|- excerpt from The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe|
It was a dark and stormy night. But then, it almost always was. It seemed to be one of the few unifying factors of mysteries they almost never opened on a bright, sunny day. It was as if nothing insidiously evil - or at least nothing mysterious - could ever happen during the day. Moreover, the character that stumbled upon these odd happenings was invariably alone. They were never with a group - well, they might be with a group, but they always managed to wind up separated from everyone else. Sometimes they decided to go to sleep first, leaving their friends by the campfire; other times they hung back to answer the call of Nature; still others they were sent to fetch or investigate something. And there were always the times when the soon-to-be-victim merely paused to look at something seemingly out-of-place, never noticing that the group continued on without them. At any rate, they were always alone, and it was always dark, and stormy, and thoroughly creepy. Sometimes they knew they were in danger, or realized their solitude left them vulnerable, and were scared; sometimes they cranked up their bravado and boldly set out after their comrades or after the shadow or noise or whatnot. And sometimes they just whimpered like a frightened puppy and fled.
But it was always on a dark and stormy night.
Which was why Ferdie absolutely loved to read mysteries on nights like this. Outside, the wind howled, whipping around the house and violently shaking branches and bushes and wind chimes and anything not sturdily tied down. The rain fell almost horizontally, plastering the windows with sheets of water as the torrential downpour continued. Every few minutes, huge streaks of lightening forked across the sky, casting gruesomely animated shadows that, though they looked to be ferocious, clawed beasts, actually belonged to the branches of the front bushes. And seconds after each blinding flash of light came the ominous rumble of thunder. Oh, this was truly a storm other storms should look up to. It was everything a storm should be, and everything the storms in his stories aspired to be.
Which was one of the reasons he was reading his newest acquisition - a fascinating supernatural monster murder mystery. Curled up on a beaten old armchair in his room, engrossed in the book, his imagination was given room to run, and he saw every single story detail in his mind's eye. The book was quite long, and he was in the thick of things now, the best - and therefore scariest - part of the tale. The raging storm outside kept the suspense tangible, and the surrounding darkness only heightened the atmosphere. There wasn't a light on in the house other than the one beside Ferdie.
And it was quiet. So very, very quiet.
Ma Birdie was spending the weekend with an old friend, and had taken Bink with her. Ferdie was pretty sure Ma was really just out on a weekend Bridge tournament with the club, and had taken Bink with her as a distraction. The ladies from the club simply found the child genius adorable. But that wasn't the point, now, was it? The point was, she was out of town, and had taken his kid brother with her. She had wanted Ferdia to come home for the weekend to keep him company, which had bothered him immensely - for crying out loud, he was a senior in high school, he didn't need a babysitter! - but his sister hadn't been able to make it. Something about putting in overtime to make up for leveling a parking garage. Or maybe she was planning on avenging another partner - he was pretty sure she'd put her current one in the hospital again. Hmph. And Ma wondered why he didn't want to be a cop. But, anyway, Ferdia was across the valley in San Viano, and he was here in San Bernadino, all alone.
Well, not really alone. Squeaks, the Arellian captain he'd stranded here months ago, was down in the basement guestroom. The mouse had been with them for a few months now, and was beginning to realize just how right Ferdie had been when he'd said that aliens never visited their planet. So far, Squeaks had yet to reach anyone with the beacon he'd constructed, and his hopes of ever again seeing his homeworld were fading. Which was doubtless the reason the white-furred mouse had of late taken to spending most of his days brooding in the basement.
Which essentially meant that, for all extents and purposes, Ferdie was alone in the house. In the dark. On a dark and stormy night. Reading a rather intense murder mystery.
Scaring himself silly.
But it was a 'good' type of fear. It was all exhilaration and anticipation, heart-pounding and electrifying. And it was all tied to the story. The cold sweat of real, mind-numbing fear was completely absent. This was fun, and it was all fiction. Nothing to be afraid of here.
Lightning shot across the sky - a single, huge bolt accompanied by a blinding flash of light and a near-deafening boom of thunder so loud it shook the walls. Above the noise, a loud crash and sickening cracking sound rang out, and the house was plunged into darkness. Not the darkness of before, where a table lamp and a few dim hallway night-lights had illuminated the dwelling - this was pure, unadulterated, pitch-black darkness. And then silence.
Many people mistake quietness for silence. These people have never heard true silence. True silence is more than deafening. It is not simply that it is quiet, but that there is a total, complete absence of sound. To any living creature, such silence is unnatural. It is the sort of thing writers describe as 'deathly quiet'. It is maddening in its stillness. Unnerving. Unnatural.
It is the sort of thing that taps into primordial instincts, alerting one that all is not as it should be. In the wild, the only time a forest falls silent is when there is some sort of great, dangerous predator about, hunting. The instinctual fear of total silence results from ancestral experience's association with such silence and mortal danger. It cues the adrenaline, sharpens the senses, and brings its bearer to an alert, wary state. And, generally speaking, scares the crap out of them.
Ferdie sat stock-still in the dark and silence, blinking as his eyes adjusted to his inky-black surroundings. Gradually, as his vision returned, he became aware of the soft, soothing sound of rain pelting the window. Lulled by the sound, he gazed at the window, transfixed by the sight of dozens of tiny rivulets flowing down the glass, and his heart began to slow to a more leisurely pace. There, now. Just a power failure, caused by the storm. The crash and cracking sounds had no doubt been the lightning striking a nearby power line. And the silence - the thunder must have been so loud it washed out all other noise, temporarily deafening him to the soft pitter-patter of the rain. Nothing to be afraid of. He reached out an arm, retrieving the flashlight he'd kept by the chair on the off-chance the power went out. The beam cut through the darkness like a knife, and after doing a precursory sweep of the room, he turned it on the book and resumed his reading. He was at a really good part now - the vampire and vegetarian werewolf had just stumbled onto the murderous banshee's lair, unaware that a lurking shadow watched their every move - and he didn't want to stop now. He had to know what happened next. Besides, there was nothing out there in the dark to be afraid of.
