The Guests on South Battery (25 page)

“Do you want to know what I think?” Jolly asked, her eyes bright behind her glasses.

“About what?” I asked.

“Your nanny—Jayne, right? I thought I saw it the first time she was here, and now I'm definitely sure.”

Uneasily, I asked, “Saw what?”

“An aura. She definitely has an aura. It's how you can tell someone has ‘the gift.' That's what my grandmother used to say about me, so that's how I know I can communicate with spirits. They're just taking a little longer to recognize that.”

“Really?” I said. “Do I have an aura?”

She shook her head emphatically. “No. Not even a shadow, or I would have told you. Sorry.”

“That's all right,” I said. “I'm sure it's more of a burden than a blessing most times.”

“That's for sure.” She began fiddling with the dragonfly-shaped pin on her blouse, staring at Jack.

With a straight face, he said, “Any more dark-haired gentlemen holding up a piece of jewelry?”

She shook her head solemnly. “Sadly, no.” Her face became grim. “Actually, I'm not sure, so I don't want to say anything. . . .” Although it was very clear that she was itching to tell us something.

“Go ahead,” Jack said. “We can handle it.”

“It's a cat. And it's talking to you. I just can't hear what it's saying.”

I stared at her for a moment, jolted by her mention of a cat. “What color is it?”

She frowned as if concentrating. “One of those striped tabby cats. With a long tail.”

I wondered if I'd sighed audibly. “Okay. We'll be on the lookout for talking striped cats.”

She shook her head. “You shouldn't take my messages so literally. I'm still new at this, so I do get things wrong—or a little twisted, I should say. But do think on it—it might become clear to you what the actual message is.”

“Will do,” I said. Knowing Jolly was watching, I gave Jack a chaste kiss good-bye and watched him walk away, headed toward a café where he could write.

I returned to my office and flipped on my computer and tried to work on a list of planned showings for a family flying in from California. Instead I found myself staring at the screen without really seeing it, imagining instead a house and a town floating underwater as if in a snow globe, and the haunting peal of church bells that hadn't been rung in more than thirty years.


stood with my mother in her Legare Street bedroom, feeling a little like Ali Baba after the secret cave had been opened. She'd emptied the contents of several jewelry boxes of varying sizes onto her bedspread, in search of a necklace she had in mind that would go perfectly with my dress for the launch party.

“I know it's in here somewhere,” came her voice from her vast walk-in closet, where several shelves were designated for her various jewelry containers. I was itching to organize them, but she'd refused my offer of help, claiming that they were organized by her age when she'd worn them and by her memories. Still, when I saw the mismatched earrings and knotted chains, I needed to clasp my hands together so I wouldn't do something we'd both regret.

She emerged with a small leather heart-shaped box. It looked old, the hinged fold cracked and worn. “It must be in here. This is the jewelry I wore when I was in high school, and maybe a few costume pieces from college. I can't imagine why it would be in here, but I can't think where else it could be.”

“Strange, that. Seeing that nothing else seems to be where it's supposed to be,” I said under my breath. “If you'd just let me organize it . . .”

“Mellie,” she said, in that tone of voice that usually only seasoned mothers had. She'd been mothering me for only a few years, but she'd already perfected it.

She opened the box and I peered into the jumbled mess inside, the chains wound around rings and earrings, and even a couple of stray buttons lying haphazardly on top. I bit down hard on my lower lip, and tasted blood. With red-lacquered nails, she drew out a pretty gold ID bracelet, the chain narrow and feminine. “I always thought I'd give this to my daughter when she was at Ashley Hall.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” I said, squinting to get a better look. On one side
Ginette Prioleau, Class of 1970
had been engraved, and on the other,
Ashley Hall, Charleston, South Carolina

“I'm thinking I'll give it to Nola her senior year. She's not interested in a class ring, but she'll consider this vintage, so she might like it.” She placed it on her dresser next to a single diamond earring stud that was missing its partner, and an S-link gold chain with a broken clasp. I'd already pointed out that I had no missing or broken pieces of jewelry because my costume jewelry was meticulously organized on labeled hooks and clear bins, and my good jewelry was in a locked safe where each shelf was labeled, so I kept silent.

“What's this?” I asked, pulling out a ring with what looked to be an oval onyx stone, a small diamond at its center.

I dropped it in her outstretched palm, and watched her face soften as she recognized it. “I loved that ring. I don't think I took it off for years.” She slid it over the third finger of her right hand, and I tried not to notice how easily it still fit. I'd had to have my wedding rings resized so I could still wear them.

