A solicitor tries to help a young widow sell her remote farmhouse, but begins to suspect that she carries a dark secret.
Narrated by Rebecca Gambino-Harris
Written and produced by Doryen Chin
Sensitivity Reader: Auden Granger
"Shadowlands 1 - Horizon"
"Shadowlands 2 - Bridge"
"Shadowlands 4 - Breath"
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Transcript and Content warnings under the cut:
[content warning: suicide mention, medical abuse, misogyny]
My name is Jennie Greengold. The date is June 11th, 1914. This record is for the use of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office in order to satisfy the subpoena served to my employer, Vandenberg Titles and Holdings. On April 8th our client, Sarah Hoffmoor, contacted us by post for the purpose of selling the estate in which she lived with her late husband, Alister. Built by Alister himself, the house stands on parched farmland in the far southeast of the county. Chosen, no doubt, for its isolation and bucolic landscape. Since his passing, Sarah survived there alone these eight long years with no neighbors and scant visitors to speak of. No matter what else is true, the bad business which ended Alister’s life cannot hold a candle to what came after.
I left by train the following morning to appraise the property and finalize the contract. I inquired at the station for a driver and finally found one who was willing to make the two-hour trip. None with whom I spoke at the station or the driver pool had heard of the estate, and not many had the need to head out that way for the lack of steady clientele. We arrived at the estate at just past six in the evening when the sun had begun to set behind the hills which lie on the western edge of the property. The first sign that something was wrong was that the front gate of the property was absolutely overgrown with weeds. The bottom crossbeam was so thoroughly caked in dried mud that it was obvious no one had crossed its barrier in some months. With no other way around the long fence that bordered the property, I was forced, with the help of my driver, to mount the fence and pass my luggage along over the top once I was across. He declined to help me carry it to the house.
Dragging my luggage along the neglected path toward the front porch, I had to bend down to avoid the branch of a large tree which hung ponderously in my way. It occurred to me that some time ago, a storm had likely wrenched the limb away from the trunk but had not finished the job. It would have to be cleared before the house could be viewed, that was for certain. Once I had navigated the limb and brambles I was at last able to take a clear look at the house. From previous examination of the architectural drafts kept in our offices, I had known roughly what to expect. The primary residence would be a two-story building with six bedrooms, a full kitchen, parlor, and study. Below ground, I expected to find some iron contrivance for the heating of water and what must by now be a nearly empty food cellar. However, upon my approach, it became obvious to me that at least a few changes had been made either during construction or afterward. I noted that in addition to a gardener, I should have to hire a carpenter to inspect the modifications. Wary from my long journey, I was perhaps too eager to notice much else was wrong.
It is our policy to keep photographs of all of our clients on file in order to prevent fraud and provide peace of mind. It is because of that policy that I had an idea of Sarah Hoffmoor’s appearance despite never having met the woman. The portrait, which I believe may be the only one of her in existence, was taken at Sarah and Alister’s wedding. In it, Sarah sits in a small chair with her hands crossed upon her knee and Alister behind; his right hand holding her left shoulder. Neither of them is smiling. The face which appeared in the doorway after several minutes of knocking was only recognizable by the unusual angle at which her thin nose turned upward. The intervening years had obviously not been kind. Her cheeks once plump and lively had been hollowed, and a sharp crease had formed between her brows, giving her a permanently worried look. She seemed surprised to see me there on her doorstep.
I told her that my office had received her letter and that I was sent to begin the process of preparing the house for sale. Puzzled, she told me she did not remember ever sending any letter. Her confusion turned to dismay as I produced the copy I had kept with her file, which she read several times while we stood there in the shadow of her doorway. Satisfied with its authenticity, she returned it to me and reluctantly stepped aside to allow me into her home. I waved to the driver, who was watching from the road as we had agreed, and he drove off. Passing through that portal, I felt a chill as her little eyes, sunken and watery, slid over me. Clutching my belongings close to my person, I was wary not to accidentally touch the woman. It was then that I first became aware that I was afraid.
