Knuckles, Chapman, and Whisky stopped in front of the house at 624 High Street just as the nearby streetlight flickered and then went out. Chapman looked up at the dead light and scratched his threadbare head. “Well, that’s convenient.”
Knuckles played with his lighter, grunted. “This the place?”
“Uh, yeah,” Whisky said, each word a whine. “I think so.” He pulled a crumpled paper from his vest and squinted at it. And then flinched when Knuckles snatched it.
“Man, what is this?” Knuckles said. “Your writing is garbage, you idiot. What is – is that a seven? Seven-thirty-one? Seven-eighty-one?”
“Seven-thirty-one,” Whisky said.
“Seven-thirty-one,” Knuckles said. “‘H’. What’s ‘H’ mean?”
“It’s Hillview Drive, Knuck. The address is seven-thirty-one Hillview Drive.”
They all looked at the house again. It was big. Tall, broad, long. Fancy. Looked like one of those hoity-toity Victorian mansions in the horror flicks, the kind the crazy rich people lived in. Which made sense, since Old Widow McCain was both crazy and rich.
The house was also completely dark, and surrounded by twisted old trees and a rusty wrought iron fence. Also like in the horror flicks.
“I don’t see any numbers,” said Chapman, scanning the area with his flashlight. “Is this really the right place? Is this even Hillview Drive?”
Knuckles scowled, but he couldn’t see any numbers or nearby street signs either. He did spot an elderly woman walking her terrier on the other side of the street though, watching them. He faked his best grin, all teeth and cheeks, and waved to her. “Good evening, ma’am.”
“Good evening, ma’am,” said the other two, also waving.
The old woman hurried away, all but dragging her poor terrier, and Knuckles dropped his grin.
“Of course this is the place. We’re on a hill. And just look at this house. It’s huge. It basically smells like money.”
“But it’s dark,” said Whisky. “Shouldn’t there be lights if Old Widow McCain lives there?”
“Yeah, well, she’s out of town, isn’t she?” said Knuckles. “So of course it’s dark. Idiot. Now come on, let’s go get those jewels.”
They hustled up the weed-riddled footpath to the front door. The wrought iron gate wasn’t locked, but the rust did scream terribly when they pushed it open. Nobody came running though so it seemed like they weren’t noticed.
They went up the porch steps to the front door and Chapman got to work while the others kept watch. He knelt before the door and unrolled his lock picks. He loved this part, testing his superior skills against the best the pathetic lock companies could come up with. The lock looked real old too, not one he was familiar with, so maybe there’d be a challenge tonight. But first things first of course. He grabbed the handle and gave it a test, on the off chance it was open.
The lock was loose. The whole thing fell out of the door and crashed to the porch, denting it, and Chapman shrieked and fell backwards.
Knuckles slapped him on the back of the head. “What are you screaming for, idiot?”
Chapman picked himself up and inspected the lock and handle, and then the hole in the door. “Unbelievable! The whole thing just popped out!”
“What do you mean, popped out? Is the door open?”
Chapman got up and tried to push the door, but it didn’t move. He stuck his fingers into the hole the lock used to be in, and pulled. But it still didn’t move. “It’s stuck,” he said between grunts. “Jeez. I think there’s something on the other side. Like, something heavy.”
Knuckles pushed him aside and shouldered the door. He bounced off and hissed, rubbed his arm.
“You know, I’m not sure this is the right place after all,” said Chapman. Whisky looked wide-eyed between his two companions.
“Shut up,” said Knuckles. “This is the place.” He took a deep breath, played with his lighter again. “Let’s go find a window.”
They rounded the house and Knuckles smiled when they came across a decent sized window, just a bit above ground level. And then his smile vanished. “What the?”
It would have been a nice latticed window, except most of the glass was shattered. He put his hand through it and almost immediately touched wood. “What is this? It’s like… they boarded it up… from the inside?”
“Why would they do that?” said Whisky.
“Shut up. Let me think.” Knuckles stepped back and crossed his arms, frowning up at the window. There was another window nearby and it looked the same – smashed and boarded up. And another one a ways further down. He fiddled absently with his lighter.
“I don’t know, Knuck,” said Chapman. “I’m starting to get a bad feeling. Why would they board up their windows?”
“Shut up. You’ll get a bad feeling when I knock your teeth out. Now… you know, they probably just had problems with vandals or something. Some stupid kids come by, knock out all the windows – you know, like we used to do. So they board them up. That makes sense.”
He turned to the others. “That makes sense, right?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” said Whisky, tripping over his words. “Makes sense to me.”
Chapman sighed. “So, what do we do? You want us to pry it? It’ll be tough from the outside.”
