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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Horror/Scary · #2133321
A man investigates the disappearance of a young girl. 1000 points for 200-word critiques.
Homage to classic ghost stories, in particular M R James

Do you remember the disappearance of the young Rhodes girl? That must have been, what, twelve years ago now? Well, I have my own story to tell in relation to that event, one which I don’t go around telling just anyone, in view of what people may think. At the time, it had quite an unpleasant effect on my nerves and indeed, I lost many a night’s sleep as a result, despite the candles I kept alight through the dark hours.

If you recall, the disappearance of Jenny Rhodes caused quite a stir among the people of the area. Of course, she was never found, a fact which Charles Rhodes and his wife never quite recovered from. Much was done to find her; fields were traversed, woods were scoured, rivers were dredged, but no trace or clue was ever discovered.

There was, however, the statement of Mr Wicks, who claimed to have seen a cloaked figure leading a young girl into Croaker Wood on the night of her disappearance. You might remember his account from the newspapers. Let me see if I can recount the details to refresh you. Mr Wicks had been returning home at dusk, having been walking in the woods, when he decided to make a brief visit to the little wooden tower on Spade’s Hill. From the top of the tower, he was admiring the view and, according to his statement, had seen a figure covered with a dark cloak, apparently helping a young child along the footpath, before entering Croaker Wood.

Upon the discovery of the disappearance of the young Jenny Rhodes, Mr Wicks had informed the authorities of his encounter. When supplied with a photograph of Jenny, he was quickly able to identify the child he had seen, in particular, on account of the little red coat with wide brown buttons. But when he had been asked whether he recognised the stranger, or was able to describe his or her appearance, he had merely conceded that he could not, given the great distance and fading daylight at the time.

Now this, it seemed to me, was just a little odd. Mr Wicks had specifically made mention of the girl’s coat with brown buttons, as being the same from the photograph, and yet he claimed he was unable to say anything at all about the stranger’s face. He had said the figure was cloaked, but not that it had worn a hood, which might have hidden the face from view. Now you may call me an old cynic, but I couldn’t help thinking whether this Mr Wicks might in fact know more than he was saying.

And here is where my own involvement began with the whole thing. Well, as you know, I have never been one to let a good mystery go untouched. So, perhaps three days after the initial incident had taken place, I decided to pay a visit to Mr Wicks, who was quite well known in the small town of Grimstock. I had written to him in advance, explaining that my visit was not a formal one, but that I felt concerned over the official handling of the case, and only wanted to help find the poor girl and relieve the Rhodes family from their suffering. After all, the family had been such respectable and outstanding people.

Unfortunately, Mr Wicks was reluctant to receive me. This only made me more suspicious, prompting me to write a second time, promising my word as a gentleman to keep our conversation between the two of us. I also pointed out how Mr Wicks could put to rest any suspicions that I, or other people may have, that he had been somehow involved with the girl’s abduction. Ultimately my persuasion succeeded and a visit was arranged.

Certainly, from my immediate impression of Mr Wicks, I could not have imagined such a man capable of stealing, let alone harming, a young innocent child, such as Jenny Rhodes. He was quite a small, round, timid man, and throughout our meeting showed a good deal of nervousness. But what is it people say? - you think you know a person! Appearances can be deceptive. He looked very uncomfortable speaking about what he had seen, and spoke quietly, as if someone else might be listening.

I will try to tell you, as accurately as I can, what the man described for me. He had indeed seen a cloaked person helping a child into the woods, but could not possibly have seen either person in enough detail to have identified them; not with the naked eye. But Mr Wicks was a frequent rambler, who often enjoyed fishing, birdwatching and trainspotting, and would have been wholly at a loss without his trusty binoculars. This was how he was able to distinguish the type of clothing they wore, despite the dull light. He also briefly saw the girl's face, though not sufficiently to memorise it, nor identify it from the photograph.

But it was the cloaked figure that caused the most trouble for Mr Wicks to relate. Although it was wearing a large black hood, the contents were momentarily visible, as the head had turned to look around, before they both entered the woods. He described a face that was almost white and horribly sunken, to a degree which shocked Mr Wicks. The sight was so fleeting that, no sooner had they both disappeared, he wondered whether he had seen anything inside the hood at all.

This is the reason he became reluctant to speak about the incident. People had started to ask too many questions, and the thought of the cloaked figure kept coming back to him, in a most disagreeable way. Eventually he decided to keep the details to himself. In fact, there was slightly more to his story, which he had never previously mentioned. He saw the two figures shortly after, as they were passing a sparse patch of trees. In his opinion, they must have been following the footpath which leads to the old mausoleum.

