“Oh, you have really done it now.” J.J. whispered to herself as the other half of the shattered crutch rattled past her and disappeared down the stairs into the uncertain darkness below.
But the sound of it clattering to a stop at the bottom, wherever that was, seemed to happen well before she anticipated that it would.
Her plan had originally been to just open the wall, peek in with the flashlight she’d managed to smuggle up to her bedroom from the main pantry, and then wait for Marnie to get back the next day. After everyone else in the house went to sleep, they would then venture down for a full visit.
But her nagging curiosity had gotten the best of her, and she decided to take a closer look, just at the very inside of her own. Grabbing the other crutch, the one she had stored away in the closet, she stuck it into the opening to stop the wall from closing up all the way. She hadn’t counted on it not being sturdy enough to hold it back once the mechanism to close the wall was activated. To her horror, it kept coming, catching the the crutch and snapping it completely in half before sliding snugly back into place.
With Marnie gone to New York with Pat, there was no one else in the house who would know, who could even guess, where she might be, and she couldn’t see any way of getting back into the room from that side of the wall.
There was nothing left to do but to continue on down the stairs.
“What damned closet?” Jennifer asked into the phone before Pat had the chance to repeat the words she’d overheard Marnie exclaim on the other end.
She was struggling to keep her hysteria and confusion at bay, knowing that she needed to remain calm to be able to think clearly. Wherever J.J. was, her failure to resurface said that it was somewhere she shouldn’t be, and no suggestion was too crazy or far-fetched at that moment.
Having crept unseen back into the house after taking as thorough a look outside as she could take in the dark, she was using her last trump card. In the past her experience had been, when the mystery involved J.J., and all other leads and avenues had been exhausted, she would turn to Marnie. Marnie was steadfast in her defense of J.J., but only up to a point- the point where J.J.’s mother became involved.
As she listened to Pat questioning Marnie, Jennifer could feel the phone trembling in her hand.
There was nothing she hated worse than for J.J. to not be where she was supposed to be. For her, it was the number-one most unsettling thing in the world. Before J.J. came to them, she thought nothing could ever top the time that Jonathan had been kidnapped by that maniac thief from the Musee’ Luterre in Paris. But even in that situation she’d had the slight consolation of knowing that Jonathan was a man able to fend for himself to a great extent. J.J. was a child, a fearless female child with seemingly no concept of danger. That girl would try anything, it seemed, without giving a thought to what she could be facing.
Finally, unable to wait a moment longer, Jennifer had to cut it to the chase. “Put Marnie on the phone, Pat.”
Marnie had been in her care off and on for years, and that child knew better than to use any colors other than black and white when she was talking directly to her about J.J. or anything else. The girl could be a schemer, and she’d try to get away with shading some things with Pat, but Marnie Elaine Benson would be coming completely clean with her.
“Yes, Mrs. H.?” Was the timid-sounding greeting.
“Talk, Marnie. Talk fast, and speak clearly. Do not deviate from the details, and leave nothing out. This is J.J. we’re talking about, and keep in mind that you do have to go home with me at some point.”
Switching on the flashlight and going down the stairs which amounted to about a half flight, J.J. found herself, as well as the half of the broken crutch on a level walkway. Stopping to paint a mental picture of where she must be in the house based upon the location of her closet in relation to the rest of the second floor, she figured that she had to at least be somewhere between floors. Whatever the place was in which she had found herself, it seemed to be built to go around the interior of the house.
Before very long, she came to another doorway. The beam from the flashlight revealed another half flight of wooden stairs going up to a door similar to hers. Closing her eyes and trying to picture the upstairs hall, she was able to surmise that the door should be the one to the fifth bedroom, the one that her Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill had used when they were there. Shining the beam up, she could see that just like on the outside of her door, there didn’t seem to be way to get back in- no switches, no lever, nothing.
Perplexed, and a little frustrated, she stood wondering what kind of place she was in, and why her grandfather had it built as part of his house. Did all the closets lead down there?
Deciding to check that out, she turned around and went back the way she had come to see if there would be a door and some stairs leading up to the room that her parents were using. Cursing her ankle, which was beginning to throb from her going down the stairs and walking on it without proper support, she had to slow her steps considerably to put less weight on it. If she were at her best, she knew that she could have run that thing from one end to the other in no time flat.
It took a while, but after turning a corner or two, and passing the set of stairs leading up to Marnie’s closet, she finally reached the place where she figured her parents room and closet should be. Surely enough, there was a set of stairs leading up to a door.
Sitting down on the bottom step, she decided to rest a moment and to massage her ankle and foot.
Hanging up from Marnie and perplexed by the bizarre story, Jennifer sat on the side of her bed trying to decide what to do.
Certain that the place Marnie described was where J.J. had gone, she knew that she had to get down there herself. But what in the world had that child gotten herself into at nine o’clock at night?
And there were still Jonathan and her father to consider. If she told either of them, both of them would be trying to get to J.J., too. They would be trying to get her to wait for them.
She couldn’t afford to wait for Jonathan. He would be hours at minimum, and that would be after getting flight clearance. If she were to call him back, like she told him that she would, what would she tell him? That J.J. might be wandering alone, and probably barefoot and crippled, in a secret passage of her grandfather’s house? That kind of thing, mysteries of that sort were what he normally latched onto and thrived upon, but she couldn’t be sure what his reaction might be knowing that his daughter and her impaired ankle were the main characters involved in this one. She didn’t want him flying cross-country under that kind of duress, but she knew that no amount of begging on her part would keep him in Los Angeles if she told him that was where she suspected J.J. had gone.
