This is a work of fanfiction for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of Hardcastle and McCormick do not belong to me, but to their creators.
A/N: For the challenge, and just in the nick of time.
Curses, Foiled Again
"What do you mean, haunted?" McCormick's wide eyes pierced through the darkness, and Hardcastle figured he was trying to determine if he was being put on.
"Well, that's what people always said," the judge replied seriously.
Mark reached out and pulled a burning candle closer. "We shoulda gone out to the garage to find the lanterns," he complained. "Looks like the storm's not blowing over, and we're not gonna get power back until it passes through."
"The last thing we need to be doing," Hardcastle told him for at least the fifth time, "is digging around out in the garage in the dark. There's sharp stuff out there, ya know."
"We've got flashlights."
"Yeah, and we need those for moving around the house if we have to, not to go poking around in the garage. We've got plenty of candles to use here in the den until bedtime." He grinned wickedly. "Unless you're ready to turn in now?"
"No," McCormick said quickly. Then, more slowly, "I mean, it's probably not even ten yet." He paused to stretch his arm closer to the flickering flame then leaned to squint at his watch. "It isn't ten yet, is it?"
The judge chuckled at his friend's obvious nervousness. "It's just the dark, kiddo; there's no such thing as goblins."
"Yeah? Then why'd you never tell me about the haunted house before, huh? We musta been by that place at least a hundred times. Sometimes even at night."
"Exactly. And did you ever see a ghost? Even once?"
"They aren't always shimmering bodies floating in the air, Hardcastle. How'm I supposed to know if I've seen 'em or not?"
"They aren't evershimmering bodies, McCormick; they aren't real." Hardcastle wondered for just a second if he might regret teasing the young man with ghost stories for the past couple of hours. But probably not.
"Then why do people say that old place is haunted? You said they've 'always' said it. What's that mean? When did it start?"
Milt shook his head, but gave a small, enticing smile. "Let's not talk about this any more, kid."
"Oh, no; you don't get off that easy. You started this—" McCormick jumped as a sudden clap of thunder rattled through the house. With a gulp, he continued, "And there's nothing you can say that's worse than what I'm imagining, so just tell me what you know."
Hardcastle grinned, and began his tale. "Back when the house was being built, maybe thirty-five or forty years ago now, there was an accident. It was the day before Halloween—"
"Like today," McCormick interjected.
"Right. Anyway, this person comes up to the construction site—a hunchback old woman. Reports say she looked like some kinda cross between a gypsy and a troll, if you believe in that sort of thing." He knew McCormick probably did, so he just kept talking. "Anyway, she was wandering around, talking to the guys, asking for money. Some sort of sob story about how her house had caught fire and collapsed around her and her family; she was the only one the firefighters managed to save. A couple of folks took pity and gave her a few bucks, but most of them didn't want anything to do with her, and when the foreman saw what was going on, he ran her off the property. She left, but when she got just outside the fence, she turned around and stared back at the foreman, pointed at him, then shouted something in some kinda strange language, and then . . . vanished."
"'Vanished'?" McCormick repeated. "You mean she cursed him and then just disappeared?"
"You know how witnesses are, kid," Hardcastle placated. "You have to take everything they say with a grain of salt. Especially when they say crazy stuff about people vanishing. And besides, who said anything about a curse?"
"Hey, I grew up around a lot of old world people, Hardcase. When they start pointing and talking in weird languages, it's always a curse. So what happened?"
The judge grinned at the kid's eagerness to hear the details, even though he clearly expected them to be gruesome. He picked up his story. "The rest of the day apparently went by without any problem, and at quittin' time the crew went home, leaving the foreman to finish up his daily paperwork just like always. But he was still there when they reported back the next morning; said he told 'em he just couldn't leave for some reason. Then, later that day, a fire broke out in one of the back rooms. The crew was working on the outside; didn't know there was trouble. Said they heard a crash—the second story floor had collapsed—before they even saw the flames. The fire department got there pretty quickly, managed to save the house, but the headcount was one short. They found the foreman under the rubble."
McCormick frowned in the candlelight. "It was the curse," he said softly.
Hardcastle shrugged. "Accidents happen, McCormick, even tragic accidents."
"An accident that just happened to be exactly the same thing that killed the old gypsy's family? And only hours after the foreman got on her bad side?"
"Okay," the older man relented, "so it was a very coincidental accident. But the investigators found some faulty wiring, said it could've been smoldering for hours before things got really bad. That foreman was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
McCormick seemed to give that some thought, and he waited until another clap of thunder had rumbled through the room before asking his next question. "Then what makes you say the house is haunted?"
"I don't say the house is haunted," the judge clarified, "I said people say it's haunted."
McCormick grinned slightly at that. "Okay. So why do people say the house is haunted?"
