Book Two: Paths Unknown Series
Towers of the Hungry Ghosts
Seven years after her ex-lover disappears Paula inherits the vast fortune and ruined Romanian castle of the famous painter. Moving into a medieval castle would blow anyone’s mind, but reclusive Paula doesn’t want her mind changed let alone blown.
Her reluctance quickly dissolves when ominous happenings on her new island convince her Goran is still alive and trying to make contact. Despite the castle’s dark past as an insane asylum, she digs in to transform the dank space into a gallery of his most precious murals. Whether it’s criminals, ghosts, or a vengeful mad artist at work, Paula’s friends fear she won’t survive long enough to find out.
Taken from Chapter 1...
The highway north from Bucharest’s airport narrowed, the traffic thinned, and suddenly the motorhome was like an insect skirting the monumental retaining walls of the Varges River’s hydro dam.
Seated at a fold-away table behind the driver, Paula craned her neck out the slider window, her gaze running with the highway up and across the dam. In that moment, the wind lifted the crown from her head and dashed it into the ditch. Good riddance to the silly paper charade.
She ducked inside. “Umm…Ram?” she said into the back of his head. “That cardboard crown you bought in Bucharest is in the ditch back there. I don’t want you to think I threw it away. The wind took it.”
When Ram chuckled, he hissed and jiggled like an oversized inner tube filling with air. “Three hours. That’s how long you reigned over the family castle.”
Paula ground her teeth into the overstuffed word; she wasn’t in Romania to reign over anything—especially not Goran’s millions or his depressing paintings. She was here to forget about them.
She leaned forward to dig her fingers into one of his shoulders. “Can’t you see what he’s doing?”
He flinched and glanced over his shoulder. “What who’s doing?”
“Goran. He wants to get the last laugh in.”
Ram exchanged wild-eyed glances with Julie, sitting in the bucket seat beside him. “I’m trying to picture how a man who’s been dead for seven years can laugh at anything at all.”
“Don’t be a snark.” Paula thumped her fists against the scratchy cross-stitch of the motorhome’s bench seat, unleashing the dreaded faux pine scent and a fit of sneezes. “Why do they always have to…?” She reached to open the slider window at her back only to see a reflection of her hideously pouty lips.
“I’d be happier as a—a truck driver on the Trans-Canada Highway than a multi-millionaire, much less the la-dy of his castle.”
“Breathe, Paula,” Julie said.
“Think about it. We weren’t even together anymore. You should have the money, Ram.”
“Not me. I haven’t even touched the money my father left to me. Anyway, I made more than enough before I hung up my geologist hat for politics. Or have you forgotten? Big Oil blood money. Isn’t that what you called it?”
At the word politics, Paula’s mind began to churn. “That’s what you could use it for.” About to thump her fist in triumph, she remembered the last chemical-infused dust cloud. “Your campaign in India.”
“My opponents would sure love it. ‘Executor of Will Siphons Money from Dead Friend’s Estate.’ ” He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Geez, Paula, if you’re that stressed, leave the lot of it with the estate planner.”
“Oh. Him.” Paula gave the guy the thumbs down. “See.” She shuffled to the edge of the bench seat to shove her disgust at each friend in turn. “This is exactly what’s wrong with too much money. It’s like Goran’s paintings—an unnecessary disturbance to the mind. I’d rather bury it somewhere than prop up child sweatshops or genetically modified food inside that high-yield portfolio of his.
“Julie.” Paula reached for her friend with all the gravitas she could muster. “I trust you. Why don’t you take it for something?”
Paula’s lifelong buddy twisted in her bucket seat, screwed up her face, and blinked. “Because I made a vow of frugality to my Buddhist mentor, maybe? I mean, how much is it? Ten? Twenty million American dollars?”
“More,” Ram said.
“Anyway, Goran hated me. His ghost would strangle me in the night if he knew I had his money.”
Imagine that, after years of creeping around each other in their shared grief, Ram’s timid chuckles washed over Paula like a milky balm and trickled into a still-raw corner she didn’t know was there.
Paula checked the map one final time and announced: “We’re lost.”
“Why do you think I’ve been looking for a damn place to turn around for the past half hour?” Ram said.
The sentence was no sooner out than the cliffside ended. They piled in behind a horse-drawn trailer of hogs swaying and rattling into a village straight from serfdom. “Gross.” Julie was the first to draw her window tight against the pigs’ dung. The stench seemed to congeal on the tip of Paula’s tongue.
Old men with broad-brimmed felt hats and beards of spun glass swung their ox-carts aside as the motorhome sped past. In a field beside a soot-blackened clapboard house, a round-faced woman swathed in scarves and bent over a hand plough flicked her hand up the road when she saw Ram stopped and leaning from his window.
“There. Across the road,” Paula said. “That looks like a hotel.” She pointed over his shoulder at a weathered timber veranda where a rusty sign of a giant perogy squealed a seesaw tune in the breeze.
