Helga handed each of us a flashlight, a supply of candles and matches, and a small lantern. “Make sure all the lights are off in your area, then assume your assigned positions. The first guests should be coming through in about ten minutes, so please have your lantern lit with the chimney on. And keep your eye on them. We don't want a repeat of last year's near-tragic accident. Repairs to the second-floor carpet took all our profits. And don't use your flashlights unless it's absolutely necessary.”
The other nuns flocked to the staircase, and I started to follow them, but Helga put her arm on mine and stopped me. “Yo u ’re the attic nun, Tori. You can take the elevator up.”
“Why do I have to sit all alone in the attic?” I grumbled to the pretty girl in a powder blue silk gown who pushed the elevator button.
“That's where they always put the Celebrity Ghost. Guess they figure nobody would climb all the way up there unless there was someone worth seeing.” She chewed a fingernail for a second or two and looked nervously at me a couple of times. Finally, she asked, “Just what are you famous for, anyway?”
“I wrote a book.”
“Oh. Why haven't I ever heard of it?”
I wanted to shout, because you're an ill-educated slob with no literary taste whatsoever, but deep down inside I knew it would have been unusual if she had read my poor little novel. Last I heard, it had been spotted on a remainder table at Barnes & Noble; maybe somebody would pick it up there.
She pulled the grate open. “I'll get off here,” she said. “I'm going to be on the third floor. I'm the beautiful virgin who committed suicide when my lover deserted me. According to legend, I still wait for him at my bedroom window.”
“During the war?”
“No. It happened before that, when this building was still a private home. Better go up and find your spot,” she said. “We've only got four minutes till lights out.” She waved as I closed the elevator door.
I went up to the floor where the PR department had its offices. There were a few other offices there too, mostly empty, since no one wanted to be stuck in the unpleasant attic. But there was one, I recalled, that had been given to Mack Macmillan when he became chairman of the board of trustees. It had not yet been reassigned, and I wondered if it had been thoroughly searched. As I passed by, I tried the door and found it locked.
The hallway was hot and airless. Now I remembered Lizzie saying to me, “Whatever you do, don't let them stick you in the attic.” I wished I'd listened. Spooky, she'd called it. It sure was. I found the chair where I was supposed to sit in a shadowy alcove near the back of the main hallway, facing the stairs. I switched off the overhead light, followed my flashlight beam back to the chair, lit my candle, and pulled out my information packet to read through it once more. A cool breeze ruffled the pages of my job description and caused the candle flame to flicker, reminding me to put the chimney on. Lizzie Borden once told me nobody in their right mind stayed in this building after dark. I really wished I hadn't agreed to sit in this creepy attic alone.
After a short while I heard footsteps on the stairs below, and the voice of the girl from the elevator telling her story of unrequited love. She demonstrated real dramatic talent and even had me looking over my shoulder for etheric figures. The footsteps grew louder as the group climbed the staircase, and I blew out the candle in my lantern as my directions said I should, then waited quietly until they were all in the hallway. There were about fifteen people in the first group of visitors, and I could see them quite well because they were all carrying small illuminated lanterns, but I knew they couldn't see me lurking in the alcove. Several were small enough to be children, but I couldn't really tell since everyone wore costumes and masks. The guide hushed them, saying she thought she heard something, and that was my cue to turn on my flashlight beneath my chin to illuminate the white wings of my cornette. There were several screams, and I figured I must look pretty darn scary.
Using my best woo-woo voice, I said, “I am Sister Camilla O'Neil of the Sisters of Charity. I nursed soldiers at Gettysburg, then came across the mountain to assist after the Battle of Lickin Creek.” Was there really a Battle of Lickin Creek? I couldn't recall ever hearing about it. “I cared for the rich, the poor, the officers and the privates, the white man and the Negro. One poor soul said my cornette made him think of angels’ wings.” I paused here and shook my head to make the elaborate white headdress jiggle. “I emptied bedpans, fed those who could not feed themselves, changed dressings, and combed the lice from their heads and beards. And then one day, while cutting the dressing away from an infected wound, I accidentally sliced my finger. By nightfall, red streaks had rushed up my arm and taken over my brain. I was carried here, to this very attic, where I lay upon a bare cot and with feverish eyes looked out through a dormer at the heaven I was soon to visit. Within my-”
“Mama, I have to go to the potty.”
