Written by: Joseph D. Stirling (2013)
It was a rainy Thursday, not unlike any other rainy day. I looked up as the door opened. The simple wooden frame with frosted glass leaving a cool silhouette of hips and curls in the doorway. She was looking at the print on the glass, dark paint that read: A. Croste Occult Detectives.
Actually it’s only a light drizzle, Alan.
Will you stop? It’s my turn for the internal monologue, you had it yesterday. Where was I… It was raining on that Thursday. That was the day She walked in. I could tell the dame was upset, her mascara was running like she’d been crying. Sure, it could be the weather, but I didn’t think so.
“Are you Alan Croste? I was told you might be able to help me,” she said with a flutter of her lashes.
She must have known our weak spot, our Achilles’ Heel.
Take a powder, Arlo, this is my monologue. She knew I had a soft spot for a dame in distress.
We, Alan. We.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Alan Croste.”
I made sure to look in the mirror and give myself that look that said “shut it” before Arlo could toss his two cents into the pot.
“What can I do for you Miss…” I asked as I offered her a chair.
“Wollberton. Miss Wollberton,” she replied.
“What can we- I, help you with Miss Wollberton?”
I poured myself a cup of coffee and held out an empty cup to Miss Wollberton. She refused with a slight shake of her head.
“It sounds silly, but I was told that you were the place to go for this sort of thing. It’s my brother you see. He’s gone missing and…” She broke off into a sob.
I handed her my handkerchief, “Please Miss Wollberton, continue.”
“Well, we live in the old Ashton House. My family just acquired it last summer and things have been strange since. My brother Samuel claimed that there was someone following him around the house at night. Our parents are in England for the new year so it’s just us.” She was tearing up again, poor girl. “And now my brother is missing! Please, Mr. Croste, you have to help me.”
“Any serving staff at all, Miss Wollberton?” I asked getting my notebook and a fountain pen ready.
“Well we do have two maids, Mary Ingles and Winifred Iverson. A butler, Charles Winston. And Filbert Wells, the grounds-keeper,” she said.
This case was already beginning to feel mundane. Not my normal realm of expertise.
Our normal realm, Alan. I swear, it feels like sometimes you forget I’m even here. Always I this, and me that. We’re a team Alan, you couldn’t handle this job alone, you don’t have the haircut for it. I’m of a mind to say you don’t even give proper credit to the Book. Think about how many times its helped out in the past.
“Do any of your staff have issue with your brother Samuel, any ill will? Could any of them stand to gain something from his disappearance?”
“Surely not! You can’t think they would have anything to do with this? With the exception of Mr. Wells our staff have been with our family since my brother and I were born. And Mr. Wells has no access to the manor house, there’s a small apartment at the edge of the gardens where he lives. To think they could have done anything, well, the thought is just absurd, Mr. Croste!”
“Did you find any broken windows, doors forced open, anything out of the ordinary?”
Miss Wollberton turned her eyes away, her cheeks flushing.
“It is most unusual, and I feel embarrassed to admit it. But there was a wall in his room on the third floor covered in some kind of fluid. It looked thick like the white of an egg,” she said, the hesitation in her voice would have been hard to fake.
I felt sure that it must be some form of ethereal discharge or ectoplasmic secretion perhaps from a wraith or poltergeist, the usual suspects for such a colloidal saturation.
Alan, your monologue is terrible, just terrible. I’m afraid I’ll have to take over.
“Not now Arlo, I can handle the monologue.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Croste? My name is Susan, and what monologue are you referring to? I thought we were having a conversation?”
Internal Alan, internal is the key word. You really should let me handle the detective work for just this reason. Ahem. The dame was confused, but I assured her that everything would be fine. As it happens we specialize in the occult. Although before going into the Ashton house, we were going to need the Book.
We sent Miss Wollberton on her way and asked that she leave us the keys to the home and go stay with a friend for a few hours. She gave us the telephone number of her friend and thanked us as she left. That would give us plenty of time to sort this mess out.
