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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 Smashwords


Copyright

©

2018


Background image designed by Bruce Rolff

and supplied by Shutterstock


COVER DESIGNED BY THE AUTHOR


INTRODUCTION


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 have been reaching out from beyond the grave, looking for someone to do what they could not. They had failed to lure three other men into their net and devised an alternative plan. They had someone different in mind this time, 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.


CHAPTER 1

PART ONE

2013

Melbourne, Australia


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 head in the guise of the Oklahoma bombing, and it was 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 and his mother had had enough of married life. And when Jasper was five years old, she filed for a divorce. Geraldine 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.

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 and could see his mother as often as he liked. And 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 practicing gynecologist, packed her bags, moved out of their Toorak home and opened a tapas bar in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne with a long and interesting history.

At the time this story starts, Jasper has had fourteen different carers, most of whom were university students. 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 Jasper 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 has seen quite a few in his dreams and that’s where he would like them to stay.

‘Besides we will be accompanied by my best friends, Declan Smith and Fabian Stella-Marcus. If anything goes wrong, 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, bright orange campervan. Jasper is dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, good solid hiking boots and a pair of cargo shorts with big roomy pockets. And as they zoom along the highway, he is bopping away to the feel-good tunes of the 1950s.

Two hours after they have left Melbourne far behind, they arrive at their first port of call. Sassafras is a quaint little town where day trippers can soak up the atmosphere or sit back and enjoy a hot scone and jam in one of its famous Devonshire tea houses.

But these boys have something very different in mind and they head straight for the local bakery. The humble meat pie is an old Australian favourite, but in this day and age it has inched its way up the gourmet ladder. And on a chilly day in the mountains, there is nothing more appealing than a piping hot pie topped with a light and crispy golden flaky pastry.

‘Ooh, they look good,’ Jasper says.

He is an old-fashioned boy with old-fashioned tastes and cannot resist a traditional Aussie pie with mushy green peas and a generous dollop of gravy.

After some consideration, Declan decides to try a jumbo sized Saucy Mexican Salsa, and Mark gets three sausage rolls. But when Fabian finally steps out of the door ten minutes later, he has a tray piled high with a selection of mouth-watering cream cakes as well.

‘Just in case we get peckish, but that lovely girl gave me three pies for the price of two.’

‘Probably because she wanted to get rid of you,’ Mark says.

‘More than likely.’

‘Okay boys, let’s hit the road. We still have a few miles to go.’

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 is almost two o’clock when they arrive at a public car park in the middle of nowhere. But this is not just a hiking expedition, it is 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 and an old-fashioned compass are absolutely essential, but in this day and age, so is that ever-dependable online GPS.

They strap on their backpacks and make their way through an old growth forest, and when they finally reach their destination two hours later, 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, but it was worth the effort just to see a little freshwater creek winding its way through the undergrowth.

‘Well, we made it,’ Fabian says. ‘It’s just like something out of Deliverance, isn’t it?’

‘I hope not,’ Mark says.

An encounter with a couple of mean-spirited rednecks is the last thing he wants, but you never know. This is the great outdoors, and anything could happen on a bleak and miserable night in the middle of nowhere.

Jasper has never been camping in his life and had no idea what sort of tent to buy. He paid a small fortune for a green and brown polyurethane dome, which according to the instructions was a cinch to erect.

The boys have theirs up within a few minutes, so he removes each piece from the packet and places them side-by-side.

‘Now what goes where?’

He lays out the ground sheet, unwraps the tent and then sits down to assemble the poles. Everything is colour coded, which is good, but that doesn’t help Jasper in the least. And after a few very frustrating few minutes, he gives up in despair.

‘Oh, this is supposed to be easy,’ he cries. ‘What do I do with all this stuff?’

Fabian has been watching closely and comes to his rescue.

‘So, you are obviously not the outdoors type.’

‘No, I don’t know a thing about it.’

