"Jeff, it's perfect!" Angela exclaimed as she caught her first glimpse of the old Victorian house that overlooked the Columbia River. "I can't wait to see the inside!" Her heart pounded as her husband parked the white Camaro with red flames.
Jeff had just accepted the position as manager in one of the local banks in Astoria, and with it would come the realization of one of Angela's lifelong dreams. To live in one of these time-honored dwellings, where she could smell the fresh salt air and wake to the cries of gulls outside her bedroom window, would give her the peace she had so long desired.
Dark eyes flashed, and thick, black hair swung wildly about her shoulders as she darted quickly up the thirty-five step ascent. It ended in a massive front porch that graced two sides of the immense structure. Towering three stories in the air, it boasted dozens of windows in all shapes and sizes. Angela caught her breath. It was like those windows were sentinels, keeping careful watch over anyone who might enter.
She passed cautiously through the two stone pillars that marked the entrance to the portico. The boards under her feet creaked as they accepted her weight, and she turned to find Jeff still looking up at her from the street.
The sun shone brightly, and she could see it glisten like diamonds off the gently flowing river. Her tall blond husband hadn't moved, and he squinted up at her with one hand shading his eyes from the sun's glare.
"C'mon up, Jeff! The view's great!" she called, flashing him a brilliant smile.
He gave her a lopsided grin, and as she headed for the front door she heard the steady beat of his leather shoes mounting the concrete steps. He was soon by her side, and taking the key from his jacket pocket, he opened the bulky door.
They were then standing inside the entry hall. Its polished wood floor gleamed in the sunlight that streamed in through the curtainless windows, and to the left Angela could see the sweeping staircase that rose majestically for three floors.
"Like it, honey?" Jeff asked. "An okay from you is all I need. We can sign the final papers this afternoon."
"Do I like it?" she squealed, throwing her arms around her husband's neck. "It's perfect! Let me take a peek at the rest of the house, then give me those papers!"
She could see the vast kitchen from the entry hall, and smiled in satisfaction at the beautiful tile that had been carefully laid. It was white, with splashes of red forming a large star in the center of the room. The corner of Angela's mouth curled up in amusement at this odd choice of design, but it pleased her nonetheless. The appliances were modern, and her eyes lit up when she saw rows and rows of cupboards. It would be a pleasant change from the cramped quarters where they now lived.
Through the kitchen was a narrow den with walls and ceiling that were done entirely in cedar shakes. Red tiles graced the floor, and an old wood stove was set up on a brick hearth in one corner. To the left of the den was a tiny room which housed a freezer, and through that she saw another door with a latch. Angela grasped it tightly and turned; it swung open noiselessly.
"Jeff! Look here!" She smiled at him as he appeared around the corner. "A sauna!"
"I can't wait!" he teased. "I knew you'd like it. It's even got its own shower!" He pulled her backwards through the door. "Come see the rest."
They continued through the loop, retracing their steps through the den and entering a large dining room that had a door opening back into the kitchen.
"I can't believe these ceilings!" she marveled. "They must be ten feet high!"
"Twelve to be exact," he responded. "I can't wait for that first heating bill."
She slapped him playfully on the arm and pulled him like an excited child into the next room, which was the main living area. The ceiling here vaulted to fifteen feet, and the carpet and walls were done in shades of red and white, like the kitchen.
Passing through this room completed the circle, and they found themselves once again at the foot of the regal staircase. The banister was of ornately carved wood, and was burnished to a deep red shine.
As they moved upward Angela became more thrilled. She could hardly believe this would all be hers! It was like a small miracle.
On the second floor they found a spacious bathroom, laundry room, and four of the biggest bedrooms Angela had ever seen. The ten-foot ceiling was standard up here as well, and she could imagine them covered with myriads of hanging plants. The third floor was one large room -- all attic space -- and as Angela stood with Jeff looking out over the city, she sighed contentedly. From here they could not only see the entire downtown area, but the long stretch of the Astoria bridge clinging to the Washington coastline. Ships trailed up and down the river -- some waiting to dock, and some pulling out for another port.
"Well, what do you think?" Jeff murmured in her ear, wrapping his long, slender arms around his wife's small frame. "We could convert this whole attic into a studio. You'd have plenty of inspiration for your painting with a view like this."
Angela smiled up at the man she loved. "You give me plenty of inspiration," she replied, twisting to give him a brief kiss. "You know this is just what I've always wanted! Thank you, darling. Now let's go get those papers signed before it's snatched out from under us."
