By Douglas James Troxell
The mansion sat atop the hill like a regal castle, but its broken shutters and missing shingles spoke of a kingdom long forgotten. A shadow of a woman, thin and frail, stood on the wraparound porch staring out at nothing in particular. An old Lincoln idled in the roundabout within the confines of the rusted gate. Tim Rafferty sat stuffed behind the wheel sweating profusely even though a cool breeze blew through the open windows. He popped a Tums and swallowed hard, his eyes watering. He started hacking and tried to spit out the window but the spit caught on his lip and rolled down the side of the car.
Teagan Ross edged to the far side of the passenger seat. “What a peach you are, Rafferty.”
Rafferty wiped his nose with his suit sleeve. “You see her up there?”
“Yeah. She’s there.”
“So…whaddaya think? I can’t sell this place until she agrees to vacate.” He dropped a ring of keys into Teagan’s lap. “This dump is sitting on some prime real estate.”
“Yeah, yeah. I understand. I’ll see what I can do.”
Teagan watched the woman stagger from one side of the porch to the other. She stared out into the nothingness with a blank look. Her ratty hair sat in a nest atop her head, a single white streak running through her grey bramble. He imagined she had been beautiful once.
That was more than he could say about Rafferty who looked like he was born fat and ugly. “Remember, I get paid whether she leaves or not. There’s no guarantees.”
“You made that very clear. I’m just—I’m out of options. This bitch will—not—leave. I need her gone.”
“Don’t call her that.”
Teagan paused to allow Rafferty to figure it out on his own. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, he continued. “A bitch. Don’t call her that. She’s just confused. This is probably the only home she’s ever known, and you want to throw her out like a bag of garbage to make a buck. Don’t pretend we’re not the assholes here.”
“All right, all right. Calm down. I’m an asshole, ‘kay? Just get her out.”
Teagan abandoned the Lincoln and slammed the door shut as hard as he could. Rafferty answered the gesture by peeling out in a cloud of blue smoke, leaving Teagan stranded.
“Great,” Teagan said. “That sack of shit was my ride.”
He straightened his cheap suit and ascended the broken concrete staircase leading to the mansion. The frail woman on the porch didn’t acknowledge his approach. Teagan was used to being ignored. He conquered the crumbling staircase and walked to the woman’s side. He stood next to her for a while and stared off into the distance with her.
He sighed and moved closer to her. “Mrs. Phyllis Delacroix? Is that your name?”
Mrs. Delacroix didn’t respond.
“My name is Teagan Ross. I’m here to talk to you about your home.”
Again, no response.
“This can’t be put off any longer, Mrs. Delacroix. It’s time.” He paused for a response but got none. He pulled out a lighter and produced a small flame. “Phyllis, I’m here to burn the house down.”
She turned slowly toward him, her face still wearing the same expression of indifference. “No,” she said. Her voice cracked and struggled for its very existence as if she hadn’t used it in a very long time. “You can’t do that. I live here. I’ve always lived here…”
He put his lighter away. “Sorry. I didn’t want to have to resort to threats. I’m not going to burn your house down. I just needed you to listen. Are you listening?”
She finally looked at him directly. There was a brief moment of recognition that dawned on her face but it quickly faded.
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” he asked again.
Eventually she nodded.
“It’s time for you to go. You no longer own the house. Somebody else does.”
She turned away from him and went back to looking out toward the horizon.
“Is there a reason you won’t leave? Something that’s keeping you here?”
Her face softened. “My husband. He—he died here. We lived here together for 62 years and then he died. Everything we had together was right here. I couldn’t abandon him. Too many memories…”
Teagan nodded. This was all routine for him, but he had to remind himself the emotions were anything but routine for the individuals being evicted. This was decades of memories for Mrs. Delacroix. He tried to be respectful of that.
“What if I told you I could help? Would you consider leaving if the issue with your husband was resolved?”
She sighed heavily and looked out toward the horizon.
“This is probably the only opportunity you’re going to get. You’re lucky it’s me and not a bulldozer on your lawn. So this is it. Do you want my help or not?”
“I can’t leave without my husband.”
“Yes. Fine. Your husband. That’s why I’m here. Now if you would, I do have other appointments…”
He ushered her toward the house. She smiled sadly and walked to the closed front door. Then she walked through it. Teagan pulled the keys Rafferty had given him earlier and rifled through them until he found the front door key. Then he unlocked the door and entered.
The foyer of the mansion was classic Victorian with a double winding staircase leading to the second floor. A three-tiered chandelier, covered in cobwebs, hung overhead. Faded water colors of farm landscapes lined the walls. The house was fully furnished with antique furniture that would probably auction for as much as most homes.
Mrs. Delacroix was nowhere in sight so he called for her until she faded back into view.
“Take me to your husband,” he said.
She looked around and then her eyes settled on the floor. “I—I don’t know where he is. That’s the problem. I can feel him, but I can never seem to find him. He’s been quite ornery as of late.”
Teagan understood perfectly. Specters often existed on different layers of the astral plain. Some existed on the surface and were easily summoned and others were buried so deep they needed to be pulled through the layers in order to be contacted. Often specters residing in the same physical location weren’t even aware of each other.
“Where do you feel his presence most intensely?” Teagan asked.
