The cab driver turns around in his seat waking the two snoring eccentric old women.
‘There it is, Ladies. The Bayou Oaks Mansion!’
Both Granny and Missy try to catch a glimpse but the heavy snowfall makes it difficult to distinguish anything more than something darker grey in the general greyness.
‘You must love this weather,’ Missy mutters. ‘Grey, grey, grey…’
The cab makes a U-turn and stops. ‘It’ll be $40.’
Granny pays while Missy excitedly jumps out and starts heaving their heavy luggage out of the trunk and into the snow while Tramp rolls around and sets off towards the bushes that were once a well-kept hedge. Suddenly he stops and sniffs in the air, growling menacingly.
‘I hope you have brought blankets,’ the driver says under his breath, making his way back to town.
Missy looks from the luggage stacked in the snow to the looming mansion. ‘Wow… It’s, err… big.’
Granny frowns and looks at their new home. It doesn’t look like the vision in the palantír at all. ‘Yes. Big and… Err… In need of renovation.’
‘What about all the luggage? We can’t carry all this the whole way up to the house!’ Granny says, looking in desperation at the over snowed path.
Missy takes off her glasses and wipes snow away with her finger. ‘Well. We can’t stay out here or we will be oversnowed, too. I can’t feel my feet anymore. So, I know we aren’t supposed to, but the cab is gone, and a part from some deep frozen squirrels, there’s no one around to see us.’
Granny knows Missy is right – for once. Grimacing, she draws her wand and waves it around over the scattered luggage.
‘Hexuut, pexuut, mexuut
Lift luggage to the master suite!’
The suitcases lift into the air just like the pumpkins had done back in Bigwood Falls and float towards the house.
Minuit is taken by surprise and floats hissing away on a Vuitton suitcase. He clamps his claws into the leather, forever ruining it.
Granny catches her breath. With both hands on her hips she watches the bobbing line of suitcases disappear into the mansion. Her sister sings along to “Bippidi-boppidi-boo” while she tries to ward off Tramp who is barking and jumping around the bags.
Together the two sisters walk up the path in the wake of the last bag. They have to lift their feet high but are getting snow into their boots nevertheless.
Granny stops, feeling a little faint after her spell. She rolls her head from side to side, lifting her face and letting the snowflakes fall on her suddenly hot cheeks. She opens her eyes and grabs Missy’s arm to stop her. ‘Look at that!’
‘I think I saw someone in the window up there.’ Granny points towards a window on the second floor.
‘A ghost? Or a squatter?’
‘I don’t know – maybe it was just an animal taking shelter from the storm…’ They both stare at the window, but nothing moves, a part from the falling snow.
They stop on the porch.
‘There’s no door.’ Missy states the obvious.
‘It must be freezing inside,’ Granny mutters. ‘I guess we can’t count on the central heating functioning.’
‘It doesn’t look like there is a central heating.’
Granny doesn’t answer, afraid that her sister might be right. She blows on her gloved hands, rubbing them together. ‘Come on. We’d better see if there is something we can use to make a fire – old place like this must have fireplaces in all the rooms.’
Suddenly Tramp barks and forces his way between the two sisters, making them grab around for support. He runs into the entrance hall and up the gigantic staircase. Granny and Missy look at each other.
‘It’s not that bad… The house seems to have potential.’ Granny tries to stay optimistic. ‘And we can’t very well return to Vulturu now, can we?’
‘Why not? Look at the floor! Disgusting. I’m sure there are cock roaches! Yuk!’
‘It is too cold for beetles of any kind. And a Grey never gives up!’ Granny says cheerfully.
‘Who said a Grey never gives up? I’m a Grey and I want to give up. Right now.’
‘Tut tut tut, Missy. Let’s explore the house. Who knows what treasures we might find? Lets see where our suitcases are and change into something warm and dry!’
They walk up the large staircase, holding on tightly to the railing, just in case, but apart from creaking it seems in good shape. Their suitcases are in one of the upstairs bedrooms and the sisters put on as many layers of warm sweaters they can possibly wear under their coats. Dry socks are also welcome…
‘Where shall we start? Here?’ Missy makes a wide gesture with her hand.
