Twenty years ago, Catherine Carmichael and her mother fled Ravenswood after Catherine’s father mysteriously disappeared. Now, Catherine finds herself back on the small peninsula to attend the reading of her eccentric uncle’s will.
It is in the very mansion her own grandfather built amongst ghostly servants, chilling houseguests, and a mysterious and captivating stranger that Catherine must finally unlock the dark secrets of her past.
“Jill Jones is one of the top new writing talents of the day.” —Affaire de Coeur
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"Mother always referred to my Uncle Malcolm as 'that demented bastard,' that is, when she spoke of him at all." I laugh uneasily as I try to describe my family's little dysfunction to my friend Charley Peterson. "They've been estranged for years. She'll hate it that he's included me in his will."
I reach into my small fridge and snag a can of cold soda for Charley. I wasn't expecting him, and generally I'm annoyed when someone drops in unannounced, but I'm glad he's stopped by. I've been edgy since I opened the letter that came this morning.
"Sounds like a swell kind of guy." Charley pops the aluminum cap and guzzles the sugary caffeine. "You ever read any of his books?"
"Only recently. We weren't allowed to read them when I was growing up, and when I got old enough to read what I wanted, I had other things on my mind, like the conservatory." I place the kettle on for tea. My stomach wants something more settling than cola at the moment. Charley's a good friend and a good listener, but there's more to this story than I'm willing to tell him, more even than I know.
"I've only read one," Charley says of my uncle's books. "Pretty creepy stuff. Well-written, but I'm not into horror fiction."
"Me neither, but I guess a lot of people are. I heard a short obit about him on the BBC when he died. They're saying he's the Edgar Allan Poe of the twenty-first century, that his tales will transcend time and will still be scaring readers a hundred years from now."
I, too, have read only one of my famous uncle's books. I picked it up at the newsstand shortly after I learned he'd died. I almost didn't buy it because from the cover blurbs it sounded ludicrous, not a tale I'd normally choose to read, nor one I'd likely find credible. A teenage werewolf story, for God's sake. But delivered with the enormous talent of Malcolm Blount, I believed every word, and without question, it was the scariest book I'd ever read.
It wasn't the plot or the characters or the setting that terrified me. It was the author's obvious understanding of mankind's deepest fears and his ability to pluck at those fears with icy fingers. After reading what could only be the product of a seriously warped if brilliant mind, I can understand why Mother would dislike her brother, but not why she has so steadfastly refused to speak of him.
Neither do I understand why that bothers me so much.
My hand trembles as I pour hot water into my teacup. The cup rattles on its saucer as I watch the pale brown stain seep into the water, and to my dismay, I feel the familiar, unsettling anxiety begin to seep through me.
I take a deep breath and work at grounding myself. I listen to the London traffic honking and roaring three stories below and remind myself what day it is. It's a trick my therapist taught me — when the anxiety hits, try to replace it with thoughts of things normal and mundane. And breathe.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.
The attacks seem to be getting worse, and I'm afraid that one day I'll lose control at the wrong time. I'm terrified that I might screw up a concert or something. "Let's go into the other room," I say, feeling suddenly claustrophobic in my tiny kitchen.
Unaware of my distress, Charley shambles into the small sitting room that's dominated by my baby grand piano. "Edgar Allan Poe?" he picks up the drift of the conversation. "That's pretty heavy. No offense — I found his work entertaining — but I'd stop way short of calling it classical fiction."
I can tell Charley's ready to pick one of his famous little fights with me. He doesn't consider them fights. "Intellectual sparring," he calls it. I'm just not up to it at the moment.
"I really don't give a fig," I tell him and settle into one of the two wing chairs in the room. Thankfully, he doesn't pursue it. Instead, he picks up the letter that lies open on a low table nearby. It's from a law firm in New York, informing me of my uncle's death and requesting my presence at the reading of his will. It's formal, legal, strictly business, but for some inexplicable reason it chills me even though within its message lies the promise of a large inheritance.
"It says here the reading's next Monday, at Ravenswood. Where the heck is that? Or rather, what is it?"
My mind suddenly shifts to a remote peninsula in upstate New York and a forbidding structure isolated from the world. "It's a castle," I say, and laugh again nervously, "worthy of the best Victorian Gothic novel, with gargoyles and the whole bit. My grandfather built it after World War II, and it belonged to both Uncle Malcolm and Mother until she renounced her share of it when she remarried. She told me once — but I'm sure she was joking — that the place was cursed."
"Cursed?" It's Charley's turn to laugh. "Sounds like your whole family's into horror fiction." I don't buy into that taunt either. I wish Charley would grow up.
I have no urge to share anything further with him concerning Ravenswood, not that there's much to share. I have only vague recollections of the place, and not very pleasant ones. Shadowy early childhood memories surface frequently in my dreams, bringing unaccountable terror and the devastating anxiety attacks to which I am prone. My therapist has advised me to delve into this dark past, but I'm not sure I want to. Even now, just thinking about Ravenswood, my heart begins to beat too hard.
