Main Characters: Vin Tanner with OC and the rest of the team.
Warning: Contains some sexual content, which is clearly indicated in the text.
Thanks goes to ajsqdawy for her wonderful betas.
Vin Tanner checked the clock hanging on the wall above Chris Larabee's office for the hundredth time this afternoon. Time seemed to stand still as he waited for five o'clock when his six-week vacation officially started. He planned to go camping and hiking in the upper elevations of Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, then a week working around his small ranch leaving three weeks to do anything that came to mind.
Four-thirty and Vin began to get really get anxious. The last three planned vacations were suddenly postponed when the team was called out on a case that required a sharpshooter. Four-forty-five and he squirmed in his seat.
"Hey, Junior, a watched clock never ticks." Buck snickered.
"That's a watched pot never boils," J.D. corrected. He rolled his desk chair over to Vin's desk.
"So where are you headed tomorrow?"
"Silver Falls State Park in Oregon," Chris said, as he walked out of his office with a smug look on his face.
"Never heard of the place," Nathan said.
Vin looked at Chris exasperated. "Great, Chris. Now all these yahoos'll be sneaking up there a disturbing my peace and quiet."
"Would we do that?" Buck dead panned. "Your faith in your friends is disappointing."
"Did I hear you say Silver Falls?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah," Vin answered suspiciously.
"An old friend of mine lives up that way in a pretty remote area. She bought an old house about three months ago and at first she was excited about renovating it."
"She?" Buck cocked an eyebrow.
Josiah ignored him. "Lately, her emails have come in sporadically, each one sounding a little more stressed. Do you think you could pass by and check on her?"
Vin thought about it. He wasn't on any kind of time schedule and besides it wasn't very often Josiah asked anyone for a favor. "Sure. Just give me her address and I'll stop by."
"Thank you, Brother. I owe you."
"Nah, just clean the fish next time we go fishing."
"Hey, Vin, what are you still doing here?" Chris asked pointing to the clock: five on the dot.
Vin jumped to his feet. "I'm out of here. Call me with those with those directions later, Josiah. I'll be leaving at dawn tomorrow morning."
"Have a good vacation, Junior," Buck called as Vin grabbed his jacket and rushed out of the office door, the ding of the elevator commencing their co-worker and friend's much needed vacation.
Vin awoke at the crack of dawn and made himself a hearty breakfast that would take him through the day, and then fed and watered the horses before letting them out in the corral. His neighbor's son would stop by each morning and evening to care for the horses and his friends would ride them on the weekends.
With a last look at his supplies packed in the back of his jeep, he jumped in and drove down the gravel driveway with a satisfied smile on his face.
After ten hours on the road, Vin pulled into Twin Falls State Park and found a camping spot away from the recreational campers and settled in for the night. He was on the road again before dawn, reaching Silver Falls late in the afternoon.
Merging onto Or-213 S, the road turned more rural as he reached the park and followed the posted signs through the park until the falls were behind him and he was negotiating hairpin turns up a narrow winding mountain road. Tall redwood and cedar trees soared above him on either side, forming a perpetual canopy of shade over the narrow lane that at some points seemed non-existent.
As he rounded the last turn, Vin saw a rambling two-story log cabin nestled in the trees. It must have, at one time, been a sight to behold. But time and weather had eaten away its beauty. Six finely honed log steps led to a wide wraparound porch. An intricately carved door with a stain glass window spoke of finer days. The top floor had three large windows that looked onto the woods beyond. To the left stood an old barn that looked like a good gust of wind would turn it into kindling.
He pulled up to the house and the door opened. A woman stepped out pointing an old Winchester rifle toward him. "State your business," she demanded.
Vin studied her: mid thirties, long light brown hair braided and falling across her shoulder. She wore faded blue jeans and a plaid shirt.
"Rose Markham?" Vin asked as he slowly climbed out of his Jeep, his hands raised.
"Yes. This is private property, and just so we don't start out on the wrong foot. I know how to use this and I will. Now state your business."
Vin lowered his arms hesitantly. "My name is Vin Tanner. I work with Josiah Sanchez. When he heard I was going to be camping above Silver Falls he asked me to stop by and see how you were doing. He was worried."
"How do I know you are who you say you are?"
Vin reached for his wallet in his back pocket but froze as the woman aimed her rifle at his heart. "Whoa. I'm just getting my I.D," he said, surreptitiously drawing out a small photo of the team laughing after one of Chris' barbeques and tucked it next to his driver's license before throwing it on the porch.
"Josiah said the last few emails he got from you sounded like you were worried about something. I'm just here to ease his mind. He'd be here himself if he didn't have to testify in a case we've been working on for months."
She opened his wallet and saw his ID and the picture before throwing it back to him. "I appreciate Josiah's concern, and yours, but I'm afraid one person is not going to be much help with what is happening here."
"You'd be surprised. Ah ... do you mind lowering that thing? You're making me nervous."
She lowered the rifle to her side. "Come night time you'll be glad I have it. Well, grab your stuff and come on in. You're lucky tonight, I made stew and there's enough to feed a small army."
"Good, cause I'm starving." Vin leaned into his Jeep to pull out his duffle bag and followed Rose through the front door.
Vin stepped into a huge room surprised to see a soaring cathedral ceiling. "They called this the Great Room," Rose said as she closed the door behind them. "At least that's what the architectural plans called it."
To the right, a large staircase with wrought-iron railings led to a balcony with the same wrought-iron railings. At the back of the room beneath the balcony, double doors led to another room, and in the left corner stood an old one-man wrought-iron elevator. The walls were covered with faded floral wallpaper looking even older against the shine of the refinished hardwood floor.
"I planned on stripping the wallpaper first, but I had to see what the floors looked like," Rose explained. "She was a grand old house at one time. It's a shame it was left to ruin for so many years."
Vin nodded. It may have been grand at one time, but there was something about it that just didn't settle well with him. A large sofa with dark green and brown cushions faced a large fireplace with a mantel hewed from oak. Two comfortable armchairs sat at either end of the sofa with a large coffee table made from the same oak as the mantel. An old grandfather clock sat in the right corner next to the kitchen doors, ticking away the seconds.
"Throw your bag over there," she nodded toward an old wooden wheelbarrow that was refinished as a small table in an alcove behind him, next to the door, "and I'll give you the grand tour," she said as she hung her rifle on brackets above the fireplace.
Vin followed her past the old elevator and through the double doors into a large country kitchen.
A massive wooden table with eight chairs dominated the room. A wagon wheel chandelier with six hurricane lamps hung above the table. "Three run off the generator," she explained, "and the other three use lamp oil if the generator goes out."
A window above a large country sink overlooked a screened in porch with a view of the woods not fifty feet away. "Until just recently I used to sit out there and listen to the night life."
Vin cocked an eyebrow; he didn't miss the tone of her voice. Maybe Josiah had a right to be concerned.
"This is beautiful, but isn't it a little isolated for a woman alone?"
"I can take care of myself. Under normal circumstances," she added. "Look, we can talk about this later and you said you were starved. There are eight rooms upstairs, pick anyone except the first one on the right, that's the master suite and its mine. Freshen up; there are towels in the hall bath. Remember, everything runs on a very old generator here, so use the hot water sparingly. I've got a new one coming in three weeks, I just hope to God this one will last that long."
Vin nodded and made his way back into the Great Room grabbing his duffel bag from the wheelbarrow table before heading up the staircase.
The upstairs hallway was long and narrow and would have been oppressively dark if not for the three skylights in the ceiling. He opened the middle door on the right and peeked in. A single bed, a dresser, and an overstuffed chair crowded the room. A large window overlooked the woods. He noticed there were no curtains or drapes in the window; unnecessary, he thought, here in the middle of nowhere.
Twenty minutes later, his long hair still damp from his shower, he returned to the kitchen to find two heaping plates of stew sitting on the table.
"Come on, don't stand on ceremony, dig in. And if this doesn't fill you up, there's plenty more. Just holler."
Vin grinned and pulled out a chair. "I think this will be plenty, thanks."
Rose poured two beers and sat down opposite him.
Vin took a bite. "This is good," he mumbled around a mouth full of food, "this is really good."
"It's been awhile since I had company for dinner."
"When your bed and breakfast gets going you'll have plenty of guests. I know my friends will be here if you can stand the seven of us all at one time. We can be a handful. But I'm sure you already know that from Josiah's emails."
Rose laughed, the sound welcome in the quiet kitchen. "I've heard of a few."
Vin took another bite of stew and pointed his fork around the kitchen.
"Tell me, what brought you all the way out here? It doesn't seem like a place for a woman, or anyone for that matter, to be alone."
"I saw this house and knew I could turn it in the perfect Bed and Breakfast. I was retired so I bought it. You know, it wasn't always like this. When I first got here three months ago, I hired two full time caretakers and a handy man. But they were all scared away by the end of the first month."
"Scared away? By what?"
Rose set her fork down and looked toward the window over the sink. "I can't really explain it, but..." she added ominously. "You'll see for yourself tonight. Are you done?"
Vin looked at her nearly untouched plate.
"You have no idea what you are up against out here, Mr. Tanner."
"Vin," he corrected. "Why don't you tell me?" He sipped at his beer watching her clear the table.
"I told you, you have to see it to believe it."
"All right." He picked up the glasses and took them over to the sink. "You wash, I'll dry." Rose nodded. He noticed her hands shaking. "Hey," he said softly. "It's going to be alright. I'll be here tonight and for as long as you need me. We'll get to the bottom of this, whatever it is, I promise."
"You don't know what it's like," she said, her voice trembling for the first time.
He saw a confused, frightened side of the strong woman and it troubled him. What could be going on that would make her this scared?
"At first it was just once in a while, and then every weekend - that's when I lost my staff - now it's every night."
Vin took the dinner plate from her hand and placed it in the sink with sudsy water before turning to take a gentle hold of her shoulders. "I'm here to help. And the rest of my team is only a phone call away."
A hesitant smile spread across her face.
"There, that's better. Let's get these dishes done and take a walk before dark. I want to check the place out."
"Then we'd better hurry." She looked over at the clock above the fridge. "It's already six-thirty. It starts getting dark at seven this time of year. By seven-thirty, it's pitch black and all hell breaks loose."
"Let's leave these until later then," he said, grabbing her hand. "I know for a fact that they just don't jump up and wash themselves."
She laughed and opened the back door. Vin noticed that weather and neglect had eroded the planks and eaten away at the posts that supported the second floor balcony. Two long chains hung near the corner, remnants of an old porch swing. Vin could imagine someone sitting on the porch swing, listening to the birds and katydids chirping in the trees. Then he knew what was nagging him; the silence. No birds, no insects, just the sound of their footsteps.
The trees surrounding the house, like guardians against the outside world, began to take on a dark hue as the sun slowly sank behind the Cascade Mountains. Rose led Vin to the barn first. Inside, an old tractor sat in the center of the dirt floor, part of its engine lying in pieces on the floor. Vin noticed what little equipment lined the wall behind the workbench was outdated by thirty years.
"Cal, the handyman," she said as if reading his thoughts, "was overhauling the engine, when... when he had enough and went back to town." Rose threaded her arm through Vin's and led him toward the back exit. "He was so excited about it at first."
"Where's your car?" Vin asked, suddenly realizing he had not seen any other vehicles.
"My caretakers, Doris and Hank, left in a panic one night and took my car. They promised to return it, but I never saw it again."
Vin stopped, looking down at her, "You mean you've been stuck up here alone for two months?"
"Not exactly. Randy, the grocer's son, drives me into town once a week for supplies. But even he hasn't been here in a couple weeks."
