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ABIGAIL JENKINS STOOD with her hands on her hips in the pouring rain, staring at the famous teahouse across the street, the one with the wicked reputation for all things supernatural. She expected it to shimmer, or gurgle, or do something odd at any moment, but the structure did nothing of the sort. It was a tired, old house in need of paint and repair, on a street of tired, old houses. Its cloak of normalcy seduced her, daring her to come closer for a better look as if it were a witch in a pretty dress offering poisoned candy, but she had heard the wicked stories about the place and she was no fool. Things happened in this house, things that were far from ordinary. A shiver slithered up her spine. Of all the haunted houses in all the world, why did this one pick me?
Trying to shake off a deep sense of foreboding, she wiped the rain off her face and crossed the street to face the house. Whether she liked it or not, the only job available in Sunset Cove was night cleaner in this place and she needed a job.
Being a widow with three kids to feed, the word “choice” had vanished from her vocabulary a long time ago. The place could be haunted by the devil himself and it still wouldn’t matter. She needed money, especially now her baby was sick and needed expensive meds. Gulping down the paralyzing fear brewing in her blood she climbed the long, wooden staircase to the front door. It opened before she knocked.
“Good evening.” The woman standing on the threshold looked over a pair of tortoise-shell reading glasses, perched precariously on her long, narrow nose. Around her neck, she wore a large agate pendant. Abby couldn’t place the woman’s exotic accent, but her voice sounded human.
“Hi, I’m Abigail Jenkins. You can call me Abby.” She reached out her hand. “I’m here to see about the cleaning job listed on Findit.com.”
The woman opened the door wide and motioned with her head for Abby to enter. “You’re new in town?” Her eyes roved over Abby.
“Yes. I’ve been here a week.”
“And you want the cleaning job.”
“Yes.” Hadn’t she just said that? Abby wondered what other jobs the woman had listed in the local on-line swap-and-shop site. She smiled and hoped she looked like a good candidate. It felt good to get out of the cold February rain, and so far, she had survived her first contact in the house. Looking around she could see no murderers, no vampires …
“We don’t have vampires,” the woman said as if she read her thoughts. “I imagine they smell bloody awful. My name is Azalea and this is my teahouse.”
Abby nodded. Had the older woman read her mind?
“Yes,” she said, leaning closer. “I do read minds when I choose to. But I don’t bite.” A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.
“That must get you into trouble.”
“Sometimes it does.” The woman’s hazel eyes softened. “I read tea leaves for a living.” She pointed to the large, open area beside where she stood. “This is our reception room.”
Two soft sofas, assorted wing chairs and small tables covered with magazines filled the space nicely. The color scheme was a muted rose with darker rose accents. Lacy curtains circa the 1800s covered the windows. It had a frozen-in-time feel. A picture of it would fit nicely on the cover of aBetter Homes and Gardens for Ghosts and Ghoulsezine.
Azalea’s chin rose as if she didn’t approve of Abby’s thought. “You need to vacuum and straighten this area every night. It gets a lot of traffic. Now follow me and I’ll show you the rest of the house.”
Abby shook off the feeling of being slowly swallowed up by the place as she followed the woman into the first room to their right.
“I call this Agatha’s room after my mother who was named after the great Agatha Christie. Most of my customers come here, so it gets the dirtiest and will need the most attention. People drop a lot of crumbs.” She stopped and exhaled noisily. “Will you stop thinking about your baby?”
Abby swallowed and nodded.
“I want the floor swept and spot cleaned nightly. Once a week it should be disinfected. We don’t want to be spreading germs. All table surfaces must be …”
Abby made mental notes of her duties. Later she would create a checklist for herself on her computer before she got back to her writing.
Azalea raised a threaded brow. “Yes, a list would be good. I’d like to see it when you’re done. I might need to add something to it. Writing?”
So much for having any thoughts for yourself. “I … I write stories.”
“Love stories? I hope so. The world needs more of those.”
Her nose lifted. “Let’s move to the second tea room.”
It looked much like the first. Faded floral wallpaper, old furniture, and a creaky wooden floor. But this one had a cat, a sleek black cat. It lifted its head for a second, looked straight at her as if it were checking her out and closed its eyes. Okay, that was creepy, but the haunted house ambiance was so strong, it felt overdone, kitschy.
“This is Lilith’s room. I use it for special readings.” Azalea tilted her head until the white hair piled on top threatened to spill over. “And that”—she pointed to the cat sitting in the window seat,— “is Lilith.” The cat meowed softly.
Abby nodded and followed her back into the hallway. They walked past a closed door, about which Azalea said nothing, and on to a large kitchen area at the back. “I expect Rita the cook will keep this area clean, but I would like you to look it over every night to make sure the stove and burners are off and no food has been left out for the mice.” She grimaced.
“You can make yourself coffee or tea here. The washrooms to the left need nightly cleaning as well. The door beside them leads to the basement, but you don’t need to bother with that.” She pointed towards the far wall. “The back door leads to a porch and stairs. There’s an alley that runs behind the house.”
Abby nodded. “Is that it?”
“Yes. It will be hard work, but you look like you’re up to it. You can start tonight. I’ll pay you twenty dollars an hour for three hours and your first check will be on Friday. But, let me be clear: I expect to see three hours of work completed when I return every morning. I’ll keep an extra chores list on the fridge, so if you finish your regular work early, you can attend to one of them.”
Abby nodded. It sounded like a workable plan.
