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"Was he out of his mind? Are you?" Katie Lynn Ross crouched slightly to peer through the peeling wrought-iron gate in front of her. "That's not a picturesque New England house up thereit's spook central." She scratched at the rusty bars. "Someone's playing a Halloween prank on you, Bella. And don't start with the ancestral thing. Contrary to Grandma Corrigan's belief, the children of her bloodline are not mortal links to the spirit world and therefore drawn to areas where such specters appear. This is David's idea of a final joke. Places like Darkwood Manor don't exist."
"Unless we're sharing a hallucinationunlikelyyes, they do." Going down on one knee, Isabella Ross snapped several pictures of the distant house. "Apparently."
"You're visualizing a shriveled-up corpse, aren't you? Some creepy-bird lover's mommy, stuffed and propped in the attic."
"Cellar." Isabella stopped snapping. "And what I'm imagining is the kind of hatchet job David would have done if he hadn't driven his car over that cliff last month." The sadness that swept through her brought a sigh. "I just wish he were alive so someone could talk him out of it."
Katie cast her a shrewd look. "Someone you, or someone else?"
Standing, Isabella shouldered her camera strap. "David and I were done. It wasn't the worst breakup, but it wasn't pretty, either." She studied the vaguely Gothic structure at the end of the driveway. "Not sure why he left this place to me, but he did, so there you are. Grandma C's delighted on a visceral level while Grandpa C and Aunt Mara have dollar signs in their eyes."
"Don't you love the dynamics of a family business?"
Isabella smiled. "Actually, I do."
"Well, hell, so would I if I got to search out and develop prospective hotel sites. I crunch numbers, Bella. My job's not as glamorous as yours."
"It is when you get to descend unannounced on one of our hotels for the express purpose of exposing an embezzler."
"Yeah, that is kind of cool." Her cousin tapped out and lit a cigarette. "But are you telling me you had no inkling that David was going to leave you hisha, hacountry house?"
"Nope. All I know is I got this place, and some distant blood relative got the rest."
"Lucky relative." Katie rattled the bars. "At a guess, I'd say your ex was worth at least uh, okay." She released her grip as the gate stuttered inward. "I suppose this means welcome."
"Or run if we're smart?"
Katie drew a triangle with her cigarette. "Sherlock, Watson, Baskerville Hall, aka Darkwood Manor."
The gate gave an ominous creak. Not exactly a warm welcome, but Isabella was used to that. The people she met in her line of work weren't always eager to part with the structures her family wished to acquire.
Leaves swirled by a strong breeze blew around her booted ankles, and for the first time since the reading of her ex-boyfriend's will, a shiver danced along her spine. It wasn't so much a sense of foreboding, she realized, as a feeling of uncertainty.
David Gimbel had possessed many odd qualities, with quirky riding high on the list. Why he'd left her this recently purchased property in Maine might not make particular sense, but the intrigue factor far outweighed any doubts she might have. And Isabella was nothing if not easily intrigued. Her cousinnot so much.
During the walk from gate to front door, Katie bombarded her with questions. What had David planned to do with the multiwinged monstrosity before them? When had he purchased it? And again, why had he left it to Isabella rather than one of his much-despised stepsiblings?
"Face it, Bella, if a person wanted to get back at an evil step, what better way to do it than by leaving him or her a white elephant that I swear no one except maybe Edgar Allan Poe would call home?"
"So Baskerville Hall's become the House of Usher, huh?" She made a crushing motion with her foot as she spoke.
With a last deep drag, Katie ditched her cigarette. "If this place had turrets and a tower, I'd call it Dracula's castle. I can see the possibilities, thoughif only from your and Grandpa C's perspective. A hoard of contractors, electricians, plumbers, painters and cleaners later, you might make a lifestyle hotel out of this. Or to use Aunt Mara's preferred terma boutique hotel. Although why any sane person would go for Early American Gothic on vacation is "
"Yes, I get it." Isabella surveyed the grimy windows of the second and third floors. "You won't be booking a room here."
A reluctant smile crossed Katie's lips. "Book a room on two, and you'll wind up on one. Unless you're a ghost and you can float over floorboards that are bound to be rotted through."
Isabella gave her head an amused shake. "Your glass isn't half-empty, it's bone dry."
"Only until I get back from Bangor. Once I light into those hotel ledgers, my glass'll be overflowing. Maybe I'll quit smoking for good, give you and Aunt Mara a mid-October Christmas present."