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

With a few deft moves, he slips the poles into the sockets, pulls the tent into place and stakes it to the ground. A few minutes later, it’s all done, and Jasper is impressed.

‘Very nice,’ he says.

Jasper’s new home is a lot bigger than he expected, a very stylish and roomy space age igloo with a zip up door.

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


It’s a well-known fact that men of a certain age group are partial to a drink or two, especially when they plan to have a good time. 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,’ he says with a wicked 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.’

Every Friday afternoon, Jasper’s mates would have a quick puff before they caught the train home, but he 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 his 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 made herself comfortable, ruffled around in her red velvet bag and removed a packet of cigarettes.

‘You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?’

The old lady pointed to a sign which 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. 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 wanted to get home, kick off her shoes and rest her weary legs, but a message over the loudspeaker was the last straw. The six o’clock train to Cranbourne would be delayed for another thirty minutes. She sighed volubly, reached into her bag and then settled back with a dog-eared copy of an old Mills and Boon love story.

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

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

Sally couldn’t get any closer if she tried, but there was something about Jasper that she just couldn’t resist. He had a certain indefinable quality, and it wasn’t just his glistening green eyes, the dimples around his mouth or his boyish good looks.

Most women on the streets of Melbourne wear black as a statement of their position in society, but Sally was not one of those. She looked more like a gypsy queen in a pair of blue spangled tights and a red velvet coat. Her glossy black hair was hidden away under a black velvet beret. Ruby red was the lipstick of choice and her sparkling blue eyes were accentuated by a subtle hint of eye shadow.

Jasper is a typical seventeen-year-old boy, but he was no match for a seductress in disguise. Within minutes Sally had him laughing away about one thing and another, and before he knew it, she had his phone number and he had hers.

Passengers were bored and tired and the sound of the train soaring through the tunnel was music to their ears.

‘It’s been nice meeting you,’ Jasper said, ‘but I have to go.’

Sally was not to be deterred, she followed him onto the carriage and took a seat by his side.

‘So, Jasper, what are you doing tonight?’ she said.

Jasper’s hands were sweating, and his heart was beating a little faster than usual. But as he gazed into those seductive blue eyes and ruby red lips, he knew exactly what Sally had in mind. He was 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 the kids, perhaps.’

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

‘In that case, I would love to join you, if you don’t mind. I am an apprentice chef, 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 arrived at Toorak station, they wandered down the hill and around the corner. Jasper lives in a red brick Georgian mansion and Sally was 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, 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.’

He 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 that they’re still alive. They had a few too many drinks and it was all Fabian’s fault. 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. It’s the real thing.’

‘A triple dose to start with, 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, I knew I could count on you.’


CHAPTER 4


Two months later, Jasper’s father is rushed off to hospital in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with liver failure and passes away two days later. It’s a very difficult time as it coincides with Jasper’s high school graduation and his eighteenth birthday. But it could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for Sally. She takes a week off from work, escorts him to the graduation ball 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. Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy, but Sally stands at Jasper’s side and offers what little comfort she can. As the only remaining member of his family, his mother also makes an appearance, in body if not in spirit.

Jasper is the sole beneficiary of his father’s estate, and numerous documents have to be signed and countersigned, and he gets to see 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 Jaz.’

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

‘Jasper, you are 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. Whereas Toorak reeks of style, class and money place, Fitzroy oozes old world charm and character.

It is one of the oldest suburbs in Melbourne and 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.

Jasper is excited at the thought of having his own place and makes a 10 o’clock appointment with a real estate agent for the following Saturday morning. He and his mother get there early to check it out in advance.

The building in question is a narrow, red brick structure with decorative features around the edges. 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 Mum, it even has a name,’ Jasper says.

The Phoenix, 1914, is etched into the lintel above the front door.

‘I wonder if it means anything.’

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

‘Look up there on the roof. It even has a bell tower. I have a feeling this is going to be good.’

‘Have you met the agent yet, Jasper?’

