Read The Guests on South Battery Online
Authors: Karen White
I stared at her. “You don't like old houses?”
“I don't like all thatÂ .Â .Â . history in a place. I want something fresh and new. Lots of metal and glass and stone.”
“I see,” I said, jotting down notes. I did see. I'd said those exact same words when I first inherited my house on Tradd Street and had said them often since, the most recent this very morning as I'd turned my back on my sunken garden and headed toward my car. “Where is your house located?”
“On South Battery Street. Right near the corner of Legareâthe big white house with the portico and columns.”
I thought for a moment. “The old Pinckney house?” I knew it, of course. I was on a first-name basis with just about every old house in Charleston either through a family connection or from my job as a Realtor specializing in historic real estate. “Button Pinckney was an acquaintance of my mineâa lovely woman. Was she a close relative?”
Jayne looked down at her hands as if embarrassed. “Actually, I'd never met her. And I didn't know until now that Caroline Pinckney had a nickname. I didn't even know of her existence until three weeks ago when her lawyers contacted me to let me know I'd inherited her estate.”
DÃ©jÃ vu. I had a flash of memory of me sitting in a lawyer's office not far from here as a lawyer explained to me that Nevin Vanderhorst, a man I'd met just once, had left me his crumbling house on Tradd Street that I neither wanted nor needed.
I was clenching the pencil so tightly that I had to place it on the pad of paper. I forced a smile. “Miss Pinckney was a friend of both my mother's and my mother-in-law's. They all went to school together at Ashley Hall.” I thought for a moment. “As far as I recall, Button never married or had any children. There was an older brother, I believe, who died a few years back. I don't believe he had any children, either, although I'm pretty sure he was married at some point.” I remembered, too, that there had been some sort of tragedy associated with the family, but I couldn't recall the details.
Jayne sighed. “Yes, well, you can't imagine my surprise to hear that I've inherited an old house from a complete stranger.”
“Believe it or not, I actually can.” I closed my mouth, unwilling to share my personal feelings toward old houses and the way the walls always seemed to be whispering. “Maybe your mother or father or some other family member might want to see it first before you make any decisions. Surely they'll have some idea as to why Miss Pinckney left her house to you.”
Jayne went very still. “There's no one.” She slowly raised her eyes to mine. “I don't have a family. I was raised in the foster care system and was never adopted.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. A disturbance in the air behind her made the space shimmer, like the shift in air pressure before a storm. I stared hard, trying to see what it was, but saw nothing. But I knew it was there, watching us. Listening. Wanting to be seen but unable to show itself. My gaze met Jayne's. She stared back at me unblinking, and again I felt as if we'd met before.
She continued. “I'm fine with it nowâit was a long time ago. Maybe this inheritance is just karma for an unsettled childhood and I shouldn't question it too closely.” She smiled brightly, and I almost believed her.
“Did the lawyer give any indication why Miss Pinckney chose you?”
“I did ask, but he said she didn't share any details or more information, even though he asked her repeatedly, anticipating, correctly, that
I'd have my own questions. He did say he'd done a little bit of research on his own but hadn't been able to discover anything.”
There was something about this woman that I liked, that made me want to help her. Maybe it was because I remembered a time in my life when I'd felt like an abandoned orphan, navigating life all on my own. “My husband is a writer who writes books about the area and knows everybody in Charleston, living or dead. He has a real knack for finding unturned stones. If you'd like, I could ask him to help.”
“Thank youâI'll think about it,” she said. “I can't help wondering if finding out why would be a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
I nodded, understanding her position more than she could imagine. “And you're sure you want to sell it?”
“Absolutely. Old houses don't appeal to me at all. They all have thatÂ .Â .Â . smell about them. Like decay and mildew and dust. That's why I'd like to take the money from the sale of the house and find something more modern and fresh. Preferably built within the last five years.”
I nodded, thinking about my old condo in Mt. Pleasant, with its plain white walls and gleaming chrome and glass surfaces, where I'd lived before my unexpected inheritance and still thought fondly of from time to time. Usually directly after writing out another check to Rich Kobylt for a repair. “All right. But we'll have to go into the house to get a value. To see what kind of shape it's in and if it needs any immediate repairs before putting it on the market. Sadly, most of them do.” I thought of Mr. Vanderhorst and his sad smile.
