Heather drove up to the locked iron gate. She felt an eerie chill as she stared at the massive fence surrounding the twenty-acre property. She was supposed to meet Devon, the maintenance man for Sterling Investments. But, as usual, he was late, and his phone was turned off. “This is spooky,” she thought aloud.
“Yes it is.” Jennifer, her daughter sitting next to her was adjusting her ipod and headphones. “Why is Mr. John buying this stuff now? I thought he was just flipping houses.”
“I don’t know. Something about a gambling license and waterway access,” said Heather. “Anyway the housing market isn’t too good right now.”
“Gambling? He’s going to make a casino? Cool!” Jennifer exclaimed animatedly.
Heather glanced at her daughter. “Nah, I don’t think so. He may want to, but it’s who you know in that business, and I don’t see it going there.”
“Ook sqwiwwel!” Heather’s two-year-old son shouted from the backseat as he pointed out the window toward a squirrel leaping from branch to branch in a nearby tree.
“Yes Jordan,” Jennifer replied, more humoring him than listening.
Heather looked at her watch then dug into her purse, retrieving the keys to the property. Devon or no Devon, she had to look at the house, so she stepped out of the car, walked to the gate, and unlocked it.
“Hey! Come here and help,” Heather said to her daughter, while trying to slide the gate open.
Jennifer, unhappy, rolled her eyes but helped her mother all the same.
“Damn, this thing is heavy,” puffed Heather, trying to heave the gate forward.
“You’re telling me?” said Jennifer, pushing as hard as she could.
With both putting their full weight behind it, the rusty gate finally gave way and began opening inward, which was a relief, especially to Jennifer. Although she felt kind of excited by this eerie new place, she wasn’t in the mood for actual labor.
With the gate open, Heather and her daughter rushed back to the car then drove along the winding drive that took them to the main house. They got out of the car along with Jordan, who had unbuckled his safety seat even before the car had stopped.
“Wow!” Jennifer exclaimed looking at the extraordinary, massive house. “This is huge. How’d he find this?”
Heather, chasing down Jordan, replied, “It’s been vacant for years. He got it real cheap. The previous owner was an old woman who died owing a lot of money. After her death, the bank tried to take the property back, but the woman had a sister who kept it in the legal system for years, I think. No one could touch or remove anything in the house. It was a mess. Finally the sister died, and her children just wanted to be through with it. No telling the last time a living person was in there.”
Jennifer looked around the grounds, taking in the colossal structure. The grounds were definitely not manicured as a house of this size would be if it were in its prime, but that didn’t get in the way of Jennifer having thoughts about the grace and beauty of the old property. “I can’t believe he bought this. Are you sure it didn’t cost him a fortune?” she asked, peering at the second-story windows.
“Actually he got it dirt cheap,” replied Heather. “For some reason the bank had just had enough and wanted to let it go. I’m sure it was a drain considering their investment was already lost. Don’t know why they didn’t just spend a little more and divide the land up. Heck, even if the house is unlivable, with all the land here, they could have subdivided it and sold the lots.”
Still looking up at the second floor, Jennifer noticed a balcony with French doors. Although the noon sun was in her eyes, she squinted in the hope of getting a better view, but without luck. She turned her head away and began scanning the rest of the building, stopping at the bay windows on the east side of the house.
She was startled to see what appeared to be a face staring back at her through the window. Speechless, she turned to her mother, before looking at the window again. Her second look revealed nothing but an empty space.
“Are you sure Devon isn’t here?” Jennifer asked her mother, her mind struggling to make sense of what she had just seen.
“No, his truck isn’t here. If he was here, the gate would have been wide open, and he’d be at the front complaining about all the work he would have to do.” Heather grabbed Jordan’s hand and knelt down beside him, “Why do you ask?”
Jennifer shook her head, “Oh, no reason. I just thought he would have been here already.” She avoiding mentioning what she thought she had just seen for fear of ridicule.
“Jordan, settle down!” Heather pointed her finger at her son and clasped his wrist. Jordan stood in front of her grinning. Non-stop giggling ensued. “Behave! I mean it, Jordan.”
Jordan, still with a mischievous grin on his face, made an attempt to calm himself, but the excitement of the new place caused his eyes to wander. Jennifer walked up to the massive old wooden front door and grasped the handle, trying to open it without any success. “Mom it’s locked,” she said, pulling the handle.
“No kidding,” Heather replied as she tossed the keys to her daughter.
Jennifer reached up and caught the keys mid-air, all the while giving her mother an odd look, then tried again to open the door. The jostling of keys continued till finally Jennifer found the right one. She then turned the key and unlocked the door.
