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Dead Bolt

Excerpt

Dead Bolt

My father always used to say: There's nothing quite like a protracted remodel to test a person's sanity.

Still, it was clear the handprints on the ceiling were real, not imagined.

Dammit. My mind cast about for a way to explain them to my clients. They weren't flat, as if someone had used their hand to steady themselves while teetering atop scaffolding or a tall ladder. Rather, it looked like someone had dragged five fingers along the surface of the ceiling's wet plaster or paint, resulting in a subtle chicken-scratch pattern fanning out in concentric circles around the hole for the light fixture.

The ceiling had been perfect yesterday.

As with so much of what was happening on this jobsite, it was...disturbing.

My clients, Katenka and Jim Daley, stood with me amidst the construction debris and dust. The workers had finished for the day, and the house was quiet save for the loud cooing of eight-month-old Quinn, who squirmed like a baby kangaroo in a padded pouch slung across his father's stomach.

We gazed up at the twelve-foot high coffered ceiling of what would be an elegant dining room as soon as the walls and ceiling were patched and painted, the antique light fixtures re-wired and re-mounted, and the inlaid wood floors sanded and stained. The Daley's home, an 1890s Queen Anne Victorian in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighborhood, was structurally sound—a pleasant surprise, rare for structures from that era—but decades of operating as "The Cheshire Inn", a boarding house for drifters, down-at-the-heels bachelors, and homeless cats, had left their mark. The home's bones were exquisite, but the rest required plenty of renovation, repair, and ornamentation. Queen Anne Victorians were celebrated for their elaborate decorative designs and lavish "gingerbread" details.

This is where I come in. Mel Turner, General Contractor, Jill of All Trades.

But at the moment, I feared my crew and I weren't the only entities at work within the ornate halls and chambers of the historic house. I had been trying—and failing—to ignore or explain away the series of strange events that had plagued the project from its inception: lumber and sheetrock disappearing from one spot and then showing up in another; work gloves and safety goggles right there one moment and gone the next; rusty old deadbolts locking and unlocking though the keys had long since been lost; footsteps resonating overhead when no one was upstairs. A handful of workers had already walked off the job, unwilling to deal with the unexplained occurrences.

"Are those...handprints? On the ceiling?"

Katenka's heavy Russian accent made it sound as though she were swallowing her vowels. Dark, wavy hair hung halfway down her back; her big brown eyes were limpid; her posture languid. She had just celebrated her thirtieth birthday, but appeared much younger. This was due to her petite stature as well as her penchant for gauzy baby-doll dresses, a wardrobe choice completely unsuited to a foggy San Francisco December.

Since I was known for my own offbeat fashion choices, I wasn't about to cast stones...still, whenever I was in the same room as Katenka I had to stifle the entirely uncharacteristic urge to bundle her up in a big fluffy sweater.

If Katenka inspired such protectiveness in someone as cynical as me, I could only imagine what havoc she wreaked upon the average heterosexual man.

"Yep, they look like handprints to me," I answered with a nod.

"Maybe from the painters?" Jim offered.

"Sure, that must be it," I lied, hoping he didn't notice there wasn't a paint brush in sight. This project was nowhere near ready for the final decorative stages; we hadn't even started with plaster repair, patching, and mud. "We'll take care of it, don't worry. You won't even notice them once we're done."

"Great." Jim was a typical thirty-something Bay Area high-tech professional: he wore stylish eyewear, his hair was artfully cut and tousled, and he spent what few leisure hours he had training for triathlons or bicycling up Mount Tamalpais. At least he had until his son was born. Now he threw his energy into parenthood. Which was a good thing: Jim seemed better cut out for it than Katenka, who struck me as bemused, even outright discomfited, by her wriggling, demanding bundle of joy.

At the moment little Quinn was enthusiastically gumming his father's thumb, a long trail of drool marring the front of Jim's shirt as though left by a giant snail.

"He's cutting a tooth," Jim said with an indulgent chuckle.

