If the mansion had been open to the public, my museum would have gone bust.
I turned, gawping at the colorful spirit boards covering its dining room walls. A glass cabinet displayed planchettes and other tools of the medium’s trade. The gothic home was amazing and unnerving and had loads more artifacts than my paranormal museum.
But the late owner’s hermit-like nature had been my museum’s gain. Few knew or had seen the mysteries within his creeptastic mansion. Bwahaha…
“I cannot believe you could be so ungrateful.” My paranormal collector, Herb, glared up at me. Light from the dusty chandelier glinted off his coke-bottle glasses. His narrow chin quivered.
“I’m not ungrateful,” I said. “I just wanted to come to the auction.” Sheesh. I raked my hands through my brown hair, then tied it into a loose knot. “I mean, it’s so close to San Benedetto.”
The older man’s eyes narrowed. “What are you really here for, Madelyn?” He said my name like my mother might on a bad day—a bad day for me.
“The catalog says they’re selling a vintage Zoltan fortune telling machine. It’s not cursed or anything,” I said. “So, I didn’t think you’d—”
“I knew it would come to this.” A chill draft stirred his wispy hair and raised goosebumps on my skin. “You’re trying to chisel me out of my commission.”
“No.” Okay, yes. “You specialize in paranormal objects. The Zoltan isn’t paranormal. It’s just cool.”
It wasn’t as big or impressive as the Zoltar machine from the movie Big. But that was a feature, not a bug. My museum was getting cramped, and it needed new exhibits to bring people in. And Zoltan was interactive.
Customers could feed it cash in exchange for paper fortunes—money the museum could use.
Herb straightened his bow tie, barely visible beneath his brown checked scarf. “That’s it? That’s the only thing you’re interested in?”
“Yeah. It’s what I came for.”
His narrow shoulders loosened inside his long, dark wool coat. “Good. Well. I knew you’d play fair with me. You always do.”
My mother strode into the dining room wearing neat white jeans with a quilted blue jacket over her denim top. She stopped short, blinking. “Madelyn?”
Her friend, Cora Gale, bumped into her from behind. “I told you she’d be here.” Cora adjusted her multicolored caftan.
“Hi,” I said. “What are you two doing here? You know...?” I turned to Herb, but the little man had vanished. “Um…”
“Looking for something new for your museum?” my mother asked. “Don’t you have that paranormal collector hunting down new objects?”
“Yeah, I do,” I said. “But the auction was so close to San Benedetto, I thought I’d check it out. What brings you here?”
My mother toyed with her squash blossom necklace. “Oh, you know how I love garage and estate sales.”
“Paranormal estate sales?” I brandished the brochure.
The late Solomon Clarke had specialized in artifacts from America’s nineteenth-century spiritualist movement. His obsession had then spilled into more modern woo-woo objects, like the Zoltan. I really wanted that Zoltan, but the odds I’d be outbid were depressingly high.
“Is that what this is?” Cora’s eyes widened innocently. Too innocently. “A paranormal estate sale?”
I folded my arms and squinted at the pair. Something was definitely up. But was ignorance bliss or a health hazard? “Weren’t you complaining that you needed to purge the junk in your house?” I reminded my mom.
“Was I?” My mother looked to her friend.
“And didn’t you just bring in an organizational consultant to speak to Ladies Aid?” I asked Cora. My mother had invited me to attend. But the women of Ladies Aid were several degrees more terrifying than anything in my museum.
“Your aunt asked me to keep an eye out for anything interesting,” my mother said. “It’s the least I can do since she’s letting you stay in her garage apartment for dirt cheap.”
Ouch. “Aunt Sadie’s house is jammed with even more stuff than yours.” I’d spent last weekend helping her shift boxes of books into her garage. Which happened to be right beneath my apartment.
“How’s Harper doing?” my mother asked, changing the subject. Her brow furrowed with concern. “She must be feeling stressed about the recount.”
“So nerve wracking,” Cora agreed.
One of my best friends, Harper Caldarelli, had run for city council. She only had a seven-vote lead over her competitor, Berend Bigelow. So the vote had gone to an automatic hand recount. And since San Benedetto was a small town, the recount was moving at a snail’s pace.
