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She snuck up to the mountainous rosebush, searching through the wild abundance of pink tea roses for a glimpse of red curly hair, a freckled cheek or bright blue eyes.
"Gotcha!" she cried, pushing apart the thorny branches only to find C.J., the orange tabby, sleeping beneath its leaves.
This is getting ridiculous, she thought.
A quick Saturday morning game of hide-and-seek with her eight-year-old was beginning to take all day. Savannah pushed through the kudzu vines, ivy and weeping willow branches that dominated the back courtyard, but Katie wasn't in any of her usual spots.
She'd upped her game.
Savannah tripped over a broken cobblestone, catching herself against a thick blanket of kudzu vines that had eaten up the fountain and obliterated the bird feeder.
It was getting very third world back here. Soon enough, these games with Katie would require a machete.
That would add a whole new dimension to kamikaze hide-and-seek.
"I told you," she called out. "You can run but you can't hide."
The branches of the cypress rustled over her head and Savannah smiled, backtracking to the trunk of the old tree.
It was only a matter of time, Savannah thought, before Katie worked up the courage to climb the tree. The hundred-year-old cypress was a beauty—bigger than the two-story house in front of it, and its roots were pushing through the cobblestones, breaking up the courtyard like some kind of underground monster.
As if it had been yesterday, Savannah's foot found the small lee in the trunk, her hands found the knobs on the lower branches and within seconds she was halfway up into the leaves. She was careful to look for snakes, and hoped her daughter had done the same.
What, she wondered, would her clients say if they could see their staid researcher now? The kids at the library, who made faces at her behind her back, would fall over their stolen library books if they saw mean old Ms. O'Neill climbing trees.
Savannah found her daughter lying across one of the thick branches directly over the decrepit greenhouse and back stone wall of the property. The girl had only been up two hours and the new red silk pajamas Margot had brought back from her cruise in the Far East were covered in dirt and leaves.
"Found you!" Savannah cried. "You're doing dishes."
"Shh!" Katie hissed, not turning away from whatever scene she was spying on.
"What's up?" Savannah whispered, climbing a parallel branch, shimmying out over the courtyard on her belly.
"Margot," Katie whispered. Savannah watched her daughter push the red tangle of curls behind her ear, revealing her freckled face, her wide lips and long nose. Not pretty, her little girl—even through her mother's eyes, Savannah could see that. But Katie was so much more than pretty. She was tough. Independent. Beautiful in her own wild way. Pure at heart.
Everything, Savannah thought, I am not.
"I think she's crying," Katie said.
Savannah tore her eyes from her daughter and sought out Margot's thin and elegant form amongst the weeds and broken buildings beneath them.
"Back wall," Katie said. "Someone wrote something on the stones."
Not again, Savannah thought. She saw Margot, wearing her white linen, pumps and no doubt "the" diamonds scrubbing at the back wall. The letters—O'NEILL SLU—
"I can hear you girls up there!" Margot yelled without turning around.
"What are you doing, Margot?" Savannah called.
"Contemplating bear traps," she said and threw the thick yellow sponge into the bucket of water at her feet. Margot turned and faced Savannah in the heat of the morning. Her long white hair was perfect, her face as stunning as the diamonds at her wrists and ears. You would never guess she was pushing eighty.
But right now Margot was one pissed-off matriarch. And when Margot got mad, things got organized. And cleaned. And worst of all, changed.
Savannah's heart leaped into her throat.
Change was the devil. Change had to be avoided at all costs.
Savannah went into instant damage-control mode.
"Every year," Savannah yelled, shimmying back down the tree, shamed by her grandmother's elegance into at least acting like an adult. "You know this happens every year. As soon as school gets out for summer, we get every teenager trying to prove to their friends how cool they are."
Why vandalizing their home was considered cool was one of the great mysteries of local teenage life.
She swung down from the lowest branch and landed on the broken cobblestone. Looking up she found Katie carefully scrambling down after her.
"Careful," Savannah said. When Katie got within reach Savannah lifted her daughter down, holding her close for just a second, smelling the sunshine and rose smell of her skin.
The pajamas were toast.
"What does that mean?" Katie asked, pointing to the letters on the stone walls. Savannah shot Margot an arch look—slut was a stretch, but Margot was the closest thing they had.
"Like you have no secrets?" Margot asked, defensive.
