An eerie creaking of ancient wood shot her eyes open. They were sporadic. A creak beside the antique vanity, and another above her. There was a particular chill in the air that prompted her to pull the crimson covers up to her chin and nestle down into the down mattress. The glimpse of a shadow reaching across her wall startled her again. She squeezed her eyes closed. The wind rustled the trees outside. Another gale cast open the window and made sails of the drapes. She peeled away her patched quilt and scampered to close it, stopping to be as still as a statue when she caught the distant, but rich voice of a man on the wind.
"Out of the woods I come to see
The creatures of the lonely night
And play my song beneath the trees
Until the dawn's morning light…"
The wind carried her pearly hair behind her as she rattled to the core, scarcely able to breathe. She squinted out the window, but could only see the empty night and a sliver of a moon.
"See! See the creatures as they come
Oh, will they sing along?
Only until they return to their home
As I part the winds with my song."
She slammed the windows shut and locked the latch, where they remained so until sunlight streamed between a crack in the dense chocolate drapes at sunrise. Soon after, an obsidian car coasted down a dirt path surrounded by the lushness of grass on either side. When it was stopped, Calder emerged and evaluated his surroundings. A taupe cottage with chocolate trim and a thatched roof sat squarely ahead, almost sheltered beneath the surrounding ash trees and Scots Pines. The only vehicle was a dusted crimson car with droopy tires. There were no other homes in the area, no sounds except the clattering of rusted wind chimes dangling above the porch.
When Calder reached the porch, he raised his index finger to press the doorbell button only to see the door swing open and a hand snatch his suit sleeve to yank him inside as the door was slammed shut behind him. He peered around him and blinked against the bleariness in his eyes. The room was papered with a rose on cream design and chocolate drapes covered the sunlight behind the windows. A cuckoo clock was above the arched entry. And then there was a woman with pearled hair past her shoulders and a relieved smile and clasped hands standing right ahead of him.
"I am so pleased you could make it here this morning," she praised as she darted into the kitchenette to one side and retrieved a silver platter containing a steaming china teapot and two cups. "Please, sit down here at the kitchen table, and we can discuss the matter at hand."
The kitchen was cluttered, but clean. Same with every other room he could see. He seated himself across the woman as she settled the platter between them.
"You must be Calder McCallister," she smiled pleasantly. "And my name is Ida."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Calder answered as he extended his hand to shake hers. "You mentioned some strange sounds in your house here."
"More than that," she leaned toward him and hissed. "The wee ones have made their home here."
"Fairies," Calder responded drily.
"Shush," she clamped a palm over his mouth and sneaked a glimpse in every direction. "You mustn't speak of them with such nonchalance."
She removed her palm only to reveal his skeptical scowl. She waited a moment for him to speak, but upon his silence, she continued.
"Either the wee ones or a spirit. I maintain the same personal schedule every day. Each night at ten, I go upstairs to sleep. Sometimes I hear strange creaking, and even speaking. I come downstairs every morning at seven, often to discover that some things are missing or moved around. I put a glass on the counter, and it shattered to the ground! Dear lad, I have not gone through that front door in over twenty-five years. But I have never been so tempted to run outside and leave until today. Why? Because of everything that happened last night that I explained when I called."
"It occurs to me that maybe God is using these experiences to help you leave the house, to be honest with you, and that would be a beautiful lesson to come out of such terror. But I have never solved a case that involved the supernatural in such a manner as you describe. I do not believe this to be the work of fairies or evil spirits, but probably the settling of the house."
"And do settling houses steal canned fruit out of the pantry, or move the chairs in the kitchen, or leave a lamp on in the morning, or open the windows at night, or start speaking and singing, or make the television come on while I'm sewing in the same room, or make a glass drop from the counter while I am standing right there, or send a random wind through the house, or make the lights flicker? There is a woman who lives a mile or two away that takes him on walks past the house, and now he always stops to bark at it! He never used to do that, but now she can barely convince him to keep going!"
