Behind the Locked Door

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A school hides a secret on its abandoned third floor.

Submitted: March 02, 2009

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Submitted: March 02, 2009

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Behind the Locked Door
Helena Parris
It should never have come to this, he thought. George left him no choice. Always demanding more money, more, more—and if he didn’t pay up, well, George never made any threats. He didn’t need to.
When he made up his mind to do it he had planned carefully, timing the shot to coincide with the racket downstairs. It wasn’t much of a noise; the little “pop” didn’t sound anything like the movies. But George crumpled to the floor just like they did in Hollywood; only he twitched for a few seconds, not like the movies at all. Frightened, he thought for a moment that he would have to shoot again, but then George became absolutely, horribly still, and he knew. Killing was easy, it seemed. Now the silence pressed in on him, here where he had stood with George so many times, handing over the weekly envelope.
One gloved hand searched George’s pockets, pulling out a cell phone. He switched it off and put it back. He would leave the body by the river, five miles away. George took the bus, so there would be no car to advertise his presence. His own van was parked in the theater garage, as always. Nobody would see him carrying George to it, later tonight. He had planned this for weeks, searching for every possible flaw. Nothing could go wrong.
He heard a sound, deafening in the silence. Superstitiously, he backed away from the body. But the sound came from outside the room, he realized. Somebody had opened a door, far down the blackened hallway.
George had left the access door open! He wished he could shoot the fool again.
Another door opened, louder this time. Whoever it was, he was opening doors one by one. He shut off the light and slunk back behind the old desk. George would be found. What could he do? Kill somebody else?
Yes, he told himself firmly. He had come too far to go back now.
The heavy door clunked open, and the light switched on again.
A young man, just a boy really, stepped inside.Shaggy blond hair fell over big blue eyes that would drive girls crazy, if they had not belonged to Josh Pietkowicz. Josh was quiet and intelligent, too intelligent to be popular. How could he shoot Josh? The boy was only in eleventh grade, with a whole lifetime before him…
Too bad, he thought. It was George’s fault, when you thought about it.
“Mr. Carroll? Mr. Carroll?” Josh was already kneeling beside the art teacher, shaking him. But George could not hear him. George would never hear anything again. He began to aim, but Josh was already on his feet and out the door. “Help! Somebody, help!”
He had to hide George and get back downstairs, fast. He knew where Josh was headed, and he knew how to get there first.
* * *
Cora Stallings hated her job.
She’d hated it for twenty-five years. From the moment she’d walked through the door as a young, pretty teacher’s aide, she’d realized she didn’t want to work with children. Now she was 50 and bitter, against her family for pushing her to teach, against her husband, who had told her for over two decades, “Cora, just quit, already!” She was bitter against herself for being bitter, because third-graders could not help being third-graders, and if she hated teaching, nobody had a gun to her head; she could quit anytime.
It was one of the few schools left in Pennsylvania, or the country for that matter, that was still K-12. Lately the elementary kids had been shuffled into an annex, for “safety reasons.” The truth was that the older kids were so out of control that they had to be separated from the little ones. Finally the school board had appointed a police officer to wander around the place with a gun! Back when she had been a student here, thirty-odd years ago, people would have called it ridiculous. Now it was called “a resource officer on premises.”
She still loved the main building. It was nearly a hundred years old andthree stories high, though the third floor was closed off when the annex was built. For years now,the teenagers had frightened new students with lurid tales of the Third Floor. Thestories grew with the telling until, of course, people started to believe their ownliesand began to feel nervous themselves about the place.
She wearily put the cap back on her red ink pen. Then she got up and walked out the door, turning to lock it, same as she did five afternoons a week. She still had fifteen more years until she got to retire, she thought.
A few steps took her out of the stuffy annex into the chill air of early spring. Lumps of half-melted snow still covered the ground, but she could smell the damp richness of the soil, getting ready to turn loose clouds of spring flowers. It used to excite her, but no more. She pulled her sweater more tightly around her and hurried to the main building.
The buses had left, but a few teens still lingered: the cheerleaders had practice in the school gym today, the Future Farmers of America were meeting in the cafeteria, and various dim bulbs still stood around fondling packs of cigarettes and attempting to look sophisticated. Different faces every year, same attitudes over and over.
