Edgar Stack did not feel sorry for the Brennan siblings. The Brennans were debtors, and debtors, quite simply, had to pay—his debtors at the very least.
He turned the key to the front door of his most recent acquisition—the two-story Tudor Revival house formerly belonging to and long-inhabited by Joel and Silvia Brennan. For the last five days, the structure had lain vacant, and today Mr. Stack, a man always at work, finally possessed enough time to personally assess the dwelling. Opening the sturdy oak door and performing a quick scan of the sunlit foyer, he discovered that like the exterior, the interior of the house was closer to ramshackle than well-kept, but not by much.
There might be potential in this property, he thought.
A man of habit, Stack ascended the stairs so that he might follow his custom of appraising a property from the uppermost space to the bottommost. The stairs, bare and worn with age, creaked under the weight of his ample frame; this sound along with the steady huff of his breath enjoyed in the unfurnished building an auditorium without an audience. Such desolation never bothered Stack.
Reaching the second floor, he glanced down the left hallway and spotted the pull-down attic access he had anticipated being there. Stack fancied that his decades of experience examining properties—those he had been interested in purchasing and those, such as the present, he had acquired as collateral on a defaulted loan—had granted him an uncanny ability to observe the exterior of a building and judge its interior, including such details as the placement of entryways; in reality, though, he was merely recalling such particulars from similar structures he had previously visited.
He walked to the yellowed cord hanging from the access, pulled on it, and carefully eased the ladder down. Planting a foot on the bottom step and placing a firm grip on each rail, he shook the ladder. Satisfied with its stability, he hefted himself up the ladder and into the attic.
The beams and planks, an enveloping crosshatch of timber, glowed amber in the light of the afternoon sun, which shone through two front-facing dormer windows. Had he been of a contrary disposition, the attic’s old pine smell and cozy warmth might have given Stack reason to smile. However, he was far too preoccupied with determining the condition and, therefore, value of the house to bother with such idle pleasures.
The space in front of him barren and unremarkable, Stack turned around to view the eastern end of the attic.
Oh, what have we here?
At the eastern end stood a wood frame and wire mesh partition, behind which, in the ambient light of the late afternoon, Stack could make out tightly housed storage trunks, furniture, and other miscellany.
He trod over to the partition’s entrance and inspected the antique padlock that fastened it. It was slightly rusted. Stack hummed at this obstacle for a moment and then shook his finger in the air. He then descended the attic ladder and staircase, marched outside to the trunk of his Bentley, retrieved a lug wrench, and returned to the padlock.
Winded and sweaty from his jaunt to the car and back, Stack dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. He returned the handkerchief to his breast pocket and gripped the body of the padlock with his left hand. With his right, he guided the slotted end of the lug wrench down through the padlock’s shackle until it passed the base of the door’s middle board. And then with the leverage provided by the board, he used both hands to push down on the lug wrench as hard as he could.
A grunt later and the padlock popped open. Stack removed the now worthless piece of metal from the hasp and placed it on the floor, out of the way. He then opened the hasp, then the door, and stepped into the storage area. The smell of dust assaulted his nostrils.
Squirming in her armchair, Deidre Brennan sought comfort that eluded her. Suffering the type of pervasive body aches that told her she was coming down with a nasty bug, she kept twisting and turning to enjoy some respite, but no matter how she contorted herself, the aches would return and would again send her in search of a better position.
With its plush padding and velvet upholstery, Deidre could not fault the armchair for any of her discomfort; in fact, the chair—“a Bergère chair!” her elder son, George, had said with a grin when he presented it to her on her last birthday—had already proven its potential for relaxation and, therefore, enticed her to continue seeking that ideal position despite the ever apparent futility of her pursuit.
She knew she belonged in bed, especially considering how disappointed Danny, her husband, and George had been when she informed them that she would be staying home instead of joining them that evening to attend the show of a travelling mesmerist—a spectacle they all had been excited to witness. She had insisted the boys go without her; George—his idle chatter all week returning to the topic of mesmerism—would have been particularly disheartened to miss the show. And while she knew she should be resting in bed, she was not yet able to sleep and, rather than lie awake, had decided to pass some time wrapped up in an Afghan blanket, sitting in her treasured armchair, listening to the radio.
