Mystery at Maplemead Castle – Kitty French

Every now and then someone tells me how lucky I am to be able to see ghosts and I bite my tongue and sit on my hands so I don’t accidentally punch them in the face. Honestly, I know it might seem interesting, fun even, from the outside looking in, but if I could trade places with a regular Joe I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s a gift and a curse in unequal measures, but one I’m determined to make best use of by building my fledgling business empire around it. ‘Hey, Bittersweet.’ I look up as Marina bounces a balled-up chewing gum wrapper off my head to get my attention. ‘That’s the third time I’ve said your name.’ She folds the stick of gum in half before she puts it in her mouth. ‘What’s got you so distracted?’ I shrug. ‘Just thinking about this afternoon’s meeting at Maplemead. I can’t remember the last time I went inside an actual castle.’ I avoid places steeped in history on account of the fact they’re usually also steeped in ghosts who want to hassle the hell out of me, but this is for work purposes so I’m breaking my own rules. We’re meeting later today with the American couple who recently moved lock, stock and barrel to England after buying Maplemead Castle over the Internet. I know. Who does that? ‘Do we need to buy caps to doff?’ Marina asks, her dark eyes dancing. She’s not one for taking things too seriously, unless someone winds her up or threatens us, in which case she morphs into a crazy woman and you don’t want to be the one she’s gunning for.

It’s her Sicilian heritage. Luckily for us, she also has a Sicilian nonna, or gran to you and me, who is a stonkingly good cook. Therefore, Marina comes in most days armed with something fabulous in her vintage biscuit tin. ‘A quick tug of our forelocks should suffice,’ I say, pulling ineffectually at my fringe. We both look up as our assistant Artie comes through the door, all long legs and wide, nervous eyes. ‘Morning.’ He grins, then drops to his haunches to greet Lestat, my utterly uncivilised pug. He hasn’t been with us very long, but he already has his paws firmly under my table, his ass in my bed, and his furry flat face in Nonna’s biscuit tin too if he can find a way to get at it without being seen. He’s a ninja when it comes to food, but it’ll take a faster pug than him to come between me and my next sugar hit. I’m not a girl with that many vices, but sugar is definitely near the top of my addiction list.

‘What time are we due at the castle?’ Marina asks. Glenda Jackson, our part-time secretary, taps the end of her pencil against the diary that’s open on her desk. ‘You’re due at Maplemead Castle for two o’clock.’ She glances at her watch. ‘It’s going to take you approximately forty minutes to get there in pre-rushhour traffic, so you’ll need to leave immediately after lunch.’ Glenda doesn’t even look up as she imparts this information, because her fingers are flying so fast over her keyboard that it’s a wonder her hands don’t levitate. She’s worked for my family for more than a decade, and she now does a couple of hours each morning here at the agency before going back to her regular job next door with my mother and gran at Blithe Spirits. Some people would find it difficult to be the sole administrator for two businesses at once. Not Glenda Jackson. Monday to Friday she packs her curves into sexy little power suits, piles her red and gold curls on top of her head, then steers both of the Bittersweet ships whilst doing the cryptic crossword in her downtime.

We are an unlikely company, all round. Glenda Jackson, aka superwoman in a sexy power suit. Artie, snake-charmer, tea-drinker, trainee ghostbuster. Marina, my wisecracking, loyal right-hand girl since we were scabby-kneed kids; a gum-chewing, fiery Sicilian beauty queen. And then there’s me. The short, quirky girl in jeans and Converse who sees dead people, fantasises about superheroes and prefers sugar to sex. Actually, that is a complete and utter lie. I don’t prefer sugar to sex, but I’m not getting any of one so I overindulge on the other. God, imagine if I could combine the two! For a moment I let myself imagine being boffed by Fletcher Gunn – the local hot-shot reporter who I have a love–hate relationship with – whilst eating a Curly Wurly, and it’s so frickin’ fabulous that I feel my cheeks heat up and wonder if the others can tell I’m suddenly on the brink of a saccharine orgasm. ‘Stick the kettle on, Artie,’ I say, reminded of my need for caffeine as he pulls a little plastic Ziploc food bag from his pocket and deposits his weekly supply of tea bags on the tray beside the jar of coffee.

