Authors: Katherine Hall Page
After talking to Faith, Sophie had waited awhile, then taken her advice and kissed her husband to wake him up. He'd started to respond sleepily before leaping from the bed, exclaiming they were going to be late and why hadn't she roused him earlier? She'd been tempted to say he'd been sleeping so soundly it would have been almost impossible, but kept her mouth shut and went on to don a pretty outfit as also suggested. Deceptively demure, the jade green sundress with pink ribbon spaghetti straps and more ribbon around the waist was cut low in back. But Will had not seemed to notice what she was wearing, saying little on the drive out to Bells Mills in the sports car. Conversation would have been difficult the way Will was driving. Sophie wondered if he was speeding on purpose.
Anson was waiting for them. Sophie gave her father-in-law a kiss and whispered a big thank-you for the party in his ear. He was taking Babs and Ed out for a short ride in his Grady-White powerboat and wanted the newlyweds to come along, too. “Tide's right and we'll probably see dolphins.” Windblown and still reeling a bit from the drive, Sophie declined, noting with a sinking feeling how Will leaped on board with alacrity. She headed into the house to freshen up, or downâher hair was sticking straight outâpassing Patty Sue. Her sister-in-law raised an eyebrow, but neither woman spoke. As she made her way to the elegant main floor powder room, Sophie tried to think of ways to avoid speaking to the woman for the rest of both their natural lives.
When she came back outside, the party had already kicked in to high gear. She was grateful when Randy headed her way. Everyone looked familiarâand friendlyâbut en masse she found them daunting. At other gatherings, Will had shepherded her around. Sophie knew she would never be a true Savannahianâlike an old Maine saying, “A cat can have kittens in the oven, but that doesn't make them biscuits”âyet, would she always feel like such an outsider?
When the boating group returned, the contents of the pots were dumped out on long picnic tables covered with newspaperâno plates neededâand everyone dug in. Randy, joined by his wife, Carlene, flanked Sophie. “We'll teach you how we do it,” Carlene said. “You eat with your fingers like a kid. See? The oil from the sausage makes the shell slide off the shrimp easy. They peel themselves. Kind of like you when you're in the mood,” she added slyly, looking at her husband. He shot back, “More like when
in the mood,” and she reached across Sophie to throw a corncob in his lap.
Babs passed by. “Smile, sweetie, and start looking like you're having the time of your life,” she hissed in Sophie's ear. “This isn't a wake.” Sophie found the food helped and soon she
enjoying herself. Like all Savannah parties, everyone had come determined to have a good time. As the empty beer bottles mounted and crusty loaves of garlic bread turned into crumbs, all that was left of the boil itself was stripped corncobs and shrimp shells. For a moment she let herself enjoy the cadence of conversation flowing around herâthe soft accents, gentle teasing, joke after joke, and stories.
Will had been sitting at another table with his father and Gloria. He came over and took Sophie's hand.
“From the look of it, I'd say you've been enjoying yourself.” He picked a piece of shell from her chin and rubbed his thumb over the spot. “Let's go for a walk. It's close to sunset, and they're always special on boil nights. Must be the steam doing something to the atmosphere.”
Sophie jumped up and squeezed his hand.
As they passed a group gathered around a fire pit, Randy called out, “If you're not here by morning, we'll send out a search partyâor maybe you'd rather we didn't.” Sophie laughed with the rest and squeezed Will's hand even harder. They walked out on the long dock to the small enclosure set at the end, screened in with benches along three sides. Will opened the door and Sophie was glad to go in, away from the tiny gnats ever present near the
water. There was still a great view of the sun, now a molten red ball sending purple streamers along the horizon.
They sat down, and she realized she was very, very tired. She put her head on Will's shoulder. That so familiar shoulder, the perfect height for her to lean on.
“I've been offered a case in Atlanta that I can't afford to turn down,” Will said.
Sophie sat up. “But that's wonderful. Congratulations.”
“It will mean staying up there during the week.”
She wasn't sure what she was supposed to sayâor feel. She knew that Will's work would take him away on occasion. He specialized in white-collar crime and had told her he never wanted to be the kind of PI that was hired to get the goods on a cheating spouse. “Give me an old-fashioned embezzler any day.”
“Okay. I mean, fine. I'll be fine here.”
He nodded. “Besides the office, you'll be busy looking at houses. Gloria doesn't know when she'll be finished with the one we're in, but we need to be ready to move sooner than later. I've been in touch with a Realtor we know and she'll be giving you a call once she's lined up some places. I told her we were openâdowntown, Ardsley Park, Skidaway Island.”
