Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

A Haunted House of Her Own

Tanya couldn’t understand why realtors failed to recognize the commercial potential of haunted houses. This one, it seemed, was no different.

“Now, these railings need work,” the woman said as she led Tanya and Nathan out onto one of the balconies. “But the floor is structurally sound, and that’s the main thing. I’m sure these would be an attractive selling point to your bed-and-breakfast guests.”

Not as attractive as ghosts.

“You’re sure the house doesn’t have a history?” Tanya prodded again. “I thought I heard something in town. . . .”

She hadn’t, but the way the realtor stiffened told Tanya that she was onto something. After pointed reminders about disclosing the house’s full history, the woman admitted there was, indeed, something. Apparently a kid had murdered his family here, back in the seventies.

“A tragedy, but it’s long past,” the realtor assured her. “Never a spot of trouble since.”

“Damn,” Tanya murmured under her breath, and followed the realtor back inside.

• • • •

Nathan wanted to check out the coach house, to see if there was any chance of converting it into a separate “honeymoon hideaway.”

Tanya was thrilled to see him taking an interest. Opening the inn had been her idea. An unexpected windfall from a great-aunt had come right after she’d lost her teaching job and Nathan’s office-manager position teetered under end-of-year budget cuts. It seemed like the perfect time to try something new.

“You two go on ahead,” she said. “I’ll poke around in here, maybe check out the gardens.”

“Did I see a greenhouse out back?” Nathan asked the realtor.

She beamed. “You most certainly did.”

“Why don’t you go take a look, hon? You were talking about growing organic vegetables.”

“Oh, what a wonderful idea,” the realtor said. “That is so popular right now. Organic local produce is all the rage. There’s a shop in town that supplies all the . . .”

As the woman gushed, Tanya backed away slowly, then escaped.

• • • •

The house was perfect—a six-bedroom, rambling Victorian perched on a hill three miles from a suitably quaint village. What more could she want in a bed-and-breakfast? Well, ghosts. Not that Tanya believed in such things, but haunted inns in Vermont were all the rage, and she was determined to own one.

When she saw the octagonal Victorian greenhouse, though, she decided that if it turned out there’d never been so much as a ghostly candle spotted on the property, she’d light one herself. She had to have this place.

She stepped inside and pictured it with lounge chairs, a bookshelf, maybe a little woodstove for winter. Not a greenhouse, but a sunroom. First, though, they’d need to do some serious weeding. The greenhouse conservatory, she amended—sat in a nest of thorny vines dotted with red. Raspberries? She cleaned a peephole in the grime and peered out.

A head popped up from the thicket. Tanya fell back with a yelp. Sunken brown eyes widened, and wizened lips parted in a matching shriek of surprise.

Tanya hurried out as the old woman made her way from the thicket, a basket of red berries in one hand.

“I’m sorry, dear,” she said. “We gave each other quite a fright.”

Tanya motioned at the basket. “Late for raspberries, isn’t it?”

The old woman smiled. “They’re double-blooming. At least there’s one good thing to come out of this place.” She looked over at the house. “You aren’t . . . looking to buy, are you?”

“I might be.”

The woman’s free hand gripped Tanya’s arm. “No, dear. You don’t want to do that.”

“I hear there’s some history.”

“History?” The old woman shivered. “Horrors. Blasphemies. Murders. Foul murders. No, dear, you don’t want this house, not at all.”

Foul murders? Tanya tried not to laugh. If they ever did a promotional video, she was hiring this woman.

“Whatever happened was a tragedy,” Tanya said. “But it’s long past, and it’s time—”

“Long past? Never. At night, I still hear the moans. The screams. The chanting. The chanting is the worst, as if they’re trying to call up the devil himself.”

“I see. “Tanya squinted out at the late-day sun, dropping beneath the horizon. “Do you live around here, then?”

“Just over there.”

The woman pointed, then shuffled around the conservatory; still pointing. When she didn’t come back, Tanya followed, wanting to make note of her name. But the yard was empty.

• • • •

Tanya poked around a bit after that, but the sun dropped fast over the mountain ridge. As she picked her way through the brambles, she looked up at the house looming in the twilight—a hulking shadow against the night, the lights inside seeming to flicker like candles behind the old glass.

The wind sighed past and she swore she heard voices in it, sibilant whispers snaking around her. A shadow moved across an upper window. She’d blame a drape caught in a draft . . . only she couldn’t see any window coverings.