He’s an oddball in all the best ways, our Artie. At first glance he seems gawky and awkward, and actually he is both of those things, but there’s so much more to him too. He has his own special way of looking at the world; pragmatic to the tenth degree and a knack for stating the obvious in a way that cracks me up. It strikes me suddenly that Marina has yet to produce Nonna’s special biscuit tin from her bag. I go icy-cold with fear. Please don’t let this be the day Nonna Malone has decided we don’t need her sugar fix to set us up for ghost-hunting because, as far as I’m concerned, that day will never come. ‘Coffee, Marina?’ I say, hoping to jog her memory without needing to ask outright. If she doesn’t get the hint, I’ll face-plant myself in her cavernous suede hobo bag and wear it as a hat to snout out those biscuits. She nods, looking at me coolly. ‘I don’t know how to break this to you gently, so I’m just gonna be fast and blunt.

Brace yourself. Nonna’s gone back to Sicily for a week. There are no biscuits.’ I gulp, and stare at her in wide-eyed horror. ‘You must have known she was going,’ I whisper hoarsely. ‘You could have prepared me.’ She looks at me with a helpless shrug, which might mean there was a family emergency prompting Nonna’s trip but, more likely, means she was too chicken to tell me. Artie plonks his lunchbox down on my desk and opens it. ‘You can have my egg sandwich if you want,’ he offers. I appreciate the gesture of solidarity.

He feels the same way about his mum’s egg sandwiches as I do about Nonna’s biscuits. ‘I’m going to cry now,’ I say. ‘Because my life is practically ruined.’ I shoot Marina a dark look. ‘Glenda, cancel the appointment at Maplemead. I’m going to go to bed for a week. Wake me up when Nonna Malone comes home again.’ Glenda watches me have my sugar-free meltdown with calm, doe-like eyes, then silently reaches into her desk and hands me an unopened box of shortbread. It’s quite fancy, as it goes; proper Scottish stuff dipped in white chocolate for good measure. I feel my blood sugar start to rise in anticipation and decide that perhaps I don’t need to hit the sack after all.

See what I mean about Glenda Jackson? She’s Wonder Woman without the Spandex. Lestat barrels across the room as I pick the end of the biscuit box open and our eyes meet as he ducks under my desk, skids to a halt and puts his stubby little foot on my knee. ‘Not a chance, Mutt-Face,’ I growl, as protective of the shortbread as a mamma tiger with her newborn cub. ‘Go hunt your own kill.’ I feel absolutely no guilt as he slinks away across the office to his bed, shooting me daggers as he stomps around his cushions in ever-decreasing circles to get comfortable. ‘I’ve printed out the recent sales particulars of Maplemead Castle.’ I pause to hand the copies I made earlier around. ‘It’s worth us all taking some time to familiarise ourselves with it. There’s also a potted history attached at the back, although we’re going to need to go deeper after our initial assessment this afternoon.’ ‘It’s quite a place, isn’t it? I always hoped they’d open it up to visitors but the family were very private,’ Glenda murmurs, admiring the moat and handsome facade.

