Chapter 1: Petty Annoyances
It’s up to the living to take care of each other. The dead have had their chances. That thought spun through my head as I rounded the corner in my trusty little VW, easing the brakes so I would not go into a skid. I had no idea why thoughts of the dead should be running through my mind, just then. Perhaps it was because I was overtired, and the roads were even more treacherous than usual. After a few narrow escapes from head-on collisions, due to black ice, death seemed rather imminent for at least a few people on the road. Facing the possibility of sudden death must be what brought that thought to mind. At least, that was what I told myself, as I drove home that evening.
I slid the car into my driveway, turned off the windshield wipers and the heat, and cut the engine. It was a relief to be done with the day. I leaned my head against the back rest and closed my eyes. I used to like winter. The first snowfall is special. It is the fairy snow, and I can always tell when it will come by the smell in the air, the ozone that smells of wet woolen mittens. However, middle of winter doldrums had settled in. After shoveling sidewalks too many times to count, and struggling to start a frozen car first thing in the morning so I could get to work on time, any sense of winter’s charms had long since been buried under snow drifts that were well over my knees.
I worked as an accountant in an attorney’s office with two other secretaries. One of them had quit the day before. I suspected odd circumstances at the office may have forced the girl to leave. In any event, it meant more work for everyone that day.
It would feel so good to simply go to bed and forget about problems for a few hours. I trudged up the walk, noting that the snow was too deep to ignore. I should come out right after supper with a shovel, and that was not the way I wanted to spend my evening. I huffed and puffed up the stairs to my apartment, turned on the heat and made myself a cup of tea, while waiting for the heat to kick in before I took off my coat. I sat at the kitchen table, holding the mug in both hands, to absorb as much warmth from the tea as possible.
My orange tiger cat, Tango, came in from the bedroom and curled up at my feet. He had been part of a litter born in the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. When he was a kitten, he found his way up the stairs to my apartment, and decided he didn’t want to leave, even though I dutifully returned him to the home of his birth, at least four times, before admitting defeat. As the kitchen warmed up, I fixed a solitary supper; a cheese omelet with some vegetables left from the day before. I dropped a few pieces of egg in Tango’s kibble and gave him some fresh water, then sat down to eat while reading a science fiction book for company. The heat blew in through the register, warming my back. Between that and my mug of hot tea, I very nearly dozed off. And then the phone rang.
“Hello?” I hadn’t bothered to see who was on the caller ID, and I felt a pang of disappointment when my stepmother’s voice chirped through the receiver.
“Josepha, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I need you over here now.”
“I can’t, Mother. I have to be at work early in the morning.”
“Look, sweetheart, it’s important, or I wouldn’t ask you to do this. I need you here for a seance.”
“No ... Um ... There was an intruder last night. Someone came in and I heard all kinds of stuff going on downstairs. I don’t want to be in here alone tonight.”
“You called the locksmith about getting an alarm put on your apartment?” I called it an apartment. My stepmother’s home was part of a Nineteenth Century row house.
“I did, but they won’t be able to come around till next week.”
“You want me to move in with you till then?”
“Not really, no. But would you come over tonight?”
“I’ll be there in an hour.” I sighed, hung up the phone, put my coat and boots back on and headed out the door to make a stab at clearing the front walk. Half an hour later, my hands were burning with cold, I put an extra portion of kibble in the bowl for Tango, and headed over to my stepmother’s home on the other side of town.
Her name is Maggie Brown, and she used to describe how she had found me wandering through Wayfarer’s Park, crying for my mother. She said I had been wearing a very old-fashioned dress, and little hand stitched slippers of red velvet, tied on with ribbons. I do remember insisting on wearing those slippers, long after I had grown out of them.
She said she had searched everywhere for my parents; running ads in papers from all over Massachusetts, and contacting child welfare agencies across the state. No one could give her any information as to where I had come from, and so, she applied to adopt me.
