TWENTY-FIVE – FROST HARROW
“Are you all set?” Grant asked. He checked his watch. “We’ve only got a few minutes left on your uncle’s time limit.”
Ivy waved her hand at him. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t think he’ll really call the cops. He wouldn’t want them poking around out here. Our family is notoriously protective of our privacy. Having the police running about the place would be almost as distasteful as…”
“Me being here?” Grant added helpfully.
Ivy smiled at him and nodded.
He frowned. “Well, I’m not so sure he’s just a paper tiger. You don’t get to be in the kind of positions your uncle holds by being all bark and no bite.”
“You’re mixing your animal metaphors,” Ivy chided.
“You know what I mean. I know you’re being pretty bold and assertive in regard to your family right now—and I’m glad for it—but I don’t think we need to do much more to piss your Uncle Dan off at the moment.”
“Grant, sometimes you’re so sensitive it almost makes me sick.”
Grant laughed. Ivy looped a well-worn carpet bag (not the one she’d had at the picnic) packed with things over her elbow. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Grant stepped through the door to her third-floor room and peered down the long, elaborately furnished corridors of Frost Hall. A short distance ahead, the passageway branched in three directions. “We came from the right, didn’t we?”
Though the Winslow mansion was huge, it would have fit snugly within one of Frost Hall’s wings. For just a second, Grant had an inkling of the envy his late uncle felt toward the Frosts. No matter how much money, how huge an estate, how big a house Abner Winslow had accumulated during his lifetime, he couldn’t match the glory (or decadence) built up on the shores of Lake Superior by generations of Frosts. Frost Hall—Frost Harrow—dwarfed everyone, friend or foe, within sight of its massive walls.
“Yeah,” said Ivy. “The stairs are just around the corner.
“We took so many twists and turns to get here, I’d almost forgotten,” said Grant. “Maybe when we’re on better speaking terms with your uncle, you could give me a real tour of the place.”
“Maybe I should give you a little tour right now.”
“Ivy, do you think you should?”
“What can it hurt? It’s not like I have to sneak you out. Uncle Dan knows you’re here, so probably the whole household knows as well.”
Grant put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. “Okay,” he said. “I’d like to see a little of the place before I go. It may be the last chance I get for a while.”
“I’ll work on Uncle Dan more, now that the cat’s out of the bag. I promise.”
He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks. You know how much I hate sneaking around…” His green eyes flashed at her. “Even if it is second nature to you Frosts.”
“Never underestimate deviousness,” said Ivy, smiling back at him. “I think that’s what got my grandfather in trouble with your uncle.”
“I thought that old Abner was just a better businessman than your granddad.” Grant put a twinkle in his eye to tell Ivy that he didn’t quite mean it.
“Probably just a bigger shit,” she said.
“I’ll agree with that—even though I haven’t met your grandfather.”
She patted him on the chest. “We’ll save that for another day, I think. Let’s go.”
They walked down the short corridor to the intersection that joined the North Wing, including the southern annex containing Ivy’s room, with the rest of the house.
“What’s that way?” asked Grant, pointing to the left.
“The West Wing,” answered Ivy. “It’s pretty much deserted. I don’t even think anyone cleans it regularly.”
“Is that where the tower is that I saw out the window of your room?”
Ivy nodded. “Yeah. They call it the Moon Tower. One of the family members around the turn of the century was big on astronomy. I guess the whole wing was inhabited back then. Pretty hard to imagine, now.”
“Pretty hard to imagine the whole wing is deserted. It’s big enough to hold a convention.”
“A convention of ghosts, probably,” said Ivy.
“Do you think your uncle will open it up again one day?”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me, though. He’s pretty obsessed with recapturing all the former glory of the ‘Frost Empire.’ On the other hand, the upkeep on the two wings we’re using is pretty expensive. I don’t know if he’ll be able to justify the cost to himself. Heck, we’re hardly using the North Wing as it is.”
“I noticed that the rooms near yours are unoccupied,” said Grant.
