Dan Westin yawned and stretched out his feet towards the fireplace. Pandiculation, he thought with a smile. It had been a word in the crossword puzzle this morning. It was hard to believe that there were nights that were cold enough in Southern California to warrant a fire, but tonight was definitely one of them. Of course, October was in full swing outside and very soon little ghosts and goblins would be knocking on their door.
A rustle caught his attention and he glanced over at the doorway. Kate stood there holding a tray. The background light made her nightgown transparent, almost invisible.
"See anything you like?" she asked, a smile on her lips.
"I would have a hard time finding something I didn't."
She walked up and offered him one of the two glasses she carried. "Drink, sailor?"
He sipped at the amber liquor. "Grand Marnier? What does a guy like me have to pay for a drink like this?"
She wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him, tasting him, totally absorbed in her love for him.
“Mm, you taste orange,” she mumbled.
“You taste good,” Dan countered, setting his drink aside and pulling her down onto his lap.
“Oh, that’s some lump you got there, Mister. Should I get some ice to take the swelling down?” she murmured as she kissed him.
The sound of sudden loud pounding surprised her and she jumped, drawing a grunt and wince from her husband. She would have apologized, but a second pounding, this one more insistent than the other, prevented it
"I’d better see who's there before we don't have any front door left. It's a little late for soliciting, isn't it?" Kate reached for her flannel robe and wrapped it around herself.
"Later than they think." Dan stood and stalked towards the hall, his good mood of moments ago gone like a puff of smoke.
"Ah, Dan,” Kate’s voice stopped him. "Your face." She pointed down to a table that held a remarkably lifelike mask.
“Wouldn't that be a kick in the ass? Bet he wouldn’t come knocking on our door a second time." He retrieved it, pulling it on as he walked. He tucked the edge beneath his turtleneck and settled the wig into place. "Better?"
"Much." Kate sipped her liquor.
Westin trotted to the door, ready to let go with a long, colorful stream of curses. He tugged it open and was nearly knocked over by someone. No, he corrected himself. Someones.
There was an inward rush and he immediately was on his guard. His line of work forced him to be that way. He'd already been kidnapped once by foreign powers for his invisibility machine, and he'd be damned if they'd do it a second time. Then someone embraced him and sobbed in his ear.
Kate switched on the hall light and Dan saw that his attacker was actually an old school friend of Kate's, Fran Laughlin. They'd known Fran and her husband, Tony, for a long time; they’d even done some double dating in college. Yet, as it was with many friendships, he and Kate had gone one way, the Laughlins another. They saw each other now and then, mostly by accident, always swearing they'd get together soon and never quite managing it.
Although this sudden nocturnal visit surprised him, he was more shocked by the fact that Fran, Tony, and even their two kids, also in tow, were all wearing pajamas. None of this was making any sense to the scientist, but strange things seemed to just be part of his daily routine now.
Fran clung to Dan as if he were the only stable point in a universe gone crazy -‑ not a bad thing, but he was unsure where exactly to put his hands. Dan settled on her shoulders and looked over at Tony. The man seemed preoccupied with staring out at the dark December night.
"I'm sorry, Dan, Kate," Tony said finally, his voice trembling. "You were the only ones we could think of."
Dan cast a helpless glance over at his wife, who merely shrugged her shoulders. "I'll go make some coffee. I think that's what you're supposed to do at a time like this. Dan, why don't you take them into the study?"
He got them settled down on the couch, the children, buried in a blanket up to their necks, as if it were a barrier for some unseen force, huddled on one end. They sat quietly, staring into the fire. That hit Dan wrong. He’d known these kids since they were babies. They were usually energetic bundles of curiosity. He’d never seem them this quiet, especially considering all the antique toys he had lying around the place. It was almost as if they were in mild shock.
Tony and Fran sat close together on the other end of the couch, hands clasped, eyes worried, and apologetic. Like the children, they looked directly at the fire. Finally, Dan could stand it no longer and went to Tony. He grasped the man's chin and turned Tony’s face towards him, studying it hard. While it was true the 'doctor' before his name wasn't in the medical sense, he still had had a good deal of training in the area.
Tony Laughlin was a big man, nearly a head taller than Dan and twice his weight, but he took this intervention calmly, waiting until the scientist released him before speaking.
“I'm sorry, Dan," he murmured again. Still there was no hint of an explanation.
Kate brought in coffee and served it, appearing not to notice how her friend’s hand shook and rattled her cup against the saucer.
"You already said that, Tony." Dan took a swallow of coffee and then smiled. "You haven't volunteered much more."
"I don't know how to without sounding like a lunatic, an idiot, or just a plain coward."
"Tony," Kate spoke up, softly but with conviction. "You drove nearly fifty miles in your pajamas to get here. I've known you both for years and I could hardly accuse you of any cowardly behavior."
