THE DISTURBANCE began with a rattle of curtain hooks tapping the rods on the bedroom window above my head, a sound one might hear during the course of a small earth tremor. But this was no seismic event. My heart would not have leapt into my throat had this been a mere earthquake. I have lived in Southern California for most of my adult life, and nothing the earth might do beneath my feet, short of an eight on the Richter scale, could frighten me any longer.
What this house managed to come up with to frazzle my nerves night after night, however, scared the bejesus out of me.
And I loved it.
The sound above my pillow that jerked me from my sleep was not something I had been expecting. The disturbances did not usually occur so nearby. They were always somewhere in the house but far off. Out of sight and barely within hearing. They were several rooms away or in one of the many walk-in closets, out back in the carriage house or up on the roof. Tonight’s disturbance, coming as it did within inches of my head, had me wide awake and sitting up in bed in less than a second, as stiff as a statue, wildly blinking the sleep from my eyes.
My bedroom was pitch-black and silent but for those clattering curtain hooks above my head. When the drapes were suddenly flung open by invisible hands and moonlight flooded across my bed like a spotlight, I gasped, but still I felt more exhilaration than fear. I may even have allowed a small grin to creep across my face.
When cold, damp flesh touched the side of my neck, however, I flew out from under those blankets like I was shot from a cannon. In my imagination I was out of the house, down the mountainside, and halfway to Los Angeles before my feet hit the floor. It took a moment for me to realize the eerie touch had not come from some sort of slavering, hungry creature fresh from the grave. It came from Rex, my Irish setter, who had just crawled from beneath the covers to see what all the hubbub was about and calmly pressed his damp nose to my neck by way of greeting. He had not intended to stop my heart or send me flying across the room and halfway down the hall before my brain caught up with my imagination. It had not been his intention to give me reason to wonder if I might need to change my boxer shorts.
I could hear Rex following me down the hall, his toenails clicking across the hardwood floor. Now I had done it. He would insist on a potty break, and he would insist I accompany him. I sometimes wondered if maybe Rex was afraid of the dark. At night he would go nowhere inside the house, or out of it, without me trailing along behind him.
When we first moved into this house on a picturesque mountain overlooking San Diego, I thought Rex had taken it into his head to stay at my side for protection. Faithful dog guarding beloved master. That sort of thing. It had taken me a few days to realize this was not quite the case. The protection he was insuring was for him rather than me. Rex was a coward of the first magnitude. I just never realized it until we came here.
I dropped to my knees in the hallway, and Rex walked into my waiting arms like a big red fuzzy car pulling into a garage. If I could have maintained the position, I knew, he would have been content to stand there, wrapped in my arms, until morning.
I pressed my face into his soft neck. “Coward,” I mumbled, my heart still clog dancing.
I reached up to the wall switch beside me and flipped on the hallway light. Rex and I both looked around to assure ourselves that we were alone, and in this dimension, we were. I listened for more noises from the bedroom, but all I could hear was the ticking of an old-school clock that hung on the wall above the flagstone fireplace in the music room. Whatever it was that had woken me and rattled the curtain hooks over my head was gone now, or if not gone, at least silent.
My galloping heart gradually slowed to a canter as I led Rex through the dining room and across the wide living room to the front door, where I grabbed his leash off the doorknob.
We stepped outside, crossed the veranda, and at the broad steps leading down to the driveway, Rex stopped. He would go no farther until his leash was securely snapped to his collar. This was not a matter of training on my part. Rex had picked up the habit on his own, flatly refusing to leave the house without a lifeline between the two of us. We had been separated once. He was not about to let it happen again.
Poor Rex. He really was a most profound coward. The incident with the mountain lion was the beginning of his slide to disgrace. Not that it was a real mountain lion, of course. The house had conjured it up for our amusement. Or at least, I think it had. I hoped it had. The thought of a real mountain lion roaming through the house frightened me much more than the idea of a spectral one.
Spectral, after all, was what I had come here to this mountaintop to experience, not that I truly expected to experience anything more spectral than my own imagination. But the house had surprised me. Surprised the hell out of poor Rex too. Were it not for his inability to dial a phone or leaf through the Yellow Pages, lacking opposable thumbs as he was, or even the most rudimentary of reading skills for that matter, I suspected Rex would have called for a taxi long before this and been back in Los Angeles renting an apartment before the next sunset. I seriously doubted it was his devotion to me that kept him at my side. After all, what other choice did he have? Even the most pampered pets are chained. Whither we goeth, they goeth, whether they like it or not.
His umbilicus firmly in place, Rex tugged me, still clad in boxers and nothing else, down the veranda steps to the drive.
The house was perched high in the stark San Diego Mountains. There was not another structure within three miles of the place and not another inhabited structure within five. Looking at the house now in the moonlight made me recall the first time I had seen it. I knew it was haunted, of course, or purported to be. Everyone said it was. And even though I made my living writing books that scared the hell out of people, or so I hoped, I had about as much faith in the house actually being haunted as I had in my agent giving up his percentage and opting to work on a friend-to-friend basis rather than siphoning off my hard-earned money. Like that’s ever going to happen. And neither, I suspected, would the house turn out to be truly haunted.
In that, happily, I was wrong. Happily for me. Not Rex.
DRIVING UP the long lane that wound around the side of the mountain to the house on the day of my arrival, I had expected the type of house one anticipates when seeking out ghosts. Victorian. Two-story. Towering gables and long, swooping rooflines all cast eerily in shadow, with maybe a hint of thunder and lightning booming and flashing in the background to help set the scene.
The Letters House did not resemble my mental image of a haunted house in any respect. It was not Victorian. It was not two stories, and there wasn’t a gable to be seen. It looked more like an eighteenth-century Mexican hacienda. It sprawled across the side of the mountain, tucked in among the boulders, its plastered arches and balustrades overhung with bougainvillea that brought a riot of color to the otherwise drab and sepia-toned landscape. The air, hot on the summer afternoon of my arrival, was redolent with the cloying scent of sage and desert emptiness. There were no shadows, only a scorching Southern California sun beating down on my head through the sunroof of my Toyota and shimmering off the heat-soft macadam of the driveway.
