Authors: Katherine Hall Page
Associating the phrase with pickup lines from Big Apple clubs, Sophie turned to move on but stopped when she saw the speaker was a handsome elderly gentleman with a thick crop of white hair leaning on a cane with a shiny brass pelican handle.
“That was where they kept the rum,” he continued. “Workers uncovered the area sometime in the 1960s. It leads to a tunnel that goes all the way to the river. Supposedly wide enough for a wagon. I'm Francis, by the way.”
“I'm Sophie. And yes, I have never been here before. I just moved to Savannah in the fall, so all of it is pretty new to me. I've heard a little about tunnels under the city, though. I'm guessing
this one was used to shanghai crew besides transport the barrels of rum?”
“That's what they say. Rope a poor unsuspecting young man in for a friendly drinkâlike the Skull Crusher they have nowâand the next thing he'd know he was on a schooner headed for the Seven Seas. Other tunnels were used to move yellow fever victims, especially during the 1876 epidemic that took the lives of over one thousand people.”
“That many!” Sophie exclaimed.
Francis nodded. “People say it's because Savannah is so swampy, and it's carried by mosquitoes, but it's also likely sailors brought the infection into the port. So, you're interested in our history?”
“Yes. Savannah is my home now and I'm finding out all sorts of interesting things about it.” Including, she thought but didn't mention, a body.
“Well, you're talking to the right man. Here's my card. After I retired, I started working as a guide to some of the historic houses. I'm at the Mercer Williams House right now and I'd be happy to give you a tour. No Mercer ever lived there and people come because of The Bookâyou know about that?âbut there's much more to the house.”
“I work nearby at Maxwell and Maxwell, so I'd be delighted,” Sophie said. “And yes, I know all about The Book. Read it even before I knew I'd be living here.”
“Maxwell and Maxwell, hmmm. You must be Will Maxwell's new bride. I was sorry to miss the party Anson and Gloria threw for you.”
Sophie smiled mischievously. “The party to meet Will Maxwell's new
Francis put out his hand and Sophie shook it. He had a firm grasp. “Welcome to Savannah, Mrs. Maxwell. Yankees are just fine with me. My grandmother was from Boston, and remember, even though he did a lot of damage other places, Sherman spared our fair city and gave it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. We'll talk more. I
have an endless supply of tales. Oh, and do be sure to take a look at the Herb House part of the restaurant when you are outside. That really is the oldest part and stands next to what was the Trustees Garden. Poor benighted Oglethorpe laid it out and planted mulberry trees plus other things that would never grow here. He thought he'd be feeding silkworms with the mulberry leaves, establishing a thriving silk industry. He had better luck with his peach trees. Now, I must go back to my friends. They'll be thinking I tumbled into the cellar here.”
He gave a slight bow, and Sophie returned to her own table feeling happier than she had all day.
When she was finally able to get away from Laura, turning down her offer of a ride several times, Sophie's cheerful mood returned. It was dusk and she decided to walk down Bay Street and turn on Whitaker, which she knew led to Forsyth Park. And she'd come back by way of Habersham, past what she was fast thinking was
house, the tiny one with the red door.
It would be Christmas in a little over a week. Savannah didn't have Rockefeller Centerâtype decorations, but the city had plenty of lights, wreaths, and, unlike New York, blooming plants sporting big red bows in planters and window boxes. She was sure the large fountain at Forsyth would look seasonal. No worries about the recirculating water freezing.
As she walked she debated whether to ask Will if they could change agents. Laura wasn't going to show her the homes Sophie wanted to seeâshe was sure of it. She framed the argument in her mind. How would Will have felt if Ian, Sophie's former British swain, was their agent? Of course, Ian was a total snake, and although she didn't like her, Laura was a decent person. And the cattiness was explainable. Losing Will would make any woman resentful of her replacement. By the time Sophie reached the park, she was feeling sorry for Miss Lauraâand if that's what her friends called her, so be it. It would be extremely petty for Sophie to insist on a new agent.