"It's...our house. It's..." He stopped and ran a hand through his disarranged brown hair. For a bad moment, Dan thought he was going to cry, so he stepped in.
"What about it? Did it burn? Were you robbed? Termites?"
"Nothing that tangible, I’m afraid."
"Tangible? Tony, are you trying to say that your house is haunted?" For the sake of their mental state, Kate kept all disbelief out of her voice.
"Yes," whispered Fran, huddling closer to her husband. "And we don't know why. It just happened."
“Maybe, Fran, you and I better get these guys into bed first," Kate suggested as little heads turned fearfully towards their parents.
"Good idea, Kate. They've been through enough tonight." Tony squeezed his wife's hand. “And they don’t need to hear what I have to say,” he whispered.
Dan and Tony waited in silence for the women to return. Dan sensed that the man was trying to collect himself and his thoughts, so he didn't push. He was certain that the story would come out in time and he had plenty of that.
Kate ushered Fran back into the room and came to sit beside Dan. "So, tell us about your ghost."
"Plural. There are several. It started when we saw someone looking through one of our windows. We'd had a Peeping Tom in the area, so I went out to dispense with him. Only, when I got there, no one was around."
"I wouldn't be hanging about either. Voyeurism has its dangerous points." Dan hid his smile behind his coffee cup.
"The thing was, Danny, the window is on the second floor."
“What? Did you replace the glass?"
"Three times, but it keeps coming back. It was where it happened.”
“It?” Dan and Kate exchanged glances.
“I’m sorry.” Tony took a deep breath. “I need to go back a few decades. The house is old, really old. It was originally built by a cattle baron, Stan Vanderstock. He made his fortune running cattle and ruining people’s lives. He wasn’t very pretty about it. All that mattered to him was money and Elsa.”
“His second wife. His first wife died back East and that’s when Vanderstock headed west.” Fran picked up a cookie and studied it. “He had fortune and fame; what he didn’t have was a family. He married Elsa and she, in time, gave him fourteen children.”
“Fourteen? There‘s a houseful for you.”
“Miraculously, all but two of them survived their childhood. He doted upon them, but as is often the case with overindulgence, it ultimately led to their downfall. The four oldest boys died from alcohol or drug abuse, the oldest girl went crazy when her lover abandoned her at the altar, and so on.
“Then Vanderstock caught a man in the house and killed him, threw him out of a second story window. Vanderstock thought the man was Elsa’s lover, but he was merely a workman whom she’d hired to repair a door.”
“And you bought this house why?” Kate asked, scooting a bit closer to Danny.
“We didn’t know. It was cheap and we thought….” Fran laughed drily and picked at a spot on her pajama leg. “We thought…” Tony covered her hand with his.
“We both thought it was the answer to a dream. We’d long hoped to purchase something like this and turn it into a B&B. The placement was perfect, the asking price was next to nothing, and it was mostly furnished. When we walked through, we were amazed and we never thought once to ask why. Why… that one word would have saved us a mountain of heartaches.
“A few days later, Cassie came to me in the middle of the night and said a strange woman covered her up with a blanket. I sort of blew it off as a relocation reaction and let her sleep with us. Then the chair started to rock, things were moved when nobody was near them. Even the cats felt it. We have this room off the kitchen – a butler’s pantry. It has no windows so I thought it might be a good place to sleep during the day when they changed my shift at work. But, there was this stink coming from the closet in there. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it. It got so bad that I just abandoned it and went back upstairs.”
“We started doing some renovations and the workers kept complaining that their tools were being messed with and accusing the kids of it, completely ignoring the fact that the kids were both in school.” Tony ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “We just figured they were trying to jack up the price on us and blew them off.”
“One day while I was waiting for the kids, I decided to do a little research. When I mentioned our address to the research librarian, I swear she turned as white as a sheet. That’s when I found out about the nature of our new home. Everything sort of went downhill from there.”
"So, what happened?" Dan sat back and put an arm around Kate's shoulders. She tucked her feet beneath her and snuggled closer.
"About a week ago, Cassie started to complain that her sheets were being pulled off at night. We weren’t experiencing anything, so we put her to bed in our room. That’s when stuff got back in our room as well.” Fran's voice faltered and she looked away, shuddering.
“And?” Dan prompted.
“Tonight, everything seemed to come to a head. The lights were going on and off, objects were flying, the kids were screaming. I went downstairs and the stink from that room was in the kitchen. I opened the closet, determined to find out what it was and there was a guy there…” Tony looked at his wife. “He’d been dead a really long time, Dan. We couldn’t take it anymore. So, we just climbed into the car and left. We didn’t know where else to go. I’m sorry."
“Nonsense,” Kate scoffed. “That’s what friends are for. You can stay in our guest room.”
