Stranger on the Shore
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
It was stupid to be nervous.
It wasn't like he wasn't qualified. Not like he didn't deserve this. Not like anyone was expecting him to solve the mystery of what had happened to four-year-old Brian Arlington on that long ago summer's eve. He was only writing a book -- and wasn't everyone writing a book these days?
Griff sucked in a long breath and reached for the car door handle. But he didn't open the door. He continued to sit staring at the white Italianate façade of the villa, graceful columns, punctiliously flat roofs, balconies with black wrought-iron railings, and all the while his heart was beating too fast in that weird mix of anticipation and anxiety. More anxiety than anticipation which was just... weird.
The best way to deal with it was to get his ass out of the car and in front of those elegant, imposing double doors.
What was the worst that could happen? The old man might change his mind, might decide he didn't want to cooperate, didn't want Griff staying at the estate, didn't want Griff to write the book at all. That would be disappointing, yes, but it wouldn't stop Griff. It was unlikely to happen anyway since Griff's staying at the Arlington estate had been Jarrett Arlington's idea.
Why was he still sitting here, heart in his throat and hands like ice?
It was a long time, years, since he'd experienced an anxiety attack. He sure as hell didn't have time for that now.
He was tired, that was all. Bone tired. He'd been driving for close on to two days. Fifteen hours behind the wheel. It was nearly a thousand miles from Wisconsin to Long Island. As the lakes of Madison had given way to the thunderstorms of Illinois, the sooty industry of Ohio, the red bricks, red barns, red cows of Pennsylvania... he had felt further and further adrift from everything he knew and loved, an explorer heading off for the New World only to find that happiness really was in his own backyard.
Yeah, he needed to get out more, that was for sure.
Griff took a deep breath, yanked open the door, and unfolded from the battered Karmann Ghia.
A bird, hidden in the green leaves of the tall hedge, trilled a cheerful greeting and took flight. The sun was bright and warm for Long Island in April. The brisk air was salty sweet with the scent of the sea and newly bloomed lilacs. It steadied him. Ridiculous that he should need steadying, but that was the way it was. Then again, this gig was kind of a big deal. A big deal for anyone, but especially for the crime beat reporter of the Banner Chronicle, paid circulation 4,401.
By rights the story should have gone to a C.J. Chivers or an Ann Rule. It was still hard to believe that he, Griffin N. Hadley, had been tapped to write the account of one of the most famous kidnappings of the last century. So, okay, maybe a little nervousness was permissible.
He walked across the courtyard, sparkling white stone and shell crunching beneath his chucks, passed between two weathered stone griffins -- hopefully a good omen -- up the six long, narrow steps to the next terrace, past a water-stained and silent fountain, up six more long, narrow steps, through the columns and arches of the portico to the double front doors with their amber and black stained glass panels.
It took a second or two to locate the doorbell buzzer, concealed as it was in a large, bronze sunburst. Griff pressed the buzzer and nothing much seemed to happen. Maybe, like the fountain, the bell no longer worked?
Griff glanced around. It was not that the house or grounds looked shabby, exactly, but the grass was a little long, the lilac hedges were a little ragged, the paint was a little faded.
Had the Arlington family fallen on hard times? Not according to his research. Maybe it really was hard to get good help these days.
Griff pressed the doorbell again.
The nearest door suddenly swung open and a tall, gaunt woman in a severely plain, black dress said, "I heard you the first time."
"Oh. Sorry," Griff said guiltily. "I didn't... " He let that go. In a funny way she reminded him of his mother. His mother when she was in one of her tempers. Same general physical type, same snapping dark eyes and strong features, though his mother had been softer and prettier -- and much younger.
He said instead, "I'm Griffin Ha--"
"I know who you are," she cut him off. "Mr. Arlington is waiting to see you."
Now surely that was odd. Griff didn't pretend to know how the other half -- or, more exactly, the other one percent -- lived, but he was pretty sure the help wasn't supposed to take that tone with visitors. But then he probably didn't look like the usual visitor to Winden House. Maybe he should have searched around for a trade entrance.
"And you are?" he asked.
Her eyes narrowed. "Mrs. Truscott. I'm Mr. Arlington's housekeeper."
