Somethings take time to explain. I know it’s going to be long winded but, this tale? Well, it still shakes me to the core.
Two years ago I got a job down the south of Australia’s west coast. I lived in Perth at the time, so instead of a three-hour commute every day, there and back, I relocated to a pretty little town called Pemberton. It’s an old logging community full of lovely people, and I was made welcome as soon as I got out there. But this story isn’t about Pemberton; it’s about the journey from there to my workplace 20km away.
The first time I drove the route was with the help of google maps, and I lavished in the scenery. Pemberton and the surrounding areas are thick with lush green forests and farmlands. It’s a pure beauty. After the first week, I knew my way better and didn’t need the nav anymore.
One wet July morning I headed out my home and got into my car, the usual routine fully intact until I headed out onto a particularly bendy road, and noticed a lady on the shoulder. I first thought she had broken down and slowed to help. As I came to a halt past her, I glanced over my shoulder expecting her to be approaching my car, but the lady wasn’t there anymore.
Ruffled that my imagination was playing tricks on me, I carried on to work. Soon the incident was out of my mind.
However, the next morning held the same curiosity. In the same part of that road, I saw the lady again. But what I hadn’t seen before was the house hidden behind her in the thatch of bristling trees. It was a quaint little cottage peppered with pale blue walls and a moss green door. No wonder I had missed it the first time as it blended with the scenery like a masterpiece.
The lady turned her back and walked into the house leaving the door wide open. I felt a bit at danger with the bendy road behind me and the thought of a car hurling around the corner, but still, I slowed until I was at a crawl. The lady, with a face of golden hair covering one eye, just looked at me as if she wanted me to follow her into the house.
The blair of a car horn jolted me back to wakefulness as if I had been in a trance. I pressed my foot to the floor, and the cottage and lady blended into the trees once again. All that day I couldn’t stop thinking of the blue cottage and the blond lady. The image of her rosy cheeks and blue eyes kept invading my vision deterring me from my tasks. Even into the night when I drove back, I kept watch for the glow of a window on that lane, but never saw it.
The next morning I woke with determination. I was going to stop and talk to this woman. And so, I left early and soon found myself at the blue cottage, and alas, the lady. Still, she wore the same simple dress and eager look in her eyes. As I approached, she fell back into her home, and I followed.
“Miss? Why do you stare at me so?”
She leaned against a wooden chopping block and raised her eyes sheepishly.
“They need your help.”
“Who…needs my help miss?” I gently moved forwards, slowly drawn over the stone floors by her beauty. She sighed heavily, and the look of eagerness turned to one of deep sorrow.
“He keeps them, so they can’t find their way. You must help them.”
A chill swept the hall, and the sadness seemed to seep from her eyes and gently, irrevocably into my heart. I approached and reached to touch her hand, but she moved it to her breast and swept over to the counter. She plucked a photo from it and passed it to me. The chill racked me again, and I involuntarily shivered as I took the picture.
The black and white photo held four smiling children, each no more than seven years old. Three girls dressed in flowery dresses and the boy – the oldest – in dark britches.
“Who are they?” I asked as I turned the photo over to a few scribbled lines on the back.
“Please,” tears shone like pearls on her ivory cheeks. “You must save them.”
“I…I don’t know if I…”
I didn’t know what to do as she propelled me back toward the door and out into the July drizzle. Soon my hair stuck to my face as I watched the door slowly close on her tearful face.
All that morning I couldn’t concentrate, I had pinned the photo to the corner of my monitor and kept snatching glances at the four angelic faces. Sighing heavily didn’t dislodge the weight in my gut. What could I do? Call the police? If the father had taken her children then wasn’t it the courts that had decided the children’s fate.
I pondered it, sometimes reaching for the phone with the intent of calling the police, sometimes kicking myself for being a fool intervening. But, each time stopping inches from the phone. Something didn’t fit. I plucked the picture again and turned from the smiling faces to the writing and back again. The children, their smiles seemed too…smiley, like they were forced. One of the younger girls clutched too tightly to her sister, and she, in turn, held a protective arm around her shoulder.
