Monday, January 9, 2012

Enter At Your Own Risk

(Author's note: this story originally appeared on the webzine SAVAGE NIGHT in 2003.)

Claude pulled his red Mustang in behind the small boarded-up house at the edge of the road and parked it, then turned around in his seat and faced his passengers.
“You ready to see Mudville Manor up close and personal?” he asked them.
“It’s about time,” Claude’s girlfriend Abby said from the backseat.
“It was quite a drive,” said Jack from the passenger seat. Then he opened his door and stepped into the tall grass outside the car. “I hope it’ll be worth it.”
“Oh, it wasn’t too bad,” said Jack’s wife Molly, who sat beside Abby, fanning herself with a magazine. Then she pushed the passenger seat forward and crawled out of the car and stood beside her husband. “It’s a beautiful day and there was a lot to see along the way, so I didn't mind.”
“Listen to her,” Jack said, showing his best fake scowl. “She could find something nice to say about a pile of dog crap.”
Claude was laughing when he opened his door and exited his car, and Abby squeezed out after him.
You try riding in the back seat of a Mustang for three hours,” Abby said said.
Claude ignored her.
“This ain’t the haunted house you were talking about, is it?” Jack said, pointing at the nearby ramshackle house.
“Of course not,” Claude said. “The website just said to park here by this smaller abandoned house. We gotta hike the rest of the way back because of a locked gate.”
“A locked gate, huh? You sure we’re allowed to look around?”
“I’m positive,” Claude said. “The website is run by the owner of the property himself. All he asks is that we enter at our own risk. You know, so he’s not liable if we fall through the floor or something.”
“I guess he don’t mind, then.  But why the locked gate?”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t have a key for it.”
Claude took a quick look around and found what he was looking for, almost shrouded in weeds. He pointed out his discovery to the rest of his group. “It’s down that path, I guess,” he said.
“I sure hope it’s worth it,” Jack said.
“Well, I enjoyed the trip regardless,” Molly said.
Jack rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette. “Lead the way,” he said to Claude.
Claude took one last look at the dumpy little house behind him. For a split second, he’d felt like somebody was looking at him from one of those dark upstairs windows, the flash of a pale face, but all the windows were empty now save for tattered white curtains. He guessed it really was abandoned, like the website said it was, although it didn’t look all that bad. None of the windows were broken out, and the door at the rear of the house looked new and was closed.
Creepy, Claude thought. But Mudville Manor, the place they’d come to see, was far more impressive. It was a massive old abandoned mansion that was rising from the bottom of a hill as if was being thrust out of the earth itself. It was also reputed to be haunted, and it was wide open to whoever wanted to explore it, as long as they agreed to enter the decrepit old place at their own risk.
Claude felt giddy, like a kid on his way to the first day of school. So far, he’d only seen pictures of the old mansion on the Internet, and Mudville Manor certainly looked haunted. More haunted than any house he’d ever seen. But pictures could only show so much. He couldn’t wait to see the place for himself.
“It’s down this way,” he said, heading down the weed-choked path.
“Well,” Abby said. “Let’s go get this over with.”
The rest of the group followed Claude down the path to Mudville Manor.
* * * *
Rex couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the car pull up and park right in the spot he'd designated on the website. Then he'd narrowly avoided being seen by the driver, flinging himself onto his dirty cot in a frenzy when the man had looked up at Rex's window, conking his head on the wall in the process hard enough to leave a knot. But when they all walked away towards the old mansion and he finally got a good look at the car his visitors had arrived in, he knew he was going to score big with this one and that the knot on his head would be worth the pain. The car was a shiny red Mustang, and a fairly new model, too. Nice and fast and expensive.
Everything was going to work out just like he’d planned.
Rex had watched from the window as no less than four people crawled out of the Mustang and stood in his back lawn, smoking cigarettes and talking. After a while the redheaded guy who'd been driving pointed down the path that led to the Manor and then they all headed down towards the old mansion, just as planned. Two men, two women. It was almost too good to be true.
Rex couldn’t wait until they arrived at the mansion and started going through it the wicked old place. Boy were they ever in for a surprise. Look what old Uncle Carl missed out on all those years by not having a computer, Rex thought with a grin.  He could have done so much better for himself.
But not Rex. No, he was going to take this whole crazy arrangement to another level. And all because of a simple website.
He watched as the heads of his visitors disappeared over the hill and into the small valley where Mudville Manor and its lonely resident waited for them.
* * * *
“Holy shit, will you look at that,” Jack said.
Molly said, “It’s beautiful. Magnificent. Thanks for bringing us here, Claude.”
“What a creepy old dump,” Abby said.
Claude was speechless. Mudville Manor was far more impressive up close than one could ever hope to reproduce with a simple photograph. It was definitely the most imposing-looking old house Claude had ever seen, bar none.
