THE BUST OF OLD CARTER

It’s all worth it for the Carter Diamond.

Kara slipped through the now open window, Conner right behind her. This was their one chance to hit it big, now that the power was out across town. That meant the power was out at the old Carter Estate, and that meant the security system was down, too.

She had cased the place for some time, and she had known exactly which window to try, one that someone, somewhere, had forgotten to lock. It was the security system that was the real problem, however, as it had been set up to activate upon the opening of any window or exterior door in the house, and it would activate unless the correct code was punched into the alarm system before entering, but that problem was currently solved for the time being.

There was a storm raging outside, the wind and rain howling as if a fury from the heavens, but that was what they had been counting on. They had both known that the power would go out eventually, and it had, so now was the time to strike.

Kara entered a small room with a few chairs surrounding a circular wooden table, the room itself nothing special, probably a room for drinking tea or whatever it was rich people did with small out-of-the-way rooms, but it was her sluggish partner in crime that was currently holding her attention and not the lack of the room’s contents.

“Come on,” said Kara. “You’re too slow.”

“Quiet!” hissed Conner.

“There’s no one here,” replied Kara. “Besides, everyone knows thieves don’t come out in the rain. They only strike on sunny days.”

“What?” asked Conner in audible confusion. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” said Kara. “Now shut up, and let’s find that bust.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up, you little…” hissed Conner.

Kara actually did shut him up by raising one hand to his face. She heard him suck in his breath in rage, but his tantrums didn’t matter. She needed a second person with her for this job, because there was no way she was hitting the Carter Estate alone. Yeah, she couldn’t stand Conner half the time, but he was good at spotting things that would otherwise remain hidden, so he was the only natural choice.

Really, all she needed was the bust. The Carter story had been around for as long as she’d been alive, and it was a doozy. Old man Carter was a millionaire back in the day, an eccentric old coot with a fortune to boot, but that money had been spirited away by his family a long time ago. No, it was the Carter Diamond that Kara was interested in, because that was the real fortune of the family.

“All we need is that bust,” said Kara.

“So you say,” replied Conner.

They had their flashlights out and flipped on, the beams crossing to and fro as they walked from one large room to the next.

The mansion they were exploring was in good condition despite its age; the Carters’ three surviving children had taken good care of it, though none of them actually lived here. The surviving Carter siblings were all now in their seventies and eighties, and there was talk of the place becoming a museum once they passed away.

“Mr. Carter obtained one of the largest diamonds in the world from one of his overseas investments,” explained Kara. “The Carter Diamond has been missing for…well…since the old coot died.”

“So why are we looking for a statue?” asked Conner. “Do you know something?”

“Yeah,” said Kara.

“Good, because we could run off with any of this stuff and make some quick cash,” said Conner.

“Stop thinking so small,” frowned Kara. “That diamond makes this crap look like…uhhh…crap.”

“So what’s so special about this bust?” asked Conner.

“I was getting to that,” said Kara.

They entered a large sitting room and shone the beams on everything they possibly could. Yeah, the flashing lights could probably be seen from outside, but with the storm going on and with the power out…nobody gave a crap right now about the Carter Estate.

“Mrs. Carter was crazy,” explained Kara. “She was cold and distant, and her kids described her personality as ‘a ruthless piece of wood.’ She was, however, an artist and a sculptor, a famous one, and Mr. Carter married her because he liked her art. He got that diamond for her as a wedding gift. Her state of mind and the Carter fortune were the reasons the police immediately suspected her when they found Mr. Carter’s body.”

“He was murdered, then?” asked Conner.

“Oh, yeah,” continued Kara. “I’d say so. When I say they found his body, that’s all they found. His head was missing.”

“Oof,” said Conner. “Sucks to be him.”

“Yeah,” said Kara. “His head was never found, but neither was the diamond.”

“So why are we looking for this bust, then?” asked Conner.

“For the diamond, meathead,” said Kara.

“Watch it,” warned Conner.

“The diamond was never found,” repeated Kara. “Mrs. Carter was committed to an asylum by the state, but she insisted that the bust of her husband was her ‘most prized possession.’ I’m telling you, that diamond is in the bust.”

“You think she hid it in there?” asked Conner.

“Absolutely,” nodded Kara. “She was a talented sculptor, and she could have easily hidden the diamond in that bust.”

“It’s been like, what? Since the sixties?” asked Conner. “Don’t you think someone else would have figured this out by now?”

“People are stupid and shortsighted,” frowned Kara. “Besides, Mrs. Carter never confessed to the murder of her husband. Even so, she got put in a nut house anyway. Her story, combined with the way Mr. Carter died…”

“Beheading,” nodded Conner.