They were getting ready to return downstairs when a small, shiny object caught her eye. It was wedged between a crack in the floorboards very near the top step.
"What's that?" Jeff asked as she started toward it.
"I wonder," Angela mumbled, more to herself than her husband. She bent to pick it up, and it took some doing for her to pry the trapped object loose. It finally broke free with a snap that almost unbalanced her.
Jeff gazed intently at the trinket she was holding. "What is it?" he repeated, slightly annoyed.
"Jewelry of some sort ... hey, look! It's a ring!"
"Looks like you're right. And an expensive one too, from what I can tell."
Angela held the ring up near the window to get a clearer view. It was made of silver and was formed into the shape of a snake, with the head and tail twining around each other. Two tiny rubies sparkled as eyes.
"It's beautiful!" She slipped it into her skirt pocket. "Let's take it with us to the real estate office. Someone might have lost it when they came to see the house."
"We'll ask Kay when we get there. As far as I know, she has an exclusive listing. She'd be the only one who could've shown it."
"No, I'm sorry," Kay replied thoughtfully. "I haven't any idea who the ring belongs to. The house has been on the market for four months, and you're the first people to look at it." She turned the ring over between her fingers. "It's quite lovely though. It could have belonged to the owner of the house, but there's no family left. As long as you're buying the place, I imagine it would be fine if you kept it."
"What happened to the previous owners?" Angela asked.
"That house has been around for a long time," Kay said, smiling at her, "but the last owner was an elderly woman. She died about six months ago. She was quite reclusive." Her brow twitched, and she brushed a gray lock from her forehead.
"Can you tell us anything about her?"
"There were just some silly rumors," Kay explained. "There are those who claimed she was a witch, making pacts with the devil, if you believe that!" She let an uncomfortable peal of laughter. "I always wondered how stories like that get started. If you want my personal opinion, she was just an old woman who liked her privacy. There's nothing wrong with that."
The older woman volunteered no more information, and when she returned the ring to Angela, she slipped it back into her pocket.
After being assured that a closing could take place within a month's time, the young couple drove back to their apartment in Portland.
"Didn't you say one of the other guys you work with got transferred to Astoria, too?" Angela asked thoughtfully, swirling the champagne in her goblet and watching the bubbles dance up the sides of the crystal.
That night they were enjoying a celebration dinner in one of the city's most exotic restaurants. Jeff had been lucky enough to secure a secluded table in a dimly lit area of the establishment, and it only added to Angela's feeling of excitement.
"Yeah," Jeff replied after draining his glass. "Peter Lansky. Lucky devil was offered the vice-presidency at the same bank where I've been transferred. Lucky bastard. Which means he'll be making all the big bucks and I'll be doing all the work."
"What it means is that ol' Peter gets to strut around making sure all of us peons get our jobs done. But I guess I shouldn't complain. I'll still be making more money than I do now." He reached over and patted her hand. "Besides, you'll be getting your house."
"Our house," she corrected. "Remembering the ring in her pocket, she took it out and slipped it on. It fit perfectly! She twisted it so the two deep ruby eyes glared at her. "You know, it's really too bad they didn't offer you the vice-presidency. But I'm not complaining. I'm very proud of you, honey."
He took the ringed hand she offered him and kissed it tenderly, studying her face. "It was only a matter of seniority. Now, let's eat!" With that, he turned his attention back to his steak.
It was late when they got to bed that night, dreaming about all the wonderful things they would do with the house. They woke the next morning to the shrill sound of the telephone. Jeff groaned as he turned over to reach for the receiver.
"Hello?" His eyes opened wide and he whipped off the covers, sitting straight up in bed.
"What's wrong, honey?" Angela asked sleepily, pulling herself up to a sitting position.
"I can't believe it," Jeff was saying. "That's tragic! Yes, yes, of course I'll accept. No, that's fine. I'll be there right away. Thank you for calling." Jeff replaced the receiver and reached for his slacks. "You aren't going to believe this."
"Try me," Angela replied, rubbing her eyes.
"Peter Lansky had a fatal car accident last night. Some drunk ran into him head on. That means I'm up for the vice-presidency. I'm going in now to take care of the paperwork."
Angela didn't even feel the quick peck on her cheek as Jeff left for the office. She twisted the ring on her finger nervously. She felt sick. You couldn't just wish somebody dead -- it wasn't possible.