He sounded very businesslike. Sophie pushed away her feelings of regret and disappointment, seeking the same tone in return. “I'm sorry you won't be looking with me, but if there's anything I think we should consider, I can e-mail you the information.”
Will nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” Sophie began to relax again. She loved to look at other people's houses, especially knowing one of them might turn out to be theirs.
The sky was midnight blue. The sun had vanished into the water and the moon hadn't risen. She had that “The Only Two People in the World” feeling as the night closed in.
“I'll be leaving early tomorrow morning.”
She wished she could believe him. He didn't sound sorry at all.
Will did go early the next morning.
“I hate to leave you without a car. We'll get one next weekend. Should have before this.”
They'd joked out on Tybee about “Mommy cars,” a monster Hummer or other SUV. Sophie had something along the lines of a small Subaru in mind.
“I don't really need a car, and if I do there are Zip cars.”
Will had been preoccupied, almost as if he hadn't heard her, and just shook his head before giving her a kiss good-bye. It wasn't the worst kiss she'd ever received, but it left a great deal to be desired. He was gone before she could return it with more feeling.
As it turned out, the days passed quickly. Tuesday night Randy and Carlene appeared at Sophie's office door at six and told her she was working way too hard.
“Don't want you making me look bad with the old man,” Randy said. “We're kidnapping you, you poor lonely baby.”
Sophie smiled. “Am I allowed to know where?”
“Let's surprise her, honey,” Carlene said.
They walked down Bull Street and crossed over to River Street. Sophie decided Carlene was a much, much better sister-in-law than she whose name must not be said. Carlene was still in great shape, like the cheerleader she had been, and while her streaked blond hair wasn't big hair, it was close. It was Sophie's impression that although the couple had known each other “since Noah,” Carlene said, they had been married only two or three years. No children yet, “But we're practicing.” She'd laughed when she related this to Sophie.
They were easy to be with, and when Sophie stepped out onto the Top Deck Bar on the roof of the Cotton Sail Hotel, she was
very glad she'd been kidnapped. The view of the river and the Talmadge Bridge was spectacular. Soon she was sipping a mojito, perched on a high stool, staring at one of the container ships plying the waters, so close it seemed she could reach out and touch it. A behemoth that looked like a floating horizontal skyscraper.
“People don't realize we're the fourth largest port in the country,” Randy said. He'd ordered an assortment of food from the bar menu, and Sophie was enjoying smoked salmon and capers on flatbread and eyeing the shrimp and crab spring rolls. She nodded. Her mouth was full.
Randy continued, “And as fast as we can build storage and distribution facilities, companies are filling them up. We've already got Walmart, Target, and Home Depot. Ikea too. Hell, we've got them all and more coming. You wouldn't think something happening in another part of the worldâthe expansion of the Panama and Suez canalsâwould affect little bitty Savannah, but it means bigger ships can get here, and faster. I'm boring you, aren't I, darlin'? You need another drink!” He motioned for the server.
Sophie started to protest, then decided why not? She was a few short blocks from the house.
“No, you're not boring me at all. I don't know much about the city, and definitely very little about the port.”
Randy opened his mouth to speak, but Carlene interrupted. “He'll go on all night. Now,
want to hear about living in New York City. I mean to go there someday and see all those shops.”
They insisted on walking Sophie home. They lived on East Jones Street. Sophie hadn't been inside the mid-nineteenth-century house yet, but Will had pointed it out during one of their walks. It was exactly the kind of house she wanted, she'd told himâthe long windows of the first floor told her the ceilings were high, and the exterior was a warm golden brick with a decorative iron railing on the steep front steps that was a possible indication of more on the balconies and veranda in the back.
That night, when she'd turned the key to go in, the thought of the empty house awaiting undid all that the mojitos and company had produced. She had trouble sleeping, and it seemed that when she did close her eyes a creak or a groan from the old house would immediately jolt her awake.
Wednesday night was worse. The wind had picked up and whistled down the chimneys, moaning. It seemed a forest of branches was hitting the house and falling to the street below.
By Thursday night she was determined to get some rest. Will would be home the next day. She needed sleep to do something about the deep circles under her eyes. Faith had called Monday to report on what Ursula had said about both Will's grandmother and mother. It helped explain his reaction to the dress somewhat, but the response had been so extreme she was sure more must be involved. She had years to find out and comfort her husband, she thought happily. He'd been communicating by e-mail. Brief, almost impersonal notes. No phone calls. He was very busy. This would change once they were face-to-face.
