© Halloween 1995--Story by Striped Tomato
Starsky burst through the doors of the office and rushed to the desk where Hutch was sitting, carefully taking notes on a phone conversation. After pacing and fidgeting noticeably for several seconds, he started making faces at Hutch to hang up and waving a rather official-looking document in front of him. He concluded the phone call and looked up at Starsky with no small annoyance.
"Read it and weep, my friend. You are in the presence of a wealthy man," Starsky stated with a little cackle. "You know, I think I might retire early, manage the place myself," he announced, sitting back in his desk chair and putting his feet up on the desk. "Of course, I could probably use a good head of security, if you're interested."
"A hotel? You seriously own a hotel now?" Hutch re-read the letter. "Who's Millicent M. Starsky?"
"My great aunt. She used to live about five blocks from us when I was a kid. She never married, and I used to do odd jobs for her--for free. My mother never would let me take any money from her. I guess I'm takin' it now. I haven't seen her in years--not since I moved out here. She opened the hotel about five years ago. It's a huge old house that's all renovated--she mailed pictures to my mother who mailed them to me--anyway, she had a heart attack and died there a few months ago, and now the estate's settled, and I'm the proud new owner of the Seaside Inn. It's not too far from Cape Cod. I don't know about you, but I've got some vacation time saved up, and I think I'll go check it out. Wanna come?"
"I don't know, Starsk. Cape Cod in October? Sounds a little cold."
"So it's the off-season. Don't you ever miss a real change in the seasons?"
"Actually, no. And if I do, I can go skiing in Tahoe and the feeling passes."
"Don't be such a stick in the mud. I heard the hotel is really something. It's been closed a few months, since she died, but I guess we'll just have to get it up and running again."
"WE? What's this WE business? I don't see 'Ken Hutchinson' on any of those papers."
"Okay, if you're afraid of a little work, I'll do it myself. But don't come crying to me when I'm rich and you're still sittin' here booking winos," Starsky teased.
"All right already. When do you want to go?"
"I'm going to call and check on flight times, but I'd like to leave this weekend. The lawyer said I could pick up the keys at his house when I get there."
"Okay. I'll go see if I can get us cleared with Dobey. Not that he's in such a good mood right now. That rotting jack-o-lantern with the police hat on it didn't exactly endear us to his heart."
"So he's got a little pumpkin on his files. 'Tis the season."
"That's Christmas, Starsky."
They took the first available flight leaving on Saturday morning, and by that afternoon had arrived in the scenic little village of Gull's Landing, which was only a short drive from Cape Cod. Starsky had relinquished the driving responsibilities to Hutch, since the latter had won the coin toss when it came to choosing a rental car. They were traveling in an only slightly newer model of the "Hutchmobile". They pulled up in front of a sprawling Victorian house and Starsky hurried up to the door to get the hotel keys from the attorney.
This little town was primarily a tourist attraction, inhabited by many seasonal residents. At times, that gave it a ghostly appearance, as many homes were closed for the late fall and winter. Starsky took special pains to crunch as many leaves as possible under his feet as he walked up the sidewalk, reveling in the first autumn he had observed since moving to LA. He tapped on the door with the brass knocker and waited for a reply. A short, stout man with receding white hair opened the door and invited him in.
"I'm Trent DeWitt, your great aunt's attorney," he introduced himself.
"Dave Starsky," he retorted, shaking the man's extended hand. "Beautiful house." Starsky scanned the highly polished woodwork, massive open staircase and chandelier.
"Thank you. It's been in my family for generations. If you like this, you'll be crazy about your great aunt's place. It's about four times this size. Now, the information I have here includes the deed, all the legal papers--copies of everything you signed and had notarized, remember?" Starsky nodded at this cue. "There are also a set of blueprints here, a couple of expense ledgers, which should be good reference for you if you decide to keep the business, and, of course, your keys."
All of these items were contained in a large box, including a giant ring bearing a staggering number of keys.
"Which one lets me in the front door?"
"It's marked with tape. The caretaker usually lives on the premises, but he is away visiting family since the hotel has been closed up. If you have any maintenance questions, you'll find his number on the materials inside. You'll be on your own out there at the moment, so if that isn't a satisfactory arrangement, you might want to get a room at the bed and breakfast up the road here."
"My partner came out here with me, so I think we'll just go on out to the hotel." Starsky paused, and finally asked a question that had haunted him just a little since learning of his inheritance.
"How exactly did she die?"
"Heart attack--very sudden."
"I know that much. I mean, what were the circumstances. You'll have to forgive me. I'm a cop, and I rarely can settle for simple answers to anything."
"Well, she was found dead on the stairs, actually. The doctor said he figured she died through the night. No sign of anything but a totally natural death. There was one thing, though." He became serious. "Her face...there was something odd about the expression. It was almost as if something frightened her. I don't mean to be crude, but I understand that was why the casket was closed." He shifted from one foot to the other a little nervously. "But I'm sure the suddenness of the pain in her chest could have something to do with that--you know how heart attacks can be sudden like that."
"Yeah. Thanks for filling me in." Starsky started down the walk toward the car.
"Call if you have any questions."
"I will, thanks." Starsky set the carton on the backseat of the car and got back in the passenger seat. "That was weird."
"Aunt Millie--he said they found her dead on the stairs in the hotel, and that there was such a terrible look on her face, like fear, that they had to keep the casket closed. I guess it was a permanent expression."
"That's always encouraging. Do you think the cops here investigated?"
"I don't know, but I think we oughtta find out. I think the police station is just up the road."
"You've been here before?" Hutch started up the engine and pulled away from the curb.
"No, but everything else that's in this crummy little town is just up the road, so why shouldn't the cops be there too?"
"Good point. If there are any." Hutch slowed the car to a crawl as they scanned the signs over the numerous small shops and buildings that comprised the downtown area, which consisted of a narrow two-lane street lined with partially barren trees and a lot of little tourist traps. Finally, amidst all the clutter, was a sign reading simply "Police". Hutch parked in front of the building and they approached the door.
"Isn't this quaint?" Hutch looked at the little building in dismay. The uniformed officer sitting inside the window at a desk, reading a paperback, was not encouraging. Starsky pushed open the door and they stepped inside. The young officer at the desk straightened up and laid the book aside.
"Can I help you gentlemen?"
"Who's in charge here today?" Starsky asked.
"I'm afraid you're looking at him. Officer Collings, at your service. There's usually no more than one or two of us on duty during the off-season. Not much need for it. What can I do for you?"
"I'm Detective David Starsky, LAPD. This is my partner, Ken Hutchinson."
"Starsky? Like Millie Starsky?"
"She was my great aunt. I just inherited the hotel from her."
"Nice lady. I was real sorry to hear she died."
"Thanks. Did anybody from this department take a look around out at the hotel?"
"I didn't, but let me check the files. Help yourselves to the coffee and have a seat if you want. I'll be right back." He disappeared into another part of the office and could be heard rummaging through a file cabinet. When he returned, his two big-city visitors were seated across from his desk sipping coffee. "Apparently Sheriff Weller went out there himself and had a look around. Nobody was staying there at the time."
"Hold on a minute. She died during peak tourist season. Wasn't it June?" Hutch looked at Starsky, who nodded in confirmation. "Why was the hotel empty?"
