Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
The woman is Elsa Ditmer, which only becomes clear to me once both the police and her daughter arrive within a minute of each other.
First is the police, summoned by a frantic 911 call I’d made five minutes earlier. Rather than some rookie cop, I’m sent the police chief, a woman named Tess Alcott, who seems none too pleased to be here.
She steps into the house with a scowl on her face and the cocksure gait of a movie cowboy. I suspect both are affectations. Things she needs to do to be taken seriously. I do the same when I’m on the job. In my case, though, it’s a no-nonsense demeanor and clothes that appall my mother.
“I think I already know which one of you is the intruder,” Chief Alcott says.
She doesn’t get the chance to say anything else, because that’s when Mrs. Ditmer’s daughter rushes through the still-open door. Like her mother, she’s in nightclothes. Flannel pajama bottoms and an oversize Old Navy T-shirt. Ignoring Chief Alcott and me, she heads
straight to her mother, who sits in the parlor, slumped in a chair still covered by a drop cloth.
“Mama, what are you doing here?”
The old woman reaches out for me, her fingers stretched, as if that might bridge the two-foot gap between us. “Petra,” she says.
That’s when I understand who she is. Who all of them are. Elsa Ditmer, her daughter, Chief Alcott—all are characters in the Book. Only they’re not characters. They’re living, breathing people. Other than my parents, I’ve never met someone mentioned in the Book, and therefore I must remind myself of their existence in real life.
“That’s not Petra, Mama,” her daughter says. “That’s a stranger.”
Mrs. Ditmer’s face, which had contained a kind of beatific hope, suddenly collapses. Grim understanding settles over her features, darkening her eyes and making her bottom lip quiver. Seeing it hurts my heart so much that I need to turn away.
“As you can see, Mrs. Ditmer gets confused sometimes,” Chief Alcott says. “Has a tendency to wander off.”
“I was told she wasn’t well,” I say.
“She has Alzheimer’s.” This is spoken by her daughter, who’s suddenly at our side. “Sometimes she’s fine. Almost as if nothing is wrong. And at other times her mind gets cloudy. She forgets what year it is, or else wanders off. I thought she was asleep. But when I saw the chief drive by, I knew she had come here.”
“Does she do that a lot?”
“No,” she says. “Usually the gate is closed.”
“Well, it’s all over now,” Chief Alcott says. “No harm meant, and no harm done. I think it’s best if Elsa gets home and back into bed.”
Mrs. Ditmer’s daughter doesn’t move. “You’re Maggie Holt,” she says, in a way that makes it sound like an accusation.
When I offer my hand, she pointedly refuses to shake it.
“Hannah,” she says, even though I’d already inferred that. “We’ve met before.”
I know, only because it was in the Book. Although my father had written that Hannah was six at the time, she looks a good decade older than me. She’s got a rawboned appearance. A woman whose soft edges had been scraped away by life. The past twenty-five years must have been a bitch.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” I say.
Hannah shrugs. A gesture that seems to say,
Yeah, you and me both.
“Petra’s your sister, right?”
my sister,” Hannah says. “Sorry if my mom scared you. It won’t happen again.”
She helps her mother out of the chair and guides her carefully to the door. On their way out, Elsa Ditmer turns and gives me one last look, just in case I’ve magically turned into her other daughter. But I’m still me, a fact that’s met with another crestfallen look on Mrs. Ditmer’s face.
After they’re gone, Chief Alcott lingers in the vestibule. Above her, the moth in the light fixture has gone still. Maybe just for a moment. Maybe forever.
“Maggie Holt.” The chief shakes her head in disbelief. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’re here. Not with your father’s passing and all. My condolences, by the way.”
She notices my bags, still on the vestibule floor.
“Looks like you intend to stay awhile.”
“Just long enough to fix this place up and sell it.”
“Ambitious,” Chief Alcott says. “You plan on turning it into a vacation home for some Wall Street type? Or maybe a bed-and-breakfast? Something like that?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
She sighs. “That’s a shame. I was hoping you’d come to demolish the place. Baneberry Hall deserves to be nothing but rubble.”
The pause that follows suggests she’s expecting me to be offended. I’m not.
“I assume my father’s book has been a problem,” I say.
“It was. For a year or so, we had to post officers outside the front gate. That was a hoot. Some of those guys weren’t so tough once they realized they had to spend a shift outside the house of horrors. I didn’t mind it, though. Someone had to keep the ghouls away.”
“Ghost tourists. That was our name for them. All those folks coming by, trying to climb the gate or hop the wall and sneak into the house. I won’t lie—some of them made it pretty far.”
My back and shoulders tense with unease. “They got inside?”
“A few,” the chief says nonchalantly, as if it’s nothing to be concerned about. “But those days are long gone. Sure, a couple of drunk kids try to sneak onto the property every so often. It’s never a big deal. Dane Hibbets or Hannah Ditmer usually sees them coming and gives me a ring. It’s mostly quiet now, which is just the way I like it.”
Chief Alcott fixes me with a hard stare. It feels like a warning.
“Like I said, my time here is temporary. But I do have a question. What happened to Petra Ditmer?”
“She ran away,” the chief says. “That’s the theory, at least. No one’s been able to track her down to confirm it.”
“Twenty-five years ago.” Chief Alcott narrows her eyes into suspicious slits. “I remember because it was around the same time your father told me this place was haunted.”
So she’s the one. The cop who filed the report that started the whole
House of Horrors
phenomenon. I don’t know whether to thank her or curse her. The only thing I
know is that one of the Book’s original sources is idling in the vestibule, and I’d be a fool not to press her for information.
“Since you’re here, Chief,” I say, “would you like a cup of coffee?”
