August 17, 2015

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

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

This is the second part of Adam’s three-piece serial. Read Part One here, and come back next Monday for the chilling conclusion. 

Mrs. Belinda Holmes, 44, widowed, mother of two grown boys both of whom were overseas serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France, was the only member of the staff who had served the Congdon family longer than Mr. James Atherton and she absolutely loathed the man. He was pretentious, overbearing, haughty, and he treated the rest of the staff like they were below him. In the strictest sense they were, but he treated them as if HE were their master instead of Mr. Congdon and that did not set well with Mrs. Holmes.

So when Mr. Atherton came into her kitchen to await the call of Mr. Congdon, Mrs. Holmes was far from happy to see him. After nearly thirty minutes of him puttering about, testing the cleanliness of her counters and tut-tutting away like a high-born trophy wife when she reaches her middle years, Mrs. Holmes had had enough.

“If you find it so filthy, clean it up yourself!” she snapped and flung a damp rag at him. The rag hit home with a wet *SMACK* in the middle of his smug face and she hid a smile as he sputtered and floundered trying to extricate himself from the offending towel. He was about to tell her off when Amelia re-entered the room and touched Atherton on the arm, indicating with her other hand that he was needed in the Green Room. Atherton pulled away from her touch and shot daggers at Mrs. Holmes as he dropped the rag into Amelia’s arms and departed the room. Mrs. Holmes chuckled a little bit as Amelia stared down at the rag in a mixture of confusion and dismay. The older woman plucked the rag from her younger friend’s hands and threw it back into the bubble-filled sink.

Amelia began to go back about her kitchen chores, but Mrs. Holmes could see she was distracted by some stray thought, and that thought was deeply troubling to the younger woman. Mrs. Holmes knew better than to press her for information and simply waited until such a time as Amelia might be ready to “discuss” her troubles.

Thirty minutes passed in relative quiet. Mrs. Holmes normally liked to sing when she was about her trade, but Amelia’s normal contemplative silence was perverted into something more tenebrous, and that unnerved the elder woman. Eventually, Mrs. Holmes turned to find that Amelia had collected the small chalkboard on which she had learned to write and written in her firm, block printing:

  1. CONGDON’S VISITOR GAVE ME THIS.

Below her writing she held a piece of parchment pressed in place by her thumb. Mrs. Holmes took the paper and scanned the few words written there in neat clear printing. Her mind did a number of reversals as she went through a very similar thought process as Amelia had when she first read the note, but ultimately it came down to one question.

“How did this man know you could read?” Mrs. Holmes asked aloud. Amelia held up her hands in a surrendering, questioning gesture.

Mr. Atherton walked into the Green Room to see both Mr. Congdon and Mr. McCullagh standing by the table. The bottle of Glenlivet was still tucked under Mr. McCullagh’s arm, though Mr. Atherton could see that it contained significantly less volume than previously. Mr. Congdon glanced up as Mr. Atherton entered and clapped his devoted butler on the arm.

“Atherton my good man, please have the large guest bedroom made up for Mr. McCullagh. He will be staying with us for a time. And show him to the library for now; I must go into town to take care of some business.” Another hearty slap, which Mr. Atherton found to be very uncomfortable, and Mr. Congdon disappeared through the adjacent door.

“This way sir,” Mr. Atherton intoned, his trademark disdain redolent in his tone. He followed after Mr. Congdon and Mr. McCullagh, still grinning like the fool he was, came after.

“You do not think much of me, do you Atherton?” Mr. McCullagh asked as the entered the main hallway.

“Mine is not to judge the master’s choice in associates, sir.”

“And you do it anyhow,” Mr. McCullagh said, his voice not losing any of its joviality, but when Mr. Atherton cast a glance over his shoulder at the man, he saw that the humor was nowhere near the man’s eyes. “Your loyalty to your employer is astounding, Atherton. I wonder what you would do for him. What you already have done for him.”

Mr. Atherton was entirely too unflappable to fall for an easy ploy like that, but inwardly, he was rattled.

“Are you Christian sir?” Mr. McCullagh asked, seemingly out of the blue.