I returned his smile, enjoying the sight of a dad with his beloved boy. Jim was easy to work with...with one exception: he had been adamant about living in the basement apartment while we worked on the house. My own father, the original Turner of Turner Construction, had cautioned me against allowing clients to remain on-site during renovations. Apart from the obvious problems with the dust, the noise, and the early-to-rise hours of the construction trade, there were aspects of the job that clients really didn't need to know about. Incessant raunchy jokes and blaring rock music were only the beginning. There were also the occasional, but inevitable, mini-disasters: broken windows or fried wiring, any number of "oopsies" that we would make good in time, but that I'd rather the clients didn't witness.

Maybe because I was a woman—not a gruff former Marine like Dad—or simply because I lacked sufficient backbone, I had a hard time enforcing this policy. Katenka and Jim insisted on living downstairs, and they were paying the bills. In the high-end construction business, the one with the checkbook rules.

And as a principal in a successful internet start-up, Jim's pockets were deep enough to return this Queen Anne to its former glory. In fact, he possessed an almost messianic drive for historical restoration, and spared little expense.

These are highly attractive traits in a client.

"Is very dusty. Dust everywhere," Katenka commented as she glanced around the dining room, delicate nostrils flaring.

"Hard to avoid on a construction site, I'm afraid."

"Oh, by the way, Mel," Jim said. "I've taken the liberty of calling in a green construction consultant."

"Is that right?" I said, trying to keep a neutral expression on my face. I'm territorial about my construction sites. When a general contractor is on The Job, they own The Job. There was a reason my workers called me "the General" behind my back.

Apparently my attempt to cover up my feelings was not successful. No surprise there. Diplomacy has never been my strong suit.

"I know you're pretty green already, but it makes me feel better to have an expert on the job," said Jim, his tone conciliatory. "I'm sure you two will get along great. As a matter of fact, he mentioned you know each other—his name's Graham Donovan."

"Yes, I do know Graham." I said, my emotions reeling. The sexy contractor and I "had history." The kind of history I didn't want to dwell on while in the company of clients.

"And check this out," Jim said, using his free hand to pick up a package from a plywood plank laid across two sawhorses. "I had this plaque made. I was thinking you could put it up when we're all done."

The gleaming brass plaque read:

Cheshire House, circa 1887
Restoration by Daley Family and Turner Construction, 2011-2012

"That's beautiful, Jim," I said. Okay, Jim Daley had more going for him than just deep pockets: he loved this house. As one who is enamored of historic homes, I felt a certain kinship.

Quinn's adorable coos escalated into a fretful whimper. His chubby legs danced and his tiny arms flapped.

"Chow time! I'd better go feed the baby," Jim said. "Coming, honey?"

"You go. I come after. In a minute." Katenka's mouth tightened and one side pulled down in a barely-there grimace. I'd noticed that expression before. It was usually directed at unpleasant tasks...or just about anything involving her son.

Still, in her big hazel eyes I read a mixture of eager concern and trepidation. I found it hard to warm to Katenka, but a part of my heart went out to her. The unceasing demands of an infant would be tough for anyone, especially someone living in a foreign country without her family.

"Take your time," Jim said, kissing the top of her head. "Let's order Thai tonight, what do you think?"

She shrugged.

"Indian?" The baby's distress spiraled up, his whimpering ceding to crying.

"Is greasy."

"Pizza?" Quinn started to wail.

"We decide later," Katenka said.

"Okay, sure, let me know when you're getting hungry, honey. See you tomorrow, Mel." Jim headed down the servant's hall to the rear staircase that descended to the basement-level apartment.

"Crazy," Katenka said, rolling her eyes. "He drive me crazy."

"The baby, or Jim?"

"Both. Mel, I must ask you some advice."

"I'm not much good at advice, Katenka..." At least with regards to one's personal life. Got a leaky faucet? I'm your gal. Trying to expedite a construction permit down at City Hall? I can give you a name. But problems with your marriage? You'd be better off soliciting advice from Larry King.

"I think we have uninvited guests in this house," said Katenka.

"I'm sorry?"

"Spirits. Ghosts. The souls of the dead still with us."

"I...uh, why would you think that?" Giving marital advice was sounding easier all the time.