As Jennifer opened the door, a loud creak echoed across the threshold and into a tall-ceiling entryway. Heather, holding Jordan’s hand, followed quickly into the old house, out of the sweltering mid-morning heat. Jennifer reached for the light switch and quickly found out that the electric company hadn’t turned the power on yet.
“Darn, looks like we’ll be looking around in the dark,” she said as she flicked the light switch a few times.
“I’m sure they’ll be here today,” Heather guessed.
Although the electricity was off, the high ceilings and stone foundations made the dwelling much cooler than the ninety-plus degrees of the early September mid-morning swelter. They walked through the house, astounded by the architecture but also puzzled by the fact that the antique furnishings were still in place, and the wall paintings were hung as if someone still lived there.
“Are you sure no one is living here?” Jennifer asked, admiring all furnishings. “This stuff is old.”
“And expensive,” Heather added. She was in awe of the décor. “I think he could double his money back in just the sale of the antiques.”
Jennifer moved into the living room. The drapes were drawn, and the room was nearly pitch-black aside from a few strands of light shining out from under them. She walked nervously to the front windows and tugged at the drawstrings to pull the heavy drapes open. As she pulled, the room filled with light, enough to ease the spookiness. Heather ambled into the room, marveling at yet more antiques. One in particular caught her eye. It was an old grandfather clock, which stood against the back wall, opposite the windows.
“This is nice,” she said, moving closer.
Jennifer, having now opened the drapes fully, glanced at her mother’s find. “Yes it is—and it’s moving,” she said as she noticed the pendulum swaying back and forth.
“What!” Heather exclaimed. “How the heck is that possible?” She looked down at the swaying pendulum. “I thought you had to wind these things up or something” She took in the monotonous tick-tock of the clock.
“Are you sure no one has been in here?” Jennifer was becoming a bit apprehensive.
“No, no one has been here. Anyway, I have more to do than sit and wonder how ticking clocks work, okay?”
Jennifer could tell that her mother had a lot on her mind, but from the snappish tone, she knew her mother was also feeling a bit unnerved. “Sorry.” She offered an innocent grin.
“It’s alright,” Heather smiled, “Now let’s look around the other rooms.”
Jennifer walked out of the living room. Something about the clock had given her the creeps, and she felt it better to look around other parts of the house—preferably the well-lit parts. Heather, on the other hand, browsed through a few trinkets, which lay dusty and dormant on a shelf on the back wall, still amazed at how all of the furnishings were still in place after so many years.
Heather’s browsing was cut short by a sudden feeling of uneasiness. She looked around. “Jordan! Jordan, where are you?”
Jordan was nowhere to be seen. As usual when left unattended, he had wandered off into another part of the house. Heather left the living room and walked into the entryway near the huge staircase. “Jordan! Where are you?” she shouted again, but there was not even a snicker from him.
Jennifer made her way down from atop the staircase. “He’s not up here,” she said trotting quickly down the stairs, “but he’s here somewhere.”
Heather walked down the hall calling Jordan’s name. Finally, as she neared the library, she heard his voice, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” Oddly, it sounded as if Jordan was talking with someone.
“Jordan?” Heather strode into the library. She saw Jordan standing near a bookshelf, but as expected, there was no one else. “Jordan! Get over here!” she demanded, “What are you doing?”
Jordan turned to Heather and smiled with his devilish grin, “Uni!” he replied. “Like uni!”
“What . . .? Never mind, I don’t have time for charades,” Heather said distractedly, pulling the half-opened curtains of the double window to the sides.
Jennifer entered the library and was astonished to see the endless shelves of books. “This is mind-blowing!” she blurted out in awe.
“Yes, and all so very old.” Heather brushed her fingers through the dust on a nearby shelf.
“I’m sure Mr. John doesn’t know what all he’s bought,” Jennifer said, scanning the thousands of books. She was in heaven. There wasn’t a time in her young life that she didn’t have a book in hand. Jennifer loved to read and could finish an entire book in one sitting. Her eyes glistened with excitement at all the choices in front of her (that is, if her mother would let her borrow one.)
“What the hell is this?” Heather asked, peeking into a wooden cabinet in the corner of the room.
Jennifer turned her head and saw her mother reaching into the top of the cabinet. There was something sticking out the side. To her it looked like a handle with which to wind something up.
“Wow, wish we had power so that we could hear this.” Heather adjusted the arm of the newly-found record player.
Jennifer quickly walked over and began turning the crank on the side of the cabinet. “Okay, now try it,” she said, watching her mother with amusement.
