Black Petals Issue #105, Autumn, 2023

BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary-Chris Friend
Cards Fiction by Gene Lass
Barfly: Fiction by Gene Lass
Case Study: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Delivery: Fiction by David Kloepfer
Joy (noun): a source of delight: Fiction by Noah Levin
Master of Dream: Fiction by Ash Ibrahim
Nightshade: Fiction by Adam Vine
Red Popsicles: Fiction by Caitlyn Pace
Temporally Closed: Fiction by J. Elliott
The Mansion Dwellers: Fiction by Robb White
Time for a Change: Fiction by Lamont A. Turner
Bernie's Friends: Flash Fiction by Phil Temples
Death Visits the Sapling Trust: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Monster: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
Sleep: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Welcome, Ghouls: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Ode to Chateau Marmont: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Cadaver Dogs: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Phases of the Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Darkest Octave: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Green Man Standing: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Day That Mary Went Away: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Northern Migration of Souls: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
Gone West: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
If I Scream: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Witchery: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Carry On: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
The Song of the Dead: Poem by Ben Huber

Robb White: The Mansion Dwellers

Art by Kevin Duncan © 2023

The Mansion Dwellers

Robb White


Cat, Bobo, 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.

Even 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 Windmere.

No 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.

“A shoe? 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.”

That, unfortunately, 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.

When that 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 reason.

“They stick close the walls, you notice?”

“They’re rats, William,” Cat said, “not blind people.” It didn’t matter. William refused to sleep anywhere but in the center of the room.

Her scream 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 vacant lot.

“Who 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.

“Who 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.

“I don’t 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—”

Cherisse parted the ragged sheers to watch the woman’s vehicle roar off down the street.

“That means we got to move again,” said Cat, interrupting William’s reverie.

The place 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.

“I don’t 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.”

“Ha-ha, 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.

By 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.

“Like being a cop in a ghetto or a soldier in battle,” Bobo argued.

They generally 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.

Normally indifferent 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.

“Lordy, a 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. 

William 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.

An hour 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 reading public.

His new 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.

What he 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 paced.

“This place was the scene of a triple murder in Nineteen-Twenty-Nine,” William began, his voice assuming a sonorous pitch.

“The Roaring Twenties,” Bobo said.

“Let him tell it, dude,” Cherisse growled.

“The original owner was a textile king—”

“What’s that?” Bobo, interrupting again.

“Cloth 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.”

“Seems to me you’re embellishing a bit, William,” Cat said.

“Quiet!” Cherisse ordered. “Get to the point, William.”

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 balustrade.

“. . . he goes into the kitchen, walks past his servants, garbs the biggest butcher knife he can find and goes right back up those stairs.”

He paused but no one looked at the stairway again. “So, he creeps into the bedroom . . . am I boring you, Cat?”

“I’m listenin’, man,” Cat snapped back, halting his pacing. “I can walk and chew gum at the same time unlike some people I know.”

William resumed: “So he creeps ever so quietly—”

“Jesus,” Cherisse moaned.

“Yeah, man,” Bobo concurred. “You goin’ on like a whore’s dream. Like the boss lady said, get to the point!”

William scowled, resumed: “Lord, OK, so he first stabs his friend in the back, plunging the knife clean through the guy’s liver.”

“Think they put ‘em in the buck in those day?” Bobo interjected, referring to rap slang for a certain coital position.

“I give up,” William said. “You are all Pharisees!”

“So the 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 heard?”

“Hell, yes, man,” Bobo piped in. “I was a body collector for the city for six months. Twenty-five dollars a pop. You shoulda seen—”

William, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping bag, rose with as much dignity as he could muster. He left the room without saying another word.

“Maybe we should have let him tell it his way,” Cat said, watching William walk slowly up the very stairway he’d woven into his narrative.

“He’ll be fine,” Bobo said dismissively. “Now, who’s got the goods?”

“That would be me,” Cat said. “I was just waitin’ on Stephen King to get done with his horror story.”

The others laughed.

By morning, William returned the others’ greetings, but he was troubled by the history of Barrett Mansion and headed back to the library.

“Which one of you moved my stuff?” Bobo demanded.

No one paid him any attention because he was forever losing things and forgetting where he’d stashed them.

Hours 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.

Powerful people 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.

The Detroit 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 Josea James.

William 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.

The others 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.

“Cat! Where you at, man?”

He checked 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.

Another noise from one of the lower stories.

William 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.

“Man, you two like kids,” William said, annoyed by the childish behavior but relieved he was not alone.

He pulled 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 decapitated.

William 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.

A giggle responded from the other room.

“Oh God,” William moaned.

He knew 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 . . .

Getting to his feet, he bolted for the front door.

Josea 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.

Up the stairs—run! William’s brain commanded.

He did, taking the steps two and three at a time. Gravity seemed to double from the exertion; his thighs felt made of lead.

He reached Cat’s room. He remembered there was a broken window.   

His 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 angle.

William 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 flailing body.

* * *

“Well, hello there,” a fuzzy figure in white said looming above him.

His eyes 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.

“You’ve 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.

Two hours later, he woke again. This time he was back. The breathing tube was gone but his voice was too rusty and swollen for speech.

The nurse 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.

“But you’ll 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 lucky.”

He tried to form the words to ask about his friends.

“I’m sorry, William,” the doctor replied. “I can’t make that out. Can you repeat it?”

William tried. It came out more garbled; his tongue collided with the syllables his brain tried to form.

That night, he was able to repeat his concern to a different nurse.

“Your friends?”

“Once they 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.”

“It still 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 of 2022.

Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 

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