"Think I would have done exactly what you did." Dan rose and walked to a liquor cabinet, pouring a generous amount of brandy in to two glasses. "But, Tony, I’m a scientist and I don't believe in ghosts."
"That's why we came to you, Dan. You've got one of the most scientific minds I know." He took a glass but didn't drink. He just stared at it.
"Under any other circumstances, I'd thank you. Have you explored all the obvious possibilities? Like motivation? Is there someone who would want to frighten you?"
"For what?" The dark head came up. "The place has been empty for fifteen years. The bank was about a month away from razing the house and selling off the land. Anyone who wanted to search certainly could have by now. We just wanted to have this one dream come true. We hoped to quit our jobs and do something we were both passionate about. Who would be doing this to us, Dan?"
"I don't know. I'd better sleep on it and you two should try to get some rest as well. Take your glasses with you."
"Dan, how can we thank you?"
"Haven't done anything yet. Just get some sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.”
Dan lay in bed, his mind too preoccupied for sleep to come, his body too uncomfortable to immediately drop off. For the sake of their house guests, he'd kept his mask and gloves on. It was akin to someone sleeping in their coat and boots. He just hoped that if he had to get up during the night with his guests, they wouldn't notice that he didn't have any feet. He wiggled his toes beneath the covers and smiled.
Kate glanced over. "Something wrong?"
"Yes, I was making a mental note to ask Nick if he'd make me some feet. It might be handy if your folks come for Christmas. I could see you trying to explain to them my quirk always wearing socks."
"Well, I've managed to explain all your other little quirks." She cuddled close, slipping a hand beneath his pajama top to caress the warm skin and stroke his chest hair.
"What are we going to do about Tony and Fran, Danny?"
"Better worry about me first." He rolled over, taking her with him.
She giggled and then murmured, "Oh, help, help! Not that, not the..."
A knock interrupted her and Dan groaned softly. "Twice in one night. This has to be a record. I’m going to need that ice pack after all."
Kate smiled and rose, pulling her robe on as she walked to the bedroom door. She opened it to reveal Tony standing there, dry washing his hands. "Yes, Tony, what can I do for you?"
"Kate, I hate to bother you again. You've already been so gracious…"
"It's okay, Tony. What do you need?"
"Do you have any sleeping pills?"
"I don't think so. Dan?"
"No. Try some more brandy. That should help."
"Come on and I'll get it for you." Kate said. She started out the door, then winked at her husband over her shoulder. "Don't go away, sailor."
“Not a problem, I can’t exactly walk in this condition anyway,” he muttered as he watched her leave.
They were silent as they walked down the staircase to the study.
"Fran fell down the stairs, did you know that?" Tony said, abruptly.
"What? When?" Kate asked in surprise.
"About two months ago. She sprained her wrist badly, nearly broke it. The only thing that really saved her was that she had a hand on the banister. The doctor said she must have tripped," Tony mumbled. “One of Vanderstock’s children died in a fall down the stairs. He was arguing with his sister about something and she pushed him. Her own brother… she didn’t say a word until she was on her own deathbed.”
"And Fran told you she was pushed?"
"Yeah." Tony stopped and sighed. "Kate, why us? We've pinched pennies all our lives for an opportunity like this. The house isn’t not much, but it's all we have." Brandishing his arms, he sank down onto the sofa. "I'm so confused."
Kate picked up the decanter and walked to him, placing a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "Tony, Dan and I will help all that we can. We'll get to the bottom of this. Danny is very...resourceful."
“Better?” Dan asked as she entered the bedroom and climbed back into bed and into his arms.
“But more confused, to be honest. Tony was telling me about some other stuff, like Fran being pushed down the stairs… it’s almost…”
“Danny, doesn’t this all sound… well, familiar?”
“You, as well?” Danny laughed quietly. “I thought it was just me.”
“Not just you. This stuff is like just about every haunted house movie I’ve ever seen. Somehow, I’d always thought the real thing would be a bit more, I guess, creative?” She curled up against him and sighed. “I think there’s something beside the hereafter involved.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure between the two of us, we can come up with what they’re here after.”
Tony Laughlin unlocked the front door to his house and let it swing open. When it became apparent that he wasn't going to enter, Dan pushed by and entered ahead of him.
Nothing seemed out of place, sunlight streamed in through windows, dust specks danced within them. All was calm and seemingly the picture of tranquility.
"Do things only happen at night?" Dan took another step and looked up the stairwell. The top of it disappeared into the shadows.
"No, but usually it’s at dusk or after."
“Easier to hide stuff then,” Dan murmured more to himself than Tony. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder at him. "Well, it seems okay now. Are you coming?"
"It always is... until... it isn’t." He shuddered. "I'm such a coward, Dan. Maybe I should be waiting with the girls in the car."
