Valerie Calhoun shivered as she sat on the front steps with her husband, Cooper. It wasn't just the cold and excitement of their dream home that had her edgy. She couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched. Her eyes scanned the house, property, and neighborhood.
Boasting three floors, the 1860 colonial was seated on three acres of land. The barn, painted a traditional red with white trim, loomed over the smokehouse. An open field spread out behind the barn, skirted by a densely wooded forest. The drive, little more than gravel and sandstone chunks, stretched from the street, along the ample front yard, past the house and all the way back to the barn.
It was a quiet street, very few cars passed as they waited. The honk of geese migrating for the winter, the rustle of leaves in the breeze, and the squeaking of an old hinge--someone’s gate?--were the only noises to break the silence. Only one other colonial dominated the neighborhood further down the road. The rest of the homes, a few ranches and an old Cape Cod, stood separated by large parcels of land, some of them clipped short with brown stubs of last year’s crop wasting in the dirt, others left to nature, their use long since abandoned.
Valerie clung to Cooper’s arm, sharing his warmth as the cold October wind whipped around them. She shoved the crawling suspicions from her mind and focused on her dream home—their dream home. “So far, I’m in love with this house,” she whispered into his ear.
“Calm down. The inside could be trashed,” he said, but his hazel eyes flickered with that familiar look of hope.
As she kissed him on the cheek, her skin prickled and the hair on her neck stood up. The creeping feeling of being spied upon returned. She pulled his arm closer and felt his muscles quiver under the flannel. Does he feel it, too?
“You’d think Ellie wouldn’t be late,” Valerie said, breathing in the cool autumn scents, the smell of dried leaves mixing with the moist scent left behind from the morning rain.
“We are in the boonies out here, Val. She may have misjudged how long this trek would take.” Cooper sidled closer to her. “When she gets here, try not to seem so overjoyed. You’re practically wearing an I’ll take it! sign.”
"I'm sorry. It's just that we've wanted this for so long. How many people actually get to have their dream house? Besides, this is hardly the boonies. We have neighbors that we can see. A few steps and we're chatting in their front yards." She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder, relishing the feeling of his quilted flannel shirt and breathing in his cologne.
He kissed the top of her head. "Okay, we're in the very rural part of the city. Is that better?"
She looked up and smiled. "It's three acres in heaven if you ask me."
Valerie noticed a black SUV approaching and stood up. “I think that’s her,” she said bouncing on her feet. Her cheeks ached from her wide smile.
Cooper shook his head and joined her.
The Suburban pulled into the drive and parked behind their Silverado. A short woman with curly, blond hair jumped out of the driver's side and slammed the door. She carried a red portfolio and a black tote bag in her gloved hands. Her wool coat was pristine except for a swath of long, white hairs along the bottom.
Someone has a pet, Valerie thought. Soon we will, too. She smiled as she clutched Cooper closer.
He patted her hand in the crook of his arm.
"So sorry I'm late!" Ellie said, rushing toward them. "I stopped at the office to print up some forms for you and it took longer than I expected. None of this information is available on our website and since we've had no interest in the home in the last six years, it took some digging." Her hurried speech was not lost on either of the Calhouns
"No problem," Valerie said. "It gave us time to roam around the property and see what the outside has to offer."
Cooper shot her a look, warning her to calm down.
Valerie stuck her tongue out at him.
Oblivious, Ellie tucked her portfolio under her arm as she scampered past them to the door and fumbled with the lock box. The door swung wide into a gigantic foyer, spilling light onto the gleaming woodwork. An immense oak staircase dominated the right side. To the left, gorgeous pocket doors lead to a library with floor-to-ceiling oak shelves.
Valerie’s breath caught as she took them in. My own library? she thought. She chuckled softly to herself. I’ll have those shelves nearly filled on the first day here.
Cooper shot her a glance, eyebrows knitted together.
The foyer's baseboards, at least six inches tall, shone as if they were just varnished yesterday.
"The woodwork is all original. As you can tell, the previous owners took very good care of it." Ellie placed her things on a small mahogany table in the foyer after closing the front door, thrusting them into semi-darkness.
The chill and silence of the house momentarily cast a shadow on the mood.
