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CHAPTER 1: This Place is Empty
was the first through the hulking behemoth of a front door; it swung
open with a groan that sounded like an elephant sighing. Huge brass
lion’s heads were mounted at the center of each door, iron rings
dangling from their mouths. “Big knockers,” Gil chuckled.
a second and let me explain, begging your pardon on behalf of my
boss–a man who’s actually come to be a good friend. The first
thing you need to understand is that Gil Abercrombie can’t help
himself. Exuberantly youthful billionaire, monster hunter, action
figure collector, comic book reader, lego builder–and yeah, I did
say monster hunter. Quite a combo to bring together in the package
of a fifty-something old guy with a bushy mustache. He’s a grown
man, or so his AARP card claims.
name is Dylan, former police officer, soldier, and private security
specialist. I’m good with my hands, guns, and knives. Recently
I’ve been forced to add swords, maces, pikes, axes, and even the
quarterstaff to my already respectable skill set. It was just such a
skill set that got me hired not long ago by Gil as his new heavy.
Essentially, I drive the car, cook the meals, offer the more grounded
reader’s perspective, and try to keep my new friends safe. Along
with Gil’s partner, Alistair Finch, we make up what we
affectionately refer to as the Zeros: three guys worth nothing to no
one (except each other and our portfolio manager–in Gil’s case,
at least). A bit dramatic, perhaps, but true enough. Anyway, we get
in scrapes with monsters and nasties of all kinds. Gil would say
we’re heroes. At first, I thought it was a little weird. I’m
okay with it now. Gil’s the heart, Finch is the brain, and I’m
the guy that breaks stuff. Anyway, back to the big scary house and
our tale that is already in progress.
from faded red bricks and covered with ivy that looked more like
veins on a weightlifter’s forearm, the mansion and one time
sanatorium was called Callowleigh, and its history since being shut
down by the state was more sordid than its current state of
thought you had to using magic in this dump, you better shelve it
right now, big man. I’m getting all kinds of weird feelings in
here,” Gil said, pulling wide tangles of spiderwebs out of the air.
yes, magic. Let’s just say that magic and I were reluctant
bedfellows, currently embroiled in a bit of a love/hate relationship.
I don’t want to talk about it. “No magic, huh? I can live with
that,” I said, stepping into the foyer behind Gil and giving the
huge door a push, letting it shut behind me with a puff of stale air.
“I’d be afraid the place would come down around us if we tried.”
would,” Gil said. “If the roof comes down, catch it before it
hits me in the head, would ya, big man?” From inside his coat–a
plaid professor’s jacket with elbow patches and a button on his
lapel that read “BAZINGA!”–Gil pulled a pipe and slipped it
into his mouth. He tamped down the tobacco, his coat opening to
reveal an Iron Maiden t-shirt beneath. A match snapped lit, opening
a small halo of light in the dark foyer before it disappeared into
the bell of the pipe. Foul clouds of smoke rose into the air moments
room was massive, leading off to at least a half-dozen halls on our
left and right. From what I could see, the place still looked fully
furnished; a few old-fashioned chaise lounges decorated the open
entryway, plush oriental carpeting beneath our feet, thick with dust
and dirt accumulated over years of neglect. The most impressive part
of the room, however, lay dead ahead of us.
moly,” Gil said.
grand staircase, crimson-carpeted and at least fifteen feet wide,
rose up before us, leading toward what looked to be a mezzanine. My
eyes followed up upward to a broad stained-glass window that
overlooked the entire room. A crash of lightning outside illuminated
the brightly colored mosaic: an image of Christ on the cross at
dramatic,” I muttered. Thunder rumbled in agreement.
It’s freakin’ scary to see that thing when you first walk in. A
gigantic crucifixion scene? Welcome to Callowleigh, enjoy some tea
and ritual execution while you recover from surgery.”
previously known as the Callowleigh Retreat for Surgical Recovery and
Recuperation, was our new job. More specifically, finding the
missing caretaker was our new job. The Zeros had been hired by a
business partner and on-again-off-again client Eleanor
Robbes-Grillet, Callowleigh being just one of about a million
properties in and around Philadelphia she owned. In this case, the
grand old mansion retreat was more than a few miles out from the
Pennsylvania Turnpike, nestled into the quiet Amish country of
find this guy and get out of here,” I said, my voice a whisper. I
swallowed, I little more frightened than I should have been.
Whatever, I’d seen enough already to know that big dark houses look
scary for a reason. Thunder rumbled again.
wanna get out of here? I’m ready to kill to get out of here.
