By J. T. Seate
In an old house, odd happenings are not uncommon. Foundations shift and settle. Doors open and close, and let in drafts. Ancient plumbing can imitate sighs and whispers. Old houses are often not for the faint of heart, and if one is predisposed to believe in the supernatural, it is a proper setting. Add a history of murder to the equation and you have something really special. Into this environment came Fred and his wife, Charity. He had purchased the house a short time earlier. Although well-heeled financially, he couldn’t pass on the once-in-a-lifetime price and Charity, his latest wife, although hesitant at first, seemed happy about picking out furnishings and having a big house to roam around in.
Fred entered the house through the back. Taking a break from yard work, he drank a glass of water at the kitchen sink and dabbed his sweaty forehead with a paper towel. He faintly heard Charity’s voice above the warbles of some rock group wailing from the entertainment center in the study. She was on the bedroom phone again. He knew she was not talking to one of her girlfriends. The chatter was not light and airy, nor sprinkled with laughter. It was sober, conspiratorial.
He picked up the kitchen phone ever so carefully, put his hand over the speaker…and listened.
“I will call about ten o’clock,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes,” Charity responded with a rush of air Fred could almost feel through the receiver.
“It will go fine, don’t worry.”
“What if he doesn’t come out?”
“He will. We’ve been over and over this. Just make sure you answer the phone.”
“All right. I love you.”
Fred’s brow knitted in perplexity. The phone line disconnect sounded like a gunshot. Something broke inside Fred as his face reflected a dawning awareness. His mind raced. He unexpectedly understood why Charity had been acting so strangely and going out with her girlfriends so much of late.
He returned the phone to its cradle. His stomach was on spin cycle. He was afraid he was going to be sick as he stumbled across the room and downed another glass of tepid water. He then walked out the way he had come in and around to the front yard where she would expect him to be, clipping away at the evergreens along the driveway.
So there is another man in her life after all, he brooded, even though we just moved into the house that’s supposed to be our love nest. Home sweet home. A place could have two personalities—a wholesome outward appearance on one side and an underbelly of deceit on the other. The phone will ring and I’m supposed to go outside to face what? A pistol? A garrote? Could she actually want me dead? He thought about all those dreads concerning death—fatal illness, accidents of all types—but being murdered?
A chill of disappointment permeated Fred’s bones. The image of her being satisfied by only him popped like a soap bubble. All the pretty talk was now no more than some kind of horseshit cover-up that harbored a carnal liaison behind an exterior of perky innocence. He should have known it would end this way with Charity whose scent could catch the nose of any male within fifty yards of her. Their differences were destined to unleash a powerful clash between them. She had proven to be quite the actress, posing as the irresistible Helen of Troy whispering things he’d only dreamed about. Her pert smile, imbedded dimples, and other attributes had led him up the primrose path and into this historic house that held a dubious history. But her true nature was apparently more like the siren Circe who led enamored seafarers to their destruction. Even the most beautiful of roses has thorns.
He should never have boasted about grand investments, most of which were bogus or had gone tits-up. That led to the impression that he was worth much more than he was. She had been impressed with the gaudy ring and the new/old house. But that was then and this was now. Had she become restless after the new washed off? She was downright flamboyant compared to his rather reserved disposition. This was to have been a new start with the third Mrs. Nunnery, a young and sexy one to go with the old house but new to them. The American Dream. Since their move, Charity had been vibrant but at the same time, distracted. Oh, she had put on a marvelous act of being the dutiful housewife as part of her curriculum vitae, but sometimes being too obliging can be a clue to something hidden.
It seemed almost inevitable. His mind painted a lurid and painful picture of Charity frolicking with a younger man, the two of them drinking wine and carving him up like a roast with their scheme. His mind flitted to Charity decked out in a black bustier that revealed her ample breasts at one end and her pubis at the other, irresistible catnip. She’d worn it the night they moved into their renovated house—a housewarming gift for him, she had said. Now he pictured the man on the other end of her conversation mounting her like a bull in heat as she spilled out at both ends of the garment, accompanied by groans of rapture, the authenticity of which had always been in question. Their relationship appeared to be no more than a glossy veneer slapped over rotting wood, the power of positive thinking a load of crap.
