Read The House at Sandalwood Online

Authors: Virginia Coffman

Tags: #General, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Gothic, #Fiction

The House at Sandalwood

THE HOUSE AT
SANDALWOOD

Virginia Coffman

“They were warned. The place is cursed. Those who live at Sandalwood cannot escape. You will see.”

Convicted of the murder of her sister-in
-
law, Judith Cameron spent nine years in prison. Now on parole, she is summoned to a lush Hawaiian island to care for her childlike niece, Deirdre, bride of the handsome and imperious Stephen Giles. Judith finds herself drawn to the magnetic young Master of Sandalwood.

Then two violent and mysterious deaths bring new terror into her world. This time Judith discovers that not only her heart but her life, as well, is in jeopardy.

For Donnie and Johnny and those few remaining Kamaainas who remember the Hawaii of 1935 and all the territorial years

 

One

 

“Judith! What a sight you are!” Dr. Ito Nagata remarked as we shook hands and he kissed my cheek lightly. “When I saw you across the lounge just now, you might have been a statue, you were so still. A lovely statue, of course,” he added gallantly, taking the chair opposite me in the little glass alcove of the rooftop cocktail lounge. “You are looking wonderful, considering the—that is, you are looking wonderful.”

I smiled at the brave effort of his flattery, but whether it was flattery or not, it warmed me to the heart. This was my first real welcome in Hawaii. He apologized for the absence of Stephen Giles, the man who had sent for me. “He meant to meet you at the airport, but he’s in the midst of the most touchy negotiations on the new dock strike. It’s what happens the next day or two that will make or break negotiations.”

I said I didn’t mind. After all, Ito had paged me by phone at the airport and explained. And in my turn, I explained the immobility he had noticed in me. “I was thinking over what I’ve just seen since my plane came in. Everything. Everyone’s clothes. Or lack of them. And that glass elevator in which I whizzed up here, for instance. To tell the truth, I found it a little scary. Even the furniture in here. Everything in this too-modern world. And of course, I was enjoying the view. It is fabulous.”

Dr. Nagata snorted. “It is hideous! Michiko and I get out to Waikiki as seldom as possible these days. Honolulu—all of Hawaii, in fact, has become a stone jungle. Hideous.”

I admitted he probably was right. “But anything with a rooftop vista is glorious to me these days. And I never saw water so blue.”

He was immediately apologetic. “Of course. I should have realized how it would look to you after ... Ah, our waitress. What are you having, Judy? Good Lord! Who gave you that mess?”

I was amused at his expression. “It looks like a fruit salad, doesn’t it? The waitress suggested it. A Mai-tai. It ought to be very healthy.”

“For
malahini
tourists maybe. Bring the young lady a martini. Gin. Olive. Very old hat. For myself, I will have rye and water.”

I congratulated him. “You have a remarkable memory,” I said. When the waitress had left us, I leaned across the little table toward Dr. Nagata.

“I suppose Deirdre’s husband, this Stephen Giles, told you how he offered to employ me. It made my parole possible. Have you any idea what Deirdre’s trouble is and why they want me?”

He was evasive, and that wasn’t like the man who had been a friend of my family since my childhood, twenty-five years before.

My niece Deirdre’s infrequent notes had told me nothing during the year since her marriage. She simply dropped inconsequential and odd, troubling little hints in her atrocious spelling.

Stephen says I can wear the gorgeous fuchsia-colored bikini I chose
,
though he says it looks vulgar on me because of the color
...
Everyone is darling to me on Stephen’s island...

But apparently, the small village of pureblooded Hawaiians on Stephen’s family island wouldn’t come to a dinner party Deirdre gave. She complained later, “I have no friends ... Stephen hates me...”

And then, on a new tack:

My Stephen is so good to me. He brought me a present...

Stephen doesn’t take me to Honolulu one-half often enough. Please
,
dear Aunt Judy, get out of that place and come and make him do it
...
They must let you out sometime
.
I heard Stephen’s friends whispering at my birthday party. They said it had been an awful miscarriage of justice and you hadn’t really done that thing to Mother...

So they were still debating the death of Deirdre’s mother, my sister-in-law, almost ten years after a jury had rendered its judgment! Now I asked Ito Nagata, “What kind of man is Stephen Giles?”