“It's like a piece of history you can hold in your hands.”
I smiled at Jayne, trying to appear hopeful. “A good friend of mineâDr. Sophie Wallen-Arasiâis a professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston, and I know she'd love to come along and give us her professional opinion.”
I could hear her swallow. “You can do that on your own, right? I wouldn't have to go inside, too, would I?”
“Not necessarily,” I said, studying her. “But I think it would be a very good idea for you to see it for yourself. Who knows? Maybe you'll change your mind about selling. It's been known to happen.”
“I won't,” she said quickly. “So, ballparkâhow much do you think the house could be worth? I'm not being mercenary or anything; it's just that I'll need to know how much I can spend on the new condo. I have no idea how long it will take to get a job here, so I won't be able to rely on a salary at first.”
“To be honest, I have to go inside before I could make any determination. There are several houses on the same street that have sold in the low seven figures in the past few years, but there are also some that have sold for quite a bit less, mostly because of their condition. Buyers get them for a steal but then end up spending three or four times over the purchase price in restoration work. It would be in your best interest to get the highest selling price possible, which might mean doing some basic renovations before it hits the market.”
She nodded slowly. “Well, that's a start anyway. And I've already made appointments with several agencies to start the job hunt. It's just a long process with background checks and all, and I really want the sale of the house behind me before I start working full-time. And I can't buy a new place until it sells.”
I was busy writing down notes, including reminders to talk to Jack and my mother about Button Pinckney and her family, and their connection with Jayne Smith. “What is it that you do?” I asked absently.
“I'm a certified professional nanny.”
The lead from my mechanical pencil snapped. “A nanny? Like, for small children?”
She laughed. “Are there any other kinds? But yes, a nanny for small childrenâand older ones, too. Some people find it odd that somebody raised without siblings would want to be a nanny, but I think that's why I am. I was in lots of foster families, and I always ended up taking care of the younger children. I guess even back then I knew that would be my only chance at having siblingsâat least for a short time.”
I placed the pencil down on my desk and leaned back in my chair. “What is your take on sleeping and feeding schedules for infants?”
“A definite must. Schedules are incredibly important to growing children. They need regular feeding and sleeping times.”
“A bad idea.”
“Bottles in the crib?”
“Never. Rots their teeth.”
“Time-out chair is more effective.”
“Cloth or disposable?”
“Baby French lessons?”
“Infant beauty pageants?”
Jayne sent me a sidewise glance. “Seriously? You don't seem the type.”
I smiled. “I'm notâjust checking.” I pushed my chair back from the desk. “So, it just happens that I'm looking for a nanny for my ten-month-old twins. Their last one left rather suddenly and we're a bit desperate, I'm afraid. It seems as if we agree on many child-rearing issues. If you're interested, I'd love for you to come meet them and allow us to get to know each other better. Perhaps even make it a permanent thing if it all works out.”
She practically beamed and I had to restrain myself from doing cartwheels around the room and giving myself fist bumps. “I'm definitely interested,” she said.
“Good. I'll have to do a background check, of course.”
“Absolutely. I can give you all the contact information from my agency in Birmingham, as well as references from my last three families. I think you'll be happy with my past performance.”
I pulled out one of my business cards from the holder on my desk and handed it to her. I waited for her to say something about the multiple phone numbers, but instead she responded by sliding her own card across the desk toward me. I picked it up and saw that she had two cell phone numbers. I looked at her and smiled, feeling as if I had finally met a kindred spirit.
“Because you never know when one phone will stop working or has a dead battery,” she explained.
“Exactly.” My smile widened. “It's so nice to finally meet somebody who thinks ahead. Everybody else seems to only understand how to live in the minute.”
Jayne stood, too. “I know, right? It can be annoying to be the only one prepared for the âjust in case' scenario.” She reached her hand across the desk and we shook. “It's a pleasure meeting you. I'll get all my information together and bring it over later today so you can get started with my background check. And call me anytime to set up an appointment to meet your children and husband.”
