Read Home Before Dark: A Novel Online

Authors: Riley Sager

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

Home Before Dark: A Novel (4 page)

“Those bells probably haven’t rung in decades,” Janie June told us.

Farther into the kitchen, the décor began to shift, becoming darker, more utilitarian. There was a long butcher block table, its surface nicked by knife blades and darkened by stains made long ago. The cabinets ended, giving way to swaths of bare wall. By the time we reached the other side, all traces of the kitchen were gone, replaced by an archway of stone and a set of rickety steps leading farther into the ground.

“It’s like a cave,” Jess said.

“Technically, it’s the basement,” Janie June replied. “While it’s definitely a little rustic, you could turn it into a very useful space. It would make a terrific wine cellar.”

“I don’t drink,” Jess said.

“And I stick to beer,” I added.

Janie June smiled wider. “Good thing there are so many other amazing things you could do with it.”

Her cheery desperation told me this wasn’t the first tour of Baneberry Hall she had given. I pictured young couples like Jess and me arriving with bright expectations that darkened with each room they saw.

I was the opposite. Each oddity the house offered only furthered my interest. All my life, I’d been drawn to eccentricity. When I was six and my parents finally allowed me to get a dog, I bypassed the shiny-coated purebreds at the pet store and went straight for a scruffy mongrel. And after being cooped up in an apartment so nondescript that it might as well have been invisible, I was eager for something different. Something with character.

With the kitchen tour over, we backtracked upstairs and to the front of the house, where the chandelier just inside the great room now glowed.

“That wasn’t on earlier, was it?” I asked.

A nervous smile crossed Janie June’s face. “I think it was.”

“And I’m sure it wasn’t,” I said. “Does this house have electrical problems?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll double-check.”

Casting one more anxious glance toward the chandelier, Janie June quickly guided us into a room to the immediate right of the vestibule.

“Parlor,” she said as we entered the circular room. It was stuffy inside, literally and figuratively. Faded pink paper covered the walls, and dust-covered drop cloths hung over the furniture. One of the cloths had fallen away, revealing a towering cherrywood secretary desk.

Jess, whose father had been in the antiques trade, rushed to it. “This has to be at least a hundred years old.”

“Probably older,” Janie June said. “A lot of the furniture belonged to the Garson family. It’s stayed with the house over the years. Which is the perfect time to tell you that Baneberry Hall is being sold as is. That includes the furniture. You can keep what you like and get rid of the rest.”

Jess absently caressed the desk’s wood. “The seller doesn’t want
of it?”

“Not a thing,” Janie June said with a sad shake of her head. “Can’t say I blame her.”

She then moved us into what she called the Indigo Room, which was, in fact, painted green.

“A surprise, I know,” she said. “The walls might have been indigo once upon a time, but I doubt it. The room was actually named after William Garson’s daughter and not the color.”

Janie June pointed to the fireplace, which matched the one in the great room in size and scope. Above it, also painted onto a rectangle of smooth brick, was a portrait of a young woman in a lacy purple dress. Sitting in her lap, cupped in her gloved hands, was a white rabbit.

“Indigo Garson,” Janie June said.

The painting was clearly the work of the same artist who’d done William Garson’s portrait. Both had identical styles—the delicate brushstrokes, the painstaking attention to detail. But while Mr. Garson seemed haughty and cruel, the portrait of his daughter was a vision of youthful loveliness. All luminous skin and gentle curves. Radiant to the point that the faintest bit of halo circled her crown of golden curls. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that the artist, whoever he was, had fallen a bit in love with Indigo as he painted her.

“The Garsons were a big family,” Janie June continued. “William and his wife had four sons, who later formed big families of their own. Indigo was the only daughter. She was sixteen when she died.”

I took a step closer to the painting, my gaze zeroing in on the rabbit in Indigo Garson’s hands. The paint there was slightly chipped—a missing fleck directly over the rabbit’s left eye that made it resemble an empty socket.

“How did she die?” I asked.

