Sarah Bennett doesn’t remember the night her mother tumbled down the stairs at Bennett House, despite allegedly witnessing the fatal fall. There was talk of foul play, dark whispers, and sidelong glances, all aimed at Sarah, prompting her family to send her to The Laurels, an exclusive asylum in San Francisco, under a cloud of suspicion. Now, on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s murder, Sarah has been summoned home. Convinced of her innocence, she returns to Bennett House, hoping to put the broken pieces of her life back together. But when another murder occurs shortly after her arrival, Sarah once again finds herself a suspect, as she is drawn into a web of suspicion and lies.
In order to clear her name, Sarah must remember what happened the fateful night her mother died. But as she works to regain her memory, the real murderer watches, ready to kill again to protect a dark family secret.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Spirit of Grace by Terry Lynn Thomas, Sarah Bennett has just come home from an asylum where she was sent after her mother, Jessica Bennett, died from a fall down the stairs. Although Sarah was found at the base of the stairs, cradling her dead mother in her arms, she can’t remember what happened that night. So everyone thinks that she murdered her mother. A year later, in 1942, Sarah is summoned home by her father and she returns to Bennett House, in the small town of Bennett’s Cove, just north of San Francisco. When she gets there, she finds to her dismay that her father has published a book, remarried, and taken on an assistant, Zeke, whom Sarah suspects is a spy. As the tension mounts in the household, Sarah struggles to remember what happened the night her mother died, while trying to fight her growing feelings for Zeke, and her growing animosity for her young stepmother, who is about the same age as Sarah.
The story has a strong plot, filled with many twists and turns, and takes you back to the time of the World War II, when anyone who was a stranger was suspected of being a spy. The author’s voice is fresh and unique and the story will grab your interest from the very first page.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Spirit of Grace by Terry Lynn Thomas is a World War II drama, rife with murder, spies, suspense, deceit, betrayal, and page-turning excitement. Our heroine, Sarah, has temporary amnesia about the night her mother died. Suspected of pushing her mother down the stairs to her death, Sarah leaves her home in Bennett Cove, California, under a cloud of suspicion, and spends a year in an asylum, in hopes her memory will return. Our story opens in October 1942, when Sarah has been called home by her father after a year of being away at the asylum. When she arrives at her home, Bennett House, she discovers that her father has remarried a woman named Grace, who is nearly the same age as Sarah. Although she tries to like the woman and wants her father to be happy, Sarah feels an immediate animosity toward Grace. She also feels an immediate attraction to Zeke, her father’s new assistant. But this is a time of war, and people are not what they seem. When another murder occurs, Sarah is the prime suspect, but this time her memory is unaffected and she knows she is innocent. Now she just has to clear her name. If she lives that long.
The Spirit of Grace is a combination mystery/thriller of the first order. Thomas has done an excellent job of both crafting a believable world in the middle of World War II and creating realistic and endearing characters. This one will catch your interest from the very first word and hold it straight through to the end.
San Francisco, October 1942:
The sun shone the day I left the asylum. I fled the protection of the big house on the hill, with its magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean, its competent nurses, and mind-numbing routine, and entered a world at war and a city preparing for invasion. When Gran and my father had swept me away to The Laurels, the war that raged in Europe was a distant threat. When I got out of the taxi cab on Van Ness Avenue in front of Zim’s–hatless, gloveless, and dressed in the street clothes that I hadn’t worn in a very long time–reminders of America’s entry into the war were everywhere, from the staccato bulletins read non-stop over radios that blared out of the shops on Van Ness Avenue, to the glaring headlines pronouncing the grim facts of the fighting.
My trek along the short block to the front door of the restaurant resembled a running of the gauntlet. With my valise in tow, I wove between throngs of uniformed soldiers who spilled out of the entrances of shops, restaurants, and bars. When I finally wrestled my way to the hostess at Zim’s, I was out of breath and sweating, despite the chilly San Francisco air.
“Miss Bennett,” she said, “It’s been a long time.” When she realized why she hadn’t seen me–information she had gleaned from the newspaper headlines–she stammered. “I’m sorry–I didn’t realize–”
“It’s okay, really.” I smiled at her. “I’ve been craving a burger for a while.”
She nodded and beckoned me to follow her to a secluded table in the back of the restaurant.
“Do you have a newspaper?”
“Of course,” she said. She soon came back with a San Francisco Chronicle and a New York Times. When the waitress came, I ordered the Zim’s burger with extra fries and a strawberry shake without looking at the menu.
“We’re out of hamburger meat,” the waitress said.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Meat shortage. We just sold out for the day. Sorry.” She looked around at her other tables as she tapped her pencil on her order pad.
