Published in the 2010 Sisters in Crime, Desert Sleuths anthology
The twisting and clicking of the doorknob was unexpected—as if someone on the inside of the house desperately wanted to get out. Or be let in. Brandon Winn brushed his short, dark wavy bangs from his forehead as he stood on his wraparound porch. His piercing blue eyes peeked through the window of his vacation home in the tall pine forest near Flagstaff, Arizona. He saw no one.
Besides the crisp forest smell, he also detected smoke. Walking to both sides of the porch, he could see nothing but more pines and two deer, within twenty feet of the house, that stood eyeing him. He glanced skyward. The full moon and hundreds of stars peered down from between the trees.
But he didn’t see smoke anywhere.
The doorknob continued to vibrate and rattle.
Brandon had moved into the two-story log house six months earlier and had experienced ghostly activity within the first few months. The next door neighbors, who lived a quarter mile away, had witnessed unusual phenomena on multiple occasions as they drove by—faux fires, sightings of children, and a mysterious red-haired woman had all been seen outside his vacation home.
He hesitated before touching the doorknob. As soon as he inserted the key and placed his right palm around the hardware, the knob turned of its own accord.
“Okay, Brandon,” he said aloud. “Your house just opened its door for you. Now what?”
“Hello?” he yelled. He waited a few seconds. Well what did you expect? The house to answer, “Yeah, I’m here. Welcome home buddy. Take a load off.”
He placed his laptop and luggage on the dark brown leather couch and waited for his friend and fellow investigator to arrive. He wondered what he and Joseph might discover regarding the home’s history. Never thought I would have to investigate my own house.
Though he wasn’t easily spooked, Brandon felt unnerved. He walked out to his car to get his ghost hunting kit. When he returned, he saw a shadow rise from the hardwood floor and cross from the great room to the upstairs. The shape couldn’t have been more than four feet tall.
Brandon was halfway up the stairs, intending to check out the mysterious figure when the floorboards in the living room creaked. He slowly turned.
“Hey,” Joseph yelled from the front porch.
Brandon gasped and grabbed the railing. “You startled me,” he said, as Joseph approached the stairs. “I just witnessed my first shadow in this place.”
“Are you kidding?” the sandy haired, boyish looking, ex-football player asked.
“No. And the door opened for me by itself. I would say the knob was loose, but I saw the handle jiggle.”
“Wow! How come you get to have all the fun? Hopefully we’ll find some evidence as to what’s going on. Maybe we’ll spot some spirits. Where should I set up the night vision cameras?”
“Try one inside the entrance pointing in the direction of the stairs. We’ll put another upstairs in the hallway.”
“Did anyone die in the house? Or any tragic events?”
Brandon gazed at his upstairs hallway, watching for any sign of movement. “I wasn’t able to get much history. It’s been a year since this place was abandoned. I’ve talked with a few neighbors who have reported bizarre lights, shadows and screams emanating from inside the house. So far, all I’ve experienced are minor noises that I first attributed to the house settling—or my imagination. But last weekend, I was lying in bed and heard a conversation downstairs. I went to check it out and didn’t see anyone.”
“What were the voices saying?” Joseph asked.
“Hard to tell. It stopped when I came down. I heard a male and a female. No one seems to know what happened here.”
“Sounds like there’s some interesting history to this place. I’ll start the baseline readings as a benchmark for our vigil tonight.” Joseph removed the Tri-field electromagnetic frequency detector, two other voice recorders, a handheld thermal imaging camera and motion detectors from Brandon’s ghost kit.
Joseph checked the battery power on the voice recorders. “I almost forgot to tell you, I invited Lara to come and check out your place. It will be interesting to see what her psychic abilities pick up along with our equipment.”
“Great idea. She’s been in sync with the evidence we found in past investigations. Do you remember she solved an old murder at Vulture Mine with her medium skills? And the caretakers weren’t even aware of that part of the mine’s history.”
“Of course I remember,” Joseph said, replacing the batteries in one of the cameras. “I was in the assay office when she came running in saying she’d heard a gunshot. That was the same time we started smelling gunpowder.”
When Brandon walked into the dining area to setup one of the cameras, he noticed his kitchen cabinets were wide open. And a ceramic black bowl, broken in four pieces, lay on the earthen-colored slate floor. The other three bowls were still stacked neatly inside the mahogany cupboard.
“Well, someone’s having parties while I’m gone.” Brandon snapped several pictures of the damage.
“What the heck?” Joseph walked into the dining area. “Has this happened before?”
Brandon shook his head. “Not like this—keys misplaced, objects missing—but I thought it was me being forgetful.”
Joseph stared, mouth agape, into the living room.
