Give Up the Ghost
It's hard to ruin a Pacific Heights mansion. After all, it's Pacific Heights.
One of San Francisco's nicest neighborhoods, Pacific Heights straddles the crest of one of the city's many hills and offers world-class views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Sausalito. In the late 1800s, following the Gold Rush and the acquisition of California, when robber barons were exploiting workers and stealing land to make their fortunes, this is where many of them chose to spend their ill-gotten gains: on the mansions studding this hill, one after the other, like a line-up of enormous 10-bedroom, 5 bath, turreted, multi-story, wooden-and-stucco beauty queens—historic testaments to taste, craftsmanship, wealth, and ruthlessness.
But I had to hand it to Andrew Flynt, the fiftyish, plump, rather pallid man standing with me in the foyer. The mansion called Crosswinds now gleamed with the sleek, plastic-feeling newness of a really expensive, really modern, really wretched remodel.
A remodel plagued by ghosts, apparently.
"Cost me millions to bring this place into the 21st century," Flynt said, as I struggled to rein in my distaste. I've been told I don't have much of a poker face. "Wasn't easy to bring it up to snuff. Used to be nothing but acres of dark wood paneling in here. Can you say gloomy?" He nudged me with his elbow and pointed. "Take a look at that fireplace surround: blue Brazilian granite. Cost me beaucoup bucks, I don't mind telling you. Sleek, simple. Real class, something like that. You should have seen the original: carved marble, with—get this—cupids." He shook his balding head. "So kitschy."
"Mmm," I grunted, my go-to response when I was busy biting my tongue in order not to alienate the uber-wealthy potential client.
My eyes cast around, searching for signs of history. Gone were the subtle dents and nicks a home acquires over the years. Nowhere did I see the soft edges or refined imperfections that characterized moldings handmade by long-departed master craftsmen. Victorian-era parlors and chambers, once discreetly separated by paneled walnut pocket doors, had been blasted open and merged into a single, echoing "great room" decorated in a blinding white-on-white color scheme. The original leaded windows had been sealed shut to allow the "smart" home to filter and recirculate the air at a perfect 72 degrees. Too-bright recessed can lights dotted the smooth, flat ceilings, now devoid of any trace of the original engraved plaster medallions and crystal chandeliers so common to buildings from the late 1800s. To my mind the formerly warm and intimate space now resembled an oversized hospital operating room.
"Paid twelve million for it, as it was," Flynt let out a rueful laugh. "Twelve mill for a fixer-upper. But what can I say? I'm a visionary."
"And your realtor said you were asking thirty-nine million?" Even in San Francisco, one of the nation's priciest real estate markets, that was a lot of money.
"Most expensive property on the market," Flynt boasted. "Well worth it, for the right buyer. It's a massive home, with ten bedrooms. Ten. And this location is priceless, of course. Have you checked out the views? Not enough money in the world for something like that. And then the remodel on top of it, everything totally updated, with the latest technology—what's not to love?"
"Yet you haven't been able to sell it," I pointed out.
"No. Obviously." A tic appeared over his right cheekbone "That's where you come in."
I'm a general contractor, head of Turner Construction. We specialize in renovating historic buildings. But not like this. Never like this.
Besides, there was nothing left to re-do. So far I had only seen the sparsely-furnished main floor, but unless I missed my guess this place had been gutted, taken back to the studs, and rebuilt with all new materials. They had kept the home's classic exterior shell and built themselves a brand-new, Sopranos-style home within.
Still... From the moment I stood at the foot of the limestone front steps, looking up at the still-intact rococo Victorian façade, complete with turrets and carved garlands and gold-gilt shields, I had felt something.
Crosswinds needed someone to save it. And if the past few haunted home renovations I had completed were any indication, I was that someone. Whether I wanted the title or not. Just call me Mel Turner, historic home renovator and up-and-coming Ghost Negotiator.
"And you want me to do what, exactly?" I asked Flynt.
"Karla tells me you have experience with this sort of thing," Flynt hedged, referring to Karla Buhner, the no-doubt frustrated realtor trying to off-load Crosswinds to some poor sucker for a sum equivalent to the gross national product of a small nation.
"What sort of thing would that be?" I asked, all innocence.
I knew what he meant. But people like Andrew Flynt wanted underlings to read their minds, to relieve them of the burden of being explicit. It was a strangely childish habit that annoyed the heck out of me, prompting me to respond in an equally stubborn manner. If Flynt wanted something from me, he was going to have to ask for it.
"It's...all right, dammit, it's haunted," he said, the tic in his cheek accelerating. As he reached up to rub his face the two heavy gold rings weighing down his hand glinted in the sunshine streaming through spotless—and modern—plate glass windows.
"Haunted, you say? Really?"
"The ghosts, or whatever it is, appear to be running off prospective buyers. Every time there are clients touring the house, something...happens. Last week, a physician and his wife—she's an heiress from New York, very old money—literally ran from the house screaming. Can you believe it? The man's a cardiologist!"
