You know what I hate? Maps.
However, Baylor Compound is complicated so here is a very clumsy map for you. I will try to make a better, top down one, so you can have a bit more clarity. However, I’m working with fantasy software here, so Arabella lives in an orc tower, and Leon lives in an elven spire. Use at your own risk. 🙂 I’m not a map maker, I’m a writer.
“Is it haunted?”
Oh, for the love of… “No, Arabella.”
My sister squinted at the monstrosity of an estate growing closer as the SUV sped up the gently climbing driveway. “Look at all the towers. It looks haunted.”
“It’s not,” Bern said.
“How do you know it’s not haunted?” Leon asked from the back.
Because ghosts didn’t exist. “Because Trudy is a nice person, I like her, and she wouldn’t let us buy a haunted house.”
“Yes,” Arabella said, “But did you ask if it was?”
“I did, and Trudy said no.” Our poor, long-suffering realtor had answered more bizarre questions in the last couple of months than she had during her whole career.
My little sister whipped out her phone and bent her blonde head over it.
The entire Baylor family was in the car with exception of Grandma Frida and my older sister and brother-in-law. We were going to buy a house.
When I was very young, we lived in a typical suburban home. It was just the five of us: my dad, my mom, my older sister Nevada, me, and my younger sister Arabella. Then our two cousins, Bern and Leon, came to live with us because their mother wasn’t worth two cents and nobody knew who their fathers were. Then Dad got sick. We sold the house to pay for his treatment and moved into a warehouse with our Grandma Frida. Dad died. Nevada, who was seventeen at the time, took over the Baylor Investigative Agency, our family business, and she and Grandma Frida, who worked on tanks and mobile artillery for Texas magical elite, put food on our table and clothes on our backs.
Eventually Nevada came into her magic, and we became House Baylor, one of the prominent families that boasted more than two living Primes, the highest ranked mages. Nevada fell in love and moved out, I ended up as the Head of the House, and one of my first achievements was to blow up the warehouse all of us called home. The fact that said blowing up was completely accidental did nothing to put a roof back over our heads or to decrease my guilt.
For a while we made do with an old industrial building we sort of converted into a habitable home, but all of us hated it. And our needs had changed. All of us, including my little sister, were now adults. We wanted to stay together, both because we loved each other and because House Baylor was a new House and every time we left our building, we sported lovely targets on our backs. Safety in numbers was very much true in our case. But we also desperately needed privacy.
We wanted to live together. Just not together-together.
Finding the right house in our price range took forever, but I had my hopes pinned on this one. I really liked it.
“I heard realtors have to disclose if the house is haunted,” Leon said.
I looked at Mom in the driver seat. She gave me an amused smile. No help there.
“Apparently only four states require you to disclose paranormal activity,” Arabella reported. “Nine states require you to notify the buyer if a death occurred on the premises. And Texas does neither.”
“There were no deaths on the premises. Nobody died in the house, so it can’t possibly be haunted,” I told them.
“How do you know nobody died?” Leon asked.
“Because I checked the records,” Bern rumbled.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Arabella said.
Clearly, there were two teams in this vehicle: Team Facts and Team Facts Be Damned.
“What if they hid it?” Leon asked.
Bern gave his younger brother a look. When it came to uncovering facts, Bern had no equal. If there was a record of something and that record was at any point entered into a computer connected to the internet, he would find it.
We had run out of driveway and came to a stop atop a low hill. Mom eyed the ten-foot wall that wrapped around the estate. Directly in front of us a short, arched tunnel cut through it, allowing entry to the inner grounds. Normally the entrance was blocked by a heavy metal gate, which right now was retracted into the wall on the left side. On the right side, enclosed within the wall’s thickness, was a guardhouse.
“That’s a lot of security,” Mom said.
“I like it,” Leon said. “If the infidels choose to storm the walls, we can unleash a rain of arrows and boiling pitch.”
Mom maneuvered our armored Chevy Tahoe through the entrance and into the front parking lot on the right side. Alessandro’s silver Alfa Romeo already waited in one of the parking spots.
