Even in death, Cassandra was lovely.
Her hair cascaded over her ivory shoulders in sable cataracts, pooling in the soft hollow between her breast and throat. She was wearing the white nightgown, the one she knew I loved, and the fall had thrown it up, weightless, in gossamer drifts across her legs. Her bare toes were painted salmon-pink, the same colour as the roses in the crystal vase by the door.
So elegant, my Cassandra. I might have expected that she would sprawl, as one imagines that people do when they have died suddenly, but her body refused to surrender its accustomed grace. One hand curled beside her face; the other lay, palm up, across her cocked hips, its open fingers tenderly beckoning. Her eyes were closed, peaceful, the fringe of dark lashes sooty and familiar upon her fading cheek. Her lips were parted in expectation. At any moment, she would wake, look up at me, smile. Cassandra.
My hand found the banister, gripped the aged wood and guided me down the stairs, through the palpable hush. There was no sound in the house, not the whistle of Cassandra's kettle, nor the clack of her typewriter, nor the shiver of her hypnotic laughter; there never would be again. Only my slippered feet whispered across the carpet. Only my trembling breath broke the stillness.
I knelt and took her hand, kissed her cheek and her cooling lips. I lay beside her in the hall and held her, pretending that she held me, too. She forgave me, my Cassandra, as I had known that she would.
This house is far from anything, so very, very far. No one will come, and no one will know. Cassandra will never grow old with me, now, so I shall grow cold with her.
I met Cassandra at a party. In true literary tradition, our eyes met across a crowded room, and for a moment, my heart ceased to beat as her dark gaze pierced me. She glittered in silver like a beacon, like a fairy queen, her bare shoulders quaking with laughter, and she transfixed me. Then the crowd shifted, and I lost sight of her.
I nearly began to elbow my way through the crowd before reality broke in on me again. I skirted around the edge of the room instead, keeping close to the velvet-hung walls, and so made my way, slowly, ever nearer to the vision of majesty.
I reached her and hovered as though entranced, fluttering like a moth around a flame. One of her attendants, a massive woman made up in brown and red like an enormous chocolate mousse, glanced my way and laid a meaty hand upon her queen’s arm. The laughter ceased at once as the little court regarded me.
There were five of them in all: the vision; the mousse; a spindly woman in green who glittered like a gilded mantis; a slick, sleek man with three coarse, white hairs sprouting from his upper lip; and a professorial sort in a vermillion waistcoat, his shoes scuffed but clean. Three-Hairs nodded sagely, as though he had just said something profound, and the Mousse reached out to take a flute of champagne from my tray.
The Vision’s scarlet lips curled upward in a beatific smile. She took her own flute of champagne and raised it for a sip; her nails were the same hue as her perfect mouth.
“I could not disagree more,” she said sweetly, continuing the conversation she had been having before my approach. “I suspect that the appearance is purely superficial. Imagine, if you would, the mouth closed, the hair cut shorter and brushed back, some of the bewilderment removed from the expression. There is a fair amount of intelligence in the eyes, at least. With the proper accoutrement and a splash of hypocrisy, the poor thing might pass for, say, some distant cousin of yours.” She turned her smile on Three-Hairs, who purpled and sputtered. I realised suddenly that she was talking about me, and I purpled and sputtered as well.
“Infinitely more attractive, of course,” she continued, sipping delicately at her champagne. “I’ve seen some of your cousins, Calvin.” A faint scarlet smudge remained on the rim of her glass after she had lowered it.
The Mousse tittered into a gloved hand while the Mantis downed the rest of her wine in two frantic gulps.
“Were I a betting man,” said the Professor, ignoring me as though I really were no more than a moth, “I’d ask you to prove that. We could call it an experiment. The etiquette is already there, no doubt; I know the manager here, and he trains his servers well. All that’s wanting will be a bit of poise, some costumery... A hair cut, as you said, Cassandra. Tennis, perhaps. It does wonders for posture.”
The thought crossed my mind that they must have been watching me for much of the evening.
Three-Hairs – or rather, Calvin – sniffed loudly. One of his three hairs disappeared up his nose. “A pointless exercise,” he objected. “It was mere speculation, friends. I only meant it as physical characterisation. A poor type for a murderer. If a personality is brimming with cunning and passion, the eyes and carriage should tell as much.”
“But low cunning is often made manifest in deception. If this apparent apathy were a mask to hide the madness beneath...” That was the Mantis, whose input revealed horsey buck teeth.
Through all of this, Cassandra watched my face through those unreadable, dark eyes. The others continued to speculate on my literary potential, but their conjectures faded into the background murmur that always characterised parties like these. A man done up in deerstalker and pipe brushed against my shoulder, almost causing me to drop my tray.
“Far better a victim,” Three-Hairs said. “Innocuous and unassuming enough to make motive a true mystery, you know. A thoroughly uninteresting person to leave the reader curious but not affected.”
