(This story was winner of the Eastwood Trophy Crime Story 2016)
As in the past, David's first sight of the stark, black gables of the house as he turned off the main road cast a much deeper shadow over his already sombre mood. Even as a child he had been aware of an aura of enmity - of malignity - of something evil which he could neither identify or name. It was still there, though Great Aunt Maud had been dead for seven weeks and the house had lain locked and empty since her funeral.
The house stood in solitude on a craggy hillside a few miles from Thurso in the far north of the country. He had been obliged to visit his great aunt only two or three times during his childhood, but these visits had made a frightening impact on him. The dark and dismal rooms and the bleak, harsh surroundings had numbed his spirit and made each visit a dreadful burden. When the lawyer's letter had arrived telling him of his inheritance, it brought back unhappy and unwanted memories.
He remembered Maud as a formidable elderly woman with a sharp tongue in her head. The house was a cold, miserable place and a perfect match for its mistress. He knew that she had found it many years earlier, just weeks before her husband drowned while swimming in the sea. Perhaps she intended it as a second home but after the tragedy she sold her house in Glasgow and moved there permanently, to the very edge of civilisation. She was inconsolable at his death, his mother had told him, and had
locked herself away from society.
He drove up from Glasgow and stopped for a late lunch at a pub near Inverness.
When he stopped for supper and a break at another pub just before Thurso he decided to stay the night and go on to Wilderness House the following morning.
The final part of his journey, the road from Thurso to the old house, was a narrow single track with passing places. He couldn't shake off a feeling of despondency that seemed to increase the nearer he got to his destination. Once through the open gate he noticed how the trees on either side of the driveway crowded over it, letting very little light fall on the weed-choked gravel. As he drove through the dank tunnel of overgrown shrubbery and neared his destination, the undesired but unmistakable feeling of dread increased and tightened his grip on the wheel.
On arriving at the house David unlocked the front door with keys the lawyer had sent. The strange feeling of eerie and frightening anticipation continued to possess him. For a split second he wondered whether he should leave the house to the lawyer to sell complete with its contents. But no, he felt obliged to find any personal documents his great aunt possessed and check for any valuables that might be there.
He stepped inside and immediately his nostrils were assailed by the smell of dampness and decay. He decided to start upstairs and went into Maud's bedroom. It was an dreary, old-fashioned room dominated by a four-poster bed that looked about a hundred years old. The ancient wallpaper was covered by mildew. As he walked across the room his heels rapped against the floor through the worn and faded carpet. He drew the moth-eaten curtains back from the window to let some light into the room and dust flew off them like a desert sandstorm.
He sat down at the ancient dressing table and looked in the mirror. His worried face
gazed back at him through the thin layer of dust. I look almost as bad as I feel, he thought. Suddenly the face of a man appeared in the mirror beside his own reflection
and he jumped back with fright. He turned round but there was no-one there. He looked back at the mirror and saw only his own frightened face. What an imagination I must have, he thought. I suppose this place could drive anyone round the bend.
He started opening the drawers of the dressing table. There was just old-fashioned clothing complete with a smell of mothballs. He next went to the chest of drawers and found more of the same. Eventually he had searched through every possible place in the room where documents or valuables could be stored and found nothing of importance.
When he entered the bedroom he had used so many years earlier he looked down at the bed and suddenly he was a child again, listening to the wind howling through the eaves and watching the shadows of the waving trees against the wall. He shook himself out of his reverie and moved on to the other rooms upstairs without finding anything of interest, then went down the stairs to the study.
There was a desk which he thought might be the likeliest place to find anything of value but first he quickly moved round the study to see what else he could find. The walls were lined with shelving, most of which were filled with books covering almost every subject under the sun. There was a cupboard underneath the window which contained an old typewriter and some sheets of yellowing paper.
On one shelf he found an old photo album from the year dot. He glanced through it, barely recognising his great aunt in her youth and certainly none of her companions from the long-dead past. Suddenly a face caught his eye. A young man wearing a straw hat. It was the man whose face had appeared in the mirror. He was sure of it. As
the man appeared in most of the photographs, he guessed it would be William, Maud's long-dead husband who had died while swimming in the sea and whose body had
never been recovered.
