Alice sensed a presence before she heard the noise. A soft tread followed by the squeak of floorboards. She sat up in bed and strained to listen.
Many of the locals believed the house was haunted. She didn’t believe in the supernatural. The house was two hundred years old and groaned and squeaked at all hours of the day or night. Alice was sure this was the case now, and she tried to relax.
Then she heard it again. This time it seemed to come from the foot of the stairs. She pulled the blanket up around her neck and pushed her back against the headboard. Her heartbeat quickened.
She struggled to stay calm. It was only the old house groaning in the night. No need to panic. There was nothing to be afraid of out here in the country. People here never bothered to lock their doors at night, or so she was told. She relaxed, and lay back down.
The stair creaked. There were several squeaky treads on the old staircase. Alice could tell from the sound which tread was squeaking. The noise she heard was from the second step. Someone was on the stairs!
She wanted to call out to Trent, but he was away. And it was because of Trent .that she was here in this godforsaken place. Now, when she needed him most, he was nowhere around.
Staying in the old mansion was not Alice’s idea. She had not wanted to come to the country home where Trent had been born and raised. But she went because it meant so much to Trent. She had been raised in the city where there were people all around. And lights. And activity. The idea of being isolated in a Victorian mansion, long deserted, with no other houses around for at least a mile did not appeal to her in the slightest.
Trent had managed to find the owner of the house—a retired business tycoon who never lived in it—and convinced him to let him stay in the place for the summer. The old man thought it odd, but relented when Trent had told him that he was from the Maynard family, who had owned it thirty years before.
“You’ll love it, Alice,” Trent said as they motored east on the Long Island freeway.
Alice made an attempt to reply with something approaching acceptance, but she could only manage a grunt. Trent was too busy thinking about the adventure to notice.
“God, it was a wonderful place for a boy to grow up.”
“But you’re not a boy anymore, Trent. You’re forty-five years old.”
“There’s still a boy in me. And he’s straining to get out and run through the meadow. And dip his toes in the lake. And climb the old oak tree at the edge of the woods.” Trent’s eyes had a faraway look in them.
“And remember. This will do you a world of good as well. The doctor said rest and relaxation is the best thing for your heart.”
Alice stiffened. She resented Trent’s remark. Yes, she had suffered from a heart attack three months ago. And she had to stay quiet for awhile to give her heart a chance to heal. But having Trent use it as an excuse to indulge his fantasy was not fair. She was still a young woman. She could recover without spending a summer in the country, away from friends.
“This isn’t about me,” she said.
“I know, Honey. I know. But it will be good for you.”
Watching him carefully, Alice felt herself relaxing. This meant so much to him. How could she deny him? It would only be for a summer, and if she got too lonely, she could always take the train into the city for the weekend. Besides, there was nothing she could do about it at this late date. She would make the best of it. And, she thought, maybe it would be good for their marriage which had been a little rocky lately. The usual complaint—infidelity—and the usual contrition. But the hurt remained and Alice needed a break from the routine to put it behind her. Trent assured her it was over, and coming out here to the country away from the temptation was in some measure his way of convincing her. Irene, the “other woman”, would not be around to come between them. Alice leaned back, closed her eyes, and listened to the hum of the car as it sped along the highway. Yes, she would make the best of it if it meant saving her marriage.
That was a month ago. Alice had slowly become used to the old creaky mansion with its ancient plumbing, inadequate electric wiring and a heating system that produced more noise than heat.
Still she hated it. The gloomy rooms with high ceilings and squeaking floors depressed her. The master bedroom at the head of the stairs was damp and dark, with a four poster bed that belonged in a horror movie. The cold wooden floors were worn and rough. The tiny window was barely large enough to let in a few rays of morning sun.
It was here in the master bedroom where Alice was trying to sleep when the noises occurred. She was alone in the house. Trent had gone on a fishing trip and would be away overnight. She had objected to this, but Trent had gone anyway, indulging another boyhood activity.
