When Mel Turner is hired to rehab an old Victorian mansion to act as the eerie setting for a Halloween bash, she’s expecting the normal challenges—old wiring, bad plumbing, maybe a ghostly specter or two. But when a young man is killed after spending the night in the house, and the mannequins in the attic start to come to life, it’s clear that this is serious paranormal activity. Maybe this time, a real witch is needed.
Recommended by a mutual friend, vintage clothes expert Lily Ivory arrives to offer her help with the mannequins. Armed with Lily’s spells and Mel’s know-how, the two women must figure out the cause of all of the ghostly commotion—before Mel’s renovation project turns into even more of a deadly haunt…
Includes previews of Keeper of the Castle: A Haunted Home Renovation Mystery and Spellcasting in Silk: A Witchcraft Mystery.
Praise for the novels of Juliet Blackwell:
“Blackwell’s writing is like that of a master painter, placing a perfect splash of detail, drama, color, and whimsy in all the right places!”—New York Times bestselling author Victoria Laurie
“Extraordinarily entertaining.”—Suspense Magazine
“A winning combination of cozy mystery, architectural history, and DIY with a ghost story thrown in.”—The Mystery Reader
“Blackwell mixes reality and witchcraft beautifully…outstanding storytelling skills.”—Lesa’s Book Critiques
Juliet Blackwell is the pseudonym for the New York Times bestselling mystery author who also writes the Witchcraft Mystery series and, together with her sister, wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series as Hailey Lind. The first in that series, Feint of Art, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. As owner of her own faux-finish and design studio, the author has spent many days and nights on construction sites renovating beautiful historic homes throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently resides in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Her face was close to mine. Too close. Her blue eyes were wide and unblinking, her smile never faltering. The expression was disturbing in its cheerful passivity.
I let her fall against the short attic wall. Beams of sunlight fought through the grime on the small dormer windows, and dust motes bobbed and weaved like drunken stars in the attic galaxy.
I stepped back a distance and shivered. “The way they look at you is so . . . creepy.”
“You got that right,” said Maya Jackson, one of the suckers—I mean, volunteers—helping with the Spooner House Halloween fund-raiser project. Maya was in her early twenties, with a serious, intelligent air; the kind who quietly and efficiently got things done. She had quickly become my right-hand woman.
She dumped her own charge next to mine. The jointed figures slumped toward one another, still smiling, glass eyes staring at us.
When dressed in frilly period clothing, held upright by sturdy iron stands or seated in leather wing chairs with ankles genteelly crossed, these mannequins graced the parlor and library of Spooner House, a run-down Victorian mansion-turned-museum in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Thaddeus Spooner, who had inherited a fortune made during California’s early days of copper mining, was a famous doll maker who had built the three-story Spooner House for his blushing bride from Boston.
The mansion was painted in somber shades of mauve, gold, and gray and was crowned by a black wrought iron widow’s walk high atop a tall, shingled tower. It had been a grand home when the Spooners were alive, but for the past several decades Spooner House had limped along as a dusty, volunteer-run museum, staffed by elderly docents. The many signs of neglect—sagging window frames, distressed paint, rotting porch planks, a mossy roof—contributed to the house’s eerie Gothic air.
Students from a local performing arts college had recently “discovered” the museum and were attempting to breathe new life into it. I suspected the attraction stemmed in no small part from the chance to dress up in the authentic period clothing required of all the Spooner House staff, and as a fan of outrageous fashions, I sympathized. What could be more fun for theater types than to prance around in vintage clothes and pretend to be part of a long-lost world?
As for me, I was here because I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut.
Less than a week from now Spooner House would host a Haunted Halloween Ball to raise funds for the museum as well as for a nearby youth center. When the head of the museum board, Ed Gaskin, approached me to see if I’d be willing to bring the building up to code so that it could get insurance for the fund-raiser, I said, “Sure, I’ll help!” I’m a sucker for local history and those who work with at-risk youth.
And, as the general manager of Turner Construction, historic renovation is my bread and butter. I figured I would unstick a window here, replace a rotted floorboard there. How hard could it be?
File those under “famous last words.”
Almost immediately the project spiraled out of control. I was now behind schedule and putting more time and effort into this volunteer job than I was in my paying projects. Like I said: I’m a sucker. With a big mouth.
“Mannequins are naturally creepy,” said Maya as she hitched one hip up on an old steamer trunk. She took a swig of water from an aluminum bottle, then held it out to me. “We don’t use them much at Aunt Cora’s Closet. My boss doesn’t like them.”
“Aunt Cora’s Closet is the vintage clothes store where you work?” I asked her.
“Yeah. It’s just down the street, on Haight at Ashbury. That’s how I heard about this project in the first place—my boss, Lily, donated the clothes for a couple of the mannequins. The docents are always coming by, looking for items from the period.”
“They’re beautiful clothes. All those tiny stitches, buttons made of bone, handmade lace . . .”
