The Guests on South Battery (5 page)

“What is it?” I asked.

“Were you afraid of the dark when you were little?”

I turned to look out the side window and spotted a woman wearing white pants and running shoes and a fanny pack standing in the middle of the street to take a photo down King Street, apparently oblivious of the waiting traffic. “I was. At least until my mother left me. That's when I realized that real life was a lot scarier than whatever might be hiding in the dark.”

He nodded sympathetically and then started the engine. “I was, too, but only because I would stay up late to listen to my dad telling my mom about some of his cases. Enough to make a kid's imagination run wild after the lights were switched off.” His jaw clenched. “I'm just wondering what would terrify a person so much that she grows into adulthood still being afraid of the dark.”

“It probably has something to do with being abandoned as a baby. They say some traumatic experiences stay with us no matter how young we were when they happened.”

Thomas turned the steering wheel and pulled away from the curb. “Yeah. That's probably it. Poor kid.”

“Poor kid,” I repeated. I looked away again, embarrassed to find my eyes moist, and remembered the moment I realized that my mother wasn't coming back and how I'd promised myself then that I'd never be afraid of the dark ever again.

CHAPTER 5

I
arrived at the Pinckney house on South Battery after Jayne did, something I always tried to avoid when showing a client a house for the first time. I preferred to curate what they saw initially and took note of, focusing on the positive attributes so they wouldn't notice the cracks in the mortar or wood rot in the window frames. That would happen later, after they'd fallen in love with the old house and were already willing to restore the ancient pile of lumber without a thought to the hole of debt that they were about to step into.

I'd driven my car, finally finding a parking spot four blocks away after circling the area for nearly fifteen minutes. Jayne must have walked, since she was wearing flats and her face appeared windblown. Her blond hair, pulled back into a low ponytail, had begun to frizz around the edges like a frayed rope. After stumbling in my heels for four blocks, I knew I didn't look much better.

She stood on the sidewalk with her back to the house, her arms folded tightly across her chest, her hands in tight fists. I squinted—my glasses left on my desk as usual—thinking she might actually be smiling until I got close enough to see her clearly. The grim set of her jaw called to mind the expression of a condemned prisoner heading up to the scaffold.

“Good morning, Jayne,” I said brightly.

It was hard to understand the words that were forced from behind her clenched teeth, but I was pretty sure she'd said “good morning.”

As I fumbled in my purse for my lockbox key, I said, “Dr. Wallen-Arasi should be here momentarily—she's always running a few minutes late. If you'd like, we can wait for her outside so she can tell us a little bit about the architecture and history of the house, or we can go ahead inside. . . .”

“I'll wait.” Her eyes had taken on a desperate cast. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before speaking. “You're probably wondering why I have such an aversion to old houses. I lived in one off and on for a few years when I was around nine until I was fourteen. With a foster family. They said it was a nineteen thirties Craftsman cottage that they'd restored themselves.”

“Was it nice?”

Her eyes were bleak when she turned them to me. “Nice enough, I guess. But I hated it. I hated the way the wooden floors creaked, and the way the wind blew under the eaves in the attic. And I really, really hated the front stairs with the thick oak balustrade. They were so proud of it, too—that balustrade. They'd found it in the barn and refurbished it so that it looked as good as new—even paid a carpenter to re-create missing and damaged spindles so you couldn't tell what was new and what was old.” She looked behind me, across the street toward the river. “But it was still the same old balustrade. I always thought it would make nice kindling.”

I remembered sanding down the intricate mahogany balustrade in my own house and how I'd shared the same thought at the time. “Okay,” I said, making mental notes to transcribe later. “In your future house, no Craftsman style, no creaking floors, and a solid attic.”

“Just new,” Jayne said, turning around to peer through the elaborate garden gate—one I was pretty sure had been crafted by the famed blacksmith Philip Simmons. “And not located near a hospital.”

“Because of all the noise from the sirens?”

She didn't respond right away. Tilting her head in my direction, she said, “Yes. The sirens. They can keep a person up at night.”

I was about to ask her more, but the car at the curb in front of us pulled out just as Sophie's white Prius appeared and slid neatly into the spot. She and Jack were like parking spot conjurers, something for which I'd yet to forgive either one of them.

