The Chinese Chest
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by Theresa Garrido
Category: Young Adult/Mystery/Crime
Description: What could be worse than babysitting a strange child in a creepy old house? Lisa is about to find out? Babysitting four-year-old Cassie Lord will be a piece of cake, as far as Lisa Kingsley is concerned. The little girl doesn't do much but stare out the window as though lost in another time and another place. The money is good--really good--and Lisa needs a dress for the harvest dance, as well as Christmas presents for friends and family. But things are creepy at the Lord's isolated house, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Western Washington State. The little girl keeps talking about her missing twin, which, according to Mr. and Mrs. Lord, doesn't exist and is merely a figment of their little girl's imagination. And then there's the massive Chinese chest in the off-limits room called "Daddy's 'magination room". Cassie insists her lost twin is in the chest, even though Lisa shows her its empty shelves. Something just isn't right in the old house, and Lisa doggedly keeps searching for answers. And then, after opening one door too many, she inadvertently discovers something so hideous, it can hardly be imagined. When Lisa realizes what has been happening in the isolated house by the sea, it is already too late?
eBook Publisher: L&L Dreamspell/L&L Dreamspell, 2011 London, Texas
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [215 KB]
Reading time: 134-188 min.
Baby-sitting is not my favorite way to make money. But here I was, standing in the large, drafty foyer of an old house, waiting to meet the mother of the solemn little girl standing in the corner.
Mrs. Lord finally appeared and greeted me with an extended hand. "Lisa? So happy to meet you. I'm Sandra Lord. And, of course, you met Richard when he picked you up." Mr. Lord winked at me. "And this," she gestured toward the little girl, "is Cassandra. Cassie, say hello to Lisa." The little girl shook her head. Mrs. Lord rolled her eyes and made a face. "Well, anyway, that's Cassie. I'm sure she'll be a very good girl. She knows the consequences if she's not." She shrugged into the fur coat her husband held out for her. "By the way, I love your hair, Lisa. Don't you, Richard?"
"Yes, I do. I told her as much in the car."
I squirmed inwardly, remembering the way Mr. Lord had looked at me. After he'd picked me up at my house, we drove in silence for a mile and then he'd started in on how pretty my hair was, and how I should never cut it, blah, blah, blah. Made me really uncomfortable. And now his wife was making a big deal out of it.
"Who does your hair?" Mrs. Lord asked.
"Does it? I do it. I mean, I get it trimmed every six weeks at a salon in the mall, but other than that, I do my own hair."
"Well, the color is scrumptious. Do you color it?"
"No. It's all me."
"I love that shoulder length, and the red highlights are beautiful. Really brings out the green in your eyes. You are a very pretty girl, Lisa. Isn't she, Richard?"
Now Mr. Lord looked uncomfortable. He nodded once and kept his eyes on the pair of gloves he was holding.
I felt like a specimen in a petri dish; didn't know what to say so just murmured, "Thanks." Heat flooded my face.
Mrs. Lord smiled then thrust her chin toward her daughter. "Lisa, Cassie should be in bed by eight. We'll try to be home before midnight." She gathered purse and gloves and nudged her husband out the door. "Be good, Cassie," she called over her shoulder. "Remember..."
Cassie nodded while I waved, even though neither of them looked our way. I closed and locked the door then grinned down at the four-year-old who stared at me like I had two heads. "Okay. They're off. So...want to watch TV?"
The solemn-eyed little girl shook her mop of curls. "We don't watch TV, 'cept on Saturdays. This is Friday."
"Ookay...so, want to play a game?"
Cassie nodded, turned and walked with mincing steps to a large bookshelf in the living room. One chubby finger pointed. "That one. China marbles."
Not my favorite, but it'd pass the time. We'd play Chinese Checkers, eat dinner, then it'd be bedtime. Two hours entertaining the kid wasn't too much to do for the money I'd be getting. The Lords had accepted my price without batting an eye.
When Mrs. Lord first called to ask me to sit with their little girl, I was so startled that I told her I charged a ridiculous amount an hour. Crazy as it may sound, I'd been kind of hoping they'd turn me down. Yeah, I needed the money, but I'd heard rumors from other girls who'd baby-sat for them. My best friend, Jenny Wilson, said she'd never do it again. She wouldn't go into detail, just said it was too creepy, so I'd been hesitant at first. But when I'd named the amount for my services, and they'd still accepted, well, I would've been stupid not to.
So here I was, alone with a four-year-old in a huge monstrosity of a house, perched on a high bank overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I don't know how many acres the Lords had, but there weren't any houses nearby. No friendly lights shown through next-door windows. Their driveway was like a mile long. Yeah, Jenny was right. Creepy.
We played the marble game for thirty minutes, which was pretty long for a kid Cassie's age. She was absorbed with the whole idea of moving marbles across the board and took an infinite amount of time balancing each brightly-colored glass orb in its little hole. After half an hour I was ready to call it quits.
"Okay! This was fun, but it's time for dinner. Your mom made mac and cheese for us. Wasn't that nice of her?"
The little girl looked at me for an eternity before bobbing her head.
"And we have carrot and celery sticks, and vanilla pudding. Yummy! We're going to have a party. Right?"
Again, Cassie just stared at me with solemn round eyes beneath a fringe of curly bangs. Just short of rolling my own eyes with annoyance, I left the coffee table, where she'd set out the game and sprinted for the kitchen. "Put the game away, Cass, so we can eat." Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the girl scramble to her feet and gather up the scattered marbles. Well, at least she minded pretty well.
