The state had a full-disclosure law for any residential real estate transaction. Not that the Realtor, a young mom named Connie who was getting back into the work force, would keep any secrets from a prospective buyer. She looked Whistler right in the eye.
“You know this house is so cheap because it’s haunted, right?”
“I know,” he said. “It needs some work, too.
“A lot of work,” honest Connie said. “The only reason someone new like me gets to show a place like this is because no one believes it’ll ever sell.”
Whistler nodded. He knew the old house’s history. Which explained Connie’s idea of showing the place: glancing at it nervously from a hundred yards away.
“You can’t get craftsmen to come out here,” Connie advised.
“I’m not surprised.”
“People feel uneasy about a place where two people killed each other.”
“Don’t blame them one bit,” Whistler agreed.
“So you’re going to fix it up yourself then?”
“That’s my intention.”
She gave Whistler the once over, figured he had to be pushing fifty, but in a nice way. Long and lean, still had most of his sandy brown hair, nice clear green eyes. Looked good in his denim
shirt, jeans, and sneakers. A working guy … but something else, too.
Either brave or crazy, for one thing.
Connie wondered if he might be right for her divorced older sister.
Right now, though, she stuck to business.
She nodded at the house. “You might’ve heard rumors about a pile of money being hidden in there.”
Whistler gave her a grin. “In fact, I have.”
“Most people around here think that’s just a story.”
“Nobody’s checked it out personally?”
Connie shook her head.
“Because of the ghosts?” Whistler asked.
“Because of the ghosts. Those two, neither of them’s Casper.”
“I’ll take it just the same,” Whistler told her.
Whistler closed on the property a week later. He pulled up to his new house in his pick-up truck just after dark. He carried with him a flashlight, his sleeping bag, and a sack with a couple of turkey sandwiches and a super-sized ice tea. Before he climbed the front stairs, he looked up at the sky. A ragged blanket of clouds blocked out most of the stars but left a full moon visible and glowing bright.
“Good night for a witch on a broomstick,” he reflected.
He tested each of the front steps before he put his full weight on it. There were creaks and groans, appropriate to the setting, but the treads held fast. He crossed the wide porch and slipped the key into the front door lock. Before he could turn it a gust of wind kicked up. The sudden rush of air was cold and held a plaintive note.
“Nice try,” Whistler said.
He turned the key and went inside.
The house had 20 rooms, eight bedrooms, eleven bathrooms, a main sitting room, two dining rooms, formal and casual, a library, a sun room, an observatory, a billiard room, a painter’s studio, a ceramics room complete with kiln, a small gym, a greenhouse, and a commercial-size kitchen. In the basement were four small suites for servants, a wine cellar, a laundry and the heating and air-conditioning plant. A six-car garage was set discreetly behind a row of tall hedges.
The style was Southern ante-bellum: white paint, pillars, porches upstairs and down, french doors everywhere. The house sat on 50 acres of land. It didn’t have a swimming pool but there was a brook running through the property for fishing and a pretty pond surrounded by woodland that was perfect for any sort of water activity that didn’t involve an internal combustion engine. It was the kind of place usually reserved for the seriously rich.
Except when two angry ghosts drove off would-be buyers.
Whistler consumed his takeout dinner in the sitting room, used the nearest bathroom, and stretched out in the sleeping bag he’d unrolled on the floor. His sleeping arrangement was a matter of choice not necessity. The house was still furnished. He could have chosen to sleep in a bed or on a sofa, but a quick scan had shown him every piece of furniture was thick with dust.
Better to sleep in a clean, snug bag. He used his old suede jacket for a pillow.
He was drifting off when the ghosts showed up.
There was no hokey rattling of chains or eerie moaning when they arrived.
Just an embittered woman screaming at him.
“Get out, get out, damn you, get out!”
Whistler rolled over, not scared, but not sure of what he’d see, either. Still, he recognized the female wraith immediately. Her male counterpart was standing just behind her, looking on over her shoulder. Both of them had their heads canted at cockeyed angles, but that’s what happened, Whistler supposed, when you died of broken necks.
He looked at the pair of spooks, let them take a good look at him, and said, “Been a long time, Sheila. That Kirby you’ve got with you?”
“Noel?” Sheila asked.
His ex-wife’s restless spirit looked as if she’d seen a ghost.
Sheila ran from the room, her footsteps inaudible, as one might expect with a ghost. Whistler was a little surprised she hadn’t just disappeared. Evaporated in a puff of ectoplasm. Maybe she’d been too rattled pull off any special effects, he thought.
