MoboReader> Fantasy > Keeper of the Crossroads

   Chapter 1 Keeper of the Crossroads

Keeper of the Crossroads By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 47103

Updated: 2018-03-13 10:48

Chapter 1

The drive seemed to last forever. Jamie shifted uncomfortably in the unfamiliar seat and tried to stifle his sighs. He was still a little unsure how he had come to be driving his brother's van with the entire family loaded inside. Jamie squirmed again and tried to figure out how to adjust the mirror. After a few seconds he realized there was no interior switch so he rolled down the window with the hand crank.

"Christ Jamie, roll that thing up I just had my hair done. Do you want me looking like one of those unkempt women?" His mother screeched from the passenger's seat.

"I need to adjust the mirror, " Jamie replied in a mild tone. "It will only take a second."

"Don't do that, " His brother said leaning forward from the first passenger's seat. "I'll have to fix it later if you do. Just use it the way it is."

"If I need to change lanes…, " Jamie began.

"Then I'll just tell you, " Michael told his younger brother. "Christ Jamie, don't be such a wuss." Jamie sighed.

"It is a nice day out, " Jamie said half-heartedly, hoping that if he could keep the window down he could surreptitiously adjust the mirror when no one was looking.

"If god meant for us to use outside air he wouldn't have invented air-conditioning." His mother pronounced. Jamie sighed inwardly again and began rolling up the window, bowing to the inevitable. He kept his thoughts about divine air condition to himself.

Personally, he thought the fresh air would have done wonders for the atmosphere of the van. Not only would it wash out some of the cigarette smoke scent that clung to his mother like a desperate lover, but also it would have blown white noise into his eardrums, blocking out the conversations going on around him. He glanced in the rearview mirror.

This mirror he had time to adjust after his brother had tossed him the keys. Center frame was his older brother, alternating between frowning at the gas gage and looking out at the long stretch of road ahead of them.

"How far is it out there anyway? I'm not made of money you know and gas prices are sky high these days."

"Don't worry honey, Jamie will chip in for gas, after all it is his errand we are running." His mother said patting Michael's hand. She pulled her purse into her lap and tugged out her half-empty pack of Virginia slims. They were menthol. Every time Jamie mentioned the dangers of smoking she pointed it out, the menthol somehow making them healthy cigarettes. Jamie had long since given up the argument.

The lighter was tucked between the shiny green back of the pack and the cellophane wrapper. She slipped it out with ease, tucked a cigarette between her lips and flicked on the lighter. The smoke quickly filled the air. Jamie dropped his left hand to his lap, continuing to steer with the right.

"We'll stop for gas on the way back so you'll have a full tank. Besides I'll need another pack by then, " she said around the cigarette as she lit it. Jamie blocked out the words, knowing he would be paying for the cigarettes as well. Slowly he slid his hand to his side. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his mother looking more out the window than at anything else.

He glanced in the rear view mirror. Michael was turned towards his mother. Next to him sat Michael's eldest, Jasmine. She had her headphones on and was staring out the window with a bored look only a fifteen-year-old could pull off. Michael's twin eight year old boys were likewise tethered to electronics although Jamie had his suspicions that these were more of the gaming variety than the musical ones. Jamie eased his hand forward and felt his finger tips brush the round knob of the window crank. Slowly he pushed it down, the window eased slowly open.

'Just a crack, ' he thought to himself. Not enough to muss his mother's hair or to arouse suspicions. Sometimes Jamie thought this was how he lived around his family. Just flying under the radar when they were around and staying as far out of their way as he could every other time. He hadn't actually seen them in several months.

Absence did not make the heart grow fonder.

The window eased open. Jamie released the lever and returned his left hand to the steering wheel. No one seemed to notice. A wisp of fresh air greeted his smoke-starved lungs and he turned slightly towards it as the smoke from his mother's cigarette was pulled towards him. Jamie knew from experience he would have to take a shower and throw the clothes he was wearing directly into the wash when he got back to his apartment. If he didn't the scent would linger.

"Well it needs to be a full tank." Michael said. Jamie wistfully thought of his own trusty Toyota parked across the street from his mother's house. He wasn't allowed to park in the driveway or even directly in front because she thought his beat up Toyota did not lend the air of dignity her domicile demanded.

All he had done was try to be nice. After all they were family. It was better they found out family news from him than the newspaper, wasn't it?

"I hope it doesn't rain while we are gone, " Bella, his mother said. Her eyes turned up to the sky. "It looks a little cloudy." Jamie eyed the veil of smoke around her and wondered when the world around her didn't look cloudy. "And those gutters still need work."

'That's where it started, ' Jamie mentally reminded himself as he took the exit leading from the interstate to the state highway. 'The gutters.' He had been asked to clean them out as Michael was busy with the kids and Bella was worried about property damage if a heavy rainstorm came. Jamie had been on his way out the door when the call came and distracted enough to answer it.

