The room was icy cold, as cold as the body lying in the open coffin. Jeffery Power glanced at the prone figure before walking over to the window. The rain had stopped hours before, but there was no let up in the weather as the first flakes of snow stuck to the glass. Jeffery’s hands were numb, the skin on his fingers split and sore, but he smiled despite the pain. In fact, he rather enjoyed it, peeling back the dead skin and shuddering when he drew blood. Few things gave him much pleasure these days and his body was too frail for the pursuits of his youth. Still, I’m doing better than you; he sneered and walked over to the coffin. His grand-aunt Milly’s body resembled that of some ancient mummy. She had never been robust in life, but death had reduced her to a mere husk, as though her very essence had been sucked from her and she might, at any moment, dissolve into dust. Her cheeks were sunken in, as were her eye sockets, the only thing about her that resembled anything human, was the slight, secret smile on her thin lips.
“You think you’ve escaped me, don’t you old girl,” Jeffrey’s voice echoed in the stillness of the empty house. “But I’ll find a way. I’ll follow you into the grave and continue with our little game.”
He walked back to the window, his footsteps hallow on the bare floorboards. He had never depended on another human being before, but he had to admit he would miss the old bat. She had supplied him with endless years of fun and the games they played kept him amused, but that was now in the past and he would need someone else to help him pass the hours; someone stronger than his aunt, someone who did not scare as easily as she had. Milly stayed with him because she had no where else to go. A dried up old spinster, Jeffery called her and he was right. She was plain and stick-thin, one leg shrunken from the effects of polio and not a penny to her name, other than the old age pension, she had remained under his roof believing it was better the devil you know, but there were none worse than Jeffery Power. Had she the courage, she would have left years before, but instead she remained to endure his cruelty until in her ninety-second year death had released her.
Jeffery rubbed the grime from the inside of the glass and peered out into the gloom. His new secretary was due to arrive at any moment and he expected to see the headlights of Ross’s old car appearing in the distance. Frank O Connor, his solicitor, had told him everything he needed to know about the man and Jeffery licked his lips at the memory of his words.
“He’s suffered a lot over the past two years,” O Connor said. “His nerves are not the best. He’s taking medication and he’s otherwise sound, so I think he might suit you.”
“Indeed he will, Mr Wallace” Jeffery spoke aloud. “I think he will suit me very well. What do you think old girl?”
He didn’t bother to turn to look at the corpse.
“I may have found your successor already. I think there is fun to be had.”
A noise from behind made him spin round. The room was wreath in deepening shadows that crept along the walls and took shelter in the dark corners. He felt his pulse quicken, as he walked over to the wall and turned on the overhead light. The bulbs in the chandelier were too weak to dispel the gloom, but they lit the centre of the room and threw the coffin into stark relief. He prowled around the walls, his eyes darting along the floor, ears straining, waiting for the sound to come again. He stopped and stood frozen, but the only sounds came from the crying of the wind and the humming of his blood in his ears. Perhaps, I made a mistake after all, he thought. Father Bob, the local priest, had fallen and broken his leg. It needed a small operation to repair the bone and he wouldn’t be back for three days. It seemed pointless to send for someone to replace him as the church only opened on Sunday’s now that the congregation had dwindled down to a handful.
“Send you’re aunt’s body to Burke’s Funeral Home,” the old priest suggested, before the ambulance carried him off. “I’ll be back in no time and I can perform the burial then. Your aunt was a good, god-fearing woman and I’d like to do this one last thing for her.”
Burke’s Funeral Home indeed, Jeffery huffed. Did the old man have any idea what those places charged just to have a body lying in state? No, he would keep the old bat at home, but only after choosing the cheapest coffin and the most basic of the undertaker’s services.
The taxi’s headlight lit the room as it drove into the courtyard. Jeffrey, forgetting his uneasiness, hurried down the hallway to the front door. Mike Wallace stepped out of the car and stared open-mouthed at the house. Frank mentioned it was a manor, but this was much more impressing than he had imagined. The main, three story house was vast with numerous small building flanking either side of the courtyard. A fountain, dried up now, but nonetheless awe inspiring stood at the centre, but the overall impression was one of faded grandeur. Flurries of snow blew against his face, but the cold was beyond him as he walked up the steps to the front door.
“Mike Wallace, I take it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Mike held out his hand, but his greeting was rebuffed.
“I’m Jeffrey Price,” his new boss stepped back to allow him to enter. “I’ll show you to your room and we can get down to business as soon as you’re settled in.”
The hallway was a vast cavern, the walls lined with mahogany wainscoting that flowed down to a wooden floor pitted with the imprint of passing feet. Mike’s mouth felt dry, but this was an effect of the pills he took and his tongue felt like sandpaper when he licked his parched lips. If his welcome at the manor was not all he had expected nothing could have prepared him for the sight that met him when they passed the door of one of rooms on the ground floor. Mike stopped his eyes wide as he gazed at the scene before him. His employer, sensing he was no longer following, stopped and walked back to where he stood.