“Just the fries and shake.”
She nodded and hurried away, stopping to flirt with a table of soldiers who were seated in the booth next to mine.
While I ate, I read about the relentless aerial bombing in England. My heart broke as I read about the children who were being sent to the countryside to live with strangers, while their parents stayed in the city, to face those bombs alone. This war had wound its tentacles around everyone. We were a nation united in the pursuit of a single enemy. We were encouraged to grow our victory gardens, donate all scrap metal, and keep our mouths shut. “Loose lips sink ships” was the catch phrase plastered on billboards and written on posters that were taped to telephone poles and hung in shop windows.
California was home to more than its share of air bases, naval bases, naval shipyards, and repair facilities, but I was surprised that so many soldiers were queued up for the bus ride to Bennett Cove, a small town nestled just north of San Francisco–on the other side of a breathtaking mountain with trails winding through lush ferns–abutting the Pacific Ocean. Our coastline boasted riptides and black seals whose heads bobbed just off shore in the evening, staring at the beachgoers with sweet faces that resembled those of devoted dogs.
The only other female passenger on the bus was Mrs. Tolliver, Bennett Cove’s resident witch. Lovelorn women visited her in secret, careful to stay unseen by friends and neighbors, as they navigated the footpath concealed in the redwoods that led to Mrs. Tolliver’s cottage. She would tell their fortunes in exchange for food, hand-me-down clothes, and the occasional coin. When Mrs. Tolliver fixed her attention upon you, her gaze penetrated right through to the soulful spot where the secret truths lay hidden.
I opened my newspaper and stared at it, hoping that she wouldn’t see me. No such luck.
“Sarah Bennett,” she cried out. “I’m so pleased that you’ve come home.” She wriggled her ample hips, as she squeezed into the seat next to me. “Your father must have summoned you?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, but Mrs. Tolliver continued to speak.
“He’s a saint, that man. He paid off the bank note on my house after the husband passed. He would have paid for electricity too, but I don’t believe in electricity. No. The vapors will make a body sick.”
She scrutinized me, head to toe, judging me like a piece of meat at the butcher’s. She carried a burlap shopping bag with leather handles worn slick by decades of use. Now she placed it on the floor underneath her seat, careful with its breakable contents. She smelled of garlic and sweat and the homemade lye soap she used to wash her clothes. She wore her long gray hair in a bun, revealing thick dark streaks of grit and dirt along the back of her sun-burnt neck. She smelled as though she hadn’t had her bath this week.
I wondered if I could crack my window without giving offense.
“Anyone worth their salt knows you didn’t kill your mother,” she said. “You haven’t got the stomach for it. It’s been one year, today, hasn’t it?”
Unable to speak, I nodded. I didn’t remember anything of the night my mother fell down the stairs at Bennett House and broke her neck. My father and grandmother had found me huddled over my mother’s body, shivering in my nightgown, and mumbling incoherently. They thought I had killed her. Everyone in Bennett Cove thought I pushed her down the stairs to her death. I didn’t know one way or another. I didn’t remember a thing about that night.
The psychiatrist, whom my father hired to care for me, diagnosed chronic amnesia and had suggested I stay at his asylum for a rest, in hopes that my memory would come back. I had done my part, participated in the tests and therapy groups, but my memory hadn’t returned. That part of my life, the time when my mother died, was a yawing chasm in my psyche.
Out of the blue, my father had summoned me home. The time had come for me to try to remember what happened the night my mother died, to exonerate the cloud of suspicion that hung over my head. The time had come for me to slay my demons.
Mrs. Tolliver jabbed my ribs with her elbow. “You listening?” She looked at me with squinty eyes.
I smiled at her. “Are all these soldiers going to Bennett Cove?”
“That they are,” she said. “Bennett Cove is billeting troops before they ship out. There’s no room for them in the city, so they’ve set up an encampment. The place is swarming with soldiers. A body can hardly get to the post office anymore, I tell you, and I’ll be glad when this war is over. I only hope that we don’t get invaded.” Mrs. Tolliver pushed her sweater aside to show a gun holstered underneath the waistband of her skirt.
“Don’t look so surprised. Things aren’t what they used to be. A body’s got to be protected.”
The bus drove down Lombard Street and soon passed a billboard depicting a larger than life-size picture of my father, holding his book, The Arms of the Enemy. He grinned, the smile of a man who hadn’t a care in the world.
“Have you read his book yet?” Mrs. Tolliver asked.
“No,” I said. “They didn’t allow books involving crime at–where I stayed.”
