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Authors: Margaret Millmore

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BOOK: What Haunts Me
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Chapter 13

I don't like showing up to dinner invitations without an offering of some sort, so I grabbed my keys and headed to the market on the corner. The proprietor of Albert's Market and Deli was none other than Bob, Albert's son and a connoisseur of fine wines; thus he stocked the market with quite a selection. Since I had no idea what Justine had on the menu, I decided to buy a red and a white. After a jovial discussion with Bob about baseball (the Giants were his second love, wine his first), I explained my dilemma and he helped me select two bottles of moderately expensive wine. The whole trip took less than twenty minutes, giving me several hours to kill before I was expected for dinner.

The day had informally introduced me to two very strange people: Edgar, the mysterious assistant of Frederick Vokkel, and Billy, the unpleasant niece of Justine that wasn't really Justine's niece. I was curious about them both, but I didn't know Edgar's last name, so I knew that would be a bust. I also didn't know Billy's last name, but perhaps a search on Justine would net me some information about her cousin and I could go from there.

I'd never thought to look up Justine on the Internet. We were close friends and I assumed she'd told me about the important stuff already, which was why I was surprised to find that she had her own Wikipedia page. It detailed her lineage, early life and education, charitable contributions, and the fact that she was still the majority shareholder in the company her father had started more than eighty years ago. Justine had never mentioned any involvement in the company, so I assumed she let someone else run it and she just collected a check. The page had hyperlinks for her father and the company itself, so I started with dear old Dad.

Justin Wilkinson had been a dock worker in his early teenage years and had managed to get hooked up with a shipping company and work his way up rather quickly—apparently he was a quick study. Eventually he gained control of said company and from there he expanded on a regular basis. The company was now one of the largest international shipping firms in the world. I was sort of surprised at the modesty of his only daughter. It was clear that she was well off, but no one would know by Justine's home and her lifestyle that she was
that
wealthy.

I scanned the page for any mention of other relatives and located what I was looking for toward the bottom. William Wilkinson, Justin's only brother, was listed as one of the company's officers. He had been brought in as a manager and as the company grew, he grew with it. He took a position in the hierarchy in the 1940's and stayed there until his death in 1959. It went on to say he was survived by his only child, a daughter named Wilhelmina. The fact that both men had named their only daughters after themselves wasn't lost on me.

Since Wilhelmina was the only relative listed aside from Justine's father and uncle, I typed in her name, using Wilkinson as the last name and adding San Francisco to the search in the hopes that her activities were local. The combination produced manageable results, so I began to scan them, hoping something would jump out at me. On page two I found a link titled
The Haunted City
. A Wilhelmina Wilkinson was listed with it, so I clicked that. It turned out to be an old article from a periodical that was circulated in the 1970's by a paranormal research group that focused on haunted places in San Francisco.

This particular article was focused on haunted people, particularly the socialite niece of shipping mogul Justin Wilkinson of San Francisco. According to the article, Billy, as they affectionately called her, was able to see ghosts. In the interview, she described these ghosts as cruel apparitions that would appear when someone was ill. She went on to say that she began to kill them by— you guessed it… poking them. The writer described Billy as an artist, whose paintings were displayed at the Motique Art Gallery on Haight Street. The article didn't say much more, so I looked up the gallery. It was still around.

Motique was founded in 1975 by a group of painters and sculptors that had been unable to get their work into more reputable (and profitable) galleries. Today it still displayed and sold the work of the unknowns, some of which had gone on to be famous. The left side of the main webpage had several options to find out more, one of which read “Past Artists.” That sounded promising so I clicked it, and halfway down the page I found her, Wilhelmina Wilkinson. It listed her vital statistics, the fact that she'd left a sizable sum to the gallery upon her death, and that she was one of their original artists. It also listed the titles of several of her paintings, the most famous one called “What Haunts Me,” which I recognized immediately. The painting was sold shortly after she died to an anonymous collector and hadn't been seen since. I wondered if I should tell them where it was. There were other paintings as well and I clicked each one to get a better look. All of Wilhelmina's work was similar; dark and haunting. The last painting I viewed was a landscape and looked familiar. I realized why later that evening.

