A Dance of Skin and Bone
by Joseph D. Stirling
Paul Sumner had always been a simple man. In his most adventurous dreams he could never have imagined the events that had led him here, huddled in the darkness and afraid. His once well groomed goatee was now an overgrown wild mass of scruff. The fastidious, professional haircut now a tangled mess caked with mud and sweat. A white button-up shirt, stained, un-tucked, rumpled; his neat silk tie lost. Crisp tailored slacks now torn, with no trace of the smart crease that had once been a clean vertical line.
At this moment, it felt like years since he had seen his tidy condo nestled on the top floor of the Hornesby Tower that overlooked the bay. The sad truth, that it was just three short weeks ago, sat like a heavy stone in his guts. Even now he could hear the ruffling footsteps of Thomas Younger searching for him in the dark space.
The two were friends, business partners, conquerors in a world of Insurance Claims. Then she happened, Elizabeth Sanderson and her quiet and dying brother Karl. What a pair, what a tragic story, what a complicated ruse. What a nightmare.
“Only one of us is getting out of here, Paulie.” Tom’s voice was cold and certain, breaking the silence. Paul held his breath. “Just give me the keys. I promise to make it quick, painless. There are no other options left. This only ends one way.”
And that was just how it started three weeks ago…
* * * * *
“This only ends one way,” Elizabeth smiled.
She was beautiful, in that Southern Belle sort of way, with long brown hair and natural curls that wreathed her smooth face and spilled over her soft shoulders. She wore no make-up, if she did it was subtle and complimenting. Her deep, honey-brown stare had a way of catching the light and holding it; luminous.
From their first meeting, Paul had found it difficult not to follow the curves of her hips with his eyes when she walked in, her breasts when she sat at the other end of his desk, and her ass when she left. It seemed that the soft cotton sundress was made for just those curves, holding to her body as if by the delicate strokes of a painters brush.
“My brother’s illness has taken for the worst. The Doctor’s give him three months at best. It may sound monstrous of me, but I hope for his sake it goes much quicker.” She brushed a curl from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “You see, he needs assurances that the insurance policy on the family estate transfers into my name when he passes. Your firm has held the policy for nearly twenty years and I would like to maintain the business relationship, hopefully by making this go smoothly. So you see this can only go one way to benefit all parties concerned. Your firm keeps the prestige of my family’s name as a client, and I get the comfort of knowing that if anything happens, the estate and I are well protected.”
Paul put his hands together, smiling. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the polished walnut desk. “Miss Sanderson, I can personally assure you that we are more than willing to accommodate your brother’s request. And we are very eager to continue to provide the financial security you and your namesake deserve.”
He slid a drawer open, smooth and quiet, keeping his eyes focused on hers. He resisted every urge to glance at her cleavage peeking from the low-neck front of the pale green sundress, even if only for a moment. He withdrew a manila folder and opened it, turning and sliding it across the desk with a well-practiced motion.
“There is no rush, but after you and your lawyers have looked over the documents, a simple signature will complete all the details. Normally we would require your brother’s signature, being the policy holder, but with your Power-of-Attorney over Karl’s policy we just need you. That is, just your signature.”
Careful, Paul, he thought. Keep it professional and friendly, not flirty.
* * * * *
Paul hit the polished wood floor; the squeak from his shoes briefly filled the court. He sat up to tom’s laughter as the racquet ball bounced across the line hitting the wall.
“Five to nothing. You’re terrible at this, Paul. I don’t know why you continue to embarrass yourself out here.” Tom offered his hand.
“Enjoy the small victory, Tom. I’ll be back to winning every game by next week, I had a late night.”
Tom shrugged, “The whole office heard. Jeannie, from Accounts Payable saw you out with Miss Southern-Money-Tits last night. Dinner at Beauregard’s huh, expensive fare. I hope it was worth the desert.” Tom chuckled in his usual look-how-funny-I-can-be manner. “A working girl would have been cheaper.”
Paul retrieved the ball from the corner where it rested. When he looked back at Tom, he wore his clean, gloating smirk. “Another high-end conquest. She’s got a net worth of $6.2 billion. If I’m not mistaken, that puts me in the lead. You’ve got a bit of catching up to do, Tom.”
