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"Let's split up, gang! We'll go investigate the basement!" Frank offered, hand tight around Diane's waist, giving it an extra squeeze with the words, which got a giggle out of the girl.
"Yeah, I'm sure you will," Veruca muttered under her breath, watching the two go off, hardly able to wait until they were out of sight before they began to undress each other. "Come on, Scruffy, are you going to go with me?" She hated to ask for his help - just as much as she hated calling him by that stupid nickname - but she had little choice for either. He was the only one left, and at least he came with that stupid dog, which would hopefully be enough to scare off whatever burglar or squatter or whatever was in this supposedly haunted house before they realized it was just a big, friendly, harmless teddy bear. And, no matter how good a detective she was, she simply couldn't find his real name anywhere, so it was either Scruffy or nothing.
"What?" Scruffy asked, half-open eyes staring at the dog. "Yeah, I think he's right," he nodded sagely, staring back up at Veruca. "We need to keep an eye on things here."
Veruca glared at him unhappily, but he was too oblivious, both naturally and with a little chemical help, to notice. Finally, she just snapped, "Fine!", stomped and turned away, marching into the musty, cobweb-filled house on her own. Normally that wouldn't bother her so much - she was used to it by now - but there was just something about this place that gave her the creeps. Most people might say it was just the dark, late October night affecting her, but she was certain there was something big going down here. She could feel it in her bones. This could be what it took for the local authorities to really start taking her seriously... Even if she would wind up having to share the credit with that vanload of idiots.
Still, without them, she never would have made it there in the first place, not after her last solo adventure had ended with her losing her prey by crashing her car into a tree. Now she was right back to where she'd started, bumming rides off of Frank. Diane, of course, wouldn't dream of letting him out of her sight with another girl, especially to some dark, lonely house. With anyone else, it wouldn't be a bad idea, but Veruca had no interest in the pompous douche-bag. And where Frank went, Scruffy came along with his dog, for reasons Veruca was never entirely clear on. He was just always there already when Frank picked her up. She figured either Frank found him funny, or Scruffy was his dealer and he just wanted to stay on his good side, so he indulged him by letting him tag along. Clearly, if he was crazy enough to think his dog could talk to him, it wasn't a bad idea.
Of course, it might have been nice to have somebody to go with her, seeing as she'd pulled up to the half-destroyed front doors with a van full of people, even if none of them were particularly useful. She knew the house wasn't haunted, as it was said to be, but there was something going on, and she didn't want to run into a squatter, or someone making drugs, or whatever, all by herself, even with the taser tucked away in her bag and the heavy flashlight she was sweeping around the rooms she passed through, searching for clues. She was small, mousy, and bespectacled, and looked entirely non-threatening in nearly every possible way. She liked to think she looked smart, but that wasn't the kind of intimidation she needed if she were to get into a physical altercation.
That hadn't happened yet, nor had it ever come close to happening, but it was always a possibility, one she tried to prepare for, and get the others ready for as well. Most of the time, like tonight, they didn't even pretend to listen to her anymore. She found herself yelling at them more and more, with less and less of an effect. She'd practically had to throw a tantrum to get them moving this time, something Diane had been all too happy to call her out on.
"Don't get your little panties in a bunch," she'd told her, using that infuriating tone of hers that made it sound like she thought Veruca was ten years younger than her, rather than ten months. The slut probably just thought the idea of wearing panties at all was chidlish, Veruca thought bitterly to herself.
"Don't worry about her. She's just jealous."
"Yeah, right," Veruca scoffed. "Like she'd be jealous of..." A chill shot up her spine, her hand clutching tighter around the flashlight as she realized what had just happened. She whipped around, looking for the source of the unfamiliar voice, the beam of her flashlight shakily slashing through the darkness around her and finding only dust and spiderwebs. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"There's no need to be scared, dear," the voice answered, warm and maternal, and seemingly coming from behind her, no matter which direction she turned. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"You shouldn't be in this house," Veruca informed her. "You're trespassing, and..."
"You're the one who's trespassing," the voice countered. "But I don't mind. It's always nice to have visitors. And there are so many tonight... It was your idea, though, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes," Veruca couldn't help but smiling a little as she took the credit. "But you're still trespassing here, too. I don't care how long you've lived here, you don't own this house, and therefore..."
"This is my house," the voice insisted.
"Where are you?" Veruca finally asked, giving up on figuring it out herself.
"I thought you'd never ask. Go back to the hall, turn right, and I'm in the next room."
