Things That Go Bump in the Night
After she and Lee had spent some time alone together in the library, Amanda took time to run upstairs and fix her makeup. It needed it, and Lee surreptitiously slipped away to make sure that he had gotten all of the lipstick smudges wiped off his face. They were still ready early, and Amanda even had a little time to review her list of alert signals before going downstairs. It was a little before seven when she came back downstairs, but she wasn’t the first to arrive.
Since dinner wasn’t supposed to be black tie, most of the men were still wearing the suits they had on before, although a couple of them might have changed shirts, and Amanda noticed that Agent Worth was wearing a different tie than the one he’d had earlier.
Victoria was sitting alone, quietly sipping a glass of white wine. In her pale ivory dress, she was looking even more bland that she had before. She almost blended in with the walls. Georgia, on the other hand, wore a bright red dress and enjoyed the company of the men, especially Romano, who seemed more relaxed than he’d been earlier. From the snatches of conversation that Amanda caught, they were just talking about what they’d seen on the drive here, but the look that Romano was giving Georgia wasn’t too much different from the one Lee had given Amanda not too long ago in the library.
“A little office romance,” Amanda speculated. That was a big assumption based on one look, but it was a significant look. Georgia was standing very close to Romano, and Romano hardly took his eyes off of her.
Amanda wondered whether Baudin knew about it. He might not. Billy didn’t know that she and Lee were seeing each other. At least, Amanda didn’t think he did. She snuck a look at Billy. He smiled in her direction, and Amanda smiled back. If Billy knew anything, he wasn’t likely to say anything.
Annette and Francine were the last to arrive. They had clearly taken more trouble with their appearances. Francine had let her hair down from the French twist it was in earlier and had changed to a light blue dress that complimented her eyes. Annette had decided to go for basic black, but the cut was clearly tailored for her, and the diamond pendant she wore around her neck seemed to glow against the black background.
“Fashionably late, Francine?” Lee murmured as she walked by.
“Button it,” Francine said cheerfully. “Lovely dress, Amanda.”
“It’s the same one I wore earlier.”
“I know.” Francine smiled sweetly and went over to talk to Worth.
That was more catty than her earlier teasing. Amanda never fully understood Francine’s moods, even though it was obvious that she had them. Francine was now smiling at Worth, probably flirting with him a little and throwing compliments his way, but that little dig at Amanda for not dressing up more for dinner said that she was feeling edgy somehow. Worth must have just said something funny because Francine was laughing. But, even in the middle of her laughter, Amanda could see tension in Francine’s shoulders, and her eyes kept straying to Charlotte’s portrait.
Cynthia, who had changed to a black dress (much less expensive-looking than Annette’s) at some point in the evening, came in to announce that dinner was ready. Amanda left off her thoughts about Francine as they all followed Cynthia into the dining room.
The dining room was beautiful with floral wallpaper and candles in crystal holders on the table. It turned out to be a wonderful dinner, too. Amanda didn’t talk much to the others because the roast chicken occupied her attention.
Billy, Gordon, and Baudin were making small talk about the historical sights of Virginia, but Amanda sensed tension in them, too. They were struggling not to mention the reason they were all gathered here until the official meeting tomorrow. There were other side conversations going on around the table. Worth was paying marked attention to Francine. Francine, oddly enough, seemed to be keeping an eye on Mrs. Nicholson, who was helping Cynthia serve food and drink.
“Strange for someone who claims never to notice servants,” Amanda thought. “Especially with a good-looking man sitting next to her.”
Amanda snuck a look at Lee and noticed that he had been watching Francine as well. So, she wasn’t the only one who had spotted it. Poor Worth was trying so hard to hold Francine’s attention, too.
“This is only my second time in the U.S.” Worth was saying to the side of Francine’s head. “The only other time was when Chris and I came to see Mr. Baudin, and Romano took us to lunch-“
There was a sudden clatter, and everyone turned to look at Victoria. For the first time since Amanda had seen her, her cheeks were flushed, and her wine glass was lying on its side in front of her.
“I . . . I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I’m so clumsy . . .”
“Never mind,” Mrs. Nicholson said gently, righting the glass and wiping up the spilled wine with a cloth. “Would you like me to get you another drink?”