Her father, she wouldn’t tell at all. He didn’t need the stress. And the funny thing was, he was probably the one who had all the answers to what the place was and what J.J. might encounter there. But there was no way that she could involve him, not with his bad heart and with him still recovering from being so ill just days ago. His hands still weren’t that steady; she’d noticed it earlier when she lit his pipe for him. Although he was elderly, she knew that much of his unsteadiness at the time was a lingering physical effect of the dehydration from which he had suffered.
She wondered, too, if Walter would know anything about the passage. Surely he would. Walter had been in service with her father for as long as she could remember. They had always traveled and worked together, even when she had been a little girl. The two of them had remained together throughout the years, even after Walter married his long time companion, Rosa, a few years back. She had simply moved in with them at Briarwood and took on the duties of cook. She also assisted Walter in supervising the housekeeping and managing the business of running her father’s estate.
Walter was fiercely loyal to her father, and her father was a very observant man. If he didn’t go to bed soon, it wouldn’t be long before he suspected that something was amiss. Stephen Edwards was known to keep long hours so it was almost a given that he was going to deduce something if J.J. didn’t turn up soon, or if she didn’t go back in to him herself to say good night. If she brought Walter in on it, and her father were to directly ask him anything, Walter would tell him what was going on.
Faced with no other alternative but to leave all of them out of it, Jennifer got up and headed for Marnie’s room. The girl said that the lever was on the right, way in back of the large closet, near the floor. That room had been a guest room when she was a child, and it was one that she hadn’t ever had reason to frequent even as an adult, so she wasn’t familiar with the closet.
…After all those years, to discover that there were walls that opened up to hidden stairs in her father’s house…
Whenever this was all over, a thorough investigation would have to be conducted, and some questions would have to be answered. As a writer, she thrived on this kind of thing too, but why would secret passages have to have been installed in Briarwood?
And leave it to some modern-day kids to discover it.
One day when they were grown, she’d have to pen a book chronicling her adventures in rearing J.J. Hart alias ‘Incorrigible’ and her counterpart, Marnie Benson otherwise known as ‘and Company’.
The ankle was swelling again and J.J. knew that she was putting too much pressure on it and risking lasting damage, but she also knew that she had to keep moving. She couldn’t stay there on those steps. She was still between floors. At some point, there had to be stairs that led down to the first floor, and/or maybe to the basement. She figured that they had to eventually lead to the outside or somewhere. But where and when? She knew that she had to get to a place that would either lead her back into the main house or to the outside so that she could get back into the main house before too long. Jennifer Hart would be checking, and once she found out that she was gone, it would be all over.
She had shut off the flashlight to preserve the battery while she rested, continuing to massage her ankle while seated on the bottom step outside her mother’s closet. It was very dark where she was, but there was a system of dim lights in the passageway that were off now, but that seemed to be operated by motion. She had been impressed by that. It was rather innovative technology for the times if it had been installed at the same time that the house had been built. it was surprising to her that they still worked. Judging by the solid structure of the passage itself, the thin layer of undisturbed dust, and that the type of wood used for the construction of the house and the passage were the same, she concluded that it had been planned and built to be part of the original house.
But why? What was its purpose?
She thought about how she had been able to hear Marnie from inside the room when she had been trapped out there, and she considered going up and knocking to see if her mother were in her bedroom. Maybe the same lever was in her closet, and she could let her back in. But doing that would reveal her knowledge of the existence of the passageway before she had a chance to thoroughly check it out. If her mother knew about it, she’d never get a chance to get back in and finish looking around.
Did her mother know about it? Had she ever lurked about down there?
Under normal circumstances, she would be in seventh heaven trying to figure out the mystery behind it all. But it was nagging at her that for a fact, at some point she would be discovered to be missing if she hadn’t already been, and her mother would be worried sick about her. Once she was found, the Duchess would be livid with her for being so nosy and reckless. And that definitely was something she didn’t want to hear on top of everything else that had gone down that day. She was still in hot water over the pictures. It was probably her turn for lockdown. Aunt Pat had said that it was just a matter of time. When she’d said it, it was supposed to apply to Marnie, not her.
And then on top of that, once he found out, her father would be fussing at her, too, about not taking the crutch with her and hurting her ankle some more. He probably wouldn’t care about the nosey and reckless part once he found out that she was all right. In fact, under different circumstances, he might be right down there checking it out with her, if he knew about it. But, letting him in on it would negate her being able to get back down there to explore on her own, as well.
Sitting there massaging away the pain, she determined that she would just rest for a few more minutes, and then she would continue on her way.
After getting the phone back, and while completing her conversation with Jennifer, Pat watched in confusion as Marnie jumped up from the bed and grabbed her travel bag into which she hurriedly began stuffing her things.
Once she hung up the phone, she asked, “What the hell are you doing? It’s night. Where are you going?”
“You have people at your beck and call twenty-four-seven.” Marnie breathlessly answered as she stepped into the slacks she’d had on earlier and then maneuvered her feet into her shoes. “So call somebody and get us back to Briarwood. I’m not going to be able to go back to sleep.”
She stopped before yanking her nightgown off over her head and looked to Pat with a raised eyebrow. “You?”
Pat began punching numbers into the phone. “I guess you do have a point. I know that as sure as my name is Patricia Rose Hamilton, Jennifer is going into wherever that is in that closet to look for J.J. If so, that will make two people that you and I are the only ones who know where they are. It’s for sure that Jennifer is not going to want to worry anybody there with it, especially not her father.”
