It is the week before Halloween and Theodosia Browning, proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop, and her tea sommelier, Drayton, are ghosting through the dusk of a cool Charleston evening on their way to the old Bouchard Mansion. Known as the Gray Ghost, this dilapidated place was recently bequeathed to the Heritage Society, and tonight heralds the grand opening of their literary and historical themed haunted house.
Though Timothy Neville, the patriarch of the Heritage Society, is not thrilled with the fund-raising idea, it is the perfect venue for his grandniece, Willow French, to sign copies of her new book, Carolina Crimes & Creepers.
But amid a parade of characters dressed as Edgar Allan Poe, Lady Macbeth, and the Headless Horseman, Willow's body is suddenly tossed from the third-floor tower room and left to dangle at the end of a rope. Police come screaming in and Theodosia's boyfriend, Detective Pete Riley, is sent to Willow's apartment to investigate. But minutes later, he is shot and wounded by a shadowy intruder.
Timothy begs Theodosia to investigate, and shaken by Riley's assault, she readily agrees. Now, she questions members of the Heritage Society and a man who claims the mansion is rightfully his, as well as Willow's book publisher and her fiancé, all while hosting a Sherlock Holmes tea and catering several others.
But the Gray Ghost holds many secrets, as do several other key suspects, while this murder mystery plays out on the eve of Halloween.
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Dark clouds bubbled across a purple-black sky, then lifted gently, like a velvet curtain in a darkened theater, to reveal the top two floors of a dilapidated old mansion.
"That's it," Theodosia said. "The place they dubbed the Gray Ghost."
"I can't say it looks particularly charming," Drayton said. "In fact, it's slightly off-putting."
Theodosia gazed at a corner turret that was bathed in green and purple lights. At one time the home had whispered wealth and taste. Not anymore. Now the exterior, the balustrades and finials, even the third-floor widow's walk displayed the battering it had received from a century of Atlantic hurricanes, salt-infused sea air, and industrial-strength humidity.
"Haunted houses generally aren't that attractive," Theodosia said. "But at least this one's being put to good use."
It was the week before Halloween, and tea maven Theodosia Browning and her tea sommelier Drayton Conneley were strolling down Tradd Street in Charleston, South Carolina, heading for the old Bouchard Mansion. It was a property that had recently been bequeathed to Drayton's beloved Heritage Society.
"The Heritage Society wasn't all that happy about inheriting this old place," Drayton explained. "But it was donated by one of the last remaining Bouchards. Written into his will. And you know our fearless leader Timothy is loath to turn down any sort of gift."
"Still, I love how your curators and marketing folks figured out how to make the most of it," Theodosia said. "What an amazing idea to create a literary- and history-inspired haunted house. And then to launch it the week before Halloween?" She gave a little shiver of anticipation. "It's a fabulous concept. People will be standing in line." They rounded a tall hedge of crepe myrtle and arrived at the front walk where at least five dozen people were clustered, waiting to get in. "Actually, people are standing in line."
"Opening night," Drayton said as they shuffled up the sidewalk with the rest of the visitors. "So I suppose folks are curious."
"I sure am," Theodosia said as she gazed at the old place. Yellow light spilled out from tall, narrow front windows; inside looked to be a beehive of activity.
"You remember Willow French, Timothy's grandniece?" Drayton asked.
"Oh sure, I've met her a few times."
"She's here tonight, signing her new book."
"Willow's written a novel? That's wonderful."
Drayton pursed his lips. "It's not exactly a stunning piece of literature. Rather an anthology titled Carolina Crimes and Creepers. Supposed to be a mixture of true crime and some of our low-country legends."
"You mean haunted legends," Theodosia said, feeling another tingle. Even though she didn't believe-believe in spirits and ghosts, it was fun to pretend that Revolutionary War-era ghosts and headless pirates still stalked Charleston's narrow cobblestone alleys. Besides, there were plenty of folks who did believe in ghosts. Case in point, there were four different ghost tours that guided visitors to the Old City Jail, Provost Dungeon, and Unitarian Church Cemetery. As well as to a twisted old hanging tree where dozens of pirates had been executed.
Drayton glanced up at the dilapidated mansion where a swirling projection of ghosts and witches moved eerily across an outside wall. "Haunted, yes," he said.
The low country and Charleston in particular were a hotbed of legends and lore that included ghosts, hauntings, boo hags, spirits, apparitions, and spectral goings-on. Everyone who lived in Charleston knew about the haunted theaters and mansions, Lavinia Fisher, the Headless Torso, and the Weeping Woman of St. Philip's Church. And there were dozens more creepy tales that had been passed down through generations.
As they walked through antique wrought-iron gates, a ghoul with a green-painted face and a bolt through his neck tapped Drayton on the shoulder. "Tickets?" he rasped.