“Right,” continued Kara. “That stuff took the forefront. No one even thought about the bust in relation to the diamond. All we have to do is find the bust and nab it. Then it’s all good.”

“And what if it’s just a bust?” asked Conner. “What then?”

“Then we grab some stuff and make some quick cash,” shrugged Kara. “It’s a win-win.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Conner. “Let’s find this bust, then.”

They walked down a hall with red wallpaper, shined their lights in several small rooms, and found several busts and statuary in general, but nothing resembling old Mr. Carter.

Kara sucked in her breath as she felt Conner’s fingers dig into her right shoulder from behind.

“Wait, stop!” hissed Conner. “Did you see that?”

“See what?” asked Kara in irritation.

She turned to look at Conner’s face in the dim glow of their flashlights. The young man was suddenly shaken, an aura of tangible fear surrounding him.

“Where did Mrs. Carter die?” he asked.

“What?” asked Kara. “She died here after she was released from the asylum…Why?”

“I saw her,” said Conner in a shaky voice.

“You saw the ghost of old Mrs. Carter?” asked Kara in disbelief.

“Y…Yeah…” stammered Conner.

“That’s bull—” started Kara.

She sensed a presence from a nearby room, swiveled, and saw the tail end of the hem of a black dress trail along the floor.

“What the…!” exclaimed Kara. “Who’s there!”

They both turned at the same time to shine their lights upon a sliver of shadow at the end of the hall. There, at the end of the hall, was the figure of an old woman in a black dress, her hair white with age, her wrinkled face covered by a black veil.

Kara felt her blood shoot straight through her veins as the lights landed upon the old woman. Even worse, the woman in the black dress vanished into thin air when the lights lingered upon her, her morose profile vanishing as if she had never existed at all.

“That’s it!” cried Conner. “I’m getting out of here!”

But this was not the answer Kara wanted to hear. She had come for the crown jewel of the Carter fortune, and she was not leaving without it. Come Hell or highwater, she was not giving in to some specter from beyond the grave.

“No, you’re not!” hissed Kara. “Ghost or not, I’m not leaving without that diamond! Now, you’re going to man up and help me carry that bust! The storm’s still raging, the power’s still out, and this is the only chance we’re going to get!”

“B…But the ghost…” whined Conner.

“Doesn’t matter,” growled Kara. “I want that diamond, Conner. I’m not leaving without it. I’m not letting some crazy old dead woman stop me, either…Besides, have you ever heard of a ghost killing someone? Like legitimately?”

“N…No…” said Conner in a shaky voice.

“Good,” frowned Kara. “Now pull up your big-boy pants and help me find that bust.”

They walked down the hall and entered a large room, the dining room by the looks of the long rectangular table in the center of it.

The dining-room table was surrounded by a number of well-taken-care-of wooden chairs. There were a couple of unlit candles on the table, long white things in silver holders, but other than that, the decoration in the room was pretty sparse.

“Not in here, either,” whispered Kara.

The candles upon the table lit by themselves, and Conner shrieked as he gripped Kara’s shoulders from behind.

“Will you quit that!” hissed Kara. “So the place is haunted. So what? I’ve seen worse from the carnies at the August Fair. I’m not letting this old bat scare us off. Now, come on.”

Conner followed her closely behind like he was stuck to her with a strong glue, and this annoyed her to no end, but she decided not to call him on it. He was just a weenie, but he was all the help she was going to get, so that’s all there was to it.

She shone her light into the kitchen, but there was no bust in there, obviously. Even so, the burners on all three metal stoves lit one after the other in timed procession. A slew of sharp knives stood up on their handles, their sharp blades suddenly pointing toward the ceiling.

It was unnerving to watch, but it was also infuriating. Now that Kara knew the place was haunted, these little antics were only further enraging her.

“That won’t work on me!” she called out. “I’m going to find that diamond, you old bat! You’re not stopping me!”

“Are you crazy!” squealed Conner. “Don’t tick her off!”

“Oh, shut up, and let’s go,” said Kara unhappily. “I’m finding that bust, Conner. I want that diamond. I’m not going home without it.”

“This is crazy!” whispered Conner. “We should get out of here!”

Kara ignored him and left the kitchen entrance. Conner followed her like a frightened puppy as she led him down yet another hallway. They shone their lights in what looked like a downstairs guest room, but there was no bust in that room, either.

“Nothing here,” stated Kara. “What we need to find is the—”

She was cut short as the old woman in the black dress appeared right in front of her.

