By Cassidy Street
The old house off County Road 113 in Little Ben was a prime target for thieves and elderophiles alike. It belonged to an eighty-seven-year-old spinster, worn down with dementia, arthritis, and general bodily degeneracy; and, to complete the thief’s favored cliché, hoarder of a hundred or more cats in various stages of civility as well as physical fitness. The place was a veritable Roach Motel for the feline population of Little Ben; the cats, sick or well or with gaping, infested stomach wounds, all entered through the bare eye sockets of former windows, but none were ever seen again. The only sign of their existence in the decaying Lampton mansion was the foul odor which lingered about the premises, occasionally drifting into the unsuspecting nostrils of an unfortunate neighbor’s grilling party on a particularly stagnant Fourth of July.
The Ellis County Department of Health and Human Services, already notorious for its disregard of its most harrowing reports, did nothing more than send out Davy Parsons, associate investigator and part-time meter reader, who drove up to the edge of the fronded and weed-stubbled front drive, took a few snapshots, then wrote up a brief report with a concise view of the thing: “SHAGGY LAWN BUT NO DEFINITIVE CODE VIOLATIONS. NO ANIMALS FOUND ON PREMISES.” And so the Little Ben and Ellis County officials had covered their bases just as admirably as any congressman.
No one knew exactly the reason for Little Ben’s willful ignorance on the subject of Ms. Lampton. Of course, she was tremendously rich; the Lamptons had been something akin to aristocracy in the Old South, having accumulated quite a niche of an empire in the cotton trade. In fact, Ms. Lampton’s mansion—with the exception of the desecrated conservatory and the second parlor which was currently bent naval ward over its crackling foundation, both later additions—dated from those dark days in the South, when man and child alike might be tied to a tree and mutilated or burned bit by bit for any little failure to please, neighbors being exceedingly scarce and therefore unable to hear the screams. The Lamptons were exceedingly fierce to their human property and competition alike. By the time the War had concluded, most of their slaves willingly remained on the property, almost all of them too maimed and broken to think of starting over anywhere else. And so even in those free and enlightened days afterwards, the Lamptons perpetuated their ample production with very little alteration.
The Lamptons’ influence expanded, much as a host of malignant cells completes its handiwork in one realm of vitality and moves on to another. Some went into politics, some into the military, some into the law and the rest into other fields in which a preternatural disregard for fellow man might benefit one tremendously. The homebodies remained resolutely on the property, domineering over those poor souls foolish or penurious enough to seek employment in the vast expanse of fields or within the forbidding structure of the mansion itself. Fortunately for us all, a long history of tragic losses followed the Lamptons throughout their various walks of life: droughts, fatal injury and illness in foreign fields, unfaithful business partners, and intense depressions often resulting in suicide… these desolations abased, slaughtered and ravaged the house of Lampton as if nature and the metaphysical dimension had conspired to purge this haughty and ruthless line in a decades-long, amended version of natural selection.
Old Ms. Lampton alone remained of the ancient house. And just as all roads lead back home, all the accumulated wealth of the centuries belonged to her. Every relic bought or stolen from her ancestors’ revels in the Ancient World, every bit of gold or Confederate dollar hoarded up within the moldering walls, every hallowed talisman of affluence and dominance past; it all belonged to the sole surviving member of the dread clan. Herself a virtual recluse, Ms. Lampton alone enjoyed the remnants of the empire. And as if her untold wealth weren’t enough, the old crow had sold off the hundreds of acres of farmland after her father, resident town bastard-drunk, had died. As Little Ben residents whispered, not a cent had been deposited in the bank. The old bitch apparently sat around like some antebellum Miss Havisham, surrounded in her moldy parlor by priceless antiques and heaps of currency ranging from old Spanish gold to contemporary hundred dollar bills.
No one ever saw Ms. Lampton except Irma Jean, a bent and wrinkled old black woman who had played with the recluse in secret as a child until Mr. Lampton caught them and tanned his daughter’s backside with a black leather belt known as the Attitude Adjuster. Irma Jean came once a week, laden with groceries and dozens of cat food tins. She departed very briskly each time, and no one ever knew whether she gained anything by this deed. Most residents of County Road 113 secretly hoped the grim-visaged Irma Jean would go ahead and die, then that old bitch would have to go out herself or ask one of them to do the shopping, and at last they could gather information on the interior of the place.
As previously stated, the house held many inducements for the career criminal: it was secluded, inhabited by a senile old woman and offered numerous prospects of entry and exit. The only visible drawback was the precarious structure of the place. And so Jesse Downs, Daniel Peterson, and Jackie Landon decided to be the first to penetrate the near-ruin of the antebellum abode in search of whatever worldly goods had not fallen victim to disuse or the whims of the hundred cats.
