This month's excerpt is another from Spencer's Spirit, a new novel, which will be available from Anubis in trade-paper and Kindle editions in April of this year.
Spencer unbuckled his seat belt, which took a bit of struggle, and squiggled his bulk to the right side window. He pictured a long-abandoned mansion as something like the Munsters’ house, but nothing could be seen through the trees behind the creeper-covered wall. The canyon, or gully, now opened out into what looked like a forested bowl – the old-fashioned word, “dell,” came to mind – about the size of a basketball court with rising slopes on the left and beyond, and the wall enclosing the right-hand side.
In the middle of the dell, standing in leaf-dappled sunlight, was a little cottage of square-cut stone like something in a storybook, though its walls were mostly covered with ivy, and moss grew thick its wood-shingled roof. Its windows, deep set in the masonry, were fitted with heavy board shutters, though they all seemed to be open, at least in front and one side he could see. The timber front door also stood open as if to welcome new life. There was a big stone chimney, and Spencer pictured a fireplace and Christmas stockings hung with care. The setting looked very storybook – at least to someone who’d read storybooks -- though marring the old-time fairytale scene was a new Lexus SUV parked in front with a sign saying Oakland Hills Homes on its door.
A short timber bridge spanned the brook, which bubbled past the near side of the house after tumbling over a small stone dam at the upper end of the dell, where a pond glimmered beneath more trees in shafts of leaf-latticed sunlight. The bridge was only about ten feet long above a little waterfall where the brook leapt mistily into the gully creating a miniature rainbow, but barely wide enough for the truck and without any railings, and Spencer’s dad crossed it carefully.
“Guess it was made for Model Ts,” he said when the trailer was safely across and they came to a stop near the Lex. He switched off the ignition and pulled the parking brake, the racheting rasp sounding loud with only the background of water music in the sleepy silence, and turned around to Spencer. “What do you think so far?”
“Kinda like something under a spell,” said Spencer, and gulped the last of his Coke. “Like, from a long time ago.” He laughed. “Maybe unicorns play in the pond.”
“It does have that feeling,” agreed his dad, getting out of the truck. He went around to the passenger door and assisted Spencer’s mom with a hand -- it was three feet to the ground – then he took Spencer under the arms and sort of bear-hug unloaded him, all Spencer’s fat rearranging itself as he settled onto his feet, the moons of his bottom still more than half bare since the only thing retaining his jeans was all his belly blubber in front. “The agent said the grounds-keeper left when the last of the Shades passed-away, so I guess no one’s lived here since then.”
Again, the storybook scene was sullied as, not three bears or seven dwarves, nor a Hobbit or a young maiden – the latter being a character Spencer would have most preferred -- but a leisure-suited witchy woman who could have gone Trick-Or-Treating as a recently zombified Barbie, her almost theatrical makeup suggesting she might have a fear of the Reaper and hoped by disguise to persuade him she wasn’t nearing the halfway point to their rendezvous, a wireless phone clutched in a claw to an ear, emerged from the cottage’s doorway as if she was calling her flying monkeys to kidnap Hansel and Gretel for lunch.
“There were some caretakers,” she corrected, mincing grandly to the truck in what might have been dominatrix boots. “Hired by the English relations, but none of them stayed very long. According to Mr. Darkmoor, the cottage has been vacant since 1927. …I took the liberty of opening the windows to air it out for you, though the shutters in the smaller bedroom seem to be nailed shut for some reason. …And here are the keys, Mr. Dray,” she added, awarding Spencer’s father a pair of big brass skeleton keys – though the proper term was bitt key -- on a rusty iron ring.
“When did the last Shade die?” asked Spencer, who possessed the usual youthful interest in matters of the morbid.
The woman’s professional smile faded slightly. “In 1926. Gilbert Grosvenor Shade. …You must be Spencer,” she added, her eyes involuntarily drawn to the lavishly lolling orbs of his chest as if wishing she could have been likewise endowed.
“Yeah, I’m a boy,” said Spencer.
“Your parents didn’t mention what a… husky… young man you are.”
“Is there any reason they would have?” said Spencer, politely resisting an urge to add, and my eyes are up here. “And just say fat, it saves time.”
“I’d never call anyone that,” said the woman, sounding about as convincing as her Cruella De Vil makeup looked. She took the liberty of patting his head, a presumption most kids over three despised; and Spencer decided he disliked her half as much as she deserved.
“I’m Linda Lancaster,” she announced, as if he might want her autograph. When he didn’t pull out a pen, she added, “I imagine you’re going to like up here after all the… hustle and bustle… of living down in the… flatlands.”
“’Ghetto’ also saves time,” said Spencer.
“…And plenty of room to exercise.”