‘No. I think downstairs is more logical,’ Granny answers, just to pull weight.
Missy strikes a pose halfway down the stairs. ‘It’s just like in “Gone With the Wind”. I shall wear a long ball gown every day just to sweep down these stairs,’ Missy muses.
Granny has turned left at the bottom and has stopped, staring at something in the gloom. ‘Have a look at this, Missy. It’s a painting, and a gorgeous one at that. Don’t you think so too?’
Missy pushes up her glasses and peers at the stern 17th century portrait. ‘That woman has sure fallen down the ugly tree and got hit on every branch on her way down! I wonder who she is. Was. And I especially wonder why it’s still hanging here, why hasn’t it been stolen?’
‘I don’t know, but we’ll try to find out later. Let’s split up.’
‘I think we should stay together. What if something bad happens?’
‘Like breaking-a-leg-falling-through-the-rotten-floorboards bad.’
Granny admits they’d better stay together. They start with the kitchen, which is a disaster.
‘At least we can cook – they have left the kitchen ware.’ Granny nods towards the array of pots and pans hanging covered in cobweb on a rack from the ceiling.
‘Right. After we have spent a few hours scrubbing them clean enough not to get some century old disease and after getting that rusty stove to work. Which at first sight seem impossible.’
Granny can’t contradict her sister on that point. ‘But the tiling seem to be in good shape, and these marble counters are magnificent.’
‘Hmm… But the wood work looks like it is ready to fall apart…’
The overgrown winter garden overlooks the back of the house and is filled by frozen fern and other weeds.
They continue through to the dining room. The wallpaper is missing on a part of the wall, the filling of the chairs is worn and must have served as home for mice during several years. Crushed porcelain litter the floor and the dining table is covered in a layer of filth and dust.
One wall is stained by water. Granny pulls a little on the paper and a huge chunk comes off.
‘The wood seems all right,’ Granny states, brushing off the wet paper from her gloves.
Missy peers at the gaping wound on the wall. ‘No termites. But what if the walls come tumbling down tonight? And buries us alive? I think we should sleep somewhere else tonight.’
After arguing back and forth about calling back the cab and pass the night at a B&B in town, Granny finally gets her way.
‘I need to use the bathroom and there is probably one on the other side of this wall.’ She strides away purposefully and Missy forgets about the B&B as she needs to pee, too.
Granny is right, as usual. But she thinks she’d rather pee outside in the freezing cold than pose her butt on the stained porcelain of the WC. Missy doesn’t have any scruples of the sort and chats away with her sister who is waiting in the corridor.
They continue out onto the porch that takes up two sides of the building. It is not a surprise to find it littered by rubble. The screens are ripped to pieces and the screen doors are stuck.
‘I had hoped we could sit here in our rocking chairs sipping Mint Juleps watching the sunset, but it will take a bulldozer to clear all the rubble – and the garden definitely needs an overhaul. I think it was nice once… Sometime in the 19th century…’ Missy states, looking around her.’
‘Why don’t we go outside and have a look?’ Granny rattles the door handle, pulling hard, then pushing.
‘Are you crazy? Our boots are wet and it’s still snowing.’
‘I’ll do it on my own then,’ Granny says tartly as the door creaking swings open enough for her to pass through. ‘If you see something evil, you can always do your ghost buster thing.’ She knows Missy’s ghost chasing missions were mostly built on bluff, and as expected, her sister grows a little pale at the mention of the eventual spirit living in the mansion.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ She squeezes through the door after her sister.
They trudge through the snow again and Granny points to the roof. ‘The roof seems to be OK.’
Missy nods. ‘I know, when the covering’s OK the rest of the reparations are… peanuts!’
‘I better check it out though…’
‘I was sure you would say that. May I remind you that we haven’t stumbled on a ladder during our exploration? And that even if there were one, it would not be very prudent to climb – at your age.’
‘My age!?!’ Granny clenches her fists. ‘I actually thought I would use the broom.’ She had not envisaged using witch craft at all, but Missy’s comment has made her very annoyed. Bordering on reckless.
Said and done. Granny circles the house, noting that most windows are broken and that the roof is far from OK.
