“I loved her, not for the way she danced with my angels but for the way the sound of her name could silence my demons.”
– Christopher Pointdexter
“Elliott Spenser died in 1921. In India, when it was still under British control,” Joey said. “He was a captain in the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. He participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and in the Battle of Passchendaela in 1917.” She shivered.
Kirsty leaned her head back against the open door she was leaning on. “So those notes about PTSD and survivor’s guilt were probably gross underestimations of his trauma.”
“Definitely. Two of the bloodiest battles in human history – more than one million men were wounded or killed along the River Somme. To live through both, seeing so much death … I can understand why he looked to lost and … sad. In Channard’s notes, he was observed going into his tent and never seen again. What little he owned was still there but there was no evidence of the captain’s death.”
“Even though we know he opened a puzzle box and ended up as … him. Hell’s clean-up crew at work.”
“Look at this. It’s the letter. He must have written it just before he opened the box.”
Kirsty took the paper, leaving it in its plastic protective cover. She glanced at the date, and then studied the handwriting, the words misting out of focus. He wrote in a neat small hand, a precise and beautiful print.
Glancing up from her post in the bedroom doorway, she watched the girl sleep. Breakfast would be ready soon, and then the day would be busy. A vague fragment of her dream rose in her mind as she stared down at the letter again. Suppressing a shudder, she began to read.
The last time I held a pen, there were things to tell you,
things to share. I am sorry for my long silence.
In the years since the madness of war, I have
walked a very different path.
I know I am alive, one of the few of our generation
to survive the trenches, because the body still hungers
and thirsts, and requires sleep. Yet what of the soul, the
spirit? I do not speak of the mind. It is dulled by vice,
incapable of a sense of fulfillment. For the soul, there
is no hunger, no desire, for anything in this world. You
will not want to know where the pursuit of lost sensation
has led me – your once naïve and God-fearing brother –
but my journeys in the world and in the spirit have only
shown me that there is nothing left to experience that can
give me back myself.
Here, in this strange country full of ghastly beauty,
I have come to the end of a long search. If all goes as I hope,
perhaps I could learn to live again.
In answer to your pleas, I do not know when I might
come home. Tell little Lenore that her brother loves her.
Perhaps some day I will look in her eyes again and
feel peace, far from the memories of the horrors of war.
Do not look for me.
A slight nausea threatened. He had believed the box would save him, call him back from the nightmare of war. Chasing pleasure as Frank had, yes, but in a quest to reclaim his own soul, to be more than a human automaton with deadened nerves.
“Did you read it?” she asked, but she knew Joey had – her eyes were bright with tears. She watched the other woman nod. “It’s always the same lie. Pleasures beyond normal understanding – but do they ever stop to think what that could mean? The Cenobites’ views on pleasure are obviously a far cry from most humans’. They’ve got one hell of an advertising campaign, no doubt about that.”
Carefully, Kirsty took the letter out of the plastic cover and laid it on top of it. As her fingertips stroked lightly down the words, she felt an almost electric sensation that made the fine white hairs on her arms stand up.
“I wonder if anyone ever told his family – anything,” Joey whispered.
“India in the 1920s and nothing left behind but a pith helmet? If anyone there knew who he was at all, they probably assumed he drifted on somewhere else.” Kirsty replaced the letter in the plastic. “This was probably the last they ever heard from him. I wonder how old the sister was?”
“He was probably the eldest or this Ian would have been in the fighting, too.”
“I never paid much attention in school to World Wars.” Kirsty handed the letter back to Joey and turned to check on breakfast. “But reading that…”
“Makes you hurt for him,” Joey said, a haunted look on her face. “Can I ask you why you originally opened the box?”
“I have no idea. I didn’t read the billboards on the ultimate experience, I know that. I’d just woken up in a mental hospital after escaping Frank. No one would tell me anything and it was sitting there… I think it lures people into solving it, whether you hunt for and study it for years or just stumble across it.” She turned off burners and headed to the table with the skillet. “Didn’t you ever feel it?”
