Excerpt for Tell My Wife I Will Be Home For Christmas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Tell My Wife I Will Be Home For Christmas


VINCENT GILVARRY



Published by the author in association with

www.smashwords.com


Copyright

©

2017


Background image designed by Bruce Rolff

www.shutterstock.com.au


COVER DESIGNED BY THE AUTHOR



















































8INTRODUCTION


It is said that holy men can breathe underwater, that some can walk on water and others can travel through space and time. One young man found that out for himself, not long after he turned eighteen.

A snake charmer and his wife, who had been reaching out from beyond the grave, had an elaborate plan for someone to do what they could not. They had failed to lure three other men into their net, and came up with an alternative plan. It was somewhat more complex because they had a particular type of person in mind, not some egotistical, self-important know-it-all… but someone a little more sensitive.

In the year 2000, the snake charmer’s wife befriends a young boy called Jasper Powell. She has been appearing in his dreams ever since he was five years old, but he never imagined that she would make an appearance in his life. Jasper has acquired a special gift from his Lady Friend and he is about to find out exactly what it is.



Melbourne, Australia

CHAPTER 1

PART ONE

2013


The year 1995 is one that not many will remember. It was the year that the World Wide Web made itself known to the world at large. It was the year that terrorism reared its ugly head in the guise of the Oklahoma bombing, and the year that the Russian space station docked with the shuttle Atlantis.

It was also the year in which the Dalai Lama proclaimed that a six-year-old boy would be the 11th Panchen Lama. However, something equally important happened in the city of Melbourne in faraway Australia. 1995 was the year that Jasper Powell made his appearance on the world stage.

His father had suffered from a medical problem for years and his mother had had enough of married life. When Jasper came along, the rickety foundation of their marriage not only hit the wall, it got even worse after that.

Their friends could not believe they had a child at such a late stage of life, but Henry and Geraldine made it look better than it actually was. The thought of raising a child was not something they could deal with, and when Jasper was five years old, Geraldine filed for a divorce.

She had her reasons, of course. You don’t walk out of a marriage of forty years if everything is sailing along smoothly. Love wasn’t the problem and never had been. And on the advice of a friend, they placed Jasper’s welfare in the hands of a childcare agency called Gridley and Surrey.

Jasper would live with his father, he could see his mother as often as he liked, he would have a structured social life, and most importantly, he would have stability. From an educational point of view, it was the best thing they could have done.

Henry was a retired businessman who chose to subdue his demons with alcohol rather than a prescribed course of medication. Geraldine relinquished her career as a practising gynaecologist, packed her bags, moved out of their Toorak home and opened a tapas bar in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne with a chequered history.

At the time this story starts, Jasper has had fourteen carers since the age of five, university students mostly, looking for a bit of extra cash on the side. The last of those was a young man called Mark Jacobsen whose job was to provide opportunities for Jasper’s social and emotional development. A few months before he graduates from high school, Mark decides to take him on a camping trip up into the mountains.

Mark is a Physical Education student at Monash University and loves nothing better than to slip on his hiking boots and explore the rugged Australian bushland.

‘I have it all planned out Jasper. Our destination will be a freshwater creek that flows down from the Dandenong Range. We will set up our tents, check the place out and maybe even do a spot of fishing.’

‘It won’t be dangerous, will it?’ Jasper says.

‘If we're lucky we will probably see are a couple of birds, a few ground rats, maybe a kangaroo and the occasional snake.’

‘Snakes,’ Jasper says.

He has every reason to be wary. He’s seen quite a few in his dreams and that is where he’d like them to stay.

‘Besides we will be accompanied by my best friends, Declan Smith and Fabian Stella-Marcus. And if anything happens, Fabian will happily come to your rescue.’

‘Any self-respecting snake would think twice about grappling with dear old Fabian. He is, how shall I say, smarter than the average snake.’

One fine but chilly Saturday morning they set off in Mark’s newly refurbished campervan heading for the great outdoors. Jasper is dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, good solid hiking boots and a pair of cargo shorts with big roomy pockets.

As they are zooming along the highway, he is bopping away to his latest discovery, the feel-good tunes of the 50s. Mark and Declan are in the front and Jasper is in the back with Fabian and four huge backpacks.

Fabian is not what you would call evil, but it’s not a good idea to get on his bad side. He’s a very big boy who is renowned for having a vicious tongue, and even the devil would think twice about choosing him as a dance partner.

If Jasper had been a little more observant, he would have noticed that his virtue is in mortal danger. Fabian has a particular preference in dance partners and as of this moment he has Jasper on his ever-active radar.

Two hours after they leave Melbourne far behind, they arrive at their first port of call, a quaint little town called Sassafras. It’s a popular tourist destination where day trippers can soak up its 19th century charm, or sit back and enjoy a hot scone and jam in one of its Devonshire tea houses.

A meat pie is the staple diet of many hard-working men, and for others they are an occasional treat. But as millions of Australians know, there is nothing like a freshly baked pie from the local bakery. For equally hard-working PE students, one pie is barely enough. Mark goes back for a second but Fabian is feeling a little chuffed because he managed to sweet talk the young girl behind the counter and got three for the price of two.

‘You’re a trickster,’ Mark says.

‘An art form I have developed to perfection.’

‘I know, I hope it doesn’t get you into trouble.’

‘It won’t, I am an expert after all.’

‘Yeah, but at what?’

‘At everything, of course.’

After a healthy dose of flaky pastry, they pile back into the campervan and head off for the Dandenongs. With Mark at the helm, they venture along country roads and down narrow country lanes, past week-end retreats and even the occasional country mansion.

It’s almost two o’clock by the time they arrive at a public car park in the middle of nowhere. This is not just a hiking expedition, it’s a data collection exercise as well. Orienteering is an accredited subject and the boys must document their trip in detail. A map of Victorian hiking tracks is essential, as is an old-fashioned but reliable compass, four mobile phones and that ever-dependable App, an online GPS.

