After years in a mental hospital, Harold Page has just been released. Now, he’s looking for closure, hoping to confront those who put him away: his ex-wife’s family. Instead, he’s greeted at the Whitman home by a total stranger. But Edie, an empathetic visiting relative, knows all about Harold.
He’s the unfortunate soul the influential Whitman clan had institutionalized after an alleged assault. He’s the “madman” police are hunting in a recent brutal crime. He’s also an unwitting pawn in a dangerous family plot. Edie is certain of it. And there’s only one way she can protect him: Hide Harold in the unused turret room of the Whitman mansion, only a heartbeat away from those who want to destroy him.
As they collude to turn the tables on the family and unveil every secret and lie behind the Whitmans’ deception, Edie fears the sanctuary she’s given Harold could be the ultimate trap for both of them . . .
“Chilling . . . beautifully calculated . . . with a nicely adjusted sense of exactly when and how to turn the screw.” —The New York Times
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The Turret Room
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1993 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
His feet were lumps of pain. The foot he had once broken ached a little deeper than the other, which put an accent on the rhythm, LEFT right LEFT right, but there was not enough difference to make him limp. In fact, he was striding along pretty good, pretty good, but he knew that he had better not break his stride or he might not get going again. His head was light. He fancied that he was riding on a wheel. Well, it had been too much, it had been too far, it had been a stupid thing to do, to walk all the way, but he could not stop, now.
The last time he had stopped, when was that, about four miles ago, the other edge of town, to put on his clean white orderly's coat in the gas station, to shave, to wash his face and hands, to comb his hair, he had been tempted to take a bus, but he had known, even then, that he could get himself going about once more, and that would be all. And no bus came nearer than half a mile to the big house on the knoll.
He guessed it was afternoon, the third day he had been walking. The first day had been so fine. On the morning of the second day, he had been pretty stiff, pretty sore, but he'd walked that off and been pleased with himself. This day had been bad, all the way. Psyche and soma, he thought. I'm trying to fool myself into aches and pains, because some of me wants to give up. I'm getting there. And I'm getting scared.
It was a nice street he was on. He had always thought so. It was the older part of the little town. There were big trees. All the houses were big houses. Nobody walked. There were no children playing in the yards. There must be children, he thought, but each child has his own little paradise around at the back. If there are any children ...
He was getting there, but his heart was too tired to beat any faster when he turned in at the drive where the old iron gates stood open, as they always had, as he remembered. He dared not stop, but just as he made the turn he lifted his right arm and sent the little canvas carrying-bag sailing into the juniper bushes.
He had his pride. He had walked some seventy-odd miles in two days and a little more than half a day, LEFT right LEFT right, all the way, and he was going to make it, but he would not even seem to suggest that he stay. He was hot and he was very tired, but he had washed, and put on the only clean garment that he had. He would do now what he had to do, partly because he was afraid to do it, and then he would take the bus back up North, and begin the new life.
There it was, the house with the tower. It wasn't much of a tower. It was too low, nothing but a rounded turret, half embedded, half protruding, but it had the little slitty windows that you see in pictures of castles. The tower was stone, and the house was stucco, gray, the color of stone. But the roof was red tile and the ground floor went slopping over the ground horizontally, with shutters on the windows. The main part had been built (he seemed to know) by Wendy's great-grandfather and the wing at the right added on by her grandfather. One of them, probably the first one, had planted the tree.
It was a rubber tree, or some such thing, and it had sure grown, he thought. Sure grown. It stood smack in the middle of the big arched window at the front of the house, and it spread, it snubbed against the tower, it spread its upper limbs over the tower, it had shed huge leathery leaves on the tiles, on the ground, all around. So it stood, like a huge plume, an outburst of natural laughter, ignoring the façade of the house.
Harold Page put his leaden feet down, one after the other, until he came up to the big wooden door with its ornate iron hinges. He lifted his leaden arm and his wooden finger found the bell.
Before he had to ring again, the big door was opened by a girl and she wasn't Wendy. She wasn't anyone he had ever seen before. She didn't look as if she belonged here. She was a pretty girl, about twenty-four or twenty-five, he thought, and she was wearing black capris, neat and tight but not too tight, and a pale pink tailored blouse. Her hair was a pale yellow, smooth, and drawn back, held by a pale pink band, and her gray eyes immediately winced with alarm.
"You're ... not from the hospital!" she said to him.
He could hardly lift his tongue. He could hardly think. He was feeling a bitter disappointment. He was thinking, They don't live here anymore. His voice came out in tired gasps. "That's right. The Whitmans? They ... live here?"
The girl said, "Well, of course. Yes. What is it?" Her neat flat black slippers took a step backward upon the dark brown tile, and Harold stumbled forward. The cool and faintly stale air of the house hit him; he almost fell.
