The body was all withered sinews and leathery skin, seated on a low wooden chair in the tiny room whose door my friend Ellie White and I had just forced open. Slumped over a table, one arm outstretched, the body wore a sequined chemise whose silver hem-fringe crossed its mummified thigh.
Masses of bangles circled the knobby wrists and rings hung loosely on the long bony fingers. From beneath black bobbed hair the hollow eye sockets peeked coyly at us, the mouth a toothy rictus of mischief.
Or malice. A candle burnt down to a puddled stub stood in an ornate holder by the body’s arm. A tiaralike headpiece with a glass jewel in its bezel had fallen to the floor.
Ellie and I stood frozen for a moment, neither of us able to speak for the horridness of the surprise. Then:
“Oh,” breathed Ellie, sinking heavily into the window seat of the dilapidated parlor we’d been working on. It was Saturday morning and around us the aging timbers of Eastport’s most decrepit old mansion, Harlequin House, creaked uneasily.
Only the wind, I told myself. Outside it was blowing a gale. But the fact brought little comfort since after a century or so without maintenance, the old mansion’s skeleton was probably less sturdy than the body we were staring at. Being sealed in the room had apparently preserved it like some denizen of King Tut’s tomb.
“A woman,” Ellie added, her voice still faint with shock.
“Yes,” I responded, sniffing the air curiously. Thinking . . . something. I just didn’t know exactly what, yet.
The parlor was lit by a couple of lamps we’d brought from home, the power in the house having been turned on only the day before. This morning was meant to be a work party but it seemed the storm had discouraged all but the two of us. Around us lay damp swathes of stripped wallpaper and the scrapers and putty knives we’d been using to pull down chunks of cracked plaster.
It was behind one of those cracks we’d first found the faint outlines of a hidden aperture, and of course a secret door had been irresistible. Who wouldn’t want to learn what lay behind it, where it might lead?
But now I reentered the chamber cautiously. Its air smelled of the dust to which its occupant had partially returned, and of something else, the faint whiff I’d caught earlier: not dusty.
Not in the slightest. The lamplight barely reached the back of the little room. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom there, I made out the shape in the corner.
And identified it, wishing I hadn’t.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, exiting hurriedly.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” said Ellie, misunderstanding me. “I just felt strange for a minute.”
Her speedy recovery was little more than I expected. Ellie wasn’t usually much daunted by dead bodies, antique or otherwise. Her shaky reaction to this one I put down to the fact that at the moment she was as pregnant as a person could be without actually wheeling into the delivery room.
“Help me . . . oof! . . . up.” Gripping my hand, she struggled to her feet. “I swear this isn’t a kid, it’s a Volkswagen.”
“Only a little longer,” I comforted her distractedly, still staring into the hidden room.
“It’d better be,” she retorted. “If this baby doesn’t come soon I’m going to start charging it rent.”
There were two bodies in there.
“Lots,” she emphasized, “of rent.”
One old body. And a new one. “Ellie, have you ever heard any stories about another door into this room?”
She could have, if one existed. An ancestor on Ellie’s mother’s side, Chester Harlequin, had owned the house in its heyday.
“No.” She peered puzzledly at me. With her red hair softly framing a heart-shaped face, green eyes above freckles the color of gold dust, and a long slim body blooming out at the middle like some enchanted flower, Ellie resembled a storybook princess and was as tough as Maine granite.
But she was in trouble now and she didn’t even know it.
“I’d never even heard of this one,” she added. “I have seen photographs of this parlor, though, back when—”
Her gesture took in the ramshackle interior wall where the door had been concealed, its trim removed and panels smoothed over by a coat of plaster topped with the same fusty vines-and-grape-leaves pattern as the rest of the ornate old chamber.
“—the wallpaper was new,” she said. “Last time this room was redone was sometime back in the twenties.”
Although when it was hung, that paper had probably looked ultramodern. In its time Harlequin House had been a showplace, with parquet floors, marble mantels, and chandeliers so grand and numerous that the house for a while was dubbed “the crystal palace.”
