Lately, Mel has been worried about finding enough historic renovation work to pay the bills. But while Turner Construction is in need of a project, Mel’s boyfriend, Graham, has his hands full managing the reconstruction of an ancient building shipped over from Scotland.
With the job plagued by rumors that the stones are cursed, Graham brings in Mel to look for paranormal activity. And while the ghost of a charming Scottish clansman does seem to be hanging around the site, the real shock comes when they stumble upon a body.
When the original construction crew starts running scared, Mel brings in her team to finish the job. Now all she has to do is nail down the killer, and put the spirits to rest, before anyone else winds up heading for the highlands…
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR JULIET BLACKWELL
ALSO BY JULIET BLACKWELL
Communicating with the netherworld can be a game changer.
For instance, I never used to believe in bad omens. But ever since I started encountering ghosts on my construction sites, I’d become more open-minded.
And it was clear that the Wakefield project was cursed.
It had been plagued with ill portents from the get-go: Two well-respected general contractors had walked off the job; sign-waving protesters blocked the tall iron gates to the property; there had been a series of suspicious building mishaps; and the big, burly, and typically fearless construction workers—those who remained on the job, anyway—refused to linger at the site after sundown. I wouldn’t have been surprised to note a line of crows perched nearby, or a ring around the moon, or some other sign of disaster ahead.
Luckily, this wasn’t my jobsite.
“Coffee?” offered Graham.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
I had driven to Marin County, north of San Francisco, bright and early today only because a very attractive man had asked for my help. Tall and broad-shouldered, with the cut physique of a man who worked with his muscles, Graham Donovan had a way of making me forget that, when it came to romance, I was a battle-scarred cynic.
Adding to his many charms, the green-building-consultant-to-the-stars also happened to be in possession of a thermos of piping-hot, dark French roast.
Besides . . . I was just plain curious: Why would someone dismantle an ancient Scottish monastery, ship it overseas stone by stone, and try to reconstruct it as a retreat center in California?
Graham poured coffee into a small tin cup and handed it to me. Graceful tendrils of steam rose in the damp early-morning air, the rich aroma mingling with the pungent scents of eucalyptus and dried grasses. The day was just dawning, and we stood alone on the hill. My mutt, named Dog, loped around, sniffing the ground and wagging his shaggy brown tail.
“I’ll say this much for your client: He chose an amazing site,” I said. “It’s almost . . . magical.”
A gently sloping meadow surrounded by lush forest opened onto a view of the faraway Pacific Ocean. Behind us was a gorgeous old Victorian manse; below us was the jobsite, where stones lay in piles or stacked to form partially built walls, as though a fourteenth-century Gothic ruin had materialized right here, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“That’s the to-be-assembled pile,” said Graham, gesturing to a massive mound. Bright blue chalk marks—which I knew corresponded to a coded schema intricate enough to drive a Rubik’s Cube expert nuts—stood out from the dirt, lichen, and moss clinging to the rough-hewn stones. Carved pieces were scattered among the rectangular blocks: Some were components of columns and vaults, others crude gargoyles and decorative plaques.
“Okeydokey,” I said, sipping my coffee. “Would those be the suspicious ghost-encrusted stones, then?”
“I get the sense you’re not taking this seriously,” said Graham.
“They look perfectly innocent to me. Frankly, I’d worry more about spiders than ghosts.”
“Some tough ghost buster you are, scared of a few tiny little spiders.”
“First off, I have never claimed to be a tough ghost buster. Not even an official ghost buster, really. And I’m not scared of spiders per se. But you know how this sort of thing goes: A couple teensy arachnids hitch a ride to America, and next thing you know, they end up devastating California’s citrus groves.”
Graham smiled. “I’ve always admired your sunny outlook.”
“I’m a native; I think about such things,” I said. “Look what happened with William Randolph Hearst: He imported zebras to roam the grounds of his ‘Castle’ decades ago, and his rancher neighbors are still dealing with them.”
“What have they got against zebras?”
“Turns out zebras are rather foul-tempered. Or maybe they’re just grumpy about being displaced from their natural habitat. My point is, I’m not sure bazillionaires should be allowed to just import whatever they want, willy-nilly. It’s asking for trouble.”
“Which brings us back to ghosts. It’s gotten so bad the men won’t go into the building once the sun goes down.”
“Ancient stones like these, in a setting like this. Throw in a little fog and a moonless night . . . Could be people’s imaginations are running away with them.”
“Could be. But I think there’s more to it. You know I don’t say this easily, Mel, but I’ve seen a few odd goings-on, myself.”
“You really think your client imported a ghost along with these stones?”
“Maybe. Is that possible?”
“I’m not sure. I would have thought a ghost would have remained with the land. But, frankly, I probably know more about spiders than the intricacies of ghost immigration. I’ll have to look into it. Does your client have a particular affinity with Scotland? ‘Ellis Elrich’ doesn’t sound Scottish.”
