Hau Tree Green
Monday, March 31, 1947
Santa Teresa County, California
The knock on her bedroom door was insistent. It stopped just as she woke up enough to understand what it was, and then it started up again. Beatrice Stone sat up and smoothed her dress before she crossed the room and opened the door. The chauffeur stood hatless in the hall. He looked at her and kneaded his hands.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You didn’t answer the bell, Miss Beatrice,” he explained. “They sent me up to get you.”
His name was Herb, but he called himself ‘Jackie’s Brother’, which made her wonder if he was a little bit simple. Still, he had always been nice to her. That was a rarity in this house, someone being nice.
“It’s my day off, and I was taking a nap. What’s wrong?” she asked. They stood, looking at each other. His eyes got sad.
“You’d better get on down there, Miss Beatrice,” he said. “They’re waiting for you in the conservatory.”
She listened to his shoes going down the stairs. Slightly groggy, she splashed her face with water from the washbasin in the corner and patted it dry with a towel. It didn’t help much. On the way out, she looked back at the tall wooden dresser and stopped, considering. What she wanted was in the top drawer.
The bottle was beneath her underthings, dark green glass trimmed with gold. Keeping one eye on the open door, she uncapped it. The gin was warm, and tasted like perfume. She wouldn’t drink perfume though, and she giggled a little at the idea of it.
She took a short bracer, and then like a second thought, one more. The gin was an old friend, a secret promise that never disappointed, and the heat moved from her throat to her stomach, and then to her blood. Well-being flooded her. She slipped a scented lozenge from the tin box in her pocket and put it under her tongue. The taste of violets went well with the gin, she thought. In her mind, the fragrances were pleasurably connected, two ghosts holding hands.
“That’s better,” she murmured.
She went out into the hall. Herb the chauffeur was out of sight. She locked the door behind her and put the key into the pocket of her dress. She always kept the door locked. The cook lived at the other end of the hall, and she didn’t trust her. As she went down the flight of wooden stairs, a young woman in a black-and-white uniform was coming up. When they met, Bea put a hand on her shoulder.
“They’ve summoned me,” she said. “On my day off. Can you imagine?”
The maid was instantly worried, “Do you think…?”
“Who knows?” Bea shrugged. “I don’t think so. I’m not worried.”
“Maybe it’s about your drinking,” the young woman offered, half-hopefully.
“What about my drinking?” Bea snapped. “That old bag drinks morning to night. She has nothing to say about my drinking.”
The maid squeezed her hand, and tilted her head for a kiss on the cheek. It lingered and started to turn into something else, until she pushed Bea imperceptibly and moved away.
“Come and tell me it turns out,” she said. “It’s probably nothing… they just like to be able to bother you on your day off.”
They kissed again, quickly, and Bea finished going downstairs. She passed through the kitchen, with its enormous pantries, ovens and sinks, and went through double doors into the main hall. The conservatory was at the rear of the house, next to the library. She took a deep breath and let herself in.
Bea hated the plants. She had no idea what they were called, but they were all the same species. They grew in containers on every available surface, hung from the ceiling by delicate chains, and sent stems and leaves over the sides of their pots. They looked like large spiders lowering themselves out of dank webs. The flowers were fleshy, somehow female, and smelled dreadful. The place was full of their stink.
She closed the door behind her and went to the middle of the room.