"Are you sure this is the correct address?" I questioned, not believing what I was seeing with my own two eyes.
"You asked for 571 Yorba Lugo Road. Blackthorne House, right?" The driver replied.
"Yes, that's it." I paid the fare and stepped out of the taxi to face my new home.
Blackthorne House wasn't a house, per se. It was a mansion done up in the high-Victorian hues of rose, brown and green. I stared up in wonder at the home's intricate gingerbread trim and counted seven gables, four recessed porches, three balconies and one turret.
That command scrambled my thoughts. I turned my attention toward the voice to find the familiar figure of Sister Rosario Santiago waving to me from the mansion's front porch. Not one to disregard sage advice, I made haste up the front steps and into the inviting warmth of the front parlor.
"Neither this house nor the cold weather is what I expected to find in San Diego," I remarked as I dropped my luggage and shrugged off my coat.
"I think the chilly wind followed you in from Chicago," Sister Rosario teased. "Even for February this is unusually cold weather for us. As for Blackthorne House, it is atypical of San Diego architecture. However, it is exemplary of a classic painted lady Victorian house. I'm sure you'll be comfortable here while working on our project."
"House? You mean mansion, don't you?" I teased back. "Does this place come complete with a hidden stairwell and things that go bump in the night?" I was on a roll; "There must be some aura of mystery to this mansion."
"Now, now," Rosario deflected my query, "enough of this nonsense. Shannon Delaney, you haven't changed a bit since you were a little girl. Always looking for a good scare. And such an imagination you have, why, it's no wonder you've become a popular author."
I couldn't help noticing that Sister Rosario hadn't lost her talent for turning a chide into a compliment.
"Okay, you've called my bluff. But..." I paused. "There must be some history to this house, it's just too old not to have a fascinating bit of mystery. And, knowing you, I bet you've looked in all the nooks and crannies only to discover a back-door story about Blackthorne's mansion."
"Later, Shannon. I promise you can pick my brains over lunch. Which, by the way, is just about ready. Now, go on up to your room and unpack. It's on the second floor, first room on the right as you enter the corridor. We'll chat over lunch."
I rolled my eyes to heaven, made a funny face at my favorite nun and trudged up the stairs thinking--Foiled, again, by the good sister's quick draw!
Lunch was laid out on a small table at a windowed alcove in the front parlor. I welcomed a cup of Sister Rosario's Mexican coffee--brewed strong with a touch of cinnamon, every bit as delicious as I remembered it. The coffee revived my jet lag and my appetite. Sister Rosario said a few words of grace and then I dove into the salad and soup. We ate in silence until I looked up and out the window.
"It's amazing how very different the outside seems from in here. It's so bright. The only hint of winter weather is in the wind. What a contrast to Chicago! I've always associated cold temperatures with an overcast sky."
"It's the Santa Ana winds," Rosario offered. "In winter they bring freezing temperatures and a crystal clear sky. It's peculiar, though, for the Santa Anas to howl this far south. Usually, it's the inland area and coastal region north of here that gets the brunt of them. More coffee? More soup? Maybe a few more bites of salad?"
"Yes to the coffee, no thanks to seconds of the chowder and salad. As always with your cooking, everything was scrumptious. I suppose your strategy is to keep me chewing so I won't pester you about this mansion? But I've had enough, so please ... tell me everything you know about Blackthorne House. How did it come under the auspices of the local diocese?"
"Long story," Rosario answered. "I'll attempt a Readers' Digest version."
"I'm all ears."
"The house was closed and boarded up for nearly two decades and prior to that various members of the Blackthorne family lived here. Last year a relative of Blackthorne's designated the parish as trustee of the estate with the binding stipulation that the property be put to use to benefit the local parish. After much consideration, it was decided to renovate the mansion and turn it into a bed-and-breakfast inn. I was put in charge of the entire project."
"I see ... and that's where I come in?"
"Certainly is, what with your writing credentials and passion for history, I was adamant about hiring you to chronicle the project and design the advertising campaign."
"Rosario, I'm thrilled to be the bard of choice for the Blackthorne House project, but do you mean to say--you didn't have in mind I needed some place to stay after my home caught fire and burned to the ground?"
"Now, Shannon, I always keep my word and I promised your parents I would look out for you, to the best that a nun can, that is. The fact that you were living out of a suitcase when this project came up is pure coincidence and a great amount of faith. God works in mysterious ways, therefore it's not for me to question the circumstances that made an award-winning writer available for this project."
"Amen to that. I'm thankful for this job and a place to live. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined residing in such a grand dame of a Victorian. But, I'm letting you get off track, let's see ... you were about to reveal the history of this place and its mysterious owner?"
Sister Rosario sighed and took a deep breath. She met my gaze with the look of a confidant.
"Near as we can discern, this mansion was built in the late 1880's, the same era as the great real estate boom in San Diego. That was a period of Old West grandeur. Wyatt Earp lived here, so did a dog named Bum. Who, for lack of a better description, was San Diego's canine mayor. Anyway, the boom attracted people from all walks of life. Americans, Europeans, Asians and the founding California Hispanics mingled and created their own unique society based on Hispanic and American culture. The original owner, Eric Blackthorne, fit superbly into the social scene of the time. He was quite a charmer, and wealthy to boot."
"So, he made a killing on the high tide of real estate investments ... Is that how he managed to build this mansion?