Chapter 14

At six-thirty I showered and dressed in khakis, a button down collar shirt, and a pair of polished, lace-up black leather shoes. Justine wasn't formal, but she abhorred sloppy apparel, which made me think of Billy and her disheveled road-weary appearance. Taking the two bottles of wine, I left my apartment and walked the twenty feet to Justine's front door. After a quick jab at the doorbell, I was greeted by Anne, Justine's “companion” for lack of a better word. Anne maintained the household, occasionally drove Justine here and there, and was an amazing cook. Although most of the building occupants were well off, Justine was the only one I knew of that had live-in help. Anne was a little intimidating if you didn't know her; she was about 5' 7” and sturdy, with broad shoulders and a stand-offish demeanor. That's not to say she was rude, she just wasn't the friendliest person if she didn't know you, and she was extremely protective of Justine, which made her A-okay in my book.

As I mentioned before, my apartment and Justine's apartment occupied the sixth floor, which was also the top floor of the building. My humble space was on the smaller side, while Justine's was simply huge. She had told me all about the building's history; it started off as an apartment building, and at some point was converted into a tenancy-in-common building, which was similar to a condominium structure, but not quite the same. As the individual apartments were sold, many of the one and two bedroom units were purchased in pairs and converted to larger dwellings. Justine's was actually three units combined into one, making it the largest in the building. Her living room occupied the southwest corner and was surrounded by floor to ceiling windows on one side and French doors that led to a small terrace on the other. The doors were open and a light breeze ruffled the silk drapes.

Her taste was fairly simple, but even this untrained eye knew the pieces were also very expensive. She preferred natural earth-tone colors for the upholstered furniture and richly stained antiques for the solid pieces. Her artwork consisted of large, colorful canvases, mostly landscapes, and their vibrancy offset the simplicity of the room's color palette. I glanced around, letting my gaze fall on the alcove at the back of the room. The space was designed as a reading nook, open to the room, but not actually part of it. Floor to ceiling bookcases occupied all the walls with the exception of the center of the back wall, which held a cozy fireplace.

Above the mantel, hanging in all its glory, was the painting done by her cousin, the one I remembered but couldn't place. It depicted dark hills and valleys in the early stages of evening light. There were several human-like forms, a yellowish one that appeared to be running from several grey, more ominous forms. It had a very similar style to
What Haunts Me
. I wondered why I'd never really noticed it before; surely it had been hanging there all along. The piece seemed so out of place in a space that was for the most part bright and cheerful. It almost seemed to create a sort of vortex, or black hole in the room, sucking in the color and light if you stared at it too long.

The fact that Vokkel had
What Haunts Me
hanging in his stairwell wasn't lost on me. I just hadn't, or should I say, hadn't
wanted
to connect the strange man to Justine. Why did he have Justine's cousin's artwork hanging in his home? Was Wilhelmina the woman Vokkel had been rumored to drive to suicide? Did Justine know Vokkel? I couldn't shake the feeling that none of this was a coincidence and perhaps I needed to have a good old fashioned sit-down chat with my lovely neighbor.

There was a light touch on my elbow and the not-so gentle voice of Anne said, “Mr. Sinclair, are you all right?”

I hated it when she called me by my surname, but I smiled at her just the same and nodded my head, then glanced at the painting one more time. She noticed the direction of my gaze and in a conspiratorial whisper, she said, “I hate that painting—it's creepy.” As if realizing that she'd spoken out of place, she shifted uncomfortably and said, “This way Mr. Sinclair, the ladies are on the terrace.” She still had her hand on my arm, and with a surprising amount of strength, she nudged me toward the French doors.