Eerie, yet familiar, music began to play.
“Ashford cigarettes bring you ‘The Hobo’s Campfire,” a man’s voice announced over the music.
The music faded, replaced by the sound of a crackling fire.
“Welcome, stranger,” another man said, his voice amiable yet vaguely sinister. “Take a place by my fire and warm up while I tell you a story.”
Deidre took up her teacup from the end table next to her armchair and sipped some hot chamomile tea.
“Tonight’s tale,” the hobo continued, “concerns Aidan Burns, a prodigal son come home, who’s not quite the same affable young man his family remembers.”
At this remark, Deidre reflexively frowned, unable to help but think of her and Danny’s younger son, Rufus. Flashing before her mind’s eye was the image of her estranged son rifling through her bedroom dresser with one hand, wadded bills and her jewelry in the other. She placed her teacup back atop the end table.
No, she thought, I’m already feeling poorly. I refuse to add to my misery by dwelling on the sins of my poor lost son. She tried to push Rufus from her thoughts and focus on the radio drama instead.
“As his family is soon to discover,” the hobo said, “young Mr. Burns has not only been a spendthrift with his money but also his soul!” The hobo cackled, his laughter drowned out by a musical flourish that indicated the start of the narrative.
The flourish, which Deidre had heard many times before, had sounded off somehow.
A notion occurred to her—an idea that left her feeling as though someone had just walked over her grave.
Did the flourish sound odd because it wasn’t the only sound I heard? Was that a noise from somewhere in the house?
Despite the two rooms being separated by nothing more than an archway, the meager lamplight of the living room caused only a very slight retreat of the dark that otherwise engulfed the dining room.
Steeling her spine and mustering the steadiest voice available to her, Deidre called out to the darkened space, “Danny? George? Is that you?”
Receiving no reply, she twisted around in her chair and lowered the radio’s volume. She turned back, and a looming figure confronted her—a disheveled man in a soiled trench coat.
While Deidre shrieked, the man, glassy-eyed and lax-jawed, merely muttered, “He said no one would be here.” The man then lunged at her, arms outstretched. He gripped her throat with both hands and squeezed with all his might.
Before Deidre lost consciousness, she recognized the man as an acquaintance of her estranged son.
Already running hot from exertion, Stack failed to notice that the storage area was warmer than the rest of the attic. He was thick with perspiration and breathing audibly, and like a man stranded in the desert who has spotted an oasis, he advanced towards the antique armchair in the rear of the storage area.
Plopping down with a sigh, he closed his eyes and thought of the stacks of storage trunks and their untold contents.
There’s a decent chance those hold some quite valuable items. This just might top those vintage movie posters Caleb found under the floorboards of that little Folk Victorian.
Itching to rifle through the trunks but lacking, for the moment, the necessary energy, Stack surrendered to the comfort promised by the armchair. Although he only planned to rest his eyes, sleep, aided by the warmth of the storage area, enveloped him like a rising tide and carried him away.
Unlike Stack’s usual visits to the land of Nod, his slumber in the armchair was restless. His body ached, causing him to twist and turn in a desperate quest for a more comfortable position.
In dim lamplight, he beheld a ragged man who wore a dead expression.
Halted in terror, Stack’s only available recourse was to bury himself in the depths of the armchair as the phantom pounced.
In a potent dream state, Stack believed the phantom was strangling him and, somehow, simultaneously strangling a woman he did not recognize. Stack and Deidre struggled in vain, the space occupied by her ghost—long attached to her beloved armchair—and Stack’s spirit becoming a phantasmagoric orgy of energy, that is, a most unique form of atomic fusion quite hostile to such insubstantial material as wood and fabric and flesh and bone. The heat rose precipitously, culminating in Stack’s skin glowing a deep red and, finally, his body bursting into flame.
The police officer who discovered Stack’s remains and the remains of the armchair—nothing more than a foot in its loafer and a mound of ash—was confounded by the limited damage; the house, the attic, the other items in the storage area—all untouched by the fire that very nearly erased Edgar Stack from existence.