Dead Bolts [Repost]

Prompt: Ghoulish

scary-ghosts

Suddenly the amusing, cocktail/dinner party story about the house being haunted wasn’t so funny. I don’t know why exactly, but I’d been uneasy all day— testy and irritable when the kids’ father came to pick them up for the a weekend away camping. They even took my canine soulmate, Champ, whom the children said needed a vacation too. From me? I growled and grumbled as I closed the door on them.

Two people had been brutally murdered in this refurbished farmhouse, once isolated in the country and now on the edge of a sprawling community. Two people, husband and wife, tied up, beaten, and stabbed to death, and the killer never found and brought to justice. Which is why, according to local legend, this poor ghostly couple stayed behind. Matthew and Thomasina were sad, angry ghosts, and you could hear them creep slowly across the floorboards, sometimes smell fresh-baked bread which was on the counter when the bodies were discovered, and hear their wails when the wind blew, or so the story went.

I didn’t find it charming anymore, as I lay in bed, awakened suddenly by… what? It seemed unusually dark and cold. There was no light from the night light in the bathroom down the hall. Only a bright moon behind hazy clouds cast a dim light in this darkness, or I would have been totally blinded. There was a wind, and the old house creaked and settled, as it usually did, but somehow, something was different. I could feel it. A rush of cool air, an unfamiliar smell, a pattern of creaks on the hardwood, someone walking, someone coming nearer.

I lay in bed, the quilt pulled up to my nose, staring at the bedroom door, frozen in fear. I saw a shadow across the wall, and then, yes! A man, a large man, blurred by darkness, looming in the doorway. I stifled a gasp, I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again he was gone. I was shivering with the cold now, paralyzed, listening for movement.

My body ached with tension, but I got up out of bed, wrapped the quilt around me, and crept to the doorway. The house was silent. The wind had picked up, I could hear it rattling the eaves and send echoes down the chimney.

I stepped as softly as I could but the floor betrayed me. Where had Matthew gone? Why had he come to me in the first place?

Why was it so cold?

Then I heard the front door abruptly swing open and crash against the wall in the foyer. The wind, I thought, Matthew and Thomasina making themselves known, demanding justice!

I was wrong. Three police constables with flashlights sending laser-like beams over the walls and floors, and finally into my face, strode right into the front hallway.

“Are you ok?” said a voice.

Did I not look ok? Had my hair turned white? “I, I…”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said a different voice, without irony. “Your power was out, lines were cut, and we got a mobile 911 call from this house.”

I just stared at him. A 911 call? At that moment the night light clicked on, and I could hear the furnace starting up as the power was restored, and there was a bright light from the kitchen. We found the refrigerator door wide open, contents on the table and floor— milk, eggs, cheese and oranges. The constable flicked on the kitchen light. “You make this mess?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

The back door was open. A car’s taillights could be seen disappearing into the distance. “He must have heard us arrive. Barb, see if you can track that vehicle down,” said an officer. Constable Barb disappeared.

Then the officer turned to me. “You don’t live in the 1950s, Mz Waters,” he said. “You need to lock your doors properly, with dead bolts. Both doors were easily compromised.”

It was hard to speak. I couldn’t seem to take a breath. I couldn’t move.

“Want us to call anyone for you?” said the officer as they prepared to leave. “Doesn’t feel right leaving you alone in this state.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, finally finding my voice. “It’s ok. It’s fine.”

And I put the kettle on for tea.


Original Prompt: Eerie, October 31, 2016

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Mary Jones

Prompt: Reprieve

strawberry cheesecake

She had a great palate and was executive chef for a large hotel chain, until she was accused of murdering her father, mother, brother, three aunts, their two sons, and the girlfriend of one of the sons.

Now that her lawyer and best friend had overturned her conviction, she changed her name and moved to a larger community, getting a kitchen job in a new restaurant with a strange name. There were surviving family members who might not agree with her reprieve from hanging, so it seemed best to dissolve into an anonymous landscape, at least for a time.

Mary Jones. That was her new name. She liked it. She liked her job in the restaurant kitchen, doing prep and clean up and dog’s body work. She loved the zen of julienning carrots, peeling potatoes, removing pin bones from filleted fish, keeping work surfaces sparkling clean and ready. She liked her boss, Hugo, who treated her with a distant professionalism which she found very attractive.

