von Martin Trappen
The place they were looking for turned out to be farther away than Briggs had thought. Fortunately, for the most part all they had to do was follow an old road out of town. It soon became nothing more than a dirt track, but, judging by the old map they had found at Martin’s, they were going in the right direction.
The hour in the car gave them time to talk. Mostly Schultz nagged him about how he knew Grace Spencer until he gave in. The old woman always talked while taking care of him. His grandfather had never minded looking after him, but sometimes he got so absorbed in his plant work that he became oblivious to everything else. Briggs did not get along with most of the other children, so he ran over to Grace. She happily rocked the boy back and forth, telling him all kinds of stories. At first they were just fairytales, knights, princesses, castles, and dragons. Briggs was always disappointed when the end turned out to be a very grim one. Not once did the knight save the princess, every time the dragon destroyed the castle. He kept coming back for more, never giving up hope for a happy end.
The tales became gloomier by the day and eventually they turned downright horrifying. Soon Grace was telling Greg about kidnappings, beatings, murders, and plots of revenge. She talked about saving a child from a destroyed house. He had not thought about that in years, but now it all came back to him. He had asked Grace where that child was now and if there was any way to help him. No, she had said, they had taken him from her and left her all alone. It had saddened Briggs back then, it worried him now.
“Do you think she was telling the truth?” Rose asked.
“I’m still not sure. Looking back on it, it all seems like the rumblings of a very disturbed mind. But maybe I’ve just heard too much of that lately,” he remarked.
“Funny, flower boy. You’re saying Martin’s the child she saved?”
“It would certainly give him a good reason to go looking for the house, despite all the warning signs.”
“It still baffles me that we’ve never heard about this before.”
“In a place like Westlake, secrets can be easily buried, so long as the whole town joins in on the digging.”
“Only why would they do that?”
“To forget the horror? Thinking that if they get it out of their minds, it never happened? Also, it’s not a good advertisement for the town.”
When even the dirt road was gone, the thicket became so dense they had to continue on foot. It was difficult to guess your distance in a forested area, but Briggs had learned how to read maps and terrain in the Marines. Following his keen sense of direction, he navigated the brush to get them to their target. The closer they got, the more a feeling grew inside him, a sensation he couldn’t quite place. Like a tingle at the top of his spine. Like an itch at the back of his mind that he could not scratch.
He had felt the same shortly before the ambush at the river, the night before the battle and again just a few seconds before his CO had been hit by the sniper. He had pulled Sergeant Simmons out of the line of fire, but the bullet had still pierced his lower abdomen. Sarge would have died if Briggs hadn’t carried him back to base, suffering a severe wound in his right arm in the process. They had awarded him the Medal of Valor and the Purple Heart. Nothing but ribbons to pin on your uniform. What good are they to me now?
They emerged into a clearing through a particularly thick piece of undergrowth. Briggs was stunned: In front of them stood an old mansion, massive in size and looking still fairly intact from the outside, with a few broken windows and holes in the roof. There was a huge garden around it, fenced in by stone walls ten feet high. To top it all off, the entrance to the grounds was protected by rusted iron gates flanked by two weathered boar statues.
“What the Hell…” Schultz commented.
“We didn’t come here for nothing after all,” Briggs responded.
“That’s not what I mean. Look at this! The Spencers must have been shitting gold to pay for it all!”
“I guess they weren’t after the American dream.”
“You sticking with that revenge theory?”
“It’s the best I got. If the Spencers were hunted down and murdered, the survivors had good reason to hold a grudge against Westlake.”
“True. But that never ends well.”
“Let’s hope the best for your friend.”
Rose went up to the iron gate and pushed against it. It did not move. “A little help here, flower boy?”
“After I’ve enjoyed myself a bit more,” he grinned. Under her poisonous stare he walked over and heaved himself against the bars, the hinges screaming in protest. Even together the two of them could only slowly edge the gate open. By the time there was enough room to step through, they were already covered in sweat.
“That’s the best you got, soldier boy? How the hell did you ever survive Oman?”
“Alright, that’s it! How do you know so much about me?
“Call it an educated guess.” That’s one hell of a guess. “Now stop wasting time and get moving,” she said as she started toward the mansion. He wasn’t sure what made him angrier: her knowledge of intimate details of his past, her snide comment, or the fact that he really did let his training slide for a while. As he marched after her, he noticed that the front door was open, or at least part of it was. Why would the door be open but the gate shut?
