Read The Body in the Wardrobe Online

Authors: Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Wardrobe (7 page)

“I could only wish Amy had undesirable companions, and as for Ben, he's so intent on raising money for his trip that I doubt he's loitering. His class is badgering all the local businesses for items for an auction now. See you both tomorrow—and don't forget we have the Uppity Women Luncheon Club's holiday party next week. Remind me to call Sandra Katz. It's at her house.”

The Uppity Women were a small group of Aleford women—professionals, stay-at-home moms, and all sorts of variations. Years ago one of them had given a luncheon for friends of hers she thought should get to know one another. Thus the informal club was born; now it met at members' homes several times a year. The Uppities used their own china and cutlery, and supplied the wine; but they hired Faith to cook for them so the hostess could be free to enjoy herself. One of them was always on some sort of diet—Atkins, Paleo, no carbs—so Faith wanted to check to see what it was this time. And if one was following the 5:2 diet, she'd have to forgo a fasting day!

She left her car at the parsonage and once more set out across the Green, but this time she turned into Millicent's front walk, being sure to shut the gate in the white picket fence securely behind her. She'd been chastised before.

Millicent Revere McKinley was the great-great-great-granddaughter of a distant cousin of Paul Revere. It was this relative,
Ezekiel Revere, who had cast the bell that hung in Aleford's old belfry atop Belfry Hill overlooking the Green. When she was relatively new to Aleford, Faith had climbed the hill with baby Benjamin strapped close in his Snugli and discovered the still warm dead body of a parishioner in the small, dark structure. She had stood up, grasped the rope, and rung the bell repeatedly before racing down the hill to safety. Suffice it to say that in the days that followed, the murder was overshadowed by the controversy over the bell ringing—a bell, as Millicent was the first to point out, rung only in April, on Patriots' Day; for the death of a president; and for the death of a descendent of the brave force who faced the British on that famous day and year. Faith's explanation that the murderer might still have been lurking nearby and therefore an immediate alarm was called for met with a curl of Millicent's lip. There were still people in Aleford who referred to Faith as “that New Yorker who rang the bell.”

Millicent was not a member of First Parish, but considered herself one ex officio, as well as of all the other houses of worship in Aleford. She also belonged to virtually every club in town, the D.A.R. at the top of the list. Faith liked to think the two of them had made peace with each other lo these many years and there was also the fact that Millicent had saved Faith's life not once, but twice. Baked goods hardly evened the score.

The brass knocker shaped like an eagle gleamed in the afternoon sun, but Faith did not reach for it. She had never approached the house without Millicent's flinging the door wide before any sign was given that Faith stood waiting outside. So she stood. And stood a bit longer. This was odd. It wasn't Millicent's day to volunteer at the library or for the discreet trip she made every seven weeks to nearby Concord for a cut and perm—her Mamie Eisenhower bangs unvarying.

Finally Faith knocked. It sounded like a musket shot. After a few minutes, Millicent opened the door.

Faith stepped back in shock. She'd seen Millicent two weeks ago at a Historical Society meeting for which Have Faith supplied
coffee and dessert. A noted speaker had come to talk about the “French Connection”: Revere's French Huguenot father Apollos Rivoire and antecedents. Since this was Millicent's own research bailiwick, she was flushed with anticipation, eager to prove the Harvard professor wrong, which she did on a minuscule point—minuscule not to Millicent. Miss McKinley had certainly been the picture of health that day. Now she appeared to have lost at least ten pounds, and her face had gained several new lines.

“Yes?” Her tone was not welcoming.

“I thought you might like some anadama bread and other things.” Faith held the basket out.

Millicent opened the door marginally wider and Faith noticed it was on the chain. Millicent's door was never chained—or even locked. Curiouser and curiouser.

Millicent unhooked the chain. “Well, I suppose you'd better come in then.”

This did sound a bit more like the Miss McKinley she knew, but as Faith made her way to the parlor past the portraits of Millicent's forbears she noticed a fine layer of dust on the furniture. The smell of Old English, Millicent's preferred scent, was absent.

Faith perched on the slippery horsehair couch that had long been her appointed spot while Millicent commandeered the Windsor chair with a cushion near the window.

“Have you been all right? You look a bit—tired,” Faith said. Beating around the bush never worked with Millicent.

