Home Sweet Home
Herta Tanner sagged against the door frame, shocked. She thought the outside of the place looked bad, but this? After two days and half a world of travel, this didn’t even look to be fit for rats, never mind herself.
“This” was the new home she’d inherited from a great-grandfather she never knew existed. She wasn’t specifically the heir. She was the eldest child of the only child of the eldest son of an entailed estate. It was the fortunes of birth. If nothing else, this would be an effective place to get her life back together. Here, she didn’t have any well-meaning friends or siblings coming around to tell her what a louse her husband was and how stupid she’d been to marry him. Ex-husband, actually. And he wouldn’t be coming around, either, come to think of it. For a change, there would be no interruptions to her work. Wonderful!
From the hand-drawn floor plans the lawyer had sent her a few weeks ago, she knew there were three rooms downstairs, a kitchen that stretched the width of the back of the house, a parlor with a fireplace and a smaller room she decided would do for her office. The upstairs consisted of a one-room loft for a bedroom and a half-cellar was downstairs. An attached woodshed also served as the back porch.
“This” was also, she saw in the waning light of sunset, the filthiest place she’d ever seen.
And she was only looking at the hallway! “I don’t suppose anyone thought to clean out the fridge, did they?” she asked idly.
“I am sorry, Fraulein,” the man beside her apologized, “but there is no fridge. There is electricity, yes, but your grandfather…” His voice trailed off.
She stared at Gebhardt in disbelief. “No fridge,” she repeated.
“There is, ich denke, ein… An box of ice in the pantry.” His nervousness took away his already halting command of the English language. “And electricity is dear.”
She sighed. Judging from the amount in the bank records the lawyer had produced, Grandfather Theiner was also a miser. Considering the condition of the house, perhaps that was for the best. There was no point in complaining to Gebhardt. He was only a clerk at the law firm, not her grandfather. Besides, with his thinning blond hair and watery blue eyes, he looked like a kicked puppy if you even considered getting angry. She’d found that out on the trip down from Munich, among other things. But you can bet, she thought, that I’ll be having words with the lawyer. Cripes, that’s all I need—a seventy-year-old icebox, and who knows what in all this junk.
She blew out her breath. “Okay. Well, let’s see what other surprises Grandfather left me, shall we?” Shrugging herself off the doorway, she entered the house. A small table by the door seemed sturdy enough to hold her laptop and her purse. Even if it did have an inch of dust and grime on it.
Herta was grateful for the dim light. She was sure that she’d sleep better this first night if she didn’t know exactly what the shadowed piles of… things… were. She poked her head into the east room. The parlor draperies looked like they’d been a cat’s playground, shredded beyond all hope of redemption. She could make out the outlines of an over-stuffed armchair by the fireplace, a great gaping hole in the dimness, and a sofa next to it. Probably horsehair, too, she thought wryly. There were a couple of curio cabinets and a decaying rug to complete the furnishings. The rest is garbage, she thought.
She almost tripped over Gebhardt as she turned to see what was in the other room, the one she’d earmarked as an office. He yelped and backed up hastily. Muttering an apology, Herta moved to the second door. It only opened partway. If nothing else, the light was better in here. Not that the room was in any better condition than the parlor. From the looks of it, this had been Great-grandfather’s library. Two walls were nothing but dusty bookshelves, empty now and a huge roll-top desk dominated the wall opposite the door.
Craning her head, Herta found that the door was blocked by a heavy wooden table, gleaming in the light from the open window. The table was easily three meters long and at least one and a half wide. There was something odd about it, but her tired mind couldn’t seem to grasp the difference. It could wait until tomorrow.
What remained of the wallpaper in the hallway was water-stained and peeling. She took two steps toward the back of the house and squawked in surprise.
“Fraulein?” Gebhardt asked anxiously, taking a step towards her. He’d heard strange things about this place, even before he’d set foot in it. “Fraulein? Are you well?”
Herta ran a hand over her face and batted at the air with the other. “Sorry, Gebhardt. Didn’t mean to startle you, but I’d forgotten that there might be cobwebs.”
Gebhardt nodded in understanding. “Alten Häuser haben immer die Spinnen,” he intoned.
Herta stifled a groan. When he wasn’t apologizing, Gebhardt had the annoying habit of being patronizing. It made for a long trip, trapped in his antique Volvo. Just a few more minutes and he’s gone, she thought. He’s only the chauffeur to get me here and then I can get rid of him. Only a few more minutes until I’ve seen the rest of the mess. Half an hour at the most.
The last few words mentally matched her pace as she strode into the kitchen. It was either seem rude and ignore him or be rude and belt him. “All old houses have spiders,” she muttered in disgust. “No kidding.”
The huge kitchen lived down to her expectations. Filthy didn’t begin to describe it. Dust and dirt lay inches thick over everything, including the monstrous wood stove against one wall. Now there was something that would need carbolic and elbow grease, to quote her paternal grandmother. Closer inspection of the stove revealed that, surprisingly, it was similar to one Grandmère had and Herta was familiar enough with it not to burn the house down. Provided the chimney wasn’t blocked.
