The Guests on South Battery (9 page)

I led her out of the kitchen toward the stairs. “They look so much alike that it's amazing to me how different their personalities are.”

“Well, they do come from two different parents. Are you and your husband very much alike?”

“Not at all,” I said at the same time as I heard Jack behind us say, “Practically identical.”

We turned to see him emerging from the music room that had also
become his writing office. His mother had helped me find a lovely mahogany writing desk from the early part of the last century, and had moved it in front of the window that overlooked the side garden.

I sent him a reproachful look, quickly forgotten as he bent to kiss me in greeting. He nodded at Jayne, then scooped up Sarah, who was reaching for him. I was used to women turning their heads when Jack walked by, but I'd thought the one I'd given birth to would at least make me her favorite.

I looked over at JJ, who seemed happy with his face buried in Jayne's neck. With a sigh, I said, “Are you done for the day? I was just showing Jayne the house and wanted to introduce her to Nola.”

His smile faltered a bit. “Wasn't the most productive day, but maybe that's just my muse telling me to take a break.”

He'd been distracted and distant since his phone call with his agent. Although his current project was generating a lot of buzz in-house, the news that Marc Longo's book,
Lust, Greed, and Murder in the Holy City
, was getting a lot of press had Jack irritated and disheartened. The fact that the story idea was centered on our house and had been the impetus to our meeting and the subject of his own book, which had been canceled because of Marc Longo's subterfuge (pretending to be interested in me so he could glean insider information), didn't improve Jack's mood. There was something else, though. Something that had emerged in that phone call that he hadn't yet shared with me.

I was trying to get over my habit of avoiding bad news and confrontation, preferring to think that both were like ghosts and if you ignored them long enough, they'd go away. But, like with pregnancy, I'd learned this wasn't the case. Still, I told myself that if I needed to know, he would tell me.

He faced Jayne, wearing what I referred to as his author back-cover-photo smile, and her cheeks flushed. I made a mental note to ask Jack to turn down the charm a notch the same way he'd had to do with any of Nola's friends who visited. I'd yet to suggest he grow a paunch or lose his hair, but I wouldn't push it beyond the realm of possibility.

“I've been doing a little research on your new house on South Battery. It's considered one of Charleston's treasures—both for its
architecture and its history. I've been doing a little digging, too, into Button Pinckney's life. She was an incredible woman—a huge philanthropist and a devoted advocate for animals and children. She was often quoted as saying that the house was like the child she'd never had. Lots of speculation as to what would happen to it when she died.”

“And she left it to me.” Jayne swayed with JJ in her arms, his eyes slowly drifting closed.

“Yes. To a complete stranger. Being a writer, I'm intrigued. There's definitely a story here. Maybe even enough of a story for a complete book. Button Pinckney was an educated, intelligent, and cultured woman. There was a reason why she chose you. I'd hate to see the house sold before we can find out why.”

“Jack,” I said, “now's not a good time to discuss this. I'm showing Jayne around right now. I scheduled the talk about the Pinckney house for tomorrow morning at eight fifty-five. I'm sure I put it on your calendar.”

Both Jack and Jayne stared at me unblinkingly before Jack turned back to Jayne. “Yes, well, we can certainly wait until eight fifty-five tomorrow. I just wanted to make sure Jayne had all the information before she made her decision. And to let her know that she can be our live-in nanny for as long as she needs, or at least until her house is fully renovated and she can see it in all its glory. Maybe she'll decide she loves it when it doesn't appear to be so old.”

Jayne's lips turned up in a half smile. “This is an old house, too, but the feeling here—with the exception of the backyard—gives off a really friendly vibe. Like it's a true family home with a lot of warmth.”

“That's because we've already exorcised all its ghosts.”

Jack said this with a hearty laugh, but Jayne shot him a sharp look. “Ghosts?”

“Don't worry,” I said, guiding her toward the stairs. “All the worst ones are gone. The ones left behind are friendly.” I'd said this as an inside joke for Jack, but Jayne continued to frown.

We were halfway up the stairs when we heard a shriek from Nola's room. Despite holding a small child in his arms, Jack sprinted up the stairs and threw open Nola's bedroom door. “Is everything all right?”

Jayne and I moved up behind him, peering into the room. The three girls sat on top of Nola's tall four-poster bed, a Ouija board between them. They turned toward us, each face paler than the next. “It moved by itself,” Veronica said.

