“The Devil Prefers Darjeeling” Gothic Fiction by T.L. Beeding

It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour. 

Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it. 

Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.

Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched. 

After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes. 

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”

“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.” 

Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare. 

Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more. 

“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come. 

The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?” 

Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”

“But you do not believe that to be the case?”

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?” 

Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.” 

The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.” 

Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.

The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.” 

Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?” 

The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”

Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.” 

Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time. 

The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.” 

Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once. 

“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.” 

Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.” 

The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.” 

“What price?”

The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin. 

“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.” 

A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?” 

“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach. 

“What is all this?” 

“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence. 

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word. 

Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.

“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”

She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup. 

“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.” 

The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.  

“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”

Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”

The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”

Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory. 

“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.” 

Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had. 

“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”

Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask. 

The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.” 

Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.” 

Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”

“The…the devil himself.”

Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?” 

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?” 

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”

Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.” 

Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.” 

A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.” 

“Suspected what?” Claire demanded, voice growing stringent. 

Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”

“What does that mean?”

Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.” 

Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!” 

Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”

Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light. 

“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.” 

The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”

Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.” 

Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.” 

Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her. 

“I accept.” 

Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more. 

“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”

***

At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow. 

But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself  It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.


T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.


“Ashes” Fiction by Ethan Maiden

There you go, daddy. There you go to the next place where mummy is waiting.

I was there when he stopped breathing. Just like I had been there with mum. I had become some kind of grim reaper watching over as they passed over. Did I feel fear? Of course. But did I feel sorrow – unashamedly not.

It hadn’t been a secret that I didn’t get on with my parents. I was an only child and their special little daughter. In my younger years I had been spoilt rotten, getting anything I wanted. Dad (Patrick) had been a partner in a successful architectural firm and we had a significant amount of wealth. It paid for my first car, my education and eventual marriage to Stephen. But behind everything, there comes a price and as they say; ‘you reap what you sow.’

*

 Dad’s funeral took place on a blustery morning in March at 11:00 to be precise. It was a small affair with distant family relatives and his old work associates. Dad had ensured he had a life plan and the whole thing had been paid off in advance. All I had to do was arrange the thing and show up.

            I nodded to the, ‘Sarah, we’re sorry for your loss,’ condolences.

            I hate to admit it, but I resented both my parents. I was told to get out and get a job, to fend for myself. I remember the arguing. I could still see mum collapsing to the floor grabbing her chest. She couldn’t breathe. I reached for the phone to call an ambulance but…

I’d tried to be the rock to get dad through the grief. 

            ‘Sarah, I miss her every day,’ dad would say.

            ‘Me too dad.’

            Little white lies don’t hurt … not sometimes.

*

            Dad had insisted on being cremated instead of a burial like mum.

            The ashes were placed in a grey ceramic urn which found its way onto my fire mantelpiece. Stephen said he enjoyed having it there, like dad was still here with us. They had had a special relationship. They went fishing and had a beer watching the game. When mum died Stephen had been the rock to pull dad through the grief.

            ‘Are you scattering them like he asked?’ Stephen asked.

            I nodded, ‘in the sea.’

            ‘When?’

            ‘He said he wanted to go after a week.’

            ‘Huh?’

            ‘He said to me that when he died he wanted to stay just one more week with me, before he is left to rest forever.’

            ‘Well, you have one more week with him, so enjoy,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following day we met with dad’s solicitor. Marcus Hind was a smart chap wearing a navy pinstripe suit, wavy grey hair and thick glasses that showcased his bright hazel eyes. Marcus’ office was on the top floor of the building which housed other small businesses in the centre of town. Stephen and I arrived at just past noon for our appointment.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Dad had been wealthy, that was common knowledge. However how much was still in question. He took early retirement and amongst his assets were a healthy bank balance, a property in Spain and the manor residence where he had passed away.

            ‘You’ll be wondering what details were in your father’s will?’ Marcus asked staring down at the paper.

Oh, you betcha!

            ‘I’d prefer to have him here, Mr. Hind,’ I said, gripping Stephen’s hand.

            Marcus mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out before staring up at us. ‘So, Patrick left the house and the residence in Spain to you.’ Marcus pulled from below his desk a leather black briefcase. ‘Inside this case is the property paperwork as well as the remains of his entire bank balance in cash. I believe it’s in the region of two hundred and forty thousand pounds.’

            ‘All that money can fit in there?’ Stephen asked, pointing with a gaping mouth.

            ‘You’d be surprised,’ Marcus said.

            I went to take it and Marcus quickly slid it back from my grasp.

            ‘There is one more thing Patrick requested.’ Marcus said. ‘The case is locked and will remain locked for the week. In seven days, I will provide the combination code.’

            ‘What?’ I asked, bemused. ‘Is this a joke?’

            ‘Afraid not,’ Marcus said. ‘That’s the conditions Patrick requested.’