“He’s impulsive. Does things on hunches and so forth. I think I know him pretty well. And frankly, I like him. Also, Michiko’s Korean Uncle Yee is Stephen’s cook—a real world-beater. So I hear quite a lot about Stephen and Deirdre. Then too, I’m often called over to Ili-Ahi professionally—since I’m handy, and they know me.”

“Heavens! Ili-what? Sounds like a fish.”

He laughed. “Ili-Ahi is one of the smaller Hawaiian islands. You know of it through Deirdre’s letters as Sandalwood. That’s the English translation. It is more or less owned by the Giles family, and some of the pureblooded Hawaiians. They keep it as private as possible. Until recently, they didn’t want tourists unless they were invited by Giles or one of the Hawaiian families. Now, all that is to be changed. Stephen has big plans.”

“Sandalwood certainly sounds more romantic than Ili-Ahi.”

“Same thing, though. Incidentally,” he reminded me, “it was the gold from the sandalwood trade in the early days that piled up the Giles fortune, which had pretty well gone down the drain until Stephen took over at his father’s death.”

I looked out at the enormous expanse of changing Pacific waters, vivid green near the foam that marked the uneven shoreline, then turquoise and sapphire and finally deep, endless blue.

Deep and endless. Just as my life had looked to me some nine years ago. But those incredible depths were crossed at last. I was free. I asked Ito anxiously, “Is Mr. Giles sincere? He must have known Deirdre was too young for him. That is to say, not so much too young as too immature. Of course, she had all that money.”

Dr. Nagata was honest, but I could see he tried to be fair. “The money may have weighed with him, but only subconsciously. Deirdre was on her best behavior every time she and her school friend, Ingrid Berringer, met Stephen. And as to his age, Steve is only thirty-four—your own age.”

“I am thirty-three.”

He said seriously, “Of course. I’d forgotten. Anyway, this Miss Berringer had a crush on him too. That would make him more irresistible to Deirdre. She was always a little spoiled, you know.”

“I don’t know. After all these years she may be a total stranger in spite of our letters. But when I was twelve and my brother Wayne went off to Korea, I promised him I would take care of her. I felt very grown-up about that promise I made. He adored his baby, and there was no one else to look after her. He assumed Mother would be her guardian, but Mother was never very well after Wayne died, so—well, I’d promised. And Deirdre was always an enchanting little minx.”

“Was Deirdre’s own mother ever sober enough to look after her?”

“We thought she might be in time, when we first heard about Wayne’s death, but Claire Cameron just went on downhill.”

“Uphill, you might say,” he put in reflectively. Seems to me she lived a high time there before...” He broke off.

“It was probably those men who latched onto her. That and the drink. Anyway, she used to forget Deirdre for months at a time. There was one year I remember, she sent us a Christmas card and ten dollars to get a doll for Deirdre. Then, the next time we heard from her was on New Year’s almost thirteen months later. She sent a box of balloons and New Year’s party noisemakers.” But I didn’t want to think about Claire Cameron. I said, “Let’s talk about something more interesting.”

Ito troubled me by his intense concentration on pleating a cocktail napkin. “Are you sure you haven’t done enough for the girl already?” Before I could interrupt indignantly, he added, “People expect Deirdre to be grown-up and capable of managing a household, playing hostess, all the rest. But it just isn’t working out that way, so Stephen talked to Michiko and me. We ...” he shrugged. “We told him everything we knew —and suspected—about your ... your rotten break.”

“No!”

“Now, Judy, Ili-Ahi certainly needs a housekeeper, or a manager, and since you’re Deirdre’s aunt and she trusts you, it seemed so natural. But I may as well warn you, there are a few other problems besides this business of Deirdre’s being too young to run the estate.”

“Ito! Is she pregnant?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s something quite different. Months ago when Deirdre arrived here, you recall, she was with a friend from that exclusive girls’ college the courts sent her to.”

“Yes. She was with the Berringer girl. You mentioned her.”

“Ingrid Berringer. After a few months in Hawaii the Berringer girl was going on to Tokyo and Hong Kong, and then was to return home. New York State, I think.” He took a breath. The paper napkin was a handful of pleats. I laced my cold fingers together, wondering what was to come.

