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Authors: Tanya Anne Crosby

Speak No Evil

BOOK: Speak No Evil
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Caroline crouched by her mother’s desk with the phone clasped to her ear. She had gone straight to it, intending to call the police but her fingers automatically dialed Jack’s number, knowing he couldn’t have gone far.
She hadn’t realized she still remembered the number.
There was no sign of the intruder, but the night sky beyond the broken glass and the open door made her feel vulnerable. She heard Jack radio for backup and then wrestle with the phone. “Okay,” he said.
“Hurry!” she whispered.
“I’m here, Caroline—coming around now. Stay down!”
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For my husband, Scott, who believes in me.
With thanks to Michelle Boubel, John Clayton and William Tisdale.
A very special thanks to the cities of Charleston, James Island and Folly Beach for providing an endless wellspring of inspiration . . . along with a pardon for having taken slight liberties with the immediate history and landscape of Secessionville Creek. The area has its own very rich past and though I spent the majority of my life in Charleston, I stumbled upon that pinpoint on the map after a game of eeny meeny miny mo . . . or just maybe, if you believe in providence . . . it chose me.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
—John Muir
verything hinges on a moment.
Make a split-second decision or submit to a whim . . . and like tumbling dominoes, events will follow, good and bad. In a perfect world, if you make a decision with the best of intentions, only the best of results may come. But sometimes, bad people do the right thing. Sometimes good people do the wrong thing.
You might say a pen led to my death.
Just a simple pen, it sat, not on my desk, but on the kitchen counter, where I abandoned it after scribbling the word “tomatoes” on my grocery list. Sometime before making its way to that spot, it lay on my nightstand, where I set it down after devising a plan to reunite my three daughters. From there, it traveled to my office, where I penned a last codicil to my will. The guilty ruminations of an old woman, mostly. But then, I forgot . . . until I saw the pen and set in motion the chain of dominoes that brought me to this moment....
Only now, one breath shy of my last, do I understand that maybe this began long ago . . . in another moment . . . on a beach north of Folly....
Chapter One

bet my share Sadie gets the house.”
As bets went, it was crazy, of course, but Caroline knew Augusta’s challenge had nothing to do with anxiety over preserving “the house” for Aldridge posterity. Like Rhett Butler, Augusta didn’t give a damn—at least not about the house.
“Why would Mother do that?” their youngest sister, Savannah, asked.
Augusta shrugged. “Why would Mother do anything?”
Up to this point, Savannah had spent her entire life defending their mother, and Augusta was bound to spend the rest of hers accusing. Caroline was tired of being in the middle. She tuned them out, peering through the window as the limo passed the torched remains of the house’s Georgian predecessor. Destroyed during a kitchen fire the year after the “War of Northern Aggression” ended, the original house had escaped Sherman’s wrath and one of the South’s most pivotal battles only to meet its fate at the hands of a common grease fire. Construction on the “new big house” began the following year. Oyster Point Plantation was her family’s legacy . . . along with a lifetime of dysfunction.
Why would Mother do anything?
The answers were buried this morning, along with their mother . . . all that remained now was the mythos: To the rest of the world, Florence Willodean Aldridge was a media darling, heir to one of the city’s oldest surviving newspapers. To Caroline and her sisters, she was...
Like the house.
There was the face people saw through the eye of a camera lens—the lovely Southern plantation that graced the covers of magazines like
Southern Living
House Beautiful
. . . where Spanish moss clung to stately trees like hoary curtains . . . and then there was the face that existed behind the red door, where the slow decay of the soul seeped into the fiber of the structure . . . sank down deep into the soil and surrounding marshlands, festered and stank.
That was how Caroline perceived the smell of the marsh—that unmistakable sulfurous odor that heightened the closer they came to the house . . . that smell her mother never acknowledged though she compulsively planted and obsessed over sickly sweet magnolias and azaleas to mask the scent.
It was funny, Caroline thought, how you could look straight at the house, with its storybook gables, and actually smell the decay, and still your brain believed the beautiful lie. Even now, as the car wound its way up the private drive, through the swooning oaks and shawled magnolia trees, old wounds seemed to reopen and fester . . . as though in the presence of the house, only the memories that were born here had any real vitality.
