The Death of the Party

Sample: The Death of the Party

Chapter One:

A Woolen Sweater

My dead ex-husband was already in a bad mood when I woke up on my day off. He hovered at the bottom of the stairs, shaking his head like my “sleeping in” until 9:00 was actually sleeping in. I could easily have slept all day.

“Glad to see you’ve finally decided to join us, Carly doll,” Jackson said in a voice reminiscent of my mother’s back when I was a teenager.

My Golden Lab, Rex, seemed less annoyed with me and I was half an hour late feeding him. I stroked his fur while ignoring Jackson, who was tapping his faded wrist where a watch would have been had he ever worn one in life. I shuffled my way into the kitchen to get Rex his breakfast.

I could tell my ex-husband wanted something. Not that I cared.

He continued like I did. “I’ve just gotten word that a good family friend would like our help at once to figure out her murder,” Jackson said, voice raising a little, probably to show urgency because old forgotten murders had to be hyped-up in order to be considered urgent at this stage in their game.

I nodded, half of me asleep, the other half still not caring.

“She was my great aunt’s best friend. Murdered at her own dinner party in 1936, found in an old storage closet, of all places. Poor thing. She’d been bludgeoned to death with what police believed was a broomstick, and a rag had been stuffed in her mouth. They blamed the maid, naturally. Said she’d snapped.”

“Because that couldn’t have been a setup,” I said, twisting my curls into a bun. I checked my reflection in the toaster, noting the bags under my eyes that made me look much older than 31. I pulled a couple of blondish brown curls out to hide my face a little. No better. I needed sleep and a shower.

“That’s what my aunt tried to tell the investigators too. This was my Aunt Laura, mind you. The aunt I actually liked.”

“Wait. You had a relative you actually liked?” I said, putting Rex’s food in the microwave. “And, they liked you back?”

“Please stop,” he said. “She was was my grandfather Earl’s sister. The youngest of Henry Bowman’s daughters.”

I did not know one sister from the next. I did know Jackson’s great grandfather, Henry Bowman (the crazy man who designed the lopsided Victorian house I inherited from Jackson), had four children: three girls and Jackson’s grandfather, Earl.

After feeding Rex, I walked straight to the bookcase in the living room where I’d begun keeping all the scrapbooks I’d found in various spots around Gate House, like a treasure hunt for creepy memorabilia.

Pulling out the latest in my collection labeled A Crooked Mouse, I thumbed through the pages until I came across the old, black-and-white, 8 x 10 family photo pressed into it. The one where Earl was holding a dead mouse, limp in his grubby little three-year-old hands. It was a strange photograph, almost like a formal announcement to the world that the Bowman family was no longer trying to look normal.

Like most photos from this era, all six stared in different directions, not quite at anything in particular, and certainly not at the camera.

I never really paid too much attention to the girls in the photo before, beyond the fact that they each looked the same, from their brown shoulder-length curls to the white frilly dresses they wore. The only difference was their height, giving Laura away as the smallest girl, the one carrying a stuffed lion-looking thing and a creepy doll with a porcelain head and dangly legs that I hated to admit looked exactly like me, and was the reason my ex called me Carly doll.

“Yes, that’s her,” Jackson said, pointing to the photo. “Of course, when I knew her, she was a far cry from a child. Aunt Laura was the one who told me about the curse. My parents didn’t want me to know about it. And they were very upset with my aunt for spilling the beans.”

I sat down on the couch in front of the coffee table where the scrapbook was. I didn’t know too much about my ex-husband’s upbringing, aside from the fact he was a spoiled rich kid.

He sat on the settee and crossed his faded legs. “I was six, and she was visiting us here at Gate House. I could tell my mother was on edge the entire time. She didn’t much like my father’s family.”

I nodded. I could understand that.

“I remember I was in the middle of playing with my model train set. No sooner had my mother left the room when my aunt grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me aside with her scary thin arms and bony, blue-veined hands.

“She asked if I’d noticed anything strange happening around the house. I told her ‘No, auntie, nothing.’ She told me, ‘Keep your eyes open, boy, and you will.’ That was when she let me know the family was cursed. She said it was the reason she and her husband never had kids. ‘You give your kids to the curse when you have them in this family,’ she said. Mind you, I had no idea I was cursed up to that point.”

I sat up, fully awake now. Jackson’s coloring was dull today. He was always a faded version of his former self, but today I could barely make out the pretentious elbow patches on his jacket or the gray streaks in his hair.

He went on. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Aunt Laura’s gruff voice, the wringing of her hands. ‘You don’t always feel the curse, Jackie. It’s like a woolen sweater that fits too tight. If you let yourself think about it, you’ll know it’s there, choking you, scratching at your arms and belly, sitting heavy on your chest like it’s waiting for the right moment to strangle your breath away if you let it. When you notice that sweater, Jackie, you do exactly what it tells you to do. You understand?’

