The Case of the Man-Eating House
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! I leave my usual notation that the time period is the present day, since time period is not critical to the series and I prefer it this way. This is my Halloween piece for 2012, inspired by dreams, Halloween merchandise, and the Livejournal community OctoberWriting. Also involved is the 2012 theme at OctoberWriting, Film Noir. The story title is based on an episode of The Wild Wild West (which guest-starred William Talman, by the way!), and I've included several in-jokes to the episode in the story. The house is a combination of two different re-envisionings of our house that I've dreamed about repeatedly and strangely, complete with many of the bizarre and eerie feelings and happenings that occur in said dreams (and a little extra, for story purposes). I leave a disclaimer that, thankfully, our much smaller house in reality does not feature any of the eerie feelings and happenings! . . . Well, except for lights occasionally flipping on when no one's around to turn them on. Hmm.
In a city as large as Los Angeles, there were, of course, many ghost stories. The kids in each neighborhood and subdivision had their own collection of spooky, scary, macabre tales. Throughout the year, but especially as Autumn rolled around, they dared each other to enter assorted haunted houses and other buildings. These ventures were met with varying levels of success and terror.
One mansion that everyone seemed to avoid with collective fright was the Twilight House, which had once belonged to a glamorous actress of the classic film noir era. As if it wasn't unsettling enough for it to be the one home left on a street of vacant properties, rumors had started to circulate that anyone who journeyed into its long-vacant halls never came out. After all, the kids insisted, the last known owner of the house had become a recluse and never emerged in the last years of his life.
It only fueled the stories when it was learned that said last owner was an axe murderer.
Naturally, Della had never believed the silly stories. But she was also not about to find the thought of trouping through an old and unsafe house a good thing. And when the Twilight House became part of a current case, and she found herself and Perry pulling up in front of it on the night before Halloween, she was most displeased.
"Perry, what are we doing here?" she exclaimed.
Perry just smiled and shut off the car's engine. "Oh, I thought we could just stop and have a look, as long as we're out this way. I thought you might be curious about this house, Della, since Anabeth Frasier once lived here."
"I'll admit, I have been curious. I love catching her films on the classic movie channels on television, the rare nights I'm home and not at the office. But that's not why we're here. You're really hoping we might run into Martin Rand and you can convince him to give himself up," Della deduced.
"Is that so terrible?" Perry returned.
"No. . . ."
Perry instantly picked up on the hesitancy in his secretary's voice. "What's the matter, Della?" he queried. "Afraid we won't get out again?"
"Well . . ." Della gave him a coy smile. "We really might not. The floor might be completely rotted through."
"I'll test it before I go in," Perry promised. "It might be better for you to wait out here."
Della just gave him a Look. "Stay out here in the dark, with no one else around? Ohh no."
Perry considered that. "Maybe it would be better if we stayed together," he agreed. "This hasn't been a neighborhood filled with crimes, but it isn't the most pleasant part of the Valley."
Della shivered. "That's an understatement."
Perry climbed out of the car. "Remember, Della—this is just an old, vacant house in the middle of Los Angeles County, just like countless other old, vacant houses."
"Except that this old, vacant house ties in with a murder case," Della said.
Martin Rand, the suspect and Perry's possible client, was supposed to have vanished somewhere inside. But when the police had come to investigate, it had been tightly sealed from the outside. No one could have gotten through. They had not been able to gain entry themselves, no matter how hard they had tried. And no matter what they believed, to some degree they were all disturbed by that fact.
Perry started up the walk but soon ground to a halt. "Della," he frowned. "Look."
Della looked. A dark car was parked in the driveway. "What is it?" she wondered in surprise.
"I don't know. My guess is an undercover police car." Perry gently prodded Della forward with a hand on her back. "They're probably around back. You can see the lock is still on the front door."
"Replaced after the police destroyed the old one and still couldn't get in," Della said.
"That was strange," Perry acknowledged.
Even stranger was what happened as they drew near to the porch. As they both watched, stunned and in disbelief, the chain slipped from around the door and the padlock clicked open. The door creaked open on groaning hinges, as though beckoning them to the darkened interior.
Della became aware that she was clutching Perry's upper arm. "Perry!" she hissed in horror.
Perry was frowning at the display. "Maybe you're right, Della," he said. "Maybe this isn't any place for us." He paused. "Although I suppose the lock and chain could have simply been loose. But that wouldn't explain the door."
"No, it wouldn't!" Della exclaimed. "Let's go around to the back and find whoever's here. We can all leave together and never come back."
