by DAN LEE
he incense was supposed to make the room more inviting, fill it with the sweetness and peace of lavender and sandalwood. Instead, it stunk like an ashtray full of badly burned marijuana and cheap cigarettes left to soak in a dank carpet. Burning smoke stung the eyes as patrons waded into the milky, swirling ocean being vomited out by the decorative holder on the small table by the door. The smiling ceramic dragon belched his noxious breath into the back office of Sapphire’s New Age Salon until it was a heavy fog to swim across. The office itself was hardly any larger than a handicap stall in a men’s room but lacked the subtle class of shithouse poetry scrawled onto the broken tile walls. Instead, it was painted in psychedelic murals lit by black lights that gave the heavy haze hanging eye level a purple glow. The owner’s desk was a slightly oversized dinner tray with a folding chair at both side and a tablet computer resting on top of its rusted metal face. The store itself sold trinkets, handmade bobbles of absolutely no significance made of hemp threads and glass beads, the usual headshop paraphernalia, and was a glorified front for a small time dealer with a grow operation upstairs in his apartment.
The owner, meanwhile, was exactly what Rhees had expected to find dwelling in the little cave office - a burnt out pothead with long, greasy hair wearing a faded Zeppelin shirt - planted in a folding chair as the imagined king of his little empire at the back of the patchouli-reeking shop in the old Birch Building a street or so from the town square. What the building had been during The Depression was lost to local history and buried in some forgotten book in the library another block away. What it had become was a source of nuisance for the local police and a loitering spot for every high school dropout looking to get a little buzzed before his shift at the Malco on the other side of town. Rhees couldn’t have cared less about the disreputable little establishment or its hobgoblin of an owner as he unbuttoned his black suit jacket. He was a large, hulking man in his late thirties with sun-worn, brown skin turned to a thick leather hide from years spent out in the field. With sharp features and close cut salt and pepper hair, he was intimidating, to say the least.
Clutched in his thin, rat fingers with their long dirty nails the owner held a small pine box with an old sigil burned into the wood. A circle, three squiggled arms, and the all seeing eye of an ancient god long forgotten by all but a few.
Marvin Rhees sat down in a warped folding chair, ignoring the outstretched, verminous hand of the diminutive man with the box.
“It’s great to meet you.” The owner said. “You must be Mister Rhees.”
He ignored the gesture.
“Okay, all business, I like that.”
Reaching into his jacket pocket he found the plain white envelope stuffed an inch thick in hundred dollar bills. Parting with the money was easy. It hadn’t been his, to begin with.
The Boss had been very clear about his task. Take the cash and exchange it for the pine box and the object inside. It was supposed to be a relatively simple exchange but, knowing the reputation of the seller, Rhees was assuming the money wouldn’t be enough as he handed over the envelope. The man’s beady pupils dilated, his breathing intensified as he counted the money in his grimy little hands. Trying to mask his elation, he put it down on top of his desk and leaned back in his chair.
“It’s not enough.” He said. His voice was wavering, uncertain as he tried to play a card he didn’t have.
“That’s the amount that was agreed upon.” Rhees said. His voice was calm, evenly measured and certain.
“Well, now I’m saying it ain’t. Another ten grand should do it but you’ll need to be quick. I’ve got other buyers on the line and I’m sure they’ll jump at the opportunity.”
Rhees smiled. It was that wry sort of smile that really hints at a man’s emotions and the ratty little shopkeeper knew it the minute it curved across the big man’s face. Greed clouds a man’s mind, makes him think dangerously stupid things that can end his life in the blink of an eye. Thanks to his Boss’s open-ended instructions, Rhees had been given license to renegotiate the terms of the deal however he saw fit. Without a word he reached over his shoulder and pushed the office door shut.
“You don’t scare me.” The owner said, teeth chattering.
Calmly, always calmly, Rhees reached across the table and collected the envelope in his large, leathery hand. He counted out the cash and then removed a large wad of bills. Leaning over the glowing orange tip of the incense, he set it blazing and dropped let the ash float to the floor at his feet.
“Here’s how this is going to work,” Rhees said. “Every time you try to hose me down with testosterone, I’m going to burn a thousand dollars. See, my time is important and, if you’re going to waste it, it’s going to cost you.”
“Look, that’s not what your boss said.” He argued. His voice was quivering.
“So, now you’re concerned with our prior arrangement?” Rhees asked as he lit another grand. “When I run out of cash, I’m going to take it to the next level. Do you know what that means, friend?”
Without a word, the man placed the box on the desk and quickly snatched up the envelope and what was left of his cash.