Truscott. The name was familiar. Griff was sure she had been employed at the time of Brian's kidnapping, but not as housekeeper. The housekeeper back then had been a Mrs. Cameron, now deceased.
Mrs. Truscott led the way through an elegant entryway. Griff looked about himself and tried not to gawk. It wasn't easy. The much-photographed diamond parquet floor was actually creaking beneath his feet, and the low, cream-colored, compartmented ceiling stretched right over his head. The famous marble staircase the kidnappers had carried little Brian down that fateful night curved to his left.
It felt unreal. He'd studied this entry hall so many times in so many pictures. Now he was here, striding across the glossy walnut and rosewood parquet and following Mrs. Truscott up the graceful staircase. It was like walking into a history book -- except that Griff was the one supposed to write the history.
Well, he was ready. He'd done his homework. He knew more about Winden House than he knew about the house he'd grown up in. The villa sat on 160 acres and had been built in 1906 by Gold Coast architects Hiss and Weekes. The entire estate was comprised of the main house, two greenhouses, a solarium, a swimming pool, two five-room cottages and two barns. Once upon a time the Arlingtons had bred horses, which was the reason for the two barns. What the excuse was for all the rest of it, he couldn't imagine. He wasn't here to judge, though.
The ceiling in the downstairs library was of gold leaf; the stained glass ceiling on the upper level had originally been a skylight. The night Brian Arlington had been kidnapped, there had been a party in the sunken garden behind the house. The party theme had been A Midsummer's Night Dream.
A lot of facts, a lot of information, but none of it could compare to three minutes inside the house. There was no substitute for the actual of experience of hearing the brisk click of Mrs. Truscott's sensible heels on the marble steps; for breathing in that unique scent of cut flowers, furniture polish, and expensive old age; for the first glimpse of the glittering sea through the Serlian windows, or the sight of gold-framed paintings that ought to be hanging in museums. Yeah, if the Arlingtons were running short of cash, maybe they should sell a painting or two.
"This way," Mrs. Truscott said as they reached the second landing and a life-sized oil portrait of a portly young man holding a pocket watch. Mrs. Truscott sounded like someone speaking to a wayward kindergartener. Griff eyed her curiously. She looked to be in her sixties, but she moved briskly and her back was as straight as a yoga instructor's.
He opened his mouth to ask about the size of the household staff, but stopped himself. She probably had definite ideas about how this process was supposed to go, and getting the final stamp of approval from the old man would be part of it.
Hopefully Arlington would not take one look at him and change his mind. It could happen. Weren't the rich famous for their whims and impulses?
Their footsteps were buried in the faded roses of the Aubusson carpet. The scent of pipe tobacco drifted from down the long hall.
Mrs. Truscott stopped before a closed door and tapped softly.
"Come in," called a voice. Age blurred gender, but the accent was the distinctive one known as Locust Valley Lockjaw.
This was it. Griff squared his shoulders. Mrs. Truscott opened the door, delivered one final, disapproving look and departed.
Griff stepped inside the room.
It was probably a beautiful room -- he had an impression of arched windows and high ceilings -- but Griff's attention was focused on the spare, white-haired figure staring down at the star-shaped courtyard. Griff had a moment to wonder if Jarrett Arlington had watched him arrive, watched him sit vacillating in his car, watched him finally get up the nerve to knock on the door?
Arlington turned to face him. It seemed a very long moment before he took the pipe from his mouth. "Well? What do you think, Mr. Hadley?"
"The house? It looks exactly like the photographs."
Grave blue eyes studied him from beneath formidable white brows. Jarrett Arlington was slim, slight and brown from a lifetime of sailing and golfing and whatever else the very rich did when they weren't counting their money. Despite his considerable age -- he was nearly ninety -- he still had a full head of hair which stood up cockatoo-like.
Griff waited for Arlington to say something like... Griff looked younger than his photo on the Banner Chronicle editorial staff page. Or just interrogate him about what he proposed to write and why he imagined he was qualified to tackle this story. One brief phone call wasn't going to be enough to seal the deal -- even if that was how it had seemed at the time.
But after another of those thoughtful pauses, Arlington said, "Hm. I suppose it does. Did you drive all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, in that Karmann Ghia?"
"I did, yeah," Griff said.
