O'Doul's fingers twitched and grasped at Mary's hand. He clutched at her fingers with the grip of a drowning man. Mary had the oddest sensation that the heat of her body flowed like rushing water through her hand into O'Doul's. He moaned softly and the muscles in his body relaxed.
"Are you all right? Mary asked again.
O'Doul looked up at Mary, his hand still clutching hers. "Something's in me," he whispered.
"What kind of something?" Mary asked softly.
"Something evil," O'Doul replied.
Mary's disbelief must have shown on her face for O'Doul continued hastily, "I know, I know it sounds crazy, but I can feel it trying to take over my body. You—you confused it when you took my hand. But it's still here. Waiting for me to drop my guard."
Mary gave the man's hand a reassuring squeeze, not certain what to think, let alone what to say.
O'Doul looked a little sheepish and released his grip on her fingers. "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get me," he muttered under his breath.
"Who?" Mary asked.
O'Doul shrugged. "No one," he answered. "It's just something we used to say back in my unit."
The bus slowed down, then slowly ground to a halt. In the fog outside the window Mary could make out the silhouettes of a few figures standing on the sidewalk.
The bus driver opened the bus door and called out, "Danielsport, Maine, folks. We'll only be stopped here long enough to unload luggage, so any passengers bound for destinations farther down east, including Campobello Island and Calais, please remain aboard." He swung out of his chair and down the stairs.
Mary shoved her thermos and the newspapers in the side pocket of her purse with the magazines. Below her she could hear the bus driver opening the luggage storage compartment. She stood up and slipped on her raincoat and fastened the buttons and belt. The chill in the air seemed to disperse as sea-scented air flooded into the bus. The sleeve's of her raincoat clung stickily to Mary's arms.
The well-dressed elderly man was walking slowly up the aisle toward the front of the bus. Mary paused to let him pass. He carried the box with air holes out in front of him, like it was fragile and precious. As he approached, something in the box squeaked. Then several somethings in the box hissed and squeaked. The box rocked in the elderly man's hand. He clutched it tighter, looking alarmed. He hurried passed Mary and O'Doul.
Mary looked down at O'Doul who remained seated, staring out at the fog. "Mr. O'Doul, aren't you getting off here, too?" she asked.
O'Doul started, and looked up at Mary. "Yeah, thanks," he said, though he still appeared distracted.
Mary made her way up the bus aisle and descended from the bus. There was still too much fog to see anything of the town, but she could now make out details of the figures waiting on the sidewalk. Two large men in trench coats stood closest to the door. A few feet back a handsome, middle-aged woman wrapped in a shawl sat in a wheelchair. A sturdy teenage boy in a school letter jacket leaned against a utility pole. Mary caught a glimpse of a cloaked and hooded figure standing behind the utility pole. The figure pulled back into the fog just as Mary noticed it.
"Welcome back, doctor," one of the large trench coated men said to the elderly man with the box with air holes. "How was your trip?"
"I think we may have a problem," the elderly man said, handing the box to the man who'd greeted him. The elderly man slid the box lid an inch off the box and peered into it. "They seem to have gone into shock suddenly. Most unusual. I can't understand what set them off. We should get them to the lab quickly."
The elderly man hurried off into the fog with the two large men following behind him.
The teenage boy pushed himself off the utility pole and approached Mary. "Miss Wellington?" he asked.
"Yes," Mary replied, acknowledging her identity.
"I'm Lesk," the boy introduced himself. "I'm Mr. Chase's apprentice. He sent me to get you settled in the hotel. He said to tell you that he had to drive up to Bangor on some business, so he'll meet you tomorrow morning at the office. Those your bags?" he asked, pointing to the two yellow vinyl suitcases which the driver had unloaded from the bus storage compartment.
"Yes," Mary answered.
Lesk picked up both bags.
"I can get one of those," Mary said, thinking of how heavily she'd packed both cases.
Lesk shook his head. "No need. I'm in training. These are nothing."
Mary smiled at the youth's bravado, but did not argue. She turned about to make some farewell to O'Doul, but O'Doul was bent over the woman in the wheel chair, embracing her wordlessly.
"Follow me," Lesk said.
