Life has not always been fair to Annie Swann. A bad marriage sullied her youth, but since her divorce she has made enough money illustrating children’s books to add a wing to her house. The new addition’s focal point will be a thirty-five-foot blank wall, where Annie plans an elaborate mural of the fairy tale characters who pay her bills. But as she paints, mysterious markings appear on the mural: first splotches, then a woman’s face, ringed with blond hair and covered in blood. It seems to point to the disappearance of Pearl Small, a Harvard student who took classes from Annie’s aunt Mary. As Mary and her husband, professor and ex-cop Homer Kelly, look for Pearl, Annie continues painting, unaware that with each brushstroke, she marks her wall with another layer of evil.
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The Face on the Wall
A Homer Kelly Mystery
By Jane Langton
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1998 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
Once upon a time a poor fisherman caught a magic fish. "Throw me back, good fisherman," cried the fish, "and I will grant anything you desire."
At once the fisherman threw him back in the water, saying, "Thank you, Lord Fish, I want nothing."
But when he went home and told the story to his wife, she said, "You fool! Why should we live in this miserable hovel? Go back! Ask the fish for a palace!"
Wishes are tricky things. In folktales, when they are fulfilled, when every greedy request has been supplied, they often turn sour. The old storytellers understood very well that granted wishes were in defiance of the natural order.
And yet Annie's seemed safe enough. She had earned her dream. She had worked for it, she had paid for it herself. It did not depend on any other human being in the whole world. Her wish was for a house. Not an entire new house, because she already had a house. What Annie wanted was a new wing on the east end of her house, to replace the tumbledown shed.
* * *
"My God," said Homer Kelly, slowing down his car on Baker Bridge Road and staring across the field, "Annie said it would be big. It's big."
"Wow." Mary stared at the house too, as a car behind them blatted its horn.
Homer pulled over and parked beside the stone wall. "Big doesn't come cheap. She must have her mouth right under the faucet."
"Well, her picture books are selling very well. Jack and the Beanstalk made her fortune."
They sat in the car and gazed at the clean new wood of Annie's house. Across the cornfield, through the bare branches of the November trees, they could see the small figures of carpenters climbing ladders and kneeling on the roof.
Mary Kelly's interest in Annie's house was not merely passing curiosity. Anna Elizabeth Swann was her niece, the daughter of her sister Gwen. Mary had watched the girl grow up, and then she had stood by Annie during her teenage nuttiness, her insane marriage and awful divorce. Annie's mother and father were often away in India or Pakistan or Nepal, supervising the planting of fruit trees for miscellaneous maharajahs and state agricultural schools, leaving Mary to act as a substitute parent in one crisis after another. Now, at last, Annie's troubles seemed to be over. It was a relief to enjoy her success.
What Homer and Mary could not foresee, as they stared across the field at the rising rafters and listened to the thunk of the nailing machines, was the misery that was about to descend on Annie's house, and the notoriety to follow.
If they could have forecast all these things in a crystal ball they might have seen themselves inside the enchanted glass along with Annie—because her long-suffering Uncle Homer was about to be drawn on again. Several times already in Annie's checkered career he had lent a hand, first in disentangling her from that bastard Grainger Swann, second when she was arraigned for possession of cocaine, third when she was picked up for drunk driving.
Poor old Homer. Once again his past life was about to catch up with him, those distant days before he had started teaching, the old days of his youth, when he had been a lieutenant detective in the Office of the District Attorney of Middlesex County. Since then, by some weird fate or astral influence, Homer had made a habit of stumbling over one dead body after another. Again and again he had been forced to set aside scholarship for the pursuit of psychopaths all over the state of Massachusetts, and in places as far-flung as Florence and Oxford.
"Well, she's a funny girl," said Homer. "Headstrong. Likes to get her own way."
"Well, of course she does. So do I. So do you." Mary watched the first clapboards going up on the east wall of the new wing, and thought about her niece. Annie was a big-boned tall woman with ample breasts, a slightly hooked nose and a mass of chestnut hair spraying out from a clasp at the back of her head. She looked more like an allegorical figure on a pediment—Peace, or Justice, or Bountiful Nature—than anyone's cuddly little friend. And yet for a piece of monumental statuary she was surprisingly excitable and apt to go off halfcocked. "You know, Homer," said Mary, "she's my niece, not yours, but it's amazing the way she's so much like you."
"Really?" Homer smirked. "You mean brilliant and good-looking? A breaker of hearts?"
"No, no, that's not what I mean at all. She's big and noisy, rash and impulsive. And obsessive. She gets an idea in her head and won't let it go. She's like a dog with a stick. That's Annie. That's you. There's a truly remarkable resemblance."
"Well, gee, thanks a lot."
"Of course, you don't have anything like Annie's artistic talent. She gets that straight from her great-grandmother. Oh, Homer, you should have seen my grandmother's cakes. Five layers high with confectionary swans and castles and three-masted ships, all in spun sugar. She was amazing."
