Jeanette Young didn’t believe what her Uncle Howard had told her. It was all utter nonsense. If her brothers and cousins really believed such things, then they were fools. This wasn’t the Middle Ages, after all. This was 1970. And no matter what anyone tried to tell her, Jeanette refused to accept the idea that her father --- her wise, beloved, dearly missed father --- had ever considered such outlandish tales to be true.
“But perhaps,” Uncle Howard had said softly, taking Jeanette’s hand, “you can now better understand the manner of your father’s death.”
That had been an hour ago. Now Jeanette was alone, pondering everything her uncle had said. She threw open the window and breathed in the crisp night air. As always, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks far below the cliff soothed her. They always had, ever since she was a young girl and her father would bring her to this house to visit Uncle Howard. Those were happy days.
The house had been filled with laughter. How could they all have been living with a secret like the one Uncle Howard had just revealed to her?
Uncle Howard and the others --- her Aunt Margaret, her brothers, her cousins --- were hoping that she would come around and accept their stories as true. That’s why they had left her alone, so she could think. But even as she reflected on all she’d been told tonight, Jeanette’s ideas didn’t change. They simply hardened.
“It’s beyond ridiculous,” she said out loud, her voice echoing in the empty parlor. “And I’ll prove it by spending the night in the room where my father died.”
It was the last weekend of September. Only a few tenacious leaves still clung to the branches of the trees. Just as the family had done every ten years for the last half century, the Young clan had gathered at Uncle Howard’s great old house on the coast of Maine. As a child and teenager, Jeanette had looked forward to the family reunions. She had enjoyed playing on the grassy lawn that stretched along the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. With glee she had cracked the lobster claws served up by the cooks, dipping the succulent meat into the bowls of warm butter they brought out from the kitchen. Jeanette had never known about the meeting that took place on Saturday night at midnight in the parlor. Only at this gathering had she learned of that. At twenty- five, Jeanette was finally old enough to be initiated into the family secret, and to take her place in the lottery.
At the stroke of midnight, they had all gathered in the parlor. Jeanette stood beside Uncle Howard, Aunt Margaret, her brothers, and her cousins. The crackling flames in the fireplace filled the room with the fragrance of oak. Aunt Margaret had written their names on slips of paper and placed them into a wooden box. Uncle Howard, being the patriarch, reached in to select one. Everyone had watched in silence. When he pulled out Jeanette’s name, the old man’s face had gone white. “No,” he said, his voice breaking. “She’s too young.”
Her eldest brother Martin had echoed the objection. “I’ll do it in her place,” he offered, prompting a little cry from his wife, no doubt thinking of their two small children asleep in rooms upstairs.
“It would only make it worse,” Aunt Margaret said. She claimed to know such things, since she and Uncle Howard were the only ones left who remembered how the madness had begun some forty years earlier. “My father tried to shield my brother Jacob when his name was drawn,” she told the family. “Jacob had just turned sixteen. Father insisted he was too young, and so he spent the night in the room in Jacob’s place. But it was supposed to have been Jacob, since it was his name that had been chosen.” She shuddered. “And we all know how that night turned out.”
Everyone had nodded except for Jeanette. “No,” she said, “I don’t know how that night turned out.” They had told her about the lottery and revealed the secret in the basement, but they hadn’t told her this. She looked from face to face and said, “Tell me what happened that night.”
Aunt Margaret’s eyes were cold. “If you go down to the cemetery,” she said, “you’ll see there wasn’t just one death in the family that year. There was a slaughter. My father was killed. And Jacob, too, even though he never stepped a foot in that room.
And my youngest brother Timothy as well, and even my newborn niece Cynthia. All as a lesson for us never again to meddle with the lottery.”
That’s when Jeanette had asked to be alone. In her hands she held a family tree that had been compiled by Aunt Margaret. She saw the death dates of all of those who had died that first night in 1930, and then the series of deaths that occurred in ten-year intervals thereafter. Her uncle Douglas in 1940. Her cousin David in 1950. And then, ten years later, her father. She looked down at his name. Samuel Young. Died 1960.
Jeanette remembered the morning they all started out for Uncle Howard’s house. She was fifteen, thrilled to be heading up the coast from their house outside Boston. She loved her uncle and thought his house was fascinating, with all its many rooms and marble staircases and outstanding views of the cliffs and the ocean. She had been excited to see her cousins. But her parents and her two older brothers were glum. At the family picnic that Saturday, the children had turned somersaults on the lawn and splashed in the surf at the bottom of the cliff, but the adults had been somber, talking quietly among themselves. That night, Jeanette was awakened after midnight by her father, slipping into her room to hug her tight. “I love you, Jen,” he’d whispered as he kissed her forehead. In the morning she learned he’d died of a heart attack in his sleep.
Now her uncle was telling her a very different story of her father’s death.
After Dad’s death, Mom had turned to drink. She had chosen not to accompany Jeanette and her brothers to Uncle Howard’s this year. Drunk, almost incoherent, she’d clung to Jeanette when she said good-bye. If the stories she’d been told were true, Jeanette could understand why her mother had gone on such a bender.
“But surely it can’t be what they say....”
Jeanette’s voice in the empty room seemed strange to her ears. It was as if someone else were speaking. She shivered. She looked again at the family tree, all those deaths in ten-year intervals. Then, taking a deep breath, she opened the door and called the family back into the room.
Uncle Howard came first, his face a mask of pain under his shock of white hair. Then her brothers, who’d been through all this before, guilt stricken that their names hadn’t been drawn. Then her cousin Douglas and his children, who kept their eyes away from hers. Finally there was Aunt Margaret, the bitterest of them all.
“I’ll spend the night in the room,” Jeanette announced. “And in the morning you’ll see all of this was unnecessary worry.”
“But, my dear,” Uncle Howard said, “it is important that you go in understanding what you face --- ”
“If what you say has any merit,” she said efficiently, “then perhaps it might be better if I entered the room with a healthy skepticism. If I remember my history books correctly, Franklin Roosevelt once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Perhaps it has been our own fear that has claimed us in the past.”
Yet even as she said the words, she knew her father had not been a man to give in to fear. She might try to cling to an idea that the deaths had all been hysterical reactions to the outrageous tales her family spun, but her theory collapsed when she applied it to her own father, a well-decorated Navy pilot in World War II who had looked death in the face many times. It hadn’t been hysterical fear that had stopped his heart in that basement room ten years ago. Standing there in front of her family, Jeanette began to accept the terrifying fact that what her uncle had told her must be true --- no matter how much she still outwardly denied it.
But even if she had wanted to, there was no way to back out now. She steeled her nerves as they all bid her good-bye in the parlor. Her brothers, each in turn, embraced her, saying nothing. Even as she felt the trembling of their bodies, Jeanette did her best to push the stories Uncle Howard had told her far out of her mind. With her chin held high, she followed him across the foyer to the door leading to the basement. She refused to entertain any more thoughts of avenging spirits and haunted rooms. Uncle Howard had relayed to her the origins of what he called the family curse --- a long, winding tale of madness and revenge --- but she wanted none of it. She refused to keep the details in her mind. She would enter that room a modern, liberated woman, a student of philosophy near to completing her master’s thesis at Yale University, a strong, independent soul with a mind of her own. Old folktales had no power over her. It was the only way, Jeanette was now convinced, that she’d get through the night alive.