"We nag you because we love you, Katie." Isabella gave the support beam at the base of the porch a tentative poke. "Not sure about this." However, when her finger didn't penetrate, she set her foot on the first tread. It groaned but held.
A gust of wind sent a scatter of leaves across the sagging stoop, and caused a tattered screen to flap like bat wings. The shadows shifted accordingly.
Scraping her midlength hair into a stubby tail, Katie offered a flat, "So my vision won't be obscured."
"Did I ask?" Isabella regarded the cockeyed double doors. "We might need a battering ram to get inside." Backing up, she snapped another picture. "For the photo wall."
"That'll be some fun wall." Katie glanced skyward. "Why is it getting dark at three in the afternoon?"
"Because there's a storm brewing?"
"Now there's a promising answer."
Isabella inserted her key and twisted the ancient lever. To her surprise, the door moved. Only ten inches, but there was room for them to squeeze inside.
"The lawyer said it was wired," she remarked over her shoulder.
"By Thomas Edison?"
Isabella flicked the first switch she spied while Katie ventured in deeper. When a bare bulb crackled overhead, she smiled at her cousin. "Original fixtures to match the original plaster falling from the ruins of a coffered ceiling."
"And a six-inch layer of dust on every visible surface."
Katie yelped as her ankle turned on a piece of broken board. "The word visible not being applicable to the floor. This isn't a project, it's a death trap."
"It has good bones, though." Isabella zeroed in on the staircase. "That banister's spectacular. Carved mahogany." She took two shots. "The newel post's some kind of leaf and vine depiction. And don't say poison oak."
"I was thinking hawthorn. Bella." Katie caught her arm. "You can't seriously plan to stay here."
If this was the habitable section David's lawyer had mentioned, even Isabella wasn't that adventurous.
When her cell phone rang, she answered with a preoccupied "Isabella Ross. Hi, Aunt Mara. Yes, we're here Uh, well, it's"
"Amityville," Katie declared. "And I'm being generous."
A protracted creak overhead had both women raising their eyes.
"Not suremaybe," Isabella allowed in response to her aunt's question about ghosts. She squinted into a cobwebbed corner. "Either that or a really big rat."
"Like there's a difference?" Several yards away, Katie blew on a carved molding, then stood back, triumphant. "Behold your resident gargoyle, Bella, trapped in a sea of hemlock."
Grinning, Isabella returned to her call. "It gets better the deeper you go inside, Mara, which suggests a secondary entrance." A parlor drew her forwarduntil she caught a movement on the floor. "I'll get back to you when I've seen the rest." Slapping her phone closed, she dropped it in her pocket. With a wary eye on the rubble to her left she hopped onto a length of rolled carpet. "Why is there always a snake?" she muttered, shivering. "Katie, can you hear me?"
A branch scraping the window was her only response.
"Oh, good, so it's you and me, snake, and I'm betting you're poisonous." She backed along the dusty roll until it ran out. "Katie?"
Her cousin didn't reply.
Spying the movement again, Isabella gauged the distance between her and the stairwell. Grandpa Corrigan said she should face her fears. No problem, she could do that. She'd face the spot where she'd seen the snake from the far side of the entry hall.
She glanced over her shoulder. It wasn't in Katie's nature to play games. If her cousin wasn't answering, that meant she couldn't hear, ergo, she'd probably left the house for a smoke.
Still walking backward, Isabella retraced her steps to the front door.
"Going on a diet tomorrow," she decided, squeezing through. "Katie, are you out here?"
But there was no one on the porch or in the weed-choked yard. And nothing to see or hear except gusts of wind, a sky full of purplish clouds and several thick branches pressed against the windows to her right.
"Terrific," she murmured and ran the list of possibilities.
Katie never smoked indoors, so, yes, she'd have come out here to light up. But she wouldn't leave the property without a word, and they'd only been apart for a few minutes, so she couldn't have gone far. On the other hand, the floor inside was a minefield of rubble and broken furniture. She might have ventured into a room, tripped and hit her head.
Isabella slid damp palms along the sides of her pants. Grandpa C swore snakes wouldn't bite unless distressed. But then Grandpa C had marched up to and fearlessly across enemy lines numerous times in the Korean War. His idea of danger varied greatly from that of his granddaughter.