“No, no thank you,” Victoria said, shaking her head vehemently. Her right hand nervously clutched at her chest, and for a moment, Amanda was afraid that she was having a heart attack. Then, she saw the top part of the chain she was tugging on. She wore a necklace underneath her blouse. “I . . . I have a headache. If you all will excuse me, I think I’d like to take some aspirin and go to bed.”
“You may go,” Gordon said. He looked sympathetic, and Worth looked embarrassed. Amanda sensed that they knew something the others didn’t.
“Would you like me to bring you some aspirin?” Mrs. Nicholson asked kindly.
“No, thank you,” Victoria said. “I have some of my own.”
After she left, Cynthia brought in little bowls of chocolate mousse to finish the meal. It was delicious, but that odd tension Amanda had sensed in everyone seemed to have gotten worse, like the pressure that builds right before a storm. She only wished that she knew why.
Worth offered an explanation after dinner, when the guests were free to explore the house at their leisure. Since the drawing room was the only downstairs room most of them had seen, Lee offered to show them the library and the game room. Annette and Georgia both loved the library, found books for themselves, and promptly settled down to read. Romano, Worth, and Francine all accompanied Lee and Amanda to have a look at the game room. Worth was talking to Francine while they watched Lee play Romano at darts, but Amanda was sitting near them and couldn’t help but overhear.
“I really shouldn’t have mentioned Chris at dinner,” Worth said. “That’s what upset Victoria.”
“Chris?” Francine asked. “Do you mean Christopher Bennett?”
“Yes. Poor Chris was killed on the mission when everything went wrong. Romano and I barely survived.”
Romano paused before throwing his next dart. “Before he died, Chris told me that he and Victoria had been seeing each other. I’m not surprised that she’s distraught. Poor kid.”
Worth shook his head sadly. “It’s worse than that. Chris told me that he wanted to marry her. It will be a long time before that wound heals. We all know the risks, of course . . .”
“But you never really expect it to happen,” Amanda finished gently.
The looks on the other agents’ faces said that they understood completely.
“I think Chris is the reason Victoria wanted to come in from the field,” Worth said.
“She used to be a field agent?” Lee asked.
“For awhile, yes, before she met Chris. Chris was even starting to think of retiring from field work himself. He told me that he was saving up for it so that he and Victoria could have a new start. Victoria’s never been one to complain about anything, but I know that losing Chris devastated her. I think he’s the only one she ever really opened up to.”
“I would have thought that she would take some time off to mourn him,” Amanda said.
“She took off a couple of weeks to get his affairs in order,” Worth said. “She inherited most of his estate, what there was of it. Chris wasn’t rich, but I understand that he left his savings and a good insurance policy to her. Then, she insisted on coming back to work. Gordon would have given her more time, but she refused. She says that she wants to get the person responsible for Chris’s death.”
“We’re going to get ‘em next time,” Romano said. “We’re going to do it for Chris!”
He threw his dart, landing a perfect bull’s eye. He didn’t look proud so much as pensive. His had went reflexively to his chest, and he seemed to finger a necklace that he wore beneath his shirt. Amanda couldn’t see the necklace itself, of course, but she recognized the motion, and she could see part of the chain at his neckline.
Romano won the game, and Worth challenged him to another. While Lee watched them play, Amanda and Francine decided to go back to the library to see if the other women were still there. Georgia had gone to her room, but Annette was still reading.
“’Basic Household Wiring’,” Amanda said, reading the front cover of her book.
Annette snapped the book shut. “Yes?”
“I was just curious what you were reading,” Amanda explained.
“I prefer useful books to silly stories.” Annette’s tone was strangely defensive.
Annette eyed the book that Georgia had left on the table next to her, one of the romances Amanda had seen earlier. The look she gave it reminded Amanda of the expression on her mother’s face when she took a look at some of the boys’ comic books with superheroes and criminals duking it out.
“Not into light reading, huh?” Francine commented.
“This is light reading.”
Neither Amanda nor Francine knew what to say to that. It was one of those rare moments when the two of them found something they could agree on.
“I honestly don’t understand why people like this stuff,” Annette continued, picking up the romantic book with a contemptuous frown. “The women are bimbos, the men are all jerks, and nobody really talks like they do in real life.”
“How do you know how they talk if you never read them?” The thought just slipped out of Amanda’s mouth as so many of her casual thoughts did, and she knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say.