Brandon followed his gaze and saw an opaque mist. Human in form at first, it transformed into an amoeba shape. Then in a split second, the vapor became a baseball-sized, pulsating light that glowed blue, green and white. Brandon and Joseph stared, mesmerized as it zipped in between them and paused, hanging in mid-air. The light hesitated as if checking them both out then vanished through the dining room wall.
Neither could speak for a moment.
“Oh man,” Joseph finally said. “That was intense.”
“Yeah, so intense, neither of us caught it on camera. The damn thing went behind the night vision camera, not in front of it. I’d say that thing had some intelligence.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Joseph’s hands trembled as he placed fresh batteries in the thermal imaging camera. “The best investigation we’ve had, and it’s at the home of the co-founder of our paranormal research team.”
“I always thought it was exciting to pursue the paranormal,” Brandon said. “But when it involves your own home, it changes your perspective. I have a new respect for homeowners and families going through this.”
They finished setting up the rest of the equipment and completed the baseline readings. Then Brandon and Joseph sat down on the leather couch with their audio recorders going. Their flashlights scanned the living room for any sign of activity.
“Are we ready to try and communicate with the spirits?” Joseph asked.
“Let’s do it.” Brandon leaned forward, gripping tightly onto the recorder. “Who’s with us? I saw a shadow earlier—were you the one who tried opening my door?”
They waited, giving whatever spirits might be with them a chance to respond. Thirty seconds later, a knock on the door made them both jump.
Joseph laughed. “Either that’s Lara, or we might have an answer from beyond.”
Brandon opened the door and welcomed Lara Lanier, psychic and medium. Long silky blond hair, five foot seven and fair skin, she took his breath away every time he saw her. Unfortunately, she belonged to Matt Keegan, pagan and a paranormal investigator on another team.
“Hi guys,” she said, giving Joseph, then Brandon a hug. “Great to see you. I wish it was under better circumstances.”
Brandon breathed in her sweet cherry vanilla scent and brushed his hand against her soft locks as he hugged her back.
“Good timing.” Brandon turned away nervously. “We just started an EVP session in the living room. Maybe we can get a response from beyond. You missed one hell of a light show.”
“Interesting. Well, I’ll walk around downstairs for a few minutes to see what I can pick up.” Lara stood between the great room and dining room, staring at the mess on the floor.
Joseph continued to question the spirits. “Is there a child here? Can you tell me your name?” He turned on his flashlight to detect any movement.
“Flash,” Brandon said to prepare Joseph and Lara for the blinding light of the camera. Brandon slowly turned around, the hair on the back of his neck and his arms stood on end. Something waited right behind him.
Lara slowly turned her head and looked at Brandon.
She’s staring past me. Brandon slowly glanced in the direction of her gaze.
Joseph picked up his camcorder and started filming Brandon and whatever else might be close to him.
A few seconds later, Lara said, “It’s gone. But it was an angry presence. Not demonic, but not happy. I felt it brush by me and then it went behind Brandon.”
“Makes sense,” Joseph said. “There was an energy spike and the temperature dropped by five degrees near Brandon and me.”
Half an hour of inactivity lapsed before Brandon said, “Let’s head upstairs. Seems quiet down here for now. I’ll leave my recorder on the kitchen counter.”
Halfway up the stairs Lara abruptly stopped, grabbing the railing as she teetered to the side. “Something went right through me.”
“Do you know if it was that same presence from the great room?” Joseph asked.
“No. I sensed a female. And she was frightened.”
Brandon looked at his EMF meter to see how high the energy readings were. The 1.5 milligaus reading indicated there could have been something there.
A loud, repetitive screeching from upstairs startled the trio.
“Quick! The motion detector,” Brandon said. They darted to the upstairs hallway where they’d placed the device. Brandon and Joseph reviewed images from the camera.
“Unfortunately, this didn’t catch whatever set the alarm off,” Joseph said.
The air became electrified with energy. Brandon noticed a drop on the temperature probe to sixty degrees—and still dropping.
“My God,” Lara said. “Do you smell that?” She bent over, gagging repeatedly.
Brandon dashed to the guest bathroom and opened the door for her. She barely made it to the toilet.
A minute later, “I’m fine now,” she said, dabbing her mouth with a tissue.
As Brandon placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. It seems my private retreat is turning into a nightmare.
Lara splashed water on her face, and Joseph handed her a towel. Patting her face, she turned toward the bathtub.
Brandon looked at the thermal imaging screen Joseph held. An obscure red figure stood behind the mahogany shower curtain. It seemed to be holding something.
* * *
Slowly pulling back the curtain, Lara saw a heavyset man, solid in form, wearing a navy blue shirt and worn blue jeans. His thick black hair was matted to his face and forehead.
The man’s brown eyes widened, his breath coming in short spurts. Pressed against the cold shower tiles, he cradled a black cat with white paws. “It’ll be okay,” he whispered. “We’ll get away.”