Uncle Howard pulled open a creaky old door and descended a dark staircase. Jeanette kept close behind, a dim bulb casting a pale orange light, providing barely enough illumination for them to see their way. It was at that moment that she thought of Michael. Michael --- with his broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes and strong, reassuring voice. The man she hoped to marry.
“I just wish I could go with you up to Maine,” he’d said to her the day before, caressing the long auburn hair that fell to Jeanette’s shoulders. “I don’t like the idea of us being parted, even for a few days.”
“You have an important exhibit in New York,” she’d replied briskly, declining to get emotional. “If you’re ever going to be recognized as the major artist I know you’re going to be, you need to do these things.”
“It’s just so far away from you.”
Her heart was breaking, but she wouldn’t admit it. Now she wished she had been more emotional, holding Michael longer. But she had been stoic. It was always her way.
“It’s only for a weekend,” she’d told Michael. “Besides, I haven’t seen my family in so long. It’ll be nice to reconnect with all of them.”
Michael had taken her in his arms, and they had kissed. Now, in the musty basement air, Jeanette longed for her beloved’s arms.
They had reached the bottom of the steps. Uncle Howard turned to see how she was doing. Jeanette nodded that he should continue. He sighed, slowly crossing the floor of the cellar. With a key, he unlocked a door on the opposite wall. He turned and looked again at Jeanette with sad, soulful eyes.
“This is the room?” she asked boldly.
He nodded. Without any hesitation, Jeanette stepped inside. It was a plain room, rather small, no more than twenty feet across. An old sofa squatted beside a table with two chairs. It had been a servant’s bedroom back when Uncle Howard had been a boy. That’s what he had explained to Jeanette earlier. A servant girl had lived here....
And died here.
Jeanette’s eyes came to rest on the wall opposite her.
“There?” she asked her uncle. “Was that the wall?”
He nodded slowly.
That was where the poor girl had been impaled.
Beatrice. Uncle Howard had said her name was Beatrice.
And she was murdered here in this room almost half a century ago.
All of the horrors they had known since came from that fact.
Jeanette approached the wall. She stood in front of it, examining the white plaster. It had obviously been painted many times. How many coats, she wondered? How many coats did it take to cover the bloodstains left behind by that poor woman?
And by the members of the Young family whose grisly deaths had followed?
Her father had been fortunate, Uncle Howard had said. He had merely died of a heart attack. Not so her Uncle Douglas, whose wrists had been found slit, his body drained of blood. Not so her grandfather, the first after Beatrice to die in this place, whose severed head was found on one side of the room and his body on the other.
It had started to rain. She could hear the raindrops hitting against the one window in the room, a dark rectangle of glass embedded in the wall over their heads.
“I would have chosen any other name but yours, my dear,” Uncle Howard said. “I would gladly take your place in this room tonight. But in forty years of the lottery, my name has never been drawn. It is my own curse to watch as my kinfolk enter this room, one by one.” His voice choked. “Your aunt is right. We learned that first time that substituting someone for the one who was drawn will only bring more destruction.”
“I’m the first woman to spend a night here,” Jeanette said. “The first who has studied philosophy and science. This first modern Young to face this ancient force.” Her eyes fixed on her uncle. “I will survive this night. You will see.”
“Your bravery outshines us all,” he managed to say. He gripped her by the shoulders and kissed her forehead, much as her father had done a decade before. “May God preserve you.”
He hurried out of the room, closing --- and lock- ing --- the door behind him.
Jeanette looked around the room. A small lamp on the table provided the only light. She sat on the sofa and folded her arms across her chest.
“Well,” she whispered. “If something is going to happen, let it happen soon.”
There was a small rumble of thunder off in the distance.
The rain was hitting the house harder now. A flicker of lightning crackled by the window. Jeanette thought once more of Michael. She would see him again. She was confident of that. If there was anything to these family legends, she’d beat them. She’d end this so-called family curse. She’d do it for her father.
She’d do it for all of them.
A huge thunderclap made her jump.
“If something’s going to happen,” she said defiantly to whoever might be listening, “bring it on! I’m not frightened of you!”
There was another loud peal of thunder, and the lamp went out.
“Damn!” Jeanette said. She didn’t want to face whatever it was in the dark.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the light flickered on again, just as another thunder boom rattled across the sky.
“I should have anticipated this,” she said. There was a small candle on the table as well, and an old book of matches. How many times had this candle been lit by fingers trembling with terror? The candle was little more than a stub. She considered lighting it, but seeing as it was so small, she didn’t want to waste the wax when the electricity was still on. Should the power go out again, she’d light it. She kept the book of matches near her hand so she could find it if the darkness returned.
Her name was Beatrice....
Uncle Howard’s words echoed in her mind.
And one morning when she failed to come up to set the breakfast table, my brother Timothy and I came down here to look for her.
Jeanette’s eyes flickered again to the wall.
I shall never forget what we saw there. Beatrice --- impaled to the wall by a long metal pitchfork, driven through her chest. Blood was everywhere. Her eyes were still open, her mouth in anguished fury. It was as if she had died looking at her murderer. Cursing him for all time...
The lamp flickered. Jeanette felt her heart flutter.
And in that instant, she looked up at the door ---
--- and saw a man standing there, in a grass- stained T-shirt, holding a pitchfork.
It took her several minutes to calm herself, to realize she’d just had a hallucination. There was no man in the doorway. It was her mind, playing tricks.
Was this how it happened? Did those who stayed here in this room work themselves into frenzies of fear? Had her father’s heart given out because of it? Had Uncle Douglas slit his wrists rather than face an imaginary ghost?
But her father would not have been spooked.
And there was no way her grandfather could have severed his own head.
Thunder again, the loudest yet, directly over the house. The light struggled to hold ---
--- shivered ---
--- and then went out.
Jeanette held her breath.
“Come back on,” she whispered.
But the darkness remained.
“Oh, God,” she said, a pathetic little cry.
How terribly dark it was. Gripping the box of matches in her left hand, she felt around for the candle with her right. What if the power didn’t return? The little stub would never last. . . . She moved her hand over the tabletop. Where was the candle? It had been sitting right there! The darkness was absolute. Deep and thick. The rain kept up its pummeling of the roof. She prayed for a flash of lightning just to show her the candle. But all she got was a low rumble of thunder.
She felt something in the dark. The candle ---
She moved her fingers to grip it.
And whatever it was that she touched --- moved!
It was a hand! A human hand!
Someone was in the dark with her!
“Who’s there? Who is it?”
Finally, a crash of lightning. The room lit up for an instant. Jeanette saw she was alone in the room.
And there --- there was the candle!
She grabbed it as the darkness settled in again. She fumbled for the matches, her hands trembling so much she worried she wouldn’t be able to light one. But she managed and lit the wick of the candle. A small, flickering circle of light enveloped her. She sat back on the couch, her heart thudding in her ears.
The memory of that hand ---
It was real, she told herself. It moved.
No, she argued with herself. It was just the candle I was feeling. It was just my imagination again.
She lifted the candle and stood. She was far too anxious to stay seated. Whatever might come, she would face it on her feet. But as she moved into the center of the room, she realized she was stepping in something sticky.
Was rainwater dripping in from the walls?
She lowered the candle.
And she could see plainly that it wasn’t water.
It was blood.
She spun around, just as another bolt of lightning illuminated the room. And there, on the far wall of the living room, just as she’d imagined her, was Beatrice, impaled by that pitchfork, her blood dripping all over the floor.
