A STRANGE CASE
“Another buzz,” groaned Ria. “Who can be so desperate?” She stopped trimming hedges and walked across the lawn of her house.
As she neared the front door, she heard the telephone still ringing. By the time she had flung the door open, the ringing had stopped. She dropped her gardening apron on the floor and went to the answering machine to check for messages.
“Oh, dear!” she exclaimed. “Five missed calls from the same number with one message. Someone is in despair.”
The recorded message came from an anxious female voice, “Hi, my name is Eve. I need your help urgently. I got a referral from Liam Lake. Please call me back at 115-555. Thank you.”
Ria was not surprised as she frequently received calls from desperate clients. She called back, but there was no answer. A wasp stung her on the hand during gardening. So, after washing her hands, she walked to her bedroom to get the first- aid box.
Ria Robertson was a successful private detective in her early thirties living in the busy coastal town of Rosedale. She was an expert in martial arts, ex-police officer, champion riddle solver, single, and tall. She had gained a reputation for solving difficult criminal cases, which otherwise seemed unsolvable.
Jenny, who had turned seventeen this summer, was visiting her sister Ria during her autumn school holidays. She was a champion swimmer and the captain of her high school cheerleading squad. She lived with their mother, Susanna, in a nearby town.
During her stay with Ria, Jenny often walked after lunch on the sandy beaches, which were quiet during the autumn months. There were just a few dog walkers on the sands.
While Ria was busy in the house, Jenny was enjoying a beach walk after her swim on the lovely sunny afternoon. The blue waves were sparkling in the sun.
While she was relishing the pristine view, she suddenly saw an unsupervised toddler waddling fast towards the big waves at a short distance. Some moments later, she could not see him anymore.
“My goodness!” she cried. “Where’s the child?”
Jenny feared the worst. She dashed across the sand and reached the spot where she had seen the toddler a moment ago.
There was a loud cry, and Jenny saw the waves tossing the child. Without any delay, she jumped to his rescue. A young man who was surfing nearby joined her in the rescue mission. Together they brought the child ashore to safety. The little boy was breathing all right and unharmed.
“It’s your lucky day, fella,” the man commented as he gently stroked the little boy’s wet hairs.
“Thanks for your help,” complimented Jenny with a smile on her face. “It could have been worse.”
At that moment, the toddler’s mother, a young woman in a yellow swimsuit, came running.
“My baby!” she cried. “Is he breathing? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine,” Jenny assured the frightened lady. “Please wrap him with some warm clothes, and better monitor him.”
The lady apologized for her slip, thanking Jenny and the young man wholeheartedly for rescuing her child from drowning. She held her child sitting up, perched on her knees with his feet in her lap as she tried to comfort the frightened little boy, who was crying. Jenny waved them goodbye and walked up to get her bag. It had her beach towel and dry clothes. She was going to Andy’s house close to the beach.
Andy Armstrong was Ria’s best friend and about thirty years of age. He was a freelance investigative journalist and karate expert with a round face and well-built body. His agility and martial art skills surprised everyone who knew him. He was a jolly guy and fun to be around. He sometimes assisted Ria in her sleuthing work.
As Jenny opened the front gate of Andy’s house and walked across the well-maintained lawn, she saw him speaking with a little girl.
“Surely, you don’t want me to get your balloon, do you?” Andy asked his neighbor’s four-year-old daughter, Daffodil, who was expecting him to rescue her pink balloon. It had slipped her little fingers and was flying away to the kingdom of clouds!
“Boohoo!” tears rolled down her tiny cheeks.
“All right. Let me try. I’ll be right back.”
Andy started a great chase, which was quite a sight! Jenny couldn’t stop laughing. She shouted at the top of her voice. “Take care, and don’t kiss the ground!”
It was a feat because he quickly retrieved the balloon as it stuck in the lower branches of a sweet gum tree on the other side of the road. He gave it to the little girl, who stretched her little hand and grinned. Holding the balloon tightly with her tiny fingers, she ran to her mother’s arms.
After waving them goodbye, Andy and Jenny walked to Ria’s house a couple of blocks away. As they pushed their way through the garden gate, they could smell a lovely bake.
“Wow!” sniffed Andy.
“What a delicious smell!” Jenny exclaimed. “I didn’t know that Ria can bake so well.”
“Are you kidding?” he laughed.
“She never baked when she lived with mum and me,” insisted Jenny.
“She is a charmer. You can trust me!” Andy grinned as he reached for the doorbell. “I’m sure your sister could have made a career as a chef instead of running after dangerous criminals.”
