“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.”
– H. P. Lovecraft
“Here’s Lemarchand again. Wow. You weren’t kidding about this stuff being old. Dr. Channard must have spent his entire life studying this.”
“Just to end up as a Cenobite.” Joey frowned. “Why would you set out to become that?”
Kirsty glanced over the journal entry quickly before looking up at her houseguest. “Power?”
“Enter politics then; why leap right into selling your soul?”
Kirsty laughed. “I don’t see the distinction … but as Hell beasts go, at least the Cenobites aren’t after your money.” She dropped the leather-bound journal in her lap and stretched. “I don’t think he intended to become a Cenobite. That was probably Julia’s plan. I bet the good doctor wanted to discover the secrets of death and afterlife. If he wanted anything else, it was likely immortality. Bringing Julia back could have been just a grand experiment to prove it was all possible. Doctors are hot to beat death – more than reporters are to cover it.”
Joey smiled as she fished in the box at her side and picked up an old 8×10 black and white photo. It had been folded over twice and the upper left corner torn away. She held it open in her left hand as her index finger traced the lines of the proud figure staring back at her.
He wore the uniform of a British World War I captain. It was how he had appeared to her in her dreams. She could still remember the soft-spoken intelligent voice. The tears that abruptly filled her eyes were a surprise.
“What’s wrong?” Kirsty asked. “Is that the photo of Elliott?”
Wordlessly, Joey leaned forward to hold it out to her. The handsome face, the kind and confident eyes, always affected her deeply.
Kirsty took it from her and smiled. “His eyes were such a brilliant blue. I’ve never forgotten that.”
“He always makes me think of my father.”
“Vietnam, right?” When Joey nodded, Kirsty sighed. “No wonder we get along, we both have father hang-ups – plus the Sisterhood of Cenobite Survivors.” She studied the photo closely. “It almost feels like he’s looking back at me. You know, call me crazy – most people do – but when he smiled at me, it felt like there was an entire conversation taking place. Sometimes I dream about it but I never remember anything. How someone like him could end up as – that – is still firmly beyond me.”
“Dreams, visions – whatever … was how he communicated with me. Maybe they aren’t just dreams you’re having.”
“I’d love to say I’m flattered but considering who his spiritual roommate is, I think I’m disturbed by that idea.” Kirsty laid the photo on the coffee table between them. Then she laughed. “I can’t believe I’m admitting this, especially since I’ve given up men these days. After he saved us from Channard, I sort of fell hard for Captain Spenser.”
“Here’s his alter-ego,” Joey said, handing her a trio of color photos. “The first two were with the rest of this stuff. The Pyramid Gallery must have snapped them before they sold the statue. The other is from a security camera in the Boiler Room.”
“This isn’t a statue. It’s a pillar. I saw a lot of them, in my father’s house when the Cenobites took Frank and in Channard’s hospital, too. These things show up when they do and they use them to hurt people, with the … hooked chains.”
“How did he get stuck in it and are those the others? All of them?”
“I don’t know but that’s them, yes – Julia, too. That guy, the bearded one you can barely see, he’s different but he works for them or something. He took the box when I tried to burn it – just walked into the fire to get it. That was right before he turned into Puff the Magic Demon and flew away.”
Kirsty studied the photo from the club. The room around the figure was blurred but the Cenobite showed up clearly. He was standing on an upstairs balcony, facing out and looking down at the people below. The face was all too familiar but the expression was different.
“He looks – angry. I didn’t know he could.”
“That was taken just before he decimated hundreds of people. No one escaped. J.P. and Terri came out as Cenobites, along with two employees of the club … and my friend Doc.”
“Anytime I’ve seen him, he was calm – weirdly calm, like a spooky thing, but in control. Here, he looks unhinged.” She frowned. “I guess we’ll never know the monster’s side of the story.”
“Elliott was about to fight Channard when you and Tiffany ran, and then the Cenobite shows up in this pillar thing, masquerading as a piece of morbid art – until someone let him out.” Joey shook her head. “We’re missing a lot of puzzle pieces.”
“It must have been something Channard did, to them all – but he’s dead. I don’t know why … but it seemed like the Labyrinth itself took him out.”
The two women stared at each other. Sitting on the carpet with a coffee table and a banker box between them, they could hear the clock on the wall ticking. Neither had looked at it in hours but light had begun to glow through the heavy curtains behind the couch.
“Why are we doing this?” Kirsty asked.
“Just to try and understand what happened to us, how it started … and why?”
“I can respect your hope for a shiny Pulitzer and happy to help if I remain anonymous – but I’ve got a vested interest in forgetting all of this, not finding out more about it.”
“What about finding a way to beat them? It’s more than a story for me now. I still have nightmares about all that happened to me, to my friends. I want to know that it won’t ever happen again. Maybe I can’t know that unless I find a way to stop the Cenobites for good.”
“Unless you’re planning to learn telekinesis or how to twirl a hook on a chain – slay dragons – you’re out of your league.”
“Don’t you want to be certain you’re safe?”
“I’m staying safe by keeping three steps ahead of that bastard, same as most males of any species – and avoiding shiny puzzle boxes.”
“Aren’t you at least curious how it began?”
“I know how.” Kirsty stood, stretched, and offered her hand to Joey.
She took it and rose to her feet. “Did you read –”
“Not in the journal. I’m not sure I care how it started originally. For my family, it began when an evil hedonist reached too far into the dark unknown, looking for some way to fight a soul-eroding boredom with decadence. He brought death and madness into my life; the last thing I want to do is follow in his footsteps. I’ve already come too close to that and I never was a white hat out to battle evil. If you go after the Cenobites, you’ll die. Living with your nightmares is a better choice, believe me.” Kirsty turned away and headed for the master bedroom.
