THE ACE OF COOPER AVENUE
by GARY CLIFTON
ammit, Pancho, there ain’t no ghosts. That old house up there been shut down ever’ since that ol’ lady what’s her name croaked last year. You jes’ yellow, boy.”
Ace was a smallish man, large of mouth beneath a pencil thin moustache, which twisted into an ugly sneer when he talked. He’d already lived several years in a cardboard box beneath the Cooper Avenue Bridge. Ace was top dog beneath that bridge.
A nuisance to local cops, but considered by the lawmen to be an insignificant loser of no importance, they generally didn’t bother with him. Too much of a punk to commit a real crime, they thought. Spent all his cash on wine, then laid drunk all day.
“Ace, them’s real lights folks see moving about inside. Dude, I think I seen ‘um myself once or twice. Somebody’s in there. Why you think, boy, the Rio Gang down on Colorado ain’t busted in there and cleaned the joint out. They scared of them ghosts living in that God-awful place.”
“Them Rios ain’t broke in cuz’ they scared like you. Besides, they afrait of them cops round here. They don’t call me ‘Ace’ for no reason, boy.”
“Hey, Ace, Willie Hendry is down at the Liberty Club shinin’ them shoes right now. Why don’t you ease on down there and tell him that he and his Rio buddies is yellow?”
Ace eyed his younger brother at length. “Ain’t no sense in stirrin’ trouble when the pot ain’t already boilin’, Pancho.”
“Haunted, Ace, and unless you want to get tore all to hell and ate up by that ol’ lady’s ghost and them other spooks she got in there, you better stick to shoplifting stuff from Mulligan’s Grocery. Hey, fool, we busted into that house up on Frederick last week. Got $27.00 and ‘nuff silverware to bring another ten bucks at the pawn shop. Why cain’t we let this one be.”
“Pancho, you know as well as me that old woman had gold. We heard all about it from Cousin Jake when he was in there to fix that water leak.”
“Cousin Jake didn’t see no gold, Ace. Said he saw a safe bolted to a wall.”
“Wadn’t no safe. Jes’ a metal box bolted to one of them old plaster walls in that old lady’s bedroom. We be in and out o’ there in five minutes, take that box to my place under the bridge. Betcha it got gold and even if it don’t, it gotta have somethin’ good inside.”
“And whut about them lights?”
“That’s crap, Pancho. I say we go tonight after midnight. I’ll take that lead pipe and any so called ghosts come ‘round, I give ‘um some of it.”
“Aint’ goin’ in there, brother.”
“Yellow, Pancho. Jes’ plain yellow.”
Ace was surprised at the volume of traffic passing the dark, ominous old mansion at midnight. A sharp bend in the road made every passing vehicle a brief flash of searchlight. He finally made his way unseen into shrubs beside the house, shivering there in the chilly autumn night.
The wind moaning through the eaves and natural creaking of an old house sitting atop a hill in the elements did in fact combine to create some weird sounds. But, Ace was a tough hombre. Good thing he’d worn the black, knee length overcoat he liked to wear while burglarizing. It made him feel more like a real macho bandit and the extra bulk was welcome against the cold tonight.
“Ain’t scart ‘o no ghosts,” he spat between teeth, now chattering from the cold and perhaps, just perhaps, from a touch of the jitters. “Ain’t scart,” he repeated.
Timing a break in the passing traffic, he darted to the rear and stepped cautiously up onto the sagging porch. A touch at a back door glass with his lead pipe shattered it easily; a reach through to turn the deadbolt; and he was inside. Ace had no flashlight, but with his cellular, he felt his way down the long, high ceilinged hallway to the room Cousin Jake had indicated to be the old dead woman’s bedroom.
At first he thought the huge, wooden door was locked, but after giving it a good shoulder it swung open, the hinges squeaking like a segment he’d seen in an old Freddie Kruger. Aware any burglary was a tense moment, he stood in the darkened room, realizing why other cowards were afraid of ghosts in the house. But, he continued to re-assure himself, he just plain wasn’t afraid.