More importantly, my mother was trying to distract me. “Mom—”
“Is that Dieter?” she asked, and I swiveled to look.
A tanned elbow vanished around the doorway. What was my other best friend’s husband doing at a haunted estate auction?
I pivoted back to my mother and Cora. They were gone too.
“Are you Madelyn Kosloski?” a man behind me asked, and I jumped.
He was a younger, slightly shorter version of Dieter. Spiky brown hair and brown eyes. Long, tanned arms and legs in a ripped tee-shirt and saggy jeans. No wonder my mom had mistaken him for Adele’s husband.
“Ah... yes?” I asked.
His face cleared. “Cool. You won lot box three.”
“I did?” I gave a little jump and clapped my hands together, then looked around to make sure no one else had seen.
I had no idea what was in the lot box—no one but the auctioneer did. But in a fit of pre-auction excitement, I’d bid twenty bucks on one. “Really?”
Herb appeared at my elbow. “You bid on a lot box?” He tugged his woolen scarf tighter. “You told me you were only interested in the Zoltan.”
“It was spur of the moment—”
“Did I win one?” Herb demanded.
The Dieter clone consulted his clipboard. “And you are...?”
“Herb Linden, paranormal collector.”
The man’s face cleared. “Yeah, you won box two. Do you want to take them now? Or I can hold them for you until after the auction.”
“The auction doesn’t start for another hour.” Herb scowled at me. “I may as well take mine now.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Cool.” The auction worker loped from the room.
Herb and I shot each other wary glances and followed him outside the mansion.
The November fog blurred the outlines of the cars parked on the wide lawn. A dim, feminine figure strode back and forth at the edge of the driveway and brandished a placard.
I squinted at her sign.
“Don’t look,” Herb hissed. “You’ll only encourage her.”
“Encourage whom?” I shivered, buttoning up my gray pea coat, and followed the men into a detached garage. A sixties Mustang and an older car I didn’t recognize sat parked inside.
“I’ll be right back.” The auction worker disappeared into a back room.
“That protestor is K Tombs,” Herb said. “She’s one of those anti-paranormal fanatics. It’s a sad story, really.”
“What’s the K stand for?” I asked.
“You mean, Kay?” I said.
“No, it’s just an initial.” He frowned at the Mustang. “I don’t think she has a full name.”
“So, she had lazy parents.”
“You’re changing the subject.” He folded his arms over his narrow chest. “You lied to me.”
“Herb, I didn’t think I was going to win the box, and like I said, it was spur of the moment. Zoltan is the only item for sale I care about.”
The auction worker emerged, balancing a large box on each hip. He wobbled carefully to us and turned one hip toward Herb. “Box two.”
Herb took the box.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re not related to Dieter Finkielkraut by any chance?”
“Yeah, he’s my cousin. I’m Otto.” He handed me the other box. It was depressingly light, but what had I expected for twenty bucks? “Do you need help taking that to your car?” he asked.
“No, I got it,” I said. “Thanks.” I started to move toward the garage entry.
“Um, you’ll have to go back to the house first.” Otto flushed. “To get the boxes scanned.”
Herb rolled his eyes and huffed. I shot Otto an apologetic smile and followed the paranormal collector back to the gloomy mansion.
On its front porch, a teenager with a laser gun scanned the barcodes on our boxes. We returned down the porch steps into the gray light and walked across damp grass toward the rows of cars.
“I still can’t believe you cheated me out of that lot box,” Herb said sharply.
“What do you mean? I didn’t cheat you. I bid on it.”
“You shouldn’t have been here to bid on it at all. I had a strong feeling about box three.”
“Then you should have bid more than twenty dollars.”
“I’m a paranormal collector,” he said in an outraged tone. “I have to be strategic with my purchases. And now I’m stuck with box two, which has no psychic emanations at all.”
I glanced back at the detached garage. Another man emerged from it carrying a box, and Otto waved at him in farewell.
I stopped beside a battered VW Bug. “Herb?”
“Would you like to trade boxes?”
He hesitated. “Yes.” Herb set down his box and took mine. Then he unlocked the yellow Bug and set the box inside.
I shook my head and continued to my red, vintage pickup.
A feminine shout came from the end of the driveway. “Wicked!” She cried faintly, and a creepy-crawly sense of wrongness shivered across my scalp.
