Between jobs and relationships, Manhattan illustrator Amanda Austin decides it’s finally time to take her grandfather up on his request to visit him in Santa Fe. Near death and anxious to reconnect with his granddaughter, Juan Cordova has summoned her to New Mexico so she can get to know her late mother’s relatives. Amanda hasn’t been back since she was five years old, when her mother died under mysterious circumstances—a tragedy no one has spoken of since.
One thing’s certain: This isn’t going to be a pleasant reunion. In the cold and gloomy Spanish hacienda that guards its secrets like a tomb, Amanda is greeted by all like an unwelcome guest. Only when she investigates on her own does she begin to fear the real reason why she was asked here. It isn’t to explore the past, but to bury it for good. Now Amanda’s life is on the line in this house of flesh-and-blood strangers—because one of them is a killer.
The Turquoise Mask is a chilling tale of suspense from the Edgar Award–winning author the New York Times called “the queen of the American gothics.”
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Phyllis A. Whitney including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Whitney resided in several places, including New Jersey. She traveled to every location mentioned in her books in order to better depict the settings of her stories. She earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award in 1988, the Agatha in 1990, and the lifetime achievement award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1995. Whitney was working on her autobiography at the time of her passing at the age of 104.
Read an Excerpt
I had set my "arguments" out carefully on my drawing table. Every item was significant and to be considered soberly if I was to make a right decision. To act meant stepping into something completely unknown and facing what I had been warned against, while not to act meant continued loneliness and the frustration of never knowing the truth.
Across the street from my third-story window, New York brownstone fronts shone with a bronze gleam in the spring sunlight, and East Side cross traffic was heavy. I wouldn't miss New York. There was too much that was painful here. But New Mexico was foreign to me and it held a possible threat.
A little way off in the room my telephone waited mutely on an end table, and I knew that it could either reproach me forever or hurl me into action and doubtful adventure. As always, my instinct prompted me to the bold stroke, but I was trying to use the caution my father had always urged upon me. Too much spirit was as bad as no spirit at all, he used to say, and I was too ready to be headstrong. Now I would try to think before leaping.
But I had to decide.
There they lay, side by side — the objects that would help me in my dilemma. There was the small, carved wooden road runner. The silver-framed miniature painting of a woman's face. The advertising brochure that carried illustrations by me — Amanda Austin. The snapshot taken twenty years ago, showing my father and mother and me when I was not quite five. A glossy page torn from a fashion magazine. My father's pipe with the crust of its last smoking still black in the bowl. The bracelet Johnny had given me — gold, set with sapphires, my birthstone. A slave bracelet, he had called it once, teasing me as he admired it on my wrist. That was why I'd placed it here — as a reminder of something I must never again forget.
Last of all were the two letters from Santa Fe, where I was born and which I had left shortly after that snapshot was taken — after my mother's death, when my father had brought me East to grow up in his sister Beatrice's house in a small New Hampshire town. I could return to her any time I wished. Aunt Beatrice would welcome me with stern kindness and no sentimental nonsense. She had never approved of my mother or her family. She had never accepted that one quarter of me that was Spanish-American, and she might very well wash her hands of me if I went to New Mexico. It wouldn't matter a great deal. She had never been what I thought of as "family." I suppose I had some romantic notion, gleaned from childhood reading, of boisterous, all-for-one, and one-for-all families. That was the experience I had never had.
I picked up the pipe with the blackened bowl and held it in my fingers as though I held my father's hand. I had not wanted for loving there. But he was gone — recently, suddenly. We had been happy together in this apartment. His work as an engineer often took him away for weeks at a time, but we were always glad to be together when he returned — companionable and content with each other, as far as we were able, and in spite of our different temperaments. He had lost my mother long ago, and I had lost Johnny because Johnny had walked away no more than a year ago. Now my father was gone too and the apartment was empty. My life was frighteningly empty. There were friends, of course, but now, suddenly, friends weren't enough.
I had to fill my life with something new, with something that would belong to me, in spite of all the warnings that had been given me.
My father, William Austin, had been a kindly, gentle man, though he had a good deal of New England stubbornness in him. Only once had I seen him furiously angry. One summer when I was ten years old I had gone rummaging in an old trunk and I'd found the very miniature which now lay on my drawing table. The bright, smiling face of the girl in the painting fascinated me. I could not miss the resemblance to my own face, and I took it at once to my father to ask who she was.
Never had I seen him so angry as when he'd snatched the small picture from me.
"That was a woman I once knew," he told me. "She was worthless — wicked! She is nothing to you and you are not to go snooping among my things!"
His unfamiliar anger frightened me, but it also raised a response of indignation and I stood up to him.
"She's my mother, isn't she?" I cried. "Oh, why won't you tell me about her? I want to know!"
He set the picture aside and held me so tightly by the shoulders that his hands hurt me. "You look like her, Amanda, and that's something I can do nothing about. But you're not going to be like her if I can help it. Not ever!"
