I dial Etienne Anders's number while sitting in my car. My hands tremble so much that it takes several efforts to press the right buttons. Finally I hit the correct combination, her phone rings six times then cuts to voicemail. I leave my name and number and ask her to call me as soon as she can.
My heart is pounding and my thoughts are circling faster and faster, like goldfish on speed. If Gregory Menderes has told me the truth, and the mystic can prove it, then I fell in love with a ghost, one who was able to pass herself off as a member of the living. If that's the case, life as I knew it just ceased to exist. How can I trust anything in a world where ghosts can walk among us and not be known for what they truly are?
I never believed that ghosts might be real. All the years of research were mainly an attempt to keep madness at bay. The search for supernatural proof was a way of evading what I felt sure was an undeniable truth, that my ghosts were nothing more than evidence that I had suffered a mental breakdown. I didn't think there was a God, or life after death. If I was wrong . . . if Andeanna was the proof that I'd been sceptically seeking . . . then everything has changed. On the one hand, that thrills me. On the other, it terrifies me, as every belief I once held true will have to be re-evaluated. I'll have to try to make sense of the world all over again.
I think back to the storyline of Spirit of the Fire. I'd started to feel far removed from the novel, as if it was some leftover relic from an earlier life. Now I find myself running through the plot again. Was I closer to the truth than I thought? Could my bumbling efforts to weave together a decent ghost story have nudged me over some unseen edge, into a very real, supernatural corner of the world? Did I inadvertently invite the ghost of Andeanna Menderes into my life, bring her into being or open a door through which her spirit could slip and physically form?
Joe rings while I'm considering the impossible. He wants to know how my meeting with Greygo went. I lie and say I learnt nothing new, then tell him I'll be in touch in a few days, that I'm chasing up leads. Not wanting to expose Joe to the labyrinthine terrors of this mad new world. Not wanting to drag him down into the darkness with me, where the dead can catch hold of you and do as they wish.
Hours tick by. I try not to think about Andeanna and Axel Nelke. I fail.
Finally my cell rings again. I answer hoarsely, 'Hello?'
'Edgar Sanders?' a woman asks.
'Etienne Anders. Sorry it took so long to get back to you, love. It's been a hectic day.'
'No problem. Thanks for returning my call.'
There's an awkward silence. She's waiting for me to say something but I don't known how to begin. When she realizes I'm stuck, she comes to my rescue. 'Were you looking to have your fortune read?'
'No, I . . . ' Want her to materialize the spirit of the dead woman I fell in love with? Unpick the lock of a mystery that defies description? 'Gregory Menderes told me I should call.'
'Greygo?' I sense her smile. 'He used to be one of my favourites, bless him, though I haven't seen much of him lately. How is he? I heard about his father and sent a condolence card.'
'He's good. He . . . ' I go for it. 'I rang about his mother, Andeanna.'
'Oh?' Cautious now.
'I'm writing a book. There are things I want to learn about her. Greygo told me to get in touch with you. He said you knew more about it than he did.'
'I don't think so, love,' she replies. 'I've channelled for Greygo a few times, but I don't . . . Do you know what channelling is?'
'That's when a mystic acts as a conduit for the dead.'
'Yes. I let them speak through me. Well, I channelled for Greygo, but I didn't hear what was said. Sometimes a spirit takes over and tunes me out, so that it can converse with its loved one in private.'
'But he told me to phone you,' I bleat.
She makes a soft sucking sound with her teeth and lips. 'Do you mind if I call you back, love? I'd like to check with Greygo before taking this further. Not that I don't trust you, but you've got to be careful, haven't you?'
'Sure. But if you can't get through to him, will you let me know? I don't want to sit around like a fool all night.'
'Will do, love. Hold tight. I won't be long.'
I think about our short conversation while I wait. A channeller. Is this how Greygo learnt about his mother's death? I've visited lots of mediums over the years. Most were blatant charlatans. A few left me wondering if there might be something to them, but not even the best could provide concrete proof that they were in touch with the dead. None could answer a direct question to my satisfaction, in a way that proved beyond doubt that they could communicate with spirits.
Etienne is back within ten minutes. 'Sorry about the delay, love. I got chatting to Greygo about his father. He's awfully upset. They still don't know who did it. I told him he should come in and try making contact. His father might be able to shed light on the subject.'
That's a twist I hadn't taken into account - the ghost of Mikis Menderes returning to point the finger at me. Even surrounded by madness, my self-protective drive kicks in and I ask how Greygo reacted to her suggestion.