They both shared a laugh at this, the same genuine laughter they had through college when they weren’t competing for commission and rank within the firm. Times change. Though they were friends, the competitive nature of business worked its way into every aspect of that friendship. Fifty-one inch flat screen? Nice, I just got a sixty-seven inch 3-D flat screen. Apartment in the Wolverton? Nice, I’m in the Hornesby Tower… Paul was winning.
“So,” said Tom, “how was she?”
“Not much different from any drunken co-ed worth $6.2 billion. If she owned a candy store, she’d run out of hard candy is all I’m saying, like a Hoover.”
They finished their game laughing and hit the showers. The gym was on the ground floor of their office building, so getting back to work after lunch was a simple ride up the elevator to the twenty-second floor. Paul’s cellphone rang as he stepped into the hallway, it was Elizabeth.
He answered, “I was wondering when I’d hear from you. You left so quickly this morning I thought I was a one-nighter.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I need you for at least two more nights. It’s already been cleared with your boss.”
Paul looked towards the large glass doors of the Insurance Firm. He was alone in the short hallway. “My boss, excuse me? I could get fired for fraternizing with a client. What did you tell him?”
He could hear her laughing in that cool, honey drawl. “You are just too funny. You and your associate have to come out to the island and view the estate holdings. You have nothing to worry about, sugar. Have a great afternoon.”
She hung up and Paul slid his phone into his pants pocket. As he pushed through the glass doors Simon, the main office receptionist, waved him over. Paul put on his nicest fake smile; he hated talking to Simon, not because he was gay but because everything was ‘serious honey’ in his vocabulary. It really got annoying to listen too.
“What’s the story, Simon?” Paul asked as he leaned against the counter.
“Serious business, honey. Mr. Lamplighter called down and wants to see you, pronto. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound happy before.” Simon stood and handed Paul the message with a smile. “You had to have done something serious, honey.”
“Thanks for the heads-up. Guess I better go and find out what I did right.”
Paul turned away and tried to look as if it were a normal day, he took extra care to walk casually to his small office, though inside he was bouncing with excitement. Surely this was a promotion, or a raise. He dropped his briefcase on the desk and checked his tie in the mirror on the wall. With his hair tossed just right, he evened his cuffs, and put on a smile. This was the face he would walk into Mr. Lamplighter’s office with.
He closed his door and strode to the elevator banks, pressing the call button and waiting. The door chimed open and Tom laughed as he saw Paul.
“Just had to show me up, waiting at the elevator for me, huh?”
“Nothing like that at all, Tom. Mr. Lamplighter has some news for me; Simon says he’s never heard the old man sound so happy.” Then, in mimicry of Simon, Paul sang, “Serious honey.”
Paul walked into the elevator and gave Tom a wink as the doors slid shut. It was a quick ride to the twenty-third floor. He was greeted by Mr. Lamplighter’s Secretary and ushered through the oak doors into the office. Paul had been here only once before, and nothing had changed since his interview four years ago. It still smelled of leather, peppery tobacco, and Old Spice. The old man himself was seated behind the large maple desk, just as before, and motioned for him to take a seat in the ox-blood leather chair across from him. Paul complied, doing his best to appear cool and relaxed.
Mr. Lamplighter’s face was heavily lined with wrinkles and wreathed by bristling white hair from his thick sideburns. Yet, despite the aged face, his eyes were crisp and fresh. They were the eyes of a man much younger; the vibrancy they held mirrored that of a young prince.
“Paul Sumner, I’m glad you could tear yourself away from the racquetball court downstairs to come and see me.”
Paul tried to keep his composure as he felt his insides turn to ice. Did his lunch break take too long? What was he missing? He thought only of breathing nice and slow.
“You seem worried, don’t be. I’ve taken notice of your work with us here. I’m pleased how well you’ve taken to our way of doing things. Please, relax, Paul.”
“Of course, Mr. Lamplighter. I’m pleased that you’re-”
“Come now, I detest ass kissing so I’ll stop you before you start. It’s unhealthy by any reason. Paul, I’ve called you up here for a very specific purpose. The actions you’ve taken recently with the Sanderson estate, and Miss Sanderson in particular, have brought closer to the scrutinizing eye of this firm. She has professed great appreciation in your very passionate handling of her case. It’s like you’ve become part of the family, Paul. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Paul’s heart raced, the old man knew. Mr. Lamplighter was flaunting it right in front of him, dangling the carrot before his eyes. Paul only wondered how long before the stick let its presence be known.