When I turned off the car, the only sound I heard was Rex, panting in the seat beside me, an insipid grin on his face. No thunder. No lightning. I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the isolation sweep over me, and when I opened them again, I was smiling. Eager as kids, Rex and I sprang from the car and set out to explore our new domain.
I loved the house from the moment I saw it.
That had been a week ago. I had learned a lot in the seven days since. First and foremost, I learned to no longer doubt the house was haunted. It was indeed. And this was a revelation to me. I had spent most of my life writing stories about the supernatural, but deep down I had never truly believed in its existence. This was no longer the case. Stick a translating device down Rex’s throat and listen to him agree with me. He would probably talk for days about the Letters House and the moronic master who dragged him here.
NIGEL LETTERS was a cornball, ham-handed actor in the nineteen twenties and thirties who never advanced beyond the B-horror-movie slot but did, amazingly enough, enjoy a modicum of success in that genre. Don’t ask me how. God knows he was about as talented as a stick of butter and just as slick. He oiled his way across the screen in a string of low-budget schlock fests, usually wearing more makeup than his leading lady and delivering his monotonal lines with all the passion of a near-comatose Kevin Costner, who in my view has never been known to stretch beyond the monotone either.
While I waited for Rex to do his business—and for a dog of very little bravery, he was certainly taking his sweet time about it—I gazed up at the heavens. The night sky seemed so close I felt I could reach up and pluck the stars from it as easily as picking raisins from a scone. Smog did not exist here. Only clear mountain air. And silence. Blessed, blessed silence.
After twenty years as a working writer, Los Angeles was finally wearing me down. Too many people. Too many bars. Too much sickness. I had had my fill of Starbucks’s latte. I was ready to get back to basics. Suddenly, Sanka sounded pretty good.
The silence on this mountain was as alien to me as unprotected sex, which was something else I would like to get back to, but that didn’t seem likely. AIDS is just as prevalent as ever. Of course, the meds are better, so now it takes you longer to die, but die you still do. Not much of a perk.
AIDS aside, I wondered if seventy years ago Nigel Letters might not have felt the same way I did. Why else would he remove himself from the klieg lights and story conferences of Hollywood and build himself a secluded castle way the hell up on the side of this beautiful, stark mountain?
Nigel Letters had died in this house. He died in the very bedroom where I now slept. His death had been just as cornball as any of his movies, the only difference being at the time of his death he was wearing more makeup than usual. He died in high drag, with a red silk scarf wrapped around his throat and tied to a hook on the wall, which slowly choked the breath from his body as he happily masturbated beneath the lovely taffeta evening gown he was wearing at the time. His body was going to fat by then, and his movie career was on the skids. Hollywood had moved beyond schlocky horror movies, and poor Nigel found himself without work.
All he had left was a sizable fortune and his hobbies, the favorite of which was apparently autoerotic asphyxiation, which by all accounts can make for some pretty impressive ejaculations, but precautions need to be taken when practicing it. On the night of his death, Nigel must have been a little careless about the precautions. His housekeeper found him hanging on the wall like a piece of art, pecker still in hand, when she came to deliver his breakfast tray.
Rumor has it the housekeeper laughed so hard upon discovering the body that she dropped the breakfast tray and broke two toes on her left foot when the coffee pot landed on them. But according to legend, even that didn’t wipe the happy grin from her face. She was still giggling like a schoolgirl when she limped to the phone to call the press. Only later would she remember to notify the police as well.
Nigel, it would seem, was not a well-loved employer.
The hook from which he was dangling when the housekeeper found him was still on the bedroom wall. Upon my arrival at the house, I used it to hang an old studio publicity shot of the man taken in his heyday, so even now, more than half a century after his ridiculous exit, the poor guy still hung from that goddamn hook, this time in top hat and cloak from an old Jack the Ripper film he starred in at about the same time Hitler rose to power. I didn’t have a snapshot of Nigel in taffeta or a Rita Hayworth wig, or I would have used that instead.
Nigel Letters may have been an unlikable putz in real life, but I had to give him credit for one outstanding accomplishment. He built this house. I was not ridiculing the man when I hung his 8x10 glossy on the bedroom wall from the very hook on which he died. I thought of it more as a tongue-in-cheek shrine. Nigel and I, after all, had a few things in common. We both plied our trade in Hollywood. We were both gay. We both loved this house. And we both, in our day, owned Irish setters. Nigel’s Irish setter, although male, was named Nancy. Somehow that didn’t surprise me, coming as it did from a man who enjoyed masturbating in taffeta.
I have always been a videophile, even as a child growing up in Indiana and before my first novel led me to Hollywood, where it was made into one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid. I have a Raspberry Award for the Worst Adapted Screenplay to prove it. None of my later novels were put on film, thank God, but by then California had its hooks in me, and I never left. But my love for movies continued. Especially bad movies. The worse they were, the better I liked them. Theoretically, my own movie should have been one of my favorites (yes, it was that bad), but perhaps I was too close to it to appreciate the reek.
So, being a lover of film, all film but my own, that is, the name Nigel Letters was not unknown to me. I had seen most of his earlier work, when he was still handsome, and I had seen many of his later films, when his jowls were more pronounced on screen than his heavily made-up eyes. And I had enjoyed them all, not for the artistry of them, but for their complete lack of artistry. Spooky pulp, I called them, but at the time of their release, that was what the audiences wanted. Stuffy British actors in creepy black-and-white period pieces was the big thing then. The scripts must have been cranked out in a matter of minutes, and not much more time spent filming them, but the popcorn-chomping populace ate them up. Today those films seem absurd, pretentious, and totally inane, but Nigel got rich making them, and by all accounts, in his youth, before his beauty had faded, the popularity of his films made Nigel Letters quite a draw with the male contingent of aspiring actors, street hustlers, gigolos, and starstruck fans that populated Sunset Boulevard during those years. Apparently when not in front of the camera, Nigel’s face spent most of its time stuck in the lap of any good-looking male he could entice into a dark corner. And he enticed quite a few, if half the stories are true.
