Dead Zone (Short Mystery)
The old Ainsworth Mansion had been on the market for decades. Local superstitions and talk of ghosts chased potential buyers away long before real estate agent Parker Frost moved to this god-forsaken town. He followed the old woman from one large dusty room to another. She blathered on in a loud, high-pitched voice about how perfect it was for the bed and breakfast she had planned. It didn't take long for her voice to get on his nerves. When he finally realized she was hard of hearing, he made it a point to nod or say something when she looked at him. Her plans to promote this place as a haunted B & B actually impressed him. If Parker played his cards right, he'd land the deal and get the old bag to sign the contract right here, before Harry Ford realized he'd snatched another client out from under his nose.
The thought of Harry showing this woman around the property almost made Parker laugh. He imagined the two of them shouting at each other and misinterpreting what each said. Harry was too stubborn to get a hearing aid. His loud conversations carried through the thin office walls and made it easy to pick off potential clients like Ms. Beatrice who now insisted he call her Aunt Bea as she headed up the steep stairs.
Parker had to handle this deal carefully. Harry had threatened to go to the Board of Realtors several times, but so far Parker's innocent act left Harry red-faced and apologizing. This time might not be quite so easy. Since the real estate crash, a cash deal like this one didn't come along every day.
Parker followed "Aunt Bea" up the stairs. She talked about Confederate ghosts haunting this place. Dim light filtered through the boarded window at the landing above them. He focused on the steep stairs and noted the lady's shoes. They reminded him of shoes the nuns used to wear at St. Catherine's. She had quite a set of clodhoppers. When they got to the top of the stairs he'd work around her and take control.
"…protecting Confederate gold," she said as they stepped onto the second floor landing.
He held out his cell as a flashlight to get her attention, but her words distracted him. "Confederate gold?" He swiped his sleeve across his forehead. His cell illuminated four identical doors in the second floor hallway as he worked to catch his breath. The woman nodded and started up the stairs toward the third floor. Parker cursed inwardly, but listened to her with renewed interest.
"The Confederate treasury was bushwhacked as it was moved out of Richmond."
Parker glanced at his phone. Still no signal. He regretted leaving his car back at the office. After this workout, he didn't feel much like hiking back to the road to call a cab, but at least Harry wouldn't suspect he was here closing another deal.
The old lady did have a good idea, he had to admit. Coming up with a story like lost gold and ghosts could work, even in this town. The old place did have a reputation.
The woman stopped at a single wooden door at the top of the stairs. "If you can help me find the way into the secret passageway, you have yourself a deal Mr. Parker…or would this be Mr. Harry's deal?"
Parker kept the surprise from his face with practiced ease and diverted the question. "How are you so sure there is a passageway or gold?"
She reached into the right pocket of her skirt and extended a gold coin in her thick fingers. "My father gave me this. His father helped build this place. He's the one who told the SOBs that took the money that they could hide the money here."
Parker pinched the coin between his index finger and thumb and studied it under the light of his cell. It looked genuine. "If they knew the gold was here, why didn't they take it?"
The glare of the cell bounced off the woman's glasses as she looked him square in the face. "Because Mr. Parker…the ghosts are real, too. My granddaddy showed those men this was the perfect place to hide the money and rest for a while. Stories say this turned out to be their final resting place."
It sounded hokey, but Parker flattered her for her entrepreneurial finesse.
"If I find the passageway or gold, I'll be able to sell the fact that the ghosts are real. Ghost hunters will flock here. You help me prove that, and I'll buy this place." She held out her hand, and he dropped the coin into her palm. "I'll have this framed and hung on the wall." She slipped it into her pocket.
Parker opened the door. "I help you find the passageway, you buy the house. It's my deal…not Harry's?"
Parker stepped into the windowless room shining his cell. This deal was almost as good as done. Soft light drifted over a heavy desk and chair coated in dust. The light picked up recent footprints. The woman followed his gaze. "Harry couldn't handle the ghosts."
Parker's blood boiled. "You mean Harry has already been here and shown you the house?" That could change things legally, if Harry wanted to fight the deal.
"I offered him the same deal I'm offering you. He ran out of here like he'd seen a ghost."
Parker laughed. His heart pumped faster at the thought of finding a pile of gold. The old lady didn't realize she would have no claim on the bounty. He could pocket some of it and report the finding…maybe get a finder's fee. His mind started spinning ways to make it his.
"It's not so much a passage as a room; they used it to hide things. There's only one way in and out, and it's in this room."
Parker moved old books on the shelves and stomped to find a loose floorboard. Nothing. He bent to check out the fireplace and moved to investigate the hearth. His fingers tested each brick. He changed the cell to his right hand while his left hand fingered bricks along the corner. His heart pounded when a brick near the floorboards moved. He worked it loose. Behind it, a small lever opened the wall to the right on a pivot. "I did it." Parker rushed to the opening and shined his cell. He glanced at the display.
"My battery is getting low. We won't have light for much longer. Stay here and I'll check it out." He didn't wait for her reply but hurried into the room. Various antique pieces cluttered the musty room, but the satchel stuffed into the corner caught his attention. He knelt beside it and set his phone on the floor as he fumbled with the buckles. He stretched it open. Dim light glittered across gold coins. Adrenaline pumped and his mind raced. He stuffed his hand into the bag.
"What have you found?" Aunt Bea stood at the threshold. He looked up at her like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Owww!" Something sharp bit into his finger. He pulled out his hand and sucked the wound.
"You found the gold?"
Parker paid no attention to the obnoxious woman. His finger burned like fire. He lifted the cell and shined it into the bag. A scorpion skittered from the bag and onto the floor.
"My, my, Mr. Frost. It looks like you found the gold and a little something extra."
Pain climbed from Parker's finger up his arm. "I need to get to the doctor." He stood.
"Not to worry," Aunt Bea smiled. "Most scorpion bites aren't fatal. However, that little critter belongs to the Buthidae family."
Parker stared at the woman. "What?"
"The Buthidae family." Aunt Bea ran her hand over the top of her head and pulled off her hair and finished the sentence in a strong masculine voice. "That little guy is among the most poisonous to humans, but everything will be okay as long as you get to the hospital quickly. She slipped off her thick glasses.
Parker stared in disbelief. "Harry?"
Harry smiled at Parker and said, "Perhaps we should call 911…oh but wait. No signal out here. We're in a dead zone. Quick! Jump in your car and get to the hospital! Oh, for some reason your car isn't here. I guess that means you better get walking before the fever…the confusion…the convulsions and increased heart rate set in. You wouldn't want to get turned around in the woods."
"Harry." Parker stumbled forward and grasped Harry's blouse. "Help me."
Harry shrugged and smiled. "Sorry, no can do. My car is back at the office, too."
"You…you bastard. You brought me here to kill me."
Harry waggled his finger in Parker's face. "Correction. You came here to swindle me again. Now you better get going, if you hope to get help in time."
Parker's stomach flip-flopped as he snatched his phone from the floor. "I'm going to report you. You won't get away with this."
He hurried out the large wooden door, down the stairs and out of the house. The pain…he'd never felt anything like it. His eyes teared uncontrollably as he focused on his phone. Still no signal. He rushed through the tangle of weeds growing up through the gravel drive. If he could just make it a quarter mile, he'd be able to dial 911. He ran until he couldn't run. His body felt shaky and hot. His right arm had become useless and numb. He held his phone in his left hand. His heart slammed against his ribs. "Please, please…give me a signal." As if in answer to his prayer, the phone picked up a signal. "Yes!" He dialed 9-1—The phone shut down. The battery was dead.