Previously, in "My Life, Or Yours?" Nora Applegate had experienced difficulty in waking from a bad dream. In it she'd been visited upon by spirits from the other side, one of whom claimed to be Gabriel, the Angel of Death. The Archangel had tried to convince Nora that she'd crossed over, and that what she'd experienced was not a dream, but a flashback from the life and final moments of someone else. This, he'd explained, was simply one of the deathly consequences of those who've lived out their lives in untreated codependency. He'd hinted further that some of what Nora had witnessed in the recreation of events from the tragic life of Nora Wingate, a sometime stage and screen actress, might not be reliable, suggesting that just as with computer programs, errors may have crept into the final product. CAVEAT EMPTOR--let the buyer beware.
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is a work of fiction.
Any similarity to persons,
living or dead, or situations,
places, names and accounts of
actual events is purely coincidental.
Tuesday, Two Weeks Later
A light summer rain had fallen a bit earlier, so as the taxi driver helped her step out, Nora extended a hand with one of those neatly encased, ultra compact umbrellas dangling from her arm. She had on a royal blue tweed suit with a blue-and-yellow scarf at the neck--the perfect accent for her silver-white hair. Then as the cab pulled away, the spry and sprightly octogenarian stood for a moment and looked up toward the front of the neglected old Carolinian mansion., gauging a flight of about five steps near the sidewalk and then a dozen or so at the top of the walkway.
Halfway through her ascent, Nora couldn't resist the feeling that the place might even be deserted. The unkempt nature of the lawns and shrubbery. . .the peeling paint here and there, seemed to become more and more noticeable as she got closer. Then at almost the same time, something happened that changed her mind. One of the giant double doors began to swing open.
Reaching the top and standing in front of an open doorway, she realized that no one had come to greet her.
'This is certainly odd,' she thought. "Hello?" she called out. "Mrs. Dreesen, are you there?"
Nora glanced at her watch, confirming in her mind that her appointment time was, in fact, correct. Then stepping across the threshold, she lifted the door knocker and tapped.
'Well, someone must know I'm here,' she thought as she proceeded into the semi-darkened interior.
Inside, the place reeked of age. . .of dust and the smell of musty old furniture. The front room was oval shaped and featured a second-story ceiling. Several side doors were visible--closed with destinations unknown. The only apparent connection to and from the once elegant 18th Century parlor was a wide second story balcony with two sweeping side staircases that curved along the flattened ends of the oval.
Then the woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
"May I help you?"
Nora looked quickly around, and up.
"Oh! Goodness, you startled me," Nora exclaimed after locating the voice and the woman sitting in a wheelchair just behind the balcony rail.
"Yes. Well, regrettably I've been faulted before."
With a discreet little gasp, Nora replied, "Oh, please forgive me. I didn't mean to. . ."
"Of course you didn't," the woman shot back. "I understand these things. I wasn't born yesterday, you know."
As Nora's eyebrows went up, the hand that she'd brought to her mouth slid down to the base of her throat.
"Well, I assure you I didn't have that in mind either. . ."
"Come, come, Mrs. Applegate. We're wasting time," said the woman as she turned the chair and started toward the staircase on her left. "Let me introduce you to our séance room. Nothing is ever touched in here--nothing except the chairs we use to hold our sessions."
"Well, it's quite. . .charming, actually. Isn't it?" Nora remarked, still clutching her throat as she glanced again at the carved wooden ceiling, the heavy moss green draperies, the cracked masonry fireplace and the faded floral upholstery.
"It serves our purpose."
Then having wheeled herself over to the upper landing, the woman reached out and flipped a switch.
"I'm sending down the lift. It's safe. I use it all the time."
Nora watched it approach and wondered.
"Oh, don't bother, Mrs. Dreesen," Nora hastened to reply, hoping not to be too obvious in holding back her true feelings as she turned toward the stair. "I, uh-h. . .I have this silly phobia about riding backwards, so I'll walk up, if you don't mind."
"Suit yourself," the woman said as the chair continued to descend.
"Reminds me of home, actually," Nora lied--she having sold the Applegate mansion a dozen years earlier--then adding, "I'm up and down like this all day long."
Getting closer, Nora noticed that facially the woman had extremely stern-looking lines. Her hair was a dull iron gray with strands of black, parted in the middle. And between the part and the frizzy, untamed look of her 'do', the woman's face reminded Nora of an anvil--flat on top along with sallow features that tapered to a pointed chin.