“I’m not sure,” said Graham. “You could ask him tonight. We’re invited to his ‘sherry hour.’”
“I’m not a big fan of sherry.”
“It’s just what he calls it. There will be other drinks available.”
“Then why call it sherry hour?”
A slow smile spread across Graham’s face, and he reached out to pull on a corkscrew curl that had freed itself of my serviceable ponytail.
“I do love your curious mind,” he said.
“Curious in the sense that I always look for answers? Or in the sense that I’m strange?”
“Why limit ourselves to only one interpretation?”
I couldn’t help but return his smile. After a few years of bitter sniping about men in general, and my romantic prospects in particular, I had been mellowing. Graham was helping me to regain my sense of humor.
“Anyway,” I said, getting back on track. “I don’t really feel like going to sherry hour. The man’s not my client, after all.”
“Perhaps we could change that.”
“Yeah, about that: The whole project sounds like nothing but trouble to me.”
“Mel, look at the big picture: Elrich is willing to spend a lot of money on this project. How often does a job of this scope and complexity come along that will implement cutting-edge green building techniques?”
“Not often,” I conceded. And it was true that Turner Construction needed work. The high-end historic-home- renovation business in the San Francisco Bay Area had taken a nosedive in the past few months, and while I had so far managed to keep my workers gainfully employed finishing up some residential projects, the principals of Turner Construction—my dad, our friend and office manager, Stan, and I—had been forced to skip a few paychecks.
We were in dire need of a new client. An important client. The deeper the pockets, the better. But still . . . I’d already faced enough ill omens for one lifetime. I had been hoping to find a nice, quiet, non-ghost-laden building somewhere to renovate.
“And you’re the only builder I know with ghost experience,” Graham continued.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. The builders who ran screaming from this jobsite experienced some ghosts. They just didn’t want to admit it.”
While we were talking, workmen had started trickling onto the jobsite, arriving in beat-up Jeeps, muddy Toyotas, and full-sized Ford pickups, a few with grinning dogs in the passenger’s seat. Many were Latino, some of whom, I imagined, spoke little English. The rest were a mix of whites, blacks, and a few Asians. They toted lunch boxes, big thermoses of coffee or tea, and carried hard hats tucked under brawny arms. I admired these men—like my dad, they showed up every day, worked an honest eight hours, and built our homes and communities.
One man in jeans, boots, and a plaid jacket made a beeline for us.
“Here’s Pete now. He’s been running the job,” Graham said.
Dog let out a welcoming “woof,” wagged his tail, and presented himself for a petting.
“Pete, I’d like you to meet Mel Turner, the general director of Turner Construction.”
Pete had the ropy muscles common to those who spent their lives on jobsites, but his slightly batty, wide-open eyes and blond hair, worn long and frizzy, lent him a crazy-professor vibe. A knowledgeable foreman was worth his weight in gold and was allowed to push the conventions a little. Construction tended to attract offbeat personalities—like me. It was one of the reasons I liked the business so much: I met a lot of real characters.
On the other hand, construction also attracted a lot of people with criminal records. Perhaps that was no coincidence.
“Heck of a nice thing to meet you, Mel,” Pete said. “I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re the ghost gal, right?”
“I’m . . . uh . . . Sure. Yep,” I stumbled. “That’s what they call me, the ‘ghost gal.’”
“Here’s the situation,” said Pete with a nod. “A lot of folks in this business, well, I don’t gotta tell you that they don’t care much for woo-woo talk. And I don’t either, to tell the truth. But what can I say? I can’t deny something’s going on, and it’s interfering with getting this building done.”
“And what might that be?”
“There’s a . . . a something. An apparition, I guess it’s called. At the back of the sacristy. He’s got a, uh—What’s that really big sword called? Real broad?”
“That’s right! He’s chased out more than one crew, swingin’ that thing. These are good men, Mel. They don’t scare easy. Also, the folks up at the house have seen lights on down here at night when there shouldn’t be, and sometimes there’s music.”
“Speaking as a professional . . . ,” I said. “That sounds like ghostly behavior to me. It surely does.”
Graham gave me a dirty look.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Well, there is that, uh, red thing.”
“There’s something red?”
“It’s . . . well . . .” Pete’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Some of the guys think they’ve heard a woman in there somewhere. They go in to look around, and . . . they end up staggering out of there, crying.”
“I swear, they come out, sit down right on the ground, and sob like their dog died. I tell you what: That’s a little, whaddayacallit, disconcerting.”
“How do they describe it?”
“Like I said, it’s . . . red.”
“What else?” I knew from experience that folks who’d had an encounter of the ghostly kind were often unwilling to relate all the details, for fear of sounding foolish. I had learned to be patient.
“Just to clarify—they haven’t seen any fireballs, have they? I mean, we’re not talking dragons here, right?”
I didn’t have to look to know they were both gaping at me. People come to me begging for help, but when I ask a few simple clarifying questions, they act like I’m making it all up.