"I'll take you into town tomorrow and you can stock up. Tell me why do you stay here? I mean... if things are as bad as you say, why not just leave?"
"It hasn't always been this bad. At first, it was just a nuisance, and then each week it became a little more frightening. But Vin, you have to understand, everything I own is here in this house. I have nothing to go back to, nowhere to go. For want of a better cliché, I burned all my bridges behind me. This is my home now, and I will not let it go without a fight."
Vin nodded. He could understand that. His ranch was the first home he every owned and he would die trying to keep it.
They exited the barn and Rose led him past the kitchen to a small shack that housed the generator. She pried the squeaky door open and Vin whistled. "It looks like its seen better days."
"Just as long as she keeps chugging along until the new one comes." Rose closed the door saying a quiet prayer. "I plan on having solar power eventually."
"You still never told me what brought you out here," Vin said as they slowly made their way back to the house.
"I decided to retire while I was still young enough to enjoy life. So, I left with a sizable retirement package, enough to buy this place and renovate it. I always dreamed about opening a Bed and Breakfast after I retired. I went to an estate sale with a friend and I saw a catalogue with this house set to go to auction the following week. Vin, I knew the moment I saw that picture this was my house."
"Here, in the middle of nowhere."
She nodded. "I don't know how many times I heard the same thing from friends, co-workers and even clients; I just wanted a place where I could go to forget the rat race of everyday life. A sanctuary; surrounded by nothing but nature."
She looked toward the trees, the towering Cascade Mountains beyond and the blue sky above. "This is the most beautiful place in the world...during the day."
Vin took a step closer feeling a need to protect her.
"I hopped on a plane to Portland International Airport and rented a car the next day and drove here. I fell madly in love with it the moment I saw it. I went to the auction that weekend and I was the highest bidder. Come to think about it, not that many people were interested in it." Rose looked at the darkening trees. "We had better get back inside." She threaded her arm around Vin's again and they started walking back.
"This is my dream, Vin, to turn this place into a retreat. There are plenty of rooms. I got the permits and commissioned a sign for ROSE MANOR BED AND BREAKFAST. Everything fell into place until . . ."
"Hey, that's what I'm here for, right? Just don't give up on those dreams. Promise?"
She nodded. "But let's see how you feel after one night here." She looked up at the crimson sky. "It'll be dark soon. We can talk inside." She tightened her grip on his arm and he could feel her start to tremble as they walked back to the house in silence.
Vin followed her through the Great Room into the kitchen. "I'll help you finish those dishes and then we can..." He froze, a chill raced down his spine.
The kitchen was spotless. Their dinner dishes were washed and put back in the cabinets. The table was cleared. A vase with one red rose, limp and withered, sat as a centerpiece on the polished wooden table.
Rose stepped back, bumping into Vin. "No..." she moaned.
Vin suddenly felt very angry. Anger was an easier emotion to control than this uneasy feeling gnawing at the back of his mind. He grabbed her shoulders, swinging her around to look at him.
"Ok, the joke's gone far enough. Whoever else is here, tell them the party's over."
"It's no joke, Vin." He released her and Rose slowly turned around, the kitchen was spotless, everything in its place. "It's always been outside, now, it's coming in."
Vin saw the fear in her eyes. If she was acting, then she was one hell of an actress. Someone was trying to drive her out of the house and they were doing one hell of a job. If he got hold of the bastards he'd make sure that they wished they were never born.
"Was there anyone at the auction who tried to outbid you? Anyone seem to take an interest in the place?"
"No... well there was one man, he made the first bid, but it was so ridiculously low that the auctioneer ignored him. He didn't bid again."
Vin decided to call JD tomorrow to see if there was anything suspicious about the guy. While they stood there, Vin didn't notice that it was quickly becoming darker in the house. The unmistakable sound of the old generator stalling then starting up again made him flinch.
Rose quickly turned on the wagon wheel chandelier over the table and closed and locked the kitchen window and door, her actions more frantic with growing fear. "Here, in case you need it." She handed him a flashlight. "Keep it with you at all times. It helps, believe me."
Suddenly, something hit the outside wall of the kitchen with the force of a wrecking ball, rattling the glasses and dishes in the cupboards. Vin reached for his service revolver realizing he had left it in the glove compartment of the Jeep.
"And so it begins," Rose said fatalistically.
Again, the house was hit with a tremendous blow. The wagon wheel light swayed above them, sending strange shadows across the walls.
"What the hell?" Vin reached for the back door.
Rose grabbed his arm, "No, you won't find anything out there. It always starts out this way."
"You mean it gets worse?"
Something tapped three times at the kitchen window and the back doorknob jiggled.
"Oh my God," Rose breathed. "It's trying to get back in! It's never done that before. It's angry because you're here."
"Who's angry?" Vin stared at the back door.
"I don't know. I..."
The house shook again from another powerful blow strong enough to nearly knock Vin off his feet. "We're getting the hell out of here!" he yelled.
"No, you don't understand. You can't leave. It won't let you. I'm sorry, Vin, I should have sent you away. I just needed someone to talk to, to keep me from going crazy. When you drove up I couldn't stand the thought of being here alone one more night!"
"Listen to me, whatever it is we'll figure it out. Just let's not panic. How long does this usually last?"
"Ok," he looked at his watch, "that's four hours. We stay here until midnight then we make a run for my car."
Something slammed against the back door, rattling the glass above the sink, as if responding to Vin's words.
"Damn it! The front door is unlocked!" Vin grabbed Rose's hand and ran into the Great Room.
The lights hadn't been turned on yet. "Hit the lights," he yelled.
Rose rushed for the panel of switches on the wall and flipped them on. The wall sconces came to life driving the heavy darkness into the deep corners. The front door was still closed. Vin locked it and pulled the heavy wheelbarrow table over to the door, blocking it.
Suddenly an old motor coughed and rattled as it engaged and he turned back to follow Rose's terrified gaze. The elevator car was slowly descending from the second floor.
"Oh my God!" Rose gasped. "It's gotten inside!"
Outside, the generator sputtered and died. The lights flickered out, plunging the house into darkness.
Vin grabbed Rose and held her tightly against him. He switched the flashlight on, shining it on the descending elevator. "Shit! What's powering it?"
He pulled Rose toward the front door. "We're getting out now. When I say go, I want you to run like hell. You'll be safe in my Jeep."
"What about you?"
Vin snorted. "Don't worry. I'm no hero. I'll be right behind you."
He pulled the wheelbarrow table aside and put his hand on the door lock.
"Now!" Vin flipped the lock and deadbolt, swinging the door open, cool night air hitting him in the face. "Run!" Vin yelled, pushing Rose through the door into the frigid mountain air, the safety of the Jeep impossibly far away now.
He followed Rose out the door nearly stepping on her heels when he was lifted off the ground by an invisible force and hurled back into the house as if he weighed nothing. He hit the floor hard, knocking the air out of him. He lay there stunned, fighting to drag air in his paralyzed lungs. He thought he heard Rose scream as the door slammed shut and the deadbolt rammed home, sealing him inside the house, leaving him alone and blind in the darkness.
The room was mind numbingly quiet, disturbed only by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner and the rattle of the slowly descending elevator.
Vin thought of Rose. He had failed her. He promised he would protect her, and now she was alone on the other side of the door. How terrified she must be. He prayed she reached the car and found a way to escape. Was she right? Was he the catalyst that turned the entity deadly?
As if it read his mind, the entity attacked. A massive weight landed on his chest, driving his spine into the floor, the pressure threatening to fracture his ribcage. Panic overwhelmed him. He flayed his arms wildly, searching for something solid to fight against, but his hands found nothing but empty air. Vin felt his heart pounding in his throat, his eyes ready to explode with the pressure. He was being crushed to death.
All his military and law enforcement training didn't prepare him for this. He couldn't see his enemy, couldn't look into its eyes or see its muscles tense or read its body language. Suddenly the massive weight vanished. Every inch of his body screamed in pain. Vin knew he had to try for the door again, but all his energy was spent. Long, precious minutes that he could not afford to waste passed until he got his breathing back under control.
Then it returned. Vin could feel the floorboards sag beneath him as the immense weight circled like an animal playing with its prey. A putrid smell filled his nostrils making him want to vomit.
He had to move, find someplace where he could hide, if even for a few minutes. He began levering himself up on his elbows when something grabbed his hair and yanked his head off the floor. Vin screamed hoarsely as he was dragged across the floor toward the elevator.
His arms flayed wildly searching for the hand that gripped his hair, but found nothing to grab. He was picked up and hurled across the room like a child's toy, slamming into the iron frame of the elevator. He felt the bone in his right arm snap with excruciating pain. He was picked up again, his broken arm whipping against the iron bars. He cried out in agony, disbelief whirling in his brain. Slumped against the elevator he heard the sound of the car slowly come to a stop behind him. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he prayed Rose had made it out safely.
Vin heard a moan, soft, pain filled. … Rose? Disjointed memories, frightening, impossible images. A gentle hand caressed his face then his arm exploded in fiery pain.
He pried his eyes open. Rose was kneeling beside him, her eyes red and swollen from crying. A nasty hand-shaped, red welt covered the right side of her face.
"Are you alright?" he choked out.
She nodded, sniffling. "It ended at midnight. I thought morning would never come."
Vin looked down at his blood soaked left arm. An exposed, jagged bone skewered through the sleeve on his forearm. "Damn..."
"I'm so sorry," she said, her voice raspy from crying. "I never thought it would get this violent."
He realized his head was lying against the elevator and he shuddered with the memory of last night. "It's not your fault. I just wish I knew what the hell we were fighting here."
He looked around. Light came through the stained glass window in the door and down the stairs from the hall skylights, but the feeling of malevolence lingered.
"We have to get out of here!" he said, attempting to sit up. Excruciating pain seized his arm and he fell back against the elevator, helpless.
Rose pushed Vin's sweaty hair away from his face. "Vin, you can't move until I've set that bone. The medical supplies are in the bathroom. Be right back."
He watched her walk across the room and disappear into the bathroom under the stairs and he suddenly felt incredibly alone. The room had not changed except for the wheelbarrow table laying on the floor beside the door. They had to get out of here before dark.
Rose returned with her arms laden with bandages, surgical tape, splints, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and a bowl.
"Before I start, I want you to take two of these Toradol." She handed him the pills and a bottle of water. "I used them when I broke my leg last year. They work pretty fast."
He hated taking pain pills, hated the feeling that he was not in complete control, but he knew he couldn't stand the agony of Rose pulling the broken bone back in place. He downed the pills and closed his eyes.
"Where were you headed before you stopped here?" Rose asked, trying to distract him until the pills took hold.
"Camping above the falls," he answered his voice hitched with pain. "I've been there before. The lake that feeds the falls…"
"I know the place. It's beautiful. There's a cave up there I wanted to check out but I didn't want to go in alone."
"When…when we get out of here," Vin could hear his voice slurring. Rose was right, the pills were fast acting.
"We can go together," Rose finished for him.
"I'd… like that."
"Me too. Now, let's get this arm fixed so we can get out of here."
Vin nodded, his vision weaving in and out as he watched her pour the hydrogen peroxide into the bowl and soak the pads, then set aside the splints to immobilize his arm after she set the bone.
"I wouldn't look if I were you. OK, this going to hurt like hell. Are you ready?"
Vin nodded and watched her cut his shirt away and grimaced when she gently washed away the dried blood. She tapped his cheek in sympathy and he closed his eyes preparing himself for what he knew would be the most excruciating pain of his life despite the strong painkillers.
