Can ghosts harm people? The experts say no, but . . .
| "Good afternoon, detective," the uniformed deputy greeted her at the door of the old Victorian manse. "My name's Joshua Corey. You made good time."
"Lieutenant Joann Walker. I was already up in Pine Valley on another matter," she replied. "What do we have here?"
The uniform led her into the foyer of the elegant old home on the bluff overlooking Sagebrush Canyon.
"Four kids with the San Diego State journalism department applied for and got permission to spend the night in the house to do an investigative piece on the alleged haunting. Great urban myths of our time, or some such."
"Right. The house is supposed to be haunted by a vindictive ghost, is it?"
"That's right. The ghost of Felix Setliff, a nineteenth century murderer, is said to walk the corridors in search of more victims. That little quirk has gotten Setliff Manor protection as a State Historical Site. Well, that and being one of the first Victorian mansions in California south of San Francisco. It's the haunting that brings in the tourists, though."
"Josh," a man interrupted, another uniform with sergeant's stripes, entering from a side hallway, "I thought I heard someone. Is this the detective?"
"That's right," she said, showing her badge and ID card to him. "Lieutenant Joann Walker from the Alpine substation."
"Sergeant Michael Allen from Boulevard."
"Pleased to meet you, Sergeant," she said, taking his handshake. "Your deputy was just filling me in on the scene."
"I wish he'd fill me in. This is the strangest damned case I've ever seen. I'm glad I don't have to solve it. Just securing the scene was freaky enough."
He gestured toward the main living room just beyond the foyer and walked at her side as they entered.
"Four college students got permission to spend the night in here. They were doing a series about the region's haunted houses. Well, the park ranger locked them in at dusk and left for the night. When he returned to let them out this morning, he found the scene just as it is now, all four kids dead, bodies mutilated, and no sign of any intruder from outside."
"There must be dozens of ways into an old house like this," she said. "How can he be sure there was no intrusion?"
"That's true, there may well be. But as a State Historic Building, it's been modernized with an eye to security. The Park Service doesn't want people lurking around their sites when they're closed, and a site like this attracts an odd element anyway. Add to that its remote location, and, well..."
"Yes, that's quite understandable. And that would be why the ranger locked them in?"
"That's right. To protect them and the site."
"Guess that didn't work so well. So, where are the bodies?"
"I'm not sure you'd call them bodies in the strictest sense of the term," the deputy said.
"Never mind, Josh," the Sergeant said. "She'll see them soon enough. This way."
He led them into an elegant dining hall, a long curving staircase to the next floor at the far end. This being a fully restored house, everything gleamed as if it were a set from Downton Abbey. It was breathtaking.
"Who were the students?" she asked as she stood taking it all in.
Deputy Corey took out his notepad.
"They were Bertha Nichols and Robert Lovato, both seniors, Marie Schmidt, a junior, and Theron Loera, sophomore, an exchange student from Greece. All were journalism majors, and I gather this was part of the thesis for the two seniors."
"Any of them linked romantically?"
"We don't have that information yet," the Sergeant replied. "We didn't want to step on any toes."
"Well, we knew a detective was on the way, so we just looked and cataloged. The only person we've interviewed is the Park Ranger, Robert Johnson. Gave him a hell of a turn, I can tell you."
"You don't think he's a suspect, then?"
"He lost his breakfast at the first body, so probably not."
"All right. Let's have a look, then."
"Right. Hope you've got a strong stomach."
Sergeant Allen led them to the far end, and up the stairs. At the first landing, he stopped them at a pile of red goo that had seeped into the carpet and spattered the walls.
"We don't know who this is," he told them. "From the length of the hair on the remaining scalp and the style of clothing, we think it's one of the women. Maybe forensics can tell us something when they get here."
"Sweet Jesus," Walker breathed reverently. "What the hell did this?"
"That's what I meant when I said I'm glad I don't have to figure this out," Allen said. "I'd look for something from hell if I were you."
"That's a luxury I don't have," she said, following him up to the main hallway where another pile of guts and gore lay against the wall. "What'd you make of this one?"
"Male, we think. Jeans and a tee, so non gender-specific clothing."
"The ranger who let them in last night couldn't identify who was wearing what?"
"He wasn't paying any attention. Wasn't thinking about being part of a murder investigation the next morning."
"Pity, that. But this was the second victim?"
"Second one we found. We don't know the order they were killed in. The third one's in that bedroom in and around a wardrobe, but the last one we found was spread over half the attic. It looks like he tried to hide in a trunk, but the killer found him, ripped the top off, and tore him to pieces like the rest of them. Him or her. The interesting thing there is that there's a casette recorder in the trunk, and we have hopes that the victim left some clues on it."
"You haven't listened to it?"
"I told you, we just looked. We haven't touched a thing."
"Too bad more uniforms don't have your discipline."
"You've seen this place. It wasn't hard to keep our hands off of everything. You want to go up now?"
