Read Home Before Dark: A Novel Online

Authors: Riley Sager

Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary

Home Before Dark: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: Home Before Dark: A Novel
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Dane gives me a clipped salute. “Sure thing, boss.”


The drive from the gate to the house itself is a series of expectations either met or subverted. I had assumed the spiral ascent would feel like climbing the lift hill of a roller coaster—all mounting dread and stabs of regret. Instead, it’s just a calm drive through the woods. Uneventful. Peaceful, even, with twilight adding a hazy softness to the surrounding forest.

The only thing that gives me pause is an abundance of spiky-leafed plants along the side of the road. Sprouting from them are tight clusters of red as bright as stage blood in the glare of the truck’s headlights.

Baneberries.

They’re everywhere.

Spreading deep into the woods. Swarming around tree trunks. Running all the way up the hillside. The only place they’re not growing is at the top of the hill, almost as if they’re intimidated by the presence of Baneberry Hall.

Again, I had steeled myself for the moment it rose into view. Since I have no actual memories of it, I expected a heart-in-throat fear of a house I’d known only through my father’s writing. The pictures in the Book make Baneberry Hall look like something out of a Hammer horror film. All dark windows and storm clouds scudding past the peaked roof.

But at first glance, Baneberry Hall doesn’t resemble a place one should fear. It’s a just a big house in need of some work. Even in the thickening twilight, it’s clear the exterior has been neglected. Strips of paint hang off the windowsills, and moss stipples the roof. One of the second-floor windows has a crack slanting from corner to corner. Another has been broken entirely and now sits covered with plywood.

Yet the place isn’t without appeal. It looks solid enough. There don’t seem to be any immediately noticeable structural issues. The porch steps don’t sag, and no cracks appear in the foundation.

Dane was right. It’s got good bones.

Before I left Boston, I made sure to check that the house was still hooked up to the necessary utility lines. It was, which in hindsight should have tipped me off that my father had been doing more than just holding the house for safekeeping. Baneberry Hall has all the utilities of an average home. Running water. Gas. Electricity. The only thing it doesn’t have is a phone line, which is why I remain in the truck and use my cell phone to call my mother. I deliberately waited to come here until she and my stepfather left for Capri. By the time my mother listens to this voicemail, she’ll be half a world away.

“Hey, Mom. It’s me. Just wanted to let you know that, while I really do appreciate your offer to buy Baneberry Hall, I’ve decided to fix it up and sell it on my own.” Hesitation thickens my voice as I tiptoe into the part she’s
really
not going to like. “In fact, I’m here right now. Just wanted to let you know. Enjoy your trip.”

I end the call, shove the phone into my pocket, and retrieve my luggage from behind the pickup’s passenger seat. With two suitcases in my grip and a large duffel bag strapped to my back, I make my way to Baneberry Hall’s front door. After a moment spent fiddling with the keys, the door is unlocked and opened with an agitated creak of the hinges.

I peer inside, seeing an unlit interior painted gray by twilight. A strange smell tickles my nostrils—a combination of stale air, dust, and something else. Something more unpleasant.

Decay.

As I stand there breathing in the unwelcoming odor of Baneberry Hall, it occurs to me that maybe I
should
be scared. Fans of the Book would be. Wendy Davenport and tens of thousands more. They’d be terrified right now, worried about all the horrors lying in wait just beyond this door.

I’m not.

Any trepidation I feel is related to more mundane matters. Mostly
what’s causing that whiff of decay. Is it wood rot? Termite damage? Some woodland animal that found its way inside during the winter and died here?

Or maybe it’s my imagination. A remnant of my expecting to find a house in utter disrepair. Not a place that still has a caretaker and a cleaning woman. Definitely not a place my father continued to occupy one night a year.

I step into the vestibule, drop my bags, and flick a switch by the door. The light fixture above my head brightens. Inside it is a trapped moth. Silhouetted wings beat against the glass.