By the time she was only partially down the list, Calder was ready to drop his eyes into his hands. He managed to maintain his composure when he said, "I believe you that there are noises and strange occurrences. I mean to say only that I am reluctant to attribute this to evil spirits. There is almost certainly a reasonable explanation."
"Maybe it would help if you could hear them yourself. You're practically a spy," she realized as he touched his arm excitedly. "Do you have some sort of listening device that you can use to see if there are any noises tonight?"
He strove not to roll his eyes again and answered, "Sadly, I do" as he reached into his suit pocket and produced a container of bugs. "Where do you hear the most noises?"
"You know, the problem is that I cannot easily determine the source of a noise that I hear," she pointed to her ear as she spoke. "Except that I do know they're all within the house. I can definitely tell that much, especially with the nature of the noises."
"All right," he scanned the area. "What about beneath the small round table in the living room? It can be concealed beneath it, and is almost in the middle of the house."
She nodded. "Go ahead."
He rose and moved to kneel beside the table, breathing in the aroma of stagnant perfume that reminded him of wilted roses and brittle petals, and pressed the bug on the underside of the cork. Ida smiled her satisfaction when he straightened and reached out to shake his hand.
"I appreciate that you are investigating. The Gardaí always think 'it's only the mad widow Ida.'"
"Not a problem. This is what I do. And I will keep an ear out and determine where I believe any noises may have originated. I promise everything will turn out well, so do not worry yourself tonight.
. . .
That night was the first in many months that Ida sensed some peace of mind. She was ready to enjoy herself with her crafts until it was time to sleep without utter terror, although she continued her endeavor to maintain a low profile, as to not attract the attention of evil spirits.
She picked up a lamp with a shade decorated with colored tissue paper and stashed it beneath her art desk. She snatched a cloth pouch out of her closet and dove beneath her cove in a frantic manner. She switched on the lamp and started plucking a variety of colorful square patches out of the pouch to lay out in a pattern. She murmured a cheerful tune she learned years ago as she designed an ochre border and started to line the interior of the frame with patches of an ivory cloth with a pattern of small bunches of daffodils. She danced her torso side to side as she murmured her tune and patterned her quilt. Her room was now enveloped in darkness because of the late hour, but Ida stared only at her illuminated project.
Time passed by, and eventually, she crawled beneath her covers with an assured smile that any sounds would be detected by the detective.
An eerie creak was what she heard first. Her eyes sprang open. Light suddenly illuminated the gap between her floor and the door, then vanished. Another eerie creak. She was shivering with terror. It could be dangerous in the house. She imagined news coverage of her mysterious death and a tear emerged from the corner of one eye. All at once, a scream of terror peeled across the house. She leapt to her feet and darted out the door, rushing down the stairs and almost ran into the door with her hands out. She stopped. Could she really cross this barrier after so long? A scratching sound made her pivot in time to see a shadow move in the darkness. She shrieked and scrambled back up the stairs, dashed into her room, and slammed the door to lock it. Evil spirits, of course, were not accustomed to locked doors. She dove beneath her covers again and pulled them over her head with a shout.
"Did you hear all that, Calder McCallister?"
Within the hour, there was a thundering on the front door of the house. She remained beneath the covers, trembling until she heard someone shout, "Ida, this is Calder McCallister and the Gardaí!"
She crawled out of bed and ran to her window, shouting "Do you believe me now?"
"That's why I'm here," he called back.
She crossed her arms. "The door is unlocked. Come inside, please."
As she trudged down the stairs, the entire house was illuminated with every light. Gardaí swarmed into and out of every single room, passing her upstairs and coming back downstairs. She had waited to come down until they cleared the downstairs, then allowed them to inspect the second story. She shifted her eyes to Calder, who observed everything at the bottom of the steps.
"You were right," he admitted.
"See, that is the problem with society today," she snapped and pointed straight at him. "Everyone believes they can discount everything I say, because it's only 'the mad widow Ida.' Well, sometimes the mad widow Ida knows what she is saying!"
