Fiction logo

Tina Inherits the House

by Gordon DeLand 8 months ago in Mystery
Report Story

(And almost get murdered!)

Tina Inherits the House
Photo by todd kent on Unsplash

Chapter One

In the July sunshine, the house didn’t look haunted. From the description in the letter, I expected a run-down, overgrown, spooky mansion. What met my eyes as I came around the corner was a large, white house with large, sparkling windows and a flower garden that filled the front yard and then swept around to the huge side yard away from the neighbors. If this is a haunted house, she thought, I’m a headless horseman!

Chapter Two

My room for the night was the guest bedroom. Uncle’s room wasn’t ready yet, Sadie said. This was the same room I slept in when I visited as a child, although those memories are vague. The same antique four poster bed with wall paper printed with tiny flowers, and white lace curtains. Two windows looked out over the garden. If you leaned out a little, you could see one corner of the carriage house with its flower boxes. The room was lovely, except for what looked like a water stain on the wall between the windows. It wasn’t terribly noticeable and a large framed portrait of Uncle and Aunt hid a lot of it.

Sadie came in with fresh sheets, and I asked her about the stain.

“I never noticed it before! I'll have Walter check the attic, see if it’s been leaking.” She walked up to the wall and ran her hand along the dark line. She peered at it, her nose almost touching the paper.

“It’s an odd shape. Almost looks like the plan of the garden your uncle drew. There’s a copy hanging in his library downstairs. But in the mean time, dinner is ready, a little early. It will be on the table in ten minutes.”

“Good! I’m starving! Remind me to look at the map after dinner!”

Dinner was roast beef and mashed potatoes, and herbed vegetables from the garden. All organic, Walter bragged. Sadie was quiet and seemed to fumble with the dishes.

“Walter what did you do with the salt and pepper?”

“In front of you, about a foot”

Sadie began to reach, tentatively, but then realized I was sitting there watching. She yanked her and back into her lap and almost shouted.

“Well, pass them to me!”

I realized then where part of Sadie’s attitude came from. She was almost blind.

“Here they are,” I said, and held them out, shaking them a little so they would gleam in the light.

Sadie gave Walter a look, and reached for them. I still had to move them to one side to meet her grasp. Walter looked down at his plate, silent, his fork trembling in his hand. I made a mental note to ask Walter if Sadie had cataracts or something else.

That killed the conversation for several minutes. Finally, I mentioned that somewhere I had gotten the idea that the house was haunted. I laughed, hoping that would help them see I didn’t believe it.

Sadie picked up the dish of potatoes and said she’d be right back with more. Walter looked like he was going to say something to her, but then stopped. The kitchen door swung shut—it was one of those that swings both ways—and as it settled down to a stop I thought I hear crying in the other room.

“Our daughter committed suicide three years ago.” Walter said softly. “The gossip tried to make it out to be something it wasn’t.” He added, “There was never any ‘paranormal activity’ here. In fact,” he hesitated, “we’ve had people come out and check.”

“I'm so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, it’s good to talk about it. Sadie needs to talk about it. She needs to deal with the whole history and decide to move on. But she won’t, at least not so far. I’m hoping having another woman around will help.”

Sadie came back in, potatoes in hand, eyes red.

“Would you like to know how it happened?” Walter offered.

Sadie stiffened, but sat down. “More potatoes?” she asked with just a small tremble in her voice.

“No thanks,” I said, looking at Sadie. Then to Walter, “If you don’t mind.”

“Sadie, would you like to tell the story?”

“No.”

Walter reached over and took her hand. She started to pull away, but he caught her hand and wouldn’t let go. He looked at her. “This is good for you and an honor for Shelly.” Then he began.

“Our daughter Shelly, she was our only child. We tried for more, but she was our one, perfect baby. She was smart, she was healthy, and she was beautiful.”

“She was an old soul,” Sadie interjected.

“She was, yes. She loved to help her mother and me, no matter what we were doing. Your uncle, too. She was loved to be around people, happy to help, to learn. Sadie and I, we’re more the quiet types, stay in the background kind of people.

“She liked to be noticed.” Again Sadie interjected. “That was the problem!”

“Not a problem for a teenage girl, but it wasn’t our way, here at home. It caused us some strain. But we were happy, overall.” Walter paused here. He looked down at their hands, clasped together, and then up at Sadie’s face.

“Go ahead,” she said quietly.

“She went to school, of course. And that was fine. As she got older she made friends. It was good.” Walter paused again, and then sighed.

“And then she met a boy.” He stopped, his face working to keep control. “I’m not saying that was a bad thing. Girls are supposed to meet boys and fall in love.” Walter glanced over at Sadie. She was staring at her plate, clearly struggling to keep the tears back.

“Well, they fell in love, all right. But not like it should be.” He paused again, this time more angry than sad. “She came to us one night and…” Again he paused. “And she told us she wanted to marry the young man, and that there was a reason.”

Here Walter stopped, too angry to go on. Sadie lifted her eyes to mine.

“He seduced her. He ruined her! He couldn’t wait and he ruined her and then he killed her!” Her voice was almost a shout by the time she finished.

“He did not!” Walter shot back. “He did NOT kill her! Tell the truth, Sadie Morgan!

“If it weren’t for him, she’d be alive! He might as well have murdered her with his own hands!”

“Stop it! She was involved too!” The argument brought Walter back to life. “She was pregnant. She hid it from us as long as she could. But it was… it was all wrong. He was too different from her, from us. He was dark. Not on the outside, but his soul. He was… they would never have lasted as a couple. So we told her…”

“We told him no!” Sadie again was almost shouting. “We told him to go! Go away and never come back!”

The two of them were silent then.

Finally, I asked, “Did he?”

“Yes,” said Walter. “He left, but he took her spirit with him, broke her heart. She never smiled after that. And then, six weeks later...” again Walter stopped to control himself. With a deep sigh he went on.

