Summary: What is the sinister secret of the mysterious house on the cliff? Adam and Joe are about to find out – the hard way.
My response to the 2017 Once Upon a Midnight Dreary Edgar Allen Poe Challenge.
WC: 16,570 Rating: T
Joe barely had time to admire the gleaming black bodywork of the elegant coupe before it drew to a halt in front of him, and a woman in a black veil leaned out of the window and beckoned in his direction. The San Francisco street was busy, and he had to step close to hear when she spoke to him.
“I hope you don’t think me very forward,” she said, and although he couldn’t see her face, it sounded as if she were smiling, “but I had to ask my driver to stop when I saw you. You look so very much like someone I know.”
Joe, fascinated by the gleaming coach, its door embellished with an emblem of a red and gold clipper in full sail, was instantly even more intrigued by its mysterious female occupant. Whipping his hat from his head, he assured her he didn’t mind at all.
She lifted a slim, black-gloved hand and raised the veil from her face, revealing skin as pale as the moon, and bright, unblinking eyes of translucent amber. It was the kind of face any man would remember. Joe’s heart picked up a pace or two.
“I think I saw you last night,” he said, “in the hotel dining room.”
“That’s right.” Her lips, darkly red against the milky-white skin of her face, curved into a small, satisfied smile. “That was when I first marked your likeness to….” She paused and dropped her gaze, momentarily as demure as she had been brazen only moments before. “That’s why I had to ask Banks to stop. Such a striking resemblance.”
He might have asked to whom he bore this remarkable resemblance, but at that moment his mind was otherwise engaged, both with her face and the opulent grandeur of the coach interior behind her. Her black coat, snugly fitted over a well-rounded bosom, contrasted starkly with the paleness of her slim white throat, even as the deep ruby darkness of her lips was complemented by the rich burgundy plush of the pleated satin upholstery.
She seemed to enjoy the effect she was having on him. Something that might have been amusement flickered in the yellow depths of her eyes.
“My name is Catherine Wareham.”
“I’m Joseph Cartwright, ma’am. People call me Little Joe.”
“Little Joe,” she said, as if trying the name for size and approving it. “How charming. Well, I’m very pleased to meet you, Little Joe Cartwright. I wonder,” she paused as if considering an idea, “would you care to take coffee with me? My house is not very far from here and most agreeably situated on the cliffs. On such a glorious morning, we might take our refreshment in the garden and enjoy the view across the harbor.”
Her elaborate manner of speech was almost as fascinating as her striking appearance. He hesitated only for a second. With a whole morning to kill before Adam finished his business meeting, coffee overlooking San Francisco harbor with the enigmatic Miss Wareham, was a whole lot more tempting than a morning in his own company.
“It would be a pleasure,” he said.
She nodded in satisfaction, drew the veil back down over the unsettling stare of her piercing eyes, and opened the door so he could climb in and take his place on the sumptuous seat beside her.
The house stood atop a rocky promontory, overlooking a small cove of golden sand and tumbled stone upon which the Pacific breakers curled and broke with a restless boom and suck. A towering brick mansion, with ornately carved verandas, and turrets facing out to the wild sea, it was immensely grand from a distance, yet close to, radiated a distinct air of neglect that made Joe wonder if Catherine Wareham was perhaps not as wealthy as she first appeared to be. A rich family fallen on hard times maybe. The sweeping driveway was pitted with holes, and weeds grew from the cracks in the stone steps leading up to the once-imposing front door, black paint now faded and flaking and the brass handle and bell pull tarnished and dull. The windows were grimy, shingles had slipped on the roof, balustrades and pillars were peeling.
Banks was at the carriage door before Joe had a chance to jump down and offer his hand to the lady. It had been a strange journey. Miss Wareham had opened the conversation with questions about how long he had been in San Francisco, whether he had ever visited the city before, how long he intended to stay. Then had followed some small talk about Virginia City and the Ponderosa. All the time he had been longing to ask her of whom it was he reminded her, but by the time she had finished asking her questions, they were already leaving the city behind, and the coastline was opening out beyond the carriage windows.
“Now, no more talking, Little Joe,” she said firmly. “I would not have you miss the view. Too many people fail to realize the full majesty of our beautiful city. Is it not delightful?”
He had been so engrossed in what was happening inside the carriage, he hadn’t paid much attention to the change of scenery without. But, as he followed her bidding and turned his gaze outwards, he could not deny the sweep of the deep green headlands was indeed glorious, rising above the sparkling expanse of the blue ocean; a very different landscape from that of his Nevada home. Under other circumstances, it would have held him captivated, but it was difficult to fully appreciate what was outside the carriage when the woman inside was even more enthralling. Even through the black voile that covered her face he could sense the intensity of those intriguing eyes as they scrutinized him, and as confined as they were on the cushioned seat, each time the coach bounced over a rut in the road, their shoulders would brush and he would thrill at the contact. After a mile or so, he began to suspect the touch of her arm was more than accidental. It would linger against his for several seconds at a time, seconds during which he ceased to breathe entirely. Not that he was complaining. If he read the signs aright, maybe—just maybe—Miss Wareham was interested in more than just coffee. The mere possibility set his heart beating faster.
He kept his eyes fixed dutifully on the glittering ocean while she pointed out to him the different seabirds, and the beaches where the elephant seals came to bask, but all the time he was fixated by her closeness and the unnerving scrutiny of those veiled eyes. Only once did he look round and meet her gaze, and that was when—unmistakably—her fingertips brushed his thigh. But by the time he had turned his head, her hand was once again properly in her lap, and she made no sign that anything untoward had occurred, yet he was almost certain he detected the curve of a smile beneath the veil.
Banks opened the carriage door and handed down his mistress. Joe, following, saw the man properly for the first time. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a long narrow nose, and shoulder-length hair that was white-blond beneath his black chimney-pot hat. Joe frowned to himself. He was sure he had seen this man somewhere before.
Miss Wareham held out her arm so that Joe could escort her up the wide stone steps to the house. As they reached the top, the front door opened and an iron-faced woman in black weeds and a linen cap stood aside to let them in.
“Mrs. Rankin,” said Miss Wareham, as she unpinned her black hat and veil, “show Mr. Cartwright onto the back lawn, and bring out a tray of coffee.” With her face uncovered, she turned the full intensity of her gaze upon Little Joe, her lips lifting in a small, secret smile that did inexplicable things to his insides. “I’ll be down to join you in just a few minutes, Little Joe.” The way she spoke his name, as though tasting it on her tongue, made his belly quiver.
They were in a vast, square hallway, dark and cavernous, walls paneled in carved oak. A narrow window of painted glass on either side of the door let in the only meager, light. Dominating one wall was the stuffed head of an elk, glass eyes gleaming eerily in the dimness. Shelves and glass cases lined the walls, from which other lifeless creatures stared with shiny, blank eyes. Those further back in the hall were shrouded in shadow but in the cases nearest to him Joe could make out elaborate scenes painstakingly staged: half a dozen lifeless chicks in tiny straw bonnets tied with strands of colored ribbon, arranged in a ring, little wings outspread and touching, as though frozen in some bizarre dance; four evil-looking crows perched on a prone cat with glaring gold eyes and lips drawn back in a macabre grimace; three brown rats parading in a line, attired in tiny top hats and opera cloaks, miniature canes clutched in their stiff little claws, waiting for a cab that would never come.
A heavily balustraded stairwell on the far side of the hall rose to a landing, then separated in two directions, both sides sweeping upwards into shadow. Joe had just dragged his eyes from the disturbing scenario of a fox in a tattered black coat dropping a mole into a cauldron, to admire the sway of Miss Wareham’s hips as she ascended the bottom flight of stairs, when Mrs. Rankin interrupted his thoughts with a deliberate clearing of her throat. Her eyes, like little black pebbles, were fixed unblinking on his face.
“This way, if you please, Mr. Cartwright.”
He followed her across the hall and along a windowless corridor where the gathering gloom deepened around him and pressed at his back like a breathing shadow. Twice, he glanced over his shoulder with growing unease, the darkness a tangible presence following on his heels. It was a relief when they reached the end of the corridor and Mrs. Rankin opened a door. A shaft of bright sunlight embraced him and pushed back the gloom.
They were in a garden room, the walls formed half of glass, so powdered with algae it lent the air a greenish tinge, almost as if the light shone through the surface of a lake. The thick, knobbed stems of an old vine, its leaves pocked and yellow, twisted their way up to a glass-paned ceiling. Small, sad skeletons of grapes hung shriveled before ever they’d ripened. A wrought iron table, flanked by two iron benches, paint peeling and metal rusting, stood in the center of the room. Joe wrinkled his nose in the mildewed atmosphere, but Mrs. Rankin was already opening another door that led to the outside and the fresh, salt air of the sea. He followed her down a short set of steps onto an overgrown lawn that stretched to the edge of the cliff, interrupted here and there by a clump of unkempt shrubs and tall, straggling weeds. In the middle of this wilderness, a second table and chairs were arranged. higgledy-piggledy, on a small terrace, where weeds poked their heads between the stone slabs.
She waved her hand at a chair.
“You can wait here.”
Her stern gaze measured him from top to toe, as audacious in her examination as her mistress had been. But where he hadn’t minded Miss Wareham’s scrutiny—positively enjoyed it, in fact—this shrew-faced servant’s cold stare made his skin prickle wherever it touched. He was relieved when, without another word, she turned and headed back inside and he was left alone.
He wandered across the untidy lawn to where the garden fell away at the cliff edge, the warmth of the sun and the freshness of the breeze off the sea doubly welcome after the stale gloom inside the house. To one side a steep path, intersected with uneven steps cut out of the rock, descended the cliff, its base plunging into the swirling waves. Joe, unfamiliar with the sea, was momentarily baffled by a path that led nowhere but into the water, until it occurred to him that the tide must be high. When it receded, no doubt there would be a beach of some kind.