“It’s very good,” Mrs. Tolliver said. “Elegant writing for a man. And don’t look at me with surprise. Just because I’m simple doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I read all the time.” She leaned back and crossed her arms over her ample bosom.
The bus chugged down Lombard Street, toward the Golden Gate Bridge, past the area where the Palace of Fine Arts should have been. Designed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts with its Greek-inspired architecture was a sight to behold. I felt an affinity with the weeping ladies that graced the circumference. I looked for the female statues that topped the Palace’s Corinthian columns, but I couldn’t see them through the camouflage netting that now covered them.
“They’ve requisitioned the Palace to use as the motorpool. Can you believe that? It’s a disgrace. At least they had the good sense to put camouflage on the weeping ladies.” Mrs. Tolliver leaned over my lap and looked out the window, craning to see the tops of the statues, giving me a whiff of her unwashed hair in the process. They were invisible under their camouflage. “That way the Japs can’t see them when they fly over. We don’t want our fine buildings demolished by enemy bombs, like them in London.”
As the bus headed over the Golden Gate Bridge, I watched injured ships, twisted-metal casualties of the war waged at sea, being pulled into the San Francisco Bay by tugboats.
Mrs. Tolliver explained that the wrecked ships would be dry-docked, where they would be repaired or scrapped for the valuable steel, a much needed resource during this time of war.
“Times have changed, missy,” the old woman said. She leaned back into her seat and crossed her arms in front of her. “Bennett Cove ain’t what it was when you left. Neither is Bennett House, but you’ll see that for yourself.”
We rode along in silence. Soon Mrs. Tolliver fell asleep, her head lolled to one side, her mouth open. She didn’t wake up when the bus rolled into Sausalito, the last stop before the road that led over the hill and down to Bennett Cove. If San Francisco’s population had increased during my time away, Sausalito had burgeoned. Scores of houses had been demolished at Pine Point in order to accommodate the huge shipyard which had changed the city’s landscape and–by the looks of the crowd at the bus stop–increased its population. When the bus pulled to a stop along the main street, I pressed my face against the window, but couldn’t see anything except masses of men, some in uniform and some dressed for manual labor.
A handful of soldiers got off the bus. One man, a civilian, trailed behind them, getting on. He took off his hat, smiled, and nodded as he handed the driver his fare. His eyes were the most intense shade of green I had ever seen, their vivid color accentuating the dark circles beneath them. Although his suit and tie were of the same fine wool gabardine that my father favored, his face had the pallor of someone who had not seen natural light in quite a long time. I recognized that pale skin. I suffered from it as well. He caught me staring at him, as he passed by on the way to an empty seat. I turned around and peered between the seats as he stowed his bag in the rack above. When he sensed my eyes on him, he looked right at me. Our eyes met. He smiled, his green eyes crinkling at the corners. I smiled back before turning around in my seat.
Soon the bus pulled away, and my thoughts turned to other matters, like Gran and how she would react to my father’s summoning me home. I shook off this worry. I had come home at my father’s suggestion. He would welcome me to Bennett House. Gran could do as she pleased. I wasn’t leaving until I discovered what happened on the night of my mother’s birthday–and death.
When the bus turned onto the two-lane road that led up the mountain, the chatter stopped. The road to Bennett Cove was narrow and twisty, a rocky wall on one side and a precipitous drop to the ocean on the other. There were no guard rails. A group tension, a collective hush, fell over the passengers. The only sound on the bus was the gentle susurration of Mrs. Tolliver’s snoring. When the bus pulled into Bennett Cove and came to a stop in front of the old post office, I heard a collective sigh of relief among all the bus riders, except Mrs. Tolliver, who snorted a couple of times as she woke up.
The day was bright and warm, with a refreshing undertone of the fall chill that would set in when the sun went down. I stepped off the bus and took a deep breath, filling my lungs with salty sea air. A queue of soldiers poured out of the post office and onto the sidewalk in front of it. Others came out carrying bundles of packages and letters. Green military vehicles crept along the clogged street in the first traffic jam I had ever seen in my home town. The milkman, who still used a horse-drawn cart to deliver his cargo, headed back to the dairy. His horse, a gentle shire whose hooves were the size of dinner plates, pranced along the streets with his neck arched and his ears pricked forward. There wasn’t a parking space to be found. At the end of Main Street, between the post office and the beach, rows of tents had been pitched. The window in the post office had the same poster I had seen all over San Francisco affixed to the door. “Loose lips sink ships! Please don’t discuss military activities!” Next to it was another plea to purchase war bonds.