"Well," Hardcastle shifted uncomfortably, "I guess during the investigation the construction crew was pretty worked up about the woman. They seemed to think she had something to do with the fire."
McCormick raised an eyebrow. "Of course she had something to do with the fire," he interjected.
"I meant in the physical sense, McCormick, not in whatever cockamamie, out of this world scheme you've got cooked up in that goofy head of yours.
"Anyway, they told the cops all about her, but nothing ever came of it; couldn't even find her to question her. It was like she—"
"Vanished?" McCormick suggested.
"Crawled back under whatever rock she came from," Hardcastle answered, rolling his eyes.
"But what about haunted, Hardcase?"
"Well, the house got finished and a family moved in. At first they didn't seem to think too much of the noises coming from the back room, even convinced themselves it didn't sound like someone crying out for help. But the next October they got the scare of their lives. On the thirtieth, the noises got louder; they said it wasn't even crying out any more; it was talking. The voice just kept saying it wanted out; wanted to go home. Then . . ." Hardcastle trailed off for a moment, then said, "Ah, this is just crazy." He peered through the flickering candlelight, but McCormick was sitting quietly, watching intently, waiting. He sighed.
"Then, the next day," he finally continued, "on Halloween, the kids were getting dressed to go out trick or treating when they smelled smoke. Parents called for help and rushed everyone out of the house. But while they were standing in the lawn, waiting for the firemen, they heard agonizing screams coming from the house. And, standing just outside the yard in the darkness, they saw a bent old woman, muttering to herself in some kind of foreign language."
"Oh my God," McCormick breathed. "She cursed him to relive his death over and over again. And she came back to watch."
"That's certainly one theory," Hardcastle agreed, "though that's not really the strange part."
"It gets stranger than that?"
"Well . . . maybe not. But, when the fire department finally showed up, there was no fire. No smoke, no flames, no embers, nothing. There had never been a fire. But in that back room, right in the middle of the floor, there was one small scorch mark that had never been there before."
Mark seemed to be giving that some thought. After a moment he asked, "Then what? Did the family stay?"
Hardcastle shook his head. "Uh uh. They packed some things and never spent another night there. For the next ten years they say lots of folks moved in, but they all moved out again. Some of them reported the constant wailing from the back room, some thought the house was talking to them. But every year on October thirty-first, the fire department got a call. And every year, whoever was living there at the time moved out immediately afterward. Finally some real estate guy bought the place and decided to rent it out, but with no one allowed to live there in the month of October. Well, by that time the house had a reputation, and no one minded the idea of a short term lease.
"Eventually, though, even that was too much for people, and folks quit moving in. The developer tried to make it a Halloween haunted house one year, but no one would go in—said it was too real. And, before much longer, the house had become abandoned, and that's how it got to now."
McCormick was still staring, the concentration on his face deepened by the shadows of the dimly lit room. What he finally said was, "Do you think all that stuff really happened?"
"Huh." The judge made a dismissive gesture. "I told ya, I don't believe any of it, but that's the story people tell." He paused a few seconds, then added, "Though a lot of it is in the public record; the fire, the property sales history, calls to the fire department."
"But you don't believe in ghosts?" Mark clarified.
"Rational people don't believe in ghosts, kid."
McCormick quirked a small grin, but didn't respond.
After a moment or two of silence, Hardcastle raised an eyebrow and asked, "Hey, wanna hear the story of a warehouse out in Lynwood?"
"No," the younger man answered quickly. "I think I've heard enough ghost stories for one night, thank you very much."
"Afraid you're gonna have nightmares?" Hardcastle teased.
"Yep," Mark admitted with an easy chuckle. "And since it looks like this rain is never gonna let up and I'll end up crashing over here for the night, you really don't want me tossing and turning and prowling around all night long."
"You could be right about that," the judge conceded, swiping a thumb across his nose. He cast an eye toward the den window and cocked his head consideringly. "Though it actually sounds like the storm might be slowing down a bit."
McCormick looked again at his watch, then pushed himself out of his chair, grabbing a flashlight as he rose. "Yeah, maybe, but I still don't want to hear about any more haunted houses." He turned toward the door. "I'm gonna get something to snack on. You want anything?"
"Whatcha havin'?" Hardcastle wondered. "No popcorn without power."
"Nah. Maybe some ice cream." He grinned. "'Sides, if the power stays out too long, it'll melt, so we really oughta eat it up."
"Hmph. Like you need an excuse to eat ice cream." Then the older man paused for a beat before adding, "But go ahead and bring me some too, and I'll help ya. Wouldn't want it to go to waste."
Laughing, McCormick flicked on his light and made his way through the darkness toward the kitchen.
