Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl
She turned back to her notebook, wondering if Abigail Adams in her stays could even remotely be considered the Gloria Steinem of her time period—or Mary Shelley, writing
buttoned up to the chin....
The room disappeared in a blast of white light that was gone as quickly as it had appeared. The music stopped in mid-phrase. Amanda sat goggling blindly into total darkness as thunder exploded in her head.
Lightning had taken out a nearby transformer. A good thing she hadn't turned on the computer. A good thing she had a flashlight. Swallowing her heart, she rose from her chair and groped across the room.
The flashlight was in the kitchen cabinet. She flicked it on and waved the circle of light around the room. Lafayette had subtracted his tail and was completely hidden. Raindrops poured over the roof, slowed, and stopped. A cold wind sent the blinds knocking against the window frames.
The phone still worked. She called in the power outage, then considered her options. If someone was snooping around the house, they now had an engraved invitation to come inside. The doors were locked, yes, but it would be easy enough to break a window. Her presence wouldn't stop a thief from taking the silver tea service in the dining room, or a vandal from trashing the crystal wineglasses in the library, but she was supposed to be keeping an eye on the place even so.
Amanda opened the door of her apartment and listened. A few stray plunks were raindrops outside. The wind was a sigh in the distance. The house was so utterly silent her ears rang, like she was listening to a seashell, compartment after compartment filled with dank air....
No. Wait. From somewhere in the house came a faint clatter. Something had fallen over. Something had been knocked over.
She glanced back at the sofa. A pair of disgruntled golden eyes caught the light. “Thank you for your support,” she whispered. The cat's eyes vanished.
No way she was going to call for backup until she'd scoped out the situation. Tucking the telephone into the pocket of her shorts, she tiptoed into the hallway. She took a step, stopped, and listened. Nothing. No silver clashing, no glass breaking. She took a few more steps and arrived at the door leading from the service wing into the rest of the house. Several of the doors in the Hall squeaked. She couldn't remember if this was one of them.
Turning off the flashlight and holding her breath, she eased the door open. It went quietly. On the other side was the passage that led between the library and the parlor. The darkness was so thick Amanda felt as though she could have scooped it up in handfuls. Feeling her way, she inched toward the entrance hall. Was that a scraping sound? She couldn't tell whether it came from above her head or in front of her.
The doors into the parlor and library were shut, just as she'd left them. She listened at each one. Nothing.
With a tiny bump that sounded loud as an explosion she walked into the door leading into the entrance hall. She laid her ear against the wood. Silence. No wind, no rain, no falling objects, just the all-encompassing silence of the grave.
Get a grip!
Amanda ordered herself, and set her hand on the doorknob.
Then she heard the breathing. Slow, slightly uneven breaths, like those of somebody old or sick. Or somebody trying to be very, very quiet.
Amanda waited a moment, willing herself to breathe. Most of her friends had jobs in nice bright office buildings. But no, she had to shut herself up in a dark old house with someone—something....
So look already, and then go for 911.
Slowly, carefully, she turned the knob and opened the door a fraction of an inch. Cold air flooded through the opening, raising gooseflesh on her body. From her vantage point she could see almost the entire entrance hall. If anyone was there he was standing in the dark.
But no, it wasn't dark. The windows on either side of the front door were rectangles of very pale, very faint luminescence. The clouds must be lifting outside. And yet that wasn't the light that gleamed on the paneling and picked out the reds and golds of the Turkey carpet. A fragile glow radiated from the foot of the staircase, the one spot Amanda couldn't see.
What the ... ?
She lifted the flashlight—it was the size of a policeman's nightstick, and almost as heavy—but didn't turn it on. Pushing the door open, she stepped into the cold. She picked up one foot and put it down. She picked up the other and put it down. The balusters made vertical lines against the cloud of silvery light. Not a flashlight, not a candle....
Amanda balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to run, ready to swing her makeshift weapon. She closed her eyes a moment, then opened them again.
The glow darkened and solidified. It was the size of a human being. It was shaped like a human being, head, body, legs. And yet Amanda could still see the edges of the steps indistinctly through its—through his—form. A warm sigh dissipated the chill in the room, and she smelled whiskey.
