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Murder on the House

Excerpt

Murder on the House

What makes a house look haunted?

Is it enough to appear abandoned, run-down, bleak? To creak and groan when the wind blows or the fog creeps down the nearby hills?

Or is it something else? A vague awareness of danger, the whisper of a tragic past, an odd impression that dwelling within is something indescribable—and distinctly not human?

Beats me. I'm a general contractor, with an excellent reputation for renovating historic homes, and an abiding desire to chuck it all and run off to Paris. Reconciling those two imperatives was hard enough, but my life was made even more complicated when the most recent edition of Haunted House Quarterly named me "California's most promising up-and-coming Ghost Buster".

A misleading moniker if ever there was one. When it comes to ghosts, I have very little clue what I'm doing. But I've never been one to let ignorance stop me, and I'm accustomed to flying by the seat of my pants.

At the moment I was standing on the front stoop of a once-grand house in San Francisco's vibrant Castro Valley neighborhood. The home appeared lived-in, what with the cars parked out front, the cluster of red clay pots planted with marigolds on the porch, ecru lace curtains in the front windows, and a folded newspaper on the sisal doormat.

The house, a neoclassical revival-style with Italianate flourishes, had been built around the turn of the last century when San Francisco's population was booming. It was massive, symmetrical, painted the traditional monochromatic cream with no colorful flourishes. The tall, skinny sash windows were plentiful and multi-paned; the roof was supported with ornate corbels that marched along the underside of the eaves with military precision. Where the city's famous Queen Anne Victorians homes were decorated with scads of elaborate gingerbread, the Neoclassical style was more understated, distinguished by the "wedding cake" effect of Corinthian columns supporting a demi-lune roof over the front porch.

It was gorgeous.

But it did need work. My practiced eye noted a host of problems: one corner of the roof soffit gaped open, inviting vermin. The gutter had detached in a few spots, and the roof had long streaks of bright green moss that encouraged water intrusion. Window sashes sagged, indicating rot. These were obvious signs of neglect, which meant a high likelihood of finding a thousand other problems once the walls were opened.

Yes, the house needed work...but was it haunted?

I looked around for a bell or knocker, but all I found was an ancient intercom system to the right of the front door. I pushed the button, only to be greeted by a burst of static.

My curled fist was about to knock on the door when it opened. I squeaked and jumped in surprise, my hands flailing.

This was another problem for an alleged ghost buster: I'm not what you'd call cool in the face of...well, anything much. And apparently I was at a total loss when faced with a rosy-cheeked little girl, with long chestnut hair and big eyes the soft brown of milk chocolate.

As I tried to pull myself together, the girl giggled.

"Sorry," I said, taking a deep breath and striving to regain my composure. "My mind was somewhere else."

"My mama does that all the time." She said with an understanding little shrug, displaying a pre-adolescent sweetness of child who was oh-so-familiar-and patient with the mysterious ways of adults. Though she held herself with great poise, I pegged her age at ten or eleven. Give her a couple more years, I thought, and she'd be as snarky and sullen as my teenaged stepson.

She stepped back. "Do you want to come in?"

"Yes, thank you. I'm Mel Turner, with Turner Construction. I have an appointment with Mrs. Bernini... Is she your grandmother?"

The girl laughed and shook her head. "No, of course not. I'm Anabelle. Anabelle Bowles. I'll take you to the parlor. Mama says the formal parlor's the place for company."

I stepped into the front foyer and paused, savoring the moment.

Quite aside from the whole ghost-busting thing, I restore historic homes for a living. In the past, all buildings were custom-designed and custom-built, so each was unique. My favorite part of the job, bar none, is stepping into an old building for the first time; one never knew what to expect.

The front entry was airy and open, the intricate woodwork painted a creamy white throughout, a welcome contrast to the dark woods so characteristic of the Victorian style, like the house I was finishing up across town. The walls were lined in high bead board wainscoting, and the woodwork was painted rather than stained or shellacked. The tall sash windows allowed sunlight to pour in, giving the home an airy, sunny feel. A huge fireplace, missing several of its glazed blue-green tiles, was flanked by built-in display cases. On the stairway banister, each newel post was carved in a different pattern: one was a series of different sized balls, another was geometric boxes, yet another sported a face carved into the lintel.

In marked contrast to the home's exquisite bones, the interior design was appalling. A sagging floral sofa sat along one wall, one missing leg replaced with a stack of old magazines, and an overstuffed velvet armchair was covered with a faded Indian cloth. Newspapers were piled in one corner, and fliers from local merchants littered a scarred maple coffee table from the 1960s. Shreds of discarded paper and a pair of scissors suggested someone had been clipping coupons. Rather than strip old wallpaper, someone had simply painted over it; it was pulling away from the walls and hung in crazy quilt patches. Rusty water stains bloomed in several spots on the peeling ceiling, and the broad-planked wood floors were warped and discolored in patches.