Ferdie's head shot up, his eyes wide. 'What was that?!?' he thought, casting a panicked glance to the hall and the blackness it held. He trained the flashlight at the void, squinting into the darkness in a vain attempt to catch some hint of what caused the noise, straining his ears to catch any further sounds. After a few minutes, he gave up, feeling silly. It was just the house, settling, or perhaps rocking in the wind. It was part tree, after all. Or if it wasn't the house, then it was Squeaks. No doubt the alien captain was unfamiliar with such rustic worries as power failures, and was fumbling around the basement in search of a working light, the fuse box, or a flashlight.
Yeah, that was it. Squeaks wandering around in the dark.
Thump thump, thump....Crash!
After all, the mouse didn't really know the layout of the house very well, and Ma had moved some things into the hallway downstairs while searching the basement for suitcases. Squeaks was bound to run into a few things down there, in the dark.
Crash! Clatter clatter....shuffle....shuffle....Creeeeeeeeaaaaaaaak!
Creeeeeeeeaaaaak....bang! Crash! Thump! Thump! Thump!
....it sure didn't sound like the noise was coming from the basement. In fact, it kind of sounded like...like...
...like it was coming from above him.
There was someone walking around in the attic.
Ferdie's eyes bugged out of his head, wide as saucers, and he forced himself to start breathing again. His imagination was running away with him. There was no one up there. It was just the wind. The wind and his imagination.
He could have sworn he heard a low moan. He scrunched his eyes shut, clutching the flashlight for protection. "It's the wind," he muttered, willing himself to calm down, "It's the wind. It's the wind. It'sthewindit'sthewindit'sthewindit's -"
He shot out of the chair, bolting out of the room even before the lightning had begun to fade.
Ferdie could be very fast, when he wanted to be. He supposed it ran in the family - his sister Ferdia was affectionately termed the 'Blue Blur' at her precinct, a carry-over from her track-and-field days. Oh, he ran track too, and had even - on one occasion he loved to brag about - broken one of Ferdia's old records. Running fast was an essential element in Ferdie's existence. The faster you are, the more likely you are to escape whoever is chasing you - and Ferdie was a self-proclaimed coward. He'd've been proud of it, too, if he hadn't been so busy setting his newest speed record.
He was running so fast, in fact, that he completely forgot that he was on the second floor - and that his room was right across from the railing. He didn't recall this fact until he slammed into said railing, at which point the knowledge was useless, as his momentum sent him tumbling over the railing. He hit the ground floor with an undignified thunk! in an unwelcome testament to his lack of aerial abilities. Like any decent coward, however, he didn't let a little thing like shortness of breath slow him down. No siree. He leapt to his feet, slipped on some rounded object, and promptly fell face-first onto the floor again.
This second fall knocked what little wind he had regained out of him again, and, coupled with the dawning realization that the flashlight - wherever it had landed - was no longer working, gave him pause. Which is of course to say that he stopped screaming long enough to realize that he was screaming.
He took a deep breath, trying to fend off the mind-numbing panic that had sponsored his brief flight - and nearly choked at the sight of something moving through the darkness ahead of him. As the apparition continued to move, he realized it was real - neither a trick of the light nor an imagined figure - and at this point, he resumed his prior screaming.
This seemed to attract the pale shade's attention, however, and it adjusted its course, heading now straight for him. As he scrambled back away from it, though, it did a very un-ghost-like thing. It cocked its pale head to one side, swept its ears back in an annoyed manner, and spoke.
"Enough with the screaming already!" it growled, in a strangely familiar tone, "You're hurting my ears!"
Waaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute. He'd heard that complaint before. In fact, he'd heard it in that voice, as well. The phantom apparition before him wasn't a phantom after all - it was Squeaks! Oh, what a relief! Ferdie's screams ceased with this realization, and his fear was replaced - at least temporarily - with extreme gratitude in not being alone in the house.
"Squeaks! Thank goodness it's you! There's something strange loose upstairs!"
"A minute ago, I'd have agreed with you," the mouse replied, reaching for something in the darkness - several somethings, by the look of it - before turning back to him, "but you're down here now."
"Very funny," Ferdie scowled. Now was no time to for sarcasm! Couldn't Squeaks see that? "Look, I'm serious. There's someone up there. I heard them!"
"That explains the screaming, I suppose," the mouse allowed. "Did you get a good look at them?"
Ferdie blinked. Look at them? Did he get a good look at them? Hell, no, he'd had the sense to book it on out of there before they found him! He related as much to Squeaks, who - though it was rather difficult to see in the dark - rolled his eyes.
"I see. So, in the middle of a storm, you hear noises, and rather than investigate, you run screaming from your room straight into the railing and then plummet - still screaming - to the floor," the mouse shook his head. "Not very good at strategy, are you?" He shifted his attention to the objects in his hands.
"Hey, I'd like to see what you would have do- -hey!" Ferdie threw up his hands, shielding his eyes from the bright light that now assaulted them. He then darted out a hand, snatching the flashlight away. "You fixed it!"
