Elevated Remains

Janice leaned across the desk and called after him as he got out of the elevator.

“Tom, your wife called earlier. And a man who said he would rather call back than to leave a message. It sounded important.”

Ex-wife, he wanted to correct her, but didn’t. “What was his name?”, he asked instead as he continued towards his office. When she didn’t answer him immediately he stopped with his hand on the door handle and turned around to shoot her a questioning look.

Janice was biting her lip and seemed genuinely embarrassed. “I… Well, I’m sure he told me, and I was just about to write it down. But as soon as I had hung up the phone… Well, it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry, Tom. But he said that he would call again later.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s hope he does then”, he muttered and disappeared into his office.

Thomas Smith was a very practical man, and as such he also had very practical dreams. He put all his waking time – and all his money – into building his business and making it grow. And it did. In a relatively short time he had managed to secure himself quite a prestigious office in a central part of the city, and a handful of equally prestigious clients.

Now he just waited for the business press and the secret fraternal organizations to discover him as well. To this end, missing out on important calls was definitely not one of his favourite pastimes.

He was sitting behind his desk inside the spacious and expensively furnished office when his phone started ringing. He had developed a routine for how he handled such events, so as not to come on as too eager or too available. He waited until right before the fourth signal was about to sound, then cleared his throat and answered the phone in a sober voice devoid of all emotion or expectation.

“Smith and Smithson, you’re talking to Thomas Smith”, he said. There actually was no Smithson involved in the firm. There was just him, but a double cognomen company name sounded more serious and memorable.

“Ah, finally I get ahold of you. I had the privilege of talking to your lovely assistant earlier, but you were not yet in by then.” The man’s voice was dry but jovial, with a slight British accent.

“Ah, yes. Janice mentioned your previous call.” Thomas straightened up in his chair. This was the guy who had called before. Had he said his name now? Thomas wasn’t sure, and didn’t dare to ask in case he’d come across as inattentive. “How can I help you?”

“Janice, yes that was her name. Remember now. Lovely voice, that one. A delight to talk to. Well, anyways. I’m calling on behalf of an organization that I represent, to invite you to a dinner party later this evening.”

Thomas’ heart skipped a beat. An organization. A dinner party. This sounded like just the kind of attention he’d been eagerly waiting for. He swallowed and fought hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Oh, is that so? And what kind of organization is that?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “Oh, I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not an organization, Mr. Smith. The Organization. Not anyone attracts their attention, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked. Our by-laws prevent me from giving out any additional information about us before you are dedicated, but I can assure you that this dinner will be a real game changer for your state of life.”

Thomas had gotten up from his chair now and was pacing back and forth in front of the large windows. His composure was slipping between his fingers like sand. “This… This definitely sounds interesting, Mr…?”

“Ah, excellent. Then I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at your office by eight. Formal dress code is observed.”

“Oh, eh, thank you. I’m… Looking forward to it. And I’m hoping to speak more to you later as well.”

“Yeah, there’ll probably be some time for that too. Well, I’ll see you tonight th–”

“Wait! Ehrm, what did you say your name was again?”

Now there was a smile in the entire voice. “Ah, I am Vincent. See you tonight, Thomas.”

And then the call was ended.

***

Thomas didn’t get any more work done that afternoon. As soon as he had put down the phone he picked it up again, called Janice and asked her to get him a really nice tuxedo. Then he booted up his computer and started researching Freemason etiquette, intellectual conversation subjects and a thousand other important things he suddenly realized that he didn’t have the slightest clue about. Mildly put, he panicked there for a while.

Then Janice knocked on his door and entered with his evening attire in a fancy package.

“What did the man say? Where is it you’re going?”, she asked as she put the clothes down on his desk.

Thomas shook his head without looking up from his computer. “I can’t tell you, Janice. It’s part of a secret rite of initiation.”

Janice pressed her lips together and stifled an irritated sigh. “Well then”, she said and crossed her arms across her chest. “I guess I’ll leave you to your secrets then, Mr. Smith. And you’re welcome.” Then she marched out of the office and slammed the door shut behind her.

He didn’t even notice that she had left until thirty minutes later.

He got dressed and ready well before time, and when the clock neared eight he was already pacing nervously on the sidewalk outside the office building. This was his chance to really become something, to prove himself and to make the right kind of connections. He had to pull this off and make a good impression.

Then a black Mercedes pulled up in front of him, and he instantly stopped pacing. He hoped that the driver hadn’t seen him doing it, but knew that such an instance of luck was highly unlikely. Before he had decided whether he should jump into the car on his own accord or not, the driver’s door opened and a man stepped out.

His leather coat and pompadour hairstyle went entirely in black, and stood in stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. He tilted his head to the side and regarded Thomas over the top of the car.

“You’re shorter than I imagined, but I guess that’s okay”, he said. Thomas recognized the voice. “Jump in, mate. I’m your driver tonight.”

“But you’re… You’re the one I spoke to on the phone, right?” Thomas was really confused now, and not just by the casual insult.

“Very observant of you. Yeah, I’m Vincent. But I’m also your driver.”

“I thought you said–”

“Come on now, we can talk on the way. Nice tux, by the way.”

Then Vincent returned to the driver’s seat. After a moment’s hesitation, Thomas seated himself in the back. This was not what he had expected, but then again, this was also the first time he was ever in contact with an esoteric secret society. Maybe this was just their eccentric way of things. I’ll hopefully be given the opportunity to get used to it, he thought.

“So, how come I was hand-picked?”, he said as the car started moving.

Vincent met his gaze through the rear view mirror. “Ah, yeah that’s a good question. Well. You see, I was tasked with scouting for a dinner guest, based on a list of very strict criteria. The aspirant would, amongst other things, have to be raised in the city, be between twenty eight and thirty three years old, an up and coming businessman, and of average height.

You turned out to be a promising candidate – except for the height, it turns out. But I’ll blame your misleading profile pictures for that. Anyways, mate, don’t fret. They’re going to love you.”

***

The house was old and classic, with tall windows overlooking the busy street from half a dozen expensive floors. When they arrived, Vincent actually got out of the car and hurried around it to open Thomas’ door for him. The latter was positively surprised by this, the former having shown very little of this kind of courteousness during the drive. This might actually turn out to be something fancy after all, Tom mused.

Vincent kept up the gallantry by holding up the entrance door for him as well, and then proceeded to calling down the elevator for them. The stairwell was classy and impressive, with real art on the walls and such shine in its marble floor slabs that it was almost possible to use them as an enormous rose mirror. As they got into the elevator, the impression of unblushing wealth was only strengthened; there was a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and on the small floor was a Persian carpet.

“Wow, this place is… really something”, Tom said as he admired the intricate patterns on the brass key set panel.

“Yeah, I guess”, Vincent replied, but didn’t sound all too excited himself. He pressed one of the shiny elevator buttons, and they rose smoothly upwards to the soft notes of Cello Suite no. 1 in G major playing from cleverly hidden speakers.

They arrived on the sixth floor, and as the elevator doors opened before him Thomas suddenly wished that he had put much more effort into his clothing. The music from the elevator, he realized, was the same as was playing in the grand parlour that the doors opened upon. There was a party going on here, alright. Catering personnel moved skilfully amongst the smartly dressed attendants who were mingling, drinking and eating canapés from silver plates all across the room.

As Tom stepped out of the elevator, trying to adopt as confident and stately an air as possible despite almost panicking on the inside, many of the eyes in the room were turned towards him. Vincent hurried across the room to say something to a plump man in a ceremonial uniform, consequently leaving Thomas all to his own, terrified self. He thus gratefully accepted the drink offered to him by one of the well-dressed servers, and took a deep sip as a quick fix to his revolting nerves.

“Are you the dinner guest?”