Charity’s conversation clawed at Fred. He could think of only one thing worse than finding a wife in flagrante delicto with another man, and that would be when the liaison involved the removal of said husband. Their little gambit might have succeeded if not for their carelessness with their conversation. But Fred knew the voice on the phone might not be careless again considering the intended prize was a juicy female with a recently acquired house and a substantial bank account.
He chopped at the helpless hedge as if cutting off the limbs of this suspected interloper. He remembered the way it had been with his first wife. When he could not stand her a moment longer, he killed her with kindness until she had had enough. Was that what Charity had been doing? Killing him with kindness?
But killing with a weapon? Was she willing to go that far?
Fighting the sick thud at the base of his skull that threatened to lead to a migraine, Fred wondered if he could possibly have misinterpreted the overheard conversation in any way, but decided the “I love you” was the clincher. What would happen if he told Charity he knew about her plan and she was free to go? Would she walk away without benefit of the house or his estate? Doubtful. She and her boyfriend would quickly form a new plan.
If Fred were a younger man, maybe beating the living shit out of this interloper would do the trick, but he wasn’t younger. This wasn’t some movie where blazing fists or hot lead seemed to settle all scores. A hero he was not.
He heard the front door of their restored house open. He paused and turned to watch his wife approaching, waltzing across their front yard past the purple clematis that wrapped primly around their trellises, her movements as graceful as a breeze, her hips and her breasts swaying maddeningly, everything just peachy. He couldn’t notice her without harking back to their wedding day and the night he had first made love to her. As she joined him he was struck by the redness of her cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes, perhaps even a touch of embarrassment behind a smile that hid treachery. He felt like giving her a good slap across her pixy face, but violence was not in his nature. At least not until today.
“Get caught up in your music?” Fred asked her.
“No, darling. A call from the cleaners interrupted what I was doing. Thought I’d trot out and see if I could fix you some iced tea or make you a drink. Your arms must be getting tired?”
He chopped the head off another green branch then held the scissor blades down at his side. Now he could see beyond her gloss and straight through to her false heart. Her smile could light up heaven, but that heart must be as cold as the arctic. What nameless god was hidden there? What tangle of dark impulses set her apart from other women, that peculiar creature which had drawn him into her glistening coils from which there seemed no escape?
“Tea would be good.”
“Okey-dokey,” she responded with the familiar curve of her lips. Her nose wrinkled in that funny way. Her lying eyes that had first attracted him twinkled, all part of the new game she was playing, one that could have deadly consequences.
“What do you think of the hedge?” Fred asked.
“Oh, it looks fine, of course,” she answered without really looking. “Things always look fine when you work on them. You coming in or shall I bring it out here?”
“No. I’ll come in. I’m ready for a break.”
Was it possible he was overreacting? Had he misunderstood somehow? On the surface, everything seemed normal other than the fact that Charity’s afternoon martini hour had spread to early evening and beyond. Elixir to help blunt her planned betrayal, perhaps? What he felt, what he knew, wasn’t on the surface. It was a subterranean knowledge of something he had suspected for some time. He felt aware of the thoughts behind her words and actions. It was a dark place.
He followed her up the incline to the rear of the house. Her hips swayed to the music he imagined still played inside the house. It was no wonder other men found Charity attractive. She had an hourglass figure and a sense of beckoning mystery. She was full of life, a life that called for more than financial security. Had he just been a temporary diversion, carrion to be left along the highway of her life’s journey? Had there been others? He supposed he had been foolish to corral this high-spirited woman into a serene life of ladies’ luncheons and backyard cocktails. No fool like an old fool. And now, she was talking to some secret lover planning his demise, someone who wanted something that wasn’t his. Even as her husband, had Charity ever really belonged to him? The answer did not help matters because there could be no other explanation for what he had overheard on the phone.
