The contents of the will had been almost painfully clear. Only one person could inherit, and they had to sign a detailed agreement to keep the house and grounds exactly as they were, and to not sell or change the house in any part. No one in my family wanted any part of that, no matter how much money they would make as Caretaker.
No one except me.
But then, everyone else had other options, other choices they could make. I really did not.
College had turned out to be a bust, in so many ways. I couldn't go back home to my aging mother, depend on her Social Security while I tried to get a job at McDonald's. This was my best option.
I rode on the L.I.R.R, staring out the train window moodily. I had my forehead pressed against the glass and I could see my own sour expression reflected back at me.
There were many things I disliked about my new living arrangement. Some many reasons that I knew it was going to be a nightmare. The first one was that I now had to live in Long Island, out in the sticks.
There was also the fact that I knew next to nothing about my Great Aunt Katrina. I had never met her while she was alive. She had died alone in her big house out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone in the family said that she had been crazy. I could just imagine that huge house she left behind. Doilies covering every available surface, dust everywhere, that old lady smell. Old lady smell was definitely somewhere on my list of things I was going to hate.
Was I supposed to maintain the old lady smell as Caretaker? Being a young woman of nineteen myself, I didn't see how I could.
It wouldn't be so bad if I could have just had Mom with me. But the will stipulated that the Caretaker lived alone. No family, no friends, no lovers. Great. Sounded like a blast.
I could quit whenever I wanted. If no one else in the family wanted the job, someone from outside the family would be hired. But, the job was a good paying one and I could send money to Mom. I would stay with it till I was on my feet and could get my own apartment. Not in the city, but maybe Brooklyn or Queens.
I was so deep into my brooding that I almost missed my stop. I hurried out of the train. I was the only one getting off at that stop apparently, because the station was deserted. I sighed, shouldering my duffel bag.
I exited the station, finding a completely empty parking lot. I went over to the station house thinking I could get the number of a cab company, but that seemed to be deserted as well. What if someone wanted to buy a ticket? This had 'long day' written all over it.
I headed to the parking lot again. This time, there was a truck there. It was an old truck that had seen better days. It could use a new coat of pale blue paint, that was sure.
A young, dark-skinned man was getting out of the driver's seat. He spotted me. "Are you the new Caretaker?" He asked.
I nodded, too busy admiring him to speak. He was tall and well built. He wore carpenter's pants and a worn t-shirt. He smiled, revealing a perfect set of white teeth. "The lawyer told me to pick you up today. I didn't expect you so early. You weren't waiting long, were you?"
I shook my head. "I just got off the train."
He held out a big, calloused hand. "I'm Ricky." He smiled at me again.
Maybe things around here wouldn't be so bad after all.
I held out my own slim, pale hand. It was nearly swallowed by his. "Angie Statton."
"Well, let's get you over to the house. Is this your only luggage?" He indicated the duffel bag. I nodded. He opened the passenger's side door for me. He held my hand and helped me up into the cab, too.
"How did you know Great Aunt Katrina?" I asked once we were on our way.
"I do work on the house every now and then." He said. "Aunt Katrina liked to handle things herself, but after a while, she couldn't move around like she used to."
I nodded. "Is it far?" I asked.
He laughed. "It's way out there." He said. "But you're gonna love it, you'll see. Me and my sister gave it a real good cleaning." He seemed proud of himself.
"Thank you." I told him sincerely. Perhaps I wouldn't have to deal with old lady smell after all.
He smiled again. I liked guys that smiled a lot, especially when they were this genuine. "That's what neighbors are for."
"We're neighbors?" I asked.
"The closest one you have for miles. Aunt Katrina owned a lot of land."
"You called her Aunt Katrina?"
Ricky laughed. "She made me. She liked looking after me and Steve. I don't have a real aunt, so it worked out."
"It must have been hard for you, when she passed away." I said without thinking.
But he didn't seem bothered. "Oh, I'll miss her of course. But she wouldn't want me to be sad."
The rest of the drive passed just as pleasantly. Ricky was right, it was a long drive. Still, I was sorry when it was done.
