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Chapter One

 

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

 

 

 

 

India Crowley, Shadowbrook Arms’ resident witch, stood a moment as if in prayer.  In the torchlight, with her shadow cast on the wall, she swayed back and forth, leaped awkwardly into the air, and began pirouetting across the lawn.  It was difficult for her friend and co-host, Irma Fresco, not to believe that she was drunk or under the influence of drugs.  India was, in addition to being a vegetarian and non-smoker, a teetotaler, and yet she appeared intoxicated and out of control.  Her long black dress, pointed hat, and cape seemed out of place in this crowd.  The sound of Morgana and the Living Dead was not synchronized with the movements she made.  A more fitting score for India, Irma felt, would have been Camille Saint Saen’s Dance Macabre.  A more appropriate place to perform would have been in the privacy of her own home.  India was not even trying to dance to the music, for it seemed as if she had a symphony playing inside her head.  Irma saw her pause, cup her ear as if Lucifer, himself, were speaking, roll her green eyes around in their sockets, shake, spin, and stop abruptly as if she were suddenly possessed.

            As India performed her silly dance, Irma shuddered and looked away.  Every Halloween India would put on her witch costume and try to get everyone in the mood.  No one had taken her seriously at Shadowbrook Arms until tonight.  Halloween normally fell during the workweek.  Except for the few trick-or-treaters in the complex, this holiday had been limited to short-lived gatherings around the pool, in which India would giggle, dance around foolishly awhile, and mingle in the crowd.

            This time Halloween was on a Saturday, which meant tenants would be rested up enough to participate and still be able to recuperate the next day.  It was typically cool for late October, and yet several people were in the Jacuzzi and pool.  The theme tonight was supposed to be the occult.  Only a few tenants, other than India and herself, however, had worn a costume or even donned a mask.  Irma’s devil’s costume, which India coaxed her to wear, was too tight.  The horns on her hood were crooked, and, for some reason, her pitchfork, which looked more like Neptune’s trident, was too big.  Added to the glasses magnifying her blue eyes, the suit covering her girlish frame made her appear cute and comical instead of scary: a nearsighted and underfed she-devil with a goatee penciled sloppily by India onto her chin.

            Tonight’s party offered many treats for Shadowbrook Arms: food, drink, camaraderie, and a chance to watch India perform as a witch.  She would give them a good show.  No longer would they see her as an amateur or make-believe witch.  She would have a captive audience, primed with alcohol and food.  It would, Irma warned her, prove disastrous if she carried things too far.  She must not go overboard this time, as she had in the past.  It was, she reminded India, her last chance for fame; everything else she had done in the past had been a rehearsal until tonight.

            But already, during India’s performance, Irma could see the stirrings of her friend’s metamorphosis and the emergence of a dark period of India’s life.  India’s prelude was not part of the program, and it was not what they had agreed upon today.  She was supposed to give a demonstration of witchcraft, using some of the ritual tools of her craft, nothing more.  Instead of the friendly witches’ waltz she normally improvised for the occasion, however, she began doing the dance of the sorceress leading up to the Black Mass.

            For several moments, as she made her debut, Irma, a man in a vampire’s costume, and a women dressed up like a mummy, stood there on the grass, glancing self-consciously at each other, grimly appraising India’s dance.  They had become, in the words of Buck Logan, the “ghoul squad,” officially part of India’s coven, but, in reality, merely her friends.  Occasionally, she would hear a shout from the patio aimed at either India, herself, or the vampire and mummy standing in the crowd.  The most embarrassing catcall came from Jim Courtney, who shouted “Irma, you horny devil, you!,” while Tom Wellitz and Ed Montez crept up in back of her and played with her tail.

            The worst humiliation Irma had suffered so far, however, was right in front of her: India Crowley, her co-host, best friend, and the master of ceremonies—Shadowbrook Arm’s very own resident witch.

 

******

            When her dance was over, India stood there awhile longer staring inappropriately at the sky.

            “Oh Lucifer,” she cried pompously “give me wisdom tonight that I may do your will.  Make these, your children, believers.  Punish those who mock me in my trial!”

            Unable to believe her ears, Irma stood there at the forefront of the onlookers, feeling their discontent.  “It’s only a demonstration folks,” she tried to play it down. “India’s giving us an example of the Black Mass.”

            “ . . . Make me strong Lucifer,” she continued after a pause, “put the right words into my mouth.  Make them listen to me, your servant India, in my hour of trial!”

            “Psst India,” Irma tried getting her attention, “are you nuts?  This isn’t what you planned!”

