The Guests on South Battery (28 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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“Anyway,” Sophie continued, without even a hint that she'd just carried a heavy box down a flight of stairs, “Anna's name was prominent
on many of the designs. Meaning it was truly a family business, and her father wasn't pandering to her by putting her name on the letterhead. I mean, she did have an architecture degree, so it makes sense. But that was the early seventies—and design and construction was definitely still very much a man's world.”

I worried my lip for a moment, thinking. “So Anna would have had the knowledge needed to design the hidden door in the attic once the staircase was discovered.”

Sophie nodded in agreement. “Not to mention the door into the butler's pantry—it's pretty sophisticated the way it opens and closes so that it's seamless. The old steps continue past the cement wall, which makes me believe that they were definitely used to get to the outside once upon a time and the entrance into the butler's pantry was added later.”

“Was there an earlier door leading from the attic to the old set of steps?”

“Definitely. It's apparent from looking at the studs that a larger opening once existed and then must have been closed off when the lower level was filled in and the steps didn't lead anywhere anymore. It would make sense that both the new hidden attic door and the butler's pantry access were put in at the same time, and since Anna was in the business, she probably knew a painter who could replicate the mural Sumter had painted so no one was the wiser about the hidden stairway.”

“But why go to all that trouble? It's the same number of steps if you take the hidden stairs or the attic stairs.”

Her eyes met mine. “Exactly what I was wondering. And the only answer I can come up with is that whoever put them in—and I'm assuming it was Anna or at least on her instructions—did so to keep their comings and goings a secret.”

“That makes no sense. Anna was Hasell's mother, in charge of her care, so of course she went up and down from the attic room often.”

“Unless . . .” Sohie said, then stopped.

“Unless what?”

“Unless she was trying to hide the comings and goings of somebody else.”

I frowned. “But who? It would help if I could speak with either Anna or Hasell. They're both here—now. I feel them. And I think I could see them if they wanted me to—nothing's being blocked like before. But one of them doesn't want to be seen, and the other is protecting me.”

“Protecting you?”

I nodded. “I have no idea from what, but I definitely get that feeling.”

Sophie nudged the boxes with her foot. “Let's get these to my car.”

“I need to use the bathroom first—my bladder hasn't yet recovered from my pregnancy and still seems to be the size of a peanut. Is there one that's usable?”

“Yes—the one adjacent to Button's room. I've tidied it up some, too, since my girl students were complaining that they had to use the Port-O-Lets outside.”

“There isn't one down here?”

“Not one that works.”

If only I hadn't had the entire water bottle Sophie had made me drink. I looked up at the stairs, weighing my options. I'd already gone up and back without incident, so it made sense that I should be able to do it again. If I was really fast. “I'll be right back,” I said, then ran up the stairs, determined to get back downstairs before the unhappy spirit realized I was upstairs again. I walked quickly through Button's room to the bathroom, thinking twice before I decided to leave the door open. There was no window in the small space, and only one bulb flicked on when I hit the switch. Nobody else was upstairs, and I was going to be quick. I just felt the need to be able to see into the bedroom.

I began humming “Dancing Queen” as I reached for the waistband of my yoga pants and then stopped, feeling a definite shift in the air, a sliding together of light and dark. The temperature dropped and I shivered, but not from the cold.

I heard a noise, a slight
tap-tap
on the open door. I stared at the empty space, knowing something was there, knowing if I really wanted to, I could see it. “Anna? Hasell?” I whispered, then waited, my breaths coming out in white, silent puffs.

For several long moments, I stood there without moving, just waiting. I wanted to tell them to leave, that nobody wanted them there and that the house now belonged to Jayne. But if I'd learned anything in the years since my mother had returned to my life and we'd sent other restless spirits onto the next step on their journey, I knew it wasn't that simple. Wishing it were would never make it true.

I took a deep breath. “Please let me help you. You don't have to be here anymore. Just let me help.”

The door swung shut so fast it grazed the side of my face. I stepped back in surprise, and found myself at the sink staring into an ancient mirror with half of the silvered backing flaked off.

Go away.
The words were screamed inside my head, my eardrums ringing from the shrillness. I felt the pain on my neck immediately, the skin raw and stinging like multiple scratches, and I wanted to cry out, but I was already screaming. I had only a moment to register the blond woman with the wild hair and hollow eyes standing behind me, a deep purple welt encircling her neck, before the lightbulb exploded, sending me into complete darkness.

CHAPTER 26

I
must have been desperately scratching at the bathroom door, because by the time Sophie turned the knob—she insisted it wasn't locked—and pulled the door open, I had broken three nails and the skin on the back of my neck felt as if it were on fire.

“What happened?” she asked, clutching both of my shoulders after I stumbled into the bedroom. I was grateful for the support, not sure I could have remained standing without it.

“Anna,” I gasped. “It was Anna. I saw her—in the mirror. She had . . . bruises.” I couldn't say it out loud. Instead I pointed to my throat.

“Bruises on her neck? Like a hanging victim?”

I nodded.

She brushed my hair off my neck. “What happened here?”