"Besides, we don't want to look the property over in the rain. You can't really get a sense of the value that way, " Michael said, a heavy frown creasing his face. Bella gave an answering frown.

"I can't believe that crazy old man kept all of it to himself all these years and never thought to share. I mean, when your father died he could have at least given part of the estate to me. After all I was family and I was raising his two great nephews. We're all the family he had. Selfish man." Bella took a deep drag on her cigarette and puffed out another cloud. She smiled and looked at Jamie and Michael for a moment. "Still he's dead now. So it all works out in the end."

"Well, it all works out for Jamie, " Michael said sourly. "He was always Uncle's favorite. The only one invited to stay over the summer. And it looks like it has finally paid off for him."

"For all of us dear, " Bella said kindly, patting Michael's knee supportively and training her eyes on Jamie. He kept his face blank; still the sudden silence that descended into the van demanded someone fill it.

"You never did like summers at Uncle Albe's, " Jamie said into the void.

"Of course not, there was nothing to do except play those stupid games with that crazy old man. How could anyone enjoy it?" Michael snorted in disgust.

Personally, Jamie had loved being out at Uncle Albe's house, but saying so would only throw his brother into a rant about his being a suck up and too stupid to know a good time in the first place. For the first time, Bella looked annoyed with Michael.

"You should have pretended you liked it more. Someone had to go out there and keep the family connection alive. If you had put forth more of an effort then you would have been written into the will as well instead of everything officially going to Jamie." Bella smiled at Jamie and he hid his discomfort at the emphasis given to the word officially.

"I noticed you weren't written into the will either, " Michael muttered. Bella glared at him, then beamed a smile in Jamie's direction.

"He knew Jamie would see that I was taken care of." She responded. Jamie had been on his way to meet Jim McElroy at Uncle Albe's house when he answered his mother's call. Jim's family had handled Uncle Albe's estate for years. Albe's father had been great friends with one of the elder McElroy's and the connection stood. Of course Albe's father was also Jamie's great grandfather as well. Albe was technically Great Uncle Albe but had thought there were too many words for family he liked. Jamie had often been told to just drop it to Albe.

Albe had been the brother to Jamie's father's father. Jamie had been named for his grandfather and when he was younger he thought that was why Albe had taken such a liking to him. From all accounts Albe and James had gotten along and been friends as well as brothers.

Idly Jamie wondered what that would be like as he turned off on to another highway. The road sign was missing and had been for quite a while. Before it went missing it had been pock marked with bullet holes from local boys letting off steam with their 22s.

Jamie was pretty certain the road sign now adorned some teenager's wall. He had been out here enough times not to really need to look at the road signs though, so the absence didn't really bother him.

Jamie thought he reminded Albe of James until he had seen a picture. After all, that is what his mother routinely said when Albe picked up Jamie and not Michael for their summers in the woods. Jamie and James were nothing alike at least that Jamie could see when he found the photograph.

That afternoon Jamie had been no older than his nephews were at the moment and he had stood in front of the mirror comparing his image to the old photo he held in his hands of his grandfather and Albe when they were around his age. Albe had caught him and asked what he was up to.

Around any other adult Jamie would have stammered out a nothing, apologized for putting finger prints on the old photo and left the room as quietly and quickly as he could. But Albe wasn't really like any other adults Jamie knew. He was kind of like a friend who had accidentally been stuffed into an old man's body.

"Mom says you like me 'cause I remind you of my grandfather, " Jamie had told him.

"Is that so, " Albe had replied. There was a glint in his eye Jamie had not seen there before. It sparkled like anger, but before Jamie could ask if he had offended it was gone.

"But I don't look like him." Jamie concluded weakly, really not certain if he had offended.

"No I don't suppose you do. In all fairness, although not many a boy would care to hear this, you favor my older sister in coloring. She had your hair and eyes, Although it looks like you got some of your build from your mother's side of the fence." Albe reached down and gently took the photograph from Jamie's fingers where he was holding it carefully around the edges.

"And those hands remind me of my grandfather." Albe smiled. "Now he was a man to be reckoned with." Albe put the picture on a shelf. But he made sure it was a low one so Jamie understood he was free to look at it all he wanted; Albe just wanted it momentarily out of the way.

"If you want to know the reason I keep you around, it is because I like you." Albe winked at Jamie and smiled. "I'm old enough that I can pretty much do as I please without anyone to gain say me. I've earned that right at least. And I don't keep people I don't like around." The old man turned his head to the side a bit and smiled. "Well, any longer than I have to." Jamie smiled at the memory and took another turn.

"How long is this going to take, " Jasmine said, pulling one of the earphones from her ear.