They strap on their backpacks and make their way through an old growth forest. They’re a hundred miles from civilisation. It’s cool, verging on cold and by the time they reach their destination, it’s almost four-thirty in the afternoon.

‘Well, we finally made it,’ Mark says.

The light is fading, darkness is closing in and rain clouds are gathering overhead. This is as far from civilisation as Jasper has ever been, a remote camping spot known only to a few intrepid travellers. But it was worth the effort just to see the beautiful Crystal Waters Creek, a babbling brook that meanders down from the Dandenong Mountain Range.

‘It’s just like something out of that movie Deliverance,' Fabian says, 'isn’t it?’

‘I hope not,’ Jasper says.

An encounter with a couple of mean-spirited rednecks is the last thing he wants. But Jasper is a novice and he’s at the mercy of elements. The great outdoors is unknown territory and anything could happen, but that is not his only problem at the moment. He has a new state-of-the-art tent and has no idea what to do with it.

‘You came well prepared,’ Fabian says as he investigates the contents of his backpack.

‘Three tubes of mosquito repellent. What else have you got in there?’

‘Just the bare essentials,’ Jasper says, ‘sausages, eggs, bacon, a battery-operated torch and a few bottles of medicinal alcohol as well.’

‘Medicinal?’ Fabian says.

‘Yes, just in case I get a headache, like from this tent for example.’

‘So, you’re not the outdoors type then.’

‘Nope,’ Jasper says, ‘don’t know a thing about it.’

‘In that case, I’ll give you a helping hand.’

Jasper paid a small fortune for a polyurethane dome and according to the instructions it was a cinch to erect. Fabian removes the tent from its protective sleeve, relocates it to higher ground and with a few deft moves he slips the aluminium poles into their sockets, pulls the tent into place and stakes it to the ground. It’s an activity that takes seven minutes at the most and Jasper is impressed.

‘There now, that should keep the greeblies out.’

‘Impressive,’ Jasper says.

‘I’m an expert at just about everything.’

‘That’s good to know. Thanks, Fabian.’

‘My mother always told me to be kind to strangers. Now, let’s get this show on the road.’

They scout around and collect a stockpile of leaves and branches. Fabian lights the first match of the day and they watch closely as the flames gather in momentum. Thirty minutes later a healthy fire is blazing away and the only chore after that is to cook up an old-fashioned Aussie BBQ.


































CHAPTER 2


For young men who are planning to have a good time, alcohol is an absolute necessity. Jasper watches with interest as Fabian removes a selection of drinks and a black leather pouch from his backpack.

‘Well, we made it,' he says, 'and that deserves to be celebrated.’

‘How old are you, Jasper?’

‘Seventeen, but I’ll be eighteen in a few weeks.’

‘Well, that makes you legal. Perhaps you’d like something to lubricate your vocal chords,’ Fabian says with a glint in his eye.

‘It won’t hurt. In fact, from what Mark has told me it might even do you good. You are a writer, after all, aren’t you?’

‘Amongst other things,’ Jasper says.

‘Consider this a present. It will open your eyes in ways you could never imagine.’

One close encounter was more than enough for Jasper. Every Friday afternoon his mates had a quick puff before they caught the train home, but Jasper had never been interested. One day he decided to give it a try and nearly passed out on the spot. He ended up at Melbourne Central Station and wandered around in a daze for the next two hours.

That was the day that Jasper’s life took a detour he wasn’t expecting. That was the day he noticed an attractive young woman gazing at him from the opposite side of the platform. There was just enough space on the bench for one more person, so she plucked up the courage and asked the old lady at his side if she could squeeze in.

‘I’ve been working non-stop for the last twelve hours,' she said.

She makes herself comfortable, ruffles around in her red velvet bag and removes a packet of cigarettes.

‘You don’t mind if I smoke do you,' she says.

The old lady points to a sign that is visible on almost every street corner in Australia…This is a Smoke Free Zone.

‘We’re underground now and I don’t think that counts,' she says, 'besides I have had a hell of a day.’

‘Whatever you do, never take a job in the hospitality industry. People can be so tiresome when you work in a fancy restaurant.’

The old lady just wants to get home, kick off her shoes and rest her weary legs, but a message over the loudspeaker is the last straw. The six o’clock train to Cranbourne has been delayed and will not arrive for another thirty minutes. She sighs volubly, reaches into her bag and then settles back with a dog-eared copy of an old Mills and Boon love story.

The vivacious Sally Velasko is now free to devote her attention to Jasper.

‘Very interesting eyes,’ she says in a voice that is just short of a sigh.

Sally couldn’t get any closer if she tried, but there is something about Jasper that she just can’t resist. He has a certain indefinable quality. And it’s not just his beautiful green eyes, the dimples around his mouth or his boyish good looks that she finds so attractive. Sally may not know exactly what it is but she likes what she sees.

Most women on the streets of Melbourne wear black as a statement of their position in society, but Sally is not one of those. She prefers to do her own thing, and today she is wearing a pair of blue spangled tights and a red velvet coat. Her glossy black hair is hidden away under a black velvet beret. Ruby red is the lipstick of choice and her sparkling blue eyes are accentuated by a hint of eye shadow.

Jasper is a typical seventeen-year-old boy operating on that most vital of all frequencies, but he is no match for a seductress in disguise. Within minutes Sally has him laughing away about one thing and another and before he knows it, she has his phone number and he has hers.

Passengers are bored and tired and the sound of the train soaring through the tunnel is music to their ears. Jasper would dearly love to stay a little longer but he has to go. Sally has no intention of letting him out of her sight, not today or any other day in the future. She follows him onto the carriage and takes a seat by his side.

‘So, Jasper, what are you doing tonight?’

Jasper’s hands are sweating and his heart is beating a tad faster than usual. He is hardly an innocent, but as he gazes into those seductive blue eyes and ruby red lips, he knows exactly what Sally has in mind. He has the distinct feeling that he is about to venture into uncharted waters without a map or compass.