Hardcastle sat for a moment, then rose from his own chair and shuffled across the darkened room to the window. He peered through the glass with a squint, trying to assess the weather conditions. It did seem the rain had settled down to a light drizzle now, but the wind was still gusting, blowing the water in all directions, pinging the drops against the window. The scattered slashes of moonlight breaking through the cloud cover didn't do much except make this stormy night seem even more ominous. That thought sparked a small twinge of guilt over the marathon of creepy stories—he knew McCormick believed in all manner of craziness—but he quickly pushed it aside and flashed a grin. Really, he couldn't have asked for a better setting for ghost stories.
But then he arched an eyebrow in surprise as he watched a pair of headlights make their way slowly up the drive and come to a stop in front of the house. By the time the car door opened and the interior light outlined the driver exiting from the car, he had turned back to the end table to grab a flashlight and was heading up the steps. He reached the entryway just as he heard the knock on the door. Three quick raps; not urgent, but decisive. He glanced down the hall, but McCormick could still be heard puttering around in the kitchen; hard to know if the darkness or the extra-curricular nibbling was slowing him down more.
He also took a moment to examine the front door, but the figure not exactly visible through the panes was certainly not identifiable. He briefly considered the wisdom of opening his door to an unseen stranger in the total darkness, and spared a quick thought to going back to the den for a weapon, but then he laughed it off. Must've given himself a touch of the willies with his own stories.
Aiming the flashlight toward the unexpected visitor, he opened the door, then found himself frozen, staring at the person on his porch. Illuminated in the harsh glare of the beam of light stood a figure only a couple of inches shorter than the judge, but seeming more so because of the slightly hunched over back. The drab brown dress that hung loosely on the bent shape seemed to diminish size even further, and the purple scarf rapped around the head obscured most of the face, revealing only deeply set wrinkles around the side of the mouth that was visible as the visitor turned to look up at the open door. Hardcastle had the definite impression he was looking at someone who was somewhere between a gypsy and a troll, if you believed in that sort of thing.
A smile spread across his face. "Frank?"
His visitor nodded, and when he spoke, the words were muffled by the latex mask. "Yeah. Sorry; I know you didn't want Mark to see me until tomorrow, but we were getting reports of property damage and downed power lines out here, and your phone's out, too. I was on my way home from the department party, so I thought I'd stop by and make sure you guys were okay."
"Oh, yeah; we're fine. Power's out, obviously, but things are okay." He grinned wickedly. "It's been the perfect night for ghost stories."
Harper chuckled and shook his head. "I can't believe you're settin' him up like this."
"Seems a shame to waste your perfectly good costume," the judge laughed. "Besides, what's Halloween without a prank or two? I just hope the storm passes on through and we get the electricity back before much longer. No matter how fitting it seems, I can't have a party here tomorrow in the pitch black."
"Well, you could always get a bunch of pumpkins and have your party by jack o' lantern light," Frank teased, "but I don't think it'll come to that. Things have calmed down a lot, and the power crews are already out making their rounds."
Hardcastle had just opened his mouth to respond when the first sounds of impending disaster echoed down the hallway.
"Hey, Hardcase! The ice cream is already gettin' soft," McCormick's voice was growing closer. "But I couldn't carry two bowls and the flashlight, so . . . I . . . left—"
He heard the kid's voice trail off and finally come to a stop completely as he reached the entryway. For Hardcastle, the next couple of minutes existed in that strange duality where events seem to unfold in slow motion and yet happen so quickly they cannot be stopped. His last completely coherent thought was, It wasn't supposed to happen like this.
He looked behind him to see a moment of surprise on McCormick's face as the young man locked his gaze on the figure standing in the open door. He jerked his attention back the other direction, and though he knew it was impossible with the mask, he would've sworn he saw Harper's eyes widen in shock as he felt the movement coming his direction.
The sudden yell pierced through the darkness and echoed in the hall as McCormick barreled past him, flashlight thrust out like a saber. And before Hardcastle could find his voice, Harper seemed to get the idea that things could get out of control quickly and the detective had turned and leaped down the steps, rounding the corner toward the garage.
"You better run!" McCormick shouted, giving chase out the door and disappearing into the night. "Get back to where you came from!"
Hardcastle stood, spellbound, for several seconds, staring at the now-empty doorway. Finally, with a low groan and a harsh shake of his head, he brought himself back to the moment and rushed to follow his friends.
"McCormick!" he shouted as he shined the light in front of him, peeking through the drizzle. "McCormick! It's Harper! Where are you?" He moved as quickly as he could, scanning the ground in front of him, and he didn't have to go far before he could hear a commotion off to the side which could not have been anything other than the two men falling to the ground into a pile of leaves. Absently, he recalled that he'd been after McCormick for days to get those things sacked up, but he pushed the thought aside and yelled again. "McCormick! Stop!"
The sounds of the fight were muffled in the leaves, especially with the light rain making an eerie patter against the trees, but the judge winced at what seemed to be the grunts and groans of a fairly painful altercation. He stepped closer, trying to pinpoint the exact location with his light. "McCormick!" he yelled again, his voice tinged with barely controlled panic. "I said stop. It's Frank, dammit!"
