The Secret Staircase by Sheila Connolly: New Excerpt

The Secret Staircase is the third Victorian Village Mystery from Sheila Connolly, which finds Kate Hamilton discovering a long-dead body in a hidden staircase. Read an excerpt below!

Chapter 1

I looked at the faces of the people around the large oval table in the dining room of the Asheboro Bed & Breakfast—the place I was calling home, at least temporarily. I knew I should begin the meeting soon, but I was relishing the sight of my ragtag gang, assembled all in one place.

My childhood friend Lisbeth Scott sat to my immediate left, swiveling back and forth in an office chair and beaming at me, evidently very pleased to be here instead of overseeing the summer activities of her two kids, who were at home with her husband, Phil. Next to her sat Jim MacDonald—“Mac” to all who’d shopped at his family hardware store in the past thirty years—and Ted Wilson, who’d operated a lunch counter in downtown Asheboro since I was a teenager here, almost two decades ago. Mac and Ted talked somberly about business in town, which was sluggish in the wake of a storm that had damaged many storefronts and homes. Not that business in this sleepy hamlet an hour west of Baltimore had been exactly booming before the storm.

Across from Mac and Ted sat Asheboro newspaper editor Frances Carter, a prim lady on the other side of seventy, smiling wryly at the two men’s woebegone business banter and chatting across the divide with Lisbeth. Ryan Hoffman—another old friend, in a manner of speaking: our ancient history included a high school courtship gone wrong—paced at the far end of the room, furiously texting about something possibly related to his work as a lawyer at a midsize firm east of here, just outside Baltimore. Mayor Skip Bentley sat in amiable silence to my right, apparently reading an article on his tablet on the table in front of him, his hands folded over his chest.

Missing from our small assembly were Carroll Peter-son, my head researcher—and the youngest member of the team, a graduate student joining us as a summer project—and Josh Wainwright, a Johns Hopkins history professor who was . . . well, something slightly more than a friend to me at this point. I didn’t have time to think about that right now. Business, Kate! Get this group in order and get going! I smoothed my hair and turned a stray button in my jacket pocket over and over between my fingers. I could hear the voice of my high school basketball coach whenever I used to hesitate at the free throw line, which was often: It’s now or never, Hamilton.

This was the first meeting of the board members for the Asheboro Revitalization Project—my brainchild and an ambitious endeavor I deeply hoped I could pull off, with the help of those assembled. And the whole thing now rested on Henry Barton—or his house, anyway. Henry Barton, a resident of Asheboro during the Victorian era (and a somewhat reclusive captain of local industry), had left his mansion and the vast tract of land surrounding it in the custody of the town when he died, without an heir, in 1911. He assumed that the town would find a buyer. It didn’t. Henry had left enough money to pay for a resident caretaker and cover maintenance expenses on the house, and that’s how things had been left for a century. Henry was the owner of the only factory in town, producing shovels and a few other tools, but it had closed decades ago. So for over a hundred years, Asheboro had been quietly fading away—no new industry, too far for most to commute, its people moving away and nobody coming in.

I grew up in Asheboro and went to high school here, but left for college and work, bigger and better things. Then this spring, my old friend Lisbeth looked me up and asked if I could help save the town from total collapse, and since I was between jobs, I foolishly said yes. I had decided to start by rehabbing the Barton mansion before moving on to the town’s main street, a row of small businesses that could be a charming time-capsule attraction for tourists, with a bit of love and editing. The future of this whole “save the town” idea had been hanging in the balance until I’d been lucky enough to score a contribution from a major regional utility company. It had taken a bit of arm-twisting (or maybe I should call it gentle blackmail) to make it happen, but it had worked, and Mid-Atlantic Power’s contribution would be enough to get things started—finally. The whole town needed an overhaul in short order, but we would begin with the Barton mansion, which I was looking forward to restoring to its original glory as the centerpiece of the town’s renovation. I took a deep breath and brought my hands together in front of me.

“Thank you all for coming,” I began. “Or maybe I should start by thanking you for agreeing to be part of this. I asked you all not only because I know you’ll have great ideas but because you are the memory of the town of Asheboro. You remember what it was like years ago. Well, Lisbeth here is the exception—she’s here because she dragged me into this, and I wouldn’t let her walk away.”

“Happy to be on the team,” Lisbeth said with a smile, gesturing grandly with a half-empty juice box she must have pulled from her purse when I wasn’t looking. The rest of the group sipped quietly at mugs of coffee and tea I had produced from the B&B’s kitchen just minutes ago.

