EXCERPT: Relatively Rainey (A Rainey Bell Thriller) by R. E. Bradshaw

Relatively Rainey

by

R. E. Bradshaw


Part I

PRELUDE TO A NIGHTMARE

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of Hell.”

 ― Edgar Allan Poe

 

CHAPTER ONE

7:00 PM, Monday, September 2, 2013

Chancery Court Subdivision

Durham County, NC

The small window screen in Dr. Kent Barker’s hand puzzled him. His profound bewilderment drew the attention of his neighbor.

“What’s the trouble there, Kent?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Kent, half listening, still tried to make sense of things.

The smiling neighbor pointed a dripping hose nozzle at the screen.

“You’ve been standing right there since I started watering this flowerbed.  I was so caught up in watching you, I think I over-soaked it.”

Kent looked at the perfectly maintained bed of flowers edging the driveway next door. The flowerbed exemplified the order in Kent’s upper-middle class, manicured subdivision. The homeowners’ association made sure everyone conformed to the neat and tidy rules. Upon returning an hour ago from a Labor Day weekend trip to the beach with family, the Thomas Kincaid-ness of his cul-de-sac struck him once more. The French Country style homes formed a perfect jigsaw puzzle picture of the American dream. No matter how many times Kent made that corner, the image remained the same.

He remarked to Marilyn, his wife, “I could take a picture of this street every day, and it would only reflect the change in seasons.” He smiled at his college freshman daughter’s reflection in the rearview mirror, adding, “There is comfort in that sameness.”

Hannah was almost on her own now, soon to relegate her time with the family to weekends when she could manage it. She was the last of the Barker brood to leave the nest. Kent had just turned fifty, and the slower pace of suburban living suited him. None of his medical school buddies would believe beer-bong champ Barker would prefer the mundane and routine in his later years. But after a long day of surgery, surprises were the last thing an anesthesiologist wanted. Spotting the screen out of place interrupted the solace Kent felt in his world of comfortable banality.

The neighbor persisted, “What happened? Did you get that off and now can’t figure out how to put it back?”

Kent asked, “Reece, were you around this weekend?”

“Yes. Well, I was. Travis took his mother to see his brother on Sunday, but I was here all weekend. Why, what’s wrong?”

Kent glanced back down at the screen and the basement window it should have been covering.

Shrugging, he answered, “I don’t know. This screen was off, but the window was still locked on the inside, and the alarm was active. Marilyn says it just feels like someone was in the house, but we can’t find anything missing.”

“Now, that’s disconcerting. I sure didn’t see or hear anything. Is she sure?”

Kent’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, came screaming out the front door with the answer.

“Daddy, some pervert went through my laundry and stole all my underwear, all of it, bras, and everything.”

Hannah left her first week’s worth of college laundry in the basement, before joining the family for the beach holiday with her older siblings and their spouses. Kent knew this because he carried the bulging duffle bag down the stairs Friday afternoon.

Kent’s wife fled the house close on Hannah’s heels, phone to her ear, and in mid-sentence, “…broke into our house and stole our teenaged daughter’s underwear. And if I’m not mistaken, there is some genetic material you need to come collect.”

At that moment, everything in Kent’s banal world changed.

#

10:00 PM, Friday, July 25, 2014

Buckhorn Road, Chatham County, NC

Arianna Wilde climbed into her grandmother’s farmhouse canopy bed, sinking into the feather top and down pillows. A source of countless fond memories, she felt the bed cradle her as it had on those special occasions when she came to visit the farm. Snuggled under Nana Wilde’s arm, Arianna would listen to her favorite books read aloud. Her war bride grandmother maintained her cultured British accent throughout her life, even after spending the last sixty-nine years of it near the banks of the Cape Fear River. Arianna believed a genuine appreciation achievable for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan only when the texts were read aloud by a British grandmother.

She inherited the farm and her grandmother’s feather bed in January. After finalizing her divorce and the sale of the matrimonial home, Arianna moved into the farmhouse in May. The money from the settlement helped restore and modernize the old place. Having lived in Chapel Hill since her college days, the move twenty-five miles south to her family’s ancestral country home was a welcomed one. Wherever her laptop received a signal became an office, and the solitude of country living appealed to her at this juncture in her life. Relocating seemed the answer to the question Peggy Lee sang over and over in her mind for the last few years, “Is that all there is?”

The intense stress of living on site during a remodel was well worth it. Arianna relearned the self-sufficiency of her youth after too many years of living dependent on the skills of others. Now in the final stages, she was down to the cosmetics of painting the interior and trying to get a handle on the overgrown grounds. Beating back nature to the wood line in the massive yard by day and painting the two-story interior by night, Arianna worked her body to its limits over the last few weeks. She had no spare moments to dally in the past. The work focused her and kept her old friends Regret and Dread at bay.

Arianna regretted she didn’t love her husband. He was sweet and kind, but it wasn’t enough. She regretted that she’d stuck it out for thirteen wasted years and dreaded the thought of dating again at forty-one. She regretted she hadn’t spent more time with her aging grandmother. She dreaded the weekly phone calls from the ex, ostensibly to make sure she was all right, but it was more about propping him up.

He ended almost every conversation with some form of, “I could understand if it was someone else, but you just stopped loving me.”

Arianna regretted ever being honest with him about her feelings. She had contemplated telling him there was someone else, in hopes that he would move on with his life. She regretted that she didn’t care enough to lie.

Today she added a new bit of remorse to the list. She thoroughly regretted saying, “How hard could this be,” before turning the key on the old tiller and promptly sending it through the side of the barn.

“I should have remembered the tractor debacle,” she said aloud, following it with chuckles.

Her muscles ached but were taut. Her body looked better than it had in years. She overcame many things since the move, learning something new about herself and the farm seemingly minute by minute. She had taken back her name and worked on taking back her life one day at a time. Regrets aside, Arianna had mastered her dread of a coming new day.

Tomorrow, I will conquer the tiller.

She reached for the bedside lamp. As she pulled the old chain, plunging the room into darkness, she said aloud, “Think happy thoughts.” It was something her grandmother would say each night. Arianna thought of the happiest thing she could.

The new washer and dryer will be installed in the morning. Praise baby Jesus.

The lace curtains of the canopy bed swayed slightly with the light summer wind coming through the open windows. The heat and air would be installed once all the construction dust settled.

“No need to clog up a new system, ma’am,” the installer informed her, as he handed her a trip ticket with a much later installation date than she had hoped scribbled at the bottom.

The dust was the reason the wood-framed screens were removed downstairs and the large windows thrown open. Fans sat on sills, running day and night to dry paint and suck out the seemingly never-ending drywall dust. She cleaned and vacuumed every day, but the dust prevailed. Plastic covered the portal to the bedroom where she slept. With the door shut much of the time the room stayed relatively free of contaminants. The powder-fine gypsum dust still managed to slip through the tiniest cracks. She thought the hand-tatted canopy should come down before it was damaged, but it comforted her with the retained fragrance of her grandmother’s perfume. Arianna’s eyes fluttered shut as the night breeze tickled her nose with Nana Wilde’s Chanel no. 5.

#

He knew she would be one of his girls the first time he saw her. He had twenty-five regularly visited targets, but was always ready to add a new one if the urge struck. He had jogged past the old Wilde farm the day she ran the tractor into the ditch by the road.

“Perhaps brush-hogging the front forty wasn’t your wisest choice for a first outing,” he had said to her.

“No kidding,” she said, and then laughed before blowing strands of stray hair from her brow.

He had been obliged to stop, along with several other helpful country neighbors. That was the thing about people living in the county where they buried Mayberry’s Sheriff Taylor’s Aunt Bee. Down on the river, away from the suspicion and self-absorption of urban life, folks were there to help a neighbor in need. He needed Arianna Wilde from the moment she smiled in his direction.

He paid his first furtive visit to her that very night. He helped himself to a black bra and panties left hanging from a makeshift clothesline on the back porch, and now treasured among the many items he removed during successive visits over the last eight weeks. It took him only a few minutes the next day to find out about the new resident on Buckhorn Road. He simply mentioned the activity around the Wilde place to the man at the feed store over in Brickhaven. What the old timer didn’t know, his nosey wife filled in. A little more searching on the Internet and he had all the information needed on his new target, Arianna Wilde.

He watched her bedroom window, as the amber glow of the bedside lamp went dark. It wouldn’t be long now.

RelativelyRainey

#

7:50 AM, Saturday, July 26, 2014

Arianna Wilde’s Farmhouse

“What do you mean there wasn’t anyone at home? I’m at home. I saw you drive away.”

Arianna listened to the voice on her phone for only a second, before unleashing a tirade.

“I think spending thousands of dollars with your company warrants more than a cursory knock. Flash Gordon could not have made it to the door before you decided no one was home.”

The voice interrupted her rant, causing her to pause. Upon hearing the delivery driver’s response, she sighed heavily.

“You want to know who Flash Gordon is? Oh, for the love of— Look, your office said the delivery would be between eight and nine this morning. It is just now seven-fifty. You turn that truck around this instant or return after I get off the phone with your boss, your boss’s boss, and on up the chain of command until I have a washer and dryer installed and working in my home, today.”

Arianna was halfway down the stairs when she hung up on the apologetic driver. The old washer was on its last legs and the dryer gave up the ghost years ago. Dogs or cats or some other creatures had been making off with her lingerie for weeks. She suspected the crow that hung out near the clothesline. He looked guilty and seemed always to be watching. Arianna laughed at the thought of a tree somewhere decorated with her bras and panties. She hated to think of the alternative—that one of the workers had a thing for ladies underwear. Her dirty clothes from the past week waited in a basket on the kitchen counter, in anticipation of a new working washer and dryer, and as a way to stem the tide of vanishings. She couldn’t afford to hang any more underclothes on the line to dry. She had no time right now to shop for more.

Reaching the front door, she flung it open and stood there ready to speed dial the appliance store if its truck did not return in a timely fashion. Another bright July day had dawned on a clear blue Carolina sky. Sunrays shot through the open door, illuminating the dust she stirred on her way down the stairs. Arianna watched the particles dance in the sunbeams. The light revealed a floor and stairs she’d cleaned the evening before, cast again with a layer of powder-thin dust.

“When will this end?” She asked, with a palm raised to the invisible powers that be.

She saw the footprints at the same time the appliance truck slowed on the road in front of the house and began the turn into the driveway. Tracing the path of the footprints with her eyes, Arianna noted they approached from the back of the house, went up the stairs, and then returned the way they came.

“Carl, are you here already?”

Arianna called out to the handyman she’d hired to help with the finishing touches. Maybe he arrived early and realized she had not come out of her room yet. He was supposed to finish the tile repair on the upstairs bathroom today. No response came from Carl. He was probably out back, waiting for her to appear with coffee. The guys were getting out of the delivery truck, tools in hand. All was right with Arianna’s world for a moment.

The euphoria was short-lived. As she led the installers through the kitchen to the laundry room at the back of the house, Arianna saw her dirty clothes dumped on the floor. The empty basket was left on the counter. As she reflexively picked up the clothes and returned them to the basket, she froze with her eyes on the footprints. She could see now they led up to her bedroom from the back door. Arianna’s sense of security took a major hit. Her anxiety registered with the men now watching her.

“Are you okay?” One of them asked.

Her shaken state evident in the reply, Arianna answered, “I believe someone has just stolen all my underwear.”

#

7:10 AM, Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chancery Court Subdivision,

Durham County, NC.

Kent Barker turned the last bend in the running trail, legs and lungs on fire. With the end in sight, he dug deeper, sprinting as fast as his fifty-one-year-old legs would allow. Crossing his imaginary finish line, Kent alternated between walking off the lactic acid surging through his near cramping muscles and grabbing his knees, gasping for air.

“Nice sprint,” a sheriff’s deputy said from the edge of the woods.

He and two other deputies appeared to be searching the strip of land behind Kent’s house that separated the running trail from the yards in the neighborhood.

“Thanks,” Kent replied, between gasps. “What’s going on?”

The deputy approached, asking, “Do you live around here?”

“Yeah,” Kent said, finally able to stand erect. “I live right there.” He pointed to the back of his home.

The deputy pulled out a pad and pen. “Could I have your name, sir?”

“Dr. Kent Barker. What’s going on? Has something happened to my wife?”

“Why would you ask that, sir?”

Kent became impatient. “Because you’re standing in the woods behind my house asking me questions.”

“Your wife is Marilyn Barker?”

“Yes. What’s happened? Is she okay?” Kent demanded.

“May I have a look at the soles of your shoes, sir?”

Kent immediately showed the bottoms of his shoes to the deputy and began to panic, “Oh, my God. Marilyn. Tell me what’s happened.”

“Your wife is fine, Dr. Barker. Someone broke into the house two doors that way.” The deputy pointed just a few hundred yards down the trail. “During the canvas this morning, we found tracks in the mud there and the same tracks here behind your home and more muddy prints on your back patio. They do not match your shoes. We spoke to your wife. We understand you reported a theft a little over a year ago. Is that right?”

