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Introduction:

Who is the Phantom?
"There is nothing more desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit, silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by the memories of evil and violent histories."

-Algernon Blackwood, “The Empty House”

***

"I guess no one mentioned that Devereux Manor is supposed to be haunted?"

Amelia paused with trowel in hand in the flowerbed, considering Ms. Price's question. The older woman sat on a nearby stump and fidgeted, anxious for a reply, so Amelia took her time formulating one.

Eventually she settled on: "What's Devereux Manor?"

Ms. Price blinked. "Why, that's this house, dear. Your house."

Amelia looked sideways at the house. It was still hard to think of it as hers. In her mind it was just "the house", an entity unto itself.

"Didn't you know about the Devereux family?" Ms. Price continued.

"Never heard of them," said Amelia. She was pulling up the weeds that overran the lot, and Ms. Price had stopped by to "welcome her to the neighborhood" after the moving trucks left.

"Well, I guess folks keep quiet about that kind of thing," said Ms. Price. "But it's a fascinating story, about the Devereuxs, and the fire. And of course, the Phantom. I bet you’d love to hear it, you being a writer and all.”

The word "Phantom", divorced of all context, sounded silly but still made the hairs stand on the back of Amelia’s neck. She pushed her trowel back into the dirt, frowning with the effort of it.

It was a hot day, a Louisiana summer, and she was wearing one of those wide-brimmed straw hats that made her feel like an old lady, older even than Ms. Price. She rubbed her dirt-caked hands on her overalls and grunted.

"I'm not that kind of writer," said Amelia. "I write technical manuals."

"Oh? Well how did you afford a house like this? Never mind, don't tell me, I'm being nosy again. This was a plantation house back in the Devereux days, of course. Isn't it funny, you owning it now?"

"What's funny about that?"

"Just because you’re a neg—well, I mean, because of your, you know, background."

"Funny.”

Ms. Price made small talk (very small talk) for a few more minutes, then excused herself to "check on her stew." Amelia kept working in the yard. She should have gone in a long time ago, as there was plenty more work to do with cleaning and unpacking, but something made her want to stay out of the house for as long as possible.

She was just about to stand when a gleam caught her eye; her trowel had overturned something in the dirt. Frowning, she brushed the loose soil from it and was surprised to find a lump of gold.

It looked like old jewelry, a locket or a pendant, that had been crushed somehow. She couldn't make out its original shape. It was heavy in her hand, and cold. Without thinking about it, she slipped the lump into the pocket of her gardening apron, and almost immediately forgot she'd found it.

As she headed inside she heard crickets chirping, real crickets. Devereux Manor was a fossil of the true Antebellum fashion, a great, looming, brooding pile of a house, its peaked roofs and stout columns and blackened windows refusing to fade into the past.

The dingy whiteness of its walls made it look like an old skull. Amelia reached one of the back doors and was about to knock, then felt foolish. The knocker, in the shape of two-faced Janus, stared at her out the corner of its eyes as she entered.

Devereux Manor was always dark, no matter what time it was or how many lights Amelia turned on. She went to where most of the boxes of her things were still stacked and changed out of her dirty work clothes, rummaging until she found a clean bathrobe.

Once she was dressed (more or less), she poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen and thought about what she wanted to do tomorrow. Get the furniture arranged, she supposed.

She watched the day’s last light stream through the paneled windows, making spider web patterns on the walls of the foyer. She thought about her father. He'd owned Devereux Manor for decades, but for some reason never lived in it or rented it out.

Why he spent year after year living in that hovel in Richmond instead she couldn’t imagine. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of living with ghosts? She laughed, and it echoed through the whole house.

Amelia went to the upstairs bathroom for a hot shower. The old staircase creaked under her weight. Devereux Manor was a house of long corridors and narrow rooms and high ceilings, a house full of strange figures in banisters and wall panels. A house that watched and moved of its own accord, or so it seemed to Amelia.

Before showering she locked the bathroom door, though she was the only one here, and she stayed in longer than she meant to, using up all the hot water. Drying her hair with a towel, she went to the first floor bedroom she'd set up as an office and worked for a few hours, translating software demos into Portuguese.

A set of French doors here overlooked what was now the garden but had been the slave quarters when the house was new. She watched the old trees sway in the wind and suddenly remembered the misshapen lump in the garden. Without quite knowing why she went and got it, rubbing her fingers over it again and again.

She thought about her father more. The image of him in the hospital bed, face obscured by an oxygen mask and a forest of tubes, gaunt as a corpse already, lurked in her memory. He had been trying to talk to her at the very end but his voice gurgled, like he was speaking underwater.

For a long time she assumed she’d misunderstood his last words, but now she realized she'd heard him correctly and simply not recognized the name: "Devereux." He’d said, “Devereux.”

But whatever he tried to tell her about the house in those last minutes, it was a secret he took out of this world.

Amelia lay on the couch, clutching the gold piece. She meant to just to relax for a moment, but soon she was slipping off to sleep. The last thing she saw, or thought she saw, was a figure at the French doors, a thin man in an old-fashioned cape, looking in with one hand pressed against the glass.

Was he really there? No. It's my imagination, Amelia thought. Then she slept. And she dreamed…

***

Penelope sat at the night table, brushing out her hair. In the east wing, Phillip was at the piano, playing some sonata or another (she could never keep them straight). She counted her brushstrokes in time to his music.

Outside, the wind was blowing, and the French doors rattled. She took a moment to fasten them, pushing the red velvet curtains aside. There was a terrible racket coming from the slave quarters.

What were they up to over there, Penelope thought? What would it take for Phillip to keep them in line? Her father would never have put up with it for this long. But Phillip had never been the man her father was.

The music stopped. She heard footsteps down the hall. Phillip knocked once and entered. She saw his reflection in the window glass as he stood in the doorway, seemingly hesitating before closing it behind him.

He was dressed in a typically unfashionable burgundy frock coat, the cravat at his throat arranged with too-deliberate neatness. He looked tired but pleased, as he always did after an evening of playing. He put a hand on her shoulder. She was wearing only her shift. He kissed her behind her ear and whispered, "Good evening, darling."

"Phillip I have to talk to you."

"Can it wait?" he said, and kissed her again.

Penelope suddenly broke away, leaving the doors and sitting on the bed. She went to turn the lamps up, but saw that they were already as high as they could go. It still seemed so dark in here. It was always dark in the house now. Devereux Manor had seemed a bright place when she was a child, but not anymore.

Phillip sat next to her, putting his hand on her leg. "Stop that," she said.

"Why?"

"It's not proper."

"But we're man and wife?"

"This is my father's house," said Penelope.

"Not anymore. Now it's our house."

"Your house you mean," said Penelope.

"Darling, what's wrong?" said Phillip.

He put his arms around her. She resisted, but he didn’t let her go, and eventually she gave in, leaning against him. He stroked her hair.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've felt awful all day. I was thinking about the Marshall estate: About how the slaves murdered the family and burned the orchards."

Phillip looked baffled. “But why? You were all of a child when that happened."

"Evey Marshall was the age I am now. Imagine dying now, when you've hardly even lived…”

He stroked her hair some more. "I know it's hard to accept that your father is gone, but nothing terrible will happen to us,” Phillip said.

"Won't it?" said Penelope. "Something terrible happens to all of us, eventually. Why not today, or tomorrow, or the next?"

She went back to the French doors. She saw the lights, heard the tumult of noise outside. "What if they're out there right now, plotting against us? What if —"

Phillip took her and kissed her. They sat on the bed, and she allowed him to run his fingers through her hair, and to kiss her lips and the bridge of her nose and the hollow at the base of her throat.

She turned her face away from his and he turned it back, cupping her chin in his hand, and before long she gave up her halfhearted resistance, letting him lay her down and run his hands over her body, pulling her shift away. She looked up at the ceiling, eyes half-closed, barely responding but still enjoying the intimate feeling of his lips, like the soft touch of silk on her bare skin.

Phillip's awkward, ungainly way of undressing himself gave her time to look over his body. She was always fascinated by the lily-white smoothness of his hands, those delicate fingers that worked such wonders at the piano and the contrast with his rough, somehow half-finished features.

