A Cloud on the Title

April 4, 2015

 

The dead, black eyes of Marty the Whale greeted me from atop my in-basket at Dowel and Fishbein Real-Estate. I dropped my laptop bag onto my chair, picked old Marty up and gave him a squeeze hard enough to malform his plushy body.

 

“Sorry guy, I know it’s not your fault,” I whispered, then rearranged him into something resembling his normal whalish form. Marty only looked at me sadly, like he was wondering why I took all my anger out on him if I knew the true culprit. The stuffed whale was a holdover from my last job. He was a reminder of why I'd taken a risk and gone into real estate.

 

Before coming to Dowel and Fishbein, I'd worked a regular 9-5 office job. Except my responsibilities never really stayed between those hours. But my boss made sure to remind me that my work would pay off when the company gave us the bonus for our hard work.

 

All throughout December, the higher-ups talked endlessly about the generous end-of-year bonus they expected to hand out. So my expectations were perhaps higher than they should’ve been, but I had no reason to doubt the windfall coming my way. In fact, my boss indicated that we'd surpassed all our goals by a surprising percentage, making the company even richer.

 

They threw an opulent Christmas party at one of the Newport Mansions, where we rubbed elbows with celebrity guests, New England blue bloods and important elected officials.

 

At the end of the party gift bags were delivered to every table. There were no names or other identifying marks, though we were required to sign a statement indicating we’d received the bag. I reached inside, laughing at the smiling co-workers who watched me with all the joy of a parent on Christmas day.

 

Our joy was slightly stunted by my retrieval of a stuffed whale wearing a shirt with the company logo on the back and nothing else. At other tables, people tore the bags to pieces looking for a check. Someone even cut into their whale, finding only a spill of fluffy white stuffing where they’d hoped for a stack of cash.

 

“You’re fucking kidding, right?” I tried to set the stuffed whale on fire by focusing my hate on it. Marty remained cool and non-immolated. I’d been counting on that money to help me improve my life and they'd screwed me over.

 

I felt even more betrayed when I learned that management had gotten a terrific bonus for excellent leadership. It was typical corporate bullshit. I started looking for a new job the next day, even though a bonus direct deposit for half a week's pay arrived in my account that night.

 

After a few weeks of searching, I found Dowel and Fishbein real estate. They made no promises beyond the opportunity for making my own fortune. I got licensed and signed on with them. Being an old and rich company, I expected that they might have eccentricities about how things were done. I certainly imagined I'd have to sell my share of shitty properties to awful clients before impressing the agency with my skills. But Dowel and Fishbein took rookie agent testing to a whole new extreme.

 

It was called the Paranormal Pit Initiative. It meant trying to sell homes and structures that were supposedly haunted by one terrible entity or another. You could skip it and take the regular shit deals for the next two years, but the vets made it clear that if you wanted a shot at the big time you had to sell a listing with a supposed ghost or demon in it.

 

At first, I hadn't believed it. Haunted houses belonged in movies, not the factual world of real estate. Sure, there were places with spotty histories, murders, rapes, murder-suicides, you name it. We called it a cloud on the title.

 

My disbelief had shattered half a year ago, when I started trying to sell the Trumbaumer mansion. Just the façade scared off some people, and most buyers never made it past the front door. I hoped that the Greckzishes were made of stronger stuff.

 

I grabbed my rain boots, gave Marty a squeeze for good luck and headed out to Warren to meet the Greckzishes.

 

#

 

The blood met us at the front door, as I knew it would. The small flood rushed out onto the porch, swirling around my green rubber boots before cascading down the slate stairs in a red waterfall. The boots looked odd paired with my designer suit, but I’d already lost a good pair of Italian leather Oxfords to the flood and it wasn’t claiming a second.

 

Goddamned blood, you shouldn't be here. Warren is a nice town, within easy commuting distance to Providence. Go fuck up the real estate in Newport, or better yet, skip Rhode Island entirely and head to Boston. This house wasn't ever going to sell. I'd be stuck on the bottom rung of Dowel and Fishbein Real Estate until they fired me. I turned around, expecting my clients to have fled back to their Mercedes.

 

Instead, Mrs. Greckzish, "Call me Nina" stood there, watching the blood pool at the bottom of the steps. “That's quite disturbing.”

 

Colin 'Call me Dr. Greckzish' raised an eyebrow. “We've seen worse. And so has Uncle Raymond. If cheap tricks are all the house has to offer, we're wasting our time.”

 

“Nonsense,” Nina said. “We haven't even gone inside and already something's happened. Think of your uncle throwing a party and this sight greeting the first guests.”