He almost choked on the champagne. The woman was beautiful, dressed in green silk and suddenly standing next to him. Her eyes seemed to be boring into his, and he could not for the life of him have looked away – even if he had wanted to.

“Ehm, yes”, he managed to reply as he fought desperately against the impulse to cough up the liquid he had just accidentally inhaled.

“I expected you to be taller”, she said and smiled dangerously. “But I’m sure you have other delicious qualities that I can’t wait to explore.”

He didn’t know what to say, but immediately decided that he really, really wanted this new acquaintance to explore him. Thoroughly.

“Ah, there you are”, Vincent said. “The dinner’s about to begin any minute, they were just waiting for you. Come.” He ushered Tom across the room, away from the woman in green.

“See you at the table then”, she called after him with a sly smile. He really, really hoped so.

“Oh, and don’t drink that shit”, Vincent said and snatched the champagne glass from his hand. He snapped his fingers and a waiter left his post by the nearby wall and hurried over with a silver plate with a single glass on it. “Here. This is the real deal”, Vincent said and unceremoniously handed Tom the glass from the plate.

Tom accepted the glass and sipped from it as they walked across the large room. “Who are all these people?”, he whispered to Vincent. “Is this the Organization?”

Vincent shrugged. “Parts of it. Some of them. The ones attending the separate dinner are. The rest of them are just… people, I guess. They don’t know anything.”

“Oh”, Thomas said, unsure what that even meant. “What should I do? I mean, what’s expected of me?”

Vincent smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t you worry about that, mate. You’ve done your part just by coming here. Just relax and drink your wine, and the rest will take care of itself, sort of.”

They entered a separate dining hall where a long table had already been arranged with beautiful china, iron candlesticks and several sets of gleaming silver cutlery. One end of the room was taken up by a low stage, and Thomas realized that this was where the music was coming from; it was not a recording at all, but a live performance being delivered by a sextet of highly skilled musicians.

The room and the table was already filling up with beautiful people in beautiful dresses and uniforms. Waiters moved around the table, offering up different kinds of wine and other types of alcohol. Thomas just stood there beside Vincent and admired the almost surreal wealth and class on display before him. Oddly enough, he didn’t feel the panic anymore. In fact, he felt strangely relaxed despite being so obviously misplaced amidst this distinguished company. He took another sip of his wine.

Before long, everyone was seated except for the two of them. Tom’s eyes wandered in search for an empty chair, but to his bemusement there didn’t seem to be one. Then the music silenced.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters”, a deep voice spoke up. Tom realized that it belonged to the same man that Vincent had been talking to previously. “I am tremendously pleased that you could all join us here tonight, and I am also very pleased to introduce you to this evening’s special guest – Mr. Thomas Frederick Smith.”

At this, the entire table exploded in a thundering round of applause. Tom nodded, smiled awkwardly and again didn’t know what to say. He suddenly locked eyes with the woman from before and could have sworn she was licking her lips as she looked at him.

“Thank you, Vincent, for bringing him in – though I would like a word with you later about your definition of the words ‘average height’.” Large portions of the table burst out laughing at this, but were quickly silenced again by a gesture from the man in the uniform.

Vincent muttered something that Thomas couldn’t quite make out, despite standing right next to him. In fact, he was suddenly having trouble making words out at all. Or faces. Or thoughts. Oh my god, did I drink too much already? Am I really that drunk? Will people notice? Have I fucked everything up now?

People were looking at him. Had someone asked him something? He wasn’t sure. He grabbed the backrest of a chair and hoped that nobody would notice how difficult he was finding it suddenly to remain standing on his own two feet. “Vincent”, he whispered, “I think that I…”

“Relax, mate”, Vincent said and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all as it should.”

Somewhere people were laughing. A woman in green was staring hungrily at him. A waiter entered the room with a gleaming slicer on a plate. The entire room was spinning.

“No, I… I blew it. The party. The dinner. I was invited to eat dinner with…”

His limbs wouldn’t obey him anymore. The glass slipped from his hand and shattered against the marble. He didn’t even hear the sound. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor.

Vincent, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder, appeared within his shrinking field of vision. “Oh, darn. I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not to eat dinner, Mr. Smith. To be the dinner.” He smiled widely. “Not anyone attracts the attention of the Organization, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked based on a list of very strict criteria. These people have very particular tastes, you see.”

Tom shook his head, or at least he tried to. Everything was spinning colours now, and he realized that he had slumped over on the floor. He was lying on the cold rose marble, watching helplessly as the man in the uniform approached him with the gleaming slicer.

“Let’s dig in then, shall we?”, the man in said. Thomas tried to scream, to fight, to crawl away, but could do none of these things. The thought struck him that he had been poisoned, that nobody – not even Janice – knew where he was, and that these people were going to kill and eat him.

And then the very last shred of consciousness left him, and he never thought anything ever again.

***

Vincent shook his head as he re-entered the dining hall in the grey hours of morning. The party was over, the guests gone since long. While the lonely, bold and beautiful people had grandiosely and ravenously satisfied their hunger for vitalem with the flesh and blood of poor Thomas Smith, Vincent himself had prowled the streets and back alleys of the city for much less glamorous contentment of his undead thirst.

There were times when he didn’t mind this degradation, or the less moral, pleasant and decent parts of his job. But then again, there were also times when he did. But such was his lot in life – and lonely unlife, for that matter – and there was nothing to be done about it.

He was the fixer of needs, the dealer of goods and the solver of problems – and as such he was only welcome in the grand parlours to deliver wares before the feasts, and to take out the glorified, elevated remains when they were over.

After this particular feast, those said remains had certainly been elevated indeed. All over the place.

Vincent sighed. “You’re welcome”, he said to the empty room as he started unwinding a roll of black garbage disposal bags. Then he got about his grizzly task with the routine of someone who has done the same thing many times before, humming Eleanor Rigby all the while. It seemed only fitting.

Where did they all come from, after all?

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-05

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written three other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence, The Forest and Substitution.

 

 

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The Underground Kingdom and the Living Dead Statue

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII and IIX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


He wakes up, and the whole house is eerily quiet. Devin Murdock smiles widely and lies back against the pillows again for another couple of minutes of wonderful snoozing. He has just had the first night of undisturbed sleep in a very long time – ever since he came back to L.A, in fact. The house has been silent the entire night. No mournful moanings or wailing whispers have woken him up from his well needed sleep.

That weird character Seth Pascal has definitely done their job well, Devin thinks. And this despite the fact that he or she definitely lacks even the most basic sense of humour. He shakes his head as he remembers the exorcist – or freelance priest, as Seth him- or herself was very particular about being called – walking around the house with a ball of incense and calling the ghosts out by name. How the hell did they even know what to call them? Anyways, the job has been done. No ghosts have bothered him since the priest left the house just before midnight, and no ghosts can be seen or heard now. Win.

He looks at the clock. 1:42 P.M. He’s overslept slightly, but to hell with that. He feels he needed it. As he puts his feet down on the cold floorboards he half expects icy, skeletal hands to wrap around his ankles. They don’t. As he walks across the room he is still not able to entirely shake off the paranoia that he has always felt in this house, ever since coming here. Still he stops in front of the large mirror next to the stairs and meets his own gaze in its hazily reflective surface.

Carlito had warned him last week as he gave him the keys to the house: “Don’t look into mirrors. Don’t turn on the TV. And don’t, for fuck sake, ever go into the upstairs bedroom. The old woman sleeps there.”

Devin hadn’t broken any of these rules, and still the ghosts of the house had plagued him for days up until Vahri’s sudden appearance at his gate. And he had not actually been into the upstairs bedroom until she, as well, had informed him about “the woman upstairs”. Tonight, after Seth’s departure, he had slept in the huge four poster bed for the first time – just to prove to the house (and himself) that he could. And no old, bony woman had made him company. Not that he is aware of, at least.

