Chapter One: Tuesday, March 20
He turned onto the boardwalk and felt the full impact of the stinging blast from the ocean. Observing the shifting clouds, he decided it wouldn't be surprising if they had a snow flurry later on, even though tomorrow was the first day of spring. It had been a long winter, and everyone said how much they were looking forward to the warm weather ahead. He wasn't.
He enjoyed Spring Lake best once late autumn set in. By then the summer people had closed their houses, not appearing even for weekends.
He was chagrined, though, that with each passing year more and more people were selling their winter homes and settling here permanently. They had decided it was worth the seventy-mile commute into New York so that they could begin and end the day in this quietly beautiful New Jersey seaside community.
Spring Lake, with its Victorian houses that appeared unchanged from the way they had been in the 1890s, was worth the inconvenience of the trip, they explained.
Spring Lake, with the fresh, bracing scent of the ocean always present, revived the soul, they agreed.
Spring Lake, with its two-mile boardwalk, where one could revel in the silvery magnificence of the Atlantic, was a treasure, they pointed out.
All of these people shared so much -- the summer visitors, the permanent dwellers -- but none of them shared his secrets. He could stroll down Hayes Avenue and visualize Madeline Shapley as she had been in late afternoon on September 7, 1891, seated on the wicker sofa on the wraparound porch of her home, her wide-brimmed bonnet beside her. She had been nineteen years old then, brown-eyed, with dark brown hair, sedately beautiful in her starched white linen dress.
Only he knew why she had had to die an hour later.
St. Hilda Avenue, shaded with heavy oaks that had been mere saplings on August 5, 1893, when eighteen-year-old Letitia Gregg had failed to return home, brought other visions. She had been so frightened. Unlike Madeline, who had fought for her life, Letitia had begged for mercy.
The last one of the trio had been Ellen Swain, small and quiet, but far too inquisitive, far too anxious to document the last hours of Letitia's life.
And because of her curiosity, on March 31, 1896, she had followed her friend to the grave.
He knew every detail, every nuance of what had happened to her and to the others.
He had found the diary during one of those cold, rainy spells that sometimes occur in summer. Bored, he'd wandered into the old carriage house, which served as a garage.
He climbed the rickety steps to the stuffy, dusty loft, and for lack of something better to do, began rummaging through the boxes he found there.
The first one was filled with utterly useless odds and ends: rusty old lamps; faded, outdated clothing; pots and pans and a scrub board; chipped vanity sets, the glass on the mirrors cracked or blurred. They all were the sorts of items one shoves out of sight with the intention of fixing or giving away, and then forgets altogether.
Another box held thick albums, the pages crumbling, filled with pictures of stiffly posed, stern-faced people refusing to share their emotions with the camera.
A third contained books, dusty, swollen from humidity, the type faded. He'd always been a reader, but even though only fourteen at the time, he could glance through these titles and dismiss them. No hidden masterpieces in the lot.
A dozen more boxes proved to be filled with equally worthless junk.
In the process of throwing everything back into the boxes, he came across a rotted leather binder that had been hidden in what looked like another photo album. He opened it and found it stuffed with pages, every one of them covered with writing.
Copyright © 2001 by Mary Higgins Clark
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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