That’s when I noticed the marks. Not one the same but each of the children had them on their exposed flesh. The grip of a firm hand or smack of something hard against supple skin. I reached for the phone decidedly and dialled the police, but, the call left me further frustrated.
“I would like to report a case of child neglect and possible abuse.”
“Can I ask where the children are? Are they yours?” The bored female voice suddenly piqued, as if her day had just got interesting. I imagine the crime rate in this rural setting wasn’t very high.
“No, they’re not mine. She’s…well, it’s the blue cottage on Clear Creek, two kilometers from the Mile Rest Inn. I think her children have been taken.”
“Thank you for reporting this. I will send an available officer to investigate.”
After giving her my name and number she agreed to inform me of an update on the case. However, it wasn’t enough. I had to do more, if only to help those lonesome eyes. I flipped the photo once again and picked the first name, then tapped it into google.
I scrolled through the articles but found only links to the local library. I decided to go there and search through their indexes for articles about missing children and was amazed when one popped up. The same picture I held now laid bare on the screen.
MISSING – VAN DE BACH CHILDREN
The local community is in shock this morning at the disappearance of the Van De Bach children. We tried to speak to the mother – Marcy Van De Bach, but the grief of the situation was too much. Marcus Van De Bach, who was on a business trip at the time, gave us this statement.
“We are devastated that our precious little ones are missing. I’m giving a reward to anyone with information that results in the safe return of our babies.”
I trailed off; something didn’t add up. The article was dated over twenty years ago. If they hadn’t found the children by now surely, they never would. Also, Mrs Van de Bach didn’t look that old, I know it’s not uncommon for wealthy men to take young wives, but the timing seemed off. Thinking myself a fool I pushed away from the table. God knows what the police officer was going to think about me taking a crazy lady seriously.
I sat in thought for a moment. The lady’s sorrowful eye still set in my mind. I tapped the name into the search bar again.
Van De Bach loses bid to Gascorp after collapsed mining deal.
Van De Bach spirals out of control after company forced into liquidation.
Further and further I dug. Until I found something that struck me.
Former gas tycoon Van De Bach sanctioned under mental health act.
If I was going to get answers, I needed to go to the source. I jotted down the address, a facility twenty kilometers away and set off to speak to the father.
The nurse welcomed me through the white doors into a dull flowery carpeted corridor; the dank walls held pictures of equally drab flowers and scenes of cliffs and lighthouses.
“Mr Van De Bach hasn’t had a visitor for a very long time; he’s quite delusional you know.” The young nurse practically bounced down the corridors, the excitement evident in her voice.
“Do you get many visitors here?” We passed a door that opened to a common room; an old lady sat murmuring softly to herself as a young man in Spider-Man pajamas rocked in a chair by the window. I sadly imagined that he didn’t see the view outside, instead only the world he created inside his head.
“Not many, no. Our clients don’t have much family, most have moved away. Some have none at all. Ah, here’s Mr Van De Bach’s room,” she poked the door open and held it aside. “Give me a shout if you need anything.”
With a wry smile, she left me with an open room and a greying old man with liver spots on his receding hairline.
I crept forwards, suddenly frightened by the prospect of meeting Mr Van de Bach. He didn’t hear my approach, or raise his head as I sat on the bed opposite his chair, his gaze fixed perpetually on the wall.
“Mr Van De Bach?”
The old man’s stooped form didn’t move as I sat watching him. A rambling murmur cascaded from his cracked lips.
“Mr Van De Bach? Can you hear me?” I thought my hopes were as lost as the mind of this once powerful man. I reached for his shoulder, but stopped halfway as his eyes – only his eyes – snapped to me. That power still evident within his hard gaze. He looked me up and down and with a sneer turned back to the wall.
“Another doctor? They don’t learn; you can’t help me.”
“I’m not a doctor Mr Van De Bach. I wanted to ask you about your children.” His gaze locked on mine a second time, then he turned away.