"Sure do. I'll take a few photos, and we'll listen to that tape. Curious?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"My name is Marie Schmidt." The voice was a whisper, trembling in terror. "I'm trapped in this house, an old house that is very much haunted. We thought there might be some bumps, or an unexplained draft, or something. But no, it's gray and fast, and your eye can't focus on it. It got Theron first. He was at the end of the hall looking for a place to set up his sensors, and I was at the other end holding a reflector for him. Suddenly he rose up into the air and screamed. It was horrible. I've never heard a scream like it. Then a shape materialized under him, a gray blob, shimmering like a mirage, and blood flew. He just came apart, pieces of him dropping like, like, like ripping shucks off an ear of corn and letting them drop where they might. I was too terrified to scream, or I'm sure it would have gotten me, too. It finished with Theron and turned to go down the stairs. I went the other way. I'm still almost too afraid to breathe. I've taken a poker from a fireplace, not that I think it will do much to whatever that thing is, but it makes me feel like I can put up a fight at least."
There was a click and a short amount of tape ran off, then the voice started again.
"It's been an hour or two, I don't know. I've worked my way around the perimeter of the house looking for a way out, but there isn't one. Every window, every door is barred or locked, or both. I haven't tried to force one yet, as I dare not make the noise it would cause, but I might yet if it gets to that point. Robert and Bertha are looking for weapons, but I've seen this thing. No weapon I've ever seen could stop it. I've been creeping around like a burglar, as I'm terrified of attracting this thing's attention, but even as I searched, I could feel the thing watching me. Or maybe it was the house itself. I've thought I'd had ghostly experiences before, but they were nothing like this."
There was suddenly a long, drawn-out scream in the distance that turned to short, fast shrieks of pain and anguish, then faded away. The tape suddenly stopped recording. When the voice came back, the screaming was over.
"It got Bertha. It must have. Robert could never have made a sound like that. I have to find him. We can't get out. Maybe both of us together will have a chance.
She forgot to turn off the recorder this time, or perhaps her sweaty finger missed the Stop button. Whatever the reason, they were treated to nearly five minutes of the young woman's ragged breathing, the occasional creaks of ancient floorboards that made her gasp and freeze, and one creaking door opening, a sound that engendered a muffled thump as she obviously pressed herself against a wall. Then came a drawn-out moan in the distance that could never have been made by a human throat.
"That wasn't Robert, she whispered, half declaration and half prayer, "it couldn't have been. Robert's smart, he knows a lot of tricks, he'll get out of this. He has to! I'm going to find a hiding place. If it can't find me, it can't hurt me.
The recorder clicked off again.
"Smart girl," the deputy observed.
"In principle," Walker said. "Didn't help her much in the end, though, did it?"
The recording came back on again.
"I've found a place where I think I'll be safe," the woman began, her voice sounding flat and confined. "I found a trap door into an attic. You pull a rope and a ladder comes down. There's a jumble of boxes and furniture up here, and a couple of steamer trunks. One only has a layer of folded clothes in the bottom, which makes a nice pad to lie on, so I've closed myself up in the trunk where I don't think that thing will look for me. I feel terrible for leaving Robert on his own, but I couldn't find him, and I couldn't fight that thing if I did. He'll be okay, he has to. All I have to do is hide until the sun comes up, which should be in a couple of hours."
There was a long pause, the passage of time marked only by her ragged breathing, then she continued.
"Look, I might not make it here, so if it gets me and somebody finds this tape, burn this place. Burn it to the ground. This isn't some 'Blair Witch Project' Halloween prank. There's something evil in here that's hunting us. It isn't human, and it isn't of this world. Burn this house to ashes, and get a priest to sanctify the ground. There's something unspeakably evil in here, and if it isn't stopped, it will kill again and again and again."
There was another pause, and when she continued, her tone was softer, more composed.
"Mom, I know I haven't been the daughter you wanted, and I said some things to hurt you. If I don't make it out of here, I just want you to know that I love you and... Did you hear that? Like a rush of wind. There can't be any wind, I'm in the attic. It's in here. Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh—"
There was a high-pitched wrench of metal as the lid of the trunk was torn from its hinges, followed by her full-throated screams of abject terror as the thing, whatever it was, pulled her from the trunk and began the dismemberment process. The screams lasted for a few seconds, then faded to nothing as the damage to her throat and lungs rendered her incapable of further sound. There was a final thud, probably as one of the larger body parts was thrown against the wall behind the trunk, then a long sound of rushing wind, then nothing. There was plenty of tape left and the machine continued to run, but there was nothing else to be heard.
There was a long pause as the sheriff's deputies stood staring at the silent recorder before Corey broke the silence.
"Jesus Christ almighty! I've always been aware that heinous crimes like this are committed, but to hear it in progress..."
"Yeah," the sergeant said. "This is, well, I don't have words."
"She did," Walker said, only half in jest. "Anyone have a match?"