In the wake of a bizarre and devastating personal tragedy, Lindsey Kern has come to an elegant old townhouse in Boston to forget and to begin her life over.
But Lindsey is not alone. Someone prowls her apartment at night—a tormented soul from a past century, shrouded in mystery and the cloying scent of lavender. Someone who once suffered terribly and wants revenge. Someone who kills. Now Lindsey is fighting for her sanity and her life. But it may already be too late. . . .
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Ms. Perfect-Size-Six Prosecutor, fingers resting lightly over her left breast, solemnly told the jury that I did viciously, and with malice aforethought, murder Richard. Her eyes were properly horrified, her lips pursed and grave; but she was too tight, too controlled. She lacked my attorney's sense of timing and humor; Michael was much more effective. Even the foreman had difficulty keeping a straight face when Michael declared Crowley's star witness to be forgetful, blind and confused.
Michael says we should be hopeful: the pink-haired lady on the right smiled at me as the jury left to be sequestered, and the plumber from Dorchester made eye contact. Michael says these things mean a lot.
But I'm afraid to be too optimistic. It's hard to have much faith in the chance that twelve people will believe a lie. For that's what Michael's arguments were: lies. He never got close to the real reason Richard died or who really killed him. But, then again, neither did Crowley.
The fact that this trial has been reduced to pure fabrication is not the fault of either attorney. Both of them turned, twisted, explored and exposed every insignificant detail of my life. Every person in the universe—from my childhood psychiatrist to Billy, an old boyfriend who does my taxes—was encouraged to spread me wide open in a manner I can only compare with a public gynecological exam.
So, how did it happen? It happened because only I know the truth, and Michael wouldn't let me take the stand and tell it.
He said the first problem was something called "prior similar occurrences" and that Ms. Crowley, whose cross-examining prowess is legendary, was guaranteed to maneuver me into mentioning Clay's death. According to Michael, the circumstances surrounding my untimely widowhood would be too much for any jury, and if they were admitted into evidence, I'd be listening to the clang of the long iron bar at MCI-Framingham every morning before breakfast.
But Michael's greatest concern was the ultimate effect of my testimony on our plea. He said that if I mentioned Her—and there's no way the true story could be told without mentioning Her—he would be forced to claim diminished capacity and plead insanity. All I'd win with that were thorazine-shuffle lessons at Bridgewater State and a pair of cute little green foam slippers.
So we opted for accidental death and I can only hope it was the right decision. Michael says the expression on the plumber's face proves that it was. But I'm scared. I'm scared because I know Richard's death was no accident. And I know that I didn't kill him. I'd never kill Richard—I loved him. I still love him.
If only Michael would let me tell the real story. If only I could let it go—release it from inside of me—yell it to everyone in the courtroom, tell it to every reporter and all the voyeuristic spectators whose lives are so dull they need to get their jollies from the details of mine. If only I could stand up and say, "I didn't do it! She did it! She did it!" Then I'd be free of all the anger and turmoil; and the truth would be free too. Then everyone would know the real craziness; everyone would know what really happened to Richard and what really happened to me. Even if there's little chance anyone will believe it.
For who in their right mind is going to believe that Richard was killed by a woman who died almost a century ago? Who's going to believe that I—a person without a superstitious bone in her body, a person who snickers at astrology and God and the power of pyramids—that I was haunted?
I admit, this sounds paranoid, delusional and possibly hallucinatory. And if it hadn't happened to me I'd be forced to agree with Michael: this story could only be the ramblings of a woman who has completely lost touch with reality.
But for the sake of argument, let me propose that I am not delusional and that my contact with reality is all too strong. And for the sake of my sanity, let me tell you the story of how I came to be falsely accused of murdering Richard; the story of the house at 240 Beacon Street.
I hate moving and I always have. I hated it when I was seven and my mother ran around the house acting like the werewolf from hell; I hated it when I was forced to reduce the necessities of college life to the capacity of my step-father's station wagon; I hated it when Clay and I spent a week in a noisy room at the Battlegreen Motel due to the whims of a bureaucratic mortgage company. But I think I hated it the most that muggy September day.