Gazing down, mesmerized by the waves swirling over the tumbled boulders a hundred feet below, it was as if someone was at his shoulder. He spun around, instantly conscious of his vulnerability, standing as he was on the edge of a cliff. There was no one there, yet his heart was racing. He frowned, his eyes searching the garden and finding no one.
Shaking his head at his own folly, he made his way back to the small terrace and sank into one of the chairs, his back to the house. Setting his hat on the seat beside him, he stretched his legs in the sun and rested his eyes on the panorama of sky and ocean before him. Before many moments had passed his mind was once more pleasantly engrossed with recalling the lightness of Miss Wareham’s touch on his thigh. He was certain he had not been mistaken. Boy, was Adam going to be jealous when he heard what Joe had been up to while he was in his boring meeting! Poor old Adam, stuck in a dull office with other cattle breeders, whilst his younger brother…
He twisted his head to look back at the house, his thoughts interrupted by a disconcerting sensation of being watched. There was no one on the lawn between him and the house, no sign of movement in the garden room. The windows were all darkly blank. His eyes wandered up to the turret and hesitated at the topmost window. Was that paler patch in the window a face looking out, or was it simply the distorted reflection of a passing cloud?
“Little Joe, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.” Miss Wareham’s voice pulled his attention back to earth as she crossed the lawn to join him. He rose hurriedly. She had divested herself of her black coat and gloves, but the dress she wore beneath was just as black, just as snugly fitting, and her hair, as dark as her dress and neatly coiled, framed the pallor of her face.
“What do you think of the view?”
“Perfect,” said Joe, his eyes fixed firmly on her face. “Have you always lived here?”
“The house belonged to my guardian, Sir Lester Halliwell. He built it when he first arrived here, about thirty years ago, to remind him of his former home in England.”
Little Joe contemplated the blackness of her outfit, its sobriety broken only by a jeweled brooch worn on her left breast. Was she in mourning then for her guardian?
As if she read the question in his mind, she said, “Sir Lester died ten years ago, leaving the house to my brother and me.”
“You have a brother?” Joe recalled the pale smudge at the window that might or might not have been a face. “Is he here now?”
She gave him a curious look, like a parent faintly amused by a naïve child. “Yes,” she said, “somewhere. In fact, it is Thomas you resemble.” She leaned towards him, the better to study his features and once again his heart raced beneath her scrutiny. “The similarities are…” she smiled into his eyes, “…uncanny.”
He had to swallow hard before he could speak coherently. “I’d like to meet him.”
“Oh yes.” She nodded, her eyes still fixed on his, still smiling her knowing smile. “You will.”
He was beginning to sweat and finding it difficult to think clearly under her close appraisal. Only the arrival of Mrs. Rankin with a tray of coffee and cake released him from the grip of that hypnotic gaze.
“Coffee, Little Joe?” said Miss Wareham as Mrs. Rankin once again departed, not without her own penetrating stare in Joe’s direction. She poured thick, black liquid into the cup, added a couple of spoons of sugar, and set it on the table in front of him.
“Do you think we all have a double somewhere in this world?” she asked him.
“I’ve never thought about it,” he admitted. He had certainly never seen anyone quite like Catherine Wareham, that was for sure. He laughed. “I guess we all like to think we’re unique, but probably we’re not. There can be only so many ways to arrange two eyes, a nose and a mouth, after all.”
She was still watching him with that same semi-amused expression, as though everything he said or did was fascinating to her. “Or maybe not. Consider musical notation: a seemingly infinitesimal number of ways to arrange so few notes.”
He acknowledged that with a smile. “Or the alphabet. Only twenty-six letters, yet who knows how many words?”
Joe took a sip of his coffee, hardly able to believe the good fortune that had thrown such a catch across his path.
“Are we really so alike then?”
“More than I would ever have believed possible. You are younger than my brother and your hair is a little lighter in color.” She raised a hand as if she would touch his hair, and for a moment he didn’t breathe, but then she withdrew it again as if she remembered herself. She studied him closely for a few moments and he hoped she didn’t notice how fast he was breathing. “Your face is slightly broader too. But in all other respects, you might be his twin. Even your height and build are like his. When you’ve drunk your coffee, you must come inside and see a portrait of Tom and judge for yourself whether or not you are his twin.”
She served cake onto small bone china plates decorated with the clipper emblem he’d seen on her carriage. The same signature was engraved into the side of the silver coffee pot. When he remarked on it, she smiled and nodded.
“Yes. Sir Lester owned a fleet of traders. It was what brought him here initially. He liked what he saw and settled here.”
“You said he was your guardian?”
“Yes. My parents died when Tom and I were seven years old.” She was observing him closely enough to notice the question in his eyes. “My brother and I are twins. The ship on which my parents had taken passage, sank. Out there.” Her eyes drifted to the vast expanse of ocean in front of them. “Ran aground in a gale. Tom and I were the only passengers to survive. Sir Lester took pity on two small children and gave us a home.”
“That must have been tough.”
She gave a little shrug. “It was a long time ago. Tom and I had a good upbringing here with Sir Lester. He was a fascinating man. Life was never dull.”
Joe recalled the strange stuffed animals in the hall. Had Sir Lester had been responsible for those, he wondered. Before he could voice the question, however, Miss Wareham was speaking again.
“My brother loved the sea.” For a moment, her golden eyes took on a distant expression as though she were seeing beyond the hazy blue horizon, and once again Joe had the eerie feeling someone was standing close behind him. As he shifted in his seat, Miss Wareham’s gaze once again came back to him and the uncomfortable sensation passed. “Still does, in fact. Especially when the wind comes up and the waves grow wild.” Her eyes burned into him with such fierceness, it was a few moments before he could think of anything else to say.
“Did Sir Lester leave the shipping business to your brother?”
Again, she smiled as if he had said something amusing. “Oh no. My brother doesn’t work. Sir Lester was very wealthy. He left us well provided for.”
Joe tried to imagine what it would be like not to work. His father was a wealthy man yet the idea of waking up in the morning with none of the usual ranching chores to be done was so alien to his experience it was hard to comprehend. How did the elusive Thomas occupy himself all day? It didn’t seem polite to ask so instead he ate his cake and sipped at the sweet, strong coffee.
“Do you dine out at the hotel often?” he asked.
Catherine Wareham looked surprised at the question. “Oh no, hardly at all.” Her face cleared. “Oh, you mean because I was there yesterday evening? That was entirely because of you. Banks observed your resemblance to Tom when he was in town two days ago. He was insistent I see you for myself. I determined there and then that I had to make your acquaintance.” Her voice dropped enticingly low and again her smile sent little shivers all through him. “I do hope you don’t mind indulging me.”
His reply was more breathless than he’d intended. “Of course not. Not in the least.”
Coffee finished, he followed her back to the house. Much as he preferred the fresh air and sunlight to the musty gloom of the interior, he was by now more than a little curious to see if he and Thomas Wareham were indeed so alike. Besides which, by then he’d have followed Catherine Wareham just about anywhere for that seductive smile and those mysterious amber eyes that seemed to see right inside him. Simply being with her was making him lightheaded.
They retraced the route he’d taken earlier, through the green-tinged sun room and down the dim tunnel of a corridor where the shadows closed in behind him once more. It was as if invisible spiders crawled across the back of his neck, the sensation causing his pulse to race and a light sweat to break out down his back and over his face. The claustrophobic darkness swirled around him like black fog clinging to his skin.
Crossing the cavernous hall where the lifeless animals kept their bizarre vigil, beady eyes glinting in what little light fought its way through the gloom, he followed Catherine Wareham through a heavy door into another dark-paneled chamber that, judging from the long walnut table stretching its length, was a dining room. The air was close in this room, as though the windows had not been opened in years. Sweat prickled Joe’s eyebrows and beaded his upper lip. The lightheadedness he’d felt in the garden was getting worse, his vision blurring and swimming. He blinked hard and shook his head to try and clear it. At least there was some light in this room, slanting in through tall windows framed by faded brocade curtains. On every wall, pale faces stared out from ornate gilt frames, men and women old and young, even a few children, all soberly dressed and formally posed. Some of the frames were no bigger than a book, others were four or five feet high. A haughty gentleman in a naval uniform took pride of place over the ornately carved mantel, but Joe’s attention was immediately caught by the next portrait along, a likeness that might easily have been his own. His heart thudded so fast his breath came in short gasps.
“You see,” said Miss Wareham, “how alike you are?”
They were standing together, gazing up at the face that was Joe’s double. Sweat trickled into Joe’s eye. He wiped his arm across his face, the stuffy air thick in his throat. The curly-haired young man in the portrait blurred in front of his eyes.
He nodded. “Yes, you’re right. I…” the room dipped violently. It swayed around him, refusing to steady again. Nausea rose in his throat. “I… I have to go…outside.”
“Are you all right?”
“Maybe some fresh air….”
“You don’t look very well.” Miss Wareham’s hand took his arm. “I’ll summon Banks. Here, sit down.”
He didn’t resist. He needed her guidance; the room was spinning around him. At her bidding, he sank down onto a cushioned seat. Her arm was around his shoulders, her hand easing his head down to rest against her breast.
“There,” she said. “Don’t worry.” Her fingers stroked his hair. “We’ll take care of you. We’ll take very good care of you.”
Adam reined in his horse and looked hard at the big house, perched atop the green cliffs. Close to, it was not nearly as grand as he had first imagined it to be. In fact, it was in urgent need of major renovation. If somebody didn’t do something about that roof in the very near future, there were going to be some serious damp problems inside. Yet it must once have been very imposing; still was, in spite of the obvious signs of neglect and decay. It had been built to impress. Aloof from the town, it dominated the skyline, with its rugged backdrop of wild coast. An enviable position, he thought, if seclusion was the goal.
