Jane Darrowfield is using her retirement years to work as a professional busybody, with most of her business coming from her West Cambridge, Massachusetts, community. This time her client is right next door . . .
Megan, who's purchased the house next to Jane's, needs some help from her snooping neighbor. Megan's been having blackouts, hearing voices—and feeling like someone's following her. Are these symptoms of an illness—or signs that she's in danger?
Considering the extensive security system in Megan's house, it seems like she should be safe—yet she soon vanishes into thin air. Some think she's run away, but would this ambitious young lawyer on the partner track really miss a meeting with an important client? And where's Megan’s cat?
The mystery is about to deepen when the cat is finally located in a hidden panic room—and as Jane and the police look into Megan's friends, family, and past, it may be time to sound the alarm . . .
Release date: December 28, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door
Jane was in her garden, hand watering her shrubs using a metal watering can. August in Massachusetts had been hot and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather for those vacationing at the beach on Cape Cod or in the Berkshires. But when the same weather rolled along, unbroken, into the middle of September, it had officially become a drought with attendant water restrictions. The little patch of lawn in Jane’s West Cambridge yard had long since turned brown, but she was determined to keep her plants alive, watering them every other day as the rules allowed.
The woman raised her fist to knock on the glass door to the converted sunporch that served as Jane’s office.
“I’m here!” Jane straightened up with an involuntary groan. “I’ll be right along.”
The young woman turned and smiled. Jane approached her, holding out her hand. “Jane Darrowfield.”
The woman took the hand and shook, a firm, professional grasp. “Megan Larsen. I live next door.”
“Of course.” Jane and her neighbor had enjoyed a smiling and waving relationship for the ten months Megan had lived in the house. “Pleased to officially meet.” Jane ushered Megan inside. “Coffee? Tea?”
“This isn’t a social call.” Megan flushed prettily. “Though I should have come by long before now. I have to run off to work in a moment. I’m a lawyer downtown.”
Jane knew this, the neighborhood grapevine being what it was. There had been a lot of curiosity about the thirty-something single woman who had bought the house that was still among Jane’s set called “the Baxter place,” though the Baxters had been gone for more than two years. Jane also knew that by “downtown,” Megan meant Boston, not Cambridge. Cambridge had many busy squares but no actual downtown.
Jane assessed her neighbor from close up. Her impressions from across the waist-high hedge that divided their front yards were confirmed. Megan Larsen was a very pretty woman. A luxurious mane of brown hair fell in gentle waves to below her shoulders. Her skin was clear, her eyes gray, and her figure trim and healthy looking. But her most arresting feature was her mouth. It was disproportionately large under her slightly upturned nose, and when she smiled, as she did tentatively now, her teeth were big and bright white with an ever-so-slight overbite. Her features weren’t classic, but she was beautiful.
Megan was so tall she made Jane feel short, though she considered herself to be of normal height. Short and old, with hair that had to be helped to remain its original honey-blond color. Megan Larsen wore a beautifully tailored, sleeveless green dress. Jane was in her gardening clothes—shorts and an old polo shirt.
She gestured toward one of the chairs across from her desk, and her guest sat. Jane sat too, pulling her rolling chair forward until her shorts were hidden by the desk. They were silent for a moment.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Larsen?” It was apparent the young woman was having trouble starting the conversation.
“Call me Megan, please.” The woman paused, then took a deep gulp of air and the words rushed out. “I want you to figure out if I’m crazy.”
Jane didn’t try to hide her surprise, though she consciously softened her features with a pleasant smile before she spoke. “I’m afraid I’m not that kind of professional. My practice involves fixing small problems that require discreet handling. Things that, while vexing, aren’t appropriate for the police. I have no therapeutic credentials whatsoever. I’d be happy to give you some names.”
Megan nodded, flashing her big smile. “You are exactly what I need. Someone discreet who can observe my life and tell me if my symptoms are, as I believe, caused by something real or if they’re in my head.”