“Six weeks later Shelly was late for breakfast. We thought, let her sleep. But by ten o’clock she still hadn’t come down from her room.” He stopped again. “Your uncle knocked on her door. He found her.”

Sadie stood up, picked up the potatoes again and the now-cold gravy and silently left for the kitchen.

“I’m so sorry.” Wow! This was not the ‘dinner table conversation’ I had anticipated.

“Thank you,” Walter managed. “It’s hard. But I know talking about it is the only thing that will make it better.” He smiled, sadly. “Thank you for listening.”

“My pleasure. Well, no! I mean…”

He looked at the kitchen door, still shut and quiet.

“It’s OK. I understand. I think dinner is over. Would you like me to show you the garden while it’s still light out?”

“Yes, please!” 

Chapter Three

Walter and I walked in the garden for almost an hour, until it got so dark out we had to come in. He told me how my uncle started the garden twenty years ago, when he began teaching horticulture at the State college, how he’d continued to research and add plants to the garden, writing books and articles about their uses as well as their different varieties and where they originally grew.

He pointed out the different areas in the garden. Some were different soil types for plants that required it. Some needed more shade or water. The paths wound around and many of the plants and shrubs were tall enough, I thought, that you could get lost in here. I said so to Walter.

“The garden has gotten pretty big, I guess. It’s been over twenty years on the making, but I guess I told you that. Your uncle was a history buff and a researcher. He loved to find out where plants first grew, how they got to where he found them, and even what the future could be for individual plants and their uses.”

“Did he plant everything in here?” We were just walking by some odd-looking plants that weren’t very pretty and they smelled odd.

“Between him, me, and another professor we collected, planted them, and labeled most of them.”

I looked for a label near the stinky plant but I couldn’t find one.

“That one…” Walter hesitated. “Some of the plants in the garden are powerful.” The look on my face made him smile. “What I mean is, some of them are poison or at least they can be if used wrong, or you take too much of them.”

“Why keep them around?”

“Your uncle wanted a complete collection of whatever he began. This one,” he pointed to the plant with no label, “is in the belladonna family. It isn’t very pretty and it smells funny. But its juice is a great sleeping aide, if you don’t overdose on it. It slows your heart down.”

I shuddered. “Sounds dangerous.”

“Only if you eat it, and as bad as it tastes, that’s not likely. The worst it would probably do would be make you sleepy. In fact, you’d likely throw up before you could hurt yourself.”

“The garden has all kinds of plants,” Walter continued. “The poison ones are mostly contained inside the hedge—he pointed to one corner of the garden—but there are a few in other places, due to their growing requirements. They are labeled. Generally, none of them will harm you unless you process them somehow—boil or infuse the leaves, to concentrate their poison. If you ate them, you’d likely throw up before you hurt yourself—most have a very bitter taste. That’s generally true of all poison plants,” he said.

“Maybe we should get rid of some of the more deadly stuff?”

“That’s what the University said a couple of months ago, before your uncle passed. In fact, they are still—or they were still—considering writing a letter demanding he remove some of worst offenders.”

“He didn’t want to?”

“It wasn’t just him. The other professor who helped plant and maintain the garden, Professor Marion Dominick, didn’t want to either.

By then it was getting dark, so Walter and I sat on the porch and talked more. Sadie brought us some lemonade, but she didn’t stay. “While we’re on the subject, not to be morbid, but how did my uncle die? He seemed to be in very good health last time I saw him.”

“His health was generally good. He took good care of himself, but he had a heart condition he told almost no one about,” Walter said.

“What?! That’s the first I heard of that!”

“He didn’t want it known. Didn’t want the sympathy or the stigma.”

“Well, who knew about? You, obviously. Did this Professor Marion know?”

“Probably. I don’t think anyone else did. Like I said, he didn’t want it known.” He hesitated, then added, “He self-medicated with herbs from the garden. Apparently he got the dose wrong one time and he died.”

“Well that just makes me want all the more to weed out the garden!” I said.

Walter shrugged. “You’re the owner now and you can do what you want. But if I may, my advice would be to wait for Professor Dominick to get back from summer break. All the professors are on a field trip, collecting plants in the Himalayas. They may not even know he’s gone.”

“The Himalayas! Do old people do dangerous things like that?” I blurted out.

Walter laughed. “Marion is not as old as your uncle; close to your age.”

“So, who is this professor? Tell me about her.”

Walter laughed out loud for almost a minute.

“What’s so funny?” I finally asked.

He couldn’t stop laughing even then, and I was getting mad. What was the big deal? Finally he stopped long enough to choke out an answer.

“Professor Marion Francis Dominick …is about your age, but… oh, never mind. You’ll understand when you meet!” And he started laughing again.

By then my face was so red, it probably glowed in the twilight.

“Oh. Well, where does she live? That is, when she’s not in the Himalayas.”

“The professor has lived in the carriage house for the last five years.”

Chapter Four

Marion Francis Dominick—to his friends Nick or his closest friends, Mario—was in trouble and he knew it. His sense of daring had outdone his skill and he was stuck thirty feet up a shear stone face. Within reach—almost within reach!—was a plant he had never seen before. But he couldn’t let go of his right handhold to reach it. Not without plunging to probable death. He considered. No, admit it, you got yourself into something you need help to get out of. Dammit!

“Thomas!” He called to his star student on the ground below. He had spotted the plant, but deferred to the professor to retrieve it.

“Yes sir! Need a hand?”

“Don’t call me ‘sir’! I feel old already! What I need is a rescue! But rather that bother you with that, how about you climb up and get that specimen?”

He could almost hear the grin on Thomas’ face.

“On my way!”

He made the climb, got the plant into a baggie and was back on the ground before Nick slumped against the cliff, exhausted.