Ricky stopped the truck next to a mailbox at the side of the road. A narrow path continued off the road, through a small copse of trees.
Before Ricky could open his door I let myself out of the truck, jumping down to the ground. He laughed. He handed me a white card through the window. I looked at the business card. "That's the number for the shop." He told me. I turned the card over, revealing another number written there with pen. "And that's the house." He smiled at me again. "I'll see you later on, Angie."
I waved goodbye as he drove away. I turned to the mailbox. It was surprisingly empty. I headed up the path through the trees.
The trees ended very quickly, the ground under my feet turning to gravel. I looked up at the house, squinting in the morning sun.
The house stood out all by itself in a sea of white gravel. There were no plants, bushes, or trees around for at least fifty yards. Only this fresh, blindingly white gravel.
I was a plant person at heart. I liked taking care of them. One of my dreams was to one day have my own garden. I knelt down and dug around through the gravel for a bit. The layer of gravel was very thick, but I did reach ground. I made a noise of disgust. It was salted. Nothing would grow here.
Well, I wouldn't be doing any gardening, that was for sure.
The house itself was big. Too big for just me. It had two stories and an attic. I could even see a small tower on the south side. A tower! It was painted slate blue and had a wraparound porch. It was very classic looking but not unbearably so, I decided.
I walked up to the front door. It was a huge, steel affair and even though it was painted the same slate blue as the rest of the house, it stood out against the old fashioned exterior.
I pulled out the heavy ring of keys I had been given by the lawyer. It took me a while to find the key to the front door. It was the strangest key on the whole ring. It was cylindrical, with many varying sized notches all over the length of it.
When I inserted the key in the lock and turned it, I heard several heavy clicks before the door swung open. As heavy as the door was, it opened easily, without the tiniest creak. I stepped inside cautiously. This house had proved so far to be somewhat different from what I had expected, and that was only the outside.
The first thing I noticed was that there wasn't a speck of dust in sight. As I stepped in, some automatic sensor went off, and the lights all started coming on. So, I was able to get a pretty good look at my new home. And I was amazed.
The floorboards under my feet were even and smooth. They were the color of honey and waxed to a high gloss. The front door led into a huge space that was half kitchen, part living area and part dining area. The ceiling was high overhead and there was a distinct lack of dividing walls. I could see all the way to the other side of the house, which was mostly a large plate glass window, covered with vertical blinds.
The kitchen was separated from the living and dining areas by a long counter. The floor was made up of heavy-looking stone tiles. The appliances weren't all new, but they looked it. Everything was chrome and shining.
There was a deep double sink as well as a dishwasher. The stove was a six burner and the fridge was a monster. I took a peek inside to see that it was fully stocked. Everything was arranged neatly and leftovers were stacked up in plastic containers. I closed the fridge and continued my exploration to the living area.
A huge wide-screen television dominated one wall. It look at least 54 inches. There was one couch and one armchair and a couple of bookshelves. The wooden floor from the door continued into this room.
I turned around where I stood, taking it all in. It was so spacious, so light. I inhaled deeply. Not one trace of old lady smell either. Just the clean smell of lemon and floor wax.
It was then that I thought 'This might actually be pretty nice'. Little did I know then just how bad things would get.
At the time, the only thought on my mind was checking out the second floor.
Upstairs there were more walls, since this was where the bedrooms were. The first door I saw had a gold plaque on it. 'Katrina's Room' was etched in the gold.
I tried the knob, but it was locked. I pulled out the key ring and after a couple of tries, I got the door open.
The room was extremely tidy. Ricky and his sister had outdone themselves. You couldn't tell at all that someone had lived here. Everything seemed so fresh and new.
The floor was the same honey-colored wood as downstairs. It seemed that Great Aunt Katrina hadn't believed in carpeting. It was nice, but it made my footsteps echo whenever I walked. It would take some getting used to, living by myself in such a big house.
The room wasn't a very large one, probably not the master bedroom. The bed was a single, pushed against the wall and made so tightly that the blankets looked fused to the sheets. There was a desk under the room's one window and a built-in closet on the other wall.