Chapter 15

I walked onto the patio to find Justine and Billy sipping wine and engaged in deep discussion. They abruptly stopped when they saw me. As usual, Justine was dressed impeccably; lightweight wool trousers with a matching sweater and a colorful scarf around her neck. I didn't know what was
usual
for Billy, but she looked nothing like our first encounter. She'd ditched her dingy dark clothes for a tan knee length skirt, white sweater, and ballet style flats. Her hair had been recently washed and hung in silky black waves down her back. The dark lipstick was gone and so were the glasses…the overall result was that of a pretty young woman, not the obnoxious vagabond I'd met earlier in the day.

Justine reached for me and I leaned down and planted a kiss on her cheek. She then waved to the nearest chair, which was uncomfortably close to Billy. Without the glasses, I could see her eyes more clearly. They were bright green, and I was sure I caught a glint of malicious intent. I shot a suspicious glance in her direction; cleaned up or not, I was sure she was going to bite me.

“George, darling, I'd like to formerly introduce,” she smiled and glanced at Billy, “my niece Billy. Billy, this is my favorite neighbor, George Sinclair.”

Just to be a smart-ass, I leaned toward her and extended my hand in formal greeting. “Nice to meet you Billy, I've heard so little about you.”

If Justine caught my snide remark, she ignored it, but Billy didn't. She sneered at me ever so slightly. “Right, guess it's the same here,” she said as she gave my hand a limp and insincere shake.

Justine didn't ignore that remark and lightly slapped Billy's hand, which made me smile, until she smacked my hand too, and not so lightly. She scolded, “You two will get along. I have no intention of the spending the evening with two bickering children.”

Billy glanced at me with icy green eyes and then turned to Justine and said, “Sorry, Aunt Justine.”

As if to drive home her feelings toward me, a sharp, cold breeze swept across the terrace and caused us all to shiver. I said, “Why don't we go inside, Justine? It's getting a little too cold out here.” I glanced at Billy to be sure the double entendre wasn't lost on her. Her glare got even icier.

Justine and Billy sat on the sofa and I took a comfortable armchair to their left. It gave me a view of the reading alcove and the painting, which seemed more ominous the more I stared at it. Anne came into the room carrying a freshly opened bottle of wine and a glass, and as she began to pour she caught the direction of my gaze and followed it to the painting. She was clearly uncomfortable by it, but then seemed to shake herself clear of it. She handed me my glass and topped off the ladies glasses, then announced that dinner would be served shortly and hastily left the room.

Billy was watching the whole exchange and said in a sarcastic manner I was becoming all too familiar with, “You like that painting George, or does it scare you?”

Without looking at her, and attempting to drum up some sarcasm of my own, I said, “Why would it scare me, Billy?”

“Oh, I don't know. You're staring at it like a deer in the headlights, and you sort of shivered there for a second…. You know, like it scared you.”

I shrugged indifferently and said, “Paintings don't scare me, it just reminds me of one I saw recently.” I was getting tired of Billy, so I turned to Justine and asked, “Does it have a name?”

Justine didn't answer me; instead, her shoulders slumped slightly and she sighed. She placed her wine glass on the table and got up and walked to the antique secretary in the far corner of the room. She opened the top and removed a small folded slip of paper, returning to the couch and sitting heavily.

“I was hoping it wasn't you dear, but now I know it must be.” She handed the paper to me and waited for me to read it. I took it, unfolded it, and read the contents. In an elegant hand-written script, it said:
There is another. I believe that you know him. I shall be in touch. F.V.

I guess I'd known this was coming, but damn it, I really didn't want to believe that Justine might be hiding some deep, dark, paranormal secret. How could this sweet, elderly woman be involved in all of this? The silence and unknown was obviously too much for Billy. She reached across and snatched the note from my hand before I realized what was happening. After she read it, she looked from Justine to me and then back to Justine and said, “Is this why you called me?” Her tone wasn't mean, but it was firm and Justine flinched ever so slightly.

