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In memory of Harold Ramis.
Writing this book has been a terrific thrill, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of people. My deepest gratitude to: my agent, Howard Morhaim, and his assistant, Kim-Mei Kirtland; my Tor team, including editors Christopher Morgan and Melissa Singer, art director Seth Lerner, cover designer Russell Trakhtenberg, managing editor Nathan Weaver, and copyeditor Faren Bachelis; publishing consultant Virginia King at Sony Pictures; and Eric Reich of GhostCorps/Montecito Picture Company. A huge thank-you to the Ghostbusters casts and crews past and present, and Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Paul Feig, and Kate Dippold. Greg Cox, I definitely owe you one. Grazie mille to Mark Mandell, who answers every call, usually from the other room, and feeds me, loves me, and inspires me. You are my density.
It was a dark and stormy night. Perfect for a tour of one of the most haunted houses in America, the dread Aldridge Mansion, a Victorian brownstone steeped in shocking scandal and even better, bloody mass murder. A dark jewel of Manhattan’s West Village, the historical estate loomed in deep shadows. Cue the lightning, the thunder, the terrifying howl of a wolf hunting down a hapless but leggy Gypsy maiden—
Okay … not so much.
Actually, it wasn’t dark and stormy at all. A crisp autumn day blazed away in New York City, bursting with the blue skies and puffy white clouds that made the locals shrug and say, “Hey, it’s really not so bad here, despite the overcrowding, high rents, and crooked politicians. It could be worse—we could be living in New Jersey.”
On a glorious day like this, folks with a yen for the macabre could go out to the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in a national park greenbelt in the Bronx and get a fright and a tan for what, five bucks? But luckily for Garrett and his impressive student loan debt, Aldridge Mansion’s terrible reputation—and truly fine collection of period pieces—had drawn a sizable crowd for the last scheduled ghost tour of the afternoon. Garrett was their tour guide. They were grouped together in the elegant parlor, eyes wide, palms sweaty, hopeful and eager. Time to get to work.
Time to scare the pants off them.
Just like they wanted him to.
Tour Guide Garrett cleared his throat.
“The Aldridge Mansion is the only nineteenth-century home in New York City preserved both inside and out,” he said in what he liked to think of as his Sleepy Hollow voice. He gestured to the original Aesthetic Movement settee and Clara Driscoll–designed Tiffany lamp, the neoclassical slate fireplace and the double-decker bookcases brimming with leather-bound volumes, including an original On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. When he wasn’t brooding over his dismal rate of pay and the dead-end job’s lack of health benefits, he had to admit that the mansion’s sumptuous decor stirred him to his roots.
“This clock was on the Titanic. Sir Aldridge preserved it when he brought it with him into his lifeboat. That’s his portrait.” He pointed to the fine-looking fellow hanging above the fireplace mantelpiece.
“Over here you can imagine Sir Aldridge entertaining his wealthy guests.”
One pretty twenty-something tourist glanced anxiously at the trio of headless mannequins in capes and a sailor’s suit arranged beside a long table as he led them past. Her face noticeably paled and she looked seriously creeped out. Maybe she was a believer? Sometimes tourists showed him the photographs they’d taken during the tour that featured blips of light: “spirit orbs” or blurs, proof in their minds that the dead walked in Aldridge Mansion. He always acted surprised and intrigued, but seriously? The rooms were dimly illuminated night and day by period lamps and ornate wall sconces, and blurring in the snapshots was caused by using a flash too far from the subject. But of course he never told them any of that. Why ruin the fun?
Besides, gullible out-of-towners were generous tippers. And the tour guide biz was all about the gratuities.
Garrett led the throng down an extremely creaky hall at a merry clip. On every step, the ancient floorboards bowed ever so slightly underfoot, springing back sluggishly, bowing again. The overall effect hinted at imminent collapse. He smiled to himself as he heard a few gasps behind him.
“As you can see, even the wealthy get termites,” he intoned over his shoulder with perfect delivery and timing. They chuckled. They always did. It was fun dissing the rich. But seriously, would the New York Department of Buildings allow anyone inside a structure that wasn’t completely safe?
He paused in front of The Door. It was sectioned into elaborate panels and accessorized with an ornate brass knob, all original, and he thanked his lucky stars that it featured so prominently in the décor. It was one of two focal points of the entire tour.
He slowly turned to face his eager audience. Here was where he gathered in his cash money, tax free. It was decidedly not in the exquisite upstairs bedrooms, where he provided fascinating details on the lavish furnishings, the art, and the architecture. Thanks to an otherwise worthless four-year course of study at CCNY in art history, with a minor in drama, he could talk the talk and walk the walk. Nor was it in the cavernous grand ballroom with its intricate parquetry floor, or the period-accurate kitchen, or the rooftop solarium. Not even in the gilded, marbled, mirrored master bath suite. Those were just way-stops, diversions included on the tour to fill out the allotted time, to let anticipation build, and set the mood for the big finish.
