Saturday, October 31, 2015

Random Paranormal Tales Part 12

The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft
Charles Latham, wastrel younger son of the Earl of Clitheroe, returns home drunk from the theatre to find his father gruesomely dead. He suspects murder. But when the Latham ghosts turn nasty, and Charles finds himself falling in love with the priest brought in to calm them, he has to unearth the skeleton in the family closet before it ends up killing them all.

An awesome historical paranormal.  Creepy fog, disturbing noises, interesting characters and it's all held together with mystery and romance.  What's not to love?  Charles definitely has his hands full and you don't want to miss it.


Truth in the Dark by Amy Lane
"I am not beautiful..." 

Knife's entire existence has been as twisted as his flesh and his face. The only thing beautiful in his life is his sister. When Gwennie is obliged to turn a suitor down because she fears to leave her brother to the brutality of their village, Knife is desperate for anything to ensure her happiness.

Her suitor's cousin offers him a way out, but it won't be easy. Aerie-Smith has been cursed to walk upright in the form of a beast, and his beloved village suffers from the same spell. Aerie-Smith offers Gwen a trousseau and some hope, if only Knife will keep him company on his island for the span of a year and perform one "regrettable task" at year's end.

Knife is unprepared for the form the island's curse takes on his own misshapen body. In one moment of magic, he is given the body of his dreams—and he discovers that where flesh meets spirit and appearance meet reality, sometimes the only place to find truth is in the darkness of a lover's arms.

I loved the emotions in this story.  Aerie-Smith's island brought to mind elements of Beauty of the Beast but so much better.  Naef/Knife is filled with so much anger, and who can blame him after what he suffered in his childhood but watching him find happiness is heartwarming.  Together they begin to find a life filled with all kinds of goodness but will it last?  As soon as Aerie-Smith mentions "regrettable task" I had an idea of where the story was going but even seeing it coming I still found myself balling my eyes out when the moment happened.  But the story doesn't end there but will it be a HEA?  That you will have to find out for yourself, and trust me you definitely will want too.


Halloween Angel by JP Bowie
When Eddie Gillespie, recovering from an abusive relationship, meets a handsome stranger, Joshua Reynolds, in a local bar, an instant attraction flares between them. There's just one problem - no one else in the bar remembers Eddie being with Joshua.

Invited to a Halloween party by Hollywood's sexiest male star, Sam Peterson, Eddie arrives dressed as an angel, and is both startled and delighted to meet Joshua again. Their moment together is shattered by Sam who tells Eddie that he and Joshua are estranged brothers, and that Joshua is a dangerous liar who will only use and hurt Eddie. But Eddie is already captivated by Joshua's allure and the two leave the party together.

After a night of love and passion, a revelation from Joshua makes it seem as though Sam was right. Eddie can't believe his bad luck. To run from the threats of an abusive boyfriend into the arms of a vampire – could things get much worse?

Well, yes they could – but perhaps with the help of Cassandra, a good witch, Eddie's bad luck can be transformed into an experience that will change his life forever – and for the better.

A great little story of finding your true place in the world despite what others think.  Eddie and Joshua are a perfect pair but that doesn't mean it's easy.  Watching them find their place is a true gem and a great addition to my paranormal library.


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

But after a string of ghostly events sets Jim’s teeth on edge and scares the bejesus out of his dog, Jim begins to dig into the house’s history. What he finds is enough to creep out anybody. Even Jim. It seems long dead Nigel Letters had a few nasty habits back in his day. And unhappily for Jim, the old bastard still has some tricks up his sleeve.

As Jim welcomes his ex, Michael, and a bevy of old friends for a two-week visit to help christen the new house, he soon realizes his old friends aren’t the only visitors who have come to call.

I don't think I will ever find the words to properly describe how great this story was.  From the very beginning I knew this was going to be a daytime kind of read because it is definitely all kinds of creepy.  Jim's perfect home is filled with mystery and even though it's solved early on, there is still a lot of work for Jim and his friends to do.    This is by far one of the best ghost stories I have ever read and the first work by John Inman, but it won't be the last.  The evil the boys on the mountain faced is not pretty and you will definitely hate Nigel Letters.  That is the best I can say without delving into spoilers that you know I just refuse to do so I'll end by saying, if you like creepy, if you like mystery, if you like paranormal than this is one you will not want to miss and if you throw in the comedic camaraderie between Jim and his friends then this is all kinds of must read.


The Dark Farewell
Don’t talk to strangers, young man — especially the dead ones.

It’s the Roaring Twenties. Skirts are short, crime is rampant and booze is in short supply. Prohibition has hit Little Egypt, where newspaperman David Flynn has come to do a follow-up story on the Herrin Massacre. The massacre isn’t the only news in town though. Spiritualist medium Julian Devereux claims to speak to the dead—and he charges a pretty penny for it.

Flynn knows a phoney when he sees one, and he’s convinced Devereux is as fake as a cigar store Indian. But the reluctant attraction he feels for the deceptively soft, not-his-type Julian is as real as it gets.

Suddenly Julian begins to have authentic, bloodstained visions of a serial killer, and the cynical Mr. Flynn finds himself willing to defend Julian with not only his life, but his body.

I once again enjoyed the vintage, paranormal behind this mystery. Passion, skepticism, drama, weariness abounds in this tale. Once again my only flaw is that it's just not long enough. Josh Lanyon creates characters and plots that just latch on to my heart, soul, and sets my imagination into overdrive that I just don't want to say goodbye when the last page hits.


Click on each to check out the first 11 parts
PART 1  /  PART 2  /  PART 3  /  PART 4
PART 5  /  PART 6  /  PART 7  /  PART 8
PART 9  /  PART 10  /  PART 11

The Wages of Sin
Chapter One
Charles wrapped his arms around himself and chafed his biceps to get some warmth into them.  Cold radiated out from the marrow of his bones, nestled in his heart like a shard of ice.  But the old felted blanket around him glowed in the lantern light with blue, yellow and red stripes, speckled with dog hair.  He basked in wet dog and horse smell; brass polish, leather wax, and Floyd’s orange-flower-water cologne.  These things and the terror that had passed could not exist in the same world, surely?

“A cloud,” he said, in a reedy, shocked voice.  “There was a cloud.  A black cloud.  It… it rushed at me, and….”

“Most probably the dust cloud from the landau, sir.”  Sam spoke over his shoulder as he flicked the whip encouragingly above Jewel’s ears.

“No it…”

“Yes, that would account for it.  Undoubtedly why we neither of us saw the other coming.”  Floyd nodded, fished out a handkerchief and wiped his cheeks and forehead with fingers only a little less unsteady than Charles’.  “You, um.  You fell upon your head, sir.  And, mm, if my nose doesn’t guide me wrongly, had already imbibed a fair amount of… mm, conviviality.  No doubt you are also distressed about your father.  I think we need look no further for the cause of a temporary, understandable, overturning of the wits.”