The Book came from Russia originally, an ancient pocket sized tome that is believed to be the journal of Rasputin himself. Might be true, might not, either way it knows a lot about the occult and that’s help we were going to need.
As we pulled into the Ashton house we could feel the buzz in the air. There was definitely something here. Alan turned off the car, I always let him drive because I was never much good behind the wheel.
That’s true Arlo, you’ve crashed more of our cars than I can count.
We looked into the mirror, “We don’t have time for this conversation Alan. There’s a man’s life at stake.”
“Possibly. We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet,” Alan said to his reflection- err to me.
“You don’t have to monologue our conversation’s, Arlo.”
For that matter, we don’t have to have them out-loud either Alan.
We climbed out of the car and made our way up the steps and into the large mansion. We took out Rasputin’s journal and asked it what it felt about the home.
The blank pages began to fill with hand-written notes. It read: Whatever is here, Comrade, it doesn’t like any of us. But I can tell you it’s hiding in the attic. Вы должны будете святой водой, что звезда Thrumboe, и черные свечи.
It wrote out something in Russian, we can’t read Russian so I cracked the books spine. The pages cleared and again filled with writing. It read: Ouch! I said, you’re going to need the Holy Water and a Star of Thrumboe from the trunk. And the Black Candle.
We closed the book and went back to the car. I had to retrieve the items myself, Alan never liked touching the Black Candle. It made him squeamish. I was relieved that he grabbed the revolver though, I would have forgotten it as I am a terrible shot.
Well Arlo, one of us needs to remember that that disgusting candle will cause the Specter to materialize to the point where I can kill it. And please don’t pass out on me again. It’s not easy carrying your dead weight around.
Miss Wollberton had said her brother was last seen in his room, though he liked to walk around the home at night. The first order of business, we had to check the doors and windows for signs of tampering. We also needed to talk with the staff, find out what they may know or have seen, and let them know we’ll be in the house for a few hours too, possibly overnight. The knowledge of the supposed slime on the wall could be looked at later, it wasn’t going anywhere but slowly down to the floor.
We made our way into the mansion again and headed to the back rooms, behind the kitchen, to find the staff housing. Three smaller rooms where the two maids and the butler resided. We gave a quick pat of our coat pocket and as usual felt the bulk of the leather wrapped flask filled with Holy Water, a comfort in this line of work.
When the butler stepped out, Alan nearly jumped out of our skin.
No I didn’t, there was a draft, I just had a quick shiver.
The butler looked just as shocked as we were. We raised our hands, a gesture of peace you could say. Alan did the talking, he handled people better, knew how to be polite.
“I’m Alan Croste, Private Detective. Susan Wollberton hired us- hired me, to investigate Samuel’s disappearance,” we said reaching into out jacket for the note pad. Thumbing through a few pages, “You must be Mr. Charles Winston, the butler correct?”
“Yes, Sir, I am he.”
“Have you worked for the Wollberton’s long? Any problems with their boy Samuel, was he demanding or angry? Did he ever become cross with you Mr. Winston?”
“Good heavens, may I have a chance to answer the first question before you weigh me down with the others?”
We said nothing, only watched him with our pen ready to take notes. With a sigh and no attempt to hide the roll of his eyes he continued.
“I’ve worked for Mr. and Mrs. Wollberton since before Susan and Samuel were born, as have Ms. Ingles and Ms. Iverson. Samuel has caused no more trouble than any young man of the times, and to my knowledge is a wonderful person. He has never been demanding, or cross as you put it.”
“I see. That seems to be in your favor I would say,” we said closing the notebook. “Would you mind finding me a few fingers of scotch? Thanks. I assume Ms. Ingles and Iverson are in their quarters? I’ll just have myself a look while you find that scotch.”
“Very well, Sir.”
Careful Alan, he sounds a might perturbed with you.
