Usher's Passing Chapter 1



"Tell me a story," the little boy asked his father. "Something scary, okay?"

"Something scary," the man repeated, and mused for a moment. Outside the boy's window, the darkness was complete except for the moon's grinning orb. The boy could see it over his father's shoulder - and to him it looked like a rotting Jack-o'-lantern in a black Halloween field where no one dares to walk.

His father leaned closer toward the bed. "Okay," he said, and the low light gleamed in his glasses. "I'll tell you a story about a dying king in his castle, and the king's children, and all the kings that came before them. It may go off in different directions and try to trick you. It may not end like you want it to .. . but that's the way this story is. And the scariest thing about it - the most scariest thing - is that it might be true . . . or it might not be. Ready?"

And the boy smiled, unaware.

- The Night Is Not Ours by Jonathan Strange, Stratford House, 1978


AS RIX WALKED OFF THE DELTA JET AND INTO THE AIRPORT TERMINAL seven miles south of Asheville, he saw Edwin Bodane's head above the group of people who'd come to meet other passengers. Edwin stood six feet four, aristocratically thin, and was definitely hard to miss. He grinned like an excited child and rushed over to embrace Rix - who didn't fail to catch the almost imperceptible wince on Edwin's face when he saw how much Rix had aged in the past year.

"Master Rix, Master Rix!" Edwin said. His accent was old-blood Southern and as dignified as polished silver. "You look - "

"Like hell on a Popsicle stick. But you look great, Edwin. How's Cass?"

"She's as fine as ever. Getting feistier with the years, I'm afraid." He tried to take the garment bag that Rix was carrying, but Rix waved him off. "Did you bring any more luggage?"

"Just a suitcase. I don't plan on staying very long."

They stopped at the baggage check for the suitcase, then walked out into the cool breeze and sunlight of a beautiful October afternoon. At the curb was a new limo, a maroon Lincoln Continental with tinted windows and a sunroof. The Usher passions included mechanical as well as thoroughbred horsepower. Rix stored his luggage in the cavernous trunk and sat on the front seat, seeing no need to ride separated from Edwin by a plate of Plexiglas. Edwin put on a pair of wire-rimmed sunglasses and then they were off, driving away from the airport and toward the dramatic line of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Edwin had always reminded Rix of a character in a favorite tale - Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving's Headless Horseman story. No matter how precise the cut of his gray blazer, Edwin's wrists always jutted from the coatsleeves. He had a beak of a nose that Boone said a hat could be hung from. His softly seamed face was square-jawed and held luminous, kindly blue-gray eyes. Under the black chauffeur's cap that he wore was a lofty forehead topped by a fragile crown of white hair. His large ears - true masterpieces of sculptured flesh - again invited comparisons to Irving's poor schoolmaster. In his eyes was the dreamy expression of a boy who still longed to join the circus, though Edwin Bodane was in his late sixties. He'd been born into service to the Usher family, continuing the long tradition of the Bodanes who'd acted as confidants to the Usher patriarchs. Wearing his gray blazer with gleaming silver buttons and the Usher emblem of a silver lion's head on the jacket pocket, his dark trousers carefully pressed, his black bow tie in place and his oxfords spit-shined, Edwin looked every inch the chief of staff of Usherland.

Behind that comical, unassuming face, Rix knew, was an intelligent mind that could organize anything from simple housekeeping duties to a banquet for two hundred people. Edwin and Cass had the responsibility of overseeing a small army of maids, laundry staff, groundskeepers, stable help, and cooks, though Cass preferred to do most of the cooking for the family herself. They were answerable only to Walen Usher.

"Master Rix, Master Rix!" Edwin repeated, relishing the sound of those words. "It's so good to have you home again!" He frowned slightly, and immediately tempered his enthusiasm. "Of course . . . I'm sorry you have to return under these circumstances."

"Atlanta's my home now." Rix realized he sounded too defensive. "This is a new limo, I see. Only three hundred miles on the odometer."

"Mr. Usher ordered it a month ago. He could get around then. Now he can't leave his bed. He has a private nurse, of course. A Mrs. Paula Reynolds, from Asheville."

The maroon limo glided through Asheville, passing tobacco warehouses, bank buildings, and shopping malls. Just beyond the city's northeastern boundary line stood a large gray concrete structure that resembled a bunker and covered almost twelve acres of prime commercial property. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The only windows were horizontal slits placed equidistantly from one another below the roof, like gunports in a fortress. The parking lot, full of cars, stretched another three acres. Set on the side of the building facing the highway were black metal letters that read USHER ARMAMENTS, and beneath that, in smaller letters. ESTABLISHED 1841. It was the ugliest building Rix had ever seen, and it looked more repellent every time he passed it.

