"Cozy fans are in for a Halloween treat." --Publishers Weekly
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VAMPIRES, BONES, AND TREACLE SCONES
By KAITLYN DUNNETT
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kathy Lynn Emerson
All rights reserved.
"What do you think?" Liss MacCrimmon Ruskin asked her husband. "Does that look like a haunted house or what?"
Standing beside her at the foot of a steep flight of concrete steps set into an overgrown terrace and flanked by a rusty iron railing, Dan stared up at the old Chadwick mansion with an assessing gaze. "High Victorian architecture. Peeling paint. Ivy run wild on one side of the building. Boarded-up windows. It has potential ... if the structure is sound. The last thing you want is for someone to fall through rotting floorboards and end up with a broken neck."
Liss gave a theatrical shudder, although she was too much of an optimist to be seriously alarmed. The place would be perfect as part of Moosetookalook, Maine's Halloween festival and fundraiser. It already had the requisite unsavory reputation and its run-down appearance defined spooky to a T. Liss especially liked the round windows in the square tower. Lit from behind, they'd look like two glowing eyes.
"All our dead bodies will be department-store manikins," she assured Dan. "That's why you're going to go through the place today with a fine-tooth comb. We'll have nearly a month and a half to repair any problems you find. If we can't fix something, we'll rope off the problem area to keep the paying public out of danger."
"Uh-huh. As if that ever works. There's always some bozo who takes a KEEP OUT sign as a challenge instead of a warning."
Dan was unenthusiastic about his role as safety inspector. Liss couldn't blame him. He knew the "we" she had designated to make repairs would consist of himself, aided and abetted by his brother Sam. If the house didn't pass muster, the two of them would end up volunteering their labor, as well as donating building materials. The Ruskins all had a strong sense of civic responsibility, and in this case, it was augmented by the fact that Liss, Dan's bride of eight weeks and one day, had been chosen by the Moosetookalook Small Business Association to organize the festival.
"Let's go see how bad it is." Resigned to his fate, he offered his hand and they started to climb.
By the time they mounted the porch steps, Liss was a trifle out of breath. "Thank goodness this isn't the only entrance to the house," she said with a laugh.
The driveway circled the mansion, leading to a small parking area at the back. With the addition of a short ramp, the kitchen door would also allow for handicapped access to the "haunted mansion."
Dan fitted the keys they'd been given into the locks. The last owner had installed three, two of them deadbolts. "And we're in," he announced. The door creaked ominously when he opened it.
Liss took that as a good sign. If all the other doors in the place were as cooperative, she wouldn't need to use sound equipment to create the same effect. Eyes bright with anticipation, she stepped into the shadow-filled hallway.
There had not been electricity in the house for years. The only light came from the sun outside. It illuminated a rectangle of faded, flowered carpet runner and a swarm of dust motes.
Dan reached into the pocket of his jeans and supplied her with a clean, white handkerchief before removing his backpack and using it to prop the door open. From the pack, he produced two heavy-duty flashlights and handed one to Liss. They turned them on, and she got her first good look at their immediate surroundings.
The hallway was long and narrow, ending in a closed door at the far end. The kitchen, she surmised. Two more closed doors flanked her. Before she could decide which one to open first, Dan's low whistle of appreciation distracted her. He had paused just inside the entrance to stare at a large, old-fashioned piece of furniture.
Liss had no idea what to call the object. Coat rack seemed inadequate to describe something that stood taller than Dan's six-foot-two. Maybe a hall tree? It had rows of three-inch pegs on either side of a three-quarter-length mirror and five drawers—two on each side and a single one at the center beneath the mirror.
"It's gorgeous," she said.
The streaked and dusty mirror reflected a dark and grainy image of the two of them. Dan's hair didn't show up as sand-colored, but rather a light gray. Her own dark brown locks looked muddy. Her eyes, which ranged from blue to green depending on what she was wearing, appeared in the glass to be murky brown. So did Dan's, although in reality they were the color of molasses. The illusion was nicely eerie, making it seem as if they'd aged several decades in the last few minutes.
"I think I'll keep this just the way it is," Liss murmured. "Being scared by your own reflection is a great way to start a haunted house tour."
Dan wasn't listening. He reached out to run one hand over the smooth wood. "A real craftsman built this."
"It takes one to know one," she said. In addition to his job at Ruskin Construction, Dan was a custom woodworker.
He glanced into the mirror, caught sight of something behind them, and turned to shine the beam of his flashlight on the staircase that curved gently upward from the first floor to the second. "And there's another work of art."
In places, the steps were coated in a layer of dirt thick enough to plant flowers in, but when Dan wiped off a small section on the lowest tread, Liss could make out the gleam of dark, glossy wood beneath the grime.
