Topic: First Chapter
Unwilling Killers (ISBN 1-59129-184-4)PublishAmerica.com (not a subsidy publisher)
Also available at Amazon.com, B&N.com
Mrs. Gertrude Johnson entered the entrance hall just as the doorbell rang. She glanced at her watch. Two minutes to seven. Mrs. Moore, Alice Landrum’s niece, was, as Alice had assured her, prompt. Too prompt! She wasn’t due for another two minutes.
She smiled serenely. There was still plenty of time to check her appearance in the old, gold-framed mirror to make sure she looked just right. But as she scrunched up her watery blue eyes for a good look, the elegant white candle, the only luxury Mrs. Johnson allowed herself, sputtered out as the deep gong of the bell vibratingly sounded again.
“Damn tourist,” she muttered, carefully relighting the candle. “Ain’t got nothing better to do than to ring bells and expect a body to wait on them hand and foot.”
Squinting her eyes, she studied her reflection, adjusting her frilly white cap and highly starched apron. Not satisfied with her appearance, she took a tube of her bright red lipstick out of her apron pocket and put on another darker coat. But as the bell vibrated and the candle went out yet again, she smeared it badly.
“So help me God,” she hissed, carefully relighting the candle and wiping the excess lipstick off with a tissue. “I’ve a mind to kick that woman clear off my porch and teach her some manners.”Catching sight of her reflection however, she bent closer to it and batted her long, fake eyelashes. “God, you are still a purty thing,” she cooed to herself in the mirror. “Just as fresh and young-looking as you was at sixteen.”At the frantic sound of the big, brass knocker, she sighed heavily as she straightened her apron. “I’m coming, Mrs. High and Mighty! And I’ll teach you a thing or two about manners.”Assuming her haughtiest expression, she whipped the heavy wood door open with surprising strength. Then she hesitated, squinting at the young girl, from head to toe. Alice had told her that her niece was a widow. A young widow, whose husband had died only six months ago in a skiing accident. But the girl facing her with such an odd expression wasn’t dressed like a proper widow at all. She wasn’t wearing black! She didn’t have a black veil over her face. Of course times had changed since Mrs. Johnson was a young girl. She knew that. But still, decent was decent. And no decent widow would be wearing jeans with a bright red knitted top and red sneakers! Not only that, she didn’t look more than twenty-five at the most, with her short blonde hair and a smattering of freckles on her little nose. Suspiciously, Mrs. Johnson glanced at her watch again. Seven on the dot. It had to be her! But she had to make darn sure.
“Can I help you?” she icily asked. “Miss?”Jessica stated at her mutely, unable to speak. Alice had warned her Mrs. Johnson was, in her words, “A strange-looking old bird.” But that hadn’t preparedJessica for the lady’s appearance in person.
Her head resembled a helicopter about to take off with those white corkscrew curls sticking out of her maid’s cap in a wide circle. And her bright red lips looked like one of those huge wax mouths kids used to buy at the corner store. But her watery blue eyes, half-hidden behind a layer of long fake eyelashes, Jessica also noticed, were keenly alert, betraying a sharp intelligence.
“Can I help you?” repeated the odd-looking woman.
Jessica stiffened. Why, she wondered, was she wearing a maid’s uniform in the first place? Surely a woman who’d inherited the house so many years ago wouldn’t be wearing one? Unsteadily, she took a deep breath. “I was looking for a Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Gertrude Johnson.” She swallowed hard. “I don’t suppose you are she, are you?” Mrs. Johnson arched a brow. Why was this girl looking at her so strangely? The expression on her face betrayed not only disbelief, but shock as well. But enough of this playing games, she decided. They could go on all night.
Impatiently, she opened the door wider to admit her. “Of course I am. But I’ve a good mind you tell you I ain’t. Didn’t your mama every teach you no manners? It ain’t polite to keep ringing doorbells. Why, the way you was sitting on that bell, it was enough to wake the dead.”
Jessica’s eyes widened at the woman’s odd choice of words, and she hesitated. Maybe staying here wasn’t such a good idea, after all. But then again, she couldn’t do that to her sick aunt. She’d promised her she’d stay here, and stay here,she would.