“Mr. Lamplighter, I assure you-”
“Oh, I think we’ve become close enough for you to call me Roger at this point. You see, Elizabeth is my niece.”
“Roger, I,” but Paul had no idea what to say. All those flashy words he used selling and maintaining with his clients had suddenly fallen apart. He had nothing but a head full of emptiness, useless space.
“You think things over; we’ll talk more when you get back from the Sanderson Estate on Tufton Isle. You’re in for a real treat I assure you.”
* * * * *
His memory fell away as the low wheeze again shuddered through the darkness. Tom was drawing closer, slowly gaining the advantage of an easy shot with the nickel-plated Glock 9mm he carried. But the more terrible fact, it was drawing nearer too. Tom hadn’t seen it, didn’t see the empty hunger and rage in those pale eyes. So many eyes… Paul shivered a quiet breath, trying to overcome his growing panic.
“I can hear you breathing, Paul. I told you those cigars were no good for you, no matter how distinguished you thought they made you look. Shame you’ll never know if that awful wheeze is emphysema.” Tom’s laugh was dry and a touch excited. “If it’s cancer I’m only saving you a slow death.” Tom bumped one of the many stacks of boxes set teetering on aging pieces of furniture. “You should be thanking me!”
Paul shuddered as the thought of the thing flashed through his mind, the thing Tom didn’t seem to notice. Paul’s eyes were slowly adjusting to the darkness in the cellar; at least they were adjusting as far as they could. The human eye was never built to see in darkness this black. Though he could make out shapes, piles of old rugs, rickety chairs and bookcases, uneven stacks of boxes, he would never be able to navigate quickly enough once the bullets started flying.
How, of all the questions in existence, did he end up here? Paul couldn’t believe that it was Elizabeth Sanderson that played him for such a fool, not after what happened. Her brother Karl had to be the one behind it, but why? Why send him to a house to verify the family’s holdings, unless… No, that didn’t make any sense, Mr. Lamplighter was their Uncle. Could any of them know the thing was in here? Was Paul sent here to be victim?
Paul shut his eyes tight and held his breath, feeling it build to near bursting inside him. As his own heartbeat pulsed through his temples, he could hear not only Tom’s slow steps, but it’s sloughing and shuffling movements. Each step from Tom matched with the quiet sluicing and huffing from the thing with eyes that confused the brain. How under God’s blue sky could all those eyes set on such an incongruous and slick bundle of folded skin? When Paul had caught just the barest glimpse, it appeared as though eyes slid out from the endless rolls of flesh, bubbled on every lump and callous, and blinked out of sync with the others as it slimed its way across the upstairs hallway before pursuing him here. Strange that Paul wondered how distracted the thing would be when it reached Tom. Would he have enough time to make for the stairs? Did he have a chance to run across the expansive distance from the house to the dock? Could he find his way to the boat in the dark on this unfamiliar island?
What would it do to Tom when it got him?
The gunshot was loud and sudden, Paul jumped. He couldn’t feel any pain. Is this what it feels like to be shot? He tried to catch his breath, feeling over his body for the blood that should be welling over his torn clothes, but found none. A second shot rang through the basement leaving his ears buzzing.
“This could have been so much easier, Paul.” In the dark the sounds of Tom’s leather soled shoes scraping the cement floor sounded like a saw cutting wood. “What the hell is this?”
As Tom began to scream, Paul jumped to his feet and ran. He vaguely remembered where the stairs were and prayed that he reached them. Tom was reduced to the faintest of moans and quiet sobs as Paul ran by him. The sickening wheeze from the thing came in excited rasps, despite the tortured labor of its breathing there was a sense of joy. The dull sucking noise that joined it was perhaps the most grotesque thing Paul had ever heard. It was like a toothless man mashing oatmeal in his gummy mouth; Paul could feel the bile in his empty stomach rising up his throat. Something wrapped tightly around his ankle and he fell. It seemed everything slowed down as he dropped, bouncing his head first off of a solid wood cabinet, then the floor. The darkness that followed was absolute.
