Answering his buzzer the man calling himself Remington Steele was surprised by the sight of a wizened old crone standing in his doorway. She was dressed all in black, a spider web-festooned cape draped over a shapeless black frock. A large, hairy mole marked her left check, and a tall, pointed hat perched atop a tangle of scraggly, gray hair. "Heh, heh, heh! Trick or treat!" the creature cackled.
"Why, Laura, you've never looked more … bewitching," Steele deadpanned.
"Aw, where is your costume?" Laura said, looking him up and down as she stepped into his apartment.
"Sorry, I rarely dress for dinner at home," he replied, taking her cloak and laying it across the back of the couch.
"But it's Halloween!" Laura persisted. "I thought you of all people would love the chance to put on a disguise."
"Ah, but as you well know, I'm already in costume," he noted. "This year I'm disguised as the great detective, Remington Steele." He did a little pirouette. "Ta-da!"
She frowned, and he realized his attempt at humor had fallen flat. Laura didn't like being reminded that the smooth detective standing before her was as much a work of fiction as her own get-up … and, increasingly, he felt inclined to overlook that fact as well.
"Spoil sport." She plopped down on the couch and folded her arms petulantly.
"Sorry to disappoint you," he replied, handing her a glass of red wine. He took a sip from his own and studied her appraisingly. "Not bad," he conceded, "But if you were going with a witch theme, I'd rather it were Elizabeth Montgomery than Agnes Moorhead."
"I thought you didn't watch TV," she smirked.
"I don't. Sadly, the late movie I usually watch in bed was pre-empted by a 'Bewitched' marathon last night." He sat down next to her. "I have to say, that Derwood was a bit of a ninny."
"Darren," she corrected him, then sighed dramatically. "I suppose I might as well get out of this thing," she said, handing her glass to him as she stood. "It's no fun to play dress-up alone." Steele's eyes widened and he nearly dropped both glasses as she grabbed the zipper tab at the top of her gown and pulled it smoothly downward. The dress dropped in a puddle around her ankles, revealing … a short, black pencil skirt and silky black blouse. She peeled off the rubber mole and tugged the wig and hat off together, shaking out her lustrous chestnut hair to tumble around her shoulders.
"Elizabeth!" Steele beamed, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
"I gather you prefer this," she said, sitting down close against him.
"Very much." He set both glasses on the coffee table and turned to slip his arms around her slim torso. "Admittedly, she's a truly fine actress, but I just don't think I could bring myself to kiss Agnes Moorhead." He stopped her laughter with a kiss.
An hour later, after an exquisite meal of Chateaubriand Bouquetiere with Marchand de Vin sauce – topped off with a decadent chocolate coeurs a la crème – Steele and Laura lay full and drowsy in front of the fireplace.
"I used to love Halloween as a kid," Laura murmured. "It made me feel free and a little wild, running around in the dark, scaring myself to death imagining every tree branch was a ghoul. And of course there was the haul of candy. There was only one downside: Every year mother would dress me up as the same thing."
"And that was …?"
"A princess," Laura snorted. "I begged to be anything else. A superhero, a ghost, even –" she nodded toward her pointed hat, laying on the floor near them – "a witch. But my mother was determined to make me into the image of what she wished I were – a sweet, docile little lady like Frances."
"Hm. At the risk of incurring your eternal resentment, I suspect you made an adorable princess."
Laura reached over and grabbed the witch's hat, then thumped him on the head with it. "I'd think a man as experienced as you are with women would know better than to side with her mother."
He chuckled and grabbed for the hat. They tussled a bit, winding up with Laura on top of Steele, holding him down. "I also wanted to be a lady wrestler," she whispered against his lips before kissing him deeply.
A moment later they rolled apart, panting a bit. "Well, that's certainly a better treat than a popcorn ball or handful of candy corn," Laura grinned.
"You think my treats are good … you should try my tricks some time."
Laura rolled her eyes and propped herself on her elbow, facing him. "What about you? Did you celebrate Halloween as a kid?" She regretted her words when she saw his face darken; she sometimes forgot that his childhood was a grim history of abandonment and deprivation.
"I've never cared much for Halloween, to be honest," he said quietly. "The Irish are a superstitious people, you know. We understand that the veil between the living and the dead is a thin one, and never more so than on the eve of all souls."
"The night when ghosts and ghouls walk the earth?" Laura tried to hide her smile. "Surely you don't really believe that?"
"I only believe what I've seen with my own eyes, Laura," he said. He wasn't smiling.
"You're telling me you've had a personal encounter with the supernatural?"
