Jennifer pulled her midnight blue Acura into the diner, entering so quickly she failed to notice the name. But it was the first place she’d passed that had cars outside, a sign that perhaps the food was edible.
As she waited for the waitress to approach and serve her, she wondered if she had finally gone mad. What was she, a family lawyer from Chicago, doing down in Mississippi, somewhere off the Wolf River, looking for a haunted house?
She rested her head in her hands, hoping the coffee was fresh and strong. No hope of getting her double expresso here, but at least the coffee might be black as her soul.
She was known in Chicago as being tough as nails, a force to be reckoned with in family courts, especially if there were children involved. And here she was, seated in a backwater diner, with bright red walls, black tables and chairs and randomly scattered mosaic floor tiles.
She took a long slow breath.
Her shoulders were tense and sore. Still tired from her long drive two days earlier and spending the day yesterday on this crazy witch hunt for an abandoned house. What was she thinking, driving 700 miles in a little over ten hours, from Alton, Illinois all the way down to Pearl River Louisiana, and then over here to Wolf River?
She had barely stopped her ILX on the drive down, pausing only to refuel and once to stretch her legs. She’d even ignored her own rule about eating in the car, and snacked the whole way while driving! The GPS bringing her down the 55, onto the 49, through Hattiesburg, and then down the 59 until she reached the 10 towards Diamondhead and Bay St. Louis.
So, here she was – driving around unknown streets and towns, a complete outsider, looking for a house she had sketched on her pad, from a dream (or nightmare) that kept repeating.
It had all started three years earlier at a wedding in Alton, at the Woodlands Golf Club. She had accidentally touched arms with one of the wait staff, and felt an electric shock of energy as they had touched!
Since that day, she had recurring nightmares. Always the same house. Women screaming. Then silence. Waking to the feeling of death hanging above her.
For a while, they had subsided, and she had been able to forget them. Then, about 4 months ago, they started again. And now they were getting worse. First one woman. Then another. And now, another. And this one… she kept whispering “it’s too late“.
“I’m just going crazy”, she muttered under her breath, as she pulled out her sketch pad and flipped through the pages, looking at the house she’d drawn throughout the pad – over and over again.
The sheriff, on his way to his favourite table, stopped beside her, looking down at her sketches. Still looking down, she could see his buff black shoes and blue pants, glancing to the side. As the silence grew, she looked up slowly, noticing his perfectly ironed tan shirt with the sheriff patches placed with precision on the shoulders. The name tag above the pocket read “D. Johnson”.
It was impossible to miss his piercing gaze, hawkish nose and the ears. Oh, dear. Slightly oversized for the rest of his head.
He looked at her curiously, motioning to the empty chair in front of her, “May I join you?”
How she wanted to say no! But she was quite sure this was an implied order, not a request.
“Of course”, she smiled nervously.
The waitress instantly arrived to take their orders (of course, looking at the sheriff first), and gesturing to the hand-written menus on the blackboards above the signs that read
she asked whether they were ready to order.
Jennifer was about to order her coffee, when the waitress abruptly walked away with an “Oh, dear, I forgot”. Thankfully, she promptly walked back with a fresh pot of steaming black coffee and two mugs. Jennifer heaved a sigh of relief.
After they ordered, Sheriff D. Johnson finally introduced himself “David Johnson, the local sheriff”.
“Jennifer Miller”, she replied, taking a sip of her coffee. Black. As her soul.
“You’re not from around here”, he said. “Are you looking for some place in particular?”
She looked away sheepishly. Then handed him the sketch pad and the house. He looked slightly troubled and concerned as he looked at the picture the flipped open for him of a basement. As he turned the pages towards the start, he found more and more images of the house, the boathouse, and the swamp. Towards the end, the images of the women – hands tied above their heads, eyes covered with blindfolds.
He was mesmerised in horror, looking at the final images, taking in their elaborate dresses and the blindfolds.
“Where did you get these?” he asked, barely above a whisper.
“I just keep dreaming of it”, Jennifer replied, cautiously. “I was hoping you would just laugh at me or wave me off. This is where you tell me to go home and see my shrink or take a holiday before I have a breakdown.”
She looked at him, now sombre.
“Please tell me it’s not true and that this is all my imagination, some horrible nightmare.”
“I wish I could”, he whispered, letting out his breath deathly slow as the truth sank in for them both.
They sat in silence as breakfast arrived, eating without speaking, without tasting, without noticing the happenings around them.
Finally, Jennifer put her fork down. “Tell me”, she insisted.
“There was a girl, a few years back, who ran out of the swamps, screaming and crying. She was picked up a few miles down the road from here, a total mess and never made much sense at all. But, we never found anything that could point to her story being true, other than the marks on her wrists, which had obviously been tied, and she had a satin sash around her neck, that she said had been used to blindfold her.