Thomas bounded over, holding the baggie like a precious prize, and offered it to the Professor.

“All yours, Prof! You found it.”

“We wouldn’t be taking it home if you hadn’t rescued both me and it. We’ll have to add ‘Thomasi’ to it.”

Thomas’ face lit up.

From there the conversation turned to what the plant actually was and what the rest of its name should be.

As he lay in his sleeping bag that night, the wind buffeting the tent, his breath making plumes of white steam even in the dark, he thought about someone warm to lay next to, someone to share body heat—and maybe more. He sighed and rolled over. Considering the way his life had been going, that was about the last thing he could expect. Besides, with name like Marion, who would even take a look at an online profile? he thought.

Marion Francis Dominick does not conjure up ‘masculinity’ in most of the minds in middle class America, nor anywhere else on earth, he though ruefully.

But as he often explained, “My mother was a very devout French Catholic. My father was Basque,”

If that didn’t satisfy, he would explain that was the mountain border between the French and Spanish and the war that went on for centuries between them.

“Warriors,” he would say, with a very serious face. Then he would grin a wolfish grin and laugh and repeat, “Warriors!”

The message arrived next morning, announcing the professor’s death and a request for the party to return to the University as soon as possible. With that news, everyone was anxious to get home, even though it cut short the trip of a lifetime for most of the students. Exactly a week after Tina arrived, Nick’s taxi pulled into the driveway

* * *

A taxi pulled all the way up the driveway to the carriage house.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Sadie walked over to the kitchen screen door. “Oh! Nick is back! I wonder if he knows…”

“Who’s Nick? Did you tell me about him?”

“I thought Walter told you… He lives in the carriage house.”

“Oh.” Now I was really confused. “I thought Professor Marion lived there. Are they a couple?”

The sound that came out of Sadie sounded more like a bark than a laugh.

“They are the same person.”

My mind still didn’t comprehend, but I managed to keep my mouth shut, and walked out to meet whoever this person was. The person I saw getting luggage out of the trunk of the taxi was… a man! And not only a man, but Oh! My Gosh! What a man! Tanned, handsome, obviously muscular and fit, and as he tipped the driver, he flashed a smile that would melt any woman’s heart. As the cab turned around, he stood by his luggage, hands on his hips, slowly surveying the garden. His gaze traveled around the scene until it came to me, and stopped. By then I had walked closer, and Sadie was on the back porch. Brown eyes ran over me, head to toe in a quick once-over and he smiled that same smile. Then Sadie called to him and looked and he waved to her.

“Sadie! I missed your home-made bread! How are you?!”

“Hello, my name is…” I tried to break in, but Sadie had come off the porch at lightning speed and was now wrapped in this stranger’s strong, gentle embrace. He picked her up and twirled around as she shrieked and he laughed.

“You do that every time! I hate it!” she said smiling.

“Right. Never again, I promise!”

“You said that last year when you came back!”

“I must have forgotten.” He looked mock-sad.

“Nick! Good to see you!” Walter had appeared from inside the barn and bear hugs and pats on the back were exchanged.

Nick went suddenly sober.

“How are you all doing? The college sent the news. I’m… I …”

“We are too,” Walter replied, not waiting for Nick to finish. “But Tina here is ready to step up. Tina,” Walter turned and put his arm around my shoulder, “meet Professor Marion Francis Dominick! Professor Marion to his students, Nick to his friends, and I hope Nick to you soon!”

“Nick” looked a little embarrassed as Walter laughed and Sadie sneered. I think my jaw hit the big toe on my right foot.

Nick held a welcome hand out. “Good to meet you, Tina. Your uncle thought a great deal of you. It’s good to meet you in person.”

Without thinking I took his hand. It was warm, calloused and very strong. His grip almost hurt. I couldn’t breathe. He literally took my breath away. I stammered something and excused myself. As I wobbled to the back porch, I heard Walter begin talking about what had gone on in the garden since Nick had been gone. Not a word about me.

I made it up the porch steps and into the kitchen before I began to cry. By the time I was at the bottom of the stairs to my room I was bawling. I opened the door to my room and I let it all out. And then with a shock realized my windows were open. I choked it, got the windows shut and then threw myself on the bed.

What is wrong with me? He’s only a guy, a renter. A…a…he’s a hunk! And nobody told me! And he didn’t even look at me, hardly.

Of course, by then I was angry at everyone and at myself. At them for not telling me who ‘Marion’ really was. And mad at myself for somehow expecting him to want to talk to me instead of the people he knew.

What he didn’t know—what I had just found out that morning—was that I was in financial trouble. The taxes were due on the property, and this being a college town, they were pretty high. Not the taxes for this year, though. The taxes for the last TWO years as well as this year’s!

Uncle didn’t leave a lot of money with the house and land. The lawyer who was working on the estate said there was some “irregularity” in the finances but nothing he could understand yet. So, here I was, a landowner with a tenant and ‘staff’ and I was so broke I was going to lose everything if I didn’t come up with some sizeable cash soon. Very soon! The lawyer said I had a month or so.

Somewhere in there I fell asleep and missed supper. By the time I woke up, it was dark and Walter and Sadie were in bed and the house was dark and quiet. It was too warm inside and I opened my windows again. I peeked out at the carriage house: lights were on and I could hear soft jazz floating out from the soft lights inside.

I went down to the kitchen and made a sandwich, poured a glass of lemonade and went to sit in the porch swing to eat. It was a warm early August night and the fireflies were all over the garden, like fairy lights. Between the fireflies and the jazz and the warm breeze, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

I finished my sandwich and was about to get another glass of lemonade, when I thought I saw someone in the garden. It was hard to see, of course, but between the fireflies and the one streetlight nearby, I was sure there was someone there.