My green-eyed stranger got off the bus ahead of me. He walked up to an imposing black sedan, an incongruity next to the military vehicles and personnel. As he drew close, the back window of the car rolled down. My stranger open the door and slipped into the backseat.
“Do you want to use my phone to call your family?” Mrs. Tolliver asked. “They’ll want to come and fetch you.”
“No, thank you,” I said, staring at the car as it pulled away. “I want to walk.”
“It’s a long way, dearie,” she said, squinting up at me.
“I’ll take the shortcut along the beach,” I said.
“Good. You could do with some fresh air,” she said. She reached into the burlap sack and handed me a jar. “Eat this vegetable soup. It will put some color in your cheeks.”
She picked up her shopping bags and lumbered away from me, toddling on ankles that were swollen over the tops of her brown lace-up shoes.
I kicked off my shoes and stepped onto the sand, savoring the warmth of the sun on my cheeks, the soothing rhythm of the waves as they crashed to the shore, and the tangy sea air.
I turned, surprised to find Mrs. Kensington standing next to me. We had struck up a friendship at The Laurels, where her daughter was also a patient.
“Hello,” I said.
“I’m glad I found you,” she said, smiling at me. “I heard you had left and was sorry that we didn’t get to say goodbye.”
I set my valise down on the ground and shielded my eyes against the glare from the sun. Today Mrs. Kensington had on a simple black dress and the gold locket she always wore. Inside it was a picture of her husband, who died in 1918 of influenza, and her daughter. I had never seen the pictures, but Mrs. Kensington had told me that the locket held the pictures of her beloved family. ‘I like to keep them close to my heart.’ She had on stockings and fine leather shoes, inappropriate attire for a walk on the beach. But I was glad to see her. Our friendship had sustained me during my time of grief.
“How in the world did you know I would be here?”
“They told me you had gone home,” she said. “I was glad to hear that you had gotten out of that horrid place.”
“I still don’t understand why you’ve come all the way here,” I said.
“I can explain,” she said. She became serious. “You must be very careful, Sarah Jane. Things at Bennett House are very strange right now. I know you didn’t push Jessica down the stairs.”
“What? How can you know that? I don’t even know what happened that night. I don’t remember anything. Don’t you read the newspapers–” I stopped myself before I said too much. Oh, what a fool I had been. “You people have no scruples, do you? My god, you’ve been lying to me. You must think I am so very stupid.”
“I’m not a reporter. I’m here to help you. That is the only reason I am here. Oh, I’ve made a mess of it, haven’t I?” She wrung her hands. Were those tears in her eyes? “I want to fix things, make it all right.”
“You tell me who you are and what you know about my mother or I’m walking away,” I said.
She didn’t speak. Instead, she reached out and touched my cheek with fingers that were icy cold. “I’m sorry I upset you, Sarah,” she said, as she turned and walked away from me.
“Wait,” I called after her. “How do you know I didn’t kill my mother?”
She slowly turned around to face me. “It’s just a feeling I have right here.” She touched her heart as she spoke. “Go home, Sarah. When I figure out how I can help you, I’ll be in touch.”
I watched her for a minute before I picked up my bag and set out once again toward Bennett House. She was a smart one, I’d give her that. For a brief second, I was ready to believe her, to let her help me, to confide in her. What a disaster that would have been. I could see the headlines now. She got right to my sensitive spot. But while her behavior was unscrupulous and loathsome, no one had ever uttered those words to me: ‘I know you didn’t push Jessica down the stairs.’ Not Gran. Not my father. How could they? They didn’t know.
I turned for one more look at this strange woman who acted as though she believed in me. She was gone.
‘I know you didn’t push Jessica down the stairs.’
The words kept repeating in my head as I trudged through the sand toward home. How desperate I was to believe that woman, to think that I might have an ally, someone who believed in my innocence and could help me prove it. How foolish. My heart sank. If one newspaper was onto the fact that I had come home, others would follow. We would have reporters camped out near our home, much like we did after my mother’s death. I had come home, but had brought trouble with me.
I craved a bath, a cup of good strong coffee, and my bed. By the time the pitched gables of Bennett House peaked out above the trees, my shoulder ached from carrying my bag and my feet smarted from the hot sand. I put my shoes back on and stepped into the grove of old redwoods that circled the house, separating it from the dunes that led to the beach, then out of their protective shade and onto the shabby lawn. Bennett House loomed, tall and strong and timeless.
