Jenna Ross dipped a manicured toenail into her bathwater. Noting the water was hot but not scalding, she sunk her leg all the way in, allowing her body to follow. Reaching for the bottle of wine she’d opened in the kitchen, she poured herself a generous glass and replaced the cork. She then took the bookmark from her supernatural thriller and began to read.
One would think that after the night’s escapades, the last thing she would want to do is dive into yet another chamber of horror, but Jenna couldn’t resist. All things paranormal fascinated her. Books, movies, television series and, her most favorite, ghost hunting.
She’d been a part of a local paranormal investigative team for nearly a decade, shadowing world-renowned psychic couple, Delana and Clancy Fitzgerald. The team received countless requests to investigate dwellings and establishments for possible paranormal activity. The team, including the couple, Jenna, and two other ghost hunters, would set up equipment designed to read and translate those ‘bumps in the night.’
On more than one occasion, the “spirit” was nothing more than faulty wiring or old pipes. If spirits did inhabit a place, Delana and her husband would bless the house and encourage the spirit to move on. Oftentimes, this was an effective method of getting the dearly departed to cross over.
Some weren’t nearly as easy.
The house she and the team investigated only hours before had tipped the scales on creepy. The rambling old Victorian had stood silently as a sentry on a hill, silhouetted against a red and black sky heavy with rain. It had looked like a dwelling that would have been featured in an old Dracula film.
The long-condemned house had a wide and popular reputation for being haunted. Those living close by claimed to hear disembodied voices and see a shape with a candle moving past uncovered windows at night.
The story was that in the late 1800s, a winemaker by the name of Alfonso Gallo came to America from Italy to seek his fortune. The Gallo family was large, prosperous, and wealthy, boasting Mr. Gallo, his wife, six children, two cousins, and a multitude of household staff including maids, butlers, and a governess. Mr. Gallo’s wine business prospered up until the Prohibition of the 1920s. After that, he was still able to sell a good amount of his vintage abroad and to local speakeasies, but the income he’d formerly enjoyed never returned.
The fall of 1929 brought news of Mr. Gallo’s impending death as a trip abroad had stricken him and nearly his entire family with typhoid fever.
Within a few months of that same year, the speakeasy patrons began exhibiting unexplained symptoms of an unknown affliction. Men and women fell into convulsions, spoke gibberish, or fell to the floor dead of what appeared to be sudden heart attacks and the like.
It was only when a British duke, having made a public announcement during a dinner party about exactly which brand of wine he was enjoying before promptly dropping dead on the dining room table, that the connection to Mr. Gallo was made.
The story ended in 1930 with Mr. Gallo, barely able to rise from his bed, tried and hanged for murder. Some say he’d unwittingly infected his wine with typhoid, but the symptoms of the victims had not been consistent with the disease, and the popular consensus was mass murder by poison.
When the haunting began, people said that ‘Gallo from the Gallows’ had returned from the dead.
When Jenna and the team arrived, they had barely set up their equipment when the barometric pressure dropped like a stone. The air turned heavy, and both Delana and Clancy reported a strong feeling of unrest. When the team took their equipment to the cellar, their readings went off the charts. Jenna’s head began a relentless pounding that sent her scrambling up the stairs to the relative safety of the foyer. Her intent had been to catch her breath and return, but the investigators, visibly shaken, emerged within minutes with a unanimous conclusion: they required a priest or an exorcist.
On the drive home, Jenna had been pleasantly surprised to come across an open package store. All the talk of rare Italian vintage had her craving a bottle of her own, and she’d arrived just in time before the old shopkeeper closed for the night.
Now Jenna flipped the page and took a sip of her merlot. It was dry, a bit tart with a hint of the exotic in its woody finish. Not bad for a rushed purchase.
Sinking deeper into the water, Jenna felt her headache begin to ebb. She closed her eyes and sighed. Not all of the investigations she went on were frightening. She’d once witnessed the paranormal couple help a young widow find peace after losing her husband in the Middle East. Those were, by far, her favorite type of investigations.
A cold, slippery finger caressed Jenna’s neck. Her eyes snapped open and she gasped, bolting upright with a loud splash. Her hand stopped just shy of plunging her paperback into the water.
The blood rushed to her head, pulsing in her ears. “What the hell?”
Jenna looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just the toilet, sink, her bathrobe, and blue and white checkered tile.
Taking a deep breath, she sank back into the water. Had she fallen asleep? Maneuvering her foot, she twisted the faucet to let in more hot water. Pushing the valve closed again, she reached for her glass and took a generous sip of her wine, returning her attention back to the book.
The old man tipped his hat and smiled as he handed the attractive brunette the bottle of wine. He knew she’d see him soon. In her eyes. In her skin. She’d see him soon.
Jenna flipped the book around and stared at the cover, brow creasing. What happened to her heroine? Where was the ghost of her son? She flipped back two pages and skimmed a few paragraphs. Once again, all the lines were familiar. Turning the page to the one she’d just read, she read again.
Theresa held the flashlight tight to her body, but its light trembled like a firefly searching for a place to land…
“What?!” Jenna cried aloud. “That is not what I just read!”
Ignoring her strict policy to never skip ahead, Jenna turned to the next chapter, skimmed a few lines, then skipped a few more chapters and read again. Though she’d inadvertently discovered Theresa’s husband was cheating on her, there was no sign of the old man or his bottle of wine.
Jenna shook her head and forced herself to smile. Perhaps she needed to start rethinking the ghost-hunting thing. It was starting to make her a bit funny in the head.
She continued reading and began to relax again as the story maintained its continuity. When she finished the chapter and replaced the bookmark, her eyes fell on the warm water in which she was submerged...only, it was no longer water.