She smiled as she shivered. For someone who didn’t believe in ghosts, she was quite caught up in the fantasy. Imagine how guests who did believe would react.

She found Nathan still in the coach house, measuring tape extended. When she walked up, he grinned, his boyish face lighting up.

“It’s perfect,” he said. “Ten grand and we’d have ourselves a honeymoon suite.”

Tanya turned to the realtor. “How soon can we close?”

• • • •

The owners were as anxious to sell as Tanya was to buy, and three weeks later, they were in the house, with the hired contractors hard at work. Tanya and Nathan were working, too, researching the house’s background, both history and legend.

The first part was giving them trouble. The only online mention Nathan found was a secondary reference. But it proved that a family had died in their house, so that morning he’d gone to the library in nearby Beamsville, hoping a search there would produce details.

Meanwhile, Tanya would try to dig up the less-tangible ghosts of the past.

She started in the gardening shop, and made the mistake of mentioning the house’s history. The girl at the counter shut right down, murmuring, “We don’t talk about that,” then bustled off to help the next customer. That was fine. If the town didn’t like to talk about the tragedy, she was free to tweak the facts and her guests would never hear anything different.

Next, she headed for the general store, complete with rocking chairs on the front porch and a tub of salty pickles beside the counter. She bought supplies, then struck up a conversation with the owner. She mentioned that she’d bought the Sullivan place, and worked the conversation around to, “Someone over in Beamsville told me the house is supposed to be haunted.”

“Can’t say I ever heard that,” he said, filling her bag. “This is a nice, quiet town.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” She laughed. “Not the quiet part, but . . .” She lowered her voice. “You wouldn’t believe the advertising value of ghosts.”

His wife poked her head in from the back room. “She’s right, Tom. Folks pay extra to stay in those places. I saw it on TV.”

“A full house for me means more customers for you,” Tanya said.

“Well, now that you mention it, when my boys were young, they said they saw lights . . .”

And so it went. People might not want to talk about the true horrors of what had happened at the Sullivan place, but with a little prodding they spun tales of imagined ones. Most were secondhand accounts, but Tanya didn’t even care if they were true. Someone in town said it, and that was all that mattered. By the time she headed home, her notebook was filled with stories.

She was at the bottom of the road when she saw the postwoman putting along in her little car, driving from the passenger seat so she could stuff the mailboxes. Tanya got out to introduce herself. As they chatted, Tanya mentioned the raspberry-picking neighbor, hoping to get a name.

“No old ladies around here,” the postwoman said. “You’ve got Mr. McNally to the north. The Lee gang to the south. And to the back, it’s a couple of new women. Don’t recall the names—it isn’t my route—but they’re young.”

“Maybe a little farther? She didn’t exactly say she was a neighbor. Just pointed over there.”

The woman followed her finger. “That’s the Lee place.”

“Past that, then.”

“Past that?” The woman eyed her. “Only thing past that is the cemetery.”

• • • •

Tanya made mental notes as she pulled into the darkening drive. She’d have to send Nathan to the clerk’s office, see if he could find a dead resident who resembled a description of the woman she’d seen.

Not that she thought she’d seen a ghost, of course. The woman probably lived farther down the hill. But if she found a similar deceased neighbor, she could add her own spooky tale to the collection.

She stepped out of the car. When a whisper snaked around her, she jumped. Then she stood there, holding the car door, peering into the night and listening. It definitely sounded like whispering. She could even pick up a word or two, like come and join. Well, at least the ghosts weren’t telling her to get lost, she thought, her laugh strained and harsh against the quiet night.

The whispers stopped. She glanced up at the trees. The dead leaves were still. No wind. Which explained why the sound had stopped. As she headed for the house, she glanced over her shoulder, checking for Nathan’s SUV. It was there, but the house was pitch black.

She opened the door. It creaked. Naturally. No oil for that baby, she thought with a smile. No fixing the loose boards on the steps, either. Someone was bound to hear another guest sneaking down for a midnight snack and blame ghosts. More stories to add to the guest book.

She tossed her keys onto the table. They hit with a jangle, the sound echoing through the silent hall. When she turned on the light switch, the hall stayed dark. She tried not to shiver as she peered around. That’s quite enough ghost stories for you, she told herself as she marched into the next room, heading for the lamp. She tripped over a throw rug and stopped.