Joey stayed rooted where she was, staring at the mysteries in the box at her feet. “Would you rather I just left?”
Kirsty glanced over her shoulder and smiled at her. “I’d like you to stay. I’m just tired and this stuff makes me a little edgy.” As she disappeared into her room, she added, “Whenever we decide to wake up, I’ll help you Nancy Drew some more if you want. For me, it’s nice to have the company of someone who understands it all.”
“But?” Joey asked, prompting her.
“When you start tilting at Hell’s windmills, you’re on your own.”
Joey looked down at the coffee table where Captain Spenser waited, a silent witness to the exchange.
“You wanted to fight him. You helped me to do it and you saved a lot of lives by giving up your own. I don’t want to die but I don’t want others to fall prey to them either.” Fear and obsession warred inside her. She held herself tightly and shivered. Turning to go down the hall to the bedroom she had chosen earlier, she whispered, “Goodnight, Elliott.”
~ ~ ~
“Coffee, eggs, and a French guy named Lemarchand making a toy that calls up demons. I miss the days when I had a boring life,” Kirsty said. “You could have stuck to making model birds that sang but no. Thanks a bunch, Phil.”
Joey smiled. “So this Phillip Lemarchand was an eighteenth century French toy maker, and he made the first puzzle box, commissioned by a nobleman, Duc de L’Isle. In this diary account that Channard collected, Phillip witnessed the duke performing some sort of summoning with the box, a woman from Hell, he says – but the account just doesn’t sound like a Cenobite.”
“No,” Kirsty agreed, “but he obviously decided the box was a mistake, because the diary mentioned some effort to make something to stop his toy from working, right off the bat.” She flipped quickly through more pages of Channard’s journal. “I don’t think the doctor spent much time on Lemarchand’s efforts to redeem his mistake. The rest of this is all about the boxes, accounts of them and the people who acquired them, and then his own efforts to find the ones in his collection.”
“Well, there are plenty of other things in the files to go through. What about the puzzle boxes Channard gave to the patients? They weren’t even on the inventory of possessions the gallery purchased.”
“Puzzle boxes have a nasty habit of going missing and turning up elsewhere. Someone probably sold them on the sly. Channard certainly wouldn’t inspire loyalty or make anyone respect his things. His Cenobite alter-ego was also a horrible kisser, to add insult to injury.”
Laughing, but with a twist of unease in her belly, Joey smiled at the other woman’s wink.
“When you wear your evil step-mother’s skin to fool her lover because saving your friend’s skin – still attached to her – is your goal, the nightmares get pretty dark. Humor keeps me from dooling in a corner.”
Having heard the whole story now, she couldn’t blame her. “I understand.”
Joey finished breakfast first and returned to the living room, leaving Kirsty in the kitchen reading Channard’s journal. It was after four o’clock in the afternoon but they had been up less than an hour.
Sitting on the floor beside the box of documents again, she continued going through it, though she wasn’t sure what she was hoping to find. Then she picked out a drawing, a rough and unfinished sketch.
Kirsty came in with the journal and her coffee and sat on the couch. “This entry is about Elliott. It mentions a letter Channard found and spent a pretty penny on at an estate auction in London. I hope it’s in there.” She put the journal down. “What’s that?”
“Didn’t Channard mention something called the Elysium Configuration? That thing he was so upset over, because the owner wouldn’t sell it?”
Kirsty picked up the journal and hunted through it. “Yes … here. A project begun by our froggy buddy Lemarchand. It’s either another box to open Hell or the first draft of how to close it. Hard to tell from what it says. Why?”
“I think I found the plans for it – like a fast sketch. A masterpiece of design, though, just as art and therefore, worth a lot. Priceless, if it could stop the Cenobites. Why wouldn’t the gallery have sold it quickly?”
“There was a puzzle box stuck in the pillar, right?”
“Those damn boxes always move fast. People are in a hurry to get to Hell; they’re rarely in a hurry to stop it.”
Joey smiled again at the breezy cynicism. Kirsty was surprisingly easy to like and not at all the ‘bitter crazy harridan’ her boss had implied she was when he agreed to let her chase this story. “What about the legend Channard mentioned, about the bloodline, the Merchant family? Someone of that family might know a lot about this drawing.”
“There’s a skyscraper in New York that the builder John Merchant put up, in 1996. I remember seeing it on the news and almost choking on my dinner when they showed pictures of it. It’s loaded with images of the Lament Configuration. He was murdered before the cement got cold but maybe his widow is still alive?”
Staring at the intricate drawing, Joey frowned. “She was in the news about a year ago. I got that much digging done before I landed on your doorstep. It was something about a daughter being kidnapped, allegedly by her teen son, Jack.”
“He stole his own sister? That means he’s not the only Merchant left, right?”
“No, he isn’t – he had a son at age fourteen, a year before the kidnapping. John Merchant’s widow, Bobbi, remarried – a man named Tom Ramsay. They never found Jack or their daughter. I can call my boss and get contact information for Bobbi. Maybe she still has the original plans.” She sighed, laying the drawing beside the photo of Elliott. “We shouldn’t hold our breath, though; she’s notoriously uncooperative with the press.”
“I wouldn’t dig too deep. Do you know how John Merchant was murdered? I’ve never forgotten that either. He was decapitated by some sort of thin metal blade, allegedly a weapon ‘thrown with considerable force’, which they never found. Care to take a guess who killed him?”