It had taken some persistent detective work on his own part to trace Little Joe this far, and it hadn’t been easy. When his tiresome younger brother had failed to return to the hotel the previous evening, Adam had questioned just about every member of the hotel staff—and several guests—as to whether they had seen Little Joe on the day of his disappearance, but no one had. Next, he’d tried the stores and bars on both sides of the street. Finally, a boy who swept the sidewalks, wrinkled his nose at Adam, and nodded.
“Reckon I mighta seen ’im. Wearing a gun this side.” He patted his left hip.
Adam’s heart jumped. “Where did he go? Was he with anyone?”
The boy measured him up with eyes too knowing for his years. “What’s it worth?” he said.
Adam fished out a silver dollar and the boy’s eyes widened. He reached for the money with a greedy hand, but Adam closed his fist over the coin. “Tell me first. Everything you saw.”
“Got in a carriage, didn’ he? A real smart one. Black. Shiny. An’ two black horses pullin’ it. Feller with white hair an’ a top hat drivin’.”
“Do you know whose carriage it was?”
The boy shook his head. “Nah. Never seen it before. I only been in this part of town a few days. Don’t hardly know no one round here. But it had a ship on the side. Gold an’ red. Gold on the wheels too. Big brass lamps. Didn’ see who was inside it, jus’ saw the feller you described. Spoke to someone inside, then he got in and they drove off down the hill.”
Adam relinquished the dollar to him and the boy grinned, with a tug of his battered hat. “Thanks, mister.”
Back at the hotel, Adam sought out the manager and related what the boy had told him. The man’s face grew oddly pale.
“That’s one of Sir Lester Halliwell’s carriages,” he said, averting his gaze and glancing past Adam as though he expected some immediate retribution for imparting this piece of information.
“And where does Sir Lester live?” asked Adam when the man volunteered nothing further.
The manager seemed almost to squirm with discomfort at having to answer the question. “A couple of miles out of town. Follow the coast west, and there’s a big place. Bannam House, it’s called.” He struggled with himself for a few seconds and then burst out, “But you shouldn’t go there, Mr. Cartwright. Don’t even go near it. Bad things happen to people who go there.”
He was in earnest. His face was white, his eyes darting fearfully between Adam and some unseen terror behind.
“I have to,” Adam told him. “My brother was seen getting into that carriage. I have to find Lester Halliwell and find out if he knows where my brother has gone.”
“Oh no.” The manager gave a vehement shake of his head. “Not Sir Lester. Sir Lester’s dead. The Warehams live there now. Thomas Wareham and his sister. But…” he leaned towards Adam and spoke in lowered tones, as if he feared someone might be listening even though there was no one else in the room, “people say it’s haunted, and that Miss Wareham…is a witch. They say she poisoned Sir Lester.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe in ghosts, Mr. Selby, and I don’t believe in witches.”
The pale-faced manager, affronted that his confidences should be given so little credibility, drew back a pace. “Is that so, Mr. Cartwright? And what about poison? Do you believe in that? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Surveying the solitary building standing dilapidated and defiant on the cliff top, Adam could understand how stories might well have grown up around it. It was just the kind of place people would imagine was haunted when really it was nothing more than a once-grand house, now shunned and neglected.
He nudged his horse forward and was soon at the gates, black wrought iron—rusty now—and standing wide. A board on the wall announced “Bannam House” in peeling painted letters. There were weeds growing on the driveway and the grass was long. There was no sign of life from the house. No dogs barked, nothing moved in the vicinity.
He dismounted at the foot of the wide stone steps that led up to the main door, tying his horse to an iron hook in a brick pillar. It took a while for anyone to respond to his tug on the bell-pull, but eventually he heard sounds from behind the shabby door, the rattle of a bolt being drawn.
A middle-aged woman with a white linen cap and a sour face opened the door, hard eyes taking him in in one cold sweep.
“Yes?” she said, her voice as lacking in warmth as her stare.
“My name’s Adam Cartwright. I’m looking for Thomas Wareham.”
Her eyes narrowed. “The master is not at home right now.”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“No, I don’t. Good day to you, sir.”
She would have closed the door on him if he had not put out a hand to stop her.
“I’m trying to find my brother. I believe he may have come here.”
“Your brother? Why would your brother come here?”
“He was seen getting into a coach bearing Sir Lester Halliwell’s crest.”
She gave him a look of disdain. “I think you must be mistaken, Mr. Cartwright. We don’t encourage visitors here.”
“All the same,” Adam kept his hand firmly on the panels of the door, “I would like to be sure. Perhaps Mr. Wareham’s sister is at home?”
He could almost sense her bristle at his insistence. She fixed him with a resentful stare, stepping aside grudgingly to let him enter.
“Wait here. My mistress is resting, but I’ll see if she will receive you.” She pushed the door closed behind him. Again the narrowing of the eyes, “And don’t touch anything.”
She headed for a gloomy staircase at the back of the big square hall in which he now found himself, and was quickly swallowed by the shadows as she ascended. After the brightness of the day outside, it seemed doubly dark in the gloomy interior where the air hung musty and heavy. Shelves lined the walls, laden with stuffed animals, some grotesquely posed, frozen and silent, glassy eyes staring at nothing. The head of a huge elk lowered at him from one wall. There were pictures too— racehorses and ships—barely discernible in the dimness.
As the minutes ticked past and no one appeared, he took a few steps deeper into the cave-like room, the twilight wrapping itself around him like a murky veil. In a glass case in front of him, three stuffed rats were apparently on their way to an opera. He frowned at the perverse spectacle. His eyes drifted onto the next case where an absurd creature with a cat’s body and a rabbit’s head leered out, ridiculous and yet almost pitiable.
Morbid fascination drew him from case to case so that he didn’t notice the woman descending the stairwell until she was almost at the bottom. He jumped to attention when he saw her, not least because, his eyes now having adjusted themselves to the gloom of the hall, he recognized her instantly.
“Mr. Cartwright,” she said in a low, smooth voice that shot an unexpected thrill right through him. “I’m Catherine Wareham. My housekeeper tells me you’ve come here looking for your brother.”
He knew he was staring, but he could not pull his gaze away. Darkly beautiful, and half-cloaked in shadow, she wore a diaphanous robe of creamy-white chiffon that shimmered around her and sent his imagination racing off in entirely inappropriate directions. It took a determined effort to rein it back.
“What makes you think he would be here?”
“He was seen yesterday, getting into a carriage belonging to this house.” Adam took a deep breath. “Pardon me, Miss Wareham, but I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? You were at the Grand Hotel three nights ago, weren’t you?”
She inclined her head in acknowledgement and fixed him with a little smile. “I was indeed, Mr. Cartwright. Now tell me why you think that was your brother getting into my carriage.”
“He’s been missing since that morning and the description of the man seen getting into your carriage fits my brother perfectly.”
“I see.” Her eyes measured him up and seemed to like what they saw. Piercing eyes. Even through the dimness of the twilit hall, he could sense the way they probed his face as she watched him. To be examined so boldly by a beautiful woman wearing so little was both unsettling and arousing.
“I believe there is an explanation for this misunderstanding. Come this way, Mr. Cartwright. There’s something you must see.”
He followed her across the vast hall, unable to keep his eyes from the translucent gown that floated about her, barely concealing the soft undulations of the body beneath. She opened a door and went ahead of him into the room beyond. He dragged his eyes away from the tempting vision of loveliness and found himself in a spacious dining room. A long table of polished walnut dominated the room, its grandeur diminished by a layer of dust. His gaze took in the tall windows and the heavy paneling and came to a startled halt when it reached a portrait to the right of the fireplace. For a few seconds he stared in silent incredulity.
“That,” said Catherine Wareham, watching his face as he studied the picture, “is my brother, Thomas.”
“Your brother?” repeated Adam. “That looks like my brother.”
“I realize that. That’s why I was staring at you both the other evening. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the man who was with you. For a brief moment, I couldn’t fathom why Thomas would have been meeting someone in the Grand Hotel when I knew he was supposed to be elsewhere. Then, as I looked harder, I realized this man’s coloring was lighter than my brother’s, his face slightly fuller, and that he was attired in clothes I’d never seen. Certainly not any outfit Thomas owns. Still, the similarities were remarkable.”
Adam’s brow drew down a fraction. “So, you’re telling me it wasn’t Joe who got into your carriage that day, but your brother?” His gaze swiveled to look at her. In the light from the tall windows, her piercing eyes glowed. His heart did a little jump and for a moment, he almost forgot the reason he was there. Amusement flickered in the golden depths, but her voice betrayed no hint of it.
“I can only imagine that’s what happened. It would be a perfectly understandable mistake, under the circumstances.”
Adam gave a slow nod, his gaze drawn back to the portrait. “Yes, they are very alike.”
She crossed to the side of the fireplace. “I’m sorry you had a wasted journey, Mr. Cartwright.” She tugged on a tasseled bell pull. “I do hope you find your brother. If you wait here a moment, Banks will show you out.”
She made her way to the door, the flimsy gown floating as if it were made of no more than smoke or mist. At the door she paused and looked back at him and once again, it was an effort to drag his eyes back to her face.
“Good day to you, Mr. Cartwright.”
Within moments of her departure, a tall servant appeared, white-haired despite the fact he was not old. He was vaguely familiar, although Adam could not recall where or when he had seen him before. The man ushered him through the hall to the front door, and watched as he descended the steps, mounted his horse and rode away. It seemed to Adam he was being carefully observed to ensure he was well and truly off the premises.
“He’s gone, Miss Cathy,” said Banks as he closed the door and turned back to the stairwell where the ghostly figure of his mistress descended through the shadows once more.
