Read The Guests on South Battery Online
Authors: Karen White
My mother, Ginette Prioleau Middleton, stood on the piazza wrapped in a black cashmere cape, looking as beautiful now in her mid-sixties as she probably had been during her brief yet stellar career as an opera diva. Her dark hair gleamed in the porch light, her green eyes bright with barely any lines to betray her age. She was tiny but somehow never appeared smallâsomething I'd discovered since our recent reconciliation and our even more recent battles with spirits reluctant to head toward the light. A shiver that had nothing to do with
the cold tiptoed its way down my spine. My mother never came by unannounced. Unless there was a reason.
“Mother,” I said, stepping back to allow her inside.
She kissed my cheek, then handed me her cape, keeping her gloves on. She always wore gloves, even in the summer. Her giftâher word, not mineâwas the ability to see things by touching objects, sometimes inadvertently. Gloves protected her from being overwhelmed by images and voices bombarding her from as casual a contact as a stair railing or doorknob.
“I'm sorry to come so late. But I was returning from a Library Society meeting and was passing your house, and knew that it couldn't wait until morning.”
“What couldn't wait?” I asked, my throat suddenly dry.
She rubbed her hands over her arms. “Can we go someplace warmer? I need to thaw out.”
“I've got the fire going in the parlor.” I led the way, the dogs rolling and bouncing at my mother's high heels.
Nola rushed over to embrace Ginette. The two had a tight bond, something I was grateful for despite the fact that sometimes I felt they were ganging up on me. Or laughing at me. Jack had maintained a bland expression when I asked if he'd noticed it, and we'd finally agreed that it must be postpartum hormones that made me see things a little skewed.
“Awesome shoes, Ginette,” Nola enthused. “Maybe I can borrow them for a date or something?”
Ginette smiled. “Of courseâjust ask me anytime. My closet is yours.”
I looked down at my fluffy pink slippers, trying to ignore my feet that were still throbbing in memory of the beating they'd sustained earlier in the day. “How long did it take for the swelling in your body and feet to subside after you gave birth to me?”
She and Nola exchanged a glanceâI was pretty sure that wasn't my hormones imagining itâbefore my mother turned back to me. “I don't really think IÂ .Â .Â . swelled very much. I was wearing my old clothes and
shoes by the time you were a month old. But you had twins,” she added quickly. “And you are much older than I was, so that changes the equation drastically, I would think.”
My mother and Nola nodded in unison, and again I had the subtle feeling that they knew something I didn't.
Nola went back to the desk and I indicated for Ginette to take one of the stuffed armchairs by the fire while I took the other one. “Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
She shook her head. “No, I'm fine. Your father's waiting for me at home, so I'll be brief. Have you spoken with your cousin Rebecca?”
Nola let out a groan at the mention of Rebecca's name. I remembered the pink slip I'd received that morning at work, and had promptly discarded and forgotten. “She left a message for me, but I didn't call her back. It was a Monday and my first day back at work, and having to talk with Rebecca would have probably sent me over the edge.” I leaned forward. “Why?”
“Well, she called me when she couldn't get ahold of you.” The fire crackled, and she turned her gaze toward the flames. “She's been having dreams.”
I briefly closed my eyes, seeing the orange and yellow flames imprinted on the insides of my eyelids. “Dreams?”
distant cousin, had also apparently inherited her sixth sense, except her psychic ability exhibited itself in her dreams. She wasn't always accurate with her interpretations, but usually accurate enough to be alarming.
My mother nodded without looking at me. “She sees a young girl in a white nightgown, and she's banging on a wall.” She faced me again and I saw the reflection of the fire in her green eyes. “Except she's banging on the inside of the wall.”
I sat back and glanced over at Nola, who'd stopped typing on her laptop and wasn't even pretending not to be listening. “Why does Rebecca think it has anything to do with me? If there was something inside one of these walls, I would know about it.”
Ginette rubbed her leather-gloved hands together, the sound
unnerving. “Because the girl was calling your name. And it doesn't necessarily mean this house, either.”
