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Beverly for The Romance Studio
Theater critic Artemus Bancroft isn’t sure what to expect when his aunt summons him home to California with vague but urgent pleas about being unable to cope with “the situation.”
What the situation turns out to be is the apparent haunting of Green Lantern Inn–and rumors that Auntie Halcyone may have murdered her philandering husband.
In fact, the rumors seem to have been started by the late Mr. Hyde himself–from beyond the grave.
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Chapter One

 

Insanity runs in my family.

That should go without saying. What the hell else could explain what I was doing sitting in a cab outside the Green Lanterns Inn at that time of night.

“This is it,” the driver said when I showed no sign of moving. And when I still made no sign, he said helpfully, “Green Lanterns Inn.”

Summer rain beat down, fat silver drops blistering against the windshield. The wipers squeaked out each second, dashing the rain away, illuminating the ivy-covered building before us for an instant before the scene melted away again. The seven eponymous brass lanterns were dark in the yellow glare of the car’s high beams. Not a light shone in the entire house.

But then at two o’clock in the morning, I’d have been surprised—even alarmed—to find a light on.

I felt ridiculous. I should have asked Aunt Halcyone for clarification. Insisted on a little more information. It wasn’t like me. But I’d felt her unease, her uncertainty in that last letter, and that was what had sent me jetting across the country. I could not ever remember my aunt admitting she was in over her head—let alone asking for my help.

Come as soon as you can, Artie, Aunt H. had written. The situation has spiraled out of control. I need your cool head and strong shoulders.

I guess my shoulders are strong enough and my head is relatively cool, but she’d never required them before, not even when Ogden, her second husband, had died the year before. As for the situation spiraling out of control, I’d had no idea there was a situation.

Anyway, at the time Ogden had died, I’d been dealing with my own situation. Aunt H. had been as unenthusiastic about Greg as I’d been about Ogden, and refraining from saying I told you so had been about the best we could offer each other.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay for a while?” I’d said after the funeral.

“No, no. I’m all right. I just need a little time,” she had returned.

She had seemed all right. Sad, of course; weary but not broken. It would take more than one dead, philandering husband to break my dear old Auntie Halcyone. When two months later she’d phoned to say she had decided to turn Green Lanterns into an inn, she had sounded enthusiastic and upbeat—almost like her old self.

“You sure they’re open for business?” the cab driver asked.

“Uh…yes.” I sounded as doubtful as he did.

“Okay. Well.”

My words exactly. I opened the door. The driver jumped out and grabbed my bags from the trunk. Shoulders hunched against the rain, he followed me as I ran up the flight of shallow stone stairs to the shelter of an overhanging portico. Ivy draped over the roof, crystal drops falling from the dark, glistening leaves. The brass gargoyle doorknocker eyed us balefully.

The driver dropped my bags at my feet.

“Funny they don’t have a night window or something.” He eyed the darkened house dubiously.

“Yeah, it’s not really that kind of a hotel.” I pulled a couple of bills out of my pocket, and he whistled.

He was still whistling—a cheery, ghostly little tune—as he trotted down the steps and jumped into his cab. As the red taillights disappeared through the gates, humid darkness closed in. I pressed the doorbell again, listening to it ring through the silent, sleeping house.

Once upon a time this had been my home. But that was a long time ago. I’d moved to New York over five years ago—when Aunt H. had announced she was marrying Ogden Hyde. It had been a shock at the time, but really, Ogden had turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Without the spur of his arrival in Aunt Halcyone’s life, I’d probably still be living at home, writing my column for the New Fillmore, and hanging out with old college pals who were equally afraid to test their wings. As it was, I had taken the leap and moved to the Big Apple with Greg. I was now the theater critic for New York Magazine. Even removing Greg from the equation, it really didn’t get a lot better than that.

Or if it did, I didn’t want to know.

I had been back twice. For Aunt H.’s wedding, and for Ogden’s funeral. Aunt H. came to New York for theater season every year, so it wasn’t as though we hadn’t seen each other. I called her every few weeks. Well, perhaps not as often as I imagined, given that the summons home came out of the blue.