I stopped short. Where was I? Oh yes, the cot. “Within my brain was one thought only, to-”
“Now! Mama. I can't wait.”
The guide turned on her flashlight. “I'll take her.”
The mood I'd strived to create was all but gone, and I decided to expurgate my death scene. “And there I died, grateful for having suffered in the service of my Redeem-”
“Sorry to interrupt you, Miss Miracle,” the guide said. “But we're going to have to leave.” To the assembled people, she said, “The bathroom door's locked. We'll have to go downstairs at once.”
The little girl clutching her hand was sobbing miserably and hopping from one foot to the other. She ran to a masked woman in a gypsy costume I assumed was her mother and buried her face in the woman's skirts.
The people turned around and disappeared down the stairs. The guide trailing behind said to me, “That happens all the time. Someone turns the button to lock it, then forgets to turn it back when they leave. There's supposed to be a key in the PR office. Could you take care of opening the door before the next group gets here?”
“Sure. We Sisters of Charity are up for any kind of job, no matter how menial it may seem.”
I knew where the keys hung, on the wall just inside the doorway to Janet's office. When I entered the room, the first thing I saw was the mess on Janet's desk. The jumbled contents of Lizzie's briefcase lay where she had dumped it out after resigning. It gave me an idea, and I dug through piles until I found the keys for the basement storeroom. I took them with me when I went to unlock the bathroom door.
With the door open and the bathroom ready for the next emergency, I returned to the top of the staircase and listened for a moment. There were no voices coming from the floor below me, and I knew I had plenty of time left because the maiden in the window took at least ten minutes to tell her story.
I tried the first key in the door of Mack's office and nothing happened. But when I inserted the second key into the lock, the door swung open easily, as I thought it might. I closed the door behind me and pressed the light switch next to the door. An overhead light came on, illuminating the small room.
Janet had told me that after the guns were loaded she'd kept the storeroom keys in her possession all night. But there had been one short interval where they hadn't been with her. That was when she'd had to run down the hall to the rest room. If a key switch had been made, it had to have been done then. And Mack Mac-millan was the only person around who could have done it. Macmillan must have taken one of the storeroom keys while Janet was in the rest room and substituted one of his office keys so she wouldn't know it was gone.
But why? Why would Representative Macmillan have wanted access to the loaded guns? Was the answer here in his office? I knew it was quite possible that Luscious, short of time and help, might well have overlooked something when he searched the office. I stepped inside and closed the door.
The room had a few pieces of nice furniture in it, a carved mahogany desk, a comfortable chair behind it, a brown leather couch against one wall, and a bookcase, on which were a few sets of leather-bound books that looked as if they'd been chosen more for their looks than their contents. On the wall hung a large gold-framed photograph of Mack Macmillan in the uniform of a Union Army general. One hand rested on a table, the other on the hilt of his sword. He looked very official. Very real. Other than that, there was nothing very personal in the office. It was obviously not a place where Mack Macmillan spent much time.
I opened the door to listen for approaching visitors, but there was still no sign or sound indicating that anyone was coming. I turned off the light and left the door ajar in order to hear the next group coming, then followed my flashlight beam to the desk. Not knowing what I was looking for, I pulled open the top drawer. A ring with two keys on it practically jumped into my hand. It was identical to Janet's key ring, which I held in my hand. I tried both in Mack's door, but only one fit. Before I left the building, I decided, I would try to unlock the storeroom door with the other. When I went back to shut the desk drawer, I noticed a plastic Baggie jammed in the back left corner.