I looked grimly back at my mother. “I haven't had any experiences in almost a yearâso I don't know who that could be. ExceptÂ .Â .Â .” I stopped, remembering the newly exposed cistern and the footsteps following me across the garden.
“Except?” Ginette raised an elegant eyebrow.
“We've discovered a cistern in the backyard. But it's all bricksâno walls. I don't think they're connected. Maybe there's another Melanie.”
My mother stared back at me unblinkingly. “Regardless, you should call Rebecca and thank her. I know you don't get along, but she's still family.”
Nola made a gagging noise, then pretended to cough.
“I will. And since you're here, I've got some good news to share. I think I've found a nanny. She has to pass inspection with everybody here first, of course, and I'm going to ask Detective Riley for a background check, but I have a good feeling about her. We share the same views on child-rearing at least.”
“That's wonderful news! Not that I don't mind babysitting, but it will be nice for you all to have a regular routine and for the children to have consistent caregiving. I'm afraid Amelia and I are too much the doting grandmothers and err on the side of spoiling them.”
I didn't protest or attempt to correct her, because she was absolutely right. And that was one of the reasons I needed a nanny. “Yes, well, her name's Jayne Smith and she walked into my office today to ask for my help in selling a house she's inherited and buying a new one, and it just so happens that she's a professional nanny.”
“How luckyâfor both of you.”
“Actually, I was going to call you about her. She's inherited Button Pinckney's house.”
Ginette stilled, an odd expression on her face. “Button was a friend of mine. Amelia and I went to her funeral just last month.”
“I know. That's what I wanted to ask you aboutâif she'd ever mentioned Jayne or if you knew if Button had any family. Jayne's from
Birmingham and never even heard of Button until the lawyers found her to tell her she'd inherited the entire estate.”
She looked down at her gloves for a long moment. “There was no one. She never married. She did have an older brotherâSumter. He married Anna Chisolm Hasell, another classmate of Amelia's and mine. They had a daughter, I believe, but she was sickly. She died when she was still a child. Anna and Sumter divorced shortly afterward, but Anna remained in the house with Button. She died about ten years later.”
“That's so sad. What about Sumter? Did he ever remarry or have more children?”
After a slight pause, she said, “No. He'd always wanted to be a mover and shaker on Wall Street and moved to New York after his divorce. Just a couple of years after I left Charleston to pursue my music career.” She sent me an apologetic glance, a brief acknowledgment that when she'd left Charleston, she'd left me behind, too.
“I'm not sure if he ever came back, but Button told me he'd died of a heart attack. He was only fifty-three.” She gave me a lopsided smile. “Button adored him. I don't think she ever got over it. That's when she started taking in straysâanimals and people alike. She'd pluck them from the streets and give them a room and money for as long as they needed it. I feel she got taken advantage of more often than not, but she said it made her happy to help others. That's probably how she found your Jayne.”
“Possibly. Jayne grew up in foster care in Birmingham. Maybe someone who knew Jayne came into contact with Button at some point and that's the connection.”
“Could be,” she said as she stood. “I must get homeâJames will be waiting.” Her cheeks pinkened and I tried not to think of my parentsârecently remarried to each otherâas having a healthy romantic relationship that included physical contact, but there it was when she merely mentioned his name. I should have been thrilled that my parents were madly in love with each other after all these years, but I was still their daughter and it made me a little queasy sometimes if I thought too much about it.
She said good night to Nola and I walked her to the door, pausing just for a moment in the alcove to face me. “Why does Jayne want to sell the house?”
“She doesn't like old houses.”
She frowned, her eyes meeting mine. “Hopefully you can change her mind. Button wouldn't have left it to her if she didn't mean for her to keep it. Button was a wonderful person. The best kind of person. We should do our best to honor her request. Maybe you should tell Jayne what Mr. Vanderhorst told you.”
“It's a piece of history you can hold in your hand,” I said softly.
“Yes. And that sometimes the best gifts in life are the unexpected ones. Including old houses.”