It was a busy Friday night dinner service when someone in the restaurant died suddenly. There were screams and cries from the dining room that Mary was the first to hear. Perhaps she was attuned to the sounds of pain. She was one of the first on the scene, finding a woman on the floor beside one of the white linen covered tables, a young man, possibly her son, crouched over her and howling like an animal.

She felt her adrenaline surge. That part was natural, wasn’t it?

The woman was taken away on a stretcher in an ambulance, as if she could come back to life. Mary knew death when she saw it. In fact, there was something about that night that spoke of epiphany.

Mary had a taste for death. There was no point in denying it, or looking the other way, or pretending otherwise. While she would never admit to murdering her extended family, she was not averse to admitting to the thrill of death.

It was a dangerous taste, like a craving for fugu, the Japanese dish prepared with extreme care lest the violently deadly parts of the fish should touch human lips. Mary had a craving for life fugu.

So when Hugo asked her to package up some mushroom fettuccine for his wife, a cop who was ill and recovering at home, Mary thought a little dose of arsenic, that old-fashioned poison, might liven things up, especially since during her arrest and pretrial incarceration, the police had been rather unsympathetic, choosing to believe she was guilty and treating her as such, even before the evidence presented at her trial. Hugo’s wife might be a very nice person, but a cop was a cop.

Hugo’s wife was too ill to eat that night, apparently, but was the poisoned dish put in the refrigerator for future consumption? Would Hugo be tempted and lazy one night, and fall ill? Would his weakened wife finally feel hungry and suffer a relapse, possibly a fatal one?

Mary waited. Have you ever had a craving, maybe for fresh buttered popcorn, or a rare steak, or strawberry cheesecake, or a Bloody Caesar cocktail? And had to wait—but know that eventually, what you crave will be before you, and that the first taste, the first bite, will be a little piece of bliss?

Mary knew that feeling. She had a new life and a new taste. She waited.

A Good Man

Prompt: Denial

pot boiling over

Cleveland Russell was 58 years old, serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of one of the students in his high school chemistry class. His first two years were spent mostly in solitary, because the girl was young, pretty, and white, and Cleveland was none of these things, and that did not go down well with certain elements of the prison population.

Now his cell was part of a grouping of accommodation for non-violent offenders and aging criminals of various backgrounds, and he was taking a correspondence course in Deep Learning with Python, and alternately worked as cook and kitchen cleaner, depending on the whims of Garrett Sommerkinder, another murderer who had run the B South kitchen and passively terrorized his associates for almost three years.

Garrett Sommerkinder had taken a liking to Marcus, possibly because of his good looks and laid back demeanour, his obvious harmlessness, and his talent for acquiescing to authority without appearing to be weak or frightened. And attempted murder was not a crime to be sneered at, even among killers. So he had Marcus chop carrots and peel potatoes and cut celery into sticks and also put him in charge of the soup pot, a weighty responsibility that Marcus took very seriously.

That’s how Marcus and Cleveland found themselves working together, alone, cleaning up after Monday late meal. Cleveland was mopping the floors. Marcus was straining inedibles from the soup pot, things that couldn’t be properly blended smooth, like rinds and seeds.

Cleveland had a mop and a bucket. The bucket was full of clean, hot, soapy water. He was proud to clean the floors of the dining area and kitchen of B South. It’s how he looked at life now. There were good things in life, like hot, soapy water. There were bad things, like germs and grime. Cleveland was doing his part to do right, as best he could, and he didn’t care if it was in a small way.

“Take out the skins,” Cleveland advised Marcus. “But keep the leaves.” By “leaves” he meant herbs, if by chance the sad little garden in the clay soil by the generator ever produced a bit of thyme or parsley.

“So you got life,” Marcus said, as he picked out skins. It was a common early conversation. Never about the crime, just about the time.

“No parole,” said Cleveland, without pride, as some killers did.

“Didn’t do it though, right?”

“Well I did kill the child,” said Cleveland. He wasn’t a big man, but had a stocky, immovable frame. He moved the raggedy mop across the floor like a masseuse, with care, knowledge, and just the right amount of pressure.

“That’s too bad,” said Marcus. “I didn’t try to kill my wife.”

“No?” said Cleveland.

