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One day, a mysterious package with no return address showed up on Darnell’s doorstep. Postage stickers indicated its origin as somewhere in the United Kingdom. Inside were newspaper clippings regarding an alarming number of missing persons cases, seemingly random except that they were all from Blackpool. The scraps were wrapped around an anonymous invitation card that simply said “I have something to show you…” in clean, neat, non-descript handwriting. Darnell had sworn to himself that he would never return to that little seaside village on the Irish Coast of England, and especially never step foot again anywhere near the terrible property just past the edge of its outskirts, but he couldn’t ignore this.

All too soon, he pulled his car up to the border of Ravenhearst, stopped by thick chains on the once-stately gates – the whole property had been condemned by local authorities. No sooner had he stepped from the car than he was met by the ghost of Emma Ravenhearst, the manor's unfortunate namesake and once-prisoner. Emma thanked him again for freeing him, letting him know that she and the others - Rose and her daughters - had followed him back here to help any way that they could, in gratitude for all that he had done for them . . . but she also begged Darnell to leave, insisting that he was in terrible danger. He thanked her for the warning but was equally insistent that he couldn't ignore what was happening here, certain that something about Ravenhearst - maybe even Charles and/or Victor Dalimar themselves - were behind the Blackpool disappearances.

Darnell snooped around the nearby lighthouse as well as Victor's seaside guest cottage, which hadn't changed in the years since his last visit (even the old puzzle he'd solved to gain entry into the attached workshed was still there). Now and then, the ghost of Emma, Rose, or Charlotte and Gwendolyn manifested to try, once more, to get him to turn back, to leave this place for his own good. And each time, he refused, resolute in finding the victims of Blackpool. He couldn't turn his back on them! Plus he had a driving need to learn who had sent him that package. All he could do was keep pressing forward.

He finally came upon a way to remove the gates from their hinges and gain entry to the main property of Ravenhearst. Or at least, what was left of the deteriorating grounds and the fire-blasted skeleton of the manor itself. Darnell darted quickly through the ruins, wary of the remains collapsing on his head, and made his way into the cemetery. One freshly dug grave in particular caught his attention, the dirt piled so as to obscure the headstone. Darnell dug out the headstone, the rest of the dirt simply sifting through a thin mesh holding it at ground level, to reveal an empty grave plot. It was the headstone itself, however, that commanded the detective's attention. Carved on the face was that day's date and his own name! Just as his mind began to register this fact and its implications, something shoved him from behind, toppling him into the open grave. He twisted and looked up to see that crazy old codger, Victor Dalimar, gloating over him, cackling about how Father would be so pleased. Victor pulled the headstone just so, and the ground gave way under Darnell, plummeting him into darkness.

When the detective hit bottom, recovered, and got his bearings, he found himself in a chamber, a foyer or sorts, with four large tubes of glowing, green fluid set into the walls, two each on either side of a strange, raven-embossed door. Emma, Rose, Gwendolyn, and Charlotte were there as well, visibly manifested and looking around with the same dread that he felt. "We should not have returned to this place," Emma fretted. Rose looked at Darnell - "We need to get out of here at once." Darnell most certainly agreed, but before any of them could take action, a panel opened in the floor, a section rising up to reveal a seated mannequin with a television for a head. Through it, Charles welcomed Darnell back to his home and taunted that he'd needed the detective to lure his family back to him. Darnell watched in horror as the four spirits were suddenly sucked one each into the tubes around him - floating, beating at the sides of the glass, scared and begging to be let out! Charles went on to tell Darnell that, time and time again, the detective had misunderstood his intentions. "That's why I've built this prison for you, so that you may better understand. Before you die, I want you to know what it's like to be me!" The mannequin contraption disappeared once more into the floor. Amid the spirit's frightened cries for help around him, Darnell located the key to the raven door in a fancy gift box addressed to him and stepped through into the beginning of a nightmare.

Wanting nothing more than a way out of the underground complex he'd been trapped in – and a way to free his ghostly friends – Darnell found himself in a cavern with an impressive edifice built against the wall. Charles taunted him through the intercom at the front door. "It's only fitting our tour of me begins where I began." Darnell danced amid falling rocks threatening to break his skull open as he solved the puzzle on the door and entered the mock-hospital. He could barely believe what he found inside – not only was the place furnished and decorated in exacting detail, but it was peopled by a number of mechanized mannequins including a nurse at the reception desk, a malicious surgeon who kept threatening him with a scalpel when he got too close, and a maternity ward full of grotesque babies and expectant mothers with swollen, undulating bellies.

Finally gaining entry into the room beyond, he could see the upper body of a woman – another mannequin – on a birthing bed, gasping and moaning and then screaming, in cycles as if with labor pains. Her lower body was hidden behind a privacy screen along with what Darnell guessed to be her attending doctor – he could see the man’s silhouette on the fabric. “You can’t pay me enough to look behind that curtain,” he muttered to himself. Still, he realized that, in order to move forward, he had to help deliver the baby by cutting the wires of the umbilical cord . . . and the room’s contraption would keep spitting out another, fake newborn until he got the right sequence – failed tries resulted in the grotesque infant doll combusting in his hands. Once successful, he also found himself with a key, the design of which made him think it belonged to one of the spirit tanks back in the foyer.

