Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
“I don’t want any part of it,” she would snap during one of their many arguments about the matter. “I never did, from the very beginning.”
So I get it all. The money. The rights to the Book. The infamy. Like my mother, I wonder if I’d be better off with none of it.
“Then there’s the matter of the house,” Arthur Rosenfeld says.
“What house? My father had an apartment.”
“Baneberry Hall, of course.”
Surprise jolts my body. The chair I’m in squeaks.
“My father owned Baneberry Hall?”
“He did,” the lawyer says.
“He bought it again? When?”
Arthur places his hand on his desk, his fingers steepled. “As far as I know, he never sold it.”
I remain motionless, stilled by shock, letting everything sink in. Baneberry Hall, the place that allegedly so terrified my family that we had no choice but to leave, has been in my father’s possession for the past twenty-five years.
I assume he either couldn’t get rid of it—possible, considering the house’s reputation—or didn’t
to sell it. Which could mean any number of things, none of which makes sense. All I know for certain is that my father never told me he still owned it.
“Are you sure?” I say, hoping Arthur has made some terrible mistake.
“Positive. Baneberry Hall belonged to your father. Which means it’s now yours. Lock, stock, and barrel, as they say. I suppose I should give you these.”
Arthur places a set of keys on the desk and pushes them toward me. There are two of them, both attached to a plain key ring.
“One opens the front gate and the other the front door,” he says.
I stare at the keys, hesitant to pick them up. I’m uncertain about accepting this part of my inheritance. I was raised to fear Baneberry Hall, for reasons that are still unclear to me. Even though I don’t believe my father’s official story, owning the house doesn’t sit well with me.
Then there’s the matter of what my father said on his deathbed, when he pointedly chose
to tell me he still owned Baneberry Hall. What he did say now echoes through my memory, making me shiver.
It’s not safe there. Not for you.
When I finally grab the keys, they feel hot in my hand, as if Arthur had placed them atop a radiator. I curl my fingers around them, their teeth biting into my palm.
That’s when I’m hit with another wallop of grief. This time it’s tinged with frustration and more than a little disbelief.
My father’s dead.
He withheld the truth about Baneberry Hall for my whole life.
Now I own the place. Which means all its ghosts, whether real or imaginary, are mine as well.
We knew what we were getting into. To claim otherwise would be an outright lie. Before we chose to buy Baneberry Hall, we had been told its history.
“The property has quite the past, believe you me,” said our Realtor, a birdlike woman in a black power suit named Janie June Jones. “There’s a lot of history there.”
We were in Janie June’s silver Cadillac, which she drove with the aggressiveness of someone steering a tank. At the mercy of her driving, all Jess, Maggie, and I could do was hang on and hope for the best.
“Good or bad?” I said as I tugged my seat belt, making sure it was secure.
“A little of both. The land was owned by William Garson. A lumber man. Richest man in town. He’s the one who built Baneberry Hall in 1875.”
Jess piped up from the back seat, where she sat with her arms
wrapped protectively around our daughter. “Baneberry Hall. That’s an unusual name.”
“I suppose it is,” Janie June said as she steered the car out of town in a herky-jerky manner that made the Cadillac constantly veer from one side of the lane to the other. “Mr. Garson named it after the plant. The story goes that when he bought the land, the hillside was covered in red berries. Townsfolk said it looked like the entire hill was awash in blood.”
I glanced at Janie June from my spot in the front passenger seat, checking to confirm that she could indeed see over the steering wheel. “Isn’t baneberry poisonous?”
“It is. Both the red and the white kind.”
“So, not an ideal place for a child,” I said, picturing Maggie, rabidly curious and ravenously hungry, popping handfuls of red berries into her mouth when we weren’t looking.
“Many children have lived quite happily there over the years,” Janie June said. “The entire Garson clan lived in that house until the Great Depression, when they lost their money just like everyone else. The estate was bought by some Hollywood producer who used it as a vacation home for him and his movie star friends. Clark Gable stayed there. Carole Lombard, too.”
Janie June swerved the car off the main road and onto a gravel drive cutting between two cottages perched on the edge of an imposing Vermont woods. Compact and tidy, both were of similar size and shape. The cottage on the left had yellow siding, red shutters, and blue curtains in the windows. The one on the right was deep brown and more rustic, its cedar siding making it blend in with the forest.
“Those were also built by Mr. Garson,” Janie June informed us. “He did it about a year after the construction of the main house.
One cottage for Baneberry Hall’s housekeeper and another for the caretaker. That’s still the case today, although neither of them exclusively works for the property. But they’re available on an as-needed basis, if you ever get overwhelmed.”