"You knocked its power cells loose."
"So..." Ferdie thought for a minute, "You really didn't hear anything?"
"Nothing unusual," Squeaks shrugged, glancing about the sitting-room, "although I gather that one rather loud bit of thunder was the sound of lightning hitting something. Which probably explains why we've lost power."
Ferdie pouted. If Squeaks hadn't heard anything - and the mouse had far better hearing than he did - then that called into question the whole reason for his rather embarrassing flight. Despite a nearly overwhelming urge to leave the mouse to fend for himself while he hid in the safety of the garage, Ferdie now felt obligated to find out what he had heard. "Well, I heard something, and since you're here, you can help me investigate it."
"What's to investigate? You probably just imagined it."
"Oh yeah? If I just imagined the noises, why are you up here?"
The mouse folded his arms, smirking. "I heard a good deal of screaming, assumed there was a reason for it, and came to investigate."
"But that's all you heard? No creaks, moans, crashes, thumps, none of that?"
"None at all - aside from your demonstration of gravity. And even if you *did* hear something, it's probably just the wind."
Crash! Bang! Thud! Aooooooooooooooo.......
Ferdie watched, amused, as the mouse whirled around, flicking his ears this way and that in an attempt to zero in on the source of the noise. 'Ha! See, I'm not always wrong!' he thought to himself.
Squeaks circled the room slowly, trying to pinpoint where the moan was coming from.
"That sound like the wind to you?" Ferdie asked smugly.
"You gonna help me find out?"
Squeaks sighed. Well, why not? The storm was doing a fair job of keeping him from getting any real sleep - and Ferdie was going to do his best to keep him awake now. Might as well go ghost-hunting.
Ferdie climbed the stairs slowly, taking time to sweep his surroundings each step of the way. No sense in getting ambushed, after all. Squeaks followed along behind him. He had actually wanted the former captain to lead, but the mouse had waved him off with a dismissive 'it's *your* search' and insisted he lead. Ferdie was beginning to have second thoughts about this whole search thing - but then again, if he didn't know what was up there, he wouldn't be able to get to sleep at all until sunrise, and it was nearly midnight now. With limited batteries and no central power, there wasn't much he could do to pass the time other than search the house.
The more noises they heard, the more Squeaks decided they were nothing of import. The creaks and 'footfalls' were soft, which meant whatever making them was lightweight. Too light for anything as big as a person to be making the noise, he'd observed. Moreover, they were spaced far apart - in time as well as space. There was no reason why anyone - even a prankster - would do this. The crashes and thumps were rather compelling, but again, nothing a small rodent or tree-lizard couldn't overturn. And the 'moan'....well, he was fairly certain it was the wind. The storm outside was a rather violent one. He hung back, watching as Ferdie mimicked exaggerated police raids, kicking the door aside while lunging out of the doorway, only to swing back in for a more thorough search. But there was no real reason to search this floor - whatever was making the noises they heard, it was above the second floor.
Eventually they reached the stairs to the attic. Ferdie was rather reluctant to go up - and Squeaks couldn't have cared less. Certainly, finding - and halting - the source of the noise would be a great help - it would solve this petty little hunt immediately, and allow him to go back to sleep. But, then, so would thwacking Ferdie unconscious. The only thing the first option had going for it was the lack of angry consequences he would then have to face in the morning.
Ferdie pushed the door to the attic open slowly, peeking around him to make certain there were no crazed axe murderers waiting within striking distance of the door. Finding none, he slowly advanced into the attic. Like any good attic, it was cramped and disheveled; however, it was a little larger than most, and there were areas they would need to venture further into before being able to explore.
Aside from the size of the attic, however, two things immediately came to Ferdie's attention. First, it was freezing up there, even though it was summertime and the rest of the house was nice and warm. And second, that it stank to high heaven. He took a moment to puzzle over this. It sounded somewhat familiar....
"Smells like something died in here," Squeaks observed, wrinkling his nose at the stench. The mouse seemed a little more edgy now. Good.
His comment, however, reminded Ferdie of why the odd things about the attic seemed familiar. He turned on his heels and went to retrieve a book off his room's shelves, taking a minute to show Squeaks its title as he reentered the attic.
"The Devil's Dictionary?" Squeaks mused at the cover, "What do you need that for?"
"This is an excellent resource for looking up strange phenomenon and their causes," he replied, ignoring the mouse's smirk, "It lists over seventy types of demons, monsters, undead creatures, and ghostly apparitions."
"And you paid money for it?"
"It's a very good book!"
"Aren't you a little old to believe in monsters and things that go bump in the night?"
"Yeah, well, I used to think I was too old to believe in aliens as well, but you and your spaceship shattered *that* illusion, so I figured, hey, what if I'm wrong about the other stuff as well?"
"But they're completely different things! Extra-terrestrials are merely living beings that evolved on a different planet than you; 'undead' things and ghosts are scientific impossibilities. They only exist in stories!"
Ferdie thumbed through the book, looking for the entries dealing with temperature and smell. "Just because you haven't seen them doesn't mean they don't exist!"
"You've seen them, then?"
"Well...no. But my sister saw one-"
"The one in law-enforcement?"
"She told you she'd seen a ghost?"
Ferdie winced. Why did Squeaks always have to hash the details? "Well, no. But when we were kids, she wasn't afraid of anything - and then all of a sudden one day she decided she was afraid of ghosts. I think it's because she saw one."