The imposing barrier encapsulated an unspeakable horror that passing decades could not erase, the same unspeakable horror that had lured this crowd of wide-eyed thrill seekers away from Manhattan’s more savory sites. It was in fact Garrett’s center stage, and in his fantasies perhaps a stepping-stone to something far more rewarding. Three weeks ago his cousin Lester had shot footage of him delivering a rousing rendition of his spiel in front of The Door. Lester’s building super had mentioned he knew a casting agent who lived in a co-op down the street. Careers had been founded on less.
And for all he knew, someone in this afternoon’s group would post the performance on YouTube, and it would go viral, and, and—
And action, Garrett told himself. Putting on his game face, he summoned up the necessary aura of the confidential and the mysterious.
“As you can see, this basement door is sealed shut.” He made a show of trying to turn the brass floral-patterned doorknob, which had never so much as budged during his entire tenure as a tour guide. It was frozen in position, either welded or glued. The basement was strictly off-limits, even to the cleaning staff. Pausing a beat, he searched the goggle-eyed faces, forcefully selling the idea that what he was about to reveal was momentous. Then he spoke.
He let that sink in, right up to the hilt. As if drawn by an invisible magnet, the tourists leaned ever so slightly toward him. That’s how hard they were hanging on to his words. Only one middle-aged man held back. Arms folded across his chest, he smirked as if to say: I ain’t afraid of no ghost. Fine, be that way. The mass murder was a documented fact. Garrett had pored over the old sepia-tone photographs of the butchered cook and the eviscerated butler, the partially beheaded scullery maid and the shredded remains of the chauffeur—photos credited to Sir Aldridge himself. They were crimes of anger—no, of insane fury. Worse even than the photos he’d seen of Jack the Ripper’s victims. As if the hand that had wielded the heavy blade wanted to erase the poor souls’ very humanity.
The real details of the crimes were far too brutal for the present crowd, of course. Grossing out the audience was a surefire tip killer. Instead of hanging around after the tour for a nice chat with the friendly guide and the transfer of commensurate compensation, they stampeded for the front doors as if school had just let out.
“It was later discovered they were murdered by his eldest daughter, Gertrude Aldridge.” He pointed to her large oil portrait on the wall. Her dark hair was upswept and she was dressed in an elegant ball gown decorated with rosettes and ribbons on the puffy sleeves and the corsetlike bodice. She wore long white gloves. It had been painted several years before she went lunatic with the knife, and even then she had an expression that could curdle milk.
He often wondered if the artist had asked Gertrude to smile and that bone-chilling grimace was the result. And those eyes! How could a painter stare into those bottomless pits day after day without going mad himself? They blazed with a mixture of fury, hate, and contempt that made tourists avert their gaze. It was like facing down a tigress. Had Gertrude fancied the likeness? Had she directed the pose herself? Why else had the painting been kept and not destroyed? Garrett had walked past the thing five days a week for four years; to him it was just a late-nineteenth-century portrait by a pupil of Thomas Eakins of a dead crazy woman.
The atmosphere in the room grew close. He had their full attention.
“According to the old man’s diary, by the time Gertrude had finished her mission her nightgown was so saturated with blood that it had left a two-foot-wide trail up the stairs to her bedroom. To spare the family public humiliation, instead of turning her in to the police, they locked her in the basement and fed her through this slot.” With a flourish he indicated a metal rectangle that had been inset in the thick wood. His intent listeners had questions, of course. He was leaving great gaping holes in the story. What did Sir Aldridge do with all the bodies? How did he conceal the crimes from the victims’ families and friends? Who cleaned up the incredible mess? How long did Gertrude live in the basement dungeon? Did she wail and scream night and day? Did she die there of natural causes or did she take her own life?
Excellent questions all. The answers to which Garrett withheld until after the official tour ended, when the guests who wanted to know more would be obliged to dip into their billfolds. “Years later,” he said with barely a pause, “when a new owner moved in, they dug out her remains. But after repeatedly hearing strange sounds emanating from the basement, he sealed it shut. That’s right. No one has opened this door since.” While he doubted that was the whole truth of the matter, he’d never been in the basement to test it. “And thank god,” he went on, “because I can’t imagine what she would look like after all these years. She wasn’t looking too good before.”
He nodded at her looming portrait. The group laughed, but a bit nervously this time. None of them could hold Gertrude’s maniacal gaze.
As if on cue, a silver-plated candlestick—a Paul Revere reproduction—fell off a bookshelf and hit the floor with a clang. The tourists jumped at the sound and let out a unison yelp.
As if on cue.
