“The Impossible House,” A Robert Asher StorySaturday, July 22, 2017 at 12:00 am
The Impossible House
by Adam Casalino
Robert Asher fell down the porch steps. He crashed against the sidewalk, his face and palms landing in a puddle. Pushing up on his elbows, he looked back at the front door. He caught one last glimpse of the man who ejected him, before the door closed with a snap.
“You’ll never get in. If they don’t want you to get in, you’re not getting in.”
Phillip Pettigrew stood over Asher in his tailored suit, walking stick, and fedora. A cigar was in his mouth. He did not help Asher up.
“Thanks for the pep talk,” Asher said as he stood.
“Trust me, Robert. This is a fool’s errand. You can spend all night trying to get into this house. You’ll keep failing.”
Asher glared at his fair-weathered ally as he dusted himself off. “My client hired me to get into that house. I don’t fail my clients.”
“Obviously your client had no idea what was inside this house,” Pettigrew said. “If he did, he might not have contacted you.” He drew a handkerchief from a pocket and gave it to Asher. “You have some… on your face.”
Asher took the embroidered cloth and dabbed his mouth. Blood soaked the handkerchief. “Anywhere else?”
Pettigrew gestured at his own face. “Yes. Everywhere.”
Asher snorted a laugh as he wiped his brow, cheeks, and chin. “Been a rough one.”
“It has made you considerably uglier,” Pettigrew said.
“And it hasn’t even started yet.”
The occult detective and his friend turned to face the house. It was a large structure, at least a half a century old. Its compact shape belied its overall size. Taller buildings were on either side, though they gave the house a wide berth. A short courtyard of paved stones separated it from the sidewalk.
“The windows are shuttered and the doors are locked,” Asher said. “Even the coal cellar is bolted tight. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Yes, I remember you were once a crook,” Pettigrew said. “A real deviant, just like me.”
“There’s something else going on here,” the detective said. “Something resisting me.”
“Yes, I saw that oaf that threw you down the steps.”
“No,” Asher said. “Not just him.”
“What have you sensed?” Pettigrew asked.
Asher had the unique ability to see and hear–among other things–the thoughts of others. It aided him well in his work investigating paranormal phenomena. But this house was a mystery.
“I haven’t been able to sense anything in or around the house,” Asher said.
“That cannot be,” Pettigrew said. “Even a normal house would have something for you to sense. At the very least, you’d be able to perceive the thoughts of the people inside.”
“What about that bouncer?”
The detective touched his jaw. “Nope, can’t read his mind. It’s like the house is shielded.”
“Nonsense,” Pettigrew said. “That’s not possible.”
“Never say never.”
“I didn’t say ‘never.'”
Avoiding the front porch, Asher circled around to one of the side alleys. Pettigrew followed, watching the detective scan the side of the house.
“Not even a fire escape,” Pettigrew said, tsking. “These people don’t care about their safety, do they?”
“I guess not,” Asher said.
“What are you even doing here, Robert?” Pettigrew asked. “Is this your client’s house?”
“No, it belongs to his fiancé’s family,” Asher said.
“Technically, she’s not his fiancé. Not yet,” the detective said. “Her family built it years ago. They hit hard times during the Depression and moved into the country. They only recently came back to the city.”
“And they want their house back?” Pettigrew said.
Asher shook his head. “House was always theirs. Some great uncle watched. Supposedly he died, left the house boarded up and abandoned.”
“So why does your client need you to break into it?” Pettigrew asked.
“Kid said a Clark family heirloom is still inside. The girl’s folks aren’t too keen on her marrying him. But if James can return the old broach–like a tribute or something–it might change their mind.”
“Sounds like extortion,” Pettigrew said. “I like this family. Eh, why haven’t they come to fetch this broach?”
“You saw the guy that threw me down the stairs, right?”
“I’m guessing he doesn’t work for the Clark family.”
The detective looked at the house and the building beside it.
“So if your client can return the broach to the Clark family, he’s a hero and can marry their daughter?” Pettigrew said.
“About the size of it,” Asher said.
“Then it begs the question: why isn’t he risking life and limb to enter this place?”
“I doubt James would have better luck getting into this house,” Asher said.
“So what? True love demands a little bit of gallantry,” Pettigrew said. “I should know, I’ve been in love hundreds of times. I doubt the Clark family would be impressed to know this boy paid someone else to fetch their heirloom.”
