“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”
– Mark Twain
“Five minutes and we’re out, okay?”
“I don’t mind,” Joey assured her.
She watched as Kirsty fought a stubborn deadbolt lock on the door of the house she’d been working on selling before she had arrived and put the woman’s life on hold. The deadbolt almost won. Leaning on the door, she looked back at Joey after the lock had finally clicked.
“I used to daydream about my life, had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. No concrete plan, I was sort of a disorganized person. I knew I wanted to be happy, maybe successful – at something. The last twenty years of my life just didn’t deliver, you know?”
When she turned and opened the door, a stench seeped out of it over them. Kirsty let go of the doorknob and it swung wide, revealing the stiffening spread of red that still dripped from the living room carpet onto the tile of the foyer. The house was silent, offering none of its secrets.
“Oh my God,” Joey whispered.
Kirsty didn’t answer. She swallowed hard and pushed her hair behind her ear with trembling fingers. Then she stepped inside.
“Wait – don’t go in there!” Joey tried to stop her but Kirsty moved beyond her reach. “Someone could still be in there.”
Joey came up behind her and saw it over her shoulder – a spray of flesh, viscera and blood. The living room was painted in it. The largest section of the mess might be a second corpse but the first had been torn apart in a way that was all too familiar to them both.
All of her nightmares crowded in on her at once. Fighting evil seemed abruptly ludicrous – how could she fight something that could do … that?
Kirsty’s voice, hard and impersonal, intruded on her thoughts. “Gary Atkins.”
Joey turned. “How –?”
“That’s his briefcase.” Kirsty pointed to the bar counter that separated the kitchen from the living room.
The white kitchen had been sprayed with red through the wide opening. The briefcase was open and spilled paper contents littered the wet tiles and carpet on both sides.
“He kept saying this house was perfect.”
Joey barely heard her over the dull roaring noise in her head. Sickness threatened but she fought it back. She’d seen worse in the Boiler Room. “How do we know they aren’t still here?”
“They aren’t. He doesn’t stick around much.” Kirsty began looking the room over carefully, trying not to step in the blood, which was impossible.
“How do you know it was him? If there are a lot of Cenobites –”
“It was him. This is too close to me.”
“I never believed in it.”
“What are you doing? We should call the police.”
“There has to be a box here. I can’t let it end up in the wrong hands.”
Joey watched her in shock. If they managed to avoid becoming suspects, it would be difficult to convince the cops that they had hesitated to call because they’d seen it all before. She could argue that she was a reporter, expected to snoop around a crime scene for a story – but what about Kirsty?
“There!” She minced nearer to the hunched shape lying in front of the curtained windows.
“Is that another body?” Joey asked. It seemed oddly intact if it was.
“Yes,” Kirsty whispered. “A girl – and she’s holding the box.”
“A friend of Mr. Atkins?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before and I’m fairly sure he didn’t have friends.”
Kirsty reached out for the cube. It was clutched tightly in the hand. She tugged at it. The form moved and groaned. Kirsty almost fell backward to get away but didn’t scream.
“I can’t believe it … she’s alive,” she whispered.
The girl rolled to her back and her eyes flew open but she seemed confused, not afraid. Joey moved closer. “Are you hurt?”
Wide blue eyes blinked at her. The girl’s body moved awkwardly but as she tried to sit up, Kirsty reached out to help her. The white nightgown she wore was soaked and smeared with blood but from the way she moved, she didn’t seem to be injured at all.
“Can you speak?” Kirsty asked. “Did you see that man open the box? This – did you see him open it?”
She looked down at the object in her hand and appeared to be mesmerized by it at once. When Kirsty reached to take it, she had to force it away from the girl.
“Come on, we have to call the police,” Joey urged. “They can help her – find her family.”
Kirsty didn’t respond. She was staring at the blonde hair and blank expression of the girl, who sat in a pool of blood without a cut on her. The girl tried to touch the box again but Kirsty slipped it into her coat pocket. Standing to her feet, she helped the girl to rise, steadying her when she couldn’t seem to balance herself.
“We can’t call anyone. I’m not giving her to them.”
“They can help her and she may know something about this.”