She isn’t wrong; it’s a beautiful sandstone brick building that has been cared for and modified over the years to keep it in service in various guises, and its many-mullioned windows glint in the sunlight behind the grand stone steps leading up to the entrance. Marina flips the top image of the castle over and whistles as she glances over the details. ‘Seventeen bedrooms!’ Aside from the numerous bedrooms, the castle has a library, a billiards room, various attics, cellars and an old dungeon. ‘I vote we don’t set foot in the dungeon,’ I say. I’m not the bravest when it comes to the dark. ‘Lois and Barty Letterman have been living at Maplemead for a month or so now, and in that time they’ve witnessed an array of paranormal activity; objects being moved, thrown, that sort of thing, that they attribute to ghosts,’ Glenda says, reading through the notes from the booking-in telephone conversation. ‘They’re not unduly bothered for themselves, but a film crew are due in at the beginning of next month and the leading lady has already made it clear that she won’t step foot inside the place while there’s so much as a sniff of ghosts and ghouls.’ From what I can gather, the Lettermans are planning to run the castle as a business, hiring it out as a party venue and film set. Privately, I’m hoping the first movie being made at Maplemead will have a distinctly superhero vibe; I mean, it isn’t a deal-breaker that it has to star Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, but it sure would help oil the wheels. Or would it? I’m not sure I’d get much done, mainly because I’d be stalking him and trying to cop a feel of his iron helmet.

That’s not even a euphemism. I like his actual helmet; all of that wizardy gadgetry stuff makes me come over all Gwyneth Paltrow and want to be his Girl Friday. Or maybe just his girl. Anyway, you get the idea. I’m not exclusive to Iron Man though. I’m a superhero junky; I’d be just as happy to see Captain America or Spidey rock up to the portcullis at Maplemead. Surreptitiously scribbling on my jotter block, I clear my throat and whip quickly through the other bare-bone details we already know about Maplemead, mostly just the basic timeline of the castle that I’ve dug up from the net. There’s not very much to go on yet; we need to get over there and try to assess what’s going bump in the night before Hollywood descends and all hell breaks loose. Glenda rules a neat line to close off the morning meeting in the diary and, as we slowly disperse back to our relative perches, Marina leans over my shoulder and reads my scrawl in the jotter block, then rolls her eyes. Buy Curly Wurlys.

CHAPTER TWO ‘Holy shit.’ I turn the engine off and Marina, Artie and I all sit and stare, goggle-eyed, at the magnificent castle frontage. We’ve just driven in across the drawbridge and through the huge wooden gates set into the thick castle walls and it’s like entering a secret fairy tale. At least the public might get more of a chance to see the castle now; as Glenda said, it’s always been in private hands and cloistered from prying eyes. ‘I don’t think the gatekeeper liked the look of Babs,’ Artie says, stating the obvious from the disdainful way the uniformed guard had eyed Babs, our 1973 Ford transit. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s two-tone buttercup yellow and off-white, or triple tone if you were feeling unkind enough to count the rust. Maybe it’s the fact that we were gawking at him through the windscreen like the three wise monkeys from the front bench seat, or it’s possible it had something to do with the in-your-face Ghostbusting Girls’ Agency logo that Marina lovingly hand-painted on the side. Sure, it echoes back to the glory days of Charlie’s Angels, but Babs is a seventies hippy chick so it’s entirely in keeping with her retro style. She wears her slightly rusty chrome bumpers with jaunty panache, and her juddering and backfiring is the biggest thrill my nether regions get all day, which is more of a sad reflection of me than her. ‘It’s bigger than it looks on the pictures,’ I murmur, leaning forwards until my face is almost pressed flat against the glass as I peer up at the crenelated roofline above the third-floor windows.

The facade is bedecked with several tiers of stone-mullioned windows, seven abreast set across the wide, almost mellow pink stone. It’s actually very pretty, if a castle can be considered as such. It’s certainly a far cry from the austerity of the ruined grey castles Marina and I were hawked around on rainy school trips as kids. It was difficult to listen to the teacher or tour guide when a bevy of beheaded prisoners from the 1500s were bustling around you with their heads underneath their arms indignant at their fate, or on another memorable occasion when the ghostly inmates of a lunatic asylum swamped me so badly that Marina caught me as I’d passed out. I developed a twenty-four-hour sickness bug on trip days after that, which I expect came as a relief all round. I was universally known at school as the latest in a long line of weirdos from Chapelwick’s resident crazy family. I was saved from being bullied only by the fact that some of them had seen Carrie, the Steven King movie where the telekinetic kid goes nutso and burns the school down with them in it. Oh, and by Marina, of course. To get to me they’d have had to come through her, and the Malone family are also well known in Chapelwick – for different reasons. Sicilian reasons.

