The Grand Intro
Charmaine moved slowly through the nineteenth century mansion. Noise from traffic on St. Charles Avenue a block away contrasted with the otherworldly atmosphere inside. The muffled swish of cars and rumble of delivery trucks sounded odd. Late afternoon sunshine slanted through windows, the heavy drapes pulled back. Still, deep brown antique furniture made the house seem dark.
“This is beyond creepy. Don’t know how I let you talk me into this,” Jessi mumbled. She glanced at a window to her left. “Real cozy, if you’re into haunted houses where people end up dead.”
“Anything?” Charmaine said, ignoring her sister’s complaints.
“Dead men tell no tales,” Jessi replied. Then she went into a fit of giggles. “Get it? That old saying…”
“Yeah, I get it. Will you focus please? We’re here to do a job. Mrs. Fortsall paid a hefty fee for us to get rid of her problem. And no smoking,” Charmaine added when she saw Jessi fishing in the pocket of her leather Moto jacket.
“I’m cutting back. Nicotine gum.” Jessi held up a small square then popped it into her mouth. She chewed for a few seconds.
“Humph.” Charmaine cracked a brief smile. She went back to scanning the large parlor for signs of paranormal activity.
She dared not bring too much attention to her younger sister’s new healthy routine. Jessi breathed rebellion. Any sign that Charmaine was turning into an authority figure could trigger an outbreak. Still Charmaine relished having Jessi as a sidekick. Away from her dangerous lifestyle of drugs and prostitution, Jessi became a funny intelligent twenty-something taking online college courses. Her sister deserved a good life after the childhood she’d been through; the hell they’d both been through as kids. Maybe they could end up with normal lives after all. When they weren’t taking gigs to track down troublesome things that go bump in the night. Or day. Charmaine paused. Then she swung around as if to extend her invisible psychic antennae.
“Did you hear a noise?”
“Probably a cat in the alley. Hate those things. Relax,” Jessi drawled. “Going upstairs.”
“Sounded like something dragging across the floor upstairs, not a cat. Be careful. Maybe Mrs. Fontaine is just a superstitious lady with a bit of paranoia tossed in. But you never know.” Charmaine walked to a glass cabinet. Crystal and blown glass figurines stared back at her. A collection of animals and tiny people seemed to question what she was doing disturbing them. “Fortune worth of doo-dads just on one shelf.”
“Huh?” Jessi’s said over a shoulder just as she went through an archway to the hall.
“Nothing.” Charmaine figured it best not to give little sis ideas for bringing in extra income. She wasn’t totally reformed yet.
“Yes, mother,” Jessi wisecracked. “Damn. This staircase is bigger than the shotgun house we grew up in.”
“The closets are bigger than the house we grew up in,” Charmaine joked to herself, because she was alone downstairs.
Totally alone. Nothing moved except leaves on the house plant stirred by the cool air from heating vents. The formal living room looked like something out of Architectural Digest. Rich dark oak tables and chairs contrasted with oak wood floors in a lighter color. Not that much of the floors could be seen. Beautiful cream and ruby red wool rugs covered them. Pale green draperies were pulled back from the windows. Cream gauzy curtains beneath the draperies let in light but kept a private feel. Charmaine gave up resisting the urge to touch the rich fabrics of the sofas. A few leather chairs were mixed in as well.
She moved across the hallway that bisected the mansion. A long formal dining room that doubled as a ballroom took her breath away. She marveled that people lived like this. She glanced up at the elaborate crystal and gold chandelier. The plaster of Paris ceiling was painted in a pattern that complimented the enormous wool rug. A table capable of seating twenty-five people stretched down the center. More chairs lined the walls. Beautiful and untouched. That’s what felt weird. The place didn’t feel lived in. She moved through the other rooms and picked up human vibes, stronger in the kitchen.
“The cook or hired caterers for her parties,” Charmaine said aloud to no one. Still it was spotless with everything in place.
The sprawling library was a different matter. Raw male energy filled the room. Two walls contained large bookcases. A narrow yet sturdy looking staircase on one wall led up to a balcony with another bookcase. Furniture just as rich filled the room. The massive oak desk dominated the room. Along another wall a set in credenza held a computer with two monitors and another chair. An oil portrait of a stern looking man hung over the fireplace.
“My husband’s domain,” a husky female voice said firmly.
Charmaine started and spun around. “Shit, I almost...”
“What?” The tall auburn-haired woman strolled in with one professionally perfect eyebrow raised.
