USA Today Bestselling Mystery Author
Amy M. Reade
SECRETS OF HALLSTEAD HOUSE
My journey was almost over.
It was raining, and I looked out through the drizzle across the blue-gray water of the Saint Lawrence River. Only a few boats were out on such a raw and rainy day. From the bench where I sat on the Cape Cartier public dock, I could see several islands. Each was covered with trees—dark green pine trees and leafy maples, oaks, birches, and weeping willows. In the chilly late September air, the leaves were already tinged with the colors of fall: yellows, reds, oranges, browns. I could glimpse homes on the islands, but I didn't see any people. It was beautiful here—so different from the city I had just left behind.
Even though twenty years have come and gone since that day, I can still remember the calm that settled around me as I waited for my ride to Hallstead House in the middle of the Thousand Islands. My nerves were still ragged, but the river had an immediate and peaceful effect on me. I was only twenty then, but I had been through so much. Though I had been traveling for just a few hours, my journey to this place had begun six long weeks earlier.
As I listened to the raindrops plunk into the river, the sound of the motor from an approaching boat cut into my reverie. It was an older boat of gleaming mahogany with a large white awning covering most of it, protecting the cabin and the pilot from the rain. It puttered up to the dock slowly and in a few moments had pulled alongside, close to where I sat. The pilot moved to the stern and climbed out quickly, securing the boat to the dock with a thick rope. He turned to me with a questioning look and said, "Macy Stoddard?"
He shook my hand curtly. "I'm Pete McHale. I work for Alexandria Hallstead. She sent me here to pick you up. That all the luggage you brought?"
"Yes, that's it."
He shot me a disapproving look and said, "I hope you brought some warm stuff to wear. It starts getting cold up here pretty early in the fall. It's colder here than it is in the big city, you know?" He smirked.
Determined to stay positive, I ignored his look of reproach and replied that I had plenty of warm clothes. Once he's stowed my two large suitcases in the boat under the awning, he helped me on board, where I chose a seat in front so I could see where we were going and stay dry. I had been in a boat once as a child when a furious storm blew up, and I had hated boats ever since. Still, though I was unhappy and nervous to be riding in one, there was absolutely no other way to get to my island destination. Pete untied the boat and we slowly pulled away from the dock. As he scanned the river and began turning the boat to the north, I glanced at his profile. He looked like he was in his mid-thirties—medium height, with light-brown, windblown hair, and green eyes with creases in the corners that made it look like he squinted a lot. He wore faded jeans and a Windbreaker.
We he had steered the boat out of the small, sheltered bay at Cape Cartier and into the more open channel, he glanced at me and said, "We'll be at Summerplace in about ten minutes."
"That's the name of the house on Hallstead Island."
"Oh. I thought it was called Hallstead House."
"Its official name is Hallstead House. The people who live on the island just call it Summerplace."
We sat in silence for several moments, and finally I asked, "Why is it called Summerplace?"
Pete sighed. Evidently he didn't relish playing the role of tour guide. "It's called Sumerplace because it used to be a summer retreat for the Hallstead family. Now Miss Hallstead stays there for as much of the year as she can. In early to mid-October she moves the household over to Pine Island and spends the winter there."
To keep my mind off my abject fear of being on the water, I turned my attention to the islands we were passing. Each one had a home on it, and all of the homes were beautiful. Some looked empty, since their occupants had probably left after the summer ended, but some still had boats tied to docks or housed in quaint boathouses. The homes themselves, most of which were huge and had large, welcoming porches, were surrounded by the ever-present trees. Several had bright awnings over the windows.
In the face of Pete's apparent ambivalence, I had determined not to ask anymore questions. But as I sat looking around me I forgot my self-imposed rule. "Are there really a thousand islands in this area?" I blurted out.
"There are actually over eighteen hundred islands in the Thousand Islands," he replied. To my surprise, he seemed to warm to this subject and continued. "In order to be included in the count, an island has to be above water three hundred and sixty-five days a year and support at least two living trees."
I continued to draw him out, asking, "What do you do for Mrs. Hallstead?"
His attitude changed again, becoming colder. "It's Miss Hallstead. She never took her husband's name. But to answer your question, I'm one of the handymen. I'm also the boat captain—I maintain and pilot this and one other boat. I don't do a lot of chauffeuring The people who live on Hallstead Island don't get out much. I just ferry the visitors."