Rain, surprisingly cold for August, was dripping on my head and trickling down the back of my neck. Somewhere out in the wet, wind-whipped darkness, a dog began to howl, and I felt like howling with him. I leaned into the doorbell.

Where the hell was—

A white crescent appeared behind the fanlight. I stopped pressing the doorbell. The door creaked open, and a pale, suspicious eye peered out at me.

“Yes?”

I recognized the voice, if not the lack of welcome. “Hello? Tarrant? It’s me. Artemus. Artemus Bancroft.”

“Mr. Artemus?” His colorless eyes widened. “Mrs. Bancroft say you are not coming until tomorrow.”

“Well, I’m here now. I decided to catch an earlier flight.”

Tarrant didn’t open the door. “The house has all gone to bed.”

“So I see.” What the…? Was I supposed to leave and come back tomorrow because I’d arrived before check-in? With twenty-five rooms, I was pretty sure they could squeeze me in somewhere. I said impatiently, “Would you mind letting me in? I’m getting soaked out here.”

He widened the door but made no attempt to assist as I carried my bags over the threshold. I dropped them with a landslide of thumps on the gold-and-black Aubusson carpet.

We stood in the grand central hall with its sweeping white staircase and eight-arm macaroni bead crystal chandelier. A giant gilt-framed portrait of my aunt, painted right before her marriage to Edwin Bancroft, gazed bemusedly down at me from the first landing. She had been twenty-one at the time, and I had grown up thinking she was quite a mature lady in that portrait. Now that I was thirty, she looked like a kid to me.

“You should have called,” Tarrant said.

I didn’t think I imagined the hint of accusation in his voice. I took a good look at him. The absence of his dentures gave his face a caved-in look. He was wrapped in what looked like one of those original gray-and-white plaid Beacon bathrobes from the 1930s. It grazed his bony, bare ankles. Not that I expected him to be dressed at two in the morning, but I’d never seen him anything but immaculate in his severe black and snowy white butler’s garb. It was like sneaking a peek behind the stage curtain. It sort of took away the magic.

“Aunt H. sounded like the situation might be urgent.”

“Situation? Urgent?” He seemed more confused—and affronted—than ever.

“Right. Anyway, sorry to drag you up at this hour. If you want to tell me which room I’m staying in?”

“Your old room, of course. It has been made ready for you.” He stooped to lift one of my suitcases, and nearly dropped it. “What is it that is in there?” His pale gaze was reproachful.

“I’ll carry them up.”

I reached for the suitcase and he turned away, swinging the suitcase away from me.

“I have got it!”

“Really, Tarrant. There’s no reason I can’t—”

I was talking to his back as he lumbered unsteadily toward the staircase. Short of tackling him and wresting the suitcase away, there wasn’t much I could do. I followed him, swallowing my exasperation. He was an old man now. Nearly eighty. Time to retire, really, but it would have to be his choice. Aunt H. would never put him out to pasture against his wishes.

“How’s Betty?” I asked when we had safely reached the second landing.

Tarrant’s daughter was named Ulyanna. For some reason, in my younger days, I’d thought it was funny to rename her Betty. Fortunately, Betty had thought it was funny too.

Betty had replaced the late Mrs. Tarrant as cook and housekeeper. There had been Tarrants at Green Lanterns nearly as long as there had been Bancrofts.

“Poorly,” Tarrant said grimly. “Very poorly.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“She is not a young woman! The house is too big for her,” he burst out.

“Oh? Well…” I wasn’t sure what to say. The outburst was as out-of-character as all the rest of this.

“We cannot get any help now. Twenty-five rooms and the girl is only coming twice a week.”

“What girl? What happened to Mabel and Cora?”

“Gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Left. Packed their things, like the rest of them. They run off like scared rabbits.”

“But why?” I couldn’t understand it. Aunt H. had her faults, but she paid well and treated her staff with affectionate respect. “Mabel must have been with Aunt H. ten years at least. And Cora must have been nearly that long. Didn’t her mother work here before her?”

