The Guests on South Battery (35 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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“No. And I know that for a fact. Her good health was a point of pride for her. She was always saying it was a blessing she was so healthy so she could take care of Hasell.”

I put a spoonful of minestrone in my mouth, not tasting it as thoughts twirled around my brain, stray thoughts bouncing around but none settling long enough to make sense. “Of course, there're more kinds of illnesses and they're not all physical.”

The house phone rang, and we all turned to look at the desk phone on the counter. “Nobody calls that number anymore.”

Ginette stood and seemed to walk with trepidation as she went to answer it.

“Hello?” She glanced at me. “Yes, Jack. She's here. So is Nola. We've been trying to reach . . .” She stopped, listening, while both Nola and I half rose in our chairs. “We can be there in ten minutes. Are you sure . . . ?”

We watched as her hand tightened on the receiver before slowly lowering it into the cradle. She looked up at us, her eyes dark saucers. “We were disconnected.”

“Where is he?” I asked. “Is he all right?”

“I'm not sure,” she said. “The line was really bad. He said his cell phone had died, so he was using the landline in Button's kitchen.”

“But it's not in service anymore.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Exactly. He says Jayne needs our help, and he wants us over at the Pinckney house as soon as we can get there.”

I bristled. “He's with Jayne?”

“Yes. Rebecca called him to tell him that she'd seen you, and told him everything she'd told you this morning. Including something about the attic stairs.” She frowned. “What about the attic stairs?”

“Rebecca dreamed she saw Hasell pulling up a board and lifting something from the bottom step.”

My mother paled. “He can't go into the attic. Not by himself, and not with just Jayne.”

“You're scaring me,” I said, standing. “You stay here with Nola and the babies and I'll go.”

“No. He was very specific. He said he needed both of us.” She faced Nola. “Are you okay staying here with the babies? They need to be fed, but you can skip the baths because of the storm. Bedtime at eight, all right?”

Nola nodded.

Turning to me, Ginette said, “You can borrow one of my coats, since yours is soaked. And he said to bring the album.”

I didn't have to ask which album he'd meant. “Why?”

“He was cut off before he could tell me. But he said it was important, that he would explain everything when he saw us.”

She threw on her raincoat and pulled on her gloves while I gave the babies quick kisses and hugged Nola. “You call Sophie if you need anything, all right? At any time.”

She nodded. “Be careful.”

I forced a smile, then picked up the still-wrapped album and followed my mother out into the storm, knowing with certainty that bad weather was going to be the least of our problems.


e drove my Volvo station wagon, believing it to be the safest option available. The streets already sloshed with standing water, forcing me to drive in the middle of the street. This might have been more alarming if there had been any other traffic, but it seemed everyone else south of Broad was too sensible to head out in a storm like this.

What would have been a five-minute walk turned into a fifteen-minute drive as I inched down Legare toward South Battery. The unlit Pinckney house stood like a dark omen against an almost completely black sky, illuminated only by the flashes of lightning that forked through the sky with an uncomfortable frequency.

As I pulled into the driveway, my headlights passed over Jack's minivan. It wasn't until I'd stopped behind it that I realized the interior lights were on, and the driver's-side door wide-open. I must have let out a cry or a shout because my mother was handing me a portable umbrella and telling me to go. I barely remembered to put my car in park and turn off the ignition before I jumped out and ran toward the open door to look inside.

To my disappointment, it appeared empty. But even more alarming was the fact that the key was still in the ignition, the car running as if
Jack had exited in such a hurry that turning off the car and shutting the door were the least of his worries.

I reached over to turn the key, spotting a photograph facedown on the floor of the passenger seat. Holding the umbrella so I wouldn't drip more rain onto the interior, I reached down to pick it up carefully along the edges. To avoid ruining it with my wet fingers, I placed it on the seat before flipping it over. It was an old Polaroid like so many of the photos we'd found in Button's albums, making me believe that this one might have slipped out of one of them. Probably the album Jack had brought to me at the office, because it would have been in his car. It was a photo of a baby, a newborn. The baby was small, but plump and ruddy-cheeked. Healthy. It was wrapped in a blanket and sported a dark fringe of hair swirling around the top of her nearly bald head, a tiny bow made from yarn clinging to a few wisps. On the white border at the bottom of the photo was a single date written in fading blue ink:
May 30, 1984

I dropped the photo back on the floor and jerked back as if I'd been caught doing something I shouldn't. I knew that date—it had been written on the saltshaker from Lake Jasper. I recalled the conversation I'd had with my mother when I asked her about it.
May thirtieth was the baby's birthday
. But that baby had died and been secretly buried. I looked again at the baby's face in the photo, her pink rosebud lips wet with saliva, her eyes wide and curious. She looked very much alive.