“You sure you wanna go in this sucker?” Jack said. “It looks like something out of a horror movie.”
“I’ll go with you,” Molly said, coming over to Claude and taking his arm. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She was speaking to her husband on that final note.
“Oh, I’ll go inside, as long as we're careful,” Jack said. “I didn’t ride three hours for nothing, dammit.”
“I’ll wait out here with Jack if he doesn’t want to go in,” Abby said. “It’s probably filthy inside anyway.”
“We’re all going,” Claude said. “Isn't that what we came here for?”
Nobody answered him, as if the sight of the old house had stolen their voices.
“Well, I’m going inside. I didn’t drive three hours to stand here looking at it from the outside.”
“I’m going in, too,” Molly said. “I’m not scared.”
“I’m not scared either,” Jack said. “It's giving me a weird vibe, that's all.”
Claude gave Abby and Jack a firm look. “Well. Are you two coming or not?”
Jack and Abby looked at each other, and some sort of unspoken agreement passed between them.
Jack nodded. “We’re coming, just lead the way.”
Claude approached the massive old brick structure with the others in tow. The front steps were stone and brought them onto a wooden porch nearly as big as Claude’s living room back in Spencerville, and then to the massive double doors that led into the bowels of Mudville Manor.
He turned one last time to the others. “Well. Here we go.”
* * * *
Rex waited a good ten minutes--plenty of time for his visitors to make it to the house and check it out from a distance before they went inside--then he headed downstairs and sat down in front of the bank of surveillance monitors that he had set up in the living room of the old servants' quarters. He'd installed hidden video cameras in all the main rooms of the old mansion, and their images were sent back to this row of monitors, so he could keep an eye on things happening there.
The whole arrangement--the computer, the surveillance equipment, and the how-to books--had set him back a good chunk, though. All of his savings, but what else could he do? He had to make a living somehow while living here in this horrible place. And he couldn’t leave the old mansion unattended, not knowing of the hellish thing that occupied the well down in the basement of the decrepit old domicile of his ancestors. Not knowing what it might be capable of if it ever decided to leave the house and hunt for its own food outside in the world. Rex's world
But it had grown quite large during its years in the old well. Rex didn’t think it would even be able to escape the old mansion even if it tried. Not unless the house was knocked down somehow, which was the main reason why Rex had to stay and maintain the place, and why his now-dead uncle had stayed there, as well as all those who had came before his uncle had stayed there. No telling what that thing might do if the house was ever demolished and it got out into the world. It was better this way. Better for everybody.
Except, of course, for those Rex managed to lure there.
He had no idea what the thing really was, only that it had crawled out of the old well one night over a hundred years ago and had devoured the people who were living in the house at the time, people who had been the mortal enemies of Rex’s distant ancestors. Rex had heard one of his ancestors had summoned a demon or had conjured some other type of horror out of the earth to destroy the hated family of the mansion, and since that night of horror, a member of Rex’s bloodline had been living there on the grounds of the mansion in the servants' quarters, watching over the house and the thing it contained, feeding the thing when it when it needed fed, making sure it didn’t escape somehow, as if there had been no way of sending it back from where it had come once it had been brought here. And that’s how he’d ended up getting stuck with the job. It was tradition, something that had to be upheld at all costs, and he was proud to do it. And with Rex's criminal background, he'd been his family’s natural choice for the job. Because feeding the thing what it wanted for dinner every month or so wasn’t exactly an easy job. It had often taken some serious planning to lure unwary folks into the basement of the old place, but at least Rex got to keep all the spoils from the thing’s feedings--the wallets, watches, rings, and anything else it left behind Now that he had the internet, all that would change.
Rex watched in the center monitor, the one for the camera in the main room of the mansion, as the group of urban explorers entered and began looking around. That’s what they called themselves--Urban Explorers. There were dozens of websites all over the world about it, catering to people who loved exploring abandoned buildings. Rex had even found pictures of his own Mudville Manor on one site, but only exterior shots. So far, none of the explorers who’d tried had been able to gain entry to the house. Rex and all those that had come before him had always kept the old mansion locked up tight, unless it was feeding time, of course.
Not anymore, though.
Now Rex was letting them in, no strings attached.
It was all part of his new plan, now that he had the internet.
The group of explorers was now in the main part of the upper floor. He saw their mouths moving and he wished he could hear what they were saying, but sound capabilities had been beyond the depths of his wallet. The video was enough for now, he supposed. And if things worked out the way he had planned, he could always add sound later, once the money started rolling in.
Come on, he thought, watching as the explorers toured the upstairs rooms. Get on down to the basement so we can get this show on the road for real.
* * * *
“Everybody ready for the basement?” Claude said.