She braced herself for the response, but when it came it was not what Faith expected.

“I
am
a little tired. I'm not as young as I once was. People don't realize that. They don't realize a lot of things about me.” Millicent glanced over at her desk. Faith saw a thick business-size envelope on top.

“Do you want me to mail that for you?”

“Mail? No, I have nothing to mail,” Millicent said, looking once more at the envelope on the desk and then quickly back to
Faith. “I imagine you must want to get back to your husband and children.” She stood up. This was more like it, Faith thought. The suggestion of Mrs. Fairchild's neglect of hearth and home. The snappish tone.

“I'll leave the basket here for you then,” she said, setting it on a small piecrust table near Millicent's chair. The parlor abounded with small tables and made getting in and out tricky.

Millicent sat down. “And see yourself out, if you would.”

That had never happened before. Another anomaly. Faith did as she was told, but Millicent must have changed her mind and followed her.

Miss McKinley closed the front door securely and Faith heard the chain click into place. And, she noticed with dismay, Millicent hadn't hung her usual holly wreath up. A yuletide sign that appeared the first Sunday of Advent as reliably as the sunrise that same morning.

Something was very, very wrong in the House of Rivoire/Revere.

I am so thirsty!
Sophie sleepily reached for the glass of water she always kept next to her bed. Her silk sleeve brushed against her skin and she sat bolt upright, eyes wide open.
I don't have a silk nightgown!
She sank back, remembering the night before.

The shutters were drawn, but daylight was seeping in. Friday. It must be Friday morning. Or maybe not. It felt as if she had slept for eons. She looked around the room. It was as lovely as the rest of the house. Maybe she could stay here for a while. A few months, say. Someone had gone back to the other house, and her clothes were on a chair. She'd have to get dressed. But first she'd close her eyes again for a minute. . . .

She must be dreaming. The voice. The touch. Even the smell that was his alone, a kind of Ivory soap fresh-air aroma.

“Will,” she murmured.

“I'm here. Do you want to sleep some more?”

“Oh, Will!” She opened her eyes. He was kneeling by the side of the bed and took her hand. She pulled him closer. “Oh, Will, I'm so glad you're here! It was horrible. That man! He was dead and then they said they couldn't find him and—”

“Not now. We'll talk later. You've had a very frightening experience. Are you hungry? Thirsty? What can I get you?”

“Water, but don't leave.”

“There's some bottled water and a glass on the bureau. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. Randy's call scared me to death.”

Sophie drank the whole bottle. “It must be the bourbon and then I think there was something in the cocoa to make me sleep.”

Will smiled. “I'm sure there was. Carlene's medicine cabinet could be a branch of CVS. Now, do you want to get up or stay in bed?”

“What do you think?” Sophie said.

They spent the weekend back at Tybee and it was a second honeymoon. Sophie tried to apologize for duplicating Will's grandmother's dress and hoped that doing so would help Will talk about that difficult time in his life, but he closed her mouth with a kiss and said he had been the one at fault.

“Hard to explain, so let's agree to let it go. I was a total jerk. I should have known you wouldn't pull a stunt like that.”

Sophie had decided not to mention Patty Sue's role in the “stunt.” It wouldn't serve any purpose to drive a wedge between the two half sibs.

What was a problem was Will's steadfast refusal to believe that Sophie's story about Thursday night was all real and not a kind of half-awake nightmare. After several tries, she gave up, deciding not to spoil their precious time together.

Following an early breakfast at The Breakfast Club Monday morning, Will dropped Sophie off at the house before leaving for Atlanta. Randy and Carlene, as well as Anson and Gloria, had
offered to have Sophie stay with them during the week while Will was away, but Sophie had refused. It was hard to be a guest and she told them she'd be fine. “How likely is it that another body will appear in the wardrobe?” They'd laughed at her joke. Except she wasn't joking.

She did change bedrooms, though.

“See you Friday,” Will called as he went down the front steps. “As soon as I can get away. We'll go someplace nice for dinner.”

“I'd love to go back to the rooftop spot,” Sophie said. She'd told Will about having drinks overlooking the river with Randy and Carlene. She liked the idea of returning there, plus it was new. No ghostly Savannah lore.

“Whatever you want. Oh, I almost forgot. The real estate agent has lined up some listings for you to view. Tuesday afternoon okay? If not you can call and change it.”

