The Guests on South Battery (10 page)

I stared at him for a long moment, sure I misunderstood. “Jack, surely you can't . . .” I was interrupted by my phone ringing. Jack stared at it, noticing the number without a name, then met my gaze. “Did you change your ring tone? I was kind of getting used to
Mamma Mia
.”

I shook my head as I hit the red button to end the call. “No. I have no idea where this ring tone came from. Or who's calling. They've called a bunch of times, but I don't recognize the number and they never leave a message—well, only once. They didn't say anything—just a bunch of odd noises.” I gave an involuntary shudder, remembering the sound of prying wood and a tinny note vibrating in the empty air.

“Have you looked up the phone number?”

It was my turn to look confused. “Can you do that?”

He gave me a look that said he thought I might be joking, but he reached over and picked up my phone. “You can do a reverse lookup—just type in the number and . . .” He was silent for a moment as he punched numbers into the phone, then paused. “Oh.”

The waitress waited until that moment to deliver our food, and for the first time in a long while, I was less hungry and more interested in what Jack had to say. When she finally walked away, I said, “What is it?”

“Do you know a Caroline B. Pinckney?”

I thought hard for a moment, the smell of the food battling with my memory. I began chasing a grape across my plate, hoping that having food in my stomach might jog something loose.

Jack continued. “Do you happen to know Button Pinckney's real name? Assuming Button was a nickname, of course. In Charleston, there's no guarantee that an odd name isn't the name appearing on the birth certificate. . . .”

I dropped the fork with which I'd been trying to stab a grape and
met his eyes. “It was definitely Caroline,” I shouted. My voice sounded parched even though I'd just had half a glass of water. “Jayne said her name was Caroline.” I swallowed. “Why?”

“Because that phone number is registered to a Caroline B. Pinckney on South Battery Street.”

We continued to stare at each other for a long time, neither of us questioning the impossibility of a phone call from a dead person.

CHAPTER 9

I
stood in the foyer of the Pinckney house with Detective Riley, watching with part amusement and part affront as he studied the disaster around him. I wondered if I would ever really climb off the figurative fence that had me currently planted in the middle of undecided when it came to old houses. Half the time—thanks to Sophie, although I would never admit it to her—I could actually appreciate the attention to detail, architecture, and craftsmanship these old houses held within their thick walls. Yet at other times, usually right after I paid another repair bill, I could picture lighting the dynamite myself.

“Somebody really lived here, huh?” He was staring at the mildew-speckled wallpaper in the dining room.

“Yes—although Miss Pinckney stayed in her bedroom for the last few years of her life. She didn't have any family—just cats, from what I've learned.”

“Cats? That's a bit of a cliché, isn't it?”

I sent him a sidelong glance as I walked past him to examine what looked to be a button in the wall. “Kind of like finding a cop in a doughnut shop, don't you think? There's always a seed of truth in every cliché.”

He chuckled behind me. “Guilty as charged. Guess there aren't any stereotypes for psychic Realtors, huh? Don't think there are too many of those around.”

I pressed the metal button, pausing for a moment to see if I heard an echoing bell somewhere in the house. All I heard was the passing traffic outside and the rumbling wheels of a horse-drawn carriage. I assumed it was from one of the tourist companies, but I wouldn't have been surprised if I looked outside and saw an eighteen sixties Brougham with the bottom half of its wheels invisible as it traversed a street that was currently below the level of the present one. In my world, there was no such thing as a guarantee that the restless dead would leave me alone long enough to simply look out the window and see what everybody else did.

“Hello?”

Startled, I turned toward the front door to see Jayne peering around it, her hand still on the doorknob. “Sorry; didn't mean to scare you.”

“Please don't apologize. It's your house.” I studied her closely, wondering when she'd come in and if she'd heard what Thomas had said about psychic Realtors. It wasn't that it was something I hid. It was just something I didn't advertise or tell anybody about. I especially didn't share my “gift” with clients. It was a competitive enough business without making clients run away from me screaming right into the arms of one of my competitors on the grounds that I was insane. It simply wasn't good for business.

“Come in,” I said, drawing her into the room. I had to pry her hand from the doorknob so I could close the door. I followed her gaze behind me to where it settled on the black cat crouched low at the bottom of the stairs.

“How did he get in here?” she asked as the cat ran soundlessly up the stairs and out of sight.

“Who, me?” Thomas asked as he approached.

“No. A fat black cat,” I explained. “We keep seeing him, but he's very fast. I don't know who he belongs to, but someone must be feeding him, because he's definitely not starving.”