Drayton fumbled in his jacket pocket. "As a matter of fact, I do."
"This is going to be amazing," Theodosia said. She was already three steps ahead of Drayton and loved what she was seeing. Edgar Allan Poe lounged on the front portico; Washington Irving's Headless Horseman lurked in a window. And she was pretty sure she could see Lady Macbeth sweeping past the guests who were already inside.
"You're liking this, yes?" Drayton said when he caught up with Theodosia.
Possessing a keen sense of adventure, Theodosia was in her mid-thirties and the owner of the Indigo Tea Shop on Church Street. She was also blessed with expressive painterly blue eyes, a fair complexion (it helped to be religious about sunscreen), and a riot of auburn hair that she worried sometimes looked slightly untamed.
Drayton, on the other hand, was sixtyish, dapper, a true Southern gent, and the model of conservatism. He was always appropriately dressed (tweed jacket and bow tie tonight) and had a personality that could veer from genial to slightly stiff. Drayton's idea of an exciting evening was attending La Traviata or holing up in his private library to read his beloved Dickens.
"I think this place is terrific," Theodosia said. She was excited and feeling a little bit giddy. "Who doesn't like Halloween, after all? Who doesn't enjoy a good haunted house, even if it is all costumes and theatrics?" She reached out, letting her fingertips brush against the rustling full-length satin skirt of a masked woman.
"Ah," Drayton said, catching up to her. "From the legend of Madame Margot." Then he took her arm and said, "Come on, let's go find Willow."
Willow French was young and pretty, with honey-colored hair that framed a smiling face. She was clearly in seventh heaven from all the attention she was receiving tonight. Seated at an antique library table, she smiled brightly as she autographed books and thanked everyone in her immediate vicinity for showing up.
The authoring business must be good, Theodosia decided. Dozens of people waited in line for a signed copy, Willow's table was stacked with double towers of books, and cardboard cases full of books filled the small parlor where she was seated.
"Willow," Drayton said, greeting Timothy's grandniece with a wide smile and a nod of his head. "I see our favorite author is in residence tonight."
Willow glanced up, recognized Drayton immediately, and grinned from ear to ear. "Uncle Drayton!" she shrieked.
Theodosia gave Drayton a sideways glance. "Uncle Drayton?"
"That's how Timothy has always introduced me to his grandniece," Drayton said in a low, soft voice. "As though I'm a member of the family."
And it was abundantly clear that Willow did consider Drayton part of the family, because now she skittered around to the front of the table, arms flung wide, ready to give him a most exuberant bear hug.
Willow squeezed Drayton, uttered another high-pitched squeal, and, after a few giggles, eventually released him. "I was hoping you'd show up," she said breathlessly. Standing barely five two, with shining eyes and an impish expression, Willow looked even younger than her twenty-four years.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Drayton said. Then, hurriedly, "You remember Theodosia, don't you?"
"Of course. You're the tea lady," Willow said, immediately reaching out to give Theodosia a quick hug as well. "Hey, thanks bunches for coming."
"This is a big night for you," Theodosia said as she returned the hug. "I understand it's your first major book signing."
Willow nodded. "I've been to a couple bookstores, but am I ever loving this. I wondered how my book would go over here, but it's been gangbusters so far. Sales are good with lots of friends dropping by to say congrats. One of the bigwigs from the Charleston Library Society even stopped by my table to tell me she'd ordered twenty copies from my publisher, who I hope is wandering around here someplace."
"I couldn't be happier for you," Theodosia said.
"We're delighted," Drayton echoed. "And of course we both want signed copies."
"I've got first editions that I can personalize for you." Willow hurried back around the table, sat down, and grabbed two books from a box on the floor. She flipped them open and grabbed a squishy marker pen. The large moonstone ring on her left hand flashed as she signed both books with a flourish.
"Has Timothy stopped by yet?" Drayton asked.
Willow nodded. "Oh yeah, he's around somewhere."
"I don't think Timothy was all that keen on this haunted house idea," Drayton said. "But judging from the crowd that's turned up tonight, I must say it's . . . well, speak of the devil!"
Timothy Neville ghosted into the room like a character out of King Lear. He was an octogenarian who was not only the power behind the Heritage Society, but also a board member of the Charleston Opera Society, occasional violinist for the Charleston Symphony, collector of antique pistols, and proud possessor of a stunning mansion on Archdale Street that was furnished with equally stunning paintings, tapestries, and antiques. Interestingly enough, all that knowledge and power was contained within a small man who was barely one hundred forty pounds and had a bony, simian face, yet possessed the grace and poise of an elder statesman.
"Looks like your haunted house is a rousing success," Drayton declared.
Timothy favored Theodosia and Drayton with a thin smile. "I wouldn't have dreamed this up in a million years. But my staff . . . all I can say is they're blessed with vivid imaginations."