As they walked through the library and into a small sitting room, Valerie's eyes bulged. For all the beauty the woodwork had to offer, the wallpaper left something to be desired. Peonies the size of cabbages covered every inch of the walls. The heavy, dark pink drapes cast a pall on the room. She turned to Cooper, who made a gagging motion with his finger and stifled a giggle.
"As you can tell, most of the windows are new--less than seven years old.” She pulled back one of the thick, mauve colored curtains. Dust eddied around her. “The wood floors have all been refinished." She led them through the sitting room and into the formal dining room, their footsteps echoing in the empty house. "Each room has its own fireplace. They are all usable, ready for the cold Ohio winters."
Valerie glanced at the lovely chandelier and the dark wainscoting on the walls. She knew just the table she'd want for this room. Then her gaze rested on the fireplace. Cold Ohio winters...yes, she vaguely remembered. Even though they met later as adults, she and Cooper had grown up in Orville Village, a neighboring city. Neither had lived this far east where the snowfalls were legendary, and both had lived out of state for several years. Work prospects in Virginia had sent them back to Ohio ten months ago. Apartment living had not suited them, and they were hoping to buy a home and begin having children.
They ambled through a less vacuous hallway.
"These would have been the servant's stairs," Ellie said as they passed a small winding staircase in the back of the house. "They would have used these to go upstairs to carry water for baths or turn down the sheets for the owner's beds. Its narrowness is indicative of the small stature of Civil War era people. No need for wide staircases back here. None of the workers would have those huge hoop skirts."
Moving on to the kitchen, Ellie’s voice rose. Turning her head over her shoulder as Cooper and Valerie slowly caught up, Ellie said, "And here is the kitchen,” with a wave of her hand as if she were a letter-turner on a game show. “This door leads to the cellar.” She wrinkled her nose and indicated the door by wagging her finger at it. “Unfortunately, it has a dirt floor, which is why it smells a little musty. It’s also accessible from outside the home which would make pouring a concrete floor super easy," she said, pointing out the window at the double doors near an old water pump.
The doors had reminded Valerie of The Wizard of Oz, how Dorothy couldn’t get into the cellar during the tornado.
"There's nothing really down there, but I'm happy to show it to you if you like."
"Sure," Cooper said as he opened the cellar door.
"You go on, Coop. I'll stay here. Cellars aren't exactly my thing." Valerie wiped the sweat from her palms onto her jeans with a nervous laugh. "Cobwebs and spiders," she whispered and visibly shivered.
Valerie turned toward the kitchen. The porcelain sink and the stove looked like something out of the Great Depression. It was white and cast iron, an obvious replica since it ran on gas instead of a stoked wood fire. The heavy, rounded oven doors triggered the memory of delicious homemade bread, its comforting smell wafting through the house. She instantly fell in love with it. Running her hand along the smooth stove top, she remembered the biscuits her grandmother made every Sunday in an oven identical to the one before her. The aroma of freshly baked bread always made Valerie think of her.
Fighting back sentimental tears, she wandered out of the kitchen and into the living room. It was long and ran almost the entire length of the house, ending in the front with a huge bay window. Valerie imagined what their Christmas tree would look like standing there. It wasn’t hard for her to see Cooper napping in his over-sized recliner as she rocked in her chair, deep in research for a writing project. She could almost smell the burning wood in the fireplace as it popped and snapped, heating the room, their wedding portrait centered over the mantel.
As she walked past the window, her eyes caught the flutter of curtains in the house across the street. Is it your eyes I felt? She took in the pristine yard, neatly trimmed bushes, a pile of leaves mounded at the curb. A perfectly straight line of leaves marked the edges of the property indicating that the spy's neighbors weren't as fastidious about their fall duties. The curtains fluttered again, bony fingers visible against the fabric, a face indiscernible. Watching the neighborhood? Why so interested?
She shoved the thought aside and continued out the pocket doors. Probably a lonely old lady, she thought as she found herself standing at the foot of the staircase, in the foyer again. Glad not to hear Ellie’s constant chatter interrupting her imagination, Valerie admired the oak banister and ran her fingers over the newel post, the smell of Murphy's Oil Soap like music to her nose. Years of use had worn a path, one footstep at a time, up the stairs. Val didn't mind. It only added to the charm. She imagined the train of a wedding dress neatly flowing down those stairs. A wistful smile for the daughter she didn't yet have grew across her face.
