Art by Antonio José Manzanedo
Every building has a secret entrance, one even the architects somehow overlooked. To say they were doors wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Certainly, they weren’t physical, although it wasn’t entirely impossible for a mortal to discover them. None would venture a guess as to how they came to be. One thing was for sure – they allowed Mr Crimson to enter any abode he desired.
He stepped confidently across the overgrown lawn at the rear of 221 Fisher Street, a four storey townhouse looking more like a mausoleum than a dwelling place. According to the sign out front, it had been condemned by the city council and pencilled in for demolition by some town hall beurocrat for late November 2004. That was ten years ago.
A smell of coal smoke from the neighbouring property descended through the air and a gibbous moon rode high in the velvet of the night as Mr Crimson left scorched footprints on the wet grass. The pallid wash of light provided ample illumination for an intruder such as he. Not that it was needed. There were no eyes behind his aviators, he wore them as an affectation.
He could see the entrance between two of the first floor windows. He sensed its outline pulsing with supernatural energy and cursed that he would have to suffer the indignity of scaling the crumbling Victorian brickwork. Other emissaries possessed the power of flight. Mr Crimson had no doubt pissed someone off high in the distribution line when such talents were given out. He placed his palms on the wall and felt thousands of minute hooks engage with the rough surface. Reaching at full stretch, he allowed his right arm to take the strain then hauled himself up, fly-like until he was level with the entrance. The rest was easy – his body merged with the outer wall then disappeared as if absorbed by the house.
Inside, he found the remains of a bedroom. Mattresses, green and black with mildew lay haphazard on the rotten floorboards, evidence of squatter occupation. But Mr Crimson knew the last time mortals had inhabited this pathetic dwelling was long ago.
Those he sought were not attached to this room. He sensed them gathered on the fourth floor above. They knew he was here.
Marcellus had been unlucky in life. His own fuzzy logic assured him that bad luck shouldn’t have followed him beyond death. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Like the others, he had coalesced in the attic. Why they had been drawn here was beyond explanation, but here they were. An atmosphere of foreboding and panic prevailed.
“He’s on the first floor,” said Roarke, the ghost of a cockney small-time thief.
“What do you mean, HE?” said Tremaine, a vindictive but cowardly dandy.
“Why won’t anyone tell me who HE is?” said another.
Queeny, looking as ridiculous as ever in a petticoat and bustle, placed a finger over her mouth. “Shh. If we’re quiet and don’t send any ripples through the ether, he might pass us by.”
“The Angel of death doesn’t pass over.” It was Dremel, as usual, painting the most pessimistic of scenarios in his oily voice.
They cowered, some cried, some plotted; yet all anyone could do in reality was wait.
There was a crash as the trapdoor in the floor opened, accompanied by the smell of sulphur and guano. Mr Crimson emerged, gliding forward as if on a conveyer belt.
All eight of the assembled lost souls felt the static of his presence. It spread like frosting through their ectoplasmic bodies, completely preventing dissolution.
Marcellus felt fear like hot wax dripping on skin. Very much like the scalding oil that covered him in an excruciating torrent at the siege of Constantinople. What would happen next? He knew the stories told of Mr Crimson being a soul-eater, how none escaped his grasp and the whispered warnings that told of a fate worse than death.
Mr Crimson stood, almost nonchalantly in front of them. Unexpectedly, from the shadows, Dremel attacked like a cobra in the form of an over-sized smoke-grey apparition. It was a casual click of Mr Crimson’s fingers that summoned a lava-red claw to grasp the hapless apparition, and squeeze until a darker red cloud of spores leaked between the claw’s fingers. The conquering soul-eater then took off his shades and opened his mouth. The hellish blackness of his orifice dilated like an obsidian pupil and expanded until it exceeded the dimensions of his face. There followed an immense intake of air sucking the red cloud into the entity’s maw. Once the draw had subsided, Dremel ceased to exist.
The other souls could not move, fixed in space as they were by Crimson’s crystallising power.
“There is one missing,” he said. “There should be nine of you.”
No one dared speak. Marcellus pondered on Crimson’s disquiet. Surely he didn’t mean Equinox? The Conflicted hadn’t been seen for centuries. Yet there were no others who had haunted this dread place since he disappeared.
“I see you,” said Mr Crimson and strode through the midst of the spectres toward the far wall. He raised his arm, the scabrous hand that emerged spread wide, the tendons bulging like cords. As he drew his hand back a rising cacophony emanated from the wall. Marcellus saw a writhing, ectoplasmic form emerge from the wall and precipitate into a long forgotten but dreadfully familiar body. He had long since laid to rest the memory of deep terror and coldness, the conflicted evoked in him; but now, seeing the fibrous clawing thing, he remembered the claustrophobic sense of looking for a hiding place, yet finding none. Equinox was a bastard that enjoyed the torment of others. Yet here he was, subdued by Mr Crimson.
