By Robin Praytor
Cassie set her picnic basket and sleeping bag down on the cobbled walkway. She’d retrieved the key from the fake rock by the drive, but she wanted to wait for her brother, Brian, before going in. She admired the house once more.
Squared pillars bordered the broad steps leading up to the deep wrap-around porch. Neatly trimmed hedges stretched the length of the house on each side of the steps. Painted a medium blue with clean white trim, it exuded curb appeal. Cassie had fallen in love with it the minute she’d seen it, even before touring the inside with Bella.
When she’d finally gone inside, she’d been overwhelmed by the gleaming oak floors and woodwork, and the beautiful celadon green tiles on each side of the fireplace. The tiles were imprinted with a ginkgo pattern, repeated in the original light fixtures, so typical of the Arts and Crafts movement. She’d gasped with joy at how perfect the house was.
At the same time, she was angry at Bella Anderson, her realtor. She’d been firm with her—nothing over $350,000. That was Cassie’s absolute cap. She couldn’t imagine why Bella would show her a house she couldn’t afford. With two thousand square feet in the main house, and another thousand in the carriage house, the price had to be close to $750,000—a million wouldn’t have been out of the question.
When Bella had told her the property was listed at $375,000, and she was sure the owner would come down to $350,000, Cassie had assumed there were structural problems. Bella said no. The structures were sound.
“So, why hasn’t it sold?” Emotionally, Cassie wanted to ignore her suspicions. Intellectually she knew something wasn’t right.
“There is a reason, Bella said, “but it’s based on coincidence and unfounded superstitions—well, maybe a little founded.”
“What?” Cassie asked. Then, trying to anticipate the worst-case scenarios, she’d blurted nervously, “Murder-suicide, right? A pedophile serial killer—children’s bodies are buried under the carriage house? I can live with that.” She’d smiled weakly, only half kidding. She must own this house. She couldn’t remember anything she’d wanted this badly.
“It’s not that terrible—at least, not that gruesome,” Bella said. “There have been deaths, yes, but over a long period of time.”
“What kind of deaths over how long a period of time?” Cassie had asked.
“I’ll tell you if you promise to save your questions until I’m done. Okay?”
Pressing her lips together to bite off her next question, Cassie had nodded agreement.
“Okay. Beginning in 1919, when the first of many families moved in, there was a series of deaths. Over a five-year span, there were eight deaths in all.
“The first was an uncle living above the carriage house—the upper floor has always been an apartment. He was on a ladder, clearing debris from the roof after a storm. The ladder fell over and he hit his head on one of the rocks that lined the drive at the time.
“Two months later, the owner’s wife was crushed when a hinge on the garage door came loose and it fell on her. Those old doors were heavy—of course, now they’re automatic.
“A few months after that, the oldest son—there were three boys—fell from the tree in the front yard and broke his neck. The tree’s not there anymore; it was cut down after a lightning strike years later.
“Over the next three years, a postman fell on the front steps, and the father backed over the youngest son in the drive. Another relative, an aunt I believe, was storing some things in the carriage house—where the office is now—and a trunk fell from an upper shelf onto her head. A guest who’d had a little too much to drink fell into a backyard bonfire. By the time they got to him he was fully engulfed in flame. Not long after that, the milkman had a heart attack during his delivery.”
Tired of standing, they’d moved to the front porch. An old tom cat lie curled up on the porch swing. Bella sat down, relocating the cat to her lap. The cat stared at Cassie with narrowed yellow eyes. Cassie watched it warily—she’d never liked cats. Sitting as far from Bella and the cat as the swing allowed, she’d hugged herself to ward off an inner chill.
Bella continued her narrative. “Everything is documented in the local newspaper archives,” she said.
“After five years and one death after another, the remaining family sold the house and moved away. That was in 1925.
“The next family lived here for four trouble-free years. When they first bought the place they had two children. Three more were born over that first four-year period. By 1933, only two members of that family were left, the mother and a daughter. Of the other four children, one drowned in the bath, one choked on a chicken bone, one was hit by a vehicle in the drive—this time it was a delivery truck—and one died of the flu. Then the father was electrocuted while he was wiring the porch light.” At its mention, they both inadvertently looked up at the porch light and shuddered.
“The history goes on like that up to the current owner. There were years with multiple deaths and years with none. Any of the deaths could have been the result of legitimate accidents or natural causes. All but one of the victims died instantly. There were no comas, no lingering injuries and, other than the flu victim, no illnesses over any length of time. Frankly, that’s what I find the most disturbing.”
“That is unusual,” Cassie agreed.
Bella continued, “The last family to purchase the house consisted of a father, mother, two children, and a mother-in-law. Three years after they moved in only the mother-in-law is still alive. She’s my client, and she’s become my friend. I’m determined to sell this place for her. From the first I insisted on informing prospective buyers about the home’s history, and she agreed. As you can imagine, it’s been a hard sell.
“So, what do you think?” Bella had asked, watching Cassie intently.
“Wow!” was all Cassie could say for a few moments. Then, “Aren’t you afraid? I mean, you’re here so often.”
Bella shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything more sinister than this old cat. There’s another one wandering around somewhere.”
“If I do make an offer, any cats would have to go,” Cassie said.