Yet, it was early days, a small voice way in the back of her head reminded her.
The fountain was lovely, and after sitting on a bench nearby for a while, Sophie walked on, intending to exit at Gwinnett to get over to Habersham. Dusk had given way to dark. There were not as many lights in this area, and she picked up her pace. Like any big city, Savannah had its share of crimeâas she well knew. How could she convince Will that what she'd seen was real? And where had the corpse gone so rapidly?
It wasn't late, but she began to feel uneasy when she heard footsteps behind her. She sped up, and they did the same.
Until now she hadn't been the only person in the park.
The shadows were deeper here. The brightly lighted street ahead seemed far away, and Sophie began to feel truly afraid. She started to glance over her shoulder to see who it was but stumbled on the uneven pavement. Better to keep her eyes focused ahead.
It had been foolish to come to this part of the city, a city still so unfamiliar to her. She pulled her keys from her purse and clenched them in her fist, one pointing straight out between two fingers. When she'd moved to Manhattan, she'd taken a women's defense class at her mother's insistence. Bless Babs.
She was almost out of the park. Her heartbeats slowed. The person behind her must simply be eager to get home. But just as she was reassuring herself, a tall shape in a dark hooded coat rushed past her, pushing her roughly to one side. She let out a strangled cry as she struggled to keep her balance. The figure was taking off at a run.
Breathless, Sophie paused to collect herself. “Some people!” she muttered aloud.
The person had dropped an envelope in his or her haste to get wherever was so important. Sophie picked it up and was startled to see her name written on the outside.
The flap wasn't sealed and she tore it open. Six words were written on a single sheet of paper by the same hand as her name:
Go back where you came from
When Faith had picked up the phone Tuesday evening to hear Sophie Maxwell ask her if she had a minute, she hadn't expected they'd still be talking an hour later. After Sophie had related her encounter in the park, Faith had asked whether there had been any other frightening incidents. The floodgates opened. When Sophie got to the body in the wardrobe, Faith had exclaimed, “That happened to me, too!”
“You found a dead body in a wardrobe?”
“Not exactly a wardrobe, or it would have been an armoire. We were living in France at the time. What I meant was that I found a body behind the trash cans in the vestibule of our apartment building and fled upstairs. By the time the gendarmes arrived it was gone.”
“So, you know how I feel. Nobody believed you, either, right?”
“Not at first.”
“Especially Tom. I was pregnant with Amy, and everyone put it down to hormones.”
“Well, at least it makes sense that someone could have easily moved that body. How do you explain mine?” Sophie said.
“I can't. Especially without seeing where it was. Now, the business with the dress at the party was just pure spite on your sister-in-law's part. I remember her from the rehearsal dinner. I never trust those âbutter won't melt in my mouth' types. And, Sophie, could the person who jostled you tonight and left that sick note possibly have been her as well?”
“I suppose it could have. She probably got a report on today's house hunting from her BFF Laura, the woman Will
have married. I'll bet Laura called her right away. And I'd said I was going to take a walk to the park, as it was such a nice night. What's weird is that the figure most resembled the dead guy in the
wardrobeâsame sizeâbut I think he can be crossed off the list of possibilities. Dead is dead.”
“Definitely,” Faith said. “Hold on to the paper and no more walks alone at night, okay?”
“Maybe this whole thing was a mistake! North, South. West Coast, East Coast. Maybe mixed marriages aren't meant to be. After all, we met in Maine. Neutral territory.”
“Nonsense. I moved to Aleford from New York City. Much farther away if not in distance than in ways of life than Savannah is. It will take a while for the whole outsider thing to die down, but it will.”
They ended the call, arranging to talk again the next day. Faith went back to the kitchen to run the dishwasher. The kids were doing homework, and Tom was at a meeting of the Vestry.
What she had been loath to tell Sophie was that it might take a very long time for the outsider label to blurâsay, sixteen-plus years. . . .