 

Colin started up the steps. “He’s seventy-eight. There aren’t going to be any more parties. Or just one, but he won’t be celebrating at it. The blood just vanishes when you shut the door?"

 

I waited until we'd all stepped inside the house, then shut the door and reopened it. The stairs and porch were clear of blood. "Convenient, no? If blood appears within the house, it also cleanly vanishes within a few moments, once people stop looking at it. There's one room on the second floor where this doesn't seem to be true. The blood soaks through any carpet that's laid down. We pulled up five during our renovation. But there’s no stain on the hardwood floor. Most owners didn’t use that room for anything. It's sealed off now, but if you want me to open it I—”

 

Colin held up a hand. “Only Uncle Raymond will be living here. Mostly on the main level. Stairs give him trouble.”

 

“Then he'll be fine,” I said. “Most of the hauntings tend to be higher up.”

 

Nina frowned. “Perhaps we'll install a lift. It wouldn't do to have him trip over ghosts on the stairs."

 

Colin made a noise between a cough and a laugh. I wasn't sure what it meant, but it didn’t matter. Thinking too much could be bad for the bottom line.

 

“Shall we take a walk through the house?” I asked.

 

They exchanged a look.

 

“We'd like to avoid the most haunted sections,” Nina said. “Colin has a weak heart.”

 

He nodded. “Family trait, I'm afraid. My father died at fifty, I’m fifty-three.”

 

“Colin and Raymond are the last of their family line. He—”

 

Colin glared at her. “Let's start the tour.”

 

I led them through the empty rooms downstairs. “You can see, despite the blood, that the original hardwood floors remain in pristine condition. The bones of the house date to 1890. Peter Trumbaumer built it as a showplace for his architectural skill. He used it as a kind of home office, before those were invented. It also served another, less noble purpose, but first let me direct your attention to the exquisite ornamental plaster adorning the ceiling in this, the formal dining room, big enough for a party of twelve.”

 

Nina looked from the ceiling to me. “It’s unbelievable that a house this beautiful should go empty for so long.”

 

“Is there a ghost here or not?” Colin said. “I’m not interested in vanishing blood or rattling chains.

And if I wanted nothing but a vague sense of unease, we’d have bought that house on Benefit Street in Providence.”

 

I led them through the dusty kitchen, and out the back door. “This weedy, overgrown jungle was once a small but lovely rose garden. The fountain is original and newly returned to functionality. It’s also where the house’s tragic story begins. The most active spirit is a woman. Loreena. She was Trumbaumer’s mistress and lived in the house while the architect’s family summered in Newport. Helen, Trumbaumer’s wife, was probably already suspicious when followed him here that fateful night. This spot by the fountain is where she shot Loreena.”

 

Nina ran a finger along the dusty rim of the fountain. “She died right here?”

 

“Not quite,” I said. “She lingered for a week or two. The bullet had nicked a lung, you see. Helen was the only other person in the house when Loreena passed on. She’d become her caretaker, out of guilt or a desire to watch her rival die, no one knows."

 

“Probably a little of both," Nina said. "But it sounds like a terrible death, the poor woman drowned in her own blood.”

 

“This is a part I’ve skipped with other clients, but since your uncle’s interested in ghosts, I’ll tell you. She didn’t die in her bed. The story goes that Helen heard Loreena stumbling around in the servant’s quarters in the attic and went to her aid. A doctor found them the next morning, tangled at the bottom of the attic stairs in a heap.”

 

Nina looked at Colin again. “Oh dear. And the deaths since then, they've been falls?”

 

I shook my head. “Most people flee the property before the haunting becomes fatal, so deaths here are actually rare. Some owners reported feeling a wind pushing at their back whenever they went down the stairs. Others had breathing problems in the middle of the night, and a few even started coughing up blood. The most recent owner fled years ago after encountering something in the attic. Let me be straight with you. You don't want to buy this house. My agency's been trying to sell it for five years. I can find your uncle a nice condo. We can even tell him there's a ghost if you want.”

 

They stared at me. We continued the tour in silence until we arrived back in the foyer.

 

“Please wait for us outside,” Nina said. “Colin and I would like to discuss it alone.”

 

I stood just beyond the front door, straining to catch snippets of their conversation.

 

Loreena's cold fingers traced their way up my spine. “She says if the ghosts don't get him, the stairs will.” There was a wheezing undertone to the words. “So handsome. You should spend a night with me in the attic.”

 

“Leave me alone,” I whispered, “You’re pretty, but dead. We can’t be together.” Was she really pretty? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t pay to insult ghosts.

 

She'd started hitting on me during my second week showing the house. I'd tried the traditional Open House approach first, which meant spending some time alone in the place setting up coffee and snacks and then cleaning up. The showing attracted more curious people than serious buyers, and even one amorous young couple who thought it'd be fun to get it on in a haunted house.

