by Graham B.
Two hapless burglars find more than they bargained for in an old house.
“Listen, Jimmy,” said Mort. “If you wanna be the big fish you have to jump in the big pond.”
He scowled up at Jimmy until his partner nodded.
“Big fish, right,” Jimmy said. “What are we gonna do with the money, Mort?”
Jimmy’s attention wandered to the ugly diagonal scar on Mort’s head as it always did when Mort gave his lectures. It was an attribute that was less than endearing to Mort. But, having just gotten out of the clink for his last job, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel for a crew. Luckily, Jimmy usually did what he was told, and his size would be useful in carrying out the loot. He was also too stupid to be a reliable witness if Mort was pinched again. But right now, Mort would have settled for a reliable chimpanzee to do the current job.
“Never mind that!” said Mort. “Listen. This old man’s got some heirlooms up in the old mansion on Merle Street. Word is there’s a lot of solid gold knickknacks and the like. We’re gonna relieve him of the weight.”
“Uh, okay, Mort. I think I’ll get Marie a new cat condo.”
“Forget about the cat! Focus on the job!”
Jimmy’s head bobbed up and down and his brow furrowed in an expression as serious as an overturned beer truck.
“Got it, boss! I’m focusing!”
Bemoaning his choice of partners, Mort finished retrieving his tools from different corners of the ramshackle apartment the two men shared, packing them in his duffel. He checked his map one last time. It would not do to get lost on their way to the job. Jimmy stroked Marie’s stripey head one last time causing the tabby to purr and Mort’s eyes to roll, and away the two burglars went.
For his part, Jimmy had dreams for his share of the loot: new off-road tires for his Escape, a Playstation, some nice things for Marie. He often thought about all his birthdays his mom and pop missed and swore he would give Marie better than he got.
The drive to Merle Street was uneventful, with Jimmy making interjections about cats and what the two of them could do with the money, like going to France and eating cheese. Mort scowled over the steering wheel while strictly observing the speed limit. The streets were dark and lifeless, and the houses steadily got larger, fancier and older. And it was the air of old money that pervaded Merle Street when they parked their car under a streetlight that Mort had shot out with a pellet gun the previous night. The neighborhood hinted at both extravagance and decay.
“Are you sure you want to do this job?” said Jimmy as Mort killed the engine. “You just got out of the pen.”
“Shut up,” said Mort. “Like I said, if you wanna be a big fish…”
“You gotta jump in the big pond. I listened, Mort! Where did you hear about this job anyway?”
“Overheard it at Manny’s Antiques. Some hipster was telling Manny about a guy… uh… some weird name – Pierre or Proteus or something. Anyway, he says he just delivered a gold thingy to this guy to ‘add to his collection’ he says. It was on Merle Street. Those rich snobs oughta have a lot of rich stuff, ripe for the picking, right? Except that they always got security and stuff. But this hipster says that the old man wasn’t home! He just walked in and dropped his delivery off, no security or nothin’! Can you imagine? This’ll be the easiest job we ever had, Jimbo!”
“Will it be easier than that last one? I was just wonderin’…”
The two men got out of the car, and Mort pulled two large duffel bags from the back seat. He handed one to Jimmy. There were three more duffel bags stuffed inside Jimmy’s bag.
“Let’s go,” said Mort, and he walked as casually as he could across the street, Jimmy lumbering behind him like a surreptitious mountain. As they got closer to the mansion, Jimmy could see more details around the grounds: statues of seahorses, indecipherable engravings on the eaves, a fountain with another statue in the middle of some bearded guy with a fishtail and a trident in his right hand. The bearded fish-man looked very stern as he lorded over his stone subjects, and Jimmy tried to avoid his gaze.
Without sparing the fountain a single glance, Mort pushed open the gate and walked up the cobblestone pathway to the front porch. The ancient house loomed over the two men, like a frail but well-dressed old gentleman trying to puff himself up to look intimidating. There were no lights on, but somewhere in Jimmy’s dimly-lit brain, he thought he could feel life inside the old house. Distracted, he walked right into Mort, who had come to a stop in front of the door and was examining the lock. Mort’s head knocked into the door and he said “ow!”
He turned around and slapped Jimmy on the forehead.
“Are you trying to wake up the whole house, you moron?” he raged. “How about I use your thick skull to bash this door down?”
“Sorry,” said Jimmy. “I thought you said nobody was home.”
“There ain’t, but why take chances?”
Mort rubbed his head where his scar had seemed to redden. Then he reached inside his coat and pulled out a small pouch. From inside, he extracted a set of slender lockpicks, then began working on the lock. As he did so, Jimmy looked again at the fountain. Then he prodded Mort in the back.
“I’m working here, Jimmy!”
“Uh… the statue. It-“
“Why do I care about a statue? I’m not gonna be able to move it, let alone fence it!”
“The uh… fork thingy. I think it’s moved to his other hand.”
Mort paused, and he rolled his eyes again.
“Statues don’t move, ya dunce,” he said.
“I’m sure it moved, Mort. Take a look-“
“Shut up about the statue already! I’ve almost got this!”