“Nathan?”

No answer. She hoped he wasn’t poking around in the basement. He’d been curious about some boxes down there, but she didn’t want to get into that. There was too much else to be done.

She eased forward, feeling the way with her foot until she reached the lamp. When she hit the switch, light flooded the room. Not a power outage, then. Good; though it reminded her they had to pick up a generator. Blackouts would be a little more atmospheric than guests would appreciate.

“Nathan?”

She heard something in the back rooms. She walked through, hitting lights as she went—for safety, she told herself.

“Umm-hmm.” Nathan’s voice echoed down the hall. “Umm-hmm.”

On the phone, she thought, too caught up in the call to realize how dark it had gotten and turn on a light. She hoped it wasn’t the licensing board. The inspector had been out to assess the ongoing work yesterday. He’d seemed happy with it, but you never knew.

She let her shoes click a little harder as she walked over the hardwood floor, so she wouldn’t startle Nathan. She followed his voice to the office. From the doorway, she could see his back in the desk chair.

“Umm-hmm.”

Her gaze went to the phone on the desk. Still in the cradle. Nathan’s hands were at his sides. He was sitting in the dark, looking straight ahead, at the wall.

Tanya rubbed down the hairs on her neck. He was using his cell phone earpiece, that was all. Guys and their gadgets. She stepped into the room and looked at his ear. No headset.

“Nathan?”

He jumped, wheeling so fast that the chair skidded across the floor. He caught it and gave a laugh, shaking his head sharply as he reached for the desk lamp.

“Must have dozed off. Not used to staring at a computer screen all day anymore.”

He rubbed his eyes, and blinked up at her.

“Everything okay, hon?” he asked.

She said it was and gave him a rundown of what she’d found, and they had a good laugh at that, all the shopkeepers rushing in with their stories once they realized the tourism potential.

“Did you find anything?”

“I did indeed.” He flourished a file folder stuffed with printouts. “The Rowe family. Nineteen seventy-eight. Parents, two children, and the housekeeper, all killed by the seventeen-year-old son.”

“Under the influence of Satan?”

“Rock music. Close enough.” Nathan grinned. “It was the seventies. Kid had long hair, played in a garage band, partial to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. Clearly a Satanist.”

“Works for me.”

Tanya took the folder just as the phone started to ring. The caller ID showed the inspector’s name. She set the pages aside and answered as Nathan whispered that he’d start dinner.

• • • •

There was a problem with the inspection—the guy had forgotten to check a few things, and he had to come back on the weekend, when they were supposed to be away scouring estate auctions and flea markets to furnish the house. The workmen would be there, but apparently that wasn’t good enough. And on Monday, the inspector would leave for two weeks in California with the wife and kids.

Not surprisingly, Nathan offered to stay. Jumped at the chance, actually. His enthusiasm for the project didn’t extend to bargain hunting for Victorian beds. He joked that he’d have enough work to do when she wanted her treasures refinished. So he’d stay home and supervise the workers, which was probably wise anyway.

• • • •

It was an exhausting but fruitful weekend. Tanya crossed off all the necessities and even a few wish-list items, like a couple of old-fashioned washbasins.

When she called Nathan an hour before arriving home, he sounded exhausted and strained, and she hoped the workers hadn’t given him too much trouble. Sometimes they were like her grade-five pupils, needing a watchful eye and firm, clear commands. Nathan wasn’t good at either. When she pulled into the drive and found him waiting on the porch, she knew there was trouble.

She wasn’t even out of the car before the workmen filed out, toolboxes in hand.

“We quit,” the foreman said.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The house. Everything about it is wrong.”

“Haunted,” an older man behind him muttered.

The younger two shifted behind their elders, clearly uncomfortable with this old-man talk, but not denying it, either.

“All right,” she said slowly. “What happened?”

They rhymed off a litany of haunted-house tropes—knocking inside the walls, footsteps in the attic, whispering voices, flickering lights, strains of music.

“Music?”

“Seventies rock music,” Nathan said, rolling his eyes behind their backs. “Andy found those papers in my office, about the Rowe family.”

“You should have warned us,” the foreman said, scowling. “Working where something like that happened? It isn’t right. The place should be burned to the ground.”

“It’s evil,” the older man said. “Evil soaked right into the walls. You can feel it.”

The only thing Tanya felt was the recurring sensation of being trapped in a B movie. Did people actually talk like this? First the old woman. Then the townspeople. Now the contractors.