When my agent told me that Nigel’s house in the San Diego Mountains had been put on the market, I leapt at it. When I heard the house was haunted, I leapt even higher.
And now, after only a few days of living on the property, I knew I would buy it. Rex would not be happy about my decision, but he wasn’t the one writing the checks. And like I said before, whither the master goeth….
After a decade or more of enduring the screaming pulse of Los Angeles, with its crowded streets and blaring traffic, the solitude to be found on this silent mountainside was almost breathtaking. Even nature lent very few notes to the music. Perhaps an occasional night bird could be heard, or the rustle of palm fronds from the trees beside the house when the wind whipped up the side of the mountain before a rain, but that was all. There were no people sounds. No car horns. No boom boxes. No strident voices yelling obscenities at strangers.
The only noise came from myself, from Rex, or from the house itself, or whatever it was that resided in the house with us. For I knew from the first night, as I lay in the unfamiliar bed and savored the newfound silence, that I was not alone here.
On that first night, and for many days and nights afterward, I neither saw nor heard anything to make me think that mine were not the only thoughts at play within these walls. It was just a feeling. A sense of being near something you can’t quite see. A sense that there were sounds to be heard if they were just a little louder. A sense that this house was not quite at rest. But it didn’t frighten me. There was no feeling of malevolence about it. I didn’t feel surrounded by evil. I didn’t feel like a character in one of my books.
Even later, when the disturbances began, I didn’t fear for my life. My heart might leap into my throat at a sudden sound, coming as it did from a seemingly empty room, but I felt no terror. It would startle me, and my heart would begin hammering, but not from any sense of life-threatening horror. I think the heart hammering came as much from exhilaration as anything else. I had spent my life scaring people with words on a page. Now it was my turn to be afraid, and there was nothing fictional about it. Perhaps I had been writing truths all along and simply never knew it.
For a writer of horror, the house was perfect. By the end of the first week, I could not imagine living anywhere else. I phoned my agent and set the wheels of purchase in motion. Then I phoned my friends and invited them up.
NOW, AS I stood in the moonlight in my boxer shorts and waited interminably for Rex to make the earth-shattering decision as to when and where to poop, I thought of my friends and wondered what they would think of the house and my decision to move here permanently. I suspected they would approve of the first and despair at the second, loving the house as much as I did but unable to comprehend how I could ever dream of leaving Los Angeles.
My friends. We had been an entity for more years than I cared to admit. Michael. Lyle. Frank. Stu. From various parts of the country, we had descended on LA in 1997, and somehow we had come together, drawn to each other like shreds of metal to a magnet. Everyone had slept with everyone else at one time or another. That was perhaps what first drew us together, but sex did not keep us together. Friendship did that. Friendship and love and an understanding of each other that allowed us to bare our faults, or flaunt our talents, without resentment or jealousy getting in the way.
We commiserated with each other during the low times, times we all had at one point or another as we were carving our way in the world, and we praised each other for our successes. Michael’s graduation from veterinary school and the subsequent hanging of his shingle on a small pet hospital in Van Nuys. Lyle and Frank’s marriage on a beach in Santa Monica, the only members of our little band who stayed together as lovers, now into their twelfth year and seemingly as happy as the day they swapped vows in the sand. Stu’s first hair salon with his name in neon, and a few years later, a second and third salon, all making money hand over fist. Money was never a problem for Stu. Relationships were. But he made up for it by replacing quality with quantity. There was a different man in his bed every night of the week, and like a kid in a candy store, he just couldn’t decide on the one he liked best, so he tried them all, chewing them up and spitting them out like gumballs.
My friends were there for me during the publication of my first novel, which if not for them would probably not have sold a single copy, and they were there for me during the subsequent disaster of a movie it spawned. My success only came with the release of my second novel, but I will always remember how my friends supported and praised me for the first. We were our own little fan club, adoring each other and making sure each of us knew it.
Now, with time dragging us reluctantly toward forty, the youthful blush in our cheeks has perhaps faded, our faces appearing a bit wiser and less eager in the bathroom mirror in the mornings when we shave, but our zest for life has not diminished. Nor has our devotion to each other. I have very little patience for anyone else in the world, but for my friends there is always an opening in my mental appointment book. We offer little to anyone else, but to each other, we offer everything.
By leaving Los Angeles, I was forming the first breach in our communal front on the world, and I knew my friends were not happy about it. No longer would we all be minutes away from each other. By taking up residence more than a hundred miles away, I would undoubtedly be viewed as the first rat to abandon the ship. I could only hope that after inspecting this house and learning to love it as much as I did, they would come to understand why I chose to live here. Friends, after all, are chained to us as securely as our pets, or should be if they are truly friends. A little distance shouldn’t make a difference.
As I stood in the moonlight with the warm evening breeze blowing across my body and watched Rex finally squat to do his business, all I could do was hope that my friends would see my desertion in the same light as I did. Perhaps the house would convince them. It wanted me to stay. At least, I thought it did. At any rate, it hadn’t tried to kill me yet. Not really.
Looking up at the house from where Rex had led me down the sloping driveway, I saw a curtain move. I had left the front door open when Rex and I stepped outside, so it might have been the night breeze that fluttered the fabric. But I knew instinctively it was not. The house watched us constantly. It was something I had grown accustomed to in the time I had been there. From that very first day, when the house was still new and exciting to me, I had sensed a welcoming presence as I moved from room to room and explored my new domain.
It was a large house, containing fifteen rooms, beautifully constructed with rounded ceilings and wide stone fireplaces scattered around. The teak flooring was polished to a lovely deep brown, almost black. It gleamed underfoot like dark, still water. The sound of my footsteps echoed through the house on that first day, and I could imagine the house soaking up the sounds of life, which had so long been absent, and I immediately felt at home, as if my entire life had been leading me to this one destination.
I felt welcome.
Even later, when I came to realize that I was not the only resident, that sense of welcome did not diminish.