 

I'd caught them in the servant's quarters in the attic, of all places. Loreena first spoke to me after I'd all but shoved the half-dressed, slightly embarrassed couple out onto the back porch and slammed the door in their faces.

 

I felt a cool breeze on the back of my neck, as if someone was gently breathing directly behind me. "You should've let them finish," the voice I'd eventually identify as Loreena's said behind me. "I was just starting to enjoy the show. What a lovely thing to see upon my . . . return."

 

A solid hand grabbed my shoulder and I bit back a scream.

 

Colin chuckled. “This place scares you too, eh? We'll take it. I just have to let my lawyer know.” He pulled out his phone and shook his head in frustration. “No signal. I’ll be right back.”

 

I waited with Nina. We wandered the front rooms, kicking up dust.

 

“You should reconsider,” I said. "I'd feel bad if your uncle fell victim to this house."

 

“All the houses Uncle Raymond has owned are haunted. He doesn’t believe the ghosts can hurt him.” She gave my arm a squeeze. “The eccentric old man has his will arranged so that his money goes to us and his old university. Our portion is larger if he dies in a haunted house.”

 

This close to her, I could see that she was younger than Colin by a good five years, and not unattractive. I looked out the window. “But it’s Colin’s inheritance.”

 

Her hand slid down my arm and brushed across the seat of my pants.

 

I stepped away, hoping Loreena hadn’t seen her touch my ass. “That’s inappropriate.” The house was hard enough to deal with at its default hostile setting. I didn’t want to see it actively trying to hurt me or Nina.

 

“Only while I’m married. If it works I'll send you a check and a key. Decide then.”

 

“I don't understand,” I said.

 

“The architect’s wife and I, well, both our husbands have business houses. And like Peter Trumbaumer, Colin doesn't realize his wife knows about his mistress. But I'm too civilized to shoot her. After Raymond dies, we’ll move here, since Colin enjoys using his uncle's yacht that’s moored in Newport. And our own house is falling apart. Colin’s no handyman.”

 

“Mrs. Greckzish—Nina . . . you really should—” I stopped talking.

 

Nina smirked prettily at me, then winked.

 

The commission from this sale would be handsome, and the other possible . . . perks would be enjoyable. I'd always had a thing for older women, and Nina was a prime specimen. Once I sold this house, I'd no longer be saddled with anything from the Paranormal Pit List. It’d be nothing but prime listings from here on out. If I played my cards right, I might be able to come out of this a comfortably kept boy-toy instead of a haggard real estate agent. I smiled back at Nina, to let her know I was on board. I kept an eye out for Loreena, but she never appeared.

 

“Here comes Colin,” Nina said.

 

We met him in the main hall. He brushed past us, and started up the staircase, but turned when he got to the third step. “Sorry, thought I saw someone up there. Your boss sent the paperwork to my lawyer. They'll have the deal worked out before you get us back to the office.” He stepped down and extended his hand. “Well done.”

 

Like an idiot, I hesitated before shaking his hand. I didn’t know for sure that Loreena or whatever else lurked here would hurt Uncle Raymond. The other owners had just been driven out.

 

“Congratulations on your purchase,” I said.

 

Colin had a firm grip for an older man. I thought about pulling him aside and telling him what Nina had said, but Loreena appeared at the top of the stairs, her head tilted so that it almost rested on her left shoulder. She put a finger to her lips. I kept my mouth shut and led them out the door.

 

When we got to the office Colin and Nina sang my praises to Mr. Fishbein. Once the Greckzishs' had left, Mr. Fishbein told me that they'd insisted on an increase in my commission. The new number was very nice, and I hoped to get the chance to thank Nina in person.

 

#

 

It took Loreena or something else in the Trumbaumer mansion a little over a year to kill Uncle Raymond. Or at least that was what I assumed happened. I hadn't ever asked.

 

Nina and I started seeing each other on a limited basis soon after uncle Raymond moved into the house. I tried to distance myself from her several times, but despite the situation I found my feelings for her were real. I felt slightly bad about it, but Nina said that if Colin could take a lover then so could she, and I was the one she wanted.

 

Poor Colin. He'd suffered a fatal heart attack at his office a month or so after uncle Raymond died. Nina said it was brought on by the stress of dealing with his uncle’s estate and complicated legal issues. The University hadn't been aware of the clause in Raymond's will and they weren't convinced the house was haunted. They put up a fight about the split, but settled quickly after sending a team to investigate the house.

