Winston slid into the empty chair at the large table with a quick apology to his hostess. The first course was well underway. Being late was something that irritated him. It made him the focus of everyone’s attention for too long. To calm his nerves, he slipped his hand inside his coat pocket and felt for the satin ribbon he had placed there less than an hour before. He felt his heart slow down and a confident smile settle on his lips.
Laughter from the head of the table drew his attention. Sitting in command of the whole company was Angela Snyder, his hostess. She slid her dark green eyes his way and smiled in a secretive manner at him.
“Winston, I hope you have a good reason for being late to one of my dinner parties.” Her voice was light yet held a heaviness of disapproval.
With the ribbon still between his fingers as he sat back to allow the server place the dish in front of him, Winston smiled back. “I was detained by a matter you had sent my way earlier today.”
Angela’s smile brightened. “Ah, yes. Thank you. I’m glad you were able to jump on it so soon.” She broke out into a fit of giggles that had everyone staring at her in wonder.
It was then Winston noticed a stranger sitting at the table. He was a small man with features that resembled someone from the Old World including a handlebar moustache. Small spectacles sat on his nose and covered small, dark eyes that…were directed right at Winston.
Winston’s fingers tightened on the ribbon as his eyes challenged that of the newcomer. His stomach clenched.
“Ah, Winston, I forgot you were not here for the introductions. You know most everyone except Mr. Gill. This is the man I met when I was visiting my cousin in Atlanta. He makes those mysterious death masks.”
“Death masks?” The question came from Gregory Byrd, a local grade school teacher. He was a rather plain man which explained why he had so much trouble in trying to get any of the other teachers to go out with him. Instead he turned to spending time with Angela and her friends as they gave him opportunity to express himself in ways he couldn’t anywhere else.
“Yes, they are masks created of you as you are now and then they are placed on your grave after you die. I already have requested my own which Mr. Gill will do while he is here.”
Rosalie Benson turned to face the man next to her. “Can you explain how you do it?” Her hair was piled high on her head in a sad attempt to recreate something from the early years of some French court.
Mr. Gill pulled his gaze away from Winston and turned to the woman. A smile appeared on the otherwise dowdy face as he answered her. “Ms. Benson, it is rather simple. I create a likeness of your face like any other artist does and create a plaster replica that can withstand time and the elements. It is something more personal than just a mere headstone.”
“Does it take long to complete?” Kari Clayton asked as she leaned across the table. Her ample bosom made more so by the pressure of the table she expertly placed beneath it.
Meeting her gaze, Mr. Gill responded, “Not very long. Depends on how many I have before me to make.”
Angela giggled. “But he will expedite some orders.”
Mr. Gill calmly turned toward his hostess. “Yes, it depends on the urgency of the matter.”
An awkward silence filled the room. Kari turned her attention toward her plate. The soft click of her fork was the only sound until Gregory coughed.
“Well, I think it is something I might have done. Would you be able to fit me into your schedule?”
“Of course.” Mr. Gill picked up his glass of wine and took a sip. “We could do it after dinner tonight if you wish. Do you have other plans?”
Gregory slid his gaze toward Angela. “Not tonight. I happen to be free.”
“Then tonight it is.” Mr. Gill watched the silent exchange as he took another sip of his drink.
“Well, I would like mine done as well.” Kari pouted. “When can I sit for you?”
Rosalie sat up straight. “Me, too.”
“How about you?” Mr. Gill turned to Winston.
Winston felt his stomach clench again. “I don’t see why not.”
Mr. Gill smiled. “Then I’ll be at your house tomorrow morning after breakfast.”
Before Winston could reply, the conversation around the room began to buzz, and the next course appeared as the empty plates were removed. He noticed the newcomer watched him closely. Hoping to calm the anxiousness within him, Winston slipped his hand back in his pocket and fingered the ribbon.
Winston shook his head and thrashed his arms. His body was pressed down into the bed. His lungs burned. Air! He needed air!
Suddenly air pushed into his lungs. Winston’s hands raised up to grasp his throat. Cool air filled his body and rushed back out. He breathed in again.
His vision was blurred. Each breath brought about more clarity. The blurriness faded, and the room came into full view. His eyes felt as though they were close to popping out of his head from the pressure within.
The white lace curtains fluttered from the breeze coming through the open window. He could hear the giggles of children as they played at the house next door. A movement from the side drew his attention. Mrs. Cook moved to lean over him.