From the first moment I stepped inside the door, the house seemed to envelope me in its arms, making me feel at home. Making me feel needed. But it was a dangerous need, for there was a threat inside this house as well, although I did not consider the threat to be directed at me. Rex would probably argue that point. He had been uncomfortable and wary of the house from the beginning.
But all this I would only come to realize later, after I had spent a few days and nights inside the walls of this splendid house tucked against this barren, magnificent mountain. In fact, it happened only after I had determined to buy the place, which in retrospect occurred about two minutes after I set foot inside the front door.
The house was still furnished with Nigel Letters’s old belongings. Clunky art deco furniture, recently uncovered and cleaned. Cherrywood cabinets, buffed to their highest sheen. Windows and french doors rendered spotless, allowing the Southern California sun to pierce the house like rays of blessed light penetrating a cathedral. The dark teak flooring shone beneath my feet like obsidian. The Realtor had been true to her word when she told my agent the house would be ready for me. It was indeed. It looked as new as the day it was built, over seventy years earlier.
I could almost hear it breathing.
A circular breakfast room, lined with leaded windows and boasting a high cupola ceiling, jutted off the southeast corner of the house. On my arrival it was the only room unfurnished. Built-in bookshelves lined the walls beneath the windows, freshly painted but empty of books. Ornate art deco wall sconces and a brass chandelier supplied the lighting after the sun went down, but during the day the sunlight streamed in from every angle. To me, it was the most beautiful room in the house. Here I would write. Here, with my books filling the shelves and my computer humming to life on a broad cherrywood desk I found tucked away in a corner of one of the bedrooms, I would spend most of my time.
I should have known it was more than coincidence that the only room completely empty was the one I would most need and most love. It was as if the house already knew me, knew what I would require, knew what would make me happiest. This room was a housewarming gift from the house itself, and I immediately went to work preparing it.
Even before my clothes were unpacked, I had scooted a couple of Indian-print throw rugs under the legs of the massive desk and tugged it down the long hallway, across the dining room, and into the breakfast room, placing it at an angle in the center of the room directly beneath the brass chandelier. I found a red armchair in one of the other bedrooms and placed it behind the desk. Then I unloaded my computer from the trunk of my car, situated it on the desk, and hooked it up. With a stack of fresh, white paper placed neatly beside it, I had everything I wanted.
All I needed to do was send for my books. My own furniture, sitting unused back in LA in my tiny one-bedroom condo, I would either sell or put in storage. I needed nothing more than what the house already offered.
I pulled out the red chair, tucked my legs beneath the wide desk, and stared at the desert landscape outside the breakfast-room windows. I could see for miles down the slope of the foothills, with nothing man-made to mar the view. No buildings, no automobiles, nothing. Nothing but pure unblemished landscape.
Now I felt at home. For the first time in years, I was uncrowded, free. With the house for protection and Rex for companionship, I would be content. I could write here without interruption, for hours on end. Day after day.
My fingers itched for the keyboard.
From some far-off corner of the house, I heard the tinkle of broken glass. A fragile sound. Rex, standing beside my chair, perked up his ears and tensed. A soft whimper emanated from his throat as he gazed at my face with his big brown eyes.
I pushed myself away from the desk and with Rex at my heels, set off in search of the source. Something must have fallen. Perhaps we had mice.
We roamed from room to room, searching for the cause of the sound, but we never found it. Soon the incident was forgotten in the bustle of moving in.
The clothes I had brought with me were neatly hung in the deep walk-in closet in the master bedroom. Nigel’s room. I knew it the moment I saw it. Sturdy mahogany furniture filled every corner. Brass fittings sparkled in the sunlight pouring through the bedroom windows. A four-poster bed stood at attention against the wall, cradling the thickest feather mattress I had ever seen. When I laid my hand on it to test the softness, it all but disappeared in the folds of the chintz bedspread that covered the bed.
The feather mattress would have to go. Allergies. I measured the bed and, digging out my cell phone, ordered a firmer mattress to be delivered the following day—after a five-minute discussion with the clerk as to how to find the house. The feather mattress I rolled into an awkward bundle and hauled off to a distant closet. I doubted I would be getting much sleep tonight anyway. I was too excited. If I had to, I would crash in one of the other bedrooms for the night. Sleep and I were infrequent companions anyway. I did most of my writing at night. How else should horror stories be written?
I admired the heavy, dark bedroom furniture for a long time, standing in the center of the floor, the mattressless bed beside me. The room was large. Massive by LA condo standards. A door to the left led to a walk-in closet. Another door to the right led to the master bath, with sunken tub and tall art deco statuettes standing in every corner like sentinels, slim male figures, nude, their right hands reaching upward to cradle crystal globes. I flicked the light switch on the wall, and the globes came to life, emitting soft, velvety light throughout the room. A flattering light. The sort of light an aging movie star would relish. I glanced at myself in one of the full-length mirrors that ranged across the wall and realized I was rather partial to that light myself. I looked pretty darn good in that fuzzy light. Nigel might have been a first-class asshole, but he had taste. I had to give him that.
On that first day, as I left the bathroom, my eyes were drawn to the one thing in Nigel’s bedroom that seemed out of place: a large hook, like a hay hook, attached to the wall facing another full-length mirror on the opposite wall. With a sharp intake of breath, I realized that this was where Nigel had met his less than illustrious end. He had been hanging from that hook when the housekeeper found him, still draped in taffeta, with his cock in his hand. I found myself wondering if, after the life was choked from his body and the blood no longer churning through his system, settled, he might have maintained his erection even after death, like King Tut, whose royal penis was embalmed for all eternity in a happily erect state. Of course, unlike Nigel Letters, young King Tutankhamen wasn’t pounding his pud at the moment of his death, or not that we know of.
I spun on my heel and stalked off to one of the other rooms in the house I had explored earlier. In my mind I had dubbed it the ego room. Here I had found dozens of framed photos of Nigel Letters from his heyday. Publicity snapshots and stills from his many movies adorned the walls. There were no other decorations in the room, only Nigel’s handsome face peering out from photo after photo. And they were all pictures from his younger years. There were no sagging jowls or puffy eyelids anywhere in evidence.