Including the door she’d just entered, four doors led off the kitchen. The first one, next to the stove, led into a good-sized pantry. The door was half-opened and stuck there. One wall of the pantry was lined with shelves that held only dust. As expected. A tarnished copper pot lolled on the floor. A small cabinet, complete with sink and ancient pump, stood next to the door. She reached in and gave the handle an experimental shove. It groaned noisily but moved. That was one relief. Sort of.
She left the pantry and peered out the door on the other side of the stove. It creaked alarmingly and led into an enclosed porch on one side and a woodshed, two steps down and straight ahead. The final door hid a stairway, the entry to the loft. That, too, could wait until tomorrow for further investigation.
Something occurred to her then. “Gebhardt, where’s the bathroom?”
Gebhardt, still in the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway, looked startled. “The bathroom?” he repeated.
“Das Badzimmer,” she confirmed in heavily accented German. Everyone assumed that, because she was Canadian, she only spoke English and French. The lawyer had even had all the paperwork translated into English for her. She had copies of those documents and the original German ones in the inner pocket of her laptop case, so she could go over them at her leisure. She wasn’t sure why she kept her fluency in German, however rusty from years of disuse, hidden, but she had.
“Das Badzimmer?” Gebhardt repeated, breaking into her thoughts. “Um… well, das ist…” he stammered, turning bright pink.
Herta tipped her head and raised one eyebrow in inquiry.
“Fraulein, the bathing room is from the pantry, but the… the…”
“Lavatory?” Herta supplied helpfully.
“Ja, das… the lavatory is through there.” Gebhardt pointed to the porch door.
Herta shook her head. It figured. An outhouse. Smothering a sigh, she murmured, “Back in a sec,” and slid out the door before Gebhardt could say anything else.
From the bottom of the steps, Herta could see the entire shed. A wooden door hung askew on its hinges, letting in enough light to see the door at the far end of the room. And enough light for her to avoid tripping over both a rusted ax and a tumbled pile of small logs. Looks like she’d be working up a bit more of a sweat before she could have a bath.
When she returned to the kitchen, she found that Gebhardt hadn’t moved from where she’d left him. He’d jumped when she opened the door. He stared, first at her, then over her shoulder, and then over his own.
Herta reflexively looked behind her. There was nothing there.
“Fraulein, please. It is next to dark. We must go. You have seen enough?”
Herta shook her head. “But I’m not going, Gebhardt. I told you. At best, this place needs to be shoveled out and hosed down. At the worst, I’ll have it leveled. No big deal.”
“Look, Gebhardt,” she said with returning impatience, “You pestered me all the way down here about selling the place. Fine. But nobody in their right mind would buy this pigpen as it stands.” She took his arm to usher him back out to the car. “At the very least,” she added pointedly, “someone could have cleaned it out before I got here.”
Gebhardt was too nervous to take umbrage at her criticism. “But Fraulein, die…”
The word he’d used didn’t make sense to Herta. Not at first. She repeated the word. “Wump-ear-en?” It was as if she’d stepped back in time to when she was a child. Her mother told her the legends of her own childhood. “Vampyren,” she’d said in a low, scary whisper, “Die Nicht-Toten. The Undead.”
“Vampires?” Herta almost laughed out loud. “You’re worried about vampires?” She took Gebhardt’s arm again and ushered him back down the hall. “Gebhardt, I’m dead tired, dying for a peaceful cup of coffee and I haven’t had a shower since I left Toronto. Trust me. No self-respecting vampire is going to come within ten feet of me. I reek and I’m too tired to be seduced.”
She opened the front door and dragged him to the back of the car.
“But Fraulein—” Gebhardt sputtered, opening the trunk at her gesture.
“But Gebhardt,” she interrupted, trying to calm him down. He looked ready to faint. “Gebhardt, I’ll be fine.” She lifted out her suitcase and camera bag and put them down on the ground. With Gebhardt’s help, amid his dire warnings of mysterious happenings, she lifted out the ancient barracks box, a legacy from her father, she’d brought along at the last minute. It had seemed silly in Toronto, but now she was grateful for the items inside. Among other things, it contained her sleeping bag and a pound of ground coffee.
Gebhardt made one final attempt to sway her, glancing nervously at the setting sun as he did so. “Fraulein, there is a gasthof in Kochberg, not five kilometers from here. I’m sure—”
Herta interrupted him firmly, putting a hand on his arm to emphasize her point. “Gebhardt, I’m staying and that’s all there is to it. My family, so your employer tells me, has lived here for generations. If my mother could live here when she was younger than me without becoming a vampire, so can I, don’t you think?”
“Gebhardt.” Herta’s voice was icy with warning.
The clerk took a deep breath, opened his mouth, closed it, and conceded defeat. “I will be back in the morning,” he promised.
“Thank you, Gebhardt,” she said politely. “Good night, Gebhardt.” She watched, unsmiling, as his car disappeared down the rutted lane.