'He pooh-poohed it. He wants to get over his father's death, not wallow in it. I understand that. It's better not to rush these things. The dead can wait, that's for certain.'
'What about me? Did he OK our meeting?'
'He was ambivalent. He regretted telling you about his secrets, but given the fact that he had, he agreed that you might as well learn the rest, seeing as how you know so much already.'
'When can you see me?'
'Right now's fine. Do you have a pen? I'll give you directions.'
Etienne Anders operates from a small apartment in a block of flats in the East End. She lives elsewhere, she tells me as I make myself comfortable in a cramped living room, but never reveals her home address, even to her most trusted clients. 'One of my quirks, love. I'm full of them.'
She's a middle-aged woman with straggly grey-brown hair which she doesn't take care of. Light brown skin. Her striking cheekbones make me think she might have been a looker once, but now her face is dark with wrinkles and moles. She walks with a stoop, her left shoulder hanging lower than her right. She wears crisp white gloves but otherwise is dressed casually, baggy jeans and a faded sweater with a picture of Bob Marley sprayed across the front.
'I look a fright, don't I?' she laughs, collapsing into a soft, springy chair. 'I don't normally, but this has been a long day. I'm usually finished by now. I'm no nightbird, love. In bed by ten more often than not.' She glances at a digital clock hanging on the wall above my head, and sighs. 'But not tonight. Let's crack on, shall we?' Taking my hands, she looks at me directly. 'I won't feed you a load of guff, love. If customers come to be charmed and amused, I charm and amuse them. But I can turn on the real stuff when asked.'
'You can speak to the dead?' I ask dubiously.
'Not to them, love. With them. I can't contact anyone who doesn't want to be contacted, or find someone who doesn't want to be found. I open up my mind and invite them in. If they come, they come. If they don't, they don't. If Andeanna wants to speak with you, she will. If she doesn't . . . ' Etienne shrugs.
'Good.' Settling back, not letting go of my hands, she closes her eyes. 'Ever been to one of these before?'
'Quite a few, actually.'
'Then you know the routine. Keep still, say nothing, don't disturb me. It might take a while. There's nothing either of us can do to speed things up.'
She takes deep breaths and relaxes. Her head is soon tossing from left to right and her lips move, forming barely intelligible words. At one point she cries out, a young boy's voice, and I fear I'm going to be stuck with a whimpering child, but the youth's voice fades and she resumes her search.
My ghosts drift around her as she rolls her head, making crude gestures, mocking the both of us, as they often have at seances. If she could truly do what she claims, surely she'd be aware of the seven malevolent spirits in the room. The fact that she isn't disheartens me, and I ready myself for the usual mumbo-jumbo that I get fed by those of her ilk.
Five or six minutes later, Etienne Anders stops squirming and sits up, eyes still closed, lips spreading in a suitably ghostly smile. 'Hello, Ed,' she says, only it isn't her voice. It's Andeanna's.
I freeze. Whatever I'd been expecting, it wasn't this. A moaning approximation of her voice, perhaps, at best. But this is the real thing, the voice of the woman I met on the boat, the woman who seduced me and had me dispose of the Turk. The voice of a ghost.
'Who are you?' I croak. 'Is this a recording?'
'Don't be silly, Ed.' I see now that the smile is Andeanna's as well. A warm but worried smile, like the one she flashed the first time we kissed. 'You know it's me.'
I lean forward, fingers digging into the mystic's. 'I want to hear you say it.'
'I'm Andeanna Menderes,' she sighs, 'but I called myself Deleena Emerson the night we met at Shar's party.'
'You died,' I whisper. 'Years ago. You're dead.'
'Yes, Ed. I know.'
'But you were real!' I shout. 'I touched you. Kissed you. We made love.'
'No,' she corrects me. 'We couldn't. I would have, if I'd been able, but there are limits.'
'Who sets them?' I croak, but she only smiles and shakes her head.
'How have you been?' she asks, as if we'd parted the day before.
'How do you fucking think?' I snarl, no longer seeing Etienne Anders, no longer doubting, chatting with Andeanna the same way I did when she was alive. When I thought she was alive. All the doubts blown away. Adjusting with surprising ease to the resettlement of my axis of reality.
'I've kept track of you as best I could,' Andeanna says as my ghosts drift into the background, sullen, disappointed, and also confused-looking. 'I've been with you much of the time. I tried letting you know I was present, but I don't have that power any longer. If you hadn't come here, we could never have spoken with each other again. That's why I told you about Etienne. I didn't know what was going to happen when Mikis died, but I guessed it might be like this. I didn't want to leave without explaining.'