As Marnie went into the bathroom to finish getting ready, Pat made their travel arrangements, and then called Bill in Nevada to let him know that they were going back to Briarwood. She left off telling him why, in the event that Jennifer hadn’t planned to pass on the details to Jonathan.
Not letting Jonathan know that his child might be in a pinch when he wasn’t in a position to be of immediate assistance to her, felt to her like something that Jennifer would do.
When Walter brought the tray of medication and the glass of water into the study, Stephen impatiently tried to wave him off. Not to be deterred, Walter set the tray down on the table next to the older man and began twisting the tops off the medicine bottles. Holding out the first one, Stephen had no choice but to extend his palm and accept the first two of the five pills he had to take at bedtime.
“I hate this stuff.” He grumbled.
“You have to take it, Sir.”
They had been going through that routine nightly before his recent illness, and it had only been made worse by the addition of the two new prescriptions.
“I know, I know.” Stephen continued to complain. “But I still hate it. A man shouldn’t live this long if he has to live like this.”
“I don’t think Mrs. Hart would appreciate hearing you say that.” Walter quietly reminded him.
Stephen quickly downed the remaining pills and sat back in his chair to sigh, “You’re probably right. She almost dies herself when I forget and say things like that around her. Where is she? Has she returned from her ride yet?”
Walter turned his back, looking as if he were rearranging the tops back onto the prescription bottles, but in actuality, hiding his face. He did not want Mr. Edwards to be able to see any traces of the anxiety he felt. Mrs. Hart hadn’t returned from stroll or ride that he knew she was taking in search of her daughter. And the daughter hadn’t turned up either. He was no longer a young man himself and not in the best of health, but as soon as Edwards went upstairs, he was going straight outside to take a look for the two of them just the same.
“No Sir, she hasn’t.” He answered, conscious of keeping his voice even. “I remember she always used to like to ride at night.”
Stephen smiled at the recollection. “Yes, and I would have to go out looking for her. She had no fear, that girl. Her mother didn’t either. Then after her mother… She didn’t want to be here any more.”
Walter hated when Edwards would think back to those times. Thinking about it always seemed to make him so sad and to bring on a bout of dark brooding. Mrs. Edwards untimely death had been hard on all of them. He had done his best to support him, but never had he met a man so in love with his wife, and so dedicated to his child.
Mr. Edwards had been devastated by losing Mrs. Edwards, and on top of that he had been left with a little girl to raise all alone. The two of them traveled out of the country so much and were away so often that he and Edwards found that they really didn’t know anything about the child as a person, once it was just the three of them. She had always just been a cute, smart little girl for whom they brought presents, played with, and enjoyed when they were at home. Her actual upbringing had been almost solely Mrs. Edwards’ affair.
There were times during those first couple of difficult years after Mrs. Edwards’ passing when he secretly felt Miss Jennifer could have highly benefited from feeling the back of her father’s hand or a taste of the strap on her little behind. There were even a couple of episodes with her at school that caused Edwards himself to even mutter as much in speculation. Walter would never have suggested such a thing aloud, but it bothered him to know how much Edwards cared for that girl only to have her treat him as she had. But through it all, Edwards had refrained from laying a finger on his daughter despite her relentless sassiness, disobedience, and/or insolent silence.
Father and daughter had both been hurting, but Edwards had been a paragon of patience with his daughter. And he had been right in holding back with her. An intolerant hand or the sting of the strap would not have helped that child in the way that time, patience, and love had brought her around. By the time she was sixteen or seventeen, she had come to fully accept her father and his role in her life. Miss Jennifer had gone on to become a fine woman, and was raising an equally fine, bright, funny little girl of her own. He had come to be more than fond of both of them, especially little Miss J.J., and the fact that they were both missing gave him great concern.
“That’s all over with, Mr. Edwards.” He said, and he turned back to his boss after he had the tray ready to go back. “Old news. I’m sure that Mrs. Hart is just out enjoying the night air.”
“It’s just as well.” Stephen said as he eased himself forward and out of the chair. “I’m tired. I’d never say that if she were in earshot, though. I’m going up. If you see her when she comes in, tell her that I said good night and that I’ll see her and Justine at breakfast in the morning.”
Walter nodded. “I’ll do that, Sir.”
He walked Stephen around to the elevator and watched him get on. When the doors had closed completely behind him, Walter then hurried around to the kitchen where he found Rosa waiting anxiously for him.
Jennifer could hear her father humming to himself as he was getting off the elevator just as she was slipping into the guest bedroom where Marnie told her she had found the lever. To keep from drawing his attention to the room, she didn’t bother to turn on the overhead light upon entering. Instead she used the lamplight from the yard which was filtering through the curtains to make it to the closet. Then she used the flashlight she’d taken from the mud room when she went outside to look for J.J., to see once she got there.
Shining the flashlight into the place Marnie described, indeed she could see that there was a small lever. Once inside the closet, she could see why Marnie had been the one to find the lever. She was small enough to maintain the position that would have been necessary to see it while crawling around trying to retrieve something she’d dropped. From higher up, the switch was almost camouflaged by its likeness in color to the wood around it, and the briar carvings on the baseboards in which it had been set made it even less distinguishable. She or J.J., in Marnie’s situation, both of them being taller, would have stayed down there just long enough to focus on what was dropped, and they would have gotten up right away to get out of the cramped position it took to see it.
