Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
Diggs was on the phone when I retrieved Einstein. I told him I’d be gone for the afternoon, dodged his questions about where I was going, and headed for the town landing. The fog had burned off by this time—the sun was bright, the water clear and calm. My outboard started on the first pull, and Einstein’s tail was wagging as I navigated us out of the harbor. I set my sights on Payson Isle.
The island looked less formidable the second time around. Walking the same trail Diggs and I had traveled two days before, I was able to set my own pace and take in the world around me. I was still trying to get my head around the idea that this place was mine now: just over one square mile of granite and outbuildings, history and heartache. My father would have done great things with the place—farmed the land, added livestock, housed orphans or rescued puppies or… something.
I, on the other hand, didn’t know what the hell to do with it.
I surveyed any damage that had been done over the years. Trees had come down in storms, paths were overgrown, and buoys and trash had washed up along the shoreline. Otherwise, the island really didn’t look that bad.
The cottages where the families of the Payson Church had once lived were on the other side of the island. As a kid, I’d traveled the path from the boarding house to those cottages on a daily basis. One of my best friends lived there, as had some of my father’s cohorts on the maintenance crew. I remembered Isaac Payson himself pulling me aside at the boarding house, handing me notes that he would tuck in my small hand.
Run and give this to Sister Wendy,
he’d say, or
Brother Patrick was asking for this.
And I’d fly through the forest on an angel’s mission, chosen by the Chosen One. When I arrived at the cottages, I’d be out of breath and filled with self-importance, while whomever I’d been running to would read my message and repay me with homemade bread or a game of checkers.
Diggs was convinced I’d spent my formative years with a lecherous preacher and a bunch of deranged minions, but my memories were closer to
Little House on the Prairie
Children of the Corn.
Of course, no one—including my mother and the long line of shrinks she hired for me after the fire—ever believed me when I told them that.
I decided I still wasn’t quite ready to dive into Payson Village, where I knew my dad had spent his final years slowly going stark raving mad. Instead, I retraced my steps to the boarding house. I stopped at the fence and spent about fifteen minutes pushing and pulling the rusted iron gate out of the mud so I could get through without squishing my parts anymore than necessary. Once I reached the house, I pushed my way inside with only a fraction of the anxiety I’d felt on my first visit.
I started a fire in the fireplace, then decided to put my iron to the test. Armed with Einstein, a broom, and a hammer—the only blunt instrument I could find to defend myself against hobgoblins—I headed up the stairs to the bedrooms on the second floor.
Since Diggs and I hadn’t taken any plywood off the windows above the ground floor, everything was cloaked in darkness. I shined my flashlight along the corridor at the top of the stairs. All the bedroom doors were closed. Wallpaper was peeling in strips; dust hung in curtains along the walls. A couple of paintings had fallen down, splinters of glass and wood scattered in all directions. I swept them up so Einstein wouldn’t cut his paws, then continued.
There were three bedrooms on the right hand side of the hallway. Those had been for the single women in the congregation. Their kids stayed in bedrooms across the hall. I hesitated for a second or two before I chose the first room to my left. I pushed the door open and peered inside while Einstein sat at the threshold and whined.
“I know it’s creepy. But we’re reporters, Stein. This is what we do.” He didn’t budge. I went in without him.
Part of the plywood boarding the bedroom window had been damaged, allowing partial light to get through. I ran my flashlight through the room. Three sets of bunk beds were lined up against one wall, opposite a bank of built-in dresser drawers. The beds were all made.
Centered above the dressers, a homemade sign—water stained and torn almost all the way through the center—read, “God is Good.”
Names were written in crayon on brittle, yellowed paper at the head of each bed. I ran the flashlight over each of them:
Julie, Andrea, Sara, Laura.
I stopped at the third bed. The name on the bottom bunk was written in faded pink, bubble letters:
The top bunk was the only one with no bedding, but the name remained at the head of the bed:
written in my father’s fine script and decorated with glitter. Though I’d been gone nearly a year before the fire, no one had taken my spot.