“No. I loved her. Still do.”

“So it’s a mistake.”

“Yes, a mistake that they thought I tried to kill her. I only wanted a bit of cash,” Marcus said. “I wouldn’t hurt her.”

“No,” said Cleveland. “But you did?”

Marcus said nothing. He ran his hands under the hot water tap, and dried them with a faded yellow striped cloth. “I didn’t think it would play out the way it did,” he said.

Cleveland was finished with the floor, and went to the sink too, and washed his hands, and dried them on the same cloth.

He said, “Nothing plays out the way you think it will.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” said Marcus.

Cleveland didn’t chuckle, or shake his head, or wonder at the denial that fuelled so many wrong-headed and futile attempts at self-understanding. He picked up the bucket and mop and moved towards the door leading to the main utility hallway.

“Marcus, is it?” he said. “Let me tell you, this place where you are at? It was your choice.”

Marcus shook his head. Obviously this Cleveland person didn’t understand. Marcus was not a criminal. Maybe he didn’t love in the conventional way. Maybe he made a few mistakes. He was a good man, really.

When Cleveland left the kitchen, a strange silence fell. Marcus could feel it. He made sure all the burners were off under the stove. He waited a few seconds for the floor to dry, then made his way to the door. He was tired.

He was a good man, really.


  • Image: Shutterstock

Elixir

Prompt: Elixir

girl shotgun 3

Tequila. I will have one more, ’cause Andy is no longer in front of me at the bar, but being awakened in the middle of the night by armed men.

While she was shot eight times, I was in the truck, stuck in the mud on a side road leading to the lake. I was angry, depressed, and drunk. No one likes a fierce argument with someone they love. She accused me of shit. I can’t take shit any more so I left, with a bottle.

She went to bed.

From the truck, I called my boss at the firehall to tell him I wouldn’t be in the following morning, though I don’t remember making the call. I guess I sounded as bad as I felt, because he called the police. “Please check up on Rick. He has PTSD. He sounds like he might harm himself.”

“Is he armed?” asked the dispatcher.

“I think so. He had a fight with his wife. She’s still at home.”

She was so pretty. Her hair was the color of cocoa, straight as a sheet of iron, glossy as Pettie Lake on a still day. She was just a little thing; she loved dogs, cooking shows, and could shoot the whiskers off a groundhog.

“I had a fight with Andy,” I told my boss. “She chased me out of the house.” That wasn’t actually, physically true. I meant “drove me out of the house”.

“Is she ok?”

“Mad as hell. I can’t get home, I’m stuck. She’s alone.”

“Do you want me to check on her?”

“Nah, it’s ok. She’s got the double-gauge,” I apparently told him.

My boss told the dispatcher that my wife was armed and angry. So they sent out a patrol car to check on her, in addition to someone to look for me.

My wife was awakened by a noise. There was a man at the window. There were no flashing lights. The shotgun was leaning up against the wall in the bedroom. She picked it up. There was a knocking at the door, then a pounding.

She opened the door and raised the rifle, in that silky, expert way she had.

When they found me, I was passed out. My wife had been dead for three hours.

Shhh. Think of how she looked that night we met, how she flirted with me. How she twirled her cocoa hair around her fingers. The way she started to hiccup when she laughed. Her long eyelashes. The warmth of her body.

Shhh. Tequila.


  • This story was adapted from a RadioLab podcast about a real incident in Florida. I couldn’t get it out of my head so wrote it down with my own paltry embellishments. The actual, full story is much more detailed and complex, and you can listen to it here.

Conquer

Prompt: Conquer

yin yang fish

Beth wondered how much to tell him, as she snuggled close, her arm draped over his waist and her middle finger idly stroking his breast bone while he slept.

It wasn’t love. It wasn’t just lust, either, exactly. It was an almost Zen contentment, a match, a yin and yang, a yearning perfectly met. Theirs was a playful relationship, without intimacy, but with good food and fun and flirting and far too long in bed. Beth was reeling from the intoxication of it, she walked just a bit above ground, she was just a bit too forgiving, a bit too ready with a smile that couldn’t be contained.

There was no reason she should feel ashamed of anything in her past. Ok, her military husband left her for a man while she was pregnant. Ouch that did hurt, but didn’t really reflect on her, since in the end she was well rid of the bastard.