Cool your heels, Arlo, I know how to handle the people you just worry about the supposed specter.
We walked down the short hallway and rapped gently on the first door. After the sounds of some shuffling it opened. Curled white hair pulled into a tight bun that sadly left the wrinkled sour face fully exposed. She looked passed us down the hall before meeting our eye.
“Who are you? Guest rooms are upstairs.”
“Private Detective Alan Croste, ma’am. I have a few questions for you about the young Mr. Samuel Wollberton on behalf of his sister. And you are?”
“Winifred Iverson, and he’s not missing. He just doesn’t want to be found. Every few weeks or so he runs off with some cheap hussy, boozing and gambling. It happens more often when the Mister and Misses go on holiday.”
“I see, that’s very interesting. Miss Susan Wollberton claims he has been abducted and that an egg-white-like residue is smeared on his walls. Any thoughts on that?”
“I’ve never seen his room, I’m just the cook. And none of my eggs are missing. You’ll have to talk to Mary, she cleans the house. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
We nodded and Winifred shut the door, hard. Further down the small hallway we stopped in front of the far door, the woody smell of a perfume or a scented candle drifted through the cracks in the wood. The third door behind them was partially open and clearly a man’s room, this door had to be Mary Iverson’s room. A quick knock gave no response. We knocked again and called out her name. No response.
We chanced turning the handle to open the door but it was locked.
Interesting don’t you think, Alan? Butler says Samuel is a great guy, the Cook says he’s a tramp and fond of drink. And now it seems the maid isn’t home?
Did you even conceive she might be cleaning the evidence we need to see from the wall in Samuel’s room, Arlo?
I concede the point, Alan. Ah look, here comes our scotch.
“Your drink, Sir.”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Winston.”
We took a heavy whiff from the rim of the glass, it was wonderful. Without much thought we slugged it back, draining the amber liquid where one would normally sip, we were pressed for time you understand. It was heavy, smokey, like licking the back of a fireplace. Delicious.
So do I get a shot at narrating yet? You know I’ve been listening to the radio shows, I’m getting better. Just give me a fair shake Arlo.
Alright, take a spin Alan. Just know that when you get a little shaky with the monologue I’m taking over again.
I nodded, it made sense after all. Arlo always better with putting the right words together. I may have had a good hand at talking with people, but that guy could spin a yarn with the best of them. We took to the stairs, the kid’s room was on the second floor. I covered the steps two at a time, the maid may have been cleaning the very evidence I needed to look at.
It’s we Alan. How many times do I have to say it? One man, two detectives. That means I, me, and my becomes we, us, and our. Remember your pronouns, they’re pretty swinging these days.
Fine. We walked up to the second floor. I could hear scraping coming from one of the rooms down the hall. Err- we could… My brain doesn’t work that way Arlo. Just let me do it my way alright? So I made my way to the door and pushed it open, it creaked slightly alarming the maid inside.
“Goodness!” She started. “Who are you? What are you doing in here?”
“Alan Croste, I’m investigating Samuel’s disappearance. And you happen to be cleaning up possible evidence. I’m going to have to ask you to step away from that wall Mary Ingles.”
Mary Ingles stood and backed away from the wall, which did look to have been splashed with something like raw egg-whites. She dropped a soiled cleaning rag as she moved.
“I have some questions to ask you ma’am. You happen to see anyone sneaking around the place before Samuel went missing?”
“No, there was no one. He was completely alone. All night- I mean day, all day.”
“Really? You see, that comes across like sour milk to someone in my shoes. I hear tell he’s a good kid, but he likes to drink and patronize the late night women. And now he seems to be a bit reclusive by your words. Can you tell me what the grounds-keeper might say to me?”
“I don’t… I’m not sure what… What are you saying Mr. Croste?”
At this point I wasn’t sure what I was implying. “I’m just stating facts that don’t seem to add up Ms. Ingles. Someone is lying to me here, my guts are never wrong. I’m going to need the room if you don’t mind.”