"I wouldn't know, " Michael said. "I was only out here once before crazy Uncle Al sent me home." Jamie winced. Albe hated being called Al. He even preferred his given name of Albrecht to Al. He thought only mobsters and plumbers were named Al.

"We are almost to the edge of his land now, " Jamie replied. "It won't be too long until we reach the house."

"Land?" Michael said, his eyes honing in on the back of Jamie's head. Jamie could feel them trying to bore holes, as if they could dig for information like a drill. "You didn't say anything about land. You said house. He owned land." Michael smacked his lips around the word. Jamie winced at the past tense.

"Yes, " Jamie replied. "We're on the short side. It isn't a regularly shaped property." Jamie thought of the map hanging in Albe's library with the property's boundaries clearly marked.

The property lines followed natural boundaries such as rock formations and river and creek beds. The measurements had been written in meets and bounds. Albe had taught him how to convert those to more modern, conventional measurements. Learning at Albe's had always had some sort of practical application, yet always seemed like something you would never have a use for once you left Albe's property boundaries. Albe's land was a world unto itself with Albe's rules holding out against the rest of humanity.

"How much land?" Michael asked. Greed sparkled in his voice and without turning Jamie could imagine his brother licking his lips in anticipation, like a cartoon villain.

"I'm not sure, " Jamie said. "A couple thousand acres, maybe more. He had mentioned some kind of real estate deal a while back so I'm not sure how much of it he sold." Jamie couldn't imagine Albe ever selling land. He had been afraid of encroachment from the sprawlers, as he liked to call the pop up subdivisions and may have purchased more.

From snippets of conversation he had the feeling Albe had actually added a substantial bit more rather than whittling down his property holdings. He didn't mention the possible addition of new land to the old family holdings. That would lead his brother down roads of questions leading to the bank and how much cold hard cash was there.

Or more importantly, how much cash Michael could convince Jamie to give him. Jamie smiled tightly. He may occasionally get sucked into the vortex that was his immediate family, but the last time Michael had managed to get money from Jamie had been when Jamie was twelve. It helped that he could pull the starving artist card, although that wasn't technically true. He did a lot of corporate work and made a pretty decent salary.

But he lived pretty cheap, hoarding the bulk of his pay for the "Someday Jamie will leave corporate art behind and just paint what he wants" fund. Although he had to admit he was quite good at the corporate art and it beat making a living in other ways. The only annoyance was tailoring his vision to other people's visions and usage. And of course like the late great Theodore Geisel, he hated seeing his work disappear once the product had moved on to a new sales pitch. Although Jamie didn't think children's books were in his future.

"Did you hear that?" Michael said excitedly to his daughter who had already plugged back into her music.

"So, " she replied, not even bothering to unplug herself. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

"So, " he repeated. "So, land is worth a lot of money. Especially land like this." He gestured out the window.

"I don't see what is so great about this land, " she said dismissively. "There is nothing out here." In the rear view mirror he had seen she had bothered to unhook one ear to listen. Bella had also turned in Michael's direction, her full attention riveted.

'Some apples don't even roll when they fall from the tree, ' he thought, taking yet another turn.

"First of all there are all these lovely trees. The lumber company would pay handsomely for the lot of them. Although we wouldn't sell all of them."

"Why not, " Bella demanded.

"Yeah why not, " her granddaughter echoed. "If they'd pay us for the stupid trees, " she continued.

"Because they'd pay more for the land if most of the trees were still here, " he continued basking at being the center of attention. "We'd strategically let them cut a few here and there to still leave the bulk of the property intact and looking nice. That's what they call environmentally logging."

Jamie tried not to roll his eyes, very certain his brother had either made up that term or strung the concept together from a couple of overheard snippets. He knew there was a way to harvest lumber in what would be called a green or sustainable fashion, but he was also pretty sure this wasn't it. Michael, however, was of on one of his dreams of easy money and mere reality wasn't going to get in his way.

"We aren't tree huggers Michael. There is no profit in it." Bella said dismissively as she pulled out another cigarette. Jamie wasn't sure if it was her second or third, but the thin little air vent his window provided was not cutting it. He figured they were tied up enough in one of Michael's schemes that he could risk widening it. Sure enough no one noticed the larger gap even though he could see the top of his mother's hair wiggle in the breeze like sea anemones in an undersea current. No one mentioned it.

"In this case it pays big, " Michael said.

"How, " Jasmine and Bella said together. Jamie tried not to shake his head.

"Think about it. We aren't that far from Denerton. And what is Denerton's biggest market?" Both Jasmine and Bella looked at Michael as if he had just asked them to recite the periodic table of elements. "Tourism, " he concluded. "Every year rich people flock to the high priced resorts in the mountains to ski and fish and be seen by other rich people."