"Walnut," he said. "Expensive even way back when this place was built."
"To hear the old-timers tell it, the Chadwicks had more money than God. They could afford the best."
"Damned shame the house has been let go like this."
"The family died out." She shrugged. "And the last of them made the mistake of marrying Blackie O'Hare. But sad as it is, all that history makes this place ideal for our haunted house."
"Blackie" O'Hare, notorious gangster and hit man, had come into possession of the mansion through his wife, Alison Chadwick, the granddaughter and only heir of the last family members to actually live in the place year round. The old couple had died before Liss was born, so she'd never known them. Their childless granddaughter's death had followed not long after her marriage to Blackie, who might or might not have later used the mansion as a hideout when things got too hot for him in Boston. Many fanciful stories had sprung up over the years. One had Blackie burying treasure on the property. Another said it wasn't loot but rather dead bodies that he'd hidden in the wooded area surrounding the house. One rumor even claimed he'd murdered Alison and buried her in the basement.
What was certain was that Blackie's crimes had eventually caught up with him. He'd been arrested for murder, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in Massachusetts. During the investigation, a task force had been sent to Moosetookalook to search the mansion and its grounds. They'd hoped to turn up more evidence to use against him, but they'd found neither loot nor bodies. That hadn't stopped the locals from speculating. After all, those out-of-staters might well have missed something. Everyone in Maine knew folks from Massachusetts weren't too bright. Just look at the way they drove their cars!
Blackie had died in prison, stabbed to death by another prisoner. Afterward, no heirs having materialized, the town of Moosetookalook eventually seized the property for back taxes. The housing market being what it was, they'd been stuck with the place ever since.
It hadn't taken much effort on Liss's part to persuade the board of selectmen to let her use the Chadwick mansion for a municipal fundraising effort. Their only condition had been dictated by the liability insurance that covered the town—the house had to pass a safety inspection first.
With that in mind, Liss fished a lined five-by-seven tablet and a felt-tip pen out of Dan's backpack. She'd come prepared to spend the next few hours trailing after him as he checked the place out, noting down everything that needed to be fixed. If there was one thing at which Liss excelled, it was making lists.
They started at the top of the house, climbing to the third floor and then up a steep flight of steps—more like a ladder than stairs—to reach the tower Liss had admired from below. The room at the top was smaller than she'd expected and unfurnished.
"Lights in the windows, yes," Dan said. "Anything else, no. Those stairs are too narrow for safety."
Liss took a moment to admire the view. The leaves had just begun to turn. Spots of brilliant orange, red, and yellow stood out in sharp contrast to the dark greens of balsam, pine, and spruce.
"Five heavily wooded acres," Dan said. "It's a nice piece of property. I'm surprised it hasn't sold."
The trees made an impressive barrier between the house and its neighbors. A long, winding driveway provided yet another layer of isolation. It led to a little-used rural road a quarter mile distant.
The Chadwicks had liked their privacy, and yet the mansion was not all that far from the center of town. From this vantage point, Liss could pick out the top of the memorial to the Civil War dead in the town square and the steeple of the Congregational church beyond. Those were, however, the only visible signs of civilization. If she'd been looking from her own front porch toward the mansion, she wouldn't have known the house was there at all.
The third floor would have been called an attic in most houses. In the Chadwick mansion it was broken up into three bedrooms. They were bare and cheerless with low, sloped ceilings and no heat. Servants' quarters, Liss supposed, back when people could afford live-in help.
The second story also contained three bedrooms, but those were larger and crammed full of furniture. Upon entering each new room, Liss gave a cautious sniff. They all smelled musty—they'd been closed up for a long while—but she detected no hint of mold or mildew. Everywhere they walked, they left footprints in the dust and Liss had to duck more than one cobweb. While Dan did his safety checks, Liss poked around.
Drop cloths protected the contents in one room. In the others, the clutter had been left exposed. There seemed little rhyme or reason in the way items had been deposited. In the second room, two chairs with broken legs shared space with an exquisitely carved bedstead and highboy. Empty picture frames and an old steamer trunk were tucked into the third room between a four-poster and an old-fashioned standing wardrobe, but what instantly caught Liss's attention was the moth-eaten moose head mounted on one wall.
"Yuck," she muttered. "Imagine waking up to the sight of that monstrosity every morning!"
Liss didn't know much about antiques, but some of the furniture and a number of the decorative accessories looked old enough to be valuable. She picked up a lamp in the shape of an owl—brown glass fitted over a bulb. She supposed it was meant to be a night light. The words art deco floated through her mind, but she wasn't sure they applied to this piece. Still, it was certainly unusual and therefore collectible. She was surprised the town selectmen hadn't auctioned off the contents of the mansion to defray expenses.
