Chapter One: My Humungous Purse
Once again, my mother was perfecting her guilt trips, and I was her go-to guinea pig.
I tried not to think about it as I came up the steps of Gate House, a cool, late-evening wind smacking my face like it was trying to knock some sense into me. I had just driven seven hours from Indianapolis and that stupid brunch was the only thing I could think about the entire way.
I tugged my rolling suitcase up another stair. One of its rollers stuck in a large crack in the patio slats, and I kicked it free, stubbing my toe in the process. Pain shot across my foot and I hopped along the veranda to make it feel better.
It had been one hell of a weekend.
Mother’s Day weekend with my mother, her best friend, Brenda, and Brenda’s perfect daughter, Suzanne, with her smart designer handbag, the kind that judges you with quiet, rich-people dignity. Perfect form, durable fabric, sturdy yet sleek. I’m pretty sure my saggy, humungous purse asked hers for a handout while they sat together on the couch. Or, at least I hoped it had.
At first, I was onto my mother and her elaborate guilt trip.
“Suzanne got a job right out of college working at the headquarters of one of the nation’s leading soda companies,” my mother said, like the soda company’s name had to be kept top-secret. “In the marketing department. Isn’t that nice,” she added carefully dabbing her mouth with her forest green, cloth napkin then placing it back in her lap.
Clearly, I was supposed to pay close attention to what Suzanne was doing with her life and feel motivated to do more with my own. Classic guilt trip. I almost yawned.
“It paid… how much did you say they started you at?” my mother asked.
“That was so long ago, Marlene. I hardly remember.”
“You betcha I do,” Brenda interrupted, laying her hand on her daughter’s arm. Her red hair shimmered in the bright LED light that blared over my mother’s dinette set, casting weird shadows on everyone’s faces. “I was so proud. It was darn near sixty thousand to start, and that was seven years ago. She won’t tell me what she makes now. She’s just about to turn thirty and she’s also just about to buy her own house. Golly. That’s something.”
I somehow managed a smile. “Congratulations,” I said to Brenda’s daughter, hoping and praying that no one at the table was going to ask me what I did for a living or how much I made. But I knew it was coming. It was how this guilt trip was supposed to play out for me.
But nobody asked, which I quickly realized meant this guilt trip was on a whole new level. Obviously, my sucky life had been brought up earlier, behind my back, where it was decided it should probably not be brought up again.
I immediately felt their pity as they all avoided asking me any questions or looking over at my purse.
Instead, they brought up Suzanne’s engagement ring and her plans for her wedding. They talked about children and how quickly Suzanne was going to have them. “Any names picked out? How many?”
“Two, or three,” she replied. “We’ll see how it goes. Tony wants them right away, and I understand. I am almost thirty.”
I felt my own over-30 uterus aching, until I realized this was an ache my mother wanted me to feel.
“You’ll have to come to my wedding,” Suzanne told me.
“Of course,” I said, like we were besties and hadn’t just met. “If I can get away from work…” I added, snapping my head in my mother’s direction, daring her to bring it up.
My mother didn’t bite.
Suzanne studied her napkin, smoothing it out over her cute skirt, which was a much better choice for a Mother’s Day brunch than my skinny jeans and t-shirt were.
I no longer cared. She’d won the competition. No point participating now.
“Of course, I’ll have to ask my boss at the hippie store if I can take off for the wedding,” I said, even louder. “But you know how minimum-wage retail is. They never want to work around your schedule. If only I had kids. They seem to be more flexible about schedules when you have those. But, let’s be honest, who can afford anything on minimum wage?”
My mother just sighed loudly and tossed her napkin on the spot by her plate. “We need more croissants,” she said, getting up. There were still the same four croissants sitting on the tiered plate as before. She hustled away to the kitchen, anyway, her crisp blue polyester slacks making a swishing noise with each stride.
And it was at that moment I’d known I was right. My life had been discussed before (probably many times) and it was a topic no one was allowed to talk about, not even when I brought it up.
My mother obviously wanted me to know she’d given up on me having any semblance of an accomplished life. I was officially only here to smile and be polite to the more successful people at the holiday brunches, and keep my sad, humungous purse to myself.