“Yes. Did he come back?” Kent asked.

“The crimes seem to match the fetish burglaries we’ve had over the past twelve months, starting with your home last September, only this time the female was at home.”

“The Tanners, that’s who you’re talking about, right? Is anyone hurt?”

“Tanner, yeah that’s right. Do you know them?”

“Yes, we all know each other. It’s a friendly neighborhood. You didn’t answer me. Is everyone okay?”

“Yes, sir. No one was hurt. The teenager was home alone. She took a shower and when she came out, the clothes she left on the bathroom floor were gone along with the contents of her lingerie drawer.”

“My God, he was in there with her. When did this happen?”

“Where were you around midnight last evening, Dr. Barker?”

Incensed that he was under suspicion, Kent responded, “What? You think I stole my own daughter’s underwear, and now I’ve moved on to the neighbor’s?”

“We’re asking these questions of everyone, Dr. Barker.”

“I was home with my wife. Didn’t you speak to her? Didn’t she tell you that?”

The deputy smiled. “We have to ask and yes she did. Did you see or hear anything unusual last night?”

Kent relaxed. “No, nothing. We went to bed around eleven. I take a sleeping aid, and I was out pretty quickly. I wouldn’t have heard a thing for at least six hours. My wife says I’m like the living dead.”

“In the last year, have additional personal items disappeared from your home?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but our daughter doesn’t live here anymore. She shares a house with some friends a few miles away and closer to her school. The responding officers last year told us she was the target, that it was probably a teenager with issues.”

“I think we’re reevaluating that assessment, Doctor. This is the eleventh reported fetish burglary in the last year.”

“My God, I had no idea,” Kent said, feeling sick to his stomach.

The deputy made a note and put the pad back in his pocket. “We might want to speak with you again. Keep your doors and windows locked, sir.” He started to turn away but added, “You might lay off that sleeping aid for a bit. At least, until we catch this guy.”

#

4:56 AM, November 22, 2014

Arianna Wilde’s Farmhouse

Buckhorn Road, Chatham County, NC

She watched the second hand on her grandmother’s kitchen wall clock tick away the minutes in slow motion. The large red rooster with the clock in his belly hung in that very spot as long as Arianna remembered.  She’d been sure to rehang it as soon as the new paint dried. Mr. Rooster’s clock hands said it was closing in on five in the morning. Her attacker left her at three, two hours ago. Two hours that crept by one tick at a time.

“Arianna, can you look straight ahead for me?”

The EMT’s smile did not cover his concern, as he focused a small flashlight in each of her eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, clipping the penlight back inside his shirt pocket. He checked the bandage on her head, seemed satisfied, and asked, “Are you warm enough? Can I get you anything?”

Arianna pulled her grandmother’s quilt tighter around her shoulders and resumed watching the seconds tick by.

“Are you sure we can’t take you to the hospital?” A second EMT asked.

“I’m sorry, gentleman. May we have a moment alone with Ms. Wilde?”

Arianna heard the voice of the female detective again, the one who tried to interview her before without much luck. The only words Arianna spoke in the last two hours were to the emergency operator. The details she gave were sparse. Her name, address, and the declaration “he raped me” were all she said before hanging up. The phone repeatedly rang in the long minutes she waited for the police to arrive. Arianna ignored it while she watched Mr. Rooster tick-tick-tick away the life she knew. Convinced this was punishment for walking out of her marriage, for trying to start over, for seeking the life of independence she craved—Arianna Wilde stopped talking because there was nothing left to say.

The flashlight bearing EMT protested being asked to leave, “She needs medical attention.”

“That’s the goal, but right now what she needs is to process,” the detective responded with authority.

“Well, if she starts showing signs of shock—”

A female voice unfamiliar to Arianna interrupted the EMT.

“I think what Ms. Wilde needs right now is a little quiet. If you will just wait outside in the hall, I’m sure she’ll leave with you voluntarily when she’s ready.”

The room cleared of all but the detective and the other woman, the one with the calm, controlled tone. The moment the police arrived the normally peaceful country night had filled with male voices and the sound of heavy footsteps. They attempted hushed communications, but Arianna could still hear them—and smell them. Or was that his odor lingering on her skin. She rubbed her nose in her grandmother’s quilt, hoping for a whiff of Chanel no. 5, as quiet returned to the kitchen.

Arianna heard the refrigerator door open. She turned to see the calm voice belonged to a tall woman with short chestnut curls, dressed in a black, classic, long wool coat. At the moment, she was removing a carton of half and half from the shelf. Arianna became entranced with the woman who did not try to speak to her, but went about making tea. A full five minutes of silence passed before the tall stranger sat down across from Arianna and slid a cup of tea in front of her. A little wisp of steam curled up between them.

“I hope I got it right,” the darkly attractive woman said. “You look like you could use something warm. It’s getting chilly in the early mornings, isn’t it?”

Arianna nodded and reached for the cup. She pulled it close, wrapping both hands around it for the warmth. To her bones, she felt a chill that only seemed to turn colder as time wore on. Tea was exactly what she wanted, but she hadn’t been able to articulate that to anyone. Arianna stared across the table into eyes that understood.

With eye contact made, the woman began to talk. Nothing in her voice registered the seriousness of the situation. She spoke as if they were sitting down for a casual tea, two strangers meeting for the first time.

“I’m a coffee drinker, but my spouse spent a summer in England during college. I’ve been told putting the milk in first and then adding the tea and water makes a better cup. Do you add your milk first?”

Arianna answered without thinking. “Yes, my grandmother was British and taught me to make it that way.” She then took a sip of the tea and found it tailored to her taste. She smiled at the stranger. “It’s perfect. How did you know?”

The woman returned the smile and replied nonchalantly, “You have half and half in the refrigerator. The used cup in the sink has a residue, giving me a clue as to the color I was shooting for. The sugar bowl, a few spilled granules, and the spoon on the paper towel by the hot water dispenser were a clue that you stirred a bit of sweetener into your tea. Since you are health conscious, according to your food choices, and appear to be in great shape, I guessed it was only a small amount, a guilty pleasure.”

Arianna took another sip before asking, “Are you some kind of Sherlock Holmes?”

“In the way that Doyle explained the power of observation, I guess you could say I am a believer. My name is Rainey Bell. I’m a behavioral analyst by trade.”

“Are you a detective, like her?” Arianna indicated the other woman standing silently by the kitchen sink.

“No, Detective Robertson and I go back to my days as an FBI agent, but I’m a consultant for local law enforcement now.”

“Why are you here?” Arianna wanted to know.

“Sheila,” Rainey said, giving a nod to Detective Robertson, “thought I might be uniquely qualified to help you.”

“Why, because you have experience making victims talk?”

Rainey Bell leaned a little closer and locked her eyes on Arianna’s. “No, because I’ve been exactly where you are. I know what this feels like, and I think I know what you need to hear.”

“Oh yeah, and what is that?” Arianna asked with a bit of attitude, thinking this woman couldn’t possibly know what to say to take away the self-blame. Could she have fought harder? Should she have fought him until he killed her? He would have, she was sure of that. And what was that feeling, nagging, pulling at her heart—was it shame for choosing compliance over death?

The behavioral analyst kept her deep green eyes focused on Arianna as she explained,  “Every assault is unique, but one thing remains the same. You did what you had to do to survive and that is all that matters. You survived. Hang on to that. Hold it tight. It will help you in the days to come. When your brain starts telling you what you should have and could have done differently, simply remind yourself that you are alive to hear those doubts.”

“He was going to kill me,” Arianna said, and finally broke.

#

9:15 PM, Sunday, November 30, 2014

Long-term Parking, RDU Airport

Wake County, NC

“Park on the other side of that RV in the last row. The security cameras can’t see this far back.”

The older man laughed. “I see this isn’t your first rodeo. How old are you kid?”

The teenager turned to the man. “However old you need me to be to complete our business.”

The man eased the car into the parking place and put the car in park.

The teenager instructed, “Turn it off. The security guard tools around here on a golf cart. He won’t notice us if the car isn’t running. Keep your foot off the brake.”

“You come here often?”

The man’s attempt at humor was lost on the teen. He replied to the joke, “Let’s get this over with. Fifty bucks for the blow, like I said. If you want to touch me, that’s going to cost you double. Money up front.”

The man dug into his back pocket for his wallet. “I don’t usually pay first.”

“Well, you haven’t been tossed out of a moving car by an asshole that didn’t want to pay up.”

The kid held out his hand for the money, unprepared for the cold steel that slapped around his wrist.

“You are under arrest for prostitu—”

The teenager didn’t hesitate. He snatched his wrist free of the man’s grasp, taking the handcuff with him. In an instant, he was out of the car and running toward the woods. There was no moon, and once he was out from under the parking lot lights, he was plunged into inky black darkness. His eyes took their time adjusting, but he didn’t slow down. He heard footsteps and shouts coming fast on his heels.

“Stop! Police!”

“Fuck that,” the boy said, and ran faster.

His heart pounded in his chest as his feet flew across the ground before he felt the earth drop out beneath him. A few seconds of hang-time later he plunged into the frigid water of the drainage pond.

“Dammit,” he thought, “I forgot about the fucking pond.”

He thrashed around in the cold water and finally found his footing. He stood up in the glare of multiple flashlights.

Silhouettes of officers shouted, “Let me see your hands. Let me see your hands.”

The teenager reached for the sky. A submerged tree branch caught on the handcuff still dangling from his wrist. It followed his hand into the air and slapped against his side.

“Jesus Christ,” a voice behind a flashlight exclaimed.

“Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,” the kid yelled, before stumbling backward.

As he swung wildly to catch his balance, the branch swung around in front of him. That’s when he saw it wasn’t a branch at all. The teenage tough-guy turned into the little boy he truly was, screaming and falling on his back in the water, as skeletal arms wrapped around him.

#

1:00 PM, Monday, December 1, 2014

Bell’s Bail and Investigations

East Franklin Street

Chapel Hill, Orange County, NC

“Rainey Bell,” she said into the phone.

“Ms. Bell, this is Detective March, from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.”

“Good afternoon, Detective. How can I help you?”

“Actually, I have some information for you,” the detective replied. “It’s about your assault case. I was told you should be informed of a recent finding.”

“Okay, I’m listening,” Rainey said and sat up straighter in her chair.

“We found three bodies in the drainage pond near a long-term parking lot at RDU. Two of the bodies haven’t been there long enough to be JW Wilson’s victims, but the third, a male, appears to be that of Dr. John Taylor. We don’t have DNA evidence yet, but we did find his wallet and credit cards near the body. We aren’t making this public knowledge until the test results come back, but things leak. You know how it is. We thought you should know before you read it in the paper.”

“Thank you for that consideration, Detective. I appreciate it. You don’t have to call the former Mrs. Wilson. I’ll take care of that.”

“You’re welcome. Yeah, Detective Robertson, over in Durham, said you’d probably want to do the notification with Mrs. Wilson.”

Rainey tensed and corrected him. “She’s Mrs. Bell-Meyers now.”

“Yeah, I guess she remarried. Anyway, we can put the case to bed. Wilson must have sunk the missing escorts out deep in the lake.”

Rainey commented, “I guess we will know that when the bodies are discovered. Thank you again for calling. Is there anything else?”

The detective seemed confused by Rainey’s dismissal. “Uh, no. I guess that’s it. Have a good day, Ms. Bell.”

“You too, detective,” she hesitated, before sending him off with the truth. “By the way, Katie Meyers Wilson married me. She’s my wife and the mother of our triplets. You can put that in the file before you close it. People should know there was a happy ending for us.”

Rainey was pleasantly surprised at the detective’s response, “I’ll do that, Ms. Bell. That’s good to hear. Congratulations.”

She hung up the phone and stared at the wall.

Ernestine Womble, the office manager who only came in two days a week now, topped the stairs leading into Rainey’s office. Known as Ernie by all that loved her, she was still as spry as ever, acting and looking much younger than her seventy-two years. She was semi-retired but kept an eye on things, as she had since Rainey’s father opened the bail bond business back in the seventies.

“What crazed idiot does Wake County want you to help them catch this time?”

“That wasn’t a consultation request,” Rainey replied. “They found John Taylor’s body—the veterinarian set up to take the fall for JW Wilson’s crimes.”

“Oh,” came Ernie’s one-word reply.

“I guess I better call Katie before the media leaks the story.”

“You all right kid?” Ernie asked.

Rainey would always be a kid to Ernie. She helped Rainey’s dad, Billy, raise her and was more of a mother figure during her formative years than her biological mother. Ernie was giving Rainey the eye, the one that said, “Don’t lie to me.” Rainey knew better than to be anything but truthful.

“I think so. I’m not sure. Every time I get to a place where the memories of that time dissipate, something pops up to remind me. Here comes another round of nightmares.” She added sarcastically, “Katie will be thrilled.”

“He didn’t win, you know,” Ernie reminded her.

Rainey shook her head in response. “Yes, he did. He intended to scar me for life and apparently he has. JW Wilson will just not go away.”