* * *
The last tour guest lingered. She was the twenty-something believer blonde. She had shown no inclination to tip him, hadn’t even touched the clasp of her ridiculously tiny purse, but Garrett didn’t mind in the least. A hottie, she had a head shaped like a lightbulb, which as Garrett had read in Success Secrets of Hollywood, was a big plus on TV. People with lightbulb heads looked way better on the little screen. His own head was relatively normal sized and shaped. On TV it would look like a bowling pin. Head expansion surgery was elective and costly, health insurance wouldn’t cover it, and he had no health insurance anyway. It was a catch-22 or something and his cross to bear.
“That was amazing,” she said in a breathy voice with a deep southern twang as sweet as pecan pie. “You should be on TV.”
“Well, thanks. That’s the dream, anyway.”
She blinked at him, then nodded rapidly. “Oh yes. You should totally go for it. The tour was great. So scary.”
“Thanks. Do you like to be scared?” he asked, letting an arch tone creep into his voice. The only thing about Aldridge Mansion that scared him was the thought of working there for the rest of his life.
Her big blue eyes glittered. “Oh yes.”
“Why?” he said, moving close enough to get a whiff of the Juicy Fruit she was chewing.
“Because it’s fun.”
“Well, I know a lot of even scarier stories. Some of them have happened to me, right here in this mansion. If you’re not busy maybe you and I—”
“Samantha June, let’s go.” It was the rude dude who had smirked at him during the tour.
The girl—Samantha June—pulled a moue of distaste and gave her hair a toss. “That’s my daddy. We’re going to Central Park.”
“There’s a couple of ghosts in the park by the boathouse,” he said in his Sleepy Hollow voice. “If you go there at night, sometimes they manifest.”
“That would be so cool,” she said eagerly.
“Yeah. Really cool.”
She cast a glance up at the portrait and shivered a little. “Unless they look like her.”
“Back in her day they couldn’t fix what she’s got.”
“What she’s got?”
“Can’t you see it? Those big bags under her eyes and the saggy chin?”
“It’s butt face!”
Samantha June choked hard on her Juicy Fruit.
Garrett tried to pat her on the back, but she moved out of reach. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and gave him a forced little laugh before she resumed chewing. “Maybe you should be more careful,” she said earnestly. “I mean, I know this is all probably just pretend, but it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead…”
“In case they’re listening, you mean?”
“I guess you’re right. There’s no way of telling what they can hear.” He fought the urge to grin like an idiot. Gullible chicks were so totally hot.
Samantha June glanced down at the candlestick, which was still lying on its side on the floor, then at him as if trying to decide if he had made it fall over, or if it had happened spontaneously. The strain of the problem made her frown a little and chew faster.
He would never tell. Those things had a way of winding up on Yelp.
“Was that a true story?” she asked out of the blue. “About the murders?”
“Yes, for sure. In fact, we have to kind of clean it up for the tours. The truth is much more extreme. It didn’t come out until the 1940s, when Sir Aldridge’s personal effects were made public.”
“Like what?” She took a step toward him. From the huskiness in her voice, he knew that delicious little tingly tangly chills were working their way up her prim little backbone. Some people really did love to be scared.
“Well, she took a knife from a drawer in her father’s gun case. It was a Paget hunting knife, actually v
“Samantha June!” her father bellowed. “The tour bus is going to leave!”
“Rats,” she said.
And the spell was broken.
“Coming!” She beamed at Garrett and said, “Well, bye. See you on TV sometime.”
“Maybe so.” He flashed his most winning smile at her, but she missed it, having already turned away. She didn’t even look back as she hurried out the front doors. He was disappointed, but only mildly so. There would be more cute tourists tomorrow, and besides, he had to rush to his second job.
Ol’ Gertie Pants glared down at him. Her expression hadn’t changed of course, but the context had. To Garrett she now looked insanely triumphant, pleased that his flirtation had come to nothing, and she had him all to herself again. As he often did, he wondered what could have happened to Gertrude Aldridge to make her so crazy. So wicked and violent. He wasn’t sure he believed that people were born bad. To flesh out his repertoire as tour guide, he’d learned a lot of legends about evil spirits, curses, hauntings, and they rarely occurred because someone simply had been misunderstood or something trivial like that.
“So what was it, Lady G?” he asked the glowering portrait. “Did someone steal your fave tiara? Or was it your way of getting out of an arranged marriage to some fat, rich old bastard? Were you really in love with the gardener, whose face you turned into mulch?”
Ed Mulgrave, his boss, had already left for the day and he was alone in the cavernous mansion. How many times had Gertrude Aldridge “watched” him shut down for the night? He had lost count.
He picked up the candlestick, made sure the spring mechanism was loaded for next time, and set it back on the mantel. There were four scheduled tours tomorrow. At the same precipitous moment in his spiels the rigged candlestick would “suddenly and inexplicably” fall over—triggered by a concealed bit of spinning wire. Sometimes the cheapest tricks were the most effective.