“But he is paying me,” Asher said. “And I don’t ask those questions.”
“Your life must be blissfully simple,” Pettigrew said.
“Not when you’re around.”
“Oh, come now. I never miss an opportunity to watch you humiliate yourself,” Pettigrew said. “You’re sentimentality for these mortals will be your undoing. Plus, I’ve had my eye on this place. I’d like to know what’s going on inside. What are you doing?”
Asher had walked over to the neighboring building and was examining its fire escape.
“Does that look like it goes all the way up to the roof to you?” he said.
“You’re going to scale that building?” Pettigrew said.
“I think I can jump onto the roof of the house from there,” Asher said.
“I’ll figure that out when I’m on the roof.”
Using the fire escape, Asher reached the roof of the adjacent building. He leaned over the edge and tried to gauge his chances. He guessed it was twelve feet from where he stood to the house. The air was calm; little wind resistance. The house was a story lower than the building, increasing his odds. Far below, Pettigrew was a slim shadow in the dark.
“Do reconsider,” he said. “You’ll make a mess if you miss. And I’m not in the business of putting you back together.”
Asher walked a few paces from the edge. He gave himself enough room for a running start. The man was not athletic. He wasn’t too aerodynamic either. He sailed through the air like a boulder. But it was enough.
He struck the roof of the house, hard. Asher rolled across the tiles, hoping to disperse some of his momentum. When he finally came to rest, he was almost on the other side of the roof. He had landed on a flat space, between two peaks. Dark windows stared at him. He could not see what was inside.
Asher tried to open one of the windows. It was sealed tight.
Pettigrew’s voice floated up to him. “Having trouble opening the windows?”
The detective ignored him. From his boot he drew a knife. Sliding the blade between the window slats, he released the lock.
Asher grunted to himself in satisfaction.
A musty smell, like wet sawdust, wafted from the open window. He took a flashlight from his coat and shone it inside. Asher made out bare walls and an unfinished attic floor. Slipping his legs over the sill, he climbed in.
Slanted walls cut off much of the head room, forcing the man to hunch over. His boots thunked against the wooden slats that made up the floor. He took special care not to step on the insulation between, knowing he would most likely break through to the ceiling below.
His flashlight struggled to pierce the darkness. The introduction of outside air had sent up a cloud of dust. Particles reflected the light like fog. Asher could only make out indistinct shapes tucked beneath the walls. Touching a few, he discovered they were mostly old pieces of furniture, covered in sheets. Nothing out of the ordinary for the average attic.
That’s when the thing leapt out at him.
Asher never got a good look at the creature. He knew it was large and hairy. As it barreled into him, he lost his flashlight. The weight of the thing pressed Asher into the floor. He felt matted fur and claws. Only once did he catch a glimpse of the face. It was like a rat, though most of the skin had rotted from the skull.
Asher covered his face. It’s claws dug into his leather jacket. With both hands, He grabbed the thing’s limbs and pinned them back. Getting a boot between himself and the creature, Asher forced it off. He rose to his feet as it lunged again.
The detective ducked behind a piece of furniture and it sailed passed. It clattered in a corner, struggling to turn around. In the murky light, Asher saw a flash of leathery wings. Before it could recover, Asher dove onto it. Keeping its back to him, he lifted it. He caught the glint of hard, reflected light. Asher threw the creature into the mirror. Glass shattered as the thing squealed in pain. He heard it scrabbling to get up. Quickly, the noise stopped. A dark ooze spread over the planks.
Backing away from the dead creature, he reached the other end of the attic. A trap door fell open and Asher descended to the floor below. A few lights flickered down a hall. For a moment Asher considered returning to the attic to find his flashlight. Instead, he closed the trap door and made sure it wouldn’t open again.
Asher explored the top floor of the house. It was still. The only sound were his heavy steps. He frequently paused and listened. There was no sign anyone else was near. He tried to cast out his psychic net, but the house was as cold as it was from outside.
Reaching the first door, Asher looked inside. It was a bathroom. The floor and walls were covered in white tiles, stained and cracked. A narrow window of frosted glass let in a haze of moonlight. The bare metal furnishings gave the room an institutional-like appearance. Asher was about to move on, when he heard a soft glub. Leaning in, he looked into the tub. A black sludge was slowly filling it, from the drain. It was thick as tar. An earthy, sweet smell wafted from it. When the sludge reached the rim of the tub, it receded. It sunk down the drain until the tub was empty. After a heartbeat, the sludge returned.
