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Touch Me in the Dark

by

Jacqueline Diamond

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 An eerie house … a malevolent ghost … and Ian Fanning, a brooding ex-cop obsessed with painting the woman his grandfather murdered. Into their midst arrives Sharon Mahoney, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead woman. When past and present collide, will Ian save or destroy her? Gothic romance combines with murder mystery in this taut thriller.

 

 

Chapter One

Through the downpour, Sharon Mahoney stared at the Victorian house.  She hadn’t expected it to be so massive, three stories of bay windows and gables with a small balcony jutting out near the roof.  Beneath a slanting sheet of water, the light gray walls darkened in streaks, as if trying to return to some former age. 

 The only sign of modernization was a small skylight on an outthrust section of the second floor.  From the street, no one could have told that the place had been made over into apartments.  The Victorian was an anomaly in Southern California, where most of the homes dated from the 1920s or later. 

Wipers streaked the windshield, blurring the house.  She remembered her sister’s comment about the place having atmosphere.  Maybe a little too much atmosphere, she thought, fighting off a sense of oppression.

“Mom?” said her seven-year-old son, Greg.  “It’s spooky.  Let’s go home.”

“This is home now.”  She tried to sound more confident than she felt.

Tears glistened on his face.  “I won’t get out!” 

She understood his reaction.  Since his father’s fatal heart attack nearly a year ago, Greg’s familiar world had crumbled. 

 In addition to devastating them emotionally, Jim’s death had left only a small insurance policy.  Then last summer the private school where Sharon taught had laid her off.  Months of searching and a lucky connection had finally landed a midyear position teaching first grade at College Day School.  They’d left Buffalo, N.Y. a few days after Christmas and spent New Year’s on the road.

  Sharon was tempted to drive a mile to her sister Karly’s apartment, but they’d already arranged by phone to meet tomorrow.  Tonight, after four days of driving cross-country, she wanted to get their stuff inside and see the place where they were committed to stay for a year.

  She appreciated her sister’s coup in finding the two of them an affordable place to live in Fullerton.  Rents in Orange County had skyrocketed since Sharon left eight years before.  She only wished Karly hadn’t felt obligated to sign a one-year lease in order to make sure another would-be renter didn’t snag the place first.

She slipped an arm around her son.  “Aunt Karly wouldn’t have picked this place if there was anything wrong, would she?”

“Maybe.”  Greg shifted closer.

“Pretend this is Hogwarts.”  The place slightly resembled the wizard’s school in the Harry Potter films.  “Ready to go in?”

“What about our stuff?” he asked.

Sharon was too tired to unload a mini-van full of possessions tonight.  “We’ll fetch our suitcases after we meet the landlady.  We can collect the bulky items tomorrow.” 

Greg’s mouth twisted.  “Okay.”

Huddling beneath a shared umbrella, they scurried from the van to the wide, old-fashioned porch.  Water splashed the hems of their pants and Sharon felt her hair losing what remained of its curl.

“I thought the sun shined all the time in California,” Greg grumbled as they reached the overhang. 

Sharon struggled to keep her tone light.  “It’s January, and practically the middle of the night.  Go on, ring the bell.”  When he obeyed, rich brass notes echoed inside.

While they waited, Sharon checked out the sturdy glider, a window box thick with begonias and four mailboxes, labeled J. Fanning; Gaskell; I. Fanning; and no. 4, Mahoney.  The landlady, an elderly woman named Jody Fanning, had posted their name already. 

According to Karly, most of the tenants were related to the owner.  She’d mentioned a couple in their sixties and Jody’s grandnephew, Ian, a disabled former policeman.  Sharon hoped sharing a kitchen wasn’t going to be too awkward.

  Greg hugged himself.  “Maybe nobody’s home.  Mom, I’m cold.”

Sharon doubted the landlady expected them at this hour, nearly eight o’clock.  “It’s an apartment building.  Maybe we’re supposed to let ourselves in.”

  The knob turned in her hand.  She half expected the door to creak as in some old movie, but it swung open on well-oiled hinges.  They stepped into an entryway lit by an electric wall sconce.

To their left lay a parlor illuminated only by a streetlight shining through the window.  Sharon made out rose-patterned wallpaper, a braided rug and a settee.

From outside, a bolt of lightning illuminated a large, finely detailed painting above the mantel, showing a Gothic mansion set on a hill.  From an attic window stared a man’s face, his expression so agonized that Sharon was relieved when the room fell back into shadow.

Thunder boomed through the floorboards.  Greg moved closer.  “Can’t we find some place else?”

“Not for such low rent.”  Sharon sighed.  “And there’s an easy commute to the school.  It’ll be much more pleasant in daylight, I’m sure.”

