Khungh, khungh, khungh.
I groaned aloud but remained facedown in bed, pulling my pillow up around my ears. I’d just gotten to bed, avoiding the stack of books Decker had given me to read. It must be eleven. Such a late hour—who could it be?
I likely knew that answer even before the question formed in my head. It was my nosy neighbor, Mr. Decker, no doubt. I wondered what he needed this time? Maybe a way to swindle more money out of me, or maybe he’s brought that damn pipe again.
Khungh, khungh, khungh.
“Blasted knock! Go away!”
The words were pointless because I knew that damnable knock wasn’t going anywhere. Not until I answered.
“All right! All right!” I pried my body from the warmth of my bed and found cold, solid ground under my feet. I reached for my slippers and put them on, taking my time. I glanced around the room for Alarbus, my own personal ghost, but he wasn’t present.
Khungh, khungh, khungh.
I stretched my arms high and yawned. I teetered when I stood, gained balance, then with small steps went into the hall, passing my family portrait, and descended the creaking stairs. I arrived at the front door, avoiding the inflexible spots on the floor.
I drew the curtain back on the side window next to the door and peered out. “My neighbor and his night owls,” I grumbled. “They like to stay up all night and sleep all day.” A frightening thought gripped my mind. “Was Mr. Decker a vampire? Was he out there in the middle of the night, seducing young virgins, because that would be terrifying.” My stomach turned inward on itself, and a series of contractions started from my diaphragm in short, silent movements, increasing in repetition until they were the sounds of laughter coming out my mouth.
“What if he is a vampire?” I whispered softly, forgetting why I was even standing there. My gaze fell onto the door; my eyes widened. Someone was on the other side in the dark, someone who was visiting at this late hour. “Who?” A shudder ran through my spine, and I gasped. “What if he’s dead?” I fidgeted with my hands. “Had Decker died? Was he a walking stiff? A vampire would do, or one of the walking dead. Maybe he was possessed? No, he couldn’t be possessed, but he is old and smells. He might be dead.” I scratched my chin, thinking about what Decker smelled like—sour, dirty, or rotting meat?
“He didn’t smell like any of those. He just smelled old.” I paused a moment in thought. “Do vampires smell?” I shook my head. I had to get a grip on my thoughts. “There are no vampires outside Varney. Get ahold of yourself, or they’ll take you away.” And I knew it to be true. The authorities can be somewhat inflexible when you go off talking about ghosts, demons, or even vampires. I breathed out, then filled my lungs with air, squared my shoulders, and reached for the door.
I retracted my hand and paused a moment, listening. “Maybe they’re gone?” I looked longingly toward the stairwell, which would lead me back to my bedroom where I could lie in my bed, all cozy and warm. But instead, I was here, uncomfortable and cold.
“They must be gone.” I edged my foot to the right, working my way to the stairs, to flee to my sanctuary, to drop into the soft bed and pull the covers over the top of my head. And as I shifted my weight…
The treasonous floor gave me away.
“Hello.” I heard a man’s voice on the other side. He had a strange accent, one I couldn’t quite place.
“Blasted boards.” I sneered at the floor and scuffed my heels against it. “One day, one day. A hammer and nails.” I swung my imaginary hammer and smiled at that notion of quieter boards.
I shook my head and opened the door.
I was staring at a short, round fellow, who looked to be in his thirties but gave the impression he was older by the way he dressed. He wore a tweed jacket and a top hat that was a little out of style. His beard was thick in patches and not altogether neat, which told me he was either lazy or uninterested in troubling himself with a lady. I could understand the tophat if he was on the way to the theater—and wearing tails—but he wasn’t wearing tails. He resembled what I thought was a mismatched British imposter.
“Yes?” I said.
“I was told if Mr. Decker was not home to knock on this door,” he said.
“Do you know the hour?”
“I know, sir, but I was told…”
“Told what? By whom? Mr. Decker told you?” I stared through him as though he were a pane of glass.
He fidgeted, and his foot accidentally knocked against something. It drew my attention to a wooden box on the ground that I had not noticed before.
“Mr. Decker left a note on his door… you can see for yourself—”
“We finished the orphanage case.” I tapped my foot and crossed my arms and glared through slits at the poor fellow. “And I’ve not been paid.”
“I don’t have anything to do with accounts.”
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, then I don’t know why Decker even bothered to send you here.” My hand was on the door, ready to slam it shut. My eyes captured the man lightly tapping the wooden box with the side of his worn boot. Which made me think he shopped in a secondhand store. I looked closer at the box. The box was simply made, square, the size of a shoebox, and it seemed to be made of pine, maybe oak. Perhaps he shined boots in the middle of the night. Eh, that doesn’t seem right.
“What’s inside that box?” I cocked my head and studied it for a moment.
“That’s why I’m here.”
“I’ll need to show you,” he said with a gleam in his eye.
I wasn’t sure if he was excited to show me what was in the box or if there was something rather dangerous in it. I didn’t care to know, and I was growing tired of this conversation. My bed is where I wanted to be, not standing here discussing what may be in a box.
“If you’re not going to tell me what’s inside the box, you should leave.”