Mary turned back to Lesk and followed him down the sidewalk, through the fog. Lesk crossed the street. Mary could hear the bus pulling away, though she could no longer see it.
The hotel, The Danielsport Arms, was only a block away. Its front door was fashioned from huge oak planks bounded together by ornately engraved strips of iron. Lesk set her bags down and pulled the door opened for her, setting off the tinkling of a bell.
Mary stepped inside—into an inn from another century. The oak floors were strewn with handmade rag rugs. A fire blazed in a huge stone hearth. Elaborately carved oaken chairs lined the walls. The oaken bar was polished dark and smooth by the oil from the fists of generations of Danielsport drinkers. A pyramid of shot glasses glittered on the bar and glazed ceramic beer mugs hung from all the wooden rafters. The wall behind the bar was piled high with wooden barrels, some with brass spigots.
"Mrs. G," Lesk called out as he set down Mary's bags in the lobby by the staircase that ascended over the bar. He took a look at his wristwatch then hollered up the stairs for Mrs. G. "She's probably in the back rooms making up beds," he explained to Mary. "She'll be down in a minute." He stood watching her nervously, shifting his weight from one leg to another.
Mary smiled self-consciously, and tried to set him at ease with a simple topic of conversation—the weather. "Think the fog will lift soon?" she asked.
Lesk shook his head. "Not until after midnight. The wind's supposed to shift by then and bring more rain," he answered. He glanced at his watch again.
"If you have somewhere to go, I don't mind waiting alone," Mary said.
"I've got to get to school," Lesk explained. " Let Mrs. G know who you are and she'll get you settled. I'll stop by this afternoon."
"Fine," Mary agreed.
Lesk hurried from the lobby. Mary removed her raincoat and lay it over her bags. She went over to the hearth to admire the carved mantelpiece and enjoy the fire's warmth, her thoughts, however, were still on O'Doul. The woman in the wheelchair must have been his mother. Would she be able to deal with her son's strange behavior? Mary wondered.
She shivered, remembering the creatures in the box with the air holes. Was it just a coincidence they grew agitated as they approached O'Doul? She'd heard it said animals could sense madness. And evil. Had something evil shocked the creatures?
Mary shook her head at her flights of fancy. Her father would have laughed at her speculations, reminding her that she had no proof. Of course, lately she'd come to rely on her instincts. Her father had taught her to do that, too, albeit unintentionally. Her mother may have been crazy, but she hadn't been wrong about her father's affairs.
"Miss Wellington?" a woman's voice queried.
Mary spun around. A heavy set elderly woman with steel gray hair stood just few feet away. The woman wore a white blouse, plaid wool skirt, white nurses shoes and a full linen apron.
"Yes?" Mary asked.
"Pleased to meet you," the woman said with a nod. "I'm Ginny Gotland. Everyone calls me Mrs. G. Chase arranged for your stay, but I'm afraid I was nursing a sick grandson all weekend, so your room's not quite ready. If you'd like you can leave your bags and go have breakfast across the street at Millie's Diner. Tell Millie I sent you over. I should have your room ready by the time you get back."
"That would be fine," Mary replied.
Mrs. G handed Mary an old key. "Room 9 at the back of the upstairs hall. It has the nicest view of the bay, on days it's not fogged in, that is. I'll leave your bags in your room."
"Thank you. After breakfast I thought I'd stop in at the paper to see the offices before Mr. Chase gets back," Mary said. "Can you tell me which way there?"
"It's just next door," Mrs. G said, pointing to the right side of the building, "but there's no sense going over there now. Sheriff's put a padlock on the door until Chase pays an outstanding debt."
An uncomfortable suspicion seized Mary. "Is the Danielsport Record having financial difficulties?"
"Not really. Chase wrote an editorial which ticked off some bankers who called in a personal loan Chase took out. They didn't give Chase much warning. Just their way of venting their spleen. Chase doesn't really own the paper though, his sister up in Bangor does. So the sheriff isn't really allowed to close the office, but Chase has to get some legal paper that says that."
"But he'll still have to pay off the loan," Mary said.
"Oh, that will settle out once Natalie Daniels gets back from New York. She was never one to let personal feelings interfere in bank business like her brother does. You just go have yourself a nice breakfast, stroll through the town if you want. Careful crossing the street in the fog."