I plucked one from the wall, a still from the Jack the Ripper film I mentioned earlier, and carried it back to the bedroom, where I carefully hung it from the hay hook on the wall, taking a moment to position it squarely. Nigel was back in the place where he had apparently spent so many happy hours whacking off, until the night he got careless and suddenly found himself whacking off in the afterlife.
It seemed a fitting memorial to the man who’d had the bad taste to die the way he had but still possessed the good taste in life to build this marvelous house.
With Nigel back where he belonged, I went back to the mundane tasks of preparing the house for life.
The kitchen was roomy and well-appointed, right down to an ultramodern microwave oven that looked like it belonged on the space shuttle and would probably take me weeks to figure out.
According to the Realtor, there had been a string of tenants inhabiting the house over the years but few prospective buyers, which seemed odd to me considering the beauty of the place. Perhaps the price tag was the main deterrent. The place didn’t come cheap. But my last book had sold well, and I had made some sound investments over the years, so I figured I could afford it. I had another novel due out in a few months. My publisher had received the final rewrites only days before and had assured me it would do well. Since he had never been wrong before, I tended to take him at his word.
Well-appointed the kitchen may have been, but the cupboards were as bare as the day they were built. The only food in the house was the box of Milk-Bones I had brought along for Rex and a dusty tin of tomato paste I found tucked away on a shelf above the refrigerator. Even Emeril would be hard-pressed to concoct a meal from that. I set about jotting down a shopping list, whistled for Rex, who had found a block of sunlight on the living room floor to take a snooze in, and headed out the door to a supermarket I had noticed a few miles away on the outskirts of San Diego.
Rex waited in the car, his nose pressed to the side window, as I spent an hour in the market, roaming the aisles, buying everything from condiments to veggies to meats to booze. Then I remembered Rex and snagged a fifty-pound bag of Alpo to top off the cart. Two-hundred dollars later, I was back on the road.
As I left the city and the car began climbing the foothills of my little mountain, with Rex’s tongue and ears flapping in the wind outside the passenger window, I found myself humming.
For the first time in my life, I felt myself heading toward a place that I truly thought of as home. I didn’t know I would be sharing that home with the others who already resided there, who had, in fact, been residing there for many years. The ones who could not leave.
That knowledge would come later. And it would alter my perception of the world forever.
MY CELL phone rang as I unbagged groceries in the kitchen on my first day inside the house.
Without preamble, a female voice asked, “Are you staying?”
“Squeeze me?” I said in a bad Mike Myers impersonation before I could stop myself. It was a habit I had long been trying to break. Movie lovers sometimes tend to pluck dialogue from their favorite films and plop them down in everyday life, with occasionally disastrous results.
The woman on the phone sounded suddenly confused, not that I could blame her. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”
“I said ‘excuse me,’” I lied.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I asked if you were staying.”
“In the house, you mean?”
“Yes.” Her voice, whoever she was, sounded more amused now than confused. “I’m asking if you intend to stay in the house. This is Caroline.”
“The housekeeper. I prepared the house for your arrival. I hope everything was satisfactory.”
I did a mental forehead slap. “Oh! The housekeeper. Yes. The house is wonderful. Spotless.”
“You didn’t find my note, did you?”
“I left you a note on the mantle.”
“I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t see it. I’m James Brandon, by the way. And in answer to your question, yes, I am intending to stay in the house. In fact, I intend to buy the house.”
“Well… I think so. It’s a beautiful house. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in the door.”
“Did you just arrive?”
I laughed. “I got here bright and early this morning.”
“And you’ve already decided to buy?”
There was a silence on the line for a couple of ticks before she said, “Haven’t you ever read any of those books you write?”
“Squee… I mean, excuse me?”
“If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t transfer any funds into escrow until you spend a couple of nights in the house. The place may seem a little different in the dark.”
“Have you ever spent a night here?”
“As a matter of fact, no. But my family has had a connection to that house for many years. My mother worked there as a housekeeper off and on over the years, and before that my grandmother worked for Mr. Letters. She was his live-in.”
“Good Lord, don’t tell me your grandmother was the woman who found him on the day he died!”
“No, but she found him the following morning.”
I had to ask. “Did she really laugh so hard that she dropped a coffee pot on her foot and broke two toes?”
Caroline’s laugh came over the line like a tinkle of bells. I could envision her now. A pretty slip of a girl, weighing in at under a hundred pounds, with pale skin and a no-nonsense outlook on life.
“I’ve heard that story before, Mr. Brandon, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.”
“She didn’t laugh?” I asked.
Caroline groaned. “Oh, she laughed all right. And she did indeed drop the tray with the coffee pot on it. But she didn’t break any toes. Only the pot.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
I could sense the woman smiling now. “The story of the broken toes rather appealed to your sense of the dramatic, didn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Brandon—”
“James. Jim, actually.”
“Jim. That story appealed to my grandmother as well. Even today, when she tells of that morning, she’ll point to the arthritis in her toes and swear it came about because of that falling coffee pot. But I’m afraid it really is just a story. It never happened.”
“Your grandmother is still alive?”
“Yes. She’s ninety-six, and her mind is as sharp as ever. Her body isn’t. She’s in a nursing home in the city. Has been there for more years than I care to remember. She could tell you things about that house….”
“She could, yes. But that’s not to say she would.”
“Well, perhaps I’ll meet her someday.”
“Perhaps.” The way she said it made me think that she was humoring me now. She got back to the purpose of the call. “When you read the note I left you, you’ll find that the reason for the note was to offer my services to you if you need someone to clean for you. Just a couple of days a week, mind you. I won’t be spending any nights there.”
Teasingly, I asked, “Are you afraid?”
“Yes, Jim, I am,” she said bluntly. “But that’s not the reason. I have a husband and child at home, and I don’t wish to spend that much time away from them. So if you need help with the house, and I should think you would, then I would be happy to help you. My rates are more than reasonable, I think.”