Five minutes later, Cassie tiptoed into the kitchen and stood by the counter to watch me dish up. I set our plates on the kitchen table, and she climbed onto her chair without a word, then proceeded to eat her dinner. She hadn't made a squeak since our game, which I thought was really weird. Every other four-year-old I'd baby-sat had talked a blue streak. Not Cassie. She spooned in her food like she'd been programmed; her eyes focused on something out the big picture window facing the bay. I swear she hardly blinked.
"I like your house, Cassie," I said between bites, trying to encourage a little emotion from the kid.
All I got in response was a head bob.
"Do you like to play on the beach?"
Another head bob.
"Yeah...me, too. Does your dad dig for clams?"
"Oh...I do. I love steamed clams and-and fried clams and..."
This was going nowhere. After receiving only more head jerks to the few other questions and comments I tossed her way, I gave up and ate the rest of my dinner in silence. Twice I glanced out the window to see what had her so transfixed but saw only a few soaring gulls and the endless pewter-colored water. Kids are funny.
After dinner, Cassie slipped off her chair and wandered into the living room, where she pulled out crayons and coloring books. I cleaned up the kitchen then joined her. I tried to engage her in conversation again, but the kid only did the head jerk and kept her eyes glued to her coloring page. I sat on the couch and let her do her thing. Still pretty good money for doing practically zilch.
Ten minutes to eight, I suggested Cassie brush her teeth and get ready for bed. Half expecting a fuss, the kid surprised me by closing her coloring book, carefully replacing the crayons in the yellow plastic box, and heading upstairs.
Halfway up, she turned and looked down at me with those solemn eyes. "Don't go in there," she said, pointing to a closed door at the foot of the stairs.
"Okay." My lips twitched. "What is it?"
"It's Daddy's 'magination room."
My grin widened. "Oh...okay. We won't go in then."
"Daddy and Mommy told us never to go in there. Ever."
Us? "They told you and who else?"
"Us. Me and Carla. We can never go in there. Ever."
"Fine. We won't go in." I shooed with my hands, and she made a beeline for the bathroom. I watched as she pushed a stool to the sink, stepped up, and squeezed a generous amount of toothpaste onto a Tinkerbell toothbrush.
"So, who's Carla?" I asked while she brushed, spat, brushed.
"My sister," she said matter-of-factly, replacing the toothbrush in its matching cup, and drying her face and hands on a pink towel. She stepped off the stool and pushed it back against the wall. "We were borned on the same day."
Startled but trying not to show it, I asked, "The same day? Carla's your twin?"
"Yes. We got to be borned on March second." She held up two fingers.
I hoped I wasn't getting into hot water. "So...where is Carla now?"
Without batting an eye, Cassie replied, "She went into Daddy's room."
"We aren't s'posed to go in there."
Jeez! The kid had a one-track mind. I decided to change the subject. "Last one to your room's a rotten egg."
Now, wouldn't a normal little kid run, squealing, into the room after a challenge like that? You'd think. Not Cassie. She minced her way toward her room like a ballerina walking on eggs. I trailed after her, my enthusiasm for a quick chase thoroughly squelched.
She had a pretty bedroom. Painted lavender and trimmed in white. The twin beds held enough stuffed toys to supply every kid on the West Coast. Colorful pictures covered one wall. A montage of family photos, another. Two identically framed pictures on the wall over the dresser snagged my attention almost at once.
Both showed curly-headed toddlers--one in pink, the other in green. Cassie and Carla?
Cassie noticed my interest and pointed. "That's Carla," she sighed, pointing to the moppet in pink. "And th' other one is me. We went to th' beach...in Cal'fornia."
"Neat. You two look exactly alike." Fiddling with the frilly skirt on a perky Barbie doll princess, I asked one more question, hoping I wasn't going to regret it. "So...uh, where's Carla now? You said something about daddy's room?"
Cassie shrugged and finished buttoning her pajamas. "Carla went into Daddy's room." She selected one of the stuffed animals--a ratty-looking dog with long brown ears--and climbed into bed. "I didn't." Her left thumb found her rosebud mouth.
"Oh...okay..." I tucked in the covers and sat on the edge of her bed. "So...Carla went into daddy's room...but you didn't. Then what happened?"
The thumb in her little mouth popped out. "Daddy and Mommy told us never to go in there. Ever."
Biting back a frustrated retort, I mentally counted to ten, smiled and forced a patience I'd lost an eon ago. "Ookay...you already said that. What happened to Carla after she went into daddy's room?" Now I remembered why I hated baby-sitting anyone under eight.
Cassie looked at me, sighed with exaggerated patience, and, enunciating each word carefully, said, "Carla went into Daddy's room. I told her not to. She was bad. I'm not bad. I'm a good girl."
My smile strained, I prodded, "And? What happened to Carla?"
"She opened the cab net."
"The cab net?" I hadn't a clue what she meant.
"The China cab'net." Cassie's voice had an edge. Clearly she thought me a dim bulb.
Duh! "China cabinet! I get it. So, did Carla break something? Did she get a spanking?" I heard the absurdity of my words even as I said them. Even if Cassie's sister had disobeyed, gotten punished, it didn't answer the question of where she was now. "So, what happened to Carla?"
Cassie scrunched down under her covers and brought the doggie up to her face. "Go 'way."
I'd gone too far. The subject of Carla was closed. Standing, I patted her head. "Okay. I'm sorry Carla's not here..." Pretty sure now that her twin had died, I didn't want to make things worse by saying it and have a crying four-year-old on my hands. If she were still up, eyes swollen, when her folks got home, I'd have a lot of explaining to do.
I paused at the door. "What, honey?"
"She's not. Carla's not gone."
Well, she brought it up. "She isn't?"
"No. She's still in the cab'net."