It’s Saturday– and that means Chapter Four of Dare Me!
For those coming into the summer serial in the middle, you can start with Chapter One by clicking here.
Great Aunt Ada favored forty watt bulbs.
Juggling her groceries, Kristy kicked the front door shut behind her and flicked on the hall light, an immense globe whose sides were crusted with dirt. Maybe it was the dirt, maybe it was the bulbs, but the weak wattage barely penetrated the gloom of the front hall, hiding the spiders that lurked in the shadows and the pile of junk mail lying in wait just past the door.
Kristy skidded on a Sears catalog, catching herself on the door knob just before she wiped out against the hall table, which was a good thing, since that sucker looked like solid marble.
And wouldn’t that just be a fitting end to her checkered career. She could see the AP blurb now: “Former pop icon found dead in aunt’s New York home. Eyewitnesses say she appeared confused and disoriented. ‘I found her with her head in a window,’ says local lawyer.’”
“Cause of death: congenital idiocy,” muttered Kristy.
She wondered if that cute lawyer and his girlfriend were talking about her. “So get this,” he’d say. “I found her stuck in a window.”
His girlfriend, who Kristy had no doubt was a size four on her fat days, would click her tongue in disgust and dish up a plate of gourmet something-or-other with a perfectly paired glass of wine while playing Vivaldi on the violin on her toes.
Was it possible to just get into bed and pretend today had never happened? Kristy looked up the staircase, which was carpeted in a forbidding moss green. First she had to find a bed. And put away what remained of her groceries. Curdled milk had to be good for something, right? She seemed to vaguely recall that if you left it long enough, it turned into cottage cheese.
She’d never liked cottage cheese. It was basically yogurt that had lost the will be to be edible.
Toting her battered bananas and curdled milk through a series of dusty rooms, Kristy finally found the kitchen at the back of the house. It was decorated in the height of 1960s chic. The cabinets were varnished pine; the fridge and stove mustard yellow. It might have been a cheerful room once, but the sky through the half-window had gone completely black, and not in a natural sunset sort of way. The air was thick with dust and the phantom remains of former meals. It smelled vaguely like tomato soup. There was a tea kettle on the stove, but no coffee maker, a toaster over but no toaster. There were still blackened crumbs on the bottom of the toaster over and yellow-ish water in the kettle.
Kristy glanced over her shoulder. She felt like an interloper in someone else’s home, as if, at any moment, Aunt Ada was going to stalk in and demand to know what Kristy was doing there.
“She’s no niece of mine!” the old woman would croak, and out Kristy would go, with her humble bags and baggages, nothing left in the world but two aging Louis Vuitton bags and a week paid up on her rental car.
Kristy wondered what this Ada, this woman who had unwittingly tossed her a life-line, had been like. She wondered what Aunt Ada would think of some pip-squeak in yoga pants going through her cupboards and cabinets, plunging headfirst through her parlor window.
Flirting with her tenant.
Opening cabinets at random, Kristy found dusty cans of Campbells and tins of tuna. A closet-sized pantry held Aunt Ada’s cookbooks and baking supplies. On one shelf white canisters with swirly pink lettering held flour and sugar, while the next shelf contained a jumble of spices in modern plastic packaging, including, to Kristy’s surprise, curry and cayenne pepper. There were tins of tea, but no coffee.
Kristy gingerly opened the door of the ancient refrigerator. Someone—the lawyer?—had been kind enough to empty it. At least she wouldn’t have to deal with black mush and experiments in mold.
Kristy stowed her milk in the side shelf, and, after a moment, shoved the wheat bread, bananas, and the Reeses into the fridge as well. No point in leaving them out for the mice.
On second thought, no point in leaving the Reeses out at all.
Licking the chocolate from her fingers, Kristy ventured back into the main hall, feeling considerably more in charity with the world. She had needed that. When was the last time she had eaten? Sometime that morning. She had grabbed a muffin at the airport. A muffin and a grande skim caramel macchiato. No wonder she’d been feeling grim. She’d given up fashionable anorexia along with her career.