She nodded, the beads at the end of her braids clicking together pleasantly. “I never cared much about old clothes before I started working at the shop, but I gotta say—it’s addictive. When you think of the people who wore these clothes, once upon a time . . . especially the really old pieces, like these . . .”
We observed the grouping.
“It’s a shame we can’t leave the mannequins out for the fund-raiser,” said Maya. “They’re spooky enough for Halloween, in my book.”
“Gaskin was adamant that we put them away for safekeeping. They’re quite old, and I guess pretty valuable. Anyway, thanks so much for your help—I’m not sure how I would have managed without you. The other students haven’t been overly helpful.”
“No problem.” The students’ decorating committee was champing at the bit to strew the place with skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns, but not nearly so interested in the nitty-gritty repairs and general cleanup required to get the Haunted House fund-raiser off the ground. They showed up when I asked them to, but kept wandering off to loll in the gardens, chat, and tap on their smartphones.
“What about me?” asked Adam Mosler as he popped his head up into the attic. “I’m helping.”
Adam was a boyishly handsome twenty-something with a ready smile. Not particularly tall or muscled, he habitually wore the fashions of the last century. Dressed today in a waistcoat and breeches, with a silk ascot at his neck, he looked every bit the part of the jaunty young heir.
When I announced we’d be having a Spooner House workday, I had assumed everyone would arrive in jeans and T-shirts, like Maya. Instead, the students showed up in full costume. Theater types—go figure.
“Thanks, Adam. I really appreciate it.”
“Where d’ya want the stiff?” Adam asked, referring to the figure clutched in his arms.
“Right over with the other mannequins is fine,” I instructed.
“Not to quibble, but these aren’t mannequins,” said Adam as he plunked his dummy down on her backside, beside the others. “They’re life-sized dolls, hand carved and painted by the original owner of the house, Thaddeus Spooner. He made one for each member of his family: his wife, himself, his sister Hazel and her husband, Frederick, and the three Spooner kids, Charity, Reginald, and Betsy.”
“Really? Wow. That’s . . .” I stopped mid-sentence but finished the thought in my head: not really any less creepy. As my friends and family often point out, I’m not overly blessed with tact and social graces, and so lately I had been making an effort to keep my smart remarks to myself.
“. . . amazing?” supplied Adam helpfully.
“The very word I was looking for: amazing.”
I heard Maya snort, and we shared a smile. Seems I’d found a kindred spirit.
“That’s one reason the house was turned into a museum.” Adam continued with what I suspected was his practiced docent speech. “Thaddeus Spooner was a world-famous doll maker, and his son, Reginald, became a stage magician. I guess he was pretty well-known, though I’m not sure how much competition there was back then. Matter of fact, that’s Reginald’s magic trunk, right there.”
Maya, who had been sitting on the trunk, stood up quickly and moved away.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“It’s, like, locked.” A red stain covered his cheeks, rising above the stubble on his young face. “I mean, we just sort of checked once, not like we were breaking in or anything. . . .”
“No worries,” I said. “Who wouldn’t want to peek into a stage magician’s trunk?”
“Me,” said Maya, with feeling.
“’Kay, I’ll go bring up the last one,” Adam said as he disappeared through the hatch opening and started slowly down the steep attic stairs.
From below I heard the sounds of hammering. I had yanked one of my best carpenters, Jeremy Velasquez, from a paying project, and he was currently replacing the rotting floorboards in the porch; next he would tend to the spongy stair treads. I had already fixed a low-grade natural gas leak, re-glazed a couple of broken windows, replaced some frayed knob-and-tube electrical wiring, and attended to the persistent dripping of several of the pipe joints. A few more small repairs and this place would be good to go.
It was comforting to know that Jeremy was taking care of the compromised sections of stairs and floors—number two on the safety list, right after that gas leak. A haunted house was one thing, a scary house was perfect . . . but a dangerous house? Not so much. A visit to the E.R. would not encourage the Halloween partygoers to open their wallets and donate to the charitable cause.
“So, how are we doing with the rest of Gaskin’s list?” Maya asked, gesturing with her chin to the printout I had taken out of the pocket of my coveralls.
“Let’s see . . .” I ran down the to-do list, mentally checking off the tasks we’d finished. “We still need to stow away the small breakable items, like the china figurines in the parlor and the front hall, as well as the tabletop clocks. And he’s decided we should pack up the lace-tatting display in the master bedroom. I—”
One of the mannequins fell over with a thunk.
Maya and I jumped.
“Would that be Thaddeus?” Maya whispered. “Or . . . Uncle Frederick?”
“Good question,” I said. I approached the doll carefully and lifted him into a sitting position. His head cocked to the side, and he fixed me with a glassy-eyed stare, as though assessing my motives. A goatee and monocle gave the doll a distinguished look, but its unblinking gaze was disconcerting.
