PROLOGUE

“GODDAMMIT, PETER! He was supposed to be sedated!” The doctor rushed about the room like a white-coated whirlwind, accomplishing nothing except more disarray.

“I thought he was,” answered the hapless Peter. “He took his pill last night, same as every other night. I watched him do it.”

“Well, you should’ve made certain he swallowed it!” the doctor snapped.

“How?” retorted Peter, his blood finally boiling. “By pilling him like a cat?”

“If that is what’s necessary… yes!” the doctor replied.

He stopped his aimless jumping about and looked directly at Peter. “Didn’t you know he’s been agitated the last few weeks?”

“Everybody in this place is agitated to some degree. How am I supposed to know the difference?”

“Didn’t anyone tell you?”

“No.” Peter shrugged. “You guys never tell the night shift anything.”

“He’s been raving about ‘shadow men’ coming to help him escape and complete his ‘mission.’”

“What mission?”

“He would never say precisely.” The doctor ran his fingers through his hair in an exasperated manner.

“What are you going to do now?” asked Peter.

“We have to warn his family immediately and then call the police.”

The doctor rushed out of the room and down the corridor, with Peter following at his heels.

 

PART ONE

MARY AGNES Severn burst into the living room from the library with such energy that Hetty dropped her feather duster.

“Hetty, have you put fresh towels in all the bathrooms upstairs?”

“Yes, Miz Severn,” she answered mechanically as she picked up the duster.

“And there are fresh hand towels and soaps in the downstairs bathroom?”

“Yes, Miz Severn,” she answered mechanically as she adjusted her white apron.

“And fresh linens and blankets in all the rooms?”

“Yes, Miz Severn,” she answered mechanically as she brushed dust off her black uniform.

“Good!” Mary Agnes took a deep, calming breath and glanced back toward the library. “This week is too important. I can’t let even the smallest detail slip.”

“No, ma’am,” Hetty answered mechanically as she smoothed her sandy blonde hair.

Mary Agnes started slightly. Her last words had been spoken more to herself than to Hetty, and she was not pleased the maid had heard her. She composed herself by checking that her long silver hair was properly secured in its Gibson girl style and plucking a piece of lint off her lavender blouse before getting back down to business.

“Did Marcus go into town with Hannah to get all the shopping?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hetty answered, this time with more focus. “They found everything on your list except for something called ‘kefir.’ Marcus is helping Hannah put everything into the cupboards and freezer now.”

“Oh, good. Trying to cater to everyone’s tastes can be such a bother. If we’ve managed to supply everything but kefir, then I think we can be satisfied with a job well done.”

Mary Agnes looked around the room with a critical eye. “Would you move this by the coffee table?” She pointed to a plush, dark green velvet, Victorian high-back wing chair near the fireplace.

Hetty put her duster in her apron pocket and moved the chair to the short side of the coffee table, opposite the love seat and to the right of the large sofa.

“Thank you, dear,” said Mary Agnes. She surveyed the room one last time. “Everything looks very nice in here. You can go and help Hannah and Marcus get everything put away.”

“Yes, Miz Severn,” Hetty replied and went down the front hallway to the kitchen.

Mary Agnes walked around the spacious oak-paneled living room doing a final inspection, her long skirt billowing and fluttering as she moved. She paused to look at the portrait of Queen Elizabeth the First of England that hung beside the large closet door where she kept extra quilts and some downstairs linen. Glancing out the front windows near the stairs, she thought she saw a single snowflake fall. She walked past the door to the library and paused at the drinks table to inspect the glasses. Above the drinks table hung a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary Agnes adjusted the frame. It was always going askew. She walked over to the wine cellar door and paused.

She continued her circular route around the large room by looking out the back windows at the large sloping lawn that ended in a wild forest of trees and a creek that wended its way down the steep mountain. After a glance through the dining room door, she walked slowly to the fireplace and stopped in front of it to look up at the life-size portrait of her late husband hanging over the elaborately carved mantel.

“Oh, Randolph,” Mary Agnes tutted and shook her head, “did you know that your legacy would create such complications?”