First attempting to push down on it with her hand, Jennifer found that she couldn’t make it move. She stood and then stepped down on it using more force, successfully moving it to the floor. Then she watched in amazement as wall began to slide open following the low hum of machinery..
Yes, she thought, leave it to Marnie and J.J. to find something like that and to try to keep it to themselves. She wondered what their original plan for it must have been.
J.J. could sense that a lot of time had gone by, and she knew that her mother had to know that she was missing. That worried her. Her nasal passages had gone dry from inhaling the fine, ancient dust her movements sent dancing into the stale air around her, and the back of her throat tickled from it. Since resuming her journey, the injured ankle had begun throbbing more fiercely. The pain caused her to slow almost to a crawl as she walked along in the dim light. She could have hopped on one foot, but there was nothing onto which she could hold to maintain her balance. She couldn’t stop; she had to find a way out. So, she was forced to continue on, moving from her parents room going left to make it around to her grandfather’s room, while trying to use the other foot as sparingly as possible.
Standing in the opening, shining the beam down the steps, Jennifer stepped off into the uncertainty on the other side of the closet wall, wondering if it was some defect in Jonathan and J.J.’s makeup that made them find situations like the one she was facing, exciting. She could almost picture the two of them sneaking around down there, each urging the other on; J.J. admiring her father’s nerve, and him feeding and bolstering hers; no two people she had ever met were better, and at the same time more ill-suited, for each other.
The thought of J.J. skulking around in the darkness unable to get back in, and probably only nervous about her mother finding out that she was gone, both infuriated Jennifer and elicited her admiration. Nobody could call that girl a coward or a sissy, but it was always one thing or another with her. But Jennifer had to admit it to herself that J.J. had come by it honestly. As a child she hadn’t been afraid of much either, that is until she learned that there were some things and some people in the world that she needed to fear. She didn’t consider herself a timid woman in any sense, but she did pride herself on knowing when to take a chance, and when she needed to back up.
When the wall slid shut behind her after the third step down, she thought her rapidly beating heart would vibrate right out of her chest. Marnie said that the wall would do that, but still she wasn’t prepared for the feeling that came with knowing that she was locked on the outside like that. Just as Marnie said, she could see no way to get back in.
If Jonathan were with her, she thought, he’d be marching right down those stairs and into the darkness without a thought as to what might be waiting for them. And she’d be dragging right behind him, clinging onto his arm or his shirt tail telling him to use the flashlight in his hand. The times that he’d gotten her into the ‘things’ they used to get into were too numerous to count. They had whole scrapbooks of their adventures.
His daughter was just like him: always somehow, someway finding ‘things’ to get into, and there she was- her mother- as always, looking for her.
Startled when the first motion light came on and standing to take in the eerie outer skeleton of the main house, she was certain that it was where J.J. had to have come. If the girl had any knowledge about a hidden place existing within that house, which Marnie had already informed her that she did, nothing in the world could have kept J.J. Hart from coming down there to see what it was all about.
And just like J.J. had done in the beginning of her journey, at the bottom of the stairs Jennifer went to her right.
Conscious of needing to have it for when she might come to absolute darkness, J.J. had ceased using the flashlight. She was still on the same level between the second and first floors, depending instead upon the installed motion lights to see her way. They flickered on as she passed under them and flickered back off a few moments later. They seemed to have been spaced to keep a person in constant light with normal steps, but she was dragging along so slowly at that point that there were periods between lamps when she was in the dark completely until she could make it to the next light.
“What was I thinking coming down here?” She muttered to herself as she found herself in another gap of darkness.
Putting her hands out in front of her, grimacing in anticipation of stepping down another time on that swollen ankle, she almost screamed in blinding agony when the foot came into contact with the edge of something hard. Caught off-guard, and trying anxiously to catch herself, the flashlight flew from her hand, and clattered to the floor. She began frantically clawing in front of her, trying to grip on to anything, desperately attempting to keep from falling. Her hand touched the squared edge of something like a table, but unable to get a grip on it, her hand slipped, and she felt herself going on down to the floor, landing hard. She lay there stunned, the inside of her head spinning, surprised that she wasn’t tasting and inhaling dust, as she heard the word, “Daddy!”, escape from her lips.
Jonathan had begun alternating between calling Jennifer’s phone and then J.J.’s. thirty minutes after speaking with Jennifer, while at the same time beginning to put his things into his bag. When another thirty minutes had gone by and he hadn’t gotten through to either of them, he knew that something was wrong. Between calls to them he had begun to put his plan in motion, and by the time that hour had gone by, he had completed his arrangements to leave Los Angeles.
Shortly after having touched down, he was briskly making his way through the Baltimore/Washington Airport with his duffel bag in tow. He hoped that the car he had ordered was at the curb as he requested because he wanted no further delays. Frank and Jim, his pilots who’d accompanied him from California, would take the plane home and come back for all of them when the trip was finally over. Every nerve in his body was on edge, each hair felt on end, and all of it was screaming for him to get to his family. He had no plans to return to Willow Pond, Hart Industries, or L.A. without Jennifer, J.J., and Marnie being in that plane with him.
He’d had to pull some strings and call in some markers to get flight clearance on such short notice, but he knew the right people, and they knew him. It wasn’t his way to throw his weight around, but when it came his family, he used whatever tactics he felt might work.
It wasn’t like Jennifer to not follow through. The only reason that he could think of for her not getting back to him had to be that she hadn’t located J.J. That would be her shortsightedly, illogical way of not making him worry. It wasn’t like her to be either of those things, but when it applied to J.J., all bets were off with her. She went with her gut feelings and did what she thought she had to do to take care of their child.