Fortified with chocolate and peanut butter, she marched back to the front hall, prepared to tackle anything that came her way.
Spiders, mice, bring it on.
Her bags were where the lawyer had left them, just inside the front door. She lifted them easily, one on each shoulder. There’d been a time when she hadn’t gone anywhere without two dozen complete outfits, complete with matching shoes and accessories, but when she’d left LA five years ago, she’d made a conscious decision; she was bringing only what she could carry with her. It was all about the whole new her. The funny thing was, she didn’t miss it, any of it.
Well, at least, not most of it. She did miss some of the shoes. And the funkier jewelry.
She’d given away most of her old stuff when she’d sold the Malibu house and the New York apartment. That had been Martin’s idea. If she was going to be traveling indefinitely, why hold on to the properties? Better to have the money in the bank working for her, he’d told her, than paying maintenance on empty houses. And did she really want to be a landlady? Not to worry about a thing, he had a few ideas for some funds that looked promising.
Yep. The Martin Fund.
She was surprised he hadn’t offered to put down a down payment on a bridge for her.
At the time, she would probably have said, “Cool. Which one?”
Life lessons, she told herself. It was all about the life lessons.
Someone had decided to light the upstairs hall with faux sconces. They looked as if they might once have been brass, but damp and dust had combined to dull their finish. Kristy wasn’t sure whether the bulbs had been designed to flicker that way, or whether the growing storm was messing with the electricity.
Kristy flinched as light flashed out of nowhere. A perfect fork of lightning lit the sky. Through the oriole window on the landing, she could see the trees, momentarily backlit by lightning, their leaves rustling in the gathering breeze. Beneath her feet, the floorboards gave a theatrical groan.
Lovely. All that was missing was the Back toccata and a few of those oversized spiderwebs they used to decorate Halloween parties.
“Enough with the gothic,” Kristy told the sconces, but they failed to take notice.
There were three bedrooms on the second floor. One was obviously Aunt Ada’s. There was a heavy, dark four-poster bed with matching dresser and night table, and a carpet and drapes in the same depressing shade of green as the one in the hall. A pair of reading glasses still lay on the nighttable. Kristy hastily closed the door. Not that she believed in ghosts or anything, but… she’d take one of the other rooms.
The room behind Aunt Ada’s, the littlest of the bedrooms, was crammed with cardboard boxes and miscellaneous junk. And, surprisingly, a fairly state of the art treadmill. Huh.
Which left Room Three.
It was a young girl’s room, white and pink: white bedstead, white woodwork, pink and white paper on the walls. There was a white-painted desk and white painted shelves and a white chair with a cushion that must once have been in the same pattern as the walls, but had faded over time to a nondescript ashes of rose. Kristy dumped her bag on the pink-patterned bedspread, watching dust motes sparkle in the light of the pink porcelain chandelier.
There was an ancient air conditioner in the window, the kind that operated with a dial. It coughed and sputtered, spitting out hot dust, but, after a few moments, it simmered down to a rattle and whine. Kristy cranked it up to its highest setting.
There was a phone on the nightstand, the old rotary kind, with a cream colored base and gold edging on the ear pieces, but, no matter how Kristy crawled around the baseboards, she couldn’t find anything that looked like an Ethernet connection. She’d be willing to bet Aunt Ada didn’t have WiFi.
People managed to live full lives before internet. She could manage for the week or so she was going to be here. Even if it did make her feel strangely isolated.
“She was all alone in the haunted house,” Kristy intoned in her best Alfred Hitchcock voice.
Somehow, it didn’t sound quite as funny as she had intended.
She threw in a little bit of Scooby Doo. “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids and their dog.”
Better. Much better.
The drawers, surprisingly, were empty, except for a lining of stiff white paper with scalloped edges. There were no papers left in the desk, no pictures stuck in the frame of the mirror. There was, however, an entire bookcase next to the desk, crammed with aging paperbacks.
