Morgantown, West Virginia
May 12, 9:25 PM
A lavish celebration was in full bloom in a majestic ballroom commemorating the tenth anniversary of the manor-turned-hotel. Amidst manifold party ornaments, a sumptuous buffet table and a live orchestra were dozens of guests and business-related acquaintances enjoying the festivities in their ostentatious formal evening wear.
OSI agent Michael Gallagher posing as a waiter mingled among the crowd, scrutinizing faces and scanning the room for anyone that appeared out of place. His tray of canapés empty, he returned to the kitchen to get another serving. A few feet away the hotel manager and his chef were eyeing the man distrustfully.
“How’s the new guy doing?” The manager Martin Gregson asked.
The chef shrugged nonchalantly. “Can’t complain. He’s doing a good job so far. I just hope he suddenly won’t go nuts like the last one did.”
“His references checked out. No history of schizophrenia or suicidal tendencies.”
“Same as the last one and look what happened?” The chef remarked.
“Yeah I know,” the manager sighed despairingly. “Just keep an eye on him. This commemorative tenth anniversary is going great. I wouldn’t want anything to ruin this perfect evening.”
“I’ll do my best, boss.”
The manager tapped the chef on the shoulder and smiled gratefully. “I know you will. Well I’d best return to my guests.” He crossed path with Michael who made his way to the chef.
“Got anymore smoked salmon crackers?”
“In the frig. They're ready to serve.”
Michael stepped up to a huge refrigerator and took out a large plate of hors d’oeuvres. He removed the cellophane paper and reorganized the canapés in an enticing fashion when he suddenly stopped and stared right in front of him before his gaze shifted to the butcher knife sitting on the table next to his tray. As if in a trance he picked it up and without any warning he plunged the blade into his abdomen. The chef bolted to the possessed man and grabbed his wrist to prevent him from further butchering himself.
Bloodcurdling screams rent the air, startling the hotel guests who stood blenched with terror.
The manager dashed into the kitchen and rushed to the waiter lying sprawled on the floor bathing in a pool of his own blood. Curious party guests flocked to the doors to take in the ghoulish sight.
“Tim, would be so kind to take everyone out. And call an ambulance.”
“Right away.” Tim did his boss’s bidding by calmly beckoning the guests out of the kitchen. Many decided to retire to their rooms whereas others opted to remain close to the kitchen to take occasional peeks at the unfolding drama.
“What the hell happened?” Gregson asked in a peevish tone.
“He stabbed himself.”
“Why didn't you stop him?”
“I tried Mister Gregson!” The chef blared defensively. “But he had the strength of thousands.”
Gregson grabbed his head in despair. “This is the seventh one this month. What the hell is happening to these people?
May 14, 10:15AM
In his office Oscar was standing behind his desk perusing a forensic report when Steve and Cassie walked in with broad grins on their faces.
“Something I should know?” Oscar asked.
“Steve was just telling me a joke,” Cassie answered between titters.
“No doubt about me?”
“Why of course,” she teased, getting Steve to stifle a laugh with a fist over his mouth.
Oscar sighed inwardly and shook his head in exasperation at being the butt of his agents’ jokes. “You two need a vacation.”
“Alleluia! The boss has finally seen the light!” Cassie remarked again with a tinge of sarcasm. “When?”
Both Steve and Cassie exchanged puzzled glances before turning to Oscar. “You’re kidding, right?” Steve asked.
“No.” Oscar sat behind his desk with the file in hand. “How does an all expenses paid stay at Rutherford Manor sound to you?”
“Rutherford Manor? Isn’t that the haunted hotel of Morgantown?” Cassie queried.
“You're acquainted with the place?”
“Only by reputation. Assuming it’s not a Halloween threat since we’re in May, I would say you’re sending us there on assignment.
“I fail to see how this is a vacation,” Steve remarked.