“For now,” she said, fixing the back of the front door with her unblinking stare. “He didn’t strike me as the kind of man to be easily deterred. Should he return, we will have to deal with him once and for all.”
Banks inclined his head, his face betraying no surprise. “Yes indeed, Miss Cathy.”
Her gaze swiveled to the staircase behind her. “A determined family.”
“The boy’s weakening,” Banks assured her. “He won’t hold out much longer.”
Her lips curved in a satisfied smile. “No. I think you’re right. One more night should do it.”
Adam and the police officer faced each other across the desk.
“You’re saying,” said the sergeant, “that your brother and Thomas Wareham are so alike, they might well be mistaken for each other.”
“They’re alike enough they might be brothers.” Adam gave a little frown. “Twins even.”
“But the man your witness saw entering the carriage was definitely your brother?”
“Yes.” Adam hesitated. “I think so. The boy said he saw wore a gun on his left hip and my brother’s left-handed.”
“Do we know for certain that Thomas Wareham is not?”
Again, Adam hesitated. “No. Not for certain. But would Thomas Wareham wear a pistol slung at his waist? Judging from his portrait, Thomas Wareham dresses as a gentleman, not a cowboy.”
“You haven’t met Mr. Wareham in person then?”
“No.” The apparent thinness of his evidence was becoming more apparent to Adam with every sentence he spoke.
“Right,” said the officer, the single word laden with the weight of his doubt. “Maybe we should question your witness more closely. A boy, you say, working at the saloon.”
Adam sighed. “I’ve already tried. He was fired a few hours after I spoke to him. For picking pockets. No one has any idea where to find him.” He drew himself up straight and took a breath. “Look, officer, all I’m asking is that someone with the authority to do so, search Bannam House.”
The policeman paused and gave him an odd look. “All you’re asking? Mr. Cartwright, have you any idea what goes on in Bannam House?”
Adam shook his head.
The officer cleared his throat and looked momentarily awkward. “Well, no one does, if I’m completely honest. But it’s fair to say there are strange goings-on. Very strange goings-on. No one wants to go near that place.”
“Even the law?”
The policeman pursed his lips. “We had cause to investigate Thomas Wareham and his sister, two years ago, after the death of Sir Lester Halliwell. There were those who said Sir Lester had been poisoned. We didn’t find any tangible evidence to back that claim, but certainly there were things that were…well, not quite right. Reports of funny goings on. Then, Captain Bolton, who was in charge of the investigation, was thrown from his horse, up on the cliff. Never recovered. And another officer was taken sick, very suddenly, the day after he visited the house. A few days later he was dead too.” The man shifted in his chair as if the very memory made him uncomfortable. “That house is…” he hesitated, embarrassed at his own admission, “…cursed.”
Adam frowned. “It’s a house. A house can’t be cursed.”
“If I were you, Mr. Cartwright, I’d steer well of Bannam House. And the Warehams.”
Adam’s frown deepened. “You’re the second person to tell me that. I’m not a superstitious man, sergeant. My primary concern is to find my brother.”
“What your witness saw, that sounds like a simple case of mistaken identity.”
“Maybe,” said Adam. “But I would like to be sure. Can you tell me a little more about the Warehams? Are they related to Sir Lester’s family?”
“Not by blood. Sir Lester took them in as small children. There was a wreck. One of his ships. The two children were the only surviving passengers. I was there that day, I remember it well. I was a young man then, working at the docks, loading and unloading cargo.
“They brought them ashore, two little waifs with pale faces and big, staring eyes. Twins they were. Brother and sister. Right from the start, no one wanted to go near them. They had this way of giving folks the eye, as if they were wishing them ill. What Sir Lester saw in them I’ll never know, but he was an odd fellow himself, and no mistake. Did you see all those stuffed animals in the house, Mr. Cartwright? That was Sir Lester’s passion. Obsessed with death, he was. Always had trouble finding anyone to work for him. That’s why the place is in the state it’s in. There aren’t any sensible folks want to set foot inside those gates. People say there’s more than just the living inhabit that house, Mr. Cartwright. So, unless you’ve got incontrovertible evidence your brother is there, I’d leave well alone.”
The man lay unmoving on the bed, eyes closed, waxy skin almost as pale as the lace edging of his white linen nightshirt. Catherine Wareham’s fingers toyed lightly with the loose strands of hair curled around his collar.
“We’re so close,” she whispered. “So close. You must help me, my love. This was meant to be. He came to us for this purpose, and it won’t be long now, I know it. We can be together again, Tom, just like old times. You want that too, don’t you? You and I together, just as it used to be? Tonight. We will finish it tonight. We’re that close. That close!”
She lowered her head and her lips lingered softly against the cold, lifeless lips of the dead man. She drew her feet onto the bed and lay down beside him, her arm across his middle, face pressed into his unmoving shoulder.
Across the room, the other man lay just as unmoving, upon another bed, eyes closed in a deep, unnatural sleep. Catherine Wareham watched him with a cold smile of satisfaction on her red lips. “Tonight,” she whispered, her lips relishing the word. “Tonight.”
The fog came out of nowhere. One minute the sun was there, a golden ball sliding west, the next, an eerie shroud swept in over the sea, blotting out everything in its path. Adam slowed his horse to a walk, and then to a standstill as the whiteness enveloped him, so dense, he could barely see the road in front of him.
This was all he needed! He turned his head to look around him, but the cloud surrounding him was complete. The way ahead and the way back were both now as indistinct as each other. He blew out a sigh of exasperation, shrugging off the niggling sense of unease that had descended along with the fog. He had already known it was late in the day to be making a second visit to the house, but his concerns over Joe’s continued absence were more troubling than the risk of riding back along the cliffs in the dark. Besides, the moon was full tonight. There would be light enough to see his way. Except he hadn’t bargained with this sudden change in the weather, even though he knew the swiftness with which the fog could sweep in, here on the coast. To continue on horseback now would be madness, with the swirling whiteness obliterating everything further than a foot ahead. The edge of the cliff was somewhere close to his right. A few false steps and it would be too late. No, he would have to dismount and travel on foot. And with caution.
It was eerily quiet in the whiteness. No gulls cried overhead, and even the booming roar of the waves far below was deadened by the dense cloud. He walked with his eyes downcast, picking out the way ahead a step at a time. He calculated he still had at least two miles to the house. It was almost the same distance back to town, so no benefit in turning around now. Besides which, the nagging in his gut was pushing him onwards. Ever since he’d ridden away earlier that day, the unease had been growing inside him. He didn’t know what, but something wasn’t right. And if the police refused to help, then he had no other option but to return on his own. He wasn’t certain what he planned to do when he got there, but doing something—anything—was better than doing nothing. And if he could at least meet the mysterious Thomas Wareham in person, he could see for himself how close the resemblance was to Little Joe, and whether the boy at the saloon might have been mistaken.
And, although he didn’t like admitting it, even to himself, he hadn’t been able to get Catherine Wareham out of his mind all day. That first moment he had laid eyes on her as she emerged from the shadow of the stairwell, played itself over and over in his mind, sending fresh shivers of excitement through his belly every time he thought about it. That chiffon robe!—he breathed harder simply at the memory—the tone of her voice, the bold stare of her knowing eyes. There was an allure to Catherine Wareham Adam Cartwright could not resist.
“He’s back, Miss Cathy.”
Banks watched as she roused. Women weren’t his main source of pleasure, but he still enjoyed watching her stretch that nubile body and those elegant shapely limbs, especially when she had on nothing more than that thin silk gown she loved to wear. Master Tom’s favorite.
“What time is it?” she asked, as she rose from the bed.
“Almost seven o’clock. The fog came down an hour ago. He’s on foot, leading his horse.”
Her eyes flitted from the body of her brother, around the room. Banks sensed rather than saw her frown.
“Tom?” she whispered.
He could feel it too. Resentment. Unease. Anger. She should have listened to him. He’d tried to tell her. Two years was too long. But she’d wanted her brother back too much to listen. She thought love made all things possible. The truth was it simply made things complicated.
He jerked his head in the direction of the front of the house. “What do you want me to do with him?”
She dragged her attention back to the question in hand, but he could see she was still troubled. As well she might be. Master Tom’s temper might easily ruin everything they’d worked for.
“We must get rid of him,” she said. “It’s his own fault for coming back. If he’d just stayed away….” She paused, her brow furrowed. “Tell him he can stay. Put him in the Red Room.” She crossed the room to a tall cabinet that stood floor to ceiling against the wall. The doors were paneled with glass, behind which neat rows of bottles, phials and boxes were arranged. “Tell Mrs. Rankin to make him some dinner. Something with a sauce. And wine.” She opened one of the cabinet doors and took out a small jar. “And to season it well.” She smiled as she handed the little bottle to him. He smiled too. They understood each other. A small quantity of the contents of this jar and their unwanted visitor would sleep soundly. Very soundly indeed.
“And when he’s asleep?”
“Drop him over the cliff. Set his horse loose. If his body is ever discovered they’ll think he missed his way in the fog. After all, no one in this house has seen him since he left this morning, have they?”
Banks grinned. “No, not a sign of him since then.”
Across the room, on the far bed, the boy who was Tom Wareham’s double stirred. Miss Cathy turned her head to look at him.
“He’ll be waking soon. You must hurry and deal with his brother, then come back here. I’m going to need your help.”
Once again Adam rang the doorbell, and once again it was the sour-faced housekeeper who answered.
“You again?” she said, by way of greeting. “What do you want this time?”
“I was hoping your master might have returned home. I’d like to speak with him.”
She peered into the twilight behind him, but there was little to see but the cloud. “It’s late to come calling.”
“My apologies. The fog caught me out or I’d have been here earlier.”
She made no attempt to move aside or invite him in. “The master’s not returned yet.”
