"Jim, if I could ever use a friend, now is the time," McCoy drawled as he sauntered through the doors of Admiral Kirk's condominium in San Francisco.
The admiral looked up from the reports he was trying to finish, his lips twitching in amusement. "We've always been friends, Bones."
"Yeah, but now I really need a friend," McCoy protested, helping himself to a drink of Kirk's liquor. "I've got a real mess back home, and I could sure use some help straightening it out."
"What..." Kirk began, then frowned as McCoy freely poured out his best Saurian brandy, enough to fill a large glass. "Hey, that stuff is hard to get, Bones," he protested.
McCoy grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Jim. Guess I'm a little agitated."
"So tell me about it, Bones," Kirk said as he put aside the reports, curious as to what had McCoy so distracted.
"Well, I've got this aunt that just passed away...remember me talking about Beth? She was my mom's sister. Anyway, she has this house in Alabama...a real landmark, close to 400 years old, that she inherited from her husband. They never did live there...just sort of maintained the place. I think it was his family home. Anyway, she's left it to me in her will. Jim, I don't have any use for something like that, or any way to take care of it. When I do decided to retire, it's going to be to Atlanta or maybe Tocoa Falls, but it's not to some Godforsaken place like Alabama. I'll have to sell it, and fast. Houses that old take a lot of maintenance. But the attorney tells me it's not just a routine legal matter. I have to sign the papers in person, and they tell me there's all sorts of personal stuff at the house that could be rare. Beth was a real collector. I'm planning to auction off the valuable stuff and throw away what isn't worth anything. Maybe I'll need to arrange for an estate firm to help." McCoy paused for a healthy swallow of the brandy.
He continued, "Anyway, I'm going to have to make a trip to Alabama and sort this whole mess out; I'd like to get it all wrapped up in one trip if I can. You were saying you didn't have anything planned for this week...well, if you'd go with me, we could probably get this resolved in no time at all, and then go on and have some fun in Atlanta. What do you think?"
Kirk rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Guess that would be okay, Bones." A sly grin lit his face. "On the condition that you promise me a good time at that place you found in Atlanta...what was it? The Plantation?...afterward."
"Oh, I'll show you a good time, Jim. Have I ever failed you?"
Kirk pretended to consider. "Well, there was that one time on Rigel Two..." he began.
"Oh, now you promised never to bring that up again, Jim," McCoy reproached his friend.
"Okay, okay...I guess you've never officially let me down," Kirk finally allowed.
"Then it's settled. Thanks, Jim. I really appreciate this. You're a pal."
"Yeah, well...just don't forget, I'm expecting something special in Atlanta," Kirk warned with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
"'Special' is my cup of tea, my friend," McCoy boasted, tossing off the rest of his drink with a flourish.
Kirk couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this frustrated. He and McCoy had arrived in Alabama, only to find that the house situation was going to be far from easy to resolve. The first problem was that they had found it impossible to hire any help to empty the house out...the local people considered the house to be haunted, and no inducement on Earth would convince them to enter it. He and McCoy could find no reliable explanation as to why it was supposed to be haunted. McCoy learned that over the years, several people were rumored to have entered the house and never been seen again. Not exactly conclusive evidence, he and McCoy had agreed with a chuckle.
The second problem was that when they arrived, it was obvious it would take weeks of work for the two of them to sort through all the accumulated artifacts. McCoy did hire an out of town estate firm to come in to finish the work, but they weren't able to come for a week. Probably just as well, since they didn't want to miss anything important in all the clutter.
The house did have a brooding atmosphere...three stories, an attic, and a basement, jam-packed with stacks of papers, furniture, boxes, antiquities... complete with dim lighting and twisting, turning corridors, unexpected staircases, lofty ceilings, and outdated conveniences. There was a butler's pantry that was used by servants, slaves actually, to assemble meals before serving, and a dumbwaiter that ran from the kitchen to the upper floors. 'Like the food slot turbolifts on the Enterprise,' McCoy had explained. But as far as it being haunted...he and Bones weren't ready to subscribe to that theory. Although they had been working in the house for three days now, they were both getting decidedly jumpy. There was something about the place that worked on you in an uneasy way...
