The Dead Room


Page 7


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After a few more minutes of chat, they hung up.


Leslie lay in bed, awake. She was going home for all the right reasons, she assured herself. The work. The opportunity. And she just plain loved New York. She needed to be back.


Hell.


She was going home to try to find a way to reach Matt….


Joe watched as Eileen settled into her chauffeur-driven sedan, refusing the offer of a ride with a thank-you, though he wasn't really sure why. It was late, but this was New York. People were out at all hours, even though some areas, like this one, became much quieter.


When the car had disappeared into the easy flow of the late-night traffic, he found himself just walking down the street. He had always loved downtown. He was a New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn Heights, an area he loved. But downtown New York offered a history few people took the time to appreciate, since the city offered such a bustle of business, shopping and entertainment.


His walk took him down Broadway. He found himself feeling a strange sense of comfort as he walked by St. Paul's; even the old burial ground, a sign of the times gone by, gave him a sense of permanence and belonging. He loved St. Paul's, though it wasn't as grand as Trinity Church just down the road. St. Paul's was the only remaining church built before the Revolutionary War, a true Georgian masterpiece. Washington's pew was still there, along with displays honoring those who had worked tirelessly on the rescue efforts after 9/11, since the church lay in the shadows of the monumental tragedy. Drenched in history, yet still a place for modern man to find solace.


He kept walking, wondering at the age of some of the buildings, trying to discern what might really be old beneath a newer facade, his wanderings taking him by Fraunces Tavern and then down to the once-again newly restored Hastings House.


He had come here before, since that fateful night. Several times. And he never knew exactly why. Every time he felt the same searing and poignant ripple of pain. Four dead. Jerry Osbourne, police officer. Sally Rydell, socialite. Tom Burton, architect. And Matthew Connolly, brilliant journalist, a man whose words had the ability to create genuine change.


He'd been working out in Las Vegas when it had happened, on a cold case involving kidnapping, fraud and money laundering. The job had taken nearly a year, but it had paid extremely well. He'd managed to tie it all up shortly after he'd flown home for his cousin's funeral.


He had never felt so numb in his life. When he'd gone to the hospital afterward, where Matt's fiancée, Leslie, had still been in intensive care, he had been grateful to discover that she spent most of her time unconscious. He hadn't known what to say to her. Because of the amount of time he spent out of the city, he'd never actually met her, except maybe once, when they'd been kids. He'd felt awkward, glad that he could leave a message saying he'd been there, equally glad to disappear.


Strange, growing up, he and Matt had seen each other only on family occasions. Matt had lived by Central Park; he had lived in Brooklyn Heights. Once it had seemed as if they were far apart. Maybe it was just the size of New York. Each neighborhood was complete unto itself. They'd always gotten along; as adults, even though real distance often came between them. They had actually become the best of friends. Maybe it had been their shared passion for many of the same rights and ideals.


Matt had been a man of impeccable integrity. Many people would miss him. But for Joe, the loss was personal, and he still felt a helpless rage every time he thought about the stupidity of the way he'd died.


He had planned to return to the city after wrapping up of the Vegas thing and get to know Leslie and make plans with Matt. He would have been the best man at the wedding. Strange. He didn't know Leslie because of happenstance. They had simply never been in the same place at the same time, yet she was the closest living link to Matt.


It was amazing that she had survived the blast.


The force of the explosion had thrown her across the room, saving her from the flames. Then again, the dead had died on impact, according to the coroner; they hadn't had to face the agony of burning to death.


The blast had been investigated. Backward and forward and inside out. But in the end, there had been no explanation other than that there had been a gas buildup in the line. The innocent flicking of a furnace switch had caused a spark, which had triggered the explosion and the tragedy.