Why someone had also walled a body up in it was a question I supposed might never be answered—not after more than eighty years. Which I guessed was truly how long the woman had been dead; the state of the plaster, the wallpaper, and the body’s own costume all testified to it pretty convincingly.
Yet there were no additional obvious entrances to the room, and the inner walls were all of unplastered boards. Any break in them, however well repaired, would have been clearly visible. In short it appeared that the room had been sealed since the first body was entombed. So how’d the second one gotten in there?
“I know her,” Ellie said suddenly. “I’ve seen old pictures of her wearing the dress and the tiara. It’s Eva Thane, the woman my Uncle Chester was . . . So that’s what happened to her.”
“Ellie, wait.” She’d gotten her wind back and was about to reenter the room, her shock giving way to the curiosity that was among her most prominent character traits.
“Why?” she demanded impatiently. “I want a closer look at . . .”
Then she understood, or thought she did. “But you’re right of course, a flashlight will help.” She drew one from her smock pocket.
The windowless room was enclosed on all sides with a center hall at its rear, kitchen to its left, the parlor plus a vestibule and coatroom to its front and right. The house was so huge that a square of missing space wouldn’t be missed, especially tucked as it was to one side of an enormous black marble fireplace.
Ellie aimed the flash past me and sucked in a surprised breath. “Him,” she exhaled, recognizing the dead face instantly just as I had, despite the unpleasantness of its disfigurement.
But having been unnerved once, Ellie was not about to show faintheartedness a second time. “Well,” she continued briskly, “this certainly isn’t going the way we planned.”
Which was an understatement. Begun just today, the Harlequin House fix-up was supposed to be a labor of love. Assisted by a small army of local volunteers, we were to ready the old dwelling for a gala put on by the Eastport Historical Society, and in doing so perhaps up the chances that someone—anyone!—might actually take the place off the Society’s impoverished hands afterwards.
And the first corpse, I thought, might even have helped. A long-dead flapper from the Roaring 20s could have been just the hook this old money-pit needed to snag the attention of a buyer with cash vastly exceeding common sense.
But the newer body was of more than historical interest.
Way more. “We have a problem, don’t we?” Ellie said.
She was starting to catch on. Eva Thane’s antique corpse dropped off her mental radar as a new and more unpleasant light dawned.
“ ’Fraid so,” I agreed unhappily. The dead man was Hector Gosling, Eastport’s most irascible real-estate mogul as well as the current president of the historical society. His face was smudged with grime, as were his clothes, a condition that would have been unthinkable while Hector was alive. But even filthy and hideously exaggerated as it was now, that furious teeth-baring grimace was an all-too-familiar expression.
Combined with his position, however—feet and head on the floor, midsection arched tautly, agonizingly up like a drawn bow—Hector’s look didn’t say fury or anything like it.
What it said, unfortunately, was strychnine.
I am the type who goes more for structural guts than shelter- magazine glory, so if Harlequin House had been mine I’d have started renovation with the underpinnings, the wooden sills and the foundation. At the same time I’d be tearing off the roof, all the trim, and the chimneys and siding. All the windows would come out, too, as would the wiring, plumbing, and heating. Inside, I’d pull down every last bit of the cracked, ancient plaster, and fix all the lath.
Only when the house sat four-square on its footings with its mechanicals updated, its windows made weathertight, insulation layered onto it, and its new trim and clapboards coated with oil-based primer and paint would I even give a thought to wallpaper.
Whereupon I would reject it. These old houses have been smothering in garish floral patterns and gloomy scenic designs for long enough, in my opinion. They need paint in a nice light color scheme, off-white woodwork, and freshly sanded floors.
But as I say, the house didn’t belong to me. So for a little while Ellie and I went on puttering and pondering, deciding what we would say when we summoned the authorities.
And what might need doing afterwards.
“I mean, George and I have a problem. But mostly George does,” Ellie said. “Or he might have.”
Excerpted from Mallets Aforethought by Sarah Graves. Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Graves. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.