Francine made a sound in her throat like she was trying to choke back a laugh, and Annette turned her back on them sharply, jamming the romance novel into an empty slot on the shelves.
“Did you want to talk to me about something?” Annette asked coolly.
“Not anymore,” Francine muttered.
Amanda thought quickly. “Well, since Cynthia said that we’re all sharing a bathroom, maybe we should decide when we’re all going to take showers,” she suggested. “I mean, it would be awkward if we all decided to take them at the same time—“
“My room has its own bath,” Annette interrupted. “The rest of you need to share. I’m going to get a shower and get ready for bed now. Goodnight.” With that, she took her household wiring book and walked off.
It was possibly the rudest “goodnight” that Amanda had ever heard.
“She’s a lot of fun, isn’t she?” Francine laughed.
“Do you know anything about her?” Amanda asked. “Besides what’s in her background file, I mean.”
“Not much. She’s got a good professional reputation, and she’s considered an authority on smuggling operations, but I’ve never worked with her before.”
“Doesn’t seem like an easy person to work with,” Amanda commented.
Francine wasn’t the easiest person to work with, either, she reflected, but she had her softer, friendlier moments, too. Francine sometimes got moody, but so far, Annette’s only mood was a bad one.
“She’s probably still irritated that they didn’t call her in on the mission in the first place,” Francine said, going to the bookshelves and browsing the selection. “Rumor has it that she wanted to be part of it, but Mr. Baudin wouldn’t accept her.”
Francine picked up one of the romance books and flipped through it.
“I don’t know. But, she probably thinks that the whole thing would have been a success if she’d been involved. Who knows? Maybe she’s right.”
Not knowing what else to say, Amanda asked, “Well, um, Francine, would you prefer your shower at night or in the morning?”
“I’ll take one tonight,” Francine said. She put the romance book back on the shelf. “I’m tired, and it might relax me. Do you mind if I go now?”
“Sure, go ahead,” Amanda said.
Francine looked at one of her hands, examining her pretty pink nails, and said, “I need to fix this nail polish, too. Looks like I chipped one of my nails. Goodnight, Amanda,” Francine turned to go. Then, she hesitated. “If anything bothers you during the night, you can wake me, you know?”
“Bothers me?” Amanda asked.
Francine was suddenly embarrassed. “I just . . . Never mind. Goodnight!”
Amanda shook her head as Francine left. What was she talking about?
She wondered about it all the way upstairs to her room after she went to say goodnight to Lee. Lee was still playing with Worth and Romano, but they had switched from darts to pool. He would have offered to walk Amanda to her room, but it would have been awkward in front of the other agents.
Instead, he said, “Goodnight Amanda.” Then, he jokingly added, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
“Does this place have bedbugs?” Worth asked.
“No,” Lee said. “I’m just kidding.”
“I had to ask,” Worth said, leaning forward to examine the angle on his next shot. “I don’t think my room has had a good airing in years. It’s pretty small, too. No wonder it’s called the ‘Sparrow Room.’”
“My room is pretty small, too,” Romano said. “It’s the ‘Phoebe Room.’”
“Because that’s where Phoebe sleeps?” Worth asked teasingly. “Wish my room came with a girl.”
“It’s a type of bird,” Amanda said helpfully.
“That’s what I was hoping,” Worth said with a bold wink. Amanda knew enough British slang to get the joke, but she didn’t think it was that funny.
“I think someone here’s got birds on the brain,” Lee said. His wink was much nicer than Worth’s.
Amanda just wished him good luck on his game and left him and the others to their male bonding. As she turned to the door, she thought that she glimpsed someone walking past, but then she decided that it had been her imagination.
It had been a long day, and Amanda was eager to get to bed. At night, the second floor hallway was very dim. During the day, much of the light had come from the glass double doors that led to the outside balcony. The wall lamps, which were made to look like old-fashioned gas lamps, didn’t cast very much light. Amanda followed the dimly-lit hallway down to her room at the very end. She was glad that she wasn’t trying to find her room for the first time. In this lighting, it was difficult to read the calligraphy on the door plaque that said “Rose Room.” Then, it came back to her that Mrs. Nicholson had said that the Rose Room was Charlotte’s room, and she understood Francine’s comment.
