This Old Homicide
"It's a monstrosity, isn't it?"
I gazed at the massive structure before us and hid my dismay with a bland smile. "No, not at all. It's . . . beautiful. In its own way."
"You're a terrible liar, Shannon," my friend Emily Rose said. "But I appreciate your attempt to make me feel better."
We both stared at the three-story multigabled, overspindled, gingerbread-laden . . . monstrosity—there was no better word for it—she'd just purchased. The old Victorian house was shrouded in shadows, making it appear even more foreboding than it might've been if even a smidgen of sunlight had been allowed to peep through the thick copse of soaring eucalyptus and redwood that surrounded the place on three sides. This wasn't the time to mention it, but I planned to suggest a good tree trimming once Emily closed the deal.
"What have I done?" Emily moaned softly. Her soft Scottish accent was thicker than usual, probably because of the stress of deciding to buy a house and then doing so in less than two days.
To be honest, the place was magnificent—if you overlooked the obvious: peeling paint, broken shutters, slumping roof. All of that was cosmetic and could be magically transformed by a good contractor. Luckily for Emily, that was me. I'm Shannon Hammer, a building contractor specializing in Victorian home renovation and repair. I took over Hammer Construction Company five years ago when my dad suffered a mild heart attack and decided to retire. I had grown up working on the grand Victorian homes that proliferated along this part of the Northern California coastline, and I couldn't wait to get started on Emily's.
For many years, Emily had been living in the small but pretty apartment above the Scottish Rose Tea Shoppe she owned on the town square in the heart of Lighthouse Cove. Over the last few years, though, the square, with its multitude of fabulous restaurants and charming shops, had become such a popular destination spot that she'd decided it was time to find a quieter place to live. When an uncle back in Scotland died and left her some money, Emily decided that with property values being what they were, now was a good time to buy her first home.
She had announced her major purchase earlier today, after gathering together our small circle of friends in the back room of her tea shop. We met there regularly because it was so convenient. Lizzie Logan's stationery shop was just a few doors down, and her husband Hal was always willing to man the register when she needed some girl time. Jane Hennessey, my best friend since kindergarten, could walk over from her place two blocks away. Marigold Starling's Crafts and Quilts shop was a quick stroll across the square. My house was close enough that I could walk to the tea shop, too, on the days I did paperwork at home. More often, I drove in from one of the construction sites, careful to slap off as much sawdust as possible before I entered the ultra-feminine domain.
"Champagne?" I'd said when I walked in and saw the yummy spread and the expensive open bottle in Emily's hand. "What's the occasion?"
"You're getting married!" Lizzie said, clapping her hands. She was the only married one in our group, so she continually pushed the rest of us to find a guy and pair up. She persisted in matchmaking despite some rather deadly recent results.
"I'd have told you if I were dating," Emily assured her. "I'm not."
Without missing a beat, Lizzie said, "Did somebody die?"
Jane laughed. "I don't think we'd be drinking champagne if somebody died."
"Are you sure?" Lizzie whispered. "Maybe that's how they do it in Scotland."
Emily, clearly excited, had shushed everyone and held up her glass. "I want to propose a toast to the town's newest homeowner. Me."
"You bought a house?" I said, a little stunned that I hadn't heard. I liked to think I had my fingers on the pulse of the housing market in Lighthouse Cove, but Emily's purchase had slipped past me.
"Cheers!" Marigold cried, clinking her glass against Emily's.
Lizzie gave her a quick hug. "That's wonderful."
"Welcome to the wonderful world of home ownership," Jane said, herself the owner of a B-and-B I'd recently finished renovating.
"Yes, congratulations," I said. "You managed to shock me. I had no idea you were house hunting."
Emily took another sip of champagne before placing her glass down on the table. "I figured it was about time I set down roots in Lighthouse Cove."
"You think so?" Marigold said, laughing. "You've only lived here for fifteen years."
She grinned. "I'm a thrifty Scotswoman. It takes me a while to part with money."
Emily had moved here from Scotland all those years ago with her boyfriend, who was going into business with one of our local fishermen. Sadly, a year later, the boyfriend mysteriously disappeared and was presumed lost at sea. Emily was devastated but decided to stay in Lighthouse Cove. She had only recently opened her tea shop and had a few good close friends who saw her through the tragedy.
"Where's the house?" I asked.
"It's over on Emerald Way," she said. "Overlooking North Bay."
I could picture the neighborhood with its glorious pine trees and amazing view of the coast. I'd worked on a number of homes in that area and as far as I could remember, there was only one available house and it was . . . whoa. "You bought the old Rawley Mansion?"
"Yes," Emily said, and paused to pat her chest. "I get a little breathless when I think about it. I can't wait for you all to see it."
I exchanged a look of concern with Jane and knew she was recalling the Halloween night when we were seven years old and I had dared her to look in one of the windows on the Rawleys' front porch. She took the dare, but after one quick peek, she screamed and ran away. I wasn't smart enough to follow but instead peeked inside myself and saw a beautiful woman with golden hair wearing an old-fashioned dress, sitting at a desk near the window crying. She looked up and her smile was so sad, I wanted to cry. I touched the glass, reaching out—until I realized I could see right through her. She was a ghost!