I feel tears building, but I blink them back. 'Explain that you made a fool of me? That you used and discarded me? That you forced me to kill your ex-husband, promising it would make you mine, knowing it would only drive us apart?'
'I'm sorry,' she mutters, dropping her head with shame. 'There was no other way. I had to have him killed. Just like he killed me.'
I push my anger aside and concentrate on this immediate part of the puzzle. 'The Turk killed you?' I ask, and she nods. 'But Greygo said - '
'Greygo started coming here when he was nineteen,' she interrupts. 'I'd been with him since I died, as your ghosts are always with you, but that wasn't enough. He'd only known me as a child knows. He yearned to learn more about me. He did the rounds of mystics and seers, longing to talk with me and hear me tell him that I loved him. Etienne was the only one I could speak through. She's special, the way you are. You both have connections to the dead which most of the living lack.
'Greygo had harboured suspicions for a long time. Mikis was careful never to let his secret slip, but sometimes he'd drink too much, moan my name in his sleep and beg forgiveness. Greygo wondered what his father had to feel guilty about.
'It took him a long time to build up to the question.' The mystic's face lifts, filled with Andeanna's pride. 'Did my father kill you? It almost destroyed him as he asked it. I meant to tell him the truth and turn him against the monster who took my life. But there was so much fear in his eyes, fear that I'd say yes . . . ' Her face clouds over. 'As much as I hated Mikis, I loved Greygo and couldn't bear to destroy him. I made up a suicide story, mixing in enough truth to explain Mikis's guilt. It hurt Greygo, but not as much as the truth would have.'
'And killing his father - don't you think that hurt?'
'Of course,' she sighs, 'but I had no choice. I had to kill Mikis. I couldn't know peace until I did.'
'Tell me how you did it,' I whisper. 'Tell me how you assumed human form and tracked me down.'
Etienne shrugs, exactly the way Andeanna used to when I asked a question she couldn't answer. 'I don't know.'
'Bullshit,' I snarl.
'The truth,' she says gently. 'This is the real world, Ed, not one of your books. There aren't answers to every question. For years I was a bodiless entity, haunting the mansion. I glimpsed fellow spirits from time to time, but I had no way of communicating with them. I was alone, and lonely, but at least there was Greygo. I watched him grow up. I was there when he brought his first date home. I kept an eye on him and spoke to him, even though he couldn't hear me.
'One night I felt myself changing. Forming. I was terrified. I didn't know what was happening. I was feeling things again, smelling, hearing, seeing. After the initial shock, it was wonderful. But now that I was solid - visible - I had to leave before I was seen. So I grabbed some of Greygo's clothes and fled.
'I wandered the city, bones and flesh strengthening while I walked, and if you think that was painless, you couldn't be more wrong. I was cold and scared, in agony. Then, when the sun rose, I disintegrated like a vampire. Sunlight always undid me. That's why I never met you in the day, always late in the evening when the sun's power was fading.
'I re-formed the next night, in the place where I'd come apart. Naked and defenceless, I hid, only coming out when the city was asleep. I returned to the mansion and raided my old room. I sold jewellery - my own, items that Mikis had held on to, so I didn't feel bad for stealing it - and set myself up in a small apartment, where I retired each night before dawn, so that I could rematerialize somewhere familiar and safe the next evening.
'Shortly after that, my thoughts turned to revenge.' Her expression hardens. I'm amazed by how much of Andeanna there is in the mystic's face. It's as if she's taken over Etienne Anders from the inside, making the medium's features her own, moulding them to mirror hers. 'I wasn't driven by hatred. Killing Mikis was just something I had to do. Without knowing how I'd re-formed, I knew instinctively why - to make Mikis pay.'
'How did you know?' I ask.
'I just did. It's . . . ' She grins sickly. 'It's a dead thing. You'd have to die and come back like I did to understand.'
'I'm not that eager to find out,' I deadpan, and for a few seconds we smile at one another the way we used to, like it's a big joke.
'Anyway,' she says, 'I knew I couldn't kill Mikis by myself. I didn't have murder in me. I had to find somebody else.'
'Which is where I came in,' I growl, and she nods glumly. 'Why me?'
'Pure misfortune,' she sighs.
'Don't lie. You tracked me down and tricked me into an affair. You used me like a puppet.'
'No.' She shakes her head vehemently. 'It wasn't like that. I know that's how it looks, but I swear on all that's sacred, on Greygo, I didn't set out to trap you.'