‘Missy! You’d better come up here and have a look!’ she calls to her sister, who is happy to oblige. Missy loves riding her broom, and she knows there won’t be many occasions to use it, especially if there are neighbors. Which there aren’t.
She sets off, the cold making her shudder. She looks surreptitiously around her… It feels like someone is watching, but she can’t see anything suspicious.
The sisters circle the old house and seen from above, the mansion seems to be in even worse shape than from the inside. Broken windows, rutting woodwork with the paint falling off and, most important, two gaping holes in the roof.
‘I guess there goes peanuts,’ Missy shouts over the howling wind.
They hurry back inside, where they continue exploring. Granny is curious about the door in the kitchen, but instead of a larder, she finds herself in a cozy little study. At least it could be cozy with a little work. The walnut bookcases are lined with books, all leather bound and in amazingly good condition. A ladder leads through an opening in the ceiling…
‘Missy! I’ve found a ladder!’ No response. They were supposed to stick together, weren’t they? ‘MISSY!?!’
Too curious to wait for her sister, Granny starts climbing up the ladder.
Missy comes rushing though the kitchen and pushes up the door.
‘Where are you?’ She snorts. Just like her sister, calling like a madwoman and then – pffuit – nothing! She stops surprised and takes in the book lined walls.
‘Wow. This is amazing! I wonder if there is an exemplary of “Wuthering Heights”…’
‘Yoohoo! Up here! I’ve found the perfect spot for the palantír.’ Granny peeks over the broken railing at her sister going through the bookcase in search of her favorite book.
Cursing, Missy stops searching and climbs up the ladder, grousing all the way. ‘Why not take the staircase, like any other normal person. Or the elevator! But there’s of course not even an elevator in this gutter filled jumble of a house…’
Granny points out where she will install the palantír and Missy has to agree the spot seems perfect. ‘I think we should let the only way up here be the ladder from the study, the door over there can be condemned, we’ll just wall it up,’ she gushes enthusiastically.
‘Right. We’ll just wall it up…’
Granny has proceeded onto the landing. She peeks out between the planks of a boarded up window and distinguishes the road that brought them here. No car in sight, which is normal. Their home is situated in a cul-de-sac. She turns and pushes open one of the doors.
‘Hurry, Missy, this must be the master bathroom… There’s a-’
‘Oh my! Butterflies! I love butterflies!’ Missy tries to capture one of the insects swarming up when Granny lifts the shower curtain from the floor.
‘Butterflies? These are moths, Missy.’
‘Oh. Well, then. Better put some cedar tree in the closets then.’
Suddenly Missy’s cellphone rings. She mouths to Granny that it is Shasta calling from Italy.
‘Oh, yes. The flight was… relaxing. Long, tedious but relaxing… The mansion? What mansion? Oh, the ghost house! I mean the house… Uh-huh… It’s very big… And scary. Oups! Did I just say scary? It-’
Granny takes the phone out of Missy’s hands before she has the time to say something more. ‘Hello, Shasta. She meant cozy, of course! Not scary… Yes. Maybe some minor reparations…’
Granny doesn’t like lying, but she doesn’t want her daughter to find out about her huge mistake neither.
While Granny is on the phone, Missy decides to check out the beautifully tiled master bathroom – and almost falls through the rotten floor! She grabs the edge of the tub to regain her balance, and it reels, breaking the century old frozen pipes and a geyser of water bursts forward, drenching poor Missy in ice-cold water.
While talking to Shasta, Granny has entered a small, blue bedroom.
‘Goodbye… Yes, I’ll keep you updated… Bye! … Kiss Rowan from me. Bye!’ She fiddles with the cell to hang up. ‘Missy! You must come and see this! This will be Taïga’s room! The bed even looks the same! Luckily I brought her Kashmir bedspread…’ She pushes at the mattress with her hand, sending up a cloud of dust and a very distinctive smell of mouse spilling. She makes a mental note to buy a new mattress…
She walks over to the French windows. They lead out to a little balcony with a nice view over the garden.
‘We’ll just have to fix the windows and change the curtains…’ she mumbles, coughing at the cloud of dust falling from the drab curtains at her touch.
