Delores spritzed herself with perfume from an atomizer and made a small moue at her reflection in the mirror. Too ostentatious, she thought, as she frowned at the necklace dripping diamonds into her ample cleavage. With one satin gloved hand she unclasped the necklace and flung it onto the counter next to her jewelry box. She could hear Grant pacing in the hallway outside the bathroom. Delores pursed her lips and rummaged through the box Grant called her treasure chest before deciding on a double strand of pearls. Grant knocked on the bathroom door, "Sweetheart, you're taking forever. We're going to be late. You know Stephen hates tardiness."

Delores muffled a curse word under her breath. Then, with her sweetest tones, answered, "Oh honeybear, I just want to look perfect, for you."

"Delores, we're not going to the goddamn opera. Hurry it up, will you?"

Delores flung open the bathroom door, swept her auburn tresses up in her hands and turned away from Grant, "I'm ready, love. Zip me?"

He obliged, planting a kiss onto her bare shoulder. Delores cooed. Grant looked at his watch, "If we leave now, and I speed a little, we can probably still make it on time."

Delores sighed, "Why do we even have to go?"

Grant stamped his feet, "Is that what this is about? Are you stalling? Are you twelve, Delores? You know damn well why we have to go."

Delores said, "I know why. That doesn't make it any less unpleasant. My clutch, dear. It's on the table behind you."

Grant passed Delores the purse and stormed off into the garage. As she grabbed her wrap, Delores could hear the Mercedes' engine revving. Men, she thought to herself, such children. Delores checked her makeup a final time before opening the garage door, sauntering over to the sedan and sliding into the passenger seat.

Grant scowled at Delores as the car backed out of the driveway, "What do you have to make such a big deal over this for anyway? Can't you be like the other wives?"

Delores smiled archly, "I thought you were with me because I wasn't like the other wives."

"You know what I mean. You always got to get all dressed up to the nines. And what's with balking like a cat faced with a bath when it's time to go?"

Delores sighed, "If you really must know, it's because it's the Hendersons' turn to host it. I really detest Emily Henderson. My loathing for her knows no bounds."

"What for? She's never been anything but perfectly nice to you."

"That's why. She's perfectly nice. Pleasant. Artificial as one of those silk rose arrangements one finds in the quainter bed-and-breakfasts. She grates on my nerves, has been for years."

"If you weren't such a goddamn snob, Delores --"

"It's not snobbery, Grant. I have no problems at all with Missy Cole, and God knows she's trailer trash. Emily Henderson is a flatterer, of the worst, most obnoxious sort. And she serves cheap booze."

"That's not fair. You know she started making martinis because she heard that you liked them."

Delores shook her head, "That's exactly it. Because she heard I liked them. Only I hate her martinis. The gin she uses is so sub-standard that I feel like I'm giving a blowjob to Christmas with every sip."

"Why do you always have to be so vulgar?"

"And I'm sure she'll make some perfectly hideous canape out of aerosol cheese food and--"

"You know Delores, you can be a real bitch."

Wounded, Delores said, "Well you asked why I didn't want to go."

"And you know damn well why we have to, and you can put up with Emily Henderson for a few hours a year."

"You know," Delores mused, "sometimes getting wrinkles and a fat ass doesn't seem all that bad."

Grant honked the horn with short, impatient blasts at the car in front of them and said, "You're going to be pleasant and sparkling and sweet, Delores. I'm not putting up with your goddamn moods."

"Whatever you say, Grant darling," Delores turned up the radio and hummed along to Peggy Lee. Grant grunted and sulked the rest of the way.

As they pulled up into the Hendersons' driveway, Grant looked at his watch and said, "We made good time. I knew skipping the interstate was a good idea."

Grant ran around to Delores' side of the car and opened the door for her. Pleased with Grant's sudden show of chivalry, Delores allowed herself to be helped up, and clutched Grant's arm. They walked up the primrose-bordered path to the mock tudor house, looking for all the world like devoted newlyweds. Grant rang the doorbell. After a few moments, a plump bottle blond wearing a slightly faded pink taffeta party dress opened the door. Her eyes crinkled merrily at Grant and Delores, "Grant! Delores, sweetie! I was almost getting worried, I know how punctual Grant always is," she poked at Grant's stomach with a stubby finger, "and Delores, dearie you look utterly scrumptious. You must let me in on your beauty secrets."

Delores smiled cooly and said, "Only if you tell me where you've been hiding that absolutely ravishing peacock green eyeshadow, Emily dear."

Emily Henderson beamed at Delores' comment then said, "But do come in! You'll catch your deaths of cold. Everyone's here. Oh, let me take that lovely wrap of yours."

Grant and Delores stepped into the Henderson household and followed Emily. Delores tried not to wince at the case full of commemorative plates they passed on the way to the dining room. Seated around the cherrywood Shaker-style table were the other members of the group:

Missy and Edgar Cole. She was a lean and wiry brunette with a beaklike nose and a stubborn jaw, surprisingly intelligent and always blunt, Missy was never afraid to say what was on her mind. He, on the other hand was delicate and fine boned with a wispy voice and wispier blond hair.

Laura and David Deveraux. Laura was an accomplished pianist with an awkward, grating voice that was surprisingly deep. She seldom spoke, instead she preferred to convey emotion with her large, deepset blue eyes. David was handsome in a distinguished way. His hair and mustache were salt-and-pepper, and his voice was pleasingly mellifluous.

