Annie Honeycut is one of the country’s most daring freelance photographers, known for her willingness to risk anything for the perfect shot. Working on an assignment about a mysterious house outside Denver, the site of a string of grisly murders a century ago, Annie needs just one more picture to make it perfect: a shot of the murder room, for which she must scale the wall of the creaky old Victorian. She gets the picture, but it will be her last. Annie is found the next morning on the house’s lawn, dead with a broken neck.
After Annie’s funeral, her sister inherits the camera. As cautious and sensible as Annie was wild, Nora is nevertheless intrigued by Annie’s final picture, which shows a seemingly human shape in the corner of the room. To solve the mystery of her sister’s final moments, Nora digs into the forgotten killing spree, and a house with secrets just as dangerous today as they were a century ago.
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About the Author
Lomax would star in four more novels, including Blood Stone (1988), The Dead of Winter (1989), and Grave Doubt (1995). In the early 1990s, Allegretto began writing standalone novels, including the Christmas suspense story Night of Reunion (1990) and the fast-paced family thriller The Watchmen (1991).
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Allegretto
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Michael Allegretto
All rights reserved.
Annie Honeycut blew into her hands and rubbed them together. The midnight air was colder than she expected. It had been months since she had been in the mountains at night, and she had forgotten how chilly it could get, even after a warm day. She zipped up her jacket, looped the camera strap over her shoulder, then shoved her hands in her jeans pockets.
Her car looked abandoned, parked alone before the inn. She briefly considered driving—it was at least a mile to her destination, a cold, dark mile. But she had already been thrown off the mansion's grounds twice that day, and her old yellow Mustang stood out like a warning sign.
So she hunched her shoulders and walked past her car, heading through the shadows toward the west end of town.
The sky was clear, filled with icy stars. A gibbous moon had just cleared the mountaintop to her left, adding to the pale illumination from the street lamps. There was no movement in the street or the shadowy yards. Tiny, tidy Victorian houses stood mutely behind their wrought-iron fences, staring at Annie with shaded windows. The only sound, save for the scuffle of her rubber soles on the uneven walk, was the occasional faint growl of a semitruck climbing the highway, far up the mountainside to her right.
Cold air began to work its way through her jacket, making her quicken her pace.
By the time she reached Main Street she was shivering. Her fingers and toes ached from the cold. She hurried across the wide, empty street, feeling exposed and vulnerable. Alpine Street tilted upward before her, lit by the moon.
She trudged up the hill toward the Owen mansion.
Only the upper story of the great house was visible, pale and insubstantial, rising like a specter behind the solid black hedge. The cupola capped the house like a head. It stared down at her with dark window-eyes.
Annie hesitated at the gateway in the hedge, shivering. She fought off a sense of dread, then passed through.
Moonlight painted the grounds white and black, smearing shadows from every tree and bush. The house was silent and still. The front porch yawned like a giant black maw. Annie half expected to see Karl the handyman emerge from it, pallid and stiff-legged as a corpse.
Moving away from the porch, she walked around to the side of the house, stepping only on the moonlit grass, avoiding the pitch-black shadows as carefully as if they were mine shafts. Now she stood at the base of the trellis, thick with vegetation. Her gaze followed it up to the roofline. It looked higher than it had during the day—impossibly high. And the distance from the top of the trellis to the cupola window, a modest-looking reach this afternoon, now appeared vast. There was something about the house that seemed more dangerous than any rock face she had ever ascended.
She began to have second thoughts.
Why climb up there and risk breaking her neck? She already had enough pictures of the house to fulfill her contract. What could possibly be gained? A shot inside the cupola, that's all, which as far as she knew had nothing to do with the long-ago murders in the house. A picture of a room. Terrific. And maybe not even that—the film in her camera was very sensitive, but it required some light. And a flash would be useless, merely reflected back by the window glass.
She fixed her gaze on the distant painted windows. From where she stood, they looked perfectly blank. But earlier that day she had studied them through a telephoto lens and found peepholes scratched in the paint. More, she had seen movement behind the holes. Someone was in the cupola.
Chills raced through her body like startled mice. She could sense someone up there now, watching her. Waiting for her.
Stop it, she told herself.
She refused to run away scared. If someone was up there—asleep—so much the better. She wanted an interior shot, and even a poorly lit picture of someone in bed, or even an empty bed, would be better than nothing at all.
Come on, do it. Ten more minutes, that's all it will take.
She pushed through the bushes to the trellis. Then she looped the camera strap over her head so that it crossed her chest like a bandolier. She started to climb, blindly working her hands and feet through the vegetation, seeking purchase on the wire trellis. The vines felt cold and alien to her touch. Leaves rustled about her, living things, pawing her face, clutching her clothing. For one horrifying moment she imagined them moving beneath her like serpents, and she nearly let go.