Steele turned his face to gaze into the flames. "I was just a lad, maybe nine or ten. Living with a family I was told were some distant cousins. Of the Kavanagh clan, in County Wicklow. They lived in a village called Brockagh, at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains." He paused. "It was the worst five months of my life."
"They weren't good to you?" As curious as Laura was about Steele's past, she wasn't sure she could bear to hear the painful details of his earliest years.
"To be fair, life wasn't a bed of roses for anyone in that house. Six undernourished kids, a mother worn out with overwork and worry … and a so-called father, one Ciarán Kavanagh, who only worked one day out of every 20 and spent what few coins he earned in the pub." He gave Laura a thin, humorless smile. "I was just one more unwanted mouth to feed … and one more convenient target for the old man's drunken rages."
"He beat you?"
"Only when he was sober enough to stand up."
Laura laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry."
"One night – All Hallow's Eve – I got caught by Mrs. Kavanagh sneaking a boiled potato out of the pot on the stove. I knew it was wrong, but I hadn't eaten that day and I thought I could get away with it – not my first incident of petty larceny, I'm sorry to say, but perhaps my most desperate. Anyway, I got caught red-handed, and when the man of the house came home, roaring drunk and meaner than sin, she told him what I'd done."
Laura's eyes widened. "But she had to have known what he'd do to you!"
"Better some underfoot orphan than one of her own. I can't blame her."
"It was a long time ago, Laura. And I have a feeling she's paid for whatever her sins may have been. That night old man Kavanagh came at me, his leather belt in one hand and a carving knife in the other."
"My God! What did you do?"
"Grabbed the first thing I could lay my hands on – an iron kettle – chucked it at him and ran like hell. I got out of the house and lit for the fens outside of town, toward the mountains. He took out after me, of course, but I outran him and hid in some brush by the river. I knew he'd raise the whole town to look for me, so after I was sure he wasn't close, I started running again – toward Lough Nahunagan, a few miles away. It was pitch black, foggy, and the bog was pitted with muddy holes."
Laura felt her stomach twisting in knots. "You must have been terrified."
"More terrified of what was behind me than anything I might encounter out there," he admitted. "I ran until I was exhausted. Then I crawled into a kind of gully – we used to call them fairy forts – and fell asleep. Some time later I was awakened by … something. I don't know what. I could tell it was late. Still foggy, but I could see a faint glow above the trees where the moon must have been. It was so quiet. Nothing moved. Not even a wisp of a breeze. And then I heard it." His voice had become very soft. Laura felt a chill roll over her as she strained to hear him.
"It was low at first. Indistinct and far away … a kind of … keening. Gradually it got louder and seemed to come from all around me. It didn't sound human, but it wasn't like any animal I'd ever heard, either. I didn't know what to do. In fact, I don't think I was even coherent enough to wonder what I should do; I was so scared I couldn't move, couldn't even breathe. Then I saw it."
"What? What did you see?" Laura gasped, realizing that she had forgotten to breathe herself.
"It was … it looked like a woman. She was wearing a long, white flowing gown that seemed to be fluttering – though there wasn't a breath of wind. Her hair was long, and as white as the rest of her. I couldn't see her face; she seemed to be looking at the ground as she walked – or rather floated – among the trees. There was a kind of soft, silvery glow all around her. I realized that the sound was coming from this … creature.
"She was coming through the trees toward me, and the weird keening sound was rising and falling. It would start out like a moan, rise into a shriek, then drop off almost to silence, only to begin again. I watched her coming closer and closer. When she was almost in front of me, near enough to reach out and touch, I heard another noise. This one was coming from me, a strangled scream that I couldn't suppress." Steele fell silent, but Laura could hear his breathing – fast and rasping, as if he were back there, in that dismal fen, experiencing it all again. She wanted to comfort him, to tell him he didn't need to remember any more … but she found her own throat closed with fear.
"She raised her head and looked right at me," Steele whispered. "And I knew immediately what it was."
Laura found her voice again. "A ghost?"
Steele shook his head. "In Gaelic, she is the bean sí or bean chaointe – you might know her as the banshee. An ancient spirit, human in form, but fairyfolk in substance. Since before the first Gaels came to Eire, she has wandered the fens and boglands, wailing her ceaseless lament. Over time she attached herself to certain clans: the O'Gradys, O'Briains, O'Neills and Clan Caomhánach … now called Kavanagh.
"The family you were staying with."
"Yes. Everyone in Ireland knows that the appearance of the bean sí heralds certain death. And when the creature looked at me, with eyes as black and hollow as the mouth of St. Kevin's Cave in Glendalough, I knew I would never leave the fen alive."
Suddenly cold, Laura scooched closer to Steele so that they were nearly touching. She felt his warm breath on her shoulder as he continued.
