The Avenues were crazy with costumed kids tearing everywhere, parents yelling at them or waiting on the sidewalk while their little darlings threatened to trick if they didn’t get a treat. Lights shaped like orange and white striped candy corn, bats, cats and even eyeballs were strung from eaves, in porches and over windows. Vinyl blow-ups equipped with air pumps swayed on lawns: zombies, giant cats and spiders, black carriages, ghosts and a host more. And of course just about every house sported carved pumpkins; some were downright artistic.
“This is stupid,” I told Royal.
“Nonsense. Halloween isn’t just for children,” he replied with a smile.
I’d striped my silver-white hair with wash-out blue dye, used gray to ring my eyes and hollow my cheeks, and that was it. I wore a long, all-enveloping black cloak which hid my thick sweater, flannel-lined jeans and down-filled jacket. Most of the little trick-or-treaters looked fat with layers of clothes beneath their costumes. All of Royal’s suggestions for my costume fell in the sultry and half-naked category, but it was bitter out here.
Royal, who doesn’t feel the cold, was a highlander. His copper-gold hair hung loose on his shoulders and down his back. He wore a plaid kilt, sporran, argyle socks, sandals and nothing else except a kind of bandolier minus bullets across his naked chest, and he carried a saber. He’d painted half his face blue to look like woad.
A lot of smooth, bronzed, muscular Royal was on show. I would have been happier if he’d worn something less revealing. Women and teen girls leered at him and one woman even licked her lips in a very suggestive manner, until I caught her eye.
I’d have been happier if I didn’t carry two passengers. Although I couldn’t feel them, Mel and Jack clung to me as if velcroed on. They were thrilled to experience Halloween again after years of being stuck in my house. We did have an awkward moment when Jack accidentally lost hold of me. He could have tacked on to other folk until he caught up, but instead waited behind and grizzled like a baby. I was tempted to leave him, but being the compassionate woman I am, pretended I’d dropped my car keys and going back in search of them allowed him to attach to me again.
“Dale and I went as a horse one year,” Jack said.
“Oh, which end were you?” Mel asked.
“The rear. After that, every time we argued he called me a horse’s ass.”
“Argued a lot, did you?”
“You know what they say about making up,” Jack said with a smirk in his voice.
As always, ignoring them was difficult, but I didn’t want to spoil Royal’s evening by telling him my roommates had hitched a ride.
“Royal, we hardly ever argue,” I said.
His arm went over my shoulders and I felt his heat on the back of my neck. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
“But don’t couples argue a lot? Isn’t it part of being together?”
He smiled with a flash of white, even teeth. “Don’t look for problems when there are none.”
He was right, of course. We weren’t perfect but we were happy.
We were here―according to Royal―for the ambience, the fun and excitement of the holiday. I watched the kiddies toting loaded treat bags and wouldn’t have objected to some candy. If we’d stayed home and handed out treats to the kids, I could have filched some.
We paused outside a grand old house. Like many in The Avenues, it had deep eaves and cookie-cutter moldings around the windows and front door, and a long, wide porch. Heavy shutters covered the windows, the little front yard a tangle of rose bushes and long grass, and dead leaves littered the wood steps leading up to the door. Apart from neglect, the house appeared to be in good repair. An abandoned house in The Avenues, the “in” place to live here in Clarion, was unusual.
From out of the deeply shadowed porch, a pirate galloped down the steps and thrust his sword in Royal’s back.
“Eek!” Jack and Mel shrieked in unison.
As if the breath in my body turned to lead, I couldn’t breathe and struggled to pull air into my lungs. My arms jerked and hands shook as I waved at his torso.
“Tiff?” Royal went into a defensive half-crouch and looked around in alarm.
My breath returned with a whoosh. I stared at the pirate. The pirate, naturally, was a Captain Jack Sparrow look alike, except as well as the sword he held, another sword stuck through his chest.
He stared back at me. “Oh, shit,” he exclaimed, and tore back up the stairs, taking his sword with him.
Fuck. One of them.
“Wait!” I yelled and ran up the stairs after him.
