The juke box played, “Come Rain or Come Shine” by Margaret Whiting. Yvonne Cheney finished putting her coins in the juke box and moved toward the bar where her coat lay draped over one of the stools.
A fresh drink awaited her. The bar tender pointed to a man at the other end of the bar. He had redneck written on his sunburned face and calloused hands. He wore dark blue work pants, work shirt and black cowboy boots. Yvonne walked up to him and handed him the drink. “Thanks, but I’m through for the night.”
“What? You aren’t even going to listen to the songs you just paid for?” The voice was high pitched for a man; a Peter Laurie voice.
“Doesn’t mean I’m going to drink while I listen.”
“Why don’t we both listen?”
“So long as you know I’m going home alone.”
“Do you have a husband at home?”
“Maybe.” It was her turn to ask a question. “You just passing through?”
“Something like that. I have a renovation job. I’m a carpenter.”
“Tell me about it.”
“This big old spooky house. It used to be a boarding house, house of ill repute, something like that.”
“Almasy House? You have to be kidding.” She took the drink he had purchased for her. “Tell me about it.”
Before they said good night and went their separate ways, they exchanged names. “Walters. Lorretta Walters. Call me Walt.”
Vonnie realized her mistake.
“But you’re dressed like a man, and your hair is so short.”
“I’m a carpenter. They don’t hire many lady carpenters. If they think I’m Walt, I have a better chance of getting a job and keeping it.”
“Where are you staying?” Vonnie asked.
“My car. A hotel is pretty expensive.”
“Come out to my farm. I’ve got room.” “I thought you said you were going home alone.”
“I thought you might be hitting on me.”
“Who says I’m not hitting on you?”
Lisa walked through the Brandt house. It was small; she knew she wouldn’t get a mansion like the one the Rinaldis had lived in, but this house was dumpy. She wouldn’t even be able to keep a dog. It wasn’t fit for a dog house.
Dylan walked her through the house, showing her the bathroom, the utility room, the kitchen, the two bedrooms. He seemed proud of it. You would think he had built the house himself.
She thought it would be a nice house for Emil. After all it was Emil’s fault they couldn’t stay in the other house. Emil disgusted her.
“Fine,” she finally said. Then she could’t help herself. She had to add. “Anything to be away from that dirty old man.”
Dylan had his back to her. He was gazing into a closet. When she called his dad a dirty old man, he whipped around like he had been punched.
Mary rattled off the figures. She and Elsie sat at Emil’s kitchen table doing their once a month audit. The lawyer in Detroit who had set up a family trust had been told only that Emil had inherited some money and made more money by working in the mines and by investing. It was believable. After all, Emil had been one of the top mining engineers in the country.
“Are you listening, Pa?” Mary asked.
Emil was still stunned by Lisa’s accusations and his mind had wandered.
“Sure,” he pulled himself back to the present.
“What gives?” Mary asked. Elsie got up to pour a cup of coffee.
Emil sat silent. He didn’t want to talk about Lisa’s accusation.
“Dad, you have to tell us. Did something happen? Why are Dylan and Lisa moving out?”
Emil tried to change the subject. “What’s the name of that coin shop on Woodward in Detroit? You girls always do well there.”
The girls knew when he was being evasive.
“It has to do with Lisa, doesn’t it,” Mary said.
Elsie shook her head. “Dylan is such a great guy. How does he get mixed up with these losers? Elaine was bad enough.”
“Lisa is ill,” Emil cut his second oldest daughter off.
Elsie agreed. “She’s a mental case. Why did we ever let Dylan marry her? “Out with it, Pa.” Mary prodded. “What happened? What’s the trouble with Lisa?”
Emil wasn’t one to cry. He hadn’t cried when his wife died, but he thought about the night Lisa walked down the stairs in her slip and the accusations she made. He found his eyes wet with tears. He slowly told his daughters the story.
“You have to go back to your husband,” Vonnie told her sister. “You belong with Dylan.”
“I don’t love him. I don’t even like him.”
“You need him.”
They were sitting in Vonnie’s kitchen drinking green tea and eating snicker doodle cookies with lots of sugar and cinnamon. Vonnie had picked Lisa up early that day and driven her to the farm.
“We’ll get a divorce,” Lisa decided.
“It’s not that easy,” Vonnie insisted.
“He’s been divorced before.”
“Stop this nonsense. I’m going to drive you home. I don’t want to hear anymore about a divorce or leaving Dylan.”
“Why can’t I stay here? I stayed here before.”
“Because, just because.” Vonnie said. She wasn’t ready to tell Lisa yet about Walt, the lady carpenter who now stayed at the farm with her.
When the phone rang, Vonnie found it a welcome interruption from Lisa’s childish whining. She reached for the phone. “Jack, great to hear from you.” Vonnie sighed. “One of us needs to talk some sense into Lisa.”
As Vonnie explained Lisa’s unhappiness, Lisa stuck out her tongue at her.