“Superstitious nonsense,” muttered Tarrant. He dropped my suitcase on the pale blue and ivory runner and mopped his forehead.

“Here. Let me—”

His look of outrage stopped me mid-reach.

I pretended we had simply paused for a bit of sightseeing, gazing around the landing as though I’d never seen it before. In fact, I never had seen it before. Not like this. The carpet smelled musty, and a film of dust coated the railing and edges of the bannister. There was even a cobweb—granted, a tiny one—on one of the brass wall sconces. The very light seemed faded and tired.

“How many guests are staying here?” I asked.

Tarrant picked up the suitcase again. “None.”

None? But I thought—”

“People are saying the house is haunted.” His gaze was bleak.

“Haunted,” I repeated. And then, when it was clear he was not joking—not that he had ever been one for joking, “Haunted?

“That is right. Yes. Haunted.”

“Who’s supposed to be…” I stopped. My heart sank. “Oh no. Is Ogden supposed to be haunting the place?”

Dour satisfaction gleamed in Tarrant’s eyes. “That is one opinion. Is not the only opinion.”

“Why the hell would Ogden haunt this house? He barely lived in it. If anyone ought to haunt Green Lanterns, it’s Edwin. He loved the place.”

Green Lanterns had been in my family for generations. Edwin Bancroft had been a distant cousin of my aunt’s, so he’d spent a lot of his youth in the house even though it had not been his official home until he and Aunt H. had tied the knot.

“It is not for me to say.”

“It’s bull—nonsense. The girls got tired of having to maintain such a big house or didn’t like the place being turned into a hotel. That’s all. They felt guilty about taking jobs that suited them better, so they cooked up some ridiculous story.” Even as I said it, I felt the wrongness of it. Mabel had been blunt and forthright. I couldn’t imagine her lying about her reasons for leaving. Neither woman had been the fanciful type.

Tarrant turned away. “That may be, Mr. Artemus. We hire two new maids last month. They stay for one night. Both left the next morning, with same story. The only new help we can keep is the gardener. And he do not sleep in the house.”

I stared at his retreating back.

“Why would Ogden haunt this house?” I demanded. “What are people saying?”

Tarrant stopped, giving me a funny sideways look. “People talk foolishness.”

“I know people talk foolishness. What foolishness are they saying about my aunt?”

His struggle seemed genuine. He said at last, “Only that Mr. Hyde’s accident is maybe not an accident.”

What?

“It is gossip. That is all. People say maybe police hurry their investigation because Chief Kingsland is such great friend of Mrs. Bancroft.”

“They suspect Aunt H.?”

He shook his head quickly. “No. Not that so much. More they say there was not a real investigation.”

I had no response to that. We went up the next flight of stairs in silence.

The family suites were on this level. Aunt H.’s rooms at the far end. Liana, Ogden’s sister, near the staircase. My old rooms between them.

Tarrant stopped in front of a heavy oak door and threw it open. “Everything is as it was,” he announced as he switched on the light.

He was right about that, although hopefully the sheets had been changed. A giant bed with a brown velvet canopy and draperies fringed with gold dominated the long room. At the far end was a marble fireplace. The tables and dressers were all marble-topped. Bronze and gold Persian carpets. Brown velvet draperies looped back with gold tassels. Ridiculous accommodations for a seven-year-old boy, but this had been my father’s room, and Aunt H. had decreed that I would grow into it. And I did, sort of, although my apartment in New York was furnished a lot more simply and cozily.

Everything was familiar—except the cold. The house had always felt warm, alive, welcoming.

I shivered. “It feels chilly for August.”

“The furnace, it is out,” Tarrant replied with gloomy satisfaction. “The man is supposed to come yesterday. He did not. The fire is laid.” He nodded at the fireplace, where a couple of logs and twists of kindling had been stacked on the grate, but made no move to light it.

In fact, he stood eyeing me, purple-veined hands at his sides nervously plucking at the nap of his robe. Was he trying to decide whether to speak or not? I couldn’t tell, but I felt uncomfortable, unwelcome, under his somber stare.