            Already, there was hostility in the audience.  With expressions of righteous indignation, Sam Burns, the apartment manager, and his fiancée, Alice Wagnall, who were staunch Christians, began making their way through the crowd.  Others in the audience, who were less bold, shook their heads and turned away.  In spite of these danger signals, India started the next phase of her production, with a look of ecstasy on her face.  She began mixing Satanism, voodoo, and witchcraft together in her rites.  A series of hand movements in the air, indicating an upside cross, was followed by what sounded like voodoo chanting, then an incantation, using pig Latin and backward spoken words.  Afterwards, to everyone’s amazement, she reached around below her and began throwing in dried leaves, dead insects, and one live toad into a cauldron on the lawn.  Into the pot she also tossed dirt, several handfuls of grass, and a small, shriveled up bat.  As a finishing touch, she plucked a snail from a hedge nearby, and, after adding water from the pool, began stirring this concoction and mumbling lines from MacBeth:

 

            Double, double toil and trouble;

            Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

            Eye of newt and toe of frog,

            Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

            Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

            Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing.

 

            From the cauldron below, a hidden sheet of dry ice reacted to the water thrown in.  The carbon dioxide vapor rose mysteriously up into the night, indicating that her potion was just right, and yet one of the main ingredients, the toad, jumped out of the cauldron and began hopping across the lawn.  Her recitation from MacBeth had been just a warm-up.  It was time to show them her stuff and begin casting spells.  India demonstrated all phases of her art then, from black magic mumbo-jumbo to an attempt to conjure up spirits from the dead.  After awhile of this showmanship, however, she heard rebukes from the audience, as this last outrage sank in.

            “Sacrilege!  You’ve gone too far!” cried Sam.

            “Call on your master if you will,” Alice followed “but only Christ can raise the dead!”

            Afterwards, in what seemed like a chain reaction, she heard more protests, such as “This is offensive!” and “It’s an outrage against God!”

            Recognizing the manager and his fiancé’s voice among the dissenters, she felt momentarily shaken, but continued with her spell, calling on Ashtoreth, Moloch, and Baal to appear in the vapor, until other voices, including her friends, brought her down to earth.

            Looking up from her cauldron then, she followed Irma’s example and explained to her audience that this was merely a demonstration of the black arts and not the real thing.  Sam, Alice, and several others, who had seen enough, had already exited, but a surprising number of tenants hung on, amused by what they saw.  More and more tenants continued to arrive as India performed, drawn more by the music, commotion, and food.  Among these later guests Wanda Craven and, not long after, Neva Bravnic, the two women India hated most in the world, appeared on the scene.  Before she realized what she was doing, India began casting a spell against the two women, mumbling lines, which had nothing to do with MacBeth.  Lapsing into what Irma knew was black magic again, she wiggled her long fingers over the cauldron.  With her eyes tightly shut and her lips moving feverishly as she chanted, India uttered what sounded like nonsense to Irma, until Irma remembered something she had read.

            “Wait a minute,” she slapped her forehead, “this isn’t a witches spell.  It’s devil-worship--a diabolic rite!  “India,” she said aloud, “you’re quoting Satanism again, not MacBeth.  You’re supposed to be a white witch, not this evil crone!  Snap out of it woman!  You’ve driving everyone away!”

            But India would not listen to her.  By the time she had finished her incantation, everyone except Irma, her two other friends, and a few late arrivals, had grown tired of her nonsense and began socializing on the patio or lounging with others in the Jacuzzi or the pool.  As her audience disappeared, she grew frantic and began ringing her hands.  It had all came apart, she believed, when Wanda and Neva arrived.  They had jinxed her somehow and spoiled the mood.  Not one to give up, however, she tried other forms of black magic to win them all back.  She tried making a magic circle.  She recited her favorite portion of the Book of Shadows—Wicca’s index of magic and mysticism, and, after running out of quotes, recited chilling portions of the Satanic Bible written by Anton LaVey.  For several moments, India exhibited her knowledge of the dark arts and flare for both drama and the occult.  But it was too late; her moment of glory had passed.  She had made a complete spectacle of herself.

            After attempting a séance with her friends, she gave up in despair, blaming her failure on their lack of concentration and faith.  She withdrew to the far end of the lawn then, her long pale arms rising up to the sky.  Her voice, now hoarse from shouting, became shrill, almost demonic, as she asked Satan to curse Shadowbrook Arms.  A special malediction was leveled against Wanda Craven, Neva Bravnic, and their friends.  When she returned, she skipped, cart wheeled, and broke into another dance, as if some cosmic secret had just been revealed.  What she failed to accept, even now, was that no one cared.  She had blasphemed against God.  She had shown a complete lack of sensitivity and good taste.