Mary nodded. She put her raincoat back on and once again stepped out into the streets of Danielsport.
Millie's Diner was busy, a testament to Millie's skill as a chef. Mary savored her pancakes while eavesdropping on fishermen discussing other fishermen who hadn't yet found their way home to port in the fog.
After breakfast, following Mrs. G's advice, Mary strolled down the sidewalk, peering into the shops. Despite the fog, there were several people doing business in town at the drug store, the hardware store, the grocer, and the barber shop. More seasonal businesses were closed until Memorial Day, when the tourists began their northern migrations. The remaining shops were manned by proprietors reading the newspaper or dusting their goods.
Eventually she came upon O'Douls' Old Things. The display window resembled a miniature room cluttered with beautiful antiques. The sign in the window declared the shop was closed, but Mary tried the doorknob anyhow. It turned in her hand.
She hesitated for a moment. Her instinct told her she should check on O'Doul while her head reminded her that entering would mean disturbing a family reunion at a time of grief.
Suddenly Mary sensed someone watching her back. She whirled about and caught the briefest glimpse of a cloaked and hooded figure before it backed into the fog and disappeared with a hiss. Inexplicably frightened, Mary pushed open the door to the O'Douls shop, stepped inside and pushed the door closed behind her. Overhead a bell tinkled.
From the back of the shop a woman's voice cried out, "No! Justin, fight him! You must fight him!"
Feeling awkward about stepping into a family argument, Mary stepped into the shadow of a large chifforobe.
Justin stalked out from behind a curtained doorway. The woman in the wheelchair rolled after him. Justin picked up a crystal goblet and threw it at the woman. She ducked just in time. The goblet smashed into hundreds of pieces against the wall behind her.
"Justin!" the woman cried. "Concentrate."
"Cease your whining, woman," O'Doul growled. "Your son is mine now."
There was a strange accent to O'Doul's voice. Asian, Mary thought. She remained very still. She was unable to decide what to do and more than a little frightened. The chill she'd felt on the bus filled the room.
O'Doul strode over to the cash register and punched a key. When the drawer did not open, he banged at the register with the side of his hand and spat out angry words in a language Mary did not understand. There was an elaborate antique bird cage on the counter beside the cash register. Two bright yellow canaries fluttered inside. O'Doul put his hands on the top of the cage and glared at the creatures. The birds went wild. They cried out in high pitched shrills and flew against the bars of the cage, flapping their wings with such fury that their feathers began falling off. After several horrifying moments the birds fell to the floor of the cage and lay still.
O'Doul reached into the cage and picked up one of the birds by its feet. He tossed it into the lap of the woman in the wheelchair. "Unless you wish to share the same fate," he snarled, "you will give me the key immediately."
"I'll give you nothing, fiend!" the woman in the wheelchair shouted. "Release my son!"
O'Doul moved menacingly toward the woman.
Fearing the worst, Mary stepped out from the shadows. "Mr O'Doul, what is going on here?" she demanded.
O'Doul spun about. "You!" he snapped. "Do not interfere again, or you will regret it." His eyes began glowing bright red.
Mary gasped. She felt a horrible ache in her chest as her heart pounded against her rib cage. Some instinct warned her to flee, but she held her ground, as determined to discover what was going on as she was to protect this woman and keep O'Doul from doing something he'd regret. She began gasping for air, unable to get enough in her lungs to ease the pain in her chest.
The woman in the wheelchair rolled forward and grabbed O'Doul's hand with both of hers.
O'Doul screamed once like a wounded animal, then collapsed to his knees before the wheelchair. His body shook and he gave a great shuddering sigh. His head dropped into the woman's lap beside the still canary.
Suddenly Mary found she could breath easily, and the pain in her chest subsided. "What's going on here?" she demanded again.
Still clutching O'Doul's hand, the woman in the wheelchair looked up at Mary and replied calmly, "A contest between good and evil. And who might you be?"
Mary replied all in a rush, trying to explain her uninvited presence. "I'm Mary Wellington. I met Mr. O'Doul on the bus. He had some kind of fit just as we entered town. I just stopped by to see if he was all right. I guess he isn't, is he? Are you his mother? Sylvia O'Doul isn't it?"