I watched in horror and amusement as Sophie stepped from the car, dressed in head-to-toe tie-dye in various hues of green. Even her unruly dark curls were pulled back from her face with a lime green tie-dye elastic headband. Her feet were clad in her ubiquitous Birkenstocks, these in green patent leather, her socks subscribing to the tie-dye theme.

“I hope you're planning on sending Skye to live with me when she's old enough to learn about fashion and the proper use of color and patterns.”

Sophie grinned. “Only if you'll send Sarah and JJ to me when you're convalescing from your foot surgery to repair them from the damage your shoes are causing.”

“There is nothing wrong with my feet—” I began, but Jayne interrupted by stepping forward with an outstretched hand.

“You must be Dr. Wallen-Arasi. I'm Jayne Smith, and I appreciate you coming out today.”

Sophie pumped her hand up and down. “Please call me Sophie. Everybody does.”

“For the record,” Jayne said, “I like your shoes. I don't think I've ever seen patent leather on a Birkenstock before.”

“Remind me later and I'll write down the name of the store.”

I was relieved to see panic flash in Jayne's eyes. “Don't worry,” I said. “She's been threatening to tell me where she shops for years, but I've yet to be persuaded to join the dark side.”

I missed Jayne's reaction because I was watching Sophie, a small pucker between her eyebrows as she studied Jayne. “Have we met before? You look familiar.”

“No, I'm pretty sure we haven't. But I get that a lot. I must have one of those faces.”

“Yeah, probably.” Sophie smiled, then turned back to her car and pulled a folded square of cloth out of the passenger seat. “I brought a
housewarming gift.” She unfolded it and held it up. “It's an anti–cruise ship flag. Every homeowner in Charleston should display one in protest.”

I sighed. “Jayne just got here. Let her assimilate first before she's forced to take a position on such a hot topic, all right?” I took the flag and refolded it, then placed it back in Sophie's car.

Sophie frowned at me, then refocused her attention on the house, sighing as if she'd just witnessed a miracle. “So, this is your inheritance.”

“Technically,” Jayne said. “I just happen to own it now—but only temporarily.”

“I'm sure you'll change your mind when you see what an architectural masterpiece this really is. It's been owned by only two families since it was built, and I've never had the pleasure of going inside before, so this is a real treat.” Sophie stepped back to see the facade better. “To the untrained eye, it's just a typical double house of cypress and heart pine above a stout brick basement. But when you study it a little more closely, you'll see that its Georgian simplicity is lightened by dentils under the corona of the eave cornices, the pattern repeated in the bull's-eyed pediment and pillared portico. It's really quite lovely.”

I wondered if Jayne's glazed-eye expression matched my own.

“How old is it?” Jayne asked.

“I'm not exactly sure, but definitely pre–Revolutionary War.” Sophie headed toward the split staircase under the portico that led from the sidewalk to the front door. “One of my students several years ago included this house in her dissertation. It has a very interesting bell system based on differently toned chimes for each room. Part of the interview process for servants was to make sure they weren't tone-deaf so they'd know where they were needed. I think the bells are still in the house, although I doubt they're still working. But what a piece of history!”

Jayne and I shared a glance behind Sophie's back.

A very fat ebony cat emerged from between the iron slats of the gate, struggling just a little to get its rear end all the way through. It plopped
down on the sidewalk and stared up at us with one dark green eye, the other socket covered with a slit of pink, furless skin. It yawned with disinterest and then waddled its way toward the other side of the stairs until it disappeared.

“I hope the house doesn't come with a cat. I'm allergic,” Jayne explained.

“Why would you say that?” Sophie asked from the top of the stairs.

“Didn't you see that enormous black cat come from the garden?” I asked. “It was so large I have to assume it's loved by somebody.”

Sophie shrugged. “Either that or there are plenty of rodents to keep it busy.”

I sent her a warning glance, but she was already studying the moldings at the top of the two portico columns.

I began climbing, only realizing that Jayne wasn't behind me after I'd unlocked the lockbox and then the front door, pushing it open to the familiar smell of dust, mothballs, and old polish. And something else, too. Something I couldn't identify that smelled vaguely medicinal and reminded me of my grandmother.

I looked inside at the high-ceilinged foyer, peering past the dull pine floors into the front parlor. Heavy cornices with wedding-cake ornamentation capped the tall ceilings, the missing chunks resembling the teeth on a jack-o'-lantern. Like silent ghosts, sheet-covered furniture sat around the room suspended in time.