“I don’t even want to know.”
Asher left the bathroom and continued down the hall. A set of doors led into a bedroom. Twin beds with canopies sat in the middle of the room. Child-size tables and chairs flanked the beds. The furniture was ancient, slowly crumbling into dust. The detective when over to search a dresser. He found rotted clothing.
“You won’t find your treasure in here.”
Asher spun around. “Who said that?”
The room was dark, save for a glowing light above a table. Asher stood over it and examined a large picture book. There was a knight on horseback, galloping across a field. As Asher looked over the page, the picture began to move. The voice spoke again.
“‘You won’t find your treasure in here,’ the King said to the Knight. ‘You must travel to the Dark Castle. There you must win the Princess’s Crown. Return it to me and I will win her heart.’
“Thus the brave Knight road through the darkness to the Castle. It stood on a gloomy hill, surrounded by thorns and thistles.”
The pages turned on their own, revealing a picture of the knight in a tunnel.
“The Castle was as dark as a dungeon. The Knight worked his way down from the parapets, exploring each floor as he searched for the Princess’s Crown.
“He fought a great, winged beast that guarded the eaves. He wrestled the Evil Tailor who barred his way. He defeated the Trap of the Gamblers.
“He slew the Vicious Butler for the Secret Keys. At long last, he reached the lowest floor of the Castle, to dual the Faceless Guardian–for the Crown.”
The knight was in a cave. Across from him was a giant, its back to him. The giant’s face was hidden in shadow.
Asher waited, but the page wouldn’t turn. “That’s where you’re stopping? At least tell me how it ends.”
He reached for the book. As his fingers touched the page, it snapped shut. A low hum filled the room as the book and table shuddered. The walls made a cracking sound. Asher realized the bedroom was suddenly smaller. Turning from the table, he leapt for the open doorway. Asher hit the floor and rolled down the hall. The doors slammed shut. Curious, Asher tried to open them. They wouldn’t budge.
Reaching the end of the floor, he descended a flight of stairs. The next level of the house contained the master bedroom. Asher found a canopy bed, complete with thick, purple curtains. A pair of wardrobes stood at one side. An oil lamp sat burning on the table. It’s flame danced across the bed, casting a lavender glow across the room.
The detective walked over to a wardrobe and tried the latch. All he found were clothes and empty boxes.
“You’ll find nothing in there,” said a voice behind him.
Asher groaned. “I swear to God, if there’s another talking book–”
A ribbon tightened around his throat. He felt a pair of hands pull back, forcing it to cut into his skin. Someone breathed heavily against his neck.
“You do not belong here!”
The attacker growled as he pulled tighter. Asher threw his weight at the stranger. He knocked the man off balance. The ribbon slackened and Asher ripped it away from his neck. With his free hand, he shoved his attacker away. He looked at the rope that had been cutting of his air supply.
The stranger was dressed in dark pants and vest. From a pocket he drew a long pair of shears and ran at Asher. The detective caught him by the wrist, holding the shears away from his chest. The tailor’s face twisted with rage. He gnashed his unusually large jaws. Despite his wiry frame, he pushed against Asher’s strength.
Using his foot as a pivot, Asher swung the tailor. He hurled the man across the room, sending him bouncing off the bed. Asher held onto the shears.
“What else you got?” Asher said. “Shoehorn?”
The tailor stood up and drew a pistol from his vest.
“Why didn’t you just start with that?”
The detective dove behind the bed as a round cracked against the wood frame. Another lodged into the wardrobe. The tailor shouted, his voice shrill.
“You will not bother the master.”
He fired again. The bullet blew a chip from the bed canopy. Asher leaned against the bed. With a jerk, he sent it sliding across the floor. The massive piece of furniture struck the tailor, knocking him back into the window. Glass showered the room as the man fell screaming. He was cut short when he landed on the pavement below.
Asher ran to the window. The tailor’s body was splayed out across the sidewalk, parts of him were in the street. The lean figure of Pettigrew waltzed over to it. He glanced up at the window.
“I should have known you’d do something like that,” he said to Asher.
“Got a window open,” Asher said.
“Congratulations,” Pettigrew said. “What’s going on in there?”
