Topic: First Chapter
The Haunting (ISBN 1-59088-748-4)
Formats: Paperback &
E-Book (ISBN 1-59088-306-3)
I ran down the long, dark, narrow hall in the old haunted Harding mansion with ghosts chasing me, quickly gaining ground. Frantic, I reached out and tried each door I passed, but they were all locked. Then suddenly, I was backed up against the window overlooking the gardens far below, and one of the larger ghosts started touching me. Terrified of his icy embrace, I turned and hurled myself out of the plate glass window, sending crackling shards of shattering glass into the air as I plunged to my death.
Abruptly, I bolted upright in my bed and realized where I was – in Aunt Alice’s spacious home. My heart was beating out of control, my breath ragged as I struggled to take air into my lungs.
With shaking hands, I pushed back my short unruly hair as I nervously glanced around. My dark purple quilted bedspread was a jumbled, twisted mess, entwined with my pristine white cotton sheets. The short, mauve curtains at the windows billowed gently in the damp, early morning breeze. Outside, I saw the tips of Alice’s prize-winning roses under a stormy predawn sky. And there, beside my bed, was the large armchair with the clothes I’d chosen to wear today…to go to the monstrously huge, reputedly haunted Harding mansion for clues, God help me, to the murderer of the wealthy late owner.
Had I just had a realistic dream? Or was it a portent of things to come?
“Jessica?” whispered the sweet familiar voice of Emily as she knocked on my door then, slowly opening it, quietly eased inside. “Are you awake, dear? You wanted me to make sure you got up at five-thirty, remember?”
“Thanks, Em.” I felt exhausted, but forced a smile as I slipped on my old, navy blue, baggy sweatshirt. “But I’m already up. I didn’t sleep well. I know it’s foolish at my age to have nightmares, but I did. And it was so realistic! I could’ve sworn I witnessed my own death at the Harding mansion just before I woke up.”
God, that sounded strange. “I was being chased by ghosts over there.”
To any other person, I’d never have admitted such a thing. But Emily wasn’t just another person. She was like my second mother, taking me under her wing after my parents died. “But it wasn’t like a dream I’ve ever had before. I felt myself running. I felt the floor shudder as I ran. I smelled the decay and dust of the old house. I even felt one of the ghosts touch me. His fingers were like icicles, and blowing around him was a strong, continuous icy gust of wind. And I felt his anger too. And his rage!” Nervously I swallowed. “I don’t think it was a dream, Emily. It was more of a portent, a warning, of things to come.”
Raising her white neatly plucked eyebrows, Emily solemnly nodded as she perched on the edge of my bed, then sympathetically smiled. “It’s no wonder you’re having forebodings, dear, what with that house’s terrible reputation and all the murders and things that have taken place there. Mrs. Smythe, who lives across the street from there, told me herself she’s seen strange lights going on and off in there at all hours. And Mr. Evans claims he always hears strange, loud, pitiful moans
coming from there when he walks by, going to the store. Even the mere thought of going near that house, let alone actually going in, is enough to give anyone strange, um, let’s just call them dreams. Your reaction is perfectly understandable.”
“You think so? Really?”
“Absolutely. Anyone in your position would feel the same way.”
I relaxed a little. “I’m so glad you understand! I knew you would though. I just hope I can find something we need over there, for Alice’s sake. It’s been such a long time since her fiancée’s murder. And there’ve been a lot of people traipsing in and out since the old housekeeper died and the county seized it and sold it at auction. I hope no one’s disturbed anything I can use to lead us to the identity of the horrible person who murdered him. Alice’s sure the housekeeper kept a journal describing that terrible night, including the name of the murderer. She claims that if anyone knew who murdered him, it was Mrs. Johnson.”
“Oh, absolutely. I agree. Mrs. Johnson knew everything that went on over there. I seriously doubt if anyone has bothered her stuff, dear. Don’t forget, she lived down in the basement despite her mysteriously inheriting the house years ago from Mr. Harding. From what I’ve heard, it’s a dreary gray cement area. Chances are, not many people would go down there for more than a cursory look. And that inheritance of hers was so strange! Why he left her the entire house and the furnishings is anyone’s guess. But people do all sorts of things that others don’t understand. Mrs. Johnson herself was an enigma too. Most people around here thought she was just plain insane, and insanity carries its own stigma, which kept
people away. I’m sure her things are all there and still intact, just the way she left them.
