Gwen adored her new house with its gray shutters and white picket fence. The three-bedroom ranch with a laundry room in the basement was perfect for her needs, no matter how particular, even at the cost of a Minnesota winter.
As she strolled into the house for the first time as a new homeowner, she breathed a sigh of relief. She had hired a moving company to haul all of her belongings, and she was worried that they would damage some of the antiques. Luckily, her fertility goddess still had all of her naughty bits, and her 15th-century vase was un-chipped.
She was unpacking her collection of 19th-century poetry when her doorbell rang. She was going to have to change it as the previous occupant must have had a sense of humor; it was Chopin’s “Funeral March.”
She glanced at her grandfather clock as she stood, dusting off her hands on her pants. “Who is at the door at eight o’clock?” she asked herself under her breath.
She pasted a smile to her face as she opened the door. “Hello?” she greeted the strangers on her postage stamp of a front stoop.
“Hi!” greeted the woman standing there. Her hair was pulled back in an outfit coordinated polka-dot headband, and her Texas-sized smile was outlined by cotton candy pink lips. “We’re the Carsons, your neighbors across the street. My name is Jane, and this is my son Bradley.” She held out a glass dish filled with a cheesy concoction and covered with plastic wrap. “We brought you a little welcome-to-the-neighborhood dinner. I thought since you came in so late that you might not have eaten dinner yet.”
“Why thank you,” Gwen said, reluctantly taking the dish from Jane and nodding to the brooding teenage boy next to her.
She paused to see if there was anything else this woman wanted, and Jane continued. “The Russels were such… interesting neighbors. I wanted to make sure they left everything in good shape and you were settling in okay.” She leaned forward, trying to see around Gwen and into the living room.
“Things are fine,” Gwen responded. “I’m just doing some unpacking. I work nights, so this is like my 8 AM.”
Jane laughed as if Gwen had made a joke. “I’m still on my coffee IV at 8 AM. You must be better than I am.”
Gwen just gave a thin smile back. “I apologize, but I really must get back.” She motioned her head to indicate all of the unpacking that needed done.
“Oh! Of course! Well, if you need anything, Bradley here is great at mowing lawns.” She patted the teenager on the shoulder proudly.
“I’ve actually got my own guy, but thank you for the offer. I’ll keep it in mind.” Gwen stepped back to shut the door.
“Oh! And by the way, please let me know if you find a pair of hedge clippers around. Mr. Russell borrowed them a couple months ago for some yard work he was doing and never gave them back. The next thing I knew, a for sale sign was in the yard, and the family was gone.”
“Don’t worry; I will,” Gwen said, continuing her progress of shutting the door. “And thanks for the dish,” and finally the door was closed, the sound of retreating footsteps and not so quiet whispering filtered through the door as this brash woman and her son left.
Gwen brought the dish into her kitchen, flipping on the light switch as she entered. She set the dish on her kitchen table and cautiously lifted a corner of the plastic wrap. The strong aroma of garlic wafted out of the pasta and congealed cheese concoction, making Gwen gag. She rushed the dish to her sink, started the water, and scooped the entire mass into her garbage disposal. When the glop was gone, she continued running the water until the smell dissipated, her eyes watering and her stomach flip-flops settling. When she was finally done, she looked out the kitchen window over the sink to see the neighbor boy Bradley watching her from across the street, his face unreadable. She rubbed the tears from her eyes with the damp backs of her hands, and when she looked back, he was gone.
She shook her head and returned to her unpacking.
“I’ve arranged your lawn maintenance, madam. They will be here every Tuesday morning. I’ve also ordered a replacement doorbell at your request,” Reginald said as he went through his mental checklist.
“You always know the best way to handle everything. I don’t know what I would do without you,” Gwen thanked him. “I am so glad you were able to take care of all of this while I was sleeping.”
“That’s what I’m here for, madam; although, I will say that boy across the street kept watching me.”
“That’s Bradley Carson, and his mother is Jane. She is such a busybody that he’s probably whipped from having such a domineering mother, or he’s spying for her.”
Reginald joined her in a raucous laugh. As their laughter died down, he said, “I’ve also got your fridge stocked and your breakfast is on the table.”
