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Appraised Risk – Jim Lee

 

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APPRAISED RISK

Jim Lee

Several impatient strides brought Julio Rodriguez into the back room where he found his assistant hunched over in a corner, staring at his tablet computers with feverish intensity. Julio frowned. If it had been any other 22-year-old, he would’ve assumed young Mr. Running Deer was enjoying some internet porn on work time.

But in this case that just didn’t seem likely.

“Hector!” he said sharply.

The younger man jumped. His head jerked upward; he blinked. An instinctively guilty flick of the wrist turned the tablet’s screen blank.

“Our appointment—it’s time for us to go.”

“Right, boss.” Hector tucked the tablet under his arm and retrieved his raincoat. He followed Julio out of the office. It was pouring again and he ducked into the passenger side of his employer’s Lexus without delay.

Julio pulled out into the city traffic and headed for one of Metro Vancouver’s newest and most distinctly upscale residential developments.

“Why did she want both of us anyway?” Hector asked. “Is it some really massive collection?”

“Don’t know. But she insisted—two appraisers or nothing. Never heard of this Melinda Black, but apparently she has considerable resources.” Julio turned left and in a few more blocks to the right. “What was so fascinating online anyway?”

“Oh, that?” Hector shrugged. “Just reading a retrospective piece on the life of your friend—the one who died mysteriously six months ago?”

“Alexander Sung?” Julio frowned again. “That was strange. He always seemed the picture of health. Then they find him on his bedroom floor—alone and naked, except for a freshly used condom and stone dead, not a mark on him? But as I told you, we weren’t exactly friends. He was one of my first clients. Hired me to evaluate the antiques he inherited from his father. That was almost fifteen years ago.”

“But you saw him around pretty often? Socialized with him?”

“Sure, later on.” Julio stopped for a red light. “He dove into collecting seriously from then on—made it part of his rich playboy image. As an appraiser, I get invited to some of the same parties as those types. You will too, if you stick with it—make a name for yourself in the business. What with his heritage and his Dad’s business connections, he focused on Chinese art pieces.”

The light changed and they drove on.

“Ming Dynasty?”

Julio nodded. “At first—that had been his dad’s focus. Later, he expanded into other periods—developed a good eye, too. Soon he didn’t need an expert to tell him what was worth what. So we only saw each other casually, from time to time, and that was fine. I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. We just weren’t buddies.”

“But everybody comments on what a total charmer he was. Even what I was reading—”

“Was that article’s author female, by any chance?” Julio glanced at Hector’s uncomprehending expression and chuckled. “I didn’t have the right—uh, physical equipment—to merit being on the receiving end of his full, over-the-top charm.”

“Oh.” Hector shifted under his safety belt. “I understand.”

“Relax, Hec. You do know most folks aren’t obsessed with antiques to the exclusion of everything else? Even experts like us. You’re allowed other interests. And you really ought to find yourself a girlfriend—or boyfriend, if that’s your thing. Keeping everything bottled up inside, you might explode someday.”

Hector squinted out the window. “Rains finally slacking off,” he murmured.

“Plenty of nice girls around,” Julio persisted.

“Like the ones you go for, boss?” Hector snorted. “A new stripper every few weeks?”

“Hey, I’m not that bad! Anyway,” his employer admitted with a grin, “Vancouver’s a major hot spot that way—even a bit notorious, in certain circles. But there are lots of other places, other ways of meeting the right one for you.”

“I guess so,” Hector Running Deer said without enthusiasm.

2

In due course, they arrived at their destination. They buzzed, identified themselves to the same sultry voice that had made the appointment by phone—presumably Ms. Black herself.

They pulled up to a midsized mansion—only an average structure in that posh neighborhood. The automatic gates closed behind them. “Trapped,” Julio joked and stepped from his vehicle.

Hector followed.

Julio thumbed the bell and the door opened almost instantly.

His eyes met hers and somehow he knew this would be no ordinary appraisal job. By any standard, she was stunning. Her flowing red hair contrasted impossibly with the flawless copper skin tones and distinctive facial features of a full-blooded member of one of Canada’s First Nations, yet somehow that only added to her unique and undeniable physical appeal. And there was more—something that went beyond her sleepy-eyed stare and crimson-lipped, vaguely predatory smirk. There was a sort of energy she radiated, just standing there. It was pure and raw, and dangerous. Sensuality incarnate, she posed before them atop a pair of bright red, spike-heeled, step-in pumps.     

“Ms. Black?” Julio said after twice moistening his lips.

“Yes. And you must be Mr. Rodriguez,” she purred in that blatantly seductive voice—the words innocent enough, yet delivered with a tone dripping with random eroticism of the most primal sort. Then her head tilted, that weirdly wrong yet eye-catching hair tumbling with calculated allure as she refocused a near-hypnotic gaze on the clueless Hector. “And his assistant, I assume? You have the look of one of my People, young man. I’m so glad you both could come, as per my request!”

One of her fuck-me pumps shifted sideways, drawing eyes to the thigh-length slit in her dress and the lacy elastic trim atop a black silk stocking.

Business, Julio Rodriguez reminded himself and forced aside the utterly insane impulse to grab her by that inappropriate hair, put her stocking-clad knees on the plush, cream-white carpet and stick his dick down her throat, then and there. What the fuck? Julio asked himself. He liked women and loved sex, but wasn’t crude or abusive by nature. What’s wrong with me?