She made sure the house was locked up tight. Will had been amused by this. He didn't see the need when the house was occupied, particularly the back door. “Have to be a pretty determined burglar to climb over those high walls and then there's the glass shards studded in the concrete on top to deal with.”
Gloria was having an alarm system installed but was waiting until other electrical work was completed, she'd explained. “People want them. Personally ours is a nuisance. Anson is always setting it off by accident so we never use it.”
After work, Sophie had stopped to buy the DVD of John Berendt's
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,
or “The Book” as Will explained it was known in the city itself. “We get down on our knees and thank himâmost of us anyway. Put us on the map for tourists.” She'd read the book years ago but had never seen the film and thought it would be fun. It would no doubt
show places she now knew, plus she liked both Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.
She ate dinner standing up at the kitchen counterâa salad she'd picked up at Parker's market on Draytonâand took a big bowl of rice pudding, her comfort food, down to the ground-level entertainment room. She tended to get sleepy at the movies, and Gloria had furnished the room with tasteful comfy recliners that had Sophie's eyelids feeling heavy even before she started the film.
She'd barely watched half of it when she realized she had fallen sound asleep. Turning off the set, she climbed the two flights of stairs, took pajamas from the drawer, and went to hang the skirt she'd been wearing in the wardrobe. The door gave its usual creakâthey really must oil the hingesâas she flung it wide open.
A very large, very dead man tumbled out, crashing to the floor facedown at her feet. Sophie knew he was dead because there was a very large knife sticking out from his back.
Besides, he wasn't moving.
Not moving at all.
And neither was Sophie. Her limbs were frozen in place as she stared down at the man, a dark shape against the rich colors of the Oriental carpet on the floor. It was impossible to believe. A body in the wardrobe?
She opened her mouth, took a deep breath, but couldn't make a sound. And then as if a starter's gun had gone off, she tore down the stairs and found herself in the kitchen, staring at a door she knew was locked. Just as all the doors were.
She looked down at her bare legs. The phone was in the bedroom. She'd taken it out of her skirt. The skirt she was about to hang in the wardrobe. The wardrobe where the dead man had been. Waiting for her to open the door.
Think, Sophie, think!
She snatched the landline receiver from the counter, punching in 9-1-1, turned the lock, and wrenched the door open, stumbling into the cool night air. Relief started to flood over her until she realized the killer could be hiding behind the stacks of lumber and bags of cement that filled that garden at the back of the house. Quickly she darted to the path surrounding the house and the gate beyond. She pushed down on the handle; it opened easily.
There was no front yard, only a small patch of ivy with a cast iron planter at the foot of the stairs leading to the front door. Gloria had filled the urn with red cyclamen, evergreens, and pinecones. Sophie moved across to the square and stood under a streetlight. No cars were passing and no one was on the sidewalks, although lights were on in most of the houses.
Her call was picked up. Listening to the voice on the other end saying “this call is being recorded,” Sophie struggled to clear her throat, finally gasping out, “There's a dead man in my bedroom. He's been stabbed.”
The remarkably calm-sounding woman on the line responded by asking Sophie's name, the address, and if she was still inside the house. Sophie answered, her voice getting stronger. Her heart began to slow and her mind began to clear.
“Can you confirm the identity of the dead man?”
“No, I don't know.” Her thoughts swirled again. Who was he? One of the crew working on the house? She was almost positive she had never seen him before, yet it had all happened so fast she hadn't gotten more than a glimpse of his face.
“There is a squad car in your area and will be with you immediately,” the dispatcher said. “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” Sophie answered. “I'm alone.”
But not for long.
Two police cars, lights flashing, pulled up. Officers wasted no time rushing into the houseâthrough the back when Sophie told them she thought the front was locked. A female officer took Sophie into one of the cars and put a blanket around her. Sophie hadn't realized she was shivering until she felt the warmth. She was able to answer questionsâher name again and a description of the deceasedâ“At least six feet tall. Heavyset. Long dark hair. Greasy. Dark clothing. Maybe jeans.” She closed her eyes, trying to see it again. Not wanting to see it again.
“Can you describe the weapon?” The officer was busy taking notes.
“A knife with a long, thick black handle. I couldn't see the blade. It was . . .” Sophie felt her throat close and stopped.
“That's fine. You're doing just fine, honey. Is there someone we can call? Family?”