His grin fell away replaced by a slightly furrowed brow. “Pardon?”
“Leave. Or don’t you understand the meaning of the word?”
He fidgeted, then gathered his thoughts and said, “We should depart and go to the cemetery.”
“Cemetery? What the devil are you talking about?”
“There’s one I passed a mile or so back. We could walk it with no problem if you’re not too worried about the cold. There doesn’t appear to be any snowfall and the moon is out, which makes it so much more ideal.”
“Ideal? You think being in a cemetery on a night like this is enjoyable?”
“Oh yes, very much so. Don’t you?” He rubbed his hands together, and that gleam in his eyes returned. This time I couldn’t tell if it was from malice or a genuine excitement at the idea of going to a cemetery on a moonlit night. In either case, I didn’t care to go anywhere with the little short, rotund fellow. The bed was better.
“Tell Mr. Decker I’m not interested in the case; he’ll need to find someone else to do it.”
The cheerfulness in his mannerism fell away.
I slammed the door, turned, jumped several inches off the floor at the sight of Alarbus. I let out a shuddering breath.
“Greetings to you too.”
I walked around Alarbus because I don’t like walking through him and headed to the stairwell.
“Since you’re up maybe we can locate the rest of my remains?”
“Is that disapproval I hear?” Alarbus said.
I gritted my teeth, knowing full well going back to bed was no longer an option when Alarbus got into the mood of locating his remains. “I thought you said you’d stop haunting me.”
“I never said that.” He looked down his nose. “You’ve a strange notion in your head. It isn’t as if I have any control over who I haunt.”
“Are we going to do this talk again?”
Alarbus stood with his chest out, his shoulders high, his back rigid. His air of royalty told me he wasn’t going to let this go. “I’ve got an idea of where to look for my remains.”
“Decker buried them,” I grumbled.
“Only the parts you brought back, as you know.”
I’d made it a few steps before there was that knock again and the gleamy-eyed-I-love-to-go-to-the-cemetery-on-moonlit-nights man’s muffled voice filtering through. “What I have in this box is a marvel.”
“It’s probably his wit,” Alarbus said.
The man continued, “Mr. Decker would very much like to see it, but he’s away. I am sure he will be very irate when he realizes he missed it.”
“The old man’s always irate,” Alarbus said.
I stifled a laugh and stood there in silence, thinking what the man on the other side said. This box thing was intriguing, and I would like to know what was in it, but there was a side of me that was unsure if I truly wanted to know. I remembered the cross, that unexpected pure white light, the power I felt in my hands. It was unnatural. The whole thing was unnatural, and whatever was in that box was also probably unnatural.
I raised my voice. “Come back tomorrow, and we’ll talk some more.”
The knock came again.
“Why’s he knocking? You were just talking to him.” Alarbus’s left eye squinted.
I held my breath, then let it out slowly and opened the door.
“Perhaps you did not hear me,” I seethed.
“Tomorrow won’t do. I need you to come with me now.”
“To the cemetery?”
“Go with him to the cemetery. Let’s find out what’s in the box,” Alarbus said.
“To the cemetery,” I repeated.
“And on this beautiful moonlit night?” Alarbus added.
“Yes, this very night,” the short man said.
I turned to Alarbus, who was floating behind me.
I sighed. “You and this fellow are truly a trial. He wants me to come out in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, and to take a stroll in a moonlit cemetery. While you want me to go off looking for your missing parts. I’ll never get any rest between the two of you.”
“Does this mean you’re helping me?” Alarbus floated with one leg crossed over the other.
I opened the door.
“What do I need to do? Is this about the orphanage? It was only a draft coming through the attic.”
The man started to open his mouth, but no words came out.
“Listen, I’d already busted my thumb twice hammering nails into the outer planking.”
“The man is obviously having trouble forming words,” Alarbus said.
I pointed my finger at the man. “I can’t paint, not this time of year; it’s too cold.”
The man stood in silence.
“Maybe you should really let him know what’s on your mind.” Alarbus stood beside me.
“We’d investigated, and that was supposed to be it. I worked on the building, picking up trash and patching the roof as Decker requested. Not that I minded. I’m just letting you know there wasn’t anything supernatural about that case, and I never got paid.”
Alarbus chimed in. “Who in their right mind would be doing any kind of work at the orphanage at this hour?”
“I don’t know anything about an orphanage or accounts.” His hands were out wide, his palms facing upward in a helpless gesture.
“Never mind. What’s this about the cemetery?”
“We must go there,” he said.
“And it has to be now?” I said.
Alarbus stepped forward. “It has to be on this moonlit night, remember?”
“Yes, now while the moon is out.” The man rubbed his hands together.
“See.” Alarbus smiled.
“You still haven’t answered me. Why the cemetery? Why not show me here?”
He lowered his head and shifted his eyes back and forth. “Oh no, not here. We can’t stay here. The cemetery is the best place to show you.” He appeared excited yet suspicious of who might be nearby.
I did not know what he was excited about, and it made me wonder if the man was a little off. Who plays in the cemetery?
“Let me get dressed.” I shut the door.