“Dragons are a stretch, it’s true, but you were talking about a man with a broadsword. According to ancient lore, that could be a knight out to slay a dragon. Dragons breathe red fire.” I shrugged. “Just a thought.”
“Maybe we should get back to the construction issues.” Graham turned to address Pete. “Mel was wondering how you’re getting around the local codes.”
“I’m surprised to see unreinforced masonry in earthquake country,” I clarified.
“Ah, but it’s not unreinforced,” said Pete. “That’s one of the reasons it’s taking so long. We’re drilling through each stone to insert rebar. Let me show you.”
We walked over to a pile of stones near some heavy equipment, including a massive drill.
“Clever,” I said as I inspected the process. “But it seems a shame to alter the ancient stones at all.”
“I hear you. Ellis—uh, Mr. Elrich—has been adamant on this point: We’re to do the least damage possible, even if it takes extra time and money. We’ve got an army of stonecutters on-site—from Mexico and Europe, mostly. There aren’t enough locals with this kind of specialized knowledge of masonry. The master stonemason is from Poland.”
I nodded. It was common in historic restoration to employ master artisans from Latin America or Europe. Most construction in the United States was of recent origin and utilized new materials and new methods. Proper historic renovation construction required traditional skills and techniques.
“And the rebar reinforcement will pass code?”
I noticed Pete and Graham exchange a glance. Finally, Graham spoke.
“The county inspectors—all except one—have been cooperative. Wakefield will be a pilot project for the inclusion of green techniques in building. The county commissioners figure if the techniques can be folded into such an ambitious project gracefully, they will be able to convince other builders to follow suit.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “It would be great to make this sort of thing a priority—good for the local guys for supporting it.”
“As for the rest . . . ,” Pete said. “Well, I don’t ask too many questions. Elrich seems to have a way of getting things done.”
Pete’s smiling, easygoing facade fell away. I followed his gaze to a red-faced man hurrying toward us, huffing from the effort. Dressed in a three-piece suit, a white shirt, and shiny black shoes, the man was overweight and jowly. He carried a clipboard in one hand and a black computer case in the other, and he did not look happy.
“Who’s that?” I whispered.
“Larry McCall,” said Graham. “County building inspector.”
“Damned thorn in my side, is what he is,” grumbled Pete.
“Mr. Nolan,” shouted McCall. “A word with you, if I may.”
“You’re not supposed to drop in unannounced, Mr. McCall,” Pete replied.
“I’ll drop in anytime I see fit,” McCall retorted, scowling. “Just because Mr. Elrich considers himself above the law doesn’t mean I’m willing to go along with it. I’ll sign off on the preliminary inspection when I think it appropriate, and not one moment sooner. This project is not adequately reinforced, as you know very well.”
“As you know very well,” Pete said, “we’ve experienced some setbacks. We’re addressing them as fast as we can. It just so happens we’ve brought in a new consultant, someone experienced in this sort of building.”
Three sets of male eyes turned to me. Only then did I realize Pete was talking about me.
“I . . . uh, yes. Yes, indeed. I’m here to make sure things are done right and proper. Wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s me.”
There’s an informal code among builders that says inspectors are the enemy. We know full well that a good building inspector can improve public health and safety, foresee problems down the line, and even save lives. I, for one, follow building codes with a religious devotion. Still, when it comes to dealing with inspectors while on the job, builders maintain a united front. If we agree something is wrong, we’ll fix it just as soon as Mr. Snoopy leaves the jobsite.
“Who might you be, may I ask?” Larry McCall demanded.
“This is Mel Turner, the general director of Turner Construction,” Graham said. “She has years of experience with historic renovations in the Bay Area. You’ve no doubt heard of her.”
“Can’t say that I have,” McCall said sourly.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.
After a moment’s hesitation, McCall shook it. His hand was cold and clammy, and he appeared so agitated I feared his blood pressure might be spiking.
I couldn’t decide whether to talk about my ghost- hunting credentials or to spout some bullpuckey about my (virtually nonexistent) experience with ancient structures. Happily for me, McCall turned his attention back to Pete Nolan.
“I ordered this project shut down,” McCall said to Pete. “You might as well send those men home.”
“It was my understanding Mr. Elrich had that stop-work order lifted,” said Pete.
The tension between the two men flared like a spark held to dry timber, and within seconds they were chest to chest, like a baseball player arguing with the umpire.
“I’m the one with the authority here,” said McCall. “Not Ellis Elrich. If you continue building while the project is under review, I will have you arrested for interfering with—”
“You will do no such thing! You will get off this property or I’ll—,” Pete yelled in reply.
“Everybody simmer down,” Graham said, his tone quiet but firm. Stepping between them, he placed a hand on each man’s chest and pushed them apart. “We’re all professionals here. Surely we can work something out.”
“You listen to me, McCall,” said Pete, jabbing a finger at the inspector. “I need this job. You hear me? I got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed. You screw this up for me, and by God, you’ll be sorry.”
