With her car loaded on the deck below, Ruby repositioned the straps of her bulging backpack as she walked along the deck of Trout Line Ferry. Two laptops—one for work and one for pleasure—along with cables, her purse, and extra clothing, made the knapsack especially heavy. But she did not care because the mugginess from yesterday had dissipated, leaving a pleasant warmness to the air on that fair weather day. The blue sky had a spattering of cottony white cumulus clouds above, and below was a refreshing sparkle of the Caribbean blue water of Lake Michigan. Aside from the fact she was going to the island to work, rather than vacation, it was an absolutely gorgeous day.
The ferry pulled away from the dock and set sail for Fish Island, over thirty miles away. Not yet visible, she knew how it would look once it came into view. Having not been back to the island since she was a child, she remembered seeing the old monastic Monastery of the Holy Ghost and its towering cathedral on the north end of the island. Soon the eerie scene would be unfolding before her, once again.
She unrolled the long sleeves of her button shirt as the cool lake breeze chilled the open promenade deck. It was late morning, and glare from the sun made her wish she had brought her sunglasses from the car, but she was not allowed to go below to her vehicle and get them. Instead, she would find somewhere to sit while she waited.
Resisting the urge to get seasick, she walked to the row of unoccupied chairs behind her. She took off her backpack and sat it on the floor beside the chair at the end of the long seating row. Facing her destination, she took her cell phone from the front pocket of the backpack and dialed Tabitha. There was no answer, so she left a message, telling her daughter that she was on her way to Fish Island and that things were going fine. She would call back later today or tomorrow once she was settled in.
Then an older woman, who looked like a gypsy, sat a couple of chairs down from her. Dressed in a colorful bohemian style skirt and beaded necklaces around her neck, she looked like a hippie from the 1960s who never conformed to the rules of the next generation. Ruby greeted her with a smile; she smiled back.
“It’s a beautiful day,” the woman said in a raspy voice. She reached into her slouchy hobo bag and took out a pack of small cigars and a lighter. She glanced over at Ruby as she brought the thin brown cigarette to her wrinkled mouth. “It’s the only place I can smoke on this boat.”
“Yeah, they’re pretty strict about all that.”
The woman lit the wood tip cigar and then held up the pack. “Do you want one?”
“No, thanks,” Ruby said, grateful the smoke was blowing away from her.
“I’m Ethel Dory,” the elderly woman said as she extended an arthritic hand.
“I’m Ruby.” She shook Ethel’s hand gently, fearing she would crack the bones of her fingers if she dared squeeze it too tight. “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you going to the island on vacation?” Ethel asked.
“No, I got a job there, and I’m on my way to begin working.” The woman seemed pleasant enough, Ruby thought. “How about you, are you on vacation?”
“Heavens no. I’m retired and living with my good friend, Claudia. I used to live in that dilapidated sanatorium, I mean, I lived there after it was converted into apartments,” Ethel said, pointing toward the bluff, north of Black Water. “I was there many years, until they condemned the old psychiatric hospital. I’m just on my way to help out an old friend. She owns the Feathered Peacock. It’s been busy there lately, and she wanted me to teach some classes. I’m a seer, and she wanted me to focus on the supernatural and things of that nature.”
“I’m familiar with that spooky old building on the bluff, but I’m not familiar with the Feathered Peacock; what kind of store is it?”
“It focuses on the supernatural, paranormal, psychics, stuff like that.” Ethel puffed the slender cigar and then abruptly took it from her creased lips, covered in a cherry-red lipstick. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to ask if you mind if I smoke.”
“No, you’re fine.”
“One of these days I’m going to switch to one of those electronic cigars. They’re supposed to be healthier,” Ethel rested her hand with the cigar on her knee. “Well, maybe not healthy, but they’re supposed to be better for you.”
Ruby nodded. “Where is the store located? I’ll be close to Maryville.”
“That’s perfect; the store is downtown Maryville. You should come to one of my classes, but as yet I don’t know when they will be.”
“I don’t know much about paranormal stuff, but I’d love to attend one of your classes. When I have time, I’ll check out the Feathered Peacock, it sounds like a cool store. Did one of their instructors quit?”
“No, it’s not that.” Ethel’s hand began to tremor as she brought it to her mouth for another drag. “Apparently, there’s been a rash of unusual things going on in Maryville. You do know the town is at the foot of Monk’s Hill and that abandoned—well, so-called abandoned—monastery, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I haven’t been there since I was a kid. I really don’t remember much about it.”
“Well, lately, some people have come up missing, and there are more of those goth people roaming around the town. You know, the kind that look all dark and gloomy. But they’re not the normal goth, they’re the . . . real deal.”
“Great, just when I’m going to be living there for at least half a year.”
“Where are you going to be working? At one of the tourist locations?”
Ruby pulled her hair from her face, fighting the lake breeze. “No, I’ll be working as a nurse at Vrolok Manor House.”
Ethel began coughing and hacking.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” Ethel said, bringing a hand to her throat. “I guess I breathed in the smoke the wrong way.”
“Would you like me to get you something? Like a bottle of water?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you,” Ethel said, as she caught her breath. “You do realize that the mansion is inside that great wall, and they keep it closed off, especially to visitors.”
“Lady Beth seemed pleasant enough on the phone, besides, I need the job.”
“Looks can be deceiving. I’ll get you a job at the Feathered Peacock.”
Ruby smiled. “Thanks, but this job is temporary. And it will help me find . . .”
Ethel gave Ruby a look of concern. “Find what? Or should I say find whom? I’m getting the feeling you’re looking for someone.”
“I am, my brother, Alan. He’s been missing for over a month.”
Ethel did not say anything as she turned and looked out over the water’s gentle waves.
“I’m hoping that by being near—what I call Castle Moldovan—I just may find him. The police have been searching, but they have no idea what happened to him. He’s a journalist and was investigating an old document he found in the library archives.”
“What was it about the document that took him to the castle?”
“You’re not going to believe me,” Ruby said, shaking her head as she looked at Ethel.
“Give me a try,” Ethel said, bringing the cigarette to her mouth.
“It said something about . . . vampires . . . and he was going to research it and do a story for Halloween. Crazy, isn’t it?”
Ethel leaned toward Ruby. “My dear, I suggest you do not get off this boat and that you decline that job. You won’t find your brother . . . or the brother you know. Believe me, you do not need to take on this mission. It is far better if you turn around and go back to the mainland, far away from Lucifer’s Island.”
Ruby was shocked. This stranger was telling her to stay away from the island and forget about finding Alan. “I can’t. The whole reason I took this job was to find my brother. Besides, there isn’t any such thing as vampires.”
Ethel moved to the seat right next to Ruby’s and with a voice low enough that people walking by could not hear, she said, “Ruby, I don’t know you, but I feel you’re a good person. I also sense that you are walking into danger and the more you get involved in things that are not of our normal world, you will get sucked in and may fall victim to whatever the people and things inside those walls have planned for you. I beg you, do not get off this ferry.”