It was the night of the blizzard - the 17th of October, 1998 - that my wife, Fernanda, and I found ourselves en-route to Samuel Peterson’s mansion in the woods. It was an impressive structure, though it looked almost gothic bogged down in the snow, with white lights throwing shadows over the lawn.
“I gotta say, I do like his sense of style.”
“Sam’s always fancied himself something of a Victorian.” I said, helping Fernanda out the car. Hugging our coats close to our bodies, breathing into our scarves, we stepped onto the porch and rang the doorbell. A young man with a dashing smile and a firm handshake opened the door, ushering us inside.
“Name’s Harold,” he said,“ I don’t think we’ve met. You must be Mr Graham. Sam’s told me all about you.”
“Only good things, I hope.”
“Of course. And this is your lovely wife, I presume?”
Fernanda smiled, “The one and only.”
Inside, the house was bathed in a warm peach glow. Paintings lined the walls, mostly of the renaissance era, probably about a grand each. I flashed my eyebrows at Fernanda as we followed Harold to the living room (or rather, living hall), where most of the guests were assembled.
Sam excused himself from a conversation and came to greet us, clapping me on the shoulder, and shaking Fernanda’s hand. He was dressed in a pristine black suit, complete with a silky dark tie and top hat. Like I said, Victorian.
“Looking good, Richard.”
“Not too bad yourself,” I grinned, “though I count three grey hairs your hat can’t hide”
He removed it and swept a hand through his hair, which, for a man in his sixties, was still quite impressive, “Just wait ‘til you reach my age.”
“I won’t let him forget.” Fernanda added cheerily.
I asked about the young man who’d let us in, not seeing him around anywhere.
“Oh, Harold? He’s a brilliant colleague I managed to get hold of recently. Don’t get too attached though, he can’t stick around for much longer.”
“Where could he possibly be going in this weather?” Fernanda asked.
Sam shrugged, “No idea. But you know how young men are. You can’t keep their attention for long at our old-fashioned dinner parties.” he chuckled and moved away towards some other guest who had just arrived.
“I wouldn’t say he was the office type.” Fernanda remarked to me as we headed for a table.
“What does this office type look like?”
“Not like Harold. Did you notice the tan? And the dirt under his nails?”
I poured myself a glass, “How sexy.”
She smiled, “Oh, come on. You’re not even drunk yet.”
“Yeh sure abou’ tha’, ma’am?” I asked, slurring my words and leaning in towards her.
“Get outta here.”
We set about meeting the other guests; me with my wine glass in hand, Fernanda with a fresh cup of coffee. Believe me, I didn’t get it either, it was only about 8PM. Although she does have something of an erratic sleep schedule.
Mrs Ward complimented Fernanda’s dress, and was soon joined by Mr Ward. The four of us got in a discussion of the terrible weather, one which soon snowballed into a discussion of football, and then politics. General small talk that I shall leave out of this narrative to save the both of us time. We drifted in and out of our circles, and I think Fernanda was getting quite bored by the time Dave Beckett asked, “Hey, where’s the old man?”
“He went up to see his mother,” Mrs Ward replied. Talk resumed in the hall.
Fifteen minutes later, someone else asked Mrs Ward when he had left. She shrugged.
Half an hour more and people were talking about going to the third floor and checking if he was alright. Well, that’s what they said. In my opinion, they really just thought it was rude to start dinner without the host. We tried his cell, but it was turned off.
After some back and forth, it was decided that Lucas Olding, one of Sam’s close friends, should go and check up on him. Conversations in the hall during the few minutes that he was gone were sparse, as if the whole room was holding its breath. Lucas Olding certainly had been, as he returned panting.
“He’s not there! I can’t find him!”
“Relax, Lucas,” Dave said, stepping in, “I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”
“Did you check the washrooms?”
“Geez, do you really think he’d be sat on the toilet for an hour?” someone else interceded.
“Did you check with his mother?” Dave asked.
“Yes, she said he came to visit her. But he seemed distracted, panicked.”
By now, the whole room was silent, and we all heard him say, “About an hour ago.”
“So where the hell is he?”
Olding shrugged, trembling, and someone kindly escorted him to a table so he could sit down. The room immediately burst into anxious speculation. Some were saying we should check the windows, others suggested that it was all a joke, and Sam would come stumbling out of a closet any minute now. “It’s October,” Mr Ward said, “He probably just wants to scare us.”
“Well he’s doing a great job.” Mrs Ward replied, crossing her arms.
“You say he took the lift? I heard someone on the stairs.”
Multiple people swore to this. Dave, however, didn’t look fazed. Fernanda noticed it first and approached him.
“What’s your take?” she asked.
“No idea. But I know there are a few cameras that we could check. I’m just wondering if I should go up and take a peek in the control room.”
“How do you have access?”
“I work security and maintenance here.” he said, turning to leave, “Don’t tell anyone where I’ve gone.”
