I shivered, partly from the biting cold, and partly from my unexplainable, but very real, queasy feelings about the whole situation. I tried telling myself that damp, creepy old houses, especially those set back in dark country woods, can give off eerie vibes. I thought of Hansel and Gretel. Remembering my childish fright I chuckled. Why, it was nothing more than Wynderly itself that was giving me the sense that something was amiss.
Feeling better, I stared hard at the photograph of Mazie and Hoyt as if hoping it would speak to me.
We can never go back again, that much is certain, Mother had told me the day we closed up her home, some months after my father died.
Trying to make light of the heartbreaking moment, I had said, "I think Daphne du Maurier said it first, Mother. In Rebecca."
I tried to imagine Hoyt and Mazie's lives during that time when ladies wore picture hats to tea parties and gentlemen dressed for dinner. What dreams they must have dreamed as they watched their house rise from its stone foundation to its magnificent completion. And all the stuff in it? Chances were the Wyndfields, like scores of my clients, had simply met up with a few fast-talking antiques wheeler-dealers and fallen for their spiels.
I kept thinking about those Tang horses. Add in Michelle Hendrix's puzzling demeanor and the eerie aura surrounding the house . . . In no time, uneasy feelings had crept back into my head. What I needed was a delete button in my brain like the one on my computer.
Get a grip, Sterling, I told myself. This isn't one of those novels about art theft or jewelry heists; this is life. Real life.
I'd been bent over so long, I needed to get my circulation going againto clear my mind, if nothing else. I stood, only to stumble over a raised beam that blended into the pine floor's shadowy grain. I lurched forward and instinctively reached out to grab something before I hit the wall in front of me. A tower of boxes moved under my momentum, and together we landed in a heap on the floor.
The plank beneath my feet had moved, or at least that's the way it felt. Instead of falling forward, my body twisted and first my hip, then my shoulder, took the impact of the fall.
The faint lightbulb dangling from the attic ceiling had flickered, then gone out when I fell. A small casement window was nearby, but afternoon clouds had settled in. Crawling forward, I mentally kicked myself for not bringing in the flashlight I kept in my car for just such situations.
No question about it. One of the wide floorboards had sunk at least half, maybe even three-quarters of an inch below the boards on each side of it. I patted the floor around me. My hand hit an obstruction. The beam I had stumbled over was definitely jutting up through the floor. It was probably part of a high-vaulted ceiling I'd seen on my tour of the house.
I pushed on the sunken board in hopes it might pop back in place. When I did, the wall I had barely avoided hitting head-on creaked ever so slightly. My hands went wet and my throat dry. I swallowed hard and pressed the board again, harder this time. There was no mistaking the connection between the movement of the displaced piece of flooring and the low creaking coming from what looked like just another wallexcept it was paneled, not unfinished the way other parts of the attic were. Maybe the plan had been to build a closet or a maid's room, but they never got around to doing it. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I set about restacking the fallen boxes, one of which had broken open. Strewn across the floor were sheets of dry onionskin paper held together by rusty paper clips and straight pins. Official-looking ledger pages were mixed in with handwritten receipts, as were several small books.
Enough late afternoon light was trickling through the windows so I could make out the larger lettering on some of the receipts. I gathered a handful and began sifting through them. "Société anonyme au capital de 250.000 Francs. Invoice. Nürnberg. American Consulate. Hong Kong. Customs Broker. Saaz."
Excerpted from The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins. Copyright © 2009 by Emyl Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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