Old Hudson would be proud, Rix thought. The gunpowder-and-bullets business begun by a Welshman in 1841 had culminated in four ammunition and weaponry plants that bore the Usher name: in Asheville, in Washington, D.C., in San Diego, and in Brussels, Belgium. "The business," as it was referred to in the family, had supplied gunpowder, firearms, dynamite, plastic explosives, and state-of-the-art weapons systems to the highest bidder for more than one hundred and fifty years. "The business" had built Usherland, had made the Usher name known and respected as creators of death. Rix wondered how many people had been killed by those weapons for every one of the thirty thousand acres in Usherland, how many had been blown to pieces for every dark stone in the Lodge.

When he'd left Usherland almost seven years before, Rix had told himself he'd never return. To him, Usherland was awash with the gore of slaughter; even as a child, he'd felt the brooding presence of death in those tangled forests, in the ornate Gatehouse and the insane Lodge. Though his heritage of blood sickened him, he found himself haunted over the years by his early memories of Usherland, almost as if something within him was unfulfilled and Usherland was calling him back, time and again, with whispered promises. He had returned several times, but only for a day or two. His mother and father remained as remote and impassive as always, his brother seemed locked in time as a strutting bully, and his sister did all she could to avoid dealing with reality.

They left the building behind and turned onto a wide, winding highway that climbed into the mountains. Spectacular scenery greeted Rix; the craggy hills and carpets of woodland blazed with deep scarlet, purple, and gold. Beneath the cloudless blue sky the land was a panorama of blood and fire.

"How's Mom taking this?" Rix asked.

"She's coping. Some days are better than others. But you know how she is, Rix. She's lived in a perfect world for so long that she can't accept what's happening."

"I thought he'd get better," Rix said quietly. "You know how strong he is, and how stubborn. Who's the doctor you mentioned over the phone?"

"Dr. John Francis. Mr. Usher had him flown down from Boston. He's a specialist in cell degeneration."

"Is . . . Dad in much pain?"

Edwin didn't answer, and Rix understood. The agony that Walen Usher would be enduring - the final stages of Usher's Malady - would make Rix's attack in New York seem like a mild headache.

Edwin turned off the main highway onto a narrow but well-kept country road. At an intersection ahead, a sign pointed in different directions to the communities of Rainbow, Taylorville, and Foxton. He drove east, toward Foxton. A town of some two thousand people, mostly farmers, Foxton and its surrounding tobacco fields had been owned by the Usher family for five generations.

The limo glided through Foxton's streets. The community was growing steadily, and Rix saw changes since he'd last come this way. The Broadleaf Cafe had moved to a new brick structure, there was a modern Carolinas Bank building, and colored pennants popped in the breeze over a used-car lot. The Empire Theater's marquee advertised a Halloween double bill of vintage Orlon Kronsteen horror flicks. Still, the old Foxton lingered: a couple of elderly farmers in straw hats sat on a bench in front of the hardware store enjoying the sunshine; a beat-up pickup truck rumbled past, loaded with bundles of tobacco leaves; a group of men standing idly by the Woolworth's store turned to watch the limo pass, and Rix could see the resentment in their eyes like low-burning coals. They quickly turned away. Rix knew that their voices would tighten as they talked about the Ushers; perhaps they would even whisper, fearful that anything said about old Walen would be heard across the dense forests and ridges of stone separating Foxton and Usherland.

Rix glanced toward a small, rough stone structure housing the Foxton Democrat, a weekly newspaper that served the "tri-city" area. He could see the reflection of the limo in the plate-glass window, and then he was aware that a woman with dark hair was standing behind the window, close enough that her face almost touched the glass. He imagined that for a second or two her eyes were fixed right on him, but he knew she couldn't see through the limo's tinted glass. Still, he looked away uneasily.

Outside Foxton, the forest rapidly thickened again, looming close to the road like impenetrable walls. The beauty of the mountains became savage, as jagged rock thrust up from the earth like the gray bones of grotesque, half-buried monsters. An occasional rutted dirt trail wound up into the forest from the main road, leading into remote territory where hundreds of hillbilly families clung tenaciously to the values of the nineteenth century. Their stronghold, Briartop Mountain, stood on the northern edge of Usherland, and Rix had often wondered what those people - who had occupied the mountain for generations - thought of the acres of gardens, rolling hills, fountains, and stables in the alien world beneath them. They were distrustful of all but their own, and rarely came down to trade in Foxton.

Rix suddenly felt the back of his neck prickle. If he'd been looking at a map of property lines, he wouldn't have known with any greater certainty that they had entered the Usher domain. The forest seemed darker, the autumn leaves of such deep reds and purples that they appeared to shimmer with an oily blackness. The black canopy of leaves overhung the road, and tangles of briars - the kind that could gash to the bone and snap off -  twisted in ugly corkscrews as dangerous as barbed wire. Massive scabs of stone clung to the hillsides, threatening to slide down and smash the limo into junk. Rix realized his palms were sweating. The wilderness seemed to be a hostile environment unsuited for a civilized human being - yet this was the land that Hudson Usher had fallen in love with. Or, perhaps, seen as a challenge to be broken. In any case, it had never been Rix's cup of thorns.