She heard running feet behind her, and automatically turned to say, “No running in the hall!” But the boy kept running. “Young man!” she called out. He ignored her, bolted past on his way to the principal’s office.
Mr. Bell would sort him out. She continued on to the office herself, where the boy was now babbling at the receptionist and the principal. The receptionist picked up the phone, her face pale. “What’s all this?” Cora asked.
Mike Bell pointed to the boy as he answered. “Josh Pietkowicz says he found a body in one of the third floor classrooms.”
“A body? What—how? How can this—how did you get on the third floor ?”
The boy answered, gasping for breath. “The stairs—you know where the stairwell ends on the second floor and the wall is there blocking the way and it just looks like part of the hallway—the door—the access door that’s usually locked—it was open.”
“Why did you go through it?” she demanded. “You know it’s off limits.”
Mike bit back a smile. No boy with a pulse could have resisted such a temptation. “Josh,” he turned to the boy, “did you recognize the person?”
“It was Mr. Carroll,” said Josh, tears starting in his eyes. Pretending to scratch his nose, he wiped away the unmanly things.
Cora had never really spoken to the art teacher, other than a brief Hello when they occasionally passed in the hallways. Like most art teachers she’d known, George was a bit of an oddball. He dressed always in black, usually accessorized with a paint-spattered apron. He seemed a bit vague, sometimes lifting paintbrushes to his mouth like the cigarettes he had on his smoking break. It was whispered that at home he smoked something stronger, although she didn’t believe schoolyard rumors.
The hiss and squawk of a radio announced the arrival of the Resource Officer, known to everybody as Louis. “You found a dead body?” He sounded like he could hardly believe it.
Mr. Bell nodded as he pointed toward Josh. “This gentleman found it. He believes that it’s a teacher.”
Louis nodded. “All, right. Show me.”
* * *
Louis,Mike Bell, and Cora Stallings followed Josh as he led the way up the stairs. Cora had no idea why she had to come tromping along with them. But Mike wanted two members of school personnel present. Although he was a permanent fixture here, Louis was technically from local law enforcement, and the receptionist had to stay at her station. The silly girl had watched them leave with some disappointment. Cora supposed she had never seen a corpse before.
But the door to the third floor was shut now. Josh frowned. “That’s funny.”
Mr. Bell pulled out a fistful of keys and unlocked it. “Everybody up,” he gestured into the darkened stairwell.
The third floor was as dusty and gloomy as any teenager could wish. The windows had been bricked up when the floor was closed off, and lights here were few, just enough to see by. Cora hoped that Josh’s imagination hadn’t simply been running away with him. Not that she had anything against Mr. Carroll, but she hated dragging Louis up here for nothing. It was utterly impossible that George Carroll could have come to harm. Why would he be on the third floor to begin with?
Josh apparently had been amusing himself by exploring the classrooms, one by one. Now he went straight to the fifth door. Louis pulled out a flashlight and his gun. The sight of it made Josh dive behind Mike, but Cora stood her ground.
The officer entered the room, and called out, “Clear!”
“Clear what?” asked Cora, annoyed. Louis was trying to act all policeman-ish, but she refused to be impressed. He’d been in her third grade class.
Louis came out of the room, holstering his weapon and looking insulted. “I meant it’s safe to enter. And I don’t see a body.”
Josh came out from behind Mike. “I saw Mr. Carroll lying on the floor. I talked to him, I shook him, and then I saw he wasn’t breathing.” He could tell Louis didn’t believe him, and turned to the principal. “I’m telling you, I saw him.”
Mr. Bell said, “This is easily fixed. We’ll just find Mr. Carroll.” He pulled out his cell phone and dialed. But George did not answer.
Cora walked into the classroom herself. A few battered desks were left shoved up against bare walls. But something was wrong with this room, she couldn’t say what. An empty room—well, of course it should be empty. Yet it was missing something, and not just Mr. Carroll’s corpse.
Josh ventured into the room, staring at the center of the floor. “He was right there, Ms. Stallings.”