Every time I walk into her house, I feel as though I am walking into a time warp. The weathered brownstone facing on the outside, identical to the brownstone facing on the entire block of row-houses, is not unusual for a gentrified urban center. Inside, her apartment was a tunnel of small, dark rooms, each lined with dark paneling, wainscoting, that covers all the walls from about midway, down to the floor — like vastly overgrown baseboards. Over the years, Maggie had furnished the place with antiques that would have been appropriate to the house when it was first built, during the late 1850s. She even found a stove that burned both gas and coal for the kitchen, and had been tempted to have the heat for her apartment converted back to coal. After exploring that possibility, she decided it would be far too expensive and messy.
She met me at the door, her head wrapped in a silk turban, with tassels dangling at the back of her neck. “Mother, that thing on your head — isn’t that part of the old livingroom curtains? I thought you said they were too cruddy to use any more.”
“Yes it is, darling. But I couldn’t bear to throw the old things away. They are just my colors — and so appropriate for a seance — don’t you think?”
I almost grinned. That was definitely my adoptive mother. Fatigue won out, though. I was too tired to do anything but get right to the point. “I thought you said there had been a break-in.”
“There was. Last night. I heard someone slip the door open.”
“You didn’t forget to lock it, did you?”
“Josepha, you know how I feel about locks.”
“Yeah, I know. You were the only one in the neighborhood who never locked the door when I was growing up. I don’t know how you survived into the twenty-first century without getting robbed.”
“By being true to myself, dear.”
I could have said a lot to that one, but decided it would be better not to. “I’m nearly frozen, and something warm would be good. Shall I fix you something? A pot of tea?”
“Go sit down. I’ll warm up some of the stew I had earlier.”
When the two of us were seated at the kitchen table, I continued my questions. “All right. What is this business about a break-in and a seance? Tell me what happened.”
“Well, about the seance...” she glanced around the room, as though hoping an answer that would satisfy me would pop through the walls and save her. “Timothy Abbadon, from next door should be here in about fifteen minutes, and Loretta said she would come too.”
As soon as I heard his name, I truly wished I had stayed home, curled up in my own bed with a good book. Timothy, with his syrupy sweet voice always gave me the willies. “The break-in?”
“Well, that is why I’m having a seance. You see there was this curious tapping and knocking around in the living room last night, and it kept getting colder and colder. I was mostly asleep, and thought I was dreaming — otherwise I would have come downstairs and found out what the fellow wanted.”
“It could have been the radiators popping. Was anything missing when you got up this morning?”
“No. Just things moved around. Papers on my desk were not where I had put them — letters and things like that were pushed around. But as far as I know, everything is still here. I even found a message from him.”
“There was a note on the coffee table. I found it when I was putting things away. It was from my brother, Max.”
“He’s been dead for years! Mom, someone is playing a prank on you.”
“No. I know his handwriting.”
“Let me see.”
Mother showed me the note. It was written on a rumpled piece of note paper, and it said; ‘Daisy, I’m coming back. Max.’ it looked as though it could have been written at any time within the last thirty years. “Mom, the edge of that paper is singed as though it had been burned.” I held the note out so she could see it.
“That? No. He tore it from this note pad. It has a deckled edge, and it’s stained where I spilled some coffee on it.”
The doorbell rang, so I got up to carry my bowl to the sink. “You go answer your door. I’ll take care of the dishes.”
The thought I’d had on my way home from work, that ghosts and the spirits of the dead should be permitted to lead their own existences, without interference from the living, or being asked to guide the living, came to mind. Prophetic? I didn’t want to think so. I peeked around the corner to see who had come. Timothy stood in the entry, stamping the snow from his boots. “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses, Daisy. You know, I’ve been telling you for years this place is haunted.”
“Daisy,” I grumbled to myself in the kitchen, “Since when does that slimy man call my mother, Daisy? Her name is Margaret.”
Maggie took his coat and hung it in the closet, before sitting down on the couch beside him, with a flirtatious sigh. “You are so right.” Timothy is short and round, and with his pale coloring; wispy pale hair, eyes so pale they are colorless, and pasty complexion, he looks only half-baked.
I ground my teeth, and filled the kettle with fresh water for tea. Once it had come to a boil, I put the tea in the pot to steep.