Ernie would not abide self-pity. “He intended to kill your ass, how many, three times? He did not succeed and is dust in an urn as we speak. You’re still here. You fill your head with that beautiful family of yours and evict that evil SOB from your mind. He’s of no consequence to you now.”

Rainey smiled at Ernie’s simplification of a complicated neural process.

“That’s not exactly how PTSD works. I can’t control when the memories come. It doesn’t matter how happy my life is. He comes again in the night with no warning. Each round of nightmares brings more detail than the last. I suppose until my mind processes the entire event, I’m going to be forced to witness the explorations of my repressed knowledge of that night.” She paused, before adding another truth with a sigh, “Ernie, I don’t want to remember.”

“Maybe that’s the problem, Rainey. You need to talk it out. You never have. Your dad was the same way, kept everything tight to the vest. He wouldn’t even talk to Mackie about the war for years. His demons came in the night too until he had to get help. Do you know when that was?”

“No, I just remember his nightmares, his screams, and barking orders.”

“Oh, those were mild compared to the early years. He shot a hole through the sliding glass door in his bedroom once. He was dangerous in his sleep.”

“I never knew that,” Rainey said, wondering what else she did not know about her father. The first ten years of her life, she hadn’t known he existed. She didn’t come to live with him until she was fourteen. Parts of Billy Bell’s life remained a mystery. Rainey had discovered only a few years ago that she had a half-sister.

“When you started coming to visit, Mackie and I told Billy he had to go to therapy, or he might shoot you during one of his nightmares. He went every day for a while. He’d check in at the office in the morning and then head to the VA hospital over in Durham before beginning his day. It changed him for the better. He still had the dreams occasionally, but they were never as bad.”

“I knew he spent a lot of time with vets, working through their PTSD battles.”

“He was working on his own as well, Rainey. You can’t keep those horrid memories locked inside forever. At some point, they are going to come out. The question is, will it be on your terms or theirs?”

#

The house was finally quiet. After feeding, bathing, and tucking the triplets into their beds, Rainey read to them until the last little eye closed. She and Katie went to bed a few minutes later, exhausted from the trying day. The discovery of John Taylor’s body had veiled the evening in somberness. Emotionally drained, they lay there quietly, each lost in thoughts of her own. Freddie, Rainey’s cat, was comfortably curled at her feet. With Katie’s head resting on Rainey’s chest, they drifted off to sleep.

The movie in her dream began almost immediately. Rainey had experienced it many times before. Disconnected from her bound and gagged body, spread-eagle on the bed, she watched him rape her. Rainey saw him dig the scalpel into her flesh, as she floated above the scene, able to look on now without the heart-pounding panic of earlier viewings. Time had hardened her emotions toward the violence perpetrated against her body. The physical scars from those injuries had healed. It was the gaping wound to her psyche that had yet to close.

She had come to view this part of the dream as the prelude to the impending nightmare. If she were lucky Rainey could force herself awake, before being thrust into the helpless body on the bed and returned to the pain and panic of the attack as if it were happening for the first time. But that was not to be the case on this occasion.

He was at her ear, whispering, “You be a good girl now, or I will have to hurt her.”

Rainey felt the plastic wrapped mattress beneath her body. She closed her eyes against the panic and the searing pain screaming through her body. She fought the bindings, flailing her head wildly from side to side.

“Look at her,” he demanded.

Opening her eyes to see an unconscious Katie tied on the bed next to her, Rainey’s guttural cries were muffled by the gag while the nightmare continued to veer from its normal course.

“What?” He asked, his eyes sparkling with delight behind the black mask concealing the rest of his face. “You don’t want me to hurt her?”

Rainey glared at him through eyes nearly swollen shut, her breath fast and shallow, air puffing in and out of her gagged mouth. Her nose bled profusely, providing no access to more air and threatened to drown her in her own blood, but still she fought him.

He raised the scalpel over Katie’s chest. “She should have known, you know. She should have seen what I was. She wasn’t paying attention. This is all her fault, right? She should pay for the pain she allowed me to inflict on you. Katie should have seen it all coming, don’t you think?”

The blade glinted in the air. Rainey tried to scream and tore at the bindings, ripping skin as the rope dug deeper into her wrists. The small part of Rainey’s brain that was conscious and horrified by what it saw began to beg.

Please God, start the siren.

Rainey’s silent prayer was answered with the sweet sound of a distant whine blaring from a patrol car in route to save the day. It was an accident, a mistake that saved her life. The orders were to approach in silence. A rookie cop hit his siren and charged toward the scene before someone told him to turn it off. Mercifully, it sang out just long enough to warn her attacker.

The dream resumed its chilling retelling of the night JW Wilson nearly killed her. Katie’s body disappeared. Rainey once again inhabited her private hell alone with JW, who bolted from the bed and scampered out of the room. Now came the moment when he paused at the door and looked back over his shoulder. Rainey could see his mouth move, but she could never make out what he said—until now.

She could only imagine he believed she wouldn’t survive the overdose of narcotics he’d given her, or at least the amnesia-inducing effects would block her memories. Rainey didn’t remember, but her subconscious had witnessed the entire attack and kept a record. It had been a long reveal, one painful disclosure at a time, but Rainey had now seen it all. Her mind finally played the last moments on the memory reel.

JW looked down at her. “I should have done that years ago.”

The next and last second of the movie played in slow motion. It was the first time it had ever advanced this far. Rainey watched in disbelief.

Oh, my God!

“Rainey, wake up. Rainey! Wake the hell up!”

Rainey’s eyes flew open. Katie was standing by the bed, cautiously hitting her with one of the decorator pillows from the chaise lounge by the window.

“Wake the hell—oh, there you are. Wow,” Katie said, “that was a bad one. Sorry, I had to hit you. You were losing it. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Rainey sat up. “I’m sorry, honey. I wasn’t loud, was I? I didn’t wake the kids, did I?”

“No,” Katie said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “It was one of those where you’re trying to talk, but it’s all garbled in your throat. Are you okay, now? Did Freddie hurt you? He was biting your wrist.”

Rainey blinked her eyes a few times and looked down at the tiny feline bite marks on her left wrist. She sighed deeply and then wrapped her arms around her wife. She buried her face in Katie’s hair and whispered into her neck, “No, honey, I’m not. I need to call Danny. I need help.”

 

EXCERPT: Kill Switch – A Kyle Callahan Mystery by author Mark McNease

Kill Switch

A Kyle Callahan Mystery

by Mark McNease

 

Part I

Among the Living

CHAPTER One

Kyle Callahan glanced around his therapist’s office. He’d sat in this overstuffed beige leather chair, talking to this wise and soft-spoken man for the past six months, and still there were small details he would notice on a visit that he hadn’t seen before. A photograph of Peter Benoit’s daughter, now in her second year at Princeton. A small, cheap plaster bust of Chopin, Peter’s favorite composer, staring blindly from the bookshelf. A book about circuses among the dozens on psychology, psychiatry, and the byzantine workings of the human mind. And tonight: a set of bronzed baby shoes on Peter’s desk. Kyle never sat at or beside the desk. He only looked at it tucked tightly into a corner of the room beneath a window overlooking Central Park West. It was as mysterious as his therapist—he only knew about the daughter and the love for Chopin by asking questions, a reversal of roles that had happened perhaps a half dozen times over the course of twenty-four one hour sessions spent talking about his life since the killing. Correction, the shooting, as Peter reminded him. Yes, Kyle had killed a man. Yes, it had been in self-defense. Yes, it had ended the nightmarish career of the Pride Killer, among New York City’s most successful and cruel sociopaths. So, rightly, Peter Benoit (pronounced “Ben-wah”) reminded Kyle from time to time that it was not murder. But that didn’t change how Kyle felt. It didn’t erase his guilt, however unnecessary. He had taken a man’s life in an Upper East Side townhouse basement, and he had been trying to live with it ever since.

“I haven’t seen bronzed baby shoes since I was a kid,” Kyle said, looking at the desk. “I started to ask if they still made them, but obviously those were made a long time ago. Are they yours?”

“Yes, Kyle, they’re mine,” Peter responded. “I was that small once. We all were.”

“Are they really bronze?”

“I don’t know. My mother had them made. But they look bronze.”

“Yes, they do.”

Kyle turned his attention back to Peter. Lately he’d found himself attracted to the therapist and it made him uncomfortable. He knew it wasn’t real—not real real—and that it was some kind of “transference”, but it made him uneasy. It didn’t help that the therapist was quite tall and handsome, late-forties, with brown hair shot through with gray; blue eyes, large hands, and much too relaxed for anyone living and working in New York City.

“What were we talking about?” Kyle asked, trying to refocus.

“Your father’s death,” said Peter.

“Really?”

“Yes, Kyle. You were visiting your parents in Highland Park. You went in to see your father in his study and you found him slumped over his desk—the same desk you now have in your spare room at home.”

Kyle thought about it. He could not understand how talking about killing Diedrich Keller—the Pride Killer—had morphed into talking about his dead father. Or how it led to talking about his relationship with his husband, Danny. Or his job. Or anything, really. None of those things were why he’d come here, but they had entered his conversations with his therapist and he was as uncomfortable with that as he was with feeling attracted to the man. Psychoanalysis was a curious, dangerous beast, and Kyle wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision letting it out of its cage.

“He didn’t like me,” Kyle said. Just like that. Flat, true.

“What made you think that?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say that. I just asked why you thought your father didn’t like you.”

Kyle stared at him. “Because he told me.”

There, it had happened again. Another unsettling truth uttered as if he’d said it was cold in the room or that he’d left his umbrella at home and it was raining. This had happened quite a few times over the months. Bits and pieces of memories, emotions and unpleasant realities popping out into the air, floating there for a moment then falling to the floor or staining his heart.

“How did it happen?” Peter asked.

“How did what happen?”

“How did your father tell you he didn’t like you? Were you having an argument? Was it a response to something that had been said?”

Kyle remembered it clearly now, just like he remembered finding his father dead at his desk—a not-so-repressed memory he’d told very few people. His mother knew; she was in the house that day, too. Danny, of course. But almost no one else.

Kyle had been at the kitchen table having breakfast. He was twenty at the time. Twenty-one? He was in love with David Elliott, the young man he pursued to New York City from Chicago where they’d both attended college. He’d made the decision to move but not yet done it. His father had not taken kindly to Kyle’s being gay. It wasn’t rejection, per se, but more of a further distancing to an already distant relationship. Kyle’s father had taken the news coolly, as he’d taken all of Kyle’s decisions in life. As if he didn’t care.

“I told him I was moving to New York,” Kyle said, recalling it now in the therapist’s office. “He shrugged. He said, ‘Fine,’ or something like that. Something short and disinterested. ‘Don’t you care?’ I asked him. I didn’t want him to oppose the move—I was hell bent, as my mother said, on chasing David across the country—but something.”

“You wanted him to take it as a loss,” Peter said.

“Yes, yes, I did.”

Image of a street at night

“But that’s not what happened.”

“Not at all,” Kyle said. He looked down now, worried his eyes might water. “I said, ‘That’s all you have to say? ‘Fine?’ And he just … I don’t know … took a bite of his toast, looked at me and said, ‘I don’t like you, Kyle.’”

“It must have hurt.”

Kyle felt his facial muscles tighten. He hated being told such clear simple truths. Of course it hurt. And of course Kyle had never told anyone before tonight what his father had said, or how deeply it cut him.

“Yes,” Kyle said. “It hurt. Then he got up and went to his study. To his desk. Where I found him dead twenty-five years later. Can we change the subject?”

Peter was sensitive, which was not surprising. He was a very experienced therapist and knew when to let things rest. He paused for a moment to drink some of the ginger tea he always had on the stand beside his chair. Kyle knew it was a way of shifting away from one subject to another. Peter Benoit was not the only one in the room who could read people.

“How are the nightmares?” Peter asked, setting his teacup back down.

It was a question the therapist hadn’t asked for several weeks. Kyle was glad of the omission; he preferred not to talk about the dreams that had plagued him since the shooting in Diedrich Keller’s basement. They’d stopped for a while—a short while—but had returned the last week, as distressing as ever. The dreams’ scenario changed slightly, their sequence of events, but they always ended the same: with Kyle sobbing over the body of the serial killer he’d just stopped with a bullet to the heart, while his husband Danny and his friend Detective Linda Sikorsky lay dead at the hands of the man he’d murdered.

“It wasn’t murder,” Peter said the first time Kyle described the dreams. “It was kill or be killed. You need to remember that.”

Kill or be killed. A struggle, a twist of fate, a gunshot, and Kyle had taken a life. He knew it should matter whose life he had taken—a brutal killer who had claimed fourteen victims over seven years and who’d been within a knife blade’s distance from killing Danny—but watching a man die at your own hand defied emotional logic. Death was death. And as he’d seen the life quickly flee from Diedrich Keller’s eyes, he’d felt as if he had been tattooed forever by it. Then the dreams began and he sought out a therapist to try and stop them.

“Not so bad, or so often,” Kyle lied. He’d had a dream just the night before.