It was hard to say just exactly what the problem was. After you'd been in the house for a while, you had a feeling that someone was watching you. And whoever was watching was certainly not benign...
It was their last day in Alabama, and they were finally making a little progress in the house. The day had dawned hot, overcast and threatening, with intermittent storms rumbling through the area. Kirk and McCoy kept doggedly at the work, though neither one of them was in a good mood. The estate people were due to arrive early the next morning, and both men felt a profound relief that their work was almost done. But as sunset approached, it was obvious there was still an entire evening's work ahead of them, and another storm was threatening.
McCoy scrubbed his face with his hand. "Jim, why don't I go get us something to eat while you get into that box of coins in the library?"
Kirk closed the box he'd just packed and sat back on his heels, waving away a particularly large dust ball he'd stirred up. "That sounds great, Bones." He gestured around him "Wonder how much we've thrown out that was valuable?"
McCoy surveyed the mess with hands on hips. "Well, I wouldn't give you a half credit for all of it," he declared. "But they say one man's junk is another man's treasure. Want me to get ribs?"
"Now you're talking," Kirk responded.
"All right...I'll get ribs...and beer...and you start sorting out those coins. Maybe we'll get finished before midnight," he observed with a doubtful look around him.
Kirk heard McCoy's footsteps receding through the house and then the back door slammed. The quiet rumble of distant thunder and the patter of rainfall were the only sounds piercing the thick silence. Alone now, he was more aware than ever of the heavy foreboding that seemed to settle on the old house like a dusty mantle. Irritated with himself for letting the atmosphere affect him, Kirk pushed his uneasiness to the back of his mind as he made his way to the main floor, wondering if he would know a valuable coin if he saw one.
Kirk took the box of coins to an old oak roll-top desk, the wood smooth and darkened from scores of hands passing over it, and began spreading them out under the pool of light shed by a desk lamp. He became so absorbed in the antiquity of the coins, a tangible link to an era gone by, that everything else got shut out, even the storm. Until he heard a noise. A different noise. He paused, raising his head, and listened.
"Bones?" he called, thinking that perhaps the doctor had forgotten something. Only the sound of thunder and drumming rain greeted his ears. He was just about to go back to the coins when he heard it again...it was faint, but it was there...the sound of something moving around furtively. Could someone have gotten into the house while he and Bones were upstairs?
He set aside the coins and rose, heading quietly toward the kitchen, where it seemed that the sound was coming from. He walked as lightly as possible, but in a house this old, each step he took was broadcast by creaking floorboards. However an intruder, if there was one, wouldn't be able to move quietly either.
When he got to the kitchen, though, everything was in place, and no one was in sight. He was trying to convince himself that maybe it was just the house settling when he heard it again. This time, there was a definite sound of footsteps, and they were heading quickly up the back stairs leading from the kitchen to the second floor. Kirk set off after them, arriving in the second floor hallway without seeing anyone.
He looked around carefully, but there were so many stacks of boxes and so much shrouded furniture in the house, it supplied dozens of hiding places, should anyone choose to hide.
Suddenly, a noise from further toward the front of the house drew his attention, and he hurried toward it, determined to confront the intruder. But again, there was no one in evidence. He realized that although he had heard plenty, he had actually seen nothing...an uncomfortable coincidence that seemed to support the local folk's theory of the haunted house. Then, he heard the footsteps ascending the stairs again, this time the wider, front steps leading to the third floor.
As before, they hurried upward, and he quickly followed. Reaching the third floor landing, he was just in time to see a door quietly close. Now I've got him, Kirk thought. Although he was still not entirely familiar with all the rooms in the house, he was pretty sure that door led to a closet. If he was right, he had whoever it was cornered.