Bella's interest peaked at the mention of the wealthy flocking to her. She had already gone through three husbands and was now looking to once again trade up the line. "Once we've sold off some of these trees and cleared a little space, we can easily capitalize on that market if we do a little tree hugging and keep it pretty. Then we get the big bucks."

Jamie could hear Albe ranting in the back of his head and while he agreed with Albe, Jamie had been well conditioned to keep his mouth shut. Besides, this was only the latest in Michael's get rich quick schemes and didn't have a hope of working.

As far as Jamie was concerned the land was Albe's. Albe had gone off for long stretches before. This was not a new thing. Just because he had been declared missing long enough to be declared legally dead did not mean he actually was. So Jamie would just hold the property in trust for Albe until he returned.

That was however a discussion Jamie was not exactly anxious to have inside an enclosed space without an escape route. In fact, Jamie didn't actually plan to have the conversation at all. He figured once they returned, he could find out a way to avoid his family, at least until Albe came home. He thought of his friend Mike who assigned several key people in his cell phone's contact list different ring tones.

'That might be an option to look into, ' he thought. Mentally he began running through song titles to see what he would assign to his mother and Michael. Jamie glanced in the rear view mirror and remembered his niece also had a cell phone. Perhaps hers would need a ring tone as well in case the family got sneaky. Jamie pulled the van to a stop and three sets of avarice filled eyes turned his way.

"This can't be it, " Bella said. "I remember a house, " she squinted, looking ahead as though she wasn't truly sure she remembered a house at all. Jamie recalled she had only been here once before as well. After the first time she dropped Jamie and Michael off, Albe had insisted on picking Jamie up himself at the start of each summer.

"It's the gate. I have to unlock it." Jamie told them. He opened the driver's side door and slid out. His paint spattered converse low tops sunk a little in the moist earth. It had rained recently and the air smelled like it had been freshly scrubbed. He took a deep breath inhaling the scent of pine and moist earth and the scent that all the dark places in the wild woods seemed to have. More than anything it was the scent of home. He deliberately left his door open, hoping to air our some of the van before his return. He walked over to the gate. The ground was moist, but not soggy.

'Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson, ' he thought deciding his mother's ring tone. It fit in both the tone of the song and the title. She was a very beautiful woman. Her body was built of long graceful lines and despite the smoking, she exercised ruthlessly and took good care of herself. She wouldn't go in for liposuction or tummy tucks because she was deathly afraid of the doctor, so as a last resort she turned to exercise.

And Jamie had to admit it paid off for her. She also had the snow white thing going. Her hair was cut in a chic style that framed her face with her black hair, like a setting for a jewel. She had pale skin like the Disney princess and bright blue eyes she could turn on any unsuspecting victim with great effect. Jamie had seen the act many times. Of course, she never bothered with family.

He took his keys from his back pocket and fitted the old key Albe had given him when he had become old enough to start driving himself out for his summer visits. He unlocked the gate and swung it open.

Michael's song would require a little more thought. Jamie had been cautioned enough times before to lock the gate back up before continuing down the road. No one in the van offered to drive the vehicle through the gates so he wouldn't have to get in and out of the car, but he hadn't really expected them to. With the gates opened wide, Jamie returned to the vehicle got in and drove through them.

"Good precaution, " Michael said. "Those gates. Keeps out all sorts of trespassers."

"Who'd want to trespass out here?" Jasmine asked with a sneer.

"Hunter's most likely, " Michael said absently as he looked around.

"So?" she asked.

"So you have to pay to hunt, " he responded in the same tone. Jamie was fairly certain the payment for the license to hunt went to someone in the department of fisheries and wildlife, but decided not to mention it. He stopped when the van was on the other side of the gate and then got out to lock it behind him. The airing out time had been good for the van, but it quickly filled back up with smoke as he closed the door and continued to drive.

"Not too far now, " he said, partially to the others in the van but mostly to brace himself. Silently he thanked whatever ancestor had positioned the house on the side of the property closest to the road. As he drove, talk in the van turned to how much money could be made from property sales and what each of them would do with unlimited funds. Even the two boys had caught on to the spirit of the game and called out things they wanted.

Personally he thought eight year olds had no business trying to build their own personal Nascar track with real cars, but as they were just wish listing he didn't comment. Perhaps he could get them some hot wheels and track for Christmas.

'God knows all of my other presents have been failures. That one can't be any worse, ' he thought. Last year he had been given a strict list and told not to deviate. Clearly marked at the top of the page had been NO MORE BOOKS. All of the letters had been capitalized. The words were underlined five times and had twelve exclamation points after them. Apparently there had been a family meeting.

At least Evangeline, Michael's wife, had not been a part of that holiday gathering. She had left Michael for a life she hoped to mak

e more glamorous. She had aspirations. Personally he thought it was Michael's fault for marrying someone just like their mother. Jamie had never gotten along with Michael's wife.