‘I was just going to have a pizza and maybe watch a movie.’

‘With Mum, Dad and three siblings, perhaps,’ Sally says.

‘No, I sort of live alone. If Dad is at home, he is probably in an alcoholic stupor.’

‘In that case, I’d love to join you, if you don’t mind. I am an apprentice chef, amongst other things and I could whip up a few delectable nibbles…and maybe something else as well.’

‘I hope you are hungry, Jasper, because I am famished.’

When the train arrives at Toorak station, Sally takes his arm and they wander down the hill and around the corner. Jasper lives in a red brick Georgian mansion and Sally is impressed. He never did get an opportunity to watch a movie that Friday evening. Sally had other things on her mind, and as Jasper will eventually find out, Sally always gets her way.




















CHAPTER 3


Jasper is in the company of three very healthy and handsome young men. They are about to step out into the big wide world and preach the value of regular exercise, a wholesome diet and moderation in all things, but they are young men after all.

‘So, Jasper, name your poison,’ Fabian says. ‘We have quite a lot to choose from. Have you ever had a drink before?’

‘My father has a wine cellar in the basement and a bar that most people would die for,' he says.

‘That answers that question, I suppose.’

‘So, you’re a rich boy from what I hear?’

‘If you call living in a mansion with no one to talk to, other than the occasional carer, then I guess I am a rich boy,' Jasper says, 'but I am an orphan of sorts.’

‘And why is that?’

‘My parents were too old to raise a child so they leave it to people like Mark, and for that I have been very grateful.’

‘So, they did everything for you.’

‘No, they didn’t, Fabian, but they did show me something about the world in which they live.’

‘I once spent three weeks with an Indian family in Pondicherry, and at the age of ten, I was unofficially adopted by five gay men, all of whom I still call friends.’

‘Now that is interesting, Jasper. Is there anything else I should know?’

That’s a leading question if ever there was one, and Jasper is starting to wonder about this hulking Greek god of a guy.

‘Well, when I was twelve, I spent every week-end helping to feed the needy and homeless on the streets of Melbourne.’

There are so many other things that he could have said but this is not the time or place.

‘No complaints then, Jasper.’

‘Sometimes Fabian, sometimes.’

The following morning, Jasper wakes with a start from a deep and restless sleep, only to hear Mark calling to him across space and time.

‘Jasper, rise and shine, it’s time to get up.’

‘Okay Mark, I’ll be there in a few minutes.’

Jasper stumbles out of his tent and it’s a beautiful new day. The aroma of bacon and eggs drifts through the air, birds are singing in the trees and the gentle sound of a stream gurgles away in the background.

‘How’s the head?’ Mark says as he tends to breakfast over an open fire.

‘Not too bad, considering what we got up to last night.'

It’s a wonder they are still alive. They had a few too many drinks and it was all Fabian’s fault. As Jasper discovered, he has a mischievous sense of humour and will do anything for a good laugh.

‘So, where are the boys? Did they go for a run?

‘No Jasper, they’re still in their tent.’

‘Wow, how did I miss that?’

‘You couldn’t tell,’ Mark says curiously.

‘No, I didn’t have a clue.’

‘Well, they’re pretty low key about it. They are going to be teachers, after all.’

‘A cup of coffee perhaps,' Mark says, 'it’s the real thing.’

‘A triple dose to start with,’ Jasper says, 'just to see if I’m still normal.’

‘But you’re not going to say anything about the boys to Gridley and Surrey, are you?

Jasper has only ever had to submit one bad report on a carer, a young fellow whose interests were somewhat suspect. He never did get his wicked way, but he did get his marching orders.

‘I certainly will not Mark, besides it’s none of their business.’

‘This trip is an important part of my social and emotional education, and that’s the sort of thing they like to hear.’

‘Thanks Jasper, you’re a good guy,' Mark says.





CHAPTER 4


Two months later, Jasper’s father is diagnosed with liver failure and rushed off to hospital in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, he passes away two days later. It’s a very difficult time as it coincides with his high school graduation and his eighteenth birthday. But it could have been a lot worse if not for Sally. She takes a week off from work, escorts him to the graduation dance and even makes a cake for his birthday.

His father's funeral is a quiet affair, a simple graveside ceremony with a few close friends in attendance. Saying goodbye to a loved one is not easy, but Sally stands at Jasper's side and does her best to offer what little comfort she can. As the only remaining member of his family, his mother Geraldine also makes an appearance, in body if not in spirit.

As Jasper’s legal guardian, she makes no effort to contest the will. Geraldine is seventy-three years old and won’t be around forever. Jasper is nominated as the sole beneficiary of his father’s estate, and numerous documents must be signed and countersigned. Consequently, he sees more of his mother in the solicitor’s office than he has in ages.

‘Well, Mum, that’s the last one,’ he says. ‘Feel like a coffee before you go back to work.’

‘That would be lovely Jas.’

They spend the next hour wandering through Toorak Village, an exclusive shopping precinct for the well-heeled and the well-to-do.

‘Jasper, you’re a very wealthy boy now,’ Geraldine says. ‘What are you going to do with your life?’

‘I think I’ll sell the house and find somewhere else to live.’

‘In that case, I know just the place. There’s a very interesting building in Fitzroy.’

‘Why don’t you come over and check it out. It’s a bargain compared to anything else in the area.’

‘I might just do that,’ he says.

Geraldine is the owner of a tapas bar called Donna Isabella’s, an inconspicuous little shop in the time capsule that is Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Jasper knows the area as well as he knows Toorak. Whereas Fitzroy oozes old world charm and character, Toorak reeks of style, class and money.

Fitzroy is one of the oldest suburbs in Melbourne, a popular haunt for artists and musicians. Thousands of cottages were built in the early 20th century to cater for the influx of European immigrants and a few still exist in their original form.

It has always had a colourful mix of people, including the poor, the sad, the lost and the lonely. The seedy boarding houses and brothels of days gone by have been given a new lease of life. And in the 1980s the young urban professionals moved in and transformed Fitzroy into what it is today.