He shook his head, asked if they might see her collection.

“Ah, the job comes first for you? I like that. Deposit your raingear over there.” She pointed at a small, neat alcove. “Then follow me!”

She turned on those spiked heels then paused to glance in Hector’s direction. But the youthful innocence of Julio’s assistant combined with his fixation on the treasures of the past seemed to shield him, at least partially and momentarily, from her less-than-subtle erotic emissions.

Julio had no such inadvertent defenses, however. Her torrid gaze returned to him and his heart pounded in his chest.

She nodded and started down the hall, the provocative swaying of her ass affecting him—drawing him onward as no woman ever had before. The hallway was lined with assorted wood carvings, figurines and abstract paintings—almost entirely of Native American origins and all of excellent quality. At its end, two especially wondrous and absolutely authentic Chilkat blankets flanked the entrance to her living room. A third hung above the archway, the triangular point of its bottom fringe dangling within millimeters of 6-1 Julio’s head.

“These are magnificent!” Hector said his dark eyes alive with reverence as they shifted from one 6-foot-long, cedar bark fiber and dyed wool wall hanging to another then to the third. “Very fine—and old. My own people traded in these things, though never made them.”

“Oh?” Ms. Black arched an unashamedly thick brow. “Which of the First Nations might that be?”

“These days,” Hector said without prying his eyes from the mystical artwork, “we call ourselves the Nuu-Chah Nulth, what others call—”

“The Nootka,” she interrupted. “Yes, I know your folk well. I have a century-old Nootka Hat in another room. These are from other tribes, naturally—two are Tsimshian, the one overhead is Tlingit.”

“The people who allegedly originated this unique art-form,” Julio commented.

“Correct.”

“Are you Tlingit, Ms. Black?”

“No, Mr. Rodriguez. Nor am I Tsimshian. And please, call me Melinda. You are Julio, I believe? And this fine young man is—?”

“Hector Running Deer,” the younger man said indistinctly, still spellbound by the Chilkats’ abstract designs and stylized animal figures.

“Hector, then. But do come along, please? These items—proud parts of my collection, to be sure—are nonetheless familiar to me. I know their worth. It is only a few recent additions—things I am uncertain about—that I wish you to evaluate for me . . . . ?”

She beckoned with an extended arm and the men followed her through three successive rooms that were decorated by more of the same, plus an array of exquisite wooden furniture of assorted origins. But all of it was quite old, authentic and beautifully maintained.

Finally she paused at a hand-carved Spanish doorway. “I very recently broadened my collecting interests, so to speak. And as such, I acquired some new pieces to reflect that—courtesy a very generous gentleman friend.”

Julio’s eyes narrowed, though not in surprise. Of course, he thought with lustful passion, she couldn’t be more obvious if she wore a neon sign flashing ‘High-Paid Whore/Mistress’ hung around her neck!

“But I know little to nothing about antique pottery of this sort,” she admitted, even as she somehow turned this declaration into yet another murmured come-on. “That’s why I summoned you two.”

Julio nodded to himself, swallowed hard and watched her round ass one last time as it led them into her bedroom. The pottery collection—arranged in haphazard splendor to either side of a woven bark basket atop her massive bedroom fireplace’s equally outsized mantle—was small yet unbelievably choice. Julio’s eyes lit up, as did his assistant’s.

They staggered forward, breathlessly beholding then carefully examining what was easily a million Canadian dollars’ worth of genuine Ming Dynasty vases and urns. All were expertly fired and hand-painted, and—for Julio—all ominously familiar. Midway through, Julio eased himself into a gorgeous, and of course genuine, Louis the Fourteenth chair. From this luxurious perch, he turned his head repeatedly—alternating between halfhearted agreement with Hector’s cries of delight and sneaking worried yet compulsive looks at Melinda as she stretched out on a high-backed, semi-circular, Persian bed.

That particular piece of exotic antique furniture was big enough for three, he noted almost against his will. The rumpled purple satin sheets shimmered invitingly as Melinda methodically eased back the hem of her black dress, revealing red lace garters from a previous age and a semi-sheer thong of equally vivid red silk.

“Consider the delicacy, the sheer artistry of this piece!” Hector gasped.

“Hmm. What? Oh, yes—yes, indeed!” He cleared his throat and made a show of examining the exquisite fired-glass incense burner cupped lovingly in his assistant’s hands. There was no doubting its origin—or its previous owner.

“Julio?” Hector squinted with abject bafflement. “What’s with you today, boss?”

The older man’s eyes betrayed him by shifting past his assistant’s elbow. Hector’s head turned. He saw Melinda’s bare ass-cheeks and the fire-engine red strip of lingerie between them.

“Wha—?” he gasped again and nearly dropped the near-priceless artifact. “Oooh!”

Hector got the incense burner safely back on the mantle somehow as Julio sprang from the chair and lunged toward their leering—and possibly homicidal—fuck-slut of a client. She turned over, swung a leg across the disheveled sheets and clawed the thong out of Julio’s way. Her neatly trimmed pubic hair was the same incongruous shade of blood red, with dewy folds of labial flesh protruding from it.

Julio was facedown in milliseconds, his chin beard and mustache tickling the flesh of her thighs. Melinda moaned as her folds opened and he tongued her pussy in earnest. A small but strong hand folded across the back of his skull; her pelvis rotated, grinding against him. Her eyes rolled back in her head and a couple random obscenities bubbled from her gaping, red-rimmed mouth.