He was an awkward creature in everything but in those hands. Still, she couldn’t help but admire the lines of his chest and abdomen, and the prominent strength of his forearms, and even the strange, dark purple color of the nipples on his bare chest. Phillip was beautiful, in his way; it was when these parts were animated that the ungainliness of his figure became apparent, as though he were built only for display and not to move.

Automatically, Penelope opened her legs as Phillip lay on top of her. She winced as their bodies tried to settle in, his struggling for purchase on hers. He tried to kiss her mouth but she ducked out of the way, instead gliding her wet lips over the wiry musculature of his shoulders and chest.

She felt his heart beating against the inside of his ribs and watched the spastic jumping of his throat under the pressure of his heavy breathing. Phillip was constantly livid with pent-up energy that his body could barely contain. When he played, he rocked back and forth in a kind of religious ecstasy. Evidently it was not enough to exorcise everything that was trapped inside of him.

Phillip's fingers stroked Penelope's hair as she continued kissing his naked body. He was being gentle out of consideration for what he perceived as her disconsolate state. She arched her back, pressing her naked breasts against him, watching his eyes roll under closed lids as perspiration dotted his bare skin.

The manic energy pent up inside of him increased visibly; he would only need a little push to let it boil over. Penelope raked her fingernails across his bare chest, scoring a trail of red lines. Phillip's half-grunt, half-growl in reply told her she had judged his disposition accurately.

Moving so fast it took her breath away, Philip seized her, gathering Penelope up in his arms and bending her body against his. She gasped, the smallest of smiles flickering over her face for just a second, and then she cried out as he pushed against her, splaying her already-parted thighs even wider to accommodate him.

She bit her lip and winced as he pushed inside of her, and she felt the reverberations of his trembling all through her core. Penelope turned to the mirror to watch Phillip's reflection as he moved inside of her. She liked to follow the lines of his body, to break him down to just a series of lines and the repetitive motions they made; there were the lines of his arms, positioned just to each side of her shoulders, pushing himself back and forth.

There was the curve of his thick thighs, turning up into the smoothness of his buttocks, rising up and down, up and down. The axis of his shoulders remained level, but it, too, rose and fell, and she watched it, enthralled. Phillip's body was akin to a reliable machine, his movements modeled, consciously or not, after the metronome that held such a prominent place in his affections.

But of course, Phillip was no machine, or if he was he was living one; Penelope was aware of the sticky, salty taste of the sweat dappling his skin, the hotness of his ragged breaths against her own bare flesh, the electric sensitivity of the tiny hairs standing upright all over him, and of course, the turgid, swollen pulse of his cock, gorging itself on the lurid wetness of her own too-human body.

Most animal-like of all were the guttural grunts and moans coming from his mouth (and, she realized with a start, her own), the discordant melody of his writhing, thrusting, squirming body, too full of flesh to suit the mechanical longings of his spirit. Phillip was a mismatched suite of contradictions, always; beautiful ugliness, awkward grace, stilted passion, animalistic automation, wet heat.

The act of release, the very notion of spilling, seemed remarkably unlike Phillip, and Penelope took depraved joy in having driven him to that point, though when she looked at her own reflection again she saw only boredom looking back at her even as he came.

Although it was late Phillip dressed himself fully again. Penelope put on only her robe and then resumed her vigil at the French doors. She put one hand against the panes of glass. Her shoulders were tense.

"Phillip," she said, taking a deep breath, "there's something I want to talk to you about."

"As you've already said," said Phillip.

"Tomorrow I want you to turn out Jeremiah and the other house slaves."

Philip sighed. "We've discussed this, darling."

"No we haven't. You just decided it on your own."

"Is it not my house?" said Phillip, a note of real anger in his voice. He stood at her night table, looking over her combs and perfumes, his delicate pianist's fingers touching them, as if curious to test whether they were solid.

"Yes," said Penelope, her voice dull. "It is. But what if —"

Then she screamed and Phillip jumped and she ran from the window into his arms.

"What’s wrong?"

"There's someone out here!" said Penelope. "Someone staring into my window, I saw him!"

Phillip frowned. "Probably your imagination."

"It wasn't!" said Penelope, pulling back, actually striking him on the chest. "There was a man out there. But he wasn't a man, really. He looked strange...horrible."

She shuddered. Phillip was about to say something more, but there came a bump and a crash from just outside. "You see!" said Penelope.

Phillip went to the doors and unfastened them. Penelope backed away. "Phillip, don't go out there. You didn't see him, he was —"

"Wait here," said Phillip. The night air was limp and humid. Across the way, in the slave quarters, there was a terrible commotion, the sound of voices yelling, almost shrieking, and underneath it all the constant sound of — drums? Phillip frowned. What in the name of God were they doing?

The light of the moon showed him that the patio was empty but that the trellis was fallen. He stopped to right it. Had it blown over, somehow? Or just collapsed?

Something caught his eye. At first he thought it was an ordinary burlap sack lying on the ground, but when he turned it over he almost cried out; a crude but ghastly face was painted onto it, and two holes gouged out in the center of the eyes.

It was a kind of mask, he realized. It grinned at him, and he felt a chill run up his spine. The face of that mask was a face that knew things; things that Phillip did not want to know himself. A face that could haunt a man.

He went back inside, locking the doors behind him. Penelope sat on the bed, tugging her hair with worry. "What was it?" she said. Phillip held up the mask and was about to make some joke, but Penelope screamed again. "That's the face I saw! I knew I saw someone out there, I knew it!"

"It looks like some farmer's scarecrow," said Phillip. "Probably nothing. Might have been lying out there for days without us noticing."

"Someone was out there," said Penelope. Her voice was flat. "Someone wearing that mask. It was probably one of your precious darkies. They're probably planning to kill us all in our sleep. We’ll wake up tomorrow with our heads on fence posts and them making a fire out of our entrails—"

"That's enough," said Phillip. He stood, stiff, and marched to the door, slamming it behind him. Penelope did not look at him even as he left, but he heard her sobbing as soon as the door was closed.

He looked at the mask, with its ugly black paint face, crumpled in his hands. He looked at the door of his own room, then back at Penelope's, caught between the two for a moment.

Although he tried to dismiss it in front of Penelope, the racket from the slaves worried him too. Whatever they were up to, they’d never done it before. He went to his bed and tried to turn the sound out, but the drums were beating, beating, beating, all through the night. They beat like the rhythm of his heart.

***

Amelia woke to piano music. From somewhere in the house came the strains of a song she didn’t recognize (some sonata or another, she thought). It took a moment for her to wake up entirely and realize that the music wasn’t part of her dream.

She stood and her back and shoulders groaned; she'd been on the couch all night. It was the grey-blue time just before dawn, and long shadows from the windows slithered across the floor.

Amelia stood in the hallway, looking one way and then the other, trying to pinpoint the direction of the melody. It sounded like it was coming from the storage room? She followed it. Still sluggish from sleep, it did not occur to her to be frightened. At most she felt impersonal curiosity.

She came to an old, warped door, one that lead to what she remembered as a room crammed with (ruined) antique furniture, draped in sheets. Yes, the music was definitely coming from in there. The door stuck for a second before popping out of the frame. Draped sheets fluttered in the draft.

Amelia was surprised by how dark it was inside. Someone had painted over the windows long ago, and the wiring was no longer functional.

As she fumbled for a light switch that she knew would do nothing, she realized that the music had stopped. She got a flashlight from the kitchen and shone it around, spotting the piano against the back wall: ancient, falling apart, its frame warped on every side.

But there were marks in the decades of dust on the keys, as if from playing fingers. She tapped one, but no note sounded. She tried another and heard nothing. She wouldn't be surprised to find all the strings were rotted.

Amelia ate breakfast in an automatic fashion, thinking about the music, and the dream of the previous night. Odd to have a dream that was not about her.

It had been a dream of this house though, a dream of the very room she slept in, in fact. "Phillip," she said out loud, between sips of coffee, and "Penelope," drawing the vowels out. Who were they?

A knock at the front door interrupted her reverie. She found Ms. Price on the porch, smiling like the Cheshire cat with a basket full of baked goods thrust out in front of her. "Welcome to the neighborhood!" she said.

Amelia affected a smile. "Well, how thoughtful," she said. "But I thought we had our welcome yesterday?"