Hastings House was back now. It was open to the public, other than the private rooms in back, some of which were maintained as offices and others as accommodations for archaeologists working on historical sites around downtown. It seemed that these days, every construction project uncovered some remnant of the past, a clear illustration of the contrast between those dedicated to preservation and those dedicated to moving on. Hastings House had been a worthy project, he was sure. But he could never forget what had happened there, and he found himself turning quickly away for a moment to compose himself before looking back at the building. He couldn't help the bitterness that seemed to assail him every time he saw the house. He understood Eileen Brideswell, because it seemed to him, too, that pain was only endurable with knowledge or a conclusion; he realized that the rage that filled him each time he came here had more to do with his feelings of helplessness and failure than the natural pain of loss. He couldn't help but believe, no matter what conclusion the extensive investigations had led to, that something more had gone on here. That they had missed something.


That someone had gotten away with murder.


Had Matt been the target?


He'd done some investigating himself, hitting dead end after dead end. He was sure it was frustration that kept him coming back to stand here, impotently staring at the house.


People walked past him. Tourists, with their guidebooks out. He wondered if he should warn them that wandering around on their own wasn't such a great thing to be doing at that hour of the night.


A few teenagers walked by the house, and then a couple with two children somewhere around the age of ten. More tourists.


"Is it haunted?" the boy asked eagerly.


"Could be," the father said. "Patriots met here during the Revolutionary War, and others met here during the War of 1812. It was even a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Lots of people could be haunting the place." The father winked.


His wife nudged him. "Don't go telling him that, Herbert," she said firmly, then dropped her voice to a whisper. "People died here just last year."


The father sighed. "Marina, we're seeing New York. Can't we just let the kids have some fun along with their education?"


"Fun?" the wife repeated icily.


"I'm sorry," the father said with a sigh.


Joe couldn't help himself. "Good evening," he said, approaching the group. "It's a little late. Not much open around here at this hour. Actually…nothing open. But bars."


The father puffed up. But the wife agreed.


"Yes," she murmured, staring at Joe a little suspiciously, then tugged at her husband's arm. "We should get back to the hotel."


"We only have two days here with the kids," the husband said.


"You might notice that the street is pretty deserted," Joe said politely.


"Are you a cop?" the wife asked.


"I was."


"I read in the newspaper that there have been unexplained disappearances in this area," the wife said.


"Are we prostitutes?" the husband hissed.


"I want to go," the wife insisted.


They moved on, looking back now and then to see that they weren't being followed.


"Catch a taxi down the block-they'll be going north," Joe called.


Then he put the house and its memories behind him and started down the street in the opposite direction, shrugging his shoulders, as if he could shrug away the feelings that seized him every time he came to Hastings House.


Strange. He felt as if the house itself were beckoning to him.


As if something-someone?-inside was calling him back, unwilling to let him go.


He gritted his teeth and moved on. He wasn't given to fantasy. The real world was tough enough.


Still, he stopped halfway down the block and stared back at the house. Then, almost angrily, he moved on.


A house simply could not call out to him, as if asking for some kind of help….


3


I t was evening when they arrived at Hastings House. To the left there was a large pit, along with the partially demolished miniskyscraper that was being torn down to be replaced by a megabuilding. Downtown was coming back in a big way.


To the right-beyond a narrow expanse of grass, the only evidence that there had once been many residences in the area-stood an office building/apartment complex built in the 1940s. The sun was falling, and, if Leslie narrowed her vision, she could almost imagine what this very small spot in the world might have looked like in the past.


But then she began to hear the angry beeping of horns, the sudden blare of rap music, a shout, the click of heels on pavement…this was, after all, New York. Even on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this was the piece of granite where so many people had decided they had to live. The center of the universe, in the minds of so many. She smiled. With all its sins and dirt and mixture of good and evil, she loved the city. Rebel she might be, but she loved New York.


And it was good to be back.


"Hey!" the cabbie interjected, breaking her thoughts. With an accent only on the single syllable, she wasn't sure just what part of the world his speech denoted. "Somebody gonna pay me?"


"Oh, yes, right," Professor Laymon said. Leslie didn't even turn around. She felt Brad at her shoulder as she stared at Hastings House. What would it offer up to her now? Now that she was who she was-now that she was changed?


She felt Brad's hand on her shoulder. "It's a house," he said softly. "But if you're the least bit uneasy, there's no reason on earth for you to stay here."


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