Dog started barking. I held his collar tight and hushed him.
McCall stared daggers at the foreman, but to his credit appeared to be trying to rein himself in. “I’m going to check out the mortar mix. If you’re still leaving out the latex admix, I’m shutting this site down. I’ve found some remarkable inconsistencies. . . .” He waved his clipboard full of papers. “Let’s just say I don’t care how rich and powerful Ellis Elrich is.”
McCall nodded to Graham and me and, after straightening his tie, stalked down the hill toward the arched mouth of the monastery. After a moment, Pete followed, flyaway hair streaming behind him.
Dog let out another yelp, and Graham quieted him by stroking his silky head.
“You sure those two should be left alone together?” I asked, watching as the men disappeared into the darkness beyond the monastery’s entrance. “Maybe you should go with them.”
Graham shook his head. “It’s not like I’m running things here; I’m just the green consultant. I’ve done a couple of presentations for the building department so they understand the new techniques we’re using, but it’s Pete’s show. He’s got to learn to work with the county inspectors or McCall’s right: The site will be shut down until he or Elrich can find a way to accommodate the code.”
This was the way construction worked: You dealt with the personalities and laws of the city or county in which the jobsite was located. Some permit offices were notoriously difficult to work with, others more easygoing. It depended on individual temperaments as well as on whether the town or county wanted to promote a bigger tax base, or was concerned for the environment, or if the mayor had significant ties to real estate developers.
“So what now?” I said.
“I’ll let Elrich know McCall’s back. Maybe he can intervene before those two kill each other. Do me a favor? Do a quick walk-through of the building. Let me know if you see or hear anything that could help us get a handle on whatever’s going on, spirits-wise.”
I smiled. “You really do think I’m a ghost whisperer, don’t you? I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t actually know what I’m doing where ghosts are concerned. I mean, they find me sometimes, but I’m really just flying by the seat of my pants.”
“What about that ghost-busting class you took?”
“I learned a lot, but . . . it was more focused on proving the existence of ghosts than figuring out how to get rid of them. Or how to keep them from killing you, which is what I wanted to know.”
“You always insist ghosts can’t hurt us.”
“That’s true. Probably.”
As we spoke, I watched burly men moving in and out of the building. At the moment, the day was bright and sunny, and the suspicious activity was mostly a problem after sunset. And there was no denying that I yearned to take a look around the monastery, run my hands along the stones, soak in the atmosphere of the ancient corridors and chambers through which so many souls had passed over the centuries. “All right. I’ll go see if I pick up any vibrations. Maybe see a ghost about a broadsword.”
My phone started ringing. Because I’m a contractor, my phone is a lifeline, allowing me to run simultaneous projects from afar. I answered a plumber’s question about the modifications we’d made to the century-old piping in a Castro neighborhood bed-and-breakfast and then returned an earlier query from my foreman on a small greenhouse we were finishing up in Piedmont.
The second I hung up, the phone beeped again, and I confirmed an order for lumber for a project in the Mission. While I was answering a text message about blown insulation, Dog started barking and wagging his tail in ecstatic ferocity.
This wasn’t a simple yelp. This was the semihysterical bark Dog let out whenever . . .
I looked up to see men running from the cloister, shouting, white-faced with fear. When one slowed to look behind him, two others plowed into him, and all three flailed their arms to keep from falling.
It would have been comical, had they not been clearly terrified.
“What happened?” I called out to the fleeing men. “What is it?”
I had grown up on my father’s construction sites and learned at an early age how many things could go dangerously wrong on a job. Slippery surfaces, wobbly ladders, power tools, heavy materials—they could maim or kill in seconds, without warning. “What happened?” I repeated. Now that they were safe in the open air, they shrugged, chagrined. The men glanced at one another, and a couple of them quite literally kicked at the dirt with their boots.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of red. It had crossed in front of the arched doorway that led into the cloister. By the time I realized what I had seen, it was gone.
Dog yanked free of my grasp and ran into the building.
I took off after him.
“Hey, lady! Don’t . . . Lady, don’t go in there!” I heard someone yell as I paused in the doorway.
I ignored the warning. I wanted my dog. Besides, I knew the biggest impediment to dealing with ghosts was getting freaked-out by the very thought of them. My ghost-busting mentor, Olivier Galopin, had taught me ghosts retained their essential human characteristics. They might be sad, or angry, or tormented. Dead, I’ll grant you; confused, most certainly. But fundamentally human. And as fallible as ever.
I reached up to rub the gold wedding ring that hung on a chain around my neck. My mother had given it to me; she had inherited it from her own mother. It was the closest thing I had to a talisman, and touching it helped keep me centered and focused, connecting me to two generations of strong women.
Finally, I breathed fresh early-morning air deep into my lungs, released it slowly, then walked through the antechamber and into the chapel.
