Cynthia Lott is a writer and researcher who loves hearing life stories over a glass of good wine. Her debut novel, The Feathers, is a thriller suffused with the supernatural and set in New Orleans. It is published by Piscataqua Press, a project of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and is available in both trade paper and ebook formats. When she isn’t writing, Cynthia loves to read, hike, and explore new places. Learn more on her website.
Excerpted from The Feathers
© Cynthia Lott 2014
From Chapter Three, “Claire A. Watkins”
Walking to the top landing and following the sound of laughter below, she thought they were a strange sight: Karen, Stephen, Carmen, and a stranger looking up at her from the bottom of the staircase. Their merriment interrupted her Chopin, but she welcomed it as an excuse to stretch her body and move away from the piano bench. Practicing for hours, her hands had become stiff from repetitious playing. She only surfaced earlier in the evening when Carmen made Shrimp Creole for dinner, something she could never pass up. The woman was an exceptional cook, making her mother’s attempts in the kitchen pale by comparison.
“Oh, Claire,” Carmen called up to her. “There’s someone here who would like to meet you. His name is Thomas Carpenter, and he’s a friend of your parents. He came from their party and said they were having a lovely time.”
Carmen smiled at him and offered a glass of Bordeaux as they waited for Claire to join them. Claire stood motionless at the top of the staircase, hesitant. As the four of them returned to their chatter about Karen’s senior classes at the Louise S. McGhee School for Girls, Stephen’s new Star Wars toy figures, and the sudden foggy weather overtaking the night, she descended the stairs. She stopped eye level with Thomas Carpenter and regarded him with veiled suspicion. Her family was always a gregarious bunch, but she had never seen them taken with someone as they were with this stranger.
What’s come over them?
But, as she stepped into his presence, every vestige of caution vanished. It seemed as if he were an old family friend who had simply dropped by to catch up.
“Hi.” She tucked her long brown hair behind her ears. “I’ve never seen a mask like that before.” With encrusted jewels around the eyes in various colors and feathers framing the face, the mask was mesmerizing. She focused on the gold beak, poised over his full, sensuous lips. After returning her gaze for a moment, he tilted his head quizzically to the right and spoke in a voice that was best described as lyrical.
“It’s been in my family for years. My grandfather brought it from Venice when he immigrated. Do you like it?”
“Yes, it suits you.” She could not imagine him without his mask. It was as if he had been born wearing it, and she felt no inclination to ask for its removal.
“Good. I’m glad you like it. I’ve heard a lot about you from your parents. They suggested I stop by and play a piece with you, which I do hope isn’t too much of an inconvenience. I have my violin here with me and would be honored if you let me play with you.” He tapped the wooden case. “If it’s too much trouble, I can come back at a better time or…”
“Have I met you before?” She proceeded to move closer, his seductive voice lulling her further down the staircase.
“No. You and I have never met. I only met your parents this evening…a wonderful couple. I’ve read about you in the paper. You’re an impressive performer, so when your parents suggested I come around to join you in a piece, well, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, could I? It’s always nice to meet someone who has determination and skill.”
Although she was depicted as the socialite piano prodigy, Claire found her name splattered all over the news overwhelming and intrusive. She just wanted to be a normal fifteen year old: going to the drive-in, dating, and sneaking into dance clubs on Saturday nights like Karen. Her father never allowed her these normal adolescent indulgences, and now he planned a newsworthy gala for her coming out party.
What a bore.
“I’ve always loved playing. I’m sure you’ve seen me on television, too. My father makes sure that I’m covered by every local station. It’s annoying.” She laughed, embarrassed by her father’s pride.
“Oh, yes. Television. Of course.” He smiled, sharing in her brief laughter.
Looking at Carpenter’s lips and his white teeth, she smiled back at him. It came naturally to her, reflexive, involuntary. His dark brown eyes were hypnotic, and she found her gaze going from his eyes to his lips and back again. She sipped a small glass of grape juice given to her by Carmen and listened to Karen and Stephen’s idle chatter in the background.