Emily's husband, Roger. He was almost as plump as Emily with a blotchy, reddish face and coarse black hair that bristled out of his cuffs and collar. Roger, Delores thought disapprovingly, was entirely too fond of gold as evidenced by the number of rings that glinted on his chubby fingers.

And Stephen Van Driesen. Stephen was casually elegant in a heather grey cashmere sweater and dark glasses. Dark glasses that hid his compelling, steel blue eyes. His shaved head gleamed underneath the fake tiffany lamp. Stephen leaned back in his chair smoking a foul cigarillo and watching.

Delores and Grant took the two empty seats at the table. Delores pulled her silver cigarette case out of her purse and smiled at Stephen, who flicked his lighter open and leaned towards her, "Charming perfume, Delores."

"Delores, dearie! You and Grant must be famished. I've got just the thing," Emily shoved a plate covered in oddly colored, waxen appetizers, "You must have some! They're the most cunning thing. Found a recipe for them in Women's World. You'll never believe it, minced clam, cream cheese, jalapeño, cheez whip and canned pineapple. You just mix it up and throw it on a cracker, easiest thing in the world, but so tasty!"

Delores made her face a pleasant mask as she tried to hide her revulsion, "Oh, I just couldn't Emily. I have to watch my figure, it's not like I can just magic away the pounds."

There was brief laughter. Emily whisked the plate away and said, "Well dear, if you won't eat, you must have a soupcon of liquid refreshment. I've made your favorite martinis, a whole pitcher!"

Delores winked at Grant, who grimaced slightly. Stephen cleared his throat and folded his hands, "While I realize that we don't get nearly enough time to exchange pleasantries in this busy modern world, perhaps we should get on with the business at hand, and then break for some more of Emily's culinary delights."

Delores shot a grateful smile at Stephen. There were murmurs of agreement from the other members except Roger who said, "We never get enough to eat before we start. Hard business on an empty stomach, you know."

Stephen smiled indulgently, "But the hour grows late. We'll have plenty of time later for whatever appetites drive us, Roger."

Roger grumbled assent and Emily nervously said, "Well, then it's to the basement."

The party followed Emily down the narrow spiral staircase that led to the cellar. Emily unlocked the big oak door at the bottom of the stair and gestured for the others to enter.

"Your basement is by far the most thematic, Emily," David said diplomatically.

Pleased, Emily replied, "Well you know, I really try. Roger thought importing all that granite from Italy was a silly expense, but I wanted to do things right. And the gargoyles just anchor the room, I think. We got them on vacation in France, a real steal. Oh, and wait till you see the darling little ebony cabinet that I had installed for the robes."

"Them Robes get so dusty," said Missy, "We only use 'em once a year. Ought to have them cleaned or something."

"You know," said Emily as she opened the ebony cabinet and began handing out the heavy woolen robes, "I was thinking that the black we use is so fusty and boring. We should experiment with fabrics and colors. Perhaps blue velveteen with a patern of satin stars and moons --"

"I think perhaps the old ways are the best," interrupted Stephen.

"Nothing like tradition," opined Grant.

"I suppose," sighed Emily as she removed a curvy dagger with a hilt tooled to resemble a serpent from the sleeve of her robe, "but still, I think a change might breathe some fresh air into our little coterie."

There was a naked girl tied to the altar. Delores noted with disapproval that her hair was an unattractive dishwater blond with split ends, and that her color was sallow. Too thin, thought Delores, the girl's ribs were visible just beneath her skin. Delores sighed. She supposed that when you allow the Hendersons to procure the sacrifice you couldn't expect the best. She took her position with the other six in the circle around the girl. The girl's eyes grew wide with terror and the seven could hear muffled screams beneath the duct tape that covered her mouth. At least she's not drugged, thought Delores approvingly, Emily and Roger managed at least that much.

Stephen stood at the girl's head and raised his hands in supplication. He called out the dark names and petitioned, "We offer you a sacrifice. We offer you a gift. We bring you youth and beauty and terror. We do this in your name. We demand from you a gift for our faithfulness. We demand from you --"

All of them said it together, "Eternal youth and eternal life!"

The girl squirmed upon the altar and pulled against her bonds. Tears and snot ran down her cheeks. Her muffled screams were drowned out by the seven who chanted in forgotten languages. Stephen raised his knife above his head and cried, "This is our covenant! This is our bond! We once more renew ourselves, we once more renew our dread obligation!"

Stephen plunged his knife into the girl's ribcage and twisted. The other six soon followed with knives and fingers. The girl wiggled and bucked as her heart was ripped from her chest. The seven fell upon the heart ripping and clawing and biting. A few moments later Delores was wiping her face clean of blood with a silk handkerchief she had stowed in her clutch bag. A weak heart, she thought, it stopped beating almost as soon as it left the body. Still, it was good enough to keep her looking twenty-eight for another year.

Emily bustled up the stairs and called down, "There's an apple brown betty for dessert, everyone. If you all don't eat it, I'll just throw it away."

"You know the way to a man's heart," cried Edgar.

Stephen smiled at Delores, "These things always fatigue me a little. I believe I must pay my regrets to our hosts and leave soon. Next year at your place?"

Delores smiled back, "I can't wait."


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