Perry opened his mouth to respond when a blood-curdling scream cut him off. Again he and Della stared. "That came from inside!" Perry declared.
Now he ran up to the porch, Della right at his heels. "Hello?!" he called. "Hello? Who's there?!"
Della tried to keep her fingers steady as she searched for her phone. "The police must have heard that!" she cried. "But they aren't coming."
Perry stepped into the entryway with Della, beaming his flashlight around the low-hanging cobwebs and blue chandelier. There was nothing at all, no sign that anyone had been there a moment ago. But the scream was still ringing in their ears.
"Della, you go around back and get the police," Perry directed. "Tell them what's happening."
"I can't leave you in this awful place!" Della declared in alarm.
"It'll just be for a few minutes," Perry said. "I'll leave the door open."
The door had other ideas. It swung shut with a wail of finality, locking the two hapless rescuers into their new prison.
Della ran to the door, knocking and banging. "Help!" she screamed. "Let us out of here! We're trapped!"
The only sound was that of the padlock and chain replacing themselves. Della swallowed hard, turning to look at Perry in sickened horror. Perry, frowning deeply, was going to the window.
"Is anyone out there?" Della asked without much hope.
"No," Perry said. "By all appearances, the chain and lock reaffixed themselves. Which is impossible." He stepped away from the window. "The only other possibility is that something else took them away and put them back. Something we can't see."
Della gazed at their vast and eerie surroundings, her stomach only dropping further with each sweep of the old entryway. ". . . You mean this house really might be . . . haunted?" she whispered.
"I'd certainly rather not think it," Perry said. "But it would only be foolish to completely discount the idea. Especially after all we've seen in the past few months."
Della took a few steps forward. "I suppose ghosts should seem mild compared to the rest," she said. "But there's something about this house, Perry. I can't really explain it. It feels so dark and cold and . . ." She shook her head. "Not evil, exactly, but certainly not friendly or welcoming."
Perry looked back to the window, thrusting his flashlight at the glass. It did not so much as budge or even crack, no matter how often he struck it. Frowning, he moved away again. "Well, there's obviously nothing we can do for the moment. Whatever's here has the advantage of us."
He moved over to Della. "Does your phone work in here? Try calling the police and then we'll investigate that horrible scream."
Della took the phone out of her purse and flipped it open. "It says No Signal," she said. Really, she had half-expected it.
"So does mine," Perry remarked. "Alright, let's go. Unless that scream was a trick, someone might need our help."
Della was convinced of it. She walked with Perry down the corridor, looking into each room they passed. Contrary to feeling that they were alone, the house was vibrant and very much alive. Something was watching them. And, it seemed, other living people were there too, possibly allies.
It was strange and unsettling, to feel such sensations. She did not have ESP. She was not psychic. She did not even study a great deal about the paranormal, as Mignon Germaine did. But the house was simply pulsating with energy. As far as she was concerned, there was no possible way to not feel it.
A flashlight suddenly beamed in her eyes. "Della? . . . Perry?"
Della rocked back, stunned. "Lieutenant Tragg?" she asked, shielding her eyes.
The beam was quickly withdrawn. Lieutenant Tragg, accompanied by Hamilton Burger and Sergeant Brice, stepped out of the shadows of a heavy pine-green drape. They looked as surprised to see Perry and Della as Della felt about seeing them.
"Well, when we saw a police car in the driveway, I should have figured it was yours, Lieutenant," Perry said. If he was surprised, he was not showing it.
"And we should have figured that you'd show up sooner or later," Tragg said. "But Perry, I'm surprised at you. This is no place for Della."
"I don't think it's a good place for any of us," Perry returned.
"Are all of you alright?" Della exclaimed. "We came in because we heard some horrible scream."
"We're fine," Hamilton said. "We heard the scream too. We haven't been able to figure out where it came from yet." He frowned. "How did you get in? Someone locked us in and we couldn't even break a window."
"Same here," Perry said. "Something unlocked the door for us, apparently just to entice us inside. Then it locked up after us."
"Why do you say 'something', Perry?" Tragg asked.
"Because we didn't see anyone," Perry said. "And I was looking out the window when the door was being locked."
"Oh, that's preposterous," Tragg retorted. "Don't tell me you're trying to say the ghost of the house locked us all in."
"Right now, Tragg, I'm not saying anything," Perry said. "Only that I hope you and Hamilton aren't completely opposed to the idea of a ghost."
". . . I suppose ghosts really exist," Hamilton said grudgingly. "Or spirits or something like that. And a year ago you never could have got me to say it. But that doesn't mean they're the explanation for everything strange that happens."