"Who else lives on the island besides Miss Hallstead?"
"Just another handyman and a housekeeper. They're an older married couple. Leland and Valentine Byrd. They have quarters next to the main residence.
"How did you get the job as Miss Hallstead's private nurse?" Pete asked.
"My agency got a request for a private nurse for an elderly woman who had broken a hip. They knew I was looking for a change, so they offered it to me."
"Oh. Aren't you a little young for a job like that?"
"I'm almost twenty-one," I said a little indignantly. "I've been working for over a year at a hospital."
"Oh. I beg your pardon."
I turned to observe my new surroundings. Each island that we passed seemed to have its own unique personality. Some seemed dominated by magnificent homes; others were more notable for their stunning natural beauty. I prattled on with my usual tact. "Who can afford to live in these places?"
"A lot of these islands used to be owned by big businessmen. Nowadays they're mostly owned by regular people, but some of the bigger ones are still owned by the families of the original owners."
"How long have the Hallsteads been coming here?"
"Three generations now. The Hallsteads are an old oil family. They own HSH Oil Company—the 'HSH' stands for Henry S. Hallstead, the company founder and Miss Hallstead's grandfather. He bought the island originally."
"Do the Hallsteads still run the oil company?" It was none of my business and I regretted the question immediately. Pete shot me a look confirming my thoughts, but he answered my question nonetheless.
"Yes, they do. They run the day-to-day operations."
"How do you know all this?"
"I've been around for quite a while," he said dryly.
"Does Miss Hallstead get many visitors?"
Pete smirked. "Hardly. The only two people who ever stay at the house with her are her advisor and her nephew. They each have rooms in the house."
"Do you live on the island?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"I'm just curious." And nervous.
"I can see that. I usually stay on the island. I have rooms over the boathouse. My family lives on Heather Island, which is not too far from Hallstead Island. I stay there every so often. Hallstead Island can get a little gloomy."
"Gloomy? What's gloomy about it?"
Pete didn't answer. He steered the boat slightly to the right and pointed to an island looming up ahead. "That's Hallstead Island. The boathouse is just around the other side, right off the channel. I'll drive you around back so you can see the island before we dock."
As the boat slowly approached, I got my first glimpse of the place that would be my new home. It was stunning. Where the island rose out of the river, a stone wall was visible above the surface of the water. The wall was about five feet high and appeared to stretch around the entire island. It had been built of gray stones of varying thickness, stacked on top of one another, and it had the effect of making the island look almost fortress-like. On the wall were long striations of colors ranging from white to dark gray to mossy green. I asked Pete what they were and he informed me that they marked past high-water levels of the river.
Rising from the stone wall were gently sloping expanses of rock, some covered with moss, some bare of any vegetation, looking dark and slick from the rain. Still other areas of the rocky surface contained large crevices choked with shaggy shrubs and wild grasses. As we continued around the considerable perimeter of the island, I saw several neighboring islands. One or two of them seemed rather large, like Hallstead Island, and one of the them was tiny, with no more than a cottage and a few trees rising from the surface of the water. The boat moved slowly, barely creating a wake, and we rounded the northern end of the island. A leafy red maple tree leaned far out over the water. It was an unusual tree and looked as if a ceaseless wind had caused it to grow sideways. As we passed under, it was so near the boat that I could have reached up to touch the dancing leaves on its gently curving branches.
Trying to forget my churning nerves, I turned my attention toward the center of the island. The trees there grew in a dense stand. Some were leafy, but mostly they were evergreens, tall and dark and sturdy looking, moving in unison as the wind gently blew through their long, graceful branches. They grew thickly, reminding me of a peaceful, primeval forest. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft, low song of the wind in the trees and the tapping of the raindrops on the boat's canopy. For a moment I was even able to shut out the quiet hum of the boat's motor.
"It's beautiful," I breathed, almost afraid that talking aloud would break the spell of silence and beauty around me.
"It is," Pete agreed quietly. I glanced over at him and saw that he, too, was gazing appreciatively at the island.
"Where's the house?" I asked.
Pete looked surprised. "Don't you see it?" He pointed into the dark cluster of trees, nodding toward the middle of the island. "Summerplace—Hallstead House—is right in the middle of those trees."