Fuck you, he writes across the dusty mirror with his index finger. Then he pauses for a moment and listens closely. The house creaks silently in the autumn wind, but no indignant ghosts retort with a creepy comeback. He hopes that this is not for lack of coming up with one, but that that ghosts have actually left the house. He hurries down the stairs before he can be proven wrong.

***

He sits in the kitchen with his bag turned over in front of him. Books, notes and pictures lie scrambled on top of the table with not even a real semblance of order. Devin picks up one note, page and image after another, studying them and taking notes in a worn notebook.

Visiting Teneo’s last known haunt was the first thing he had done when he had returned to Los Angeles one week earlier. Of course he had found nothing useful there, apart from lethal traps and empty potion bottles. Teneo had not been known for making things easy on his wards when he was alive, and Devin had not expected his old master to be any less difficult as a dead man.

Having ruled out that place, Devin had gone on to visiting all the previous hiding placed he knew Teneo to have frequented over the years. That had not given him much to go on either, except the knowledge that nothing was to be found there.

Now he sits here studying every bit and piece of information about his old master that he has been able to collect. Photographs of Teneo together with different unknown people, verses on rhyme found scrawled inside books Devin has stolen from the man’s old study and lists of names of people that might know something.

In his hand right now, he holds a picture of John Harpist. Devin feels his teeth clench together at the mere sight of the man he once called “brother”. John had been Teneo’s other apprentice. He was about the same age as Devin, and they had learned about the darkness and the forbidden but omnipotent Abyss together during endless nights of Teneo’s stern tuition.

Sure, there had been competition and some jealousy between the two of them concerning their master’s attention and approval, but Devin had trusted John with everything. With his secrets and with his life. All the more terrible had been the blow then, when John Harpist sold him out to the city’s coven leaders.

Devin will never forget the evening when the large, dark car had pulled up in front of his door. Out had stepped five just as darkly clad mages. They had forced his door open and dragged him with them into their vehicle. Ha had not been able to do anything to stop them.

Then there had been a trial – of sorts. The coven leaders had accused him of being in league with “dark forces”, of being a sacromancer, as it were. They knew this because someone had tipped them off. It hadn’t taken Devin very long to figure out who this someone was.

The evidence had been overwhelming. There had been no chance in hell – or the Abyss for that matter – for Devin to get himself out of the situation with a cleared name. The judges had been somewhat swayed by his tear-filled act of remorse, however – and also by his pledge that he had been tricked into it by some dangerous sacromancer mastermind. He did not name Teneo, of course, and also refrained from giving them John. He was not a snitch, after all. But he had given them the name of the poor, half mad magician living on his street, in whose basement he had some time previously hidden some highly compromising materials.

The so called trial had ended with the coven leaders condescending to sparing Devin’s life, granted one condition: that he leave the city and never return. And Devin had grudgingly honoured that exile for several years, all the while plotting his revenge on John Harpist. Teneo’s sudden death had given him the perfect excuse to return.

Sitting by the kitchen table in his until recently extremely haunted house, Devin Murdock now puts down the photo of his sworn nemesis and lights a cigarette. He never smoked indoors while the ghosts still shared the house with him, but now there is no one he needs to accommodate. He needs to think.

Who knew Teneo well enough, apart from John, to know where he might have hidden his secret stuff? Who, apart from John, might even know where Teneo has been buried? He didn’t keep many friends when he was alive – rather his closest ones had been enemies he’d been wise enough to keep close. No one he might have told about his deepest secrets.

Then Devin sits straight up when the thought suddenly strikes him. Ade. Teneo’s old servant has always been around, and the old sacromancer has probably told him everything there is to know. Because Ade can’t snitch – Ade is undead. Teneo dug him up and brought him back to life during one of his many sick necromantic experiments long before Devin and John had come into the picture. None of them knew what Ade had been in life, or if his name had really been Ade back then or if it was some sick joke of Teneo’s, but there was no uncertainties about what he had become after being brought back from his early grave: an undead serf without a will of his own. If anyone has been let in on Teneo’s last wishes and thoughts, it is probably him.

Devin gets up from his chair and hurriedly sweeps all the notes and photos back into his bag. Since he has not been able to find even a trace of Ade in any of Teneo’s old dwellings, and since Ade has done nothing to contact him with information, only two plausible possibilities remain. Either John has already found Ade and laid claim on all his knowledge about their former master, or Ade has gone into hiding.

Something tells Devin that if John Harpist had found the undead servant already, he would not have been able to refrain from gloating about it. Devin knows John well enough to be pretty certain about this. This makes him dare to hope that Ade has actually fled the field and bunkered up somewhere. If that is the case, there might still be time for Devin to find him. And he knows just the place to go for such intel. He rushed out the door and hopes against all hope that John has not gotten there first.

***

“The Back Shack” is a place that really lives up to its unflattering name. Located at the end of an unhospitable alley in a rather dodgy suburb, Devin cannot imagine the video rental shop gets many weekly visitors. The fact that the shopfront window still displays old, bleached VCR-tape boxes only adds to this suspicion. If Devin had not known what really drew profit to this place, he would have ruled it off as a front for some mobster money laundry operation. But he knows better.

The little bell above the door chimes as he walks into the shop. It is like entering another world – or at least another time. The shelves are lined with the boxes of old VCR-blockbusters and on the walls hang faded posters of by now faded movie stars. The place even has a not-so-discrete porno section, where the pictures on the boxes show underwear stretching so far above the hips of their victims as to remind more of wardrobe themed horror than anything else.

Behind the counter stands Roland, and he’s staring intently at Devin.

“Hello Dev. Have you come to return Highlander two?”

Devin just stares back at him for two entire seconds. Has he ever borrowed that lame ass movie? Or is this some kind of test? “No”, he says then and walks up to the counter. “I’ve come to pay you well for information.”

Roland scratches his bearded neck and seems to struggle to come up with a comeback. Devin can clearly follow the process of battle, failure and resignation on his face. “Okay, then”, Roland mutters finally. “But you’ll have to say the password.”

“For Christ’s sake, Roland. Aren’t we past this already?”

But Roland stands firm. “Password.”

Devin sighs. “Alright.” He puts his elbows on the counter and leans closer. Roland’s breath smells of old potato chips and Mountain Dew, with a tinge of alibi toothpaste. “Yippkayeh motherfucker”, Devin whispers and immediately feels like the most embarrassing idiot alive.

But Roland seems pleased. “Good”, he says while nodding annoyingly complacently. “Now follow me into the back room, and we’ll see what we can do you for.”

Devin walks behind the counter and watches as Roland starts pushing one of the IKEA shelves to the side. The big man breathes heavily as he struggles with the apparently heavy piece of furniture. When a gap forms between the shelf and the wall, Devin can see that there is a door behind it. Not until now does he remember that there has always been a door there, and that it leads to the basement. He thinks that this is a very impractical solution for someone who uses the door often.

“Nice secret door”, he says, voice oozing with sarcasm.

“Thanks”, Roland says and brushes his hands together after finishing moving the shelf. “I came up with the idea myself after watching The Cube.”

Devin has seen The Cube. This door is nothing like it. “Ah”, he says in lack of a better response.

“Come now”, Roland smirks and opens the basement door. “You’ve only seen the top of the ice berg.” And he starts walking down the stairs.

Devin sighs, shrugs and follows.

***

Anyone questioning the profitability of the video rental store called The Back Shack would be entirely correct. Even though every month or so someone actually (and for some strange reason) does come in to rent an old tape, Roland would never be able to make ends meet by running the store exclusively. But while the uninitiated might be inclined to accuse him of running some kind of criminal money laundry scam, the truth is far stranger than that.

The basement of the video store is another story entirely than its outdated ground floor. Here the shelves are new, and obviously carefully chosen to follow a strict sci-fi-modernistic look. They form something of a corridor or pathway – Devin would rather call it a labyrinth – leading this way and that until it finally drops the visitor off in front of a wide desk made of black glass.