I walked over to the desk. The surface was bare except for one large, red, leather-bound book. I lifted it up with both hands. The spine was gold-tooled. The leather felt smooth and worn, but it was in perfect condition.
I undid a gold clasp holding the book shut slowly, not wanting to cause any harm to what was obviously a treasured antique.
I opened to a random page. It was all handwritten in a long, flowing script. It was hard to make out at first, but I got it eventually.
"From the tower, I can keep watch over the Vault, so that no one, mortal or otherwise, may disturb it."
Tower? Oh yeah, I did see a tower from the outside. I out the book back down on the desk and looked out the window. I didn't see the tower right now, which mean that I was probably under it.
I looked around the room. There hadn't been another door on this side of the house from the hallway, so it must be in here somewhere. I walked over to the closet and slid the door open. Sure enough, behind an empty hanger railing was another door.
This one was locked as well. I was starting to see why I had so many keys.
I unlocked the door, revealing a narrow spiral staircase leading upward. I climbed the stairs, feeling claustrophobic. They led up to a very small room. The ceiling was so low that I couldn't stand up straight. A strong shaft of light was coming from the tower's one tiny window. I bent down a little and peered out, shielding my eyes.
The light was coming from the sloped roof directly across from this window. The light was so bright that I couldn't tell what the roof was made of. It might have been tin, or maybe... glass?
I had to find out. I hurried down the stairs, then out of Great Aunt Katrina's room. I looked around the hallway for a set of stairs leading up to the attic. I couldn't find any.
I looked up at the ceiling. Usually there was a door you could pull down with stairs or a ladder attached to it. I couldn't find anything like that either.
I paused for a moment, thinking hard. This house was becoming more and more of a mystery. Great Aunt Katrina struck me now as being paranoid as well as eccentric. The door in the closet was proof of that. Perhaps there was another hidden door in the ceiling.
I inspected the ceiling again very closely. I soon found what I was looking for. A tiny hole in the ceiling. I grabbed a chair from another room and stood on it to get a better look. I hunted through my key ring and found an old skeleton key.
The key fit perfectly in the hole. I turned it and heard a very loud click. A large rectangle came down out of the ceiling a few inches. I jumped down from the chair and pushed it away. Then I reached up and grabbed the edge of the door. As I pulled it open, a staircase slowly unfolded itself. When I was done, it settled in place with a snap.
I looked up the staircase. There was a lot of light coming in from the attic. I grinned when I realized I had been right. I climbed up the staircase quickly, out into the attic.
The entire space was wide and clear. One wall was full length all the way up to the glass ceiling. The ceiling sloped sharply down to the floor on the other side. The entire space was empty, save for a large stone dais in the center of the room.
I noticed how warm it was up here. Outside it was a very drizzly and chilly November. But in here it felt like summer.
It occurred to me then that this was just like a greenhouse. I couldn't have plants outside, but I bet I could keep a few of them up here. Orchids liked humid places with lots of sun, for instance. I was sure Great Aunt Katrina wouldn't begrudge me a few orchids. It's not like I was really changing anything in the house.
I walked over to the dais in the center of the attic. It was a plain block of gray stone. It was so big that I knew it had to be heavy. Like, extra-supports-erected-on-the-floor-below heavy. I wonder how Great Aunt Katrina had gotten it up here. Perhaps she had it lifted up by crane and put in through the roof and the glass put in after.
I wondered what it was for.
I spotted a small hole on the side. I inspected it closely. Yep, it was a keyhole.
I looked through my keyring again, but couldn't find a key that would fit in the hole properly. I tried every last one with no luck.
I was frustrated now that I was balked. I frowned deeply at the lock. Perhaps Ricky knew how to open it. I would have to call and ask.
I decided I had had enough exploring for now. It had been a long train ride. I would find a room to put my things in, then find something to eat.
The next day I went out and explored nearby civilization. Aunt Katrina had a car, a beat-up Chevrolet, but I didn't have a license. So, I ended up calling a cab company from the phone book.