Before deciding whether he will buy the building in Brunswick Street, Jasper decides to check it out in advance. He’s excited at the thought of having his own place and makes an appointment to meet the real estate agent at 10.00 o’clock, one fine and sunny Saturday morning.

The first thing he notices is that the building even has a name. The Phoenix, 1914, is etched into the lintel above the front door.

‘Mum, that’s an interesting name,' he says. 'I wonder if it means anything.’

‘I have no idea Jas, but it appears to be a very solid-looking building.’

The Phoenix is a narrow red brick structure with decorative features like that of the Art Nouveau style. The windows on the ground floor have been replaced by brickwork. The first and second floors do not appear to be occupied, but the top floor apartment has a fancy little balcony at the front.

‘Look up there on the roof, Mum. It even has a bell tower,’ Jasper says. ‘If that’s any indication of what it’s like, I have a feeling this is going to be good.’

‘Have you met the real estate agent yet, Jasper?’

‘No Mum, I have only spoken to her on the phone. I think she’s from the upper end of town.’

Jennifer Bradley is an attractive young woman in her late twenties who drives an expensive sports car, and her idea of a business suit is a perfectly appointed, two-piece ensemble with matching shoes.

After a few minutes of general chit-chat, they wander down a side street to the rear of the building. The only access is through a security gate in a bluestone wall, beyond which is a spacious courtyard.

‘In days gone by, this was probably a stable,’ Jennifer says. ‘But today, it could accommodate three medium sized cars or even a lap pool.’

‘That could come in handy,’ Jasper says.

Being the business-minded person that she is, Jennifer launches into her sales pitch immediately. Jasper is a prospective client and there is money to be made.

‘The original tenants were live-in caretakers but The Phoenix has had a series of occupants over the years.'

‘It has been vacant for the last five years and is always spotlessly clean.'

'I believe a local family looks after it, but I have no idea who they are.’

The Phoenix is built on a solid bluestone base, a popular building material of the 19th century and it even has a wine cellar in the basement. The lobby looks like the entrance to a classy hotel. Filtered light streams in through a beautiful stained-glass window. An ornately carved staircase winds its way to the top floor, and an ornamental lamp suspended from the ceiling adds a touch of quiet sophistication.

‘The design is similar to the Art Nouveau style,’ Jennifer says, ‘leaves and tendrils and that sort of thing.’

If Jasper had been a little more observant, he would have noticed that the dominant motif in the lobby is a decorative pattern of snakes, vipers and serpents.

‘This is really beautiful,’ he says, ‘and I would like to see more.’

Jasper wasn’t sure what to expect, but the moment he steps through the door, it’s like stepping into a dream he ha had a hundred times before.

The top floor apartment is a vast open space with polished wooden floors and a view of Fitzroy through every window. High up above is a vaulted wooden ceiling surrounded by a decorative, hand-carved cornice, and at the very apex, there’s a most unusual-looking tower.

‘That’s not a bell tower, is it?’

‘No, it’s not, Jasper, it’s a bust of a woman, and if you look closely, you can see that her head-dress is a crown of stylised serpents.’

‘Snakes,’ Jasper says.

The very mention of the word is enough to send him into a spin, and for a very good reason, he has been dreaming about them for years.

‘This is the work of a very accomplished craftsman’ Geraldine says. ‘Do you know anything about the builder?’

‘Not much,’ Jennifer says, ‘other than the fact that his wife was the inspiration for the décor.’

‘It seems that she was a great beauty from somewhere like India. He was renowned as a snake charmer extraordinaire and she was commonly known as the snake charmer’s wife.

Jasper is not sure if he could live in a place with a snake goddess hanging over his head and a cornice that slithers around the room like an articulated serpent.

As he wanders around trying to decide, he is stopped in his tracks by an unfamiliar tingling sensation. It slithers up his spine like a snake slithering up a pole, stops halfway for a second or two and then surges up his backbone.

Something very weird has just happened, but as to why he is surrounded by a golden light Jasper is not really sure. But the weirdest thing of all is that he feels as light as a feather.

If that isn’t enough to do his head in, an unusual display of lights at the far end of the room definitely is. Unbeknownst to Jasper, this is the energetic activity that precedes the appearance of a spirit from the spirit world.

The ghostly form of a woman steps through an invisible portal, drifts around the room, opens her arms and nods her head as if to say, this is a very good idea, Jasper.

Jasper knows exactly who she is. It’s his Lady Friend, the very same woman who’s been appearing in his dreams ever since he was a boy.

‘Jasper, are you alright? Geraldine says. ‘You’re as white as a sheet.’

‘Yes Mum, I’m just a little light-headed that's all. I’ll be okay in a few minutes.’

Jasper’s Lady Friend is no secret to Geraldine. She took him to a psychologist when he was eight years old, but it was to no avail, Jasper's Lady Friend continued to appear like clockwork. As to who she is, he has no idea, but her usual routine is to gaze into his eyes as if she is aching to take him into her arms.

‘So Jas,' Geraldine says, 'what do you think?’

‘It really is beautiful Mum.’

‘It would be a shame to let someone else get hold of it.’

‘I know Mum, it would, wouldn’t it?’

‘So, what will you do, my boy?’

Jasper is in a quandary and his instincts are to walk away and forget he ever saw this place. But his Lady Friend obviously has very different ideas. From the look on her face, it’s apparent that she is beseeching him to throw caution to the wind and just do it.

‘I think I’ll take it, Mum.’

‘Congratulations,’ Jennifer says. ‘You have made an excellent choice.’

It’s the biggest decision that Jasper has ever made in his life, and whether he likes it or not, the die has been cast. A few days later, he becomes the proud owner of a prime piece of Victorian real estate and the custodian of a major piece of its forgotten history. But as he will soon discover, The Phoenix has its secrets and it hashat , age oform of dy hanging over his head and a ith a cornice that looks like a long trailing serpent. he been waiting for someone like him to come along and work out exactly what it is.