I motioned for her to leave, she did. Now I had my chance to look around the place.
Okay, you’re done Alan. That’s just terrible. When I think back on this case I don’t want to remember it that way…
We waited for her footsteps to quiet as she left before turning back to the wall. As we moved closer it was obvious from the smell that the slime was clearly ectoplasmic in nature. We smeared some onto a small glass plate from within our coat and pressed it together with a similar plate. We fixed the two with a third lens bearing an arcane symbol of Babylonian origins, when held to the light it was very…revealing. But only if one knew how to look.
The sunlight through the window changed the slime in the lens to a bright blue.
Blue, Alan. That’s never good. Not only is it a ghost, but someone’s controlling it.
Who do you think it is Arlo? The grounds-keeper! He’s the only person we haven’t talked to yet and he worked for the previous owners. He has to know something. We need to talk to him.
Well I’m sure he knows something Alan. Hey, do you smell that? Something sweet and kind of woody?
Mary Ingles just left, it’s her perfume Arlo. It’s lingering is all. We’ve got to get out to the apartment in the back.
We quickly walked back to the stairway and down to the first floor. We again found ourselves in the kitchen as we moved to the rear entrance that would let us out into the gardens. It was there we could hear voices from the staff, whispering to each other about us- well about Alan that is, they haven’t met me yet.
Arlo, take the book out and leave it here. It can relay everything to us later while we talk to Filbert Wells.
Good thinking Alan, give them the old quick shuffle. We placed Rasputin’s Journal up on a shelf out of site and quietly slipped out the back door. From here we could see down the lanes of lilies and tulips and well trimmed hedges, we could see the small apartment. It looked like nothing more than a modified garden shack with a small round metal chimney. Mr. Wells appeared to be home unless he merely left a fire going.
We moved through the garden, down the brick path and soon found his doorstep. A quick knuckle to the door and it flung open as if we were expected. As if by some premonition of our coming the kettle began to whistle and the old man at the door smiled.
“Please come in, the water has just begun to boil. How do you take your tea?”
“Generally with a whiskey back, neat. But cream and sugar will do fine,” I smiled.
Arlo, let me talk to Mr. Wells. You’ll just muck it up, stick with the monologue and I’ll stick to people.
Not this time Alan, I’ll talk to the old man. I’ve got a hunch.
I know you’ve got a hunch, it’s like a thorn in my head. Fine then. I’ll monologue for now.
Mr. Wells chuckled politely as he offered a seat and poured the steaming water into the cups. He took his own seat with a groan befitting his aged appearance. Already the odor of crisp mint tea gathered above the small table.
Nice job Alan.
“I’m afraid you find yourself in a dry home,” the old man clucked. “I assume you’re here about Samuel? It’s all the housekeeping staff can talk about lately. You know I don’t think they have ever agreed on a single thing. So what do I call you, Sir? I’m sure you know quite well who I am, but manners say I must introduce myself anyway. I’m Filbert Wells.”
“Mr. Wells, it’s a pleasure. I’m Arlo Croste. I am here about the missing fellow. But please don’t let me stop you, you were saying the staff doesn’t get along well? How so?”
“That bunch has argued amongst themselves since they arrived with the Wollberton family. I was allowed to stay after the Ashton’s departed simply because I’ve lived here so long. Sad thing about the Ashton’s. When Mr. Ashton died of age, Mrs. Ashton was just full of grief and sorrow. Poor dear took her life. I hear it was poison.”
“I see, terrible. And what of the Wollberton family and their staff?”
“Ah, the Wollberton’s. Can’t say I know the parents all too well. Always on holiday it seems. But the children, if you can call them that- they’re old enough to have children of their own you know. They listen to that swing music, loud, obnoxious, bah! Well as I hear it, the staff dislikes the lot of them, except for Mary Ingles. She’s sweet on the boy Samuel, and I don’t mean in a motherly sort if you catch my meaning.”
