The Julius House


Chapter One

THE JULIUS FAMILY vanished six years before I married Martin Bartell. They disappeared so abruptly that some people in Lawrenceton phoned the National Enquirer to tell a reporter that the Juliuses had been abducted by aliens. I had been home from college for several years and was working in the Lawrenceton Public Library when - whatever it was - happened to T.C., Hope, and Charity Julius. And I was as full of speculation as anyone else. But as time went by with no trace of the Julius family, I forgot to wonder about them, except for an occasional frisson of creepiness when the name "Julius" came into a conversation.

Then Martin gave me their house as a wedding present. To say I was surprised to get a house is an understatement: "stunned" is more accurate. We did want to buy a house, and we had been looking at fancier homes firmly anchored in the newer suburbs of Lawrenceton, an old southern town that itself is actually in the regrettable process of becoming a commuter suburb of Atlanta. Most of the houses we'd been considering were large, with several big rooms suitable for entertainment; too big for a couple with no children, in my opinion. But Martin had this streak that yearned for the outer signs of financial health. He drove a Mercedes, for example, and he wanted our house to be a house where a Mercedes would look at home. We'd looked at the Julius house because I'd made a point of telling my friend and realtor Eileen Norris to put it on the list. I'd seen it when I was searching for a house for myself alone.

But Martin hadn't loved the Julius house instantly, as I had. In fact, I could tell he found my affection for the house strange. His arched dark eyebrows rose, the pale brown eyes regarded me questioningly.

"It's a little isolated," he said.

"Just a mile out of town. I can almost see my mother's house from here."

"It's smaller than the house on Cherry Lane."

"I could take care of it myself."

"You don't want a maid?"

"Why would I?" I don't have anything else to do, I added privately. (And that was not Martin's fault, but my own. I'd quit my job at the Lawrenceton library before I'd even met him, and as time went on, I regretted it more and more.) "There's that apartment over the garage. Would you want to rent it out?"

"I guess so."

"And the garage being separate from the house . .."

"There's a covered walkway."

Eileen tactfully poked around elsewhere while Martin and I conducted this little dialogue.

"You do wonder what happened to them," Eileen said later, as she locked the door behind her and dropped the labeled key into her purse. And Martin looked at me with a sudden illumination in his eyes.

So that's why, when we exchanged wedding gifts, I was stunned at his handing me the deed to the Julius house.

And he was equally bowled over by my gift. I'd been amazingly clever.

I'd given him real estate, too.

Choosing Martin's present had been terrifying. The plain fact was we didn't know each other that well, and we were very different. What could I give him? Had he ever expressed a want?

I sat in my brown suede-y chair in the "family" room of the townhouse I'd lived in for years now and cast my thoughts around frantically trying to think of the perfect gift. I had no idea what his previous wife had given him, but I was determined this present would be more meaningful. Madeleine the cat spilled over from my lap to the cushion, her heavy warm mass moving slightly with her purring. Madeleine seemed to know when I began thinking she was more trouble than she was worth, and she would make some demonstration of an affection I was sure was false. Madeleine had been Jane Engle's cat, and my spinster friend Jane had died and left me a fortune, so I suppose Madeleine reminded me of good things - friendship and money.

Thinking of Jane led me to think of the fact that I'd wrapped up the sale of her house, so now I had even more money. I began thinking of real estate in general - and suddenly, I knew what Martin wanted. Sophisticated corporation man Martin was from rural Ohio, oddly enough. The only obvious tie-in this had with his present life was that he now worked for Pan-Am Agra, manufacturing farming products in conjunction with some of the