Katharina Aspero’s smugness erupted like a lanced boil as she drove her Range Rover Evoque through the quickly burgeoning puddle at her electric gates. So pleased was she with her lot, that she didn’t notice the ensuing gush of water engulf the small figure hunched at the doorbell control in the wall.
As the gold tipped wrought iron gates slowly closed behind the car, Rachel Whinnie shook herself down and pressed the buzzer again. She was there to be interviewed as the new housekeeper. The agency had warned her about Katharina back in the office.
“Rachel, there’s no way to put this politely,” the Agency Head had said, “This client is one of our best customers, she always pays on time, has been with us for years, and doesn’t skimp when it comes to tipping, but…”
Rachel knew there was a but coming.
“… She’s a complete nightmare.”
“Go on” Said Rachel, “I’m ready,”
“Well, I mean nightmare in the literal sense. She thinks she’s dead.”
“She’s completely convinced that she’s a ghost. She doesn’t want to scare anyone though, so she tries to keep it under wraps.”
“Keep it under wraps, what on earth are you on about?”
“She has quite a number of different staff members to manage her affairs for her. All of whom she contacts through mediums other than talking. And by mediums, I actually do mean Mediums. You know, people who can contact the ‘other side’.”
When the Agency Head had said ‘other side’ she used her fingers as quotation marks. Rachel had stared at her unbelievingly.
“Are you taking the mick? You’re telling me that you are sending me off to a house, where the client thinks she’s dead, there’s a load of staff all playing along, and I just have to pretend that it’s normal?”
“If you want to get paid, and get paid handsomely I might add, it’s a 24/7 triple time contract, then yes, you play along. Just keep your head down, do the job. And don’t, whatever you do, make any suggestion that you think it’s all fake. Do that, and you’re done. You have been warned.”
The rain was coming down in buckets now. Rachel pressed the buzzer in five short angry bursts. A dry, droll voice clicked through the intercom.
“Yes. Aspero Residence.”
Startled, Rachel blurted, “Hello, I’m here for the job.”
After what Rachel was sure was a sigh, there was a long silence. She was about to press the buzzer again when suddenly the gates began to slowly swing open and the intercom clicked into silence.
The rain abruptly stopped.
Unsure of what to do, Rachel gingerly walked through the gates, along the Chusan Palm lined path and towards the old Palladian house. As she reached the stone steps to the front door, she could hear the gates close behind her with a sickening crunch.
Rachel raised her hand to grasp the ornate brass knocker, but before she could reach it there was a loud creak, and the door swung open. Standing on the doorstep, all she could see inside was a murky gloom. As her eyes accustomed to the darkness beyond the front door, she could hear the crisp clip-clop of footsteps approaching. Then, out of the darkness, appeared an astonishing figure.
Dressed in a blood red brocade floor length housecoat, a tall, ashen, bony man, now stood before her. Atop his avian, hook-nosed head, sat a bejeweled satin turban. The sort, Rachel thought, that you see in story books from the 1950s. Wide, piercing blue eyes, were staring sharply back. Rachel looked him up and down. Peeking from beneath the hem of his cloak there emerged two golden velvet slippers which came to a point at the toes with the flourish of a merlot pompom.
“You’re wearing slippers.” Rachel said abruptly.
“Mah-dam?”, came the response.
“And there’s a carpet.”
The man regarded her imperiously.
“Oh its funny, I was sure I could hear footsteps just a moment ago.” A nervous Rachel was a garrulous Rachel.
Ignoring her, the tall man haughtily proclaimed, “Her ladyship has been expecting you.”
He turned and walked back inside to the unmistakable sound of a Cuban heel on marble. “Follow me”, his grandiose summons of a flicking finger over his shoulder elicited a giggle-snort from Rachel. The man stopped and peered back at her, slowly craning his head around to see her more clearly. Rachel composed herself and fiddled with her rings like a naughty schoolgirl.
Scuttling in behind him, and once inside, she was greeted by possibly the most domestically majestic hallway she’d ever seen. The central staircase split into two at the first floor, turned in on itself and then rose again to a second floor. The walls were covered in ancestral oils and a central unlit crystal chandelier chinked gently in the light breeze from the open door…which promptly slammed shut. Rachel let out a little yelp and then quickly collected herself again.
Around the edges stood grimy busts and jardinières cradling overgrown ferns and aspidistras. Dust devils sat around the tall pine skirting boards. They didn’t need a Housekeeper thought Rachel, the place needed to be given to the National Trust.