They argued, of course, but the workmen were leaving. When Tanya started to threaten, Nathan pulled her aside. The work was almost done, he said. They could finish up themselves, save some money, and guilt these guys into cutting their bill even more.

Tanya hated to back down, but he had a point. She negotiated twenty percent off for the unfinished work and another fifteen for the inconvenience—unless they wanted her spreading the word that grown men were afraid of ghosts. They grumbled, but agreed.

• • • •

The human mind can be as impressionable as a child. Tanya might not believe in ghosts, but the more stories she heard, the more her mind began to believe, with or without her permission. Drafts became cold spots. Thumping pipes became the knocks of unseen hands. The hisses and sighs of the old furnace became the whispers and moans of those who could not rest. She knew better: that was the worst of it. She’d hear a pipe thump and she’d jump, heart pounding, even as she knew there was a logical explanation.

Nathan wasn’t helping. Every time she jumped, he’d laugh. He’d goof off and play ghost, sneaking into the bathroom while she was in the shower and writing dirty messages in the condensation on the mirror. She was spooked; he thought it was adorable.

The joking and teasing she could take. It was the other times, the ones when she’d walk into a room and he’d be standing or sitting, staring into nothing, confused, when he’d start out of his reverie, laughing about daydreaming, but nervously, like he didn’t exactly know what he’d been doing.

They were three weeks from opening when she returned from picking up the brochures and, once again, found the house in darkness. This time, the hall light worked—it’d been nothing more sinister than a burned-out bulb before. And this time she didn’t call Nathan’s name, but crept through the halls looking for him, feeling silly, and yet . . .

When she approached the kitchen, she heard a strange rasping sound. She followed it and found Nathan standing in the twilight, staring out the window, hands moving, a skritch-skritch filling the silence.

The fading light caught something in his hands—a flash of silver that became a knife, a huge butcher’s knife moving back and forth across a whetting stone.

“N-Nathan?”

He jumped, nearly dropping the knife, then stared down at it, frowning. A sharp shake of his head and he laid the knife and stone on the counter, then flipped on the kitchen light.

“Really not something I should be doing in the dark, huh?” He laughed and moved a carrot from the counter to the cutting board, picked up the knife, then stopped. “Little big for the job, isn’t it?”

She moved closer. “Where did it come from?”

“Hmm?” He followed her gaze to the unfamiliar knife. “Ours, isn’t it? Part of the set your sister gave us for our anniversary? It was in the drawer.” He grabbed a smaller knife from the wooden block. “So, how did the brochures turn out?”

• • • •

Two nights later, Tanya was startled awake and bolted up, blinking hard, hearing music. She rubbed her ears, telling herself it was a dream, but she could definitely hear something. She turned to Nathan’s side of the bed. Empty.

Okay, he couldn’t sleep, so he’d gone downstairs. She could barely hear the music, so he was being considerate, keeping it low, probably doing paperwork in the office.

Even as she told herself this, though, she kept envisioning the knife. The big butcher’s knife that seemed to have come from nowhere.

Nonsense. Her sister had given them a new set, and Nathan did most of the cooking, so it wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t recognized it. But as hard as she tried to convince herself, she just kept seeing Nathan standing in the twilight, sharpening that knife, the skritch-skritch getting louder, the blade getting sharper.

Damn her sister. And not for the knives, either. Last time they’d been up, her sister and boyfriend had insisted on picking the night’s video. The Shining. New caretaker at inn is possessed by a murderous ghost and hacks up his wife. There was a reason Tanya didn’t watch horror movies, and now she remembered why.

She turned on the bedside lamp, then pushed out of bed and flicked on the overhead light. The hall one went on, too. So did the one leading downstairs. Just being careful, of course. You never knew where a stray hammer or board could be lying around.

As she descended the stairs, the music got louder, the thump of the bass and the wail of the singer. Seventies heavy-metal music. Hadn’t the Rowe kid—? She squeezed her eyes shut and forced the thought out. Like she’d know seventies heavy metal from modern stuff anyway. And hadn’t Nathan picked up that new AC/DC disc last month? Before they came to live here. He was probably listening to that, not realizing how loud it was.

When she got downstairs, though, she could feel the bass vibrating through the floorboards. Great. He couldn’t sleep, so he was poking through those boxes in the basement.

Boxes belonging to the Rowe family. To the Rowe kid.