* * * * *
Paul watched as Alvin Prichard, the estate caretaker, loaded his bag onto the boat and stowed it in the cabin with Tom’s luggage. The sea air smelled crisp, with the spiced notes of salt, as he puffed on his cigar. Tom was already onboard and had kicked his feet up on the bench; he sat with a smile and raised a glass in greeting. Paul nodded and carefully stepped from the dock into the Sea King yacht, the dark wood shining in the sun. Prichard cast off the mooring lines and jumped aboard in such a calm manner, sure-footed and precise, then with a subtle wink from his clear eyes took the helm and started the engine.
Paul took a seat across from Tom and steadied himself as the yacht pulled away from the dock and into the harbor. They eased slowly by other boats as they cleared the marina, Prichard giving a casual wave to those they passed.
“So I hear the old man called you upstairs for a meeting. Simon said it was good news.” Tom kept his eyes fixed on the ice clinking in his glass as he spoke. “You’re not taking credit for other people’s hard work again are you? Meyers got fired for you closing a contract with one of his clients.”
Paul couldn’t help but smirk, “Meyers was an idiot. He sent the Rochette deal my way, asked me to review the claim. I just gave them a better write up on the contract than Meyers.” Paul took a slow pull from his cigar and pitched the nub into the water. “And no, that had nothing to do with why I saw the old man. He called me up on a personal matter.”
Paul watched with a growing satisfaction as Tom soaked up what he said. Paul stood and climbed the short steps to the helm leaving Tom with his drink.
“Mr. Prichard, how long of a trip is it to Tufton Isle?”
“Just Prichard,” he flashed his clear eyes at Paul. Those eyes were cold as an autumn wind, with every hint of leafless trees and overcast skies; it was like the man never looked at him at all. “Near an hour. Maybe more, maybe less.”
“What do you do for the Sanderson’s, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I take care of whatever they need me to.”
Paul watched each careful movement Prichard made at the wheel, not satisfied with the short answers. “How long have you worked for them?”
“Feels like forever, I get that. Have you ever met their Uncle?”
Prichard flashed those eyes at him again. “I spend little time on the mainland. You should take your seat; the water gets choppy out here.”
The boat lurched as a confirmation, but Paul was sure he had seen Prichard jostle the wheel and throttle. Clearly this was a man who didn’t want conversation.
At just over an hour, the yacht was steered through the tangle of cement pillars that served as a break for the single dock on Tufton Isle. Prichard pulled along the dock and dropped the bumpers over the side to prevent the dock from damaging the ship, then jumped down to secure the mooring lines. As Paul and Tom stepped onto the dock, Tom still a little green from the rolling of the sea, Prichard was already unloading their luggage. As they gathered their bags, Prichard was prepping the yacht to leave.
“Leaving so soon?” Asked Paul, a little confused as to why Prichard wasn’t showing them to the manor.
“I live on the other side of the island, seven miles on foot.”
Paul nodded, “See you in a couple days, then. Thanks for the ride.” Prichard was already revving the engine and pulling away, Paul shrugged and looked to Tom. “Guess we’re on our own.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to find the house, I hear it’s pretty big.” Tom was slowly getting color back in his face.
They surveyed what they could see of the island, a gravel drive led away from the dock into the interior. There was no sign of the manor house through the blanket of trees and bushes, not that the island was chocked with plant life. The vegetation seemed to be well manicured and the two could have walked easily through the woods, though with the suits they wore, both men opted for the road.
The gravel lane was wide and edged with Birds of Paradise, the taller trees along the road cast cool shadows and a calm breeze carried the scent of the sea through the fragrant woods. It was a short walk before the wooded island opened into a large clearing with the manor house at its center. The large white mansion was clean with sea green trim and Elizabeth waved to them from a widow’s walk, disappearing into the open door and billowing curtains when she saw them.
* * * * *
Paul started awake, and for a moment he was choking as if his breath had been taken from him. The room was dim, moonlight filtered through thin curtains and he could feel clean sheets and soft pillows. A slow breeze crept through the room as if it could be an intruder in the night, deliberate and ill tempered. The scent of damp earth and salt carried through the room, unfamiliar at first, though calming. Paul looked around the room; nothing was as it should be. Where were his Egyptian cotton sheets, his oak wardrobe, or his view of the city sky-line?