Suddenly I realized why most store mannequins are faceless—or at least featureless: it was unsettling to think they might have their own personalities and characters.
I must have muttered something under my breath, because Maya chuckled softly. “My boss says mannequins like these give us the willies because they can be used as poppets in magical systems.”
“That’s what she calls them: like when someone makes a wax doll that represents a person and sticks it with pins or whatever.”
I fixed her with a look. “I thought you said your boss was a vintage clothing dealer?”
“So how does she know about . . . poppets?”
“Lily’s . . . well, she’s unique. She’s traveled a lot, and knows a lot about a lot of things.”
“Sounds like an interesting person.”
Maya opened her mouth as though she was about to say more, then shrugged and arranged a cardboard box atop a pile.
Once upon a time I was something of a cynic. A lot of people in my life would argue I still was, but I felt I was softening. When it comes to romance, for example, I was allowing myself to get involved with a charming green contractor named Graham Donovan. And when it came to supernatural stuff, like spirituality or religion or however one categorized it . . . well, not only had I become a true believer in life beyond the veil, but not so long ago Haunted Home Quarterly had named me California’s number one up-and-coming ghost buster.
That was not a title I had aspired to, but since it was out of my hands at this point I figured I might as well enjoy my fifteen minutes of fame. It’s not as if renovation contractors were often singled out for public accolades.
“Last one!” Adam called out as he handed another poppet through the attic hatch. “Need anything else up here?”
“We’re all set, thanks,” I said and Adam went back downstairs.
Maya and I carried the latest arrival over to join the rest of its family.
“Wait . . . where’s Reginald?” asked Maya, eyeing the dolls.
“Adam said there was one doll for each of the Spooner family: two parents, a son, two daughters, and an aunt and uncle. That’s seven. But there are only six poppets here, and both of the males look middle-aged, too old to be Reginald, don’t you think?”
“Um . . .” I gazed at the poppets. “You’re right. So, maybe that wasn’t the last doll.” I went to the attic door and called down, “Adam?”
“Let’s go pack up the rest of the knickknacks,” I said. “Maybe Reginald will turn up.”
“I just hope not in a dark alley.”
“At midnight,” I added.
“With the fog rolling in,” Maya embellished.
We shared a laugh, then headed for the stairs. Maya went first, and as I turned to close the hatch behind me, I saw something out of the corner of my eye.
I did a double take.
One of the dolls –was it Betsy?— held one hand aloft, as though to wave good-bye.
Get a grip, Mel, I told myself. Her arm must have been like that before, I just hadn’t noticed.
I stared at the strange grouping for a long moment. Nothing happened.
Blowing out a long breath, I started lowering the hatch.
Then Betsy turned her odd, smiling face toward me.
I slammed the hatch shut, my heart pounding.
Safely settled back downstairs, I hurried out to the wraparound porch and pretended to check on Jeremy’s progress. In reality, I needed a moment outside, surrounded by the comforting sounds of hammering and the buzz of an electric saw; the scents of fresh-cut wood and a nearby flowering trumpet vine; the warmth of the fall sunshine.
Could that doll really have turned her face toward me?
Nonsense, my sterner self said. It was a doll, an inanimate object. No doubt we had propped Betsy—or could it be Charity?—off-balance, and her head had shifted position due to the pull of gravity. Or something. Simple physics; nothing strange about it. She wasn’t looking at me.
Still, I couldn’t quite shake off the sense of the willies.
“I see the volunteers are hard at work,” Jeremy said with a nod at the students sprawled on the patch of lawn in the shade of an oak tree.
“They’re not particularly inspired by the repairs and cleanup,” I said. “I’m sure once I can give them the go-ahead for decorating, they’ll find their motivation. Doing the grunt work is what separates the amateurs from us professionals.”
Jeremy shook his head and screwed down another slat of redwood.
Although there were several volunteers who showed up on-site from time to time, a core group called Spooner House their second home. In addition to Adam there was Byron, who had a stocky, football-player physique. Tess was a raven-haired, big-eyed beauty who looked like she could play the cheerleader to Byron’s quarterback. Duff was quiet, tall, and blond; very Nordic looking. Riley was the nerdy academic to Tess’s cheerleader: She wore heavy glasses and tended to hunch over, her face shielded by lanky, muddy-brown hair. She seemed smart but unsure of herself.
The core group palled around in their vintage clothes and, with the exception of the ever-present phones in their hands, looked very much as if they belonged to the Spooners’ era. The only one not in costume today was Adam’s uncle Preston, who was thirty years old if he was a day. Preston was a tall, golden-haired man who would have been attractive had he not spent his days hanging around with college students a full decade younger than he. Preston also had a way of holding one’s gaze a little too intently, smiling a tad too broadly, agreeing to tasks way too obsequiously.
“Hey, guys,” I yelled. “How about some help boxing up the rest of the items? That way you’ll be able to start decorating first thing tomorrow morning.”