The next three weeks went by fast for both Angela and Jeff. There was an endless amount of packing to do, utility companies to notify, address changes to be made. Well-meaning friends kept delaying their progress by dropping by unexpectedly to say their goodbyes and wish the couple well.
During those weeks the responsibility of all those endless details fell to Angela, because Jeff's promotion had increased his workload. Angela was less than happy about his long absences, but knew it would be something she'd have to accept.
Finally the day of the big move came. By the time the sun had set, the couple was sitting exhausted on the living room couch. It was the only piece of furniture that was in place, and stacks of boxes surrounded the couple.
"It's going to take me forever to unpack all this stuff!" Angela groaned.
Jeff laughed. "Well, at least you won't have trouble finding enough places for everything."
"That's true," she agreed. She stood, giving herself the luxury of a stretch. Her thumb found the serpent ring that she now wore constantly. It was smooth, and she twisted it around her finger. "Know what I wish?"
"What's that?" Jeff asked, reluctantly pulling himself off the sofa.
"I wish a little munchkin would do all my unpacking for me by the time I get up tomorrow. That way I'd be able to spend the whole day playing. I've had enough of tissue and boxes for a lifetime!"
"Dream on, wife!" Jeff motioned her toward the staircase. "You're the only munchkin around here. You're on your own putting this all away, I'm afraid. I've got to be at the bank bright and early. Let's hit the sack. We both have long days ahead of us."
She took Jeff's hand. "You're right -- I'm bushed!"
It was the chiming of the heirloom grandfather clock that woke Angela. She turned and looked at the bedside alarm. Three in the morning. There would be a long wait until it would be time to start Jeff's breakfast, but she was parched with thirst.
She rose, slipped on her bathrobe, and walked quietly down the stairs to the kitchen. She pulled a glass from the cupboard and had her water half down when the realization hit her -- she hadn't unpacked any of the glasses yet!
Slowly she set the glass down and looked around her. A knot began forming in her stomach as she surveyed the kitchen from the spot where she stood frozen, clutching the edge of the counter. Everything had been neatly put away, just as she had pictured it in her mind, from the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling hooks to her grandmother's china resting comfortably in the ornate cabinet in the next room.
"Jeff!" she screamed, knocking the glass from the counter top. It hit the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces and sending Angela up the stairs in a terrified frenzy.
Jeff was already on his way down, and she nearly collided with him in her haste. She was shaking.
"What is it?" he demanded. He pulled her to him, holding her close to try stifling her panic. "What's gotten into you? Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Come downstairs and look!" she cried, gripping the sleeve of his robe.
Together they descended the stairs, and his mouth came open in amazement as he focused on the cause of her distress. "You woke me up to tell me you got up and put all this stuff away?" He turned to her, obviously agitated. "I'll have to admit it was quite a feat, but why didn't you wait until morning? I thought you were so tired!"
"How can you joke?" Angela was more astonished at his reaction than at what had happened. "You don't seriously think I did this?
"Who else is here?" he chided her. "Your munchkins, perhaps?"
"Listen, I don't mind you being down here. But please, if you're going to work any more tonight, try keeping it down. After all, I do have a job to go to tomorrow," he snapped and he turned and headed up the stairs.
"Jeff, wait!" she pleaded, running after him. "It wasn't me!"
He rolled his eyes. "Please, Angela. I'm tired."
"Don't you remember what I said before we went to bed last night? I wished all my unpacking would be done for me -- and look around!"
"I remember, Angela, but aren't you a little old for fairy tales?"
"I remember touching this ring when I said it." Her excitement was mounting by the second as she realized what she was implying. She held up her hand. Ruby eyes twinkled in the dim light of the hall.
"Angela, you can't seriously believe what you're saying."
"Your friend Peter," she interrupted. "I was playing with the ring then, when we were talking about you wanting the vice-presidency of the bank! Jeff," she said, suddenly becoming solemn, "did this ring kill your friend?"
She tore the ring off her finger and threw it across the room. The tinkle of silver hitting the kitchen floor echoed through the still house.
As he held her gaze, Angela read an expression in his eyes that she had never seen before. Did he think she was crazy? Or did he believe her? They stood there unmoving, staring into each other's eyes.