He climbed from the bed, feeling a dull throb ebbing through his face and head. He could see the swelled cheek even in the dim light, the harsh dark color of bruise. Paul’s heart began to thumb frantically in his chest, the horrible nightmare of his situation collapsing in around him as the realization that he was still on the island sank in.
It was quiet, the sort of stillness you would find in a mortuary. But wasn’t this place full of the dead? Karl Sanderson was slowly dying in one of the many rooms, he was sure the thing had gotten Tom. Elizabeth, poor Elizabeth. He hadn’t witnessed it as the panic grabbed him and he ran, but surely she was dead too.
For the first time since he woke, Paul noticed he had been re-dressed in night clothes, pale cream colored plaid with a neat pocket biased on the chest. His eyes darted around the room, the door was closed and still he heard no sound, but someone had fitted him into the pajamas and placed him the bed. He searched the bedroom, frantic to find his clothes, torn and filthy as they were they would be more suited to leaving than what he was dressed in.
He felt desperate, wild eyes rolling in his head as he tore through each drawer and closet. But there was nothing. Then he heard it, a gentle creak of wood; the groan of footsteps on old floors. There was another person moving through the hallway outside the room, deliberately drawing nearer. Paul ticked himself into a corner of the room beside the nightstand, forcing himself to be as small and quiet as he could. Even though he knew it wouldn’t be enough to save him.
* * * * *
Elizabeth let a small laugh slip from behind her cloth napkin, “You can’t want to discuss business during the meal? Really Thomas, this evening is for relaxing, other matters can wait until tomorrow.”
Paul shot a quick smirk to Tom as he set his silverware on the plate and leaned back from the table. It was rather large for only the three of them dining, leaving twelve empty chairs even though the place settings had been laid out for a full house. Elizabeth had been quite adamant to leave her brother’s place open at the head of the table despite knowing he couldn’t leave his bed. She sat herself on the right of the table head with Paul and Tom across from her.
The three of them had been in sitting room towards the front end of the hose when a small bell had sounded the meal, and when they came into the dining hall everything was set. There was no sound from staff, nor had they seen anyone but Elizabeth and Prichard since they arrived. Now Paul wondered who would clear the table.
“So Paul tells me your brother is ill? I’d like to meet him and perhaps pray with him, if that’s alright?” Tom held his well-practiced smile.
Paul made no sound, but inside he was laughing. He had watched Tom run his well-meaning-Christian-bit a few times before in the attempt to push a client to sign. Tom was no Christian; if he were he was one of the worst examples.
“Karl has expressly asked that no prayers be given for him; he has also refused the care of physicians. Keeping in with his wishes, I have to decline your generous offer. I hope you don’t think me rude?” Elizabeth folded her napkin and set it beside the plate. “Shall we retire to the lounge for a drink? There are many fine cigars if you’d like.” She was looking at Paul as she spoke.
Paul stood, ignoring the stare from Tom, as he made his way around to help Elizabeth from her chair. Not that he was trying to be a gentleman, it was more about trying not to lose his job; he knew he would have to play this thing out.
She led them through the archway into the foyer and across the entry hall to the lounge. It was everything Paul expected to see; thick and heavy leather chairs and sofas, mounted hunting trophies, a large fireplace against the wall, a well-stocked bar counter, and bookshelves packed full with old tomes. Mixed with the ever present smell of the sea, the room had a thick scent of old smoke and paper. This was clearly a room she had no hand in decorating.
“Feel free to set yourselves up with a drink, and there are cigars in the old globe by the chairs. I’ll leave you men to it; frankly the scent of cigars turns me a touch green.” Elizabeth smiled and slid the doors closed as she left.
Tom wasted no time, “She has been giving you the eyes. You must’ve worked some kind of magic on that piece of tail.” He gave a short laugh while he poured a glass of whatever brown liquor was on the counter. “This is going to make a great story for the guys in the office.”
“No stories, Tom; not this time. She’s the old man’s niece, that’s why Lamplighter called me to his office yesterday.” Paul flipped open the globe and the scent of rich tobacco filled his nostrils. He took out a Partagas Black Label cigar and struck a match, puffing lightly till it was lit. “This stays here, Tom.”
