The next morning, I contacted Dale Ortman again and 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 groundskeeper.
We agreed to sit down at the Coffee Nook in town the following evening, the same place where I saw the groundskeeper watching 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 bathroom. 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 Street and the Red Fawn Bookstore across the street. Through the bookstore’s large front window, I saw Wendy putting books on a shelf.
Dale Ortman sat down at the table in front of me disrupting my train of thought.
“Good to see you, Cole.” Dale said holding a coffee. “Hope I didn’t startle ya, I came in through the back entrance.”
We talked about the real estate market in Ravensgate and discussed 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 property 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 needed them.” Dale said.
“He did go into the house alone then?”
“Sure, 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. “What’s his name?” I asked.
Dale paused for a moment, “You know, for the life of me, I don’t remember.”
Dale 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, in fact I’m sure I have his name of some of my records someplace,” he said.
I decided not to push the issue.
“So, who actually 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’ve lived in the place for some years until they both left town a few years ago. Payments on the house ceased. 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 grade school with Elise years ago. 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 kids. After grade school, my family moved away, and I didn’t see her for years. I’ve only moved back to Ravensgate, about seven years ago. I saw her and her husband at the Pumpkin Festival few years back during October. That was the last I saw her.”
“Where are they now, the married couple?”
“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 prevent from appearing too nosey I stopped there and briefly changed the subject. After more small talk, Ortman went on his way. I sat looking out the window sipping coffee. It was getting dark. I waved goodbye to Claire and left the coffee house.
That night I went back to the Victorian and after working in the study again, I turned in for the night. After shutting myself in the guest room, lights out, I lie in bed and began to doubt if I my little investigation was going anywhere. I did security but I was no detective.
A noise in the hall on the other side of the bedroom door interrupted my train of thought. Footsteps caused creaking floorboards, one after the other. Someone was in the hall.
My heart dropped and I stared into the darkness of the hall. I heard the footsteps continue toward the stairs. I mustered the courage to jump out of bed, then peeked out. I couldn’t see anyone but heard someone slowly walking down the creaky steps to the first floor.
“Cole,” said a soft, faint, whispering voice of a woman. I walked through the hall, hand trailing the banister until I reached the top step. I gazed downstairs to the first floor, no one there. The creaky, wooden stairs cause by unseen footsteps persisted down the stairs.
I followed down the stairs behind the sound. As I paused on the landing, looking to my left down the stairs, a white mist formed at the bottom floor. It churned and swirled until it became human in shape. As the details manifested, she looked up at me. It was a woman. She wore a sleeveless blue dress and had long auburn hair. I recognized her face. It was the woman whose face was the bust in the living room on the fireplace mantle.
The apparition kept her eyes on me as she walked down the hall on the first floor toward the back of the house, then out of sight. I was nervous but followed her. Once I reached the bottom floor she was gone.
I continued down the hall tin the direction in which she walked. When I reached the end, the basement door slowly opened revealing the dense darkness of the basement and stopped midway. I was being invited to go down in the cellar.