I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. ‘Do you think we just knock on the door?’ Artie says, gazing across the deep expanse of the gravel forecourt. I don’t know why I’ve instinctively parked as far away from the castle as the forecourt permits; maybe because Babs is like an out-of-place canary here when there should be only sleek ravens. A sweep of wide, shallow steps lead up onto a stone porch inset with grand double oak doors. Marina grins. ‘Nah. I reckon we should just sit here and wait until a knight rocks up and bangs his rod on the window or something.’ ‘His rod?’ Laughter bubbles up in my throat. Trust Marina to be inappropriate. She shrugs.

‘See if I’m wrong.’ On that, one of the front doors swings back on its hinges. ‘You were wrong,’ Artie says. All three of us watch the small birdlike woman flutter out onto the top of the steps. She shields her eyes with her hand to peer at us and the huge jewels on her fingers catch the sunlight and bounce tiny rainbows around her, as if she is the actual rainbow queen in her own rainbow-themed Disney movie. Only this queen has switched her turquoise velvet cloak for a turquoise velvet jumpsuit and her ethereal crown has been exchanged for a white sun visor that loudly proclaims that she’s a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs. ‘And that must be Lady Lois Letterman,’ I murmur. ‘Time to get out and say hi, people.’ Marina pulls a fresh packet of gum from her jeans pocket and unpicks the foil seal, miffed that there will be no knight banging his rod on her windows today. The tiny turquoise rainbow queen starts flapping both of her arms over her head.

‘I think she’s recognised us,’ I say. ‘That or she’s trying to land a plane,’ Artie says, watching her wide-eyed. Marina laughs and I slide the driver’s door back and jump out of Babs onto the gravel with a satisfying crunch. I raise a hand towards the turquoise jumping bean as I round the front of Babs and join the others in the warm early July sunshine. ‘She looks like a manic smurf,’ Marina shoots out of the corner of her mouth as she glides effortlessly over the uneven gravel in her beloved skyscraper heels, whilst I link arms with her to stop myself from stumbling even though I’m in my regular uniform of Converse. I let her go as we reach the safety of the sweeping stone steps and I glance across and flick an encouraging wink at Artie. He grins back, a slash of sunshine over his perpetually anxious eyes. He’s coming out of his shell a little more every day and I’m enjoying watching him unpack his personality in front of us. I don’t think he even realises that he’s funny or that he’s smart, because no one besides his parents ever took the time to see beyond the awkward long-limbed boy in the thick glasses. ‘That van is a riot!’ Lois hoots, stilling her crazy arm motions as we come to a standstill on the top step.

Close up, she looks like a bit of a nut. I don’t mean she looks crazy, I mean she reminds me of an actual nut. A walnut, to be precise, in that her skin is deep-beige tan and criss-crossed over with fine wrinkles in all directions. She has been crazy-paved by too much exposure to sunlight, but nonetheless she exudes an almost child-like energy and excitement. Her skin says seventy and her behaviour says seven and, in actual fact, I know that she is mid-fifties. I know this because I researched her because, as I already said, I am a badass businesswoman. Or because Glenda Jackson gave me a file with all of the details. Thanks to the file, I also know that Lois is Oklahoma born and bred, as is her husband Barty, three years her senior. ‘Melody?’ she says, looking uncertainly at Marina, who in turn nudges me forward sharply enough for me to almost stumble into Lois. I smile, wide and professional, as I thrust my hand out and, at the same time, I flick my other elbow back into Marina’s ribs in retaliation.