Kirby was still looking at him, not with menace, but sizing him up.
“She’ll never let you have it,” he told Whistler.
“Wanna bet?” Whistler replied.
Apparently, Kirby didn’t. He vanished.
Much more ghostlike, Whistler judged, putting his head down.
The next morning, Whistler went to work on the house’s electrical system. Ghosts might scare some people, but faulty wiring caused fires. He was down in the basement switching out an old fuse-box to circuit breakers when he felt Sheila’s presence.
The room had grown considerably colder, but then Sheila’s displeasure had always worked better than central air.
“Kirby told me,” his late ex-wife said. “About the bet you wanted to make.”
“Tattletale,” Whistler answered, not raising his eyes from his work. “If you hadn’t broken his neck, it was only a matter of time before somebody did.”
Sheila laughed. She’d always enjoyed a barb at someone else’s expense.
“There have been times when I’ve missed you, Noel.”
Whistler looked up. The light streaming through the basement windows dimmed Sheila’s apparition. She lost definition around the edges, like a movie beginning before the theater was fully dark. For all her pallor and translucency, though, he could see that she’d still been a beautiful woman when she’d died.
Dark-haired, fair skinned, and lissome.
A perfect appearance for a female con artist.
“When was that, Sheila?”
“All the times I needed a real man.”
She stepped into a shadow for better contrast and made her clothes disappear.
Whistler whistled. “Damn, you’re good. If you hadn’t divorced me for an infidelity I didn’t commit, with a sixteen-year-old girl who turned out to be your niece —”
“You found out about that?” Sheila was suddenly dressed again.
“Uh-huh. Wasn’t until later. After you took most of my money in the divorce, and defending myself against the phony statutory rape charge took the rest.”
“You got off. I read that in the paper.”
“Sure did. I was a free man. Broke, jobless and with my reputation in ruins, but free.”
Even in the shadow, Sheila started to grow pale.
“Wait a minute,” Whistler said, “don’t go.”
She tuned back in, turned up the contrast. Waited for Whistler to speak.
“Why’d you do it, Sheila? I would have given you anything you wanted.”
“That wouldn’t have been the same.”
“Because the fun is in the taking as much as the having,” Whistler said.
Sheila’s ghost nodded, her chin up and defiant, if cocked at a funny angle.
“You’ll never get my money back, Noel.”
“I don’t want it.”
She regarded him with grave suspicion. Perhaps the only kind for a ghost.
“I’m really supposed to believe that? If it’s not the money, why are you here?”
“I want a reconciliation,” Whistler told her.
Whistler saw neither ghost for days. Maybe they found watching someone rewire a house boring. He did get a lot of strange looks from his new neighbors when he went into town for supplies or food. They couldn’t figure out how he was managing to get along with his ethereal roomies.
Harvey at the hardware store came right out and asked him, “You doin’ okay out there?”
“Work’s going well,” Whistler told him, knowing that wasn’t what the man was asking.
“And the …” Harvey couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
“Ghosts?” Whistler asked.
The merchant’s eyebrows rose.
“They’re a fairly sad pair,” Whistler said.
“Not nasty or, you know, dangerous?”
“Not to me.”
“So you’re just gonna live with ‘em then?”
“I hope to help them find peace.”
“You a priest or a minister or somethin’?”
Whistler laughed. “Far from it.”
“Well, what if peace isn’t what they want? What if they’re cantankerous by nature?”
Whistler sighed. That possibility had occurred to him.
“Then I’ll just have to work them into my remodeling plans.”
Whistler sat at the foot of the grand staircase sketching a rough drawing of the elegant structure that bridged the first and second stories of the house. After a few minutes work, he felt a presence at his shoulder. Kirby. A natural-born eavesdropper.
“Have a seat,” Whistler told the ghost.
He flipped his drawing pad shut as Kirby sat down next to him.
The apparition was careful to leave room between himself and Whistler. As if Whistler might grab him. Kirby forgetting he was incorporeal.
“We’ve been watching you,” he told Whistler. “We’ve seen all the work you’ve done.”
“Place is starting to shape up, don’t you think?”
“We could undo it all, you know,” Kirby said. “Do the poltergeist bit, if we wanted. Then where would you be?”
“I thought of that,” Whistler said. “I can wreck the place myself.”