There’s a Hercules: The Legendary Journey marathon that
starts at ten. Let me tell you, big man, I plan on being there when
it happens. We’re probably gonna find this old-timer reading back
issues of Reader’s Digest in the bathroom.”
took the first step of the grand staircase, the wood beneath the
matted carpeting creaking. I gave him a minute, looking around the
room and trying not to make eye contact with giant Roman soldier or
giant Saint Peter.
sound of rumbling thunder almost masked another sound that shuddered
behind me. It sounded like the shaking and creaking of metal parts,
like loose gears or hinges. I turned to look over my shoulder,
freezing as I saw a blur of motion in one of the darkened hallways.
on,” I said. From beneath my own coat, I pulled a heavy Maglite
flashlight and clicked it on, passing the beam of clear white light
over the wall on the eastern face of the room.
is it, you see something? Hey you got a flashlight? That’s not
fair.” Gil muttered, his voice uneasy.
know, for a billionaire, you are sorely lacking in supplies.”
do you mean? I brought my Gameboy.”
wall was covered with a sick green wallpaper that had nebulous shapes
on it like rotten paisleys. Over certain stretches of wall, the
green paper was torn and hanging in tattered strips. A few dark
splotches stained the wood beneath the ripped paper. Large, framed
pictures or paintings hung at uneven intervals, each covered with a
dusty drop cloth. Something about the jagged rips looked like more
than random tears to my eyes.
Gil said firmly. “No, no, no. I don’t want to say that. Not
yet. Absolutely not. Those are not... claw marks. They can’t be.
Hercules, remember? Ten o’clock? When I agreed to do this
job for Eleanor, it was because it was easy. This caretaker guy’s
phone is broken and he doesn’t know it. That’s why he’s been
out of touch. We’re here to fix his phone and go home. Easy as
did give Finch the night off,” I said.
got a date for the first time in like two hundred years, so yeah I
gave him the night off. This isn’t supposed to be super bad,
remember?” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was convincing me or
himself. “This is going to be easy. Our first easy job after
almost getting killed by that nutball djinn and the–”
sound of rattling chain again, silencing Gil. He took a step down
towards me. “Did you hear it that time?” I asked.
moaned. “Uh huh.”
moved the beam of the flashlight further down the wall, the broad
circle of light eventually coming to rest on a darkened doorway that
I’d originally taken to be a hallway. It was no hall. Instead of
a door, the accordion gate of an old elevator barred the entryway. A
long chain wound around the gate and looped through holes drilled in
the door jamb, holding the gate shut. On the other side of the gate
was an empty space. The elevator car was missing, revealing only the
we watched, the chain shuddered again, the gate rattling against the
chains that bound it shut, as if unseen hands worked to pull it open.
buddy!” Gil said, pulling his pipe from his mouth and taking a step
closer to me at the same time that I took a step back. We collided,
and I almost knocked him over. He closed a hand on my arm and peered
over it, eyes wide.
going on, Boss?” I asked.
have no idea,” he said.
you want to get out of here? Get some reinforcements? Come back?”
Gil, I heard a long silence. All around us, the room seemed to be
slowly coming to life, sounds beginning to arise from every dark
corner. The rattling of chains was only the beginning of it.
this point–regardless of the fact that I’d only worked with Gil
for a couple of weeks–I understood the calculations that were
spiraling through his mind as we stood in the center of the mansion
foyer. There was a man somewhere in this mansion, an old man, all
alone. The old caretaker’s name was Edward Dawkins, and he worked
as a novice in restoration of historic landmarks. I’d read a little
about Callowleigh before we’d come, hoping that the evil that once
had such a grip on this grand old place had left it. Either way, the
man had a lot of hard work ahead of him. Dawkins had volunteered for
the position five weeks earlier, and he made his small salary
watching over the terrible structure with its wicked past because no
one else–more experience or otherwise–would. With his care and
guidance, hopefully something good could come of this place for a
change. Without a person who cared, whatever evil that called
Callowleigh home would only fester. Gil sighed. Without us, the
odds were that this Mr. Dawkins would never step out of Callowleigh
turning back,” he said. He wouldn’t, not when an innocent man’s
life was at stake. I knew he’d say it, and I was okay with it.
on, big man. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a spooky place
like this dump, but oh well, we’ll find our way. Just stay close,
got it.” I turned my light away from the elevator shaft, ignoring
the rattling of chains and the whispers that seemed to come up the
shaft from below.
wasn’t so hard to ignore those sounds. It was harder to ignore the
sounds of countless footsteps on the floors above. Or the squeak of
a rusted wheelchair axle turning. Or the distant sounds of laughter.
Gil and I climbed the stairs.