There was a whole row of Victoria Holt. The Mistress of Mellyn, in its original printing. The Shadow of the Lynx, sporting a woman in serious need of some Pantene. Nine Coaches Waiting, with a woman in go-go boots and mini-skirt fleeing a clifftop castle. Kristy hunkered down, running a finger along the dusty spines. M.M. Kaye’s “Death in…” books, Elsie Lee, Phyllis A. Whitney, and… jackpot. An entire shelf of Georgette Heyer.
Once upon a time, she would have had no idea who Georgette Heyer was. Once upon a time, the Regency was a place one stayed when one couldn’t get a suite at the Four Seasons.
She’d never been a reader as a child. There hadn’t been any reason to be. There had been so much else to do: voice lessons and dance lessons and acting lessons. She’d been pulled out of school at eight, when her career as an adorable singing moppet had taken off. She had never gone back.
Sure, there had been legally mandated lessons on-set, but none of her tutors had had any interest in enforcing compliance.
“Omigod, I’m SO sorry!” had covered a multitude of missed lessons.
They had smiled and forgiven her and passed her on to the next grade level because she was Kristy Dare. Who didn’t love Kristy Dare? Later on, when she had ceased to be quite so lovable, it became more a matter of who would dare to cross Kristy Dare. That was a level of daring that would make even the Scarlet Pimpernel blanche. French revolutionaries with sharp pointy things? No problem. A pre-teen diva in a temper? Deadly.
One good thing about rehab: there had been a lot of time to read. She wasn’t caught up, but she was getting there, baby step by baby step.
Kristy reached up to yank her hair up off her face and felt the sweat dripping down off the back of her neck, mingling with the grime.
Shower first, then Heyer.
The bathroom must have been redecorated around the same time as the kitchen. The tiling was all in various shades of pink, from mauve to rose, with matching towels with eyelet edging.
The water ran brown for a bit, but the old boiler knew its stuff. Kristy could feel her pores unclogging just from standing near it. She’d forgotten to bring shampoo or conditioner of her own—it had been a while since she’d lived anywhere without miniature bottles and room service—so she used Aunt Ada’s.
People use dead peoples’ stuff all the time, Kristy reminded herself, busily lathering away. Chairs, tables, mirrors—the only difference was that those got labeled antiques while old shampoo was just old shampoo.
Besides, it wasn’t like Aunt Ada was going to show up outside the shower doors and demand it back.
Every time she thought she’d gotten a sense of what Aunt Ada must have been like, she had to revise her opinion. There were robes hanging on the back of the bathroom door, but instead of the terry cloth Kristy had expected, they were both vintage kimono. One was heavy silk, in beige inset with black. The other was a short, silky wisp of a thing, white with a ghostly tracery of lilac flowers.
Kristy went for the short robe. From the feel of it, it wasn’t the synthetic stuff, but real silk, sleek and supple, molding itself to her still damp body.
The lights flickered as she plugged in her handy dandy travel hairdryer, putting it on its lowest setting, the one that did more to disarrange than to dry. In the fogged mirror, her face looked unnaturally pale and a little bit eerie. Wet, her hair was straighter and darker than usual, her eyes dark smudges in her too-pale face. Behind her, in the hallway, the faux candles flickered, reflecting eerily in the mirror.
She looked like the heroine of one of the gothic novels in the other room, waiting for what would come.
Oh, for the love of whatever. Kristy stuck her tongue out at the ethereal creature in the mirror. This was New York, not Northanger Abbey, and she wasn’t an earnest young governess. Defiantly, she flipped her hairdryer up to its highest speed.
With a staccato crack, the lights went out.
The bathroom light, the hallway light, the light she’d left on in the bedroom. Out, out, out. Kristy was left in the pitch-black, holding the still warm hair dryer.
Maybe Great-Aunt Ada did want her shampoo back.