"Hey, we played in a graveyard! Like it was a playground! And then 'poof', sis decides graveyards are to be avoided unless you're trying to summon ghosts. After that, she'd only go in a graveyard to prove she wasn't afraid to do so."
"And you take this as solid evidence that ghosts are real."
Ferdie ignored the mouse, having found the passages he was looking for. "Here, how about this? It says here that in rooms in which a spirit manifests itself, it has to sap up some energy from the surroundings, which makes the room cold. Can you feel the difference in temperatures between here and the rest of the house? It's freezing up here!"
Squeaks shrugged. "So? There's no insulation up here. It's harder to trap heat without insulation, and all the rain we've had tonight was bound to cool off the roof enough that this place started losing heat!" He abandoned his station near the door, moving about the attic to prove it was all one temperature.
"Yeah, well, what about this?" Ferdie flipped over to the entry on odors. "It also says that different kinds of ghosts have different smells associated with them!"
It also went on to point out that friendly, benign entities often had sweet-smelling or neutral odors, and that only malignant, destructive, and evil spirits were associated with the kind of rank, rotting-flesh stench that currently met their nostrils. As he read this part, Ferdie paled. He decided to leave Squeaks in the dark (figuratively more than literally) about that little sideline.
Ferdie was busily scanning the right side of the basement junk pile when he heard Squeaks utter a short, muffled cry. Fearing that his only companion in this evil-spirit-infested attic had fallen victim to one of them because he had failed to warn the mouse of the dangers of foul-smelling spirits, Ferdie darted over to Squeaks' search area.
He found the mouse off in a corner of the attic, covering his nose and mouth with his hand as he peered over at what appeared to be a long-dead raccoon. The raccoon's neck had been broken - shattered, actually, almost flattened - and the rotting carcass smelled so terrible that he had to take a few steps back himself.
"Well, that certainly explains the smell," Squeaks muttered through his hand. And as much as he might have liked to object, Ferdie found he had to agree.
"What do you think killed it?" he asked.
Squeaks arched an eyebrow at him. "Its neck is broken. I'd say that pretty much did the job."
"I'm not that stupid," Ferdie growled, "I mean, how'd it get broken?"
"Any number of things. A bad fall, a botched landing, a falling box, another raccoon. The break might have been posthumous, too - it could have starved, or been sick, or poisoned, or something like that. But whatever killed it did so weeks ago. It's not the source of your noises."
A few minutes' search produced an old, deflated vinyl kiddie pool, in which the two wasted no time wrapping the carcass. The balled-up pool did a fairly good job of muting the odor, though the attic would need several months of intensive airing before it ceased to reek. And even more disappointing than the carcass - at the opposite end of the attic, hidden from view by dozens of boxes, was a window. The window wasn't open, but one of it panels was broken, and wind whistled through the opening.
Ferdie was about to give up the idea of an attic ghost entirely when he bumped into it. He was rummaging through a box, and fancied he'd felt a hand on his back. Squeaks was about a yard in front of him, in full view, which meant it wasn't him, and no one else had a hand...except the ghost! He stood up slowly, reaching back...
...he could make out a hand...two arms...torso...head...knife...
He leapt forward, spinning around to face the fiend as he did so. Unfortunately, his jump was a bit overextended, and when Squeaks darted to help after hearing his cry of alarm, the two collided, falling to an undignified heap on the floor.
Squeaks quickly tossed him off, leaping to his feet to face...a dummy.
Ferdie realized his mistake an instant later. "A mannequin?!?" 'What the hell is it with those things and attics?!?' he grumbled to himself, 'I mean, are they required décor, do they come with the house, or what?' He could personally swear to the fact that, while none of his friends admitted to having a mannequin in their attics, every last comic book, cartoon, and movie he had ever watched contained one. WHY?!?
(Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but in this case at least, the mannequin had a good reason for being there. In her youth, Ma Birdie had delighted in making and customizing dresses for herself. She did alterations, mending, and fine-tuning all on the fine seamstress' mannequin that had been given to her by her grandmother. Ma no longer had time - or interest, but mostly time - to do such things anymore, and had thus exiled the mannequin to the attic.)
At any rate, the mannequin was not wielding a knife - 'she' was simply missing a hand, and the bare metal attachment knob felt, in many ways, like a knife. Not a particularly strong or dangerous knife, mind you, but a knife none the same. Satisfied that the rogue mannequin was not, in fact, out for blood, Ferdie turned to survey the attic one last time. The search was leading nowhere, and he feared that he was only convincing Squeaks that he was an incurable basket case, which was not something he wanted to do.
As he turned, he could have sworn he saw a shadow dart for cover, just on the edge of his peripheral vision. How odd. Squeaks would doubtlessly write it off as an odd shadow cast by his flashlight.
But when he turned to ask Squeaks, the mouse was nowhere to be seen.
Squeaks spun as something brushed past him. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught site of a fleeting shadow, but could not make out its shape. It was the sort of swift, shapeless dark blur that could have been anything - Ferdie, the reflection of wind-blown branches, even his own shadow. It was, in all likelihood, nothing more than his imagination, or a particularly convincing trick of the light. Combined with the sensation of something brushing past him, it had given him the impression of realism. But even that tactile encounter was questionable - a gust of wind, or his getting too close to the junk piled up all around him.
Either that, or Ferdie's paranoia was contagious. And he'd really rather if that were not the case. He attributed the whole incident to lack of sleep.
That is, until he noticed the blood on the floor.