Vonnie smiled because it was such a childish gesture. Her little sister had missed some growing up.
“I’ll talk to her,” Jack promised. “First, I need to talk to you. Almasy House is being restored.”
“I know,” Vonnie said. “I met a carpenter working on the job.”
“The new owners are sparing no expense. The house should be ready in a couple of months.”
“Ready for what?”
“They’re turning it into a bed and breakfast.”
“Who would stay in that spooky old thing?” Vonnie sat down remembering the night when she and her siblings had been taken to Almasy House. She remembered the stern old lady and the room where she and Jack and Lisa had been locked. Memories of Almasy House brought her back to a sad time.
“They’re looking for someone to manage the house. I suggested you.” Jack said.
“What? Who? Who bought the house?”
“It’s s secret,” Jack said.
“I don’t like secrets. Why would they want to hire me?”
“Lucinda and I both put in a good word for you.”
“And I don’t even get to know who I’m working for?”
“The new owners prefer to remain anonymous.”
“Well I want to know who they are. Jack, it’s not the mob? is it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No one wants to open those old tunnels, do they?”
“No. Vonnie, the house will be practically new. Talk to your carpenter friend. Restoring that old place is costing a lot of money.”
“But the mob isn’t who bought the house?”
“I give you my word.” he said.
Vonnie sat down heavily. “How much are they paying?”
Emil stared at his glass of wine; he swirled and purple liquid about. “I haven’t been inside those tunnels in twenty years,” he said after a moment.
“No one has.” said Jack Brianka.
Jack trusted the older man not to say anything about the visit. As an ex con, he was still bound by the terms of his parole. Of course, he visited his sisters, but no one knew about that. He settled into one of Emil’s oversized easy chairs. He felt comfortable in Emil’s house, and had gotten a warm welcome though Jack knew Lisa had been less than cooperative while living here. Lisa and Dylan had moved out of the house. But that had nothing to do with Jack’s business in Mountain Ridge or his visit to Emil.
He told Emil his client had bought Almasy House and was paying Jack to research any dangers within or underneath the house.
Emil said, “I personally made sure the tunnels that connected with the mines were closed.”
Jack looked confused. “Why connect bootlegging tunnels to the mining tunnels?
“Confusion. With those tunnels, the bootleggers could go to ground at any time. I’m sure they had escape routes.”
“Someone must have known their way around down there.”
Emil shrugged. “The tunnels are a maze. I don’t know if Rose kept maps or not, but I suspect she didn’t. It was easy to add new routes. She could hire different crews for each digging. Some tunnels led nowhere. They were just there to confuse anyone who came looking. Only a fool would explore those tunnels.”
“But you explored?”
“It was my job,” Emil admitted. “Mr. Rinaldi knew she must have been using some of his tunnels. He didn’t like it. Catching her was something else. If we found one of her tunnels, she’s say it was an old mining tunnel. Dozens of tunnels crisscrossed each other under the town. She didn’t have to admit any of them belonged to her.”
“What exactly, did you do?”
“I knew Mr. Rinaldi’s tunnels and those of the other mine owners. We had maps.”
“Where are those maps now?”
“I don’t rightly know. They’re property of the mines and now that the mines are closed, I just don’t know what happened to the maps.” Emil had his own copies, but he decided not to admit this. “You might ask Lucinda Rinaldi what happened to her dad’s copies”
“So you explored in just the mine tunnels?”
“I didn’t say that. I explored some of Roses’s tunnels. I had notes back then. It’s been a lot of years.”
“Jeff Hollander, you remember him. He used to be a priest in this area. He died about ten or twelve years back when he fell down some stairs at Almasy House.”
Emil snorted. He knew the priest. “What about him?”
“He said he came across the bodies of murdered women down there.” “There might be bones. Treasure hunters go in there or used to go in there.”
“So you don’t think there are bodies of murdered women down there. Maybe the work of a serial killer.”
“Anything’s possible. I just never came across any bodies. I understand the sheriff sent a deputy down to look, and he didn’t find anything.” He paused. “I do remember what looked like manmade tunnel collapsed in one of Rose’s tunnels right after the priest came out with his crazy story. I didn’t think it was worth exploring what might be back there. Too dangerous. And it would be the law’s job, not mine.”
“What about treasure?” Jack asked.
“That’s the thing we want to discourage. There ain’t any treasure down there and anyone going down looking is liable to get lost and die down there.” Emil was sure he himself had taken the whole stash. There were no other stashes. He had looked. He wasn’t sure who the jewelry and old coins he had taken out would belong to, but as far as he was concerned, they were his now. He wondered if he should go back down for one last look. No, he had explored the area close to the house. That’s where Rose kept her treasure.
“Thank you for your time,“ Jack said as he gathered his brief case and prepared to leave. “Please don’t tell anyone I was here.”
“Don’t worry,” Emil said. But now he had a question. “About your sister?”
“Thank you so much for buying Lisa and Dylan that house down the way. I saw it, and it’s a great house.”