In spite of her better instincts, Jane was intrigued. She opened the small red leather-bound notebook that sat on her desktop and picked up a pen. “And your symptoms are?”
“Flashing lights wake me in the middle of the night, but when I open my eyes, the room is dark and I’m in a pool of sweat.”
“It’s been quite warm.”
“I have central air.”
“There may be medical reasons,” Jane offered.
Megan held up a cautioning palm. “I’ve been to my primary care physician, and she’s even referred me to an endocrinologist. There’s no physical cause, if that’s what you mean.”
It had been what Jane had meant. She motioned for Megan to go on.
But Megan did not.
Finally Jane said, “Unless you want to hire me to watch you sleep, I don’t see what I can do.”
Megan’s brow creased and her full lips pursed. They sat like that for another few moments. “That’s not the worst of it.” She hesitated again. “I’ve been forgetting things. And losing time. Having blackouts, I suppose you would say.” The rest came out in a rush. “And hearing voices. I believe someone is stalking me.”
Jane’s pulse rate increased steadily through the recitation. The woman sitting in front of her looked sane, but a long life had taught Jane not all lunatics looked as if they’d recently escaped from Bedlam. “This seems quite serious. You must see a psychiatrist or psychologist as soon as possible.”
Megan inhaled deeply and then let out a long breath. “I don’t want to do that. Not yet, anyway. I’m up for partner at my law firm this fall, and I don’t want either the HR department or my insurance company to know about this.” She tapped a finger on Jane’s big mahogany desk. “Especially if my symptoms aren’t caused by mental illness. Because I don’t think they are. I believe someone really is out to get me.”
Jane didn’t point out that this was exactly what someone would believe if they were suffering from a major mental illness. Instead she said, “Will you promise me that if I determine there are no tangible reasons for your symptoms, you will consult a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist?”
Megan held her hand up, oath-taking style. “I promise.”
“I charge by the hour or by the day.” Jane named a healthy figure.
“Does that mean you’ll take my case?”
Jane closed the notebook. “Yes. When would you like to get started?”
“As soon as possible.” Megan stood. “Can you meet me at my house this evening? I’ll leave work early. Around six o’clock?”
Jane agreed and walked Megan to the door. They said their good-byes, and Jane watched her neighbor’s retreating back as she made her way down the flagstones to the sidewalk.
“What do we think of the young woman who moved in next door to me?” Jane was at her weekly bridge game with Helen Graham, Phyllis Goldstein, and Irma Brittleson, her great and good friends. They were at Phyllis’s house today, across the street from Helen’s and around the corner from Jane’s.
“In the Baxter place,” Helen said. The Baxters had been middle-aged when Jane had moved into the neighborhood as a young faculty wife. Their teenagers had babysat for her son, Jonathan. A couple of years ago they’d grown too old for the stairs and the snow and the gutters. They sold up and moved to a senior living community. That’s when the flipper bought it.
“I only know her to wave hello,” Helen said. “She seems nice enough.” Helen was their golden goddess—slim, athletic, her white hair worn in the same pageboy she’d sported since her twenties.
“She recycles, keeps her yard neat, and has someone shovel her walk,” Phyllis added. “Nothing to complain about. Though I had hoped for a family with children.” Phyllis was small and pleasantly round. Her deep, raspy voice marked her as a smoker or a drinker, though she was neither.
Jane, Helen, and Phyllis sighed the same regretful sigh. There was always the hope of young families moving into the neighborhood, mirrors of their own when they’d moved in as young wives. The big houses were perfect for families. The curving streets, dead-ends, and cul-de-sacs were made for Hot Wheels races, street hockey games, and parents standing out on a summer evening visiting and gossiping, perhaps with a cold beverage.