Everyone piled out of the car. The inner driveway, a wide paved road flanked by thick, mature oaks, unrolled straight ahead, leading south to the main house. To the right of us was a large stone and timber pavilion with huge windows.
Mom nodded at it. “What’s that?”
“That’s a wedding pavilion. The beam work inside is really pretty. I thought that if we insulated it properly, we could use it as our office building.”
Leon frowned. “You mean like a separate office building? One where we could conduct business and then leave and not be at work? People have such things?”
“Leon,” Mom said. “She and Alessandro spent the last two weeks trying to get this place inspected. She barely slept and barely ate. As I recall, none of you helped except for Bern. How about you holster that razor-sharp wit and try to be less you for the next hour?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Leon stood up straight and appeared to look serious. It wouldn’t last, but it was a good try. My younger cousin was twenty years old, and he showed zero interest in changing his ways. And that was fine with me. I liked Leon just the way he was.
Mom squinted at the two-story rectangular building on the other side of the main driveway. “And this?”
“’Cuartel,’” I said. “According to the listing documents.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Barracks?”
“Yes. The lower level has a kitchen, a mess hall, and an armory. The upper level has room for ten beds and a bathroom with four toilet stalls and three showers.”
Normally interpreting Mom’s hmmms wasn’t a problem, but right now I had no idea what she was thinking.
We strolled down the driveway. The dense wall of ornamental shrubs framed the oaks on both sides, hiding the rest of the grounds. The tree limbs reached to each other above our heads and walking down the driveway was like heading into a green tunnel.
“Nice driveway,” Leon said.
“Enjoy it while you can,” I told him. “It’s the only straight road in the place.”
“How many acres did you say this was?” Mom asked.
“Twenty-three point four,” Bern said ahead of us. “Sixteen are walled in, the rest is deer-fenced.”
“We’ll need to continue the wall,” Mom said.
“Question!” Arabella raised her hand. “If we buy this, can I get a golf cart?”
“You can buy the golf cart with your own money,” Mom said.
The driveway brought us to a large forecourt in front of a two-story Mediterranean mansion.
“The main house is five thousand square feet,” I said. “The bottom floor is split into two wings. Each wing has a master. Four bedrooms upstairs, all en-suite.”
“Four bedrooms?” Arabella asked. “So, Mom and Grandma take the downstairs, and we take the upstairs?”
To say she sounded underwhelmed would be a criminally gross understatement.
“We could do that,” I said, “or we could live in the auxiliary buildings.”
Arabella squinted at me. “What auxiliary buildings?”
I turned my back to the mansion and pointed with both hands to the sides.
The family turned around. On both sides of the driveway, separated by the hedges, lay a labyrinth of buildings and greenery. On the left rose a round tower three floors high. On the right, half hidden by landscaping, sat three two-story casitas, each sixteen hundred square feet, joined by a second-floor breezeway. Between them and us, lay gardens, benches, gazebos, and water features. Stone paths, designed by a drunken sailor, meandered through it all, trying to connect the buildings and mostly failing.
Leon spied the tower. His eyes took on a faraway look that usually meant he was thinking of flying ships, winged whales, and space pirates. “Mine.”
“It needs a bit of work,” I warned.
“I don’t care.”
Bern took a step forward and rumbled, “I like this place.” He waited for a moment to let it sink in and walked to the right, starting down a stone path toward the casitas.
“Where are you going?” Mom called.
“Home,” he called out without turning.
She looked at me. “Does Runa like the casitas?”
My oldest cousin and my best friend were slowly but surely moving towards marriage. Runa and her siblings lived with us, and it was harder and harder to ignore Runa slinking to the bathroom across the hall out of Bern’s room in the morning.
I could relate. Alessandro and I slept in the same bed every night, but both of us felt awkward about him moving into my room for completely different reasons, so we settled for him staying in the side building and me keeping my window open. For him, climbing in and out of the window was infinitely preferrable to having to run the gauntlet of my family just to get to my door.
