“If you look under the mask of deception everyone wears, you will find a different person. Take time to take off others’ masks. People aren’t what they pretend to be sometimes. I wish people would take that time with me, yet nobody has.”
– Holly Russo
“I don’t understand.” Tom ran his trembling fingers through his thick blonde hair. “I’m not sure I want to.”
Joey glanced around the restaurant. The busy place was oddly comforting – they were surrounded by people who were, she assumed, living normal lives. It also made her feel a twinge of guilt – for deciding to pull this man even further away from them.
She put down her glass and caught his gaze. “I’m only telling you the easily digestible parts, but it’s all true – everything Bobbi said she saw, and experienced – is real.”
“She’s not well. Could it be a kind of coping thing – burying the truth in these crazy fantasies?”
“A priest once tried to tell me that demons were metaphors. Then one walked into his church. He survived because I lured the Cenobite away with the puzzle box. If he isn’t institutionalized, he could tell you they’re not a fantasy – or you could … believe my story. Kirsty has fought this – them – too. Bobbi isn’t crazy. She told you the truth.”
“These creatures took our children? Why?”
“I think Jack opened a puzzle box, that’s how you let them into the world. When you do that, they come and take you away to a place they call the Labyrinth. Kirsty and I think it might be a different dimension or something, but it’s not the biblical Hell. She was in it once. When the doors are open, you can go in, if – the Cenobites aren’t there to … kill you.”
“Are you saying Jack and Renée are trapped in this place?”
“I’m … just saying it exists. There is so much we don’t know.”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“I’m leaving out a lot – but you’ll be happier for it. Maybe saner.”
Tom picked up his water and drank all of it. He had barely eaten. “I only need to know one thing – how do I get there to find them?”
“Not through the box – that would just get you killed, and we can’t risk Louis. I told you how important he is.”
“My adopted son, destined to grow up to be a monster fighter.” He shook his head and put too much cash on the table to cover the bill.
“Let’s just make sure he has the opportunity to grow up.”
With a wince, he rose and offered her his hand. “I got us permission to see the atrium in Merchant’s building … and I need something constructive to do before I put my fist through a wall.”
She took his hand and stood, and then embraced him impulsively for a moment. It was meant to be a comfort, but she wasn’t prepared for the feelings it dredged up. He pulled her closer against his body, his strength a shock.
People stared or smiled around them in the restaurant. He released her quickly and whispered an apology. Feeling the flush in her face, Joey murmured that it was all right and followed him out to his car.
“You still want to do this?”
He pulled into the street like a cabbie but then settled into the rhythm of traffic with a sigh.
Joey had to abandon every attempt to speak and ended up watching the buildings grow taller as they drove down into the Financial District.
Tom tightened his fingers on the wheel. “I’m really sorry about that – I don’t do that.”
“You’ve been under a horrible strain for over a year now. It’s okay.”
“More than a year. It started six years ago for me. When I married Bobbi, she was on an anti-depressant, and her drinking – I had no idea what a problem it was. It took her a long time to explain about Jack, why he wasn’t well. We already had Renée then. I thought the baby would help her focus … on the future.”
Joey turned in the seat to face him. “It got worse?”
“She became paranoid about both children and developed anxiety disorders. Her drinking got out of control. I wondered if her behavior helped push Jack over the edge. We had to have him committed.”
“I’m sorry. What he saw, at his age – it would have been awful.”
“When he came home and ended up fathering a child at fourteen, I knew he couldn’t be responsible for a baby. The mother was going to abort, and I can’t say I was against it – she was only fifteen – but Bobbi went wild. She paid the girl to have the baby and let us keep it. I agreed on the condition that we’d raise him as a brother to Renée. I know, it wasn’t legal, but I … just let her do it.”
“No lectures from me – Louis is a very important little boy.”
“Bobbi wouldn’t quit driving us all mad. She wouldn’t let the nurse care for the baby, and she’d throw fits about someone harming the children.”
“That’s terrible … but I can understand how she must have felt.”
“Can you?” He parked the car illegally at their destination and faced her. “Sometimes I was tempted to just take Renée and Louis and leave her and Jack to their fantasy world. Now … Louis is all she has. She’s crazy, but I know she wouldn’t hurt that baby.”
“I know it’s hard to believe a reporter with a tale like mine…”
“No, I have to believe you. You all seem sane and decent, and if you saw these monsters too, it must be true. It’s almost nuts enough to go full circle until it makes sense.”
As they got out of the car, Joey stared up at the skyscraper decorated inside and out with Lament Configuration motifs. She had never been able to enter the building before, but a cop had just given him a key because he had wanted one.
Absently, she asked, “Won’t you get towed?”
“Cops like me. I’d have to obey traffic laws in New Jersey, but I’m practically a mascot to the NYPD.”
~ ~ ~
The atrium was empty. The panels of the Elysium Configuration on the walls and sides of massive square columns were shattered and covered with dust. No computer or control panel was present.
“A friend of mine on the force told me they added this room to the local ghost tours, so the building management lets it stay in vintage unsolved murder condition.”
“Macabre.” Joey reached up to touch the edge of a panel. “He used the lights to make it work?”
“Yeah. Bobbi has the program he was developing on the computer at the house. She wouldn’t let me take it out to show you, even on a disk, but I’ve looked it over before. Every bit of it goes over my head but his notes are plain enough – the light would work for a few seconds, and then quit.”
“What was it supposed to do if it stayed on?”
“Not sure. Trap monsters and destroy them, I guess. He couldn’t get enough power into it, even diverting most of this building’s resources.”
“So the tattoo could be Jack’s improvements on the power source, or a way to maintain it longer.”
“Joey, this tattoo – if Jack made it… Bobbi asked me if this girl could be from the place, this Labyrinth. If she knows it, maybe she can get into it.”