“Breathe deep, dear.” She patted his arm. Winston noticed a deep frown creasing her forehead. Her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in her standard strict bun. Her light blue eyes bored into his. “Keep breathing.”
Winston did as he was told. His mind was as blurred as his vision. For some reason, he couldn’t understand what was going on around him. Behind Mrs. Cook, another figure moved about. It was a dark and hazy until it paused and turned around to face him.
It was Mr. Gill. Winston’s mind found the missing pieces and fit them into the puzzle of last night. . The dinner party. The laughter. The stories. And then there was the guest, Mr. Gill.
That was it. Winston’s mind cleared. He had been fitted for this death mask. The dinner party had occurred the night before. Mr. Gill had agreed to come to Winston’s house and make the mold for the mask.The events of the past twenty-four hours opened up like a flower in the morning sun.
Winston had just finished his breakfast of toast and eggs when a knock had sounded at the door. His housekeeper, Mrs. Cook, had opened the door and admitted the strange visitor Winston had told her about. Death masks seemed to be a morbid way to approach one’s mortality, but who was she to question the actions of those who employed her?
Standing in the hallway looking like an insurance salesman, Mr. Gill had suggested that they use a bedroom so the client can lay still for the task. . Mrs. Cook had suggested they use the guest bedroom since it was conveniently located at the top of the stairs.
Winston had assumed that the man would make a drawing of his face. He never dreamed the mask was to be made straight from his face. Following his instructions, Winston laid down on the bed and assumed a peaceful pose or as close as he could imagine. In his mind, he could see himself lying there for hours as the artist reconstructed his image on a large pad of paper. Mr. Gill fussed in a large suitcase he had brought and laid on the dresser after Mrs. Cook removed all the small decorative objects from it. With no comment, the man had suddenly turned and everything went black for Winston.
He only recalled pain as his chest burned. He wanted to breathe, but something weighed on his face and chest. He felt buried alive. Now he watched as the man behind Mrs. Cook fuss around in his suitcase.
Winston pushed up with his elbows on the bed and continued to breathe deeply. Mr. Gill closed his case, and with a slight salute to the other two, he left. The two left behind stared at the empty doorway as the sound of footsteps faded down the stairs; the opening and closing of the front door echoed through the house.
“Well, that was a little odd.” Mrs. Cook placed her hands on her hips and huffed. Shaking her head, she turned back to her employer. “Are you okay? You still look a little pale, Mr. Fletcher.”
Winston shook his head and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. “I’m fine. Just was not what I had expected to happen.”
“What did you expect?” She moved about the room to replace where everything belonged. That was one thing the housekeeper could not stand, anything out of place.
“I thought he would just draw my face.” Winston stood up and looked out the window. Birds fluttered in the tree and a car moved down the road. Two young girls played hopscotch on the sidewalk. Winston slipped his hand into pocket and fingered a small piece of torn ribbon.
Mrs. Cook expressed her displeasure by placing the objects down a little firmer than needed. Once all was back in its original place, she turned around with a satisfied look. “What will he do now? He makes a mask of your face so when you are dead it can be placed at your grave?”
With a nod, Winston left the room. He had business to attend to.
Bent over his desk, Winston was lost in the document before him and didn’t hear the knock on the door. Only when the door opened did he raise his head. He frowned when he saw his law partner walk in.
“I’ve knocked several times, Win. What are you so lost in?”
Winston’s frown deepened as James Sanders made himself comfortable in the chair on the far side of Winston’s desk. James propped his feet on the desk and stretched his arms behind his head.
“What do you want, James?” Winston sighed and leaned back in his leather chair.
James raised an eyebrow. “Obviously, you haven’t heard the news.”
“What news? I’m busy with the city contract with the new factory that is wanting to come in.” He waved his hand over the papers scattered on his desk.
James put his feet back on the ground and sat up straight. His light brown hair flopped down into his face, but he ignored it as he stared wide-eyed at his partner. “You’re joking, right?”
Winston placed his hands down on the desk. “I don’t have time for jokes at the moment. Tell me what you have to say and leave.”
“At the diner, I heard that they found little Lucy Reynolds.”
Winston froze. “Where?”
“Down by the reservoir. They only recognized her by the pink polkadot dress she was wearing. The animals had gotten to her. They can’t tell if she was sexually assaulted or not.”
Winston stared past James’ head. “Any leads?”
James shook his head. “They last saw her walking in front of Angela’s house toward the park.” Tilting his head, James watched Winston closely. “Oh, didn’t you have dinner at Angela Synder’s house the other night?”