Mort went back to work on the lock, and seconds later there was a satisfying clunk from somewhere inside the lock’s innards. Mort turned the knob, and the door silently swung open to reveal a musty but clean interior lit with what looked like gas lights. He held his breath and waited, but no alarms sounded.
“Hey Mort, weren’t the lights off when we came up?”
Mort considered this.
“Probably motion sensors,” he said. “You know, they turn the lights on automatically?”
Jimmy was doubtful about motion sensors turning on gas lights, but he was soon distracted by what he saw.
The house seemed to be breathing as the two men entered, and Jimmy wasn’t sure whether it was a draft. A huge, ticking grandfather clock greeted them, it’s ornate face indicating three minutes to midnight. Carvings in the clock continued the sea life motif. The walls were paneled in what looked like ancient driftwood which had been varnished. Framed photographs adorned the walls, some of which looked like they dated back to the dawn of photography. Some photos were of a man with gaunt features and piercing eyes. Though the photos were black and white, Jimmy imagined that they were the color pale blue. He thought it odd that though the man appeared in numerous photos from old sepias to modern prints, he looked the same age in all of them. There were also landscapes, mostly of beaches.
“This guy’s really a shutterbug,” muttered Mort. “The loot’s gonna be upstairs.”
He walked toward the bannister which met the ground floor just behind the clock. The first step groaned in protest, making Mort pause.
“I think this place is pretty old, Mort,” said Jimmy.
“Ya think? Let’s go, genius.”
“But old houses are usually haunted!”
Mort stopped on the second stair, his eyes rolling up toward the ceiling.
“You know, Jimmy. Sometimes I wonder why I try. Will you come on?”
There was no further protest from the bannister as the two men ascended, but some of the drafts had quickened. Jimmy shivered.
“I don’t like this, Mort. Let’s leave.”
“Are you crazy? We’re almost there!”
“This place is scary, like the haunted house at the carnival, but you know, real.”
“For the last time, Jimmy. There’s no such thing as haunted houses! Now, we’re almost there. We grab the stuff, fence it and in a week we’re sipping Mai Tais in Tahiti.”
“What’s a Mai Tai?”
“Something that’ll make you a little dumber if you drink too many, so it won’t have any effect on you.”
“Just come on! The loot’ll be in the study, probably this way.”
Mort turned down the long hallway which had at least six doors spaced evenly on each side. One was cracked open a few inches showing darkness within.
“Haunted houses,” muttered Mort. “I swear, Jimmy, you are the biggest scaredy-ca-“
A dark streak shot from the open door just in front of Mort.
“YAAAAAHGH!” said Mort, and he jump back three feet, rebounded off Jimmy’s broad chest, and fell face-first onto the floor. He slowly raised his head and looked into a pair of pale blue eyes.
“Meow,” said the black cat, looking curiously at Mort’s scar.
“Hey, kitty!” said Jimmy, his face breaking like splitting logs into a smile. “Look, Mort! It’s a kitty!”
Muttering curses too low for any but the cat to hear, Mort clawed his way to his feet.
“I can see it’s a kitty,” he said.
He stepped around the purring feline and on a hunch, headed toward the door the cat emerged from. The door squeaked ever so slightly as the two men edged into the room. What greeted them was exactly what Mort was looking for. Rows of shelves lined the walls, all bursting with artifacts from centuries back, all with thick coats of dust. Figurines, statuettes, vases from long-dead civilizations, and old parchments. Some items looked carved out of solid gold.
Jimmy’s eyes were drawn to a huge aquarium that sat on a table in the middle of the room, it’s aerator bubbling merrily away. Colorful fish wandered languidly among the water plants like living rainbows, seeming to watch the two men with bored expressions.
“This is it!” said Mort. “We’ve hit the jackpot.”
“Mort, this place is weird! What’s with the fish?”
But Mort wasn’t listening. He hurried to the nearest shelf and picked up a golden figurine of a bearded man in a toga.
A loud bonging noise thundered from downstairs, echoing throughout the house as the clock struck midnight. The figurine slipped from Mort’s fingers and thudded to the floor. Jimmy’s head turned toward the door at the sound, then turned back to the room – where he was suddenly alone.
“Mort? Where are you?” said Jimmy after the clock finished striking.
He cast his gaze around the room, but there was nowhere for a grown man to hide.
Jimmy spun around and was confronted by the house’s feline resident.
“Hey kitty,” said Jimmy. “Have you seen my friend?”
The cat looked doubtfully up at Jimmy, his tail swishing back and forth.
“I don’t know where Mort went, but I guess I have a new friend, huh?”
Jimmy carefully picked up the black cat, who immediately started purring, and thrust his head against Jimmy’s chest. Jimmy stroked the cat’s fuzzy black head. He didn’t notice that the figurine Mort had taken had reappeared on the shelf, complete with its layer of dust.
“I know someone who would like to meet you,” he said. “We can have a little party with Marie, and maybe Mort will show up later! I’m gonna call you… Pierre.”
“Meow,” said Pierre agreeably.
As Jimmy turned to leave, the cat stared into the aquarium and locked eyes with a particularly large and surly-looking goldfish. The goldfish scowled back from beneath the ugly scar on its head.
Word count: 1998