“Who gave it to you?”

She was silent for a moment. “An old friend gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday.”

“You're not wearing your gloves,” I pointed out. “Aren't you picking up a lot of messages?”

“Sadly, no. It only seems to work when I touch an object that has
nothing to do with me. Which is a blessing, really, as I'd have to wear gloves inside my own home, which is something I'd rather not do.”

“But then you can't relive the memories that are attached to all this.” I looked back at the ring. “It is beautiful,” I said, admiring the braided platinum that encircled the finger and surrounded the onyx.

“Here, try it on.” She slid it off her finger. “I bet it will fit your middle finger, which I think is where it looks best, since it's so long. And it will look beautiful with your dress.”

I did as she asked, then held out my hand to admire it. “You're right—it does look good on the middle finger, and it fits perfectly. Are you sure I can borrow it?”

“Of course. Actually, why don't you keep it? It's not doing me any good sitting in my jewelry box, and I can't see myself wearing it again, so why not give it a new life?”

“Why not?” I said, holding it up to the light. “Thank you.”

She was distracted by something at the bottom of the box and quickly upended it on the bedspread. “Here it is!” She drew out a heavy gold chain from which hung a perfectly oval opal surrounded by little diamonds.

“It's stunning,” I said. “But I'm wearing a V-neck—won't that dip a little low?”

“Of course it will. That's the point. You've got this wonderful cleavage now—enhanced with your new bra, I might add—and it is the perfect accessory to your black sequined gown. I don't even think you need earrings or a bracelet—just this necklace and the ring and you're all set.”

I allowed her to drape the necklace around my neck, noticing how it hit me right between my breasts. “You don't think it might be . . . too much?”

My mother became serious. “Mellie, darling. This is as much Jack's night as it is Marc's. Marc is stuck with that silly Rebecca, who will be dressed up looking like a pink parfait—all empty calories. But you will be there looking like a filet mignon and making Jack proud that you're with him. It's going to be a difficult night. At least walking in, you will already be two points ahead.”

I frowned. “I really don't think of it as keeping score, Mother.”

“Well, you should,” she said, starting to pick up various pieces of jewelry and drop them into the boxes.

“Did you know that Jayne was invited to the party, too?”

She glanced at me over her shoulder. “Yes. She asked me to help her find a dress.”

I raised my eyebrows, causing my mother to stop what she was doing and face me. “That poor girl needs a mother in the worst way—even more than you did. Have you noticed how much better she is with children than adults? Anyway, I told her yes. I hope you don't mind.”

“Why should I mind?” I asked, trying desperately to keep the pique from my voice.

She sent me a knowing look. “We're going Sunday, her next day off, and you're welcome to come. It might be awkward, but I'd hate for you to think that I picked out a prettier dress for her.”

“Really, Mother? I'm not

It was her turn to raise her eyebrows.

“Besides, I'm not the one who says I should be keeping score.”

“That's different,” she said. “Rebecca's motives are never good. Whereas I really don't think Jayne has a conniving bone in her body.”

I pressed my lips together to keep from saying anything, remembering my earlier suspicions, and unwilling to completely let them go regardless of how much I trusted Jack or liked Jayne.

She returned to gathering up the jewelry to put it away. I held out both hands, wanting to stop the haphazard way she was dumping the pieces into random boxes. Sensing my mood, she turned her back to me and started moving quicker as if she were afraid I would give in to my urges and overpower her.

My phone beeped in my purse, and I dug it out to answer the text, eager to be distracted from the horror that was unfolding in front of me. “I've got to go. Sophie said they've found a cat and she needs me to come take a look. She suggested you come, too, if you can.”

“I should be able to make it,” she said, raising her arm to look at the watch on her wrist, then shaking her hand. “This is so annoying. I've
had this watch for years without a single problem, and then about a month ago it begins to stop at the same time no matter how many times I reset it.”

I felt my skin tighten along my scalp. “What time does it get stuck on?”

She looked at her watch again. “Ten minutes after four. Isn't that odd?”

“Odder than you think.” I placed the necklace and ring in my purse. “Come on. I'll drive and tell you all about it on the way over.”

She followed me out of the room. “What should I tell your father?”

“Whatever you'd like. Just as long as you don't mention that we're going to go look at a skeleton that's been boarded up inside an attic wall for about thirty years.”

