It was near the end of the working day as I cast an uneasy glance at my watch and then at the empty office behind me. Manhattan was preparing for another sunset. Another sunset meant another stretch of night and with the night came the darkness, and the creatures of the night.
My boss would be along anytime.
At the thought, I shivered. I was pretty sure she’d been infected with a bad dose of undead.
I sat in my little cubicle at Pandora magazine in SoHo, where I worked as a lowly assistant to the editor. The office was chic and sparsely furnished, with several large cubicles spread out across the open-plan space, and one walled office built into the corner. That office belonged to my boss, Skye DeVille. (The one who had stopped showing up during daylight hours. Suspicious.) I dutifully finished checking the constant influx of emails for my absent boss and at five o’clock I shut my computer down. It hummed for a moment, something whirring inside, then fell silent. Leaning back in my chair, I looked both ways, and on seeing that I was unobserved, I reached into the leather satchel at my feet and pulled out the small object that was secreted there, in an inside pocket.
I placed the object on my desk in front of the keyboard. It was perhaps three or four inches long, carved out of some kind of metal, and it had the dappled patina of over a century of wear. My great-aunt had given it to me.
The skeleton key.
Come on. Try it again, I told myself.
I stared at the key and licked my lips.
You can do it.
Leaning my elbows on the edge of the desk, shielded by the walls of the cubicle, I brought my fingertips to my temples and concentrated. I closed my eyes and tried to feel the key with my mind, tried to reach out with my senses. The seconds passed slowly and in time the sounds of the office around me faded to a low murmur. The room seemed to disappear and when my mind was clear of every distraction I opened my eyes again, squinting, and I focused on the key. Only the skeleton key. Nothing else. Everything is the skeleton key. The skeleton key is everything . . . and I can control it . . .
Gradually, after perhaps one agonising minute, the skeleton key began to vibrate, began to shift diagonally . . .
‘What are you up to tonight? Anything fun?’
A voice broke my concentration and I looked up, startled. The skeleton key hit the edge of my desk and fell into my lap. My friend Morticia had abandoned her post as office receptionist to visit me. She’s my friend, maybe my only truly ‘normal’ friend in New York. (Despite her name, which she changed from Bea to spite her conservative parents.)
I pushed my chair back from my cubicle and tucked a long lock of light brown hair behind my ear. My face felt hot.
‘Just a key,’ I told her, and quickly slipped it back in the satchel.
‘So, what are you up to? You look like you’re up to something.’
‘You’ve been grinning all day.’
Morticia perched herself on the edge of my desk, folding one leg over the other. She had shaggy red hair the colour of food dye, a lopsided smile, big eyes and long gangly legs. Imagine Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl – as a goth. As usual she wore a black dress, striped tights and Doc Martens. It was like a uniform for her, though it certainly didn’t help her to blend in with the magazine’s other staff. I kind of admired the fact that she didn’t care about that.
I found myself grinning at the thought of the night ahead.
What am I up to tonight? Well . . .
‘Actually, I’m going on a date,’ I blurted, and then immediately regretted it.
Morticia’s eyes widened, her black pencilled eyebrows sitting up like little accents. ‘Oh, look at your face! Are you blushing, Pandora?’
Yes, I was blushing. And, yes, my late mother, the archaeologist, and my late father, the academic, had seen fit to name their only child after the woman in Greek mythology who opened a box and let all the evil into the world. (Actually, I think it was an urn, not a box, but never mind.) Morticia and I work at Pandora, and although it can sound impressive when I get to introduce myself as ‘Pandora English of Pandora magazine’, the depressing reality is that I fetch a lot of coffee and Chai tea for the editor – she of the stroppy attitude, increasingly nocturnal habits and undead-style OCD (a common issue, apparently) – and I sift through emails and take messages. The fact is, I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never worked in publishing before so just having my foot in the door of the publishing world is something I’m grateful for regardless of the . . . well, the complications with my boss.
I looked anxiously at the darkening skies outside the window and found myself absent-mindedly touching the antique ring on my finger. The jet-black obsidian stone was held in place by delicate gold claws, and in the centre of that stone there always seemed to be some small, blazing pinpoint of light.
‘Where is your date taking you?’ Morticia pressed. ‘Dinner? A movie?’
I thought about the night ahead. ‘I think we’ll be, um, sightseeing,’ I replied vaguely. I couldn’t help it. I started grinning again.