Heather put the needle down onto the record, and instantly, the room was filled with music. She stood flabbergasted. How could a 14-year-old in 2010 actually know what it was, never mind how to start a record player? “How the hell did you know to do that?”
Jennifer looked at her mother, a little petulant—like a standard teenager looks at an adult. “I watch Pawn Stars, it’s not that hard to figure out. Anyway, didn’t you have one of these?”
Heather glared at her daughter. If looks could kill, then she would have one less mouth to feed. “No I didn’t! Well, yes, I did, but you plugged it into the wall. It wasn’t like this.”
Jennifer grinned. She knew she had struck a chord, but to her it was all in good fun. “Hey, it’s The Little Rascals!” she said as they listened.
Heather turned to her daughter, even more astonished, and gave her an odd stare. Jennifer returned it with intensity, “They’re on Hulu.”
“Okay, whatever,” Heather said as she continued to browse through the shelves.
Jennifer, also searching through the many books, began to feel anxious. “Would it be alright if I borrowed one of these books?” she asked. “Do you think Mr. John would mind?”
Heather, still browsing, nodded, “No, he wouldn’t mind. Look for an interesting one. I can bring it back when you’re through.”
Jennifer’s eyes lit up, “Yes!” she yelled excitedly.
As Jennifer searched, a book fell to the floor, startling them both. They figured that, with all their shuffling around the book shelves, it must have maneuvered too close to the edge. Jennifer, eyeing the book, reached down to pick it up. She spent a few moments looking it over, then closed it and acknowledged that this was the one.
“I want to borrow this book,” Jennifer said, grinning from ear to ear.
“What is it about?” Heather asked, glancing at it.
“I don’t know. It’s not a book really. I think it’s a sort of diary or something”
“Well that’s what it looks like. It might be interesting to see what happened here long ago.”
Heather nodded and continued with her inventory. Jennifer placed the book on a coffee table where she would not forget it.
Jordan, it seemed, was always searching for something new. He walked up to the fireplace and gazed at the portrait above it. He grinned and giggled excitedly. “Uni!” he gurgled, pointing at the portrait. But he was ignored by both his mother and sister.
After taking a mental inventory of the library, Heather proceeded across the hall to the kitchen, dragging Jordan along with her. Jennifer, feeling the urge to explore alone, walked back up the stairs, anxious to look around the other parts of the house.
Suddenly the outside kitchen door began to rattle, startling Heather. She turned and saw Devon in the window, attempting to unlock the door, but he was having trouble.
“Dammit!” Heather exclaimed, trying to calm her trembling.
As Heather stood near the window, visibly shaken, the door opened, and Devon sauntered in, along with his helper Trace. “Hello, hello, hello,” he said with a half-smoked cigarette dangling from his lips.
Heather peered at Devon wickedly. “You’re late dammit!”
Devon’s eyes opened wide as he threw his hands up in the air, “Sorry! It’s a long drive, and I had a helluva time trying to find this place.”
Irritated, more for being startled than for Devon’s tardiness, Heather returned to browsing, “Whatever. By the way, they still haven’t turned the power on.”
“Yes they have,” Devon grinned, flicking the light switch on. “See?”
With the bulb now illuminated, Heather became more annoyed with Devon. “Well, we checked the living room and the study, and the lights didn’t work, okay,” she growled.
“Calm down,” Devon continued grinning inanely, “you just had to flick the main switch on. I just turned it on before I opened the door. Problem solved.”
“Great. Now I think it best to change the locks before we do anything else here. This is different from the other houses. There are still a lot of things here, and we need to make sure it’s secure. Mr. Sterling’s orders.”
Devon made a face but nodded in agreement, “Okay. Will do.” He turned to Trace and instructed him to go back to the truck and retrieve some new locks. “We’ll start with this one here. Had a helluva time trying to open the damn thing.”
“That’s fine as long as they’re all changed. I don’t want things here falling into someone’s pockets,” Heather said snidely, but regretted the comment as soon as it had left her lips.
Devon nodded and walked out the door, his grin now faded. Heather sighed. She had known Devon for about three years, and in this time, although lazy, he was trustworthy for the most part. Devon’s checkered past was well-known to all. He wasn’t proud of doing time in Louisiana’s State correctional facility, and it haunted him.
An hour had passed, and Heather had combed the first floor and parts of the second, but now she returned to the living room, anxious to leave. Jennifer, exhilarated but also growing weary, walked out of the library with her book in hand, ready for a quiet trip back home.
“Hey Mr. Devon,” Jennifer smiled politely as she passed Devon and Trace near the front door.