Admittedly he had indulged himself a little at her expense. He had always avoided calling her by name when in her presence and signed every card sent to the family as 'to Angie' knowing she found the nickname vulgar.

She couldn't send any comments back on Christmas cards and such and since he refused to name her in person, she never had an opportunity to correct him. Michael had made several comments to him but was too self-absorbed to actually care whether Jamie listened or not. Michael often dismissed Jamie as a flighty artist and thought that his brother simply couldn't remember Evangeline's actual name.

Bella had despised Evangeline. After all, every hive can only have one queen bee and Bella was not about to give up her place. Jamie thought that might be the only reason she had agreed to take Michael and the kids into her home after Evangeline left. She wanted to reassert her dominance as the one in charge. Of course, Michael accepted since it was the path of least resistance.

That Christmas he had ended up putting a twenty-dollar bill in each card and called it good. He didn't think he even remembered to sign the cards. No one had mentioned it.

Somehow he was sure the hot wheels would be a mistake as well. In the conversation, only Jamie's voice was absent. No one asked what Jamie would buy with unlimited funds. He concentrated more on the road and tried to block the greedy conversation from his mind.

The road had been graveled, but much of the gravel had been washed away and it was very much in need of a new layer. He made a mental note to call for repairs. After all Albe couldn't be driving on this, he might get stuck with no one out here to help him.

Jamie avoided as many of the deeper ruts as he could, but the van still swayed and bucked like a small ship on rough seas. He slowed his pace to make up for conditions. From time to time he pulled his gaze from the road and flicked it to the tree line on either side; sure he had seen some movement.

'Animals and birds, ' he told himself unconvincingly. 'Just spooked by the presence of humans.' But the brief glimpses he saw triggered old memories and stories he hadn't thought of in years. Finally, the road led to a clearing. A Queen Anne Victorian with peeling paint and improbable additions making any guess as to floor plan, original or otherwise merely a shot in the dark, dominated the clearing. Jamie smiled.

Every rainy day he spent in the old house he had found a new room to explore. Albe himself admitted there were many rooms he had never really visited and always sent Jamie out with what he called a notebook of discovery to jot down anything fun and fascinating he had seen in his wanderings. Sometimes the findings were forgotten knickknacks, other times architectural details. They would discuss the items over dinner. Jamie often thought he learned more of history at this house than he ever had in school.

The grounds around the house were well kept, even if the small parking area had lost as much gravel as the road. The parking area was large enough for three vehicles and one was already there, with a dark haired man about thirty-five years of age leaning against it. Jamie recognized Jim and waved as he pulled up.

The lawyer was dressed in a three-piece suit and pulled a laptop bag from his passenger's seat as Jamie parked the van. Jim's face held a friendly smile as Jamie slid from the van. The smile faltered a little as he noticed the rest of the family piling out of the vehicle. It brightened back up to professional grade wattage in an instant, but Jamie thought it had lost some of its warmth.

Jamie had gone to school with Jim from kindergarten through high school. The two Jameses of the class of 91. There had been twelve Heathers and fourteen Jennifers in their class as well. Jamie attributed the low number of kids named James to the low number of male students in general.

"How's it going James of the law?" Jamie called his traditional greeting as he shut the van door.

"Not bad oh James of the paint brush." They shook hands. "I didn't realize you were bringing the whole crew."

"Wasn't really my plan either, " He said running his hand through his hair as everyone else looked around.

"I see, " Jim said, his tone neutral. Jim pulled a set of keys from the front of his bag.

"Why didn't you go on inside?" Jamie asked. "It's a little chilly to be standing out in this wind."

"Wouldn't have been right, " Jim said.

"Damn straight, " Bella said walking over. "We couldn't be sure if anything was missing if he had." She snatched the keys from Jim's hand and stalked over to the house, Michael and his brood following behind.

"I am so sorry, " Jamie said. "I know you would never have taken anything from the house."

"I know, " Jim said with a smile. "And you did tell me to go on and make myself comfortable since Albe had entrusted me with the extra set of keys."

"Of course, if Albe trusted you then there should be no problem."

"And I was sort of looking forward to taking a peek, " Jim said wistfully.

"Why didn't you?" Jamie asked. "I said it was fine."

"True, but the house didn't." Both men turned to look at the house. Bella had reached the front door and was trying one of the keys in the lock. It didn't seem to work. She tried another one.

"All the keys are very clearly marked." Jim said as they watched. Bella shifted to another key. "There are different colors for each door and carefully printed tags." Memories stirred in the back of Jamie's mind.

"Do you think he might not really be dead? He has disappeared for long stretches before" Jamie asked, surprised at himself for voicing the question out loud. Jim didn't seem startled by the question.