She stepped back, flat-footed, and lowered the flashlight.
He sat on the fourth step from the bottom, his legs with their checkered stockings splayed, his green and blue kilt draped over his knees. His coat shone scarlet and his waistcoat white, as though lit from within. Across his lap he held an empty scabbard.
It had to be a trick. A projection, special effects—Stephen Spielberg had dropped by to test out some equipment.... The electricity's off, Amanda reminded herself.
The soldier looked up from the scabbard, and his eyes met hers.
This guy has had a bad day.
His eyes were a smoky blue-gray, his knotted brows dark, his expression that of a kid facing an algebra test. Reddish-brown hair fell over his forehead. His face was translucent, carved by light against darkness. Amanda recognized that face. She'd seen it over and over again, in paint and print. Captain James Grant, late—very late—of His Majesty's 71st Highlanders.
This guy has had a bad couple of centuries.
Maybe if she turned the flashlight on him he'd vanish. But she could see him just fine, more than fine.... Again she closed her eyes. She counted to five, watching the pixels of static behind her lids. When she opened them he was still there. And he was still looking at her.
His lips moved. He croaked. Frowning, he grimaced and tried again. His voice was a wisp of velvet. “Have you seen my sword, then, lass?"
Her voice sounded like a crow's. “Ah—no, I haven't. Sorry."
"Taken by the enemy, I'll be bound. Scoundrels. Not fit to deal with a gentleman."
Like she was going to argue with him?
Slowly his brows smoothed. His eyes started at the top of Amanda's head, worked their way down to her toes, and moved up again. One corner of his mouth turned upward. “I do beg your pardon, Madame. I seem to have interrupted you at your toilet. If you would care to complete your dress...."
"No problem. Er.... “Her interpreter's training kicked in. “I don't believe we've been introduced."
He tried to stand and sank back again. “I find myself begging your indulgence again, Madame. I am James Grant of Dundreggan, at your service."
"Amanda Witham of Chicago. At yours, I guess.”
This isn't happening. I am not standing here making conversation with a ghost.
"And this is Melrose Hall, is it not, in His Majesty's colony of Virginia?"
"It's Melrose, yeah. Yes."
"In faith, the battle must have been particularly fierce, I am—fatigued."
His lashes fell over his eyes. With a groan he slumped back over the empty scabbard. The pale glow around him faded, draining the colors in his uniform.
Amanda took a step toward him. Light flooded in the front windows and the alarm system began to whoop. Her entire body convulsed.
No one was there. The hall was lit only by the shine of the floodlights outside. The staircase rose blankly toward the second floor. Amanda galloped back down the corridors to her apartment, slamming doors behind her.
All the lights were on in her living room and kitchen. She threw herself at the control panel and killed the deafening screech of the alarm. The sudden silence made her ears ring.
No, that was the phone ringing. First the Benedettos, then the police. No, no, Amanda explained, lightning struck a transformer, and when the power came back on it started the alarm, no, everything's all right, thank you anyway.
She hung up the telephone. Her legs wobbled and her head spun. She staggered to the couch and plopped down.
She hadn't seen him. She'd imagined him. He'd been a trick of the light. Of the darkness.... It hadn't happened. It couldn't have happened.
Lafayette oozed out from beneath the couch and looked accusingly up at her. She looked right back at him. “He's the body in the garden, isn't he? You heard him coming, from the summerhouse back to the staircase he remembered."
The cat didn't blink.
"But what the hell is James Grant, of all people, doing in a hole in the ground in Melrose's garden?"
The cat stretched and yawned.
"I did see him, didn't I? I haven't lost it. I'm not nuts. I saw him.” Amanda lay back against the throw pillow, staring upward at the ceiling. She saw a scarlet coat, an empty scabbard, and a fall of reddish-brown hair above a puzzled face. She heard a cultured baritone saying,
I do beg your pardon....
He'd been there. She'd seen him. And no way did he have knobby knees and jug ears.
Amanda looked down at Lafayette. “Like you'd make a believable witness? Yeah, right."
