The Phantom Doctor

Chapter 2

A Beautiful Girl

The room resembled a kind of parlor. Oddly-shaped chairs were arranged around the table in the center of the room. Like the house, the dimly-lit room had a melancholy air about it, though not so dark that it filled every corner with shadows.

Taiji scanned the interior. Contrary to his fears and expectations, the old man from before was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he saw something far more surprising beside the legs of the table.

The splash of color interrupted the gloom of the room like the pop of a flashbulb illuminating a garland of blooming roses. A young woman of sixteen or seventeen lay there, eyes open. She was wearing a florid western-style dress and was pretty as a painting.

Except the girl’s comeliness wasn’t what so startled Taiji. It was her cruel repose that took him aback. Thick rope wound around her dress, circling her wrists and ankles. A white handkerchief gagged her mouth.

“Only that evil old man could have manhandled her in such a beastly manner,” Taiji murmured to himself. He couldn’t stand how pitiful she appeared. Even if it meant crossing swords with that dotard, he wasn’t about to leave without rescuing her. A rush of righteous indignation welled up in his chest.

The door to the parlor was open, giving Taiji a view of the long hallway beyond. He didn’t see the old man. The young woman must have been alone in the house when he tied her up, after which he continued deeper into the house searching for something to steal.

“All right. I should have enough time to rescue her. If she has the keys, we can lock the old man inside the house while we fetch the police.”

Resolving himself to this course of action, Taiji grasped the window sill with both hands. Making the most of the skills he’d honed in gym class on the vaulting horse, he leapt off the ground and jumped through the window into the room. He ran over to the young woman, pulled a jack knife from his pocket, and cut the ropes.

“Hold on. I’m here to help,” he assured her in a fierce whisper as he untied her hands and feet.

But the strange thing was, even after removing the cords, she lay there like a stone. Thinking she might have lost consciousness, he nudged her shoulder.

“Are you okay? Hang in there.”

The young woman didn’t move. Her stillness aside, something about her didn’t feel right. Her shoulder wasn’t soft to the touch. It was unnaturally cold and hard. As these unexpected sensations registered in Taiji’s mind, a shiver ran down his spine. Maybe the girl was dead. Maybe she was in the state of rigor mortis that he’d read about in a book.

Taiji didn’t know what to do next. But having removed the ropes, he should probably undo the gag as well. Raising his hands, he went to remove the white handkerchief. Seeing her face up close, Taiji got hit with another shock. This girl that made his heart race, that he’d gone to such lengths to save, was not even human! A stunningly real waxwork doll had been tied and gagged and left on the floor.

Who would do such a bizarre thing and why? The strange old man from before couldn’t have done it. The doll must have been tied up before he ever snuck into the house.

The waxwork doll stared up at him with those entrancing glass eyes. The beautiful face truly did appear to be alive. Taiji felt himself enveloped by a spooky sense of dread, as if he’d been cursed with a magical spell or was living through a waking nightmare.

Where was the interloper hiding? A good ten minutes had passed but he showed no signs of returning. An uneasy and desolate mood filled the gloomy old house, as if it had long been deserted with not a soul left behind.

For a long moment, Taiji’s mental faculties deserted him as well. He stood there staring off into space. Suddenly he came to his senses and noticed that the room had grown much darker.

“Whoa!” he said to himself and spun around.

The one window in the room had been wide open only a few minutes before. Now it was sealed with slatted steel shutters. The shutters blocked the outside light, casting the room into darkness. Taiji jumped in surprise and ran to the window. Using both hands, he tried with all his might to raise the shutters. They didn’t move an inch in any direction.

Ah, what a curious abode this was. From the outside, Taiji had been struck by the foreboding air that surrounded the place. A beautiful doll lay tied and bound inside the room, so lifelike as to appear almost real. The building was empty and yet the steel shutters over the window secured themselves seemingly of their own accord.

This was a thoroughly haunted house.

Taiji had ended up imprisoned in the pitch-dark room. He searched for another exit. The only way out was through the door and down the hallway. That strange old man was undoubtedly lying in wait for him there, a mocking grin on his face.

Taiji was at a loss at what to do next. All he knew was he couldn’t stay in the room with the doll forever. To start with, keeping her company was utterly unnerving. The doll girl was so realistic, he couldn’t stop imagining her springing to her feet in the darkness. That thought alone scared him silly. He had to get out of there, no matter what.

Having resolved to go head-to-head with the old man, he bolted from the room and took off down the hallway. His heart in his throat, he cast his eyes about the hall but didn’t spot the man lurking in any corners. The interior of the house was dead quiet. It felt like an empty building.

The hall turned at right angles. Doors were set into the walls here and there. Every door was locked from the inside and didn’t open when Taiji turned the knob. Fortunately, perhaps, as every room radiated the aura of forbidden territory. By this point, Taiji realized he was on the verge of tears. He managed to keep his emotions under control and came to the last room at the end of the corridor.

The door to this room alone was cracked open. “There must be somebody inside,” Taiji said to himself, a thought he found strangely disconcerting. Had the door been shut like the others, it would have been no more worrisome than the rest. Being open in such a manner brought all his fears to the surface.

But now was no time to hesitate. Taiji clenched his fists and mustered his courage. Leaning forward, he stole a glance through the open door.

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