Beneath the layers of grime and papers that had settled across everything, I thought I spied a marble-topped antique credenza near the massive fireplace as well as a few light fixtures that appeared to be original hand-blown glass. In general, though, the turn-of-the-twentieth century home's ambience was more early twenty-first-century Frat Boy.

"This way please," said Anabelle as she led the way down the hall to the left.

Several broad corridors spiraled off the central foyer, lined with so many identical closed doors the place felt a little more like a hotel than a private home. Without signs, it would be easy enough to get confused as to which door led to which room.

We passed a formal dining room with two impressive crystal chandeliers, another ornate fireplace, and a coffered ceiling. The historical elegance of the room was compromised by the de-laminating linoleum-topped table surrounded by least a dozen mismatched chairs.

"I like your dress," said Anabelle, glancing over her shoulder. "You look like you could be in Ringling Brother. We saw them when they came to town. Mama said it was the greatest show on earth."

I have a tendency to wear off-beat clothing. Nothing inappropriate, mind you, just...unexpected. I chalk this up to the years I spent in camouflage as I played the role of respectable faculty wife to a respectable Berkeley professor who turned out to be a not-so-respectable, cheating slimeball. The minute the ink was dry on my divorce papers I yanked every scrap of my expensive Faculty Wife Wardrobe out of my closet, dropped it off at the twenty-four-hour dry cleaner's, then drove the whole kit and caboodle, still in the plastic bags, over to Dress for Success on Sutter. When the delighted volunteer asked if I wanted a receipt for my donation, I almost refused, then changed my mind and mailed it to my ex-husband.

Once freed to dress as I wished, I indulged my fondness for spangles and fringe. It started as a joke, sort of, but soon became a "thing." My friend Stephen—an aspiring costume designer and the much-loved, only son of a Vegas showgirl—was responsible for many of my outfits. My unconventional wardrobe inspires good-natured ribbing on the jobsite, where denim and canvas rule the day, but I'm serious about my profession: I always wear steel-toed work boots and bring along a pair of coveralls so as to be ready for any construction-related contingency.

But today I was meeting a client for the first time, which meant I had left the spangles, feathers, and fringe shut away in my closet in favor of a simple, above-the-knee wine-colored dress topped by a cardigan. Although an odd ensemble for me, to my eyes at least nothing about the outfit screamed "circus." Then I reminded myself that this was the Castro District, famous for its outré fashions. Perhaps Anabelle wasn't accustomed to suburban-uninspired attire in this section of San Francisco.

"I like your dress, as well," I said. "Especially the matching ribbons in your hair."

"It's called robin's egg blue," she said, clutching a bit of the skirt in each hand and holding it up as though ready to curtsy. She gave me a big smile and turned down a corridor to the right.

It was rare to find a house this massive in the Castro, which had been built up in the blah and was studded with relatively simple Victorian row houses built for the Scandinavian and Irish working class families that developed what was then considered to be a remote area. The Bernini house, which dated from before the neighborhood had been incorporated into the city, was rare not only for its square footage, but also for the extensive grounds: it took up half a city block, and included ample gardens and two outbuildings.

I wanted this job so much I could taste it. But there was no guarantee it would be mine.

Avery Builders were breathing down my neck. They were good, I had to admit—almost as good as Turner Construction. Avery and Turner had similar portfolios and track records for keeping on budget and on schedule. When competition for a job was this tight, the decision usually came down to whoever the clients liked more, felt more comfortable having in their homes, day in and day out, for months on end.

Client relations made me nervous. I was a whiz at construction, understood the ins and outs of buildings and architectural history as if they were in my blood. But when it came to dealing with people, well...I was fine. Up to a point. Mostly if they let me do what I wanted. Diplomacy was never my strength.

I did have one advantage over Avery Builders. The new owners of the Bernini estate wanted someone to help them turn the place into a haunted Bed and Breakfast. Apparently ghost tourism was all the rage.

And as far as I knew, Avery Builders didn't have a ghost buster on staff.

Anabelle hummed as she walked, finally breaking out into song: "Wish me a rainbow, wish me a star..."

She glanced over her shoulder and smiled, displaying deep dimples. "Do you know that song?"

"I don't. But I'm no good at music."

"You don't play? My mama's teaching me to play the piano."

"I tried my hand at the clarinet in the fifth grade. It wasn't pretty."

Anabelle frowned. Usually I was good with kids, because I didn't take them—or myself—too seriously. My stepson Caleb and I had gotten off to a famously good start because I had immediately grasped why he felt compelled to wear his pirate costume, and remain in character, for more than a year before graduating, in a manner of speaking, to pretending to be the more "grown up" Darth Vader. But I had a flair for sword fights and laser battles—not so much with piano lessons and hair ribbons.