“Hello?” Whoever it was didn’t answer, but they didn’t stop either. That made me a little nervous, but I was up on the porch in the light. Whoever it was kept coming this way, though, but when they reached the driveway, they stopped. It was a teenager, of course! Some girl that looked like she was all decked out for Halloween, with fake blood on her face and a big butcher knife in one hand. I know some women would be scared and scream. I got angry! What was this chick doing in my garden and why was she trying to scare me? Who did she think she was?! Who did she think I was?!

“Excuse me, I think you need to leave the property right now! I’m not impressed or scared and I’m about to call the police.”

The girl—between the blood and the dim light I couldn’t see her face very well—but I swear she looked relived, not scared. As if she wanted me to call them? And then she started across the driveway, almost at a trot, a huge grin on her face and the knife raised.

OK, that scared me, because she was running for the steps, not for me at the railing. So I did what any sensible human being would do. I screamed at the top of my lungs! And then I passed out. I have no idea why, but I did.

When I came to, someone was holding me half-sitting up and asking me stupid question like how many finger I saw. But then I realized who it was. I was held in the arms of none other than Professor Marion Francis Dominick.

Chapter Five

Walter and Sadie were there too. They asked what happened and I was about to tell them when something told me to stop. I looked at them, looked at ‘Nick’ and I told them the first lie I could think of.

“I must have fallen asleep and had a scary dream.”

“Honey, you were on the floor, screaming! That’s not just a dream.” Walter looked worried.

Even Sadie wasn’t her usual angry self. “You want something? A cup of tea?”

I looked up at the three of them and, as much as I hated to, pushed Nick away and stood up. Oh my God!

And just as I did, so did he. Like, less than a foot away. His face, his lips, his eyes looking down into mine. Oh my God! Oh my God!

“I’m fine. I guess I better get myself up to bed where I belong. Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, all of you.” And I casually walked up to my room and carefully closed my windows again, before I completely lost it.

Oh my God! His chest is a rock! His arms… his eyes… oh my God! Needless to say, it was difficult to fall asleep again that night.

A week went by and the only spooky thing that happened was some milk spoiled. Professor Dominic was busy on campus and was in his apartment only to sleep. Seems he had a lot of catching up to do on campus. He drove off in the morning before I was out of bed and came sputtering back in his dilapidated Morris Mini after dark. He would stop and say hi to me as I sat in the porch swing with a cold drink. Nothing but small talk, but there was some kind of connection there. The times of talking got longer and longer as the week went by. I tried not to think too much about that, but it was difficult. The only other important thing on my mind was finding the money to save the house and garden.

Saturday morning came, and Walter and Sadie left to get groceries about nine a.m. I repeatedly reassured them there was nothing wrong with me and I promised to call if anything happened. Sadie hesitated, but Walter said the car needed gas and they were almost out of milk and it was time to go. So away they went.

I went back to the porch swing. It had already become my favorite place, with the garden view and the breeze. Even the other night’s scare couldn’t change that. I was thinking about that and about ways to raise money for the taxes, when Nick came around the corner of the porch. The carriage house is just out of sight of this part of the porch, and he’d come up the porch steps and around, walking so quietly I didn’t hear him. My heart began to pound. He was so tall, so tan. His shirt was open at the neck and his Bermuda shorts showed hairy legs to match his arms and his…

Oh, don’t go there, I thought.

“Good Morning, Tina. If I may call you Tina.”

“Of course! If I may call you Nick?” Hold it together, Tina!

He laughed and I’m pretty sure the sun got a little brighter. I know the smell of the flowers was suddenly sweeter, but that might have been the breeze.

“Yes, you may.”

He’s so kind! So sure of himself, even with a name like ‘Marion’!

“So how are you this morning?” he said as he pulled a white wicker chair around to face the swing. “How’s our ghost hunter?”

That took me by surprise.

“What do you mean?”

“No doubt you’ve heard the garden is haunted? I can’t imagine anything else making a woman like you scream, other than seeing a ghost.”

“I'm not sure I understand what you mean.” How rude!

“Just that you don’t strike me as a woman who would be afraid of something that wasn’t very real. And that ghost is, indeed, very real.”

“Oh really?” That was really annoying, judging me without even knowing me!

“What ghost? I hadn’t heard.” I wasn’t about to let on what I had seen, if indeed it was a ghost instead of a masquerading college kid.

Nick looked a little embarrassed, but he plowed on.

“The couple who runs the place, Walter and Sadie? Their daughter died mysteriously and now her ghost roams the garden, trying to find a plant-based cure for what killed her. Or so the story goes.”

“That’s not the story I heard.”

“Oh? What version did you hear? And what did you see?” He was serious. “If you saw anything at all, that is. I apologize for jumping to conclusions about you.”

“Walter told me the whole story.” I wasn’t ready to respond to the apology.

“He did? What did he say?”

I repeated what Walter told me about the boy, the pregnancy and the suicide. He got a puzzled look on his face, but then he relaxed.

“Sadie was there with you, wasn’t she?”

“Yes. Why?”

Nick sighed.

“You saw how badly she takes her daughter’s death? He tells it differently when she’s around.”

“I saw her reaction, yes. But you make it sound like something entirely different happened.” Then I added, “Like it was murder or something.”

Nick’s face went white under his tan. Alarm bells started going off in my head. I may be an Iowa farm girl by upbringing, but I outgrew that naive innocence long ago. What in the world was going on in this garden and this house? Why is this guy being so nice? What actually happened here? And who was telling me the truth?

With no way to know, I decided to play innocent.

“So, what really happened?”

“The truth is, Shelly fell in love with a great young man. One of my students, actually. But he wanted to take her away from her parents whom he thought were very controlling. And they were! He was a good young man and good for Shelly. The truth is, Shelly wasn’t pregnant. Walter and Sadie just weren’t willing to let Shelly marry and move away from them. Then she died suddenly and there was no funeral, no calling hours, no grave marker even. The young man was broken-hearted. He quit college and moved home.”