A rasping sound came from somewhere nearby—Hector, unzipping his pants. Julio smiled against her crotch, pleased that his protégé seemed about to prove a fast learner in more ways than one. He continued teasing Melinda’s grateful vagina even as he became aware of the first inklings of a strange, giddy lightheadedness. His determined tongue action continued as Hector crawled past him. He crammed a finger up her rectum and Melinda arched her back.

Her mouth twisted almost grotesquely open and she arched her back, turned her head. She accepted the younger man’s member almost to the root with a single wet gulp and clamped her lips tight around it. Her eyes burned up at him and she sucked furiously as Hector seized a fistful of crimson hair by the roots.

Julio jerked his finger from her bunghole and levered himself upright on his knees. His hard shaft sprang free as she pushed Hector back with both hands. The younger man’s throbbing dick popped free and wobbled against her cheek.

“Condoms!” Melinda commanded and then her head darted lower, effortlessly taking Hector’s entire scrotum into her mouth. Painful yet exhalant passion appeared on Hector’s face and he swung his head.

Julio hurried to sheath his member and drove his latex-bound erection deep into her. He groaned, took three or four frantic thrusts then paused to pass a second condom into Hector’s accepting fingers. Julio fucked her with desperate energy, sweat pouring out and his heart racing. He felt like he was giving away his very life force and recognized the danger involved—whether she was truly Alexander Sung’s murderer or not. Yet he couldn’t seem to make himself care, or even slow his out-of-control rutting. He climaxed powerfully and shuddered, collapsed—but not onto her, as Melinda’s strong left hand guided him down beside her.

Likewise, the uncut tip of Hector’s cock pulsed and exploded into the air before his clumsy fingers could fit the second pale blue sheath into place.

Melinda wrinkled her nose at what landed in gooey lines and round specks across her forehead, her hair and the sheets they all writhed upon. Yet she guided the unconscious younger man down to her other side without open complaint.

3

Two hours later, Julio awoke with a groan. He nudged Hector, who responded similarly to regaining a degree of confused awareness.

“You both survived!” Melinda Black said with delight. “I should’ve thought to try this—spreading the risk—decades ago!”

“Survived?” Julio sat up and nearly toppled back onto the sheets. He rubbed his forehead, muttered vaguely. “Decades ago?”

She looked only a few years older than Hector!

“How do you feel?”

He blinked. “Trashed, but in a good way—kind of. Like I just had the best, most intense and satisfying sex of my life and—” He stopped short, narrowed and focused his eyes on her accusingly.

“—and it nearly killed you?” she completed the thought for him and nodded.

Julio frowned.

She had showered and changed more than her clothes as the men slept off their inexplicable experience. Melinda seemed stronger, yet calmer—less animalistic than before. Like a predator who just filled-up with a good meal and now can relax?

“Who—what are you?”

She turned her head toward the fireplace mantle and specifically the one item there not of Chinese origin.

“That basket?” He rose, looked over his shoulder to assure himself that Hector was also recovering. Then he swept past her. He seized it with both hands, brought it down and peered inside. Bones—very old, charred by fire. “Human?”

“My husband,” she confirmed.

“Melinda—”

“That is only my most recent name, of course.”

“Yeah? You’re—a Carrier?”

“That’s the common White People word for my Nation. We prefer Dakelh.”

“Carrier?” Hector echoed vaguely. He stumbled to his feet. “Oh, yeah—you’re an inland People. Mine traded with yours frequently, back in the old days.”

“I remember,” she said. “Then the whites came with their diseases, among many other things and took away our way of life, nearly wiped us both out.”

“You remember. But that was so long ago. You look—how old are you?” Julio pressed her.

“I was almost 23 when my husband died—in one of epidemics. As per the ancient custom that gave my Nation its Anglo name, I was expected to carry his bones everywhere I went in this sacred basket for the next three years, once they came out of the funeral pyre. And in this time of mourning, I was not to be permitted sex. I honored this obligation for two years and seven months—until I encountered Angus.”

“Angus?” Julio murmured.

“He was a big, strong, bearded Scotsman who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad through our country. He had the most extraordinary red hair.”

“Like yours?”

“Oh, no.” Melinda shook her head. “I was full-blooded Dakelh—my name then meant She of the Darkest of Black Hair in our language, and I took pride in it. I still do, secretly—why I frequently use the name Black now, I suppose.”

“Then how—?”

“I was 25, full of youthful passion. I let Angus—hell, I was entirely willing! But my late husband’s father was the village Shaman. He found out; cast a vengeful and monstrous spell upon me. Unawares, I lay with my white man again—both of us wild with passion, even greater than before! It was the spell’s work. And even as he died, I felt the intoxicating surge of power and vitality I took from him. And my hair instantly turned an even more vivid shade of red than his—my father-by-marriage’s warning to others that I was unclean, I think.”

She blinked, fell silent.

Hector staggered up next to Julio and she eyed him thoughtfully. “In your people’s tradition, the soul is pictured as a tiny, invisible duplicate of the person that resides atop the forehead—correct?”

The younger man nodded. “More or less.”

“When the soul is healthy, it stands there erect. If unhealthy, it sits—slumps in exhaustion?”

Another nod.

“But what if when so weakened it was sucked away from its very perch?”

Hector drew back a step.

“Yes. That is who and what I am.”

“A sort of sexual vampire,” Hector said, wide-eyed.

“Indeed.”