“Good,” said Peter, doubting Kyle had told him the truth. “How about your photography?”

Kyle looked up at him. Once upon a time, not long ago, he’d been an avid amateur photographer. The passion had lasted about fifteen years for him, ever since his father had given him an expensive camera for his fortieth birthday. Then the murders at Pride Lodge, Kyle standing over the empty blue pool taking photographs of his friend Teddy’s broken body at the bottom; his first and only photo exhibit at the Katherine Pride Gallery, just days after the madman Kieran Stipling had been stopped from killing Stuart Pride. It was all connected, Kyle knew. The murders, the murderers, and his photography. As one entered his life, the other left. Now he no longer took pictures and had no desire to.

“It’s still on hold,” Kyle said, knowing it would probably stay there. Maybe he would someday see something he thought would look amazing through a camera lens, turned into a moment in time. Or a face that needed preserving in a photograph, or a scene. But not anytime soon. His camera had lain on a shelf in the spare room gathering dust for six months.

Peter leaned forward. It was usually a signal their fifty minutes were coming to a close.

“Have you given some thought to what I suggested?” Peter asked.

The therapist had been encouraging Kyle to take on something new—another passion, another pastime. Kyle had expressed for the first time his interest in getting into the reporting end of his career. If his boss Imogene could do it, he could, too. He’d even begun contributing to her stories—un-credited, of course. He was writing copy now, under Imogene’s tutelage. He knew he was too old to become a reporter, but there may be ways to contribute. No one knew what editors looked like, and Kyle had discovered he had a knack for writing and editing as well as being the best personal assistant Imogene had ever had. He was good for more than bagels and coffee and answering her emails well past quitting time.

“Yes, I have thought about it,” Kyle said. “And Imogene thinks it’s a great idea. I’ve been working on stories with her. She’s very experienced, she’s teaching me a lot—about angles to stories and how to shape them.”

“Good, good. And are you still taking anti-depressants?”

“Oh, God no!” Kyle said, as if he’d just tasted something bitter. He’d tried three different anti-depressants and each made him feel disembodied. No matter how low the dose, whatever they did to him was pronounced and unpleasant. He was glad to find a therapist who preferred talk to medication. Kyle had thrown the pills out each time and was now determined to find another way to deal with his . . . trauma. He didn’t like the word. He didn’t like thinking he’d been traumatized. But sometimes there was no better way to describe it.

What he did not tell Peter Benoit that night was that he’d been thinking through the suggestion to find a new interest and had come up with something very different from writing, editing or reporting. Something he was not ready to tell Peter about. Something that already had him waking up feeling better, clearer, and once again energized.

“Our time’s up,” Peter said gently. He always ended the sessions with his kind voice. Then, as he did from time to time, he said, “I’ll be away next week.” He reached for the Day Planner he kept next to his ginger tea, opened it and said, “Two weeks from tonight is okay for you?”

It was always okay for Kyle. Peter had only skipped three sessions in six months. He never said why; it was part of his mystique. Kyle knew his therapist was divorced—there were no photos of his ex-wife in the office. He knew he had a daughter, and a cat whose white hair was sometimes on the therapist’s pants. But beyond that he knew very little.

“Two weeks is fine,” Kyle said.

He stood up then and shook Peter’s hand. He often wondered if they’d been at it long enough for a hug, but it was better to keep the distance.

“I’ll see you in two weeks,” said Kyle. He turned and let himself out of the office.

Tomorrow was Tuesday and he planned on working late with Imogene. The Manhattan District Attorney was under investigation and it was a huge story, with developments breaking daily. He would be in the office well into the evening.

He would also be paying a visit to someone who could help him find his new obsession, his path back to the life he’d known.

* * *

A short synopsis: Kyle decides the best way he can reengage with life is by following his other true passion – solving murders. He takes on his first cold case: the killing of a teenager three years ago. She was the daughter of a friend, and Kyle decides to give it a try, to bring justice to a grieving, obsessed father, and to pull himself out of his own despair. Joined again by his friend Detective Linda Sikorsky (New Hope, PA, retired), he finds himself delving into the undercurrents of New York City politics and on a collision course with a crime boss who kills as easily as she breathes. Everyone thought Corinne Copley was killed for her cell phone in a random act of violence on a Manhattan side street – but was she? Kyle is determined to find out, and to stay alive.

EXCERPT – Chapter One from “HOPE” (Sequel to SAFE) by Mark Zubro

HOPE

by Mark Zubro

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Friday 8:04 P.M.

 

I held Steve tight and whispered, “Shhhhsh, shhhhsh.”

Through his sobs, I heard him say, “I won’t go back. I won’t go back. No one can ever make me go back there.” Between words and tears there were a lot of sniffles, snorts, and hiccups. The shoulder of my T-shirt was soaked.

I wasn’t sure what to say or do. I’m not sure a lot of people would know. I guess maybe a therapist would, but I wasn’t one of those. I was a high school senior who got pretty good grades, but I was holding the boy I loved, and he was in a lot of pain. I knew I was going to hold him for as long as he needed me to. The poor guy.

We’d been dating a few months. My parents had come around and were pretty okay with me being gay. He and I

had talked about him coming out to his mom and dad. Both sets of parents knew Steve and I hung around. I’d

helped rescue him from some terrible people. He’d been through some hideous moments but wasn’t given to tears and hysterics. Or hadn’t been until now. I was really worried. Most of the time he was quiet and shy except when we managed to find time to ourselves alone.

I didn’t call it dating in front of my parents. Why rub it in? We were still in high school after all. His parents fawned over me when I saw them. They saw me as the savior of their son.

They were big on Saviors being members of the largest fundamentalist church in Riverside, California. His dad was the pastor of the Witness for Jesus conglomerate.

I didn’t urge or discourage Steve from coming out to them. I’d told him no matter what he decided, I’d be there for comfort and support.

No question, it’s gotten better for gay kids in general and for me in particular. I’m just not sure it’s always easier. When I’d come out to my mom and dad, they had been a little nutsy at first, but they’d come a long way since then. They had even attended the last few local PLFAG meetings.

It was night, and Steve and I were on a bench in Fairmont Park down by the river in Riverside, California. Moonlight shone through the leaves of a vast pepper tree under which the bench we sat on rested. A ring of huge old jacaranda surrounded our tree making it as secluded a spot as we would like in the middle of the city.

We’d come here before. If we didn’t have a movie to go to or a place to be, we headed for this corner of hidden serenity. It was quiet, and we weren’t likely to be disturbed. We could cuddle, and we did that a lot. Sometimes through the branches and leaves of the trees we just sat and watched the moon rise and the stars begin to shine over the mountains to the east.

I heard footsteps on the path about twenty feet on the other side of where the tree’s shadows ended. It sounded like a couple murmuring to each other. I heard a soft giggle. They moved on and gave no indication they were aware of us.

A gentle wind rustled the leaves. The weather was warm so we didn’t need jackets right now. The night would cool enough for that later.

Half an hour ago, all his message had said was, “At Fairmount Park. Please come at once.” We’d planned to go out that night so it wasn’t a big change of plans. Sometimes we texted about what we wanted to do instead of calling, so getting a text wasn’t real odd. As soon as I’d joined him under the tree, he’d flown into my arms, which had caused me to stumble a few steps backwards.

Once I’d steadied us, I’d eased him onto the bench. When he calmed down enough but his head was still resting on my shoulder, I asked, “What happened?”

“I walked into the house after you dropped me off.”

I’d picked him up from the downtown library where he’d been while I was at baseball practice. We didn’t kiss when I dropped him off. It was too public, too risky being right out in front of his parents’ house.

He took a deep breath then lifted his head. “When I walked in, my mom and dad were both sitting on the couch. Each of them held a Bible. They just sat there. So I began to go up to my room. Then my dad commanded me in his most pissed from the pulpit voice, ‘Come here young man.’ I didn’t know what was going on. His tone kind of scared me, but what he said next for sure scared me.”

“What’d he say?”

“He did that raise his right arm, shake his index finger at me. He does that from the pulpit when he’s describing and denouncing great sinners. Then in that deep, disdainful, rumbly voice, he asked, ‘Have you been dating that boy?’ When he said the word ‘dating,’ I knew that tone he said it in. I’d heard him use it from the pulpit when describing all kinds of sins. He made it sound like filth and perversion.”

He gulped. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Steve moved his head and looked me in the eyes. “I finally just gave this real pathetic nod. I wish I’d been braver.”

“You were doing the best you could. I know even that nod must’ve taken a lot.”

“I was scared shitless.”

“Then what?”

“His voice got real quiet which was almost scarier than the rumbly angry voice. He’s learned to change his voice to great effect.”

“What did he say?”

Steve shuddered. “He said, ‘Get out. Don’t come back until you have confessed to the Lord and begged his forgiveness.’ I started to say something. I’m not sure what I was going to say. I didn’t know what to say, but I didn’t even get a word out. At the first sound that came out of me, he was on his feet bellowing at the top of his lungs and ranting about God and Jesus, sin and perdition, and burning in Hell.”

A light breeze ruffled the leaves for a few moments. A few stray purple petals from the nearby jacaranda trees skittered by our feet. I heard the hum of a couple of cars on Market Street.

“Did he say who told them?” I asked.

“Not him. I stood there for his ranting. When he finally drew a breath, it was my mom who told me in her mousy voice. I hate that mousy voice.”

His mom was this real plain woman, gray hair, gray complexion, kind of always sort of gray clothes. She never said much when I was around and even then she spoke in pretty much a whisper.

Steve went on. “She said that the neighbors told them, the Bazniks. That it was embarrassing that they had to hear it from someone who lived next door to us.” He shook his head. “The Bazniks are prominent in another church called Heaven Sent. They’re my dad’s big rivals. They’re always smiling to each other’s faces, but my mom and dad hate them.”

“Not very Christian of them.”

HOPE_Mark Zubro cover

He gave the briefest hint of a smile as one side of his mouth lifted a half an inch. He continued, “My mom spoke so calmly, almost like a recitation. It was spooky. Zombie like. It bothered me more than my dad’s ranting. She went on and on about what the damn neighbors would think. She actually said that. ‘The neighbors. What will they think of us?’ She talked about how she knew they’d gloat about our family harboring a nest of sin.”

“You’re a nest of sin?”

“I guess so.”

“How does that feel?”

“If I’m in your arms, not bad.”

“How’d the neighbors find out?”

“She said the neighbor’s son, Harold, saw me kissing ‘that boy’. He’d taken a picture with his phone. She showed it to me. It was of us in your car in the parking lot after a night baseball game. Remember? We thought everybody was gone.”

Was Harold jealous? A closet case? Or just a teenage religious whack job with too much time on his hands?

“My mom finished with, ‘We thought he was a nice boy.’” Steve took a deep breath. “At that point I lost it. I yelled at her, ‘He is a nice boy. I love him.’” He pulled in another deep breath, let himself calm down, then resumed. “After that it got really quiet. I felt bad right away for yelling at my mom. I shouldn’t yell at her. She puts up with enough from my dad. She looked like I’d slapped her, and saying I loved you to them was also a mistake.” Another deep breath. “My dad started screaming, ‘Love! You don’t know what love is. Has he touched you? If he has, it’s rape.’ He gave this big shudder, but when he started again he was still screaming. ‘Touching another boy!’ He advanced on me. I was just frozen to the spot. He loomed over me. He belted me with his right hand.” Steve began crying again.

He’d rushed into my arms when I arrived, and I didn’t get a close look at him in the dim light. When he was once again calmer, I lifted his head and saw his left cheek. From his ear to his nose was red and a darkening purple dotted the area nearest his eye.

“He hit you!”

More tears fell. I held him tight.

When Steve finally stopped sniffling, got himself under control, and blew his nose, I asked, “What did you do?”

“I rocked back on my heels. I may have taken several steps back. I had to brace myself on the coffee table for a few seconds to keep from falling. When I finally stood back up, he swept his arm toward the front door and just kept screaming, ‘Get out! Get out! And never come back!’

“I ran all the way downtown to the library. I hid in the reference section in back on the second floor. I didn’t call you because I know your family doesn’t let you take calls while you’re eating dinner. One of the librarians saw me crying and he asked if I was okay. He’s always nice to me. I said I was fine.”

“He might have seen your face.”

“Is it really bad?”

“It looks like you got beaned with a baseball several times around the same spot.”

He wiped his nose. “When I was finally calm enough, I came here and texted you. I was too upset to talk, and I was afraid someone would see me crying.”

Steve and I were pretty out as a gay couple at school. Most of the more prominent homophobes were in jail or on probation or kicked out of school or cowed enough not to try something openly against either of us. The biggest and most blatant homophobes from school had murdered an unfortunate gay kid a few months before. I was part of helping find out who did Steve and I had almost got killed ourselves in the process. It had been a harrowing rescue. After everything calmed down, we began dating.

Kids are kind of benign these days about gay stuff. Most of them anyway, but all it takes is one and at that time, there were more than a few.