"A man who crushes beer cans with one hand? I refuse to believe that you are a coward. It’s like getting back on a horse that’s thrown you. You just have to believe in yourself. Where is this room you were talking about?"
"It's off the kitchen." Reluctantly, the man entered, leaving the door wide open, apparently in case of a hasty exit. He led Dan to the kitchen and pointed.
"I was using it for a bedroom, but I kept having these nightmares. I was lost and searching everywhere for Frannie. Every time I got close to her, something or someone would take her away. I would wake up, out of my mind with panic. That's when I started noticing the smell that came out of the closet. There was nothing in it, but it stank to high heaven.”
“Maybe one of the cats dragged something dead in there and then forgot about it, the way cats do."
Tony shook his head. "I don't think so. It would come and go. I replaced the carpeting, scrubbed the walls… and it would come back just as strong. Then that guy showed up…"
Dan stepped into the room and looked around. The air was a little stale but otherwise seemed fine.
"You said it was the closet?" When no response came from his friend, Dan looked over his shoulder. Tony was gone. Sighing, Dan walked over to the only other door in the tiny room and yanked it open.
Dan Westin was a scientist. As such, he'd seem some pretty incredible and revolting sights, especially since his time as the KLAE Resource - high tech's ultimate company spy. Yet nothing he'd encountered to this point had prepared him for this.
Suspended from a hook hung an emaciated body. The decay was too far advanced to be sure as to its sex, age, or cause of death. The stink rolled from it in waves and Dan took an involuntary step back, covering his mouth as he gagged. Then the body turned its head and reached out to him.
Dan was still shaking as he sat beside in the car with Kate, while Tony and Fran sat quietly inside. He felt better now, though, still rather embarrassed about having lost his breakfast on the Laughlins’ hedge. It was a normal reaction to emotional shock, but that wasn't helping to console him much.
"You sure you didn't imagine it, Dan?" Kate held her husband's hand, aware of its coldness even through the thin plastic.
“I don't have that much imagination, Kate." He swallowed again and snorted, trying to clear the smell from his nose.
"It's real, then?"
"What I saw certainly looked real, but I'm still not convinced that a supernatural phenomenon is the answer." He took a deep breath. “There’s still something that isn’t sitting right with all of this, Kate.” He cupped her cheek. “Do you think you can manage houseguests for another evening?”
“Will you make it up to me?” She kissed him and smiled. “What do you want me to do?”
“Research. If as many terrible things happened in this house as Fran says, there should be lots of material to collaborate it.”
“I can go to the library and see what I can find.” She looked over her shoulder at the couple resolutely sitting in the back seat of the Westin car. “What about them?”
“I think it best if we proceed on our own for the time being. I advise giving them the keys to the car and let them grab some fresh air. I’m going to go back in, unobserved this time. I’ll meet you at the library.”
She kissed him again. “Be careful, Danny.”
“Hey, can’t haunt what you can’t see.”
Dan waited until the car had driven away and slipped around the back of the house. There, in the protection of the fence, he quickly stripped and carefully folded his clothes around his face mask and hands gloves. That accomplished, he set the bundle on a lounge chair and quickly walked back around.
He let the door swing open and he walked in. The first time he’d been cautious. Now, invisibility gave him protection and courage. Quickly he returned to the room off the kitchen. The door was shut.
Hmm, I didn’t remember doing that, he thought as he opened the door and stepped aside. The figure was still there and it reached out to where he’d been standing. Dan stood there for a minute and then the door swung shut. Very interesting, he thought, wrinkling his nose. Now that he was prepared for the smell, it wasn’t as bad.
He repeated the process a second and third time, always with the same result. It took him a few minutes, but he finally found a small nozzle that spritzed a fine mist of scent into the air as the closet door opened. The movement of the dummy intensified it, blowing it outward onto whoever was standing there.
Dan walked across the room and sat down on the bed, staring at the closed door.
I wonder what other things I can find, he thought as he walked from the room. He quickly mounted the stairs, pausing at the step where Fran said she’d been pushed. He carefully pulled the carpet up and smiled. There was a false bottom and Dan was willing to bet it operated by remote control. Someone coming down the stairs, possibly distraught and the step suddenly tips up -- Dan was willing to bet it felt a lot like being pushed by someone.
As he continued to investigate, his suspicions proved correct. These ghosts were more than misty cold spots in the hallway. They had flesh and blood hands guiding them. He studied the window and picked at the caulk with his fingernail. It was still fresh and Dan figured for every pane of glass the Laughlins replaced, someone came behind them and exchanged it for something else, maybe a one way mirror or something.
Dan went through the master suite and found slack monofilament wires attached to various spots on the bedding and several pieces dangling from the ceiling. With clothes on, they’d be undetected, but naked he could feel them against his skin. He followed one to the wall and smirked as it disappeared through a pin hole in the plaster.