“Occasionally I will ask you to decorate. Valentine’s Day is coming soon, and I like to have my teahouse reflect the love of the season. I’ll bring a box of decorations up from the basement soon.” She paused and wiggled her nose.
Abby sniffed. There was a different smell in this room, but it was a kitchen after all.
Azalea looked intently at her as if she was considering what else to say. “When you take a break, help yourself to our house tea and coffee.” She pointed to the canisters on the counter. “There are tea balls in the drawer, and cups and pots in the cupboard. Just remember to clean up after yourself.”
“I think that’s all. You can make your own hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Come and go as you please, as long as you put in three hours of cleaning.”
Abby smiled. This job was sounding better by the minute. Good pay and flexible hours would make life a lot easier for her. And the boss seemed all right, sort of, in an odd but not unkindly way.
“Do you have any questions?” Azalea tucked a loose strand of white hair back into her bun.”
“What about the other room?”
Azalea looked around her as if she were looking for a stray puppy. “What other room?”
“The third door on the right from the entrance.”
“Oh, that one.” She arched a brow. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
“If I get the other rooms done in time, and I think I will, I could at least sweep it out for you.” Abby was sucking-up and she knew it. Doing extra impressed employers and she needed this job. She would do anything to keep her new boss happy.
No? Abby’s curiosity piqued. “Are you sure?”
“Let me be clear. You are not to clean the third room.”
“Under no circumstances are you to go into that room.”
“Don’t open that door.”
“No, I don’t think you do. You must not, I repeat, you must not go into that room. No matter what you hear, or smell, or feel, you must not go into that room.”
Abby raised her hand as if she were pledging an oath. “Ms. Azalea. I need this job. I promise I will do the best I can at every task you give me, and I won’t go into the third room.” But I sure want to.
The older woman exhaled loudly, and a shadow crossed her stormy gray eyes. “Good.” She handed Abby a set of keys. “Let me show you the janitor’s cupboard.”
THE WINTER STORM GREW STRONGER at dinner time, just as she was feeding the kids their last package of noodles. New to life on the west coast, the sound of the howling wind unsettled her. It felt sinister and dangerous. She knew it was only wind, but its roar spoke directly to her bones and bypassed her brain completely.
If I’m to live here, I’m going to have to get used to this. She walked over to the front window and watched the weather system transform their neighborhood. Trees groaned under the strain of the wind, branches broke and fell to the ground, cluttering the sidewalks and street. Rain pelted down from the sky, forming rivers on the roadway. Nature’s wrath felt both exhilarating and terrifying.
But the storm didn’t keep Abby’s mind off her sick baby for long. As she watched the giant cedar trees sway, she said a silent prayer for Jane; that she would get better, that the medication would kick-in soon and work its magic.
ABBY RETURNED TO THE TEAHOUSE at eleven that night in the thick of the storm. Having had the grand tour, she told herself the place would feel less threatening than it had on first sight, but, once inside, its ominous presence gave her the chills. No one ever died of the chills. She set about her work.
A stubborn layer of dirt covered the hardwood floor of the reception area and turned out to be trickier to remove than she had anticipated, but once she got on her hands and knees and scrubbed one small section at a time, she got through it. Azalea’s old vacuum cleaned the oriental rug easily and left it looking fluffy. After wiping down the coffee tables and straightening the magazines, she stood for a moment to assess her progress. The reception area looked good, in a Best Kept Haunted Houses kind of way.
For the first time in a long time, Abby took a deep breath. She had a job she could do and she was rocking it. Good things do come to those willing to work hard.
With the same attention to detail, she cleaned the Agatha tea room until it shone.
Next came Lilith’s domain. A prickly sensation danced along her arms as she entered. The air was cooler. Lilith lifted her eyes to take Abby in and then plunked her head down again.
“Nice kitty. Good kitty,” Abby said edging closer to her. Normally she would have no reservations about approaching a cat. She liked cats. But something about this one made her more than a little hesitant. She made a mental note to bring cat treats the following night. Carefully she reached her hand out to pet her, but the cat hissed and she pulled her hand back.
Outside the southeaster howled. Through the single-paned windows of the old house, she could hear the wind gusting off the ocean. Rain drummed on the roof and the wooden siding. She laughed out loud. It was a dark and stormy night.
Just before midnight, she headed for the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. As she passed the third door on the right, the forbidden door, she heard a sound and froze.
The house was supposed to be empty, but something was scraping along the wooden floor. It sounded like chairs. She swallowed. Then came muffled voices and laughter. Laughter in an empty room, at midnight? The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but she straightened her shoulders, determined to take on whatever crap the universe decided to throw her way. It couldn’t be spirits. Ghosts don’t use chairs.
She sniffed. Is that cigar smoke?
Abby stood outside the third door shaking her head. The sounds and smell were distinct. Someone was in that room. But she needed this job. And she couldn’t look. Not if she wanted to keep her janitor position. Oh, fudge! Her fingers itched to touch the door handle. If she could just peek, she could set aside her crazy fears. Azalea would never know. She reached out and stopped before she touched the delicate glass knob. Abby always kept her word.
So what could she do?
Live with it. She would have to live with the out-of-place noises and that horrible cigar stench. No one ever died from such things. She pulled out her phone and turned on her radio app. Country music blared, drowning out the third-room sounds. But her body knew they were still there. A woman screamed and Abby’s gut clenched. I can’t go in there. She sang along with her music, trying to drown the fear that bubbled within her.
I’m not alone.