That made sense, Veruca thought, feeling silly for not realizing this woman was probably just in another room. Sure, it sounded like she was right there, but the walls were likely very thin, so it was just about the same thing. She walked out into the hall, stopping right before the next doorway. She reached into her bag and putting a hand on her taser, just in case, and took a breath. She knew she couldn't take too long, since whoever was in the room had to have seen her flashlight, but she could afford a moment to compose herself. This didn't seem like it was going to be the bust that made her famous, but every little bit helped, and every squatter evicted had to earn her some small amount of respect, surely. Not as much as if something nefarious really was happening here, but there wasn't much she could do about that.
"I'm so sorry to disappoint you, dear," the voice chuckled, "but there's nothing going on."
Veruca felt the dagger of cold stab into her again, this time certain she hadn't said that out loud. "Who are you?" she asked again, quieter this time.
"Just come in and see," the voice invited. "I promise, I'm not going to hurt you."
It had to be somebody she knew, Veruca reasoned, someone who knew her well enough to be able to guess what she was thinking. But the voice didn't sound familiar, certainly not that familiar, and there was no reason for anyone she knew to be there, except for Diane, and she was surely too busy with Frank to be disguising her voice and messing with her.
"You don't know me," the voice told her, "but I'd love to meet you."
Despite the words, Veruca continued mentally searching through her list of who could have known where she'd be. There was always the possibility that one of the others had told someone they knew, but she and they didn't exactly run in the same circles mostly, so this little "mind reading" act would be hard for them to pull off. Her skin crawled slightly as she crossed more and more alternatives off her list, until finally she had to accept she wasn't going to get an answer by standing around waiting.
"Don't jump out at me," she warned, shifting her flashlight to her free hand and pulling her taser out of the bag, "I am armed, and I don't respond to surprises well."
"I don't think you need to worry about that," the voice chuckled softly.
Gathering up her courage, Veruca rounded the corner, shining her light directly into the door, feeling a bit like a police officer making a bust. Only there wasn't anyone in that room, either. Quickly, she stepped inside and turned around, surveying the hall behind her, making sure nobody was sneaking up on her. "This isn't funny," she told the voice.
"You're almost here," it responded. "Go to the bookshelf."
Veruca found the shelf in her flashlight's beam and slowly approached, staring up at it uncertainly. It was big, taller than her, and rather imposing, even empty as it was. "Okay..."
"On the right side," the voice instructed, press on the third brick out on the fifth row from the bottom."
"Okay, yeah, whatever," she rolled her eyes. "Why don't you just come out and tell me who you are and why you're here."
"Just do it," the voice said again.
Veruca checked behind herself one more time, then knelt down beside the bookcase, carefully counting the bricks, pushing in on the one she'd been directed towards. It didn't move inwards at all, or do anything to indicate it was anything but an ordinary brick. "Yeah, nothing, wow, what a surprise. Now what are you..?"
Suddenly, the entire bookshelf popped upwards an inch or two, making Veruca jump in response, falling back and away onto her butt. She dropped her flashlight, leaving her to scrabble for it so she could make sure she really was seeing what she thought she was. And she was. The shelf was now gliding away along the wall, though she could now see that there were wheels on the bottom. She lifted her flashlight to see what was beyond, but all she could see in there when she did so was light.
"Hurry," the voice urged. "It starts to close again as soon as it is all the way open."
"I don't know..." Veruca said, suddenly apprehensive. She still had no idea who was talking to her, and whether they might mean harm to her. She didn't know how to get back out once she was in there, either.
"It opens from the inside, too," the voice reassured her, though just the fact that it said that, and right as she was thinking about it, did the opposite. "You'll be perfectly safe."
This was, she mused, exactly where having one of the others along with her would help. At the very least, they could confirm that she wasn't going crazy, but, more usefully, they could wait outside by the brick, ready to let her out if it turned out there wasn't really a release on the inside. She could call them, she supposed, but would they come? Probably not, not unless they were ready to leave and waiting on her to get back so they could. If anything went bad inside, she could always call them then. And she still had her taser, after all...
"All right," she sighed, having talked herself into it. "I'll do it." She stood up, shining her flashlight into the void beyond the shelf, which greeted her with light once more. As she got closer, however, she began to see why that was - the room was one big mirror, not just the walls, but the floor and ceiling, too. She could see herself there, reflected over and over in a way that made her a little nauseous to stare at, and made it difficult to be certain nothing else was inside, even though that was what it looked like.
The shelf had reached the far end of its journey and was starting to roll back towards her now, moving faster than it had on the first part of its trip. "You're not in there," she pointed out to the voice, as if it didn't know.
"There's another door inside," it replied, and, indeed, it did sound closer than it had before.
