Authors: Mary Bowers
For my Mother.
A big thanks to Kiki. The next grilled cheese sandwich is on me.
We salute everyone who has ever adopted an animal from a shelter or rescue. Remember, when you adopt, you actually save two lives: the one you take home, and the one you make room for.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are products of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
The Realm of the Shadows
Copyright © 2015 by Mary Bowers
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any way without the express written permission of the author.
I’d love to hear from you! Contact me at [email protected]
Cover designed by Revelle Design, Inc. www.RevelleDesign.com
I didn’t call the ghost-hunter the first time the workmen complained about the thing in the barn. I admit that the boss-man, Charlie, came to me about it as soon as it started, but I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to. But once the workmen refused to go into the barn at all, I had to do something: we were up against a deadline, and I hoped the ghost-hunter would appease the men.
For the sake of my own credibility I’d like to be able to say that I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do. Still, even when you’ve seen one yourself, you’re careful what you say when other people start talking about them. When you live in a small town, well, you have to worry about your reputation. It’d be all too easy for people to start thinking of me as the crazy cat (and dog) lady down by the river.
So calling in the ghost guy was a tough decision, and I held off as long as I could. This particular crackpot could actually make things worse. I had worked with him before, and I could all too clearly see him holding séances or performing weird purification rites by the light of the silvery moon.
My life was in an uproar, and I didn’t need complications. With split-second timing and a hop, skip and jump, I was moving the animal shelter I’d started some thirty years before from a few scrubby acres outside of Tropical Breeze, Florida to 1,500 acres on the Intracoastal Waterway nearby, with a mansion, a barn and outbuildings. A generous benefactor was charging me a peppercorn rent for the white-elephant property he had inherited. And as soon as I put my old property up for sale, a buyer had stepped right up, but we hadn’t closed yet. Fortune had smiled, and I was grinning back, tap dancing as fast as I could.
I had all kinds of ideas for the new Orphans of the Storm: cotillion benefits in the mansion, adoption events and expert demonstrations on the spreading grounds, me sitting on the dock at day’s end swinging my bare feet over the river and waving at the yachts sailing by. And then the thing with the barn started and all work came to an abrupt halt.
So I called Edson Darby-Deaver. He was Florida’s first ghost-hunter, and the local go-to guy in the field, though new colleagues were popping up everywhere. You can’t walk down the ancient streets of St. Augustine at night without being trampled by tourists on a ghost walk, and every channel of the television has a bag of assorted nuts roaming an abandoned building calling out names and swinging electronic equipment over their heads.
“Athalia! Athalia, can you he-e-ear me? We are not here to harm you! We only want to he-e-lp you.”
I don’t know about Athalia, but any guy who uses that approach with me while telling me to go into the light is going to end up running out of the building with his eyeballs spinning around in front of his face, screaming for his mama.
Edson Darby-Deaver was different from the rest of the pack. He wasn’t in it for the TV face-time. He
, which was why I called him.
“Taylor!” he said on the other end of the line, trying to sound spontaneous. He’s a nice guy at heart, but he seems to have learned his people skills from an instruction manual. “Great to hear from you. It’s been, what, two years?”
“At least. People around Tropical Breeze are still talking about the Haunted House you did for that Halloween fundraiser.”
It was true, but not really in a good way. Ed had gotten so technical about what a poltergeist can and cannot do and how much glow-in-the-dark paint was needed to make cheesecloth look like real ectoplasm (seriously?
ectoplasm?) that some of my best volunteers refused to work with him. And he insisted on using something called “Fuller’s Earth” to make the rooms look spookier, and the stuff is like pulverized chalk dust. We were all choking for days. I think I’ve still got some in my hair.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I need you to do a ghost hunt. Not the Halloween kind. A real one. We seem to have a problem in the Cadbury House barn, and I need you to lay a ghost. To rest,” I added quickly.
“Of course,” he said, getting businesslike. “What other way is there to lay a ghost?”
He was serious. It whizzed by him like a spitball.
