Iris had driven past the Countess Bed and Breakfast often enough over the years to have a somewhat clear picture of the place in her mind as she drove through the wooded roads of Petersham. And as she’d pulled up at the lofty old mansion, grand yet derelict, it only confirmed her belief.
It had never occurred to her that she’d ever have a reason to go in. In all honesty, she’d never given The Countess much thought beyond “it’s there, it’s creepy.” But Missy had given her just enough information over the phone to intrigue her. So here she was, pulling into the gravel driveway and wondering if she’d done enough protective work on herself over the years to stand up to whatever vibes she might find in here.
Iris got out of her car and slammed the door. It was hot outside, even this early in the morning. The humidity pressed down on her as she started walking toward the front door, almost hidden behind a wild tangle of geraniums and ferns. She had a water bottle in her bag along with her holy water and herbs, and she reached in to get a drink before knocking on the door.
Unfortunately, she was mid-swig when the door swung open. An older woman stood there, her long, gray hair piled on her head. She had dark skin and wore a cheerful sun dress. She smiled widely at Iris and stepped out.
“My goodness, it is hot out today,” she said simply.
Iris jumped and spilled her water. Her face felt even hotter as she wiped the spilled water off her chest. The woman, however, just laughed
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you, I just saw you coming up the walk and figured I’d meet you at the door.”
Iris shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said. “I was just…”
“Expecting a ghost?”
The woman’s dark eyes glinted with mischief and Iris immediately felt more at ease. “I’m Anna,” the woman said, holding out a hand.
Iris took her hand and Anna shook firmly. “Iris,” she said.
“Thank you for responding to Missy’s email so quickly,” Anna said. “Like she said, we both have a good amount of experience dealing with the paranormal. But this is just…it’s very peculiar.”
“I mean, I can’t make any promises,” Iris said, “But I can certainly do my best.”
“And that’s all we ask.”
Iris paused, wondering if she was being patronized. Anna must have seen it on her face, because she laughed. “Sorry,” she said. “I was a middle school teacher for thirty years. I guess I never lost the habits. Come inside, we’ll have tea and talk.”
She stepped aside to let Iris in. Iris stepped into the cool, dark foyer.
She wouldn’t say that it looked shockingly different from the outside. But inside, the Countess Bed and Breakfast looked much more lived in. It was dim, the light filtered through several stained glass windows set near the high ceilings. A small desk sat tucked against the back of the foyer, with a few books stacked on it. A coat rack stood beside the door and the walls held framed maps of the region. Iris noted that at least three of them had been drawn before the creation of the nearby Quabbin Reservoir, as towns and train lines crossed land that was currently a mile below the water.
“Missy!” Anna called up the wooden stairway that Iris assumed led to the guest rooms. “Missy, Ms. Davies is here!”
“Iris, please,” Iris said.
Anna laughed. “Iris is here!” she called up the stairs, correcting herself.
Iris laughed and stepped closer to one of the maps. It was also from the late nineteenth century, but the casual addition of the lost towns wasn’t what interested her. Instead, her attention was drawn to the dotted outline of New Winslow. Just as the painting in the historical society had, this image itched at her in a way that she couldn’t quite explain. It was sparsely detailed, showing the town hall, the old cemetery, and that same mansion as the painting. The Alderidge place.
Her attention was drawn back to the task at hand by the sound of heavy bootfalls on the stairs. Missy hurried over. “Hi, Iris,” she said. ‘Sorry, I got distracted by some last minute requests for tomorrow’s guests and completely lost track of time.“
Missy was short and broad with a buzzed haircut peeking out from beneath a sliding red bandanna. She grinned at Iris and her eyes sparkled with the same warmth Iris had seen in Anna’s.
“Nice to meet you” she said, squeezing Iris’s hand.
“Likewise,” Iris said.
She glanced around. “This place is lovely.”
The two other women smiled. “Thank you,” Missy said. “We know the reputation it has around the region, but we’re very proud of it.”
Iris felt like she should say something to that, but Missy just laughed. “We know,” she said, waving Iris’s unsaid response away. “And if we’re honest, we’re just fine with it.”
“We have our client base,” Anna added.
She smiled fondly at Missy, then turned back to Iris. “Come into the kitchen,” she said. “We’ve got some goodies set up for tea.”
A few minutes later they were sitting around an antique wooden table in what was possibly the coziest kitchen Iris had ever entered. Missy poured tea for the three of them and they took a moment to get settled with some fruit tarts and cream pastries. Iris’s mouth watered at the sight of all of them, but she took just one fruit tart to be polite. Anna narrowed her eyes and slid a second tart onto her plate beside it.