She heard Ellie’s voice and the clomp and scrape of footsteps as she and Cooper came up from the cellar.
When he looked at Valerie she felt as if her soul had been laid bare. She knew he could see the sparkle of tears threatening to spill over. She felt the heat rise in her cheeks. He shook his head and gave her the crooked smile that had made her fall in love with him. She smiled back and shrugged.
Valerie didn't need to tour the upper two floors to know she wanted to live in the house for the rest of her life. Cooper wandered ahead with Ellie, as Valerie followed at a leisurely pace, her hand sliding wistfully along the handrail.
The master suite was the last room on the left at the end of the hall. It was the largest on the second floor and featured a fireplace and its own private bath. Valerie walked over to the mantle and ran her fingers along it. She began to feel dizzy and a little nauseated.
"Are you alright?" Cooper asked when he noticed her sway.
"Yeah, I think I just need to eat," she said, even though she wasn't sure that was it at all. Secretly, she hoped it was a sign that she was pregnant. She made a mental note to visit the drug store on the way home.
Remembering the big picture window she’d seen outside, Valerie asked, "What's on the third floor?"
Ellie led them into the hallway and opened what they had assumed was a closet door. She reached forward and yanked on a dirty grey string that hung from a bare bulb. The light flickered and died. A second yank and it popped to life, revealing a staircase.
"The former owners completely remodeled the third floor,” she said ascending the stairs.
Why wouldn’t they install a light switch? Valerie wondered. All this money spent on renovations and the best they could do was a string?
“The servants' quarters would have been up here originally. They turned this into a kind of study, complete with built-in bookshelves. You had mentioned that you were a true crime writer when we spoke," Ellie said. "Between the library downstairs and this study, this seems like the perfect place for you. Don't you think?"
Cooper shot Valerie a dirty look.
Valerie shrugged as she admired the spacious room. The walls were painted a neutral white, waiting for her to decorate it the way she desired. The picture window drown the room in natural light.
She gave a soft smile in response to Ellie's question but feared her eyes betrayed the nonchalance her smile tried to convey.
The website had listed the price but also said it was "negotiable."
"Why are they asking so little?" Cooper asked.
"Oh, um . . ." Ellie pressed her lips together, a look of concern in her eyes. "Well . . ." She smiled. Then she took a breath and opened the file she'd been carrying around. "In the interest of full disclosure, there's something I have to tell you," Ellie said, her face falling, an audible sigh escaping her lips. She handed them a newspaper clipping.
LOCAL BUSINESSMAN MURDERED
Oregon County Coroner, James Thomas, has ruled the suspicious death of Greg Preston a homicide. Thomas said the cause of death was a single gunshot to the head.
Oregon County Sheriff, John Koltz, is still not saying much about the case. No new information has been released except the claim that several guns were confiscated from inside the home. Koltz has said nothing about whether police suspected they were used in the crime.
Louise Webster, who lives across the street from the Prestons, remarked that Tuesday morning was unusually quiet. “I never heard the dogs bark once. Not even when we noticed that the police had arrived.”
Sources close to the case have told us that there were no signs of forced entry into the home. After being taken to the hospital, Mary Preston, the victim’s wife, was found to have no discernible injuries even though she arrived covered in blood. Another neighbor, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that Mr. and Mrs. Preston were both excellent marksmen. “Even though it’s illegal to discharge a firearm out here, they both practiced back in the woods quite often. None of us thought anything of it because we live in the country. We have a lot of wildlife issues with all the farm animals. Now, we have to wonder.”
“You’re buying a house someone was murdered in? Are you crazy?” Treva asked, one hand on her hip, the other plastered to her forehead, as she helped Valerie pack up the apartment.
“It’s not like there’s blood all over or anything. It’s a house. Our dream house, I might add.” Valerie had felt queasy and lightheaded again, just like when she and Cooper had read the news article. But when it got down to it, she wanted the house and a six-year-old murder was not going to keep her from it. She ripped a piece of duct tape off and sealed a cardboard box closed.
Just one more room left to pack, she thought, mentally checking off her work list. The bathroom and office were done. The closets were done. All that was left was the bedroom save for the essentials. She made a mental note not to pack all their underwear as she continued finishing up the kitchen.