            Marcus slid the case back to us. I picked it up, the weight made me almost drop the damn thing. A scent rushed up to me – burnt paper or smoke from a fire. I took hold of the steel handle and left.

            So much money in my grasp … a week will fly by … no problem.

*

            There is a powerful aura around the thing(s) you want the most. The wealth alone in this case was enough to see me through the rest of my life without struggle. Stephen and I had agreed early on in the relationship that we wouldn’t have children. We or more I was selfish. We enjoyed our extravagant holidays and lived the lifestyle we wanted – a life with freedom and without restrictions.

            I set the case on the kitchen table and went to the lounge. The urn stood tall on the mantelpiece.

            ‘This is your last joke, huh?’ I asked. ‘One more week?’

            The urn stared at me and I felt tingles spread across the entirety of my skin.

            That night – it started.

            I woke at just past midnight. Stephen snored next to me as per usual. For some reason I felt wide awake at such a nocturnal hour. Ice filled the room; it felt more like December than early spring. I sat up and rubbed my arms to remind my body of warmth. When I exhaled I saw my breath float and then evaporate before my eyes.

            My surroundings felt off. I could swear I was being watched. I glanced around the shadow filled room. For some reason our eyes like to play mean tricks on us and I’m sure I saw a silhouette run across the landing. Nothing was there obviously, but I couldn’t shake the unease festering in my gut. I laid on my side and held my eyes closed hoping for the sleep to take me. Eventually it did.

*

            The following day I stood staring at the briefcase on the kitchen table. I stroked and smelt the leather. The combination was set to 0-0-0. I thought about rolling the numbers to see if I’d drop lucky. Maybe there’d be a click and the fortune would be mine.

Jokes on you, papa.

My hands moved closer but before I could make contact there was a small bang from the lounge.

            I headed in and saw that the urn had moved across the mantelpiece to the right by at least a foot. Stephen was at work so there was no way he could have moved it.

            ‘Hello, someone there?’

            My spine arched, just like a cat when you give it a stroke. I had to get out of this place. I threw on my jacket and headed out. I wanted to stay out as long as possible; being alone in this house had my nerves jingling.

            I walked to town to buy a few groceries, that passed a little time and hopefully Stephen would be home by the time I got back. I bought the essentials – milk, bread, eggs and a bottle of white wine.

            On the way back, I saw a homeless man sat on the street. He wore a red beanie hat, green jacket and had facial hair to his chest. He sat sorrowfully with a steel cup that held the change he had been given throughout the day. I ransacked my pockets to see if I had anything to give. My hand waddled out a measly £1.34 but as Tesco say – ‘every little helps.’ I bent down to throw it in the pot when the homeless man stared up at me.

            Have we met?

            ‘I have no need for your blood money,’ he said.

            I stopped before dropping it in, startled by what I’d just heard, ‘what?’

            ‘That money is no good to me.’

            ‘I … I don’t know what you mean,’ I said shaking my head in disbelief.

            ‘You know exactly what I mean,’ he replied, toneless.

            I put the coins back in my pocket and hurried back up the street not daring to look back.

*

            I was pacing the kitchen when Stephen arrived home.

            ‘Sarah, what’s wrong?’ he asked, dropping his work bag down.

            My arms were folded and I bit my nails.

            ‘Something’s not right Steve,’ I said.

            ‘What do you mean?’

            I pointed to the briefcase. ‘Ever since we brought that thing back I’ve been feeling … strange.’

            ‘Strange?’

            ‘I … I can’t explain.’

            He moved closer placing his warm hands on my shoulders. ‘You’ve been through a lot,’ he said. ‘First your mum and now your dad in a short space of time. The grief has no doubt taken its toll on you.’

            ‘That’s not it Steve … I know something is wrong.’

            He grimaced and assured me nothing would happen whilst he was here. He would protect me.

*

            Stephen could say what he wanted but when night came that’s when the shadows played their devious tricks.

Again I woke in the middle of the night. For once Stephen wasn’t snoring. I think it was worse that I was engulfed in silence, it somehow made the atmosphere eerier. At least Stephen’s heavy breathing brought a realism to everything.

            The cold fell over me the same as before. I sat upright and stared at the open bedroom door which led to the landing. The staircase creaked. My heart thundered. Thud … thud … thud.

            Mum?

            I struggled to breathe.

            My throat felt as though it was closing with a barricade of ice.

            I gasped trying hard to suck in the air.

            Stephen woke and started shaking me by the shoulders.

            ‘Jesus Christ Sarah, what’s wrong?’

            ‘Mu … mu …,’ I mumbled pointing to my throat.

            My whole body started to shake.

            Stephen laid me down and held me tight.

            ‘I need to call an ambulance.’

            And then the ice in my throat melted. The beating in my chest relaxed and the air returned to normal.