Behind the desk, a dozen flat television screens are aglow with images from an assortment of news channels, both local and international. Just as many video recording devices are humming in the background, saving everything that happens on the screens onto their enormous hard drives.

Roland Hayes has built his own kingdom down here, beneath his derelict video rental store. Here he gathers information about everything that is reported in the global media that can, even if it sometimes takes a tremendous knack for imagination and make believe, be interpreted as traces of the supernatural. Ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, were-people – you name it.

Here he keeps folders upon folders containing newspaper clippings about everything from strange light phenomena and haunted apartments to eerie echoes on the phone line and uncanny family relations in isolated back water towns. He records every TV broadcast from a chosen selection of the world’s major news stations and then carefully filters through them each night to decide what passages are keepers and which ones are not. Those that are chosen are then meticulously sorted into digital folders on one the many external hard drives that line the back wall.

Roland doesn’t need his downtrodden video rental store to generate any income for him; he gets all the money he needs, and plenty more at that, from selling the information he gathers down here to anyone who might be in need of it. Vampire hunters, paranormal investigators, jealous undead relatives and over informed goth kids all find their way into his store sooner or later – and as long as they have been let in on the secret password by someone who trusts them, Roland is not a picky seller. Not at all, actually.

So though he might not be the prettiest or most socially adept young man (or not so young anymore, but you get the drill) on the surface above, down here in the basement of the Back Shack Roland Hayes is the uncontested king. Devin knows this, and has used his services once or twice in the past. Now he hopes for his help in locating the undead servant Ade.

Roland walks behind the back glass desk and sits down in a high backed chair, rests his elbows on the table and puts his fingertips together in a business like fashion as copied straight from some fictional villain in a movie. The transformation away from the slightly socially lost video rental guy from upstairs is complete. Devin just stands there, feeling increasingly awkward in the middle of this nerdy display of power and status.

“Dev, Dev, Dev”, Roland muses theatrically. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“What, what do you mean this time? I never told you about… Roland, are you just making lines up now to sound cool?”

Roland retrieves a cigar from a drawer in his desk and puts it at the corner of his mouth, but doesn’t light it. “Anger doesn’t become you, Dev”, he says calmly, as if he were the Godfather and Devin a young and unruly nephew. “Ease down and tell me how I can help you.”

Devin draws a deep breath and slowly counts to ten. No, fifteen. People don’t tell him to “ease down”. Not if they want to keep their faces intact, at least. But he needs Roland’s help, and so he tries his best to keep his face composed and his voice calm.

“I need to go through your files, Roland. All the weird that’s happened after October first.”

Roland raises an eyebrow. “Globally?”

“No, just L.A. I need to find someone who’s probably gone into hiding, but can’t possibly be very good at it.”

“Ah”, Roland says and rises from his chair. “I think I understand. You’re looking for Tenoe, right?”

Devin flinches. “It’s Teneo. And no. And what the hell do you know about that?”

“Chillax”, Roland says as he walks over to one of the closest shelves and starts browsing through the folders and boxes that fill it to the brim. “I just heard his name being mentioned by some customers recently, that’s all. Sounded like he was up to something… dark.”

“Something dark, alright”, Devin snorts. “He’s dead. Must’ve been that you heard.”

Roland flashes him a perplexed look. “Yeah, well…” He hesitates, then turns his attention back to the shelves. “Must have been that then, I guess”, he mutters.

But he has gotten Devin’s attention now. Can I be so lucky…? He walks up closer to Roland and leans against the shelf next to him. “But who was it that you heard talking about him? And what did they say?”

Roland just shakes his head. “Nah, didn’t say much actually. Not about anything. They talked briefly about this… Teneo guy as if in awe. Maybe a little scared, I don’t know. They weren’t here for intel about him though, of course. Must know they wouldn’t find it here anyways, he is – was – too sharp to leave traces in the news.”

“But what were they after? And when was this?”

Roland smirks and shakes his head. “Oh no, buddy. You know I don’t give out information about clients. Like, ever. If they’re not in the paper, that is. And these two certainly weren’t.”

“Ah, so there were two of them?” Now it’s Devin’s turn to smirk.

Roland bangs his palm against the side of the shelf. “Damn it, now I remember why I shouldn’t talk to you. Okay, there were two of them. But that’s all the info you’re getting on them from me. Okay?”

Devin nods. “Okay”, he says, still feeling that he has tripped upon an important piece of information here. He’ll save it for later, for when he has time to properly contemplate it. He makes a mental note to do so, and then turns to Roland again. “So anyway, how’s it going with those files?”

Roland seems enormously relieved again at the change of subject, and hastily pulls out a large file folder from the shelf in front of him. “Ah, here it is”, he exclaims and operosely carries the heavy binder over to the desk where he then lets it down with a heavy thump.

Devin follows him, and then stands there watching as Roland hums and flips through the pages until he seemingly finds what he is looking for. All the pages are filled with glued on newspaper clippings, and this one is no exception. But Roland points to a handwritten note in the corner and smiles contentedly. “Here you have it – the first of October this year. If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, I’ll fetch you the latest binder as well.”

Devin nods and then immediately sits down in Roland’s chair and starts reading.

Roland seems a little taken aback by being so hastily brushed aside, and remains hovering at the corner of Devin’s eye for another hesitant moment. Finally he clears his throat. “Do you want my help, or should I–”

“Just leave me in peace, will you, Roland?”, Davin says without looking up. He is already irrevocably engulfed in the newspaper clippings on this first page of many that he will have to go through today – every weird news report that has happened since Teneo’s death. He is hoping that Ade will have happened to revealed himself somehow and gotten the attention of mortal society.

Roland huffs a little indignantly. “As you wish, sir”, he then snaps and withdraws into the winding labyrinth of sci-fi-modernistic metal shelves that make up his uncontested underground kingdom.

***

Devin sighs. He’s been sitting crouched in this gods forsaken basement for over four hours and his back and his brain are starting to ache. The sun seems to have set behind the dark screens covering the small windows by the ceiling, and the sound from the humming drives and servers in the room is all but putting him to sleep.

He empties his eleventh cup of bad machine coffee and makes another note in his already almost full scrawled notebook. He’s found several interesting pieces of news already. Most of them he’s been able (or forced) to rule off as unrelated to his search, but he’s still saved some of the most thrilling ones for later; he might still be able to find something worthwhile by investigating them closer.

Three newspaper clippings have been able to entirely catch and sustain his attention, however. He has put them in front of himself on top of the black glass desk, symmetrically lined up as if this could help him determine if any of them is the answer to his questions.

The first of the news pieces is dated almost two weeks back, right before Devin arrived in town. It is illustrated with a rather large colour photo depicting the outside of an apartment door, closed off by police tape. The headline reads: “Mysterious Murder Confounds the Police: ‘The Doors Were Locked and the Safety Chain Was On’”. There is a small chance that the dead body is Ade, and that someone has found him by accident, mistaking him for a dead and abused body. Devin doesn’t really think so, but every clue is worth looking into at this stage.

The next piece is dated one week ago and has no picture attached to it. It is just a short text informing the reader that the police has received several calls from worried citizens, reporting that nightly screams and noises could be heard from inside an old and boarded up hotel building at the outskirts of the city. The text says that the police has looked into it, but have been unable to find anything that would explain the worrisome sounds. Devin doesn’t know what to make of this one, but since the place described in the article seems to be located close to one of Teneo’s previous laboratories it might be worth looking into it.

He gets to the third and final news piece, and when he takes a closer look at its picture he immediately knows that he has struck gold. The headline reads: “Fabulous Living Statue Impresses Locals”, and the black and white image shows what looks like a marble statue of a man standing in the middle of a small square surrounded by cheap barber shops and aesthetically questionable pizza shop windows. Lots of people in different ages are awalk in the picture, probably on their way to or from their respective shopping rounds. But some of the people have also stopped in front of the statue, taking photos and throwing coins into a hat at the statue’s feet.