A new presence hovered around the periphery of the room, something dark and disturbing, like the soft ripples on the water's surface signaling the approach of something big. And invisible. Just as before, I couldn't see it, couldn't speak to it or touch it. It was as if that same curtain had fallen between me and the spirit world, blocking my entrance. For someone who'd spent a lifetime resenting the fact that I
could
interact with spirits, I now found myself resentful that I couldn't. Something was jamming my brain waves, and I think that scared me more than anything else.

Jayne bent down to pick up the triangle-shaped board piece, then dropped it immediately as if it had burned her. “You shouldn't be playing with that,” she said, her voice low and in a tone I'd not heard yet. “It's not a toy.”

We all turned to look at her in surprise. Feeling all gazes on her, she attempted to smile but failed. “A mother of a family I worked for told me that. She said it wasn't a children's game.” Her gaze traveled to a corner of the room. “She said that sometimes it can attract unwanted . . . visitors, and you have no control over whether they're good or bad.”

“They're not real,” Alston said. “All that ghost stuff isn't real. I think Nola pushed it off the board to scare us.” She looked at Nola hopefully.

“Guilty,” Nola said with a sidelong glance at me to let me know she was lying. A frisson of fear shot down my neck. Our house was filled with spirits. Most old houses were. They were there in every creak of the floor and tick of the antique clocks. But we'd learned to live in harmony with them, knowing that when they were ready to move on they'd let me know. But even without seeing this new presence, I knew it didn't want to go anywhere.

“Close it up, please, Nola. Jayne's right—it's not a game.” I caught a whiff then, of moist earth and dead leaves, and I immediately knew where it had come from. Turning to Jack, I said, “Please make the introductions. I need to step outside for a moment.”

He gave me a quizzical look, but I didn't pause as I quickly walked out the door, then ran down the stairs and through the house to the back door. I threw it open and stifled a scream as I nearly ran into Meghan as she clawed desperately to open the back door.

She brushed past me, then closed the door, leaning her back against it. Her skin was unusually pale and her eyes were so wide that I could have sworn I saw the whites all around her irises.

“Are you all right?” I asked as I led her to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair.

She began to nod, then shook her head. When she eventually found her voice, she said, “It was the weirdest thing. . . .”

“What was?” I asked, although I was sure I knew what she was going to say.

“I was digging and I thought I'd found something, so I was really focusing on a small area, and then all of a sudden . . .” She wrinkled her nose and gave an involuntary shudder. “This smell. Like rotting . . . dead stuff. We once had a squirrel die in our chimney and that's how we found it—from the smell. It was like that. And I swear the temperature dropped about thirty degrees, because I could actually see my breath.”

“Can I make you some tea? You seem a little shaken up.”

She shook her head. “I really just want to get home. Do you mind if I leave my stuff out? I don't really want to go back right now. And I'll leave by the front door if that's all right with you.”

“Of course,” I said, nodding sympathetically. “Maybe you're coming down with something. It is flu season, after all.”

She nodded gratefully as she shakily stood, holding on to the edge of the table. “I guess I should have listened to my mother and gotten that flu shot.”

“Probably,” I said, gently leading her toward the front door. “I'll pack up your things and put them in the gardening shed in case it rains. They'll be there whenever you're ready to return.”

Meghan thanked me and then left. When I walked into the foyer, I saw Jayne and Jack walking down the stairs, a child asleep on each of them. I frowned. “Why do they never do that for me? They're always wide-awake when I'm with them.”

“I think children are good at sensing a soothing presence,” Jack said with a grin.

Before I could retort, Jayne said, “Or they were just tired. Meeting new people can be exhausting to young children—there's so much new information they have to process.”

I smiled at her, her approach to refereeing confirming my decision to hire her. I reached for Sarah and JJ, balancing each child in my arms, feeling them come awake and begin to squirm. So much for a soothing presence. “I'll go feed the children while Jack brings your things up to your room so you can unpack and get settled.”

“Thank you,” Jayne said.

I began walking toward the kitchen.

“I think I'd like to restore the house on South Battery before I sell it.”

I turned around. “Really? I mean, I'm glad to hear it, but it's not what I expected. What made you decide?”

“Oh, a number of things.” Her gaze settled on JJ and it seemed as if she was avoiding looking in my eyes. As if she didn't want me to see something.

“Like what?” I asked.

Jayne shrugged. “It has a little to do with what you told me about Button Pinckney and her motives, and how she chose me. That's no small thing. But mostly . . .” She paused. “Mostly it's this house.”

I stared at her, not understanding. “My house?”

She nodded. “It's beautiful and historic, but it's
home
. It has a soul, a good vibe, you know? I'm aware this sounds silly, but it's almost as if it knows there's so much love here and reflects that.”

She looked at me as if for affirmation, but all I could do was nod.