I touched the nape of my neck and my hand came back sticky with blood, the salt from my fingertips stinging the wound. “She scratched me. And told me to go away.”

Sophie grabbed my arm and began dragging me toward the door. “Let's get you out of here. Can you handle the stairs?”

I paused, testing the air around me to make sure Anna was gone,
then nodded. Sophie clutched my arm and walked with me down the stairs, then out of the house to her car. She blasted the air-conditioning and I sat down, catching sight of both boxes that were already in the backseat.

“So, what do you think that was all about?” Sophie asked, her eyes wide, her hair sprouting curly whorls around her head from the humidity.

“I'm not sure, but I do think I know one thing: Anna is the one who doesn't want us there. It must be Hasell who balances her mother's rage. I've heard of possessive spirits who didn't welcome intruders, but Anna seems to have gone a little overboard. And I have no idea why Hasell is still here—unless it's to act as a barrier between her mother and the living.”

“I'd be inclined to agree with you, except for this.” She reached behind my seat and pulled out a reusable grocery bag—one of several I knew she always kept in her car. She dumped it on my lap, and whatever objects were inside rolled against one another with a light clacking noise.

“Open it,” she said.

I did as she instructed, then reached inside and pulled out the base of a broken snow globe, the word
SACRAMENTO
spelled out in plastic block lettering in bright green. The back two legs of a Pony Express pony stuck to the base, its front hooves broken off. “I found four smashed snow globes when I went up to the attic to instruct the guys where to move everything so we could begin the roof repair. They were in a neat circle, as if they were broken intentionally and for a purpose. I would even go as far as saying that they were broken in such a way as to cause the least damage. Like they were trying to send a message instead of being just destructive.”

“When nobody was up there?” I asked, fishing inside the bag. I pulled out two more, one from Indianapolis and another from Kalamazoo, then carefully let them drop.

“Yeah. Weird, huh? I thought it might mean something, so I picked up all the bases—including the three that were broken when you were up there with Jayne—and had one of my guys use pliers to make sure
all the sharp glass was removed. I put them in here for you. Just in case one—or both—of the ghosts is trying to tell us something.”

“Thanks,” I said, and leaned my head against the seat, closing my eyes for a moment, then opened them immediately when the image of the hollow-eyed Anna flashed against the inside of my eyelids. I made the mistake of touching the back of my neck and I winced.

“Let me get you home,” Sophie said. “You'll want to wash those scratches and put something on them. Should I call Jack?”

“He's in Alabama. He's fascinated with the Pinckneys and the whole flooded town and thinks he might be able to find out more about the family, and maybe something about any connection to Jayne. It's a long shot, but he's struggling with this next story idea and really needs a kicker. He's hoping there's more to Jayne's story, and if there is, he's determined to find out.”

She started the engine but faced me before putting the car in reverse. “You're kind of pale and still shaking. Do you want me to stay with you? I can ask somebody to take my classes. And I promise not to read your tarot cards.”

“No, but thanks. I'm fine. Just glad to be out of that house.”

We both stared up at the imposing white house as Sophie backed out of the driveway onto South Battery. As she watched for traffic, I kept my gaze on the attic window, feeling the sense that somebody was there, watching us. Waiting for us to leave. Sophie pulled onto the street and put the car in drive, diverting my attention. I glanced back at the house as she headed north toward Tradd Street, and I caught sight of the black cat sitting on the front portico, staring at me with its one good eye from between two wrought-iron rails, its tail wagging slowly until it disappeared from view.

I sat on the floor of the nursery with the twins, stacking blocks for the babies to knock over again and again. They would dissolve into hysterics each time and I had a strong suspicion that we could do this all night long with two of us not getting tired of the game. It was Jayne's night
off and I'd dressed the children in matching pajamas and had taken the time to blow-dry their hair after their baths so it wouldn't look as wild as Sophie's on a humid day. I planned to get into the nursery first thing to put the bows in Sarah's hair and lay out their clothes for the day before Jayne could intervene.

I glanced at the Humpty Dumpty clock and saw it was half an hour before their bedtime. I wondered if it would mess with their sleep schedule if I slept on the floor between their cribs for the next couple of nights. This was the first time Jack and I had slept apart since our wedding, and I could barely stand the thought of sleeping in our bed alone. General Lee didn't count.

There was a brief knock on the door and then Nola came in, followed by the two bouncing puppies and General Lee at a more sedate pace. Porgy and Bess immediately tumbled into the blocks and sitting babies, making Sarah and JJ peal with laughter.

“You should make a video of the babies and puppies and put it on YouTube. You could make a fortune,” Nola said dryly. “That's almost a little too much cuteness.”

“What's YouTube?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment as if unsure whether I was joking. “I'll show you sometime.” She sat down next to me and drew both babies into her lap while the dogs began tumbling with each other until General Lee gave a disciplinary bark and they settled down in a heap by his side.

“I guess it's Jayne's night off?” she asked. “I can tell by the matching pajamas. Jayne's not as OC . . . um, particular about what they wear, I guess you could say. I mean, it's not like they need uniforms so we can tell they're ours, you know?”