In traveling this way over the years, though infrequently, Rix had never failed to catch a sense of brutality in the land, a kind of soulless crushing power that made him feel weak and small. It was little wonder, he thought, that the people of Foxton considered Usherland a place best avoided, and had created folktales to emphasize their fear of the dark, forbidding mountains.

"Pumpkin Man still in the woods?" Rix asked softly.

Edwin glanced at him, then smiled. "My God! Do you still remember that story?"

"How could I forget it? Let's see, how did that rhyme go? 'Run, run as fast as you can, 'cause out in the woods walks the Pumpkin Man.' Is that it?"

"Near enough."

"I should put the Pumpkin Man in a book someday," Rix said. "What about the black panther that walks like a man? Any new sightings?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. In August the Democrat said some lunatic hunter swore he'd seen it up on Briartop. I suppose stories like those sell newspapers."

Rix scanned the tangled forest on both sides of the road. A knot of tension had thickened in his stomach as he recalled the tale told to him by Edwin about the Pumpkin Man, a creature the locals said had lived in the mountains for more than a hundred years and stole away children who roamed too far from home. Even now, as an adult, Rix still thought of the Pumpkin Man with childlike dread, though he knew the story had been concocted by the hillbillies to keep their children from getting lost in the woods.

Around the road's next curve stood a formidable granite wall that held an intricately fashioned pair of wrought-iron gates. Scripted in iron on a granite arch above the gates was the name USHER. Edwin reached over to the dashboard and switched on a small device that triggered the radio-controlled locks. As the gates swung open, Edwin never even had to lift his foot from the accelerator.

Rix looked over his shoulder when they were through and saw the gates locking themselves again. The design on them had always reminded him of a spider's web.

At once the landscape changed. Though there were still places of deep, wild forest, there were also lush greenswards and meticulously kept gardens where roses, violets, and sunflowers grew amid prancing statues of fauns, centaurs, and cherubs. A tall glass roof sighted through orderly rows of pine trees signaled the conservatory where one of Rix's ancestors had grown a variety of cacti and succulents. Honeysuckle, tall maiden grass, and English ivy boiled up from the forest. Rix saw several gardeners at work, trimming hedges and pruning trees. In one garden stood a huge red Baldwin locomotive mounted on a stone pedestal. It dated from the early days of the railroad pioneers and had been the first piece of equipment purchased by his great-great-grandfather Aram, Hudson's son. At one time the Ushers had operated their own railroad - the Atlantic Seaboard Limited - to haul freight of gunpowder, ammunition, and weapons.

Several thousand acres of the Usher estate had never been mapped. The land encompassed mountains, slow-moving streams, wide meadows, and three deep, peat-filmed lakes. As always, Rix was struck by the sheer beauty of Usherland as Edwin drove toward the Gatehouse. It was a magnificent, breathtaking estate worthy of American royalty. But then, Rix thought grimly, there was always the Lodge - the sanctified cathedral of the Usher clan.

Edwin slowed the car as they neared the Gatehouse's porte-cochere. The mansion, of white limestone with a red slate roof, was surrounded by colorful gardens and huge, ancient oak trees.

It held thirty-two rooms, and had been built by Rix's greatgrandfather Ludlow as a guesthouse.

The limo stopped. Rix dreaded stepping into that house. He paused as Edwin started to get out of the car, then felt Edwin's hand on his shoulder.

"It'll be all right," Edwin assured him. "You'll see."

"Yeah," Rix replied. He forced himself to get out, and took his garment bag from the trunk as Edwin carried his suitcase. They climbed a flight of stone steps, walked across a tiled patio with a goldfish pond at its center, and stopped at a front door that looked like an oak slab.

When Edwin pressed the doorbell, they were admitted by a young black maid in a crisp pale blue uniform. Another servant, a middle-aged black man in a gray suit, welcomed Rix home and took his bags, crossing the wide parquet-floored foyer to the sweeping central staircase. Rix saw that the house was becoming more like a damned museum every time he returned. The perfect furnishings - Persian rugs, antique French tables and chairs, gilded turn-of-the-century mirrors, and medieval tapestries of hunting scenes hanging from the walls - seemed meant to be admired at a distance. The Louis XV chairs would never feel human weight; brass and ceramic objets d'art would be tickled with a duster but never touched. All the things in the house seemed as cold to Rix as the people who had chosen them.

"Mrs. Usher and Mr. Boone are in the living room, sir," the young maid said, and waited to escort him.

Edwin said, "Good luck," and left to drive the limo around to the garage.

The burnished walnut living room doors were set in tracks. The maid slid them open for him. Rix paused on the threshold for a second, noticing a sickly sweet smell that had suddenly come wafting out of nowhere.

He realized it was human decay. Coming from upstairs.

His father's room.

He braced himself and walked into the living room to face his brother and the matriarch of the Usher family.
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