"So how much do you think Uncle left you?" Charley presses. He lets the letter fall back onto the table.
I know what he's thinking — I don't need the money. He thinks I'm wealthy already, and in a way, I am. With the exception of the anxiety attacks, I have a good life. In fact, most people would say I have it made. I live in a terrific flat in London. I'm independent, thanks to a healthy trust fund set up for me by my stepfather, Alexander Gray. I have a career I love — I'm a concert pianist with the London Symphony Orchestra, albeit just a stand-in when one of the full-time musicians can't make it. But my real love is jazz.
I've never told Mother that on my non-concert nights, I'm on the keyboard at a local jazz club, performing with Charley, who in spite of his irritating ways plays a mean sax. Nor does she know that Charley and I have cut a CD that's getting some attention from a recording studio in the States. Who knows, maybe one day we'll make it big, and I can tell her then.
Mother doesn't think much of Charley. I overheard her once tell Alex that Charley reminded her of my father — charming, handsome, and lazy. I can't say. I don't remember my father. She's afraid I'm going to marry Charley, but she needn't worry. Charley and I are friends, professional colleagues, and nothing more. I think Charley would like there to be more, but kissing him would be rather like kissing my brother.
"I have no idea what or how much I might inherit. Maybe very little, or maybe," I glance across at him and force a teasing smile, "enough that we can produce our own CD."
He raises his cola can. "I'll drink to the latter." He gulps the soda, and I wonder how he swallows all those bubbles so easily. "So, are you going?" he asks.
The very idea troubles me. I move to the piano and lift the cover. "I don't know." My fingers roam the keyboard. "I don't think I have to go there in order to inherit, although the letter 'strongly suggests' I come."
"For the fortune that you stand to inherit, and what it could mean to me, I also strongly suggest you go," he quips.
I don't reply, but my fingers press harder on the keys, and the music grows louder. The truth is, I'm ambivalent about being named in Malcolm's will. A part of me thinks it's only fair, since Malcolm had no children or other heirs. Just because Mother didn't want any part of Ravenswood doesn't mean I'm not interested. Besides, I'm wildly curious about my eccentric, reclusive, and brilliant uncle.
On the other hand, there are those shadows to consider.
Suddenly another chill runs through me, and I stop playing abruptly.
"What's wrong?" Charley asks.
A vague memory edges toward the surface. "There was a piano at Ravenswood."
"So ... nothing, I suppose." But there is something. Anxiety now clenches my stomach so tightly I feel nauseous. I don't know where the memory of the piano came from, or why it's making me ill, but the image is growing more vivid as it steadily crawls its way out of the shadows. "It was a large piano, it seems to me, but then, I was a small child and most things seem big to little kids."
"You've been to Ravenswood?"
"I was born there," I reply sharply, my mind distracted by the memory of the piano. I wonder if it's still there.
Charley seems astounded. "How long did you live there?" I wish he'd stop asking questions and let me think. "Until I was five, when my father walked out on us." The words are out before I can stop them. I've never mentioned that to Charley, or anyone else outside the family.
For once, Charley's dumbstruck. "I'm sorry," he manages at last. "I didn't know ..."
"Don't be sorry. It's history." Here I go again, making light of that which has caused me the deepest pain. I feel suddenly and inexplicably weary. "It's time for you to go, Charley."
"Hey, look, I'm sorry ..." He stands and comes to me, but I don't look at him. I shake my head.
"Please, I need some time to sort myself out about this."
When he's gone, I push away from the piano, torn by indecision. Nobody says I have to go to Ravenswood. I don't need my uncle's money. But my therapist believes that repressed childhood memories are the root of my anxiety attacks. He's urged me before to return to Ravenswood and attempt to confront them. Until now, I've been unwilling to do so. But the memory of the piano and the anxiety it generated tell me he's right.
I glance at the letter, and my heart pounds. I can no longer avoid the issue. I must go to Ravenswood, and my reasons have nothing to do with Uncle Malcolm's fortune.CHAPTER 2
I remember my mother once telling me that Ravenswood was my grandfather's folly. She wouldn't tell me much else about him or his neo-gothic estate, but I found some information about him on the Internet before leaving on this trip.
A calculating industrialist, Orin Blount was apparently one of those who could make money even in the worst of times, and did. He was a young man during the Great Depression, and somehow he not only managed to survive the hard times, he found money to invest when the rest of the world was going broke. The article didn't say where he got the money. But when World War II came along, he was poised and ready with steel mills and factories, ones he'd acquired for pennies on the dollar from failed operators.
The war made the rich man richer, and when it was over, he built my grandmother, who was almost a decade younger than him, an imposing castle in upstate New York.
I vaguely remember the castle, and as I approach Ravenswood, I peer out the window of the limousine that picked me up at Logan Airport, eager for a glimpse of it. If I recall correctly, it's not the fairy-tale variety but rather like something out of Game of Thrones.