“You killed Alexander Sung.”

“And many others, Julio. But it’s not what I wanted.”

The senior appraiser snorted.

“The spell—the curse! I cannot eat normal foods. And if I don’t—consume the Life Energy of men, I starve.”

“Then choose to starve,” Julio suggested grimly.

“I’ve tried—many times in the last 125 years! The compulsion, the drive to feed is too strong—it gains control. The longer I go, the more intense the need and the instinctive, seductive aura I generate draws almost all the adult men I encounter, even if I struggle against it. Most often, I have simply accepted reality and gone ahead.”    

Hector pursed his lips “Almost all?”

“Another aspect of my father-by-marriage’s clever spell. I am not drawn to my fellow Dakelh and find they are unmoved by my otherwise irresistible allure—even if I go without feeding more than six months, which seems my upper limit.”

“Hmm.” Julio replaced the basket on the mantle. “Meaning Sung was your latest victim?”

“Yes. I’ve tried many experiments. I thought perhaps I could stop partway through, take only some energy—sustain myself for shorter periods, but without killing. But once it started—no turning back. I thought less than full intercourse—but again, no.”

“The condoms?” Julio ventured.

“Covering a bit of skin might slow the process I thought. It’s also why I didn’t give either of you the chance to fully undress.”

Julio turned aside. “Sung was nude.”

“The second time, yes. He surprised me.”

“Explain!” both men demanded.

“I’d heard his reputation for extraordinary erotic stamina upon coming here. Legendary, almost. You understand why I must change locations every few years—before unmarked bodies begin to pile up and I am seen to somehow never age? I’ve been all over the world and only eight months ago returned to the Pacific Northwest.” She paused. Brushed crimson hair from her temple.

“Go on,” Julio urged.

“I arranged to meet him. He was attracted to me, like all the rest. The first time, he was mostly dressed and—to my pleased astonishment, he lived. Oh, he couldn’t walk without assistance for a week! But he lived.”

“And now he knew what you were?” the appraiser guessed.

“That man lived for danger. His pampered environment, all that inherited wealth. I tried to talk to him—dissuade him, make him wait a safe time and regain his strength. He—the second time he lured me—as if he was the predator and not me! He undressed out of my sight, donned a rubber and sprang upon me, dragged me into his bedroom.”

“Sung raped you?”

“Yes—and no. Although my need is controllable after feeding, it never completely goes away. Neither, it seems does the pheromones or whatever it is I put out that draws men to me—and if Sung was a fair example, having experienced the level of satisfaction that comes of being with me. Well, I wonder if it changes a man’s soul—having even a part of it drained away like that? Caught up in his blind lust, I didn’t struggle. I was strong enough by then to beat him off—as I could probably batter you both bloody right now. But—I did not.”

“Did you steal these pieces?” Julio gestured at the pottery.

“No. They were gifts from him—not the first admirers have given me, as you can surely tell. Some from before our first time and some from after, as he sought to encourage me to lay with him again. They were among his earliest pieces—from a dead relative, I understand. Parting with them was his way of showing how strongly he felt toward me.”

She shook her head again.

“And now?”

“Well, I can’t honestly say why I didn’t think to be with more than one man at a time before. The prospect, the certainty I would kill one at a time seemed bad enough. My experience with the extraordinary Sung—I reasoned it might be possible, after all. I felt hope—for the first time in decades. And here you two stand—weakened and I’m sure disgusted. But alive!”

“What makes you think we won’t reveal your secret?” Julio said slowly.

“Who would believe such a tale? And even if you were to convince the world—what then? Would they write new laws or find a way to prosecute me under existing ones? I don’t age, but can starve and be injured—even killed by violence, I think. At least then I’d have the solution—the way to escape the compulsion and the terrible pleasure that comes over me each time I fuck and kill!”

Hector met her eyes, stepped closer. His hand came up. It cupped a full breast through the fabric of her blouse.

“Please don’t,” Melinda Black whispered. She cast a desperately appealing look at Julio Rodriguez and saw only what she dreaded there. “At least wait till you’re both stronger?”

For the moment physically stronger than the two men combined, she pushed them back—once, twice and three times. But they just kept coming, insistent and breathing heavily, already sweating and hard. And maybe the matter of radiated auras or pheromones or dark, vengeful magic went both ways.

They tore every stitch of the fresh, clean and not especially sexy clothes Melinda Black had donned from her flesh—and she let them.

She responded in kind and suddenly all three were naked. Hector stretched out on the floor. Melinda placed herself on top of him, gave his member to her vagina. Julio straddled both and both men filled her, not even bothering with whatever minimal protection latex could offer in these unique circumstances. The men used both her lower orifices briefly, furiously.

They climaxed with the runaway passions of wild beasts, and she orgasmed with them. But only one rose up afterward. Melinda Black wriggled free from her first experience with outright double penetration and sighed. She felt good—horribly, wondrously, undeniably good—and stronger, even more alive than ever before. And she knew, deep in her dark and conflicted soul, she would feel that way again and again—every five or six months, perhaps—possibly till the end of time.

END

  

 

  

  

        

            

       

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Melissa’s Hobby by Sean Glasheen

When I was in my twenties, recovering from that whole drunk delirium of being a teenager, I joined the army. I was a good soldier; I tied my laces, buckled my helmet, straightened my sheets, and listened to my superiors. And it was all a waste of time; when bullets flew, and blood became a more common sight than friendly faces, I was transformed from a man to a coward to a thing. Just a thing; for they had no name for the gun-wielding robot I’d become.