"...These you can give me, wherever you aaarrrrrree..." Anabelle resumed singing, slightly off-tune, and stopped in front of a partially closed door. "Have a seat in the parlor, please, and I'll tell them you're here."

She skipped back down the hall, calling over her shoulder, "Good bye. It was nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you, too." I said, watching her go and marveling at the energy of youth. When was the last time I had skipped somewhere?

I pushed open the parlor door.

The room was empty.

Not just empty of people. Vacant. No furniture, no rugs, no lights, no knick-knacks. Nothing but a heavy coating of dust, a few scraps of paper on the floor, and a pair of shredded curtains on the large windows that overlooked a huge courtyard and garden. There, I saw a tall, rotund man was hard at work pruning the roses. He stopped abruptly, and the pruning shears fell to his side as he stared at me. I lifted my hand in greeting, but felt a frisson of...something.

The afternoon sun sifting in through the grimy, wavy glass, illuminated cobwebs in the corners and a single paneled door that I assumed was a closet. I didn't see so much as a footstep in the dust on the floor, and the musty smell indicated the room hadn't been aired out for a very long time.

"Wait, Anabelle! What—"

I peered down the long corridor; the girl was gone.

But I heard something...Clank, shuffle, clank, scrape. Something passed in front of the doorway at the end of the hall.

Someone, I reminded myself. Get a grip, Mel, the child is playing a joke.

"Hello?" I called out as I started down the dim corridor. "Anabelle?"

I heard it again: a slow step, a shuffle, a clank. Like a ghost in chains, I thought with a humorless laugh. But that was an old Hollywood convention, not reality—I'd seen enough to know better.

Clank, shuffle, clank, scrape.

What was that?

It dawned on me: I had been asked to the Bernini house to help broker a deal with ghosts. So... if this was a ghost, why should I be so surprised?

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. All right, fine. If this was a ghost, so be it. Resolve. That was the way to deal with spirits. You had to maintain your resolve when going up against them. I'd learned that much, at least. It was also important to keep in mind that ghosts, being immaterial, can't physically harm you. I was pretty sure. Actually...maybe I should double-check that little factoid. Despite my alleged "promising ghost buster" status, I'd only encountered two situations involving ghosts, and to be honest they still scared the you-know-what out of me.

Slowly, cautiously, I continued down the hallway to where it ended in a T, the sound growing louder with each step. Clank, shuffle, clank, scrape. Clank, shuffle, clank, scrape. I screwed up my courage, took a deep breath, and peeked around the corner.

An old woman was hunched over an aluminum walker, slowly making her way down the corridor. An orange-and-yellow crochet afghan was draped over her bent shoulders, and her hair was a blue-grey mass of stiff-set curls. Clank, shuffle, clank, scrape.

"Hello?" I said.

"Oh!" she let out a surprised yelp, one blue-veined hand fluttering up to her chest. "My word, you gave me a fright!"

"I'm so sorry," I said, relieved at the sight of a flesh-and-blood woman instead of a spectral presence. I was still getting used to the ghost busting thing. "I'm Mel Turner, from Turner Construction?"

"Oh yes, of course. How do you do? I'm Betty Bernini."

"It's so nice to meet you. You have an amazing place here."

"Thank you. Come, we've been expecting you. The Propaks are in the front room. She resumed her slow progress, and I fell in step, resisting the urge to offer to help. "I'm afraid I didn't hear the doorbell. Did the gardener let you in?"

"Anabelle answered the door, but she showed me to the parlor—the wrong room, I take it."

The clanking stopped as Mrs. Bernini straightened.

"Anabelle?"

"Yes, she's a sweetheart."

"Anabelle let you in."

I nodded, suddenly feeling guilty. Was she not supposed to answer the door? Had I gotten the girl in trouble?

"I want to show you something." Mrs. Bernini shuffled a little further down the hall and opened the door to a bookshelf-lined study full of cardboard boxes, stacked furniture, and an old couch. She gestured to an oil painting hanging over the fireplace. Done in rich Old Master hues of blue, red, and burnt sienna, it featured a girl and a slightly younger boy. She stood with one hand on the boy's shoulder, while he held a cocker spaniel puppy.

The girl had long chestnut brown curls, tied in robin's egg blue ribbons.

A brass plate on the picture frame read: "Anabelle and Ezekiel Bowles. 1911."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Anabelle doesn't live here anymore," said Mrs. Bernini, eyeing me carefully. "She's been dead for a century."

It seemed a ghost had met me at the door.

I hate that.

© Juliet Blackwell


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