Chapter One


            ÒDonÕt touch that!Ó Barry Mitchell hissed. His breath was hot on my neck.

            I jerked my hand back from the door and turned to him. He looked like a ghost, all bug-eyed and white. But maybe that was the light. There were no windows in the basement and the bare bulb hanging at the foot of the stairs didnÕt reach the corner. You watch enough horror movies, it doesnÕt take much imagination.

ÒWhatÕs in there?Ó I asked.

He shook his head wildly. ÒI donÕt know.Ó

ÒWhat do you mean, you donÕt know? You grew up here!Ó

Barry Mitchell and I were a long way from friends. But IÕd known him for thirty years, ever since he laughed at my name the first day of Kindergarten. My mother hadnÕt done me any favours with Cedric Elvis OÕToole.

IÕd never seen Barry afraid before though. Usually he didnÕt have the sense to be afraid.

Still, I suppose he had a right to be freaked. HeÕd just spent two years inside Kingston Pen for assault. HeÕd been home just a few weeks when all of a sudden his parents disappeared in the middle of a snowstorm. The police hounded him with questions every day for a month. Then came the estate lawyers, and theyÕre not the most cuddly guys in town either. Even now, two months later, folks are still whispering.

ÒI never went in there,Ó Barry said. His eyes were fixed on the door.

ÒWhy not?Ó I ran my flashlight over the door, an ugly old pine slab that had never seen a coat of paint. It was wedged into the rough stone blocks of the basement wall and welded shut with cobwebs. It looked like it hadnÕt been touched in a hundred years. The Mitchell farmhouse was even older than mine, probably built in the 1850s. Who knows how long this door had been here and what was on the other side?

A secret tunnel? A time capsule?

 I thought of my own basement, dark, spooky and smelling of rotten earth. A magnet for a kid with a big imagination and too much time on his hands. As a kid, I would have been through this door in a flash.

But Barry just shook his head. He was already backing up, heading for the stairs. ThatÕs when I saw the crowbar in his hands. He looked too, and seemed surprised to find it there. He laid it down on the workbench.

ÒForget it, Rick. We done enough for today. LetÕs go grab a beer.Ó Then he was up the stairs two at a time, and out of sight.

I shoved the door, but it didnÕt budge. I threw my weight against it. Nothing. Now, IÕm only five-ten and one-fifty after two beers and a plate of wings. But most of that is muscle. Besides paying the bills, handyman work keeps you in shape.

This door was going to be a challenge.

Barry was done half his beer by the time I reached the kitchen. I took the one he held out. IÕm not a big drinker, especially at one oÕclock in the afternoon. But when Barry Mitchell offers, you go along.

He grinned, trying to shrug off his nerves. ÒI donÕt know why I gotta fix the leaks down there anyways. The place has been leaking since before any of them real estate lawyers were born. ItÕs not like itÕs going to float away.Ó

I sipped my beer and decided not to take him on. Growing up, you learned not to take Barry Mitchell on. Not when he was winding up for a fight.

ÒI canÕt see wasting money on this dump. When I sell it, theyÕll probably tear it down anyway. The land is what they want.Ó

I saw my next monthÕs paycheck slipping through my fingers. I lived a simple life out on the scrub farm my mother left me. But a guy canÕt get by on a goat, a couple of hens, a vegetable patch and a few sheds of junk. For starters, I really wanted my pick-up truck back. That wouldnÕt happen until I could pay the thousand-dollar repair bill. Aunt Penny said the old death trap wasnÕt worth a thousand, but she didnÕt appreciate all the sweat IÕd put into it. I admit it wasnÕt pretty to look at, but I figured the rust holes improved the ventilation.

ÒYeah, but it wouldnÕt hurt to make the place safe at least,Ó I said, looking around the kitchen. Rusty wires hung from the ceiling where the light fixture had fallen out, and the gas stove looked older than both of us put together. ÒItÕs a wonder your parents didnÕt burn it down. A gas leak with those wires, the whole place could go up.Ó

He gave me a disgusted look over the top of his bottle. ÒThey were pigs. Mom never lifted a finger to clean the place. The older she got, the worse she got. Up all night reading her romance novels and popping more pills than a Hollywood starlet. And DadÉ Well, you know Dad. What the fuck else is there to say?Ó

I did know Pete Mitchell. Everybody in the county knew Pete Mitchell. If it was past two oÕclock in the afternoon, you stayed out of his way. He had the blackest, drunkest rages I ever saw. And in these parts, thatÕs saying a lot. It was one reason why, even though Barry Mitchell gave me grief, I never gave up on him completely. My mother left me to grow up like a weed in the garden while she watched her soaps and listened to Elvis. But at least she was harmless. I never had to hide out in the barn waiting for her rages to pass. Or dodge flying shovels when I failed some test I didnÕt even know I was taking. 

This time, Pete Mitchell had taken one drink too many. ValentineÕs Day, two in the morning, he and his wife got kicked out of the LionÕs Head. They headed off towards home on their snowmobile in the middle of a blizzard.

Nobody had seen them since.

Barry popped open another beer and looked across the table at me. His face was all twisted, and for a scary moment, I thought he was going to cry. ÒI hate this place,Ó he said. ÒIt never felt like home.Ó He tossed his head back and chugged half the bottle, pausing at the end to drag his dirty fist across his mouth. ÒI canÕt pay you yet, OÕToole. IÕm sitting on a fortune, thatÕs what the lawyers say, but unless I sell it, I wonÕt have a cent to pay you.Ó

With the usual OÕToole luck, my great-grandfather had gotten a hundred-acre land grant to the most useless piece of cedar swamp in the county. BarryÕs great-grandfather had gotten a hundred acres on a point of land jutting into Lake Madrid. These days even the crappiest waterfront shack went for a quarter of a million. No wonder the lawyers were drooling.