I’m not sure what I expect to see as I move deeper into the house. Squalor, I suppose. Twenty-five years of neglect. Cobwebs strung like party banners from the corners. Holes in the ceiling. Bird shit on the floor. But the place is tidy, although not spotless. A thin coat of dust covers the vestibule floor. When I turn around, I see footprints left in my wake.

I keep moving, pulled along by curiosity. I had thought being here again would spark at least some memories, no matter how faint. Faded recollections of me on the front porch, sitting in the kitchen, climbing the stairs before bed.

There’s nothing.

All my memories are of reading about such things in the Book.

I trace the path my parents took during their first tour. The one my father had written about in detail. Past the staircase. Under the chandelier, which does have a few zigzags of cobwebs strung through its arms. Into the great room. Pause at the fireplace, where the grim countenance of William Garson should be staring down at me.

But the painting’s not there. All that’s above the fireplace is an expanse of stone, painted gray. Which means either Mr. Garson’s portrait never existed or my father had it covered up during one of his unmentioned visits.

After that it’s on to the dining room and the subterranean kitchen,
with its wall of bells that once must have gleamed but are now dull from tarnish. I touch one—the tag above it reads
PARLOR
—and it lets out a tinny, mirthless sound.

I cross to the other end of the kitchen, glancing at the ceiling as I go. Over the butcher-block table is a rectangular area not part of the original ceiling. The paint doesn’t quite match the rest of the kitchen, and there’s a visible seam surrounding the patch that had been replaced. In the center is a grayish oval where the ceiling has started to bulge.

A water stain.

Even though it looks to be decades old, the stain means something in the ceiling had been leaking at some point. Definitely not ideal.

At the kitchen’s far end, I don’t bother descending into the stone-walled cellar. The whisper of a chill and the strong smell of mold wafting from the doorway tell me that’s a place best explored in the daytime and with protective gear.

So it’s back to the first floor and into the circular parlor, which is smaller than I imagined. The whole house is. My father’s descriptions of Baneberry Hall made it seem bigger—a cavernous place usually only found in Gothic fiction. Manderley on steroids. The reality is less grand. Yes, it’s large, as houses go, but cramped in a way I hadn’t expected, made even more so by dark wood trim and fusty wallpaper.

The parlor is cluttered with furniture covered by drop cloths, making it look like a roomful of ghosts. I yank them away, creating plumes of dust that, when cleared, reveal pieces so finely made they belong in a museum.

Probably Garson family furniture. Items like this would have been well above what my parents could have afforded at the time. Especially the cherrywood secretary desk sitting near the curved wall of windows at the front of the room.

Taller than me and twice as wide, the desk’s lower half consists of a shelf that can be lowered to form a writing surface and several sets
of drawers. The top half contains a pair of doors that, when spread open like wings, reveal apothecary drawers for ink jars and pens, a small oval mirror, and wooden slots for mail—a feature that went unused by my father. He simply stacked the mail atop the lowered writing surface. Scanning the dusty pile, I spot unopened bills, old flyers, and faded grocery store circulars, some dating back a decade.

Next to them is a gold picture frame. I pick it up and see a photograph of me and my parents. I assume it was from before we came to Baneberry Hall, because we all seem happy. My parents especially. They were a good-looking couple. My mother, willowy and pert, contrasted nicely with my father’s scruffy handsomeness. In the photo, my father has an arm snaked around my mother’s waist, pulling her close. She’s looking at him instead of the camera, flashing the kind of smile I haven’t seen from her in years.

One not-so-big, happy family.

Until we weren’t.

In the photo, I stand in front of my parents, sporting pigtails and a missing front tooth that mars my wide grin. I look so young and so carefree that I hardly recognize myself. I lift my gaze to the desk’s oval mirror and spend a moment comparing the woman I am with the girl I used to be. My hair, slightly darker now, hangs loosely around my shoulders. When I smile widely, copying my look in the photo, it feels forced and unnatural. My hazel eyes are mostly the same, although there’s now a hardness to them that wasn’t present in my youth.