At dawn it was already seventy-five degrees and I wasn't even half packed. The too-little time I'd left to complete the other half was eaten up by a last minute glitch in the escrow agreement with McLaughlin, McKinnon, McGuire and McLaughlin (I swear that was really the name of the firm), by an argument with the bank over a two-year-old unpaid Sears bill, and by an unexpected box shortage at the Stop and Shop. So, as the movers hauled my furniture into the truck, I ran through the house haphazardly throwing everything that wasn't packed—a category encompassing the vast majority of my possessions—into dozens of those green garbage bags with the yellow plastic drawstrings.
When the house was finally empty of everything but dust balls and dirt piles, I followed the van to yuppie heaven, as my brother Joel so irreverently referred to my renovated townhouse in Boston's "fashionable" Back Bay. The traffic on Storrow Drive was horrendous, and the output of my on again-off again air conditioner minimal. I was still sweating as I turned onto Beacon Street. It was no cooler by the third swing around the block; I rolled down the window, but it brought no relief. There was no place to park. If only Edgar hadn't been so bull-headed; if he'd sold me his extra parking space I'd be upstairs by now.
Finally, I double-parked behind the moving van double-parked in front of my new home, the brass "240" over the door glinted in the harsh sunlight. The sweltering asphalt gave slightly as I stepped down and ripples of dirty, exhaust-scented heat rose and swirled around my ankles. The temperature had to be well over one hundred.
I was supposed to be euphoric. I'd been dying to get out of Lexington. Out of the old house Clay had so compulsively attacked with crowbar and hammer in a largely unsuccessful attempt to drive out its tiredness. The house we'd bought with every last penny of our wedding money and a loan that pushed us beyond house-poor and into house-destitute. The house where Clay died.
I'd never felt comfortable in Lexington; I'd always felt misplaced among the thirysomethings as they pushed their strollers down Mass. Ave., oh-so-content and self-satisfied to be "parenting" and free of their part-time jobs as social workers or therapists or vocational counselors. But somehow, now that I'd actually reached a land wonderfully devoid of center-entrance colonials and rough-hewn swing sets, somehow, instead of euphoria, all I felt was that sick Monday-morning feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The day got hotter, the apartment fuller and messier, my stomach queasier. My arms weighed two tons apiece and rivulets of sweat etched tributaries in the dirt on my face. The elastic that held back my ponytail had disappeared and my hair was matted and stuck to the back of my neck. Exhausted, I dropped to the floor to watch the movers desert me, greedily stuffing their tips into half-empty cigarette boxes.
I looked around at what I considered the perfect apartment—or what would be the perfect apartment once the garbage bags were gone—my shiny new space carefully carved out of an old and elegant one. Tall swaths of light spilled onto the high-gloss hardwood floors from mullioned windows that dated back a hundred and fifty years.
Nathan Haley, the architect-developer, had done a terrific job of melding nineteenth-century detail and twentieth-century convenience, always with an eye to the aesthetic balance of the two. He had crafted five apartments from what had been a single-family townhouse; each apartment was unique and unusual, but mine was the best. I had a floor-through, one level above the street, and even on the cloudy afternoon I had signed the Purchase and Sale agreement, light from the front bay window managed to meet light from the rear bay in the tiny alcove that served as my entryway.
Clay would have loved it. I could easily imagine him humming "Satisfaction" or perhaps "Pretty Woman" as he ran around organizing boxes, and complaining bitterly about the movers' ineptitude. "How could they be so stupid?" I could just hear him yelling. "Can't they read English?"
Clay always packed each box—never a bag—according to its destination and neatly wrote that destination on the cover flap. Movers invariably put the boxes in the wrong rooms. I could easily imagine him chugging beers with his buddies and barking orders at them, as well as at me. Every once in awhile, he would pause to nuzzle my neck and give me a lecture on how to do whatever I was doing a little better and a little faster.
I pushed myself up from the floor. I had to face up to the fact that I was on my own now. This was the big time—the big lonely time. No one but me to wipe out the kitchen cabinets; no one but me to hang Grandma Clara's oversize oil painting of Central Park ice skaters; no one but me to put all this stuff away. On the brighter side, I told myself, there was no one but me to decide where the table should go, which books to put in the living room, or how long to take to unpack.
I did a quick survey of the garbage bags. It could have been a lot worse, for although I had had no plan, the bags were generally filled with articles destined for the same room. Or some of the bags were anyway.