‘Tara!’ Missy sounds distressed. ‘I need some help here!’
With a last glance out the window, Granny hurries towards the sound. ‘Coming!’
Missy is standing dripping wet on the landing.
‘What on earth happened to you?’
Missy starts to say something, but decides a divertion might be better than letting her sister into the rapidly overflowing bathroom. She points toward a tiny nursery behind Granny’s back. ‘Bad vibes! Really bad vibes!’
Granny can feel something too… ‘You’d better get into something dry, sister,’ she says, approaching the archway that separates the nursery from the landing.
With utter precaution she enters the little nursery, looking around her. The walls are a faded green with darker garlands of flowers snaking upwards. The furniture is old with flaking paint. There is a chest of drawers, and old armchair that was probably used for the mother to sit on when she nursed the baby or read it to sleep. The master piece is an antique, stately crib with a domed ceiling. She stands looking down at the crib for a moment, but she can’t feel anything disturbing. She concentrates and the uncanny feeling slowly creeps back, making her hair stand on end. She shudders. It seems to emanate from the door on the opposite wall. She draws her wand, just in case, and pushes it open. The door leads to a narrow staircase that disappears into the dark. Probably the way to the attic. She fumbles for a light switch, but, of course, the electricity is still off. A little teddy bear lies forlorn at the base of the stairs and Granny stoops to pick it up…
When her hand folds around the worn little arm, the room starts to spin. Her wand drops clattering to the floor and she can hear her sister’s voice calling her name as if she was drowning. She is pulled into blackness…
Missy enters the nursery at the same time her sister loses consciousness. She pulls out her wand, trying to cast a protection spell before it is too late. She doesn’t really remember the exact words, and her power is far from a full blooded witch’s, but she knows Granny always has an amulet in her pocket. She pulls it out and clasps her sister’s hand around it, praying to the Goddess for help. She doesn’t pay attention to Minuit, who rapidly sneaks away – red eyes glowing.*
It seems she has been sitting at her sister’s side forever, when finally the wrinkled eyelids flutter and Granny opens her eyes.
‘Thank the Goddess you’re awake. I thought I would have to spend the night here alone – with an evil spirit and a dead body.’
‘Thank you, Missy. That is exactly what I needed to hear.’ Grunting she tries to sit up, letting Missy help her.
‘What happened?’ Surreptitiously she looks over her shoulder and lowers her voice. ‘Was it an evil spirit?’
‘I don’t know what happened…’ Granny whispers.
‘Are you OK now?’ Missy helps her sister to her feet.
‘I think so. I feel a little shaky…’
‘Maybe we should wait until tomorrow to get started on the furniture downstairs. Or I can do it myself?’
‘No. I’m all right.’
Downstairs, Tramp snarls menacingly at Granny when she tries to move his food so she can cast a spell on the sofa. ‘Bizarre… He’s never growled before…’
‘Missy! Where are you? Tramp is growling at me!’
Missy is in the kitchen, scrutinizing the palantír. She rolls her eyes… ‘Coming…’ She looks over her shoulder at the coveted object before leaving the kitchen. ‘We’ve got unfinished business…’ she mutters, backing out.
‘Ah… there you are. Tramp growled at me! Can you believe that?’
‘Did you call me for that?’
‘I think it’s strange, but maybe he’s just grumpy after the long journey. How are you getting along with the sandwiches?’
‘Buttering and putting ham on them. They are ready.’
‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse! But first we have to fix someplace clean to sit. What do you think of this sofa?’
‘It seems good.’
‘Have you got any suggestions for the color? I think beige will do. Classy and it goes with everything so we won’t have to start all over again later on.’
Her sister has it all figured out, as usual. Granny gets to do the fun magic decorating part, and what about herself? What does she do? Butter sandwiches! Missy answers grumpily, ‘No… Just brighten it up a little.’
‘As you wish.’ Granny gets into position…
‘Do I really have to stand here and watch you prove your interior-design-superiority over me? Or can I do something more interesting, like butter more sandwiches?’
‘Sim… Sala… BIM!’
Granny doesn’t listen to her sister, she is deeply concentrated on upgrading the antique sofa.