“That’s old aunt Milly,” the voice made the hairs on Mike’s neck stand. “She’ll be with us for another few days, I fear. The parish priest was careless enough to injure his leg and we must wait for him to return before we can plant the old dear. Until then we are forced to live with the smell of coffin varnish and the musky scent of death.”
Mike turned to look at the man in horror. He thought back to Frank’s words about the man standing before him being evil. Was it possible, he wondered? There was a glint of something not quite right in his employer’s ashen face, a sort of gloating at his discomfort. As though sensing this, Jeffrey smiled.
“Not a very hospitable welcome I know, but I am in mourning and not quite myself.”
“Of course,” Mike tried to control the chattering of his teeth. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Jeffrey held out his hand. “Shall we proceed?”
If it were not for the stout banister, Mike doubted he would have managed the climb up the once ornate staircase. The upper hallway was a dark and forbidding as the one below and the dim bulbs lining the walls did little to light the way.
“You’re in here,” Jeffrey opened the door to one of the rooms and walked inside.
Mike followed and saw the room was much like he’d seen of the house so far, neglected and in need of a loving touch. He dumped his holdall on the bed and its impact on the blankets dislodged a layer of dust that floating into the air and caused Jeffrey to wave his hand in front of his face.
“Old aunt Milly was never one for housekeeping,” he smiled. “But it’s clean and I’m sure you will soon settle in. Come downstairs when you’re ready. I’ll be in the library; it’s the room opposite the one housing the coffin.”
There was a door in the wall leading to an adjoining room.
“Where is your room?” Mike asked.
“I’m at the opposite end of the house,” Jeffrey said. “Through there is old aunt Milly’s room. We didn’t like to live in one another’s pockets, so we stayed as far apart as possible. By the way, I would prefer we keep our working relationship on a formal level. You will address me as Mr Price and I will do you the same courtesy”
Mike was still staring at the wall dividing him from the dead woman’s room, when his door closed and he was left alone in the silence. His host was kind enough to have placed a water jug and glass on a table beside the bed and Mike’s hand shook as he poured the water. His throat was so dry he almost choked as he tried to swallow the two tranquilisers and he gagged as he gulped more of the cold liquid. I can do this, he thought; it’s only for a week. He had always had a terrible fear of the dead. Even as a little boy he would run and hide if he saw a hearse coming and now here he was in the middle of nowhere, in a strange house with a corpse.
Jeffrey managed to contain his laughter until he reached the library. Throwing himself down on the couch, he buried his face in a cushion as his body shook and tears rolled down his face. He had hoped that his new secretary would be easy to manipulate, but this was much more than he’d hoped for. The man was a bag of nerves; one could almost feel the thin strings holding his last shred of sanity to a failing mind. How long would he last? It was a challenge to imagine, but not very long, that was for sure.
Jeffrey had composed himself by the time Mike tentative knock sounded on the door.
“Have you settled in all right?” Jeffrey asked.
“Yes, I’m ready to begin when you are,” Mike was unaware of his glazed expression as the pills did their work, but it was not lost on Jeffrey.
“I have been remiss,” Jeffrey said. “In my sadness I have forgotten my manners,” he walked to the door and beckoned Mike to follow. “You’ll no doubt want to pay your respects?”
Mike felt sick as he followed his employer into the room opposite. Jeffrey stopped when he reached the coffin and waited. Mike stayed as far back as he could and averted his eyes.
“Come closer man,” Jeffrey’s voice boomed.
Mike edged neared, but kept his eyes on the floor.
“Can you see the family resemblance?” Jeffrey taunted.
Mike’s eyes were filled with tears of dread as he looked at the body in the coffin. Despite his terror and the corpse’s fearful features, there was something terrible sad about the still figure, something that touched his soul and allowed the tears to run unaided.
“Come, come now old chap,” Jeffrey smiled. “There’s no need for such sentiment. Old Milly wouldn’t like it and we don’t want to upset her.”
Was he mad, Mike wondered; why would he worry about upsetting the dead woman?
“She loved this old house you see?” Jeffrey noticed his frown. “Vowed she would never leave it,” he leaned over the coffin and brushed a stray, grey hair from the old lady’s forehead. “I swear, I’ve heard her footsteps, but it was probably my mind playing tricks. Come, we have work to do.”
