Devil With A Blue Dress

Chapter 1

Somewhere mad…

"I got the German; it wasn't difficult."

The woman in blue glanced at her left arm where a bandage was hidden beneath her jacket's sleeve.

Well, not terribly difficult.

Standing at a pay phone with the receiver held between her ear and shoulder, she took a moment to flip through a little notebook produced from a pocket and made a thoughtful humming noise.

"No, he didn't say anything definitive, but expect a call from him within twenty-four hours." She paused and a rueful little smile crossed her features. "Just trust me on this. It's why you hired me, after all." Looking up from the booth she allowed her gaze to trail up the stark, concrete walls of the building before her as the voice on the other end rasped into her ear. "I'm about to talk to the girl. I assume you've already gotten in touch with the staff here? Good. Anything else I should know beyond what's in the dossier?" Nodding slowly, listening, she picked at an imaginary piece of lint on her jacket front. "All right, then, I'll contact you once I'm done here."

Hanging up the phone and stepping outside of the booth, she spared a last glance at her parked Bel Air, a dormant, silver predator gleaming in the sun, straightened and murmured under her breath with an arched eyebrow. "Just trust me on this."

Dr. Carlyle Schmidt had small teeth, a suit the color of mustard that had been left out of the jar too long and a way of looking at the woman in blue that made her want to shove a finger up her nose just to make whatever lecherous fantasy he was entertaining about her collapse like a flan in a cupboard.

But because she was a professional, she refrained.

Instead, she returned his smile and bobbed her head as he said, "Of course, we're always happy to do what's in our patient's best interests. We were very pleased about the inquiry concerning case 451. She has been unresponsive to most therapy and medication combinations and we'd felt she would do best if moved into an adult facility upon her majority. However, if Helen is willing to sponsor her for the program that was outlined for us, we'll do everything in our power to cooperate."

The familiarity almost made the doctor's companion roll her eyes openly. He was about two steps away from an actual, 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' and it was beginning to annoy her.

I am privy to sensitive information. I am being trusted to do this job. I am name-dropping because I get to talk directly to The Boss. I am Very Important.

"And we appreciate that," the woman said with a polite smile. "Of course, I've been sent to ascertain conclusively whether or not she'll meet the criteria we've established. Charts, files and statistics only go so far."

"Naturally!" Schmidt replied with an eager expression as he got to his feet. "Follow me and I'll take you so you can have a word with her."

Orderlies walked up and down the hallways the pair traversed, seeming to perform a mass, synchronized ritual whose finer points were secret to all but the participants. The woman in blue fiddled, grinning amusedly for a second, with a tag indicating she was a guest in the facility named Aster Hargraves. As her guide babbled away beside her, she busied herself by counting doors and emergency exits, noting the lack of windows and watching the practiced, ant-like patterns of the facility's employees. Presently they arrived at a small, glass-encased booth beside a door in which a bored-seeming nurse sat, looking up from her cup of coffee as Schmidt and his guest approached. A nod from the physician elicited a jab at something on her side of the station, the door buzzing like an upset swarm of insects before the mustard-suited man opened it and led the way into a more open area.

A number of tables were spread throughout a spacious room, their tops strewn with books, board games and art supplies. The occupants were exclusively girls, appearing to be between ages ten and seventeen. They had no particular order about them, a few of them in knots of three or four doing one activity or another while others went about solitary pursuits. Over the whole of it hung a peculiar pall through which they all moved that the woman calling herself Aster Hargraves likened to honey bees whose keeper had engulfed them in smoke. How much was induced by whatever medications they were taking and what was merely the soul, or lack thereof, of the building getting to them all was difficult to tell, but the woman in blue found the target of her visit immediately.

Solidly built, the girl had a vaguely Asian or Native American cast to her features, with elegantly upswept eyes. Her black hair was short and boyish, which only made more of her high cheek bones and revealed small, well-formed ears. Her skin was smooth and coppery, bringing the burn scars into sharper relief.