“What are you doing?” Royal called from behind me.
I half turned and almost stumbled. “Wait there, Royal. I won’t be long.”
But he came after me. “You can’t go in there, Tiff.”
I stopped and teetered on the step. “It’s one of them, babe. I’ll be right back. Promise.”
He briefly closed his eyes, opened them as he threw out his hands. He knows I like to be alone when I talk to a shade. “Can’t we go anywhere. . . ,” he began, then let his hands fall as if in defeat. “Just be careful in there.”
I nodded jerkily and continued up to the porch. To my surprise, the doorknob turned and with a shove the door opened. It creaked.
I stood in a hall of wood floors and paneled walls. Streetlight from outside made a narrow trail over the floor. No tracks marred the slightly dusty boards, so no living person had been here for some time. I looked over my shoulder at the street and Royal standing in the front yard.
Jack and Mel had been babbling since the pirate stabbed Royal. I’d tuned them out, but now their voices hammered in my ears. “Shut up!” I growled.
Jack gulped. They shut up.
I took another step, and stopped as a memory hit me. “I got it! Fourteen years ago on Halloween. The guy was an actor, worked for a local production company. His teen nephew killed him. He was stoned and thought the sword was a prop.” This must be the house.
“Oh, yes, that was so sad,” Mel sighed.
What was his name? Tom? Terry? Theodore! Yes, Theo Granger.
“Theo?” I softly called as I continued on to what appeared to be a large reception room. “I know you can hear me. Come talk to me. I can’t hurt you.”
Then I remembered I couldn’t help him, either. His nephew was alive after serving time in a maximum security juvenile facility, now free but living in another state. If his nephew grew into old age and died a natural death, Theo would have to wait a long time to pass over to wherever shades of the dead go.
With the windows covered, I’d be in the dark once I moved farther into the house, and I didn’t have a flashlight.
“Damn,” I muttered, swiping at a nearby light switch in frustration.
The lights came on.
Well I’ll be damned. The owners hadn’t had the electricity turned off? But they left here fourteen years ago. I’m not a person who looks a gift horse in the mouth, but this made me suspicious. No doubt I was overreacting; perhaps the place was an unadvertised sale and the realtor kept the electricity on so he could show the property to prospective buyers.
“Hey,” I said quietly, knowing the shade could hear me wherever he was. “Come out and talk to me.”
Jack stepped toward a big staircase curving to the next floor. And kept on stepping.
My eyes widened in surprise. “Jack, you can move around in here.” Normally, they’re only able to move around in my house, which is why they have to hitch rides with me or unsuspecting people when they leave it. I twisted my head to eye Mel, who still clung to my right shoulder. “Can you, Mel?”
She released me and took a tentative step. “Hey, I can!”
“Good. You can help me look for him.”
“Is this a case, an investigation,” Jack gabbled, excited.
“Then we’re you’re assistant investigators!” Mel sounded delighted.
I rolled my eyes. “Call yourselves anything you like, just help me find the asshole.”
“We get paid, right?” from Jack.
“Sure.” I’d think of some way to “pay” them later. “Mel, you take upstairs. Jack, check out the basement.”
“I’m not going down there!”
“You baby.” Mel tossed her head. “I’ll go. You look upstairs.”
It was a big house. This would take some time if the shade tried to elude me, but if Jack or Mel spotted him, they could stay on his tail, or, hopefully, corner him. That he knew shades could move farther than the place of their death was unlikely; he’d think they’d trapped him.
Jack went up the staircase, for all the world looking like a living person. He even made a disgusted noise when his hand touched―appeared to touch―the cobwebbed banister. Mel disappeared through a door beneath the staircase, literally through the closed door.
I headed for an arched opening on my left,
I kept talking. Sometimes, talking to the deceased comforts them, knowing they’re not entirely alone, unseen, unheard.