“Go away; I don’t know you.”
I pulled the photo from my pocket and handed it to him. As he looked at it, his head dropped, and his shoulders slumped.
“My babies.” He whispered running his fingers over each of the children. The sudden chill I felt in the cottage returned through my bones as his head fell into his hands.
“How did you get this?” He mumbled.
“Your wife gave it to me.”
“Impossible!” He snapped.
“What happened to the children Mr Van De Bach? I know you know the truth.”
Tears welled in his eyes as he turned to me, his sudden frailty shocked me. Suddenly he grabbed my arm and pulled me near.
“It wasn’t my fault, I had too, you have to understand.”
He grasped a necklace and yanked on the chain, then pressed it into my hands. Mr Van De Bach wrung his hands and looked passed me to the wall. The delusions settled in again.
I plucked a key from the locket on my palm and twisted it in the light. Engraved on one side of the brass key was the letters KL and on the other the number twelve.
“What’s the key for Mr Van De Bach?” The old man’s murmurs continued and I thought that his lucid moment had vanished. After a few moments, I got up to leave. The old man’s cold touch made me turn again.
“Marcy! Tell her I’m sorry.” His gaze bore into me, then, as if a sheet was pulled across his eyes, they lost their focus and went completely blank.
I left Mr Van De Bach to his demons and returned to my car with the key and the locket. I sat with the necklace, the key and the photo spread across the chair. Pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t fit together. I decided to search the net again to see if I could find out anything about the key. Maybe the newest piece of the puzzle would yield results.
The KL stood for Key Makers Locksmiths. A shop over in a distant town. I decided to visit the shop, maybe they could help me fill in some gaps.
I drove to the shop and spoke to the guy behind the counter. He told me he didn’t know about the key but agreed that his shop made it. He said that he had inherited the locksmiths from his father and that he would call him to see if his father could help. An hour later and the old locksmith entered the shop. After a greeting, I handed him the key. The old man’s eyes were as sharp as the tool that had cut the metal.
“Yeah, I remember this one. I only made twelve of these keys. This was the last. Belonged to Mr Van De Bach.” He looked at me accusingly, “I take it the crazy old coot has died, and you’re his heir?”
I’m not proud of it, but I lied.
“Well, seeing as you’ve got the key I suppose it’s about right. Anyways, I was told if any came bearing a key to send them over. Henry Kelly is the man you want.”
“Henry Kelly?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Ahh, you’re not from around here, right. Ok, well here’s the address,” he started to jot it down on a piece of scrap paper. “You tell him I sent you as he requested.” He handed it to me, and I thanked him for his help and left the shop.
The address led to a large manor house sitting up above the southern coast. The home, nestled within the trees, held a beautiful little creek that flowed out and down the land eventually emptying into the ocean. I knocked on the door and waited. I was just about to leave when I heard a scrape of something dragging over the floor. A rhythmic drag and thump, drag and thump. I stepped back still sheltered from the rain by the porch as the draw bolts slid back one by one. I couldn’t help but swallow the lump forming in my throat.
As the door creaked open, a puckered face peered out. One eye shone with the white of a cataract, and the other glittered with malice. Henry Kelly placed a finger over a hole in his throat and rasped. “What do you want boy?”
I held out the key as an answer. Henry glanced down at my palm and then back at my face. His one good eye squinting it’s displeasure at me. The wheezing of air hissed as it passed in and out of his throat hole.
“Where’d you get that!” He croaked.
“It’s from Mr Van De Bach. I’m…his heir.” It felt wrong to say it, but I needed answers, and this was the only way. Henry reached out with a gnarly finger and plucked the key from my hand as the door slid open further revealing a dusty interior. Just then my phone buzzed in my pocket.
Henry Kelly turned with a wave of a hand beckoning me inside and walked into the living room twisting the key in an examination; the dull thud of his wooden leg echoed every other step. The old man muttered to himself as he reached into a draw in a dresser beside a huge roaring fireplace. He placed one object in his pocket, and it sagged heavily, the other – a spyglass – he brought with him to a chair that seemed as old as he was. The once red leather tarnished and scratched beyond wear. The arms polished smooth with years of his greasy hands stroking its surface.