Warily she stepped over the threshold, then shivered as a blast of ice-cold air assaulted her. She was being watched! She knew she was. That eerie feeling was even stronger in here than it had been outside the house. She glanced around. But from where? She couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black except for that lone candle beside that old mirror.
Attempting a smile, she faced her odd hostess. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you. Alice told me to be here exactly at seven. I’d assumed you were expecting me.”
Mrs. Johnson studied her. “Of course I was. But you still didn’t have to sit on that durn bell! I ain’t deaf.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re not. I didn’t mean anything disrespectful by doing it. I guess I’m just tired. Maybe a little nervous too. You know how trips are.” At least she hoped she did. “The long rides. Staying at new places. Eating off schedule.”
“Maybe that accounts for you looking like you seen a ghost too,” shrugged Mrs. Johnson, fishing a new candle out of her apron pocket. She glanced at Jessica out of the corner of her eye as she struck a match. “Maybe you’re just nervous and tired from the trip, like you said.”
Jessica laughed a little too quickly, then promptly cleared her throat. “Yes, well, be that it may, I assure you I didn’t think I saw a ghost. Everyone knows there aren’t such things.”
Mrs. Johnson raised her brows as she lit the candle. “Maybe there are. Maybe there ain’t.” She smiled, her old face taking on an eerie glow in the flickering light of the candle. “But if I was you, I’d talk more respectfully of the dead. You’re still young yet. You don’t know everything that goes on in the world.”
Again, Jessica stiffened. She wasn’t about to get into an argument and risk getting herself thrown out. But what was this thing about candles? Surely the place had electric lights…didn’t it?
“Follow me carefully, and watch your step,” said Mrs. Johnson, her footsteps echoing hollowly in the cavernous hall as she strode to a wide staircase which had been hidden in the dark. “Your room is on the third floor, and I ain’t got around to putting up new lights in some parts up there yet. They’re too expensive. The man I wanted to do it for me was going to charge me a dad-burned fortune, so I dropped the idea.” Jessica froze. “I’m going to stay in a room without lights?”
Mrs. Johnson puckered her gleaming red lips disapprovingly. “I didn’t mean your room, Missy. Your room’s got plenty of lights.” She paused, her heavily penciled eyebrows snapping together as she studied her. “But that don’t mean you can go hog wild and turn on every dad-burned one. My electricity bill is high at is.”
How? Jessica wondered, reluctantly following her as she started ascending the wide, steep stairs. From what she’d seen so far, the house was pitch black. Worse, that meant she needed to load up on batteries for her flashlight and keep them with her at all times when she started searching the house at night. No way did she relish the idea of getting stranded in the dark in some forlorn, lonely part of this house at night. Not at all!
“I must say you’re a brave little thing,” mused Mrs. Johnson, glancing back over her shoulder. “I have to give that to you. Most people wouldn’t sleep in the same bed a man was murdered in.”
Jessica nearly tripped. “Pardon?”
“I wasn’t intending to rent out Mrs. Harding’s personal suite of rooms as first, you see. But your aunt insisted. She claimed that was the very one you’d want, being as it has the widest patio and offers the best view of the garden.” She smiled serenely down at her. “I’m just glad you don’t believe in ghosts.”
“I’m supposed to sleep in the same bed as a murdered man?”
“Sure are. Your aunt paid me an extra three hundred dollars to ensure it.”
Jessica felt the blood drain from her face. Damn Alice! Not that she believed in ghosts of course. She didn’t! She never had. But why take chances? After all there were things in this world people didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. And until a rational explanation was found for those things, she’d be damned if she’d tempt fate. Unlike Alice, she prided herself on always exercising caution.
Taking a deep breath, she forced a smile. “I’ll give you three hundred right now myself, if you’ll put me in another room. Alice never needs to know.”
“No can do,” shrugged the older woman, blithely continuing her upward journey. “I only get the rooms ready as I need to, to rent them out. They’ve been empty for years, you see. You’d be surprised at how much dust and bugs they collect. I’m not about to rent them out until I scrub them out.”