“That’s not how it…”  Charles clutched the blanket more closely, trapped a pawprint between his knee and the seat.  The dried mud flaked off and scattered to the floor, and a convulsive choke of disgust forced its way out of him at the patter of falling soil.  He smeared it underfoot, looked down blankly for a moment before the words finally penetrated his understanding.

The landau swayed like a pinnace as it swept through the great curve before the marble steps of the portico.  Lights now glimmered in the hall, and as they drew up George flung open the door.  His candle showed a white, sickened face, its distinguished lines set in strain.

“My father?”  Charles rose to his feet, holding tight to the calash of the landau as it sprayed gravel with the speed of its stop.  A fist of dread tightened beneath his breastbone and the waves of shivering returned full force.  “What’s wrong with…?”

George ran down the stairs.  The light shone on his open shirt and bare feet as his scarlet silk banyan trailed behind him.  His uncovered hair shone silver-gilt, exposed.  It was the first time in years Charles had seen his brother so careless of his appearance, and his wild unconscious beauty added a new terror to the night.

Flinging down his candle, George caught Dr. Floyd as he bent to retrieve his bag and hauled him bodily out onto the grass.  Floyd raised an eyebrow at the treatment, while George in turn gaped at the sight of Charles leaping down beside him.

“Oh I do have a brother then?  No, say nothing, this isn’t the time.  You’d best come too.”

Charles followed his brother’s impatient strides past the stone pineapples on the sweep of white stairs.  Their footsteps echoed and re-echoed like vollies of rifle-fire against the chequered black and white limestone of the entrance hall.  A candelabrum set on a table within lit Doric pillars and the portraits of his ancestors with a bubble of amber light around which the darkness brooded.  The door up from the kitchen stood partially open.  Blurs of white faces, above white shifts, showed ghostlike in the crack.

On the landing, George’s valet Sykes stood waiting with a candlestick in his hand, his cravat lopsided and his chin shadowed by an aggressive growth of black stubble.  Another twist in the garrotte of fear about Charles’ throat.  They were normally both of them so impeccable.  “George!  What’s…?”

“Just,” George flung up a hand, “be quiet.”  He took the candle and whispered to Sykes.  “Stand outside the door.  Mrs. Latham’s rest is not to be disturbed under any circumstances.  Should Elizabeth wake, you may inform her, but you will not permit her to come in.”

“I understand.”

Down the passage, their feet silent now on the runner of blue and white carpet.  Outside the windows at either end of the passage, the night pressed inwards.  As they stopped outside his father’s room, George dropped a hand to the doorknob and bent that exposed, vulnerable head.  “I feel I ought to warn you.  It isn’t…  Ah.  Well.  See for yourself.”

Candlelight caught the cream and gold plastered walls, glittered like the ends of pins in the tassels of the bed-curtains and the gold embroidered comforter that lay in a kicked off crumple against the claw-footed legs of the bed.  The fire had been made and burned clear yellow in the grate.

Soberly, imagination finally at bay, Charles did what his soldier ancestors would have expected of him.  He walked forward into the line of fire, looked down.

Ambrose Latham, Earl of Clitheroe, lay on his back in his nightgown, his limbs fettered by the sheets, his swollen face purple.  His open mouth brimmed with vomit.  Across his nose, lips and chin the mark of a woman’s hand stood out in livid white.  His nostrils were stopped with earth.

Chapter Two
“What is he doing here?”  The clock on the mantle struck quarter past six as Elizabeth gestured with her loaded fork.  No doubt, Charles thought, his head throbbing, and the side of his face stinging in counterpoint, her advanced state of pregnancy excused the fact that she was still capable of eating.  He wished she would do it somewhere else.

Dragging his eyes from the drop of brown grease that trembled on the end of the bacon, he looked where she pointed.  The vague sense he had had all night that there were too many presences in the house – a pair of shoes outside a normally unoccupied door, an unexpected number of plates on the sideboard for this impromptu family breakfast, coalesced into a stranger at their table.

He wore the bob wig of a clergyman and a clergyman’s black woollen coat.  The jet buttons of his cuff glittered, and beneath the stark white powder of his wig, his wing-like brows were just as black.  The fan of black eyelashes hiding downcast eyes, and the diffident bend of his neck, could not disguise an angular, almost Spanish beauty; bold high cheekbones and a sullen, dangerous mouth.

“He’s here as my guest.”  George was once more the picture of manly perfection in a suit of emerald silk, but the stick pin in his cravat clashed with his waistcoat, and the lines of strain in his face scored deeper by the hour.  Charles swallowed, looked away, conscious that for the first time, George had begun to resemble their father.

“He’s father’s enemy.  Always has been.”  Elizabeth’s white makeup showed cracks and streaks in a dozen places, her handsome face puffy from weeping and her eyes bloodshot.  Close to her confinement and with her husband absent at the head of his regiment in Scotland, she had returned home to be coddled with all the attentiveness an expectant grandfather could bestow.  And she had always been Clitheroe’s favourite.

Charles honoured her for her grief.  Despised himself for being unable to echo it.

Outside the tall windows, dawn had barely begun to break.  Autumnal rain lashed the panes, rolled in silver beads down each black lozenge.  Within the house a melancholy procession of servants passed the door of the morning room; Geoffreys, his father’s valet, with an arm full of neatly folded sheets, Cook with jug, basin and towel, and her two daughters following, a can of hot water carried between them.  He took another cup of coffee, for the hangover, and looked back.

The stranger’s head still bent over the table.  He dipped his spoon, ate a mouthful of porridge and the gesture brought his face even further into shadow.

“Melodramatic nonsense!”  George speared a devilled kidney and thrust it onto his plate.  “Father doesn’t have any enemies.”

Elizabeth gave a harsh laugh, honey-blonde ringlets bobbing with incongruous cheer beside her jaw.  “In case you haven’t noticed, brother, our father is lying dead upstairs.  He must have had one enemy, don’t you think?  And now we’re eating breakfast with the prime candidate?  That’s taking politeness a little too far.”

The scrape of a chair.  The stranger made to rise and George caught him by the wrist, pressed his arm to the table, restraining him.

At the sight of the stranger’s hand, lying as if cut off by the black cuff, the picture of his father’s dead face flashed before Charles’ inner eye.  He too recoiled, struggling to his feet, running to the window, trying to escape it.

“This is not the time for unfounded, hysterical accusations.  Really, Elizabeth if your condition did not excuse you I should have to accuse you of running mad.  Now please keep your voice down.  This is the last thing Emma needs!”

By some dint of magic, the stranger had continued his retreat, withdrawing his presence, leaving his body like an old table that sits unnoticed in the corner of a room.  But Charles was tired of trying to see his face, being thwarted.  “Won’t someone introduce us?”

George laughed with surprise.  “Don’t be a goose!  You remember Jasper.  Admiral Vane’s ward.  We grew up together.”