Taking a deep breath Rose planted her right foot against his uninjured shoulder and her left foot against the elevator behind him then grabbed his left wrist firmly and, with one strong yank, pulled the bone back in place.
Rose's vison blurred with tears when Vin screamed and his eyes rolled back. He slumped to the floor, unconscious, and she knew she was responsible for all of this.
She quickly cleaned the wound with hydrogen peroxide and packed it with the compresses soaked in the solution then set two splints in place, wrapping them just tight enough to keep the bone in place and not add more pain.
Grabbing a couple of throw pillows from the sofa, she carefully eased Vin onto his back with his head on one pillow and his splinted arm on the other. Then threw a blanket over him making sure he looked as comfortable as possible before she collapsed into an easy chair to watch over him.
When Vin pried one eye open a strange face wavered above him.
"It's about time you woke up," it said.
Confused, he slammed his eye shut, wisps of foggy memories forming. He concentrated and forced both eyes open this time. Rose was leaning over him wiping his face with a cool damp cloth.
"You had me worried. You've been asleep for hours." Throbbing pain registered in his left arm, making him sick. "Try not to move," she warned. "I've got you trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey."
He carefully lifted his head just enough to see his splinted left arm resting in a sling, which was immobilized against his torso with a strip of sheeting. He dropped his head back against the pillow. "Damn," he muttered. "How long?"
"You've been out for..." she lifted his right wrist checking his watch, "six hours."
Vin looked around. "What time is it?"
"Two in the afternoon."
"We have to get out of here before..." He tried to sit up and nearly passed out.
"Lay still, just a little longer. Here, take these." She handed him two more pills and a glass of water.
He reluctantly swallowed the pills, knowing they would put him out again and leave Rose alone, but he needed his strength if they were going to get out of this house tonight.
"I won't let you sleep past five. Not very long I know, but hopefully it will…"
Rose stopped mid- sentence, startled by the sound of a phone ringing very close to them. She followed the sound and realized it was coming from Vin's shirt pocket. It rang again, the sound eerie in the quiet of the Great Room. Vin patted his breast pocket with uncoordinated movements and pulled out his cell phone.
"Hello…?" he asked hesitantly, his voice slurred.
"Hey, Junior, how're ya doing? Sounds like the party's already started."
This was impossible. They were in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone towers within fifty miles.
Buck laughed. "Yeah, it's me and I have you on speaker phone. Josiah's been driving us crazy around here, so J.D. did his magic and got you hooked up with satellite. Chris said you wouldn't be too happy to have your vacation interrupted."
"Buck…" Vin repeated, wary and confused.
"You sound like you're plastered all ready, Junior." Buck laughed.
"Need…need you guys…" Vin heard the tremor in his voice, but he didn't care. For the first time since the house started its attack, he felt like there was a chance that they could survive.
Buck's teasing voice suddenly turned serious. "Is everything alright, Junior… Vin…?"
"Vin! What's going on there?" A new voice snapped.
Rose saw the phone begin to shake in Vin's hand and pried it out of his fingers.
"Who is this?" she demanded. What if this was just a cruel joke perpetrated by whatever possessed the house?
"Chris Larabee. Who are you?"
Rose remembered Vin mentioning his name several times. "Rose Markham."
The next voice was gruff yet gentle, and she recognized it right away. Her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, thank God, is that you Josiah?" she sobbed.
A moment of silence, then, "Yes…yes it's me. Rose, what is going on there?"
"Oh, Josiah, you have to help us. Please…"
"Calm down, Rose," Josiah gently urged. "Tell us what's happening."
"Tell you what's happening?" Rose repeated tentatively, her gaze meeting Vin's. Would they believe her or think she was crazy? "Josiah, it's this house… it's trying to kill us."
A moment of stifling silence hung in Rose's ear and she wondered with some panic if she'd lost their only lifeline.
"Excuse me, Darlin'…?" Buck asked incredulously. "Did you say the house is trying to kill you? That must be one hell of a party you guys got going there."
"You have to believe me! We really need help!" Rose's frightened plea made Vin snatch the phone back.
"Back off, Buck. Somethin's not right here. You got to get up here fast. Don't…don't know if we can make it another night. And Chris, I'm gonna need Nate. I busted my arm and…"
She grabbed the phone back. "The bone broke through his skin. I set it, cleaned and packed it with hydrogen peroxide before I wrapped it just tight enough to keep the bone in place then put it in a sling and strapped it to his chest."
"Sounds like you've done all the right things," Nathan said, already going over the supplies he would need.
"But he's in so much pain. I gave him two Toradol, but I don't know what else to do for him."
Nathan could feel the fear in her voice. "Keep him as still as possible and monitor his temperature. If he develops a fever, give him…"
And the phone died.
"Hello?" Rose pleaded into the silence. "HELLO?" She looked at the display. It was blank. Her heart stuttered. Vin reached over and gently pulled her against his good shoulder.
"It's going to be okay. They know where we are and that we need help. Heaven or hell couldn't keep them from reaching us."
"Even this house?"
He wanted to say, yes, even this house, but he couldn't lie. How do you fight a living nightmare? Exhaustion and the strong pain pills pulled him into a deep drugged sleep.
Almost thirteen hundred miles away, six men stood in stunned silence in the center of the bullpen at ATF Headquarters. It was impossible to believe, but Vin was not prone to flights of fancy, and the fear they heard in his voice was too real to ignore.
No one knew what to say. JD grabbed Buck's cell phone from Nate's hand, muttering about Vin's antiquated cell phone and the stubborn Texan's refusal to upgrade, and plugged it into his computer.
Chris barked orders. "Ezra, get hold of Orrin. Tell him we need a flight to Oregon and two SUVs. Buck, contact the local police and park rangers and see if they know anything about the area."
"On it," Buck said.
He didn't need to say anything to Nate, who was already on the phone with his wife assembling a complete emergency response kit.
Josiah stood as still as a statue. A deep, bone chilling foreboding ran down his spine from the hysteria in Rose's voice and Vin's poorly concealed fear.
"Please, God," he prayed, "help us to help our brother and sister who are in the clutches of pure evil. Amen."
A chorus of soft "Amens" followed.
"Chris," Ezra called from his desk. "Orrin has a jet waiting for us. It leaves in one hour. He'll have vehicles standing by with drivers if we need them."
"We need to stop at the hospital on our way to the airport," Nathan said. "Rain is putting together an emergency kit. She's pulling some strings to get me more than the basic supplies."
J.D. looked up from his computer his face as white as a sheet.
"J.D., are you alright?" Chris asked.
"I…I don't know…"
"Kid…?" Buck asked concerned with J.D.'s reaction.
"When I hacked into Vin's cell phone, there was no interruption in the satellite connection, and no reason for the connection to cut out like it did - except, maybe, for this." J.D. turned back to his computer and turned up the speakers.
Nate's instructions to Rose were clear. "Keep him as still as possible and monitor his temperature. If he develops a fever give him…"
Then another voice, deep and garbled, snarled, "He's mine."
JD looked sick. "Then the call was cut. I don't know how..."
"Dear God," Josiah whispered. The ex-preacher had met evil in many guises throughout his life but had never felt the overpowering malevolence that emanated from the phone. He turned to his team. "Brothers, we are in a fight for Vin Tanner's very soul."
When Vin finally awoke two hours later, he found the pain to be manageable. Rose helped him to his feet, catching his good arm as he swayed.
"Take it slow and easy at first," she warned. "Those pills could knock out an elephant."
Vin nodded. The house looked no different than it did when he first walked in yesterday, but now there was a feeling of uneasiness and foreboding. He might have just been overreacting from his throbbing arm and the pills, but there was a feeling of ... death. He leaned on Rose as they headed for the front door. "Let's just get the hell out of here."
Rose opened the door slowly, anxious to get to Vin's Jeep before the house realized their intent. She looked up and jerked to an astonished stop, staring in disbelief at the forest that circled the house.
Somehow, overnight, the trees had bent and interlocked, weaving into a thick, impenetrable wall that surrounded them completely, even blocking the only road in and out.
Rose forced herself out of her stupor and guided Vin down the porch stairs. The hairs on the nape of her neck stood up. The air was eerily still, not even a breeze. She felt Vin stiffen and knew he felt it, too. They darted for the Cherokee, their hearts in their throats. Rose helped Vin as he struggled to climb into the passenger seat, and then ran to the driver's side door. Vin handed her the keys once she slammed the door closed.
"Do you think we can make it through there?" she asked, looking at the tightly woven limbs.
"Don't know," Vin grimaced, holding his arm. "But we've got to try. I don't want to spend another night in that house."
Rose nodded and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened.
"Try again," Vin said.
Nothing. Not even the click of the starter.
"Oh, no," Rose cried. "Oh no, no, no, no."
Vin felt like crying himself, but he had to keep it together. Their lives depended on him. "Look, Chris and the guys should be in the air by now."
"But what if they can't get through?"
"They'll find another way." Vin looked toward the sky and Rose followed his gaze.
"It can't happen soon enough," she said softly.
Vin nodded opening the glove compartment and drew out his handgun. Reluctantly he realized he couldn't cock the gun with only one hand.
"Can you use this?" he asked.
"I've never used handguns. I figured my rifle made a big enough statement."
Vin had to smile. "It spoke loud and clear yesterday." He put the gun in her hand. "You can if you have too. This is a Glock 22. Just pull back this slide," he tapped the slide bar with his finger, "to cock it. It has fifteen rounds in the magazine."
She lifted the gun and gripped it with two hands aiming at the house. "I can use it if I have to."
"Good. Now let's get back inside and gather supplies if we need to stay out here tonight."
Rose nodded. "But first light tomorrow morning I'm gone, even if I have to walk."
Vin smiled. "I'll be right behind you."
He waited for Rose to open his door and helped him out of the Jeep, and together they walked slowly back into the house. Once back in the kitchen, Rose got busy and produced two plates of cold stew. She placed the plates on the kitchen table. Her hands shook as she sat down opposite Vin.
"I'm not hungry," he said, pushing the plate away.
"Doesn't matter," she said sliding it back. "I know it's difficult, but you have to eat to keep your strength up."
"You sound like Nathan."
"Sounds like a smart man. Now, eat."
He snorted and took a mouthful but pushed the plate away after only one bite. "Sorry."
Deciding not to push the young man, Rose quickly removed the dishes from Vin's sight. "I can't believe we came back into this house." She looked through the open doors into the Great Room. She stared at the ornate wooden front door, noticing for the first time how ugly the intricately carved pattern was.
Vin grimaced when he shifted in his seat. "We need to get supplies. I promise we'll be out of here before dark."
"I just want to get as far away from here as fast as we can."
"Me too." Vin hoped he could keep his promise to keep her safe.
Time slipped by. By six o'clock they were ready to take refuge in the Jeep.
Rose collected medical supplies for Vin's arm along with bottles of water and non-perishable food. Flashlights and blankets rounded out the provisions.
She thought of her rifle hanging above the fireplace and nearly cried out loud when she saw the empty brackets.
With his arm strapped to his chest, Vin left the loading to Rose and while it was still light, he took a last look around the inside of the house. He found that the worst effects of the pain pills had lessened and he could navigate on his own.
He glanced at the elevator and felt a shiver run down his back as he headed up the stairs to make sure that all the bedroom windows were locked. He then walked back downstairs and double-checked the back door and window. The house appeared to be secure
It was six-thirty. The sun was already beginning to disappear behind the stand of woven trees surrounding the house. A nervous look returned to Rose's face. She hated the nights. For the last two months, she had watched the sun set knowing that the calmness shattered as darkness descended. She hoped to God that they would be safe in Vin's Jeep.