Loretta James knocked at the door so quietly I almost didn’t hear it. She is so thin I wonder if she is malnourished, and always cold. Even on the warmest days in summer, she wore a heavy dress, stockings and a sweater. This evening, she did not want to take off her coat. “Oh, don’t bother with it,” she said when I offered to hang it up for her. “I’ll take it off when I get warm.”
Maggie invited all of us out to the dining room where I had arranged the tea pot and a plate filled with raisin cookies. Loretta filled her cup and sipped, huddling in her coat. I was so sleepy, all I wanted to do was go to bed. Timothy got up, saying, “Let me take over. I know more about this sort of thing than any of you. Aleister used to be my neighbor when I was a little boy. Oh, you may not believe me, but it’s true. He was our neighbor and I used to sit on his knee...”
As I recalled, the historical Aleister had been a charlatan, or at least a questionable character. I assumed that man had lived and died long before Timothy had even been a gleam in his parents’ eyes, as the saying goes. I wanted to throw something at Timothy, sitting there looking so smug, but refrained — it took some effort.
Maggie gathered up the tea things and took them back to the kitchen. She brought back four long white tapers with candlestick holders to the table. “Now, we’ll just light these and turn out the overhead, and then we’ll be ready to begin.” I sat down between Timothy, who said he had learned from Aleister, and Loretta. Maggie completed the circle.
The flickering candles, coupled with Timothy’s droning voice, repeating over and over again something about calling the spirits to communicate with us, had me struggling to stay awake. I tried to keep my eyes open, but it was a battle I could not win. Timothy’s voice continued to drone, as spirals of smoke from the candles made lazy circles around the room. The next thing I knew, the lights were turned back on and Maggie was standing in front of me, with her hands on my shoulders, beaming at me with a large smile. “Josepha, I can’t believe it!”
I stretched and looked around. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep like that.”
Timothy stood up, grasped my hand in both of his and deposited a sloppy kiss on my fingers. “You! You are ... I have never seen anyone like you.”
Loretta held my other hand and wept, dripping tears up my arm. I couldn’t wait for all of them to let go, so I could head to the bathroom to wash my hands, or better still, take a bath. I tried to stand up, and failed. “I think I need to get home to bed.”
Maggie put her arm around my shoulders. “No, dear. After what you have been through, you are going to spend the night right here. I’ll fix up the guest room for you.”
The guest room wasn’t quite as creepy as the rest of her apartment. The bed was only a hundred-years-old, and it did have a new mattress — at least it wasn’t original to the bed. I permitted her to lead me off to her guest room, while Timothy and Loretta let themselves out the door.
It was past midnight when I curled under the covers, hoping that I could just get to sleep so that I could get up early enough to get back to my apartment and put on a fresh skirt and blouse, before heading to the office. I did not want to have to call in late or sick. Truth to tell, it would be so lovely to simply forget any problems at work.
The wind howled around the corner of the building, waking me up from an uneasy slumber. I could see by the light of the street lamp that the snow was still coming down. It looked and sounded as though the storm was getting worse.
Just as I was beginning to doze off, again, the sound of a player piano, banging away at some rollicking melody that I could almost identify, woke me up. Uncle Max had given Maggie an antique player piano when I was little. My friends used to insist on running all the piano rolls through it, nearly every time they came to the house. One enterprising boy cut two of the rolls up, and taped them together to make a new melody. The experiment almost worked — until sticky tape got tangled and stuck to the inside workings of the piano. The mess had to be cleaned out at great expense before it would play again. Maggie had been pretty angry with me for destroying a valued antique.
It couldn’t be Uncle Max’ spirit playing the old thing. Absolutely not. And whatever had happened at the seance, I did not want to know. I dozed off again, for what must have been less than ten minutes, swearing that whatever Timothy had said or done, it was a parlor trick of some sort. He was reprehensible. How could Maggie be so utterly gullible? I would like to give her a piece of my mind. And, who was pumping the player piano at three o’clock in the morning? It was a wonder somebody didn’t call the police. Did the next-door neighbor own a player piano? I made up my mind to ask Maggie about it in the morning. She might be loony, but I doubted that she would have been up playing the old thing. I truly wished I were sound asleep.