“I see,” Tom set his glass down with a sharp click and spun on Paul. “This is all about moving up in the firm. You’re fucking the family to get a raise, you son of a bitch! This stays here? Bullshit, this goes in a fucking memo. You’re just a corporate whore, Paul.”
“Look asshole, things are changing. Go with the flow or drown, remember. Your damn words when we first got hired.” Paul stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray on the coffee table and started for the sliding doors. “You should just go home; I’ll call Lamplighter and have him send someone else to verify the estate holdings.”
“Fuck you, Paul. I’m not going anywhere. My career gets a bump from this too, even if I’m not fucking the old man’s niece.”
Paul pushed through the doors and shut them behind him. From somewhere in the house he could hear talking, a woman’s voice, it was faint with a slight echo. He made his way to the staircase and climbed to the second floor where the voices were louder. There was a door cracked at the end of the wide hallway, a sliver of white light spilling across the floor.
He couldn’t make out what was being said, but he could only hear Elizabeth. A softer sound droned below the sound of her voice as he approached; a wet, throaty wheeze, a slight gurgle, and the soft whispered response.
Nearing the door he could just make out Elizabeth’s words. “…is a strong seed, it’s already taken root…”
He pushed the door open with his finger tips and cleared his throat to announce he was there. The room was lined with medical equipment, a brilliant white light hanging overhead, and taking up the center of the room was a bed entirely draped in thick white cloth. Elizabeth turned, casting her thick, honey smile upon him, golden and sweet as a summer day.
“Paul. I was wondering how long it would take you to leave Tom behind and find me.” She reached out and took his hand, drawing him closer to her before slipping her arm around his waist. “You’ll have to forgive not seeing my brother face to face, his condition won’t permit it, but never-the-less I’d like you to introduce you to Karl.”
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Sanderson.” Paul smiled as he tried to see through the curtains that covered the bed. It was a strange feeling, even though Paul could see nothing with the thick layers of linen, he felt as if he was being scrutinized or judged, weighed by appearance alone.
It was barely audible, the labored wet sounds of a dying man, “The…pleasure…is…mine…”
* * * * *
Paul slid in the scattered brown leaves that covered the ground. He yanked Tom to his feet, dragging him along through the woods. Behind them, the glow of lights from the manor house was fading into the darkness of the night. The wind had picked up, the rustle of leaves and the roar of breaking waves made it hard to hear if they were being followed, but the feeling of being watched crawled across Paul’s skin like a swarm of gnats.
The one thought that ran through his mind, even as he tried to comprehend what had just happened, was the few words Prichard had said. I live on the other side of the island, seven miles on foot. Paul knew Prichard had the yacht docked there, the ship that would take them away from this island. Tom was shouting at him and Paul was drawn from his thoughts.
“What the fuck, man? Why’d you drag me from bed? What the hell are we doing out here?”
The images were still fresh in Paul’s mind. He had been in bed with Elizabeth right before the brown out, the power had flickered and in those few moments of darkness he had watched as Elizabeth vanished. In her place suddenly writhing and moaning atop him was- What? It didn’t make sense. Paul could find no rationalization for what it was. Tom would never believe him; hell, he didn’t even believe it let alone know how to describe it. He only knew they had to get off this island.
“No time! We’ve got leave now! Prichard has the yacht, trust me Tom!”
Tom yanked his arm free and stopped running. “Trust you? You’re fucking up my career asshole! This two day asset summary has stretched to nearly three weeks! Trust you?”
But then Paul was spewing a lie, even before he could stop himself. “Karl isn’t dying! He killed Elizabeth for fuck’s sake! I watched it happen, we need to leave! Now!”
“What the fuck?” Tom took a step back, “Call the fucking Cops, shit man, the Coast Guard, something!”
Paul reached for his pocket on instinct alone; his phone, his wallet, everything was still in the room. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to check, neither of them had been able to get a signal the entire time here. The only communication was the radio on the boat.
“I left my phone, shit I dressed running to get you from your room. We can’t go back there, man. Karl will kill us!”
“Fuck that! When you ditched me in the lounge I took a look around. There’s a gun in there, a silver handgun. We can just shoot that fucker and call it self-defense! You watched him kill his sister; we can say he came after us. No one will question it. Let’s go, man!” Tom was already starting to turn back towards the house.