Jeanette screamed again.
In her terror and panic, she dropped the candle. She was returned to utter darkness.
This can’t be happening! This can’t be real! I am a student of philosophy at Yale University! I am a liberated woman! I am a child of the twentieth century! This cannot be real!
But her shoes still made sticky, squishy noises in the blood on the floor.
From somewhere in the room came the sound of crying.
Jeanette was paralyzed with fear. Her mind could no longer process what was happening. She simply stood there, trembling, terrified ---
Until the door blew open --- and she saw the man with the pitchfork again in the doorway.
Jeanette turned and ran. The room was small, but suddenly it seemed cavernous. Such a small space --- and yet she ran and ran, for many minutes it seemed, down an endless corridor that stretched farther and farther off into the distance. How could this be happening? How could she keep running for so long? What had happened to this room?
Behind her, the man’s footsteps echoed as he pursued her. Thunder clapped overhead. Jeanette just kept on running, down that impossibly long corridor.
Finally she reached what seemed to be the end. There, in front of her, illuminated by a burst of lightning, sat a baby, its round button eyes staring in terror up at Jeanette. The baby began to cry. She tried to speak, but she found herself slipping in the blood on the floor. As she tumbled down face-first, she saw a pair of men’s boots hurrying toward her.
Now there was nothing. No sound. No man. No baby.
Her heart thudding in her ears, she began to crawl across the floor. She looked up and saw the window. If she could only get to the window. If she could only pull herself up there somehow and open the window and squeeze herself outside into the rain. She might be safe then.
Or would the man still follow her, across the grounds, over the cliffs?
Something was moving in the dark. In a matter of moments, Jeanette was sure, the man would stand over her with his pitchfork as she lay there helpless on the floor.
It was her only chance.
But a chance.
She forced her eyes to look up at the window.
She got to her knees, and then to her feet.
The window. She had to make it to the window.
FORTY YEARS LATER
Carolyn Cartwright had met the strange old man with the crooked back only once before, when he’d made his way slowly into her office in New York, one arm swinging at his side, his little tongue darting in and out of his mouth, constantly licking his lips. She had watched him approach her desk with a mixture of fear and fascination. This was the man Sid had told her would change her life.
Now, stepping out of the cab, Carolyn glanced up at the strange old man’s house. It was magnificent, just as he had promised. A forty-room stone mansion high on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Carolyn could hear the waves crashing below.
“You sure you don’t want me to wait?” the cabbie asked her again.
Carolyn leveled her eyes at him. It was all too much like those creaky old horror movies she used to watch as a kid: the dark old house, the locals warning the newcomer to stay away. The cabbie hadn’t exactly warned her to turn back, but he had muttered a few times under his breath about Howard Young being crazy. “Richest man in Maine they say, ayuh,” the cabbie told her in his heavy upstate accent. “And all his many far-flung relatives are just waiting for him to kick so they can divvy up the spoils.”
Carolyn was not about to engage in idle gossip. She just paid the cabbie and told him that waiting would be unnecessary. “As I mentioned,” she said, “I’m here as Mr. Young’s guest for a couple of days. I’m doing some work for him.”
“Ayuh, so you said, though you never did say what kinda work you had with such a strange old man,” the cabbie muttered, taking her money. He handed her a business card in return. “You be sure to use that number on there if you need to make a fast getaway. I’ll be back up this hill as fast as I can. A pretty girl like you alone in that big old house with that man…” He shuddered.
The cabbie’s words frightened Carolyn, though she wouldn’t admit it. Mr. Young unnerved her, too. The day they had met in her office, she had sat watching him warily. His rheumy old eyes had moved back and forth; his slithery little tongue had kept darting between his lips. He was ninety- eight years old, he told her, but he insisted that his mind was clear. Jeanette wasn’t so sure. The things he said to her that day, sitting in front of her desk, his gnarled hands clasping the wolf’s-head handle of his cane, had made little sense to her. But Sid had assured her Howard Young could be trusted.
And for what Mr. Young was paying her, a little unease was worth it.
Carolyn thanked the cabbie one more time, then gripped her bag and turned to walk toward the house. The sun was low in the sky. Long dark shadows stretched across the grass. Ancient oak trees, their branches bent and twisted by decades of wind off the ocean, surrounded the house like sentinels. Built of granite and brownstone, the house seemed to become less distinct as she approached rather than more, the edges of its stone façade smoothed and muted by time and salt air. The only lights in the entire place were scattered along the lower floor, just to the east of the front door. The glow that emanated from the windows wasn’t strong, however. It flickered, almost as if cast by candlelight.
The evening was cool, with a fragrance of impending autumn in the air. Soon those mighty oaks would drop their leaves, blanketing the great lawn with their brown and orange debris. It would turn cold and wet. She was very glad that her business here would be long done by then and she’d be back in her own little apartment in New York.
She reached the front door and lifted the metal knocker in the shape of a wolf. She banged hard against the wooden door three times.
It was as if the old man had been waiting behind the door. Immediately after knocking Carolyn heard a creak, and the door began to swing inward.
“Hello,” she said, feeling silly that her heart was fluttering in her chest.
The door opened fully to reveal Howard Young. He stood slightly hunched over, large brown spots marking his face and hands. He was dressed in a silk paisley smoking jacket and gold ascot tie. He was already studying Carolyn with his yellow, watery eyes, just as he had that day in her office. She wasn’t sure what he was looking for in her face, but he seemed to be intent on finding something. Finally, he smiled.
“Hello, Miss Cartwright,” he said, in the same dry, cracking voice Carolyn remembered, like old leaves being crunched underfoot. He opened the door fully and stepped aside so she could enter.
Carolyn walked into the foyer. A gleaming marble floor led to a curved marble staircase and elegant gold banister ascending to the second floor. A chandelier with thousands of pieces of sparkling cut glass hung from the high ceiling. “One of the richest men in the nation,” Sid had told her after Mr. Young had left her office that day. “Probably in the world.” Looking at his house, Carolyn believed it.
And where did all of Mr. Young’s money come from? “Real estate,” Sid told her. “He owns vast tracts of property throughout New England and in other places around the country. The family’s property, holdings date back to the early twentieth century, when they bought up entire blocks of cities. He owns a whole section of southern Florida. And when you’re as business savvy as Howard Young, you know when to buy, when to sell, when to invest, and where to invest. He’s got a magic touch in the stock market. The Young family money has been making money for them for almost a century. I always hope that by hanging around him some of his Midas touch might rub off on me.”
Carolyn smiled to herself, remembering Sid’s words. Howard Young was gesturing to her to follow him through the foyer toward the parlor. Their foot steps echoed across the marble. Certainly the house had the smell of old money. Carolyn’s eyes fell upon upholstery and draperies that she was certain had been in the family for decades, maybe even a century. Portraits of people in nineteenth-century clothing hung along the walls. There was even a suit of armor standing at the foot of the staircase.
“I trust your flight from New York was uneventful,” Mr. Young said as they walked.
“Yes, it was.”
“And a cab was easy enough to find at the airport?”
“Oh, yes,” Carolyn assured him.
“And the driver knew where the house was? We’re kind of isolated, as you can see.”
Carolyn smiled tightly. “He was aware of the place,” she said.
Mr. Young stopped walking and turned, with some difficulty, to look at her. His lips turned up slightly at the corners. “Was he now?”