Well, what was I to think? His story had a certain logic, but to me, still seemed slightly contrived. Could he have made the whole thing up, when in fact he had taken the girl himself? At least I had something to go on; a trip to the mausoleum was on the cards.

When I left Mr Wicks, it was with great relief. His anxious appearance must have infected me so much that some dark cloud seemed to hang over me, long after my visit. You may also have heard how he died a few months later. In view of that fact, I’m sure it won’t do any harm to tell you about his story now, despite my promise of confidentiality.

Before I left the district of Grimstock, I paid a visit to the mausoleum of Croaker Wood. There is no road to reach the building, so I found myself walking the twenty minutes required to travel from the main road. The path I followed through the trees was laid roughly with rocks and overgrown with grass and weeds. Roots must have pushed up many of the rocks, making the path broken and full of gaps. Although my walk was accompanied by the chatter of birds and rustle of wildlife, the mausoleum itself was ominously quiet.

I cannot say there was anything to note about the exterior of the small rectangular building, except to mention how overgrown with moss and ivy it had become. Even the wooden door was spread across with several strands, although they had recently been broken where the door opens, suggesting recent usage. Perhaps some new person or persons had been laid to rest.

I paused for a moment, deciding whether or not to try the door. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to disturbing someone’s tomb, but on consideration, felt it was my duty to discover anything that may provide a clue about the Rhodes girl. So I turned the iron-ring handle and pushed against the solid thick wood. The door opened, though only with some effort and creaking so loudly that it actually startled me.

I wonder if you are familiar with that feeling, when you are dreaming and you are being chased - that you are in slow motion, as if you were running underwater. From the moment of opening the door, I felt an intangible resistance to my every move. I had thought at first it was just the weight and stiffness of the door, but this feeling persisted as I entered the dimness of the mausoleum.

At least I had come prepared. I pulled out a flashlight and directed the beam into the gloomy interior. I found myself having to breathe dry and unwholesome air, which rasped in my throat. Cobwebs were agitated by the breeze that I had let in, some showing signs of habitation. Stone steps immediately led the way down between dirty, grey brick walls. The staircase descended only a short way into the ground, before a small chamber opened out. As I passed my beam around, the darkness gave way to a dust-covered earth floor and a number of stone coffins of varying size.

I crept quietly around the chamber - it just seemed wrong to cause too much disturbance - and shined a light across the coffins, observing all to be closed and apparently untroubled. Pieces of a table were scattered near one of the dirty walls, while in a corner, a black granite gravestone was set flat in the ground. Lying on top, was a pile of dark matter, which I thought at first was a mound of earth. Upon further inspection, I discovered it to be a heap of dark cloth. I wasn’t too keen on touching the material, which was moldy, mottled with stains and not at all pleasant to smell, but lifted it carefully with two fingers to determine its nature.

I’m not sure whether I was glad or repelled when it dawned on me that the horrible fabric was a long, very dark robe or cloak. I had to assume, whether rightly or wrongly, that this was the same garment that Mr Wicks had claimed to have seen being worn by the mysterious figure. But what worried me more, was the way it had been neatly folded and placed on the gravestone, and also how the stone was partially clear of dust, as if something solid had scraped it away. I suppose it is possible that I had done that myself, when I moved the garment.

I did not care to stay in that chilly shadow-infested tomb a moment more than necessary. I certainly wasn’t about to go around removing coffin lids and upsetting the dead, no matter how much I had wanted to solve this puzzle. There just didn’t seem to be any evidence to easily pursue. What I did do, however, is drop the item of clothing into a small canvas bag to bring with me. I didn’t enjoy struggling with it into the bag, such was its odor and unclean appearance.

I know it’s silly, but even as I took the garment, I felt as if I were doing something I shouldn’t. But it’s not like I had desecrated someone’s grave, is it? And yet, I couldn’t help but hurry out of that morbid sepulchre. It’s funny how the mind can play tricks. I suppose the thought of being found out or accosted in some way must have gotten into me. Every movement of my flashlight seemed to bring shadows jumping out, as I hurried through the chamber and up the dusty steps.

For a moment, I wondered why I could not see daylight at the top, which I would have expected in view of the short distance to the open entrance. Could someone possibly have closed the door? I felt an unexpected rush of panic seize me as I ascended. Of course my fears were entirely unfounded when I realised the daylight was greatly diminished by dark clouds which seem to have gathered since my entering the mausoleum. Indeed, the rain had already begun, and several heavy drops spattered on my face while I closed the stubbornly creaking door and turned back towards the road.

