There it stood, on a cliff by the water. It might have been a postcard or a movie poster, and it was as eerie as evera facade that graced the darkest horror movie. Its paint was chipping, the exterior was gray and it had been weathered through the centuries by icy winds ripping in off the Atlantic Ocean. The ground-floor windows seemed like black eyes; the second-floor windows might have been startled brows, half covered by the eaves of the roof.
Oddly enough, Lexington House had always remained in private hands. From its builderthe Puritan Eli Lexingtonto its recent ownerthe now deceased Abraham Smithit had always found a new buyer after each and every one of its tragedies. People had once known its early history, of course, but that had been lost amid the witchcraft trials that scarred American history and continued to fascinate the social sciences. And when Mr. and Mrs. Braden had been brutally murdered two centuries later, in the 1890s, the world knew that their son had been guilty of the crime. But the legal system had worked for the killer this time, and he'd been acquitted. He and his sister had promptly sold the house to another private party. Eighty years later it had become a bed-and-breakfast, and then it had been purchased by Abraham Smith, who had longed for the property on its little cliff, segregated from all but a few neighbors.
One of whom had been murdered last week.
And now today
Jenna Duffy had heard about nothing but the Lexington House on the radio since she'd started for Salem from Boston this morning. Uncle Jamie had called her days before, begging that she come to Salem and speak with him. Peculiar timing.
She'd pulled to the side of the road and parked to stare at the place.
A patrol car sat near the house; crime-scene tape cordoned off the entire house. There were no onlookers, though. The house was at a little distance from the historic section of town, where most visitors strolled through the Old Burial Ground, visited the House of the Seven Gables or sought out history at any one of the witch museums or the Peabody Essex Museum. And since it was October and Halloween was approaching, the real-life contemporary tragedy would fuel the ghost stories that were already being told around town.
She stared at the house awhile longer, wondering about its history. What happened at Lexington House would prove to be another horrible case of mental instability or greed, and as much as she longed to actually see the property that brought about such gruesome tragedy, she had a meeting with her uncle. She glanced at her watch and pulled back onto the road. With Halloween tourists clogging the city, it might take her time to get where she was going.
Somehow she was still early.
She parked her car at the Hawthorne Hotel's parking lot, and wandered across the street to the common.
Autumn leaves, beautiful in their warm orange, magenta and yellow colorings, rustled beneath Jenna's feet as she strolled. Before her and around her, the leaves swirled and lifted inches into the air as the breeze picked them up and whimsically tossed them about.
She heard the laughter of schoolchildren as they made their way through Salem Common, heading home but not too quickly. Autumn was certainly one of the most beautiful seasons in New England, and schoolchildren, raised with all the colors as they may have been, still loved to stop and lift the leaves, toss them about and roll in them.
Jenna had loved Salem since she'd first come to the States and her parents had chosen nearby Boston, Massachusetts, as the place to begin their new lives. They had come up here weekends, in the summers and for the Halloween festivity, and also for the fall leaves and to see Uncle Jamie.
But this was a difficult visit. She was about to meet Uncle Jamie at the Hawthorne Hotel, and she was worried about him. He'd been so anxious when he'd asked her to come. He was asking her in a professional capacity, but he didn't want her bringing "your team" or "your unit" or "the official group" with which she worked, not yet.
As she walked across the common, her attention was drawn back to the children. A group of five- to seven-year-olds were holding hands, running in a circle and playing a game.
She froze as she heard them reciting the old rhyme repeated not just in this area, but around the country.
Oh, Lexington, he loved his wife,
So much he kept her near.
Close as his sons, dear as his life;
He chopped her up;
He axed them, too,
and then he kept them here.
Duck, duck, wife!
Duck, duck, life!
Jenna felt as if ice water had suddenly been injected in her veinsthe old ditty now seemed to be words of mockery and cruelty. A young woman, who had been standing with another group of parents watching over small children and a group of older teens who had gathered in the park, rushed forward. She caught hold of the little boy's arms, spun him around and shook a finger at him, reprimanding him.