Imagine! Cool, professional Francine was nervous because of a ghost story. Then again, she did like to read her horoscope all the time. Maybe she was even more superstitious than Amanda had thought.
Amanda chuckled to herself as she got ready for bed. It really was a beautiful room. A fire had been laid in the fireplace, probably by the so far unseen Albert who had brought up her luggage. Downstairs had been a little chilly, but the room was cozy-warm. Before laying out her pajamas, Amanda took a look at the pictures on the walls. They were beautiful, peaceful garden scenes. Except for one, which was a framed poem called “Ode to a Rose” by Charlotte Ransom.
“Another poem by Charlotte Ransom,” Amanda said to herself.
She wondered how many more of them there were. If this was Charlotte’s room, then why was there also a poem of hers in Lee’s room? Maybe that was once Josiah’s room. It was a romantic notion, that she and Lee were both sleeping in the rooms once occupied by a pair of lovers. Only, Amanda didn’t like the tragic end of their story. She could imagine much better endings for her and Lee.
Amanda settled under the covers, the cheery glow of the fire illuminating the room. Usually, Amanda didn’t like light when she was trying to sleep, but the fire’s glow was oddly soothing tonight. She was still thinking about the ghost story. She didn’t really expect to see anything in this room tonight, although it would make quite a story if she did. Nothing moved in the dark corners of the room, and Amanda couldn’t hear a sound other than the fire’s cracking. She couldn’t even hear any of the other guests, although some of them might be still up because it was only 10 o’clock.
Amanda remembered that she wanted to get up early, so she set the alarm clock on the bedside table for six. Before everyone went their separate ways after dinner, Cynthia had said that breakfast would be at seven-thirty, so that should give her more than enough time, even if it turned out that Georgia and Victoria also liked to take their showers in the morning.
She rolled over onto her left side and stared at the flickering shadows that the fire cast on the walls. The atmosphere of this house was . . . odd. Not scary, really. Just odd. It was almost like it was caught between the past and the present, the historical and the modern. Amanda was fascinated with the history, even the supposed ghost. Mrs. Nicholson’s story was different from the one in Cynthia’s pamphlet, and Amanda wondered why. She also wondered why Cynthia seemed so uncomfortable with discussing it. Maybe, after the pamphlet was published, she’d discovered that she’d gotten the story wrong and was embarrassed about it. That was understandable.
Amanda yawned and closed her eyes. She wondered what Charlotte was really like, what she’d really done and what really happened to her. Not that it was any of her business, but she must have been really fascinating . . . and romantic . . .
She drifted off to sleep, dreaming of love and intrigue and women in gorgeous, sweeping hoop skirts . . .
Amanda jolted awake. The fire had died to barely glowing embers. Her room was dark. What time was it? What was happening?
There were thumps and bangs coming from the next room, and she heard the sounds of slamming doors and running feet. Amanda struggled to untangle herself from the blankets and stumbled to the door to find out what happened.
There were other people in the hall already. Billy and Lee looked ready for action, even though they were wearing pajamas. Lee was clutching his gun. Annette had somehow managed to beat Amanda out into the hall even though she had stopped to put on her robe and slippers first. Georgia was standing next to her cluelessly as though she was trying to remember exactly where she was and what had woken her. Victoria peeked timidly from behind her bedroom door and asked in a tremulous voice what was happening.
“I don’t know,” Lee said, scanning the hallway. His gaze lingered on Amanda, and she sensed his relief at seeing her alright.
“Who screamed?” Billy asked.
“I think it came from Francine’s room,” Amanda said.
Billy strode to Francine’s door and banged on it. “Francine! Can you hear me? Are you alright?”
When she didn’t immediately answer, Billy grabbed the knob and turned it. Lee readied himself in case he needed to shoot at something, but nothing sprang out of the darkness of Francine’s room. They just heard a soft moan, followed by a swear word.
“Francine?” Billy asked carefully. He found the light switch and flicked it on.
The others in the hallway were pressing close to see what was happening, but Billy told them all to back off.
“Lee, Amanda, come here,” he said, beckoning them into Francine’s room.
They followed him inside, Amanda bracing herself for whatever she might see. What she saw was Francine, sitting on the floor in an undignified position, especially considering how short her nightgown was. She was rubbing her leg, where a large bruise was already forming. The tipped-over stool and chair next to her told the rest of the story. Almost.