The chapel’s walls were still being built, the space covered by a temporary roof of corrugated metal held up by tall steel beams. Daylight shone through the gap at the top of the walls. Stone pillars supported nothing, arched niches sat empty, and several carved portions of what I imagined were ceiling vaults remained on the ground, in groupings scattered throughout the cavernous space.
Following the sound of Dog’s bark, I crossed the chapel to the rear of the sacristy and ducked into a passageway that led to a series of tiny, cramped chambers. The doorways were low, the walls the beefy thickness of the stones. While the main chapel featured the graceful arches of Gothic style, the farther I went into the heart of the reconstruction, the cruder the structure became.
I stepped into a large antechamber.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man.
Larry McCall sat in a stone niche, looking as unpleasant as he had a few minutes ago. But this time he was still. Silent.
When I looked straight at him, he was gone.
I searched my peripheral vision.
McCall sat hunched over. Unmoving, silent—just staring.
Standing perfectly still, I listened for sounds of breathing but heard only the harsh rasp of my own accelerated panting.
My breath hung in the air in foggy puffs. The temperature had plummeted.
And then I heard a woman crying. Weeping. Sobbing as though her heart were breaking. An overwhelming sadness washed over me.
I took another deep breath, clasped the ring at my neck, and walked in the direction of the sobs. Passing through a carved vestibule, I emerged into a round room, reminiscent of a turret but only a single story tall. It was made of golden stones that retained bits and pieces of colored plaster and stood out from the dark gray of the rest of the building. To one side was a huge stack of bags of mortar, and on the floor were several mixing troughs, trowels, and knives.
Dog cowered against the far wall.
A body lay on the ground. Three-piece suit, white shirt, shiny black shoes.
I could see from where I stood that Larry McCall’s head had been crushed by a sixty-pound bag of mortar, and blood was pooling on the stone floor.
I recoiled in horror, hardly believing that a man I had been speaking to just moments before was now dead. Murdered.
I reached for my phone, dialed 911, but there was no reception.
Something moved. Spooked, I jumped, plastering my back to the wall.
When I looked straight at it, it disappeared. But in my peripheral vision I could see a woman in a long red dress. An old-fashioned gown, festooned with lace and trim. I’m no fashion expert, but I was thinking seventeenth or eighteenth century. She held a long string of beads in her hands.
She was crying. With each sob, I could feel myself sharing in her despair and emptiness. I felt famished, nauseated with a deep, gut-wrenching hunger.
I tried to fight off the sensations, but it was no use. They were overwhelming. I felt wetness on my cheeks, only realizing then that I was crying.
I doubled over, then sank to the floor and sobbed.
It seemed an eternity before Graham found me and led me out of the cloister.
* * *
The only positive thing I could say about finding Larry McCall’s body was that we were in Marin County.
That’s not saying much, I know, but at least I didn’t have to contend with the one-raised-eyebrow, I-think-you-must-somehow-be-involved-in-this stare of Homicide Inspector Annette Crawford, of the San Francisco Police Department. Sooner or later, she would no doubt find out I was involved, and I would have some ’splaining to do, but for the moment, I could pretend to be the kind of person who didn’t stumble over dead bodies with alarming frequency.
It wasn’t hard acting rattled, though, because I wasn’t acting. Besides the visual of the body on the floor, I kept remembering the powerful feelings stirred up by the Lady in Red’s weeping. Even as Graham led me past Larry McCall’s glowering ghost and through the stone chambers, our work boots ringing loudly on the stone and cement floors, I felt a near-debilitating sense of grief and a deep, gnawing hunger. I was famished, sick with hunger and hopelessness.
The sensation finally ebbed when I emerged from the cloister, stepping into the bright sunshine.
I shook my head, as though to dislodge the memory from my brain.
“Just one more time,” Detective Bernardino said, misinterpreting my gesture. “Then we can wrap this up and you can go. Heck of a day, huh?”
“You can say that again.”
Detective Bernardino was about my age and height; pear-shaped, with an olive complexion, he had dark curly hair, and full, sensuous lips that would have been attractive on a different sort of man. “You say the victim and”—he checked his notebook—“this Pete Nolan person were fighting?”
“They were arguing. Not fighting, exactly.”
“What were they arguing about?”
“They were discussing the proper admix for the mortar, but I certainly wouldn’t characterize it as a ‘fight.’”
“And what about this Graham Donovan person?”
“He’s the green consultant on the project.”
“He a hippie type?”
“Um, not really, no. He’s a green consultant type who—”
“Was he fighting with the victim as well?”
“Nobody was actually fighting. I mean, I don’t think McCall was Graham’s favorite person. After all, nobody likes building inspectors. But—”
Bernardino’s beady eyes bored into me. “Nobody likes buildings inspectors?”