"She stared at me for what seemed like an hour … it can't have been more than a few seconds. Then her mouth opened – so wide it seemed to consume her entire face. Like her eyes, it was a black chasm that I expected would swallow me up. Instead, it emitted an unearthly howl, like the screeching of a thousand birds of prey. And then she simply melted away like the mist."
"What did you do?"
"I was too terrified to move, so I stayed where I was, wet and cold in a boggy ditch. Eventually I dozed off or passed out … in any case, when I opened my eyes it was morning. I knew I couldn't survive on my own in the high country, so I decided to walk back to town to face my fate. When I got back to the little hut, I could hear a wailing almost as shrill as that of the creature I'd seen in the fen. It seems that Ciarán Kavanagh, in the midst of loading his shotgun to go after me, had dropped dead as a stone in front of his wife and children – as far as I can tell, at the same moment that the bean sí let loose with her ungodly scream."
"What happened to you? Did they blame you for his death?" Laura asked.
He shook his head. "Not openly, at least. I think they were all too numb from shock to think of anything but their own bleak future. I was shipped off to the Brothers in Dublin. A few months later two of the Kavanagh boys showed up there, too. The children had been scattered to the four winds, put out to relatives and charity schools all over Ireland. They had no idea what had become of their mother, or whether they'd ever see her or their siblings again."
"That's sad. But perhaps poetic justice, in a way, after how they treated you."
"I'd never wish that life on anyone, no matter what they'd done," Steele answered, adding, "I've always felt a little guilty about what happened."
"How could anything that happened be your fault?" Laura said, stunned that he could feel any burden of responsibility toward those hateful people.
"I've wondered … did the bean sí claim Ciaran Kavanagh that night to protect me from him?"
"If she did, I'd call her a good fairy."
Steele smiled. "This is your cue to tell me I was dreaming, or hallucinating or just making the whole thing up."
"I don't know what you saw … but I believe you saw it."
"Will wonders never cease? Sane, sensible Laura Holt accepts the possibility of a world beyond this one?" Steele teased her.
"Not ordinarily, in the cold, hard light of day," she replied. "But on a night like this ... and …" she dropped her eyes. "I have my own tale to tell."
"I've never told anyone this before," she admitted. "In fact, I've done my best to convince myself it never happened. But I know it did." She looked up to see Steele watching her, his eyes gentle and warm in the reflected glow of the fire.
"You don't have to tell me," he said.
"Actually, I think I do." She shivered and he put his arm around her shoulders. They lay silently for a moment, side by side. Finally she spoke.
"You know that my childhood wasn't exactly a – if you'll pardon the phrase – fairytale. Not like yours, of course. I had a home, all the creature comforts, a semblance of a family life. But my parents' marriage was always volatile. So many fights, interspersed by periods of stony silence. I can still hear the shouting, the sound of the door slamming those times when my father stormed out, and my mother weeping in her room. But when I was small, probably about the same age as you were when you were with the Kavanaghs, I had a place of refuge. My Grandma Holt lived just two doors down from us.
"She was a wonderful woman – so warm and caring in a way my own mother just didn't know how to be. Gram made me feel like I was the most important little girl in the world. She never told me I was too much a tomboy, or that I should be quiet and demure like Frances. She loved fun and having adventures – I'm sure that's where my father got his love of the circus and carnivals. I used to pretend to be Nancy Drew, solving mysteries, and she encouraged me. In fact, she was my very first client; she paid me a quarter for finding her 'lost' ring. Looking back now, I suspect she left it in rather clear sight just to give me the thrill of discovering it for her. She played the piano beautifully and loved classical music. In fact, she gave me my first piano lesson."
Tears welled in Laura's eyes, sparkling in the firelight. "I loved my grandma more than anything in the world."
"I'm glad you had someone like that in your life," Steele said gently.
"I came home from school one day when I was 12 and found the house full of family: Dad was home from work, and Uncle Felix and Aunt Ruth were there. Everyone was wiping their eyes and talking in low voices. I asked what was going on, but they didn't seem to hear me. Finally my mother took me out in the kitchen and told me my grandma had died. Passed away in her sleep of a heart condition I didn't know she had. I started to cry - I was almost hysterical, and my mother had to slap me to calm me down. She told me to be quiet and not upset people, that I was too old to make such a scene. I didn't shed another tear after that. Just sort of … shut down, I guess. I barely remember the funeral. And after that, it was like Gram never existed. Her name was never mentioned. The only reminder of her was the piano I inherited. I thought of her every time I sat down to the keyboard. Soon after the funeral, the family sold her house and life went on."
Steele reached over to wipe a glistening tear from Laura's cheek. "That must have been hard."