"I think this time is different, " Jim said with some sympathy in his voice as Michael began to push on the door. "Every other time he has disappeared we'd get periodic messages regarding his property. Little things about making sure gardeners came out to trim the hedges and keep things looking right. This time we got the paperwork for passing on his estate to you."

"You don't think he is just hiding out somewhere do you?" Jamie caught the longing in his own voice and cleared his throat. "I mean just as a prank or something?"

"I don't know, " Jim said with a shrug. "You'd know him better. There is other paperwork for you to sign as well as an inventory and the bank…"

"Could that wait?" Jamie asked hurriedly interrupting Jim as one of his nephews was sent in his direction. Jamie tried quickly to determine if it was Casey or Corey. "I could come by the office…"

"Of course, I understand completely." The boy stopped ten feet away from them and called.

"Dad says to come help make the door open." The edge of his left front tooth was slightly shorter than his right. Corey then.

"All right Corey, I'm on my way." Jamie said to the back of the boy's retreating head. He sighed.

"Maybe the house will let you in, " Jim said as they walked over. On the front door steps, the hair his mother had tried to keep from blowing in the wind was stuck to the sides of her face and neck with the sweat of her efforts. His older brother didn't look much better. All three kids looked bored. Jasmine's cell phone rang and she answered it stepping away from the adults. Jamie was actually impressed the phone hadn't rung on the way out here. He had just assumed she couldn't get a signal.

"This is stupid, " Casey said.

"Yeah, I want to watch TV, " Corey added, echoing his brother's tone. Jamie wondered what the signs were that a child would grow up to be a psychopath and if there was a checklist he could download from the internet just to be on the safe side.

"It's stuck, " Michael said throwing the keys at Jamie who caught them just before they hit his head in a gesture habitual after years of playing games with Michael. Jamie never played catch with his brother. He was always the target.

"Maybe the back door is open." Jamie said. Bella sighed heavily.

"Why didn't you mention the back door?" She said irritably, as if he and Jim had deliberately kept this fact from her. She shoved her hair messily away from her face.

"Come on, " she said to Michael as she left the front porch to wonder around to the back. Everyone but Jamie and Jim followed her. Jim looked at the keys in Jamie's hand.

"Do they think it is actually unlocked?" he asked. Jamie shrugged.

"Who knows." A comment about breaking a window drifted over to their ears and Jim shook his head.

"I really hope they don't try that." Jim said.

"Me too, it could go very badly." Jamie looked at the keys in his hand. As Jim had mentioned all of the keys were labeled. He picked out the one that was marked front door. He inserted it easily into the lock. It clicked open and the door swung open. There was not even a creak of the hinges.

"Apparently you are allowed inside, " Jim said with a smile. Jamie took a step inside.

"May I join you, " Jim asked, standing on the doorstep.

"Are you a vampire now that needs an invitation in?" Jamie said with a grin. Jim laughed, but it had a nervous edge to it.

"Now if I was would I be standing in the sunlight?"

"True, " Jamie said. "Unless you had a very thick layer of sun block smeared on your skin." Jamie saw that though Jim was joking, he was serious about wanting an invitation before entering the house. Jamie wondered what had happened when Jim had tried to come in on his own. "Sure you can come in, " Jamie said. Jim stepped over the threshold and looked around. Nothing happened. He let out a breath and grinned sheepishly at Jamie.

"I know it's crazy, but there are stories."

"Yeah, there are stories, " Jamie echoed looking around a bit himself. It had been a while since he had been to the house. Normally he made regular visits, but Albe had called him and told him he would be out of town for a while. Albe didn't like people visiting when he wasn't home.

The trips weren't unusual for Albe. He would go off for a while, do whatever it was that he did and then call when he returned. Albe didn't like to talk about what he did when he was gone, so Jamie never asked. Instead Albe told stories, wonderfully fantastic stories. Jamie chalked up the fact that Albe still told him fairy tales to the large difference in age. At 98 Albe was still spry and active, but even at 35 Jamie must have still seemed like a child.

Albe had always been curious about what Jamie did though, asking all sorts of questions and making detailed mental notes and remembering to follow up when a situation continued between visits. For most of his life he had only believed he wasn't adopted because of Albe's presence.

But the call from Albe stating he had returned never came. And now Jamie was standing in the foyer with Jim while his family greedily planned to divide Albe's estate. Jamie pursed his lips and swallowed the thought.

It would do no one any good to yell. He looked around as he calmly counted to ten. Everything was as he remembered it. Nothing appeared to have moved since his last visit. He smiled. Albe had liked to test him on that. Sometimes things would be shifted, other times they wouldn't be. Albe wanted Jamie to learn to notice little details.

"Because that was where life is my boy, in the details." Albe would point out. It was one of his favorite phrases. Most of Jamie's clients often remarked on his attention to detail in his work. It was quite a useful trait.