I don’t think Lois notices our minor girl fight; she’s too busy arching her eyebrows at the fact that I’m the boss rather than the much slicker, more put-together Marina. ‘I’m Melody Bittersweet,’ I announce at the same time as Artie and Marina both say, ‘She’s Melody.’ Have they never seen Spartacus? My stretched smile is hurting my face, so I plough on. ‘I’m guessing you must be Mrs Letterman?’ Her bright-blue eyes twinkle with trouble. ‘Aw, call me Lolo, honey, everyone does. Or Lady Lolo, as Barty has decided to call me!’ She cackles loudly, amused by her own grandiose. ‘What gave me away? The accent? The American tan?’ I’m tempted to say I’ve seen her photo clipped neatly into the file Glenda prepared, but I just nod and look enthusiastic. ‘All of those things. It’s so great to meet you.’ ‘What a place!’ Marina steps up beside me, all smiles, her arms spread wide to indicate the castle.

Lois laughs with obvious delight. ‘Isn’t it? You buy a castle on the Internet and, trust me, you have your fears that you’re gonna roll up and find a pile of rubble.’ She lowers her voice and leans in conspiratorially. ‘I mean, who does that, right? Only crazy Americans!’ We all nod and then shake our heads at the same time, confused. Is it a test? I can feel myself getting hot and flustered even though I’m only wearing a skinny pink T-shirt. I’ve deliberately erred away from my usual wardrobe of character or statement T-shirts to meet our prospective customers, because you never know who you might offend with Frankie Says Relax emblazoned across your bajongos. No one needs to know that I’m wearing my Wonder Woman knickers under my jeans. That’s strictly between me and Lestat, the only male to lay eyes on me undressed in recent times. ‘This is Marina Malone and Artie Elliott,’ I say, introducing my motley crew. ‘Lady Lolo.

I feel as if I should curtsy!’ Marina says, holding her hand out. ‘Aw, honey, there’s really no need!’ Lois flaps, but all the same she doesn’t take Marina’s hand and her wide eyes and expectant toothy smile say, ‘Go on then, English girl. Drop for me on the steps of my castle.’ Marina flicks me a look that says: ‘must I?’ and I respond with a bland smile that very clearly says: ‘why yes, you absolutely must.’ I can barely contain my snort as I watch her daintily grip the edges of her imaginary tutu between her fingers and thumbs and bend her knees outwards like a frog. Lady Lolo looks taken aback, that big, flashy smile faltering. ‘Where I come from, a lady always keeps her knees together, honey,’ she sniffs and Marina shoots me a WTF glance. ‘I’m so interested to see inside the castle,’ I pipe up, shiny-eyed and enthusiastic. ‘I don’t know how you don’t get lost in a place this size.’ ‘Oh I do, honey, all the time,’ Lolo breezes.

‘I’ve got a pretty impressive holler for a tiny thing though.’ She stops suddenly and throws her head back, then lets out a bloodcurdling scream. ‘BARTY!’ She snaps her mouth shut and then starts to count him out with her fingers like a boxing referee, clearly amused with herself. We all watch her, slack-mouthed and transfixed, and she doesn’t get past six before a tall, mahogany-tanned guy with a shock of white hair barrels out of the door and screeches to a halt beside her, his hands on his knees as he pants for air. He’s as robustly built as his wife is fragile, and dressed as if he’s about to play tennis, except his build suggests he’s more a spectator than a player. It isn’t that he’s fat; he’s just tall and rangy with a gut that demonstrates he enjoys the good life. ‘Barty, will you come look at this! Our ghostbusters have arrived in the most fabulous little van,’ Lolo coos, laying her hand on her husband’s bent back and completely ignoring the fact that he looks as if he might have a heart attack any minute. ‘Did you need to yell out quite like that, honey?’ She looks surprised. ‘You guys, this is Lord Bartholomew Letterman the first, otherwise known as plain old Barty to the likes of you and me.’ Lois raises her hand to her mouth so she can speak confidentially to us, even though she speaks more than loud enough for her husband to plainly hear.