“Hey,” Devon grinned as he continued putting the new lock on the front door.
“Well, are we ready?” Heather looked at Jennifer while grasping the hand of a tired and agitated Jordan, whose nap was now severely overdue.
“Sure.” Jennifer waited for her mother to exit the living room.
As Heather guided a sniffling Jordan from the living room and out the front door, she turned to Devon, “So now that the locks are changed, I think John wants you to see what might need to be fixed around the house if you have time. There’s nothing major that needs to be done at the moment so it’s at your discretion.”
“Yeah, I got time to look around this afternoon,” Devon replied as he let Jennifer and Heather pass out the door to the driveway.
“Great,” Heather said smiling, “Then I’ll leave it in your capable hands. He’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to do a walk-through. I’ll be here around three if you want to be here.”
“Well, if you want to be able to get in the house, you might want these.” Devon held up the new keys.
Heather looked at Devon with a wide grin, “Thanks.” She walked up to him and grabbed the keys from his hand.
Devon chuckled, “You three have a safe trip home.”
“Thanks Mr. Devon, you too,” Jennifer replied as she opened the passenger door of her mother’s car.
Devon winked at Jennifer playfully, then turned to finish replacing the final lock. Heather, now carrying Jordan, opened the back door of the car and placed him in the child seat. Heather had no problem securing him because, after all the excitement he’d had, Jordan was ready for a nap. With herself strapped in the car, Heather started the engine, waved goodbye to Devon and Trace, then made her way down the long drive and out the gate toward home.
Devon finished changing the lock and then proceeded to do a walk-through as Mr. Sterling had requested. He first entered the living room, but saw nothing that needed repair, only old dusty antiques, and a musty carpet that could definitely use steam cleaning.
Hell, this whole house could use a good scrubbing, he thought, seeing the film of dust layering its contents.
Next Devon, with Trace not far behind, walked into the library. Again he saw nothing particularly wrong with the room—the lights worked, there was no rotten wood, and the paint wasn’t faded—so he thought it best to move on. Trace, on the other hand, began to look in drawers and other spaces to satisfy his curiosity. As he opened one drawer, he was astonished to find a silver flask.
“Hey. What’s this?” he asked, holding up the flask and shaking it, a smile on his face.
“Let me see.” Devon took it from Trace. His eyes lit up as he held the flask. “Wow, good find,” Devon said as he looked at Trace.
“Yeah, shame there’s no alcohol in it,” Trace laughed.
Trace wasn’t the smartest of helpers, or human beings for that matter. He had seen enough spaghetti westerns to figure out what the flask was used for, but didn’t think beyond television to consider what it was made from.
“Yes it is,” Devon replied, laughing politely at Trace but not with him.
Devon raised the flask and inspected it thoroughly. He was surprised that something like this hadn’t been pocketed by someone in all the years the house had been vacant. It was definitely old and, as far as he could tell, it was solid silver.
Hell, this thing’s probably worth a fortune, he thought. Even just the silver, never mind someone craving antiques.
Devon’s mind wandered. Something like this could sure pay some bills. Especially that truck payment which was two months behind.
“Well, what do you think?” Trace asked, “I think it’s cool. Can I keep it?”
Devon, still gazing at the flask replied instantly, “No! We aren’t allowed to take things off site no matter how obscure. Company policy.”
“Damn, and I wanted that too,” Trace muttered, then walked out the door.
Devon’s heart raced. He knew something like this would lift him out of debt easily. His life after incarceration had been hard, but he had done well to get himself back on his feet. Should he throw his well-earned progress into the garbage can for a quick fix? Devon placed the flask back where Trace had found it. Solid silver or pure gold, nothing was worth going back to that hell hole.
About an hour had passed in the time Devon had roamed the upper two floors. He had sent Trace back to the truck for a few things, but he still hadn’t returned. Slightly irritated, Devon walked to the window to see if Trace was still near the truck, smoking perhaps, but he saw nothing.
“Shit,” Devon muttered, and stormed through the hallway and to the top of the stairs. “Trace! You in here?” he yelled.
Devon watched as Trace quickly exited the library and ran up the stairs. “What the hell you doing in there?” He was aggravated.
“Forgot my cell phone,” Trace replied with a grin, knowing he had taken too much time. “I left it on the table. Sorry about that.”
Devon shook his head and barked out a few orders. He walked down the stairs and out the back door for a smoke.