After a brief pause, Ria opened the door with a broad smile. Andy leaned forward to give her a friendly hug. She let them in, closed the door behind, and everyone walked inside the house.
“The cake is ready,” announced Ria. “Let’s dig in.” “Woohoo!” exclaimed Jenny. “I can’t wait.”
Andy frowned as he looked through the window and noticed a car that had just stopped outside the house. “Not so soon,” he sighed as he pointed his index finger to the car.
Immediately after, the doorbell buzzed. Ria, who was not expecting a visitor, was surprised.
“Who can this be?” she mumbled with a thoughtful face.
“Gate crasher,” grinned Andy. “The smell of your bake attracted our unknown visitor.”
“You’re a shocker,” scoffed Ria. “I’m sure my bake is ordinary without any magical elements to attract anyone.”
She opened the door, wondering who in the world would come to visit her late in the afternoon. To her surprise, a tall lady with red hair and a worried face stood outside. She was in her late thirties, with questioning eyes and a thin nose.
“Are you detective Ria Robertson?” the lady inquired with an air of urgency.
“Yeah, I’m,” replied Ria.
The worried-looking lady stepped forward to introduce herself. “My name is Evelyn Egerton,” she said with a quivering voice. “I’m coming from the town of Mistgrove. You can call me Eve.”
Ria asked her visitor to come inside the house.
“Thanks!” Eve looked relieved. She followed Ria into the house.
Jenny and Andy looked at each other and smiled.
“She could be a client,” Jenny whispered into Andy’s ears.
“Or the bearer of trouble,” Andy grinned as he whispered back.
“Spot on,” giggled Jenny.
Eve looked around her surroundings with a nervous face. Ria accompanied her to the living room.
“You can sit,” suggested Ria as she sat on the sofa to listen to the lady.
Eve sat and took out handkerchief from her handbag to wipe the sweat off her forehead. “I’m extremely sorry to bother you at this time of the day,” she apologized. “I tried to call you a few times but had little luck.”
Ria was observing her visitor with her usual keenness. She could see the worry lines on Eve’s brows.
“You’re most welcome,” she gently assured the troubled lady. “Please tell me what is worrying you.”
Eve put the handkerchief in her bag and looked at Ria with anxious eyes. “I have a long story, not sure where to start,” she licked her lips as her mouth went dry. There was anxiety in her voice mixed with fear. Ria offered her a glass of water, which she took readily.
“Police Captain Liam Lake advised me to seek your help in this rather bizarre and disturbing matter.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Ria. “I see that you are in touch with the police.”
“Yeah,” Eve confirmed as she pulled her hair back in a scrunchie at the base of her neck, growing nervous once again.
“Liam was my colleague when I worked in the Rosedale police homicide squad a few years ago.” The detective smiled as she fondly remembered her former colleague. “He is my good friend too. I’m glad you could come.”
She leaned back on the sofa with one leg crossed over the other and looked at Eve in the eyes. She intended to observe her client more closely. “Please arrange your thoughts and tell me in their due sequence about every single event that has disturbed you beyond all reason.” Ria’s voice was reassuring that had a calming effect on Eve, but she didn’t begin her story. Instead, she looked at Andy and Jenny uneasily.
Ria introduced her sister and her friend to Eve. She asked her client to narrate her story without any hesitation in front of them.
“My husband passed away last year,” Eve spoke slowly. “About two months ago, we came to live here in the town of Mistgrove. I live with my father, younger brother Tim, and six- year-old daughter, Brooke. Her governess, Mrs. Ebony Smith, also lives with us. The cold and moist weather of the north was not suitable for my father’s declining health. So, we moved to this relatively warmer place where we were born and brought up. I had secured a job in the town library before we came here.”
“What kind of job?” Ria interrupted.
“I work as a librarian.” Eve looked somber as she glanced nervously at Ria.
“It was hard to find a good-sized home in a small and remote town like Mistgrove,” she continued. “Our family friend Henry Hogue is a real estate agent and property developer in our town. He helped me with the purchase of my new home. This is an old furnished house built almost a century ago. All our troubles started after buying this haunted house.”
“Your story is interesting,” commented Ria. “I’m keen to know about the haunting.”
“Sure,” said Eve. “The haunting is the most disturbing part.”
The worried lady continued her story at a slow pace. She paused now and then to gauge the reactions of her audience and to answer Ria’s questions.