“You will be posing as two friends on holiday. Your job will be to watch the comings and goings of the hotel staff and guests.” He closed the file and stood to walk over to the two agents. “Six guests of the hotel have died under mysterious circumstances over the last four weeks alone.” He handed the file over to Steve who began skimming over the pages. “Two of them were federal agents and the last one was Michael Gallagher”
Steve jerked his head up at the name. “Michael Gallagher?”
“A friend of yours?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah. Mike and I used to play tennis together.”
“He killed himself,” Oscar informed bluntly, causing Steve to wince.
“I just talked to him last week. He didn’t strike me as suicidal.”
“His fiancée told us the same. She said he was completely the opposite. They had just set the date of their wedding.”
“How did the others die?” Cassie asked while taking the file from Steve.
“Same thing. They repeatedly stabbed themselves. According to the depositions the men displayed rational behaviours until suddenly they began carving their bodies into colanders. The toxicology report was negative for chemical substances. So we can rule out any hallucinogenic drug. Those men had no mental disorders. Close friends, relatives and even their personal physicians can attest to that effect. We believe they might have been hypnotized but the question is why? The two federal agents were off duty and even registered under different names. The FBI is puzzled as to who got to them and why?”
“I have a hunch this might take us longer than a weekend to unravel the mystery,” Steve surmised, glancing at Cassie whose raised eyebrow told him she concurred with his assessment.
“No one knows who you are aside from the manager.”
“Isn’t that kind of risky? I mean what if he’s the murderer?” Steve wondered.
Oscar flashed a sly grin. “That’s why I’m sending my best team. I know you’ll keep on your toes and that if something happens, you’re better equipped to deal with it than any other agent,” he said alluding to Steve’s bionic strength.
“I hope we don’t find out a ghost made them do it?” Cassie joked.
Both Steve and Oscar rolled their eyes.
“What?” Cassie exclaimed in mock anger. “After all this is a haunted house.”
Steve tossed the file onto Oscar’s desk and grabbed her arm to lead her out of the office. “Come on Casper. Let’s get going.”
“See Callahan on your way out. She’ll give you the rest of the information you need.”
Steve waved at Oscar before ushering a chuckling Cassie out the door.
May 15, 10:25 AM
As they stepped into the manor Steve and Cassie’s jaws dropped in complete awe before this luxurious entrance hall. Although elegantly furnished the décor was reminiscent of old haunted castles with chandeliers hanging everywhere complete with a dim lighting to plunge the guests in a ghostly atmosphere.
“Pretty impressive,” Steve remarked to Cassie who was struck with a bad case of the giggle. “What’s so funny?”
“Look at this place. Do you get the feeling that we’ve been played for fools? Could be Oscar’s way of getting back to us for being the butt of our jokes.”
“Could be. But as long as we’re here let’s make the most of it.”
They followed the bellboy up to the front desk where the manager himself greeted them.
“Welcome to Rutherford Manor. I’m Martin Gregson, the manager. Do you have reservations?”
“Yes we do. Two in fact under the names of Steve Watson and Cassandra Peters.”
“Oh you’re the OSI agents?”
“Yes we are,” Steve answered.
With great relief Gregson extended his arm to shake both agents’ hands. “I thank you for coming. I really appreciate your help on this matter. This chapter of baffling incidents is bad for business.”
“I can imagine,” Cassie mocked with an amused glance directed at Steve.
“Since the last death three nights ago, people haven't exactly been flocking to check in. We're booked half the capacity.” He presented the register and a pen to Steve. “Sign here please.”
“Any latest development in the police investigation?” Steve queried as he signed the registry before handing the pen over to Cassie.
“Nothing. The law enforcement authorities are confounded. And I must admit, so am I.”
“Have you had any similar occurrences in the past?” Cassie asked.
“As you're probably already aware of this is a century-old manor reputed for being haunted. Guests have reported experiencing strange, unexplained visions; things that go bump in the night, shadowy figures casting on walls when no one is there... that sort of thing. But they were all harmless until now.”
“Do you have any theory as to who or what may have killed those people?” Cassie enquired.
“No. The witnesses accounts all concur that the victims’ behavior was rational one minute then irrational the next. Some say they looked like they were possessed.”