 Greg chewed his lip, unimpressed.  He was staring ahead at a staircase that disappeared upwards into darkness.

 Any minute now, he was going to start crying again, Sharon thought in dismay.  The only sign of life was a sliver of light seeping beneath a door to their right.  In the hope that they’d found the landlady’s unit, she rapped twice. 

Out of habit she tugged at her earlobe, fingering the pearl set into the deep crease.  Jim had given her the earrings for their seventh anniversary, a month before his heart attack.  Touching it provided a measure of comfort.

The door cracked.  The old woman who faced them had eyes undimmed by age and a straight figure only an inch or so shorter than Sharon’s five-foot-eight.  “Yes?”

“Mrs. Fanning?  I’m Sharon Mahoney.”

“Sharon?” the woman repeated.  She didn’t sound confused or forgetful, simply reflective.

“You talked to my sister Karly,” Sharon prompted.  “You’ve got my name on the mailbox.”

Spotting the boy, the landlady broke into a smile.  “Oh, yes, of course!  Please forgive my rudeness.  I’m Miss Fanning.  Call me Jody.”

The door swung wider.  Jody, who wore a crinkly peach-colored pantsuit that almost matched her fluffy beige hair, moved back to admit them.  “Sorry about the weather.  Please come in and get warm” 

 Stuffed with country-style furniture, the cheerful room smelled of laundry softener and peppermint tea.  Instead of the usual knickknacks, a large china cabinet displayed model spaceships and fighter planes. 

On the far wall hung watercolor paintings of skateboarders and street-hockey players.  “Did you paint those?” Sharon inquired.  “They’re wonderful.”

Jody nodded indulgently.  “My grandnephew made them when he was much younger.  He’s quite gifted.”

“He’s a painter?”  Sharon wondered how disabled the man was.

“A very good one,” his great-aunt said.

An electronic beep made them turn.  “Hey!”  Greg broke into a grin.  “Mom, look at that!”

On an antique table by the front window blinked a computer, the screen dotted by tiny spaceships hovering against a special-effects background of swirling galaxies.  “We’ve interrupted your game.  If you’re anything like my son, that’s a criminal offense.”

“Laser Space Attack!”  Greg cried.

“Third edition.  A recent acquisition.”  Jody spoke with pretend solemnity.  “Haven’t gotten beyond the second level.  You should come help me tomorrow, young man.”

Greg beamed.  “You bet!” 

“I’m amazed you enjoy such things,” Sharon blurted.

Jody didn’t appear offended.  “My family owned a toy store for years.  I knew the business inside and out.  I used to take my nephew, and later Ian, to the product shows at the Anaheim Convention Center.  It was better than anything Santa’s elves could dream up, believe me.”

“You’re retired?”

“The chains drove us out of business.  Not that I sit around.  I keep active in service clubs, and I pay attention to new products.  At heart I’m a kid myself.”  The landlady handed them two keys.  “That’s to the front door.  Please lock up once you’ve brought your things inside.  The other’s to your suite, upstairs and down the hall on the right.”

Jody explained that her grandnephew occupied the unit across from theirs.  Her cousins, the Gaskells, who lived directly above Jody’s apartment, were spending the weekend in Palm Springs.

“What about the third floor?” Greg asked.

“That’s the attic.”

“Does anybody live there?” he pressed.

“Only the ghosts.”  Jody winked.  “Now, you’ll find the kitchen through the parlor and the dining room.  We’re pretty informal here.  Feel free to borrow sugar or whatnot.  We can cook some meals together if you like.  Oh, the laundry’s just off the kitchen.”

“Thanks.”  The warmth of the greeting dispelled Sharon’s initial unease.  “You’ve made my son feel at home.  And me, too.”

“It’s good to have a little boy in the house again.”  The computer beeped.  “Duty calls!”

“Good luck.”  Sharon shepherded her son into the hall.

“I like this place,” Greg said after the door closed behind them.

“I told you Aunt Karly uses good judgment.”  Usually, anyway.  Sharon remembered during their teen years when her sister used to sneak out the window at night to sing with a rock band.  Lucky their parents hadn’t caught her.

 Karly had been the only freewheeling member of the family.  Sharon had followed her share of impulses too when she was younger, but she’d put that behind her.

She felt grateful to be back in California.  She’d never really adapted to the icy climate or the winds that blew off Lake Erie.  Even the rare sight a few weeks ago of Niagara Falls framed by cascades of ice had been as much a demonstration of nature’s raw power as a vision of splendor. 

At least now she’d be near Karly, her husband and their baby.  No one else was left.  Since their mother’s death ten years earlier, Sharon’s father had remarried and moved to Hawaii, and she’d lost track of old friends. 

As she and Greg climbed the stairs in semi-darkness, she felt the smoothness of the well-worn banister.  She began to appreciate the charm of the creaky old house, which Karly had said dated back to the 1890s.