Easing back inside, she hung her shoulder bag and camera on the newel post and started for the room with the carved molding. It wasn't a gargoyle as Katie had suggested, but an angel, one with vacant orbs for eyes and an expression that sent an unexpected chill fluttering over her skin.
Because the space ahead was shuttered, she had to feel for a wall switch. A weak light appeared at the far end of the room. Directly ahead, however, the shadows remained virtually impenetrable.
"Not quite so much to love about my job at the moment," she reflected, then raised her voice. "Katie, can you hear me?"
Something shifted behind her, and she spun. But there was no one in the doorway or beyond that in the entry hall.
Exasperated by her overreaction, she regrouped and made her way carefully along the wall.
Wind whistled through cracks in the shutters. A branch banged against the siding at random intervals. The floorboards sagged and protested.
Ahead of her, a chunk of plaster toppled from a mound she could barely make out. Next to it, she spied what looked like a huddled body.
Her heart spiked. Keeping her hand on the wall and her sights fixed, she approached it.
A door at the far end of the room creaked, causing her to look up.
She realized her mistake instantly. With her concentration thrown forward, she had no time to react when her foot landed on airand her momentum sent her tumbling into the blackness below.
From the shelter of a damaged shutter, the man outside watched the woman inside stumble and fall. Served her right, he thought, twitching an irritable shoulder. Now maybe she'd leave.
He couldn't do business with a snoopy female hanging around. Bad enough that big galloot from the coach house kept tromping around the perimeter of the property. With luck, he'd topple off a cliff and, if she didn't die here, take the blonde and her camera with him. Maybe some clever third person could make that happen.
On the other hand, he might not be thinking this through quite right. Lose the woman, lose the chase rabbit. Was that the best-case scenario for him?
A slow grin lit his face and made his black eyes glitter. Bad luck for the rabbit might be a lucky stroke for him. Let the woman be the focus, the diversion, the target. Leave him free to go about his business.
As he melted into the thickening twilight, the man found himself hoping the pretty blonde rabbit wouldn't die too soon.
Isabella's mind reeled. What kind of moron put a single step in the middle of whatever this room was? Ballroom, grand hall, dining room? More to the point, why hadn't she brought a flashlight from the car?
As her vision cleared and the pain of her hands-and-knees landing receded, the shape ahead resolved itself into a filthy tarp. Which relieved her because it wasn't Katie and set her nerves back on edge because there was still no sign of her cousin.
An obvious thought occurred as she pushed herself upright. Katie never went anywhere without her cell phone.
She pulled out her own cell phone and punched in Katie's number. Waited. Hissed at the pain in her left ankle when she stood, then reminded herself she deserved it for not paying attention to her surroundings.
Four rings later, Katie's voice mail picked up. Frustrated, Isabella left a message, closed her phone and, walking carefully, picked her way to the back of the room.
The door to her left stood ajar. It screeched like an angry crow when she moved it. As she crossed the threshold, she told herself the feeling of being watched came from her mind, not from the premature darkness that had begun to spread throughout the house.
Beyond the weathered walls, purple clouds had given way to brooding black, and she could hear the wind picking up. The first raindrops hit the windows as she started along a dusty corridor towardwhat elseanother door.
A veritable maze of interconnecting hallways, the ground floor seemed to go on forever. She passed through two kitchens, a pantry, a massive library, three dining rooms and a dozen other spaces whose purposes eluded her.
Part of her could visualize Darkwood Manor as a Cor-rigan-Ross property, but a much larger part was struggling with the certain knowledge that Katie wouldn't have ventured in this deep alone.
Spotting a thin door, she wedged it open. Uneven stairs topped by a rickety wooden railing descended from dusky shadow into fathomless black. Welcome to the cellar, she realized. Yuck.
Hesitating, she tapped her fingers on the jamb, then hit the light switch. "I can't think of a single reason why you'd be down there, Katie, but on the off chance you've lost your mind, I'll check it out. And be really pissed off if I find you."
From a point far below, she detected a scrape, possibly a trace of smoke. When she leaned forward, a moaning floorboard blotted the sound out, but she knew what she'd heard, and it hadn't been the foundation settling.
A bulb at the bottom provided only a weak wash of light, barely enough to make out the mud floor. Although the stairs looked sturdier than the railing, she'd encountered dry rot before and fully anticipated it here. Still, what choice did she have?
She set her foot on the first step. When it didn't splinter, she moved to the next. And the next.