“No … but I saw what it could do first, and then Elliott told me what it was. He took all the exploratory curiosity right out of me.”
Kirsty smiled, trying to forget her upset. “Why don’t you wake up the conundrum and we’ll get a start on our day.”
~ ~ ~
Joey stood in front of the living room windows, her cell phone to her ear. “May I speak to Mrs. Ramsay, please? Summerskill, Joanne. It’s about a family heirloom she has. Yes. No, I came across a copy of it, and I thought she’d be interested. Yes, thank you, I’ll hold.” She rolled her eyes in their direction.
Kirsty had shown the girl Elliott’s letter, and her insights had been shocking. She also insisted that the name ‘Lenore’ was what he called her. Joey had looked it up, and the baby name sites did list it as meaning ‘light’.
“I can’t remember much,” Lenore told her. She was watching Joey pace, her hands twisting on her flannel nightgown. “He was quiet if he wasn’t telling me stories or teaching me.”
“To read and write.”
“What were the stories like?”
“Mostly about the war. It made him sad.”
She had mentioned enough facts about the conflict that morning to prove she was a professor of history, a participant – or the confidante of one. Kirsty didn’t like how all of it added up but after everything she’d seen, it wasn’t hard to believe that this girl had been raised by a captain of the British Army who had died in 1921 – died opening the box.
Elliott had told Joey in some detail about how he had been transformed into the Cenobite. Later, she had witnessed the two of them being bonded again, and at Elliott’s insistence, returned them to Hell.
If there was no explanation for Lenore’s presence in the house where they found her, then she could have come through the box – from the Labyrinth.
Sent by Elliott? Why? Her stomach flipped. Or sent by the Cenobite – and there isn’t any mystery about what he wants, not anymore. What about the dream? Her fingers rose to touch her lips. It had been so real, yet Elliott had seemed frighteningly familiar, too. ‘Worthy of my dark angel’? I know you want my soul, but why – to make me what you are?
“What?” She opened her eyes to see Joey and Lenore staring at her with concern.
“I got us an audience. Feel like an outing?”
“To New York.” Kirsty felt a twinge of misgiving. “Time to go after windmills?”
“No, I want to speak with Bobbi about the drawing. I could go myself, bring photographs, but I was hoping…”
Is this what you want? she asked her adversary. A new trap, since I’ve dodged all the others? I told you I was done running – but then I ran away again, to come here. No matter what I do, you keep coming. She rose from the couch and faced Joey. “This bastard is going to come for me until I die of exhaustion or go mad for real. Well, I’m not going out with a whimper. I can’t call what I’ve done for the past few years living, anyway. Count me in.”
~ ~ ~
Lenore seemed to be gaining confidence and she didn’t need help to walk anymore. Kirsty watched her as they got out of Joey’s car and went up to a beautiful loft condo. The girl had picked up her suitcase, too, and handled it without any trouble.
Unable to resist opening the long white curtains, Kirsty whistled at the top dollar view of Manhattan.
“It’s about time you ate my groceries for a while, anyway,” the reporter quipped with a smile on her second trip inside. She set the box of Channard’s treasures on the coffee table next to her own heavy suitcases. “Make yourselves at home.”
“When are we meeting Mrs. Ramsay?” Kirsty turned from the window as Lenore approached it, her face full of wonder.
“Tomorrow afternoon. She and her husband are meeting us for lunch.” Joey stepped behind Lenore and set her hands on her shoulders. “Which gives us time to take you shopping – you can’t live in a jogging suit your whole life.”
~ ~ ~
That evening, Kirsty sat on Joey’s couch watching Lenore go through the items in the box as Joey played catch-up on the phone.
The girl looked deceptively normal in designer jeans and a white angora sweater. She had draped her new winter coat over the arm of the couch and was leaning against it. The early autumn weather was perfect and cool, but the coat had fascinated her and she had insisted on wearing it out of the store.
