August 24, 2015

“The Face of a Beautiful Monster” by Adam Gottfried (Part Three)

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“The Face of a Beautiful Monster” by Adam Gottfried (Part Three)

This is the conclusion of Adam’s supernatural, gothic thriller. Start from the beginning here

Drawing of new Shephall Manor 1865Mrs. Holmes watched the carriage carrying the two young women away to relative safety. She was not certain what would happen, but she remembered vividly the last night before Dougal McCullagh, then called Fergusson, had… rescued her. From her husband. As the memories began to surface, she swiftly pushed them away again. Now was not the time to reminisce about days gone by. There was precious little time left, and she hoped very much to survive the night, though there was every possibility that she would not. She considered whether or not she had made her peace with that and decided that she had not. Rather, she simply could not accept it as a possibility, so it seemed an unreality to her.

She moved away from the window and began preparing for dinner. She knew without being told that it was business as usual until circumstances demanded otherwise. She was grateful that Mrs. Congdon and the younger children were away. The older children, well… they knew enough to stay out of their father’s way. But with Maggie and Ameila gone, who could say what would happen?

She worked on uninterrupted for the next three quarters of an hour when without warning, Mr. Atherton burst into the kitchen, murder in his eyes. “How in the world could you send both servants on an overnight to town WITHOUT CONSULTING ME FIRST?” he raged, his knotted old fists clenched so tight his knuckles gleamed like polished bone. “Mr. Congdon is furious and he is blaming me!”

Mrs. Holmes was not intimidated. She had married a far more terrifying man than this, and after her experience with him, she had vowed never to be intimidated by another man again. This had mostly worked with the one glaring exception of Mr. McCullagh, whom she was certain was not entirely human.

“You ordered the carriage,” she said, kneading the bread dough a little bit harder, but otherwise calm.

“Upon your request,” he hissed back. She met his flaming eyes with her icy cool blue gaze.

“Did you ask why? Did you even care?” she asked him flatly. “No of course not. This is your problem, Mr. Atherton, not mine.”

He waved his fists in the air in ineffectual anger, and snarled: “If you were not such a dried up old BITCH I would-” and he stopped.

Her eyes blazed. “You would what?”

He leaned close, so close that he was a whispers breath away, and he spoke so quietly that even at this proximity, she could barely hear him. “I would use you for the ritual,” he breathed. “Tie you up and stick you with the bronze knife and feel nothing but elation as you slowly bled to death.”

This sent chills down her spine. This was the first and only time he had spoken openly about… about that. Not even her late husband had been that open about what he had been doing… had intended to do to her. She reached up and daubed flour on the man’s already pasty white face. “But you cannot,” she whispered back. “So burn in Hell you great lump of horse excrement.” And she slapped him, a plume of flour billowing into the air as the ashes of burnt bridges filled their hearts.

He whirled and left the kitchen. Mrs. Holmes let out her breath, only then realizing she had been holding it. She began kneading the dough again, but her heart was not really in it. She was thinking about what Atherton had said about the ritual, about what they would have needed. Likely as not it would have been Maggie, but it could well have been Amelia. Or both, really, though that was not likely. She had never seen the ritual that Mr. Congdon had Atherton assist him with, but she certainly had cleaned up their mess afterward. She had even grown accustomed to the concept of anthropophagy, and the little ones loved the tender cuts of long pork she would serve them.

She had had no choice. It was this or lose her position, possibly her life. Right? She could not have done otherwise. She could have. She could have left in the dead of night, or stopped by the police precinct on one of her hundreds of visits into town. She could have TOLD someone. She had not. She had instead served the cook flesh of sacrificed young women to the family, to children with only Chester Congdon and James Atherton the wiser.

Dougal McCullagh would stop them. Would stop her. Perhaps he already had. Without the two young women at the house, they had no more viable subjects for their ritual, and perhaps they would forget the whole thing. But…. Mrs. Holmes knew they would not. They could not use her, so they would use whom they could. The only other option would be….

“No,” she murmured aloud, her hands freezing in mid-knead.

“No, they wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.”

But he would.

Mrs. Holmes fled the kitchen without so much as dusting the flour from her hands, and in her flight left a pale, white handprint on the fine wall-treatment in the grand staircase.

Up to the second floor to the guest bedrooms she fled, and she burst in unannounced to find Mr. McCullagh and Mr. Congdon deep in conversation. She stopped cold. She felt the tears on her face, became aware of the state of her clothes and hands almost immediately as Mr. Congdon glared at her.