Jasper hasn’t said anything about what happened the week before. To see a ghost in the clear light of day was weird enough, but that tingling sensation and that halo of light, what was that all about?

But that is the least of his problems at the moment. He has enough on his hands trying to get the house ready for the auction. The prospect of cleaning ten rooms is more than he can handle and he happily pays someone to do the dirty work.

Jasper wasn’t planning to hang around for the auction, but his mother begged him to change his mind. It had been her home for over forty years and this is an opportunity to put old ghosts to rest.

Just about everyone at the auction is a lawyer, a doctor or a merchant banker. And while some are doing their best to look as unobtrusive as possible, a few are obviously from the shady side of town. To purchase a house in Toorak would be an opportunity to stake their claim to a slice of hallowed ground. And for one nameless face in the crowd, it’s a bargain at 8.5 million Australian dollars.

To Jasper’s relief, it doesn’t take as long as he thought it would and it’s all over in an hour.

‘So, Jasper, what are you going to do with the furniture?’ Geraldine says.

His father was an avid collector of 19th century furniture of one style or another. But an antique dealer with an eye for a bargain would happily take everything off his hands. Jasper sold half the furniture at auction, and donated a truckload of odds and ends to charity, but he wasn’t about to dispose of his heritage altogether.

‘Those old wardrobes could come in useful,’ he says. ‘I think I might take those as well.’

‘What about the wine cellar?’ Geraldine says.

‘Ah yes, I’ll see to that as soon as possible.’

They wander arm-in-arm out the gate and make no effort to look back. That old Georgian mansion has far too many memories and they’re more than happy to leave them exactly where they are.

















CHAPTER 5


Rattling around in an empty apartment felt very strange for the first few weeks but Jasper was never alone. Even though she was never visible, his Lady Friend made an impromptu visit at least once a day. The tell-tale sign was that all-too-familiar tingling sensation. And after that, he’d just drift around in a daze and his feet barely even touched the ground.

She just happened to make an appearance on the night that Sally stayed over, but that was all it took. A few days later she moved in, accompanied by a black cat called Merlin. The very moment he saw something out of the corner of his eye, Merlin made a beeline for the front balcony and that’s where he stayed for the next three weeks.

If you have just moved into a new apartment and the only thing you have to cook with is a rusty old gas-burner stove, the first thing you’d do is throw it in the trash can, and that’s exactly what Jasper did.

He happily spent a small fortune on a new state-of-the-art kitchen, a huge black and white couch and several wingback chairs. But Sally wasn’t about to let the twelve-seater dining table or the French Imperial armoires to gather dust in the basement.

They spend the next few weeks trawling through some of Fitzroy’s best antique shops where Sally spied a wooden canopy bed, it’s the sort of thing you might see in a medieval castle. She spent ages decorating it with acres of deep blue brocade and exotic Indian saris. And when it was finished, Jasper christened it the boudoir of the Queen of Sheba.

A plaque at the bottom of the stairs clearly indicated that The Phoenix was completed on the 28th of March, 1914, and that gave Jasper an inspired idea.

‘Why don’t we have a house-warming party and invite a few people over.’

Their biggest problem was how to trim down an extensive list of friends, and the only solution was to pick a name out of a hat. It’s a task for which they had to pluck up a bit of old-fashioned Dutch courage, but there was plenty to choose from. Over five thousand bottles from the Toorak wine cellar had been stored away in the basement. And as a consequence, it takes two bottles of a finely aged red before they are ready to roll.

‘Okay, I’ll go first,’ Jasper says as he selects the first name from the hat.

‘Ah ha, the Queen of the Witches is a certainty.’

There are not too many people who can say that the Queen of the Witches is one of their best friends, but Jasper can, thanks to his mother Geraldine, of course.

Mortisha is the very essence of modern day witchiness. Other than the fact that she wears a long black dress from nine to five, she has nothing in common with the unflappable Morticia of Addams Family fame.

As everyone knows, she is a fictitious creation, but Mortisha Montserrat has two principal interests, one of which is handsome men and the other is a passion for high-class fashion.

‘Your turn,’ Jasper says to Sally.

She is just about to select a name from the hat when a gust of wind scatters little bits of paper all over the floor.

‘Now that was seriously creepy,’ she says. ‘Is this place haunted?’

Jasper hasn’t had the heart to tell her that strange things have been happening ever since he moved in.

‘I think it might be,’ he says.

‘What do you mean by that Jasper?’

‘Well, ever since I was a boy, a woman has been appearing in my dreams, but for some reason she has decided to make an appearance in my life as well.’

‘So, who is she Jasper and what does she want?’

‘I don’t know, but whenever she appears I get all sort of tingly.’

‘Like goose bumps you mean?’

‘No, it’s like every cell in my system is vibrating at light speed. And I feel as if I’m out there somewhere and here at the same time.’

‘I have no idea what that means,’ Sally says. ‘Perhaps she fancies you Jasper.’

‘A desire to seduce me is not it at all Sally. My Lady Friend has never done anything like that. Not once.’

‘But she is obviously hanging around for a reason.’

‘Like what Jasper?’

‘It has something to do with this place. It’s based on the theme of a snake, just in case you hadn’t noticed.’

‘I had noticed that, of course, Jasper. So, what does she want?’

‘I think she’s trying to tell me something.’

‘And what would that be?’

‘I don’t know, maybe she was murdered here, in this very apartment, and she wants someone to find out the truth.’

‘The spirits of the departed do not rest easily, especially if they have been maligned,’ Sally says in an overly theatrical manner. ‘They usually hang about until their issues have been resolved.’

‘That’s the sort of thing Mortisha would say. Perhaps she can solve this problem, because I have had enough of this situation.’

‘It’s getting all too creepy and it’s not normal either.’






