"Oh, that was just me being a busybody. This is from everyone." She leaned in, as if to get as much of her body through the doorway as possible. Amelia opened the door wider and let her pass.

They sat in what Amelia thought of as the living room (but what Philip and Penelope would probably have called the parlor). Other than the wall of unpacked boxes, the only things visible were Amelia's old sofa and the ancient stone (not brick, but whole stones) fireplace.

Ms. Price looked the room over as if she were planning on moving in herself (which Amelia supposed she very well might be), leaning as far as she could to peer down hallways and up staircases visible through open doors. They talked about nothing at all before Amelia finally came to what was her mind.

"Ms. Price, what was the name of that family who built this house?"

"You mean the Devereuxs?"

"That's right, but do you remember any of their first names? Or anything about them?"

"It's hard to say. I learned the whole story so many years ago. Mainly ghost stories, you know. They're supposed to haunt the house now. But evidently it was already haunted even when they lived here. Haunted since the day it was built, if that makes any sense?"

"But their names," said Amelia. "You don't remember anything?"

"I'm sure I have a book somewhere —"

Amelia put her hand on Ms. Price's arm. "Could you lend it to me, just for a day or two? I'm very interested in finding out the house's story, now that you've whetted my curiosity. I mean, it's important that I understand its historic value, isn't it?"

Ms. Price couldn't very well argue with that. The book she brought looked like a high school textbook, filled with lengthy treatises on county figures from the 19th century. The section on the Devereuxs was marked, and the pages were particularly worn.

Amelia went to the bedroom (where she involuntarily looked toward the French doors, imagining red velvet curtains affixed to them, as they had been in the dream) and sat down to read:

“Archibald Devereux, cotton baron, built Devereux Manor in 1840 as a gift to his wife, who died just a week before construction finished. That left Archibald alone to raise their son, Andrew, and their daughter —“


Amelia paused, and then read the name out loud:

"Penelope."

Her fingers shook a little as she turned the page.

“Penelope Devereux married Phillip Rich, a pianist and protégé of her father, in 1851. Phillip took the Devereux name rather than confer ‘Rich’ on Penelope, supposedly as a token of respect for her father but perhaps really because local gossip held that the Rich family line was the product of miscegenation.

“When Archibald Devereux died a year later, he surprised everyone by leaving the house and most of the estate to Philip rather than to his own son and daughter.”


Amelia's lips moved, outlining the last words in the chapter:

"Phillip, Penelope, and most of the slaves and house staff died when a fire broke out in the late hours of June 16th, 1852."


That was all. No cause of the conflagration was recorded. There was a photo, though: Their faces were bleached and expressionless, as they so often were in pictures from those days, but still recognizable as the couple from her dream.

She closed the book and tapped the binding with one finger. It was possible, of course, that she had heard of the Devereuxs in the past, maybe even seen pictures of them, and not remembered.

Those old recollections, jarred to the surface by her habitation in the house and her conversation with Ms. Price, could have manifested in her dreams. Yes, that made sense, more or less, and it explained everything.

(Everything but the music this morning, but why worry about a little thing like that…)

But Amelia could not help thinking about one of the last things Ms. Price had said (or at least, one of the last things Amelia had paid attention to): "It was already haunted even when they lived here. Haunted since the day it was built."

And she remembered Ms. Price's mention of "the Phantom”, and the figure lurking at Penelope's window, and the almost-forgotten recollection of a man at the same window as Amelia drifted off to sleep in the very same room.

Haunted since the day it was built.

From somewhere in the house, distinctly, Amelia heard the sound of a piano note.

***

Phillip stared into the fire, prodding the smoldering logs with the tip of an iron poker. "We're living in a kind of hell,” he said. “Penelope refuses to even leave her room. Strange, since that was where it all started, at least for us, but you know how she is."

"She's not the only one, from what I hear tell," said Andrew. " I've never seen the slaves so agitated." He was dressed in his best white silk suit and somehow managed to appear as if he were reclining while standing.

Phillip looked lean and tired, his clothes a little rumpled. He stared at the mantle, where the painting of Archibald Devereux and the twin busts of Janus stared back at him. "It's no wonder if they are," he said. "Whoever the man is, he's a perfect terror to them.

“They complained of him first, you see, and I didn't pay attention. But who would believe that some specter was lurking around, peering in their windows and accosting their children while they slept?

"That's what all this damn drumming is about," he continued. "They think it keeps him away. If I thought it would work, I'd be out there banging a cowhide right along with them." He made a particularly violent jab at a log and then set the poker aside.

"But you think he's real?" said Andrew.

"I know he's real. Penelope has seen him. And the damage he's doing is certainly real enough." Phillip stared into the fire without flinching. "That's why I asked you to come here. This is your house too, Andrew."

Andrew put up a hand to protest, but Philip waved him down.

"You grew up here, and you helped your father put the estate in order. Whatever's going on, you have a stake in it too."

"I'll do anything I can for you," said Andrew.

"Not for me," said Phillip, turning. "For Penelope. We have one more guest coming, and then —"

They stopped when they realized that someone was standing in the door, a broad, red-faced man with gray whiskers, dressed in a crisp army uniform and leaning on a cane. Behind him, a slave stood, looking awkward, obviously wanting to prevent the newcomer from barging into the room but not daring to say so.

"Phillip," said the man in the uniform. He limped as he came in. "I hope you don't mind that I let myself in. I helped build this damn house, I wasn't about to sit around waiting to be shown through it by the likes of this."

Phillip smiled without humor. "Captain Sidney. Thank you for coming." He nodded to the slave, who departed with obvious relief, shooting an unreadable look at the captain's back as he went.

The captain nodded to Phillip but declined a handshake. He broke into a grin when he saw Andrew, though, pumping his hand several times while sitting down in the room's most comfortable chair. Andrew took another seat rather tentatively, while Phillip remained standing.

"Well Phillip," said the captain, "I would guess, judging from all that racket outside, that the local gossips have got it right for a change. They say you have a kind of...ghost, on the premises?" He allowed himself the tiniest sneer.

"Not a ghost," said Phillip. "A man. A man intent on ruining me, and my business, and my marriage."

The captain turned his cane over and over in his hand. "Is it true that your slaves are calling this man 'le Fantome'?"

Phillip nodded, and the captain grunted.

"And that he menaces the grounds in some ridiculous cape and mask?"

Another nod.

"Hmm. And what exactly has he been doing?"

"He's been doing all he can to drive me mad," said Phillip. He moved from the fireplace to the window, pulling open the curtains and looking into the pitch black outside. "This 'Phantom' accosts my slaves, destroys my property, leaves threatening messages for me and my wife, and steals whatever isn't nailed down.

“This week he killed the horses, all of them, every horse in the stable! The slaves say they saw him making his escape, but no one saw how he got in.

“Worst of all, he torments Penelope. Every night for three weeks she says she's seen him at her window, sometimes even trying to enter."

"Why haven't you just shot him and been done with it?" said the captain.

"I've never seen him," said Phillip. The drums beat louder and faster outside. "If not for Penelope, I might not even believe he exists."

"Why haven't you notified the police?" Andrew ventured.

"Those frauds and grifters?" said the captain, snorting. "No, for this kind of problem you need the help of real men. That's why — I say Phillip, I wouldn't object to a cigar."

Phillip opened the humidor to both Andrew and the captain, but took none for himself.

"Penelope writes and tells me that she thinks this is all the slaves' doing," the captain continued.

"I'm sure she does," said Phillip. "She's suspected them from the start. She almost killed Jeremiah. Beat him half to death."

Andrew choked. "But he was just here? Is he all right?"

"As he can be. She nearly whipped the hide right off of him. You know how strong she is when she loses her temper."

"But surely she couldn't think that Jeremiah is the Phantom?" said Andrew, shaking his head. "He's the gentlest creature on the face of the earth. Why, father brought him up by hand!"

"Try telling that to Penelope," said Phillip. "She's sure that if Jeremiah isn't the Phantom then he's protecting whoever is. From the beginning she’s been obsessed with blaming the slaves for this, but I don’t know why. They’ve suffered for it more than anyone."

"I’d say she's quite right," said the captain, interrupting. He settled further back in his chair. "All this sounds like a bunch of nigger witchcraft to me.”

"Well I don't see how —" said Andrew.