“Good God, Mrs. Holmes!” he exclaimed. “Have you lost your  senses?”

Mr. McCullagh had stood up upon her entry as if anticipating her arrival. “It’s quite all right, Chester,” he murmured genially. “Mrs. Holmes and I are old acquaintances.”

“Still!” exclaimed the master, “that does not excuse her intrusion. I will see her summarily punished-” Mr. Congdon began to stand but Mr. MucCullagh waved him off.

“Do not be silly, Chester, it is quite all right. Excuse us a moment and I will deal with the situation.” He took Mrs. Holmes by both hands and backed her out of the door and into the hallway. He closed the door, and then moved down the hall, almost by the stairs as if he expected that Mr. Congdon would listen at the door.

Mrs. Holmes expected her employer would likely do just that. So she followed Mr. McCullagh, and lowered her voice to a bare, desperate whisper as she spoke. “Elisabeth,” she breathed. “They’ll use Elisabeth, now that Maggie and Ameila are gone.”

Mr. McCullagh looked as though he had already understood this would be the case. “Yes,” he said tersely. “Of course he will. He has no other option.”

She stared at him. “She is his daughter!”

“I know,” Mr. McCullagh rejoined. “Thus adding a significant amount of weight to the ritual. To be honest, I am surprised he had not done so before now.”

“You mean killed her before now? She is his DAUTHER!” Her voice grew louder and more shrill, and he raised a hand to steady her, though somewhat impatiently.

“Why do you think he summoned me, Belinda? I am here to make certain his ritual actually works this time. I have had to force his hand in this.”

She stared at him, horror in her face. “Y-you… you are helping him?”

He shrugged. “Of course. That is why he summoned me.”

She dropped his hand and backed away. “You… you are as much of a monster as he is!”

“Oh I assure you,” Mr. McCullagh said with a sad smile. “I am far worse.”

She fled from him then. She ran aimlessly through the house until she arrived at the kitchen, entirely without purpose or plan. She burst in to see Atherton standing at the stove, heating a foul smelling concoction… a sleeping draught that would be administered to Elisabeth when the time came. She had seen him prepare it a dozen times in the last 8 years. All of came crashing back into her, the suspicion, the terror, and the absolute worst part of it was that she had simply accepted it. Made it a part of her life, helped the murderers dispose of the evidence and… and…. She stopped then. Atherton had glanced up when she barged in, but he ignored her now, focusing on his delicate work.

She turned away. She moved through the kitchen to a back hallway that led to a flight of stairs. She went up and into the staff’s quarters. She entered the bathroom and turned on the hot water on the huge clawfoot tub. She stoppered the basin and began slowly to undress while the tub filled. She folded her clothes nicely and placed them on a stool near the head of the tub. Naked, she slipped into the nearly scalding water and whimpered a bit as the heat turned her pale, flabby flesh instantly red. She wondered what it would feel like to be cooked in an oven or boiled on a stove. She imagined it would be like this, but worse.

Silently now, even though the water was nearly unbearable, she reached across the intervening space between the tub and the stool and she slid her dripping hand into the apron. the withdrew the wickedly sharp paring knife she had slid there earlier that day after she was done using it to peel the potatoes. She dipped it into the water and watched the remnants of starchy film float away. She lowered it down, down, down between her legs. Her husband had been a doctor. He had explained to her how she would die. He had explained that al he had to do was to slice the femoral artery on the inner part of the thigh in a tub of hot water. The warmth of the water would encourage the already fountainous gout of blood even faster, and death would occur in less than five minutes as opposed to less than an hour.

She was not entirely certain where the artery was, so she ran a long cut along both of her inner thighs just be sure. There was no pain, really, just a slight burning. She pulled the knife out of the tub and looked at it. There was no trace of her blood on it. She placed it gently on the stool and leaned back. Her husband had been right all along. She would die in the way he predicted. She closed her eyes and waited for her husband to find her as he had so many years ago. Only this time, Dougal Fergusson would not be there to stop him.

Mr. Atherton was climbing the stairs to the second floor when he found Mr. McCullagh holding his large hand against the wall treatment on the stairwell.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Atherton asked sharply. Mr. McCullagh glanced up and Mr. Atherton could swear that he was surprised to see him. That was perhaps the first and only time he had caught this strange Scotsman unawares.