I set down the frame, turning it so the picture’s no longer visible. I don’t like looking at this younger, happier version of myself. It reminds me of who I once was—and who I might be now if the Book hadn’t happened.

Maybe Allie was on to something. Maybe I’m not ready for this.

I shake off the thought. I’m here, and there’s a lot to do, including resuming my examination of the desk. Sitting among the stacks of mail is a silver letter opener that looks as old and ornate as the desk
itself. That’s confirmed when I pick it up and see a set of initials floridly engraved on the handle.

W.G.

Mr. William Garson, I presume.

I place the letter opener back on the desk, my hand moving to a sheet of paper beside it. Once folded in half, it now rests facedown on the desktop. Flipping it over, I see a single word written in ink, the letters wide, capitalized, emphatic.

WHERE??

Such a terse question, which raises several more. Where is what? Why is someone looking for it? And, above all, who wrote this? Because it’s certainly not my father’s handwriting.

I hold the page close to my face, as if that will help me better make sense of it. I’m still staring at those emphatic question marks when I hear a noise.

A creak.

Coming from the room next door.

The Indigo Room.

I whirl around to the doorway that separates it from the parlor, and for a split second I expect to see Mister Shadow standing there. Stupid, I know. But growing up with the Book has trained me to think he’s real, even though he’s not. He can’t be.

Mister Shadow isn’t there, of course. Nothing is. Just beyond the doorway, the Indigo Room sits dark and silent and still.

It’s not until I turn back to the desk that I hear another creak.

Louder than the first.

I shoot a glance at the desk’s oval mirror. Reflected in the glass, just over my shoulder, is the doorway to the Indigo Room. Inside, it’s still dark, still silent.

Then
something
moves.

A pale blur passing the doorway.

There and gone in an instant.

I rush to the Indigo Room, trying not to think of Mister Shadow, when all I can do is think of Mister Shadow, even though three words echo through my head.

He. Doesn’t. Exist.

Which means it’s something else. An animal, most likely. Something that knows this place is unoccupied 364 days a year. Something I definitely don’t want hanging around now that I’m here.

Inside the Indigo Room, I hit the light switch by the door. Nothing happens to the chandelier dangling from the ceiling. Either the wiring is shot or the bulbs have all burned out. Still, the light spilling in from the parlor allows me to make out some of the room’s details. I notice kelly-green walls, parquet floors, more furniture dressed like ghosts.

What I don’t see is Indigo Garson’s portrait over the fireplace. Just like in the great room, the stone is painted gray.

I turn away from the fireplace, and something lurches at me from a pitch-black corner of the room.

Not an animal.

Not Mister Shadow.

An old woman, startlingly pale in the half-light.

A scream leaps from my throat as the woman draws near. She stumbles toward me, her arms outstretched, slippered feet threatening to trample the hem of her nightgown. Soon she’s upon me, her hands on my face, the palms pressing hard against my cheeks, my nose, my mouth. At first, I think she’s trying to smother me, but then her hands drop to my shoulders as she pulls me into a desperate embrace.

“Petra, my baby,” she says. “You’ve come back to me.”

JUNE 26
Day 1

Moving from the apartment in Burlington to Baneberry Hall was easy, mostly because there wasn’t much to move beyond my many books, our clothes, and a few assorted knickknacks we’d accumulated over the years. We decided to use most of the furniture that came with the house—more out of budgetary concerns than anything else. The only furnishings we didn’t keep were the bedroom sets.

“I will not force my daughter to sleep in a dead girl’s bed,” Jess insisted. “And I definitely won’t sleep in the bed of the man who killed her.”

Another thing she insisted on was burning a bundle of sage, which was supposed to clear the house of negative energy. So while Jess roamed around with a fistful of smoldering herbs, trailing smoke like a walking stick of incense, I stayed in the kitchen and unpacked the extensive set of dishes she had also inherited from her grandfather.