“How do you know she wasn’t pregnant?”

“Because I took her for her pregnancy test.” He paused. “There…was reason to believe she might be and she was worried.”

I was beginning to shiver, as I do when I get freaked out. This was crazy. Somebody wasn’t telling the truth, and I didn’t know who.

But another thought came to my mind.

“When did my uncle die? And how?”

Just then, a horn honked and we both jumped. There was Walter, sitting in the driver’s seat, smiling, with his window down. We’d been so engrossed in our conversation, we hadn’t noticed the car pull in.

“Anybody want to help carry groceries?”

Nick grinned. “I’ll be right there!” Then he leaned close and put his hand on my knee.

He whispered, “Don’t tell Walter or Sadie about this, ok? I’ll tell you more later.” Then he stood up, all smiles and laughter. He disappeared back around the corner of the porch as the car pulled farther in the driveway. I stayed on the porch, pondering. And still shivering.

Chapter Six

The rest of the day it felt like everyone was watching me. I asked Sadie and she said, “Of course we’re watching you! You were on the floor screaming! Are you sure you’re ok? What was the dream about?”

I told her I didn’t remember, which was a lie, of course, but I wasn’t going to try to explain whatever it was I did see. And then there was Nick and ‘our secret’ and still the mystery of my uncle’s cause of death. In any case, she relaxed her watchful eye enough to let me pick raspberries from behind the carriage house. She wanted to make Peach Melba with homemade vanilla ice cream, to celebrate Nick’s return.

“Call if you need anything,” she reminded me for the fourth time.

“I'll just scream,” I finally replied. I meant it as a joke, but she didn’t laugh.

“Just be careful. We don’t want to lose you.”

OK, well that made me feel even more anxious. But I got the ‘berrying buckets’ that Walter fashioned from huge tin cans and wire for handles and set off around the carriage house.

The raspberries were a little overgrown. Originally, they were trained in neat rows, with their canes held up between two wires, to make picking easy. Apparently they hadn’t been tended for a few years: the canes weren’t all between the wires and some plants were actually growing in the paths. The good news was that they were growing very, very well. There were far more to pick than we could use.

I started in on the row nearest the carriage house but soon realized the other end of the bed was doing better. I walked farther out and began working my way back toward the building. I turned and glanced at the carriage house. The upstairs windows that faced the back were open—another hot day in early August. To my shock and surprise, those were the bedroom and bathroom windows to the apartment. Nick’s bedroom and bathroom. Full size windows, no curtains. Not even mini-blinds. From the noises and shadows I could see, someone was taking a shower.

I ducked. I kept my head down, I picked berries furiously. I would NOT be called a peeping Tom. I heard the shower stop and I glance up. Just once. And of course, there he stood, looking out the window as he dried off. And just to make it worse, he grinned and waved. The only decent thing he did was keep the towel in place.

“Want some help?” he shouted to me, that sparkling smile on his gorgeous face.

“I’m fine!” I tried not to yell too loud, knowing Sadie would be listening.

“Was that yes or no?” he yelled back.

I shook my head no furiously.

“OK, I’ll be right down!” And he disappeared.

Damn you! I thought. There was no way for me to shout ‘no’ louder without scaring Walter and Sadie! You knew I said no! Oh, you make me so mad! I had half a mind to just take what I had and go back to the kitchen but I knew it wasn’t enough.

About five minutes later, out to the berry patch comes the Professor, again in shorts, this time with a tank top on, showing off his tan, his muscles, his… anyhow. All smiles and waving, he came out.

“I wanted to finish our conversation,” he said.

“I’m picking berries for supper. There’s really not time…”

He grabbed one of the buckets and walked down the row and across to the opposite corner of the berry patch. “They grow best over here,” he said.

Of course, he was right. The berries hung like rubies on the canes, bending them down with their weight.

“I wanted to finish talking to you without Walter hearing.” Without waiting he began to tell me about the letter the University sent to my uncle, how the three of them—Uncle, Nick and Walter—argued with the university, how they planned to maybe buy land outside of town and move the garden there, just trying to keep this magnificent collection of plants together. In the end, the university threatened to call in the Village, to pass an ordinance against dangerous, poisonous plants growing in the open inside the village limits.

“They haven’t acted on it because of your uncle’s death, but you can bet it won’t be long before you get served the summons.”

“How did my uncle die? It seems to me that nobody wants to talk about it. Not just his death, but the way he died.” I didn’t tell him what Walter had said, because… because I didn’t know who to trust now.

“He self-medicated with herbs from the garden. Apparently he got the dose wrong one time and he died.”

I was stunned, again! Those were the exact same words Walter had used. Exactly. I swallowed and choked out a question.

“Medicated for what?”

“He had a heart condition he told almost no one about.”

Again, the exact same words. By now my face was beet red. That happens when I get angry and I was so angry at obviously being lied to that I had to leave. I picked up my bucket and grabbed for the one he was still holding. It spilled of course and he looked shocked.

“Did I… I’m sorry…”

“You can finish picking the berries,” I almost shouted at him, and turned to leave. On second thought, I turned back and thrust the second bucket at him. He grabbed the bucket in one hand and my hand in the other.

“I don’t know what I just said that made you angry, but,” he squeezed my hand so hard I gasped, “be very careful what you say around the house. Do you understand?”

“I understand that you are hurting me and bullying me and you need to stop right now!” I was furious!

He dropped my hand and turned one shoulder to me. I spun around and marched away along the back wall of the carriage house. I came around the far corner from the house and was half way down the side of the building when the same whoever-she-was from last night suddenly materialized right in front of me. There she was, in broad daylight, three feet away! I could smell old blood from her clothing and face. And there was another odor, one I didn’t recognize. The knife was still in her hand, still held up, ready to slam down on me. Her bloody mouth was wide open, as if she was screaming. Or getting ready to bite me!