"But in a good way," Theodosia said.
"Did I hear there was some some sort of property dispute?" Drayton asked.
Timothy gave an offhand wave. "Another of the Bouchard relatives tried to contest the will, but my attorneys assured me it was ironclad. This place, such as it is, remains ours, lock, stock, and barrel."
"That's wonderful," Theodosia said. She was marveling at the crowds that continued to pour in. And then, as Drayton and Timothy continued in conversation, she managed to slip away. She definitely wanted to get a good look at the various literary characters in their elaborate displays.
And she wasn't disappointed. The folks at the Heritage Society had done a masterful job.
Edgar Allan Poe had his own writing studio-really, more of a dark garret-complete with quill pens, inkwell, antique desk, threadbare rug, old leather-bound books, and even a stuffed raven sitting on a perch.
Wearing a silver-gray floor-length corseted dress, Lady Macbeth stalked her way through the old mansion carrying a silver candlestick. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had their own laboratory set up as well. And Sherlock Holmes had a wonderful study, complete with books, a messy desk, and a coatrack that held his tweed overcoat and deerstalker hat.
As Theodosia gazed into a mirror that reflected an image of Dorian Gray, she decided that she'd better get a signed book for Haley as well. Haley, her compadre and young chef at the Indigo Tea Shop, was a good friend of Willow's and would appreciate having one of the first editions.
But when Theodosia eventually wound her way back to the small parlor, Willow was no longer seated at her table.
Stepped out, I suppose, Theodosia thought to herself. Maybe I'll pop back later in the week. I know Willow plans to do a couple more signings.
"There you are," Drayton said.
Theodosia whirled around. "Have you seen Willow? Do you know where she ran off to?"
"She's probably being introduced around by Timothy," Drayton said. "He's busting his buttons over her. Or perhaps she's taking a break." He smiled. "Could have picked up a touch of writer's cramp from signing so many books."
"Tonight's been a real success for Willow. Really, for the Heritage Society in general," Theodosia said as they walked through the main parlor, then stepped outside onto the wide porch. A chill wind had sprung up, and she was suddenly cold. As she buttoned her jacket, they continued out into the front yard.
"I'll be the first to admit that I thought a literary haunted house was a half-baked idea," Drayton said as they walked past a horde of people anxiously waiting to get in. "But this was rather . . ."
A loud, collective gasp suddenly rose up from the moving crowd, drowning out the rest of Drayton's words.
Puzzled at the burst of noise, Drayton shook his head and said, "What?" just as a woman's high-pitched scream rose like some kind of ungodly yodel and pierced the night air.
Both startled and curious, Theodosia spun around just in time to see something-could it be a body?-dangling out the window of the third-floor tower. She grasped Drayton's arm and pulled him around as well. "Drayton, look up there!"
"My heaven!" Drayton exclaimed in a shaky voice, as all around them the cacophony of screams and shouting continued to build and build until the noise seemed like an explosion.
"It's some kind of illusion!"
"Oh no, it's really happening!"
"Help her! Somebody please help that poor girl!"
At first glance, Theodosia thought it had to be part of the entertainment, some special effect that had been rigged to frighten people. A woman's body, dangling from a rope, motionless and frozen in the harsh purple and green lights.
But that would be too terrible, wouldn't it? And this looks positively . . . real.
And then the body twirled slowly and horribly, twisting around so everyone could finally see the dark-purplish tinge to the woman's face, the dead, sunken eyes, the long blond hair whipping frantically in the night wind.
That's when a rocked-to-the-core Drayton suddenly clutched at his heart and gasped, "Dear Lord, it's Willow. Someone's hanged her to death!"
While dozens of stunned visitors whipped out their cell phones en masse and flooded Charleston's 911 system with distress calls, Theodosia short-circuited the lot of them. She immediately called Pete Riley, police detective first grade, trusted first responder, and boyfriend extraordinaire.
Riley picked up on the third ring. "Well, hello there," he said in a leisurely tone of voice. He had caller ID, so he knew it was Theodosia. What he didn't know what how upset and terrified she was.
"Riley, I need you to come quickly!" Theodosia said in a tight voice. She tried not to sound crazed or hysterical, just focused every part of her being on holding it together.
"What's wrong?" Riley knew Theodosia well enough to realize there had to be some sort of emergency.
"At the haunted house . . . the one the Heritage Society is sponsoring, there's been a . . ."
"Hold a sec, will you?"
"Riley!" Now Theodosia did cry out in frustration. Why had he cut her off like that? What could be so all-fired important? Especially now when she needed him the most.
A few seconds later Riley was back on, his voice crackling with alarm. "I just received an emergency text from dispatch. Theo . . . are you calling from the haunted house on Tradd Street?"