Trace walked into a bedroom, paying no attention to his surroundings. He grasped the silver flask, which was hidden in the back of his trousers and fondled it absentmindedly. He knew no one would miss this trinket. Heck, it was old and worthless, he thought, but I’ll get a good laugh out of it. Even if it’s worth something, John Sterling already has a pile of money. Must be nice, those types of people who don’t do shit to earn their money.
Trace slipped the flask into the back of his trousers and walked into the bathroom to inspect the plumbing. After a few flushes and seeing no sign of leaks, he moved on. As he walked by the dresser, he noticed a dusty film covering the surface and the mirror. Then something else caught his eye. It was as if someone had scribbled something in the dust with their fingers. Trace stopped in his tracks, both puzzled and curious to see what graffiti someone had created. Wash me probably, he thought to himself with a faint smirk.
Trace walked up to the dresser and could now see what was written. “Thief?” he said out loud.
Trace became a bit unsettled as he pondered the origin of the freshly drawn words. It couldn’t have been Devon because he’d have called him out for taking something. Maybe it was the young girl making a joke to tick Devon off, but that seemed unlikely. Nothing really made sense.
Trace turned away and walked into the hall. Whoever put that there, it didn’t concern him. His only real concern was that the time was ticking closer to four-thirty. Quitting time. And he was definitely ready to leave.
“Hey! Are we closing up for today?” Trace shouted so Devon could hear him on the ground floor.
“Yeah, get your stuff!” replied Devon walking out of the kitchen and heading for the stairs. He felt regenerated after a much-needed smoke.
“Cool,” Trace said, grinning as he walked toward the stairs.
As Trace reached the top stair, he felt a sudden and forceful shove in his back. It was as if someone had deliberately pushed him. He plummeted down the stairs. Trace hit his head multiple times on the way down, which left him unconscious.
Devon, walking toward the staircase, saw Trace falling down the stairs and immediately ran to him to see if he was alright.
“Shit!” Devon was shocked. “Trace?”
Devon ran up to where Trace lay. Thankfully he was still breathing, but Devon knew there was a possibility that he could have broken his neck.
Devon retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and called 911, explaining the situation and the address. All he could do was wait for help and hope they would arrive in time.
About fifteen minutes later, Devon heard sirens. He rushed to the door, opened it, and led the paramedics inside. By this time, Trace had somewhat regained consciousness, but was disoriented and couldn’t move. His vision, although blurred, allowed his eyes to wander around the room, trying to piece together what had happened to him. He looked at the top of the stairs where he could vaguely make out a dark shape. It resembled a human form and seemed to be looking down at him. He then quickly lost consciousness again.
“We need to get him out of here,” Janis, one of the paramedics, said to the other with a hint of anxiety in her tone.
“Sooner the better,” Jason replied, “Let’s secure his neck and then lift him onto the stretcher.”
After Trace was placed gently on the stretcher and secured in the ambulance, Devon watched them drive away. He had notified Mr. Sterling about the accident while the paramedics worked on him. As far as he could tell, there was no immediate family or girlfriend to contact. Trace was a nomad, he rarely stayed in one place too long, and Devon was amazed that he had stayed the month and a half that he did.
Devon walked back into the house to gather his things before leaving. As he walked to the kitchen, he noticed something lying on the floor at the base of the stairs.
“What the hell?” he thought out loud as he peered down at the silver flask lying at the base of the stairs.
With all the ruckus, the flask had been overlooked by everyone. It lay in the corner, at the base of the stairs. Devon shook his head, picked up the flask, and returned it to its rightful place in the drawer, then walked to the kitchen and left out the back door. He felt he probably needed to go to the hospital to check on Trace, but as bad as he seemed, Devon was truly unconcerned for Trace’s wellbeing, especially now that he knew Trace couldn’t be trusted. To have a thief in his employ would not set well with John Sterling—or anyone else at the firm. Devon also knew that, if anything else were ever taken, all eyes would turn directly to him.
“Yep, and why wouldn’t they look at me?” Devon said to himself. “Hell, I’d look at me too. It ain’t fair, but fair goes out the window when you get caught.”
Devon retrieved a cigarette from his pocket as he walked to his truck. He lit the cigarette and inhaled, holding the smoke in for a few seconds longer than normal. Then he slowly exhaled. A few more puffs and his overactive mind seemed to calm considerably.
“Well hell,” he said, getting into his truck, “guess I need to at least make an appearance.”
Devon started the truck and drove away. His thoughts were still conflicted, but he thought it best to head to the hospital. He was certain Barbara, Mr. Sterling’s number two, was already en route with insurance information in hand. The last thing this company wanted was a lawsuit, and with the discovery of the flask, Devon needed to tell someone just in case other things turned up missing.