“Lisbeth grew up in this town,” I continued, “so she’s seen a lot of the more recent changes, and those matter too. Frances, Mac, Ted, you’ve been an active part of the town all your adult lives, and I’m assuming that means you care about the place. Frances, you and I know you’re sitting on a treasure trove of historical information at the local paper, and we’ll need that. Mac, your hardware store is almost untouched since 1900—and that’s not an insult, believe me! It’s a real asset to what we want to do. A blueprint, if you will. Ted, in your café, you’ve watched a generation or two of kids grow up here, listened to their gossip and complaints. You can tell us what they’ve cared about, and whether we can recreate those places and spaces.” They were all nodding along so far, which let me know we had at least cleared the hurdle of establishing that they cared about the town. I didn’t want any deserters, if it could be avoided. I continued speaking.

“Mayor Skip will represent the town, at least on an honorary basis. The first new addition to our group is Carroll Peterson, who has been helping sort and catalog the Henry Barton letters and files.”

“Wasn’t she off getting a degree somewhere else?” Frances asked.

“Yes, but I persuaded my friend Nell in Philadelphia—who Carroll’s been interning for this year—to consider our project relevant to her studies, so she’ll get credit for it. Besides, working with an untouched nineteenth-century collection of papers would be a treat for anyone focusing on library studies. Henry Barton kept a lot of records, and we’re hoping that the files from his estate will shed some light on his family and the town, and maybe provide some details about the construction of the house.”

“You’re going to have problems with things like the wiring and plumbing,” Mac pointed out, making a left turn in the conversation.

“We’ll be careful to choose contractors who respect historic buildings and can make the modernization all but invisible, but still up to code.” I hoped that statement would come true—I certainly had never done it before.

“How much you think you’re gonna change?” Mac pressed on. “I mean, do you have standards you have to meet to be able to open the place to the public?”

“Mac, I can’t say I’m an expert, but of course we’ll be looking into that. That’s why we’re talking about these things now, so we can plan.”

“What changes do you think you’ll—we’ll have to make?” Frances asked.

“I’m going to guess that any historic building like the Barton mansion will have to have basic toilet facilities for the public, and they should ideally be more than a line of portable toilets behind the building. The wiring should be up to code, so we don’t burn the place down by accident. And one question we need to address up front is whether we want the kitchen to be functional.”

“Why would we?” Ted asked. “You aren’t thinking of putting in a restaurant, are you?” Whoops—I certainly didn’t want Ted to think I’d be stepping on his business in the lunch trade.

“No, nothing like that, not a regular spot. But we may want to hold events for groups there sometimes, and while I know we could have them catered, I’d rather see the kitchen in action, with at least a working stove and running water—even if that means a hand pump. Look, I don’t pretend to be an expert on 1880 kitchens and how they worked, but we can work up some research on that. I’d like this kitchen to look authentic.”

“You’re just making more work for yourself, you know,” Ted grumbled. I could see my vision might be a tough sell for those who didn’t feel the dreaminess of the Barton house the way I did. Well, nobody told me this would be easy. I pressed on.

“Of course, this won’t be a simple project. And you may not necessarily see the value in restoring a century-old manor house on the edge of town—kitchen and all—when the rest of the town needs a boost. I get that. But keep in mind—this is part one! If we can pull off a revamp of this one house, make it an attraction, we might just get some more attention—and funding—which will help us fix up the rest of the town. I want this place to be special, to stand out. Otherwise, to most people, we’ll just be another old house on the Civil War tour. Which is fine, but . . .” I trailed off, struggling to communicate what I felt the Barton house could be, in the right hands. “I want it to be memorable.”

“Can we afford it?” Mac asked.

“Yes, or I wouldn’t even be talking about it. You know from the town meeting last week that Mid-Atlantic Power is donating a sizeable sum for the development of Henry Barton’s factory, but there will be enough to cover the basic improvements to the house. Much of it is in surprisingly good shape, but we might have to do an overhaul. I don’t know that yet. But the wiring and plumbing are at the top of the list if we want to invite the public in safely.”

“What’s going to happen to the factory building?” Frances asked.

“That’s still under discussion, and I’d love to hear whatever ideas you have. But we’ll get to that in due time.” I had insisted that the Barton house be addressed first, so that if we wanted to woo additional donors or organizations for support, they could get a glimpse of our vision. I figured we could wine and dine them there too, if the place really got in functional shape—the kitchen, in particular.