I went through the ground floor, switching on the lights in each room. Another reception room, what might be a dining room, a library with bare, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, three more smaller rooms, a big kitchen, the appliances gone; a walk-in pantry, another little room with sink and counters, a laundry room, and a glass-walled conservatory in the rear. No furniture or decorative items left behind when Theo’s wife and kids moved away. Did they still owned it? Perhaps the wife thought nobody would want to purchase a house in which a murder occurred, or although she didn’t want to live here, couldn’t let go of a place which held good memories as well as bad. Maybe it took her this long to make the decision to sell.
Mel came back upstairs and joined me. “Nothing down there.”
“Let’s head upstairs and find Jack.” I slowly climbed the stairs, keeping my hands away from the dusty banister and cobwebs, talking to Theo the whole time, encouraging him to come to me.
“Jack!” I called when Mel and I reached the landing.
“Up here,” Jack’s voice came faintly. “In the attic.”
An attic. Oh, great. I loathe attics. “We’ll go through the bedrooms first,” I called back.
The place was huge. The landing spanned the front and east side of the house. I counted six big bedrooms, two with en suite bathrooms, two separate communal bathrooms, a big linen closet, and a room which from the jacks in the wall had been used as an office. The last door, at the end of the landing, opened to reveal a narrow, uncarpeted staircase.
Jack waited in the open doorway at the top. I flicked the light switch but nothing happened. The single bulb must have burned out. But the attic windows were not covered so a little street- and moonlight gave minimal illumination, although the edges of the room were dark. I looked past Jack at the bare space which covered the entire house and thanked the saints no rocking horse creaked inside―every scary movie which involves an attic has a rocking horse, right?
I put hands to hips. “Where is he?”
“Hiding from us in a house this size is easy,” Jack said.
“Why are we doing this, anyway,” said Mel. “Why can’t you sense where he is?”
Right then it struck me: I didn’t feel him. I felt a presence, all right, or presences. I thought I understood the problem. “I can sense a shade, but not always exactly where he or she or they are in a building. And with you here, I don’t know if I’m sensing him or you.”
“Bummer,” from Mel.
We’d been in the house for half an hour and Royal still waited outside. I imagined a score of lustful woman surrounding him by now. “Let’s get out of here. Maybe I’ll come back later.” After all, it’s not as if Theo could hurt anyone, or even scare them since only I could see him.
I was trying to do him a favor and felt miffed he hid from me.
Downstairs, a door slammed. I jumped a little.
“What was that?” Jack asked.
“Must be Royal, coming to find me.”
I started down the stairs with Mel and Jack following. As I came back to the landing, I heard footsteps, slow and heavy, and thought I heard a groan. I froze in the doorway.
“Is that Royal,” Mel whispered. Of course she and Jack always whisper, but a real whisper sounds different, lower and kind of hoarse.
A louder groan ground up from below. Oh my god, was Royal hurt?
“I’ll go look,” Jack said, and shot along the landing.
He skidded to a halt and stood there, immobile, for a second of two, then shot back. “Tiff, get out of here! Now!”
“What?” Instead of heeding him, I stepped to the banister and leaned over.
Someone―something―slowly clomped up the stairs. It raised its head and moaned at me.
I backed from the banister so fast, my spine hit the wall.
It was a big man. His face was gaunt and an unearthly gray, with tiny cuts and abrasions on his skin. Dark, sagging flesh surrounded his eyes and they were black. Half his hair was gone―I could see patches of scalp―and what remained looked dry, black and lifeless as his eyes. Beneath what remained of a blue T-shirt shirt, patches of skin were missing from his arms and chest, and what oozed from the wounds looked black and oily. His jeans hung in tatters and his feet were bare and dirty.
Another couple of clomps. I edged back to the banister and peered over. The man moaned again, and something which looked like liquid tar dribbled from the corners of his mouth.
“Upstairs!” Jack yelled in his whispering voice.
I couldn’t think straight. I back-stepped along the landing, turned, and tore up the steps to the attic. I slammed the door.
“He’s a zombie!” Jack’s shoulders were tight as he stood over by the slanting ceiling.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snorted.
“Then what’s that coming up the stairs,” Mel quavered.
A thump made the door judder.
“We’re trapped,” from Jack.
No, I was trapped. Nothing could hurt Jack and Mel. I flinched as the door juddered again.