Since it was impossible to say ‘no’, Charles leaned back against the window and let the chill of the rain seep across his shoulders.  “By reputation only,” he said, and watched as Jasper’s stubborn chin raised half an inch and his mouth curved in a little bitter smile.  “You forget, George; my earliest memory is of waving goodbye as you left for Cambridge.  I’m afraid I have no recollection of you at all, Mr Marin.  Except, as I say, by anecdote.”

At last, with slow grace like the turn of a minuet, Jasper looked up.  His eyes, in the broadening light, were sherry coloured – a light, clear brown almost with a tint of red.  Had there been room, Charles might have stepped backwards.  A jolt of something very like fear went through him.  How could he have mistaken the man’s invisibility for meekness?  It had been all along the quiet of a tiger lying in wait in the long grass.  Elizabeth’s accusation no longer seemed so laughable.

“Then I wish we could have met again in happier circumstances.”

Two heartbeats.  Charles had time to wonder if this was some new manner of the same paralysis that had come on him last night; time’s normal flow suspended.  Then the morning room door swung open and Dr. Floyd came in.  The scene moved and flowed once more as George rose to pull out a seat for him, and Elizabeth called for fresh coffee.

Truth in the Dark
I was not beautiful.

I may have been at birth—most babies are beautiful at birth. But my foot was twisted and deformed as I emerged, and my spine eventually tilted to accommodate my limp. My teeth grew in oddly spaced, and at twelve, I developed your average pubescent skin condition, only with me, it assumed freakish proportions. By the time I was twenty, it had pocked and cratered my face beyond repair and beyond redemption. My hair grew thin on my scalp, and overall, no one had uncovered a mirror in my house, in my viewing, since I was fifteen.

My older sister Gwen brushed her hair blindly in the mornings and got so good at it, no one knew the difference when the heavy, strawberry-blonde mass of it was hanging plaited to her waist. My mother did the same and started keeping it short around the same time. I pretended not to notice that they did these things for me, and they pretended they didn’t take glimpses in stray windows as they walked through the village to make sure they weren’t terribly askew.

We lived on the northernmost island of an archipelago. The archipelago itself was governed by an old and kind family. I understood that cousins and kin often took an island to live on, to rule in benevolence, but as kind as the idea seemed, our island was not one of the lucky ones. We were a rude fishing village with a merchant port, and that was all.

The children in my village weren’t always kind. When I was twelve, Gwen was late to come to get me from the woodworker’s where I was apprenticed, and I walked around the corner of the sawdust hut to find myself surrounded by village bullies. I’d known their names. They’d taunted me since school (which was why I’d left early), and the taunts and the jeers had only gotten worse.

That night—I don’t know. I will not pretend to know what drives men and their children to violence. I only know that after Gwen found me, bleeding from my face, from my ears, from my rectum, I never said their names, and I never saw their faces. I only saw their feet and heard their voices. You cannot take a person’s humanity and then retain your own.

In the weeks it took me to recover (and the blows I took to my face did nothing to alleviate my pressing ugliness) I tried very hard not to ponder the horrible irony that I was too ugly to love, and too ugly not to violate.

The third night after it happened, as I was still pissing blood from my damaged kidneys and my mother was nursing me through a terrible infection that threatened to level me, my sister Gwen came home. She walked into my bedroom (a tiny one, but mine and only mine) and kissed my fevered cheek, then asked Mum to come bandage her hands. I got a glimpse of her through bleary eyes: her eye was blackened, her lip was split, and her hands were covered in deep, painful slices that would make sewing even more of a chore for her the rest of her life.

I thrashed, I screamed, I tried, through a swollen mouth, to demand who had done it to her, but Gwen had come to my bedside and crouched, her face set into the lines of an executioner who was proud of his work.

“No worries, Naef,” she said firmly. “The boy who did this—to you and to me—he will never bother us again.”

It didn’t occur to me then that I had babbled with my fever and my pain, and that she would know who that boy had been.

I was delirious with fever that night, with the town healer as my witness. The town healer never saw my sister, not that night nor the weeks that followed, but it was no matter. No one would believe that a girl would do that to a young man’s body, and it wasn’t like the boy’s cronies were bragging about seeing him rape a cripple for fun.
Be that as it may, there is a particular violence in finding a young man pinned to the sand with daggers in his shoulders like a butterfly, and the gentle flesh at the apex of his thighs sliced open like a flounder, the stones within removed, and the body dead from the loss of blood such a wound entailed.

When I learned of the nature of the young man’s death, I curled into a corner and wept inconsolably for the last week of my healing. My sister, Gwen, the girl who would chase spiders outside rather than kill them, the girl who had once beaten the town bullies for trying to drown kittens, and the girl who baked sweets, every spring, for the neighbor’s children at Oestre, my sister, Gwen, did that horrible, horrible thing. And she did it for me, because I was too weak to defend myself and too monstrous to be left alone in my corner, carving my bits of wood.

Someone must have noticed or known. Someone must have made the leap, if not to my sister, at least to me and mine. My skill as a woodcarver was unparalleled, and the beating had not taken that from me. My attackers were too brutish or too unimaginative to reason that the true violation of my spirit would not be through my arse but through my craft, and so my fingers were left unbroken, and my skill remained mine. But that’s not where the bastardization of my name started.

No, it must have been some mistaken assumption, some horrible leap in logic, and I have to admit, it made perfect sense. After all, monstrous was as monstrous does, right?

Either way, it didn’t matter. The day I returned to my place in the woodworker’s hut, “Naef” had been burned away like my innocence, and all that remained was what I became: “Knife”.

I used that name. In truth, I preferred to huddle in the back of the woodworker’s shop and play with my tools—the awl, the lathe, the tiny scraping pick—they were all my friends, and in my hands they became like paints or piano keys or potter’s clay: I controlled them, and they sang for me. When I worked wood, the ache in my leg ceased to matter, and the shrieking harpy that my back had become over the years, well, that bitch curled up and died. When I was with my blades and my craft, I was master of my body, and I was free.

The summer I became “Knife” I stopped making toys, which is what I had made my name with, and started making chess sets. Good versus evil, beautiful versus beastly. That became the fashion of my craft. Every set was unique, and dragons would battle knights or dancing girls would battle leering courtiers or elves would battle trolls, all embodied in the exactly crafted figures that emerged from my hands. Me and my knife, we wrought wonders, and all it took was one burning glance from under my scraggly, sand-colored hair to make the rest of the fuckers in our village remember that there were many, many things a knife could cut.

I made children cry with a glare and a snarl. When the women pulled their skirts aside as I passed on the streets, limping furiously and hauling at my lurching spine, I would spit on them. Schoolboys would jeer at me as I passed the small house where boys and girls learned their letters, and I flicked tiny, homemade knives. I would score blood, every time, and crow disgustingly as I stalked away, enjoying their tears.

I became the town pariah, and that was well and fine for me.

It was not so well and fine for my gentle sister.