Adam drew a deep breath. It had been a long and trying day, but he forced his voice to remain civil. “Your mistress then. Is she home?”
Before she could return her answer, a man’s voice spoke from behind her.
“It’s all right, Mrs. Rankin. I’ll take care of this.”
It seemed to Adam the woman relinquished her position reluctantly. The white-haired manservant, Banks, took her place. He stood aside to let Adam enter and closed the heavy front door behind him.
“My mistress knows you’re here, but she won’t see anyone now until the morning.”
“Tomorrow?” Adam’s forced patience threatened to crack. “I won’t keep her long.”
“I’m sorry, sir. My mistress retires early.”
It had been a mad idea from the first, returning so late in the day. He had known that all along. The fog had been an unexpected complication. Now his spirits sank at the thought of the return journey. He could not risk riding. Even in the daylight he had barely been able to see more than a pace ahead. He knew only too well the dangers of trying to navigate in fog. Would he even find his way back to town on a night like this? He was just as likely to walk in circles, or worse, straight off the edge of the cliff.
It was as if Banks read his thoughts. “It’s a bad night to be traveling back to town, sir. Very dangerous in this fog. My mistress wouldn’t want you to take that risk. You should stay here tonight. That way, you can see Miss Catherine in the morning and travel safely back to town when it’s light and the fog’s lifted.”
It was more than Adam might have hoped for. Maybe the fog had been a blessing after all. A night in this house would hopefully enable him to do a little investigating of his own, to satisfy himself as to whom exactly had climbed into that carriage with Catherine Wareham: her brother or his.
“Follow me,” said Banks, pausing to light a candle that stood on one of the side tables, beside a glass dome in which several stuffed birds were arranged on a dead branch.
Adam hesitated. “My horse…”
“I’ll take care of your horse, sir. Don’t trouble yourself. This way, if you please.”
The manservant led him up the grandiose but dimly lit stairwell, where Adam had first seen the delectable Miss Wareham earlier that day. When they reached the hallway at the top, he looked hopefully in both directions in case she should appear, but the corridor was empty, only the shadowy outlines of doorways opening off on either side, and more stuffed animals in display cases peering with their cold, dead eyes into the gloom.
Banks led him to the end of the hallway and opened a door on the left.
“Make yourself comfortable, sir.” Crossing to a dressing table that stood in front of the tall window, he lit a candle in a brass candlestick. The last vestiges of evening light lent a faint, murky glow to the rectangles of glass behind him. He reached up and pulled the curtains—heavy, red satin—and the small bright flame of the candle sprang high. “I’ll bring hot water for you and have Mrs. Rankin prepare you dinner.”
As Banks pulled the door to behind him, Adam took in his gloomy surroundings. The room was generously proportioned. Fancy plasterwork decorated the high ceiling. Portraits of unknown people dotted the walls—Sir Lester’s ancestors, no doubt. In front of the window was an ornate writing desk, and in the corner a built-in closet with a fretworked door. A patterned rug, in shades of deep red and purple, enveloped his feet, and there was a sofa, upholstered in the same burgundy satin used at the windows. Dado paneling lined the lower half of the walls, with a block-printed wallpaper above, echoing the dark shades of the rug. Standing centrally against the left-hand wall, and dominating the room, was a massive canopied bed, hung with drapes of red satin brocade, so large and bulky it made Adam wonder if it had been built in situ. Over all hung a pervasive odor of mustiness and disuse, as though no one had slept in this room in a very long time. The invitation to stay over had seemed like a bonus only minutes earlier, but now the oppressive atmosphere of the ugly room was making the long walk back to town seem almost attractive, even through the fog and the darkness.
It didn’t take long for Banks to return with the promised hot water and a towel. Once Adam had washed away the dust of his day in the saddle, he went back to the door.
The corridor beyond his room was as still and as quiet as it had been earlier. He peered through the gloom. It was Joe he was looking for, yet he could not help but scan the darkness for any sign of the mysterious Catherine Wareham. He retraced his steps to the right, towards the stairs, his eyes peeled for any tell-tale sign of light behind a door, ears pricked for any sound that might hint at Joe’s presence, but there was none.
He’d just reached the head of the stairs when Mrs. Rankin appeared at the bottom, a large wooden tray in her hands. It was too late to backtrack; she’d already seen him. He could sense her freezing glare even at that distance.
“Is there something you require, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked as she reached the top of the stairwell.
The hardness of her stare was disquieting, but he kept his composure and reached out to take the tray from her.
“Allow me,” he said.
He sensed her resistance but pretended he hadn’t noticed. After a brief, silent battle of wills, she relinquished her hold, but not the stare.
“If there’s anything you need,” she told him, pointedly, “you may ring for it. From your room.”
He acknowledged her with the smallest dip of his head, turned his back on her and headed back to his room, aware of her gaze, cold and suspicious, following him through the darkness. It was apparent he was not welcome to wander. Any more snooping would have to wait until the servants were tucked up in their beds.
Back in the privacy of his room, he set down the tray on the writing desk and lifted the cover from the plate. Steam rose from a rich meaty stew and white fluffy potatoes. Accompanying the plate was a glass of deep red claret. His stomach responded with an instant rumble of hunger and it occurred to him he’d had nothing to eat since breakfast. Settling himself on the chair, he shook out the damask napkin and spread it on his lap, picked up the silver fork and dug into the hot meat.
Banks slipped quietly into the room next to Adam Cartwright’s. Tonight was an important night. Miss Cathy needed his help, but first he had to be sure their unwanted guest had enjoyed his specially prepared dinner. Banks’s mouth curled at one corner as he carefully eased open the door of the closet in the corner of the room and ducked inside.
The closet was empty. He reached into the top left-hand corner, his fingers locating the small lever hidden in the shadows. He pulled it downwards and the back of the cupboard swung towards him, revealing the interior of the closet in the neighboring Red Room.
Candlelight filtered through the fretwork of the door. There was no sign of movement in the room beyond. Banks tilted his head to scan the room through the small holes and saw the Cartwright man prone on the bed, clearly asleep. His eyes traveled to the desk and there was the dinner tray, the plate scraped clean and the wine glass empty. Banks smiled to himself. Hungry, were you? His gaze swung back to the bed and scrutinized the sleeping figure. Still the man didn’t stir.
Backing up silently, he pushed the panel gently back into place. It caught with a light click. He would deal with Adam Cartwright later. First, he had an important appointment with his mistress.
He still had reservations about Miss Cathy’s plan. Serious reservations. She wouldn’t heed his advice because he didn’t possess the power himself. But he’d been Sir Lester’s right-hand man for almost thirty years. Sir Lester had trusted him with his secrets. Banks had wisdom even if he didn’t have power. Miss Cathy was clever and cunning, but she was blinkered by grief, and if the object of her plan had been anyone other than her own brother, she would have acknowledged the danger. Master Tom had been on the other side for two whole years. Yes, they had taken care to preserve his body, to bind him to the earth, but a spirit’s natural inclination was to move on. The dead grew tired of the limitations of the flesh. Master Tom wanted his freedom; Banks could sense it.
She thinks he still loves her with the same passion she feels for him, he thought as he made his way down the stairs. She doesn’t have the experience to know how the other world changes a man’s soul. He sighed as he crossed the hall and opened the door to the library. It was all because of that boy and his uncanny likeness to Master Tom. That was what had convinced her. Fate, she’d called it. And if anyone had the power to restore a soul to a living body, it was Miss Cathy. Sir Lester had seen it in her from the first. He’d said the moment he first saw those bedraggled children with the strange staring eyes, he’d known. And he’d taught them well, but it was Miss Cathy whose prowess had shone.
Banks had reached the library by then, a musty-smelling room lined floor to ceiling with dusty books with faded spines. Passing a table on which sat a silver tray with glasses and decanters, he crossed to the right-hand wall. Putting his hand to an atlas of the world, he pulled it towards him. Instantly, the whole bookshelf moved, opening outwards, revealing the hidden room Sir Lester had named the Crypt.
Miss Cathy was mixing a potion at the dresser. Candles burned in each corner of the room, the light jumping in different directions as the draft from the door made the flames flicker. She glanced up as Banks entered and her eyes burned as intensely as the flames of the candles.
“Oh good, you’re here. Is everything all right?”
“Just as we planned, mistress.”
“Good.” She gestured her head at the bed where the boy lay. He was awake, his eyes dull, staring blankly at nothing. “Get him into those clothes.”
The clothes hung over the foot of the iron bedstead. Banks knew them straight away. After all, he had laid them out often enough for young Master Tom, before the accident stole him away. A pair of striped trousers and a linen shirt. He even knew the jacket his master would have chosen to wear with these very trousers, although there was no sign of a jacket here this night.
The boy made no resistance as Banks manhandled him to a sitting position on the side of the bed, but Miss Cathy’s preparations had rendered him incapable of performing even the simplest tasks, so Banks had to undress him as one would a sleepy child. There were symbols painted on his torso and limbs, and when Banks lifted his unresisting hand, he could see clearly the thin red line where the blade of Miss Cathy’s knife had sliced across his palm. A tingle of excitement shivered through Banks’s middle.
“Roll back the rug,” said Miss Cathy when the boy was suitably attired.
Banks, who knew the routine as well as she, did as she instructed, revealing the outline of a circle, scorched into the floorboards. Next, he brought the chair from the corner of the room and set it in the circle’s center.
The boy was guided to the chair. He sat obediently, head drooping, looking now, for all the world, like Master Thomas. Except, thought Banks, Master Tom would never have sat so quietly, unless under the influence of opium or excessive alcohol. Master Tom had been wild, unpredictable. Dangerous.
“You must hold him still,” said Miss Cathy.