She sat me in the parlor then disappeared into the kitchen to fetch some tea. While I awaited my host’s return, I took out my notebook and began to make some general observations about the state of the home in an attempt to calm my nerves. What little decor there was seemed as if it had not been touched in ages. A thick blanket of dust muffled nearly every exposed surface. The mantle over the fireplace was blackened with soot, the remains of the last fire now cold and dusty like everything else in the room. My gaze fell at last upon a set of odd horizontal marks on the floor before the fireplace. They were so faint that had I not been so desperate for diversion, I might not have seen them. Barely visible on the wooden floorboards, they spanned across the short distance from the hearth to the area rug, seeming to continue underneath. My interest piqued, I got to my feet and took a poker from the rack. Using the hooked end, I carefully peeled back the rug from the floor. Due to the rug being pinned beneath the sofa and the edge of a heavy desk, I was unable to pull it back very far. However, in the brief glimpse that I was given, the markings did appear to continue for a ways further beyond what I could see. Just as I was contemplating the difficulty of moving the sofa myself, I was shocked by the sound of a terrible scream from another room nearby followed by a shattering crash.
I froze where I stood, my face hot, ears prickling. I called out to Sarah, asking if she was hurt. There came no response. Feeling suddenly alone and very far from aid, I gripped the poker more firmly in my hand and stepped as quiet as I could toward the source of the disturbance. I entered the kitchen to find a glass sugar bowl shattered on the tiled floor, its contents spilled in a copious pile where it fell. Across the kitchen, the back door flapped in a gust of wind and I saw that it was unlatched. As I was gathering to call out again, the door was pulled open from the outside and Sarah entered cradling a heavy bag of sugar under her arm. She let out a yelp of surprise when she saw me standing there, which quickly turned to laughter as she set the sugar on the counter. While I helped her sweep up, she explained that the wind had blown the shutters against the side of the house and the clatter of it made her drop the sugar bowl. I thought it better not to mention that I do not normally take my tea with sugar in it.
Once her nerves were settled, she apologized again and said that she did, in fact, send the letter, but did not expect such a quick response much less to find a stranger on her doorstep. Noting the volume of my luggage, she was concerned at how long the appraisals might take. Upon learning that my business here might last upwards of a month, she became visibly distressed and asked where had I found lodgings so near for such a duration. I was then forced to admit that it was my intention, if it were alright with her, to remain on the premises at least until the contract of sale was finalized. The blood somehow drained even further from the face of the pale wretch before me, but she did not faint or fade. It was more like she had become stone for the briefest moment and when she returned, her voice was flat and without emotion. She said that the house had not seen guests in many years, though there is plenty of room. She reiterated that last part. Plenty of room. Then asked, in that same flat tone, would I mind sleeping in one of the children’s rooms? “The ‘children’s’ rooms?” I asked, confused because as far as I knew, she and Alister had not had any before he passed. She nodded and asked me if I’d like to see them. At a loss for any reason I should say ‘no,’ I nodded back. She stood at once and stepped out of the kitchen without another word. I followed.
Sarah led me up the narrow stair to the second floor, where the master bedroom and three others were. The chill of the lower floors was lesser here, as if all the warmth of the house collected and pooled at the top of the stairs. Sarah indicated to me that the room at the very far end of the hall belongs to her and Alister. “Belongs.” She said that. If she noticed my surprise at her use of the present tense, which I remember with spectacular clarity even now, she did not show it. She then led me to a neighboring door and opened it, allowing me to look inside. I don’t know what ghoulish scene I expected to find when I peered in, but there in that room, I found only a small bed and some meager child-sized furnishings. It became apparent to me right away that whatever this room was for, and I had my suspicions, that I would find no children living in the house. She asked me if this was adequate for my needs and I said that it would be more than enough. Then I foolishly joked that if I grew tired of it, I would just sample the other rooms until I found one I liked. She did not laugh. I quickly apologized and excused myself to retrieve my luggage from the parlor.