            While she did her dance, the vampire and mummy stole away sheepishly to get out of their costumes, resurfacing that hour with drinks in their hands, as if they had just arrived.  There was no question at that point who had stolen the show.  Wanda Craven and Neva Bravnic had taken the spotlight away from Shadowbrook’s witch.  While several of the men competed for their attention, the few women left in the water glanced with mixed emotions their way.

            Finally, while still in her devil’s costume, Irma discarded her pitchfork permanently for a drink.  It was not just a Halloween charade for India anymore.  Her dance macabre had become serious business for her—her last chance for fame.  She began disrobing as she danced, tossing her cape, dress, and pointed shoes onto the lawn.  Her black slip clung to her shapeless frame, emphasizing her complete lack of curves.  Her long, stringy dark hair, laced with sweat, was truly witch-like as it whipped around her face and neck.  As she pirouetted again across the lawn, Irma could see more tenants departing, until, at one point, they began leaving in droves.  It was late and they were tired.  Enough was enough, they mumbled amongst themselves.  Many of them turned for one last look as they left the scene.  But the remaining men (Tom Wellitz, Buck Logan, Jim Courtney, Ed Montez, and Drew Connors) ignored her antics completely as they crowded around Wanda Craven and Neva Bravnic in the pool.  The two women, unlike India, were not working on mere adrenaline.  They were becoming progressively drunk.  It had also seemed to Irma, as she sipped her second and then third beer, that they were encouraging these men.  She had heard titillating stories about them from India.  It never occurred to her that Wanda and Neva were anything more the nymphomaniacs that India claimed them to be or that her gossip might be based upon hearsay, innuendos, or lies.

            Irma had watched the party progress from an innocent poolside barbecue to a wild free flowing bash.  She had witnessed many of her neighbors transform from casual participants to happy-go-lucky revelers, ready for a good time.  But she could not have imagined what was in store for Shadowbrook’s tenants tonight.

            After most of them had tired of the festivities and gone to bed, Tom, Buck, Jim, Ed, Drew, Wanda, and Neva lingered in the pool.  She alone watched the finale to India’s dance.  The five men continued to compete for Wanda and Neva’s affection, while she remained faithful to her friend: a lone sentinel representing Lucifer, the Prince of Hell.

 

******

            As she pulled the devil’s hood off her head, her short, disheveled black hair sprang out in all directions.  Slowly she turned, adjusted her wire frame glasses on her little nose, and looked wistfully across the pool.  It had been a personal disaster for India Crowley.  The remaining tenants were in the Jacuzzi at that moment, after progressing from the pool.  Their laughter had softened to a quiet fellowship that only they could hear.  But in the background, with the radio turned off, a terrible silence had set in.  She knew that India had stopped dancing and that she perceived herself as a flop.  After tonight’s debacle, it was obvious to Irma that India, after dabbling in her black arts for so long, had slipped finally over the edge.

            As she looked back at where India had been, she saw her shadow silhouetted against the wall.  The tiki torches made her seem ten feet tall.  She had become almost statuesque.  Her head was down and her shoulders were slumped.  As she stood in front of the flickering light, Irma felt both pity and disgust for her friend.  India wanted approval and recognition for her art.  Irma had, with the greatest patience, watched her rehearse and then stood on the sidelines as she began her performance, coaching her when her antics grew increasingly bizarre.  India, however, had not followed the script.  The advice Irma had given her—don’t overdo it, avoid black magic, and keep it short—had been ignored until it was too late.

While India gave everyone the evil eye and slipped back into her dress, the five men made a tightening circle around Wanda and Neva.  In friendly competition they edged closer and closer to the women.  No longer satisfied with mere flirtation, however, they seemed to be casting lots for the pair.  It was obvious to Irma, after listening to India’s gossip, what they had in mind.  More ominous to Irma now, was the darkening expression on India’s face as she watched the activities in the Jacuzzi.  Finally, after a clandestine exchange of words, Irma watched, with mixed emotions, as the women and their admirers began climbing out of the water.  As they stood shivering by the edge, Wanda and Neva were again surrounded by men.  In spite of India’s efforts to ruin their good names, Irma felt no resentment toward them.  She had envied them in the past for having so many male admirers, but she did not envy them now.  She suddenly felt sorry for them.  Her imagination ran amuck a moment as she watched them lead the five men upstairs, and she sensed, even in her dulled state of mind, that something dreadful was about to happen to them tonight.  She could not have imagined that it would happen to her too.  Had she not been momentarily drawn into her own thoughts and getting progressively drunk, herself, she would have been alarmed at the way India behaved…. She was not just angry with Neva and Wanda tonight; she was angry with everyone at Shadowbrook Arms, including her best friend.