CHAPTER 6


Sally has to face a twelve-hour day slaving away in the kitchen of a chic restaurant in Collins Street. She has no choice but to be out of the house by five thirty in the morning. Jasper, on the other hand, usually crawls out around nine, after which he sits on the balcony having his first coffee for the day.

His dream has always been to write a best-selling novel. And he would love nothing better than to peck away at one of his unfinished manuscripts, but that isn’t going to happen, not at the moment.

When all else fails, he heads off to the Melbourne Baths to do a few laps in the pool. The City Baths are a twenty-minute walk through the beautiful Carlton Gardens, and after a hundred or so laps, he usually wanders over the road to soak up the atmosphere of the fabled Queen Victoria Markets.

The Old Vic Markets are the most famous markets in Melbourne and they are as popular with the locals as they are with the tourists. Only the most resolute have the power to resist the intoxicating aroma of freshly cooked food wafting through the air, but Jasper has other things on his mind. Instead of going home, he decides to stop off and see his mother instead. At this time of the day, Geraldine is usually preparing the delicacies for the mid-day rush and she sometimes needs an extra pair of hands.

‘Jasper, it’s so lovely to see you,’ she says. ‘I’m running a little late. Mind giving me a hand?’

‘Definitely Mum, what do you want me to do.’

‘Peel the prawns, prepare the whitebait and cut up the squid, to start with.’

‘You mean this sloppy mess on the bench.’

‘Yes Jas.’

Desecrating a few lifeless menu items is good therapy. At least it gives him something else to think about. And as far as Jasperis concerned, he has done more than enough thinking for one day.

‘The smelly jobs for the hired help,’ he says. ‘No problemo, Mama.’

Geraldine loves all things Spanish, and when she lived in Barcelona, she would step out onto the streets wearing a lace mantilla, a satin skirt and big chunky shoes. But today, it’s purely for business reasons and she is dressed in a deep green skirt, a bright red scarf, big chunky earrings, a healthy application of eye shadow and a string of glitzy beads.

Over the years, she has become very popular with a few of the local Latin lovers, not the young ones in tight fitting pants, but the mature fellows like Rogelio, Ramon and Raoul. Geraldine doesn’t have time to make their dreams come true, but she usually blows them a kiss and that really does make their day.

Tapas food is for people who like to nibble. They are tasty little appetisers which are usually accompanied by a glass or two of red wine. Geraldine also has a few Spanish classics on the menu, paella, potato tortillas, chorizo sausage and an anchovy and potato salad. Two soups are always on offer, one of which is gazpacho, a chilled tomato and cucumber soup served up with fresh salsa and a handful of garlic croutons.

Geraldine doesn’t regret giving up a lucrative career as a gynaecologist, and she certainly doesn’t miss the stress of being a medical professional. She is doing something that she loves.

‘Thirty minutes to countdown,’ she says, ‘just enough time for a glass of wine and a quick cigarette.’

When they step out the back-door, Geraldine offers Jasper his first ever cigarette, and even though he has never been tempted, he jumps at the opportunity.

‘You look a little worried Jas. Is everything okay with you and Sally?’

‘Yes Mum, it’s all good, but it’s that apartment. I think it’s haunted.’

‘Really, that must explain why it was such a bargain.’

‘But there’s more. I’m still having those dreams about my Lady Friend. And I’m sure she’s there as well.’

‘What do you mean, Jas?’

‘Well, she just pops in sometimes, not to scare me or anything. She has never done that, but I always know when she’s around.’

‘Why, what does she do?’

‘Well, it’s nothing awful, but I get all weird and tingly, like I’m about to take flight or something.’

‘Really Jasper, that does sound interesting.’

‘I wish I knew what it was all about, Mum. But the last time it happened, all I could think about was Dad.’

‘Your father experienced something like that after his mother died. He was always saying he could see her in the house.’

‘It took its toll on both of us after a while, which is another reason I moved out.’

‘I have a suspicion that there’s something going on,' Jasper says, 'and my Lady Friend wants me to do something about it.’

‘This sounds like a case for Mortisha, High Queen of the Witches,’ Geraldine says. ‘You have her number, don’t you?’

‘Yes Mum, I do.’

‘Jas, my beautiful boy, things happen for a reason, and I would not be surprised if you have been chosen to solve a long-standing problem.’

‘That sexy she-devil might have you in her sights, but don’t ignore her. I think she likes you, my boy.’

‘I think she does Mum, but I wish I knew why, because I can’t take much more of this.’


















CHAPTER 7


Mortisha lives a few streets away and Jasper often pops in for a chat. As he knows from experience, it’s not a good idea to just rock up at the door. The last time he did that Mortisha was entertaining a coterie of like-minded souls. An eerily cat-like woman, swathed in black silken veils took a fancy to him immediately. Lucrezia Lavarre was a vaporous spirit on two legs who spoke in long breathy pauses. In an effort to cleanse Jasper’s aura of a few unwanted visitors, she spent ages showering him with invigorating little molecules, or that is what she said at any rate.

He knocks politely on the door and just hopes for the best, and to his relief Mortisha is at home.

‘Jasper,’ she says. ‘It’s lovely to see you again.’

After a compulsory kiss on both cheeks, she stands back and scrutinises him in the way that only a witch can do.

‘I have a feeling that something big is about to pop up,' she says.

‘I hope not, Mortisha.’

‘There is definitely something going on with you, young man. Now come in and tell me everything.’

Mortisha has long black hair and deep black eyes, and for professional reasons, she wears a long black dress that usually attracts little bits of lint, fluff and dust. As to her age, Jasper has no idea, she could be a hundred or she could be forty. She is a witch after all and probably knows the secret of immortality.

Mortisha lives in a renovated cottage, a house that looks like any other on the street, until you get inside that is. The focal point of the lounge is an enormous crystal ball, and above that is a ceiling which resembles a spider’s web. Jasper never did have the courage to ask about the strange green glow emanating from a door at the far end of the room. For all he knows it could be a portal to the world beyond, but he’s relieved to see that there isn’t another soul in sight, other than Mortisha’s shaggy old cat, Methuselah.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she says.