The tall man walked toward a particularly impressive set of mahogany doors, and upon waiving his hand in their direction, they silently opened onto an equally grand library with a hearty fire burning in the hearth. “Wait here” instructed her guide and with that, he disappeared back into the shadows.
Rachel took her cue and headed straight in. Once in the room, the polished oak doors closed behind her with a loud click. Rachel jumped again and for the third time since pressing the buzzer at the gates, had to quickly compose herself. She removed her still dripping coat and laid it on a chair by the entrance. Like a moth to the flame, she went over to the warm fire and dried her hands and trousers while she waited.
“You are heavy Dear.” Croaked a voice from the corner. Rachel nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Um… Excuse me?” Rachel looked around frantically, and there, in the corner, neatly tucked away between two rampant ferns on particularly decorative baroque stands, sat a crumpled form, smoking a long- stemmed pipe.
“Heavy” they repeated.
“Now just one minute.” Threw back Rachel, “I’ve come here for an interview, but if this is the sort of treatment…”
“Heavy with promise my dear” interjected the wrinkled mass from the shadows.
“Oh, well, it’s still not very nice to be taken by surprise,” and with that, Rachel took a step towards the figure.
“Stay Back.” The shout made Rachel recoil and she stopped in her tracks. As she did so, the person slowly lifted to their feet as if suspended like a marionette and caught her in the icy stare of her brilliant blue irises. Rachel was transfixed. They were the same blue eyes as the man who had met her at the front door.
“Are you the lady of the house?”
“Indeed I am child”.
“Oh, don’t be offended, all others are children in my eyes. You see, I am hundreds of years old. Or at least, I have been here for two centuries past.”
Rachel remembered what the Agency Head had said to her back at the office. She started to play along.
“The Agency explained about the position, did they?” Continued the old woman.
“I am Ms Katharina Aspero.”
“Pleased to meet you Madam.” Rachel curtseyed, and immediately admonished herself for such a belittling cow tow. Ms Katharina Aspero seemed to be equally ill-at-ease with the move.
“Well.” She began, “Let’s move on. You’ll be acquainted with our rather unique household then?”
“Yes.” The less said the better thought Rachel.
“And it doesn’t worry you?”
“No, not at all.”
This was a lie. The longer Rachel stayed in the mausoleum of a house, the less she wanted to be there at all. She felt a well of anxiety rise in her belly and words tumbled out of her mouth unexpectedly.
“In fact, I rather like a good ghost story.”
“A ghost STORY?” The old woman’s eyes narrowed and a broad, ungracious smile, appeared on her face. With that, the room began to shudder and darken. The flames in the fire snapped violently and glowed a hot blue. Rachel had to steady herself on a nearby Chaise Longue.
The long stemmed pipe dropped to the floor and shattered and the old woman began to grow in front of Rachel’s eyes, her arms and legs elongated and the features on her face stretched and contorted. Rachel didn’t know what to do, her eyes widening in terror.
“What did you say?” came the ear-splitting roar from Katharina’s now overgrown mouth. Her lips were stretched across her teeth like the skin on a tom-tom drum.
“Nothing. I didn’t mean to.” The words were a whimper and lost in the clatter and thrum of furniture and ornaments all noisily clamoring for attention.
From the tips of the hearth flames came a wild wind. It flew straight from the fire and whipped and swirled around Rachel. Its gossamer fingers needling at her body as it lifted and suspended her a foot or so above the oriental rug she’d been standing on.
“You ungrateful wretch.” Screamed the woman. She was enormous now, taking up more than half of the room. The skin on her arms began to tear, exposing bone and veins. Her growing body forced her head to be pushed down from the ceiling, pressing her to come face to face with Rachel.
“Aloysius.” She bellowed, and instantaneously, the mahogany double doors to the room flew open. A gust picked up Rachel’s coat from the chair at the door and threw it into the fire.
“My coat” screamed Rachel, that’s brand new from TK Maxx.”
Standing in the doorway was a quickly expanding version of the man who’d met her at the front door only minutes earlier.
“She’s not the one.” Bellowed the woman over the uproar, “Help me remove this parasite now Aloysius.”
Momentarily the woman and her servant locked their piercing blue eyes on each other, then moved their heads mechanically to ensnare Rachel in their shared gaze.
