The house is historic, some say haunted. It is also slated to be razed and replaced by condos, unless Hannah Smith can do something about it. She’s been hired by a wealthy Palm Beach widow to prove that the house’s seller didn’t disclose everything he knew about the place when he unloaded it, including its role in a bloody Civil War skirmish in which two of Hannah’s own distant relations had had a part, as well as the suicides—or possibly murders—of two previous owners.
Hannah sees it as a win-win opportunity: She can stop the condo project while tracking her family history. She doesn’t believe in ghosts. But some dangers are real. And the most deadly of all may be human obsession…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 by Randy Wayne White
In Florida, hundred-year-old houses have solid walls, so I guessed wrong when I heard my friend Birdy Tupplemeyer make a bleating noise downstairs. I figured she’d snuck a man into her room, which was unfair of me, even though Birdy admits to being free-minded when it comes to romance.
On windy October nights my imagination prefers love to spiders, I guess. That is my only excuse.
I was in a hammock on the second floor in what had once been a music room. Birdy, who lacks camping experience, had chosen a downstairs room for her air mattress because it was closer to the front door.
“I’d have to hang off the balcony to pee,” she had reasoned, which made sense even before the wind freshened and the moon rose. The house was abandoned; no electricity or water, and the spiral staircase was in bad shape. I myself, after too much tea by the fire, was debating whether to risk the balcony or those wobbly steps when, through the floor, I heard a thump, another thump, and then a mewling wail that reminded me of a cat that had found companionship.
She’s with that archaeologist, I thought, and buried my face in a pillow, but not my ears—a guilty device. My curiosity has always had an indecent streak. I also had a reason. That afternoon we had met Dr. Theo Ivanhoff, an assistant professor with shaggy black hair: late twenties, khakis low on his skinny hips and wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap. He was on the property mapping artifacts from a Civil War battle that had taken place before the house was built. Theo had struck me as an aloof know-it-all and a tad strange, but it had been a month since Birdy’s last date so her standards had loosened. Later, by the campfire, the two of us sitting with tea and marshmallows, she had shared some bawdy remarks including “hung like a sash weight” and “Professor Boy Toy,” referring to a man only a few years younger than us.
Naturally, I felt supportive of my friend, not alarmed. Until I heard: “My god . . . what is that?” which could have meant any number of things.
Guilt battled my curiosity. I turned an ear to the floor just to be on the safe side. Then shattering glass and a shattering scream tumbled me out of the hammock and I was on my knees, feeling around for a flashlight that had tumbled with me.
Birdy’s voice again, more piercing: “Bastard . . . get off.”
Panic, not passion. I ran for the stairs. Thank heavens I was barefoot, so I knew it was a flashlight I kicked it across the room. Bending to grab the thing, I clunked my head, then stubbed my toe going out the door. In the hall, the flashlight’s white beam bounced among cobwebs and a dusty piano while Birdy screamed my name.
“Hannah . . .”
I hollered back, “I’ve got a gun!” which was true, but the gun was locked in my SUV, not in my hand. Then I put too much weight on the banister as I catapulted down the stairs—a brittle pop; the banister fell. I spiraled down a few steps on my butt, caught myself, then raced the banister to the bottom. The banister won. I shoved it aside and was soon standing outside Birdy’s door, which was locked. That scared me even more.
I yelled, “Birdy . . .?” and pounded.
“Get in here!”
“Open the door.”
“It’s jammed! Oh . . shit, Hannah, hurry.”
I wrenched the knob and used my shoulder. The door gave way on the second try and I fell into the room, which was dark but for moonlight reflecting off broken glass on the floor. I got to my feet and, once again, had to hunt for the flashlight. My friend, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, had her back to me and was dancing around as if fighting cobwebs or in the midst of a seizure. “Get it off, get it off!” she yelled, then winced when she turned, blinded by my arrival.
I lowered the flashlight, relieved. I’d feared an attacker, but she was alone. I rushed across the room and put a hand on Birdy’s arm to stop her contortions. “Hold still,” I had to tell her twice while I scanned her up and down. Finally I stepped back. “I don’t see anything.”
“It was in my hair.”
“How the hell should I know?” Birdy added some F-bombs and bowed her head for an inspection. I used my free hand, the light close, to comb through her thick ginger hair, which was darker at the roots, Birdy saying, “I was almost asleep when something landed on my face. Something with legs. It crawled up my forehead, then stung me on the neck—I’m sure there was more than one. I tried to run, but the damn door wouldn’t open.”
“Where on your neck?”
I moved the light, but Birdy hollered, “Finish with my hair first!” That told me the sting could wait.
“Probably a palmetto bug. They don’t sting, so you probably imagined that.”
“Imagined, my ass.” Birdy pulled her T-shirt up, ribs showing, a petite woman addicted to jogging who didn’t get much sun because of her freckles and red hair.
I checked her back and down her legs. “Where’s your flashlight?”
“Goddamn bugs on my face, I must of dropped it or something. I don’t know. I’d just found the switch when one bit the hell out of me. Anybody would have lost it after that.”
I said, “That explains the broken window.”
“What broken window?”
Birdy Tupplemeyer is a high-strung, energetic woman, but normally steady in her behavior, as you would expect of a deputy sheriff with two years’ experience. I had never seen her so upset. “You didn’t hear the glass break? You must have thrown that light pretty hard. I’m glad you weren’t waving your gun around when I
came through the door.”
I bent to check the back of her neck, but first took a look around the room seeing glass on the pine flooring, the shattered window, a moon-frosted oak tree outside, and my friend’s air mat- tress, a double-wide with cotton sheets, her overnight bag open in the corner, clothes folded atop it.