Banks moved behind the chair and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Despite his misgivings, the old familiar excitement was fizzing inside him. He never tired of witnessing the secret arts of darkness.
Miss Cathy stepped into the circle. In her hands was the small lead-lined casket that held the heart of her brother. She placed it carefully beneath the chair. The boy slumped, unmoving. Miss Cathy straightened, lifted her hands and began to chant in a low voice. Banks didn’t understand the words she spoke, yet they resonated deep inside him; words with power to penetrate a man’s soul. Even though there were no windows, and the door was closed, it was as if a gust of cold wind blew through the room. On the back of Banks’ neck, the hairs rose tingling as the air stirred and the candlelight flickered.
Miss Cathy stretched out her right hand and placed it on Joe’s head. Banks sensed a shiver pass through the boy’s body at her touch, as though the cold air had pierced his skin. Miss Cathy’s voice, strong now, pronounced her strange chant with authority. Another cold breath prickled Banks’ skin, whispering between the walls. The boy’s body jerked in his grip, muscles twitching; his head came up and he shouted in protest. Banks pressed him back into the chair when he would have tilted forward, the cry catching in his throat and becoming a choking sound.
Miss Cathy ceased chanting, but she kept her hand pressed against the boy’s head. She was close enough for Banks to see how hard and fast her chest rose and fell and how the flush of elation darkened her cheeks and her burning eyes.
“He’s here,” she whispered, her gaze never leaving the anguished face of the boy whose body now jerked and strained in spasms, as though it fought a battle with itself. “He’s here. Do you hear me, Tom?”
The boy made a guttural choking sound and lunged forward with such ferocity, it was all Banks could do to restrain him.
Miss Cathy caught the boy’s face between her hands and leaned in so close, for a moment Banks thought she might kiss him. Her voice cajoling, as though she were addressing a petulant child, she said, “Joe, listen to me. Remember what I told you. Don’t fight, my dear, don’t fight. Just let go. Let go.”
Calm, persuasive, she repeated her bidding. Gradually the boy’s struggling diminished. Miss Cathy caressed his face with her nose and her lips, letting her cheek brush lightly across his features. Slowly, the spasms in Joe’s muscles subsided to a tense trembling.
“Tom,” she whispered. “Speak to me, Tom.”
For a long moment, nothing happened. It hasn’t worked, thought Banks. It’s as I thought; it’s been too long. He wasn’t certain if he was disappointed or relieved. But even as he wondered, the boy’s body jerked rigid, and a tight voice said, “Cathy?”
It was two years since he’d last heard his master’s voice and even though he should have expected it, it shocked him. He let out a gasp. Miss Cathy’s lips parted in a sigh of exultation.
“What are you doing?” Tom’s voice demanded, angrily.
She still held his face between her palms. “I found you a body, Tom. I brought you back. Just as I promised I would. I said I could do it, didn’t I? Let him go, Banks.”
Banks hesitated. Beneath his hands, Master Tom’s shoulders quivered like a bowline stretched taut.
“Are you sure, Miss Cathy? It might be dangerous.”
“He’s my brother, Banks.”
He wanted to remind her that was no safeguard. Master Tom’s moods, even in life, had always been unpredictable, but the look on her face told him she would brook no argument. Reluctantly he released his grip. Tom rocked backwards and forwards, hugging himself awkwardly and making noises like an animal in pain.
“Look.” Miss Cathy took him by the elbow. “Come over here and see for yourself.”
Master Tom rose to his feet, moving jerkily, as if walking were strange to him, as indeed it would be after so long. Miss Cathy held his arm and guided him to the fireplace, where a mirror hung over the chimney. As he caught sight of his reflection, Master Tom grimaced and let out a howl, a sound that was part denial, part despair. Lifting his hand to his face as if he needed to be sure the mirror wasn’t lying to him, Banks saw his eyes flick left, to the reflection of his other self, lifeless on the bed.
“I’m dead, Cathy.”
She stood beside him, as intent on his reflection as he was. “Not anymore, my love. I brought you back. See how I found you a new home, so like your old one nobody will ever tell this wasn’t always you.”
“No!” Tom’s fist slammed into the mirror. There was a resounding crack and his reflection vanished in a craze of broken glass. “Not my body. I don’t have a body anymore.” His voice rose and there was no mistaking the anguish. “Don’t do this to me, Cathy!”
“Tom!” She caught at his shoulders, turning him to face her. Their eyes met. Banks saw again the silent understanding they had always shared, each of what the other was thinking. “See? Do you see, Tom? We can be together again, just as we used to be.”
Banks watched blood trickle unheeded from Tom’s knuckles and drip to the floor.
“Yes, you can. I’m going to help you.” Her hands rubbed his arms. She drew him towards her and took his head on her shoulder as if he were a child needing comfort, but Banks saw how his master’s new body twitched and trembled, as though it struggled to contain him.
Miss Cathy looked at Banks. Her eyes gestured at the door. “You can go.”
He hesitated, not because he wanted to be witness to their intimacy, but because his master’s volatility was a tangible presence in the room. Miss Cathy saw only the restoration of her dead brother, but Banks knew it was not that simple. Master Tom’s spirit had always been wild and rebellious. There was no telling how much more unpredictable and resentful it had become in two unfettered years. He could sense danger brooding, like a broiling storm cloud waiting to wreak havoc.
“Go,” she repeated. “I’ll call if I need you.”
Master Thomas made a high-pitched whimpering sound, like an overwrought hound. Banks made his way to the door and reached for the lever, but as the door opened, the storm broke behind him. Master Thomas let out a blood-curdling howl. In the same instant, Miss Cathy cried out. Something heavy smashed into Banks, slamming his head with full force into the solid edge of the deep doorframe, with an impact that reverberated through the entire house.
Adam woke with a jump, instantly alert, instinct snapping his hand straight to the holster on the bed beside him. The angry bellow from below that had awakened him was followed by a loud thud that shook the floorboards.
He sprang from the bed. The candle on the nightstand told him he had not been asleep long. On the desk was the tray, with his empty plate and glass, reminding him of his empty belly. Even now, he wondered if he had been overly cautious, tipping the food and the wine out of the window into the shrubbery below, but as he’d chewed the first mouthful, the words of the hotel manager and the police officer had come back to haunt him: There are those who say Sir Lester was poisoned.
Under other circumstances, he might have rolled his eyes at gossip and rumor, but there was something about this house—something unwholesome—that lent uncomfortable substance to the speculation.
He grabbed the candle. The sound had come from somewhere below his room. Swiftly but silently, he crossed to the bedroom door and opened it, carefully checking the corridor for any sign of the servant, Banks, or of his mysterious hostess, but there was no one. He ran for the stairwell, his hand shielding his precious candle flame. Even so, it flickered dangerously. Hurrying down the stairs, he could see light pooling out from an open doorway on the right-hand side of the hallway below him.
The door opened into what was unmistakably a library, lined floor to ceiling with books. However, the light wasn’t coming from the library itself, but from an opening in the right-hand wall, from a door which, when closed, would have been disguised as a bookshelf. Sprawled across the threshold of this hidden entrance was the unmoving body of Banks, eyes sightless, staring at nothing.
Adam hesitated. Pressing himself out of sight against the shelves on the other side of the doorway, he peered into the lighted room.
His breath caught in his chest. For several seconds he was frozen in shock.
There on a bed, propped on pillows, was the body of his brother. Joe’s eyes were closed as if he were sleeping, his face waxen, hands folded like the hands of a corpse, across his chest.
Apart from the body on the bed, the room was empty. A tall dresser took up most of one wall, filled with jars and bottles. There was another bed, rumpled, but unoccupied. The rug had been pushed back and on the floor was the scorched outline of a circle, in the middle of which stood a single chair, with a casket beneath it. All this Adam took in in a few brief seconds, then he was at the foot of the bed, heart racing, head spinning with shock.
Something wasn’t right. He held out the candle, the better to see the face of the man on the bed, aware that his hand was shaking. There was no movement from the body, not even the slightest rise and fall of the chest beneath the folded hands, and the waxen skin was tinged a sickly yellow. It was, he realized, a body embalmed. And there was something else, something about the hair, the mouth….
A movement behind him made him start but he was too slow to get out of the way. Instead he flinched sideways. The blow that would have hit him square across the back of the head instead caught the left-hand side, still hard enough to send him reeling and the candlestick flying from his hand onto the bed. Around him, the room exploded in multi-colored shards of light.
Through a whirl of confusion and pain, he caught sight of the housekeeper, arm raised, an iron poker in her hand. Instinctively, his arm went up to block the second blow. Just in time. His free hand lashed out. She stumbled backwards. He reached up to the source of the roaring pain over his left ear and his fingers met blood. But there was no time to wonder. The woman had regained her balance and was coming at him again, the poker raised for another attack.
He tensed but the blow never came. Instead, she let out a scream of horror, dropped her weapon and threw herself at the lifeless body that for one terrible moment he’d thought was Joe. He spun round to see what had distracted her, smelling the smoke a fraction of a second before he saw the flames.
The body was alight. The woman shrieked as she grabbed the pillows from beneath the lifeless head and threw them on the burning legs of the torso.
Foul black smoke rose as the pillow too caught light. Adam lurched back from the bed as the thick cloud caught in his throat. It was apparent that the housekeeper’s attempts were in vain. Whatever had been used to preserve the corpse, when the candle had been knocked from his hand, it had ignited like a torch, flames eating greedily at the lifeless body. He grabbed the frantic woman, pulling her away from the burning bed, but she pushed him off, too intent on saving her master’s body.
A woman appeared in the doorway, her cry of protest preceding her as she saw the flames.
“No!” wailed Catherine Wareham. “No, no, no!”
Adam, coughing now as the air grew thick with putrid smoke, seized her and pushed her past the prone body of the manservant, back into the library. Behind him, Mrs. Rankin’s screams became shriller as the flames caught at her sleeves and the front of her white linen cap.