Lara whipped around when she heard something drop behind her. Joseph’s audio recorder lay on the tile floor.
“Holy crap!” he blurted.
When she looked back, the man was gone.
“Did you both hear what he said?” she asked.
Both men nodded.
“That was a man you saw right?” Joseph asked, picking the recorder up.
“Yeah,” Lara said. “A very scared one.”
They all continued to stare into the bathtub, as if the entity would reappear.
“How about a vigil in the hallway?” Joseph asked. “That way we can catch whatever might be out there, or in the bathroom.”
Lara didn’t want to tell Brandon that his beautiful vacation home had more than a few spirits. She had picked up two Native American spirits, one of which was a Sinaguan woman—shorter inhabitants from six fifty A.D. There was also extreme pain and suffering associated with the place.
Lara faced the bathroom where the phantom had appeared.
“Tell us about yourself,” Joseph said to the spirit, still filming. “Lara saw you standing in the bathtub. What happened to you?”
Lara glanced into a room at the end of the hall. She felt drawn to its darkness.
“Lara, do you see something?” Joseph asked.
But she didn’t answer. Entering a small room, she noticed piles of unpacked boxes stacked in the far corner. Obviously Brandon’s workout room, it housed an elliptical machine, free weights, and a bench press with black and white Ansel Adams prints on the walls.
“Do you mind if I take a look in your closet?” she asked, while Brandon and Joseph waited just outside.
“Uh no, I guess not.”
“She slid the door open to reveal some partially unopened boxes with miscellaneous computer parts. A photo album had fallen into one of Brandon’s boxes, perched on top of a laptop. Lara knew Brandon was very organized, so she didn’t think it was his. Removing the album from the box, she showed it to Brandon and Joseph.
“Where did you find that?” Brandon asked.
“On top of that computer,” she pointed to the laptop.
Brandon gaped into the closet. “I was in there last week—in that very box. I didn’t see it.”
Lara and Joseph watched as Brandon flipped through the plastic-covered pages of pictures.
“Wait!” Lara said. “That’s the guy I saw in the bathroom.” She pointed to a photo of the dark-haired, chubby man standing next to a striking blond man, about six feet tall—both holding hard hats.
“Wonder who the other guy is?” Joseph asked. “Maybe they’re business partners in construction—or work together. I can see a white truck with wording in the background.”
They looked at the remainder of the pages.
“The cat!” Lara stopped Brandon from flipping another page. “That’s the one I saw in the bathroom.” All three investigators gazed at a picture of the black cat with white paws that a child held.
Lara looked at the picture she assumed was of the tall blond man’s wife. She could have been a Celtic goddess with long curly red hair and fair skin. Teenage children stood beside the woman, a boy and a girl, who had the same features.
Lara suddenly sensed intense confusion. Then she sniffed the air. “I’m smelling smoke.”
“That’s funny,” Brandon sniffed and glanced around the room and into the hallway. “I detected the same scent outside on the porch before you both arrived.”
Joseph looked at the thermal imaging camera. “Wait a minute, this battery was full. Now it’s dead.”
“So is my recorder.” Lara turned it off and then on. “Let’s walk around and see if we can find where the smell is coming from.”
“Lara, do you know who either of those men from the album are?” Brandon asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “I’m thinking their family used to live here or at least on this property. I don’t know why the man I saw in the bathtub would be involved.”
“Maybe they left because of all of the activity.” Brandon checked out the other rooms upstairs. “Maybe he was remodeling and it brought all of the spirits to the surface.”
They both jumped when Brandon’s phone rang. It was the realtor who sold Brandon the house.
“Oh, hey Sandy. Listen, I called to find out if you knew anything about the family who abandoned this place a year ago? There’s some strange stuff going on.”
“Hello?” Brandon said into his cell phone. “Hello?” He shook his head in frustration. “I think she hung up on me.”
“Man,” Joseph said, wiping his forehead. “It is getting really hot in here. The temperature is eighty-four degrees and climbing. The baseline temp earlier was only seventy.”
Soon, it felt like a sauna. Lara became faint with the overwhelming heat and nearly collapsed on the floor.
“Whoa,” Brandon said, catching her from behind. “Let’s get out of here.” Joseph supported her other side as they moved downstairs.
On the stairs, Lara thought she heard crackling and popping. At the bottom, massive, orange-red flames suddenly popped up from the floor. They licked hungrily at the pine beams on the vaulted ceiling. Thick, swirling grey smoke engulfed them. And, screams of agony emanated from everywhere.
“Follow me,” Brandon yelled, as he raced to the front door.
Dashing directly through the fire with Brandon and Joseph, Lara noticed she wasn’t getting burned. So this was one of the tragedies I picked up on. I can’t believe the residual image is so vivid.