“What about her?”

“Her father and her fiancé, boyfriend, whatever—are here looking for her.”

“After almost a year!”

He avoided my eyes. “They’ve done what they could in Japan and Hong Kong, but now they are backtracking. It seems there’s no record she ever left Hawaii. She was to pick up her visas here in Honolulu, and never did.”

“But she must have written letters to her family. She could have ... here are a hundred things she could have done. This has nothing to do with Deirdre and Sandalwood, surely!”

He straightened and smiled as the waitress brought our drinks. “Michiko predicted I would say the wrong thing. Didn’t take me long. Now, look. The Berringer thing probably has nothing whatever to do with us. You are going to drink that martini, and powder your nose, and we are going to go down to the suite Stephen keeps on the fifteenth floor, and I am going to present you to your new boss. Or your nephew-in-law. This is one nephew who’s older than his aunt. Drink up, Judy.”

I looked into my glass, swished the ice cubes around and said thoughtfully, “It’s a good thing I am here. This Stephen Giles doesn’t seem to be interested in protecting his wife, if he does nothing about gossip like the Berringer business.”

He ignored my bitter remark. “How is the martini?”

“I’m going to sip it slowly. I found out how necessary that is when I drank my first martini in more than eight years.”

“Pretty wonderful, that first taste, I’ll bet.”

“Vile. Absolutely vile. For a little while I couldn’t imagine why people drink so many of them.”

He laughed but agreed that I had a point there. He lifted his glass, saluted me.

“Here’s to beautiful Judith Cameron. May it be all
pau pilikia
from here on in. Troubles all over,” he explained. “Those are the first Hawaiian words for you to learn: troubles over.
Pau
,
pau pilikia,
now that you are here.”

I appreciated his attempts to bolster me up for the all-important interview with Stephen Giles, but I was quite shaken by the problems that seemed to surround my niece.

“I’ll take care of her. Ito, she is all I have left in the world.”

He studied me. “You haven’t changed about caring for people. But you have changed in appearance. In the old days you were pretty. But actually, you are lovelier now, in a different way.”

“Prejudice. Prejudice,” I murmured, but I was touched.

I finished my cocktail, even ate the tough-skinned olive, but there was no postponing it. Sooner or later I had to face the interview with a man I instinctively mistrusted. He might own half of Hawaii but he hadn’t been able to protect his wife from fantastic gossip.

As we left the cocktail lounge and went to the glass cage that crawled up and down the outside of this high-rise hotel, Ito said, “By the way, my Michiko introduced Deirdre and her friend Ingrid to Stephen, you know.”

“How did that happen?”

“They were all on the plane from San Francisco—Michiko and the girls. Stephen was at the airport on business when their plane came in. So Michiko made introductions all around. Well, the girls kept after Stephen ... I don’t think he was too keen on either of them at first. But they persisted. Deirdre can be very winning, as we all know.”

The elevator arrived. I said, “Here we are. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to these glass bugs clutching the outside of a building. It doesn’t seem natural, somehow.” Then I gasped as I pressed against the glass wall and got my first real view of the surrounding scene. “Fantastic! I never saw so many swimming pools. And coco-palms everywhere. They seem to punctuate the whole landscape. And those high-rise buildings!”

The beach itself was scarcely visible, but the Waikiki surf was there, unforgettably green, turning aquamarine farther out, and on the horizon finally becoming a deep, penetrating blue.

“Don’t look down,” Ito advised me, pointing off to the right, toward the greenest mountain range I had ever seen. It was the kind of green that one sees under the first, light, spring rains, pure and rich, wreathed in clouds. “Off
mauka
-way. That’s the Koolau Range,” Ito went on. “The city is piled up against it. And one of the residential districts beyond, that’s Nuuanu. The highway to the Pali run along that narrow valley and climbs up beyond the range. The surf to your left.
Makai
,
we call it, toward the sea. And straight ahead. That’s
ewa-
way, toward town. Ewa is a sugar plantation. Now. You know as much as most
malahinis
know.”

“I never saw anything so green!”

