SA Design .co.za

  

LAUGHING DEVIL

The event that led to my resignation from the police force is still indelibly carved in my memory, and it will be until the day that I breathe my last. My life has changed dramatically since then, and not for the better. I used to be a relatively spunky fellow with unfaltering nerves, now I have the composure of a canary.

This was all on account of a complaint received while I was doing weekend duty. The complaint was received by a junior constable, quite new at his job, which should account for the lack of detail on the report. Apparently someone saw movement in a house, which is supposed to be vacant. Being a Sunday, there were only three of us at the station and we all agreed that the complaint was ill timed. A nuisance, in fact. It was an overcast July afternoon with a particularly disagreeable wind blowing outside and I had just settled in at my desk with a mug of fresh, hot coffee. So I suggested that the young constable be sent, to pick up a bit of experience. The captain commended me on my concern for the fellow, but indicated that he thought it better if somebody senior accompanied the constable. Someone like me. He assured me that he would handle any problems cropping up in our absence. Being only a sergeant, I could not really argue with his reasoning.

It was not without a fair amount of reluctance that I picked up my overcoat and called to the constable. "Philander, get your stuff, let's go!" His wide-eyed face popped around the corner. "Sarge?"
"We are going to investigate your complaint. The sooner we get this over with, the better," I grumbled. I have never regarded myself as a very good teacher, and my impatience usually puts paid to the best of my fraternal instincts. The captain noticed the resigned look on my face. He slapped me on my back and spoke to me in a clandestine voice. "Muller, I appreciate it. I am hoping that some of your assertiveness will rub of on the boy. He needs it badly. Try to make him feel like one of us." I just sighed.

We parked the car outside a decrepit gate, which was chained and padlocked as if it was never meant to be opened again. I killed the engine, examining the area as I unfastened my safety belt. A long winding path snaked up to the huge old Victorian house, surrounded by waist-high vegetation flailing wildly in the wind. The house was a dim blot against the grey winter sky.

It was four o' clock. I calculated that there was only about half an hour of daylight left. I remember that a dark sense of foreboding took hold of me, which made me hesitant to get out of the vehicle. I glanced at Philander, to see if the place had any marked effect on him. He had a comic, wondering expression on his face that bordered on bewilderment. I almost laughed.

"Philander, what procedure do you have to follow in a situation like this?"

"Umm, well...I suppose the first thing is to get into the house, Sarge."

"No. The first thing to do is to approach the complainant, to verify the complaint and to get additional details, if possible. Now we cannot do this because you failed to get the name and address of our complainant."

"Oh." Philander nervously started to fiddle with his holster.

"Chances are that the complaint is already sorted out or that it is a trap. You never know these days. Now we have to walk into this place like blind mice."

I looked at him sternly and he appeared totally miserable. I felt much better. "Well, it's too late for tears. Let's do it. Keep your eyes open." I got out of the car and proceeded to clamber over the gate. Philander followed. Once inside, we cautiously walked up the rocky path towards the house. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on the dilapidated building to see if there were any signs of movement. At the same time I marvelled at the architectural style of the place. It was like staring at the carcass of a once beautiful animal. It was a double story house with a little tower at the top. There was a wide flight of steps leading to a wooden front door. A veranda with finely crafted, cast-iron pillars encircled the dwelling. In its day it must have been quite a magnificent building, but now it was sombre, grim and in a lamentable state of disrepair. As I reached the steps, I turned to Philander. "The best place to start is at the front door." I waved him ahead. He eagerly walked up to the door of solid oak and banged on it with a force that surprised me, but pleased me at the same time.

"Open up, police!", he yelled. As the echoes died down, an oppressive silence was the only reply. Philander turned towards me and looked at me enquiringly. I approached him and put my hand on his shoulder in a fatherly way. "The knock was fine, but remember: don't shout like that. We are not arresting anybody. Not yet, anyway." I stepped back and looked at the building. There didn't seem to be any other way of entering the house. Every window was intact. I noticed that all of them were stained-glass windows, which was quite unusual. "The only thing left to do is to go around the house and check that everything is secure. If it is, there is not much else to be done. You take the left, I'll take the right." I promptly started to traverse slowly around the house, searching for any sign of unlawful entry, peering through every window. The dark interior seemed devoid of any furniture, as empty as the feeling that gradually settled in my gut.