“Indeed he was,” Carolyn told him. “I think he rather enjoyed playing the part of the coachman delivering Jonathan Harker to Castle Dracula.”
Mr. Young laughed, an odd little sound down deep in his throat. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth again. “They always do,” he said, and resumed walking.
Carolyn smiled to herself, still not quite believing she was there, that she had come all the way up to this windswept, godforsaken place. She wouldn’t have agreed to the job if Sid hadn’t encouraged her.
“I know he’s eccentric,” Sid had said, sitting down opposite her desk three weeks ago in her office, “but Howard was very impressed with you. He wants you for the job. And he’s offered to pay you very well.”
He had indeed. And Carolyn sure could use it.
“It’s just the two of us here today,” Howard Young informed her as they passed through double doors into the parlor. A fire blazed, obviously the flickering glow Carolyn had seen from outside. “I’ve given the entire staff the day off. I wanted no eavesdropping. What we have to discuss, as you know, Miss Cartwright, is utterly secret.”
Ah yes, Carolyn thought. The old man’s “secret.” She looked over at him as he shuffled along ahead of her. There was some kind of secret about this house that even Sid knew nothing about.
“But you’re his lawyer,” Carolyn had said to Sid. “I’d think you’d know all his secrets.”
“All of his legal and financial secrets, yes,” Sid told her. “But this thing about his house…it’s old family lore, that’s all I know. Going back generations. Howard has assured me it’s nothing illegal. I’m supposing it’s something historical about his family, and Howard is very private about his family.”
The old man gestured for her to take a seat on the divan in front of the fireplace. She smiled as she did so, placing her bag at her feet. “Now let me see if I understand your message,” she said. “Whatever it is that you’re hiring me to do, you want it completed in a month’s time. Is that correct?”
“It needs to be taken care of before the last week of September.”
“And why is that?” Carolyn asked.
Howard Young was watching her again with those yellow eyes. “That is when my nieces and nephews are arriving for our regular family reunion.”
“I see,” Carolyn said, even if she still didn’t.
“You travel lightly,” Howard Young observed, seeming to notice her small, solitary suitcase for the first time.
“Just a couple changes of clothes and my toothbrush,” she said. “Oh, and some pads, pencils, and a tape recorder.” She grinned. “That’s all I’ll need, right?”
The old man returned her smile. “Depends on how much we get done in the next couple of days,” he said.
Carolyn shifted uneasily on the divan. Two days. That’s what she had told him she could give him. Two days. Whatever the job entailed, she assured him she could finish it in New York.
“Would you like a drink, Miss Cartwright? A glass of sherry, perhaps?”
“Thank you,” she said. “And please. Call me Carolyn.”
With difficulty, Mr. Young hobbled over to the small bar that sat beneath a pair of rifles mounted in an X on the wall. They looked old, perhaps First World War vintage, but they were in perfect condition, the silver shining, the wood polished. Mr. Young poured two glasses of sherry, and handed Carolyn’s over to her. She accepted it, smiling again, hoping her unease didn’t show too much.
Howard Young struggled to a chair that was undoubtedly his, a tall, well-worn wingback. On a side table rested several books, an assortment of prescription bottles, and a pair of eyeglasses.
“Enjoy,” he said, lifting his sherry to her as he sat down. They both took a sip. The liquid tasted strange, like no sherry Carolyn knew. Sweet, dry, but bitter as well. She set the glass on the coffee table in front of the divan.
“I’m very anxious to hear more about the project you want me to work on,” she said.
Mr. Young was studying her again with those ancient eyes. “In good time,” he told me. His raspy voice suggested it was rarely used anymore. Carolyn imagined even communication with the servants was infrequent. Surely they knew their jobs and probably had been doing them for decades.
“First,” Howard Young said, “I would like to learn a bit more about you. If we are to work together, I must make sure we are a perfect fit.”
Carolyn raised her eyebrows. “I thought that was the reason you came down to New York, to scope me out after Sid recommended me. And I thought I passed muster.”
He tilted his head slightly. “Oh, you did. But—”
“I came back here with a few lingering concerns. Don’t worry. If I decide you’re not right in the end, I’ll more than compensate you for your time and trouble.”
“What are your lingering concerns?”
“You’re younger than I thought you’d be.”
It was like an accusation. Carolyn was momentarily at a loss at how to respond.
“When Sid referred you, I had the image in my mind of a middle-aged lady,” he continued. “I expected you to be wearing a plaid business suit with a skirt and sensible black shoes when I met you.”
Carolyn felt defensive. She couldn’t remember how she’d been dressed the day Mr. Young had come to her office, but today’s ensemble seemed appropriate enough. Sharply pleated khakis, a black turtleneck, low-heeled, open-toed black shoes, and a simple strand of pearls around her neck.
“Well, I’m sorry if I disappointed you,” she said.
He shook his head. “Not disappointment. Merely mild surprise.” He smiled again. “A man my age is never disappointed by a pretty woman.”
Carolyn’s smile was once again awkward.
He returned to being serious. “As you know, Sid referred me to you because of your work as an FBI investigator.”
“And I was delighted to learn how you had been a specialist in some very unusual cases.”
Again she nodded. “That specialty continued when I opened my own private investigation service in New York, which is how I met Sid.” She laughed. “He hired me for several of his…well, stranger cases.”
Mr. Young was nodding. “Indeed, Sidney has been an ideal lawyer for me. He has contacts all over the world.” He folded his long, twisted fingers in his lap. “And he asks only the most essential questions. He understands the need for secrecy.”
“Well,” Carolyn said, “Sid has represented many very high-profile clients, like yourself, who don’t want their personal business being thrown open to the prurient interests of the public. And I can assure you, Mr. Young, that my experience has also taught me the value of keeping secrets.”
He had gone back to studying her face, as if he saw something there --- or wanted to. “You must have been very young when you started at the FBI.”
“It was right out of college.”
“And you said you were there for…four years?”
“Mr. Young,” she said, smiling. “If you are trying to discern how old I am, I can simply tell you. I’m twenty-six.”
He smiled and took another sip of his sherry. “And you are currently working as a freelance investigator?”
She nodded. “I take on investigative projects if someone like Sid refers me to them.”
“Why did you leave the FBI? It would seem to me you had a promising career there.”
She smiled tightly. “Personal reasons.”
The old man nodded, almost as if he knew what they were. “I told Sid I was looking to hire a smart, thorough, critical thinker to help me with my project and, just as importantly, to write up an account of it all. Those were the criteria. And yours was the name immediately at the tip of his tongue.”
He had told her as much that day in her office. “Well, as I said, I’m grateful to Sid for his confidence....”
“What matters,” Mr. Young continued, “is that I find someone whom I am able to trust with my deepest secrets. And also one who . . .” His voice trailed off as he seemed to search for the right words. “Who understands the world isn’t always governed by forces we can see and hear firsthand.”
Carolyn’s face betrayed her confusion.
Mr. Young trained his old eyes once more on her. “You have investigated such things, Carolyn,” he said. “Such things that live on the other side of our human senses.”
“You’re referring to --- the supernatural?”
So Mr. Young’s “secret” had something to do with the supernatural. Carolyn had suspected it might. So many of the cases she had investigated had defied easy solutions. At the FBI, she’d been called several times to investigate “paranormal” activity, so much so that she became one of the “go- to” people in the Bureau for these types of things. For example, there had been a series of strange deaths surrounding an abandoned church on Cape Cod, where a whole town was nearly wiped out by some mysterious killer who was never officially identified, but whom residents believed to be a malevolent spirit. Then there was the eerie haunting of another village not far away, where the ghost of a celebrated killer from a hundred years ago seemed to have returned to kill again. And then, most recently, there had been a series of brutal murders of several students at a girls’ school in upstate New York --- ritualistic slayings some blamed on the devil himself.