"I was hoping you weren't going to ask me that." The young officer ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. "This is going to sound real likely to a couple of LA detectives."
"Try us," Starsky prodded.
"Well, for the last year or so, the Seaside Inn hasn't had much luck attracting guests. A young woman committed suicide there a year ago, and there have been several...unusual complaints."
"What's an 'unusual complaint'?" Hutch asked.
"Strange lights in unoccupied rooms, unexplained noises, blood coming out of the faucets, we even had one man claim he saw his dead wife walking down the main staircase at midnight one night."
"So you're saying it's haunted?" Starsky asked a little incredulously.
"I'm not saying that, but all these people are." He slid the thick file across the desk toward his visitors. "I told you it would sound stupid."
"There are a lot of scared people according to this file," Hutch spoke up, as he scanned the reports and handed them to his partner.
"Well, the Sheriff apparently went out there to check things out when Millie didn't stop in on Tuesday morning for coffee. Just between you and me, the sheriff kind of had his eye on Millie. They always had coffee on Tuesday mornings, because that was the day she came into town to shop for supplies. She told us on the last few visits that she was going to have to shut down the place if business didn't pick up again. She also would never admit that anything out of the way happened there. She denied ever seeing or hearing anything unusual. Of course, if she had confirmed it to anyone, it would have guaranteed the end of her livelihood as an innkeeper around here."
"Well, we're on our way out there now. I guess we're going to have an interesting stay." Starsky handed the file back across the desk.
"If you have any problems, I'm writing down the number for the police station--not that you two couldn't probably handle anything as well as we could, but if you need back up, or any information, feel free to give us a call."
"Thanks," Hutch took the slip of paper.
"You've been very helpful." Starsky rose from his chair. "A little frightening, but helpful," he smiled, but it was an uneasy one.
The drive to the hotel was scenic. There were autumn leaves falling from the mature trees that lined the streets, and when they reached the country road that led to the hotel, they could see the ocean crashing against rocks below. Hutch was glad to have the wheel as he noticed the absence of guard rails in some spots. Starsky was a great driver, when you wanted to get where you were going in the blink of an eye.
"You've been awfully quiet since we left the police station," Hutch probed his partner, who had slumped a little in his seat.
"Spending the night in a haunted house wasn't what I had in mind for my vacation. Now I've got this giant lemon on my hands that isn't making any money at all, and that I probably can't give away."
"Don't give up so easily. There's probably a rational explanation behind each one of those reports."
"Yeah, sure. There's a reasonable explanation as to why dead people walk up and down the stairs at night. Why you turn on the shower and blood comes out."
"And none of those were verified. When the local yokels checked out the infamous shower of blood, there was no trace of blood anywhere in the bathroom. You read that much of the report yourself."
"Yeah, but there were several people who reported weird stuff happening. And nobody knows why that girl killed herself. I mean, didn't the report say she was just stopping here during a flight layover at one of the little airports? She had a husband and kid at home."
"Starsk, didn't your mother ever tell you there are no such things as ghosts? Relax. There's an explanation for all this. I guess we'll just have to look at it as a working vacation. We'll figure it out."
"There it is!" Starsky pointed straight ahead. On the top of a tall hill, a huge Victorian mansion spread its various wings in at least three directions. It was a series of turrets, spires and verandas. Everything anyone could ever want in a seaside hotel. Yet no one wanted to be within a hundred miles of it.
"Quite a place," Hutch said, trying to sound upbeat. He had watched a film called "The Legend of Hell House" a few weeks earlier, and somehow felt he was about to live it.
"I think that must be the balcony up there the girl hung herself on," Starsky pointed out.
"Starsk, don't ever get a job as a tourist bus driver, okay?"
"Just pointing out the historical features," he replied with a grin.
There was a long, tree-lined drive leading up to the house. If it hadn't had such a sinister reputation, they would have viewed the approach as beautiful. A blanket of colored leaves covered the ground while a few vibrant patches of color still clung to the trees. The landscaping around the actual hotel had been beautifully done under Millicent's watchful eye. It was an eye Starsky well remembered from cutting her lawn and trimming her hedges.
"She used to just show up in a window, or a door somewhere and critique the trim job on the hedges. I swear to God, I never even knew she was watching, then she'd just appear somewhere and start giving directions." Starsky kicked his way through the leaves. Hutch snickered a little at his partner's enthusiasm for the season.
"You're really into the autumn thing, aren't you?" Hutch picked up a bright red leaf and examined it. He had to admit this was a beautiful time of the year, and there were times he did miss seeing the seasons change.
"It's beautiful. Before my dad died, we'd rake up these big piles of leaves in the fall and then my brother and I would play in those things for hours. Of course, we had to clean them all up again, but it was still worth it."
"You never talk too much about your dad. Did you two spend a lot of time together?" Hutch sat on the bottom step of the front porch and Starsky leaned on the railing with both arms, twirling a giant maple leaf between his fingers.
"Not really. He worked a crazy schedule--kind of like ours. But I remember him a lot more when I come back east. And of course when I visit my mother, she talks about him all the time." He paused. "He didn't have a lot of time, but he was a good father. I really miss him sometimes--you know, when something really significant happens."
"And you really wish you could talk to him again?"
"Exactly," Starsky said, staring off into the distance.
"Should we take a look inside this joint?" Hutch stood up and went up a couple of steps.
"Yeah, that probably beats standing out here in the yard." Starsky approached the front door and unlocked it with the key the lawyer had marked. He pushed open the set of double oak doors and they passed through a small foyer and into a beautiful entrance hall. There was a stunning crystal chandelier hanging near a huge open staircase with at least two visible landings, and a railing around part of the upstairs hall. A little autumn sun streamed in the front windows.
"Wow," Hutch walked further inside and looked up the staircase. "What architecture."
"That's where they found Millie." Starsky approached the spot where his partner stood.
"Thanks for reminding me. Let's go get the bags out of the car."
"Yeah. And I want to go through that stuff the lawyer gave me so I can figure out how much of my pension money it'll cost to get out from under this place. You know, I was real flattered when Millie left this place to me. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Now I think she was just picking a remote relative to unload a turkey on."
"Maybe she wanted someone to inherit it who would figure out what was going on here."
"I guess I never thought of that possibility," Starsky replied honestly as he started back outside for the luggage.
The hotel was cold inside. The furnace had been turned down low, and it would take a while for the heat to infiltrate the giant structure. Used to the balmy breezes of LA, the two detectives left their coats on inside the house and set out to explore. The first floor was primarily like any other hotel, with a lobby, reception desk, two dining rooms, a ballroom, a huge kitchen and servant's quarters. Everything in the kitchen was state-of-the-art, except for the lack of food in the refrigerator. Millie had spared no expense turning this into a tourist's paradise. And for a few years, she had reeled in some major profits. They must have sustained her once things went sour, but there appeared to be precious little of that money left in the household accounts, according to the ledgers.
The second floor was all individual suites, most boasting of their own private baths and sitting rooms. The third floor, accessed by a staircase enclosed behind a narrow oak door, contained several smaller bedrooms that shared two main bathrooms. The view of the ocean from the back of the house was magnificent, but from this third floor vantage point, it was unparalleled.
"This is quite a place, Hutch. Too bad it's a flop." Starsky led the way back to the second floor. "So, I guess we should pick out rooms." He jangled the keys. "Any one in particular you like? I have an in with the management."