Oh, please. The Rowes had been gone for almost thirty years. Anything in the basement would belong to the Sullivans, a lovely old couple now living in Florida.

On the way to the basement, Tanya passed the kitchen. She stopped. She looked at the drawer where Nathan kept the knife, then walked over and opened it. Just taking a look, seeing if she remembered her sister giving it to them, not making sure it was still there. It was. And it still didn’t look familiar.

She started to leave, then went back, took out the knife, wrapped it in a dishtowel, and stuck it under the sink. And, yes, she felt like an idiot. But she felt relief even more.

She slipped down to the basement, praying she wouldn’t find Nathan sitting on the floor, staring into nothing, nodding to voices she couldn’t hear. Again, she felt foolish for thinking it, and again she felt relief when she heard him digging through boxes, and more relief yet when she walked in and he looked up, grinning sheepishly like a kid caught sneaking into his Christmas presents.

“Caught me,” he said. “Was it the music? I thought I had it low enough.”

She followed his gaze and a chill ran through her. Across the room was a record player, an album spinning on the turntable, more stacked on the floor.

“Found it down here with the albums. Been a while since you’ve seen one of those, I bet.”

“Was it . . . his? The Rowe boy?”

Nathan frowned, as if it hadn’t occurred to him. “Could be, I guess. I didn’t think of that.”

He walked over and shut the player off. Tanya picked up an album. Initials had been scrawled in black marker in the corner. T.R. What was the Rowe boy’s name? She didn’t know and couldn’t bring herself to ask Nathan, would rather believe he didn’t know, either.

She glanced at him. “Are you okay?”

“Sure. I think I napped this afternoon, while you were out. Couldn’t get to sleep.”

“And otherwise . . . ?”

He looked at her, trying to figure out what she meant, but what could she say? Have you had the feeling of being not yourself lately? Hearing voices telling you to murder your family?

She had to laugh at that. Yes, it was a ragged laugh, a little unsure of itself; but a laugh nonetheless. No more horror movies for her, however much her sister pleaded.

“Are you okay?” Nathan asked.

She nodded. “Just tired.”

“I don’t doubt it, the way you’ve been going. Come on. Let’s get up to bed.” He grinned. “See if I can’t help us both get to sleep.”

• • • •

The next day, she was in the office, adding her first bookings to the ledger when she saw the folder pushed off to the side, the one Nathan had compiled on the Rowe murders. She’d set it down that day and never picked it up again. She could tell herself she’d simply forgotten, but she was never that careless. She hadn’t read it because her newly traitorous imagination didn’t need any more grist for its mill.

But now she thought of that album cover in the basement. Those initials. If it didn’t belong to the Rowe boy, then this was an easy way to confirm that and set her mind at ease.

The first report was right there on top, the names listed, the family first, then the housekeeper, Madelyn Levy, and finally, the supposed killer, seventeen-year-old Timothy Rowe.

Tanya sucked in a deep breath, then chastised herself. What did that prove? She’d known he listened to that kind of music, and that’s all Nathan had been doing—listening to it, not sharpening a knife, laughing maniacally.

Was it so surprising that the Rowes’ things were still down there? Who else would claim them? The Sullivans had been over fifty when they moved in—maybe they’d never ventured down into the basement. There had certainly been enough room to store things upstairs.

And speaking of the Sullivans, they’d lived in this house for twenty-five years. If it was haunted, would they have stayed so long?

If it was haunted? Was she really considering the possibility? She squeezed her eyes shut. She was not that kind of person. She would not become that kind of person. She was rational and logical, and until she saw something that couldn’t be explained by simple common sense, she was sending her imagination to the corner for a time-out.

The image made her smile a little, enough to settle back and read the article, determined now to prove her fancies wrong. She found her proof in the next paragraph, where it said that Timothy Rowe shot his father. Shot. No big, scary butcher—

Her gaze stuttered on the rest of the line. She went back to the beginning, rereading. Timothy Rowe had apparently started his rampage by shooting his father, then continued on to brutally murder the rest of his family with a ten-inch kitchen carving knife.

And what did that prove? Did she think Nathan had dug up the murder weapon with those old LPs? Of course not. A few lines down, it said that both the gun and knife had been recovered.