“What are you doing?” Yelled Rachel, “I don’t know about these, things, but I don’t think the Agency are going to like this when I tell them how I’ve been treated.”
“Quiet you urchin”, demanded Katharina, “No one disrespects Ms Aspero, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
Rachel whimpered hopelessly and stared unbelievingly as Katharina’s already bulging eyes engorged more. Her eyeballs were growing so much now that they were beginning to push themselves out of their sockets. Rachel could see the lenses distort and bend as the bone squeezed at their base. She turned to look at the butler, his eyes too seemed to be escaping their skeletal prisons.
With four foul pops, the bloated eyeballs were now free and, on the stringy tendrils from the skulls of her captors, were moving towards Rachel’s head. The closer they got, the tighter the veins and sinew that once held them in place became. As the fetid string became like cat-gut on a newly tuned guitar Rachel screamed out.
“Stop… Help me, please Stop.”
“It’s too late now you little brat.” The woman’s hollow laugh terrified Rachel more than anything she’d already seen. “We’re going to send you somewhere you can’t offend helpless little old ladies anymore.”
As she spoke, the taught threads to all four eyes snapped at once and the eyeballs flew violently at Rachel’s face. Rachel tried to lift her arms to protect herself, but she was pinned in space by the air around her. As the eyeballs made contact with her cheeks they stopped and rolled slowly up her skin, depositing a thick sticky liquid as they went.
Once they reached the top of Rachel’s head, the eyeballs joined together. Their four bright blue irises all pointing downwards as they began to spin and lift off.
Once in the air, a crystal blue light started to shine down. Imperceptible at first, but quickly growing in intensity.
Rachel felt a burning sensation from the top of her scalp; her feet and hands were shaking uncontrollably. She looked down and her fingers had begun to disintegrate in front of her eyes. Small pieces of skin were peeling off and evaporating in thin air.
“Nooooo.” She screamed, and then, “My Shellac! What’s happening?”
Before long Rachel’s forearms and legs had completely vanished, the light above her head was so intense now that she was glowing internally. Next to go was her torso and shoulders.
“Good Riddance.” Screamed the old woman and with one last flourishing click of her fingers, Rachel’s head exploded into a billion tiny pieces.
With that the two giant figures gently returned to their normal sizes. Eyeballs newly intact with a squelching ‘plop’, Katharina gently settled back into her favourite armchair. Aloysius bowed, reached for both handles and gently closed the library doors behind him.
Once alone, Katharina sighed a soothing sigh and reached for the telephone on the stand next to her.
In a brightly lit, chrome and leather office, sat Julia ‘Jools’ Brentworth, CEO of the Fresh Start Employment Agency. She was engrossed in a particularly badly written CV that she was enjoying on her lunchbreak while digging into her Black Bean Taco Soup from Pret. She called through to her PA.
“Sheila, you should see this.” She squealed, “This one thinks having a Tic Toc account is Work Experience.”
Her phone burst into life and Jools rolled her eyes, “I’m on my bloody lunch break” she muttered as she picked up the receiver.
“It’s Ms Aspero. She wants to talk to you urgently,” Whispered Sheila. Jools knew why she was keeping quiet. Katharina had that effect on people. You never really believed if she could hear you on silent or not. Jools pressed the connect button on the phone.
“It’s Katherina Aspero Ms Brentworth, can I speak candidly?”
“Great to hear from you.” Chirped Jools, “Of course, how can I help. Did you like your candidate?”
“I’m afraid I found her… a little flaky.”
Jools thought she heard a small chuckle.
“Oh, I see. Well, she was one of our top stars here at the agency, but each to their own.”
“Yes, quite. Do you have anyone else you can send?”
“Well, our books are positively bursting with talent. I’ll have one of our brightest come straight over.”
“Why thank you. I know I can always count on you.”
Jools replaced the receiver.
“Who have we got spare Sheila? I think that Rachel bit the dust at Aspero’s. Shame really, she was a good girl, but what can you do? When the economy is this bad, what’s better, a life of servitude with nothing to show for it, or a quick trip to Katharina who’ll have put an end to all your suffering lickety-split?”
Jools dived into her Rolodex and pulled out a name. The card read, ‘Tom Barry. Graduate. Will take minimum wage.’
‘Poor bugger’, thought Jools, ‘Great Aunt Kath will make short work of him.’
“I love my job – it’s feels so great to help so many people.”