Strangers: A Faye Longchamp Mystery #6

Strangers: A Faye Longchamp Mystery #6

Faye Longchamp and husband Joe Wolf Mantooth have founded an archaeological consulting firm - just in time for the economy to tank. But a meeting with a couple who run ...

About The Author

Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans is the author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries--Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, Floodgates, Strangers, and Plunder. She has ...

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Chapter One

Faye Longchamp-Mantooth was capable of lust. Her handsome husband Joe could turn her head without even trying, just by stooping down to tie his moccasins.

Since Faye was an archaeologist, sometimes the things that inflamed her passion weren’t even alive. She had a specific fetish for handcrafted homes that bristled with wretched excess.

She lived in just such a home. Joyeuse, the two-hundred-year-old plantation house that had been handed down through her family for generations, was in the midst of an extensive restoration. It would always be in the midst of an extensive restoration. Quite frankly, it was a money pit. But she loved its finely restored spiral staircase because she and Joe had restored it themselves, and she adored the frothy perfection of the murals on its bedroom walls.

Her home had been built by slaves who were her ancestors. It had been built for those slaves’ masters, who were also her ancestors. Joyeuse and its complicated history were as much a part of her family as her mother and her grandmother had been. As Faye walked through the grand doorway of Dunkirk Manor, she felt a familiar quickening of her pulse. This, too, was a house worthy of lust.

The heavy door swung wide, and Faye walked in. The high- ceilinged entry hall functioned as a library and art gallery. Its ornate wooden staircase climbed past a fine collection of early-twentieth-century oils so vibrant that Faye made plans to come back and enjoy them more closely.

The staircase rose a balcony that circled the room and provided access to thousands of old books. Burgundy, navy, black, cocoa, crimson—their faded leather bindings were as colorful as the paintings on the walls below. The gilt lettering on their spines was worn, but it still sparkled.

Faye didn’t just lust after old houses. She also lusted after books. Joe didn’t mind. He knew she lusted after him, too.

He walked beside her through this living museum. His hand- made moccasins didn’t make a sound on the burnished oak floor. Faye and the rest of her work crew—Magda Stockard-McKenzie, Kirk Graham, and Levon Broome—clattered carefully across the gleaming floorboards in their work boots. Magda clutched her daughter Rachel’s hand as if she were afraid the child would leave behind a trail of little-girl-shaped smudges.

There wasn’t a speck of dust on those shiny oak floors. There wasn’t a mote of dust in the cool quiet air. The wood-paneled walls gleamed behind gilt-framed paintings, and the leaded glass windows on either side of the enormous front door were surrounded by flawless velvet hangings in an unexpected but perfect shade of burnt orange. It was as if the Gilded Age had never ended, and an army of chambermaids prowled the house constantly, armed with feather dusters and lemon oil.

It was as if the phrase “minimum wage” had never been coined. Glynis Smithson ushered them through all this perfection. She was the perfect person to do it. Glynis was tall. She was slim and willowy. Her sleek waist-length hair gleamed silver-blonde. Pale feathery eyebrows said that her hair color was natural. If she had piled that hair atop her head and pulled on a high-necked and bustled gown, Glynis could easily have stepped back to the time this house was new. Faye had the feeling that her clients had chosen their assistant for her retro glamour.

“Daniel and Suzanne will be right down,” she said, leading them from the high-ceilinged entrance hall into the stupendously high-ceilinged atrium at the center of the house.

On cue, Daniel and Suzanne Wrather appeared on the third- floor landing and began making their way down one of the two mirror-image staircases that encircled the atrium. This room, too, was completely paneled and floored in oak. The banisters and stair rails were oak, too, ornately carved in a gothic style. An entire forest had died to build this house.

Looking at the enormous antique rug spread across the atrium floor, Faye saw that it was made of hand-knotted silk. Faye figured an entire army of Persian women had gone blind for the cushiness under her feet.

No windows lit the atrium, only a ceiling filled with stained glass skylights. In the absence of windows, more lush velvet hangings were draped around the doorways, their bittersweet orange bringing sunshine into a room that might otherwise have felt dark. Daniel and Suzanne were navigating the stairs very, very slowly. Having just turned forty, Faye knew that her clients weren’t much older than she was, but they seemed so. Suzanne was very thin, almost bird-like, and she had a habit of hugging her arms close to her body, elbows bent, like folded wings. Daniel’s sandy hair was thin and it was the same graying shade of mid-brown as Suzanne’s. Though Suzanne was tall, he was taller. Daniel’s head bowed a bit, as if he were tired, but he retained a spring in his step as he descended the stairs. Perhaps his pace was hampered by Suzanne’s slower movements.

Daniel’s devotion to his wife of many years was palpable, and Suzanne never looked at him without smiling. As a newlywed herself, Faye just liked to watch the two of them together.

“You must be exhausted,” Suzanne said, extending a maternal hand toward Faye.

Faye had found that her advanced pregnancy affected older women in this way. They urged her incessantly to sit down and put her feet up. As the months passed, this advice became more and more welcome.

“Let me show you all to your rooms. I see that you need some rest,” Suzanne continued, looking at Faye with concern. Then she turned that same concerned focus on a monumental floral arrangement sitting on a plant stand between the two grand staircases. A full-blown pink rose was beginning to fade, and Suzanne apparently couldn’t have that. She plucked the drooping bloom out of the arrangement and tucked it in her pocket, studying each of the other flowers for flaws before she turned away.

Then Suzanne led them out the right side of the atrium, through a vast dining room that was as shiny and oaky as the rest of the house. They walked toward the rear of the house, past a doorway to a modernized kitchen that extended across the full width of the atrium, shiny with immaculate stainless steel. Then they passed through a door that was finished in gleaming oak on the front and painted a nondescript brown on the other. It passed into a hallway painted dun-beige, with a ceiling so low that six-and-a-half-foot-tall Joe had to stoop.