Yep, this was a whole new level of guilt trip I hadn’t been anticipating.
Even though I didn’t have to be back in Landover right away, I made up an excuse about needing to feed my dog and high-tailed it out of there right after brunch.
The worst part was the guilt trip had worked. I felt just as crappy as I was supposed to, even now as I yanked my plastic suitcase into the kitchen so hard it smacked against the back cabinet then fell along the tile, denting the top of its puffy shell.
How dare my own mother be so silent about my life?
She used to brag about me, tell people how I graduated summa cum laude. She would put my pictures and awards on the fridge at every stage of the game, except the adult stage.
I knew, in her own crazy way, my mother had meant well. She was just trying to help me make better choices in life. She wanted me to be fridge-worthy again.
I looked around, relieved to be back in the lopsided Victorian I now called home that couldn’t even have fridge magnets. Rex greeted me as soon as he deemed the coast was clear and I was no longer flinging around suitcases. I leaned down and petted him, stroking his golden fur and snuggling up to one of the only beings in the world who liked me just for me.
He tugged me over to his food dish. So much for that thought.
“I should feel happy,” I said to my dog as I put his food in the microwave. “I no longer have to spend countless hours trying to prove to my mother that my degrees aren’t being wasted, that I was actually doing something meaningful with my life, while I lived in her basement, struggling to find another writing client who would pay more than five cents a word.”
The microwave beeped and I took his food out to check the temperature, my eyes resting on my dining room table. It was so different than the formica one I had just left after brunch. Everything was different.
There wasn’t even one thing about me here. Nothing was mine. Not the dishes, or the furniture, or the fridge. According to the contract I’d signed when I got here, I could only decorate my room, and yet, I hadn’t even done that.
I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, and brunch with my mother hadn’t cleared things up. I had a great start in my life, and then, things fizzled out. “They didn’t fizzle out. They’re just fizzling differently now,” I told myself under my breath.
A loud clang came from the back of the kitchen and I jumped.
“Jackson?” I said, walking toward the sound. “Was that you?”
My ex appeared by my side. His pretentious beard was combed perfectly into place just like it always had been back when he was living.
“Did you hear a noise?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I mean, aside from your pity party over this morning’s brunch. I can’t blame you, really. I especially liked the part when Brenda told everyone how her daughter was thinking about joining a master’s program, and your mother never even mentioned you already had your degree.”
I crossed my arms. “You were there?” I said, still searching the kitchen for whatever had caused the noise. “Why didn’t you let me know?”
“It was awkward enough.”
I ignored him and turned the corner where I had heard the clanging noise from. The key cabinet on the far side of the kitchen was open.
Jackson was still talking. “And I couldn’t agree more with what you were telling Rex, Carly doll. You should feel happy. You get to live in one of the most beautiful houses in Wisconsin. Rent free.”
“Yeah, yeah. Suzanne’s buying a house, on her own. Gets to decorate it and everything…”
I kicked something on my way to the key cabinet and looked down. A key.
After picking it up, I held it up to the light, inspecting the greenish patina that had obviously long adorned its copper. It was one of those vintage long keys no one used anymore.
I always thought Gate House had things to show me when I was ready to see them, like the time I found a scrapbook after thinking I heard Rex in the basement, or when I found the first scrapbook in the bottom drawer of Henry Bowman’s desk in the library after I was almost murdered there. So, I guess, when I thought about it, the house really only had scrapbooks to show me.
But this time, maybe it was showing me a key.
There were still many rooms in Gate House I’d never really explored too much. Whole sections, actually. I just figured those rooms didn’t bother me, so why should I bother them?
It’s best to think that way when you live in a haunted house.
I stared at the keys, dangling down from their rusty nails in the key cabinet, most of them labeled with fragile, yellowed masking tape. One said “Main Turret,” another said “Library.”
But the one that had fallen didn’t have a label.
My ex-husband was by my side. “I know what you’re going to ask, Carly doll, so I will save you the trouble. I have no idea what it’s for.”
“You lived here your entire life, and now your entire afterlife, and you never bothered to find out?” I asked.