It wasn't all that much blood - just a few sizeable drops, more than a nosebleed but much less than a serious injury would loose. But what caught his attention was the fact that it wasn't old, dried blood. It was fresh - wet and gleaming in the moonlight. Now, he wasn't bleeding, and he knew Ferdie wasn't bleeding - he'd've heard the bird's panicked yelps by now if that were the case - so the presence of newly-shed blood on the floor was rather unnerving. Crouching to examine the evidence, Squeaks noticed it was indeed as fresh as it looked, lacking even a thin film over the outermost bits, and devoid of any separation or coagulation. Drops of blood dry quickly, so these couldn't be more than a few minutes old.
He stood slowly, scanning the surrounding area for clues to the blood's source. The only clue present, however, was another tiny patch of blood a few feet away, and some splotches of water at odd intervals. Going to the second spot of blood, Squeaks quickly noticed others, and realized they formed a trail. Intrigued, he followed their lead. Perhaps there was something to Ferdie's 'ghost' after all...
Ferdie turned this way and that, desperately searching for the mouse that, until a moment ago, had been no more than a few feet from him. This was terrible! Where was Squeaks? Where could he have gone?
He wouldn't just have left the attic. He might've given up the search, but even if he had, the mouse would have simply leaned up against the attic door's doorjamb until Ferdie decided to call it quits. So something had to have happened to him. Someone must have taken him! But Ferdie hadn't heard a sound! Not a shout, or a yelp, or even sounds of a scuffle. Squeaks was a trained soldier, he knew how to fight! If whatever it was that was up here had simply made him vanish, then Ferdie himself was in very grave danger...
Maybe Squeaks was just out-of-sight. Yeah, that was it. He'd just call him....but what if the thing heard him? Would that make it go after him as it had Squeaks?
Maybe he could still make it to the garage, if he ran.
"Ferdie." The voice made him jump. This was it. The creature had found him. He was doomed.
"Ferdie!" Funny how the voice sounded like Squeaks, though.
"FERDIE!" Wait a minute. That was Squeaks. He was alive! "I've found something!"
Squeaks sat on his heels, flicking his tail as he mentally retraced the path of blood. Beside him, amongst scattered piles of fallen junk, Ferdie peered up at the tree limb poking through the ceiling.
The bushy branch had evidently been severed by the lightning strike, and had plummeted with enough force to break through the roof. Rain trickled down through the leaves, pooling on the floor. Wind whistled down through the tangled mass, and lightning produced odd shadows as it filtered through the layers of foliage.
"Guess it really was the wind, after all," Ferdie mused. "Ah well, at least the mystery's solved."
"Perhaps," Squeaks allowed, "but that doesn't explain the blood trail."
"Blood trail?" Ferdie gulped. He didn't like the thought of some vicious, wild animal alone and wounded, crazed with pain and fear, in his house. "Probably just some woodland creature."
Squeaks shook his head. "The blood's spaced too far apart for anything that size. Not to mention there's too much of it in each spot for something as small as a tree-lizard."
"Maybe it hopped. Or maybe it wasn't that badly hurt, but would stop to rest every few feet, and that's when the blood had time to drop."
"Or maybe we're dealing with something rather large. There were water patches spaced at intervals among the bloodstains. Whatever it was walked at a more or less steady pace away from this spot, and it was probably our size."
"So it's here with us?" Ferdie gulped. "I think I liked it better when it was just the wind."
There was a skittering sound from the other side of the attic, a series of thumps as something - or someone - tumbled down the attic stairs, and the unmistakable sound of the heavy attic door slamming shut - and locking.
Squeaks gritted his teeth. "I think I preferred it that way as well."
Ferdie paced the length of the attic, no longer afraid of ghosts or ghouls or other supernatural creatures. Well, none in the attic, anyway. Heck, now that the intruder was definitely not in the attic, he was no longer afraid of the musty place at all.
Squeaks knelt in front of the attic door, resolutely picking at the lock with rusted bobby pins salvaged from the mannequin's wig. He'd been at this for nearly an hour now, and all they really had to show for it was a collection of bent bobby pins. The lock was proving rather stubborn. But the hinges were on the opposite side, and Ferdie had not thought to bring the lock's key with him. Moreover, since the door was at the bottom of a collection of rather steep stairs - and the attic was nearly pitch-black, unlit by anything more than Ferdie's flashlight and the occasional lightning strike - rushing the door was out of the question. They simply couldn't get the right kind of leverage - or speed - that they'd need to break it down. And the steel door refused to be kicked open.
Ferdie worried about what was happening downstairs. Was the intruder looting the house? Were they still there, even, or had they already left? What if they were some crazed maniac, arming themselves with kitchen knives and waiting for the two of them to come out of the attic? What if they couldn't get out of the attic? What then? Would they have to climb out onto the broken roof? Could they even fit through that mangled opening, or would they have to wait for Ma to come home, and hope she heard them calling for help through the heavy door? And what if the maniac downstairs got tired of waiting, and decided to just set fire to the house instead?
He wasn't sure if he wanted to know the answers to any of those questions. He wasn't even sure he wanted to be able to leave the attic right now.
From the attic stairwell, there came a muted 'click', followed by a shout of victory. Squeaks had finally defeated the lock. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, motioning back to Ferdie.
"Come on! Time to get to the bottom of this once and for all!"
"I dunno...what if they're armed?"
"What if they've left?"
Ferdie grimaced, slowly leaving the relative safety of their short-term prison. "I'd feel better about this if I still had my flashlight," he grumbled. The batteries were slowly giving out, and the beam of light the torch emitted kept shrinking and dimming. And with the power still out - and the storm still raging - the last thing he wanted to do was confront some unknown intruder in the dark.