Cassie hawked to stifle an involuntarily chuckle at the word ‘possessed’ and strived to maintain a professional stance.
Gregson hailed over the bellboy “Davy,” he handed him two keys, “would you show Mister Watson and Ms. Peters to their rooms, please?”
“Sure thing Mister G.” He picked up the three suitcases and walked in front of the two guests. “Follow me, please.”
All three headed up the grand staircase to the first floor. The creaking floors added a touch of eeriness to the already phantasmal ambiance. Seeing Cassie roll her eyes in disbelief Steve felt the urge to test her level of nervousness by brushing his right hand on the other side of her shoulders, careful to swiftly pull it back when she jumped and turned around.
“What’s wrong?” he asked with a seemingly straight face.
“Ah nothing,” she replied unconvincingly; her frown telling a different story.
Davy unbolted the door to room 205 and set the luggage by the closet. “This is 205. 207 is the adjoining room. You can get to it through this connecting door,” he pointed to the door as he walked to the dresser to open a small cigar box “and the key is in this box.”
“Thank you.” Steve reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet and handed Davy a ten-dollar-bill.
“Thank you, sir,” Davy exulted with his eyes wide in excitement at the biggest tip he’s ever received. “Should you require any assistance, night or day, call on me. My name is Davy Jones. But please, Monkee jokes.”
“You got it.” Steve chuckled.
On his way downstairs Davy walked past a Hispanic maid and her chariot. She watched him disappeared around the corner before turning her attention to room 205.
“Very rustic,” Cassie remarked of the room.
“What do you expect from a century-old manor?” Steve scoffed good-naturedly.
“It's easy to see why people believe this hotel is haunted. Just being here gives me the creeps.”
“Well, if you get scared I'm right next door.” Steve grabbed his suitcase and crossed to the door.
“I'm mentally conditioned against any unexpected spectral visitors,” Cassie replied curtly as she tossed her suitcases on the bed to start unpacking.
“You're such a joy-killer,” Steve lamented with a feigned pout. He walked over to the connecting door and was met with resistance as he turned the knob. “Hum, it’s locked.” He put his suitcase down on the floor and opened the cigar box to reach for the key. He put it in the lock but the door still wouldn’t open. “It’s stuck. I’ll take the long way.”
“A bolted door never stopped you before, Blue Eyes.”
“Normally no but we’re talking century-old house. If I break the lock I might bring down the whole foundation,” he cracked with a teasing wink. He picked up his suitcase and made his way to the main door. “Uh-oh”
He fiddled with the doorknob. “Either it’s stuck or someone locked us in.”
Cassie dropped a folded shirt onto the bed and walked up to him to take a swing at the door.
“Everything alright in there?” asked the maid on the other side of the door.
“No, the door is stuck. We can't get out,” Cassie explained while jerking the doorknob.
“Try pushing and turning the doorknob at the same time.”
Cassie followed instructions and as luck would have it, the door opened. “Thanks.”
“No problem. These old doorknobs are very tricky,” she spoke with a strong accent.
Steve stepped over to the connecting door and using the maid’s method, he easily swung it open. “I’ll go unpack.”
“I just dropped by to provide you with fresh bathroom linen.”
“Thank you. Very nice of you.” Cassie resumed her unpacking while the maid made her way to the bathroom with a few towels draped over her arm.
As she began hanging them on the hooks she felt an eerie cold breeze brushing against her. She stopped and glanced around nervously. “No, don’t hurt them. I’m sure they mean you no harm. Please,” she pleaded with what she believed was a ghostly presence.
“Did you say something?” Cassie asked.
The maid stepped out of the bathroom a trifle disturbed. “No ma’am.”
“I thought I heard you talking.”
“You hear a lot of peculiar sounds in this hotel.”
“So I was told,” Cassie snorted.
“Do I detect a hint of scepticism in your voice? You don't believe in spirits, do you?”
“At the risk of sounding cynical, I subscribe to the theory of ghosts as one of an overactive imagination instigated by fear or hallucinogens”.