"No, it doesn't," Perry agreed. He looked from Hamilton to the others. "But we'd better consider that for this time at least, it could be a strong possibility."
Paul hung up in frustration. "Nothing," he announced. "From either of them."
Steve sighed, easing himself off of his desk. "We haven't been able to get in touch with Lieutenant Tragg and Mr. Burger, either," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, they've been gone too long for comfort. Andy and I are going after them."
"I'll come with you," Paul instantly declared.
"I had a feeling you would," Steve remarked. "But Paul, please don't do anything unnecessarily rash. Leave the crime-fighting to the police."
"I'd be glad to," Paul said. "Unless something unavoidable comes up."
Steve gave a weary nod. "Unless that happens," he agreed.
Paul followed him to the door. "Steve . . ." He hesitated. "You don't really believe those crazy rumors flying around about the place, do you? About the axe murderer and the ghost and people disappearing?"
"Me? Come on, Paul." Steve regarded him in amused amazement.
"I knew it wouldn't sound like you," Paul said.
They stepped into the hall, Steve glancing around for Lieutenant Anderson. Seeing the hall vacant, he continued, "But just because I don't believe in ghosts doesn't mean that someone couldn't be milking the story for all it's worth."
"They must be," Andy said as he abruptly appeared from his office. "Or several someones. It would take more than one person to subdue Lieutenant Tragg and Sergeant Brice and Mr. Burger. And Perry and Della, if they're along for the ride."
Paul blew out his breath in exasperation. "Well, let's get started then. It's probably going to be a long night."
He glanced back at Steve's desk in the office. "Does anyone know where we're going?" he asked, somewhat uneasily. "You know, so that if we don't come back, someone will be around to come looking for us?"
"Sergeant Nichols knows," Steve said, further amused now. "Paul, you really do believe this nonsense."
Paul went red. "I just know that the creep you're after could be holed up there," he said.
"He's just one man," Steve returned. "He couldn't subdue so many people."
". . . Yeah," Paul consented. "You're right, Steve."
"And you call him a 'creep'," Steve noted. "Does that mean you don't share Mr. Mason's idea that Martin Rand is innocent?"
"I think a lot of his clients are guilty," Paul said. "But Perry doesn't and Perry's usually proven right." He sighed. "I wish I was even half as good with my judgment."
". . . Jimmy knows where we're going too," Andy said as they headed for the exit. "And I can't say he's thrilled about it. Not so much because of the missing person of interest, either. I can't help remembering what you told me about that fake psychic, Lieutenant. The one who said that everyone believes, even just a little."
"He was probably right, too," Steve said, shooting a sideways glance at Paul, who rolled his eyes.
"The stories about that place are just rumors," Paul said. "They have been for years. I don't even know if they ever had any truth to them. I don't think anyone else knows, either."
"One thing I do know is that there's an old cemetery in back of the house," Steve said.
Paul blanched. "It's not just part of the made-up stuff?!"
Steve shook his head. "It belonged to the first owners of the house. It ended up including some of their extended family as well as friends."
". . . And the axe murderer's victims?" Paul asked, his stomach dropping.
"Possibly," Steve admitted. "At least the ones who were never found."
Paul could not refrain from an audible groan. "And Perry and Della and the others are stuck in a place like that? Oh brother."
Steve gave him an entertained look. "There's really nothing to worry about, Paul. Except for one escaped murder suspect."
"And the ghosts, if you believe in them," Andy added.
"Even though I don't, why take chances?" Paul retorted.
"Why, indeed," Andy said.
Della was becoming increasingly anxious as she and the others wandered through the extensive ground level of the mansion. The feeling that something unwelcoming was there seemed to grow stronger the longer they lingered, but since they were trapped there was little they could do to appease it.
If not for that sensation, the house would really be quite pleasant. It had been heavily renovated since its early days; although it still bore some resemblance on the inside to the Victorian design on the outside, many rooms had been given a more modern touch. There were even electric lights, despite of course not still being hooked up.
The large kitchen was probably Della's favorite room, with its smooth oak cupboards and island countertop. As soon as they entered, she went to the counter in awe, running her hands over the finished wood.
"Oh, isn't this beautiful?" she exclaimed. "I wouldn't mind having a kitchen like this. In a different house, of course," she hastened to add.
"Of course," Perry smiled.
Hamilton wandered ahead. At the other end of the kitchen was a second door, the kind that could swing on its hinges in either direction. He pushed it open, beaming his flashlight into the back hallway that stretched into the darkness.