He would have been more self-assured had the lights of passing cars not constantly swept the side of the house, each vehicle lighting the room uncomfortably for an instant. He wondered how that old lady had ever managed to sleep in such a place.
In a few nervous moment of searching, he found the metal box bolted to a wall. He pocketed the lead pipe and cellular, yanked the box from the wall, and started toward the door.
Then, mother of horrors, there she was! A passing vehicle’s lights swept across the room and from somewhere – oh God, where – the full shadow of the wretched ghost, an old woman in a full skirt was coming directly for him. Ace bolted for the bedroom door, slamming into it headlong. He recovered his balance, tore off two fingernails scratching the door open, and broke for freedom of the hallway.
But, it had him. Clamped in the beast’s grip, “Eeeeeiiiiioooow, God, help me,” he shrieked. The ghost tangled itself in his long coat, yanking him back against the bedroom door like a rubber band. Ace was out with his lead pipe in a heartbeat, flailing for his life against a monster with superhuman strength.
He swung wildly behind himself in the dark, but the silent killer relentlessly crushed his body. Agonizing, suffocating pain, then darkness.
The Medical examiner bent over Ace’s body, which lay tangled in his black overcoat. Passing car lights in the predawn snap-illuminated the hallway for brief instants, creating a kaleidoscope effect.
“Sarge, how did the cops get this call, anyway. This stale old house has been abandoned for months. Smells awful in here.
The Sarge flipped his notebook. “Anonymous caller. Guy said his buddy had come over here to steal the gold…that’s what it says here, Doc, gold…and hadn’t come back. We found a back door glass busted, entered, and found this mope on the floor. From the looks of this pool of blood around his head, looks like somebody interrupted the burglary and brained him.”
The M.E. shined his flashlight on the battered metal box beside Ace’s twisted body and shook his head.
“Looks like he was stealing an old first aid kit. It’s full of prescriptions for a Mrs. Smith…who I think is the name of the old lady who died in this bedroom several months ago.”
The Sarge flashlighted the box. “Prescriptions. Maybe this idiot thought somebody had left something of value in that old box.”
The M.E. looked up, grinning. “Maybe that gold your caller told you about.”
“Doc, you aren’t thinking some other thug came in behind and brained this guy for a first aid kit?”
“Oh, the head blow is severe, Sarge, but certainly not fatal. And I’d wager it was self-inflicted…the deceased here swinging that pipe there on the floor around and hit himself in the head. Look at this guy’s eyes. Petechial hemorrhaging, pupils expanded in terror, no strangulation marks on this throat. That’s asphyxiation without physical harm. This guy died of heart failure as a result of pure terror. Got his coattail caught up in the door, couldn’t get away. He either expired of over-exertion or something simply frightened him to death.”
Through the open bedroom door, the Sarge noticed as a vehicle hurried past, the headlights illuminated, then swept the shadow image of a doll on a stand atop a window table along the wall toward him in the shadow. He glanced at the illusion for a second, smiled to himself at how lifelike the movement was, then bent to fish in the cadaver’s pockets for ID.
Gary Clifton, forty years a cop, has over sixty short fiction pieces published or pending with online sites including Bewildering Stories, Flashes in the Dark, Spinetingler, and Black Heart Mag. He's been shot at, shot, stabbed, sued and is currently retired to a dusty north Texas ranch. Clifton has an MS from Abilene Christian University. Gary’s stories can be found in the following issues of HelloHorror: Blood Passion appears in the January 2013 issue, Measure Twice, Cut Once appears in the April 2013 issue, Mother’s Nature appears in the August 2013 issue, Mind's Eye appears in the October 2013 issue, Sinning in the Rain appears in the December 2013 issue, Special Handling Required appears in the April 2014 issue, Queen Margot appears in the June 2014 issue and The Trial of Margot LePlatt appears in the Winter 2015 issue. All but one of Gary’s stories appearing thus far in HelloHorror have been part of the Margot LePlatt series. Read more of Gary's work at his new blog, Bareknuckle Thoughts.
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