No need to say she almost pulled a gun and shot her crazy ass, which was on the tip of Charmaine’s tongue. Rule number five on Charmaine’s small business tip list – don’t shoot your client; especially one with deep pockets. Your creditors will not be pleased.
“Sorry Mrs. Forstall. I thought you’d be gone until at least seven tonight,” Charmaine said, recovering quickly. Images of bills due helped her overcome being royally pissed by the woman. Again.
Mrs. Forstall chuckled deep in her throat. She shrugged and tossed her purse onto a nearby chair. Then she crossed to the bar. “I got curious about how ghost hunters work. Can you get rid of whatever is menacing this house today?”
“We’re not ‘ghost hunters’. And I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that,” Charmaine drawled. The woman must have majored in annoying the lower classes at her fancy private school.
“Well how does it work then?” Mrs. Forstall gracefully turned to Charmaine again. She held a tumbler of brandy in one hand.
“We assess security first off. You’d be surprised at how many ‘ghostly’ happenings turn out to be a crime about to take place.” Charmaine continued to circle the room, examining objects at she went.
“Something is stalking me in my own home,” Mrs. Forstall said.
Charmaine looked at her sharply. Loretta Chevalier Forstall wasn’t joking, nor was she play-acting. Her hand shook as she raised the glass to her mouth. Born into one of the old New Orleans families, she’d married into another equally distinguished old family. Mrs. Forstall was still on the sunny side of forty; at thirty-seven she was eight years older than Charmaine.
“So far we haven’t found anything, not one sinister whisper. No objects floating on their own. No heavy footsteps,” Charmaine said. She turned back to gaze at the leather bound books.
“Don’t patronize me, Ms. Joliet,” Mrs. Forstall snapped. “I’m not some elderly nincompoop with too much time on my hands and a wild imagination.”
Charmaine took a deep breath and faced Mrs. Forstall. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like I was making fun of you. I can see your fear is real. Let’s go over what’s been happening again.
Mrs. Forstall blinked back tears. She put a hand to her forehead and then sat down on a leather sofa nearby. “Do I have to?”
“Being here might help you think of details you didn’t recall at my office.” Charmaine sat beside her and assumed a sympathetic expression. “No rush, just take it slow.”
“For the past three months I haven’t felt comfortable here. Not since my husband... went to oversee the Rome branch of his business.”
Charmaine and Jessi figured that was code for he left her for another woman. But they were still checking out the family and her story. “He took your children with him.”
“No, Alyssa only. Grayson is away at school. I told you all of this.” Mrs. Forstall glanced at Charmaine. “You’re checking to see if I keep my story straight.”
“You’ve been shaken up. I want to make sure I have it right. That’s all.” Charmaine said with a business-like nod. “Go on.”
“Grayson was accepted into Williams College. I thought he was too young to go so far from home, but my husband disagreed.” Mrs. Forstall’s expression turned sour. She finished off the drink and frowned at the empty glass.
“You didn’t mind your youngest going to Italy?” Charmaine tilted her head to one side as if the angle would afford clear insight.
“She’d never been abroad, and she adores her father,” Mrs. Forstall said in a flat tone. “You said ‘we’. I hired you. I don’t want strangers mixing in my personal affairs.”
“Isn’t part of our business arrangement,” Mrs. Forstall said crisply and stood, drink in hand. She started to say more, but a loud thump stopped her. She dropped the glass. “Oh God. It’s starting before daylight now, that horrible sound.”
“I doubt it,” Charmaine murmured. She stood and walked to the open door leading to hallway.
“I hear it. We have to get out. Now!” Mrs. Forstall’s already pale coloring turned almost glowing white.
“Don’t scream. We’re not going to let anything bad happen to you.” Charmaine crossed to the woman and shoved her down onto the sofa again. “Stay put.”
Mrs. Forstall’s mouth worked but no words came out. Fear had disconnected her brain to her vocal chords it seemed. Charmaine felt a rush of energy as well, but not fear. She’d given up being scared of the supernatural. People and the things they got up to sent more chills down her spine than any goblin. She’d been on the receiving end enough times.
With a hand in the leather cross-body bag slung over one shoulder, Charmaine stepped into the hallway. The wide staircase looked stunning as usual. A louder banging sound came from upstairs. As Charmaine put a foot on the first carpeted stair, Jessi appeared on the landing above, hands on both hips.
“The rich bitch lied to you. There’s a body up here, and it sure is hell ain’t natural causes.”
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