Mrs. Delacroix faded out of sight. Teagan placed his back to the nearest wall and scanned the foyer. Specters weren’t very good at cooperating with the living so he’d have to be on his toes or else he’d lose her and the chances of summoning her again were slim. Specters trapped in their homes tended to be centralized in a particular room or part of the house. Usually this meant a preferred room like a bedroom or a den. Teagan assumed Mrs. Delacroix would be heading for the stairs, but he caught the last glimpse of her dress trailing out of the foyer into the dining room.
She surprised him further by passing through the dining room into the kitchen. He bumped into the huge oak dining table (remembering he couldn’t go through it) and followed. The kitchen was small and crowded. Most of the room was dominated by an ancient cast iron stove. Mrs. Delacroix led him through the kitchen and down the stairway leading to the servants’ quarters.
“Interesting,” Teagan said as he entered the narrow passage.
The servants’ quarters were pitch black and smelled of mildew. Teagan pulled a flashlight he had on his keychain and used it to light the way. He made certain not to shine it directly at Mrs. Delacroix as the light would kill the specter trail. Teagan followed her into a servant living quarters. It was a tiny room sparsely furnished with two metal bed frames and a large chest of drawers. Mrs. Delacroix was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d you go?”
He spotted a quarter-sized hole in the wall in the middle of an outline where a framed picture once hung. He found the broken frame on the floor but the painting or picture was long gone. He pulled the chest of drawers out and found a trap door that led into the wall. Teagan unlatched the door and crawled into the passage. It was a servants’ passage. Many old mansions had them to allow servants to move freely through the house without being seen by the aristocrats who lived upstairs. The passage was just wide enough for Teagan to walk with about six inches on either side and about a foot overhead.
He spotted Mrs. Delacroix moving through the passage ahead. She turned to the right and then took a left at a three-way intersection. That passage led to a heavy metal door at a dead end. Teagan pushed open the metal door, which led out to the garden but he immediately knew he had made a wrong turn. The feeling, the aura was all wrong and Mrs. Delacroix was nowhere to be seen.
He closed the door and returned to the darkness. He felt Mrs. Delacroix’s presence immediately, calling to him. The passage ended in a brick wall but upon closer inspection, the bricks were different from the rest of the passage. He pushed on the bricks and found they weren’t cemented into place. They were just piled to create the illusion of a wall. Moving his flashlight to the ceiling he found that the bricks didn’t even go all the way up. He pushed on the bricks expecting them to topple over, but they stood firm. He lowered his shoulder into the stack of bricks but only succeeded in bruising his arm. In frustration he kicked at the bricks and finally succeeded in jarring one loose from the tower. Then he kicked three more free. The entire tower swayed backward and then came surging forward. Teagan just managed to leap back out of the way as the tower came toppling over.
He stepped over the bricks and onto a wooden staircase that seemed to spiral up one of the house’s towers. The stairs creaked and groaned, protesting under Teagan’s weight. Mrs. Delacroix wasn’t visible but he knew she had been that way. He could feel her presence and another, more powerful presence that lingered nearby. It pulsed with anger.
One of the steps cracked and gave way, nearly sending him falling flat onto his face. He managed to catch himself and stumble safely up the stairs. A metal door separated Teagan from the room at the top of the tower. The door hung open a crack with a broken metal padlock hanging from its latch.
“Hello?” Teagan called through the crack. He didn’t expect to get an answer, but the silence was unsettling.
He pushed open the door on its rusty hinges. The single window in the room had been boarded up so only slivers of light penetrated the small space. Teagan’s flashlight passed over the walls. There were women’s dresses nailed onto the wall like dolls’ clothes, some with large, rust-colored stains on them. The opposite wall had several clumps of hair nailed to a wooden board. Most had grayed over time, but there were still hints of blonde, brunette, and reddish tints in some. He accidentally dropped the flashlight and illuminated the floor, which was covered in black and white photographs. Teagan knelt down and shuffled through the photos. Each one was of a different young woman, blindfolded and gagged and tied to a bed. He recognized several of the dresses from the wall.
Mrs. Delacroix appeared at his side.
“I didn’t know if you’d come,” she said. “This is where I feel my Herbert the most strongly, but I—I can’t seem to find him…”
Teagan tossed the pictures face-down on the floor. “What kind of man was your husband?”
A sad smile crept across her face. “He’s a quiet man. Dignified. Never raised a hand to me or any of the servants. Such a kind man…”
Teagan glanced over at the scalps on the wall. “It’s all about perspective, I guess. And this is really where you feel him the most strongly?”
“Ok. Well this is gonna cost that bastard, Rafferty, extra.”
Teagan pulled out his canteen of salt and dumped a perfect circle on the floor. Then he carved a pentagram into the wood with his sacred knife. He blew on his hands and pressed them to the floor. He chanted the words his grandmother (who also had The Gift) taught him so many years ago. A soft white light rose from the circle. Teagan’s hands slowly drifted down into the light. Mrs. Delacroix sidled up next to him. He continued to chant.
“I’m close,” Teagan whispered.
“Oh, I’m going to see my Herbert again. After all this time…”
Teagan’s hands sunk deeper. The light grew brighter. Then his eyes snapped open.
“Mrs. Delacroix, this is not your husband.”
"Oh no. What is it?"
And Teagan was sucked down into the light.