Rhees stood up; his prize secured under one arm and leaned over until he was almost nose to nose with the shop owner. The air around him was buzzing as he nervously exhaled the scent of halitosis and weed from his quivering lips.
“Been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Through me, the way into the suffering city, the little voice called from inside the box. Through me, the way that runs amongst the lost.
“So, all you do is quote Dante?” Rhees asked as the car grumbled up the narrow gravel driveway to the antebellum home looming up from the tree line. The last light of day was fading in red-purple streaks into the sky and the bright blue moon was shining in the rearview.
Abandon hope, all who enter here.
“Okay, good talking to you.”
He put his jacket over the box as he pulled up to the front porch.
Elise was waiting at the top of the stairs, her bright, cherub face a mask for the evil that could exist inside a child. She was barely sixteen with long, golden blonde hair she kept in high pigtails at either side of her skull with freckles dotting her cheeks under pale blue eyes. Wearing a pleated skirt, green sweater, and a pendant with a nine-pointed star she was something peculiar that he couldn’t quite figure out. Inside her was an evil comparable to what was in the box in the passenger seat, an otherworldly presence so indifferent to human life, to any life, that it had to be contained at all costs. She grinned as he stepped out of the car holding the latest treasure for the Boss’s collection.
“So, did you open it, Rhees?” Elise asked. She was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. It was that giddy, effervescent joy over a new treasure coming into the house.
“Do I look that stupid?” He asked. “Never mind. Where’s the Boss?”
She stopped just short of the front door and hiked a thumb at the vestibule beyond. “He’s downstairs in the archive. He’s not happy.”
“Yeah, tell me something new.”
Rhees had learned at a young age that the world is a bizarre, cruel place full of miraculous wonders and obscene terrors alike. It was one of these phenomenally unusual things twenty years ago that had led him to meet the Boss. He hadn’t been much older than Elise, running for his life from something that had been stalking him through the woods in the foothills outside of Maryville near the Smokies. If it hadn’t been for the Boss he would have been just another face on a milk carton.
Walking down the narrow stairs that spiraled into the murky cellar the air was thick in rot and mildew, wet, earthy coldness lingering up from the darkness below. It was a short trip that led to an unremarkable little root cellar with its ancient wood racks holding bottles of wine and different herbs and roots along equally ancient stone walls. At the far end of the room, where the dirt floor ended abruptly against a red painted wall, two large, spiraling horns reached up from the ground. They belonged to a cow skull buried there, a fossil of a mighty beast that had died out eons before recorded history had begun. Between them, the wall had become as completely black as to swallow every trace of light. It was a distorted darkness that the eyes couldn’t focus on, where light struggled valiantly to escape only to die in the cold oblivion that existed there. Taking a deep breath to steel his nerves, Rhees stepped into the space between the horns.
His body tingled as electric fingers danced along every nerve and fiber. He was freezing and burning all at once and then, nothing. The sensations vanished as quickly as they began leaving him in a large white room lined from floor to ceiling in shelves. There was a distorted blue-white glow from a small star burning miles above, or maybe only inches as his perception had been robbed by the travel and the magnitude of the room itself. This was the archive, the place where all the bizarre trinkets and oddities he collected for the Boss. Sitting at a large, ash colored desk in the center of the room was the Boss. He was a tall, slender man in a dark suit with a red tie the color of fresh blood wrapped around his neck. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat that was always pulled over his face just enough to obscure any real detail of what he looked like. He was a collector, a strange curator in a museum of horrors beyond the belief of most men.
“Welcome back, Rhees.” The voice was a thunder clap erupting from behind the desk that reverberated through the floors, the walls, and the barrel chest of the man holding the box. The Boss was sitting at his desk, a large mahogany piece of furniture ornately carved and cared for. The corners were carved into monstrous serpents, ancient dragons coiling up the legs to end in nine-pointed stars. The creature that sat behind it was monolithic, pale and ghoulish in a tailored black suit with white pinstripes and a large brimmed hat pulled down to obscure his face. “I trust your trip was a success?”
He placed the box on the desk and took a step back. Where it had been quoting lines from Inferno only minutes before, now it was screaming in anguish. Without a word, the Boss’s pale, almost clawed fingers slid the box into a drawer on the desk, silencing it.
“Did you inspect the contents?”
Rhees shuddered. “No. You paid me to bring you a box. I try not to stray from your instructions on these jobs.”
“Pity.” The Boss said, tilting the open box towards him. “It appears to be empty. I believe I’ve been swindled.”
