Authors: Joan Hess
“Come now,” Maxie said with a short laugh, “you're hardly capable of doing this house justice. I'm sure we can find a suitable apartment for you once Phoebe and I become administrators of the trust.”
Phoebe took out her notebook and made a notation. “One bedroom ought to be adequate, although you may have to make do with an efficiency if it proves more economical.”
Pauline attempted to smile. “But I've lived here for forty years, as Justicia's companion and nurse. I put aside my personal aspirations in order to care for her. I once dreamed of being a concert pianist. As a child, I was told I had great promise. My Ã©tudes, in particular, were considered exquisite.”
“I'm sure they were,” Stanford said soothingly. “We're all aware of the sacrifices you made, and I for one am not going to see you living in some seedy apartment building. Hell, I'll find you a condominium where you can be surrounded by old people like yourself.”
Pauline's face hardened. “Malloy Manor is my home. I have spent my life here. I will not be discarded.”
“This is too comical for words,” Ellie said. “Miss Justicia told me that the grandchildren will share the bulk of the estate. She called last week and said that if Keith and I came this weekend, we'd be pleasantly surprised with the new will. Well, both of us are here.”
Maxie ground out her cigarette in a saucer. “She told me she was committed to the preservation of Malloy Manor. The new will establishes the trust.”
“With Mother and me as administrators,” Phoebe added.
Stanford rapped on the table. “Hold your damn horses! I am sorry that you four are under any kind of delusion about who will receive the bulk of the estate. Last week, Miss Justicia assured me that I would realize more than enough money to revitalize the company.”
“The money goes to Keith and me!” Ellie said.
“She told me I would receive the house and an income,” Pauline said sharply.
“Poppycock!” Stanford roared, banging his fist hard enough to rattle the china.
I sat and wondered how best to escape the asylum now that the inmates were in control. I was toying with faking an attack of botulism when Caron poked me and whispered, “I'm a grandchild.”
I glanced at my little angel, who had a calculating expression not unlike those of our dinner companions. “Forget it,” I whispered back. “It's obvious Miss Justicia has more than enough would-be heirs to bicker over the family fortune. I make a decent living. You don't have cardboard soles in your shoes and dresses from Goodwill.”
“I don't have a closet filled with Esprit jeans, either.”
Stanford's fist regained my attention in time to hear him snarl that he was going to Miss Justicia's room to find out who all was getting what. Maxie announced that she and Phoebe would be on his heels. Ellie said she loved parades and had no intentions of missing this one. Pauline murmured that she would feel much better when the misunderstanding was resolved.
The five of them marched out of the room, although not in the precise order of their avowals. After a certain amount of jostling in the doorway, they were gone.
Caron sighed morosely. “Don't you want me to be a wealthy heiress?” she asked as her lower lip crept forward.
“No.” I pushed back my chair and rose. “I think we ought to scurry upstairs while the others are occupied.”
The cook came out of the kitchen. “Are you done? I got to clear the table and wash up so I can go home. I don't plan to be here any longer than I have to, not with a full moon.”
“Why not?” asked Caron.
The cook leaned forward and in a husky voice, said, “Whenever there's a full moon, ol' General Malloy comes riding through the yard on a big shadowy stallion. He's dressed in his Confederate uniform, waving a saber over his head and crying out for his beloved mistress.”
“I don't believe that,” Caron retorted with a supercilious smile. “Creepy old legends have no historical basis.”
“This one does, because the mistress was my great-great-grandmother Lavinia. She was as black as coal, with a fine figure and eyes that blazed like embers. He kept her in a shack at the far end of the bayou, and whenever the moon was full, he'd gallop down on his stallion to visit her.”
“Like, sure he did,” Caron said, although her smile was increasingly strained.
“But one night,” the cook continued, “he rode to the shack to bring her a handsome gold necklace. When he went inside, he stumbled over her mutilated body. Somebody'd killed her with an ax, and there was blood everywhereâon the floor, on the walls, even on the fancy brass bed he'd had brought all the way from New Orleans. He went crazy with grief, and came charging up the hill to find her murderers and hack 'em to pieces with his saber. He never did find 'em, but whenever the moon is full, he tries again.”
Caron marched to the door, then looked back at me. “Have I mentioned the G word lately?” With a sniff, she went down the hall.
