The Mansion Dwellers
William, and Cherisse stood on the sidewalk staring up at the two Victorian
mansions in front of them. Both were long abandoned like the other two-thousand
houses from their neighborhood in Petosky-Ostego where the four friends lived. The
term used by city authorities was “squatted.” They’d been homeless so long that
only Cherisse could remember the last place she made a rental payment.
abandoned, the two mansions were impressive. Neither had another structure
within a half-block to distract the eye from their imposing eminence, although
their grandeur was long faded, lost to history. Back in the house they shared, nearly
all the unoccupied houses were in shambles, had been for decades. But that was
the same story for dozens of neighborhoods in the once-great city of Detroit, “The
City That America Forgot,” as that Free Press reporter described it.
Bobo kept a copy because he was one of the men interviewed about “the
deplorable state of the city’s homeless” coming out of the community center on
wind-blown garbage packed against the curb, no rotted mattresses, old tires, or
garbage bags lying around that people dropped off, the fourth one they’d had to
relocate to, owing to the recent invasion of house buyers vacuuming up abandoned
houses for pennies on the dollar, flipping them for profit. The absence of
garbage was “a big plus,” according to Cat, who’d led them there and was
pitching the advantages like a carnival barker.
They took a
vote. Cat lacked William’s gift for “poetry speaking” and failed to persuade
the others. His best argument so far was that “no rats would be climbing over
us in our sleep,” which wasn’t an inconsiderable asset considering all had
tangled with rats at one time or another in their sojourn around the blighted
neighborhoods of the Motor City. William liked showing off the livid, scimitar-shaped
scar on his right shin, which he said came from a rat bite. “Thing was bigger’n
your average housecat,” he told the others. “Teeth out to here, go through
wire, homies.” He’d make hooks with two fingers of each hand and paw the air as
though he were pedaling a bicycle chain. With every telling the rat grew bigger.
Cherisse said the next time they had to listen to it, the thing would be the
size of a puma.
Hell, man, most Dee-troit rats are bigger’n a tennis shoe!”
“Not a Puma
sneaker,” Cherisse snapped, “I’m talking about a mountain lion.”
led to a renewal of the argument between Bobo and Cat as to which model sneaker
was superior. An argument neither could remember starting but as unresolved as
opposing medieval theologians arguing about the number of angels capable of dancing
on the head of a pin.
unlucky realtor woman entered their last place, she didn’t see William curled
inside his sleeping bag in the middle of the first floor, his theory since that
rat bite being the vermin disdained walking in the middle of rooms for some
close the walls, you notice?”
rats, William,” Cat said, “not blind people.” It didn’t matter. William refused
to sleep anywhere but in the center of the room.
woke up the house. Cherisse and Bobo asleep in the next room, Cat upstairs, who
came running down with his “protection,” a baseball bat he’d fetched from a
screaming down here?” he yelled to William, sitting up and rubbing his eyes,
unsure of the ordeal he’d somehow missed despite being the centerpiece of it.
screaming down here?” he yelled to William, sitting up and rubbing his eyes,
unsure of the ordeal he’d somehow missed despite being the centerpiece of it.
know, man,” William replied. “I was having a dream. I was standin’ near some
palm trees on some beach, turquoise water lapping gently round my ankles—”
parted the ragged sheers to watch the woman’s vehicle roar off down the street.
we got to move again,” said Cat, interrupting William’s reverie.
was relatively clean, no druggies or taggers had occupied it like many places. Some
places were downright nasty with human waste and drug paraphernalia scattered
around. Here, the worst of it were flaps of wallpaper hanging detached from the
walls. Water was the enemy. A good roof in an abandoned house was a
prerequisite before they adopted a new home: no black mold or excessive mildew
caused by holes in the roof. Ergo, the others reluctantly agreed to meet Cat in
front of “his mansions” that afternoon to decide.
know, man,” William said, pondering. He used the fingers of both hands to make
a box the way artists and photographers visually framed their subjects. “I
don’t think we can afford the upkeep in either one.”
funny, William,” said Cat. “I’ll bet Dave Chapelle is shitting himself in fear
you’ll do standup comedy.”
But Cat was
nervous the others might balk, too. He’d scouted both mansions thoroughly top
to bottom, even prying loose a cellar door with his trusty bat in the bigger
structure to check for “treasure” and the presence of the dreaded Norwegian rat.