She was about to return to the library when Marcus, the general handyman for the place, entered. Mary Agnes noticed his dark blond hair was tousled from the winds outside and he was still wearing his overcoat over the dark slacks and white shirt she had asked him to wear today for everyone’s arrival.

“Miz Severn?”

“Yes, Marcus?”

“Hannah wants to know if you want a variety of finger sandwiches and whether you want tea or lemonade to drink with them.”

“Let’s have just cucumber sandwiches. No sense going to lots of trouble when everyone will be arriving at different times. And lemonade to drink. Tea will just get cold sitting around.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Marcus turned to go back to the kitchen.

“Oh, and Marcus?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Has Hannah calmed down yet?”

Marcus hesitated before answering, “A little bit.”

Mary Agnes regarded him with a knowing eye. “Brandy?”

“It was cooking sherry, I think.”

“Mm. I really don’t understand why she’s so upset. I guess when the egg divided, Hannah got all the nerves while Hetty got the composure.” Mary Agnes furrowed her brow. “Just make sure she’s not too ‘calmed down’ before everyone arrives. And speaking of eggs, perhaps you’d better put away the more fragile groceries. And ask Hetty to put some coasters on the tables in here.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Marcus went back down the hallway to the kitchen.

The phone—on its table in the corner created by the turn in the stairwell—rang and Mary Agnes crossed quickly to answer it.

“Hello? … Oh, it’s you! … Yes, everything is arranged.” She listened for a moment and then laughed, “I think that’s a very clever idea. … Mm-hmm. … What? … It’s in the library. … No, I haven’t mentioned the break-in. … Mm-hmm. … Yes. … Definitely. … No, I doubt Mrs. Picklesymer would stop by, but I think it’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.” She laughed again. “All right, I’ll see you then. Bye-bye.” She hung up the phone and turned to rearrange some flowers in a vase by the window at the bottom of the stairwell.

Mary Agnes went to the closet behind the sofa and thumbed through the various patchwork quilts folded up on the shelf, then went through the plainer ones on the hangers and selected two. She took them out, still on the hangers, and threw them over the back of the velvet chesterfield sofa. At first she debated over which color looked nicer against the silver-blue fabric, but after a few moments’ consideration decided on the practicality of warmth, chose the thicker quilt, and removed it from the hanger. She hung up the other quilt and the empty hanger, then kneeled down to inspect the bare floor of the closet. When she rose, she turned and draped the thick quilt over the back of the sofa and meticulously smoothed it out. Mary Agnes looked around the room with a careful eye before she quietly made her way back into the library and closed the door.

Hetty entered from the dining room with a handful of coasters and began placing them on the various tables. She set down the last one, tiptoed over to the library door, and listened for a moment. Once she had satisfied herself Mary Agnes was busy with something in the library and would not be coming back, she dashed across to the dining room and motioned for Marcus to come in.

“It’s all clear here. Is Hannah still in the kitchen?”

“Yep.” Marcus was still wearing his overcoat.

“I can’t believe it. I mean, I just cannot believe it!”

“But think how much better off we’ll be.”

“Better? Do you really think this makes things better?”

“Yes, I do,” Marcus said emphatically. “We can finally get out of this Podunk town.”

“But what about us? Where does this leave us?”

“Just as we are.” Marcus reached out and caressed Hetty’s cheek. “At this point I don’t see why it has to change anything.”

“Hannah says it does!” Hetty pulled away from Marcus and walked over to the fireplace. She glanced up at the portrait of her late boss. “She says we should go one way, and you should go another and never meet again.”

Marcus slowly swaggered up to Hetty, turned her around, and pulled her close to him.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about Hannah. I’ve been talking to someone who assures me we’ll all be well taken care of.”

“Who?”

“I said, don’t worry.” He kissed her passionately, and Hetty put up no resistance. “Now, why don’t you go back in the kitchen and help Sister with preparations for everyone’s arrival.” He released her from his embrace with a slight push toward the dining room.

“All right.” Hetty paused in the doorway and turned to look back at Marcus. “Sometimes I think you have the Devil in your genes.”

“You’d know, baby!” Marcus leered. He grabbed Hetty and tickled her lustfully. She burst into giggles, pried herself loose, and headed back to the kitchen.