She knew it was probably stupid, but with the shelf rapidly approaching, she had to make a choice, and by then, she was too curious to do anything but step inside. A moment later, the rolling stopped, and then the shelf began to sink again, the mirror on the back of it lining up perfectly with the other mirrors in the cube. Veruca began to feel dizzy as she looked around - despite the beam of her flashlight making plenty of illumination for the room, she was having a hard time figuring out where exactly in it she was, and making the mistake of turning around only made things worse. The mirrors all fit together seamlessly, making it impossible to tell which direction she'd come from.
"Where is this other door?" she asked, fighting to keep from sounding panicked.
"It's right here," the voice replied from behind her. She looked up at the walls, but saw no indication that there was anyone else in the room with her, which made her nearly jump out of her skin when she turned around and saw the woman standing there. She was in her thirties, maybe, pretty, but with sad eyes. And, somehow, despite the endless number of images of herself around the room, Veruca could only see one of the woman. "The room is the doorway," the woman continued, giving Veruca time to try, and fail, to wrap her head around what was going on.
"What is going on?" Veruca demanded, fixing her eyes on the woman, glad for something definite to focus on, at least. "How are you doing that?"
"Veruca," the woman said, taking a step closer, "do you know where you are?"
"I'm investigating rumors of a supposedly haunted house," she replied.
"No, not that," the woman waved her off. "Here. Do you know what this is?" She gestured to the room at large, to the reflections of reflections of reflections of Veruca looking around, bewildered. "Some people call this the devil's toy box," the woman explained, "but that doesn't really explain anything, does it? That could mean any number of things, none of them good. But this isn't something evil, dear, I promise. This is nothing more than a net."
Veruca's stomach wrenched inside of her. "A net for me?" she asked, sure she'd just walked herself straight into a trap.
"What? Oh, no, no," the woman laughed. "It's a net for souls. It concentrates energy, enough to attract souls once they become... detached from their living vessels. It's surprisingly difficult to build - the mirrors have to be the exact same size, the same quality..."
"Why are you telling me this?" Veruca interjected. In her experience, this sort of monologuing rarely led to anything good.
"I could tell you were curious," she explained. "And I'm sure my husband would have liked someone to know how hard he had to work to perfect this."
"I'd be happy to let people know," Veruca offered, "but I can't do that if you kill me."
"Kill you?" The woman chuckled again. "Where do you get these ideas, Veruca? What good would killing you do me? That would completely defeat the purpose of bringing you here."
"Then why am I here?" Veruca asked nervously, lifting her taser slightly to make sure the woman saw she had it.
"Oh, Veruca... I'm so hungry... It's been so long, I can barely remember what things taste like, just that the ability to taste is divine..." Veruca backed up, bumping into a wall. She lowered the hand with the flashlight, feeling on the wall behind her, looking for a swith, a button, anything, even though she wasn't sure if it was the wall she'd come in from.
"I am not on the menu!" she declared, jabbing out with her other hand, and the taser clutched in it.
"I wouldn't eat you!" the woman laughed. "I'm not a cannibal, dear. I just need your help. We all need your help."
"We?" Veruca jumped as she felt something brush past her on either side, a pair of children walking past her to their mother, who put a hand around each's shoulders. Veruca spun around, sliding her hand up the glass, finding it solid at least far enough up that there should have been no way through for those kids.
"What do you two think?" the woman asked gently as Veruca turned back around. The children didn't cast reflections, either, but she was expecting that by then. "This nice lady is going to help us. Isn't that nice of her?"
There was a girl and a boy, quite close to the same size, though she wasn't sure if they were twins, or a year apart. "Thank you, ma'am," they intoned as one, making Veruca's skin start crawling again.
"Stay away!" she warned, hitting the trigger on the taser, letting the electricity arc across it for a moment to show them she meant business.
The children giggled, which was even more unsettling than speaking, though the girl did that afterwards. "She's funny, mommy," she said.
"Yes, she is," the mother agreed. "Do calm down, Veruca. Just go to your right."
Veruca pondered whether she should for a moment, but there didn't seem to be much else she could do, so she slid across the mirror until she hit the corner. "Now just push that wall out," the woman instructed. Veruca tried leaning against it, but that did no good. "No, you have to really push, dear. To work correctly, it has to shut quite firmly, you know."
Veruca threw herself against it again, then, reluctantly, turned to face it. She glanced back over her shoulder, looking at the three figures standing behind her, not liking that she couldn't keep an eye on them and do this at the same time, nor that the woman suggested, "It would be easier without all that stuff in your hands."
"Are you sure this is the right wall?" Veruca asked, spinning back around to face them. "I'll feel awful silly if I keep pushing on it and nothing happens."
"I know this place all too well," the woman replied. "Just push on that corner, dear. All will be well."