‘Although I have other names I call him, depending on the circumstances, if you see where I’m heading with that. If he’s in my good books I might call him my big sweet turkey cock.’ She leans towards me. ‘I won’t tell you what I call him in the bedroom, but it rhymes with King Kong with a big dong. Oh wait, that is what I call him. Don’t tell him I told you that.’ She cackles and bats her hand, even though we are all perfectly aware that he heard, because she whisper-shouted it loud enough for the gateman to know their bedroom habits, let alone us. For a second we all lapse into silence and Lois and Barty just kind of look at us with their big, expectant smiles, almost as if they’re waiting for us to invite them into our castle rather than vice versa. ‘Shall we?’ I nod politely towards the open doors, deliberately leaving my question open-ended for Lois or Barty to pick up the baton. It does the trick, shaking them out of their King Kong with a big dong reveries and back to the matters at hand.

‘Of course! Come on in, honey.’ Lolo extends her arm expansively towards the entrance for us to go on ahead of her, and I shoot Marina and Artie a quick ‘stay with me’ look before I lead them inside the castle. Oh my God. It’s an actual castle. I mean, I knew it was from the outside, but inside it’s the real deal. We’re in a wide, dark-panelled vestibule and a grand reception hall lies to the left-hand side and a formal library to the right. The floorboards creak with age and atmosphere and a suit of armour stands stoic in one corner. Marina’s heels clatter against the wood and I feel her fingers twist into the back of my T-shirt the way she does sometimes when she’s unsure. Lois ushers us sideways into the grand reception hall, where all three of us take a moment to gaze around in silent wonder. It’s huge and double height and all of the mahogany-panelled walls are rich with carvings and inlaid glass-fronted display cases.

Chandeliers hang from the raftered ceilings and there’s a huge, luminous oil painting in pride of place over the broad, heavily lintelled fireplace. The room has been sympathetically furnished to allow for modern comforts; two deep, wood-trimmed sofas face each other across an oversized coffee table set on an oriental rug and the wooden shutters have been pinned back from the walk-in bay windows to allow sunlight to stream through and dapple the room. I’m pretty sure that you could fit my entire flat in this room. It’s breathtaking. ‘Oh goody. More badly dressed gawkers.’ No one takes any notice, because no one except for me can see or hear the woman staring at us moodily from beside the fireplace. I don’t reply to her, because she doesn’t realise that I know she’s there and I haven’t yet sussed how Lord and Lady Letterman feel about the whole ghost issue. I try to look her way casually, as if I’m just checking out the fascinating architectural details, but it’s incredibly hard not to stare because she’s a dead ringer for Sophia Loren in her heyday. She’s spectacular; all the more so because she is dressed in a cap-sleeved ivory leotard that flares at her hips with a filmy net under-layer that appears to be made from boned parachute silk.

She’s svelte but curvaceous, and she obviously knew how to accentuate her assets when she was alive given the way the encrusted neckline and skinny belt of her leotard glitter with delicate, eye-catching rhinestones. I deduce from the nude pink ballet slippers laced around her well-turned ankles that she was a performer of some variety, and her lustrous midnight black hair is set into rippling, chin-length finger waves. From the neck up she’s a decadent, carefree flapper and then a taut, lithe performer from the shoulders down; a potent combination I’m finding hard to look away from. So much so that it takes a sharp jab in the ribs from Marina to alert me to the fact that Lois and Barty are both staring at me, expectant once again. They must have said something, but I’m totally clueless. I flick my eyes nervously at Marina and try to relay a silent SOS and, thankfully, she picks up on my help-me cue and fans her face with her hand as she blows her fringe out of her eyes. ‘I think it might be too warm for coffee. Something cold, maybe?’ Ah, so we’re still on the formalities. ‘Just water would be great, thank you,’ I murmur. ‘Or maybe you could give us a tour of the place and explain how we can help you as we go?’ I’m keen to have the ghostbuster conversation out of earshot of foxy-leotard girl; I’d rather introduce myself to ghosts in a less-confrontational way if possible.

You ghost, me ghosthunter is never an easy conversation to have. Barty bounds forward, practically rubbing his hands together, and Lois rolls her eyes. ‘You might regret asking for a tour,’ she mutters. ‘I hope you’ve got your walking shoes on.’

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