I found a Lowe's fairly easy, and was able to buy a few orchids, pots and the bark-like potting soil they required. I also stopped at a vintage clothing store to bulk up my scant wardrobe.
When I returned back to the house, there was a car parked by the mailbox. It was a light blue compact. I walked up the path to the house. There was no one on the porch. Was there someone inside?
I set my packages down on the porch and unlocked the door. I stepped inside slowly. I'm not one who is quick to panic, but I was still wary. "Hello?" I called.
"In the kitchen." An unfamiliar voice called casually.
I walked into the kitchen, feeling very confused. A man about my age sat at the large butcher block table in the middle of the kitchen. He had a laptop open in front of him and was typing at the keys.
Even though he was seated, I could tell that he wasn't very tall. His skin was the pale white only little exposure to sunlight could achieve. He was thin and bony, and his hands looked a little too big for him. The fingers were too long. His sand-colored hair was short and tousled. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that slid down his nose.
He looked up at me briefly, long enough for me to see that his eyes were baby blue. "Hey there, Rick said you arrived yesterday. I thought I would come over and set everything up for you."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Oh, right, sorry." He rose out of his chair a little and held out his hand. "I'm Steven Moire. I maintained the computers and security system for Aunt Katrina."
I recalled Ricky mentioning a Steven in the truck yesterday. "How did you get in?" I asked.
"Basement entrance." He pointed behind him at the broom closet.
"I see." I said, making a mental note to check out the basement later. I hadn't even realized there was one. I suspected another hidden door.
"Nice to meet you." Steven said, holding his hand out again. I realized that I hadn't shaken it the first time.
I did so now. "Angie Statton."
He sat back down again, continuing his work on the computer.
"So, what are you here to set up?" I asked.
"I need to set you as the Primary Resident." He said. "That way the security system doesn't attack you. It's not on right now, but it has to be activated if you are going to live here. That's Aunt Katrina's rule."
What he said brought up several questions I wanted to ask. I settled on the most crucial one. "The security system attacks people?"
"Only people it doesn't know." Steven said, sounding defensive.
"Hello in there!" I heard Ricky's voice from the front door. Then he was in the kitchen, carrying my packages. "I thought you might need help with these." He smiled at me.
"Thank you." I said, smiling back. "Just set them down on the table." I would soon find that I couldn't be anything but cheerful in Ricky's presence. He had an aura about him that just radiated happiness.
Ricky spotted Steven as he set my bags on the table. "Hey, man." He said, his smile growing even wider.
'Ah, so that's how it is." I thought to myself shrewdly.
But Steven was giving my orchids a dark look. "What's the matter?" I asked.
"Probably nothing." Steven said. "But Aunt Katrina hated plants."
"She did indeed." Ricky agreed. "Remember the little cactus we gave her for her birthday?" Steven grimaced at the memory. Ricky turned to me. "So Angie, how are you liking the house so far? Any drafts or creaky floorboards or leaky faucets I should know about?"
I shook my head. "Everything I can see is in perfect working order." I told him. "You and your sister did an amazing job."
"You just let me know about any little thing." He told me seriously. "Aunt Katrina would haunt me for the rest of my life if I let her house fall into disrepair."
I laughed. "There's no danger of that happening any time soon." I reassured him. "Though, there is one thing I wanted to ask you about."
"The Vault." Steven said knowingly.
"Yeah." I turned to him. "How did you guess?"
"Because we want to know what's in there too." Ricky confided.
"She was a crazy old bird. But we know she was hiding something incredible." Steven said. "I mean, she stayed home all day, but she managed to pay to keep the house looking like this." He gestured around with both arms, emphasizing his point.
"So you two don't know where the key for it is?" I asked. They both shook their heads.
"We thought that you might have been given the key." Ricky said. I gave him a helpless look.
"I always thought it was silly, keeping the vault up in the attic." Steven said suddenly. "I asked her about it one time, asked her why she just didn't keep it in the basement where it would be more secure. You know what she said to me? 'That would be too kind.' Weird, huh?"