“Honestly, it’s admirable how you think I care about things much more than I actually do.” Jackson’s coloring was strong today. I could see the gray streaks along his temple and the detailed stitching in his tweed jacket. He hovered by the key cabinet with legs that faded out at the bottom, no feet.
I twirled the key between my fingertips. “I feel drawn to this key. Maybe it unlocks a secret room or something, and I’m supposed to figure out where and what.”
“Or maybe, you’re reading way too much into an unlabeled key… that randomly dropped from the key cabinet in a haunted house,” he said. “I suppose it is possible. Our newest client does haunt here, but I doubt he had anything to do with the key dropping. He cares less than I do. My great uncle.”
I stopped twirling the key. “Our new client haunts here? Are you saying there was a murder at Gate House? I never knew anyone was murdered here.”
“I wouldn’t call it murder.” He shook his head dismissively. “It was more like murder-lite.”
Chapter Two: Murder-Lite
I blinked at my husband like he was crazy. “Murder-lite. I have no idea what that means.”
“It means it happened a long time ago, and under less than suspicious circumstances,” he began. “We all know who did it.”
“And they didn’t do anything about it?”
Jackson half-shrugged. “You see, toward the end of Gate House’s construction, my great grandparents had friends and family members over to celebrate my grandfather’s birth and the completion of Gate House. Henry Bowman’s uncle and his wife were here. My great grandmother’s parents too. I don’t know who else. It was 1900. I wasn’t there.”
He went on. “Anyway, Henry was away from the house at the time. He was at the family’s rental in town, helping to move from that house to Gate House when Uncle Wesley ‘fell’ down the stairs.” Jackson put air-quotes around the word fell. “No one liked this uncle, mind you. Henry’s father’s brother was a bit hard to get along with.”
“One of your relatives was hard to get along with? Do tell.”
He pursed his lips at my sarcasm. “He was found at the foot of the basement stairs. Neck broken. He’d been shoved, poor thing. Everyone knew it was his wife. Wesley was mean and old and no one blamed her. Plus, she was mean and old too. So, the family decided to sweep it under the rug, like a proper family does. You know how we are about our privacy.”
“I really only know how you are about your lunacy, so yeah, this checks out.”
“They buried him quietly and simply told people he’d fallen.” He stared out the kitchen window as he talked, making me think the old man might have been buried in the azalea bushes next to my car. “There was even evidence. A button found at the scene of the crime that matched Aunt Doris’s robe. I believe it’s in one of your scrapbooks.”
I gulped. I hadn’t remembered seeing a button, but I was definitely going to check through those books with a little more scrutiny now. There were three so far in my collection of Gate House creepiness.
“Murder-lite or not, I’m just glad to hear your family didn’t frame anyone,” I said.
“Oh, they would have.” Jackson’s voice trailed off as he spoke. “We’re certainly not above that, but only when it’s convenient. It was much easier to report the death as an accident. Saying it was murder would have brought all sorts to Gate House at a time when all sorts were not welcome here.”
“And all sorts are welcome now,” I asked, thinking about the fact we outsourced everything, contracting privately for even the easiest of upkeep on the house.
He didn’t answer me, so I went on. “How are you so sure your great uncle didn’t just fall down the stairs? Older people fall all the time.”
“I guess that’s where you come in,” he said.
I grabbed my phone from off the kitchen counter and took a photo of the key cabinet so I could eliminate the labeled keys on my hunt to figure out where this key went. Then, I slipped the key into my pocket and made my way to the living room so I could get comfy on the couch. It had been a long drive and I was in no mood to meet Jackson’s uncle, but just like my mother’s guilt trips, I knew it was going to happen.
Jackson was still talking as he followed me to the next room. “My uncle is certain he didn’t fall. Just as certain as he is that his wife was the one who shoved him. But he’d like your help to cross his T’s and dot his I’s, so to speak. He’s been haunting the basement for a while.”
“The thing in the basement is one of your distant uncles?”
“I’m quite certain the basement holds scarier things than my great uncle Wes.”
It was a disturbing thought, channeling with one of Jackson’s family members, especially knowing he was also one of the things haunting the basement. That place creeped me out more than any other part of Gate House.