For years, I'd been convincing myself that it was just a silly Halloween trick. What else could it be? I quickly covered my unease with a happy smile. "If you need any help with renovation or with the move itself, I'm available."
"We'll all help," Jane said.
"Thank you. That means so much." Emily blinked, overcome with emotion. "And yes, Shannon, I would love your help with the rehab. It needs a lot of work," she admitted, "but I had to have this house. I can't explain it, but it spoke to me. It's going to look like a fairy castle when it's all spiffed up. I can't wait to move in."
"When do you close escrow?" Lizzie asked.
"Since nobody's living there, I was able to get a fifteen-day escrow."
"Good grief, that's fast," Marigold murmured. She had left her Amish community years ago but still preferred to live at a slower pace than the rest of us.
Lizzie nodded. "The faster she closes the deal, the faster Shannon can get started on the rehab."
"Well, then." Jane raised her glass again. "Here's to Emily's castle."
"May all your dreams come true," Lizzie said fondly, and we drank down the rest of the sparkly champagne.
Now, as I gazed up at the old house, I knew Emily really needed help. Still, the place had good bones, and that was what counted. Right?
At the thought of good bones, I shivered. I wondered if Emily had heard the tales of old Grandma Rawley's ghost still haunting the place. It didn't matter. All those scary stories were just silly urban legends and tricks, meant to frighten small children on Halloween. Weren't they?
I brushed those thoughts aside. Everything would be fine. There was no such thing as ghosts. I repeated the mantra as I studied how the roof rolled and dipped in spots.
Emily's delicate features registered doubt as the sun slipped behind a cloud and the house grew even darker. "Perhaps I exaggerated a bit, thinking you might be able to turn it into a fairy castle."
"Don't worry, I'll make it beautiful for you," I assured her, and I meant it. Making Victorian homes look beautiful was my business, after all.
Years ago, our town had been designated a national historical landmark because of all the Victorian-era homes and buildings located here. The Rawley Mansion had once been a gorgeous example of that nineteenth-century Victorian style, before the last Rawley heir died and their gracious home was left to rot. But it didn't have to stay that way. Within a few months, my crew and I would restore it to its original luster and this shadowy eyesore before us would be a vague memory.
"Thank you, Shannon." She slung her arm around my shoulder and gave me a quick squeeze. "If anyone can do it, you can."
"Never doubt it."
She laughed. "I did for a while, but now I must admit I'm starting to get excited."
"I don't blame you. The house is amazing."
She looked up at the imposing structure. "Or it soon will be."
It really was amazing—if you had the vision to see past its dilapidated exterior.
It was a classic Queen Anne Victorian, but with one eclectic detail that must've suited the original owner's idiosyncratic style. The rounded, three-story tower on the left front side of the house was topped by what they used to call a Hindustani roof. Instead of the typical tower roof that came to a point like a witch's hat, this one's undulating profile resembled a large bell. It sat atop a small, round balcony roomy enough for a table and two chairs. Emily said it would be the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sunset.
The rest of the home was more traditional, with a deep-shadowed entrance framed by elaborate ornamentation, asymmetrical rooflines, a wraparound porch, fish-scale shingles on the lower half of the house, and four chimneys.
On the downside, a number of the balusters were rotted or simply missing from the porch railing. The stained glass on the door was cracked and faded. Externally, the ravages of time, termites, overgrown plants, and stiff ocean breezes were obvious. Internally, anything was possible. A family of raccoons could've taken up residence. Wooden floors could be rotted clean through. Pipes might be fractured. I just prayed I wouldn't have to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.
I dismissed those thoughts. Why invite trouble? In two weeks when escrow closed and Emily took possession of the house, she and I would conduct a thorough walk-through to determine exactly what the rehab would entail. It all depended on the amount of work, of course, but I estimated that she would be able to move in within three to four months. I had a feeling that that would be cutting it close—like, by a year maybe—but for one of my dearest friends, I was determined to make the timing work. I was already mentally rearranging my crew's schedules. Emily's monstrosity was now at the top of my long priority list.
I wanted her new home to be spiffed up, as she put it, in record time.
"Looking on the bright side," she said with a cheerful grin, "at least there won't be any dead bodies in the basement. I checked."
I swallowed uneasily. "That's good to know." A few months ago, I had come across that very thing. A man had been murdered in the basement of a home I'd been refurbishing. I was the one who discovered the body, and our new chief of police was not amused. For a short while, my name was at the top of his suspect list, until the killer decided to focus on me. I never wanted to go through anything like that again.
"I'd better be getting back to the tea shop," Emily said with reluctance, her simple dark ponytail swaying as she turned to walk to her car. "I really appreciate your coming out here to take a look with me."
"I'm glad I did. I can't wait to get started." But as I opened the car door, I took one more look at the old Rawley Mansion and shivered.
I had a sinking feeling that raccoons would be the least of her problems.
Two weeks later, I arose early, threw on old jeans, a sweatshirt and tennies, and left the house to meet... [sign in to the Secret Room to continue reading Chapter One!]
© Kate Carlisle
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