“Our house is located about two miles on the outskirts of Mistgrove town. It is a good-sized property with a curving moss-grown drive and high evergreen shrubs surrounding it. It’s a two-level old building in need of repairs. The door at the entrance is weather-stained. There is a huge backyard with an overgrown and deserted garden. The vast Shattuck Forest lies on our doorstep. I had heard a few stories about its ill reputation, but these stories didn’t bother me at the time of its purchase. I considered those as local gossips. Our financial situation is not as good, and the price of the property fell within our budget. I inherited some money from my late husband, which I used to buy the house.”
“It’s an odd property to buy!” exclaimed Ria. “Your description is vivid. Please continue.”
Everyone in the room was curiously listening to her story. The pleasant, beautiful face of Eve clouded over, shadowed by some grim remembrance as she continued her narrative.
“We lived peacefully in our new home for a month without any trouble. However, last weekend a strange incident occurred. My room is at the end of the passage on the top floor. Anyone going to the attic would have to pass my door to reach the stairs. Last Saturday, it was around midnight that I woke up with thirst. There was no water in my room. So, I put on my dressing gown and opened my bedroom door to go downstairs to the kitchen. I think I’m brave, but I was shaken by what I saw. It was a frightening experience. The passage was dark except for one skylight, which threw a patch of moonlight. I could see something was moving along the corridor. It was big, dark, beastly, and crouching towards the stairs to the attic. This sight paralyzed me. It was not until the strange creature had reached the top of the stairs that I could scream aloud and put on all the lights of the passage. Everyone in the house woke up. We searched every corner inside the house and the attic. There was no trace of the beast that I saw. Yet I can swear I have made no mistake of this sighting.”
Ria’s look was intense. Eve paused and wiped the sweat from her forehead as the detective offered her another glass of water. She picked up the glass and sipped through it with a disturbed and worried face.
“I’m a light sleeper,” she resumed her story. “Next night, I was unwell and went to bed early. The previous night’s incident horrified me, and I started having a feeling of imminent danger. As a result, I slept with my door locked. Around midnight, I woke up by a scratching noise on my window. The blind was up in my window. Though it was foggy outside, still there was moonlight. As I lay with my ears perked up and eyes fixed on the window, I saw the beast looking in at me. It was so frightening and repulsive that I nearly died of horror. It pressed its nose against the windowpane and stared at me. To my utter horror, the horrible creature tried to push up the window. If that window opened, I think I would have been dead. It was a few seconds as I sat and watched its horrible face. Then it vanished, but I couldn’t gather enough courage or strength to get out of my bed and search for it. I lay shivering for a while.”
“How did it look like?” asked Ria.
“It looked like an ape!” cried Eve as she again picked up the glass of water from the table to drink.
“When did you report this matter to the police?”
“It was not until Wednesday morning that I went to the police. I would have waited longer, but another incident compelled me to go to the police without any more delay. I don’t know why I waited so long. I believe I wasn’t ready to accept the facts.”
“What exactly happened?” Ria asked curiously. “Please make sure you tell me everything.”
Eve sighed and continued her story. “My brother Tim was a sailor. He got tired of his seafaring life and left his job last month. Presently he is staying with us. His room is downstairs. On Tuesday evening, he was sitting in his room reading in the chair. It was dark and foggy outside except for the moonlight. Something made him look up from his book. There he saw the horrible creature looking at him through the upper pane of the window. He described it to be huge, dark, and like an ape. It was staring at him with wild eyes. Tim froze with fear. He couldn’t move until it jumped back and vanished into the darkness. Being a sailor, Tim is quite brave. He ran out and ran through the back door to the garden but couldn’t find anyone. I didn’t waste any time and went to the police the following morning. Captain Liam Lake listened to my story carefully and advised me to contact you. He has posted two patrol officers to watch our house at night.”
“How do you think you can explain these sightings?” Ria asked her client with a questioning look on her face. “These incidents are strange and scary.”
“And spooky too,” remarked Andy.
“I don’t believe in the supernatural,” Eve panicked. “So, I’m dead worried.”
She glanced up to find Ria watching her with a thoughtful look on her face.
“Interestingly, both my brother and I saw an ape-like animal, but there are no apes in the nearby Shattuck Forest,” insisted Eve.
There was a long silence, during which Ria leaned her chin on her hands and gazed to the ground.
“Well,” she pronounced at last with a serious face, “whatever it may have been, and whatever it may have wanted, it’s gone only for the present. We have to dig into this mystery as fast as we can and certainly before it’s too late. Can we visit your house today in the evening?”
Eve couldn’t believe her luck when she saw Ria’s interest in her case. Her clouded face glowed momentarily.
“Certainly,” she replied without hesitation. “Everyone in our house is living in great fear.” She clutched the detective’s hand tightly and asked her, “Do you see any real danger?”