Stuffing my cold feet into the warmest, thickest pair of athletic socks I owned, I slipped on my tennis shoes and absently tied them, listening to the rumble
of thunder of an impending storm. “I hope you’re right. I want to solve this thing so badly I can taste it. Alice deserves to find out who killed Mr. Harding. It would mean closure for her and the chance to bring a murderer to justice.
“Yes, well, it might take some time to find those things so just be patient when you search. Very few people saw any of them, and Lord knew, as reclusive as she was, she never confided anything to anyone about them.
Personally though, I never did like the brash Mr. Harding, and I told Alice how I felt years ago, trying to dissuade her from going through with the marriage. I still remember him coming over to her house, all smiles, bringing her expensive gifts all the time, courting her – that’s the expression we used back them. She was only seventeen, and I always thought there was something odd about a man nearly forty wanting such a young girl for his wife. But he was wealthy, well educated, and Alice’s parents, God rest their souls, were as pleased at such a match as Alice. Everyone, with the exception of me, was very impressed with him.”
I nodded. Alice had told me basically the same thing. But I was mystified why she’d disregarded her friend’s advice. Emily was a renowned psychic and very astute about human nature. She always had been, and her wise counsel had safely guided me through what could’ve been turbulent relationships if I’d relied only on my own instincts. It’d gotten to the point where I’d refuse to even date anyone until Emily had met the man first and gave me her opinion.
Sudden lightening flashed brightly, illuminating my dim room like a neon bulb, spurring me to hurry. “I hope I don’t get caught in the storm,” I said as I quickly got my bright pink umbrella from its hook on the back of my closet door. “And hopefully, I won’t have to use this”, I continued, stuffing my pink-handled, custom-made derringer from the drawer of the bed stand table into my large canvas bag. Although I was trying hard to be blasé, inwardly I was puzzled by Emily’s neutral face. I’d expected her to be surprised…to be agitated…to warn me against taking my gun – but she wasn’t. Meaning what? That she expects me to have trouble over there?
Emily glanced at her diamond watch. “I wonder why Mrs. Tremble’s not her yet? I told her six on the dot, and usually she’s early.”
“Mrs. Tremble? Why’s she coming over? Are you going someplace too?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I guess it slipped my mind, what with writing down the directions of what pill to give Alice at what time and all.” She smiled innocently as she carefully smoothed her newly permed curls. “I’m going with you.”
Grabbing my large white canvas bag stuffed with everything I needed to do a thorough search in a dark old house without power, I froze. “Excuse me?”
Emily glanced out the window, her face void of expression. “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, dear,” she said, turning around to face me. “I guess it just slipped my mind.”
“Have you forgotten about your arthritis? Your rheumatism? Your own pills you need to take? You know how your joints are aggravated by dampness and low-pressure systems. The way it’s starting to storm, you’ll be in so much pain you’ll barely be able to walk, let alone traipse up and down the stairs of that high porch and the one leading down to the basement.”
A dreamy, far-away look lit her green eyes. “Don’t worry! None of that will bother me. I’ve heard so much about that grand old house all of my life. But I never got to see the inside. It used to be known as a real showplace. The marble of all eight fireplaces was rumored to match the décor of each room, and the hand-painted exotic mural on the dining room wall won several prizes. This is my golden opportunity. I’m not going to let it pass me by.”
I was sure that was the truth as far as it went. But I also knew how she still worried about me, seeing me as the orphaned twelve-year-old when I first came to live with Alice, instead of the thirty-one-year-old woman I’d become. “The house now though is old and decayed. It’s very run down, looking nothing like it once did. It’s much too dangerous for you to go. I don’t know what I’ll find, and neither do you. There could be a tramp camped in there and God alone knows what kind of bugs and snakes will be lurking around. Besides, you’ve got to stay here and take care of Alice. I don’t trust Mrs. Temble, and that new medicine the doctor prescribed for Alice isn’t doing her any good. Someone has to call and get him to change it again.”