But it is no statue, not a real one at least. It’s Ade Handma. Devin has no trouble recognizing Teneo’s old servant, who has aided Devin in so many of his experiments and failures in the past. The only differences from what Devin is used to are the colour of Ade’s skin and the style of his dress.

Ade the living statue is covered from head to foot in some kind of white paint or powder, that gives him the marble like appearance of an actual statue. The picture is not very good, but it is still evident what kind of clothes he is wearing. A knee long trench coat and high legged boots – and a tall top hat.

Devin shakes his head in disbelief. Of all the places and weird hobbies, you’ve really taken the prize. He collects the three newspaper clippings and stuffs them between two pages in his notebook. Then he raises from the chair and leaves the basement.

When he reaches the top of the stairs he finds the door to the shop closed and blocked. For the blink of an eye he panics, thinking that Roland has deliberately locked him in – maybe to sell him out to some of his enemies. But then he hears noises on the other side of the door, and realizes that Roland has customers – normal ones this time, judging by the sounds of it.

“No”, he hears Roland say in a muffled voice, “we don’t stock DVD:s or Blue rays. Why? Well, why don’t you have a VCR player? It’s just the way things are, dude. Life’s a pain, get used to it, as Geena Davis once said. What, you don’t know who that is? Then just leave. Get out of my sight.”

Not until he hears the doorbell chime as the customer – or customers – leave the shop does Devin knock on the inside of the door. He immediately hears something heavy being dragged outside, and soon the door opens to let in a stream of painfully bright light.

“You find anything?”, Roland says as he lets Devin out.

Devin nods and walks around to the right side of the counter, not wishing to smell Roland’s musky breath more than necessary. “Yeah”, he says when he has put a safe distance – and a piece of furniture – between himself and the other man. “I found some stuff that will probably help me. How much do I owe you?”

Roland leans against the counter and fixes Devin with a knowing and unpleasant gaze. “That depends”, he says.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He tries to sound unaffected, but he is actually getting worried now.

Roland sucks his own lip theatrically. “Well, I would say it depends on how much you want me to keep quiet about you having been here. I just found out that you are – how do you put it? – slightly incriminated in the eyes of your magic law system, ain’t that right?”

When Devin doesn’t say anything, Roland continues in an even more smug voice. “You know I don’t talk about my clients, but you know how it is. Sometimes I slip. It’s only human, after all. But I could try a little extra to keep your visit a secret. And what you asked me to help you with. But it will cost you.”

Devin feels his face heating. Nobody threatens him. Not if they want to stay alive, at least. One, two, three… He takes a deep breath. “I should just kill you”, he whispers.

“You certainly could”, Roland says calmly. “But you should know that I’ve recently joined the Paranormal Workers’ Union, PWU. If you touch me, I can promise you they’ll get in touch as well.”

“I don’t know who the fuck those people are.”

“Oh, trust me, you’re better off that way. So, do tell me, would five grand be a reasonable price for my silence?”

Devin quickly contemplates his options. He could kill this obnoxious mortal, but that would certainly create more problems for him than it would solve. Even counting out this weird Union, disposing of a dead body is not something he has time with right now. He sighs deeply and makes a decision.

“Alright”, he says and retrieves his wallet. He has started counting the bills when Roland clears his throat.

“And then there’s the payment for the information”, he says and produces a calculator from a drawer. “First we have the starting fee, that’s eighty k. Then you were down there for… let’s see… going on five hours. That’s fifty more. And I suspect you’ve stolen some of my material? Then that’s another seventy. So you owe me, including of course the no-snitching-fee, a total of…”— he silences as he puts the numbers into the machine – “five thousand and two hundred dollars.”

Roland looks up at Devin and smiles victoriously. Devin stares back at him, unable to entirely mask his provoked anger this time. He slams the bills down onto the counter without saying anything, and then turns around to leave.

As he puts his hand on the door handle he can hear Roland clearing his throat again.

“What?”, he says without turning around.

“I hope you realize, Dev, that this was only the first down payment.”

Four, five, six…”Fuck you”, Devin says and leaves the shop.

***

It’s the middle of the night now, and the small square is almost empty. Some drunk teenagers occupy a collection of benches at its far corner and an old lady is playing the accordion outside one of the pizza restaurants. Other than that, the scene rests in silence and solitude.

At the middle of the square stands the statue, dead still in the cold autumn air. The trench coat flutters a little in the wind, but other than that nothing gives away the fact that this is no statue at all but a living being. Or at least something that used to be one.

Devin approaches silently, walking slowly across the darkening square as the first drops of a gentle autumn rain starts falling from the cloudy skies. Ade has not spotted him yet, as he has his back turned. Devin watches his coat move in the wind and the white paint run slightly in the places where it is hit by tiny raindrops. He looks so lonely. So… sad. I guess that’s what you get when you are brought back from the dead, abused for years and then left suddenly on your own without purpose.

Not until he is right behind him does Devin address his old friend – if you might call it that.

“Hello, Ade”, he says and drives his hands deeper into his pockets. The weather and the temperature are really making themselves difficult.

Ade reflexively breaks character at the mention of his name and quickly turns around, a frightened look on his face under the thick layers of white paint. Then he seems to recognize Devin, and the fear in his eyes turns into horror, then panic. “No”, he screams and starts running, his coat waving behind him like a flag and his tall hat falling off his head.

Devin is not late to pick up the hunt. The few people still populating the area turn their heads to look in fascination as the famous, white painted living statue is chased from his usual spot by a stranger all dressed in black. Devin realizes this must be quite the sight for them, but right now he doesn’t care – he’ll deal with potentially dangerous witnesses later. What is important at the moment is catching this overdue corpse and find out what he knows about Teneo’s legacy.

Ade is fast, despite his undead state, and they are well off the square before Devin catches up to him at the mouth of a dark alley. Ade has just rounded the corner when Devin reaches out and grabs hold of the collar of his coat. The sudden stop makes Ade lose his balance and fall backwards. The pull of the fall in turn makes Devin lose his grip on the by wet paint slippery collar. With nothing to break or block his fall, Ade falls onto his back amongst the trash and rubble with a painful thud.

“Please, please don’t kill me. Please don’t…” Ade lies on his back in the midst of broken bottles and suspiciously smelling plastic bags and protectively raises his hands in front of his face. As if Devin was out to hurt him – and as if that useless gesture would help him if that had been the case.

Dev steps around a box of broken lightbulbs and is now standing over the terrified Ade, hands now back in his pockets to conceal the fact that one of them is now irritatingly covered in smudges of white paint.

“Please….”, Ade whimpers again.

Devin studies his tragic form for a heartbeat. Although Ade’s entire body is covered in paint, he can clearly tell that the man has not aged a day since he saw him last. Not surprising, of course – the dead don’t age. He still looks to be a tall and slim male in his early forties, short and tidy haircut and intense grey eyes. Now, of course, panic has his face transformed into something less impressive than what used to be the case when he was the respected head servant of the notorious sacromancer Teneo. Pathetic… “Do you really think that I’m here to kill you?”, Devin says.

Ade pauses and stares at him, seemingly taken off guard. “You aren’t?”

“No. Although I guess I should. It’s not your place to run away just because your master is dead. Those like you are part of the inheritance, you know. I could count this as stealing from me and… John.” The last word comes with a bitter aftertaste. He’d really like to get his hands on that bastard as well. All in due time…

Ade crawls into a sitting position with his back against the wall. Devin is certain that were it not for that wall, this desperate defunct would be up and running away from him again in no time. “I’m so, so sorry, master Devin. I–” Devin slaps him across the face.