 

******

            At this point, India’s eyelids drew together into evil slits.  Though she had temporarily lost her voice, she emitted a strange and unsettling wheeze.  Her gaze, for that matter, told her friend that someone was going to suffer for tonight.  Irma assumed this meant Wanda and Neva.  As they were exiting, however, her gaze swept the others too and also fell upon her.  Everyone here at Shadowbrook Arms, she conveyed, had offended her, including Irma Fresco.  They were all going to pay! 

            Irma now wondered what was going on inside India’s dark skull.  Would she cast a spell on her enemies?  Would she set the apartment complex on fire?  Why would anyone take her seriously after tonight?  Although she felt sorry for her friend, India had asked for it.  She would not listen to her.  In spite of Irma’s warnings and the reaction of her audience, she had continued on recklessly throughout the evening.  By the time Wanda and Neva had arrived, she had already gone overboard.  So it was absurd for her to blame them for her mistakes.  She had, on her own volition, ignoring sound logic and good taste, self-destructed.  As always, she had gone too far, tried to do too much, and broken every rule in the book.  Because of her loyalty to India Crowley, she, as Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, like her mentor, would be a laughing stock at Shadowbrook Arms.

For several moments, Irma took advantage of the cheap beer sitting in ice near the pool and continued to get drunk.  In the past, when India had socially slipped, Irma would smile at her and lead her gently away.  Until now India could always rely on her for comfort and reassuring words.  Tonight, however, Irma’s patience had been worn thin.  India’s stupidity had been too much even for her.  Her amusement and fascination with India’s eccentricity had turned to disgust and disdain.  For the first time in her life, she had deliberately gotten herself drunk.  Quickly, and without ceremony, she began blotting out tonight.

 

                                                                       ******

            Out of nowhere it seemed, the apartment manager and his fiancée now returned to the scene.  They had waited until the party was over and India was alone to begin another attack.  Sam, the manager, who was studying for the seminary, and his fiancée Alice, had attempted, with little success, to rehabilitate many of the tenants at Shadowbrook Arms.  Irma, who was a Roman Catholic, had resented their fundamentalist preaching, while India, Shadowbrook’s witch and their hardest case, had always been amused.  Tonight, Irma reflected with a smile, the situation was reversed.  She found this particular episode entertaining.  She was seeing India get what she deserved.  But this time India was not amused.  Earlier, she recalled, Sam and Alice had gone on the attack.  India, at that stage, seemed beyond redemption.  She had committed heresy, sacrilege, and blasphemed God.  Now, after waiting for everyone to exit, they were suddenly back.

            “It is written:” Sam pointed accusingly at India “thou shall not suffer a witch!”

            “The Lord will not tolerate sorcery!” piped Alice.

            “But you’ve gone beyond mere witchcraft;” Sam waved his Bible “you’re a devil worshiper now!

            “The Lord will not suffer devil-worship!” Alice chimed.

            As they began quoting passages from the Bible, Irma grew self-conscious, withdrawing to a far corner of the lawn, until finally, she found herself peeking over a hedge.  India had begun shouting profanities back at them.  Several of the tenants, Irma noted, were drawn back by the commotion and looked down from the second floor balcony to see what was going on.  Because they were used to their manager’s preaching and had accepted India as their resident witch, most of them returned to their apartments, snickering amongst themselves and shaking their heads.  Neva, Wanda and their friends, however, made the mistake of laughing at her now.

            In a sudden and demonic rage, India’s eyes narrowed again, her nostrils flared, and she pointed a trembling finger at everyone in sight.  “You whores,” she pointed first at Wanda and Neva, “shall know what the word alley cat means, because you’ll both become one!  “You, you, you, you, and you,” she spoke bitterly to the five men, “shall regret your beastly behavior, because you’re going to become exactly how you’ve behaved!  “And you two, my pets!” she turned to Alice and Sam. “I have the same end planned for you!

            Wringing her bony fists, she vowed, in a crone-like voice, that they would all pay the ultimate price for crossing the Shadowbrook Witch.  But to Irma Fresco, who was hidden behind a bush, the malediction had been dodged.  Did she mean her too? Irma wondered as she peeked over a branch.  What had she done to offend her friend?

            Raising her pale arms to the sky, India cried “Oh Lucifer, come to me tonight in my circle of lights.  Do for me as you have done for witches in the past.  Give me your magic for my immortal soul!”