Stepping into the mansion’s entrance hall, they couldn’t possibly have missed the crashed chandelier at the center. Its metal was jarred and twisted, pieces of wood were strewn around it, as were specks of blood. Briggs drew his M1911 as his pulse sped up. He took in the rest of the room: two stairs lead to the upper level; the floor was cracked in a dozen places; the rug torn and dirty. The tingle was back, stronger now. Briggs edged around the broken chandelier and saw a bloodied foot protruding from the wreckage. His heartrate climbed further as sweat gathered on his forehead.
“What is it, sss – Shit!” She had seen it, too. Briggs stood facing the entrance now, and saw the bloody mess the heavy object had turned a human being into. This wasn’t his first dead body, but something seemed strange. This place looked as if it had been abandoned decades ago, yet the corpse had hardly decomposed at all. Meaning, the unlucky fellow had died only recently.
“Alright, that looks bad,” Rose admitted, “but there’s a lot of things that could have happened. Maybe it’s just an unfortunate accident.”
“That’s not Martin, I hope?”
“No, I mean, there’s not much left, but that face is not his. Besides, he was a lot heavier.”
“We have to keep searching, then. Which way first, lady?”
“You’re the soldier boy.”
Briggs had never been as nervous as he was now. He hadn’t fired a gun in over three years. He hadn’t had to. But that wasn’t all. Being a soldier was simple: you were given a target and ordered to take it out. But this was different. Something about the dead person underneath this piece of decoration gave him the sense that he would not be able to deal with what awaited him here the same way he had faced trouble all his life: head on.
“Well, a standard search pattern would be clockwise, checking room by room, working our way back to the entrance.”
They turned into the western hallway, the heavy rug muffling their footsteps. Everything here looked as expensive and run-down as the entrance had been. The impression that something was missing slithered its way into Briggs’ mind. The long hallway was, apparently, only there to display some of the owners’ art collection: A painting on the right wall showed an old house on a lake, except the canvas was ripped and peeled off, giving the image a disturbing look. On his left he spotted a bust with its nose missing. He thought he saw a spider on it, but it was just a crack in the marble. Once they reached the door, he put his back to it, and readied his gun, making sure the hallway behind them was clear.
Briggs slowly opened the door a small slit. He could tell he was looking at a dining room, luxurious and extravagant. Checking his corners, he pushed the door open all the way. The monstrous dinner table took up most of the room, arching like a horse-shoe toward the western windows. Most of the chairs were still neatly arranged along the table, about 100 people could be seated here, if his estimate was correct. He touched the cloth and the wood itself with his fingertips. It was filthy, yes, ripped, and he spotted what might have been spots of blood. But again there was that feeling. What’s missing from this picture? Any tears in the fabric did not seem as if they had been made by some animal, there were no frayed ends, no holes gnawed by rats.
“You starting to curse on me, flower boy?”
“There are no rats! No critters anywhere. That’s what happens to an abandoned house: Nature takes it back. But there’s no moss, no spiders, nothing alive except for us.” He could see Rose’s face light up, the revelation apparently dawning on her as suddenly as it had on him. The tingle was getting even more insistent.
“You’re right. That’s not what’s been on my mind, though.”
“No?” He could not have imagined thinking of anything else.
“I’m not so much worried about what’s not here as I am about what is here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can sense that there’s something lurking here. I can’t quite explain it. Fear, Confusion, anger ─ all mixed together. Overwhelming emotions. The sense of a predator, ready to pounce.”
“You can see things, and now you can also sense them? You have got to be one of a kind, lady.”
“Can’t you open your mind to the possibility that there is more to this world than what you can plainly see before you?”
“The things I can see, smell, and touch are exactly what I do believe in.”
“Narrow-minded son of a bitch. Though I have to admit, I thought so, too, once. My grandmother changed that.”
“So, the crazy is in your family. Good to know.”
“Careful, flower boy. You’re walking on thin ice here.”
“I have a very light step.” She walked around the table towards the room’s other exit as she gave him the finger. His breath and heart beat quickened again, and this time the house had nothing to do with it. Schultz stood next to the door, arms crossed before her chest. Every fiber in his body was screaming at him to get out of this house while he still could.
