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Authors: Sarah T. Hobart

Death at a Fixer-Upper

BOOK: Death at a Fixer-Upper
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Death at a Fixer-Upper: A Home Sweet Home Mystery
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An Alibi ebook Original

Copyright © 2016 by Sarah T. Hobart

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

A
LIBI
is a registered trademark and the
A
LIBI
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

ebook ISBN 9780399177842

Cover design: Tatiana Sayig

Cover illustration: Shutterstock

randomhousebooks.com

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Chapter 1

I don't believe in ghosts.

So when I found the corpse I didn't fall apart. Not then, anyway. Maybe later, after some other stuff had happened—but that's getting ahead of myself.

I've seen dead bodies before. But not dead like this, with all the flesh eaten away and only pale brittle bones left behind, the fragile framework of what had once been a human being. I confess that a chill settled on my spine: clammy fingers of fear and dread that were only natural, given the circumstances. But ghosts? I don't think so.

I suppose every house is haunted in its own way. Those in my profession like to toss around the term “ambience,” a ten-dollar word that to most agents means a two-dollar spray can of air freshener judiciously applied to musty corners. But what is it really? Memories—joy, sorrow, terror, love—boiled down to their essences and absorbed into the very woodwork, lingering in the air like a whiff of long-forgotten perfume.

My name is Sam Turner, and I'm a single mom and struggling real estate agent in the seaside town of Arlinda, California, where I've been licensed for all of five months now. A few weeks ago my ex-husband showed up at my door after an absence of nearly fourteen years. See, that's exactly my point: we're never as free from our past as we might choose to believe. Once in a blue moon, our ghosts, long imagined to be laid to rest, come back to haunt us.

When it was all over, I could have kicked myself for missing the obvious. But that's hindsight for you. By the time I'd made sense of things, people were dead, and I was…changed. Like I said, though, there's no going back.

Some stories have roots that go down deep into the soil, through the layers of what was and what had been. But I can only tell this story from where I came into it, which was a foggy morning late in May, on my way to look at an old, broken house.

—

A vintage—for that, read ancient—Volkswagen camper held together with duct tape and prayer is hardly the ideal vehicle for navigating a rough country backroad. Jolted from my seat, I clung to the steering wheel in an attempt to keep my cranium from cracking like a soft-boiled egg against the roof of the van. The oiled-dirt surface seemed to alternate between patches of rocky scree and gaping potholes large enough to be classified as ponds and stocked with fingerling trout. For the umpteenth time, I found myself wishing I'd parked on the street, or, better yet, caught a ride with Biddie McCracken, my dour colleague at Home Sweet Home Realty. No doubt Biddie's sleek Lexus had cushioned the bumps and bounces that were even now traveling from my sagging shocks up my spine to the base of my skull. I could feel a beaut of a headache coming on.

An explosion of shrubbery crowded the primitive track known as Aster Lane: willow, box elder, and holly, woven together with English ivy and deep pink clusters of climbing roses, a verdant tangle that served to filter out most of the midmorning light. Poplars lining the lane bowed under their spring burden of pale green leaves, creating a long, dim tunnel fading into gloomy gray.

Suddenly a gate loomed in front of my windshield. I stomped on the brakes and stalled the engine. Just my luck: I'd arrived ahead of Biddie and the place was locked up tight. A real estate lockbox was threaded through one of the pales of the gate.

Sliding off the driver's seat, I landed feetfirst in mud as thick and sticky as roofing tar. “Hell,” I muttered.

I scraped each shoe in turn against the sidewall of the van's front tire, trying not to notice the fibers poking through the worn tread. A cloud of mosquitoes rose up around me, zeroing in on any carelessly exposed flesh. I swatted them away and dug my agent's key card out of my bag. The gate, a somber assembly of twisted wrought iron topped by vicious-looking spikes, was supported by two massive stone pillars. Next to each pillar grew a towering shrub covered with dark needles.

I inserted the card and tapped in my code. The box popped open, revealing a ring of keys. After a few trials, I found the one that fit an oversized padlock threaded through the two halves of the gate. The lock was an old-fashioned type I'd never run into before, a chunk of heart-shaped brass dotted with studs.