Darnell returned there, matching the key to Charlotte’s tank and unlocking the mechanism on the front of the tube. He watched in shock as the fluid drained out only to leave, not a spirit, but a flesh-and-blood little girl in its wake! The eight-year-old was soaking wet from the fluid, ringlet ponytails hanging limply over her shoulders, Victorian-era dress clinging to her small frame. Charlotte looked down at her hands, up at the detective, then over at her mother in the tank next to hers, shaking with fear all the while. "Mommy, mommy, what's happening to me!?" Before Darnell could try to get the child out of the tube, it dropped away into the floor, Charlotte's terrified shriek diminishing quickly with distance. A panel slid closed to cover the hole in the floor. The space in the wall where her tube had been proved to be a doorway into another chamber. Lacking choices, Darnell stepped through.

This new set piece in Charles' twisted storytelling seemed to be a home of some kind, an unassuming, two-story brownstone set into the wall of the cavern. Like the previous cave, this one echoed with the cacophony of the hidden machinery powering the massive underground complex. The door was locked, of course. Searching for the key, Darnell opened the mailbox only to find a speaker inside that crackled to life. "Welcome to my childhood home, Detective. This is where I was taught my place in life. This is where I learned pain and fear. How can you understand me without knowing how that feels?" Darnell didn't want to speculate on what lay in wait for him in the house. The key to releasing the front door proved to be placing the newborn doll from the hospital into a baby carriage on the sidewalk, the basket bordered with barbed wire and sporting heavy, medieval shackles. Once inside, the full horror of the place started to sink in.

Hidden speakers in the walls haunted Darnell with intermittent echoes of striking and lashing sounds, a child's cries of pain, and vindictive growls of "Stupid!" A chubby little boy mannequin lay bent over a bar in front of a contraption with a big paddle attachment hovering over the doll's upraised backside. The instruction booklet next to the control box labeled it the "Spank-A-Tronic". The kitchen had a realistic apple pie on the counter alongside a jar full of nastiness labeled "Momma's Leavings." The cupboard under the stairs proved to be a child's safe hideaway . . . or possibly his meager bedroom, a la Harry Potter. In it, Darnell found a journal with a schedule of chores, including gross personal hygiene tasks for "Momma" at certain times of the day. Knowing that all of this was one giant, elaborate puzzle to solve – like the hospital had been - Darnell set the cuckoo clock on the wall to the first of the tasks for “Momma”.

A booming voice thundered from speakers upstairs, demanding that Charles get up there this instant. The very walls and floor shook with the power of the woman’s commanding presence (and probably small earthquake tumblers built into the structure, but even guessing that didn’t leave Darnell any less rattled at the overall effect). Hurrying upstairs and solving another puzzle on the door at the end of the hall, he opened it to the most typical trashy-housewife sight he had ever seen, complete with cheap, floral house dress and curlers in her hair . . . but for one thing – she completely filled the queen-sized bed she lay on, the groaning frame slowly collapsing under her. Darnell didn’t know the actual weight of the wooden, mechanized mannequin, but it represented a woman who was easily six hundred pounds. She couldn’t even see him over the rolling mounds of her own, albeit simulated, fat.

Darnell was forced to clip long toenails, pluck wiry nose hairs, and even pop and clean up pimples – how a wooden surface managed to present acne, Darnell didn’t even want to know. Performing these tasks as well as others around the house gained him access to a hidden doorway in the back of the pantry, which lead to a secret basement. In it, he found a circus-style animal cage where Charles was apparently locked when he was bad. Or supposedly was, in the psychotic man’s twisted memory; Darnell couldn’t be sure what was real and what was insanity’s exaggeration. There was, however, a poster on a support beam that made him wonder. It was for Fate’s Carnival – the same one he’d investigated a few years before – and advertised Charles as a freak boy with an obscenely long tongue. In the cage, a small television sat next to a headless baby doll. Charles taunted him again – “How does it feel to be caged?” Darnell also found a letter indicating that Charles’ mother, Abigail, had committed him into a lunatic asylum . . . the same one that housed his father, it seemed.

Darnell performed a few more tasks between the brownstone and the hospital, finally uncovering the key for Gwendolyn’s tube. As with her sister, the draining fluid left her standing as a very wet and very much alive little girl. And again, before Darnell could attempt to get her out of it, she vanished with a scream, tube and all dropping out of sight with a panel closing over the hole in the floor. Darnell could only hope he could find the twins if he pressed on. He stepped through the newly-revealed doorway and trudged through faux snow to the façade of an insane asylum.

Gaining entry, he found it populated with more mechanized mannequins, disturbed patients of the asylum that succeeded all too well in their designated jobs of creeping him out.

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Special Agent Darnell Barrett, Master Detective

August 2017

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