Dark Playmate

by

Albert J. Manachino


"Jingles really astonishes me." Marion Level was referring to her six year old son. Her listener of the moment was Laura Emmaline Day, a visiting girlfriend.

"What has he done now?"

"It's not what he's done now. It's what he does continuously."

Laura was suitably curious. "And what is that?"

"He plays in the dark." Marion made the astonishing revelation.

Laura agreed, "For a young boy, that is strange. Most children are afraid of the darkness."

Marion raised the teacup to her lips before continuing. "Especially considering the reputation of this house. But it doesn't bother him one bit. The first thing he does on entering a room is to turn off the lights. In the daytime, he goes down into the cellar."

"Alone?" Laura was really incredulous.

"Except for Moloch."

"Moloch?"

Marion explained, "Moloch is a favorite shadow. He's shaped like a pumpkin except for the fiery furnace in his stomach."

"Uh! You mean like the old flame god of the Ammonites in the valley of Tophet. Isn't biblical history a little steep for a six year old?"

Marion rested the saucer and its teacup on her protruding abdomen under which Jingle's brother or sister waited to make its debut into the world. An event scheduled for the not too distant future. "He's probably heard someone discussing it. You know how children will latch onto the one lurid aspect of any conversation and weave a fantasy around it."

Not having any children of her own, Laura didn't really know. "It sounds possible, tell me more about Moloch."

"He eats bones and his fire is green."

"That's not biblical history, Marion, that's pure Jingles. Who feeds him the bones?"

"Jingles does. We allow him to take his dinner to wherever he's playing. He almost never brings back any bones unless you count fish bones."

"You can't," Laura explained. "Fish bones are cartilage."

"We save all the bones," Marion went on. "The care and feeding of Moloch is Jingle's department."

"For heaven's sake, what does he do with them? Is it wise to encourage this delusion?"

Marion shifted her bulk to a more comfortable position before replying. "Gerald doesn't think there's any harm. He says, 'All children fantasize.' At any rate, he says Jingles has a wild pet of some sort in the woods. He's found some of the bones out there."

Laura decided, that was more normal. "You had me going for a moment. I was going to ask, 'What does Moloch eat when the house is untenanted and there are no little boys to feed him?'"

"Mostly on tramps and intruders. He moves around in the dark and waits for someone to step into him."

Laura shivered.

"And do you know what?" Marion continued. "When we moved in, this place was dusty beyond conception and there were spiders and insects galore, but there wasn't a trace of a mouse or a rat or a bird or a squirrel. That's really strange because vacant houses become overrun in no time at all."

"Mansion Sardi does have a bad name. I understand it was unoccupied for years and years."

Marion sounded doubtful. "I think the location has more to do with the reputation than Moloch. We're only a stones' throw from Duncarrie, the detention home for the criminally insane. Official name, Duncarrie House of Detention for the Criminally Insane. More frequently referred to just as, "The Brick Mountain. And of course there are no neighbors. The nearest village is twenty miles away."

At the mention of Duncarrie, Laura's ears picked up. "Does Gerald have any further news about Thomas Mason?"

"No, everybody is out looking for him. He killed a guard and walked out wearing hie uniform. Gerald called up and said to turn on all the lights and make sounds as if there's a crowd in here."

Gerald Level was the Captain of the guards at the home. He had rented the long vacant Mansion Sardi in lieu of the dependent's quarters at the home. Marion's husband was just old-fashioned enough to feel that an insane asylum was no place for a pregnant woman.

Laura remembered the Thomas Mason trial. At its conclusion and sentencing, the Judge had remarked, "I must sentence you to life imprisonment in the home for the criminally insane. I can only regret that the laws of this state preclude me from consigning you to the electric chair."

Thomas Mason had smiled through thin, white lips. Pink eyes that resembled two eggs in the late embryonic stage looked at the bench. "But your Honor, that would be cruel and unusual punishment."