He went through the children’s rooms, finding bits of monofilament attached to various items there as well. They all seemed to go down, so he followed them, only half surprised to see that they led to the closet in the butler’s pantry. Whatever was happening here, it seemed to center around this closet. He walked back out into the kitchen and rooted around until he found a flashlight.
He opened the door and easily eluded the reaching arms to step back inside the closet. Waiting until the door closed, he snapped on the flashlight. The figure hung slack and expectant.
“Sorry, old man, I didn’t mean to wear you out,” Dan muttered as he knelt and felt around. There was a small knob at the back of the closet and Dan turned it carefully and pushed, remembering to turn off the flashlight at the last minute.
Only darkness and silence greeted him. After several minutes, he clicked the flashlight on and shone the beam into the hole. As he expected, the closet had a crawl space. He let the light play over the small but sophisticated electronics that were crammed into the hole. At one end was a stool on wheels. Apparently, that’s where the guy in charge sat while orchestrating the evening’s haunting.
The bigger question was why? It was time to take a walk.
Kate Westin reached for the book and it moved a fraction of an inch beyond her reach. She tried again with a similar result. She looked around, but she was at an isolated small table towards the back of the library and away from prying eyes.
"Daniel, stop it." There was no response. "Dan?"
"You shouldn't read this garbage, Kate. Fireside Romance? Aren't I enough?"
"Funny guy. I thought you were on the prowl around the Laughlin house."
"I was, but I missed you. And I thought you were supposed to be researching."
“I’ve been trying, but apparently all the genealogy books are behind the research desk and the research librarian has been less than helpful. Since the Laughlins won’t be back for another hour, I had to find something to read.”
A chair pulled out as Dan sat. “Why? I thought their job was to find you books.”
“I don’t have a library card here and she said that the books I want to see are highly valuable and they can’t just be lent to any Tom, Dick or –“
“Or Kate. I’ll take care of it. Hang tight. Um, what does it look like?”
Kate sighed. “It’s red and it has Early California Genealogy in gold on its spine. You want the volume that has V in it.”
Kate smiled as she felt lips brush across her cheek and she returned to her romance.
A few minutes later, the book seemed to appear, as if by magic, on her table.
“How did you--?”
“Never mind, just read fast. I don’t know how long its absence will go undetected.”
Quickly, Kate opened the book and began to scan for the Vanderstock name. “This is really weird.”
“There is no Vanderstock listed. Nothing.”
“But I thought Fran said… whoops, heads up, here she comes.” The book disappeared under some newspapers, which seemed to mysteriously fall from the table and disappear into the stacks.
The research librarian, a peroxide bottle blonde, came marching up to Kate, a security officer in tow. “Where is it?”
“Where’s what exactly?” Kate was the picture of innocence as she looked around at the piles of books on the table. “I have several books here.”
“The very volume of early California Genealogy that you were making such a fuss about earlier has suddenly gone missing. I don’t know how you managed it, but I demand you hand it over.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have it.” Kate waved her hand. “Feel free to look for yourself. Maybe you misfiled it.”
The librarian practically snarled at her as she searched the table. “I know you have it.”
“Apparently I don’t, but I’d love to know why that particular volume is so important.” A thought occurred to Kate then and she added, “It isn’t as if the Vanderstocks are likely to be listed in it.”
Kate smiled back even as she sat at her kitchen table. “I thought she was going to explode at that very minute. I was sort of glad the security guard was there. Then when her assistant showed up and told her the book was still there… I’d like to think a few people became suspicious of her.”
“But why, Kate?” Fran sipped her coffee and toyed with the dessert. The two kids were outside, racing around the backyard with Dan hot on their heels.
“I am not really sure.” Kate laughed then. “I’m sure glad your kids like playing with mine.”
“You and Danny are naturals. When are you going to have one of your own? Surely you’ve got the money to afford them now.”
“Money, but not the time. We are both really involved with a project. It’s sort of life or death for us. Children will have to wait until afterwards.” Her expression grew wistful and then she laughed. “I went through all the books that I could get my hands on and there is no mention of the Vanderstocks or anything going on at your house. In fact, it was built by a man who passed it on to his son. The son and his wife lived in it their whole lives, only leaving when they became too ill to stay alone there. Through some snafu, they were sent to different nursing facilities and died shortly after, never knowing where the other one was sent. It was very sad.” Kate set her cup down as Dan came in.
His hair was mussed and he was breathing hard. He dropped into the seat beside her and kissed her. “You want exercise, just hang around with those two.”
“I was just telling Fran and Tony the history behind their house.”
“Or lack thereof.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “So, why the hijinks? Why try to force us from the house?”
“I found something while I was poking around. There is a crawlspace at the back of that closet.” Dan drained Kate’s cup and winked at her.