An imaginary line seemed to run across the threshold of that door, and all the dust that was missing from one side of that line appeared to have been shunted to its other side. Cobwebs clung to the ceiling and dust was matted into their silk.

Suzanne was saying, “I apologize for our housekeepers. We just can’t get them to come back here. If they only knew. This is the part of the house that isn’t haunted.” She took the teeth out of this statement with a quick laugh.

Faye didn’t know how to respond. Should she say, “I can see that!”? Or should she lie and say, “Why, it’s perfectly lovely back here!”? Instead she just smiled and opted to sidestep the issue. “Thanks so much for hosting us. We’re a new business and it helps a great deal for us to have our travel expenses covered.”

A row of white doors extended down each side of the dun-colored hallway. There were a whole lot of them. No wonder Suzanne had offered private rooms for each member of Faye’s field team. Faye’s internal compass told her that the hallway paralleled the back of the kitchen, which meant that the doors on the left opened to windowless rooms the size of monks’ cells, judging by the short distance between doors. The rooms on the right were small, too, but there was at least a chance that they had windows…presuming that Gilded Age employers had thought their household staff merited the luxury of a few panes of glass. Suzanne and Daniel operated a bed-and-breakfast in Dunkirk Manor, so Faye had innocently expected fluffy pillows and fine linens and lots of chintz in her room. Au contraire. Now she knew what it was like to be the hired help.

Suzanne pointed to one of the identical doors—thankfully, on the side of the hallway where she might hope for a window—and said, “This one is for you and Joe,” so Faye stepped in.

The paint around the doorknob was worn away to the bare wood. The drab wallpaper around the light switch was worn through to the bare plaster. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling. The only things of light and color in the entire room were the curtains surrounding the hoped-for window, which had once been a bright and sunny yellow-and-blue calico, and a tiny watercolor painting of a woman strolling on the beach at sunset. Judging by the style of the woman’s dress, the painting had been done during the Depression, and Faye figured that was about the last time somebody had tried to make this room pretty. Two narrow, iron-framed beds clung to the walls on her left and right. Pregnancy was wreaking havoc on her back and hips. Just looking at the thin, sagging mattresses on those beds made Faye hurt from her rib cage down.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Joe dragged one bed across the room and snugged it up against the other one. Joe wasn’t real big on sleeping in separate beds. He wasn’t even real big on staying on his own side of the bed.

Faye had been so excited to land this job. She still was. With her newly minted Ph.D., she and Joe had started their archaeological consulting business just in time for the economy to tank, taking with it the property development industry that fueled so much archaeological work. Excavating the rear garden of Dunkirk Manor to the strict standards of St. Augustine’s archaeological preservation ordinance wouldn’t be a quick job, and Faye’s crew billed by the hour. This was a very good thing.

Her preliminary library research on the property said that the existing mansion had been built on undeveloped property in 1889—brand-spanking new, for St. Augustine—but that it had figured significantly in the city’s history until the Depression. Henry Flagler, who’d kick-started the juggernaut that was Florida tourism, had been a frequent visitor at the Dunkirks’ gala parties. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and virtually every other celebrity who had ever hit town—and there had been a lot of them before Palm Beach and Miami sprang up to steal the tourists away—had graced Dunkirk Manor with their presence.

Robert Ripley had been a guest here. He’d enjoyed St. Augustine so much that he’d bought the Castle Warden, quite near Dunkirk Manor, and used it as the home for his first permanent museum of oddities. He’d even featured the Dunkirk house in one of his Believe-It-or-Not columns, saying:

“Each staircase has thirteen steps to the second  floor landings in the  atrium  and  thirteen  steps  to  the  third floor landings. Thirteen leaded glass skylights shine above them, and each is adorned with thirteen peacock feathers. Thirteen paintings ring the walls. The inlaid mahogany rosettes in each corner of the floor have thirteen petals.   Yet everything else in the room is perfectly symmetrical, making these odd-numbered features feel just…wrong.  It’s the spookiest room in America. Believe It…or Not!”

But, fascinating as Dunkirk Manor itself was, Faye wasn’t working inside the house, so these things were just background for her project. Dunkirk Manor’s glamorous history gave Faye historical justification to launch a significant field effort for a project that, in truth, wasn’t glamorous at all…but it was work.

For a consultant who got paid only when a client appeared with money in hand, work was work. And work was good.

Daniel and Suzanne wanted to build a swimming pool for their bed-and-breakfast guests, and Faye and Joe had been hired to make sure that the construction wouldn’t be destroying anything historic. Or prehistoric.

Ordinarily, St. Augustine’s City Archaeologist would have done the job herself, funded by the property owner, but Daniel and Suzanne had met Faye and Joe by chance two months before, while they all waited for seats at an overcrowded restaurant in the historic district. At the time, introverted Faye had wished the friendly couple would let her enjoy a rare evening on the town with her husband before the baby made date nights hard to do, but now she saw that business owners need to network all the time.

On the strength of that one casual encounter, Daniel and Suzanne had remembered her when they needed an archaeologist, and they’d gone to some effort to get permission to use her firm instead of using the city’s staff. Hiring her through the nonprofit organization that maintained the house made a difference with the powers-that-be, for some reason Faye didn’t understand. Mainly, she was just glad the job had come through. She looked around the dreary little room, planning an immediate assault with a feather duster. Then she slid an arm around the waist of her tall, handsome, and sexy business partner. “Well. At least it’s free.”

Reviews of

Strangers: A Faye Longchamp Mystery #6

“Compelling”

Publishers Weekly

“Evans’ excellent series continues to combine solid mysteries and satisfying historical detail.”

Kirkus Reviews

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