The Guests on South Battery (26 page)

“So what are you saying?” I asked.

“That sometime between 1930 and now, someone was sent up to the attic to check out a roof leak, and discovered the staircase behind the wall, and then decided to hide a little doorway panel that gave access to the old stairwell.” She reached inside to the top step and pulled out an old paint can, its lid and handle flaky with rust. “I did find this, which is why I think the mural could have been painted before the door was made, and then the paint touched up with this. It's only the background color, which makes me think the addition wasn't made by the original artist.”

“Sumter,” I said. “Amelia told me that Sumter painted it for Hasell.”

“But why would they need a hidden door?” Jayne asked as we all moved forward to get a better look.

“I have no idea,” Sophie said.

My mother, who'd remained silent up to now, said, “Because whoever put it in wanted it to be kept a secret.” She stepped forward and stuck her head through the opening. “Is this where you found the cat?”

Rich Kobylt spoke from behind her. “Yes, ma'am—poor thing's at the bottom of the stairs. His skull is crushed—either from falling down the stairs or . . .” He didn't finish, but I knew all of our imaginations were working overtime. “I'm not a fan of cats, but that's a heck of a way to go.”

“What else is down there?” she asked.

“Well, that's the interesting thing,” Rich said, scratching the back of his head. “When I first went down there, it looked like the stairs ended at a cement wall. That's when I saw the cat, and it about scared the britches off me.”

I didn't remark how that wouldn't have been too hard, considering how low they were hanging, and waited for him to continue.

“Anyway, I was about to come back up to get a bag for the cat bones, and that's when I had this odd feeling, like a little voice almost, telling me to press against the wall where it ran alongside the steps. That's how I found it—a little button. And when I pushed it, a door opened into the butler's pantry downstairs. I went through it and closed it, and dang if you can tell it's there even if you know it. Whoever built that really knew what they were doin'.”

I met my mother's gaze.
A little voice.
Maybe a little girl's voice. Maybe Hasell had wanted him to find it. Because it meant something.

“Maybe it was made for Hasell,” Sophie suggested.

I shook my head. “These steps are even steeper than the other ones. In her physical condition she couldn't have gone up and down by herself. And she was bedridden for the last few years of her life.”

I turned back to Rich. “And there's nothing else?” I pressed, wishing this discovery had yielded more information.

He looked a little sheepish. “I didn't really have much chance to look. That cat scairt me a little, so as soon as I popped through that door in the butler's pantry, I came got Dr. Wallen-Arasi. But from the looks of it there's just a bunch of wooden stairs—and be careful on them, too. Some of them are warped from moisture. Easy to catch your foot on one.”

As soon as he finished speaking, I realized that Jayne was still humming and hadn't said anything for a while. I faced her, noticing her skin was a washed-out gray, accentuating her dark roots beneath the blond hair. “What's wrong . . .” I started to ask before I followed her gaze behind me.

Clustered around the old doorframe, a thick, moving mass of buzzing flies swelled and swayed, their sound suddenly noticeable. We watched in mute fascination as they formed themselves into a ball, then flew into the stairwell and out of sight.

Sophie reached the opening first and peered down. “They're gone,” she said. “I don't know where or how, but they're gone.”

A loud thump sounded behind me and I turned to find Jayne sprawled on the floor in a dead faint, her fall broken by a pillow from the bed that I didn't remember seeing there before. I looked toward the window at the setting sun, and felt the cold air on my back just as the rotting smell of dead flesh crept up from the blackened stairway.


walked slowly down the stairs at my house on Tradd Street, listening to the reassuring ticking of the grandfather clock in the quiet house. I'd just settled a reluctant Jayne into her bed with an Advil PM, and the twins were already tucked into their beds. They were supposed to be asleep, but I heard Sarah babbling. To whom, I wasn't sure. Nola and her friend Lindsey were holed up in Nola's bedroom studying for an AP American history exam the following day.

When I'd gone up to the girls earlier to deliver a plate of sugar-free carob-chip cookies, I surreptitiously checked for any sign of a Ouija board, and had been satisfied that it hadn't been brought back into our house.

Jack was at his desk in the front room, surrounded by haphazard stacks of paper, making my fingertips itch, and jotting notes on his yellow lined notepad. He looked up as I approached. “How is Jayne?”

“Fine. More embarrassed than anything. She thinks she was holding her breath too long, and that's why she fainted. It's funny, though. . . .” My voice trailed away as I thought back to the attic room and the hidden steps.

“What's funny?” Jack prompted.

“Well, not really funny, but odd. She said she was holding her breath because the stench was so bad. But nobody else smelled anything—until my mother and I did right after Jayne fainted.”

“She is younger,” Jack pointed out.

I gave him a hard stare.

“Well, it's a documented fact that as you grow older, you lose your sense of smell.”

“Nothing's wrong with my sense of smell. Or my mother's. We could smell the construction dust and the mildew, but nothing like the putrid scent Jayne said she smelled—and that I smelled the last time I was in the attic with Sophie, and again right after Jayne fainted.”

