The problem with authentic, unaltered vintage homes is always in the basement. Walking through the upstairs, Christine and I fell in love. Original shellac finish on the window frames, the glass just starting to show a hint of wave from a hundred years of slow settling. Built-in sideboards and bookshelves and a masonry fireplace. The kitchen needed updating, and of course there was only one bathroom, but that would let us do it right, the way we wanted, in harmony with the rest of the house.
So I went into the basement, fearing the worst.
“You go ahead,” Christine told me. “I don’t like basements.”
The house was long and narrow, to fit on its lot. I hadn’t quite realized how long and narrow it was, walking from room to room, but from the foot of the stairs it was one long open space. A hulking furnace sat in the middle, a big iron monstrosity, swaddled in asbestos and tangled in pipes. Two iron doors and a grating along the bottom gave it the appearance of a face. It was the original coal-burning furnace, converted to oil at some point in its history.
To the right of the stairs was a raised floor, which put the ceiling uncomfortably close to the top of my head. This was obviously to accommodate some retrofitted plumbing, when the washer hook-up, slop-sink, and emergency toilet were installed. The toilet had only a shower curtain for privacy, but I confirmed there was water in the bowl, and it performed adequately to my test flush. So the plumbing was a pass.
Not so the electrical. Vintage knob and tube, with aged cloth insulation. I searched around for the fuse box. It was all the way at the front of the house, at the far end, inside a little room that had been outfitted as a workshop. Six 15-amp fuses. 90 amps. Barely enough for lights and refrigeration. That would have to be the first thing we took care of.
But for a bonus, there were a number of antique tools on the shelves. Chisels, a wooden plane, a buck saw, even an old canning jar with four square, hand-forged nails. I wondered if they would still be there after closing. They were worth a bit of change. Not that I’d sell them. I love those old tools.
I heard Christine moving around in the basement.
“How do you like the laundry set-up?” I called through the open door.
She didn’t answer.
“Well, there’s no rot in the sill plate. Only issue is we’ll have to redo all the electrical.”
She didn’t even answer that, which was odd. You can’t mention old wiring without Christine asking, “Is it safe?”
I stuck my head out of the workshop. At first I didn’t see her, but then a shape moved on the other side of the furnace.
“You startled me!” I said. “I didn’t see you at–”
Quick movement, and then the click of a door latching.
The floor creaked over my head, as if she were walking around the living room, at the far end of the house from the basement stairs. I walked the long way, around the furnace, back up to the landing. The door at the top of the stairs was open, just as I’d left it.
The moment I stepped into the kitchen Christine descended on me.
“I want to make an offer,” she said. “Are you with me?”
“The electrical needs to be updated. We could get a quote on that.”
“Are you serious? John, this house is a gem. You know what the market’s like, if it isn’t sold by one o’clock this afternoon I’ll run naked down main street. We’re lucky we got to see it. Are you with me?”
“Sure, sure, let’s buy it.” We’d already had three perfect houses sold out from under us, I was tired of hunting. So we talked price, and made our offer, and I forgot all about the closing door. To my delight, all those fabulous tools came with the house.
Our son Jack was dumbstruck when we brought him to his new home. He was not quite four years old, many things in the world were new, but when he saw the house his eyes popped like ping-pong balls and his mouth fell open.
“You like it?” I asked
“It’s so big!” he said.
I laughed, because he was looking at it from the narrow street end. But compared to our one bedroom apartment, where he slept in a “youth bed” in the pantry, yeah, it was huge.
“Your bedroom is as big as the living room in our old place,” I told him.
“I want to see!”
So I gave him the tour. We had to go straight to his bedroom, where I had to reassure him that, yes, we could put his bed back together. Then we went back down through the house, finding all the rooms. I had to explain what a dining room was.
“A room just for eating dinner?”
Last, of course, we came to the basement. To my surprise, Jack was familiar with the concept of basements. He eyed the door suspiciously.
“Do you want to see?” I asked.
“With you?” he asked.
He reached up, and wrapped his hand around two of my fingers, These days, we could usually get by with a three-finger hand-hold, but to go into the basement he wanted to have a firm grip on me. He descended the stairs, one tread at a time, by my side.
“I’ll introduce you to Mr. Furnace,” I said.
“Who’s Mr. Furnace?”
“He’s the machine that heats the house in the winter,” I said. “Remember Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel?”
As we descended the stairs, the hulking shadow of the furnace came into view. The wall switch only controlled the light at the foot of the stairs, to light up the rest of the basement, we’d have to walk into the darkness and pull the string.