In terms of his family finding out, I realized we probably should have been more careful. That kind of teenage hubris, we’d studied that in literature class last semester. Or was it teenage obliviousness? I thought I had less of that than most. I guess I had as much to learn as any other teenager. We should have been more discreet, should always have kept in mind the danger of our being a couple hurting Steve’s relationship with his family. It was a tough barrier for two high school kids dating each other even though I was a senior, graduating soon, and he’d be a senior next year.

Normally we didn’t do public displays of affection and were careful when we did. Obviously not careful enough. Angry or jealous people were following us around, maybe taking pictures with their phones as if we were the victims of some kind of demented high school paparazzi. At the moment that didn’t seem too paranoid.

A lot of times I just wanted to hold his hand, like straight couples did, as we walked down the halls, or a peck on the cheek as we each left for our separate classes, or have him jump into my arms after the team won a game. Or, hell, make out like some straight couples did when the lunchroom supervisors weren’t looking.

He’d just told his parents that he loved me. Those words echoed in my brain. We actually hadn’t said “I love you” out loud to each other even in a romantic moment.

I wanted to show the world I loved him, to show him I loved him. Saying “I love you” to him was kind of a big step I had been waiting and hoping to take.

I’m realistic enough to know love in high school doesn’t have a big chance of lasting forever, but I wanted to give whatever we had as much of a commitment as I could for as long as I could. Sometimes I thought about a huge marriage ceremony with the two of us all dressed up in tuxes. That would be cool. Someday. If we’re lucky.

Right after he’d had an awful fight with his parents, and he was stuck in a horrible, rotten situation, didn’t seem the right moment to discuss the romantic state of our relationship. I was too concerned with helping him through this than with my need to express my feelings, which I wasn’t as good at as I wanted to be.

He was still in my arms, gazing up at me while we talked. I rubbed my fingertips between his shoulder blades. I knew he liked that, and it soothed him when he was stressed.

He sighed and lay in my embrace for a few minutes, but then he shook himself and stood up. “What am I going to do?”

I leaned forward, put my elbows on my knees, and looked up at him. “What do you want to do?”

“Erase the afternoon.”

“I left my time warp at home.”

He gave the briefest of smiles. “That would work.”

We’d watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show together on my computer a month ago. He’d said he thought Rocky was hot, and that I had the build of the actor who played him. I agreed that the guy was a stud, but I thought it was a bit much to say I resembled him. Nice, but exaggerated.

Steve began pacing around under the leaves of the trees. Puffs of the breeze reached us in our shelter. We could hear the distant rumble of traffic on Highway 60.

I stood up and went to him. We hugged for a few minutes, then he stepped back. “I guess the first thing is to figure out where I’m going to go now, for the night. There aren’t any relatives that live nearby who I’m close to. The ones that do live nearest are all as loony religious as my parents. Some worse, if you can believe that.”

I didn’t know the right words to say. The only thing that came to mind was that for the moment we needed some kind of adult intervention. I said, “I guess for now, come home with me.”

“Can I stay with you?”

“You’ve gotta have some place to stay. We’ll talk with my parents. We’ll begin to put the wheels in motion to deal with this. Your situation is more than a couple of teenagers can handle.”

As I drove, I wondered what my mom and dad would say. They liked Steve, but a houseguest for an indefinite period of time? And one with issues? I guess we’d see.

We stopped at In-N-Out Burger on the way home. He hadn’t eaten dinner. He still ate like the entire starting infield of the baseball team combined including the pitcher and the catcher but never gained an ounce.

Excerpt: Chapter One – The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman

The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman

Blurb:

Jim Brandon has a new house, and boy, is it a pip. Built high on the side of the San Diego mountains by a legendary B-movie actor of the 1930s, Nigel Letters, the house is not only gorgeous, but supposedly haunted. As a writer of horror novels, Jim couldn’t be happier.

But after a string of ghostly events sets Jim’s teeth on edge and scares the bejesus out of his dog, Jim begins to dig into the house’s history. What he finds is enough to creep out anybody. Even Jim. It seems long dead Nigel Letters had a

Excerpt:

The Boys on the Mountain 1

THE DISTURBANCE began with a rattle of curtain hooks tapping the rods on the bedroom window above my head, a sound one might hear during the course of a small earth tremor. But this was no seismic event. My heart would not have leapt into my throat had this been a mere earthquake. I have lived in Southern California for most of my adult life, and nothing the earth might do beneath my feet, short of an eight on the Richter scale, could frighten me any longer.

What this house managed to come up with to frazzle my nerves night after night, however, scared the bejesus out of me.

And I loved it.

The sound above my pillow that jerked me from my sleep was not something I had been expecting. The disturbances did not usually occur so nearby. They were always somewhere in the house but far off. Out of sight and barely within hearing. They were several rooms away or in one of the many walk-in closets, out back in the carriage house or up on the roof. Tonight’s disturbance, coming as it did within inches of my head, had me wide awake and sitting up in bed in less than a second, as stiff as a statue, wildly blinking the sleep from my eyes.

My bedroom was pitch-black and silent but for those clattering curtain hooks above my head. When the drapes were suddenly flung open by invisible hands and moonlight flooded across my bed like a spotlight, I gasped, but still I felt more exhilaration than fear. I may even have allowed a small grin to creep across my face.

When cold, damp flesh touched the side of my neck, however, I flew out from under those blankets like I was shot from a cannon. In my imagination I was out of the house, down the mountainside, and halfway to Los Angeles before my feet hit the floor. It took a moment for me to realize the eerie touch had not come from some sort of slavering, hungry creature fresh from the grave. It came from Rex, my Irish setter, who had just crawled from beneath the covers to see what all the hubbub was about and calmly pressed his damp nose to my neck by way of greeting. He had not intended to stop my heart or send me flying across the room and halfway down the hall before my brain caught up with my imagination. It had not been his intention to give me reason to wonder if I might need to change my boxer shorts.

I could hear Rex following me down the hall, his toenails clicking across the hardwood floor. Now I had done it. He would insist on a potty break, and he would insist I accompany him. I sometimes wondered if maybe Rex was afraid of the dark. At night he would go nowhere inside the house, or out of it, without me trailing along behind him.

When we first moved into this house on a picturesque mountain overlooking San Diego, I thought Rex had taken it into his head to stay at my side for protection. Faithful dog guarding beloved master. That sort of thing. It had taken me a few days to realize this was not quite the case. The protection he was insuring was for him rather than me. Rex was a coward of the first magnitude. I just never realized it until we came here.

I dropped to my knees in the hallway, and Rex walked into my waiting arms like a big red fuzzy car pulling into a garage. If I could have maintained the position, I knew, he would have been content to stand there, wrapped in my arms, until morning.

I pressed my face into his soft neck. “Coward,” I mumbled, my heart still clog dancing.

I reached up to the wall switch beside me and flipped on the hallway light. Rex and I both looked around to assure ourselves that we were alone, and in this dimension, we were. I listened for more noises from the bedroom, but all I could hear was the ticking of an old-school clock that hung on the wall above the flagstone fireplace in the music room. Whatever it was that had woken me and rattled the curtain hooks over my head was gone now, or if not gone, at least silent.

My galloping heart gradually slowed to a canter as I led Rex through the dining room and across the wide living room to the front door, where I grabbed his leash off the doorknob.

We stepped outside, crossed the veranda, and at the broad steps leading down to the driveway, Rex stopped. He would go no farther until his leash was securely snapped to his collar. This was not a matter of training on my part. Rex had picked up the habit on his own, flatly refusing to leave the house without a lifeline between the two of us. We had been separated once. He was not about to let it happen again.

Poor Rex. He really was a most profound coward. The incident with the mountain lion was the beginning of his slide to disgrace. Not that it was a real mountain lion, of course. The house had conjured it up for our amusement. Or at least, I think it had. I hoped it had. The thought of a real mountain lion roaming through the house frightened me much more than the idea of a spectral one.

Spectral, after all, was what I had come here to this mountaintop to experience, not that I truly expected to experience anything more spectral than my own imagination. But the house had surprised me. Surprised the hell out of poor Rex too. Were it not for his inability to dial a phone or leaf through the Yellow Pages, lacking opposable thumbs as he was, or even the most rudimentary of reading skills for that matter, I suspected Rex would have called for a taxi long before this and been back in Los Angeles renting an apartment before the next sunset. I seriously doubted it was his devotion to me that kept him at my side. After all, what other choice did he have? Even the most pampered pets are chained. Whither we goeth, they goeth, whether they like it or not.

His umbilicus firmly in place, Rex tugged me, still clad in boxers and nothing else, down the veranda steps to the drive.

The house was perched high in the stark San Diego Mountains. There was not another structure within three miles of the place and not another inhabited structure within five. Looking at the house now in the moonlight made me recall the first time I had seen it. I knew it was haunted, of course, or purported to be. Everyone said it was. And even though I made my living writing books that scared the hell out of people, or so I hoped, I had about as much faith in the house actually being haunted as I had in my agent giving up his percentage and opting to work on a friend-to-friend basis rather than siphoning off my hard- earned money. Like that’s ever going to happen. And neither, I suspected, would the house turn out to be truly haunted.

In that, happily, I was wrong. Happily for me. Not Rex.

DRIVING UP the long lane that wound around the side of the mountain to the house on the day of my arrival, I had expected the type of house one anticipates when seeking out ghosts. Victorian. Two-story. Towering gables and long, swooping rooflines all cast eerily in shadow, with maybe a hint of thunder and lightning booming and flashing in the background to help set the scene.

The Letters House did not resemble my mental image of a haunted house in any respect. It was not Victorian. It was not two stories, and there wasn’t a gable to be seen. It looked more like an eighteenth-century Mexican hacienda. It sprawled across the side of the mountain, tucked in among the boulders, its plastered arches and balustrades overhung with bougainvillea that brought a riot of color to the otherwise drab and sepia-toned landscape. The air, hot on the summer afternoon of my arrival, was redolent with the cloying scent of sage and desert emptiness. There were no shadows, only a scorching Southern California sun beating down on my head through the sunroof of my Toyota and shimmering off the heat-soft macadam of the driveway.

When I turned off the car, the only sound I heard was Rex, panting in the seat beside me, an insipid grin on his face. No thunder. No lightning. I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the isolation sweep over me, and when I opened them again, I was smiling. Eager as kids, Rex and I sprang from the car and set out to explore our new domain.

I loved the house from the moment I saw it.

That had been a week ago. I had learned a lot in the seven days since. First and foremost, I learned to no longer doubt the house was haunted. It was indeed. And this was a revelation to me. I had spent most of my life writing stories about the supernatural, but deep down I had never truly believed in its existence. This was no longer the case. Stick a translating device down Rex’s throat and listen to him agree with me. He would probably talk for days about the Letters House and the moronic master who dragged him here.

NIGEL LETTERS was a cornball, ham-handed actor in the nineteen twenties and thirties who never advanced beyond the B-horror-movie slot but did, amazingly enough, enjoy a modicum of success in that genre. Don’t ask me how. God knows he was about as talented as a stick of butter and just as slick. He oiled his way across the screen in a string of low-budget schlock fests, usually wearing more makeup than his leading lady and delivering his monotonal lines with all the passion of a near-comatose Kevin Costner, who in my view has never been known to stretch beyond the monotone either.

While I waited for Rex to do his business—and for a dog of very little bravery, he was certainly taking his sweet time about it—I gazed up at the heavens. The night sky seemed so close I felt I could reach up and pluck the stars from it as easily as picking raisins from a scone. Smog did not exist here. Only clear mountain air. And silence. Blessed, blessed silence.

After twenty years as a working writer, Los Angeles was finally wearing me down. Too many people. Too many bars. Too much sickness. I had had my fill of Starbucks’s latte. I was ready to get back to basics. Suddenly, Sanka sounded pretty good.

The silence on this mountain was as alien to me as unprotected sex, which was something else I would like to get back to, but that didn’t seem likely. AIDS is just as prevalent as ever. Of course, the meds are better, so now it takes you longer to die, but die you still do. Not much of a perk.

AIDS aside, I wondered if seventy years ago Nigel Letters might not have felt the same way I did. Why else would he remove himself from the klieg lights and story conferences of Hollywood and build himself a secluded castle way the hell up on the side of this beautiful, stark mountain?

Nigel Letters had died in this house. He died in the very bedroom where I now slept. His death had been just as cornball as any of his movies, the only difference being at the time of his death he was wearing more makeup than usual. He died in high drag, with a red silk scarf wrapped around his throat and tied to a hook on the wall, which slowly choked the breath from his body as he happily masturbated beneath the lovely taffeta evening gown he was wearing at the time. His body was going to fat by then, and his movie career was on the skids. Hollywood had moved beyond schlocky horror movies, and poor Nigel found himself without work.

All he had left was a sizable fortune and his hobbies, the favorite of which was apparently autoerotic asphyxiation, which by all accounts can make for some pretty impressive ejaculations, but precautions need to be taken when practicing it. On the night of his death, Nigel must have been a little careless about the precautions. His housekeeper found him hanging on the wall like a piece of art, pecker still in hand, when she came to deliver his breakfast tray.