“I would have liked for them to stay here, but Lisa… Well, we didn’t get along. I’m sorry for any misunderstanding.”
Jack didn’t know the details, but he knew Lisa well enough to know that if there had been a misunderstanding, it was probably her doing. He wasn’t sure what to say and settled for, “She’s had a rough time.”
Vonnie stood on the sidewalk outside Almasy House. Painters applied fresh coats of paint; ladders rested against the side of the house. Carpenters rushed here and there. Two men carried a white washed board across the lawn. The windows were clean and unbroken. A gardener trimmed the bushes. The house was clearly getting a new look.
Perhaps the old ghosts could be chased away, and the house contain a new energy. She smiled at the thought but wasn’t sure if she believed it.
Did the new owners have an office in town? Who were these new owners?
She was unprepared for who opened the door. “Jack! What are you doing in town? Why didn’t you tell me? You could be staying at the farm.”
“I heard you had a roommate,“ he winked at her. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“There’s plenty of space. And what do you know about my roommate?”
“To mind my own business and to be happy you’ve found someone.”
How much did she want to tell Jack or anyone else about Walt. There were many who would not understand the relationship, and Vonnie sure didn’t want Walt to lose her job. She must remember that if she spoke about Walt she would use the masculine pronoun.
Walt needed people to think she was a he.
“I’m here for a job interview,” Vonnie said. “Do I meet my employer?”
“You already have the job. No need for an interview. I’m just here to make sure you accept the offer.”
“What is the offer?”
“You manage Almasy House, a bed and breakfast, restaurant and bar. It’ll be the most elegant hotel in Upper Michigan, and the rival of anything in Michigan or Wisconsin. You make all hiring and firing decisions and have complete autonomy.”
“I know nothing about managing any of those things. Hotel. Restaurant. Bar.
“You’ll learn. The owners will send you to training at Northern Michigan University. Tuition, books, room and board all paid for. It’s a one-year program. When you graduate the house will be waiting for you.”
“That’s generous. Why me?”
“I recommended you. So did Lucinda.”
“How is Lucinda? And the girls. I miss them all so much.”
“They just got back from an around the world cruise. Luxury liners are the thing now.”
“I wish you two hadn’t broken up. I could see her now and then.”
He shrugged. “We’re still friends. The break up was her idea. So what do you say?”
“What’s the salary?”
He handed her a sheet of paper with numbers written in.
“That’s more than I ever made in five years before.”
“You were a maid then; now you get to supervise maids.”
“It says here plus perks. What are those perks?”
“Free health care, and a room here in the mansion. There’s a company vehicle, that you get to drive, so you won’t need your own car.”
“I don’t need a room of my own here.”
“You get an office and a suite of rooms attached to it. You’ll be keeping some late hours, so why not have a bedroom and kitchenette here? Of course, you can always order room service, and as the boss, you get it free.”
“I want to know who I’m working for?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You’d be a fool to turn this down, Vonnie. Take the offer. You can quit anytime.”
“Who owned the house before these new owners took over?” she asked.
“The city had to take it over for back taxes. You know what happened to Jeff Hollander?”
“He supposedly fell down the stairs.” She didn’t want to get into town gossip that maybe Hollander had been pushed to his death by his girlfriend, Elaine Dabb. People said he had been willing to leave the priesthood, but not to marry Elaine.
“Do you think the house’s history will affect its success. Louis Almasy committed suicide here. Jeff Hollander died violently here.” She paused. “A lot of people think Hollander was murdered. That kind of thing can spook some people away. They may not even want to eat or drink here.”
Walt in her man’s work clothes, shirt and tool belt walked Vonnie to the door. “So that’s your brother. He’s nice.”
“Don’t go getting a crush on him,“ Vonnie teased. “He’s not your type.”
When they got outside the house, Vonnie asked, “Who are these mysterious owners?”
“I don’t know. I get my checks every week, and that’s all I care about.”
“We don’t get to know who we’re working for? That’s kind of spooky isn’t it?”
“What are they offering you?”
She handed Walt the envelope with her salary written down.
Walt whistled. “Several times what I make,” Walt said.
“There’s a whole bunch of perks. I don’t think I can refuse.”
“I’ve already got orders to fix up any set of rooms you want, and do it to your specifications.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
Walt didn’t answer.
“We’ve been so good for each other out at the farm,” Vonnie said.
“Does that mean we can’t live together anymore?”
Vonnie laughed. “Giving you up would be the deal breaker. You’re staying with me.”
“Then you aren’t taking the job?”
“It says here that I make all hiring and firing decisions. I’ll need a handyman. In this case a handy woman. I hope you want the job.”
Walt grinned. She liked the idea of staying at Almasy House with the new manager.
They heard hammers and the shuffling of workmen. They looked back at the brighter colors, and imagined the house full of new furniture. They could see inside some of the first floor rooms because the windows were bigger than they had been. It sure didn’t look as dark and forbidding as Vonnie remembered it.