"How about this one?" He pointed to the door of room 2A, closest to the stairs and facing the ocean.
"Okay." Starsky scrutinized the keys, which actually were all labeled, and soon found the right one to open this particular room. It was large and well-appointed, like the few they had stuck their heads into on their first walk through the house. The carpeting was a plush dark green, the walls were papered with a dark tapestry pattern , and the drapes were a heavy forest green velvet tied back with gold-tasseled cords. The huge antique oak bed was covered with a tapestry comforter that matched the wallpaper.
"This place is like a palace."
"I should go pick out my room." Starsky left 2A and tried the room next door. "This one ain't bad either." Starsky's room was similar to Hutch's, only most everything was decorated in various shades of blue.
"I think we should drive back into town and buy some food before we get too comfortable. I don't know why we didn't think of it before." Hutch grabbed the car keys off his dresser and returned to the hallway to meet Starsky.
It was nearly dusk when they left for the return trip to town, and they spent close to an hour stocking up on provisions from the small grocery store. There was only one diner open in the off-season, and it didn't look too promising. Meals would be cooked in the hotel's kitchen most of the time.
As they drove back into the hotel's property, Hutch noticed a light on in one of the upstairs rooms.
"Did you leave a light on upstairs?"
"Uh-uh," Starsky was munching on a potato chip out of an open bag on the front seat. He finally looked up to see the ghostly light glowing through sheer curtains. "Maybe it's on a timer switch," he offered hopefully.
"That's possible." Hutch parked in front of the hotel and each carrying two grocery bags, they made their way inside and through the large rooms to the kitchen. It was the only room in the house that was truly homey and welcoming once you flooded it with artificial yellow light. "I think we should check upstairs." Hutch patted his side, to indicate his weapon.
"I'm right behind you," Starsky replied.
"Behind me? What's wrong with you going first?"
"It was your idea."
"It's your hotel, Mr. Innkeeper."
"Fine," Starsky grumbled and led the way up the long staircase, drawing his weapon as they approached the room with the light, the door to which was standing slightly open into the hallway. The two detectives exchanged looks, verifying that the door should have still been closed.
Starsky slid along the wall into the room first, and after leaping into the open space of the bedroom with his weapon drawn, relaxed his stance. Hutch quickly checked the bathroom, and Starsky poked his head into the closet. Nothing was out of order, no human prowlers lurked in the shadows.
"Starsk, take a look at this." Hutch motioned to him to come to the long balcony door. "This is the room you pointed to from outside--this is where the suicide happened."
"Oh great," Starsky swallowed almost audibly.
"Something seriously wrong is going on in this house, pal."
"I think you're right." Starsky led the way back into the hall. "Should we check the rest of the place out?"
"We're not going to find anything." Hutch was uncharacteristically willing to accept a paranormal explanation. He read Starsky's assessment of his answer. "It's just a feeling."
"I know. Me too." Starsky shuddered. "Let's go downstairs and get something to eat."
It would have been easy to forget that they were in a haunted house as the kitchen filled with the smells of steaks grilling and vegetables boiling on the stove. Starsky had put a couple beers in the freezer when they got home, so they were almost as cold as they should be by dinner.
"You know, Starsk, we've got to be careful not to get sucked into this whole ghost thing. I'm guilty of it myself upstairs. But you and I both know that something else has got to be going on here." Hutch washed down a bite of steak with his beer.
"You're right. I mean it is a spooky old place, but ghosts?" Starsky forced out an artificial chuckle. He was really dreading returning to the infamous second floor.
By close to midnight, satisfied there was nothing worth watching on the TV set in Hutch's sitting room, they parted company for the night. Starsky went to his room, started the banging pipes in the bathroom on the assignment of producing hot water for a shower. While it was warming up, he got undressed and held his hand over the radiator in his room. It was weakly emitting a little heat, but not enough to make the room comfortable.
After showering, he settled into bed with a couple of the ledgers to see how far in the hole he was really going to be when this was all over. His only hope was to sell the place to an out of town investor and hope he was dumb enough not to talk to any of the locals about the hotel's history. Somewhere between his credits and debits, he dozed off to sleep.
Footsteps in the hall. Starsky sat bolt upright in bed. They were familiar footsteps. Memories of his dead father coming in from a late night on patrol flashed through his mind. They approached the door and stopped. Starsky's heart froze in his throat as the knob turned and the door creaked open. A man's form stood there, police hat in place.
"Dad?" Starsky felt the weakness of his voice. It was little more than a croak from a dry throat. The figure turned and walked toward the stairs. "Dad! Wait!" He bounded out of bed and chased the phantom, who now was descending the stairs. "Dad, wait up!" He rushed to the head of the stairs and as he did, the figure turned back to face him.
"Come on, David. We have a lot of catching up to do," his father replied, reaching a filmy hand back toward him. There he was, in his old uniform. When he looked closely at the apparition, he saw a bullet hole in the center of its forehead. He grasped the bannister to hold himself up from the pure shock of it. Even as a child, knowing his father had been shot, he had been shielded from the details. Here was the corpse, beckoning to him.
"Dad," the word was lost in a gasp.
"Starsky? Is that you?" Hutch's voice made him whirl around, almost lose his balance at the head of the stairs. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
"There!" Starsky pointed to the stairs. They were dark and empty.
"He was on the stairs. He came into my room...he had a bullet hole right here!" Starsky pointed to the middle of his own forehead.
"My father! I saw him. He asked me to come with him--"
"You know that was just a dream. Come on, Starsk, you don't think you really saw him, do you? We just talked about him, and the funny thing with the light tonight and all this talk of haunted houses. It just set you off on a nightmare." Hutch rested his hand on Starsky's shoulder.
"When I was little," Starsky began, a little breathless and still shaking visibly, "he used to come to my room at night when he'd get home. Sometimes I'd hear him, and I'd follow him out of the room. Everybody else would be in bed, but I'd catch up to him on the stairs and he'd say, 'come on, David. Let's do some catching up.' And we'd raid the refrigerator together. He said the same thing tonight. And the footsteps were the same. Hutch, I'd know those footsteps, that voice anywhere..."
"Why don't we get some lights on out here," Hutch flipped the switch in the hall and flooded it with light. "I know nightmares can be realistic--"
"Damn it, Hutch, it wasn't a nightmare. I didn't know my father was shot in the forehead," he yelled, his voice breaking slightly. "I knew he was shot, but no one would ever tell me many details, and after a few years, I didn't want to know. Why would I see him that way?!"
"I don't know, buddy. But it was only a dream."
"Sorry I woke you. I'm going back to my room. I know what I saw." Starsky walked back into his room and shut the door. Hutch stared down the shadowy stairs. Headgames. That's all it was. Talking about dead people and staying in a haunted house. It had to be that. Starsky's dead father couldn't really be roaming the halls...could he?
The next morning, Hutch tapped on Starsky's door but found the room empty. It wasn't like his partner to be up and at 'em before eight if he didn't have to be. It was only seven, and Starsky's bed was made and there was no sign of him.