By the time I had situated all my belongings upstairs and changed out of my traveling clothes, the sun had already gone down. In the dark, I observed that what little warmth had gathered in the house seemed to have vanished with the sun. Outside the window of my room, I could make out no sign of other life. No lights of the city. No beams of a carriage on the road. Shortly after sunset, a thick ceiling of brume had rolled in, blotting out the stars. Night had utterly swallowed the house, and me in it. The smell of cooking food drew me back to my senses and temporarily silenced the nascent unease growing in my stomach.
For dinner, Sarah served me a portion of what she had been planning to eat herself, a soup made from chicken bones and a stale loaf of unremarkable bread. I offered her some money in return for the meal and lodgings, but she declined to accept it. I quietly decided it would be prudent to restock her stores at least a little while I was here, plus some extra for the inconvenience of my stay. In the morning, I would have the driver take me to the market on the way back from town.
While we ate, I was eager to learn more about her life here on the estate but did not wish to upset her by prodding too deeply into topics which may still be sore. So instead I adopted the frame of a buyer who was interested in purchasing the property. Via this line of questioning, I was able to ascertain that food was delivered by a volunteer from a nearby church on a monthly basis. It wasn’t much, mostly leftovers from their collections for the homeless and destitute. The surrounding farmland had, as far as she knew, not been touched since Alister’s passing. After he died, the workers had all moved on to find better business elsewhere. They did not much seem to care for the idea of working for a lonesome widow.
When it came to the topic of alterations to the plan of the home, the conversation finally faltered. Sarah claimed to be ignorant of any changes in construction or design from the registered blueprints of the final building. I told her that the plans at our office indicated a total of six bedrooms, but upon counting in person I found only four. Were the other two on the third floor? Before she could give an answer, a terrible coughing fit overcame her, forcing her to excuse herself from the table.
The sound of her distress in the upstairs lavatory was audible even from where I sat in the dining room. It continued so long that I grew concerned for her health and got up to see if she needed an intervention. The sounds continued as I came to the bathroom, however upon my knocking they ceased immediately. My hand on the knob, I called to her through the closed door and got no response. I called again and informed her that I intended to enter if she did not answer. After a moment, I turned the knob and pushed the door open expecting to find her collapsed on the floor, but my blood ran cold as I beheld the truth. The bathroom was empty. I looked away in disbelief and found myself suddenly very dizzy. My knees buckled under me and I nearly fell, but for catching myself on the doorframe. “Are you all right?” I heard Sarah ask, somewhere behind me. Cupping my hand tightly over my mouth to stifle my alarm, I turned and saw that she was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
It took nearly half an hour of gentle consolation and tea by the fireplace to regain any sense of calm. I explained what had happened to Sarah as best I could, and she listened with what seemed to be genuine shock. She told me that she had stepped out to the front porch to get some night air and spare me the racket of her vapors, as she called them. By the end of our talk, I had mostly convinced myself that the fatigue of my long journey, along with the odd knocking of shutters in the wind, had conspired to make me imagine I heard Sarah in that upstairs lavatory. What little left of my mind that still needed convincing would be sated by a draught of the bourbon stashed within my suitcase.
At last, we said goodnight and I followed her upstairs. Despite feeling rather foolish, I nevertheless averted my gaze as we passed the lavatory which was the very first door beyond the upstairs landing. I entered my room by the light of a candle lent by my host and not so carefully shut my door behind me. I cursed my raw nerves and then, as noiselessly as I could manage, I engaged the lock. Within moments I had dressed for bed and taken three fingers of the bourbon, which I prayed would carry me swiftly into thoughtless sleep. As I lay curled in that child-size bed, in that child-size room full of child-size things, in that solitary house in the far away southeast of the county, a single picture appeared in my mind before I drifted off to sleep. The driver, his face turned away from me, departing into the west, leaving me here, and taking the sun with him.