I screamed and ran back to the corner. As I came around it I slammed full-body into Nick. I struggled to keep running but he caught me in his arms and held me.

“What!? What is it?! What’s wrong?”

“It’s her again!”

By then, Walter and Sadie were running toward us, down the side of the building, Sadie holding her apron up as she ran.

“What’s wrong?!” Walter shouted.

“I saw her again!” I blurted out. Instantly, I remembered Nick’s warning. At the same moment I saw the look on Walter’s face, and realized I was in deep trouble.

Chapter Seven

I felt Nick’s arm’s tighten around me, and heard him swear under his breath.

“What’s going on?” Walter asked, his eyes narrow and his voice so deep it was almost threatening. “What happened, Tina? Who did you see?”

“Nothing! It’s ok. I… I was being chased by a bee!” I know, lame, right? But it was all I could come up with!

“A bee?”

“Yes! It was… she was chasing me out in the berry patch. I ran out here and there she was again!” By now my face was red all over again. Yeah, I’m not a great liar under pressure.

“I’m allergic to bee stings!” Sadie jumped in.

“So am I, actually.” I felt Nick’s voice rumble in his chest and his embrace relaxed a little. “Tina didn’t know that, but I guess she does now. Are you allergic too, Tina?”

“Yes,” I lied again. “I'm sorry I screamed. I was overreacting.”

Walter looked at Nick, then me and then turned to Sadie.

“Well thank God you got away, Tina!” Walter seemed to relax a little. “That’s a disaster we don’t need: a bee sting! If everybody is ok, let’s get back to what we were doing. Tina, there’s a bee sting kit right inside the kitchen door. We keep it ready and handy.” He paused. “Sadie, here, is allergic, too. Like she said,” he added.

With that, he turned and left. The three of us stood there, looking at each other as if we were waiting for another scream or explosion or… something. When it didn’t come, Sadie wiped her palms on her apron and excused herself. She disappeared around the corner of the building, but Nick didn’t loosen his embrace until she was out of sight.

By then, I was comfortable… very comfortable! Too comfortable! Dangerously comfortable! I started to step away but Nick’s strong arms allowed me just enough room to turn around, which somehow he managed to get me to do. And there we were face-to-face, his eyes looking down into mine, his lips inches from mine.

“I… I need to get the berries…” I stammered.

He smiled, eyes on mine, tentative, almost shy. But he didn’t let go.

“I.. the bucket… buckets…”

“Oh. Yeah.” Reluctantly he released me, his hands sliding down my arms to my hands. He held on just for a second then let go.

“If you see her again…”

“I promise I'll tell you!” I turned to go to the kitchen.

“Hey!”

“What?” I turned back.

“The buckets?”

“Oh.”

He gathered up as many of the berries that spilled as he could and poured them in to one bucket.

“I’ll pick more and bring the rest in. That,” he nodded at the half-full bucket in my hand, “should be enough to get started.”

I had mostly recovered by then, and I was beginning to remember how the berries got spilled in the first place. But something about his manner made me doubt he was lying. Or, at least, if he was, there was a reason.

I nodded and turned to go.

“We still haven’t finished talking,” he said. I turned back, and he looked at me. “Are you really allergic?”

“No. But it was all I could think of.”

“Well, I really am. The next one could kill me, according to the doctor.”

“Be careful then. Please.”

He smiled.

Dinner was quiet, the peaches and raspberries were excellent, and the ice cream was perfection. The four of us sat one on each side of the table, Walter at the head, Sadie beside him. Very traditional. That left Nick and I sitting sort of next to each other, at right angles. I think Sadie and Walter both noticed that there was something between us. Or maybe I was just imagining it.

When the meal and dessert was over, Walter said he was tired. He’d been weeding all day bent over and wanted to go to bed with a heat pad, even in August. Sadie looked a little sad. They never went to bed separately. I think she wanted to sit with us on the porch, which Nick and opted for.

While Sadie and I cleared the table, Walter called Nick out onto the porch. I couldn’t hear what they said, but when they came in, Walter went immediately upstairs and Nick looked angry. Sadie made some lemonade, brought two glasses out to the porch and said goodnight. She looked at me, asked if I was sure I’d be ok tonight.

“Sure. Just… no bees!” I tried to laugh but she didn’t even smile.

“Sleep well… tonight,” she said, and left.

As the screen door banged behind her, I turned to Nick. He moved out of the wicker chair and sat next to me on the swing.

“That sounded a little final!” I said.

He was still looking angry, but he smiled and put his arm on the back of the swing seat, his hand gently resting on my shoulder.

“She has issues.” He sounded like he was about to say more, but stopped. “I’ll spare you the gory details.”

I wondered if they would be the same phrases as Walter’s, but the night was too nice to keep thinking like that.

“Tell me about my uncle. How did he die?”

Nick looked around, shook his head no. Inside, I heard one of the stair steps squeak. I began to shiver, even in the heat.

“You mean… what was he like?” Nick prompted. “He was a great man.”

I nodded.

“He was generous, but you know that. He was a huge researcher, and historian. He wrote, but he didn’t take credit for it. This garden”—he pointed into the darkness—“is a monument to his life and work. There are a few professors at the University that are so jealous of his work that they want it dug up and destroyed. Pure jealousy!”

“You said the village might demand changes? In all of it or just the most dangerous plants?”

“The Village is only concerned about safety. There are a few professors who just want it dismantled and the best of it moved to campus where they can claim it as their own.”

I was shaking badly now and my teeth began to chatter. I tried to put my drink down but I missed the table and it spilled. My hand was shaking uncontrollably. Through the fog in my head, I noticed that Nick hadn’t touched his drink.

“Tina? Tina!”