Only Cherisse knew Cat had his moniker since his teenage years for his ability
to maneuver through alleys and disappear into narrow passages. Cat’s forays
among the abandoned houses and buildings of Detroit’s decimated neighborhoods
enriched his experience in other ways, too, because he could distinguish among
different kinds of animal bones and scat at a glance: dog, rat, raccoon, cat, possum,
squirrel, or mouse. Even Bobo knew better than to challenge him. “This place
beats Brightmoor all to hell,” he said, referring to the first place where the
four had met and become companions against the world. That time they weren’t
fleeing nosy realtors stepping on their midsections while they slept but dangerous
youths from the inner-city gangs—the Bounty Hunter Bloods and the Rollin’ 60
Crips were fighting a vicious turf war.
suppertime, they’d moved all their worldly possessions into their new digs. Then
the four split up to go their separate ways for dinner. Bobo and Cat liked the soup
kitchen on Woodward, whereas William preferred the rescue mission on Third. Cherisse
said she didn’t mind “singing for her supper” again at the Baptist center on Antoine
Street. She had a lovely voice, the psalms made her feel good, and the three
men concurred on the wisdom of her choice. Despite William’s flowery language,
she was their leader, and a depressed Cherisse in a black mood was a buzzkill to
be avoided should one of their number happen to score a forty or a blunt for
sharing that night.
For a week,
life resumed its normal pace. That is, moments of peacefulness interrupted by
moments of anxiety and stress. Being homeless and addicted was the hardest job
there was, they all agreed.
a cop in a ghetto or a soldier in battle,” Bobo argued.
rose at dawn to begin the arduous task of “maintenance,” not just meeting the
body’s daily requirements but satisfying the inner hunger of the monkey on
their backs. It never ceased demanding attention. Only William slept late. When
he rose, the others were usually gone to their familiar places.
to the houses he occupied, his curiosity was piqued by this once-grand mansion.
He decided to give himself “the grand tour.” The sizes of the rooms impressed
him, especially the faded murals of classical antiquity scenes on the walls. He’d
read that manor houses of the Victorian era had “Mad Aunt rooms,” where they ensconced
deranged relatives to keep them out of sight of the public to preserve their
smug reputations in society.
ballroom, too,” he said to the empty walls of the biggest room on the third
floor. It room echoed back a portion of his words. Bright sunlight streamed
through the windows. Columns of dust swirled like tiny gnats in a summer shaft
of light. The outline of a small supply door was outlined against the farthest wall.
The artist had cleverly woven it into the design where cloven-hoofed satyrs
chased maidens in a forest setting.
thought he heard a noise behind the wainscotting and jumped back. William’s day
started at the Detroit Public Library. He prided himself on keeping up with
current affairs and arcane knowledge.
later, he’d settled into his favorite reading chair by the big plate-glass
window in the southwest corner. He’d browsed the bestseller lists, snicking his
tongue against the roof of his mouth at the infantile pulp favored by the
mansion intrigued him. He did a book search at one of the terminals, his
fingers flying over the keyboard. His IT skills were self-taught. He never
found any company to employ him.
found out about his mansion sent a shiver up his spine. He could not wait to
tell the others that night what he’d discovered about the “infamous Barrett Mansion.”
By the time
he was able to herd them into an audience near his sleeping bag on the ground
floor, they were in various moods. Bobo was buzzed, happy. Cherisse glowered at
him, impatient to hear what his so-called big news was. Cat was fidgety. He
was the scene of a triple murder in Nineteen-Twenty-Nine,” William began, his
voice assuming a sonorous pitch.
Roaring Twenties,” Bobo said.
tell it, dude,” Cherisse growled.
original owner was a textile king—”
that?” Bobo, interrupting again.
manufacturer,” William said. “James Barrett threw these big old society
parties. One night, everybody’s downstairs celebrating New Year’s, he looks for
his wife, doesn’t see her around, so he acts on a suspicion he’s had for a
while she’s cheating on him. He goes upstairs and finds his beloved Bessie in the
master bedroom with his best friend. They’re rockin’ the new year in, having a
private party of their own.”
me you’re embellishing a bit, William,” Cat said.