“Yes, a week ago.”
“I met Angela’s brother while I was at the diner. They found out their cousin in Atlanta was found dead.”
Winston blinked. “The one she just visited last month?”
“The very one. Strange thing happened. He went out for a walk. They found him in the cemetery, lying on the very plot he had bought for himself last year after his parents passed.”
Silence descended between them. Winston thought back over the dinner and how Angela had talked about her visit with her relatives. Nothing had seemed amiss. He slipped his hand into his pocket and touched the ribbon.
“What did he die of?” Winston’s voice was low, and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
James tapped his fingers against each other. “That’s the big mystery. No one knows. There were no injuries to his body. There was nothing found in the autopsy. He just laid down on his on gravesite and took his last breath.” James stood up. “I am taking the rest of the day off. Heading up to the lake for the weekend. Need it before court on Monday.”
Winston nodded as James left. His farewell was whispered as his thoughts stayed on the story of the dead man. He did not know much about Angela’s family, but he knew enough to guess that the deceased was only a few years older than himself. Hearing of the death of someone so young always troubled him. Barely thirty, he was just realizing that he was no longer a young man but one sliding into maturity, and thus toward death. His thoughts rushed back to the making of his own death mask three days prior. Was death not so far away? Was he inviting death to come sooner?
With a shake of his head, Winston tossed the notions aside and looked down at the legal documents that demanded his attention. He had work to do. He did not have time to dwell on a man whose time was up. There was the here and now to deal with.
The day faded as Winston worked on the legal documents and crafting his suggestions for revision. Putting everything away, he left his overly neat and organized office. He was only a few blocks from his own home when he heard a car slow down beside him. He turned to see the Deputy Sheriff Rice parking the car next to the curb.
The tall, dark man stepped out of the vehicle and gave Winston a smile. “Evening, Mr. Fletcher. Opting to walk from work?”
Winston nodded. “Gave up the car as a New Year’s Resolution. So far, I’m sticking to it. It’s only a healthy three miles.” Winston noticed how the officer seemed to act like he was listening. “Is something wrong?”
“I need to ask you a few questions.” He moved around the car.
“Angela Snyder’s guest?” Winston’s forehead creased at the second reference to the woman in the same day. “What do you need to know? I barely know the man.”
The officer leaned against his car. “He was in your house last week.”
Winston nodded as he slipped his hands into his pockets. The ribbon was held tight between two fingers. “He was creating a mask for me.”
Winston looked at the man, wondering how to explain the bizarre event. “Yes. The man told us of his occupation. Several of us requested masks of our own.”
“Who requested them?”
Thinking back on the night, Winston replied, “Angela said she already had hers commissioned. Then Gregory Byrd said he would be interested. Rosalie Benson and Kari Clayton also requested one.”
“Yes, then I said I would be interested. I thought he would draw our face and then create the masks.”
“Have you seen one of the masks?”
Winston shook his head. “No, but Angela described her cousin’s.” Winston’s voice faded. Her cousin was the one who had just died.
“How are the masks made? He did fit you for one that day at your house, didn’t he?”
Another nod. “Yes, he put something over my face…to get an imprint, I think. I never really saw it. Mrs. Cook could explain it further.”
The officer nodded. “I’ve already talked to her. She described it as something like a cloth and shining. It happened too fast for her to get anything more.” The officer stood straight and touched his hat. “Thank you, Mr. Fletcher. If I have any more questions, I’ll come by.”
“Yes, do that.” Winston’s voice sounded distant as he thought on the questions. “Wait! Why are you asking me these questions?”
The officer paused in opening his door. “Gregory Byrd was found dead this morning.”
Winston watched as the deputy sheriff drove off. His heart quickened. Turning back toward home, he ran the block and rushed into his house. The lock was quickly put into place. Pulling the curtain on the door back slightly, he looked out. What he was searching for, he had no clue. All he knew was that he needed to feel safe.
“Are you alright, Mr. Fletcher?”
Winston screeched as he whirled around to find Mrs. Cook standing in the doorway, wiping her hands on a dish towel. He placed a hand over his heart and gasped.
“My goodness, what did I do?”
“Nothing.” Winston shook his head. “You just startled me. That’s all.”
Mrs. Cook shook her head. “I’ll have dinner on in a few minutes.”
Winston nodded as he tried to regulate his breathing. He stayed where he was and looked around his home. It was his inheritance from his grandfather who had died five years earlier. Taking the opportunity to leave the apartment he shared with two other men, Winston took it as a sign to become a man and leave his wild days behind. He had opened his business with James and rose a few steps up in local society. He was a man with his own home and housekeeper, along with his own business that was thriving. Why was he running from nothing?