“And to go over and look at the Pinckney house. I'll check with Sophie about her availability and let you know.”
Her smile dimmed. “All right. I guess the sooner we start, the sooner we can get it sold.”
We said good-bye and I returned to my desk, spotting the pink slips Jolly had given me. Two were from my annoying cousin and Jack's ex-girlfriend, Rebecca, and one was from the journalist at the
Post and Courier
, Suzy Dorf, who had an abnormal interest in me and my house. Since I would have preferred to stick a knitting needle into my eyeball rather than speak with either of them, I folded each note up into tiny little squares, then placed them in the bottom of my trash can.
It was only when I picked up the phone to call Sophie that I realized the presence was gone, leaving only the fresh scent of rain as evidence that it had ever been there at all.
espite my battered and bruised feet, I nearly skipped home. It had been a long day, the bright spot being Skyping with Jack while he fed the babies their lunches of strained peas and pureed peaches. He'd still worn the T-shirt and pajama bottoms he'd slept in, but I refrained from commenting. I'd come to understand that writers had a few eccentricities I had to learn to live with. Not scheduling certain things like dressing in the morning or vetting one's sock and underwear drawer on a monthly basis were just a few of the quirks to which I was making an effort to adjust.
I couldn't wait to get home and kiss my babies and tell Jack that not only did I have a lead on a nanny, but I had three new clientsâin addition to Jayne Smithâand six house showings already scheduled for the rest of the week. They'd all seen the ad I'd placed in the latest edition of
, for which Nola had suggested including a picture of Jack and me, all three children, and the dogs in front of my Tradd Street house. She said it would make people believe that I knew what people meant when they said they were looking for a family home, and that I understood that historic homes were meant to be lived in.
I wasn't sure I believed all that, but if it helped me sell houses, so be
it. During my downtime, in which I'd dealt with the prospect of losing my home, an angry ghost, a difficult pregnancy that included months of bed rest, and my undefined relationship with Jack, I'd lost out on two news-making sales in Charlestonâthe Chisholm-Alston Greek Revival purchased by a well-known international fashion designer and the old, dilapidated yet still magnificent Renaissance mansion known as Villa Margherita on South Battery. I'd cried for days after learning those homes had sold and I hadn't been the one to broker the deals. If anything, my anguish meant that my competitive spirit, dormant for so long, had reemerged kicking and screaming.
It was a good thing, considering we owed Nola for the money she'd given us to purchase the house when my ownership was contested. She was already a successful songwriter, having sold two songs to pop artist Jimmy Gordon and having one of them featured in an iPhone commercial, and she'd willingly given us the money, but neither Jack nor I would feel good about it until we paid her back in full with interest. Despite recent career setbacks, Jack had just signed a healthy two-book contract with his new publisher, but we were still trying to recover financially. Not to mention the fact that we owned an old house whose favorite hobby seemed to be hemorrhaging money.
My pace slowed as I neared my house, catching sight of not only Sophie's white Prius parked at the curb, but also Rich Kobylt's truck still in the same spot as I'd last seen it. This couldn't be good. I hadn't been able to reach Sophie when I tried earlier, and I wondered if she'd been avoiding speaking to me on the phone. She mistakenly believed that people would prefer bad news to be delivered in person. I didn't, simply because if there were no witnesses to me hearing the news, then I could pretend it never happened.
I stopped, considering retreating to the office, but I suddenly became aware of my feetâor what was left of themâand knew I couldn't. With a heavy sigh, I slipped off my shoes and limped the last hundred feet to the garden gate barefoot.
Sophie and Rich were standing by the indentation in my yard, now
surrounded by yellow tape, along with a woman in her early twenties. Sophie spotted me and turned around with a huge smile. Her daughter, two months younger than my own babies, was worn in an outward-facing papoose, and gave me a single-toothed smile. She had dark, curly hair like her mother, big blue eyes like her father, Chad, and baby Birkenstocks over socks on her tiny feet. In my opinion, only babies looked good in Birkenstocks.