Cassandra’s eyes saw the exact moment when I decided to flee, and she had to bite her lip to hold back a laugh.
“I do believe that we’ve terrified the poor thing. Please forgive us; writers don’t live in the real world. I’m sure they have no idea what could have concerned you so.”
I felt myself nod and moved on in the instant of silence that followed, taking their empty glasses back to the kitchens.
“Don’t worry about them,” Luke told me as he arranged a fresh array of glasses on my tray. “Writers are queer as anything. They talk just to see how the words sound.”
“I’m pretty sure one of them called me a murderer,” I protested. “And stupid and ugly. And then that I’d make a good murder victim. I thought these sorts were supposed to have class.”
He shrugged his bony shoulders at me, adjusted his tie, and moved back to check on an outgoing platter of hors d’oeuvres.
“They’re called eccentrics,” he called back to me. “It’s what you call nutters with money.”
That sounded about right to me, though it failed to take away the sting of being analysed like an insect under glass. It felt too much like applying for the position all over again, being prodded and queried and discussed like a cow at market. It had been almost like some bizarre version of Pygmalion, them plotting to turn me into a character from one of their stories.
“Get back on the floor!” Martha called out from her place behind the stove, so I did.
The party was winding down, though, and my tray was still full by the time I had finished my round. From my place by the swinging doors, I could see the Professor and the Mousse standing arm-in-arm, waiting for the coat boy to bring their wool and fur. Done up in mink from neck to ankles, the Mousse looked rather more like a Moose, an impression that was only strengthened when she donned a hat topped with a spiny spray of pheasant feathers. The Professor capped himself with a ratty old trilby and led his lady away.
The Mantis and Three-Hairs were talking with a drab, monastic-looking woman who had hidden her hair beneath a length of brown silk and a tall, broad man with an unlit pipe clenched between his teeth.
Cassandra was nowhere to be seen. I supposed that she might have left already, while I was in the kitchen, and I found myself marginally surprised that the party had not collapsed and dispersed the instant she stepped into the night.
I made one last round of the room and ended with my tray still half-full. The party was over, the great gleaming banner – “The Strange Case of the Pen and the Spy-Glass: Exposition of Mystery” – hung drooping against the wall, and the Deerstalker drooped beneath it with the look of a man who had drunk more champagne than was really wise. I left the rest of my glasses in the kitchen and went back out to begin retrieving the empty ones, small hors d’oeuvres plates, napkins, and the remains of party crackers that someone had brought along. There were perhaps five guests left by that time, including the Deerstalker, whom Luke was helping to the door. There would be a cab out there, somewhere, or else the hotel’s car could be summoned. It was an establishment of class, even if its employees tended toward the stupid and ugly.
I untied my apron with one hand and draped it over the arm that held my laden tray as I made my way back to the kitchen to deposit one final load. The uniform would remain in the back room to be laundered and pressed, and I would leave the back way with Luke and Martha and Christian while the silent shadow-army of housekeepers came to work their magic on the soiled hall.
But there was a hand on my arm, restraining me with gentle pressure. A flash of silver caught my eye, and I turned to behold the Vision, wrapped in a gauzy silver shawl to match her dress.
“I would love to write you,” she said earnestly. “I will pay, of course, and please, you mustn’t think anything untoward, but you... Dear, you are my muse made flesh, Melpomene in a white jacket.”
An eccentric, I reminded myself, a nutter with money. Money, though, was something I could use.
Two slim, scarlet-painted fingers rose to deposit a calling-card on the edge of my laden tray. I noticed that one of them carried a dark smudge near the nail, the permanent brand of her pen. “You will come,” she continued with conviction. “You must come. Please, do.”
I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, but she was gone by then, across the hall and out the door in two ticks. Perplexed, I set down the tray and brought the card up to the light. The front bore only her name, Cassandra Saint-John, and a telephone number. The back, though, bore a scrap of handwriting, the name of a cafe and a time, and the word “Tomorrow” in a bold, round hand.
I left the glasses in the kitchen, changed into my street clothes, and made sure that the card was safe in my pocket before I left the hotel and caught the late ‘bus for home.
“I don’t like it,” Gran told me when I had narrated the evening’s strangeness. “These posh sorts, you never know what they’re really wanting. Ten to one, that Saint-John will make a toy of you, kid. Not right to take money from a woman like that.”
I had to agree, but money was scarce, and if it came down to a choice between being a muse and working another job in a shop somewhere, the first option sounded like less of a strain on my health. I said as much to Gran, but she only shook her head and lay down.
“By the way,” I asked as I turned off the light, “who’s Mel... Melponome?”
“Melpomene?” Gran rolled over and laid her glasses on the table beside the bed. “Muse of tragedy. Why?”