“I’ve already talked to Mrs. Tremble about it. Besides, there are ghosts
reputed to be in that house, and I know how to deal with them. If that house is as haunted as everyone now claims, I can be of help to you.”
I sighed, studying her. I didn’t believe in ghosts despite my strange foreboding and she knew it. But she was nothing if not stubborn, and didn’t realize the physical hazards an decaying house like that could harbor. Not only could there by structural damage, there could be problems with one of the many homeless people that wandered on and off the trains. One of them could’ve decided the house was the perfect home and set up housekeeping. While I’d never personally encountered danger of any kind, I’d heard plenty from my late husband, a homicide detective of p.d. Crime was rampant all over and that included small towns. Thanks to the bustling tourist trade, had more than its share.
Sitting down beside her, I patted her little jean clad knees. “Be reasonable, Emily. I’m licensed to carry a gun. Rob made sure I knew how to protect myself. I’m not about to expose you to the possibility of danger.”
Emily tossed her head, her white curls bobbing. “Very nice speech, dear, very well done. But I’m not impressed. It just so happens I can protect myself just fine. I too, have a gun. I’ve started carrying a specially ordered Glock 9 millimeter, semi-automatic which shoots off nine rounds without having to stop and reload. It fits perfectly into my purse.” She smiled proudly. “So you see? I’m as prepared as you are. Maybe even more so.”
All prepared? A near-sighted, eighty-four-year-old carrying a gun which could blow an entire army contingent away with just one blast was being all prepared?
“Where did you get a gun like that? I’m sure you don’t have a license for it. That’s a powerful weapon! Only cops should carry them, and even then, only when they’re on duty.”
“I never said I was licensed. Only that I have it. I got it out of a gun catalogue at one of those mail order places. I bought it when Alice told me what she wanted you to do. I know better than you how dangerous that house is.” She leaned forward. “Oh, come on, Jessica. Let me come with you. I think I can shoot fairly straight with my glasses on. That’ll take care of any human intruders we encounter. Unfortunately though,” she lowered her voice, “I’m pretty sure we’ll be dialing mostly with the non-human kind over there, and that’s what worries me. If you’ll stop overreacting and calm down, you’ll realize I can be of help.”
I studied her dear old wrinkled face. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But I had to stop her somehow. She was just too tiny, too frail to go through with the kind of search I was sure I’d have to conduct and I loved her too much to put her through it. “As much as I’d love the company, I can’t let you come, Emily! Think about it. It might be necessary to defend ourselves at a moment’s notice. And there might be holes in the stairs or floor or something. Don’t forget the power there’s been turned off. It’s going to be awfully hard to see anything with just my little flashlight. Not only that, there’s no running water to help you swallow your pills. And with this storm, it’s bound to be damp and chilly over there too.”
Getting up, I shook my head. “So the answer is no. I love you too much to subject you to all the possible danger and discomfort.”
Crossing her arms, Emily theatrically sighed. “Very well then. I’ll follow you in my own car. That way, technically, we won’t be going together and you won’t be exposing me to danger. I’ll be doing it to myself.”
Shaking my head, I smiled ruefully, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Not only was Emily not licensed to carry a gun, she wasn’t licensed to drive either. Her driving permit had expired years ago when she’d failed her eye test. Why couldn’t she realize I was trying to protect her? Bless her heart, her intentions were good. But I had bad feelings about this. Not concerning any ghosts, of course, but about the house itself. A lot of murders and unexplained accidents had taken place there. The building had an evil history, and there was an evil atmosphere around it. That’s why it was going to be torn down.
But Emily was not about to be dissuaded. “I’ll wait outside in my own car, Jessica. That way I’ll be close by, just in case.”
