I’m intensely excited to introduce a look to “Never Let Me Go,” an entry in the WINSTON & CHURCHILL series by writer Thacher Cleveland. You can check out the full series as well as Thatcher’s novel SHADOW OF THE PAST, his journalism, and his upcoming comics work at his site here.
“When you said we were going to fight evil I didn’t think that meant going to Queens,” Lexie said, drumming her fingers on the dashboard of the ‘76 Gremlin that served as their company car.
“We go where the work is,” Henry said. “And we don’t even know if we’re going to be doing any . . . ‘evil fighting.’ Did I even say that? It’s a bit simplistic.”
“It was implied. Not that I’m complaining or anything but it’s been about six months since we’ve seen anything of the demons and monsters brand of evil.”
“True, but I know I said that those sort of cases weren’t going to be an everyday occurrence. The mundane side of private investigations pays the bills, even if it’s not as exciting as the extra-ordinary ones,” he said.
“So which is this,” Lexie said, nodding towards the house they were parked half a block away from. “Mundane or ‘extra-ordinary’?”
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
“You don’t even have a guess?”
He gave a little smile and checked his watch. “Looks like it’s about time. He should be ready for us.”
“You are such a tease,” she said, getting out.
It was early in the afternoon, overcast and and predictably quiet for a weekday. The neighborhood was almost nice despite the houses being pressed almost uncomfortably close together. Lexie could hear a dog barking wildly, and as they got closer she saw it was a small mutt in the glassed in porch of one of the neighbors. It stood on its hind legs, barking with all the force it could muster at the house Henry had pointed out.
When they got to front gate of the house Henry took out a small notebook, read his notes over and then dropped it back into the pocket of his rumpled suit. He nodded at Lexie and the two of them opened the gate and headed through the tiny front yard and up the steps. Before they even got to the top the door opened and a small, middle-aged man stared at them through the screen door. ‘Small’ was generous, as he was barely over five feet tall and even managed to slouch down and lose an inch or two.
“Are you from the detective agency?” he asked them, his voice lowering at the last bit.
“Yes, Mr. Chalmers.” Henry said. “I’m Henry Churchill, we spoke on the phone. This is my associate, Lexie Winston.”
The man nodded and opened the screen door for them. “Call me David, please.” He motioned them through the foyer and into the living room, watching them nervously. Lexie had become accustomed to people’s surprise at what an odd pair the two of they made; her tall, pale and skinny, with long dark hair pulled into a pony tail through the back of her Knicks cap and Henry; shorter, rounder, dark skinned, a receding hairline and close trimmed beard.
“Can I take your coats?” David asked.
Henry handed over his overcoat but Lexie waved him off, not wanting to make the already nervous man moreso by showing the Walther holstered in the small of her back. “I’ll be right back with some refreshments,” David said. The two stepped into a living room filled with plastic covered furniture, half dead plants and dotted with photographs. On the mantle of the decorative fireplace was a small colony of ceramic figurines, and before she could make a comment about them Henry shook his head at her.
“You never let me have any fun,” she said. She wandered around the room, taking a closer look at the photos that dominated the far wall. There were a variety of pictures of David and woman that must have been his wife at obvious vacation spots like the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and various family gatherings. The two smiled thinly or not at all as they leaned against each other. For a couple that didn’t seem to like having their pictures taken they sure had a lot of them. Looking closer, she could see that there were slightly lighter rectangular spots on the wall, some partially obscured by other pictures but all picture-sized.
“Thank you for coming all this way to see me,” David said, coming into the living room holding a tray with a tea kettle, cups and fancy cookies.
“It’s no bother,” Henry said. David set the tray on the table and sat across from them, folding his hands into his lap and almost disappearing into the soft cushions of the chair.
“You said that you were worried about your wife, that she’d be acting peculiar the past several months,” Henry said.
David nodded. “Maybe it’s nothing, I don’t know. I could be over-reacting but . . . I just get the feeling that something has happened to Mimi. She’s different.”
“In what way?” Lexie said, sitting down next to Henry.
“She keeps odd hours. She’s been staying down in her workshop in the cellar whenever she’s at home and for much later at night than she used to. Several months ago she took almost a thousand dollars in cash out of the bank and wouldn’t tell me what it was for. She’s distant and doesn’t really talk to me anymore.”
“What do you think it is?” Henry asked.