“Trying to make certain that someone does not come back to haunt me,” Mr. McCullagh replied, his voice even. As he pulled his hand away, Mr. Atherton could swear that the man’s hand was covered in some sort of white substance, like flour. There was nothing on the wall treatment, however, and even as he looked again, the substance was gone. “Is everything prepared?” Mr. McCullagh’s voice cut through Mr. Atherton’s thoughts.

“Of course,” Mr. Atherton snapped. “Are you sure we should do this now? It is not even dark outside.”

“The timing does not matter in rituals such as these,” Mr. McCullagh stated. “Just that the right things are said to the right people.”

Mr. Atherton snorted at the implication that “people” would be involved in any way and continued on his way.

Mr. Congdon had refused to allow Mr. McCullagh to assist in carrying Elisabeth Congdon to the ritual space in the basement. Being that Mr. Congdon was the gentry, he could not be bothered to do the job himself, so it came down to Mr. Atherton to carry the slumbering woman down four short flights of stairs and lay her out on the table that Mr. Congdon had had made for these rituals. The draught was strong and Elisabeth would not awaken for any part of this, which to Mr. Atherton’s mind was a good thing. If Mr. Congdon’s daughter regained consciousness, he thought Mr. Congdon might lose his resolve. He bound her hands with silver cord, though not really bothering to do much more than loop them. The girl was unconscious and would hardly be able to put up a fight.

Mr. Congdon was dressed in what he referred to as his “vestments” despite the fact that Mr. Atherton had heard Mr. McCullagh explicitly tell the master that they were not required. The vestments consisted of a long deep blue robe with a huge, voluminous hood. Along the hem of the robe and the mouth of the hood, arcane runes were embroidered with silver thread. The overall effect was impressive if a bit melodramatic. Mr. McCullagh had removed his coat and hat. His tie was loosened and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows to reveal muscular forearms that were also crisscrossed with similar scars that marred the man’s huge knuckles. On the whole, Mr. Atherton found his affect was far more discomfiting than Mr. Congdon’s, but that may have been that he had seen Mr. Congdon don the robes a dozen times before.

“Is the vessel ready?” asked Mr. Congdon in a voice which Mr. Atherton felt certain he thought was sonorous and ephemeral but mostly just sounded frightened.

Mr. Atherton gave a nod and stepped away. His participation in the ritual was almost entirely in a “lift and carry” capacity. The ritual itself was entirely performed by Mr. Congdon. Only this time, Mr. McCullagh lifted the ancient tome and began to read. The words were spidery and ancient, and they made Mr. Atherton’s skin crawl as if a thousand spiders were skittering across his skin. In Mr. McCullagh’s deep baritone voice, they sounded infinitely more impressive than they had in Mr. Congdon’s much higher tenor.

As Mr. McCullagh read on, Mr. Atherton began to note a distinct metallic smell in the air, one he could almost taste, like copper or ozone or some unholy combination of both and neither. Mr. Congdon stood before his daughter, both hands raised to the sky, his hood cast back, his head gleaming in the dim light. The electric lights began to flicker and Mr. Atherton became aware of a low thrumming underneath it all, as if some great and ancient machine were slowly stirring to life.

“Anoint the vessel!” called Mr. McCullagh in his lightly accented English. Mr. Congdon drew a bronze dagger from the huge sleeve of his robe and drew the razor’s edge across his palm. He rested this against his daughter’s forehead and murmured six words of power. As he drew his hand away, the blood formed an inverted pentagram on the girl’s pale skin.

Mr. McCullagh read on, his voice growing louder to be heard above the ambient noise that was growing louder and louder. Mr. Atherton attempted to cover his ears but discovered that doing so only blocked out Mr. McCullagh’s words, not the terrible thrumming that he could feel in every bone.

Then it stopped. The thrumming, Mr. McCullagh’s incantation, all of it, all at once.

“He is here,” whispered Mr. McCullagh in the silence. “Make your offer.”

“Great One!” Mr. Congdon’s voice was loud and almost shrill. “I offer you this, the flesh of my flesh, young, unmarried, and unspoiled. I offer you her life, her soul, her very being.”

There was a pause, but it was only a brief one. A curious double-voice replied, the first that of a young woman, in fact Elisabeth Congon herself. The other, however, was deeper and carried with it the weight of eons. Elisabeth’s lips moved, but her eyes remained closed. “What do you wish in return, summoner?”