"No, not at all. Blackthorne the Magician, that's what he was," Rosario said with a mischievous smile. "Stories abound about his antics and affairs. Parties 'til dawn with elaborate entertainment, including tables of faro and poker. He even hosted seances for the traveling circuit of clairvoyants. And then there were the scandalous relationships with San Diego's most prominent women. Quite a lady's man he was. Of course, there was a respectable side to the man as well. Blackthorne sponsored numerous charitable organizations and events."
"Sounds like he was a regular rogue," I surmised. "Is he buried near here?"
"Shannon! Leave it to you to sniff out the mystery in a man. Not a living soul knows where he is buried, let alone when he died. Blackthorne, the magician that he was, seems to have just vanished from the living."
"Really? No trace of his demise? I suppose his disappearance happened during one of his magical performances?"
Rosario's voice fell to a hush as she leaned forward. "It seems that Eric Blackthorne got involved with the wrong woman. He fell in love with Olivia Pico, the beautiful wife of one of San Diego's most prominent citizens: merchant-shipping magnate Captain Miguel Pico.
"Besides having a residence in town the Picos owned a ranch about an hour's drive from here in San Diego's back country near present-day Julian. Olivia spent most of her time in town so she could be close to her husband when he came into port. Often he docked just long enough to unload and restock cargo, and then off he sailed. During the winter months the couple would return to their ranch.
"Anyway, at the beginning of 1888, Olivia met Blackthorne through a mutual friend. They socialized in the same circles; so, it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed. Olivia was active in many community organizations and shortly after she became acquainted with Blackthorne the two were in the constant company of each other. Oh, sure, they came and went separately to events and such, but that was just a ruse to fool the prying eyes of the city's gossip mongers."
"And did their ruse work?" I asked.
"Evidently not. Social circles being what they were, the news about the passionate pair circulated quickly and Captain Pico caught wind of it. Imagine--the captain making dock after weeks at sea and then discovering his wife is in love with another man!"
"Rosario, did he actually catch them together?"
"Oh, dear, that he did and in the worst possible way. It was the first week of October and due to unpredictable weather, in this case, it was exceptionally fine, Captain Pico's ship came into port five days earlier than expected. Late one Sunday afternoon--in this very parlor--he saw them together. Blackthorne had hosted a benefit luncheon for the newly formed San Diego Opera Society, of which Olivia was a founding member and recording secretary. After the gathering had left, Olivia stayed to tidy up her notes. Of course by this time in the afternoon she and Blackthorne were alone in the house.
"Evidently, Captain Pico thought nothing of Olivia devoting so much of her time to social causes. He knew about his wife's dedication to the community and she served on many committees. The poor man suspected nothing. So it must have been a terrible shock when he stepped up to the porch and through the view of the front window he saw Olivia and Blackthorne clutched in a passionate embrace. Captain Pico stormed through the front door swearing and damming Blackthorne. He grabbed Olivia and practically dragged her all the way to their home two blocks from here!"
"Actually, Rosario, the entire event seems tame compared to the awful news headlines we read today. Though, I guess in the Victorian era the incident would have deeply humiliated everyone involved. How did all this figure into Blackthorne's disappearance? The magician didn't turn tail and run, did he?"
"No. In fact, Blackthorne vowed eternal love for Olivia. Of course, her husband made threats against him. Strange thing is that everything calmed down shortly afterwards. As husband and wife, the Picos returned unseasonably early to their ranch. Captain Pico didn't go out to sea until the following spring, and even then, he hired a second captain to split sea duty with."
"And Blackthorne?" I asked.
"He vanished without a trace. According to the old newspapers I read, not a soul ever reported seeing him after the incident. Also, he left a few remarks in his journal ... and then, nothing."
"Rosario! You have Blackthorne's journal?"
"Yes, of course, that's how I know what happened. Furthermore, his journal prompted me to do follow-up research in newspapers of the 1880's. Blackthorne was a meticulous writer, and quite a romantic word smith, too. I came across his journal while gathering together his personal items to ship off to his relatives. What precious little there is of his, I packed into that old steamer chest," Rosario pointed to the opposite corner from where we sat. "It's due to be picked up tomorrow by a courier sent from the family."
I hadn't noticed the chest before. I couldn't resist the temptation to examine it. I crossed the parlor and knelt down in front of the chest. "Rosario, what a fascinating piece this is. Do you think it's part of Blackthorne's original estate?"
"Most certainly it is. His relatives described it perfectly. That chest is some sort of family heirloom. And they are adamant that the chest is returned. It's quite a conversation piece."
"You bet it is." Nearly three feet high, wider than my arm span and at least two feet deep, the intricately carved wood chest was magnificently preserved. "Do you have any idea what all these carved symbols mean? They appear to represent a hodgepodge of different cultures."
"You know, Shannon, I was wondering that myself. I recognize some of the Asian Zodiac signs and Egyptian hieroglyphics ... and I think some of the other symbols might be Celtic. Honestly, though, your guess is as good as mine. Take a peek inside if you like."
"Wow! I'd love to. But it'll have to wait until I get all my stuff unpacked."
"Do remember to put the contents back in order before morning. And Shannon, what ever you do, don't try to move that darn thing, it weighs a ton. It's time for me to go. I must get back to the parish office and follow up on some details of this project. Oh, another thing I should caution you about, cell phones don't seem to work inside this house. If you stand outside, near the curb, the cell reception is fine. So, in case you need me, I left my number on the foyer table, there's a landline phone there. I'll return bright and early in the morning."
I helped Rosario into her overcoat and then we stepped out onto the front porch. I gave her a big hug. My favorite nun walked down the steps, turned around at the curb, blew a kiss and got in her car. Sister Rosario, what a dear you are.