“It’s hard to say. Last year we lost our son, Conrad. She took it very hard.”
“It’s never easy to lose a child,” Henry said.
“Do you have any of your own Mr. Churchill?”
“Two,” Henry said. “fourteen and sixteen.”
David turned and looked at Lexie, who froze with a cookie halfway to her mouth. “No,” she said. “Not really a breeder.”
David’s face crinkled up her choice of words but continued. “Conceiving was long and difficult and when it finally happened we were very, very grateful. We loved him and tried to take such good care of him, but when he was six there was an accident. He and Mimi were walking to the store and there was a drunk driver. Connie had been lagging behind, I guess, and Mimi was holding his hand. She turned back to scold him when the car came and just . . . ripped him right from her grip. The driver got a block further before he lost control and hit a bus. Both he and Connie were killed instantly.”
David paused, looking over at the wall of photos. “The year after his death was very hard on us both, but it seemed like things were slowly getting better. Then, right around his birthday she had a bit of a . . . well, I guess you’d call it a relapse. She started going on medication and at first I didn’t think it was working but then things changed. She started feeling much better but that’s when her odd behavior started. “
“Is that around the time she took out the money?” Lexie asked.
He nodded. “We’d hardly ever fought about the finances, but that was all of our savings. That, along with her odd behavior, has made things very tense between us. I’m just not sure what else I can do.”
“Anything else out of the ordinary?” Henry asked.
David opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. The three of them were silent for several moments before he continued. “We were at a funeral for her uncle several weeks ago and as soon as we got to the church she said she smelled something horrible. After a couple of minutes she said she started getting some kind of rash, and it finally got so bad I thought she’d been burned or had some kind of allergic reaction.”
Henry leaned back, running a hand over the short graying hair on his head.
“Did the rash go away by the time you got home?” he asked.
“Yes,” David said. “She said it was just the sweater she was wearing, but I’ve never seen something flare up like that and then go away so quickly. I don’t even think she’s allergic to anything.”
“Was she baptized into that church?” Henry asked.
“Yes. Is that important?”
“It could mean a lot of things. David . . . you found something, didn’t you? Something that made you want to call us because you couldn’t really understand it, right?”
“Yes,” David said. He looked from Lexie to Henry and back again, rubbing his hands together. “Your ad said that you handle the unusual and I found . . . something last week. I thought it was nothing at first, but then it . . . ” he trailed off.
“Why don’t you just show us?” Lexie said.
“It’s upstairs,” David said, getting up and waving them towards the narrow staircase near the front door. The followed him up the steps, past another army of friends and family portraits lining the wall. She and Henry followed David past what looked to be his and Mimi’s bedroom and stopped at the door at the end of the hall.
“This was Conrad’s room,” he said, putting a hand out for the doorknob but letting it hover over it for a moment with a slight tremble. “We hadn’t touched it after the accident, but after everything that had been happening recently I wanted to see it. I waited until she went to do her volunteering at the homeless shelter and that’s when I found it.”
He opened the door and waved them in. Lexie didn’t know what she expected but it wasn’t for the room to be mostly bare with more negative silhouettes on the wall where posters and pictures once hung. There were a couple boxes in the corner, a bed and a desk but other than that the room was bare. Even the bed had been stripped of sheets and pillows and with the small closet door ajar all she could see were empty hangers.
“I don’t know how long it’s been like this,” David said, his voice cracking. “I tried talking about cleaning his room a couple months after it happened but she screamed at me. She said I was trying to get rid of him, and now . . . ”
“What else did you find?” Henry said, stepping into the center of the room and turning slowly to take it all in.
David walked over to the bed and got down on one knee. “I didn’t want to move it in case she came looking for it, which is why I wanted you to come out here instead of me going to your office.” After reaching around blindly for a moment, David’s eyes widened and he pulled a bundle of cloth out from under the bed, setting it between him and Henry.
“Don’t,” Henry said as David went to unwrap it. David nodded and got back to his feet, letting out the breath he’d been holding. Henry bent over and picked it up, shaking his head at Lexie’s smirk when he let out a grunt of exertion. Henry put the bundle on the desk and pulled at the corners of the cloth. It was a book, old and leather, with symbols etched on the cover that was practically black with age. As soon as it was uncovered Lex could feel the air in the room change, becoming heavier and warmer.