“So she’ll tell them and they won’t help her. She’ll wake up in a hospital bed where the doors are locked and people talk to her like she’s a stupid baby or a crazy idiot. The more she explains, the longer they’ll keep her locked up. I know all about how they help. I’m not doing that to her. If she’s capable of saying who she is, where she belongs, she will. Until then, I’m getting her out of here.”
“What if we end up implicated? This is major tampering with a crime scene.”
“I don’t think so. He wouldn’t want that. This is here for me to see; it’s a hint or a reminder but without doubt a calling card. It’ll all be gone when we leave.”
Joey stared at her. “What are you talking about?”
Kirsty sighed. “I’ve seen this before.”
“So have I – but I think of the two of us, I’m the one who is more disturbed.”
Leading the girl around the worst messes in the room, Kirsty helped her walk. “They’ll clean it up. Not Cenobites, something else. I’ve never seen them do it but I’ve come back to – to this – before. There was nothing left. If we call the police, they won’t find anything and they’ll put this girl away forever if she tells what she knows. Now are you going to help me or not?”
The question startled her. “With what?”
“She’s covered with blood. Get one of the curtains from a back bedroom; we’ll wrap her in that. If anyone stops us, she’s our drunk friend, got it?”
In a daze, Joey went into the hall to find curtains. The house looked so normal here. The change was as much of a shock as the horror in the front room. Taking down one side of the curtains in the first bedroom she came to, she folded them over her arm and paused before heading back.
She could understand Kirsty’s point of view about the girl’s fate – it had all happened to the eighteen year old Kirsty Cotton – and she had spent most of the intervening years trying to overcome the trauma she had endured at the hands of Cenobites and doctors alike.
Yet her words now implied other experiences she hadn’t mentioned and a disturbing familiarity with the demon that had hunted them both. Shuddering, she walked back into the hall to rejoin a woman whom she had thought she understood completely.
A breeze from the end of the hall struck her and made her coat flutter. Curious, Joey did a quick walk-through around the rest of the house and found what had to be the entry point of Mr. Atkins. A window in the back bedroom had been broken. It was low enough for a man to climb through easily and led in from a sheltered back yard.
Had he known what would happen? No, they never did. Elliott had told her that. They open the box hoping for unearthly pleasures – but they all find the same thing. Frowning, she turned away and headed back to her partner in crime.
“She may not be able to talk,” Kirsty said as she took the curtain and began wrapping the girl in it. “Tampered with like Tiffany was, maybe, or something else, I don’t know – but she isn’t afraid of us or anything else here.”
“What if she’s the one who used the box on your customer?”
Kirsty shook her head. “She didn’t open the box. If she had, she’d look like him.”
They got their mute companion into Kirsty’s car, hopefully without anyone in the neighborhood seeing her. The house was locked again and remained as quiet as it had been before. Joey watched it in the rearview mirror from the backseat as she held the girl upright against her.
Are hellish creatures really going to arrive to make the place pristine again, leaving no evidence behind? How does Kirsty know they might? She said she had seen it happen before but why would they do that?
~ ~ ~
Joey sat on the living room floor again, next to her box of documents. The sound of the shower had stopped. Her hands were motionless in her lap and she stared at them as if they might have the answers to all of the riddles if she only studied them long enough.
A door down the hall opened and Kirsty reappeared, still helping the girl walk. She was in a bathrobe, with a towel spread under her damp golden hair. They sat on the couch and Kirsty looked at Joey with a thoughtful expression on her face.
Kirsty Cotton was thirty-eight now, only five years her senior. She was full of vitality and beautiful and it was hard to imagine her looking as shell-shocked and confused as the teen girl at her side.
Yet Joey had seen it – in a videotaped psychiatric session. In that video, Kirsty had been angry but the bewildered expression of hopeless fear she had worn was similar to this girl’s. She hadn’t seemed afraid in the bloody house, however. Maybe the shock of it was wearing off.
“Not a mark on her,” Kirsty said, “and not a word spoken.”
“That doesn’t mean she can’t speak. If she isn’t hurt, why does she need help walking?”
“That’s strange – it’s like she isn’t used to her body.” Kirsty shrugged, at a loss. “There’s nothing wrong with her that I can see.”