Another creak on the stairway. Alice’s fright turned to panic. She wanted to run, to hide. But she couldn’t leave the bedroom without being seen by whoever was out there. She tightened her grip on the blanket, a reassuring if futile gesture. It offered nothing in the way of protection.
The squeaking tread was the tenth one. There were eighteen steps on the old winding staircase. She waited for the thirteenth, a chirping, almost musical sound. Now it became the sound of impending doom
Who was there? And what did he want? She had very little money and no jewelry to offer. She had left all of her valuables in the city.
The creak of the thirteenth step sent a chill down her spine and she gasped for breath. Her heart, still weak from her attack, beat furiously. The pounding in her temples was almost unbearable. Frozen with fright, Alice pushed harder against the wall. She looked frantically about the darkened room, hoping to find something she could use for a weapon. A few small perfume bottles on the dresser and a book on the nightstand were the closest things to weapons in the room.
The closet! She could hide in the closet. Of course the intruder would be certain
to look there if he was searching for Alice. But in her state of mind any hiding place was better than the bed.
She threw the covers aside and ran to the closet. Closing the door silently, she cowered in the corner, hiding behind the clothes. She was certain the intruder could hear her beating heart. And she was afraid, too, that in its weakened condition her heart would fail.
She strained to listen. The sound of footsteps, heavy and slow, reached her through the closed door. She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them to her with trembling hands.
The footsteps grew louder, a slow, ominous tread on the thin carpet. Alice pressed her trembling body harder against the rear wall, hiding as best she could behind the clothes. She wanted to cry out, to scream. But she forced herself to remain quiet, hoping that the intruder, whoever it was, would take what he came for and leave.
Suddenly the door to the closet swung open. A silhouette, large and indescribably threatening, loomed in the doorway.
Alice put a fist to her mouth, bit into her knuckles and screamed. She threw her legs out in front of her, landing a blow with her foot to the knee of her attacker. He grunted and reached out, holding her leg in a strong, hard grip that sent a wave of pain through her body. She flailed wildly. Her fingers raked the skin of the man’s arm. He stepped back, still holding her leg, and dragged her from the closet. Her weakened heart was racing furiously, threatening to burst through her chest. She struck out once again and her fingers ripped through the flesh of her attacker’s left arm. He flinched, dropped her leg and took both of her arms in a fierce unyielding grip. She screamed again, louder than before. Then, her weakened heart unable to withstand the fright and rush of adrenaline, stopped beating.
The figure stood over her body for several seconds. The silence of the room was broken by the brush of a branch across the small window.
Finally, the figure knelt down and put his head against Alice’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. He cradled her lifeless body in his arms, lifted her from the floor and put her on the bed. No longer moving stealthily, the figure hurried to the bathroom, soaked a washcloth in hot water and returned to the bedroom. He scrubbed Alice’s right hand, making certain that any trace of blood from the scratching was removed from her hand and under her fingernails. He dabbed the washcloth on his arm where ugly scratches were oozing blood. Then, covering her with a blanket, her head on the pillow, her arms at her side, the figure stepped back and studied her carefully. She looked peacefully asleep. Satisfied that everything was in order, he closed the closet door, took a final look around the room, and left.
Somewhere in the night an owl hooted.
* * *
“Heart attack, I’m certain,” the small man said. His sad eyes and downturned mouth were fitting characteristics for his profession—coroner of the township of Ardmore. He straightened up, mopped a bead of sweat from his forehead and turned to Trent. “We’ll perform an autopsy, of course. It’s the law in a situation like this. But given her history…” he paused, letting the sentence finish itself.
Trent was the picture of despair, sitting on the tattered sofa in the living room, his red rimmed eyes staring straight ahead. He gave no indication that he had heard the man. A uniformed officer stood in the doorway, arms crossed, a shock of gray hair protruding from under his cap. Only his eyes moved, silently surveying the room. Two white coated men appeared carrying a stretcher. They disappeared up the stairway while Trent watched with vacant eyes.
The coroner turned to the police officer. “As soon as my men deliver the body I’ll be out of here. No need to intrude on Mister Maynard any further.” He mopped his forehead again, gave an almost imperceptible nod to Trent, and started for the door.