A loud meow erupted from the back of the van, followed by a black blur as the cat flew past me and out the door into the rain. I stumbled backward, dropping the umbrella. Leaving it where it was, I slammed the van door, then ran toward the front door of the house, my mother following behind me with the wrapped album tucked beneath her arm.

We stood for a moment under the portico, dripping water and breathing heavily.

“Where did the cat come from?” my mother asked.

“From inside the van. I didn't see it, and I probably didn't hear it because of the rain pelting the roof of the van. I don't know about that cat, but if I had nine lives, it just scared away one of them.”

My mother reached behind me and grabbed the large brass knocker
and banged it against the wooden door two times. It vibrated inside the empty house, but although we waited for a full minute, there was no sound of approaching footsteps from inside. She reached behind me and rapped again, but I was already searching inside my purse for the house key Jayne had given me.

Before I could find it, the door flung open, ripping the knocker from my mother's grasp, and slamming against the inside wall of the inky black foyer. The wind howled, sending slashing rain into our faces, pushing at our backs until we stumbled into the house, the door slamming closed behind us.

It was still and quiet inside, like being inside a cocoon, the rain and thunder oddly muted. I slid my hand toward where I knew the light switches were and flipped them all, but nothing happened. “The electricity's out,” I said.

I sensed we weren't alone, but the curtain had been pulled down again, blocking me from seeing. Whatever had been here opening and slamming doors was gone. I only knew that for certain because the hair on the back of my neck had settled, the gooseflesh on my arms gone.

“Jack?” I called out, my voice eerily reed-thin, as if it had been whispered through a metal pipe. We held our breath for a moment and then I pulled out my phone, not surprised to find
No Service
in the top left corner of the screen.

“At least the flashlight on my phone works,” I said with forced cheerfulness as I pressed the app button and flooded the space with light.

“That means I have one, too, right?” my mother asked as she began to fish through her raincoat pocket, the album hampering her movements. “Why on earth did Jack want us to bring this tonight? I hope he has a good reason.”

“I'm sure he does,” I said, reaching for the bag. She let go just a second before I had a good grasp on it, and the album slid from the bag and onto the floor, its splayed binding facing up, its position like that of a dead bird crashed to earth.

She guided her light to help as I knelt down to pick up the album and
gather anything that might have fallen from it. The flashlight glinted off the gold-embossed number of the year on the spine and my hand froze—
. The missing album. Slowly, I picked it up and turned it over, relieved to see that nothing had shaken loose. I closed it quickly, but not before I saw two pages filled with photographs of a small baby with a bow in her hair and swaddled in a blanket. I stood to face my mother.

“Jack said he'd visited the housekeeper of the lake house in Alabama, who admitted to taking a few things from the house before it flooded.” I placed the album on the hall table. “I think this is one of them.”

My mother's eyes were lost in shadow. “So Button would have left this album in the house and brought the other ones here. Knowing it would be destroyed. But why?”

I nodded, seeing the date again written on the photograph I'd found in the van.
May 30, 1984.
I remembered talking with Jayne after she'd found the saltshaker in her room and wanting to know if I'd been the one who put it there. “
I thought maybe because it had the year I was born on it. You thought I might want it as a souvenir.”

My thoughts spun and bounced, refusing to settle in the obvious place. I thought of Jack initially avoiding my mother after his return from Alabama, and then the fiasco with Jayne at the party where, if I now admitted to myself, it had looked more as if he was comforting her than anything else. And then Jack's attempts to speak with my mother, and Rebecca telling me that Jack had found an incredible story idea but couldn't move forward with it because it could hurt people he knew and loved.

A loud crack of thunder rent the air. I threw back my head and shouted, “Jack! Jayne! Where are you?” I wondered if it was my imagination or if I had really heard a muffled voice.

“The cat,” Ginette said, pointing toward the stairs with her flashlight. “I think it wants us to follow it.”

Feeling like a stupid heroine in a horror movie who runs up the darkened stairs in a spooky house, I followed the cat, with my mother close behind me. My flashlight caught the flash of the fluffy end of a tail and we dashed after it around the landing and then up to the second
floor, then down the hallway to Button's bedroom and through the partially opened door.

“Jack? Jayne?” I yelled again.

“In here!” It was Jack's voice, coming from the bathroom—the same one I'd been trapped in. Where I'd seen Anna's reflection in the mirror, with hollowed-out eye sockets and bruising on her neck.

I might have hesitated, but Jack was inside.
Jack. And I wasn't going to leave him there. “We're here, Jack. We'll get you out.”

I saw the doorknob twist, and then heard the door shake as he pulled on the knob. “Hang on,” I said, looking for a key or something to tear down the door. I thought back to my own ordeal, and how Sophie had simply turned the knob. I held the cool brass knob in my hand for a moment before I gave it a gentle twist.