She continued. “And somehow, I know the Pinckney house is the same way under all that mold and falling plaster and sadness. There must have been a lot of happiness there before that little girl died. It was once a beloved family home, and it's been left in my care.” Her eyes finally met mine. “I've been looking for a home to call my own my whole life. Even if this is the last thing I ever expected or wanted, I can't just turn it down out of hand. It would be . . . not right. Like throwing away an opportunity without really giving it a chance.”

“There's always a way to look past the bad to see the good,” I said, repeating the philosophy she'd gleaned from being in foster care for so many years.

Jayne smiled. “Yeah, pretty much. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm going to give it a chance. Maybe hang on to it at least long enough that we can figure out Button's motives. And see what the house becomes. Maybe once we can get rid of that awful doll and the dark window coverings and old wallpaper, it might make a huge difference. Maybe all the cosmetic reparations will help . . . What did Jack call it?”

“‘Excorcise its ghosts,'” I said with a forced smile.

Her own smile wavered. “Yes, exactly. Then I can decide whether or not I want to sell. And hopefully it will be restored by then.”

I tried to hide my sigh of relief. “Great. I know Sophie will be thrilled.”

She continued to smile, but there was definitely something in her eyes, something that told me I didn't have the whole story and that she had no intention of sharing it with me.

We heard Nola's door open and the sound of girls' voices. Jayne faced me again. “Make sure she gets rid of that game, okay? It's not like I believe in that stuff or anything, but why tempt fate, right?”

“Right,” I said uneasily, then headed back toward the kitchen to feed the babies. I was in the middle of cleaning up pureed organic sweet potatoes and tiny cubes of chicken—courtesy of Mrs. Houlihan and Sophie's food processor baby gift—when I began to smell the stench of something rotting mixed with the scent of freshly turned earth.

Pretending I hadn't smelled anything, I finished wiping down JJ—Sarah was a pristine eater and hardly needed a bib—then picked them both up from their high chairs. It was only as I exited the kitchen that I noticed the large clock over the door, the audible sound of ticking confirming that the battery in the clock still worked, despite the hands that were firmly stuck at ten minutes past four o'clock.

CHAPTER 8

“H
ello, beautiful.”

Just the sound of Jack's voice over the intercom turned my insides to honey, my brain to cheese grits, my thought processes to those of a goldfish. I stared at the intercom on my desk, wanting him to speak again while at the same time wishing he wouldn't. I was supposed to be working, something that was incompatible with Jack's proximity.

Jolly's voice came over the intercom, and I could tell by her wavering tone that she wasn't immune to Jack's charms, either. “I'm sorry, Melanie. Your husband is here. Should I send him back to you?”

“No need,” I heard Jack call from outside my office before he opened my door. Even in the days when I'd found him to be as annoying as he was attractive—and that ratio hadn't changed all that much since our marriage—he always seemed to fill a space. There was something in the wattage of his smile and the sheer force of his personality. Not that I would admit it, but I was happy that all three of his children seemed to have inherited this particular character trait. I made a quick mental note to create a list of things the twins had inherited from me, although I was afraid it would be a rather short one.

He came over to my side of the desk and placed a long, lingering
kiss on my mouth. When he pulled back, he kept his eyes on me but used a hand to slide papers from the center of my desk to the edge. I knew what that particular glint in his eyes meant—I had the twins to prove it—but my office wasn't the right place no matter how tempting his kisses were.

“Jack—no. I would die if the new receptionist figured out what was going on in here. Can I take a rain check?”

“Can you wait that long?” he asked as he kissed me again.

Just so I could recall a few brain cells, I slid my glance over to my computer screen, where I'd been working on a spreadsheet of houses for a client. Clearing my throat, I said, “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Jayne was blowing bubbles in the front garden with the babies and puppies—which is a little too adorable, by the way—and they didn't look like they needed my help. I'd just sent in my revisions to my editor in New York and figured everything was under control, so I took advantage of the situation and not only showered and shaved, but put on real clothes, too. I figured I'd take my best girl out to lunch to celebrate.”

My stomach growled—a common occurrence now that even Mrs. Houlihan was conspiring against me and not stocking any of my favorite snacks in the kitchen. My only choices were fruit and gluten-free granola bars and absolutely nothing with the words “Hostess” or “Sara Lee” on the box. And instead of doughnuts or cheese grits and bacon for breakfast, she was making me things like egg-white omelets and vegetable frittatas. No wonder I was hungry all the time. All this healthy eating was not only baffling but killing me.