"Starsky!" Hutch called down the stairs as he made his way to the first floor. He walked through the lobby to the hallway and then to the kitchen out back. There was coffee made, but still no sign of Starsky. Hutch walked out the back door onto the porch and caught sight of a figure standing by the edge of the cliff out back, watching the ocean. He poured a cup of coffee and walked out to join his partner.
"You're up early," he started off light-hearted, but Starsky didn't respond. "Look, I know last night was kind of rough, but--"
"It was just a dream. Okay. Let's just forget it."
"Okay. So what do we do about all of it today?"
"That's what I've been thinking about." Starsky turned away from the ocean to face his partner. "What are we really fighting here? Maybe we need to call in someone who knows how to deal with this."
"Who? A bunch of those weirdos from some university's paranormal research department? They'll find a ghost anywhere if you let them haul in enough equipment to measure your ectoplasm."
"Something scared Aunt Millie to death on the stairs. I don't know what to do next, but it better be good." Starsky took a drink of his coffee.
"Let's take the place apart today. I mean anywhere there could be a camera, a recorder, any trick devices--let's pull it apart so we know there are no logical explanations for what we see or hear."
"Sounds reasonable to me."
"Can we have a little breakfast first?"
"Yeah, why not," Starsky started toward the house, seemingly in a better mood. While Hutch started mixing one of his infamous health potions in the blender, Starsky tossed a couple of frozen waffles in the toaster and left them to toast while he ran upstairs and got the blueprints to the house. After breakfast, they spread them out on a long banquet table in the dining room and started studying every recorded nook and cranny. Unfortunately, everything that was on the blueprint was pretty straightforward. No inexplicable gaps indicating hidden passages appeared to exist. They spent many hours pacing off rooms and verifying measurements. There was no room for there to be anything hidden between the walls.
By the time it was dark, they had worked almost tirelessly, inspecting each and every room with equal precision, pacing off room sizes, trying to spot anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing. Exhausted and a little discouraged, they plopped down in the lobby in overstuffed wingback chairs and stared at each other.
"Now what?" Starsky yawned.
"Well, yeah, I suppose that would be good too. Either I'm hallucinating, and it's a family trait or we still don't know what's happening here."
"Let's go back into town tomorrow and see about getting that file from the police. Maybe if we take one incident at a time, and do some research on the history of this house, we can tie them together, find a meaning. I'm not ready to just unequivocally believe this place is haunted. But I do admit we can't find a logical explanation. Even if the explanation is paranormal, there's a reason for it."
"You're right." Starsky stood up. "Well, I guess we might as well eat. Do you want to go through that box of stuff from the lawyer with me later? Maybe something'll turn up in there."
After dinner, they settled into a table in the dining room to spread out the materials from the lawyer. Very little of it was new to them. Starsky had signed a number of papers prior to taking possession of the hotel, and all those copies were there. There were copies of the will and various other legal documents. In the bottom of the box lay what could be potentially golden: Millie's diary.
"I feel a little weird reading an old lady's diary," Starsky opened the cover of the small, leather-bound journal.
"If she wrote about the house, it could be our only clue."
"Let's leave this stuff here and go upstairs. I think I'd rather stretch out in one of those reclining wingback contraptions in your sitting room." Starsky rose and headed toward the staircase. When they were both only feet from the stairs, they stopped in the shadowy entry hall. A white mist was making its way down the stairs slowly. It stopped, and right before their eyes, it transformed into Millie, and both watched, transfixed, as the horridly white face with the unnatural blue lips and shadows in its complexion twisted into a look of horror and shock.
"Aunt Millie, tell us what to do!" Starsky yelled at the ghost. It's eyes widened, and a bony finger pointed at the diary Starsky was holding.
Then it was gone. Starsky looked at Hutch, who shared his horrified expression. He had seen it too. They couldn't have had a joint hallucination.
"Ah, I guess we have to actually use the steps to get upstairs." Hutch made the statement but did not follow it up with action.
"We could always take the back stairs in the kitchen."
"But then we'd be giving in to illogical fear," Hutch reminded him.
"I can live with that," Starsky turned and started striding briskly toward the kitchen. Hutch was close on his heels.
Once they were upstairs and in Hutch's sitting room, Starsky locked the door behind them.
"Do you seriously think that's going to keep Millie out if she makes a return visit?" Hutch queried.
"Probably not, but it'll make me feel a hell of a lot better." He joined Hutch by the fireplace, where they stoked the logs and created a little more heat. The wind was strong tonight, whistling through the cracks in the structure and rattling the bony arms of the leafless trees.
"Why don't you just skim that and cut to the chase. I don't feel like violating her privacy either. I don't want to know what she thought about the sheriff."
"Okay," Starsky replied with a little laugh. In the meantime, Hutch scanned the ledgers, realizing that Starsky wasn't kidding about being in financial trouble with this cursed white elephant. "Here's something." Starsky began. "There's an entry in here about two weeks before she died, and," Starsky flipped a few pages, "that's where it ends." He looked up at Hutch. "She never mentions any of the haunting reports in here until this entry: 'May 15: Saw Marvin on the stairs...he told me to follow him...this is the gate...'. What do you suppose that meant?"
"Come to think of it, she had a boyfriend, according to my dad, when she was real young. He was killed in some freak accident at the factory where he worked. She never did marry, so I guess Marvin was the one."
"And if you follow the person who appears to you on the stairs, you can pass through the gate..."
"To the other side!" Starsky looked at Hutch and all the color drained out of his face. "If I had followed my dad down the stairs--"
"You'd have wound up like Millie." Hutch paused. "My God, Starsky, we're sitting a few yards away from the gateway to eternity."
"We've got to make a deal here. Neither one of us goes anywhere in this house alone tonight. Or we get out of here now."
"Starsk, you can just leave the gateway to death on a hotel staircase and go home."
"There's a back staircase. Watch me."
"Gates can be closed. And maybe finding out why it's there is what we have to do to close it."
"So you want to stay here?"
"I think we have a certain responsibility to stay here until this is finished. You wouldn't leave a killer holed up somewhere just because it was dangerous to go after him. Whatever this force is killed your great aunt, and it would have taken you too if you had followed it."
"Okay. You're right." Starsky got up and paced back and forth. "So how do we guarantee that one of us won't fall for it?"
"Stay in here. Keep the door locked. Hope for the best." Hutch shrugged. It seemed a shaky solution, but it was all they had.
Neither of them had left their posts in the chairs by the fireplace. Starsky had dozed off first, finally boring himself to sleep with an old movie on television. Hutch had nodded off shortly after that, but had been fitful ever since.
Footsteps in the hall. The door opened noiselessly, and the shape was in the doorway. The beautiful shape Hutch thought he'd never see again. Gillian, blonde hair moving softly in a breeze of unknown origin. She reached out a hand toward him, and all caution about the staircase left him. He followed her to the hall, and finally to the head of the stairs.
"Come with me, my love. We'll have all eternity to dance under the stars," she said softly, reaching her pale hand toward him. Without thinking, he stepped forward. Before his foot could land on the first step, Starsky pulled him back so quickly they both lost their balances and wound up on the floor.
"Let go of me!" Hutch pulled away and crawled toward the stairs where this brazen phantom still hovered. She would not dissipate the way Starsky's father had.
"Damn it, Hutch, if you follow her you're going to die!" Starsky grabbed him around the neck, and for a moment that might have been humorous under other circumstances, was almost riding his partner piggyback toward the stairs.