“Looks like we’re going with extra-ordinary,” Lexie muttered.
“I was right, wasn’t it?” David asked. “It’s not normal, is it?”
“You could say that,” Henry said, running a couple of fingers over the cover and leaning in to get a closer look. The book itself wasn’t very thick but the cover was. The ornate swirls and symbols looked to have been pounded into the leather, but there were also scratches all over it. One of the corners even looked like something had chewed on it.
“When I realized the room had been emptied I just started looking all over the place, trying to see if she had just hidden Conrad’s things somewhere and that’s when I found it. I wanted to open it to see what it was but I just couldn’t bring myself to touch it any more. That night I felt like I could feel it down the hall. Like there was a pressure on my chest.” As he spoke David’s breath got shallower and he began to clutch at the front of his sweater.
“Okay, why don’t we have a little breather,” Lexie said, taking him by the arm and just gently pulling him out of the room. He didn’t resist, which helpful, despite the fact that she was pretty sure she could toss him down the hallway without too much effort.
“Good idea,” murmured Henry, still staring down at the book.
Lexie got David turned around and headed towards the stairs, and once he was out of earshot she leaned back into the room.
“Should I be worried?” she asked.
“Right,” she said, turning and heading down the hall. “Situation normal, then.”
She found David sitting in the kitchen, still clutching his sweater with one hand and holding an inhaler just as tight in his other. “I’m sorry,” he said as she sat down. “I just can’t believe that she would have something like that right where our son slept.”
“Yeah,” Lexie said. “It’s pretty fucked up.” He looked over at her with a face scrunched up in distaste and she realized she probably just deflowered the Chalmers family kitchen. It was far too cute and filled with lace and cartoon renderings of stereotypical Italians for that kind of language. There was one thing that stood out to her as she took in the quaint family kitchen and she crossed the room to the door opposite her get a closer look at it.
“Is this new?” she said, pointing to the shiny silver padlock just above the doorknob.
“Yes,” David said. “That door leads down to the basement. Mimi had an extra lock put in a couple months ago.”
David paused, trying to recall. “There’s a storm door down there that leads outside and she was afraid someone would break in through there and get in.” Lexie looked around, and then pointed at the door in the back of the kitchen that led out to the screened in back porch. “If she was so worried about a break in why didn’t she want to have the screens back there replaced with glass?”
David looked from her to the porch and then back again. “I don’t know. We never talked about that.”
“And this is where you said she’s been spending most of her time, right?”
“Yes,” David said, turning his inhaler around and around in his hand.
“Do you have a key?”
His hand squeezed the fabric of his sweater again. “No.” He took a deep breath to try to help the words come out, and they did. Quietly. “She said I didn’t need one.”
“Right,” Lexie said, turning and examining the clasp and lock. “Do you have a screwdriver? Philips head?”
He nodded and got up, heading into the living room and coming back moments later with one. One by one she removed the screws holding the clasp on to the door, leaving it and the padlock dangling from the side screwed in to the door jamb. “Voila,” she said, opening the basement door. She flipped on the light switch, illuminating the stairwell. It curved down and around a corner at the bottom. Lexie strained to try to hear anything, and after a couple moments of silence she took a couple steps down.
“Is this new also?” she asked, tapping the nearly identical silver padlock and latch on the inside of the door. David nodded. “Okay. I want you to go upstairs and wait for me. I’m going to go and check it out.” David nodded again, taking another look at the most recent evidence of his wife’s heightened privacy concerns before heading upstairs. Once he was out of sight, Lexie drew her Walther, checked the clip, chambered a round and thumbed off the safety. She took the stairs as quietly as she could, trying to convince herself that she was being overly cautious.
Then again, why would Mimi Chalmers have locks on both sides of the door unless there was something that she wanted to make sure didn’t get out even while she was down here?
A faint scent of artificial pine wafted up to her as she walked down the steps and when she reached the bottom and turned the corner the pine smell threatened to overwhelm her. There was a short hallway leading to a darkened doorway and hanging from the ceiling and along the wall were dozens upon dozens of pine-scented car fresheners, some faded but others still bright and brimming with chemically powered “freshness.” Some hung so low she had to duck down to pass under them, and as she moved through the narrow hallway crammed with junk and cardboard boxes with precise labeling the pine smell began to give way to one that was heavy, sour and unfortunately familiar. She couldn’t be sure, but Lexie had a fairly good idea that something down here was dead.