Jack tapped the eraser end of his pencil on the paper. “Maybe it was her imagination. She has a real fear of old houses, so she'd probably already prepared herself for the worst, even to the point of thinking she could smell that cat despite the fact that it's been dead for years.”

He pulled me down onto his lap. “I hope Rich wasn't insulted that she wanted me to help her out to the car and bring her home instead of him. I was practically in front of the house with the kids in the car headed to the park when you called, so I wasn't going to say no.”

I was silent for a moment as he buried his nose in my hair. “I think she was afraid he'd trip on his pants if both of his hands were occupied,” I said. “But I'm glad you had a chance to see the house. You should go back during the daytime. The more Sophie tells me about the work that needs to be done, the more I'm beginning to understand why Button wanted to unload it onto a complete stranger. Any of her friends would have thought they'd made her mad and she was punishing them.”

He chuckled, his warm breath caressing the back of my neck. “It was nice of her to allow me to bring back all those photos from Button's room.” He indicated the frames now standing on the back edge of his desk. I noticed the heavy dust and tarnish on them and made a mental note to clean them tomorrow. I couldn't ask Mrs. Houlihan, because Jack had asked her never to touch anything on his desk and so she wouldn't. I'd wondered at her devotion and so had asked her to bake me fudge brownies and she'd refused.

“I'm still not sure what you need them for.” I tilted my head backward to give him easy access to my throat.

“They're just pieces in a puzzle. Writing a book is like that, you know. Putting together a puzzle. Except sometimes a bunch of pieces are thrown in that don't fit and sometimes you don't figure that out until after you've wasted a lot of time trying to force them into place.” He pulled back, his gaze focused on the frames. “When I'm writing about real people and real events, it helps me to keep their photos nearby to remind me what I'm really writing about. Helps me to focus. Although I'm still not sure what this story is.”

I picked up the Alabama saltshaker that on a whim Jack had also asked to take with him, my index finger absently tracing the painted date. May 30, 1984. “The only thing I know for sure is that Sumter and Anna Pinckney adored their daughter. Anna especially. She devoted her whole life to Hasell's care. I just can't imagine how hard it would be to see your child wasting away with nobody able to tell you why or what you can do to fix it.”

Jack's eyes were dark. “And Anna was basically doing it on her own. From what my mother tells me, Sumter traveled all the time. Maybe he felt as helpless as Anna, and chose to keep busy by spending as much time as he could outside the house. Or . . .” He stopped.

“Or what?”

“Or Anna made him feel superfluous, not needed. That she was the only parent who could nurse Hasell properly.”

I peered over at his notes, noticing the words
Hasell Architecture & Construction
that were underlined three times. “What's that?” I asked.

“That's the name of Anna's father's company. She had a degree in architecture from Clemson—did you know that? She worked for him when she was newly married, but then left to care for Hasell full-time.”

“Your mother said that Anna's father's company built the Pinckneys' lake house, and that's how the families originally met. Anna and Button practically grew up together—it's no surprise that Anna would eventually marry Button's brother.”

Jack sat up, shifting around piles of paper until he found what he was
looking for. “This is a letter I found in Rosalind's archives—Button and Sumter's mother, dated November 1960. It's from her husband regarding the house in Alabama—which I'm assuming is the lake house. He said he'd hired a local couple—newlyweds—to act as caretaker, general handyman, and housekeeper. He planned to keep them on full-time. Like they really intended to use the lake house as a second home, and made sure it was always ready for them.”

“Interesting,” I said to be polite. Old letters from people long-since dead had never had any appeal to me. Especially since I had other, more direct, ways to communicate with them.

He took the saltshaker from my hand and began to roll it in his fingers. “The way somebody painted that date onto the shakers—it must mean
. It looks like it might be the only thing that remains from the lake house. And yet, according to these letters to Rosalind, accumulated over several decades, that house was a real haven for her and her family. A very special place that they all looked forward to visiting as often as they could.”

“How do you know it's the only remaining piece of the house?”

“My mother. I asked her about it. She told me that she'd offered to have her moving people load everything up at the lake house to either salvage or sell before they flooded the lake, and Button told her it should all stay intact. So that when she remembered it, she'd know it was all still there, just underwater.”

Reaching forward, he pulled a photocopied version of a piece of newspaper toward us. “This was after Rosalind's death, so I'm assuming Button must have clipped it out and added it to her mother's drawer full of correspondence for posterity's sake. I've read through it several times, and the one thing that sticks with me is that the families on the lake and in the town knew what was coming a full year in advance. And the Pinckneys even had my mother offering to help them empty the house and take care of the contents. Yet Button and her brother did nothing to save anything from the house. Only a salt-and-pepper-shaker set with that date written on it.”

“It could be anything, Jack. Like your mother said, they wanted to
keep the house intact, even underwater—that's why they only took the shakers. And maybe that's the date a favorite dog died. Or a first kiss. Who knows? It was with the rest of the collection at the South Battery house where it probably always was—and not salvaged from the lake house at all. I think you're reading more into this than is there.”