Using two pencils as chopsticks, so as not to leave fingerprints, I pulled the Baggie out of the drawer and dropped it on the desktop. Through the clear plastic, I could see what looked like twists of paper and foam rubber earplugs. Wonder Wads, Woody had called them, the foam gizmos reenactors used to hold the black powder in their gun barrels. I dropped the bag into one of the many pockets of Sister Camilla's voluminous skirt and left the office, carefully closing the door behind me. I was dying to take the Baggie to Luscious at the police department and would have left right then, except I knew he wouldn't be at the office and there was really no point in upsetting the college's Harvest Time Legend Tour. The bag of gun powder and Wonder Wads could wait until tomorrow.
I was about to take my seat when I heard a faint rustle behind me. Probably another breeze, but what I thought was rats! I pulled my chair closer to the stairs. I would be much too close to the audience there to be really scary, but on the other hand rats!
“Tori.” A voice as soft as an angel's was calling my name.
Spinning around, I demanded, “Who's there?” There was no answer. Had I imagined it?
Then again, it came. “Tori.”
Was it the ghost of the maiden on the lower floor? Of course it was she, I realized. She'd ridden up with me on the elevator and knew my name. She must have tried to call me earlier when I was in Macmillan's office, and become worried when I didn't answer. I leaned over the low banister and called out softly, “I'm here. What do you want?”
The girl's voice floated up the stairwell. “I didn't call you.”
As I started to straighten up, a sound behind me caused me to look over my shoulder, and I caught a glimpse of a nun, standing in the shadows. “Hi,” I said. “Please tell me you're here to take my place. This attic is freaking me out.”
Instead of answering my greeting, she moved forward as though propelled by a demon. Before I could turn all the way around, I saw the quivering of white angel wings as something hit me hard in the middle of my back. My stomach hit the railing, and I grabbed hold of it with both hands to keep myself from tumbling over. The cracking noise the banister made as it broke away from the floor was the loudest and most terrifying thing I'd ever heard.
Still clutching the part of the railing that had separated from the rest of the staircase, I fell forward. Directly in front of me were two crossed iron bracing rods that spanned the stairwell, and added support to the circular staircase. I landed on top of them with a painful thud that threatened to dislodge my internal organs, felt myself start to slip, let go of the broken railing, and grabbed hold of one of the two braces. I lay there, face down, spread-eagled on the iron bars, looking down at the floor four storys below me. Afraid to move, I called out, “Help me.” But only a squeak came out of my mouth.
“Holy jeez!” The maiden from the third floor leaned out over the railing and looked up at me. “Don't let go!”
“I'll try not to.” The nun's habit I wore weighed about fifty pounds. How long before its weight dragged me down?
The staircase shook as she ran down the stairs, and I tightened my grip on the iron rod and shut my eyes.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, I heard and felt her running back up the stairs followed by a thundering herd of would-be rescuers.
“Try to look at us,” a woman said, “and not down.”
I lifted my head an inch, opened my eyes, and saw a row of Halloween masks staring down at me. “Help,” I whimpered.
“The fire department's coming,” a man said.
“What are they going to do?”
“Get her down with a ladder? How the hell do I know?”
“I'm slipping,” I cried. “I can't hold on much longer.”
“Someone get a net.” I recognized Helga's authoritative voice.
There was no answer.
A man dropped down on the floor so his face was almost level with mine. All I could see through the balusters was a red clown nose and one eye.
“Tori, listen carefully. You are going to have to work your way back to the other side of the stairwell where the railing is broken. When you get there, I'll be able to pull you to safety.”
“I don't know how…”
“Start by turning around. I'll tell you exactly what to do. Keep holding on with your right hand and with your left hand, reach out and grab the bar on your left.”
“I don't think…”
“Good. Don't think. Just do as I say. It's not far. You can do it.”
I groped with my left arm, trying not to look down and afraid to move my head to look for the bar. And at last, my fingers touched the cold metal bar and closed around it.
“Now, reach out with your right leg till you feel it lying on the next bar.”