They crept down the hallway quietly, slowly repeating their earlier search in reverse. This time, by unspoken agreement, Squeaks lead, and the flashlight was kept off. Ferdie had to admit, he was rather relieved to have Squeaks there with him - the mouse had military training, and that meant if there was a fight, Squeaks could hold his own. There would be no need for heroics on Ferdie's part - which was good, since Ferdie's idea of heroics at this point involved just doing what he was doing now - walking along quietly, without screaming, and resisting the urge to make a break for the garage.
The second-floor rooms proved empty and untouched. The trail of blood was clearly visible on the pale carpet - something Ma would no doubt give him hell for if it didn't wash out, no doubt - and it lead downstairs, toward the back of the house.
It cut off rather abruptly at the first-floor bathroom, however, and a raided medicine cabinet spoke of the intruder's attempt to patch themselves up. Poorly-cut gauze and medical tape littered the sink and floor, along with a few dark, bloodstained, tattered feathers - the first real evidence as to their guest's identity. But the trail stopped there, and after finding no evidence that the bird had left the house - and why would they leave, with a violent storm raging outside and the house's only other occupants 'safely' locked away upstairs? - the two began to scour the back rooms of the house.
At first, their search turned up nothing. No one asleep on the sitting-room couch, no one rummaging through the wash for dry clothing - and no evidence of discarded wet clothing, for that matter - and no one fiddling with the safe in the study. Despite the raging storm outside, Ferdie was becoming convinced that, whoever had been in the house, they were no longer there.
As they neared the kitchen, however, Squeaks stiffened, drawing to a halt and perking up his ears. Ferdie opened his mouth to ask what the mouse had heard, but Squeaks motioned for him to be still - and that was really all Ferdie needed to let him know that the mouse had spotted their quarry in the kitchen. Motioning for him to stay put, the spacefaring navy captain dropped into a crouch, slowly, stealthily creeping along the wall to the kitchen and peering around the corner. He turned, motioning Ferdie to the kitchen entrance opposite him.
Ferdie wasn't all that good at strategy, but - thanks to his sister - he'd seen enough movies and police dramas to figure out the probable scenario. One suspect, unarmed - or armed too poorly to be a threat to someone of Squeaks' ability - and unaware that they were being watched. He gathered that Squeaks was planning an ambush of some sorts, and wanted him to block the other exit. Not that he'd be all that effective at blocking the exit if the intruder tried to fight his way through, but that his presence might dissuade the intruder from fleeing - if he managed to look imposing and not like the quaking coward he was.
He took up position at the side hallway entrance to the kitchen, peering around the corner and waving to Squeaks, who nodded. Ferdie craned his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the intruder, but could only make out a dark mass near the table. It wasn't all that hard to figure out what that mass was doing, however - the mountains of food piled on the table spoke well enough of that. He supposed it was just as well, though - after two hours, most of the ice cream was melting, and the milk and eggs and other perishables were slowly reaching the point at which they'd have to be thrown out if they weren't immediately consumed.
He didn't know exactly what he was expecting - sure, he'd seen plenty of action movies, but they tended to exaggerate things, and Squeaks was an alien, someone who was surely accustomed to slightly different tactics and strategies no matter how you sliced it. He supposed he might have expected Squeaks to announce, while still hidden, that the intruder was surrounded, or to simply dart into the room and subdue them before they knew what was happening. And, reflecting on things a bit, he guessed that that might have been more along the lines of what Squeaks would have done, if he'd had a weapon handy. But the mouse had been woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of him screaming, and had evidently written it off as a non-life-threatening-but-still-worthy-of-looking-into occurrence and neglected to bring his phaser with him. Still, Squeaks' chosen course of action surprised him. Without any type of signal - or any prompting as to what he should do - the mouse rose to his feet and casually strode into the room.
"Enjoying the accommodations?" he asked mildly, hands clasped behind his back as he bowed ever-so-slightly, head cocked to one side with a mocking smile.
His question was met with a second of startled silence as the intruder froze, eyes wide. Squeaks' grin widened, ears twitching and tail flicking as he leaned forward a bit more, expectantly awaiting an answer, and in that instant the mouse resembled nothing so much as a cat taunting cornered prey. A gamble, certainly, as neither he nor Ferdie had any way of knowing their opponent's skill and/or weapons at hand, but the sheer arrogance of the move served its purpose. The dumbfounded intruder sat frozen in place for an instant - and only an instant - before bolting for the exit farthest from the mouse.
The part of Ferdie usually lying curled up in a corner of his mind realized that this was the exact reason Squeaks had wanted him covering this exit, and, fueled by adrenaline, he leapt out of hiding with a rather mean-sounding squawk. He had been going for a ferocious roar, or even a screech, but felt it had been impressive nonetheless. And his quick (and screeched) appearance in the bird's escape route caused their charge to falter. Wings flaring out as brakes as the flier - for only fliers sported such fully flight-capable wings - skid to a halt, whirling around to charge the opposite exit.
Squeaks was covering that end of the kitchen, however, effectively cutting off all escape routes, and the bird noticed this immediately. With a resigned sigh, their shoulders sagged, and they hung their head. When no one approached them - fearing the defeated stance was a lure to get them within striking distance - the uninvited guest sighed again, retreated to the table, and slumped into the nearest chair.
"So, uh...hi," she - for the voice was definitely feminine - began nervously, "Sorry about the mess. And locking you all in the attic. No hard feelings, eh? I was only trying to be safe..."