He stepped forward and pulled the door open, prepared to grapple with whoever was hiding in the closet. What he was not prepared for was the blinding flash of light that greeted him as he flung open the door. He instinctively dropped to a crouch, unable to see a thing, waiting for his eyes to adjust to normal light. It seemed as if a few years crawled by slowly while his eyes watered and spotted. He blinked, to no avail. Finally, after a moment or two, the tearing and spots passed, only to be replaced by a blackness as impenetrable as the depths of hell. He kept blinking, but nothing changed. He scrubbed his face with both hands, trying to wipe away the incredulous fact that he was blind. Totally blind. Alarm and dismay, along with a healthy dose of fear, battled for dominance.
Then, from somewhere nearby came a chuckle, low and full of evil amusement. In a flash, he realized he'd been lured here...to the top floor of a house full of obstacles and pitfalls. Blinded as he was, how was he going to get back to the main floor? How am I going to command a starship?? He shook his head impatiently at that terrible question. First things first. Whoever...or whatever...had lured him to this place had done so for some evil purpose. What kind of being would...
A stirring nearby broke into his thoughts...a sort of whispering, wind-like thing...with cold fingers that trickled lightly up his arms, and he heard that eerie chuckle again. He had to move...he wasn't going to stay here and be a target for whatever this thing was. He stood up and reached out with his hands, groping along for a few seconds until his fingertips made contact with the dusty walls. He patted along until he came to an opening. Was it another room, or the stairwell? Disoriented by the blinding flash and its resulting blindness, he was no longer sure which way he was heading.
Cautiously, he reached forward with a toe, testing the floor. The opening he found must be another room, the floor didn't drop away from his foot. He moved the other way. Something crashed behind him, very close. He couldn't suppress the start of surprise, and reflexively moved away from the sound and the whoosh of air behind him. But the floor wasn't there, and the next thing he knew, he was stumbling awkwardly down the stairs. He missed the first two steps entirely, his foot making jarring contact with the third and pitching him off balance. He slammed into the stairwell wall, banging his shoulder and wrenching his wrist in the process. Then he tumbled, cracking his temple against one stair step, his ribs on another, and fetching up against the wall of the landing where the stairwell turned, landing in a tangle. Stars swam briefly before his blinded eyes, then faded away, only to be replaced with the absolute darkness of before. He gingerly felt his forehead and came away with damp fingers. Blood.
Then that chilly caress came over him again. It made his skin crawl each time it touched him. He forced himself shakily to his feet, and forced himself to move on.
Warily, feeling his way with hands and feet as quickly as possible, he determined where the next set of stairs began and started down toward the second floor. He had forgotten, though, about all the small boxes stacked on the stairs, and took another fall, this time plummeting downward with greater momentum. He crashed into what he supposed was the heavy wooden railing. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he heard the splintering sound of wood giving away, and then a heart-stopping moment later, he pitched headlong over the side of the stairs.
Frantically, he grabbed for a handhold, clawing at whatever fell under his hands, only to have it break away and send him clutching for something else to hang on to. After a terrifying eternity, his fingers closed on something that didn't give away, and he hung, panting, his feet dangling. In a flash, his mind supplied the scene below him that his eyes couldn't...three tall stories of open space, ringed by the house's massive open staircase, the stairwell below yawning like a chasm, ready to swallow him.
The impact nearly yanked his arms from their sockets, and the ribs he had just cracked screamed a protest. Carefully, he began pulling himself upward, searching for a toe-hold. Finally, he was able to heave himself back to safety. While he lay there taking stock of his injuries, the wintry cloud nudged him, creeping eerily over him as it descended from behind.
More cautious than ever, he pushed on, navigating the rest of the stairs, arriving on the second floor without further incident. The house was full of uneasy whisperings now, just barely heard over the quiet sound of rain drumming on the roof and the occasional rumble of thunder. It was an angry sound that gave him the impression that their presence had been tolerated earlier but was now being rejected.
Out of breath and carefully pressing a hand to his wounded ribs, he moved forward slowly, testing for obstacles with his other hand and feet. He had to get out, and quickly, before the stalking force could overcome him.