They were, admittedly, not numerous, but undeniably present. Chiefly centralized on her hands and lower arms, their glossy, mottled, uneven texture played a stark contrast to the skin surrounding them. Beneath her patchwork hands was a sheet of paper upon which the girl was drawing with colored pencils. It seemed an abstract work; a piece consisting of varied swirls and spirals all in warm, vibrant shades. Crimson blended into vermillion and mingled with canary and scarlet that all bled together into a deep, velvety heart of maroon.

There you are.

Schmidt was going on about something, but the woman in blue was already leaving his side, no longer having a use for the man and eager to do away with him as one does the wrapper from a candy. Her passage was heralded by halted conversations and eyes lifting from their tasks and past times to take in the stranger in their midst. At times such as this, the woman in blue had a way of moving that hinted at something panther-like living in her hour-glass figure. Something about the swing in her waist or the motion of her arms and hips called to mind primal, vestigial memories of things living beyond friendly circles of firelight and laws that could be articulated in anything besides instinct.

While 451 did not move until the woman was standing close by, a slight tenseness in her shoulders communicated that she was well aware of the new presence. Looking up at the facility's guest, she revealed eyes the color of charcoal that seemed oddly flat and lightless. The guest calling herself Aster smiled to the young woman. "I hear there's a garden. Would you care to walk with me there for a while?"

The younger of the women furrowed her brow and spared a glance at Schmidt, who stood in the nervous uncertainty of a man carrying a baton in a relay race and finding himself with no partner to whom he might pass it.

"Don't worry about him," reassured the woman in blue with a smile, gesturing for the other to join her as she started toward an exit whose security was tended to by an orderly. "In fact, why don't you not ever worry about him again?"

Setting aside her art supplies, the charcoal-eyed girl got to her feet and followed her visitor, a nod from a rather put-out doctor to an orderly allowing them passage through the back door and out into the yard beyond. Currently empty of personnel and patients, the garden was a simple affair, having had to have been made without the aid of any sharp tools, and its plants were of a hardy variety easily tended to. Walled in, its two occupants were nevertheless favored by a breeze warmed by the day's fair weather. Watching the girl's gaze linger on a riotous gathering of fiery nasturtiums, the blue-jacketed woman smiled and spoke in a tone like molten caramel.

"Why did you kill your baby sister?"

The girl wheeled around, her previously lightless eyes now bright with the fearful, animal anger of a cornered dog. Her fingers curled, talon like, and were held tense at her sides as her shoulders hunched. She sputtered a few inarticulate noises before finally spitting out words like water spattering from the spout of a boiling, over full kettle. "Who are you?"

"Someone," the woman continued in a soothing tone, "who can keep you from being institutionalized for the rest of your life. In fact, I can make one phone call and you can leave out the front door in a cab; whisked away from here forever. But that will depend largely upon how our conversation develops."

Seeming at a loss and thoroughly unsettled, the girl eventually came to an uneasy stance, shifting her weight from foot to foot and holding the woman in blue in an unblinking gaze. "Okay. What is this about?"

"This is about you potentially coming under the employ of the entities which I represent. You fit a particular profile for a position they wish to fill."

"What kind of position?" the girl said incredulously, raising her brows. At this, the older of the two withdrew a tiny box from her pocket from which she removed a single match in one liquid motion. Instantly the youth's eyes became fixated upon it, her mouth hanging open fractionally and her lower lip quivering. "How…did you get that in here?"

"I'm a clever one," she said simply, twisting the object between her fingertips. "No one believed you about your father, did they?"

A quavering breath passed from the charcoal-eyed girl's opened mouth, her frame watery-seeming and vulnerable. "I don't…he didn't…"

"Who would believe a shifty, tricky little chink girl, anyway? Not even your mother would hear it, so why would anyone else? You had no one to turn to – no control over your life and what course it would take. But that's what you craved over any other thing, wasn't it? Control." She struck the match, the head flaring to life like an inflamed nerve which drew a soft gasp from 451. "That's why you became so fixated on this. This was something you could control – something dangerous and potentially destructive that obeyed you. Even if you had no say over what happened to your body, you had this under your thumb."