Three nubile women in fishnet stockings and vinyl mini-skirts lounged atop the railing like drowsy tropical parrots but came alive at the sight of Ram striding through the dust. Oscillating hips gave way to hand gestures before he returned.
What in the world would hookers be doing in a remote village, Paula wondered, just as Ram voiced the same question.
“I guess it’s a job. Either that or starve,” Paula said.
Julie turned up her nose. “Did they offer you a three-for-one deal?”
“Something like that.”
Paula smirked to herself. Built like a long-legged brick of ice-cream going soft around the edges, Ram had more than enough terrain to keep all three busy.
He sucked on his front teeth. “This is Poenari village all right, but they don’t know how much farther the castle is.”
Across the street, the trio of hookers erupted into frantic bellowing at something beyond the motorhome. A bare-armed butcher in a bloody apron stepped from his stoop, stubbed out his cigarette, and shuffled to Ram’s window.
“You ask about the castle? Not far, but the old mine road, she is a wild ride. Falling down and going like this.” He chopped his hands in a pattern of spastic switchbacks.
How much wilder could it get? Paula thought.
The butcher squinted into the setting sun. “Sleep at the village pension.”
Ram had tackled his fair share of dodgy roads, both day and night, he told the man. The sallow butcher gave him an offhand shrug that begged to be taken more seriously.
Minutes later, Paula sighed as a Tourist Rooms sign swinging from a gabled adobe went by in a blur. Instead of the prolific colors of popsicle orange or sky blue, this particular cottage was painted pastel pink.
The so-called mine road was no worse, but also no better. Paula had her nose in the map again when she looked up in time to see a bold, red sign caught in the headlights. “Whoa. Stop the vehicle…Ram? I said stop.” When he ignored her, Paula reached over and rapped her knuckles against his skull.
“Ow-uch.” The motorhome skidded to a halt.
“Did you not see the sign back there? It said ‘Beware.’ ” Here was not the amenable thirty-four-year-old she knew so well, but a squirmy little boy with a secret.
“It was a warning about wolves in the area,” Julie crowed from behind them. “And something else I couldn’t make out.”
Paula armed her naturally raspy voice with an edge. “I want to see it for myself. It can’t be any more than four meters back. Pass me the flashlight, Julie.”
“I’ll come, too.” Julie barely had her bottom off the bench seat when Ram cut in.
“No. No.” His words slid out as if the forced silence had left him exhausted. “We’re not lost. The sign points uphill to Poenari Fortress.”
Silence until Julie said: “Are we supposed to know what that is?”
“Vlad Tepes?” Ram hinted. “Of the House of Draculesti.”
Paula sighed, tired of the tedious game. “What’s this about?”
“At the top of those stairs we passed is the citadel of Vlad the Impaler. Also known by readers as Count Dracula.”
He raised his hands in defense as Paula bolted from her seat. Was it not common courtesy to tell potential homeowners about their new neighborhood before handing them the key to the front door?
“There’s not much left of it, anyway,” he said. “I always thought it was kinda cool. Goran and I used to go up there as kids and scare the knackers off each other. Dracula’s just a made-up story, but the real Vlad Tepes was a nasty dude. He had a fierce hate on for the invading Turks. Used to impale them through the arse on poles and leave them to a slow, agonizing death. The stories about him eating his victims could easily—”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Stop.” Paula’s stomach dropped at the idea of such horrific energies lingering nearby. Within the white noise of the running motor, she pressed her fingers to her lips in prayer, closed her eyes, and murmured: “May all beings be at peace,” over and over until the cutting edge of Julie and Ram’s argument broke in.
“Ram says you wouldn’t have come here had you known about this Vlad guy and what he did up there.” Julie poked her thumb above her head. “That’s not true, is it?”
“Well…I—” Surprises of all varieties, good or bad, were terrible things. This went far beyond that. “I need to know what’s ahead and prepare for it. It’s hard to say what I would have done.”
Ram turned his head and wrinkled his nose at Julie.
Before the vehicle rolled onward, her limbs began to tingle in a swirl of vertigo. Reflected in the passenger’s side mirror, the fog swallowed the sign. Was it really all child’s play for Goran to grow up next door to a place with such a blood-soaked past?
In the passenger seat of the motorhome, Paula cupped her tea, the steam warm against her cheeks and weary eyes.
Ram appeared at the open door. “Feeling better?”
She smiled and nodded but reared back as he fished a pistol from the glove compartment and shoved it inside the back of his waistband.
“Don’t worry. It’s not real,” he said immediately. “Bought it in the same toy store where I got the crown. It shoots harmless blanks but makes one hell of a bang.” He turned to join Julie in a search for the boat trailer a Vlakia relative had delivered from the village earlier that day.