I dragged two into the study-guest room in the back of the apartment. The room had been closed up and allowed to bake for the entire month of August; the air was so hot it was almost painful to breathe. I threw open the door that led to a tiny deck—actually, an old fire escape that Nathan had covered with concrete so that he could advertise an apartment with "private outdoor space." I gulped at the somewhat cooler air.
The Charles River sparkled in the late-afternoon sun and I envied the boaters, cool and free under their diagonally-striped sails. I envied the sculls as they skated effortlessly along the top of the water. I lifted the hair from the back of my neck in hope that the breeze would dry my wet skin, but the air was too humid. I turned and walked back into the room.
One of the bags contained mostly office-type stuff and the other Hilary-type stuff. I pulled an eight-by-ten picture of New Kids on the Block from the bag and grinned as I placed it upright against the wall; I was planning on letting her hang it wherever she liked. Now that she could just jump on the Green Line and be at my door, I was expecting her to be here a lot, seeking refuge from my brother Joel's over-zealous fathering. It was one of the advantages of living in town.
"Hi there, kiddo!"
I dropped the books I was holding and whirled around. "Babs!"
"Didn't mean to scare you." She waved a key at me. "Hope you don't mind—just used my key."
"No, no. I don't mind. I could use the company."
"Congratulations," she said, raising a champagne bottle and coming toward me with her arms open wide.
I stepped back. "Don't touch me—I'm too disgusting."
"You've got a point there." She stopped and looked at me carefully. "How's it going? Are those tears or sweat on your face?"
"It's hard to tell."
"Come." She took my hands and led me toward the living room. "Let's dig up a couple of glasses and imbibe some bubbly."
"Is it cold?"
I had met Babs the evening I impulsively decided I had to get out of Lexington. She happened to answer the phone at Urban Properties, the first realtor I called. Within an hour she was dragging me through Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the South End at breakneck speed, extolling the virtues of every apartment in her oh-so-proper-Boston-accent: "Lindsey, have you evah seen such high ceilings with cornices of such bold design?" and "Lindsey, this mahble fiahplace is so very robust and sculptural—it's a mastahpiece of nineteenth-century masonry!" Finally, after we'd seen so many places I couldn't tell one from another, she agreed to quit for the night. We went to the Bull and Finch—Cheers to the tourists—where we talked until they kicked us out.
"Thought you might be having a tough time today." Babs handed me the frosty champagne bottle and squeezed herself into a slice of couch between my skater painting and a garbage bag. She turned a frying-pan handle away from her eye and into the cushions.
I put the bottle down and dumped a pile of books on the fireplace hearth so I could sit in the chair across from her. "Yeah, it's been a real up and down day." I carefully inspected my dirty sneakers. "Could be worse, though—it could be hot."
She leaned forward and patted my knee. "You miss Clay, don't you?"
I shrugged. "All the books say the second year is the hardest—the first year you get all kinds of sympathy and support, but by the second, everyone figures you're over it and ready to get on with your life."
"And you are—look at all the terrific stuff you're doing: this apartment, your new business, new friends..." She slapped my knee this time. "Looks like you're doing great to me."
I sighed, then smiled. "It will be nice to unpack without Colonel Clay putting me through my paces. He had a rule that all the boxes had to be empty and in the garbage within forty-eight hours." I surveyed the room. "This'll be closer to forty-eight days."
"It'll go faster than you think." She stood and wandered over to the bay window to watch the late-afternoon bustle of Beacon Street. "I do love this octagonal bay, these twelve-foot windows..." She turned back toward me. "Can't you just imagine the grand dames, sitting right here, sipping their tea and taking dainty bites of their rum cake?"
I could easily imagine them. Five elegant dames perhaps, seated in my bay as if for a formal portrait. To the right, a tall woman sat, her long neck arching downward as she listened attentively to a much-older matron. Two other ladies, wearing billowing dresses, bent over their tea, heads pressed close together, sharing a confidence. And in the middle, a young girl sat behind a low table pouring from a blue-and-white teapot. I could easily imagine her thin wrists, the deep set of her brown eyes, her aura of delicacy as she lifted a cup in her tiny hand. It was a lovely, but somehow disquieting, portrait.
"Earth to Lindsey! Earth to Lindsey!" Babs' voice came to me as if through a long, hollow tube.
"It's so amazing to think of the lives that have been lived here," I said. "Right here, right here in my space. I can see why you're into all that historical stuff."