“I’m sure they are,” I said, roaming around the house with my cell phone to my ear, thinking of all the things that would need to be done on a regular basis if I planned to keep the house as beautiful as it was now. Without a housekeeper I would spend all my time cleaning, not writing. An unpleasant thought. I enjoyed housecleaning probably about as much as I would enjoy rectal surgery.
“And,” she added, “if there is any repair work to be done, my husband is quite handy.”
I was about as handy as Rex.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Two days a week it is.”
“I would even be willing to cook for you on occasion, if you wish. But I won’t spend any nights there. Are we agreed on that?”
“Absolutely. No nights.”
“And I must insist that when I’m there, you or someone else will always be there with me. I don’t want to be in the house alone. It may sound silly to you, but those are the rules.”
“And your rules are accepted. I spend most of my time writing, so I will always be here. If for any reason I need to be away, we’ll simply change your day. Is that agreeable to you?”
“More than agreeable. Thank you.”
We spent a few minutes discussing wages and what hours she would be willing to work, finally settling on Tuesdays and Fridays from nine to six.
With matters of business no longer hanging over our heads, the conversation took on a friendlier tone.
“When I heard it was you moving into the house I went out and bought a couple of your books.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll need the money.”
“So… did you like them?” I asked, with that familiar trepidation creeping into my voice that I had come to expect every time I asked that question of a stranger.
I breathed a sigh of relief when she said, “Very much. I can’t wait to read your next one.”
“Then you’re in luck. There’s one coming out in the fall.”
“That’s wonderful, but I don’t mean that one.”
“I’m sorry. You lost me.”
“I’m talking about the next one. The one you write inside that house.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t have a clue what that one will be about. I haven’t really thought about it yet.”
“It will be about the house, James.”
I began to wonder if Caroline, my new housekeeper, wasn’t perhaps a bit flakier than I originally thought.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Haven’t you wondered why no one has bought the house over the years?”
Miss Caroline, as I had already begun to think of her, seemed to be a fairly perceptive flake. I had indeed wondered about that.
“Well,” I said, “I assumed it was the price tag. And perhaps the remoteness of the location.”
“No, James. It’s the house itself. All those rumors about it being haunted aren’t just rumors, you know.”
“Do you know this for a fact, or are you…?”
“That appeals to you, doesn’t it, the fact that maybe the place might be haunted? Judging by the books you write, I should think that would appeal to you very much.”
Perceptive indeed. “As a matter of fact, it does. But I don’t really believe the stories, if that’s what you’re wondering. The house has a past, certainly, but all old houses do. I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, and a ghost hasn’t popped out of the armoire yet.”
“You haven’t heard any odd noises?”
“Well, I did hear the sound of glass breaking, but I racked it up to an errant mouse.”
She giggled like a schoolgirl being offered her first corsage. “Then it’s started already.”
“What has started?”
“The house. It’s testing you. Feeling you out.”
“Oh, come now. Maybe I should clean the house and you should write the books.”
Her laugh was interrupted by what sounded like a tower of pots and pans crashing to the floor.
“I have to go,” she said. “My son is rearranging the kitchen cupboards.”
“A handful, huh?”
“Several handfuls, actually.”
“You’re more than welcome to bring him with you when you work, if you wish. I wouldn’t mind at all.”
“I would mind, Mr. Brandon. I mean, James. I mean, Jim. I’ll never bring my little boy into that house.”
The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Does it really frighten you that much?”
There was a long silence before she finally answered. “Children are not safe in that house. Please remember that. Children have never been safe in that house.”
Softly, she hung up the phone, and I was left with a dial tone in my ear. The sudden silence of the house engulfed me as I clicked my cell phone shut and went about the task of putting away the rest of my groceries.
“Bit melodramatic,” I muttered to Rex, who looked supremely uninterested. “But she cleans well. That’s what counts.”
I MADE two tuna sandwiches, tossing one to Rex, who wolfed it down in less time than it takes to tell about it, and nibbled on the other one myself as I set out to really explore the property.
Miss Caroline, flake or not, had done her job well. The house, all fifteen rooms of it, was immaculate. The skillful workmanship that went into building the house was an amazement to someone who had spent most of his adult life in formula condos, erected with nothing more than speed and economy of space in mind.
Here I found fragrant cedar-lined closets, all walk-ins, each and every one of them as large or larger than my bathroom back in LA. French doors with hazy leaded windows sealed off the rooms. Built-in cupboards and bookshelves and drawers were everywhere. A grand piano stood proudly in a wedge of sunlight in the music room, the keys polished and shimmering, waiting for nimble fingers to bring them to life. After studying the photographs in the ego room, which was just an archway away from the music room, I learned that the ancient Baldwin was there for more than decoration. There were several pictures of Nigel Letters, in topcoat and tails, his dark hair slicked back from his regal forehead, with his fingers at the keys. In one, his eyes were closed, and I could imagine the music swelling around him.
I plopped myself down on the piano bench and laboriously pecked out “Chopsticks.” The acoustics in the room were good. My playing was not. I gently lowered the fallboard to cover the ivory keys to protect them from the harsh sunlight streaming through the window, and continued my exploration, Rex still following along at my heels.
The two guest bedrooms were as different as night and day. Literally. One was decorated in whites and creams and the other in dark grays and black. I began to wonder what sort of mind would think up something like that. Nigel Letters was becoming more fascinating to me by the minute.
Beside the bathroom situated next to the black bedroom, I found the practical part of the house, a laundry room with massive washer and dryer and a water heater banded to the wall, a concession enforced by state law due to the unstable tectonic plates Southern California rested on. Here I found shelves and cupboards well stocked with cleaning supplies, all the unexciting items required to keep a house livable.
The furnace was here as well, a monstrous beast with cast-iron doors like jaws, huddled in the corner, obviously placed there when the house was first built. I wondered if it still worked, then decided it must, considering all the renters the house had entertained over the years.