Cherisse ordered. “Get to the point, William.”
rolled his eyes but continued: “So Mister James Barrett, he sneaks right back
down that big stairway over there . . .” He pauses for dramatic effect as all
three swivel their heads to gape at the grand steps with the magnificent, curved
“. . . he goes
into the kitchen, walks past his servants, garbs the biggest butcher knife he
can find and goes right back up those stairs.”
but no one looked at the stairway again. “So, he creeps into the bedroom . . .
am I boring you, Cat?”
listenin’, man,” Cat snapped back, halting his pacing. “I can walk and chew gum
at the same time unlike some people I know.”
“So he creeps ever so quietly—”
man,” Bobo concurred. “You goin’ on like a whore’s dream. Like the boss lady
said, get to the point!”
resumed: “Lord, OK, so he first stabs his friend in the back, plunging the
knife clean through the guy’s liver.”
put ‘em in the buck in those day?” Bobo interjected, referring to rap slang for
a certain coital position.
up,” William said. “You are all Pharisees!”
guy, Barrett,” Cherisse said, taking over, “he kills the lovers. Big deal,
William. This is the Murder Capital of America every other year, or ain’t you
man,” Bobo piped in. “I was a body collector for the city for six months.
Twenty-five dollars a pop. You shoulda seen—”
cross-legged on his sleeping bag, rose with as much dignity as he could muster.
He left the room without saying another word.
should have let him tell it his way,” Cat said, watching William walk slowly up
the very stairway he’d woven into his narrative.
fine,” Bobo said dismissively. “Now, who’s got the goods?”
be me,” Cat said. “I was just waitin’ on Stephen King to get done with his
William returned the others’ greetings, but he was troubled by the history of
Barrett Mansion and headed back to the library.
of you moved my stuff?” Bobo demanded.
No one paid
him any attention because he was forever losing things and forgetting where he’d
later, having searched a variety of digital and print historical sources from archives
through microfiche records of historical societies dating back to the
mid-1850’s and in privately printed family genealogies donated to the library,
William discovered that the Barretts had a son when his father murdered his
best friend and slashed his mother’s throat before gutting himself with the
same butcher knife. Guests heard the disturbance going on and sent servants upstairs
to investigate. They Barrett in the room blubbering, holding loops of his
intestines in his hands.
in those days could hush up scandals, but this one was too big to quash.
Barrett’s son, Ellis, scion of this tragic family, lived in the mansion until
1975 when he was found hanging from the chandelier in the ballroom—the same
room William recalled seeing those floating dust motes.
News and Free Press covered the suicide in objective prose unlike the
florid descriptiveness of past journalists who wrote up his father’s gory murders
and suicide—no mention was made of his son, a boy of fourteen, named
tracked down some details of the boy’s whereabouts. Josea spent his formative
years in foster homes, changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, and disappeared
from public records. He paid no taxes, bought no vehicles or houses, held down
no jobs. His grandfather’s trust fund paid out a monthly sum to the occupant of
a residence that he couldn’t track down after the mansion was condemned in
1984. The same address he and his friends now slept in. The boy, now 61
years old, was living off the grid somewhere—if he was still alive.
were still out when he got back. He heard a scratching noise upstairs and
figured Cat must be back from his prowling.
He tromped up
the stairs. No wonder Cat liked the place—not a board creaked all the way to
the balcony on top.
you at, man?”
Cat’s room. He looked up and down the spacious hallway. No Cat. He checked the ballroom.
He composed it in Spanish, a language he learned years ago as a caseworker: El
Gato a ningún lado.
The door at
the back was ajar. He walked over, frowning.
The door led
somewhere back there in the dark. Maybe Cat found treasure and hid it here. William
entered, felt a draft, and realized it wasn’t a dead end. As his eyes adjusted,
he discerned wooden ladder rungs ascending upward. Secret rooms in big houses like
this were commonplace. William climbed; he’d spook Cat in his lair and have a
good laugh. Payback for his disrespect last night.
At the top
rung, he shoved the plywood board aside, and beheld a dingy room. Maybe the Mad
Aunt room. That hunch seemed confirmed by the yellowed, water-stained sheets on
the bed. But why were they rucked? William had been in enough vacant houses to
know when a place was abandoned. This room carried a vestige of having been
lived in, an unmistakable scent wafting in the stagnant air. Someone occupied
this room—and not decades ago but weeks, maybe days.