“Remember at the end, he becomes the janitor of the new school? And his steam shovel becomes the furnace?”
“Well, ours is like that,” I said, pleased with my friendly introduction. We reached the bottom of the stairs, and walked forward into the darkness.
“Our furnace was never a steam shovel, but he’s a friendly machine that warms our house. He’s asleep, now, because it’s summer. But in the winter you’ll hear him. He’ll go whrrrrr.” I pulled the string and lit up the furnace.
Jacko regarded the monstrosity. “He has big teeth.”
The grate at the bottom.
“But they aren’t sharp,” I said. “See?”
“Uh huh.” He looked at Mr. Furnace a moment longer. “If he’s sleeping, maybe we should go back upstairs so we don’t wake him up.”
I considered whether to reassure him that the furnace slept soundly during the summer, but decided to give it a miss.
“But I want to show you something else cool.” I lead him into the far end, into the workshop. “It’s the workshop. See these tools? These tools are so old, my grandfather would have thought them old fashioned. This is how people built things when they didn’t have routers and disk sanders.”
“After we get unpacked, maybe one day we can come down here, and I can show you how they work.”
He wasn’t feeling the magic of tools. Actually, he was staring out the door, as if he didn’t trust what the basement might do if he took his eyes off it.
“Another time, maybe,” I said. “Let me show you one more thing.”
I brought him back through the basement, past Mr. Furnace, and pointed out the toilet in the corner.
“There’s an emergency toilet down here, too. If ever you need to go real bad, and mom or dad is in the bathroom, you can come down here and use this toilet.”
Jacko’s face closed up, and he shook his head.
“Just in an emergency,” I said.
He shook his head again. Well, one hit and two strikes, I’ve had worse games.
“Shall we head back up?” I reached for the light chain.
His hand clenched tight around my fingers, and he sidled behind my legs.
“What?” I asked.
“The stairs,” he said.
“What’s the matter with the stairs, Jacko?”
“They’re full of holes.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. There were no holes in the stairs. “They’re good strong stairs, Jacko. They won’t break.”
“Something could grab you.”
The risers! The basement stairs had no risers, they were open to the dark space underneath.
“There’s nothing under the stairs,” I said. “It’s perfectly safe. Here. I’ll carry you.”
He let me pick him up, but he buried his face in my shoulder until I had rounded the landing and arrived safely in the kitchen. I sighed. One hit and three strikes. The basement was out. Despite all my great work with Mr. Furnace.
Christine didn’t like the basement, either.
“You didn’t tell me there was asbestos on the furnace,” she said.
“All those old furnaces have asbestos,” I assured her. “It’s in good condition, as long as we leave it alone it won’t be a problem.”
“But that furnace has got to go,” she said. “It’s got to be horrifically inefficient.”
“When we get it removed we’ll have to get professionals who specialize in asbestos, that’s all.”
“All right. But I don’t want Jacko going down there until it’s done.”
“He doesn’t need a new reason to fear the basement.”
“I’m serious, John.”
“I don’t know if I want to go down there, either.”
“The laundry is down there!” I protested.
“Well, maybe it’s time you learn how to do laundry.”
I didn’t answer that. It was an empty threat and we all knew it. Christine would never trust me to wash her clothes correctly.
We spent the next three days unpacking boxes, setting things up and putting them away. Jacko ran from room to room, crowing every five minutes, “It’s so big!” We blew a fuse trying to run the television and the washing machine at the same time, which finally brought Christine up to the worry pitch about the wiring that I had expected. I made some calls to electricians, but no one called me back.
I was in the middle of one such call when Christine walked in with a lollipop. “Seriously, John?”
I signed to her to wait while I left my phone number again, then hung up.
“Did you really think that would work?” Christine said. “Jack hardly even knows what a lollipop is.”
“Where’d you find that?” We weren’t a big candy family. Jack’s entire experience with lollipops was entirely due to his Uncle Henry, who only saw him twice.
“You’re going to pretend you didn’t leave it for him?” she asked.
“No pretending about it,” I said. “Where was it?”
“At the top of the basement stairs,” she said, as if that proved my guilt. “With another one half way down, and one on the landing!” Case closed.
But what she was telling me was too disturbing to worry about the accusation. All my sleeping chivalry roused at the thought of a threat to my family. I went down into the kitchen and flicked on the basement light. There they were, two lollipops, green as poison, one halfway down, one on the landing. I descended the stairs. Christine watched from from the kitchen door. Sure enough, there was another lollipop halfway down the last flight, and another on the concrete floor. I went the rest of the way down, out of sight of the kitchen. There weren’t any more. Whoever had been trying to entice my son into the basement had been satisfied just to get him there. Which meant he must have been hiding close to the stairs.