Mr. Atherton blinked. “I attend Methodist services every Sunday,” Mr. Atherton returned shortly.

“Which is not the same as saying yes,” Mr. McCullagh observed.

Mr. Atherton visibly bristled, but somehow kept a hold on his temper.

“My personal beliefs are none of your concern,” he said neutrally as he opened the door to the library. “Make yourself comfortable and I will see to your room.”

Mr. McCullagh only smiled as he entered the library. Mr. Atherton closed the door and shivered slightly before moving away to tend to his duties.

Mrs. Holmes approached Mr. Atherton a bit tentatively. After their altercation in the kitchen, she hated the fact that she had to ask him for anything, but with what Amelia had just shown her, she felt she had no other choice.

“Mr. Atherton,” she said a bit breathily as he exited the library and closed the door behind him. He glanced her way with a look that could have leveled mountains.

“What is it Mrs. Holmes?” he inquired in clipped tones. “I am very busy just now.”

Mrs. Holmes bit back an acerbic reply. Most likely his instructions would be to ready the guest bedroom for their guest, which was not a duty he would have to tend to himself: He would pass it off to Maggie.

“Is Mr. Congdon’s guest in there?” she asked, indicating the closed library door with her head. Mr. Atherton looked at her for a long moment and then offered a curt nod. “What is his name?” she pressed as he began to turn away.

He stopped and slowly turned, his eyes livid but his face as implacable as ever. She could tell he was holding back a caustic remark or two himself, but he did so admirably.

“McCullagh,” he replied through almost bared teeth. “Mr. Dougal McCullagh.”

He spun on his heel and headed in the direction of the staff quarters. Mrs. Holmes just stood there for a long moment, staring at his receding back, dumbfounded.

No, she thought desperately to herself. No, it cannot be. Her heart thundering in her chest, the note one Mr. Dougal McCullagh had passed to Amelia pressing against the flesh of her breast where it lay hidden in her bodice. She approached the doors slowly, sending up three quick prayers to three separate deities, one she knew for sure did not exist, and opened them.

“You,” she breathed as she caught sight of Mr. McCullagh for the first time. “You are not supposed to be here.”

Mr. McCullagh was leaning against Mr. Congdon’s reading desk, a book in hand, but his eyes had been trained on the door when she walked in as if she was expected.

“I was summoned,” he replied, closing the book and laying it down on the desk behind him. “And you know me, Belinda. I always come when called.”

Mrs. Holmes bustled into the room and shut the door firmly behind her, then whirled on him as if realizing her back was to him and this was a bad thing.

“Your name was Fergusson last time we met,” she murmured, playing for time, praying her thudding heart and racing thoughts would coalesce into something like logical thought.

“That was a long time ago. Your name was Carmichael last time we met,” he said, waving her off. Somehow she got the feeling he knew she was flummoxed by his presence and was, somewhat maddeningly, dismissing it.

“That was different,” she hissed. “I was married since then. Can you say the same?”

“You know I cannot,” he murmured with flashing eyes. “But it hardly makes a difference. How is your husband, dearest?”

He had not moved, but she winced like he had struck her across her going-to-flabby face. He smiled at her reaction, but she could see true remorse in his eyes as he did so.

“I am sorry,” he said softly, and sounded like it too. She did not know what to believe. “That was cruel.”

She sighed. “You cannot help your nature,” she said, not without kindness. “You have not aged a day.”

He merely arched an eyebrow, as if to say: “Well I would not, would I?”

“What is the meaning of this?” she asked, removing the scrap of parchment from her bodice and brandishing it at him.

He did not take it.

“That was meant for Amelia,” he said coldly.

“She brought it to me,” Mrs. Holmes replied, with equal frost in each utterance. “She assumed you were proposing something untoward until she heard you were staying in the house. What is going on, Dougal? Are you here for Chester?”

“I am,” he said with a grin that did not meet his eyes. “He summoned me, as I said.”

“That is not what I meant-”

“I know what you meant, Belinda.” He left off the latter part of the sentence, but the subtext was clear: “I am not a fool.”