She was beautiful and if Kirsty let her mind wander, it went to inappropriate places with embarrassing speed.
Delicate fingers plucked photographs from the box and stared at them, mesmerized. The image from the club, of the Cenobite standing on the upper balcony, almost put the girl in a trance.
“Lenore – have you seen him before? Do you know what he is?” When the girl didn’t answer, she added, “He’s what we’ve been talking about – a Cenobite, from a place called the Labyrinth, or Hell.” The expression on the pretty face was almost worshipful but pained, too. “You know him, don’t you?” she whispered. “Can you remember anything about him?”
Tears rose in the girl’s eyes. “It’s so clouded.”
Kirsty touched her arm gently. “He looks like your father? He’s something else, too. Please try to remember.”
The tears slipped down her face. “He is the Favored Son. He is… I can’t remember!” She turned into Kirsty’s chest and sobbed, the photo trembling in her shaking fingers.
Kirsty held her and murmured soothing nonsense. Brushing the flood of hair back, she kissed her forehead, then her temple. When Lenore looked up at her, Kirsty was caught by the curious expression on the girl’s face. Her guilty conscience twisted.
“It’s late. You should get some sleep.” She watched her walk away to the spare bedroom.
Barely listening as Joey brought her a pillow and blankets, asking if she needed anything else, Kirsty just shook her head and stared out at the lights of the city. Joey went upstairs to her loft bedroom and left her alone in the silent dark living room.
Favored Son. Favored by what? Changing into a long nightshirt, she lay down under the mound of blankets and hugged the pillow tight as she looked out the windows. Elliott, if you can hear me … please tell me why she’s here. She can’t be a Cenobite and I won’t believe that you mean us any harm, but you’re cheek and jowl with that monster. Closing her eyes, she whispered, “God help us all.”
~ ~ ~
The nightmare had moved from the gun to the ice pick when she woke. The image of the woman called Sage faded as Kirsty opened her eyes. A slender silhouette leaned over her in its place. Blankets were pulled back and a warm body slipped between hers and the back of the couch.
She was going to ask what was wrong – had the girl had a nightmare, too? Then she reached to hold and comfort and her hands touched smooth naked flesh.
“Don’t speak,” Lenore whispered, her fingers covering Kirsty’s mouth before she could protest. The other hand settled on her right breast and gave it a gentle squeeze. The touch sent a hunger sparking through her long-denied body. “Show me what you want … I want to know.”
Did she consider anything before she simply allowed herself to kiss the girl? Reason fled as she drew her underneath her and fastened starving lips over one of the pink and perfect nipples that had tormented her since she’d first washed a man’s blood from the flawless skin.
Pliant and eager to please, the girl was quick to experiment, too. As Kirsty rose on her knees to strip off her nightshirt, slender fingers touched the wet smooth flesh between her legs, as she had been touched moments before.
It was a shame there was so little moonlight. They were furtive shadows in the dark as Kirsty moved down to part the golden curls and taste her.
Quiet became a problem. Lifting her head, she whispered, “Hush … we can’t wake Joey. She wouldn’t understand. This is only for us. Yeah?”
“Yes,” Lenore murmured, and bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, you’ve done nothing wrong. Cover your mouth if you need to.” She circled the smooth thighs with her arms and made the girl shudder and buck under her tongue.
When they were still and Lenore lay quiet in her arms, Kirsty tried to ignore her conscience. She was helped along in her efforts when the girl turned to face her, the delicate fingers slipping inside her body again.
“Is this good?” she whispered.
Kirsty couldn’t speak. Arching her back, she spread her legs farther and caught the girl’s mouth in a fierce kiss. All thought abandoned her as pleasure transformed her body.
Dawn was lightening the sky when they were finally still and growing sleepy. It took a certain amount of willpower to make the girl get up and return to her own bed to sleep.