“Ronald Colman?” I asked politely.
“And Greer Garson as the wife.” The cook began to stack plates and cutlery. She noticed Caron's untouched dessert. “Is she done?”
“More than done,” I murmured.
I left the dining room and went down the hall to the foyer. It seemed I was not quick enough, however; before I could flee upstairs, the double doors flew open and Stanford strode out. Ellie followed more slowly, as did Maxie and Phoebe. No one looked cheerful, although none of them looked as enraged as the purported ghost of General Malloy.
“This is a fine barrel of pickled herring,” Stanford muttered. “I'm not opposed to a small wager every now and then, but I do not relish a game of Russian rouletteâwhen she loads the revolver. She's more than capable of filling the damn thing with bullets so all of us can have a turn at blowing our brains out for her entertainment.”
Maxie took a cigarette from a black beaded evening bag and lit it. “Nor do I, Cousin Stanford, nor do I. Perhaps it's time to form an unholy alliance. One-sixth of the estate is preferable to nothing.”
“But, Mother,” Phoebe protested, “she promised us.”
“I know she did, but it appears that she also promised cousins Stanford, Ellie, Keith, and Pauline. I'm not at all sure which promise she intends to keepâif any. She very well may give the entire estate to a home for prodigal alligators.”
“It's a shame we can't take a tiny peek at this new will,” Ellie said pensively.
“As well as the old one,” Stanford added. He noticed me and winked. I regretted not stabbing him with a fork.
Maxie dropped her cigarette in a vase. “Miss Justicia said she would reveal the contents of the new will tomorrow at dinner, and we must abide by her wishes.” She regaled us with an elaborate yawn. “Come along, Phoebe, it's time to retire.”
“Yes, Mother. I am fatigued after the day's journey. Traveling can disrupt one's diurnal biological rhythms.”
Stanford pulled out an ornate silver pocket watch and harrumphed in disbelief. “My goodness, it's after ten, and I'm feeling a bit bushed, myself. How about you, Ellie?”
“I can't imagine anything more appealing,” she said.
I realized it was my turn, and said, “Caron's already upstairs. I suppose we'll see all of you at breakfast?”
They all assured me that we certainly would.
No one moved.
Maxie glared at Stanford, who was glaring at Ellie, who was glaring at Phoebe, who was glaring at me. I was merely gazing at them when the double doors opened and Pauline slipped out.
“Justicia is settled for the night,” she said in a hushed voice. “She insisted on a nightcap from the brandy decanter in her bedroom. Her doctor will be most displeased.”
Maxie tucked her bag under her arm. “Then we can all retire, content in the knowledge that Miss Justicia is resting peacefully. Until the morning, dear cousins?”
On that note, we all trooped upstairs in a tight group. I continued to my cell and went inside with a sigh of relief.
Caron sat in the middle of her bed, dressed in a T-shirt. Her face was speckled with green cream, as if a baby with a mouthful of strained peas had sneezed in close proximity. “Do you think that painting out in the hall is of General Richmond Malloy?” she asked ever so casually.
“Does he resemble Ronald Colman?”
“Never mind, dear.” I drew the curtains and sat down on the edge of the bed to pull off my shoes. “What a crazy group they are. No, I take that back. They're greedy; Miss Justicia's the crazy one. Why would she privately promise each one the majority of the estate? She's asking for trouble, and these people are more than prepared to give it to her.”
“I think Miss Justicia enjoys it,” Caron said. She crossed her legs and pulled up one foot to study its bottom. “There aren't tapeworms in the carpet, are there? I don't want to end up like that person in
whose guts exploded. Talk about disgustingâ¦”
“Why do you think she enjoys it?” I asked, unable to deal with the latter part of her remarks.
“None of them ever visits her except when they want money. This is her way of getting even with them.”
“Your perspicacity amazes me at times. Your father wasn't any better thanâ” I stopped as I heard a creak in the hall. “Sssh, someone's outside the door.”
I tiptoed to the door and opened it to a slit. Keith was moving furtively down the hall. He tapped on Ellie's door, and was admitted after a whispered word from its occupant.