She wondered if Jody would be willing to visit her classroom and tell the children the background of the place as a living history lesson.  That depended on what lessons their former teacher had been covering, of course.   Sharon had been hired to complete the year after the teacher’s husband was transferred to Seattle.

The steps reversed angle at the landing.  As they mounted the final flight, a wall fixture revealed a man’s figure standing at the top, half shrouded in mist and half sharply in focus.  Shocked by the malevolence in his gaze, Sharon reached instinctively to shelter Greg before registering that it was a painting.

“Mom!”  He shook off her hand.  “I’m not a baby.”  Apparently their visit with Jody had restored his confidence. 

“I know.  Your Daddy would be proud of you.”  Vacillating between childishness and independence seemed normal enough at this age, although she had to admit that the past year’s disruptions had intensified the swings.

At the top, Sharon examined the painted figure in the dim light.  Almost life-size, it appeared real enough to step from the canvas.  Up close, what she’d taken for malice changed into wary suspicion.

Sharon checked the signature—Ian Fanning.  His style certainly had changed since the youthful watercolor days.  Although she admired his talent, the painting made her wonder what sort of man she had for a neighbor.

The Gaskells’ apartment, number two, lay to the left.  To the right stretched a dark-paneled corridor.

“Our rooms are this way.”  Sharon hurried Greg along the hall and unlocked their door.  Flipping on the light, she surveyed the front room with a twinge of dismay.

Tiny and windowless, it formed more of a wide passageway than a parlor.  The only furnishings were a couch across from them and a low TV stand next to the entrance.  No wonder the place rented below market.

 With a pang, Sharon thought of the years she’d spent making crafts and browsing through shops to decorate their old home, a rental that had felt as if it belonged to them.  She’d been forced to sell or donate most of their furnishings before the move.

 Well, Sharon could whip up decorative pillows on her sewing machine.  She’d find posters to brighten the walls as well.  .

“Kind of small,” Greg muttered.

“Cozy, or it will be when we fix it up,” she responded a shade too brightly.  “Let’s check out the rest, okay?”

To their left, they found what apparently passed for a master bedroom, filled by a double bed and a bureau, a modest desk and chair.  Branching off the room, tucked behind the parlor, stretched a tiled bathroom dominated by a claw-foot tub.

“There’s a room on the far side.”  Greg dashed through to the second bedroom. 

The small space held a dresser and a desk made of chunky blond wood, plus a loveseat.  “This is your room.”

  Her son frowned.  “Where do I sleep?”

 “That loveseat must open into a bed.”  Barely the width of a cot, though.  Hardly ideal for a growing boy.

 “How does it work?”

 “You remove the cushions, then pull on the handle.”  She showed him.  “Let’s wait until you’re ready to go to sleep or we’ll trip over it while we unpack.”

  “Okay.”  Greg walked to the door and peered into the parlor.  “Where’s the rest?”

  Sharon swallowed.  “No more, I’m afraid.” 

  “I guess this is kind of like a play house,” the boy said slowly.

  “Exactly.”  They ought to be cozy.  And she wouldn’t need to spend as much time cleaning.

  Outside, a gust of window rattled the window and sent a chill through the damp wool of Sharon’s coat.  A second later, something scraped the glass.

“What’s that?”  Greg held still, as if embarrassed to show that he was frightened again.

“A branch, most likely.”  She peered out the window.  “What a big tree!”  Through the branches, she surveyed a rear parking court and a lawn that sloped to what she hoped was a large garden. 

  The boy ventured closer.  “Wow!  That tree’s huge.  I bet I can climb down.”

“Don’t you dare!”

He grinned.  “I wouldn’t really.  Scared you, huh, Mom?”

Sharon wrapped her arms around him.  “You sure did.”

He squirmed away.  “Can we go get our stuff?  I want to play with my Game Boy.”

Drops spattered the pane.  Despite the intensity of the wind, however, Sharon no longer heard a steady thrumming.  “The rain may be letting up.  Let’s delay a couple more minutes.  Why don’t you figure out where you’d like to put everything, and I’ll do the same in my room.”

“Okay.”

She left Greg to explore.  In the front room, she noticed a small painting over the TV stand.  When they’d entered from the opposite direction, she’d missed it.

Through a sunlit meadow, a woman in a long skirt and peasant blouse ran away from the viewer toward a house in the distance.  Auburn hair about the same color as Sharon’s streamed behind.

She drew closer.  The figure seemed eerily familiar, from the set of the shoulders to the angle of the hips.  The painting was so realistic she almost believed the woman was turning her head, but surely the curve of a cheek and one ear, set close to the head, had been visible all along

The woman in the painting showed an unusually deep crease on her earlobe.  Just like Sharon’s.