Okay, deep breaths. The bathroom was still murky with shampoo-scented steam. In the dark, the sounds of the old house intensified. She could hear the branches outside, swishing back and forth, back and forth. She could hear the rain, soft a moment ago, now more insistent, tap, tap, tapping against the sill. Very slowly, very carefully, Kristy set the dryer down on the edge of the sink and felt her way towards the door.
She tried not to think about slasher films.
The walls of the bathroom were slick with condensation. Kristy moved cautiously in her bare feet, shivering in her thin robe despite the heat. In the dark, the old house was full of creaks and groans. It felt like a very long way from the sink to the doorway, but she felt a positive sense of triumph when her hand connected with the textured paper of the hallway. She thought she’d seen a flashlight in the bedroom—unless that was just wishful thinking?
Lightning flashed again, providing a momentary view of the hallway. And that was when Kristy heard it, the sound of a door closing.
No. Imagination. It was probably just a tree branch or something like that. She’d watched too many ridiculous movies. Hell, she’d been in too many ridiculous movies.
The lightning might have oriented her, but it had destroyed whatever night vision she’d won. Kristy resumed her snail-like progress towards the pink and white bedroom, feeling her way along the wall.
This time, she knew she heard it. Not a door, but the squeaky floorboard at the foot of the stairs.
Kristy froze. Someone was in the house. Someone was in the house with her, moving slowly towards the stairs. She suddenly felt very cold despite the heat, cold and very bare in the robe that barely made it to mid-thigh.
If someone was going to break in, why in the hell couldn’t they have done it when she was fully clothed. It was such a cliché. She’d always mocked those naked heroines, running dripping through the house; now, it didn’t seem nearly so funny.
She didn’t scream; she wasn’t that stupid. One might as well take out an ad saying, “Hi! I’m here! Please head on over and brutally murder me!” Besides, who would hear her? The house was in a private cul de sac. Her only neighbor was the lawyer in the carriage house, and the sound of the rain and the wind would drown out even the loudest screams. Rescue was not an option.
He was nearly at the stairs now.
She’d seen another door on the landing, but whether it led to back stairs or an attic, she didn’t know. She couldn’t afford to guess wrong. If it was an attic, she’d be trapped. He’d hear the door just as she’d heard him. He’d know where she was. The windows were too high to climb out. There was no place in bathroom or bedroom to hide.
A double fake. Kristy felt a burst of adrenaline that made her fingers tingle. If she could make it into the bedroom, back against the wall, she might be able to slip out and run down the stairs while he was looking into one of the other rooms. A beam of light played across the base of the stairs as she slunk along the wall, ducking behind the door of the bedroom.
The stairs squeaked beneath his heavy tread. Kristy tensed, preparing herself to make a run for it. Out of the corner of her, she watched the progress of the flashlight beam, closer, closer…. He was past!
She scooted out of the room, just as the light turned, and a male voice said, “Kristy?”
It sounded like… the lawyer? She tried to stop, but her damp feet skidded on the floor. Someone grabbed her around the waist, too late to catch her, and they both went tumbling down in a confused tangle on the landing floor.
The flashlight hit the ground and winked out.
* * *
“What the—” gasped Jack.
He spat out a stand of hair, not his, trying to sit up. There was one slight problem with that. There was a movie star on top of him. He could feel her wriggling, trying to untangle herself. In the hot and humid dark, damp silk slid across his legs, as a warm female form pressed against him, leg to leg, breast to breast.
It made it very hard to think clearly. That and the knock on the back of his head.
“I thought you were an intruder!” A knee nearly connected with a sensitive part of his anatomy. Jack rolled away. An indignant figure rustled to her knees. “You scared me half to death!”
Jack shoved himself to his feet, groping around for his fallen flashlight. “Yeah, you didn’t exactly do good things for my blood pressure, either.”
Including the blood that had been going in the entirely wrong direction.
Jack found the flashlight and switched it on, illuminating an irate former pop star, wearing nothing but her own long hair and a robe that had come untied. Whoa. Now that they had light again, not only could he see Kristy, he could see a lot of Kristy.