By the time she had climbed above the first-floor windows, she was in pain. The openings in the wire trellis were narrower than her feet, forcing her to rest her weight on her toes, causing cramps in the arches of her feet and her calf muscles. Her hands ached, and the cold wire bit painfully into her fingers.
She climbed on.
When she glanced to her right, she could see the town beyond the bordering hedge, a patchwork of pale light and shadow under the misshapen moon.
She continued to climb, finally pulling herself level with the second-story windows. Then she glanced down—a mistake. The ground seemed impossibly far below, as if she were peering into an abyss. Vertigo nearly overwhelmed her. She had climbed rock faces much higher than this. What was wrong with her? She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to ignore the height. And the pain. The fiery cramps that had begun in her fingers and toes now spread along her arms and legs.
Part of her mind screamed, Don't be so damn stupid what the hell is the matter with you go back down.
She climbed upward.
At last she reached the roofline.
She raised her head above the top of the trellis and breathed in cold night air, feeling as if she had just surfaced from deep under water. The roof was pitched steeply above her, much too steep to climb. To her left was the cupola, a squat, four-sided tower. The edge of its south-facing window was an arm's length away.
She held the trellis with one hand, then lifted the camera to free the strap from her shoulder. The camera slipped. She grabbed it awkwardly, accidentally hitting the shutter release.
The shutter's click was as loud as a gunshot, loud enough to wake everyone in the house, everyone on the adjacent street, everyone in town.
She froze, like a convict caught going over the wall. She held her breath and waited for lights and sirens. But the house remained dark and silent.
She got a grip on the camera, then leaned to her left, away from the trellis, terribly aware of the void below. At first she couldn't find the peephole. She leaned out farther, stretching until her face was near the window. And there it was—a silver-dollar-size opening scratched in the paint, so near the edge that it had been hidden by the window frame.
She leaned as far as she could, straining her right arm from fingers to shoulder, gripping the trellis with her fingertips and toes. Now she could peer in through the hole.
The interior of the cupola was a small, square room. It was barren, eerily lit by a spear of moonlight. There were four windows, one in each wall, but no door. In the center of the floor was a rectangular hole that gaped as black as a pit. And as Annie watched, trying to ignore the flames of pain in her arms and legs, something began to emerge from the hole.
It rose from the opening, as if the house were spewing forth a gigantic larva. The thing was enormous and rounded and white. It turned toward Annie, a pale naked creature, twisted and grotesque. It stared at her with an eye the size of a hen's egg.
Annie screamed and jerked away, dropping her camera, losing her foothold.
She grabbed wildly at the trellis, snatching leaves, snapping vines, sliding, falling, dragging vines with her, fingers desperately clawing at the vegetation, seeking the wire trellis beneath. She half slid, half crashed down the side of the house until her foot caught in the wire, jolting her to a brief stop, instant relief, then immediate terror as her feeble handhold was broken and her body angled outward, pivoting away from the trellis, pulling her foot free from the wire. She fell to the lawn.
She landed on her back, slamming the breath from her lungs.
There was no pain. Only terror. That thing in the cupola was clambering down the stairs right now, scrambling for the front door, coming to get her.
She rolled onto her side, gasping for air, and instinctively reached for the camera. Gone. Now she remembered dropping it. Probably in the bushes.
Forget the camera. Run!
She rose to her hands and knees, fighting to regain her breath. Fear clawed at her. She had to get away. She had to tell people what was in the cupola, tell anyone who'd listen, tell everyone. But mostly she had to get away.
She staggered to her feet, praying that her legs could carry her across the grounds and through the gateway in the hedge. If she could make it out to the street, then ...
Suddenly, she heard the thing behind her, moving swiftly through the shadows.
She turned to face it, strangling on a scream.CHAPTER 2
Nora honeycut woke up Saturday morning feeling that something was wrong. She rose quickly, disturbing her two cats, curled up at the foot of her bed. Wearing only her nightgown she padded barefoot through the small house, looking for the problem. But everything seemed in order. No doors or windows open. Oven off and furnace on. No flood of rusty water from the aging water heater. Still, the feeling persisted.
She knelt on the small rose-colored sofa and parted the front drapes with the back of her hand. Her two-year-old Volkswagen Rabbit was still at the curb where she had parked it last night after work. Not that she really expected it to be missing—auto theft was rare in Cedar Falls. But something sure felt wrong. And if it wasn't the cats or the house or the car, then what?
A bad dream, she thought and shrugged it off.
She started the coffee, then let out the cats, who had finally strolled into the kitchen.
As usual, Gypsy went out eagerly. She was a large gray short-hair who had wandered into the yard last year and hadn't yet decided to move on. Although Nora had no idea where Gypsy spent her days, she knew the big cat would return this evening.