Joey watched the other woman closely. “How do you know so much about the Cenobite’s habits – or that Hell has a clean-up crew?”
“I’ve had more than one chance meeting with him.” She sighed. “He’s consistent.”
“Not really. From what you’ve said, he was acting very different when I met him.”
Kirsty looked at the silent teen who was staring at her own hands in the same detached way Joey had moments before. “You want to hear the real story? About Trevor?”
“I think he committed suicide because he was about to be convicted of four murders. The victims … were his boss, our neighbor, and an acupuncturist he was going to – all women. The last victim was a man, a co-worker.”
“God, I’m sorry.”
“They had enough evidence to prove it but I always questioned… See, the murders were done with a crazed viciousness. A lot of the elements were too like the Cenobites’ work to ignore. I’ve never known the truth of it – but I’m haunted by the thought that Trevor could have been innocent. Maybe the Cenobites killed them all and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“All along, you’ve kept this to yourself?”
“You have to understand – I’ve learned better than to tell everything I know, to anyone. I thought the best way to avoid a strait jacket was to let them call it suicide over guilt from the murders.”
“And the custodians from Hell? What’s up with that?”
Kirsty looked at her. “It sounds nuts, I know … but I walked into a scene like that once, just a week before I left New York. I got out fast, but then returned later to prove to myself I hadn’t imagined it. My proof wasn’t there but I knew what I saw. I assumed they’d come and cleaned it up. The mystery is why would creatures like that care?”
“I can’t imagine. I’ve had a conversation with a ghost and vied with a demon but I’m not a shrink for the damned.”
Kirsty answered in a grim whisper, “I decided it could be as simple as ‘waste not, want not’.”
The newest houseguest moved abruptly, reaching out her hand to the coffee table. She picked up the photo of the army captain that both women owed their lives to. Touching his face as Joey often did, her eyes widened.
“Father,” she breathed.
~ ~ ~
“She can’t be Elliott’s daughter, that’s madness. She’d be over a hundred and she barely looks seventeen,” Joey protested.
“Tell her that.” Kirsty had dressed the girl in her own light green jogging suit. Her hair was drying into a mass of heavy golden curls. “She has his eyes, anyway.”
Joey ignored the joke. She looked at the girl who sat in a kitchen chair sipping apple juice through a straw. “Can you remember your name, anything about where you come from, or how you got to that house?”
She always stared in silence for a moment before answering. It reminded Joey of a person who had learned English as a second language and was translating the questions in her head before replying.
“He named me after the light … but I don’t remember.” The voice was sweet, like a bell; her wide blue eyes were shy and sad.
The girl herself was a marvel. She resembled a friend Joey had gone to college with, who was now modeling in New York. Her skin was not only flawless, it shined. The only mar to the whole of her perfection was on her back. That was the biggest mystery yet.
Kirsty had told her about the tattoo after getting the girl cleaned up. It didn’t resemble the sketch of the Elysium Configuration Channard had, it completed it. They had asked questions carefully, taking it slow, but she could tell them nothing about it, insisting it had always been there.
She had a tender constitution and had thrown up once before Kirsty decided to take it easy and just give her juice. They put her in the bedroom across from Joey’s and Kirsty watched over her until she fell asleep.
When she returned to the living room, Joey scooted over on the couch. Her hostess sat, looking preoccupied and nervous. “Maybe we should take her to a doctor anyway, just to be sure she’s all right.”
“Doctors ask questions and they require names, along with a slew of numbers and other missing information.”
“Make up a name to use. She’s too young for a social security number to be required. She could be your cousin and she hasn’t been feeling well. Full check up requested. Easy.”
“You’ve done this before?” Kirsty smiled.
“I’m a reporter. Making up stuff to get around the rules is part of my job.”
“What if we find out something modern science can’t explain?”
“Like what? She’s not an alien.”
Kirsty picked up the photo of Elliott. “What’s the deal, huh?” She was silent, staring at the image as if seriously expecting an answer. Her face became a pale mask of fear in moments but she still made no sound.
“What is wrong?”
Kirsty’s voice was a haunted whisper. “What if the Cenobite wasn’t picking up this time – what if he was dropping off?”