Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
It’s almost dark when I bring my truck to a rattling stop in front of the wrought-iron gate. The sky has the same purple-black hue as a bruise. On the other side of the gate, I can faintly make out the rise of the gravel road as it begins its climb through the woods. Atop the hill, barely visible through the trees, is a patch of dark roof and a sliver of glass reflecting the wan light of the rising moon.
The house of horrors itself.
My father’s warning echoes through my thoughts.
It’s not safe there. Not for you.
I chase it away with a call to Allie, announcing that I’ve made it safe and sound.
“How does the place look?” she says.
“I don’t know. I still haven’t unlocked the gate.”
Allie hesitates a beat before replying. “It’s okay to have second thoughts.”
“And it’s not too late to change your mind.”
I know that, too. I could turn around, head back to Boston, and accept my mother’s offer to buy Baneberry Hall sight unseen. I could try to be okay with never knowing the real reason we left that long-ago July night. I could pretend my parents haven’t lied to me for most of my life and that those lies haven’t become part of who I am.
But I can’t.
It’s useless to even try.
“You know I need to do this,” I say.
“I know you
you need to do it,” Allie replies. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
The plan is for me to spend the summer getting Baneberry Hall in shape to be sold, hopefully for a profit. It won’t be a complete renovation. Certainly not as extensive as what Allie and I do on a regular basis. I think of it as a major freshening up. New paint and wallpaper. Polishing the hardwood and laying down fresh tile. Restore what’s usable, and replace what’s not. The most ambitious I’ll get is in the rooms that really sell a house. Bathrooms. Kitchen. Master suite.
“You make it sound like I’ve never fixed up an old house before.”
This prompts a sigh from Allie. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
She’s referring to the other part of my plan—searching for snippets of truth that might be hiding in every nook and cranny. It’s the main reason she’s not joining me for the renovation. This time, as they say in the movies, it’s personal.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her.
“Says the woman who still hasn’t gotten out of her truck,” Allie replies, stating a fact I can’t deny. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? And not fabric-swatches-and-truck-full-of-equipment ready. Emotionally ready.”
“I think so.” It’s as honest an answer as I can give.
“What if the truth you’re looking for isn’t there?”
“Every house has a story,” I say.
“And Baneberry Hall already has one,” Allie replies.
“Which was written by my father. I had no absolutely no say in it, yet it affects me to this very day. And I need to at least try to learn the real one while I still have the chance.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me there?” Allie says gently. “If not for moral support, then just for the fact that old houses can be tricky. I’d feel better knowing you had some help.”
“I’ll call if I need any advice,” I say.
“No,” Allie says. “You’ll call or text at least once a day. Otherwise I’ll think you died in an epic table-saw accident.”
When the call is over, I get out of the truck and approach the gate, which dwarfs me by at least five feet. It’s the kind of gate you’re more likely to see at a mental hospital or prison. Something designed not to keep people out but to keep them in. I find the key for the lock, insert it, and twist. It unlocks with a metallic clank.
Almost immediately, a man’s voice—as gruff as it is unexpected—rises in the darkness behind me.
“If you’re looking for trouble, you just found it. Now back away from that gate.”
I spin around, my hands raised like a burglar caught mid-job. “I’m sorry. I used to live here.”
The truck’s headlights, aimed at the center of the gate to help me see better, now end up blinding me. I scan the darkness behind the truck until the source of the voice steps into the light. He’s tall and solid—a cool drink of water poured into jeans and a black T-shirt. Although he could pass for younger, I peg him to be just north of forty, especially when he steps closer and I can see the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin.
“You’re Ewan Holt’s girl?” he says.
A prickle of irritation forms on the back of my neck. I might be Ewan Holt’s daughter, but I’m no one’s girl. I let it slide only because this man seems to have known my father.
The man strides toward me, his hand extended. Up close, he’s very good-looking. Definitely fortyish, but compact and muscular in a way that makes me think he does manual labor for a living. I work with similar guys all the time. Taut forearms with prominent veins that crest bulging biceps. Beneath his T-shirt is a broad chest and an enviably narrow waist.
“I’m the caretaker,” he says, confirming my first impression. “Name’s Dane. Dane Hibbets.”
My father mentioned a Hibbets in the Book. Walt. Not Dane.
“His grandson, actually,” Dane says, either not picking up on my word choice or deciding to ignore it. “Walt died a few years back. I kind of stepped in and took over. Which means I should probably stop standing here and help you with this gate.”
He pushes past to help me in prying it open, him pulling one side and me pushing the other.
“By the way, I was real sorry to hear about your dad’s passing,” he says. “Others in this town might have unkind things to say about him. His book is none too popular in these parts. None too popular at all. But he was a good man, and I remind folks of that on a regular basis. ‘Few people would have kept on paying us,’ I tell them. ‘Especially twenty-five years after leaving the place.’”
A hiccup of surprise rises in my chest. “My father was still paying you?”
“He sure was. First my grandfather, then me. Oh, and Mrs. Ditmer. I mow the grass, do some landscaping, pop in once a week to make sure nothing’s wrong with the house. Elsa—that’s Mrs. Ditmer—came in every month to do a good cleaning. Her daughter does it now that Elsa’s infirm, to put it kindly.”
“Only in the head.” Dane uses an index finger to tap his temple.
“Alzheimer’s. The poor woman. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. But your father kept us all on and always made sure to check in on me whenever he was here.”
Another surprise. One that makes me release my half of the gate, letting it swing shut again. “My father came here?”
“Not often, no,” Dane says. “Just once a year.”