Adam made a last attempt to reach her, but Catherine Wareham caught his arm, holding him back, her pale face whiter than ever. “No, it’s too late.”
A moment more and he could no longer see the housekeeper through the billowing plumes of dirty smoke and the tears stinging his eyes.
“Help me! You have to help me!” Miss Wareham was tugging at his arm, trying to drag him out of the library. “It’s my brother. He’s gone mad. I can’t stop him. He’ll do something terrible, I know he will.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Adam stared at her in confusion, then back at the burning room. His head pounded as he coughed. Blood trickled down the side of his face and dripped from his jaw. “Your brother? That’s your brother there, isn’t it?” And he pointed back at the burning room. “Your brother’s dead, isn’t he?”
“You don’t understand.” Still she tugged at him to follow her. “My brother is alive again. In your brother’s body. If you want to save your brother, you have to save mine.”
She was dragging him along a dark passageway towards the back of the house. Through a door and they were in a musty-smelling glass room, dark now apart from what little moonlight could pierce the murky roof and windows.
“What are you talking about? Where is my brother?”
“He’s outside. This way. Hurry, please. My brother’s rash and…unpredictable.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ignoring his protests, she dragged him into the garden. A breeze had sprung up, scattering the fog, although the sky was still torn by straggly drifts of cloud, stretched like ragged shrouds across the creamy-white face of the moon. What little he could see of the garden in the intermittent moonlight, looked unkempt and half-wild. From somewhere close by, he could hear waves beating on rock. Stumbling on the unfamiliar terrain, he hurried after her.
“Tom!” she yelled, as she ran, her ethereal gown transforming her into a billowing ghost in the moonlight. The hiss and roar of the waves grew louder. And there, where the shadow of the earth ended in a dark line against the silvery sea, was the silhouette of a man.
He was kneeling with his back to them. Something glinted in his right hand. Adam, squinting through the gloom, discerned the shape of a decanter.
“Tom!” called Catherine Wareham in the same instant Adam yelled, “Joe!”
The figure rose from his knees, turned in their direction. Adam had his night sight now. Even in the midnight blackness, there was no mistaking the face of his brother.
“I didn’t want this, Cathy,” said the man on the cliff in a shaky voice that was not Joe’s, as they came to a halt a few feet from where he stood, only a short distance from the dark line of the cliff edge. He raised the decanter to his mouth and took several deep gulps of the contents. Brandy. Adam could smell it, drifting on the night wind. “I didn’t want to come back. It’s not right. Why didn’t you leave me as I was?”
“I wanted you back,” she told him. “I wanted us to be together again.”
“We can be together.” He gestured with the bottle at the ocean behind him, forced to take a step sideways to steady his balance. “We can be together. Forever. Come with me this time, Cathy.”
She shook her head and held out her hand to him. “Give me the brandy, Tom. You shouldn’t be drinking. Not with everything else.”
“Who’s he?” Tom jerked his head in Adam’s direction. Joe’s face, Joe’s eyes, yet not a hint of recognition, only suspicion and cold disdain.
“He’s no one,” she said. “Now give me the brandy.”
Tom gave a bitter laugh. “You always did love me too much, sister dear.” He didn’t give her the decanter but took the proffered hand instead and pulled her to him. Catching her around the waist so that she was pressed against his body, he lifted his other hand, the one that held the decanter, and ran his finger down her cheek. “So beautiful,” he said, “but you and I, Cathy, we were never meant for this world.”
“Things will be different now,” she insisted, a note of desperation clearly discernible in her voice, “now you’re properly alive again. We can leave this place. Move away. We can start afresh. Be whomsoever we wish to be. No one will know us.”
“He knows.” Tom cast an accusing glance at Adam.
“He’s not important. We can deal with him.”
“No,” said Adam, trying to ignore the pounding in his head and a rising nausea in his middle. “Nobody’s going anywhere. I don’t know what ridiculous game you’re playing, Miss Wareham, but Joe’s coming back with me.”
The man who should have been his brother frowned. “Joe?”
Catherine Wareham lifted her hand and turned her brother’s face—his brother’s face—to look at her again. “He might have been your twin, Tom. That’s why he was the perfect match.”
For a moment, Tom and said nothing, just stared at her. Then he looked back at Adam and his face twisted. “Your brother—you—me—all outsmarted by my sister. My clever, clever sister. She has this way with men, you see. She bewitches them.” He turned back to his sister, his finger once again caressing her cheek. “So, so beautiful. Even now, she tempts me to stay.”
“Yes,” said his sister. “Stay.”
Tom looked to Adam once again. “But the pleasures of the body are nothing to the unfettered freedom of a soul no longer tied to the earth.”
Catherine Wareham shook her head and tightened her grip on her brother. “No, Tom. I bound you to this place, don’t you see? Now the enchantments I used are broken. If you leave me now we may lose each other forever.”
“No. You and I, we know the shadowlands too well. We will find each other, wherever we are. We will be together always.”
He took a step backwards. She tensed in his arms, resisting, but he had the advantage. Her voice rose, sharp and urgent.
Adam, seeing Tom’s intention in the same instant, lunged forward, right hand grabbing the back of the other man’s waistband. The edge of the cliff was inches away. The relentless boom of the waves as they pounded the rock, a hundred feet below, grew suddenly loud. Small flecks of whiteness, half seen, flickered like will-of-the-wisps in the empty blackness beneath him. Further out, the water shimmered like a waiting ghost beneath the pale face of the silent moon, as they teetered on the edge of the land.
Tom laughed and threw his weight backwards. Catherine gasped. Adam’s clenched fingers tightened on the band around Tom’s middle. Glass glinted in the moonlight as the decanter flew from Tom’s hand, disappearing into the darkness beneath them. With his free hand, Adam made a grab at Catherine Wareham but Tom’s momentum swung her out of reach. Adam saw her face, pale as the moon, her eyes and mouth dark stains of horror in the whiteness, as the grass and earth at the edge of the cliff crumbled beneath her feet.
Tom’s weight went with her and for a split second it seemed to Adam he had either to let go his hold and watch his brother plummet to his death along with the woman, or hang on and topple with them, but in that same instant, Tom’s footing gave way too and with it, his balance. He lunged sideways. Instinctively, Adam held on, hauling with all his strength, and the two of them tumbled, sprawling together on the top of the cliff. It was only then Adam saw that Catherine Wareham was gone.
Tom let out a dismal howl and tried to scramble onto his hands and knees, but Adam pushed him back to the ground, rolling on top of him to pin him down.
“Oh no you don’t,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “I want my brother back.”
“Let me go!” Tom wrenched free, lunging at Adam’s face with his hand and forcing him aside. Once more, Tom tried to get to his feet and once more Adam dragged him down. Grunting and panting, they rolled in the damp grass, struggling for supremacy. Adam had the advantage of size and weight, but the blow to his head had weakened him, and the imposter in his brother’s body fought like a wild animal, tooth and claw. There was no time to raise his gaze and take stock of how close they were to the edge. With every squirm and roll, he expected the ground to disappear from under him, to find himself hurtling through the darkness onto the black teeth below.
Then, somehow, he had Tom face down in the grass. Straddling him, he grabbed the other man’s left arm and twisted it up behind his back, at the same time pinning his opponent’s flailing right hand to the ground.
“Talk to me, Joe,” he said, panting for breath.
Beneath him, Tom struggled. “Cathy!” he bellowed.
“You’re my brother!”
“I’m Thomas Wareham. Let me go!”
“No,” said Adam. “I’m not going to let you go until you talk sense.”
Tom let out a cry of frustrated fury. “Cathy!” he yelled again.
“No!” Tom’s wail of despair shook the night around them. “Let me go. I have to find her. Please, let me go.”
“I’m not letting you go. You’re my brother and I’m not letting you go.”
Desperation cracked in Adam’s voice. He could not hold down the wild creature beneath him for much longer. Not with his head spinning and his stomach rolling. His gun was at his waist. A blow to the side of the head with the butt of his pistol might render the other man senseless…but it might just kill him too.
The body beneath him arched and went rigid. Tom let out an unearthly cry. Unnerved, Adam almost released his hold without meaning to. An icy blast of air drove the breath from his lungs as something formless and blacker than the night rose out of the pinioned body and seemed to pass right through him, colder than death. Then it was gone, vanishing out to sea with a sound like the grating sigh of a retreating wave.
The night was suddenly still. Adam drew breath on a sharp gasp. It was several seconds before the world reassembled itself around him. He was shaking, every part of his body trembling violently.
“Joe?” The word emerged as a shaky whisper from his throat. He dropped his gaze in sudden dread, all too aware now of the lack of resistance from the body beneath him. Joe lay still. Too still. Dark smudges of blood broke the pallor of his skin. Moonlight glinted on eyes as blank and unseeing as the eyes of the dead creatures in the hall of Bannam House.
“Joe!” Grabbing his brother’s shoulders, Adam shook him. “Joe, wake up! Wake up!” He lowered his ear to his brother’s chest in a vain attempt to discern a heartbeat, but all he could hear was the pounding of the blood inside his own throbbing head…or was it the pounding of the waves on the rocks below? His body sagged, his brother’s name on his lips fading into a dying moan of despair. “No, Joe. No, no, no…..”
The stink of smoke still hung in the air, drifting towards him on the breeze from the sea as he made his way once more along the pitted driveway, towards the blackened ruin of the house.
