There was something evil about the house. To the young man in the grey suit standing at the end of the circular drive, it towered gaunt and unfriendly against the darkening sky. He fingered the crumpled letter in his pocket and slowly made his way up the gravel path, through the tangled mockery of a garden.
Wonder if the old girl was having me on… He almost spoke the words aloud. No lights, no curtains at the gaping windows— why the whole place seemed derelict. Yet this was the address and that name of hers had sounded kind of familiar. But where had he heard it before?
The thoughts darted uneasily through his mind as he moved along the drive. Must have known me though— but who doesn’t? The newspapers saw to that all right.
Strange how the dusk made such weird shapes of the overgrown hedges and bushes— not that he was the nervous type. She probably lives around the back. What was it she said in the letter? “Come to the house the last day in April. Perhaps we can be of mutual assistance to each other.” Why should she want to help him? And, why the end of April? Still, what had he got to lose?
She replaced the telephone receiver and sat back in the wing chair, listening.
It was quiet in the front room and dark, but that helped her to hear better. Yes, he was coming. Mr. Freddy Jacks, last address — Wandsworth Prison.
She smiled to herself as she thought how simple it had been to trace him. The newspaper reports of his favourite haunts, the pictures of him. She would have known him anywhere. The same thinning hair; the neat moustache that hid the full, pink mouth; the pale, lashless eyes and pointed chin. The resemblance was remarkable— and so fortunate. It dispelled any little qualms she might have had.
The bell jangled through the silence. Let him wait. Leisurely she rose and lit the gas brackets above the mantelpiece. Then she crossed to the desk and made sure that the envelope was in the drawer, also the box of sleeping pills. Satisfied, she absentmindedly fondled the ring on her finger— it seemed a shame to waste it on him. But it wasn’t for long. It wouldn’t do if he went away…
* * *
“Miss Karla Franz?” He found it hard to distinguish the small figure in the dim doorway.
“Good evening, Mr. Jacks.”
“I’ve called about your letter.” Awkwardly he fished in his pocket and produced the scrap of paper.
“Yes. Won’t you come in?” She led the way into the cluttered, oppressive living-room.
“You live here, alone?” He glanced around at the strange muddle of furniture. It looked as though she ate, slept and cooked in the same room.
“I have done so for many years.” She sat behind the desk, her eyes drinking in every detail of his face.
“I didn’t see any lights as I came along…”
“I like to light up as late as I can— it saves fuel. But you can’t be interested in an old spinster’s economies.”
Her face wrinkled into a grin, and he thought with a start how unreal everything was. Even this old crone with her thick raven hair and garish make-up gave him the willies.
“How did you hear about me?” He spoke truculently to disguise the queasy feeling at the pit of his stomach. Why hadn’t he gone round to see Harry instead of following up this old shrew’s crazy letter?
“You’re a famous man, Mr. Jacks, or should the word be — infamous?”
“Take your pick— it’s old history.” He shifted uncomfortably under her bright gaze.
“How long did they give you? Was it 6 or 10 years for fraud — and the intimidation charges?”
“Why ask me — you seem to know all the answers.”
“It’s just that I want to be sure of my facts… Now, I’m certain in your present circumstances that a little financial aid wouldn’t come amiss, would it?”
She watched the greed and then fear flicker in his eyes.
“Why pick on me? There are plenty of kids’ homes for your charity.”
“But it wouldn’t be charity. Oh, no. You see, a long time ago your father and I were known to each other. He may even have told you about me and my family. He used to call me ‘Sinti’.”
“So you were an old flame of my father’s!” Relief flooded through him at the normality of the thing. Not that he could remember anything about the old hag— it used to be a full-time job keeping up with his father’s love-life. It would give him quite a shock if he’d lived to have seen this moth-eaten hag. “Well, well. He was quite a lad, wasn’t he?”
Under the well in the desk her hands became claws, nipping at her own flesh. But she forced herself to meet his knowing leer.
“That’s why I thought we might assist each other. Would you be interested? If so, I have a little proposition to make.”
“Let’s hear it first— I’ll decide later.”
* * *
The expressionless voice ended. Jacks stared at her in horror.
“What? You mean ——?”
“Why not? What would it mean to a man of your calibre, no violence — just a gentle sleep induced by my sleeping pills, with the neat application by you of a soft cushion, firmly applied…”
His mouth felt quite stiff and dry. “And what’s my share of the kitty? A heap of wool and old newspaper?” He tried to force a laugh— what a situation to tell Harry! Barmy wasn’t the word for it— she oughtn’t to be allowed out.
“Not if you’re careful.”
She opened the desk drawer and laid the bulky envelope and key in front of him.
“Shall we say, £500 for services anticipated… And for services rendered the key to my coal cellar where you’ll find the total sum of my worldly goods.”
He was beginning to be convinced. “How much is in the cellar?”
“It’s hard to say— but ample reward for your task.”
“Give me some idea… ” He moistened his lips.
“Five thousand — perhaps a little more. What do you say?”
* * *
“Show me the contents of that.” She pushed the envelope across to him and watched him thumb the notes.