Keeping an eye on the picketer at the end of the driveway, I loaded the box in the cab of my pickup and shut and locked the door. Paranormal collectors could get a little intense. Sadly, I wouldn’t put it past one to help themselves.
“There’s always one,” a man said from nearby, and I glanced over my shoulder.
He set a box like mine into the back of a black Acura MDX. The man was about my age or maybe a little older and gave me a heart-stopping smile. Not that I was interested. I was seeing someone.
But still, a woman notices these things. Like the auburn highlights in his hair, visible even on this dull day. Or the startling blue of his eyes against his tanned skin.
“One what?” I asked.
He jerked his head toward the woman at the end of the driveway. “This estate sale has attracted some heavy hitters.” He pushed a button, and the Acura’s rear door closed. “This lot box may be the only thing I land today.”
“You and me both.” I was on a strict budget and had resigned myself to the possibility of leaving Zoltan behind. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” Please, not Zoltan.
He grimaced. “I’m opening a new restaurant in Sacramento and thought I could pick up some funky decor. It’s not just the food that brings in customers, it’s the entire dining experience. What about you? Have you got your eye on anything?”
Herb appeared at my elbow. “Who’s this?”
The man extended his hand. “Nate Manson.” He towered over Herb’s frail form.
Herb’s mouth pinched. “Any relation to Charles?”
Nate’s face shuttered, and he took a step back. “No.” He nodded to me and strode toward the mansion.
“I heard him ask you what you were interested in.” Herb sniffed. “An obvious tactic to suss out the competition. You can thank me later for shutting that down.”
“In fairness, I asked him first.”
“Never do that. You can’t trust anyone,” Herb said. “The other bidders are the enemy.”
“He’s only a—”
Herb glowered through his thick spectacles.
“Okay, okay.” I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender.
We headed back toward the mansion. From a distance, it reminded me of a miniature in my mother’s old Halloween village. The battery-operated shutters on the haunted house had opened and closed by themselves. As a child, I’d found that endlessly fascinating.
“It’s a good thing I’m here,” Herb said. “You obviously have no idea what you’re doing.”
We walked inside.
“I’m going to check out the artifacts upstairs,” he said.
“There’s more upstairs?” Had Solomon filled his entire home with spiritualist arcana?
I trailed after Herb. His gaze darted with suspicion as we climbed the curving, red-carpeted staircase. We stepped into a long, gloomy hallway, and I wandered into the first open room.
Herb stepped on the heel of my tennis shoe. Grabbing one post on a four-poster bed, I steadied myself and adjusted my shoe.
The paranormal collector studied the vintage magic-show posters on the stained, wood wall. “Nothing here is as good as the Houdini poster in your museum.”
“These are more colorful though.”
“They’re not haunted.”
“Right. Not for the museum.”
Herb’s shoulders dropped, and he nodded. “No, I don’t think so either.”
We ambled into the next room along the hallway, and I stopped at the foot of another four-poster bed.
I stared down at an antique traveling chest, fit for the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage. The trunk’s leather straps lay undone on the hardwood floor. A sticker with a number and barcode had been loosely affixed to the top, and I checked my catalog.
“Whoa,” I said. “This belonged to Houdini.” The famous magician had also been known for exposing spiritualist frauds. Was that why Solomon had acquired the chest?
“Anything connected to Houdini is potentially—” Herb clamped his mouth shut.
“No,” he said quickly. “There are no rumors of any hauntings attached to this chest.”
I bit back a smile. He didn’t have to worry about me making a bid. I was all in for Zoltan. “Do you think it’s a magic show chest, or just a traveling chest?” A winsome magician’s assistant could easily fit inside it.
“Traveling,” he said, “definitely.” He reached for the lid.
“I don’t think we’re allowed to touch the items that are for sale.”
“Please.” He rolled his eyes. “You’d be a fool to buy anything without thoroughly examining it first.” Herb lifted the lid.
I’d like to say I had a premonition, a foreboding. But I didn’t even feel a quiver of remorse as I leaned forward, like a rube, to peer inside.
A woman curled in the fetal position stared back at us, her head turned at an awkward angle, her blue eyes blank and very, very dead.
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