Since the night that she’d had that dream about someone calling her and telling her to wake up, Jennifer had been a bit quieter and more introspective. In the guest house, he’d found her by herself, just standing and staring as if she were lost in thought. After making love with her, he had had been tired and had lain there with his eyes closed as if he were sleeping. But she remained awake the entire time as she lie there on his chest, and he could tell that her mind had been at work even then. Most times, after one of their sessions, she would fall asleep well before he did.
When she had phoned him by mistake earlier, she said that she hadn’t seen J.J. in two hours. He had spoken with J.J. about a half hour before that. How long had J.J. actually been gone from that room before her mother missed her? What was going on with the two them before that time, that they had been apart for so long? J.J. said that her mother wasn’t speaking to her, but even in their more tense moments, both of them had a tendency to still manage to check up on each other.
A few more hours had passed since that last time that he had spoken with Jennifer, and still he hadn’t heard a peep from either of them. He found himself having to concentrate to keep his heart from racing.
As he walked toward the exit, he tried Jennifer’s number again. Again there was no answer. He punched the button for J.J.’s number, and, as he expected, she didn’t pick up either. Shoving the phone down into the pocket of his pants, he entered the front lobby. Immediately spotting his driver holding the card with his name on it, he waved to the man, who shook his hand in greeting and took his bag.
As they approached the car, he was shocked to find Bill and his bag leaned against it.
“I thought you’d never get here.” Bill grinned, clapping him on the back. “I was hoping I could get a ride into Hillhaven with you.”
“How did you know I was coming?” Jonathan asked as the driver held open the door for both of them, and they got in. “How did you know which car?”
“Pat called me late last night saying that she and Marnie were headed back for Jennifer’s father’s place by helicopter to here, and that they were taking a car in. She didn’t say why. I figured if she was doing that; if she wasn’t landing at Briarwood, then there must be trouble there that they’re trying to keep from Jennifer’s father. That told me that the trouble involved Jennifer or J.J., and if that was the case, then I knew you wouldn’t be too far behind. Sure enough, I had just come out here and was about to snag a cab when I spotted the driver getting out of the car with the sign in his hand. I knew “Hart” had to be for you. I had planned on flying back tomorrow anyway to take Farrell some papers and talk with him about some final details about the place. After I got off the phone from Pat, I just decided that I might as well get the pilots up, and do it tonight.”
Despite the extreme tension he felt, Jonathan had to smile at his friend’s observations.
“You really are something, guy.” He said, turning to face him. “You’d have made a great detective. Thanks for coming. You got a head start on me, I see.”
“I always fly faster than you, Valentine. Always. So, you got any idea what’s going on?”
“Something with J.J.” Jonathan answered, turning back to face the front and getting settled in the seat. “She was missing earlier, the last time that I spoke with Jennifer. Since I haven’t heard back from her in all that time, I’m willing to bet she’s still somewhere trying to find her. I haven’t been able to raise either of them by phone for hours, and I didn’t want to call Jennifer’s father in case he didn’t know what was going on. It would be like her to not say anything to him. She told me to sit pat until I heard back from her.”
“You weren’t going for it, I see.” Bill observed, watching Jonathan’s focused expression out of the corner of his eye. He could tell that nothing was going to stop him until he had both Jennifer and J.J. back in his sight.
Jonathan immediately confirmed his thoughts.
“You know I’m not, Bill. They’re all I have, and too much time has gone by. It was too much time after a half an hour, and Jennifer hadn’t called back. Her silent treatments only work on J.J. All they ever do for me is make me want to get to the heart of the problem, and to try to find a way to fix it. My daughter seems to be at the heart of this problem, and so you know I have to fix that.”
“I’m right with you, Buddy.” Bill said as he patted Jonathan’s shoulder reassuringly. “Where do you suppose she could she have gotten to?”
“That’s the thing. She couldn’t go far with that bum ankle. I figure she has to be somewhere close by, but maybe hurt or something’s happened where she can’t get back home. Jennifer’s not going to stop looking until she finds her. I need to find both of them.”
Bill said nothing behind that. He completely understood the Hart family’s dynamics. Jonathan had gone home to attend two meetings at Hart Industries, but none of that meant anything to him if the safety of either of those two females he lived with was being compromised in any way.
Pat was surprised to see Walter step from the shadows carrying a flashlight as she and Marnie pulled up to the house in the car Pat had rented at the airport. Walter appeared just as surprised to see them. It was getting into the wee hours of the morning and aside from the gas lights on the drive, it was pitch black outside.
He walked up to the driver’s side of the car.
“Walter, what are you doing out here?” Pat asked.
“Ms. Hamilton. I am certainly glad to see you. I’m out here looking for Mrs. Hart and Miss J.J. Little Miss came up missing earlier, and her mother came out here to look for her. That was about eight-thirty last evening. I haven’t seen either one of them since. I’m trying not to alert Mr. Edwards, but I don’t think I should wait any longer. I’m thinking maybe I need to call the police.”
“Hang on for that a minute, Walter.” Pat said as something caught her attention on the other side of the car. Marnie had gotten out on her side and was easing up toward the house while the two adults talked.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Pat called out. You stick right here with me. I am not having any more disappearing acts. You played me the other day, but the cat is all the way out of the bag now.”
“I was just-” Marnie began, but stopped when Pat held up her hand indicating that she didn’t want to hear the explanation.
Pressing the button on her key ring, Pat popped open the trunk to the car. “Help Walter with the bags, Little Girl, that’s what you do. Walter, what can you tell me about some sort of secret room or passage in this house?”