The morning brought a dark, gravid sky, though the wind had settled greatly in the night. I saw neither hide nor hair of Sarah as I departed to meet the driver, but I left a note detailing my itinerary and what time I intended to return. While in town I had difficulty securing the services of a gardener able to work on such short notice. However, I did find a carpenter who seemed sufficiently confident that he could not only do the structural appraisals I required, but could also manage the badly split tree on the front lawn. He agreed to meet me at the house the following morning at sunrise. Next, I arranged a meeting with a local firm specializing in the sale of farmland, and then spent the rest of the afternoon in town. I did not look forward to my return to the estate. What little sun had broken through the cloud-wrack at midday was gone by late afternoon, when at last I left the market with the driver and began the long journey eastward.
I arrived under the threat of rain, which finally began a quarter of an hour after the driver departed the second time. Carrying bags heavy with fresh produce and other foodstuffs, I came in just as Sarah was making to prepare supper. She seemed a little embarrassed at the bounty, but I pressed on and offered to do the cooking as payment for my room and her hospitality. It took a little persuasion but in the end, she acquiesced, and ultimately ate the meal with a great deal of enthusiasm. I had hoped that this gesture would go a long way into easing the discomfort of my presence, but if it made any difference I suppose I will never truly know.
When the remnants of supper had been cleared, our bellies full of wine and good food, I thought the time had finally come to broach the more unpleasant aspect of my visit. I asked Sarah if it would be possible for me to go over the finances and material documentation of the estate, in order to establish the full legality of the sale and ensure all obligations and debts had been handled appropriately. It was at this request that she again became stony and silent for a short while, and then asked me, very quietly, if I would mind waiting for her to tidy up Alister’s office before allowing me access. I told her it really wasn’t necessary, as I was rather accustomed to clutter in my line of work, but she made it clear that she would have her way in this matter.
After nearly half an hour alone on the bottom floor of the house, I found myself standing in the doorway of the parlor, my eyes drawn once again to the hearth. And the rug. In the light of the fire, the streaks were barely visible. I had to get down on my knees to see them clearly. Certain that my host would remain occupied with her chore for the few short moments it would take for me to satisfy my gnawing curiosity, I once again reached for the poker by the grate. My back against the arm of the sofa, I used my legs to gently tilt it up just high enough that the corner of the rug came free. Wielding the dark iron poker, I hooked the end of it under the rug and peeled it slowly away from the floor. The streaks beneath the rug were darker, fresher somehow, and I began to feel a chill in my flesh that grew the more I saw. The streaks terminated on a dark line, that ran in an odd zig-zag perpendicular to their orientation, like many tongues protruding from a hideous mouth. I stood there for a long while, bearing the weight of the sofa in my back and knees as my eyes digested the picture now plain in the light of the fire. Though they were elongated, drawn out, distorted by means which I did not want to guess, their shape was undeniable. Two hands. Stretched toward the hearth. Etched in some dark substance I could not, or would not, readily identify.
A crack like thundering doom seized my heart so that I was forced immediately upright, and so let both the full weight of the sofa and the dark iron poker, come down upon the hardwood floor at once in a calamitous clatter. Only upon catching my breath did I discover that my fear was for naught but a murmur of a log burning behind the grate, and it was my guilt that had amplified it to such an infernal magnitude. Fearful that the noise of my foolish overreaction had drawn the attention of my host, I hastily returned the parlor to order by the best of my memory. Having done so, I listened carefully for the footsteps which I knew must be approaching any moment.
For several long minutes, I waited in silence until the creaking of an upstairs door heralded my host’s return. She apologized for taking so long and asked if I might not prefer to examine the papers by the light of day. I apologized for the racket I had caused and lied that I had dropped the poker after I nearly burned myself attempting to stoke the flames. She seemed surprised and claimed not to have heard anything from her place in the study. Then she remarked on the unusual acoustic properties of the house and how she often heard things she didn’t expect or sometimes didn’t hear something she ought to have. With a nervous titter, she admitted that it was entirely possible that she was simply too scatter-brained to perceive things properly, and apologized if she came across as aloof. It did occur to me that spending eight years alone in a house built for a family might provoke the mind to become, over time, a little unglued. However, I did not relay this notion to my host.