"Ok, let's not take any chances." Vin closed and locked the front door behind them and they climbed into the SUV. Instantly, he felt safer. He knew it wasn't a logical feeling since whatever attacked them in the house had also done the impossible with the trees.
Rose settled into the driver's seat not taking her eyes off the house. How could something she loved so much turn so foul?
Slowly, the shadows of dusk crept over them, followed by the blackness of night. Vin searched for a comfortable position; one that didn't make his throbbing arm hurt more. Silence filled the cabin, Vin and Rose each contemplating what might happen next as time ticked by. It was ten after eight when something huge crashed against the house. Vin and Rose bolted upright. Vin peered through the darkness and saw nothing.
Again and again, something struck the house, shaking it to its foundation with the violence of the assault. Whatever it was, it was furious.
Rose reached across and grabbed Vin's hand. The ground beneath them began to shake.
"It knows where we are!" Rose cried.
"Quiet!" Vin snapped.
The ground beneath them bulged up, tipping the front end of the Jeep into the air.
"Oh my God!" Rose frantically twisted the key in the ignition. Nothing.
The ground undulated beneath them. With each new surge, the Jeep rolled closer and closer to the house. Something heavy hit the passenger door, rocking the Jeep. Rose screamed and cowered into a tight ball.
Something tremendously heavy landed on the hood and drove the front end of the Jeep into the ground, leaving a large dent in the metal that simply...appeared. " Impossible! " Vin thought, his mind unable to grasp the things happening before his eyes. Then the sunroof glass cracked like a spider's web.
The doors began to shake. The Cherokee rocked back and forth violently, smashing Vin's injured arm against the console.
Through the spike of pain, Vin heard the screech of tearing metal. The back hatch window splintered and the cold night air carried the same rotten stench Vin remembered from inside the house. Suddenly, the passenger door was ripped open. An invisible hand gripped Vin's neck in a choking hold and yanked him to the ground where he writhed, gasping for air while his broken arm pulsed with blinding pain.
The Jeep continued to rock so violently that the back tire spun off, crashing into the porch.
Rose crawled out of the car and dropped to her knees next to Vin, gripping his arm in terror. Vin worked to find consoling words in all the craziness, but a large explosion snapped his attention away from Rose.
"The barn!" Vin gasped. The structure exploded from within and fiery kindling fell from the sky like hail. He watched, paralyzed, as the tractor crashed to the ground near the front porch.
In the middle of the maelstrom, the front door of the house ever so slowly swung open. The message was very clear.
Rose whimpered, "No." She looked at him, her eyes wild with dread. "Please, no. I can't go back in there."
"We don't have a choice."
There was a beat of silence. Then, something caught her shirt and dragged her toward the house, her nails leaving parallel tears on Vin's sleeve as she was dragged away.
She screamed, flailing her arms in the air, trying to break loose from the unseen force. The house roared and shook the ground like a passing freight train. Her ankles hit the steps as she was dragged onto the porch and flung backwards against the wall next to the door. Completely helpless, she slid down the wall to the decking, sobbing in terror.
Vin rolled aside to see the SUV lifted eight feet off the ground and then dropped. It hit the ground with a violent crash. Something grabbed Vin's right wrist and squeezed. He was yanked up and dragged across the dirt, up the stairs past Rose, and through the open door.
The six men were shaken to the core by the malevolent voice that came from Vin's phone. They sat in their seats looking at the blue skies outside the Gulfstream G550 speeding toward Roberts Field in Oregon. From there, they would drive to Silver Falls and Rose Manson. Anxiety grew with every unanswered call to Vin's cell phone. What Vin and Rose tried to tell them made no sense, but they could not deny the voice J.D. was at a loss to explain. Still, they continued to try and make a connection.
It was Josiah's turn to hit autodial and was unsuccessful for ten minutes. Suddenly, he had a connection. It crackled with static.
"Vin…Rose...?" He asked anxiously.
The rest of the team sat up and turned their eyes his way. No one said a word.
More static, and then Rose's frantic cries: "Josiah…? Josiah is that you?"
It was so unlike the stoic, level-headed woman Josiah knew for so many years.
Josiah tapped the speaker on his phone. "Rose? It's all right, Rose, it's me, Josiah."
"How…how do I know it's you?" They could all hear the terror in her voice.
Josiah closed his eyes trying to recall something only Rose would know. Then it came to him. "Remember what happened to your clay lamb in the nativity scene?"
Rose whimpered, "Yes."
"You were five and you put a pig's tail on your lamb. No one had the heart to point out your mistake."
"Oh, my, God, Josiah! You have to help us. Vin is trapped in the house and I'm in the Jeep. I can't get back into the house."
"Just hang on, Darlin'," Buck called over Josiah's shoulder. "We'll be there real quick now."
"You can't make it by car. The road is impassable. You'll have to come by…"
Suddenly a piercing wail filled the cabin.
"What the hell…?" Chris yelled, his ears throbbing.
Through the wail, one sentence came through clearly: "Stay away, Vin is mine!"
And the connection was cut.
No one knew what to say. Each hid within themselves, assimilating what they had just heard. Josiah fingered the small cross he always wore and prayed, his deep voice rumbling above the hum of the jet's engines. "Lord, please keep Vin and Rose safe until we can reach them. We know we are facing our most dangerous enemy, Lord: pure Evil."
Vin remained motionless, sprawled on the hardwood floor, the darkness pressing in on him.
The house was still as if it were holding its breath, waiting. Whatever it was that attacked them seemed satisfied for the moment. Realization sent a cold shiver down his spine: It was satisfied, and he was trapped inside. What did it want with him? Why had it turned so violent?
The throbbing pain in his left arm felt like it was being squeezed in a giant vice. He struggled to sit up, his arm protesting, and slid across the hardwood floor to brace his back against the wall. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly while looking around the Great Room. Moonlight streamed in from the windows above, the balcony forming strange patterns on the high ceiling and casting deep shadows in the corners.
He listened for a sound. The silence was absolute, as if the world had stopped within the walls of this house. He appeared to be alone. Nothing moved. He felt for the flashlight he had stuffed in his belt but it was gone, lying outside somewhere in the dirt. Then he remembered the oil lamps in the wagon wheel chandelier hanging above the kitchen table.
Painfully, he climbed to his knees, his bandaged arm throwing him off balance, then stood up, swaying. Staggering into the kitchen, he rummaged through the drawers, feeling for matches without luck. Damnit, where would she keep the matches? He ran his hand along the countertop, knocking over bottles and a canister full of kitchen utensils. They clattered to the floor and echoed through the silent house.
Fear broiled up in him. If he couldn't find the matches then he would be in the dark.
He thought he heard the floorboard creak behind him and he searched faster as panic took hold. He yanked each drawer open, scooping its contents out onto the floor.
At last, near the sink, he found them. His hand shook as he tried to grab a matchstick out of the box. He struck it against his thigh, it caught fire and he held it up, pushing away the darkness with its tiny flame. He spotted the hurricane lamp in the feeble light, and reluctantly blew out the match so he could lower the chandelier's swag chain and remove the chimneys, praying he could light another one. He went through half the box before he had the three wicks lit. Leaning back against the sink he took a deep, calming breath.
The lamplight flickering in the room was warm and comforting, chasing away the dark shadows and quieting the panic for the moment. He stuffed a handful of matches in his pocket. For now, light was his only weapon.
He sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and tried to collect his thoughts. What the hell was going on here? He had seen the impossible… his Jeep lifted into the air like a toy truck. He felt the impossible…an invisible hand throwing him across the room like a rag doll.
He thought about Rose. She was far too traumatized to help him now. He had seen the look on her face as he was dragged past her and into the house.
Why did the house want him? It had bided its time and played with Rose until now. Would Josiah have encountered the same events if he'd come instead?
He looked toward the doors leading to the Great Room knowing he had to face whatever was there if he was going to get out of this house alive. The Great Room seemed enormous in the darkness. He'd found two flashlights in a side table next to the sofa and now played a beam of light over the walls and across the second level railings. He took a couple of steps, the old floorboards groaning beneath his weight. He stopped and waited. He checked the old grandfather clock in the corner and saw that it was already eleven-fifteen. More time had passed than he thought.
He directed the flashlight beam on the old elevator. There was something about it that drew his attention. It was nothing he could put his finger on. He took a step toward it and the temperature of the room suddenly dropped; in an instant, he was overcome by deep, dark foreboding and the morning's stench of decayed death rolled like an invisible fog from the caged structure.
Then, a cold, invisible hand pressed against his chest, burning his skin, pushing him back.
"OK," he yelled. "I'll keep my distance."
The coldness evaporated and the foul smell faded. He stood there for a long time just breathing, in and out. With a shaking hand, he ripped open his shirt. By the light of the flashlight he could see a red blister welting up in the shape of a hand across his chest.
For the moment, the elevator was off limits. Whatever force was at play in this house was willing to do anything to protect it. Then why was he here? Why did it just toy with Rose until he arrived? What was it about him that was the catalyst?
He pointed the flashlight beam up the stairway wishing for some of Rose's pain killers. His arm was a throbbing mess, and his branded chest burned.
He walked across the room until he reached the bathroom beneath the stairs. He slowly opened the door and stepped in, playing the flashlight beam across the light gray walls and white marble floor.
Next to an old-fashioned claw tub was a washbasin with a mirror framed in the same filigree as the claw feet. He found a candle sitting on a shelf beneath the mirror set up with guest towels, a drinking cup, and soap. He lit the candle to save his flashlight batteries, and the small room was immediately bathed in flickering light. He looked into the mirror, startled by the contrast between his tangled light brown hair and ashen white completion. A three-day stubble added to his haggard look. He was surprised Rose wasn't scared to death of him.
He studied his arm cradled in the makeshift sling. Blood had already started seeping through the bandages that held the splints in place. Rose's pain pills would be welcome right now.
Behind the mirror, he found a fully stocked medicine cabinet and a bottle of the pain pills. Quickly downing one pill with a glass of water, he hoped it would not make him too groggy; as it was now, though, the pain undermined his every move. He closed the mirrored medicine cabinet and leaned over the basin, splashing cool water over his parched face.
He felt something brush his arm and the door closed slowly behind him, followed by the unmistakable click of the the lock engaging. He froze, panic surging up inside him. He blindly reached out for the towel on the shelf.
There was a presence in the small room. Someone, something was watching him.
Behind him, a set of coal black eyes stared at him from the mirror. They watched his every movement. Cold, hungry eyes.
His fingers found the towel and he quickly dried his face. The eyes faded away as he turned back to the mirror.
A shiver went down his spine: He couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't alone. He turned back to the door feeling trapped in the small room. He turned the handle and relief washed over him when the lock clicked open. Whatever IT had in store for him, this wasn't the right time.
He switched the flashlight back on and blew out the candle. As the whiff of smoke curled up past the mirror, two black eyes watched the door close behind him.
Once back in the Great Room, he played the flashlight up the stairs. He shivered, knowing the ominous elevator was where the manifestation seemed to be centered. Starting up the stairs, he felt a dark malevolence following and blocking his retreat. When he reached the second floor, his legs felt incredibly heavy as he followed the light down the hallway. The door to the room where he'd dumped his gear remained closed and he paused, wondering what he would find inside. As he stood there, the third door on his right slowly and silently opened.
He took a startled step back, now wishing he'd glanced inside the other rooms when he first arrived. Was this an invitation he should accept? The door slowly swung open wider as if the house fed on his uncertainty. There was really no decision to be made. If the house, or whatever it was, wanted him in that room, then that was where he would end up, one way or another.