"Walked ... all the way," he mumbled. "So hot ... Excuse me."
The girl said, "You'd better come in. It's always cool in here."
I know, he thought. I know. She seemed to shepherd him across the narrow foyer to the arch and the two steps down into the big room that was just exactly as he had remembered it. He slid his feet cautiously on the slippery tile steps, until they hit the carpet, and there he stood. The ceiling was still very high, the walls still looked like yellow stone, the velvets on the big chairs were the same, some gold, some a faded rose. And the turret wall still invaded the room's huge rectangle, with the stairs still winding up around its gentle curve. The floor of this room was below the level of the ground outside the huge window, and there was the tree, seen from within, overpowering, its great bare trunk rising from a knot of gnarled roots, its leaves pushing at the upper window within the peak of the Spanish arch of the glass, shutting the house away from the sky and turning its ancient, expensive austerity in upon itself.
It was very cool in here.
But now this modern-looking girl said urgently, "Did anything happen?" Just as he had brought himself to ask, "Is Mr. Whitman here?"
He couldn't talk over her, he hadn't the energy. In fact, he wasn't sure how much longer he could even stand. But she let him speak.
"Or Mrs. Whitman? Or old Mrs. Whitman?" Any of them, he was thinking, but I had better not ask for Wendy.
"Well, none of them are here just now," she said, in a different voice, a careful voice. "I'm Edith Thompson. I'm a kind of poor relation. Hey, you'd better sit down."
He guessed he had better, before he fell down, so he staggered as far as the first big chair and fell into it. Now his back was to the window and the tree. The girl came, treading lightly and softly, moving with easy grace, around him and the chair, to face him.
"Excuse me," he apologized. "My legs just don't ... want to hold me up." The light was falling coolly and steadily upon her and he thought he could guess something. "You must be related to Mrs. Whitman. Myra, I mean." His voice sounded draggy and dreary. He was glad of this respite, though. She would let him wait, and by the time anybody came, he would be feeling much better.
But the girl said, crinkling up her eyes so that her small straight nose seemed to sharpen with suspicion, "Why do you say that?"
"You have the same color hair. I thought ... maybe ... You look a little bit like her ..." He was rambling.
The girl took her breath in, and smiled. "Do I?" she said in a friendly fashion. "No, I'm related to old Mrs. Whitman." She sat down on the ottoman.
"Granny?" he muttered. He couldn't pay attention. He was beginning to drift. The deadness of the air, the softness of the chair, this hiatus between the end of the journey and its objective.... He had better pull himself together. So he said, as briskly as he could, "Excuse me. It's not very polite to fall apart like this. But it sure was a long long walk and today was the worst. Turned so hot. Will they be back soon? Please?"
The girl just looked at him. He seemed to be able to see her mind turning around to remember the first words she had said to him. "From the hospital!" she exclaimed. "You don't mean you've walked all the way from that hospital? You are Harold Page, aren't you?"
"Didn't I say? I'm sorry." (Surely, he had said.) "I don't know what's the matter with me," he continued truthfully.
"Would you like a glass of water?" She was half up; her whole impulse was to be kind.
"Oh, I sure would," he sighed, "if it's not ... too much ... trouble ..." His lips were feeling thick, now, and his mouth very dry. He heard her say something about Mrs. Beck lying down, she would get it, he must rest a minute, and he mumbled something. Then she was gone and he was all alone, and he shivered.
Almost two years since he had been here. Very bad years. Or very good, who could say? He had learned a lot. He was twenty-one years old, now—not such a boy, not such an ignorant innocent. He was right to have come, although he shouldn't have walked. He hadn't arrived in very good condition. But he was here and he would wait. Harold bent over and with exquisite pleasure, took his shoes off. He leaned back deep into the chair and closed his dry and stinging eyelids. In a little while, surely, the coolness would get through the skin, where it was making him shiver, and in toward his bones.
She didn't make any noise, returning, but he felt her presence, opened his eyes and struggled more erect to take the glass, and the paper napkin upon which she was holding it, into both his hands. He drank thirstily and thanked her with all his heart.
She smiled, just a trifle falsely, and sat down on the ottoman again. Her eyes seemed solemn, and he had revived enough to feel a little awkward with a stranger. He put the glass on the table and played with the paper napkin. It was white, with a name printed in a mahogany brown script across one corner. The Whitmans. "I used to be so impressed, you know," he said shyly. "Just think, people who had their name printed on their paper napkins."
She said, with faint impatience, "Everybody does. Tell me, why did you walk? You said, all the way? But that must be about seventy-five miles!"
"Not counting up and down, either." He smiled at her. "Oh, I was kind of lured into it, I guess. I started out, walking to the bus. But it was so great, you know, walking and looking around. I thought, why should I settle for a stinky bus? I had it in my mind to hitchhike, maybe. By the time, I was out on the highway I found out that's not so easy anymore. Anyhow, I got to thinking, they might ask me where I'd come from.... Maybe they'd be scared."