Knuckles scratched his chin. “Naw. Not yet. That’s going to be a bit of work, and I don’t feel like climbing. Let’s go round back. Maybe there’s a cellar.”
The back yard of the house at 624 High Street was half garden, half forest, and all overgrown. They found a huge fountain surrounded by statues of cherubs, but it was dried out and covered in vines. They found some old chairs that appeared to be made of more wrought iron, half buried in rotting leaves. They passed a small greenhouse but all of its glass was smashed too.
“Hey!” said Whisky. “Is that it?” He shined his light at a cellar door made of old planks, right by the wall of the house. The large handles were bound by a coil of dark chain.
But then they froze when they heard laughter from further in the garden, and when they saw lights flashing about the overgrowth. There wasn’t anywhere to run. The three men grew tense.
A moment later they saw a group of people walking towards the greenhouse. A group of… teenagers, by the looks of it. Seven of them. With lights, laughter and cases of probably beer. Knuckles hoped they’d just continue on, but of course one of the little idiots had to turn towards them.
“Hey!” the kid called out, flashing his light at them. “Who are you?”
Chapman and Whisky were statues, looking to Knuckles for a cue on what to do.
“Land surveyors,” Knuckles said. “You kids know this is private property, right?”
“What’s a land surveyor do?” one of the other kids asked.
Knuckles flashed his own light at them, right in the eyes. “A lot of none of your damn business, that’s what. Is that beer? You kids better scram before I call your folks.”
They called him names and threw some colourful new swears out, but they must have bought his bluff because they hustled off. Better that way for everyone.
The men only relaxed when the last of the laughter was barely an echo and the lights were completely out of sight. Knuckles turned his attention to the cellar door.
“Okay, Whis. Get cracking.”
“Got it.” Whisky twirled his pry bar and got to opening the cellar door. The rotted wood disintegrated almost as soon as he hit it. “Hey Knuck?”
“What’s a land surveyor do?”
Knuckles rubbed his temples. “Just… shut up.”
The basement was dark, cold, and moist. Something somewhere was dripping into a puddle, there were bulky things covered in mouldy sheets of canvas making everything a tight fit, and the crossbeams were low enough that all of them had to frequently duck. Whisky struck his head twice.
Knuckles and Chapman lifted some of the canvas to see what was underneath, because you never knew where you’d find loot, but it all looked like incredibly old, moth-eaten furniture, so they left it alone with disgust.
“This place is a dump,” Knuckles said. “Let’s find the stairs and get into the house. I bet the old bat keeps her valuables in her bedroom.”
There was a rough path through the labyrinth of old furniture which they followed, which eventually led them to an open area. Most of it was dominated by a prehistoric furnace – sleeping or dead – and a heap of about a dozen bicycles in various stages of decay. There was also a weird pile of shattered wooden planks in one corner. Chapman cast his light on the planks, and then raised it along the wall until it came to rest on a door about ten feet above them.
“I think the stairs are out,” he said.
Knuckles snarled and raised his fist, but Chapman was faster and scurried away.
Knuckles let out an exasperated groan. He twirled his lighter. “I swear, if it’s not one thing…”
“What are we going to do?” said Whisky.
“Well, I think this is a sign,” Knuckles said. “Let’s just head back home, then go down to Winny’s and order a crap load of beer, maybe catch the game. Wings are on me.”
“Really?” said Whisky.
Knuckles swatted him. “No, you donkey! Not really! Go grab some of that disgusting crap and drag it over here. We’re going to build our own stairs.”
They spent the next half an hour turning a pile of garbage into a staircase. The thing collapsed on Whisky’s first two climbing attempts and the whole left side of his body was mightily bruised. On the third attempt though he got to the very top and made it through the door. Chapman, the smallest of the three, went next without any trouble. But the stairs collapsed again when Knuckles went up last. His two companions managed to grab hold of his arms as the floor gave way beneath him, and by bracing themselves they managed to pull him up on the fourth heave.
All three of them sprawled on the other side of the door, on a sticky linoleum floor. They lay on the ground for a while each just catching his breath, as motes of dust played in the beams of their flashlights. They finally got up and scanned the room. It looked like a kitchen.
Knuckles flipped a nearby light switch, but it didn’t do anything.
Whisky pinched his nose. “Ugh… something smells real bad.”
“Yeah,” said Chapman, also pinching his nose. “It smells like… piss. Like a lot of piss, really. Cat piss, I think.”
Knuckles wrinkled his nose. Old widows and their cats. “Quit whining and keep your eyes on the prize. Let’s go.”