It was with curious reluctance that Sarah led me up the stairs and down a narrow hallway which terminated in a tall window at the far end. About halfway down the hall, she opened the door to Alister’s study. A tall gas lamp stood beside the writing desk, and several long cabinets sat on either side. Sarah indicated that she did not know where the papers were that I sought, but they would be either in the desk or the cabinets. There was one cabinet that was locked, though where the key had gone only God and Alister knew. Sarah paused as if she had more to add, but after a long moment only said goodnight and went to bed. When I was certain she was gone, I took great care to quietly close and lock the door behind her.
It did not take me long to find the locked cabinet. I checked every drawer and door in Alister’s study for loose papers, letters, and anything else that might be important to my work, but the last door in the cabinet on the right was locked firm and would not open. Upon first glance, the keyhole appeared well-worn, but after further examination, I found several thick gouges in its face and opening. Someone had obviously attempted to force it open without success. Due to a professional interest in means of securing crucial paper documents, I had a passable knowledge of most commercially available locks. Out of sheer curiosity, I spent a few minutes attempting to open it myself but found that it held unusually fast for a common household “cam lock” as it was called. Unsatisfied, I was forced to admit defeat and return to sorting through and cataloging the documentation I had found. Perhaps it is my fault that I did not resort to more extreme measures, but I feared to awaken my host and did not understand the true urgency of the task until it was too late.
I awoke in the dark. Disoriented and confused, it took me a while to remember exactly where I was, but I discovered that somehow I had fallen asleep on the floor of the study, surrounded by papers and letters and boxes. Some time while I was unconscious, the gas lamp must have run out, and I was discomfited to find I did not have the wisdom to bring with me any other means of light. I felt my way inch by inch to the door, but upon reaching it my heart skipped a beat as my hand passed through nothing but thin air. A faintness washed over me as I worked out that the door must be standing wide open before me in the dark. How long it had been that way, I could not reckon, but I was utterly certain of having sealed it upon my host’s departure.
With what little left of my nerve I was able to muster, I bent all of my will to the herculean task of urging my paralyzed body to move once more. The skin of my palms being my only guiding sensation in that abyssal darkness, I carefully coerced my legs into taking several tremulous steps. Despite my painstaking progress, the halls of House Hoffmor stretched on and on for longer than seemed possible within the confines of reality. By my reckoning, I should have reached the fork at the landing many times over before my fingers finally curled around a sharp outward turn in the formation of the wall.
As I turned onto the landing, my eyes were burned by a sudden warm glow from which I had to shield them momentarily, so unaccustomed had I become to the light. Rubbing the tears from my eyes, I beheld that the landing was illuminated from downstairs by a flickering orange gleam -- the fireplace had been relit. With a sigh of relief, I turned away from the safety of my chamber and descended the stairs to meet my host and relate to her the oddness of the gas lamp and the locked study door. It was an easy decision at the time. Venture into the darkness and solitude of the bedroom or take comfort in the presence of another living person.
I was more than halfway down the stair before I recognized that something was wrong. From my vantage on the lower landing, I had a partial view of the parlor where the fireplace was, and a partial view of the dining room, which was dark. Through the narrow gap where the parlor was visible, I expected to catch a glimpse of my host seated upon the sofa which covered the rug. However, through that archway, I saw only a bare wooden floor and an upholstered bench beneath the bay window. A heavy, guilty feeling rose in my gut as I realized that my host must have seen me snooping about and had decided to remove the offending stains upon the floor. But as I moved through the parlor archway, I found that the floor was entirely dry and unblemished and there was no sign of the sofa or the rug anywhere in sight. Having attempted to lift it on my own, I knew its weight and could not envision my frail host maneuvering it only by herself.