‘Anything Mortisha, as long as you don’t spike it with something.’

‘You are in a bad way, my boy. I think you are in need of sedation.’

While Mortisha attends to a simple domestic task, Jasper just goes for it and tells her everything.

‘So, when your Lady Friend appears you experience a heightened sense of arousal, shall we say?’

‘Not that sort of arousal, Mortisha.’

‘Okay, tell me more.’

‘It starts at the base of the spine, like a tingling sensation at first, and then every cell in my body goes into overdrive.’

‘So, you feel energised, you could say.’

‘Yes Mortisha, big time. Like a power plant on two legs.’

‘Jasper, have you ever heard of the Kundalini?’

‘No Mortisha, I haven’t. What is it?’

‘It's a reservoir of power at the base of the spine. And once activated, it flows up to the brain and opens the way for experiences of a non-physical nature.’

‘It’s not life-threatening, is it Mortisha?’

‘For first timers, it can be temporarily debilitating, Jasper, but for the experienced, it is unadulterated bliss.’

‘If the Kundalini ever makes an appearance, magic can happen. Your energy system operates on full power for a few glorious hours, and you feel as light as the proverbial feather, so to speak.’

‘Then that must be it, Mortisha. What else could it be?’

‘What you have described is what the Holy Men of India experience, Jasper. It happens for a reason in their case.’

‘However, once this situation has been resolved, you will probably never experience the Kundalini again, but you never know.’

‘But why is it happening to me, Mortisha.’

‘Your Lady Friend obviously activates that energy when she makes an appearance. It seems that she is determined to communicate something to you and you alone.’

‘You obviously have a connection with this woman. Perhaps you were lovers in a previous life.’

‘I don’t think so, Mortisha. I think she has something to reveal and she has chosen me to do it. Why I cannot imagine, but she has.’

‘In which case, another visit to your apartment would not be out of order. I will look into this in my own way and let you know what I find out.'

'You never know what else might pop up, Jasper.’

‘In the meantime, did you enjoy the tea?’

‘You didn’t put hemlock in it, after all. Did you?’

‘No Jasper. That would have been fatal. Not that I would, of course. You were doing perfectly well without any help from me.’































CHAPTER 8


To Jasper’s mind, that idea does make sense, but it leaves him with a lot to think about. Not knowing what else to do, he wanders aimlessly along Brunswick Street, and on an impulse, he decides to investigate a spiritual bookshop.

Entering The Lighthouse is like stepping into a highly-charged sanctuary. The air is suffused with incense, and hundreds of crystals suspended from the ceiling give it a very otherworldly feeling.

The Lighthouse has a very interesting selection of books on all sorts of New Age topics, channelling, spirit guides and other out-of-this-world things. Jasper works his way through one shelf after another until he finds a book called Meditations on the Kundalini by Swami Jagatpati.

‘This looks like just the thing,’ he says.

He races up to the counter, hands over the money and heads for the peace and quiet of the Fitzroy Public Library. According to the cover, Swami Jagatpati is a holy man who claims to have reached a state of Godhead through intensive meditation. But he is also a self-professed expert who has spent most of his life in a state of Kundalini-inspired bliss.

This is new territory and Jasper is intrigued. The Kundalini has a long and ancient history, but the thing that really takes Jasper by surprise is the fact that it has always been depicted as a serpent.

‘Ah ha,’ he says, ‘that explains all that weirdness. Now it’s starting to make sense.'

'My never-ending snake dreams have nothing to do with snakes at all.’

But it is what the Swami has to say about the effect of the Kundalini on lovers both young and old that really wins Jasper over.

‘Ooh, Sally will love to hear about that.’

Now that he knows that he isn’t possessed by evil spirits, Jasper starts to relax. But before he goes, he decides to inspect an exhibit on the local area.

‘Mm, maybe they have something about my building as well.’

He approaches the librarian on duty and explains that he is the owner of The Phoenix.’

‘Ah, that place,’ she says. ‘We have a selection of old maps and a range of historical documents that you might find useful.’

Brunswick Street has had several incarnations over time and many of the grander buildings date from the 1850s. Melbourne went through a building boom following the discovery of gold, but, everything changed during the 1930s. Entire blocks were razed to the ground. Living conditions were abysmal. Houses were in a pitiful state, and immorality and drunkenness were rife.

‘And the lives of the inhabitants were nothing if not deplorable,’ Jasper says. ‘Things must have been absolutely horrible in those days.’

It’s all very interesting and Jasper is just about to give this idea up as a lost cause, when it moves into even stranger territory. He has never been one to hear voices in his head, but he has the distinct feeling that someone just whispered in his ear.

‘Jasper, search and you will find.'

‘I’m doing my best,’ he says. He looks around warily, relieved to see that no one even notices.

He suddenly remembers a conversation he had with Jennifer Bradley.

‘So, the other two apartments,’ he said. ‘Are they the same as this one?’

‘No one knows, Jasper. They have never been occupied.’

‘There’s something odd about that. What about the pub on the ground floor?’

‘It was bricked up, not long after the building was finished and no one has ever seen it.’

‘And I presume that you have the keys.’

‘No, we don’t Jasper. We only have the keys to the top floor apartment. But the contract clearly states that they will be transferred to the new owner, after they take possession.’

‘And who will do that?’ he says.

‘That, I cannot say, Jasper.’

‘So, who owns this place?’

‘Our only contact is with a private mail box in Colombo.’

CHAPTER 9


A holiday in India was a real eye-opener but Jasper was glad when it was over. All the clues are probably staring him in the face and the last thing he wants is to pack his bags and head off to Sri Lanka. He delays his return for as long as possible and decides to have a coffee to pass the time, but when he gets back home, it is only to find that the security gate unlocked.

‘Oh no, this isn’t good,’ he says. ‘What will I do?’