As she asked that question, their attention was drawn toward the far end of the driveway where they could see the dots of two headlights indicating that another car was making its way up to the house.
When J.J. came floating back to her full senses, the first thing she was cognizant of was that someone was stroking her temple and calling her name.
“Justine. Justine, darling, wake up.”
The voice was her grandfather’s, and she realized that he must be seated on the floor where she had fallen and that he had raised her head so that he was holding it in his lap. “Pa?”
Still a little dazed, she didn’t know what to think at having been discovered by him.
“Are you alright, Darling?” She heard him ask.
She attempted to sit up to answer him, but he restrained her with his hand.
“Not yet.” He said. “And keep your eyes closed for a moment. When I tell you to, you’ll need to rise up very slowly. Do you think you’re alright? Does anything feel hurt?” ”
Obeying him, she kept her eyes shut to respond to his questions. “I’m okay. Just my ankle hurts, but it was hurting before.”
“How did you get here, and what were you doing down here in the dark? Where in the world are your shoes?”
“I was just- I left my shoes in my room. I didn’t intend to go so far. Are you mad at me for being here, Pa?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, and then she could hear him chuckle a little.
“I probably should be.” He finally said softly, continuing to rub her temple and smooth the loose hair back from her face. “You nearly scared me to death. I didn’t want to think that all that bumping I heard out here was a rat. That would have to have been an awfully big one.”
“Rats? There aren’t any rats in here, are there?”
“No, we’ve never had rats, or even mice at Briarwood, but there’s a first time for everything. Open your eyes slowly now, Justine.”
She did, and it took a moment to adjust. Having been in the dark so long, the light seemed quite bright, far brighter than it had been, and it appeared that she was in an office of some sort. Her curiosity surged back with a vengeance, and she wanted to see all there was to see.
“May I sit up now?” She asked, struggling to not pop up to have a good look around.
“Slowly, Justine. You’ll faint again if you come up too fast.”
Faint? Had she fainted, she wondered? She must have been out, though; she didn’t recall him coming to her aid.
Bringing her head up bit by bit from his lap, she could see that she was still in the passage, but the area that they were in was clean. There were some papers and a cup of pens on the huge antique desk with the roll top and about a million cubbie drawers. A black, more contemporary looking cushion had been placed in the matching chair, and from the shine of the wood of the desk and the floor boards, it looked as if someone used that area of the passage way more regularly than the parts that she had seen up to that point.
There was a light coming from behind them. Slowly turning her head and craning it past her grandfather’s pajamas and robe-clad body, she could see that they were right down from his suite of rooms. The wall was still open at the top of the stairs leading into his bedroom, and the light from up there was filtering down on them, as well as the light from desk lamp. The flashlight she’d dropped was now at his side. Turning back around, she could see that framed certificates, black and white, as well as some old-looking sepia pictures were hung on the wall. There were two tall file cabinets, and a gun rack fully stocked with several expensive-looking long guns. And there were boxes, all kinds of boxes, along with ominous other bulky shapes covered up by the same kind of cloths that had been draped over the furniture and appliances in the guest house before it was all moved out. A quick double-take of the certificates on the wall, revealed that some of them had various government seals.
“What is this place, Pa?” She asked in wonder.
“If you must know, Justine, this is my other office. My personal business office. My secret place here on Briarwood.”
She twisted around to face him, and for some reason his face appeared to have taken on a kinder, more gentle look than she had ever noticed in him before.
“I’m sorry.” She apologized sincerely.
Nearly tongue-tied with shame as she attempted to explain, “I, I didn’t mean to invade your space. I was just having a look around, and I got locked- We found out- I wanted to see where it went. If I had known…”
“It’s alright.” He answered quietly. “I’m just amused that you found it coming from the direction that you came. One of the closets, am I right?”
He watched her flushed face, and recalled his conversation with Jonathan about her. Her father knew her inside and out, it seemed. She did have nerves of steel.
She nodded in response to his question.
“Marnie found the switch in her room yesterday. Then I found one in my room too, in the closet. I came here from my room tonight.”
“And neither of you has said a word about it to anyone in all that time?”
She was silent, as he continued to solemnly look into her eyes, but he smiled to himself. At that moment Justine was looking as guilty as her naughty mother had once looked. By this time she was sitting all the way up, but was still on the floor. Looking down her leg, he noticed that her ankle was once again angrily swollen, and he knew that she had to be in considerable pain.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get you up those stairs, Justine. I’m not much to lean on these days, and I know that I can’t lift you. But before we try that, I’d like for you to see something since you’re here.” He said to her. “I think you’ll like it.”
His cane was leaning against the stairs and he used it to help himself stand up. He took his time, moving very slowly, first getting to his knees, and then hesitatingly rising from there. J.J. watched him closely, and involuntarily her hands protectively reached out to him as if to be prepared to steady him in the event that he might fall. But when he was finally all the way up on his feet to stand tall over her, and then as he walked away from her toward the outer wall, she was proud of him. Her grandfather wasn’t so old, sickly, and helpless. Watching his broad shoulders and considering the power of his character and his overall commanding demeanor, she had the thought that he must have been an awesome force with which to be reckoned as a young man. Her mother had to have been petrified when she got called on the carpet by him. As far as J.J. was concerned, he was still pretty tough, and she wasn’t so sure that she was out of the woods with him for being there. It was for certain that when his daughter caught up with her, there would be hell to pay.