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you in person," Nora said, extending a hand at the upper landing. "Nora Applegate. Thank you so much."
Nora's smile faded slowly, however, as the woman leaned forward--not to return the handshake, but to reach out and touch the "Raise Lift" button.
"You're suffering from a case of mistaken identity at the moment, Mrs. Applegate," said the woman, withdrawing her hand quickly as she began to turn the chair. "I'm not Marguerite. It is she who spoke with you earlier. I'm Abigail Tatgenhorst, Marguerite's sister. And now that the pleasantries are over with, please follow me into the office where Marguerite will be joining us a bit later."
Nora was led toward an open doorway that compared to the pervasive gloom all around her seemed to suggest the presence of modern fluorescent lighting within.
"Please watch your step as you cross," came the call from in front. "There's an embedded steel track in the threshold that could snag a heel and cause a nasty spill."
Slowing her pace, Nora began sifting through the contents of her bag while wondering what she'd gotten herself into. Then as she watched a total stranger--in whom she'd placed her complete trust--turn past the doorway and press a button, Nora heard the front door latch itself shut.
"Are you coming, Mrs. Applegate? I can't wait all day."
"Well, do you mind if I search for a tissue?" Nora replied with some stiffening in her voice. "I think it's all the dust in here. It seems to me that the place could use a good. . ."
But she'd decided not to finish the sentence, and as it turned out she'd have been interrupted anyway.
"Nora!" came the call from the doorway as an energetic and well-dressed woman in her fifties squeezed past the wheelchair. "How nice it is to see you!" she continued with an outstretched hand. "Please forgive my tardiness. I've been so looking forward to meeting you."
The autumn red suit and the coiffed black hair. . .the shapely figure and the flawless makeup. 'They can't be sisters,' Nora thought. 'This can't be Marguerite.'
And yet it was.
"I'm Sissy," she said with a radiant smile. "I believe we dispensed with formality over the phone, did we not?"
From delayed reaction to near overreaction, the relief on Nora's face bordered on the saporific as she closed her eyes during their warm and tender embrace.
"Oh, but dear," Nora said as she looked into Marguerite's eyes. "Marguerite is such a lovely name, and now to see you here, it suits you so beautifully."
"Well what a nice thing to say. Thank you so much." Then in mocked tones of confidentiality Marguerite added, "But I'll let you in on a little secret. I answer to both, if that's what you prefer."
Then in that moment of quiet discretion, Marguerite took both Nora's hands and stepped back.
"So you're Marty Blakemore's little girl! Just look at you! You look wonderful, my dear!"
"Oh-ho, not so little any more, I'll say. But thank you so much. I. . ."
"Listen sweetie, I hate to do this," Marguerite said apologetically, "but I'm involved in an extended cyber-meeting. Someone will show you around and then we'll get started. . .okay?"
The sign on the office door read:
President & CEO
Demoncology Concepts, LLP
Marguerite Dreesen, PhD.
. . .and Nora had just passed through an ultra modern laboratory on her way there. "We made use of the grand ballroom, as you can see here," Nora had been told on the 'nickel tour' she'd been given. "It's where we hold clinical trials, including some of the most comprehensive research that the world is ever likely to see in the field of demoncology."
"I saw that as we came in," Nora had responded. "Don't you mean 'demonology?'"
"Demoncology is the new branch of science that brings demonology out of the Dark Ages," the charming young guide-lady had replied. "Demons are like cancers and must be excised--not exorcised. Hence the construction of 'demon' and 'oncology' into the single word, 'demoncology.'"
The huge space had been finished with dropped ceilings and other high tech appointments. "All the changes we've made to the structure are completely reversible," Nora had been told as they moved from location to location. "One day this will probably all revert back to the original."
Another section of the lab looked as though the house might be set up for Pentagon security. "We have camera coverage of every square foot of every room, along with every square inch of ground on the property," the guide-lady had said as the pair stood before a bewildering array of scopes and monitors. "Demons haven't the ghostliest chance of escaping our surveillance system."
They'd passed several small offices as well, each one with a name and a position, much like the one they'd stopped in front of which read, "Chandra Jackson Lee, Liaison Officer."
"Well, I think that does it," the guide-lady had said. "Here we are, back at my office. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Actually, there is," Nora replied. "Is there some place where I can, you know. Freshen up?"
Fifteen minutes later. . .
"So what did you think?" asked Marguerite as she rose from the sofa and took her place behind a perfectly preserved antique mahogany desk. "I trust that you were taken proper care of."
