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Excerpt for The Strangers On Montagu Street

Chapter One

The phone rang out in the night-shrouded house, shrill and insistent, bringing me abruptly out of an odd dream that somehow involved me, Jack, a shovel, and something dark and undulating buried beneath the black earth.  But when Jack opened his mouth to speak, I only heard the ringing of the telephone, jerking me upright in the bed and sending General Lee scampering to the floor with an irritated bark.    I reached for the phone, remembering too late that the cord had been pulled from the wall, and held it to my ear before I recognized the pinpricks of warning on the nape of my neck.

Melanie. I listened for the words that weren’t really words, more like sounds punctuated with static that only I could hear.  “Grandmother?”

Melanie, I heard again, the sound soft and melodic.  I felt no fear, although I suppose a phone call from the dead would alarm most people.  But I was used to it.

“Grandmother?” I asked again, hearing only the staccato pop of static.  I closed my eyes as my mother had taught me, and focused on the sound, trying to make words form in my mind.

Don’t be afraid.

I resisted rolling my eyes and tried hard to push aside my impatience, wondering once again why ghosts couldn’t just come right out and say what they wanted.  My life was like one long B movie with me as the lone member of the audience shouting at the screen, “Just tell her already!”

Refocusing again, I closed my eyes tighter and listened while trying to ignore General Lee’s pawing at my leg in an attempt to get my attention.

Don’t be afraid.  And listen to your heart for a change.

My eyes popped open as I suddenly realized that Jack had been telling me the same thing in my dream.  The dial tone sounded in my ear and I quickly hung up the phone.  General Lee whined and pressed his paw against my nightgown.  I looked down at the small black and white furball, reluctantly inherited along with the housekeeper, Mrs. Houlihan, and the historic house on Tradd Street where I now lived.  The same house that was apparently crumbling beneath my feet and sucking money from my bank account at an alarming rate.

I bent to pick up the neglected dog, but he escaped my grasp and instead ran to the dressing table and began pawing at one of the drawer handles, making the brass clang against the dark polished mahogany.

“What?” I asked, following him and wondering why I actually expected an answer.  General Lee was only slightly less communicative than the ghosts I’d been speaking with since I was very small and hadn’t yet learned to keep such “skills” to myself.

With only the light from an outside streetlamp to guide me, I crossed the room to the dresser and was about to repeat my question when I spotted what looked like a wallet lying on the middle of the dresser top nestled between my La Mer nightcream and the folded spreadsheet I used each day to allocate my—and sometimes other people’s—time.  

I flipped on a small crystal lamp then blinked until my eyes became accustomed to the light.  Because I was convinced that wearing my glasses would officially make me old, they were hidden in my nightstand drawer so I had to squint to see.  I stared hard at the object I was positive hadn’t been there when I went to bed.  It was definitely a wallet, and a familiar one at that.  I picked it up and flipped it open, not at all surprised that I recognized the face on the South Carolina driver’s license.  Jack Trenholm, six feet two, one-eighty-five, brown hair, blue eyes.  After glancing in the bill section and noticing he had two twenties and a ten tucked inside, I snapped it shut with disgust.  Nobody had a decent driver’s license photo; my own closely resembled one of those fuzzy photos taken of Big Foot.  But Jack’s, of course, was almost as good as the publicity photo that appeared on the back cover of his books.   As a bestselling author of true-crime historical mystery novels, he had no right to look like a GQ model. It was irritating and not a little unnerving.

I frowned down at General Lee.  “How did this get here?”  The more appropriate question should have been “why?”, but I’d long since learned unexplained things happened around me a lot, and always for a reason—but never for a reason that was easily explained.  Besides, I was talking to a dog and the subtleties of my questions would surely be lost on him.

I rubbed my hand against the soft leather while I thought.  I hadn’t seen Jack for about two weeks—not since the disastrous afternoon when a heretofore unknown teenaged girl had shown up on my front porch and called him, “Daddy.”  I’d happily stepped back to allow Jack, his parents, and Jack’s girlfriend (my very distant cousin, Rebecca Edgerton) to take care of that little problem.  I had plenty issues of my own to deal with—the least of which being the diagnosis of a cracked foundation on my very old historic albatross of a house.  And my inability to ignore my unreasonable attraction to Jack Trenholm.

I looked at the clock on my bedside table and while I was wondering if five-fifteen was too early to call Jack, the doorbell rang.   General Lee and I looked at each other and I thought I saw him frown, but that could have been my poor eyesight.  I quickly slid my feet into my slippers, slipped a robe over my nightgown and put the wallet in the robe’s pocket.  After scooping up the dog, I descended the staircase to the main hall sincerely hoping that my visitor was the living, breathing kind.

The front door lights had been left on, illuminating the piazza of my Charleston single house and making it easy to recognize the familiar outline of my visitor through the glass sidelights on either side of the door.  After punching in the code to disarm the alarm—A-B-B-A for my favorite musical group—I unlocked the deadbolts and opened the door.

“Jack,” I said calmly, my voice completely belying the jumpy skippy thing my heart seemed to be doing.  “I hope you have a really good reason for waking me up and darkening my doorstep at this hour.”

He smiled the smile that had cut down swaths of women in his wake since he’d been a toddler.  “Now, Mellie—I saw a light in your window so I know you were awake.  What were you doing?  Organizing your closet alphabetically by designer?”

While I tried to think of a response that didn’t include the embarrassing fact that I’d already done that, I saw his gaze traveling from the toes of my slippers up to the high neck of my nightgown that peeked out of the top of my oversized and very thick robe.  Despite it being late spring, I was dressed for winter since I was notoriously cold-natured.

I frowned at him, taking in his khaki pants, loafers without socks, and white buttoned down shirt with rolled up sleeves.  I also noticed the messy hair, the unshaven jaw, and circles under his eyes that, unfortunately, did nothing to lessen his appeal.

Before I could say anything, he said.  “I don’t remember seeing that in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.  Is it new?”

“What do you want, Jack?  I have far more important things to do than hang around my front door chatting with you.”

His smile slipped just enough for me to notice.  He looked behind him to glance at a darkened spot on the piazza before turning back to me.  His smile now resembled a grimace and I felt the first tremors of unease.  “I need to ask a favor.”

I crossed my arms, relieved.  Obviously, this was some kind of a joke.  Jack never asked for favors.  His usual MO was to ply his victim with charm so that she never knew she was doing exactly what he wanted her to do.  “Will this involve getting me on my back?  Or maybe just getting me drunk so that I embarrass myself?”  He hadn’t technically done either thing, but I liked to pretend that those two instances had been both deliberate and his fault.

Instead of the snarky comment I expected, he frowned and gave a quick shake of his head.  Too late, I realized that he wasn’t alone on the piazza as the young girl I’d met only once before emerged from the shadows behind him.  Jack stopped slouching against the door jam and straightened, allowing the girl to move into the foyer ahead of him.  She eyed me in very much the same way her father just had, but with a far more critical eye and accompanied by the loud smacking of chewing gum.

“Nice slippers.”  She blew a large purple bubble with her gum then snapped it back into her mouth.

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