The old woman stepped from out of the shadows on Kara’s right, but this time the phantom held an old cavalry saber in her withered right hand. The apparition swung the blade as Kara stepped backwards out of a fight or flight response, and the blade thunked into the wooden doorframe in front of them.

“Run!” yelled Kara.

She followed her own advice and bolted down the hallway, Conner following her, the young man shrieking like a little girl the entire way. They ducked into a large room at the end of the hall, and Conner slammed the door shut a second later.

“That was a real sword!” screeched Conner. “That was a real sword! It almost killed you!”

“Shut up!” hissed Kara. “I need a moment to think…”

She shone her light around the large room, and the ensuing glow revealed bookshelf after bookshelf stacked with books. There were several, leather-backed, comfy chairs scattered about, but the eyecatcher was the huge writing desk parked in front of some large glass doors that led outside.

The floors were grey marble, there were potted plants in white vases here and there, and there were even paintings of the founding fathers on the walls…The whole of it would have been a relaxing studious atmosphere were it not for the fact that they were being pursued by a murderous ghost in the pitch black of a haunted mansion on a stormy night.

“We’re in the library,” whispered Kara. “We’ve found the library…”

The circular glow of her flashlight came to rest upon a white terracotta bust, that bust positioned upon the impressively large desk in front of the outside doors.

Kara’s smile widened to the point where she thought her lips would split her face in two, but her enthusiasm could not be contained over this discovery.

“There it is!” she said excitedly.

“What?” asked Conner meekly.

“The bust!” grinned Kara. “We found it!”

“You still want that stupid bust!” gasped Conner. “Are you nuts!”

“It’s right there, you idiot!” hissed Kara as she motioned toward it with one open-palmed hand. “We’ll unlock those glass doors and take it out that way! Now come on!”

“Why can’t we just break it open here?” asked Conner. “Then we can grab something real fast and leave! Let’s just break it open and get out of here!”

“And how are we going to do that?” asked Kara in irritation.

“We stand on that desk and drop it,” said Conner. “The floor’s marble, and the bust is terracotta. It’s first grade.”

Kara thought about this and then nodded in agreement. This was actually a good idea.

“Okay,” she agreed. “But let’s do this quickly before that old bat shows up again. This bust is her ‘most prized possession,’ after all.”

“Right,” said Conner.

The two made sure to unlock the glass doors before getting up onto the library desk. Once up and on the desk, they groaned and strained to lift the heavy bust of old Mr. Carter.

“This thing…is heavy!” panted Kara.

“Yeah…” groaned Conner.

“Now…you know…why I needed you!” she grunted.

They held the bust between them, an ugly thing of old Carter’s shoulders and withered face, but no matter how ugly it was on the outside, the only thing that mattered was what was on the inside.

“Get ready…to toss it.” panted Kara. “On three…One…two…”

The interior door to the library blew open as if pushed by a mighty wind. There, in the doorframe, stood the ghost of old Mrs. Carter, a ghastly green glow about her, her sable widow’s dress flowing in a phantom breeze, a very real and deadly saber in her withered right hand.

Conner shrieked and pitched the bust early. The young man jumped from the desk and ran after that. He opened wide the glass doors behind the desk and ran into the raging storm outside, disappearing into the night.

Kara’s attention, however, was elsewhere, and her fleeing partner in crime was the last thing on her mind.

Kara watched as time slowed in her vision. The bust fell toward the marble below, and though there was a furious apparition with a sword before her, and though her companion had fled like the weenie he was, all she could think about was the diamond she was about to gain. All she could think about was her fingers wrapped around that diamond, about the money she was going to make off of that diamond, about the beach she would be lounging on, piña colada in hand…Oh, yes. She was finally going to be rich.

The bust cracked apart as it struck the marble of the library floor, chunks of the bust skating across the slick marble in various directions.

Kara stared at the contents of the bust for a precious few seconds before full comprehension set in. Her eyes widened as she sucked in her breath in horror, and then she jumped off the desk and ran through the open doors and out into the stormy night.

There was the murderous ghost, the general atmosphere of the storm, and her inadequate partner in crime, and she could handle those things, but there was only so much she could take, so even her will broke, and she ran.

Inside the bust was no diamond, no. Inside the bust was the rotting skull of old Carter, what was left of the leathered flesh pulled tightly across yellowed bone and grinning teeth, empty sockets where eyes had once been, the ravages of time taken in its appropriate toll.

The Bust of Old Carter Copyright 2021 © Matthew L. Marlott

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