THE HOUSE OF AUNTY BERENICE
Purple was etched beneath her wide eyes. The slightly built girl in the shadowy doorway wore an eggshell-blue dress and apparently nothing else. Some people answer and look as if they're truly at home, in body and spirit; somehow, she didn't seem to belong, not here in this dilapidated house, not in shadow.
'Hello,' Swan greeted her, conscious of his total lack of originality. He removed his brown trilby, reassured by the touch of the felt brim. Why be concerned about showing freshness to her, why impress a stranger? 'I'm looking for a Miss Winkworth - she used to live here...' What an utter mess he was making of it! Affected by the presence of this slip of a girl!
She opened the door a little further, as though reluctant to admit daylight, anxious to preserve the shadows. He studied the silent puzzlement in her chestnut-brown eyes.
'I'm an investigator,' he began and withdrew a Perspex card. 'She's her late uncle's beneficiary...'
Long auburn hair shimmering, she nodded and beckoned with slim fingers for him to enter.
Swan cast a final apprehensive look up at the shabby Georgian facade. Probably his over-active imagination, but he could feel the charged atmosphere, a palpable thing, as he stepped over the threshold.
What little wallpaper the hallway possessed was peeling off the damp walls, baring cracked alabaster. Cobwebs looped everywhere. Strangely, the air was not musty; it seemed chill, sharp, a smell like hoar-frost. Tangible. Air in suspension.
Her shapely body tended to flow beneath the dress; hips and buttocks rolled provocatively yet she appeared blissfully unaware of her sexuality, giving him the fanciful impression of someone fragile and unearthly.
Dust and grit moved under his feet.
He shouted: 'Wait!' Voice echoing. 'We can talk here!'
She turned, a crease of disapproval marring her brow. 'You should know better than to shout,' she whispered softly. 'Aunty will hear you. We don't want that, do we?' Her eyes lanced up at the flaking ceiling.
Inquisitively, he followed her gaze. 'Aunty?' he queried, unbuttoning his raincoat.
'You're my Knight Errant. You need not trouble yourself with Aunty Berenice. She died two years ago...' And she turned gracefully on her bare feet and resumed her interrupted journey.
Everything pointed to her being slightly mad, but he was curious. She spoke intelligibly: her mind seemed synchronised, for she said her aunt died two years ago, and that coincided with Abigail Winkworth's disappearance... Smiling to himself, he felt his revolver snug in its holster. She was small and harmless...
At the end of the hall she waited by a woodworm-pitted door. Through the circular skylight, noonday sun played on her wan high cheekbones. Dust motes glided aimlessly in the sunbeam.
Dryness increased in his mouth as he noticed the dark aureoles of her breasts and the darker triangle beneath the flimsy dress. Yet she appeared unconcerned, innocent, and his cynical mind found that difficult to grasp.
Wordlessly, she took his hand warmly in hers. A kind of frisson traced his spine, tautened his stomach muscles. Was this feeling primitive, merely genetic pimping, or something more profound and spiritual? She led him into a bare sour-looking green room whose parquet floor was littered with cans of food. A naked light hanging on flex from a damaged ceiling rose lent stark illumination.
Cut into the wall opposite was an archway, with a dark-stained wooden cellar-door secured by a rusty bolt. Chopped-up remains of a dining table and chairs were stacked against one wall. An axe rested against the fireplace tiles; the grate contained crisp black book-pages and furniture, while to the left stretched a ceiling-high bookcase, almost empty now, only a few books lying forlorn and well-thumbed, threatened-looking...
She must have read his features, for she said, 'I can't eat books, but they can keep me warm and cook my tinned food.'
It was sunless in here, bleak. With an effort, he smiled and pointed to the bolted door. 'Is that the wine cellar? Have you a good vintage locked away, perhaps?'
Her mouth twisted open. 'It - it's dirty,' she stammered, holding him back. 'Anyway, there's no light...'
He shrugged, his joking having fallen quite flat. 'I was just curious.'
'And the bolt's jammed,' she persisted.
Though now mystified about the cellar, he switched the subject. 'Do you live entirely out of tins, then?' The concern in his voice was genuine. Lost waifs, scruffy urchins, hurt strays, he'd met them all - some were hysterics, others paranoid, and some were the real thing, emotionally damaged in a none too caring society. But over these last two years he’d hardened his heart against them all. Until now. At the moment, as she looked wide-eyed at him, he could feel his legs becoming jelly.
'Usually I get something out of the deep-freeze, but -' she sighed - 'that's jammed as well.' Her tone contained no plea for him to mend the freezer door. 'Besides,' she added, 'I like a change now and again - and the tins give me that.' Without warning, she sat down cross-legged in the middle of the floor. He was grateful to rest his quaking legs and knelt by her side. She gripped his hand tightly.
Reflective, she jerked her head to one side, flicking wisps of hair from her eyes. No tide-marks, hair glistening and healthy, she seemed clean and content, but for the eyes... 'It's a fascinating room, when empty, isn't it?' Her eyes roamed over the ramshackle place. Not much furniture left to cook with, he mused. 'I've lived here three years now - not only in this room...' She gestured nervously. 'I mean the whole hunk of house. Hunk of house - do you like that?'
'Yes, I do.' Her eyes shone at him, and he saw tears behind them, streams of emotion that had never trickled forth. She seemed so defenceless, so fragile. And, he feared, desirable...
'My name's Mystique Recondite.'
Where did reality begin and end with her? Still, the name suited her! 'What did you mean - your Knight Errant?' he asked.
