He twisted alone on the bunk of his cell, listening to the kid down the hall scream. The screams died away into howling sobs of fear. Jesus Christ, the kid wasn't a fish, he should be better than this!
He grabbed his cigarettes with a scrabbling sound. He sat up, clamped down on one and lit it, cupping the flame in his hand. He raised his eyes for a second to protect them from the sudden light and glanced through the bars.
A woman was sitting on the floor in front of the cell.
A woman sitting on the floor of the Row.
A woman watching him.
"I've read all your books." She had a Southern accent.
The lighter burned his thumb. He dropped it, violently shaking his hand. He closed his mouth tightly about the cigarette, and stared at her with disbelief.
Her long body curled comfortably. She was quite tall, perhaps 5'10" - the same as himself. Her hair was red, waist-length, and curling; clashing agreeably with the burgundy velvet dress she wore. Her white skin was so fair that it was nearly opalescent. Blue-grey eyes did not hesitate to meet his own.
There was an air of stillness that hung around her like the cloud of silence around a deaf person.
"You'll burn that cigarette off if you don't draw on it." She observed.
I'm dreaming, his rattled brain echoed. I'm dreaming.
"You can think you're dreaming if you like, it doesn't offend me. I often walk through dreams, so I don't mind. How would you like that? Walk through someone else's nightmares? I'm sure you could be good at it, you've caused enough of them. Lots more than me." She clung on the bars and swung slightly, smiling faintly at him. "But then, I've always kept myself out of the papers."
He took a deep drag on the cigarette and closed his eyes, wrestling control of himself. He released the smoke, reopened his eyes and looked at her. She was still there, awaiting his reply.
He slipped into the coolness of his fašade automatically, and the tension wound tight deep, deep down. He looked at her with the arrogance that had frequently filled the camera lens. "So, you've read all my books. Quite a feat, you must be a fan."
"Don't be so full of yourself, there's only eight of them. Though the one by your lady friend was horribly boring, she couldn't articulate her way through a good tea party. She must have been quite soothing to you when the intellectual cracks started to show. Took her forever to see you for what you are, and even her fear was dull." He leaned forward in shock and outrage. Her soft, coquettish voice wound on, "Still, I shouldn't pass judgement, no one ever wrote a thing about me. For the best, in my view. I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe a lady's name should only be in the paper when she's born, when she marries, and when she dies."
He hand only shook slightly as he raised his cigarette. Play it cool, boy, play it cool. "And you're certainly a lady, right?"
"No, no. Not anymore. I wouldn't talk to you if I were. We haven't been introduced. But, I'm certainly not dull."
"How did you get in here?" he asked, irritated.
"Through a window, through some doors. It's not really important, you can't get out the same way."
"Who let you in here?"
"No one. I prefer letting myself in, it saves time." She smiled. Her smile did not warm him.
"Someone must have seen you." He put his cigarette stub in an old can he used for an ashtray. An unpleasant smell wafted out.
"No one sees me unless I let them." She pointed a graceful hand to the small window at the end of the hall. "One of your guards is busy making the new football pool. He hopes to win it so he can buy an anniversary ring for the wife without punching into the savings. The other is watching an over moralizing comedy show on the television. Watching you not sleep is very low on the list of priorities. We won't be disturbed."
A cold feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. "So, who are you? What do you want?"
"Julia Helen Eulalie Hamilton, of the Virginia Hamiltons. 'Course that doesn't mean a thing now. It did mean something once, back when families could feel proud just cause they were old; and every child's name stood for something to someone. You see Julia Helen showed everyone that my father was a man of classical education. Education was the mark of a gentleman in those times, in was considered refined. It was distinction that someone didn't have to read out the lines in the hymnal before you could sing it yourself. My Momma picked out Eulalie just because of the musical sound to it, she thought it was elegant." She shifted her position gracefully, a malicious little smile played her lips. " Now, your Momma named you after her daddy, hoping he'd forgive her. Your granddaddy was fond of sentiment. I take it he did, forgive her I mean, since he did let you both stay."
"It wasn't easy in those days. My grandparents took on a lot..."
She cut the defensive tirade short with cynical matter of factness. "Those days! As if your mama invented illegitimacy. Why do middle class tragedies have to be so much more tragic? You weren't the first bastard born since time began, you won't be the last. Compared with the fates of others, they should have counted their blessings."
"They thought they brought her up right, and she'd let them down."
"Nonsense. I've seen middle-class sensibilities for over a hundred years. They were bothered about the talk. What would everyone say? Well, everyone would say, oh what a shame, she's such a nice girl, just goes to show you can't listen to sweet talking men. The neighbors saw the bruises and the tears, you know. They weren't completely stupid, the could see your Mama's man was an Escape Route. They were sad that he turned out to be a no-account."
The tension ebbed in its deep coil. He could taste anger in his mouth. "They said she was a whore. A whore."
"No, they didn't. Your grandma did. She'd whisper it at her over her mending...Over the kitchen table while your Mama chopped vegetables. The neighbors just clucked their tongues, and watched their own daughters. Your Mama just looked out the window and waited for the bruises to fade, for you to be born, for her next chance at escape. She gave you his name to buy some time."
"Shut up. My grandparents were good people. They took care of us." The cellophane on the cigarettes crackled loudly as he shook one out. He turned away from her as he lit it, so she wouldn't see that his breath was quickening. One drag, two drags, now he was in control again.