The effect of a long day and the unsettling weather must be what gave her the sensation of freefall.  Dizzily, she grasped the doorframe for support.

How ridiculous to let imaginings carry her away.  This was nothing more than a coincidence.  So what if Ian Fanning picked a model who resembled Sharon?

If the painting bothered her, she would simply remove it.  Sternly, she proceeded past to the bedroom.

*****

 Ian flung the paintbrush across the room.  The contact left a flesh-toned splatter on the wall.

He glared from the painting to the photograph he’d shot of an ivory-skinned model.  Why did he keep mixing the hues wrong?  Why did the golden hair keep coming out red?

The gallery owner had been right to accuse him of falling into a rut.  Jane Argyle, a sixtyish bohemian who’d gained a reputation for recognizing new talent, was the best thing that happened to Ian’s career.  She’d sold half a dozen of his paintings and she was trying to guide him. 

She’d insisted he paint no more canvases of that mahogany-haired woman and no more scenes of Gothic houses.  The subjects were keeping Ian in a rut.

 Choosing a blonde model marked the first step toward exploring a less hard-edged style.  Yet how the hell was he going to strike out in a new direction when he couldn’t paint the colors he envisioned? 

The problem, Ian reflected, was that he was painting what he envisioned.  Maybe he lacked the ability to make a transition.  Maybe Jane was wrong and the gallery owners who called him dated and limited were right.

 From across the hall came the scrape of a key and the sound of soft voices.  That must be the widow and her son.  Ian visualized a middle-aged woman and a teenager.  He hoped they weren’t going to play loud music.

 He didn’t like having new people in the house.  Not that he’d been fond of the previous occupants.  The young couple had bickered constantly. 

 He should have gone out tonight.  Mingling with a loose-knit local group of artists, writers and filmmakers stimulated Ian and drew him out of himself.  He’d decided to work instead.  Bad choice. 

Going to sponge off the molding before the splatter dried, he was crossing the room when a wave of dizziness hit.  As Ian grabbed a chair, bands of color and noise throbbed through his head. 

 For months, he’d thought the seizures were gone.  Until this week. 

He eased into the chair, hating the loss of control, the helplessness.  He wanted back the tough, athletic man he used to be. 

After a few minutes the throbbing eased.  The memories that descended in its wake, however, proved scarcely less painful.

One day five years ago, he’d climbed into the patrol car with a distracted mind.  That had been the twenty-fifth anniversary of his parents’ deaths.

When dispatch sent him on a pursuit, his twenty-nine-year-old self had hit the gas without an inkling that his world was about to get smashed into a jigsaw puzzle lacking several key pieces.  According to the report, the stolen pickup truck had rammed him broadside and sent his car careening down an embankment.  A Jaws of Life had required half an hour to pry him out. 

For weeks, he lay in a coma.  The doctors nearly gave up on him.  Only Great-Aunt Jody persisted, visiting every day, talking, scolding.  Finally one morning Ian awoke.

For months, he couldn’t use his body with any confidence.  Gradually, he’d built up physical strength and he still worked out at a gym three or four times a week.  Even so, the recurring dizzy spells barred a return to police work.

Eager to get off disability, he lived on the income from odd jobs, occasional freelance graphic designs and the sale of his paintings.  Although the report cleared him of blame, he was haunted by the guilty sense that he’d brought this situation on himself through inattentiveness. 

 Painting, a talent his grandfather had shared, changed from a hobby to an outlet for pent-up energy.  He’d become obsessed with capturing his inner turmoil on canvas, hoping at some level that exposing it would free him.  So far, no luck.

 At last the spells had diminished.  Abruptly, this week, they’d returned full strength.  Sunday would mark the anniversary of too many tragedies, including his own.

 The strange perceptions hadn’t started with the crash.  Intermittently since childhood, Ian had heard strange whispering in the house.  But they were much worse now.

During an attack, Ian felt as if he were being physically assaulted—from within.  He sensed someone invading his mind. 

Trying to take over.

He hesitated to consult Dr. Finley, his therapist.  The medications she prescribed produced unpleasant side effects when they worked at all.  He also remembered how she’d reacted once when he’d mentioned his sense that inner forces were struggling for control.

From her subtle tensing, he’d known, as clearly as if she’d spoken, that she feared he might be going off the deep end.  He’d backtracked quickly.  Even if he was delusional, he damn well didn’t want anyone else knowing. 

Ian sat up and discovered the dizziness had passed.  He was getting to his feet when a wordless howl of pain and fear burst through the air. 

For a moment, he thought he’d made it himself. 

Then he heard the cry again.  Down the hall, someone was in trouble.

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 ©2007 Jackie Diamond Hyman 


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