Jane’s boyfriend is missing, and she thinks she may find him at North Carolina’s historic Biltmore Estate. Officially, she’s there to learn about luxury hotel management, but she’s also prowling around the breathtaking buildings and grounds looking for secret passageways and clues. One of the staff gardeners promises to be helpful . . . that is, until his body turns up in the reading room of his cottage, a book on his lap.
When she finally locates the kidnapped Edwin, his captor insists that she lead him back to Storyton Hall, convinced that it houses Ernest Hemingway’s lost suitcase, stolen from a Paris train station in 1922. But before they can turn up the treasure, the bell may toll for another victim . . .
“Readers will find themselves wanting to live in Storyton, no matter how many people end up dead there.” —Suspense Magazine on Murder in the Locked Library
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Jane Steward was heading straight into the storm.
At least I can see the storm in front of me, she thought as she turned on her windshield wipers. The other storm I'm racing toward is invisible.
The rain struck the pickup truck with timidity, but Jane knew that it was only a matter of moments before the drops changed from hesitant taps to a machine-gun hammer.
Ahead, the sky was smudged with gray. Soot-colored thunderclouds hovered over the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. In some places, the clouds had descended low enough to cover the valleys in mist. There were farmhouses and fields in those valleys, but Jane couldn't see them. Her world consisted of a dark road and a darker sky.
One of the windshield blades squeaked with every pass, and as the rain picked up its pace, Jane had to turn the wipers to a higher speed setting. This made the squeak sound like the whine of a petulant child.
Between the rain, the wiper blade, and the groan of tractor-trailer engines adjusting to the winding road, Jane was glad for her taciturn passenger. Landon Lachlan, head of Storyton Hall's Recreation Department, rarely spoke. He'd spent most of the trip from Virginia staring out the window in contemplative silence.
Jane could guess his thoughts. Or more accurately, she could guess which questions were whirling inside his head. The same questions whipped around in hers, echoing the wind that threatened to push their vehicle into the next lane.
Gripping the steering wheel harder, Jane focused on what awaited them once they were clear of the storm.
Ahead, in Asheville, there would be new hazards. If Jane's theory that her lover was being held captive at Biltmore Estate was correct, there would be danger.
If she was wrong, then Edwin Alcott was beyond her reach. She was certain he would die if she and Lachlan didn't rescue him, so here they were.
Edwin had been gone for nearly two months. During that time, his sister, the manager of his restaurant, and Jane had all received postcards written in Edwin's hand. Jane didn't think the words were his. However, she'd had no way to prove this until her twin sons, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, were kidnapped. It was at the abductor's house that she discovered a clue to Edwin's whereabouts.
The clue had been a Templar cross pinned to a map. The location was Asheville, North Carolina. Jane was positive that the pin marked Biltmore, and she was equally sure that the Templars were responsible for Edwin's disappearance.
How I wish I had that map, she thought mournfully. But the map was gone. It had burned, along with the rest of the kidnapper's house. That despicable man had taken Jane's sons. He'd threatened what she held most dear. He'd taunted her, deceived her, and laughed at her. He'd also provided invaluable hints about Edwin. And while it seemed like madness to take a madman at his word, Jane was doing just that.
Her sons had come out of the ordeal unscathed. As for Edwin's welfare, Jane couldn't say. She needed to see him, face-to-face, before she'd believe that he was okay.
Not too long ago, she would have laughed over the absurdity of her mission. If someone had told her that she came from a long line of Stewards who vowed to guard a secret library filled with rare and potentially dangerous, books, she would have called them crazy. If she'd had an inkling that the Knights Templar was still a functioning society, and that it had split into multiple brotherhoods, one of which was determined to locate Storyton Hall's hidden library at any cost, she would have gone elsewhere following her husband's death.
"We're not making very good time," she said to Lachlan as lightning rippled over the dark sky. Seconds later, there was another brilliant fracture. And a third.
"I have a feeling caution won't be a priority once we get to Biltmore," Lachlan said.
Lachlan was part of an elite group called the Fins. These former military men had specialized combat training and had pledged to protect the members of the Steward family with their lives. Despite this, they managed to pull off their Storyton Hall staff member personas with conviction.
Jane glanced at him and shrugged. "I'm just a resort manager attending the Luxury Lodging Symposium, and I plan to use that cover to my full advantage. We have three days to find Edwin. We don't have time for caution."
"If Biltmore is a secret Templar hideout, their people will monitor everyone who passes through their doors. Just as we do," Lachlan said. "We might be able to count on one employee. When I met Master Gardener Gerald Tucker at a lecture on rehabilitating raptors, I knew he was a really decent person. After researching Mr. Tucker, Mr. Sterling agrees that the veteran gardener could be helpful. But he's very devoted to Biltmore. He won't tell us a thing unless we gain his trust."
"Mr. Tucker is Army Retired? Like you?" Jane asked.