Plus, it was also a reminder that there were more ghosts here than just my ex. I kind of knew that already. I’d done a seance at Gate House once and received a lot of communication. Hardly any of it sane, though (which I should have guessed meant I was dealing with Jackson’s family members). Voices came from everywhere, some were even children.
A balding man in his 60s suddenly appeared in my living room with a round head and a gray, bushy stiff mustache that was only slightly thicker than his eyebrows.
“This is Wesley Bowman, my great uncle,” Jackson said, making the introductions. He was right. The man was about as scary as a pair of Groucho glasses.
He looked me over, making me cover my t-shirt with the edges of my cardigan. “Are you sure she’s able to be impartial?” he said to Jackson, like I couldn’t hear him. “Women tend to stick together. You know that, right? Incapable of logic most times, I’m afraid.”
I grabbed my notebook from off the coffee table in front of me and opened to a new page. “Let’s get one thing straight,” I said. “I can hear you. So if you want to talk about me, talk to me. And if you want to insult me or anyone else, I have sage in the drawer because we’re done here. I don’t need to take your case.”
Ghosts hated burning sage for some reason.
Jackson shook his head at his uncle. “Please try to be nice, Uncle Wesley. We talked about this.”
“I am being nice.”
I went on. “And even though it sounds like you’re fairly certain your wife shoved you down that flight of stairs, before we all congratulate her on a job well done, we need to review all the evidence we can find from that night. We must all agree to have an open mind.”
“She’s at least feisty,” he replied to Jackson. “And… she reminds me of someone. Who is that woman?”
“Eliza,” I said, tugging one of my cute new sandals off that had been rubbing along my pinkie toe the whole way home.
“Who is Eliza?” he replied, to Jackson.
Jackson turned to me. “Uncle Wesley didn’t know Eliza. She arrived at Gate House after his death.”
I could barely see Wesley’s lips through his bushy gray mustache, but I could tell he was pursing them. “No. No. I’m talking about the housekeeper. Awful opinionated woman who thought she ran the place.”
I wondered if it was the same woman who still ran the place. I always suspected Mrs. Harpton, the housekeeper, was a ghost. Maybe I would have proof soon.
“Theona. Yes, that’s it,” he said, snapping his ghostly fingers when he remembered her name. “The awful woman’s name was Theona, and you remind me of her.”
Even though I knew the housekeeper as Mrs. Harpton, I also knew her first name was Theona. Was she here at the time of the basement-stair-shoving? Could I talk her into doing a channeling with me back to that night to get a different perspective?
He was still talking to Jackson. “I tried to make one suggestion about the curtains in the living room at Gate House. She told me they had to be a thick velvet crimson. Nothing could change. What the dickens did that even mean?”
I had no idea. But I was going to find out. “Tell me about the day of the shoving. Do you remember the exact date?”
“I do know it was a Friday. Doris and I had been at Gate House for two weeks already. We were not as impressed as we thought we’d be. My nephew left a comfortable living in a thriving city to build this place. He called it his baby, and we all couldn’t wait to see it.”
He looked out the window, like he was remembering it all now. “But when we got here, we couldn’t wait to go back. This house was strange, miles from the main town, up a hill with two sets of gates. We had no idea why he needed such security. It was very apparent he was losing his mind. Said he was cursed and thought something was out to get him and his family.”
“You were murdered. So maybe something was out to get his family,” I reminded him.
“Yes, but I married that something.” He tugged on the huge lapels of his heavy gray jacket.
“We don’t know that yet,” I reminded him.
“Sometimes, you don’t need a detective to figure out who has it in for you. Sometimes, you just know,” he replied. “Still, for the sake of the case, I can tell you that Henry is in the clear, or at least I believe he was. He wasn’t there at the time of my death. I don’t remember why. I think his wife, Marjorie, had just had their fourth baby. She and the children were still in town, so he was in and out of Gate House, mostly out.”