“Was there something else?” I asked.

An unreadable emotion flickered across his face, but his features smoothed into blankness. “Good night, Mr. Artemus.” He turned away.

After he had gone, I touched a match to the kindling and watched as a tiny blue flame licked through the twigs and newspaper, catching at the larger log with a comfortable crackling sound. I put my hands out toward the heat.

It was late, that was all. Tarrant had been half asleep and grouchy at being hauled out of bed at this ungodly hour. He was always a little on the eccentric side. They all were in this house.

I was no exception, according to Greg.

Even so, and despite my exhaustion, I was too uneasy to sleep. I rose and began to unpack, quietly sliding open drawers and cupboard doors. The closets and bureau smelled of mothballs. I glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantel. Two-thirty. Maybe I’d slip downstairs and get a drink from the liquor cabinet. Assuming the liquor cabinet was where I remembered it. Nothing else had really changed, at least not as far as location. In other ways…everything had changed.

There was a soft tap on the door.

I knew that tentative knock. Smiling, I went to answer it.

Aunt H. stood in the hall. She wore a pink silk brocade dressing gown and a sleepy smile. “Welcome home, dear Artie!”

We hugged tightly, and I kissed my aunt’s cheek, which was soft and warm—as if she was the only living thing in this house. She smelled like Chanel No˚5 and apple blossom soap—scents straight out of my childhood. When she rested her head briefly on my shoulder, I felt a sudden onrush of protective tenderness that closed my throat. I hadn’t realized how much I missed her—or how worried I’d been.

She held me tightly for a moment, then pushed back. To my alarm, I thought I saw a glitter of tears in her eyes. I could only remember her crying once before, and that was at the funeral of my father and mother.

“Let me look at you!” Auntie H. said. “Still handsome as ever! I suppose you’ve been breaking hearts up and down Broadway now that Gregory is out of the picture.”

I laughed. “Hardly. I’m too busy dashing the dreams and desires of starstruck kids and hacks old enough to know better. How are you, me old darling?”

“Wonderful, now that you’re here. I’ve missed you so, Artie.”

She was still smiling, but the smile couldn’t hide the worrying change in her appearance. Aunt H. had always looked much younger than her years, and after all, fifty-five wasn’t that old, but in the months since Ogden had passed, she seemed to have aged a decade. There were grooves in her cheeks and forehead, lines around her blue eyes, and deep creases running from her nose to mouth. That wasn’t age, though; it was worry and tension. I could see the strain in her eyes. Even her slim, sturdy body had grown small and frail, as if she’d been buffeted by too many hard winds.

“What the hell has been happening?” I asked, and I couldn’t hide my consternation.

“Oh!” Her gaze evaded mine. “Now that you’re here, I wonder if I’ve…”

“If you’ve what?”

“Let things…get me down. So much has happened. I can’t blame it all on Liana.” Abruptly, she turned away, clearing a space on the bed and sitting.

“Liana. What’s Liana got to do with it?”

“You know how close she and Ogden were.”

Yep, and I’d always thought it was a little peculiar, but then I’d been an only child. “I realize Ogden’s death must have been hard on her. It was hard on you too.”

“Yes. Of course. But Liana is…older.”

What the hell did that mean?

“You were his wife. How could it possibly be harder for Liana?”

She was avoiding my gaze again. “She’s always been very sensitive.”

I snorted.

“But she has, Artie. Anyway, she was in shock at first. We both were. But after the funeral, I think it all hit her. Very hard. That’s when everything began to change.”

“What everything?”

“Liana locked herself in her room and refuses to see anyone except me and the Tarrants. And Roma, of course. She’s become a-a literal recluse.”

Liana?” I wasn’t sure who Roma was, but this picture of Liana as a hermit was hard to believe. Liana Hyde-Kent put the word social in socialite. Okay, it was to be expected she might take a break from the endless rounds of luncheons and cocktail parties and charity balls while she was in deep mourning, but Ogden had been gone for a year. Close enough.