“No, that's fine,” Sophie said. The sooner she got out of the current house the better.

No apparitions or unnatural noises disturbed her sleep Monday night, but when Ruth, Maxwell & Maxwell's recently hired office manager, buzzed her to say the agent was waiting, Sophie eagerly grabbed her purse. Gloria had said the agency was the best in Savannah and knew before owners themselves did that a house was going to go on the market! Gloria's favorite agent was a “crackerjack,” she'd said. Maybe she'd find their house today, Sophie thought.

Or maybe not.

The agent rose to greet her, hand outstretched and lips curved in a smile. Sophie recalled seeing a similar grin on the gators in the lagoon at Tybee's Crab Shack.

The agent was Miss Laura.

C
HAPTER
4

“We haven't been introduced, but I feel as if I know you from everything Will and the rest of the family have said. I'm Laura Belvedere.”

And I'm furious, Sophie thought, nevertheless coolly taking the outstretched hand and returning the shake, which was the equivalent of an air kiss. There was no way she was going to let this woman know how she was really feeling.

Laura was in white again. It must be her signature color, and it certainly worked with her platinum blond hair. She'd paired a long white jacket with a short white skirt. Her strappy silver high-heeled sandals matched a silver silk tee. Today's necklace was a glitter of quartz gemstones. She reminded Sophie of Tilda Swinton playing the White Witch in
The Lion, t
he Witch and the Wardrobe.

Wardrobe! Sophie was sure everyone in Savannah had heard about her call to the police and Laura's next words confirmed it.

“Are you feeling all right today? I understand you've been . . . ill.” Laura placed an oh-so-comforting hand on Sophie's arm. It was all she could do to keep from pushing it off.

“Ill? You've been misinformed. I've never felt better in my life. Now, where are we going to start looking?”

“I thought we'd work our way in, starting with The Landings out on Skidaway. It's only twenty minutes from downtown. Why don't you tell me about the kind of houses you like? Old, new? What kind of houses did you grow up in? Will said something about one being on the water.”

Sophie described the Victorian on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, telling Laura it had been and still was the family home.

“But I'm not married to any one style of architecture.”
I
am
married to your old beau, though, and don't you forget it!
she was tempted to add.

“The Landings is a real pretty spot. You cross the Moon River Bridge and are in a place most people would think of as a vacation destination, not a residential community. It's right off the Intracoastal and Will could keep his boat in the marina there.”

Will has a boat?

“I did see a house for sale on Habersham that I liked,” Sophie said. “It's pale gray, stucco, I think, or painted brick, with a bright red door, and it's on the corner. There's an ivy-covered wall alongside with a gate that must lead to a patio, and it has a beautiful cast iron balcony across the second story. Is that one of the ones we're seeing?”

“Oh, honey! That shoe box! No room to swing a cat. I'm going to do much much better for you.”

Should I want to swing a cat, Sophie thought sourly. Miss Laura wasn't doing anything for
her
. That was obvious.

It was beautiful at The Landings. Before they had driven too far, Sophie saw two graceful great blue heron fly overhead and commented how lovely they were.

“If you like birds, this is the place. The Audubon people even have a Bird Cam you can watch online. Cutest little baby owls last year.”

The place did seem like a resort, complete with a number of golf courses, tennis courts, and pools, but after Laura pulled into the drive of the third house, roughly the size and style of
Tara should the O'Haras have had a need for a four-car garage, Sophie said, “I—I mean we—were thinking of something smaller. These are lovely and the views are spectacular,” she added hastily, although why she felt the need to stay in this woman's good graces escaped her. The habit of a perennial good girl. She sighed.

“Now, don't be discouraged. We haven't even begun to look. Will gave
me
the impression that he wanted a good-size place. Why don't we head back toward town and I'll show you one in Ardsley Park that is my favorite of all the listings on the market right now. You said you liked stucco, right? Like that little bitty place on Habersham. Well, this one was built in 1911 and has recently been renovated from top to bottom. It's got a
few
more rooms than what you have your eye on.” She gave a little laugh, like ice tinkling in an empty glass.

Sophie leaned back against the leather seat—Laura drove a Lexus SUV, white of course—and surrendered. Obviously she'd have to go online to look for what she, Sophie, wanted to view and not what this “crackerjack” Realtor was bent on showing her. Sophie recalled that the prizes in those boxes had been hit or miss. The one time she got something good—a ring with a “real” ruby—the stone had fallen out the next day.