She hoped it stayed that way.
The small hallway opened into a darkened larger room and a bunch of air-fresheners hung in the doorway like a curtain. She brushed aside the fresheners and felt around the wall until she found the light switch. She turned it on and stood in the doorway, scanning the narrow room. The walls were paneled with fake wood and the floor covered in worn carpet, giving the place an underground office/bunker vibe. In the far corner there was a tiny desk with half-painted figurines and neatly lined up jars of paint. To her right was the storm door leading outside that Mimi had told her husband she’d been worried about and from where Lex was standing she could see an interior padlock had been added to this door as well. In the corner opposite Mimi’s workspace there was another doorway, this one with a blanket hanging from the ceiling like a makeshift door.
Lex crossed to it, stepping lightly and leading with her Walther. She put a hand on the blanket and drew it back a little. The rotting smell was stronger here and she waited until she got used to it. After a couple of moments she pushed the blanket open along the clothesline that had been strung up.
David wouldn’t have had far to look for his son’s missing things. They were laid out in the unfinished utility room in what Lex could only assume was a close a replica of how his room had looked when he was alive. Toys were scattered on the super-hero rug that covered the stone floor and the unfinished walls were covered with old hanging sheets. All of the pictures of Conrad with his family that had been taken down from upstairs had were displayed down here, hooked into the bedclothes turned wallpaper and hanging on nearly every wall of the small room, even at the back leaning against boxes half-covered with a blanket that were set up in front of the furnace and water heater.
As she looked at them she realized Conrad was a cuter kid than Lexie thought his parents were capable of. Unlike the photos upstairs, every picture with their child showed David and Mimi big genuine smiles. The pictures seemed to be arranged roughly in chronological order, with a swaddled and happy baby Conrad on one side of the wall and a beaming, energetic six year old at an amusement park pulling his father towards a roller coaster on the other.
Against the wall at the end of the photographic tour of the short life of Conrad Chalmers was an old refrigerator, about three feet high and five feet long. She walked over, keeping her gun trained on it and trying to move without a sound as she stepped around Matchbox cars and action figures. The soft hum it gave off let her know it was still working but she could also tell that it was the source of the rotting stench. She held her breath and lifted the lid but the sudden burst of cold rancid air made her eyes water. She had to turn away to try to get some fresh air, almost letting the lid drop back down. She’d half expected something to spring out at her and if it had it would’ve caught her completely off guard.
After a couple of seconds she turned back, breathing through her mouth to try to avoid the stench. Lying in refrigerator on a bed of ice was a man staring up at her with dead, glassy eyes and a blackish-purple ring of bruises around his neck. His legs had been bent up to make him fit and his arms were crossed over his chest, giving him an almost fetal appearance. His shoulder length hair was mostly frozen to his gaunt face and unkempt beard and he wore a tattered corduroy shirt over an even dirtier t-shirt but that was all; from the waist down he was naked.
His waist was covered in a makeshift diaper of plastic wrap, and there was more of it around one of his calves as well. Lexie poked at it tentatively with her gun and it crinkled, leaving a dent that showed a deep black underneath not unlike the bruising around his neck. Bits of him covered by the diaper showed swaths of blood-black as well, including a large patch where his genitals would be. As she prodded him with the pistol, moving him slightly, there was a clatter as a large cleaver came free from it’s resting place next to the man and slid down along the ice.
Lex let the lid close and turned away. “Jesus,” she muttered, letting out a breath. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find in Mimi’s secret playroom/museum to her dead child but it certainly wasn’t the partially butchered body of a strangled transient.
There was a rattle of something moving behind her and she turned, snapping the Walther up. The sound was coming from the other side of the blanket covering the boxes and junk at the far end of the room. She waited and it came again, louder this time, like something metal shifting back and forth. As she stepped closer she could hear something else as well, a sort of high pitched whine in time with the shaking.
She was so intent at keeping her eyes forward that she kicked a small ball, which bounced off of one of the toys and hit where the blanket touched the ground. At the sound of the ball the shaking stopped and then started up again even stronger. The whine had turned into angry little grunts and she could see something was pushing onto the other side of the blanket.
“Fuck this,” Lexie said, yanking the blanket down and stepping back, pistol up and at the ready.