That evening, Charity prepared a marvelous beef tenderloin complete with chocolate mousse and a spot of brandy. Last meal of a condemned man, Jack mused throughout the proceedings while they exchanged plastic smiles. She chattered cheerily in a monologue that required no response which was a good thing since Fred was paying little attention. She had liked the house as much as he had at first, he knew. Now he no longer felt any intimacy in it. It was just another house, and because of what he knew, all of her movements and nuances seemed theatrical. He tried to perform as if it were business as usual, and hoped he would not react abnormally when the telephone sounded the alarm.
It rang at precisely nine o’clock. Something prickled up the back of Fred’s scalp, a sensation akin to an insect with a lot of legs walking in his thinning hair, but he managed to stay calm for he had devised a plan of his own. “You want to get that dear?” he called to Charity from his study, sensing the relief that undoubtedly painted her face with the knowledge that there would be no race for the phone.
He heard her mumble a few nondescript words before hanging up. She walked into his sanctuary and faced him in the doorway, arms akimbo, as if working up the courage to turn her deceit into action.
“Fred,” she said formally. “That was a call from one of our neighbors. He was driving past the house and saw a man lurking about in our front yard. He thought you would want to have a look?”
Is this the best they can do, Fred thought? “A man lurking about?” he responded. “I should call the police.” He watched Charity’s face for a trace of concern or disappointment, but he saw neither.
“Whatever you think,” she said, unruffled. “But is scares me. Couldn’t you just check?” She did not seem anxious, only curious as to what he would do.
Such warm eyes covering for such an icy heart. A cool one, this deceiving wench. “You know what they say. Curiosity killed the cat. I’ll just take a peek out the window before I call them.”
He peered through the living room curtains and then pulled away thinking his possible executioner might settle for a clear shot through the sheet of glass. He looked at Charity who rubbed one hand against the other, like someone in anticipation of an event.
“Don’t see anything. Which neighbor called?”
The first chink in Charity’s armor revealed itself. “I…I don’t know, really.”
“The number should be on the handset,” he offered.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Fred. Why don’t you just go out and see?” Now she was perturbed, anxious for him to meet his demise. “You want me to come out with you?” she added, a bit of condescension carving the corners of her infamous mouth.
What nameless god was hidden in her heart? What tangle of dark impulses did this peculiar creature possess which had drawn him into her glistening coils? He took a moment to speculate on what those pouting lips had been up to of late. He picked up the phone and was not surprised to see “NO DATA” in tiny green lines on the message screen. “Coming with me won’t be necessary,” he told Charity and headed for the back door.
If he did not fall into Charity and her lover’s trap, he knew they would try something else at a later time, but why should he beat around the bush. If they wanted to do him in, why should he prolong the charade?
“Where are you going?” The sound of her apprehensive voice trailed off as Fred hurriedly closed the door behind him.
He had never committed an immoral act he could remember, never knowingly wronged another, but being made to feel like a fool could bring out the worst. So here he was, stealthily prowling his property in search of this paramour roaming about the yard hoping to catch his wife’s lover who was waiting to kill him. Resentment sparked action. He picked up the hedge clippers he’d left by the back door. He did not own a gun, but he felt sure these freshly sharpened blades should prove adequate. He only needed to get around the house before Charity decided it prudent to wave her accomplice away.
Hustling past the side of the cottage, Fred saw a dark figure lurking behind the largest tree in the yard not far from the front porch. The plan he’d worked out that afternoon would do fine if he could just get close enough to this lothario without being detected.
He crept along the well-tended lawn toward his would-be assassin then tip-toed to a spot just behind him. Part of his mind said, “Stop this,” but he wasn’t acting out of foolish jealously. He felt no rage, just a desire for order and justice. He was acting in self-defense after all.
The sound of the metal blades rubbing against each other as they separated was just enough noise to make the man turn around. Fred struck quickly, a nuclear reactor at critical mass, thrusting the blades forward, catching the man’s neck in a vice. He crunched the handles together as far as his strength would allow them to go.