'I don't believe you,' I mutter.
A pained expression crosses her face. 'I was at that boat party by chance,' she says. 'I crashed a lot of parties. Given who and what I was, I couldn't mingle with those who'd known me when I was alive. I'd fall in with groups on their way to a party, pretend to be human for a few hours, slip away like Cinderella before the break of day.
'The only thing I had on my mind that night was fun. Like so many other nights, that proved elusive, which is why I wound up on deck, to brood about the cruel twist of fate that had placed me there. Then I found myself next to you.' Although the mystic's eyes don't open, the lids fix on me as if the spirit of Andeanna sees through the thin layers of flesh. 'I knew instantly that you were a man of violence. I saw your ghosts and sensed their hatred of you. I knocked the glass overboard to start a conversation with you, and . . . you know the rest.'
'I thought I did. But why don't you tell me how it really was? It was never about love. You saw me as a tool from the start, didn't you, a way to kill Mikis?'
She sighs. 'My interest was wholly mercenary that first night. But that changed as we spent more time together. I forgot what I was. I fell in love with you. It was crazy, and it messed up everything, but I couldn't help myself. When I was with you, I was real, alive, desperate for love. That wasn't a sham, Ed. I couldn't have faked those emotions.'
'I'm not!' she cries. 'Listen to me. Hear me. I know you hate me, and you've every right to, but don't turn your ears against the truth. I love you, Ed, and if you ever loved me the way you claimed, you'd know in your heart that I'm not lying.'
The terrible thing is - I do.
'What about Axel Nelke?' I ask, anxious to steer talk away from love.
She stares through her closed eyelids, disappointed by my reaction, then shrugs. 'Axel was my lover. Mikis killed him. What more do you want to know?'
'The guard I killed. You said he was Axel Nelke.'
'I lied. When you saw through my first disguise - Deleena Emerson - I knew I had to make my next seem as genuine as possible. I had to tell you as much of the truth as I dared. If I'd invented a name for my fictitious bodyguard, you might have sensed the lie. I felt safe using Axel's name. I knew I wouldn't blurt out the wrong surname by mistake, or tell you he had red hair then turn round later and say he was blond.'
'But the man I killed . . . '
'A guard. I don't know his name. There was one on duty most nights. They usually knocked off at ten or eleven if Mikis and Greygo weren't home.'
'You didn't set me up to kill him?'
'Of course not. I wanted Mikis's head, nobody else's. I don't know why the guard returned when he did.'
Is she telling the truth? I don't know. If I could see her eyes,
I'd have a better idea. 'Greygo hadn't heard of a guard going missing,' I note.
She smiles bitterly. 'Greygo didn't want to know about Mikis's business, so he was kept in the dark whenever possible. If he'd been home around that time, he would have noticed that the guard had disappeared. Since he was absent, Mikis saw no reason to share the troubling news with him.'
'Why did you invite me there?' I ask, reluctant to let it drop. 'What was with the battered face? Was that faked?'
'Self-inflicted,' she mumbles. 'By then I'd fallen in love with you. On the boat, I thought I might be able to hire you to kill Mikis. But I now knew that whatever you'd done in the past, you weren't a killer any more. Yet you remained my best hope. I thought you could be encouraged to kill. So I used your love for me to turn you against Mikis.'
'Then you did manipulate me!' I shout.
'Yes and no,' she sniffs.
'You can't have it both ways, Andeanna.'
'But I did,' she protests. 'I loved you, Ed - that was real. But I had to kill Mikis. My first priority, my very reason for existing, was to make Mikis pay. So, yes, I used you. But I didn't fake love to win you over.
'My plan was for you to see that Mikis had hurt me, lose your temper and target him. Afterwards I'd have told you the truth. Or if, as I suspected, I faded away when Mikis was dead, I'd try to contact you via Etienne, as I'm doing now. Then the guard turned up, you killed him and a new plan formed. You revealed the truth about your past, you asked to eliminate Mikis, you dreamt up the assassin angle. I didn't want that - it was complicated, and it implicated you too deeply - but I was powerless to turn you from your path.'
'You could have told me the truth,' I contradict her.
A wan smile flickers across her lips. 'That I was a ghost? A shade of the night? Would you have believed me?'
'Probably not,' I mutter. 'But if you'd let me see your form unravel one night . . . '
'I considered that,' she says. 'But if I'd let you see me for what I truly was, I didn't think you'd be able to love me any more. I was worried I'd scare you off.'
'It takes a lot to scare me,' I grunt.