The next few hours flew as Mike kept his mind on the multitude of papers and bills that need filing and placed in order. His employer had placed a small desk opposite his own and Mike was aware of his constant presence. No matter how hard he tried to concentrate his mind kept drifting back to opposite room and the cold, still form of the old lady. She resembled her nephew in many ways, Mike thought. They were both petite, almost bird-like in both height and stature. This may have been becoming in a woman, but it gave Jeffrey a rather effeminate look and this perhaps, went a long way to explaining his strange character. It was close tomidnightwhen Jeffrey finally decided they were done for the day. He had left the room only once during those long hours and that was to return with a tray baring a meagre repast that was to serve as their dinner. A small tray of ham, its edges curling from age or exposure, Mike didn’t like to think of either and some bread, its crust showing the first sign of mould. Mike pleaded an upset stomach and settled for the weak brew Jeffrey called tea. His stomach revolted as he watched his employer wolf down the stale food as though it was prepared by the finest chef and he was glad when he was able to retreat to the sanctuary of his room. He lay on top of the dusty covers and considered his options. The bus to the nearest town ran once a day and the main road was miles away from the manor. He could call for the taxi, but he’s seen no sign of a phone in the house. His finances meant he could no longer afford a mobile phone, but his employer must have one; how else could he communicate with the outside world? Tiny fingers tapped against the window rousing him from his thoughts. He walked over, pushed aside the heavy, brocade curtains and stared out into the snow-covered courtyard. Beyond the house and the white, carpeted fields, there was nothing other than black, endless night. The wind howled and threw small flurries of snow against the glass. Unlike the city, there was nothing to break its onslaught and he imagined it tearing across the barren landscape like of giant beast; pushing aside the pointed rocks and ripping the withered trees from their roots. Allowing the curtains to fall back into place, he went back to the bed. His sleeping pills sat waited and he decided to take two rather than his usual one, but not before making sure his room became a bastion of safety. He had locked the door leading to the hallway, but there was none in the lock to the adjoining room. It might be on the other side, he thought, but did he dare enter the room of the recently dead? If the key was there it would be easy enough to tell, so he knelt down and placed his eye against the keyhole. For a moment he froze his mouth open in a silent scream at the eye staring back at him. Scrambling across the worn carpet on his hands and knees, he reached up for the bottles of pills on the bedside table hoping to find sanctuary in their promise of oblivion. When he woke some hours later he was lying on the bed.
Jeffrey stifled a giggle as he donned his aunt’s wig. This was more fun than he ever imagined. The top button of her ankle-length dress was open and he buttoned this in a false display of modesty. His feet were too big for her shoes, but he doubted his intended victim would notice. Creeping out into the hallway, he tip-toed to Mike’s door and tapped on it.
“Who is it?” The terror was evident in Mike’s voice.
The tapping came again, more insistent this time. Mike slid off the bed and his legs felt like jelly as he stumbled to the door. The dim lights in the hallway were on and lit upon the figure of the woman descending the stairs. It was the same figure he’d seen lying in the coffin. He became a child again as he ran for the refuge of his bed and scurried under it. Curling into a ball, he was unaware of the warmth of the urine staining his pants or the sound of his own sobbing.
“What a lot of fuss about nothing,” the voice was kind. “Come out from there young man.”
Mike peeped through is fingers at the legs just visible below the blankets. They seemed real enough and there was certainly nothing threatening in her words.
“I know this is all very frightening,” she continued,” But if you come out, I can explain it all to you. Come on now, like a good boy.”
Mike stretched and crawled from beneath the bed. The old lady was sitting in one of the chairs beside the dead fire. She looked a little in feature like the woman in the coffin, but there the resemblance ended, as this old lady was pink-cheeked and bright eyed.
“You have no idea how often I’ve prayed for someone to come and help me,” she gestured to the chair opposite hers.
Mike sat and waited wide-eyed for her to continue.
“He’s an evil man, my nephew,” she said. “It’s he who tried to frighten you just now and it’s a game he’s played many times in the past.”
“I thought he had only one aunt?” Mike managed to find his voice.
“He has, the dreadful boy,” she said.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m Millicent of course, though he calls me Milly to annoy.”
“But you’re supposed to be dead.”
“I am dead, young man,” her smile was kind, as she held up a hand to stay his flight. “Now there’s no use rushing for those pills. They’ve done their work”
“I don’t understand,” Mike felt the tears threatening again and he swore his heart had stopped beating.
“Look,” she nodded at the bed.
He turned and looked over at the bed. The empty pill bottles told their own story as his eyes scanned the prone figure on the bed.
“I killed myself?” He tore his gaze away from the flames.
“Yes, I’m afraid life proved too hard for you,” she said.
Mike stared down at his hands. He ran his fingers over his face and the skin felt cold and hard.
“It was my prayers that called you back,” Millicent said. “With your help I can destroy the evil in this house.”
“What will become of me afterwards?” Mike asked.
“I hope you will choose to stay here with me, but if not, you are free to move on. There is none of the restriction we once knew, but this was a happy house once and it can be again.”
Footsteps sounded on the wooden floor below and the listeners heard each footfall as they started to ascend the stairs. They both stood as the sound drew closer.
He meant to frighten you to death,” Millicent said. “He tortured me in that way for decades. This time his plan will not work.”
Mike nodded and offered her his arm. She smiled and linked one small arm in his as they turned towards the door.
Outside in the hallway, Jeffrey did a little dance. His excitement had reached a fever pitch and he was sure he would wet himself. There wasn’t a sound from inside the room and he imagined Mike’s terror as he waited for what was to come next. Jeffrey rattled the doorknob, before slowly starting to turn it. This was going to be the best fun ever; he could feel it in his bones.