Sophie wasn't hungry and she didn't feel like going over the papers she'd brought home from work. A cup of chamomile tea and early bed. She turned on the radio in the kitchen and started to boil some water. The station was playing holiday music. Randy had insisted that “Jingle Bells” had been written in Savannah. Sophie had laughed at what was obviously one of his tall tales. The idea of enough snow for a one-horse sleigh down here was ludicrous.
She'd ask her new friend Francis about it. “Francis Whelan III” his card read, all in an elegant font. She wanted to know more about Sherman's Christmas gift to Lincoln plus any special Savannah Christmas customs. If she asked Patty Sue, Sophie would surely end up committing another extreme faux pas. She could hear the woman now: “Oh yes, a new bride has to leave sprigs of gold-sprayed magnolia leaves on everyone's doorstep with her calling card.”
The kettle whistled. Sophie poured it over the infuser and
took her tea into the living room. Maybe she'd get a tree before Will came back and decorate it as a surprise. There was a perfect spot for it in front of the tall windows overlooking the square. She'd better check with Gloria to make sure it would be all right. It would be wonderful to be in their own house. Maybe Will would look at some listings with her this weekend. Some listings that were her choice.
She'd left the radio on. Dan Fogelberg's “Same Old Lang Syne” was playing and Sophie felt a lump in her throat. If the next tune was Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” she'd be undone completely. She took a gulp of the tea, but it wasn't producing any comfort.
What would this Christmas be like? Last year she'd been in London with Ian and it was the before phaseâbefore she'd found him in bed with another woman as he'd nastily planned. But that Merrie Olde English Christmas! She had never been happierâor so she thought. Now she was living an authentic happily-ever-after with Will. Wasn't she?
She sipped more tea and tried to think what was making her so blue. Yes, the encounter in the park and note had been upsettingâno, make that frighteningâbut the worst part of the day had been all Laura's references to Will. What he liked, their shared past, and especially his bank account. When Sophie had met Will last summer, he'd truly been a mystery man, but that had all been cleared upâor had it? How well did she know the man she had married? The man she loved?
They had not been able to spend that much time together since the wedding. He'd had to leave Maine before she did, and then she'd stayed in Connecticut to plan the wedding. Since the honeymoon, she could easily count the number of days they'd been together on both hands. And when they were together, other people, especially Will's family, so often surrounded them.
Her mug was empty. Sophie was feeling a little empty, too. Bing Crosby was crooning “I'll Be Home for Christmas.” Damn
it! Sophie thought. Why shouldn't she and Will go to Connecticut for Christmas? A White Christmas! A Christmas without grits.
It wasn't late. She'd call her mother and let her know. Babs went all out decorating the house for the holidays and threw a number of parties. It would be fun. Will had never seen New York City at Christmas. They could go skating, have hot toddies at The St. Regis's King Cole Bar, look in all the department store windows, catch the show at Radio City Music Hall. Surely he could get away for a few days. Her mood lifted as suddenly as an untethered hot air balloon.
Babs always let the phone ring at least four or five times to give the accurate indication that she was a busy lady and send a message that the caller better have a very good reason for getting in touch. At last she answered.
“It's me, Mother, or rather âI,' so you don't have to pretend to be the housekeeper.”
“I'm not pretending. I've given Mrs. Bishop three weeks off to go see her son and his family who have moved to Canada. One of those places in the middle. Saskatchewan? Manitoba? They were living in Passaic, New Jersey, and apparently wanted a major change. I would have thought someplace closer would have sufficed. Ohio? Kansas?”
Mrs. Bishop had been with her mother for a few years, and Sophie wondered how Babs was going to manage the holiday season without the woman, who was known for her baking. Good thing Sophie would be on hand to help. Although Babs also used caterers. Which reminded her, she should ask Faith for some special holiday recipes.
“Good newsâat least I assume it will be good newsâ”
Babs cut her off. “Well, I must say this is fast work. It's not that I don't want to be a grandmotherânote to self, âGet key ring with “World's Youngest Grandmother” engraved on it'âbut, Sophie,
darling, I would have thought you'd have waited until you had a house and, more important, spent more time with Will. You haven't known each other long.”