Of course, there was never conclusive “proof” of otherworldly or supernatural forces at work. But sometimes there was simply no other explanation. Investigating such stories had opened Carolyn’s mind to the possibility that science and logic could not explain everything. Over the last two years, Sid had gotten her involved in a couple of far-out cases. One wealthy woman, being sued by her husband for divorce, began to practice voodoo on him; although the official investigation could never prove it, Carolyn’s meeting with the husband left her convinced he was a zombie, and it was only through a strange woman who called herself a witch doctor that Carolyn was able to “wake him up” from the curse. Maybe he’d been faking; maybe he’d been psychotic; maybe he’d been on drugs. Still, it was all pretty exciting no matter what.
“When Sidney suggested you for my project,” said Howard Young, “I had no idea how truly perfect you’d turn out to be.”
She smiled. “So have I allayed all your concerns?”
“Most.” His face grew solemn. “Because what I need your help with is perhaps beyond any of our understanding.”
“Mr. Young, perhaps it’s time you finally tell me what exactly it is.”
“Patience, Carolyn. All in good time. First I must caution you that I have brought others in to help me in the past, and every one of them has failed.”
“Over the last fifty years I’ve worked with dozens of experts. And each time ---” His face grew sad. “Each time we have met with failure. Now the time comes when we must address this issue again. And, given my age, it is certainly my last attempt to get it right.”
Carolyn was starting to feel a little strung along. “Mr. Young, please,” she said, “I’d like to give you my opinion on whether I can help you, but until I know more details...”
“The fact that you came all the way up here after our brief meeting in New York shows you are at least intrigued,” he said.
“Yes, of course I am.”
He smiled. “And I suppose my offer of payment is also a motivation.”
“I can’t deny that.” Carolyn held her eyes steady with his. “One million dollars is a great deal of money.”
“For you, perhaps.” He gave her a little smile. “But it is a pittance I’ll be glad to pay—if, and only if, Carolyn, you are successful in what I need you to do.”
“Well, until you tell me what it is, we can’t know, can we?”
Mr. Young looked terribly sad. His eyes glanced off toward the window. Beyond lay the rocky Atlantic coast. With the room suddenly quiet, Carolyn could hear the crash of the surf far below on the rocks.
“Mr. Young,” she asked, “are you all right?”
His eyes flickered back to her. They were moist. “I am an old man, Carolyn. How much longer I have to live is unknown. If I should die—someone must carry on my work. Someone must find the answer to the secret I have kept so long.”
“Mr. Young, I don’t know yet if I’m the right person for you, or even if your project is one that I will want to take on. But you’ve certainly left me eager to find out.”
He smiled, clasping his old, veiny hands in his lap. “That’s all I can ask for now. Thank you, Carolyn.”
“But I must say…if it’s something that has baffled the experts, I’m not sure I can do any differently. I’m not necessarily an expert on the supernatural, Mr. Young. I’m an investigator. I go to other people for expert opinions.”
He nodded. “I wanted you precisely because you are not an expert. You are a researcher. You don’t pretend to have answers. You go out and find them.” He chuckled. “Sid said you could be like a dog after a bone. What I like about you is that you will persevere and not rely on what is supposedly known or what is considered the accepted wisdom. You will dig. You will hunt.”
He was talking in riddles. What was this secret?
“There is one other reason I chose you, Carolyn.”
She raised her eyebrows. “And why is that?”
“Because you’re a woman.”
She laughed. “How does being a woman qualify me?”
“Because you will understand how a woman feels. How a woman loves.”
She considered his words. “So this project --- this secret of yours --- concerns a woman.”
He nodded. “Possibly.”
“But how do you know that I will understand how a woman loves? Perhaps I have not experienced what she has…”
“Oh, but you have.” His eyes were hard now. “I needed to know something about you before I met you. So I learned a few things.” He paused. “Such as your relationship with David Cooke.”
A short expulsion of breath escaped her lips.
“I know all about him, Carolyn.”
Once again, Carolyn felt on the defensive. Her lips pursed tightly. “Well,” she said, “you’re a regular FBI investigator yourself.”
“A wealthy man can find out anything he wants,” Howard Young said. “Believe me, Carolyn. I don’t bring up his name to cause you any pain. I will not use the information to hurt you or harass you. It is just to say that I understand you—and I hope you will bring your own understanding and compassion to this project.”
David. Even here --- even in this strange house, on this faraway rocky coast --- his name came back to haunt her. Would she never be free of him? For a second, all the old pain came flooding back—the lies, the tricks, the deceptions, the fear. Mr. Young was right about that much. Carolyn knew how a woman loved. She had loved all too well and been burnt for it. A day didn’t go by that her heart didn’t still ache for David—despite all he had done to her, all the terrible things she’d had to endure.
Not least of which was losing her savings and everything she owned. She was still paying off the debt David had racked up in her name. He had been one very shrewd operator. So the offer of a million bucks, especially with all of the obligations Carolyn had…there was no way she could pass that up.
Still, she didn’t like that Howard Young had delved into her past. She didn’t like being reminded of David. But hadn’t she researched peoples’ lives, uncovered secrets they’d rather not have her know? So she held her tongue. Carolyn let her emotions subside as they sat there in silence for several minutes. Finally, the old man spoke again.
“A wealthy man can find out anything he wants,” he repeated, “except, sadly, the one thing that has eluded me now for all these years.”
She managed a tight smile. “Which you aren’t going to tell me, are you?”
He just looked at her.
“You’re expecting me to discover it on my own,” she said.
With great difficulty, Mr. Young rose from his chair, steadying himself on the arm. Carolyn stood along with him. He straightened his twisted back the best he could and looked over at her, crooking a finger to follow him.
“I might not tell you,” he said, “but I will give you some very important clues.”
He shuffled forward, out of the parlor and back into the foyer. Carolyn thought it odd, but she stood and followed him. Once again they crossed the great marble floor, their footsteps echoing in that vast space. At the far end of the foyer there was a door. Mr. Young pulled it open. There was a whiff of mustiness from the darkness within. Then Carolyn discerned the steps going down.
“The basement?” Carolyn asked.
Mr. Young said nothing, just took his first tremulous step down.
He moved down the stone steps with a purpose, even if he seemed at all times ready to topple over. The only light came from small narrow rectangles cut high into the walls of the basement. At the bottom of the steps was a stone floor. The dim pink light allowed Carolyn to make out crates and old furniture, a dressmaker’s dummy and a steamer trunk. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and draped with cobwebs. Mr. Young didn’t pause to look at any of it. He just kept moving as fast as he could, which was not very fast, across the floor. Carolyn followed.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
At the other side of the basement was a rusted iron door. Mr. Young was fumbling with some keys that he had taken out of his pocket.
“This was the servants’ quarters when I was a boy, in the years right after the First World War,” he told her. “Of course today we are far more egalitarian, and we let the servants go home at night to their own homes and families.”
