Margaret-Ann’s flushed face pressed into the small square glass window of my office door like a specter, mouth tunneled and pearly plastic teeth aglow from the fluorescent lighting. She threw her paltry weight against the door nearly falling onto the white tiled floor, “Oh, Sergeant Manning, thank heavens you’re here! That house…it has claimed another poor soul, this time it’s my own dear friend Lissy—I told her—I tell you I told her about that house!” she cried.
I rounded my desk assisting Margaret-Ann to a chair before she collapsed from whatever plagued her. Her pale thin shoulders were clammy and I guessed that she’d run the three blocks to the station.
“Margaret-Ann, calm down and tell me what in the name of God you’re rambling on about.”
She sat there hunched, shivering though I knew damn well that she was burning up on the outside. “You look like you could use a drink of cool water, hold on and I’ll get Janice to bring you some.”
I opened my office door and requested Janice bring us water. “Now, Margaret-Ann, what in the world is this all about?”
She looked at me with eyes that didn’t belong in this rational world—that hinted at seeing things that traveled in continuums or black holes. And then all of a sudden they were strangely lucid as she cut the air with those gray eyes and pinned me to my chair, “Lissy Collier is dead.”
I shook my head. “I just saw Lissy this morning out on the dock with Pascal when I was driving in. She looked fine.”
“That’s because she was fine then.” She straightened up in the chair, “before she went home and that—that house claimed her. She’s in a heap at the bottom of the stairs with poor Pascal whining and nudging her to get up. Ooo…I should have brought the dog with me, even dogs aren’t safe in that house.”
I ejected as straight as my six foot two height would allow, “You say you found her at the bottom of the stairs? Why didn’t you call the station?” I could feel my blood pressure hiking to my eyebrows, “Was she breathing? Did you think to take a pulse?”
Margaret-Ann shook her gray-tinged curls and fanned her hands out over her cheeks, “She wasn’t breathing, and her eyes were just staring up at that window. She’s dead all right. A victim of that evil, despicable house.” She abruptly leaned over my desk, her voice forced to a crawl, “It killed Barbara Tutley the same way back in 1965, remember?” She sighed and turned her head, “Of course you don’t you were just a baby then, hardly out of diapers, but I remember and I told Lissy about that house when she and Louis bought it and started refurbishing it two years ago.”
I vaguely remembered the story as I punched in the numbers for dispatch and requested a car at the Collier residence, then settled my attention back on Margaret-Ann. Her hands trembled as she smoothed the yellow cotton tank dress that displayed a bold red geranium print. Floral prints seemed to be all the rage with the island locals this year, especially with the post World War II boomers. “Margaret-Ann, you still haven’t answered my question yet: Why didn’t you call us immediately?” I glared now, my patience running along with my blood pressure.
Margaret-Ann looked at me as if I were stark raving mad, “I wasn’t staying in that house to call nobody, you hear? Nobody.”
Janice hustled in carrying two large Dixie cups of ice water. Margaret-Ann peeled her lips back flashing a row of white chiclets. She grabbed the cups and promptly gulped both down as I stared on.
“Louis was coming in this morning, back from the mainland. He went over on The Marigold. That’s why she was at the dock this morning—watching for him.” She crumbled the cup in her knobby fist, “Just how are you going to tell him that his wife is gone?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not going to tell him the house took her.” I gathered my keys from my desk drawer and stood.
“Where are you going?”
“To the Collier home,” I intoned, still peeved with her cowardly performance as I cornered the battered desk and stalked out of the office calling over my shoulder: “You’re welcome to come along if you want Margaret-Ann.”
She followed me out the door and to the squad car, grunting; the crumbled Dixie cup still clenched in her hand, and damn if I wasn’t thirsty.
The Collier house was an old, turn of the century, Victorian monstrosity. Few of these landmarks had survived on the island with the modern expansive housing that grew up from the weeds every summer. Weathered-blue, and in need of a few strategically placed clapboards, not to mention a new roof where the Atlantic’s gales had cuffed several shingles back. The interior, however, was obviously the first to undergo improvements. Cheery, freshly painted walls of apricot and sage with dark wood trim greeted me in the open doorway; only the vinyl black body bag disrupted the Feng Shui. I stepped into the foyer as Miles and Layton, the two underlings I had sent over made their way over to me, followed by Doctor Herman Becker who functioned as coroner on the island when needed.
At their heels, Pascal, the Collier’s miniature white poodle padded to Margaret-Ann who scooped him up to wait on the long wrap-around porch, still superstitious as ever.
“Louis home yet?” I immediately asked.
The two patrolmen shook their heads. I sighed and cleared the sweat off my brow with pinched fingers. “Okay, give me the skinny,” I huffed; weary already of this scene. Dr. Becker cleared his throat, “It appears she broke her neck from a fall down the steps. Unnatural angle of the neck, cranium fractures, as well as a broken fibula is conducive with a fall.”
The younger of the two patrolmen, Miles, spoke gazing up at the stairs, “Couldn’t have happened too long ago, the body was still warm when we got here.” Layton, the transplant from New Jersey, nodded his head. “I saw Lissy around eight o’clock this morning so you’re absolutely right in that aspect,” I said.
I looked up at the curving stairs. The long fluid banister pointed the way down to the landing where a large window was open to the salt-driven air. I climbed the groaning steps and paused in front of the window. Below, the lilac bushes bloomed, their fragrance reminding me of childhood summers when I would peddle past the single file bushes on the way to the harbor. Past the lilacs, a sandy trail bordered by tall sea oats wound down to the beach and a twelve-foot dock where Louis Collier would tie his boat. I didn’t want to be the one to have to tell the gruff, ocean-hardy man that his wife of more than thirty years was dead.
I turned from the window as the breeze ruffled the hair at the back of my neck as sure as fingertips. Up to the second floor landing I went, standing in a hall of closed doors and family photos. I stood there contemplating the fall. My eyes found their way back to the window and the billowing clouds as they seemed to drift through the open window and disappear. Could Lissy Collier have thought that she saw her husband at the dock and tried to hurry down the stairs? Could she have slipped on something? I examined the smooth wooden stairs; none seemed slippery. So was it just coincidence that two women died on the same flight of stairs?
I started down the stairs again slowly, amusing myself with the creaking notes of each step. Old homes have always held a fascination with me, and I stepped on the stairs as if I was stepping on the keys of a xylophone. Here, they sounded higher. Here: lower. If only they could tell me what made Lissy Collier slip. Of course it probably was arbitrarily done: a missed step, an ankle that twisted… I pressed on a particular step that had a whining pitch to it. I almost didn’t notice the slight give in the wood. I bounced back up to the step releasing the same squeak, as the nail popped up startling me with its thud. Bending down I wedged my fingers underneath the step and tugged. The wood eased up an inch, but no more; still, that was all I needed as I poked and prodded.
I called down to the first floor, “Becker, what color was Mrs. Collier’s dress?”
Herman Becker ascended the stairs his thick glasses and shiny pate glinting in the sunlight, “She had on a light blue denim dress. Why?” he squinted against the glare. I ignored the question for the moment.
“Any tears in the fabric?”
Becker considered my question, “I remember seeing a slight tear in the back of the dress, but had no idea if it was pre-existing or caused by the accident.”
I opened my palm to his gaze. Three narrow strips of cloth, various lengths and texture were displayed. One was the denim Lissy was wearing, later confirmed by the fit in the hem, the other a faded pink poplin material, dusty from thirty-six years of grime. But what really made Herman Becker’s eyes pounce from their sockets was the buttery-yellow strip of material with the faint red tipping of a lost petal.