Then the wood cracked.
The door came apart in jagged sections and the zombie stepped through. It came for me in typical zombie fashion, slowly, heavily, with arms outstretched and fingers curved into claws.
I put my back to the far wall and whispered, “This isn’t funny.”
Jack scuttled to a window and looked out. “My god, there are hundreds out there!”
The zombie apocalypse? It was real and had happened here in little old Clarion? I didn’t believe it.
“Royal,” I yelled. “I need you!”
Still moaning, the thing came on. It was only a few feet away. I didn’t know what to do except hit him. If he were some guy having fun at my expense, I’d hurt an innocent man. If it was a psycho, using a Halloween getup as a disguise to fool and get close to a victim, taking him down was my only defense.
Two feet away, near enough I had a good look at his face, the zombie bent over, held onto his knees and laughed so hard he almost lost his balance.
I wanted to sock him alongside the head, but instead shoved his shoulder. He fell over and landed on his butt, still laughing so hard, tears of mirth made streaks in his makeup.
I was so angry.
Jack’s shoulders shook so I knew he was laughing. Mel, finally getting the joke, joined in.
I stood over Royal, arms folded, fuming, and figured it out.
There were no footprints in the dust because the “pirate” was never in here. He was on the porch the whole time, waiting for me, and slipped around the side of the house when Royal spoke and distracted me. I didn’t sense his presence because he wasn’t dead. The cobwebs were artificial, the house only slightly dusty because it hadn’t been empty long. The power company hadn’t yet turned off the electricity.
And, finally, this was Garden Avenue. Theodore Granger and his family had lived on Wellington.
When Royal’s chortles died down, and I cooled down a fraction, I said, “Okay, how did you do it?”
Royal, in all his gore, looked up as he wiped his eyes. “I hid the clothes and makeup under my kilt.” He pulled off the wig to let his glorious copper-gold hair tumble free. “I changed and put on the makeup when you came in here.”
“I saw him doing it,” Jack chimed in.
So that’s why he looked out of the attic and pretended to see a street overrun with zombies. I glared at Jack, a silent we’ll talk about this later look.
“It just went back on the market after being empty for a couple of years. I know the realtor and he helped me out by taking down the for-sale sign and loaning me the front door key. I came in this morning with the artificial cobwebs and blew a little dust around to cover my footprints. ”
“Tom Murphy and his trick saber.”
“You tricky bastard,” Jack said admiringly.
“Officer Tom Murphy? And the door?” I nodded at the attic door with my chin.
“Ah, that.” Royal made a face. “I got carried away. I’ll get it replaced tomorrow morning before I return the key.”
“Suppose I brought a gun along? Did you think of that, mister smart ass?”
“I did, which is why I switched out your ammo for blanks.”
“And I bet you wanted me in the skintight, sparkly cat suit so I couldn’t carry a gun.”
He got to his feet. “No, Sweetheart. I wanted you in the cat suit so I could see every inch of your beautiful body.”
He put his hands on my waist, and I let him. “Every inch of your sexy, seductive body.”
I smiled as my anger faded beneath the regard of his smoky, heavy-lidded eyes. You can’t stay mad when your lover looks at you like that and his hands stroke your flanks, sending tingles through your body.
And there was always next Halloween. But why wait for my revenge that long, when April Fool’s Day was six months closer?
“Um, Jack,” Mel said. “We need to get out of here.”
“Yes, I see,” from Jack.
“You know what, Royal?” I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. “This is the best Halloween. Ever.”
And that’s how I came to in be a spooky old house, kissing a zombie on Halloween night.
We went downstairs hand in hand. Jack and Mel latched onto me as we approached the front door. We stepped outside, Royal produced a key and locked the door.
“Hey,” someone said.
A man stood at the bottom of the steps. He didn’t look at all like Johnny Depp but the eye patch and fluffy toy parrot taped to his shoulder made him a poor excuse for a pirate.
“Sorry I’m late,” said Officer Tom Murphy, “but I see you went ahead without me. How did that work out for you?”
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