With the exception of Mrs. Johnson, only ten-year-old David enjoyed spending time with the otherwise unwelcome houseguest. Roger's son had been labeled by teachers as difficult, destructive and misunderstood. Because of that, he was removed from school and privately tutored at home. The kid seemed perfectly normal to Willie, though, except maybe for the prissy wardrobe.
Mr. Loomis was the only one, besides the boy's governess, who paid any attention to him. His father, whom he often resented and sometimes hated, was rarely home. His absentee mother was a mysterious factor and never mentioned, much like Willie's father had been.
"Not surprised it didn't work out," Willie smirked. "Your mom prob'ly got burned in that marriage, kid."
On one uncharacteristically warm day, Willie and David threw a football on the front lawn, then played newly invented game with a volleyball on the tennis court. It was difficult to determine the winner because, according to the rules, the rules could change without warning.
David was pleased to have a companion who really played with him, listened to his opinions and talked to him like an adult.
Willie hung out with the boy, he said, because he had a half-brother back home whom he missed.
"That must be great, to have a brother." David hit the ball to him with his head. "Is he like me?"
"Yeah, looks just like you, too. Same age and everythin'." Willie returned the ball with his knee and elbow.
After exhausting the possibilities of that enterprise, the two invaded the equipment shed and procured two badminton rackets with which they chased each other around the court sword fighting as Captain Hook and Peter Pan—until one of the rackets broke.
They discarded the apparatus and took off in search of new adventures. David wanted to take his friend to the old house on the other side of the woods. There were ghosts there who spoke and played with him, but Willie declined. They walked back across the terrace towards Collinwood.
"You couldn't pay me to go back there. It's not a safe place. Ya know, there's broken glass all over, and rats everywhere. You ever been bitten by a rat?" David shook his head. "Well, I have. On ships, they hide under your bunk, and when you put your feet on the floor in the mornin', gotcha! Right on the ankle!"
"What did you do?"
"Well," Willie confided with an air of experience and wisdom, "the best thing was to have tall rubber boots. Keep 'em next to your bunk, and slip right into 'em when you get up, but—and this is important—always shake yer socks out first; gotta check for spiders. They got monster spiders in Africa that can suck yer blood and kill you. If the pirates or the scorpions don't getcha, the spiders will."
David was suitably impressed but said he would miss his spectral companions if he never returned to the haunted house.
"You got enough scary stuff at home," Willie said as he and the youngster entered the foyer. "Like this guy." He pointed to the centuries-old portrait on display. "This here's my buddy. Talks to me all the time—or maybe just when I'm drunk; I'm not sure."
"That's Barnabas Collins; he's my cousin 10 times removed, something like that."
"Well, I call him Barney Baby." David laughed heartily. "Check out the shiny trim."
"That's family heirloom jewelry. There's a lot of pictures like this in a history book upstairs. Do you want to see it?"
"Yeah, sure, kid." Willie looked at the painting once more before retreating to the upstairs library. The portrait looked back. It approved.
The helpful houseguest retrieved a large, leather-bound tome from the top shelf and together the young men paged though photographs of portraits of each of David's ancestors for the last three centuries. Willie was more curious about their ornamentation, which were prominent in the paintings—were they rubies or emeralds, fire opals, diamonds or pearls?
David pointed to the picture of a sad-faced woman in Colonial dress. "This is Naomi Harthorne Collins; she was the mother of the man in the painting downstairs." Willie pointed to her choker. "Oh, that's a star sapphire; it was made in Burma and stolen by pirates off a ship in Martinique. They gave the necklace to Naomi—when she was younger. I think one of the pirates was in love with her, but she had to marry Joshua Collins because he was a rich shipbuilder."
"Are you makin' this shit up?" Willie grabbed a magnifying glass from the desk to get a closer look.
"You have to know all these things when you're a Collins," the child replied matter-of-factly. "They're a record of our history. Don't you have any history?"
"Yeah, I got plenty of history, and I got a record, too." Willie returned to the book. "Where're all those jewels now? Some safe deposit box, prob'ly."
"I don't think so. Aunt Elizabeth has a lot of nice things, and someday she'll give them to Carolyn. But all the old stuff was buried with the people who owned it."
Willie looked up. That was the stupidest thing he ever heard. "What for? You can't take it with you."
"It's tradition. You can't take someone else's jewelry after they're dead, or it'll be cursed."
"Buryin' jewels in the ground—you people have way too much money. I wouldn't mind bein' cursed like that."
Miss Winters appeared in the doorway. "David! I have been looking for you all afternoon. I said you could take a rest break for one hour."