Neither of them slept again that night. After cleaning up the broken glass, they spent the last long hours sitting on the living room sofa. Jeff had maintained an uncomfortable silence while Angela pleaded with him to listen to her. She had done everything she could to try convincing him that she wasn't playing a joke. After all, she had never done anything like this before.
Her eyes were sore and puffy from crying and lack of sleep, and it was a welcome sound when the clock chimed seven.
Jeff rose in disgust. "Listen, Angela, I 'm going to get dressed and go to the bank. You'd better try to get some sleep, which is more than I can do." He gave her a grim stare. "Maybe by the time I get home you'll be tired of this charade and level with me."
Angela heard the sound of his feet on the stairs. She had ceased trying to make him listen to her over an hour ago. After all, if she were in his place, would she swallow a story like this? She rested her head on the comfortable swell of the armrest and listened to the creak of the floorboards above her.
"Well, with everything so neatly arranged you shouldn't have much trouble finding everything," she said to herself.
"Did you say something?" Jeff asked, reappearing. He was impeccably dressed in a gray tweed suit. Black shoes shone. Not a hair was out of place.
"You want some breakfast before you leave?" she asked. She hoped not. She didn't feel much like cooking for him after the way he'd treated her. How dare he!
"No. Thank you." His reply was as cold as she felt.
She was relieved when the door clicked shut after him. At last! The night had left her frazzled and drained, and all she could think of was a hot cup of coffee and a warm shower.
She padded into the kitchen and shoved a cup of instant coffee into the microwave. Leaning against the counter, she saw the glint of the ring lying on the floor where she'd hurled it. Should she pick it up?
She stood motionless while she listened to the hum of her coffee being heated. The sharp ding announced that it was hot. She removed it and took a sip.
"Well, somebody has to," she reasoned. She picked up the ring and turned it over in her hand. It was undamaged. A slight shock went through her, like a mild electric current. Startled, she let it slip through her fingers. Picking it up between her thumb and forefinger, she hustled it upstairs and threw it into her porcelain jewelry box. It, too, had been carefully arranged on her dresser. She took a last look at it. Funny. It didn't look particularly menacing.
It had been a week since Angela had thrown the ring in the jewelry box.
She'd apologized to Jeff for becoming hysterical and waking him, but wouldn't give in to his demands that she admit she'd played a trick on him. She had, however, gone so far as to tell him the lie that she'd thrown the ring away. That seemed to satisfy him, but things were still tense between them.
Two more weeks went by, and Angela did her best to keep things low key. Jeff was usually gone until well into the evening, but she was careful not to aggravate him with her concern over his lateness. She spent her days keeping the house clean and starting some new paintings in the attic, which had now been converted into the promised studio.
The end of the second week found Angela sitting by the window in her studio. She sighed, looking out over the river. It was choppy today, and with the onset of late fall there were few days that afforded her much inspiration.
What she needed was a change of scenery. She'd been stuck in the house too long. Smiling at her decision, she stood up and headed downstairs. She'd change, treat herself to lunch, and to for a long drive in the country. Driving always relaxed her.
She felt great after a warm bath, and she slipped into a comfortable pair of jeans and a bright polo shirt. She felt the urge to add her favorite gold chain, and she wandered to the porcelain jewelry box and lifted the lid without thinking.
A chill ran through her as ruby eyes caught hers, and then she felt a chill of anticipation. Well, why not? After all, she'd been acting foolishly. She couldn't let her wild imagination run her life. Besides, if she wore it once more she could convince herself that the ring had no bearing on the strange coincidences.
Ready, she bounced down the stairs. This was going to be a great day! She got in her black Mustang and put it in gear. Within half an hour she was seated in a small hotel restaurant in Seaside, at a table with a beautiful ocean view. The sea was restless, like her spirit.
Angela hadn't realized she was so hungry, and she devoured a seafood platter like it was her last meal. The last weeks had taken a toll on her appetite, and now she felt totally rejuvenated. It was exactly what she needed, no question about that.
"Will there be anything else, madam?" the petite waitress asked as she finished her last sip of wine.
"No, thank you. Everything was wonderful," Angela assured her with a laugh. "I think I ate too much as it is."
The waitress smiled back, and thanked her for the generous tip she placed on the tray.
She had just pulled out of the parking lot when a white Camaro speeding away from the hotel caught her eye -- it had red flames painted on the side! She strained her eyes to see if she could get a glimpse of the driver when she was thrown violently forward! The sound of smashing taillights made her heart skip a beat.