"When you let niggers live under your roof they get uppity," continued the captain. "Bound to be the death of us all. If we’d stuck to the old indentured Irish servants for housework none of this would have happened. I'll grant you, an Irishman isn't much better, but at least they don't invite the devil under your roof."

Phillip's smile grew wider and more brittle as the captain talked. Andrew jumped in.

"Do you have any idea what this person wants?" he said. "A reason he's doing all of this, whoever he is?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," said Phillip, producing something from his pocket. "This is a letter I received the other day, purportedly from the Phantom."

The captain snatched the letter out of Phillip's hand and began to read it. Philip went on as if nothing had happened.

"It says that until I vacate Devereux Manor things will get worse. Notice that it singles me out, specifically; only I am to leave. The Phantom means for Penelope to stay."

Andrew shuddered. "What a horrible thought, to be left alone in this house with that monster prowling about!"

"Terrible," muttered the captain, reading the letter again. "What do you think it means?"

"What does it mean?" said Phillip. "It means that I know who the Phantom is."

Andrew sat forward. "You do?!"

"Of course!" Phillip spread his arms. "Doesn't it seem a strange request that I and I alone go? Doesn't that right there tell us who's behind all this?"

Andrew looked confused. The captain made an impatient gesture. "If you think you know something, just spit it out,” he said.

Phillip stood directly in front of the captain's chair. "It's a little funny that you should say that, captain. Because we both know who the Phantom is. He's you."

Phillip wasn’t smiling anymore. Andrew's jaw dropped. The captain dropped his cigar and had to catch it before it burned a hole in his coat. When he'd composed himself, he harrumphed as loudly as he could and said, "Me? What's in your head, boy?"

"Don't play stupid, Captain Sidney," said Phillip. "I brought you here because your game is up. You gave yourself away with the letter. I should go, but Penelope should stay, hmm? I find that interesting, in light of the fact that no one pursued Penelope's hand more aggressively than you did."

The captain shrugged. "What of it? Archibald was my best friend, his daughter grew into a fine young woman, and when the time came I asked for her hand. Archibald preferred you, and he convinced Penelope to go along. I've never held any ill will over it. I wish you both the best of happiness."

"Do you?" said Phillip. His voice was ice cold.

"Phillip, I don't think the captain would do something like this," said Andrew, half standing.

"He's counting on your good opinion, Andrew," said Phillip. "That's the captain for you, everyone has a good word to say about him. It's the perfect cover.”

"Now see here," said the captain, his face turning purple. “Maybe you haven't noticed, but I very nearly lost this leg to Santa Anna. How do you think I could manage to be out all night prowling around your grounds and peeking into your wife's window with a hobble like this?"

Phillip glared. "I don't know how you're doing it, but I'm sure you're the one doing it, and I've brought you here to ask you, man to man, if you have any honor at all, to put a stop to this nonsense."

Captain Sidney's face was now the color of a plum. He stood, and his words came hard as he struggled to breathe around his indignation.

"The only reason," he said, pausing to mop the sweat from his brow, "the ONLY reason, that I don't take you outside and shoot you through the damned head right now is out of respect for the memory of that man." He pointed to the painting. "And because of the grief that it would cause Penelope. If you were anyone else —"

Before Phillip could reply Andrew stepped between them. "Wait a minute," he said. "There's no reason why, between the three of us, we can't —"

He paused, and turned his head a little. The other men watched him, curious.

"Phillip," said Andrew, "no one else in the house plays piano, do they?"

Phillip looked confused. "Why in the hell should that matter now?"

"Because someone is playing your piano."

They all listened, and, faintly, from another room, they heard it: The soft, ghostly strains of music.

"My sonata," said Phillip.

All three men left the parlor, following the sound of a discordant tune to the music room. When they arrived they found every lamp but one extinguished, and that one illuminating a ghastly figure with his hands on the keys, the thick, padded fingers of his gloves accounting for the clumsy, tuneless nature of his playing.

A grey riding cape with a high collar, ragged at the hem, draped the Phantom’s shoulders. His mask was painted like a grimacing jack-o-lantern and his shirt and trousers were baggy, so that his limbs angled sharply against the fabric, giving him the look of a scarecrow made up of tattered hand-me-downs.

Behind the slits of his crude mask his eyes reflected the lamplight. He didn’t stop playing as the men entered, except to nod at them, once, in silent acknowledgment, and then went right back to his music, each jarring, clanging note falling on their nerves as he went on.

Phillip managed to speak first. "Who the hell are you?" he said. "What are you doing in my house?"

"Sir!" said the captain, stepping forward. "You should leave these premises immediately. Whatever the nature of your complaint, it should be resolved according to the customs of men of honor."

Phillip looked sideways at the captain. Andrew lingered by the door. The Phantom said nothing.

"Sir —" said Phillip again, stepping forward, and as he did the Phantom leapt to his feet, producing a pistol from the hidden folds of his cape.

Andrew shouted a warning but it was too late: a flash and a deafening bang filled the small room, and Phillip fell back, the captain failing to catch him. Andrew ran to Phillip's side and the Phantom spun around, sprinting out the northernmost door, cape swirling behind him. The captain tried to give chase but could only limp along.

“Phillip, don’t move,” said Andrew, but Philip sat up anyway. Andrew tried to talk him down, but Phillip waved him off.

"I'm all right,” he said. “Look, I'm not shot; there was no bullet, only powder. He just meant to scare us."

Andrew's sigh of relief rattled his whole body. He was white as a sheet. "But why?"

"So that he can get away!" said the captain.

"Not that way," said Phillip, standing. "That only leads to an old pantry. Penelope and Andrew's father used it as a wine cellar. He'll be trapped in there."

The door was stuck when they pushed on it, barricaded from the other side, and it took all three together to break it down. But inside there were only dusty, unused wine racks; there was not a soul in sight.

Andrew gaped, and even the captain looked surprised. Phillip turned around and around in the tiny space. "But he ran in here. We all saw him, didn't we?"

Andrew nodded, and the captain crossed himself. "He can't have just vanished," said Phillip, thumping the walls. "He can't have!"

It wasn't until Jeremiah, cowed by the presence of the captain but too panicked to stay away, appeared in the music room waving both hands that Phillip stopped turning around and around.

"Sir," said Jeremiah, "it's Mrs. Devereux, sir. She's in her room and she's screaming, and we can't get the door open."

"Penelope?" said the captain. "Is she hurt?"

"We dunno, sir," said Jeremiah. "We can't get the door open."

"Useless!" said the captain, pushing Jeremiah down and angling his enormous bulk through the door. Andrew and Phillip followed (Phillip stopping for a second to help Jeremiah back to his feet).

When they came to Penelope's door there was, indeed, the sound of screaming from within, but it was faint and muffled. This time the door was secured only with a flimsy lock, and Phillip broke it down with one charge. The room was in disarray, with the bed askew, the curtains pulled down, the mirror shattered, and Penelope’s belongings strewn over the floor.

There was no one in sight, and the source of the screams was not apparent at first, but then Andrew spotted the steamer trunk in the corner of the room. Heavy lead weights were piled on top of the lid, and the entire thing was shaking.

Phillip ran to it, threw off the weights, opened the trunk, and caught a sobbing Penelope as she burst out, throwing her arms around his neck and falling against him. It was a long time until she could speak.

Andrew stood on one side of the trunk, speechless, and the captain stood on the other, face a furious red, his frame shaking and his knuckles white around the head of his cane, as if he might bash it over someone’s head at any moment. Jeremiah fidgeted nearby, not daring to enter Penelope's private bedroom.

Phillip rocked back and forth with Penelope in his arms, tears blurring his eyes. She was blanched and soaked with sweat, her clothes torn and her arms bruised. When she finally talked, the words welled up and burst out of her with little ragged sobs: “It was him, it was him!”

“The Phantom?” said the captain.

“He told me he was going to bury me alive,” said Penelope. "He put me in there, and I could hear him laughing, and I couldn't open the lid, and, and..." She trailed off, voice hoarse.

“But how did he even get in here?” said Andrew. “We just saw him not five minutes ago in the music room? And then he vanished from inside a closet!”