As before, the trees of the surrounding area were unnaturally still and silent, except for the pitter patter of rain on leaves. What’s more, the twenty minute walk to the road was most unnerving, as the quietness seemed to follow me all the way through the darkened woods. It was as if I had frightened away every bit of wildlife. No wonder my hands were shaking by the time I emerged from that unpleasant area of seclusion.

I cannot say that anything of greater interest happened to me during my visit to the district of Grimstock. I returned home, late in the day, ready to resume the monotony of scholarly existence. I suppose I was going to hand in the mysterious garment to my local constabulary, but after consideration, could not imagine what possible use it would be, unless I was also going to disclose the account of Mr Wicks. Even if I had done so, I feel sure the man would have denied our conversation and been very angry with me.

My plan, at the least, was to examine the item as soon as a suitable opportunity arose. I was, however, lucky enough to procure some text in relation to the mausoleum of Croaker Wood; mainly historical documents, which I had hoped might shed some light on the owners and its current occupants.

It came as a point of interest to me that the mausoleum had been built by the then owner of the land, which includes Croaker Wood, and which was so named after the family, that is Croaker. Geoffrey Croaker had become a land owner of some wealth within a relatively short period of time, but his well-known reputation of having a hot-tempered and volatile personality was known by locals, and thought never to have softened, despite his newly acquired comfortable circumstances.

Unfortunately, a dispute arose between Mr Croaker and a neighbouring landowner of high standing, Sir Henry Rhodes, regarding where exactly the border existed between the two properties. This dispute came to a head when, one evening, Sir Rhodes was out shooting pheasant, and wandered near to the edge of his many acres. It would seem that a terrible incident occurred, the details of which are omitted, but which resulted in the accidental shooting and killing of Mr Croaker’s only daughter, of eight years. Apparently, Mr Croaker and two of his children were picking raspberries in a place which Mr Croaker insisted was part of his own land, though which Sir Rhodes claimed could not have been.

Mr Croaker, who held Sir Rhodes entirely responsible for his daughter’s death, attempted to prosecute Mr Rhodes, but at length, nothing was to come of it. Mr Croaker swore revenge upon Sir Rhodes, but when he died many years later, Sir Rhodes was relieved that nothing unpleasant had befallen him. Geoffrey Croaker was interred in his own mausoleum, alongside where his daughter had been put to rest, over thirty years earlier. The property of Sir Henry Rhodes was eventually passed down to one of his grandchildren, that being Charles Rhodes.

All of this proved to be considerably interesting for me, and yet brought me no closer to a true explanation for the disappearance of Jenny Rhodes. But I should point out that I haven’t quite reached the end of my story. It was while I was sitting at my desk, poring over official documents and newspaper clippings, and generally making great effort to piece together the whole thing, that I started to feel that something wasn’t quite right. No, I don’t mean with regards the events I was studying, but rather with my immediate surroundings.

The sun had gone down without my noticing and I found myself straining my eyes to read, so absorbed was I, that it hadn’t occurred to me to switch on a lamp. But what did come to my attention was a rustling noise and a soft thud on the floor, quickly followed by another. I turned to glance briefly behind me, but noticed nothing at all amiss in the dimly lit room. I shrugged it off as something having fallen down within my wardrobe, which is perfectly plausible, given all the shoes I keep on an interior shoe-rack.

I tried to concentrate on an almost illegible document, but the next sound from the room aroused me more properly, in a way which I hope not to experience ever again. If I say someone very close to me had breathed against my neck, and that not only did I feel that icy breath, but heard the gentle rasping exhalation, I hope you will understand the painful paralysis that seized me. For several seconds the muscles with which I breathe entirely failed, and my head filled with the thought that I was going to suffocate. Never has so much effort been required to move any part of myself in the smallest degree, but somehow, I did eventually move. My body started to turn with a slowness that seemed impossible, and I sensed at the same time another body was bending around to meet me.

I can no longer be sure whether I felt bony fingers touch my bare arm. The effort and the shock was so great that I felt myself sinking into blackness before I could witness whatever presence had so terrified me. I may even have screamed; at least the distant echo of a scream came into my mind upon waking.

Well, there is little more to say about my experience, except that it has stayed in my mind like a black stain. It was my own wife’s that was the next face I saw after coming around. I couldn’t help noticing that the dark cloak or robe was lying nearby on the floor. My wife insisted that when she found me unconscious in my chair, the horrible item was draped over my arm and shoulder in a way that she thought most peculiar. As to how that could have happened, I would not care to speculate. I distinctly remember it being inside the canvas bag, which I had hung on the side of my wardrobe, prior to sitting at my desk. And yet, I discovered the bottom of the bag to be ripped, as if the garment had been too heavy for the bag to hold.
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