Missy shrugs. ‘No, I definitely don’t have to stand here… I think I’ll just go back and check on the palantír. Oups! I mean the sandwiches!’
But Missy stops in her tracks. She forgets her jealousy and watches worried how Granny almost falls with exhaustion.
‘Are you all right?’
‘I don’t understand… I think I must sit down a while…’ Granny fumbles for support and Missy hurries forward.
‘Let me help you.’
She leads her sister into the living room and helps her sit down. The couch creaks under Granny’s weight when she heavily slumps down on it. She leans backwards, closing her eyes, feeling grateful for Tramp who has jumped up on the couch and settles close to her, his warmth spreading through the heavy coat.
‘I will just rest a little while,’ she mumbles.
‘Right. Do that.’
Missy starts a fire to warm up the room – and her feeble sister. An armful of books gets it started nicely, and the dining room chairs goes next. It is incredible how fast chair stuffing catches fire. The chimney is not jammed and soon a joyous fire is blazing, throwing a warm glow on the walls, and warming the shivering sisters.
Granny feels sheepish. A simple spell like that and she’s totally exhausted.
‘Never happened before. Never!’
‘Well. There must be a first time for everything,’ Missy says wisely, secretly happy her sister finally shows some flaws.
Huffing and puffing Granny sits up straight and breaks the silence. ‘It must be the journey.’
Missy sits down with a dismissive snort. ‘The journey? Really?’
‘It adds to my exhaustion. But I’m afraid it’s something more… Powerful… You said it yourself – bad vibes! Remember?’
‘You’re the specialist in dark magic, Missy. Why don’t you tell me what you think happened up there?’
Missy starts hesitantly, ‘I felt a presence…’
‘A ghost?’ Granny inquires.
‘Probably. You’ve seen the urns. There are at least three of them. The last owner seems to have liked to keep his family close. Gross…’
She taps her index on her lips, a sure sign she is thinking about something. ‘I think we need to exorcise the whole mansion!’
‘You’re right… But I’m too tired now… I need to rest first.’
‘Do you think it is safe to sleep here?’ Missy inquires a little worried.
‘Safe or not. We both need to get some sleep. Together the purification ritual will be stronger, but if we are too tired…’ She lets the sentence trail.
‘Just stay here, I’ll get some blankets and our pillows. You remember what grandmother Ailey used to say? “Sleep away your troubles”…’ Missy stands up. She is happy to be in charge for once.
‘Don’t use magic, Missy. It might not be safe!’ Granny calls after her sister.
‘Why should I use magic to unpack a couple of blankets?’ Missy shrugs and continues upstairs to the master bedroom where their suitcases are occupying most part of the floor surface. She has no clue where the blankets can be, and starts opening suitcases and chests haphazardly, regularly checking over her shoulder. Decidedly, the uncanny feeling gets stronger up here.
‘The evil was in the nursery…’ she mutters. ‘I don’t risk anything in here, and Tara will defend me, her powers are tremendous.’ She hopes she sounds convincing, because after her sister’s demonstration this evening, she doesn’t seem to have much power left.
When she gets downstairs again, Granny is already asleep, sprawling on the couch. Missy adds some wood to the fire and settles on the other couch. It doesn’t take long before the crackling of the fire is accompanied by soft, and less soft, snoring.
At midnight, Minuit enters the kitchen, triggering the palantír to come alive, illuminating the surroundings with a malevolent red glow…
Granny shivers. Last night Missy put up some kind of screen in front of the shattered windows to diminish the chilly draught, but the fire must have died during the night and the room is freezing. Granny blows on her fingers.
‘Wake up, Missy.’
Missy’s eyes pop open and she sits up straight, looking bewildered around her. ‘Oh, yes. I remember. We’re in the ghost house and we’ve got some exorcism to do before breakfast!’
But of course Granny has something to complain about. ‘I was more thinking of fixing the shattered windows…’
Missy seems to discover the shattered windows. ‘Don’t worry about the windows, I put up a screen – a very nice looking screen – last night!’
