Atropos - William L. DeAndrea

Part One


She who spins the thread of life ...

Chapter One

August 1974

HE HAD EXPECTED IT to be horrible—burning the house, burning Pina—but it was really sort of pretty.

He stood in the doorway and watched the flames, orange and yellow and blue, crawl their way across the floor toward her body as the linoleum bubbled beneath. He knew he should leave, knew he shouldn’t waste time standing there, watching, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave her so abruptly. He had been very fond of Pina. He would miss her.

He himself was in no danger from the flames. The layout of the bungalow was such that a fire might believably start at the space heater near the cheap bedroom curtains and incinerate the bed before ever endangering the front door, and he had set things up just that way.

It occurred to him that Ainley Masters would be proud of him. A problem had come up, and he’d dealt with it without panic. Not just without visible panic, but without panic of any sort. He hadn’t shown panic to anyone outside the family and a few trusted family retainers since he was five years old. Gramps had made it clear that a Van Horn must always be seen to be in control, whatever he might be feeling inside. And that old man’s cold contempt had been stronger than Hank’s terror. Hank Van Horn got back on the horse—though the horse had round, rolling eyes, and big yellow teeth, and made a noise like lightning in his throat—he got back on the horse and rode it until Gramps said he could stop, and then he went home to the room Gramps kept for him in the big house, and he went into his bathroom and threw up until he felt he was going to turn himself inside out.

Since then, Hank Van Horn had felt a lot of strange things inside, but only the chosen few had ever seen them.

But tonight was different. Tonight he’d faced an impossible situation, and he hadn’t panicked at all. Inside or out.

Well, he had, just at first, of course he had, or else Pina wouldn’t be dead. But after that first, familiar moment, when the world and his name and History were all crushing in on him, when he couldn’t stop his ears from hearing or his hands from doing, he broke through to a garden of peace and calm. He’d known precisely what to do and how to do it. Fire. Fire would conceal. Fire would purify.

Fire had reached the foot of the bed now, climbing the sheet he had artfully left trailing on the floor, playing with Pina’s feet and legs, and he knew he should leave now, but he was frozen in the doorway. It was fascinating to him that she didn’t try to get herself out of the fire. He knew it was ridiculous to feel that way—of course, she’s dead, dead people can’t feel anything—but he watched with amazement just the same.

The smoke was getting a little thick now, but the smoke, and the smell of the smoke, really, were no worse than at one of Gramps’s famous family barbecues. Gramps had died at the last one. He’d been roasting an ox, and he’d let no one else near the job. In control, as usual. He stood by the coals, watching the carcass darken and drip and sizzle, turning the spit himself more often than not. The doctors said he’d given himself a stroke from the heat and the exertion. But stroke and all, when Gramps had keeled over and fallen into the barbecue pit, he’d tried to get away, clawing at the coals with the unparalyzed arm, trying to push himself free with the leg that could move. Some of the men pulled Gramps out, some of them burning themselves badly in the process, but it was too late. Hank hadn’t been among them. He was too busy being seen to be in control. He’d thrown up that night, too. He’d strained his throat, but he had recovered sufficiently to deliver the eulogy at Gramps’s funeral. The hoarseness made it seem as if Hank had been choked up with emotion—Ainley Masters said that had probably won Hank another twenty-five thousand votes in that year’s election. Not that it made a difference—in that district, the Van Horn name was magic.

The fire had conquered most of the bed now. Hank had left Pina naked—he wondered if he shouldn’t have put a nightgown on her or something,