He followed the flashlight beam down the hallway, which looked much different at night than it did in the light of day. Was it just yesterday this nightmare began?
The skylight allowed the moonlight to filter through, but it only added to the dark oppressive feeling. But as he neared the open door, he couldn't help but feel the exact opposite. The malignant darkness behind him was replaced by a feeling of lightness. He stepped into the room and instantly felt safe.
He directed his flashlight around the room. A hurricane lamp sat on the desk and several sconces lined the wall. He dug a match out of his pocket and lit the lamp. He found extra candles lying on top of the desk and placed them in the wall sconces, adding more light to the room. Now the room was bathed in warm, flickering light. The door crept closed behind him, stopping with a faint click as the lock dropped into place.
A massive light oak desk and plush leather swivel chair dominated the room. A light oak filling cabinet stood against one wall. Lithographs of the house in its many stages throughout the years hung on the walls.
He slumped into the chair, glad to get off his feet. The top of the desk was sparsely decorated with three small framed photos of a German Shepard as a puppy, an adult, and then old and tired looking. Tough- as- nails Rose had a soft spot for her animals.
He felt a light tingle on his hand and the room filled with a soft, sweet scent. It was a pleasant change from the foul stench of death he had smelled downstairs near the elevator. He found a cloth-bound book with the words 'The History of our House' written across the front in gilded paint. He opened to the first page and found an old black and white photo, now yellowed and cracked from age, of a man and a woman standing on the front porch of the house.
The man wore overalls and a long-sleeved white shirt and the woman wore an ankle length black skirt, a high collared white blouse. A delicate Cameo hung from a chain around her neck. They held a bottle of wine and a sign that read 'Welcome one and all.'
"Well, hello Justin and Lydia Powell," Vin whispered, reading the names written in delicate script. He flipped the page and the candles flickered. The warm sweet scent was replaced by a feeling of fear so tangible that he could taste it.
In the upper right hand corner of the page, a different black and white photo showed another couple standing on the porch. The man was tall and thin, in his mid- fifties. His jet black hair, streaked with gray, was combed severely away from his face and his face seemed to be stuck in a perpetual frown. The woman, her long blond haired tied loosely over her shoulder, looked happy and full of life. The names Martha and Roland Chambers were written on the edge of the photo in neat script.
Vin heard a soft, whispered "Martha" in his ear as Vin brushed his finger over the picture. Vin jumped when the sugar bowl sitting on the table suddenly tipped over spilling sugar all over the desk. He watched in fascination as letters started to appear in the sugar.
Vin swallowed hard. "Martha? I can help you. We can help you."
The sweet scent of her perfume filled the kitchen. The sugar swished across the desktop obliterating the first message and a second one appeared: 'NO ONE CAN'
"That's not true. Trust me. Let me help."
"Let us try."
"Not if we work together."
Vin slowly reached over and smoothed out the writing in the sugar and added his own message: 'Me Too'.
He felt something lightly kiss his forehead and the sweet perfume vanished just as something massive hit the closed door, rattling the window, shaking the walls. The candles flickered and nearly gutted out. Vin was overcome by a fear so strong he could hardly breathe. But it wasn't his, it was Martha's.
He took deep breaths, willing his mind to stay focused on the physical realities around him. The floor beneath him shook like an earthquake as the door bulged inward, rammed again and again by the angry presence. The room filled with the cold stench from downstairs. He grabbed the book with the hope that it held answers.
The door burst open. Strong, unseen hands pulled him out of the chair and shoved him against the wall, his broken arm flaring in pain. A vile smell filled his nostrils.
The book was snatched from his hand and it flew across the room, hitting the window with a deafening crash. The glass exploded into a million pieces. Cold night air poured in taunting the flickering candles. But as suddenly as it started, it ended.
The door slowly closed, leaving the room eerily quiet; the only sounds being the light breeze coming in through the broken window and his own jagged breaths. He watched the candles fight against the wind currents then flutter out, leaving a trail of smoke disappearing into the darkness.
Vin stood, stunned.
Cautiously, he approached the broken window and peered out into the darkness. He couldn't take much more of this. He was exhausted, both mentally and physically. Every movement he made brought new pain to his damaged arm. He needed rest, but he didn't dare close his eyes until the sun rose again. He looked down at the ground, highlighted by the moonlight. Exhaustion threatened to send him to his knees, but the door behind him opened and the sweet perfume returned.
"Martha...?" he asked.
The scent was hypnotizing. He felt a soft hand on his right elbow and he allowed it to lead him through the open door. Warning bells went off in Vin's mind, but the scent was overpowering, suspending all his fears.
He was led down the darkened hallway and another door silently opened. A candle flickered on a nightstand next to a single bed. The covers were folded back, awaiting him. The bed looked so tempting. He allowed himself to be led to the bed and sat down. Exhausted, the mattress felt soft and inviting. A delicate hand pushed him down onto the pillow. As he closed his eyes he felt a soft kiss touch his forehead.
Surrendering to sleep, he didn't feel his shirt gently pulled open or hear the creak of the mattress as it sagged next to him beneath an unseen weight.
(This next part may not be suitable to all readers due to sexual content. Return to the story after the asterisks)
Vin didn't realize he had fallen asleep until he felt the warm sun shining in his face. His eyes snapped open, finding that he was lying in a bed. He vaguely remembered being led down the hallway.
Damn it! How could he have fallen asleep?
He pushed the covers back and unadulterated fear poured over him like a pail of ice cold water.
He was naked.
Wisps of memories meandered through his mind; Soft fingers combing through his hair, hands caressing his face. A woman's lips gently kissing his, her tongue searching his mouth. The sling eased from his broken arm and his shirt removed, and his belt unbuckled and his pants slipped past his bare feet.
"God, no…" he moaned. "No…" Bile rose up his throat.
He tried to push the memories away but recalled her gently lay atop of him, her fingers twisting his nipples, her tongue leaving a moist trail down his stomach.
Vin remembered he couldn't move; he was paralyzed beneath her, yet he could feel every inch of her straddled across his hips, her breasts brushing his chest. Then her fingers were stroking him, trying to arouse him and to his shame, he felt himself harden. Shame filled tears welled up in his eyes. Her perfume surrounded him as he felt himself enter her, and then . . . nothing.
Scrambling out of the bed, Vin rushed to the bathroom and threw up until he fell to his knees in humiliation and pain. How could this happen? He fell back against the wall staying there for a long time. He wanted to believe it was Rose, but he knew it wasn't.
Eventually, Vin stood on shaky legs and staggered back into the room, collected his clothes from the floor and dressed, easing the sling on although it did little to ease the throbbing in his arm. Reluctantly he left his boots and socks behind, unable to put them on one handed.
Drawn back to Rose's office he stood in the threshold remembering Martha's soft essence as he looked through Rose's journal. Was Martha so starved for affection that she would resort to rape? He wanted to forgive her, trapped here in this house, but the violation was too great.
Careful of glass bits on the floor, he looked through the broken window. His stomach dropped at the sight of his mangled Cherokee. Pieces of the wood peppered the ground from the exploded barn. Glass shards sparkled in the gentle sunlight. He looked for the book that had flown so violently through the window, but it wasn't there. He had been so sure of the book breaking the window.
Then, he saw movement inside his nearly demolished Jeep and spotted Rose's light brown hair through the destroyed sunroof. He didn't dare react for fear that whatever attacked him last night would notice her. The thought of her spending the night alone in the darkness filled him with guilt. He promised her he would keep her safe and he failed. His heart skipped a beat as she looked toward the window. Did she see him? Reluctantly he took a step back and out of her sight. No matter what, he would find a way to reach her today.
On shaky legs, he slowly made his way downstairs, every tread bringing throbbing pain to his arm.
Light spilled into the Great Room from the window in the ornate front door and the skylights in the hallway above. But the light did nothing to relive the coldness that hung heavy in the room. He looked toward the door longingly knowing Rose waited for him on the other side. Hesitantly, he turned toward the door but a low growl warned him not to try. For now, he would have to bide his time.
Needing another pain pill as well as something to eat, he headed for the bathroom under the stairs, grabbed the bottle of Toradol, and then headed for the kitchen. The old elevator stood in the corner like a malevolent black hole in the wall sending chills down Vin's spine. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until he entered the kitchen.
Chris studied the report Buck had handed him as they boarded a waiting helicopter for the last hop to the private airfield thirty miles from Rose Manson. There was nothing there that could explain Vin and Rose's frantic phone call. Vin Tanner was the most grounded person he knew, not taking to flights of fantasy, and Josiah swore Rose was as solid as they came. Leaning his head back against the seatback he replayed Vin and Rose's phone call again and shivered at the memory of the menacing voice claiming Vin was his. It defied logic, and yet they all heard it.
The chopper banked hard to the right and they descended, gently touching down moments later next to the two SUVs Orrin had arranged for them. No one said a word as they transferred their gear to the two cars and dismissed the drivers. Not knowing what lay ahead, he didn't want to involve anyone else.
"JD, you ride shotgun with me, Buck, and Nathan," Chris ordered. "Ezra, you're with Josiah. Buck, keep trying to get Vin on the line."
"And Josiah, keep that bible close," Nathan said, a catch in his normally steady voice. "We may need it."
"Amen, Brother. Amen."
The last thing Vin wanted to do was eat, but he had to keep up his strength. He lifted the towel off the day old bread and gagged at the sight of maggots wiggling over the crust negating any thoughts of eating. He opened the refrigerator for the bottle of water he saw yesterday and was hit with a blast of hot air. Momentarily taken aback, he still retrieved the water and closed the door. In the freezer, he found the ice tray filled with tepid water. Closing the door in disgust, he managed to open the bottle with his teeth and quickly downed the pain pill with a gulp of warm water. Next, he sat down at the table, his legs ready to buckle.
The back door taunted him, daring him to try to leave, but the wall of sinisterly woven trees imprisoned him and Rose. Would they ever get out of this damn house alive? The thought of Rose sitting outside in the mangled Jeep alone horrified him. Was she being tormented, driven to near madness? She had already been terrorized for three months; did she have anything left to fight?
"What the fucking hell do you want?" he screamed. "Me? You want me? Ya got me, whoever the hell you are. You don't need Rose. Hell," he laughed cynically, "no one would believe her if you let her go."
A chuckle came from the Great Room, low and intimidating.
"Fuck You!" Vin shouted back.
The table suddenly slammed into him trapping his broken arm. The pain was so exquisite that he slumped over the table and descended into a black void.
Vin raised his head painfully, praying he would find himself in his own bed or at least trapped in a hospital bed. He listened first … no sounds. A dank odor filled his nostrils and he dreaded opening his eyes. How long had he been unconsciousness? Carefully sitting up while cradling his throbbing arm, he looked through the kitchen window to the mountain tops growing dark in the distance. He realized he only had a couple hours before night reclaimed the house.
A book sat on the table before him. It was different from the one ripped from his hands last night. This one had a hand embroidered cover titled: Our House.
He pulled it to him and traced the raised lettering with his finger. Martha Chambers had put a lot of love and care into designing this book. Intrigued yet hesitant, Vin turned to the first page. A faded color photo of Martha and Roland stood on the front porch. She looked young and happy. Roland didn't appear to share her enthusiasm.
The second page had several black and white pictures of the house with little captions about the changes they were planning to make. And, at the bottom of the page, the first diary entry;
'This is the most beautiful house I have ever laid eyes on. It is everything we have ever wanted. Roland loves it too, even if he won't admit it. He poo poos my enthusiasm, but I know it is just his way.'