“Never seen anything like this,” the detective said.
“That’s very descriptive,” Pettigrew said. “Any idea what’s controlling the house?”
Pettigrew scoffed. “Have you at least found the bracelet?”
“Not yet,” Asher said. “But I have a feeling it’ll be in the basement.”
Pettigrew did a quick floor count with his eyes. “You have a ways to go.”
“Care to come in and help?” Asher said.
“Not on your life,” Pettigrew said. “In fact, there’s someplace I need to be.”
Pettigrew turned away from the house and disappeared into the night.
“Surprised he stuck around this long.”
Asher left the master bedroom and made his way to the next floor. There was only one light among the many dark rooms. He followed it into a study. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Books were everywhere. They filled the shelves and were stacked in piles on the floor. There were books on stools, chairs, and a writing table.
A taper was burning on the table. Beside it was an open, leather-bounded volume. He walked over and examined it. Thin handwriting filled the yellow pages from edge to edge. At the top of the first page was written, “The Diary of Archibald Clark.”
The entry read:
Marcus has taken the others away. The last of their things were put on a truck and driven to that estate in the country. I told Marcus there was no reason to leave; we had enough to weather the storm. We had a better chance at turning around our fortunes if we remained in the city. But my brother is a sentimentalist. His emotions getting the better of him, he said he could not stay in the home that cost his father’s life. He is too much like mother.
It’s been left to me to mind the house. With the children gone and so much furniture removed, it feels barren. I’m living in a mausoleum. Even the clatter of the house staff is not enough to abate the gloom. Perhaps I miss my brother and his family too dearly. Or perhaps the weight of losing both mother and father has finally sunken in.
Asher risked touching the book to turn a page. The handwriting became more jagged as the days and months passed. He read an entry:
I could not compel them to stay. The last of my staff has left, citing the growing disturbances. What would they have done if they saw what I’ve seen? They were shaken by a few noises and crashing dishes. How would their gentle psyches survive the specters I’ve been forced to behold?
A few entries later, the handwriting a scrawl:
I saw my father again tonight. His image lingered above the stairs leading to his old game room. It’s almost as if he wishes for one more hand of Bull Rush. Oh, that I could join him in the sweet embrace of the afterlife. But that pleasure is robbed of me.
Asher turned to the end of the journal and read the last entry.
Growing. Forever. Must find the answer. No escape. They knew this would happen. Forever cursed. I will wait for them. I will wait.
I will wait.
Closing the book, Asher left the study. He searched the rest of the floor, until he discovered a narrow flight of steps. Noises echoed up from the rooms below. Men were talking, their rough voices booming with laughter. The detective descended and found himself in a low-ceilinged den. A haze of cigar smoke muted the lantern light.
There were at least a dozen men gathered around a table. Their clothes and mannerisms were at least a generation out of date. When they noticed the newcomer, they brushed him off with a laugh and returned to the table. A pile of coins was in the center. Several men sat around it, holding cards. Another man held the deck. Quickly, he dealt a card to each player. The men standing nearby let out cheers and groans as the players showed their hands. It seemed the bystanders were placing their own bets.
Asher leaned over and watched them play. It wasn’t a game he knew. The rules were indecipherable, with addendums and changes arising with each hand. Occasionally a bystander would shout something, causing yet more changes to the game. The players would change hands, or cast more money onto the pile. Asher examined the pot of winnings. Among the coins were rings, watches, and a few gold teeth.
He turned to a man beside him. “What the hell is this?”
The man snorted and called to one of the players. “See here Rufus, this chap doesn’t know what we’re playing.”
A man with curly, gray hair and muttonchops put down his cards. Removing a cigar from his mouth he smirked at Asher.
“Someone comes into my house and has never heard of Bull Rush? Why that’s sacrilege, my friend!”
“Sorry,” Asher said. “More of a poker man.”
“Poker’s a pauper’s game,” Rufus said. “This is a game of kings.”
“You said this was your house?” Asher asked. Rufus had returned to the game.
Asher asked the bystander. “Rufus owns the house?”
“Does Rufus Clark own the Clark Mansion?” the man said. “Let me think about that. Yes, I believe he does.”
“So his sons, where would they be?” Asher asked.
“Marcus and Archie? How should I know? Marcus doesn’t gamble. And that other one, who would want him around?”