“What closet? Oh, you mean THAT closet. But how did you…?”
“It’s rigged, I’m guessing mostly to keep you from poking around. There were enough gizmos in there to haunt a place twice that size.”
“Gizmo? Is that a technical term, Doctor Westin?” Kate stood to retrieve the coffee pot.
“Sure, why not?” Dan held her cup up for a refill. “What I did find out is that the land your place is sitting on was recently rezoned to include the surrounding land.”
“Yes, but we’re focused on the house, Danny.” Fran apparently gave up trying to follow his train of thought.
“A local company isn’t, but it would like to get its hands on your land. However, your place wasn’t rezoned until after you purchased the property. Your house isn’t worth all that much, but the land… you two are sitting on a gold mine.”
“There would be good money in knocking your place down to build luxury apartments, although that’s just a guess.” Dan stood and walked out of the room, only to return a moment later. He dropped two magazines onto the table. One cover read, The Shadow on the House and Other Tales of Terror. There was a skull-faced specter looming at a man clutching a large iron ring. The second book had a man being pushed from a window by a wild-haired creature. “Look or sound familiar?”
“These look just like two of the stories we were told…”
“By that research librarian.” Kate snapped her fingers. “I knew she was up to something. She didn’t want me to have that book because she saw me come in with you and was worried that something might be up, I’ll bet.”
“So, now what do we do?” Tony looked to Fran and then back at Dan. “What can we do?”
“Spend another night in the house. Would you be willing to do that for me?”
The couple exchanged a look and then Tony nodded. "If we must," he said reluctantly.
“Kate and I will be there with you," Dan said encouragingly
"We will?" Dan's crushing her hand turned it to a "Of course, we will."
"Dan, I don't mean to question you, but I saw you tossing your cookies this morning. I know you're a scientist and all, but how do you propose to fight this thing? What gives you the edge?" Tony asked.
Dan glanced up from his hand. He was always nervous when about to expose his secret. “I have a condition. You've got to swear that what you're about to see will never go further than this room. Both of you ‑ no family, no friends, not even your kids," Dan said, firmly. “Especially not your kids. This is the sort of thing that would play out badly for them.”
"Of course. You have our word." Tony was puzzled, Fran, even more so. “Neither of us will say a word to anyone.”
Fran's cup clattered to the kitchen floor when Dan pulled his mask off his head.
"Oh, my God," Tony whispered in shock. "What are you?"
"A living example of too much enthusiasm for one scientist," Kate murmured drily.
"Thank you, Doctor Westin." The answer came from nowhere. "It's a shock, I know, and I think you understand why I need your complete cooperation with this."
"Think how I feel, waking up to an invisible man every morning. And my mother wonders why we don't have kids." Kate smiled at the couple. "Dan, take off the rest. You look so bizarre like that."
"Oh, sorry." He slipped off the gloves, his shirt, and lastly his pants.
Tony rose, his amazement replacing surprise and walked over to Dan, reaching out, feeling him. "You're real flesh and blood like the rest of us."
"Of course I am," Dan countered and then he cleared his throat as the man’s hand dropped too low. “That’s sort of private, Tony.”
Tony jumped back, his face stained crimson. "Oh, Dan, I'm sorry, I didn't…"
"That's okay. I just wish your hands were warmer."
"Sorry, too many shocks lately.” Tony sank back into his chair and looked over at his wife’s classmate. ““Kate, when did this happen?"
"About three years ago, just before our anniversary."
"Some gift," Fran murmured, staring into the direction she thought Dan stood.
"I thought so. I’m so lucky. Other wives get boring gifts, like jewelry or flowers. I get an invisible husband."
“Is it reversible?" Tony was dry washing his hands again.
"Not yet. We keep trying. In the meantime, we’re in hiding, if you know what I mean," Kate said.
"We?" Fran turned to her school friend. "You're not like that too, are you?"
"No, I wear the flesh in this family," Kate laughed.
"You sound like a stripper," Dan protested as he pulled out a chair to sit.
"Is this how you plan to help?" Tony watched the chair move, apparently under its own power.
"It is. I’m thinking this is the one thing they aren’t counting on tonight.”
"I think you’re right." Fran suddenly noticed her coffee was gone and the cup along with it. "Oh, Kate, your floor! I’m sorry! Let me have a sponge."
One floated to her in midair. "There you go." Fran hesitated and then took it. ”It’s okay, Fran. I’m still the same man you’ve known for years. I’m just a bit more transparent.”
"Dan, thanks for letting us know," Tony said.
"I wouldn't have if I didn't have to. This is classified information, even at KLAE. The fewer people who know about it, the better and the safer it is for you."
“And, if you don’t mind my saying so, the better it is for ghost hunting,” Tony added. “So everything is rigged?”