"It was great for awhile—I even went to all my classes for at least a full semester." Babs sighed and waved her hand with a theatrical gesture. "But—as my mother never tires of reminding me—it failed to keep my interest any longer than anything else in which I've dabbled."
I could see where a mother might worry. Babs had dabbled in history, astronomy, hypnotism, yoga and fashion design. She spent hours in sensory deprivation tanks, had a sea-shell collection and loved a good practical joke. She also loved to teach; she proclaimed her role was to "develop my awareness of the fabulous history and architecture" of my new home.
I was a fair pupil. I now knew that the panels of stone relief outside my front windows were called "putti" and that they indicated room function; the carving of a man standing before a wall of books revealed my living room to be the original library. I also knew that my bedroom and study were formerly the principal bedroom from their placement in the house and the size of the fireplace consoles, that the thick octagonal railing at the foot of the stairs was a carved newel post and that it "soared into a gracefully-dividing pair of segmental arches."
"If you're not interested in history anymore," I said, "I'll be glad to take those boxes of Nathan's off your hands."
"Oh yeah." She grinned. "I forgot you wanted to see those boxes."
"You did not—you're just playing some kind of cat and mouse game with them. Are you going to let me see them, or what?"
Her grin widened. "They're at Gram's." For some unknown reason—although I suspected a practical joke—Babs was being very elusive about the boxes. Nathan Haley was an old friend of hers and, as a favor, had saved a lot of the things he'd found when cleaning out the house. She said it was an amazing haul—old pictures and journals and bonnets and mirrors and crushed flowers and even a faded silk bed jacket. She kept promising I could see them, but never produced. I was beginning to wonder if the boxes really existed.
"So?" I demanded.
"So, I guess we should go over there some night." Her eyes twinkled. "You'll like Gram, she's a real trip."
"I'll drink to that." I reached for the champagne, but it wasn't on the floor near the fireplace. "Or would, if I could find that bottle." I circled the room, lifting up seat cushions, kicking garbage bags. "Where did I put the damn thing?"
"Edgar says this house is haunted," Babs offered, always quick with the plausible explanations. "Maybe the ghost has a taste for expensive champagne."
"Yeah, right Babs, I'm sure ol' Edgar's got the answer. If I ever saw a guy who's not playing with a full deck, Edgar's the one. He's just too weird—almost as weird as his hyperactive little dog."
"Just because he wouldn't sell you a parking space?"
"He was weird before that—but what the hell does he need two parking spaces for? There's only three for the whole building and he gobbled up two for himself."
"Edgar's real interesting, a bit self-absorbed, maybe—but give the guy a break—he did buy those two parking spaces before you even looked at this apartment. He was perfectly within his rights to buy them both—and to keep them."
"I offered him a damn good price."
Babs shrugged. "I think Mirepoix is the loveliest little thing—she's a full-breed Pekinese, you know."
"Mirepoix? Mirepoix? That's the most incredibly affected name I've ever heard."
"It's a lovely name. Edgar told me he named her after his favorite town in the French Pyrenees."
"I rest my case."
"You'll see, Ms. Kern. I'll bet you end up being very fond of Edgar."
"Don't hold your breath." I finally found the elusive bottle behind a scruffy-looking rubber plant. "Champagne?"
"Gladly," Babs said as she turned into the bay and stood on her tiptoes to peer through the small panes. "God, this is a great window. 'All the world's a stage!'" She took one of her omnipresent scarves from around her neck, flung it over her head; the fuchsia silk floated down onto an upturned floor lamp. She leaned over and retrieved the scarf with a flourish while I popped the champagne cork. We toasted my new home and talked about moves.
I told her about the last time I moved and how Clay, in his inimitable macho fashion, had refused to hire movers. How he said we could do it all ourselves. How we had laughed and giggled and sweated; and how I spent a week in bed with a strained back. She told me about the time her brother hired a low-rent moving company and how they loaded the truck at the old house and never showed up at the new.
"Well, kiddo," Babs said, standing up. "Now that I've gotten you drunk and cheerful, I'm going to leave before you put me to work."
"Stay as long as you like—no more work's going on in this apartment tonight. I'm done for the day." Apparently she didn't believe me because she gave me a hug, waved her scarf and left.
Babs was right, I was feeling much better; this place was great, my back didn't hurt and my furniture hadn't been stolen. I poured myself a little more champagne and wandered into the bay. Babs was right again—my front yard was a stage.