"No dust, " he said, looking at the cleaned and polished surfaces. Albe had been gone well over a year.

"Maid service, " Jim clarified. "There is a set contract. But only for the main portions of the house. Not the parts Albe was using for storage. The details are in the paperwork we can go over later in the office." Jim's voice trailed off as footsteps sounded on the porch. Apparently the family hadn't been able to get in the back door either.

"Well at least you got the door unstuck, " Bella said crossly. Jamie could see she had broken at least two nails and wondered how hard they had tried the back door and if it was damaged. "We will definitely need to get someone out here to fix that." Bella ran her eyes over the items displayed in the main hall. Jamie could practically see her mentally evaluating the worth of the Victorian coat rack and calling card holder. "Now where is the ladies room? I need to freshen up."

"Make a right at the end of the hall and it is the second door on the left, " Jamie told her.

"And where is the TV?" Corey demanded.

"I don't think he has one, " Jamie told them. They looked at him as if he were crazy. Jamie shrugged. Crazy or not he had never seen a television at Albe's. He had believed they rotted the imagination. This, to Albe's way of thinking, was worse than tooth decay from too much candy, after all teeth could be replaced. Once you lost your imagination, you were pretty much sunk.

"I'm sure he has one somewhere, " Michael said. The twins stomped off looking for the television they knew had to be around. Michael picked up the calling card holder and studied it much the same way is mother had. Jamie ground his teeth and he could see Jim biting back comments as well. Jamie noticed Jim was careful not to touch anything.

'Perhaps it would be best to make this a short trip, ' Jamie thought.

"So we know the old man left everything to Jamie, " Michael said with a sneer. "How much exactly is that?"

"I'm afraid I don't have those papers with me at the moment, " Jim said stiffly. Michael put the brass cardholder down with a heavy thunk in the middle of the hall table. Jamie shifted it back to its traditional place at the end.

"Must have been quite a lot. I mean the property taxes alone on this place must be a lot. And god knows the old man didn't work."

"Actually he did." Jamie said. Michael laughed.

"Right, " Michael said. He opened his mouth for another snide comment, but was interrupted by a scream from the bathroom. All three men turned towards the sound.

"Mom, " Jamie said. He sprinted towards the bathroom, Jim a few steps behind. Michael followed cautiously. In the hallway outside the bathroom Bella stood dripping water onto the edge of the worn runner. The faded red of the pattern darkened to the color of blood. Bella's hair was plastered to her head and her mascara had leaked into raccoon eyes with black stripes to her chin. Her look of surprise was quickly evaporating into anger.

"This house is falling apart!" She yelled. "I went to wash my hands and the water just launched itself at me!" Jamie stepped past his mother and into the small bathroom. It had been retrofitted into the closet under the stairs and had a sloped ceiling. The sink was at one end and the toilet at the other, over all, the bathroom was barely wider than the sink. Jamie looked at the faucet. The water was merely a dribble now and coming out from the faucet in quite the normal manner. There was a small puddle of water on the floor.

"Hand me a towel, " Bella demanded. He obediently handed her one of the bright green hand towels located on the rack next to the sink. It had a large F embroidered on it in purple stitches. "Obviously this house needs some work. You will have to see to that before we sell it." She told Jamie. She walked away from the bathroom, Michael following behind leaving Jamie to mop up the floor. Jamie pulled down one of the older towels stashed on the shelf above the sink and bent to mop up the water.

"Are you planning to sell the house, " Jim asked quietly.

"No, " Jamie answered in a voice just as quiet.

"Good. You know there were a lot of people who were very nervous when the paperwork came through, " Jim said. He glanced over his shoulder to where Bella and Michael had disappeared into the living room. "Personally when I saw only your name on the papers, I was a lot less worried. If you need to talk or anything, let me know."

"Thanks, " Jamie said. Jim nodded, turned and went into the living room. Jamie quickly mopped up the spills.

"I just have to get them out of here quickly, that's all, " he muttered to himself. He heard the boys join the adults in the living room complaining loudly that they hadn't been able to find a television.

"They couldn't have looked very long, " Jamie muttered thinking of his long rambles through the house on summer afternoons. Jamie didn't hear his niece's voice and figured Jasmine was still outside talking on the phone. He straightened up and spread the towels out on the edge of the sink to dry. He checked the faucet to make sure the water was off.

Jamie leaned on the sink, head bowed as he heard Jim tell his mother that he had not brought the inventory with him and of course the house would have to be gone through room by room with everything checked off before anything could be removed. He made it sound like an onerous, dusty and labor filled process for which Jamie sent him a mental thank you. It would certainly buy him some time. Jamie tightened his grip on the sides of the basin. He would not let them talk him into letting them come back. Somehow he had felt if they were along he would miss Albe less, grief shared and all that.

