By Andrea McDonald
Stephanie was two blocks from home when her cell phone rang. She glanced past the steering wheel to the number displayed on the car monitor and cursed.
“Transformations, Stephanie Hall speaking,” she said brightly, then held her breath.
“Hi baby doll,” a raspy voice answered. “It’s your favorite real estate agent calling you with a golden opportunity.”
“Hi Jerry,” she said, dropping the professional tone. “I hope you don’t want me to look at something tonight.”
“Now would I ask you to do something like that? Before you answer, just remember how much you love me and how much business I’ve thrown your way.”
Stephanie thought of the candy sitting at home waiting for the trick-or-treaters. It was almost six o-clock.
“You do realize it’s Halloween, don’t you?” she asked.
“How could I forget, with the image of you in that French maid’s outfit at the industry shindig last year still making me do things that make the cat blush.”
“Jerry, we’re professionals, remember.”
“Yeah, so you keep telling me. But a guy can fantasize, can’t he?”
Stephanie shook her head, but then inhaled the smell of her brand new car. Two payments a month. “No comment,” she said. “What have you got?”
Jerry snickered. “A real Halloween humdinger. You know the Hepworth mansion up on Senster Street, corner of Wizzen? Big old Victorian place, with the tower and the stained glass and the whole deal. Well, the old lady that lived there has kicked the bucket, and her son has been on the horn to me from Boston, and he wants it cleaned up and on the market, pronto. Says every day it sits empty is money out of his pocket, and he hates the place. Says he won’t pay to hold on to a hellhole.”
“Really? That’s a magnificent old house. It needs some work, granted, but I’m sure the bones will be good.”
“Bones? Yeah well, good or not they’re sure to be rattling tonight. I need you to do your thing - go in and see what needs to be done – he’s willing to have it painted and staged. But it’s a rush job.”
“Couldn’t it wait until the morning when I can see it better? It’s dark and it’s raining, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Nah, he’s the pushy kind. If I don’t get on it straight away, I’ll lose the listing, and that means you’ll lose the job, baby doll. But hey, if you’re scared, I’ll come on over and protect you.”
The thought of being alone with Jerry in a deserted house after dark was just too creepy, so Stephanie put him off, but turned the car around and headed toward Senster Street.
“I’ll call you later, keep you company,” Jerry said then, just as Stephanie heard a beep on the line. “Got to take this call. It’s the guy from Boston. The key code’s 8888. Later, baby doll.”
The street was like a black tunnel under the tangle of tree limbs; the streetlamps cast jagged shadows. Stephanie leaned forward to peer past the windshield wipers into the darkness as she neared the house; she spied sagging verandas and bleak kitchen lights in the neighbours’ homes. She knew there were few buyers out there willing to take on a massive restoration project and then pay enormous taxes, but it was her job to whisk away the years of neglect and create a marketable product. On a shoestring budget no doubt, she thought, judging by Jerry‘s comment about the client. She shrugged, pulled up alongside the carriage house, and turned off the ignition.
For a minute she hesitated, staring at the shifting shadows reflecting off the dark windows. Her eyes travelled up from the wide veranda to the balcony above, and finally to the tower with its iron-railed widow’s walk glistening like a spider’s web against the cloud-filled sky. She took a big breath, and ran through the rain to the wide front steps.
They were slippery, so she clutched the bannister, then scurried to the front door, which stood before her like a curved tombstone. She slid her key card into the electronic lock box and punched in the code. The key dropped into her hand. She slipped it into the keyhole and turned. The latch clicked. But when she twisted the doorknob it resisted, as if someone was holding the knob on the other side. She pushed harder. The door gave way and swung noisily on its hinges. She tiptoed into the dark foyer and glanced around.
A broad staircase rose in front of her. To her left there was a wide doorway, with paneled doors standing half open. Beyond them she could just see a mass of heavy furniture in the gloom. She had expected a Victorian parlor with the furniture facing off in rigid formality, but from what she could see, it looked more like chaos.