"We're kind of hoping you'll find out what the big secret is." Ricky smiled. "And maybe share it with us."
"Maybe it's whatever I am supposed to be taking care of." I shrugged.
The next morning after breakfast I went to the attic to see how my orchids were adjusting. In warm weather they would need to be spritzed with water daily.
I ascended the stairs, water bottle in hand. I had set the orchids on the stone dais, thinking that was the most suitable place. I walked over to them.
They were dead.
I was alarmed. How had they died overnight? I inspected the leaves. They were dry and crumbly.
Perhaps I had gotten a bad batch. They had looked fine in the store. I had gotten them off of the bargain rack though, so they must have been on their way out. I would go and get more later that day. Good ones.
But the next day I got the same result. I tried to think of why it had happened again. Perhaps there was something wrong with the room. Perhaps the air was too dry.
I set up a trench on one side of the room, the one with the highest wall as it got the least direct sunlight. I filled the bottom with gravel and poured water in that. Then I set the orchid pots in that.
The next day they were still alive, but the leaves were yellowed. There were also a few black spots on the leaves. I saw it as a step in the right direction. I was determined now to have something else living in this house with me. Great Aunt Katrina's will wouldn't even let me have a pet.
I wasn't spending all my time tending to my plants though. I checked out the door in the broom closet. Sure enough, it led to the basement.
It was a finished basement, the floor was clean and there wasn't a cobweb in sight. It was broken up into three rooms. The one closest to the kitchen was a pantry. It was the largest pantry I had been in, It looked like one a restaurant might have. It even held a giant deep freezer. In her old age, Great Aunt Katrina must not have been able to get to the store very often.
The second room held a few pieces of exercise equipment. It didn't look like it had been used in quite some time, though it was clean.
The last room was barely bigger than a closet. On a low shelf sat a black trunk. I looked it over. It was decorated with a single rose on the top, made out of silver. The lock and fastenings were also made out of silver. I looked at the back. Even the hinges were silver.
I pulled out my key ring. There was a silver key on it that I had yet to find a use for. Sure enough, it opened the trunk.
On top was a set of clothing. Black pants and a black shirt. A black leather belt and matching boots. Both the belt and the boots had silver accents. Under the clothes was a short leather jacket. The jacket was dark brown and very worn.
I looked in the pockets and found a silver lighter and cigarette case, a pair of gloves with the fingers cut off, and a small cardboard box that said 'silver bullets'. I opened the box. It was empty.
Under the jacket was a metal case. I pulled it out and laid it on the floor. I popped the fastenings and lifted the lid. Inside lay a semi-automatic pistol. It was in pieces, each piece fitting into it's own foam cutout. It was made of silver as well.
I felt a shiver go through me. What was this stuff for? It was too elaborate to be a Halloween costume. Maybe something from a movie? Some people collected costumes and stuff like that. I decided it was best to just put it all way and forget about it.
I didn't spend all my time by myself. I would have gone crazy then. As if knowing this, Ricky or Steven came over nearly every day. They moved around the house with such familiarity that it was comforting to me, who still couldn't remember where everything was supposed to go.
Ricky liked cooking, so I let him have the kitchen when he was over. I would sit at the table and watch, trying to memorize where everything was.
I even met Ricky's sister, Cassandra. She immediately made me call her Cass. She was my age and very pretty. She wasn't as dark as her brother, but she had his cheerfulness. She showed me where all of the cleaning supplies were in the house and even how to use some of them. For instance, I hadn't known how to wax a floor before Cass had taught me. I was the Caretaker, and it was my job to keep the house in perfect condition.
Cass even taught me a few things about plants, having a big garden of her own. She suggested I get a few cacti for the attic. Since it was nice and humid up there, I wouldn't have to ever water them, and they were sturdier than orchids. I took her advice, and picked out several rather nice looking ones. I arranged them on the other side of the attic, right under the glass roof where they could get the most sun.
I had decided to sleep in Great Aunt Katrina's room. The Master bedroom was too large for me, my meager possessions seemed lost in it. Besides, I liked having a room with it's own tower.