A shout from the crowd brought the detective back to the table. One of the gamblers’ cards were splayed out for all to see. His head was drooped in defeat. The men around him were jeering. A few looked pale, terror on their faces. Rufus quelled the noise with an uplifted hand.
“Lady Luck just wasn’t with you tonight, Felix,” he said. “If I’m not mistaken, you’re all out of funds. You know what that means: we can take a digit or you can take your chances at the draw.”
Felix’s hands clenched into fists. “I want the draw.”
“Really?” Rufus said. “But if you fail…”
“I’m not leaving empty-handed,” Felix said.
Rufus shrugged. “Have it your way.”
The old man stuck out a closed fist. “Yellow or blue?”
The player stared at Rufus’s hand. A murmur rolled across the crowd, growing into shouts. Men were telling Felix to pick one color or the other. Finally, he took a deep breath.
Rufus opened his hand. In his palm was a blue corn kernel. The air was sucked out of the room.
“I’m sorry, Felix.” From beneath the table, Rufus drew a pistol and shot the man in the face. His head snapped back from the force. Felix’s dead body slumped over and fell out of the chair. Quickly it was carried from the area and disappeared.
“What the hell was that?” Asher said.
“That’s what happens when you lose too much at Bull Rush,” Rufus said. “The stakes are high, but the rewards are great.”
The host gestured to the gathered men. “We have an open seat, boys. You’re all welcome to it. But, of course, only one man can have it.”
He leaned back in his chair as the room erupted in violence. Chairs were smashed against backs. Bottles were broken and slashed across throats. Countless punches were thrown. Asher considered if these apparitions could harm him. He got his answer as a pair of burly hands grabbed his shoulders and hurled him at the wall.
Asher recovered and ducked as the huge man sent a fist into the plaster. He barreled into the brute, plowing through the crowd and sending him into the card table. Coins flew into the air as the man flopped to the ground. A few of the gamblers broke from their brawls to scrounge at the money.
Rufus laughed as he took it all in. Asher used the bedlam to get close to the man. He grabbed Rufus by the collar and dragged him from the crowd. Finding a dark, quiet corner, he propped Rufus against the wall.
“Where’s your son?” Asher said.
“How should I know?” Rufus said. “I’ve been dead for ages.”
“You know you’re dead?”
“Of course. How could anyone not?”
Asher tilted his head. “You’d be surprised.”
“Met a lot of dead people?” Rufus asked.
“That’s my job.”
“Why are you playing cards?” Asher asked him.
“What else is there to do, my good man? Can’t a dead man enjoy a hand or two with his friends to while away eternity?”
“What do you know about the house?” Asher said.
“You want the square footage?” Rufus said.
“Then you’ll have to see my boy,” the dead man said. “Grief does horrible things to a mind. Sometimes it can even affect whole worlds. I was like that too, when I lost my Clara.”
“You know where your son’s ghost is hiding?” Asher asked.
“Ghost? Oh, he’s no ghost. But he’s around here somewhere.”
The detective let go of Rufus and gestured to the room.
“Let’s call it a night, sir.”
Asher was soon on the ground floor of the house. The foyer was a wide, open space. Hallways branched off into sitting rooms, galleries, and dining halls. Asher searched the floor, but the broach was nowhere to be found. As he considered his options, a shadow detached from the wall and moved toward him. It stepped into the light, becoming the butler, the man who had thrown Asher out of the house earlier that night.
He glared at Asher, his face a knot of anger.
“Okay,” Asher said. “I know we got off on the wrong foot. But I’m in here now, so you might as well make me feel welcome.”
The butler growled as he swung a huge hand at Asher. The detective was knocked off his feet. With both hands, the butler lifted Asher into the air. The room spun as he hurled Asher down the hall. Asher crashed into a bookcase. Struggling to get up, Asher found a shard of wood to use as a weapon. It broke in half as Asher clubbed the butler. The man was unphased.
Asher dove away as the butler grabbed at him again. Shoving his weight into the man, Asher pushed him into the ruined bookcase. The butler groaned as he rose to his feet. He was suddenly taller. His limbs and neck were thicker. Bristly fur sprouted across the butler’s skin. His clothes fell away, revealing the shape of a great bear.
“Wasn’t expecting that.”
The butler roared, shaking the house. He trampled across the den towards Asher. The detective ran through a doorway, flying headlong towards the kitchen. The beast plowed through everything between him and his target. Asher waited at the end of the kitchen as the creature forced its way inside the room.