Three of the girls still had blue-eyed angels hanging by their bedsides. Framed photos of the children with their mothers and other members of the church lined the walls. I went to the dresser drawers and opened one. Mice had nested in the clothing, tufts of fur mixed in with torn dresses and tshirts, skirts and blue jeans.
I closed the drawers with my skin crawling, and left the room the way I’d found it.
A massive set of double doors stood at the end of the hallway, leading into a suite that had once belonged to my family; the place where my mother and father lived during their brief stint as blissful marrieds. Directly to the right of those doors was a second stairwell leading to the third floor. Everything good, everything safe, everything remotely childlike about my childhood, had happened behind those double doors. I thought of curling up beside my dad while he read to me; of coloring pictures and sharing secrets and the songs he used to sing when I was sick.
I turned away from the doors and opted for the stairwell instead.
The steps leading up to the Payson family sanctuary were narrower than I remembered. The stairs were steep and the ceiling was low and claustrophobia kicked in about halfway up. Einstein stayed in the hallway below, whining as I reached a door with peeling paint and a gold cross at the center.
“Just go on—nobody’s here. They won’t even know.”
“Father Isaac says we’re not supposed to come up here. It’s just for his family.”
Allie Tate stares back at me, her brown eyes enormous behind thick-lensed glasses. She has dark hair and pale skin and walks with a limp, but only I know why.
“Daddy says the island belongs to all of us. We can go wherever we want,” I tell her. This is a lie—or at least it’s not quite the truth—but right now I don’t care. I’ve been dying to get into Father Isaac’s secret lair for as long as I can remember, and I finally have the chance.
“That’s not what my mom says,” Allie insists. “We’re not supposed to cross Father Isaac.”
I push past her on the stairs, so impatient that I catch her off balance and she has to grip the railing to keep from falling.
“We’re not supposed to have secrets,” I say. “That’s worse than crossing Isaac.”
At nine years old, my father says I have my mother’s will. I know that it’s not meant as a compliment. I’m more curious than I used to be about this woman I have yet to meet; this woman who lives somewhere on the mainland and who chose to spend my childhood studying to be a doctor instead of raising me and caring for my father. I’ve heard that Isaac keeps information about everyone locked away in his rooms at the top of the stairs. If that’s true, I’m convinced I can learn everything I want to know about my mother—all the questions my father refuses to answer.
“Don’t turn back now,” I tell Allie, who is slowly creeping back down the stairs. I’ve hurt her feelings, but I can’t bring myself to stop. “We’re almost there.”
“They’ll be back soon.”
“Services are another hour. They won’t come back.”
Even as I say this, we hear the front door open on the first floor. Allie’s eyes get wide and terrified, and I feel a jolt of electricity in my belly. It’s not a bad feeling, necessarily. Allie rushes down the stairs, but I keep going. Two more steps.
“What if it’s Father Isaac?” she whispers to me.
“It won’t be. Just go talk to them. I’ll just be a minute.”
My heart is pounding now, the doorknob cool under my hand. Whoever is here, their footsteps are getting closer. Before I can turn the knob, I hear my father’s voice.
“Erin? Are you up here, baby?”
I’m forced to turn back. It doesn’t matter, though—within two weeks, I have all the answers I need about the mysterious woman who is my mother. And within a month, she has whisked me to the mainland before I ever have the chance to set foot inside Isaac Payson’s inner sanctum.
I shook off the memory. I was an adult now, and Isaac Payson was long dead. I turned the knob.
It didn’t budge.
Isaac’s brother had left me a key ring with enough keys to unlock most of the mysteries of life, but it turned out that not one of those keys fit Isaac Payson’s door. As I saw it, I had three choices: pick the lock, break down the door, or admit defeat and head back downstairs. Picking the lock turned out to be impossible—at least, it was for me. After a couple of halfhearted shoves at the aged wood with my shoulder, I decided that force wasn’t going to do the job, either. Einstein stared up at me with limpid brown eyes.