“As far as I can tell. I couldn’t tell you how they are doing everything, but there’s enough evidence to suggest they are planning on escalating until you cave and leave.”
“Whoever is behind this will buy the place for a song, level it, and be on easy street from there on in.”
“I don’t want them to level my house,” a voice muttered. The adults turned and Tony stood up to gather his little daughter into his arms. “Don’t want to leave the nice lady, Daddy.”
“The nice lady?” Kate asked as Fran went to calm her daughter.
“The one that comes in and checks on the kids at night. I’d love to know how they are doing that.”
“With any luck, we’ll find out.”
Kate sat propped up in the bed, her attention half on her book and half on the shadows dancing across the walls of her bedroom. She was in the children’s room tonight.
There was a whisper of air against her cheek and she closed her eyes tightly. “Danny?”
“At your service.” He kissed her, first lightly, then more firmly.
“Daniel, calm down." She pulled away, then smiled, seemingly caressing the air. "After all, it's a well known fact that you can't ghost hunt with a hard‑on."
"Where's it say that?"
"Somewhere, I’m sure it’s written down in something." She returned to her book and leaned back.
"Be that way then. I'll check on you later." The door opened and closed with no apparent physical force.
Dan Westin stretched out on the couch in the living room, staring into the fireplace, reminded of how his evening had been ruined just last night. Now, everyone was long in bed and asleep, and he'd fall asleep as well if he didn't do something. He stood and yawned, scratching his stomach. Maybe there was something to eat in the kitchen...then he heard a faint creak overhead. His sleepiness vanished and he headed for the stairs, careful not to walk in the center on the steps.
All appeared normal in the hallway, but he crouched and waited.
A second creak, this time from Tony and Fran's bedroom, drew his attention and he eased forward. Pushing the ajar door open, he stared into the room. Nothing caught his eye.
He heaved a silent sigh and approached the sleeping couple. It was at that point that something caught his ankle. He stopped and reached down, his fingers catching a piece of nylon filament.
Following it, he traced it to a blanket. A tug and the sheet moved. It must have been attached after he left the house that afternoon. He carefully detached it from the blanket and moved around the bed. He found four others.
He made sure all of them were free and settled back in a corner to wait. He didn’t have long. A figure in black crept into the room and over to the bed, obviously investigating the monofilament.
The figure moved out to the hallway and away to an isolated corner. “Can you hear me?” he whispered. “They’re all detached. I thought you rigged them. I’m coming back.”
Quietly, Dan followed the man to the closet and past the figure. It was even more unnerving in the darkness and Dan winced as he brushed close to it.
There was a figure sitting at the console and Dan recognized the research librarian.
"How's it going here?"
"I’m all set," the woman reported. The TV monitors displayed the bedrooms as well as a few other sites, apparently spots where the haunting would occur. “I still wonder how those lines worked loose.”
“That’s okay. We have enough to make them piss in their pants without them.” The guy pulled his hood off and shook his head. Dan recognized the security guard from the library.
“I’m not happy that broad’s here. I knew she was trouble when I saw her at the library. Do you think she’s figured it out? And where the hell is her husband?”
"Did you see him?” She laughed. “Probably still quaking in his boots. Good old Sigmund put the fear of God into him. After the way he took out of here this morning, I don't think they could drag him back. Once we get this place rocking and rolling, I don’t think any of them will put up much of a fuss about leaving tonight."
“Teresa, how long will it be before we can get our hands on it?”
“No idea. We can’t appear too interested or someone will know something it is a set up.”
Dan had seen and heard more than enough.
He went back up the ladder and out the trapdoor, nearly yelling at the sight of the body. Then he stopped in his tracks. If he could still be scared by the thing, it would stand to reason that it might have the same effect on the 'haunters.’
A quick search provided him with the position of the cord holding the thing to the wall. After releasing that, it was an easy task, if a bit unsettling to lift it from its perch and move it to the single bed in the butler’s pantry. It was to his advantage that the bed was still made up with sheets and blankets.
He arranged the figure, propping it up against the pillows. He still really didn't have any idea as to what he was going to do. It really depended upon how rigid the backbones of the people below him were.
Dan sat down and waited. A few minutes turned to a half hour before Dan was finally rewarded for his efforts.
The closet door swung open and the black cloaked figure stood there, looking around, obviously looking for ‘Sigmund.’
“Teresa, get up here!”
“What do you mean, where’s Sigmund? It’s not like he can get up and walk away…”
“Revenge.” Dan hoped his voice sounded eerie enough, but reasoned that any disembodied voice would do the trick, especially when you weren’t expecting it. "Revenge," he murmured, lifting the arms towards the security guard. "We must have our revenge.”