I left the laundry/furnace room, stepped through the kitchen and dining areas, and entered the living room. It was huge, with varnished wooden beams spanning the ceiling and a fireplace on one wall that was big enough to land a plane in. The art deco furniture, well tended over the years, still looked new. I would later learn that the furniture had spent much of its time in storage since many renters preferred their own more modern pieces to lounge around in on a daily basis rather than this overstuffed and rather pretentious art deco stuff. Personally, I liked it. It suited the house.
It took me back to that bygone era when movie stars were lords and ladies, always regal—at least in their public lives—impeccably dressed every time they stepped foot outside their royal mansions, hair coiffed, makeup perfectly applied, graceful as swans. Movie stars today are just people. When Nigel Letters reigned, they were gods. Hollywood was Mount Olympus, not a Babel of overpriced shops and drug-infested nightclubs where actors and actresses can be seen frequently falling on their faces and making asses of themselves for the paparazzi. Of course, stars in the thirties did all the ridiculous and self-destructive things that stars of the present do, but there were publicity people back then to keep it quiet.
Stars were a commodity, well protected, their foibles shielded from the movie-going public, who expected nothing less than perfection from these twenty-foot titans they watched every Saturday on the giant movie screens. Today, reality has destroyed the dream that once was Hollywood. Everyone now knows that movie stars are nothing more than regular people. Regular people who oftentimes are not smart enough to realize how lucky they are. We might still be in awe of them, but they are no longer worshipped. Not by anyone with a lick of sense at any rate.
The artwork I found scattered around the house consisted mostly of Erte´ prints and some fairly well-done paintings in a Southwestern motif, most of which displayed cowpokes and Indians in various stages of undress. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Nigel Letters was more than a little enamored of the male body. Not that I minded. I have always been rather partial to it myself.
I had a few decent pieces of art of my own hanging on the walls of my condo back in LA, and I spotted places for each and every one of them here. I would have the paintings shipped up with my books and a few other personal items that I had come to love and did not intend to live without. Other than those few well-loved possessions, I would leave the house the way it was.
I knew I was indulging myself. I spent almost every waking hour sitting in front of my computer. What use did I have for a fifteen-room mansion? I could survive quite happily with a ream of paper, an electrical outlet, and a toilet. I supposed it was my love of movies that made this house so appealing to me. And, of course, the ghosts, if that was what they were. That was a definite draw.
I intended to pick Miss Caroline’s mind the first time I had her under my roof. There were secrets in this house she seemed to know something about. It suddenly seemed likely that she might be right when she said that my next book would be about this house. Ideas were creeping into my head already, and that was always a relief. After one book is finished and another yet to be started, I am always filled with the fear that my well of imagination will suddenly dry up, leaving me a basically unemployed and unemployable middle-aged male with no discernible talents other than writing. I probably couldn’t hold down a real job if my life depended on it. Writing is all I know or care about. Without it, I might as well follow in Nigel Letters’s footsteps and hang myself from that hook in the bedroom, although I can’t see myself doing it in heels and an evening gown or whacking off in the process.
I found Miss Caroline’s note on the mantle in the living room, right where she’d said it was. When I unfolded the note, a key fell to the floor. I picked it up and read the note. After offering her services as housekeeper, Miss Caroline had added a postscript explaining that the key was to the carriage house out back. Since the house was not built in the era of horse-drawn carriages, I assumed the term carriage house was just a euphemism for garage. Nigel Letters seemed like the sort of grand personage with an overly inflated ego who would call a garage a carriage house. And I had to admit, it sort of appealed to me too. Gay men can be pretty darn pretentious at times. Far be it from me to buck the trend.
Rex was snoring like a lumberjack on the living room floor, exhausted, I supposed, from all the excitement of moving, although he hadn’t lifted a single article, so I left him there and quietly left the house.
The veranda spanned the entire side of the house, from back to front. Adirondack chairs and lounges were placed at intervals along it as one might have seen on the deck of an ocean liner back in the days of the Titanic. They too, like everything else in the house, must have been taken out of storage and returned to their original positions. They had been recently restored with fresh coats of white paint. Miss Caroline’s husband’s work, I presumed, being handy as his wife had promised.
At the back of the veranda, toward the rear of the house, a small flight of steps led down to a flagstone walk that led directly to the carriage house.
There was no lawn to speak of. Keeping grass alive on this barren mountainside would have been more trouble than it was worth. Still the area along this side of the house was beautifully landscaped with cactus and jade plants, the only plants, presumably, that could thrive in such a dry environment. The sandy soil had been recently raked into circular patterns like those seen in Japanese gardens. Large stones rested here and there to break the monotony, making the area between the main house and the carriage house a pleasant place for quiet contemplation on a day when one didn’t have anything better to do. There was even a little stone bench tucked up against the side of the house, and I wondered if Nigel Letters ever sat out here pondering the demise of his movie career or perhaps deciding what dress to wear for that evening’s autoerotic asphyxiation party.
It must have been a lonely existence for someone who was used to the fawning attention he had reaped in his youth—to suddenly find himself aging and alone so far from the Hollywood that had once looked upon him as a god. Or did he have friends who made pilgrimages here, visiting him in his seclusion? Was the house once alive with the sound of cocktail parties and laughter? Was the Letters house like a teeny version of Hearst’s mansion in San Simeon, where stars of the day came to play far from the watchful eyes of the Hollywood press, where they could let themselves go without their antics finding their way onto the front page of the trade papers, where they could unleash their baser instincts and not have to worry about some studio mogul eating their contract in front of their faces for embarrassing the glorious institution of moviemaking?
Or did Nigel Letters relish this newfound solitude? It had been his decision, after all, to move here. He must have had a reason for turning his back on Hollywood, although by all accounts, it was Hollywood that first turned its back on him. Had he come here for the same reasons I had? For simple serenity and silence? Was this house he built the fortress he needed to sequester himself from a world that, in his eyes, seemed to no longer require his presence?