He shrugged off my admiration of this, my first view of Hawaii, but I could tell that he was pleased. Like many people, he allowed himself to condemn his own home, but he would have resented it if I had agreed.

“Everything smells like flowers,” I said. “From the minute the plane put down, I felt it, as if the air were perfumed.”

“Hawaii,” he said simply but felt it necessary to add, “smells more smoggy every day, though.”

The elevator came to an abrupt halt at the fifteenth floor and we stepped off into a hallway so modern, so antiseptically sterile I felt chilled by the memories of public institutions that it evoked. I was so disturbed at this unexpected sight and feeling—which I had to accustom myself to at any time and without notice—that I clutched Ito Nagata’s arm. He looked at me with concern and with that sympathetic understanding my brother Wayne and I had discovered in him long ago when the three of us were schoolmates in Los Angeles.

“You don’t have to spell it all out with Nagata,” Wayne used to say, and Ito still knew without being told.

“The suite isn’t this bad. Quite pleasant, in fact. You may be helping Stephen entertain part of the time. He has a number of business meetings here every month.”

“Isn’t it funny? I’m not afraid I can’t handle the job or Deirdre, but I am afraid to meet the man. Chills are running up and down my spine.”

“Why?”

“Fear of failure to be what he expects of me—some kind of superwoman. I tried to explain in my letters, but he seemed to think I was more competent that I am.”

“You must think positively. You will find you have given yourself a whole new life. And about time, too.”

There was no use in my repeating that a new career as a housekeeper was not my motive in hurrying over to Hawaii the moment I was free. He knew that. My only living relation, my niece Deirdre, and her problems had brought me to this place.

“Here we are.” He knocked, then opened the door. We went through a formal foyer, with oyster-white walls accentuated by a low tabaret of teakwood and a stark black-and-white matted drawing in thick Japanese brush strokes on each wall. The only color—and what a startling contrast!—was provided by the vase of three bird of paradise stalks on the tabaret. Each great birdlike head had all the colors of the sunset, with the added detail of a tongue of blue flame in the center.

The foyer opened on either side. To the left was the comfortable living room, with cushioned cubes, couches, small end tables and cocktail tables, an old-fashioned console television set that looked seldom used, and at the end of the room a balcony overlooking the narrow beach, the palms, the incredible proliferation of high-rises, and finally Diamond Head. Even I could not fail to recognize that landmark, I still couldn’t identify a dark mass reaching out into the sea.

Ito Nagata pointed to the balcony. “The
lanai.
With that view you can almost forget the high-rises when it’s dark enough. Stephen has a bedroom beyond the living room far to your left. On the right, the formal dining room is used for conferences. The kitchen is beyond.” Both the living room and the dining room opened onto the
lanai
, with the surf far below in all its endless shades.

I looked into both large rooms. I was much too nervous to admire or even notice the furnishings of which Ito was justifiably proud. Michiko Yee Nagata, his talented wife, was responsible for the interior decorating. She had done a great job. But all I could think of now was the series of mysterious problems involving my niece and her husband, who had sent for me with the obvious expectation that, by some magic, I would solve everything.

“We seem to be early,” I remarked as my companion ushered me into the living room.

“Make yourself at home,” he said. “I’ll get you a drink, and—ah—musn’t forget these.”

Looking up in surprise, I saw him taking several long leis of flowers, fresh, moist, smelling of gardens in the early morning, from behind the little bamboo bar across the room against the bedroom wall. He brought them to me and dropped each over my head separately as he kissed me on the cheek. I recognized the white carnations, but the pale lei made up of what appeared to be small bells was exquisite. “
Pi
k
ake
,” he
explained, and then, “pink plumeria ... the cheap ones. But the most popular.”

I loved each of them, but I agreed that I loved the “cheap ones” of pink plumeria best. The scents rose around me, delightfully romantic, and somehow softening my fears as well. I had felt cold for so long, my emotions frozen within me, that these flowers seemed to offer the first key to the freeing of those emotions.

I was still thanking Ito Nagata when he went over to the bamboo bar again and waved away my thanks. “You deserve it. Besides, Michiko knows about it. No hanky-panky.” I laughed. I felt genuinely happy for a few minutes.

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