His hurting hands raised my own anger and I sobbed with rage. "I will be like her! I will be like her if I want to!"
He shook me then until the angry sobs choked in my throat and I looked at him with terrified eyes. When he saw how he had frightened me, he turned away, and I will never forget the strange words he muttered: "That dwarf! That damnable dwarf!"
The words had no meaning for me then, but I'd known better than to ask questions.
Anger had spent itself in both of us. We drew apart and for a few days we watched one another uncomfortably, until the soreness and the astonishment faded and we could once more turn to each other lovingly.
The miniature vanished and I never saw it again until I had come upon it recently among my father's things. He had called her wicked, but once he must have loved her, and he had never brought himself to destroy the portrait.
Always after that outburst of temper between us he had watched me warily, as if waiting for something to surface. But we'd never raged at each other again, and he went out of his way to be gentle with me. Now I reached across the table to pick up the round, framed miniature. She had been very young, hardly more than a girl, when this was painted. Doroteo, her name had been. I had only to hold the miniature up beside my own face in a mirror to see the resemblance. Not that I was any duplicate of the girl in the painting, for she was a beauty, with dark eyes, a great deal of thick black hair, and a smiling, sensitive mouth. I had the same black hair, and I wore it long in a heavy coil at the back of my head — in secret imitation of the portrait. I had the same eyes, the same sun-tinted skin, but my mouth was wide and my chin less rounded. I was no beauty.
Her face did not seem to me a wicked one. Spirited, yes, with a laughing mischief in the eyes — but not dangerous. I couldn't see her that way. I was spirited too, with a temper that was sometimes hard to control, and a determination that wanted its own way. But these things didn't make me wicked, though I suspected that they came from her.
I had never been able to get my father to talk about her or her family out in Santa Fe. When I wanted to know how she had died, he told me shortly that it was in a fall, and would say nothing more. His very silence told me there was more. From the time when I was very young I had sensed some horror about my mother's death — some devastating truth that he did not want me to know. Now perhaps there would be a way to find out. Though the question was, how wise would it be for me to know?
I wondered if my grandfather had painted the miniature, for I knew at least that he had been something of an artist, and that he had done some carving in wood. I set my mother's picture down and picked up the small, humorous carving of a road runner.
The bird stood upon a diamond-shaped block of wood, perhaps three inches long from its bill to its feathered tail. It was executed with a minimum of detail — merely shaped, with a forked tail and arrowed lines here and there which gave the effect of feathers. Tiny indentations marked its small round eyes and nostrils, a slashed line indicated the opening of the beak. Yet so skillful were these touches that the humorous whole was magically suggested. The figure had been carved of some clean white wood, but I had played with it as a child until it was smudged with gray, rubbed in with grime. I'd loved it dearly. It was a toy I used to take to bed with me at night — not soft and cuddly, but still somehow comforting.
I turned it over, knowing what I would find etched into the base of the under side. Juan Cordova, the scratched-in letters read. Once when I was eight, I had asked my father who the Juan Cordova was who had carved the road runner. I think he hadn't wanted to answer me, but we were honest with one another in most ways, and he finally told me. Juan Cordova was my grandfather in Santa Fe. He had given me the little carving when I was very small.
After that, my father had sometimes spoken of Juan Cordova, and his disliking had been intense. He was a tyrannical man who had ruined every human relationship he had touched, my father told me, and I was never to go near him for any reason. This of course made me more curious than ever.
The carving led me to the next in my collection of "arguments" — that dog-eared page torn from a magazine. I'd come across it when I was cutting out paper dolls one day when I was ten. The name at the top of the ad that ran down the entire page had arrested my attention. CORDOVA, it announced in great block letters, and I had read every word of the ad eagerly.
CORDOVA was a shop in Santa Fe. It was one of the fine shops of the world, and it was owned and run by Juan Cordova. The ad spoke of his being an artist and craftsman himself, and a collector of fine articles, not only of Indian work, but of treasures from Spain and Mexico and the South American countries. There was a photograph of a portion of the shop's windows and I had looked at it many times and tried to examine in detail the carvings and ceramics and silver displayed in that window. To me, the ad said, "Come to Santa Fe." All through my childhood I had made up fantasies based on that ad and the fact that Juan Cordova was my grandfather. There was nothing frightening about it, as there was about the picture of my mother.
What else was left?
The snapshot — not very clear — of three people, with a low adobe house in the background. A man, a woman, and a child. The man was my father when he was young. The woman, my mother, wore her black hair wild at shoulder length and her face smiled gaily from the picture. With one hand she touched the shoulder of the child I had been. Whenever I looked at the small picture, it was as if something pulled at me — as if I could somehow step backward in time and recapture what it had been like to be nearly five and have both a father and a mother, a grandfather, and perhaps other relatives. But I could remember nothing of that time at all.
The letters were left, the bracelet, the brochure, and one other thing that was not tangible. I chose my grandfather's letter first and read it through once more, although I already knew it by heart.