The breathing of the girl began to become ragged as the match burned down and was eventually flicked out with a deft motion of the blue-clad woman's fingers. "How did you…I never told anyone about why…"

"Like I said – I'm a clever one. They found you outside of the house in your back yard with your arms plunged into the koi pond, the inferno you started to your back. Now, I wondered a while if this was a case of you losing your mastery over the fire itself, but I don't think it was. I think it was a different loss of control."

Shaking her head, the facility's resident let out a pitiful bleat. "I didn't know it would hurt like that. I thought…I thought it would be all right. I didn't understand…I was sure I knew! Then it started happening and it hurt so much! I couldn't think…I didn't even know I was running until my arms were in the water. I didn't mean to – I didn't!"

"No, I don't think you did mean to run. I think you meant to have everyone in that house, yourself included, die in a way that you could control. You'd finally have a say in what happened to you – and everyone else, too. Now, that I can understand – taking along your mother and father." The woman in blue tilted her chin down and fixed her companion with a probing gaze. And then she lied. "What I can't understand is the baby. Why kill her, too?"

Tears cut crooked lines down the young woman's face and she let out a bitter, humorless laugh. "And if she lived? Then what? Have her dragged off to live with some foster family? People who would do the same thing to her as was done to me? Put her through that?" She shook her head and her voice lowered, becoming intense and heated as an ember. "No. I wasn't going to let that happen. I didn't kill her – I saved her."

For a while nothing was said between the pair; the young woman's visitor watching her as a cat might watch a mouse's hole. "Do you want a job, girl?"

"Where would I be going?" she said thickly, rubbing the tears from her face.

"Somewhere you could have that old control back; somewhere where your race and gender won't matter one bit. Somewhere without pills and head shrinkers and all this other useless folderal designed to make other people feel better about themselves. Most importantly, somewhere that's not here." The older woman said, taking in the expanse of the facility with one dismissive gesture. "And isn't that reason enough?" She extended a hand to the charcoal-eyed girl and gave her a smile like a knife. "Shall I make that phone call?"

People don't usually consider shower curtains to be fire hazards. She liked that. It was a good place to start – cutting off a chief source of what could potentially be relief in all this.

There wasn't going to be a reprieve this time – no excuse and nothing to hide behind. No lie would grant safe passage. The fire didn't care about lies and denial. It was inexorable, unstoppable; consuming and cleansing. The doors and windows were all jammed, sealed or obstructed. She'd been reading – people could sleep right through the smell of smoke and succumb to noxious gases. That was the chief killer in house fire – not the flames themselves but the smoke.

A splash of whiskey from the bottle she'd retrieved from the cabinet in the drawing room, the casual strike of one match, the ozone smelling of finality, and the curtain became a blaze of color. Fire flickered upward, gaining purchase and nibbling eagerly toward the ceiling; feeling not at all like a separate thing, bur rather an extension of the girl's body. Fierce joy surged within her, ricocheting through her limbs and gaining momentum until it became audible as a high-pitched whine in her brain. She realized she was smiling only after she felt pain at the edges of her mouth.

There was a stove downstairs which she'd prepped – kitchen towels to be set alight and a sack of flour ready to burst into the air. The explosion would be a fine thing to see at the end. But before that…

She exited the bathroom as the persistent crackling began to grown into a roar and entered the room whose walls were decorated with fanciful images; a basinet surrounded by frolicking sheep, vividly colored balloons and swooping birds. The tiny figure within was snug and sleeping, not a care on her little features.

"I'm sorry it has to be this way," the girl said softly, withdrawing her box of matches and striking one down its side, "but I don't know how else to save you."

Those who say the past is not dead

Stop and smell the smoke

- Ben Folds Five, Smoke