an excerpt

Chapter 1


Okay, so the coffin in the basement was a bit of a surprise. Though, to be fair, as coffins went, it was a rather nice one, I suppose. I mean, it's not like I had a lot to compare it to, but I do know quality when I see it. Then again, everything about the mansion screamed quality, or just plain old screamed, because, much like the coffin I was suddenly confronted with, the place was creepy, or better yet, CREEPY.

Yep, that's about right.

In any case, as I circled it, round and round he goes, my index finger running along the metal finish, a new sensation washed over me--well, through me, really, like deep on down through, because it suddenly felt as though the thing was calling out to me, drawing me to it, which might explain how I ended up in the basement in the first place.

See, I'd never been to the mansion before that day. In fact, I didn't even know of its existence.

Or his, for that matter.

Not until his lawyer called me the week prior, out of the blue, or gray, as it were, foggy gray, in the dead of San Francisco summer. It seemed that my cousin Boris--seriously, someone actually named him that--had suddenly met his untimely demise.

"Boris?" I asked the guy on the other end of the phone, utterly confused.

"Your cousin, sir," replied the man, the slightest accent detectable, something Eastern-European-sounding, "Boris Jackowski."

I scratched my head and stared out the window of my tenth-story office building, the Transamerica Pyramid looming in the not-too-distant distance. Then I squinted my eyes and racked my brain. I mean, stands to reason I'd know of a cousin, especially one named Boris. "Nope, doesn't ring any bells," I freely admitted. "You sure you have the right Jack Jackowski?" Okay, talk about not casting the first stone, right? I mean, Jack Jackowski wasn't going to win any naming contests either.

In any case, the guy on the phone did have the correct Jack Jackowski, right on down to my social security number, birthday, and home address, which was just the start of all things creepy. (I mean CREEPY. Sorry.)

"You're his only living relative, Mister Jackowski," explained the lawyer, "and heir to his fortune."

Ding! went the bell in my head, or make that gong! or, more appropriately, considering the city I called home, clang, clang, clang! went my cable car. "Cousin Boris was a, um, wealthy man?" I managed, my voice barely registering above a hoarse whisper.

The man chuckled, which sent a chill down my spine for some odd reason, mainly because it sounded like one of those laughs you hear in the movies, just before the bad guy ties the damsel to the train tracks. "Obese understatement, Mister Jackowski."

"You mean 'gross'," I said, "'gross' understatement."

The chuckle repeated, the chill along my spine growing arctic cold. "No, sir, 'gross' doesn't even begin to cover it." Then he sighed. "In any case, as the sole living heir to his fortune, all of it goes to you: his bank account, his belongings, and his mansion."

I blinked and fought to catch my breath. "His...mansion?"

"His mansion," he echoed. "Yours, all of it."

I blinked again as I wiped the newly-formed bead of perspiration from my face. "Wait," I thought to say, shaking my head from side to side, trying and failing to push away the cobwebs. "How exactly is Cousin Boris my cousin? I have no cousins, as far as I know. No parents, no grandparents, no aunts or uncles, not a step-anything or an in-anything, nothing once, twice, or even thrice removed. Nada. Zip. Zilch on the whole cousin front." This wasn't as odd as it sounded, seeing as everyone in my family, going way, way back, was gone and forgotten, my parents killed in a car crash a few years earlier, leaving little old me to fend for his little old self, or young self, as it were.

"Boris Jackowski was your great-grandfather's brother's great-grandson," the lawyer told me as a second and third bead of sweat quickly followed the first one, tickling my face as they meandered ever downward, "leaving the two of you the last surviving Jackowskis." His sigh repeated. "Make that just you, I suppose, now, sir."

And still I kept shaking my head, because I'd never met my great-grandfather, but I knew he was an only child, or at least that's what I'd been told, and so I said, "My great-grandfather didn't have a brother."

I heard papers being rustled on the other end of the line just before the lawyer told me, again in that barely-there accent that made me suddenly think of borscht and broiled prunes, "Your great-grandfather was born in Poland in 1892, Mister Jackowski. He migrated to the United States in 1910, leaving his brother behind to watch over the family estate. Your cousin, Boris, sold said estate in 2008 and moved to San Francisco the very same year." The papers stopped rustling as my head stopped shaking, and my heart, it seemed, for just the briefest of moments, stopped madly pounding in my chest. "He knew of you, Mister Jackowski, even though you didn't know of him. He knew of you and your family, though none of them knew of him or his family. From what I know, sir, from what your cousin told me before his death, the two sides were estranged."

"Until now," I couldn't help but add.

"In a way, yes," he said. "Bitter irony, I suppose."

My hand was shaking as I held the receiver, the beads turning to a torrent, because none of what he was saying made any sense. How could I not know about an entire limb of my spindly family tree, and how could I not know I had a cousin living in the same city as me, and why, I wondered, did said cousin not contact me until after his death? "Wait," I managed, my heart suddenly kick-starting as a new thought wormed its way through, "Boris moved here in 2008?"

"Yes, Mister Jackowski," he replied, "2008. Why do you ask?"

I gulped as I stared at the phone, eyes wide, Adam's apple riding up and down my throat like a runaway elevator car. "That was the year my parents died."

There was the briefest of pauses before he said, "An odd coincidence, Mister Jackowski. One family lost, one gained."

The phone slipped out of my sweaty grip. I picked it back up and replied, "Not exactly gained, Mister, uh, Mister..."

The chuckle made its menacing return. "Bolinski," he informed me, "Igor Bolinski."

"Polish, too?" I asked.

"Polish, too," he answered.

"They name them weird in Poland, if you don't mind my saying so, sir."

"Says the man named Jack Jackowski."

Touché. He had me there. In any case, there was one more question in my repertoire, one that was steadily rising to my addled brain's forefront. "Cousin Boris," I said, "how, um, how did he die?"

The third and final sigh reached my ear. Too bad no one was beating off on the other end of the line to make it more pleasant-sounding. "Impaled, Mister Jackowski."

An odd word. Sounded more like a day at the beach, and yet I knew it wasn't. "How does one die of impaling exactly, Mister Bolinski? Did he fall on an upturned tree root, back into an exposed jagged pipe, parachute onto a spiked fence?" Ouch, ouch, and double-ouch.

The pause, like the sigh, made its triumphant reappearance. It stretched into infinity, though it lasted for barely the briefest of seconds. "A hunting accident," was all he said, leaving it at that before quickly changing the subject. "Now then, I have some final paperwork to take care of before the estate changes hands. Can you meet me at the mansion in a week's time?"

"The mansion," I repeated. "My mansion?"

"Your mansion, yes," he said, "as the master wanted."

"The master?" I echoed, my heart suddenly galloping through a furlong.

He coughed, which, oddly, didn't sound any less sinister than his chuckle, or his sigh, or his pause, for that matter. "Mister, I meant to say, Mister Jackowski. It was his final wish, that it all goes to you."

And who was I to argue with a man's final wish, especially when that man was my estranged cousin? Wealthy cousin, that is, wealthy, estranged, impaled Cousin Boris.


It bears repeating.