Borrowing a small oil lamp from the mantle, I crouched low and reached out to feel the floorboards where the stain had been, not believing what my eyes could plainly tell. The floor was as solid and fast as any well-constructed platform, and better -- it was completely clean. Not only that, but the entire parlor seemed to shine under the beam of my lamp. But I did not have much time to ruminate an explanation for the parlor’s impossible change, as the train of my thought was derailed by the sound of coughing from some upstairs room. This time, I could not help but laugh. I had already allowed my mind and spirit to be too troubled by the novelty of this house and the suffering eccentricities of my lonely host. I called out to her.
I said, “Sarah? Are you all right up there? I can bring you some water if you like.” No response came, but I had half expected her not to hear me. She had, after all, explained already that sound moved quite strangely in her home -- and hadn’t I already witnessed that for myself? So I had decided to chalk the evening’s oddness up to nothing but the uncanniness often felt in new homes and hotels. Obviously exacerbated by travel and social isolation, but nothing more than that. But, when I began to make my way out of the parlor and toward the stairs, the coughing again ceased.
I stopped moving and stood silent, listening very closely. Then, at the top of the stairs, by what must be the first door after the landing, I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps. Slow, heavy. Heavier than my host, who was so light on her feet that she seemed to almost tiptoe through the house rather than walk. They grew nearer, approaching the upstairs landing. Nearer. Nearer. Then slowly, steadily, they descended the creaking stairs. Thump. Thump. Thump. Half blinded by the glowing haze of the fireplace, I could not make out clearly what I was seeing until it was, far, too late. Petrified by fear, my mind quailed as I saw the shape that appeared before me. Alister Hoffmor. An impressive man in life. His eyes were bulging, lips a sickly blue. He locked eyes with me and held me with a terrible, accusing gaze. Then he asked a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Two words. “The sugar?” I gaped, unable to form a single cogent thought. Afterward, I would find that I had clenched my fists so tightly that my fingernails had dug into my palms, drawing blood. Then, after about thirty seconds or so, he turned toward the dining room and walked into the darkness.
My fear unexpectedly decomposed into irrational anger, and before I regained my senses I found myself following through those dark passages. I stormed the kitchen, expecting to corner him there and demand an explanation, but when I arrived I found it thoroughly deserted. Believing that he must have fled through the kitchen door and into the garden, I crossed the short distance to the door and pulled the handle only to discover that it was thoroughly locked. Knob and bolt. I undid both locks and flung the door open. Stepping out into the garden, I saw no sign of Alister or anyone else. The garden path was fresh with mud from the rains which had come earlier in the evening, and not a single track was visible in the dim moonlight that shone through the thinning clouds. The anger abandoned me, and I was left shuddering there in the doorway, cold and doubting my every sense. Had I really seen Alister? Or was it just a cruel trick of the half-awake mind?
That unwelcome feeling of vulnerability and isolation struck me again, and I hastily shut the kitchen door and locked it, checking each lock twice and again to satisfy my paranoia. As I turned away from the door, sweeping the beam of my lamp across the darkened kitchen, something glimmered on the floor beneath the cupboards. My mind immediately recalled the broken sugar bowl and, setting my lamp on the floor beside me, I stooped to collect the overlooked fragment. But the glossy, jagged object I beheld had an odd texture on one side. On the inside, it was smooth glass. However, the opposite face seemed to be covered in some sort of paper film. Little black letters appeared in thick print. Being such a small piece, it was difficult to tell exactly what it said. Only the characters N, I, C, and O were plainly legible.
Without much trouble, I found the dustbin and had fished out a few more fragments of the sugar bowl from within. Had my host discovered me in that state, I should not like to think what she might have done. For you, no doubt, already know what it was that I had found there. No sooner had I reconstructed the words printed on those jagged shards did I hear once again footsteps emerging from an upstairs bedroom. I do not remember abandoning the oil lamp where it sat on the kitchen floor, nor do I recall the slip and fall which broke my hand and bruised my knee and hip. I have no memory of single-handedly unlocking and wrenching open the front door and limping into the night. The only thing I can clearly remember are flashes of light and pain, and the hoarse screaming of my host. At the top of her lungs, she shrieked, ‘leave...’ ‘leave me...’