She nodded. "Things got worse between my parents after that. More shouting, more slams, more muffled sobs behind closed doors. But there was no grandma to escape to. Instead, I'd go into the living room and pound away on the piano, practicing the concertos and rondos she loved. If I played loud enough, I could drown out the sound of their fighting.
"I grew closer to Dad, my nearest connection to Gram. When he'd take me to the fun fair or circus, I could almost imagine her with us, enjoying the carnival acts and rides. And then, just like with grandma, I came home one afternoon and he was gone, too."
Laura paused and took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice quavered. "When Dad left, things really fell apart. As unhappy as they'd been together, my mother couldn't cope without him. She withdrew into herself, sometimes didn't get out of bed for days. Frances was away at college, engaged to Donald, finding reasons not to come home – and who could blame her? It got so bad that I wanted to die. And one night, I decided I would."
"Laura. You don't mean-"
She couldn't meet his gaze. "Hard to believe, isn't it? Tough-as-nails Laura Holt couldn't face life any more, so she decided to check out."
"There wasn't anyone who could see the kind of pain you were in? Friends? Teachers? School counselors? Surely someone knew, could have helped." Steele's voice held a tinge of anger.
"In the proper middle class world I grew up in, such things weren't discussed. You minded your own business and, when something happened to a classmate or the neighbor's kid, you shook your head and said, 'It could never happen in our family.'"
"I wish I had been there." His voice was strained and his arm tightened around her, pulling her closer against him. She felt his hand stroke her hair, his light kiss on the top of her head. She looked up at him, into blue eyes that were more tormented by her old sorrows than his own.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm still here, you know."
She nestled closer to him. "Thank Gram, actually."
"Mmm hmm. I had everything planned. You know how meticulous I am. A glass of water beside the bed. Full bottle of mother's tranquilizers. I waited until late, when I knew Mother was asleep. Then I locked my bedroom door, turned off the light, got into bed, opened the bottle and poured a handful of pills into my palm. I was just about to swallow them when …" she trailed off.
"She came to you," Steele finished for her.
"Yes. She was standing there, plain as day, at the end of my bed. Even though it was dark in the room, I could see her absolutely clearly. She looked just like she did when I used to sit beside her on the piano bench, watching her play the same songs that comforted me after she died. She was smiling at me, and I thought she had come to take me with her to heaven. But then she shook her head. And I heard her voice, not in my head, but there in the room. She said, 'Not yet, Laura. You have so much to do yet, such a wonderful life ahead of you.' I started to cry, the first tears I'd shed since she'd died. I told her, 'I don't want to stay here, Gram. I want to be with you.' And then she told me, 'You must believe that I am always with you, Laura. When you are sad or frightened, you only need to close your eyes and know that I am there, even though you can't see me.'
"And then, just like your banshee, she disappeared. My heart was broken. I cried all night … but I didn't take those pills. The next day, I sat down at the piano to play her favorite piece, Chopin's 'Prelude in E Minor.' But one of the keys, the A, was stuck. I tried to loosen it up by tapping on it, and when that didn't work I finally opened the piano case. There, wedged under the A key, was my grandma's garnet ring – the one I'd found for her when I was six years old. I was sure she'd been buried with it, and it certainly wasn't there before, because the piano worked perfectly before that day. I believe my Gram gave me that ring to remind me that she was always watching over me. I kept it in my jewelry box, and it was one of the only things that survived my house fire. I don't think that was an accident, either."
"I think I would have liked your grandmother," Steele said.
"I'm sure she likes you. Very much."
Steele cast his eyes around the room. "Grandmother Holt, I just want to assure you that my intentions toward your granddaughter are strictly honorable."
"Don't lie to my grandma!"
He grinned at her. "Shhh. Don't want to get on her bad side. I need all the help I can get when it comes to you."
She gave him a playful tap on the chest. "And I suppose I'd better treat you right, or you'll sic your banshee on me."
"I guess we're both lucky to have such powerful protectors in the Great Beyond," Steele mused. "Or maybe they only needed to take care of us until we found someone else we could rely on." He placed a hand gently under her chin and drew her into a tender kiss.
When their lips parted, Laura sighed. "It's getting late. I should be getting home."
"The thing is," she began sheepishly. "I'm feeling kind of … creeped out."
"I'm glad, because then I don't feel so foolish for being scared spitless," he grinned. "Please don't leave me alone in this apartment."
"Well, there's safety in numbers, I guess," she reasoned.
"And the fire is very cozy," he noted.
They smiled at each other, then Laura settled back into his arms and sighed contentedly. "So …" she said after a moment. "Got any more of that chocolate crème?"