Kristy Dare yanked her robe back into place and gave him the sort of look Jack’s law professors used to give the kids who came to class unprepared. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Jack blinked a few times and managed to get his jaw back into place. “I saw your lights go out,” he said stupidly.
She swept her wet hair back over her shoulders. “So you came over to bump me off?”
So much for being a good Samaritan. He didn’t quite understand how he’d gone from doing a good deed to being the villain in this piece.
“I came over to see if you needed help. Given that it’s your first night in a new place and all that, I had thought you might be nervous.”
Kristy Dare hugged her arms across her chest. “Well, I wasn’t.”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll just be going, then.” To get his head examined. He was clearly not thinking straight. About anything.
“Wait.” Jack turned back. His new landlady was clutching the robe together in a white-knuckled grip that gave the lie to what she’d said about being fine. “Um, does this happen a lot? The lights going out? Just out of curiosity.”
He couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, alone and disheveled. It didn’t matter that she was a movie star, or that she had just knocked him over and almost kneed him, it had to be scary as hell to have the lights go out on you. Not to mention having a strange man jump out at you.
Maybe barging over like that hadn’t been quite the good deed he’d thought.
In a gentler voice, he said, “My lights are still on, so it’s not a black-out from the storm. Hang on. Let me see.”
He flipped the hall switch. Nothing. Up. Down. Nothing. Same with the bathroom and Miss Ada’s bedroom.
“I told you.” Kristy trailed after him, accompanied by the swish of silk and a lingering scent of Herbal Essences. “There was this popping noise and—”
“Wait a sec. Let me check something.” Flashlight trained on the steps, he started down the stairs.
Instead of waiting, Kristy Dare trotted along after him, so close he could feel her breath on the back of his neck. “Check what?”
“This.” Jack flicked the switch in the front hall.
The light went on.
Like a mole, Kristy blinked at the sudden glare, holding up a hand to shield her eyes. The robe gaped again. “But, wait. I swear, a moment ago—”
“I know,” Jack said. “I know. What were you doing when the lights went out?”
She put a hand automatically to the back of her head. Damp silk shifted, outlining the shape of her breasts. “I was drying my hair.”
“Uh-huh.” Jack forced himself to stop thinking like a horny teenager. Movie star, he reminded himself. Not domesticated. Exotic creature who would return to the Hollywood jungle. It would have been nice if she could have thought to mention it. “Come with me.”
She didn’t need to be asked twice. Her bare feet pattered against the hardwood floor. “Are you taking me to your leader?”
“No, just to your basement.” He led the way through the swinging door to the kitchen, going unerringly towards the door just past the pantry. He slid the bolt open and the smell of basement wafted up, damp and slightly fetid. He’d be willing to bet it had been a few years since Miss Ada had been down here.
The steps were uneven, hollowed in the middle by a century or more of constant use. There wasn’t a proper banister, just a wooden pole bolted into the wall by metal brackets. It shook slightly under his weight.
He could feel the banister bend and spring back again as Kristy pattered down after him. He thought of telling her she shouldn’t be down here in bare feet and then thought better of it. On her own soles be it.
“Watch your step,” he said. “That banister is a law suit waiting to happen.”
“I don’t think I can sue myself,” said Kristy, sounding a little breathless. “Should I be worried that Aunt Ada had quite so many freezers?”
There were four of them in the basement, along with an ancient wash basin, and the accumulated miscellany of generations. There was an old washing machine and dryer, abandoned when the new ones had been put into the kitchen upstairs, but never moved.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Jack. “No one’s gone missing in Philips’ Falls. That I can remember.”
“Hmph,” said Kristy, but, for once, she didn’t have a quick come back. She was too busy trying not to trip over the debris as she followed Jack across the basement, past the remains of the old scullery, to a box on the wall, adorned with six circles in different colors, each with a faded label on tape underneath.
Jack squinted at the faded script, picked the second down on the left, and unscrewed it.