I looked more closely, and this time I spied a dark-green structure rising from the forest floor. I couldn't see it very well, but as I scanned the woods I saw several dark-green turrets, each with a rich chocolate-brown roof. I would have to wait until I was closer to see the rest of Summerplace.
"The house certainly blends in well with its surroundings. I can hardly swee it."
Pete nodded, saying, "Miss Hallstead likes it that way." His comment about Summerplace being gloomy came to mind, and I had to admit that the house did conjure up an image of darkness and gloom, at least from what little I could see of it.
But I wasn't ready to make any judgments yet. After all, this was to be my new job and my new home, at least for now. I forced myself to be cheerful and asked Pete, "The boathouse is around the back of the island?"
"Yeah—it'll just take a minute." He steered the boat slowly around the side of the island facing away from the channel. The back side was just like the front: a low stone wall, rocks, grasses, wild shrubs, and lots of trees. In another moment we pulled up to the boathouse, a large, square, two-story structure painted the same shade of green as the main residence. It had a dark-brown roof, and above the roofline at each corner rose a small turret with several windows marching around it. A long balcony stretched around the structure's entire second story. A large cupola in the center of the peaked boathouse roof held a verdigris weather vane in the shape of a ship. In front, three large boat bays stood open, and I could two boats moored inside.
"I love it!" I cried spontaneously.
"It's a pretty fair reproduction of Summerplace, only on a much smaller scale," Pete noted proudly. "Of course, it's not exactly like Summerplace because the front is all taken up by boat bays, but you get the idea. We keep this boat in there, plus a smaller one, plus my own boat. My rooms are upstairs, and the rest of the second story is used as storage and for maintenance equipment for the house and boats."
I nodded, absorbed in taking in the details of the boathouse and watching Pete maneuver our boat into its bay and up against the dock. He turned off the engine, jumped up onto the dock, and secured the boat with thick, heavy ropes. He hopped into the boat again to get my suitcases, and then, carrying both, he led the way out of the boathouse. I was very grateful to get onto land again.
It had started to rain a little harder, and I followed Pete away from the boathouse toward Summerplace. We made our way from a slippery, rocky surface to a well-worn path that entered the trees through a graceful arch of branches. Our shoes made almost no sound on the carpet of wet leaves and pine needles, and the trees created their own darkness, especially on this dreary day. A chill blew through me with the wind.
Neither of us spoke in the hush of the trees until Pete turned back to me and said, "Here's Summerplace."
We had reached an area where the trees were thinning and, almost out of nowhere, Summerplace appeared before me. Just like its miniature double, the boathouse, Summerplace was painted a deep shade of forest green that perfectly matched the trees surrounding it. It was quite large. It had two stories, and a turret rose from each corner of the home, four in all, like those on the boathouse, but on a grander scale. Each turret was at least one full story higher than the rest of the house and wreathed in tall windows. The rich brown roof was peaked in the center, and it held an enormous cupola topped by a weathervane like the one on the boathouse, shaped like a ship and covered with the green patina of age. Around the ground floor was a wide porch covered by dark brown awnings, and around the second floor, again like that on the boathouse, was a wide balcony. Neither the porch nor the balcony held any furniture.
Pete was watching me as I got my first real look at Summerplace. "What do you think?" he finally asked.
"I don't know yet," I answered truthfully. "It could be beautiful, but it's a little forbidding."
Pete nodded. "I tried to get Miss Hallstead to choose a different color than the dark green, but this is the way she wanted it."
He led the way up the wide steps onto the front porch. "It doesn't welcome me," I noted, half to myself. Pete had reached the front door, and he put my suitcases down and turned to face me.
"I don't think the front porch is the only thing you're going to find unwelcoming about this place. Don't expect all the people here to be happy about your arrival," he said gravely.
Pete's words unnerved me, and I felt my fear rushing back. I was unsure about my new job and my new home, and I shook my head as if doing so would help me shake off my rising doubts. I forced a note of confidence into my voice that I didn't feel. "Let's go in," I told him. After all, it couldn't be any worse than what I had left behind.
If I had known then of the events that were already taking shape in the gloom of Hallstead House, I might not have had the courage to go inside.