Authors: Wendy Meadows
© 2016 by Wendy Meadows
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
OLLOWING A CORPORATE LAY-OFF
, the once focused and practical Alexis Cole finds herself questioning everything, especially her estranged mother's disappearance.
When her father shares the last crumpled correspondence from the mysterious and freewheeling Amelia, Alexis follows the clues to Blackvine Manor Apartments. Against her father's wishes, Alexis moves into the notoriously haunted buildings and unearths more than she ever thought possible.
Reeling from strange experiences with latent psychic abilities, Alexis soon realizes that her mother's connection to Blackvine Manor is attached to a family tragedy suffered by the skeptical landlord, Maxwell Charles. Her growing attraction to Maxwell is only tempered by his solid disbelief in what she can do.
In an effort to harness her new found senses, Alexis follows the clues left behind by her mother. Allowing herself to be led to the terrifying basement, she uncovers a secret the Charles family wishes had stayed buried forever.
FROM THE CANDLE choke the air around the table and her voice becomes tight as she rasps, “Please don’t. I love you.”
“What do you see?” A young man, scratching at his wild, curly hair, adjusts the camera angle on the speaker.
She shakes her head, struggling. “His eyes are strange, he doesn’t see me anymore. So angry—all of his anger on me. Please, my love!”
“Who are you?” demands a thin woman seated to the right of the psychic medium.
The small group of people gathered around the table eye each other uncomfortably. Skepticism, fear, and terrified belief are all coming to the same conclusion: something is wrong here.
“His hands are around my neck. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” She claws at her throat, her voice squeezing to a rough whisper.
“Who? Who is doing it?” The thin woman’s face pales as she turns to her tight-lipped friend. “I told you. I told you this place is haunted.”
“You looked it up. She could have too,” her friend whispers back. “It took me all of five seconds to find an article about the murder. Where did you find her, Trish?”
“You mean the
murder. George found her,” she says, gesturing to the wild-haired cameraman.
“Her name is Alice Manetti, look her up,” George whispers pointedly. “She has a long track record of confirmed experiences. I found her name through a university study on extra-sensory abilities.”
The psychic medium’s eyes fly open. “Someone saw; there was a witness to the murder. A young woman. She’s coming here again. Strange, it’s almost like there are two of them.”
“Ghosts?” squeaks Trish.
“No, yes. I can’t tell.” Alice’s head swivels to the other corner of the room. “There’s another strong presence here. Grinning like he’s got a big secret.”
George turns the camera towards the corner she is facing. “Is he the murderer?”
Alice flinches. “He could be. Happy one second; enraged the next. He takes and takes. I can’t tell what. He’s hiding something.”
“Ridiculous,” the skeptical friend snorts.
“Shhh, Susan. You said you’d help.”
“Exactly. I’m not letting you get taken in by this show.”
“What? I’m not. And you can stop staring at me like that.”
George silently pans the camera towards Susan. The string of multi-colored fresh water pearls she has draped over her v-neck sweater is slowly inching upwards, dragged by an unseen hand. She scowls at everyone until she feels the cold smoothness of the necklace touch her bare skin. Jerking around she sees no one behind her and begins to flail her arms wildly. The pearls tighten around her neck and she panics, pushing her chair back and jumping to her feet. As she does so the necklace is slipped off her completely and dangled above the table.
Susan makes a grab for it but can’t encounter any wires or line. “How are you doing this?”
“He’s a thief,” Alice says from her chair.
The necklace is pulled apart and over the patter of falling pearls Trish declares, “That is it. I’m moving!”
RDER WHATEVER YOU WANT
, DEAR. Lunch is on me.”
Alexis Cole shakes her head at her father. “I’m pretty sure I could still afford this place.”
The diner is small but crowded with a diverse menu offering everything from kabobs to stir fry to burgers and fries. They sit at a small table near the front window. Alexis peers through it, hoping anything out on the busy street can distract her father from the lecture she feels is coming.
“Well, you’re going to have to watch your pennies now that you’re unemployed.”
“I was laid-off, Dad, it happens. I got a severance package.”
“Just enough to tide you over while you job-search. How’s that going?”
“Its only Monday!”
“And you had all weekend to apply to other firms.”
She grits her teeth and thanks her lucky stars the waitress arrives to take their order. “I’ll have the chef salad and a side of fries.”
As her father peers at the menu on the wall and asks a dozen questions, Alexis’s mind keeps circling back to her small cubicle at the advertising firm. Copywriting was her way in and she was going to put in her time and move up the ranks—until she noticed the manager working his way down the row of cubicles, taking people here and there into the director’s office. When he finally stopped outside of Alexis’ cubicle he didn’t have to say anything.
