I was one of six people who answered a house-sitting ad. What stood out was the money, as was intended.
When I arrived at the interview, held in an accountant’s office downtown, there was no suggestion that it was a trick, or there were ulterior motives.
Just $5,000 for a week’s work. Move-in, act as a security guard, and check all entrances and exits, and all rooms that had windows to the outside every four or so hours, particularly at night.
The owner had to maintain residence in the house for the week, as he was going away, under a clause in the sale contract. The reason for hiring civilians, that it was too expensive to get live-in people from a security company.
The owner freely admitted he was a cheapskate.
But for someone like me, the $5,000 was a lot of money and would help pay beck everyone I owed money to.
I earnestly pleaded my case, submitted myself to a background check, and then waited to hear back.
When I didn’t hear anything by the due date I figured some other lucky person had pleaded a better case, then, exactly a week later I got the call.
The next day a courier delivered the keys to the house and the address. My week started at exactly 9am the next morning.
The cab dropped Mr off at the front gate of the house, only it wasn’t a house so much as a mansion, and one that had seen better days.
It was at the end of the street, behind two large gates, and a high brick fence. I could see the driveway on the other side, and just make out the house behind the unkempt shrubbery.
I had a bunch of keys, and it took a few attempts to find the one that fitted the lock and chain preventing the gates from opening.
I just unlocked it when another car pulled up in the same place my can had, and a young woman got out. She rescued her sports bag from the trunk and paid the cabbie.
“Who are you,” she said.
“The caretaker for the next week. I might ask the same question.”
“The ex-wife with nowhere to go.”
No one mentioned an ex-wife that was part of the deal.
“I wasn’t told anyone else would be here, so it would be best you left.”
I slipped the lock back in place and stood my ground. She could be anyone.
She pulled out her phone and rang a number.
A heard the voice on the other end say hello.
“You can tell your deadhead caretaker that I’m staying for a few days.”
Then I watched her expression turn very dark, and then the words, “I have nowhere else to go, and it will only be a few days.” Then silence and an accompanying ground, ending with, “You don’t want me to come after you because you know how that will end”.
She listened, then handed the phone to me.
“I’m the owner requesting the service. You are not responsible for her, but if she becomes a problem, lock her in the basement.”
Then he hung up. It was not the best of answers to the problem.
“Are you going to open the gate?”
I shook my head and then pretended to fumble through the keys looking for the right one. “You know this place,” I asked without turning around.
“No. The bastard didn’t tell me about a lot of the stuff he owns.” Her tone bristled with resentment.
I ‘found’ the key and opened the lock and started pulling the chain through the fence. I could feel her eyes burning into my back.
When I swung open the gate, she barged past and kept walking. I stepped through, and immediately felt the change in the temperature. It was cold, even though the sun was out and I could feel an unnatural chill go through me.
By the time I closed and relocked the gate she had gone as far as, and round a slight bend in the driveway. I thought about hurrying to catch up, but I didn’t think it mattered, she didn’t have a key. Or perhaps I hoped she didn’t have one.
I headed towards the house at a leisurely pace. I didn’t have to be there in the next instant, and I wanted to do a little survey of the grounds. If I was checking windows, then I needed to know what the access might be like through any of them.
As I got closer to the house, the overgrowth was worse, but that might have been because no one could see it from the roadside, or through the iron gate.
Accessibility via the gardens would-be problematic for anyone who attempted it because there was no easy access. It was one less immediate problem to deal with.
The driveway widened out into a large gravel-covered square outside the front of the house. It had an archway under which cars could stop and let out passengers undercover, ideal for ball goers, which meant the house had been built somewhere during the last century.
There were aspects that would warrant me taking a look on the internet about its history.
She was waiting outside the door, showing some exertion, and the mad dash had been for nothing.
“I take it you have a key?”
I decided to ignore that. I hoped she would disappear to another part of the house and leave me alone. I had too much to do without having to worry about where she was, or what she was doing. It seemed, base on the short time I spoke to him, that the owner had a mistake marrying her if they were in fact married. Ex could mean almost anything these days.
Again, I made a show of trying to find the right key, though in the end it was hit and miss, and it took the fourth of fifth attempt to find it.
The door was solid oak, but it swung open easily and silently. I had expected it to make a squeaking sound, one associated with rusty hinges. This time she was a little more circumspect when she passed by me. I followed and closed and locked the door behind me.
Inside was nothing like I expected. Whilst the outside looked like the building hadn’t been tended to for years, inside had been recently renovated, and had that new house smell of new carpets and painted walls.
There was a high vaulted roof, and a mezzanine that was accessed by a beautifully restored wooden staircase and ran around the whole upper floor so that anyone could stand anywhere near the balustrading and look down into the living space, and, towards the back, the kitchen and entertaining area.
The walls had strategically placed paintings, real paintings, that looked old, but I doubted were originals, because if they were similar to those I’d seen in a lot of English country estates they would be priceless, but not left in an empty building.
I had also kept her in the corner of my eye, watching her look around almost in awe.
“What do you think these paintings are worth?”
Was she going to suddenly take an inventory?
“Not a lot. You don’t leave masterpieces in an abandoned house. I suspect nothing in here would be worth much, and really only for decorative purposes so the owner can have a better chance of selling the place. Empty cavernous buildings do not sell well.”
“What are you again?”
“No one of any particular note. I’ve been asked to look after the place for the next week until it is handed over to the new owners. Aside from that, I know nothing about the place, nor do I want to. According to the note I got with the key, there are bedrooms off that mezzanine you can see up there.” I pointed to the balustrading. The kitchen has food, enough for the few days I’ll be here, but I’m sure there’s enough to share.”