The next thing I remember is awakening in the cab of the carpenter whom I had hired to meet me the following morning. He found me unconscious in a bank of mud by the side of the road, nearly two dozen miles from the estate. Barefoot, ragged, and filthy. He brought me to a doctor, who soon sought the services of a local lawman. Much of the rest of what happened has been already thoroughly documented elsewhere, by more reliable authorities and record-keepers than myself, but for the purposes of posterity, I shall summarize what I know here. Soon after my return to Newport, I learned that the police had found Sarah hanging from the rafters over the stairs. Further investigation recovered the desiccated corpse of Alister, hidden within a secret room of the house; a room whose true purpose would only first be discovered by myself, months later.
It was previously believed that Alister had perished on the Licking River when the wreckage of his skiff was found dashed on the stones of a shallow rapids. It was well known that Alister enjoyed a fondness for the sport of fishing and the outdoors, so his death, while unexpected for a man of his skill and experience, was not altogether suspicious or remarkable. We now know that this could not have been farther from the truth, which was discovered, at least in part, by the police force not long after they recovered Alister’s remains. However, the full truth, which I am endeavoring to relay in this report, would have to wait. The doctors which examined the corpse, along with the evidence uncovered in the home, concluded that the cause of Alister’s death was two-fold. The initial and primary means by which he was murdered by his wife, Sarah Hoffmor, was the slow and deliberate administration of the common substance known as Arsenic Trioxide. It was not a sugar bowl that shattered upon the kitchen floor on an unseasonably cool evening in April. It was poison. Tasteless, colorless, and in the proper proportions, utterly undetectable when mixed with refined sugar.
Nobody in town knew the couple well enough to wager a guess as to why Sarah had decided to kill her husband, and neither of them had living relatives which I or my associates were able to reach regarding the future of the estate. Once the law was satisfied that the case had been sufficiently settled, Vandenberg’s access to the entire estate was officially restored. Until time came when we could auction it, the property was ours. It is thus that I was compelled, under obligation, to return. One may wonder, given my description of the events which unfolded at the house two months ago, why I felt willing to return so soon after. It is here that I must confess my earnest belief that the affairs which caused so much unrest within its walls had been finally resolved. With the murderer caught and all but confessed, whatever still walked those murksome halls might be allowed at last to rest.
I booked a room at the best hotel our firm could afford and hired the carpenter at double rate to accompany me on daytime excursions to the house. We’d head out at sunrise and come back to town an hour before sundown. On the first morning, I paid for his breakfast as a special “thank you” for coming to my aid, and we arrived at the Hoffmor estate at around nine A.M. The police had tossed much of the house in their investigation, without much regard to anyone who might have to spend their valuable time sorting it back into order again. Thus it was that the majority of the first several days were passed without much progress otherwise. The carpenter deemed the house worthy of sale and managed to fell the broken tree on the lawn by the end of the second day, and spent the rest of his time inspecting the outer premises of the estate. We ate our lunches together in the shade of the porch and welcomed the lengthening days.
On the evening of the eighth day, when I had cleared the last of the files and finally felt that my work was nearing its completion, we took a break to have an early dinner in the house. As I would be returning to Newport again in the morning, the carpenter surprised me with a cask of wine and insisted that we drink a toast to our hard work, and to banishing sour old ghosts. While I did not approve of the way he so callously spoke of the dead, my spirits were nonetheless lifted by the drink and his good company. He was... Nevermind. Afternoon slipped carelessly into evening, and the sun had sunk behind the trees before we even realized we had stayed far longer than we intended. Hurriedly, we packed up our dinner and prepared to leave. He carried most of the things to the car while I made one last cursory check of the study for any important files I may have accidentally missed.
As I was cleaning out the last of the loose papers from Alister’s desk, I heard something fall behind the drawer with a soft clink. Kneeling before the desk, I pulled out the top drawer as far as it would extend but felt it catch on some unseen mechanism. With a bit of coordinated maneuvering, I was able to wrest the drawer free. Peeking inside the cavity where the drawer used to be, I saw what looked like a small coin wedged at the far back between a support beam and the next drawer down. It was a stretch, but I was able to pinch my fingers around the upmost extremity of the object and slowly work it free.