Stepping back onto the portico, I said, “Coast is clear, Jayne. No cats that I can see.”

She didn't look convinced and her arms had returned to their crossed position over her chest.

“Oh, my goodness. It's a period mantel—with original Sadler and Green tin-glazed earthenware tiles!” Sophie called from inside the house.

I smiled down at my client. “This is as good a time as any to see the interior, Jayne. Sophie's enthusiasm can be contagious when it's not being annoying.”

I was rewarded with a half grin. Reassured that she'd follow, I
walked back into the foyer, my heels echoing in the empty house. A sound like fluttering wings came from the room opposite the parlor. I turned my head in time to see a flash of white passing through the thick plaster wall, accompanied by the soft patter of small bare feet.

An icy cold chill began to wrap its way around me as I listened to the sound of approaching feet, heavier than the first set, and definitely wearing shoes. My ears tingled even before I felt the hands gripping my shoulders and shoving me toward the door. I tilted my head to escape from what I knew was coming next—a cold, hollow voice whispering into my ear. The words were soft and feminine, but not enough to make them any less frightening. Frigid air scraped across the side of my head, punctuating each word as if to convince me that the voice wasn't in my imagination.
Go. Away.

I began singing ABBA's “Dancing Queen” as loudly as I could, my proven remedy to drown out voices I didn't want to hear. It was something I'd learned as a child to escape the disembodied voices and still proved useful—but only when I'd prepared myself. And I hadn't. My mother had been in this house multiple times to visit her friend Button Pinckney before she died, and I'd thought she would have mentioned a few extraneous souls.

Sophie came from the drawing room, staring at me with wide eyes as I began to back out of the front door. My progress was suddenly halted when I bumped into Jayne.

“Is everything all right?” she asked.

The temperature in the room had returned to normal, yet I had the sensation I'd had the day in my office when I met Jayne. That whatever it was was still there, but someone—or some
thing—
was blocking me from seeing it.

“Yes,” I said, forcing a smile. “Everything is fine. I sometimes like to check out the acoustics in these old houses for fun.” I faced Sophie. “Did somebody leave a window open or crank the AC?”

I noticed Sophie's expression. “You must be coming down with something. I don't think the house has central air, and the only unit I saw from outside was in an upstairs window.”

I faked a cough. “Could be.”

“Does it get as hot here as it does in Birmingham?” Jayne asked, her words stiffened by her clenched jaw. “I mean, would central air be required for resale?”

Both Sophie and I stared at her for a moment, trying to see if she might be joking. Finally, I said, “It will really depend—you can either have the work done or reduce the price accordingly. Either way, summer in Charleston is like living in a toaster stuck on high. Air-conditioning is generally not considered optional.”

I left the front door open, telling myself it was with hopes of crisp, fresh air instead of giving me the option of a quick exit.

Jayne still had her arms crossed, but she was looking at me with an amused expression. “ABBA, huh?”

“You like them?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I didn't say that. They were a little before my time. I saw the movie
Mamma Mia
, though, so I'm familiar with their music.”

Sophie began walking toward the staircase. “You didn't hear this from me, but Melanie's a little obsessed. She denies it, but I'm pretty sure she has a white leather fringe jumpsuit in her closet.”

I joined Sophie at the staircase, but Jayne remained where she was, her gaze focused at the landing where the stairs took a turn and disappeared from sight. I followed her gaze, then stopped. The fat cat with the missing eye sat on the landing staring disinterestedly down at us. “How'd that get in here?” Jayne asked.

“Must have sneaked in while we were talking. I'll send someone from the office who likes cats to come get it to see if it has a tag.”

“And if it belonged to Button Pinckney?”

“I guess it will go to a shelter.”

“What cat?” Sophie asked.

“That one,” I said, pointing to the empty spot where the cat had been. “Well, he or she was here a moment ago. It's rather chubby, and is missing an eye. I don't know how easy it will be to find it a home, so let's hope it doesn't belong to the house.”

I waited at the doorway to the parlor, hoping Jayne would take the hint, but she remained where she stood, her feet planted like a recalcitrant toddler. “There's nothing to worry about,” I reassured her. “I promise the cat will be taken care of.”

She looked at me for a moment before stiffly nodding. Slowly, she moved inside, her gaze never leaving the top of the stairs. The skin on the back of my neck assured me that we weren't alone in the house, yet the feeling of being barred from seeing anything extrasensory remained.

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