I remain completely still, aware of the cocked-headed stare Dane is giving me but unable to do anything about it. Shock has left me motionless.
My father came back here once a year.
Despite vowing never to return.
Despite begging me on his deathbed to do the same.
These visits go against everything I was told about Baneberry Hall. That it was off-limits to my family. That it was a place where nothing good survived. That I needed to stay away.
It’s not safe there. Not for you.
Why did my father think it was safe for him to return and not me? Why didn’t he mention—not even once—that he still owned Baneberry Hall and came back here regularly?
Dane keeps on giving me that funny look. Part curiosity, part concern. I manage to cut through my shock long enough to ask a follow-up question.
“When was the last time he was here?”
“Last summer,” Dane says. “He always came on the same date—July 15.”
Yet another shock. A giant wallop that pushes me back onto my heels. I grip the gate for support, my numb fingers snaking around its wrought-iron curlicues.
“You okay there, Maggie?” Dane says.
“Yes,” I mutter, although I’m not sure I am. July 15 was the night
my family left Baneberry Hall. That can’t be a coincidence, even though I have no idea what it means. I try to think of a logical reason why my father would return only on that infamous date, but I come up empty.
“How long would he stay?” I say.
“Just one night,” Dane says. “He’d arrive late and leave early the next day. After the first couple of years, I knew the routine like clockwork. I’d have the gate open and waiting for him when he got here, and then I’d close it back up when his car drove by the next morning.”
“Did he ever tell you what he was doing here?”
“He never volunteered, and I never asked,” Dane says. “Didn’t seem to be any business of mine. And not that yours is, either, but I gotta ask—”
“What the hell I’m doing here?”
“I was going to phrase it a bit more delicately, but since you put it that way, why the hell
Dane shoots a glance toward the back of my pickup. Hidden under a canvas tarp are boxes of supplies, several tool kits, and enough power tools to supply a minor construction site. Table saw. Power saw. Drill. Sander. All that’s missing is a jackhammer, although I know where to get one if the need arises.
“I’m here to check out the house, renovate the parts that need it, and prepare it for sale.”
“The house is in fine shape,” Dane says. “The foundation is solid, and the structure’s sound. It’s got good bones, as they say. It could use some sprucing up, of course. Then again, so could I.”
He gives me a sly, self-deprecating grin, making it clear he knows how handsome he is. I bet he’s used to making the women of Bartleby swoon. Unfortunately for him, I’m not from these parts.
“Do you think the house can sell?” I reply, all business.
“A place like that? With a bit of mystery surrounding it? Oh, it’ll sell. Although you might want to be careful about who you sell it to.
Most folks here wouldn’t be too pleased to see it turned into a tourist attraction.”
“The citizens of Bartleby hate my father’s book that much, do they?”
it,” Dane says, hissing the word like it’s a bad taste he wants off his tongue. “Most folks wish it had never been written.”
I can’t say I blame them. I once told Allie that living in the Book’s shadow felt like having a parent who committed murder. I’m guilty by association. Now imagine what that kind of attention could do to an entire town, its reputation, its property values.
House of Horrors
put Bartleby, Vermont, on the map for all the wrong reasons.
“And what about you?” I ask Dane. “What’s your take on my father’s book?”
“Don’t have one. I never read it.”
“So you’re the one,” I say. “Nice to finally meet you.”
Dane grins again. This time it’s genuine, which makes it so much nicer than his earlier effort. It shows off a dimple on his right cheek, just above the edge of his stubble.
“Not a fan, I take it,” he says.
“Let’s just say I have a low tolerance for bullshit. Especially when I’m one of the main characters.”
Dane leans against the patch of stone wall next to the gate, his arms crossed and his head tilted in the direction of Baneberry Hall. “Then I guess you’re not scared of staying all alone in that big house up there.”
“You’ve been inside more than I have,” I say. “Should I be?”
“Only if you’re afraid of dust bunnies,” Dane says. “You said you plan on fixing the place up. You have any experience with that?”
The irritated prickle returns, itching the back of my neck. “Yeah. A bit.”
“That’s a pretty big job.”
There’s more to the sentence, the unspoken part left dangling like
an autumn leaf. I know what it is, though. Something vaguely sexist and patronizing. I get it all the time. Constant questions that would never be posed to a man. Am I skilled enough? Strong enough? Capable enough?
The rest of Dane’s sentence, when it finally drops, turns out to be only slightly more egalitarian.
“For just one person, I mean,” he says.
“I can handle it.”
Dane scratches his chin. “There’s lots to do inside. Especially if you really intend to trick it out for resale.”
That’s when I realize he isn’t completely being a sexist jerk. He’s also, in a roundabout way, asking for a job.
“You have experience in home renovation?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Dane says. “A bit.”
Hearing my own answer thrown back at me is more amusing than annoying. Clearly, Dane Hibbets and I have underestimated each other.
“It’s my main gig,” he says. “General contracting. Home repair. Things like that. But business lately hasn’t exactly been booming.”
I take a moment to size him up, wondering if hiring Dane will be more trouble than it’s worth. But Allie was right—despite my knowledge and skill, I will need some help. Dane’s been inside Baneberry Hall. He knows the place better than I do. And if my father thought him good enough to keep paying him, then it might be wise to do the same.
“You’re hired,” I say. “I’ll pay you a fair wage for working on the house. When I sell it, you can claim the lion’s share of the work. Might help get you some new clients. Deal?”
“Deal,” Dane says.
We shake on it.
“Good. We start tomorrow. Eight a.m.”