This Old House – Chapter 3

Imagination is a good thing when you do remodeling and need to picture what your results will look like. I can do that. But this…for this, the pictures were way too vivid.

“John?!” The hair on the back of my neck began to prickle. No answer from above. “JOHN!” I bellowed. Still no answer. I swore at myself: damn the soundproofing. And that made the hair on my forearms stand up even higher. I decided I wanted to go up stairs. Now! As the possible uses for those manacles started flashing through my head I moved even faster, smashing my head on the top of the low doorway out into the pantry. John  looked up from where he stood in the kitchen.

“Oh, Jim.” He saw the look on my face and said, “What is it, Jim?”

“Didn’t you hear me yelling for you?”

“No, I just came from the front hall. I was talking to Tim as he left for the Market. What did you find?”

“Can you make it down these stairs? I’d rather show you than just tell you.”

“I seriously doubt it. I’m not as athletic,” here he patted his ample belly, “as you are. And there is my bum leg…”

“Right. Well, John, in your secret room down there, attached to the ceiling, are… a pair of chains with manacles… “my throat went dry and I couldn’t finish.

He smiled  and chuckled.”So the stories might be true.”

“What?! You mean, you knew?”

He paused, as if looking something in his mind’s eye for a moment, and then shook his head.

“Not really ‘knew’. I was warned that my uncle was a little eccentric, but no one ever divulged the details.”

By now, my heart rate had returned to normal, but I was a little angry: a warning would have been nice. And my head hurt. And I wanted to sit down. Squashing the anger for now, I said, “Sounds like a story. You got some coffee left?”

“Oh! Of course. Sit down at the table. Cream and sugar, right?”

“Just cream.”

John and Tim had made some effort at furnishing the house with period furniture. The dining room was typical of the rest of the house. There was an electrified gas chandelier, Victorian style wall paper full of huge roses with the authentic thin, flat brown and rose-patterned carpet to complement. Lace curtains and fancy shades blocked the view to outside through the window that faced across the driveway to the neighbors. A round oak dining table and chairs matched the huge oak hutch that stood against the wall between this room and the pantry and kitchen.

Lest you think them purists though, let me warn you that they were also bachelors:  the oak table was pushed up against one wall of the dining room to make room for an eight foot folding table set up in front of the window. It was loaded to overflowing with houseplants and mementos from vacations and craft projects.

John called from the kitchen, “Would you care for something to go with the coffee?” He proceeded to rattle off a long list of pastries and sweets he ‘just happened to have available’.

“Naaa, just the coffee.”

He came out to the table with two cups of coffee and a plate heaped with goodies– no doubt organic and of course from the Market–and set them down. “Just in case”, he beamed, and took one for himself.

I smiled and took one too. He knows me pretty well.

“So, what was it you found down there? A manacle?”

“Not just one, but a pair, hanging on chains from the ceiling. And the acoustics… you really can’t hear a THING down there from up here! Which means you probably could never hear what went on down there.”

“That would make sense.” Again he paused. “You know this house has been in the family for some time. An uncle on my mother’s side bought it way back when it was fairly new, according to the family stories.” Again he paused. “My uncle was, I believe, the second owner. He was an interesting character. According to family history, he lived very well but without any visible means of support before, during and after the Great Crash of 1929. Very well, for the times. Especially in a small village like this.”

“A yuppie, eh?”

“Something similar although not exactly. Definitely a conspicuous consumer. A typical Victorian gentleman with money, only a few decades later. He lived here until after World War Two, always in comfort, but never employed.”

“So for this situation, he could afford whatever he wanted? Including a private dungeon?”

John smiled. “I suspect so. Now, what he was actually doing with one—that is another question. Those kinds of things were not–are not!– discussed in our family. There were enough secrets of, shall we say, lesser offences, such that they left the more embarrassing ones alone.”

“Which is the long way of saying… what?”

“My family included a lot of professionals and preachers. What goes on in the basement, stays in the basement you might say. For business’ sake! In other words, don’t out me on my recreational habits and I won’t out you for yours.”

“So, your uncle was a freak.” I’m not a professional or a preacher.

“Shall we say he fit in well to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality of the Victorians?”

“You’re talking to a simpleton, bro. What was this guy?”

“My uncle, so the stories go, was into kinky sex and not necessarily with just women. That’s just the story, and knowing that it comes from a small, Midwestern town in Victorian times, it’s hard to tell what they meant by kinky.”

“Until today,” I muttered. This was getting stranger than the plumber in me wanted to deal with.

Until today,” John nodded. “But the idea of a secret room and a tunnel might have something to do with some other things I have dug up in my genealogy searches.”

“Like what?”

“Well there a whole series of newspaper articles, very sensational, about an unsolved disappearance in this neighborhood.  Rumor was the man was murdered and the body hid. Of course, no one could connect any foul play to my uncle. He just happened to live next door to the missing person.”

“Wait! Let me guess. Next door…” I looked around to get my bearings, “was that away?” I pointed out the window, in the direction the tunnel led. “That’s where the tunnel heads, as far as I can tell.”

John’s characteristic smirk–always appearing when he knew something you didn’t and he was letting the secret out a little at a time–changed to a look of confusion.

“Uh… actually, it would be the opposite direction. Are you sure you aren’t turned around?”

I stood up and went over to the wall that separated the pantry from the dining room, walked along it. “Here are the stairs,” I said. “I come off the stairs and turn”—I turned to the right with an about-face—”there. And I am facing the entrance to the tunnel. Which I still haven’t been in, by the way.”

“That’s interesting. Very interesting!” He didn’t even hear my last. “The house… they give the street address in the article. Let me go look it up to be sure.” He left and came back in a few minutes, walking slowly and flipping through a sheaf of papers. “I printed these out yesterday, just in case we came across something.” He quickly scanned page after page, then re-scanned one page in particular.  “The article says… it gives the address of the house of the missing person… my mistake! It IS on this side of the street… next door that way.” He pointed out the window.

* * *

I wasn’t in a big hurry to get back to the manacles downstairs. They didn’t feature in my fantasies, in this particular case they creeped me out. But the only way to the tunnel went past them. And this new information made the tunnel even more appealing.

“How about you read over the article, see what else you come up with. And I’ll go take a quick look at the tunnel, see where it actually does go. I can’t believe they would dig a tunnel under the driveway. There’s nothing to connect to there and that’ a LOT of dirt to hide!”

“Jim, be careful.” He was serious.”I can’t hear all that well and if what you say is true, I’ll not be able to hear a call for help in any case.” He thought for a minute. “Cell phone?” He suggested.

“Not that far underground. No signal, almost for sure.”

“Doubly careful then! That tunnel is almost a hundred years old and certainly not maintained on this end. I don’t know what’s on the other side.

“Gotcha boss. If I’m not back in half an hour, call 911. Let them earn their pay today.”

“Oh. Hadn’t thought of that but that would work. I was trying to figure out how I would get down those steps myself.”

“That’s why they get paid the big bucks. Anyhow, back in a flash.”

“Jim?” He fumbled in his pocket. “This might be silly but here.” He handed me the ball of twine again. “In case… something. I don’t know…”

I smiled and took it from his hand. “Thanks.”

I ducked, slid and climbed down to the secret room again, flashlight in hand. I avoided looking the manacles and , I stuck my nose in through the tunnel doorway.  The air was still now, no breeze like earlier. Something to remember. I broke the door trying to open it: for once I was glad the noise wouldn’t be heard upstairs.  I tied the twine John had given me to a piece of the wooden door and gave a tug. It held.  And off I went, hunched over, to find out what was at the end of the tunnel.