“Or the power of suggestion?”
“Everyone is entitled to his own convictions.” Her face blenched as she was suddenly overcome by an uneasy feeling.
“Are you okay?” Cassie asked, frowning worriedly at the maid’s terrorized expression.
“Who?” Cassie glanced around the room. “Where?
“Caroline. She's seeking revenge again.”
“Who are you talking about?” Cassie gave the room one last sweep before turning to the maid she saw scurrying out of the room. “Hey wait!” Cassie hurried after her. “Miss! Wait! Don’t go. I…” Cassie halted her course and sighed in resignation. She retraced her steps to her room only to find the door closed. “Ah great!” She jerked the doorknob but to no avail. She took a deep breath to recover her composure before walking to the adjoining room. “Steve it's me,” she spoke through the door. “I locked myself out.” Receiving no answer she scratched her nails against the door. “Steve, let me in.” Again, no answer. “That man needs bionic ears,” she thought aloud before knocking on the door. “Steve, let me in.” As she prepared to pound on the door, Steve pulled it open. She lost balance and fell into his arms.
“Miss me already, heh?” he teased with a devilish grin.
“Didn't you hear me knock?” she barked, pushing her way out of his embrace.
“No,” he shrugged.
“I scratched, I knocked and nearly alerted the entire floor with my shouting.”
“I locked myself out. I'll use the adjoining door.” She walked in and stepped to the adjoining door. She let out a frustrated groan when she met with the same resistance. “I don’t believe this!” she seethed.
“Try pushing and turning like the maid instructed us,” Steve offered.
“That’s what I’m doing,” Cassie replied peevishly.
Steve walked up to her to lend a hand. One twist of the knob and the door opened. “What's the problem?” Steve asked innocently, hiding a small grin at Cassie’s glare.
“The problem was that this darned door was locked!!!”
“Fifteen minutes and already this place is getting to you,” Steve teased.
“It is not…” Cassie spat, then slapped a hand over her mouth to suppress her anger. She continued on a more subtle tone, “I just think a few repairs are in order.”
“That would take all the fun out.”
“You're actually enjoying this.”
“It's spooky don't you think?”
“You want to hear something unreal?” Cassie asked as she made her way to her room with Steve in tow.
“Give it your best shot.”
“The maid blabbered about a Caroline being here and that she was seeking revenge.”
“I have no idea.” She shrugged and then resumed her unpacking. “Before I could question the woman, she had scurried out of the room. I tried catching up with her and that's when I got locked out.” She handed Steve a folded shirt and motioned to the top drawer.
“I'm going downstairs to talk with the manager. Maybe he can enlighten us as to who this Caroline character is.”
“I’ll go with you, but just let me change shoes first.”
“Okay, I'll meet you in the lounge.”
Once Steve was out of the room, Cassie rummaged through her suitcase for that other pair of comfortable shoes then closed the lid. As she sat on the edge of the mattress to put them on she felt a light cold breeze brush against her. She looked up and gave a quick scan around the room. She noticed an open window and went to close it. When she turned to retrace her steps to the bed, a muffled voice whispered, “Go away.”
Cassie swirled on her heels “Who’s there?” Her eyes roved around the room nervously before she chuckled to herself. “Come on Cassie. Get a hold to yourself. Don’t give 34 ammunitions or you’ll never hear the end of it.” She shook her head in disbelief at what she allowed herself to believe and then left the room to join Steve downstairs.
Morgantown, West Virginia
May 17, 1:30 PM
Sitting alone at a table located in the far corner of the library Steve thumbed through one of the town registers to seek out information regarding the lives and deaths of local residents. Cassie walked up to him, equally engrossed in her bulky publication chronicling the history of palaces, manors and mansions in the States.
“Steve, I found something. The complete annals of the manor up to two-thousand-one.” She sat beside Steve without lifting her eyes from her reading. “Listen to this. ‘Rutherford Manor was built in eighteen ninety by illustrious architect Horace Milhouse in honor of the birth of his son, Rutherford. Tuberculosis carried the child off at the age of five and so did his wife, Rosalie, two years later. Following Horace Milhouse's demise in nineteen-thirty-five, the estate was bequeathed to his only known relative, Charles Milhouse, an accountant, and his wife, Caroline.’”