 

A month after Colin's death, Nina and I cuddled in front of the fireplace in the living room of the Trumbaumer mansion, sipping wine, and nibbling at cheese and crackers. I was a little nervous about spending the night here. I wasn’t sure exactly where in the house Uncle Raymond had died, and I didn’t want to be in the room where it’d happened. But we’d started with strong martinis before sampling a few bottles from Colin’s wine collection, so neither of us were in driving condition.

 

When I asked Nina if she'd seen Loreena after Uncle Raymond's death, she said no. Maybe she'd finally gone into "the light" or the lack of sensual activity in the house had caused her to drift into a dormant state. Even after seeing, and talking to a ghost, it was hard for me to accept their reality.

 

“I’m glad you decided to take me up on my offer,” Nina said. “This house really is too big for a widow like me.” She stared at the diamond ring on her finger. It wasn’t close to the size of the one she had from Colin, but it was the best I could do without the backing of family money. “Do you think it’s too soon for me to marry again? My lawyer managed to make me feel as if I was doing something wrong while still collecting the fee for drawing up the paperwork.”

 

“Why put off our happiness?” I said. “Take the rest of the bottle upstairs and I’ll join you after I lock up.” The way we’d met was . . . non-traditional . . . but I was actually happy to be with her. And not just for the money, though helping her spend it was a lot of fun.

 

I’d just opened the fridge to put the cheese back when I heard a scream, followed by a loud series of thumps. I dropped the plate and rushed up the stairs.

 

Nina lay at the bottom of the narrow attic staircase, her head cocked at an odd angle. She tried to speak, but only managed to produce a bubbling cough.

 

“Why the hell were you trying to go up there?” I asked her, though she couldn’t answer. Panic gripped me. I’d expected something like this, but not on our first night in the house. This wasn’t happening the way I’d envisioned it at all. Thank god she'd been eager to sign the new will. “Colin? Are you here?”

 

There was no answer.

 

I reached into my pocket for my cell, but it had no signal. Goddamned house. I started down the stairs, careful to hold tightly to the railing. I tried to open the front door, but it wouldn’t budge. I went back upstairs to check on Nina. She’d stopped breathing and there was a film forming over her eyes. I couldn’t stay with her corpse, and the alcohol was making it hard to think, so I went into the bedroom and lay down to clear my head.

 

A cold form settled next to me, and I turned to look into the eyes of Loreena. Her head wasn’t crooked now.

 

“Why?” I asked. “She didn’t do anything to you?”

 

“It was part of our bargain. I’d visit Colin and she’d bring you here.”

 

“Did she know you meant to kill her?”

 

“Would she have agreed to it if she thought I wouldn’t share? That’s what she wanted. A ménage à trois on Halloween. But don’t be angry sweetie. We’ll be better together than you two ever were.”

 

“But I’m not dead. It’ll never work between us.”

 

She shrugged. “I’ve got a solution for that, until rot sets in. Then you’ll have to find me another. Let me go slip into something fleshier.” She floated out the door.

 

I heard terrible cracking noises, and then the sounds of someone struggling to stand.

 

“Her leg’s broken,” Loreena said. “Can you help me?”

 

I got up and walked to the hallway. Nina’s body leaned half-upright against the attic doorjamb, a bloody white bone sticking out below her left knee.

 

I bolted for the stairs.

 

Halfway down, I heard Loreena whisper my name. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Nina’s corpse topple towards me from the top of the stairs. I was almost at the bottom when her body slammed into my legs. We tumbled to the floor together. As much as I wanted to lay there and recover, I knew Loreena would never give me the chance.

 

I tried to stand but my right ankle wouldn’t hold my weight. The front door was the closest exit, so I crawled towards it, only to find a growing pool of blood between it and me.

 

“You should’ve loved me!” Loreena said from inside Nina’s body. The voice was a weird mix of Loreena and Nina. She struggled towards me on arms that had been broken in her fall down the stairs.

 

The blood rose in a wave and surged in my direction, growing taller as it crossed the floor. I stumbled to my feet and ran for the kitchen, screaming every time I put weight on my ankle. Throwing open the lock, then the door, I flung myself onto the back porch just as the blood finally reached me.

 

It carried me off the porch and into the yard, swirling around my face, trying to force its way into my mouth and nostrils. But I was outside the house now, and its influence wasn’t as strong. The blood drained away without having completed its mission.

 

Loreena stood at the back door. “You’ll never come back now, will you?”

 

I didn’t bother to answer. I turned away from her and crawled to the storage shed. As I grabbed the gas can and staggered back towards the house, I wondered if the insurance company would pay out for a house I’d owned less than twenty-four hours.

 

I splashed gas onto the porch and decided not to worry about it. If they wouldn’t pay, then I’d sell the one they built on the lot after the fire.

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