Paul couldn’t let him go. Karl was frail and dying; he wasn’t a killer, he was a scapegoat because the truth didn’t make any sense. Paul would have to keep the lie going. “You can’t, we don’t where he could be hiding. He knows every inch of the house! What if he has the gun already? Are you even thinking this shit through? We’ve got to get to the fucking boat!”
Tom wouldn’t stop walking away. “Fuck that. I’m going for that gun.”
Paul couldn’t bring himself to follow Tom; nothing could make him go back into that house. He turned and ran as it started to rain.
* * * * *
The handle turned and the door creaked open, a shadow spread over the floor from the light in the hall. In the back of Paul’s mind he knew who had come into the room, knew who had cleaned him and dressed him and laid him here after losing consciousness in the cellar.
“The pleasure is mine. You remember when I told you that, Paul? I can smell your fear, it’s invigorating, but you have nothing to fret over. My sister wants you to stay you see, and so I comply with her wishes. Tom on the other hand, served his purpose. I feel like a new man thanks to him, the pleasure was all mine, I assure you.”
Paul couldn’t make out any detail but the sound of the voice, even without the rasping wheeze, was unmistakable for Karl Sanderson. Karl didn’t venture any further into the room than the doorway.
“You should be so proud, Paul. So happy. Do you realize you’re about to be a father? Your first should be birthed within hours. My sister said you had a very strong seed and it is breathing life back into our family. It’s been such a long time since we’ve had the opportunity to grow.” His slow chuckle was so abrupt and out of place that Paul whimpered. “Cheer up, you’ll see soon enough why your new life here is so important.”
In the smallest fit of courage, Paul spoke up. “What are you? Why not just kill me?”
“I told you, my sister like you. Elizabeth is the baby of the family and she’s only just come to the age to bear children. We’ve been searching for the right companion for her for decades, and Mr. Lamplighter has been a huge help, braving the world of all you strange little things to find the one that will benefit us all. My only hope is that your children have my sister’s eyes.”
* * * * *
Paul dropped to his knees in the mud, the rain sputtering around him, and stared. The hopelessness was almost too much to carry, a great weight that pressed down on him as he looked at the collapsed little cottage. The waves rumbled and crashed into the island, still dragging splinters of what was Prichard’s home. There was no yacht to be seen, the only hint of a dock was the cement pylons protruding from the raging sea like boney fingers. He sat for what may have been hours, terrified of the thought to go back to the manor house, but there was nowhere else to go. The image of throwing himself into the water briefly crossed his mind, Paul shuddered at the notion.
He forced himself to stand finally, and resigned himself to head for the mansion. If Tom were still alive he would have the gun by now, maybe he’d already killed the thing.
Paul was exhausted by the time he crept through the door. It was quiet and looked like every light in the large house was switched on. He listened from the door but the storm outside made it impossible to hear any movement from within the empty halls. He winced as his wet shoes squeaked on the floor, the squish felt almost deafening. He got to the stairs as quick and quiet as he could, thankful for the carpeting that hid most of his footfalls. Once on the second floor he did his best to stay pressed against the wall to search for any sign of Tom.
Tom found him first bellowing like a madman, “Hey! There’s no on here asshole! Elizabeth is dead, I saw it happen, fuck you! No body, no crime; I watch fucking CSI that’s how it works. You fucking lost it, Paul!” Tom was waving a nickel-plated Glock 9mm around like a toy from the end of the hallway. “This is a sick game. I thought we were friends!”
“Calm down, Tom. I can explain-”
“Fuck your explanation! Give me the damn keys to the boat, I’m going home. I’m tired of this shit!”
Paul wanted to tell him there was no boat, no keys; Prichard and the yacht were claimed by the storm, but then the thing spilled from Karl’s room. Pallid flesh that was pale as a corpse, yet shone with a slick film in the light. It seemed to twitch and undulate as it squirmed its way behind Tom, dozens and dozens of eyes covered the loose skin that hung in fetid rolls over its body. Paul could feel each eye burning through him, fixing on him as if he were a target. He lost all thought of Tom for a moment before a shot shattered into the plaster coated wall.
“I’m fucking talking to you! Give me the keys, Paul!”
Tom was screaming at him, but Paul couldn’t concentrate, the thing had consumed his thoughts by just being what it was, an impossible thing. Paul turned and ran.