He took a piece of paper from a back pocket of his jeans and unfolded it.
“Demolition permit,” Whistler said, as Kirby leaned in for a look. “County says I can knock the place down. I don’t want to, but if you and Sheila give me too much grief …” He shrugged. “Then where will the two of you be?”
“You bastard,” Kirby said. “Sheila warned me you’re full of tricks.”
“She’s a fine one to talk,” Whistler replied.
“We could do worse than destroy the house,” Kirby threatened. “We could fix it so, maybe, that chandelier up there fell on you.”
Whistler glanced at the chandelier. He was going to move it — depending on his plans — but that would miss the point Kirby was trying to make.
“You’re saying you and Sheila could kill me?” he asked.
“Like that.” Kirby tried to snap his fingers, something that didn’t work well for a ghost.
“I’ve considered that possibility, too,” Whistler told him. “But I’m betting that if I die violently in this house, I’ll be stuck here, too. My spirit, I mean. And I guarantee you, Kirby, if I cross over to your side of the curtain, I’m going to be the top spook around here. Kicking ass and taking names. You think about that before you or Sheila arrange any accidents for me.”
Kirby didn’t like that line of thought. He started a fast fade, but Whistler said, “Wait.” The ghost paused, halfway to invisibility.
“Who started that final argument?” Whistler asked. “The one where you and Sheila were strangling each other before you both fell down the stairs?”
But his disembodied voice said, “She did.”
“He did, the lying bastard.”
Sheila was giving Whistler her side of the story as he plumbed the underside of a sink in one of the downstairs bathrooms.
“I’d ask you to hand me that wrench,” Whistler said to Sheila, who perched gracefully on the edge of the bathtub opposite him, “only I don’t know if you’re up to that sort of thing.”
The wrench slid across the floor to Whistler and levitated neatly into his hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
He tightened the connection on the pipes he’d just joined and gave his work a nod of approval. But the job still had to be tested. He got up off the floor, opened the tap, watched the water flow down the drain and smiled when not a drop leaked.
He sat on the toilet seat, wrench in his lap, and looked at Sheila.
She asked him, “When did you become such a jack-of-all-trades, Noel? I’ve been watching you closely for weeks now, wondering if this is the same man I married.”
Whistler shrugged. “I had to take a crash course in self-improvement.”
For just a second, Sheila almost looked remorseful.
“I couldn’t get a job in my field, but the Shelter People gave me an opportunity. I’ve helped to put up almost 200 homes for low-income families. With a lot of help from some very patient instructors, I’ve learned a number of building trades. I’ve become fairly good at them and what’s really surprising, I like the work.”
“But you still want my money, don’t you? Despite your denials.”
Whistler shook his head.
“I don’t believe you,” Sheila said.
Whistler dropped the wrench in his toolbox and leaned forward, forearms on his legs. He wanted to take Sheila’s hands in his, but there was no way he could hold her anymore. He was pleased, though, that she leaned in toward him.
“You remember how much you got from me in the divorce, the monetary figure for the whole works?” he asked softly.
“More than eight million,” she said, unable to keep a note of pride out of her voice.
“And you and Kirby, after you married him, used that as front money for your schemes: real estate, mineral rights, and, of course, that last one.”
“Unclaimed valuables from World War II,” Sheila said flatly.
“Yeah, that was where you went wrong. The subject is way too touchy. Finally brought the law down on you hard.”
“It was Kirby’s idea.”
Whistler wasn’t going to debate responsibility.
“Whatever you were into, though, the proceeds from the divorce greased the con: See, we got rich and you can, too. But you never let the suckers get near any of that money.”
“Of course not,” Sheila said contemptuously. Then she steered the conversation back to its original course. “You never did tell me why I should believe you, about you not wanting to get your hands on my money.”
“I’ve got a little better than ten million of my own right now,” Whistler said.
That straightened Sheila right up. Would have left her breathless, if she were still breathing.
“Yeah,” Whistler smiled. “How about that? For a year or so, I was pretty bitter about what you did to me. Then I began to see, little by little, that I’d gotten just what I’d deserved. I mean, I was a hotshot stockbroker who pushed tons of shares in shitty companies on people just because those companies were paying my bosses big fees. I knew the stocks were crap but, hey, my bonuses were ungodly. I thought that was what mattered. Then you came along and did the same thing to me that I did to all my clients: played me for a sucker.”
Sheila nodded absently.