But there hadn’t been a new young family for years. The neighborhood, a little island on the far western edge of Cambridge, tucked between Brattle Street, Huron Avenue, and Fresh Pond Parkway, was lovely. Forty years before, it had been affordable for the single-income family of a not-yet-tenured Harvard professor, as Jane’s ex-husband, Francis, had been; a not-quite-a-doctor resident as Helen’s husband had been; and a not-yet-a-business-owner engineer as Phyllis’s late husband was at the time. But that had changed over the years as the houses had become ever more expensive. In the last decade the values had accelerated at warp speed.
“To be honest, I was pleased she wasn’t an investor.” Helen dealt the hand with a practiced efficiency. “And that she actually lives there. When I saw it was being flipped, the way it was renovated, I assumed it would be the usual.”
“The usual?” Irma studied her hand. She hadn’t taken part in the conversation to that point. She was the new member of the group, having been a player for only twenty-nine of the bridge game’s thirty-eight years. She had a thin face and a beaked nose, and she wore her lovely steel-gray hair in an elaborate bun. She lived with her ancient mother in an apartment in a big two-family house a mile and a half away, a half a dozen distinct neighborhoods from the others’ homes in their dense little city.
“Chinese billionaires, Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern royalty, Eurotrash.” Phyllis rearranged her cards. “Moving money out of their countries for whatever reason.”
“Parking it all over the world,” Jane added. “And lately, here.”
“And they don’t live here. That’s what gets me,” Helen said. “Sometimes they have kids in local colleges or boarding schools, and they have wild parties and trash the houses over their breaks, but mostly the windows are dark.”
Not that they wouldn’t have been anyway, Jane thought. Investors loved the brick, stone, or stucco homes in the neighborhood, with their generous 1920s proportions, but they couldn’t leave well enough alone. As the houses had turned over, additions had taken up even more of their tiny lots, and giant open-plan kitchens with family rooms had grown out of the backs or sides of the houses. The formal front living rooms were dwarfed by the “great rooms” and seldom used.
“When I saw how the guy who flipped that house did it up, I assumed he was looking for foreign investors too,” Helen said.
Since the boom, perusing real estate websites had become an obsession in the neighborhood, and home prices were the most common topic of conversation. Jane had even attended the open house when Megan’s place had been on the market. After all, it was right next door.
“But Megan Larsen . . .” Jane prompted. She couldn’t tell them why she was asking, but she would try one more time.
“Perfectly nice, but not what I expected,” Phyllis said.
“Or hoped,” Helen amended. “I dealt and pass.”
“Pass,” Jane said.
“Pass,” Irma said.
“Or hoped,” Phyllis agreed. “Three no trump.”
“Phyllis!” The other three yelled in unison, a practiced chorus.
“I told you I didn’t have enough points for an opening bid,” Jane protested.
“We shall see.” Phyllis was an aggressive bidder. Sometimes she even made it.
At six o’clock that evening, Jane was on her front stoop when Megan walked down their winding street, lugging a briefcase that looked far too heavy for her.
Megan waved from the end of Jane’s walk. “Hello! Come on over.” Jane met her and walked with her past the hedge and down her driveway.
Megan’s big brick house sat slightly farther back on its lot than Jane’s house did, which was nice for both of them, affording more privacy and sunlight than might otherwise have been the case since the houses were only a driveway-width apart.
Unlike most houses in the neighborhood, Megan’s had an attached garage. During the renovation the developer had torn down the free-standing one-car garage and rebuilt it with two bays, permissible because the structure extended no farther than the original toward the property line. Jane knew from the open house that the area above the garage was now a luxurious master suite.
Megan put the briefcase down in the drive and fiddled with a keypad beside the garage door. The double door rolled up with a clackety-clackety-clack. Jane was surprised to see the garage was empty, though when she thought about it, she’d never seen Megan in a car. Jane had heard that young people often didn’t own cars these days, relying instead on bicycles, public transportation, rideshares, and rentals. Indeed, there was a sturdy red bicycle leaning against the back wall of the garage.