It has recently been brought to my attention that William Austin is dead. Come to see me. I want to meet Doroteo's daughter. They tell me that I have not long to live, so it must be soon. You can take a plane to Albuquerque, where your cousin, Eleanor Brand, will meet you and drive you to Santa Fe. Wire me your flight number and the time. I await your response.
There was something imperious about the letter. It issued commands, rather than made a request. Still, a dying man might feel he had no time for pleading, and it meant something to me that he wanted to see his granddaughter. I would have to act soon, or be too late. My father had not liked or approved of him, and he had felt that Juan Cordova had damaged my mother. He had never wanted me to see any of that side of my family. Was I to heed him?
The second letter was from a grandmother whose name I had never known until I'd found her letter hidden away in my father's desk in a sealed envelope. It was dated three years ago, but he had never told me of its coming. My eyes followed the strong script down the page.
I am very ill and I want to see my granddaughter before I die. Besides, there is much we should talk about. You have misjudged Doroteo cruelly, and that is something which should be mended. Please come to see me.
But William Austin, for all his kindness, his gentleness, had a stiff New England spine. He had not gone to see her, and I'd lost that chance to meet my grandmother. I had no idea whether she was still alive, but I thought not, since my grandfather had not mentioned her in his letter. Even more than I wanted a family of my own, I wanted to know the truth about my mother and why my father had "misjudged" her. Now, like his wife, Katy, Juan Cordova had written me near the end of his life, and I felt that this time the request could not be ignored. Still I held back, doubting myself.
What must I do? How must I choose?
I picked up the brochure I'd illustrated and flipped through its pages, considering. This was the way I earned my living. As a free lance I was moderately successful and I illustrated ad copy of all sorts, but what I wanted to be was a serious painter. My father had always encouraged me, given me something special in the way of independence, of reliance on myself. He had encouraged me to develop my talent and had sent me to art school. Painting was as much a part of me as my very hands. I had a certain talent, but I wanted to do something more with it, and that was the quality in me which Johnny Hall had never understood.
This brought me to the bracelet. I slipped it over my wrist and let the sapphires shine in the reflection from the nearest window. When he had gone away, I'd tried to give the bracelet back to him, but he had dismissed the idea lightly.
"Keep it," he'd insisted. "Keep it to remind you of what you're doing to your life."
Johnny had seemed such a safe love in the beginning. He was gay, lightheartedly adventurous, breezily dominating. He was absorbed in Johnny Hall, and since I was absorbed in him too, everything was lovely. Yet falling in love had not happened suddenly in that dangerous way my father had warned me against.
"Never let your heart run away with your head," he'd told me in my growing-up years. From the things he said, I gathered that he and my mother must have fallen in love with each other instantly — with that attraction which must be magical when it happens, and at the same time dangerous, because it may not last. I was safe enough. Such attraction had never happened to me. The beginning with Johnny was slow, gradual. We had come to like each other, to enjoy being together, and then had warmed to a closer relationship that promised a happy marriage.
If it had not been for my work and my painting! They were always getting in Johnny's way. I had deadlines to meet that spoiled his plans. It grew so that he did not even want me to take a sketchbook along when he went on outings. He wanted all my attention for himself. It was all right to earn my living with my little drawings, but that wouldn't be necessary after we were married. Then I would never need to pick up a drawing pencil or a paintbrush again, except as a sort of minor amusement.
"But I want to paint!" I told him. "I want my work to be good enough to be recognized."
He laughed and kissed me. "You'll get over all that when you have me to look after. I'll make name enough for both of us, and you can be just as proud of me as you want to be. I'll eat it up!"
By that time I was thoroughly in love, and tried to think in terms of compromise. As a matter of fact, he gave me very little time to think at all. He swept me along on a gay, impulsive, overweaning tide of his own desires and wishes. My father was doubtful and a little sad, but then, he would lose me when I married. I tried to be what Johnny wanted, not talking about my work, hiding it from him.
The breaking point came when a small gallery showing was arranged for some of my work. I'd done a collection of paintings in various neighborhoods of New York, including a Chinatown scene, children playing on a Harlem street, a boy and girl standing in the stern of a Staten Island ferry, watching its wake, with the Manhattan skyline in the background. There were a number of other scenes as well, for I'd enjoyed sketching and painting all around New York, even though Johnny thought it silly.
When the show was actually put on, it shocked me that he should resent it and be jealous of my work. He sneered at a modest review in the Times, which was remarkable to receive at all, and pointed out that Amanda Austin was pretty nearly as unheard of as before.
Excerpted from "The Turquoise Mask"
Copyright © 1974 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A well written story of family secrets and love.
THIS BOOK IS BY FAR ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I HAVE EVER READ! FULL OF EXCITEMENT AND SUSPENCE IT WILL KEEP YOU BUSY FOR HOURS. YOU TRULY CANNOT PUT IT DOWN.