Vyckers couldn’t help himself. He crept quietly through the halls of the ruined mansion, one step carefully placed after another. He was quite certain he was alone, and he suffered no fears about ghosts that might find his presence objectionable. But something about visiting the ancient Barthston home in the middle of the night called to his inner self to do so with a minimum of noise.
Still, he stopped occasionally to sneeze; dust had taken over the manse, and Vyckers’ nose was sensitive to it. He swung his large, intensely bright flashlight up and down the walls and across the floor in front of him. The mosaic pattern of the marble hallways had not held up well over the decades; many of the tesserae were chipped or missing. Likewise, although he knew what the mural in the grand gallery depicted, it had been defaced beyond recognition.
Stories had naturally grown up around the Barthston manse after the last of that line succumbed to the rigors of a dissipated life. The locals told of pitiful screams that could be heard on occasion if one were near enough – screams that would have rendered a human throat raw.
And then, of course, there were tales of a fortune in jewels and gold hidden on the premises. Vyckers believed those rumors, and he had studied diligently for three years to uncover where in the mansion such a horde would be located. Two previous visits to the mansion had gone unrewarded, but Vyckers was certain this time would be different.
Another turn brought him to the spacious master bedroom. The cast iron bed had been stripped of its fine sheets after the last Barthston died there, and the monstrous frame stood alone in the center of the room. Vyckers walked around it, frowning at the ugly piece, and went to the bookshelf on the west wall. Dust drenched the remains of the collection, and Vyckers took care not to touch the old books.
He let his beam come to rest on a large pineapple carved from oak. The ornament had been crudely fashioned, doubtless accounting for its continued presence when so much else had been looted. The pineapple, too, was dusty, and Vyckers took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and used it as a glove. He pulled on the pineapple, which tilted toward him without leaving the shelf where it sat.
Unseen pulleys squealed and a heavy section of the wall slowly opened toward Vyckers. He laughed over the din of the groaning portal.
When the noise ceased, there was an opening just wide enough for Vyckers to slip through, and he did so. His flashlight caught a brief glimpse of a piece of paper flitting to the ground, disturbed by the air rushing into the inner chamber. Vyckers ignored it as the light played across piles of golden and bejeweled treasures.
The room was twice as big as the master bedroom. It appeared to be stuffed with the treasures of kings and maharajas. Vyckers scarcely knew where to look first.
That issue was settled for him when he found the first skeleton.
He made a little squeak of horror but regained his dignity presently. He studied the clothing that draped the dead. It was not yet out of fashion, not significantly different from what Vyckers himself wore. There was no obvious indication of the cause of death, and Vyckers frowned.
From where he stood, he moved his light about and found four more skeletons. Some of the joy of finding the great treasure of the Barthstons was fading. Looking down, he found at his feet the piece of paper that had fluttered about when the door had opened. He reached down and picked it up. It, too, was dusty, and Vyckers sneezed once more.
After plying his handkerchief, he held the note in the light.
“For the love of God,” it read, “secure the door or you will be trapped as we were in our time.”
Vyckers’ stomach turned to ice. He spun in place and took a step toward the portal. He tripped on a stray ruby and fell. Even as he picked himself up, the pulleys that had opened the door released their burden, and the heavy stone shot back into place with a resounding crack.
Almost immediately, the townspeople added to their store of barely heard screams emanating from the old Barthston mansion – heartrending screams that would have torn the tissues from a human throat.