THE RAVENSGATE CHRONICLES: UNHOLY AWAKENING
The next morning, I contacted Dale Ortman again. I convinced him to meet with me concerning other possible real estate deals that would benefit both of us. That was my excuse anyway. This would allow me to inquire about the groundskeeper.
We agreed to sit down at the Coffee Nook in town the following evening, the same place where I thought I saw the groundskeeper spying on me. The café was half full and smelled of fresh brew. College students sat with their noses in books and laptops. A few octogenarians in the corner discussed politics from what I could hear, and a small chess club had at their game.
I ordered a cappuccino from the cute redhead behind the counter. She was in her mid-twenties and had a small nose ring above her right nostril.
“You’re new here,” she said, smiling. “Usually the same old customers come in every day. It’s good to see a new face.”
“I just moved to Ravensgate not too long ago. I like it here, it’s quiet,” I replied.
“Yeah. I saw you here before. You came in to use the restroom the other day. Don’t care for Ravensgate much myself. I’ll be transferring to U of M next semester, and I’m out of here,” she said gleefully.
“Oh yeah? What’s your major?”
“Fine Art. I’m Claire,” she said, handing me the cappuccino.
I gave her my name, thanked her for the drink, and sat at a table next to the front window with a good view of Main and the Red Fawn Bookstore across the street. Through the bookstore’s large front window, I saw Wendy putting books on a shelf.
From my peripheral I saw Dale Ortman walking toward me from Claire’s counter and he sat down at the table in front of me.
“Good to see you, Cole,” Dale said, holding a coffee. “Hope I didn’t startle ya. I came in through the back entrance.”
“Not at all. Glad you could make it, Dale.”
We talked about the real estate market in Ravensgate and the possibility of working on a deal before I finally got around to asking him what had been on my mind.
“The groundskeeper of the house,” I said. “You know, he’s done an excellent job with the place. How long has he been working for you?”
“Not long. I hired him soon after I acquired the house you bought from me.”
“Did you hire him through a property management company?”
“No, he came to me, said he needed a job. He offered to take care of the place for cheap. I usually don’t do that sort of thing, let a stranger take care of one of my properties, but I let him. Soon as you bought the house, he quit.”
“So, he had access to the entire house?”
“Yeah, usually when I was around. For the most part, he took care of the outside. I gave him the keys so he could dust the place, take care of the plants in the room in the back of the house, water them, open the blinds for sunlight. He gave the keys right back when I asked for them.”
“He went into the house alone then?”
“That he did. Is there anything wrong with the inside of the house?”
“Not at all. He did a great job,” I said. Good thing I changed the locks, I thought. He could have made copies of the keys. “What’s his name?”
Dale paused for a moment. “You know, for the life of me, I don’t remember.” He stared at the floor, seeming to gather his thoughts. Did he forget out of convenience? Or was he experiencing short-term amnesia?
“I’ll come to me later,” he said. “In fact, I’m sure I have his name in my records someplace.”
I decided not to push the issue.
“So, who lived in the house before you gave a land contract to your last buyer?” I asked, changing the subject.
“A married couple,” he said. “They lived in the place for some years until they both left town a few years ago. Payments on the house stopped. It went into foreclosure, and that’s when I snatched it up.”
“Who were they, the married couple?”
“Manuel and Elise Hall. I went to school with Elise when we were kids. Her last name was Singleton then. She was adopted as a baby about forty years ago by the Singletons, a couple who couldn’t have children. After middle school, my family moved away, and I didn’t see her for decades. I’ve only moved back to Ravensgate about seven years ago. The last time I saw her she was with her husband at the Pumpkin Festival. That was a few years back in October.”
“Where are they now?”
“No one knows. According to rumor, Manuel Hall, a military man, got himself in a bit of trouble with the law, so they both got out of Dodge.”
“Elise was adopted? Any idea what foster agency took care of her as a child?”
“There’s only one place that could have back then, St. Mary’s orphanage in the next county. You have a lot of questions today, Mr. Mendoza.”
To avoid appearing too nosy, I stopped there and briefly changed the subject. After more small talk, Ortman went on his way. Sipping coffee, I sat looking out the window and people watched for a little bit. It was getting dark. I waved goodbye to Claire and left the coffeehouse.
That night I went back to the Victorian, and after working in the study for a few hours, I turned in for the night. In the guest room, lights out, I lay in bed and began to doubt my little investigation was going anywhere. I did security, but I was no detective.
A noise in the hall interrupted my train of thought. Creaking floorboards caused by footsteps, one after the other. Someone was walking in the hall.
My heart dropped, and I stared into the darkness of the hallway but saw no one. The footsteps continued toward the stairs. I mustered the courage to jump out of bed, then peeked out. I heard someone slowly descending the creaky steps to the first floor, but no one was visible.
“Cole,” said the faint, whispering voice of a woman.
Was it the woman in the green dress?
I walked through the hall, my hand trailing the banister, until I reached the top step. I gazed downstairs to the first floor—no one there. The wooden steps continued to creak, caused by unseen footsteps persisting downward.
I followed down the stairs behind the sounds. As I paused on the landing, looking down the stairs, a white mist formed on the bottom floor. It churned and swirled until it became human in shape.
As the details manifested, she looked up at me. She wasn’t the woman I saw before walking past the study. This woman wore a sleeveless blue nightgown and had long dark hair. I recognized the look on her face. It was the same melancholy look of the marble bust in Sandy’s sanctuary. The very same look and the very same face.
The apparition kept her eyes on mine as she walked on the first floor down the hall toward the back of the house, then out of sight. My hands shook, but I followed her. Once I reached the bottom floor, she was nowhere to be seen.
She then emerged at the back of the house near the sanctuary, peeking from behind the corner of the wall next to the basement door. Dark hair fell along the side of her face as she gazed at me once more, sadness in her brown eyes. “Help us,” she whispered then moved behind the corner out of sight.
“Hey!” I exclaimed as I ran down the hall in her direction. When I reached the end, she wasn’t there and the basement door slowly opened, stopping midway, revealing dense darkness. I was being invited to go down into the cellar.