“I prefer to work-out the little gray cells, Madame,” Spencer replied.
Linda looked blank.
“Natural causes?” asked Spencer.
“Did Shade die of natural causes? Such as a heart-attack? Perhaps while exercising… if one could call that natural?”
Linda looked nonplussed. “I couldn’t find much information about the Shade family’s history.”
“Doesn’t Mr. Darkmoor know?”
“He was reticent on that subject.”
“I assume your phone can Google?”
“My field is real estate,” said Linda, mostly restraining a petulant snap. “Not geology.”
“Perhaps you meant genealogy?” Spencer suggested sweetly.
Linda’s rouge reddened still more. “It’s been so long ago it couldn’t possibly matter.”
“Sounds like something nasty,” said Spencer. “Maybe a murder or suicide.”
“You have an active imagination.”
“I exercise it frequently.”
Linda turned to Spencer’s dad. “In matters of the pertinent present – here a glance at Spencer -- I’m afraid there have been a few problems with the utilities. The cottage was never wired for a phone, which would have been a luxury in the 1920s and not afforded to grounds-keepers, and its gas and electricity were furnished through the mansion. The meters…” She glanced to the mossy wall. “Wherever they are, are obsolete, and would have to be replaced, but there is no access to the estate. The lane from the gates is too overgrown for vehicles to reach the house… even if Mr. Darkmoor allowed it, which for some reason he won’t.” She heaved a sigh. “Wealthy people can be difficult.”
“Guess when you’re rich,” said Spencer, “you get to exercise your whims.”
“Very perceptive,” said Linda, then smiled at Spencer’s dad. “But, on the bright side, I just spoke with Mr. Darkmoor by phone and he offered to defray the expense of having new lines run up your lane… if you’re still willing to take the cottage. …You do have the option of refusal and full refund of payment based on these unforeseen circumstances.”
Spencer’s dad turned to his wife. “That’s something we didn’t expect; no gas or electricity… at least we have wireless phones.”
Linda interjected, “The cottage has its own water supply from a spring, as you already know; and I’m sure it would only be a few weeks until new lines could be installed.”
“And you wouldn’t lose your commission,” said Spencer, who, though not being an outdoor boy – or probably because he wasn’t -- knew the basics of how the world worked.
“…Er, no,” said Linda.
“What do you think?” asked Spencer’s dad.
“Kinda like camping out,” said Spencer. “I’m too fat to be a Boy Scout, but since they discriminate, I wouldn’t wanna be.”
“I think that’s shameful,” said Linda.
“Being fat?” asked Spencer.
“Of course not! I meant discrimination. I always work very hard finding nice homes for… minorities.”
“Which I guess we really are up here.”
Spencer’s dad slipped an arm around his son. “Just more of you to love, Spence. But I was asking your mother. Sounds like you’re down with it.”
“Tons of great outdoors,” said Spencer, scanning the peaceful dell. “If I figure out what to do with it.” He smiled at Linda. “Be shameful to waste it on exercise; I imagine one would miss a lot.”
“Well,” said Spencer’s mother. “We have water, and the stove burns wood…”
“There’s still some in the shed,” said Linda. “And very well seasoned by now, I’m sure.”
“Age does improve some things,” said Spencer.
Spencer’s mom continued, “We have those kerosene lamps my father bought after the earthquake, and we can buy some candles. And we won’t find anything else this nice for what we can afford.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Linda added helpfully.
“So is playing Russian Roulette with all chambers loaded,” said Spencer.
Linda chose not to hear that. “I’m sure you’re aware of property values up here in the hills, and normally a location like this would cost much more than what you could afford.”
“Well aware,” said Spencer’s dad.
“Location, location, location,” said Spencer.
Linda positively gushed… which wasn’t a pleasant sight to see. “And Mr. Darkmoor wants your family to have this quaint old cottage. I told him all about you, of course.”
“And he found us suitable?” said Spencer. “I’d think you would have described us as The Grapes Of Wrath in blackface.”
Linda’s makeup threatened to crack as she forced a smile on Spencer that looked like an open wound with teeth. “He seemed very pleased to be informed that there was boy of your age.” Though I can’t imagine why, seemed implied. “In fact, he accepted your parents’ offer as soon as I mentioned they had a son.” She added to Spencer’s father, “He turned down several offers from other prospective buyers, who, to be candidly honest, I thought were more suitable… financially-speaking, of course.”
“Of course,” said Spencer. “And candidly honest is redundant.”
Spencer’s dad said, “I can get a generator until the power’s connected so you can use your computer. And we’ll have the satellite service installed so you won’t miss any more school.”
“Cool with me,” said Spencer. “And no hurry about school.”
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