"Officially, I'm not an O'Neill."
"Honey, an O'Neill by any other name is still an O'Neill."
The truth was, every O'Neill female was born with secrets, and through their own legendarily bad decision-making, each of them had her own sins. Not that the men had it any better—her brothers had their own crimes and mysteries.
Secrets upon secrets, that was the O'Neill legacy.
And, she had to believe, even if her mother had taken Richard Bonavie's name, the curse would have lingered.
"What does it mean?" Katie asked again.
"It's just a bad word," Savannah said. "Kids think it's funny to write bad words on our back wall."
"Was this here while I was gone?" Margot asked, having gotten back a week and half ago from her cruise.
"No!" Savannah denied, though she wasn't totally sure. She loved her jungle, wild and unmaintained, but it obstructed her view of much of the yard. "It's new."
"It'd never been this bad before," Margot said. "Come look at this."
Katie and Savannah headed around the tree and through the kudzu to the greenhouse and back wall. Now that Savannah was closer she saw that Margot was actually very upset. Her fine elegant hands were shaking.
"Look," Margot whispered, pointing to the greenhouse.
Every pane of glass had been shattered and all of Mar-got's orchids were destroyed. The unearthed roots like veins, strewn across tabletops and the floor. Dirt like blood, everywhere.
"Oh, my lord, Margot." She raised astonished eyes to her grandmother. Occasionally the woman went to New Orleans and played poker, or took a cruise with an "admirer" and gambled across the seven seas, and she used to keep her winnings back here buried in pots because she didn't trust banks. She'd done it for years before Savannah found out and made her stop. "Are you hiding money back here again?"
"No." Margot pulled a face. "I lost on this last one, I told you that."
"Then why would anyone do this?"
"Because it was here. I don't know." She looked around the wreckage, her face drawn. "I understand you hate the idea. But I think it's time."
"No." God, no. Anything but what Margot was suggesting. "Margot, we can do something." Savannah leaned down and started cleaning up, picking up shattered pottery, knowing she was too late—the courtyard was out of control. The boldest of the high school students were drinking back here, and Katie was almost always getting cuts and bruises from the roses and broken cobblestones.
These plants, the trees, the bushes—nothing had been touched in years. Nearly twenty. She knew something should be done, but it was hers. The idea of someone else, some stranger back here, was unthinkable.
Because if they were in her courtyard then they'd be in her home. In her life. And no good ever came of that—pain was an excellent teacher.
"I'll clean it up," Savannah said, feeling a bubble of frantic energy rising in her throat. "I start vacation on Tuesday. I can work on it then."
"I'll help," Katie chimed in, crouching next to her to help and Savannah winked at her, grateful.
"Honey," Margot said, shaking her head. "We both know you're taking the time off to work on that research for the Discovery Channel. There aren't enough hours in the day."
"I'll work at night. Anything, Margot—"
"You've been saying that for years, and it's not just cleaning up the plants anymore. We need the greenhouse rebuilt, the wall needs to be fixed and I think we need an alarm system."
"In our garden?"
Margot flung out a hand to the shattered remains of her greenhouse, the orchids like dead animals. All the evidence she needed, really, to prove that things were getting dangerous.
"Now the greenhouse, next the house?"
Savannah couldn't stand the thought. She looked down at Katie, the messy rumpled perfection of her. Strangers in her garden? Bent on helping? Or, worse, strangers in her house? Bent on mischief? Where her daughter slept?
When put that way, it was an easy call.
"Margot," Savannah sighed. "I'm so sorry."
"They're all gone," Margot said, stepping over glass and flower carnage. "They've ruined everything."
"I'll call Juliette—"
"I already did," Margot said. "She's the one who told me to get someone in here to set up a security system. The police force is too small to have someone watching this house all the time."
Savannah looked around, chagrined and regretful that she'd let things get this bad. She should have done the basic maintenance that would have at least kept things safe. She had, after all, managed to keep the middle courtyard groomed and lovely. A pastoral paradise.
But the back courtyard was hers—it had been from the moment her mother had dropped Savannah and her brothers off with Margot and left without a word. And the truth was, she liked the wilderness of it, the overgrown vines and crumbling statues. The stone walls covered in hens and chicks, the roses pink and red like hidden gems, small beating hearts in a giant breathing body of green.