He continued to thrum the pencil against the pad. “How many years ago was that—thirty-two? That's really not that long ago. Rosalind's husband said he'd hired a local couple—and they were newlyweds in 1960. It's possible they're still alive, and might even still live locally. I'm thinking I need to take a research trip to Alabama and see what I might be able to turn up.” He tossed down the pencil and began unbuttoning my blouse. “I certainly can't get any writing done here, so I might as well see if I can be productive someplace else. In the meantime . . .”

He'd just pressed his mouth to the little triangle of skin above my bra when the doorbell rang. Reluctantly, he sat back and began rebuttoning my blouse. “The doorbell always thinks it knows when it should start working again.”

“It's probably someone coming for Lindsey. It's almost ten o'clock.” As if on cue, the grandfather clock struck four.

Jack came with me to the door and opened it to find Michael Farrell, Lindsey's father. The men shook hands and then Jack excused himself to go get Lindsey. Out of politeness, I asked Michael if he'd like something to drink and he surprised me by saying yes and following me into the kitchen.

I poured him a glass of sweet tea from the pitcher in the fridge, then joined him at the kitchen table, feeling awkward while gradually growing aware that he was trying to find the right way to say something.

“Is everything all right?” I preempted. “Lindsey okay?”

He took a sip of his tea and nodded. “Yes, everybody's good.” He regarded me for a long moment. “I'm trying to find the right way to ask you for a favor.”

“A favor?” I said, surprised. “A favor to do what?”

“Actually, it would be a favor to ask you
to do something.”

“I'm afraid I don't know what—”

“I've been doing some research on you and your mother.”

“Oh,” I said, sitting back in my chair, finally understanding where he was leading.

“Veronica said that she was only hiring your mother, but from what I've read, you also claim to be ‘psychic.' I can certainly understand why you would have tried to evade the truth when we talked about it at your party.”

I sat up. “I wasn't trying to ‘evade' anything, and I certainly have not made any claims about being psychic despite what you may have read.”

He crossed his arms and watched me dubiously, his sweet tea forgotten. “Yes, well, when I asked Veronica about it, she admitted that you and your mother have both agreed to help her find out what happened to Adrienne.”

When I didn't respond, he said, “I'd like to ask you not to.”

“Look, Michael, regardless of what you do or don't believe, don't you want your wife to find some kind of closure about her sister's murder?”

He placed his fingers flat on the surface of the table, and I noticed how his cuticles were ragged and torn as if he chewed on them regularly. He laughed, but it wasn't a humorous tone. “Of course I want my wife to have peace of mind. And Lindsey, too—Adrienne's middle name was Lindsey, did she tell you? Veronica has got Lindsey all hyped up about finding Adrienne's killer, and there's nothing else those two think about anymore. It's not healthy.”

“But that's what I'm saying. There's new evidence that might lead to the killer. There
hope that the peace they need can be found.”

He shook his head. “No! The new evidence means
. Even Detective Riley agrees with that. Building up their hopes by saying you can use some mumbo jumbo to solve Adrienne's murder is cruel. And I want you to stop.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “I'm not asking you. I'm telling you.”

I stood, feeling more angry than threatened. “I'm sorry you feel that way. But as I mentioned before, your wife is working with my mother. . . .”

He slid back his chair so quickly it almost toppled backward. He
wagged his index finger at me. “I've read about you and your ‘adventures' finding dead bodies. I've even spoken to that reporter, Suzy Dorf. We had a nice conversation about you, as a matter of fact. And how it's so convenient that dead bodies are always turning up around you. It's easy to pass off as ‘psychic powers,' isn't it? Sounds so much better than insider information.”

We heard Jack outside the door, and Michael's demeanor immediately softened. “I'm sorry. It's just my whole household is in such turmoil because of all this. And I just want it to . . . go away.”

The door opened and Jack poked his head in. “There you are—we were wondering where you'd gone to. Lindsey's ready to go. They both look dead on their feet.” He opened the door wide to allow us to pass through.

Michael smiled amenably. “I was parched, and your lovely wife invited me to have a glass of tea.”

We found the girls in the foyer, still in their rumpled school uniforms, looking exhausted. I put my arm around Nola's shoulders and she leaned into me. “Want to know about Manifest Destiny and the acquisition of Texas?”

“Sounds fascinating, but not tonight. I think you both need to get to bed. And, Nola, please pick up your room first—Mrs. Houlihan said she'd like to be able to fit a vacuum in there tomorrow.”

Nola pushed away from me. “But I'm so tired!” she said, her shoulders and body slumping as if she'd been excavating rocks and moving them uphill all day.

“You should have thought about that when you were dropping your dirty socks on the floor instead of in your laundry basket,” Jack said, and I looked at him appreciatively.

We said our good-byes and watched as Nola slowly climbed the stairs, her feet dragging exaggeratedly. “Time to milk the cows, plow the back forty, feed the chickens . . .”

I hid my smile. “I'm just asking you to pick up your room, Nola.”

“. . . stack hay in the barn, fix the tractor . . .” she continued until we heard her door shut upstairs.

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