“I’ve always liked playing, too, Claire.” He tapped his violin case. “Shall we?”
“Sure. Follow me. I’ll take you to my practice room. I’m performing next week at the Rex Ball, so I was looking over some of my pieces. My parents must’ve liked you enough to invite you over. Be careful. They’ll start sending you invitations to everything.” She laughed and felt dizzy, off kilter as if his voice had put her in a trance. She grabbed the banister, steadying herself. And then it was gone…the vertigo, the moment of confusion. He followed her up the stairs as Karen and Stephen returned to their Scrabble game. Karen was joyfully triumphant, as she spelled out the word “zephyr” before Carpenter’s arrival. Carmen watched them walk up the staircase.
“Claire, dear, do turn in early. I’m sure you’re tired, and Mr. Carpenter will want to go home at a decent hour as he’s had a long evening,” she said with such a natural ease that it was a little shocking to Claire how any feeling of doubt or question in Carmen’s voice evaporated as quickly as it had arrived.
“Of course, Carmen,” she called down. “We’ll only practice for a short while.”
Claire’s sheet music spilled over the surface of a small antique table, accurately portraying how she usually practiced. Her music room was the one place she could be messy, usurp her father’s control. With a slight feeling of embarrassment, she hastily piled her papers into a stack and motioned for Carpenter to place his violin case on the tabletop.
“Sorry for the mess.” She watched him run his hand around the sides of the table, tracing his fingers over the flower engravings that graced its top.
Grasping the ornate handle, he gently opened and closed the drawer. “Claire. This table. Where did you get it?”
“We’ve had it in our family for generations. It’s an heirloom.” She sat down at her piano. “Do you like it?”
“Yes. Very much.” Reluctantly, he lifted his hand off the table. “It’s a fine piece of work.” He raised his head, observing the mist as it gathered outside in the courtyard below.
“How about Beethoven? Can you play with your mask on?” Her voice gave off an air of flirtation.
“I can do everything with this mask on.” He walked over to her, smiling.
“You are pretty.” He stroked her hair, caressed her neck, and moved his way towards her nose, which he pinched gently. They both laughed, and he turned her around to face the piano. She liked his laugh. It was friendly, warm, and genuine.
“Go ahead and start without me. I want to hear you play first, then I will join in.”
She began to play Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 5.
Typically within a few moments of playing, she would forget about the presence of others. She was good at tuning out distractions and, at concerts, she wouldn’t even know you were there. But not this time. This time when she played, she fantasized about having Carpenter’s arms around her. Closing her eyes, she anxiously awaited the arrival of his instrument. She had a longing to share this piece with his violin, listen to how they would meld together in a glorious, seamless performance.
She continued playing, feeling his presence behind her as he caressed the top of her head, sending shivers down her back and legs. She skipped a few bars in the piece. Sweat broke out across her forehead, blood rushed to her face as he ran his finger down her spine. And she wanted this…the tip of his finger along each vertebrae.
What she felt next was something wrapped tightly around her throat, painful, suffocating. His hands pulled her backwards off of the piano stool. Her eyes snapped open in shock, fingers grasped at the keys as she struggled to keep herself upright. Her back hit the carpet, the throbbing thud and pain adding to her breathlessness. She tried to fight him off, her arms flailing, but he dragged her easily across the carpet and over to a settee under the window.
“I’m so sorry, Claire. I truly am.” He was unremitting as he squeezed a red ribbon tighter around her throat and turned to watch her plead with him in disbelief.
Claire grabbed frantically at his hands, hitting him on the arms. She smelled the heavy aromas of rosemary and lavender emanating from the beak of his mask.
How could I have trusted this man? No one downstairs is going to hear me…no one is going to help me!
Struggling for that last moment of her life, she ripped the mask from Carpenter’s face. In that final second, she knew that he had been truthful about one thing: she had never seen this man before in her life.