"You surely did," he admitted again and met her eyes. "And I apologize that I was so dismissive."
"Young man, that is the first apology I ever received," she softened ever so slightly. "There is one way you can make up for it, since these officers clearly are not making any discoveries."
"All right, how may I make it up to you?"
She smiled. "Stay here with me tomorrow night."
. . .
"Happy birthday," Calder extended a small square decorated with metallic sapphire paper and a silver bow. Eagan accepted the present and pulled the end of the ribbon to release the sealed lid. When he raised the lid, he peered inside and smiled at the Swiss army knife.
"Go raibh maith agat. I hated that I lost the last one."
"You dropped it in the forge."
"Same problem," Eagan extracted it out of the package to examine its many utensils. "This is actually a much better one than that was. So what made you so antsy as to give this to me an entire five days before the Sunday supper?"
He raised his brown eyes when he asked. Calder squirmed in his chair. The truth was that he was scared to do as he promised the widow. The truth was that if Eagan knew what he was about to do, he would be reasonably concerned. And the last time Eagan was reasonably concerned, he accompanied Calder to a case where he was almost murdered and Calder spiraled into an emotional meltdown.
"Today is your actual date of birth, for one," he started and cleared his throat. "Also, I promised to spend the night at the house of a widow who believes her house is haunted."
He snapped to attention, but to his brother's intense relief, he broke into a smile. "Is this widow Ida?"
Calder started with surprise. So much for confidentiality. "You know her?"
"Her children called me to do some smithing for her ages ago! Calder, that woman has been convinced there are spirits and such in her house ever since her husband died there. She has not gone one meter outside that house since that happened, and that is when she believes it all started."
"Well, I am going to make sure everything is well."
"So this is your first case since the episode, and you're on fairy patrol with a mad woman."
"Shut up," Calder snapped and rose to start toward the door.
"Well, Velma, be sure to look behind every bookcase," Eagan called after him as he admired his knife once more. "And remember, there is always a person behind the mask!"
Calder returned to punch his arm mightily, then stormed out the door to the heartiness of his laughter. He was relieved, however, despite the knowledge that he also heard the scream that ignited the widow's terror. By the time he slammed his car door, there seemed a possibility that she was mad.
. . .
"The spare room is here," Ida directed him to a door across hers at the second story, with the opening of the staircase within mere steps. She suddenly scrutinized him with a glance up and down his frame. "Aren't you planning to change out of that suit?"
"No," he eased his weight from one polished shoe to the other. "I am to stay prepared to move."
"Suit yourself," she raised a cup of tea to him and, when he accepted it, disappeared into her room. The house was absolutely silent. Then the absurd cuckoo clock erupted into song downstairs. He resisted the temptation to raise his eyes in exasperation and disappeared into his own room.
The printed roses also papered these walls. It was a square room with a skylight in the slanted ceiling, and the bed was covered in ruby covers that appeared to be velvet. He raised the corner of his suit and peered down at his holstered gun, remembering its previous use. He breathed in deeply and murmured a mental prayer that all would be well and everyone safe, as well as assurance and poise.
When he crawled beneath the covers in the darkness, he closed his eyes and breathed in the stagnant perfume and continued his prayer until he managed to sleep some twenty minutes later.
Calder started awake and listened to the rain as it peppered the windows with droplets. He stared at the moon between the parted drapes and curled the velvet sheet up to his chin. But a clatter and a creaking sent him up and into the hall in seconds, almost careening into Ida with her eyes enormous. He reached into his pocket to extract a cell phone and passed it to her. "Use this to call the Garda."
"Not enough time! What if the wee ones kill us before they come?"
Calder rolled his eyes and pressed the phone into her grasp. "Keep this ready to call them in case something happens while I go see what this is."