Nevertheless, I survived those times, and I was known-–for some reason–-as a war hero. But I knew the truth of it all.
I was no hero, just a man who did his best to dodge bullets, and fired back blindly in the direction of people’s brothers, sons and fathers. These poor souls now swim in the depths of the Styx, a line of dead souls splitting the planes of hell; they will have no war stories for the ears of eager grandchildren, and they will never gaze at medals hanging above their mantle. They will have no wounds, because they themselves are the bloody wounds of war. I’ve seen brain escape from its skull prison and decorate walls – it became regular, like I was living in Hannibal’s art gallery; I’ve seen brother kill brother in the depths of battle, a gloved fist pushed through the intestines to pave a jagged tunnel out the back, a viscous spray of family blood onto an awe-struck face-–crimson red on pale white. I’ve seen insides ripped out by bare hands and eaten in the delirium of the desert-heat. I’m a veteran, and I’ve seen everything. The story I’m about to tell you is one I can only write; the words refuse to leave my mouth, and I will not let them seep into the universe. Nothing of war prepared me for it. Nothing will ever be right again.

My wife was a great woman. When all of this mess happened she was two years younger than me, thirty-three. It is twenty years later now, and I can still remember that particular feeling I got every time I looked at her. Her skin was creamy, and smooth to the touch, as if God had mixed silk into the blend at birth. Her hair was like a brunette waterfall; cascading down past her neck in waves to break upon a surface no water ever had the pleasure–-her porcelain shoulders. Any run-away streams escaped and fell loose down her seductively curved back or her perfect chest. To not be able to meet her angelic lips–red like the finest rubies–with my own would be a fate worse than death, a doom more terrifying than any version of hell. Her eyes sparkled like no diamonds known to man; they were a deadly trap, and I could have stayed happily in that blue prison until the end of my days. Each time they closed it was like the sun had set in my world, and each time they opened a new milestone was added to the history of beauty. She was also kind; her spirit was just as bright as those eyes, and she wasn’t afraid to let it shine on those less fortunate–it was one of the reasons she’d become a social worker. Deep at the heart of some lost soul’s drug problem or a family’s torment, she sat and spun her generous webs. She was a good soul, a precious gem humanity was never worthy enough to receive and the divines never had the right to take.

“Push me higher Daddy! Higher!” My son yelled. His pre-pubescent voice soared to such heights I could feel my eardrums pulse beneath it, yet it filled my heart with happiness.

The swing sailed through the air and back again like a Viking ship over tidal waves, and my little boy was the captain. His pointed feet stabbed out into the air, a protest to gravity if there ever was one; they were the mast-head. Marcus had developed a hedge of fine white hair atop his head–not gold, not grey, but beautifully pristine white, and it became lost against the background of clouds behind him. At a first glance he seemed to be dangling from them, like he was one with the sky and the air–above humanity and everything else mundane, simply pure. He was happy to steer his own craft for a daring moment, and in that time I turned to see my wife baking behind the kitchen window. Her shape punctured the escaping wall of light, resembling something angelic, and it blew me a kiss. I made sure to catch it swiftly and plant it on my lips before turning back to my airborne son, for such delights are rare in this world, and when I did turn back it was with a renewed vigour–the kind that only true love can bestow.

“Come on Marcus; it’s bed time. The night-night trip is waiting.” With a sound like an engine shutting down, a heavy whoosh, I slowed my son to a halt and plucked him from the wooden seat.
I’d made the swing-set five years beforehand–when he was still just a toddler–with the hope that one day he could get such happiness from it. Seeing him depart with a smile on his face, his eyelids fluttering to fight the battle against their descent, always gave me a warm feeling. And by the time we’d reached the back door, having crossed the small sea of patio slabs, the descent would have won.

I gently pulled the door shut behind us, passed Melissa with a finger to my lips, and tip-toed the kid to his room. After leaving the kitchen we crossed through a small hallway. It was lit by motion-sensor lights, dotting the walls in uniform rows. There were two oak doors on either side before a stairs at the end; on the left there was the master bedroom and the living room, and on the right there was Marcus’ playroom and my study. The wallpaper was a deep wine red, and the carpet matched perfectly. We had an architect design the house on the basis ‘We don’t really mind how it looks, as long as it’s easy and comfortable.’ And so, he’d given us a present from the basement of his imagination. The stairs–its entrance through an arch, not a door–spanned the entire width of the hallway, and twisted up to the second story, in which rested only three rooms. There was Marcus’ bedroom, accompanied by a big family bathroom and Melissa’s hobby room. The hobby room was always locked, but she’d shared with me what went on in there once–it was a conversation I’ll never forget. Séances, Ouija boards, voodoo dolls; my wife had a fascination with the occult, and she didn’t buy into the danger of it like most do. Whatever she was looking at, whether she knew she was looking at it or not, was either dead or of another world; she figured there was no risk involved. As for me, I’d seen what true evil was–it came in the form of machetes, machine guns and frescoes of blood painted on walls that will forever hold nightmarish memories. My years of service had stained the innocent side of my mind with corrupt memories, and so, I was perfectly fine with Melissa messing about with some wooden boards and straw dolls.