Homer gave one more glance across the field as he turned the key in the ignition. "You know, that's a hell of a big house."
"Well, she's just going to live in the new wing. She's already rented the old part to a family named Gast. Nice people, she says, with a couple of little kids."
"Well, good, maybe the rent will pay her taxes."
As they drove away Mary caught a last glimpse of the bright new boards heaped on the ground beside Annie's house, until they were hidden by the trees around the conservation field. Then she saw only the tractor that was turning under the remaining stalks of corn, and a couple of crows flapping low over the ground, looking for morsels turned up by the plow.CHAPTER 2
There were three ravens sat in a tree,
Down adown, hey down, hey down ...
Old English song
There were crows too around another house, twelve miles away, in the village of Southtown. Months had gone by. It was March, not November, a warm melting day with puddles in the ruts of the driveway.
When Pearl's brother got out of his car and moved toward her front porch, four or five of the crows were settling in the trees, harshly cawing, as though they had flown up all at once and were just coming back down. There was no other sound but a faraway cheeping like squeaking wheels, the chatter of birds on the rusty towers of Fred Small's sand-and-gravel company, over there to the south, beyond the farthest reach of Pearl's land. The birds were stopping to rest on their way north, fluttering from the gravel-sorting hoppers to the crushers and back, taking possession of the abandoned quarry.
When Joe entered the house he sensed at once that something was wrong. There was a shivering in his skin, the vibration of a noise still battering the walls. With his heart in his mouth he raced up the stairs and threw open the bedroom door upon a scene of carnage.
They were both bleeding. Small held his left arm high over his head, doctoring himself with a scarf, tugging at one end with his teeth. There was no way of doctoring Pearl. She lay folded up on the floor, face down in her own blood.
Joe fell to his knees beside her, and put his hand in the bushy tangle of her yellow hair. "Pearl," he said, "oh, Pearl." Then he rolled her head to one side and cried out, because there was nothing left of her face but a bloody hole.
Springing to his feet, he threw himself at Small. But Pearl's husband had finished knotting the scarf around his arm. His right hand held a revolver. Joe recognized it as the little Ruger he had bought for Pearl from a good-natured goon in an East Boston bar. He stopped short and backed up, his throat bursting with sobs.
"I thought you'd turn up," whispered Small. "It was your idea, right? Give her a gun, she'll kill me while I'm asleep? That's what women do, you're asleep in bed, they blow you away. Well, you should have done your own dirty work." Small's eyes were large and shiny, gleaming with miniature reflections of the bright panes of the window. "Because she made a mess of it. She stood beside the bed sniveling and crying, so I woke up, and then she couldn't handle the fucking firearm, and she shot wild. So I grabbed it and defended myself. What else could I do? And guess what?" Small's expression changed. He grinned and brandished the firearm. "She signed that piece of paper. Did you know that? She signed it."
"She didn't. She couldn't have. You're lying."
Frederick Small's wild whispering stopped. On the highway a truck went by, then another. Small lowered his wounded arm and steadied the gun. A spasm jerked in his face, and he fired.
The crash sent the crows up again from the trees, flapping their dark wings and frantically cawing.
* * *
The one of them said to his mate,
"Where shall we our breakfast take?
With a down, deny, derry, derry down, down.
Once more the fisherman rowed out into the sea. Leaning over the side of his boat, he cried, "Oh, my Lord Fish! I am sorry, but my wife wants a palace."
At once the fish rose from the water and said, "Go home, my friend. She has her palace."
* * *
The new house was finished, and it was perfect, because Annie had designed it all by herself. For months she had worked on plans and elevations. It had been a year since she had made a single drawing for a new picture book, but that could wait. Jack and the Beanstalk had made her a lot of money, and the royalties from The Owl and the Pussy-cat were still pouring in. The new addition to her house had been expensive, but Annie was still a wealthy woman. Wisely, she had consulted her old boyfriend Burgess, that swashbuckling freelance investment broker who knew all there was to know about the stock market. She had followed his advice, and now she was set for life.
Of course, her new house wasn't really a house, it was just a wing attached to the old farmhouse she had bought from her brother John and his wife two years ago. But the new part was complete in itself. Annie had transferred all her furniture, emptying the house for the tenants who were moving in tomorrow. There were five compartments in the new wing: an enormous room with a kitchen at one end and four additional small spaces—a bedroom, a laundry, a bathroom, and a hall.
Money, how wonderful it was! Last summer Annie had indulged herself in Caucasian rugs, straw-seated chairs, a long table with massive feet like cannonballs, and a plaster bust of Hermes from some Victorian parlor. It wasn't greed on her part, surely you couldn't call it greed? After all that labor, surely she deserved a little self-indulgence? It had taken her ten weeks to complete the picture of the beanstalk, with all the birds and animals hiding among the leaves, and she had spent two months on the speaking harp and the rich border around it, entwined with weasels and stoats. If her books sold well, if Curtis Publishing kept right on sending her large checks, and if she gave big chunks of the money to various good causes, why should anyone blame her? Why couldn't she wish for the world's most wonderful room, and design it herself and live in it happily for the rest of her life?