“You’re certain?” She remembered little Joshie, with his big blue eyes, non-stop giggling, and most of all his wild imagination. In art class, his drawings had been full of spaceships and dragons and giant Venus fly-traps with screaming people in their grasp. Now he had grown into a serious-looking young man, and his voice sounded deep and firm. “I know what I saw.” But already Louis was walking away from the door, down the hall. Mike said something, and they both laughed.
She thought about the police officer. Louis Brodsky had always been thoughtful and serious, almost a plodder. Erasures on his work told her of long hours working and re-working sums, of dithering back and forth between verb forms and spellings. In art, she knew without looking what Louis would turn in. He drew only a perfectly executed racecar; sometimes red, sometimes blue, but the same one over and over.
Louis had no imagination at all. Josh had almost too much. Yet something made her believe Josh. There was something wrong with this room. That feeling of something missing weighed down even more. But what was missing?
“We’re leaving,” called Mike from the hallway.
“Very well,” Cora replied. She turned to Josh. “Come with me. I want to see another classroom.” She stepped out of the room and down the darkened corridor, away from the group.
Josh followed her, his eyes darting around. “It’s a little dark, isn’t it?”
“That didn’t stop you before.” Cora tried to turn the handle of a door, but it stayed rigid. “The other doors weren’t locked, were they?” she asked.
“No, Ma’am.”
“Ms. Stallings!” called Mike.
“I’m coming back here,” said Cora softly. “Something’s not right.”
“Can I come too?” She could see Josh’s fear turning into excitement.
“If you can keep your imagination under control,” she replied shortly. “Meet me at the access door in thirty minutes.” She would say nothing to Mr. Bell. That classroom door had been shut and locked recently—the doorknob looked shiny, not dusty like it ought to be. Somebody with a key had been up here and locked only this door. Why? Well, she would find out. Josh had become tall and rather sturdy. He would be useful if there was trouble. Silly, of course,to expect any…
* * *
Taking the janitor’s keys was simple. Edgar kept three sets: one for his belt, one for the broom closet, and one in the office. Mr. Bell had just returned those when he came back with Louis, who read Josh a lecture about Filing False Reports. She had estimated it would take Louis five minutes to chug through his speech about Wasting the Time of Officers Sworn to Uphold the Law. Poor Louis. Everything he said sounded like he’d rehearsed it. Maybe he had. Cora supposed he would be shocked by the thought of a teacher in the broom closet with felonious intent, but twenty-five sets of third-graders had made her utterly fearless. She was determined to see if something really was amiss on the third floor.
Josh stood at the access door when she arrived, nervously fingering a baseball bat. “I can’t believe you’re doing this, Ms. Stallings.”
“There’s something funny about that room,” she explained as she unlocked the access door. “Close the door behind you, quietly. You are not to tell anybody, you understand? I could lose my job for this.”
“Why is it closed off?” Josh whispered. “Is it really haunted?”
“Of course not,” Cora said softly. “They just don’t need it anymore, that’s all. Why are you carrying a bat?”
“Same reason we’re whispering,” Josh replied. “Somebody might be up here. Mr. Bell still can’t track down Mr. Carroll.”
Cora did not turn on the hallway light; instead she held a small flashlight in her hand. “Josh, I can’t believe that anybody would hurt Mr. Carroll. Still, if there’s a chance...” She kept the beam low to the floor, her hand cupped over the upper half of the light.
They returned to the classroom where Josh said he had found Mr. Carroll. No sign of him, of course, but again Cora felt that sense of something wrong, something missing. Yet again she could not put her finger on what it was. “Now, let’s look at the locked room,” she said.
She could hear Josh swallow hard as they made their way to the door. The key turned easily in the lock. The door squeaked on its hinges, and her small light illuminated a soft layer of dust on the floor…
Dust.
The other room had no dust, no musty smell like this one. Somebody used that room regularly. But why?
Her flashlight’s beam drew a bright circle around a pair of feet, motionless on the floor. She bit her lip to keep from screaming, and Josh lifted his baseball bat above his head. “Ms. Stallings, it’s Mr. Carroll!” he rasped. “Somebody moved him!”
“The door was locked.” Her voice brought him down to earth, sharply. “Whoever did it is not in this room. “Watch our backs, not our front.” She tried to think. “We mustn’t touch Mr. Carroll, whatever we do. The police will need to examine him. Do you have a cell phone? We need to call Louis up here again.”