In the elevator she slumped against the wall and dropped down her cardboard box of personal items: a half-brown fern, a desk calendar featuring rock n’ roll trivia, and a faux-crocodile portfolio partially filled with successful ads she’d written.
The security guard assigned to walk her out looked at her sheepishly and explained, “They always lay people off on Fridays. Something the director read in a magazine about keeping up morale.”
“So this happens a lot?”
“This year,” he told her as he held open the door.
After her father carefully orders a ham and cheese omelet, Alexis opens her mouth to tell him what the security guard said.
“That severance pay is not going to keep you in French fries for long,” he interrupts her attempt and leaves her gaping. “You should set a goal: three applications a day. Do you have a printer at your place?”
She groans. “That’s the other news, Dad. My lease is up. I have this week to notify the association whether I’m staying on or moving.”
His frown somehow blames the bad timing on her and he says nothing so she continues. “It’s the perfect time to downsize. Just like the firm did.”
The joke falls flat and Alexis feels the squeeze of tears behind her eyes. How can he not notice how terrified she feels? She shreds her napkin and wishes she’d ordered something that would arrive at the table faster.
A. J. Cole takes a few noisy sips of coffee before relenting. “It’s only tough right now. You’ll get everything organized again soon.”
She refuses to let a single tear fall. “It’s all coming apart and what if I can’t get it all back together?”
“Come on, Humpty Dumpty, everyone takes a fall now and then.” He pats her hand.
The food arrives and Alexis sniffles over a few French fries while she considers what her father said about getting organized. She had a plan before she graduated college. A senior year internship secured her a place as a copywriter. For three years she kept her head down and worked in her cubicle every day. She budgeted for a business wardrobe, picked an upscale apartment, paid every bill on time, and planned out her future. There had been no question which way she was heading and now she didn’t know which way to turn.
“Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if I was more like Mom.”
A. J. tips his head back and sends his eyes heavenward, “Because her freewheeling did you so much good.”
“She could handle this, all this uncertainty. ‘Let it roll, Al.’ I remember her always telling us to stop forcing everything.”
“I don’t force anything, I just don’t stand by and let everything blunder along.” He bites his lip before he says anything else and changes the subject. “Your mother used to love this restaurant. The whole world on one menu.”
“And every meal up for grabs,” Alexis remembers wistfully.
He smiles. “She used to always order breakfast at dinner time and lunch at breakfast time here. Like you.”
“Do you think she still comes here sometimes?”
“Don’t think about stuff like that, dear. She’s gone. Probably out of state or, or who knows…” He trails off and sips his coffee again.
They eat in silence for a few minutes before A. J. clears his throat nervously. “I suppose now is as good a time as any to give you this.”
He hands Alexis a crumpled letter; she unfolds it and recognizes her mother’s handwriting:
I’m sorry you found out about Blackvine Manor. I kept it not to escape you but to keep you separate from all the things that happened there. Fenton has appeared again and I know that’s not what you want to hear. Just please remember that I love you and I never meant to hurt you.
Keep Alexis safe and give her my all.
“That is the last letter I got from your mother. I know there isn’t any comfort there except that you were on her mind. I’m certain she’s never forgotten about you.”
A. J. scowls and gets up to pay the bill. “Her first apartment: a wretched little studio. It’d make you think twice about giving up your place so quick.”
Alexis gives her father a hug and declines his offer to help write new cover letters. He waves as he drives away. Alexis wanders down a side street, reluctant to get back to her mess of a life. Two blocks off the busy street she turns a corner and stops short. An ivy-covered brick apartment building stands out in the middle of single-family homes. A hand-painted sign hanging from a wrought-iron arm above the front door catches her eye:
Blackvine Manor Apartments – vacancy.
“I’M SORRY, IS THIS Blackvine Manor Apartments?” Alexis walks slowly down the block, making a second pass of the horseshoe shaped building. She counts eight apartments surrounding a center courtyard.
She holds the phone out, bewildered, before telling the gruff voice, “I’m inquiring about the apartment for rent.”
“It’s a studio. Small. Little less than 700 square feet.” His voice cuts out as a machine turns on.
“Would it be possible for me to see the apartment today?” Alexis raises her voice and a neighbor unloading groceries pauses to stare at her.
On the other end of the phone there is a scuffle, an irritated voice outdoing the noisy machine, and then Alexis hears, “Apologies. This is Maxwell Charles, how can I help you?”
“This is Blackvine Manor Apartments, correct?” Alexis asks again, trying to ignore how the neighbor is shooing her children inside while obviously eavesdropping. “I’m interested in seeing the studio apartment you have for rent.”