“Melanie!” Sophie said enthusiastically, making me immediately suspicious.
“Good to see you, Sophie. I've got to go change and check on the babies.Â .Â .Â .”
“Nice try. Nola and Jack are with the children.” She looked down at my shoes dangling from my hand. “And you're almost undressed anyway. You know, if you wore Birkenstocks, your feet wouldn't hurt.”
“But then I wouldn't have any self-respect.” As I approached, a frigid wind blew across my face and lifted my hair, but I could see that no one else was affected. Ignoring it, I headed straight for Sophie and the baby. My new-mother status made me a magnet for small babies with soft skin and pudgy toes, and I gently squeezed the baby's plump cheek. “How is Blue Skye today?” I no longer cringed when I said her name, which was a good thing, since I saw her frequently. Still, I shortened it to Skye often enough that I hoped they'd stop expecting to hear “Blue” in front of it. There was only so much Bohemian I could take.
“I've been trying to reach you,” I said to Sophie, studying the brightly colored tie-dyed kerchief that kept her curls at bay, and her similarly hued pants and T-shirt ensemble, all worn under a rainbow-striped parka opened at the front to accommodate the baby. I couldn't see much of the bundled baby except for her face and the tie-dyed knit hat and socks beneath her Birkenstocks, but I had the horrible feeling that they were wearing matching outfits.
Sophie smiled brightly, confirming my earlier suspicions. “Yes, well, I had two classes to teach today, and then Mr. Kobylt called. Seems like he's found something interesting in your backyard.”
I waited for someone to say the words “dead body,” my gaze moving from Sophie to Rich and to the young woman who kept staring at me as if she knew me.
Instead Sophie said, “I'd like you to meet my new research assistant, Meghan Black. She's a second-year in the historic preservation program at the college. Her thesis is on this very thing, so I knew she would be the right person to bring over to take a look.”
I introduced myself to the grad student, distracted by the pearls around her neck, the pale green cardigan and khakis she wore, and the Kate Spade flats on her feet. Not the sort of thing one might wear to dig in the dirt. She had pretty brown eyes and long light brown hair she wore in a high ponytail, and had the same kind of enthusiasm Sophie had when surrounded by old things. I wondered absently how long it would take before she began wearing Birkenstocks, too, and how her mother might feel about that.
I focused on Sophie again. “What sort of thing?”
“An old cistern. Right here in the back of your property!” She sounded as if we'd just found Blackbeard's buried treasure.
“A cistern? As in an old water collector?”
“Exactly!” She beamed as if I were her favorite student. “This thing has been sitting here since probably before the house was built in 1848. I'm thinking it might even predate the Revolutionary War and was the cistern for a previous building on the site.”
At the mention of something even older than my house being found in my backyard, I'd already begun to shake my head in denial before Meghan said, “From what we can already see, the bricks are mismatched and were probably taken from other structures. Could have been from outbuildings that were no longer used from here or different places. I've even seen a few cases where bricks were taken from cemeteries when they were moved to make way for new streets and buildings.”
I froze at the word “cemeteries.” That was the thing with old bricks. They weren't just sand and clay. They also contained the accumulated memories and the residual energy of the people who'd lived in their midst. These bricks had been buried in my backyard for more than 150
years and were now being bared to the light of day. I shuddered at the thought of what else might be waiting to be exposed.
“I promise you won't even know we're here,” Sophie said, as if I'd already given permission to use my backyard as an archaeological dig. “Meghan and a few of my other grad students are so excited about excavating the cistern. It's not just the bricks we find fascinating. Usually things were tossed or dropped into cisterns over the years that can be a real thrill for historians like us.”
I just stared back at her, not understanding the thrill at all. Because digging into the past usually meant unearthing a nasty ghost or two. I didn't relish dodging falling light fixtures or objects thrown across a room, especially now that there were two babies in the house.
I looked from her to Rich. “How long do you think it will take before I get my garden back? I'd hoped to have a big first birthday party for the twins out here in March.”