"Safe?" Ferdie blurted, "Safe from what?"
"Well, from you two, of course. I had no idea whose home this was, and I didn't want to be set upon by a pack of murderers lying in wait."
"Us?!? Murderers?!?" Ferdie yelled, "You're the one who broke in and terrorized us!"
She shook her head firmly. "No, I didn't - well, not intentionally. I got caught out in the storm, and took refuge in your tree - but my branch snapped, and I was too soaked to get away from it as it fell. I hurt my wing when we broke through the roof. I couldn't get back out the way I'd come in, and I was worried about what the residents would do, so I tried to get out of the attic quietly. It didn't really work, until you all came up -"
"-because, once you knew we were the only two in the house, you had a way to get out of the area without having to worry about us," Squeaks surmised.
"Well, yeah. And since the food was gonna go bad anyway, I figured I'd help myself to a good meal before setting out in this downpour again. I figured the locked door would keep you up there. Did you find an extra key?"
"I picked the lock."
"Oh," she considered that. "I hadn't thought of that. I guess I wasn't so safe after all."
Ferdie suppressed a growl. Not only was she neither ghost nor undead monster, the black-feathered raven before them hadn't even been even a remote threat to them. So much for his great exploits. "So, who should I send the carpet-cleaning bills to?" he grumbled.
"Oh, I'll give you money for that before I go," the bird replied, "but if that's your way of asking my name, it's Ravyn."
"No surname?" Squeaks queried.
She shook her head. "Never really needed one. They only help track you, anyway, and I like being the very definition of a free spirit. That's why I go by Ravyn - it's more of a nickname than a real name, which makes it harder to find me. Not that I need to hide. But I'm on a bit of a vacation right now, and I don't want anyone - especially my parents - to know where I am. I don't have to worry about them objecting to my chosen travels this way."
The three fell into conversation, slowly polishing off the perishables as they discussed the night's misadventure. Ravyn seemed genuinely sorry for the confusion and panic she'd caused, and Squeaks - if not always Ferdie - sympathized with her initial bewilderment. Pasts were briefly discussed - Ravyn's parents were traveling salesmen, but she wanted to be a photojournalist - as was the cost of fixing the broken roof and stained carpets. Eventually, it was decided that at least part of the damage would be covered by insurance - the roof, mostly - and Ravyn counted out a few dozen dollars' worth to cover floor cleanings.
She had hurt her wing when the branch broke, and her head had a rather nasty-looking gash in it, but otherwise she had come through her ordeal with little more than an assortment of minor cuts and bruises. The tattered bandages she had dressed her wounds in were discarded, and Squeaks replaced them with properly treated and wrapped bandages. Ferdie and Ravyn then struck up a conversation on mysteries, and mystery novels, comparing notes on must-reads and best-authors. As they did so, the rain finally begun to let up - after nearly twelve hours of continuous storming - and as the power came back on, Ferdie noticed that, while the blinking digital lights indicated it was 12:00, his battery-powered watch tended to think it was 3:50 am. He turned to inform Squeaks of this, only to discover the mouse asleep at the table, head resting on folded arms in typical fallen-asleep-at-desk style.
Ravyn noticed the time, though, and his new friend decided she ought to be getting on her way. It was not yet dawn, or even pre-dawn, but the rain had stopped, and the clouds had thinned, allowing for, as Ravyn put it, "just enough light to clear the trees and stay clear of them." Her wing, while still a bit tender, was skyworthy - as long as she didn't try acrobatics, she claimed. And so, in the soggy pre-pre-dawn light, with the first bits of less-than-midnight-blue hues creeping in from the east, the flier left her rather understanding hosts.
Ferdie watched the raven fly off, quickly clearing treetops and heading westward into the last little bits of night. He idly wondered if he'd see her again. Fliers had an excellent sense of direction and geography, and he didn't doubt that Ravyn could find them again if she wanted to. But he quickly abandoned the thought, opting to catch a few hours' sleep before the light and bustle of the day could intrude upon him. His mystery novel could wait until later to be finished. He walked back into the house, stumbled up the stairs, and collapsed into bed just as the sun began to rise.
He woke up around noon, and decided to see if Squeaks needed any help cleaning up what by now were dried-blood-stains on the cream-colored hallway carpet. The second-floor carpet, however, looked as pristine and stainless as it had the morning before, and he groggily wondered how much time it had taken Squeaks to get it that way. He wandered up to the attic to check the water damage, and found that, while a puddle had formed under the tree branch, it had not yet seeped into the wood - and surprisingly little else had gotten wet. Or, rather, it had, and Squeaks had dried it off, just as he had scrubbed the blood off the wood floors up here as well. It seemed a little odd that the mouse would have left the puddle beneath the branch, but then that could always just be condensation or late-morning dew, he supposed. He left the attic for the ground floor, grabbing a bit of nutritional sustenance before inspecting the ground floor. The area just below the second-floor guardrail had a few scratches on the wood - darned flashlight - but otherwise all looked well.
Squeaks was nowhere in sight, and it was beginning to dawn on Ferdie just how silent the house was. He wondered if, after cleaning up every last bit of last night's mess, the mouse had simply gone to the basement for a well-deserved nap. He felt rather guilty, sleeping through the cleanup detail. But, he figured, he didn't hear the laundry machine running - which made sense, as Squeaks hadn't been allowed near the thing with Ma around, but also meant there was likely a load-full of blood-stained bandages, towels, and assorted rags that needed to be washed before Ma came home. Ferdie headed into the basement to start a load, vowing to make certain not to wake the tired mouse. He needn't have worried, however - not only was there no bloody laundry to be done, but there was no sleeping mouse to disturb. There was no mouse downstairs at all.