Vin turned to the next page. Several pictures showed the improvements on the house in progress: A new roof, the beginnings of a large wrap-around porch and a barn/garage.
'There have been so many improvements; it is hardly the same house we purchased two months ago. Even though we are so far from town and everyone, the neighbors have made a point to come visit us and invite us to their houses for dinner. I would so much like to go. I am beginning to feel lonely out here. But Roland is a loner. He says if he wanted people crawling all over him like ants he would move back to the city.'
Vin turned another page. A picture of Martha standing next to the completed porch was vastly different than the first picture. She had lost weight. It was a picture of a very unhappy woman. There was no life left in her eyes.
The next page: 'A letter came from Mother today. She wants me to come home for a visit, just a few days' vacation. How I would love to see her again: To see anyone. But Roland has forbidden it. He says I am his wife now and no longer my mother's daughter. What has come over him since we moved here?'
Vin noticed Martha's penmanship beginning to deteriorate.
'He becomes more and more frightening each day. I almost believe my Father's warning two years ago; "'Watch out my child, he is only interested in your money, not you. Mark my words, someday his true colors will emerge."' 'I am so afraid Father was right. There is only one working car and Roland keeps the keys all day and at night he puts them in a safe that requires a code that he keeps hidden in his mind.'
Vin felt his anger rise. Roland was a bastard when he was alive. What was he now that he was dead? The next page stunned him. Martha was skin and bones. Her hair, always carefully brushed in prior pictures, was now knotted and tangled, hanging wildly over her shoulders. Her dress, the same dress she wore in the last photo, was torn and stained. Roland stood next to her, looking just as he did in the first photo. She was a virtual prisoner here, cut off from all her friends and family.
'I must accept my fate as it is. I chose this life. Everyone tried to warn me but I was too much in love. I would give anything for a smiling face or a kind word. Roland has gone for the week, and despite being in the middle of nowhere, I feel much safer when he is not around.
'I think my days are numbered here and I don't know what to do. Maybe I will try walking the fifteen miles to the main road. Perhaps a stranger will be kind enough to give me a ride into town. It couldn't be any worse than this.' Vin could feel the despair in those words. There was no picture accompanying the next note:
'Roland sent a telegram. Workmen are to arrive here tomorrow morning to install an elevator in the Great Room. He didn't mention it to me. But then he never discusses anything with me. At least there will be people around, if only for a short time. I must prepare for them.'
The next page was a picture of a large crate sitting in front of the house the name Otis stenciled on the front. Vin turned the page. The elevator sat next to a deep hole cut in the corner of the Great Room waiting for the motor and gears to be installed.
The next page was empty. Vin leafed through more blank pages before he closed the book, feeling a profound sadness. What happened to turn Roland so evil?
Again, Vin had lost track of time as he read Martha's diary and he saw the veil of darkness creeping further down the distant mountain range. His decision to get out of this house no matter what had not changed. Using his right arm he pushed himself to his feet, a bout of dizziness threating to topple him over. He closed his eyes and waited for the vertigo to lessen before he took a step away from the table. He looked toward the window again and saw a manila envelope sitting on the counter. He didn't recall seeing it before and wondered when it appeared. Taking slow steps, he cautiously retrieved the packet and returned to the table. As he opened the tines sealing the envelope, he felt a waft of cold air pass over his hand. Was that Roland not wanting him to read the contents?
He opened it anyway, shaking out hand written notes, press releases, and police reports in front of him. There were several missing person reports for Martha, none of them solved. A death certificate dated June 22, 1990 stated Roland Chambers died of natural causes. Vin opened a business envelope from the office of Andrew Blake, Attorney at Law, and found legal documents: The Deed to the house, receipts for the renovation supplies, including the bill of sale for the elevator. Vin felt a shiver run down his spine. Next were two wills, one for Martha and one for Roland. He read Martha's will first and found that she had bequeathed all her worldly assets to her husband, including a large savings account.
"Is that why she disappeared, Roland?" Vin muttered softly. The table shifted a warning. Vin nodded.
He picked up Roland's will. It instructed his lawyer to bank all his assists and not to sell the house until all his funds were depleted. Vin did the math in his head – why was the house vacant for sixteen years? Vin opened a hand written note from the lawyer. Roland Chambers lived alone for thirty years after Martha was officially declared dead; he'd turned into a recluse. Andrew Blake paid all the monthly bills, including food, until Roland died.
A delivery once a month from a local food market was Roland's only contact with anyone. The driver was instructed to set the groceries on an old wagon turned into a table inside the front door and leave. After a month of groceries appeared untouched, the driver called the police. It was determined that Roland was dead, huddled in front of the old elevator. According to the police report, he had been dead for three weeks before he was found.
It was not surprising, Vin thought, since he turned into a recluse. No one ever saw him. Roland had received a hefty amount of money when she died, but according to his bank account his attorney withdrew just enough money each month to pay for bills, food and the lawyer's fee.
Vin wondered if Roland felt guilty… It seemed that everything revolved around that damn elevator.
He wished he had J.D. with his computer to do a thorough search.
Chris took another hairpin turn at break neck speed with only the high beams cutting a swath of light across the narrow one lane road. JD held onto the leather hand grip as white as a ghost.
Josiah followed at the same breakneck speed in the second SUV. Claustrophobia settled over the three men as the headlights caught the tunnel of towering trees. No one could forget the sound of fear in Vin's voice in the ordinarily unshakable agent, or Rose Markham's terrified cry for help.
Suddenly Larabee slammed on the brakes, Josiah nearly rear-ending him. An impenetrable wall of tree limbs, bent and twisted, blocked the road, the tree trunks so thick the high beams couldn't penetrate the solid mass.
"Jesus Christ!" Buck said in awe. "This is what Rose was trying to warn us about,"
"Jesus Christ has nothing to do with this," Josiah growled.
Chris was the first man to climb out of the lead SUV. A malevolent presence permeated the air and the ground, surrounding them in a pall of evil. Everything was deathly still, no crickets, no insects. J.D. walked past him reaching out for the mass of vile boughs.
Buck grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back. "Damn it, Kid, what are ya thinking?"
"I wanted to see if we could squeeze through. We can't. There's hardly an inch between them."
Chris studied the barricade, the car's headlights reflecting back.
"We'll never get to Vin this way. Buck, get ahold of Travis, tell him we need a chopper and repelling gear. We'll drop in as close to the house as possible."
Buck nodded. "On it."
Nathan looked at the wall of trees, "What the hell is this?" he asked no one in particular.
"Evil," Josiah whispered. "Pure evil."
Buck returned an interminable five minutes later. "A chopper will pick us up in an empty field fifteen miles from here. These are the coordinates."
Chris accepted the directions, his fingers lingering for a moment on Buck's hand to ground himself before jumping into the driver's seat. "Buck, you and Nathan are with me. The rest of you stay here. Call us if anything changes. And no one touch those trees. Understood?" The last words directed at J.D.
"Brothers, a word of prayer first." Josiah said bowing his head. "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 10:31."
A chorus of Amen followed.
Nathan opened the back door and slid in, Buck dropping into the shotgun seat beside Chris.
"Go with God," Josiah called as Chris backed up and turned around.
Two hours, Vin thought. Not much time, and yet it seemed an eternity. Whatever happened tonight, he wanted it over. He sighed deeply and walked back into the Great Room. The elevator stood in the corner, old and rusted, exuding evil. What secret was it hiding? There was nothing unusual in its design. He looked up at the balcony above.
Armed with more information and more questions, Vin began to prepare for the coming night. He washed down another of Rose's pain pills with a glass of the tepid water. The infection in his arm had spread quickly and he could feel the heat rising up through his shoulder. He was wracked with fever chills, but he couldn't stop now. Somehow, someway it had to come to an end. He couldn't stay here another night.
He lit three candles in each room, upstairs bedrooms included, and placed spare candles within easy reach with extra matches by their side. He lit the wagon wheel chandelier above the table, double checking to see if there was enough kerosene in the fonts and replaced the old candles with new ones in the wall sconces in the Great Room.
He gave the elevator a wide berth. Dusk had come and gone, and the encroaching darkness settled over the house. He went into the Great Room and collapsed onto the sofa opposite the elevator, exhausted and in pain, and waited. If it began here, then it was going to end here. The flickering candlelight played strange shadows across the walls and ceiling. He forced himself not to let his mind wander, conjuring up ghostly images that weren't there.
He twitched when he heard a sound behind him from the kitchen and waited. If whoever it was wanted to talk to him, they would have to come to him. A moment later, he felt a breeze pass by his cheek and the smell of Martha's perfume.
"Martha," he said softly. As much as he despised what she may have done the night before, he couldn't dismiss what her existence must be like here in this house with Roland. If there truly was a Heaven and a Hell, then for Martha, this was Hell.
The candle in one of the sconces flickered and nearly blew out. His blood ran cold when the door to the elevator slowly creaked open.
Vin shook his head, "No..." He felt something brush his shoulder then a strong hand gripped his right wrist pulling him up off the couch. "No...!"
It wouldn't relent. It continued to pull him closer to the elevator. He could feel the malevolence surrounding the iron cage. The door opened wider, protesting against the rusty hinges. Cold fear poured over him as he was pulled inside. The door slammed closed and he heard the sound of the motor engage.
Slowly it started to rise. The invisible hand still held his firmly in its grasp. He watched the floor slowly recede.
Chris, Buck and Nathan found the helicopter waiting for them, the blades still spinning slowly.
"Hey, Larabee," the pilot grinned. "Travis ordered a chopper ASAP. This was the best I could come up with on short notice."
Chris recognized the six passenger Bell 460 and the pilot. "It'll do," he barked.
"When I heard it was for you my curiosity got the best of me."
"I hope you don't regret that curiosity, Kenny," Chris said as he climbed in and found repelling gear on the seats. He strapped it on and sat down buckling his seatbelt. Buck climbed in, followed by Nathan with his medical bag. In three minutes, they were ready for takeoff.
"Drop zone is fifteen miles south. We need to go in hot and repel fast."
"Got ya. Can I ask who you're extracting?"
"Tanner? That boy is a trouble magnet. I'll have you there in five," he said as Nathan buckled in.
Vin was trapped inside the heart of the evil that possessed the house. He tried to pull his hand free from the invisible iron grip. The flickering light from the candles below faded as the car rose. It took an eternity before the elevator finally came to a shaking halt on the balcony and the wrought-iron door slowly squeaked open.
His hand was released and he took an involuntary step back against the iron bars, suddenly reluctant to leave the dubious safety of the cage. The faint moonlight coming through the bank of windows did little to ease the darkness. Suddenly he was shoved out of the car onto the once plush carpeting, out onto the balcony overlooking the Great Room. Behind him, the elevator door slammed shut, the sound echoing through the house.
"Why have you brought me here?" Vin demanded.
He was shoved forward, and if not for the waist high railing, he would have fallen straight to the floor below. The sound of wood creaking in the obsessively quiet house drew Vin's attention to the trapdoor covering the motor and pully system below. A stream of moonlight lit the old slats and Vin watched in fascinated horror as the trapdoor slowly rose, revealing a human skeleton's arm pushing the door. The heavy lid hit the floor, a resounding crash echoing around the Great Room. Vin was stunned to see deep gouges in the underside of the trapdoor where someone had tried to escape the makeshift coffin below.
"You were buried alive!" He whispered aloud. Vin took a set back from the railing, feeling Martha's presence beside him. "He couldn't have … God damn him to hell, he couldn't . . ." Vin took a breath to calm himself before continuing. "You didn't run away. When they installed the elevator engine below the floor, he buried you alive. No one would have thought to look there!"
He heard a long mournful cry next to his ear.