It did the trick. The man scuttled back into the closet and pulled the door shut behind him. Hastily, Dan pulled the thing from the bed and tugged the covers back into some semblance of order. Then, hefting his newfound friend over a shoulder, he made for the kitchen and propped Sigmund up at the table, adjusting his arms just so. Dan was having more fun that he reasoned was normal. Perhaps there was a bit of haunting in everyone.
The next thing Dan's sensitive hearing picked up was Teresa whispering harshly, "There is nothing here."
He waited until they came out and saw it sitting at the table. Dan made Sigmund stand and wobble towards them, arms outstretched.
"Yes," he murmured. "Revenge would be nice." Dan was counting on them panicking, but not on them having a gun. At the first report, he shouted an indignant, "Hey!", but that didn't seem the correct response. The next one skimmed across his left shoulder and Dan let out a cry of pain, shoving the figure away from him and towards them.
Dan bit his lip and sat down, holding his wounded shoulder and cursing to himself. Twice in three years really was too much. Worse than that was going to be explaining to Carlson what he'd been doing on the weekend. Then he looked up and froze.
Sigmund had gotten to his feet and was shuffling toward the pair. “Get out of my house,” it screamed and raised its arms. Three more bullets tore through the figure with no apparent effect. The two terrified people took off into the night.
Sigmund collapsed into a heap near the doorway to the small room and Dan wondered if he’d hallucinated the whole thing or not.
Kate's voice came to him as she rushed into the room. "Danny? Where are you?"
"Kate, I'm here." He directed her to his position and she kneeled beside him. "You'd better get Nick on the phone."
"Dan," she murmured at the sight of blood on her hand. "I can't take you anywhere, can I?"
“It could be worse,” he muttered and grunted. “Kate, that thing. It moved, all by itself.”
“Danny, it’s plastic. You said so yourself.”
“Didn’t you hear it shout?”
“No, just the gunshots.”
Fran and Tony arrived and Fran gasped at the sight of the body. “Oh, my…”
“It’s okay, Fran,” Dan said, sitting up. “Tony, if you go into the closet, you will find their set-up. There’s enough there to send them away for a very long time.”
“Are you okay?” Fran carefully walked over to where Kate was kneeling.
“I am, but you’d better get me –“
“Dan, look.” It was the tone that caught Dan’s attention. Sigmund was sitting in a rocking chair and it was rocking gently.
“Forget that, Kate. Let’s just go home and we’ll hash everything out in the morning.”
Kate helped Dan to the car with Fran and Tony bringing up the rear. The clouds were reflecting the blue of an approaching police car. She started the car as Dan shivered. Instantly he flipped on the heater.
“One of the neighbors must have called the cops. I guess we’re stuck here for a while longer.”
“Your ghosts are gone, Tony. Show them the crawlspace and let them do the heavy thinking. Give us a call tomorrow and let us know what they find out.”
“Will do… Kate, Dan, thanks.”
Kate watched the window go up apparently by itself and glanced at the dashboard. “Look at that.”
“It’s just after midnight. Happy Halloween, Doctor Westin.”
Kate juggled two bags of groceries as she tried to get her key into the lock.
“Must you do everything the hard way?” Dan complained as he took a bag from her and flipped open the mailbox to collect the day’s post.
“You still aren’t supposed to be doing things with that shoulder,” she grumbled around her purse, which she was holding in her mouth.
“Hmm, seems to me we were doing things last night with no trouble.” He took out the mail and followed her inside. He carried the bag through to the kitchen and set it on the counter. His shoulder twinged, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. Instead, he focused upon the handful of mail he held. “Bill, catalog, bill, catalog, bill… are you sensing a trend here?”
“Well, Christmas is coming.” Kate started unloading the bags. “I mean, Thanksgiving is just a couple of weeks away now.”
“Hey, there’s an announcement from the Laughlins. Sounds like their B&B is going to open in the spring and guess who has comps for a free opening weekend?”
Kate joined him, reading over his shoulder. “According to Fran, everything has gotten quiet, although Cassie still talks about the nice lady. Danny, do you think… well, remember that story about the husband and wife who spent all their lives in the house, just to be separated right before they died?”
“I do.” Dan put the rest of the mail down on the table and carefully took off his jacket, tossing it onto a nearby chair.
“What if the nice lady is the wife waiting for her husband to come back to her?” She smiled as Dan snaked his arms around her waist.
“Judging from what I saw, he found her. That wasn’t a woman’s voice I heard that night. Perhaps the thought of their house being turned into some gauche haunted mansion was too much. Or maybe she got so upset it was enough to let her husband finally find her. Either way, I think it ended as well as it could. And we get a free weekend getaway out of it!”
“That’s nice of them, but I guess they figured it was the least they could do.”
“What do you mean?” Dan nibbled her neck and she giggled.
“Well, after all you did chase away all the wee beasties and things that go bump in the night.”
“Put the milk away and I’ll show you what else goes bump in the night…”