“Tell me, Mr. Wells, have you ever noticed anything odd in the home? Strange sounds or smells?”
“You mean the ghost? Of course I noticed him. Poor dead Mr. Ashton is always in the garden, he comes by searching for Mrs. Ashton. She did so love her garden, it’s where she killed herself you know. He never finds her, the Bible says you go to hell for suicide. Everyone know that. Although, his spirit has been absent for a few nights now. Strange I should think.”
Arlo! By God man, we need to get back to the house!
The smell in the staff quarters, it’s wisp-nettle and oak heart isn’t it. I’m sorry Alan, I should have known. We’re dealing with a witch.
“We gotta move Arlo!”
“I beg your pardon Mr. Croste?”
“Ah- it’s nothing. Thanks for the tea, you’ve been a big help.”
We ran out the door and through the garden. Our shoes clicking on the paving bricks. It was starting to get dark, the sun dipping below the line of trees. The kitchen was dark and we found the back door locked, thankfully Miss Wollberton had given us the keys to the manor house. We unlocked the door and slowly opened it, stepping quietly inside.
Okay Arlo, watch our step. I’ll keep an eye out, you grab the book.
I took Rasputin’s Journal down from where it was hidden. As I opened it the blank pages began to fill with softly glowing writing. It read: We have a problem comrades. The three argued. The butler and maid threatened to go to the police. The poltergeist came and took him and the witch took the other woman upstairs. There is much anger in this home.
Arlo, I need you to light the black candle.
Not yet, we need to check the rooms Alan. Trust me.
We moved slowly down the short hallway, Alan had his gun drawn. We splashed the revolver with holy water, taking care to get all the bullets wet. Just to be safe we took a swig ourselves, it couldn’t hurt right? We looked into the first room, of course it was empty but we could see framed pictures in the dying sunlight. Dark hair and smiles all around, standing with the Wollberton family and the rest of the staff here in the garden. This wasn’t her room. We caught her in the middle of taking something, or planting something. A hex bag no doubt, but we didn’t have time to find it now.
We checked the next room, the scent was heavy in the air, woody and sweet. Wisp-nettle and oak heart still smoldered in a small bronze brazier amid several fatty candles. Our suspicions were correct. We turned towards the last room but stopped, the wall was covered in ethereal ooze. Charles Winston, the butler, he was as gone as Samuel Wollberton. I lit the black candle and could feel the queasiness pass through Alan.
I’m fine Arlo, just get us upstairs. Don’t worry about me I’ll be able to make the shot, just get us there.
I have to worry Alan, you’re me too. I’m only half as good without you pulling your weight.
Just get us there Arlo.
We moved as quickly as we dared up the three floors, pausing before the attic door. The strange purple light from the candle danced along the walls. We made sure the Star of Thrumboe was visible hanging around our neck, it would give us a few extra moments before the spirit could see us. Extra moments that just might slip some lead in our gloves, give us a better chance for a knockout.
“Come no closer Detective! I’ll set the specter on you before you get halfway up those stairs.”
“Why? Why kill them all? What do you gain from it?”
“Revenge! What their family did to mine so long ago cannot be unpunished!” A scraping sound against the wood above. “And it’s not murder if there’s no corpse Detective, you of all people should know that.”
“What happened to your family? Why revenge, it seems cliche.”
We could hear a muffled whimper from the attic. The witch was keeping her hostage alive, at least for a bit longer. We already knew it was for sacrificial purposes, an ancient rite that would let the witch take the spirit from the house like it were a pet.
“You still haven’t told us why?”
“Us? You don’t have a partner, there’s no cavalry riding in. Do you take me for a fool?”
We eased ourselves up the stairs, painfully slow, dreading that the old wood might groan beneath our feet.
“We assure you there is an us. We’ve been here the whole time. Are we to believe a proper witch couldn’t see the auras surrounding us?”