They were standing in Mudville Manor’s wrecked kitchen, having just finished touring the upstairs. So far, Claude was blown away by what he’d seen. And now that they’d been through both upper floors, he just had to see the basement. It was the only place in the house not shown on the website, with only a written description and something about a mysterious old well somewhere down there in the darkness. All the more reason to go and see it for himself.
“Do we have to?” Abby said. “I’ve had about enough of this place.”
“Imagine what it was like to have lived here when it was new,” Molly said. “It’s such a beautiful old place.”
“It sure is enormous,” Jack said.  “I wonder why it’s just sitting out here, all closed up like this. You’d think it would be a great place to live.”
“Maybe the owners went bankrupt or something,” Claude said. “And they couldn’t afford the upkeep.”
“Why not sell it then? Get out from under it.”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe it’s historical to their family or something.”
“What matters?” Abby said. “It would take a million dollars to fix it up. Just look at the walls, they’re crumbling apart.”
“I still want to check out the basement,” Claude said.
“I’ll check out the basement with you,” Molly said. “Then we can leave.”
“I might as well tag along, too,” Jack said. “Don’t wanna be left out, you know?”
Abby sighed. “I don’t know why I hang out with you all.”
Molly grinned. “Because you love us,” she said.
There was laughter, and then they all headed for the basement door.
“Man, look at that,” Jack said once they reached the stairs. “I wonder why they used steel.”
The basement door was like something from a battleship. Heavy riveted steel, probably half an inch thick. It looked new, too, like somebody had only recently installed the door for some strange reason.
Claude didn’t think about it too much. He just wanted to see the old well, and then they could leave.
“Maybe it’s a dungeon,” Abby said. “Maybe this is where they tortured people way back when.”
“Knock it off, hon,” Claude said. “You’ll scare us so bad we won’t be able to go down there.”
“That’s the idea,” she said. “Haven’t you seen enough of this place?”
“No,” he said. “Not until I see the old well that’s supposed to be down there.”
“An old well, huh?” Jack said. “Spooky. But I don’t think this place is haunted like you said it was.”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe not. It’s still cool to look at, though. Who’s coming with me?”
“I’m game,” Molly said.
Abby sighed.
“Come on, then,” said Claude. “Let’s go.”
Down the steps they went without any further delay.
* * * *
Rex waited until the last member of his hapless group disappeared through the basement door, and then he got up and went over to the wall and pressed a button he’d mounted there, something like an automatic garage door opener. The heavy gauge steel door had been the last thing he’d installed before going online with his Mudville Manor website. The original wooden door had been far too rotten to be trustworthy, and the size of the thing living in the well down there bothered him these days. Also, Rex didn’t want any of the explorers being able to batter their way out once the basement door closed behind them. The new steel door made his new plan foolproof.
Rex checked the basement door camera one last time to make sure the door had closed the way it was supposed to, and seeing that it had, he headed out the back door and down the path to the mansion.
Before he got halfway there, the screaming had started--muffled and almost indistinguishable through the tons of brick and plaster and the steel door, but still loud enough to be heard quite a distance from the house. Not that there was anyone nearby. The nearest house was nearly three miles away.
Rex couldn’t help but smile a little.
He couldn’t imagine what those poor explorers thought when the door slammed and they saw that thing come out of the well, looking like it did, with that huge head and its mouth full of needle-like teeth and those long, spidery arms and legs that could wrap clear around a person. Rex wondered which one of his urban explorers it had gotten grabbed first. Probably the one with the flashlight, whoever that was. After that, the rest wouldn’t have been able to see it coming for them. It was smart like that.
All Rex had to do now was wait for the thing to finish its business, then he could open the door and go down and retrieve whatever goodies it had left behind for him. Usually the clothes and wallets and purses and metallic items, like car keys. Stuff the thing knew Rex wouldn't want ruined.
He knew the thing wouldn’t ever hurt him, since he carried his ancestors' blood in his veins. It was all part of the agreement, something started long before Rex had come along and taken over management of the old mansion, something maybe Rex’s great-great-great granddaddy had worked out with the thing in order to keep it from running wild in the countryside, since it didn't belong in this world and it couldn’t be killed like most everything else could. His ancestors had known that much about it, at least. Probably had learned it the hard way, too.
Rex thought about the shiny red Mustang sitting back there behind his house. He’d clear five grand for that baby at a chop shop he knew about, no problem. And it had been almost too easy, hadn’t it? A little money spent buying the equipment, and then time setting everything up and getting the website designed and online, and now they were coming to him. He couldn’t think of an easier way to steal cars.
And he was sure the thing in the well was happy with the arrangement, as well. It was eating better than it ever had since that very first night when it had munched on Rex’s ancestors' enemies. Rex was keeping with family tradition in a grand style, he knew. He couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
Just listen to those screams!

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