Poor Gwen. She affected not to care about the way the boys in the village sneered at her as she walked me home. She pretended that being the one girl at home, sewing with her damaged hands, was not one more burr in her stocking among others when the rest of the village was gathered on the sands below for the raucous dances of Beltane or Litha or Samhain or the solstice. In our village, when a dog killed a chicken, it was common practice to tie the dead chicken around the dog’s neck with twine until the poor carcass rotted off.
Well, instead of her rightful kill, poor Gwen was stuck with me twitching at her neck and stinking up her chances for a real life, one with a husband and a family, one with kindness and love.

The kicker came when a new ship came in with the fall tide. It was too late in the season, so the sailors put up in a local inn, as they often did. The first lieutenant started frequenting the dress shop where my sister worked. He was a handsome man—anyone could see it. A strong jaw, warm brown eyes, golden hair. But it was the way he looked at my sister, the way he brought her dinner when her workday was done, and the way he listened to her, head cocked to the side, considering, when she spoke softly and hesitantly about her day, these things made him beautiful beyond stars.

For her, though, it was the way he spoke to me.

“Hi, Naef,” he would murmur, not loud, because loud, overly jovial voices tended to make me startle, trying desperately to pull into my shell like a crab. “What did you make today?”

I would show him, although it took me weeks to do so without suspicious haggling on my part. He would turn the pieces slowly in his hand and smile. True appreciation, that one.

“When you are done with this set,” he said one day, “could you make one for me? I will pay your master well, and pay you well also, for taking the commission. Could you do that for me?”

The ship was going out within the week. A chess set was always more than a fortnight endeavor for me. “Will it make you come back this season?” I asked, looking sideways to where my sister was standing, staring out to sea with troubled eyes, as though he had already left with the tide.

Kyln looked at my sister too. “That’s the idea,” he said softly. “But the set is for my cousin, and it’s a very special gift.” He looked at me now, in all seriousness. “I’m not asking this out of pity, Naef. I’m not asking just to see your sister again. I’m asking because my cousin… he’s having a troubled time, and I can’t give him counsel, and I can’t stand in his place. This… this is all I can give him. The things you make are beautiful, and my cousin is the best of men.”

I swallowed and nodded. Kyln was also, apparently, the best of men. I watched my sister bob her head nervously and give him a watery smile as he walked toward her, hand extended, me hobbling in his wake.

She was going to tell him no. I knew it in my bones.

That didn’t stop me from pouring my heart into the chess set he commissioned from me. He wanted a set where the white king was a beast, a lion on two legs, and his queen and court were animals.
It was beautiful.

The black pieces were twisted, like my spine and my heart, and pock-riddled and snarling. The animals were grotesquely formed, with distorted limbs and enlarged heads, half-formed chests and engorged phalluses. The black king was… was me, glaring from a carved riddle of hair and ugliness, and physical pain and painful anger.

I carved him last. When it was done, I spent an hour simply running my fingers over the ebony and maple, the warm finish soft under my fingers.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever crafted, and a part of me wanted to destroy it, crush it into splinters with a hammer, because it left me naked in my hideousness, and it was all for naught. The morning before I finished, Kyln had arrived on our shore, looking tentative and humble and hopeful, and my sister had broken his heart.

I’d seen it. I’d seen her as he’d walked up from the harbor, and her face had been a mixture of joy at seeing him and terrible, terrible sadness. I’d huddled in my workshop corner, watching the two of them talk. I hadn’t seen her face, but I’d seen the stoic disappointment on his. She’d turned away first, and walked away with shoulders held stiff as a soldier’s, and I thought that maybe being my first line of defense had done that to her. Every beat of my heart ached like an abscessed tooth.

Kyln was good to his word, though, and he came into the little shop, ignoring the master woodsmith, who used to kick me and spit on me until I got very good at the tiny knives.

I let him look at the chess set, and something about it must have permeated his misery.

“It’s magnificent, Naef,” he said softly. “It’s… it’s all I could ask for. It should make Aerie-Smith very happy.”

Aerie-Smith was a very odd name, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I took what little grace I possessed and tried to give him a bandage for his heart.

“It’s not your fault,” I rasped, taking the white pawns (different exotic birds, all of them) and wrapping them in soft leather.

“I’m sorry?” he asked, and his face was naked with grief.

“It’s not your fault. She… she’s wrong-headed. She’s staying to protect me. It’s not worth it. I can’t seem to tell her that it’s not worth it….”

I was looking at my scarred hands, and watching miserably as my snarled hair became wet and even nastier than it already was. I saw his hands: clean and calloused from working on the sea, but still, straight and even, sensitive, and not covered in woodworking scars or attached to bony wrists. They moved out of my vision and came back, wet on the backs. Then those fine, noble son’s hands came to cover mine and I almost shook them off, just so they wouldn’t be soiled with my touch.

“It’s more than worth it,” he said gently, and I pulled away and wiped my cheek on my shirt. I could very likely fall in love with my sister’s suitor, but even then I knew my temper was too foul. I would need someone as bullheaded as I was, and Kyln would never be him.
“She killed for me,” I choked, and was expecting to see him recoil. He didn’t.

“So she said.”

I was so startled I actually met his eyes. “She told you that?” I couldn’t help it, and the expression was so alien it actually hurt my face. If nothing else, taking the pressure off my teeth made my head ache with relief. “There’s hope!” I said, not sure if I could talk through a smile. “If she told you that… oh, Kyln, you mustn’t give up hope. I’ll… I’ll run away. I’ll stop rotting on her neck like an albatross. I’ll….”

I turned away then, frightened and unaccustomed to hope. When I spoke again, my voice was under control. “I would do anything to see her happy. Come back. Come back, and don’t mourn me if I’m not here….”

I was not thinking of suicide. I was not thinking of hurling myself off the cliffs to the north. It was a bitter life, full of hatred and bloody thoughts, but I still clung to it. If nothing else, I would not give the humans around me the satisfaction of leaving it before I’d exacted my last measure of revulsion from them.

But Kyln’s hands came down hard on my shoulders. “Don’t think of it,” he rasped. “Don’t think of leaving her. She’ll walk the ends of the earth to find you. Stay. Stay here. I have a plan. A plan that could get you out of this place, that would free her heart. I have a plan, Naef. Don’t despair. Please. For the both of us.”

Kyln’s faith—oh, gods. What must it be like to have such faith in the world, in plans, in your own ability to control your fate? It was contagious, that’s what it was. I could not help it. I caught his hope like a plague.

“Fine,” I snapped. “But if you don’t return, or break her heart, you’d better be dead.” I looked at him in my accustomed way, from beneath my brows and the snarl of hair in my eyes. “She killed for me. I owe her.” 

Halloween Angel
Eddie Gillespie raised his head slowly from his pillow and blinked at the sunlight that was beginning to filter through the bedroom window blinds. Gingerly, he put his fingertips to the side of his face, feeling the puffiness there. He knew, without getting up to look in the mirror, that he was going to have one helluva bruise under his right eye.