'I want to get away from this,' she suddenly confessed in a whisper and her eyes rolled as though aware of an indiscretion, 'this thing, this house...' The change in tone - and in allegiance - was disconcertingly abrupt, almost to the point of schizophrenia. Then it dawned on him that she had not been outside the house in those three years... No wonder she was so wan, so erratic, seeming less than sane.
Intrigued and a little scared, he felt his skin creep icily down his spine. Her grip tightened, nails digging into his palm. Clearly, underneath her cheerful uncaring manner she, too, was afraid of something.
'Mystique. Do you know the woman I'm seeking?' He was now anxious to get away, yet, perversely, he did not want to leave her alone here. 'Miss Abigail Winkworth - is she related to your Aunty, perhaps?' A crumb fell from the ceiling.
'Yes. But before I say any more you must promise you will never leave me, bring me back here.'
Under normal circumstances he would have laughed, dismissed her demand as a demented plea, to be patronised only until the men in white coats arrived with a straitjacket. But he'd known her so long now, or felt he had, he could not deny or betray her. He nodded.
The ceiling shook with her words. Crumbled and flaked.
'I promise you'll never be left here.'
She leaned forward, pouting. 'You have twisted the words.' Her lip curled back. 'It's like milking a reluctant cow to get you to say it!'
'All right, Mystique. I promise I shall never leave you, bring you back.' And he meant it. Mystique sighed contentedly. 'What's your name, Knight Errant?'
'Alann - with a double en.' He smiled and sensed a change in the air, like a pressure-increase heralding a storm. Now the vile staleness of the discarded cans, of the age of the place, permeated his nostrils and throat and sickened him. As though some odour-shield had been withdrawn.
He heard the unmistakable creaking of floorboards. Upstairs.
'I like you, Alann,' he heard her say.
'I like you a lot.' Her vermilion lips curved. Engaging, yet incongruous at this time; tongue flicked, licking her lips.
Against his will, a lascivious stirring below his stomach began to warm his blood.
Hinges squeaked and her smile froze.
He followed her alarmed eyes. In some mysterious manner the cellar's bolt had loosened; the door swung slightly ajar. Fetid air floated out, a miasma that crossed the room and pressed against him.
The ceiling uttered a moan. Pieces of whitewash and cement dropped in little clusters, making a series of scratching sounds.
'Aunty must be angry' he said and instantly regretted it.
Mystique cried out, 'No, Aunty! Not him! Please! Not this one!' She jumped up, made to let go his hand. 'I won't let you!'
But he hung on: he didn't intend losing her.
Now the ceiling issued a monstrous belch. The green walls dulled, wan and indistinct.
His nostrils snatched some nauseous odour, reminiscent of a slaughter-house he once visited on a case.
Plaster cascaded onto the rubbish already there.
Mystique hesitated, despair clouding her eyes.
He clutched her hand tighter, fingers interlaced.
The roof quivered, emitting a fountain of dust.
And the cellar door swung wide: a spectral light shone from within.
Tempted to seek shelter, he ran across the room with her, came up against the wall. But he held back, lest they become buried alive... Swan pressed her against the wall, close to his inadequate sheltering body.
Hunks of house dropped in dribs and drabs, bounced on rubble. Clouds of choking dust leapt up only to subside and leap again. A rogue alabaster splinter pipped his shoulder.
All he could hear was the trundle of falling debris. It grew into a deafening, continuous, horrible roar.
As his watering eyes focussed on the beckoning cellar-entrance to his left he could see the spectral glow emanating from what appeared to be bones.
His head spun giddily as Mystique's words forcefully returned: 'Not this one! I won't let you!' The cellar was a trap.
Something hard and jagged rapped his shoulder-blades. He experienced a cold trickle of blood as he felt the stabbing pain of Aunty Berenice's displeasure.
Mystique stood immobile, eyes clamped shut. Dust stuck to the sweat on their faces, to his injured back.
His once-reassuring revolver pressed against his ribcage; he released a barking laugh on dust-flecked lips. What good was a gun against anything like Aunty Berenice? On the edge of hysteria, he laughed again. One moment the thunder bellowed, the air screamed; the next, an unreal deathly silence enveloped them.
Only the centre of the ceiling had fallen.
Unexpectedly, Mystique lifted her dusty lips to his. Her gesture was more thankful than coquettish.
'Thank you, Knight Errant, my Alann with the double en,' she said. 'When you laughed, she was beaten. There's been no laughter in this house for years.' Nor compassion, concern, love... Her eyes glistened. 'You see, you were my Knight Errant!'
He had no logical answer to that. But he believed instinctively that Aunty Berenice had been the beneficiary he'd sought. His client had referred to her as a sour, disillusioned old woman who thrived on hate and fear. She had destroyed her family and her children's lives, then vanished. Yes, she would have probably changed her name. But she could not change her nature: even in death she had endowed her house with her own brand of bitterness and spite. Even to the point of manipulating Mystique.
Yet he was no longer interested in client or job. Holding her hand, he recalled his promise. His heart pounded, and not because of their ordeal.
He now had no wish to break his promise, ever.
Without so much as a backward glance they left the firemen and the police and the curious onlookers to sort out the shambles, to bar up the entrance and exits, to close the House of Aunty Berenice until it could be razed to the ground, removed forever from the world of Mystique Recondite.
Previously published in Dark Horizons, 1985.
Copyright Nik Morton 2014.
If you liked this story, you might also like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.