She took in a breath so sharply, she immediately hiccuped, causing a bit of bile to rise in her throat. Right behind the bile came a shriek that ripped from her vocal cords with the ferocity of a drowning victim who knew she was surfacing for the very last time.
Her hand slammed against the tub and she scrambled backward, upending the glass and sending it crashing to the tile floor. The paperback slipped silently from her slick hand as she splashed her way out of the vicious, red liquid, scrambling for purchase on the slick tile floor.
Avoiding the shards of glass, she yanked a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her trembling body. On the cover of the paperback, the eyes of the ashen-faced heroine, Theresa, seemed to widen as they slipped beneath the dark red blood that now filled the tub.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Jenna’s heart slammed against her rib cage and the room swayed. Spots of light darted across her field of vision as the floor rose to meet her. Clutching the towel rack for support, she closed her eyes and fought the urge to faint. Her body slid down the cold wall, and as she fell into a graceless heap on the floor.
“Blood? Blood! I have to get the blood off me. How long have I been sitting like that? Sitting in...blood? How—”
Jenna's eyes snapped open. The tub was filled with water again. She gasped and reeled back, her head striking painfully against the wall.
“What? What?!” Her voice was a thin reed.
She glanced down. Harmless drops of clear water beaded on the goose flesh that covered nearly every inch of her body. She opened the white towel and examined herself thoroughly. No sign, not one drop of blood.
The book was perched on the edge of the tub, dry as a bone, its bookmark sticking out from paper lips like a mocking tongue. The wineglass still lay broken on the floor.
Jenna forced herself to rise. Tentatively, she reached into the water for the drain plug. Grabbing the wine bottle and the book, she opened the door and padded down the hall to her bedroom. As the gurgling water drained, Jenna envisioned blood snaking through her pipes like the circulatory system of an ancient and long-forgotten creature.
When the trembling in her limbs subsided, Jenna dressed in an old pair of cotton pajamas and turned on the TV for company. She punched up the volume and went downstairs to grab a dustpan and broom. She was grateful when nothing unusual happened as she swept away the glass and sopped up the spilled wine with a small, white towel.
When Jenna returned to her bedroom, she stopped short. The paperback book she’d relegated to the nightstand drawer lay open on the bed, the spine cracked, a few loose pages threatening to blow away beneath the ceiling fan above.
Her breath quickening, Jenna stepped forward. As she bent over the words, they seemed to shimmer and blur like a channel not quite coming through.
He would have life. Eternal life. They could not defeat him. He loved his wine. He would become his wine. Just a few drops of blood in each vat. He would absorb into them while they drank. Into their minds. Into their skin.
Snatching the book from the bed, she hurled it across the room. The spine hit the wall, causing the remaining glue holding it together to come completely unstuck.
The book hung in the air, hovering just long enough for Jenna to see a look of pure horror stretched across the face of her once-familiar heroine. Then, it disappeared behind the bed with a flutter like beating wings.
Jenna ran downstairs. Upending her purse on the living room floor, she located her cell phone. She was about to push the buttons when it exploded in her hand.
Not bothering to check the caller ID, she pressed the phone to her ear. “Help me!”
A low chuckle that quickly graduated to a maniacal guffaw vibrated into her ear, hit her eardrum and shot down her spine. She dropped the phone and stared in horror as it melted into the floor, the evil laugh distorted and then dissolving into a series of pops and hisses.
Behind her, the TV erupted to life.
A fresh scream caught in Jenna's throat as she stared at the screen. A petite woman in her late thirties peered down a set of cellar stairs with wide, dark eyes. The maid’s cap she wore covered most of the thick, reddish-brown hair. Her shoeless feet stepped tiptoe on each uneven wooden stair. A light snapped on. As the woman crept closer, Jenna saw the bottle of clear liquid clutched in a small, trembling hand. It was the same hand that had held the cell phone, had hurled the book.
This maid was Jenna.
As if the doppelganger on the screen could read thoughts, the somber dark eyes flitted upward and fastened on Jenna. The maid nodded once and held up the bottle. Then, she turned and walked toward the back of the cellar where four claw-foot tubs of cherry red liquid shimmered in the pale glow of overhead lamps.
The maid poured a drop of the clear contents of the bottle into each vat. The moment the clear liquid touched the red, the wine bubbled up and snaky tendrils of liquid reached out toward the rim as though attempting to escape.
In a moment, all was still.
The TV went black.
Jenna clutched her chest and sank to the floor. Her breathing came in labored gasps. She broke into a cold sweat. Closing her eyes, she fought in vain to coax her heart back to a normal rhythm.
Bump. Slide. Bump.
Jenna’s eyes snapped open. What was that sound?
Slide. Slide. Bump.
She turned and gazed up toward the ceiling.
Bump. Slide. Bump.
Jenna rose and walked to the foot of the stairs.
Slide. Slide. Bump.
The terrified woman held her breath as the corked and half-empty bottle of wine continued its ominous descent. It hit the bottom stair and rolled, coming to rest at her feet.
Holding back the scream that threatened to tear its way from her throat, Jenna reeled backward, her hand reaching blindly for the back door. The bottle followed, rolling along the carpet, bumping over the threshold to the kitchen, and closing the distance between itself and its victim.
There was a faint odor of wax as the label began to melt, the bright blue cover pouring off the glass, revealing an ebony label beneath.
As Jenna watched, transfixed, fancy, gold script materialized on the black bottle, letter by letter, as if being painted on by an unseen and slightly neurotic calligrapher.
When the label was finished, the letters glittered under the overhead lights like a mocking smile.
The blood drained from Jenna’s face as she read: Fascino—A Gallo Vintage.