From the author: This is another tale that appeared in Jim Baen's Universe. Most of the story was from a vivid dream that stopped just a few paragraphs shy of the end. It was as if the Writing Muses had designed a test in which I must choose whether the story I was telling was humor or horror. Me, being me, I opted for both. It's about an estate agent and a "haunted" house.
The house at 94 Twining Lane had a reputation. It was known in real-estate circles as a “haunted house.” This did not mean, of course, that it was literally haunted, merely that prospective buyers wouldn’t touch it—presumably because they thought it was haunted.
It sat on a large corner lot that had once been nicely landscaped, but was now in dire need of many things, such as water and hedge trimmers. The house itself was charming at first glance, but on closer inspection had that air of neglect that suggests everyone in the family had died suddenly and simultaneously, leaving no heirs. Its shingles were unpainted, its shutters an indescribable shade of gray-blue-green, its windows dusty.
It had come to Ian Werther’s attention via an article in the local estate agent’s newsletter written by a Matthew Houghton. Apparently the house had floated from agency to agency, never selling. Houghton suggested, tongue in cheek, that there was a point at which it was best to simply burn the place to the ground, sow salt, and start over with a blank lot.
Ian prided himself on having sold every property he had undertaken to sell, and therefore found the idea of an unsaleable house first amusing, then intriguing, then preposterous. He could not imagine an unsaleable property.
Which is how he came to be standing in a curling fog on the walkway in front of 94 Twining Lane at 9:30 pm on a damp Friday evening, understanding for the first time in his life that old adage about curiosity having killed the cat.
His own curiosity had been complicated by convenience. His office was along High Street—about two blocks from the corner of Twining and Oxford—and his home was a mere three blocks up Oxford. He had toyed with the idea of swinging down this way on his way home from work, but hadn’t settled on it until after a visit to the High Street Pub. After a pint of stout it seemed like a much better idea than when he’d originally conceived it.
When he reached 94 Twining Way on his homeward walk, he saw a most curious thing: a man he recognized as an estate agent from a competing agency was surreptitiously entering the house through a front window that gave onto its long, shadowed porch.
Ian, even more curious, waited a moment then followed. He was standing on the walkway dithering when he heard a peculiar scraping sound down near his feet, turned, looked down, and went quietly into shock.
At his feet was a human skull, but not merely a human skull. Issuing from its mouth and fanning out onto the walk was something that looked like a cross between a starfish and a giant sea bass with an impossible set of crocodile teeth arranged within its broad, flat mouth. A mouth quite capable of snapping his foot off at the ankle, Ian would have said.
What he actually did say was, “Oh my. And what are you?”
He expected no answer, and was even more thoroughly shocked when he got one.
The jagged, crocodilian two-foot-wide lips rippled and emitted a sentence: “I am the Resident.” The voice was deep, sonorous, and slightly gravelly. Very much as one might expect the voice of such an impossible creature to be.
A troll’s voice, Ian thought. He said, “I see. This is your house, then. I’d thought it was abandoned.”
“It is not abandoned. It is my house and you are trespassing.”
Ian flashed upon having once seen a joke sign in a tourist shop proclaiming that “Trespassers will be eaten.”
“I’m deeply sorry,” he said. “I had no idea the property was tenanted.”
“That’s no excuse,” said the Resident, “for you to break into my home to vandalize it.”
“I’ve done no such thing.”
“Pardon, but I saw you enter.”
“That wasn’t me. That was someone else.” A name came to his mind then that went with the man he’d seen enter the house. “Colin. Colin Lancaster. He’s an estate agent too. He went in through that window.” He pointed at the window beneath the eaves of the front porch.
One flounder eye slid sidewise to gaze balefully at the house. The skull tilted with the motion so that its empty sockets were also pointed in that direction. “Oh, honestly. Can’t you fellows ever tell the truth? Liars, the lot of you. Deserve to be eaten.”
“I’m not lying,” Ian said urgently, watching the starfish tentacles groping ever closer to the toes of his shoes. “He’s why I’m here. I mean, I saw him go in and I followed him, wondering what he was up to. Do you . . . do you have any idea why someone would want to sneak into your house?”
“Common enough event. Petty theft at first. Lift this, then that. Some valuable stuff in there, let me tell you. Then not so petty. Drew the line at that. Last one tried to burn it down. Clear the lot. Put me out of a home.” The tentacles furled and unfurled — the echinoderm analogue for the wringing of hands, Ian suspected.
He cleared his throat. “But you didn’t let him, of course.”
“I did not.” The denial was uttered with more than a hint of pride.
“Ah. Well, of course not. I mean, you are obviously a very fine . . . uh, steward. A worthy guardian of this property.”
“I am the Resident,” it said as if that explained everything.
“Certainly . . . and I can see that you have everything well in hand. I should let you get on about your business. God knows what Mr. Lancaster is doing in there.” He glanced pointedly at the house.
The Resident wasn’t buying it. “You are the only trespasser I see at the moment, so I shall have to deal with you in any event.”
Ian sweated. “Look, Mr. Resident, I’m telling you — this other fellow, Lancaster, is in your house right this moment doing Lord-only-knows what. Stealing, vandalizing. I was on my way to stop him.”
A tentacle tapped the toe of his left shoe. “You lot are all alike — less spine than I’ve got.”
“If I prove to you that I’m telling the truth will you let me go?”
“Not a chance.”
“Because I’m the — ”“
“Resident. Yes, I see. But don’t you care what he might be doing in there — while you’re out here arguing with me?”
The eyes rolled toward the house again. “Good point. I’d best dispatch you quickly then.”
It scurried forward, sending Ian into a backward leap worthy of the Siamese kitten he and Helen had adopted. The thing was quick, and those tentacles seemed to be able to morph in both length and utility.