He climbed down
fast, his stomach tight with apprehension. Being alone right then sucked shit
through a narrow straw.
noise from one of the lower stories.
descended and raced down the steps, picking up a sliver from the banister. He
walked into the dining room where Cherisse and Bobo had their makeshift beds
and heard a noise like a giggle. Bobo and Cherisse were hiding on him, those
children. Both sat side by side against the wall with their sleeping bags covering
their heads and torsos. Only the tops of their shoes stuck out to reveal them.
two like kids,” William said, annoyed by the childish behavior but relieved he was
the covers off both with a flourish—a magician whipping a tablecloth off
leaving the silverware undisturbed. Except they were not undisturbed. Both had
their throats cut. Cherisse’s head wobbled on the stem of her neck. She was nearly
leaped back with a bellow rising from his esophagus. He fell back onto his haunches
on the floor, scrabbling like a crab to get away from the horrible scene. His
hands were covered in blood. He screamed again.
responded from the other room.
where James Barrett’s grandson had been living all these years as though the
message had rippled across his neocortex in bright letters: Right here .
his feet, he bolted for the front door.
Barrett, gaunt, looking decades older than his sixty years, had his back to it.
So pale-skinned that he looked like an albino. Dressed in filthy rags like the
most abject citizens of Skid Row downtown. William’s eyes zeroed on the butcher
knife in the claw of his hand.
taking the steps two and three at a time. Gravity seemed to double from the
exertion; his thighs felt made of lead.
Cat’s room. He remembered there was a broken window.
peripheral vision took in Cat’s body tucked into a corner as he ran for the
window. Like Cherisse and Bobo, he’d been propped against the wall but left uncovered.
A rust-red bib of drying blood covered his chest. The strap muscles of his neck
had been severed so that his head slumped against his chest at an impossible
climbed out the window just as Josea brought the arc of the knife high overhead
to swing at him. He sliced William’s leg, opening a deep gash. William’s
momentum flung his body out the window, but he managed to cling to the sill by
his fingertips. Josea glared at him from above through pale rheumy eyes the
color of dirty ice. With one swipe across the backs of William’s hands with the
knife, the searing pain forced William let go. He dropped, weightless, and
squeezed his eyes shut before the impact three stories below to the ground.
But it came
sooner—too soon. He fell into the tree, hitting one thick branch after another,
like a hapless character in one of Bobo’s Saturday cartoons. Air was slammed
out of his lungs. He kept falling, hoping to die, before the next blow, but
they came successively nonetheless, each one hitting a different part of his
* * *
hello there,” a fuzzy figure in white said looming above him.
were greased with something so that he couldn’t see anything but a revolving
blur. All his senses had been hijacked except hearing. The gently whoosh and
click of machinery seemed to all around him.
been gone a long time,” the same voice said above him.
The tube in
his throat prevented William from speaking, even if he wanted to.
A hundred stabs
of pain descended on him at once. He passed out.
later, he woke again. This time he was back. The breathing tube was gone but
his voice was too rusty and swollen for speech.
returned with a doctor who checked him out and spoke briefly to him about his
condition. The doctor enumerated the broken bones, damaged organs, and severe
concussion he had suffered.
live, Mister—sorry, we don’t know your name. You had no identification when
they brought you in. Someone—the police think a scavenger for metal—saw your
legs sticking ten feet from the ground in a tree and called police. You’re
He tried to
form the words to ask about his friends.
William,” the doctor replied. “I can’t make that out. Can you repeat it?”
tried. It came out more garbled; his tongue collided with the syllables his
brain tried to form.
he was able to repeat his concern to a different nurse.
got you out of the tree that broke your fall, they searched the premises. They
didn’t find anyone else inside the old Barrett Mansion. When I was a girl, they
used to say it was haunted.”
is,” William said after a terrific struggle with his tongue and brain to
cooperate. It sounded like a gurgle. “It still is.”
The LPN who
brought him his first meal in weeks had to wipe tears spilling down her
patient’s cheeks before he could eat.
Robb White is a Midwestern
writer of genre fiction, especially horror, crime, and noir. White has two ongoing
private-eye series. Betray Me Not, a collection of revenge tales, was
selected by the Independent Fiction Alliance as a Truly Best Independent Book