“Spiritual or physical?” he asked, and over the phone I could literally see him drawing paper and pen toward himself to start making notes.
“Is it a physical manifestation, i.e. one that moves objects about, attacking people and leaving visible marks, et cetera, vs. a non-tactile apparition which hovers and glides, et cetera?”
“A little of both,” I answered. “The workmen keep finding things where they know they didn’t leave them, the blueprints keep disappearing, then reappearing, and this morning one of them saw a ghost.”
“Ball or analog?”
Oy. I didn’t even answer.
“A ball of light,” he said patiently, “or an analog of the human form?”
“Oh. Definitely an analog. A woman. In white. You know, a long white dress? The usual.”
He spoke as he wrote: “Long – white – dress – possibly grave garments?” he added in a murmur.
“I don’t know what she was buried in, but she’s wearing it now,” I told him.
“Of course, of course. Anything else?”
“Yes. My workmen are refusing to work in the barn on the grounds of Cadbury House, and I need to move the shelter within the next couple of weeks. It’s nowhere near ready. I’m desperate, Ed.”
“Ah, yes, Cadbury House. I heard that you were going to use it for the shelter. By the way, excellent detective work a few months ago, Taylor. We were all deeply impressed here in Santorini. Frieda Strawbridge was especially pleased,” he added in a well-bred murmur, like a British diplomat referring to the queen.
The Santorini Ed was referring to was not the island formerly known as Atlantis in the Aegean Sea. It’s a tiny real estate development, only eight houses actually, built as a gated community on Crescent Beach in St. Augustine, Florida. It was just up the road apiece from Tropical Breeze.
It struck me as a good thing that Frieda Strawbridge liked what I had done about the murder of her friend and contemporary, Vesta Cadbury Huntington. They’d been among the last survivors of the Gilded Age, when mere businessmen could become so ungodly rich they were beyond royalty – they could buy and sell royalty. While Vesta’s ancestors had included minor titles
stunning wealth, Frieda’s had been plain and simple American robber barons. Oil or something.
The two very rich old ladies had come from the very top rung of coastal society, and they hobnobbed regularly and were all over one anothers’ business and scandals. If there was something in the past rearing its ugly head at Cadbury House, Miss Frieda might know about it.
“How is Miss Frieda these days?” I asked.
“Poorly, poorly. She never leaves the house now.”
If I had her house, I’d never leave it either. It’s a gargantuan faux-Greek creation, and the east side of it is virtually one big hurricane-proof window overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
“Give her my love if you see her. I met her once at a fundraiser for the shelter. She was
generous.” There wasn’t a chance in hell she’d remember me.
“I’ll do that, if I have the opportunity. We don’t see much of her these days.” He became brisk. “So. What we have here is a varietal haunting, within a specific locale (or territory), with a manifestation of a human form. Also poltergeist activity, possibly unrelated. Or – possibly related. Keep an open mind, Taylor; we’re just at the beginning. Yes. Intriguing. I’ve never had both types of activity at the same time. I’ve been to Cadbury House, and I seem to remember a cemetery. Is it proximate to the haunted barn, by any chance?”
“Yes. Yes it is.” I switched the handset to my other ear and rubbed my eyelids. I could feel myself sliding into this thing, just when all my energies needed to be focused on the shelter.
“I think a good place to start would be an interview with the workmen who have experienced, uh, events. Can that be arranged?”
“Yes. I’ll talk to Charlie, the boss man. Actually, he’s the one who saw the woman in white. And of course, I’d like to be there when you interview him.”
He hesitated, but I was going to insist. I didn’t want Ed upsetting Charlie more than the ghost had. The men looked to Charlie for leadership, and Ed was capable of irritating him so much he’d lead them all on to the next job and forget about Orphans. I’d already paid Charlie fifty percent of his estimate so I could front him on materials and wages, and I was not letting him off the hook. He was going to get this job done, ghost or no ghost.
“I suppose you can be there, but you have to let me take the lead, even if you don’t understand where I’m going.”
“Good. When do we start?”