Thomas Mason was an albino. He had been compared unfavorably with Jack the Ripper. Jack apparently was motivated by idealism, however perverse. Thomas appeared to be motivated purely by sadism. His specialty were pregnant women.

Marion switched back to the original topic, Moloch. "My own personal opinion is that Jingles carries this business too far. An imaginary playmate is an imaginary playmate but a rein has got to be applied somewhere along the line."

"You almost convinced me he was real," Laura sounded most emphatic.

"Just last Saturday, we were buying meat when Gerald noticed some packaged bones sealed up as pet food. You know what I mean, the machine sealed plastic bags. You have to cut them with scissors to remove the contents. He asked Jingles, 'Do you think your pal Moloch could go for these?' Jingles answered, 'He'd think they were great.'"

"Anyway," continued Marion, "Gerald added them to our order. He still thinks Jingles has a pet in the woods. When we returned, Jingles carried the package down into the cellar. I forgot all about it for a couple of days when I happened to find the plastic bag. It had never been opened but the bones were gone. There was still a few shreds of flesh inside such as a butcher might leave clinging to a soup bone."

"Well for heavens sake, didn't you ask Jingles about it?"

"Yes I did," and here it was Marion's turn to shiver. "He said, 'Moloch doesn't have to open a bag to get at the insides.' It threw me for a loop."

"That's simple enough." The mystery did not faze Laura. "Jingles slit the plastic bag, extracted the bones and resealed it with a hot iron."

"I thought so too. I do my cleaning and pressing down there and an iron is easily available to him. My main complaint is that I think he goes to ridiculous extremes to make the existence of Moloch convincing."

"Much too far." Laura was in agreement.

Jingles chose that moment to wander in. "We're hungry," he announced.

Laura forgot, "Who's 'we'?"

Moloch and myself."

Inwardly, Laura blushed.

"There's some leftover chicken in the refrigerator," his mother invited.

"Thanks mom."

"Why don't you have him join us at the table?"

"He can't exist where there's light."

"Someday we'll eat in the dark and you can invite him for dinner."

"That's great Mom. I'll tell him."

Jingles took his departure for the kitchen. Marion smiled Indulgently. "He'll get over it when his little brother or sister is born and he has a playmate."

"I don't really know, Marion. Someone told me, 'First born are always a little jealous.'"

The telephone provided an interruption. It was Gerald. "Hi Cookie. Mason is still at large but I'm coming home for a few hours. I'll tell you all about it then." Marion began to feel better at once.

"Gerald is coming home," she informed Laura after hanging up.

Marion had the conversational habit of skipping from one topic to another and it was responsible for causing an inattentive listener some confusion. Laura had to do some mental gymnastics to catch up.

"This house was built by Colonel Robert Sardi for his wife and little boy. They were expecting another child as I recall the history. He was a Spanish-American war veteran and a friend of Teddy Roosevelt when Teddy was Governor of New York. The Governor appointed him warden at Duncarrie."

Laura felt she was losing ground. "Appointed who?" she asked. "Colonel Sardi. During his tenure, there was another famous escape. Floyd Maxim, train robber and murderer, blasted his way out with a smuggled gun and somehow got as far as this house."

"How exciting. The Colonel captured him?"

"No, Maxim's trail ends here. This was the last place anyone laid eyes on him."

By now Laura was seated on the edge of her chair. "Did he harm Mrs. Sardi or the little boy?"

"He held Elizabeth Sardi and the little boy, Robert Jr., prisoners several hours. Maxim had a compound of reasons for selecting Mansion Sardi as a destination." Laura wondered if Marion had heard her question.

"One," continued Marion, "He thought it unlikely for anyone to search for him in the warden's house. Secondly, he had been a member of the Colonel's brigade during the war and bore a special resentment toward his old commanding officer. Finally, he hoped to ftnd a horse here."

"Gee Marion, that doesn't make it sound as if Floyd was insane. Vindictive, but not mad."

"Floyd was supposed to be an epileptic. Perhaps the criteria of insanity was broader in those days. He threatened Elizabeth and the little boy but did them no actual harm. He left minutes before the Colonel returned. Figuratively, he departed by the back door while the Colonel was entering the front."