‘Shortly ensuing their inheritance, Caroline Milhouse vanished without a trace. In view of the unavailing search to recover her body, Charles Milhouse was exonerated of all murder charges and the case was closed.’
“What has become of that man?”
“He died twelve years ago, carrying his secret to the grave.” She closed the book and craned her neck to take a peek at Steve’s reading. “What about you? Did you find anything?”
“I've been skimming the town records and noted that the manor was acquired by Martin Gallanders some ten years ago and he turned it into an hotel. In nineteen ninety-six, he declared bankruptcy and sold the property to local businessman Byron Mahaffey. During the intervening week, Mahaffey abandoned the manor positive he had witnessed paranormal activity, and sued Gallanders for liability. Gallander's son. Michael, a heart surgeon, bought the estate back for his father. Since then, the hotel has welcomed over a million visitors from around the world.”
“No wonder. It’s a great publicity stunt. A haunted house.”
“Do you have a picture of the Milhouses in your book?”
“I should have.” Cassie opened her publication and began thumbing through the pages. “Yeah...here it is.” She showed Steve the picture of a twenty-two year-old blonde snuggling up to a third-two light-brown-haired dashing man. “Hum, handsome,” Cassie mused. “Not exactly the killer stereotype.”
“They generally never are. I once read that in certain cases of brutal death, the victim's soul is yanked out so fast that it remains earthbound for many years. Hypothetically speaking, it could be admissible that Caroline Milhouse's spirit has been roaming about the manor, seeking justice for what happened to her.”
“Steve, you don’t really believe that, do you?” Cassie mocked with her eyebrow raised in incredulity.
“I’m just repeating what I heard once,” Steve defended his viewpoint with a tinge of humour. “But you said yourself you heard a hushed voice telling you to go away.”
“I'm conscience-stricken to admit that my vivid imagination got the better of me Besides, it's not so uncommon to hear obscure whispering sounds in old establishments. The vibration of sound waves emitted by dozens of human voices who once inhabited the premises over the last century generates lingering audible sensations called reverberations.”
“Maybe but I think we ought to retain the assistance of an expert in supernatural phenomena.”
“Merely to lend credence to your theory and disallow the rest. So far, we've been going nowhere in this case. Resorting to unorthodox methods might provide us with a lead.”
“Do you honestly believe Oscar’s budget will spring for a loony who talks to the spirits?”
“Never hurts to try.”
Meanwhile down in the manor’s basement, three young workers were busy tearing down a wall with crowbars.
“That's it for me. I'm beat.”
His colleague seconded the motion and after wiping the beads of perspiration off his brow he took a seat on a pile of bricks.
“It's almost four o'clock. I'm calling it a day.”
“We can't leave until four.”
“I know, but we sure can drink away the remaining fifteen minutes.”
The third worker was still hammering away at a board that wouldn’t break. Finally his persistence paid off and the board came loose. “Got it!”
“Come on, leave it for tomorrow, Hank. Have a cold one with us, ”
“No thanks, Gary. I'm not that thirsty.”
“Suit yourself.” As he sat by his friend he felt a cold breeze brushing against him. “Hum.”
“What is it?”
“We must have uncovered a draught hole in the wall. It's cold.”
“I don't feel anything.”
“It's gone.” He took a swig off his beer while watching Hank drudging to remove as many boards as he could before quitting time. “Hey, Hank! We still got an entire week to finish the job. So stop slaving away.”
Hank stood transfixed, his work coming to a sudden halt. He dropped the crowbar onto the floor and in a trance-like state, he stepped away from the wall to walk up to a table displaying sharp tools. He picked up an ice pick and began poking himself with it.
“What the hell?” Gary gasped in shock, springing to his feet to bolt to his suicidal friend. As he gripped Hank’s arms to prevent him from further injuring himself he was seized by a powerful force that hurled him and the third worker hard against the wall; the impact knocking them both unconscious.
