I was at the edge of my seat. In Alex Death’s usual way, he was moving his arms around, sometimes standing on his feet, making the oddest facial expressions, and generally throwing himself into his story telling, so by the time Mr. Porter caught him sneaking up into the attic, I was about ready to fall out of my chair.
Then came the surprising conclusion: nothing really happened.
He shook his head, looking almost as surprised as I was. “Nope; nothing. I was so scared; I really thought he was going to cut me up into little pieces or something, but when I crashed into him at the bottom of the stairs, he didn’t look mad at all!”
“Well, what did he say?”
“Not much. In a split second, I decided to go the less obvious route: tell the truth, instead of making up a story I couldn’t back up. Anyway, I had the feeling that he was on to me. If I lied, he’d know it.
“I told him I got scared, because I was in my bedroom and heard something upstairs.
“‘Did you think it was a ghost?’ he asked, with a smile on his face. The smile looked a bit too fake, though; he was either trying not to make fun of my gullibility or trying not to get mad at me. I couldn’t tell.
“‘I don’t know what I thought,’ I told him. ‘I know I’m not supposed to come up here, but the footsteps were so loud, and how could I just ignore them? I was too curious, but then I saw the attic and heard more sounds, and I got too frightened. I guess I really did think it was a ghost.’
“‘Is that all you thought it was?’ Mr. Porter asked, but it sounded like the question wasn’t addressed to me, but to himself. He leaned into me, eying me suspiciously. But I wasn’t worried; I’ve always been a pretty good liar.
“‘What else would it be?’ I said, matter-of-factly, and looked him straight in the eye.
“‘And the door,’ said Mr. Porter, pointing to the top of the attic stairs. ‘Why do you think I keep it locked?’
“‘I really couldn’t tell you,’ I said. ‘I have no idea.’
“‘It’s to keep out nosy individuals who may get themselves in trouble. I told you not to come up here, for your own good. I see no harm was done, but if you do it again, you’ll lose your job, or worse -’ and here, Mr. Porter freaked me out the most. His face grew really serious; the smile was gone, and his eyes were like slits. ‘I’ll throw you to the goddess.’
“He meant it, too.
“And with that, he let go of my arm and stepped a few feet away from me, waiting for me to make the first move towards the third floor staircase. I heard him lock up behind me.
“When I was back in my room, I had half a mind to leave the house and the job. I knew that what was upstairs wasn’t a ghost or a zombie, and I didn’t exactly want to get involved. I thought about escaping; these weren’t the kind of folks who’d chase me down or come find me and kill me or anything like that. I had a feeling if I disappeared, they’d simply replace me. But then I thought about Kali outside. I figured that Bob, the groundskeeper, was either out cold by then or drunk, as usual, and he wouldn’t have control over his dog. If I tried to get out, and the dog was by the entrance, I’d be torn to pieces.
“Plus, my curiosity was way stronger than my anxiety about the whole business. Instead of running away, I thought I’d hit you up. I figured you wouldn’t mind working on this together. Something’s messed up in that house; it’s obvious. Just what, exactly, and what we can do about it, I don’t know.”
I’d been pretty spellbound for the good part of an hour listening to Alex’s story. Now, I had to get up and start pacing the living room, letting my mind work out all the details.
“Alex, when do you have to be back?”
“They’re gone for the weekend. I don’t have to be back until Sunday.”
“Do you think that Bob’s still drunk?”
“I’m really not sure,” said Alex. He looked puzzled by the question. “He seemed fine when he drove me home, but that was a few hours ago. I know it’s daytime, but I found Bob sprawled out on the lawn at noon once. So, you know, there’s no real pattern to it.
“Well, hopefully Bob’s down for the count,” I said. “Maybe he’ll be partying all weekend, since the Porters won’t be home. Today will be the best day; people usually let loose the first day of a boss’ absence, seeing how every day that goes by risks having them come home earlier than planned. So, what we have to do is obvious.”
“Break into another home, like we do in every other case?” Alex observed, with a smile. “I swear, Justice, we’re gonna get busted one of these days for breaking and entering.”
“Yeah, it’s a hazard, but don’t you have a key?”
“No, they didn’t give me one. Guess they want to keep what they’re hiding hidden. But Bob’s home, and he has a key.”
“Well, you’re going to have to go back to the Porter house and check on Bob. If he’s not drunk, you’ll have to figure out how to break in; maybe you’ll have to steal them from him. I dunno; you’ll think of something. If he is drunk, we won’t have to worry about him, and then you can swipe the keys. Can you get a ride back there?”
“I think so.”
“Text me when you’re there and you scope out the situation. Then I’ll head over. We have to get to that attic, somehow.”
It was obvious to me, and I think to Alex, what had happened. He’d been hired to impersonate someone, and all the yard-work was just a secondary bonus for the Porters. The real person was in the attic, and given Alex’s age and the whole back story at the Porters’ house, Benjamin, Mr. Porter’s son, was trapped inside.
Alex agreed. “Makes sense to me,” he said. “I was chosen for my age, height, shape, and now my hair color. I bet his hair is dark brown or black. I had that same hunch when I was getting closer to the attic door, but I didn’t want to put the idea in your head. I wanted you to think of it on your own. Who do you think that guy was staring at me from the road?”
“I’m not sure. A friend of his? Maybe a relative? Someone who suspected that Benjamin hadn’t killed himself after all. But then, that wouldn’t make much sense either, since anyone who thought that could simply check with the proper authorities to verify his death. Maybe Mr. Porter only told certain people, like Bob, that his son killed himself in order to explain his disappearance. People outside the house may have gotten a different story.
“I’ll admit; that part’s a bit confusing to me. All I know is that whoever was out there watching was made to believe that the boy was happy and healthy and doing well. And I think the dog is let loose at night to prevent this person from getting in and trying to communicate with Benjamin.”
Alex got up from the couch, looking excited, just like he did every time we were about to jump into the fray of whatever case we were looking into. He grabbed another Coke, waved goodbye, and ran out the door and down the street towards his house. I wasn’t sure what he was going to tell his aunt, but it would probably be a lie, knowing him. He’d do anything to get what he needed, and come Hell or high water, I knew he’d be at the Porter house again by evening.
We still had a few hours until sunset, and as long as everything was in place and we were inside the Porter house by night fall, we’d be out of Kali’s way and would have free access to the place. I was convinced then that once we got there the mystery would be solved in only a few minutes. Nobody would get hurt, Benjamin would be rescued, and there’d finally be a case where nobody died.
I was right about the mystery being solved quickly, but about all the rest of it, I was dead wrong.
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Read Part 5