If you’re just arriving, you may want to start with the first chapter. Here is a table of contents:
Beau was waiting for me in the school’s lobby. High school teachers don’t have offices, and the lobby at nine o’clock in the morning was more private than the teachers’ lounge. “Let’s get out of here and grab a coffee,” I suggested.
Lacey Flowers’ Bakery was just across the street and half a block south. It wouldn’t be busy now. Lacey handed us each a ceramic mug – not the usual plain, mass-produced, generic white stoneware restaurant supply mug – I suspect she’d painted them herself, at Gillian’s Ceramics Arts next door. Beau’s was shaped like a red fox, its handle a curling, white, brushy tail. Mine was a wide-eyed owl, with a leafy branch for a handle. Lacey loved all things unique and whimsical, and her creativity was never more apparent than in the special occasion cakes she designed, herself.
We filled our mugs full of Lacey’s brew – a special blend of coffee beans Lacey also hand-crafted and brewed to perfection. She’d confessed to me, once, that the hand-crafted house blend was a random mix of single-sourced coffee beans that smelled freshest and looked the most robust each time she went to the grocery store that carried them in bulk. As a base, she generally chose a good Columbian or Kenya AA, but added scoops of whatever else struck her fancy that day. She couldn’t reproduce the blend if she tried, but her accidental, intuitive mash-ups were always tasty.
Once we found a quiet corner seat by the window, Beau pulled Gran’s letter from his pocket and handed it to me. Gran’s handwriting on the envelope made me teary. I wanted to open it slowly, gently, but there was her wax seal and it had to be broken. I studied it for a moment, then looked up at Beau. “That’s not Gran’s seal.”
He smiled. “She knew you’d say that.” The seal, in a swirl of green and gold-flecked sealing wax, was a single, falling maple leaf. Gran’s signet ring was a unicorn rampant; we’d bought matching rings and sealing wax when I was ten, and had played chess by mail for a year. I can’t now recall which of us won, or whether we’d even finished the game. But I’d never seen her use a maple leaf as a seal.
I opened the letter. There, again, was her unmistakable handwriting.
If you are reading this, it’s because you’re dithering. You know how I feel about that, child. Think, act, no regrets – be bold! When the head and the heart converge, there’s your answer. Indecision is a failure to mediate the differences between rational thought and emotions. What’s the conflict? How can you turn it into a win-win? Is either path a bad choice? Discard it, then.
Gee, Gran, you’re no help, I thought. No, neither path seemed a bad choice. One would require me to take a sabbatical, but that was not a bad choice at this juncture, and I had it coming to me. I could spend it in the U.K., ostensibly studying the classics for the thousandth time, or I could spend it focusing on my own writing at Farnsworth Manor. I could write a paper on the psychology of the heroine of the gothic romance. There were no bad choices, here.
So what was my heart telling me? It was telling me I needed a change of scenery, reminding me that I ought to have grand adventures while I was still young enough to enjoy them. I could have sworn, though, that it wanted to travel – not get pinned down living in an abandoned manor house perched on rocks over the ocean.
It’s a house, I reminded myself. Not a safari.
Janie, you know what I’d choose, and I know what you’d choose if I were there to play Watson to your Holmes. Together, we would explore Farnsworth Manor and discover its mysteries. You don’t think a one hundred fifty year old house perched on a cliff could be devoid of mysteries, do you?
Then again, perhaps you’ve found a young man in the time we’ve been apart. Perhaps he has enough of his own mysteries for you to unravel, and if that’s the case, I wish you all the happy sleuthing of a lifetime. I’m just sorry I won’t be there for these joyous moments in your life, but I hope you’ll feel me near you in spirit, cheering you on.
There was no young man. I’d thought there might have been, with Stewart, until I realized how relieved I felt at his popping out of the closet and popping open the champagne. Stewart and I were better friends than lovers, and he’d saved me painful weeks, months – years? – of agonizing over how to tell him that. There was no one. I could discard that option, for the moment, and the certainty of it did not cause me a moment’s sorrow.