Granny just pulls her coat tighter around herself. Teeth shattering she heads upstairs to at least change her underwear. She pulls on an extra pair of socks, and keeps her coat on, and when Missy calls from downstairs that the breakfast is ready, she almost feels human again.
After a cold breakfast consisting of the sandwiches from last night and cold coffee, they start on the purification ritual. They begin in the nursery…
“Demon’s soul hides
Behind an innocent’s face
This witch’s magic
Out of this place…”
Afterwards Granny walks through every single room, followed by Missy, trying to catch a whiff of the evil sensation that blacked her out last night…
‘Nothing… It seems it’s gone…’
‘I’m glad it was concentrated to the nursery…’ Missy adds.
‘Now let’s get started with the next step.’
‘Good morning, Miss Grey of Bayou Oaks speaking. Can I please talk to Mr. Burns? … Yes, it’s about some minor reparations… Oh, I see… next week!?! … But… No, I will call you back. Thank you… Goodbye.’
‘You need to change tactics,’ Missy remarks.
‘Well. There’s not much of chance to get a team out her in the wilderness for a minor reparation.’
Granny looks at her sister then at the phone, and taps in the next number on her list. ‘Good morning, Miss Grey of Bayou Oaks speaking. I need a competent team for a major renovating project… Yes… Yes… Of course…’
At 10 sharp, a battered truck rolls up the driveway and stops in front of the house.
‘M. Schmidt! We’re sooo happy you could come this morning…’ Granny gushes.
Buster looks at the two very eccentric ladies and whispers under his breath to his fellow worker, Dirk, ‘Do they know Halloween’s over?’
Dirk snickers. ‘Who cares? As long as they pay…’
The sisters has overheard Buster’s comment about their clothes. Granny blushes furiously. ‘You can go ahead and visit,’ Granny says. ‘My sister and I will change into something more appropriate.’
Missy chirps in, ‘We’re rehearsing, you see. We’ll give a fancy dress party to celebrate! When the renovation is finished of course… Would you like to come?’
Granny takes a firm hold on Missy’s arm and steers her towards the stairs. ‘Go ahead gentlemen. We’ll be right back.’
Benjamin Schmidt shudders. ‘OK, they might be a little… eccentric, but this house is a gold mine!’ He starts giving orders to his team. ‘First the bottom floor, then upstairs. We’ll just check what’s supposed to be done, and start the smaller reparations right away. Then we’ll see with the- err… ladies- how they envision the renovation. You know, colors and such… Oh, and Jamie – you can start cleaning immediately!’
Granny drags Missy into the little nursery and shuts the door. ‘Are you crazy? A party?’
‘Well… I said fancy dress! To explain our outfits?’
Granny rolls her eyes. ‘OK. Let’s change into something more inconspicuous. From now on we’re just two retired ladies – two ordinary retired ladies. No magic. No brooms. And not a word about any party…’
The following weeks are busy.
‘How are things up there, Buster?’ Benjamin stands right under the mezzanine surrounded by the broken railing, looking up at his employee checking the chain that is supposed to hold a hanging candelabra.
‘Some planks are good up here, but I think we’ll have trouble finding the right wood to fit in with the old parquet. Better change the whole landing.’ He tugs at the chain. ‘When it comes to the mounting ring, it seems all right…’
Jamie is hard at work – polishing the parquet and cleaning out tons of cobweb.
Buster and Dirk are clearing out the rubbish on the porch.
‘We’ll need a shoveling machine in the spring to take care of the garden.’
‘I wish we had one now – to clear the inside!’
Mr. Schmidt is taking care of all the plumbing personally.
The kitchen appliances are repaired or changed.
The wall papers and paneling are also changed, as are the windows and doors… The sound of hammering and sawing fills the house and it smells good of fresh paint and wood.
The transformation is spectacular and the Grey sisters are delighted.
The overgrown bathroom is transformed…
… into a relaxing haven! The only thing missing is Taïga. But Granny has agreed with Missy on not taking her home until the renovation is completed, the environment being dangerous for a child. So Taïga spends her vacations at boarding school, where Granny joins her – taking the opportunity to see François Lambert. The long summer holidays are spent in Monte Aquila with the Di Grisogno’s…
Part I – End of Chapter 47