His calm at her obvious invasion of his private, hidden place surprised her completely. Her parents were always reminding her to temper her rampant need to know things and to consider the personal space of others in the same way that she was so fiercely protective of her own. Her grandfather was a bear of a man, and she had always been just a tad wary of him.
She watched him as he used his foot and his cane to push a few smaller boxes away to get to something that was standing against the wall. It was draped with one of those dust covers, which he pulled away.
J.J. gasped and was immediately overwhelmed at the sight. Underneath was a painting of a young woman seated on the back of a sleekly powerful Arabian in mid-prance. It appeared as if they were cresting a hill against a background of morning blue sky. The woman wore jodhpurs, shiny black riding boots, and a form-fitting, open-necked white blouse. She had very long, wavy red hair which appeared as if a breeze had caught it and was gently lifting it about her face. And the look on that face was one of absolute confidence. She appeared to have been very much at ease and quite happily seated on that fine animal’s back.
“Do you know who this is?” Her grandfather asked through her thoughts.
J.J. smiled in appreciation. It was the first painting of that size that she had ever seen of Suzanne Simone Roussel Edwards. There were a couple of smaller ones at Aunt Sabrina’s, done when the sisters had been very young, and she had seen plenty of photographs of her. But most of them had been black and whites. Looking at that painting, it was as if her grandmother had come to life in that small space outside the room that had once been her bedroom.
“My grandmother.” J.J. whispered, her eyes locked on the face. “How old was she at that time?”
“She was twenty-one. I had it done to commemorate that birthday. It’s my second favorite portrait of her. I’ve been wanting you to see it. I guess now is as good a time as any. You look so much like her, Justine. I have watched you from my bedroom when you were out on the back fields riding during your last couple of visits here. You take your hair down when you ride, just as she used to do. She liked the wind in it. You remind me very much of her.”
J.J. sat thinking that Suzanne Edwards had only been five years older than her own present age when that painting had been commissioned. By the time her grandmother turned twenty-one, she had been married for three years and was mother to a baby girl. It made her wonder at what place she would be in her own life at that age. Her grandfather thought she looked like her. If that were so, and that was what she had to look forward to, she thought, then so be it. Aside from the hair and the eyes, she could see that her mother greatly resembled her as well, even more than she’d noticed in the photographs she’d seen. Jennifer Hart was still holding up pretty well. It seemed those genes ran pretty deeply.
In that painting, her grandmother was confidently sitting that horse like a real woman, like her mother did, and like she hoped that she did. Her mother was more polished and feminine when she rode, having seriously trained for and participated in equestrian competitions as a girl until the time that she was a young woman. But J.J. could tell that her grandmother had been like her: self-taught, and just into it for the enjoyment and the thrill of the good, hard ride. All Suzanne Edwards needed in that painting was a good pair of black jeans with those boots she had on and when she got down off the horse, to have put her hair up in a pony tail.
J.J. looked up to her grandfather’s eyes which were looking down on her.
“You think so, Pa? You think I look like her? Everybody else seems to think that I look like my mother.”
“That’s only to those who’ve never met your grandmother. Dean Marchand could see it, and she’d only met her one time. Agnes always did have a talent for remembering names and faces. You look like your mother because your mother looks like her.”
The way that he was smoothing his hand over the painting made J.J.’s heart went go out to him. She could tell that he still missed her, and she wondered how often he came down there alone.
Did he feel closer to her when he was there?
Thinking about being close to someone pushed the question into her mind, and onto her lips. “Has my mother been looking for me? I’ve been down here for a good while trying to find a way out.”
Stephen’s face, too, abruptly took on a stunned expression.
“She was looking for you outside much earlier, but then I came up to bed…” His voice trailed off as he realized that if that child had been in there all that time, then Jennifer had to be going crazy not knowing where she was. And he hadn’t seen Jennifer since that time in the kitchen; she hadn’t even been in to say good night to him.
“We’d better try to get you up.” He said as he hurriedly dropped the cover back down over the painting, and came back over by J.J., bending down to get his arm around her to help her to her feet.
“Wait, Pa.” She said, holding onto his arm to gain his attention. “Before we go I need to ask you something.”
“Yes, what is-”
He was cut off by the sound of knocking, and then a voice in the room at the top of the stairs.
“Down here, Jonathan!”
A couple of seconds later, the man appeared in the opening.
“Thank God!” He exclaimed, and then he looked vexed. “J.J. Hart, people have been looking for you for hours! I’ll bet that ankle is screwed. Hold on, Stephen, I’ll get her.”
He started down the stairs, and behind him Stephen and J.J. could see Bill, Pat, Marnie, and Walter.
They were all back, and J.J. could only surmise that it was all because of her. As Marnie would put it, her life was probably burnt toast at that point. But still she was disappointed that she had again been stopped before she could pose her question to her grandfather.
As if in response to her reaction to being interrupted another time, the words, “J’attendrai, ma chéri.” clearly sounded in her head.
She couldn’t be sure if she had just thought it or if it somehow had been said to her, and although her grandmother might wait for her forever, J.J. knew that she didn’t have much longer on that trip to wait to get to know her. The days would fly by, and the time would be gone before any of them knew it. The desire had always been there, but since the Gresham Hall reunion the previous week, the feeling that she needed to know about her grandmother had been growing stronger and stronger. It felt as if it were supposed to happen on this trip. Thinking on it since the time that she had discovered Marnie on the other side of the wall, she was sure that discovering that passage was going to take her there. In a way it had, but not in the manner and to the degree that she wanted.
