Mansions of the Dead

Sweeney St. George Mysteries (Volume 2)

Sarah Stewart Taylor

Minotaur Books

PROLOGUE
1863


It was Belinda's favorite time of year, the three or four weeks of early spring when winter was transformed into something else, some halfway season that smelled of percolating earth and trickling streams. The grass was still brown and sickly-looking from the long winter, but when she bent her head to inhale the wet scent of the ground, she could see a fur of pale green growth below that promised a stronger green, could feel the hesitant sun that whispered its promise in the cool air.

She was on her way to her family grave plot on Asphodel Path, in one of the newest sections of Mount Auburn Cemetery. They were expanding the cemetery and she was aware of the movements of the workers as they carted soil to build more new roads. On the weekend there had been visitors thronging the little avenues-it was the custom now to come for a stroll among the headstones, seeking respite from the busy city, from news of sons and brothers and sweethearts killed by the Confederates-but today the grounds were silent. While she'd heard the workers laughing together as she'd arrived the first day, they seemed to be trying to respect her privacy now.

She had come nearly every day since he had died. And she had found that she had begun to look forward to her trips to Mount Auburn, the only time of day when she was really alone. She liked wandering along the little lanes and reading the stones. There was one that she found herself walking by nearly every time she went, a simple white marble likeness of an angel with the words, "My wife and child."

The ground had not thawed sufficiently for burial and it would be months before Charles's monument would be ready, but she had been trying to tend to the plot with a dull little pair of sewing scissors, eventually giving up and using her fingers to pull up the dead weeds and grass by their barren roots.

Belinda smoothed the necklace that she wore at her throat, made of hair carefully braided into a chain. Charles had possessed such dark hair, a rich brown lit with auburn, and it hadn't grayed much at all, even during his long illness. It had grown out in those last months-he had had a strange superstition about cutting it-and by working the locks of hair around a mold to make twenty intricately netted balls and then stringing them together, she had been able to make a necklace that reached the third button of her dress. After preparing the locks of hair with soda water according to the instructions in Godey's Lady's Book, she had sat alone in the parlor night after night with the strange little hairwork table that the gardener had made for her. When she was finished, she had taken the necklace to her father's jeweler, who had put on the clasp.

The pursuit had pleased her; it had been something to do during those strange evenings when if she didn't miss him exactly, she missed the bulk of him across the dinner table or in the parlor, where he had always sat with the paper, drinking port while she read or worked at her embroidery.

She shook her head to clear away the image of his sickbed, the stained rags littering the floor, the housemaid scurrying around nervously, crossing herself as his time neared. It was funny how she had become attuned to his condition in those last few days, and she had known he was going to die before the doctor knew. His color, and the way the room smelled, had told her that she would soon be a widow.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I have to bring a load of earth by and I wouldn't want to be disturbing you, ma'am." She started and turned to find one of the laborers behind her, standing with a cart. Irish. She stepped back.

"That's all right. Go ahead. It won't bother me," she said, looking into a pair of blue eyes, a boyish face. He wasn't very old. Not much older than she was. Twenty-three, she said to herself. I am only twenty-three and already I am a widow.

It was her own fault, what had happened. She had married a man as old as her father because she had wanted an easy life. She had been just a girl, prone to daydreaming. She had liked to sketch. That was how she had known he had an interest in her. They had met in Newport, at the Ocean House, where her father liked to go for the sea air. She had been sketching in the music room of the hotel one evening and he had wandered in. Her father knew him through business and they had spoken the evening before. When he came in, holding a newspaper and looking uncomfortable, she had had the idea to sketch him in his discomfort and had asked his permission. He had smiled as though it surprised him and agreed, and it wasn't until later that she had looked at the sketch and seen something in his face that made her stomach knot.

That night she had played cards with him and chatted flirtatiously. She felt somehow that she was acting out a script and when she examined her own actions she was ashamed. The next day she had agreed to stroll along the cliffs with him.

When they were back in Boston, her father had asked her to come into the library and he had told her about the proposal. "He is aware that the age difference is a problem," he told her, stammering a little. "It is up to you. I admit that I always thought of you marrying for love, someone who could match your high spirits. I wish that your mother were still alive to talk to you about the demands of marriage, about the difficulties in living with another person. But he is a good man and I don't have to tell you that we have been hard hit in the markets. It won't be many months before we have to sell this house. It's up to you to decide how you want to live."
She had told him she would think about it, but she had known, even as she left the room, what her answer would be.

It was her own fault. God would punish her. She knew this now. God would punish her for her thoughts and . . . for her actions. She had not been a good Christian wife to him.