Another of the mothers came hurrying over to her, her voice carrying in the cool air. "Cindy, don't be so hard on them! They don't
know. We used to say that rhyme all the time when we were kids."
"Samantha, I know, it's just that
now? Now, with what's happened again? It's that house! That horrible house, and that boy
He used to go to school with our kids."
"But, it's over now, Cindy. It's over. They have the boy in custody."
Other parents began calling out sharply to their children. The two women herded the children toward the group of parents. A tall man in the group said something sharply to the teens, words that Jenna couldn't quite hear, and they disbanded, as well. The conversation they all exchanged became whispers. The families and the unattached teens began to drift away, as if none of them wanted the reality of the situation.
The great seafaring days of Salem were in the past. The city survived on tourism, and most of it wasn't because of the autumn leaves. Salem had been the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trialsand it had also been the site of two horrendous and savage murdering sprees.
And, now, a third.
Tragic incidences of human ignorance and brutality in the past were one thing; bloodletting in the present was quite another, especially with the town anticipating the season's mammoth number of visitors. The income generated by the holiday alone could sustain many a shopkeeper and inn through the brutal New England winter to follow.
Of course, for Uncle Jamie, the recent tragedy would not be in any way fiscal but personal. She knew Jamie and loved him dearly, because he was a man who took the troubles of others to heart. This was often to his own detriment, but that was Jamie.
From her vantage spot, she could see the Salem Witch Museum with its English Gothic facade across the street on North Washington Squarethe point where she always told friends to begin their exploration of the city. In a comparatively short presentation, the museum did a fine job of explaining the climate of the city during the days of the infamous trials. The statue of Roger Conant, town founder, stood proud before her as well, larger than life, his heavy cape appearing to blow in the same breeze that tossed the leaves about.
The residences and businesses surrounding the common were decked out for fall. Pumpkins and black cats adorned windows and lawns, while skeletons and, naturally, witches dangled from branches. Some people were more into the traditional concept of fall itself, and they had decorated with scarecrows, feathered turkeys and cornucopias. The image of the city of Salem she saw as she stood in the common was that of old New England, family and festivity, tinged with the strange pleasant warmth of the coming of fall.
She glanced at her watch again. It was time to go and meet Uncle Jamie; she suddenly realized she had been dreading the meeting, and she didn't even know why.
Sam poured himself a second cup of coffee and looked around the house, trying to concentrate on its details and trying to make up his mind. He didn't like wondering what the hell he was going to do about the house, but it was better than thinking about the bizarre and tragic circumstances under which he had finally made it home.
He didn't need to get involvedhe wasn't staying here. He'd already taken a nice long leave of absence, and it was time to go back to work. But, then, he mused, maybe he shouldn't. He'd not only saved his client from prison, but he'd proved beyond a doubt that the man not only deserved to be declared innocent, but was, in fact, innocent. And he was still a bit worn down from all the effort.
Sam had really stepped on every rung of the ladder on his way to becoming a renowned attorney. He'd worked in the D.A.'s office following college and the military. He'd worked as an investigator as well before joining his first small firm, because his boss had needed an investigator more than another attorney in the office. He'd learned the ropes from Colin Blake, Esquire, and he'd come to terms with a sad truth: a defense attorney was still required to give his best effort in a legal defense, even if he thought his client was guilty as all hell. He'd learned to make the cops and the prosecutors suffer, but discovered he didn't much like that side of the business. Still, despite that, he wasn't sure he could ever go back to being a prosecutor. It wasn't the money. Well, it was about money. Often. It was sometimes about the money it took to put together a great team of defense attorneys. He'd seen a young woman sent to prison for years, convicted of the murder of her newborn. He'd seen a rich young man walk on drug charges, and a poor one sent up fifteen years for the same offense. He understood the law; he didn't understand why the slow wheels of Congress took so long to correct the inequities that were to be found in so many instances. He was violently opposed to the death penalty, always afraid that somewhere, sometime, it would send an innocent person to his or her death, and yet he understood the desire others felt to see it utilized. Too many drug lords, murderers and rapists made it back onto the street. But last night.