The bear charged, crashing through cabinets, counters, and dishes. Blood streamed from its hide as shrapnel tore into it. Asher stood motionless. The beast hurled its tremendous bulk at the detective. The man dropped away, as the bear collided, headfirst, into the row of stoves. The detective had opened the burners, the flames set on high.
Asher hunkered beneath a table. He waited until the violent thrashing and roars subsided. Eventually, he returned to the kitchen. The fire had scorched the walls and furnishings. A smashed sink had loosed a geyser of water, putting out the flames. The butler laid dead in a pool of water, back in human form. Asher stood over the man. Reaching down he pried a ring of keys from his tight grip.
There was only one door he hadn’t opened: the one leading to the basement. It was black and reinforced with iron bands. Using the butler’s keys, Asher unlocked it. Steps led down into darkness. There was no light switch. Asher descended blind.
The stairs dropped lower and lower, until it seemed he was beneath the city. When reached the bottom, it was abrupt. His feet came off the steps, touching smooth hard rock. A thick, earthy smell was in the air. Asher sensed the walls were spread far apart. Unlike the rest of the house, the room felt empty.
He took a step into the basement and noticed a light. It bloomed up, at least a hundred feet away. The light flickered and danced. Slowly Asher approached. He could make out a table. Only a few objects were on it. A man was slumped in a chair at the desk, his back to the detective. Asher clenched his fists, readying for what might happen next.
“You’re here for the broach,” the man said.
“I have it here with me,” he said. “You can take it. It’s hardly important to me anymore. We once owned many nice things. But my brother took most of them when he left. I’m not surprised he sent you for what was left.”
The man spoke with a tired, resigned voice. There was no emotion in it.
“Are you Archie?” Asher asked.
The man’s shoulders shrugged, almost in a laugh. “Is that my name? It’s been so long since someone’s used it.”
“How long have you been down here?”
His voice was low. “A long time.”
“You have any idea what’s going on upstairs?”
“I saw you, you know,” Archibald said. “Saw you coming from a far way off.”
“You saw me?”
“In a way. I knew someone would come, eventually,” he said. “To put me out of my misery and reclaim this place. In truth I welcome it; to be free of this nightmare I suffer. But what you do not understand is that you will not be successful. I cannot die.”
“Is that right?” Asher said.
“I tried myself,” Archibald said. “Many times.” Asher caught a glimpse of faded scars on the man’s withered wrists. “There is no one else in the world like me. Cursed to see what’s on the other side, but doomed to stay among the living.”
“You know, some people might consider that a blessing,” Asher said.
“Perhaps it is why I fill the house with those phantoms,” the man said. “To help me forget my infinite loneliness.”
“All that stuff upstairs?” Asher said. “That was you?”
“Did you meet my pets?”
“Yeah,” the detective said. “Thanks for that.”
“Truly, I meant you no harm,” Archibald said. “I can’t always control what I pull into reality. I even summoned the ghost of my father, to gamble away eternity. I lie to myself and say it is for his happiness, but it’s only to assuage my pain.”
“How… how did you become like this?” Asher said.
“I’ve tried to discover that secret,” Archibald said. “If I could learn the reason, perhaps I can cure it. All I’ve learned is that it’s a mystery. Powers are at work in the universe that we cannot dare to control. I am merely their plaything.”
“You know, you’re not the only one,” Asher said. “There are others like you, out in the world.”
Archibald raised his head, but did not turn to look at the detective. “Could it be true?”
“There are a few,” Asher said. “You’re not alone. It’s possible you can find the answers you need.”
Archibald was silent. For a moment Asher made himself believe the aged creature would respond. “If it were only that easy.”
The man extended his hand. Sitting in his palm was the broach. It was a round piece of gold, inlaid with emeralds and opals. The jewelry glowed in the dark place. Asher moved to take it. It was heavier than it looked.
“Thanks, Archie,” he said. “This will make your family very happy.”
“Tell me,” Archibald said. “Is Marcus still alive?
“I don’t know,” Asher said. “But a granddaughter, er maybe a great-grand daughter, is.”
“I wonder what she is like,” Archibald said. “After all those years, they never came back to visit.”
Asher didn’t have anything to say that could comfort the man.