“Its lovely, you’ll love it. Bigger than the typical studio, floor to ceiling cabinets in the kitchen, built-in vanity and drawers outside the bathroom, hardwood floors and crown molding. A real gem.”
“When could I look at it? I’m actually in the neighborhood.”
The smooth voice gets muffled as he covers the receiver to have a quick argument with the gruff one. After a heated back and forth of which she only hears swear words and the repeated phrase “finish now,” the crooning voice comes back on and tells her she can see the apartment anytime.
“Apartment #206. I look forward to meeting you. I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Alexis,” she says, hesitating over her last name and deciding not to tell him in case he might know her mother’s married name.
She hangs up the phone and decides its best to take one more lap around the block before going in. The neighbor stops her before she’s even gone five steps.
“Are you considering moving in there?” The woman bustles across the street.
Alexis is taken aback but sees a good opportunity to get more information. “Yes. It’s a quiet street. Have you lived here long? Do you love it?”
“I love our place but I wouldn’t go anywhere near
The woman has paused for dramatic effect so Alexis has to ask, “Why? What’s wrong with Blackvine Manor?”
“It is most definitely haunted. All kinds of horror stories come out of there. In fact, a woman just moved out days ago saying a ghost was trying to strangle her.”
The woman steps closer to Alexis with a burning look that makes her move backward. “If I were you, I wouldn’t even go in to look.”
Alexis thanks her and inches back farther just as a man with wild, curly hair gets out of a fading black sedan behind her. He sees her wide-eyed look and pushes up his black-rimmed glasses before coming over to join them.
“Hello, Mrs. Ramsey. How are you?”
“This nice, young woman was going to look at the vacant apartment but I was just telling her about Blackvine Manor. Tell her, George.”
The corners of the man’s mouth turn downward at her judgmental tone. “Tell her what? That the water pressure is great, the rents are low, and in the summer strawberries grow out back?”
Mrs. Ramsey stiffens up and sucks in a breath before saying a sharp “good day” to both of them.
“Sorry, she’s like that. And she’s not totally off her rocker. Blackvine Manor does have a haunted reputation. There was even a murder here about 50 years ago. Hi, by the way, I’m George. George Carleton.”
“Nice to meet you, George. I take it you live here?”
“Yup, ghosts and all, but I’m weird like that.” He gives her a lopsided grin and holds open the front door for her.
“So it’s haunted but still a nice place to live?”
“Really the only downside is the handyman, Barry. You probably talked to him on the phone.”
Alexis is just starting to grin when a tall man with brandy-colored hair comes bounding down the narrow stairwell, “You must be Alexis!”
Not brandy, maybe rye whiskey, Alexis decides as all 6’ 2” of him fills the foyer, eclipsing the brass-covered mailboxes and George with his broad shoulders.
“I’m Maxwell Charles. Welcome to Blackvine Manor Apartments. Come on up.” He smiles and nods at George without a word and takes Alexis’ hand as she climbs the stairs.
A surly handyman is lugging a floor polisher down the hall as they round the corner. He scowls at Alexis and she smiles back, assuming he was the gruff voice on the phone.
“Don’t mind, Barry, he makes up in expertise what he’s lacking in charm.”
Maxwell, on the other hand, is not lacking in any way, Alexis thinks before checking herself. Luckily, he opens the apartment door and she is happily distracted from the handsome man.
Large windows overlooking the courtyard flood the small studio with bright sunlight. The just-polished hardwood floors glow, lighting up the bright white walls and crown molding. Dark stained doors to her right open on to an old-fashioned dressing room complete with a built-in dresser surrounding a curved vanity and etched mirror. Alexis can see into the black and white tiled bathroom to a claw foot tub. Maxwell spins casually in the center of the living area before showing her through a wide arch into the eat-in kitchen. The wide window there has a box garden, and he wasn’t lying about the floor to ceiling cabinets. The galley kitchen is bright and clean.
Alexis pulls herself together enough to ask all the prerequisite questions her father taught her. Just as she’s nearing the end of the list, coming to terms about utilities and rent, Barry returns with a ceiling fan.
“We have a few updates to make the place more comfortable,” Maxwell tells her.
“I really didn’t want to rush into anything,” Alexis tells them both, “but the rent is so reasonable and now that I can hear my mother’s favorite song I think it must be a good sign. I’ll take it!”
Barry cocks a scraggly eyebrow at Maxwell whose smile slips just a little before he quickly says, “I’ll grab the paperwork. Why don’t I take you to the neighborhood cafe for a drink to celebrate?”