Thomas didn't seem to be listening. Instead he was staring at Jayne, a small crease between his eyebrows. Before he could say anything, Jayne said, “I have one of those faces, so you think we've met before. But I know we haven't.” She held out her hand to him. “I'm Jayne Smith. Apparently, the new owner of this house.”

Thomas smiled, revealing perfect teeth and exaggerating the smile lines on the side of his face, transforming him from simply handsome to devastating. “I'm Detective Thomas Riley. I understand from Melanie here that you think you had an intruder?”

Even though he continued to smile, I could tell that he was still studying Jayne with his detective eyes, wondering if she really just had one of those faces.

“Well, we're not sure. But Melanie's cell phone has had several phone calls from a landline number assigned to this house. It's actually been in service for nearly forty years and has not been reassigned according to the phone company.” She bit her lower lip and glanced at me as if for affirmation. “There's just one thing. . . .” There was a long pause, and I wondered if she wanted me to speak. Instead I gave her an encouraging look. This was her house, after all. “When Miss Pinckney died, the telephone service was cut off.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows, and I knew he wanted to look at me to get my take on the matter, but dared not. “Maybe the records show that there's no service, but there might have been a paperwork glitch. Have you lifted any of the receivers to check?”

Jayne's eyes widened hopefully. “No—we haven't had a chance. I know I saw an old turquoise phone on the wall in the kitchen.” She began walking excitedly to the kitchen, as if the thought of having an intruder in the house making phone calls to my cell was much more palatable—and conceivable—than any other explanation.

We followed her into the kitchen and watched as she picked the handset from the wall and held it to her ear. Her eyes closed briefly before she shook her head, then slowly hung up the phone. “It's dead,” she said.

That's not the only thing,
I thought, but kept my mouth closed. She'd
made her decision about keeping the house—for now—and I didn't want to muddy the waters. Whatever was here could be dealt with or just ignored, depending on how persistent it became. I hoped without Jayne being any the wiser.

Thomas leaned against a kitchen counter, then immediately straightened and brushed at his sleeves as he noticed the dust coating the kitchen table and chairs. “I'll double-check to see if the number's been reassigned and who it's been reassigned to. If it hasn't, well, things get a little more complicated.” He didn't look at me, but I could tell he wanted to. Instead he tilted his head slightly to regard Jayne. “Are you sure we haven't met?”

“Positive,” Jayne said with a smile. “Because I'm pretty sure I would have remembered meeting you.” Her cheeks pinkened as she seemed to notice for the first time that he was an attractive male and not just a police detective. “I mean, well, you're a detective. And tall. With clean fingernails. And I like your shirt.”

I rolled my eyes behind her back and tugged on her elbow to get her to stop. She was worse than I'd been when I met Jack. I'd also sounded like a teenager who'd never been on a date before. Which was actually pretty accurate at the time. I supposed that was something else Jayne and I had in common—lonely childhoods that didn't leave a lot of room for a social life or relationships of any kind.

“Thank you,” Thomas said with a smile in his voice. “My oldest sister bought me this shirt for my birthday. I'll let her know that I received a compliment on it today.”

Jayne was saved from spouting more infantile gibberish by the distinct sound of a ringing bell. She looked at me in surprise. “I thought the servants' bells didn't work.”

“I thought so, too,” I said, avoiding her gaze. “I guess we were wrong.” We turned back to the kitchen.

“They're over here,” Jayne said as she walked into the butler's pantry, its glass-covered cabinets full of crystal and china and what looked like a salt-and-pepper-shaker collection. I peered closely at what appeared to be a peanut-shaped ceramic saltshaker with the word “Georgia” painted
on its side. I had a sinking feeling that there was a set from all fifty states. I'd have to get Amelia in here to see what was in these cabinets and the rest of the house and let Jayne know whether any of it was valuable. I hoped for Jayne's sake that the china was rare and expensive so she'd have an excuse to sell it and not keep it out of obligation to Button Pinckney. The china was covered in pink roses, with gold-covered scalloped edges. Definitely old, and definitely European. And definitely hideous. I assumed all the Pinckneys had been very slim, since eating off those plates must have diminished appetites.

Jayne pointed to a metal box with a single bell. “That must have been what made the noise.”

“I don't think so,” Thomas said, using his height to full advantage and getting a closer look. “There's no hammer anymore—or it rusted away. But this dog won't hunt, that's for sure.”

I found it odd that nobody asked the obvious question:
Then how did the bell ring?

After an awkward pause, Jayne said, “It must have been the doorbell,” and began marching toward the front door, Thomas and me dutifully following. She opened it and swung the door wide, then stepped out onto the front landing as if to make sure nobody was hiding. Turning around, she pressed her finger into the old doorbell button, her effort rewarded by silence.