Since the crew was idle, we could start any old time. When I hung up the phone and walked out the back door of Cadbury House, they were trying to look busy and in fact doing nothing, gathered around Charlie at his portable worktable, looking at blueprints. Charlie was holding the blueprints down with both hands as if they’d jump up and run away if he gave them a chance.
I’d been watching them through a window and I knew the men weren’t really working, so I’d told Ed to come on over. When I went out and explained that I had a ghost-hunter coming to settle things, I had expected a collective sigh of relief. After all, they had all shown that they also
. But many of them already knew Edson Darby-Deaver, or knew of him, in connection with the Haunted House thing, and they quietly slid off like the waiter was coming with the check.
“Charlie,” I said sternly, “you at least have to stay. You saw the lady in white. You keep losing the blueprints.” He tried to interrupt and I just went on talking. “We’ve got to get this project moving, and if Ed wants to give the place a going over with his ghost-geiger counter or whatever he has, let’s get it done and get on with the job. Tick tock, Charlie.”
He pulled out a red bandanna and mopped his bright, bald head, then shoved it into his back pocket while popping on his red cap in one mechanical movement. “How could I forget?” he muttered.
I tried to take it easy on him; this was as frustrating to him as it was to me. Builders only make money when they build. He wanted to get on with the job almost as much as I wanted him to.
Ed pulled up no more than half an hour after we had hung up and got out of an old green Geo Metro convertible, lowering himself in Charlie’s eyes to the level of a pet hamster. I could see Charlie’s face fall, and he turned his pale grey eyes to me in supplication.
“Give him a chance,” I whispered as we watched Edson Darby-Deaver tripping across the lawn toward us.
He’s a professorial little fellow, kind of prim and very neat. At about five foot seven, he’s three or four inches shorter than me, and he’s very slim, probably because he’s too absent-minded to remember to eat. His hair is thick, and has grayed to a nice, clean white, and he wears wire-rimmed glasses. When he takes them off he looks much less intelligent, for some reason, and his brown eyes look strangely naked. Despite temperatures in the high 80s, he was wearing khaki slacks and loafers, with a crisp sky-blue polo shirt, and was carrying a satchel of some kind. He shook hands grimly, saying, “Sorry we meet under these circumstances,” then gazed at us earnestly.
“Let’s go inside where it’s cool,” I said.
It was my house now – at least I was renting it, though I hadn’t moved in yet – and I had the right to call it home. Still, it didn’t feel like home yet. With its enormous, airy rooms, its wide views of tangled jungle and river, and its quiet isolation, it felt more like the hunting lodge of a Russian prince than anything I’d ever called home before.
I ushered them inside and sat them down at the table at one side of the vaulted great room. Clustered at one end of the vast banquet table, we must have looked like lost and lonely souls. Ed ran a professional eye around the gallery railings over our heads and the bedroom doors beyond them, then sat down, shuffled a few things out of his satchel and arranged materials for note-taking, including a small voice recorder.
“You aren’t going to publish any of this,” Charlie said, eyeing the recorder with alarm.
Ed looked from me to Charlie and back again. “We don’t yet know what we have here. If it turns out to be nothing, of course my notes will be confidential. But if we document something unique, then yes, to be perfectly frank, I would publish.”
Charlie started getting up from the table and I stopped him.
“Listen, Charlie,” I said, “we have a contract, and you are about to be in breach of it. This man is here to help. Personally, I don’t expect to uncover anything supernatural, but I do expect things to settle down once it gets around that we have a professional investigator on the job. If some kids are playing tricks, this will stop them.”
“You think it’s a hoax?” Ed asked.
“I do. What about you, Charlie?”
Charlie hesitated. “That’s what I’d
to think,” he said slowly. “But you haven’t seen it, Taylor. And you say I keep losing the blueprints – hell, I’ve never lost a set prints in my life, and I haven’t lost these, no ma’am. They’re being
, is what it is. They’re walking away by themselves, for all I know, or being de-materialized by an invisible elf – God knows, because I don’t, but I have not been
them, and I don’t appreciate you saying that!”