The roof had gone, and the wooden verandah with it, but the brick walls remained. Empty holes gaped where once windows had been, and the last remnants of the front door clung drunkenly to the iron hinges. Adam stopped below it and peered up at the somber remains of the once-grand façade, a shiver prickling the hairs of his back. There could be no one still alive, could there? His eyes scanned the empty blanks of the windows, but nothing moved, no one stirred. The stone steps that led up to the door were still intact. Adam Cartwright was a pragmatic man, but even so he could not bring himself to climb them and peer inside the gutted remains of the hall. Instead, he turned right and followed a path around the side of the building, to the back of the house.
He was in an overgrown garden that ran down to the edge of the cliff. He knew it, of course. There, where the grass fell away to the sea was where he had wrestled with his brother in the darkness and felt the ghost of Thomas Wareham pass through him with the coldness of death, and where he had looked down on his brother’s lifeless body, eyes as blank and unseeing as the burned-out windows of Bannam House. And where Catherine Wareham had fallen to her death. Despite the warmth of the day, he shivered as he recalled her face, frozen in the horror.
Men’s voices had roused him in the grey light of that early dawn; the police sergeant and the firemen, alerted by the dancing redness in the night sky. He’d come round, head pounding, nausea accompanying every movement. But worse than all the pain and sickness in the world was the sight of Joe’s lifeless form beside him. What followed was still muddled and disjointed in his memory. To begin with, the police had thought Joe was Thomas Wareham. It had taken Adam all the strength he could muster to explain coherently all that had happened and persuade them the body in the grass was not Thomas Wareham’s but Joseph Cartwright’s.
The wagon ride back to town was a blur, his mind too numb to accept that Joe was gone. Only when the cart had pulled up in front of the undertakers and two policemen made to lift Joe’s body out of the wagon and up the steps into the building did the stark reality of the situation hit him like a physical blow. Jumping down from the cart, he’d tried to grab hold of Joe so they could not take him, but he’d lost more blood than he’d reckoned and the world dipped away into a dark, buzzing mist.
He didn’t lose consciousness entirely. He recalled arms helping to lift him back into the wagon, and even though he wanted to go with Joe, he didn’t have the strength to resist. Someone gave him whiskey to drink. The world around him swam back into focus. The sergeant’s face was peering into his own.
“I’m sorry about your brother, Mr. Cartwright, but he’s in good hands now. Josiah Emberton is the best undertaker in town. Now, do you want the doctor to look you over? That’s a nasty cut on your head there.”
“No.” Adam gave a small shake of his head. “Just take me back to the Palace Hotel. I’ll get cleaned up there and I’ll be fine.”
Adam’s appearance turned some heads as he made his way through the hotel lobby and climbed the stairs, as painfully slowly as an old man, to the sanctuary of his room. There he leaned on the washstand and stared blankly at the bruised and bloodied face peering back at him, pale as a ravaged ghost. But neither the state of his face, nor his ruined clothing, stained with mud and grass and stiff with dried blood, seemed of import. All that mattered was that Joe was dead. His mind could absorb nothing else. Even as he stood staring at his own shattered reflection, the undertaker would no doubt be measuring his brother for a coffin. And then he—Adam—would have to bury his brother.
And he would have to wire Pa and Hoss. They had to know. Thinking about them, he almost crumbled. He swallowed the sob of despair as it rose in his throat, forced himself upright and squared his shoulders. This wouldn’t do. Not while there was Joe to take care of. He must pull himself together, clean himself up and get back to the undertakers. And then the telegraph office. What should he say? How could a few short words ever convey the terrible enormity of what had happened?
It took him a long time to clean the blood from his face and hair and even that small task exhausted him so that he slumped in a chair to gather the strength to put on clean clothes. He wasn’t aware he’d fallen asleep until the knock at the door roused him again. Even then he didn’t move; the effort seemed too great. But whoever was outside the room was persistent, repeating the knock and accompanying the summons with an urgent plea.
“Mr. Cartwright? Are you there? It’s important.”
He might have continued to ignore the bidding, but it was a child’s voice and that piqued his otherwise numbed curiosity. He rose laboriously, pausing to let the sluggish blood reach his brain and steady the spinning there, and opened the door.
A dark-headed boy with flushed cheeks met his own dulled gaze with earnest brown eyes, breathing hard, as if he had run fast to be there.
“I’m Mr. Emberton’s boy. Mr. Emberton, the undertaker,” he added, seeing the blankness in Adam’s expression. “He needs you over at the office.”
Adam nodded, frowning. “Yes, I meant…I…fell asleep.” Out of habit, he looked round for his hat, but it wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. It was now no more than a small pile of ashes in what remained of Bannam House. “All right. Show me the way.”
When they reached the stairwell, the boy paused, looking back at Adam and furrowing his brow.
“Are you all right, sir? You can lean on me if you need to.”
“I’m fine,” said Adam, even though he knew he wasn’t. Little more than stubborn pride was holding him upright and propelling him forward. Fortunately, the undertaker’s office was not far, and he made it without crumpling in an undignified heap in the middle of the street.
“In there,” said the boy, pointing at a door opening off the main office.
A smell of sawdust, laced with a faint trace of alcohol hung in the air. Adam knocked on the door the boy had pointed out, and braced himself, not sure what would be behind the door, but knowing this was a place of death.
Mr. Emberton was there, and another man. On a slab in front of them, Joe’s prone body lay unmoving. Adam knew very little about the procedures employed by an undertaker, but it seemed odd that Mr. Emberton had bothered to cover a dead body with woolen blankets. His mind still numb, he stared blankly until the undertaker said, “Mr. Cartwright, this is Doctor Simmons. I called him over because…well, it seems your brother is, in fact, still alive.”
And then Adam passed out.
There was in the middle of the overgrown garden a battered table and some garden chairs. Here he sat down, his gaze fixed on the far horizon, but his thoughts all on what had happened here in this place. For several minutes he sat unmoving, then a small tremor, like a shudder, went through him and he leaned forward on the table, dropping his face into his hands. A moment later, he shivered again as if a cold wind had whispered through the garden. Yet nothing stirred the long grass. Frowning, he raised his face and turned his head to look back at the ruined house behind him. That was silent too. Hunching his shoulders, he let his gaze wander back to the sea, his eyes moving intently along the edge of the cliff as if they searched for something only he could see.
He jumped and spun instantly in his seat.
“Joe! You gave me the fright of my life! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be resting.”
“So are you, remember?” Joe sat down on the chair to the right of his brother. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. You startled me, that’s all. Why did you follow me?”
“I was worried about you.”
Adam laughed at that, but there was no humor in the sound.
Joe was watching him from eyes that were at once puzzled and anxious. The bruises Adam had inflicted on him as they’d wrestled on this very cliff were fading now and he looked almost back to his old self. “What are you doing here?”
Adam turned his eyes back to the horizon, let them rove over the glimmering blueness of the ocean, then back across the overgrown garden.
“I just needed to come back, see this place one more time. Make sure it really is…empty.”
For a moment, Joe said nothing, then he too turned his gaze to the sea and back towards the blackened shell of the house.
“We haven’t really talked much about what happened, have we?”
Something went tight in Adam’s chest. A lump formed behind his breastbone.
“Adam?” Joe’s hand was on his arm. “Are you sure you’re all right? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine.” Adam’s voice sounded strained, even to himself.
“This is where we had coffee,” said Joe after a pause. “And cake. Here in the garden.”
There was a broken snail shell by the foot of the rusted table leg. Chickweed and tufts of grass sprouted in the cracks of the stone. Adam had time to scrutinize them in detail before Joe spoke again, his voice flat.
“I shouldn’t have gone with her.”
The lump in Adam’s chest shrank a little. He raised his head and looked at his brother.
“That’ll be the day, when Little Joe Cartwright says no to a pretty woman.” Seeing the protest formulating in Joe’s face, he forced a smile to his own. “It’s all right. I found her attractive too. If she’d invited me for coffee, I’d definitely have gone with her.”
Joe looked relieved.
“It wasn’t your fault. She drugged you.”
Joe nodded, as if to himself. “Yeah. I wasn’t expecting that.” He frowned at the table. “I just wish I could remember.”
Adam though about the body of Thomas Wareham, the strange room with the circle on the floor and the candles in each corner, the screams of the housekeeper as she burned, and wished he didn’t remember.
“I thought I was ill and that she was just looking after me. Being kind to me.” Joe’s eyes followed his brother’s to where his forearm rested on the chair. Where his wrist emerged from his sleeve, a faded mark—a triangle with a line through it—was still faintly distinguishable. No amount of scrubbing had removed the strange marks from his body entirely; it seemed only time would do that. He tugged his sleeve lower to cover it, but another shiver had already gone through Adam’s body.
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right?” Joe asked him.
Adam got up from his chair. “It’s just this place,” he said. “We should get away from here.”
He could tell by the way Joe looked at him that the unease was visible in his face.
“There’s nothing here anymore. Everyone’s gone,” Joe said, as if to reassure him.
“I know.” Adam made a feeble attempt at a smile. “It’s just a house, and a house can’t be evil. Even so, let’s get away.”
He started back along the path to the front of the building. There, by the rusted gate, was his horse, and Joe’s beside it. Normality seeped like warmth through his body. Joe’s right, he thought, there’s nothing here anymore. Everyone’s gone.
Joe, a few paces behind, halted suddenly. “Hey!” he called.
In spite of himself, Adam jumped. His heart pounded in his chest. “What?” he said, spinning round.
Joe had stopped below the overgrown steps to the front door. “Nothing,” he said. “Just kids.”
“Kids?” The lump was back in Adam’s chest.
“Yeah, just kids.” Joe turned and caught up with his brother. “Strange-looking kids. Must be playing. Run off now. Just saw them looking out at us from that window over there. A couple of kids with pale faces and big, staring eyes. What is it, Adam?” His hand came out and gripped Adam’s arm as if he thought his brother might faint. “You look as if you’d seen a ghost.”
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this story. please consider leaving a short review to let the author know what you thought. Comments welcome via PM too.