I led Marcus up the stairs quietly–the second step always creaked–and again met an array of motion-sensor lights walking down the hall to his bedroom. When they flicked on the brightness consumed me, swallowed me into its warm embrace. I passed the bathroom on the right, the surface of its door adorned with a drawing from Marcus which read ‘Poop Palace’ and had a small crude shape underneath coloured in with brown Crayola. I just stopped my hand from tearing it down; the army had indeed left hidden in my brain some residue compulsion to have everything respectable and organised, but I wouldn’t take it so far as to ruin my son’s art. Also, war had turned me hostile to all things military; even so much as scolding Marcus reminded me too much of petty drill sergeants–I left that distasteful corner of parenthood to Melissa. I was always perfectly happy being the nice Dad.

When I passed Melissa’s hobby room, I got the strangest feeling. It wasn’t so much like there was somebody watching me, but more like there was something inside me–some kind of frost that I couldn’t thaw off, not for the rest of the night. It was the marrow in my bones and the blood running through my veins; it shadowed my thoughts and observed the gallery of my imagination; it was me, yet it was something devious, some kind of virus. I felt infected, invaded. It would only be later, after a string of events I still can’t fully comprehend, that I would really remember that feeling of an intruder. Cold as a corpse in the ocean, I reached Marcus’ door and put him to bed.

Soon, night had once again turned to day. But darkness had not yet relinquished its reign on the house; there was a different kind approaching, and in its ranks marched an inevitable doom.

“Love you kiddo. Be good in school, okay?” Melissa patted Marcus on the head, and he took off towards the gate where a big yellow bus waited. I’d been bullied in school, which was one of the reasons I’d ventured into the military. For me, that bus looked like a reptilian monster, hopefully crawling off to die as it tore down the road with my son. Its wheels, throwing dirt into the country air in waves, screeching against their years of use, made the promise of my head being pushed into a whirlpool of green tissue. And those kinds of promises were always kept.

That morning came painfully after a night spent with Melissa. It was a reminder that no matter how strong a love can be, time is obsolete; you can always count on a tomorrow, but the butterflies in your stomach may yet turn to stone. They are, as simply as you and I are, victims to the passing of years–something from which we shall never be freed. Somehow my wife’s shining face ignored this law. It burrowed into my head and my heart like a drill, twisting and spinning through my being, littering my sense with romance. I didn’t mind; love never blinded me, for it had nothing to hide. Time has left me with more wrinkles than teeth, more sorrow than happiness and more memories than friends. But when I think about the roses blooming in her cheeks and delicious lips, it all means nothing.

This thought ran through my head as I watched her dress. She put her clothes on so casually and care-free that I had to lean back in bed and smile; it wasn’t how I would act when dealing with such a masterpiece–I would move each finger only with her permission, and even then slowly; I was a slave to her power. The graceful curve of her buttocks as it became her lower-back; the pictures her hair painted as it spilled across her naked chest and shoulders; her movements so like those of angels dancing, fluid and beautiful. She was the physical embodiment of my love and my lust, and I knew I could be one with her for an eternity–even longer; we would travel past the reaches of time and become ethereal, a constellation in the skies of Aphrodite. She always was my shining star.

The walls were grey and dreary, but they were adorned with an array of mysterious items. Between Ouija boards, pictures of seemingly ‘possessed’ people and ghost sightings, shelves lined with somehow cursed items and demonic books, and a display of satanic symbols reminiscent of the devil’s bedroom, the place was a throbbing tribute to the occult. In the bird’s eye view of three-eyed crows, it lit up like an evil Christmas tree. Melissa always had taken an interest to anything strange; in school she was the girl who shadowed the bullied kids, waiting for an opportunity to snatch up a friendship with an outsider; in work she sometimes followed people merely to see what a day in their life was like; she was always in search of something barely ahead of her, chasing something that always matched her speed–normality, she figured, was a stop on the train of life too many people departed at; she refused to take that exit. She was riding that train into the fog of the unknown, and any risks were like the conductor’s voice over the intercom; nobody payed attention.

She took her usual seat like she would sit down to a Sunday lunch as opposed to a demonic gathering; there was a very limited amount of furniture–two hardback wooden chairs with a glass coffee-table in between them–but with Satan’s arsenal painting the walls the room was far from empty. The white Ouija board sat in front of her, and the air around it seemed to pulse with some kind of aura. Nothing could be seen or heard, but she felt it as much as she could feel her finger move to straighten the pointer. She didn’t need to ask if it was there this time–she knew it was there. She knew that it was sitting across the table, looking at her, envying each breath like it was a treasure. She knew that it was there. And she knew that it was watching her.

Hands planted on the pointer like an architect over blueprints, so precise with her delicate fingers, she glided the tool around the field of letters. It sometimes reminded her of childhood board-games, ways they would pass the time in the abyss of pre-technology, but she somehow didn’t see the line between ‘entertainment’ and ‘too far’. Letter to letter, word to word, she was paving the path to something otherworldly. The problem was that as she paved that path, and opened that tunnel, she created two lanes. And something was smiling at her.

Melissa, unbeknownst to her husband, her mother in England, even her son Marcus, was bored with the repetition of life. She was stuck on a rollercoaster that never left the ground, doomed to watch more impressive ones paint the horizon. Her hatred for normality, the hatred that pillared the construct of her personality, surpassed even the love she held for her family. She had come upon something very dangerous indeed–realization of her own insignificance. One thought–one idea–had plagued her every day since the first communication. One important decision left unmade in her head. One line was given to the spirits that day.