"So far so good," Dan announced. "Ready to go back downstairs?"
"More than ready." She put the lamp back where she'd found it and wiped her fingers on the sides of her jeans to get rid of the grime it had left behind.
Back on the first floor, Dan suggested they start with the kitchen and work their way forward to the front door. Liss half expected to find a nineteenth-century wood stove taking pride of place. Instead, she walked into a scene out of an old black-and-white TV sitcom. It would have been more tolerable without color. The cabinets were bright yellow. All the appliances were a sickly avocado green. The dinette set tucked into a corner had chrome legs, a laminate top on the table, and chair seats upholstered in yellow vinyl. The radio on the Formica countertop was big and clunky and made of the same hard black material as the rotary-dial telephone sitting next to it.
"I wonder what Blackie O'Hare thought of this," Liss murmured.
"Hey, this was ultra-modern back in the fifties! The Victorian décor in the rest of the house probably made him more uncomfortable. Assuming, of course, that he ever lived here." Dan crossed the room to examine the back door and the small porch beyond. "Shouldn't be too hard to build a ramp."
Liss left him in the kitchen while she began to explore the adjoining formal dining room. Wallpaper had once covered the ceiling, but it had begun to peel away and hung in ragged swaths above a massive sideboard and an equally oversized table and chairs. Liss liked the effect and made a note on her to-do list. She was visualizing an ultraspooky set piece for the room when Dan called out to her that he was going down to the cellar.
"Let me know if you find Blackie's cache of cash!" she called after him.
His voice was muffled as he descended the stairs to the basement. "If I find buried treasure, you'll be the first to know."
Liss barely registered his answer. Her flashlight beam had come to rest on a painting that hung above the sideboard.
Although it was partially obscured by the tattered ceiling paper, she recognized the subject at once. It was a rather famous portrait in Scottish circles—a likeness of the piper of Clan Grant. She had always thought it was an ugly piece. It had been painted, if she remembered right, in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century by a rather mediocre artist. This was a reproduction, of course, but its presence hinted that the Chadwicks had Scottish ancestors. She resolved to find out more when she had the time. Her day job as proprietor of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium made it good business to make connections to all things Scottish within the local community.
When Dan reappeared, cobwebs caught in his hair and a fresh smudge on one sleeve, they left the dining room by way of the door to the hall. "Back room or front room?"
"Back, then front," Liss decided. "Anything of interest in the cellar?"
"Damp and dirt. I don't recommend letting paying customers go down there."
The back room was a library, although books were outnumbered by knickknacks on the floor-to-ceiling shelves that took up the inner walls. "Hoard much?" Liss murmured.
"The Chadwicks appear to have collected more than their fair share of what the Victorians called curios."
The baubles were displayed on pedestals and tables as well as on the shelves. The walls between boarded-up windows were hung with dozens of framed pictures in all sizes and shapes, so many that the pattern on the flocked wallpaper behind them was all but obscured.
Closed pocket doors led into the front room. Liss supposed that would have been called the parlor back in the day. Another door, also closed, was located directly opposite the one that led to the hall.
"What do you suppose is in here?" Without waiting for Dan to answer, she reached for the doorknob and shone her flashlight into the gloomy interior, expecting more furniture or the ghostly effect of dust covers. Instead, dozens of pairs of eyes stared back at her. A sound embarrassingly like an "eek" escaped before she could stop it and she backed up at warp speed, slamming into Dan's chest.
He grunted and caught her.
A second later, she felt him freeze as he looked past her into the room and saw what she had seen.
Nothing attacked. No sound issued from the darkness beyond the door. After a moment, common sense returned, and Dan's flashlight beam steadied to reveal that the eyes belonged to a flock of stuffed birds.
"Creepy," Liss muttered, disgusted with herself for having been frightened.
She ventured deeper into what she decided to call the conservatory. Represented were a variety of species. Some stood on pedestals while others were suspended from the ceiling. The room also contained a grand piano with a stuffed pheasant perched on top of it.
"Mr. Chadwick's little hobby, I presume," said Dan.
"Good. This is good." Liss heard the tremor in her voice and ignored it, just as she was ignoring the amused note that had come into Dan's. "Nice and scary. We won't change a thing."
She retreated with more haste than grace, opened the pocket doors, and entered the front room. It was a parlor. At least, it contained a parlor organ, together with a sofa and two chairs—one straight backed and one wing—and a couple of end tables. There was also considerable evidence that they were not the first visitors to this particular room. A layer of debris covered the floor, mostly fast food wrappers, empty beer cans, and cigarette butts.
Excerpted from VAMPIRES, BONES, AND TREACLE SCONES by KAITLYN DUNNETT. Copyright © 2013 by Kathy Lynn Emerson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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