What if Nathan bought a matching one? Compelled to reenact—

She pressed her fists against her eyes. Nathan possessed by a killer teen, plotting to kill her? Was she losing her mind? It was Nathan—the same good-natured, carefree guy she’d lived with for ten years. Other than a few bouts of confusion, he was his usual self, and those bouts were cause for a doctor’s appointment, not paranoia.

She skimmed through the rest of the articles. Nothing new there, just the tale retold again and again, until—the suspect dead—the story died a natural death, relegated to being a skeleton in the town’s closet.

The last page was a memorial published on the first anniversary of the killings, with all the photos of the victims. Tanya glanced at the family photo and was about to close the folder when her gaze lit on the picture of the housekeeper: Madelyn Levy.

When Nathan came in a few minutes later, she was still staring at the picture.

“Hey, hon. What’s wrong?”

“I—” She pointed at the housekeeper’s photo. “I’ve seen this woman. She—she was outside, when we were looking at the house. She was picking raspberries.”

The corners of Nathan’s mouth twitched, as if he was expecting—hoping—that she was making a bad joke. When her gaze met his, the smile vanished and he took the folder from her hands, then sat on the edge of the desk.

“I think we should consider selling,” he said.

“Wh-what? No. I—”

“This place is getting to you. Maybe—I don’t know. Maybe there is something. Those workers certainly thought so. Some people could be more susceptible—”

She jerked up straight. “I am not susceptible—”

“You lost a job you loved. You left your home, your family, gave up everything to start over, and now it’s not going the way you dreamed. You’re under a lot of stress and it’s only going to get worse when we open.”

He took her hands and tugged her up, his arms going around her. “The guy who owns the Beamsville bed-and-breakfast has been asking about this place. He’d been eyeing it before, but with all the work it needed, it was too much for him. Now he’s seen what we’ve done and, well, he’s interested. Very interested. You wouldn’t be giving up; you’d be renovating an old place and flipping it for a profit. Nothing wrong with that.”

She stood. “No. I’m being silly, and I’m not giving in. We have two weeks until opening, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

She turned back to her paperwork. He sighed and left the room.

• • • •

It got worse after that, as if in refusing to leave, she’d issued a challenge to whatever lived there. She’d now stopped laughing when she caught herself referring to the spirits as if they were real. They were. She’d come to accept that. Seeing the housekeeper’s picture had exploded the last obstacle. She’d wanted a haunted house and she’d gotten it.

For the last two nights, she’d woken to find herself alone in bed. Both times, Nathan had been downstairs listening to that damned music. The first time, he’d been digging through the boxes, wide awake, blaming insomnia. But last night . . .

Last night, she’d gone down to find him talking to someone. She’d tried to listen, but he was doing more listening than talking himself, and she caught only a few um-hmms and okays before he’d apparently woken up, startled and confused. They’d made an appointment to see the doctor after that. An appointment that was still a week away, which didn’t do Tanya any good now, sitting awake in bed alone on the third night, listening to the strains of distant music.

She forced herself to lie back down. Just ignore it. Call the doctor in the morning, tell him Nathan would take any cancellation.

But lying down didn’t mean falling asleep. As she lay there, staring at the ceiling, she made a decision. Nathan was right. There was no shame in flipping the house for a profit. Tell their friends and family they’d decided small-town life wasn’t for them. Smile coyly when asked how much they’d made on the deal.

No shame in that. None at all. No one ever needed to know what had driven her from this house.

She closed her eyes and was actually on the verge of drifting off when she heard Nathan’s footsteps climbing the basement stairs. Coming to bed? She hoped so, but she could still hear the boom and wail of the music. Nathan’s steps creaked across the first level. A door opened. Then the squeak of a cupboard door. A kitchen cupboard door.

Grabbing something to eat before going back downstairs.

Only he didn’t go downstairs. His footsteps headed upstairs.

He’s coming up to bed—just forgot to turn off the music.

All very logical, but logical explanations didn’t work for Tanya anymore. She got out of bed and went into the dark hall. She reached for the light switch, but stopped. She didn’t dare announce herself like that.

Clinging to the shadows, she crept along the wall until she could make out the top of Nathan’s blond head as he slowly climbed the stairs. Her gaze dropped, waiting for his hands to come into view.

A flash of silver winked in the pale glow of a nightlight. Her breath caught. She forced herself to stay still just a moment longer, to be sure, and then she saw it, the knife gripped in his hand, the angry set of his expression, the emptiness in his eyes, and she turned and fled.