Caroline thought she had braced herself, but she wasn’t quite prepared for the rush of emotion that assaulted her as the house’s steeply pitched gabled roof and perfectly spaced dormers soared into view. Like the body lying inside the coffin they’d just abandoned, the old Victorian seemed to have aged on fast-forward—obvious even through the last thick coat of white paint. And yet there it stood . . . defying the years, a Southern matriarch in its own right, a polite hostess, entertaining callers. The two-story piazza, with more than two thousand square feet of wraparound porch—like the cemetery—was standing room only, leaving no doubt their mother was adored. People milled about, standing in the driveway, marveling over Flo’s azaleas.
Caroline desperately wanted to feel what they felt, but instead of grief, all she could muster from the depths of her soul was something like regret.
The limo rolled to a crunchy halt over the gravel drive and Savannah reached over to give her hand a gentle squeeze. “Ready?”
The answer was no, but Caroline nodded anyway.
Savannah was the first to slide out of the car, brushing imaginary specs from her simple black dress while she stood waiting for Caroline. Augusta took the path of least resistance and scooted out of Savannah’s door, her pink dress standing out like a sore thumb as she bolted up the front stairs and disappeared into a sea of black dresses and suits.
For a moment, Caroline lingered in the limo, envying Augusta’s lack of regard for duty. She didn’t have the same option. No matter how she’d felt about Flo, today she was the eldest surviving Aldridge and, fortified by centuries of Southern social graces, propriety ruled.
It was May. The azaleas were in full bloom. Red, like the door, the shade reminded Caroline of her mother’s lipstick, and for an instant, she almost expected Flo to appear on the doorstep with her Jackie O–inspired hairdo, wearing a perfectly ironed A-line dress that made her look like a charming anachronism.
But that was never going to happen again.
She set her poker face and took a deep breath, opening her car door.
Together she and Savannah made their way inside, as one by one, neighbors Caroline hadn’t seen in a decade brought sympathy along with their best casseroles. Thanking each for both, she set the food out in the dining room, noting that there was more than enough to feed an army for a year. Maybe they could donate some? She didn’t want it to go to waste and didn’t intend to remain in Charleston beyond the reading of the will. She was pretty sure her sisters had the same idea. Any arrangements that would need to be made could be handled over the phone, via e-mail and fax. That was the beauty of technology.
“My dear,” someone said sympathetically, tapping Caroline’s shoulder as she set a third dish of ambrosia salad on the buffet. Unbelievably, there was no more space on the antique Georgian table, even with its six feet of extensions.
“Well, hello, Miss Rose!” Caroline exclaimed. “How lovely to see you!” There was no pretense in the greeting. Rose Simmons’s wrinkled face brought back memories of Caroline’s earliest years in this old house, the only good ones she could recall.
“Gracious! I wouldn’t have missed it,” Miss Rose said. “Your mother was a wonderful woman. Such a lovely funeral!” she added with unreserved approval. “I hope my children will pay their respects so beautifully!”
A prick of guilt jabbed Caroline. Everything had been prearranged. It was the one thing she could thank her mother for: Flo wasn’t the sort to leave unfinished business. She skirted the compliment. “Well, I’m glad you could make it,” she offered with a smile, and then caught a glimpse of the figure standing in the entrance to the dining room and all thoughts flew out of her head at once.
“Oh, before I forget, I brought the greens!” Miss Rose declared.
Caroline blinked, her gaze fixed on the man she had nearly married ten years before. “Greens?”
His eyes were as vivid a blue as she recalled, with points of light that dimmed or brightened based on the intensity of his smile. Right now, they were practically electric and Caroline could barely focus. “I don’t know the Greens, Miss Rose. . . .”
Miss Rose chuckled, gently cuffing Caroline’s forearm. “Well, of course you do! You always asked after them and I remembered and brought them!”
Caroline gave the old woman a confused smile, and noticed Jack was smirking, those lights in his eyes dancing impishly. The familiar, playful grin annoyed her far more than it should have.
