Another evening, another research session at The Countess. The late October air was beyond crisp and into cold as Iris arrived. She’d been seeing snow in her dreams the past few nights and now, looking up at the clouds hanging heavy in the sky above her, it seemed like the visions might be more significant than she’d previously thought. She’d have to remember to bring in the plants she had on her tiny back deck when she got home. If Roland hadn’t already gotten to them, that was.
She’d seen him too, Iris remembered suddenly. Not just when he was taunting her in her car the other night. In her dreams. But it wasn’t like last time, when she’d felt that overwhelming malice coming off of him. In these dreams, the ones she was just now starting to vaguely remember, he was outside of her apartment in the snow. Nothing strange about the scene beyond the fact that this demonic entity she’d cast out of her life was now hanging out with her kale and decorative lettuce plants. But the fact that she’d remembered the snow and not him unnerved her in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
She knew that there was only so much she could do about him if banishing him wasn’t within her capabilities. She could keep him out of her home and her shop, but she couldn’t control what happened anywhere else. And apparently keeping him out of her dreams was more difficult than she’d ever anticipated. It hadn’t snowed yet this year, so she knew those visions were definitely dreams, but Roland’s presence felt as real as it did when she was awake.
Halloween was still a few days away and The Countess’s exterior was decked out for the occasion. Not that it needed any help in looking completely creepy, but someone (Missy, Iris assumed) had lined the front walkway with jack-o’-lanterns. Each was uniquely carved with a skilled hand, the faces lit up with a sense of expression as she walked past them. Deep red and gold chrysanthemums overflowed the whiskey barrels at either side of the building’s front steps and the whole place was back lit in white light. The entire scene was charming and festive and Iris felt a smile cross her face as she walked between the barrels and toward the heavy wooden door.
Missy and Anna had told her months ago that she was welcome any time and that there was no need to ring the bell. They locked the doors later in the evening, but despite the darkness it was barely past six. So Iris pushed the door open, then paused before stepping through.
Something was behind her in the darkness. Fear welled up in her chest as she stopped short on the Countess’s threshold. She couldn’t hear it, but she could sense the eyes on her. Was it the same person who had been watching her and Andrew over the past few months? But she hadn’t sensed a ghost before and there was no way a person would be so silent, yet so close. If there had been breath, it would be hot on the back of Iris’s neck right now, that’s how close it was.
Iris took a shaky breath. “Leave me alone,” she choked out
Was it Roland? Was this what the dreams had been telling her? Sure, his last appearance in her life had been silly and childish, but that was just like him wasn’t it? Throw around some obscene graffiti, then fly into a rage and try to kill her.
Wind like fingers brushed against her neck, dipping under the festive scarf she’d been so excited to wear. It wouldn’t take much for them to wrap around her throat, not as she stood here frozen. They’d go from a gentle brush to a sudden tight-
Anna was coming down the stairs into the lobby. She hurried over to the open door. “Iris, are you alright?”
And it was gone. Iris took a sharp breath and spun around to look in the yard. But there was nothing there. Just the jack-o-lanterns. Whose grinning faces were now all facing her. Hadn’t they been facing the driveway before?
“I’m okay,” she said, turning back to Anna, who was looking at her with concern.
Iris walked into the building and gratefully closed the door behind her. This place needed some more protections, but she could feel something shimmering in the atmosphere. It seemed to come from upstairs where the guest rooms were. Someone must be in the habit of putting up wards whenever they traveled.
“Did you see something?” Anna asked.
Iris shook her head. “No, I just…I thought I felt something in the dark.”
Anna grimaced. “I guess that’s one way to get into the Halloween spirit,” she said. “Is there anything you need?”
Now, in the warm light of the foyer, Iris felt like she was back in control. “I’m all set,” she said. “I’ll do some extra cleansing tonight when I get home. And whoever is putting up protective shields in their room is helping.”
This time Anna laughed. “That would be Marcie,” she said. “I’d say go up and thank her, but Marcie isn’t one for human company.”
She didn’t elaborate, and Iris didn’t ask. “I’m just here to look through the Harbinger more,” she said instead.
“Of course,” Anna said, motioning toward the sitting room where Iris had left the book after her conversation with Vivien. “Take your time. We don’t have any events tonight, but I’ve got a to-do list the length of my arm and Missy will have some opinions if I don’t get it done. So if you need me, I’ll be down in the wine cellar.”
A wine cellar. Iris hadn’t even considered the fact that there must be a full basement under this place. But the basement would have only been dug after the building was moved over from New Winslow. So what had happened to the original cellar hole back in town? Was it still there or had it been filled in decades ago? The Countess’s library contained old maps of the region, maybe she could find one that would help her find where the Alderidge house had stood.
She headed for the sitting room as Anna disappeared into the basement. The second volume of the Harbinger was lying on the table, her spot marked by a soft fabric bookmark she’d found in the room. The cheap drugstore notebook she’d been taking notes in sat next to it, still open to the last notes she’d taken.
Elmwood Financial was written on the top of the page and underlined. Right, that was where she should start.
Elmwood Financial was persistent in its pursuit of the Alderidge property. As Rosalind Alderidge continued to refuse the sale, the attempts became more hostile. Eventually even Elmwood Financial’s top officers were visiting in person, always offering slightly under market value. In one instance relayed to this author by a witness, Elmwood CEO Harrison Barlow presented Mrs. Alderidge with a printed list of all of her debts and to whom they were owed. He offered to pay off all the debts, which came again to just under the property’s appraised value. Rosalind’s young son, Samuel, asked if maybe she should consider it, if only so that she would be out of debt and able to focus on her own future. But Rosalind again refused, stating that this home had been in her family’s name for generations and the only person who would own it after her was Samuel. Barlow left angrily, saying that if she refused to listen to reason, then they would need to find other tactics.
The astute reader might ask, why was Elmwood so focused on the Alderidge property? After all, they already owned multiple properties on the west side of New Winslow and they didn’t pursue the lot on the other side of the Alderidge home. And the planned hotel would be perfectly possible with the land they had. Was it personal? Barlow’s family had strong ties to New Winslow and Rosalind Alderidge’s persistence might have impacted his reputation around town. And while an argument could have easily been made that the hotel would benefit the entire town, Barlow and Elmwood Financial needed to get a handle on the story before it became known in the public eye as a company destroying a small-town woman’s home.
Hotel! There it was, right there in neat type. The hotel they’d planned was going to be at the Alderidge place. Iris scribbled “Harrison Barlow” underneath Elmwood Financial on her notepad. If Barlow had such a strong connection to New Winslow, maybe that was how the curse tied in. But she was going to need to look into the town records. Which meant going to the library.
That familiar mixture of guilt and trepidation slid into her stomach, replacing the triumph, as she thought about that fact. And she hadn’t told Andrew about any of this yet, so she couldn’t pawn this visit off on him this time.