Idiot, he thought. Why had he let that moron back into his life after all the shit he’d put up with before?

“You are such a sucker, Eddie,” he muttered, struggling out of his bed. He trudged through to the bathroom, flicking on the light so he could peer at his reflection. It was even worse than he had imagined. His cheekbone under his right eye was contused and discoloured, the white of his eye was a bloody red, and his bottom lip was torn and split in two places.

“Jesus…” His eyes filled with tears as he stared at himself. “Bob, you bastard…why?” Only last night, against his better judgement, he’d agreed to meet his ex at the Blue Moon bar on Santa Monica. He’d been worn down by Bob’s constant whining on the phone about how much he missed their time together, and how he’d really changed, and how fuckin’ sorry he was for all the things he’d done and blah, blah, blah… And Eddie had fallen for it.

“Idiot!” he yelled at his reflection in the mirror. “You stupid idiot!” Because of course he knew Bob hadn’t changed. He couldn’t change—he was rotten through and through. A narcissist with a cruel and mean streak he could not control—especially after a couple of drinks.

Eddie shuddered as he remembered the look on Bob’s face when he’d refused to have him back at his apartment. That cold look of anger had so quickly morphed into an uncontrollable rage then the slapping had begun. It wasn’t as if Eddie couldn’t defend himself. He could. He wasn’t a big man, but he worked out regularly, and at five nine and one-hundred-and-sixty pounds, he was slender but sleekly muscled and strong. He just wasn’t a violent man. The thought of hurting someone made him wince. He had never been able to understand why anyone would want to beat up on another person—especially someone they purported to like—love even.

Well, that was the end of it. He would never allow Bob to get close enough to punch him in the face again. Any phone calls or emails would be ignored. He’d be damned if he was going to be that stupid again. Even if it meant staying home so he wouldn’t run into Bob at any of their old haunts.

Fortunately, he did have something to look forward to. Halloween was just a week away, and he’d been invited to one of the biggest parties in LA. Sam Peterson, the movie star, had invited him, personally. Eddie cut Sam’s hair every two weeks, come rain or shine. He’d even been flown out to a couple of on-location sites when Sam was unable to get back due to his heavy work schedule. Sam was one of the most beautiful men Eddie had ever seen—the total Hollywood package. Tall, dark and handsome, with the bluest eyes and the whitest teeth, a hard chest, ridged abs and a narrow waist—together it had all made him People Magazine’s Sexiest Man three years running. Too bad he was straight or Eddie might have had a chance of dancing with the star.

Problem was…what to wear to the party. Sam had already told him he was going to be a vampire so that was out, and ghouls and zombies were so darned unattractive. Chances were there would be quite a few hot young men there, bound to be one or two gays, and Eddie didn’t want to take the chance of scaring any of them away. So what were the options? Viking, gladiator, cowboy…? All done to death every year. And he wasn’t about to do drag. Wearing heels all night was not his idea of a fun time.

He took another look at his face in the mirror and hoped the swelling would go down before the party—otherwise, only monster makeup would hide all the bruising. Damn you, Bob! Eddie’s head turned in the direction of the living room as he heard his phone ringing. For a moment, he was tempted to let the answering machine pick it up. If it was Bob—and he had just enough cold nerve to call him even after what he’d done—he didn’t want to answer. But it might be Randy or Jenny. He ran to the phone wishing he had caller ID.


“Hi, sweetcakes.”

“Jenny. How’re you?”

“I’m good, but I heard what happened last night with that bastard Bob.” Anger edged her voice as she continued, “Randy called this morning and told me. Why don’t you set the cops on the son-of-a-bitch?”

Eddie sighed. “The cops aren’t going to do anything about two fags having a bitch fight, Jenny.”

“But that’s not what happened.”

“I know that, and you know that, but the cops really don’t give a damn. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Bob. Wanna get some lunch later? I have the day off.”

“That’s why I’m calling. Randy and I want to take you out for lunch. Get your mind off the nasties of this world.”

“That’s sweet—but we’ll go Dutch.”

“Uh, uh. Our treat…and Eddie…” Jenny hesitated for a moment. “Why can’t you fall in love with Randy?”


“He adores you. He was so mad about what happened…”

“I know, and he got himself a fat lip for trying to interfere.” Eddie chuckled. “I think Bob got a big surprise when Randy got in his face in my defence.”

“You two would make a great team. He’s cute—”

“Jenny, stop with the matchmaking. I love Randy. He’s my best friend. And that’s the way I’d like to keep it. Sex just fucks up everything.”

Jenny giggled. “Isn’t that the idea?”

“Cut it out,” Eddie growled. “So what time’s lunch?”

“One, at Ricardo’s.”

“I’ll be there—and thanks.”

Eddie put down the phone, shaking his head. Jenny was singing that same old tune again. Ever since she’d introduced him to Randy Cox, close to six years ago, she’d been trying to push them together in a very unsubtle way. Even after Eddie had met Bob, she’d kept up the ‘Randy would be so much better for you’ routine. Just as well Bob was too into himself to ever catch on.

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

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

And I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved the house from the moment I saw it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigel Letters may have been an unlikable putz in real life, but I had to give him credit for one outstanding accomplishment. He built this house. I was not ridiculing the man when I hung his 8x10 glossy on the bedroom wall from the very hook on which he died. I thought of it more as a tongue-in-cheek shrine. Nigel and I, after all, had a few things in common. We both plied our trade in Hollywood. We were both gay. We both loved this house. And we both, in our day, owned Irish setters. Nigel’s Irish setter, although male, was named Nancy. Somehow that didn’t surprise me, coming as it did from a man who enjoyed masturbating in taffeta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt welcome.

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

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

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

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

I could almost hear it breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My fingers itched for the keyboard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said ‘excuse me,’” I lied.


“What did you say?” I asked.

“I asked if you were staying.”

“In the house, you mean?”

“Yes.” Her voice, whoever she was, sounded more amused now than confused. “I’m asking if you intend to stay in the house. This is Caroline.”


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

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

“You didn’t find my note, did you?”


“I left you a note on the mantle.”

“I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t see it. I’m James Brandon, by the way. And in answer to your question, yes, I am intending to stay in the house. In fact, I intend to buy the house.”


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

“Did you just arrive?”

I laughed. “I got here bright and early this morning.”

“And you’ve already decided to buy?”


There was a silence on the line for a couple of ticks before she said, “Haven’t you ever read any of those books you write?”

“Squee… I mean, excuse me?”

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

“Have you ever spent a night here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard that story before, Mr. Brandon, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.”

“She didn’t laugh?” I asked.

Caroline groaned. “Oh, she laughed all right. And she did indeed drop the tray with the coffee pot on it. But she didn’t break any toes. Only the pot.”

“Well, that’s disappointing.”

I could sense the woman smiling now. “The story of the broken toes rather appealed to your sense of the dramatic, didn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Brandon—”

“James. Jim, actually.”