As I rounded a corner, my heart squirmed when I almost walked straight into him: a bald little man of about forty. Involuntarily, I cursed and instinctively reached for my revolver. The equally shocked expression on his face probably prevented me from actually pulling it out. "I-I'm sorry. I saw you f-fellows from the road. I just came to enquire if you have found anything," he stuttered nervously. Relieved, I took my hand off the butt of my revolver. "Are you the person who laid the complaint?"

"Indeed, yes. My name is Davids." He hesitantly shook my hand.

"I am sergeant Muller. My colleague and I have checked the place out and everything seems to be in order. What was the nature of the disturbance?" The little man seemed worried. "I normally go for a walk on Sundays and I pass through the veldt opposite..." He waved vaguely in a direction. "It was about one o' clock when I came in sight of this house. Now, I know that the owner is on an extended trip overseas, probably permanently. Normally I just mind my own business but I was curious when I heard a noise coming from over here. So I walked up to the gate and peered in."

"What type of noise?" I asked. At that point Philander came round the corner. His confusion quickly turned into happy recognition. "This is the man, Sarge. The complainant," he proudly exclaimed. I groaned inwardly. "I have already established that fact, constable. I am now trying to determine what gave rise to the complaint." I gave the little man an expectant stare. "What kind of noise was it?"

He shifted uncomfortably under my gaze. "Well, it was a sort of....laughter, I suppose, but it stopped so abruptly that I couldn't be sure. When I looked through the gate I saw something at one of the windows. It was there for only a moment and then it was gone."

"Was it male or female?"

"I really couldn't tell you. These windows aren't very transparent. It could have been an animal, for all I know." I sidled closer to him and tried to diplomatically smell a trace of alcohol on his breath. All I smelt was bad breath. Disappointed and slightly disgusted, I moved away. "Show me which window it was." We all trudged back to the front of the house. The little man indicated a window on the first floor, almost directly above the front door. I shrugged and spoke loudly. "Whatever it was, it's not here anymore. We will hang around for a short while though, just to be sure." The little man was suddenly very eager to go. "Well, if you would excuse me, I must be on my way." I politely nodded. "If you notice anything strange again, do not hesitate to call us. We are glad to help." He gave a furtive smile and then hurried off. Philander found his attempts to get over the gate amusing, and chuckled accordingly. I could not share his humour. There was definitely something sinister about the place. I could almost taste the uncanny aura.

"Do you think he was speaking the truth, Sarge?"

"Oh yes. If I thought that he invented the story we wouldn't still be standing here." I turned to face the house. The dark windows looked like it was hiding some horrible secret, which would only be revealed in its own time. Philander picked up my mood and became subdued. We stood there for quite a while. The wind died down and we were left with an unearthly silence. The absence of any sound of bird or insect should have struck me earlier. Now that my attention has finally been fixed on that fact, I felt icy fingers tickling down my spine. I am by no means a superstitious fellow, but if a ghoul had sprung up from the grass at that moment, I would hardly have been surprised. "Sarge, look up there," Philander said, pointing at the tower. "It could be possible for someone to get in there." I strained my eyes to see what he was referring to. Then I saw the gaping hole on the one side of the tower. "Mmm, yes. But why would anybody go to all the trouble of crawling up the roof to get into the house? He could just as well have knocked out a window on the ground level."

I was becoming impatient. This whole escapade was ruining my Sunday. "If that bliksem does not show himself within ten minutes, then we go back to the station. We cannot break into the house without any reason and it is pointless to waste the whole afternoon at this damn place!" Philander frowned. "Sarge, what if we do see him? I mean...er...do we then break in and arrest him?"

I pondered his question. It would be a crime in itself to break any of the stained-glass windows and the front door seemed to be as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. The situation was complicated and quite intolerable. My uncertainty must have shown on my face, because Philander piped up with a suggestion. "I am sure that I can climb up to that tower. I can then get inside, unlock the front door and we can search the house from top to bottom." He grinned at the originality of his idea. As if to demonstrate, he started to scale the one pillar like a perfect monkey. He was surprisingly agile, and soon he was on the lower roof. As he was crawling crab-like up the angular roof of the second level, I began to worry about how a broken neck was going to look on my report. "Take it easy, there is no need to rush!" I shouted at him apprehensively. He just grinned and waved.