“Actually, Jayne,” I said, “most doorbells in these old houses rarely operate because of the high humidity and salt in the air.”

She walked into the foyer and slowly closed the door. Crossing her arms over her chest, she said, “It must have been a bike from outside, then. So many people on bikes in Charleston, I noticed. I'll have to get one.”

A flash of white from the landing flitted across my peripheral vision, but I dared not turn my head. I became aware of my second sight being blocked again, like a hand being held over my eyes, allowing me to see only what it thought I should.

A loud thump and then the sound of scurrying little feet tumbled downstairs. “Help me!” It was the doll's voice, high-pitched and strident, the words seeming to echo in the otherwise silent house. Jayne and I
turned around in time to see the black cat race across the landing and disappear up the stairs.

Thomas immediately held out his hand to prevent us from moving forward. “Is there anybody here?” he called up the stairs. Stepping forward, he pulled his gun from his shoulder holster and began climbing. “I'm Detective Thomas Riley from the Charleston Police Department and I'm armed. Please show yourself.”

He motioned for us to stay back as he silently climbed the stairs two at a time. We listened as each door was thrown open, then waited as Thomas moved from room to room upstairs searching for an intruder. After several long minutes, he reappeared on the landing, his eyebrows knitted together. “It's all clear. But, well, this is the dangedest thing I've seen in a while.”

Jayne and I nearly collided as we raced toward the stairs, then halted as we reached the upper hallway. The Thomas Edison doll, so fragile and valuable, stood by a half-open door at the end of the hallway, one of its arms reaching upward as if trying to grasp the doorknob. Or as if it had already opened the door.

“Those are the stairs to the attic,” Thomas provided.

“Do you think somebody's trying to play a prank on me?” Jayne asked with a quavering voice.

Thomas returned his gun to the holster and approached Jayne. “I suppose we need to consider the possibility. It certainly doesn't appear to be a burglary—nothing's been ransacked, anyway. You might want to check with Miss Pinckney's lawyers to see if they have an inventory of the house you can check against what's here.” His eyes met mine for a moment over Jayne's head. “Just in case, I would suggest changing the locks and installing a security system—there doesn't seem to already be one. It's an up-front expense, but from what Melanie has told me, there are a lot of valuable items inside the house.”

“Including that doll,” I said, indicating Chucky posed at the door.

Thomas gave an involuntary shudder. “Really? I'm glad you told me. Otherwise I would have offered to take it with me and toss it in a Dumpster on the way home.”

“It talks,” I said. “Although it's not supposed to, but Sophie told us that it has to be wound up first and that the mechanism is too delicate for it to work now. And it only recites a single nursery rhyme.”

Our eyes met, recalling the two words we'd all heard.
Help me.
That wasn't part of any nursery rhyme I knew. I swallowed. “I'm thinking Sophie got it wrong, but she's arranging for an expert to take a look at it so we at least have an idea of its value.”

Jayne's arms remained crossed tightly in front of her, with little half-moons dug into her skin where her fingernails were. “I'm wondering if there might be a secret entrance to the house or something. That might be where the stray cat gets in and out.”

Leaving the doll where it was—nobody volunteered to put it back in the rocking chair in Button Pinckney's bedroom—Thomas led us toward the stairs. “I'll walk around the house and give a thorough search for what might look like any hidden openings. Melanie—why don't you call your friend Yvonne at the archives and see if she has any of the old blueprints from this house? You never know what you might find.”

You never know what you might find.
“I'll do that. Jack and I haven't seen Yvonne in a while, so that will be nice.”

I noticed a large two-bell brass carriage clock—the metal splotched in places, giving the surface the appearance of reflected clouds—sitting on a narrow hall table at the top of the stairs. As we passed it, it began to chime. Out of habit I looked at my watch but was surprised to see that it was eleven twenty—not a time that would warrant a chime on any clock. I stopped to look at the face of the clock and stilled. Although it was still chiming, the hands of the clock weren't moving, frozen on a time that was becoming frighteningly familiar. Ten minutes past four.

“Oomph.”

My head whipped around in time to see Jayne pitch forward on the stairs. She seemed to roll forward in slow motion, her body hitting the wall of the landing, before momentum flipped her head over heels down the rest of the stairs.

Thomas had already reached the foyer and was quick enough to break Jayne's fall before she could hit the hard floor. I raced down after
her, careful to hold on to the bannister, then crouched next to where Thomas had sat her on the bottom step. “Are you all right?”

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