“No True Names, remember? Jesus, I should just kill you. You’re a walking liability. It’s Dev, you know that.”

Ade nods eagerly, fearfully. “I’m sorry, master… Dev. It will not happen again, I swear. And… And I am truly sorry for running away as well. Or, in fact, I was not really running, although I can see how it might have seemed like that. I was just–”

“Looking after our best interests, I’m sure. Listen, Ade. Cut the crap already. Your little vacation is over. We’ll get you into something more suitable, and then we’re going to talk. And you’re going to tell me everything you know about Teneo’s death.”

And the one called Ade Handma only continues nodding in fear as Devin reaches down and carelessly pulls him back onto his feet. “And no funny business this time”, Devin says as he leads him out of the alley. “Teneo’s not the only mage ever to learn Arcana Excessum, death magic. I could turn you back into a rotting pile of meat before you’ve had time to blink. You’d do well to remember that.”

Ade’s shoulders drop even lower. “That’s just what master John told me”, he sighs heavily.

Devin freezes and roughly turns Ade by the shoulders to face him. “What, John came to you?”

Ade stares at him, panic growing in his eyes again. “Yes, yes he did. I thought you knew. Right after Master passed away. He… Well, this was before I left the mansion. I wasn’t going to, see. I didn’t plan to. It was John who told me to leave. Master Teneo had ordered me to stay where I was and wait for the two of you, to direct you to his grave. And master John was the first of you to come.”

What the actual… Anger and frustration are bubbling through Devin’s blood stream now. “So John came? You mean, John has already found and taken all Teneo’s books and artefacts? You showed him right to them? You fucking undead fuck!” He’s almost screaming, and shakes Ade by the shoulders so hard that the servant’s head is bobbing back and forth.

“Please, master Devin, please, you–”

“It’s Dev, you idiot. Dev!” For his inner eye, Devin sees himself choking the sorry creature before him with his bare hands. He sees himself tearing him limb from limb until nothing remains but twitching shreds of what was once a resurrected man.

“No, I beg you”, Ade whimpers. “Please, I only did what–”

“Why wasn’t I informed, huh? Why was it only John who got the news of Teneo’s death, and not I? Why did I have to hear about it from him, of all people? Can you answer me that, huh?”

“Because” – Ade’s body is being shaken so hard that every syllable sounds like seven – “Because you were not. In. Town. Because you were hi–hiding. Not easy to… to find.”

Devin pauses for a moment. This is actually true, he realizes. Ade finding him where he had been holed up during his exile would have actually surprised him in the extreme. “Okay”, he says hastily. “But you still gave everything to John, didn’t you? All the stuff that was my legacy to claim as much as his. Mine even more, I´d say. John is a fucking snitch and traitor, everybody knows that. You know what he did to me, right?”

“Yes, yes of course I know about that”, Ade says hurriedly. “And I am extremely sorry that you have had to live through all that, young master. I truly am. But, young master, I have given nothing to master John except for information about where to find the grave. Just as the Master instructed me before his death. I swear.”

Devin stops shaking him entirely now. “Wait, you didn’t give him anything?”

Relief growing in his eyes, Ade shakes his head vigorously. “No, nothing. As the Master lay dying he instructed me on what to do after his death. He told me to bury his body in the old mausoleum and then send for the two of you, for you and master John. Then I was to stay put in the mansion and wait for one of you to show up. He didn’t tell me anything about any books or artefacts, he only wanted me to tell you where he was buried. So you could go pay your respects, I reckoned.”

“And then John showed up?”

“Yes, he did”, Ade replies. “He came, and I did as I had been instructed. He, too, asked me about the books and the other things, but I told him the truth – that I didn’t know where Teneo had hidden them. I instead told him where to find the grave, and that I had of course sent for you as well. I suggested that he wait for you, and that you go there together. I was thinking that the Master would probably have liked that, for the two of you to make peace finally.”

“But he didn’t wait”, Devin says coldly.

“No, he didn’t”, Ade says and suddenly looks away – seemingly afraid to continue meeting Devin’s gaze. “And before he went to find the grave… Well, he told me – no, ordered me – to go into hiding. To leave the mansion, find a place to hide and to wait for him there. He said that he would come and get me as soon as he had claimed Teneo’s heritage. I would serve him just as I served Master before he died. And I was also to… He told me not to contact you, or tell you anything – even about the grave. He said that he would kill me if I did.”

“I’m sure he would”, Devin mutters. “But he didn’t come back, did he?”

“No”, Ade says gloomily. “I hid completely for several days, in the woods and completely off the radar. But then the rain – and the animals… Master Dev, I simply had to get a roof over my head. But I had no money and I knew nobody, so–”

“Thus the marble act, I get it. I hope you realize that you’re not very good at keeping ‘off the radar’, Ade”, Devin says and produces the statue newspaper clipping from his pocket. “This is how I found you.”

Ade stares at the black and white picture and the headline and swallows hard. “Oh. Fuck”, he whispers.

“That’s right”, Devin says sternly. “A walking liability, that’s what you are.” He puts away the piece of paper again. “But it could have been worse. You should be happy that it was I who found you, and not a paranormal investigator or some stupid witch hunters.”

“Yes, of course I am grateful for that”, Ade says in a voice that’s hardly convincing at all.

Devin, however, doesn’t care about Ade’s questionable gratitude. “Come now”, he says and starts dragging Ade along again. “This alley – and you – are stinking. And you have a grave to show me before I decide what to do with you next.”

And the two of them leave the alley and walk into the waxing city night, both entirely unaware of the pair of piercing, amber eyes that have been watching their entire exchange from the shadows.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-09


You can find the next part here.

Seven Deadly Sins II: Avaritia

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread. The previous poem, “Seven Deadly Sins I: Superbia”, can be found here. The next one, “Luxuria”, can be found here.


Next dawn I reached a city
its walls were made of gold
Its people heaped with riches
and endless wealth of old

And towering above it
in contest with the skies
There was a ruinous castle
its windows full of eyes

My courage almost left me
when I my gaze let glide
Up to its very summit
and saw what hid inside

For from the rooftop terrace
a pair of eyes met mine
And those two eyes were yellow;
I knew this was a sign

And when it left the shadows
I could make no mistake
For from its wolf like body grew
a tail as from a snake

And as I stood there frozen
the fiend let out a roar
And avaricious thralls swarmed
out every gate and door

“Can you see that crystal?”
the demon frothed on.
“This thief has stolen it from you,
retrieve it or it’s gone”.

The people fell upon me,
drew blood and cursed my name
I fled towards the castle,
my lungs and veins aflame

I darted up the staircase,
and still the mob gave chase
Within my hand the crystal
was already ablaze

I fell onto the rooftop
and quickly shut the door
And suddenly stood face to face
with the fiend I’d seen before

“You’re Mammon” I said, trembling
and saw the monster nod
Its vicious smile grew wider
“You stand before a god”

“You people will obey me
because it’s in your blood
To strive for gold and glory,
so bow now in the mud”

“My favour lends you riches,
your pledge will give you wealth
And if you feed on others
I’ll also grant you health.”

“But if you still defy me
you know how this shall end.
Your death will be more painful
than you can comprehend.”

I hesitated briefly
then went down on my knee
“Please spare my life, and in return
accept this gift from me”

I offered forth the crystal
now glowing like a blaze.
The demon reached out hungrily,
a mad look on his face.

But in the very instant
he closed his claws around
the gem its light exploded
and magic had him bound.

Unsteadily I stood up,
and heard the people call
And realized my triumph
had not cured them at all

They screamed at me in anger
and gave the door a thud
And I knew Mammon had not lied;
The greed is in our blood

So I fled from the castle,
not once did I look back
Luxuria was out there,
and I was on its track.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Greed – Mammon. The Twitter hashtag is  – go find more flash fiction there! The next poem in the series, “Seven Deadly Sins III: Luxuria”, can be found here.