“Again, my condolences,” he said.
Trent stared at the floor. “It’s all my fault,” he said. “I never should have left her alone. I could have gotten her medical aid if only…”
“I think not,” the coroner said. “From all appearances she died peacefully in her sleep. She had made no effort to get up. You would have never been aware that she was having an attack.” He placed a hand on Trent’s shoulder and patted it sympathetically.
“Do you think so?” Trent said. “I hope you’re right. I could never forgive myself otherwise.”
“Sir?” one of the white coated men called from the head of the stairs. “Would you come up here, please?”
The coroner looked from the stairway to Trent, shrugged and went upstairs.
Trent watched the little man with a worried frown. He paced back and forth in front of the sofa, stopping from time to time to glance at the stairway.
Finally the coroner emerged and descended the stairs. The sympathy that had filled his eyes was gone, replaced by a dark thoughtful look.
“Troubling,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Trent asked. “What’s the matter?”
The coroner didn’t answer. He pulled a small notepad from his coat pocket and scribbled a few notes with the stub of a pencil. Putting it back in his pocket, he looked to Trent.
“Your wife apparently was in a sort of struggle recently. There are bruises on her legs and arms, probably from being held forcibly.”
“Bruises?” Trent said dully. “I don’t understand. How can that be?”
“There’s more,” the coroner said. “Her right hand had been washed, but not her left. Isn’t that a bit odd? Who washes only one hand?”
Trent stared at the coroner, but said nothing.
“Her left hand has traces of fabric on it. I believe it is from the carpet in the bedroom. We’ll have to have it analyzed, of course.”
“But…” Trent started.
“And one more thing,” the coroner went on. “There are drops of blood on the sheet, but there are no cuts on the deceased.” He jotted another note, then looked at Trent. “I decided to investigate a little further. I found a few more drops of blood on the floor in front of the closet. New blood, not more than a few hours old.” He closed the notebook and slipped it in his back pocket. “It seems as though someone was here last night, in the bedroom, struggling with your wife. I’m certain of it.”
Trent sat down hard. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Who would want to kill her?
We don’t even know anyone around here.”
“Anyone from the city who might have followed you?”
Trent shook his head. “There has to be some mistake. She had a bad heart. Everyone who knew her was aware of that. She died in her sleep. I can’t believe she was murdered.”
The coroner studied Trent carefully, his fingers playing a tattoo on the coffee table. He shook his head and sighed. “Oh, the cause of death was heart failure, I’m sure. That will be substantiated by the autopsy. But the heart attack was brought about by a terrifying experience. She was literally scared to death.”
Trent twisted in his chair. “There has to be some mistake.”
“No. No mistake. She was attacked and the trauma killed her.” He watched while the two men carried the stretcher from the house, the body covered with a white sheet. Trent, standing next to the coroner, let a sob escape from his lips and put a hand to his forehead.
“Scared to death,” the coroner repeated, shaking his head. “No weapon. Just fear. The perfect crime. Unless, of course, the victim fights back.”
He looked at Trent intently, his eyes narrowed to slits.
“There will be an investigation, of course, since foul play is almost certainly involved.” He turned away, a sardonic smile on his lips. “If I were you, Mister Maynard, I would hire a good lawyer.” He nodded in Trent’s direction. “You would want someone competent enough to explain the scratches on your arm.”
Trent’s eyes widened and he instinctively touched his left arm. “How do you know that?” he said. “I have a long sleeve shirt on.”
The coroner nodded. “Yes, you do. And in this heat.” He took out his handkerchief and mopped perspiration from his forehead. “Besides,” he added, “there’s a trace of blood on the sleeve. Scratches often bleed for hours. You should probably get some medical attention. After you retain a lawyer, of course.” He shook his head. “Naturally, the DNA from the blood we found will be pretty convincing. Modern forensics makes it difficult for the criminal these days. I’d get a good lawyer, a very good lawyer.” Placing his hand to his forehead in a mock salute, he stepped outside.