“The Brown Dog Deli?” I suggested eagerly. It was near my office on Broad Street and had the best sandwiches in the world. They served things like hummus and vegan chili dogs, but they also had a lot of real-people options, too.

Jack looked at his watch, my wedding gift to him, engraved with our anniversary date so he'd never have an excuse for missing it. “It's still early, so hopefully it will be quiet enough so we can talk.”

I sent him a worried glance as I stood and picked up my purse. “Is everything all right? With Jayne and the children?”

He put his hand on the small of my back as he guided me from my office. “They're perfect. It's just . . . well, we'll talk about it once we get food in your stomach. We both know what you're like when you're hungry.” He moved his hand around the elastic waistband of my skirt. “Have you lost weight?”

I stopped to look up at him. I didn't own a scale, having never needed one, the only person ever concerned about my weight being my ob/gyn while I was pregnant. I'd always been on the thin side and able to eat anything I wanted. It was in my genes, and all I had to do was look at my mother to be reassured that any residual lumpiness left over from my pregnancy would work itself out on its own. Until now.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Do you think I'm fat?”

“Now, Mellie. I was simply commenting on the fact that your skirt seems loose on you. That's all. You know I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever met.” Right before he kissed me I had a stray thought about how he always used a kiss to stop any argument. And how it always worked.

Jolly looked up as we entered the reception area, her eyes brightening as they rested on Jack. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Headed out to lunch?” she asked, and I was pretty sure she'd batted her eyelashes.

“Yes. I'll keep my cell on just in case there's anything urgent. Otherwise please just take a message. I'll be back in about an hour.”

Dragonfly earrings dangled from her ears, shimmying as she shook her hair, her gaze not drifting away from Jack. “Can I give you a reading? No charge for the first one.”

“A reading?” He looked genuinely confused.

She gave me a reproachful glance before quickly turning back to Jack. “Didn't Melanie tell you? I'm a psychic. I can talk with the dead.”

“Can you?” Jack asked, resting his elbows on the reception desk and leaning toward the receptionist. “How fascinating. Do you see anybody around me right now?”

Jolly closed her eyes, revealing a swath of sparkly blue eyeshadow on her lids, and began rubbing her lips together. “Yes. Yes, I do. A man.
An older man with dark hair like yours.” Her eyes opened abruptly. “Has your father crossed over?”

“Seeing as I just hung up the phone with him right before I came in here, I'd have to say no. Is there anything else?”

Jolly closed her eyes again and I poked my finger into Jack's ribs, making him grunt softly.

“He's holding up a piece of jewelry—a bracelet, I think. Maybe he's a jeweler?” She opened her eyes again and beamed at Jack, and this time she definitely batted her eyelashes.

“Thank you,” Jack said. “I'm sure after I think for a while I'll figure out who that could have been.”

“You be sure to let me know, all right?” Jolly wrote something down in the alligator-picture-covered notebook. “I keep a list so I can gauge my accuracy.”

“What's your percentage so far?”

Her lips pressed into a tight line. “About five percent. Closer to four, actually. But I'm getting better. I'm taking online classes to hone my skills.”

“That's great,” I said, tugging on Jack's arm. “I'll see you in an hour.” A cool blast of air greeted us as we exited onto Broad Street. “For the record,” I said, “I didn't see anybody. Maybe she was seeing you and my next birthday present and just got confused.”

He threw back his head and laughed. “Thanks for the reminder that I have five months to prepare.”

I tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. “Maybe Jolly can help you figure out what I'd like.”

We were still chuckling as we entered the Brown Dog Deli and were quickly seated in one of the booths against the brightly painted blue wall, liberally adorned with vibrantly colored posters and framed cartoon dog prints. As Jack had predicted, we were ahead of the lunch crowd and our waitress appeared with water glasses and was ready to take our orders as soon as we sat down. I ordered the fried green tomato and pimento cheese sandwich with a side of potato chips while Jack ordered the Pita Frampton. Remembering our earlier conversation
about my weight, I changed my side to the fresh fruit mix, lamenting my potato chips as soon as the waitress stepped away from our table.

Jack's left hand with the gold band around his third finger rested on the table. I wanted to reach over and place my hand in his but was afraid that was more a teenager kind of thing to do. I hadn't dated as a teenager, so I had no point of reference, but I'd seen enough young adult movies with Nola, so I had a pretty good idea.

“So,” I said before sipping my water through a long straw, “what did you want to talk about?” My old self would never have asked this question, preferring the head-in-the-sand approach—a method that I still returned to more often than not. But this was my marriage—something that would never have even happened if I'd kept my head buried—and I figured it was a good place to start with the new, married version of me.