Severing a head was more difficult than the movies would have you believe. The man let out a small yip and blood spurted in two directions. Fred’s arms did not possess the torque to decapitate the man, but the blades were in deep enough to send his victim to the ground without further complaint. He bled out quickly.
Fred looked at the man—a life thrown away for a flirtatious woman, maybe two lives, for a tawdry soap opera culminating in tragedy. How easy it was to distort reason in the name of desire. What kind of monsters were these people beneath their surfaces? Maybe we are all monsters underneath. No sense to it at all, but it was done. He felt a sudden revulsion for his actions, but there was no time to pity his victim, himself or his faithless wife. He searched the surrounding area and the dying man’s pockets for a weapon…a gun, a knife, a rope…anything. But there was none.
Could he have been wrong? No. The stranger had planned to choke him to death. Of course. If their plan was interrupted in some way, his wife’s lover would not have wanted to be caught with a weapon. That had to be the answer.
Fred looked into the wide-open, unbelieving eyes of the man on his lawn who had convulsed once then took his final gasp of life. It seemed like hours ago already. Where had Charity met this man? A luncheon? At a charity event or cocktail party? He attempted to sweep these irrelevant questions away and proceed with what needed to be done.
In the absence of a weapon, Fred realized he would need a new setup for the cops. Sweat beads popped from his forehead. He quickly ran to the storage shed next to the garage and found a nice sized length of pipe. He left the shed’s door ajar and wiped his own prints from the pipe before placing it in his supposed attacker’s hand.
He hurriedly walked toward the front porch. The sight of him should scare Charity straight. Once the police investigation ended and a relationship between the man he had killed and Charity was revealed, he would demand a divorce and hope to pick up the pieces of his life. The police would see it his way, he felt certain. He might get manslaughter, but he could deal with that. Charity’s infidelity would cost her much more. He would have to play the game of being shocked that his wife could have planned such a thing, of course, but he would do what was necessary to make sure she paid for such treachery.
Charity opened the door. As Fred approached, he saw something shiny in her hand; a small caliber pistol. He stopped in his tracks and said the only words he could think of on short notice. “What’s that for?”
He should have known the answer, should have thought about her motives more closely. Maybe she thought something might go wrong too. Would she settle for the money instead of the man? Could that be it?
Without a word, Charity’s response answered the question. She squeezed off a single shot that entered Fred’s chest exploding his heart. He fell to the ground with little more than a whimper with no more fanfare than the victim he himself had left sprawled beneath the large elm tree in the yard. Just before his mind flared the way a bulb does just before it burns out, he realized he’d won a brief battle, but lost the war.
“Fuck me,” were his final words. Then he was gone before his mind could sort out all the angles.
* * *
Charity worked quickly on her back-up plan in the event a nosey neighbor heard the single blast. She dragged Fred’s body near the one under the tree, idly wondering if he had been surprised to be greeted with a bullet instead of a kiss. She saw what her husband’s handiwork had done to Joe, marveled at his apparent knowledge of their scheme, and his gutsy choice of weapons to take on whoever had been waiting. She tilted her head curiously at the sight of her accomplice, his head nearly separated from his body. But she had no time to dwell on disquieting facts as she replaced the pipe with the gun in her former lover’s hand.
She returned to her living room and dialed 911. “There’s been a shooting on Willoughby Lane,” she said excitedly into the phone. “1300 Willoughby. My husband and another man. My husband isn’t breathing. Please hurry.” She threw in a few whimpering sounds for good measure before hanging up.
Charity slid into the easy chair next to the phone and waited, knowing what lay ahead. She had moved Fred quickly before blood pooled on the lawn where he fell and she had seen enough TV to know there would most likely be some business about angle of the bullet and direction of the murder weapons, not to mention the implications between her and the second victim. They had been careful, but still… It was a chance she had been willing to take.
“Did you set up one or both of the victims?” she would be asked. She had thought about what tact to follow depending on the result of the confrontation between the two men. She knew if one of the men took care of the other, she would have to finish it with her little revolver she had been instructed to purchase only a few days earlier.