A second door farther down the hall opened and Stanford's head popped out. Another opened, and Maxie and Phoebe peered out, their two faces poised in totem-pole fashion. Phoebe was on top; her chinless face fit snugly into her mother's beehive. Pauline's door opened only a few inches, but I could see her elongated face in the shadows.
Various eyes met, and then all doors, including mine, closed with perceptible clicks.
“Okay, so they're crazy, too,” I said as I opened a suitcase and began to rummage for my nightgown. “And the situation is becoming more gothic by the minute, in an oddly off-key fashion. We've got a creepy house, a full moon, a mysterious will, dark family secrets, at least one ghost, and carefully staged scenes that are straight out of one of Azalea Twilight's five-hundred-page bodice rippers. I might have a better grasp of things if I'd forced myself to read one of them.”
“Azalea's characters are a lot more interesting than these dweebs,” Caron said, still studying her foot. “In her books, there's always a handsome hulk with a dueling scar. Keith's pockmarks hardly qualify.” She glanced at me. “And a poor, mistreated girl who's penniless and has to marry some sadist who keeps his other wives locked in the attic. When she learns she's actually an heiress, everybody's really sorry about being mean to her. Really, really sorry.”
“Is that an erumpent pimple on the tip of your nose?”
With a squeal of terror, she fled to the bathroom. I changed into a nightgown and plumped the pillow as best I could, then took a mystery novel from my suitcase and settled in to read something entertaining rather than instructional.
After the best part of an hour, a slightly greener Caron reappeared and lay down on her bed to gaze at the ceiling. “I wonder if Ellie has anything that might help.”
“Help with what, dear?” I asked distractedly, more concerned with the blizzard at the country house that had trapped a sextet of potential murderers, along with an elderly butler who dressed impeccably and served brandy on a silver salver. He did not wear sunglasses and a set of headphones, although he did glide silently in and out of the chapters.
“My complexion. I look worse than when I had the chicken pox in second grade.” She yanked the sheet away and sat up. “Maybe Ellie has some cream or something I can use tonight.”
“Everyone has gone to bed. Ask her in the morning.” I turned the page. The electricity was out because of the blizzard, naturally, and everyone was creeping around the house with candles in their sweaty fists. I decided the butler was doing too much creeping for his station in life. Ignoring the sighs and groans from the other bed, I turned another page.
After a while, the sighs and groans became snuffly snores. I continued to read until I realized I was holding the book while I dozed. I crossed the room to switch off the light, and made it back to my bed with only a minor bit of damage to one toe. I deplumped the pillow, pulled the sheet up to my chin, and closed my eyes.
As if controlled by a thread from the ceiling, my eyelids rose. I tried again, but they refused to stay down without conscientious effort on my part. I stared at the ghostly blotches of mildew on the walls. I stared at the crouching figure made of suitcases. I stared at the sliver of moonlight on the wardrobe. Eventually, I found my watch on the bedside table and stared at it until I determined it was nearly midnight. I also determined that I was hungryâravenously, primitively, inescapably hungryâand that I was not going to be able to sleep until I appeased the internal demons.
I eased out of bed, put on my robe and bedroom slippers, and went out to the hall. One small bulb in a wall fixture on the landing provided enough light for me to make it safely down the stairs.
As I turned to go to the kitchen, I saw a narrow line of light under the parlor door. I crept to the door and tried to peek through the keyhole, a vastly overrated technique. I caught a glimpse of movement but no face. I considered my options and opted for the obvious. As I opened the door, the figure spun around.
“Cousin Claire!” gasped Phoebe as she stumbled backward through the thicket of floor lamps.
“I came down to raid the refrigerator,” I said, glancing at the tape measure in her hand. “What are you doing?”
“I had trouble sleeping, and I thought I'd look in here for a magazine.”
“Any size in particular?”
She looked at the tape measure as if it were the record-setting tapeworm. “I left this in here earlier.”
“I'm going to the kitchen to see if I can find some cheese and bread,” I said, not bothering to point out I'd seen her put it in her bag before dinner.
“I'll come with you.” She put the tape measure in her bathrobe pocket, switched off the lamp, and joined me in the doorway. “I must agree that dinner was inedible. Whatever could have been in that sauce on the pudding?”
We discussed possibilities as we went down the hall toward the kitchen. As we passed the open door of the dining room, I spotted movement. I caught Phoebe's arm. “There's someone in there,” I whispered.