The air was different back here, too. Thick and fragrant with mystery and magnolias.
Oh, please, she thought, realizing she was on the verge of getting maudlin and depressing. It's a garden. You are a grown woman who should have more important things to do than get attached to kudzu and rosebushes.
Or maybe she should have more in her life than kudzu and rosebushes. The thought flickered to life briefly before Savannah extinguished it.
"I know," Margot said, watching Savannah carefully. "We've been alone in this house for so long it seems strange to bring someone else in."
"We don't need anyone else!" Katie cried and Savannah tucked an arm around her daughter, realizing that maybe there was such a thing as too much family unity—considering her eight-year-old was showing signs of xenophobia. "Margot's right." Savannah sighed and Margot's perfect eyebrows arched slightly in surprise. Savannah ignored the slick twist of distaste in her belly as the words got clogged in her throat. What if someone tried to break into the house? She looked at her daughter, fear crawling over her like ants. "It's time to bring someone else in to take care of this garden."
Matt Woods stared at the two-story plantation-style house then down at the surveillance photos in his hand.
He was hunting for Vanessa O'Neill, last seen in New Orleans.
But it was the picture of Vanessa's daughter, Savannah, he couldn't look away from. Glittering and golden, she smiled up at him from her photo.
How much did she know? he wondered. How guilty was she?
He scoffed at his own question. Everyone was guilty. No one's hands were clean.
Was she guilty of theft and betrayal like her mother? Or just guilty of bad blood?
Matt rubbed gritty eyes. He'd driven through the night from St. Louis to Bonne Terre, Louisiana, and in the clear light of morning he realized his plan pretty much sucked.
Vanessa had been last seen two weeks ago in New Orleans. Matt knew this because he'd hired an investigator to track down everyone related to the jewel theft that his father had been involved in seven years ago.
His investigator had taken her picture, followed her around to various poker games and bars, and heard her talking about Bonne Terre and the Manor. Then she'd vanished. Just vanished.
Matt connected the dots and decided to come here to find her. Or wait for her. Whatever it took to correct justice's aim.
It's not like he had anything else to do.
So, his plan, if you could call it that, was to see if Vanessa was here. And if she wasn't, he was going to find a reason to wait until she showed up. Or better yet, find out where she was.
"Yeah," he muttered to Savannah's photo. "Not my best work."
Six months ago his life was torn apart, and now he was talking to photos as if they might reply and stalking the O'Neill women to seek retribution for a seven-year-old crime.
"Justice," he said to the photo, tasting the word, loving how it gave him a purpose. A fire.
But not a plan.
"What am I supposed to do with you?" he asked the photo.
He could knock on the door and…what? He considered Savannah's smile, the radiance that poured from her eyes. She was like sun off of glass, she just seemed to shimmer.
Was he going to threaten her? Interrogate her? Tie her up while he waited for her mother to arrive? And then hope that the mother just happened to be traveling with a fortune in stolen gems?
Had he come to that? Really?
"Great, Woods," Matt said, rubbing his hands over his face. "Sherlock Holmes, you are not."
Suddenly, he had a memory of sitting outside an Indian reservation casino. He must have been about eight or nine, and his father was going in for one quick game. One hand. Just one.
He told Matt that his job was to sit in the car and watch for three men. One man with a patch, another with a scar and the final man with a one of those Russian bearskin hats. When Matt saw those three men he needed to run inside the casino and find Joel.
Clever, Matt realized now, twenty-five years later. Because while men with scars and patches were a possibility in South Carolina, there would be no bearskin hats.
A goose chase. A fool's errand, his father was brilliant with them. A master. And Matt had taken his job so seriously he'd sat in that beat-up Chevy with a notebook and pen, drawing pictures and taking notes, a young Sherlock Holmes. Always keen. Always on the lookout for a bearskin hat that would never come.
All of which was irrelevant. Every moment of the past, every bad decision and terrible accident that led him to this point, was moot.
The only thing that mattered now was making one thing right, in a life gone horribly wrong. He had to make one damn thing right. Who betrayed Dad? Joel's partner, Richard Bonavie, or the blonde at the drop-off—Vanessa O'Neill?
The legal system might have gotten it wrong with Matt, whose hands were bloody right down to the bone, but it wasn't too late to get justice for his father. That's why he was here, and the women inside that house were the key to it all.
Posted November 18, 2010
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