We knew she couldn’t, the Star of Thrumboe prevented it. But we had to buy enough time to get up the stairs.
“Wouldn’t you like to take another look at us?”
“Be careful Alan, I can feel the ghost moving. She’s trying to flank us.”
“Quiet Arlo. Let me handle this.”
“It’s bleeding through the walls Alan.”
We could see the ectoplasm spreading along the wall behind us as the figure stepped into view. An older gentleman, and thanks to the candle we could see him plain as day. But the gun wasn’t for him, the spirit had no control over itself. He only wished to search for his lost wife and we weren’t going to prevent that.
“You really are quite mad,” said the witch. “But your madness won’t save anyone.”
We charged up the last few steps as the spirit of Mr. Ashton finally saw us. It bellowed as it reached out for us. I hurled the candle into the dark space of the attic and Alan lined up his shot. The flash was blinding but as our eyes cleared we saw the flickering visage of the witch. All wrinkles and slit-pupil eyes beneath a tight bun of white curls.
“Are you alright Mrs. Ingles? You’re safe now.”
* * * * *
“How did you know it was Ms. Iverson?”
The flatfoot stood there in his pressed blue uniform holding his notebook like a regular stooge. As far as they would ever know this was a clear-cut double murder, but the Police still needed the facts for their report.
We told the young Miss Wollberton the truth about what had occurred. Then together with Ms. Ingles we cleaned the place up before calling the Police. Most of the things from Ms. Iverson’s room we would end up keeping, the stuff we couldn’t use would fetch some money from this guy we know down on 9th street. We fixed our story, leaving the witch and the ghost out, it was just better that way.
Sadly, Mr. Ashton couldn’t be convinced that his wife was never coming back to the garden. He was set to wander in search of her. Such a harmless spirit though, we didn’t have the heart to banish him.
“The evidence Officer, the evidence. I spoke with all parties involved. Miss Susan Wollberton had no one else but her brother as their parents were always away on business or some other venture, and it’s rare that the guilty party brings a crime to your attention. The late butler, Mr. Charles Winston was a clean-cut guy. Fixed a neat scotch and was offended when I suggested that the late Samuel Wollberton was an angry and demanding youth. Ms. Mary Ingles was far too insistent on Samuel being alone all the time, and she was nervous but not murderer nervous if you get my meaning. I learned from Mr. Filbert Wells that she and Samuel were awfully close, not in the platonic sense. It seems Samuel enjoyed the company of older women.”
The Officer stifled a short laugh and we did our best not to roll our eyes at him, but instead smiled.
“Now, Ms. Winifred Iverson on the other hand had nothing nice to say whatsoever. She implied Samuel was a carousing tramp. We never did get her motivation for the murders nor discover where she secreted the bodies. Ms. Mary Iverson witnessed the murder of Mr. Charles Winston though was bound and gagged while the body was moved. She’s still a little delirious from being struck unconscious. I would suggest coming through the property with dogs, who knows you may get lucky and find a corpse or two.”
“We’ll handle the real police work if you don’t mind. A private dick obviously can’t handle the job, no motive- ha! You can clear out of here Croste, we’ll be in touch if we need anything else from you,” said the Officer.
We nodded and walked back to our car. As we climbed in we glanced at Miss Wollberton and Ms. Ingles giving them a smile and a wave. They mouthed a ‘thank you’ from across the driveway. We started our car and put it in gear. A quick stop at the bank to deposit the check payment and we’d be home. Normally we don’t take a check, but we figured we could trust it not to bounce this time.
You hope not Arlo. Rent’s due in a few days.
I know Alan, just drive the car. I need to get some scotch in me.
And I could go for a coffee. For the record Arlo, it’s my turn for the internal monologue today.
Only until you screw it up Alan, there’s a formula to this kind of thing.
I drove home, feeling exhausted. It had been a long night and the one thought on my mind was sleep. Despite everything, I-
We Alan. We…
©June2013 Joseph D. Stirling