Sophie, Rich Kobylt, and the entire work crew were waiting in the driveway when we pulled up to the Pinckney house, Sophie with a worried expression and Rich looking as if he was about to tell us again that he thought the house was haunted.

“Did you call Jayne?” I asked as Sophie approached.

She nodded. “She's on her way. Mrs. Houlihan already left, so she had to wait for Jack to come home so she could leave the children.”

“Afternoon, Miz Trenholm, Miz Middleton,” Rich said as he approached. “My guys are a little unsettled and it's already past quitting time, so I'm going to let them go home. But I'll stick around in case you need help moving . . . the remains.”

“It's only a cat,” I said. “I'm sure we can—”

“Thank you, Rich,” my mother said. “We'd appreciate it.” She turned her head to me and whispered, “I'm not touching it.”

Rich nodded, then returned to his crew, who began loading tools into the beds of their trucks. Jayne joined us, a little out of breath from her walk. “I'm not really sure I need to go in to see it,” she said. “I trust your judgment, Sophie. So if you just want to plaster it over . . .”

“Well,” Sophie said, drawing out the word, “it's a little more
complicated than that. Figured you should see it all yourself before deciding on how to proceed.”

Jayne looked up at the empty windows of the house, and I saw an almost imperceptible shudder go through her. She forced a smile. “All right. Let's go, then.”

We walked upstairs single file, Sophie in the front. The tingling at the back of my neck that had begun while I stood outside had fled, leaving me with the unsettled feeling of knowing we were being watched, but unable to stare back. It was like being in a fistfight, except I wasn't allowed to throw any punches. It was maddening, and frustrating, and not a little frightening.

I heard humming, and turned around to see Jayne, who seemed to be doing her best to stay calm. She'd told me a dozen times that she hated old houses, and I was sure we were about to expose a reason why so many people shared her opinion.

Heavy dust hung in the air from the recent construction work, where the worst water-saturated walls were being taken down to their studs. They had only gotten as far as the stairwell wall in the attic—although I didn't know if they could have gone much farther with the murals and furniture still untouched in the room above. At least that meant most of the wall with the backward writing had been destroyed and I could pretend it had never been there.

I almost asked Jayne then what she was waiting for. She had yet to make any decision as to the distribution of the house's contents, and I was getting tired of having Sophie bug me about it. It didn't seem likely that some distant family member would contest the will and tell Jayne to go away—that would have happened by now. Maybe Jayne was hoping that by not dealing with it, the problem would just disappear. As a lifetime subscriber to that school of thought, I was tempted to agree. Except I knew from experience that it wouldn't. Still, I found it oddly comforting that I wasn't alone in my rather warped way of thinking. It was, I realized, one of the reasons why I liked Jayne. As if we were partners in a foxhole and our lives were trench warfare.

When we reached the doorway to the attic, Sophie stopped. A
portable lamp had been placed on the steps to shine light into the dark opening of the adjacent wall, helped by the late-afternoon sun that poured in from the attic window.

Everybody seemed reluctant to move forward, so I did, not feeling brave at all but desperate to get this over with before nightfall. The days were still short and I had no intention of being caught in the attic after the sun set. The azure blue–painted walls where the words “Help me” had been scratched were gone, and all that remained were the darkened wood studs that looked like bones of the house with their flesh removed.

And there, between the studs, was a small doorway cut inside them, and beyond that a flight of wooden steps that led down into a dark abyss running almost parallel to the steps we stood on.

“The door was there all along,” Sophie said. “With a spring latch so there wasn't a knob, and the seams hidden in the mural.”

“So it was there before the mural was painted,” I said, thinking out loud.

“Not necessarily.” Sophie's face was pensive, and even in her ridiculous clothes she actually looked like the college professor she was. “The stairs are very old—I'm guessing they were part of the original house and these steps led down to a tunnel used for smuggling or other uses one might want to hide from the neighbors.” She glanced up as if we were students and she wanted to make sure we were following along.

“According to the copy of the renovation blueprints from 1930 that Jack and Melanie made for me, it doesn't look like anyone was aware that this staircase existed. There's nothing in the drawings, and no mention of it. The original doorway could have been plastered over when the bottom floor was filled in, and this doorway could have been added later, after the staircase was discovered accidentally—like we did.” She pointed to the ceiling above us. “From what I can tell, when they redesigned the roofline, they didn't take into consideration rain drainage. My guess is that they've had a steady leak since the new roof was installed in 1930. Even though several patches have been made over the years, it never fixed what is basically a design flaw.”

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