"There's another corridor over here," he announced.
Without warning, the room and the hallway were flooded with light. Everyone froze.
"Well," Tragg said at last, being the first to recover, "it seems the electricity was still hooked up after all."
"But we knew it was disconnected, Lieutenant," Sergeant Brice exclaimed. "We looked into all of that information before we came out here."
Tragg sobered. "Yeah. I know."
Della stepped away from the counter and closer to Perry. "What could have caused it to come back on?" she wondered, her voice hushed.
"It could just be that our missing suspect is a skilled electrician and has a generator," Tragg said. "He could have plugged it in just now to give himself some light. And maybe to tease and torment his guests a bit at the same time." He glanced to the back hallway. "Let's not let our imaginations run away with us. Come on; we'll see what's back there."
"I just noticed something, now that we can see properly," Perry spoke, keeping a protective hand on Della's back. "There aren't any cobwebs in here."
Della's eyes widened. "Perry, you're right," she gasped. "The kitchen is spotless!"
Hamilton stared. ". . . Well, obviously Rand must have been out here and doesn't like cobwebs, so he got rid of them." He hurried back to look out at the front hall and the main entrance. "There's still cobwebs in the parlor, Perry. They didn't magically disappear, if that's what you were trying to insinuate."
Perry nodded. "I'm sure you're right, Hamilton." He and Della moved forward to join Tragg and Brice at the back door. "After all, what other explanation could there be?"
"That's right," Tragg nodded, looking back as Hamilton hastened to rejoin the group. "There isn't any other explanation, unless the spiders just didn't like it out here."
"And why wouldn't they," Perry mused as they stepped onto the hall carpet.
"I can't begin to imagine," Tragg declared.
Paul, Steve, and Andy were just pulling up across from the mansion when the lights came on. For a moment they stopped and stared, stunned.
"What the . . . where did that come from?!" Paul cried at last.
Steve shook his head. "The electricity was off," he said. "It's been off for years. I can't believe a man as desperate as Martin Rand would dare to call the power company and have them put it back on."
He got out of the car, drawing his gun as he headed for the property. Paul and Andy were right behind him.
"Hey, Steve," Paul called after him. "How do you suggest getting in?"
Steve only barely glanced back. "I did some research on the property. There's supposed to be a secret entrance in the cemetery. We'll take that route and try to give Rand the element of surprise. That could be especially important now." He looked to the two cars parked at the manor. "He might be holding hostages."
Paul swallowed hard. He recognized Perry's convertible all too well.
"You're right," he said. "But what if he already knows we're here? It's kind of a weird coincidence, with the lights snapping on just as we're rolling up."
"It is," Steve frowned. "But unless Rand gives us some irrevocable proof that he knows, I'd rather take my chances that it is an odd coincidence. Anyway, if he knows, he might be expecting us to come through the front door."
Andy nodded. "We have a better chance out back. I doubt Rand even knows about the secret entrance."
"Probably not," Paul agreed.
But a shudder went down his spine anyway. What kind of a place was a cemetery to put a secret passage?
When they reached the backyard and found the iron gate of the burial grounds, Paul's ill feelings did not abate in the least. The place, though small, still managed to be extensive enough for several curving paths and even some statuary. Off in the distance, where it was only a faint shape in the night, was a mausoleum.
"This is just a family cemetery?" he exclaimed. "How many people are buried here?"
Steve grasped the gate, trying to swing it open slowly and carefully enough so as not to disrupt the rusted hinges. He did not quite succeed. A low, squeaking protest echoed through the immediate area.
Andy cringed. ". . . From the plans Steve found, there was enough room for a couple of hundred plots," he said. "And judging from the number of monuments we can see from here, it almost looks like most of them are filled."
"It does, doesn't it," Paul mumbled. He stepped through the gate with the two policemen. "And what if some of those missing axe murderer victims really are in here? Would they get monuments too, with fake names?"
"More likely, they may have been buried in existing graves," Andy said.
Steve nodded. "Forensics teams have been out here several times, without turning up anything conclusive." He headed towards the far corner of the graveyard.
"It's no wonder a place like this might be haunted," Paul muttered as he followed.
Louder he said, "So is the passageway inside the mausoleum?"
"That's what the plans say," Steve replied. "But they unfortunately don't say how to open it."
"So we'll have to make like detectives in the movies and look for the trigger." Paul liked the sound of this less and less. Who knew how long it would take them to find the means of opening the panel? And who knew what was happening to Perry and Della and the rest in the meantime?
"Regrettably, yes," Steve sighed.