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

A few minutes later, a jet-black sports car stops at the kerb, and with the skill of a seasoned professional, the driver backs it into an empty parking space. A stylish young woman with bright red hair pokes her head through the window and immediately zoom in on Jasper.

‘Are you Jasper Powell?’ she says.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘I’m Jennifer Bradley. Very pleased to meet you. I thought I’d get here early, but you beat me to it.’

Jennifer is an attractive young woman in her late twenties, and even though it may not be her usual attire, she is dressed in 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 back gate of the Phoenix.

‘This is only access, but it’s very secure. It has to be, it’s that sort of neighbourhood, if you know what I mean.’

She unlocks the gate and it’s like stepping back in time. It’s a typical 19th century courtyard surrounded by a very high bluestone wall with a series of sharp spikes along the top.

‘This was probably a stable for a horse and carriage once upon a time, but today it could accommodate three cars or even a lap pool.’

‘And it even has a wine cellar in the basement.’

‘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’s money to be made.

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

‘It’s been vacant for the last five years, but it is always spotlessly clean. I believe that 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, but the lobby looks like the entrance to a boutique 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.

‘This is really beautiful, isn’t it Mum?’

‘It certainly is Jaz.’

‘The design of the place is based on the Art Nouveau style, which is usually leaves and tendrils and that sort of thing,’ Jennifer says.

‘But if you look closely, you will see that it’s actually a hotbed of snakes, vipers and serpents.’

‘Oh, really,’ Jasper says.

‘Is that a problem.’

‘Well, we’ll see. Perhaps we should take a look first.’

‘In that case, follow me.’

They make their way up three flights of stairs, and the moment that Jasper steps through the door, it’s like stepping into a dream he has 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. A beautifully carved cornice that could very easily be a Rainbow Serpent eases its way around the room, but high up above is a wooden ceiling, and at the very apex is the tower that’s visible from the street.

‘That’s not a bell tower, is it?’

‘No, it’s not Jasper, but if you look closely you will see that it’s a woman with a crown of serpents on her head.’

‘Snakes again,’ he 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, other than the fact that his wife was the inspiration for the décor. Apparently, she was a great beauty from somewhere like India.’

‘He was a snake charmer extraordinaire and she was commonly known as the snake charmer’s wife.’

‘Really,’ Jasper says.

There is something very unnerving about the face in the bell tower, but Jasper knows exactly who it is. It’s his Lady Friend, the very same woman who has been appearing in his dreams ever since he was a boy. As he gazes into her eyes, an unfamiliar tingling sensation slithers up his spine like a snake slithering up a pole. It stops halfway for a second or two and then surges up his backbone.

A few moments later, an unusual display of lights appear at the far end of the room. 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, 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.’

Geraldine knows all about Jasper’s Lady Friend, she even took him to a psychologist when he was ten years old, but it was to no avail, she continued to appear like clockwork. As to who she is, Jasper 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, Jaz, what do you think?’ Geraldine says.

‘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.’

This is 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 has and it has been waiting for someone like him to come along and work out exactly what it is.

Jasper has not mentioned that experience to anyone, especially his mother. To see a ghost in the clear light of day was weird enough, but that tingling sensation and that golden light, what was that all about?

That is the least of his problems at the moment. He has three weeks to prepare the house for an auction and there’s a million things to do. He spent days wading through seventy years of memorabilia, but the most difficult room of all was his father’s library. It was filled to the rafters with photographs that have not seen the light of day since the 1950s.

Over the next three weeks, people come and go to do one thing or another, but if it hadn’t been for a very efficient young woman from The Superior Cleaning Company it could have been a lot worse. Rosanna Forenza supervised a team of very busy people who went out of their way to prepare the house for its big day, and even Geraldine is impressed.

‘I have never seen it looking so good,’ she says. ‘You have done an amazing job Jasper.’

‘It wasn’t me Mum, it was Rosanna.’

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 4.5 million Australian dollars.