He reached into his pocket again to retrieve a fountain pen whose cap was a brilliant flashlight. He sneaked to the stairs and crept down one at a time, striving to avoid the creakiest. He switched on the beam, but could see nothing out of the ordinary, even as he arrived at the end. He searched every cavity of the home he knew about, around the corners and behind the bookshelves, until satisfied the house was empty in every area. He switched on the kitchen lamp and leaned against the counter.
He raised his eyes to see Ida creeping down the stairs, eyes darting to every direction.
"I apologize," he cleared his throat. "I've seen nothing suspicious in any way."
As he concluded his statement, another eerie creak snatched both their attention. Calder aimed his beam at the various shaded area of the house again.
"I am going to examine the perimeter of the cottage. Perhaps I may see something we have missed."
She shadowed him toward the door, but stopped when he creaked it open and slipped outside.
Rain showered as he started his patrol around the house, aiming his beam into the rustling trees, at the empty bird bath, into the abandoned car, down the path, and at the house. When he examined the trim of the house, he realized that there was a dense chocolate stripe around the base of the home. It must have been a crawl space.
There was, as a matter of fact, seam that indicated some sort of a door. He crouched down to evaluate it and noticed a chip in the edge, scarcely enough to apprehensively poke the tip of a finger through. With a thundering heart and shallow breaths, Calder accomplished this and gently drew the door aside. There was a gap between the house and the foundation enough to crawl into on his knees as he darted the beam in every direction.
As the beam was starting to dim, he could not see completely across the space and was inclined to crawl deeper into the cavern, praying in silence that he was not in any danger. The soil was moistened beneath his palm as he sneaked into the heart of the space.
There was a glint in one corner that snatched his attention. An opened can was on its side, silverware was strewn around, and there was a pile of plaid sheets. A chill shot up his spine, and he darted the beam to his opposite side, where it illuminated the steely eyes and bearded chin of a man.
His heart ceased to beat. The leaned on one elbow and stared at him.
"Why are you in me cave?" he growled after several seconds.
Calder started breathing again and evened it out before he started speaking. "The woman who lives here has been startled by you. I assume you have been stealing to survive down here."
"That's right. I have to steal some so I can eat."
"Why don't we go somewhere where you can eat several times a day?"
"No, sir, I can't do that. If I leave, someone's gonna arrest me."
Calder knew his heart rate was speeding up. "Why might you be arrested?"
"I did something bad, you see," his eyes were steeped with dread and his eyebrows rose. "Someone called me stupid when I was at the store, and I punched him in the mouth. So I ran because the man said I assaulted him and would be in trouble."
"I see," Calder answered. "How long ago was this?"
"Sometime in 2018."
Calder assured him with a smile and said, "The statute of limitations has passed, mate. You will not be arrested for that."
"What do you mean? The man said I was in trouble."
"You may have gotten into trouble when it happened, but there has been so much time that you could not be punished anymore," Calder swallowed and pointed at a maroon slice across his palm. "So what happened there?"
The man dropped his eyes. "I wanted to cut a can, but I cut meself."
"Me brother can help you get it healed," Calder responded apprehensively. "He loves to feed people without a home and he helps them get to where they can earn a living. Do you want to do that?"
The man raised his shoulders. "Well, I suppose I could, but I already have a home down here."
"Yes," Calder admitted after a moment, "but the woman who lives in this house gets scared by the noises you make. Perhaps we can get you to where you have a house of your own."
The man considered this proposition a while with worried eyes. Rain showered the earth outside, and after a minute or two, Ida could be heard shouting, "Calder McCallister, are you dead?"
He snorted with amusement, but returned his eyes to the man crouched ahead of him. "Would you like to have a second chance to make yourself a home?"
"Yes," the man nodded. "I would."
"Perfect," Calder smiled and reached toward the man. "May I introduce you to the lady living in this house, so she's not so scared anymore?"
"Yes," the man agreed and crawled out behind the private investigator. When they emerged into the rain, the man sheltered his eyes with his hand and looked toward the front door. They could not see Ida, as she stood back a bit, but they could hear her shouting to see if Calder was dead.