"Willie and I were doing physical activities, so now I won't need to take my afternoon walk," the boy cheerfully replied. "And we made up a game."
The governess looked disapprovingly at the disreputable fellow. She closed the family history with a thud and replaced it on the shelf, addressing Willie Loomis. "I don't know what you're doing in here, but it is highly inappropriate for you to spend time alone with a boy half your age. Also, I don't appreciate your influencing David to be disobedient. I'm responsible for him."
Willie rose from his chair and snapped back, "Then you shouldn't let him go wanderin' around outside by himself, where he could get in trouble. He's just a little kid." He left the room, slamming the door behind him.
The young man headed back downstairs, figuring David would now be added to the list of people he wasn't allowed to talk to. Jason was nowhere to be found and someone had locked the liquor cabinet—how unfriendly. He borrowed two dollars (on an unlikely pretext) from Mrs. Johnson and headed out to his truck, waving at his buddy's portrait as he passed. "See you later, Barney."
Willie found his pal at the Blue Whale tavern and, for once, the hoodlum's behavior was not the topic of conversation. Princess Carolyn was there, drunk off her gourd in the afternoon, with a fellow sporting a green Mohawk and multiple body piercings. Gossip of Willie's previous misdeeds paled in comparison to Carolyn falling down on the dance floor, laughing hysterically.
"The young lady does not approve of my relationship with her mother. I'm afraid she's actin' out," Jason explained.
"Well, shit," his associate replied. "She coulda done that by datin' me. What the fuck."
"I'm afraid, matey, she considers you to be a member of the enemy camp."
Willie considered the logic of his statement and changed the subject. "Jason, when're we gonna hit this score and cut out?"
His partner was quiet for a long time, weighing carefully what he had to say, then ordered another round of doubles straight up.
"Willie," he began deliberately. "I'm not a young man anymore—"
"You're old as dirt."
"Shut up, I'm tryin' to talk to you. I've been thinkin' now, for a while, that, well, it's time I settled down."
"Whatcha mean, stay here? But you said this town was no good to do business.
"I'm talkin' about retirin'. Cash in me chips and settle down with a lovin' wife."
Willie looked over to check what Jason was drinking, shot a suspicious glance at his companion, then burst into laughter. "Whadda you, crazy? You mean—Mrs. Stoddard? She'll never marry you."
"Yes, she will, because she has no choice—and neither do I; it's the only way for me to get at that money." He paused to light a cigarette. "But, there is one condition. There is a general consensus, led by Roger for some reason, that you need to ship out."
There was an awkward silence. After all this time, Jason was dumping him. I'd like to meet the feller who could break up this team, the Irishman had once said. But, in the end, it wasn't a guy or even a woman, it was for a payload. It would have feasible for the old lady to cough up a nice chunk of change to be rid of her crooked companion, but Jason was too greedy to settle for that. He saw a chance to grab it all, and it was everyman for himself. So long, Loomis. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.
Willie piped up with a sudden, cheery, "Can I have another drink?"
"You haven't finished that one."
The young man threw back his beverage in one gulp. "Yeah, I have."
"Alright then." Jason ordered yet another round, although he wasn't sure if getting the kid sloshed would make what he had to say easier or more difficult. "You know, mate, we've been together a long time, what's it been, almost ten years? Mother of God, I never could remember how old you were. I've never had a partner for so long and never met such a clever lad; they don't come any—" He patted the man's shoulder affectionately.
"Christ, Jason, cut out the bullshit." Willie pushed his hand away. "Stop talkin' to me like I'm some patsy. It's not that big of a deal. Look, I'm glad you said somethin', 'cause, well, I didn't wanna hurt your feelin's, but I got things I wanna do too, and I've hung around this dump about as long as I can."
Willie worked on another double shot as he watched Carolyn throw herself at crazy Mohawk guy, pulling him around the dance floor by the chains on his leather jacket.
"At least I'm not sendin' you away empty handed," Jason said, grinning. "Liz has $500 to help you get on your way; it's back at the house."
Willie ignored the older man. "I think I'll go back to work. Only this time I'll be the boss, and—maybe David will be my junior partner. D'ya think he'd like my old job?"
"Shut yer mouth. That's disgustin'."
They sat silently for a moment.
"You're right; that was disgustin'," he muttered with slurred syllables. "No decent person would ask a kid to do somethin' like that."
"Never mind, then," Jason attempted to discretely maneuver his companion's glass away, but Willie politely reached across the table and slid it back, wagging his finger in reproach. "So—what are these big plans of yours?"