He hadn't really tried to hitch a ride. Walking was a wonderful way to get to thinking, alone and free.
"You were released from there on Monday?" the girl was saying, in her brisk tone.
He hesitated. He really was too tired to explain the whole thing. "Well ... I didn't start walking until Tuesday morning," he told her. "I have a room in the town. School doesn't start for a while yet. I wanted to find out ... Maybe you can tell me. Where is the baby?"
He didn't know whether he was a coward or not, to ask her. She wasn't answering. Her eyes opened very wide and she looked perfectly astonished. "But don't you know!"
How would I know? he thought. Who would tell me? And why don't you know that I wouldn't know? Don't you know that I was cast out and thrown away? But he spoke patiently. "I've written letters. Nobody answered. I said that I was leaving the hospital, on Monday. I was afraid they might have moved away."
"Didn't Myra tell you?" the girl said, with strange urgency. She was watching him, most intently.
"Do you mean she wrote to me?" He couldn't understand the question. "I didn't get any letters," he explained. The girl frowned, and he went on, still patient. "I've got no folks and my buddies aren't the writing kind. All I had were a couple of legal notices. One, that the divorce was final. I guess that gave me the nerve ..." His voice was going dreary again. He thought he knew what the trouble was. "You can tell me," he said gently, "if the baby died."
The girl sat straight with a jolt. "Oh, no, no, no! He's all right. Oh, I'm sorry. I was thinking of something else. He's in a special school, that's all. The Patterson School for deaf children. It's about forty miles north of here on the coast road—"
"I know where that is," he cut in joyously. "I see. That's good."
"You did know that he was born deaf?" The girl's voice was careful. It promised kindness, but not too much kindness. She was paying attention, that was the thing. She was really listening.
"Oh, yes. Oh, yes. They let me hold him, once." He could remember the feel of the little soft light body. "I was the one who noticed. It's a thing about the formation of the ear. My father had it and my brother, who died. But not Mom or me. I told Wendy about the risk, but she said she didn't care."
No, Wendy didn't care in those days. Wendy, so wild and wonderful, didn't care for anything.
"And I believed her," he murmured, and glanced up, somberly.
"They'll teach him to talk, you know," the girl said heartily, as if to raise his spirits. "And they may even be able to invent some kind of hearing aid."
"That's wonderful, isn't it?" But he kept somber. "Wendy must be ..." He looked behind him, and up the long curve of the stairs, to where the wrought iron of the stair-rail continued across the balcony of the second story. "I suppose Wendy is living—near him?"
She said, "No," throwing the syllable away, and the corner of her mouth twitched.
Their eyes met and there was a telepathic flash. He knew that he and she were the same kind of people. She, too, would suppose that a mother would wish to be near her child. She must have been brought up to assume this, as Harold had been. His family hadn't been rich, as the Whitmans were, but it had been a family; it had assumed such things. Over and above his personal loss, it was too bad that he was the only one left now, from such a family, because four people, who looked out for each other without having to think about it, made something better than just four people. He was convinced that this girl knew what he was thinking and agreed with him.
But she plunged into more questions. (The baby was all right. It wasn't that, then. Yet, something was bothering her.) "You didn't walk night and day, did you? Have you got any money? Where did you sleep?"
"I haven't much money right now," he answered. "Enough for snacks. That's all right. I thought Mr. Whitman might lend me a part of the bus fare back, since I have some expectations. Not that I came to ask them for anything, except where the baby is. I feel ... I felt very strongly that I ought to know that."
What he was saying came back oddly to his own ears. It was true enough, but not enough of the truth.
"I wish you had telephoned," she said, and bit her lips.
"Yes, but the truth is, I came myself—" he struggled to express the whole truth —"because I'm still ... and I don't want to be, but I am still ... afraid of these people."
And that's as close as I can get, he thought. I have to speak to them and hear them answer. I have to look at them and meet their eyes.
"Where did you spend last night?" she was demanding.
"Last night? I slept on a lawn swing. The house looked empty. There was a big dog, but he was friendly. In fact, he kept me company. I was glad to have him." He thought it was small talk. He smiled.
"Where was this?" She wasn't smiling.
"A little town ..." He couldn't remember the name.
"Did anybody see you? Did you talk with anyone? Last night? Or this morning?"
He moved his head, wonderingly. "I started early, this morning, because I was cold. What's the matter?"
Now he knew that she had been gathering toward a resolution. Her face changed. She sprang up on her good lithe legs. "You shouldn't have come here and you've got to leave," she said decisively. She was a brisk crisp kind of girl, with lots of energy. "Right now. You had better get on a bus as quick as you can and get out of this town. I'll give you some money."
Excerpted from The Turret Room by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1993 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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