I scrunched around under the quilts, almost afraid to close my eyes, for if I did fall asleep, I was so weary I was certain to oversleep and be late getting started with my day. Maybe taking the day off, or even just half the day, wouldn’t be a bad idea.
I lay awake until the alarm went off, then stumbled out of bed. My mouth tasted more sour than usual. I tidied myself up the best I could, and headed for the front door. Maggie waylaid me, saying, “You need some breakfast.”
I would have pushed past her, but years of training overpowered me. I turned the corner into the kitchen, where I found a bowl of hot oatmeal at my place, a plate of scrambled eggs, and a naval orange, peeled and segmented.
“Eat something before you go to work. Though judging by the condition of the roads out there, I doubt anyone will go out at all this morning. I heard on the radio that schools are closed, and a lot of other places too. Maybe you should wait till the storm lets up before you go anywhere.”
I looked up to see out the window and grunted. The world was heavily quilted in snow. The snow plow going down the street was heaping at least two feet of snow onto the sidewalk. She might be right, but I was not going to admit that. I wanted to solve the mystery of what had kept me awake all night. “Mother, does anyone around here have a player piano?”
“Not that I know of. I still have the one we used to own, down in the cellar. Since Max died, I haven’t wanted to do much with those old things of his.”
“He had quite a collection of stuff, didn’t he?”
“The gramophone is still down there, and the penny-farthing bicycle.
“Yeah, I remember Uncle Max tried to get me on it once. I always liked riding a bicycle — but that? They used to call them bone-breakers for a reason. Ugh! Wooden wheels and no brakes!”
“Max acted like a little boy sometimes. You know I really want you to stay home today.”
“I’m going to call in to see what’s happening before I make up my mind about that.”
Maggie fidgeted around the kitchen, arranging and rearranging boxes and canisters on the counter before saying, “I can’t understand it. You and Max are so different. Why would he choose to speak through you?”
“Mother, I just fell asleep last night. I was so tired that as soon as I sat down in that chair, I couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
“Max was speaking through you.”
“He was not! It was a parlor trick. It had to be.”
She turned around to face me, with her hands on her hips. The bells on her shawl — did I say she was wearing a shawl with bells stitched to it? The bells on her shawl jangled as she spun around. “I saw and I heard what happened, Josepha.”
“Timothy was playing games with you and Loretta, and the two of you are so naive you believe everything he says!”
Maggie leaned over and kissed the top of my head, as she gathered the dishes to put in the sink. “You know, honey, we need to explore this further. For your own sake, you should learn how to control it.”
“Mom, there’s nothing to control. I fell asleep at the table.”
“It was more than that, dear.”
The argument was going nowhere. Besides, how can you argue about what you may have done when you were asleep and dreaming? It really was time to get out of there before we both said things we would be sorry for. “Well, I hate to eat and run, but I’ve really got to go.”
The side streets were still snowed in, but the main roads were plowed and sanded, and when I turned on the radio the weather announcer was predicting that the storm would be over by noon. I called my boss on my cell phone as I headed down the highway back to my apartment. “Hello, Rudi? I’m going to be about a half hour late.” Rudi told me not to worry, that he would be late this morning as well.
“The fact that you’re facing Federal charges has me rattled.”
“Yeah, well, I should have seen it coming. I did see it coming and I made a conscious decision to continue helping people, because it is the right thing to do.”
“You are a good man to do that.” That was one thing I liked about my boss. He stood up for what he believed in. Sometimes he had to deal with some fairly odious characters. He wasn’t afraid to sue corporations on behalf of people who had too little money to pay him. And, he had a reputation for winning cases that most people thought were hopeless.
For safety, I followed the snow plow down the road. Perhaps, if I took my time to bathe and dress, most of the snow would be cleared away by the time I was ready to go back into town. I clicked my cell phone off, parked the car in my driveway, sat back and took a deep breath before getting out.