Miss Rose clasped a hand to her breast. “Poor sweet dear! It must be the shock,” she declared. “That’s quite understandable.” She patted Caroline’s arm consolingly. “Flo’s death was so unexpected!” She shook her head. “Your mother will be sorely missed, but it should cheer you to know they are talking about planting a garden in Waterfront Park in her honor. I hope they do!
“The Florence Willodean Aldridge Memorial Garden,” Rose continued, but Caroline was no longer listening. The old woman peered over her shoulder to see what had captured Caroline’s attention and a sudden look of comprehension crossed her features. She smiled knowingly. “Well, goodness! I understand. I shall leave you to your guests, my dear girl. Just make sure you put some of them greens aside for later. I cooked them up just the way you like them, with a nice big ham hock!”
It dawned on Caroline suddenly that the “greens” were not people. Miss Rose had brought mustard greens. And truthfully, she hated them intensely but vaguely recalled being five at Miss Rose’s daughter’s baptism celebration and feeling incredibly guilty about wanting to spit them out. With a quelling look from her mother, she had reluctantly swallowed them and complimented Miss Rose’s greens emphatically—obviously, much too emphatically.
Miss Rose clucked at her, shaking an admonishing finger. “You always were too thin!”
Caroline’s cheeks heated as her mother’s neighbor ambled away, leaving her completely at Jack’s mercy.
The old woman gave Jack a nod on her way out of the dining room and said pleasantly, “Afternoon, Jack.”
Jack greeted her with a smile and a nod. “Afternoon, Miss Rose. You look lovely as ever.”
Miss Rose ducked her head shyly and giggled like a schoolgirl. The instant she was out of earshot, Jack turned the full impact of his roguish smile on Caroline. “Just make sure you put some of them greens aside for later,” he teased, stirring from the doorframe and strolling into the room with a languor that was both infuriating and reassuring in its familiarity.
“I guess your mother never taught you not to eavesdrop,” Caroline said, hating herself for giving in to feelings of resentment.
The twinkles in his eyes vanished. “We both know my
didn’t teach me much of anything, Caroline.”
He said it calmly, congenially, but Caroline knew she’d hit a nerve. For a long awkward moment, they stood facing one another, neither quite certain what to say. The scent of wilting magnolias drifted between them. Ten years ago, her mother had ordered the flowers as centerpieces for the tables at their wedding. Now, they adorned every corner of the house and Caroline would forever associate the scent with death and sorrow.
Fitting, somehow.
Jack had the decency to look uncomfortable. Hands in his pockets, he peered down at the floor. “We still need to talk to Sadie,” he offered. “Finalize the report.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find her in the kitchen.”
It was Sadie, their mother’s housekeeper, who had discovered Flo sprawled at the foot of the stairs. Doped out on clonazepam, Flo had apparently tripped over a loose board at the top of the stairs.
“It’s just a formality,” he assured. “It can wait.”
She’d rather believe he was here because he was doing his duty for work, not because of some misplaced sense of obligation to their past. “So you’re working?”
“I came to pay my respects, not upset you. Sorry, Caroline.”
At one time, Caroline couldn’t have imagined anyone else she’d rather be comforted by. Now she didn’t even know how to talk to him. “Thanks for coming, Jack.”
He took a step backward. “You’re more like her than you realize,” he said quietly, removing his hands from his pockets. He hesitated, clearly wanting to say more. Instead, he turned and left.
Ignoring the surreptitious glances from their guests, Caroline turned her back on him. Trying hard to be casual, she stabbed a silver spoon into a dish before following Jack out into the hall to watch his retreat.
He edged his way through the crowd, somehow avoiding human contact despite the breadth of his shoulders. He never once looked back. Without a word, he opened the front door, stepped out into the afternoon light and closed it quietly behind him.
Caroline choked on a wave of emotion. “Shit,” she said softly.
Savannah appeared behind her. “That bad?”
Caroline blinked away tears. “He said he was looking for Sadie.”
Savannah lifted a brow. “Well, I doubt that’s why he came by here today.”
“The past doesn’t change just because he wants it to!” Caroline said emphatically and Savannah nodded, wisely recognizing the end of her patience on the subject of Jack Shaw.
BOOK: Speak No Evil
11.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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