"Gillian!" Hutch reached toward the hand and almost touched it when Starsky fired his gun toward the ceiling. Hutch drew back in the shock of the sound and the shower of plaster. They sat on the floor on opposite sides of the staircase. Gillian was gone. "Damn you! I was this close!" He gestured with a space of millimeters between his fingers.
"That close to dying! Just like me following my dad down those stairs. Or Millie and Marvin."
"I wanted to go, Starsk...don't you of all people know that?" Hutch asked with a quiver in his voice.
"Don't you think I wanted to be with my dad? All that time we missed when he died so young? But this isn't natural, Hutch. This house is killing people before their time and it's using the people they love to do it."
"You're right. In here, I know that," Hutch pointed toward his head. "In here, I want to go stand on the stairs and hope she comes back," he explained, placing and hand over his heart.
"What if you saw Terry on those stairs right now?"
"Dear God, I don't know. I just hope if I did you'd pull me back, because I'd follow her straight into hell if it meant I could be with her again."
Morning finally dawned, finding both of them sitting in the kitchen with a pot of coffee. The night had not been one conducive to getting any sleep, so they had come down the back stairs and played chess in the kitchen for part of the night, both of them making a series of shoddily planned and oddly executed moves. Mutually bad chess--truly an odd experience.
As soon as business hours rolled around, they made their way to the local courthouse, which was a small building not far from the police station. Their first plan of action was to trace the lineage of ownership of the house.
The girl at the front counter was an attractive blonde, probably in her mid-twenties. Starsky immediately adjusted his approach to fit the situation at hand.
"Good morning," he approached the counter with what he considered to be an award-winning smile. "My name is David Starsky, I just inherited the Seaside Inn--"
"Millie Starsky's hotel?" The girl brightened up. "I really liked Millie. What was your relationship to her?"
"She was my great aunt." Hutch cleared his throat as Starsky spoke. "Oh, I'm sorry, this is Ken Hutchinson."
"How do you like the hotel?" She was a shrewd little blonde, Starsky thought with a degree of irritation. That was a loaded question, and one she probably knew the answer to already, if she had known Millie, or had lived in this town any length of time.
"It's beautiful," Hutch spoke up. "Amazing view of the ocean."
"Yes, isn't it?" She responded, a little disappointed at not garnering more information. Then Starsky surprised both of them with a very frank statement. Reading the girl's nameplate on the desk, he proceeded to make a direct hit for information.
"Natalie, I'm sure you know that a lot of weird things have happened at that house. We need to find out why. What can you find for us in the records?"
"A lot of dry information on names, dates...things that won't tell you anything specific. If I go to the preserved archives, that's a different story."
"What are the 'preserved archives'?" Hutch asked.
"A fancy name for brittle old documents we laminated and stuck in notebooks in a fire file in the basement. About two years ago, we went through a major sort and purge project of the local records. First off, one thing you have to understand about Gull's Landing is that it has always been a very small town, only fully inhabited during certain times of the year. The village government was haphazard at best for many of those years. For example, the local minister served as the village clerk back in the late 1700's. So he added a whole bunch of church-type records into the courthouse records. Anything he thought was of interest that popped up at the church, he recorded here. I found something when we were doing the sort that pertained to the hotel, and I did tell Millie about it. She was a really neat lady. She used to host an all-town Christmas party at her hotel every year, and she was involved in a lot of charity work. We got to know each other when we worked together on a project to help the homeless in Boston."
"What was the information?" Starsky prodded.
"I found a document dating back to the 1700's that discussed a piece of property that had been the site of a number of what they referred to as 'unholy rites'. The writer went on to say that it should be considered cursed ground and was not fit for habitation. I compared the legal description with the physical description of the property in the document, and found that it was Millie's place."
Hutch looked at Starsky, who returned his concerned expression.
"Well, it was left vacant for a long time, but in the mid-1800's, a lumber baron named Richard Marcel moved his family here, spotted that property, and upon finding it had reverted back to the village and could be had for next to nothing, he bought it and built the house that's the hotel now. Apparently, the edict about the property being cursed had devolved into an old folk tale, and he lived there very contentedly from what I hear. There's nothing to indicate there have been any problems until recently. Even Millie's hotel ran smoothly until a year or so ago."
"These 'unholy rites'--there wasn't any more detail than that?" Starsky asked.
"No. I assumed it was witchcraft or devil worship."
"What was Millie's reaction when you told her about it?" Hutch asked.
"She said she agreed with Richard Marcel--that it was an old folk tale and nothing more. She would never admit to seeing anything. Even after everyone knew that something was going on out there."
"Something had to set it off again. But what? Any ideas?" Hutch turned to Starsky.
"I don't know. But it started being a problem after years of being dormant," Natalie interjected.
"Maybe something happened there again, something related to witchcraft, Satanism--something that triggered whatever it was that had been inactive." Hutch leaned on the counter. "Maybe we need to be checking the guest registers."
"If you want any help, let me know. I know a lot of people in this general area," Natalie spoke up.
"Thanks. I think we should go home and read our guest books." Starsky started away from the counter. "Oh, Natalie, before this is all over, I owe you a really nice dinner somewhere."
"I'll remember that," she retorted quickly with a smile. Hutch looked at his partner and rolled his eyes.
"You're subtle as a bulldozer," he chided Starsky after they were outside.
"Natalie didn't seem to mind." Starsky smiled an evil grin.
"Natalie probably doesn't get out much," Hutch got into the car, satisfied he had had the last word.
"Well, I guess we should assume then that something happened at the hotel that revived whatever was dormant since the 'unholy rites'."
"Starsk, have you listened to us lately? We're talking about ghosts and devils and unholy rites like there's no reason to be even just a tiny bit skeptical."
"What more do you need to see?" Starsky asked simply. There was no trace of irritation in the question; it appeared to be a completely honest one.
"Good point. I mean, there would be very little way to simulate images of Gillian or your father." Hutch paused. "Did you see Gillian?"
"Yes, as plainly as the last time I saw her alive."
"I'm sorry I doubted you about your father."
"That's okay. It sounded pretty far out."
"The problem with us is that we've stopped thinking like cops here. We're not analyzing the details of this case like we would a regular case at work. For example, if the staircase is the gate to eternity, and Millie followed her one and only true love through it, why did she have such a horrified expression on her face and why did she appear in such a frightening form to us? Something has to be terribly wrong at some point in the transition."
"Like maybe the gate leads to eternity, but not to heaven."
"Like maybe the ghosts of dead loved ones are only used to lure you." Hutch was thoughtful a moment. "Why was your father's image at first inviting, and then frightening? At the moment you would have reached out, followed him willingly, his image scared you away--the bullet hole appeared."
"And Gillian was always beautiful, never frightening..." Starsky pondered the thought a moment.
"Gillian died trying to fix things so we could be together. Maybe to her it didn't seem bad if I followed her into death so we could be together. Maybe the spirits don't know why they've been allowed passage back to this realm. They see a loved one, and know they can lead them into death with them. But your father, at the last minute, couldn't bring himself to take you, so he scared you away. A parent would tend to do something like that."
"Good point. So you think what we have is some evil force, unnamed at this point, who has opened the gate to the netherworld, and uses spirits of dead loved ones to lure victims into whatever abyss is there?"