The office was immaculate and tastefully appointed all the way from luxurious sculpted carpeting to Renaissance reproductions on the walls.
"Well it's all simply breathtaking," Nora said as she settled into the wide client armchair. "I feel as though I've traveled through time within just the last few minutes!"
"Actually, it's your degree of perception that's breathtaking, my dear," Marguerite countered as she pulled a large manila folder from a side drawer. "Where time is concerned, you're far more on target than you probably realize."
Nora seemed ready to respond, but apparently didn't know how.
"One of the things I try to do with all my clients is to present a few 'demon facts'--not always of the kind you're likely to hear from, quote-unquote, 'other sources.'"
"I've been to some of those 'other sources,'" Nora volunteered with a wry smile.
"Ah-h-h, then you know what I'm talking about," was Marguerite's quick response. "Demoncology, on the other hand, asserts that demons have access to time, and that they use it in ways that we humans are only just beginning to comprehend. Methodologies can become. . .involved, shall we say, so let's skip the gory details for now and see how things go as we progress further."
Then opening the folder Marguerite began to organize the material she'd need.
"Let's start where it counts the most--with your case. I've conducted my review--you did very well in filling out the information, by the way--and I'm prepared to reveal my findings. Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be."
"You're one exceptional lady, Nora. Tell me again--this time in your own words--what happened right at the very end of your experience. You were in bed--on a rooftop. You were speaking with someone."
"Yes, I'd been doing a play--a rooftop scene on stage--and the play somehow turned into a movie. This time, I was sitting in bed. on the roof of a skyscraper, at night. The full moon, the stars and the city lights had turned to reality as if by magic. Of course I thought I was having a nightmare. I swung my legs over the bedside and was about to follow a man through a doorway that looked like a fog bank--all swirling and angry looking."
"Who was the man? What did he look like?"
"He was an albino. He called himself Gabriel."
Marguerite picked up a pencil and circled a few items on the page she'd been studying. Then placing both elbows on the desk and while holding both ends of the pencil, she'd attempted to camouflage her somber expression by keeping her gaze on the paperwork.
"The albino was not Gabriel, dear. That was Rufus, a demon--cunning and deadly. Had you followed him through the doorway he would have claimed your spirit and taken it below."
Nora's eyes widened as she let out a startled, "Oh. . ." Then without finishing the sentence she raised a hand to her throat and made several small choking sounds.
"My dear, are you all right?" Marguerite asked as she leaned forward to touch Nora's arm.
Nora didn't speak immediately--obviously trying to get her choking under control.
"Oh, sweetie," Marguerite said as she quickly got to her feet. "Let me get some water. It's all my fault. I should have set it out earlier."
A few sips later. . .and Nora said, "I'm fine, I'm fine now. You're so very kind. Thank you so much. Let's do continue."
"Well, if you're certain you're okay. This can be quite traumatizing, you know."
"Not at all, not at all," Nora replied with a wrinkle-nosed grin. "I sense that we're cooking up a good mystery, and there's nothing I like better than a great 'whodunit.'"
"Well, if you're sure. . ." Marguerite said with a bit of a sideways glance. "Then tell me also about the murder," she went on, keeping a more watchful eye on her client this time. "Your report states that you felt compelled to confess to the crime of killing a man. How did that go, exactly."
"Well, I was standing at the edge of the roof about to speak a line--in the film, as it were--when the body--which I'd assumed to be a dummy--winked at me. Then before I knew it, this man--actor, or whatever--was suddenly thrown from the rooftop--alive."
"Conditioning," Marguerite said blandly. "You did in fact witness a murder, Nora. The man playing the part of a body, which in real life would have been your father, was a Hollywood stunt man. He was either tethered or allowed to fall into a net while the real murder was Nora Wingate's. Have you gone back to read the news accounts of her death?"
"No, I. . .I never did, actually. It was all too. . .too. . ."
"Yes, I understand. Well, it happened roughly three years ago, and was judged by the courts to be an accident. Cameras were rolling and it seems as though Miss Wingate either fainted or was blown over by a gust of wind. Ah, but we know better, don't we? We don't need eyewitnesses or film. We have someone who actually relived the experience and is able to tell all--you, Nora.
"Well, it all seems quite hard to believe, really. . ."
"Stranger than fiction, as they say. You see, Rufus killed Nora Wingate and had planned to use the experience to kill you. It's an absolute classic case of demonic murder, and you've been placed right in the middle of it, my dear."