Treva’s eyes bulged, magnified by the lenses in her purple cat’s eyeglasses. “Uh-uh. No way. My black butt is not stepping one foot in that house. It’s got to have some evil vibes or something.”
Valerie loved her best friend. Treva had been there for her, becoming more the sister Valerie never had than just a friend. They’d been through some of the darkest times in their lives together, but nothing Treva could say would keep her from purchasing the house. She continued packing while Treva went on.
“I’m just saying. My grandmother always said old houses like that are spooky, and now you go and tell me someone was murdered in it. No. That right there is God telling you to run in the other direction. Dream house? More like a nightmare.”
Valerie chuckled. “What do you honestly think is going to happen? That Cooper and I will wind up murdered, too?” She shook her head and began packing a new box. “I’m a college educated woman and so are you. Isn’t it time we hang up the boogeyman stuff already?”
Valerie referred to a time when they had just met as roommates in college, and she found Treva to be surprisingly skittish for her brash personality.
Treva had woken Valerie in the middle of the night.
“Wake up,” she whispered loudly, standing next to Valerie’s bunk.
With one eye open, Valerie said, “What? Is it morning already?” She propped herself up on her elbows, trying desperately to see the green glowing blob of numbers on the alarm clock on the desk they shared.
Treva made a pained face. “Not so loud!” she whisper-yelled again, waving her hand frantically. “Do you hear that?”
Valerie rubbed her eyes, the dark of the room making it difficult to keep them open. “What am I listening for?”
“That sound.” Treva pointed at the air vent near the ceiling on the opposite side of the room.
Valerie waited a second. Her eyelids grew heavier. Her head bobbed backward and she woke with a start.
“Do you hear it?” Treva asked.
“No. I don’t hear anything.” She lay down to go back to sleep. Her usual curiosity dried up and blew away, unable to consider it for another second.
“I think that vent is haunted,” she said, pointing again, her corkscrew curls accentuating her fear as they shook.
Valerie couldn’t resist. The absurdity of the comment and Treva’s sincere tone pushed back some of the sleepiness. She shook her head and propped herself up on her elbows, again. “What did you just say?”
“Mmm, hmm. You heard me. I don’t think I can sleep here.” Her eyes were so large Valerie would have found them comical if she weren’t exhausted.
Valerie popped down off the top bunk and turned on the desk lamp. She yawned and stretched. She moved a few papers and books into a pile on the opposite end of the desktop. With shaking legs and a tentative step, she climbed onto the chair and stood on the desk. “Hand me your keys or a dime or something,” she said to Treva.
Treva’s face went ashen. “What are you going to do? Throw change at it?”
“No, ding-a-ling. I’m going to show you that there’s nothing in this vent.”
Treva gave her a quarter from their laundry fund. She popped it into her hand as if it were on fire and then backed up quickly to the door across the room.
Valerie unscrewed the vent from the wall with the quarter. “I need a flashlight,” she said.
“I don’t have one,” Treva croaked and clutched the collar of her nightgown.
Valerie rolled her eyes as she bent and picked up the desk lamp. She lifted it as far as it would go, careful not to unplug it. The cord was just long enough that she could get some light into the vent.
Light bounced off a thick layer of dust and ended in blackness as she peered inside
“There's nothing up here except maybe some dust bunnies and….” Two small reflective surfaces popped into view taking her by surprise. Valerie screamed and fell off the desk, knocking its contents everywhere. She managed not to break the lamp as she landed on her back on the floor, knocking the wind out of herself as she did.
Treva screamed out in terror and hit the floor, curled up in a little ball. She resembled those old duck-and-cover posters Valerie remembered from growing up.
Once she could breathe again Valerie began to laugh. Pain shot through her pelvis and tailbone.
“Ouch,” she said as she clutched her back and chortled. She tried to crawl to Treva’s bunk. “Your ghost is a nosy, brown mouse crawling around up there.”
Treva untucked her head and peered at Valerie with one wide eye. “A mouse?”
“Yes. Your boogeyman is about three inches long with a penchant for cheese.”
The memory of “the ghost in the vent” still made Valerie chuckle as she rehashed it.