The kitchen lead to what might have been a wide open room, perhaps a living room or a parlour, except that the whole thing was loaded with mountains of papers. Newspapers, magazines, loose sheets, cardboard boxes – all of it. Knuckles considered turning around and looking elsewhere, but he did notice a staircase going up at the far end of the room. No doubt Old Widow McCain’s bedroom was on the upper floor. Rich people loved their upper floors.
Whisky whined but still they pushed into the room, wending their way through the haphazard stacks of ancient history. About midway through, Whisky tripped over a bundle of old Korean newspapers. He yelped and crashed to the ground, and then whined again since he fell on his injured side.
Chapman helped him up.
Knuckles rolled his eyes. “Unbelievable. What kind of an idiot gets taken out by paper?”
Not watching where he was going, Knuckles walked right into a stack of sports magazines taller than he was. He fell into them and they crashed around him, burying him in an avalanche of statistics and outdated projections.
Knuckles grunted. More magazines settled on him. He thrashed about, kicked out the foundations of a tower of faded colouring books and they also spilled onto him. “Help me, you idiots! I’m stuck! The damn paper’s too heavy!”
Chapman and Whisky looked at each other, sighed. Digging Knuckles out might have taken another half hour, maybe an hour. It was hard to tell. By the time they were finished, all three men were drenched with sweat, covered in bruises, and dead tired. They took a break, sitting on the grand stairs leading further into the house.
“C’mon,” Knuckles said, between breaths. He caressed his lighter with a trembling finger. “You guys saw the rocks the old broad was wearing.” He grabbed hold of the railing and pulled himself up. “Even if we just grab a couple of them, that would set us for life.” The railing groaned and then collapsed. Chapman and Whisky flinched.
“Just keep your eyes on the prize,” Knuckles muttered. He beckoned and they all started trudging up the stairs.
The upstairs was a long corridor with a disintegrating carpet, and numerous adjoining rooms. The first room’s door was stuck, but they managed to smash it open when Knuckles took a run at it. He blew right through the door and right into a table on the other side. The force of the blow sent something on the table flying – some kind of paper weight, he wasn’t sure. Didn’t get a good look at it. But it flew right out a window, and it looked like the second floor windows still had glass, so that shattered.
Another room was filled with cats. They hissed so loud in unison that Whisky ran all the way back to the stairs. A third room was a bathroom, but there was no running water. A fourth, some kind of office maybe. And so it went. But all the rooms were filled with junk and trash and everything was falling apart around them. At one point Knuckles murdered a desk with his pry bar, when its little drawers wouldn’t open for him because the wood had warped. They ended up being empty.
They got to one last room. One last room, at the end of the hall, with a one-time fancy set of double doors.
“This is it, boys,” Knuckles said, his voice hoarse. “It’s got to be.” All three of them listlessly used the pry bar on the door, and then they let it drop. No need to carry that dead weight everywhere.
Inside was what looked like a study. There was a big desk beside a broad window that looked out over the street. They saw the dead streetlight outside. There were bookshelves lining the walls, but all the books were on the floor as though someone had already rifled through them, and an old-timey globe lay among them.
There was also a faded portrait on the ground, the canvas ripped and the frame smashed, and above it, a small alcove in the wall. Chapman shined his light into the alcove. “Hey, look at that.” He chuckled. “It’s a safe! You were right, Knuck. This is it.”
Chapman shuffled to the safe, which was wide open and completely empty. He placed his finger inside it and ran it along a grimy layer of dust. Then he chuckled again and sat down on a pile of books. They all chuckled.
Knuckles sat down in the rancid leather chair behind the desk and Whisky plopped down on the floor. Their chuckle turned into a good hearty laugh.
“Ah, boys,” said Knuckles, fatigue slurring his words. “I think we got the wrong house after all.”
The room was suddenly flooded with alternating red and blue light, and they heard a number of cars coming to a stop outside. Then, car doors opening and closing, many feet moving.
“Ah, damn it,” said Chapman, barely looking up. “Is that our ride?”
Knuckles spun his chair around, looked outside at the five squad cars, the officers hurrying onto the property. He toyed with his lighter’s trigger. “Yup.”
“I’m so tired,” said Whisky.
Knuckles considered making a run for it, but the thought of going through this trash heap of a house again didn’t appeal in the least. Instead he fished inside his pocket for his crumpled pack of cigarettes, pulled a bent one out, balanced it on his lips, and lit it.
And that smooth, soothing, cool smoke suddenly made the day a little less terrible. He savoured every wisp of it and exhaled slowly, purring.
“Hey Knuck,” Chapman said. “I thought you quit?”
“Oh, buddy. You have no idea how hard it is. I’ll quit tomorrow.”