Crowned and Moldering

Chapter 1 continued

Read the beginning of the excerpt here

Sean lifted the ax and brought it down, splintering through the center of the door. After three more strikes, the door was hanging off its hinges, with wood shards everywhere. He used the haft or handle of the tool to break up and push the remaining splinters and shards of wood out of the way. Then he gripped what was left of the door and ripped it away from the jamb, hinges and all.

“Okay, guess you’re a pretty strong guy,” Mac acknowledged.

Sean grinned and stepped into the dank, dark room. Johnny was right behind him.

Mac, Wade, and I scrambled up the stairs to join them, but before we could make it to the attic door, Sean said, “You guys should check this out. Looks like someone was living in here.”

“What the heck?” Mac was there in an instant, and Wade and I were right behind him. “Oh, man. That’s funky.”

“Ick,” I said. We all stared at the dirty old mattress spread out on the floor by the window. The thing sagged in the middle and there were unspeakable stains scattered across the top. I didn’t want to think about all the bugs and bacteria crawling around inside it.

I stepped farther into the room and looked around. It had never been finished, just as I’d suspected. Old tar paper and two-by-four studs and beams were exposed. There was none of the lathe and plaster that was normally used in the main walls of the house, perhaps because the builders never expected to insulate this attic space. Running vertically and attached at intervals to the studs were several electrical conduit pipes that disappeared into the rafters. I’d have to find out exactly where they ended up, but there were plenty of good reasons why electrical wires would be needed up on the roof. Television antennae came to mind, to name one.

After glancing around the dim space, my gaze returned to Mac. “I don’t see any sheets or clothing or anything else besides the mattress. Do you?”

Mac had been walking the perimeter, checking the walls and windows. He stopped when he reached the mattress. “No. I think whoever once crashed here is long gone.”

“There aren’t any closets up here,” Wade observed, and aimed his powerful Maglite around the room. “But we can check the second floor. They might’ve used one of those bedrooms or a bathroom.”

Mac nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”

I stared at him for a long moment. “Are you okay? This is kind of weird.”

He shrugged. “As long as whoever was here is gone now, I’m fine. But we’ve got to get that mattress out of here. I don’t even want to think about what it might’ve been used for.”

I grimaced at the possibilities.

“Johnny and I’ll drag it downstairs before we leave today.” Sean looked at the mattress again and frowned. “As soon as I find a hazmat suit.”

“Thanks,” Mac said. “I’ll be glad to help.”

I made some notes on my tablet. “I think it’d be a good idea to finish this room completely, even if you never use it.”

“A very good idea,” Mac said with a rueful smile.

Since we were up there anyway, I got my guys to open the windows and check the condition of the shingles on the third-floor exterior. I couldn’t see the gables clearly enough from the ground, so I would normally wait until the scaffolding was in place. But this was a quick and easy way to get a general idea of what, if any, damage would need repair. Also this window faced the front of the house and featured a decorative cutout wooden panel on a narrow overhang. Wade wanted to get a closer look at it.

Maneuvering to a sitting position on the window’s ledge, he leaned back to take a look. “It’ll have to be taken down,” he shouted over the crashing of waves. “The wood has a bunch of holes that’ll need to be filled, and the paint will have to be stripped off and then reapplied.”

It was a small detail that would make a difference once the entire exterior was finished and looking new.

“Okay,” I said, making notes. “Now come in off that ledge before you give me a heart attack.”

We left the attic door open and moved downstairs to the second floor to explore the bedrooms and bathrooms in depth. Wade ran down to grab the blueprint sheet for this floor, and we checked it and made notes as we walked. The bay windows in the rooms facing west showed off the spectacular ocean and breakwater views and allowed the afternoon sunshine in to light up the rooms. The windows filled the walls and were beautiful—or they would be once we’d fully refurbished them.

Every bedroom contained old, dark, shabby wallpaper that would have to be stripped off, and the walls painted. I noted the places where the oak floor planks would have to be replaced. The upstairs bannister would need a complete overhaul. As in the downstairs rooms, many of the ceiling moldings and cornices upstairs must be rebuilt.

Mac and I had discussed opening up the master bedroom, but a load-bearing wall presented a complication. My thought was to join the master bedroom with a smaller bedroom next door, opening the wall wide enough to allow a sizeable passageway while maintaining the integrity of the wall. The smaller room would be a sitting room—or, as he called it, a high-tech playroom. Another small bedroom on the other side would become a walk-in closet.

“It’s not like I have a ton of clothes,” Mac explained, “but I’d like the space to walk around and see what I’ve got.”

Also, since each of the bedrooms had a maximum of two electrical outlets, I planned to add at least a dozen more on this floor alone.

And it went without saying that every bathroom in the house would be redone from top to bottom.

In the hallway, Mac stopped and studied what looked like a cupboard built into the wall around waist level. “What’s this?”

“Open it.”

He pulled on the small handle and the cupboard opened. “Is that a laundry chute?”

“Yes. Isn’t it great? I love those kinds of features.”

He stuck his head up close to the opening. “I can’t see farther than a few feet.”

“I assume it goes to the basement,” I said, “but there aren’t any lights down there.” I took a peek through the opening and ran my hand along the interior. “This one’s made of wood, so you’ll want to replace it with a galvanized-steel chute. We’ll add a self-closing door at the bottom to comply with the fire code.”