Something about the kid he'd come upon in the street was still tugging at his heartstrings.
The kid, according to police, had axed his family to death.
There was no doubt that Malachi Smith's father, mother, grandmother and great-uncle had been murdered, and horribly so. Jumping on the internet that morning, he'd seen that the news regarding the killings had gone global. Abraham Smith, sixty-two, Beth Smith, fifty-nine, Abigail Smith, eighty-three, and Thomas Smith, eighty-seven, had all died from exsan-guinationBeth, Abigail and Thomas all receiving at least eight blows from a honed ax, Abraham over twenty. The previous week, a neighbor, Mr. Earnest Covington, had been found hacked to death on his parlor floor. Six months earlier, a Salem native living in nearby Andover had been found murdered in his barn. Police had been following leads and now suspected that the cases were related.
Indisputable evidence indicated that the youngest son of the Smith family, Malachi, was the killer. The police had the young man in custody, and he remained under guard in isolation at a correctional facility hospital.
The Smiths were the current owners of Lexington House, famed for its bloody reputation. The family had adhered to strict fundamentalist teachings, being members of the Old Meeting House in Beverly, Massachusetts. This was a strange connection of sorts with the original murders in the place. In the midst of the witchcraft trials, Eli Lexington had murdered his family with an ax. He'd been imprisoned with the nearly two hundred arrested for witchcraft at the time. Then he disappeared. There were no records of his fate after prison.
Then, in the late eighteen hundreds, Mr. and Mrs. Braden had been killed in the house, as well. A historical parallel of the Menendez case? From the books, movies and court records that had come down through time, it appeared that a disgruntled son had killed his parents for the money. And, of course, similar cases had been suspected elsewhere. The Braden case was similar, too, to the Lizzie Borden murders. Both Lizzie and the Braden boy had been acquitted, but nobody doubted that each of them had murdered their families.
Just like today's case.
Sam told himself over and over to get the hell away from his computer. He was not involved. But he was.
He'd found the kid in the road.
And, he'd grown up in Salem. He could still remember being a school kid, and the rhyme every school kid in the area had learned. Oh, Lexington, he loved his wife
A good attorney, of courseeven a hackwould go for an insanity plea. The kid had grown up in what everyone in the area termed a haunted housea really haunted housewhich, in a city like Salem, was saying something.
Any attorney could defend the boy. It was too easy. He forced himself to leave the computer screen and walk around the house.
His parents had been dead for nearly two years; he'd returned for the funeral, and he hadn't been back since. The house, however, was in excellent shape. His father, until his death, had seen to it that no electrical wires frayed, that the heating system was state-of-the-art and that every board that even seemed slightly damaged was replaced. His father's friend and contractor, Jimmy Chu, had kept the house in good repair during the two years. His dad had come from old Puritan stock, and he'd considered it an honor to care for the home that his parents had owned, just as his grandparents before them did. It wasn't one of the oldest houses in the area, but it ranked right in there with many of the homes surviving from the turn of the eighteenth century all the way into the twenty-first.
He smiled suddenly, shaking his head and taking a sip of the coffee he still held, untouched. "Darn you, Dad. You knew that I won't be able to sell the damned thing!"
A housein a city in which he no longer livedwas a pain in the ass, no matter what. He guessed that his father had always figured he'd come home one day.
Well, he'd managed to, but on the wrong damned day. He dropped his head. He didn't want to be involved with a legal situation here.
But he couldn't blink without seeing in his mind's eye the blank brown eyes of the naked boy covered in blood and shaking on the road.