“Hmmm. Curious,” he croaked, “this is Marcus’s key.” His bulbous eye flicked to me through the looking glass and sized me up. Then it dipped down passed his red flecked nose. Too many years of red wine I thought.
“What does it belong to?” I asked hoping that my quivering voice didn’t give me away.
“It belongs to Marcus Van De Bach, that’s what! How did you get it?” He snarled the last part gripping the worn chair. I backed away slowly, knowing that I had been caught out, but still hoping that I could find out where the children were.
“He gave it to me and told me I could have the contents of its container.”
“Poppycock! You’re lying, and do you know how I know you’re lying?”
He raised one bushy eyebrow, the crinkles in his face lifted to reveal somewhat of his younger self.
“Because I have what it contains, it’s mine; they all mine.”
He started to laugh maniacally as he swept an arm to many identical wooden boxes high up on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. Each elegantly carved box the size of a small child’s shoe box, and each numbered in ascending order.
The old man reached into his other pocket, and the guns handle came free, but it snagged on his worn pants, and I seized the opportunity. I ran at Henry and pushed him hard in the chair. He toppled backwards, but not before I snatched the key from his palm. Then I ran to the mantle and grabbed at the boxes, managing to grasp four or five before I fled for the door. A sickening moment later and I sped out of the driveway and hurtled out of the town.
I drove until my heart stopped beating in my ears. Even the cold July wind piling through my opened window did little to cool my heated skin. Eventually, I stopped in a rest area and looked over at what I grasped. For a moment, I thought I hadn’t grabbed the right box, and I moved the others aside frantically. There, under the last one, resting above the photo was box number twelve.
My phone beeped a reminder of the missed call, and I dialled for my answerphone. The police lady’s angry voice spoke shrilly through the earpiece as I opened the box with the key. It was stiff at first, probably not opened for years, but it soon prived open, and when it did I snapped it shut again, and retched.
I didn’t hear the police lady’s voice accusing me of wasting police time at first. I had to redial and play the message again. But when I did, I called her back, and she wasn’t happy. I told her to meet me at the cottage; I had something the police needed to see.
It was little over an hour when I reached Clear Creek, and I slowed and stopped when I thought I had arrived, but like the police woman had said. There was no blue cottage on Clear Creek. I walked up and down searching in the thick hedges and trees for a sign of the house, and after twenty minutes I found it.
The pretty little cottage wasn’t pretty anymore. Instead, the damp walls had yielded to the might of the forest. Vines and brambles snaked through broken windows, moss clung to shabby walls, and the roof had all but caved in. This wasn’t the home I had visited just days before.
I fought my way through clutching the little box, into the hallway, over the same stone floors and into what had once been the kitchen. No one had stepped foot here for many years. Sat in a chair by the family table was a skeleton, time and wear had ravaged her, the lady who had called to me to save her children. I reeled, I knew now what had happened as her voice echoed in my mind.
“He keeps them, so they can’t find their way. You must help them.”
When the police arrived, I told them what had happened. At first, they thought I was crazy, but that soon stopped when I opened the case containing four sets of eyes preserved in some sort of jelly.
After an investigation into Marcus Van De Bach and Henry Kelly, the police found that the other boxes contained similar disturbing things, each connected to cases of missing children. It’s believed that the elite of the township some time ago was related to a long-dead cult.
Marcus Van De Bach died sometime later, and I was surprised when he left me his cottage in his will, but with one request. To pull it down and excavate the site. We found five remains buried beneath, four children and one unknown. I helped remove them to a proper burial site and reunited the eyes with the bodies.
I think that’s what she was telling me – Marcy Van De Bach’s ghost – she was telling me that her children couldn’t find their way without their eyes, so they were stuck in limbo, unable to make it to the other side. I hope now that they are at peace. As for the other unidentified body, I can only hope for the same.