A single mom then, basking in the attentions of a rich man, who some might say bought her “services”. She didn’t look at it that way. Roman was lovely, attentive, in love, and Beth was young and desperate and tired of the struggle. Who could condemn her for that?

And Deborah. Beth had never really approved of Deborah’s husband, Vincent, but Deb was like her father— there was no stopping her when she wanted something. They shared a healthy ego, confidence, and the sense that the world owed them a happy life. He hadn’t met Deb yet, hadn’t heard the story of Vincent’s murder. How would it sound to him?

Vincent was out walking late at night (why?). He was robbed. It happens. But how often does the robber shoot their victim in the face? It was more than a robbery; Beth could feel it. No one had ever explored any other motive for the crime. But Beth could add. She knew Vince. Something happened that night.

And Beth didn’t know how to explain it to Geoffrey, or even if she should try. She longed to talk about it with someone. Geoffrey, deep in a dream adventure, was breathing heavily next to her, smelling strongly of his cologne, Makizmo.

Yes, and that scent had to go. It had been Vincent’s cologne too. Very musky and sweet. The smell of it upset Deborah, and even Deb’s strange friend Leep noticed it.

Beth had a little gift for Geoffrey on the night stand. A new cologne. Musky, grassy, citrusy, fresh, and not Makizmo. It was called Conquer.

A new cologne. Beth knew how foolish it was to set landmarks in relationships, but she set one anyway.

Conquer meant both defeat and victory.

Beth moved even closer, and Geoffrey, in his peace and comfort, started to quietly snore.

Stefan

Prompt: Blur

dinner-napkin

Another restaurant meeting, but this time an assassination.

She arrived seven minutes early and was escorted to a red leather booth separated from prying eyes by a deep red velvet curtain. She noticed two bodyguards by the double door entrance, trying to be subtle, but failing. They were dressed in severely dark suits, and looked around the room in a kind of silent desperation, as if aching for trouble. Another one stood motionless in the shadows near the entrance to the restrooms. The restaurant was about half full, diners murmuring in soft tones, a sound as silky as a love song. It was perfect.

She remained standing behind the curtain, waiting, in her white silk dress and pearls, a large beaded bag holding cosmetics, cigarettes, and other necessities, pearl earrings dripping from her earlobes, and two diamond rings, glittering in the candlelight. She was blonde this night, a luxurious, shimmering blonde, with painted lips as red and rich as the velvet drapes.

He’d spotted her at a diplomatic dinner, as they’d hoped, and very discreetly arranged a rendezvous. She didn’t mind being bait— it was part of her job— but she didn’t like the idea of being a prop in this drama. She wanted a leading role, and she was given it.

They ate rare steaks, they fed each other dessert, flirting and giggling. She called him “Stefan”, much to his delight. He bragged about his closeness to the President, while stoically and repeatedly telling her that he could not discuss state issues, then proceeding to do so in order to highlight his significant role in such affairs.

“The President relies on you,” she said, reaching across the table, extending a delicate finger and intimately dabbing the corner of his mouth.

He took her hand and kissed it, then inelegantly wiped his mouth and chin with the white linen napkin. “He does— and when he doesn’t he comes to me to clean up the mess.”

She smiled, and took a small sip of champagne. He was not a handsome man, but had the arrogance that power brings, and the confidence that power would always ensure liaisons with beautiful, otherwise untouchable women.

“I have a small suite booked at the Palisades,” he said. “Shall we?” He stood and extended a hand to help her to her feet. “Just let me alert the guys, and hit the toilet.” He kissed her on the top of her head, and disappeared through the curtain.

While he was in the gentleman’s room, she swiftly took a clean white linen napkin from her bag, wiped her fingerprints from utensils and glassware, then put it on his plate, taking his napkin into her bag.

There was suddenly a commotion from beyond the curtain. She heard many voices, and the flash of cameras threw shadows across the wall and onto the corner of the table. One of the bodyguards came through and said, “Sorry, miss. Someone must have tipped off the press. If you come with me, you can leave through the kitchen. A taxi is waiting to take you home.”

She eschewed the taxi, pulling her cashmere shawl around her shoulders, and walked a few blocks in the brisk air, before hailing another cab and climbing inside.