Brandon quickly pulled his hand away just as the metal knob melted. Agonizing screams and uncontrollable coughs continued to come from behind them. In the midst of the smoke, Lara saw an unrecognizable human form melt away into a skeleton, then drop into a pile of ashes on the floor.
Then it all stopped. The smoke dissipated. The fire disappeared. The horrifying screams ceased.
Gasping and shaking, Brandon and Joseph stood just outside the front door.
A black Buick pulled up in the circular driveway, and a petite woman jumped out of the vehicle.
“Are you all okay?” she asked excitedly. “I saw flames erupting from the house and started to contact the fire department. But then it stopped.” She stared at Brandon’s house.
“You saw more than that, didn’t you?” Lara asked. The woman gazed at Lara as if she were nuts. But Lara was used to it—it came with the territory of being a psychic and a medium.
“Yeah,” she responded, glancing from Lara to Brandon. “A tall blond guy. I couldn’t see his features since he faced the house. He stood there watching while it burned.”
She sighed, still staring at the house. “Well, since you’re all okay, I need to get home to my kids.”
“Wait,” Brandon touched her arm. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, sorry. My name is Celia Thompson. I live half a mile from here.”
“I’m Brandon. And this is Lara and Joseph. I was wondering how long you’ve lived here?”
“Ten years. Why?”
“Could you describe the family who lived in this house last?” Brandon asked.
“The father was average height, bald, but nice looking. His wife was a little shorter and had short brown hair. Sad though—they had an eight year old son who was killed instantly when he found his father’s gun and shot himself. It happened last summer.”
“How awful,” Lara said. “Thanks. You’ve been a big help.”
After Celia left, Brandon said, “That might explain the smaller shadow I saw before you both arrived.”
“Brandon, I’m getting something.” Lara stood on the porch, her eyes closed in concentration. “There was another home here on your property twenty years ago. I’m seeing a slate blue ranch style house with white trim.” She stared into the moonlit pines. “The man Celia saw standing in front of this house was actually standing in front of what used to be his home back then.” Lara paused, looking back at Joseph and Brandon.
“This is the anniversary of two very tragic events that are crossing each other on your property. One was the death of that poor little boy.”
“And the other was a fire from the past?” Joseph asked.
She nodded. “I need more time in your house. I’m starting to get more sensations and visions.”
“Sure. Joseph and I will check on the equipment while you look around,” Brandon said. “The downstairs camera had to have caught evidence of that fire. We should also play back the recorders to see if we got any audio that might provide a clue of what happened here.”
They slowly opened the front door and peeked inside. “Seems pretty calm now,” Brandon said.
While Brandon listened to portions of audio and checked the camera that had been placed downstairs, Lara walked back up to the second floor. He gazed up longingly, imagining her as a permanent fixture in his home.
Joseph cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt your daydreams, but we did catch some bizarre flashing orange lights. I assume from that fire.”
Brandon felt his face flush and he glanced down at the recorder he held. “That’s not all we caught.” Brandon stood transfixed, re-listening to a portion of audio. He rewound it and handed the device to Joseph.
“No other way out,” a male voice whispered.
Brandon and Joseph glanced at each other.
“That didn’t sound like the dark-haired man,” Joseph said. “This person’s voice wasn’t as deep.”
“It’s not,” Lara said.
Brandon turned around quickly to find her standing behind him.
Tears coursed down Lara’s face. Her eyes were red and her face lined with streaks. “It’s the tall white-haired man that your neighbor saw in front of the house. His name is Brendon and he stabbed his family with a butcher knife then hunted down the dark-haired man, who was his business partner, before he burned his house.”
“Oh my God!” Joseph said. “Brandon buddy, your place has an overdose of history. Maybe there’s something about this area that attracts tragedy.”
“It gets even more peculiar,” Lara said. “July twenty-fifth—I couldn’t figure out why I kept seeing that date in my mind.”
“What about it?” Brandon asked. “Is that the date of the fire?”
“Not just the fire. It’s also the same day that little boy accidentally killed himself a year ago. Your vacation home is caught between the history of the previously built home and the history of the last residents.”
“That’s a hell of a coincidence,” Joseph said.
Lara pulled out the photo album from Brandon’s workout room. “That’s not the only coincidence.” She flipped to the last page. “Think about the similarity of his first name to yours, and look at the names of the original occupants.”
Brandon Winn stared at the words in a daze. It can’t be. He suddenly realized why he was inexplicably drawn to the home in the woods. Why he had wakened one day and ended up here to see the FOR SALE sign. And why the album was in the home to begin with.
The inside back cover contained the following words:
PROPERTY OF B. WINN AND FAMILY.
Copyright 2011 – 2015, Lori Hines