He grimaced. “The last thing I want to do is ignore any fire codes.”

An hour later, we had finished the second-floor walk-through and returned to the ground floor. The good news was that we didn’t find any clothing or sheets that might’ve been used by the person who had brought the mattress into the attic. But that just led to more unanswered questions that would have to be investigated at some point.

“Let’s take another look at the kitchen and the exterior,” I said. “And then I think we’ll be finished.”

“I’ve decided I’d like to redo the kitchen,” Mac admitted. “It’s too old and funky to deal with.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And not that it matters to you, but the Historical Society won’t care about the kitchen.”

He chuckled. “You know I live to keep the Historical Society happy.”

Wade grinned. “Even though they’ve fought you every step of the way.”

“Not me,” Mac said, aiming his thumb in my direction. “Shannon. She’s the one who’s been dealing with all of their demands and requirements.”

I waved off the comment. “That’s what I’m here for.”

We walked into the kitchen and looked around at the dark-stained wood cabinets that had been there as long as the house had been standing. It would take an army of housecleaners to scrub off more than a hundred years’ worth of food spills and grime.

Mac might not want them, but those cabinets were real wood and too darn good to throw away. I was already making a mental list of where I might use them once they were stripped down to the bare wood and varnished to a high shine.

I said, “We don’t have to get your notes on the old kitchen if we’re going to do a complete rehab. I’ll give you some catalogs and magazines to look at that’ll give you some ideas of what materials and colors you might want to use. Meanwhile, you can think about all the fun stuff, like whether you’d like a bigger window over the sink, or if you want French doors instead of the single door that leads to the back area.”

“French doors might be nice,” Mac muttered, wandering around the room. “Hey, maybe a deck off the French doors.” He peered through the window screen to the outside and made a face. “A deck would drive the Historical Society folks crazy. Maybe a flagstone patio would be a little less ostentatious.”

“I think they’d be happier with the flagstone, but it’s ultimately your decision.” I stared at the cabinet built into the far wall. “Hey, I completely forgot about the dumbwaiter.”

The last time Mac and I had been here, I’d had every intention of checking out the dumbwaiter, but that darn white rat had distracted me.

Dumbwaiters were another fascinating feature of many Victorian homes, and I couldn’t wait to see how Mac’s operated.

“Let’s check it out,” Mac said, and joined me in front of the cabinet. “Do you think I’ll ever use it?”

“They’re very practical in a two- or three-story house,” I said. “You’ll want to keep it if you decide to entertain above stairs.”

“Above stairs, huh?” He grinned at me. “I just might. Do they make them more modern-looking than this?”

“The basic insides will be similar to this one,” I said. “But the outer frame can be anything you want it to be. You could get a sleek stainless-steel front or a nice blond Douglas fir to match the rest of the cabinetry. Whatever you decide, it’ll look fabulous.”

I unbolted the dumbwaiter’s vertical sliding door and lifted it. The old wood was stiff and heavy, but I managed to get it opened all the way. I stuck my head inside and looked up, but it was too dark to see anything, so I grabbed Wade’s flashlight and took another look. “I’m not sure the old pulley mechanism is still working. It looks like the platform is stuck upstairs somewhere.” I pulled my head out and glanced at Mac. “If you want to keep using it, I can install an electric motor with an automatic control. I’m pretty sure the shaft runs from the attic all the way down to the basement, and it’s a good-sized space. At least two and a half feet square.”

He calculated the size with his hands. “That’s not bad.”

“I wonder if I can get it unjammed,” I said, and reached inside to tug at the pulley. I felt the ropes go slack just as a loud cracking, splintering sound erupted from above and echoed through the shaft. I yanked my hand out of there just in time; the entire dumbwaiter platform shattered and fell three stories and crashed onto the basement floor.

The strong whoosh of air and dust coming from the shaft knocked me back a foot. Mac pulled me farther away from the opening. “Are you all right? What the hell was that?”

“The platform must’ve rotted out. The whole thing broke apart and dropped straight down to the basement.”

“You could’ve been killed,” he muttered, and rubbed my shoulders while I tried to calm my breathing. I didn’t want to admit how close to the truth his words were.

Once the dust had settled, I ventured over to the shaft and leaned inside to see what damage had been done. Shining the flashlight downward, I caught a glimpse of the pile of splintered wood—and something else.

“What the—” I jerked my head out of that dark, empty space as fast as I could move. The flashlight fell from my hand, hitting the floor with a bang. I stared at my empty hands and watched them tremble uncontrollably. I shook my head back and forth. “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

Mac grabbed my arms. “Shannon, what is it?”

“What’s wrong, boss?” Johnny demanded. “Did you see another rat?”

I couldn’t believe I was still shaking, unable to tell what I’d just seen. Could I have been mistaken?

Sean grabbed the flashlight off the floor and leaned inside the dumbwaiter to see for himself what I was freaking out about.

“Holy moly,” Sean said, backing away from the space.

“What is it?” Mac said. “What’s wrong with you guys?”

Sean’s cheeks puffed out and he exhaled heavily. “In the basement. There’s, like, bones down there.”

“Oh, relax,” Wade said cynically. “It’s probably a dead raccoon.”

“No,” I said, my voice sounding scratchy and far away. “It’s more like a dead human.”

© Kate Carlisle