“Where am I going to stay?” Arabella asked. “Am I going to stay in one of the casitas?”
“I think they’re spoken for,” Mom said, watching Bern double time it down the path. “Bern and Runa will take one and the Etterson children will take the other or others.”
“There’s a shack in the back, behind the main house,” I told Arabella. “You can live there.”
She marched around the house. Mom and I followed her along a narrow path, flanked by Texas olive trees, esperanza shrubs, still carrying the last of its bright yellow flowers, and sprawling clusters of cast-iron plants with thick green leaves.
“So Bern and Leon get their picks, and I get the leftovers,” Arabella called over her shoulder.
“Yep.” I nodded. “You’re the youngest.”
She mumbled something under her breath. Torturing her was delicious.
“What did you say this place was?” Mom asked.
“A failed resort. The first owners built the main house, Leon’s tower, and the bigger casita. Then they sold it to a man who decided to make it into an ultra-secure “rustic” hotel for Primes and Significants. His website called it ‘a country retreat for the Houston elite.’”
“He owned this place for about twelve years and built all of the auxiliary craziness. His business collapsed, and now he’s trying to unload the property to settle his debts.”
Nothing about this estate followed any kind of plan. To add insult to injury, the second owner thought he was handy and did a lot of the renovations and maintenance himself instead of hiring professionals. According to our building inspector, his handiness was very much in doubt.
“How much does he want for this place?” Arabella asked.
“That’s out of our budget,” Mom said.
“It’s not if we get financing,” I said. We had already put in an application through a mortgage company Connor owned, and it was approved in record time.
“We can afford to put half down,” Arabella said, “But this place isn’t worth twenty mil. I mean I don’t even get a house. I get a shack…”
We turned the corner and the path opened, the greenery falling behind. A huge stone patio spread in front of us, cradling a giant Roman style pool. Past the luxuriously large pool, the patio narrowed into a long stone path that ran down to the four-acre lake. Between the pool and the lake, on the right-hand side, stood another three-story tower.
Where Leon’s tower looked like something plucked from a Norman castle, this one could have fit right into the seaside of Palm Beach. Slender, white, with covered balconies on the top two levels and a sun deck on the roof, it had a clear vacation vibe. A narrow breezeway connected its third-floor balcony to the main house. Of all the places on the property, it was the newest and required the least amount of work to be habitable.
“Your shack,” I told her.
Arabella took off across the patio.
Mom and I strolled down past the pool toward the lake shore. An exercise track circled the water, and the roofs of three other houses poked out from the greenery at random spots along its perimeter.
“The southern entrance is there.” I pointed at the other end of the lake. “We can put Grandma’s motor pool in that spot, facing the road.” We would have to get her a golf cart to get to it. Grandma Frida was spry, but well past seventy.
“Can we really afford this place?” Mom asked.
“Yes. If we put 25% down, we will have enough for a year’s worth of business expenses and have half a million left over to renovate. We’ll have to stagger the repairs and we’ll need to invest in some livestock for the agricultural exemption. The place already has solar panels, so we’ll be saving some money there, but we will need a yard crew and probably a maid service of some sort.”
Mom bristled. “I never needed maids in my life. If you’re old enough to have your own space, you’re old enough to keep it clean.”
“I agree, but the main house is huge, and we have the barracks and the offices. We are all going to be really busy. There will be an army of people to supervise, renovation decisions to make, and we still have our regular caseload and then there is the other business…”
My time was no longer completely my own. A chunk of it belonged to my family and running of our House, but another, significantly larger part, belonged to the State of Texas and the complex entanglements its magic families created.
Arabella burst onto the third-floor balcony. “Do I like it? No. I love it!”
Mom grinned. “Well, you got her vote. Where would you and Alessandro stay?”
“Over there.” I pointed to the left, where a two-story house sat by the lake. “He’s probably over there right now. Do you need me to walk through the main house with you?”
Mom waved me off. “I’ve got it. Go check on him.”
I gave her a quick hug and took the stairs from the patio to the path leading to the two-story house Alessandro and I picked out for ourselves.