Rumor has it the housekeeper laughed so hard upon discovering the body that she dropped the breakfast tray and broke two toes on her left foot when the coffee pot landed on them. But according to legend, even that didn’t wipe the happy grin from her face. She was still giggling like a schoolgirl when she limped to the phone to call the press. Only later would she remember to notify the police as well.

Nigel, it would seem, was not a well-loved employer.

The hook from which he was dangling when the housekeeper found him was still on the bedroom wall. Upon my arrival at the house, I used it to hang an old studio publicity shot of the man taken in his heyday, so even now, more than half a century after his ridiculous exit, the poor guy still hung from that goddamn hook, this time in top hat and cloak from an old Jack the Ripper film he starred in at about the same time Hitler rose to power. I didn’t have a snapshot of Nigel in taffeta or a Rita Hayworth wig, or I would have used that instead.

Nigel Letters may have been an unlikable putz in real life, but I had to give him credit for one outstanding accomplishment. He built this house. I was not ridiculing the man when I hung his 8×10 glossy on the bedroom wall from the very hook on which he died. I thought of it more as a tongue-in-cheek shrine. Nigel and I, after all, had a few things in common. We both plied our trade in Hollywood. We were both gay. We both loved this house. And we both, in our day, owned Irish setters. Nigel’s Irish setter, although male, was named Nancy. Somehow that didn’t surprise me, coming as it did from a man who enjoyed masturbating in taffeta.

I have always been a videophile, even as a child growing up in Indiana and before my first novel led me to Hollywood, where it was made into one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid. I have a Raspberry Award for the Worst Adapted Screenplay to prove it. None of my later novels were put on film, thank God, but by then California had its hooks in me, and I never left. But my love for movies continued. Especially bad movies. The worse they were, the better I liked them. Theoretically, my own movie should have been one of my favorites (yes, it was that bad), but perhaps I was too close to it to appreciate the reek.

So, being a lover of film, all film but my own, that is, the name Nigel Letters was not unknown to me. I had seen most of his earlier work, when he was still handsome, and I had seen many of his later films, when his jowls were more pronounced on screen than his heavily made-up eyes. And I had enjoyed them all, not for the artistry of them, but for their complete lack of artistry. Spooky pulp, I called them, but at the time of their release, that was what the audiences wanted. Stuffy British actors in creepy black-and-white period pieces was the big thing then. The scripts must have been cranked out in a matter of minutes, and not much more time spent filming them, but the popcorn-chomping populace ate them up. Today those films seem absurd, pretentious, and totally inane, but Nigel got rich making them, and by all accounts, in his youth, before his beauty had faded, the popularity of his films made Nigel Letters quite a draw with the male contingent of aspiring actors, street hustlers, gigolos, and starstruck fans that populated Sunset Boulevard during those years. Apparently when not in front of the camera, Nigel’s face spent most of its time stuck in the lap of any good- looking male he could entice into a dark corner. And he enticed quite a few, if half the stories are true.

When my agent told me that Nigel’s house in the San Diego Mountains had been put on the market, I leapt at it. When I heard the house was haunted, I leapt even higher.

And now, after only a few days of living on the property, I knew I would buy it. Rex would not be happy about my decision, but he wasn’t the one writing the checks. And like I said before, whither the master goeth….

After a decade or more of enduring the screaming pulse of Los Angeles, with its crowded streets and blaring traffic, the solitude to be found on this silent mountainside was almost breathtaking. Even nature lent very few notes to the music. Perhaps an occasional night bird could be heard, or the rustle of palm fronds from the trees beside the house when the wind whipped up the side of the mountain before a rain, but that was all. There were no people sounds. No car horns. No boom boxes. No strident voices yelling obscenities at strangers.

The only noise came from myself, from Rex, or from the house itself, or whatever it was that resided in the house with us. For I knew from the first night, as I lay in the unfamiliar bed and savored the newfound silence, that I was not alone here.

On that first night, and for many days and nights afterward, I neither saw nor heard anything to make me think that mine were not the only thoughts at play within these walls. It was just a feeling. A sense of being near something you can’t quite see. A sense that there were sounds to be heard if they were just a little louder. A sense that this house was not quite at rest. But it didn’t frighten me. There was no feeling of malevolence about it. I didn’t feel surrounded by evil. I didn’t feel like a character in one of my books.

Even later, when the disturbances began, I didn’t fear for my life. My heart might leap into my throat at a sudden sound, coming as it did from a seemingly empty room, but I felt no terror. It would startle me, and my heart would begin hammering, but not from any sense of life-threatening horror. I think the heart hammering came as much from exhilaration as anything else. I had spent my life scaring people with words on a page. Now it was my turn to be afraid, and there was nothing fictional about it. Perhaps I had been writing truths all along and simply never knew it.

For a writer of horror, the house was perfect. By the end of the first week, I could not imagine living anywhere else. I phoned my agent and set the wheels of purchase in motion. Then I phoned my friends and invited them up.

NOW, AS I stood in the moonlight in my boxer shorts and waited interminably for Rex to make the earth-shattering decision as to when and where to poop, I thought of my friends and wondered what they would think of the house and my decision to move here permanently. I suspected they would approve of the first and despair at the second, loving the house as much as I did but unable to comprehend how I could ever dream of leaving Los Angeles.

My friends. We had been an entity for more years than I cared to admit. Michael. Lyle. Frank. Stu. From various parts of the country, we had descended on LA in 1997, and somehow we had come together, drawn to each other like shreds of metal to a magnet. Everyone had slept with everyone else at one time or another. That was perhaps what first drew us together, but sex did not keep us together. Friendship did that. Friendship and love and an understanding of each other that allowed us to bare our faults, or flaunt our talents, without resentment or jealousy getting in the way.

We commiserated with each other during the low times, times we all had at one point or another as we were carving our way in the world, and we praised each other for our successes. Michael’s graduation from veterinary school and the subsequent hanging of his shingle on a small pet hospital in Van Nuys. Lyle and Frank’s marriage on a beach in Santa Monica, the only members of our little band who stayed together as lovers, now into their twelfth year and seemingly as happy as the day they swapped vows in the sand. Stu’s first hair salon with his name in neon, and a few years later, a second and third salon, all making money hand over fist. Money was never a problem for Stu. Relationships were. But he made up for it by replacing quality with quantity. There was a different man in his bed every night of the week, and like a kid in a candy store, he just couldn’t decide on the one he liked best, so he tried them all, chewing them up and spitting them out like gumballs.

BoysontheMountain[The]FS

My friends were there for me during the publication of my first novel, which if not for them would probably not have sold a single copy, and they were there for me during the subsequent disaster of a movie it spawned. My success only came with the release of my second novel, but I will always remember how my friends supported and praised me for the first. We were our own little fan club, adoring each other and making sure each of us knew it.

Now, with time dragging us reluctantly toward forty, the youthful blush in our cheeks has perhaps faded, our faces appearing a bit wiser and less eager in the bathroom mirror in the mornings when we shave, but our zest for life has not diminished. Nor has our devotion to each other. I have very little patience for anyone else in the world, but for my friends there is always an opening in my mental appointment book. We offer little to anyone else, but to each other, we offer everything.

By leaving Los Angeles, I was forming the first breach in our communal front on the world, and I knew my friends were not happy about it. No longer would we all be minutes away from each other. By taking up residence more than a hundred miles away, I would undoubtedly be viewed as the first rat to abandon the ship. I could only hope that after inspecting this house and learning to love it as much as I did, they would come to understand why I chose to live here. Friends, after all, are chained to us as securely as our pets, or should be if they are truly friends. A little distance shouldn’t make a difference.

As I stood in the moonlight with the warm evening breeze blowing across my body and watched Rex finally squat to do his business, all I could do was hope that my friends would see my desertion in the same light as I did. Perhaps the house would convince them. It wanted me to stay. At least, I thought it did. At any rate, it hadn’t tried to kill me yet. Not really.

Looking up at the house from where Rex had led me down the sloping driveway, I saw a curtain move. I had left the front door open when Rex and I stepped outside, so it might have been the night breeze that fluttered the fabric. But I knew instinctively it was not. The house watched us constantly. It was something I had grown accustomed to in the time I had been there. From that very first day, when the house was still new and exciting to me, I had sensed a welcoming presence as I moved from room to room and explored my new domain.

It was a large house, containing fifteen rooms, beautifully constructed with rounded ceilings and wide stone fireplaces scattered around. The teak flooring was polished to a lovely deep brown, almost black. It gleamed underfoot like dark, still water. The sound of my footsteps echoed through the house on that first day, and I could imagine the house soaking up the sounds of life, which had so long been absent, and I immediately felt at home, as if my entire life had been leading me to this one destination.

I felt welcome.

Even later, when I came to realize that I was not the only resident, that sense of welcome did not diminish.

From the first moment I stepped inside the door, the house seemed to envelope me in its arms, making me feel at home. Making me feel needed. But it was a dangerous need, for there was a threat inside this house as well, although I did not consider the threat to be directed at me. Rex would probably argue that point. He had been uncomfortable and wary of the house from the beginning.

But all this I would only come to realize later, after I had spent a few days and nights inside the walls of this splendid house tucked against this barren, magnificent mountain. In fact, it happened only after I had determined to buy the place, which in retrospect occurred about two minutes after I set foot inside the front door.

The house was still furnished with Nigel Letters’s old belongings. Clunky art deco furniture, recently uncovered and cleaned. Cherrywood cabinets, buffed to their highest sheen. Windows and french doors rendered spotless, allowing the Southern California sun to pierce the house like rays of blessed light penetrating a cathedral. The dark teak flooring shone beneath my feet like obsidian. The Realtor had been true to her word when she told my agent the house would be ready for me. It was indeed. It looked as new as the day it was built, over seventy years earlier.

I could almost hear it breathing.

A circular breakfast room, lined with leaded windows and boasting a high cupola ceiling, jutted off the southeast corner of the house. On my arrival it was the only room unfurnished. Built-in bookshelves lined the walls beneath the windows, freshly painted but empty of books. Ornate art deco wall sconces and a brass chandelier supplied the lighting after the sun went down, but during the day the sunlight streamed in from every angle. To me, it was the most beautiful room in the house. Here I would write. Here, with my books filling the shelves and my computer humming to life on a broad cherrywood desk I found tucked away in a corner of one of the bedrooms, I would spend most of my time.

I should have known it was more than coincidence that the only room completely empty was the one I would most need and most love. It was as if the house already knew me, knew what I would require, knew what would make me happiest. This room was a housewarming gift from the house itself, and I immediately went to work preparing it.

Even before my clothes were unpacked, I had scooted a couple of Indian- print throw rugs under the legs of the massive desk and tugged it down the long hallway, across the dining room, and into the breakfast room, placing it at an angle in the center of the room directly beneath the brass chandelier. I found a red armchair in one of the other bedrooms and placed it behind the desk. Then I unloaded my computer from the trunk of my car, situated it on the desk, and hooked it up. With a stack of fresh, white paper placed neatly beside it, I had everything I wanted.

All I needed to do was send for my books. My own furniture, sitting unused back in LA in my tiny one-bedroom condo, I would either sell or put in storage. I needed nothing more than what the house already offered.

I pulled out the red chair, tucked my legs beneath the wide desk, and stared at the desert landscape outside the breakfast-room windows. I could see for miles down the slope of the foothills, with nothing man-made to mar the view. No buildings, no automobiles, nothing. Nothing but pure unblemished landscape.

Now I felt at home. For the first time in years, I was uncrowded, free. With the house for protection and Rex for companionship, I would be content. I could write here without interruption, for hours on end. Day after day.

My fingers itched for the keyboard.

From some far-off corner of the house, I heard the tinkle of broken glass. A fragile sound. Rex, standing beside my chair, perked up his ears and tensed. A soft whimper emanated from his throat as he gazed at my face with his big brown eyes.

I pushed myself away from the desk and with Rex at my heels, set off in search of the source. Something must have fallen. Perhaps we had mice.

We roamed from room to room, searching for the cause of the sound, but we never found it. Soon the incident was forgotten in the bustle of moving in.

The clothes I had brought with me were neatly hung in the deep walk-in closet in the master bedroom. Nigel’s room. I knew it the moment I saw it. Sturdy mahogany furniture filled every corner. Brass fittings sparkled in the sunlight pouring through the bedroom windows. A four-poster bed stood at attention against the wall, cradling the thickest feather mattress I had ever seen. When I laid my hand on it to test the softness, it all but disappeared in the folds of the chintz bedspread that covered the bed.

The feather mattress would have to go. Allergies. I measured the bed and, digging out my cell phone, ordered a firmer mattress to be delivered the following day—after a five-minute discussion with the clerk as to how to find the house. The feather mattress I rolled into an awkward bundle and hauled off to a distant closet. I doubted I would be getting much sleep tonight anyway. I was too excited. If I had to, I would crash in one of the other bedrooms for the night. Sleep and I were infrequent companions anyway. I did most of my writing at night. How else should horror stories be written?