“I don’t know,” said Penelope. “I just turned around and he was there. And he grabbed me, and he was so strong, and I tried to scream but he had his hand over my mouth and, and, and —”

Phillip soothed her again as she broke down completely. The captain looked away, wincing. Andrew looked at the steamer trunk, brow furrowed.

“There weren’t that many weights piled on it,” he said. “And there are more here in the corner. We must have interrupted him before he could finish. But wait a minute Penelope, this trunk isn’t yours? He must have been hiding it. Where could he keep something like this in your room without you noticing?”

“What does it matter?” said the captain, voice grating.

“It matters if it tells us how he got in here,” said Andrew. “Penelope, where were you right before you saw the Phantom?”

She pointed to the mirror, where the broken shards reflected a dozen versions of the scene. Andrew walked over to it, looked at his reflection, turned to the room, and then turned back to his reflection. Phillip gave him a questioning look.

“Do you see?” said Andrew. “In this mirror you can see the entire room except for the southernmost wall, with the closet door. The closet door...”

He opened the closet and stepped in. After a moment he called out to them; his voice echoed curiously. Setting Penelope on the bed, Phillip followed him, the captain limping along too, and they were shocked to see that a panel at the back of the closet had slid open, revealing a long, dark corridor.

Right next to the panel was a stack of lead weights like the ones piled on the trunk. Andrew grinned, clearly delighted by his discovery.

“Incredible,” he said. “I bet it goes straight to that old wine closet. To think I never knew this passage existed. Did you, Phillip?”

Phillip shook his head.

“I bet there are more like it,” said Andrew. “So now we know how the Phantom gets around the house without being seen.”

"That means the Phantom is someone who knows the house very well," said the captain.

"Yes it does," said Phillip, his sardonic smile returning. "Someone who helped build it, for example?"

The captain's eyes went wide. "You must be insane? How can you even suggest that I'm the Phantom when you were standing right next to me when we all saw him?"

"It's clever, I'll grant you that," said Phillip. "You ask me how you can be the Phantom with your bad leg. Well I ask you, how do we know the Phantom is just one man? What did you do, hire some actor or some runaway slave for the part? You are something of a patron of the theater, as I recall."

The captain gritted his teeth. "You miserable little bastard!"

"That's not a denial," said Phillip.

"Phillip, no, the captain would never do something like this to me!" said Penelope.

She stood and was about to say more, but then she saw Jeremiah lurking in the doorway and she pointed and shrieked. "It was him! I know it was him! Just look at his face, there's guilt written all over it!"

Jeremiah shrank back, hands up, speaking a denial, and Penelope actually ran at him with nails raised. Andrew caught her and the two struggled for a moment, Andrew unprepared for her burst of strength.

He managed to push her back to the bed as she screamed all the while, "It was him, that black bastard, I know it! Don't you see how much he hated my father, how long he's been waiting for the chance to pay us all back?”

Even the captain looked astonished. Phillip stuck a finger in his face. "Will you still not admit it? Will you not even speak up to clear Jeremiah's name? I know you don't have any respect for him, but I thought at least your sense of honor meant something to you."

The captain shook a finger back. "Enough of this, damn it, I exactly who’s behind this!"

"Then why don't you tell us?" said Phillip.

"Because I'm going to deal with this properly, like a real man would," said the captain, sneering.

"Now wait a minute," said Andrew, " We don't really—"

"It was Jeremiah!" said Penelope.

"It's the captain!" said Phillip.

"I know who's behind this, I know!" roared the captain.

"But we don't know, none of us knows!" said Andrew.

Penelope collapsed on the bed, sobbing. Phillip went to comfort her, casting hateful glares at the captain. Captain Sidney stood square-shouldered, still as a statue. Andrew sat in the corner, head in his hands, helpless. Jeremiah inched away, a shadow in the doorway, half his face illuminated.

And outside, the drums were beating, always beating, until dawn.

***

Amelia woke up and looked around. Was she in the attic?

She rubbed her neck (sore again. Would she ever sleep in a real bed in this house?) Yes, she'd been putting away boxes up here and then sat down for just a second to rest. How did she fall asleep here of all places?

But of course, she knew the answer; it was because she'd stayed up all night. Because she'd been afraid to go to sleep. She sighed. Am I losing my mind, she thought, or is this all really happening?

She chastised herself; there was nothing crazy about having dreams. True, they were vivid dreams, but so what? And she'd already explained to herself how she could dream about the Devereux's names and faces before knowing about them. She was jittery from the move, and still in mourning. It all made sense.

As she went downstairs, she did not admit to herself that she was going to the bedroom to check the closet for evidence of a secret door. Such a door would, of course, spoil all of her neat explanations.

She also did not acknowledge that piano music was audible and was obviously coming from the storage room, the room that was once the music room where Phillip confronted the Phantom in her dream.

The house seemed tense as she moved through it. Wherever she went, it felt as if someone had just finished an argument there and left the lingering residue of their anger.

Amelia went to the bedroom. The closet was still in the same place. She hesitated before opening the door, bracing herself for what might be waiting inside. But of course, it turned out to be empty, even of her own possessions. She ran her hands over the back wall. She would have to get some tools and break through the plaster, and then —

Then what, she thought? What would she find even if she were right? If the secret passage ever really existed the Devereuxs doubtlessly would have boarded it up. Inspecting the closet told her nothing one way or the other.

Amelia realized that her hand was hurting, and then realized it was because she was clenching something hard in her palm; the gold piece from the garden. Had she been carrying it the whole time?

What is this thing, she thought, holding it up. If it had ever once had a definite form, it was now just an ambiguous lump. She tried to drop it, but found that she was somehow unable. Her fingers wouldn’t release, and she stood there actually shaking her hand back and forth, trying to rid herself of the little memento. It felt unnaturally cold to the touch.

She was panting and sweating by the time she’d finished. The gold piece was still in her hand. It seemed a grim sight, somehow. She brushed her sweaty hair back and thought, all right then. If that’s how it’s going to be.

Amelia left the closet, went to the dresser that she only filled the day before, and began to empty it. Her father's old suitcase was big enough to hold almost everything she had. She stopped to get a few essentials from the bathroom and grab her laptop, and then loaded everything into the car.

She set the GPS to find the last motel she'd stayed at, the reverse course of her trip of a few day's past. She didn’t look at the mirrors as she pulled away, did not look at the house at all.

She turned the radio on and up as loud as it would go, and thought about nothing. Failing that, she thought about her father. It was painful, and the tears made it harder to drive, but anything was better than thinking about the house.

She would never think about that house again, she vowed. The house was not real.

The house was a phantom.

That flat, misshapen piece of gold was still in her pocket. She felt the coldness of it through her clothes the entire drive, but never realized that it was there.

***

There was no point in trying to work. There was no point in going out. There was no point in doing anything, it seemed, so Amelia just lay back on the bed, watching the blades of the ceiling fan.

The motel room smelled faintly of cheap disinfectant; the quiet was unnerving. She realized that she was straining to hear piano music. Maybe if she was quiet enough, she could just hear it…

She sat up and ran her hands over her face. God, she thought, what am I doing here? She stripped her sweaty clothes off, leaving them in a trail on the way to the tiny, white-tiled bathroom. She turned the hot water up as far as it would go and stood in the shower, letting it run and run. Her skin burned, but she didn't mind; after 20 minutes, she was numb.

Idly, she slid her hand down her stomach, over her hips, and between her legs, touching herself without thinking about it, a mechanical reflex more than anything.

Amelia slid one finger up and down the length of her sex, testing. Droplets of water trailed the line of her hips, and she wetted one fingertip with them, tracing the length of herself again, shivering as the heat tickled the sensitive spots.

Casually, she flicked her clit with her thumb and leaned back against the tile, sighing, closing her eyes, letting go of everything except sensation. Steam fogged the shower glass, obscuring the room, giving her a pleasant sense of isolation.

Amelia slid her free hand over body, following the curved underside of each breast and then squeezing one, hard. She frowned, then tried again, but no matter how hard she tried it really wasn't as satisfying doing it herself, so instead she circled finger and thumb around one nipple, twisting it.

A pleasant tingling heat radiated out from it, so she did it again, tweaking the tip. At the same time she slid one finger up inside herself, feeling her cunt clench tight. She didn't bother to move it, rather just enjoying the feeling of having something inside of her while her other fingers rubbed against the increasingly heated nub of her clit. She growled in her throat, so low that it was barely audible.