Was he happy here, or did he reside within these walls in sadness? It seemed of paramount importance to me that I learn the truth. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because I had followed many of the same paths he had taken so many years ago. I wondered, suddenly, whether I too would die inside this house. Preferably after many long years of residence, of course. I had no intention of doing it this week. After all, I had just invited friends up. It would be the epitome of rudeness to die before they got here. They had only just received their invitations, for God’s sake, and knowing them, they would be highly offended by such slipshod planning. In the gay world, everything has to be just so. Especially where a party is concerned. Death is no excuse. Yes, I definitely had to stay alive at least until my guests arrived. After that, I could politely drop dead if I felt the urge to do so.
I began to wonder if perhaps the next time I rolled down the mountainside and into town, a brain scan might not be in order, or had my thinking always taken such odd twists and turns?
I decided the latter was probably the case, so I pushed everything from my mind and slipped the key into the little door at the side of the carriage house.
It became quickly apparent that Miss Caroline, in her zealous cleaning, had not wandered this far south. The air inside the carriage house was heavy with must, the earthy stench of mushrooms in dank ground. Dead air. As if the building had not been opened to the outside for a very, very long time.
The place was as dark as the inside of a pyramid, and I groped around for a light switch, finally finding one on the wall beside the door. A ceiling light blinked on and dispelled the shadows, but it did nothing for the smell.
Except for a few dusty odds and ends and several packing crates arranged along one wall, the carriage house was empty.
There were no windows. The walls were red brick. All four of them. I stepped outside and walked around to the front of the carriage house, where I saw two sets of double doors, each entryway large enough to accommodate two vehicles. Four vehicles in all. Then I returned to the little side door, stepped inside, and once again studied those four unbroken brick walls. I went back outside, mumbling to myself, and tried one of the front doors. It wasn’t locked. When I pulled it open, I was faced with the same brick wall I had seen on the inside. The small door at the side was the only access to the building. Had Nigel Letters, for whatever reason, added the inside walls after the carriage house was built? I walked around three sides of the carriage house and counted two wide double doors in the front and four windows, two to each side. Only the side door I had entered through had not been bricked up.
The back of the building rested snugly against a sheer cliff wall that protruded straight up at the back of the property to a height of perhaps eighty feet. It gleamed red in the setting sunlight. Sandstone, I thought. It was a natural wall of rock, carved by nature, not by man.
I reentered the carriage house and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips and simply stared at those four brick walls. This was a mystery of mythic proportions. Had Nigel Letters been insane? Moving closer to one of the walls, I realized the masonry was not professionally done. It looked like a homemade job. Did Nigel stack and mortar these bricks himself? And if he did, what the hell was the purpose of it? I gave my head a little shake, walked out of the carriage house, flicking off the light as I went, and closed the door behind me. I couldn’t wait to hear what Miss Caroline had to say about this. I also intended to bring the matter up with the Realtor. I might get a few thousand dollars knocked off the price of the property. After all, if I intended to use the carriage house as a garage, I would need to remove the brick walls, and not being handy like Miss Caroline’s husband, I would have to pay someone to do it.
But those were side issues. My main question was why did Nigel Letters erect those walls in the first place? I sincerely hoped I would not go to my grave never learning the answer to that question.
As I climbed the back steps to the veranda, I heard Rex raising holy hell inside the house. He barked for a few moments, then let out an eerie howl that sent the hair bristling up the back of my neck. I ran to the front door and hurled myself inside. Down the hall, I saw Rex standing in the doorway to the music room. The fur was poking straight up along the ridge of his back. He took one look at me, then turned his gaze back into the music room. His lips rose, exposing every tooth in his head. A menacing growl emanated from his throat. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was trembling.
Trying not to wet myself, I peeked around the edge of the music room door and saw—nothing. The room was exactly as I had left it a few minutes earlier. I followed Rex’s gaze, trying to figure out what he was growling at. He seemed to be focused on the piano. Then I saw it.
The keyboard lid, which I had closed earlier, was pushed back against the front of the piano, the keys once again exposed.
As I stood there staring at the keys that now looked like teeth in the wide mouth of some weird wooden beast, I heard the clear tinkle of a single high note as a velvet hammer struck a string inside the piano. The note was pure and in tune. It seemed to echo through the house, then fade away to silence.
A chill swept through me as Rex plopped his ass down on the hallway floor and looked up to see what I was going to do. So I did what any intelligent person would do. I gently slid the leaded glass door to the music room closed and patted Rex on the head.
“Let’s forget that ever happened, shall we?” Did I detect a tremor in my voice? Hell yes, I did.
Rex thumped his tail on the floor a couple of times and pushed his muzzle into my hand, as if to say ignoring what had just happened sounded like an excellent idea to him.
I motioned for Rex to follow, and he obediently trailed along at my heels as I walked to the kitchen, pulled a Milk-Bone out of the box for him, and got a beer out of the fridge for me. We stood there, each in our separate ways—him chewing, me slurping up beer—soothing our jangled nerves. The beer was gone almost as quickly as the Milk-Bone.
I thought, fuck it, and repeated the whole process again. Another beer. Another Milk-Bone. This beer went down a little slower, although the Milk-Bone disappeared just as quickly as the first, and when the second beer was gone, I dropped into the red chair in the breakfast room with Rex at my feet and clicked on the computer.
I wrote until the sun went down and Rex coaxed me outside for a walk. After Rex relieved himself in the middle of the driveway and I cleaned up the mess with a handful of Kleenex, I returned to the computer and continued to write.
The next thing I knew it was morning, and I found myself with my head on the desk, slumped and drooling, with a stiff neck and a sore back and my face stuck to a sheet of paper. Rex was nowhere in sight. I discovered him in the living room, sacked out on the sofa, with his head tucked under a throw pillow as if to say, “If this house has any more surprises for me, I’d just rather not see them, thank you very much.”
Bleary-eyed and achy, with my hair doing God knows what on the top of my head, I just stared at him in disgust. He really was a most profound coward.
I plucked the paper from my cheek with an audible pop and headed for the shower, groaning all the way, dropping my clothes like litter along the hallway as I went. Naked, I peered into the music room through the open door as I passed. The piano was silent.
It wasn’t until later, while the hot shower massaged the aches from my body, that I realized the music room door should not have been open at all.