Intent on forcing the tumbler around, I was oblivious at first to the creeping quiet that muted the backdrop of birds, leaving a chilly silence in its wake. Even the soft rustle of furry critters in the underbrush faded to nothing. Suddenly gooseflesh, pale and mottled, broke out on my arms.

Someone—or something—was watching me.

Slowly I raised my head. The bustling city street I'd entered from was hidden from view. I stared into the undergrowth, looking for—what? A dog was my first thought, one of my profession's occupational hazards. Real estate agents, along with postal carriers and Seventh-day Adventists, had a better than average shot of finding a pit bull hanging off their backsides at some point in their career. My luck with dogs was about as good as my luck with men.

When a bird issued a few tentative chirps from a nearby thicket, I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled slowly, then scanned the area one more time. A whisper of wind seemed to have sprung from nowhere. The slightest flicker of movement caught my eye: down the lane, a curtain of ivy swayed to and fro. “Pushed by the breeze,” I told myself sternly. No sense letting nerves get the best of me. I squared my shoulders and returned to my task.

At last the lock snapped and I pushed the gate open, cussing under my breath as a shower of droplets rolled down my neck. Dropping the keys in my pocket, I swung myself back into the driver's seat and rolled on. Above the rumble of the engine I could feel the jackhammer beat of my heart against my ribs, and told myself to get a grip.

But when I rounded the last turn and the once grand old house loomed into view I almost stalled the engine again. It was a three-story tumbledown structure smothered by thick vines that climbed right up to the eaves. Weathered redwood boards covered the exterior, any paint long since pulled off by relentless fingers of ivy. A square tower protruded from the roofline like a rude digit. Its steeply sloped roof had caved in, and I caught a glimpse of a gaping hole stuffed with blue tarps. A single arched window was set in the front of the tower; the little glass panes were broken out, leaving shards like jagged teeth. Two windows peered blindly from upper rooms. They'd been boarded over.

Against the dark bulk of the structure, a hunched figure caught my eye. It was a gargoyle, perched to the left of the tower near the corner where the steep roof met the upper story of the house. I could just make out bulging eyes set atop a squat muscular body and the arc of wings that trailed behind it. Its twin squatted on the other side of the tower.

For a moment, I sat and gawped. Thirteen Aster Lane wasn't just a house; it was an estate, more than a century old, ravaged by time and neglect. A
F
OR
S
ALE
sign from Hartshorne & Associates was stabbed into the lawn to the left of a weed-infested brick walk.

Finally I pulled the bus onto a patch of gravel just off the lane and climbed out, picking my way through tall grass to a sagging front porch missing most of its railings. The wide planks of the stairs groaned under my weight, and I pictured myself nursing a broken leg at the hospital, running up a couple of Ben Franklins on my bill every time I asked for an aspirin.

I didn't bother unlocking the front door, as it was secured with a pair of two-by- fours nailed in an X across the frame. Instead, I moved over to one of the big front windows and pressed my face against the glass, trying to see past thick folds of tattered velvet curtains, possibly a rich maroon once but bleached by sunlight to a brassy orange. No sounds or signs of life inside.

A little antsy feeling started in my gut. Where was Biddie? We'd arranged to meet this morning to preview the old estate, in case its “two point six acres with large house in disrepair” was a perfect fit for one of our clients. I couldn't speak as to the breadth of Biddie's client list, but, as mine currently numbered zero, safe to say I was driven more by curiosity than anything else.

I pulled out my phone to check the time. Suddenly a dog barked, followed by the sound of crashing in the underbrush. Adrenaline coursed through my system and the phone slipped from my fingers, bounced once off the spongy boards, and disappeared into the tall grass. Great, just great. Search for my phone or risk being torn to shreds by a slavering Great Dane? Just another happy choice in the life of a real estate agent.

I began to feel around in the grass. Nothing. I probed a little deeper. Something skittered across my arm and I yanked my hand back with a squawk, just in time to see a big black spider, the hairy kind with bulging compound eyes, disappear up the sleeve of my jacket. Oh,
shit
! I whipped off the jacket and tossed it on the stairs, slapping at my arm. Not that I'm afraid of spiders or other creepy-crawlies, of course. I just like things where I can see them.

As I attempted a couple of deep calming breaths, the grass began to ring. I traced the noise to my phone and glanced at the number. Max. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey. No practice tonight. What's for dinner?” My son, now fifteen, had shot up six inches in the last year and had the metabolism of a rabid hummingbird.