She drove us deeper into the forest of pines, maples, and stately oaks, not slowing until a wrought-iron gate blocking the road appeared up ahead. Seeing it, Janie June pounded the brakes. The Cadillac fishtailed to a stop.
“Here we are,” she said.
The gate rose before us, tall and imposing. Flanking it was a ten-foot stone wall that stretched into the woods in both directions. Jess eyed it all from the back seat with barely concealed concern.
“That’s a bit much, don’t you think?” she said. “Does that wall go around the entire property?”
“It does,” Janie June said as she put the car in park. “Trust me, you’ll be thankful it’s there.”
Janie June ignored the question, choosing instead to fish through her purse, eventually finding a ring of keys. Turning to me, she said, “Mind helping an old lady out, Mr. Holt?”
Together, we left the car and opened the gate, Janie June taking care of the lock while I pulled the gate open with a loud, rusty groan. Soon we were in the car again, passing through the gate and starting up a long drive that wound like a corkscrew up an unexpectedly steep hill. As we twisted higher, I caught flashing glimpses of a building through the trees. A tall window here. A slice of ornate rooftop there.
“After the movie stars came and went, the place became a bed-and-breakfast,” Janie June said. “When that went belly-up after
three decades, it changed hands quite a few times. The previous owners lived here less than a year.”
“Why such a short time?” I said.
Again, the question went ignored. I would have pressed Janie June for an answer had we not at that moment crested the hill, giving me my first full view of Baneberry Hall.
Three stories tall, it sat heavy and foreboding in the center of the hilltop. It was a beautiful structure. Stone-walled and majestic. The kind of house that made one gasp, which is exactly what I did as I peered through the bug-specked windshield of Janie June’s Cadillac.
It was a lot of house. Far bigger than what we really needed or, under normal circumstances, could afford. I’d spent the past ten years in magazines, first freelancing at a time when the pay was good, then as a contributing editor at a publication that folded after nineteen issues, which forced me to return to freelancing at a time when the pay was lousy. With each passing day, Maggie grew bigger while our apartment seemed to get smaller. Jess and I handled it by arguing a lot. About money, mostly.
And the future.
And which one of us was passing the most negative traits on to our daughter.
We needed space. We needed a change.
Change arrived at full gallop, with two life-altering incidents occurring in the span of weeks. First, Jess’s grandfather, a banker from the old school who smoked cigars at his desk and called his secretary “Honey,” died, leaving her $250,000. Then Jess secured a job teaching at a private school outside Bartleby.
Our plan was to use the money from her grandfather to buy a house. Then she’d go to work while I stayed home to take care of
Maggie and focus on my writing. Freelance pieces, of course, but also short stories and, hopefully, my version of the Great American Novel.
A house like Baneberry Hall wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. Jess and I both agreed to seek out something nice but affordable. A house that would be easy to manage. A place we could grow into.
When Janie June had suggested Baneberry Hall, I had balked at the idea. Then she told us the asking price, which was half the estate’s assessed value.
“Why is the price so low?” I had asked.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” Janie June replied. “Not that there are any major problems. The place just needs a little TLC.”
In person, Baneberry Hall seemed less like a fixer-upper and more like the victim of neglect. The house itself looked to be in fine shape, albeit a little eccentric. Each level was slightly smaller than the one preceding it, giving the house the tiered look of a fancy wedding cake. The windows on the first floor were tall, narrow, and rounded at the tops. Because of the shrunken nature of the second floor, the windows there were less tall but no less majestic. The third story, with its sharply slanted roof, had windows reduced to the point where they resembled a pair of eyes looking down at us.
Two-thirds of the house were constructed as rigidly as a grid, with straight walls and clean lines. The other third was completely different, almost as if its architect had gotten bored halfway through construction. Instead of boxlike efficiency, that corner of Baneberry Hall bulged outward in a circular turret that made it look like a squat lighthouse had been transported from the Maine coast and attached to the house. The windows there were tidy squares that
dotted the exterior at irregular intervals. Topping it was a peaked roof that resembled a witch’s hat.
Yet I could sense the house’s disquiet. Silence seemed to shroud the place, giving it the feel of a home suddenly vacated. An air of abandonment clung to the walls like ivy.
“Why did you say we’d be thankful for that gate?” said Jess, who by then had leaned between the two front seats to get a better view of the house. “Has there been a lot of crime here?”