“Five hundred, all right — All right, it’s a deal. Spinster found suffocated in empty house — by person or persons unknown. Nobody saw me come here. Nobody would connect me with you. Just one thing puzzles me— what makes you want to quit this happy world? I’d like to know for the record…”
“There are a number of reasons — but to satisfy your curiosity I’ll quote loneliness as an adequate motive. But you couldn’t possibly understand.”
“Then why not do it yourself? Why bring me into it?”
“And risk my chance of——” She fell silent for a moment, a pained look in her eyes.
Maybe I’m old fashioned— but I’d rather leave that to you.”
“Kind of quibbling, aren’t you? Well, when d’you want it?” How matter of fact the words sounded. This was all so deliberate— no chance of saying, “It happened so quickly”; none of the excitement to blunt the edges of the crime.
“I’m ready when you are. I shall take a normal quantity of sleeping pills just to allay suspicion. They work very quickly— and I shall be quite unaware of what you’re doing.”
She laid the box of tablets on the desk calmly.
“But first you’ll burn my letter, and then, perhaps you’ll fetch me a glass of water from the kitchen.”
She listened as his retreating footsteps sounded more and more faintly, and at last died away altogether. Then she thumbed the ring, and with it came the wind— it was powerful and mercilessly cold, forcing open the pale wooden shutters. The claws were the first to go, then the rest of her.
To assure himself that he was not in the least nervous he began to whistle, filling the glass with speed. As he returned to the living-room, to his surprise, he found the door wide open.
“I’m sure I closed it,” he said to himself as he stood outside the room. “Yes, I am certain I did.”
He listened before entering. There was not the faintest sound from within. Stepping into the room he became aware of a dramatic change in temperature. All at once his heart began to beat violently, then it almost seemed to stand still, for the old lady was missing, the room empty, and, now, an unmistakable sound of heavy footsteps was coming from the cellar below.
A few moments more and they began to ascend the stairs. The lights flickered before the house plunged into darkness. He stood, almost paralysed, while the footsteps came steadily on until they reached the top of the staircase. He could hear choked uneven breathing, like that of some animal. He tried to call out, but his voice would not come. Meanwhile the thing, whatever it was, was evidently coming in his direction. He moved noiselessly backward, intending to slip into one of the empty rooms. But, to his horror, he found no matter how hard he tried he always found himself back in the same room — the very room he wished to avoid.
For the next minute the nameless horror had followed him, and he heard the door shut and the key sharply turned. He heard this with a mingled sense of terror and relief. At least his unseen companion was human, surely? He hardly knew what he feared. He guided himself stealthily and silently past a small table which seemed to occupy the centre of the room, against which he had brushed when entering, and squeezed himself into the farthest corner. Then he heard the thing fling itself down on the floor, where it seemed to lay for some time quite still. At last the throbbing silence was broken by a low nickering laugh. Jacks’ blood ran cold. For he knew he was shut up with something that was mad — either the woman herself or, perhaps, something of her creation. He hardly dared to breathe. All at once the thing began to cry and wail, shaking the house.
Presently it began to speak again in a low, unnaturally quiet monotone, every now and then broken by a horrible laugh. Jacks crouched in his corner, disturbed by the hard leaps of his own heart.
And again the loathsome voice broke into whispered words and cackles.
Suddenly, it stopped, and seemed to listen. Jacks listened too. In spite of himself Jacks uttered a low half-articulate cry. The thing made a swift movement towards him.
“I shall play the hurting game this time!” it hissed.
Jacks could hear it feeling round the walls with eager cruel fingers, could hear its panting breaths. Noiselessly he crept backward as it came nearer, his arms held tightly against his side so that his clothes might not rustle.
A loud crash of glass breaking came from one of the empty rooms, then the sound of voices and footsteps.
All at once the creature uttered a terrible scream.
“No— merciful heaven! it’s on me! Ah! it chokes me— it chokes me! God help—— “
There was a sudden wild rush across the room, a rasping sound as the window was flung open, a heavy sickening thud in the court below, and silence.
And after what seemed half a century at least, someone forced open the door, lights blazed through the darkness, and the confused sound of men’s voices was heard.
“Is this where he fell?” asked the officer.
“Yes, I guess so,” he answered briefly. For the sight in the courtyard had not been a pleasant one. And, as one of the officers had noted, his features were that of a man terrified, and his hair matted, coated with what appeared to be a great amount of cuckoo-spit, still foaming and popping.
* * *
It was lucky they had followed up that stray phone call half an hour previously. On Jacks they found the money— It was one of those watertight cases. But they never discovered the old lady’s black box— she’d hidden it too well. If they had, they would have found that ‘her treasure’ consisted of three yellowing newspaper cuttings whose headlines read: ‘Gypsy family claim harassment’, ‘Mayor Jacks forces eviction’… ‘Gypsy mother’s suicide’
No wonder Franz lay smiling to herself on the sofa. Her black wig had tumbled to the floor and her old gnarled head drooped against the cushions. But what did that matter? She had waited a long time to perfect her craft…
* * *
P.J. Hodge is the author of GHOSTS AND OTHER SUPERNATURAL GUESTS, 12 tales of supernatural terror available from Amazon as ebook and Kindle:
Winner of Gothic Reader Book of the Year