Vin's stomach churned. "Martha... I'm sorry."
Like an earthquake rising from the bowels of the earth, the ground began to shake. The house shuddered as if it couldn't stand the truth to be known. The candles in the Great Room below flickered and almost died. The windows behind him began to rattle.
A cry of rage rumbled up through the house shaking it to the very foundation.
Chris, Buck and Nathan donned infrared goggles and leaned out the chopper's open door, a loop in the back of their repelling gear keeping them inside. Below, they could see the gnarled trees encircling the old two-story house like an impenetrable, medieval wall.
Buck pointed to Vin's mangled Jeep. "What the hell happened?" Buck shouted over the sound of the copter's blades.
"We're about ready to find out." Chris signaled Kenny to hover close to Vin's SUV and tapped Nathan on the shoulder. The EMT attached his medical bag to a carabiner and watched it slide down the line jerking to a stop just before it reached the ground. Nathan descended, followed quickly by Buck. Chris saluted the pilot and slid down the line, landing gently on the ground ten feet from the Jeep.
The old house loomed dark and foreboding. Chris felt the hair at the nape of his neck standing straight.
Nathan fingered the cross that always hung around his neck. There was no mistaking the evil feeling that cloaked the house and land.
Movement inside the Jeep caused the men to draw their guns. They saw a mass of light brown hair and then two eyes, bright with unshed tears, peering through broken window glass.
"Rose?" Chris whispered.
The head bobbed and Chris took a step closer.
"Are you hurt?" Nathan asked.
Rose shook her head, tears now flowing down her face. "Vin is still in there, you have to get him out!"
"When's the last time you saw him?" Buck asked as he unbuckled his repelling harness.
Rose looked up at the second story. "Last night. I saw him standing there after a book was thrown through the window. Then everything was quiet."
Buck looked at the ground beneath the window and saw the book laying amidst the shattered glass.
"We'll get him out, Rose," Chris promised. "We need…"
Suddenly the entire house shuddered violently.
"What the hell…?" Nathan looked at the building, stunned.
Vin held onto the railing until the shaking stopped, coughing as he waved off a dust cloud. Then he gasped when he realized that the stairs had collapsed with the last shaking. He was trapped. The only way down was the elevator. Deep shadows hid in the corners below. Fear poured over him as a foul stench floated up from the open trapdoor. The balcony suddenly lurched and he was nearly toppled over the railing. He grabbed the handrail with his good arm as the balcony floor started to undulate. He heard the floorboards creak and split beneath the old carpeting. The windows bowed inward, exploding one after the other, spraying him with sharp shards of glass. He dropped to his knees, covering his face with his arm as the glass bit into his back.
The far end of the balcony ripped away from the wall, swinging it in midair over the Great Room below.
The elevator door creaked opened, beckoning him to safety. Having no other choice, he scrambled into the iron cage. The door swung closed with a loud clang and all was silent. Deadly silent. The only sound Vin heard was his own heartbeat.
Below him, a fine, white mist billowed up from the maw of the trapdoor, spreading across the Great Room in a dense fog. The temperature plunged. He could see his own breath form little puffs of vapor as he tried to fight back the fear gripping his very soul. He watched tendrils of fog reach out, searching. He froze. Was it Martha or Roland?
The elevator began to descend, and Vin shook the elevator door frantically, wanting to stay on the balcony, but it continued toward the floor.
A shadow walked past the bank of pictures windows on the second floor above the front porch and Chris knew it was Vin. At least he was still alive. Suddenly the house rocked as if a bomb detonated inside. The windows exploded outward, sending shards of glass over the three men and the Jeep. Then silence, as if the earth stopped breathing. Chris pulled Rose out of the Jeep and pushed her into Nathan's arms.
"Nate, get her as far away from here as you can."
"No!" Rose protested. "I won't leave Vin."
"You'll help more if we know you're safe."
"You don't know what the inside of the house looks like. I can help you. Please…I have to."
Chris looked at Nathan and saw the paramedic nod.
"Alright, but you do what we tell you to do. Understand?"
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 M 7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
The mist moved up the far wall then receded back down, spreading across the floor. Vin knew it was searching for him. He watched in horrified awe as it began to take shape. First legs formed, and then a torso, with long spindly waifs of fog forming the arms ending with long, claw-like fingers.
Vin moved back, deeper into the cage of the elevator.
A neck formed, then a head, then a featureless face. It floated toward the elevator. Vin smelled sweet perfume. It was Martha. He watched the wraith float closer to his cage.
It reached into the elevator, its willowy, claw-like fingers brushing his check. The smell of the perfume had changed. Now, it stung his nostrils, gagging him. He felt cold as if the touch of the apparition was draining all the heat from his body.
"No!" A deep baritone voice shook the house.
Martha whirled around. Her misty form beginning to take a clearer shape. Vin watched in fascination and horror as her face began to appear. He saw a blur of movement across the room and Roland Chambers floated down the wrecked stairs.
"This is enough!" A deep, man's voice commanded, resonating throughout the house, shaking the walls.
Martha turned toward him, still hovering beside the elevator. Her face took shape. Her eyes were black as coal; evil and insane.
"No..." Vin whispered.
"It's over!" Roland growled.
"It's not over." Martha smiled. "I finally have a real man. I've waited years for him."
Vin cringed back against the cage.
Roland stepped off the last stair and Martha whirled on him. "You destroyed my life while I was living, you will not do it again."
She touched the elevator and the phantom motor engaged. Vin grabbed the iron bar as the elevator continued sinking toward the floor. Martha hovered above, watching.
It reached the Great Room floor and continued to descend, through the open trapdoor. He kicked at the elevator door, but it was useless because the frame of the trapdoor blocked it. He was trapped.
It continued downward.
He looked up. The top was open, but he had no way of climbing out with only one arm. The floor was at chest level. Roland screamed and the house shuddered. The elevator stopped.
"This is the end!" Roland roared. The house shuddered and the elevator lurched to a stop. "Twenty-two years is long enough!"
"It will never be enough!" She turned toward Roland. "Why?" She shrieked. "Why did you do it?"
"It was an accident," he bellowed. "No one knew you had fallen into the pit."
"No! You wanted me dead."
"You are wrong." Roland took a step closer, his solid form wavering. "You were distraught. I sent for your parents. They were on their way."
"I have been a prisoner in this house long enough. We finish it. Tonight!"
"Let him go. This is between us, Martha, as it has been for all these years."
Martha grinned insanely, reaching a hand into the cage. Vin felt a coldness seep into his body as she gently caressed his chest. Bile rose in his throat, his worst fears confirmed: she wanted him just like last night.
A cold tendril wrapped itself around his chest and he couldn't breathe. She floated down into the cage, surrounding him. The foul odor he had smelled before reeked from her mouth.
His shirt was ripped open.
He couldn't move, he couldn't fight. He was paralyzed, yet he could feel every foul touch. He was slowly dying beneath Martha's evil touch. His heartbeat slowed, his breathing labored. He felt himself being lifted toward her, her ugly face grinning in triumph inches away from his.
Roland bellowed and the house rattled. Dust and debris showered down.
Rose dove into the house through the porch window next to the door, followed by Chris and Nate. They froze at the sight of Martha hovering over Vin inside the elevator.
"No!" Rose wailed.
Martha whirled around, rearing up, seeing Rose as a threat. Roland took advantage of the moment and dissolved into vapor.
Vin struggled for air. He couldn't move.
Martha had drained him of every ounce of strength he had left. He saw Rose frozen near the door with Chris and Nathan flanking her.
"Run..." he gasped. "Run ... get out of here. All of you."
Rose scrambled towards Vin before Chris could stop her. Martha soared through the air toward her, the ghostly face frozen in absolute hatred. Chris and Nathan crawled through the boiling fog, protecting Rose with their bodies as best as they could as they moved.
Martha shrieked in rage as they stationed themselves between her and a lifetime with Vin. Roland appeared between them. Martha screamed in fury. The house shook, splitting the ceiling open. A large section of roof fell to the floor of the Great Room.
Chris rushed behind Roland and reached the elevator. He looked down inside where Vin slumped in the corner of the cage. Reaching down, Vin cringed away until recognition sank in, and he raised a trembling hand.
Chris stretched over the edge until his fingertips met Vin's. His fingers walked down Vin's hand to his wrist then grabbed hold. He tried to pull him up, but Martha's rage exploded when she saw what Chris was doing.
"He's mine!" She ranted, flinging Chris across the room. She spun around to look down at Vin. "You're mine!"
The elevator jerked and started to descend again. The stench became overpowering as Vin was taken deeper into the hole. He grabbed the iron bar of the cage trying to pull himself up, but his strength was gone. His flesh crawled with the feeling of death.
Roland reared up, his human form dissolved before Nathan's eyes and turned into a swirling gray cloud.
The house shook. Dust rose.
Rose heard a crash from the kitchen and saw the flickering light from a fire; the wagon wheel chandelier must have crashed. The house was old, and she knew that fire would devour it in no time.
Another part of the roof collapsed, hurtling down toward Vin. If not for the iron cage of the elevator, he would have been crushed. The gray cloud that was Roland rose up toward the open ceiling, then hovered. The elevator continued its slow decent.
Vin was now eye level with the main floor. He felt something touch his feet. He looked down. A mass of gray-brown slime, like crude oil, oozed up through the bottom of the elevator. Horrified, he screamed in agony as it seeped into his skin, gnawing at his bones.
Chris lurched to his feet. Martha jumped in front of him, slamming him back against the wall again. He could see through Martha's ghostly form at Vin still descending. He had to get to him before he was lost forever.
"NO!" Roland roared. The house shifted and came off its foundation.
The remains of the stairs buckled. The master bedroom on the top floor toppled into the kitchen, giving the fire a direct path into the Great Room.
Behind the wall of trees Josiah felt the ground undulate beneath them and he looked over at J.D., who had to hold onto the SUV to keep his footing.
"What the hell?" Ezra yelled.
The trees shook violently, the boughs torn apart. Josiah swore he could hear the death knell of the limbs as they shrank and decayed into piles of dead trunks and branches at their feet.
"This land has been cursed," Josiah said.
J.D. nodded. What was happening was impossible. And how do you fight the impossible?
"We better hurry," Ezra shouted, "Before these unholy trees rise up again."
Josiah dropped into the driver's seat and started the engine before Ezra and J.D. had the doors closed. Josiah drove over the decayed trees, turning them to dust as they raced toward Rose's house. They were stunned to see the structure had become an inferno.
They saw the house shudder and slide off its foundation as if it were hit by a massive earthquake. Fire and smoke poured out of the windows.
"Hang on!" Josiah yelled as he floored the gas and the SUV bounced up the cockeyed front stairs and smashed through the front wall.
The slime oozed up around Vin's chest. He was losing the fight to stay conscious. His hand began to slide down the iron bar. He heard a faint voice, somewhere above him, but he didn't have the strength to look up. He shoved his elbow between the bars hoping to keep his hand from slipping deeper into the slime.
Chris looked desperately at the elevator shaft. It would be next to impossible to free Vin with the plaster and lath boards from the ceiling laying scattered over the top of the elevator like pick-up sticks.
Larabee heard a terrific crash and looked back to see an SUV plow through the wall. The windshield cracked in a thousand little pieces, held together by the clear plastic safety layer. Ezra kicked out the glass with his feet and scrambled onto the hood of the vehicle. JD climbed over the seats and followed.
Chris saw JD running toward him and shouted, "J.D.! Get the rope and the grappling hook!"