Jasper doesn’t have a macho muscle in his body, and absolutely no martial arts skills at all. Sally won’t be home for another hour or so, so it couldn’t be her. And the last thing he wants is to wrestle an intruder to the ground.

‘Perhaps it’s a previous resident, but there’s no way they could break in, not unless they are some sort of modern-day cat burglar.’

Jasper had the locks changed to an electronic system, and only he and Sally know the password. That can only mean they are in one of the other two apartments.

He has been up and down the stairs at least five hundred times in the last two months, and has often wondered what could be behind the other two doors. He has a feeling that he is about to find out. He creeps up to the door on the first floor, but it is locked as he is relieved to see.

‘So, they’re in the other one,’ he says.

He moves along quietly, his heart pounding away in his chest, and to his dismay, the door on the second floor is ajar. Not much but it is. Oddly enough he just happens to notice an old-fashioned fragrance wafting through the air.

‘Cashmere Bouquet, that’s what my grandmother used to wear.’

Jasper is not about to rush in unannounced, so he braces himself and takes a long deep breath.

‘Come out whoever you are. This is private property and you are trespassing.’

The worst thing about living in the modern age is the fear factor. Television has been brainwashing people for decades, making them believe that everything is dangerous, that the food they eat is carcinogenic, that their neighbours are the enemy, and at any given moment, they will strike you down and that will be that.

But the last person Jasper expected to see is a lovely white-haired old lady peering cautiously around the door.

‘Don’t hurt us sonny,’ she says. ‘Please don’t hurt us. We don’t mean you any harm.’

‘Are you Jasper Powell by any chance?’

‘Yes, I am, but who are you?’

‘My name is Bella, Arabella José and this is my husband Paz, Pasquale. We are your neighbours, Jasper.’

Jasper is not about to be mugged by two of the loveliest old people you could ever wish to see. And they really are his neighbours. He has often seen Paz pottering around in the back garden.

‘But what are you doing here?’

‘Jasper, we are here to give you the keys,' Bella says, 'but before we do that, perhaps you could oblige us with a cup of tea.’

‘I could,’ he says. ‘I definitely could.’

‘Please take my arm as I am a very old lady now. It takes me ages to get up these stairs.’

There are exactly thirty-three steps between each floor, and its slow going with Bella on one arm and Paz on the other, but they eventually get there.

‘Jasper, your apartment is beautiful,’ Bella says. ‘But where is your girlfriend?’

‘She’ll be here soon.’

‘Jasper, you boil the kettle and we will sit down and wait. We have so many things to tell you.’

Jasper sends a quick text message to Sally, alerting her to the fact that they have company. And while he’s at it, he sends one to Mortisha and his mother as well.

He races back and forth with cups and saucers, milk, sugar and biscuits, and just as he is about to pour the tea, all three of them appear at the door.

‘I know you,’ Geraldine says as she races over to Bella.

‘I have seen you before.’

‘Yes, we pass your shop, but only on a Thursday,’ Bella says. ‘We have never stopped in for a chat, but I often thought we should.’

‘You’re Donna Isabella, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, I am, but my real name is Geraldine Powell.’

As to how he was going to get hold of the keys, Jasper had no idea, but this is the last thing he expected. Bella and Paz have a story to tell, and everyone is waiting on tenterhooks to find out the secret of The Phoenix.

‘Our parents arrived as immigrants just after the Spanish Civil War of 1937,’ Bella said. ‘The Franco regime targeted anyone who was still loyal to the king, but my family barely escaped with their lives.’

‘Paz and I were born in Melbourne and we have been married for over forty years.’

‘This building has been here for at least a hundred years and my father was the third caretaker.’

‘We lived here for many years, but after my parents passed on, we brought the house next door.’

‘We had to move out, Jasper. There are too many stairs to climb for one thing, but that isn’t the only reason.’

‘It’s haunted, isn’t it?’ he says.

Paz nods his head in agreement. He knows exactly what Jasper is talking about.

‘Yes, it is,’ Bella says. ‘This is not a good place for a man to live as you have probably found out. But it does have its secrets.’

‘Tell us everything you know,’ Jasper says.

‘Well, I don’t know as much as I would like, but maybe you can find out more.’

According to Bella, The Phoenix really does have its secrets, and one of those is a ghost who targets any able-bodied male.

‘But that isn’t all, on the two floors below there are hundreds of wooden boxes.’

‘Really,’ Jasper says.

‘Yes, we have no idea what’s in them, I don’t think its treasure but it’s big, whatever it is.’

‘This building was constructed several years after the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. My mother told me that and I am sure it’s important, but I don’t know why.’

‘There were two other caretakers before my father, and if they knew anything about this place, they took the secret to their graves.’

‘The Phoenix was constructed as a place to store hundreds of wooden crates,’ Jasper says, ‘but why?’

‘Do you have any idea who built it, Bella?’

‘No Jasper, but look around. There are clues all over the place.’

‘I believe it has something to do with the woman who has been appearing in my dreams,'

‘The ghost you mean?’ Bella says.

‘Yes, she’s been doing it for the last ten years, and I suspect she has something to do with this place.’

‘She even whispered a message in my ear when I was in the library this afternoon.’

‘She did,’ says an astounded Mortisha. ‘What did she say?

‘Search and you will find were her exact words.’






















CHAPTER 10


Jasper has enough wine in the cellar to last another five years, if he drinks in moderation, that is, but he’s not doing a very good job at the moment. A bottle and a half of a nicely aged red has no effect against the power of his Lady Friend. She appears in his dreams again that night, but not as a puff of mist and smoke. This time she is waiting at the edge of a cliff adorned in long silken veils.

It’s a wild and stormy night, the winds are howling and monstrous breakers are rolling onto the shore below, but this is no sightseeing tour, it has another purpose altogether. Jasper is here to witness the destruction of a sea-going vessel trapped in a raging storm. Its sails are in tatters and it is heading for an outcrop of rock, but in a tempest such as this, it doesn’t have a hope.


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