'Don't I know it,' she grins. Then she tickles my left wrist with one of her fingers. 'If it's any consolation, I did what I could to protect you. I lied to suit my purposes, but also to suit yours. I could have betrayed you to Bond, planted evidence to condemn you. But I wanted you to escape.'
'Very thoughtful of you,' I snap.
Silence descends. I mull over what Andeanna has told me. It's too insane to be true. I want to reject it out of hand. But what's the alternative? Andeanna Menderes was murdered twenty years ago - fact. I fell in love with a woman who shares her looks - fact. I have it on good authority that the woman's ghost has roamed the halls of her home since her death - fact. That woman is now speaking to me through a medium - fact.
Too many facts to ignore. When there's no sane answer, a man must accept the insane. As impossible as it is, as crazy as it sounds, the truth is undeniable. 'I fell in love with a ghost,' I groan.
'Yes.' Andeanna smiles sadly. 'And a ghost fell in love with you.'
Incredibly, my mood is lifting. The truth has been revealed. It's an awful, twisted truth, but now I can begin to deal with it. It won't be easy, but I don't have to chase around wildly any longer, pursuing false threads, driving myself mental in search of an answer.
'It's asking a lot,' Andeanna murmurs, 'but do you think you can forgive me?'
'I don't know,' I reply. 'This has thrown my world out of whack. I don't know what I feel for you, or what I'll feel a week from now, a month, a year. If I said I could, I'd be lying.'
'That's fair,' she nods.
'I was always fair with you,' I note pointedly.
'And I wasn't with you,' she agrees.
'So.' I settle back, studying the face of the channelling mystic. 'Where do we go from here?'
'Our separate ways,' she answers promptly.
I feel a strange pang of regret. Even after all she put me through, I still love her, and the thought of parting for ever fills me with dread. 'Can't we . . . isn't there some way we can . . . ?'
'No,' she says softly. 'I have to move on. Mikis's death released me. I'm being called. There's another world or dimension where I'm supposed to be. I have to go. I want to go. I think I'll enjoy it.'
I feel something running down my cheeks. At first I think spiders have dropped from the ceiling. But as I blink, I realize they're only tears.
'Can't you come back?' I weep, managing a weak smile to show I know how dumb my request is. 'On a weekend pass, perhaps?'
'I doubt they have those where I'm going,' Andeanna giggles. 'But if they do, I'll apply for one.'
I wipe my right sleeve across my cheeks, careful not to break contact with the medium, wishing the tears had held off for a while, so that I could focus on Andeanna's face, clearer than ever in the features of Etienne Anders.
Andeanna puts her lips to my cheek and removes a tear with the tip of her tongue. I moan, and she draws back from me, her smile fading. 'I have to go now. Etienne can't maintain this link indefinitely.'
'Just a few more . . . ' I begin, but she shakes her head slowly.
'Before I leave,' she says, 'can I make a final request?'
'Sure,' I reply, fresh tears falling.
'One last kiss, Ed?'
'I could never refuse a lady,' I laugh brokenly.
'But promise you won't tell Etienne.' She smirks. 'I don't want her thinking we took advantage of her body.'
'I'll never tell anyone about tonight,' I vow.
'Not even Joe?'
'I'll fill him in on the essentials. No more. He deserves to know the truth - he guessed it before I did - but I won't discuss it in depth with him. I couldn't.'
'I'll go with the kiss, Ed,' she says, leaning forward. 'No prolonged goodbyes. One last kiss and - puff - I'm fairy dust.'
'I love you, Andeanna,' I cry.
'I love you too,' she whispers, then thrusts her lips against mine, devouring them with a hunger born of impending finality. I clutch her to me, holding her as close as I can, our fingers linked, tears splashing down my face, wishing I could vanish into her lips and make her journey with her, praying that one day I can follow and taste her sweet flesh again.
Then it's over. I feel it before we break, the way she goes limp, the fluttering of her eyelashes against my cheek, the diminishing action of her lips. Slowly I let her go, and she sinks back in her chair, Andeanna no more, just Etienne Anders, medium, channeller, bridge between worlds.
'Goodbye,' I whisper. And maybe it's an echo, or my imagination, or wishful thinking, but it seems to me that the air shimmers and the faintest voice carries to me on the lightest of breezes.
Then she's gone. It's over. And although I feel wretched, I feel wonderful too, because I've been touched by the miraculous and I know that no matter how lonely I get, I'll never be truly alone again. Our loved ones don't leave us. They just move out of sight for a while, and wait . . . in the shades.
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