“Won’t do you any good to run,” the thing said and elongated one tentacle to thump its bony shell on the cranium. “Ask him. He’d tell you if he could.”
Sardonic humor from a nightmare wearing a human skull was almost more than Ian could take. He was at the point of gibbering when there was a thump at the front of the house and Colin Lancaster let himself back out onto the front porch through the living room window. He was carrying something. Something roughly the size of a watering tin.
The merest whiff of petrol reached Ian’s nostrils.
“Well, I never,” said the Resident.
“I told you so,” said Ian. “Well? Are you going to get him?”
“I’ve still got to get you. You’re closer.”
“What? You can’t do both? What sort of — of Resident are you? Oh, look at him,” Ian added desperately as Lancaster padded down the length of the porch toward Oxford Street. “He’s getting away. And I’m pretty sure that’s a petrol can he’s got there. Now, if I could just find a rock or something, I could bean him for you.”
He felt in his pockets for coinage. Alas, it had all gone to the High Street Pub — all he had were his house keys and a pocketful of business cards. He stuffed these items back into his pockets and glanced feverishly about, hoping the garden might run to some nice hefty stones.
The Resident beat him to the punch. “I’ll protect my own, thank you,” it said and reached out to a nearby rose bush up which a large snail was taking its evening constitutional. It suctioned the snail right off the bush, morphed its tentacle into a good approximation of a throwing arm and zinged the snail at the intruder just as he slipped from the porch rail into the side yard.
The snail connected with a crunchy splat (no doubt lethal to the snail) and Lancaster let out a startled cry. He dropped the petrol tin, which hit the ground with a metallic thud and rolled away. The agent began a frantic search for it, swearing under his breath.
“Good shot!” said Ian admiringly. “You’ve a great arm there. A shame you don’t have a larger projectile — you might be able to bring him down.”
The Resident responded to this encouragement by slithering past Ian on the walkway to pluck a white edging stone the size of a tennis ball from the tatty flower bed.
“Oh, yes. That ought to do.” Ian took a step back up the walk in the opposite direction. Then another. “But with him scrabbling around like that, he’ll be hard to hit.”
Lancaster was indeed scrabbling around, frantically looking for his petrol tin.
“Watch this,” said the Resident, and with a tremendous side-arm hurl that would have been the pride of any baseballer, plunked the would-be vandal on the derriere.
This time the cry was louder and followed by a string of obscenities. The agent stumbled forward, found his petrol tin with his feet, toppled over it and landed face-first in the grass.
“Bravo,” said Ian, then, “Oh, dear, he’s still trying to get away. I’m afraid you’re going to lose him.”
“Nothing of the sort,” said the Resident and scuttled off toward the side yard in a blaze of echinodermic speed, its skull-shell clattering crazily along the walk after it.
He ran straight down the garden path, across the street, and down the alley that ran along the back yards on Oxford. He was perhaps two blocks from Twining when the darkness behind him lit up in a flash of glory. He did not pause to look, nor did he stop running until he stood, panting and quaking, on his own back porch.
He was unlocking the door when he heard the sirens and glanced back the way he’d come. Fire lit the low-hanging clouds and trailing fog with a warm yellow glow. The red lights of the fire brigade strobed in a cheerful accent.
Clear the lot, indeed.
He let himself into the house, locked the door and took the stairs two at a time. Helen was already in bed asleep, not even waking when he turned on the bathroom light. He flung himself into the shower and let the hot water wash away the gruesome, crawling sensation that seemed to inhabit the space between his muscles and skin.
As the feeling leached away, rational thought returned — or attempted to — allowing him to mull over the evening’s events. Colin Lancaster must have decided the Twining property would sell only if its “haunted house” was gone. Ian assumed he’d found some way of setting up a fuse or timing device so he’d be way before the fire got going. Clever, that.
He tried not to think about what might have happened to the other agent. He tried not to think about the Resident — the now possibly homeless Resident — preferring to let that memory drift way with the last of his adrenaline until it took on a dream-like quality.
Hot water possesses marvelous powers. After twenty minutes under the pummeling spray, Ian decided the whole thing must have been an ale bottle fantasy. By the time he climbed into his pajamas and slipped into bed next to his wife, he was convinced that stopping off at the pub on the way home had been a worse idea than stopping off at 94 Twining Lane. He vowed never to do it again.
Helen stirred as he settled down beside her.
“Sorry I’m late, love,” he told her. “Stopped off at the pub . . .”
She made a muffled sleepy sound, then said, “You got a phone call while you were in the shower.”
Dear God, he thought. The police?
It had only just occurred to him that any number of people might have seen his mad homeward dash, or even spotted him standing in the yard at 94 Twining Lane. If indeed he had actually ever stood there. He wanted to believe he had not.
But then what had he done?
“Not . . . not the police . . . ?”
“What? Not the police, silly. Um . . . a client. Mr. Reston or Restant, sounded like. Says he needs a new home ASAP. Something about a fire.” She chuckled sleepily. “Funny fellow. Said his last estate agent died on the job, but he was sure you wouldn’t let him down like that. Is that a warped sense of humor or what?”
Ian barely managed to get up enough air to make words. “Did he say . . . uh . . . how to contact him?”
“Said he’d get in touch. Soon.” She yawned and cuddled up to his side. “That’s awfully flattering, isn’t it? When the clients come looking for you?”
This story originally appeared in Baen's Universe.
Assistant DA Harry Ferguson is a man with two gripping problems: a murder weapon that cannot be found and a new house that defies his family's efforts to find things where they were put. With his prosecution and his home both in chaos, Harry makes an unsettling discovery under his daughter's bed.
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