“Not at all,” Janie June said, sounding not convincing in the least. “The house gets a lot of looky-loos, that’s all. Its history draws the curious like flies. Not townsfolk, mind you. They’re used to the place. But people from out of town. Teenagers, especially. They’ve been known to hop the wall from time to time.”
“And do what?” Jess asked.
“Typical kid stuff. Sneaking a few beers in the woods. Maybe some hanky-panky. Nothing criminal. And nothing to worry about, I swear. Now let’s get you inside. I guarantee you’ll like what you see.”
We gathered on the front porch while Janie June removed the keys from the lockbox hanging on the door handle. She then took a deep breath, her padded shoulders rising and falling. Just before she opened the door, she made the sign of the cross.
We followed her into the house. As I moved over the threshold, a shiver of air sliced through me, almost as if we had suddenly passed from one climate to another. At the time, I chalked it up to a draft. One of those strange, inexplicable things that always seem to occur in homes of a certain age.
The chill didn’t last long. Just a few steps, as we moved from the tidy vestibule into a great room of sorts that stretched from the front of the house to the back. With a ceiling that was at least twenty feet high and supported by exposed beams, it reminded me of a grand
hotel lobby. An equally grand staircase swept upward to the second floor in a graceful curve.
Above us, a massive brass chandelier hung from the ceiling, its two decks of arms coiled like octopus tentacles and dripping crystals. At the end of each arm perched a globe of smoked glass. As we stood beneath it, I noticed the chandelier swinging ever so slightly, almost as if someone were stomping across the floor above it.
“Is someone else in the house?” I said.
“Of course not,” Janie June replied. “Why would you think that?”
I pointed to the ornate chandelier over our heads, still gently swaying.
Janie June shrugged in response. “It’s probably just a rush of air from when we opened the front door.”
With a hand firmly on both Jess’s and my backs, she guided us deeper into the great room. Dominating the wall on the right was a massive stone fireplace. A bonus during brutal Vermont winters.
“There’s a matching one on the other side of the wall,” Janie June said. “In the Indigo Room.”
I was more interested in the portrait above the fireplace—an image of a man in turn-of-the-century garb. His features were harsh. Narrow, pointy nose. Cheekbones as sharp as switchblades. Dark eyes peered out from beneath heavy lids and eyebrows as white and bushy as the man’s beard.
“William Garson,” Janie June said. “The man who built this place.”
I stared at the painting, fascinated by how the artist was able to render Mr. Garson in such vivid detail. I noticed the faint crinkles of amusement around his eyes, the fine hairs of his arched brow, the slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. Instead of something reverential, the portrait instead depicted someone haughty, almost
scornful. As if Mr. Garson had been laughing at the artist while posing for him, which in turn made it seem like he was also laughing at me.
Maggie, who had been holding my hand throughout the tour, stood on her tiptoes to get a better view of the portrait.
“He’s scary,” she whispered.
I had to agree. William Garson, at least in this artist’s hands, seemed capable of great cruelty.
Beside us, Jess studied the portrait, her hand rubbing her chin. “If we buy this house, that painting is a goner.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” Janie June said as she stretched an arm to tap the bottom corner of the frame—the only area she could reach. “It’s painted directly onto the stone.”
I took a closer look, seeing that she was right. A rectangular section of the fireplace had been built with brick instead of stone, giving the painter a smoother surface to work with.
“So it’s really a mural,” I said.
Janie June nodded. “The frame’s just for show.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“I guess so Mr. Garson would always be a part of Baneberry Hall. He was, by all accounts, a possessive man. I suppose you could get the portrait removed, although the cost would be prohibitive.”
“Is that allowed, you think?” Jess said. “Certainly a house this old and important to the town has been designated a historical landmark.”
“Trust me,” Janie June said, “the historical society wants nothing to do with this place.”
“Why?” I said.
“You’d have to ask them.”
At the back of the house, the great room emptied into a formal
dining room meant for a family far bigger than just the three of us. Then it was on to the kitchen, accessed by a set of steps between the dining room and the great room. Much longer than it was wide, the kitchen sat in a sublevel that stretched the width of Baneberry Hall. Not quite house, not quite basement. Its décor reflected that uneasy limbo. Closer to the stairs, it was rather elegant, with tall cabinets, green walls, and a farmhouse sink large enough for Maggie to take a bath in.
Mounted on the wall were small bells attached to whorls of metal. I counted twenty-four in all, arranged in two rows of twelve. Above each one was a tag indicating a different part of the house. Some of them were just numbers, presumably remnants from when Baneberry Hall was a bed-and-breakfast. Others bore more lofty titles. Parlor. Master Suite. Indigo Room.