Rhees sighed and hung his head, dreading the thought of having to see the ratty man and his sad little office. “I’ll go back to the store in the morning. Whatever he kept, I’ll find it and bring it back. I’ll bring him if you’d like.”
“I’m afraid it’s more pressing than that, Marvin.”
First name? Oh Shit, this is serious.
“Go now. Take Elise with you. I’ve given her the address and all the necessary information to recover the artifact. Bring me the shopkeeper, alive if possible. I need to know where he found the box.”
“All respect, I’d rather not take the girl.” Rhees said. “She’s unstable. The last time you sent her on a job with me, we almost didn’t make it back in one piece. I’d rather go alone.”
The Boss nodded and folded his hands together over his chest, the skeletal fingers interlocked together.
“I understand your concern but I need discipline,” the Boss said, his voice thundering from behind his desk. “She needs to learn some self-control and I can think of no better teacher. Besides, her skills will help protect you.”
“As you wish.” Rhees started back to the portal, to transfer himself from whatever hidden dimension he’d entered back into the real world. He stopped just shy of the blackness and looked back at the tall, stoic creature mimicking a man behind the desk. “What are you going to do? When we’ve collected all these relics and locked them away in here? What happens then?”
“Then,“ the Boss said, standing up. He was a looming creature, over seven feet tall at least that seemed all the more towering in the center of his archive. “I will seal the door and lock it away. And the only evils left to trouble mankind will be the ones they make for themselves.”
Finding the house had been the easy part. Rolling through the bucolic back roads of Tennessee, through sprawling green hills and little subdivision on the outskirts of town it was an unremarkable little ranch home in a cluster of other unremarkable ranch homes in a cul-de-sac on a slight hill. A dozen people were standing on their porches, eyes wide as they stared mesmerized by the bright, iridescent light flickering from the open doors and windows of the house at the end of the street.
“So, you think that’s the right place?” Elise snickered.
“I’m glad you’re amused,” Rhees muttered, sliding his hand down to the handle of a sawed-off shotgun wedged between his seat and the door. “This is not a good thing. There are way too many witnesses and the event’s already begun.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about witnesses.”
He slowed the car down long enough to take a look at the people on their porches. Each one had sallow, jaundiced skin with spider webs of burst veins and blood vessels rippling across their marbled flesh. Each one stood at attention, their glassy eyes staring up into the light as black tendrils, skeletal fingers clawed out from their gaping mouths. Puddles of blood and piss and spinal fluid had seeped from their bodies and begun to flow downstairs and driveways into the street.
“Under your seat is a sawed off shotgun. All you need to do is rack it.” He pulled the car into the driveway and set the brake. Racking the shotgun he looked at his scarred, weathered face in the rearview mirror. “Do not pull that trigger unless I tell you too and, more important than that, try not to shoot me.”
The giddy glee in her eyes made them flicker with an unnatural fire. She tried not to smile, not to shake from the overwhelming joy consuming her as she racked the pump and popped the safety to “off.”
Voices were chanting, a cicada song of chirping noises in terrifying unison from the corpses that lined the path up to the little ranch home at the end of the street. It was an ancient tongue, a tongue older than mankind itself and it burned like a fire as they sang their song. The vibration of the song rattled in their skulls and made their eyes water as they walked along the sidewalk to the front porch. The house itself was a blazing inferno, a cold fire licking up from the broken windows and doors over the roof and up towards the waning moon above. There was a point in his life, Rhees thought bitterly, where he would have seen all this and ran until an ocean or two had separated him from whatever the hell was happening. He missed that part of himself as he walked confidently toward the door.
The man in the living room was completely naked, his body a tapestry of fresh pink scars in spiraling patterns that wrapped from the soles of his feet all the way up to the crown of his skull. His eyes had rolled back in his head, his mouth was open, jaw dislocated by a black hand reaching out from his parted lips. Long, slender fingers groped at the air and brushed the ceiling as he floated over the floor. He had joined the droning chorus of his neighbors outside but the tone was different, a lower pitch than the others. He looked nothing like the ratty, verminous creature Rhees had met that morning. Elise jabbed him with the barrel of the shotgun. He wobbled in midair but never fell, never wavered in his unholy prayer.
“That’s amazing,” Elise said, prodding the floating man again and again with her gun. “He’s become a conduit. He’s using his own flesh to open a gateway and summoning strength from his neighbors’ souls along the street.”
“Yeah, I’m glad you’re impressed.” Rhees muttered. “I need to call the Boss and get some instructions on this.”
“No need.” She said, dropping her gun to the carpet at her feet. She grabbed the nine-pointed star pendant from the necklace she wore and clutched it in her hands. “I know a reversal.”