Jackson paused and looked at me a minute. And I realized I’d been holding my breath.

I let out an exhale. “This was your favorite aunt, huh? She sounds delightful.”

He tugged on his beard. “She was one of the only truthful people in my family, and I adored her for it. Of course, my mother was furious and told me my aunt was a loon. There was no curse. Nothing was going to happen to any of us, and I needed to stop talking about it. Then, when my mother died the next year, my father sat me down and told me the curse was real and my mother’s death, from an unknown cancer, was proof. The curse needed to be stopped. And that, maybe, I was the one who could stop it.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll help your favorite aunt’s friend, if you promise to never tell me another story from your childhood again. This explains way too much about you, you know?”

“Curses build character. Very few people know that,” Jackson said, smiling. “They’ll be happy to hear you’ve agreed to help. They can hardly wait to find out if the maid actually did it. They’re both here, waiting to leave.”

“Leave? Where do they think we’re going,” I asked.

“To the abandoned summer home this all took place. We’ll explain more along the way, but pack an overnight bag with all the living-human things you’ll need. Food, water, warm clothing, toilet paper…”

“I’m one-hundred percent not doing this,” I said when he got to the toilet-paper part.

Two women of different ages appeared by the coffee table. The younger of the two was a blonde in her 30s, a slender woman in a curve-skimming, mid-length, dark green dress. The other was an older gray-haired lady of about 75 in a wacky pair of orange stretchy pants and a matching orange and brown patterned vest that almost seemed shiny in the light of my living room.

“The best friends,” I said.

When Jackson introduced me, I realized it was just like I thought. The gray-haired woman was his Aunt Laura. Her arms were disappointingly not thin and scary like his six-year-old self had remembered.

“And this is Matilda Garner,” he said, motioning to the blonde.

“Tilly,” she said.

I knew from my experience with ghosts that they usually looked pretty similar to the way they looked on the day they died, which explained why these ladies looked almost 40 years different even though they were probably born the same year.

“We’re both prepared to do a channeling,” Aunt Laura said.

Channelings were when I combined energy with a ghost so we could relive their memories in real time. Through channeling, I could go back to the moment of their deaths to experience things exactly as they happened, take down clues, and figure things out. It was a strange way to solve murders, but it worked for me.

“We just couldn’t believe it when someone opened that closet door and found Tilly there,” Aunt Laura said. “I think I screamed for a full minute. I knew it was that curse again. It gets you when you least expect it, like that sweater we talked about, Jackie.”

“Because sweaters usually get you when you least expect it,” Tilly said, rolling her eyes. “You can’t really blame a curse. I was murdered.”

“That’s what the curse wants you to think,” her friend replied. “You were murdered because the curse drove someone to murder you.”

“Honestly. How is it I was the one murdered yet I have a better perspective on it?”

“You’re actually lucky about dying young,” Laura said, voice trailing off. “You were murdered at a decent age. And in a nice dress.”

“What are you saying?” Tilly asked.

“I’m saying I would’ve worn something a little different had I known I was going to die in an orange vest.”

“Well, I don’t feel lucky. And that orange vest looks very smart on you,” Tilly said, a smug smile escaping her lips as she motioned to her friend’s outfit.

Aunt Laura shrugged. “1973 was a difficult year for fashion.”

I put my hand out to stop the ghosts from talking. I needed them to focus. “Let’s start at the beginning. I’d like to know everything you remember about that night, from the both of you.”

I didn’t always have a second ghost to channel with from the same night. It was going to be good to see the evening from two different perspectives. But I had no idea why it had to be a bring-your-own-toilet-paper affair at a disgusting, abandoned house.

I pulled open my notebook to a fresh page. “Okay, start from the top. What day was it?”

“August 22, 1936,” Tilly and Laura both said at the same time, making it almost impossible to hear the answer.

And I realized how hard it was going to be to have best friends giving information together.

“And when we’re done, we’re going to stay at Tilly’s summer home,” Laura said. “It’s a nice place to haunt.”

Jackson chimed in from the settee. “I’m sure it’s also a nice place to do a channeling or two,” he said. “Abandoned houses are so peaceful and quiet. No loud toilets that actually flush anymore. No noisy heat coming on all the time.”

At least now I knew why the ladies wanted to do the channeling there. Ghosts could ride on humans, and these two were looking for an Uber over to their new home.

I could not believe I was actually thinking about going to a moldy, creepy house just to help two ghosts find a nice place to haunt. But I already knew I was going to do it, mostly because I sometimes felt that sweater too.