Pulling her nightshirt back over her sated and weary body, she fell into nightmares again as soon as she closed her eyes.
A presence watched her as she raised the gun, unseen but palpable. Sometimes he brushed her closely when she pulled the trigger. Gwen, the office bitch – a tawdry dominatrix type – she’d been Trevor’s boss at the accounting firm. Then the lithe blonde from next door, Tawny – fond of bondage – tied to Kirsty’s bed under her husband while she was at work. The videos she’d found had shown her the things he liked to do to them, things he’d never even asked her to try.
She’d been self-conscious, scarred by the horrors she’d seen, struggling to trust the man she’d fallen so completely in love with. She had always asked him to turn off the lights – as if darkness made her desire easier to express.
Yet Trevor had wanted sordid perversions, not love. Had he laughed at her insecurities – the little white-bread wife? He only stayed in the hope that she would share her inheritance. When he knew she would not, the plan had turned to murder. Was their marriage a lie from the start – or had he loved her once?
The dream melted into the acupuncturist’s office again, where it had broken off before. She had promised the Cenobite she would bring them to him herself – and she had. Hate had guided the ice pick, leaving only a hazy memory of sinking it into the woman, a mystic named Sage. She had seduced Trevor on the table she died on – but Kirsty couldn’t lie to herself about that seduction being a difficult task. He was addicted to it.
What is it, Trevor? she abruptly screamed at him in the car. The forbidden, the chase, variety? Don’t lie to me! If you’re going to screw every woman you meet behind my back, the least you can do is admit to it now!
The raising of the gun – was it still warm from the shot that had dropped his friend Bret head-first into Hell the night before? No – that was just part of the dream.
I can’t believe this, Trevor had said. I have a deal.
No, you had a deal – but I made a better offer, she answered, and cocked the heavy weapon. And guess what? He took it.
She had watched when they pulled the car from the water, but the trembling hadn’t started until the policeman handed her the box.
The presence moved close again. She felt him as a chill on the back of her neck. You aren’t Elliott.
The dream moved on like a film projected on her mind’s eye, but she was outside of it, watching herself raise the gun on the co-worker. She had called out his name to make the man turn, not wanting to shoot him in the back. He needed to know who was killing him, this woman he’d seen as nothing but a payday.
You have known I am not, the Cenobite replied, and you know why I have come.
Weren’t they enough?
For a time.
I can’t do it again.
Then stop this foolish resistance.
Why do you cling to this life so stubbornly? Denying your real cravings, you drift in a pointless mortal fog.
What you want is abhorrent to me.
Because you do not know yourself. Is it time to make another deal?
Her dream self plunged the cold metal spike into the warm, screaming flesh. Chilled and aching, she winced. What do you want?
The ritual question, so seductive on your lips. Hold me at bay, Kirsty. Give me the soul of your compatriot – the luscious Joey.
No! She’s done nothing to me!
She has thwarted me. You have a choice. Your soul, at last – or hers.
Why not Lenore? She’s already yours, isn’t she?
The child has no memory of what she is. Give her a puzzle box, you have one to spare, do you not?
Creature of Hell or not, I won’t let you use her to reach me.
Knowledge is power. The flesh of the box will make her remember. She could give you my name … and tell you how to defeat me.
I don’t believe you. It’s a trick.
Poor Kirsty. Unable to trust, unwilling to share.
The persuasive compassion brought her to tears even as she reminded herself he would lie to serve his own ends.
When this life wearies you, perhaps you will taste my pleasures at last. Yet the longer you delay the more souls I shall demand. Will you see the blood of hundreds on your hands?
Why! Why me? Her fists clenched as she asked the question.
You are enticing – does it not please you? You who shed blood in rage because one who should have loved you treated you as nothing? You have won the suit of the Prince of Hell, who would have you alone over the vast ranks of humanity.
I won’t hurt them … and I can keep away from you, demon.
Still running? A shame. Shall we see how long?