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Page 22

The dutiful husband I was trying to be wanted to ignore the remark. After all, I’d promised Jess not to drag the past into our present. But the journalist in me won out.

“What happened?” I asked, keeping my voice low just in case Jess was approaching in a cloud of sage smoke.

“He changed,” Elsa said. “Or maybe he was always like that and it just took me some time to notice it. But in the beginning, he was very nice. Charming. Then the last few times I saw him, he seemed nervous. Jittery. He looked different, too. Tired and very pale. At the time, I thought it had something to do with his daughter. She was ill.”

“Was it serious?”

“All I know is what Mr. Carver said. That she was sick and needed to stay in her room. My girls were crushed. They liked coming here to play.”

“You have daughters?”

“Yes. Two. Petra is sixteen, and Hannah is six.” Elsa’s eyes lit up when she said their names. “They’re good girls. I’m very proud.”

I finished sweeping up the broken plates and dumped the shards into a nearby trash can. “It must have been hard for them, losing a friend in such an awful way.”

“I don’t think Hannah quite understands what happened. She’s too young. She knows Katie is gone, but she doesn’t know why. Or how. But Petra, she knows all the details. She’s still shaken up by it. She’s very protective. Strong, like her father was. I think she thought of Katie as another little sister. And it pains her to know she couldn’t protect her.”

I risked another question, knowing Jess would be angry if she ever found out. I decided that no matter what I learned, I wouldn’t tell her.

“What exactly did Curtis Carver do? We weren’t told any of the details.”

Elsa hesitated, choosing instead to focus on carefully stacking the remaining plates.

“Please,” I said. “It’s our home now, and I’d like to know what happened here.”

“It was bad,” Elsa said with great reluctance. “He smothered Katie with a pillow while she was sleeping. I pray that she stayed asleep through the whole thing. That she never woke up and realized what her father was doing to her.”

She touched the crucifix hanging from her neck, almost as if she was reassuring herself that such an unlikely scenario had actually happened.

“After that, Curtis—Mr. Carver—went up to the study, put a trash bag over his head, and sealed it shut with a belt around his neck. He died of asphyxiation.”

I let that sink in a moment, unable to understand any of it. It was, quite frankly, incomprehensible to me how a man could be capable of both acts. Not the tightening of a belt around his neck until he couldn’t breathe, and certainly not the smothering of his daughter while she slept. To me, madness was the likely culprit. That something broke inside Curtis Carver’s brain, leading him to murder and suicide.

Either that or Elsa Ditmer was right—he had been a monster.

“That’s very sad,” I said, simply because I needed to say something.

“It is,” Elsa said as she gave her crucifix another gentle touch. “It’s a small consolation knowing sweet Katie’s now in a better place. ‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’”

Behind us, one of the bells on the wall let out a single ring. A surprise, considering their age and lack of upkeep. I didn’t think any still worked. Elsa also appeared taken aback. She continued to caress the crucifix as a worried look crossed her face. That expression grew more pronounced when the bell rang again. This time, it kept ringing—a weak, wavering tinkle that nevertheless filled the otherwise silent kitchen.

“It’s probably Maggie,” I said. “I knew it was only a matter of time before she discovered those bells. I’ll go upstairs and tell her to stop.”

I checked the brass tag over the still-ringing bell—the Indigo Room—and hurried up the steps. The air on the first floor was thick with the scent of burning sage, telling me Jess had just passed through. Perhaps I had been too quick to blame my daughter and it was my wife who was responsible for the ringing bell.

I headed to the front of the house, expecting to find Jess roaming the parlor and Indigo Room, yanking on random bellpulls as clouds of sage smoke gathered around her. But the parlor was empty. As was the Indigo Room.

All I saw was furniture that had yet to be freed from their canvas drop cloths and the lovely painting of Indigo Garson over the fireplace. The only logical explanation for the ringing I could think of was the wind, although even that seemed unlikely, seeing how the room contained no detectable draft.

I was about to leave the room when I spotted a flash of movement deep inside the fireplace.

A second later, something emerged.

A snake.

Gray with parallel rust-colored stripes running down its back, it slithered from the fireplace, undulating quickly across the floor.

Thinking fast, I grabbed the drop cloth from the closest piece of furniture and threw it on top of the snake. A hissing, squirming bulge formed in the fabric. With my heart in my throat, I snatched up the edges of the drop cloth, gathering them until it formed a makeshift sack. Inside, the snake flapped and writhed. I held it at arm’s length, the canvas swinging wildly as I hurried to the front door.

As soon as I was off the front porch, I tossed the cloth into the driveway. The fabric fell open, revealing the snake. It was on its back, flashing a bit of bloodred belly before flipping over and zipping into the nearby woods. The last I saw of it was the flick of its tail as it disappeared in the underbrush.

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