I admired the heavy, dark bedroom furniture for a long time, standing in the center of the floor, the mattressless bed beside me. The room was large. Massive by LA condo standards. A door to the left led to a walk-in closet. Another door to the right led to the master bath, with sunken tub and tall art deco statuettes standing in every corner like sentinels, slim male figures, nude, their right hands reaching upward to cradle crystal globes. I flicked the light switch on the wall, and the globes came to life, emitting soft, velvety light throughout the room. A flattering light. The sort of light an aging movie star would relish. I glanced at myself in one of the full-length mirrors that ranged across the wall and realized I was rather partial to that light myself. I looked pretty darn good in that fuzzy light. Nigel might have been a first-class asshole, but he had taste. I had to give him that.

On that first day, as I left the bathroom, my eyes were drawn to the one thing in Nigel’s bedroom that seemed out of place: a large hook, like a hay hook, attached to the wall facing another full-length mirror on the opposite wall. With a sharp intake of breath, I realized that this was where Nigel had met his less than illustrious end. He had been hanging from that hook when the housekeeper found him, still draped in taffeta, with his cock in his hand. I found myself wondering if, after the life was choked from his body and the blood no longer churning through his system, settled, he might have maintained his erection even after death, like King Tut, whose royal penis was embalmed for all eternity in a happily erect state. Of course, unlike Nigel Letters, young King Tutankhamen wasn’t pounding his pud at the moment of his death, or not that we know of.

I spun on my heel and stalked off to one of the other rooms in the house I had explored earlier. In my mind I had dubbed it the ego room. Here I had found dozens of framed photos of Nigel Letters from his heyday. Publicity snapshots and stills from his many movies adorned the walls. There were no other decorations in the room, only Nigel’s handsome face peering out from photo after photo. And they were all pictures from his younger years. There were no sagging jowls or puffy eyelids anywhere in evidence.

I plucked one from the wall, a still from the Jack the Ripper film I mentioned earlier, and carried it back to the bedroom, where I carefully hung it from the hay hook on the wall, taking a moment to position it squarely. Nigel was back in the place where he had apparently spent so many happy hours whacking off, until the night he got careless and suddenly found himself whacking off in the afterlife.

It seemed a fitting memorial to the man who’d had the bad taste to die the way he had but still possessed the good taste in life to build this marvelous house.

With Nigel back where he belonged, I went back to the mundane tasks of preparing the house for life.

The kitchen was roomy and well-appointed, right down to an ultramodern microwave oven that looked like it belonged on the space shuttle and would probably take me weeks to figure out.

According to the Realtor, there had been a string of tenants inhabiting the house over the years but few prospective buyers, which seemed odd to me considering the beauty of the place. Perhaps the price tag was the main deterrent. The place didn’t come cheap. But my last book had sold well, and I had made some sound investments over the years, so I figured I could afford it. I had another novel due out in a few months. My publisher had received the final rewrites only days before and had assured me it would do well. Since he had never been wrong before, I tended to take him at his word.

Well-appointed the kitchen may have been, but the cupboards were as bare as the day they were built. The only food in the house was the box of Milk- Bones I had brought along for Rex and a dusty tin of tomato paste I found tucked away on a shelf above the refrigerator. Even Emeril would be hard-pressed to concoct a meal from that. I set about jotting down a shopping list, whistled for Rex, who had found a block of sunlight on the living room floor to take a snooze in, and headed out the door to a supermarket I had noticed a few miles away on the outskirts of San Diego.

Rex waited in the car, his nose pressed to the side window, as I spent an hour in the market, roaming the aisles, buying everything from condiments to veggies to meats to booze. Then I remembered Rex and snagged a fifty-pound bag of Alpo to top off the cart. Two-hundred dollars later, I was back on the road.

As I left the city and the car began climbing the foothills of my little mountain, with Rex’s tongue and ears flapping in the wind outside the passenger window, I found myself humming.

For the first time in my life, I felt myself heading toward a place that I truly thought of as home. I didn’t know I would be sharing that home with the others who already resided there, who had, in fact, been residing there for many years. The ones who could not leave.

That knowledge would come later. And it would alter my perception of the world forever.

MY CELL phone rang as I unbagged groceries in the kitchen on my first day inside the house.

Without preamble, a female voice asked, “Are you staying?”

“Squeeze me?” I said in a bad Mike Myers impersonation before I could stop myself. It was a habit I had long been trying to break. Movie lovers sometimes tend to pluck dialogue from their favorite films and plop them down in everyday life, with occasionally disastrous results.

The woman on the phone sounded suddenly confused, not that I could blame her. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”

“I said ‘excuse me,’” I lied. “Oh.” “What did you say?” I asked. “I asked if you were staying.” “In the house, you mean?” “Yes.” Her voice, whoever she was, sounded more amused now than confused. “I’m asking if you intend to stay in the house. This is Caroline.” “Caroline?”

“The housekeeper. I prepared the house for your arrival. I hope everything was satisfactory.”

I did a mental forehead slap. “Oh! The housekeeper. Yes. The house is wonderful. Spotless.”

“You didn’t find my note, did you?” “Note?” “I left you a note on the mantle.” “I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t see it. I’m James Brandon, by the way. And

in answer to your question, yes, I am intending to stay in the house. In fact, I intend to buy the house.”

“Really?”

“Well… I think so. It’s a beautiful house. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in the door.”

“Did you just arrive?” I laughed. “I got here bright and early this morning.” “And you’ve already decided to buy?” “Yep.” There was a silence on the line for a couple of ticks before she said,

“Haven’t you ever read any of those books you write?”

“Squee… I mean, excuse me?”

“If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t transfer any funds into escrow until you spend a couple of nights in the house. The place may seem a little different in the dark.”

“Have you ever spent a night here?”

“As a matter of fact, no. But my family has had a connection to that house for many years. My mother worked there as a housekeeper off and on over the years, and before that my grandmother worked for Mr. Letters. She was his live-in.”

“Good Lord, don’t tell me your grandmother was the woman who found him on the day he died!”

“No, but she found him the following morning.”

I had to ask. “Did she really laugh so hard that she dropped a coffee pot on her foot and broke two toes?”

Caroline’s laugh came over the line like a tinkle of bells. I could envision her now. A pretty slip of a girl, weighing in at under a hundred pounds, with pale skin and a no-nonsense outlook on life.

“I’ve heard that story before, Mr. Brandon, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.” “She didn’t laugh?” I asked. Caroline groaned. “Oh, she laughed all right. And she did indeed drop the

tray with the coffee pot on it. But she didn’t break any toes. Only the pot.” “Well, that’s disappointing.” I could sense the woman smiling now. “The story of the broken toes rather

appealed to your sense of the dramatic, didn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Brandon—”

“James. Jim, actually.”

“Jim. That story appealed to my grandmother as well. Even today, when she tells of that morning, she’ll point to the arthritis in her toes and swear it came about because of that falling coffee pot. But I’m afraid it really is just a story. It never happened.”

“Your grandmother is still alive?”

“Yes. She’s ninety-six, and her mind is as sharp as ever. Her body isn’t. She’s in a nursing home in the city. Has been there for more years than I care to remember. She could tell you things about that house….”

“Could she?” “She could, yes. But that’s not to say she would.” “Well, perhaps I’ll meet her someday.” “Perhaps.” The way she said it made me think that she was humoring me

now. She got back to the purpose of the call. “When you read the note I left you, you’ll find that the reason for the note was to offer my services to you if you need someone to clean for you. Just a couple of days a week, mind you. I won’t be spending any nights there.”

Teasingly, I asked, “Are you afraid?”

“Yes, Jim, I am,” she said bluntly. “But that’s not the reason. I have a husband and child at home, and I don’t wish to spend that much time away from them. So if you need help with the house, and I should think you would, then I would be happy to help you. My rates are more than reasonable, I think.”

“I’m sure they are,” I said, roaming around the house with my cell phone to my ear, thinking of all the things that would need to be done on a regular basis if I planned to keep the house as beautiful as it was now. Without a housekeeper I would spend all my time cleaning, not writing. An unpleasant thought. I enjoyed housecleaning probably about as much as I would enjoy rectal surgery.

“And,” she added, “if there is any repair work to be done, my husband is quite handy.”

I was about as handy as Rex. “Well, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Two days a week it is.” “I would even be willing to cook for you on occasion, if you wish. But I won’t spend any nights there. Are we agreed on that?” “Absolutely. No nights.” “And I must insist that when I’m there, you or someone else will always be

there with me. I don’t want to be in the house alone. It may sound silly to you, but those are the rules.”

“And your rules are accepted. I spend most of my time writing, so I will always be here. If for any reason I need to be away, we’ll simply change your day. Is that agreeable to you?”

“More than agreeable. Thank you.” “Thank you.” We spent a few minutes discussing wages and what hours she would be

willing to work, finally settling on Tuesdays and Fridays from nine to six. With matters of business no longer hanging over our heads, the

conversation took on a friendlier tone. “When I heard it was you moving into the house I went out and bought a

couple of your books.” “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll need the money.” She laughed. “So… did you like them?” I asked, with that familiar trepidation creeping into my voice that I had come to expect every time I asked that question of a stranger.

I breathed a sigh of relief when she said, “Very much. I can’t wait to read your next one.”

“Then you’re in luck. There’s one coming out in the fall.” “That’s wonderful, but I don’t mean that one.” “I’m sorry. You lost me.” “I’m talking about the next one. The one you write inside that house.” “Oh. Well, I don’t have a clue what that one will be about. I haven’t really

thought about it yet.” “It will be about the house, James.” “Will it?” “Oh yeah.”

I began to wonder if Caroline, my new housekeeper, wasn’t perhaps a bit flakier than I originally thought.

“What makes you say that?” I asked. “Haven’t you wondered why no one has bought the house over the years?” Miss Caroline, as I had already begun to think of her, seemed to be a fairly

perceptive flake. I had indeed wondered about that. “Well,” I said, “I assumed it was the price tag. And perhaps the remoteness

of the location.” “No, James. It’s the house itself. All those rumors about it being haunted

aren’t just rumors, you know.” “Do you know this for a fact, or are you…?” “That appeals to you, doesn’t it, the fact that maybe the place might be

haunted? Judging by the books you write, I should think that would appeal to you very much.”

Perceptive indeed. “As a matter of fact, it does. But I don’t really believe the stories, if that’s what you’re wondering. The house has a past, certainly, but all old houses do. I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, and a ghost hasn’t popped out of the armoire yet.”

“You haven’t heard any odd noises?”

“Well, I did hear the sound of glass breaking, but I racked it up to an errant mouse.”

She giggled like a schoolgirl being offered her first corsage. “Then it’s started already.”

“What has started?” “The house. It’s testing you. Feeling you out.” “Oh, come now. Maybe I should clean the house and you should write the books.” Her laugh was interrupted by what sounded like a tower of pots and pans

crashing to the floor. “I have to go,” she said. “My son is rearranging the kitchen cupboards.” “A handful, huh?” “Several handfuls, actually.” “You’re more than welcome to bring him with you when you work, if you

wish. I wouldn’t mind at all.” “I would mind, Mr. Brandon. I mean, James. I mean, Jim. I’ll never bring

my little boy into that house.” The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Does it really frighten you

that much?” There was a long silence before she finally answered. “Children are not

safe in that house. Please remember that. Children have never been safe in that house.”

Softly, she hung up the phone, and I was left with a dial tone in my ear. The sudden silence of the house engulfed me as I clicked my cell phone shut and went about the task of putting away the rest of my groceries.

“Bit melodramatic,” I muttered to Rex, who looked supremely uninterested. “But she cleans well. That’s what counts.”

I MADE two tuna sandwiches, tossing one to Rex, who wolfed it down in less time than it takes to tell about it, and nibbled on the other one myself as I set out to really explore the property.

Miss Caroline, flake or not, had done her job well. The house, all fifteen rooms of it, was immaculate. The skillful workmanship that went into building the house was an amazement to someone who had spent most of his adult life in formula condos, erected with nothing more than speed and economy of space in mind.

Here I found fragrant cedar-lined closets, all walk-ins, each and every one of them as large or larger than my bathroom back in LA. French doors with hazy leaded windows sealed off the rooms. Built-in cupboards and bookshelves and drawers were everywhere. A grand piano stood proudly in a wedge of sunlight in the music room, the keys polished and shimmering, waiting for nimble fingers to bring them to life. After studying the photographs in the ego room, which was just an archway away from the music room, I learned that the ancient Baldwin was there for more than decoration. There were several pictures of Nigel Letters, in topcoat and tails, his dark hair slicked back from his regal forehead, with his fingers at the keys. In one, his eyes were closed, and I could imagine the music swelling around him.

I plopped myself down on the piano bench and laboriously pecked out “Chopsticks.” The acoustics in the room were good. My playing was not. I gently lowered the fallboard to cover the ivory keys to protect them from the harsh sunlight streaming through the window, and continued my exploration, Rex still following along at my heels.