Mr. Congon’s eyes gleamed, and Mr. Atherton shifted uncomfortably. They had achieved similar results up until this point, but no one had EVER answered back.

“Eternal life,” Mr. Congdon hissed, his voice dripping with avarice.

Another pause, this one drawn out and breathless. Finally, the entity within Elisabeth Congdon spoke again. “I see what you mean, Son of Fergus. He overreaches.”

Mr. Congdon glanced at Mr. Atherton, confused, but Mr. McCullagh stepped forward.

“This is his thirteenth attempt, Lord.”

“Indeed? He is ambitious.”

“And amoral. He fed his previous victims to his children and wife.”

The voice let out a rumbling hissing noise that shook the foundations of the house, throwing Mr. Congdon and Mr. Atherton to the ground.

“You said unspoiled, summoner, but she has tasted the flesh of Man!”

“Wait,” Mr. Congdon sounded like he could barely speak, his breathing was rapid and his face was pale and covered in sweat. He glared accusingly at Mr. McCullagh. “You never told me…”

“Told you what,” McCullagh snarled at Congdon. “That cannibalism leaves a stain on the human soul, even if it is involuntary and unknowingly consumed? You never told me that you fed your victims to your children, Chester. How would I know to tell you that little tidbit?”

“But you knew!” Mr. Congdon almost whined.

McCullagh ignored him. “I do not need to remind you the law, Lord.”

“No,” the sepulchral Elisabeth voice intoned. “He reaches too far with bespoiled offerings and blood on his hands. He has sought to manipulate the souls of man and fae alike. His sins are mortal ones. His punishment shall be death and eternal torment.”

The unconscious form of Elisabeth opened her eyes, but instead of the gorgeous blue irises, her ocular orbs glowed white, penetrating the darkness of the room. The light spilled over Chester Congdon’s form and he screamed in agony, no longer the scream of a man but that of a soulless beast. The girl’s eyes closed and the light faded.

Chester’s corpse lay on the ground, untouched and seemingly unharmed, but there was no doubt in Mr. Atherton’s mind that he was dead.

McCullagh turned to him. “You are not subject to the punishment of the divine, Atherton, but you could easily be brought to the punishment of man. I possess the information needed to make that happen. Do you understand my words?”

Mr. Atherton paled and nodded. Not only did he understand the words, he comprehended their meaning. McCullagh could have him arrested and he would no doubt be executed for the twelve murders he had been accomplice to.

“What will you do?” Mr. Atherton asked, his voice almost beseeching.

McCullagh smirked. “Nothing, so long as you do exactly what I say.”

Mr. Atherton bowed his head.

In the end, Dougal McCullagh’s demands were entirely reasonable. Return Elsabeth Congdon to her bed; move Chester Congdon to his bed; and dispose of the corpse of one Mrs. Belinda Holmes from the bathtub where she committed suicide. Mr. Atherton was to pretend like nothing untoward happened that day at Glensheen, and would carry that secret to his grave. Furthermore, Mr. Atherton was forced to take a blood oath that he would not harm another human being, physically or emotionally, for as long as he lived. If not, McCullagh promised, the consequences would be dire indeed.  McCullagh intimated that should Mr. Atherton ever seen McCullagh again, his life would be forfeit and his soul utterly consumed by some great nothing that made up the spaces between the stars.

Mr. Atherton was inclined to believe Mr. McCullagh’s promises. He lived out the rest of his days a paragon of human virtue. He even reaffirmed his faith in the church, asked to be baptized again in the faith. He only told one person of what went on the day that Mr. Congdon died. That, however, is another story.

 

unnamedBorn and raised in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Adam
Gottfried wrote his first short story when he was seven years old. As an adult, Adam is a public servant, author, blogger, podcaster, playwright, gamer and an educator, working with inner city special needs children and Native American children.

Adam has never lost his love of the written word, reading and writing prolifically over the years. He contributed to the number one bestselling anthology on Amazon, Sojourn 2 with his short story “The Winter Hungers”, the Baby Shoes Flash Fiction Anthology with his short story “Queenkiller”, and is currently collaborating with Ed Greenwood on two exciting new novels, the first to be published in 2017 called “The Irascible Mr. Gaunt” and the second to be released in 2018, though the title is a closely guarded secret (even to Adam).

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