With a laugh, Winston made his way up to his room to change into something more comfortable. He was letting his imagination get away.
Sitting in front of the television as he watched an old movie, Winston heard a knock on the door. He rose from the couch and moved toward the door, wondering who it could be at that late hour. Mrs. Cook had left hours earlier.
Peeking through the curtain as he had earlier, he saw his guest and opened the door. “Deputy Rice! What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Fletcher, I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind.”
Winston stood back and waved the officer in. “Come on in. Awful late to be out.”
“Yes, it is.” Rice took his hat off. “Fletcher, can you fill me in on your whereabouts since I saw you earlier today?”
“Of course.” Winston shrugged. “I came home, ate dinner, answered some emails, and have been watching a movie. Mrs. Cook left when she finished cleaning up from dinner. I guess that was about three hours ago.”
“You’ve been here all alone?”
Winston nodded. “Yes. What is this all about?”
“Have you spoken to Angela Snyder today?”
“No, I sent her an email earlier, offering her my condolences on her cousin. I figured I’d call her tomorrow.”
“You did not go see her?”
Winston crossed his arms. “What is this all about?”
“Angela Snyder was found dead two and a half hours ago.”
The words hit Winston like a bucket of cold water. Death had hit again. “How?” His stare was blank as he soaked in the officer’s words.
“We don’t know yet. She was found in her garden.”
“Garden?” The word tickled Winston’s brain. “She mentioned something about her garden the night of the dinner party.”
“What did she say?” The officer pulled out a pen and small notebook.
Winston began to pace as he thought back on the dinner party. They were just receiving their dessert when the topic of the death masks came up. He remembered looking down on the slice of sweets when Mr. Gill was explaining what they were. That was when Angela mentioned her garden.
“She said she would have to have her death mask placed in her garden as that was where she wanted her ashes spread.”
Rice wrote in his notebook. The scratch of the pen on the paper was loud in the silent hallway. “Was anything else said?”
“No, that is when we started volunteering to have our own death masks made.”
“Have you had any other contact with Mr. Gill?”
Winston shook his head. “No, I heard he had left town. Angela said he would send us the death masks when they were finished.”
“How did you pay for them?”
“We all gave him a check that night at her party to purchase the supplies.”
Rice nodded and slipped his notebook in his shirt pocket. “Thank you, Mr. Fletcher. I would suggest that you don’t leave town and maybe have someone come stay with you.”
Winston followed him to the door. “Why are you asking so much about Mr. Gill?”
Rice turned back to Winston. “Because her death mask arrived in the mail this morning.”
The next day, Winston decided to stay home. It was Saturday, and he rarely went into the office unless something was urgent. Usually, he met up with friends and spent the day outside, but today he decided to stay inside with the doors locked.
Mrs. Cook came by and got his meals for the weekend together so all he had to do was heat the dishes up. He could manage on his own, but the woman saw herself as his grandfather’s eyes on earth to make sure he was alright. Winston enjoyed the attention and had to force himself not to ask her to stay. He was a grown man and refused to let his fears overtake him.
He spent the day going through his emails and cleaning up his computer. It was something he hated doing, but he had to do something to occupy himself. After clicking the icon to start the computer virus search, he leaned back in his chair and reached into his pocket to finger the small, pink ribbon again. His mind drifted to an evening two weeks prior. A lazy smile spread across as his face as images of water, soft skin, and…
Winston froze. He cocked his head and listened as a second knock followed. As though pulled against his will, he made his way from the office at the back of the house to the front door. One peek allowed him to release his breath in a sigh of relief.
Winston opened the door and greeted the mailman. “Morning, Ed. How are you?”
“I’m good, Mr. Fletcher. Got your mail here. Too much to put in your small box.”
“Thank you. Have a good one.” Winston took the bundle and closed the door.
Walking into the kitchen, he laid the pile on the table and noticed a small package in the middle of the letters. Winston pulled it out and looked at the return address of Atlanta. Although he was not sure who would be sending him anything from there, he opened it anyways with the help of scissors from the kitchen drawer. Pushing the lid back, he saw tissue paper which he also pushed aside. His eyes grew wide. His breathing raced. His heart ached.
Nestled in the box was an exact replica of his face, including the color of his eyes and flush of his cheeks. There was his death mask…with a pink ribbon tied around it.