Laura rose and refilled their teacups. Then she sat back and waited for her friend to finish the story.

"The Colonel searched every room in the house. He lit all the lamps, to calm his wife I guess. Floyd was never recaptured. The Colonel did not attempt to search the woods. He probably thought the chances of being ambushed in the dark were too good. Later that night, one of the guards, cutting through the property, observed the Colonel burying something that looked like a thick rug. He thought it curious, but did not intrude and the Colonel was never aware that he had been observed."

"One sugar or two?" interrupted Laura.

"One dear... Shortly thereafter, Colonel Sardi resigned his position and took his family out west. He gave no reasons. The incident bothered the guard, and a couple of years afterwards, he dug up the area where he had seen the Colonel at work. He found nothing."

Laura felt disappointed as by now she had begun to envision at least a box of skeletons. "Maybe he dug up the wrong spot?"

"No. He was very certain as to the precise location. Further, the colonel had abandoned his shovel on the spot. In the two year interval, if Maxim had been buried there, the flesh would have decomposed completely but the skeleton would have survived."

The doorbell interrupted their fascinating if grisly history by ringing.

"That must be Gerald. I locked all the doors." Marion started to rise.

Laura waved her back. "I'll get it. Remember, you're trying to stand for two."

Marion smiled.

Laura bustled out of the room. She peered through the peep hole and spotted Gerald's uniform. She threw the door open.

"Welcome home. Marion will certainly be glad to see you."

The visor lifted and she was regarded by a pair of eyes that looked like two eggs in the late embryonic stage. A hand removed the cap and a mass of white hair fell down.

"I will be just as delighted to see Marion," he informed her.

His grin displayed two rows of broken and discolored teeth. "They won't think of looking for me in the Captain's house. Also, I'd like to borrow his car."

Laura tried to slam the door.

"Tsk, Tsk," he admonished her as he forced his way in. "Such dreadful inhospitability."

Laura shrieked and shrieked again.

"That's good," he approved. "Screaming relieves tension. I do a lot of it myself."

To prove his point, he threw back his head and screeched. "There, wasn't that good?"

Laura was immobile, frozen with terror. The grin continued to regard her.

"I have a gun but I prefer to use a knife. More personal that way. You can put a great deal more of yourself into your work."

He continued to advance into the foyer. Laura yelled, "Marion, run. It's that maniac."

Laura was not noted for her diplomacy. Thomas Mason slugged her. She could be heard striking the floor. He lost his grin for a moment.

"I'll have to schedule you for a lesson in manners as soon as I have time."

Marion was desperately trying to scramble out of the chair when Mason entered. She was disadvantaged by her huge girth. Shock registered itself on Mason's face as he took in her condition.

"I had heard rumors but I'd hoped they weren't true. These severe disciplinarians always turn out to have psychological perversions."

Marion sank back into the chair that held her captive and listened in disbelief.

"What do you mean?" she asked when she finally was able to speak.

Mason shook a finger reprovingly at her.

"Oh you deceitful hussy. Look at yourself and pretend you don't know what I mean."

She didn't and when it finally dawned on her what he was referring to, she gave way to incontrollable spasms of laughter.

"Stop it, Stop it." he raved. "Have you no sense of decency?" Then sadly, "Guess not. You have been steeped in the evil miasmas that cover the surface of this earth. It would have been too much to expect to find a clean and wholesome person."

Mason expounded on his obsession.

"The surface of this world is largely covered by evil vapors. Few spots are clean and yet you women persist in giving birth to babies that will absorb this vileness and in turn become worshipers of Satan."

Tears formed in his eyes. "I've tried and I've tried to warn but to no avail.

"You've tried to warn by butchering Mothers?"

"I attempted to create a fear of pregnancy, to contain this evil, to stop its spread. You women have always thwarted me by continuing to have more children."

"I'd like to point out to you that you men have helped."