"And something awakened this force and all the troubles started," Hutch concluded.
They pulled back up in front of the hotel and circled around to the back door. Even in broad daylight, the main staircase held no lure for either one of them. Starsky led the way to the front desk in the lobby and started pulling out the most recent guest registers. Millie had not succumbed to computerized records yet, and everything was painstakingly recorded in big leather bound books.
They sat in the lobby for hours, searching for any name that might be remotely familiar. Finally, Hutch found something he considered to be significant.
"Starsk, did your Aunt Millie normally keep any religious articles around the house--crosses, bibles, that kind of thing?"
"No. Millie wasn't very religious. I don't know if she ever went to any church."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe what wasn't in the house was keeping it calm? About a year and a half ago, a group of priests stayed here. Look, six of them." Hutch handed the book to Starsky. "From what I understand, no matter where they are, priests will often say Mass every morning."
"And if there was a sleeping entity..."
"That would wake it up--offend it." Hutch sat back in his chair.
"The presence of holiness offending the presence of evil."
"That doesn't help us close the gate." Starsky tossed the book aside.
"Maybe it does. We know what woke it up. Maybe since these priests didn't know what they had stirred up, they didn't do anything to fight it. Maybe we need to gather the original six who woke it up, and have them bless this place."
"That ought to kill or cure."
"I think we should talk to these guys. At least to that Father Marshall who paid the bill for the group." Hutch stood up, picked up the book and walked toward the phone.
"You're seriously going to set up an exorcism for the hotel?"
"Don't get theatrical, Starsk. I'm just following what I see as a logical course of action to gather information. Nothing more." He laid the book open on the front desk and started dialing the phone number listed as part of the registration information. "He's located near Cape Cod, so it shouldn't take him too long to get out here."
"You're assuming he won't think you're a lunatic and hang up."
"That could present a problem." Hutch waited while the phone rang. Finally, a male voice answered.
"Fr. Marshall." The greeting was an abrupt one.
"Father, this is Detective Sergeant Ken Hutchinson from the Los Angeles Police Department. I'm working on a case in your area, and I wonder if you would have time to give me some information."
"I'll do what I can," the other man responded.
"As you might know by now, the proprietor of the Seaside Inn Hotel in Gull's Landing died this summer. You are listed as one of her recent guests, along with a group of your colleagues."
"Well, there are some unusual circumstances surrounding Ms. Starsky's death, and it would be very helpful to us--my partner and I--if we could speak with you in person."
"Detective, I have no intention of returning to that God-forsaken hell-hole as long as I live. If you know what's good for you, you'll burn it to the ground and never look back." A loud click was followed by a dial tone.
"He hung up on me." Hutch set down the receiver and looked back at Starsky. "He told me he would never come back to 'this God-forsaken hell hole' and suggested we burn it down."
"Works for me. Only I don't think arson would look too good in my personnel file."
"I think we should get a hold of Officer Collings."
"The guy downtown?"
"Yeah. Have him look up the priests in his file." Hutch dialed that number and waited while it rang three times. Must be in the middle of a good chapter, he thought with a smirk.
"Gull's Landing Police."
"Collings? This is Detective Hutchinson. Can you get your hands on that file real quick?"
"Sure. Hold on a minute." In a brief span, he was back, and at Hutch's direction, Starsky was on another extension listening in. "What do you need?"
"Can you check to see if you have any reports from a priest in that file? The dates would be April 25-28, last year."
"Umm," he shuffled the papers for several seconds, "yeah. Here's something. Father Daniel Mahaffey."
"He was part of the same group I'm looking for. What've you got?"
"He said he had seen his dead brother on the staircase at least twice, and he also reports that there were strange sounds and odors in his room--the same room where the suicide happened about two months later. I took this report. I remember the guy. He was about forty, and he wasn't any religious fanatic or crackpot. But he was genuinely afraid of that house. He said he felt his soul was in danger the entire time he was there. He told me the atmosphere became more 'malignant'--his word--with each passing day. He said he tried to say Mass with the other priests in one of the sitting rooms and the whole house shook. He kept praying, the house kept shaking--just like an earthquake. After that, all this other stuff started happening."
"Do you have a number where to contact him?"
"Won't do much good. He committed suicide about six months ago. Hung himself from his own bell tower. I guess he was in and out of psychotherapy since his stay at the hotel."
"Swell. Thanks for the update." Hutch hung up the phone. Starsky did the same and stared at his partner.
"What're we gonna do?"
"Ask the ghosts."
"Starsk, I mean it. We're going to wait for the ghosts to come again, lead us to the stairs--and when they do, we're going to ask for their help. Ask them how to fight this."
"Provided one of us doesn't just walk into the mouth of hell while we're visiting with the spirits."
"I guess we'll just have to watch out for each other." Hutch sank into one of the chairs. "Man, I'm really tired. Maybe we ought to take a nap before the fun starts tonight."
"Good idea. We know we won't sleep tonight." Starsky stretched out on the couch opposite the chair where Hutch already had rested his head back and closed his eyes. Within moments, sleep had overtaken both of them.
Creaking floorboards. Starsky stirred a little at the sound. Just dad coming home, he thought. Then his eyes shot open. The lobby was bathed in the long shadows of evening. Hutch was still asleep in the chair, undisturbed by the sound. Imagination, that's what it was. Starsky sat up and yawned. This house could play some cruel mindgames.
Creak, CREAK, Creak, CREAK. Steady footsteps in the upstairs hallway. How late was it, he wondered, checking his watch. Eleven o'clock. When they had dozed off at four, neither had expected to be unmoved until night.
Starsky stood up and drew his weapon. The footsteps continued their progression. His father's footsteps. He eased toward the entry hall and watched the stairs, his heart pounding loudly in his ears. No apparition was forthcoming. He slid a little further toward the stairs. For some reason, he did not wake Hutch. This was going to be his moment with his father, no interference this time. And yes, he knew all the dangers. He was going to have the courage to face the specter, bullet hole and all, and know the truth. The truth behind a case even his father's own colleagues had hastily closed.
A filmy cop was on the stairs. Starsky made his way to the foot of those stairs. Michael Starsky was in his dress blues, his cap in place, looking stately and handsome. No visible bullet holes. This was the image that had led Starsky to be a cop in the first place.
"Dad?" He watched the phantom pause at the middle landing and extend a hand toward him. "Tell me who did it. Please. I can do something about it, even now, if I know. Please tell me." The phantom did not speak nor move. "You want me to come up there?"
"The priest must close the gate. Marshall opened the gate. He must return, and he must answer for it."
"How? He won't come back here."
"Tell him you have a message from Anna. He'll come back."
"Dad, please, who shot you?"
"Tell Marshall you have a message from Anna. Tell him he must close the gate."
"Tell me--" the words died in Starsky's throat as his father dissipated into thin air once again. As he backed away from the stairs, he bumped into something and spun around. Hutch was behind him. "He was right up there--"
"I saw him this time, too. And I heard what he said about Anna." He paused. "Are you okay?"
"I guess I am. I'm not too sure anymore."
"I know the feeling, buddy." Hutch rested a hand on Starsky's shoulder. "I think we better make that phone call."
They returned to the front desk and Hutch dialed the priest's number again. When the man answered this time, Hutch kept the message short and sweet.