“You had me set up from the start, didn’t you? The money was all that ever mattered.”
“No, there was the sex, too.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. The ironic thing, though, while I was playing all my suckers, I had plenty of good stocks I could have recommended. I have a real eye as a stock-picker. Only the good companies weren’t paying my bosses any big fees.”
Whistler shook his head in regret.
“Anyway, after a couple years of building houses, I had a little money I wanted to put somewhere. So I started buying some shares here and there. People saw what I was doing, asked if they could get in on it, too. I told them they put their money down at their own risk. But you know what, we’ve all done very well. I felt like that was the first step to evening out my moral balance sheet. I wanted to make peace with you, too, but by then you and Kirby had died. But when I heard you hadn’t departed I thought I’d take a chance.”
Sheila was stuck on what mattered most to her.
“You’ve really got ten million dollars?” she asked.
She was dead, but it was killing her all that she’d never get her hands on any of it.
“Let me ask you one question,” Whistler said.
“What?” Sheila asked, the suspicion clear in her voice.
“Not that; I really don’t care where your money is. I am curious, though, what your final argument with Kirby was all about, the one that led to the two of you to fall down all those stairs. Was it about what your legal strategy should be when you went to trial or were you just unable to agree on where you should run and hide?”
Sheila folded her arms across her chest.
“Neither of those things. I found out Kirby was going to try to put all the blame on me … that and divorce me and take all my money.”
“Ah, well,” Whistler said. “I can see where that would make you angry.”
Whistler’s work on the house was almost finished when the moving truck arrived. Word had circulated over the months he’d been working there that he’d been able to co-exist with the ghosts without suffering a ghastly demise. That being the case, he managed to hire a crew to come and take away Sheila and Kirby’s old furniture. Their belongings wouldn’t suit the new residents who’d soon be taking occupancy.
The former owners didn’t reveal their spectral selves to the moving men, but Whistler noticed them watching carefully as the house emptied out. They took special interest when the huge chandelier over the foot of the grand stairway was removed.
“What are you doing to our house?” Kirby demanded, after the movers had left.
“My house,” Whistler corrected.
“Our house,” Sheila reaffirmed.
They were all in the kitchen. A table and four chairs had been left behind. Whistler was enjoying a roast beef sandwich, a kosher dill pickle, and a bottle of Dos Equis. He gestured to his guests to join him at the table. Sheila sat to his right, Kirby opposite him.
Ever the clever girl, Sheila was ready to lean whichever way the wind blew.
“You’ve got to get it through your heads,” Whistler told them, “you can no longer make any claim on earthly possessions. You’ve got to let go. Give it up.”
The wind blew Sheila toward Kirby.
She told him, “You see, I was right! He wants my money!”
“I’ve known it all along,” Kirby agreed, and added quickly, “You’re not going to give it to him are you?”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t give it to you; I won’t give it to him.”
Kirby looked at Whistler with a smirk.
“I should have taken that bet you offered,” he said.
Whistler honestly didn’t want the money, but he’d never convince these two of that, so he didn’t try to argue. “I guess you should have.”
“So what will you do now, Noel?” Sheila asked. “Give up, go away?”
Whistler shook his head. “Not after all the work I’ve put into this place.”
“Then what?” Kirby wanted to know.
“I’m afraid you and Sheila are the ones who will be leaving.”
The two ghosts laughed in eerie harmony.
“We can’t leave, remember?” Kirby said.
“We’re condemned to stay here,” Sheila jeered.
“We’ll see about that,” Whistler told them.
Whistler’s friends from the Shelter People showed up the next morning. Within a week, they put up a tall narrow structure with one door and a high window. Standing in a clearing amidst the trees out back of the main house, it was exceptionally well built. It would last a hundred years or more, easy.
In it was the grand staircase from the main house, taken apart, moved, and reassembled. That and the companion piece chandelier. And, of course, Sheila and Kirby.
It wasn’t the house to which they’d been bound. It was, as Whistler correctly surmised, the scene of their crime, the staircase, that held them in thrall.
Before he left, Whistler told Sheila and Kirby that their new residence was wired for electricity. If they ever wanted to let him know they were willing to make peace with him and themselves, just turn on the lights. It would be seen at the main house. Which he had given to a group that provided second chances to troubled young people.
But Whistler didn’t hold out much hope he’d be hearing from the ghosts anytime soon.
Because just before he locked the two of them in, Sheila told him once more, “Get out, get out, damn you, get out!”