“Not sure what's on the menu. I'll just throw something together.”

“I'll cook tonight.”

“You don't have to.”

“Actually, I do. School assignment. You want French? Italian? Comfort food?”

I smiled a little. “Surprise me. There's cash in the cookie jar if you need supplies.” I realized I was shivering in the clammy mist. Leaving my jacket to the spider, I made my way back to the bus and climbed in.

“I suppose you haven't heard anything about the house,” he said.

Glory be, we were on the brink of moving out of our crummy apartment into a home of our own. “Everything's on track the last I heard,” I said, trying not to hyperventilate even more.

“Sweet.” He paused. “You been jogging or something?”

The surprise in his voice was an affront. “Listen, I could jog any time I wanted to,” I said huffily. “I'm just, you know, busy.”

“Sure.”

“I mean it. Anyway, no. Just hanging out. At the old Harrington estate.”

“Oh, wow,” he said. “You know the place is haunted, right?”

“Don't be ridiculous.”

“Seriously. Some scary s—um, stuff went down there. Years ago. All the kids know about it. You don't wanna be there at night. Or alone.”

The hair on my neck stood up a bit. “Gee, thanks. Shouldn't you be in class conjugating a verb or something? Besides, I'm not alone.” At least, not now. I could see Biddie's silver Lexus inching up the lane.

“That's good,” he said. “Catch you later.”

“Wait—” But he had hung up.

I stared moodily at the dark screen. Hard to believe I was the mother of a teenager. I'd never learned why Wayne, my ex, left us when Max was just a baby, and even as I shouldered the responsibility of raising my son alone, I suppose on some level I'd always figured it was due to some shortcoming on my part. Or because men were dickheads in general. Probably both. Lesson learned: over the last thirteen years I'd kept my heart as tightly gated as Aster Lane. Until…well, I'm getting to that.

Wonder of wonders, Max—bright, serious, hardworking, funny—had turned out okay. Maybe even great. That he was starting high school and not reform school in the fall was surely a testament to the adequacy of my parenting.

Suddenly Biddie rapped on the window. “You gonna sit there and daydream or should we walk through this scrap heap?” she said. Even through the tempered glass, her corncrake voice set my teeth on edge.

“Sorry,” I said, then kicked myself for apologizing. So what if she had decades of real estate experience and a client list as big as her frowsy head of red curls? I might be a rookie, but I was learning fast. To tell the truth, I'd been a little surprised Biddie invited me along, since we were hardly bosom buddies. For a moment I toyed with the idea that the home's eerie reputation had reached her ears. Then I shook my head. Confronted with spirits of the dearly departed, Biddie, no doubt, would have pressed a business card into their ectoplasm and converted them to clients.

She was regarding me without enthusiasm through pale blue, watery eyes. In contrast to her coquettish locks, her cheeks were broad and fleshy, as if a couple of veal cutlets had been inserted under the skin. She'd brushed an arc of magenta blusher on either side of her nose to suggest cheekbones where none existed, a little beauty tip she'd gleaned from magazines. Her schnoz sported a network of broken capillaries that hinted at generous doses of alcohol and/or allergic rhinitis.

With a snort of impatience, she turned on her heel and strode off through the grass. I scrambled after her, resisting the urge to clutch at her sleeve. “I have the keys,” I said. “But the door's nailed shut.”

“There's another door off the kitchen around back. Most of the main house has been closed up for years.” She marched on, following the brick path around the corner of the house. Judging by her pace, she'd breakfasted on pure adrenaline. A lot of agents I knew were like that, continually operating on overdrive, always accessible by mobile phone, fax, text, or two Dixie cups connected by string. I couldn't see that lifestyle working for me. Most of the time I just wanted people to leave me the hell alone.

I retrieved my jacket and trailed after her, wincing at the window frames riddled with rot, the cracked glass, and damaged shingles. The house defined the words “money pit.” No doubt a new owner would waste no time knocking down the old place and erecting some homage to excess wealth and bad taste. Or carve the land into postage stamp–size parcels, each with its own three-car garage and modest ranch house tucked in almost as an afterthought.

BOOK: Death at a Fixer-Upper
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