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

“Your grandmother is still alive?”

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

“Could she?”

“She could, yes. But that’s not to say she would.”

“Well, perhaps I’ll meet her someday.”

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

Teasingly, I asked, “Are you afraid?”

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

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

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

I was about as handy as Rex.

“Well, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Two days a week it is.”

“I would even be willing to cook for you on occasion, if you wish. But I won’t spend any nights there. Are we agreed on that?”

“Absolutely. No nights.”

“And I must insist that when I’m there, you or someone else will always be there with me. I don’t want to be in the house alone. It may sound silly to you, but those are the rules.”

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

“More than agreeable. Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

We spent a few minutes discussing wages and what hours she would be willing to work, finally settling on Tuesdays and Fridays from nine to six.

With matters of business no longer hanging over our heads, the conversation took on a friendlier tone.

“When I heard it was you moving into the house I went out and bought a couple of your books.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll need the money.”

She laughed.

“So… did you like them?” I asked, with that familiar trepidation creeping into my voice that I had come to expect every time I asked that question of a stranger.

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

“Then you’re in luck. There’s one coming out in the fall.”

“That’s wonderful, but I don’t mean that one.”

“I’m sorry. You lost me.”

“I’m talking about the next one. The one you write inside that house.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have a clue what that one will be about. I haven’t really thought about it yet.”

“It will be about the house, James.”

“Will it?”

“Oh yeah.”

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

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Haven’t you wondered why no one has bought the house over the years?”

Miss Caroline, as I had already begun to think of her, seemed to be a fairly perceptive flake. I had indeed wondered about that.

“Well,” I said, “I assumed it was the price tag. And perhaps the remoteness of the location.”

“No, James. It’s the house itself. All those rumors about it being haunted aren’t just rumors, you know.”

“Do you know this for a fact, or are you…?”

“That appeals to you, doesn’t it, the fact that maybe the place might be haunted? Judging by the books you write, I should think that would appeal to you very much.”

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

“You haven’t heard any odd noises?”

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

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

“What has started?”

“The house. It’s testing you. Feeling you out.”

“Oh, come now. Maybe I should clean the house and you should write the books.”

Her laugh was interrupted by what sounded like a tower of pots and pans crashing to the floor.

“I have to go,” she said. “My son is rearranging the kitchen cupboards.”

“A handful, huh?”

“Several handfuls, actually.”

“You’re more than welcome to bring him with you when you work, if you wish. I wouldn’t mind at all.”

“I would mind, Mr. Brandon. I mean, James. I mean, Jim. I’ll never bring my little boy into that house.”

The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Does it really frighten you that much?”

There was a long silence before she finally answered. “Children are not safe in that house. Please remember that. Children have never been safe in that house.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Farewell
Chapter One
The body of the third girl was found Tuesday morning in the woods a few miles outside Murphysboro. Flynn read about it the following day in the Herrin News as the train chugged slowly through the green cornfields and deep woods of Southern Illinois. The dead girl’s name was Millie Hesse and like the other two girls she had been asphyxiated and then mutilated. There were other “peculiarities”, according to the newspaper, but the office of the Jackson County Sheriff declined to comment further.

The peculiarities would be things about the murder only known to the police and the murderer himself. At least in theory. Flynn had covered a few homicides since his return from France three years earlier, and it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. But there were already rumors flying through the wires about a homicidal maniac on the loose in Little Egypt.

Flynn gazed out the window as a giant cement smokestack came into sight. The perpetually smoldering black slag heap, half-buried in the tall weeds, reminded him in some abstruse way of the ravaged French countryside. His lip curled and he stared down again at the newspaper.

He didn’t care much for homicide cases; he’d seen enough killing in the war. And reading about poor, harmless, inoffensive Millie Hesse and her gruesome end in the dark silent oaks and elms of these lonely woods dampened his enthusiasm for the story he was there to cover, a follow-up on the Herrin Massacre the previous summer. Not to write about the massacre itself. More than enough had been written about that.

It had been a big year for news, 1922, between the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the States who hadn’t heard about what had happened in these parts between local miners and the Southern Illinois Coal Company. Flynn wanted to write about Herrin one year later; the aftermath and the repercussions. Plus, it was a good reason to visit Amy Gulling, the widow of his old mentor Gus. Gus had died in the winter, and Flynn hadn’t made it down for the funeral. He didn’t care much for funerals, either.

The train had been warm, but when Flynn stepped down onto the platform of the old brick station in Herrin, humidity slapped him in the face like a hot towel in a barber shop. It reminded him of summer in the trenches, minus the rats and snipers, of course.

He nodded an absent farewell to his fellow passengers—he couldn’t have described them if his life had depended on it—and caught one of the town’s only cabs, directing the driver to Amy Gulling’s boarding house. Heat shimmered off the brick streets as the cab drove him through the peaceful town past the sheriff’s office, closed during the violence of that long June day last year, and the hardware stores where the mob had broken in to steal guns and ammunition which they had then used to murder the mine guards and strikebreakers.

The cab let him out in front of the wooden two-story Civil War-style house on the corner. Flynn paid the driver, picked up his luggage and headed up the shady walk. He rang the bell and seconds later Amy herself was pushing open the screen door and welcoming him inside.

“David Flynn! I just lost a bet with myself.”

“What bet?” He dropped his bags and hugged her hard.

“I bet you wouldn’t come. I bet you’d find another excuse.”

Amy was big and comfortable like a plushy chair. She wore a faded but well-starched flowered dress. Though her hair was now a graying flaxen, her blue green eyes were as bright as ever. They studied him with canny affection.

Flynn reddened. “I’m sorry, Amy. Sorry I didn’t make it down when Gus…”

She waved that away. “The funeral didn’t matter. And you’re here now. You must be tuckered out from that train ride.”

She led him through to the parlor. A fat woman in a blue dress sat fanning herself in front of the big window, and in another chair a small, slim girl of perhaps twenty was reading a book titled The Girls’ Book of Famous Queens. She had dark hair and wore spectacles.

“This is Mrs. Hoyt and her daughter Joan. They’re regular boarders. They’ve been with me for two months now, since Mr. Hoyt passed.”

“How do,” said Mrs. Hoyt. The fine, sharp features of her face were blurred by weight and age. When she’d been young she probably looked like Joan. Her hair was still more dark than silver.

The girl, Joan, gave him a shy smile and a clammy hand.

“David’s an old friend of my husband. One of his former journalism students. He’s going to be spending the next week or so with us.”

“Are you a newspaperman, Mr. Flynn?” asked Mrs. Hoyt.

“I am, but I’m on vacation now.” Flynn knew this old beldame’s breed. She’d be gossiping with the neighbors—those she considered her social equal—in nothing flat. And he wanted the freedom of anonymity, the ability to talk to these people without them second-guessing and censoring their words.