As he inched along the second floor corridor, hugging the wall and hoping he was heading in the right direction, he encountered the cold spot again. He froze, some instinct taking over his actions; an instinct that said it was important that the cold not envelop him completely. Frigid tendrils crept around his arms, and he backed up, trying to circumnavigate the cold. It was huge. As he tried to edge around it, he backed into a stack of boxes on the floor, stumbled and fell onto them. They dumped him neatly to the floor. He fell back on his injured wrist. "Damn." It was more of a groan than a curse.
He felt the cold intrude again, insidious and persistent. He scrambled to his feet and moved away as quickly as he could, feeling a little trickle of sweat roll down the side of his face. He headed in the direction he thought the stairway to the main floor lay. After a bit of cautious testing with hands and feet, he found what seemed to be the stairwell, and confirmed it when the floor dropped away from his toes, as he encountered a hand rail.
But he hadn't gone down more than a step or two when he also encountered the creeping coldness, blocking his way. Its chilly caress crept around his shoulders and raised the hair on the back of his neck. He clenched his teeth, determined not to let it turn him from his goal of getting to the main floor. He took another step, his right hand in a death grip on the hand rail, his left stretched out cautiously. The cold intensified. He steeled himself and took another step...and froze. Each step closer to the thing he took found the air increasingly frigid. Another step, and then his left hand encountered something cold and rubbery...he froze. There was something solid blocking his way. Something that felt like flesh. But not just any flesh...the clammy, icy flesh of something...dead. It felt dead.
He recoiled in horror. Then quickly, with a conscious effort, he recovered his self control and retraced his steps as hastily as he could. He felt his way along, the cold spot creeping insidiously along behind him. Now that he knew what lay at its center, he was determined not to encounter it again. He moved away as quickly as he could, but the cold was relentless, pushing him down the hallway, leaving him no choice but to move faster or be engulfed. He felt along the walls with a greater urgency now, and encountered an area that was shaped differently from the doorways he'd been passing.
Quickly, he ran questing fingertips over it, encountering odd hardware. The dumb waiter! In a flash, his fingers sought and found the door latch and pushed the door up. After a quick check to make sure the platform was there, he crawled into the small, enclosed space, ignoring the thick spider web film and the protesting screech of the wooden platform. This might be his only route to the main floor, and he mumbled a fervent plea of "Don't fail me now."
He slammed the wooden door down and groped for the ropes that worked the pulley system just as a puff of frigid air curled into the dusty shaft. He began to work the ropes and the platform rose. He hastily reversed the process, and the platform began dropping after a jerky start. He continued to lower the platform as quickly as the ancient system would allow, while showers of dust rained down on his shoulders and more spider webs drifted silently across his face, disturbing what had to be decades of carefully constructed domains.
The platform descended shakily for a yard or two, remaining essentially level. Then, with a sudden protesting shriek of strained rope and rusty hardware, the platform jammed in its track, stalled between floors. Kirk pulled urgently at the ropes, trying to get the platform moving. After a moment or two, there was movement, but not of the sort Kirk was hoping for. The twang of a snapped rope reached his ears a split second before the platform tipped abruptly and dumped him down the narrow shaft in a tangle of limbs. He slammed into the bottom at what felt like warp five, losing count of the times knees, elbows, and shoulders battered against the sides of the passage. All these were overshadowed by the wrenching pain that engulfed him as he landed at the bottom, and he couldn't suppress a moan. He lay where he'd fallen for a moment or two, unable to suck in even a breath of air. Finally, with a shaky gasp, he tried an experimental movement.
A sharp pain streaked through his right thigh, and with a groan of frustration, he considered the possibility that he'd broken his leg. No matter, he couldn't stay where he was. He began another exploration of the shaft, his fingers meeting nothing but rough, wooden walls and tattered spider webs. The shaft must have continued on a little below the first floor door. He couldn't get out unless he stood up.