Helping me was Elsa Ditmer, who lived in the cottage outside the front gate not occupied by Hibbs and his wife. Like her mother
and grandmother before her, she cleaned houses for a living, including Baneberry Hall. And while Jess and I couldn’t afford a full-time cleaning lady, we were all too happy to hire her for a few days to help us move in.

A stout woman in her early forties, Elsa had a soft-spoken demeanor and a wide, friendly face. She arrived bearing a housewarming gift—a loaf of bread and a small wooden box of salt.

“It’s tradition,” she explained. “It means you’ll never go hungry in your new home.”

She said little else as we worked, speaking only when spoken to. After Jess passed through the kitchen in a cloud of sage smoke, I said, “I assure you we’re not always this strange. You must think we’re the most superstitious people on earth.”

“Not at all. Where my family is from, everyone is superstitious.” Elsa held up a dessert plate that had recently been freed from its newspaper wrapping. “In Germany, it would be customary for me to break this. Shards bring luck. That’s how the saying goes.”

“And do they?”

“That hasn’t been my experience.” She gave a wistful smile. “Perhaps I haven’t broken enough plates yet.”

Elsa set the plate gently back on the table. As she did, I noticed the wedding band on her right ring finger. Barely in her forties and already a widow.

“Pick it back up,” I said, before quickly unwrapping a matching plate and clinking it against Elsa’s. “Shall we?”

“I couldn’t,” she said, blushing slightly. “Such pretty plates.”

They were indeed pretty. And plentiful. Two broken ones wouldn’t be missed.

“The sacrifice will be worth it if it brings a little luck to this place.”

Elsa Ditmer grudgingly agreed. Together, we tossed the plates onto the floor, where they shattered into pieces.

“I feel lucky already,” I said as I fetched a brush and dustpan and began sweeping up the shards. “At least luckier than Curtis Carver.”

The smile on Elsa’s face dimmed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was cruel of me. You probably knew them.”

“A little, yes,” Elsa said with a nod. “I did some cleaning here when they needed it.”

“What were they like?”

“They seemed happy, at first. Friendly.”

“And Curtis Carver? Was he—”

I paused, choosing my words carefully. Elsa Ditmer had known the man. She even might have liked him, and I didn’t want to offend her if she had. It was a surprise when she finished my sentence for me.

“A monster?” she said with undisguised venom. “What else could he be? A man who could do such a thing to his own child—to any child—would have to be a monster. But he was very good at hiding it. At least in the beginning.”

The dutiful husband I was trying to be wanted to ignore the remark. After all, I’d promised Jess not to drag the past into our present. But the journalist in me won out.

“What happened?” I asked, keeping my voice low just in case Jess was approaching in a cloud of sage smoke.

“He changed,” Elsa said. “Or maybe he was always like that and it just took me some time to notice it. But in the beginning, he was very nice. Charming. Then the last few times I saw him, he seemed nervous. Jittery. He looked different, too. Tired and very pale. At
the time, I thought it had something to do with his daughter. She was ill.”

“Was it serious?”

“All I know is what Mr. Carver said. That she was sick and needed to stay in her room. My girls were crushed. They liked coming here to play.”

“You have daughters?”

“Yes. Two. Petra is sixteen, and Hannah is six.” Elsa’s eyes lit up when she said their names. “They’re good girls. I’m very proud.”

I finished sweeping up the broken plates and dumped the shards into a nearby trash can. “It must have been hard for them, losing a friend in such an awful way.”

“I don’t think Hannah quite understands what happened. She’s too young. She knows Katie is gone, but she doesn’t know why. Or how. But Petra, she knows all the details. She’s still shaken up by it. She’s very protective. Strong, like her father was. I think she thought of Katie as another little sister. And it pains her to know she couldn’t protect her.”