She put on her cape, then opened the door to allow in a frigid blast of cold air. She kissed my cheek and pulled up her hood. As she tucked her hair inside, I said, “I don't want to lie to her.”
“But would you be? Good night, Mellie.” She smiled and then walked down the piazza to the front door and let herself out.
The large wrought-iron porch lights on either side of the door behind me grew brighter and brighter, humming with an unseen energy that made the lights pulsate twice before each bulb exploded one by one, leaving me in total darkness.
wo days later when I left the house to go to work, Jack looked a little worried despite his terse assurances that he was fine with watching the children while he finished up his book revisions. I thought there was a trace of panic in his eyes when I told him I might be home a little later because I wasn't sure how long it would take to go through the Pinckney house with Sophie and Jayne. It wasn't the sort of thing that could be rushed, especially if there were any water issues, a fallen ceiling, rotted floors, or restless spiritsâany of which could ruin my day.
Despite reassurances from Mrs. Houlihan that she was still taking my dry cleaning to the same cleaners we'd always used, I'd been forced to wear yet another maternity dress, but had broken down the day before and bought several new pairs of heels at Bob Ellis. I'd called Sophie about the possibility of the newly renovated closet giving off fumes that might shrink leather, but there had only been a long silence on the other end of the phone as if she didn't understand my question. Regardless, my new shoes were a full size larger, and I was pleasantly surprised when my toes were able to spread out when I walked.
Still, I had only made it to Broad Street when my feet required me
to hail a pedicab to take me to Glazed, the gourmet doughnut shop on Upper King Street. I was meeting Detective Thomas Riley there to discuss the background check on Jayne Smith. Since he was a cop, I thought it appropriate to have our meeting in a doughnut shop. Plus, it would help me avoid the look of disapproval on Ruth's face as she handed over my bag of doughnutsâwhich she'd only reluctantly done when I brought in the twins the previous day so she could see them and remind me again how much they looked like Jack. When I'd finally opened the bag back at my desk, I realized there was only one doughnut inside, along with one of those horrible healthy wraps, and the doughnut looked as if it might have been made with wheat flour and baked. It was like eating white chocolate or a vanilla Oreoâcompletely pointlessâand I'd thrown it away after only two bites.
Thomas was already sitting at one of the small tables across from the counter, two coffees and a pink-and-white-striped bag already waiting on the table. He stood as I entered, and gave me a warm hug in greeting. “It's been too long,” he said as he helped me out of my coat and pulled out my chair for me, making me appreciate Charleston-bred men all over again.
He slid the coffee toward me. “Lots of cream and sugarâand since I got here early, I took the liberty of ordering our doughnuts. There's not a bad doughnut on the menu, so I got two purple goatsâberry and goat cheese filling with lavender icingâa tiramisu doughnut, and a maple bacon. I'm rather partial to the maple bacon, but if you want it, it's yours.”
I nearly wept with joy as I opened the bag and smelled the lovely aroma of handmade doughnuts and all that wonderful sugar. He started to speak, but I held up my hand and then took a sip of coffee before pulling out a purple doughnut. We both waited in reverent silence for a moment while I took my first bite.
“Thank you. That is simply amazing,” I finally managed to say after thoroughly savoring the fluffy pastry, followed by the strangest urge to smoke a cigarette. I met his eyes. “The maple bacon doughnut is yours,” I said. “But you're going to have to fight me for the second purple goat.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said. “I need all my fingers for my job, so you just take whatever you want.”
I took another bite, then settled back into my chair, cradling my coffee and feeling absurdly content.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “Motherhood definitely agrees with you.”
Coming from any other man besides my husband, I might have felt uncomfortable. Even though I knew Thomas had been interested in me before Jack staked his claim, our relationship was now firmly in the friend zone. He'd even attended our wedding, and I'd promisedâwith Jack's blessingâto use my sixth sense to help him with any of his cold cases. He'd called a few times in the past year, but I'd been reluctant to disturb the domestic peace I'd fought so hard for, telling him I just wasn't ready. I wondered if this favor from him meant I'd have to reciprocate whether I was ready to or not.