Soon after, there were faint shouts within the roadside bushes and bobbing beams. A band of clouds rolled by, plunging the world outside her window into blackness. She reached under the dash and patted around for the headlight switch. As light illuminated the cab, she sat up. On the outside of the windshield, inches from her face, shone the piercing amber eyes of a wolf, its paws propped against the vehicle’s hood.
Paula froze, her eyes wide and shining at the natural magnificence before her. It was a regal, well-fed animal with long, tawny fur. She felt safe inside the enclosed cab until a menacing snarl raised one corner of its mouth. It thumped one massive paw against the windshield, turned to a phantom sound, and bounded from sight. The sheer momentum left the motorhome rocking under her.
“Over here,” Ram said. A metronome of light swept the dark. “We found it.”
The body does not lie. Her hands trembled while she revved the engine and pumped the horn a few times in case the wolf was still around.
As Paula stepped from the driver’s seat, Julie turned to her. “The whole neighborhood must be awake by now.”
Paula scanned the hood for paw prints but, seeing no trace, glanced up. “Just getting used to the rental.” Talk of wolves and tired eyes could play tricks.
“Our only neighbors would be vampires already awake. Ah—woooo—” Ram arched back with a howl cut short by Julie’s fist bump.
“Is this how you plan to carry on in India during your campaign?”
“Nope. I reckon this is my last chance to be a perfect wanker without anyone knowing.” After eschewing his roots for almost two decades, Ram had turned tail on the world’s oil complex to take on corruption in the northern Indian state of his birth. The politician with the black kinky ponytail planned to milk his environmental epiphany for all it was worth, even though the credit lay with his Julie.
“Save the jokes for the morning, Musahar. Let’s hook up the boat trailer and get some sleep.”
“Yes. No more talk of vampires.” Paula spoke in the defeated tone of a weary mother with raucous children.
A moment later, Ram’s muscular arms pulled her into him. “I’m sorry. I’m so ramped up about being back here. I’ll take some blankets and sleep in the boat tonight. You ladies can have another cuppa and catch up—”
Paula tore herself from his embrace. “No. Don’t sleep outside. I’m fine. See? I’m fine.” From her friends’ frowns, Paula realized she was shouting. She rarely raised her voice.
Taken from Chapter 3....
Frantic, she slammed the chair against the trunk and hauled herself to the crook of a branch just as the animal’s snout appeared at her boot. She raised the blank gun. Boom! The shock wave reverberated within her like scattershot, sending the wolf thundering down the knoll.
Low and menacing, a woman’s voice pierced the mist. A ragged stranger seemed to float within it. Tossing her twisted snake pit of black hair, she raised her arms, palms up, high overhead, scattering the wolves over a nearby embankment.
Tall and bone-thin, a face cut with age, she wore a billowing white blouse over a torn burlap skirt which flapped about her ankles. Her embroidered vest and the red bandana capping her head snatched her from the ranks of a common tramp and into the realm of a nomadic fortune-teller.
The cottage door banged open; out burst Ram, swinging a charred piece of firewood, and naked except for his jockey shorts.
Hyper-alert, Paula slid from the tree and advanced, the gun at her side. If the wolves returned, a lot of good it would be, never mind Ram’s piece of brittle charcoal.
He stopped in his tracks as the strange woman wheeled around.
“Well.” Her head swept up and down his body. “You’ve filled out nicely.”
Ram lunged to embrace her. “I honestly didn’t have a clue it was you,” he said, holding her at arm’s length.
Paula kept her distance. While they’d sat on their water-bound rock, had a new fashion craze swept the globe? Instead of shredded denim—, threadbare, soiled burlap?
“We seem to be picking up right where we left off. No?” She homed in on Ram’s hands, hovering in front of his crotch. “I don’t believe you wore any pants that time, either.”
With Ram’s virility diluted to a lopsided smile, he glanced back at Julie, standing on the steps and clutching a blanket, then said to Paula, “Uh—you can put the gun away, now.”
“I was sure I saw some kind of wild animal.”
“Naw, Claudia’s fairly tame, aren’t you?” The two of them guffawed into the wind, locked in a weird private moment until Ram’s eyes strayed to Julie once more and the grin fell right off his face.
“Okay, then. Claudia, this is my fi-an-cée, Julie, and over there is my dearest friend, Paula. That’s not a real gun by the way. I’m going in to throw some clothes on.” Without a glance back, he shouted, “Goran’s cousin.”
The woman’s enthusiasm evaporated at the click of the door. She looked down her nose at Paula.
There was no mistake. Paula had clearly seen this bizarre woman among the wolves. “I’ve been sitting on that chair up there, but I didn’t see you come up from the beach. How did you get here?”
The cousin frowned and shifted to a superior tone. “I wouldn’t climb those stone stairs if I were you. To be honest, which is what I always am.” Claudia aimed an acerbic eye at Paula. “This rock has never been more treacherous than now.” Without warning, she wheeled around as if challenging Julie’s sour stance, and the two of them studied each other with the shiftiness of thieves divvying up a bag of money.