Amelia's back slid down the wall, until she was sitting on the floor of the shower, hot water pouring over her, burning. She licked her lips, enjoying the wet, sensual feel of it, and pushed against herself harder, grinding her palm against her cunt, grunting with exertion.

A thousand overlapping images spun through her mind, many of them memories; late nights, dark places, cool sheets, sweating bodies, soft lips, soft whispers, and heated screams. She hunched over, the muscles of her abdomen rippling as she pushed, pushed, pushed, biting her own lip until it bled. The hard reverberations in the center of her were spreading out, sending waves up her spine, across her shoulders, down the curves of her figure, bathing her in ragged pleasure.

Her eyes rolled back, and she felt herself becoming wetter and wetter. The pent-up pressure of so many sleepless nights in Richmond, so must anxiety and pain and uncertainty and grief, melted in the heat of raw physicality, draining away one bit at a time.

She actually moaned, "Fuck!" to herself, then doubled over, free hand pulling her own wet hair as she shook all over, trembling from the core of her all the way to the outside, then left herself panting and stunned, almost unable to move, a miraculous feeling of lightness gathering just behind her eyes, the inverse of the fog of pain and stress that had taken up seemingly permanent residence there in the preceding months.

Amelia allowed herself one, small, barely audible sight of satisfaction, almost contentment, and then stood, trying to regain her bearings without completely spoiling the novelty of her mood.

She realized the water had gone cold. She turned it off and stood listening to the gurgle of the pipes. A mistake, of course; the sound reminded her of her father's dying words, his struggle to breathe and—

"Amelia."

She paused, still naked and wet. For a moment the plumbing noise almost really had sounded like her father's voice?

"Amelia."

She jumped.

"Devereux."

She began to shake.

"Devereux," gasped the water as it swirled around the drain, a perfect imitation of her father's pained, choking final utterance, and then silence.

She reached for the taps to turn them on again, but then thought better of it. This isn't real, she told herself. I'm hearing things. Even perfectly sane, rational people can hear things, and see things, that aren't real.

Or maybe I'm not sane or rational at all. Maybe I am insane. But even that's okay. That's better than believing this is real.

She wrapped a motel towel around her body, not bothering to dry or fix her hair, not wanting to go anywhere near the mirror at all. The main room was dark and she stretched out on the bed, letting the cool air from the fan tickle her wet, naked skin. There was nothing to be afraid of, she told herself. Just enjoy the silence. Just enjoy the dark. Just enjoy—

The dark?

She'd left the lights one when she went into the bathroom. Now they were off...

Amelia bolted, but before she could say or do anything a hand clapped over her mouth. The thick, padded gloves nearly smothered her. A body wrapped around hers from behind, thin limbs invested with horrible strength and an awful coldness. Another arm circled her waist, and the grappling figure dragged her off the bed and onto the floor.

She struggled, but having landed face down on the carpet with her attacker on top of her she had little leverage. A hand gripped her wet hair and cracked her head against the floor, and she cried out from the pain, briefly dizzy.

The unseen figure rolled her over and climbed on top. A small amount of light from the neon sign outside slipped through the blinds, and she recognized the distinctive silhouette of the Phantom's clothing.

His hand was still over her mouth, and he leaned against her, pinning her naked body down. Amelia flailed at him with clenched fists, but nothing connected; it seemed as if he was solid only when he touched her, but not when she touched him.

He let her struggle a bit more before pinning her wrists together. Amelia could not move, could not fight back, could not cry out. The Phantom brought his face down to hers; she saw the wrinkled cloth of the mask sucking in and out with the panting labor of his breathing.

A sour smell came off of him. Amelia closed her eyes as they began to water. She flinched as a cold, gloved hand touched her cheek. Oh God, she thought, please let it end fast...

***

It was night and the lamps were out, but a single, flickering candle flame appeared at the end of the hall, cupped between fingers to stifle its light. It was Jeremiah.

He stopped, as if listening for something, and then nodded to himself and continued on. His footsteps fell very softly on the thick rug. He reached the door at the end of the hall, turning the knob slowly so that it wouldn't make noise. The well-oiled hinge did not betray him.

But when the door opened Penelope was there, ghostly white in her evening dress, as if waiting for him. He dropped the candle and backed away, stuffing his hand in his mouth to stop from screaming.

Penelope didn’t react except to pick up the candle before too much wax spilled. She cupped it in her hands and held if in such a way as to cast a flickering glow on her face. She looked at Jeremiah and he blanched. He backed against the wall, face dotted with sweat, eyes downcast. His mouth moved, but no words came.

Penelope ran her tongue over her lips, as if tasting his fear. "It's late, Jeremiah," she said. The slave only nodded and looked at the floor. She came up to him, holding the candle between them, so that they both stood in the tiny halo of its flame.

"It's very late," said Penelope. With her free hand she touched his cheek. He bit his fingers. "What are you doing up?"

He mumbled something. The corners of Penelope's mouth twitched. "Were you going to the parlor? To talk to my husband?"

Jeremiah looked away. His eyes were wide, and his nostrils flared with his heavy, panicked breaths. "What were you going to tell them?" said Penelope.

She pushed her body against his. He winced as if he'd been stabbed. She cupped his face, running her nails down his cheek. She moved her mouth right next to his and whispered, "What were you going to tell them, Jeremiah?" She kissed him, and he began to cry, quietly, his chest jumping with trapped sobs.

With a coy smile Penelope kissed the tears from his cheeks, then trailed her lips over the line of his jaw. Her caressing fingers ran over his mouth, which was pursed tight to keep from sobbing. "Were you going to tell them about this?"

He shook his head.

"Then what?" Jeremiah tried to hunch down, seemingly in an effort to shrink away, but Penelope stood him back up, kissing him again, smiling at his pain. She stuck a hand between them, sliding down the length of Jeremiah's body. He took on a look of resignation, eyes becoming glassy and face assuming a far-away quality. He did not react when Penelope unbuttoned his trousers, sliding her fingers (with their immaculately manicured nails, claw-like) down until she touched his member.

She wrapped her hand around it, tugging it once or twice, trying to get him to react. His expression was dead, emotionless. She sighed, then pulled her hand up to slap him across the face. The crack of it sounded incredibly loud in the twilight atmosphere of the dark, empty hall. Jeremiah looked shocked, and before he could drift away again Penelope stuck her hand back down his pants, stroking the length of him. The mechanics of his body betrayed him, responding to the stimulation, swelling and growing, eliciting a smirk from Penelope's ruby-red lips.

Jeremiah continued to sob quietly as Penelope's hand jerked again and again, running her fingers over the fat head and testing the tiny dribble there. She pushed her body into his, pinning him against the wall. For a moment he resisted, but though the smaller of the two she was stronger, and he dared not exercise his full force against her anyway. She smiled, showing all her teeth, and in the flickering light of the candle he saw her eyes, wide and unblinking.

She kept on, and he did not resist, though his muscles ached and he had to hold his hands behind his back in trembling fists. Penelope teased him with kisses and soft whispers about how many white men would kill to trade places with him now. Jeremiah bit his lip to keep from saying that he would kill to be out of it. Her touch was delicate but firm and she slid her hand up and down him expertly, aware of exactly how much pressure it took to make him squirm. When she tugged, his body obeyed, against his will, and she giggled, voice thick with perverse amusement.

With a series of quick jerks she pushed him over the edge, and then wrapped her fingers around his shaft while the discharge flowed down and over them. She threw her head back, moaning in ghastly ecstasy, and Jeremiah hit his head against the wall. She bit his lip, though not hard enough to leave a telltale mark, and wiped her hand on his pants. She brought the candle close to their faces again.

"You'll never tell, will you?"

He shook his head.

"You know what would happen if anyone found out about us?"

Jeremiah swallowed. "They'd kill me," he said.

She put the candle back in his hand. He stared at it, face slack.

"Come on," said Penelope. " I need you for something else."

Jeremiah looked unsure.

"We're meeting the captain,” she added. “I can't find my way in the dark."

She moved down the hall, away from Jeremiah and the light, her long white dress trailing behind her, until she became a patch of white in the gloom. Jeremiah hesitated a moment more, wiping his eyes, and then followed.