“Kate,” Lisbeth spoke up for the first time, “Phil’s at home with the kids, so I can’t stay too long. What else do we need to know now, or think about? Do you want us to do something formal like vote on proposals, or how the money will be spent?”

“I’ll lay out the basics, but we don’t have to settle all of those things tonight. I just wanted to sketch out the broad plans. One, Ryan here will be our legal representative.” Ryan, still pacing the far end of the room, had ceased texting to make a phone call; on hearing his name, he nodded and waved toward the assembled group. I gave up trying to engage him and decided to consider myself lucky he had showed up at all. I turned back to the group. “Ryan has already begun our application for nonprofit status. That will make contributions tax-deductible for donors. He can also oversee the management of the money—so nobody walks away with it—but that doesn’t mean he makes decisions on how to spend it. That’s up to us. Ryan will set up one or more bank accounts with oversight restrictions. Two, Josh Wainwright will be working on a history of the industrial development of this area, so we can call him a consultant or something. It may end up being a scholarly article or even a book, but it should get us some attention. Three, I’ll be overseeing the construction and design aspects, although I welcome your input, and of course we’ll need an experienced construction manager. Apart from the electric and plumbing issues, the place needs a really good cleaning, and I’m sure some of the early fabrics—upholstery, curtains, and stuff like that—will need to be replaced. And we should evaluate the state of the furniture, although I think it’s all still there, but as I’ve said, changes like that need to be appropriate to the period.”

“What’s your timetable?” Mac demanded. The business guys on the committee were, well, all business.

“I’d love to see it finished by September, but that may be unrealistic. We should plan on a grand opening sometime before the end of the year, and make sure it gets on everybody’s calendar.”

If I were being completely honest with the group, I’d have to tell them I was totally winging this. My experience was mainly in modern institutions in the hospitality industry, in Philadelphia and Baltimore, decidedly not in antiquarian restoration and history tourism. But there was something about Henry Barton’s house that got to me—not only its aesthetic grandeur but its mystery. Asheboro’s one rich man lived on the outskirts of town in the post–Civil War years, not so much eccentric as . . . unknown. What could we learn about his life to fill in our picture of the time he lived in? I made a mental note to check in with Carroll about her research into Henry Barton. In the meantime, I could see that Mac wanted more hard facts and numbers.

“Listen, I know this is a big undertaking, with more specifics than I’m able to detail in today’s meeting. My contacts in Philly and Baltimore should come in handy. And as I said, Carroll will be looking for more material in Henry’s documents. That will help us get a clearer picture of him and how he lived.”

“What about his wife?” Frances interrupted.

“What about her?” I replied.

“Mary Barton. We don’t know very much about her. You know the house was a ways out of town, but she didn’t mingle much, from what little I’ve read. Was she a church member? Was Henry? We know they never had children. But don’t you wonder what she was like? Awfully shy? Was she sick in bed for years? Or mad as a hatter? You going to find anything like that in all those papers?”

“That’s a great question, and I have no clue. I’ll ask Car-roll to keep her eyes open for any personal details on Mary Barton. And I’d like to know if they had servants in the house too.”

I looked around the table and saw that people were beginning to droop—it was getting late, and I’d been talking practically nonstop. “Okay, I think that’s enough for one night. Go home and think about what we’ve discussed. I think we should meet every two weeks or so for updates, and you can certainly contact me with anything you come up with.” I planned to stay in town while the project went on. That meant neglecting my poor condo in Baltimore, where I’d been living quietly for the past few years as I worked my hotel job in the city. But then again, I didn’t have so much as a plant to miss me there. Strangely, sleepy little Asheboro now seemed to be where all the action was.

“And maybe,” I concluded, “we can all find a time to take a tour of the Barton mansion by daylight, to give you a better idea of what we’re trying to do. Sound okay?”

Everyone nodded, to my relief. Of course they might change their minds, but at least we had a start. I was looking forward to working with these people—and to learning more about Asheboro the way it once was. After I’d moved away for college, I never came back except for the occasional visit with my parents, and then they’d moved to Florida. I hadn’t been very interested in the history of the place when I was growing up, so this would all be new to me. I knew I had some homework to do.

I ushered our board members out the door and locked up behind them. Lisbeth had hung back. “So, Miss Community Liaison,” I said to her, “how’d I do?”

She cracked a smile. “Well, at least they didn’t run screaming into the night. How much do you expect from them?”