“My pistol’s under the pillow,” she countered. “Don’t worry about getting shot. Worry about the damn bugs—this freaking room is infested.” She shuddered and swore.
I pushed my flashlight into her hands. “I’m not a nurse. Check inside your own pants.”
Light in hand, Birdy pulled her shorts away from her hips, then disappeared down her baggy T-shirt, the shirt glowing like a tent until she reappeared. “For once, I’m glad to be flat-chested. Those sons of bitches sting. Here . . . look for yourself.”
She lifted her head, the light bright on a welt that was fiery red on her freckled throat. My heart had stopped pounding, but now I was concerned.
“Give me that,” I said, taking the light. “Does it hurt?”
“Burns like hell.”
“Is it throbbing?”
Birdy heard the change in my voice. “Do you think it was a spider? I hate spiders. Maybe I should go to the E-R. What time is it?”
“Stop squirming,” I said, but that’s exactly why I was concerned. I grew up camping, hiking, and fishing in the Florida backcountry with my late uncle, Capt. Jake Smith, who became a well-known guide after being shot and then retiring as a Tampa detective. More than once, Jake had told me, “People are the most dangerous animals on earth. Everything else, avoid it and it will avoid you.”
Jake’s long list included creatures that scare most newcomers and keep them snug and safe inside their condos: snakes, sharks, alligators, panthers—and poison spiders, too. The only dangerous spiders in Florida are black widows, brown widows, and, possibly, the brown recluse, although I have yet to see a recluse for myself. The widow spiders tend to be shy and seldom bite unless you mess with them or happen to slap at one in your sleep. I’ve seen many, often living in colonies on porches of people who have no idea they are there. Their spiky eggs sacs are unmistakable. Which is why, when camping, I prefer a screened hammock to a tent.
This was something I hadn’t explained to Birdy. She had grown up wealthy in a Boston suburb so was nervous from the start about sleeping in a house that had a dark history and was fifteen miles from the nearest town. Never mind that her Aunt Bunny Tupplemeyer, a Palm Beach socialite, had hired me to spend a night or two in the place and record the comings and goings of strangers. The woman’s reasons had to do with the million dollars she had invested in river frontage that included the old house—a house she wanted torn down. Birdy was along to keep me company and, as mentioned, was currently not dating, so had chosen adventure over depression rather than spend her Friday night off alone.
She started to panic again. “What if it was a poison spider? Shit, I should have slept in my car.” Being from Boston, she pronounced it kaahr. She checked the time. “It feels like midnight, but it’s not even nine-thirty. I know a woman doctor I can call—she’s a gyno, but, hell, I’ll just lie about where the damn thing bit me.”
I touched my finger to a speck of blood on her neck. “It’s a sting, not a bite, but you’ll be fine. A spider would have left two little fang marks. I’ve got some first-aid cream upstairs.”
“Fangs? Jesus Christ, my Beamer, I should’ve crashed in the backseat. Those bastards are probably in my bed right now, screwing like rats and hatching babies. Smithie”—her nickname for me—“we can’t sleep here. My Aunt Bunny, that conniving bitch, is to blame for this.”
She was upset, so I discounted her words. “It was a wasp, most likely,” I said, and, for the first time, shined the light at the ceiling above the air mattress. Immediately, I pointed the light at the floor, but too late.
“Oh my god,” Birdy whispered, “what was that?”
She yanked the light from me. Plaster overhead had broken, showing rafters of hundred-year-old wood so dense with sap that they glowed where it had beaded. But there were also glowing silver eyes. Dozens of eyes attached to black armored bodies with claws and curled tails. They were scorpions, some four inches long. Stunned by the light, one fell with an air-mattress thump, righted itself, and scrabbled toward us over clean cotton sheets that were tasteful but not as practical as a sleeping bag.
Birdy screamed so didn’t hear me say, “It’s okay, this kind isn’t dangerous,” then nearly knocked me down running for the door.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Haunted
“Action-packed new thriller . . . The Civil War references in “Haunted” are fascinating and, as Hannah deciphers her great-uncle’s diary we learn along with her the enormous impact that Florida and its residents had on the war. White tells a great story and one always learns something along the way. It’s a win-win.”—Naples Daily News
“Haunted contains some of Mr. White’s best writing ever. He has deepened Hannah’s character, addressing her demons, passions, intelligence, and moral fiber in ways both compelling and profound. He has painted the area around Florida’s Caloosahatchee River with artistic brilliance, often using the darkest pigments on his palette. He has collected a gallery of grotesques – human and near-human – that will make your blood curdle. He has once again dangled a bit of local history, this time Civil War era, to complicate while enhancing our understanding of the present action, layering its impact and meaning. . . . Breathtaking, harrowing, and immensely suspenseful, the chills and thrills of Haunted will leave readers smiling.”—Florida Weekly
“In Haunted [Hannah Smith] will just about out-Ford Ford for resourcefulness, stamina and courage . . . As always, White peppers Hannah's adventures with all manner of fascinating Florida arcana. . . . Readers will be breathless about what's next.”—Tampa Bay Times
“Haunted vividly illustrates Florida's scenery and its role in the Civil War, bringing to life a neglected history. The wartime diary brings surprising twists to the plot and gives insight to what life was like in that era. . . . Haunted shows that White is a skilled tour guide for a visceral visit to Florida.”—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Action-packed . . . The Civil War references in “Haunted” are fascinating and, as Hannah deciphers her great-uncle’s diary we learn along with her the enormous impact that Florida and its residents had on the war. White tells a great story and one always learns something along the way. It’s a win-win.”—Naples Daily News
“Fans of the Doc Ford series will be pleased.”—Booklist