"Never again, " he muttered. "Now if the house will just behave I can get them out quickly."

"Sorry about that, " a soft voice said. "I didn't know you were trying to hurry them through. But on the other hand, I could have used the hot water." Jamie stood very still remembering all the times he had thought he heard answers to his mumbled questions. Then he thought of the damage scalding water would have done.

"Thanks for using cold, " he said. "I won't be bringing them back with me."

"Good, " the voice sounded pleased. Jamie couldn't pin point what direction it had come from and after a second didn't bother. "He never liked them."

"I know." Jamie thought for a second. "Is he really gone this time?"

"I'm afraid so, " the voice said sadly. "Otherwise I wouldn't have let you in." Jamie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He hadn't realized how much he had been hoping that this was just like the other times Albe had gone away. His shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes in pain for a moment allowing the grief in. The raised voices in the other room made him swallow hard and he forced himself to push away the grief for a more private moment.

"Thank you, " he said.

"I don't see why I can't take something to remember him by with me, " Bella's voice drifted towards him and Jamie figured he had better rescue Jim from the grips of his family. He left the bathroom and went into the living room. He couldn't tell what trinket his mother had grabbed, but no doubt she thought it worth something. She had no feelings but contempt for Albe.

"Mom we have to check the inventory before anything can be taken. All of the items listed need to be in the house before anything can be removed or sold off otherwise there will have to be an investigation and a missing items report or something filed, " Jamie looked to Jim as he was rapidly running out of legal sounding mumbo jumbo. Jim nodded emphatically.

"Exactly. If any item is found missing there is a whole police procedure that we have to go through." Out of the corner of his eye Jamie saw Michael surreptitiously sneak items out of his pockets and back onto the nearby shelf. He tried not to frown as his mother put down the small gem stone encrusted broach Albe had kept displayed in the curio cabinet.

The broach was shaped like a green salamander wrapped around a stick with leaves. The diamonds formed the dewdrops and Jamie was pretty sure the eyes were rubies. Albe had once claimed it belonged to a woman named Lady Herdana who led one of the many bands of fairy creatures dwelling in the woods. It was a gift of thanks.

Albe had loved telling the story of daring deeds that had led the Lady to bestow the gift upon him. Jamie wasn't sure if the gem stones were any more real than the story, but he had a pretty good idea that his mother certainly thought so. She cast a loving gaze on it as Jamie moved it from the table and back into the curio cabinet. He had never seen her look that way at another living person. Sad, was his first thought, disgust following closely behind as his mother's eyes followed his every movement.

"Are you all done in there already?" Jasmine asked from the doorway. Apparently her phone call had ended.

"I think so, " Jamie said. "I really just came out to do a once over and to get the keys. Everything else will have to wait for the inventory."

"And we can't take anything?" Bella asked, it had a somewhat whining quality. "I mean if you know we took it then you could just sort of automatically check it off the inventory."

"Not at this time. I'm afraid such a thing constitutes fraud and you would be held liable, " Jim said. Jamie wondered how much of this Jim was making up and decided he didn't really care, but would definitely be buying a round the next time a group of them went out.

"Well this was a colossal waste of time, " Michael said, leading the kids out the door. Bella followed slowly and Jamie got the feeling she was making a mental inventory of the room's contents. Once outside Jamie locked up the door and tucked the house keys in his back pocket where they clunked against his own keys. The family moved quickly to the van. Obviously, they were ready to go. Jamie walked a little slower, not really in the mood to be trapped in the smoke filled van again. He could already feel a headache building.

"I'll be in the office all day if you want to come by for the paperwork, " Jim said.

"As soon as I drop everyone off, " Jamie replied. Jim got into his car and headed for the gate. Jamie started up the van and followed.

"You don't mean to tell me that man has a key to the gate?" Bella said. "Why he could come in here in the middle of the night and rob us blind!" Jamie couldn't picture Jim wandering anywhere in the middle of the night.

"He is an honest man mom." Jamie told her. Bella sniffed loudly.

"He is a lawyer. Those two things don't match." At the gate Jim stopped and got out of the car. Jamie got out as well and helped Jim open the two-sided gate. Jim dropped the key in Jamie's hand before climbing back into his own car without Jaime even asking for it. He silently prayed Jim hadn't heard his mother's screech of indignation. Jamie tucked the key into his pocket with the others. Both men drove through and then got back out again to close it. Jamie thanked Jim for his help. Jim's eyes darted to the van.

"No problem. I'll see you at the office." Jamie returned to the van. He half expected either Michael or Bella to demand that they be given the key, but each seemed lost in their own thoughts. Bella lit up another cigarette and stared out the side window. Michael stared out of the window as well and Jamie was pretty sure he was still calculating the land value in his head. All three kids were once again plugged into their own worlds and Jamie was very glad for the silence.

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