Henry, on the other hand, took his time creeping out—sniffing Nora's shoe, sniffing the doorstep, sniffing the air, and finally hustling out onto the back porch. She had gotten him years ago as a kitten, and he liked the comforts of home. He'd be scratching on the door in ten minutes, she knew, and he'd spend the rest of the day inside.
Nora took a quick shower, then toweled off in front of the mirror, leaning forward like a scout on the lookout for the enemies: wrinkles and gray hairs. She had a few of the former (laugh lines, she told herself), and as yet none of the latter. But as she pulled a brush through her neck-length black hair, she knew it was only a matter of time before the black would be streaked with gray. Not that thirty-six was over the hill.
It's not exactly adolescence, either, kiddo.
She examined herself in the mirror. Her stomach was still flat, her breasts were firm, and her thighs had not yet decided to take over the rest of her body. Of course, for the past few years, she had spent her lunch hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays dancing up a sweat at a health club. Hey, a girl needs all the help she can get.
Nora put on pantyhose, a muted green skirt, an off-white blouse, a green-and-brown sweater, and soft, brown leather shoes with rubber soles—her work clothes.
After she let Henry in she filled four small bowls with food and water, two for Henry on the kitchen floor, and two for Gypsy outside on the back porch, just as she did every day. Then she fixed her usual breakfast—juice, cereal and milk, toast and coffee.
She slipped on a coat and locked the door on her way out.
It was a chilly, bright morning, the last Saturday in September. The giant maples and oaks that flanked the front walk were changing, showing off red and yellow and brown. A car drove by and honked, a neighbor from down the street. Nora waved.
She unlatched the gate and stepped through. There was no fence, merely a waist-high chain-link gate supported by a pair of metal posts that spanned the walk. The gate had been in place when she bought the house four years ago. As far as she knew, there had never been a fence. But she had left the gate standing—first as a joke, then as a conversation piece, and finally as tradition. Or maybe superstition. She never walked around it.
The drive to work was spectacular. Mature trees overhung the residential streets with brilliant displays of yellow and red. Flower beds and planters were bright with colors, and the lawns made a crisp green background.
Nora parked in the small lot beside Sunshine Florists and unlocked the heavy glass door. Entering the shop felt like pulling on an old, comfortable coat. She left the CLOSED sign turned out, but the door unlocked. The shop didn't officially open for another half hour, but if any customers wandered in this early, she wasn't about to turn them away.
The first things she checked were the glass-fronted coolers, one on either side of the shop. Temperature and humidity were both okay, and all the stock looked and smelled fresh.
In the back room she noticed a stack of mail on the work table. It had been delivered late yesterday, and she had been too busy to bother with it. She sorted through it now, mostly bills and advertisements. There were three envelopes, though, that looked as if they might contain checks, and she opened these first. She had a number of high-volume regular customers, churches and funeral parlors, to whom she extended a line of credit. Gratefully, they usually paid on time.
Nora smiled and thought, My bosses.
She remembered how she had felt when she first purchased the shop six years ago, that finally she'd be running a business her way and not taking orders from anyone. But, in effect, she now took orders from hundreds of bosses, her customers, each one telling her what to do, demanding to be pleased, and usually but not always paying her promptly. Still, the sense of accomplishment, of being in business for herself, made any hassles connected with it seem minor.
In a way, she had her ex-husband to thank for it. If he hadn't been such a bastard, she'd probably still be married to him, still working as an accountant.
She had graduated from Iowa State University with a master's degree in accounting and a B.S. in business administration, and she took the first job offered to her—junior member of an accounting firm in Des Moines. A year later she married Zachary Holt, her supervisor.
She knew going in that it was chancy to marry someone you worked with, let alone someone you worked for. But she was prepared to deal with that. What she hadn't counted on was his being an alcoholic.
After three years of drunken rages and physical abuse, she left him and moved back to Cedar Falls. The day after her divorce was final she changed her name from Holt back to Honeycut.
Jobs were scarce in Cedar Falls, but she felt comfortable there. Safe. Her parents were supportive of her and glad (despite the circumstances) that she had moved home. She was the only one of their three children available to them, so to speak. Annie was away at college in Colorado. And Robert was dead.
Nora found work as a bookkeeper in a nursery, and she began to learn the flower business.
She rarely dated. Not that she wasn't asked out. But Zachary Holt had put her off men. That is, getting involved with men. It would take time to get over her "three years in hell," as she came to think of her failed marriage.
After two years with the nursery, she found out about a small flower shop for sale. The married couple that owned the place were in their late sixties and ready to retire. In fact, in recent years, they had slacked off and let their business dwindle. Still, Nora saw potential. She had been considering going into business for herself, possibly as an accountant, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity. She obtained a small business loan—plus a modest loan from her parents—and she became the proud owner of Sunshine Florists.
Excerpted from Shadow House by Michael Allegretto. Copyright © 1994 Michael Allegretto. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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