The home inspector checked her phone. Seven o'clock. On Halloween. She was supposed to be at a party dressed as Daphne from Scooby-Doo. Her office had planned the group costume for weeks. Halloween was for parties and trick-or-treating, not politely forced overtime. She'd already been mobbed by adorable gangs of cartoon characters, watchful parents hovering one step behind.
At least this was the last house on her list. She trudged up a curving driveway overhung by maples and oaks. The setting sun ignited their leaves into red and gold flames. At the end of the driveway the trees opened up.
“Great. An architect with a sense of humor.”
The house before her looked like a combination of 1313 Mockingbird Lane and the Addams' Family place.
“If there's a lion roaming around or a fire-breathing dragon under the stairs, I quit.”
She climbed the surprisingly intact porch steps and took the keyring out of her messenger bag. The door opened without a squeak. She found the light switch next to the doorframe, crossed her fingers, and flicked it up.
She set her messenger bag on the floor and took out a collapsible camping lantern. When she extended it its LED lights terrified the shadows back into the corners and under the sheeted furniture. She closed the door.
“If there are any ghosts here, listen up. The Historical Society thinks this place will be perfect for their new home, so save any hauntings for them. I'm only here to inspect.”
Her voice fell flat in the dusty room. She took out her phone and started a voice memo.
“Insulation good. Sound doesn't echo.” She passed a hand around the sills and frames. “Minimal air passage around windows and front door.”
She picked up the lantern. Holding her phone in the other hand, she walked the first floor, dictating.
“Hardwood floors need sanding and refinishing. Dead mouse in fireplace. Chimney blocked. Wallpaper peeling in all rooms. Mold in kitchen around fridge. Sink backstop tiles loose with mold behind them.”
She climbed to the second and third floors. Peeling paint, spider webs, rusted steam radiators. Most windows solid. Stairs leading to two of the five towers were treacherous. Her foot crashed through one solid-appearing tread and she flailed, slamming herself against the wall. Wild, swingling light from the lantern revealed filthy bricks and grimy windows.
She spat angry remarks into her phone as she retraced her steps. Safe on the solid first floor again, eight deep gongs sounded from a distant clock tower. She could still make the party in time for costume judging. Her hand was on the front doorknob before she remembered the basement.
Cursing with every breath she stomped into the kitchen. It took her four tries to pull the basement door free from its warped frame. A whoosh of dank air enveloped her. She fished in her messenger bag for a mask. Air this nasty promised black mold and she liked her lungs the way they were.
She raised her voice and sharpened her enunciation to dictate through the mask.
“For the record, I hate basements. I should move to a place where houses aren't built with them. The stairs I'm descending are made of stone. They fit the atmosphere, but they're worn in the center and unsafe. I recommend repair with concrete and replacing the loose railing. I'll stick a “Don't go in the basement” note to the door before I leave. The walls are also stone, but I see decorations of some kind.”
She brought the lantern closer to take several pictures. Loops and curlicues and symbols covered the walls from top to bottom. “I'd guess bored teenagers playing Black Mass broke into the house at some point. The painted magic circle on the stone floor at the bottom of the steps is designed so you have to step into the central symbol to get to the rest of the basement. The paint is clean of mold or dust, which suggests a recent break-in. Note: tell the house agent to get a locksmith out here tomorrow.”
She walked through the center of the design as intended. If she recalled the few horror movies she watched as a kid, this particular group of words and symbols sure wasn't intended to conjure up a fun demon who liked beer and football. Assuming the paintbrush-wielders believed in demons. They could've been simply trying to impress a date.
The basement was partitioned into four smaller rooms. Her lantern revealed spiders in one section, a rivulet trickling to the floor in another, and a large fruit cellar with unidentifiable home canned goods in the third. To her surprise, not a speck of black mold.
A raised platform with a cache of small animal bones greeted her in the fourth. She swore into the phone. When she brought her light closer to the bones, it illuminated little rodent ribcages, squirrel tails, several species of skull. A larger ribcage and matching bones crowned the pile. A gleam from the wall dragged her attention up.
The eye sockets of a tiny human skull stared back at her. She vomited into her mask before she could rip it off her face. It fell to the floor, buried under the remains of her long-ago lunch.
She got herself under control after several dry heaves. Wiping her mouth with another mask, she clenched her teeth and took several pictures for evidence. When she dialed 911, she got only the annoying “not in service” tri-tone.
“Never go in the basement,” she muttered. Then she remembered the phone was still recording.
“There's a platform in the last room covered with several animal bones and the skeleton of a dead infant. The infant's skull is hanging on the wall as the centerpiece of another ritual circle.” She swallowed. “The basement is in better shape than I expected. A cracked north wall is letting in water. This completes the inspection. I'm heading straight to the police—hey!”
The lantern died in her hand. She slammed the heel of her hand against the battery compartment.
“So much for fresh batteries—who's there?”
Rustling noises came from the platform. She pressed the flashlight icon on her phone, but nothing happened.
“Stupid phone. Wait. I can see light. Something's glowing from behind the platform.” She walked toward it. “The light source is underneath the little skull. Now I know why horror movie directors choose that angle. Oh, I see. The magic circle is glowing. Did they use phosphorescent paint?” She crouched down to touch it. “It's smudged here. Maybe I did it?” She sat on the cold stone floor and checked her shoes. “Yes, the sole of my shoe has paint stuck to it, but it isn't glowing. How is this light on the floor so bright?”
The platform exploded. A bone shard slit her cheek. Another stabbed the back of her hand. She dropped the phone, but the dim “recording” light stayed on. It picked up her gasp and the scrape of her shoes against the floor. Then the sound of heavy footsteps and rough breathing.
“What—what—” her voice came out much higher than usual.
“Hungry.” This voice had multiple echoes, each one deeper than the last.
The phone recorded cloth ripping, bones snapping, a gargled scream cut off. It captured hearty sounds of chewing and slurping before it timed out.