Slowly, Veruca knelt down, setting down the flashlight, and then the taser, keeping an eye on the trio all the while. She considered putting the taser back in her bag, but digging around in there for it wouldn't be any easier than ducking down and grabbing it, especially since she'd probably need to be dodging them at the same time. "I guess you aren't going to help," she mumbled, standing back up and turning around, pressing her hands to the smooth surface, staring right into her own frightened eyes as she strained and pushed, fighting to find the strength in her small form to budge the wall.
Just when she thought it was hopeless, she felt the wall jerk upwards away from her, then, to her great relief, it began to roll, letting her see first a sliver, then more and more, of the dirty, decrepit house beyond. "Got it!" she announced proudly, shivering suddenly as a strange chill ran up her spine. She shook it off as she turned back to the woman and her children, only to find that they were gone.
She began to shiver again, quickly grabbing her things from the floor of the glass cube and getting out before the shelf could begin rolling back into place again and trap her inside. The house seemed especially dark now, and while she didn't know how they'd gotten past her and out so quickly, she was sure that was why she couldn't find the people she'd just been talking with. "Yeah, it's real funny... Where did you guys go?"
But there was no answer.
Veruca wandered the rooms around there for a little while, searching for any sign of them, or where they might have ducked out. She was squatting down, examining the floor, starting to feel a little frustrated and confused, when it happened. She had learned to limit her drinking before missions, knowing that having to run off to try to find a bathroom, or even a bush to duck behind, could cost valuable time in the middle of a case. So she hadn't needed to go, wasn't even thinking about it, and yet, as she knelt there, she felt her bladder start flooding into her underwear, straight through and onto the fabric of her skirt, and, as she tried, and failed, desperately to stop it, down onto her socks, and the floor beneath them.
"Oh, jinkies," she gasped, hardly able to believe what had just happened to her. That had been no small amount of urine, certainly more than the small amount of coffee she'd had in preparation for this investigation should have produced, not to mention the fact that there was no reason she shouldn't have been able to stop it, or at least known it was about to happen well before she peed her pants like that. She'd faced all kinds of weird and scary situations, and never done that - and certainly not twenty minutes after the fact.
She groaned as she realized how much of a field day Diane would have with this, like the girl needed new ammunition for picking on her. She briefly thought about undressing and hanging her wet things up to dry, but she wasn't about to wander around this place half-naked, especially not when there had to be a couple kids somewhere, even if they seemed to have vanished into thin air with their mother.
She had to be getting sick, she decided. That was the only thing that would explain this and what she thought she'd seen. She didn't feel bad, but some sicknesses were sneaky that way.
And speaking of sneaky, she jumped as she heard Diane's voice from behind her. "Aren't you done yet? Frank and I are bored, we're ready to go. Come on."
Veruca quickly turned around, putting the wet spot on her skirt behind her, away from Diane's wandering flashlight. "D-Did you find anything?" she asked, trying to sound normal, lifting her own flashlight to see the other girl.
"Oh, yeah," Diane nodded. "We found three ghosts, but they promised to be good and stop haunting this place, so we're good to go."
Before Veruca could stop herself, she squeaked out, "Really?" Normally, she'd have been too smart to rise to the bait, but in the moment, she was too busy trying to work out how the trio had gotten past her and down to the basement.
Diane rolled her eyes. "Yeah, then they got beamed up onto their spaceship and flew away. Dumbass. Now come on, or we're going to leave you here."
"All right, I'll be there in a minute. I just have a little more evidence to collect," Veruca said, waiting for Diane to walk down the hall before leaving the room, wanting to stay behind her while she tried to think about how she might be able to hide her accident beyond that.
She stuck her head back in the room with the shelf one last time as she passed, searching in vain for some hint that there was something she was missing, but it was just as empty as before. She made her way back to the front door, pushing it closed with her foot so she wouldn't have to turn around, seeing the other three waiting for her by the van, its doors standing open, thankfully, since it always stunk after Scruffy stayed staked out in there.
She walked across the yard to them, feeling self-conscious. "So..." she said, tugging at her sweater, "I think we're going to need to come back here again. I don't have anything definite, but I really think there's something here, guys."
"If you say so, man," Scruffy shrugged. "Like, we didn't see a thing, did we?" The dog didn't answer.
"We can talk about that later," Frank responded. "Let's just get going for now."
"Yeah," Diane nodded, smiling. "But do you have a garbage bag or something? Little Veruca here pissed herself." Veruca blushed, gasping. "Oh, please, don't look so surprised. I'm not an idiot."
But that wasn't why Veruca was gasping, and a moment later, she saw three pairs of eyes move downward, indicating they'd figured out the real reason, seeing the fresh river of pee running down her legs to the puddle forming beneath her feet.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Diane's face scrunched as she looked at her.
"Well, that," Veruca said, staring down at herself, just as shocked as the others, "is quite the mystery."