Sophie almost laughed. An hysterical sort of laugh. Her accent had betrayed her. The question mark after “family” could have been drawn in the air with neon it was so vivid. She wasn't from here.
“My husband is in Atlanta working. This is my mother-in-law's house.”
Neighbors had gathered a safe distance away from the action. Sophie could see them in small knots speculating on what piece of Savannah news was unfolding. She was overwhelmed with fatigue. The fatigue that had haunted her since the night of the party. She wanted Will. Will, her husband, her beloved. And she wanted him now. Tears gathered in the corners of her eye and blurred the surreal scene outside the squad car window.
The door opened and the officer who had been the first to take off for the house slid next to Sophie.
Sophie wiped her eyes with her hand and sat up straight, clutching the blanket around her. “Yes?”
“You did say that the man fell out of the wardrobe in the bedroom at the top of the stairs in the front of the house?”
“Yes, I was putting my clothes away and he . . .” Her voice gave out again for a moment, but she regained it. “He came tumbling right out and I could see he was dead.”
The officer's voice softened. “There's no one in the house, dead or alive, darlin'.”
to believe me. There was a man, a very large man, in the wardrobe and he was dead! He fell out when I opened the door to hang up my skirt! He wasn't moving!” Sophie realized
she was shouting and lowered her voice.
Rational. Stay rational!
“Somebody else must have been in the house. No, it had to be more than one person to carry him. They must have taken him out the back way when I was here in the front!”
“We've checked the yard. Without a ladder or some other equipment I'm afraid there was no way a body could be transported over those walls. The only exit to the front is that gate.” He pointed out the window. “Did you see anyone come through it?” He was being very, very patient with her.
Sophie shook her head. “No,” she said softly. This was fast becoming even more of a nightmare than it had been to start. “
came that way, out the kitchen door. But they could be hiding with him someplace else in the house!” The female officer started patting Sophie's hand.
“We've gone over every room, every possible space of concealment, top to bottom, and we are doing it again now.”
There was a knock on the car window. Sophie recognized an older woman she saw walking her dog most days.
“I don't want to interrupt y'all, but we know Mrs. Maxwell's husband is away, so I took the liberty of calling her brother-in-law, Randall. He should be here any minute.”
The glance the two cops exchanged said it all:
Phew, now we can hand this nutcase off
Sophie closed her eyes and waited. For what she knew not.
Silently blessing the neighbor who had called him, and noting that although Sophie herself knew nothing about anyone in the neighborhood, they all apparently knew everything about her, she tried to tell Randy what had happened on the short drive to his house.
“Hush now. Let's get you a drink. I'm betting you didn't have much dinner, either. Rabbit food when your husband's away, most
likely. Least it is for Carlene. Thinks she can go down a size before I get back.”
It was wonderful to let them take over. Carlene settled Sophie on the couch with a soft mohair throw. The living room was just as Sophie had imagined, looking at it from outside. High ceilings and walls the color of Meyer lemons. A tray was waiting for her on the coffee table with a plate of sandwichesâ“I didn't know what you'd have a taste for, so there's a little bit of everything: pimento cheese, chicken salad, roast beef.”
Randy put a tumbler in her hand. “Bourbon and branch. Drink up. Let me get one. I'm sure Carlene is set.” He winked at his wife, who was indeed sipping what appeared to be the whiskey-and-water combination.
“Now,” he said, once he returned with a drink for himself, “what's all this about a corpse in my mama's wardrobe?”
Reflecting that she was consuming more bourbon lately than she had in her entire life, Sophie described what had happened, appreciative of the serious expressions on Randy's and Carlene's faces, as well as Carlene's occasional sympathetic gasps.
Randy shook his head slowly. “You say you were watching the movie about The Book?”
“Yes,” Sophie answered, swallowing a mouthful of the best chicken salad she'd ever had. “But why would that have anything to do with the murder?”
Randy got up and sat next to her. Carlene had been on her other side. For a moment Sophie was transported back to the boil, when they'd flanked her as well. A different kind of protection.
“Don't you think you might could have been thinking of what you saw on the screen and carried the image with you? You said you were almost asleep, right?”
“Yes, but I wasn't imagining what I saw. And heard! A figment wouldn't make the sound he did when he crashed to the floor.”
“Did you touch him?” Carlene asked. “I mean, did you happen to maybe poke him with your foot?”
Sophie shuddered. “No, I did not, and if I had my toe would not have gone straight through him!”