She fumbled for a light switch. Instead, she found a knob and pushed it. A wan chandelier flickered on and confirmed what she had suspected. The room was a mess. Okay, Stephanie, she said to herself, you’re a professional, take stock. High Victorian, Italianate. Electrical is still knob and tube. Some furniture to work with, but that old stained wallpaper will have to go. I’ll need to brighten it with cream walls, ivory on the crown molding and trim.
She moved across the hall, feeling a little calmer. When she touched the wall knob a dusty chandelier cast a weak light over a long dining table, ringed by tall-backed chairs. There was a bed in the corner, piled with quilts, with a small table beside it holding a lamp and stacks of books. The old woman must have lived out her life in these lower rooms, she thought.
That conjecture caused her to tiptoe upstairs more timidly. Why be afraid of unused rooms, she asked herself, and the answer was there in a second: they were like tombs. There was no life in a sealed room. She tried to push that thought away as she turned the knob and threw back the door of the first bedroom. It banged against the wall, and she heard plaster crumble inside the lath. She gasped and fumbled for the light.
The room was filled with furniture. Good, she thought, trying to focus. I can use those pieces. I’ll need new bedding, rugs, and drapes. She moved on, inspecting each gloomy room. Her footsteps brought the floorboards to life and they groaned. When she had seen all five bedrooms on the second level, she tiptoed up the next set of stairs.
The rain tapped on the roof overhead. The hall was narrow, and the dim light coming in through the rain-streaked window over the stairwell showed lights hanging from the ceiling. She moved her hand through the darkness, searching for the pull-cord. When at first she couldn’t feel it, panic rose in her throat.
Her cell phone rang. She jumped, and stifled the cry that leapt out of her mouth.
“Hey baby doll. You there?”
“Yes Jerry,” she said in a hoarse whisper. She cleared her throat as she moved toward the tower room at the front of the house. By not allowing Jerry to hear fear in her voice, she felt braver. She turned the knob. It resisted.
“Hey, I’ve just talked to the son again. Seems he was holding back. Where are you?”
Stephanie struggled with the doorknob before answering. She yanked it hard and pushed her shoulder against the door. It gave way in a rush and she stumbled into the room.
“I’m upstairs, in the bedrooms. Why?” She flicked on the light and as her eyes adjusted she saw a child-sized bed, a chest, and rows of shelves, all empty. The drapes were hanging in tatters from thick rods. The windows were tall, and shone like black mirrors. She tried not to look at them as she moved toward the wardrobe.
“Well, he can have his listing. Seems the old lady was the only one who could live in the house.”
“Why? What are you saying, Jerry?”
Her hand was on the wardrobe door, but she hadn’t turned the knob when the door flew open. She jumped back, but not before she saw what was inside.
“I’m saying, it’ll be hell to sell. Seems there’s spooks in there.”
Her eyes fell on a heap of dolls. Their eyes were blank and glassy. Each one had a drapery cord noose around its neck.
“Seems there was a crazy little girl, a granddaughter. She had a thing about strangling. The cat. The dog. Seems she hanged herself, too.”
Stephanie felt something brush against her neck. “Where? Where did she hang herself?”
“In the tower room.”
Stephanie backed toward the door. It slammed shut.
“Jerry!” she yelled.
“He says, get this, the old lady was the only one who wasn’t haunted by the girl, because she still loved her. The old bag kept everybody out of the house, but now – “
Stephanie clutched her throat. Something was squeezing it. She struggled to breath. “Jerry!” she rasped.
“Ahhh, you scared? I’m coming baby doll. I’ll protect you from the ghosties.”
The pressure around her neck cut off her air. She yanked at her throat but there was nothing there. She felt her knees buckle and her eyes dim.
“Jerry”, she gasped, as the air left in her lungs burned. She slumped down.
“Hah,” Jerry said. “The jerk doesn’t know it, but I’m actually thanking him. You and me, alone, on Halloween. Hellhole? Hell no, that’s pure heaven.”