"Yes," the woman replied. "I am Sylvia O'Doul. And I owe you thanks for your concern, and for intervening."
O'Doul looked up at his mother. "What is this thing in me?" he whispered.
"A curse," Sylvia O'Doul replied. "One which you have inherited from your poor father." She released her hold on her son's hand, and from the pocket on her shirt she drew out a folded sheet of paper. She unfolded the paper and held it out for her son to see.
Mary moved toward them and peered down at the paper. It was a copy of a bill of sale for an antique urn made out to Marcus O'Doul. The bill included a sketch of the urn.
"Your father brought this item back from a Bangor estate sale two weeks ago," Sylvia O'Doul explained to her son. "He bought it on a whim, without checking into its evil provenance."
"Its what?" Mary asked.
"Its provenance," Justin O'Doul replied emotionlessly. "Its the antique's background, its origin and all its known owners. So what was the provenance?" he asked his mother.
"It was the funeral urn for an official of the Chinese government during the early nineteenth century. He was known as Li Po, and he was greedy and corrupt and evil. You know of the Opium Wars?" she asked, looking up at Mary.
"That's the war the British started when the Chinese burned a bunch of British ships which were smuggling opium into China," Mary answered.
"Yes," Sylvia O'Doul said. "Against the decree of his emperor Li Po helped British merchants smuggle in the opium which poisoned his own people. With his ill-gotten wealth Li Po built a fortress and studied the dark arts. During the Opium Wars, the emperor's troops besieged Li Po's fortress. Li Po had a funeral urn fashioned for himself. It was made with the finest clay, mixed, so legend says, with the blood of maidens he had despoiled and murdered. He lay a curse upon the urn so that once his ashes were placed within his spirit could possess the body of whoever owned the urn. When Li Po was finally captured, the emperor had him tortured to death and his body left out on a spike. One of Li Po's servants stole the body and had it cremated and placed the ashes in the urn, fulfilling the conditions of the curse."
Despite having witnessed Justin O'Doul's inexplicable behavior, and strange power, Mary felt exceedingly uncomfortable with the direction Sylvia O'Doul's story was taking. While she had a passing interest in matters of the occult, Mary was far too skeptical to believe such matters readily. Justin O'Doul did not challenge his mother's tale though, so Mary remained silent, for the time being.
"Go on," O'Doul urged his mother.
"After the Opium Wars," Sylvia O'Doul explained, "Li Po's servant gave the urn to a wealthy British merchant who took it to England. It has been inherited since then by many men of wealth and power. Li Po possessed each one, corrupted them, spent their fortunes and ravaged their bodies with his excesses, both mundane and magical. It is not easy for him to completely possess a new host, though. The body he is in must die first so that his spirit can return to the urn. He must wait for whoever he has chosen as the beneficiary of his estate to come near to the urn. Then he battles that man's spirit for control of his body. In 1862, the owner of the urn died of cholera before Li Po made out a new will. The dead man's estate, with the urn, was inherited by a monastery. Unable to possess a holy order as he could a man, Li Po was forced to reside in the urn for nearly a century. During the war in Europe the urn was looted from the monastery and sold to an American. The urn's curse passed through several wealthy Americans until one of them died in a car crash before he made out a will. The urn was purchased at his estate sale by your father."
"And Li Po possessed my father?" O'Doul asked.
Sylvia O'Doul nodded. "I did not understand what was wrong with your father at first. Neither did he. He gave the urn to a woman, a complete stranger, and could not remember having done so. Then the daughter of one of the previous owners telephoned and told me of the curse. She had tried to purchase the urn to destroy it, but your father got to it before she did. I hurried to the sheriff and swore out a complaint against the woman, trying to get the urn back so I could destroy it before your father was completely possessed. But the sheriff could not find the urn. Then your father disappeared."
"He went off on a yacht with the woman you mentioned," Mary guessed.
The older woman nodded. "But Li Po could not leave the urn to someone else since I had a claim to it. I had hoped in this way to keep him from destroying my husband, but I had forgotten my son was heir to half his father's estate. Li Po must have decided Justin's youth would serve him better, at least make up for our family's lack of wealth."