"Oh you liar. You lure us. You seduce us. If the innocence you've destroyed could only be computed."

Mason was actually trembling. "I'll stop you in any event. You'll not bring forth a child. I'll—" Whatever he was going to say remained incomplete as Jingles returned carrying an empty plate.

"Jingles, for God's sake, run!"

Apparently Jingles did not take to the escaped prisoner. "Who is this Mom?"

"It's that killer Mason."

Unconcernedly, "Oh?"

Jingles was not acquainted with That killer Mason's reputation. He made no effort to run. Instead he eyed the maniac with disfavor.

"You don't look like a very nice man. I'm sure you were never invited here."

Mason pointed with an arm that trembled. "See. See. You see what I mean? You've inhaled these malignant vapors from the day you were born. You filthy imp of the Devil's."

"Further," Jingles continued. "Your eyes look like two eggs in the late embryonic stage."

Mason was having difficulty breathing.

"Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!"

He threw back his head and shrieked. Marion groaned. "Jingles run. He'll kill you."

"I don't think so."

Mason recovered somewhat. He anticipated Jingles by running to the doorway to block that exit. This still left the foyer entrance. From inside the prison uniform, Mason produced a short but wicked looking knife.

"Come to me. little boy."

Jingles did not, but neither did he attempt to flee. Leaving Mason blockading the door, he laid his plate on the coffee table and walked casually over to the light switch.

The last visible detail impressed on Marion's brain, before the room was plunged into darkness, was the look of incredulity on Mason's face.

She had heard Mason scream twice but they were nothing compared to the shriek of pure unalloyed fear and anguish she heard in the dark. A soul in purgatory enduring the torments of hell could not have produced such a sound.

There was a moment of absolute silence. Then as an anticlimax, the noise of the key turning in the front door came to her.

She could hear Gerald gasp as he spotted the still unconscious Laura and the foyer light plunged out. Marion guessed Gerald was attempting to avoid being silhouetted. She could picture him standing in the blackness, listening intently with drawn gun.

"Marion," he called.

"Mason's in here," she warned.

Then Jingle's voice, "Don't worry, he won't bother you."

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, he didn't hurt us."

"Jingles, can you find the switch?"

"Yes," the light returned.

Marion was still seated in the chair. Gerald replaced his gun in its holster. He walked over to his wife and assisted her to her feet.

"What was that scream? Where did he go?"

"I don't know. Oh, my God!"

Her eyes had caught sight of a huge gingerbread man still dressed in the uniform of a prison guard. It was lying face down on the floor. It appeared to be about an inch thick.

"Marion, go see to Laura. Please."

Marion averted her eyes from the thing on the floor and left the room.

Gerald explored the gingerbread man with his shoe. It felt like an old inner tube he had partially inflated with water when he had been a boy.

He pushed harder. Reluctantly, it began to roll. A pair of eyes that looked like two eggs in the late embryonic stage came into view as its face turned up. The nose lay flat and the mouth was indicated as a gash.

"Jingles, tell me more about Moloch."

The boy was still standing by the light switch.

"He saved us."

"I know that. Why?"

"He wanted to keep the new baby from being hurt. He's going to get inside of it after it's born. Then he'll be able to talk with us and be one of the family. It's the only time he can do it, at birth."

"You mean possession."

"I guess that's what it's called."

"Jingles!"

"Yes, Dad."

"You scattered a few of the bones where you knew I'd find them to make me think you were really feeding an animal?"

"I was afraid you wouldn't let me play with him if you thought he wasn't imaginary."

Gerald Level sighed.

"You're a very smart boy. Now I have work to do, bring me the shovel."

"All right, Dad."

A witness might have been able to observe Captain Level at work by lantern light. He was burying something that looked like a very thick carpet.

When he returned to Duncarrie, he was carrying an extra uniform which he unobtrusively placed in its late owner's locker. Shortly thereafter, Gerald resigned his position and moved out west with his family.

Mansion Sardi is untenanted again. Thomas Mason was never recaptured.

# # #

Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

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