It's a frigid, blustery day in early March, and the budding tree branches whip furiously in the wind. Some of them are long enough to strike the car as it travels down the narrow lane. The screech of branch against metal sets my teeth on edge.
We go up a steep rise, round a turn in the road, and Ravenswood comes into view. I shiver when I see it. I was right. With its crenellated roofline and tall, narrow windows, the structure appears more a fortress than a castle. Built of stone, it looks cold and cruel, a building designed to keep the world out, and secrets in.
The front gate swings open, and we drive through into the center of the fortress, and I get the sensation that I'm being swallowed by a monster.
I shouldn't have read another of Uncle Malcolm's books on the airplane. My imagination is in overdrive, and I'm already spooked. The driver is spooky, as well. He hasn't spoken a word to me since meeting my plane. At the airport, he held a sign with my name on it, but said nothing when I identified myself, only nodded, took my carry-on and walked briskly to the baggage claim area. He continued his silence on the long drive from Boston to this wild and remote location. He does not speak now as he opens the door for me, or when he retrieves my luggage from the trunk. I wonder if he's mute.
I study my faintly familiar surroundings. Inside the walls, Ravenswood is less foreboding. We're in a courtyard that provides ample parking, and a landscaped if winter-brown lawn and garden lead to the main entrance. I note three other cars parked in the courtyard — a white Cadillac Sedan de Ville, a bright red BMW sports car, and a nondescript gray but new Acura. The chauffeur takes my bags to the top of the steps, then returns to the limo and parks it precisely in line with the rest.
I see no one else. Drawing my cashmere coat closer to me against the wind, I proceed to the front door. Something rustles above me, and I look up in alarm. A huge raven settles onto a gargoyle's head above the door and glares at me. I swallow hard, remembering the ravens now. Flocks of them live in the area. Big as eagles they seemed to me when I was little. I was always afraid of them.
Don't let the big black birds peck out your eyes, Catherine ...
A mocking voice in my head echoes a warning from my childhood. Who's voice? My knees suddenly threaten to give way. I'm filled not so much with a sense of déjà vu as with a recollection of terror. I remember someone telling me the ravens were so big they could swallow the moon, and ...
... when the raven swallows the moon, darkness descends, and sometimes people die ...
A hot, metallic taste oozes from beneath my tongue, and my stomach lurches. If I thought for a minute no ghosts from my past lurked here, I was sorely mistaken.
I'm about to flee down the steps and demand to be taken back to the airport when a tall man dressed in the uniform of a servant opens the huge front door. His skin is very pale, and white hair encircles his head in frail waves. His eyes are dark, hung beneath with deep hollows. He looks like a ghostly butler. His voice is strong, however, when he addresses me
"Good afternoon, Miss Carmichael. We've been expecting you. Come in."
His words, delivered with a hint of a British accent, are neither welcoming nor hostile. Simply professionally neutral. I don't remember this man. He must have come to Ravenswood after we left. I remind myself that was twenty-seven years ago. There could have been a whole parade of butlers since then. This one, however, must have been here a while. There is a distinctive air of ownership about him.
A woman approaches, also dressed in servant's attire. She appears to be about the same age as the man. The furrow between her brows looks to be permanent, as does the sag of her mouth. Her face and eyes are round, giving her the appearance of a tired, old bulldog.
"This is my wife, Edith," the man says. "She'll show you to your room. I'll have Niles bring your bags along shortly. My name is Alistair. I am at your service if you need anything. I'm afraid we're rather shorthanded at the moment." A scowl shadows his face briefly, but the look is fleeting, and I wonder if I imagined it.
I follow Edith up the main staircase, a wide, curving affair that lends grace to the otherwise severely masculine architecture. Like the chauffeur, the woman does not speak, and I wonder if reticence is something Uncle Malcolm demanded of his servants. I see no sign of others, and I wonder who owns those cars parked outside. My footsteps echo against the marble flooring of the long corridor, repeating the heavy beat of my heart as I feel myself being drawn back in time. The terror has not abated.
Chiding myself for cowardice, I bite my lip and straighten my back. The woman servant moves at a brisk pace, and I hurry to catch up with her. The hallway is paneled halfway up with dark wood, above which a faded gold moiré fabric clings precariously to the walls. In places, close to the ceiling, it is stained, as if a water pipe broke long ago and the damage never repaired.
Sconces are placed at intervals, Victorian in design although fueled by electricity. The bowls are dirty, and the light is dim. A few paintings hang along the corridor, mostly still life renderings of the fruits of the hunt and traditional English fox-and-hound scenes. No portraits. I see spider webs clinging to the corners of the frames. The air is cool and dank and smells of mildew and stale cigar smoke. In spite of the grandeur intended for Ravenswood, Uncle Malcolm obviously let it fall into serious neglect. I suddenly hope I don't inherit it. Who would want such an unhappy pile of stone?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beneath the Raven's Moon"
Copyright © 2003 Jill Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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