The boy pulled a phone from his pocket. “I can never get a signal inside the school, though.” Sure enough, it remained lifeless. “But we can’t just leave.” he said.
“Whoever put him here may move him again," she agreed."I know. And neither of us should stay here alone.” Josh winced as she ran her light over the body. Why would anybody harm Mr. Carroll? What was George doing on the third floor? And why wasn’t the other room dusty like this one?
She looked at him in distaste. “You’re chewing gum.” Then she stopped. “Wait. Do you have any more?”
He pulled out a package of Chiclets. “Why?”
She took them. “We need to jam that lock. And then we’re both getting out of here, fast.”
Another light suddenly blinded them. “No,” said a voice. “Back up.”
The light lowered slowly, and they could see Mr. Bell holding it.
“Mr. Bell,” said Josh. “Mr. Carroll’s up here, he’s…” he broke off at the sight of the gun in Mr. Bell’s right hand.
“Back up into the room,” he ordered again. “Josh, drop the bat. Cora, hand over the keys.”
“No,” she said. “I won’t. You are a jack-ass. Josh, keep the bat.”
Josh lowered the bat nervously. “Ms. Stallings?”
She made her voice cold and disinterested. “If you shoot, you’ll bring the whole school up here. I suppose I should ask you what’s going on.”
“Not much. I make a little extra money up here, that’s all. George wandered in and saw too much.”
“So you just shot him?” She could hardly believe it.
“No, I didn’t just shoot him! He first came up here three months ago. I sell stuff, you see. Nobody comes up here, and the last place you’d expect to find an operation like this is an abandoned floor of a school.”
“Operation like what?”
“I grow—and I sell stuff. Stuff that makes people feel happy for awhile. If you kept exploring, Josh, you’d have found a greenhouse in one of the classrooms. The doors hide the light, but there’s a crack under the door. Well, one day I was stupid. I left the access door open. George saw it, and he was curious, like everybody else. So he came up. Sure enough, he saw the light under the door. He was pretty cool about it, at first.” Bell recollected. “He said, Hey, you do your thing, man. Only, you need to keep this quiet, so I’ll do my part if you give me a cut of the action.”
“He was blackmailing you,” said Josh.
“I guess that’s the word. Anyway, he just kept demanding more. I was losing money. But he kept right on. He came up every week during the three o’clock rampage to the buses. Nobody noticed him then. Hey, like he said, you can fire off a bazooka at 3:01 and nobody would notice. So—well,” he laughed a little, “There he is. But now, what do I do with you?”
“The bodies are going to start piling up, Mike. You can’t just shoot everybody who comes up here.” She gestured to Josh. “Especially not a student.”
“What, you think I want to? This thing has gotten out of hand. I’m ending the whole operation. But I can’t just let you walk out of here. You’re too pure and proper, Cora. That’s your problem. George at least was willing to be understanding for awhile. But you, you don’t understand anything. You don’t even know to be scared of a guy with a gun, even when you’ve got George lying around your ankles.”
“The three o’clock rampage is over. There are plenty of people left in the building, and somebody will hear. You can’t shoot us.”
“These walls are solid.” His voice rose higher; she could see he was losing control. If they tried to rush him, he would shoot. But if he fired, there was a chance somebody would hear. Josh had a bat; Mr. Bell had a gun. Bell would take a risk by firing; Josh would take a risk swinging the bat.
“The school’s about emptied out,” said Bell suddenly. “Nobody’s going to hear a gunshot.” She and Josh had to end this, quickly.She wrapped her fingers around the box of Chiclets as she felt George’s leg, cool and still by her ankle. She raised her other hand to Josh’s back.
She tossed the little box onto the floor beside the body. It made a little whispering sound by George’s hand, and Mr. Bell jumped a little as she cried, “George! Help!” As she expected, Bell instinctively pointed the gun at the body, and she shoved Josh.
Josh didn’t need further instructions. He slammed the bat against Bell’s hand, and the gun flittered across the room. Bell roared with agony and rage; Josh hit him again, this time in the back, knocking him to the floor.