“Francine, are you alright? What happened?” Billy asked, going to help her off the floor.
Lee set his gun on the dressing table near the door and went to help them. The two men got Francine back on her feet.
“I’m okay,” Francine said shakily.
Amanda spotted Francine’s robe lying on the floor next to the chair and picked it up.
“Here, put this on,” Amanda said, helping Francine into it.
“Thank you,” Francine said gratefully. With her dignity partially restored, she said, “Someone was in my room tonight.”
“What? Who?” Billy demanded.
“I don’t know,” Francine said. “I just woke up and saw someone. Someone wearing something long and white. I screamed and tried to get out of bed, but I fell over the furniture, and whoever it was . . . just vanished.”
“You mean they got away,” Billy said.
“I don’t know! It was just gone!”
“Whoever it was I saw.” Francine was still looking around as though she suspected that “it” was still hiding somewhere in the room. Lee and Billy conducted a quick search, looking in the large old wardrobe and under the bed. But, there was no one else in the room.
“Are you sure you saw something?” Billy asked. “Could you have dreamed it?”
Francine glared at him, annoyance adding strength to her voice. “I didn’t dream anything. There was something . . . someone in here with me!”
“Did you remember to lock your door?”
“How could someone have gotten in?”
Lee muttered, “I knew those locks were too old. Cynthia’s definitely going to have to get them replaced.”
There was a knock at the door. “Is everything alright?” Annette called.
Billy went to the door and opened it. “Everything is fine now. You can go back to your rooms.”
“What happened?” Annette demanded.
“Francine was startled, but she’s alright now. Please, go back to bed.”
“What startled her?”
“Someone walked into her room and woke her,” Billy said. “We don’t know why. We’re going to conduct a quick head count, and then it would be best if everyone remained in their rooms for the rest of the night.”
“I’ll make sure everyone returns to their rooms,” Lee said. Lee stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him.
Billy was giving Francine a concerned look. “You’re still a little shaken, aren’t you?”
Francine said, “I’ll be okay.” But, Amanda could feel her still trembling in a way that had nothing to do with the chilly night air.
Billy could sense Francine’s fear, too.
“Amanda, would it be alright if Francine stayed with you for the rest of the night?” Billy asked.
“Sure,” Amanda said.
“Well . . .” Francine was reluctant. She had her pride, and the last thing she wanted was for people to think she was scared of . . . some white thing in her room at night.
“If there’s something funny going on here, I think it would be better for you two to stick together,” Billy said, trying to make it easier for Francine. “Remember to take your gun with you to Amanda’s room. It isn’t something that should be left behind, and Amanda doesn’t have one. You could be her protection tonight.”
“That’s right,” Amanda said, understanding what Billy was doing. “I’d really feel better if you stayed with me tonight, Francine.”
Francine wouldn’t want anyone to think she needed anyone else, but if she could say that she was keeping an eye on Amanda’s safety, that was different.
“Okay,” she said. “Just let me get a few things together.”
Francine removed her gun from the night stand where she’d left it and picked out an outfit to wear the next day. Amanda helped her carry her clothes and some toiletries to her room and laid them neatly on the blanket chest at the foot of her bed. Francine put her gun on Amanda’s night stand, ready to grab if they needed it. Billy stayed with them for a few minutes, waiting in the doorway to Amanda’s room until Lee returned.
“Everyone on this floor is in their rooms,” Lee said. “I have the security personnel conducting a sweep of the rest of the house just to make sure that no one’s wandering around where they shouldn’t be. There were no security alerts, so we’re not dealing with an outside intruder.”
“Good,” Billy said. “You and I will stay up until the security team makes their report. Are you two going to be alright now?”
“We’ll be fine, sir,” Amanda assured him, and Francine nodded.
“Try to get some sleep, then. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Lee said to both of them. “Be sure to lock the door after us.” The men left the room.
Amanda locked the door, and she and Francine went to bed. Amanda lay awake in the darkness, thinking. Francine was still and silent beside her, but Amanda thought that she was still awake, too.
“Francine?” she asked softly.
“What did you see in your room?”
“I already told you.”
“All you said was that it was white. And first you said it was ‘someone,’ then you said it was ‘something.’”
Francine was quiet for awhile. Then, she said, “All I know is that it was white. Now, go to sleep.”