She sat down on the grass, feeling the dampness soaking through the wool of her dress. The cold shocked her skin. But the dress was dark and the stain would not show. She smiled a little at this. No, she had not been a good Christian wife to him at all. Still . . . if she was truthful with herself, she had never felt so free.

ONE

The first thing Becca Dearborne noticed was Brad's angelfish.

It had flipped onto its side, its eyes staring into the bubbling water, its catlike whiskers trailing. The other fish-a few more angels, a swarm of tiny, flashing tetras, a grumpy catfish-swam around nervously, as though they knew something was wrong. She extracted a little green net from the jumble of supplies next to the tank, bottles of chemicals and fish food, thermometers, a pair of rubber gloves, then scooped out the dead fish and took it through to the bathroom, where she flushed it down the toilet and rinsed out the net.

"It must have died in the night," she said softly to Jaybee. "Otherwise, he'd never have left it there." She put a finger to the glass and felt something in her stomach, a pang, of sadness perhaps, for the fish.

"Yeah. He'd probably have taken it to the hospital." Jaybee, who had been Brad's friend since ninth grade and his roommate since their freshman year of college, liked to make fun of Brad's obsession with the aquarium. He spent a fortune buying special plants and various concoctions that were supposed to kill bad bacteria or add good bacteria, or change the pH of the water. And he spent hours testing the water and taking notes on how various changes affected the health of the fish. Becca, who had known Brad even longer than Jaybee had, thought she understood. She could stare into the depths of the aquarium for minutes on end, mesmerized by the movements of the fish in the water, lazy one moment, quick the next.

"I'm taking a shower," she said. Jaybee reached for her arm and pulled her toward him, kissing her long and hard. Dizzy, she pulled away and escaped into the bathroom.

Under the hot spray of water she arched her neck, soaping her hair and body and feeling the tightly knotted muscles along her shoulders give way. It felt so good that she turned the tap toward hot until she could feel her nerves scream and stood under the scalding spray for a few seconds before twisting the handle to off. Drip, drop, came the final water from the tap.

Becca wrapped herself in a bath towel, and wiped a little window in the steam on the mirror.
Her face seemed blurry to her, her eyes too big, the whites cloudy, the color of weak tea. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again, but she looked the same and she turned away from the mirror, going out into the living room where Jaybee was standing in the middle of the area rug-a castoff from his older brother's apartment-looking perplexed.

"What's the matter?" she whispered, coming up behind him and pressing her body against his. Jaybee-his long back, his grin, his soft, auburny hair, his right index finger, bent from a childhood accident with a car door-made her feel somehow at a loss. She felt displaced, almost sick when she was with him, a completely new experience. The three other sexual relationships she'd had in her twenty years-with her boarding school boyfriend and two casual college flings-had seemed a sort of kindly, benign prostitution. By sleeping with those boys, for they were boys, she had secured companionship, affection, dates for important events, and presents on her birthday. It had seemed, in each case, a worthwhile exchange. But this was something else. She had woken up the night before to find him missing-he'd gone outside for some air, he told her when he came back to bed-and she had experienced the most profound panic she had ever experienced. She had felt that she would do anything to feel his back against her arms again as she did now.

"I don't know," Jaybee said, looking around the room. "The apartment looks different. Weird."
Becca looked around too. Due to Jaybee's influence, the apartment was usually messy. There were books piled on every surface, dirty dishes in the sink, bikes and helmets tumbled on the floor behind the black couch. But he was right: there was something different about the room. All of the kitchen cabinets were open, as were the doors of the entertainment center in the living room. There was a jumbled pile of tools and videotapes and odds and ends on the floor beneath the television stand. The room smelled of vomit.

Becca felt cold all of a sudden. "He was really drunk, and really out of it. Maybe he just . . ."

"Yeah." Jaybee tried to smile. "That's right. He was pretty trashed, wasn't he?"

"I'm going to get dressed." She walked past Brad's closed door and into Jaybee's room, where she hurriedly put on her clothes, toweling her hair for a second and then going back out into the living room. Jaybee was standing in front of Brad's door.

"You going to check on him?" She was making a conscious effort to stay calm, though she knew something was wrong. Later, she would wonder if it was Jaybee's pale, terrified face or something less tangible that had made her so afraid.

Jaybee didn't say anything. He just put a hand on Brad's doorknob and turned it, hesitating a few minutes before pushing the door open. "Brad?" Over his shoulder, she saw the gravestone photographs that Brad had all over his walls. The black-and-white images seemed to crowd the room.

And then she heard nothing but the waterfall rush in her own head as she followed Jaybee in and saw Brad, lying there on the bed.

"Jesus!" Jaybee whispered. "Jesus!"


Copyright 2004 by Sarah Stewart Taylor