Megan entered more numbers on the keypad on the door from the garage to the house while a camera stood sentry over the door. Once they’d climbed the two-step riser and were inside the house, Megan punched more numbers into the security system to disarm it.
Jane watched with interest. It wasn’t uncommon for people to have alarm systems in her increasingly tony neighborhood, particularly in houses such as Megan’s that had been gut renovated. But in Jane’s experience the systems were generally activated only when residents were away for an extended time, not for a simple day at work. Break-ins were not unknown. There had been a rash of them more than a decade ago. But they were exceedingly rare.
Megan’s house was lovely. When Jane had come through during the open house, her first impression had been one of light and brightness. Most of the downstairs walls had been removed during the renovation.
She and Megan entered into an open kitchen with tall ceilings, white-white cabinets, a big kitchen island, and white countertops. The kitchen extended to the front of the house. A comfy-looking white leather couch, a coffee table, bookshelves, and a TV mounted on the outside wall filled the remaining space.
Jane was shocked to realize that the furniture was the same as it had been the last time she’d been there. Apparently, Megan had bought not only the house but also the furniture it had been staged with. She had bought, fully, the vision of the life the developer had been selling.
On the other hand, the house wasn’t obsessively neat. There were personal touches—a crocheted afghan askew on the back of the white leather couch and bowls for a pet of some kind on the kitchen floor. Expensive brass cooking pans hung from a rack over the kitchen island. An antique painting of a lamb was over the fireplace, which should have looked out of place in the sleek room but somehow fit right in. Jane found the hominess and slight mess reassuring. In her experience, people who viewed their homes as stage sets—places where the perfect setting would result in a perfect life—often had problems. Megan truly lived in her house.
A half-full glass mug of light brown liquid sat on the coffee table. Megan whisked it away, stowing it in the big farmer’s sink as she offered Jane a drink. “Wine? Iced tea? Water?”
Jane accepted the wine. Megan’s most alarming symptoms—the lost time, voices, blackouts, the paranoia—could be related to alcohol consumption. It would be interesting to watch her drink.
Megan pulled an open bottle of white wine out of the fridge, grabbed two fancy crystal wineglasses, and led Jane outdoors to a bistro set on a small flagstone patio. The day had cooled down enough to make the outdoors pleasant.
The yard was smaller than Jane’s because of the way the house sat on its lot. The tiny bit of grass was mowed, and despite the drought, the shrubs that the developer had added were thriving. Megan, or someone, must be caring for them. A high stockade fence separated Megan’s backyard from Jane’s. Jane could look down onto a sliver of the yard from the bedroom at the back of her house, the bedroom Jane still thought of, despite more than a decade of disuse, as her son Jonathan’s room. But Jane never went in there if she could avoid it, so until that moment she couldn’t have reported on the state of Megan’s back garden.
Megan poured the wine. Jane waited to see if her neighbor would ease the way into the conversation. When she did not, Jane broached the reason they were both there. “When did you begin to feel—”
Megan smiled. “Like I was losing it?” Megan wiggled her bottom on the cast-iron chair, settling in. “I can’t say exactly. It’s been a gradual thing. Six months, maybe?”
Jane counted backward in her head. Six months would have been March. Megan had moved in during November. “Did the symptoms start all at once?”
“No. The first thing was the night sweats. Then the flashing lights. The rest came after.”
“These lights flash when your eyes are closed?” Jane clarified.
“Yes. They wake me in the night. But when I open my eyes, they’re gone. By then I’m fully awake, my heart is pounding, and I can’t get back to sleep.”
“What about the voices?”
“The same thing. I hear someone talking downstairs. I wake up and I’m awake.”
“You hear the voices only when you’re asleep?”
“And then I wake up,” Megan confirmed.
“Is it possible you’re dreaming?”
“I’d hoped that was true for a long time. But how can you explain that I wake up bathed in sweat? I didn’t dream that.”
“Are you getting enough res. . .
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