I did as he directed. The incongruous thought popped into my mind that I must look like someone playing Twister.
Calmly, he directed my movements, until I had completely turned my body around.
I heard footsteps, and the masks appeared on the side of the staircase where the bannister had broken away.
“Now, all you have to do is hold tight and try to wiggle your body slowly toward me,” the man said. “Straddle the bar. That's good. Move one hand, hold tight with it, then move the other.”
I said a quick prayer and tried to do what he had told me, but before I could work up the courage to loosen one hand's grip, the weight of my heavy skirt pulled me off balance. I was suspended beneath the bar then, hanging on with both hands and feet. Someone screamed. It might have been me.
“You're okay,” the man called. “Try sliding one hand, just an inch, then the other. Good! Do it again. One inch at a time.”
The arm I'd broken last month throbbed with pain. “Hurts… don't think I can…” I felt my fingers slip about a millimeter.
Then an angel's voice called out softly, “Tori. Think of your special place. Go there now, Tori. Go to your special place, and you'll be safe.”
I was on a beach, overlooking the turquoise and lavender waters of the China Sea.
“Close your eyes and turn your face to the sun, Tori. It will give you strength.”
I looked up, seeing nothing, feeling the warmth seep through my skin, my shoulders, my hands, my fingers.
“Now slide. One hand. Slide. The other. You are strong, Tori. Slide. Slide. You are getting close to your special place. Slide. Slide. Good. Slide. Slide. Good.”
Encouraged by the voice, I concentrated on my movements. Slide one hand, then the other. Slide one hand, then the other. Over and over, an inch at a time, until someone firmly grasped my left wrist.
“I've got you,” the man said, “but don't let go of the bar.”
“Don't worry,” I gasped. I'd returned to reality from my special place, and I knew I could still fall, that the danger was still there, but the touch of the stranger's hand was reassuring. Two strong hands firmly gripped my other wrist.
“We've got you,” the man said. “On the count of three, let go and we'll pull you up.”
Before I could protest, I heard him count, “One, two, three… and up.”
I was roughly jerked upward, and my chest hit the floor, causing pain to bounce through to my spine. I felt hands reaching for me, tugging on my arms, my waist, my skirt, my legs, and then they dragged me to safety.
Then my ordeal was over, and I lay facedown on the carpet, in a jumbled, quaking heap.
Someone stroked my back, and I whimpered.
“You're safe now,” said the voice of the man who had rescued me.
“Tori, it's me, Moonbeam. Can you sit up?”
Now I knew whose soft voice had sent me to the security of my special place. And still my fingers clutched at the carpet pile. “No. Can't. Don't want to.”
Strong hands helped me to a sitting position. I knew somehow that they were the same strong hands that had kept me from falling, and I clung to them as if I still depended on them for my life. “Thank you,” I murmured. “I can't say it enough. Thank you, thank you, thank…”
The man laughed, and I suddenly realized the circus clown who had saved me was Woody Woodruff, the man who, up till now, I'd thought was the most disgusting scumbag I'd ever met.
Moonbeam, in a pink ballerina costume, touched my face. “You're all right,” she said, and her hypnotic voice calmed me.
“How did this happen?” Helga Van Brackle, quite a sight in a low-cut Scarlett O'Hara gown, stood with arms akimbo glaring down at me.
“I was pushed.”
Murmurs of surprise and disbelief whirled across the landing.
“It's true. I heard someone call my name. I thought it was the girl on the floor below me, so I leaned over to see what she wanted. And that's when I was pushed.”
“Did you see who did it?”
I shook my head. “Not really. But I think I saw something fluttery and white, like a bird… or angel wings.”
Gasps of astonishment. Moans of sympathy. I looked up to see where they came from and felt as if I were surrounded by seagulls. More than half a dozen horrified Sisters of Charity, wearing huge, fluttering cornettes, stared first at me, then at each other. “But we were all in the basement,” one protested. “At least, I think we were.”