She stopped, eying Jessica speculatively. “I’m not as spry as I used to me. Itmay surprise you to know I’m nearly as old as this here house. Of course, I don’t look it. People are always shocked when I tell them my age.”
Jessica raised her brows. Mrs. Johnson wanted to talk about her age? Now? When she herself was obviously doomed to sleep in the same bed as a man who’d been murdered?”
Mrs. Johnson smiled coyly. “I’m ninety-eight.”
So what? Jessica wanted to scream. But she didn’t. One day, Lord willing, she too would be old. Maybe, like Mrs. Johnson, she too would be reluctant to face the facts of the ravaging of her looks over the years.
Stemming her frustration, she took a deep breath and tried to look duly startled, which, in her present state of mind, wasn’t all that hard to accomplish. “Why, you don’t look it! I wouldn’t have guessed your age past…er…” she paused, thinking hard, “seventy.” She swallowed hard, hoping Mrs. Johnson believed her.
Still however, there was no way she’d sleep in the same bed as a murdered man. No way! But she had to think fast. From what she’d seen so far, Mrs. Johnson wasn’t a fool.
She smiled sweetly. “Considering your age, I certainly understand why you wouldn’t like to clean rooms. If I were you, I’d feel the same way. But I don’t mind cleaning up another room for myself. Just show me where to get a mop and some cloths, and I’ll have one ready in no time.”
Mrs. Johnson shook her head. “Cleaning alone wouldn’t do you no good. I’m out of bug spray. You’d be surprised how many spiders were in Mr. Harding’s room. I’m sure they’re in all the rooms.”
Jessica went rigid, automatically glancing around. Spiders? Dear God, that probably meant they were on the stairs as well.
“Besides,” continued Mrs. Johnson, “I never let no stranger go into a room I haven’t first gone over with a good-sized pot of boiling water and a stiff scrub brush. However,” she thinly smiled, “if you were to double what your aunt paid and give me, say, six hundred in cash tonight, I might be persuaded to compromise my principles some and get you what you need to spruce up another room right now. I might even help.”
Mrs. Johnson turned her back to her, continuing her upward trek, rounding a bend on the second floor. “Not really. Besides, it was you who brought it up. All I did was up the ante. Think about it. You can take it or leave it. But it sure would have saved me a heap of trouble if you and your aunt had gotten together on this before you came. Mr. Harding didn’t like me renting out his suite of rooms at all. You wouldn’t believe all the trouble he gave me when I was cleaning it.”
“Dammit,” hissed Jessica. “Mr. Harding is dead! I already told you, I don’t believe in ghosts.” But despite her bravado, her knees were so wobbly she could barely walk.
“You might end up eating your words, Missy! Mr. Harding’s body is dead, but not his soul. He loved this whole house, you see. And he done loved life with a passion. He’d never give up all he had. Not without a durn good fight. Why, no onecan tell me if wasn’t him who sloshed out my scrub bucket while I was cleaning out his room. And my dust rags kept disappearing so fast, I had to go right out and buy new ones. And just the other night, he made a noise so fearsome I thought I was going to have a heart attack! No, Missy. Make no mistake. Mr. Harding is still here. You’ll be changing your mind fast enough I reckon when you hear floorboards creaking in the night like I do. Or sometimes hear the murmur of voices.” She shrugged. “Of course I’m used to it. Sort of. Leastwise by now. I know Mr. Harding is just moaning over me having to rent out rooms in his beloved house to total strangers.”
Jessica frowned. Voices? The other things maybe, could be attributed to esoteric sources of beings. But voices? Ghosts couldn’t talk. They didn’t have vocal chords. “How long have you been hearing these, um, voices?” she asked, careful to keep her voice casual.
Mrs. Johnson paused as she took another step, and looked down at her. “Well, now, let’s see. I guess it’s been, oh, in the last three months or so. Right around the time I decided to rent out rooms.” She arched a brow. “Odd coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”
“Very,” Jessica slowly agreed. But something else was going on here. Something caused by real flesh and blood living beings who had vocal chords. By beings who had eyes and could watch people. But why? This was just a drafty old house filled with a lot of junk. Maybe it was valuable to Mrs. Johnson. But surely to no one else.
Or was it?