"I have a message from Anna. It's time for you to come back and close the gate."
There was dead silence on the other end of the line. Finally, the other man spoke.
"You saw Anna?"
"No, we saw my partner's dead father, and he gave us that message. Whatever you did here, you opened gate into eternity, and people are dying. How does that fit in with all those holy vows you took?"
"I'll be there first thing in the morning." The dial tone again.
"He's coming here tomorrow." Hutch turned away from the phone. Starsky was slumped in one of the chairs. "What's the matter--I mean besides the obvious?"
"He wouldn't tell me who shot him." Starsky never looked up at Hutch or responded to the news that the priest was coming.
"Maybe this was more important."
"I don't know. All I remember is a hot summer night, all the windows open, deathly silent except for the crickets and a little rustle of the leaves once in a while when there was a breeze. And a gunshot. I heard the gunshot. My mother heard the gunshot. My brother heard the gunshot. But Mom said it was a car backfiring outside. Half an hour later, two cops are at the door, my dad's friends, telling us somebody just shot him down in the street two blocks from our house."
"I never knew it happened that close to home...or that you heard it."
"It isn't something I like to remember. It's something I can sometimes almost forget if I try hard enough. Until it's really hot, and my air conditioning goes out, and I open a window at night. And I wait to hear that shot..." Starsky stood up and paced around the room. "They never did find the shooter. Not that they tried for that long. They closed that case a year or so after he was killed, and never pursued it."
"Maybe it's better you don't know. Maybe you should let your father protect you."
"Supposedly he was shot by the henchmen of one of the crime families in the area. I still remember three men in suits at our house the next day, and feeling so dirty when I knew that a mob boss had sent three goons to deliver a check to pay for the funeral. And that my mother had accepted it. But all we had was my dad's pension and a little bit of life insurance. She couldn't have buried him at all if somebody didn't pay for it." He slammed both fists on the counter. "Damn this place. All these years and I haven't had to think about all this again."
"When this is over, let's take our next vacation near your home base. We can investigate the case properly. The way it should have been investigated twenty-some years ago."
"Thanks, partner. But I wouldn't know where to start."
"We've started with less," Hutch prodded. Starsky let out a little snicker.
"I guess we have at that."
They spent the night on one of their usual vigils, playing chess, watching television and trying to lighten their moods a little. The house was silent. It felt as though the house were waiting for Father Marshall to arrive. And arrive he did, first thing in the morning.
"Father Adam Marshall," he held out his hand when Starsky opened the door.
"David Starsky. Please come in." He stepped aside as the priest entered.
"You were related to Millicent Starsky?"
"My great aunt. Follow me. My partner's in the kitchen. Would you like some coffee?"
"That would be great. I drove straight here after I talked to Sgt. Hutchinson."
"Hutch, this is Fr. Marshall. Father, Ken Hutchinson."
"Call me Hutch," he said, shaking hands with the priest.
"When you mentioned Anna, I knew I had to come here."
"Who is Anna anyway?" Starsky asked as he set a cup of coffee on the kitchen table where the priest and Hutch were already seated.
"Before I entered the seminary, I met a woman and we planned to be married. She died in a car accident about two weeks before the ceremony. I decided on the priesthood, and once I was ordained and practicing, I kept feeling like if there were a hereafter, I should be able to be close enough to it to reach her. That if I could only see Anna in some angelic form, reconcile with myself those feelings of resentment for why such a beautiful young woman should be taken so violently, I could not only become the priest I wanted to be, but I could share such faith with others that it would make a real difference in their lives. I could say something meaningful to a mother who's five year old son is killed in the crossfire of a gang shooting, or to a man whose wife dies of cancer in her thirties." He sipped the coffee. "Needless to say, many years passed and I had no such experience. When I visited the Seaside Inn with the other priests in the group, we were looking for a good spot for a retreat. Your great aunt told us it wasn't full tourist season yet, and that we'd have quite a bit of privacy here. Not long after I arrived, I found myself obsessed with thoughts of Anna. Every waking moment I thought of her. I spent one entire night praying to God for a sign. Then I wandered the dark halls of this place and implored all the forces of heaven or hell, I didn't care which, to let me pass through the gate and join my Anna. It was like someone else possessed my soul. I started seeing her on the stairs, and other odd things were happening at the same time. I felt as if I had awakened something within the house, something responsive to things spiritual. Anyway, the last night we were here, I saw her on the stairs and was about to follow her, when her true identity was revealed. I saw the Beast in her eyes. I had not opened any gate to heaven. I had given the Beast a gateway to the living. As you well know if you've ever read Scripture, the Beast has many forms."
"So these apparitions on the stairs aren't really spirits of the dead?" Starsky asked.
"Oh some of them are, I think. Spirits who are restless, who are looking for a portal to pass through to reach this dimension. But you must never trust what you see. Anna was not my Anna. She was a deadly illusion. One thing that must always be remembered is that one should only attempt to open a gate between the living and the dead with the utmost caution. When you open a gate to the other plane, you do not control who, or what, may pass through it from the other side. So while you may connect with an innocent spirit, you may also give entry to a more sinister entity." He paused. "We left the house sooner than we planned, and I know Father Mahaffey filed a report with the police. I felt it was unnecessary. I honestly believed the trouble would stop with my departure. Evidently, it has not, and there are some unwanted entities passing through the gateway that I opened."
"Father, are you familiar at all with this house's history?" Hutch asked.
"There was an old church document in the village records that stated that this was cursed ground and the site of 'unholy rites'. Now when Richard Marcel, the lumber baron who built this place, lived here, he didn't have any problems. The hotel also ran smoothly for quite a while. The trouble started after your stay here." Hutch paused. "What our concern is now is how to close the gate."
"I don't have any definitive answers for something like this," the priest leaned back in his chair. He was about fifty years old, with dark hair greying at the temples. "My only theory on how to approach it would be to bless the house, see what happens and deal with it as best we can."
"That's comforting," Starsky responded. "Just stir it all up again and see where the pieces fall?"
"For lack of a better idea, yes." Fr. Marshall stood up and paced back and forth a couple of times while the two detectives looked back and forth at each other and then at him, and tried to reach a rational decision.
"I think we should try it," Hutch finally broke the silence. "What else have we got to go on? From what you're saying, Father, we can't even fully trust the apparitions of loved ones."
"Not in Anna's case. I have my things in the car. I'll bring them in, but I think we should wait until dark. There is little point in doing this when the house is dormant."
They agreed with the priest's assessment that the blessing of the Seaside Inn should commence after dark. The spirits didn't usually move until late evening, so by eleven o'clock, the three of them gathered on the third floor, and worked their way through the house.
Nothing unusual occurred as the priest moved through the rooms of the third floor with Starsky and Hutch close behind him. He prayed, made the sign of the cross, even tossed holy water to the four corners of each room. They descended the narrow staircase to the second floor hallway, and Starsky opened the doors to each suite as they made their progression toward the main staircase. At the head of the stairs, a visitor waited. Dressed in a lacy wedding dress, Terry's ghost waited for Starsky, with a single red rose in her filmy white hand.
"Come with me, Dave. We can have our eternity together."
Starsky froze to the spot where he stood. His eyes widened, but he did not move readily toward her. The priest began praying aloud and the house began to rattle and rumble, just like an earthquake, like Father Mahaffey had described in his report.