At last his beam flashed across two large shadows shuddering on the ground and he moved quickly in their direction, determined to bring this insanity to a halt. It was only as he finally reached their location that he realized the sounds of agony he'd heard only seconds earlier now sounded mysteriously like muffled laughter. And as he took his final steps and the small shard of light landed upon the other men, he could see that they weren't fighting at all. Instead, they were lying side by side, rustling the wet leaves around them, looking for all the world like overgrown children at the autumn festival.
"What the hell is going on?" Hardcastle demanded. "Didn't you hear me calling you, McCormick?"
"Uh huh," Mark giggled, not seeming to mind the light rain falling on his face.
The judge huffed a breath and swept his light over to the other man. "Frank? Are you okay? He didn't conk you with that flashlight or anything, did he?"
"Uh uh," the officer answered, and though the effect was shielded under the mask, Hardcastle was pretty sure that he was giggling, too.
"Okay, let's have it," he said harshly. "What happened?" He pointed his light back toward the younger man. "Get up, McCormick," he ordered.
Mark rose to his feet and then leaned down to pull Harper off the ground, stifling a laugh. After dusting himself off, McCormick turned to face Hardcastle. "What's the matter, Judge?" he asked innocently. "Did we scare you?"
"Scare me?" the jurist repeated loudly. "The way you took off outta there, you about gave me a heart att—" He broke off suddenly and glared at the two men before him, though he doubted that the pale slices of moonlight allowed them to see his displeasure. He turned his full attention to Harper.
"You told him," he accused.
"I did not," Frank insisted, reaching up to pull the scarf from around his head. Sticking his fingers under the base of latex, he tugged on the mask, slowly pulling it over his head. Then he pointed a bony finger toward Hardcastle. "You're the one with the big mouth."
"Yeah, Hardcase," McCormick chimed in. "Don't you know if you're gonna try to scam the guy who lives with you that you at least oughtta make sure he's out of the house before you go laying out your schemes? Besides," he grinned, "how many times do I gotta tell you that you can't con a con?"
"You set me up," Hardcastle said slowly, disbelief dripping from his words. "Both of you."
"Both of you were gonna set me up," Mark said reasonably, "I just beat you to it." He flashed an evil grin. "Trick or treat."
The judge pinned his spotlight on Harper. "What happened?"
Frank shrugged. "He overheard a phone call. Then he came by the house one day." He looked a little sheepish. "I probably still could've pulled it off, but he talked to Claudia first. She said you deserved a little Halloween trickery."
"I can't believe it," Milt said with a shake of his head. "I've been out-tricked." He gestured the others forward with the flashlight and then started back toward the house. "Well come on; let's at least get out of the rain and go have some melted ice cream." Looking around at the gloomy sky as they walked he said mournfully, "And I got such a perfect night for ghost stories, too."
"Yeah," McCormick laughed. "For a while there I thought maybe you had more pull than I ever knew. Still, I can't believe you made up that whole haunted house thing just for a prank."
"Oh, I didn't make that up," Hardcastle said as they stepped back onto the drive then up the steps to the house, "at least not all of it. The foreman and the fire and the noises and all, that's all true."
"Quit foolin', Judge," Mark commanded. "You lost, fair and square." He glanced over at the detective. "Tell him, Frank."
Harper just shrugged as they continued in through the door, then paused in the entryway to dry their feet. "People really do say that house is haunted."
"You can't fool me, Hardcase."
"No, seriously," the older man persisted. "The only part that isn't really part of the story was the gypsy lady. In the real world, she was an ex-wife who showed up one day looking for back alimony payments. But she really did yell at him, and the construction crew really did think she'd been responsible for the fire, and she really had disappeared when the police went to question her. She was never seen again." He flashed a toothy grin. "It's just that when I heard about Frank's costume, I thought a gypsy troll sounded like a much better fit."
"And what about all the people in the house over the years? The calls to put out fires that were never really there?"
It was Milt's turn to shrug. "Like I told you, kid; all part of the public record."
McCormick glanced between the two men. "Really?" he asked quietly. "You mean there really was a curse? And that house really is haunted?"
"No way to know for sure, I suppose," Harper said calmly.
"S'pose not," Hardcastle agreed, "though ghosts and curses and stuff still seem like pretty unlikely things to me."
"Unlikely," McCormick repeated, nodding his head slowly, "yeah." With a deep breath he turned toward the kitchen, only to stop again suddenly as one more unexpected crash of thunder rolled through the house, shaking the windows and rattling nerves. "Unlikely," he said again, though he didn't sound entirely convinced.
"Unlikely," Hardcastle assured him with a wicked grin. He reached out and slammed the front door closed loudly. "But not impossible."