"After the first glass [of absinthe] you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." Oscar Wilde
A second glass of absinthe is usually a mistake. Kit Randall had learned that much since his arrival in Leadville. He had come to this town in the clouds looking for the kind of fun that gives fun a bad name and absinthe never failed him on that score.
"Green" dreams were frequently strange and sometimes frightening, but could they produce a vision never imagined, much less experienced by its dreamer? Was that why Lucinda limited their adventures over the slotted spoon to once a week?
"We must be prudent, darling," she would say. But she was prudent about so little else.
Waking up alone in the big bed, Kit yawned and stretched himself. How many hours had he slept? The sun shone through the sparkling, leaded panes of the bay window with such intensity and at so high an angle it must have been nearly noon. That the curtains were drawn open was Lucinda's not-so-subtle hint that he had slept too late.
He massaged his temples to try and soothe the brutal pounding in his head. He felt like an icepick had been forced into his brain. The pain radiated out in all directions, star-like, but gritty.
His mouth was dry as parchment. He looked for the bedside pitcher, but found it empty. He felt as though he did not have enough energy to fetch some water, though his thirst tormented him.
Lucinda poked her head in the room. "Oh, you're awake."
She walked briskly to the bedside, saw that the water pitcher was empty, and picked it up to refill it. She looked so beautiful in her lace dressing gown, which allowed a generous view of her bosom. She did not own a single dress that did not advertise those round, perfect breasts. Gazing down that enticing décolletage had aroused him through a hundred dinners and caused him to lose interest in the food before him. And Lucinda's coy smile always told him she knew precisely the effect she was having though she often slid a wanton hand into his lap, just to check.
She even sometimes did this when they were dining with her son. This embarrassed Kit. If Christopher Ridenour raised his eyes from his plate at just the wrong moment, he would surely see what his mother was up to. Kit suspected she enjoyed the challenge of keeping a straight face while indecently fondling her young lover under the tablecloth. No wonder she had made a good living on the stage prior to her marriage.
Scandalous behavior carried few consequences for Lucinda. As the widowed heiress to the Eye Dazzler Mining fortune, she could pretty well do as she pleased and everybody knew it. Leadville, Colorado, was the richest mining district on earth and the richest mine there by far was the Eye Dazzler.
Twenty-year-old Christopher would not dare to object. He was the shyest human being Kit had ever met, a turtle of a boy, almost impossible to coax from his shell. He rarely spoke above a whisper and virtually never made eye contact with anyone. Kit barely knew the color of his eyes, they were so seldom visible, hidden beneath his downcast red-gold lashes.
He served as his mother's accountant for the various Ridenour ventures which, in addition to the mine, included a casino on State Street called the High Life Club. Though the atmosphere of the High Life was a constant riot of high rolling mirth, Christopher seldom emerged from his tiny office in the back. He apparently found better company in his endless columns of figures and stacks of account books and his collection of carefully sharpened pencils all laid out in a row.
Kit could tell that the quiet boy was intelligent. In an unexpected moment he could offer a remark or opinion of surprising wit or insight. That Christopher did not mind Kit moving into their home and into his mother's bed, gave Kit pause. But only a moment's pause.
His eyes now fell upon the black, ebonized surface of the bed's footboard. The elaborate carvings reminded him of ocean waves. He had not seen the ocean in more than a year.
Lucinda returned with the pitcher filled and he eagerly gulped water straight from it without bothering to pour it into a glass. This small breach of decorum made her frown.
His terrible thirst slaked at last, he wiped his wet chin on the bed sheet. "Lucy, tell the maid to make up the fire. This room is chilly."
Lucinda made yet another sour face. "I'll have to start it up myself. You know Sadie won't come in here when you're not dressed."
"I'll put a robe on," he said, then muttered under his breath, "Like she's never seen a man in his drawers before," in contemptuous reference to Sadie Branch's previous profession in the State Street brothels. The Ridenour house did not seem able to attract servants with very nice reputations. He had wondered about this more than once.
"Never mind, Lucy."
He watched her fuss about the room, preparing for her day. Her long hair hanging loose upon her shoulders gave her a girlish look, despite her thirty-six years. He glanced up at the oil portrait of her above the mantel of her bedroom fireplace. In it, she reclined upon her favorite chair and held her parrot, Mr. Sparks. Even playing with a pet, she looked sensuous, with her cascade of reddish brown hair hanging down the chairback.
He had naively thought her hair was naturally red. After all, her son had red-tinged hair, though it tended toward strawberry blond.
He learned the truth one day when he watched her maid apply the henna. So much of Lucinda was artifice, would he ever know the balance of what was real and what was carefully contrived illusion?
"What's wrong, darling boy? Why such a long face? Don't you know I live to see those dimples each morning?"
Her round Southern vowels bloomed and dripped. He loved the lilting music of her voice so much he ignored the possibility that one of her Rebel relatives might have shot his father dead in '62. That savage conflict was fast becoming an old man's war. He had no memories of it, just as he had no memories of the father who died at the age of twenty-one, just the age he was now. Whenever Kit looked ahead in his life, he now thought of all the things his father had been cheated of. That somehow made the future all the more precious.
