Sarah managed to get out before Renee or Barry could give her an argument and hurried toward her house, half-afraid that strangers were going to stop her on the street to ask about the bones.
But no one did.
She reached the house and was pleased to see that no one was there. Not a car remained. She hurried up the steps to the porch, fitted her key in the lock, turned it and entered.
The house greeted her with an eerie silence.
“Hello? Anyone here?” she called, even though she already knew everyone was gone. Her voice sounded far too soft and tentative, she thought, so she cleared her voice and called out again. “Hello? Is anyone here?”
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer. She walked through to the back and saw that the library was indeed empty.
Tentatively, she moved forward and looked inside the walls, then breathed a sigh of relief. No bones. They had been removed.
She walked on into the kitchen. On the counter there was a note from Floby, who said he’d been there all day, working with the different experts and agencies. He also said they would probably be in and out over the next few days, just to make completely certain that she wouldn’t be living with more remains.
She smiled. Floby was a sweetie, a charming old guy, despite holding a job many people considered to be morbid. But he simply saw himself as an investigator, discovering clues in the bodies of the deceased, just as detectives sought them on the streets.
She walked back down the hallway toward the front door and froze. The door was open, and an old man was standing there.
He was so thin he was practically skeletal.
Just like the bones in the walls.
Was he real?
He walked closer to her. She could see that his cheeks were hollow. There were only a few silver tufts of hair on his head, and his nose looked like a narrow perch.
To her astonishment, she opened her mouth but no sound emerged.
What on earth was going on? Could he actually be a ghost? But she didn’t believe in ghosts.
T he man had to be real.
He also had to be ninety if he was a day.
“Young lady,” he said, taking another step forward, supporting himself with a cane and moving slowly, yet with purpose. “Young lady, I am Terrence Griffin the Third. How do you do?”
He was real, she thought in silent gratitude, and he couldn’t possibly offer her any harm. A breeze would blow him over.
“Hello,” she managed to respond, her voice sounding like a croak. She was angry with herself. She’d left the door open. The discovery of the bones in her walls was bound to bring out the sightseers, and it was likely that a serial killer was at work in the city, and like an idiot, she had left the door open.
“I’ve come to talk to you,” he said. His voice was dry and low, like the rustle of leaves.
“Okay,” she said.
“Because you have to know the truth about your house. It’s evil.”
“A house can’t be evil,” she said, staring firmly at him.
“Think whatever you want, but people do evil here because evil was done here before,” he told her gravely.
She didn’t know what to do. He was so old and looked so frail that she didn’t want to upset him, but his intensity and the craziness of his words were disturbing. She fought the urge to scream, push him aside and rush out of the house, and considered calling the police.
In the end she just kept standing there, still staring at him.
He took another step closer to her. “You must listen. It’s important. You can do something, you can…communicate with them. You need to find out the truth and stop it from happening again.”
She wanted to tell him that whatever had happened here a hundred or more years ago couldn’t happen again now, because whoever had perpetrated the crime was long dead.
“It started during the Civil War,” he told her. “When the house was owned by the MacTavish family.”
He knew his local history, she thought, drawn in despite her best intentions to ignore anything he said.
“Old man MacTavish was ill, and he was against the war, so his heart had been broken when his son Cato went off to fight. Cato was planning to marry Eleanora Stewart after the war and take over the mortuary his father had set up. He and Eleanora were madly in love, but when he was wounded and sent home, he discovered that Eleanora had disappeared right after he’d been back on leave. He had been the last person to see her. His father had died while he was gone, so he was left to run the business alone, with just a housekeeper to take care of him, and a boarder and his daughter to help. Pretty soon young women started disappearing. Only a few bodies were found, but the others were presumed dead. Everything was in an uproar, with the war still being on and all. And pretty soon Cato was being accused of kidnapping and murder. People started putting two and two together, and they figured he must have killed Eleanora, so he had to be responsible for what had happened to those other girls, too. So he left, he just left. Or hid out in the woods, as some speculated. The housekeeper went away, too, or so some said, though others thought she had been lynched. The only ones left in the house were the boarder, a man named Leo Brennan, who bought the place when it came up for taxes, and his daughter. He must have learned the trade from Cato, because he kept it as a mortuary, and eventually his son took over. And then…well, it happened again.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Griffin. What happened again?” Sarah asked.