The door opened easily and I tumbled inside as Jack simultaneously pulled on the door. His familiar arms wrapped around me and I felt his kisses in my hair. “Oh, Mellie. There's so much I have to tell you.”

“I've been trying to reach you all day. I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions when I saw you and Jayne. And then when I heard Marc's announcement—”

“Shh. We'll talk about it all later. We need to find Jayne first.”

Ginette shone her flashlight in our faces. “Where is she?”

“I'm not sure. We were in the secret staircase and we found Hasell's notebook, and a whole lot of partially filled medicine bottles and empty syringes. It was the proof I needed that her mother slowly poisoned her. That's why Anna had the secret stairs put in—so she'd have access to Hasell without anybody else knowing.”

. I must have said it out loud, because Jack looked at me. “It was a message from Hasell. She was trying to tell us that her mother was sick.”

The house shuddered around us like a giant awakening, the air inside suddenly electrified.

“That's when the lights went out,” Jack continued. “A pair of hands shoved me out the hidden door and it slammed shut behind me. Jayne told me not to worry, that she knew how to fight Anna. It was pitch-dark
and I couldn't see her, and she didn't answer when I called her name. I went to the kitchen to call you, and on the way back up the stairs I thought I heard a child asking for help, and it seemed to be coming from this bedroom. When I didn't see anyone, I stepped inside the bathroom and the door slammed shut behind me.”

“Did you see Anna?” I whispered.

“No. But before I went into the bathroom, I did see that.” He directed my hand to turn the flashlight beam across the room to the rocking chair and the talking doll that sat staring at us, its eyes dark and glassy. I stepped back as the whirring mechanical sounds began, screeching and scratching louder and louder.
“Now I lay me down to sleep.”
It stopped abruptly, which was a good thing because I would have thrown it against a wall to make it stop. Or asked Jack to do it because I didn't think I could have touched it.

The cat jumped off the bed and looked up at us. “I think the cat wants us to follow it again,” I said.

“What cat?” Jack asked, staring at the exact spot where I'd trained the flashlight.

“The black one standing right in front of us,” I said, wiggling the flashlight. I noticed that the cat's fur appeared completely dry despite having been outside in the pouring rain. And there hadn't been any wet paw prints on the floor, either.

“I can't see it.” He looked at me with confusion.

Ginette moved closer. “It's right here,” she said, pointing a gloved finger at the cat, sitting in the middle of the circle of light.

“No, it's not,” Jack insisted.

I opened my mouth to argue but shut it as memories and impressions began to shift in my head, of all the times I'd spotted the cat on the property, and who I'd been with. My mother and I saw the cat, and so did Rich Kobylt. Even General Lee. But Sophie and the other workmen hadn't seen it, and neither had Jack. But Jayne did. Every time I'd been here, and seen the cat, she'd seen it, too.

My mother's eyes met mine, but before she could say anything, the cat took off, pausing at the door as if to make sure we were following,
then ran toward the attic door, neatly disappearing through the wood just as we reached it.

I pounded on the attic door with the flat of my hand. “Jayne? Are you in there?” I turned to Jack, frantic. “We've got to get her out of there. If Anna knows who she is, she's in terrible danger.”

Ginette pulled on my arm. “What do you mean? Who is Jayne?”

I banged on the door, searching for some reassurance that Jayne was in the attic, and that we weren't too late. “Jayne? Are you in there?”

My mother jerked harder on my arm, pulling me to face her. “Mellie, who is Jayne?”

Jack placed a hand on her shoulder. “She's your daughter, Ginette. The one you gave birth to at the lake house, and believed died.”

She paced her gloved hand over her mouth. “How did you . . . ?”

Jack spoke quickly. “I'll tell you more later, but it's all in the album. The pictures of you pregnant, and then the pictures of the baby. The housekeeper told me everything.”

I held her elbow as she began to sink, but she straightened on her own. “She can't be alone with Anna. Not if she knows that Jayne is Sumter's daughter.” She pushed forward and began hammering on the door. “Open the door, Anna. Open the door!” She tried the doorknob, then pushed on the door several more times before stopping.

“I'll go see if I can open the hidden door from the butler's pantry—Rich Kobylt showed me the little button in the wainscoting,” Jack said. “I couldn't open it before, but that might not mean anything. You two stay here. You're stronger together. And if Anna is distracted, that might give you the chance to get through this door and find Jayne.”

“And if we have Jayne, we'll be unbeatable,” my mother said as she grasped my hand.

Four loud crashes vibrated the attic floor above us as my mother tightened her grasp. “Snow globes,” I whispered.

My mother nodded. “Hasell's up there. She must know they're half sisters.” Her voice held an edge of surprise. “She'll protect Jayne, but she's not as strong as Anna. Hurry—we must hurry!”

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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