The Sound of Silence

When Sarah Johnson woke up it was well past noon – she could tell because the sun was already up. This far up north that didn’t happen early in the day during winter. She groaned as she moved and felt how stiff her arms and legs were. Her head hurt like hell and she realized that she was lying on a flight of concrete stairs. One of the steps pressed painfully against her right temple and as she drew closer to her senses a heavy nausea grew alongside the pain. Somewhere in the distance she could hear traffic passing but where she lay sprawled only the ringing in her ears broke the silence. Fuck. She had done it again.

The palms of her still numb hands slipped on a thin layer of ice as she tried to rise. With clumsy movements she managed to maneuver herself  into a sitting position on the stairs, and that’s when she saw the blood. She shivered. Where her head had been, the ice coating the concrete step was tinted a dirty, dark red. Her hand moved to her temple and the nausea rose as she felt the jagged edges of the cut there. The blood had coagulated or frozen and it was impossible to know how deep the wound was – but what she could feel of it was enough to make her flinch. Being drunk and falling asleep in stupid places was not entirely new to her, although most often it at least happen indoors. It was stupid, but usually it had ended well. This time however, she realized with a pang of fear, she was actually lucky to still be alive.

She dragged herself up with the help of a metal handrail running alongside the stairs. For several seconds she just stood there, panting heavily and trying to get her pulse to calm down. No matter how much her lungs worked, she couldn’t quite seem to get enough air into them. She felt lightheaded and the ringing in her ears persisted as she took in her surroundings. Below the stairs was a walking trail emerging from a tunnel running beneath a now silent railway track. She realized that she actually wasn’t that far from home. This was not the road she usually took from the bus but occasionally she did. It was a bit shorter but ran through a somewhat bad part of her area and was not the smartest choice after sunset. Drunk, badly dressed for the cold and unconscious in a bad part of town at night. She understood that she should count herself lucky to have woken up at all, even not considering the nasty cut to her head.

Using the handrail for support she managed to climb the stairs and ended up on a small yard surrounded by unkempt tower blocks. A chill wind tore at her sparse clothing and she hugged herself as she started staggering homewards. The prospect of a hot shower and a nice cup of tea afterwards kept her moving forward even as her entire body protested violently. That, and a promise to herself that she would never get so drunk again. At least not soon.

***

There was something wrong with the thermostat. She had turned it little by little until it was now all the way towards red, and still the water was lukewarm at best. She stood under the shower head and shivered like a leaf, desperation kicking in. This was the third shower she took tonight. The first one had managed to warm her, but once out in the living room and wrapped in four blankets before the TV she had quickly begun to feel cold again. Her lungs ached and her throat and mouth felt dry and sore. Spending the night out in the cold had certainly left its marks and she had understood that she was running an increasing fever. It had not been long before she was back in the shower again, but by then the real shivering fits had already begun kicking in.

Now she stood here for the third time. It was almost midnight and she was freezing like hell despite her best efforts to turn up the temperature of the running water. She had to call somebody, get them to fix this. But first she needed to take something for the fever. She stepped out of the shower and tore a dry towel from the rack, desperately draping it around her shaking body. When she turned to shut off the water she suddenly stopped dead with her hand on the tap. The soap bar resting on a plastic shelf right beneath the water spurting from the shower head had shrunk to an unrecognizable size. Like it had somehow melted away. She stared, blinked and then quickly turned off the water that to her trembling hand did not feel hot at all. Resolutely ignoring the heavy steam that had formed on her bathroom mirror she then hurried towards the kitchen, desperately hunting for aspirin.

***

When she awoke it was already dark outside again. She had slept through the entire day and the fever had given way to a numb and weak feeling in her entire body. She had expected her sheets to be all sweaty and damp but they weren’t. Instead, a disturbing, sweet smell had filled the room as she slept and she sighed as she looked over the edge of the bed to see if she had thrown up during the night. When she couldn’t find anything on the floor or in the bed she settled for opening up the window and hoping that it was just her illness-wrecked senses playing tricks on her.

Down on the street people were going about their business as usual, cars and pedestrians filling up the winter darkness far below her. She was struck by a strange feeling of unreality, as if she were watching everything through a thick two-way mirror, unable to be seen herself. This illusion was suddenly broken, however, when she noticed a person standing on the other side of the street with his eyes fixed on her building – staring straight at her. There was something deeply disturbing about his whole character and she began feeling sick again. Shivering she hurriedly closed the window, ignoring the putrid smell that still clung to everything in the room – especially to her. It was nothing, she was seeing things. She should call somebody, but the reception at the hospital had closed already and she didn’t feel ill enough to call the A&E.

***

Three sandwiches and a large glass of orange juice were staring accusingly at her from the low living room table between her and the television set. She knew she should be hungry but still couldn’t bring herself to eating or drinking anything. Instead she focused on the TV screen where the third season of Gilmore Girls  was served in marathon by her old and struggling DVD player. She really loved that series, had re-watched it four times already over the years. Laughing at the witty dialogues made her temporarily forget that something was very, very wrong with her.

She opened her mouth to burst out laughing at yet another absurd situation in the fictional family, when sudden panic struck her. She couldn’t make a sound. She tried screaming, but there was no air in her lungs and she realized that she had not been breathing for a long time. As if she had simply… forgotten to do it. She drew a deep breath and finally the noises from the TV were accompanied by her own sounds as she started sobbing uncontrollably – but no tears came. She then sat there in the couch, fixedly breathing deeply and rhythmically for a long time as if that could somehow erase the strange experience she had just had. Could a person die from forgetting to draw breath? She had never heard of it. Didn’t the body do those things on reflex?

She jumped as the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but wanted so badly to hear another person’s voice that she answered anyway.

“Hello?” Her voice was rugged and dry. She was surprised at how hard it was to form words.

Silence. The sound of… not breathing, something else. Maybe a faint backdrop of traffic. Then, suddenly, a voice.

“Have you realized yet?” And somehow she knew. That guy on the street.

She dialed off, more frightened than her internal logic could account for. She got up and frantically closed the curtains. After hurrying through the apartment and turning off all the lights she wrapped herself in blankets and curled up at the edge of the couch, listening and shaking in the darkness and silence. Her pulse didn’t go up, however, and she realized that she had once again forgotten to breath.

***

She knew that she must be dreaming, but still she didn’t wake up. It was night. She was on the concrete stairs again, but facing their base. The frozen blood from the cut on her temple still glowed dark against the icy white covering the steps. She knew she should be freezing in the cold air, but she felt nothing. Below the stairs the narrow walking trail begun, barely illuminated by a flickering street lamp. The circle of its light didn’t stretch far from the base of the stairs, and beyond it reigned darkness. At the edge of the visible world she could see the mouth of the tunnel gaping at her. For the first time she shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. She knew that she should be able to see light at the end of that short tunnel, but she saw nothing but blackness in there.

Despite herself she started walking down the stairs, step by step and fear growing inside her. She didn’t want to know what waited for her in there and still something beckoned her closer with its terrible silence. She stepped down onto the walking trail but stopped in the middle of the light circle cast by the lamp, feeling herself shrinking as she stared into the pitch dark. There was something very wrong about everything. It looked exactly like the tunnel she had walked through on so many ill advised night strolls, but she knew from the bottom of her very being that it was nothing like it. This was something much older, darker, deeper, something masquerading as the well known just to draw her in. She realized that there was faint sound echoing from deep within the tunnel and she knew that she had heard it once before. In the background of a strange phone call. She turned and ran, but the staircase was dark and slippery and before she could do anything the sharp concrete steps rose up to meet her.

 ***

She woke with a start to a dark room filled with silence. Not even the sound of frantic heartbeats pulsing in her ears broke the eerie calm anymore. She got up, almost retching from the putrid taste sticking to her tongue and to her teeth. The smell was everywhere now but she didn’t even dare open the windows. What if he was still outside?