The stairs full of holes.
Slowly, I turned around.
There was another lollipop lying on the floor, next to the stairs—nearly underneath. My hands closed into fists. I wished I had a flashlight, or anything hard in my hands, but I felt strong and deadly. Threaten my son, will you? I crouched and peered into the dark under the stairs. At first, I saw nothing but shadow. But as my eyes got used to the dark, I made out a small door. I’d never noticed before, but the space under the landing was walled in to make a crude cabinet. The door was just a panel of tongue-and-groove boards held on with two straps hinges and a twist latch. It was hanging open, and there was another lollipop on the floor, right in front of the door.
I knocked the door open and wound up, ready to pound the pervert right through the concrete and back into last Sunday.
There was nothing beyond but blackness.
I needed a flashlight. But if I went upstairs to get one, I’d give him a chance to get away. The back door out of the house opened off the basement landing. We had to resolve this now.
The door was so short I could barely enter hunkered down on my heels, but even so I tried to move fast, pop through without warning and grabbed left and right. My hand smacked on the boards but caught nothing alive. I drove forward and smacked my hands against the concrete back wall, but my feet touched a skinny leg. I grabbed the leg and swung it with all my might against the concrete, making a cacophonous clang and sending a jarring shock up my arms.
“John?” Christine called. “Is everything all right?”
I explored the impossibly thin and rigid “leg” I was holding.
“I tripped on a coal shovel,” I said.
Whoever had been here, he was long gone. Probably when Christine had collected the first lollipop, he realized the game was up, and fled out the back door.
The only thing left to do was decide what to tell Christine. If I told her that a pedophile had tried to lure Jacko into a secret cabinet under the basement stairs, she would lose it. We would be spending the night in a motel, and then selling our dream house at fantastic loss, and somehow it would be my fault, because she’d already decided I was behind the lollipop incident, and once Christine ranted, she never recanted. I was going to have to settle this myself.
I collected the lollipops on my way back out.
“All right,” I said to Christine’s stare. “Dumb idea.” Then I walked right past her.
“Hey Jacko!” I called. “Let’s go to the hardware store! Then I can show you how to change the locks on a back door!”
“What do you change them into?” Jack asked.
Once I’d finished Adventures in Lock changing, which interested Jacko for all of thirty seconds, I went down to the police station to make a report. I met with a tall, chinless Officer Stewart, who asked if we had the house at seventeen Spear Street. I said we did.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, the previous owners had some trouble. Probably a homeless man had been living in the basement when it was unoccupied, and he kept breaking in. He never took anything, but they didn’t feel safe.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a three year-old son.”
“You got a good lock on the back door?”
“I just changed it,” I said.
“Smart. Make sure the basement windows are all secure. Sometimes people don’t notice that one is easily opened.
“I’ll take a spin around your neighborhood, see if I see anything. To be honest, I thought the previous owners were a pair of fruit loops. They were talking about—I don’t know—a portal into fairyland or something, so I didn’t take them very seriously. But if you’re having trouble, too, I’ll see if I can’t scare up who’s causing it.”
“How long did they live there?” I asked.
“The fruit loops? Not more than a month. Before that it goes back to old Hutmacher. That was a funny case.”
“Well, no one knows what happened to him. He outlived his family by a couple years, I guess, so nobody was checking on him, but he stopped paying his taxes. I was the new guy on the force, back then, so I got all the— all the jobs no one wanted to do, so I had to serve him his papers. We were all sure he was dead and stinking to high heaven.”
He grinned at me.
“Was he?” I asked.
He shrugged. “If he was, he wasn’t there. No old man. Nothing. House is just like he left it. Bed is made. Dishes in the dish rack clean. Dirty clothes in the hamper. Coffee grounds and water in the coffee maker, ready to make coffee in the morning. No old man. Only thing out of place is a single slipper in the basement. It became this local mystery, and all the guys on the force were jealous that I got in the paper, because I was the one first saw it.” He chuckled at his triumph.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“No one knows. I figure he wandered off one night, fell down a manhole. Some day some city worker will find a skeleton in a sewer, they’ll match dental records, and there’ll be one less mystery in the world. But it was a good one on the guys. They thought they were giving me the shit job, but I got in the paper.”
“Yeah. You will check the neighborhood?”