"Maybe we'll have some good luck and it won't take long," Andy said. He brushed by an Angel of Grief statue on his right.
Paul started to trail after him but then stopped, squinting at the statue in disbelief. He could have sworn he had seen a movement.
Of course that was insane. If he had seen anything, it could have only been Andy's shadow across the stone.
Or at least, that was what he firmly thought . . . until something cold and hard curled around his wrist as he walked past.
Both Steve and Andy jumped a mile and spun around, guns drawn. "Paul?!" Steve exclaimed. "What's wrong? You know we can't risk drawing attention to ourselves."
"I know, but this thing doesn't. Or it doesn't care." Paul struggled, pulling in vain at the granite fingers wrapped around his flesh.
"What are you talking about?" Steve came closer. "I know you realize this isn't the time for a joke." But then he saw the problem and his jaw dropped. "Paul, how did you get your hand stuck in there?!"
Andy stared, his eyes wide. "It wasn't holding out its hand," he said. "I know because I just went past it before Paul. Now it's got hold of Paul, while it's still bent over the monument and grieving!" And somehow that was more eerie than if it had risen completely, as though it was still acknowledging its function as an inanimate object while wanting to be more at the same time.
Steve regarded him and the stone hand in disbelief. "Oh, come on," he protested. "Are you trying to tell me the statue deliberately reached out and grabbed Paul?"
"That's exactly what it did," Paul said. "And now I can't get loose!" He placed his foot on the monument and pulled, to no avail. Instead he lost his balance.
Steve and Andy hastened to steady him. "There's no way you can break out of it yourself," Andy noted. "Its fingers are completely wrapped around your wrist!"
Steve frowned. He had to concede to that, at least. However it had gotten that way, it was that way. And Paul was having no luck in prying the fingers off of his arm.
"I could try shooting it," Steve spoke.
"No," Paul retorted. "We can't risk the noise!"
"Well, we can't leave you here like this, either," Steve informed him. "I wouldn't dare."
"Oh, I'd be fine," said Paul, even though he was thoroughly unsure of that. He swallowed his unease. "Just as long as the rest of the statues didn't gang up on me too."
"There has to be a logical explanation for this," Steve insisted. "Maybe there's some sort of electronic device inside the statue's arm, and it either activated or someone activated it when you walked by."
"But why didn't it happen when I walked by?" Andy wondered.
"Who knows. Maybe you didn't hit the trigger. Or maybe whoever might have started it didn't want it to grab a police officer." Steve stepped back, leveling his gun at the stone. "It might even be Rand. Maybe this is the proof he knows we're here."
Paul cringed at the sight of the gun. ". . . If this thing shatters, chunks of granite might fly everywhere. Including into us."
"I'll be as careful as I can. And Paul, try to turn away as much as you can."
"My arm will still be here." Paul's tone was dry as he walked as far ahead as he could while still being held prisoner. At the strain on his arm, he stopped.
In the next instant Steve squeezed the trigger. The bullet flew out and into the arm, severing it. The fingers fell away from Paul's wrist as the stone limb descended to the grass.
Paul scrambled to his friends, his heart racing. "Thanks, Steve. I never want to see another of these statues again as long as I live!" he declared.
"You and me both," Andy exclaimed. The statue seemed completely like a statue now. The loss of half an arm had not seemed to faze it. But Andy did not want to be anywhere near it.
"I always thought these kind were creepy anyway," Paul said.
Steve nodded. "Let's hurry," he said. "Whether Rand heard that or not, we should try to stay quiet from now on."
"You'll get no arguments from me," Paul said. "I just hope the mausoleum doesn't have any other weird surprises!"
Again they resumed their journey, even as a strange and unexplainable fog began to curl around their ankles. Not noticing that, Andy took one last glance at the statue. And his mouth and his stomach plunged.
"Look!" he gasped, gripping Paul's forearm while pointing with his other hand.
"Now what?!" Steve groaned as he and Paul turned. But then they stiffened.
The broken part of the arm was back on the statue, as though nothing had happened at all.
". . . If we were a bunch of kids, right now we'd be running for dear life to get away from that thing," Paul said at last.
"Right now, I'm not so sure that isn't a good idea," Andy said. If only they could run from here altogether. But of course they could not; they had to get into that house. And who knew what other horrors were up ahead.
Also shaken, Steve clutched his gun as he looked away. "Let's walk, very fast, to the mausoleum," he said. "And if anyone has a few prayers, I think we can use them. Heaven help everyone in that house."
"Amen," Paul whispered.