My cheeks flushed. “Thank you. I feel good now that the twins are sleeping through the night and I can get a full night's sleep. I just wish all my clothes hadn't shrunkâI'm a little tired of wearing my maternity clothes.”
He choked on his bite of doughnut and I slid a glass of water in his direction. After waiting a full minute before speaking, he said, “I have that information you asked me for about Jayne Smith. I must admit that when you first told me her name I thought it must be some kind of alias, but that seems to be her real nameâalthough she added the Y in her early twenties. There is no birth certificate on file owing to the fact that she was deposited on the steps of a church in Birmingham and turned over to foster care shortly afterward. The creative minds in the child welfare system must have given her the name.”
He grimaced and I felt like crying. It seemed the motherhood hormones that had started in the first month of pregnancy liked to linger much longer than nine months. I supposed they were responsible for my desire now to cry during Humane Society commercials or after seeing Facebook posts showing baby animals that Nola liked to show me. I thought of the woman I'd met in my office and couldn't reconcile
what I knew about her with the heartbreaking image of a baby being left on church steps.
“That's so sad. So she has no idea who her parents are?” I took a large bite of the purple goat doughnut, hoping it would push down the lump in my throat. My mother had left me when I was six, and I'd been raised by an alcoholic father. For my entire childhood, I'd felt abandoned, but at least I'd known who my people were, had known the house on Legare where generations of my mother's family had lived. And I'd always had my grandmother, who'd loved me unconditionally. It seemed unfathomable to have no history, no prologue to the story of your life.
“No. I did a little digging into Button Pinckney, too, since it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that she might have had a baby and secretly gave it up. Lucky for us, Ms. Pinckney was very active in various social clubs, so her photo appears in the society pages pretty much every month during the year Jayne was bornâapparently not pregnant and with no gaps in time. In addition, she was her sister-in-law's companion after her niece's long illness and death, and, according to everyone who knew Button, never left her side.”
“So she's just a generous philanthropist who decided to give her entire estate to a deserving orphan.”
“Apparently. And Jayne certainly fits that description, considering how she started out. It's really incredible that she turned out as well as she did. She was a straight-A student, never got into trouble, and although she had a succession of foster parents, they all had good things to say about her.”
“But she was never adopted.”
Thomas shook his head. “Sadly, no. She came close several times, but it always fell through.”
“Does the paperwork mention why?” I took a long drink of my coffee, unable to forget the image of a small baby abandoned on the steps of a church. I wanted to think that it was because I was a mother now, with my own small babies who needed me. But there was something else, too. Something I couldn't identify.
His eyes met mine. “This is where it really gets interesting. Every single one of the foster families said practically the same thing: that she was a wonderful child but in the end wasn't adoptable because”âhe paused and opened a manila folder on the corner of the table to riffle through several pages before pulling one to the topâ“things always seemed to happen around her. Little âdisturbances.'” Thomas made little quote marks with his fingers. He looked down at the page and continued reading. “She was never named as the exact cause, but all events seemed to occur when she was in the vicinity, making her guilty by association.”
I sat back in my seat. “That's odd.”
“Yep. And there's one more thing I think you might find interesting.” He paused, drumming his fingers on top of the folder as if trying to decide how much he should say.
“Tell me everything,” I said. “If she'll be watching my children, I need to know all of it.”
“True.” He took a deep breath. “She's afraid of the dark. Has to have all the lights on when she sleeps.”
“Many children are. She didn't outgrow it?”
After a brief pause, he said, “Apparently not. I got the references from her last two employers sent over, and it's mentioned in both reports. Which are all glowing, by the way. The first called her âMary Poppins' and considered having another baby just to keep her with their family now that their other children are too old for a nanny.”
I perked up. “Which is the important partâthat she's a good nanny. I'm okay with her keeping the lights on in her room all night. That's pretty minor, really.” I took a long sip of my coffee, thinking. “Anything more specific about those âdisturbances'?”