In the few minutes I stood there I watched a school of identically-dressed businessmen separate and come together as they strode, unseeing and uncaring, past a bag lady pushing her world in a shopping cart. They were followed by a young nanny, more concerned with combing her hair than negotiating her two charges over the uneven sidewalks. Then came a proper Boston dowager on her daily constitutional, resplendent in her practical shoes, dark felt hat and long, unstylish—and completely unnecessary—coat. I took a sip of champagne and when I looked back most of the actors had changed—a runner, a Federal Express man and a group of Oriental tourists now joined the slow-moving bag lady on the stage. I was never going to leave this place.
I turned and headed for the kitchen, for some coffee and something to sop up the champagne sloshing around in my stomach. The kitchen may have lacked the dental molding and carved wainscoting of the rest of the apartment, but—and I'd never admit this to Babs—it was actually my favorite room: a narrow galley lined with rows of white Formica cabinets, shiny new appliances and counters of cobalt-blue tile. It shone in stark contrast to our old-fashioned Lexington farmhouse kitchen with its uneven floor boards and worn porcelain sink.
Unfortunately the cupboards of my dream kitchen were bare. I managed to find a box of soggy crackers and some peanut butter in one of the garbage bags, but I had to use my finger for a knife. I washed my nourishing meal down with a warm can of diet soda. Then I dug up a pillow and sheet and crawled into—or rather onto—my bed. I was asleep within seconds. Almost as quickly I was inside a nightmare.
Nightmares have been my on-again-off-again bedtime companions as far back as I can remember. They seem to cluster and clump and stick to each other, and to me, around times of trouble or change, but they are always there—hovering in the wings, reminding me of their presence and power. Once, when I was about nine, I had a bout so bad my parents sent me to a shrink. Herr-Doktor Stieglitz muttered on about symptoms of schizo-adaptive personality structure and indications of temporal lobe epilepsy and charted out a course of long-term therapy that would insure his country-club membership for a next decade. My parents yanked me from his couch before the quack even began to address my nightmares.
That night the dream was a real doozie—guaranteed to make it to the Lindsey Kern Nightmare Film Festival. I lay naked on a carpet of lace. Dusty, rose-colored lace. It was everywhere—hanging in graceful waves from the ceiling, floating around the window sills, covering the walls in its voluminous folds. Little packets of lavender sachet nestled in the creases like Christmas-tree ornaments, filling the room with their thick aroma.
Clay, Adonis-like in his naked perfection, knelt at my feet; always so handsome, so dashing, his eyes ice-blue like Christopher Reeve's in his Superman role. Gently, he lifted my leg and slowly caressed my calf. Our eyes locked. He bent and kissed my toes, then leisurely worked his way up my body.
I moaned and closed my eyes as his lips and tongue played with the sensitive skin on the inside of my knee. With deliberate and almost painful slowness he finally reached my thighs. Then, with just a quick touch of his tongue between my legs, he pushed himself away and leaned back on his arm, leisurely circling my breast with one finger. I moaned again, this time in disappointment as much as in passion.
"Hold on, my impatient child," he said. "It will be better if you wait." "Now," I begged. "Please, please, now..." "Later," he said. "Later." His voice became muffled. "Later, later, later..."
Frustrated and angry, I looked up. Instead of Clay's grinning face I saw lace rising slowly from the floor and enveloping him. It wrapped around him tighter and tighter, thicker and thicker, until he was transformed into a rose-colored mummy. Clay's cocoon folded over on itself again and again, becoming totally distorted. The misshapen mummy got smaller and smaller until it was the size of a bowling pin. It hovered over the bed, turned, and floated noiselessly out the door.
I ran through the strange, but familiar, house, frantically searching room after handsome room for the mummy. I looked under a velvet-tufted couch, behind a brocade chair and in lavender-scented closets stuffed with hoop-skirted dresses of satin and lace. But Clay's cocoon eluded me—it was always just beyond my reach, hovering around the corner of the next room, just beyond my vision.
My fingers were numb and my feet hurt, but I had to continue, I had to go on. Finally my search was stopped by a blast of cool air. I opened my eyes. I stood naked on the landing outside my apartment, gripping the handrail, staring down, through the dark, spindly balusters, to Edgar's landing far below.