A room. Any room. Just get into one, lock the door, and climb over the balcony.

The first one she tried was locked. She wrenched on the doorknob, certain she was wrong.

“Mom?” Nathan said, his voice gruff, unrecognizable. “Are you up here, Mom?”

Tanya turned. She looked down the row of doors. All closed. Only theirs was open, at the end. She ran for it as Nathan’s footsteps thumped behind her.

She dashed into the room, slammed the door, and locked it. As she raced for the balcony, she heard the knob turn behind her. Then the creak of the door opening. But that couldn’t be. She’d locked—

Tanya glanced over her shoulder and saw Nathan, his face twisted with rage.

“Hello, Mom. I have something for you.”

Tanya grabbed the balcony door. It was already cracked open, since Nathan always insisted on fresh air. She ran out onto the balcony and looked down to the concrete patio twenty feet below. No way she could jump that, not without breaking both legs, and then she’d be trapped. Maybe if she could hang from it, then drop—

Nathan stepped onto the balcony. Tanya backed up. She called his name, begged him to snap out of it, but he just kept coming, kept smiling, knife raised. She backed up, leaning against the railing.

“Nathan. Plea—”

There was a tremendous crack, and the railing gave way. She felt herself falling, dropping backward so fast that she didn’t have time to twist, to scream, and then—

Nothing.

• • • •

Nathan escorted the innkeeper from Beamsville to the door.

“You folks did an incredible job,” the man said. “But I really do hate to take advantage of a tragedy . . .”

Nathan managed a wan smile. “You’d be doing me a favor. The sooner I can get away, the happier I’ll be. Every time I drive in, I see that balcony, and I—” His voice hitched. “I keep asking myself why she went out there. I know she loved the view; she must have woken up and seen the moon and wanted a better look.” He shook his head. “I meant to fix that balcony. We did the others, but she said ours could wait, and now . . .”

The man laid a hand on Nathan’s shoulder. “Let me talk to my real estate agent and I’ll get an offer drawn up, see if I can’t take this place off your hands.”

“Thank you.”

Nathan closed the door and took a deep breath. He was making good use of those community-theater skills, but he really hoped he didn’t have to keep this up much longer.

He headed into the office, giving it yet another once-over, making sure he’d gotten rid of all the evidence. He’d already checked, twice, but he couldn’t be too careful.

There wasn’t much to hide. The old woman had been an actor friend of one of his theater buddies, and even if she came forward, what of it? Tanya had wanted a haunted house and he’d hired her to indulge his wife’s fancy.

Adding the woman’s photo to the article had been simple Photoshop work, the files—paper and electronic—long gone now. The workmen really had been scared off by the haunting, which he’d orchestrated. The only person who knew about his “bouts” was Tanya. And he’d been very careful with the balcony, loosening the nails just enough that her weight would rip them from the rotting wood.

Killing Tanya hadn’t been his original intention. But when she’d refused to leave, he’d been almost relieved. As if he didn’t mind having to fall back on the more permanent solution, get the insurance money as well as the inheritance, go back home, hook up with Denise again—if she’d still have him—and open the kind of business he wanted. There’d been no chance of that while Tanya was alive. Her money. Her rules. Always.

He opened the basement door, stepped down, and almost went flying, his foot sending a hammer clunking down a few stairs. He retrieved it, wondering how it got there, then shoved it into his back pocket and—

The ring of the phone stopped his descent. He headed back up to answer it.

“Restrictions?” Nathan bellowed into the phone. “What do you mean restrictions? How long—?”

He paused.

“A year? I have to live here a year?”

Pause.

“Look, can’t there be an exception under the circumstances? My wife died in this house. I need to get out of here.”

Tanya stepped up behind Nathan and watched the hair on his neck rise. He rubbed it down and absently looked over his shoulder, then returned to his conversation. She stepped back, caught a glimpse of the hammer in his pocket, and sighed. So much for that idea. But she had plenty more, and it didn’t sound like Nathan was leaving anytime soon.

She slid up behind him, arms going around his waist, smiling as he jumped and looked around. Her house might not have been haunted when she’d bought it. But it was now.

Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong is the author of the Cainsville modern gothic series and the Rockton crime thrillers. Past works include the Otherworld urban fantasy series, the Darkest Powers & Darkness Rising teen paranormal trilogies, the Age of Legends fantasy YA series and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. Armstrong lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.