It turns out that despite the many things still left inside Baneberry Hall, coffee isn’t among them. We have to settle for tea made from bags so old I suspect they were here before my parents bought the place. The tea is terrible—those leaves had long ago lost their punch—but Chief Alcott doesn’t seem to mind. As she sits in the kitchen, her earlier annoyance softens into a state of bemused patience. I even catch her smiling when she sees me grimace after tasting my tea.
“I gotta admit, when I started my shift, I never expected I’d end up here,” she says. “But when the call came through saying something was going on at Baneberry Hall, I knew I needed to be the one to check it out.”
I arch a brow. “For old times’ sake?”
“Old times indeed.” She removes her hat and sets it on the table. Her hair is silver and cut close to her scalp. “God, that feels like ages ago. It
ages ago. Hard to believe I was once that young and naive.”
“In his book, my father referred to you as Officer Alcott. Were you new to the force back then?”
“A total rookie. Green in every way. So green that when a man started talking about how his house was haunted, I wrote down every word.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t believe him.”
“A story like that?” Chief Alcott lifts her mug to her lips, thinks better of it, and places it next to her hat. “Hell no, I didn’t believe him. But I took his statement, because that was my job. Also, I figured something weird had gone on here if you were all staying in the Two Pines.”
The Two Pines was the motel just outside town. I’d passed it on my way here, the twin trees on the neon sign out front blinking into brightness as I drove by. I remember thinking it was a sad little place, with its L-shaped row of sun-bleached doors and a parking lot that contained more weeds than cars. I have a hard time picturing my
family and Chief Alcott crammed inside one of those boxlike rooms, talking about ghosts.
“What exactly did my father tell you that night?”
“Pretty much what’s in that book of his.”
“You read it?”
“Of course,” the chief says. “It’s Bartleby. Everybody here has read it. If someone says they haven’t, then they’re lying.”
As I listen to the chief, I look to the wall opposite the bells. It’s partially painted, with streaks of gray primer covering up the green.
I’m hit with a memory—one as sudden as it is surprising.
Me and my father. Side by side at that very wall. Dipping our rollers into a pan of gloppy gray and using it to erase the green. I can even remember accidentally putting my hand in the primer, and my father telling me to make a handprint on the wall.
That way you’ll always be part of this place
, he said.
I know it’s an actual memory and not something from the Book because my father never wrote such a scene. It’s also vivid. So much so that I half expect my father to stroll into the kitchen, wielding a paintbrush and saying, “You ready to finish this, Mags?”
Another crack of grief forms in my heart.
“You okay there, Maggie?”
I tear my gaze away from the wall and back to Chief Alcott, who regards me with concern.
“Yeah,” I say, even though I’m now dizzy and slightly unmoored. Not just by the memory and its accompanying grief but from the fact that I’m able to remember anything at all about this place. I didn’t think that was possible, and it leaves me wondering—in equal parts anticipation and dread—what I might recall next. Because that memory of my father isn’t entirely warm and fuzzy. It’s tainted by all the years of deceit that came after it.
“Have you ever—” I turn the mug of tea in my hands, trying to think of the best way to pose my question to Chief Alcott. “Have you
ever wondered why my father told you those things that night? You said yourself you didn’t believe him. So why do you think he did it?”
The chief gives the question ample consideration. With her head tilted back and an index finger tapping her angular chin, she brings to mind a quiz show contestant reaching for an answer that’s just beyond her grasp.
“I think it was a long con,” she finally says. “That your father—maybe your mother, too—was laying the groundwork for what was to come. And naive me was their patsy. I’m not saying they knew it was going to become as popular as it did. No one could have predicted that. But I do think they hoped that tall tale of theirs would get noticed. If I had blown them off, they probably would have gone straight to the
next. Thanks to me, that rag went straight to them.”
“After you talked to my parents, did you come out here to investigate?”
“Sure I did. The gate was wide open, and the front door was unlocked.”
“Did you see anything strange?”
“You mean ghosts?” The chief lets out a low chuckle, making it clear she finds the very idea ridiculous. “All I saw was a house with no one in it. Your things were still here, making it clear you’d left in a hurry. But there were no signs of struggle. Nothing to suggest something had attacked you or your parents. You’d cut yourself, though. There was a Band-Aid on your cheek, just under your eye. I remember because I said it made you look like a football player.”
I absently touch my left cheek, my index finger sliding along the inch of raised skin there.
“What happened after you checked the house?”
“I went back to the Two Pines and told your parents that everything was in order,” Chief Alcott says. “I said whatever was there had left and that you all were free to return. That’s when your father told
me he had no intention of coming back here. I gave Walt Hibbets a call, asked him to lock up the place, and took my leave.”
“And that was it?”
“You’re asking an awful lot of questions for someone who lived through it,” the chief says. “Care to tell me why?”
I take a gulp of foul-tasting tea and tell her everything. No, I don’t remember my time here. No, I don’t think Baneberry Hall is haunted. Yes, I think my parents were lying. No, I don’t know why. Yes, I definitely think they’ve been hiding something from me for the past twenty-five years. And, yes, I completely intend on finding out what it is.
The only thing I leave out are my father’s dying words. They’re too personal to share.
When I’m finished, Chief Alcott runs a hand through her silver hair and says, “So that’s why you wanted to sit and chat.”
“It is,” I admit. “I want to talk to as many people mentioned in my father’s book as possible. I want to hear their version of things, not his. Maybe then I’ll have a better idea of why my parents did it and what they’re hiding.”
“Call me crazy,” the chief says, “but did you ask your parents?”
“I tried. It wasn’t helpful.”
“Well, getting folks here to tell their story isn’t going to be easy, seeing how some of them are dead.”