So, really, there was nothing holding me back. I might as well hole up and write, rent free, for a year. I could then choose to keep the house or sell it, with a nice chunk of cash left over either way. There was no downside to this.
Unless, of course, there were vampires and Gran conveniently forgot to mention that to me.
A vampire infestation would be more welcome than the rats and spiders that would doubtless resent any interlopers. Zombies? No. I shuddered. I had to draw a line, somewhere. I had my priorities: zombies would be a deal-breaker. Vampires, negotiable. Rats and spiders? I made a mental note to buy a blow-torch at the local Ace Hardware Store. Or call an exterminator.
Fine. I glanced down at the letter. The ink was an odd shade of brown. Gran was a firm believer in using a good pen filled with blue-black ink for all personal correspondence. Brown was as out of character as the maple leaf seal. I scooted my chair back, grabbed Beau’s mug and mine, and, under the pretense of getting refills, asked Lacey if she had any of those little Sterno burners caterers used to keep food warm. She gave me a puzzled look, but pulled one out of the pantry and gave it to me. “Light it for me?” I asked.
“What’s up with you, Janie?” she asked, lighting the little burner without waiting for an answer. It blazed brightly, but did not burn as hot as my curiosity, now.
“I’m not sure. Call it a hunch. I’ll explain later.” I took the mugs in one hand, and the burner in the other, setting them down carefully on the table. Beau watched with one eyebrow arched.
I held Gran’s letter just far enough from the flame not to light it on fire, and moved it slowly around. There! Invisible ink! She had taught me how to make it out of lemon juice when I showed an interest in forensic science. We’d spent the summer dusting everything for fingerprints – even found a nice, clear toeprint, once, and nailed the neighbor’s dog for pilfering a bag of beef jerky – and writing our case notes in invisible ink so the culprits would not guess we were hot on their trails. These memories made me smile.
Her cryptic code made me smile even more. Beau looked perplexed at the string of letters and numbers that had appeared upon the page. “What the–“
“You’re not supposed to understand it, Beau. I am. And I do. Okay, this seals the deal,” I said, folding the paper to keep its hidden message from the lawyer’s inquisitive gaze. This was between my grandmother and me. “When can I get the keys?”
Beau handed me another sheaf of papers. In it was a copy of Gran’s will, the deed to Farnsworth, and a contract with blanks for move in date and final disposition. I would have to remain in residence at Farnsworth for the period of one full year, or forfeit all claim to the estate and the annuity. Once signed, there would be no option to back out and sell it for a lump sum.
But that code had cinched it. I’d only got the gist of it, of course – I’d need a reference to solve the rest. But Gran had gone to this much trouble, I could not disappoint that part of her that lived on, in me. I skimmed the paperwork and signed the next year of my life away, beginning on the first full weekend after the end of the spring term.
“Can I get the keys and take a look at the place now, Beau?”
The lawyer shook his head. “She was very clear on that, Janie. You get the keys the day you move in.”
“What about the grounds? There is no reason for me not to take a look around the grounds, surely?
Beau flipped through the stack of documents I’d just signed. The house was guarded by an electric fence and a wrought-iron gate, the codes to which would be turned over with the keys. “I suppose I can’t stop you from swimming, but I wouldn’t advise it. You might not live to tell the tale.” He seemed serious. “The rocks at Devil’s Finger are sharp, and the Cauldron – well, nothing’s survived being sucked into that.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Your gran bequeathed it to you, Janie. Not to me.” Of course he would have ventured out to the estate; how else could he have valued it.
“Is the place furnished? How long has it been empty? Is there a caretaker?” I was suddenly full of questions.
“Yes. And it has been empty for nearly twenty-seven years. There’s a couple, there, he mows the lawn, she keeps the place from gathering mountains of dust, but that’s about all.”
“Okay.” I glanced at my watch. “I’d better run, or I won’t have to finish out the school year, Beau. Thank you for bringing this by.”
I longed to put in my notice and hit the road. Instead, I took one more look at Gran’s code and headed for the school library.
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