‘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, and an antique dealer with an eye for a bargain would happily take everything off his hands. Jasper 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.’

‘What about the wine cellar?’ Geraldine says.

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

Before they wander out the gate and up the hill, Jasper takes one last look. That old Georgian mansion has served its purpose, but now it’s time to move on. It has far too many memories and he is more than happy to leave them where they are.


CHAPTER 5


Rattling around in an empty apartment felt very strange for the first few weeks but Jasper was never alone. His Lady Friend made an impromptu visit at least once a day. The tell-tale sign was that all-too-familiar tingling sensation. After that, he just drifted 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 and 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 is where he stayed for the next three months.

When you move 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 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 armoires 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.

‘Jasper, it’s the sort of thing you’d see in a medieval castle, isn’t it?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I love it,’ he says.

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 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 a name from a 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 starts to vibrate 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 is always out of the house by five thirty in the morning, but Jasper usually crawls out around nine, after which he sits on the balcony savouring his first coffee of the day.

His one and only dream has 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 as popular with the locals as they are with the tourists, and 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.

Rather than going back 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 Jaz.’

Desecrating a few lifeless menu items is good therapy. At least it gives him something else to think about. And as far as Jasper is 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 as they pass by and that really does make their day.

Tapas food is tasty little appetisers that are usually accompanied by a glass or two of red wine. Geraldine also has a few classics on the menu, like paella, 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 gynecologist, 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, she offers Jasper his first ever cigarette, and even though he has never been tempted, he jumps at the opportunity.

‘You look a little worried Jaz. 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, Jaz?’

‘Well, she just pops in sometimes, not to scare me or anything, 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 feeling that there’s something going on,’ Jasper says, ‘and she 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.’

‘Jaz, 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, but it’s not a good idea to just rock up unannounced. The last time he did that she 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 his 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 and just hopes for the best, and to his relief Mortisha answers the door and not Mademoiselle Lavarre.

‘Is this a good time,’ he says.

‘Yes Jasper, my lady friends have taken flight.’

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.’

‘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.

Her house looks like every other house 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 an elegant if not creepy spider’s web.

Jasper never has had 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 is relieved to see that there’s not another soul in sight, other than her 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 she 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, 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 a man called Swami Jagatpati.

‘This is just the thing,’ he says.

He races up to the counter, hands over the money and then 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 him by surprise is the fact that it has always been depicted as a serpent.

‘Ah ha, 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 is not 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 new 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.’

He is just about to give this idea up as a lost cause when it moves into even stranger territory. Jasper 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 and is relieved to see that no one even noticed.

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.’

‘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’s only to find that the security gate is 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, 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 lies behind the other two doors. He has a feeling he is about to find out. He creeps up to the door on the first floor, but it’s 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 he 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’ll 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 appear at the door at the same time.

‘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, and my family barely escaped with their lives.’

‘Paz and I were born in Melbourne and we have been married for over fifty 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’d 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, but why?’ Jasper says.

‘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’s 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 that 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 astonished 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 ship trapped in a raging storm. Its sails are in tatters, and it’s heading for an outcrop of rock, but in a tempest such as this, it doesn’t have a hope.

The storm eventually subsides, and by morning light there is nothing left but debris floating along the shore. But the fate of the only survivor may have been very different if a little girl and her father had not come to his rescue.

‘That boy may have died,’ his Lady Friend says, ‘if it had not been for us.’

Another part of the puzzle is falling into place, and if Jasper is correct, that was the coastline of Sri Lanka, but as to the identity of the boy, he has no idea at all.

If he is to find out anything more, he has no choice but to check out the other two apartments. He ventures downstairs with a flashlight in one hand and a cast iron key in the other, and to his relief the lock opens with ease.

He pokes his head around the door, expecting to see rats, mice and cobwebs all over the place but it’s spotlessly clean. To his amazement, it really is a storage place for hundreds of wooden crates stacked one on top of the other from the floor to the ceiling.


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