Inhaling deeply, he hoisted himself up, bearing all his weight on his left leg. Another investigation revealed what felt like a door, and he pushed against it, his hopes soaring. It raised with a protesting squeak. Teeth clenched against the pain, he grabbed a hand hold on one of the wooden cross beams bracing the shaft above his head and hoisted himself into a seated position on the threshold of the opening.
Just as he was drawing his uninjured leg up to swing it out of the shaft, he felt it...the ghastly iciness descending from the shaft above. Startled, he lost his balance and tumbled out onto the floor, landing with an agonizing impact, another groan torn from his lips as his injured leg was twisted. He lay panting for a moment, his mind almost overwhelmed with pain. Then, as whispery tendrils of cold began to caress him again, he jerked his attention back to the task at hand...getting away from the creeping evil that was stalking him.
He knew the dumbwaiter shaft led down to the kitchen, so he must be close to the back door now. If he could just get across the enormous kitchen floor, he could get outside. With a surge of triumph, he suddenly remembered seeing the dumbwaiter door in the kitchen, on the right side of the room. That meant that the back door must lie off to his left, and over a bit.
He began dragging himself along the floor, clawing and pulling himself toward the door, shoving stacked boxes out of his way. The thought that safety was so near was intoxicating. And then, to his horror, he felt something grab his foot...hard...and hang on. He strained toward the door, but the thing had a firm lock on his foot. Cold sweat burning in his sightless eyes, he kicked at the thing, to no avail. Then, with a superhuman effort and a roar of anger, he pulled free, leaving one shoe behind. He scrambled the remaining distance, waves of relief washing him as his hands encountered the welcome rasp of the screen door. He pushed against it desperately and flung himself halfway over the threshold, just as he heard a familiar voice gasp, "What in blue blazes!?"
And the moment he heaved himself over the threshold, his sight returned, as if once he was outside the house, the thing had no more power over him. He could see Leonard McCoy hurrying toward him, a parcel of food carelessly abandoned along the brick walk as the doctor made a beeline to help him.
"Bones...what kept you?" he gasped out, and felt the welcome touch of McCoy's caring hands as the doctor reached his side. Kirk could almost hear the entity's enraged snarl, sense its angry impotence, once its prey finally beyond reach.
"Jim, what happened?"
"Get me out of here, Bones. I want to get far, far away from this house," Kirk insisted sharply.
McCoy ran a practiced eye over the Captain. "I'm not moving you until I know how badly you're hurt. Your leg might be broken, Jim...and that's a nasty looking gash on your forehead. You might have a concussion ...look at me, let me see your eyes..."
Kirk clawed at McCoy's arm. "Later! Get me away from here, Bones. At least take me out into the back yard!"
Puzzled, McCoy glanced first at Kirk, whose face held a mortal dread at the thought of remaining that close to the house, and back into the kitchen, steeped in the innocent twilight of the Alabama evening. "Well, all right..." he began, not sure what was making Kirk so persistent, but knowing that when Kirk felt that strongly about something, there was usually a good reason. He cautiously drew Kirk out onto the back porch and over to the steps, where he gingerly draped him over his shoulders in a fireman's carry and staggered over to their parked flitter. Easing him down into the flitter seat, he flipped open his communicator and summoned a medical team to their coordinates.
"You just rest, Jim. I'll go get my medikit from the house and see what I can..."
"No!" Kirk interrupted sharply. "Promise me you won't go back in there, Bones! I can wait for the medical team to come."
McCoy's brow furrowed. "But..."
"Promise me," Kirk demanded, catching McCoy's arm in a bone-crushing grip.
"All right, Jim, all right. What..." he broke off, seeing Kirk staring over his shoulder, back toward the house.
"There's something in there, Bones. Something evil. I almost didn't get away."
His tone sent a chill up McCoy's spine. "Okay, Jim, I won't go back in there. But..." McCoy broke off and looked toward the house. There, just inside the screen door, he saw what Kirk was staring at. It floated in a nebulous white cloud. It didn't look like any smoke he'd ever seen. His skin crawled with an instinctive reaction. And then he swore he heard...the chuckle of something evil.
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