The stairwell was dark. I imagined that Payson’s room would be even darker. Truth be told, I wasn’t that keen to explore the place alone, anyway. I started down the steps. About halfway down, Einstein started to bark.
“I’m coming, Stein—just chill.” So far, he was proving to be less than helpful. Einstein was a great dog, but he could have taken some lessons from Lassie.
He started up the stairs, his barks sharpening in pitch, his body rigid. Something creaked behind me. The dog raced up three steps as I turned and shined my flashlight into the dim stairwell. My heart was thudding so hard against my breastbone I thought it might crack something.
There was nothing there.
I closed my eyes. “That’s it. No more detecting tonight.”
If something was up there, I wasn’t prepared to find it tonight. Common sense told me it was probably just a raccoon or squirrel that had somehow gotten in the room, and Stein just heard it through the door. I’d seen too many horror flicks over the course of my lifetime to just dismiss it outright, though.
Instead, I gathered Einstein and our things and we headed for the dock. As I walked through the woods, the sky darkening with every step, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was just behind me, watching my retreat.
Diggs stayed at the office that night, and was nowhere on the premises when I got up the next day. I had no doubt that he had work to do, but he was also clearly avoiding me. Understandable, since our last two heartfelt chats had ended with me jumping down his throat. I would have avoided me, too.
I wasn’t meeting Jim Abbott in Portland until three, so I had the morning to pull myself together and figure out a plan of attack. I took advantage of the brisk, clear weather with a run into town. Einstein held up well. I, on the other hand, needed my left lung reinflated by mile two.
Around mile three, a car slowed down behind me. I yanked Einstein over to the shoulder, but the idiot in my wake still didn’t pass us. I turned to shoot a glare at whoever was shadowing me.
Jack Juarez smiled at me from the driver’s seat.
He rolled his window down and slowed the car to match my pace. Since actually speaking and running at the same time were beyond me, however, I pulled up short. As did Juarez. The road was empty, the sky was clear, and Juarez looked tastier than any mortal man had a right, particularly given the stress he’d presumably been under dealing with Uncle Crazy.
“I didn’t know you were a runner,” he said. There was just a hint of a smirk.
In between gasping for breath and nursing the stitch in my side, I pulled a pack of Camels from my jacket pocket. Juarez gave me the eye.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“But you were thinking it.”
The smirk transformed into a slow, easy grin. He eyed me up and down, his gaze lingering at the cigarette now between my lips. “That’s not what I was thinking.”
My heart sped up just a shade, though this time I couldn’t lay the blame on exertion.
“Do you want a ride?”
I had another mile or so to get back to Diggs’ place. My right calf was cramping, I was getting a blister on my left heel, and my sports bra didn’t fit nearly as well as it had in the store. I glanced at Einstein, who didn’t even have the decency to pant.
“Sure—I think Stein’s tired.”
Juarez just kept grinning.
When Juarez found out I was going to Portland, he managed to finagle an invite without too much actual finagling. He waited while I showered and changed, I did the unforgiveable and dumped Einstein on Diggs for the afternoon, and we were on the road by eleven.
The first forty-five minutes of the drive was awkward, filled with stilted conversation and some of the most God-awful music I’d ever heard. Juarez was freshly shaven and appropriately casual in jeans and a black T-shirt that did obscene things for his arms. We took his car—a zippy little five-speed Honda Civic that didn’t mesh with my image of an FBI man in the least. In fact, nothing about Jack Juarez meshed with my image of an FBI man. Didn’t FBI men drive SUVs and believe in wire tapping, necessary force, and the innate beauty of the good old U.S. of A.?
Juarez talked about swimming with porpoises in Miami, appeared to know all the words to every Taylor Swift song ever penned, and drove five miles under the speed limit for the duration of the drive. Every so often, he would look at me with those dark, dark eyes, and a shiver would run from my kneecaps to my navel. Physically, everything about him whispered an implication of the erotic—he looked like the kind of man who could recite Yeats to you in one breath and tie you to the bedpost in the next. But, he drove like my grandfather and had the musical tastes of a prepubescent girl.