Nora shook her head slowly several times and clucked. "Land sakes," she moaned. "What is a person to do these days?"
"Now then," Marguerite interjected quickly, hoping to hold Nora in the moment, "when you finally woke up, or, more precisely, when you returned to your body, where were you?"
"I was in my back yard. I have this large picnic table, and there was a chair sitting on the table top."
"Were you in the chair?"
"No, I was standing near the edge of the property which overlooks a deep ravine and has a sharp drop off at that point. I may have been sitting in the chair earlier, however."
"How did the chair happen to be sitting on top of the table?"
"I put it there, I guess."
"All by yourself?"
"Apparently. Though I don't remember doing it."
"And the reason for that, Nora--in my professional opinion--is because you had an out-of-body experience--one of the most vivid and prolonged events of its kind that has ever been recorded."
Nora nodded slowly, leaving Marguerite to wonder how much of the total picture her client was actually absorbing.
"In your affidavit you mentioned dreams, nightmares--even death scenes and flashbacks. And yet it was none of those. The demon had control--set the stage, if you will--by whisking your spirit through time and space. . .altering your reality by weaving your consciousness through scenarios that might have happened in the past or may happen in the future."
"And you're saying that a demon tried to kill me? Nora asked, bobbing her head several times as she spoke.
"That was his whole purpose," Marguerite replied in hushed but still urgent tones. "He wanted desperately to kill you, and you thwarted him. This is why I believe that you, yourself, have powers of the spirit that you may not be aware of. What I'm wondering is how deep those powers run, and how you might be capable of using them."
"But why? Why would he want to kill me?"
"Because he enjoys it, dear. He undoubtedly killed both your father and Nora Wingate in the same way he'd planned to kill you. And you are the daughter of Marty Blakemore, don't forget--the playwright who started it all. From your description it's clear that your quote-unquote, 'director Michaels,' was Rufus as well--the albino in disguise. He pushed her. . .took control of her spirit. You said in your report that you felt 'fingers' along your spine, urging you closer to the edge until you couldn't hold back any longer."
"And that is the truth, but wouldn't I have noticed his eye color? The way I did later when he approached me and tried to,.you know, 'take my soul?'"
"Full contacts, my dear. Standard in the motion picture industry. Don't forget, Rufus inhabits the body of a real person--an albino in his case. That person is possessed, and probably has been for most of his life. Furthermore, this person is a killer, and is probably responsible for dozens, if not scores, of unsolved murders."
"Perhaps I could clear my father's name," Nora said, brightening suddenly. "I've been trying for years to prove that my father did not take his own life. He was murdered by my stepmother, and I'll go to my grave trying to show the world the truth."
"The albino is probably not old enough to be involved in that one," Marguerite replied. "But Rufus certainly could have inhabited an earlier body--that of your stepmother, for example. It would be amazing to think, however, that he could have lost her body when she died, and then find his way back to nearly the same time and place by inhabiting another. Your case has so many intriguing factors, Nora."
Marguerite then leaned toward her desktop A-V pod and pressed the intercom button.
"Abby, if you're in your office, could you come in, please?"
Nora took another sip from the glass of water, reminding Marguerite of her earlier concerns.
"How are you feeling, dear? You seem okay, but I just want to make sure."
"I'm fine, really I am."
"Good. You gave me quite a scare there, my dear," said Marguerite as she reached out once more to touch Nora's arm, then adding, "and it's all my fault. I'm truly sorry."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't give it a second thought," Nora replied. "You're so nice and kind. Thank you for all your concern."
"That's so gracious of you, sweetie. Now while we wait for Abby, I'd like to go ahead and bring in one or two of my 'demon facts' since we have a few spare moments."
Picking up several of the papers, Marguerite tamped them into a neat stack and placed them back in the manila folder. She then placed one elbow on the desk and held up three fingers.
"It's so interesting that you mentioned time a bit earlier, Nora. In demoncology we say that demon spirits have no mass, and therefore they don't experience time as we do. This is technical talk, I know, but for them time moves at infinite speed--becomes undefined, in fact--and doesn't exist. That's number one."
She then used her other hand to pull one finger down.
"This comes at a cost to them, however. In the universe beyond the bodies they inhabit, all is chaos. It's their Achilles heel, you see. Once banished from the human body, they become lost in a timeless universe. . .locked in a desperate search for new life to inhabit. Yes, they travel *through* time--ours, that is--but they carry cheap compasses. This, in many ways, gives us an advantage over them--one they desperately hate. That's number two."