Before he could try to intervene or protest, she began to chant some strange, equally ancient tongue. It was a language he’d only heard a few times in my life and there had never been anything good to come of it whenever it was spoken. As she chanted, the insect chattering of the corpses in the street, of the one floating in midair between them all stopped. In a sudden throb, silence overtook the world save for Elise’s demure voice whispering evil into the air. The strange black hand reaching through the scarred man’s mouth pulled itself into his body. His throat rippled as the fingers descended down the esophagus into parts unknown. The cold, iridescent flame dwindled until all the light had faded except for the pale blue glow of the moon shining through the windows.
“There,” Elise said triumphantly. “All better. No big deal.”
“Then why’s he still floating?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just get him in the car and get out of here. This place kind of skeeves me out.”
She grabbed his hand and tugged him towards the ground. An explosion concussed the room, sent both of them flying through the room as the scarred man began to scream. It wasn’t a normal scream, not anything anguished or pained, but something far worse. It was metal rending itself apart as a bridge collapsed, crunching into the uncertain abyss as it swallowed all the life around it into the depths. The black hand was pressing against his stomach now, distending the skin as it tried to force its way through his navel. Elise was still shaking her head, trying to pull herself off the floor as Rhees hefted the shotgun and fired a single shot into the man’s gut. In an eruption of red, of bile and blood and mutilated hunks of yellow-orange fats and muscles the screaming stopped. Silence filled the void as the body fell to the floor.
“What now?” Elise asked as she staggered to her feet.
“You’re going to find me a sheet so we can wrap him up and take him out of here.”
“And what about everyone else?”
Rhees looked out the door, down the long stretch of blacktop leading away from the house. Corpses lined every inch of sidewalk, oozing bile and blood from their gaping mouths onto the pavement.
“I don’t think we need to worry about them.”
The cherry flickered red at the end of the cigarette pursed in her lips as they rode in silence through the long night. Smoke snaked lazily from her nostrils, coiled around her head in a gray halo made green by the glowing radio dial in the center console in between them. Her window was down but still the smoke clung to the inside of the car, afraid of the darkness that surrounded them as they drove. It had been a long day, an even longer night now as they struggled to make it through the long expanse of rocky, backwoods roads between Nashville and home. The interstate would have been faster but neither relished making it back anytime soon. Things hadn’t gone as smoothly as they’d hoped and the Boss would be unforgiving of the catastrophe that had been born.
"What do you think happens?" Elise asked meekly, breaking the silence with her demure, almost childlike voice. "When we go, you know?"
"Above my pay grade," Rhees said, struggling to keep his eyes open. He'd been up for two days straight and wasn’t in a mood for any banal conversation or bullshit. The job had almost gone tits up thanks to the child and her games. "I try not to think about it."
"Yeah, sure, I guess I understand that but, still, don't you ever wonder?"
"What its like," she said. "What happens when it all shuts down?"
"I know what happens," he told her, trying not to laugh. "Your body gets cold and stiff, you shit yourself and they put you in a box."
She glared at him. He could feel her eyes burning a hole through him in the darkness, could hear the angry thoughts coursing through her mind as she processed his response. She looked seventeen, sure, but that thing that made her so valuable was much older, much more malevolent than the candy-coated exterior.
"I don't know," he offered apologetically. "Maybe there's something better. Maybe there ain't. Maybe we just go to sleep and never even realize that we're dead until the dream ends and we're left with nothing. You know, kind of like sitting through the end of a movie and waiting for the credits to finish rolling. You never know if they're going to throw something in at the end or if the screen's going to be blank 'til it happens."
"That's the stupidest damned thing I've ever heard in my life," she said through her chuckling fit.
"Okay, smart aleck, why don't you share your insight into the matter, then?"
He regretted it the minute the words left my mouth. A devilish, troublesome grin he'd seen so many times before curled her ruby lips as she flicked the last of her smoke out into the night. The cherry sparked and splintered into a dozen red embers that were quickly swallowed by the blackness.
"Pull over and I'll show you," she said, matter-of-factly.
"No.” He'd seen this show before and it never had a happy ending. "I'm too tired for this crap tonight."
"Please," she pleaded. Big eyes glowed in the light of the radio dial, puppy dog eyes that would melt the coldest heart. In that moment she seemed so innocent, so needing of this chance to prove herself. He couldn't say no to her now. He was a sucker that way.