Jack looked pleasantly surprised that I was the one who'd spoken first, but he made the wise decision not to comment on it. He reached into a pocket and pulled out what looked like a section of newspaper. He unfolded it on the table and I saw it was a clipped article, the edges jagged. I immediately began rummaging through my purse for my emergency bag that held scissors, duct tape, WD-40, toothpaste, and an assortment of other items I might need in any given day.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

My hand stilled. “I'm looking for my scissors. I thought I'd trim that up for you.”

“That's probably not necessary. I think all you need to do is read it.”

“Right,” I said, pulling my hand out of my purse as if it didn't matter. I pulled the paper closer so I could read it, trying not to squint so I wouldn't have to listen to Jack tell me again that I shouldn't be ashamed to wear glasses and that most people over forty did. Since he had yet to reach forty, it was in both our best interests—especially with a pair of sharp scissors nearby—that we refrain from that conversation.

“It's from last Sunday's paper,” he said. “The puppies got to it after you pulled out the real estate section but before I could read the rest of it, but your dad brought it over this morning after you left for work to show me. It's from the editorial page.”

I felt the first fissure of unease.

“It's from that series the
Post and Courier
is doing about the history of some of the historic houses in Charleston. It wasn't supposed to last this long, but apparently, it's become quite popular, and the staff writer is getting all sorts of social invitations from people hoping that their houses will be the subject of the column.”

“Suzy Dorf,” I said, not bothering to disguise the sneer in my voice. “She's been trying to reach me. She's actually left several messages and a text on my phone.”

He raised his eyebrows, not warranting my comments with a comment of his own.

“She annoys me. I have nothing to say to her—especially after she printed that anonymous letter last year about there being more bodies buried in our garden. I should sue her for libel.”

“That might be premature, don't you think? Especially considering that we've just unearthed a cistern in said garden?”

“It doesn't matter. Any dead bodies we find are
our
dead bodies. She needs to mind her own business.”

His eyebrows drew together as if he was trying to translate something in his mind. After a brief shake of his head, he said, “She's a reporter. That's what she does.” He reached over and slid the clipping closer to me. “Read it.”

Trying very hard not to squint, I began to read:

Hollywood is coming to the Holy City! Thankfully, it's not for a far-be-it-from-reality reality series but for a feature film from a major studio. Charleston native Marc Longo's book,
Lust,
Greed, and Murder in the Holy City
, hasn't even hit bookstore shelves yet, but there's so much buzz about this book that the rumor mill has reported that the movie rights went to auction for a cool seven figures.

I looked up at Jack, who was valiantly trying to keep his face expressionless. It had been
his
story first, before Marc had stolen it from
him and rushed his own version of the story to publication before Jack even had a chance. The murder involved Marc's family, giving him the inside scoop, but the bodies had been found in
our
garden. Jack had already written his own book about how we'd solved the mystery, and he'd signed a publishing deal. It just hadn't been published before Marc got there first. We'd had a small victory when we were able to keep Marc from buying the house out from under us, but only because Nola had lent us the money. It was unfair, and humiliating, and something we'd learned to get past and forget about. Until now.

“Is this what your agent called you about the other day?”

He nodded. “Keep going. It gets better.”

I've heard from an anonymous source that the Vanderhorst house at 55 Tradd Street—the setting for the sordid story behind the book—will be used for filming, to give the movie an authentic flair and the all-important nod from the Charleston establishment. And, with the appearance of new yellow caution tape in the back of the property, who knows what else might be discovered and used for fodder for a sequel? The house is supposedly haunted, so this could get interesting. Boo! Stay tuned to this column for further updates.

My hand was shaking as I slid the paper back to Jack. “Well, those Hollywood people have another think coming if they think for one second I'm going to open up the door to my home to let them film a movie about a book my husband
didn't
write. And the
nerve
of that reporter to assume that it will happen, without even asking us!”

Jack cleared his throat as if to remind me that Ms. Dorf had, indeed, tried to talk to me, but I ignored him. “Have you heard from Marc about this?” I drew back, horrified at the direction of my thoughts. “Or Rebecca? She forced us to give them an engagement party. Surely that doesn't give them the right to assume . . .” I stopped when I caught sight of his expression. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because you're so sexy when you're angry.”

I blinked a few times. “Stop distracting me. I—
we—
have every right to be angry. Why aren't you taking this as seriously as I am?”

He reached over and took hold of my hand again. “Have you ever considered how long it's going to take for us to get back on our feet financially and pay Nola back? She refuses to call it a loan, but I don't think we've ever considered it anything else.”