Carolyn tried to smile, but the darkness and mustiness made her uneasy. She had the distinct sense of being watched. It reminded her of her experience with George Grant, the man she believed had been turned into a zombie. Carolyn had been truly unnerved when she’d turned around to see him looking at her. Sid would later try to say he was just a con man trying to spook her. But Carolyn sensed something more. Grant’s eyes had been glassy, his skin cold and clammy. For weeks afterward, she had slept with the lights on, thinking George Grant was there somewhere, watching her.
With a shaky hand, Howard Young managed to unlock the door. It swung open with a creak into the darkness within.
“This is where the secret lives,” he said.
“Are you trying to frighten me, Mr. Young?” Carolyn asked.
“In your line of work, I imagine you are hard to frighten.”
He didn’t look back at her, just walked inside. Whether she was spooked or not, Carolyn couldn’t tell; it was true that, after episodes like the one with George Grant, she didn’t frighten easily. But she could see clearly that Mr. Young was afraid.
The old man was trembling now, so much so that it seemed as if he might fall over. Carolyn watched as he steadied himself against an old sofa covered with spiderwebs. He let out a long breath.
“So what is it about this room?” Carolyn asked. “What do you mean the secret lives here?”
Howard Young seemed lost in thought. “I remember coming down here as a boy. I’d sit up on this bed and listen to the stories she’d tell. We all did. She was the best storyteller.”
“Who is she?”
Mr. Young was still trembling. Carolyn was now seriously concerned that he’d fall down and break his hip. That frightened her more than some unknown thing in the basement.
“I could not have imagined then what this room would become,” the old man intoned. “When I was a boy, this place was filled with laughter. With happiness. With good cheer.” His voice broke. “With love.”
Carolyn glanced around. A small window high on the far wall had been boarded over. The light was very dim, hardly allowing her to see. But she scanned the walls and the floor. Except for the old sofa and a broken table, there was nothing in the room.
“Mr. Young,” she said. “Where is the secret?”
“Here,” he said plainly.
“I don’t understand.”
They stood in silence a moment.
And then she saw it.
The words on the wall.
They were not there when they first came in.
She knew that much. The words on the wall had
just suddenly appeared.
And no matter how dim the light, Carolyn could see they were written in blood. It was still wet and dripping down the wall.
Douglas Desmond Young IV was determined to arrive at his Uncle Howard’s house well before any of his worthless cousins. Leaning forward on his motorcycle, he gave the Harley more gas. The wind rushing at his face and through his hair electrified him. He was looking forward to seeing old Uncle Howie again. It had been a little over a year since he’d last been up to Maine. Uncle Howie liked him because Douglas joked with him and kidded him. He didn’t try to kiss his ass the way the others did. Uncle Howie called Douglas his “little hoodlum,” and Douglas supposed that’s just exactly what he was. And always had been.
Crossing the Maine border from New Hampshire, he accelerated the Harley even more. He knew he was breaking the speed limit. But who the fuck gave a damn? Like one of these hick mountain cops could ever catch him.
Douglas let out a laugh as he sped down the highway. His laughter trailed behind him like his long blond hair. On his right, he passed a young woman driving a white Corvette. He blew her a kiss as he zipped around her car. She waved back at him, but Douglas was in too much of a hurry to even think about stopping, no matter how pretty she had seemed to be.
Douglas had just turned twenty-four. Both his parents were dead, and he had no brothers or sisters. His father had been the grandson of Uncle Howie’s older brother, so that actually made the old man Douglas’s great granduncle --- but to Douglas, he was just Uncle Howie, his closest living relative. Odd, that. So many generations between them and still there was no one more closely related to Douglas than Howard Young. He’d lost his father when he was fourteen. Dad had died of a heart attack at Uncle Howie’s house, in fact. A year later, Douglas’s mother took her own life by sticking her head in the gas oven. Douglas had gone to live with his father’s sister after that, but when he was eighteen, Aunt Therese had followed Mom’s example and offed herself with pills. Guess she figured Douglas was finally all grown up and could take care of himself from then on.
And he did. He did just fine. He decided against college, even though Uncle Howie had offered to pay for it. Instead, Douglas worked a series of jobs as a carpenter, a landscaper, and an unlicensed electrician. Then he’d signed on to a merchant ship for a year and sailed from San Francisco to Tokyo to Sydney. After that came a gig as the skipper of a shark-watching cruise off the coast of Maui. That took up another year. But once he hit twenty-four, Douglas figured he ought to start thinking about settling down. He didn’t care much about money, but he knew he’d need some if he was ever going to be more than just a gypsy. So he hopped on his bike and headed north to Uncle Howie’s. It might be more than a month before the scheduled family reunion in October, but Douglas wanted some time alone with his uncle. He intended to remind the old man that he was the last of his kin, all he had left in the world.
And that was something his prissy cousins could not claim.
Douglas was the last of his branch of the family. If his great-grandfather hadn’t died so young, it would have been Douglas living in that big old mansion on the cliff. His great-grandfather had been the eldest son. It was he who should have inherited the estate. But because he died --- another one of those mysterious family deaths that seemed to plague the Young family --- it had been Howard who became master of the great house, the controller of the family fortune. That’s why Douglas’s cousins, especially that prissy Philip --- and his equally prissy offspring Ryan and Chelsea --- brownnosed the old man the way they did. It was always, “Oh, Uncle Howard, can I get you anything?” “Uncle Howard, you look so fit and well!” “Uncle Howard, I’m going to name my first son after you!” It made Douglas want to puke.
Up ahead was the exit for Youngsport. The family was so rich the town was named after them. Douglas angled the bike and slowed down a bit as he headed onto the off-ramp. He thought he could smell the sea from here. He’d always loved the scent of salty air and briny water. It brought back happy memories. It made him think of the days when his dad and mom were still alive.
They’d come up here to Maine from their house in Connecticut and picnic on the great lawn that ran alongside the cliffs. Douglas would watch the seabirds dive into the ocean to catch fish. Sometimes Dad would take him out on a skiff and they’d dive off the sides, swimming in the cold, clear, blue water. Those were good days. Everybody had seemed so happy.
Roaring the Harley down a winding, maple-treelined lane, Douglas was glad to be back in Maine. He hadn’t called Uncle Howie to tell him he was coming. He didn’t want his cousins getting wind of his early arrival. If they did, Ryan would no doubt hop in his Mercedes-Benz and head north to join them, his obnoxious twin sister Chelsea probably in tow. They weren’t about to allow their vagabond cousin Douglas any free, uninterrupted time with Uncle Howard. Douglas just laughed. He knew Uncle Howie would be glad to see him. He always was. The one thing Douglas wished was that Brenda had accompanied him. It would have been good for Uncle Howie to see that he was finally serious about a girl, that he might really be ready to settle down.
Except he wasn’t. Not really. He didn’t love Brenda, and she had figured that out. She was a great girl, but the sparks just weren’t there. Douglas had never known sparks. Maybe they were just fairy tales. But Dad had said he’d felt sparks for Mom. “She is my morning, noon, and night,” he’d said. Douglas figured Mom had felt the same way, since after Dad’s sudden death during a family reunion in Maine, she pulled inward, becoming sullen and depressed. That was why she’d taken her life.
No such passion existed between Douglas and Brenda. “Face it, Douggie,” she’d said, when he’d asked her to come with him on this trip. “I’m just an ornament for the back of your bike. You just want to show me off to all those rich relatives of yours. You just want them to think you’re gonna get married and be a respectable member of the family. I know you too well, Douggie. I know you don’t really want to marry me.”