“I don’t really know,” Janie June said in a way that made me think she did.

Completely uninterested in yet another painting we couldn’t remove, Jess crossed the room, fascinated by another image—a framed photograph that poked out from under a crooked drop cloth. She picked it up, revealing a picture of a family standing in front of Baneberry Hall. Just like us, there were three of them. Father, mother, daughter.

The girl looked to be about six and was the spitting image of her mother. It helped that both had the same hairstyle—long in the back and held in place by headbands—and wore similar white dresses. Side by side, they clasped hands and stared at the camera with bright, open faces.

The father kept his distance from them, as if he had been ordered not to stand too close. He wore a wrinkled suit a few sizes too large for his frame and a look on his face that resembled a scowl.

Unpleasant expression aside, he remained undeniably handsome. Movie-star handsome, which at first made me think these people had been visitors during Baneberry Hall’s Hollywood years. Then I noticed how modern they looked, in clothes that could have been seen on the streets of any town in America. The only thing
old-fashioned about them was the woman’s glasses—a pair of spectacles with round frames that made her look a bit like Ben Franklin.

“Who are they?” Jess asked.

Janie June squinted at the photo, once again trying to act as though she didn’t know, when it was clear she did. After a few more seconds of studied squinting, she said, “I believe those are the previous owners. The Carvers.”

She gave a nod toward the photo, signaling to Jess to put it back where she had found it. We continued on, the tour speeding up, making me think Janie June didn’t want us asking more questions. We were quickly shown the music room, replete with a grand piano with a wobbly leg, and a conservatory strewn with plants in various stages of decay.

“I hope one of you has a green thumb,” Janie June said breezily.

She took us upstairs via an unassuming set of servants’ steps between the dining room and the conservatory. The second floor was devoted to several bedrooms and a spacious bathroom at the end of the hall.

Jess, who for years had bemoaned the lack of space in our apartment in Burlington, lingered in the master suite, which occupied the second-floor curve of the turret and boasted both a sitting room and an adjoining bathroom.

I was more taken with an area on the other end of the hall. The bedroom with the slanted ceiling and towering armoire seemed perfect for Maggie. I suppose it was the canopied bed that made me think that. It was just the right size for a girl her age.

“The armoire is one-of-a-kind,” Janie June said. “William Garson had it made special as a gift to his daughter. This was her bedroom.”

Jess examined it with the appraiser’s eye she inherited from her
father. “This is all hand-carved?” she said while running a hand over the cherubs and ivy that scaled the armoire’s corners.

“Of course,” Janie June said. “Very rare and, most likely, very valuable.”

Maggie stood in the doorway, peeking inside.

“This could be your room, Mags,” I told her. “What do you think of that?”

Maggie shook her head. “I don’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s cold.”

I raised a hand, trying to detect a chill. The room’s temperature felt normal to me. If anything, it seemed a little warm.

“I’m sure you’d grow to like it,” I said.

The third floor, which was where Janie June took us next, was half the size of the second. Rather than an attic, we entered an open and airy study with built-in bookshelves covering two of the walls and two pairs of round windows that looked out over the front and back of the estate. They were, I realized, the tiny windows I had seen when we first arrived. The ones that resembled eyes.

“This was originally William Garson’s study,” Janie June said.

And it could now be mine. I pictured myself at the great oak desk in the center of the room. I loved the idea of playing the tortured writer, banging away at my typewriter into the wee hours of the night, fueled by coffee and inspiration and stress. Thinking about it caused a smile to creep across my face. I held it back, worried Janie June would notice and think she had the sale in the bag. Already I feared I had expressed too much excitement, hence the ever-quickening pace of the tour.

My wife’s feelings were harder to decipher. I had no idea what
Jess thought of the place. Throughout the tour, she had seemed curious if cautious.

“It’s not bad,” Jess whispered on our way back down to the second floor.

“Not bad?” I said. “It’s perfect.”

“I admit there’s a lot to love about it,” Jess said, being her usual careful self. “But it’s old. And massive.”