In the desk he found documents relating to the purchase of the house and various bills that had been paid over the years. Opening another drawer he looked down in surprise. An old and rusty revolver was lying inside. What on earth would Maud want with a gun, he wondered? Perhaps she was frightened, living in seclusion. He lifted it up and underneath he found an envelope addressed in faded writing to William Morris at a post office box number in Glasgow. He opened the envelope and lifted out the contents. It was a love letter.
'My Darling William,
these few stolen hours we spent together were like magic. I can hardly wait till our lips meet again. Your caress is pure heaven to me and I'm longing for your touch once more. I can hardly wait until next Tuesday. The minutes go by like hours.
I'm so glad about everything that has happened. I suppose the problem with Maud is a worry but she will survive. I'm sure of that. I need you more than she does and I will love you forever. You must do as you promised and do it soon. Goodbye for now, my beloved.
I'm just dying to see you.
All my love,
He put the letter and the revolver into his brief case, his mind in a turmoil.
By lunchtime David was almost finished. He went outside and sat on the porch steps of the old house to eat sandwiches prepared that morning by the pub landlord.
His thoughts dwelt on Maud and William. He remembered his mother describing their relationship as fiery. Maud was a domineering woman who liked complete control
over everything and everybody she came in contact with, her husband included. He wondered how she had come by the letter to her husband and her feelings on reading it. Maud would never even consider a divorce.
A sudden gust of wind came rushing in from the sea and the old house creaked and groaned in response. He was absolutely certain that the face in the mirror was William. He decided that before he left he would look in the mirror once more although a chill ran down his spine at the thought.
Soon after, he had gone through every room in the house. There was nothing else he wanted to take, apart from the revolver and the love letter. As he mounted the stairs again, his nerves as taut as violin strings, an overpowering sense of evil engulfed him. It permeat-ed the atmosphere. He was certain that something had happened in this house, something terrible. He was also certain that although he was driven to look in the mirror again, he would be gone from this place shortly and would never return.
He entered the bedroom once again and sat at the mirror. With relief he saw only his own face reflected in the glass. Suddenly he saw something in the light film of dust, something that had not been there before. A word had been written and he realised that he would need to change his plans and stay on just a bit longer in this mausoleum of a house. The word that had been written by no earthly hand was 'cellar', and desperate as he was to leave, he knew that he must investigate further; he had been given no choice. Some exterior force was impelling him on.
Going downstairs he examined the floor of the house. The threadbare carpeting had not been disturbed for years and was firmly tacked down on parquet flooring. He had noticed a toolbox in a kitchen cupboard so he got a claw hammer from it and, starting in the hall, began pulling out the nails. He worked methodically from the front door along the hallway, lifting up the carpet as he went along, then, with great difficulty, removing the wooden brick floor. Finally he found what he was looking for. There was a trapdoor under the wood with a space insert so that a padlock could be used to secure it while keeping the floor level. The padlock was sturdy but he swung at it with the hammer until it finally came apart and he was able to remove it.
The hinges groaned in complaint as he lifted up the trapdoor. There was pitch darkness below but he felt round the edge of the space until he found a lightswitch. Switching it on, the cellar was suddenly lit by a single bulb on its ceiling. The grisly sight that met his eyes shocked and terrified him. There were two skeletons lying in the cellar, both with shreds of clothing attached. He knew he must go down for a closer look before informing the police. It was an illogical need but in some strange way he knew it was out of his control. It was something he must do.
In an outhouse he found a ladder and soon he was back in the hallway. Lowering the ladder, he carefully descended into the cellar. There was a table and a soiled old mattress in one corner. He noticed a piece of paper clutched in the skeletal hand of the larger of the two figures. He lifted it off the bony fingers and examined it. It was a typewritten letter and he read it with growing realisation and horror. Everything clicked into place as the tangled weave revealed itself and a picture slotted into his mind. Great Aunt Maud sitting at her old-fashioned typewriter, the persuasive revolver at her side, her face a mask of determination and her thin lips set in a bitter
line. The letter read:
Sorry for typing this letter. I know it's not very romantic but I have got a new Remington typewriter and I wanted to use it. Yes, my darling, my love for you is as strong as ever and I am longing to hold you in my arms once more.
I have wonderful news. Maud is going away for a week so we can have a whole week together. The only trouble is that I have to stay for the time being in this old house that Maud took a notion to buy. I would like you to come up to Thurso by train then take a taxi here as soon as you can. It's called Wilderness House. Sorry I can't meet you but I will explain later. We will have a wonderful time, just the two of us, alone together. I am dying to see you as well. Really dying to see you.