The two guest bedrooms were as different as night and day. Literally. One was decorated in whites and creams and the other in dark grays and black. I began to wonder what sort of mind would think up something like that. Nigel Letters was becoming more fascinating to me by the minute.

Beside the bathroom situated next to the black bedroom, I found the practical part of the house, a laundry room with massive washer and dryer and a water heater banded to the wall, a concession enforced by state law due to the unstable tectonic plates Southern California rested on. Here I found shelves and cupboards well stocked with cleaning supplies, all the unexciting items required to keep a house livable.

The furnace was here as well, a monstrous beast with cast-iron doors like jaws, huddled in the corner, obviously placed there when the house was first built. I wondered if it still worked, then decided it must, considering all the renters the house had entertained over the years.

I left the laundry/furnace room, stepped through the kitchen and dining areas, and entered the living room. It was huge, with varnished wooden beams spanning the ceiling and a fireplace on one wall that was big enough to land a plane in. The art deco furniture, well tended over the years, still looked new. I would later learn that the furniture had spent much of its time in storage since many renters preferred their own more modern pieces to lounge around in on a daily basis rather than this overstuffed and rather pretentious art deco stuff. Personally, I liked it. It suited the house.

It took me back to that bygone era when movie stars were lords and ladies, always regal—at least in their public lives—impeccably dressed every time they stepped foot outside their royal mansions, hair coiffed, makeup perfectly applied, graceful as swans. Movie stars today are just people. When Nigel Letters reigned, they were gods. Hollywood was Mount Olympus, not a Babel of overpriced shops and drug-infested nightclubs where actors and actresses can be seen frequently falling on their faces and making asses of themselves for the paparazzi. Of course, stars in the thirties did all the ridiculous and self- destructive things that stars of the present do, but there were publicity people back then to keep it quiet.

Stars were a commodity, well protected, their foibles shielded from the movie-going public, who expected nothing less than perfection from these twenty-foot titans they watched every Saturday on the giant movie screens. Today, reality has destroyed the dream that once was Hollywood. Everyone now knows that movie stars are nothing more than regular people. Regular people who oftentimes are not smart enough to realize how lucky they are. We might still be in awe of them, but they are no longer worshipped. Not by anyone with a lick of sense at any rate.

The artwork I found scattered around the house consisted mostly of Erté prints and some fairly well-done paintings in a Southwestern motif, most of which displayed cowpokes and Indians in various stages of undress. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Nigel Letters was more than a little enamored of the male body. Not that I minded. I have always been rather partial to it myself.

I had a few decent pieces of art of my own hanging on the walls of my condo back in LA, and I spotted places for each and every one of them here. I would have the paintings shipped up with my books and a few other personal items that I had come to love and did not intend to live without. Other than those few well-loved possessions, I would leave the house the way it was.

I knew I was indulging myself. I spent almost every waking hour sitting in front of my computer. What use did I have for a fifteen-room mansion? I could survive quite happily with a ream of paper, an electrical outlet, and a toilet. I supposed it was my love of movies that made this house so appealing to me. And, of course, the ghosts, if that was what they were. That was a definite draw.

I intended to pick Miss Caroline’s mind the first time I had her under my roof. There were secrets in this house she seemed to know something about. It suddenly seemed likely that she might be right when she said that my next book would be about this house. Ideas were creeping into my head already, and that was always a relief. After one book is finished and another yet to be started, I am always filled with the fear that my well of imagination will suddenly dry up, leaving me a basically unemployed and unemployable middle-aged male with no discernible talents other than writing. I probably couldn’t hold down a real job if my life depended on it. Writing is all I know or care about. Without it, I might as well follow in Nigel Letters’s footsteps and hang myself from that hook in the bedroom, although I can’t see myself doing it in heels and an evening gown or whacking off in the process.

I found Miss Caroline’s note on the mantle in the living room, right where she’d said it was. When I unfolded the note, a key fell to the floor. I picked it up and read the note. After offering her services as housekeeper, Miss Caroline had added a postscript explaining that the key was to the carriage house out back. Since the house was not built in the era of horse-drawn carriages, I assumed the term carriage house was just a euphemism for garage. Nigel Letters seemed like the sort of grand personage with an overly inflated ego who would call a garage a carriage house. And I had to admit, it sort of appealed to me too. Gay men can be pretty darn pretentious at times. Far be it from me to buck the trend.

Rex was snoring like a lumberjack on the living room floor, exhausted, I supposed, from all the excitement of moving, although he hadn’t lifted a single article, so I left him there and quietly left the house.

The veranda spanned the entire side of the house, from back to front. Adirondack chairs and lounges were placed at intervals along it as one might have seen on the deck of an ocean liner back in the days of the Titanic. They too, like everything else in the house, must have been taken out of storage and returned to their original positions. They had been recently restored with fresh coats of white paint. Miss Caroline’s husband’s work, I presumed, being handy as his wife had promised.

At the back of the veranda, toward the rear of the house, a small flight of steps led down to a flagstone walk that led directly to the carriage house.

There was no lawn to speak of. Keeping grass alive on this barren mountainside would have been more trouble than it was worth. Still the area along this side of the house was beautifully landscaped with cactus and jade plants, the only plants, presumably, that could thrive in such a dry environment. The sandy soil had been recently raked into circular patterns like those seen in Japanese gardens. Large stones rested here and there to break the monotony, making the area between the main house and the carriage house a pleasant place for quiet contemplation on a day when one didn’t have anything better to do. There was even a little stone bench tucked up against the side of the house, and I wondered if Nigel Letters ever sat out here pondering the demise of his movie career or perhaps deciding what dress to wear for that evening’s autoerotic asphyxiation party.

It must have been a lonely existence for someone who was used to the fawning attention he had reaped in his youth—to suddenly find himself aging and alone so far from the Hollywood that had once looked upon him as a god. Or did he have friends who made pilgrimages here, visiting him in his seclusion? Was the house once alive with the sound of cocktail parties and laughter? Was the Letters house like a teeny version of Hearst’s mansion in San Simeon, where stars of the day came to play far from the watchful eyes of the Hollywood press, where they could let themselves go without their antics finding their way onto the front page of the trade papers, where they could unleash their baser instincts and not have to worry about some studio mogul eating their contract in front of their faces for embarrassing the glorious institution of moviemaking?

Or did Nigel Letters relish this newfound solitude? It had been his decision, after all, to move here. He must have had a reason for turning his back on Hollywood, although by all accounts, it was Hollywood that first turned its back on him. Had he come here for the same reasons I had? For simple serenity and silence? Was this house he built the fortress he needed to sequester himself from a world that, in his eyes, seemed to no longer require his presence?

Was he happy here, or did he reside within these walls in sadness? It seemed of paramount importance to me that I learn the truth. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because I had followed many of the same paths he had taken so many years ago. I wondered, suddenly, whether I too would die inside this house. Preferably after many long years of residence, of course. I had no intention of doing it this week. After all, I had just invited friends up. It would be the epitome of rudeness to die before they got here. They had only just received their invitations, for God’s sake, and knowing them, they would be highly offended by such slipshod planning. In the gay world, everything has to be just so. Especially where a party is concerned. Death is no excuse. Yes, I definitely had to stay alive at least until my guests arrived. After that, I could politely drop dead if I felt the urge to do so.

I began to wonder if perhaps the next time I rolled down the mountainside and into town, a brain scan might not be in order, or had my thinking always taken such odd twists and turns?

I decided the latter was probably the case, so I pushed everything from my mind and slipped the key into the little door at the side of the carriage house.

It became quickly apparent that Miss Caroline, in her zealous cleaning, had not wandered this far south. The air inside the carriage house was heavy with must, the earthy stench of mushrooms in dank ground. Dead air. As if the building had not been opened to the outside for a very, very long time.

The place was as dark as the inside of a pyramid, and I groped around for a light switch, finally finding one on the wall beside the door. A ceiling light blinked on and dispelled the shadows, but it did nothing for the smell.

Except for a few dusty odds and ends and several packing crates arranged along one wall, the carriage house was empty.

There were no windows. The walls were red brick. All four of them. I stepped outside and walked around to the front of the carriage house, where I saw two sets of double doors, each entryway large enough to accommodate two vehicles. Four vehicles in all. Then I returned to the little side door, stepped inside, and once again studied those four unbroken brick walls. I went back outside, mumbling to myself, and tried one of the front doors. It wasn’t locked. When I pulled it open, I was faced with the same brick wall I had seen on the inside. The small door at the side was the only access to the building. Had Nigel Letters, for whatever reason, added the inside walls after the carriage house was built? I walked around three sides of the carriage house and counted two wide double doors in the front and four windows, two to each side. Only the side door I had entered through had not been bricked up.

The back of the building rested snugly against a sheer cliff wall that protruded straight up at the back of the property to a height of perhaps eighty feet. It gleamed red in the setting sunlight. Sandstone, I thought. It was a natural wall of rock, carved by nature, not by man.

I reentered the carriage house and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips and simply stared at those four brick walls. This was a mystery of mythic proportions. Had Nigel Letters been insane? Moving closer to one of the walls, I realized the masonry was not professionally done. It looked like a homemade job. Did Nigel stack and mortar these bricks himself? And if he did, what the hell was the purpose of it? I gave my head a little shake, walked out of the carriage house, flicking off the light as I went, and closed the door behind me. I couldn’t wait to hear what Miss Caroline had to say about this. I also intended to bring the matter up with the Realtor. I might get a few thousand dollars knocked off the price of the property. After all, if I intended to use the carriage house as a garage, I would need to remove the brick walls, and not being handy like Miss Caroline’s husband, I would have to pay someone to do it.

But those were side issues. My main question was why did Nigel Letters erect those walls in the first place? I sincerely hoped I would not go to my grave never learning the answer to that question.

As I climbed the back steps to the veranda, I heard Rex raising holy hell inside the house. He barked for a few moments, then let out an eerie howl that sent the hair bristling up the back of my neck. I ran to the front door and hurled myself inside. Down the hall, I saw Rex standing in the doorway to the music room. The fur was poking straight up along the ridge of his back. He took one look at me, then turned his gaze back into the music room. His lips rose, exposing every tooth in his head. A menacing growl emanated from his throat. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was trembling.

Trying not to wet myself, I peeked around the edge of the music room door and saw—nothing. The room was exactly as I had left it a few minutes earlier. I followed Rex’s gaze, trying to figure out what he was growling at. He seemed to be focused on the piano. Then I saw it.

The keyboard lid, which I had closed earlier, was pushed back against the front of the piano, the keys once again exposed.

As I stood there staring at the keys that now looked like teeth in the wide mouth of some weird wooden beast, I heard the clear tinkle of a single high note as a velvet hammer struck a string inside the piano. The note was pure and in tune. It seemed to echo through the house, then fade away to silence.

A chill swept through me as Rex plopped his ass down on the hallway floor and looked up to see what I was going to do. So I did what any intelligent person would do. I gently slid the leaded glass door to the music room closed and patted Rex on the head.

“Let’s forget that ever happened, shall we?” Did I detect a tremor in my voice? Hell yes, I did.

Rex thumped his tail on the floor a couple of times and pushed his muzzle into my hand, as if to say ignoring what had just happened sounded like an excellent idea to him.

I motioned for Rex to follow, and he obediently trailed along at my heels as I walked to the kitchen, pulled a Milk-Bone out of the box for him, and got a beer out of the fridge for me. We stood there, each in our separate ways—him chewing, me slurping up beer—soothing our jangled nerves. The beer was gone almost as quickly as the Milk-Bone.

I thought, fuck it, and repeated the whole process again. Another beer. Another Milk-Bone. This beer went down a little slower, although the Milk- Bone disappeared just as quickly as the first, and when the second beer was gone, I dropped into the red chair in the breakfast room with Rex at my feet and clicked on the computer.

I wrote until the sun went down and Rex coaxed me outside for a walk. After Rex relieved himself in the middle of the driveway and I cleaned up the mess with a handful of Kleenex, I returned to the computer and continued to write.

The next thing I knew it was morning, and I found myself with my head on the desk, slumped and drooling, with a stiff neck and a sore back and my face stuck to a sheet of paper. Rex was nowhere in sight. I discovered him in the living room, sacked out on the sofa, with his head tucked under a throw pillow as if to say, “If this house has any more surprises for me, I’d just rather not see them, thank you very much.”

Bleary-eyed and achy, with my hair doing God knows what on the top of my head, I just stared at him in disgust. He really was a most profound coward.

I plucked the paper from my cheek with an audible pop and headed for the shower, groaning all the way, dropping my clothes like litter along the hallway as I went. Naked, I peered into the music room through the open door as I passed. The piano was silent.

It wasn’t until later, while the hot shower massaged the aches from my body, that I realized the music room door should not have been open at all.

Buy link:

http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Mountain-John-Inman-ebook/dp/B00WZP73KI/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1433602083&sr=1-1&keywords=the+boys+on+the+mountain&pebp=1433602093928&perid=18PD4PE3ZHY1Q4S7X5EY