"At night, I hear knocking. And footsteps."

"There could be any number of explan—"

Katenka gazed at me imploringly as she played with the filigreed crucifix that hung from a fine silver chain around her swanlike neck.

"Please, Mel. I did research. It is said the spirits of the departed do not like to have their surroundings disturbed. And the renovation work, it disturbs surroundings, no?"

"Well, sure, that's sort of the point..."

Unfortunately, I couldn't dismiss Katenka's fears out of hand, given the odd events on this jobsite. Besides, this wasn't my first run-in with the unexplainable. Several months ago I met up with the confused spirit of a murdered acquaintance, and once I recovered from the initial shock I'd found the experience both annoying and fascinating. Since then I'd read up on the subject, but hadn't sensed anything more ghostly than the vague sensations of welcome—or the lack thereof—I had always felt in historic homes. I had come to think of that paranormal experience as a one-time deal. Like the measles. Once you had it, you were immune.

Seems I was getting a booster shot.

"And when I go...when I go into Quinn's room," Katenka continued, "sometimes there feels like a black... what is the word? A black shadow? Following me."

"A black shadow? In the baby's room?"

"I feel it over my shoulder. As though it is trying to get in the room with me and the baby."

I swallowed, hard. The ghost I'd gotten to know had been irritating, but at least he never lurked over my shoulder in the form of a black shadow.

"I put up amulets," said Katenka. Her voice started to shake, and tears welled in her huge eyes. "I sweep, and sprinkle the Holy Water. I tell the ghosts to leave. I was very forceful, but it makes things worse. Now they are worse."

That explained the smudge bundles I had noticed earlier amidst bits of wood and wallboard. The scent of burnt sage reminded me of walking down Telegraph Avenue in nearby Berkeley, and was said to cleanse places of bad vibrations. It also reminded me of Thanksgiving turkey, but maybe I was a little food-fixated.

"It's unsettling to live in a home while construction is going on around you," I said. Though I believed her, I didn't want to jump to conclusions. "The knocking could be a twig against a windowpane, or the sound of old pipes. And the creaking in the walls—"

My attempt to explain away the unexplainable was interrupted by the high-pitched whine of an electric drill that started spinning atop the temporary plywood worktable.

Katenka and I stared at the out-of-control contraption.

"Probably an electrical short," I said as I hurried to hit the "off" switch and unplug it from the wall. "Happens all the time in these old houses—"

"Is no short," Katenka said, her tone fatalistic. "Is ghost. Maybe more than one. Even I think there is a cat ghost here. Is in the walls."

"A cat ghost?"

"I think maybe. I hear it, smell it sometimes."

"It could be an actual cat. I'll check the foundation for access—"

"Have you found history of the house?" Katenka interrupted. "Maybe history could tell us about these ghosts."

I shook my head. A crucial element in restoring a historic structure was conducting thorough research into its past. But a trip to the California Historical Society hadn't turned up anything on the Daley's Queen Anne Victorian. Not even the name of the family that had built it. It wasn't that the history of the place was sketchy; it was non-existent. And that was odd. San Francisco isn't that old, or that large. Usually it was easy to find the paper trails left by its well-to-do citizens, whether articles in the newspaper's society section, or tax records, or architectural blueprints.

But not this time.

"You know the lady who used to live here?" Katenka asked. "The Cat Lady?"

"I've heard of her, but we haven't met."

"I went to see her yesterday. She admit to me she leave this house because of the ghosts. She say they try to kill her."

Our eyes met in silence.

"That's a bad thing, no?" Katenka demanded.

Why yes, I thought. In general, death threats were a bad thing. Death threats from the beyond? Worse.

Katenka's gaze shifted to a spot behind me, and her eyes widened. Her face went pale, her body rigid. I swung around to see what she was staring at.

But I saw nothing except the kitchen door. Standing open.

Wait—hadn't it been closed?

And then I saw it: a footprint in the dust on the floor.

I turned back to Katenka just as she wobbled, then crumpled, overcome with fright. I caught her before she fell to the floor.

Another footprint appeared. And another.

Coming toward us.

© Juliet Blackwell


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