Even though Uncle Wesley had a large beer belly and broad shoulders, he was far from intimidating. He hovered nervously as he talked, back and forth straight through the ottoman. “I remember the guest list, or at least a good portion of it. Doris and I were there. Henry’s in-laws were there too. You know, Marjorie’s parents. I think their names were William and Gladys. That’s right, along with their unmarried twin daughters. We called them the Spinster sisters. They were actually the Winster sisters, but no one called them that.” He chuckled lightly, looking over at Jackson who looked over at me and decided not to chuckle when he saw me glaring at him.
Uncle Wes went on. “Marjorie’s two sisters. What were their names? They were already into their 40s and had never married. That’s why we called them the Spinster sisters,” he mansplained.
“Spinster’s not a term we use anymore. And it should never have been used back in the day,” I explained. “It’s insulting. You have to stop insulting people. Unmarried men don’t have labels.”
“Oh, yes they did. We all called them lucky,” Wesley said, his mustache curling into a smile.
This time, my ex did chuckle along with his uncle and I glared at him even harder. They certainly had the same sense of humor. “Anything else you remember, Uncle Wesley?”
He continued. “There were others at Gate House, but those are the people I remember. It was quite the ordeal. No one got along.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t remember. I just remember we were on polite speaking terms, but secretly, we despised each other. It’s very hard when you’re dealing with in-laws.”
I knew all about that one. Justin’s mother was coming into town tomorrow, and we did not get along. I tried not to think about it, or how I probably wouldn’t see much of my shapeshifting boyfriend while I avoided his mother.
“So you don’t remember the exact date, just that it was a Friday?”
“Friday evening, late summer. 1900. Yes.”
I wrote it into the notebook, glancing at my watch. It was almost 8:00 and I was starving.
The Spoony River was putting on a Mother’s Day fundraiser until ten to help Shelby out with her expenses now that her fiancé’s disappearance seemed to be longterm. No one could believe Lenny, the owner of the diner, was doing something from the bottom of his heart like that. It was so far out of character it was almost suspicious.
Justin had wanted to go, but I thought I was going to be out of town.
“We’ll finish this up tomorrow,” I said, walking over to my landline.
I looked up at the burly ghost in front of me as I dialed Justin’s number. “One more question. Now that I think about it, why were you going down to the basement, anyway? That’s kind of an unusual thing to do as a guest at someone’s house. What was happening at the time?”
In just the right light, and with his thick head angled slightly to the side, I could see the resemblance, to Henry, to my ex-husband, to the round-faced daughters of Henry Bowman. It was all in their big heads. Why hadn’t I noticed that before?
“I remember there were a lot of things going on that night at Gate House,” he said, looking at the ceiling like he was trying to pull the details down from the glass chandelier. I knew ghosts did not have the best memories outside of a channeling, but he seemed to be avoiding the question.
“But you went down to the basement for a reason,” I said, my ear still resting on the phone, listening to rings. “I’ve been in that basement, and there’s not wine down there.”
He turned to Jackson. “Why is that even important? I told you women cannot see the forest for the trees. I told you this was not going to work…”
The ringing stopped and Justin picked up, thank goodness. I was really getting sick of my new client. Just hearing my boyfriend’s voice made my day seem brighter.
“I decided I’m up for going to the Spoony River fundraiser after all, if you’re up for it,” I said.
He didn’t even hesitate. “I already ate, but I can eat again. It’s not every day that country-fried heart-attacks go to a good cause. I’ll meet you there.”
I hung up and stared at the ghost who was still mumbling out insults. “It’s been a long day, and I don’t need this. You’re right. This isn’t going to work. In other words, I’m not taking your case,” I said, opening the top drawer of the credenza.
He turned to his nephew again, mouth open, eyes wide. “Make her see reaaaassson,” he whined. “She has to help me.”
Jackson shook his head. “We talked about this, Uncle Wesley. You cannot go around insulting people and then go around wondering why they won’t help you,” he said, then added. “Or wondering why they shoved you down a flight of stairs.”
“I didn’t insult anyone,” he repeated. “I merely pointed out facts.”
I grabbed a couple of the sachets my boss at the hippie store made for me so I could keep ghosts from traveling on me then practically skipped out of the house, knowing I was just about to turn a horrible day into a hot date with a shapeshifter.
A part of me wondered what Suzanne was doing right now.