“I’m ready for you; take me.” And along with Melissa’s consciousness, light abandoned. The room was hurled into a world of malevolent black – a black where evil gave birth.
In that black, it lived.

#

It was eight o’clock that evening when I heard the door slam shut, and the slow footsteps follow. I didn’t realize it then, but thinking back on it those footsteps held an echo with them. It still rings in my ears; when I hear the Angeles from the church bells, or the cuckoo of the bird in my clock, I can hear those footsteps caressing some fear deep inside, stoking a flame that should have turned to dead embers long ago. I was downstairs failing to bake a cake–it was Marcus’ birthday the following day–and my hands were deep into the jam-layered turmoil they’d created when the noise came. Marcus was outside, managing for the first time to push himself on the swings without fear, and he looked happier than ever. In between the heaves of his Viking ship back and forth, he would take moments to smile and wave at me, his white air trailing after him as he flew. It was in the middle of one of these waves that the noise came. It was just as the sun retreated from its post and nestled down beneath a bank of trees on the horizon, just as the world descended into a sea of darkness and I called for Marcus to come in, that the noise came.

Marcus ran in at the exact moment I’d resorted to my combat knife and stabbed the heap of ingredients that was his cake right down the middle. The blade split through the mass of crumbs, jam and blue icing and buried its tip into the chopping board beneath. I grimaced noticeably–I’d seen too many of those same steel tips find homes in flesh, and the memory of wielding such a thing forced the butt of my palm to my temple. I soothed the pain, huddled against the counter-top like an elder, and my son pointed out immediately the resemblance between my hurt state and my bill-paying state. I began to chuckle at his wit, a merry intrusion upon my frustration; he was a young boy, and for him to be able to think in such ways sometimes astounded me. I was just about to offer him an early plate of my self-labelled ‘cake surprise’–before his mother came down to see and I fell victim to embarrassment–when the breathing stopped me. It stopped us both. That deathly silence took my chuckling hostage, and to this day I have never retrieved it.

From the left of us, right down the pitch-black hallway which led to the stairs, came what seemed like the noise of a broken vent. I would have thought it too struggled to be human breathing, but I could make out the inhalation and exhalation. It was ragged, like that of a dying man, a dagger twisted deep in his lungs. The noise was like the winds of war travelling across a battlefield, carrying with them cries of eminent despair, wails of death so vicious I covered my ears. It was the noise of true evil. The cake fell to the floor, and the paintings it created were reminiscent of devil worship. It was like Melissa’s hobby room had somehow manifested itself into the foundation of the house, like the roots of our home had engaged in a lover’s embrace with the branches of the trees of hell. And it was right then, tuning to that horrible sound, that I got the same chilled feeling of an invader in my body. I could feel it crawling along my bones, burrowing through to rot the marrow. I could feel it twisting around my spine and grabbing hold. I could feel it call to something deep down inside my soul, and I was rejecting that call. My whole being seemed to be violated by some incessant plague, and it began to shiver out of my control. My skin felt like there was an army of freezing spiders surging across it in waves; my thoughts were contaminated, for they now projected a reel of torturous images: slaughter, rape, war, famine, hunger–all manners of cruelty were flashing before my eyes; I was witnessing the history of everything wrong with the world. And what scared me more than absolutely anything, was that in between each image was a momentary flicker of my wife’s face–changed.

Finally, it stopped.

I lay breathless on the kitchen floor, my son’s hand curled into my own as he wept beside me. I could feel his tears on my skin, cold and wet and filled with innocence. The breathing had quietened to a halt, but it was like the hush of the wind in the depths of a storm; I knew it would not last. My head creaked sideways on the floor and once again, I dared a glance at that dark hallway. The motion sensors had not come on; I figured whatever it was that had made the noise hadn’t left the stairs yet. Giving my son the instructions to stay where he was, no matter what he saw, I stood on trembling legs. Each step from then on took me closer to that wall of blackness; each step was a step towards hell; each step was one of the last steps not carrying haunted memories that I’ve ever taken. Sweat gathered in rolling beads down along my forehead and cheeks like rain on a window, and it sunk–almost cowering–into the embrace of my upper lip.
The darkness was overwhelming as I entered the hallway; I could feel the other world hiding behind our own generous facade. Like a visor had been taken from my eyes, all was revealed at once. The untainted malice punctuated the story-line of every horror movie I have ever seen, made it real. I could feel my soul shrouded in a satanic residue, one that has not since lifted. My eyes began to dart left and right, panicking beneath the weight of that unyielding blackness. It was no longer a simple absence of light; it was something physical, the embodiment of the deepest recesses of imagination, a force that nothing of heaven would ever reckon with.

My courage had taken me halfway through that insidious tunnel when the workings of hell punctured my normal life. My face was a puddle of sweat from which protruded my petrified eyes; my tongue felt like a weighted slug in my mouth; my feet could carry me no more into the sea of shadow. The second step on the stairs creaked.
It happened in the space of a second; there was the creak, the break in the silence coming like the first spill of paint on an evil canvas, and then there were the lights. They had returned like an old friend coming to strip me of fear, and for a moment I was standing in the yard pushing Marcus on the swings; I was lying in bed with the woman I loved; I was attempting to bake a cake. I was back in my own world, rescued from the evils of this new apocalyptic plane. Then my eyes moved–like fish darting beneath the surface of a shallow river, such was my sweaty face–and settled upon her, now hovering above that creaking second step.