The dress she wore – just like the ones that you’ve drawn – seemed to be a costume, a dress-up party in colonial costumes. Of course, her dress was all torn and shredded from her traipse through the swamp. Quite a mess, really. She had no idea where she had been and no reports of her being missing.
But that house, I know that house. It’s abandoned, the boathouse is falling in. A little worse off, I think, than the way you have it here in these pictures.
They say it’s haunted.
It’s owned by an old family, they built a new house and no one ever goes back to the old property any more. About 4 miles from here.
We can start there, if you think we need to.”
She moved to get her purse and ask for the bill, but he stopped her.
“I’ve got this, it’s the least we can do to give you some hospitality”.
She looked at him, and for the first time in months she smiled a genuine, if fragile, smile.
“You’re the first person that doesn’t think I’m totally crazy”, she replied.
“Oh, no. I think you’re crazy,” he corrected. “But I also think I’m crazy. I’ve spent the past six years searching for a murderer when we have no victims, no crime scene and no plausible evidence other than one girl’s sob story, without a shred of supporting evidence. So I guess we’re even.”
She finally laughed. It felt so good to laugh. Like the sun had come out after months of grey.
As they made their way out to the cars, he suggested she follow him to the police station and leave her car there.
“It’s not really appropriate for the road we need to drive on. You’ll be better off driving with me.” He motioned with his head to the Ford Explorer he had as a police vehicle. She noticed the wheels and the winch on the front, and hoped that wouldn’t really be necessary.
As she slipped into her shiny city car, Sheriff Johnson asked curiously “So, what does she do?”.
“Oh, about 0 to 60 in 7 seconds, but she’ll do a quarter mile in under 15 seconds” she responded with a wide grin. She giggled as she remembered the small modifications she’s made to the 200 hp engine, to get more out of the 8-speed dual-clutch transmission.
He looked at the car knowingly, “How many modifications have you made?”.
“Enough”, she responded, as her window closed, leaving her to accelerate out of the car park onto the main road. She had a fairly good idea of how to get back to town and where she would find the police station.
He arrived at the police station shortly after her, and motioned for her to join him inside.
“We’ll grab the file and I want to wait for a friend of mine to drive over from Gulfport to join us,” he informed her.
She looked at him quizically.
“He worked for the FBI and retired here. He was on the case when we found the girl in the swamps.”
So, she found a not-so-comfortable chair to sit down in, and waited while he took care of some paperwork and pulled the file on the case.
While she sat there, she watched people on the street outside, going about their business oblivious to the turmoil in her mind and her gut. If they knew what she saw, heard and felt, would they walk around so lightly, she wondered.
She was lost in thought, failing to notice the beat up Chevy pickup drive in, and the heavyset giant draw himself out of the vehicle. But he was impossible to miss when he stood in the doorway, blocking the sun and her view of the street outside.
He strode up to her, holding out his giant mitt of a hand “Michael Williams, former FBI special agent. You can call me Mike”, he introduced himself.
“Jennifer Miller,” she replied. “I don’t like Jen, it’s Jennifer”.
His laugh moved all the way down to his belly, and you could almost feel the vibrations of the deep tone.
“So, you have some insights into our colonial doll case?”, he asked, with a broad grin that lit up his face, all the way to his eyes.
Jennifer instantly relaxed, feeling safe. Whatever happened from here on, it was going to be okay.
As Sheriff Johnson walked out of his office, Mike asked with a twinkle “So, we are going to follow this slight 5 foot 8 brunette, who looks like she walked out of a high faluting salon, on a crazy witch hunt?”
David laughed. “Yes, that’s the plan.”
“Great”, replied Mike. “So what equipment do we need?”
Jennifer looked at the them both, took a deep breath, and whispered “Body bags?”.
Mike looked at her, face dropping with the seriousness.
“Oh, dear. If we need those, we’ll just call it in, yeah?”
He and David looked at each other for a moment, both now serious.
David walked back into his office, and came back with a shotgun, in addition to his sidearm and backup holster.
“Just in case”, he said.
The reality suddenly fell on Jennifer, and she felt the queasiness in the pit of her stomach. She swallowed as they walked out to the Explorer and hopped in the back, as the two men climbed in the front.
They drove out of town in silence, each wrapped up in their thoughts.
About three miles out of town, David turned the Explorer off the main road, onto a small side road that Jennifer had not ventured down yet. As they turned into the road, she felt fear gripping her heart, tightening in her throat.
She swallowed the bile back down, pursing her lips, making the small lines around her mouth more noticable.
Her breath was audible as she inhaled, and Mike looked back at her.
“You okay, there?” he asked.
She nodded, nauseously.
Around the next corner, David pulled the SUV onto a driveway, barely perceptible in the overgrowth. The vehicle dropped almost a foot going down into the first rut of the path, untraveled for years. But less than fifty feet onto this road, it opened up onto a driveway, broad, cobble-stoned, and lined with trees.