Rich pulled up the waistband of his pants, only to let them droop again once he let go. “Filling it in won't be a problemâno more than a day or two to get it back the way it was. But I have to wait for Dr. Wallen-Arasi to finish first. Hate to think I'd be reburying some artifact if we don't give her enough time.”
The instruction to go ahead and fill in the hole as soon as possible was on the tip of my tongue. I couldn't, of course. I wouldn't put it past Sophie and her students to picket my house until I agreed to let them dig it up again. Saying yes was the path of least resistance to an inevitable conclusion.
I felt the icy wind blow against the back of my neck again, twisting its way around my torso as if I wore no coat at all. “Make it quick, okay?”
Sophie nodded and met my eyes, understanding the reasons for my reluctance. But not enough to ignore the fact that I had a veritable treasure trove of history buried in my garden.
“I got your voice mail, by the way,” she said. “I've got to take a group of my students to Pompian Hill Chapel of Ease tomorrow to do some grave cleaning and to repair a box tomb, but I can meet you at the Pinckney house on Thursday morning. Does eight o'clock work?”
“It does for me. I'll check with my client and get back with you. She doesn't want to go inside, but I think she should. She doesn't like old houses.”
Both Sophie and Meghan looked at me as if I'd said something blasphemous. “It happens,” I said.
We said good-bye, and then Sophie left with Meghan and Skye. Rich stayed where he was, his hands on his hips, looking down into the pit, the bottom now blackened as the slanting sun scooped out the light. I was wary of what he was about to say. I'd learned in the years we'd been working together that he not only had a second sight but wasn't fully aware of it.
“I don't want to scare you, Miz Trenholm. But there's something not right about this. Something not right at all.”
Ignoring his implication, I said, “I don't like a hole in my garden, either, but we'll have to live with it for a little while. Hopefully it won't take too long.”
I said good-bye, then walked toward the kitchen door, sensing a set of footsteps following me, and knowing they weren't his.
After feeding the twins and tucking them into their cribs for the night, I sat in the downstairs parlor flipping through the new MLS listings on my laptop and making spreadsheets for my new clients. Nola sat doing homework at the mahogany partner's desk that Jack's mother, Amelia, had found for her through her antiques business, Trenholm Antiques on King, while Jack finally took a shower. He'd claimed he hadn't had time for groomingâor writingâwhile taking care of the babies. He'd looked so traumatized that I didn't point out that if he'd followed my schedule that I'd helpfully written down for him, and tried to be more organized, he wouldn't look as if he'd been wandering the wilderness for weeks.
A fire crackled in the fireplace beneath the Adams mantelâSophie's pride and joy. It was a thing of beauty, but it still made my fingers hurt when I looked at it, as if they recalled all the hand-scraping with tiny
pieces of sandpaper Sophie had given me to remove about eighty layers of old paint from the intricate scrolls and loops. My manicurist had almost quit during that period, and if I hadn't given her a generous gift certificate to my favorite boutique, the Finicky Filly, I would still be walking around with bloody stubs for fingers.
I found myself sinking back into what felt alarmingly like domestic tranquility. But there was an uneasiness in the air, an energy that crept out of the walls like morning mist. The sense of unseen eyes watching me. I knew, without a doubt, that the lingering dead had managed to find me again, and that my newfound peace was about to end.
The grandfather clock, where Confederate diamonds had once been hidden, chimed eight times, the sound deep and booming in the quiet house, almost obliterating the sound of what I imagined to be the house inhaling, as if in anticipation of something only it could see. General Lee and the puppies, curled into a furry ball at Nola's feet, looked up at me right before a knock sounded on the front door.
The frenzied movement of three dogs rushing toward the door and barking loudly accompanied me to the alcove, where a replacement chandelierâwhich had cost me three months of commissionsânow hung in the same spot the previous one had been in before it mysteriously fell and smashed onto the marble floor, narrowly missing me. One of the tiles had been cracked, but I had strategically hidden it under a rug so Sophie wouldn't notice and then demand that I have marble craftsmen from Italy come to replace the entire floor and I'd be forced to sell one of the children to pay for it. Because that's the sort of thing that happens when one's best friend is a bona fide house hugger.