She unceremoniously removed my hand. “There is a great deal of moonlight, Cousin Claire. It's more likely that you saw a shadow from the magnolia tree near the window.”
“Or someone looking for a magazine.” I turned on the light.
Stanford was on his hands and knees under the dining table. He gave us the frantic look of a puppy caught piddling on the carpet, then hastily crawled out and stood up. His bathrobe hung open, exposing pajamas dotted with teddy bears. “Iâ¦came downstairs toâ¦ah, to find myself a little snack.”
“You're rather desperate if you're willing to settle for crumbs from under the table,” I said.
Stanford snatched up a napkin from the table to wipe his forehead. “There is a perfectly good explanation for my behavior, which I'll be the first to admit looked peculiar.” We waited diplomatically while he concocted it. “When I retired earlier, I realized I'd misplaced my pocket watch. It's been in the family for generations. I was too distraught to sleep. It finally occurred to me that it might have fallen out of my pocket during dinner, and I came down to search under the table.” His bald lie gave him enough courage to narrow his eyes at us. “And what are you two ladies doing down here?”
Phoebe narrowed her eyes right back at him. “I desired a magazine to read, Cousin Stanford. Cousin Claire says she came down to find something to eat.”
“Miss Justicia insists that the kitchen door be locked every night.” Stanford dusted off the knees of his pajamas and tightened the belt of his bathrobe with a jerk that must have pained a few of the dear little teddies. “Cousin Pauline has always kept the key; she used to allow Keith into the kitchen when they thought no one was up.”
I tried to imagine the two as comrades in a midnight pantry raid, then reminded myself that he'd probably been dragged to the barbershop on a monthly basis.
“I suppose I'll go back upstairs,” I said.
“So will I,” Stanford said. “And you, Cousin Phoebe? I see you didn't have much success finding a magazineâ¦.”
“As much success as you had finding your pocket watch.”
I turned off the light and we went toward the foyer. As we came through the doorway, I saw a diaphanous white figure in the darkness. Phoebe and Stanford must have seen it, too, since their gurgles of surprise echoed mine as we rammed into each other like a chain-reaction accident on a foggy freeway.
The figure turned around. I could see a gossamer gown, but the face was masked by the shadows. Bits of the cook's cinematic ghost story came back in icy dribbles down my spine. Gulping, I squinted until I could make out features.
“Pauline.” I exhaled. “What are you doing out here?”
A few noises came from her throat, but I could make no sense of them. As I reached her side, I realized the front door was ajar. I pulled it open and found myself confronting not the vaporous remains of General Malloy but the pudgy white taxi driver who'd delivered Caron and me to Malloy Manor several eons ago.
“Somebody called for a cab,” he said, shrinking back as I gaped at him. “Now this lady says she doesn't know who called. I drove all the way out here, and lemme tell youâit ain't no hop, skip, and jump.”
Pauline found what there was of her voice. “I'm at a loss as to who would call at this hour.”
“Are you positive someone called from this house?” I asked the driver.
“I didn't drive out here for my health.”
“No, I suppose not.” I looked back at Stanford and Phoebe. “Do either of you know anything about this?”
Stanford numbly shook his head, but Phoebe turned on Pauline with a tight frown. “Perhaps you might explain why you're in the foyer, Cousin Pauline?”
“Iâ¦I thought I heard voices down here, and felt it only prudent to see who was up and about. Justicia oftens wakes at the slightest sound. As I came down the stairs, I heard a knock on the door, and I subsequently discoveredâ¦the gentleman on the porch.”
I gnawed on my lip for a moment, and then resorted to surreptitious twitches of my fingers as I mentally counted. “There are only nine of us in the house. I can vouch for Caron's innocence; she's sound asleep. If none of us called, it must have been Miss Justicia, Ellie, Keith, or Maxie. Why would any of them want to leave in the middle of the night?”
“It is most puzzling,” said Pauline. “I'll peek into Justicia's room and make sure she's asleep.” We waited while she went across the foyer, opened one of the double doors, and closed it carefully. “She does awaken so easily,” she whispered as she joined us. “However, she is in her bed under her comforter. The brandy decanter is no longer on her bedside table, which I fear indicates sheâ¦well, she polished it off once I'd settled her down for the night.”