I heard the screen door open and I heard another voice whisper something.

“You’re too soon,” someone said. And then everything went black.

Chapter Eight

I was sitting on the porch, the swing was gently swinging back and forth. I forget what I was thinking about but I looked up and she was there again. I tried to speak but nothing came out. I tried to move but I couldn’t. It was like my legs and arms were tied down to the porch floor and my mouth wouldn’t work. Only my eyes worked, so I watched.

She didn’t run: she calmly walked from the garden, across the driveway and up onto the porch and stood in front of me. Her face—it looked like she had washed it but didn’t get all the blood off. Her blouse was wet around the neck and it looked like she’d wiped her wet hands on her skirt. I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t comfortable either. Her mouth was open like before, but now it looked more like she was gasping for air, as if she couldn’t breathe. She tried to speak, several times, but what came out was sort of a whispered, gurgling sound. I couldn’t make any sense of it.

The most difficult thing was, I couldn’t communicate back to her, either. She stood there before me, gurgling, and I sat there before her, seeing and hearing but completely unable to respond. I wanted to open my mouth at least, but my jaws (I know! That can’t be true!) my jaw muscles just would not respond. I thought about blinking my eyes, but she wasn’t really looking at them.

Oh, and the knife. She still had it in her hand, but it seemed now like she was trying to use it to defend herself, not attack me. She kept slashing to the right of her. The strokes got weaker and slower as she went. It was almost like she wanted to reenact something, maybe something that happened to her.

Then, from out of nowhere, there was an earthquake. The porch floor, the driveway and the garden all began to ripple and roll in slow motion. The swing started jerking me back and forth and the girl—was this Shelly?—kept whispering and gurgling but her body just kind of dissolved.

“Tina? Tina! Tina! Wake up!”

“Wha-a-a-t?” My head hurt so badly, I was sure it was split open. For sure. The porch ceiling must have fallen on me and split my skull open. Nothing else could hurt this much. I put my hand up to see what brains really felt like. I felt around but all I could find was hair.

“Tina! Wake up!”

“Ouuuuuoow! Oh, my head!”

“Tina!” The earthquake continued. It was very annoying. And the voice was deep and rumbling but it was the wrong voice for an earthquake. It sounded more like a professor trying to get a student’s attention.

“Stop, "I said." I’m injured.”

“You’re not injured. You were poisoned. Wake up! Immediately!”

That’s stupid, I thought. You can’t tell an injured woman to wake up! Go away, stupid earthquake.

I must have said that out loud because the earthquake began laughing. That was almost as annoying as the headache.

“Its not funny. It hurts.”

“I imagine it does. That was supposed to be a lethal dose, if I guess right. You ought to feel nothing instead of having a headache.”

“Stop talking.” It dawned on me that earthquakes usually don’t talk. Nor, as it thought about it, did they occur around here. I decided to try my eyes, which were apparently shut. I didn’t remember shutting them, considering they were the only thing working. But my hand and arm had moved and…

The whole dream, or whatever that was, began to fade and I woke up.

I opened my eyes. I was laying on my back on an uncomfortable leather couch in a strange, dimly lit room. Leaning over me, his huge arms on each side of me, his face inches away, a very worried Nick was intently watching me, looking into my now-open eyes. I started to struggle, but he instantly put a hand over my mouth and held me down.

“Don’t move and don’t speak. If they find you, they will finish the job tonight.” He paused. “Calm yourself, lay still and I will take my hand away. But you must promise me you will be quiet!”

With his hand still on my mouth, I tried to shake my head but it hurt so bad it was a very small shake yes. He cautiously removed his hand.

“You are in my apartment. It’s after midnight. The poison in your drink was something I recognized and I gave you the antidote. Your head hurts like hell and you will be running to the toilet for two days. There will be blood in your stool. But you will live.”

He had blood on his hand, where it had covered my mouth. We both noticed it at the same time.

“Lay still while I wash up. Moving makes the headache worse. I’ll bring you a glass of water, ok?”

I shook my head. That was a bad idea. It hurt so bad I almost threw up.

“Just… lay still,” he said, and walked out of my line of sight. I wasn’t going to move my head again. I heard water running and a cough and then the clink of a glass and more water. I wanted to sit up but I didn’t dare move. A drawer opened and shut, and then he was back.

“Here. There’s a flexy straw and water. You need to sit up a little. It will hurt but if you swallow wrong and begin coughing you’ll wish you had died.”

He was right of course. I thought I would pass out from the pain of sitting up. Luckily, the couch had a high back, and I rested my head against it and sipped water. I had a tickle in my throat that I fought as long as I could, but the water wouldn’t make it go away.

I coughed. It hurt so bad I dropped the water. The water was cold and it ran down inside my blouse and shorts. The cold made me jump. And my head hurt so bad I really did wish I had died.

Nick was trying not to laugh, which made me angry but even in the pain I realized how stupid funny this was. I did my best to relax. He got me another glass of water and brought a towel.

“Just… lay still,” he said, and walked out of my line of sight. I wasn’t going to move my head again. I heard water running and a cough and then the clink of a glass and more water. I wanted to sit up but I didn’t dare move. A drawer opened and shut, and then he was back.

“Here. There’s a flexy straw and water. You need to sit up a little. It will hurt but if you swallow wrong and begin coughing you’ll wish you had died.”

He was right of course. I thought I would pass out from the pain of sitting up. Luckily, the couch had a high back, and I rested my head against it and sipped water. I had a tickle in my throat that I fought as long as I could, but the water wouldn’t make it go away.

I coughed. It hurt so bad I dropped the water. The water was cold and it ran down inside my blouse and shorts. The cold made me jump. And my head hurt so bad I really did wish I had died.

Nick was trying not to laugh, which made me angry but even in the pain I realized how stupid funny this was. I did my best to relax. He got me another glass of water and brought a towel.