Her sweet face leaned closer, one of her hands coiled around the bars. "Good people don't tie up their daughters to beds to beat them with shaving straps, and knock little boys on the living room carpet to kick them awhile. Imagine if someone took care of a puppy that way. I should think that it might grow up to bite."
"What are you doing here?" His hands shook.
How did she know that? Nobody knew that, nobody ever knew.
"Oh, yes. You asked that before. I'm here to talk, that's all. I'm always interesting in finding new company. The children wander off and I find that they return with better grace if I let them come back on their own. But I enjoy a bit of company, and ways to amuse myself. I've never met anyone quite like you before."
He forced a tight arrogant smile. "I bet you haven't."
"My, you are full of yourself. I said quite like you, but don't fool yourself. You aren't the first killer I've met. Not even the most famous. You are interesting, though, in your way. The preacher was the most like you, excepting that he killed little colored boys, and he thought God approved. It wasn't an unreasonable assumption, I suppose, since God didn't do anything to stop him. Then when I happened along, and God didn't interfere then either, he had to rethink his position."
"Ah, but I never killed anyone."
"Don't deny it, it's so childish. If I don't say it, than it isn't so? Stop it. It's only the doing that you're ashamed of, not the deed. And you are so ashamed."
"I've done nothing to be ashamed of. What makes you believe that I do?"
"I can smell it on you."
He leaped to his feet. "What?"
"I can smell it on you. All over you. It's sweet, that suffering." She rose from the floor without using her hands, leaning forward with her red hair framing her face. Her eyes flashed with intensity and something...else, something more subtle, something darker. He took a step back. Fear started to flow in him, cold and dark.
"Suf...Suf..Suffering..." He stammered in agitation, the cigarette fell from his fingers and bouncing off his foot. He didn't feel it. Her eyes never left his.
"Theirs, yours, sweet, thick, heady all over your skin. Tasting like blood mist, like smoke." Her long lean body swayed gently and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Delicious."
He stepped backward, his face twisting in horror. His composure shattered into a thousand fragments.
"I used to wonder if you actually convinced yourself when you lie about it all. Then I saw you lie like a child lies, hoping if nobody admits it, then it will all go away. But you carry the truth with you, seeping through you, mixing with your sweat, as real as your shadow. It's so thick, so plain, so easy to read, you have no secrets; no, none at all." Her hair caught in the bars as she swayed, it spread like a copper spiderweb. He staggered farther back until his back struck the cold cement block. The cold went to his bones. He could find no words, his language deserted him.
"Oh, dear, I've frightened you, haven't I?" Her voice was sensually merry, unconvincingly contrite. "It must be such a novel change."
"Get away." His voice was a harsh hiss, rattling low. "Get the hell away."
She draped her wrists through, caressing the bars with her fingertips. "Now, now. No need to be like that. Is it me that frightens you? Or the truth? The truth does disgust you, doesn't it. I think it's me though. Yes. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's seen through you before. I don't mind you, really. I've seen much, much worse."
He couldn't believe it. He shook his head violently, feeling like an animal observed in a cage.
"You don't believe me, of course you don't. You are still na´ve enough to believe that there is nothing more evil than yourself. Now the preacher took pride in finding people more wicked than him. He liked books about some Frenchman, de Rais, I think was the name. He kept them in a steel box with the stories of the Marques de Sade. He had a war with God all the time, he thought he had a loophole because he thought the colored boys were only animals. So it wasn't really murder, and torturing animals wasn't nothing at all, since they don't have souls. Then he would have guilt fits for having relations with them, since bestiality was a sin. My oh my, he was a mighty fool. Anyone looking in that old summer kitchen could tell that he was deluding himself. Popel don't do that that kind of thing to animals, no, not at all. People save those kind of cruelties for one another, as only we can appreciate them. When I came for him, he was there in that summer kitchen." Her sweet face was reflective. "Those poor colored boys in their chains, weeping in their pains, wondering what on earth they'd done to deserve such a fate. He had one in his arms; brown little one, with clothespins all over, ropes round his neck.. The Preacher curled over him savage with passion and tightening that rope. It was a scene of little dignity, I can tell you."
"What did you do?" He had to ask, he couldn't himself. This was a nightmare, it had to be. Why else would he be so out of control.
"I didn't say a word. I came up behind him and swept him up from behind, tore open his chest and snapped his spine. His back didn't crack, I remember, it made a series of small popping sounds. He screamed a great deal. Those colored boys just looked down from their chains with pain filled eyes just watching that man's blood flow all over. The sweetest blood I have ever known. Then those boys, with their me next, me next in their minds, please, you're better than the pain, I went from one to one to one. The fresh blood splashing all over the dried on the walls, and then the utter silence of it all. All silent and warm. Then I just stepped into the night. That was so long ago."
She smiled, a gentle mild smile of intimacies shared. She could have been describing a misbegotten youthful encounter after her first dance. It drew him, made him just want to open his mouth and let the words roll over each other. He could feel his lips drawing back, but his throat closed in self-defense...He couldn't let it out. Not to this monster.
"My how the time has slipped away. I must be going." Her blue eyes shone, raking over his pale shuddering form. "Don't worry. We'll talk again. We'll talk many times."
She moved gracefully away, her hair slipping from the bars. She made no sound as she moved out of sight.
The kid down the hall started screaming again.