A curtain fell over Lachlan's features. He didn't like to discuss his time as an Army Ranger. The atrocities he'd witnessed during his tours still haunted him. These ghosts from the past appeared without warning, paralyzing his emotions and causing him to withdraw deep inside himself. Jane had witnessed this sad transformation, but Lachlan always came through for her and her family when called upon. Jane just hoped that his PTSD would remain dormant over the next few days. Lachlan was the only person she had to rely on, and Jane needed his fighting and tracking skills. In addition to these talents, women of all ages found Lachlan irresistible. If Jane could exploit his roguish good looks and quiet charm to save Edwin's life, she would.
"What about your Biltmore manager friend?"
"Julian Douglas." Jane repeated the name for Lachlan's benefit. "He's a former manager. He doesn't have the level of responsibility he once did, but he can access restricted areas of the estate. Mr. Douglas still has the keys to open all those doors closed to the public."
Lachlan glanced out the window. "From what I've read, that's a ton of doors."
Jane lapsed into a reflective silence. Lachlan was right. There were lots of doors. And rooms. And outbuildings. The French-style chateau had 250 rooms and over four acres of floor space. Storyton Hall was an impressive manor house, but Biltmore was colossal in comparison.
One of the things that separated the two estates was money. Biltmore's coffers never seemed to run dry. The gardens and lawns were impeccably manicured, there were multiple inns, shops, and eateries on the grounds, and an army of staff kept everything in tip-top order.
During the past week, Jane and Sinclair, Storyton Hall's head librarian, had read everything they could about Biltmore. They began their research by familiarizing themselves with its construction. They studied blueprints, photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and archived materials referring to the chateau.
Jane felt that she knew George Vanderbilt and his incredible house after reading so much material. However, she was sure there were plenty of details left unwritten concerning Biltmore and its occupants throughout history. She still had much to learn.
"The house features multiple secret passages," Jane had said to Sinclair a few nights ago. "Most of the books state that Vanderbilt requested these because he wanted his rooms to have a seamless look." Jane had pointed at two photos. One showed a door in the billiard room that was noticeable only because it was ajar. Otherwise, it would have been camouflaged by its wood paneling and framed art. The second photo was of a similar door. This one was in the breakfast room. Jane imagined that other doors were better concealed than these and had shared her theory with Sinclair.
"I have no doubt there are more hidden doors, passageways, and rooms than we'll read about in books," Sinclair had said. "There is another resource to consider, Miss Jane."
Jane had met her mentor's kind, intelligent gaze and known what he was implying. He was suggesting she enter Storyton Hall's secret library to search for material on both Vanderbilt and his famous house.
Immediately following this discussion, Jane and Sinclair had taken the staff stairs to the only private apartments in Storyton Hall. After greeting the residents of these apartments, Uncle Aloysius and Aunt Octavia, Jane had entered her great-aunt's closet and removed the tiny key once kept inside a locket around her neck. The key was now hidden in a compartment on the back of her oval wristwatch. Uncle Aloysius did the work himself, astonishing Jane with his cleverness.
"I can be quite handy," he'd said, touching the brim of his ratty old fishing cap. "I've made my entire collection of flies and hooks, you know."
"Your tinkering is most charming, Aloysius," Jane's great-aunt had said. "We all need hobbies. They prevent us from becoming dull."
As Jane had slid the key into the keyhole behind the air vent in her great- aunt's closet, she thought about George Vanderbilt's hobbies. Like the Stewards, he was a devoted reader and collector. His personal library contained over twenty-two thousand books, and he kept a record of all the titles he read. He was also friends with famous authors like Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Jane hadn't wanted to unearth dark secrets about George Vanderbilt — a bibliophile, an art lover, and a conservationist. Luckily, there was nothing nefarious to discover. She and Sinclair had ascended the narrow spiral staircase to the secret library, where they'd searched a document drawer filled with letters. They'd found a single missive written by George Vanderbilt to Uncle Aloysius's father. The letter was congenial and polite — written to an acquaintance, not a close friend. Vanderbilt praised Storyton Hall and its reading rooms and went on to mention the books he'd recently read. He finished by inviting Cyril Steward to visit Biltmore.
"I'm not sure why this letter is here," Jane had said to Sinclair. "It's completely innocuous."
Sinclair had looked pensive. "There must be a reason it was stored here and not with the rest of Mr. Steward's personal papers."
"I'll take a photo with my phone. We can study it later."
Jane and Sinclair had returned to the Henry James Library and resumed their reading on the Vanderbilts and Biltmore.
The blare of a car horn snapped Jane out of her reverie. She checked her rearview mirror and glared at the minivan behind her. It was within inches of her bumper, and she was already driving over the speed limit.
"You okay?" Lachlan asked.
"I just want to get to our hotel," she said.
A green road sign ahead indicated that their journey was nearly over. Jane relaxed her grip on the steering wheel.
Most of the drive had taken them up and down mountain roads. These curving, fog-covered rises and descents were unpredictable. It had been a harrowing trip, and Jane was ready for it to be over.
Lachlan helped her navigate around Asheville. She took the Biltmore exit, and he directed her to Village Lane.