“No, but from everything I read, I've gathered that it was regular occurrences of breakagesâlamps, dishes, that kind of thing.”
“So she's a little clumsy,” I said, feeling relieved. “As long as she's never dropped a child, of course.”
“Nope, nothing like that. As I said, her former employers can't say enough good things about her. Heck, just reading these reports makes
want to have children just so I can hire her.”
He reached for his wallet to place a generous tip on the table before standing and pulling my chair back for me. “How's the real estate business these days?”
“Hopping, I'm happy to say,” I said as he helped me into my coat. “Made it easy to step back into my job.”
“So no time to help with any cold cases, huh?”
I thought for a moment, recalling how happy I'd been in the last year with no spirits staring back at me in a mirror. No disembodied knocks on my door. “How cold?” I asked.
“Twenty years. A nineteen-year-old College of Charleston student was murdered, and the case was never solved. Her sister recently found something that made her think it would make it worthwhile to reopen the case.”
Despite my reluctance, my curiosity was piqued. “What did she find?”
“Half of a gold charmâlike those old BFF necklaces where each friend gets half. Except this one had the first letter of the dead sister's sorority, so it looks like the other half had other Greek letters on it. Perhaps spelling out another fraternity or sorority with a coinciding letter, but the other half is missing.”
“Why would the woman think it's important?”
“Because she'd never seen it before. She was moving into her parents' home and found her sister's trunk in their atticâthe one that had been in her sister's dorm room at the time of her death. It had never been opened since they brought it home. The woman found the charm in the bottom along with a broken chain. She's positive it didn't belong to her sister and could be the lead we needed to finally solve it.”
“Even I have to say that's a long shot.”
He looked at me steadily without saying anything, as if waiting for me to fill in the blanks.
“Unless someone can talk to the dead girl,” I said slowly.
“Yeah, that's pretty much what I was thinking.”
I studied my hands as I slowly pulled on my gloves. “I'll think about it and let you know. Life's pretty crazy right now. Maybe after I get this nanny thing sorted out.”
“I understandâthank you.”
,” I said, “for being so quick with the references. Jack and I appreciate it.”
“Anything to help,” he said, giving me a devastating grin that might have my knees weakening if it weren't for Jack.
We stood outside the shop on King Street. “Where are you headedâcan I give you a lift?” he asked.
“If you could take me to my car on Tradd, I'd appreciate it. I'm driving over to meet Sophie and Jayne at the Pinckney house she inherited and wants to sell. She has absolutely no interest in hanging on to it.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“It wouldn't be the first time a virtual stranger left an albatross of a house to an unsuspecting stranger. Selling an unwanted inheritance is always an option.”
“Yeah, but still. It's a nice albatross. That house must be worthÂ .Â .Â .”
“A lot. Haven't seen the inside yet, so it could be a total gut job.” I narrowed my eyes. “What's wrong?”
“I'll have to ask my dad, but there was something bad that happened in that house back in the late seventies or early eighties when he was still a beat cop. I was pretty young, but I remember it because he was pretty shook-up about itâand he's not the kind of guy who gets easily shook-up.”
“I'll ask Jack to do a little research. I'll need to know for full disclosure reasons, assuming Jayne will still want to sell it after she's been inside.”
“She wants to sell it and she hasn't even seen the whole thing?”
I paused. “She hates old houses.”
He stared at me blankly.
“It happens,” I said, getting tired of justifying this perfectly rational perspectiveâone I happened to share for personal reasons but not professional ones, obviously. “You'd be surprised how many people will only consider houses built in the last decade. Most of them are afraid of the maintenance and care an old house requires. Jayne's a single woman who probably just doesn't want to mess with all that, and I can't say I
blame her. She can find something nice and brand-new in Isle of Palms or Daniel Island for what she might sell the Pinckney house for if I do my job right.”
Thomas walked me to his car and held open the passenger door, then shut it behind me. After he slid behind the steering wheel and buckled his seat belt, he sat staring ahead without speaking for a long moment.