Treva’s immediate response was a lifted eyebrow and pursed lips. “Don’t start.” She began wrapping dishes in bubble wrap and placing them in a box. “No. I’m not talking Bloody Mary stuff or lost mice. I just mean sometimes things get left behind in a house. What if whoever murdered that guy is still hanging around? Like his bad luck just wanders the house looking for someone else to put the whammy on?” She held her hands up and waggled her fingers. Her lips made a perfect pursed circle as her eyes grew wider and wider.
Valerie shook her head. The corner of her mouth quirked up. “Things get left behind? All that’s been left behind in that house are a few tables and some mirrors. And is ‘whammy’ a technical term?” A smile spread across her face.
“Laugh now,” Treva said, one eyebrow raised and wagging her finger, “but when some spirit tries to choke you in your sleep one night, don’t go calling Virginia long distance thinking I’m gonna save you.”
“You know you’d rush over and save me because you love me.” Valerie wadded up a piece of newspaper and threw it at her, knowing she’d always be there for her, and that the feeling was mutual.
Treva smiled back. “Yes. I’ll save you. But only after you admit that I was right.”
“Don’t worry. Coop’s mom was all up in arms over the thought that someone was murdered inside, too. She would not let it go. Mostly to appease her, we’re having a priest come in and bless the house. That should help drive out whatever evil vibes may be lingering around.” Valerie threw up both arms, wiggling her fingers, and made a tight “O” with her lips.
“I will not be mocked,” Treva said with a sniff. After a short pause she said, “What if the spirits aren’t Catholic? Will a priest work?”
Valerie crossed her arms with a huff. “I am not hiring representatives of all faiths to sanctify my home. Forget it!”
“I’m just wondering how thorough this thing has to be. You want all your bases covered. Did they ever find out who did it?”
“Our realtor said the wife was charged with the murder. I guess she’s spending time in Marysville prison for doing it.” Valerie shook her head. “It just makes me wonder. Why wouldn’t you just leave the guy? Do you really have to murder him?” Why do so many people turn to murder? She shivered a little, memories invading her thoughts. She pushed them back, not ready to deal with them.
Treva shrugged. “Maybe he had insurance money she needed. Or maybe she caught him having an affair. Some women can’t handle that sort of thing. I know I’d need to extract a little flesh if a man did me wrong like that.” Looking at Valerie over the top her glasses she added, “If you get my drift.” She taped up her box and added it to the growing pile ready for moving.
“I suppose.” Valerie stared at a Mason jar that used to be her grandmother’s. “All I know is it happened six years ago. The murderer was convicted. Story over.” She wrapped the jar twice in bubble wrap and once in newspaper.
Treva raised her eyebrows. “From your lips to God’s ear, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Just wait,” Valerie said. “You’ll walk into our new home and fall in love with it just like we did. You’ll see.” She imagined the new bedding for her room. Maybe a four poster bed, or a canopy with bed curtains. Visions of her formal dining room table set for Thanksgiving--lighted candles, a cornucopia, her good China--warmed her heart.
“That or else some ghostie man is going to come out and tell me to get back in my car and drive back to Virginia. And I don’t argue with ghosts. Do you hear me? They say go and I go!”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “Can we move on to another topic?”
Treva’s frown was quickly replaced as a hopeful twinkle gleamed in her eyes. “Sure. Cooper tells me you stopped at the drugstore the other day for a little something.” A smile tugged at her lips.
A lump formed in Valerie’s throat as the words “NOT PREGNANT” flashed in her mind, nearly screaming at her like they did on the pregnancy test. “Yes. It was negative.” Valerie sighed. “It’s not the best time right now, anyway. With all the moving and preparing for the new house, I’ve got enough stress. Not to mention that I’m on deadline. If I don’t get this draft in to my agent soon….”
Treva set aside a half-wrapped platter as her shoulders sunk. She walked over and placed her hand on Valerie’s shoulder. “It’ll happen. Lots of couples have a hard time at first. Seriously, with all the stress in your life, is there any wonder you're not conceiving right now? Give your body a break.”
“I know, but I’ve been off the pill for months now and…nothing.”
Treva hugged Valerie. “Give it time. It’ll happen.”
“From your lips to God’s ear,” Valerie whispered as she felt the familiar sting of tears in her eyes.