“With your permission, I will dry your… your front and your lap.”

I started to nod and stopped. I managed to whisper yes. My voice, I realized was all breathy and squeaky. It felt odd, and it seemed like I should remember something about it. But then he began to dry me off and I forgot everything else. He was gentle but persistent and his hands went places I wasn’t used to having someone else dry off. Especially not a man. Especially this man. I tensed up. He told me relax. That made me even more tense. Which made my head hurt more. Finally he stopped.

“You are going to pass out from the pain if you don’t relax. Imagine what I might do if you pass out, if that’s your worry! I promise you, I'm here to save you, not rape you.”

That didn’t help much, but I did relax a little.

He finished, took the towel away and when he came back he sat on the coffee table, our knees together, his bare legs touching my legs. He leaned in and took my hands. If it weren’t for the pain, I think I would have fainted. I could feel his breath, his body heat. I swear I could almost hear his heartbeat. I looked into his eyes again.

He was so close, so powerful. And yet, I could see he, too, was scared.

“I would like nothing better than to invite you to spend the night here, in my bed,” he began. He dropped his gaze for a moment and then looked up again. “I want you. I’m... maybe… in love.” He stopped and shook his head. “No! Before that… I own you and explanation of what’s been going on here.”

Chapter Nine

“I brought you here to keep you from dying. But that wasn’t the original plan. I was supposed to be too late and you were supposed to die. An accidental poisoning death, the final reason to move the poison garden to Campus.”

Nick took a breath.

“I’m one of the professors that think the Poison Garden ought to move.”

“What?!” I wanted to get up to leave, but again the pain in my head stopped me. That and Nick half-pushed me down.

“I just saved your life…”

“You just tried to kill me!”

“I DID’T! I mean, I did, but then I didn’t. I… I love you. And yes I know that sounds stupid, especially now. But dammit! It’s true.” He leaned back.

There is so much to this! Bottom line is this: your uncle was terrible with money. He let the taxes go and now the place is ready to be sold at tax auction.”

“I know.”

“That’s where things get crazy.” He cut me off. “Walter and I have been trying to find ways to make the garden pay. Walter has found several customers—high paying customers—for some of the poisons that the garden produces. But it is black market stuff. These people are violent, some foreign, some domestic. They’re probably not the kind of customers you want to disappoint. He made some deals that your uncle and I questioned. Now with your uncle gone, I’m the only one left to say yes or no to similar deals. And then you came along.”

He gave me a minute to let that all sink in.

“So he needs me out of the way?”

“If you want to get rid of the most poison plants or move the whole garden to campus… yes. If you want to keep the garden here, intact, he can use you.”

“I don’t want to be ‘used’! And besides, where is the money going to come from to keep the garden and house? Other than selling poison on the Black Market?”

“That’s exactly what Walter wants to know. As far as he’s concerned, that’s the only way.” Nick hesitated. "And it would work."

“And I’m in the way?! I’m not about to say ‘yes’ to selling poison on the black market!”

Nick smiled. “I’m with you but, yes that means you’re in the way. And tonight—this is what happens to someone in Walter’s way.”

“What about you? Are you just playing along or… or what? And how am I supposed to trust anything you say now anyway?!”

Nick’s face darkened and for a moment I saw the man who would try to kill to keep what he wanted. It made me shiver a little.

“As far as trusting me… I have no answer. You have to decide that for yourself. I love you. If I didn't I would have let you die. As far as playing along, your uncle wrote to me while I was away. The letter was dated two days before he died. He and Walter had argued about selling the poisons. Your uncle was adamantly against selling them but he had no other ideas for money. Walter was furious. Your uncle was seriously thinking of changing his will and leaving the whole property to the university. According to the date on the letter, he died two days later.”

“From ‘heart medicine’?”

Nick flushed. “I doubt it. But that’s the story I was told and it’s the story I tell. I can’t prove anything one way or another.”

“I think you were fed a lie! And I think it suits your purposes so well that you aren’t even trying to find out anything else. I can’t believe my uncle was that stupid! Or that unhealthy!”

“Walter knows the poison garden better than I do. He knows the antidotes better than I do, too. You aren’t the only one whose life is in danger.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Yeah.” He saw the look on my face.

“I don’t know what to do with you now,” he confessed. “You aren’t dead and I’m not going to try that again. I think I can get us both past this ‘flub’ but there won’t be a second chance. Not for either of us.”

Now I was really shivering. And my head hurt, but not quite as much.

“So what do we do? I’m scared now to go back to the house!”

‘You can stay here the rest of the night. With the after-effects of the poison that’s a pretty good idea anyway. But in the morning, I have to talk to Walter.”

“What if I change the will? I mean, what if I donate the garden?”

“I doubt you could get the change made before he found out.” Nick paused. “Where would you live until then? The carriage house isn’t safe for either of us.”

Just then there was a knock on the door. I glanced at the clock: it was 2:30 a.m. A man's voice came from the other side of the door.

“Nick? It’s Walter.”

We both froze.

“Just a minute, Walter.” Nick turned to me. “Let me handle this alone. Trust me.”

He walked over to the door. Walter knocked again, and Nick opened it almost as soon as he stopped. Walter began to push his way into the apartment, but Nick put out a strong hand and pushed him back.

“She’s alive,” he said simply. He continued pushing Walter back until they were both outside the door, which he then shut. Their muffled voices stayed low enough to hide whatever they said, but I could tell that Nick did most of the talking. When he came back in, he was clearly rattled.

“We have maybe twenty-four hours."

Mystery

About the author

Gordon DeLand

Gordon DeLand was raised in a small country village in Central New York State. He spent six years in the US Navy traveling the world. Presently he lives in the Dallas Metroplex with two roommates, no cats and one lemon tree.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments

There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2022 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.