“I didn’t mean that, exactly. It’s just . . . In fact, Graham used to be an OSHA inspector, himself. So he understands the need for regulations. Besides, he was with me the whole time, so unless you think we worked together to drop a bag of mortar on that poor man’s head, I—”
Apparently I had opened up a whole new avenue of investigation because Detective Bernardino fixed me with an interested look. Shut up, Mel, I told myself. Shut up, shut up, shut up. The detective doesn’t know you from Adam and has no reason not to think you’re an upstanding citizen who just happens of see a lot of ghosts.
I was starting to miss Annette Crawford.
I began again. “Sorry. I’m not being clear. What I’m trying to say is that Graham—who is an honest, upstanding businessman—was with me the whole time. He had no reason to harm Mr. McCall, no motive, and no opportunity. Neither of us did. That’s what I meant to say.” I sat back and tried to relax.
Detective Bernardino’s gaze rested briefly on my chest. Now I really missed Inspector Crawford.
“Okay, so what you’re saying is the DB—’scuze me, that’s cop talk for dead body—was threatening to shut down this job,” Bernardino said. “That about right?”
“It didn’t get that far—”
“So the owner of the project would have plenty of motive. Am I right?”
“I . . . um . . .” I wasn’t sure what to say. Annette Crawford never asked my opinion about whodunit. “I can’t imagine Ellis Elrich would risk everything—and he has a lot—just to rid himself of a pesky building inspector. There are much easier—not to mention less homicidal—ways to take care of something like that.”
Now Detective Bernardino gave me the stink-eye. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to have that much of an opinion.
The once-peaceful scene was a whirl of activity, with squad cars, unmarked police cars, the medical examiner’s wagon, and the CSI van littering the meadow, and dozens of police officers and other officials milling about. Could Pete Nolan really have killed Larry McCall? Last I’d seen him, he was following the inspector into the building, but then I’d spent several minutes chatting with Graham and on my phone. For all I knew, Pete had stormed out of the building even as someone else entered, found McCall, and crushed his head with a sixty-pound bag of mortar. But who? That took strength, and a lot of it. I was reasonably strong, and while I could probably drag a bag that size from point A to point B, maybe even carry it if someone handed it to me, there was no way on earth I’d be able to hoist it up, much less throw it at someone. It took a lot of force to move sixty pounds of dead weight.
“What I meant to say is that if Mr. Elrich had a problem with a building inspector, he has more than enough money to bribe someone. Or at the very least, to pay one of his employees to take care of it.”
Sheesh. I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. I was implicating people left and right. I was the opposite of the kind of person you wanted in your foxhole when hell started raining down.
“So you think Ellis Elrich had motive and opportunity.”
“I actually don’t think anything, really. That must be obvious by now.”
“You seem awful nervous.”
“I’m not used to finding . . . to, uh, being around . . . I mean . . .” Could I be any more suspicious? I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. As far as this paunchy fellow is concerned, I told myself, you are an innocent bystander. Start acting like one. “I’m sorry. It was a very unsettling experience.”
“I can imagine,” the detective said, seeming more sympathetic.
“Let me start again. I’m a contractor. I’m not at my best around murder.”
“You think it’s murder?”
Well, yes, Detective, I thought. I assume the man did not drop a bagful of mortar on his own head in a rather inventive suicide.
But I was finally getting smart. I kept my mouth shut and shrugged.
“So. A lady contractor.” Bernardino looked me up and down again. I was beginning to think he wasn’t attracted to me as much as he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a “lady” contractor.
“Actually, we just refer to ourselves as contractors. The ‘lady’ part seems kind of unnecessary. Superfluous, even.”
He nodded, as though he’d finally figured me out. “Gotcha. You’re a libber, then.”
“Sure, that’s me, a lady libber.”
“Huh.” There was a hint of a smile on the detective’s ruddy face, but it wasn’t particularly friendly. His eyes ran over me one more time, and I lost my patience.
“Do you have any other questions that might help you figure out what happened to poor Larry McCall? Because if not, I’d like to go.”
“Well. Somebody’s got her knickers in a twist, doesn’t she?”
“My knickers are none of your—”
Bernardino’s eyes flickered over my shoulder, and he seemed to nod to someone behind me. “Okay, I guess that’ll do for now. Just one more question: Why didn’t you call nine-one-one right away when you found the body?”
“I tried, but my phone didn’t work. The guys say it’s the thickness of the stones, or something, but cell phones don’t work inside the monastery.”
“Huh. This your current address and phone number?”
“All right. You can go, Ms. Turner,” he said grandly.
I headed over to where Graham had been speaking with some of the construction crew. He looked grim.
“Did you tell him about the fight between Nolan and McCall?”
“I may have mentioned it.”
I could see a muscle work in Graham’s jaw as he scanned the hectic scene. It was a tableau I had encountered too often in the last couple of years. It always amazed me how many people were involved in the processing of a crime scene. Especially since I suspected Marin County didn’t see a lot of such crimes. Ellis Elrich’s celebrity status no doubt also guaranteed the full-court press.