“He is a good man.” She said in a very small voice. “He… he cannot help…”

He gathered her in his arms then and she had not even seen him move. She melted against him like she had 22 years before; when she was the young pretty newlywed and he still the dashing stranger who saved her from… from….

“You cannot escape this,” he murmured, and she could feel his deep, tenebrous voice rumbling in his chest. “no one can escape their destiny. Amelia and Maggie on the other hand…”  His voice trailed off.

“They are innocent,” the former Miss Belinda Carmichael breathed as she slowly became Mrs. Belinda Holmes again. Belinda Holmes whose husband had drugged and murdered dozens, perhaps hundreds of women. Belinda Holmes who narrowly escaped with her life and the lives of her children. Belinda Holmes whose husband had been brought to justice seemingly by accident in the eyes of the law, but who knew that it was the man in whose arms she now rested who was responsible.

Mr. McCullagh was no longer holding her and she almost fell forward. He stood with his broad back turned to her.

“Go. Tell Amelia to take Maggie away from this place.”

“Promise not to harm the rest of the family,” she whispered. Mr. McCullagh made no answer, did not even move. Shedding a silent tear, Mrs. Holmes turned away from him and departed the library, wondering if anyone was safe from a man such as Dougal McCullagh.

Maggie was just finishing laying out the last of the linens in the guest bedroom when Amelia came to her. Amelia handed her a note which Maggie read slowly, as her own meager education had only taught her the basics.

Maggie,

Go with Amelia into town and collect the following provisions. Some of them may require waiting for the morning train, so you may be staying overnight at the following hotel.

 

What followed was a list of supplies and the name of a downtown hotel. This was completely new to Maggie’s experience, but then again, she had not been with the family all that long.

“Do we often stay in town overnight?” she asked Amelia, knowing the best the mute could do would be to nod or shake her head. Amelia surprised her though by simply shrugging and heading toward the door. As she reached for the knob, the door opened, admitting Atherton with Mr. McCullagh just behind. Atherton gave Amelia a scathing look, the back end of which also washed over Maggie.

Amelia quickly scurried away and Maggie made to follow, but Atherton stopped her. “Mr. McCullagh has some special requests he would like you to tend to,” Atherton said flatly. “Mr. Congdon says you are to tend to them privately.”

Maggie swallowed as the elderly butler turned and departed. The last time she had been alone with this man, she had inexplicably kissed him. Perhaps he had gotten the entirely wrong idea and wanted her to… to….

“Mr. Atherton has a flair for the dramatic, do you not think so?”

Mr. McCullagh asked. Maggie blinked.

“Uh… I mean, yes sir. I suppose he does.” She replied. The man had no baggage save for the half-gone bottle of Scotch he had been carrying around, and he entered the room without taking in any of the finery, placing the bottle on the sill of the window. Maggie was immediately drawn to the fact that with the volume of amber liquid still in the bottle, the sun shone through the window at just the correct angle to send sparkles of copper-colored light against the far wall which was without decoration. On some level she understood that Mr. McCullagh had done this purposefully, but she could not imagine how such a thing could be. She stood, transfixed by the dancing lights, and her breathing slowed… slowed…

Amelia had left the guest bedroom and ducked around the nearest corner, waiting for Mr. Atherton to leave. When he did not long after, he brushed past her ostensible hiding spot without noticing her. She turned back toward the room, noting that Maggie had not yet left.  She moved to the door and pressed her ear against it, listening. A voice, Mr. McCullagh’s presumably, emanated from the door, but too softly to be distinguishable. She pressed her hand against the knob and gave it the barest twist. It moved. Twisting further very, very slowly, she turned the knob all the way and pushed ever-so-slightly to gain a crack between the door and the frame. Pressing her ear to this, she listened.

“…and has Mr. Congdon ever told you what happened to his previous staff?” Mr. McCullagh was asking.

“No,” came a slow, lethargic voice that was barely recognizable as Maggie’s.

“Has Mr. Congdon ever put you into a hypnotic state?” He pressed.

“A trance?” the question was entirely pragmatic, asking for meaning, and nothing more.

“A trance. A near-unconscious state of high suggestibility.”

“Yes,” Maggie replied immediately.