“This is a serious case,” Ria responded gravely. “I would like to know more details before I can advise you. I’ll be in Mistgrove after seven o’clock this evening. I’ll meet my friend Captain Lake before visiting your house. In the meantime, take every precaution to avoid going out at night. Lock all your doors and try to stay inside the house after dark. Please come to the police station today at seven.”
Eve gave her phone number and a signed cheque to Ria. She drove away with a worried face, and the car disappeared down the lane.
“I feel sorry for Eve!” Jenny sighed. “It’s scary.”
“What do you make of this?” asked Andy to his friend. “Do you think she is in trouble?”
Ria frowned and gazed out of the window. “It’s difficult for Eve to live in her house,” she remarked. “There is an unusual intruder, which is troubling.”
It surprised Andy that Eve didn’t ask for help sooner.
“Do you think there is any danger to Eve and her family?” he asked again.
“We can’t be certain till we have gathered more information,” Ria commented thoughtfully. “Today is Thursday. And now it’s four o’clock. Let’s have our cake and coffee, after which we can visit the Mistgrove police station. It won’t take more than an hour.”
“You’re right,” agreed Andy. “You need more information about this house.”
As they stepped outside to the patio to eat their cake, Jenny related the story of the child-rescue earlier that afternoon.
Ria extended both her arms and hugged her tall, blonde, and athletic sister.
“Very brave of you, Jenny!” she exclaimed. I’m proud that you saved a life!”
“Well done, champ.” Andy gave a complimentary pat on the brave girl’s shoulder.
Jenny, who was happy about her achievement, picked up a piece of the cake and took a bite.
“This was, however, a risky act,” Ria cautioned her sister. “You need to be careful. Also, I don’t want you to be in trouble.”
Ria was fourteen years older than Jenny. She dearly loved her little sister and wanted only the best for her. They were chums despite their age differences.
“I guess you can make an appointment with Captain Lake,” Andy suggested casually.
“Right,” Ria agreed as she rose from her chair. She went inside the house to call Liam.
Jenny, who was listening with patience, broke her silence. “The beast encounters were chilling,” she remarked. This case seems to be supernatural to me. How can my sister be of any help to Eve?”
Andy chuckled as he folded his arms across his chest. “We can’t conclude unless we visit the place and inspect it.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” asked Jenny.
“Ghosts?” The karate expert arched his brow and squinted his eyes. “No, I don’t.”
“You might just find one in Eve’s house!” she grinned. “What do you think?”
“I’m keen,” smirked Andy.
“You may change your mind if you see one,” said Jenny as she stuck her tongue out at him.
Ria joined them outside after a short while. “Liam has agreed to meet us at seven o’clock. I want to start as soon as possible as there is no point in wasting time. Eve is living in an old house with a mysterious creature frequenting it regularly. I sense grave danger in this case.”
Andy nodded his head in agreement. “Her family friend, the real estate agent, threw her under the bus,” he remarked with sarcasm in his voice.
“You have nailed it,” agreed Ria as she poured three glasses of orange juice. She handed one to Andy and the other one to Jenny. “This is an interesting case,” she remarked. “It’s different from all our past cases. I’m sure you’ll like to follow it. Come along with me.”
“I won’t miss it for anything,” Andy declared with a smile. “I’m sitting idle for a while, doing nothing of significance. An opportunity to help you is a welcoming change for me. I find this case interesting too.”
Jenny, who was listening to their discussion, asked with wide eyes, “Do you think there is an actual ghost in Eve’s house?”
“I don’t believe in supernatural,” declared Ria. “What do you mean?”
“Something very fishy is happening in Eve’s house,” a smirk tugged the detective’s lips.
“I want to come along too,” Jenny demanded strongly. “I want to follow this case.”
Ria knew Jenny had temporarily withdrawn herself from the world-of-romance after experiencing a couple of setbacks. So, she was happy to let her younger sister indulge in some real- life adventures during her holidays. “I don’t see any reason why you can’t join us,” she said. “You might help us too.”
Jenny couldn’t believe her ears and thought that Ria was joking. She looked at her detective sister with a surprised gaze. “Do you mean it, Ria?” she asked in disbelief with her ocean blue eyes eager in anticipation.
“My friend is true to her words,” grinned Andy.
“Yes, dear,” Ria answered with a smile on her face. “You can have an adventure before you hit the books after your vacation.”
Jenny’s heart was beating fast. The excited girl couldn’t help thanking Eve for bringing her strange case to her sister. She was eager to experience the adventure that she was waiting for so long and only hoped for a less frightening one. In these extraordinary circumstances, it was too much to expect.