Justine spoke quietly. “I received that note two days ago. It has been such a long time since he's contacted me that I almost forgot about him.” She patted Billy's knee and continued. “The painting is called
What Hunts Me
. My cousin….” She patted Billy again. “Billy's grandmother, painted it, along with a companion piece. If you've seen the other….” She paused as if she was having trouble continuing, and then sighed heavily. “I assume you've been to his house?” I nodded guiltily; after all, I'd been warned not to go there, and based on Justine's discomfort I guessed she wasn't a fan of Vokkel either.

I was over my surprise about her involvement, but I was also suddenly filled with anger at her involvement. My new little acquaintance, the vixen or niece or whatever she was, must have picked up my unpleasant vibe.

“Don't get your knickers in a bundle, George. There's a perfectly unreasonable explanation for everything.”

I'd heard her, but I wasn't really listening, so what she said took a minute to sink in. I focused on her face…there wasn't any sign of her earlier dislike and her green eyes were sort of twinkling. Suddenly I realized that she really was quite pretty…at least she seemed to be when she wasn't snipping and snapping at me.

I raised my eyebrows, partly in confusion, partly amusement at what she'd said, and asked, “Unreasonable? I guess that sums up the last several weeks of my life.” With that, I picked up my wine glass and leaned back in my chair, hoping one of these women would enlighten me further.

“George,” Justine said in a timid voice I'd never heard before. “I thought perhaps it was happening to you when you asked about Annette's grandson. Do you remember?”

I did remember and I also remembered her saying that the boy was just fine. “So there was something wrong with him? And that ghost I jabbed by the elevator…he was the cause of the kid's leukemia?”

“Yes dear.” She didn't have a chance to elaborate because Anne had returned to call us for dinner. Without another word, we moved to the dining room, another large room painted in a soft dove's egg blue, with bright white trim and cream colored silk drapes that puddled on the floor and reminded me of cascades of vanilla ice-cream. I relaxed a little once we were seated at the table. The soothing colors and textures helped, but being away from the painting helped even more.

After Anne served the first course, Justine began to tell me a story. “Billy and I were only a few years apart in age, and neither of us had siblings; as such, we spent a great deal of time together in our younger years. We became much like sisters. She began to see the ghosts sometime in her teenage years…I'm not quite sure when as I had gone off to college and was not able to see her as much as I wanted…needed to. After my graduation, I returned to live permanently in San Francisco. By then my father had remarried and his new wife was not interested in having a step-daughter underfoot. Billy had become quite rebellious, and my step-mother suggested that I move into my uncle's house to try and mentor the poor girl. My father, bless his soul, knew that arrangement could only be temporary at best, and purchased the apartment for me. I did, however, stay with my uncle for a few months while the renovations were performed here.” Justine waved her hand around the room.

“In the months that followed, I tried my best to draw Billy out, to find out what was bothering her and causing so much pain for her. Unfortunately, by then she had developed a reputation in polite society as a wild and uncontrollable young woman, and many of her peers were banned from associating with her. You must understand…things were quite formal in those days, especially for people of our social standing. She would arrive at parties and galas dressed in the most expensive fashions, and at first she would be charming and delightful, but it wouldn't last. Most thought that she had been drinking heavily; her words were incoherent and more often than not, she would be asked to leave. I witnessed one occasion where she removed a silver table knife from her clutch and began to poke at nothing in particular. Realizing that something was terribly wrong, I ushered her out quickly. You see, I had been watching her closely that evening, and not once did she imbibe alcohol.”

Justine paused while Anne served the second course, and then continued with her story. “After much coercion, I was able to extract the truth from Billy. She told me she had been seeing ghosts and that they were cruel and malicious…they were hurting people. She said when she stabbed them they went away, and a nearby person who was afflicted with an ailment would be suddenly healed. Of course, I knew that she must have been suffering from some mental illness and I immediately reported it to my uncle. He decided that she should be sent away, and arranged for her to go to a school in Switzerland where they helped troubled youth. I thought this was a wonderful idea and endorsed it with great enthusiasm. I found out later, much to my horror, that it was not a school at all, but more like an institution.”

