Premeditated Mortar

Chapter 1 continued

Read the beginning of the excerpt here

Mac managed to make it through the next fifteen minutes of intensive dinner prep without asking any questions. He bided his time, grilling the steaks to perfection while I tossed the salad. He cut open the baked potatoes and heaped on butter, sour cream, and chives.

And as soon as we were seated at the dining room table, he pounced. “Now tell me everything you know.”

I swallowed a bite of my baked potato and took a quick sip of wine while I tried to recall my local history. “Okay. The Gables was built in the 1870’s and back then it was known as the Northern California Asylum for the Insane. They changed the name in the 1960’s.”

He nodded slowly. “Of course. By then it would’ve been considered cruel to use the term ‘insane asylum.'”

“That’s right,” I said. “And then in the early eighties, the government started cutting off funding, so mental hospitals across the country were closing. But the Gables managed to stay open until around 2002 because they had private funding.”

“Do you know where the money came from?”

“From the family of one of the patients.”

“So one family paid for the entire facility to stay open?”


“That’s awfully generous. But I guess if the place was caring for their loved one, it was worth it to them.” He took a forkful of salad, and we both chewed silently for a moment.

“So what can you tell me about the place itself?”

“From one angle, your developer is right. You definitely have to see it to believe it. It’s massive. The architecture itself is spectacular. There’s one central administration building and then on each side there are three separate wings that spread out from there. So seven buildings altogether.” My enthusiasm grew as I talked about the place. “They’re all built in classic Victorian style with a gothic edge. Very dark stone walls, tall towers, ironwork details. And there are gargoyles.”

He grinned. “Cool.”

“The property is beautiful, too. It’s situated on a huge piece of land that straddles the ridge at the top of Mount Clausen. The views are amazing.”

He gazed at me. “Sounds like you’ve been up there.”

“Of course.” I took a bite of steak and swallowed it before explaining. “My friends and I used to take field trips up there.”

“For real? Field trips to the insane asylum?”

I chuckled. “They weren’t really field trips, but we would occasionally drive up and look around. It’s beautiful really, but ever since it closed down, it’s just plain creepy. It used to be surrounded by a really high, thick concrete wall, but that was torn down. Now it’s surrounded by chain link fencing.”

He snorted. “Like that ever stopped anyone.”

“Especially high school kids,” I agreed. “The exterior is still very impressive, but the inside is a horrific mess. The walls and ceilings are filthy, all the paint is peeling and there are cracks everywhere. I’m sure there were animals living inside for years, and the ivy that grew on the brick walls managed to slip through the windows and started growing up the walls of the hallways and the rooms. It’s dark and forbidding. It kind of looks haunted.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sounds pretty bad. What are the chances of this development project actually succeeding?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” I rushed to add. “The chances are excellent. The creep factor is really just surface stuff. The development company recently went through and did an intense cleaning and disinfecting of the entire complex. But the individual leaseholders will be responsible for painting and refurbishing and remodeling their spaces, and that’ll be extensive. They’ll need a lot of landscaping work, too, of course. It’s like any big rehab job. Only in this case, it’s on a massive scale.”

His eyes narrowed, but they still gleamed with humor. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re already involved in this?”

“Because, of course I am.” I smiled and took another bite of steak. “You were back east all month so you didn’t hear the news, but Jane put in a bid for one wing of the old hospital and she won the contract.”

He blinked. “Jane? You’re kidding me.”

“Nope.” I grinned. Of all my girlfriends, I’d known Jane Hennessey the longest. We met in first grade and clicked as soon as we looked around and realized we were both taller than all of the boys in class. When you’re six years old, that’s a truly meaningful basis for friendship.

A few years ago my construction crew and I had refurbished her grandmother’s huge Victorian mansion—formerly a brothel—and helped turn it into an elegant inn. A room at Hennessey House was now one of the most sought-after reservations on the northern coast. And now we hoped to accomplish that same feat up at the Gables.

“What does she have in mind for the space?”

“A hotel,” I whispered excitedly.

He paused, then held his hands out. “Well, why not? Her Hennessey House has been a great success story.”

“Exactly. My crew and I are starting work next week,” I continued. “We plan on turning the north wing of the Gables into a beautiful new Hennessey Hotel, complete with a restaurant, bar, and spa.”

“Wow. I’m really happy to hear it.” He set down his wineglass and reached for my hand. I covered his with mine. “It makes me feel a lot better about my decision to invest in the project.”

“I’m glad. Are you going to meet with the development people soon?”

“Yeah. Rachel wants to give me a tour this Friday.”

I swirled my wine, wondering how soon I could ask Jane more about Rachel. She would’ve gotten to know her pretty well while going through the leasing process. But Jane was at a hotel conference in San Francisco for a few days so my questions would have to wait. “If you’d like to take a look at the place, I can drive you up there tomorrow. It might give you a better perspective before you meet with Rachel. A little sneak preview, if you know what I mean.”

“You bet I do.”

After dinner, both Robbie and Tiger clamored for Mac’s attention while I loaded the dishwasher and cleaned and straightened the kitchen.

As Mac gave Robbie’s tummy a brisk rub, he asked, “What convinced Jane to take a chance on the Gables project?”

I leaned against the counter and took another fortifying sip of wine. It wasn’t breaking any girlfriend rules to tell him the truth, was it? I wondered. After a deep sigh, I said, “You’ll find out sooner or later, but Jane’s mother was a patient at the Gables off and on for years.”

“Oh, wow. Babe, I had no idea. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. Jane went through a rough time for a few years. She never knew when her mom might have another breakdown and disappear for a few months or a year.”

“Did she ever go up there to visit her mom?”

“She did, and I went with her a few times.”

“Really?” He gazed up at me. “So you’ve actually been inside the place.”

“Yes. That was back when we were in school. And then a few weeks ago, after Jane got the deal, we went up there to survey the interiors and check out the amount of work we’ll need to do.”

I sat at the table and pulled Tiger into my arms for a quick hug. “I’ve been doing a lot of research on the history of these institutions around the country and on the Gables in particular. It’s really helping me get a feel for what the original architects had in mind. And since it’s been designated a historical landmark, we’ll have to strictly abide by a bunch of construction and demolition rules we normally wouldn’t have to consider.”

“It sounds like you’ve done your homework.”

“I have. It’s interesting. And basically I’m totally psyched to turn something that was creepy and morbid into a beautiful new place for Jane to expand her hotel empire.”

“If it’s as creepy as you say, maybe it’ll turn out to be haunted after all.”

“Oh don’t say haunted…” We’d had enough of that already, thanks.

He grinned at that. “I know you’ll do an awesome job on the beautification, but I want to see it while it’s still creepy and morbid.”

“I can make that happen,” I said, with a snap of my fingers.

“Fantastic,” he said, and winked roguishly. “As you know, creepy and morbid are my stock in trade.”

© Kate Carlisle