The truth was, my date wasn’t taking me anywhere. Though technically I was the one who was new in town, having only been here three months, my friend Lieutenant Luke hadn’t seen the sights of midtown Manhattan before. Not in the flesh, anyway. I planned to show him the view from the top of the Empire State Building and I’d been looking forward to this opportunity all month. It was set to be a spectacular evening. This was the night of the Full Worm Moon, or Full Crow Moon, when the crows cast their calls and the earthworms appear, signalling the end of winter. (Since moving in with my great-aunt I had mixed feelings about the change of seasons, as winter’s shorter days had meant longer nights. Considering some of the problems I’d been having after dark, you’d think I’d be delighted by the changes spring would bring. And in a way I was. But when the nights became shorter, there would also be fewer hours I could spend with Luke.
‘What is it?’ Morticia asked.
‘You’re not going to tell me about your date?’
‘Maybe if it goes well,’ I offered, as a form of deflection.
The last time I’d told her about a date of mine, things had gone badly. Not for any complicated romantic reasons, but because of what you might call supernatural amnesia. Jay Rockwell – known by Morticia only as ‘roses guy’ – was the only person I’d dated in New York. The last time I’d spoken to him, by phone, I had been terribly embarrassed to discover that he knew nothing of me or our brief time together. What could I do? Explain to him that he’d been erased to protect supernatural secrets? No. And even though I kind of wanted to, I really couldn’t tell Morticia about Lieutenant Luke, either. He wasn’t a regular guy. It was far too complicated to explain and I wasn’t sure it would be a good idea to even try. We had more pressing things to chat about, anyway.
‘Do you think she’ll . . . um, come in soon?’ I asked.
I looked at my boss’s office again and Morticia shrugged.
‘Skye has been coming in later and later, hasn’t she? Weird.’
And the days are becoming longer, I thought.
‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’ I agreed, and bit my lip.
Skye DeVille had been keeping strange hours and I had every reason to be worried about what that meant. Though Morticia and some of the other staff had noticed Skye’s increasingly odd routines, I doubted they would understand the potential significance. But I didn’t want to think about all that now. Not when I was about to have a very important night out with Lieutenant Luke. I wanted to be at home when he arrived. The weeks of anticipation had felt like much longer.
‘I’m on a bit of a tight schedule tonight,’ I said anxiously. ‘I can’t really work late.’
‘Exactly! Just because she’s working late all the time now doesn’t mean you have to!’ Morticia offered, though it didn’t quite ring true.
I was Skye’s assistant, after all, and I’d been left in no doubt of my position at the office. I was placed well below her and the ice-blonde deputy editor Pepper Smith, who had been taking up the slack recently, with Skye’s absences. In the office hierarchy I was somewhere between Morticia and the pesky office rat, for whom poisoned bait was regularly put out.
Yup, you could say I was pretty low on the corporate ladder, so if I was gone every time my boss put in an appearance at work . . . well, that just couldn’t be a good thing. Skye could be pretty unpleasant, but I needed this job. I couldn’t be totally reliant on the generosity of my great-aunt. That just wouldn’t be right.
‘I can walk with you to the subway if you’re leaving soon,’
I said. It was ten past five now. I had to get moving. In fact, if I stayed even ten more minutes I’d probably have to splurge on a cab to save time.
‘I’ll be here another twenty minutes, I think,’ Morticia replied.
I certainly couldn’t wait that long if I hoped to be home before sundown.
‘Well, I should head off. I told Pepper yesterday that I had to leave at five today.’ I stood up and straightened my clothes. ‘See you tomorrow, Morticia.’ I threw on my coat and picked up my satchel.
‘By the way, your makeup looks real pretty lately. What is it, bronzer?’ Morticia asked, following me across the office.
I shrugged. ‘I haven’t been doing anything new. Must be the light in here.’
‘Well, you look really great anyway. Kind of glowy.’
My excitement about seeing Luke obviously showed. That was kind of embarrassing.
‘Hey, good luck tonight!’ Morticia declared as I left her at the reception desk and made for the door. ‘I hope it’s a killer date.’
I really hoped it wasn’t one of those. Again.
‘Pandora!’ came a voice. It was Pepper. She rushed over, evidently with a mind to stop me leaving. Pepper was slim and wiry, built like a distance athlete, and today she wore skinny leather-look trousers and a long top made out of some sort of jersey, the bottom of it twisted into stylish knots. Her hair was gelled back and fashionably severe, and when she stopped in front of me not one strand of it appeared to move. I didn’t know what to make of her, except that she was smart, competitive and highly strung, and we didn’t see eye to eye on intellectual copyright. (She’d basically stolen an entire piece I’d done on an infamous beauty cream scam, and published it with barely a credit. Additional reporting by Pandora English. Ha!)
I stood my ground and back at reception Morticia’s eyes widened a little, like I might be in trouble.
‘I mentioned yesterday that I had to leave at five,’ I reminded Pepper.