I risked another question, knowing Jess would be angry if she ever found out. I decided that no matter what I learned, I wouldn’t tell her.

“What exactly did Curtis Carver do? We weren’t told any of the details.”

Elsa hesitated, choosing instead to focus on carefully stacking the remaining plates.

“Please,” I said. “It’s our home now, and I’d like to know what happened here.”

“It was bad,” Elsa said with great reluctance. “He smothered Katie with a pillow while she was sleeping. I pray that she stayed
asleep through the whole thing. That she never woke up and realized what her father was doing to her.”

She touched the crucifix hanging from her neck, almost as if she was reassuring herself that such an unlikely scenario had actually happened.

“After that, Curtis—Mr. Carver—went up to the study, put a trash bag over his head, and sealed it shut with a belt around his neck. He died of asphyxiation.”

I let that sink in a moment, unable to understand any of it. It was, quite frankly, incomprehensible to me how a man could be capable of both acts. Not the tightening of a belt around his neck until he couldn’t breathe, and certainly not the smothering of his daughter while she slept. To me, madness was the likely culprit. That something broke inside Curtis Carver’s brain, leading him to murder and suicide.

Either that or Elsa Ditmer was right—he had been a monster.

“That’s very sad,” I said, simply because I needed to say
something
.

“It is,” Elsa said as she gave her crucifix another gentle touch. “It’s a small consolation knowing sweet Katie’s now in a better place. ‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’”

Behind us, one of the bells on the wall let out a single ring. A surprise, considering their age and lack of upkeep. I didn’t think any still worked. Elsa also appeared taken aback. She continued to caress the crucifix as a worried look crossed her face. That expression grew more pronounced when the bell rang again. This time, it kept ringing—a weak, wavering tinkle that nevertheless filled the otherwise silent kitchen.

“It’s probably Maggie,” I said. “I knew it was only a matter of
time before she discovered those bells. I’ll go upstairs and tell her to stop.”

I checked the brass tag over the still-ringing bell—the Indigo Room—and hurried up the steps. The air on the first floor was thick with the scent of burning sage, telling me Jess had just passed through. Perhaps I had been too quick to blame my daughter and it was my wife who was responsible for the ringing bell.

I headed to the front of the house, expecting to find Jess roaming the parlor and Indigo Room, yanking on random bellpulls as clouds of sage smoke gathered around her. But the parlor was empty. As was the Indigo Room.

All I saw was furniture that had yet to be freed from their canvas drop cloths and the lovely painting of Indigo Garson over the fireplace. The only logical explanation for the ringing I could think of was the wind, although even that seemed unlikely, seeing how the room contained no detectable draft.

I was about to leave the room when I spotted a flash of movement deep
inside
the fireplace.

A second later, something emerged.

A snake.

Gray with parallel rust-colored stripes running down its back, it slithered from the fireplace, undulating quickly across the floor.

Thinking fast, I grabbed the drop cloth from the closest piece of furniture and threw it on top of the snake. A hissing, squirming bulge formed in the fabric. With my heart in my throat, I snatched up the edges of the drop cloth, gathering them until it formed a makeshift sack. Inside, the snake flapped and writhed. I held it at arm’s length, the canvas swinging wildly as I hurried to the front door.

As soon as I was off the front porch, I tossed the cloth into the driveway. The fabric fell open, revealing the snake. It was on its
back, flashing a bit of bloodred belly before flipping over and zipping into the nearby woods. The last I saw of it was the flick of its tail as it disappeared in the underbrush.

Turning back to the house, I found Elsa Ditmer on the front porch, a trembling hand over her heart.

“There was a snake in the house?” she said with palpable alarm.

“Yes.” I studied her face, which retained the fraught expression I’d noticed in the kitchen. “Is that bad luck?”

“Maybe I’m too superstitious, Mr. Holt,” she said. “But if I were you, I’d break a few more plates.”

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