I nodded, but Fernanda stepped forward, “Wait, can we come with you?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
She shrugged, “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened all evening.”
Dave considered it, then kept walking, “Well. . .I guess it can’t hurt. Follow me and keep your heads down.”
The security room was a claustrophobic, closet-like enclosure at the end of one of the smaller corridors on the second floor. Dave took out a ring of keys the size of my palm, and slotted the largest one into the door, twisting it with a click. Inside, it was nothing more than a few computer screens and many, many wires connected to a power-pack on the wall. Dave sat down in the chair while we stood behind him.
“This house has an elevator?” I exclaimed. Sam had always been extravagant, but this was a bit much.
“Sam’s mom uses a wheelchair. It’s just easier.”
Oh. That explained it.
There were four screens in total, covering the front door, first floor elevator, third floor elevator, and back door. This last one was out-of-service, and had been for a while, according to Dave.
“Let’s see here,” Dave moved the cameras back an hour and a half, and fast-forwarded from there. At 8:42PM Sam stepped into the elevator on the first floor and stepped out on the third floor. He walked down the hall and turned left into one of the rooms. “That’s his mom’s room,” Dave explained, “So far, so good.”
About ten minutes later, Sam left his mother’s room and walked off-view of the camera.
“Any idea what he’s doing there?”
“There’s a toilet at the end of the hall. That’s my bet.”
Three minutes, and Sam appeared again - a top-hat silhouette walking back towards the lift. The elevator doors closed, and soon opened on the first floor, but the lift was. . .empty?
“Play that back.”
Dave did so, and we all watched as Sam got in the lift on the third floor and failed to appear on the first. Dave leaned back in his chair, dumbfounded.
“That can’t be.”
The surveillance footage kept running, and the lift doors opened again, apparently for no reason, before closing.
“Go and ask the other guests if they’ve seen or heard anything that could be a clue,” Fernanda said, “I want to investigate this further.” She seemed excited.
Dave left us and we watched the footage one final time.
“What’s your plan?” I asked, wondering what was going through her head. A man disappearing during an elevator journey? How did one explain that?
“I’ve got a few ideas.” she said, “But first, let’s make our way to the third floor.”
Sometimes I forget my wife used to be a detective.
We took the stairs up. The third floor wasn’t as lavishly decorated as the first and second, but instead had a more simplistic look, with narrow corridors and plain walls. Fernanda tried a few doors, until we got the one that was presumably Sam’s room.
It was a complete mess.
Clothes were strewn all over the room, as well as just about anything else you can imagine, shoes, papers, his passport, letters - barely an inch of smooth tile was left uncovered. Some of the drawers had been smashed in as if by a large hammer, and any locks on the cabinets had been broken.
“Jesus, this looks like a warzone.” I said, while Fernanda searched the room, leaping from drawer to drawer, like a hound on the hunt.
“All the money’s gone.”
“No one even came here tonight!”
“I know.” she said, stepping over a coat, “But it is what it is.”
The only untouched item in the room was a Bible, placed neatly on the bed. Fernanda laughed when she noticed it, but wouldn’t share the joke with me.
“That’s all. Let’s get out of here.”
“Time for an elevator ride?”
We called the lift up, and Fernanda pointed something out to me while we waited. It was a little circle in the corner of the ceiling, that didn’t match the colour of the walls around it.
“Strange.” I muttered, but to be honest I had no idea what exactly I was meant to see in that discoloured circle. Fernanda didn’t care to enlighten me either.
The lift doors opened, and we stepped inside. Unlike other indoor elevators, this one was more like something you would see in a hotel or office building, though a bit smaller. There was a large hatch in the centre of the ceiling, which I could just touch with the tips of my fingers if I stretched. Applying pressure, I could see that it was open.
“What do you make of that?” Fernanda said, pressing the first floor button.
“It’s just a safety hatch. You’re not saying Sam climbed out of the elevator?”
Francesa shook her head, “How would he do that? He’s in his sixties.”
Her smile made me think she knew more than she was letting on. The lift doors opened and we were immediately bombarded by questions.
“What were you two doing? Where is Mr Peterson?”
“Have you found him?” Olding asked, back on his feet.
“We’ve called the police but they’re saying it’ll take them at least forty-five minutes to get here.” Mrs Ward said, wringing her hands anxiously.
I dismissed the questions, “We don’t know. We were just taking a look around the third floor.”
Fernanda looked annoyed, “Now who said there would be any need to call the police? There’s been no crime committed here.”
“No, no crime but. . .” Dave appeared, pushing his way through to the front, “I’ve been to his room. This was the only thing left intact.” He held the Bible up in the air.
A new wave of questions and hysteria. “You mean to say he was taken by something paranormal?”
“God save us!”
Everyone was a little on edge at that point and I have to admit, even I would’ve been afraid if Fernanda wasn’t rolling her eyes by my side. She cleared her throat.