As he was helping her up from the floor, and J.J. was trying to avoid having her ankle come into contact with anything, Jonathan looked around at the contents of the space. He took special notice of the guns in the gun cabinet, and the certificates and citations from various governments around the world tacked up on the walls. He figured that J.J. had seen it all too, and had already taken inventory. More than likely, she was probably going to have to finally be told the full story of the true nature of what her grandfather’s work had really been.
But what he also noticed, which was far more important to him, was that Jennifer apparently wasn’t down there with them.
When her father wrapped his arm around her back and lifted her up, J.J., realized that she had seen every face at the top of those stairs, except her mother’s. And she knew that if she had been anywhere up there with them, she would have been the first one down those stairs to come to her… even if it was only to ream her out about sneaking off like she had, and getting into something she shouldn’t have, in the process.
If her mother wasn’t up there with the rest of them, where in the world could she be?
It wasn’t long before Jennifer had come upon the half of the broken crutch lying on the floor. She picked it up and stood with it in her hand for a moment, trying to make sense of it. Its presence assured her that J.J. had knowledge of this place, which meant that this had to have been where she had come. But why was the crutch broken, and where was the other half?
The part that she had in her hand was the bottom. and it wasn’t making sense that J.J. would have taken just the top of the crutch with her for support. Shining the light on the stairs leading up to a door similar to the one she had come through in Marnie’s closet, she immediately got her answer to that puzzle. The wood splinters and pieces trailing down them told her what had happened. The little minx had tried to put the crutch in the wall in her own closet to hold it open so that she could get back in, but her plan hadn’t worked.
She had seen the other crutch in that room leaning against the bed the last time she went in to check on J.J.. Putting it all together, Jennifer concluded that J.J. was down there unsupported on that bad ankle, and she wouldn’t have been able to walk very far on it without it giving her a lot of trouble. The thought that her child could be sitting somewhere in that dim passageway in pain, unable to proceed or to get back, caused her to drop the useless piece of wood to the floor and hurry on to find her.
After her father and Bill got her into her room, J.J grabbed the other crutch for support, and pointed to the inside of the closet to show her father where the switch was that operated the wall. The other half of the second crutch lie crushed and splintered on the closet floor.
Jonathan stepped on the switch, and the wall slid open. With all his knowledge and experience with technology and gadgetry, even he was impressed with how undetectable the sliding wall appeared when it was closed, and with how the switch itself was so easily overlooked if one weren’t specifically in the closet looking for it.
“Well, I’ll be.” He whispered in awe.
“I haven’t thought about the entire system in years.” Stephen mused quietly behind him. “I’d almost forgotten about the switches and where they all were.”
Jonathan was shining the flashlight down the stairs. He had a hunch about the purpose for which ‘the system’ had been designed, but it was Jennifer’s whereabouts that were foremost in his mind at that moment. He would have Stephen fill him in on the particulars once he had Jennifer back safely in his arms, and in their fold.
Marnie slipped between the three other adults to make her way into the closet. She tugged at Jonathan’s arm.
“But she didn’t know about this one, Mr. Hart. I only told Mrs. Hart about the one in my room. If you’re thinking about following her down there, she would have left through my closet. I don’t know if that makes a difference or not, but I think that’s probably the way she went in.”
“It all ends up in the same place.” Stephen offered. “I can save you some time, Jonathan. If she went in through Marnie’s room, she would have naturally gone to the right. It’s human nature.”
Pat keyed in on what he said, and although she didn’t know what significance the direction Jennifer had taken would have on where she would end up; for her, something else wasn’t adding up.
“Then how did J.J. end up back there with you at your room if she left from here?” She asked. “Your room is left of here, Mr. Edwards. Does it go in a circle down there or something?”
They all turned around to look back to J.J. for an explanation. She had left them to lean the crutch against the bed again, and was sitting on it to elevate her painfully throbbing foot and to deal with her razor sharp pangs of guilt.
“I started out going to the right,” She quietly explained. “I first went as far as that room you and Uncle Bill were in. But then I got curious and doubled back to research if all the closets had the same steps and doors. I came back past here, past Marnie’s, and my mother and father’s rooms. It took me a while, and since I wasn’t going fast enough to keep the lights on, when I got to Pa’s room, it was real dark. I didn’t want to use the flashlight batteries up, so I was feeling my way. That’s when I tripped on the desk or something, and fell. He must have heard me and came down. I didn’t even know that I had made it to his room until I heard him calling me.”
“I go down there most evenings to check my foreign correspondence.” Stephen said. “But I only went down tonight when I heard the noise. Imagine my surprise. Jennifer has to have gone down there looking for Justine. She must still be there.”
“You said that you could save me some time, Stephen.” Jonathan urged impatiently. “Please, I need to find Jennifer. Where does it go, and is there a quicker way to get there?”
“The guest house. Go there.” Stephen said simply. “If she’s been gone all this time, I believe you’ll find her there in the attic.”
“Want me to go with you?” Bill asked Jonathan.
Stephen put his hand on Bill’s shoulder and squeezed it meaningfully. When he spoke, he was talking to Bill, but he was looking at Jonathan.
“I think she’ll need to be alone with him when he finds her.” He said, the tone of his voice drawing the attention of everyone else in the room. “She’ll need you, Jonathan.”
J.J., still over on the bed, lay her head back and closed her eyes to pray in earnest that she hadn’t unintentionally opened a can of emotional worms for her mother.
Her father tried to tell her she needed to be careful with it, but apparently she hadn’t been very careful at all.