With a growing thrill, I considered the tarnished thing in my palm. A small brass key. If our minds are aligned, dear reader, you will have had the same thought which occurred to me at that exact moment. You would have made the same mistake. You would not have wisely sealed the key in an envelope and tucked it into the collection of important documents and artifacts for some other fool to reckon with once you were far, far away. You would have taken that tarnished brass key and slid it into the lock, and felt that it fit so perfectly, so soundly. You would have felt the satisfying tattle of the tumblers, and the smooth action of the cam turning on its well-greased axis. And finally, you would have felt the resolute click, as the tension on the latch was released, and the cabinet door popped silently open.
Short of a severed head, I had serious doubt that anything I might have found within that cabinet could have lived up to the expectations I had built up around it. To my disappointment, I discovered only a plain folder, about half an inch thick, containing several pages of what looked at first to be completely meaningless documents relating to some sort of medical examination. I then glimpsed a word that stuck in my mind and pricked the hair on my neck and realized at once what I was holding in my hands. These were documents of Civil Commitment for the purposes of psychiatric study and treatment of a barbaric nineteenth-century medical invention known simply as “hysteria.” The papers were signed by several individuals, all men, and detailed the instructions for the care and supervision of Sarah Hoffmor’s “condition.” I felt faint, as if I had just missed the last step on a long stair, and fought to steady myself as I turned over the last sheaf of paper within the folder, and found beneath it a sleeve, which contained numerous monochrome photographs printed on stout paper stock. The mysterious rooms of the house. The “children’s” rooms, and the hidden special one. Their true purpose thoroughly documented here. Alister wanted children, but try as Sarah might, she did not conceive. If Sarah did not willingly comply with her “treatment,” she would be confined to the secret room where...
I know not how long I sat, on my knees before the desk of Alister Hoffmor, unable to move, clutching the years of evidence in my lap, before the coughing began. A bitter taste like castor oil bloomed behind my tongue, and I felt my insides knotting up. My eyes streaming, I stumbled for the door, hemming and hacking. The world began to tilt and drift beyond my control, and I found myself crawling headlong down the stairs on my stomach. With every ounce of effort I could muster, I tried to call out for help, but every utterance produced an even more terrible fit. Struggling for air, I turned onto my back once I had finally come to the bottom landing, and to my horror I beheld a terrible sight above me. The dangling cadaver of Sarah Hoffmor. Unbelieving, I watched as it slowly twisted upon her bedcloth noose. Surely the police had removed the body! Surely I would have seen it all these days! But as I stared, unable to look away, her eyes -- open and wild -- rotated in their sockets to find me, and she began to descend. Her noose seemed to elongate as she came closer and closer, and all I could do was claw at the wooden floor beneath me, scrambling to back away. Away into the parlor.
Soon I felt the heat of the fireplace on my neck and knew that I had run out of room. She glared at me with her dead, milky eyes, and I began to wretch, violently. Curling on my side, I attempted to force myself up onto my feet, to push myself off of the floor. I spat, and through my strangled throat I managed to utter a desperate apology. All I could say was, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” But there was no pity in that sunken face, only cold victory. When she spoke, her voice was like teeth grinding on ice. “Do you believe me now, Alister?”
She raised her hand and I saw that she held aloft the dark iron poker -- the same one she had used to break Alister’s legs before she dragged him away, his hands drawing long trailing smears in his own blood and sick upon the floor, and left him in that secret room to die. “Do you believe me now?” She screamed. My mind suddenly dug up the memory of the night in which I first fled this damn-ed house. And as she raised the poker over her head I knew that she hadn’t said, ‘leave me.’ She had cried... “Believe me! Please believe me!” And finally, I did.
I may never know what the carpenter saw when he found me lying there on that parlor rug, for he never spoke to me about it, or anything else, ever again.