Curiosity piqued, Ferdie set off to find the Arellian captain. He re-searched the house, scanned the garage, and was completing a lap around the house when he finally found the mouse sitting on the front porch steps, pondering over the newspaper. That was somewhat odd. Squeaks didn't ponder the news. He read it, on occasion, and would often wind up shaking his head at its contents, but he'd never finished a story with the disturbed, perplexed look he wore now. Ferdie went over to investigate.
"Interesting news today, Squeaks?"
The mouse started slightly, broken out of whatever reverie he had been in. "Hmm? Oh, you're up. Get much sleep?"
Ferdie shrugged. "Enough, I guess. Ravyn and I were up all night talking."
"The raven? Her wing feel better?"
Ferdie nodded. "She left a little before dawn. Sorry I slept so late. I hope the cleanup didn't take too long."
Squeaks' ears perked up. "You didn't clean it?"
"No, you did," Ferdie answered, looking at the mouse critically, "Didn't you?"
"I cleared out the spoiled food, then came out for the paper. You should read it, by the way."
"That's it?" Ferdie asked, confused. "You didn't clean the blood?"
"I got sidetracked," the mouse shrugged, handing the newspaper to the bird, "Front page had some news that caught my eye."
Curious, Ferdie unrolled the paper, skimming the page. The article Squeaks had mentioned grabbed his attention immediately, though it was tucked off in the lower-right corner and hardly took up more than an inch or two of print. He could feel his jaw drop as he read it, and only realized he'd begun to reel after he'd backed into the porch wall.
The article read as follows:
"The body of a young raven was found a few miles from one of San Bernadino's quieter suburbs early this morning. Based on her injuries, police believe the flier took refuge from the storm among the forest's branches, only to be killed when a bolt of lightning severed the branch above her from the tree. The falling branch evidently hit her wing, and, unable to fly, she plummeted to the ground, striking her head on a rock as she landed. The coroner believes the head wound was instantly fatal, placing the time of death at approximately 11:50pm. The girl's identity tag identified her as Lenore Dietz, an 18-year-old senior at Montebelle High, traveling the West over Spring Break. Ms. Dietz's parents could not be reached for comments. Let us hope this unfortunate tragedy demonstrates to our young people that the best thing to do in a storm is stay home. "
"But...but..." was all he could manage.
"When did we first hear our guest last night?" Squeaks queried.
"R-right after th-that loud crash of lightning," Ferdie shivered. The bolt he'd thought hit something. The crash, the cracking sound - the sound of branches breaking. When they'd found the downed branch in the attic, he'd assumed it had been what the lightning had hit. Never mind that he'd heard the crash before the cracking noises. "But...but it wasn't her. Ravyn's Ravyn, not Lenore Dietz. She's okay - you saw her, she was fine. I stayed up all night talking to her, for cryin' out loud, she was fine! This is...it's a coincidence. It's gotta be."
"The descriptions of the injuries match," Squeaks began.
"So do the ways they got them - falling branches. Besides, you cleaned and dressed her wounds - did any of them look that serious to you?"
"Head wound was pretty deep," the mouse ventured, "but it wasn't bleeding. It had bled, but it wasn't any more. Anyway, she was fully conscious, coherent, good reflexes and so on - I figured she'd just been lucky."
"She was lucky - she landed in our attic and not the forest floor!" Ferdie yelled. "She stayed with us and ate with us and talked with us, and she left just before dawn."
"Don't...don't ghosts depart with the dawn?"
"That's not true! Who told you that?!" Never mind that that was what all his books said. "Besides, you don't believe in ghosts."
"I...I'm rethinking that right now."
"So you're saying you believe in ghosts?"
"I'm saying, someone cleaned that blood. Either that, or it wasn't there in the first place, and I'd like to think I can still trust my eyes. So, yes, I believe that there is perhaps more to the paranormal than I've previously thought."
Ferdie read over the article again. Sure, the names were different, but the details, the circumstances fit. But someone had to be wrong. She'd been in their house. With them. Squeaks had seen her, talked to her; so had he. But according to the newspaper, she'd been dead from the first crash.
A ghost? A real ghost? He didn't remember feeling cold, or smelling odd odors - but then, they'd been eating ice cream and sitting around plates of tasty-smelling food. He hadn't been looking for any of the signs that would have tipped him off.
A light wind kicked up, gently drifting past them. A long, black flight feather floated along in the breeze, dancing near the end of the driveway, just behind where Ferdie knew he'd seen Ravyn take off early that morning.
"You think we'll ever see her again, Squeaks?" he asked, watching the flitting feather.
"To quote one of your world's poets," the mouse replied,
A Word from The Jennies:
Hope you liked the story! Sorry about the kiwi deficiency, but I really wanted a thunderstorm, and this was my substitute for not getting one. Just a little quickie to try and break a bit of writer's block I've been facing. And, for a change-of-pace, I wrote it primarily from Ferdie's point of view. Hopefully it's been a fun read, regardless of a somewhat cheesy ending. (Have I mentioned Poe's Raven is one of my favorite poems? Well, it is.) Did I have you thinking the flier was Iiwi for a while there? I admit, the thought had crossed my mind - but it ran contrary to the drive of the story. Please, send me comments - Kitsume@hotmail.com.