The Ardsley Park house was on Victory Drive, a wide street lined with the palm trees she saw all over that Sophie could still not quite believe were real. Laura had been right. The listing was a special one—the front yard had a number of massive moss-draped oaks, and there was a carriage house as well. Inside, Minton tiles surrounded many of the fireplaces, and the woodwork everywhere was museum quality.

“I hear you are quite the little cook,” Laura said, spreading her arms wide and twirling around in the state-of-the-art kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and an eight-burner stove.

Reduced in Laura's mind to a gingham apron–clad Betty Crocker clone, Sophie succeeded in keeping her voice even—if not warm. “It's lovely, but maybe we should look at the listings in
town. So easy to walk to work. And I know you think it's small, but I would like to see that house on Habersham.” Sophie felt it was time to dig her heels in, otherwise she would end up with an ill-fitting pair of shoes she couldn't afford.

“I'll have to get in touch with that agency.” Laura made it sound like one specializing in trailers and teardowns. “But we can look at a few others. Will really wants you to check out a steal on East Jones.”

Sophie considered asking Laura—no, she would not call her Miss Laura, which sounded like a nursery school teacher or dance instructor—to drop her back at the office. Laura was making it very obvious that Will and she had discussed the housing market in detail—as well as a whole lot of other things? But Sophie was no quitter, and she'd see where Ms. Belvedere thought she—no, make that Will—should live.

After the next property—five bedrooms, three and a half baths, garden, garage, priced at close to two million dollars, Sophie had had it. She'd have to make a “steal” to buy the one on Jones, or any of the others.

“Will should have made it plainer to you that these homes, although wonderful, are way beyond our means. I'll go online and send you a few places I'd like to see if you don't mind. Starting with the Habersham one.”

“Beyond your means? What on earth are you talking about?”

Laura must have heard about Babs, and, of course, Sophie had been wearing some significant jewelry at the party, which the Realtor would have assumed was Sophie's own.

“My stepfather is wealthy, but that has nothing to do with Will and me. The diamond necklace and bracelet I was wearing at the party belong to my mother.”

“Oh, sugar, I know all that. I'm talking about Will. His grandmother left him everything, even the house Anson and Gloria live in. Will is richer than Croesus!”

The amused look Laura gave her said more than any words.
How well exactly do you know your husband?

Sophie was so preoccupied she didn't realize Laura was pulling up to The Pirates' House, a restaurant catering to tourists on Broughton Street near the river.

“Now, Will said he hadn't taken you here yet, so it's the perfect place to have a drink and get an early dinner while we talk about the houses you saw today. Especially now that you know your budget!”

This is so not happening
. “Thank you, Laura, but I need to get back to the office to finish something up. I'd planned on grabbing a salad later. I'm not really hungry now.”

Her excuses fell on very deaf ears. Laura was already out of the car, key in hand.

“Now, I'm sure an educated lady like you read
Treasure Island
growing up. This is the place mentioned in the book. Captain Flint still makes an appearance on moonless nights, but y'all know about ghosts in Savannah.” Sophie had no choice but to follow.

The hostess seated them in a small room that must have dated back even before
Treasure Island
. The blackened fireplace mantel was decorated with a line of skulls.

Their server appeared immediately. “What can I get you ladies to drink?” Sophie felt a sudden need for alcohol, the stronger the better.

“A vodka martini, please. Stoli if you have it. With two olives.”

“She'll have a Skull Crusher,” Laura said. “You
have
to have rum here. It's their most famous drink. Wait until you see the container!”

“I'll have a vodka martini, please. Stoli if you have it. With two olives,” Sophie repeated firmly.

“Oh well. I guess I'll have a Cosmo then.”

The server left and Laura assumed the role of tour guide. “You're sitting in part of the oldest house in Georgia, built in 1734. And the oldest bar in the state. General Oglethorpe banned rum—thought it was a bad influence—but it didn't last long. He had a lot of noble ideas that went out the window.” Her tone clearly indicated what she thought of these “noble ideas.”

Sophie had read up on James Oglethorpe. One of his other bans had been on slavery, which didn't last long, either.