“I’m less concerned about the size than the price.”

“You think it’s too high?”

“I think it’s too low,” I said. “A place like this? There’s got to be a reason its listed so low, plus the furniture.”

Indeed there was, which we didn’t learn about until the tour was over and Janie June was ushering us back onto the porch.

“Are there any questions?” she said.

“Is there something wrong with the house?”

I blurted it out with no preamble, leaving Janie June looking slightly stricken as she locked the door behind us.

Tensing her shoulders, she said, “What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“No house this big has an asking price that small unless it’s got major problems.”

“Problems? No. A reputation? That’s another story.” Janie June sighed and leaned against the porch railing. “I’m going to be up front with you, even though state law doesn’t require me to say anything. I’m telling you because, let’s face it, Bartleby is a small town and people talk. You’ll hear about it one way or another if you buy this place. It might as well come from me. This house is what we refer to as a stigmatized property.”

“What does that mean?” Jess asked.

“That something bad happened here,” I say.

Janie June nodded slowly. “To the previous owners, yes.”

“The ones in that photo?” Jess said. “What happened?”

“They died. Two of them did, anyway.”

“In the house?”

“Yes,” Janie June replied.

I made Maggie go play on the front lawn, within eyesight but out of earshot, before asking, “How?”


“Good God,” Jess said, her face blanching. “That’s horrible.”

This prompted another nod from Janie June. “It was indeed horrible, Mrs. Holt. Shocking, too. Curtis Carver, the man in that picture you found, killed his daughter and then himself. His poor wife found them both. She hasn’t returned since.”

I thought about the family in the photograph. How happy and innocent the little girl looked. Then I remembered the father standing at a distance with that scowl on his face.

“Was he mentally unstable?” I asked.

“Clearly,” Janie June said. “Though not in an outward way. Nobody saw it coming, if that’s what you’re asking. From the outside, the family looked happy as could be. Curtis was well-liked and respected. Same thing with Marta Carver, who owns the bakery downtown. And that little girl was just the cutest thing. Katie. That was her name. Little Katie Carver. We were all shocked when it happened.”

“Poor Mrs. Carver,” Jess said. “I can’t imagine what she must be going through.”

She meant every word, I’m sure. Jess was nothing but empathetic, especially to the plights of other women. But I also sensed relief in her voice. The kind that came from a bone-deep certainty
that she’d never experience something as terrible as losing her husband and daughter in the same day.

What she didn’t know—what she couldn’t have known until much later—was how close she’d come to having that exact scenario happen to her. But on that May afternoon, the only thing on our minds was finding the perfect home for our family. When Janie June took Maggie for a walk around the grounds so Jess and I could confer on the porch, I immediately told her we should buy the place.

“Not funny,” she said with a derisive sniff.

“I’m being serious.”

“After learning
? People died here, Ewan.”

“People have died in lots of places.”

“I’m well aware of that fact. I’d just prefer it if our house wasn’t one of them.”

That wasn’t an option where Baneberry Hall was concerned. Its history was its history, and we had no control over it. That left one of two options—look elsewhere or try to make it a place so happy that all the bad times in its past no longer mattered.

“Let’s be rational about this,” I said. “I love the house. You love the house.”

Jess stopped me with a raised index finger. “I said there was a lot to love. Not that I felt that way.”

“At least admit it’s a great house.”

“It is,” she said. “And under any other circumstance, I would have already told Janie June that we’re buying it. I’m just afraid that if we live here, what happened will always be hanging over us. I know it sounds superstitious, but I’m worried that it’ll seep into our lives somehow.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It won’t.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because we won’t let it. That man—that Curtis Carver—he wasn’t well. Only a sick man would be able to do what he did. But we can’t let the actions of one disturbed person keep us from our dream house.”

Jess said nothing. She simply wrapped her arms around my waist and pressed her head against my chest. Eventually, she said, “You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”

“Let’s just say I know that every other house we look at is going to pale in comparison.”

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