“You actually want to keep going? Are you out of your mind?”
“Haven’t we established that by now?” she asked, pushing the door open and walking into the next room. What if something does happen? I can’t protect her with my useless arm. And that’s what her father, his captain, expected of him. She’s not going to stop, is she?
He caught up with her as she entered the kitchen. Looking at the old stoves, ovens and chimneys, he remembered the smell of freshly baked bread. He had grown up near a bakery: Mr. Smith, the baker ─ the irony didn’t strike him until now ─ still made everything the old way. He used to look forward to breakfast every morning only because of Mr. Smith’s baked goods. He’d get up early and buy a fresh loaf of bread. As a kid, he always got a sweet roll extra. He could still smell it now: the sugar, the cinnamon… The smell! Yes, of course! That’s what’s missing! Ever since he entered this house, his nose hadn’t picked up anything. There should have been a smell of decaying wood, of mold in the walls. But as he sniffed the air, he could not detect any scent.
“Please, tell me you can smell something,” Briggs asked.
“I can. You, shitting your pants.”
“Aren’t you worried about your vision? What about the monster you saw?”
“Don’t take it all so literally. That just represented danger. Martin’s here, only probably injured, or lost, or…” She broke off as a shrill shriek pierced the air. Briggs’ heart skipped a beat. “What the…?” was all Schultz could say before a rattle of pans made them both turn around. Standing there was a hulking figure: It stood over six feet tall, broad as a linebacker, its eyes dead, its hair wet and messy. Worst of all was its neck, or what was left of it: a huge chunk of flesh had been cut out of its throat, leaving a bloody mess. As its bare feet stepped on broken glass, it began to leave a bloody trail. As if it did not notice, the creature came towards them. Cold fear gripped Briggs as he turned and ran, maneuvering past stoves, chairs, and tables. He did not dare to look back.
Schultz burst into the next room first, rushing straight for the windows. Briggs followed close behind, almost knocking the door off its hinges. Schultz was halfway to the exit when, suddenly, she stumbled and fell. Her eyes widened as she saw what she had tripped over. “Martin!” His lifeless body lay on the floor, broken, beat, and scarred; his limbs at unnatural angles; Bones protruding through the skin; a pool of blood around him. Briggs knew death and suffering, but this was different. What possible reason could exist to turn a human being into a twisted pile of flesh and bone? Reason had nothing to do with it. What was after them now was no slave to it. “Briggs! Are you a fucking soldier or what? Do something!”
She had hardly spoken when their hunter walked through the door. Bleeding and gurgling, it stepped toward them, eerily slow. Snapping out of his thoughts, Briggs brought his M1911 to bear and took aim. He fired twice, then twice again, then four times more. He aimed for center mass, but all but one bullet missed their mark. The hit bore a hole into the target’s body, but the demon did not stop, did not slow down, did not so much as flinch. He pulled the trigger again only to hear an empty click. His hands shaking, he dropped the spent magazine; looked up; it was almost upon him now; pulled a fresh one from his holster; hands sweaty; fumbled; dropped it; bent down; picked it up. Before he could reload, an unseen force pulled him off his feet and threw him across the room. He bounced over a ripped and blood-spattered couch and crashed onto a table. As the air was pressed out of his lungs, he could barely raise his head to see what was going on.
Schultz and the horror stood facing each other, arms stretched out before them. Although he couldn’t see it, clearly two forces collided: Around the two all objects were pushed away, rugs fluttering, chairs scraping along the floor. Slowly, Briggs managed to prop himself up and move his legs. Using the couch for support, he got to his feet; shaking; only to witness Schultz get lifted into the air. She hovered there, looking the torturer now right in the eye. Briggs looked around feverishly, but could not see his gun anywhere.
The monster had its back to him. As desperation towered over him, he charged at the creature, pulling his old combat knife from his boot. He lunged at it; but never got any further; faster than he would have expected, the freak turned around, empty eyes staring at him. His body felt as if it had been submerged in concrete. He could only watch as the knife was plucked from his fingers and came flying at him. As he tried to move, he suddenly got a few inches of leeway. He turned his upper body to the left; the blade buried itself into his right side; an unseen fist slammed into him next and flung him toward the windows. With full force he broke through, the shattered glass cutting into his skin. With a loud thump he landed on the grass; the world faded to black.
To be continued…