“You may go now, stranger,” the man said. “You accomplished your task. I think I know what I must do now. It will take all my effort, but perhaps I will be free.”
“I don’t like the sound of that, chief,” Asher said. “Now if you’d like I can take you with me–”
Asher found himself standing outside on the front porch. The door was locked tight. He checked his pockets to find the ring of keys was gone.
“Crafty son of a bitch.”
He turned around to face the street, when a familiar face greeted him.
“Didn’t think you come back,” he said to Pettigrew.
“Oh, so dramatic, Robert,” Pettigrew said. “I had no intention of abandoning you.”
“But you did.”
“On the contrary. I was simply fetching something.”
He made a curt gesture, rapping the sidewalk with his walking stick. A young and terrified man stepped into the light in front of the house.
“James? Phil, what you are you doing with my client?” Asher said.
Pettigrew tilted his head. “I thought it meet for this young beau to play a part in this little exercise. You are, after all, doing it to secure his marital bliss.”
“How did you even find him?”
“I have my ways,” Pettigrew said. “Plus, I took his card from your pocket when you weren’t looking.”
Pettigrew placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. James flinched. He walked away from Pettigrew and approached Asher.
“So this is the house, huh?” he said.
“Sure is, kid,” Asher said. “It’s one hell of a place.”
“Did you find the broach?” James asked.
Asher was about to speak, when Pettigrew cut him off.
“Robert and I have agreed to a slight change in plans.”
“What are you talking about?” James said. “I hired Mr. Asher to find my fiancé’s broach.”
“My boy, don’t you think something so critical to your marriage requires a greater investment on your part?” Pettigrew said.
James pointed to the house. “I’ve heard all about that place. It’s a nightmare. The Clark’s couldn’t even get in.”
“Yet Robert did,” Pettigrew said.
“That’s why I hired him,” James said.
“And he’s made the way clear for you,” Pettigrew said, a mischievous light in his eyes. “I’m sure a man as in love as you is more than willing to brave whatever terrors that might linger still.”
James was dumbfounded. He looked back at Asher. The detective was silent.
“This is ludicrous,” he said. “You were supposed to get me that broach.”
“Come now, James,” Pettigrew said. “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if you recovered it? What is it they say, ‘Faint heart never won fair lady’?”
For a moment it looked as if the young man would actually do it. But he broke, and stomped away from the house.
“You’re both crazy,” he said. “I’m not going into that house.”
“But James,” Pettigrew said, “the broach.”
James huffed and turned away. “You can forget your fee, Asher.”
He stormed down the street, disappearing around a corner.
“That was cruel, Phillip,” Asher said.
“Oh come now, Robert. Do you really think a coward like that deserves a woman? Although I am sorry about your payment.”
“I’ll live.” Asher walked down the steps to join Pettigrew on the sidewalk. “Though had he called your bluff we would have had some trouble. The house is locked up tight again.”
“It was a safe gamble,” Pettigrew said. “Though perhaps you can find another way in. I do want to take a look myself.”
They both heard a loud crack coming from the house. The ground rumbled. Starting from the roof, the house began to fold in on itself. It folded like a bed sheet being put back into the drawer. The walls, windows, and doors became flat as paper, stacking on top of each layer. Finally the impossible house fell back from the street, evaporating like a cloud of dust. Only the cement foundation remained, bare and dry.
Pettigrew, in uncharacteristic amazement, moved toward the steps.
“Don’t bother Phil,” Asher said. “There’s nothing to see.”
Asher turned away and started down the street. Pettigrew was beside him, swinging his walking stick nonchalantly.
“So what was going on inside that house?” he asked Asher.
“And the power behind it all, did you discover it?” Pettigrew said.
“Do you care to enlightening me?”
“Figure it out for yourself,” the detective said.
Pettigrew was about to scoff. He paused. “It was the uncle.”
“He was a lot like us,” Asher said.
“Except he knew when to leave,” Pettigrew said. “I’d like to know that trick. So I guess it was a waste of a night. No payment. No broach. Even the house is gone.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” From his coat pocket Asher drew out the broach. “How much do you think I can get for this?”
“Robert, you little fink,” Pettigrew said. “I guess I’m rubbing off on you.”
Robert Asher snorted. “I was pinching stuff long before you came along. Besides, I didn’t steal it. In fact, I won’t even sell it. This happens to be a gift.”