Early the next morning, his wife found him dead in his Sealy Posturpedic bed. An autopsy was pending, but no foul play was suspected.

Days Like This

Prompt: Overwhelming

sheets-on-clothesline

Oh no.

Leep awoke slowly, but to the distinctive odor of his own body, warm sheets wrapped around him in knots, his head under the covers.

It was going to be one of those days.

Did anyone else have such days? He got out of bed, stripped off the sheets, took them to the back hallway and put them in the washer. He had only the one set of bedding at the moment, so he set the oven timer to remind him to transfer it to the dryer.

He had a quick shower: quick because the hot water was so pungent, minerally, and reeking of chemicals. Was it always like this?

The kitchen smelled of burnt bacon, lingering from two nights ago. Leep switched on the oven fan. There was a mechanical part loose inside the fan so it rattled ominously. He wouldn’t be able to tolerate coffee this morning, so he put the kettle on for tea. The kettle smelled salty, so he spent half an hour scrubbing hard water build-up before filling it with fresh water and plugging it in.

The fresh tomatoes were heaped in a cardboard flat on the counter. Their scent wafted over to where Leep hovered over the kettle and his teacup. Green and earthy, a pleasant smell, but combined with the burnt bacon, the hard water, the chicken skin in the kitchen garbage pail (he emptied it into the big garbage can out back), the smell in the kitchen was overwhelming.

Outside the air was sulphuric, so much so that Leep could almost see the yellowness of it. He held a cotton handkerchief over his mouth and nose and made his way to the car. He put the tomatoes in the back seat.

The sharp smell of evergreen assaulted Leep as he slid into the driver’s seat. There was a green cut-out fir tree dangling from the rear view mirror shaft, and Leep had no option but to yank it off and toss it out the window. He would clean it up later. Then there was the grease. Leep reached under the passenger seat and found an old hamburger wrapper. Sighing, he got out of the car, picked up the air freshener tree from the ground, and put them both in the garbage can before leaving for Beth’s house.

Leep got the flat of tomatoes from the back seat of his car and went around to the kitchen door of the house. He could see Beth, whom he called (to himself only) Lizzie, through the window, fiddling with something on the counter. He saw the shadow of someone leaving the kitchen. Her daughter, Deborah? He tapped on the door.

“Hello, Leep,” she said with a small smile, glancing behind her where the shadow had been.

“I was at Costco,” said Leep, setting the tomatoes down heavily on the kitchen table.

“Oh!” she said, with marginally more warmth. “What do I owe you?”

“No, no,” said Leep. And he suddenly noticed the smell in the room. It wasn’t Lizzie’s orange and gardenia perfume. It was a powerful scent that overrode anything else. The last time he breathed it in was late at night, on the street, with his gun drawn, hearing an insult so dire that his finger squeezed the trigger and someone crumpled to the ground. It was sweet and musky. To Leep it was a deeply unpleasant smell, but perhaps women liked it. Today, at this moment, it was overpowering.

Leep suppressed a shudder, but not enough to prevent him stammering. “I know you like, you know, tomatoes, you cook them, um—“

“Yes, thanks. I do freeze a lot of spaghetti sauce when tomatoes are in season.”

Which they weren’t, but at Costco Leep had put one of the tomatoes to his nose, and it smelled fresh and fruity. “These ones are ok, I think,” he said to Beth.

She looked to the back of the house again. “Yes, thank you, Leep.” Her breath smelled sour, of coffee. The pot she was making was not the first that Saturday morning.

“Who is he?” asked Leep, then immediately, “Sorry.” She waved her hand at him in dismissal, sending wafts of pear soap fumes.

Then, to Leep’s shock, she answered. “Just a friend from the cruise. Dropped by to say hello.”

“The cologne.” Leep said.

“I know,” said Beth.

He had to get outside. But when he stumbled out, the sulphur smell struck him again. He took his car to the 999 Car Wash. They scrubbed it inside and out. Then instead of evergreen and grease it smelled medicinal, which was intolerable too. Leep took the freshly laundered sheets out of the dryer and made up the bed. They smelled of linen, a blissfully neutral odor. He got a disposable surgical mask from the drawer in the bathroom, turned on the ceiling fan and the portable air purifier, and lay on the bed.

It might take a few hours, even until nightfall, but it had always gone away before. Did anyone else have days like this?