Come to think of it, when I was in college, I awakened from a longish nap to find my dorm mates standing around my bed, giggling hysterically. “All right — let me in on the joke. What is it?” I shouted at them. They burst out laughing even harder at the sound of my voice. I recalled sitting up and rubbing my eyes, trying to get my bearings. “Explain to me what happened.”
“It’s you. You talk in your sleep!”
“So?” I was unimpressed.
“I mean, you really talk in your sleep!”
I hadn’t cared at the time. The girls were pretty silly, anyway. So, I might have answered some questions, or said something odd. When you’re in the midst of dream sleep, who knows what crazy things you might say? There were probably some studies on that. I made up my mind to look up some of those studies and confront Maggie with them when I saw her again. In the meantime, I needed to get to work.
Three calls were blinking on my answering machine when I walked in my living room. As soon as I had bathed and changed my clothes, I sat down with a tablet and pen to write down any messages that might be important. Two of them turned out to be sales pitches. The third one was a voice I thought I recognized, but it couldn’t be — not Uncle Max. No way. The man had been dead for at least fifteen years, and he was not reappearing in my life, or Maggie’s, for that matter. It had to be somebody who sounded like him. I didn’t know anyone who would play a prank like that. I played the message back to see if I could figure out who it was. It sounded as though there was static on the line, or he’d been calling from his cell phone while driving. I have no patience for that. People shouldn’t make calls when they are driving, even though I do it myself. It was a man’s husky voice saying, “I will return,” and something else that was lost in static. It left too much unfinished, and I would not believe it was Uncle Max. There was no callback number, and there was enough static on the line it could have been anyone — even a wrong number. That had to be it — just a wrong number. I deleted all three of the messages.
By the time I left my apartment, the sun had come out. What had been snow was rapidly turning to slush. Driving was easier, though it was slippery where I didn’t expect it to be.
When I arrived at Hermann and Straus, the office was in turmoil. Three lackeys from the District Attorney’s office were turning files out onto the floor and sifting through them. They had Rudi’s secretary copying hundreds of files for their records. The DA had laid an injunction against all the files, both on the computers and on paper. No work could be done until his lackeys had completed their investigation of Rudi’s office, the crime scene. Investigation of what crime? No one knew for certain, including the DA. No one said what accusations were being laid against my boss, or what they were using as evidence to bolster those accusations. I was not even permitted to speak with Rudi, as that would be considered tampering with a witness. He quietly let me know that I would be paid when the DA’s Office unlocked his bank accounts. They had all been impounded for investigative purposes. That one little aside was the extent of our communication that day.
Up until then, I had been the accountant in his office. I knew how much he charged his clients, and when and how he paid his bills and his employees. I also knew he had been doing nothing dishonest — not with his money. He was one of the few lawyers I knew who had a social conscience. He had a reputation for taking pro-bono cases at the expense of earning a living. I respected my boss, and cared about him in ways I wouldn’t if he had been more like other lawyers I had known. For Rudi, money was not the bottom line. He wasn’t a good business man, in that way.
I left the office around two that afternoon, after spending a couple of hours pulling files out from storage so the DA’s minions could cherry pick their way through them. I felt as though they were looking for something they could charge my boss with, and coming up with a blank slate. There was nothing I could do to stop the investigators. I drove home feeling depressed that Rudi had to put up with this indignity, and angry at the world for being the way it is.
The sun was shining more forcefully and the storm of the last two days had become a gray, slushy mess. Sunshine on dirty slush only added to my depression — my sense of disillusionment with the world. I parked the car in the drive and sat for several minutes, feeling the weight of sadness bear down on me.
I could deal with being unemployed for a few weeks, but beyond that, it would be too much of a strain on my savings. I thought I might be able to pick up some clients on a freelance basis, cutting down on the amount of money I would have to pull out of savings. There should be some work out there, if my job in Rudi’s office didn’t get into the papers. However, I had a feeling that once people became aware of my connection with his law office, any clients I might have would want to drop me right away. At least, that was what ran through my head as I sat in the drive, in front of my apartment.