Cora practically threw Josh out of the room. She shut the door and locked it with a quick twist. “Here, grab the flashlight and run for the office.” She handed it to him. “It won’t hold him long. He can shoot his way out.” Already, she could hear him moving on the other side of the door.
They ran in a straight line, barely needing the wildly bouncing spot of light on the floor. They had reached the stairs when a crash sounded behind them. Mr. Bell was free.
Josh clicked off the flashlight as he jumped down. Cora half jumped, half-slid, pulling out the keys again. “Take your bat and smash the light switch. Do it again! We don’t need to give him any help.” Bell had locked the access door behind him, of course. Classroom door keys were all the same, outdoor keys somewhat different. She tried first one key, then another.
“We really need to get out of here, Ms. Stallings,” Josh hissed. He pulled the gum out of his mouth and jammed it into the shattered switch.
“Don’t rush me.” She heard footsteps in the hall, up above. Forcing herself to stay focused, she kept trying the keys. “I’ve almost got it. Ah!” The door opened, and they were in the bright hallway again. “Now, go get Louis!”
* * *
It took awhile to convince Louis that Mr. Bell had killed Mr. Carroll. But with Ms. Stallings at Josh’s side to affirm that she too had seen the body, Louis finally decided to call for back-up. The five other officers took ten minutes to arrive, sirens wailing.
Cora wondered about Mike. He held keys to every room in this rambling building. The theater alone was a darkened maze that deserved its own Phantom of the Opera. The kitchens in the cafeteria were deserted. It would be nearly impossible for just six policemen to find Mike.
Cora and Josh had been ordered to keep well back. Down the hallway, every man stood with his gun drawn as Louis unlocked the access door. He threw it open, shouting, “Police!” Cora noticed that this time, his voice quavered a little.
A single gunshot rang out from somewhere above.
Cora covered her ears as six answering shots roared as one, echoing down the hall. Louis shouted again up the stairs, cold and professional now. “Throw down the gun!”
The officers seemed to hear no reply, no sound at all. Josh whispered, “Did they get him?”
Louis went in first, gun at the ready beside his flashlight. Another officer followed, while the rest stood poised to fire again. Finally Louis called out, “Clear.” His voice sounded faint from where Cora and Josh stood, but there seemed to be sadness in it now. The man who had followed Louis came down, talking into his radio. He shook his head at a question from one of the others. They holstered their guns, and one man nodded towards them.
Twenty minutes later, Louis had enough time to tell them the story. Mike hadn’t tried to shoot it out with the cops. Panicking in the dark, with his right hand shattered and useless from Josh’s baseball bat, he had been unable to feel his way through the keys the way Cora had. The keys still lay by the door, and Cora could guess what happened. Without an extra hand to hold the flashlight, Mike was forced to grab a key and fumble for the lock. When the key didn’t work, he had to put the keychain on the floor and choose another key. But with one hand useless and working blind, he could not know which key he had already tried.
He had not tried to shoot his way through the access door; perhaps he was afraid of the sound carrying. Hearing the squawking police radios on the other side of the door, he abandoned the useless keys. In despair, Mike climbed up to the landing, put the gun to his head, and fired.
The evening news carried the story, and the next morning Josh was the star of the school. The boys on the basketball and football teams eyed him with hatred, and eight girls asked him to prom.
The next morning, Cora turned in her resignation. She stayed until the schoolcould round up a substitute teacher. And then she walked out of the annex, smelling the melting snow and damp soil.
She breathed inthe sweet air, andsmiled.
Writer’s note: This is a re-write. “Tell less and show more, use active verbs, not 'had' and 'was', and use fewer adjectives. So instead of "George had fallen to the floor", try "George crumpled to the floor" or something like that. Instead of "now the room was silent and he was alone", try "the silence of the abandoned third floor pressed in on him. He was alone".”—S. Thomas Kaza gave me this advice, and I think it should be shouted from the rooftops to everybody on Booksie, because we are all guilty of it at one time or another. I have the old story still posted, so that people who want to improve their own work can read and compare the two. Hopefully the new version has been cleared of clankers and now sounds more professional.


© Copyright 2018 Helena Parris. All rights reserved.

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