"Dave, please, I've waited here so long. It's dark and I'm afraid," the ghost implored. Starsky was mesmerized by how beautiful she looked in her wedding dress...in the dress he always dreamed of her wearing when he was able to dream about her at all. Their wedding, their home, their children...all taken away. "David!" She held the rose out toward him, and before Hutch or Father Marshall could stop him, Starsky reached for the stem of the flower, and instead found himself clutched by the wrist. And it was no longer Terry. It was a horrible, fiendish, she-devil with glowing red eyes and horrid gnarled claws that dug into his wrist as she pulled him downward toward the stairs. Hutch grabbed his partner's free arm and the priest set aside his bible and grabbed Hutch around the waist and pulled backward. Starsky, for his part, had become a human wishbone between earth and the netherworld.
"Starsky! It isn't Terry!" Hutch yelled at his partner.
"I know that now!" He replied helplessly. The priest had already slid several inches holding on to Hutch as he slid quickly and decisively toward the stairs attached to Starsky. There appeared to be little hope of stopping the hellish progression, and Starsky finally said the fateful words he selfishly had been afraid to say. "Hutch! Let go! You can't hold me in this world! At least let one of us survive this!"
"Like hell I will! Fight it, partner! Come on!"
"I don't know how!" Starsky yelled back.
"I do!" Fr. Marshall yelled from behind. "Can you hold him--for just a second--on your own?"
"I'll try." Hutch braced himself, and slid almost to the edge of the top step when the priest let go. A moment later, Fr. Marshall returned and began dowsing the staircase with holy water. The house vibrated more threateningly, and smoke rose from the stairs, but the grip of the demon did not yield. The priest returned to his position to back up Hutch's strength. Beneath Starsky they could see a horrible swirling black vortex--the stairs themselves were no longer visible beyond the first three steps. Starsky's right arm and most of the right side of his body were engulfed by this growing pit.
"In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, leave this house!" he commanded. A horrible voice responded.
"This man's soul is mine. Whosoever shall defy me, shall perish with him!" It was not quite a human voice, but yet it's words were clear.
"If you're really beyond the gate, you have to help us!" Hutch yelled at the top of his lungs. "Sergeant Michael Starsky, if you can hear our voices, save your son!"
"I think my arm is going to come off!" Starsky croaked, almost strangled with visible pain. "I can't hold on!"
"Don't worry, buddy, I've got you!"
"I can't keep you back much longer!" The priest yelled to Hutch, who had visibly lost ground and was on the first step going down. It was apparent that Fr. Marshall was beginning to consider cutting his losses, as it didn't look to likely that anyone who held onto Starsky wouldn't be on their way to hell any moment. "You have to let go or we're all going down!" he yelled to Hutch.
"Never!" Hutch called over his shoulder. "Do what you have to do!" Hutch managed to wind one leg around one of the rails in the upstairs bannister and braced his body against the heavy wood. The priest let go and began praying again, tossing holy water on the scene. Hutch screamed, "Give me back your son, Michael Starsky. Give him life again! Help me!"
"Let go of me, Hutch! It isn't working!" Starsky had a moment of direct eye contact with Hutch amidst all the rattling of the house and the screamed prayers and the spraying holy water. "I don't want to take you with me!" He tried to wriggle his wrist out of Hutch's grip.
"Damn it, Starsky, don't do this!" As Hutch said that, the wood of the bannister gave way and he lurched forward. There was a moment of decision, between stopping his own rapid descent and letting Starsky go to a certain death, or to holding onto his partner and following him wherever it was the force took them.
Hutch made no attempt to slow his own descent, and was shocked when something or someone grabbed his ankles from behind as he was literally flying down the stairs connected to Starsky. There was a moment of recognition and hope on Starsky's face. He could see his father holiding Hutch by the ankles and pulling him back. But the grip on his wrist from below wouldn't loosen, and Starsky could not describe, nor even think about, the pain in his right arm, which was being pulled into hell while the rest of him was being almost as tenaciously pulled back to earth.
Father Marshall appeared behind the ghost holding Hutch back and tossed something in a small silver case into the confusion. There was almost an explosion, and a terrible vibration in the very foundations of the house, and with unexpected suddenness, Starsky felt his right arm freed and shot upward under the force of Hutch's pulling. The vision of his father had vanished, and the force had thrown the priest partway down the upstairs hallway. Starsky landed on top of his partner at the head of the stairs. He rolled off to the side to free Hutch from being pinned to the top step.
They had no time to rest. The stairs burst into flames, and only quick movement backwards saved them from being burned. Hutch stopped to help Fr. Marshall off the floor and lead him to the back stairs. Starsky was staggering a little unevenly and felt disoriented from his experience, but he didn't lose much time behind Hutch and the priest.
They raced down the stairs, through the kitchen and out the back door. The upstairs was engulfed in the flames of an unnaturally virulent fire. The three men made their way as close to the edge of the cliff in back as was safe, and barely escaped spraying debris from a horrible implosion of the house. Little flaming pieces of wood showered the area, trees tumbled, and the very structure of the house collapsed like a pile of brittle straws.
Starsky sat on the grass and held onto his right arm. Aside from the ugly gashes in his wrist from the grip of the demon, he didn't know if it was sprained, broken or just plain miserable. Hutch dropped onto the grass next to him, and the priest seemed mesmerized by the fire that was greedily consuming every morsel of the house.
"Why didn't you let go of me in there?" Starsky finally asked Hutch. "I mean if my dad hadn't shown up and grabbed you, we'd both be...I don't know exactly where..." Starsky shuddered visibly.
"Do you really have to ask me that question? Why would I let go?"
Starsky put his good arm around his partner, and could find no words to respond to what he had said, and certainly none to discuss what he had done.
"You saw your father?" Hutch asked, wrapping a handkerchief around the bleeding wound on Starsky's wrist.
"He had you by the ankles. When we were going down fast, he grabbed you and pulled you back."
"I thought that was you, Fr. Marshall," Hutch looked up at the priest.
"No, I'm sorry to say it wasn't. I would have never had the strength to pull you back."
"What made the explosion happen?" Starsky had found his voice again.
"I have...I had, a small relic from the Holy Land. An actual sliver from the Cross of Christ. I threw it down the stairs. I felt that ultimate evil would be conquered by ultimate good. And it was."
"You broke the stalemate with that, Father," Starsky said.
"And that's what it was. Earth and the netherworld in a tug of war."
"With me in the middle," Starsky winced a little trying to move his right arm, but it didn't seem to be broken anywhere.
"I think we should get out of here while we still can. If that fire spreads into these trees, we could lose our cars." Hutch stood up and offered a hand to Starsky, who looked straight into his partner's eyes , feeling a great significance with the small gesture of grasping the hand to get off the ground.
Hutch drove the rental car with Starsky in the passenger seat and the priest drove his own vehicle out behind them. The Seaside Inn was a splash of hot orange light in the night sky as the two cars sped down the winding road to town.
"Do you think we did it?" Starsky finally asked as they neared the local bed and breakfast.
"No. I think forces more powerful than we are did it."
"I don't know about that," Starsky smiled. "I think we make a pretty powerful force ourselves, partner."
They simultaneously reached out their hands and gave each other a high-five.