J.D. nodded and jumped back into the SUV, climbing over the two rows of seats to the back, unlatching the back hatch. He threw supplies and weapons out looking for the rope and grappling hook housed in the storage compartment.
Josiah stood in the center of the mayhem, shouting prayers for the salvation of the two entities.
Chris dropped to his belly reaching between the scattered slats trying to keep Vin's head above the ooze. Smoke and fire filled the room, burning his eyes and squeezing his lungs.
J.D. threw the rope and Buck managed to secure it around the boards and yelled for Chris to get out of the way as he, Ezra and J.D. yanked the line. The lath boards slid off the elevator shaft.
Chris fell back onto his stomach and leaned over the edge of the elevator. Vin was submerged up to his neck in the foul slime. He looked up at Chris with a horrified expression edged in despair.
Vin shook his head, "It's no use," he said hopelessly, "get out, before it's too late."
"No!" Rose cried as she dropped to her knees, "We won't leave without you."
"Everybody go! Now!" Vin shouted. "Chris! Get her out of here …get everyone out of here!"
"No way in hell," Chris growled.
Vin couldn't breathe. The slime oozed up, covering his mouth and then his nose, filling his nostrils and flowing down his throat. Rose screamed when Martha swooped down and tossed Chris across the room as if he weighed nothing.
Rose tried to grab Vin's slippery hand but she couldn't hold on. She was losing him. His head was completely submerged beneath the slime. She watched his hand disappear beneath the muck. He was dying.
Martha was winning.
Chris scrambled back to the elevator and pushed Rose aside as he reached for the rope and wrapped it around his waist. "Lower me down," he ordered.
Buck and Josiah grabbed the rope as Chris dived headfirst into the shaft. He nearly cried out, surprised at the pain and almost gulping in a mouthful of the slime. It felt like it was eating at his flesh, freezing his bones. Chris searched blindly until he felt Vin's head then slid his hand along his body until he found his right arm. He jerked the rope and Buck pulled with all his weight to break the slime's grip on his two friends. "I need help," he yelled.
Nathan rushed over and grabbed the rope, the two strong men fighting to break the suction. Finally, they felt the rope give and both were pulled out of the elevator. Buck dragged Vin's lifeless body away from pit.
Nathan dropped to his knees and pried Vin's mouth open digging the slime out of his mouth with his fingers. He started mouth to mouth resuscitation despite the foul taste of the sludge that still oozed from Vin's mouth and nose while Buck pumped his chest.
The fire engulfed the house like a ravenous animal. The entire back half was engulfed in heat and fire. Nathan and Buck continued the CPR. Suddenly Vin gagged, vomiting the vile slime from his body. Nathan quickly turned him on his side. "Take it easy, Vin," he said his voice choked by the smoke. "We've got you now."
Chris clawed at his face as the slime burned his eyes.
"I need help," Rose pleaded, trying to hold Chris' hands away from his face.
"Keep your eyes closed, Chris," J.D. ordered while he wiped at the slim on his face. Just the touch of it burned J.D.'s hands.
Buck rushed over to help Rose and J.D. drag Chris over to Josiah and Ezra.
"We've got to get out of here," Buck yelled over fire's fury.
Josiah lifted Vin into his arms as gently as he could, ignoring Vin's gasp of pain, and ran toward the SUV. Buck helped Chris, still drenched in slime, stagger to the vehicle.
Above them, Martha and Roland struggled against each other. Gray and black mists whirled around, intermingling then separating. Roland was growing stronger. Martha had used far too much energy trying to make Vin hers.
Buck dove through the windshield and waited for Josiah to ease Vin into his arms. Rose scrambled in behind him. Nate ordered her to clean Vin's face with a bottle of water and turned to wait for Chris to climb in. She struggled with the cap on the water because her hands were shaking so badly.
J.D. jumped in beside her and grabbed the bottle, unscrewing it easily.
Martha and Roland continued their macabre dance, taking human form then dissolving into mist.
Josiah dropped the transmission into reverse. Like the cry of a dying animal, the balcony above finally ripped away from the wall and crashed to the floor, covering the SUV.
"Damn it," Josiah yelled.
As the dust cleared, the gray and black mist took shape again and Josiah could see Roland's sinewy arm reaching out for Martha. He grabbed her claw-like hand and drew her toward the elevator pit.
Martha's hysterical screams seemed to fuel the fire as Roland dragged her ever closer to her grave. For the past twenty-two years she had lived in limbo, between Heaven and Hell, reliving the moment she awoke inside the pit, clawing at the heavy trapdoor above, her cries too weak for the workers above to hear. Caught in Purgatory, she took revenge on Roland, making him a virtual prisoner of his own house. She haunted him, day and night until he died.
Roland too, was lost in limbo: Trapped for eternity until Martha was appeased.
Then the house had sold.
It was Martha's house. She would not give it up easily. Until Vin arrived, she had yearned for a man for so long, a good man; someone completely opposite from Roland. She played her game, making Vin trust her.
Then Roland could take no more. Now he was putting an end to it forever.
The ooze that nearly drowned Vin boiled over the top of the pit and flowed across the floor. Rose moaned in horror as it inched its way closer to the SUV's tires.
"Let's get the hell out of here!" Nathan yelled.
"I'm trying Brother, I'm trying." Josiah slammed the gearshift into reverse, but a wall collapsed, blocking their exit route; fire and smoke consumed the Great Room around them.
"We're trapped!" Rose cried.
Flames licked at the car's fenders. A tendril of ooze reached up and caught Martha's ankle, pulling her toward the pit. She shrieked in horror. She was no longer the aggressor. Roland had defeated her, and he was returning her to his personal Hell.
The house was engulfed in flames. Every wall was consumed by the raging inferno.
There was no escape.
Flames licked at the car windows, cracking them from the heat. Rose grabbed Vin's hand and held him tight, choking on the thick smoke pouring through the open windshield. The ooze began to recede back into the pit pulling Martha with it. Her face was a hideous mask of fear and hate.
Her coal black eyes fell on Vin and she reached out for him, but the ooze was dragging her back down into the depths of Hell. A shrill scream filled the house as Martha was dragged down into the pit.
A roar surged up from the hole, sucking everything into it. Roland disappeared. Furniture engulfed in flames disappeared. The smoke and fire were sucked into the vacuum.
Rose felt the SUV begin to slide toward the hole.
"No!" she cried.
Burning lumber that once framed the house flew by them disappearing into the black hole as they were dragged closer to the pit.
The screeching sound of metal assaulted their ears as the elevator collapsed in on itself and sank into the pit. As if hell was appeased, the ooze relinquished its hold on the SUV.
Then all was suddenly quiet.
The fire was gone, only tendrils of smoke from what was left of the house billowed up into the night sky. It was over. Martha and Roland were gone, along with the house.
"It's over..." Vin whispered.
No one else said a word.
They just sat there, stunned.
To Chris' relief Kenny the pilot was standing by in an open field nearby, waiting to pick up the eight. He landed near the remains of the smoldering house after seeing the billowing smoke.
Vin shivered uncontrollably, still covered in the vile slime. Rose was in a near catatonic state.
Their first stop was the hospital where the unknown slime baffled the staff. They hooked Vin up to strong antibiotics for his infected arm and kept an eye on any possible reactions from the ingested slime.
There was no easy way to explain what had happened. Chris contacted Orrin why they were still in the air. Emergency teams were sent out to police the area until a hazmat crew could investigate and clean up.
Three days after they were admitted, Vin was strong enough to have visitors and the rest of the team poured into his private room, all dressed in hospital bathrobes. Everyone who came in contact with the slime, including Kenny, was quarantined in a section of E ward until the doctors could identify the strange substance.
"Hey, Junior," Buck grinned. "How ya feeling?"
He still had welts covering this body from the slime, still a mystery to the doctors. His left arm was suspended in a sling above the bed.
"Better." There was no real conviction in Vin's voice.
"That's not very believable, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.
"Want me ta dance a jig for ya, Ez?"
"We want to help you get through your ordeal, Brother," Josiah said.
"Nothing's gonna help, Josiah. Nothing's gonna explain what happened…She…Martha…she came to my bed…" There was a moment of silence in the room. "I don't think I'll ever feel clean again."
Rose walked slowly down the hall, wearing a robe over her hospital gown, heading for Vin's room. She wasn't sure if she really belonged here. Everything that happened was because of her wanting that house. The guilt was consuming her life.
She reached room 307 and knocked softly, ready to turn around when the door opened and Josiah beckoned her in. She saw Vin, still looking ill from their ordeal, and blanched.
"I'm sorry, I just wanted to … Look, I can come back…"
"Darlin', what our young sharpshooter needs is a dose of pretty. And, as a man who is an expert on pretty, I …"
"Shut up, Buck," everyone said in unison.
Vin smiled at Rose. "Hey guys, I appreciate the company but…"
"Say no more, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "We were just about to say our good-byes."
Buck kissed the back of her hand. "We will leave Junior in your capable hands."
Rose watched Vin's friends leave the room, before she turned back to Vin, not sure if she could look into his eyes. Her feeling of guilt was overwhelming.
"You OK?" Vin asked, his throat still hoarse from the caustic slime.
"Better if the doctors released us. So," he asked, taking her hand, "what next? What about that dream?"
She smiled ruefully, "What dream?"
"Come on. What about burning all your bridges behind you?"
She arched an eyebrow "Is this supposed to make me feel better? All my savings were tied up in the house. How the hell am I going to get an insurance agency to believe my house was destroyed by a couple of angry ghosts? They'd put me in the looney bin."
"Perhaps, but not us."
Rose whirled around to see a man in his late sixties, his nose and mouth hidden behind a hospital mask, enter the room. "It is so good to finally meet you Miss Markham. Vin and Chris have spoken highly of you."
"You," she said shaking his his gloved hand, "must be Orrin Travis."
"At your service. While Vin and Chris have not gone into great detail as to what occurred at your house, I am sure in time they will explain it all. But they were very adamant that you never return there. That is why I would like to make you an offer."
"Exactly what kind of offer?" she asked skeptically, glancing over at Vin who wore a sheepish grin.
"I have been quite successful in my career and have amassed a lot of property. I would like to offer a trade of properties."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"I own fifty acres in a remote part of the Shasta Mountains. It is exactly what Vin has described as your dream. I propose that we trade properties. You can build your Bed and Breakfast there. Team seven will provide the funds to rebuild."
Rose began to protest, but Orrin shook his head. "It will be a loan which you can start paying back when you are able. I will have the paperwork drawn up by tomorrow. Meanwhile, your property will be decontaminated and donated it to the park service, never to be built on again.
Vin squeezed her hand. "You remember your dream to create a sanctuary? This is it."
"I don't understand... Why?"
Vin's face turned deadly serious. "What we went through was beyond reality, but we both know it happened. You risked your life to come back into that house to save me."
"What Vin is trying so gallantly to say," Orrin interrupted, "is that we owe you a debt of gratitude. Consider this as our way of thanking you."
"And," Vin said, leaning back into his pillows, "when I get out of here I will need a place to convalesce. Any suggestions?"
A wide smile spread across her face. "Consider yourself my first guest."
"Very good then," Orrin said, gently taking her arm, "Vin needs his rest and I am quite famished. Would you care for a late dinner in your room? I know an excellent restaurant that will deliver."
Vin winked as Rose graciously accepted the invitation.
He watched Rose and Orrin leave his room. Alone again. Would he ever feel comfortable alone? Vin sighed deeply. They say time heals all wounds. He hoped they were right. He dimmed the light over his bed and struggled to find a position that didn't press on his injury.
Vin closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep not noticing the scent of perfume rising from beneath his bed.
(Or is it?)