‘Oh yeah. That’s fine. I just want to tell you I need you to cover a party on Saturday night for our social page,’ she said to my surprise. ‘You do have time, don’t you?’
‘A party? Like a product launch?’ I’d covered one of those before.
‘It’s a big annual party. All the important people in New York will be there. I’ll be there, of course,’ she said, as if it were obvious that she fit that description.
‘You’d like me to go with you?’
Pepper laughed. ‘Lord no. I need you to take photos. Do you have a camera?’
I frowned. I only had my phone camera.
‘Well, I have one you can borrow anyway. I’ll give it to you tomorrow along with your media pass.’
‘What are you looking for exactly?’
‘The usual celebrity happy snaps. It’s not rocket science.’
I nodded. ‘Okay.’ My eyes went to the clock again. ‘Well, I’d better go,’ I said, but Pepper was already walking back to her desk.
There was no sign of Skye DeVille as I stepped out onto the busy streets of SoHo. I noticed the Evolution shop next door was overflowing with customers. A full-sized skeleton stood out front holding a sale sign in its bony fingers, swaying a little on medical-grade plastic joints. Manhattan rush hour sure took some getting used to, though I have to admit that most hours still seemed like rush hour to me after growing up in sleepy Gretchenville (population 3999 after my unprecedented departure). But on this particular afternoon the footpath outside the Pandora office did seem particularly packed. Men and women in trendy clothes and slick suits pushed past me in both directions, each one of them on a determined mission to be somewhere else. Someone in that faceless crowd bumped into me and my leather satchel fell off my shoulder.
I adjusted it and looked up at the sun. It sat low in the sky.
Could I get home in time by my usual subway route? That meant crossing Central Park, and that might take a touch too long. But cabs were expensive, especially considering how far uptown I needed to travel. It was kind of off the map.
I was just considering my options when I noticed a long, black car through a gap in the pedestrians. The car was parked and the back door was open, waiting for a passenger. A toweringly tall man, as pale as parchment, stood next to it. He wore dark sunglasses, an impeccable black suit and black shoes that shone in the early evening light. His pallor and deathlike stillness were unnerving. And familiar.
‘Hi, Vlad,’ I said.
He didn’t speak. I had never heard him speak.
I shook my head and smiled to myself as I slid onto the comfortable upholstery in the back seat of Celia’s car. Vlad shut the door for me. My great-aunt knew about my date and she’d sent her chauffeur to get me home on time. This sort of thing happened with some regularity, though I tried to discourage it. Great-Aunt Celia was already providing me with a wonderful room and hospitality, and she insisted on picking up the tab for my groceries. I didn’t want her chauffeur to ferry me around, too. It was too much. But this evening was special, so I strapped myself in without protest. ‘Thank you,’ I told Vlad as he started the car.
In moments we pulled away from the kerb into the flow of traffic with a smoothness I would have thought impossible. Before long we were out of SoHo and on our way uptown along Madison Avenue, where I pressed my face to the car window and gazed out at the passing spectacle of stores and skyscrapers. We slowed occasionally in patches of congested traffic but managed to hit the Upper East Side in good time, passing row upon row of houses that were so tightly knit that the population of a single block was probably higher than the entire population of my hometown.
Eventually we pulled into the green expanse of Central Park, the famous Manhattan oasis where the recent arrival of spring gave everything a fresh dash of colour. On either side of the road, flowers were already budding and the trees looked luscious and full. The sight filled me with cheer. Vlad turned down a single-lane road in the park and as we approached the little tunnel that led to home, the car was enveloped by a thick fog. For a moment I couldn’t see beyond the car’s windscreen, let alone past the headlights.
Spektor is always surrounded by fog. And it doesn’t appear on any map (or GPS). I’d found these facts peculiar at first, but it is amazing what you can get used to when your reality requires it.
Presently we emerged from the wall of fog to find ourselves on the quiet main street of Spektor, where a light mist clung to the old buildings. We passed Harold’s Grocer, which was open day and night, and pulled up at Number One Addams Avenue, a large mansion in the heart of the suburb.
Home spooky home.
Vlad opened the door for me and I stepped out, clutching my satchel. ‘Thanks so much,’ I said.
Vlad was perhaps a full foot taller than me and I found myself staring at him for a moment. His face was pale, placid and expressionless. He is so still, I observed. If he breathed, I couldn’t tell. In the reflection of his dark sunglasses I could see that the sun was starting to set, its radiance filtered through layers of light mist.
‘Well, um, thanks again,’ I said awkwardly and scurried towards the big iron gates at the front door.
I had perhaps twenty minutes.
Excerpted from The Skeleton Key by Tara Moss. Copyright © 2012 by Tara Moss.
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