“She just sits up there, day after day, with the drapes drawn, dealing out tarot cards.”

“Tarot cards. Seriously?”

Aunt H. nodded. “That’s not the worst of it.”

“What’s the worst of it?”

“Roma Loveridge.”

“And she is—”

“A medium.”

“A…”

“Yes. A medium. A very odd person.”

“Well, yeah. I would say so.”

Aunt H. threw me a quick, chiding look. “Not because she’s a medium. I know you’re a skeptic, but there are more things in heaven and earth.”

“That’s right, Horatio. There’s fire and water.”

She laughed and caught my hand, gripping it tight. “I have missed you so much, dear.”

“I’m not surprised, with Liana locked in the attic and the very odd Roma Lovebridge for company.”

“Loveridge, dear. The thing is, Liana seems to live for those séances. For the chance to speak to Ogden once more.”

I recalled Tarrant’s comments about the maids claiming to have seen ghosts. No wonder, with this kind of bullshit going on. I said, “Isn’t it time Liana was thinking of getting a place of her own again?”

Aunt H.’s eyes widened. “Throw her out?”

“I’m sure there’s a tactful way to dislodge her.”

Aunt H. looked pained. “Oh, Artie. I couldn’t do that to her. Especially now.”

“Especially now is when a change of venue might be good. For everyone involved.”

As mentioned, I always thought Liana’s attachment to Ogden was the stuff of bad seventies’ horror flicks.

“But this is where she’s…comfortable. This has been her home for so many years. And I know what you’re going to say, but this is where she’s been able to make contact.”

Aunt H. lifted her chin with self-conscious stubbornness under my scrutiny.

“My darling Auntie,” I said. “It’s one thing to be open-minded about the possibility of the supernatural. It’s another to bundle the Psychic Hotline with other phone and Internet services. Don’t tell me you believe Liana is up there chatting with Ogden over a friendly hand of tarot cards?”

“Well, no. That is, Roma uses a Ouija board to speak to Ogden.” She clutched my hand more tightly. “Artemus, please don’t look at me like that. The thing is, Roma might be an oddball, but I’m absolutely convinced that she is not faking.”

A log settled, shooting a shower of sparks upward.

“No?” I said. “All right, then. What do I know? I guess I’d like to believe there was life after death.”

Aunt H. said eagerly, “After all, the greatest religions in the world are founded on the idea of life after death.”

“True enough.” I was still neutral, still doing my best not to show my increasing dismay.

Aunt H.’s eyes searched my face as though trying to determine if I was sincere or not.

In the ensuing silence, a gust of wind outside rattled the windows. Somewhere overhead a floorboard creaked. My aunt’s hand seemed to go ice-cold. Her face had suddenly gone very white.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Shhh!” Aunt Halcyone put a finger to her lips. “Don’t you hear it?” she whispered.

“Hear what?” I tried not to show how freaked out I was by this, but I was pretty sure a photo would show my hair standing up in porcupine quills.

“Someone walking…”

I listened. “It’s the wind. A couple of floorboards settling. That’s all. That’s what you used to tell me,” I reminded her gently.

Her eyes flashed to my face. “We can’t keep servants anymore. Only the Tarrants. The others have all left.”

“Tarrant told me. Superstitious nonsense.”

“I don’t know, Artie. There are so many strange things happening here.”

I wrapped an arm around my aunt’s slender shoulders. “Of course it’s nonsense. Don’t tell me you’re starting to get caught up in Liana’s fantasies?”

“It might not be fantasy. If she and Roma have truly managed to contact Ogden—”

Once again I had to hope my expression didn’t give me away.

I said firmly, “Now look, darling. You’re tired. It’s late. We’re starting to go in circles with this. We’ll talk in the morning. How about that?”

“But the thing is…” Halcyone lifted stricken eyes to mine. “Oh, Artie. If it’s true—”

“It’s not true. How can it be?”

“If it is true, Ogden says…”

I sighed. “What? What does Ogden say?”

“Ogden says he was murdered!”

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