I narrowed my eyes but didn't say anything. I was too tired from all the events of the day, not to mention being attacked by a ghost, and I just didn't have the resources to defend myself or explain why I did the things I did. Probably because I wasn't even sure myself.

“Since Dad's not here, I took the dogs outside already so you don't have to.”

“Thanks, Nola. I appreciate that.”

She was frowning, which always meant she had more to say, so I remained quiet until she spoke again. “I tried to take them out the back door, but they wouldn't go. It's hard to move twelve locked paws out of a house and down steps, so I took them out the front door.”

“I don't blame them,” I said. “I avoid the back door, too, and probably for the same reason.”

We both raised our eyebrows in mutual understanding.

“Unfortunately, Meghan broke her foot and it's delaying the excavation process. It's going to be a while until they can get back to it.”

She frowned in contemplation as Sarah crawled from her lap toward the chest of drawers where I'd placed the bag Sophie had given me. I'd forgotten all about it, having meant to leave it downstairs, but I'd had the handle around my arm when I carried the boxes of albums inside to Jack's study and then had run upstairs to see the children. I'd needed to see them in an almost desperate way. There was something reassuring and stress-relieving about stroking their hair and soft skin, and feeling their little arms hug my neck. Even drool on my cheek was something I looked forward to.

I turned to Nola. “Has your father asked you about the frame that was on his desk downstairs? It suddenly reappeared in the foyer and we were wondering if maybe you had moved it and why.”

“Seriously? You think I'd go into my dad's office and move something? I treasure my hands and fingers too much. So, no. I don't even go to his corner of the room. Actually, I haven't been in that room for a while, even to play the piano. My music is still not cooperating—at least not here. If I'm in the park or somewhere not here, I'm fine.”

“Must be something in the air, since your dad is having the same issue. I'm sure it's a passing thing. But are you sure you didn't pick up the frame by mistake?”

She sent me a leveling look. “Positive.”

I frowned, not sure which was more upsetting—the fact that she was in a creative crisis or that she hadn't moved the frame. And neither had Mrs. Houlihan or Jayne.

Sarah pulled herself up against the chest and banged on it with both hands, looking up. “What's that?” Nola asked, standing with JJ in her arms. He'd be content to stay there for hours if allowed.

“I guess it belongs to Jayne. They're what remain of seven snow globes that were broken in the attic of the Pinckney house. They're part of a collection that belonged to Hasell Pinckney—the young girl who died.”

“How'd they get broken?” Nola asked as she carefully pulled them out of the bag with one hand and began placing them in a row on the flat top of the dresser.

“Good question,” I said, rising to get Sarah, who was now bouncing up and down with excitement. “The first three were broken to get our attention, I'm guessing, and Sophie seems to think the last four were broken intentionally. She said it looked like they'd been placed deliberately.”

Sarah began fretting and reaching for the bases, but I held her back, aware of the sharp edges of glass that might still be on them.

Nola grimaced. “Why would Sophie give them to you?”

“Just in case they were some sort of message, she said. I figured I'd give them to Jayne and let her decide what to do with them.”

Sarah was in the throes of a full meltdown and I attempted to give her a pacifier, which she immediately spat out. “She was absolutely fine a minute ago. I have no idea what's got into her,” I said, bouncing her on my hip and walking away, but she kept reaching for the remains of the snow globes, throwing herself into a full backward arch.

Nola picked up the gray-painted base with a suspension bridge still crossing a blue-painted ribbon of water, the word
Cincinnati
written with silver plastic lettering on the lip. She held it up to Sarah, just out of her reach, and the baby shook her head, then pushed out her hands in an emphatic no.

“What are you doing?” I asked, wondering if I should take Sarah's temperature.

“Hang on.” Nola held up the one from Ottawa and then Sacramento, each receiving the same reaction.

“Nola,” I said, struggling to hold on to the squirming baby. “I think that's enough.”

“Just one more,” she insisted, grabbing the one from Miami and holding it up for Sarah to see.

She immediately calmed down, settling into my arms and laying her head on my shoulder to show me she was tired. She pointed at all that remained of the Miami snow globe, then placed her finger in her mouth with a contented sigh.

My gaze met Nola's. “Miami?”

She shrugged, the movement making JJ laugh. “Maybe she just likes Miami.”

“Or there's something about that particular snow globe she's trying to tell us.”

“True,” Nola said, resting her chin on the top of JJ's head, which had sunk onto her shoulder. “Or something someone
else
is trying to tell us through her.”

I'd thought the same thing but hadn't wanted to say it out loud. But now there it was, out in the open, where I couldn't ignore it. “Let's put the babies to bed, and then I'm going to move those things out of here.”

“What are you going to tell Jayne?” Nola asked as she gently lowered JJ into his crib and found his pacifier before covering him with a blanket.

“Maybe I'll just give her the bag of broken snow globes and tell her it was an accident. It's pretty close to the truth. Anything closer and I think we might send Jayne screaming into the nearest woods.”

I kissed Sarah's forehead and placed her gently in her crib before covering her with a blanket that matched JJ's. Nola held open the door for the dogs to follow her, then waited for me in the hallway as I carefully placed the bases in the bag before joining her.

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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