“I like my privacy,” said Ivy. She motioned to the right. “C’mon. This way. We’ll tour the West and the rest of the North Wing some other time. I want to give you a taste of the main house before we go.”
She led Grant past the stairs they’d come up before, down to another intersection and turned right again.
“We came this way before, but on the lower floor,” said Grant.
“That’s right. The library I brought you in through is down below.” She turned and pointed in the other direction. “Back that way is where some of the family stays. Lydia and Dexter mostly—though Colin likes to lurk around as well. Gives him a private place for his… assignations.”
She winked at Grant, and he chuckled. Ivy continued. “Go far enough, and one floor up, and you’ll reach Uncle Dan’s inner sanctum. But I think we’d best avoid him on the way out.”
“That’d probably be a good idea.”
They turned to the left and the hallway opened into a large foyer with windows facing southwest. The windows gave a spectacular view of the estate, looking downhill toward the front gate.
“Wow,” said Grant. “Impressive.”
“Thanks,” said Ivy. “It was meant to be. Take a look at what’s across the hall.” She opened a door on the northeast side of the foyer. The portal debouched into a large sitting room or parlor.
The room was impeccably decorated in high Victorian style with hand-made furniture, rugs, and draperies. Paintings of pleasant vistas from the last century decorated the walls.
But it was the windows on the far wall that caught Grant’s attention. Their beautiful multi-paned faces looked out over a huge inner court.
“That’s the Great Courtyard,” said Ivy as he wandered into the room to look around. “The rooms that look out over it are some of the most prized in the house.”
Grant drew his face up next to the glass. “I can see why.” Statuary and carefully pruned trees dotted the courtyard. Grant could see at least three fountains, including a large one in the center of the court. Even now, in the cold fall of northern Wisconsin, some flowers in the many beds below still clung to their blooms. “Your gardeners must be the envy of anyone this side of Kew,” he said, referring to the Royal Gardens of England. He’d been there once during a stop-over in London.
“I think Uncle Daniel hired one or two of them away from there,” said Ivy. “The rest of the grounds are marvelous as well, but they pay special attention to this courtyard.”
Grant nodded, gazing across the expanse to the many windows dotting the walls of the manse that encircled the court. He could see why the family would want this place to look perfect. As he gazed, he thought he saw a person looking back at him through a window on the far side of the courtyard. But before he could get a good look, the figure quickly moved behind a curtain into the Frost Hall’s dark shadows.
“Does your uncle have a room looking out over the courtyard?” Grant asked curiously, wondering who the watcher might have been.
“Yeah. One of his rooms does.” She stepped up and put her hand on his shoulder. “Come to think of it, maybe you shouldn’t stand too close to the window.”
“Having second thoughts about pissing him off?”
“Only a little. I do have to live with him again after he cools down.”
“Unless you come to live with me,” Grant offered, smiling.
She nodded back. “All in good time… Maybe.” Her face brightened. “Let’s get going. I’d like to show you the Great Tower before our fifteen minutes are up.”
“I think they were up about fifteen minutes ago.”
She tugged on his elbow. “So, who’s counting?”
“Your uncle, I’m sure.”
They went back into the foyer and continued through it and down another hall. Dark oak wainscoting and trim dominated the mansion’s interior—giving the whole an overbearing, oppressive feeling.
“I can see why you repainted your room,” said Grant. Ivy had torn down the old wallpaper and painted the upper portions of her walls white. “Chez Winslow was like this before I renovated it. Maybe my uncle was trying to compete with your family in gloomy atmosphere as well.”
Ivy chuckled briefly, but the sound echoed disconcertingly off the walls. She stopped and spoke quietly to him. “I wish Uncle Dan would do something to brighten the old place up, but he’s such a traditionalist. You should have heard the fuss they put up over what I did—and it’s my room.”
“Well, I doubt he’ll be hiring Winslow Construction to do the renovations, even if he does change his mind.”