Justine had barely touched her food and I could tell the story was taking a toll on her. I looked to Billy and her expression seemed to confirm this. She gently touched Justine's arm and said, “Aunt Justine, why don't you let me continue the story so you can eat?” Her tone was so soothing and loving that I forgot about my dislike for her. I smiled and she actually smiled back.

Billy picked up where Justine had left off. “My grandmother was still in Switzerland when my great-grandfather had a fatal heart-attack. Since Justine's father was the executor of his estate and now the guardian for my grandmother, he brought Billy home for the funeral. She wasn't talking about ghosts anymore and everyone thought she was cured. She'd picked up painting while she was over there and showed a lot of potential, so he arranged for her housing and some additional schooling and let her stay in San Francisco.

“A few years later, grandmother showed up pregnant with my mother. She wouldn't tell anyone who the father was, and because her twenty-first birthday had come and gone without further signs of insanity, she'd inherited all of her pop's money and could take care of herself. There was nothing anyone could do. It was the sixties and all that free love stuff was flying around, so really, who cared anyway?” Justine made a less than approving noise at the last comment and Billy smirked.

“Anyway, at this point she was starting to talk about her ghosts again. That was when Aunt Justine stepped in to help out. She arranged for Julie—that's my mother by the way—to have a nanny and proper schooling and all that good stuff, while Granny wasted away in a world all her own. Once in a while the cops would call to say they had her at the local lock-up because she was disturbing the peace by poking thin air with a chopstick, and on at least one occasion she ended up at the hospital. Fast forward…it's the mid-seventies, Granny is painting dark, disturbing stuff, and is hooked up with this gallery on Haight Street and having a grand old time. She even managed to avoid the cops, for the most part, on her almost nightly chopstick adventures.

“By the time Julie hit college age, Granny was in pretty dire straits and apparently quite ill on top of that. She'd developed emphysema, but that isn't what got her in the end. When the gallery people couldn't get a hold of her for several days, one of them went to her flat and broke the door in. Granny was sitting in a chair with three kitchen knives sticking out of her gut. The coroner and the police said they were self-inflicted and called it suicide.” Billy shrugged as if she didn't really believe the suicide story.

“You don't think it was?” I asked.

She glanced at Justine and then back at me. “I think she was killed, but that's for another time. Let me finish this part first. At her funeral, a man approached Aunt Justine and announced that he was Julie's father and insisted on seeing her. Julie had become a charmingly ungrateful shit by then and didn't make time for her own mother's funeral: and why should she? She'd inherited a ton of cash and didn't have to answer to anyone….” This came out bitterly and I was beginning to see why Billy was the way she was. I also noticed that Billy didn't refer to her mother as “Mom” but by her first name. That screamed estrangement, or at the very least extreme dislike of the woman.

“No one knew where Julie was at the time anyway. Aunt Justine told the man so and then told him to go pound sand. A few years later he reappears and tells Aunt Justine all about his relationship with Billy, which according to him began while she was in the nut house in Switzerland. He said he knew she'd gone home to San Francisco, but couldn't live without her and followed her here, torrid affair, kid out of wedlock, blah, blah, blah….” She waved her hand dismissively. “He also told her about Billy's ability and said that it was real, that she really did see bad ghosts, and that she did kill them, thus saving infirm souls from a life of misery. That man was none other than Frederick Vokkel, and he decided to stay in San Francisco because he was sure that Julie would reappear. He was also sure that Julie must have the same ability as her mother…which she doesn't, by the way.”

Billy reached across the table for the bottle of wine and poured a healthy glass, which she drank in one long gulp. Justine had recovered by then and had also managed to eat most of her food. Anne returned to clear the plates and inquire about coffee, which we all accepted. When the coffee was in place and Anne had disappeared with the remaining dishes, Billy got up from the table, went to the built-in buffet, and removed a bottle of Bushmills 21 from the lower cabinet (Justine and I shared a love of fine whiskey, and apparently so did her niece). I raised my eyebrows in surprise and approval, and Billy winked in response.

BOOK: What Haunts Me
11.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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