Weeds poked through the bricks that made up the walkway to the front porch. One of the shutters on the front windows had come loose and hung sideways on its hinges. The roses that grew on either side of the walkway had been neglected in my absence. They were overgrown and covered with dead flowers and brown leaves. The nasturtiums had gone wild and taken over the other perennials that grew along the foundation, their orange and yellow flowers bright and lovely. Fat lazy bumblebees hovered around them. The clematis that grew on the lattice near the front door had reached the top of the wooden structure and was now intent on weaving itself into the old copper gutters, which had turned a mellowed patina of green decades ago.
A large raised-bed garden had been planted on the sunniest patch of lawn, its pristine rows a stark contrast to the rest of the unkempt landscaping. I recognized what was left of peas, beans, tomatoes, and squash, most of which had already been harvested.
As I stepped away from the cover of the trees, a flock of gulls circled above me, as if to announce my presence. They called out to each other, cawing in harmony, with the Pacific Ocean as their accompaniment. I headed up the path, took the two steps up the porch, and paused for a moment before knocking on the massive wooden door. Would I be welcome? Or should I turn around now and run, while I still could?
I reached out my hand to knock as the door burst open. A woman I did not know stood before me on the threshold. She fumbled with a bag designed to hold a camera and several lenses. When she saw me, her mouth opened and her eyebrows shot up in surprise. Her flawless make-up accentuated her beauty. The dress she wore, a charcoal gray sheath, flattered her slim waist and narrow hips. An emerald-green silk scarf held her hair away from her face. Her eyes now traveled up and down my body, taking in my old and much-mended linen skirt, my blouse, now wrinkled from my trip home, and my hair, which had grown during my time away, and had now escaped from the clip that held it away from my face. I didn’t speak. I just stood there stupidly, not quite sure what to say.
“You must be Sarah,” she said.
“I am,” I said, faking a smile. “Who are you?”
“We wondered when you would show up.” She ignored my question and stepped away from the door, holding it open for me. “They called to tell us you had left. I know Jack told you to come home, but you could have called us, let us know when you were going to arrive. How did you get here, by bus? Did you walk all the way from town?”
She didn’t let me speak.
“You may as well come in.” She stepped aside and allowed me to enter my own home.
As we stood for a moment in the foyer, I took in the parquet floor, the sweeping staircase that led to the second story, and the mahogany table that had graced the center of the room since the house was built. For as long as I could remember, a crystal vase the size of a small child had graced the center of the table, always filled with a huge bouquet of flowers. Today the table was bare and the crystal vase that had rested upon it was gone. I ran my hand over the smooth wood, surprised at the dust that had been allowed to accumulate on top of it.
“It’s hideous, isn’t it,” the woman said.
“I’m rather fond of it,” I said.
She smiled at me. “I wanted to get rid of it, but your father wouldn’t hear of it. I tried to have it hauled up to the attic, but it wouldn’t fit up the staircase.”
Who was this woman?
A shotgun rested by the front door. She saw me eyeing the weapon, so out of place and strange.
“That’s for us to shoot invaders,” she said as she shut the door and locked it, sliding the dead-bolt home with a resounding click, something I had never done in my entire life. She headed down the long hallway toward my father’s study, not bothering to see if I followed.
The inside of the house had changed. Furniture had been rearranged; pictures had been taken off the wall and re-hung. My father’s office, a large room just off the library, was still full of the books that he and my mother loved. They were everywhere, jammed without order into the floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stacked in piles on the floor near the window, and on the credenza behind my father’s desk. The silver inkwell that had belonged to my grandfather was gone, along with the pictures of my mother and me that had rested on his desk for as long as I could remember.
I stood in the doorway, watching my father as he sat at his desk, hunched over one of the many pads of paper that were piled next to the brass banker’s lamp. His reading glasses had slid down his nose, and when they did fall off, he reached for them while continuing to read, oblivious to us interlopers in his literary domain.
When the woman who had opened the front door slipped behind my father, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed the top of his head before snuggling cheek to cheek with him, my stomach clenched. Still reading, my father reached out and grabbed her hand. Something was very wrong.
“Darling, someone is here to see you.”
My father looked up. When he saw me, his eyes opened in astonishment before they relaxed into relief. “Sarah, thank God,” he said. He took off his reading glasses, set them on his desk, and came toward me with open arms.
I stepped into them. My father hugged me. When he moved away from me, he put both hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “I’m so glad to see you.” He studied my face. The woman stood near his desk, her arms crossed over her chest. “I think it’s time you came back to the fold,” my father continued. “It’s been a year. Can you believe that?”
“It’s good to be home,” I said.
“I see you’ve met Grace.” He walked over to the woman and put his arm around her.
“Not officially,” I said. “Hi.”
“Grace and I–” My father hesitated.
“I’m Jack’s wife,” the woman said.
© 2016 by Terry Lynn Thomas