Ivy shrugged and smiled. “You never know,” she said. “We can always hope.”
They turned left at the next intersection.
“Isn’t this taking us further into the house?” asked Grant. I thought we were supposed to be on our way out.”
“Yes, but I’m going to take you out the front door. And this is the most scenic way to go. The staircase in the Great Tower is really cool.”
When they got there, Grant decided that Ivy’s observation had been correct. The tower was really cool. A huge balustraded staircase wound down the center of the room, entering on one side and exiting on the other. In the middle of it, a huge open space stretched from the ground floor six stories to the top of the tower. The workmanship on the oak railings was exquisitely detailed—the spindles of the rail, carefully and sensuously turned.
The northwest side of the room featured a row of windows looking out over the Great Courtyard. The windows flooded the room with cool November light. A row of curved seats built into the wall, lined with maroon cushions sat in front of the windows. Corridors stretched off from the chamber in three directions, one opposite the way they entered, the third stretching away from the windows, toward the front of the mansion.
“Oh, shit,” said Ivy. She took a moment and rummaged through her carpet bag.
“What is it?” asked Grant. “What’s wrong?”
She frowned. “Nothing much. I just forgot my tampons.”
“We’ll stop for some at the store on the way to Cassie’s.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll just run back and get them. It won’t take a minute.”
“I don’t think you can get anywhere in this mansion in a minute or less. Not even if you run.”
She flashed him a smile. “Okay, so a couple of minutes. I won’t be stopping to play tour guide this time.”
“Want me to come with you?”
“No. Stay here. Look around if you like. Enjoy the view. God knows when you’ll be back here again.”
Grant nodded. “Okay. See you soon. But remember, the clock is ticking.”
“I will. Just promise me you won’t get lost. We’ve had servants here who have wandered away and never turned up.”
Grant thought she was joking about this last, but he couldn’t quite tell. “I won’t wander far,” he said. “I’ll keep the stairs in sight at all times.”
“Good thought,” she said, blowing him a kiss. She disappeared back down the corridor they’d come and was soon lost in the shadows.
This place could use some more lights, Grant thought. He crossed the room to the window seats, sat down on one of them, and looked out across the courtyard. The high slate roofs and many-paned windows of Frost Hall leered back at him. Though the architecture was impressive, it could in no way be described as friendly. Is that a gargoyle on the parapet? Grant wondered. Or one of the Frost ancestors keeping an eye on the Winslow heir?
He decided it was a gargoyle, but the thought unnerved him a bit anyway. He decided to see what the other rooms off the stairway looked like.
He opened the door on the south side first and felt pleasantly surprised to discover a warm, bright study. Stepping in, he realized that the room’s window looked out over a glass-roofed solarium.
Well, this is nice, he thought. Looks like the mansion isn’t all doom and gloom.
He went to the window and peeked out, trying not to call attention to himself.
Tropical plants filled the solarium, and Grant could hear the sound of falling water through the windowpane. The top of a palm tree obscured his view, though, and he couldn’t see where the sound was coming from. A brightly colored bird flashed by, disappearing into the foliage.
Grant smiled. Maybe we can take a look on our way out, he thought. I wonder what’s in the other room…
He backed out of the study and closed the door behind him. Somewhere in the distance, a grandfather clock struck four.
As the door latch clicked shut, something hit Grant in the back of the head. The world exploded before him like a million flashbulbs.
He staggered back, his brain reeling, trying to catch onto something with his hands. His fingers found the banister of the long staircase. He pitched against it, clung there, his face dipped over the rail.
The shaft of the stairway stretched out below him, yawning like the abyss. The stairway clung tenuously to the side, spiraling down to Hades below.
Grant reeled back, away from the hole. He tried to turn, to see who’d hit him. But as he did, the attacker struck again.
Grant’s knees buckled. He twisted, reaching out for the railing once more.
But this time his hands found only empty air.
A distant, detached part of Grant’s mind watched in horror as he tottered at the landing and then fell headfirst down the stairs.