There was plenty for people to keep their mouths shut about considering Herrin had a national reputation for being the worst of the bad towns in “Bloody Williamson County”. The trials of the men who had murdered the Lester Mine Company strikebreakers and guards had ended in unanimous acquittals, shocking the rest of the nation.

“David was in France,” Amy said with significance.

“My son was in France, Mr. Flynn. Where did you see action?”

“I went over with Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces, ma’am.”

“As a soldier or a journalist?”

“As a soldier.” He had been proud of that. Proud to fight and maybe die for his ideals. Now he wondered if he wouldn’t have done more good as a reporter.

“My son fell in the Battle of the Argonne.”

The girl bowed her head, stared unseeingly at the book on her lap.

Flynn said, “A lot of boys did.”

“My son was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t win any medals.”

“Well, let’s get you situated,” Amy said briskly, breaking the sudden melancholy mood that had settled on the sunny parlor. “I’ve got David in the room over the breezeway.”

“That’s a mighty pleasant room in the summer,” agreed Mrs. Hoyt. The daughter murmured acknowledgement.

Flynn smiled at Amy. “I remember.”

He nodded to the ladies and followed Amy. She was saying, “I’ve turned Gus’s study into a library and smoking room for the gentlemen.”

Flynn asked unwillingly, “Has it been tough since Gus died?”

“Oh, you know. I manage all right. I keep the boarding house for company as much as anything. I never was happy on my own.” Amy paused in the doorway of another room. “Here are our gentlemen. Doctor Pearson, Mr. Flynn is an old family friend. He’ll be staying with us for a few days. Mr. Devereux, Mr. Flynn.”

The gentlemen appeared to have been interrupted in the midst of writing letters. Doctor Pearson was small and spry with snapping dark eyes and the bushy sideburns and whiskers that were popular before the war. Mr. Devereux was older than the doctor, but he dyed his hair and mustache a persevering jet black. He had the distinctive features—aquiline nose and heavy-lidded eyes—Flynn had grown familiar with in France.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Dr. Pearson said, putting aside his pen and paper and offering his hand.

Devereux was equally polite. “A pleasure, sir.” He had a hint of an accent, but it was not exactly French. French Canadian perhaps? Or, no, French Creole?

“Mr. Devereux is a regular contributor to a number of Spiritualist periodicals,” Amy commented.

Mr. Devereux livened up instantly. “That’s correct. I’m penning an article at this moment for The Messenger in Boston.”

Flynn nodded courteously. Spiritualism? Good God.

Perhaps Amy sensed his weary distaste because she was soon ushering him out of the room and down the hall.

They started toward the long blue-carpeted staircase. A quick, light tread caught Flynn’s attention. He glanced up and saw a young man coming down the stairs. He was tall and willowy, his black hair of a bohemian length. His skin was a creamy bisque, his eyes dark and wide. Flynn judged him about nineteen although he wore no tie or jacket. He was dressed in gray flannel trousers, and his white shirt was open at the throat, the sleeves rolled to his elbows like a schoolboy.

“This is Mr. Flynn, Julian,” Amy said.

Julian raised his delicate eyebrows. “Oh yes?”

“He’s an old friend of my husband and me. He’s going to be staying with us for a time.”

Julian observed Flynn for long, alert seconds before he came leisurely down the rest of the staircase. He offered a slender, tanned hand and Flynn grasped it with manly firmness.

“Charmed,” Julian murmured. He gently squeezed Flynn’s hand back and studied him from beneath lashes as long and silky as a girl’s. It was a look both shy and oddly knowing. Flynn recovered his hand as quickly as he could. He nodded curtly.

Julian smiled as though he read Flynn’s reluctance and was entertained by it. It was a sly sort of smile, and his mouth was soft and pink. A sissy if Flynn had ever seen one.

“Julian is Mr. Devereux’s grandson.” There was something in Amy’s voice Flynn couldn’t quite pin down. Either she didn’t like the old man or she didn’t care for the kid—or maybe both.

Julian said slowly, “You’re a…writer, David?”

“How the hell—?” Flynn stopped. Julian was smiling a smug smile.

“I know things.”

“That’s a dangerous habit.”

“The philosophers say that knowledge is power.”

“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to get punched in the nose.”

Both Amy and Julian laughed at that, and Flynn realized that he probably seemed a little hot under the collar.

Julian nodded pleasantly and sauntered away to the smoking room cum library.

“What in the blue blazes was that?” Flynn inquired of Amy as she led him up the staircase.

She laughed but it sounded forced. “That is The Magnificent Belloc. He’s a spirit medium.”

“You’re joking.”

Amy shook her head. “He’s giving a show over at the Opera House every night this week except Friday and Sunday. Friday the high school is putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Spiritualism,” Flynn said in disgust. He came from a long line of staunch Irish Protestants.

“Oh sure, there are a lot of fakes and phonies around. But the war changed a lot of people’s feelings about spiritualism and mediums,” Amy said. “When you lose someone dear to you, well, I guess you’d do anything to be able to talk to them one more time.”

Flynn glanced at her and then glanced away. “I guess so.”

“I don’t put stock in spirits and that sort of thing, but from what I hear young Julian has a knack for knowing things.”

“I’ll bet.”

Amy said mildly, “He called it right with you. I didn’t tell him your first name was David or that you were a newspaperman.”

“No, you didn’t. But you did mention it to Mrs. Hoyt and her daughter.” Flynn added dryly, “I’m guessing that The Magnificent Belloc’s bedroom is the one over the parlor. Is that right?”

Amy looked chagrined. “That’s right.”

“I thought so. That kid’s as phony as a three dollar bill.”

“Oh, he’s not so bad. A bit of a pansy, I guess. It’s the old man I don’t like. Whatever that boy is or isn’t, it’s that old frog’s fault.”

Flynn didn’t argue with her, but he didn’t agree either. Devereux younger wasn’t anyone’s victim. He recognized that jaded look. Whatever the racket was, The Magnificent Belloc was in it up to his shell-like ears.

Amy continued up the narrow staircase to the second level. Flynn’s room was in the former servant’s quarters on the far side of the house’s breezeway. The roofed, open-sided passageway between the house and the garage was on the east side of the corner property, the “cool” side shaded by a big walnut tree, but there was nothing cool about that sunny box of a room that afternoon.

After Amy left, Flynn unpacked and then washed up next door in the closet-sized bathroom that had once served as a storage room.

Back in his room, he changed his shirt and examined himself closely in the square mirror over the highboy. What had that punk seen? Dark, wavy hair, blue eyes, strong chin and straight nose. Regular features. He was a regular guy. He looked all right. He looked like everybody else. Girls liked him fine. That girl, Joan, she didn’t see anything wrong with him.

He shook his head impatiently at the troubled-looking Flynn in the mirror.

It didn’t matter what that pansy thought or didn’t think. Flynn didn’t have to have anything to do with him. He was going to get his story and then he’d be heading back to New York City where people had a little discretion, a little subtlety.