In the parlor, Phillip and Andrew stood side by side at the window. It was black outside, like always, but it was a quiet night as well as dark; no drums. Phillip drank scotch from a thick-bottomed tumbler. Andrew's glass was still full.

"It's worse," said Phillip. "It's worse every damn night now."

“That’s why you have to listen to me.”

"We had to lock them in their cabins," said Phillip. "Half of them have run away, and I can't blame them. I wish I could run away too."

He looked at Andrew out the corner of his eye.

"Do you think we'll ever find them, the slave children who disappeared? Or do you think they're just..." he made a vague gesture, "...gone? Like the Phantom in the locked room, gone?"

"That letter you got this morning, what did it say?" Andrew said. "Tell me Phillip, please."

Phillip's voice went flat. "It said that if I don't leave Devereux Manor tonight, by midnight...Penelope will die."

Andrew nodded. "That's what I thought. And that's why you have to listen to me when I say that I know who's behind all this."

Phillip said nothing, but raised an eyebrow, waiting. Andrew swallowed his entire drink in one go. His face turned red. He fussed with his cuff buttons, and Phillip made an impatient gesture again. Andrew sighed.

"It's my father," he said.

Phillip looked at him fully for the first time. His face registered confusion but then, after a few seconds, he broke into a sick grin, and then he began to laugh.

"I'm not joking!" said Andrew, grabbing Phillip's sleeve again and shaking him. Phillip only kept laughing, peels and peels of diseased cackling.

Andrew went to the mantle and pointed at the glowering painting of the elder Devereux. "It’s the only explanation that makes sense. He's angry that you're running the estate differently than he did. You remember how angry he could get over even the slightest challenge to his authority?"

Phillip poured himself another drink, snorting. Andrew grabbed the bottle out of his hand.

"You were wrong, Phillip," said Andrew. "The Phantom really is a ghost. And the angrier he gets, the more people will get hurt."

"Even if I believed in ghosts, your father would never do this to us."

Andrew sighed. "You knew him very well, Phillip, but you didn't know him completely. There was another side to him. Did you ever wonder about these?"

He indicated the busts of Janus.

"He loved the image. It suited him. You only ever saw one face, but there was another. He could be a tyrant when he wanted to. We were afraid of him."

Phillip looked incredulous.

"It's true," said Andrew. "Especially Penelope."

"That's a lie.”

"Damn it, I didn't want to tell you this, but the first time she refused your proposal he beat her black and blue. I thought he would kill her with the way she was screaming."

"That's a lie!" Phillip said again. He stood with his hand in a fist, arm trembling. Andrew waited to see what he would do. Phillip said nothing for a long time. Andrew started to squirm.

A voice from the doorway caused them both to start. "I'd be careful how you talked to him if I were you, Phillip" said Captain Sidney. "A man in your position needs all the friends he can get."

The captain limped in, leaving his cane by the door. He had a black leather case tucked under one arm. Jeremiah lurked behind him, looking queasy.

"Penelope let me in," said the captain. "And then she sent this to look after me, although I kept telling her I don't need it."

"Penelope?" said Phillip. "She's not supposed to leave her room!"

"And her room has been a safe place for her so far, has it?" said the captain. His face was ashen. "She's there again now, for all it matters. No Phillip, I'm not here for Penelope, I'm here for you. I think it's time we put this Phantom business to bed once and for all, don't you?"

Phillip looked at the darkened window again. "I suppose that means something?" he said. He slurred his words a bit.

"It means I know who the Phantom is," said the captain. He opened the case and let everyone look inside; the red velvet interior held four antique pistols, polished to a shine.

"And what are you going to do with those?" said Phillip.

"Isn't it obvious? I'm going to take you outside and drill a hole in your skull. Because you're the Phantom.”

Now Andrew looked as though he'd laugh, but held it in.

Phillip sighed. "I suppose you have some sort of explanation for why that would make any sense at all?"

The captain took one of the pistols, turning it over in his hand. Jeremiah huddled in the corner, watching.

"I admit, I didn't expect you to take it this far," said the captain. "I figured you would do just enough damage to your own interests to throw suspicion off of yourself. But you're certainly thorough, I'll give you that.

“And now that no one would possibly suspect you, it's time to do the deed, eh? Get rid of Penelope, and then you'll have the house and all of her affairs to yourself. Just like you always wanted, right?"

He hefted the gun. "I knew it was always about the money with you. I knew a callow little piano player wasn't capable of the kind of love that a real man feels for a woman like Penelope. Well here."

He put the gun in Phillip's hand. Phillip's arm dropped to his side, and the pistol hung from his fingers. "You can at least die like a real man."

Andrew stepped forward, ready to speak, but the captain thrust a pistol at him, too. "What do you say, Andrew, will you be my second? If you feel obligated to be his instead, I understand. Family ties and all that. I'll take this one for mine."

He dragged Jeremiah by the sleeve and pushed a pistol into his hand. Jeremiah looked as if he'd been burned by it. Phillip's voice became very quiet.

"Captain, I would like for you to leave my house."

"That I will," said the captain. "And you with me. Twenty paces on the front green, then we both fire. You'll have the advantage, being younger and fit in both legs. You can't say I'm not giving you a sporting chance."

"Captain," said Phillip again, "you'll leave alone and never come back."

"The hell I will!"

Andrew put his hand on the captain's arm, but the captain shook him off. He raised his pistol and pointed it at Phillip's face. Phillip didn't blink.

"I'll count to three," said the captain, "and if you haven't taken it outside by then, then we'll settle it indoors. One!"

"Captain Sidney," said Phillip.

"Two!"

"For God's sake!" said Andrew.

"Three!"

Jeremiah recoiled from the scene.

The captain sneered. "So that's how it is? A coward to the end. Fine then. Penelope may hold this against me, but she's the better for it. Maybe Devereux Manor will have a real phantom now, eh?"

Phillip dropped his gun. He squeezed his eyes shut. The captain cocked the pistol. Andrew screamed "For God's sake!" again, and then…

The small room reverberated with the shot. Phillip cried out and Andrew ducked his head, and the captain stepped back and the air was perfectly still, filled with the reeking scene of burning powder.

When the smoke cleared, Phillip opened his eyes. He put his hand to his chest and realized he hadn't been shot.

The captain sank into one of the chairs, gasping, hand on his abdomen, a red stain soaking his coat.

Jeremiah's eyes were wide, but his hand was steady as he set his smoking pistol on an end table.

Andrew ran to the captain's side. The captain tried to talk but a bubble of blood came out as soon as he opened his mouth. Phillip took a few seconds to register what had happened, and then he grabbed Jeremiah by the arm, pulling him to the door.

Jeremiah nodded at him once and said, "Please sir, you do it."

Phillip blinked.

"You kill me," said Jeremiah. "Your wife is a cruel woman. If she finds out what I did..." He turned away. "It'll be better if you do it."

“For God’s sake, I’m not going to kill you. But why would you…Jeremiah, I know I’ve been more kind to you than Penelope or her father, but what you just did for me…” He trailed off, unable to say anything more. Jeremiah only shook his head.

“It wasn’t just for you,” he said. “It was my way out of all this. I don’t care how it happens now.”

Phillip was only more flabbergasted, but he knew there wasn’t any more time. "Jeremiah, you’re a free man, as of this moment,” he said.

Jeremiah's mouth fell open.

"Take this key and go to my office, you'll find a letter of manumission in my desk, all ready for you. It was going to wait until Christmas, but..."

"But the captain?" said Jeremiah.

"That's nothing for you to worry about," said Phillip. "After all, I shot him. Didn't I?"

Jeremiah shook his head. "No sir—"

"I shot Captain Sidney," said Phillip. "To defend myself in my own home, I shot him. One white man to another. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Jeremiah clenched his jaw, but nodded.

"This other key on the ring opens the safe, there's cash inside. Take as much as you feel safe carrying, and then take whichever of the new horses you like from the stable, and then you ride. Get as far away from Devereux Manor as you can before the sun comes up, and you never look back."

Phillip closed Jeremiah's fingers around the key ring. Jeremiah only stared at his closed fist for a moment, until Phillip said, "Go!" And Jeremiah ran.

"Phillip," said Andrew, from the others side of the room, "we'll need a doctor."