Then she pulled down a second finger.
"And then the third thing to remember," she said, "is that once inside your body-mind, he can alter your reality, and he can steal your soul."
Marguerite then relaxed her arms and sat with her hands folded on the desk in front of her.
"Now. Why do I mention all of this? Fair question. But my dear, you saw his face. He was bold and brazen, not expecting to fail. This puts you in considerable danger, Nora, and I don't say this lightly or to frighten you. This is why I want Abby to become involved. She's our secret weapon. Abby's the talent, you see. I just run the place."
The office door latch sounded and the door swung open automatically as the wheelchair glided smoothly inside.
"Good morning, sweetheart. What perfect timing. We've just finished up. You've met Nora, I think. Nora, this is my sister, Abby."
"Yes, we did meet--briefly," Abby said.
"We've already conferred on your case, Abby and I," said Marguerite as she turned in her chair and crossed her legs. "What I would like for Abby to do just now is a quick reading on you, Nora. I would like to have her place the heel of her hand on your forehead. That's right, just as she's doing now."
"Perhaps if I turned my chair just a bit. . ."
"No, you're fine," Abby said. "Just remain still for me, please."
Abby closed her eyes and remained perfectly still for what may have seemed to Nora a rather long twenty seconds.
"The result of the test is a negative," Abby declared.
"Excellent," was Marguerite's somewhat triumphant response as she entered the appropriate notation into Nora's file
"Are you through with me, then, Sissy?" Abby asked as she'd already begun to turn the chair.
"Yes, dear. But you're perfectly welcome to stay. Can I get you anything?"
"No, I'll be fine. Call me if you need me. Good day, Mrs. Applegate."
Nora turned to watch the chair glide away, then quickly shifted her focus back to Marguerite and the business at hand, but not before Marguerite was able to read a clear message in Nora's expression.
"We're half sisters, if that's what you're wondering," said Marguerite.
"Oh well, I can't say that the thought crossed my mind. Really."
"It's perfectly all right, dear. This is just part of our public life. Abby and I have been dissected in the tabloid press until hell won't have it--excuse my French. There's nothing anyone could say, think or do any more that would surprise either of us."
With the examination over, Nora leaned back and resettled herself as she went about ‘boufing’ her hair.
"Well, I'm sure she's a lovely girl," Nora said, returning a bright smile. "And gifted--obviously."
"And that's double the truth," Marguerite responded as she returned the balance of her paperwork to the folder. “Abby, you see, *is* the company. Without her there would be nothing here. I've seen estimates that place people with talent like hers at one in five-hundred million--a mere handful on the globe at any one time."
"That's certainly an impressive statistic, isn't it?"
"It certainly is. *Very* impressive. And yet the many challenging aspects of your case will put Abby's abilities to the ultimate test. She said so herself as we were reviewing your application."
"You don't say."
"Absolutely," Marguerite replied as she slid open the top desk drawer and withdrew a thin sheaf of papers. "And so I think we should talk for a moment about what all this talent might be worth in terms of peace of mind and personal well being, don't you? I've gone ahead and had a couple of documents drawn up. . ."
Then laying them out and facing them for Nora to inspect, she added, ". . .for you to sign, if you would."
Moving to the edge of her chair, Nora fingered a couple of pages, then began looking through her purse.
"Could you, uh-h. Oh, my stars, could you just point to the dollar figures for me? I seem to have left my. . ."
"They're right here, dear," Marguerite said, lifting a page and dropping a pencil point near a very small row of type near the bottom. "I'd think that we could begin work at, say, two-fifty, with a review after six months."
"Two-fifty. And a review. Meaning that the cost could go as high as. . .?"
"Oh, I'd say--don't hold me to this--I'd say an upper limit of seven-fifty."
"You're speaking in thousands, obviously."
"Hundred thousands, dear," Marguerite said, reaching out and tenderly placing a hand over Nora's. "Justice in this country is for those who can afford it, as I'm sure you know."
"Of course. How silly of me," Nora said with a giggle. "I couldn't have been thinking of only twenty-five hundred, now could I?"
"Oh, no! You're far too savvy for that!" Marguerite exclaimed, keeping the good humor going as she chuckled along without the slightest hint of self consciousness. "I think it might be time, right now, my dear, to do something that no one else has been able to do for the better part of a century."
"That's right," Marguerite said, leaning into the desk with widening eyes, then adding, "catch ourselves a killer!"