Staring into her mesmerizing large green eyes, I felt chilled to the bone. Emily had the eyes of an old soul, with so much knowledge revealed there, it was often painful to look at them, and I felt myself weakening. Am I being too practical, too overly protective? Will it hurt to have her come and wait outside? Surely, she’ll be safe in the broad daylight.
“Oh, all right,” I sighed, quickly turning away, running my brush through my hair. “You can come but we’ll both go in my car. And you have to promise me you’ll stay in it.” I smiled at her. “Okay? Promise?”
With her eyes shining with her eager enthusiasm, Emily made an X over her heart. “I promise.”
I studied her, hoping I was doing the right thing. But a rumble of thunder shook the entire house, interrupting my thoughts. Quickly I checked the canvas bag I was taking. I had my old, sturdy red flashlight and two white candles and matches in case my flashlight didn’t work. And my new cell phone, which I’d charged the night before was in there, as well as tissues for the runny nose I’d be sure to have in an empty house loaded with dust. I had my two bottles of expensive, imported water, and also a credit card with my driver’s license, along with two twenty-dollar bills. And last but not least, I had the pack of metal lock tools my late husband had given me years ago in case I ever got locked out of my house or car.
I sighed, thinking of what I was about to do. This time I wasn’t going to use the tools because I’d forgotten my key. This time, I was going to use them, God help me, for breaking and entering and which would have Rob spinning in his grave.
Looks like we’re all set,” I said. “As soon as we get some coffee, we’ll hit the road. There’s no time breakfast, I’m afraid. I’d like to get this over with and be back here before the storm breaks much more if we can.”
Emily glanced at her watch as we left my room, gently closing the door behind us. “Maybe we will. I’m sure Mrs. Tremble will be along shortly. At least I hope so. I told her six on the dot.”
I nodded as I softly padded across the vase house to the kitchen in the back. As long as Emily stays in the car, she’ll be safe. She gave me her word she’d stay there.
But why, I wondered, wouldn’t the feeling of dread go away? It was so palpable, like
energy waves crashing over me again and again. Did its strength mean something bad was going to happen? But what? I’ve prepared for every eventuality.
Helping myself to the ever-present pot of coffee Emily always kept at the ready, I sat down at the small wooden table. Maybe Mrs. Tremble won’t show up. What a godsend that’d be. It’d keep Emily, at least, out of the path of danger. She’s have to stay home if Mrs. Tremble didn’t come. She’d have to choice. No way would we leave my sick aunt all alone. Despite Emily’s promise she’d stay in the car, I had an uneasy feeling she wouldn’t. Sitting idly by while someone else was busily engaged in something she considered interesting wasn’t Emily’s style.
Filling her large mug with coffee, she sat down beside me. “Before we go, I want you to promise me something,” she said. “I want you to trust your instincts. You have good hunches about things. Don’t ignore them. But don’t get carried away either. Sometimes your imagination goes hog-wild. You can’t afford that right now. You must relax as much as you can, and think logically. Our thinking has ways of creating whatever we fear, so you mustn’t give into it.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Meaning what? Exactly?”
“I know you sense danger. I sense it too. That’s way I’m going with you. I sense a very powerful, intelligent force in that house. I know you and Alice don’t believe in ghosts. But I firmly believe that vision you had last night was a warning. It wasn’t a dream. And while you should take heed of it, don’t let the fear you felt while having it have power over you. If you believe the worst, Jessica, it will happen. But if you think pragmatically, if you calmly consider all your options today, you
have the ability to change your future.” She stared hard at me. “Use your innate ability. Promise me you will!”
Shivering, I nodded, quickly taking a large swallow of my steaming coffee to ward off the chill of terror. She’d just unwittingly confirmed my worst fear. If she sensed danger, then it was real.
Very gently, she took hold of my ice-cold hand with her freckled, bony one and squeezed it hard, staring me in the eye. “You’ve got strength in you, kiddo. You just don’t know it yet.” With a faraway look in her eyes, she turned and stared out the window in the direction of the Harding mansion. “I have the strongest feeling you’re going to be tested for all you’re worth today.”
Getting up, she patted my shoulder. Then she quickly opened the back door for Mrs. Tremble who was loudly thumping up the stair