He was almost within reach of the gaping hole in the tower, when I experienced an uncomfortable sensation. I don't know for how long the thing was watching me. As my eyes turned from Philander's progress, I saw only but a few feet from me, the most repulsive face eagerly pressed against the window. Its one eye was wide, bright with lunacy, and glitteringly malevolent. The other eye was basically non-existent; a morass of festering, pink sores and cataracts. Grey, mottled skin stretched over its skull-faced features and there was only a cavernous hole where the nose was supposed to have been. I could not breathe. It looked at me for a few more moments. Then it's jaw dropped to reveal rotten teeth and it laughed, slowly, softly at first, and then gradually faster and louder. It ended in an evil, shrieking cackle. It's jaw snapped shut and it swung around, disappearing into the murkiness. I was limp with shock and terror. It was like I had just stared into the fiendish sneer of Satan. Staggering backwards, I tried to make out Philander's form on the roof. He was about to enter the gaping hole.

"Philander! Philander! For God's sake come down!" My voice was only a hoarse whisper. He looked over his shoulder at me with a puzzled expression on his face, shrugged and then lifted himself through the hole. Dread enfolded me like a straitjacket. I tried to shout, scream at Philander to come back, but all that emanated from my constricted throat was a little squeak. My mind was incapable of any coherent thought. I just knew that Philander had to get out of the house immediately. I ran, stumbling, to the front door, as that is the place where Philander would be heading. Before I even reached it, I heard the insane cackling. It stopped again, abruptly. Then I heard Philander yell. "Jesus.......Sarge!" As I reached the front door, I heard the rapid retort of his revolver. One, two, three, four, five...six. He had used up all his shots. I tried the door. It wouldn't budge. Pulling out my revolver, I fired two rounds into the lock. It stood firm, unconquerable. Then I heard running footsteps approaching the door and someone fervently trying to unlock it.

"Philander...the window! Go for the window!" I shouted.

"Sarge! Oh, holy Jesus...the door won't open!" Philander's voice had a ring of craziness about it. He started to pound the door. "It won't open! Sarge...oh shit! Help me!"

"Philander, listen to me! Try the bloody window!" I yelled. The mirthless laughter started again, drawing closer. "No! No...stay away from me....help me, Sergeant!" I felt a cold, clammy hand clutching my innards. Philander was sobbing. I could stand it no longer. I lunged at the closest window and smashed it in. Ignoring the sharp sting of splintering glass, I threw myself through. I landed in a musty, dark room, which was empty as all the others. As I rolled over, I noticed the elaborate pressed-iron ceiling, engraved with mad, leaping creatures. There was only one door leading from the room, which was shut. Philander started to scream. I rushed to the door and turned the doorknob. It was locked, as well. Philander's scream was cut off instantaneously and I could hear a sick commotion on the other side of the door. Wet sounds, gurgling sounds, ripping sounds. What could I do? I was a rookie cop again. The situation demanded an action from me that I could not fathom. So I emptied my revolver into the door. The sounds ceased.

Then I sensed movement. Sly, calculating movements, which I knew not to be Philander's. Horrified, I saw the doorknob starting to turn, ever so slowly. I backed away, spilling bullets like breadcrumbs as I tried to reload. I secretly realised that I could not face the thing behind the door; which I knew to be locked. I knew it to be locked, but it creaked open. Terror took over. I fled, the ghastly impossibility of it all driving me like a demon.

Staggering into the station, I rambled like an idiot. The captain was tight-lipped and pale as he tried to calm me down. Then he urgently made a few phone-calls. I remember strange, worried faces swimming in front of me, shaking heads and low voices. A contingent of policemen, heavily armed and cursing at being called out on a Sunday, went to the house shortly afterwards. They found Philander, quite dead, but not much else. He apparently died from gunshot wounds. Shots fired from my revolver. Someone brazenly commented that there was so much blood that it looked like a slaughterhouse. My account of what happened was, to say the least, politely ridiculed. The official version was that I negligently shot my partner in my zealous attempt to evict a vagrant from the house. After the inquest I was asked to resign.

Not that it really bothered me to go, mind you. Philander saw what I saw; only he is not around to back me up. The poor man is often in my thoughts - the grim terror he must have experienced in his last moments still causes me to have fitful nights. I was never a religious man, but now I pray every day to an unknown god that I will never lay eyes on that thing again.

Not even in Hell.

Etienne A.  Marais   1993