“I am feeling a bit parched tonight. I spent most of last night getting the living room in order.” She retrieved her breakfast glass and took a sip. “It is the perfect temperature. You really know the best way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach. Which reminds me, can you return the casserole dish to Mrs. Carson when you get a chance? She dropped off a welcome dish, and it had so much garlic in it I almost died.”
“I’ll do it first thing in the morning, madam,” Reginald replied.
When Gwen awoke for her third evening in her new home, she saw the pile of mail waiting for her on her entrance table.
“It’s too soon to be getting bills already,” she said to herself as she carried the stack into the kitchen, starting to leaf through advertisements, and came to an envelope addressed to her. There was no return address, so she almost shredded it, assuming it was more junk mail. Instead, she opened it to find a simple letter written in pencil, “I know what you are,” followed by a crudely drawn cartoon vampire with a cape.
Her heart fluttered, and she set the letter down on the kitchen table. She pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed. “Reginald?” she said when he answered. “Did you happen to notice anything peculiar when you got the mail today?”
“No, madam. Is there anything wrong?”
“Someone left a little note for me, and apparently they’ve seen some things they shouldn’t. I probably shouldn’t have even bothered you. I just wanted to know if you might have seen anyone hanging around.”
“No, madam. I just got your kitchen in order and returned the dish to that tactless woman like you asked.”
The doorbell rang, its ominous melody turned cartoonish by the electronically synthesized bells.
“Your new doorbell also came, but I didn’t have a chance to install it.”
“That’s quite alright, Reginald. It’s been a busy week.” Gwen walked the couple steps to her front door, but when she looked out, no one was there. She peered around, but nothing seemed out of place. “Must have been a ding-dong-ditch,” she said, shutting the door.
“Would you like for me to come over, madam?” Reginald offered.
“No. Thanks again, but I think I can handle myself against some neighborhood kids. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Have a good night, madam,” Reginald said, and they disconnected the call.
Gwen put her phone back in her pocket and went to the bedroom which she had turned into a home office.
She turned on her desk lamp, placed a record on her turntable, and lowered the needle, setting the mood with some softly playing 90s pop. After many years of wise investments, Gwen had enough money saved that she didn’t need to work, but she ran a blog geared toward individuals with a nocturnal persuasion like herself. Her current article was chronicling the challenges she encountered while moving, and she just needed to make some finishing touches.
Gwen vogued her way back to her computer chair and settled in for an evening of writing. She was midway through editing when she heard a tap on her window. The opaque curtains were drawn, blocking her view and dampening the noise to barely audible, but it was there. She paused in her typing to listen. There were no trees or bushes near the house to cause such a noise, so the only logical explanation would be someone or something tampering with the window.
Ten and then twenty seconds passed, and Gwen was ready to resume work, brushing off the noise as the echo of a nearby animal, but then the tap returned. A tap… tap, tap of something against the glass made Gwen hold her breath and stand ever so slowly in an effort to not chase away the source of this nuisance.
It was most likely the same neighborhood child that had left the note with her mail. She had encountered this type of thing before: paranoid children with too much time on their hands who had seen one too many kids versus monster movies and thought they were going to save the world from her when in reality she was just minding her own business. At the very least, this could be someone just razzing the new neighbor.
Gwen pulled back the curtain, but besides the glare from her lamp, there was nothing in the window.
She pulled the curtain back in place and decided to take a break for now. It was nearing ten o’clock, and maybe she just needed to wait for her harasser to tire of their games and leave for the night. The trick to these types of situations was to act unassuming so that the perception of threat goes away. Let the suspicious mind observe only normal activities.
She pulled some dirty clothes from the hamper and decided to do a load of laundry.
She was halfway down her basement steps when the doorbell rang again causing her to drop a sock. She snarled to herself in frustration. Whoever it was was just going to have to wait; she had had enough with all of this nonsense. She continued down the stairs, ignoring the knocking that had started.
When she got to the washer, she tossed in the laundry and started it, and the sound of the running water drowned out any noises from upstairs. She tossed in her detergent pod and shut the lid.
She was about to turn around when she felt a sharp pain on the back of her head. If she had been made of weaker stuff, she would have collapsed with a concussion, but she remained standing. She turned to find an unshaven man with wild hair.
He held a hammer in his right hand, and he raised his index fingers to form an awkward cross. "Back, foul beast!" he yelled as he backed away from her even though she was already against her washer.