He’d tried insisting that he did, but he couldn’t even convince himself. Brenda deserved better. She was a hardworking waitress at a twenty-fourhour diner on the highway outside Syracuse. She had big gorgeous brown eyes and the figure of a model. What guy wouldn’t want her? But there just weren’t any sparks.
Douglas rounded the bend and started heading up the hill. At the crest of the hill, he knew, was Youngsport, the little village overlooking the sea. And at the very top sat his uncle’s house.
Suddenly a person darted in front of him from the side of the road. It all happened so fast that Douglas couldn’t see who it was or exactly how far ahead of him the person was. All he could do was instinctively swerve the bike to his right. He careened off the road, bumping over the curb and burning a rut through the tall grass. Only through sheer luck did he avoid hitting a tree. The bike’s momentum was slowed by the grass and the swampy muck on the side of the road. He came to a stop with the Harley nearly on top of him, its front tire still spinning.
“What the fuck?” Douglas shouted.
He pulled himself up from under the bike. He glanced out into the road to see if the person was still there. No one. There was silence, except for the hissing of the Harley. Douglas turned back to the bike and righted it, cursing the mud that clung to it as well as to himself, but thankful for it, too. It likely prevented a far worse injury.
He stepped out onto the road, looking around again for the fool who had run in front of him. Once more, he saw no one. Where the hell had they gone? Standing there, looking up and down the road, Douglas was struck by just how quiet it was. Not a sound. No cars in the distance. He wasn’t that far from the highway. He thought he should have been able to still hear the rumble of trucks. But it was silent. Utterly, completely silent. There weren’t even any birds. The trees were thick with bright green leaves. Shouldn’t he hear some chattering from the branches? It was like watching television with the volume turned all the way down. The only thing Douglas could hear was his own heart, still racing from his fall.
Then he saw her.
The person who had run in front of his bike.
It was a young woman. She stood across the street in a white dress, staring at him. Her hair was long and black, blowing in a breeze that made no sound as it danced through the trees. Douglas was caught by her dark eyes. He stood there immobile.
“You okay, buddy?”
A man in a red pickup truck had pulled up alongside him. He hadn’t heard him arrive, hadn’t seen him until he was there, practically on top of him. The volume had been turned back up. Crows were calling from the treetops. Mosquitoes buzzed around his ears.
Douglas turned his eyes to the man in the truck. He was leaning across the seat, talking to him through the rolled-down passenger window.
“You okay?” the man asked. “Looks like quite a spill you took there.”
Still Douglas didn’t reply. He moved his eyes past the truck to search out again the dark woman in the white dress.
But she was gone.
“Yeah, thanks,” Douglas finally managed to say. “I’m okay.”
“How’s the bike?”
Douglas turned around to inspect it. “Handlebar’s a little banged up. But it could’ve been worse.”
“What made you swerve like that? Fall asleep at the wheel?”
“No. Didn’t you see her? Some girl --- ” Again Douglas’s eyes panned the trees across the road. “She ran in front of me. It was all I could do to avoid hitting her.”
“Didn’t see no girl. Where is she now?”
“I don’t know,” Douglas said, looking again at his bike.
“You gonna be able to ride it?” the man asked.
Douglas shrugged. “I’m gonna have to try.”
“Here.” The man turned the ignition off in his truck and stepped outside. He was a big beefy sort, with big arms without any muscular definition and practically no neck. He wore a Red Sox baseball cap and a blue flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off. “We can put it in the back of the truck, and I can drop you off at Stu’s Mechanic Shop in town.”
“I’ll probably be all right,” Douglas said.
The man made a face. “Why take a chance, bud?
The sheriff here ain’t a very forgiving man. He’ll ride your tail if he sees you.”
Douglas sighed and steered the bike over to the back of the truck. The man let down the hatch and lowered a ramp. Together they rolled the bike into the truck bed.
“Name’s Murphy,” the man said. “Reggie Murphy. You’re not from around here.”
They shook hands. “No, but I have family here,” Douglas told him. “Come to visit.” He met Reggie Murphy’s eyes with his own. “I’m Douglas Young.”
“Oh, one of the Youngs,” Murphy said. “Back to see the old man, eh?”
Douglas nodded as he slipped into the truck. Murphy returned to his place behind the wheel. He had been smoking a cigar. He placed it back in his mouth now and took a long drag.
“I was up there at the house a few months ago,” Murphy said, exhaling smoke as he started the truck. “I work for a contractor, and Mr. Young hired us to do some work on the back terrace. Man, that is one fine house.”
“It is indeed,” Douglas said, glancing out the window as they drove past the wall of maple trees. Once more he wondered where the woman had gone and why she had just stood there staring at him. That eerie silence perplexed him. He must have been stunned from the impact. That must have been why he hadn’t heard anything for several minutes, why the woman’s eyes had so entranced him.
Her dark, beautiful eyes.
“You’ve got your big family reunion coming up this fall, don’t you?” Murphy was asking. “That’s what your uncle had us doing the work for. You know, fixing up the terrace, laying down some new stonework. A lot of it had started to crumble. That’s an old house. When was it built? Like 1900, right?”
“Yes, I think so,” Douglas said, still distracted, still looking out the window.
“Mr. Young was quite excited about the family gathering. Happens only once every ten years. So it’s quite the event, eh?”
Douglas nodded. “It’s the only time all of us are together. I try to make it a point to see my uncle every year or so, and occasionally I’ll run into some of the others while I’m there. But the reunion is the one time when every Young is expected to make an appearance.”
Murphy laughed. “And if they don’t, it could mean being taken out of the will, eh?”
Douglas made no reply to that.
They had turned onto the town road. Maple trees gave way to small houses, then a convenience store, then the white clapboard post office. An American flag whipped in the breeze out front. And next to it was the mechanic shop. The word STU’S was painted in big red letters on its shingled roof.
“Well, here you go, my friend,” Murphy said, pulling the truck in for a stop and shutting off the ignition. “Let’s roll that bike in and let Stu take a look.”
The damage wasn’t serious. “I can probably have it fixed for you by tomorrow morning,” Stu told him. He was a weather-beaten old man with intense blue eyes, wearing a pair of white overalls stained nearly black with grease and oil. Douglas thanked him. Unhooking his backpack from the side of the bike, he flung it over his shoulder.
“I can give you a ride up to the house,” Murphy said.
“No, thanks,” Douglas said. “I really appreciate your help. But I can walk from here. Will do me good. Clear my head a little.” He smiled. “And it’ll be good to check out the town again. It’s been a while.”
Murphy gave him a salute and headed off in his truck. Douglas took a deep breath. His knees and forearms were starting to ache a little from the fall. But what troubled him more was how fuzzy his mind still felt. He couldn’t get over that dreamlike sensation he’d experienced right after the accident. The way that woman had looked at him. The way her eyes had held him. He hadn’t ever wanted to look away.
He began to trudge up the hill from the village. He knew there was an old stone staircase cut into the side of the cliff. It led almost all the way up to Uncle Howie’s house. He found it without too much trouble. The steps began in the mossy backyard of the town’s drugstore. When Douglas was a boy, it was called Andersen’s Pharmacy, and he’d sit there with Dad and drink strawberry milkshakes at the counter. Now the old building had been torn down and replaced with a shiny new CVS. But the old staircase was still out in back, even if it was largely grown over with ivy and grass. Douglas started up.