"And how many times did you break down?"
"I didn't. Not once." That was because he had completely rebuilt the engine six months ago, but Arlington wasn't going to be interested in hearing how Griff had spent a year lovingly and painstakingly restoring a vintage car.
"Hm." Arlington continued to appraise him with that keen blue gaze.
It wasn't his imagination, right? This was a strange interview.
Arlington seemed to come to a decision. He said briskly, "I'd better tell you, the rest of the family is none too pleased about our arrangement and this book you're going to write."
Here it comes. Griff opened his mouth, though he wasn't sure what he could say to convince Arlington over the protests of his nearest and dearest.
But Arlington made a brisk, dismissive gesture. "Don't worry. I'll handle them. I want this book. I want this case reopened. If anybody gives you any trouble, you refer them to me. I've instructed them all you're to have complete access, complete cooperation."
"How long do you think it'll take you to write the book?"
Was Arlington imagining Griff would write the book this week? "I don't -- I'm not sure." He stopped himself from admitting that he'd never written a book before. Not that Arlington didn't already know that, but there was no point in emphasizing Griff's lack of experience. Instead, he said, "I'll do my best to bring the case back to public attention."
"If Brian is out there somewhere, I want him to know we haven't forgotten him. We haven't given up."
"Uh... right." Brian was dead. Odell Johnson was sitting in prison right now, convicted of Brian's kidnapping and murder.
"Either way, I want the truth. I don't care how painful it is."
Griff liked the courage of that. One of the theories was that the kidnapping had been an inside job. He said, "I'll do my best to get the truth for you."
Arlington suddenly smiled. "I know you will. Do you have any questions for me? I mean, before you settle in and start dragging out the family skeletons?" The warmth and charm of that smile transformed him. Griff could see the shade of the heartbreaker Arlington had reportedly been in his youth.
"Is it okay if I take photos?"
"Take all the photos you want. Pierce will have to approve everything anyway."
Griff repeated uncertainly, "Pierce?"
"Pierce Mather. My, er, man of affairs."
Man of affairs? Did people really say that?
"The family lawyer." Arlington chuckled, so maybe it was supposed to be a joke.
"Oh, that Pierce," Griff said. "The one who told me not to write the book."
"That's the one." Arlington was definitely amused. "Yes, Pierce can be a little overbearing. He means well. Pierce will look everything over just to make sure nothing damaging or defamatory is inadvertently published."
Griff had been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and here it was, right on schedule, delivering a hard, swift kick to his ass. "Pierce is going to have final approval of my work?"
"I wouldn't put it that way," Arlington said.
"Because we didn't agree to that. I can't work under that kind of restriction."
The disappointment was sickening, but no way was Griff going to write some kind of corporate approved publicity piece or whatever it was the Arlingtons had in mind. If staying on the estate and having access to these people meant he couldn't write the book he wanted to write, then he'd rent a room in town and get his interviews the regular way, the way he'd planned on writing the book before Arlington had proposed this too-good-to-be-true idea of staying at the estate.
He should have known. Should have realized a wealthy, powerful family like the Arlingtons would try to control the spin of a book like this. He was stupid not have seen this coming.
"No, no," Arlington was saying hastily in answer to whatever he read in Griff's expression. "It's not what you're thinking. No one is going to censor what you write or attempt to... to restrict the freedom of the press. It isn't anything like that. Nothing related to Brian's kidnapping will be off-limits to you, but staying on the estate you'll be privy to potentially sensitive information that has no bearing on the case or your story. That's the sort of thing Pierce will be looking for."
Put like that, it sounded reasonable. Griff still felt wary. He had spoken to Pierce Mather once on the phone -- for as long as it had taken Mather to shut him up and shoot him down. The words sue your ass had featured prominently. Griff had a gut feeling he and Mather might not see eye to eye on what constituted information with no bearing.
As if reading his thoughts, Arlington said almost coaxingly, "Mr. Hadley -- Griffin -- you have my word you won't be asked to sign a non-disclosure nor any kind of contract. This is a gentlemen's agreement between you and me. Agreed?" He held out his hand.
Nothing easier than convincing someone who wanted to believe you. Griff grimaced inwardly and reached out to shake hands.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.