“Sure, sure. And I’ll keep an eye on your place. Don’t you worry. I’m glad it didn’t go to another fruit loop.”
I didn’t find him entirely reassuring. But I followed his advice, checked all the basement windows. They were all firmly locked. In fact, it didn’t appear they could ever be opened. Then I installed a backyard light on a motion detector. I thought that would dissuade anyone from exploring access. At least while we were home.
That night I didn’t sleep easily. By day, I thought I had done well. I’d ensured there was no easy access to our house, and alerted the local police. But our bedroom was in the back of the house, so I found myself staring at the window, waiting for the light to be triggered by someone trying the door. It remained stubbornly dark, so I remained awake, waiting for the visit that never came.
I startled awake, deep dark, no idea what the time was. Feeling guilty for my lapse of vigilance, I sat up. The window on to the back yard was softly glowing. Had that been what woke me? I held still and listened. There was no traffic. No crickets. No noise. Nothing stirred in all the world. But the light in the window didn’t go out, which meant something was still moving.
As soundlessly as I could, I slipped out of bed. Since Jacko was born I’ve worn my shorts to bed, and I was glad I wasn’t naked. I thought for a moment about looking out the window, but if the intruder saw my shadow moving he’d be gone. I didn’t want to show myself until I had the best chance of catching him.
Slowly, I crept down the stairs, and stole up to the kitchen door. Still. Silent. The light was still on in back. But then I noticed that the windows on the side of the house were equally lit, a pale blue-gray light. I could not explain this phenomenon, but I crouched down low, scurried across to the back window, and popped my head up.
The yard glowed in the vague light. There the lilac in the corner, there the garage, there the vertical board fence, there the empty grass where one day I would build a swing set. No intruder. The light I had taken for my motion sensor was in fact the sky-glow of approaching dawn. Total false alarm.
I almost turned back to bed. But then I thought—just to make sure—I’d open the basement door, go down to the landing, and look out the back door.
There, on the landing, was a pair of Christine’s underpants.
So she dropped them when she carried the laundry up, I told myself. But I didn’t remember her doing laundry that day. She could have done it while I was downtown at the police station. But I’d checked the back door before I went to bed. They were lying right where one of the lollipops had been.
I turned on the basement light and went down to the landing. On the last step hung a pair of my boxer shorts. This time I turned back, rummaged in the kitchen drawer, and found the flashlight. I also found the hardwood rolling pin. With the flashlight in my left, and the rolling pin in my right, I approached the basement stairs.
They’re full of holes!
If I walked slowly down, it would be the easiest thing for the intruder to reach between the treads, grab my ankle, and trip me to a face plant in concrete.
I had to go fast. I took the stairs in two bounds, leaping three or four at once, hitting the bottom and spinning, ready to attack, but nothing came. My light was a jumble of shadows beneath the stairs. I sidestepped, hopping up onto the false floor and shining the beam into the triangular gap.
There was nothing under the stairs except a pair of Jack’s underpants, just in front of the little cabinet door.
I was sure I hadn’t left that door hanging open like that. All right, creep. Today is your date with destiny. I crouched down, reached under the stairs and flung the door open, thrusting my light into the dark.
Nothing but concrete wall, and one of Christine’s bras, lying on the dirty floor. I leaned closer, and shone my light all around.
There, in the furthest corner, was a crack in the concrete. Not a crack, a fissure. A foot thick, and three feet long. Easily big enough for a man to slip through. On the other side was darkness.
I ran my light all around the cabinet, making sure there were no intruders, say, clinging to the underside of the ceiling. Then I climbed into the cabinet, and approached the gap. It gave on an earthen tunnel, sloping deep down. The tunnel quickly grew big enough for two or three tall men to walk side-by-side.
An insane fury took hold of me. I sprang out of the cabinet, ran the length of the basement to the workshop, and found a hammer and the four antique nails. I ran back, slammed the cabinet shut, and nailed the door closed. In my haste and fury, I bet two of the nails, but the other two I drove home, straight across the gap. Anyone who could open that door would be almost strong enough to just smash through the side.
“John, what the hell?” Christine demanded, standing on the landing in her nightshirt.
I stuck my head out from under the stairs.
“You woke up Jacko, he was screaming that the monster in the basement was going to get you.”
“No,” I said. “I fixed it so the monster can’t get out.”
“What the hell are you talking about? It’s four thirty in the fucking morning?”
“There’s a hole in the basement,” I said, slowly working out what I was going to tell her. “I was afraid Jacko might fall into it, so I boarded it up.”