She was garbed in her white night-gown, coming down to her knees, frayed and torn; hair still fell upon her shoulders, but it was burned a dark shade, and the shoulders were no longer porcelain–they were blackened to match the rest of her skin, as if she had rolled through carpets of ash. Her whole body was cobwebbed in deep cracks, a road-map of hell, cut-out rivers flowing in deep crevasses around her flesh. Large pores marked their devious sources like tiny volcanoes, oozing thick blood into them. Her fingers–the flesh of most ripped to shreds and glistening red beneath the black, curled into gnarled talons; they looked fit to tear still-beating hearts from chests, ending in dirty elliptical claws, plastered in layers of grime. Her feet were the same–dirty, clawed, and bloody–and they hung in the air six inches above the step. I took it all in, and then my eyes travelled to her face–once a mirror upon which beauty gazed. Now nothing of beauty remained.

Fangs hung where teeth used to be, a jagged horizon cresting black infected gums. Her lips were thin and cracked, drained of life by whatever presence dwelled within. Saliva nestled into those cracks, and from there it flowed down her chin and departed. Her tongue was a livid black mess behind that wall of spikes, throbbing with each beat of the diseased heart inside her chest. Her nose ran dark blood down her face to rest on her lips, before intruding upon the rotting cave of her mouth. The flesh of her left cheek was decaying into a nightmarish hole, and even as I watched it grew larger.

From where my wife used to wield the most beautiful set of eyes that ever held hostage a hopeless romantic, peered two unyielding white orbs. Manic lines flitted across their pale surface like dancers, and thin red protrusions bordered them where eyelids were nowhere to be seen. No pupils rested at their centre, but in the emptiness the promise of eternal doom was made. And when I stared into it, my soul sealed a binding contract with whatever now presided over her body. I knew, just like I’d known my love for Melissa and Marcus, that even if I survived my mind would be poisoned, and my life rendered worthless.

As I stood, awestruck and dumb, her head snapped upward with a violent creak, the bones of her once-smooth neck jutting out in lumps. Her mouth opened wide, spewing blood and other vile liquids, and something inside her let out a deep, rasping laugh. It was a sound so truly malevolent that I shall never rid it from the annals of my mind. It bore a hole through my soul and rested there, echoing endlessly, battering down any innocence I may have possessed. Her hateful eyes burned a tunnel in me, and in a split-second the demon made its move.
Before I knew I was flying through the air, I’d smashed against the kitchen counter on which rested Marcus’ cake surprise, my vertebrae crunching in a deathly chorus on impact. Pain flowed outward from my spine and sung a satanic hymn through my entire body, its voice rising with every passing second. And even as thoughts of getting to my feet first appeared, her bloody scarred form had descended upon me–from the ceiling.

The weight was unnatural, and it pressed down on me like amplified gravity; there was no hope of resistance. The smell was putrid; it was a bitter concoction of rotting meat, eggs and sulphur, and I gagged relentlessly as it invaded my nostrils. Her eyes were, for but a single moment, an inch away from mine, and I could feel hell’s contents seeping out of them, aching to break through and contaminate me as it had my wife. I searched for Melissa somewhere in those eyes, somewhere in the deep white recesses, and I saw nothing but death. Then they were pulled back, and a tornado of claws and fangs savaged my face.

As my screams and the rasping cackle of the demon filled the room and danced a cursed waltz together, my skin and flesh were torn off like wrapping paper, and they flew through the air to leave rainbows of blood in their wake. I could feel my body drain of energy, my nightmares take hold of my consciousness and pollute all sanity, my life shift into a land of turmoil and destruction; beneath that terrible laugh and the glistening of blood-coated fangs, I could feel death encroaching. Its hold was tight on my grief-stricken soul, ready to pull me away to the underworld. Then it simply left.

The claws subsided. The cackle ceased to a wheezing hiss, accompanied by short spurts of blood, spraying my face and chest. The presence of frost and evil still shadowed my aching bones, but its source was no longer there. I could feel it give way; I could hear its whimper and its breaths run silent. Something devious had passed from this world, a world in which it never belonged. It had faded into the currents of the Styx, just another streak of black flowing through the depths. My ruined angel simply slumped against my shredded body, and through my one good eye I made out the glint of steel protruding from her back. The blade was buried up to the hilt in flesh I once held so precious; the woman who had dominated my hopes and dreams, made true my every wish, now had my knife jutting from her spine.

My son stood behind the dead thing; his hand was splashed with a small bloody pattern and his face suggested a horror too unseen to describe. Tears ran from his eyes with no end in sight, tears Melissa would once have wiped off. For long seconds we remained there, frozen, crying, my body a raked mess of blood and ripped clothes, his hands shaking with the guilt of killing the person he loved more than anybody. We were trapped in a cocoon of shock, our thoughts too infected to be put to words and our expressions saying everything that need be said. Then my son did something I shall never forget. It was an after-taste of the horror, something I never could have expected, and something to this day I pray I never could have stopped.

Marcus–his thoughts muddled with confusion and guilt–ripped the combat knife from his mother’s back, that same back on which he’d gotten endless piggy backs, and without a second thought he plunged it into the soft flesh of his neck. Gargle upon gargle, little hands plunging into the air for some invisible comfort, and breath turn to wheeze beside the remains of his loving mother, Marcus had gone to join her. And all the while, his cake surprise remained on the floor, waiting for a birthday that never came.

END