“Here’s your culprit.” He held up a small, round-ish object, with a spiral base like a light bulb and a flat top with a dent in the middle.
She peered over his shoulder, her side pressing against his arm. “A Soviet bug?”
Jack gave her a sideways look, trying to figure out whether she was serious or not. “It’s a fuse. We don’t have Soviets anymore. They sort of went out with the Cold War.”
He smelled apple blossom as she tossed her hair. “Yeah, or that’s what they want you to think.”
“Uh-huh.” This time, he was pretty sure she was joking. It was hard to tell how much of Kristy Green was for real.
Kristy Dare, that was. For a moment, he’d been in danger of forgetting that was who she was, or wasn’t, a Hollywood star who was used to being anything but for real.
Jack hunted for the box of spare fuses. An empty bottle of Drano tottered, dislodging an elaborate spider’s web. “So what happened is that you blew a fuse. That’s why the ground floor lights work, but the second floor lights don’t.”
“How do I fix it?” Kristy Dare leaned over to retrieve the Drano bottle, sending her robe riding up well past the point of no return.
“Rewire the house,” Jack said shortly. What in the hell had Miss Ada done with the spare fuses? Used them for Christmas tree ornaments? He bumped an ancient can of wasp and hornet spray with the side of his hand. It clattered to the stone floor. “Crap.”
Kristy dodged the can. “Any other ideas?”
“You need a new fuse. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any.”
“Can’t I just flick a switch? In the fuse box?”
“This is the fuse box. And, no, there are no switches. This thing hasn’t been rewired since the Nixon administration.”
“Ha!” said Kristy Dare. “So it could be a Soviet bug.”
“An octogenarian one.”
She batted her eyelashes at him. “We haf vays of making your lights go out.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “So… how do I make the lights go back on?”
“You’ve never lived in a house before, have you?”
“Not one without a staff.”
All righty, then. Jack picked up his flashlight and headed for the stairs. “Sorry, princess, we’re straight out of butlers.”
He heard a crash and a curse as she banged into something. “Is there a repair guy?”
“You won’t get anyone to come out until tomorrow morning. You don’t need a repair guy, you just need a fuse. You can get them at the hardware store.”
They both stopped at the top of the stairs, just inside the kitchen. “Okay,” she said, and Jack couldn’t help but feel like he’d just kicked a kitten. “Thanks.”
“There’s a hardware store on Main Street, just past the café.”
Not a kitten, a cat. She folded her arms across her chest and arched her brows. “Don’t you mean a hardware shoppe?”
“I wouldn’t say that to them if I were you. Not if you want your power back on.” Gruffly, he asked, “Do you have a flashlight?”
“I thought I saw one… but the batteries may have gone the way of the fuses.” She shrugged. “Don’t worry. There were some matches in the kitchen. I’ll find a candle.”
“Are you sure you can handle that?”
“Hey, if I burn the house down, it’ll be like a Gothic novel. Fallen woman goes up in smoke! Morality served all around. You know the sort of thing.” There was a wealth of self-mockery in her voice.
“Yes, but it will also burn my house down,” said Jack. “I have no interest in immolation.”
“Catchy,” said Kristy, nodding. “You can use it as a slogan. Jack Vallenti: No Interest in Immolation.”
Despite himself, Jack smiled, a crooked, reluctant smile. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re nuts?”
“Yup. But this time I’m sober.” She rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes, and Jack noticed the deep circles beneath them. “Hey, really, you don’t have to hang around here. It’s fine. I can fight any zombies that come my way.”
Jack didn’t doubt it. “It’s not the zombies I’m worried about. Look, you’re not going to get your power back until tomorrow. Are you going to be okay staying here?”
She hugged herself. “Of course.”
And if she thought he believed that, she really was nuts. Movie star or no movie star, she looked wrung out, small, tired, and very alone.
“Yeah, right.” Before he realized what he meant to do, Jack heard his own voice saying, “You’d better come back with me.”
Chapter Five coming up next Saturday!