I wondered why Flynt thought being a cardiologist would render one immune from fear. Being scared by ghosts wasn't funny. I should know.
Flynt shook his head. "Karla says you're the go-to gal for this sort of thing. I need you to fix it."
Just then I heard a squeaking noise overhead and looked toward the ceiling.
"What's that?" I asked.
"That's what I'm talking about," Flynt groused. "That's the sound of the weathervane that used to be on the roof. Nasty old thing. It was the first thing to come down, let me tell you. But you can still hear it when the wind blows. What's that about?"
"And there's no other possible explanation? Is there anyone else in the house?"
"Egypt? I assume we're not talking about the country?"
"No. A person. Egypt's the caretaker, lives up in one of the attic rooms. You know, when I bought Crosswinds my kids were still little, but the remodel took so long they're now grown and off on their own. The wife and I don't need a huge house like this. Bought a beautiful place in Tiburon—a Bollinger."
"Young designer from Germany. Very exclusive. Place is right on the golf course, seventeenth hole."
"So anyway, I don't really believe in this ghost stuff but apparently buyers are now refusing to even look at the place, so my wife Stephanie called in a psychic Karla recommended. Name of Chantelle, you heard of her? Goes by just the one name, like Cher or Madonna. Very famous. Hard to get an appointment with her, much less get her to make a house call. Cost me a pretty penny, let me tell you."
"And what did Chantelle make of Crosswinds?"
Again with the tic. He massaged his cheek. "She says the ghosts of the family that used to live here are angry about the remodel. She says the only way to appease them is to track down some of the original architectural stuff and put it back."
He glared at me. As though I had been egging on the Crosswinds spirits in some sort of supernatural bid to increase my client base.
"Do you have the original fixtures?" I asked.
"Nah. Who wants all that old stuff?" He threw his hands in the air. "I am so sick of this whole place I can't even tell you. Here's what I need: track down and reinstall whatever old crap you can find, starting with that damned weathervane. If you can't find the original, surely a reproduction will do—and then maybe these damned ghosts will shut up long enough for me to dump this place. Then it'll be someone else's problem."
A thirty-nine million dollar dump. Wow.
Andrew Flynt was a little much, but no big deal. I wasn't particularly compelled to help him out for his sake....but this house was calling out to me. Crosswinds had been done a cruel disservice. To restore it would take another big chunk of change, and to do it right would take at least a year, and I wasn't at all sure Flynt would sit still for either. But maybe I could help out a little. I suspected many of the recent "improvements" were purely cosmetic: Probably the contractor had put up wallboard over existing molding in some areas, cheating here and there. It was scandalous, given the amount of money Flynt had no doubt spent, but typical of overworked contractors, many of whom did the absolute minimum they could get away with—not bothering to clean up behind walls, for instance. Years later this kind of lick-and-a-promise construction could result in fun finds: I often came across decades-old newspapers or canned food or instruction manuals behind the walls, trash that the passage of time had rendered interesting and, occasionally, valuable.
Besides, the man had deep pockets. And he was desperate. Not to put too fine a point on it, these are highly desirable qualities in a client. As a general contractor, I had a hefty payroll to make each and every month. If I couldn't keep my skilled crew busy I would lose them to contractors who would.
So yes, I was interested in taking on the challenge of Crosswinds, and whatever resident ghosts it might contain. However...I glanced over at Andrew Flynt, who was jangling his car keys—Lexus, of course—as though he could barely contain his agitation.
Number one rule for dealing with over-privileged clients? Imply that you're too busy. Drives them crazy.
I sucked air in between my teeth and shook my head slowly. "I don't know, Andrew, Turner Construction's pretty busy right now. We're working on a place in Cow Hollow and I've still got a crew on a retreat in Marin—"
"What if I double your usual rate? Seriously, track down some of those old fixtures, find a few new ones that look old, hold a seance, schedule an exorcism by the Pope—do what you have to, but whatever you do get these ghosts off my back."
"Double my usual rate?" In neighborhoods like Pacific Heights, the more you made people pay the more they respected you. It was sort of like wine: exact same bottle could cost twelve bucks or twelve hundred—guess which one tasted better to someone like Andrew Flynt? Exclusivity was delicious.
I took a moment, looked around, then nodded slowly. "All right. I think I can help you out. I have to warn you, though, it's going to make a mess."
"Do whatever you have to do. This place has been a mess since I bought it."
"And it's going to take a while—."
I cut myself off as I saw something out of the corner of my eye.
It was a woman, creeping carefully down the stairs. She had dark eyes, olive skin, and an exotic aura—or maybe that was due to her white dress and the colorful batik scarf wrapped around her hair, as though she had just stepped off a Caribbean island.
Could this be the ghost of some long-dead servant, bound to toil in the Crosswinds mansion throughout eternity?."
© Juliet Blackwell
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