“I think I managed to implicate just about everyone in McCall’s death, up to and including myself,” I continued. “Given how often I’ve been through this lately, you’d think I’d be better at dealing with the police. The detective was kind of an ass. As much as Annette Crawford scares me, I’m starting to pine for her.”
Graham gave a humorless chuckle.
“Are you worried about Nolan?”
He nodded. “They were asking a lot of questions about him, and given how many witnesses overheard his argument with McCall . . . I don’t know. It doesn’t look good.”
“Nolan does seem to have a temper.”
“Yes, he does.” Graham inclined his head.
“Still . . . do you really think he could have done it? Practically right in front of everyone? I mean, that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?”
“Anger can make people do some pretty stupid things. But I don’t know. . . . I’ve known Pete for years—your dad knows him, too. I’ve never seen him become violent. Not unless . . .”
“Unless he’s been drinking.”
“Surely he wasn’t drunk this early in the morning?” Pete Nolan had seemed sober enough to me, but I hardly knew the man and hadn’t been close enough to him to detect the odor of alcohol.
“No, not that I could tell. He got sober a couple of years ago, and as far as I know, he’s been on the wagon since. But he’s got a couple of priors, bar fights from back when he was still drinking. I hope they don’t dig those up and draw some conclusions.”
“I hate to say it, but Detective Bernardino wouldn’t be much of a cop if he didn’t.”
Graham’s eyes were shadowed with worry. I understood what he was feeling—the first time I’d seen a ghost was when my friend Matt stood accused of murder. Matt and I hadn’t been particularly close then, but I remembered the urge to prove his innocence and the frustration of not knowing how. The justice system can be relentless, and there’s nothing quite like having someone look at you as if you’re a killer to throw you off your game.
“It could have been a freak accident,” I suggested. “Maybe Pete was threatening him with the bag of mortar—you know, just to scare him—and it slipped out of his hands. . . .”
“And landed on McCall’s head?” Graham shook his head. “Dammit, I should never have let them go in there alone.”
“You couldn’t possibly have foreseen something like this. And you can’t police everybody on a jobsite.”
“Still, I wish I’d followed them.” Graham blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “I hate to think Pete did this. But it happened so fast, and it’s true he’s always been a hothead. Anyway, I expect we’ll know more after the police review the security tapes.”
“What security tapes?”
“Elrich had the site wired for security.”
“He bugged a monastery?”
“And his home,” Graham said with a shrug. “He has an extensive surveillance system. That’s not unusual these days for folks with lots of money. Factor in Elrich’s personality, and well, it’s safe to say there’s not much going on around here that Elrich doesn’t know about.”
I made a mental note not to do anything on the jobsite that I didn’t want Elrich to watch and possibly share with others—I could only imagine some lame construction folly going viral—then followed Graham’s gaze to where the man in question was speaking to Detective Bernardino. The police officer appeared to be smiling and nodding obsequiously.
Ellis Elrich was okay-looking, though a bit bland for my taste: Of average height and build, he had light brown hair cut short and was clean shaven. A recent photo on the cover of Forbes magazine had indicated he had brown eyes, thin lips, small ears, and a mild expression. Altogether ordinary, though clearly there was a lot going on beneath the surface. One doesn’t build a motivational-speaking empire and become a self-made billionaire without having at least a few unusual qualities—or being unusually ruthless.
“What’s he like, for real?” I asked.
“Elrich?” Graham shrugged. “Pretty much what you’d expect: charming and very much in control. But if you’re asking me whether he had a pain-in-the-ass building inspector killed to get him out of the way, I would find that hard to believe. There are always ways to get around an uncooperative inspector. And even if McCall did somehow pose an insurmountable threat, I imagine Elrich’s methods of dealing with it would be more subtle than murder right here on the worksite, which would be guaranteed to trigger a police investigation.”
We stood in silence for a few moments. It was hard to know what was appropriate after a loss of life, even that of an unpleasant stranger. Not for the first time, I wondered how first responders coped with the awful situations they faced on a daily basis. Go home and hug their kids? Find a favorite bar and hoist a few? Catch a matinee and tamp down the emotions with an extra-large tub of buttery popcorn?
“So what are you up to now?” I asked.
“I should probably check in with Elrich, see if there’s anything I can do. Why don’t you head on back to the city? I’m sure you’ve got plenty of work waiting for you. Should I assume this puts the kibosh on your taking over this project?”
“The money’s tempting and the building is beautiful, but I think I’ll pass.”
“Had enough encounters with dead bodies, have you?”
I nodded. Not to mention beautifully dressed specters who made me break down and cry. I had enough on my plate as it was. And I was not a pretty crier.
The next day I found myself fighting the urge to throttle a stubborn building inspector who was holding up a job at a bed-and-breakfast in the Castro because he wanted yet another engineering review of an already overengineered garage addition.
I tried not to think about what had happened yesterday, but the scenario put me in mind of poor Larry McCall.