“With or without Cenobites, it’s not a safe place to be.”
“I understand, but if I could get there, I could look for Renée.”
Walking back to him, she touched his shoulder. “Tom…”
He bowed his head. “You think she’s dead, I know. So do the police – but I can’t give up. Will you let me talk to her?”
She embraced him again, laying her head on his shoulder. “Yes, but it may not help. You can’t use a puzzle box – if they come through they’ll kill us, and Louis.”
“I won’t put him at risk.”
“You can’t – he’s the most important person in this mess.”
“I have to try to find her.”
“Okay. Let’s go.” She looked back once and shuddered. The Cenobite was here. He was sent back by Bobbi the same way I did it, manipulating the box again to banish him. Is that why Kirsty called it insurance? The woman that he took with him … who had she been? Bobbi had called her evil and said she seemed to be after the same thing as the demon, but not with him. She was probably a Cenobite. If not then, she might be now.
For a moment, the dark fabric of the mystery beckoned, luring her to sort it all out. ‘Mapping Hell’, Kirsty had called it. The old draw of the story of a lifetime, bringing with it fame and success, sparkled in her thoughts.
Then a frown settled over her features. If she was stuck covering kindergarten kids and the homeless for the rest of her life, she’d take it and smile. It might lack glory, but it meant living.
As she caught up with Thomas Ramsay and felt his hand clasp hers, a new lure settled in her mind – but did the line end in a shining hook?
~ ~ ~
Joey paced in her kitchen, trying not to overhear the quiet and halting conversation between Tom and Lenore in the living room. She switched the plan for whiskey sours to martinis just to have a reason to stay away longer. Reaching for the steel cocktail shaker, she heard Tom’s voice rise slightly.
“I can prove it to you,” Lenore was saying, her tone sweet and edged at once. “Flesh doesn’t lie.”
The door opened and Kirsty walked in. She veered toward the kitchen, but a glance into the other room turned her fast.
“What the hell are you doing?” Kirsty yelled out, anger and disbelief making her voice sharp.
Joey was right behind her and saw Tom grabbing Lenore’s wrist. Horrified, she realized a beat later what the girl had done. Afraid Kirsty would be angry at Tom, she headed into the fray, but it was clear a moment later that Kirsty had seen the girl do it.
“We have social customs here. You don’t behave like that around people unless you’ve just paid them a lot of money.” She took Lenore by the shoulders and moved her away from the man bodily as he released her arm. “Come on, before you end up slapped or punched out. I’ll show you a bit of the city and get your mind off that shit.” Leading her away, she added to Tom, “Sorry about that.”
Joey was left beside the stunned man as Kirsty hauled Lenore out of the condo, grabbing their coats as she went.
“I’m so sorry,” Joey muttered. “Lenore wasn’t – she didn’t realize.” She led him to the kitchen and placed a martini in his hand.
Tom sat on one of the bar stools and stared at the drink. “That had to be a lie.”
“That was sexual harassment, not a lie. We appreciate the restraint, believe me. Most men I know would have either slapped her or gotten a hotel.”
“She said she was… She claims to be my daughter.” His hand shook slightly as he set the drink on the counter.”
Oh, God. “Tom –”
“Is it true?” He pinned her with a fierce stare. His eyes showed fear and horror, as his hands curled into fists. “Just another bit of madness that fits in so neatly with the rest? My God, Joey – how can it be true!”
“We don’t know.” When she looked away, she felt tears rise in her eyes.
Tom slipped off of the stool and stood behind her. “But it is true.”
“Yes, we think so.” The first tears slipped down her cheeks as his big hands grasped her arms.
“How? I don’t understand… She’s – and she said that, and then grabbed me that way. What the hell is going on?”
“Hell is exactly what is going on.” Joey turned to face him. “A British Army captain told me that a few years back – a ghost in a World War I uniform with advice on how to beat the demon. Do you want the whole story? Or … what we know of it?”
“You see ghosts and demons? Is everyone insane?”
“Captain Spenser came to me in a dream. He helped me – and it gets crazier from there. Lenore – Renée – calls Elliott Spenser her father because he raised her in the Labyrinth. How is as vague as why. I don’t know how she knew what she is to you – or why she told you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was trying to spare you pain.”
“Why did she grab me? This dead captain had funny ideas about a father-daughter relationship?”
“No!” Hesitant, wanting to comfort, she touched his chest as his hands closed on her arms again. “He was like her father, but he’s bound to the Cenobite. They’re different, but the same. The Cenobite was teaching her things. We think she was being taught to think like him. They are a perverse group –”
“This can’t be real. It’s a nightmare!” His hands tightened.
“You’re hurting –”
He released her and backed away. “I have to go. I have to think…”
“Tom please, don’t. You’re upset, and if you drive home and something happens to you I’ll never forgive myself.”
She didn’t question the strange fear that if he left now he would die. Her hands slipped up his chest and touched his face. The heat of his anger choked in strangled tears. In the next moment, she had pressed her lips to his. It was an insane kiss, but he responded instantly, with an urgent hunger fired by fear and pain.
He almost pulled her down to the floor, but she led him up the stairs instead. Falling into her bed, she heard cloth rip as he tore the buttons on her shirt. Minute clatters filled her ears in the silence as they hit the walls and the floor.
The heavy wool skirt was bunched at her waist. She stripped off her hose and panties as he fumbled with his belt and pants.
His weight pressed her down, the hard cock finding her ready. She buried her fingers in his hair and kissed the golden waves as he took her with a ferocity that left her breathless.
Was that a sound? The door?
Her home was quiet. Her eyes swept back and landed on the photograph on the nightstand. Elliott gave her his slight secret smile from behind the glass of the new frame.