Hours later, Martin, Cassie and Steve were on the crime scene. Two police officers combed the area for clues while the forensic expect took snapshots of Hank’s bloody corpse lying sprawled on the floor.
After taking down Gary’s and Alan’s accounts of the situation, the town sheriff Oswald Morgan made his way down to the basement to join the hotel manager and two OSI agents trying to make sense of the bizarre occurrence. “Well I’ve interrogated his co-workers. They both corroborate the fact that Hank, here, has always been a model worker, a workaholic as they described him. No suicidal tendencies. Then, out of the blue, the kid grabs an ice pick and pokes himself with it.”
“Didn't they try to stop him?” the hotel manager queried, a bit appalled at the thought of the two men sitting by and not intervening.
“They did but brace yourselves folks for this is where it gets weird. They both said something which felt like an electromagnetic force pushed them out of the way and they landed unconscious on the floor.”
“Your forensic expert did take a blood sample?” Cassie asked.
“He’s very thorough. I’m sure he did.”
“We need it analysed for the presence of any hallucinogenic substances.”
“You think that guy might have been on something?”
“Most likely. Hallucinogens can drastically alter a person's behaviour, and the side effects range from violent trembling, sudden involuntary movements to schizophrenia. The fact that the prior victims' toxicological were negative could be attributed to the small amount ingested, dissolving quickly in the blood streams. And depending on one's metabolism, the ingestion of a small dose can have dire consequences when it can barely affect another. Reactions are unpredictable.”
While Cassie chatted with the sheriff, Steve wandered near the open wall to study its structure. He was suddenly yanked out of his concentration by a light tap brushing against his arm.
“Steve, what is it?” Cassie asked, concerned by his reaction.
“I don't know. Felt like something brushed against me.” A chill ran through his spine that prompted him to rub his left arm. “Boy, it's cold here.”
“Could be a draught somewhere,” the sheriff surmised.
“God, it's freezing!” Steve shivered.
“What are talking about? It's warm,” Cassie contradicted. Her scoff turned to a worried frown at Steve’s obvious distress.
“Not from where I'm standing. I feel like I'm in a freezer.” He sensed his legs were giving way, but luckily Cassie was there to hold him up before his knees buckled.
“You’re right. It’s freezing,” Cassie agreed while leading Steve to a warmer spot underneath a wall of neatly piled bricks, unbeknownst to them that one at the bottom was being pushed out from the other side. The pile began to sway dangerously before it came tumbling down.
“Hey you two! Look out!” The sheriff yelled.
Steve pushed Cassie aside and then leapt out of the way of the avalanche of bricks. Barely had the dust settled that Cassie rushed to Steve’s side.
“Are you alright?” she asked frantically.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” Steve heaved out as he staggered to his feet. “It was a narrow escape.” He put his arm on Cassie’s arm and gave her body a cursory look. “And you?”
“I’m fine, thanks to you.” Cassie frowned at the sight of a bloodstain on Steve’s left sleeve. “You hurt your arm. Let me see.”
“It's okay. I'm alright.”
While Cassie carefully examined Steve’s gash, the sheriff moved closer to the remaining pile of bricks and meticulously studied the cant angle. “That's strange.”
“These bricks were stacked in a tilting angle of about 10 degrees. Now if they abide by the common law of physics, they should have fallen towards the wall and not on you unless they were given a shove of some kind.”
“Perhaps one brick came loose creating the domino effect; it set off the chain reaction,” Cassie surmised.
“True only when the brick is taken out at the bottom of the stack. Again, they should have fallen the other way.”
“It's not freezing anyone.”
“You come with me upstairs, Steve. We’ve got to clean that gash.” She turned to the sheriff. “Do you still need us?”
“Not for now. You go on. We’ll be fine.”
“Weird things are occurring in this house, partner. We’ve got to find out what’s going on before they do us in,” Steve said as he and Cassie climbed the grand staircase leading to the first floor.