“Good. You won’t see me again if I can help it.”
I watched her walk to the staircase and go upstairs. The mud map told me there were bedrooms up of the mezzanine, and also across from this area. There was another large room adjacent to this, a games area or room big enough to hold a ball, a part of the original house, and which led out onto the side lawns. I’d check later to see what the access was like because I suspected there would be a few doors that led out from the hall to the garden.
When she disappeared along the upstairs passageway, I headed towards the next room. IT was large, larger than that next door, and had another grand staircase leading down to the dance floor. I guess the people used to stay in rooms upstairs, get dressed, then make a grand entrance down those stairs.
I hadn’t expected this house to be anything like the old country estates, and it was a little like icing of the cake. I would have to explore, and transport myself back to the old days, and imagine what it was like.
She was true to her word, and I didn’t see her the next morning. I was staying a world away from her. I was in the refurbished old section and she was staying in the newly renovated and modernized part of the house.
I did discover, on the first day of getting my bearings and checking all of the entrances and windows ready for my rounds, that above the bedrooms on the second floor of the old section, there was a third floor with a number of smaller rooms which I assumed were where the servants lived.
I stayed in one of those rooms. The other main bedrooms, with ornate fireplaces and large shuttered windows, smelled a little too musty for me, and I wasn’t about to present someone with an open window. The views from the balconies were remarkable too or would have been in the garden had been kept in its original state.
In the distance, I could see what might have once been a summerhouse and promised myself a look at it later. A long day had come to a tiring end, and I was only destined for a few hours’ sleep before embarking on my first-midnight run. I was going to do one at eight, after eating, another at midnight, and another at six in the morning. I’d make adjustments to the schedule after running the first full night’s program.
I brought my special alarm with me, the one that didn’t make a sound but was very effective in waking me. It was fortuitous, because I had not been expected someone else to come along for the ride, and didn’t want them to know where and when I would be doing the rounds.
It had taken longer than I expected to get to sleep, the sounds of the housekeeping me awake. Usually a sound sleeper, perhaps it was the first night in different, and unusual surroundings.
I shuddered as I got out of bed, a cold air surrounding me, a feeling like that when I walked through the gate. I had the sensation that someone was in the room with me, but in the harsh light after putting the bedside light on, it was clearly my imagination playing tricks.
I dressed quickly and headed out.
The inside of the house was very dark, and the light from my torch stabbed a beam of light through what might have been an inky void. The circle of light on the walls was never still, and I realized that my hand had acquired a touch of the shakes.
Creaking sounds as I walked across the flooring had not been discernible the previous night, and it was odd they only happened at night. A thought that the house may be haunted when through my mind, but I didn’t believe in ghosts or anything like that.
The creaking sounds followed me as I started my inspection. I headed downstairs, and once I reached the back end of what I was going to call the ballroom. Before I went to bed the previous evening, I drew up a rough map of the places I would be going, ticking them off as I went.
The first inspection was of the doors that led out onto the lawns. The floor-to-ceiling windows were not curtained, and outside the undergrowth was partially illuminated by moonlight. The day had been warm, that period in autumn leading into winter where the days were clear but getting colder. Outside I could see a clear starry night.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the flash of a torchlight in the gardens. I stopped and looked more carefully, but there was nothing. I waited for about ten minutes, but there was still no movement.
I was going to have to park my imagination before starting rounds or I’d never get the job done.
I went out of the room and into the living area. There seemed to be lights all around me, those small pilot lights that told you appliances were on standby.
I was heading towards the stairs when suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream, followed by what sounded like a gunshot, a sharp loud bang that, on top of the scream, made me jump.
I raced as fast as I could up the stairs. The sounds had come from there, but when I reached the top of the stairs, I realized I had no idea in which direction it came from. Pointing the torch in both directions, there was nothing to see.
I could see a passage that might lead to the bedrooms on this level, and headed towards it, moving slowly, keeping as quiet as I could, listening for anything, or if someone else was lurking.
I heard a door slam, the echo coming down the passage. I flashed the light up the passage, but it didn’t seem to penetrate the darkness. I moved quickly towards the end, half expecting to see someone.
Then I tripped over, and as I tried to get to my feet, realized it was a body. I flashed the torch on it, and it was the woman.
Dead, a gunshot wound in the chest, and blood everywhere.
I scrambled to my feet, and ran towards the end of the passage, and stopped at what appeared to be a dead end. With nowhere to go, I turned.
I wasn’t alone, just hearing before seeing the presence of another person, but it was too late to react. I felt an object hitting me on the back of the head, and after that, nothing.
I could feel a hand shaking me, and a voice coming out of the fog. I opened my eyes and found myself in completely different surroundings.
A large ornate bedroom, and a four-poster bed, like I had been transported back to another age. Then I remembered I had been in a large house that had been renovated, and this was probably one of the other bedrooms on the floor where the woman had been staying.
Then I remembered the body, being hit, and sat up.
A voice beside me was saying, “You’re having that nightmare again, aren’t you?”
It was a familiar voice.
I turned to see the woman who I had just moments before had seen dead, the body on the floor of the passage.
“You’re dead,” I said, in a strangely detached tone.
“I know. I’m supposed to be. You helped me set it up so I could escape that lunatic ex-husband of mine.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“Don’t worry. The doctor says your memory will return, one day. But, for now, all you need to do is rest. All you need to know is that we’re safe, thanks to you.”
© Charles Heath 2021