ÒI know,Ó I said, Òbut working together, the expenses wonÕt be too high. LetÕs at least fix the leaks and the electrical. After thatÉÓ I shrugged, trying not to look too desperate.

Barry drained his second beer. ÒThatÕs a plan, OÕToole. Hell, I canÕt sell this dump yet anyway! My folksÕ bodies are still out there somewhere, so it ainÕt even legally mine. So letÕs drink to the handyman team. Mitchell and OÕToole.Ó He laughed. That creepy Barry Mitchell laugh that used to curdle my blood. ÒCedric Fucking Elvis the Tool.Ó

Chapter Two



BarryÕs old truck was nowhere in sight when I finally showed up the next day. I was late, because the seat on my dirt bike had fallen off when I hit a pothole on the way. IÕd had to hitch into town for new bolts. Boy, did I ever need my truck back.

There was no note, but I was half frozen from the ride and the door was open so I went in. The place was an icebox. No furnace, no heaters, and the woodstove was a fire hazard. Barry probably went into town just to get warm. The LionÕs Head serves a piping hot Irish stew along with its pitchers of beer.

I headed down into the basement to check out the furnace. It was in the darkest corner of the room but even in the lousy light I could see it was beyond hope. It was an ugly old thing held together by forty years of soot and mold. I didnÕt think it had been serviced this century. DidnÕt anyone ever come down here? I grabbed a flashlight and shone it around the room. Wires, pipes and beams all covered in dust. Cobwebs everywhere, beetles scuttling, oily puddles on the dirt floor.

And that door.

Ever since I was a kid, IÕve been a sucker for mysteries. Always wanted to know how something worked, or why it did that or what would happen if I pushed this button. I wasnÕt one to look up answers in a book. I wanted to see for myself. The worst thing my mother or my teachers could say was, ÒDonÕt touch that.Ó

That only got my imagination going. I felt like a magician when I pushed a button and made something move, or put something together so it worked again. When there are no other kids around for five miles and your mother is glued to As the World Turns, itÕs nice to feel like Superman.

I went over to the door and aimed the flashlight along the edge. For the first time I noticed it was nailed shut at the very top by a huge, rusty spike. I picked up the crowbar Barry had left on the workbench the day before and went to work on the spike. The door was solid as a Douglas Fir. It barely splintered as I yanked and pushed and pried and cursed. Finally I worked the spike loose enough to lever it out. It fell to the dirt with a heavy thunk. I kicked and shoved and threw my shoulder at the door, but it still didnÕt budge. Soon I was sweating and panting like IÕd run a marathon.

But every now and then I remember to use my brain. It works a little different from most folksÕ, and it makes people laugh, but it comes up with a good idea now and again. Okay, maybe not that gas-powered scarecrow or the robot feed dispenser, but inventors learn from each mistake. And somedayÉ

Anyway, now I looked at the door and realized it pulled outward instead of pushing inward. With the crowbarÕs help, I levered it slowly open until I could stick the bar through the crack and give it a good yank. The door squawked open six inches. Cold, dead air rushed out. Air that had been in there for probably thirty years. A couple more yanks and I had it open far enough to look in.

Inside it was dark as pitch. Silent as a grave. I shivered. I didnÕt want to think what was in there, lurking in the corner or coiled on the ground. Sometimes imagination is not a good thing. I shone the flashlight inside. I was surprised to see just a small, empty room with a dirt floor, stone block walls, and a low, sagging ceiling of earth and beams.

I squeezed my way inside for a closer look. The walls were lined with shelves of mason jars. They were so dusty and black I barely recognized them. Mouse droppings and cobwebs covered everything. On the floor were some wooden bins half full of weird round things. I reached through the cobwebs to pick one up. It was hard and shriveled, like a black walnut shell. An apple? Potato? I sniffed but could smell no decay, no sweet ferment. Nothing but stale, musty air.

I squatted in the middle of the room, disappointed. No secret passage, no time capsule, no magic kingdom. Just a root cellar where BarryÕs mother stored her harvest crops. Long ago, when she still cared.

I flashed the beam into the corners one last time, hoping to see the outline of a secret door. Maybe I was being silly but something about this room felt spooky. In the bright light, I could see the walls were scratched and chipped, and the earth dug up. Like an animal had been trying to dig its way out.

I shook my head to get rid of that idea. When I jerked the light away, something pale caught its glare. Against the far wall, almost hidden behind the bins, was a bunch of brown sticks. I moved closer, hunching over because the ceiling was too low to stand. My flashlight played over the sticks. There were different sizes and shapes scattered about. In the middle something curved like a backbone. An animal? Small bits of cloth were spread underneath, as if the animal had built a nest. Trying to get warm? Trying to comfort itself? I swallowed. In the silence of the room, my breath sounded loud.

I picked up a piece of thin cloth. Most of it fell apart in my hands but a scrap remained, dark and rotten but still showing a plaid pattern. I felt sorry for the little animal that had tried so hard to escape and, finally, to keep itself warm. I felt like I was disturbing its soul.

I was just about to lay the cloth back down when I saw something else lying behind the bin. It was round and smooth. Heart pounding, I picked it up and held it under the light. I recognized the shape right away. The lower jaw was gone and the eye hole on one side was cracked. But there was no doubt it was a skull.

Something had been trapped in here and had curled up to die.

I looked at the bits of cloth in my hand and then at the skull. It was larger than a groundhog, larger even than a skunk or raccoon. It was about the size of a yearling lamb or a dog.

Or a small child.