"May I ask what you are doing in my basement?" She looked around the wood-paneled basement and saw a hidden door under the stairs stood ajar.
The smell of body odor and something darker drifted from the open door overpowering the smell of detergent. Gwen could recognize the smell anywhere, dried blood.
"This is my house," the man continued to hold his fingers in a cross although he had run out of room for his backward momentum. His back was against the stairway railing, and the look in his wide eyes was that of a crazed animal.
"The last I checked, I signed the papers that said I was the new owner." Gwen remained cool, hoping to bring this crazy man down from whatever cliff he was on. "I'll ask one more time. What are you doing here?"
The man finally gave up on his feeble cross and clenched his hands against his head. "She was going to leave me. She told me she was selling the house and leaving me, and there was nothing I could do about it."
He had gone off that cliff but not in the fashion that Gwen had intended.
"She was leaving me, so I made it so she wouldn't leave me, but she had already talked to a realtor, so I had to go along with it. I had to." He was so agitated that everything poured out of him as a run-on sentence.
The washer finished filling and started the next cycle, its agitation filling the room with sloshing. The man scrunched his eyes and started rocking. "She was leaving, but I stopped her," he said.
Gwen kept a calm voice to draw him back. "You've been staying here?" she asked.
He nodded, the hammer in his fist swaying along with the movement.
A triangle of light shown at the top of the stairs and was broken by the silhouette of someone standing in the basement doorway.
"Mr. Russell, where is your wife?" Gwen controlled her voice like someone calming a wild dog.
His head nodding became head shaking. "No, no, no. You can't see her, or you'll bring her back and make her like you."
Gwen glanced up again, and the silhouette had disappeared. She had to keep this man talking for whoever was up there.
"What do you mean like me?"
"Like you!" His eyes snapped open, and he glared. "A bloodsucker that stalks the night feeding on the blood of innocents."
"I don't feed on the blood of innocents," she said cautiously.
"I've seen in your refrigerator. I know the contents…" He sounded ominous.
"That's merely vegetable juice for my cleanse diet."
The man started his head shaking again. "No, no, no."
"Besides, even if I were a vampire, I couldn't turn your wife into one; could I?"
The head-shaking continued, growing more aggressive, but froze when he heard a creak on the stairs behind him.
Bradley acted fast, swinging down with the meat tenderizer and knocking Mr. Russell unconscious.
“So let me get this straight,” the officer said looking from Bradley to Gwen and then to Reginald as they stood in the front yard. “You saw the former occupant Mr. Russell creeping around the house and rushed over here to warn Ms. McCormick. When Ms. McCormick didn’t answer the door, you retrieved a spare key that you knew was hidden in a fake rock.”
“And you just happened to be doing laundry when this Mr. Russell snuck up on you and tried hitting you in the head with a hammer. How did you not go down?”
“I heard him coming and was able to move enough so it just grazed me. I’ve barely got a bruise.”
“Uh-huh.” His questioning reached Reginald. “And how do you fit into all of this?”
“I am Ms. McCormick’s friend and personal assistant. She phoned me earlier to mention the threatening note, and when she called again, I rushed over for emotional support.”
The officer flipped his notebook shut. “I see. And besides Bradley here, neither of you had a relationship with Mr. Russell before tonight? You never met as you purchased the house?’
“No, it was all handled through the agents.” Gwen couldn’t wait until this ordeal was over.
“Okay then. I guess that’s all of the questions I’ve got for now, but my guys will need access to the area for the evening while they collect evidence. Mr. Russell is already down at the station. It looks like the guy murdered his wife and used a pair of hedge clippers to break her up for disposal.”
“Your mom may not want her clippers back,” Gwen told Bradley out the side of her mouth.
Bradley snorted at the gallows humor.
The cop just shook his head and returned to his squad car.
“You’ve got everything I need from the fridge so I can stay with you for a couple of days?” Gwen asked Reginald.
“Excellent,” Gwen replied. “Go ahead and warm up the car, and I’ll be over there in a minute.”
When Reginald was gone, she turned to Bradley. “Thanks for helping me in there. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“I’m sure you would have figured something out. You seem like a smart lady. I’ve read your blog,” and with that, he headed back home.