“There is no demon!” she yelled, and it was enough to silence the room. “Dave, how long have you had this job?”
“Er, not long. A couple of weeks.”
“Good. And is it true that Mr Peterson has a cottage by the lake, not far from here?”
“You could go by foot?”
Dave scratched his head, “Sure, but in this weather it’d be tough.”
He shrugged, “I guess. You’re not saying. . .?”
But Fernanda waved him off, “I will ask you all one question, and to those of you with the makings of a detective, all will be made clear.”
Some murmurings and then silence.
“The question is this: where is Harold?”
Even with that question in mind, nothing seemed clear to me. Sam had already mentioned Harold would have to leave early. I guess I’m just not cut out to be a detective. Thanks, Fernanda, I love you too.
“He left some time ago, around nine?” Jennifer, perhaps the youngest woman there, replied, “What about him? I thought he was cute.”
“Thank you. Now, I have all the answers. But first-” Fernanda stepped into the elevator, pushed the top hatch open, and pulled something dark through it. She stepped back into the light and held it up for everyone to see. It was Sam’s dark suit and top hat!
“I think there were shoes up there too, but I couldn’t reach them.” Fernanda smiled.
“What is the meaning of this? Explain yourself, lady!” Dave said, snatching the suit away from her, and turning it over in his hands, as if he couldn’t believe it was real.
“Simple, really. Men do not disappear from elevators. That much is certain. So, the obvious explanation is that he climbed out the escape hatch.”
“Mr Peterson is sixty-three years old! He couldn’t pull himself up there!”
“Then the man in the elevator wasn’t Mr Peterson.” Fernanda said, “Mr Peterson did indeed take the elevator upstairs and visited his mother. However, in the toilet, he swapped places with Harold, giving him his coat and tophat. The elevator camera on the third floor was moved from its original position to a place where it would not be able to see the face of whoever was getting into the elevator. This is from before Dave was hired, and I only noticed it because of a small, discoloured circle on the third floor ceiling where the original camera used to be.”
I gasped. So that’s what that meant.
“Harold entered the elevator on the third floor, and didn’t appear on the first. That means he climbed out of the escape hatch, then took the lift to the second floor, ditching the clothes on top of the elevator. He sends the lift down to the first floor, but steps out before it moves. Hence the footage of the lift doors opening twice. Now who heard someone on the stairs?”
Murmurs of consent around the room.
“He took the back staircase down to the first floor, entered the living room through the kitchen, probably winked at Miss Jennifer-”
Who blushed at the sound of her name.
“And made his way out of the house, just like Sam said he would.”
“So that’s Harold.”
“Then what about the real Sam?”
“He took the back staircase from the third floor, probably at the same time as Harold, and exited out the back door. I bet that camera’s never worked, has it, Dave?”
Dave nodded grudgingly, “That camera’s always been out of service during my time here.”
“Exactly. It was a perfect escape. An almost paranormal one. Which was the point of trashing his room and leaving the Bible on the bed. All part of the act.”
People began to laugh and relax a little as it all became clear. I took Fernanda’s hand in mine, giving it a squeeze. She must have been a remarkable detective.
Olding cleared his throat, “That’s all well and good, but why did he do it? What’s the point of it all?”
“I’m afraid that, I can’t answer. But I vote we head to his lakeside cottage and ask him.”
And so it was that the pair of us, Olding, and Dave trudged our way through the snow to the cottage in question. The snow had lost its turbulence and instead drifted lazily onto pine trees and outstretched hands, seeming more warm than cold. We reached the cottage easily. Olding was the one who knocked on the door.
There was no response, but we heard weeping from inside.
Olding gave us a cautious glance and opened the door.
Sat on an armchair, head in his hands, Samuel Peterson sobbed, and barely regarded us as we entered. Olding immediately took his side while the three of us watched.
“Why’d you do it, Sam?” he asked, deep sadness in his voice.
“My mother.” he cried, “I just wanted to be free of her, Lucas. I’ve spent my whole life taking care of her, responding to her every whim. And she’s horrible. Ungrateful, witch! I would leave her alone, but she’s sick, and I didn’t have it in me to leave her like that. Leave her hating me.”
He stopped crying now, and his voice became hard, “So I came up with a plan. To make it look like I disappeared, by some work of the Devil. She couldn’t blame me for that. And I would get away, able to live my life without her looking over my shoulder the whole time.”
“Jesus Christ, Sam.”
“I’m not evil. I arranged for a nurse for her and she has everything she could want. I’m not-”
Fernanda cut him off, “Say it to her face, you coward.”
She left before he could reply. I followed.
“Geez,” I whistled, “You ever want to get rid of me, just tell me straight up, okay?”
She took my hand as we stood over the frozen lake, smiling, “Come on, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
And, well, now you know - that’s what really happened with the man who disappeared from an elevator.