Marcus started to follow her, but stopped and looked around the room like he was a buyer, his gaze lingering briefly on the portrait above the fireplace. He took a small can of WD 40 from his overcoat, removed the cap, and placed the straw into the nozzle. He sauntered toward the library. He knocked. When there was no reply, he slowly opened the door to make sure no one was there. He entered and closed the door.

Hetty came back into the living room to put down a few more coasters. She paused as she heard a loud creaking noise, like someone opening and closing an old door. She heard the sound of a spray can spraying, then a quieter squeak, then more spraying. She was about to go into the library to investigate, but hesitated when everything went quiet. She jumped when she heard the sound of a door closing, followed by a small thump. When the Mary, Queen of Scots painting on the wall above the drinks table moved a bit, she furrowed her brow and muttered something about “old houses and rats” before straightening the portrait and heading back to the kitchen via the front hallway.

Mary Agnes walked down the stairs and, as she reached the bottom, the doorbell rang.

She hurried to the foyer and called down the corridor to the kitchen, “Don’t worry, Hetty, I’ll get it!” She opened the front door to find a couple in their late thirties—a tall woman with shoulder-length chestnut brown hair and light makeup standing beside a tall man with sandy hair. Both were wearing long winter coats.

“Hey, Grandma!”

“Lynette! Come in, come in.” They embraced. “Oh, angel, you look wonderful. Being engaged certainly suits you.”

She turned to the man standing quietly on the porch. “And this must be Everett Howard. Put your suitcases down by the umbrella stand. Come in here and let me get a good look at you.” She closed the front door and led them both into the living room.

“I’m very glad to finally meet you, Mrs. Severn,” said Everett, extending his hand to her.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Everett.” She grasped his hand warmly. “I’ve heard so many good things about you. And please, call me Mary Agnes.”

“Thank you…, Mary Agnes.”

Mary Agnes grabbed Lynette by the shoulders and placed her right next to Everett. “I’m so impressed you found a man taller than you!”

Lynette sighed and glanced at Everett. “Now you know why it took so long for me to get engaged.”

“I’m glad you waited.” He smiled.

Mary Agnes gave Lynette a mock-scolding look and said, “I wasn’t going to say anything just yet, but you were starting to get a bit ripe on the vine.”

“Thanks.”

“She looks pretty good to me,” Everett chimed in.

“How gallant!” Mary Agnes clapped her hands together and looked Everett up and down. “He’s definitely a keeper, Lynette. I like him already. Let me take your coats.”

Lynette removed her coat to reveal a long, flowing skirt in a dark plum color and a long-sleeved blouse of muted white. She wore very chic silver-and-amethyst accessories. Everett had on dark navy slacks, a white shirt, and a dark tie with a subtle diamond pattern.

Mary Agnes threw the coats over one arm and gestured to the sofas with the other. “Have a seat.”

Lynette and Everett went to sit on the love seat while Mary Agnes walked over to the right side of the fireplace and pressed one of the two buttons on the wall beside the mantle.

“I can’t believe those old Butler and Maid buttons still work,” Lynette said.

“Would you prefer I bellow down the hallway?” Mary Agnes looked at Everett and added, “There’s a lot about this old house you wouldn’t believe.” She crossed over to the foyer and hung up the coats in the large closet by the front door. The closet door creaked loudly when she opened and closed it.

Hetty appeared from the corridor to the kitchen, “You rang, Miz Severn?”

“Yes, Hetty. Please bring in the finger sandwiches and four glasses of lemonade, and have Marcus come and take those suitcases upstairs.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Hetty went back the way she came.

Mary Agnes returned to the living room and sat in the high-back chair opposite the love seat.

“Mary Agnes, I wanted to thank you for inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner and for the week,” Everett said with sincerity. “Lynette has told me so much about you and this wonderful house.”

“Oh, you’re welcome, dear. I’m glad you could make it.” She paused. “I thought Andy was going to ride up with you two?”

“He was,” Lynette replied, “but then he said he had some business he needed to take care of, and he’d come up in his own car. I hope he can make it up the mountain in that thing. It’s been on its last legs for quite a while now.”

“Dear me! Is it safe?”