The truth was, there weren’t a lot of us general contractors who hadn’t wanted to kill an inspector from time to time. Of course, that was where it ended, and a responsible contractor knew it was necessary to find a professional way to work out differences.
It had been unsettling, to say the least, to find a dead body. Especially of someone I had been speaking to only moments before. Such a tragic and violent loss of life. But if I were to be brutally honest, the overwhelming sadness I had felt in that moment, the profound grief, also had something to do with the weeping figure in the red dress.
Who was she?
Her gown was far too antiquated to have been from the United States. She must have been attached to the imported stones somehow; it was the only explanation. I knew from experience that ghosts hated renovation projects: The disturbance to their surroundings could be profoundly upsetting for them. So what would happen if a ghost’s home was dismantled, stone by stone, shipped overseas, and rebuilt in a new land?
Talk about confusing. And that wasn’t all; Pete Nolan had said workers had been chased out of the cloisters by a man with a broadsword. So maybe there was even more paranormal fun to be had at the Wakefield Retreat Center.
Graham had called last night to tell me that, indeed, the police were holding Pete Nolan as a “person of interest” in McCall’s slaying because the evidence pointed to his guilt. Graham also mentioned he was going to take advantage of the work stoppage to follow up on some new wind-energy technology being developed by a small firm in LA, so he was flying down for a couple of days and would return on Thursday.
After dealing with the stubborn building inspector at the bed-and-breakfast conversion, the next item on my to-do list was to check in with the B and B’s ghosts—the family that had built the house a century ago and who had wanted to remain. Fortunately, the B and B’s owners were happy to have them; they delighted in showing me a recent article about their haunted bed-and-breakfast that had come out in Haunted Home Quarterly. My name was mentioned prominently as the builder—and ghost buster—on the job.
I made a mental note to warn my office manager, Stan, who had been fielding an increasing number of query calls more interested in ghosts than in renovation. It was a worrying trend.
Once I settled things in the Castro, I met with Raul at an Art Nouveau house in Bernal Heights. Raul was by far my best foreman, and though I dreaded the day he would move on, I knew it was only a matter of time before he started up his own company. There had been spirits in this house once, too, but after an intervention, they appeared to have departed.
Raul and I went over the double-paned glass we were installing to increase the old home’s energy efficiency. This was tricky. If the existing sashes weren’t thick enough, or the window structure itself wasn’t sturdy, we could end up replacing the original glass as well as remilling the sashes and sills; by the time we were done, there might be nothing left of the original. I understood the energy-saving reasons behind it, but it hurt my heart to dump the wavy old window glass. Historic renovation demanded creativity and compromise.
Even while hashing out these details with Raul, my mind kept wandering back to Pete Nolan. True, I didn’t know him, and he had been upset with Larry McCall, but it was hard to believe that a quick fit of temper could result in such a tragedy. Still, as SFPD inspector Annette Crawford so often reminded me, most murders were the result of exactly this sort of scenario: some stupid disagreement that got out of hand.
Way out of hand.
Thinking about my last couple of big jobs, I realized that both the Castro B and B and the Bernal Heights house had contained entire spirit families that were trying to tell me something about crimes in the present. At least in the case of the Wakefield project, I didn’t think the spectral Lady in Red was connected to the building inspector’s death. There was too much separation of time and space; if the spirit had come here with those ancient stones, what possible connection could she have to Larry McCall?
Once I wrapped up my day, I headed to Pacific Heights to pick up my ex-stepson, Caleb, whom I had talked into joining me, my dad, and our friend Stan at Garfield Lumber’s annual barbecue.
“I don’t know why I have to go to this lame barbecue,” grumbled the seventeen-year-old. His chestnut hair fell so low over his forehead it almost covered his near-black eyes, which was probably the idea. I tamped down the urge to brush his hair back so I could see his expression.
“It’s . . . fun,” I said. Which was sort of a lie. “Anyway, it’s tradition.”
“Not the same thing.”
The truth was, Garfield Lumber’s operation was old-school. The nails were kept in the same bins they had been in since 1929; the long wooden counter was scarred and gouged; the slower-selling items on the shelves acquired a thick layer of dust. And if you stepped into Garfield without knowing what you were doing, the staff could be downright rude. There was no Helpful Hardware Man here. “Don’t Waste My Time” was Garfield Lumber’s unofficial motto. If you valued your life and all your body parts, you didn’t mention a certain huge store that catered to the DIY crowd.
On the other hand, once they got to know you, the folks at Garfield would go the extra distance to make sure you had what you needed to get the job done right. In a rapidly growing and ever-changing region like the Bay Area, Garfield Lumber was untouched by trends and entirely predictable.
I loved it. Probably because it was a place I always had been—and would always be—“Bill’s girl Mel.”
“You have to eat,” I continued. “Right?”
“Stale hot dogs? Oh, yum,” Caleb said in a snarky tone that reminded me a little too much of myself.
Excerpted from "Keeper of the Castle"
Copyright © 2014 Juliet Blackwell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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