“The disappearances. Young women just…disappearing. I know because my own daughter left the house in the summer of 1928, and she never came back. She came here to get together with Louise Brennan and another friend, Susannah, and she and Susannah both disappeared. They were never seen again,” Mr. Griffin said with the sadness of years in his voice.
He had been the father of a teenager, at least, in 1928. How old was he? she wondered.
Once again, the question invaded her mind.
Was he even real?
Yes, he was flesh and blood. She was sure of it.
“The housekeeper…she knew voodoo, the black arts, magic,” he said.
“Mr. Griffin, you said she left right after Cato did,” she reminded him gently.
“The evil remains, it resides inside these walls,” he said.
He was in his dotage, she told herself. He had never gotten over the loss of his daughter. And now, with all the publicity about Winona Hart, he was simply seeing the past reflected in the present.
“I’m very sorry about your daughter,” she offered, not knowing what else to say.
“She’s here, in these walls,” he said. “Like Eleanora, like the others.”
“Mr. Griffin, there’s no one in these walls…anymore. The medical examiner came, and the bones have all been taken away. My house isn’t evil.”
“You’ll feel them. You’ll know. You’ll find out the truth,” he told her.
He was just a sad old man having a hard time, she told herself. Other people, people who weren’t personally involved in any way, were morbidly fascinated by what had happened, but for Mr. Griffin, it was a terrible trip back in time.
“Mr. Griffin, honestly, no one knows for sure what took place in this house, but no one believes it was anything horrible. They think an undertaker was making money by selling coffins, then hiding the bodies in the walls so he could make extra money by reselling their coffins. With the war and then Reconstruction, people were pretty desperate for money,” she said gently.
He pointed a finger at her, and in the lengthening shadows of evening, the effect was eerie enough to make her shiver.
“You’ll find out the truth. You have to. They’ll haunt these rooms until you do. They have no choice, don’t you see? The evil in this house will keep coming back unless you stop it.”
Sarah wanted to do something, to run away screaming or shake the old man and make him see that he was wrong, that her house didn’t have a personality, especially not an evil one. It was just a house.
But she didn’t want to hurt him, not even his feelings. He’d been through enough, losing his daughter, and he was so earnest.
Before she could speak again, or make up her mind what to do, they were interrupted by a voice coming from the porch.
“Mr. Griffin? Oh, dear God. Mr. Griffin, where are you?”
The voice was feminine, and clearly concerned.
“We’re in here!” Sarah called.
She heard footsteps, and then, coming up the hall behind Mr. Griffin, she saw one of the most strikingly beautiful women she had ever encountered. Blue jeans and a T-shirt hugged the woman’s perfect form. She had long, curling blond hair, a classically beautiful face and slightly tilted cat’s eyes so brilliantly blue that Sarah could discern their color even in the dim hallway.
She set an arm gently around Mr. Griffin’s shoulders and looked at Sarah apologetically. “I’m so sorry. We were out walking when his hat blew away, and when I ran to get it, Mr. Griffin walked off on me.” She flashed Sarah a hopeful smile. “I am so, so sorry. I hope he didn’t scare you. He’s the kindest man you’ll ever meet.”
“It’s all right. We were just talking,” Sarah said.
The woman looked relieved as she offered Sarah a hand. “I’m Cary Hagan. I work for Mr. Griffin. Nurse, companion, secretary, all-around best girl. Right?” She turned to him as she spoke, and he nodded. “He’s one hundred and two years old, and absolutely remarkable,” Cary said.
“And standing right here,” Mr. Griffin said flatly. “You needn’t speak about me as if I can’t hear you. I came to see this young lady because I saw her go into the house, and she needed to hear the things I know.”
Cary lowered her head for a moment, then looked back up at Sarah. “It’s the hoopla about the missing girl, and then the bones. His daughter disappeared years and years ago—one of a dozen or so girls who disappeared at the same time—and this has brought it all back,” she explained.
“It’s perfectly all right,” Sarah said. She stepped forward and took one of Mr. Griffin’s hands. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir. Thank you for coming to see me.”