“Okay, but, at four thirty in the morning?”
“I didn’t think,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t think,” she said, and threw up her hands. “Imagine what life could be like, if only we could all just think before we did something.”
I considered my work. No one could get through it easily. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to be sure no one could ever get through.
After breakfast I ran downtown and got a bag of cement. Then I dug up the bricks that had been laid in a border under the lilac, pulled the nails out of the cabinet door, and set to work filling in the gap. It took me the better part of the morning. I ran short of bricks, but finished the job by wedging in an old board and cementing it in place. I’d have been happier if it had been all masonry, or course, but I knew this was secure. Even if someone managed to chisel out that board, the gap it would leave would be too small even for Jacko to pass through.
I cam up feeling very pleased with myself. I’d figured out how that homeless man was getting into our house, and put a stop to it, once and for all. I can defend my castle!
“What have you been doing all morning?” Christine demanded. “You know there are other rooms in the house that need unpacking, apart from the basement. I can’t do it all.”
After an hour of such haranguing, I developed a sudden curiosity about whether that tunnel might show up in city records. It’s pretty hard to do a major earth removal in a city without anyone noticing truckloads of dirt being carted away, and that meant permits, and that meant documentation. So I went to city hall and dove into the record of Seventeen Spear Street.
There was remarkably little to find. From 1920 to 1982 it had been in the hands of the original owner, a Carl Soderberg. It had gone to a T. Dwight until 2001, passed through three owners in 2002, stood empty until 2012, before going to H. Hutmacher, the one who disappeared on Officer Stewart. The only permitted work that had been done, apart from occasional painting and roof replacement, was the furnace conversion, driveway surfacing, and backyard fence. No tunnel. No earthwork that could have been cover for a tunnel.
My curiosity hung up on the year 2001. Since 2001, it had never been occupied for more than two months, except for Hutmacher. Was that the year the tunnel had been built? I looked up the records for all the neighboring properties, figuring the tunnel went below them, so it would have been possible to dig from somewhere else. But I found nothing.
I went to the clerk at the desk. “Where would I go if I wanted to learn more about H. Hutmacher?”
“The trial?” she asked.
“The trial? The arrest records?”
“I thought he lived alone.”
“Well, yeah, after,” she said. “You bought his house on Spear Street, did you?”
I didn’t like how everybody seemed to be familiar with my house.
“And I bet the realtor didn’t mention the Hutmacher affair, did she? There should be a law against that, you know. Should be a required disclosure.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, you could probably start at the library. Looking up the old newspaper reports. Yeah, Hutmacher lived there with his wife and four kids. The kids disappeared, one after the other, three months apart like clockwork. The first time, it was this big tragedy. The second time, everybody was like, poor man, lose two kids like that. But the third time, they finally put two and two and two together, and arrested him. Of course, he was still in jail when the last kid disappeared, so obviously it wasn’t him. So then suspicion landed on his wife, but having held him in jail for months and never charging him, they wouldn’t take her until they had some evidence. Before they found it, she was gone, too. Never did solve the case.”
So I went to the library, and read the news stories. There were lots of details, but little of significance the clerk hadn’t told me. The essential problem with the criminal case was corpus delicti, or the lack of it. No one ever found any bodies. There was no proof anyone had ever died.
In the end, old H. Hutmacher finally went to pieces. He told anyone who would listen that his family had been taken by a troll. After he was gone, people should watch out, because the troll would be hungry.
I went home feeling victorious and valiant. I had outsmarted a monster who had threatened and destroyed many families before Whether the monster was human or supernatural made little difference to me. All that mattered was who had won.
Christine complained all evening about my leaving all the unpacking to her, so I never got to tell her my discoveries. I promised to spend all tomorrow in unpacking, before I had to go back to work the next day.
As we were getting ready for bed, she told me, “Oh, and, call a plumber in the morning.”
“How should I know? But when I started the dishwasher, the pipes made this horrible banging sound. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear someone was knocking over a brick wall in the basement. Good night, John.”
“Good night, Christine.”
[Written in haste, on the back of the last page of a manuscript on the kitchen table.]
First, it tried for Jacko, and didn’t get him. Then, it tried for you, and didn’t get you. There’s an antique rabbet plane on the landing, and a level at the bottom of the stairs. This time, it wants me, and I’m going. If you’re reading this note, that means it won. Take Jacko, get out of the house, and publish this manuscript, so no one lives here ever again.
Credit: Eugene Fairfield
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