Equinox held spidery fingers up to his suppurating face and moaned in pain. Part of Marcellus enjoyed seeng the creature that had doled out such suffering, now receiving the same treatment from a Lord that far surpassed Equinox’s power. Yet, now, there was the slithery awakening of a far worse notion; Mr Crimson would soon be turning his attention to the rest of them.
“Hah,” said the sightless Lord. “Ah’m disappointed in you, Equinox. I’d heard you were an opponent worth contending with. What an anti-climax.”
Kalene chose that moment to make a break for it. She was fast, but not fast enough. Crimson clicked his fingers again and a sickly green tendril of energy wrapped itself round the mercurial spirit like a whiplash, imprisoning her in its cage. He turned to the rest of them, all cowering in the corner and drove them, helpless into the ectoplasmic cage which expanded proportionately as each spectre was imprisoned. Finally, Crimson hooked the cage over a roof beam and allowed it to swing, the nine bodies cramped together in a tangle of concentrated angst and hate.
Crimson stepped over to them, bent down and took a closer look. “My, my, what a find. Ah shan’t need to feast again for a month. Your souls’ll be good vittals – especially you, Equinox, Ah’ll save you until last.”
He pulled up a cobweb-festooned, high backed chair and sat down. Marcellus’ view was partially obscured by Queeny’s leg, but he made out Crimson’s three-piece suit, illuminated in a shaft of moonlight. The creases were impeccably ironed, the winkle-pickers polished to dazzling perfection. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cigarette case and removed a gold-banded Marlborough. He could do that thing where he flipped the cancer stick in the air, caught it between his cracked lips and manoeuvred it back and forth with his tongue. From another, it would have had a captivating effect, but Crimson transformed the trick into a tool of creeping dread. It somehow re-inforced his malevolence.
“The gossip ah heard turned out to be true. You’re all quite a catch. Ah couldn’t let this evening pass me by without getting every ounce of entertainment from this ‘liddle tableau. Between you, there’s over a millennium of history and skullduggery. Now take Tremaine, for example, I’m dying to hear about your years as the Marquis de Sade’s understudy.”
Crimson took out a book of matches, tore one out and struck it against his heel. The tip of his smoke glowed red and, with one draw, he burnt it down to the half-way mark.
Dwynen, a Welsh witch, decided to chance her arm. “You got us, sweetie-pie, sure enough. But the Mr Crimson I heard about is a sport.” She looked out of the corner of her eyes and licked her lips in that lascivious way she’d tried on all of us. The effect was somewhat diminished due to her upside-down posture amongst the tangle of limbs, but Crimson was interested nonetheless. He took off his shades again, an action both irrelevant and disturbing.
“Your whorish charms won’t get you nowhere, mah dear, but a good story might.”
There was a momentary buzz of puzzlement from the bundle of trapped ectoplasm.
“You have an offer for us, Mr Crimson?” said Rourke.
“Ah sure have. Dwynen is right. Ah’m always up for a game, if the prospects’re good.”
“Tell us what you have in mind, vassal,” said Queeny’s. “But don’t take me for a fool. In my time you would have been taken to the block, your head separated from your body, and driven onto a spike on my city walls.
Crimson laughed, a deep, guttural belch of a sound. “Look at you Queeny-bitch. Scrunged up in mah little cage like a ruffled cockatoo. This ain’t your time no more – it’s mine.” He took a second drag on the smoke, burning it down to the filter. Then, after flicking it onto the floor, he picked out another with puckered lips and lit it with another lucifer.
“Yeah, y’all have had yoah time in the sun. Drinking in the fear of meth-smoking low-lifes and sucking in the misery of all taking shelter in this flea-hole over-night. You could say the tables are turned now. So, here’s the deal cup-cake. Y’all have a story to tell. Maybe it’s a good one. Well you better make it a doozie, cause I’m a gonna be listening, see – and like I say – I like a good tale. But it’ll piss me off mightily if ya give me a stinker.”
“What’s in it for us?” piped up Tremaine.
“Best story earns you your freedom. The rest of youse gets to feed the furnace of mah hunger.”
“How do we know you’ll keep your end of the bargain?” Rourke said.
“Don’t be an imbecile.” They were the first words Equinox had spoken. They sounded like a blade on a whetstone. “He’s a seventh-order entity. He can’t break his promise.”
“Ain’t that the truth. I give y’all mah word.”
If Crimson had eyes, the spectres would have seen baleful fire in his sockets. As it was, his words crackled in the air. A covenant had been entered into. They all knew it was binding.
“So who’s gonna be first?”
After a brief muttering, Rourke volunteered. “Figure it pays to get things over with,” he said. “But I could sure do with a bit of room to move – I like to use all my body to express myself.”
“Granted,” replied Crimson. A couple of the ectoplasmic bars dissolved and Rourke slumped onto the floor. The cage closed behind him again before any others could escape.
Crimson placed his hands behind his head. “The floor’s all yours, buddy. So, go on. Sing foah yo suppah.”
To be continued.