"No," Justin said. "I knew Li Po's thoughts when he was in my mind. Dad killed himself before Li Po could corrupt his body and soul. He jumped off the yacht before Li Po possessed him completely."
Mary shook her head, still not ready to believe Sylvia O'Doul's fantastical story. "How come Li Po hasn't tried to possess you?" she asked.
"An old woman who cannot walk? He does not consider me worthy," Sylvia O'Doul explained.
"Why not just agree to sell the urn to someone else this Li Po can't possess?" Mary suggested. "Another monastery or a museum?"
"It is too late for that," Justin's mother explained. "Once Li Po's spirit has left the urn to begin the battle of possession it must finish the conquest and live in the body until its death. Only then can it return to the urn and start again. My son is doomed if we cannot find the urn and destroy it before Li Po wins the battle for possession."
"He won't win," Justin declared. From the pocket of his jacket he drew out a gun. "I'll follow my father before I'll let that thing use my body." He held the gun up to his head.
"Justin, no," Sylvia O'Doul cried out. "Do not give up hope yet. There is still time. As long as you can stay alert and concentrate you can fight the possession."
"How long is that, mother?" O'Doul argued. "A day? Until midnight? Can I make it until dawn? Better to choose my end before I'm powerless to make the choice." He flipped the safety catch on the gun.
Mary swallowed hard, her mind racing for the words to turn O'Doul from his course of action. She couldn't handle another suicide in her life. She squeezed her eyes shut against the vision of her own mother with her head lying on a pillow inside the gas oven.
His mother! Mary thought. He has to care about her more than anything. "Justin, think about your mother," she said. "If you do this, Li Po will be left with no choice but to possess her body. You have to fight it as long as you can, for her sake as well as your own."
Doubt appeared on O'Doul's face as he took in Mary's words and considered them.
"You're right," he agreed. He lowered the gun and slipped the safety catch back on.
"Why don't you put the gun down?" Mary suggested.
O'Doul shook his head. "I feel safer holding on to it."
"I'll make a deal with you," Mary said. "Give the gun to your mother, and I'll go find the urn and destroy it."
"You shouldn't be involved in this," O'Doul argued. "Li Po and his associates are dangerous enemies."
"I'm not going to let you kill yourself," Mary insisted. "Even if it means pretending I believe this whole crazy story. Promise me you'll fight this thing long enough for me to find this urn."
"I can look for it myself," O'Doul said.
"No," Sylvia O'Doul said. "You must stay here and concentrate on the battle against the spirit. Any distraction could provide Li Po with the opportunity to strike again. I will help Miss Wellington."
Mary shook her head. "I think it would be better if you stay here and help Justin concentrate. Justin, I think you should give the gun to your mother just in case. If Li Po gets possession of you for even a moment, don't you think it would be better if he didn't have a gun to hold on Sylvia?"
Mary held her breath while Justin mulled over her words. "You're right," he said finally. He handed his mother the weapon.
Mary sighed with relief. She looked down at Justin's mother "You'll look after your son, right? No suicides."
Sylvia O'Doul nodded.
Justin stood up. He took Mary's hands in his own. "Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"Maybe I'm going crazy, too," Mary joked with a bitter sense of irony. "Of course, just because I'm crazy doesn't mean Li Po isn't out to get you," she added.
"You do not believe any of this, so you do not understand the danger," O'Doul said sternly.
"I understand what I need to understand," Mary retorted.
"What do you understand?" O'Doul asked, challenging her.
"That I don't like living with guilt and regret. I'd trade it for living in danger any day," Mary snapped.
O'Doul looked surprised by her words. Surprised that she had spoken them. "Maybe you do understand something," he said. "Still, you are taking a great risk to save a stranger."
"Have you considered that I might be doing it to save myself, Mr O'Doul?" Mary asked.
O'Doul nodded as if he understood even though he couldn't possibly know about her mother's madness and suicide and her own guilt. "Then I'll trust you to save us all," he said. "I'll wait as long as I can."
Mary nodded. Determination swept over her. She would find the urn for O'Doul and his mother. And for her own sake. She had to.
To Be Continued…