"I'll fetch one," said Phillip. "The nearest is —" He stopped as he turned around. The windowpane, black as ink all night, was now cast with an eerie orange glow. He ran to it. "Good God!" he said.

Andrew joined him, and they both saw the fire raging.

"The cabins; the slaves!" said Andrew.

"We locked them in to keep them from running away," said Phillip. "Barricaded the doors, boarded the windows; my God, they'll burn alive!"

Before either man could say anything more they heard the scream. As one they turned, the captain included, and all at once they said, "Penelope!"

Phillip stood, torn by indecision. Andrew said, "You check on her, I'll go to the cabins."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to save as many as I can," said Andrew.

"But what about the captain?"

Captain Sidney gasped and gurgled out a few words: "Damn fool...'orry 'bout P—"

Andrew ran for the back door while Phillip rushed to Penelope's bedroom. The door was wide open and the French doors too, letting the night air in. Already Phillip smelled smoke on the wind.

The bedspread was covered in blood, but there was no sign of Penelope. Phillip screamed her name, and when he saw a flutter of movement by the trellis outside he ran toward it, just catching sight of the tattered hem of a grey cape.

It was only then that he realized he was holding Jeremiah's gun, still warm from being fired, and he raised the pistol now, shooting blindly at the retreating figure. Almost at the same time there was another pistol crack; the Phantom had returned fire!

Lips curled in a snarl, Phillip gave chase. The Phantom ran toward the burning cabins. The cavorting flames silhouetted the peaked roofs and, horrifyingly, the twisting bodies of those who had escaped their homes but were too badly burned to flee the area.

The wind changed direction and blew smoke into Phillip’s face, stinging his eyes. Fire was all around him now, cinders and blackened things raining on him. Again, just at the periphery of his vision, he saw movement and fired, and again the Phantom fired back.

Phillip jerked from the sudden, hot pain in his ribs. And now Phillip could see him, outlined by the flames, arm raised, flickering light lapping at the barrel of the gun. The Phantom seemed ready to shoot again, but instead turned and ran.

Phillip raised his own pistol and squeezed the trigger, a wild, blind, desperate shot, but he saw the Phantom stagger and collapse, like a felled tree. Had he been hit? Was Phillip really that lucky?

He tried to walk, but pain burned every inch of him; blood soaked his shirt. He fell to his knees, and then to his hands and knees, and slowly, very slowly, he crawled, his hands turning up the loose earth as he inched toward his fallen nemesis.

The screams from all around him mingled with the crackling flames. The fire was spreading, but there was nothing Phillip could do now. Blackness tinged his vision. If he could just make it a few more feet…

He dragged himself along the ground like a snake by the time he reached the prone figure of the Phantom. He saw a bloody, smoking hole in the back of the fiend’s head; the fabric of the mask was singed. It had been a lucky shot indeed.

It took everything Phillip had left to roll the body over. He clawed at the mask, weak and feeble. “Come on...bastard...” he said. He rolled the mask up. With some effort, he pulled it off.

Smoke obscured his vision, tears stinging his eyes. He wiped his hands over the Phantom's exposed face, clearing away the soot and blood. Who was it, damn it, who?

The wind fanned the flames, and sparks rained down on them, and in the hellish illumination Phillip finally saw the Phantom’s face, and the sightless, unblinking eyes staring up at him, and then...

He collapsed, weak, helpless, fading. The flames spread around the two bodies, one lying atop the other, and slowly, very slowly, they closed in.

***

Amelia was awake. Or had she ever been dreaming at all this time?

She realized how cold she was, and then she realized that she was standing outside Devereux Manor, in her garden, naked except for the motel towel still. She jumped and ran, bare feet turning up loose garden soil.

When she reached the outer wall of the house, she looked back at the spot she’d been standing; the same spot she’d seen Phillip collapse in her dream. Phillip and...

She was not surprised that the doors were all unlocked, though she’d locked them before leaving. She was also not surprised to find the lump of gold in her hand. Least surprising of all was the piano music, that same sonata, filling the whole house.

She followed it to the music room. The door was open, and the room was full of light. Amelia almost paused in the doorway, but instead she walked right in.

Phillip was waiting for her.

He scooted over on the bench and she sat beside him, watching his fingers move over the old, dusty keys. When the last note sounded, he opened his eyes and looked at her. She smiled a little.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Phillip. His voice was a bit faint, just as his features were a little blurry. “I’ve been practicing it for a long time.”

Amelia set the gold lump on the piano. “You gave this to me.”

“Yes,” said Phillip. "To help you see what I wanted to show you."

“The dreams?"

He nodded.

"Were they dreams, really?”

“Memories,” said Phillip. “Memories of the house, mostly. And some of mine.”

Amelia indicated the melted jewelry. “Your wedding rings. Fused together in the fire.”

Phillip nodded.

“Why did she do it?” said Amelia.

Phillip sighed. “To get back at me, for not loving her the way she wanted. Or maybe just as a way to escape. I think she meant to run off with the captain, if she’d gotten away with it. I doubt he would have agreed. I don’t think he had a thing to do with it really, now.”

“How did she do it all? She was in her room the first night, when the trellis fell?”

“She planted the mask before I came in,” said Phillip. “And she forced Jeremiah to wait outside and knock the trellis over at the right time. That’s why she beat him so badly the next day; to make sure he kept quiet. She did other things to him too, to keep him afraid.”

“But the trunk, and the weights?”

“She was always stronger than she looked,” said Phillip. “There was not much weight on the trunk, remember? She ran to her room from the pantry and changed out of the costume while we were still breaking the door down. Then she put on just enough weight to still be able to open the lid halfway and squeeze inside.

“We assumed from the shoddiness of the setup that we’d simply caught ‘le Fantome’ in the act."

He sighed, and then put his face in his hands. Amelia wanted to put her arms around him, but somehow it seemed respectful to just let him be. He tapped out a few empty notes on the keys. Amelia followed his fingers with hers, but when she touched a key it drew forth only silence.

"What about the Phan—what about Penelope?” Amelia said after a while. “She's still here. She brought me back."

"I know. I try to keep her pacified by playing. It helps sometimes, like the drums. But only sometimes. I can't leave, and neither can she, and now that you're here she probably won't let you leave either. That's why I thought you deserved to at least know why all this was happening to you. And also because..." he trailed off.

"Because?"

He smiled a little more. "Well, I guess I just wanted you to know about me. I've been here a long time, and you are a very beautiful woman, after all..."

Amelia blushed, pulling the towel tighter around her. Phillip looked away, respectful of her modesty. Amelia shifted in her seat, unsure what to say for a second. Then: "Phillip?"

“Yes?”

“Will you play again?” She leaned against him a little, head on his shoulder; his touch was cold, but not unpleasant. “It’s such a beautiful song.”

Phillip smiled more. “If you like. It seems I’ve been playing requiems for so long now, I barely remember anything else. But I’ve never forgotten this.”

And he played, and the music passed through the walls, and the floors, and the ceilings, and the eaves, and became a part of the house.

Because the house never belonged to anyone, or anything; everything became a part of it. It was a house unto itself, and would remain that way, always.
15 comments

Anonymous readerReport

2015-09-22 11:12:41
This is just awesome. At first I started reading sex stories in this site and accidentally came across one of urs. I was really impressed by it (Wolves of Paris). Then I stopped reading other's stories. Now m continuing with ur other works. Thanks for helping me overcome my porn addiction. Hope u publish ur stories one day. Keep up ur good work.

Anonymous readerReport

2015-06-19 10:46:59
Now how am I going to stop crying? People won't believe me if I tell them a story from an erotic site made me all emotional. Thanks for the story. Different and disturbing.

Anonymous readerReport

2014-11-22 07:08:47
You should post your stories on Wattpad.com . Just remove the sex details! Then I could show these awesome stories to my friends :)

anonymous readerReport

2012-11-03 02:10:32
Your story is one that will forever be imprinted on my brain.
I know this is a sex site, but it's really nice to find a story like yours
that isn't all about sex. I don't even like alot of storys on here because
their all about sex. I like the whole romantic thing. But any ways,
I LOVE THIS STORY.

anonymous readerReport

2012-05-31 13:33:05
You spew a web around the viewers as if they're observing all that is going around.

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