Jesse Downs, the leader of the conspirators, had sounded the place days before. He had crept through the back fields and overgrown garden and scaled the outer wall along the southern side of the house. There was a broken window connecting to the large cellar. The distance from the window to the cellar floor was too great to entertain jumping from the ledge; however, there was a thick wooden beam running from a point just below the window to the opposite wall, terminating just a foot and a half away from the staircase leading upward. Jesse had crawled across a significant portion of the beam—incurring numerous splinters in delicate regions, as he told his co-conspirators—and it was quite sound. There was a slight convex indention curving floor ward in the center of the beam, round which was tied the end of a stout rope, but the beam as a whole was sound enough for two or three of them to scale in the dead of night.
“The only problem is the drop,” Jesse had told them a few hours before the operation was to take place. “Don’t know how deep it is, but I don’t think you’ll be gettin’ up without a scratch after a fall like that. Plus, bitch has got the real sick cats down there.”
In the darkest part of the night, Jesse and Daniel stalked quietly across the yard and slipped in through the cellar window. Jackie planted himself behind a gatepost overtaken by ivy and looked down either visible end of County Road 113. The others had called him a pussy for not joining them, but his reason for failing to do so was sound: if caught, this would be his third strike, and with a previous assault conviction he’d be going away for life. Small wonder that a cold sweat broke out upon him as he examined the visible portion of Daisy Rowland’s driveway a few dozen yards down the road.
Silence reigned supreme across the grounds, and the unbearable monotony interrupted by brief, dreadful memories of gen pop’s public shower at Parchman, assured Jackie that his companions must have succeeded in scaling the beam by then. But at last there came a crash and two muffled screams from the cellar. Jackie stood horrorstruck for a moment, then dashed toward the window. There was a dim, flickering light within, as of a low-grade bulb pulsing between life and death. Then Jesse’s voice came loudly, wailing and angry, “Ge’ off! Ge’ off, you bitch!”
More screams, then plaintive entreaties, then brutal threats, then more screaming. Finally screams tapering off like the light, then silence. Pervading, immutable silence. There’s no telling how long Jackie sat trembling in the tall, rank weeds, watching the sickly flickering of the light in the cellar. But once the shock had worn off, and his friends had not reappeared, and a faint siren was heard in the distance, Jackie tore through the black fields that no longer belonged to the Lamptons.
Jesse Downs and Daniel Peterson had been missing for over three years before they were found. For all that time the police had kept a close watch on Jackie Landon, who was a known acquaintance of the two. Jackie had been brought in for questioning, had smoked a cigarette courtesy of Detective Daryl Hicks of Ellis County Homicide; however, being very much familiar with the criminal justice system, he told them he had no idea where his best friends were and asserted his right not to answer any further questions without his attorney present. It was noted that he developed a fondness of the drink after that, but his criminal endeavors had come to an abrupt end.
The mystery was solved at last when, of all people, Irma Jean Jackson died. There was no deathbed confession or parting suspicion from the old woman; she merely stared at the ceiling tiles of the county hospital with a resolute grimness and gave up the withered husk of a soul that had dwelled within her emaciated frame. Her absence alone served as the catalyst.
It was two weeks before the residents of County Road 113 decided to send an ambassador to the crumbling old house to offer delivery services, as the old bitch was apparently willing to starve rather than ask her neighbors for assistance. Daisy Rowland, the fat divorcee whom all could count on for casseroles and prayers in any personal tragedy, was elected to the cause. She knew at once upon driving up to the house that something was dreadfully wrong. The smell was more pungent and deathlike than ever, the cats wandered freely in and out at last.
It would be tedious to describe Daisy’s slow odyssey through the mountains of filth within, battling ungodly stench and every representation of decay as she went along. It would be monotonous to describe her horror when she found the old woman at last, haughty as ever, crumpled over in a puddle of cat piss, an alabaster box with the family’s ancestral silver within, every piece of which was coated with cankered remnants of her beloved cats’ meals. Many paragraphs might be devoted to the investigators’ dread as they approached the bottom of the cellar stairs, their glance diverted between a dense veil of darkness over the majority of the room and a large beam lying sidewise with a length of rope flung carelessly over it, underneath the boarded window opposite. But too utter and horrifying to commit to ink is the joint rattling of two chains from the black depths of the cellar, two catlike voices with a tinge of human imperfection, trained long ago to call, “M’yow, M’yow” as convincingly as possible at the sound of their mistress’s approaching footsteps.