"I still don't understand why we didn't book rooms on the estate grounds," Lachlan said as Jane pulled into a gravel lot facing a four-story Tudor Revival structure made of pale brick.
"I don't want to use Biltmore's Wi-Fi or have Templar eyes on us."
Lachlan grunted in approval. Any remaining doubt dissipated when he realized that the hotel was a series of apartments lacking a front desk or any visible staff.
After checking her text messages for the access codes, Jane opened the outside door. She and Lachlan ascended to the second floor, and Jane used the second code to unlock the apartment door. Inside, there was a living room, a dining area, a full kitchen, and two bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms.
Jane's bedroom overlooked a small patio garden, but she ignored the rain- soaked cafÃ© tables, the lush greenery, and the bubbling fountain. Instead, her eyes traveled to where she knew the chateau sat, perched like a king on a high throne, atop a rise in the distance.
"I'm coming, Edwin," she whispered.
* * *
Though Jane had been to Biltmore as a young girl, the sight of the magnificent building still took her breath away.
Lachlan was also gazing over the main lawn toward the house. He frowned and said, "It'll be a challenge to find a human needle in that massive haystack."
"Ernest Hemingway warned that we should never confuse movement with action. We don't have time to waste moving around the estate without purpose."
Jane took out her phone and reread the text message Julian Douglas had sent ten minutes ago. "Mr. Douglas promised us a behind-the-scenes tour. Now is when your interest in roof pitches and drainage comes into play. You get to the attic, and I'll work on the basements."
After handing their tickets to a Biltmore employee stationed at the front doors, Jane and Lachlan entered the house along with dozens of tourists.
It had been years since Jane had last seen Julian Douglas, but there was no mistaking the round-cheeked, round-bellied gentleman with the silver hair standing in the Winter Garden Room. Julian watched the passersby with friendly interest, but when he saw Jane, his mouth curved into a broad smile.
"Ms. Steward! It's an honor to have you grace these halls." He pumped her hand enthusiastically. "I understand you're interested in a peek behind the scenes."
After introducing Lachlan, Jane said, "That would be lovely. It'll be fascinating to compare notes between Biltmore and Storyton Hall. We have secret passages and rooms, though not as many as this house, I'm sure."
"Those hidden doors and corridors never fail to intrigue," Julian said. "I can't tell you how many guests have ducked under our velvet ropes or dashed through closed doors clearly marked with STAFF ONLY signs to search for a secret hideaway they read about in a book or on the Internet, which can be as wildly fantastical as any novel."
"Personally, I like the informal spaces," Jane said. "The butler's pantries, laundry rooms, root cellars. These places aren't pretty, but they hold so much energy. I can imagine teams of servants bustling around the kitchen, hanging sheets up to dry, or rushing to answer a bell."
Julian beamed at her. "I also enjoy the inner workings of large houses. What about you, Mr. Lachlan?"
Lachlan pretended to hedge. It was only after Julian assured him that another guide could be called should his interests depart from Jane's that Lachlan said that he'd like to visit Biltmore's tallest points.
"Ah, a man who wants to conspire with the grotesques!" Julian exclaimed cheerfully and pulled a small walkie-talkie from the breast pocket of his suit coat.
He called for another tour guide, and a slender man with a ginger-colored beard arrived a few minutes later. After introducing himself to Lachlan, the two men ascended the stairs.
Julian's private tour took Jane through Vanderbilt's library, den, and the tapestry room. As they began their descent to the basement, Jane asked questions about the arrangement of the lower rooms. Julian supplied her with many facts and figures, but since he steered clear of rumor and supposition, it was impossible to ferret out Biltmore's best-kept secrets.
Of course, Julian might be unaware of a Templar presence. The secret society hardly advertised itself, and its members wouldn't betray themselves to anyone. In light of this, Jane tried to use her own powers of observation to search for clues. She had to keep reminding herself that she wasn't a tourist. She was the manager of Storyton Hall, a single mother of two, and Guardian of the secret library and its treasures. Her role as Edwin Alcott's lover had been last on her list. Until now. Now, Jane was putting the other parts of her life on hold until she found Edwin.
Julian showed her the kitchens, the laundry and drying rooms, the vegetable pantry, and the servants' bedrooms. As he led Jane down to the sub-basement, she wondered what the house had been like without guests — back when George Vanderbilt was a bachelor. Had he wandered through his empty rooms, wishing for more intimate company than his books could provide? Or had he built his home in the middle of nowhere because he craved solitude? Or was it secrecy he wanted?
Again, Jane wondered if there was a connection between Vanderbilt's love of books and his zeal to acquire fine and rare objects that indicated a link to the Templars. If not the Templars, perhaps he was affiliated with another secret society. Jane believed Vanderbilt had been a good man, but people were multifaceted, and she knew there was far more to George Washington Vanderbilt than what appeared in books.
She suddenly realized that Julian had spoken and was waiting for her to respond.
Jane realized they were in The Dynamo Room. She said, "I read about this machine in a book called Seraphina and the Black Cloak."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder In The Rending Room"
Copyright © 2019 Ellery Adams.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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