A few hundred feet later, the greenery opened up, and they could see the old house up ahead on a rise. Over to their right, down the hill, the boathouse, the overgrown reeds of the swamp, with waterways that had long overgrown. Behind the house to the right, the forest and swamp lay thickly, obscuring all the view.
“Where do we want to start?”, David asked her over his shoulder.
She swallowed again, tasting bile in the back of her throat, before she answered. She barely managed to whisper to him “the main house”, before flinging open the door, running to the nearest tree, and depositing her breakfast on the ground behind the tree.
She checked her boots, instinctively, to make sure she hadn’t soiled them.
As she stood up, Mike proffered a pack of baby wipes and a bottle of water. “Just take a sip and spit it out”, he suggested kindly.
She did as instructed, swirling it around her mouth before spitting, and then took another small sip which she swallowed. She wiped her mouth, putting the wipe into the garbage bag David carried in the car.
Taking another deep breath to steady herself, she looked up at the old house. It wasn’t actually that foreboding – in and of itself. It was what they would find there that made her shudder.
“Well Sheriff D. Johnson and former Special Agent Michael Williams,” she said in her perfect family lawyer voice, “let’s do what we came here to do.” Mike & David looked at each other and burst out laughing as they followed her up to the house.
She walked forward confidently. Terrified, but knowing where to go.
When they arrived at the front steps, David announced them, stating that they were entering. She hoped against all hope that the house was empty. It appeared to be so.
They entered the great hall of the entrance, and Mike looked at her quizically “Now where?”.
“The kitchen”, she responded, nodding off to the back of the house and to their right.
Once David and Mike had cleared the house, they came through with her to the kitchen, both having obviously had run ins with cobwebs. She looked at them both and asked “Did you bring lanterns or large flashlights?”
David groaned and went back to the car for them. While he was getting them, she opened the broom cupboard, and asked Mike for help removing what was in there. There, under the mess, lay an unused trapdoor. Unopened in years.
She could feel herself dry gagging now, and took another small sip from the bottle of water.
Mike and David both looked at her, and then Mike ventured “What are we going to find in here?”
“I’m not sure”, she responded, with another deep swallow. “But whatever it is, I already want to be sick.”
They both drew their side arms, and holding the torch in one hand and the pistol in the other, David motioned to Mike to open the trapdoor. With effort, he got it open, and with the morning sunlight they could see the steps leading down in to the basement.
Suddenly, the waft of stale, decaying, dead air filled the kitchen.
Unfortunately, at just that moment Jennifer had taken another deep breathe to steady her nerves. She barely made it to the sink in time to throw up the last remaining vestiges of her breakfast.
David pulled out some Vicks from his pocket, grabbing a finger full and putting it under his nose, before handing it over to Mike.
Jennifer looked at him angrily “You could have pulled that out before we opened the trapdoor!”
Mike grinned, knowingly, as he handed it to her. “You could have told us there were corpses,” he retorted.
“Argh”, was all she managed to respond. What was she to say? They were right – they had no idea what they were walking into… and neither did she. Just the screaming. Then the silence. And the whispers of “it’s too late“.
She nodded to Mike and David, as ready as she would ever be for them to descend the staircase. David, being the lighter of the two men, went first, testing the steps. They were in remarkably good condition.
No sooner, though, had he gotten down into the basement, that they heard him almost scream. Mike hurried down, and Jennifer was too scared to be left alone in the house and descended the wooden steps into her living nightmare.
There, in the darkness of the dungeon, hung the remains of five corpses. In some cases, parts of corpses, with the rest of the decaying skeletons lying on the floor below. The vestiges of five colonial gowns on each one.
The walls were decorated, if you could call them decorated, with instruments of torture. Every imaginable kind.
Jennifer felt the horror and the screaming welling up inside of her, as she scrambled back up the steps out of her nightmare, out of the house and back over to the car. Mike and David followed closely behind her.
As she sat in the safety of the car, the two men conferred, and then both got on their phones and started making calls. The first vehicle to arrive was the deputy’s, but shortly thereafter she began to hear the sound of an approaching helicopter.
She watched as the FBI agents hopped out of the chopper and came over to speak with Sheriff Johnson and Mike. It quickly became obvious that the Sheriff was handing this over to the FBI, and taking a step back.
When the coroner’s van arrived, David and Mike began conferring once more with the agents. David came back to the car, and asked whether she wanted to drive back to town or stay. He was happy to send her back with the Deputy.
“I don’t know what day we’re going to finish,” he warned.
“You mean, not tonight?” she quipped.
David drew a deep breath, and looked at her, having aged ten years in the hour since they had arrived.
“Do you think it’s worse?”, he asked gravely.
She finally confronted what she knew to be true. Sighing deeply, and moving her wispy hair out of her eyes to look at him squarely, she responded with great sadness, “This is only the start, and I hope we’re not too late”.