"Great!" Angela cried. Her cheeks grew hot in frustration as she pushed open the door and walked to the rear of the car. She hoped the damage was minimal. The car that caused the impact squealed out of sight. The whole back end of the car had been smashed in, both taillights were broken, and the responsible party was gone. This was wonderful. What was she going to tell Jeff?
She'd forgotten about the white Camaro by the time she got back in the car. She rubbed her hand. Maybe she'd better take off the ring. If she had it on when Jeff got home she'd have double the explaining to do. Angela closed her eyes and rested her head on the steering wheel.
"I wish I'd never come out today," she sighed. A strange tingling overcame her. The fabric of her seat cover began feeling different. Her back was forced upright, and she nearly fell backwards as she fought to gain her balance. It had all happened in a fraction of a second, and her eyes flew open. Where was she?
The waves were breaking into whitecaps on the river, and the streets below bustled with activity. Drivers were lined up to cross the bridge. She looked around her in disbelief. She was in her studio! She was wearing the clothes she had worn this morning -- but the ring was still on her hand! It was no dream.
She stood carefully, testing her legs. Yes, she was all in one piece. A thought suddenly crossed her mind, and she tore down the stairs. Whipping open the front door, she ran out onto the porch. There was her Mustang, parked across the street. There were no dents, no broken lights, not even a scratch!
She'd been at the restaurant; there was no denying that. And she remembered Jeff's car pulling out of the hotel parking lot. Now it was he who would have some explaining to do! She walked calmly back into the house and climbed the stairs. Removing the ring, she laid it carefully back in the porcelain box.
Next she began a methodical search of Jeff's personal belongings. She went through every drawer, every book, even the garbage in his den. At last she found what she was looking for. Taped to the back side of the headboard was a large envelope, and in it were several letters. There were letters dating back several months. Love letters to her husband! She didn't recognize the signature as anyone she knew. They were postmarked in Seaside.
How could she have been so blind? To think she actually believed in him! There was no telling how long he'd taken her for a fool. Maybe even before their marriage eighteen months ago. She was through playing the fool. Maybe this transfer to Astoria hadn't been such a miracle after all.
She made up her mind. Her dark eyes burned. This little game would end here and now -- one way or another.
Angela had just pulled up in the bank's parking lot when a woman emerged from the side door. She was beautiful, with flowing blonde hair and a willowy figure. Close behind her followed a man -- Jeff! Angela burned with hatred as the woman's seductive sway brought a quick pat on her behind. She turned to him and was met with a long, passionate kiss.
So she was right! He had used the incidents with the ring as fuel for his own indiscretions. It was why he was always late.
Jeff and the mysterious woman were nearly to his car when his head jerked up at the sound of Angela's car door slamming. His look of embarrassment told Angela all she needed to know.
"Angela, I can explain," Jeff began.
"It doesn't need explaining," she hissed. "I'm not that stupid. I can see what's going on." It was all she could do to stay calm. Angela's hands balled into tight fists at her side. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing how hurt she was. She only wanted him to know his charade was up, once and for all.
"Jeff, what's going on?" the strange woman asked. She laid a hand on Jeff's coat sleeve and glanced curiously at Angela.
"Nothing's going on, Marie. Listen, maybe you'd better go now. I'll explain everything later."
"Why don't you explain it now, Jeff?" Angela said caustically. "Why don't you explain your wife to your girlfriend?" She gave the woman an icy stare.
The woman glared back at her, then turned and walked away without another word.
Angela turned as well, climbing back into her car. Jeff was now standing alone in the parking lot, his mouth hanging open.
Her mind flooded with confused thoughts and images as she sped toward home. Could she file for divorce? That would leave her with only half of everything they'd worked for. She would insist upon the house, but then she'd need a full time job -- and what she could make would never cover the payments. With her training, the chances of a well-paying job were slim. This house had been a dream of hers for years. How could she let it go?
In her blind anger she thought of another way. She knew Jeff had a substantial life insurance policy through the bank. As soon as she reached the house, she ran back to Jeff's den. Tearing through her files, she found what she'd been looking for. Yes -- his policy would pay off the house and allow her to live comfortably for the rest of her life!
Quickly Angela headed up to her bedroom, straight for the jewelry box. She lifted the lid that kept her demon hidden. The ring felt smooth and welcome as it slid hungrily down the length of her finger, and she smiled.
-- Virginia Bond
Originally appeared 2006-11-13
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