He sat down and started to wash his face, committing himself to nothing.
The morning was far from cool. The showers of the night before had simply added to the Amazonian atmosphere. By the time Amanda checked out every room of the mansion she was thoroughly hot and bothered.
Not one door was open. Not one window was cracked. Of all the things in the house, only two had been moved: the miniature of James Grant was lying on the floor of Sally's bedroom and her portrait at the top of the stairs was hanging off-center. Which was relevant and all that, Amanda told herself as she put both pictures back where they belonged, but didn't explain anything.
Nothing else was out of place. Melrose Hall was locked up as tightly this morning as it had been when Amanda settled down to her dinner last night. No one could have gotten into the house and played a trick on her with video projectors or tape recorders. Even if there'd been a secret passage—and there wasn't, the place had been worked over during renovation—there was still the slight problem of producing special effects without electricity.
Amanda poured herself into the straightjacket of stays, garters, hoops, petticoats, dress. She had to make an effort to focus her eyes. When she'd finally gotten to sleep last night she'd dreamed of staircases snarled with blackberry and scarlet coats blotched with mud.
She was trying to fluff up the hair that wasn't tucked beneath her cap when the back doorbell buzzed. Leaving Lafayette snoozing in a tangle of sheets, none the worse for
night, she turned off the alarm and answered the door.
Wayne's beefy face was already glistening with sweat, even though he hadn't put on his coat and his wig yet. Beside him his mother was her usual cool and classy self. Her pouf of blond hair softened the sharpness of her features. Her size-six summer dress was color-coordinated with her hose and pumps. “Good morning, Amanda,” she said in her beautifully moderated voice. “I hear you had some excitement last night."
Cynthia always made Amanda feel like her knuckles were dragging the ground. “Not really. Just a quick power outage because of the storm."
"I'll bet you were scared,” said Wayne hopefully.
"Just a little startled,” she lied.
A uniformed policeman appeared around the corner of the house. “Nothing unusual out here, Mrs. Chancellor. May I look around inside, Miss?"
"Sure,” said Amanda. “But I already...."
"Please come in, Officer,” said Cynthia. Amanda found herself plastered against the wall of the corridor as Mrs. Chancellor and her entourage swept by. With a shrug she closed the door and followed.
Upstairs, downstairs, in Sally's chamber the procession went. “Everything's fine,” Cynthia announced at last, from her observation post on the stair landing. “Put on your wig, Wayne, it's almost opening time."
Wayne smoothed the woolly wig over his dark curls. The policeman sneaked a look at his watch. Amanda stood with her hand on the newel post, eyeing the treads of the staircase.
He'd been sitting right there, in the face of common sense. She hadn't imagined him. She hadn't hallucinated him. The closest she'd come to anything alcoholic was the scent of whiskey on his breath. And he had been breathing. That heartbreaking groan.... She wondered if he knew he was dead. She wondered how her brain was able to deal with the matter of daily life and the anti-matter of James Grant without exploding.
No, she wasn't going to tell anyone what—who—she'd seen last night. They'd think she was a liar, nuts, or both. Just the kind of person Colonial Williamsburg wanted caretaking an important property.
Cynthia's heels clicked down the steps. “I'll check in with Bill on my way out. Helen Medina will be by sometime today to put together a news release. There's not much we can say until Bill has some more information about the body, but I'll see if I can hurry him along."
"Excuse me?” Amanda asked. “News release?"
"The body in the back garden. Our visitors will be thrilled."
Amanda saw little plastic skeletons for sale in the Gift Shoppe. “Ah, yeah, sure."
"It was nice seeing you again, Amanda.” Cynthia extended her hand, probably, Amanda thought, expecting her to kneel and kiss her wedding ring.
Amanda spread her skirts in a low curtsey. “I have the honor to remain, Madame, your most humble and obedient servant."
"You've learned your lines so well,” murmured Cynthia, radiating graciousness. “Come along, Officer, let's go view the body. I've always found forensics procedures fascinating, haven't you?” She swept out of the door, leaving behind her a whiff of expensive fragrance. The policeman followed.