Actually, it wasn't quite true that Annie had designed the house all by herself. In the end she had hired an architect to make working drawings. It had not been a happy connection. The architect had been wary of do-it-yourself designers. He had looked suspiciously at Annie's paper model, eager to show this woman she didn't have a clue. "Look here, you haven't got any windows on the north side. That's a big expanse of blank wall."
"That's just want I want, a blank wall."
"But look at it! Believe me, you'll be sorry if you don't break it up somehow."
"I won't be sorry. Don't touch it."
The contractor had been full of suggestions too. "How about I put a couple of windows on the north side? Thirty-five feet without a window is like a big blank. I mean, look at it. It's nothing."
"Nothing?" Annie laughed. "Well, fine. Nothing is just right."
There came a week when the plasterers gathered up their buckets and drop cloths and went away. The backhoe shoveled dirt around the new foundation, the kid from the nursery seeded it, and the flossy garden designer directed the laying of the stone walk. At last Annie stood at her kitchen counter and paid off the contractor with a stroke of the pen.
She was alone. The furniture huddled in the middle of the floor.
No, she was not alone. A small child ran across the newly seeded lawn in front of the windows. A woman screamed, "Eddy, come back here."
The woman was tomorrow's new tenant, Roberta Gast. Annie went outside and said hello.
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," said Roberta. Reaching for the boy, she jerked him back off the lawn. "This is Eddy. He's eight years old. He's been away at school, but he'll be living at home from now on, going to a special school in Concord."
One glance at Eddy made it plain what sort of special school it would be. His face was not like his father's or his mother's. It was as though he came from a different gene pool, that family of look-alike children born with Down's syndrome.
"Glad to meet you, Eddy," said Annie, smiling at him.
He looked back at her shyly, and said hello. His voice was thick, as though his tongue couldn't wrap itself around the word.
"We came to measure the rooms," said Roberta. "Come on, Eddy, dear, let's go back to the car."
Roberta's husband, Bob, appeared at the front door of the old house, a slight man with a high balding forehead. As the metal tape measure in his hand rushed into its container it lashed up and cut his hand. He laughed and said good morning and sucked his finger.
Coming out of the house beside him was a pretty little girl. Roberta introduced her. "Annie, I don't think you've met our daughter, Charlene."
"The champion swimmer?" Annie grinned at Charlene.
"That's right," said her father proudly. "Charlene's got a whole shelf of trophies and blue ribbons."
"Well, congratulations, Charlene."
Charlene ignored Annie. She stared at her brother and said, "I'm not going to babysit."
"I know, dear," said her mother. She tugged at Eddy. "Come on, Edward."
The Cast family retreated, the boy Eddy trailing behind, looking back over his shoulder at Annie.
She waved to him, then went back inside and forgot him. At the kitchen counter she opened her new cupboards and made herself a sandwich.
Then Annie turned around and looked at her long blank wall.CHAPTER 4
There was to be a picture on Annie's wall, stretching from one end to the other, thirty-five feet long. Annie had never painted a wall before. It didn't matter. She would figure out how to do it.
She had worked on the sketch for months while the foundation was poured, the walls were raised and roofed over, the inside was plastered, and the tile floor laid. Now that the house was complete at last, the plan for the framework of her painting was finished too. She had blocked it out in measured squares on a long piece of paper. There was to be an architectural fantasy on the wall, a painted gallery with five round arches resting on six painted columns.
Early in the morning after Annie's first night in the new house, her Aunt Mary Kelly came over to help her lay it out. "Thirty-five feet divided by five is seven feet," she said, looking up at the long expanse of blank plaster. "Is that right? Seven feet between centers? Good. Here goes." Mary stretched her tape along the wainscot and made a pencil mark.
Annie spread sheets of newspaper over her library table and set out her jars of paint. There were dozens of them. Cheerfully, her heart beating with excitement, she picked them up one by one and arranged them on the newspaper. There were seven shades of red, six of blue, eight different greens, and two dozen soft colors without names, dun purplish browns and olive-grays.
When Mary finished marking off seven-foot intervals and came back to the table, her attention was caught at once by a scrap of newspaper stuck to the bottom of one of the jars of paint. It was a torn fragment with a dim photograph. She picked up the jar, peeled off the piece of newsprint, and looked at the picture. "Don't I know this woman?"
Annie looked too, and read the line of print under the photograph. "Her name's Pearl Small. She seems to have disappeared."
Mary slapped the scrap of newspaper down on the table. "Pearl Small! Of course I know her. She was a student of mine. It was a seminar, a graduate seminar. Nobody called her Pearl, they called her Princess, because of her long yellow hair. It was a joke. She was Princess Pearl." Mary's glasses were on a string around her neck. She put them on and bent over the fragment of newspaper.
Excerpted from The Face on the Wall by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1998 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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