“Not a whole lot right now. But they’re a significant part of this town, and I want them to be involved in this project. Maybe I grew up here, but right now I’m pretty much an outsider.” I paused. “Speaking of how much people can offer—what about you? What do you usually do with the kids during the summer?”

“It’s always been a problem. Neither of them is old enough for overnight camp yet. There are good day camps and sports programs, but that means I have to be able to deliver them and pick them up in the afternoon. I can make weekend meetings if Phil helps out, but weekdays are going to be hard.”

“Okay, we can work with that. Maybe you and I can meet when the kids are in camp.”

I felt my tired brain start to whir with the seed of another idea.

“Hey, how about this? We could plan a history camp at the mansion, with short sessions—say, one per week. We couldn’t do it for this year, but maybe next. Kids could camp out on the lawn, and if we get the kitchen worked out, we could feed them.”

Lisbeth kept the smile, but raised her eyebrows. “I like it, but one thing at a time, please. Let’s get the place ready for public viewing and see how that goes before we start planning ambitious youth programming.”

“I know, I know. But keep that idea on the back burner, will you?”

“I will. Gotta run. Anything on for this week?”

“Like I said, I’d love to get the board members over to the house for a couple of hours, to really look at the place, see what its potential is and what needs to be done. And then I need to find a contractor.”

“You’ve got a lot on your plate, then. Good night, Kate—we can talk tomorrow.”

After she left, I shut the door behind her and armed the alarm system. Carroll hadn’t arrived in town yet, so I was alone in the house, and I wanted to be careful. I felt simultaneously elated and exhausted. The Barton house was magnificent, no question, but it would take work to get it ready for the public, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to find people to help. I supposed we were also going to need someone to manage publicity—and create a website, which was not my forte—but those could wait until we had a better handle on the timeline.

As I paced in the kitchen, not quite ready to go to bed, Frances’s question floated back into my mind. Who was Henry’s wife? All I really knew was her name—Mary—and that she had predeceased her husband by quite a few years. Of course, books on Victorian history could fill in a lot of the details I needed to explain the mansion’s building materials and decorations to a modern audience. But a more personal desire was unfolding in me—to put the people back into the great house, and make it come alive again in the public imagination. I needed to know more.

 

Chapter 2

As I stood before the B&B’s sweeping staircase, with one hand on the elaborately carved newel, I wavered between going right to bed and celebrating with a glass of wine first. The wine won. It had been a rocky couple of months since Lisbeth had begged me to come back to Asheboro and save the town. I had gotten approval to begin with Henry Barton’s house, but I could already tell it would be a mammoth undertaking. Given how little attention the mansion had been afforded over the years, it was a wonder the building was still standing at all. Then the most recent bank president in town had drained the maintenance fund, which left the town with no money to do anything.

I settled myself more comfortably on the plush settee in the parlor, a glass of red wine in my hand. This bed-and-breakfast had once belonged to my high school tormenter, Cordelia, back when she was briefly married to Ryan—yes, the same Ryan who was now our group’s lawyer. But she was gone now. Only a few months ago, I’d discovered Cordelia’s lifeless body sprawled on the steps of the Barton house and had to report the death to the local authorities myself. It wasn’t the best way to reintroduce myself to Asheboro, to say the least, but that chapter had passed. Ryan still technically owned the B&B, but I had plans for it; I imagined it could provide rooms for visiting guests eventually. There were four upstairs bedrooms, whose Victorian elements had largely been left intact—a miracle given Cordelia’s very un-Victorian taste—and overall, the place wasn’t in bad shape. I didn’t expect to live here forever, although where I’d go after Asheboro was kind of vague. If I was successful in reviving the town, I’d have my choice of job offers; if I failed, most likely nobody would ever notice. I could always go back to Baltimore, maybe get a plant. But I didn’t want to think about that yet.

My glass was empty, but I was having trouble convincing myself to stand up and go up the stairs. In the dim light of a single lamp, I studied the parlor. Was there any sign of a woman’s touch in the room? Cordelia had probably hired a decorator. I doubted she had had many friends left to ask for a recommendation, and in any case, Ryan had said she’d lost interest quickly in the bed-and-breakfast, particularly when she realized she’d have to cater to other people. She had preferred to be the queen bee, not the maid and concierge.

But first on my list for the next day was finding someone who knew—and respected—Victorian architecture, and could make sure that the mansion would be both structurally sound and authentically elegant. Upstairs, I went to sleep with visions of velvet portieres and a profusion of tassels dancing in my head.

 

Copyright © 2021 by Sheila Connolly.

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