“So Iris,” Anna said. “You’re probably going to laugh because this seems like such an open and shut case for two old timers. But we’ve got a particularly stubborn presence in the house and Missy and I have tried everything we can think of to clear it out.”
“Oh?” Iris asked, not exactly liking the little sliver of pride sneaking into her chest right then but not trying to fight it either. Two experts in the field expected her to be able to do what they couldn’t? That was a nice boost.
“It’s a stubborn one,” Missy added. “And we think you’re the most likely person to be able to get it out of here. See, this building was originally built in New Winslow. The owners who originally converted it into an inn paid a small fortune to have it moved to Petersham in the 1930s. Based on everything we’ve seen and heard, we think this spirit is from slightly before that time period. The movements are fairly repetitive, but because of some specific interactions and the resistance to all the things we’ve tried to remove it, I don’t think it’s a residual haunting.”
Iris nodded. “Well, I’ve definitely got experience with that,” she said. “So I can absolutely take a look.”
The two other women smiled at each other. “That would be fantastic,” Anna said. “We’ll give you access to all the information we currently have. And if you can email us your contract, we’ll get that taken care of. I hope this goes without saying, but obviously we’ll be covering supplies and costs on top of your usual rate.”
Iris was, in fact, mildly surprised at that. Not that other people were necessarily stingy, but she’d had to chase down or negotiate with more than one client before. “That’s…very generous, thank you.”
“We’re in the field, we understand how it can be,” Missy said. “And now that that’s out of the way, let’s refresh these teas and polish off these pastries.”
The young woman stood in front of the crystal display, looking politely confused as she surveyed the options.
“Can I help you find something?” Andrew asked.
She jumped up, startled, then laughed a little nervously. “Um, no thanks. I’m just browsing.”
“Just let me know,” he said.
Then he motioned to the display of amethysts they’d gotten in that morning. “If you’re looking for a protective stone, amethyst is an excellent catch-all for things like stress and negative energy. Also helps focus the psychic powers if that’s your kind of thing.”
He winked at her and she blushed a little. “Anyway, just call if you need me,” he said, then left her to her shopping and started walking back toward the counter.
He had Enchantments of Essex County open on the counter and was thumbing through it when the bell rang over the front door.
“Good morning, Andrew.”
“Morning, Dr. Degas.”
“How did last night go?”
Dr. Degas pulled off her light jacket and hung it over her arm as she stopped at the register. “Unsuccessfully,” Andrew said with a slight laugh. “But it seemed like progress? Maybe? I could feel a slight shift in the air when we got to the line. And then I went home and had some of the strangest, most vivid dreams I’ve ever had for the few hours I actually slept.”
She frowned at him. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”
He shrugged. “Nothing new.”
“Still,” she said, clearly unimpressed. “Come see me if you need anything to help with that.”
Andrew gestured to the shelves of merchandise around them. “I’ve got an assortment of options here, don’t worry.”
“Cute,” she said. “But I mean it. What have you been trying?”
“Exercise,” he said. “Long walks. And Olivia has made me enough chamomile tea over the past few weeks that I might float away.”
“Keep it up,” she said with a smile. “And let me know if anything changes.”
“Yes, Doc,” he said in his best Roman impression.
“Great, there’s more of you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But that’s all I needed. I saw some of the herb mixtures she had planned and wanted to be sure nobody was poisoned last night.”
Ah, a complication he had not previously considered. She clearly saw it on his face because she shook her head. “Just be careful,” she said. “I know this is important, but not at the expense of any of your safety.”
“I promise we’ll be careful,” Andrew said.
The girl from before was making her way up to the counter now. “I have to go,” Dr. Degas said. “I’ll see you tonight. Tell Iris to call me when she gets a chance.”
She started walking toward the door as the girl set a small piece of amethyst and a couple essential oils down on the counter. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Andrew asked as he rang in the items.
“I did,” the girl said. “But I wanted to make sure. These are all safe to eat, right? My friend suggested essential oils and I wanted to try blending them into my smoothie.”
From the corner of his eye, Andrew saw Dr. Degas freeze. She slowly turned around as Andrew shook his head. “No,” he said quickly. “No, please don’t do that.”
The girl’s face fell, but then brightened again as he started to step out from behind the counter. “We’ve got plenty of dried herbs, let me help you find what you need.”
As they started walking back toward the displays, Dr. Degas started to walk out. “This goddamn town,” Andrew heard her mutter as the door swung shut behind her.