The car bumped and grumbled as it pulled off onto the shoulder and then further into the grass and trees. The last thing either of them wanted were prying eyes from passing motorists or a state trooper with time on his hands. Rhees popped the trunk release then grabbed Elise by the wrist before she could open her door. She looked up at him from the passenger seat with wild, giddy glee in her dark eyes.
"Two minutes," He said. "And nothing crazy this time."
She nodded and ran to the trunk. He shook his head and joined her.
The body was wrapped up in a sheet and bound tight in four or five places with rope.
There was some blood from the gut wound still seeping out on the white linen. Rhees hated this. He hated the mess and the blood, the act of killing itself but, worst of all, he hated what was coming. Without a word, Elise reached into her pocket and pulled out a silver chain. At the end of the chain was a medallion with a nine-pointed star with a serpent eating its own tail. It was nearly identical to the one around her neck. She started babbling some pig Latin ancient tongue her counterpart despised and then pressed the medallion to the part of the sheets where the head was. The body wrapped inside began to jump and wriggle before finally settling down. The head moved from side to side as if it were looking for something. That's when the screaming started.
It wasn't a pained scream or the shrill hollering of fear but something worse, like metal scraping metal as a bridge collapses or cars collided with one another. It was the scream of something incomprehensibly evil trying to force itself into a world that never wanted it through a vessel that, in life or death, could never hope to accommodate it. Blood began to gush from every orifice and wound in the body, saturating the white linen until it was a soggy crimson puddle.
Rhees snatched the medallion out of the girl’s fist with one hand and slammed the trunk with the other. The screaming stopped.
"Every time," he said, glaring at her. "Every damn time."
"One day, someone's going to come back long enough to answer the question," she argued as they got back into the car.
"Unless he's coming back to give me the winning Powerball numbers I don't give a damn," Rhees told her as they took off down the road. "It's above my pay grade and I don't want to know. Let's just get that thing home and get some sleep. Boss man want’s it fresh."
Again there was silence. She lit another smoke and blew a cloud through her nostrils that swirled angrily across the center console and into Rhees’ face. He coughed. She laughed.
"And so you know," he said without ever looking at her. "You're cleaning that shit out of my trunk tonight."
It was almost dawn by the time the car rumbled up the gravel road leading to the old, antebellum mansion. Kudzu hung from the trees in snaking vines, coiled around them as they tried to strangle the life from every oak and willow along the winding path up to the house. The Boss himself was waiting on the front porch, arms crossed as the headlights flashed over his towering body. He was wearing the same black pinstripe suit and hat he always wore, the brim of the hat pulled down over his face making him that much more menacing. There was a steel table, a morgue table on the porch beside him. It made Rhees’ blood run cold. He parked in front of the porch and popped the trunk.
“Was worried you wouldn’t make it in time.” The Boss’s voice was thunder roaring from the porch. “Let’s get it up here. Come on.”
Elise helped haul the body out of the trunk and drag it up the stairs. The sheets were sopping in blood that had wicked up through most of the fabric and no doubt seeped into the wheel well. They carried the corpse up the stairs and dropped it unceremoniously onto the table. The Boss moved like a fog, his legs seemed to float him into place. With one slim, long-fingered hand he ripped open the sheet where the gut wound was and reached inside the corpse. After a few minutes of digging, he pulled his paw from the gore, holding a small metal disk with the same squiggled patterns on it as had been carved into the box. With his clean hand, he brushed away the some of the goo and revealed a nine-pointed star on the reverse side. There was a grinning, devilish skull in its center.
He slid it into his pocket and looked coldly at Elise. His eyes then cut back to Rhees. They glowed in the dim light of predawn from under the brim of his hat, animal eyes stalking prey from the shadows that made the man shiver. “Get rid of this and get yourself cleaned up. I’ll need your services again soon.”
With that, he turned around and went inside.
“What now?” Elise asked softly.
“Grab the feet.” Rhees told her as he took the head. “We’ve still got work to do.”
“What is he?” she asked as they dropped the body back into the trunk. “I mean, is he a vampire or something? I’ve never understood.”
Rhees slammed the trunk and looked at the girl’s face. In the soft orange light slowly creeping over the hills and trees behind the home, he could only see the unassuming innocence of the child, not the monster that lived inside her that came out at times to play.
“What happens when we die? I don’t know the answer to that one, kid.” He nodded towards the house. “What I do know is what happens when we refuse to die. Now, let's get this shit cleaned up.”
Dan Lee is a horror and strange fiction author in a small, Nashville adjacent town. His work has also appeared in Hello Horror, Devolution Z and other publications. He has a blog at dannoofthedeadblog.wordpress.com where you can read more of his short stories.
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