One night I laid down and took Great Aunt Katrina's book with me. It was getting chillier each night, so I was wearing a thick cotton nightgown. I sat up in the bed and leafed through the pages. Trying to decipher the handwriting was too much for me, so I just looked at the pictures.
I figured that the book was Great Aunt Katrina's diary, and she had had a fair hand at drawing. Better than her handwriting, anyway.
Some of the pictures were just diagrams. Some seemed to be illustrations. There was even a picture of the vault. I saw one of the silver gun, but put together. It had a long chain attached to it. The note underneath said it was to be attached to the belt, so it was harder for someone to disarm you.
I turned another page and stopped, staring at the picture there. A shiver went down my spine. It looked like the picture of a shadow with ragged edges. The only features it had was white eyes and a mouth. The eyes were slanted into a devious expression, and the mouth was fanged. The picture unnerved me, but I found it difficult to look away.
I decided to skip to the end of the diary. I would find out more about Great Aunt Katrina's day to day life before she died. And I would also be many pages away from that picture.
There were quite a few empty pages left in the diary. The last page to have anything written on it was still in the middle of the book. I flipped through the last half quickly, making sure. I ended at the back cover.
There was another drawing on the inside back cover. This one was of a key. At least, I thought it was. It looked very strange, unlike any key that I had ever seen. It seemed to be made up of three different pieces. Maybe three other keys.
I got up out of the bed and went over to the desk. I opened the top drawer and pulled out my ring of keys. I took them back over to the bed.
There were a lot of keys on the ring, so I couldn't see if any of them made up the big key right off the bat. I held up a few to the drawing, but didn't see a match. I flipped through the book again, seeing if I could find the keys separately. I was unsuccessful. I went back to the back cover again.
I inspected the drawing closely. The largest key was cylindrical. It looked like it had many notches carved into it. I picked up the key ring and selected the key to the front door. I took it off the ring and held it up to the drawing. They looked the same.
One of the keys in the diagram was very small. I got the tiniest key off the ring and compared it. Another success. It was the key to the trunk in the basement. I set it aside with the first key.
It took a while, but after comparing all the rest of the keys, I found that the last key was the one to the tower. I pulled it off the ring and set the ring aside.
I held the three keys in my hands. How was I supposed to put them together? I was pretty good at puzzles and I liked the challenge. All thought of sleep had left my mind completely.
I turned the keys over in my hands, feeling with my fingers were all the bumps and notches were. I began fitting them together.
After many tries and a few pinched fingers, I finally got it. I held the completed key in my hands, proud of myself. I knew automatically what it would unlock. I only hoped that I could separate the keys again before I had to go out.
I looked at the clock. It was 1 A.M. I could go to sleep and unlock the vault in the morning, but I was so excited that I decided to do it now. The prospect of having a puzzle solved was more important to me than speculating on the actual contents of the vault, and I was so close to having it completed.
I got out of bed and headed out into the hallway. It was a good thing that the key to the stairs hadn't been used in the big key. That would have been precious time wasted. I unlocked the stairs and hurried up to the attics.
The moon was high overhead. It was round and full and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Out here away from the city the stars were many and beautiful. I should invite Cass over one night for stargazing. I wondered if Ricky or Steven had a telescope.
I walked over to the Vault. At night it had a very ominous look to it. The stone was pure white under the moon, contrasting with the sharp, pitch-black shadows it cast.
I knelt down next to the Vault. The side with the keyhole was in shadow, so I had to feel for it with my fingers. In the silence around me I heard a small sound.
I paused, looking around. It had sounded like something rustling. Perhaps from the plants. I had added a few more up here recently. I looked over them from where I was. One of my orchids was missing a few leaves. I saw them on the floor under it.
That must have been the sound I heard. I had originally thought that the sound was in front of me, but the orchid was behind me, so I must have been mistaken.
I was starting to get a little creeped out, up here all alone in the middle of the night. I decided to get this over with quickly and head back to bed. Sleep was sounding really good.
I found the keyhole and inserted the key into it. It fit. I smiled triumphantly. Then I took a deep breath and turned the key.