“Oh, Sophie, sweetheart, Savannah isn't known as the most haunted city in the country for no reason,” Randy said. “You most certainly saw some kind of manifestation. Mama will be pleased. She'll be checking to see who lived there, and more important, who died there in order to add a few grand to the price.”
Carlene's cheeks were flushed. “Will took you to the Olde Pink House for dinner, didn't he? I know lots of people who have seen those ghosts, especially James. And now we kinda have our own!”
Will had taken Sophie to the famous restaurant on Reynolds Square and told her about the sightings of the Revolutionary War hero James Habersham Jr., as well as of an unidentified female, who occasionally appeared sobbing on an upper floor. Habersham, he'd told her, was a genial spirit who tended to stay in what was now a ground-level tavern where he welcomed guests, ever the hospitable host. Sophie had laughed and later teased her husband about his apparent lack of skepticism. He'd quoted Mark Twain in answer, “âI do not believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.'”
She thought of the conversation now. The body she'd discovered tonight was not a ghost, but she was very much afraid of him.
“It's late, shug,” Randy said. “We need to get you to bed. We'll talk more in the morning. Maybe it was some sort of prank the workmen were pulling. I'll go speak to the contractor tomorrow in any case.”
Carlene wasn't letting the ghost theory go. “And I personally have seen tears on the cheeks of poor little six-year-old Gracie Watson's statue in Bonaventure when there hasn't been a cloud in the sky. And what about the Gordons? Willie and Nellieâthey were Juliette Gordon Low's parents; you must have been a Girl
Scout, Sophie. She founded them right here. Anyway those two had a real love match and people see them in the garden or the foyer all the time. Sometimes Nellie plays the piano for Willie. Not even death could keep them apart.”
“So I suppose I'm going to have to listen to you belting out UGA's fight song after we're gone?” Randy said, putting his arm through Sophie's and pulling her to her feet. “Now, Carlene is going to tuck you in and I'll bring you some cocoa. You might want it if whatever you saw tonight starts to keep you awake.”
Upstairs Carlene handed Sophie a nightgown and showed her where the bathroom was. “We're down the hall. Give a yell if you want anythingâor see anything.”
Somehow Sophie was finding Carlene's insistence on the paranormal comfortingâ“Y'all have to think why
a ghost want to live in Savannah?” It didn't diminish what she knew had happened, but it was most certainly taking her mind off the event.
An event that came crowding back the moment her head sank into the down pillows. She closed her eyes and watched it all again, as if pushing rewind on a remote. Rewinding further to all the nights she'd spent alone in the house this week. The noises she'd heard. Not ghosts, but now she was certain, very much alive human beings.
Giving up, she drank the cocoa, and slipped into oblivion.
All week long Faith had been going over her conversation with Tom on Sunday nightâ“We need to talk”âto the point where she could almost describe it in picture-perfect detail. The problem being that the recollection wasn't helping her understand, or come any closer to terms with what he'd said.
The first thing she'd done was switch on a light. It was so not Tom to sit in the dark. “What's wrong? What do we need to talk about?”
He'd run his fingers through his rusty brown hair causing it to stick straight up, a gesture when he was agitated or worried, but he hadn't responded right away. She'd filled the silence.
“This is such a hard time of year for you, so much holiday joy; so many sad people . . .” Suddenly she'd realized why he must be depressed. “Have we lost someone?” Several parishioners were close to death, and Tom had been called to these bedsides with greater frequency in the last few days.
“Not yet, but I've been expecting to hear from Charles Frawley's family soon. No, it's not the parish. Or rather it
the parishâand another one as well.”
At that point, Faith had been thoroughly mystified. “Another one? Here?” Aleford's clerical community was remarkably congenial and had not engaged in the turf wars that had been known to occur among religious institutions in other placesâno turning of cheeks there.
Tom had started to raise his hand to his hair again but lowered it, taking his wife's instead. “The search committee from a church on the South Shore has been in touch with me several times lately, urging me to throw my collar in the ring.”
This happened with some frequency, and Faith was never surprised. Of course her husband would be in demand.
“That's always wonderful for you, darling,” she'd said and turned her thoughts to dinner. Sunday nights meant a simple supper. Describing the Lowcountry boil to Sophie had turned Faith's appetite south. Maybe grilled pimento cheese sandwiches with a big salad.
“I'm thinking of taking it.”
Faith had immediately tuned back in. “You mean moving?”
Tom nodded. “At least I'll go talk to them and guest preachâget a feel for the congregation.”