"I dunno," Willie returned with a cagey smile. "A couple a' things. If they don't work out, there's a girl waitin' for me in upstate New York, name's Lydia." Jason looked at him skeptically as his associate swilled his rum. "I don't tell you everythin'."
Willie knocked over his chair when he stood and raised his glass. "To good times and hard times." He downed the drink like a pro. "Well, gotta pack my gear. See you back at the house—You got cash, right? Well, good…" He swayed slightly. "Good."
"Wait, are you okay to drive?"
The inebriate slapped him on the back, laughing. "You know me; I ain't cracked up yet." And he was gone.
In the doorway, he ran into Burke Devlin who was about to enter. Willie shoved him hard with both hands. "Outta my way, big man!" Devlin was caught off guard and stumbled backwards into the street.
He recovered and grabbed the drunken delinquent by his lapel. "I thought I told you to watch yourself."
Willie gave him a hard punch to the gut, forcing Burke to release him. The little punk advanced on him again, but his punches were uncoordinated and sloppy. Devlin sidestepped one swing that caused the kid to lose his balance. He staggered to one side, sizing up his opponent and guessed that Big Man had a good six inches on him and however many pounds, so he was going to need help. As he fumbled for his trusty switchblade, Burke slammed his fist into Willie's cheekbone. He reeled back, struck a parked car and rolled off, landing in the gutter.
After looking up and down the street for witnesses, Devlin took three long strides to his adversary, who was attempting to stand up, and kicked him in the flank, sending Willie face down in sodden leaves.
"I don't want to see you here again," Burke said in a threatening low tone. "You're leaving town, as of now." He turned and entered the tavern. A brief flash of warm light, music and laughter spilled onto the sidewalk as the door opened and closed.
Willie pulled himself up by the car fender and clutched his stomach, ready to hurl, but nothing came. He picked up his knife and keys from the ground and staggered to his car.
Five hundred dollars.
The white pickup weaved up the street, taking out a mailbox with painted seagulls and a bed of fall flowers. It sounded like a lot of money at first, but, spread out over ten years, and it was nothing really. It was shit.
Somehow Willie made it back to Collinwood without further damage to himself or others. The family was at dinner; he pictured them all gathered around the feast like a picture from Norman fucking Rockwell as he slumped on the foyer stairs, listening to snips of conversation, clinks and clatters from the dining room. Smelled like pork roast, and the young man hadn't eaten all day, but there would be no more home-cooked meals for Ole Willie; all that sucking up to the housekeeper was for nothing. At least they hadn't pitched his bag out the front door with a note pinned to it.
Finally, Willie got to his feet and tapped the portrait frame before turning to head upstairs to pack. "So long, Barney."
Stay. I want you to stay.
The picture was talking inside Willie's head. It had a calm, soothing tone.
The young man paused, mesmerized by the figure whose eyes seem to glow with recognition. He could hear blood pounding in his ears, or was that a heartbeat?
Wow, I am really fucked up.
I see you. I hear you.
"Yeah, I hear you too. Whadda you want?"
What do you want, Willie? More than that trivial compensation for severance. You deserve much more.
Willie smiled to himself. That sounded like a sucker line, but how could he get conned by a figment of his imagination? And he was uncertain how his hallucination knew words he didn't understand. It didn't matter. Jewel Guy was the friendliest family member in the place.
"Okay, Barney, I want that big black ring you're wearing."
Come to me and I will give it to you.
"Yeah? What do I haveta do?"
Go to the graveyard on Eagle Hill. In the mausoleum—behind the tomb of Naomi Collins.
Naomi—shit, the star sapphire. "Is that where all the jewels are buried?"
There are rewards beyond your imagination.
That would be a joke on Jason. This lackey could score his own fortune, and without the time and effort his partner had invested. "Okay, but first I haveta—"
They will wait. Come now.
"But—" Willie hesitated. "I dunno. Jason said—"
You are afraid.
"I am not. It's just…"
I want to help you, Willie, but first you must trust me. Bring tools and a candle.
Less than an hour later, guided by the incorporeal instructions in his head, Willie was in a secret room in the cemetery crypt. He stood before a solitary coffin bound in rusty old chains. Poised in his left hand was a chisel and in his right, a mallet. The candle sticks remained in his knapsack, but his old flashlight served the purpose. The voice directed him to continue.
Willie suddenly had a flashback to a time 13 or 14 years ago. He stood in the bedroom of his friend Denny's parents, about to dip his hand into Mrs. Malone's jewelry box.
Sometimes your whole life can change in one night, based on one bad decision. If only you could go back later and tell yourself: Stop—think. That's not what you want to happen.
Raise the lid, please.