“Yes, it is worth it,” she breathed.
The phone rang. Charity picked it up and listened without speaking.
“You have done it, my darling,” a deep yet soft, gentile voice said to her.
“Yes. Just as you wanted. Now it belongs to just the two of us.”
“Yes, Charity. Yes. Just the two of us.”
When Fred and her first moved into the house, she doubted the haunting voice representing a presence with no form or logic, but no longer. It had won her. “When will you come to me?” she asked the voice. “Please don’t keep me waiting any longer. Only I can see and hear you. Please come now before the police arrive. Oh please, Daniel.”
“There is only one way, my sweet. I am bound to the house I built, my home sweet home. I can’t leave. You know that.”
“You’ll wait here then while I’m questioned? And then when I return—”
“There is a better way—a way in which they cannot separate us. Use the pistol one more time, my precious. Retrieve your gun. It doesn’t matter how it looks now. We will possess the house together, for always, just you and I.”
Charity’s heart caught and snagged, manipulated by a force outside her capacity to understand. A tremble overtook her lower lip. “But I thought—. You said—”
“I said we needed to remove those two fools before we could be joined, but you must join me now if I am to be more than a voice and the shadow of an image to you. You must come over. Do it now before the authorities come and take you away. They may not believe your story. They may not let you return to be at my side. You must act now, quickly, painlessly.”
“Did you know from the start that I must do this to be with you?” Both lips trembled now understanding that fleeing wasn’t an option.
“Dear Charity. You are the only one for me, and I for you.” The voice on the phone grew fainter, more distant. “It is the only way to be sure we will not be separated. For eternity, my dear. You must trust me. I am your future. You now must enter my world where I have waited for you. Do it now.”
Charity held onto the phone as if it were a talisman that could save her from this command. Her brow furrowed as if it was painful to think. She looked up at the house’s decorative molding as if trying to divine the secrets of the universe in its carved pattern. A melody came to mind, an atonal tune from some mysterious place, like a funeral dirge playing inside her head. She placed the phone back on its cradle, quickly trotted outside, and retrieved the deadly weapon from her human lover’s dead hand. It now felt as weighty as the anchor on a ship.
Consumed by the spell under which she had fallen, by whatever power lay behind death and the grave, she walked to the CD player and put on her favorite classic tune, At Last.
* * *
Responding to the 911 call, the police found Charity in a rather angelic state considering the bullet hole through her head. The body lay on her bed with a slender, delicate hand across her midsection like a carving on an ancient tomb. Investigators did little more than scratch their heads and wonder how this macabre love/hate triangle managed to end in such a bewildering state. What was certain was that this had not been the only tragedy in the old house. It fact, it had quite a reputation.
First, the wife of Daniel Schneider, the builder, had murdered him on account of his philandering decades earlier. Following that, a family lost their adolescent daughter under suspicious circumstances. Another husband had fled the house leaving behind a wife who eventually killed herself with poison. And now this grisly episode.
With Halloween just around the corner, the little trick-or-treating buggers could convince themselves that even more ghosts were peering out the cottage’s windows than in years past. Normally, Detective Arnold was not a superstitious man, but in this instance, he believed a “Buyer Beware” notice should be placed alongside the placard that read “House for Sale.”
J. T. Seate is author of nine stories in the popular Inspector Basham series, including “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam” (July, 2013), “The Case of the Open Grave” (October, 2013), “Basham's Theory” (April, 2014), “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014), “Cat and Mouse” (December, 2014), “Winds of Change” (March, 2015), The Chopper (April, 2015), and The Key Factor (August, 2016).
Nine of his non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “The Accomplice” (October, 2015) “The Return” (October, 2015), “Moments To Remember” (June, 2015), “Light My Fire” (March, 2015), “The Thompson Kid” (December, 2014), “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), “Montezuma's Revenge” (January, 2013).
The author’s other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.
Copyright © 2018 Jay T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!