He wasn’t a guy who was easily spooked. He’d gone down in that shark cage off the coast of Maui many times and had witnessed plenty of fangs gnawing against the iron bars in front of him. He’d found it thrilling. On the merchant ship, he’d survived many storms; one time, they’d nearly capsized. Even when he’d found his mother’s lifeless body in the kitchen of their house, some ten months after his father had died, Douglas hadn’t freaked out. He was just fifteen years old, but he calmly called 911 and followed the operator’s instructions carefully. He shut off the gas, then checked for a pulse. When he reported that there was none, the operator told him to stay right there, that help was on its way. So he’d sat on the linoleum floor, holding his mother’s cold hand, for twenty-five minutes. He didn’t cry until the funeral, and then only for a moment.
But his famed self-control had taken a spill back there along with his bike. He couldn’t get that woman’s eyes out of his mind. Who was she? Why had she run out in front of him? Why had she stood there staring at him? And why hadn’t Murphy seen her?
Halfway up the cliff, the staircase was nearly obliterated by intrusive tree roots and years of rock-slides. Still, Douglas managed, careful not to lose his footing even if his knees were really starting to ache. He thought maybe he’d scraped his thigh, too. He thought he could sense blood under his dark blue jeans.
He turned as the path led through an old cemetery. And not just any cemetery. Douglas knew it had been the private burial ground for the Young family for several generations. His parents weren’t buried here; they were back in Connecticut. But his grandparents were here, and lots of other old relatives dating back to the early nineteenth century. This was where Uncle Howard insisted he would be buried someday as well.
A big black crow alit on top of one old brownstone grave marker. It let out a caw and spread its wings, then folded them against its sides. Douglas squinted to make out the words that were engraved on the stone.
DESMOND D. YOUNG
That was his great-great-grandfather. Uncle Howie’s father. He had passed on his middle name Douglas all the way down through five generations. Glancing around the cemetery as the crow let out another cry and took off into the air, Douglas shivered as the bird’s shadow passed across his face. Across the way stood a newer stone. This one marked his great grandfather, the first Douglas Desmond Young. Died 1940. And then, off to the right, a shiny marble slab, flush with the earth. This was Douglas’s grandfather. Died 1980.
They all died in the first year of a new decade, Douglas thought. He’d never realized that until now. The first year of a new decade --- when the family reunion was held.
Like this year.
Douglas continued to make his way up the path. Dead leaves crunched underfoot. A blue jay seemed to scold him from somewhere in the trees above.
And then he saw it.
Through the trees, the great stone house on the top of the hill came into view. It was a house that seemed to grow bigger and more impressive every time Douglas saw it. Usually, places you knew as a kid seemed smaller when you saw them again as adults. But Uncle Howie’s house seemed to grow another wing every time Douglas visited. Of course it hadn’t. There was nothing new about the house, nothing at all, unless one counted that terrace out back that Murphy had said he’d worked on. Uncle Howie’s house was like a trip back into time. The stones worn smooth by decades of wind and salt air told the story of its long existence.
Crunching through the leaves up the final bluff, Douglas neared the great lawn of the estate. In the far distance he spied the barn, where Uncle Howie kept his stable of prize horses. To the right were the tennis courts; to the left was the greenhouse, where the old man tended his rare and exotic orchids. Here on top of the hill, the wind whipped hard against Douglas’s face. He could hear it howling through the eaves of the house as he got closer. He was happily anticipating the look of surprise when Uncle Howie saw him --- a look that would turn to both joy and bemusement, Douglas thought. Joy because his little hoodlum had come for an unexpected visit, and bemusement when he saw the mud all over his clothes.
A small smile had begun to stretch across Douglas’s face when suddenly he saw her again.
The young woman who had run in front of his bike.
She stood across the lawn. She was just a tiny figure, about a hundred yards away. At this distance Douglas couldn’t see her eyes as clearly as he had earlier, but it was her all right. The same dark hair, the same filmy white dress, both blowing in the wind.
“Hey!” Douglas shouted.
She stood there looking at him.
“Hey! Who are you? Why are you following me?”
He began to approach her across the grass. He had made it about halfway when she suddenly turned and bolted. “Hey!” Douglas called again.
The woman ran along the cliffs. Douglas could see now that she was barefoot.
He ran after her.
“I don’t want to hurt you!” he cried. “I just want to make sure you’re okay! And find out why you’re following me!”
She just kept running toward the cliffs.
“Be careful!” Douglas shouted, slowing down himself. “Okay, I won’t come after you!”
But still the woman ran. She was just a distant speck on the far side of the cliffs by now, though her dark hair was still discernible in the bright sunlight. She ran as if she were terrified. She ran so fast ---
She ran straight off the side of the cliff!
“Jesus!” Douglas cried and began running himself again.
Had he seen right?
That crazy woman ran right off the cliff!
He reached the spot where she had gone over and looked down. There was no sign of a body on the rocks below. The water was just far enough beyond the rocks that there was no way she could have fallen into the surf. If she’d run off this cliff at this spot, she’d be lying right down there, mangled on the rocks below. It was at least a forty-foot drop. No one could have survived that, especially not at the rate she’d been running. There was no way she could have jumped off and then run down the beach. She’d have smashed onto the rocks. But there was no body anywhere.
It was as if she’d vanished into the air.
Douglas ran his hands through his long hair. “Jesus,” he whispered to himself.
Has he imagined the whole thing?
He remembered how stunned and dazed he’d felt back on the road, right after the accident. Had he hit his head and not realized it? He must have. This had all been a hallucination. There was no woman. At least not up here. Maybe there had been, down on the road --- there had to have been, for someone had run in front of him --- but not up here. Thinking rationally, Douglas concluded he was certain that he’d been alone as he climbed up the cliffside staircase. And if the woman had come by the road, there was no way she would have beat him here. The road from the village up to Uncle Howie’s house was long and winding. To walk it would take at least double the amount of time that it took to take the staircase. So there was no way the woman could have gotten here before him.
“Freaky,” he murmured to himself, looking down at the rocks. The only sound was the steady crash of the surf and the occasional call of a lonesome gull.
Finally Douglas roused himself. He began heading once again across the great lawn. He wouldn’t mention any of this to Uncle Howie. There had been a time, right after his mother died, when Douglas had smoked a bit too much pot. Aunt Therese had reported as much to Uncle Howie. The old man had sat Douglas down and lectured him against the dangers of marijuana. Douglas had nodded, pretending to listen, but it had been the magic of that wonderful weed that had kept him sane not only after Mom’s death but after Aunt Therese’s as well. A couple of times when Douglas came to visit Uncle Howie after that, his clothes had reeked of pot, and his uncle had noticed. There was a disapproving look for his little hoodlum.
For the last few years, however, Douglas had pretty much cleaned up his act. He’d maybe smoke a joint on a Saturday night with Brenda, but that was all. For this visit to his uncle, he fully intended to present himself as upstanding and serious. If he started telling tales of barefoot women jumping off cliffs, Uncle Howie would assume he’d been smoking that wacky weed again. So Douglas would keep his little hallucination to himself. The muddy clothes were going to be bad enough. Uncle Howie always worried one of these days his nephew would crash his motorcycle.
Douglas decided to blame it on a squirrel.
“I swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel,” he said out loud, practicing the line he’d use with his uncle.
He smiled. He thought that would work.
There would be no talk of mysterious women who disappeared into thin air.
Excerpted from THE KILLING ROOM © Copyright 2011 by John Manning. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.