“Of course, that’s not a problem. If you do decide to buy, I’ll call a cat rescue group.”
“Good,” Cassie said. “So, do you think the house is haunted?”
“No; I don’t. I believe in the Holy Spirit, but I don’t believe in spirits of the everyday variety. Besides, there’s no suggestion of ghosts in the newspaper or police reports. No descriptions of moaning or unexplained knocking. I’ve shown the place dozens of times, and I’ve never felt the presence of anyone but my prospective buyers.”
They had sat quietly for several minutes. Cassie stared vacantly across the front lawn while she digested the information. Finally she said, “I just find it all so hard to believe. I’m not a superstitious person. I mean, I’m sure it’s true. You’ve nothing to gain by making it up. It’s just…it’s just the house is so warm and inviting. There’s nothing creepy about it.”
“So, what do you want to do?” Bella asked.
“I don’t know. I love this house. But … I just don’t know. My older brother is an attorney, totally without emotion when it comes to things like this. I’d like to get his advice.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Bella said.
Cassie called Brian immediately and arranged to meet him for lunch. He listened stoically as she summarized Bella’s story. When she’d finished, she asked, “Well, what do you think?”
“Honestly, I think you should buy it just for the investment, even if you don’t live in it. I mean, if you’re right about its value, you’d have one-hundred percent equity the minute the paperwork is final. If it’s in as good a shape as Bella claims, you could flip it overnight.”
“But, I’d have to tell prospective buyers about its history, wouldn’t I?”
“Why? There are plenty of shady realtors around. Besides, how do you know Bella’s not purposely trying to scare off prospective buyers to con the owner into reducing the price even further—then selling it to a friend or relative?”
“I believe Bella—she said everything was documented,” Cassie protested.
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. And, maybe the property’s not in as good condition as Bella’s representing. My firm’s trust section handles real estate matters all the time. We have an inspection company under contract. I’ll call them when I get back to the office and see if someone can come out this afternoon.”
“Perfect!” Cassie said. “I’ll call Bella and make sure she’s available.”
“No, don’t do that. I don’t trust her. Can’t you just ask for the key? Tell her I want to see it, but I don’t know when I can get free.”
“Maybe, but her office isn’t far from the house. If she’s not busy, she’ll want to meet us there.”
“Okay. Tell her I suggested spending the night to gauge its spooky quotient. That would give me some time to do a little personal poking around as well. If she doesn’t go for it, what have we got to lose?”
When she’d asked if it would be okay for them to spend the night at the house, Bella hesitated but finally agreed. Now, standing in front of the house again, camping overnight seemed silly. As she waited for Brian, she studied the property. In spite of everything Bella had said, she still found it inviting.
She surveyed the front yard. The sun was shining and birds were chirping above the low buzz of bees and other flying insects. An ant crossed the cobblestone at her feet, struggling with a crumb three times its weight. It was all so serenely normal. Her reverie was interrupted when the tom cat bounded past her and up the porch steps. She frowned, that damn cat has got to go!
She heard Brian’s car pull into the graveled drive. He crunched to a stop, popped the trunk, and got out.
“Do you need any help?” she called.
“Nope, I got it,” he said, pulling a gym bag, a pillow, and a bottle of wine from the trunk. He walked across the lawn toward her, his arms full. “So, this is the haunted house?”
“It’s not haunted. It’s lovely, and I want it. I’ve been standing here realizing how ridiculous I’m behaving,” she said as he approached. “Spending the night seems childish now.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sis. For $350,000 I guarantee you something’s off—maybe not what Bella Anderson described. A little investigating won’t hurt. It will be fun, like when we were kids and the folks let us camp in a tent in the backyard.”
Cassie smiled at the memory.
A few feet from the porch, Brian tripped on the edge of the cobblestone walk. He stumbled, falling face first onto the cement steps. Cassie screamed as blood trickled down the step from under his head. She knelt next to him, tugging him over on his back to look at his face. Glassy eyes stared back at her.
The cat sat on the porch rail next to his stupid female and watched as the last of the flashing, colored lights pulled out of the drive. He was the guardian. He had done his job well over the past ten years. Soon he would receive his reward and join the others—his ancestral glaring—the ones who guarded before him.
The stupid female was carrying his litter. They would arrive any day now, but only one would survive—the strongest and the chosen. He’d sired many litters with many females without producing a chosen one. Somehow he knew this would be the final litter.
He would teach him the complex guttural mewling to call the wraith. It wouldn’t take long because the chosen one would be smart. Oh, not as smart as after the awakening that comes when the wraith first appears, but smart enough. Smart enough to learn how to summon and control it. The first time, so long ago, had been an accident. Now they called it at will—whenever the threat was greatest.
He would stay to protect the new one for a while. But soon he would go to his reward. His mouth watered and his balls warmed at the thought of his reward: fresh tuna, salmon roe, liver with the blood pooling around it, and the females…as many as he wanted whenever he wanted. He would share it all with the ones that guarded before, his father, his grandfather, and back, and back before them.
He flicked his tail and twitched his whiskers, stretching his mouth wide in a satisfied yawn, then bent over and licked the stupid female affectionately behind her ear. Purring to himself he thought, soon now, very soon.