“Did he ask you to forget something while you were in this state?”

“Yes.”

“Think hard now,” Mr. McCullagh’s voice sounded almost urgent now. “Do you remember what you were asked to forget?”

There was a long pause. So long that Amelia considered the possibility that Maggie had answered but so softly she did not hear, when suddenly Maggie cried out. It was a cry of pure pain, odd with no emotion behind it, and she heard Mr. McCullagh shushing her.

“Stop, no, stop, do not try to remember.”

Silence. Then: “Are you married?”

“No.” Her voice was flat again.

“Are you a God-fearing woman?”

“Yes.”

“Recite 1 Thessalonions 4 versus 3 to 5.”

Immediately: “’For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.’”

“Now Hebrews 13:4.”

Also, immediately: “’Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.’”

“Would you defy God’s will?”

“Never.” Absolute truth.

“Are you a virgin?”

There was an exceptionally long pause then, followed by a cry of anguish.

“No!” Maggie cried and there was the sound of a soft thump.

Amelia, concerned for the young woman, pushed her way into the room to see Mr. McCullagh standing over the prone form of Maggie, looking for all the world like he just clobbered her with the half-gone bottle of Scotch in his right hand. He glanced up as she came in, and reacted with surprise as she, with a noiseless cry of anger, charged him. He managed to put down the bottle before she plowed into him, clawing and biting. She caught him one good three-fingered scratch across his perfect check before the big man managed to catch her by the wrists. His eyes met hers and she immediately calmed. “She is fine,” he assured her, bringing her hands together so they were clasped in front of her. “She merely fainted.”

He let her wrists go. She looked down at them, as if realizing that she could easily attack him again, especially as he turned his back to look over Maggie, but she found that she believed him. She did not know why.

She glanced at Maggie. “I put her into a trance,” he answered her question without looking up at her. “Asked her some questions.”

He glanced at her, met her eyes this time.

“I agree,” he said, again answering her unspoken question. “Maggie is hardly a Libertine.”

She watched him closely. “Yes, I can hear your thoughts,” he answered yet again. “And no, I am not a demon or spirit. He paused as another question formed in her mind, and smiled. “I never said I was not evil.”

Amelia felt like she ought to be frightened, to shrink away from this man, but despite his words she did not think of him as evil. Perhaps conventions of their time might consider him as such, but conventions of the time also considered her to be an unteachable imbecile, and was she not living proof of how wrong they were?

His smile widened to a grin. “You are a walking contradiction, Amelia. Now ‘tis best to get young Ms. Maggie bundled and into town as quickly as possible. Atherton will have received instructions from Mrs. Holmes to ready a carriage.”

Maggie moaned and stirred. Amelia glanced down at her, then up at Mr. McCullagh. “Go,” he urged with a charming grin. “I will care for her.”

Amelia turned, mostly reassured, and left the room to do as he had bidden.

Maggie opened her eyes and for a split second she saw the face of a beautiful monster again, peering down at her with hungry, gorgeous eyes. She did not scream, though she wanted to. She felt a hand on her cheek and glanced down to see it was his, and when she glanced up again, it was Mr. McCullagh. “You swooned,” he said softly. “Are you feeling better?” She took a moment to compose herself, took stock of her various faculties, and then nodded. “Good.”

He took her by both hands and helped guide her to her feet again.

“I am sorry, Mr. McCullagh,” she murmured, now more embarrassed than frightened. Of course she had not seen what she thought she saw. It was just Mr. McCullagh, and he was kind and good and tasted like the color red…. Wait.

“Best you get along, Maggie,” he said, still holding her hands. “Amelia is awaiting you for your trip into town.”

Maggie’s eyes snapped back to his and she nodded. “Can I get you anything while I am in town, Mr. McCullagh?” she asked.

He smiled and shook his head, no.

“I am fine, but thank you for the kind offer.”

She reluctantly extricated her small hands from his large ones and moved to the door. She paused there momentarily to gaze on him, as he was watching her. I love him. The thought came unbidden to her mind and she knew it to be absolutely true, and possibly the most dangerous thing she had ever known. She left then, and never again would she see his face again in the living world.

 

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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