Her entire body felt stiff and almost didn’t obey her command to move into the bathroom. On the way there she glanced at the answering machine. She had been away from work for three days now and people were starting to call. She was desperate to talk to somebody, but somehow she was too tired to reach out. As if it would require a tremendous effort to penetrate the two-way mirror she had imagined earlier.

She tuned on the light in the bathroom but was instantly blinded and had to turn it off again. Her eyes didn’t seem capable of adjusting to the light anymore. She splashed some water into her face, hoping that it would make her feel better. It didn’t. She met her own eyes in the mirror and drew a shocked breath. She was so pale. Dark rings under her eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks made her look almost… dead. The insight frightened her and she hurried to turn on the light. And then she screamed.

It was not the mattness of her hair and her eyes, or the blueish tone of her skin. No, it was the sight of the scar at her temple. It had not healed at all and the edges of it seemed to have stretched and torn, as if the skin was beginning to come off from the skull. Reflexively her hand went to her mouth, and she stared into the mirror in horror as she realized that only two of the fingers on her right hand had their fingernails left. She bent over the toilet to throw up, but nothing came out. Nothing moved inside of her. It was as if all her organs and processes had actually stopped.

She screamed, a rough, parched scream that scared her even more, and dug her fingertips into her scalp as she staggered away from the mirror. Large bits and pieces of hair came off without her even tugging at it. She screamed again and ran into the living room.

She grabbed her phone and frantically dialed the emergency number, failing two times before her trembling fingers got it right. They left a viscous, sticky residue on the blinding screen but she didn’t care about that right now. She was falling apart, she couldn’t breathe and when she brought the phone to her face she realized that the putrid smell was actually emanating from her.

She almost couldn’t hear the operator’s voice as they took the call – were her ears shutting down as well? She groaned inarticulately, unable to make her tongue obey her.

“Miss? Can you hear me?” The operator’s voice fought its way through the two-way mirror and Sarah made another desperate attempt.

“Aheullph ghe”, she screamed and then realized that she could not close her jaws anymore. A guttural sound escaped her throat, but now she could barely hear herself. The world was growing silent. Even her vision was fading by the minute. Desperately she stared at the screen of her phone as it went from blurry green to an even blurrier red. The operator had ended the call. She tried to find the redial function, to find any function, but all she could see now was light and darkness.

Sarah screamed again, but this time there wasn’t even an attempt at coherent language. She didn’t know what was happening, but her body was shutting down all around her and there was nothing she could do. She didn’t even know if she was still sitting on the floor or if she had fallen over, all her senses were an ambiguous mess of dull impressions now and even her thoughts were sinking into a thick, clammy fog.

Then suddenly: a sound. The doorbell. The small vestige of her that could still feel panic and hope started kicking and screaming, forcing her near numb body to crawl towards the front door. She had heard the doorbell ring, she was sure of it. Or at least as sure as she could be of anything in this state. It must be someone from work, come to see how she was doing. They would help her, drive her to the hospital, everything would be alright, she would not die, she would not fall apart, she would not… She could not reach the door handle. Panic. She started scratching at the inside of the door. Faintly, uselessly, like an old, weak cat. She heard the doorbell ring again, closer this time. Don’t go away, she thought. Don’t leave me. I’m in here, I need help…

“Ah, fuck it”, a voice muttered on the other side of the door. She somehow recognized that voice. Then there was another sound, a scratching and then a click. Warm light flooded over her as the door opened towards the stairwell, blinding her again and making her try to shut her eyes. She realized that she couldn’t. A dark shape towered over her where she lay on the hallway carped, its silhouette a blurry blackness against the yellow light from outside. The shape stepped over her and closed the door, then bent down and looked straight into her dry, half seeing eyes.

“Well, there you are. You are a terrible hard one to reach, you know that?” Then she knew who he was and all she could feel suddenly was fear. What has this man done to me?

She tried to scream at him, to accuse him, to plead with him to leave her alone, to let her live, to help her…

“What was that?”, he said and she could have sworn that there was an unpleasant smile in those words. “Oh no, you’re not dying sweetie”, he said in a voice that didn’t try good enough to actually sound kind or caring.

She tried to protest, but his blurry silhouette just shook its head and put a finger to its lips to silence her. “No, not dying. Dead already, rather. Matter of fact, darling, I’m kind of surprised that you haven’t noticed. What with that smell and all. But what do I know, people never cease to surprise…”

He was silent for a moment, seemed to be eyeing her over. Sarah made a final attempt at speaking, but only succeeded in making the last trace of air leave her lungs in a tortured groan.

“Come, come, none of that now”, he said. “Being dead is not that bad, there are many perks to it actually. But yeah, you have obviously let yourself go way to far. But no worries”, he added and rose to his feet, “Vincent’s gonna fix you right up.”

She could hear his steps retire as he walked into the living room. She couldn’t even draw breath anymore. “Vincent, by the way, that’s me”, he continued from the other room. “In case you were wondering. But I reckon you’re not doing much of anything right now. Dead and walking for three days without feeding, well, that must be considered a rather crazy feat.” He was doing something over there in the living room, but it was not until he reemerged in her field of vision that she realized that he had removed the carped from the floor.

“People will probably talk”, he breezily continued, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. “Sure, they’ll say that it was mostly my fault for not reaching you sooner, but as I said honey, you’re a terribly stubborn specimen to say the least! Anyway, enough about that now. We have to get your rotting ass out of here so that my people can clean out the apartment. Can’t leave it stinking like this now, can we. Oh, is that your finger on the floor? Never mind, I’ll have someone bring all your parts later. Now, I hope you’re not offended if I do this…”

She could only stare blankly, flaccidly, as he bent down, put the carpet on the hallway floor and started wrapping her in it, rolling it around her layer by layer until all she could see was darkness and all she could smell was her own rotting body.

He lifted her up and carried her away, closing the door behind him as he went. He might have put her in a car, because soon she could hear the faint sound of an engine. All the while he kept on talking in that jovial, carefree tone of voice. She could hear him distantly through the thick fabric of the carpet.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. You’re no Miss Universe right now, but as soon as we figure out what your vitae is we’ll get you right back on track, you count on it. We’ve all been like you once, nobody’s judging. Or, well, maybe some, but not I. I’ve seen worse, I tell you. Having died and still not being able to, you know, leave the body… Well, I’ll tell you this. The first couple of weeks will be quite rough on you, I’ll be honest. Eating human flesh or souls or whatnot, I’ll admit it’s a bit different. But you’ll get used to it. I sure did. ”

The man called Vincent kept on talking, but Sarah had stopped listening. Something was drawing closer, she could feel it. Something old, something dark. The car stopped and he picked her up again, started walking. Entered a door, passing through an echoing corridor and then descending some kind of stairs. And that’s when she heard it, that sound. A sound she had heard only two times before, but which she had learned to fear more than anything. It was the sound of silence, the sound of darkness. The sound of beyond. And the terror she felt at the realization of where he was taking her awakened finally the last remnants of faltering force within her and she screamed.

***

Vincent stopped talking as the muffled hysteria from within the carped made it clear that she was not listening to his friendly explications anymore. He sighed and glanced around to make sure that nobody was close enough to hear her. Of course nobody was, he was too good to make sloppy mistakes like that.

“Now, now”, he said tonelessly and realized – not for the first time – that empathy and reassurance were not his strongest points. “No need to panic, darling. We’re just going home.”

Then he jumped down onto the subway tracks and started walking into the crossroads darkness where things were not as under the sun and where people like him – and her – could live in secret and shadows and madness. “Welcome to Dusk”, Vincent murmured, half to himself, as he crossed the line where the light from the platform couldn’t reach them anymore, and they were gone.