"Also," Calder said as they started toward the door together, "what is your name?"
"Carden," replied the man.
"I am Calder," he reached out and shook his hand as they reached the porch. Ida met them with a towel and a cry of relief, then shrieked and leapt back when she saw Carden.
"Who is this man?" she asked.
"This is Carden," Calder announced with a pleased smile, "the alleged spirit who has been living beneath your house and sneaking inside to get himself some supplies and meals to bring down. I believe the yet unexplained sights and sounds can be attributed to house settling, electrical surges, and such things that happen to everyone. I am going to drive Carden to the church when the sun rises, before I get to school, and there me brother can get him something to eat. But until then –"
"Do come inside!" Ida reached to haul them inside by the sleeves and let the screen slam behind them. She darted to and fro, voice distant and close as she moved. "Stand there while I get a second towel. Would you like some tea, sir? Well, I should heat the kettle. It is absolutely frigid out there! Mr. Carden, you can sleep here on the sofa. You know, you could shower and I will get some dry clothes."
The men exchanged a glance.
Ida reached into a closet and gathered some of her late husband's clothes. She stroked the cloth of a mauve shirt, remembering the Christmas she presented it to him, then removed it and delivered the clothes to the man standing awkwardly in her entryway. She directed him to the shower, and when he emerged clean and dressed, she sat him down in a kitchen chair and attended to his cut while chattering on about the time her husband Harold cut his arm on a saw and needed many stitches.
As she attended to the man, Calder removed the whistling kettle from her stove and poured tea into three cups. The man received his appreciatively and returned his eyes to Ida.
"I am sorry I scared you."
She stopped a moment, surprised. Then she released a smile and wrapped his palm the rest of the way. "Do not concern yourself with that. I am only relieved that you're not one of the wee ones, or an evil spirit ready to kill me while I sleep."
Carden sneaked an alarmed look to Calder, and he smothered a smile. The cuckoo clock alerted him to that sunrise was to be in about three hours, and he realized that coffee would be the second thing that sustained him during the day. The first would be the grateful blue eyes this man showed him.
"What will happen to him?" Ida asked suddenly as she raised her eyes to him.
"There is a program run by the church that will teach him skills that will help him to succeed on his own, so he can earn an income and a home. The people who do this make sure the people they help are able to succeed and be healthy."
"Wonderful," she returned to the man. "Was that you screaming yesterday?"
"Yes. I saw a rat, and those have always scared me."
Ida smiled and nodded her understanding. "We have some of those here. It scared you, and you scared me. I suppose we all have needed to confront some of our fears lately. Come, let us get some sleep so that we can be ready when morning comes. Calder McCallister, you must keep me updated on Mr. Carden here until everything settles with him. Would that perturb you at all, Mr. Carden? Good, I was hoping it wouldn't. What a week this has been!"
. . . Epilogue . . .
The great wooden door creaked open. The sun seared her eyes, and she stopped until her vision cleared and she could see the rays emerging above the horizon, shining through the trees as the birds close by greeted her. She smiled when she reached toward Calder and he allowed her to grasp his arm.
"You were right about the beauty that came out of this case."
She emerged into the afternoon sun and smiled across the drive to her children and grandchildren awaiting her at the dirt path. She saw the yew plants to one side, and the sparrows darting above. Ants streamed beneath her shoes. She moved down the path until Calder released her and she reached the grinning people awaiting her with open arms.
. . . Music . . .
Between being terrified at the arrival of Calder: "Shadows" by the David Crowder Band
The Gardaí arrive: "Blinding Light" by Switchfoot - 55 – 1:25
Song hummed while quilting: "Marvelous Light" by various artists
Getting into car to go to the widow's: "The Light" by Brandon Heath
Searching the crawl space until he sees a face: "Apparitions" by Seabird
Epilogue when Ida reaches her family: "Sunny Days" by Jars of Clay