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.”
The woman is Elsa Ditmer, which only becomes clear to me once both the police and her daughter arrive within a minute of each other.
First is the police, summoned by a frantic 911 call I’d made five minutes earlier. Rather than some rookie cop, I’m sent the police chief, a woman named Tess Alcott, who seems none too pleased to be here.
She steps into the house with a scowl on her face and the cocksure gait of a movie cowboy. I suspect both are affectations. Things she needs to do to be taken seriously. I do the same when I’m on the job. In my case, though, it’s a no-nonsense demeanor and clothes that appall my mother.
“I think I already know which one of you is the intruder,” Chief Alcott says.
She doesn’t get the chance to say anything else, because that’s when Mrs. Ditmer’s daughter rushes through the still-open door. Like her mother, she’s in nightclothes. Flannel pajama bottoms and an oversize Old Navy T-shirt. Ignoring Chief Alcott and me, she heads straight to her mother, who sits in the parlor, slumped in a chair still covered by a drop cloth.
“Mama, what are you doing here?”
The old woman reaches out for me, her fingers stretched, as if that might bridge the two-foot gap between us. “Petra,” she says.
That’s when I understand who she is. Who all of them are. Elsa Ditmer, her daughter, Chief Alcott—all are characters in the Book. Only they’re not characters. They’re living, breathing people. Other than my parents, I’ve never met someone mentioned in the Book, and therefore I must remind myself of their existence in real life.
“That’s not Petra, Mama,” her daughter says. “That’s a stranger.”
Mrs. Ditmer’s face, which had contained a kind of beatific hope, suddenly collapses. Grim understanding settles over her features, darkening her eyes and making her bottom lip quiver. Seeing it hurts my heart so much that I need to turn away.
“As you can see, Mrs. Ditmer gets confused sometimes,” Chief Alcott says. “Has a tendency to wander off.”
“I was told she wasn’t well,” I say.
“She has Alzheimer’s.” This is spoken by her daughter, who’s suddenly at our side. “Sometimes she’s fine. Almost as if nothing is wrong. And at other times her mind gets cloudy. She forgets what year it is, or else wanders off. I thought she was asleep. But when I saw the chief drive by, I knew she had come here.”
“Does she do that a lot?”
“No,” she says. “Usually the gate is closed.”
“Well, it’s all over now,” Chief Alcott says. “No harm meant, and no harm done. I think it’s best if Elsa gets home and back into bed.”
Mrs. Ditmer’s daughter doesn’t move. “You’re Maggie Holt,” she says, in a way that makes it sound like an accusation.
When I offer my hand, she pointedly refuses to shake it.
“Hannah,” she says, even though I’d already inferred that. “We’ve met before.”
I know, only because it was in the Book. Although my father had written that Hannah was six at the time, she looks a good decade older than me. She’s got a rawboned appearance. A woman whose soft edges had been scraped away by life. The past twenty-five years must have been a bitch.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” I say.
Hannah shrugs. A gesture that seems to say, Yeah, you and me both.
“Petra’s your sister, right?”
“Was my sister,” Hannah says. “Sorry if my mom scared you. It won’t happen again.”
She helps her mother out of the chair and guides her carefully to the door. On their way out, Elsa Ditmer turns and gives me one last look, just in case I’ve magically turned into her other daughter. But I’m still me, a fact that’s met with another crestfallen look on Mrs. Ditmer’s face.
After they’re gone, Chief Alcott lingers in the vestibule. Above her, the moth in the light fixture has gone still. Maybe just for a moment. Maybe forever.
“Maggie Holt.” The chief shakes her head in disbelief. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’re here. Not with your father’s passing and all. My condolences, by the way.”
She notices my bags, still on the vestibule floor.
“Looks like you intend to stay awhile.”
“Just long enough to fix this place up and sell it.”
“Ambitious,” Chief Alcott says. “You plan on turning it into a vacation home for some Wall Street type? Or maybe a bed-and-breakfast? Something like that?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
She sighs. “That’s a shame. I was hoping you’d come to demolish the place. Baneberry Hall deserves to be nothing but rubble.”
The pause that follows suggests she’s expecting me to be offended. I’m not.