            After heckling her awhile, the merrymakers departed the scene.  While India had been threatening them, Sam and Alice had playfully made the sign of the cross with their fingers.  As the threat sank in, however, Irma saw them flash frightened looks at each other as they shrank away.  Irma, who wished she could somehow disappear, herself, and reappear in her apartment without being caught, was now trapped behind her bush.  India had not forgotten her.  Had she not openly criticized her tonight?  Had she not abandoned her during her darkest hour?  Irma knew she had her in her sights.  As she stood behind the hedge, she could hear India humming madly under her breath.  Slowly, sheepishly, with a beer in her hand, Irma left the safety of her bush and began walking into the light.

            She did not want to suffer the others’ fate.  For several moments she waited for her friend to vent her wrath.  It seemed as if India had some form of group disaster in mind for the others.  She wondered what she had in mind for her.  India just stood there quietly, though, as Irma returned to the patio, appraising her it seemed, Irma wondering when India’s justly deserved I-told-you-so would pop out of her mouth.   It was on the tip of her tongue, ready to be launched as India evil-eyed her.  For a few moments, she continued sipping the beer in her hand, pretending not to notice the hostile look on India’s face.  It was like ignoring an oncoming storm.  The sound of laughter fading topside indicated that the party was over.  Perhaps, she thought fleetingly, it was transferring to Wanda and Neva’s apartment.  They were, she recalled India saying, both nymphomaniacs who enjoyed endless sex.  After only a moment more of distant revelry, however, the complex became suddenly quiet, as if the volume had been suddenly turned down.  With the exception of a small clean-up crew working quietly nearby, she found herself alone with her friend.  With feline hostility, edging ever so close to her, India toyed with Irma as if she were a mouse, and then slowly broke into a smile.  Somehow, during this interval of time, Irma managed to finish her beer, and bring another can up to her lips.

            “You embarrassed me tonight,” she heard India say.

            “What?” Irma swallowed noisily. “…You talkin’ to me?”

            “Yes, you uncouth little bitch I’m talking to you!” Her green eyes flashed. “Several times tonight you criticized me and made me look silly.”

            “Silly?” Irma made a face. “Me, India?  You’re saying I made you look silly!”

            Up-ending her can, she took a long, sloppy swig of beer and looked vacantly at the sky.  She had, India now claimed, not supported her at the party.  With her devil’s costume, she was supposed to mingle and act the part.  Instead, she had hung back as if she was embarrassed.  Now, the reason she was getting drunk was because she was ashamed of herself.  She was a coward and a worm!  She had failed her miserably tonight!

            “India . . . Poo-oor India!” Irma said between gulps “…. If I’m a worm, you’re a maggot!

…. If I’m a coward, you’re a sacrilege against all that’s decent in life!”

            Her beer was taking effect.  India knew this too, and yet her green eyes continued to smolder with rage.  After finishing up her fourth can of beer, Irma felt invincible.  She was on a roll.  As India elaborated on her lack of backbone, the point finally came when both she and her friend irrevocably crossed the line.

            “Innn… dia,” she said during a series of loud, unladylike belches “lay off me…. You hear me woman, lay off!… I’m tired of your crap!… That’s all it is too, India, crap!”

            “Crap?” India’s lips trembled and her fists clenched. “You think what I do is crap?

            “Crap!” she replied, taking a long swig. “C-r-a-p, crap!”

            “You want crap?” India eyed her fiercely “I’ll give you crap!

            “Go ‘head, take yur besh shot!” Irma said with a slur.

            She was sinking fast.  By now, she had guzzled down her fifth and last beer and was thoroughly drunk.  With the last rush of alcohol hitting her empty stomach, the buildings around her and India Crowley began to fade in and out as images in a rippling pond.  She could hardly remember what India had just said.  As she held her ground, barely able to stand or even walk, India gave Irma her most menacing pose.  In what looked like a karate movement to her, she lifted one arm up and displayed two fingers, the other arm also gradually rising, until she began making hocus-pocus movements with her hands and mumbling gibberish under her breath.

            For a moment Irma found herself giggling uncontrollably but also growing increasingly ill.  Finally, as India’s hands froze into a two-finger hex position, a reaction that must have seemed causal to India began taking effect.  A wave of nausea, triggered by Irma’s last gulp of beer, followed the chemical explosion in her head and stomach, resulting in the inevitable purge.

            “You uncouth pig!” she heard her shout. “You filthy little swine!”

            At that point, the clean-up crew and several tenants peeking out their windows began to laugh.  Given a temporary reprieve, Irma Fresco wiped her little mouth with her sleeve, bowed foolishly, and staggered slowly away.

 

 

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