She had been standing in front of the picture for several minutes before she began to notice it. The other paintings in the gallery were purely abstract but as she stared at this one, waiting for her father, passing the time, shapes began to emerge from the field of nondescript color, vague as shadows on smoke: disconnected fragments of stair, random archways, openings into nowhere, ghostly glimpses of an unfinished labyrinth. Here and there a detail was highlighted, a splinter of sky beyond a broken vault, a segment of window with branching latticework, eye blinks of clarity which seemed to flicker into being even as her gaze skimmed over them. The artist drew her attention to and fro with a skill that was almost disquieting, letting her roam the boundaries of image, then pulling her gradually toward the focus, where an irregular patch of vividly contrasting color was set like a gaudy postage stamp at the very center of the picture. Initially the truncated rectangle, perhaps three inches high, appeared so crowded with microscopic detail that it resembled a vast and complex mosaic, miniaturized until all coherence was lost. But as she studied it, either because her vision became acclimatized or by some contrivance of the artist, the tiny shapes seemed to shift, like a kaleidoscope falling into place, and she found herself looking through a doorway or casement out over a city. Wide streets lined with columns and colonnades, clustered roofs hiding secret alleys, glistening domes, steeples, spires, palaces and terraces, temple-walls and tavern-walls, courtyards, backyards, fountains, gardens. Everything was bathed in the gold of a falling sun, enriching paintwork and stonework, touching the gilding on the domes with pure fire. She did not know what city it was yet it looked both ancient and timeless, a Rome that lived on free of traffic and tourism, a new-built Jerusalem unscarred by warring factions, the seat, maybe, of a higher civilization, older than history, fresh as the world in which it flourished, whose ruins had since crumbled to dust and whose wisdom had long been forgotten. She was not a fanciful girl, or so she told herself, yet her dormant fancy was stirred: she was pierced by a nostalgia for a place she had never seen, for the fairy-tale realms she had always rejected.
"Do you like it?" inquired a voice behind her. "You seem to be rather absorbed."
She turned abruptly. The gallery was carpeted and the owner—she was sure he must be the owner—had approached so quietly she had not heard him. "I don't know," she said. "I haven't decided. It's very interesting."
"So you don't believe in impulsive judgments." The voice was as smooth as pouring cream with a faint intonation of mockery, but whether lofty or merely teasing it was impossible to tell. There was little humor visible in his expression. Glossy pale gray hair framed his face like a steel halo; his café-crème complexion was unlined, creating an effect of careful preservation rather than enduring youth; his eyes were almond-shaped and flecked with glints of yellow light. He was delicately suave, discreetly elegant, gracefully tall. She disliked him immediately, on impulse. "It's an etching," he went on. "Did you know?"
"No, I didn't." Of course she didn't. "I thought etchings had to be in black and white."
"The technique is very complex." Once again, that trace of superiority. "Bellkush has always favored the most difficult approach. The effect, I think, is almost unearthly—those diaphanous layers of subtle color. Almost unearthly. Appropriate, perhaps, to the subject matter."
"What is it called?" she asked, rather as if the question had been wrung out of her.
"Lost City." There was a pause while she felt herself drawn back to the contemplation of that crowded portal. "Are you here to buy?"
"I'm waiting for my father." She dragged her eyes away from the picture. He must know who she was: he had seen them
"Ah ... yes. Robin Capel's daughter. And your name is?"
"How pretty. Also unusual." Her name might have been a piece of bric-a-brac which had attracted his wandering attention.
"I had a Spanish grandfather," she explained, lapsing into her routine excuse. It was untrue, but she had always felt such an exotic appellation needed more justification than her mother's erratic taste. She did not approve of foreign names without foreign blood to back them up.
"Fern!" Her father, his discussions concluded, came toward them, wearing his habitual expression of slightly anxious goodwill. The young woman who worked at the gallery followed in his wake. "So you've met Javier. Er—terrific. Terrific. What were you chatting about?"
"The pictures." The man answered for her.
"I'm afraid you must have found my daughter's taste a bit—well, conservative. She's a very down-to-earth young lady, you know. Likes sitters in portraits to have all their features in the right place, trees to be the proper shade of green—that sort of thing. Only abstract painter I've ever known her to admire is Mondrian. She says he'd make nice kitchen wallpaper."
"That would be a very expensive kitchen," said the man called Javier. Robin and the woman both laughed.
"Daddy, don't make me sound so boring," Fern said, wanting to leave.
"Just a joke, darling. Oh—I'd like you to meet Alison Redmond. We're definitely going to collaborate on the witchcraft book. She'll organize several of the artists here to do the illustrations. It should be a big success. Alison, my daughter Fernanda."
They exchanged a polite handshake. Close up, the woman was not so young: her face was long and pointed with an incongruously full mouth adorning its thin structure and pale narrow eyes between heavily mascaraed lashes. Her off-blond hair was waist-length and worn loose. Had Fern not been too prosaic for such comparisons she would have thought her father's future collaborator resembled a witch herself.
"Terrific," murmured Ms. Redmond. Possibly Fern imagined the same elusive mockery in her voice that she had detected in Javier's smooth accents. For a moment, seeing her father standing between them, she was visited with the illusion that he was somehow trapped, hemmed in by two predatory figures, the man with his superior height and superior smile, the woman with her warmth of manner and coldness of eye. The impression of danger, though fleeting, disturbed her because it seemed out of all proportion to the actual threat. In the six years since her mother died Fern had monitored her father's love-life with the skill of an international statesman, dismissing a succession of unsuitable candidates out-of-hand. The menace here was surely similar, the standard hazard of marauding huntress and hapless prey; she had dealt with it a hundred times, and she had never before experienced any doubts or premonitions. But then, Fern did not believe in premonitions.
Robin shook more hands in farewell, while she resisted an irrational urge to drag him away.
That was the beginning, she decided long afterward. The meeting at the gallery, the sense of menace, the picture. The incident seemed trivial enough at the time but it left her feeling vaguely perturbed, as if the outlying penumbra of some far-flung shadow had brushed the borderline of her bright safe world, or she had caught a few isolated notes of an eerie music which would soon come booming from every corner of the universe, obliterating all other sound. The events of that extraordinary and terrifying summer became perhaps easier to assimilate because she was in some sort prepared: from the moment of that initial encounter an unfamiliar atmosphere began to seep into her life, unsettling her, unbalancing her cultivated equilibrium, making her vulnerable, unsure, receptive to change. She was sixteen years old, well-behaved, intelligent, motivated, a product of the Eighties in which she lived, viewing the world with a practical realism engendered by the early death of her mother and the responsibilities which had devolved on her as a result of it. Her father's easygoing manner had acquired its undercurrent of anxiety from that time, left alone with a small daughter and smaller son, but it was Fern who had gradually taken charge of the household, trading au pair for housekeeper, seeing the bills were paid, bossing her surviving parent, attempting to boss her younger brother. She had coasted through puberty and adolescence without rebellion or trauma, avoiding hard drugs, excessive alcohol, and underage sex. Her future was carefully planned, with no room for surprises. University; a suitable career; at some point, a prudent marriage. She thought of herself as grown-up but behind the sedate façade she was still a child, shutting out the unknown with illusions of security and control. That summer the illusions would be dissipated and the unknown would invade her existence, transforming the self-possessed girl into someone desperate, frightened, uncertain, alone—the raw material of an adult.