He could smell fresh coffee and frying ham, and he followed the aroma downstairs where his fellow boarders were having a big noontime dinner of fried eggs, ham, sausage and golden brown potatoes. “Luncheon” they called it in New York, although you wouldn’t get anything like this for lunch.

Flynn took a seat at the table across from Joan. He noticed—to his relief—that the disturbing Julian was absent. There was a lively discussion going on about the recent murders in the neighboring county.

“Perhaps someone could ask the Comte about them,” Joan said, with a self-conscious look in Flynn’s direction.

Doctor Pearson snorted. The older Devereux was shaking his head.

“Who’s the Comte?” Flynn asked.

“The Comte de Mirabeau. Julian’s spirit guide,” Joan replied primly. “He was a French statesman, orator and writer. He died during the French Revolution.”

“You’re not a believer, young man,” Devereux said severely, watching Flynn.

“I believe in plenty of things,” Flynn said. “What did you have in mind?”

“Julian is a medium,” Joan said.

“A medium what?”

Mrs. Hoyt gave a breathy laugh and scooped up a mouthful of eggs.

The conversation briefly languished, and Flynn decided to ask about the trials of the miners accused of murder last year and the winter. That revived the discussion, but mostly what he heard about was how the KKK and the local ministers were trying to persuade the government and the law to do something about the bootleggers and their roadhouses springing up like toadstools. The massacre was old news. It appeared nobody wanted to think about it.

Astonishingly, these civilized, decent folk seemed to think the best bet for the lawlessness plaguing their county was the Ku Klux Klan. Flynn found it hard to credit. He kept his mouth shut for the most part and listened.

“Thank goodness for Prohibition!” exclaimed Mrs. Hoyt, shoveling in fried potatoes.

Dr. Pearson shot back, “The only thing Prohibition helps is the gangsters and the damned Ku Klux Klan.”

“It’s kept a lot of boys off the liquor,” insisted Mrs. Hoyt thickly.

“Ah baloney,” growled the old doctor. “More of those kids are trying booze out now than they were before Prohibition. Forbidding it makes drink seem exciting.”

“That’s because the sheriffs don’t enforce the law!”

Amy said to Flynn, “Mrs. Hoyt is right about that. We’ve got a poor excuse for a sheriff. He’s great pals with half the bootleggers in the county.”

“I’m surprised that you, a doctor, would take that view,” Mrs. Hoyt said to Pearson. She seemed indignant, but Flynn had the idea this was not a new argument in this household.

Pearson was unmoved. “When drink was legal these kids weren’t allowed in a saloon, but these damned bootleggers don’t care who they sell their hooch to or who they sucker into gambling away their paychecks. Why, I was tending a poor kid over in Murphysboro just last week who died of that damned bathtub gin.”

Joan’s gaze met Flynn’s and slid away.

“But that’s exactly what the Klan and the ministers are saying,” Mrs. Hoyt insisted. “If the law won’t clean this mess up, then the people have to.”

Devereux chimed in, “People? Which people? A bunch of anti-union kleagles and clowns dressed up in spooky robes doing their mumbo-jumbo and burning crosses out in somebody’s pasture.”

The old guy sounded pretty heated. Flynn was willing to bet that with their complexion and coloring, he and the kid had been mistaken for Italians or worse on more than one occasion.

“You’re a fine one to talk about mumbo-jumbo,” Mrs. Hoyt said tartly.

Devereux bridled. “I assure you, Madame, Spiritualism is as valid and respectable a religion as any other. We simply believe that the door between this world and the next is accessible to those who hold the key, and that through the talents of one gifted with the power to communicate with spirits, we may learn and be advised by our loved ones who have gone before us.”

“Speaking of those gone before us,” Flynn remarked, “I see your grandson isn’t at lunch.”

“Julian rests in the afternoon,” the old man said stiffly. “He is not strong, and his efforts to act as conduit to the other side tax him greatly.”

Flynn managed to control his expression. Just.

There was not a lot of chat after that. When the meal was finished, Flynn excused himself and went back to his room. He wanted to start looking around the town as soon as possible.

He found he had a visitor. Julian Devereux was seated on the bed, idly flipping through his copy of Bertram Cope’s Year. Flynn had left the book in his Gladstone.

He paused in the doorway, the hair on the back of his neck rising on end. “What are you doing in here?” he asked sharply.

Julian jumped—so much for psychic powers—though his smile was confident. He tossed the book on the green and white Irish chain quilt, leaned back on his hands.

“I thought we should get to know each other, David.”

Flynn studied Julian’s finely chiseled features coldly, taking in the angular, wide mouth and heavy-lidded, half-amused dark eyes.

“Why’s that?”

Julian arched one eyebrow. “You know.”

“No, I don’t. And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to.”

Julian tilted his head, as though listening to an echo he couldn’t quite place. “I didn’t figure you for the shy type,” he said eventually.

“I’m not. I’m not your type either.” Flynn was careful not to look at the book on the bed. “Now if you don’t mind—?” He held the door open pointedly.

A look of disbelief crossed Julian’s face. He rose from the bed and slowly moved to the door. For an instant he stood before Flynn. He was so slight, so lithesome that Flynn kept picturing him shorter than he was. In fact, he was as tall as Flynn, his doe-like dark eyes gazing directly into the other man’s.

“Have it your way,” he said.

“I intend to.”

“But if you should change your mind—”

Flynn inquired dryly, “Wouldn’t The Magnificent Belloc be the first to know?”

Author Bios:
Alex Beecroft
Spaceships and galaxy spanning empires, conversations with angels, viking villages, haunted mansions and forbidden love in the Age of Sail... I love a good strong plot in an exotic setting, with characters you can admire, and a happy ending.

If you make a venn diagram of genres, including historical, fantasy, gay romance and mystery, I occupy the space in the middle where they overlap.

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.

J.P. Bowie
J.P. Bowie was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland. He wrote his first (unpublished) novel – a science fiction tale of brawny men and brawnier women that made him a little suspect in the eyes of his family for a while.

Leaving home at age eighteen for the bright lights of London, he found himself in the midst of a “diverse and creative crowd” that eventually led him to the performing arts. For the next twelve years he sang, danced and acted his way around the theatres of London and the provinces, appearing in shows with many famous British singers, actors and comedians.

After immigrating to the US and living for many years in Las Vegas where he worked for that incomparable duo, Siegfried and Roy, J.P. found himself entranced by the fair city of San Diego where he currently lives with his partner, Phil.

John Inman
John has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember. Born on a small farm in Indiana, he now resides in San Diego, California where he spends his time gardening, pampering his pets, hiking and biking the trails and canyons of San Diego, and of course, writing. He and his partner share a passion for theater, books, film, and the continuing fight for marriage equality. If you would like to know more about John, check out his website.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Alex Beecroft

Amy Lane

J.P. Bowie

John Inman

Josh Lanyon

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The Dark Farewell