"I have a headache," he said with a slight pout.
"Poor baby. A hangover?"
"I didn't drink enough last night to cause a hangover."
"At this altitude, who knows? Do you want to take something? Let me go see what I have."
"You and your pills and powders. Sure, of course."
She brought him an envelope containing white powder. She had all sorts of concoctions at her disposal. Her dressing room was betters stocked than most pharmacies.
They indulged in a wide variety of drugs during their many decadent nights together. Opium from the Orient, hashish from Morocco, absinthe from France-no sordid diversion fell beyond the reach of the Eye Dazzler money. Some of the drugs made Kit feel giddy, some sleepy, others made him think he was flying or that he possessed extraordinary strength. One memorable powder had the ability to prolong the sexual act ten times beyond the norm. He and Lucinda both woke up quite sore the morning after that one.
"What do you plan to do with your day?" she asked as she poured him a glass of water to mix the powder in.
"If I can get rid of this headache, I thought I would go down and work with that new gelding you bought. He's crazy, you know."
"He's just green. That's why we got such a good price on him."
"He's more than green. We might have to hire a professional trainer for him."
She was in her dressing room and might not have heard him. He could see her pulling out and then discarding a number of frocks. She went through this ritual every morning. He grinned and shook his head. With a perverse snicker, he added, "You like geldings, don't you, Lucy?"
"Of course, I do. It's the stallions and the mares who give you no peace."
He chuckled that she had missed his point. "Looks like a nice day. Why don't you come down to the stables with me?"
"I'd love to, darling," she said from the recesses of her enormous closet. "Unfortunately. I have to go up to the mine today. Christopher insists that we meet with Jacob. He's certain he's found evidence of wrong-doing on him. He's done something unforgivable and we're going to have to sack him. George Hauser says we have no choice. It's going to be a dreadful day. I'll need some your very special cheering up tonight."
"That's what I'm good at. I live to amuse." He offered this lightly, but inwardly he sulked. He had originally hoped Lucinda would give him a position in one of the Ridenour companies. He was a college graduate after all, more than qualified to serve in any number of capacities. But three months had passed and he remained merely Lucinda's lover, her companion, her-he knew that others in town had far more creative names for his current situation, but he did not want to think about them. His official title of "houseguest" did not fool many.
"What's the story on you and old Jake?" he said, smirking with mischief. "Sadie Branch told me you took up with me just to spite him because he wouldn't leave his wife for you."
She poked her head out of the dressing room. "Malicious gossip. Stop talking to the servants."
He could only guess at her past relationship with Jacob Landry, but the man was far from friendly on the few occasions Kit had crossed his path.
The first time he had been introduced to the Eye Dazzler's superintendent, Lucinda had behaved in a curious manner and he quickly realized that more was going on than a simple business meeting. They had all sat around a table in the anteroom of the late Orson Ridenour's old office. While Lucinda spoke of the renegotiation of smelting contracts, she placed her hand around Kit's neck and delicately stroked the skin above his collar as though he were a pet cat.
Landry's remarks had been formal and businesslike, but his dark eyes never left her slender fingers as they caressed her young lover's throat. Kit felt a cold heat radiate from the man's disturbing gaze so he removed himself from her toying embrace, resentful she had used him so. The damage was already done, however, the point decisively made.
Landry's parting smile at the end of that meeting had been the worst moment of all. The man had extended his hand and Kit took it, but for an instant, as Landry held it, his icy smile put the younger man in mind of a line from Macbeth. The nervous sons of the murdered Macduff had worried that "men's smiles have daggers in them," and Kit had never sought a moment alone with the Eye Dazzler superintendent after that. In fact, he had been more than happy just to get his hand back.
His thoughts returned to that bizarre absinthe dream. Why did it refuse to leave him? What had really happened here last night? In his only solid memory he had "watched the clouds come out." That was his euphemism for gazing at the slow, tantalizing process by which one prepares to drink the liqueur the French called la fée verte, the Green Fairy.
The light emerald liquid was dripped through sugar cubes that sat perched atop a slotted spoon. Icy water was then added which rendered a spectacular transformation. The clear green absinthe blossomed into a milky opalescence and was ready to sip.
He recalled settling back deep into the sea of sofa cushions in Lucinda's bohemian-inspired second parlor and staring up at the famous Eye Dazzler rug hanging on the wall. He loved to watch the bright zig-zagging pattern come alive. A thousand triangles danced before his eyes in a carefully terraced lockstep, vibrating red black white, red white black, hypnotizing him as it always did.
And then...just a nonsense kaleidoscope of images and feelings, some very erotic, yet all strangely ominous.
He tried to muster the energy to get out of bed, but instead collapsed back down into the bedclothes and stared at the painted clouds on the high ceiling of the room. He remembered seeing those clouds in his dream only they had floated over a raging seascape.
Then he caught the whiff of a familiar scent. He grabbed the pillow next to him and sniffed it. Cloves, no doubt of it.
No, no, no. Panic gripped him. His breath came in short, ragged spasms. "Lucinda?"
"Yes, darling?" she said from her dressing room.
"What happened here last night?"
She peered at him from around the edge of the door frame. A shadow crossed her face that seemed to age her ten years.
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