“Now I'm going to go powder my nose. Y'all can read up on the history of The Pirates' House on the menu,” Laura instructed. She really was very bossy. Was that why Will had broken up with her? It was clear that Laura hadn't dumped him.

When she returned she began to talk a mile a minute—houses, Savannah—and Sophie began to wonder whether she'd indulged in another kind of powdered substance in the ladies' room. She definitely was sounding high on something. Maybe it was just her love of the city.

The drinks arrived. “Are you ready to order?” the server asked. Once more Laura took charge.

“We'll start with a cup of okra gumbo—a bowl would fill us up—and then—”

“I'll have the grilled salmon salad, house dressing on the side.” Sophie raised her voice slightly out of necessity.

“Pooh! You are a spoilsport—or don't you like Southern food?”

“I love it”—she'd even created her own recipe for cheese grits (see
recipe
)—“but I told you I wasn't hungry.” Sophie knew she sounded truculent and didn't care. Her martini was doing the trick. She might have to have another. She was walking, after all.

“You can bring me the Fried Shrimp Savannah and I'm not going to share!”

There didn't seem to be much to say after that, and Sophie decided against another drink, even though Laura didn't. The alcohol seemed to restore her would-be hostess's genial mood.

“Now I just know I'm going to find you the perfect house. Which was your favorite today? I know! Ardsley Park! Oh, here comes our pirate. Y'all going to love this!”

Sophie listened politely as a man who did indeed look very much like an illustration from the Stevenson book related more Pirates' House history. By the time the gumbo arrived—she'd
given in to the server's insistence, not Laura's—the mood of the place was starting to charm her. Yes, it was hosting at least two busloads of tourists in several of the seventeen rooms, but she thought it would be a fun spot to take her Yankee friends when they visited. She smiled to herself.

“That's better,” Laura said, noting her expression. “Now isn't this the best okra gumbo you've ever had? Will's favorite.”

Sophie's mood vanished as fast as the gumbo had—it
was
good, and she'd lied to Laura about not being hungry.

It was one of the longest dinners Sophie had ever endured. She listened to Laura's detailed description of her debut—Will was her escort—and more. The Belvederes were in shipping, the firm started by Laura's grandfather and now run by “Daddy and my brother—smart as a whip.” Noting the brands Laura was sporting, Sophie figured someone was making money. And it could be Laura herself, selling houses. She realized she didn't know where Laura lived and asked her. At least it might move the woman from past to present.

“'Course I moved out of Mama and Daddy's when I left Agnes Scott, but they keep my room just the way it's always been.”

So much for present. Sophie envisioned a room fit for the Southern belle Laura embodied. An antique four-poster, shelves for the doll collection, an organdy skirted dressing table, and rose-colored walls, maybe even roses on the walls. Laura had revealed that she was the only girl and her family “just spoil the life out of me!”

Not knowing quite how to respond to that (“Lucky you”? “Poor me”?) Sophie asked her again where she was currently living.

“Since then I've been a flipper. You know. I've got the touch. Buy an apartment, fix it up while I live in it, sell it and double my money—or more. I'm in a condo near Gloria's new project now. That's a hot part of town, so close to the river and just starting to take off.”

Filing away the information that Laura lived so nearby for
further thought, Sophie stood up. “I really do have to be going, after I find the restroom.”

Their server appeared to clear the table and pointed to the dessert menus. “I hope I can tempt you lovely ladies into one of the chef's sweets.”

“Absolutely.” Laura beamed, motioning for Sophie to sit down. “You can't leave without one of their desserts.” She made it sound like a command. “I'll have the bourbon pecan pie with plenty of whipped cream. Why don't you have the peach cobbler? It's to die for and—”

Sophie remained standing but smiled her own gator grin as she finished Laura's sentence, “and Will loves it. But no thanks.”

As she moved away from the table, she wondered how Laura stayed so thin. The old finger-down-the-throat trick or Ex-Lax?

Sophie did want the restroom, but she also wanted to give the server her credit card to pay for their meals. She didn't intend to owe Laura Belvedere a thing. After arranging the bill, she walked in the direction the server had indicated through the restaurant and stopped to read an out-of-the-way sign above what looked like the opening to an underground chamber. The drop was safely barricaded by an iron railing. She leaned over it to peer down and a voice next to her said, “First time here?”

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