            ‘I … I don’t know what happened,’ I said finding my voice a few moments later.

            ‘You looked like you were having a heart attack,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following two days and nights went without incident. I put the episode down to a panic attack with everything that had happened lately. Still the briefcase sat on the kitchen table. I had to fight the urge to keep my thumbs from scrolling down the numbers. I wanted what was inside … I needed it.

            My hands reached down and I started on the numbers one through nine on all three dials. After an hour or so I flicked them all back to 0 with a huff and sigh.

            A few more days … that’s all.

            It was that night when my fears were suddenly turned up a notch. My eyes popped open to the cold air. This time I felt no struggle to breathe, well not initially. The cold air puffed out of me and I swamped the quilt to keep warm.

            The stairs creaked and not in the way we expect in the midnight hour. They creaked as if someone was climbing them. Something was coming up the stairs.

            I rolled onto my back staring so hard I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets.

            Time stood still; I was frozen in time.

            Next to me Stephen slept silently. No snores; no heavy breathing and I actually thought he could be dead.

            I glanced up and saw … it.

            The face.

            The right side of a pale white face peeked at me from behind the doorframe. Its hand crawled round spidery and gripped hold of the frame.

            I wanted to scream. My heart wasn’t beating, it felt like it had stopped altogether.

            Then real fear struck me. It was my dad.

            His black eye on show had sunken into his skull and his pale face matched the moon which crept through the curtains.

            A sinister smile crept on the corner of his lip. Crooked teeth fell from his mouth. Dad was mocking me. Even from the grave he was still making my life hell.

            I rolled Stephen over.

            His face had changed.

            Lying next to me now was dad’s frozen corpse.

            This time the screaming did come and I was shaken out of my fit of fear by Stephen.

*

            I tried to explain everything. Stephen looked understanding but I knew deep down he doubted my every word.

            ‘It was just a nightmare,’ he said.

            I walked to the lounge and stared at the urn. That thing was fucking cursed. Could it really be that dad was still here in some way? I pushed his face out of my head.

            I went to speak with Marcus.

            After explaining everything he sat in silence gathering his thoughts.

            ‘I want that code,’ I said. ‘I want to get the money, take the keys and get the hell away from here.’

            Marcus tapped his fingers in a praying pose against his lips. ‘You have twenty-four hours before you get the code, Sarah.’

            ‘No; I want that damn code now!’

            ‘Twenty … four … hours.’ 

            ‘Well I’ll just take that urn and scatter his ashes in the sea if I have to. Good riddance to him.’

            ‘That’s up to you,’ Marcus said.

            He wasn’t budging his stance.

            I got up and stormed out of the office.

            If twenty-four hours was all I had to wait to get my hands on all that money then so bloody be it. One last push of patience.

That night I got in bed early.

Stephen had stayed downstairs to watch the game with a beer.

When I woke this time, Stephen still wasn’t beside me.

Stood above me was my mother.

Her decaying corpse stared down at me.

Her once tanned face was now rotted flesh and bone.

The stench made me want to vomit.

Mum was almost bald but a few loose strands of frizzled hair.

‘M … mum?’ I muttered.

She wore the white gown she had been buried in, it was dirty with stains of mud and earth flowing from knees to her chest.

Then I heard the distant sound of thud … thud … thud.

That horrific noise.

Was it my heart or hers? I couldn’t be sure.

‘Mum … please.’

She pointed at me and her mouth gaped open as though yelling at me, the way she had done all those years ago.

My dad again peeked from the doorframe smiling with that mocking dead expression.

Thud … thud … thud.

The beating of my heart grew.

Thud … thud … THUD.

I couldn’t breathe.

‘Mum … dad … please,’ I strained.

I fell to the bed and started to panic. My hands and toes tensed so hard I thought they’d snap like chicken bone. The muscles and veins in my neck bulged from the thinning skin. This was it; I was dying and my parents were embracing every second.

Stephen came running up the stairs; dad retreated out of view and mum crumbled to the floor vanishing in an instant.          

‘Sarah … Sarah!’ he yelled shaking me.

I managed to take in some much needed oxygen and filled my lungs to capacity.

‘That’s it baby, long hard breaths,’ Stephen reassured me.

My hands relaxed. My muscles started to unclench.

Stephen grabbed hold of me and hugged me tight.

‘Where were you?’ I asked still catching breath.

‘I fell asleep on the sofa.’

‘You were supposed to be here … to keep me safe.’

*

The day I’d been waiting for had finally come. After a long and otherworldly week I’d get what was due to me. But first I had business to attend to.

I grabbed the urn and threw it in the car. Stephen was working so I had all day to carry out the task in hand.

The seafront was an hour’s drive away.  It was a gusty day which suited me. On the way I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror.

Jesus Christ Sarah, you’ve aged. Your eyes have bags dropping near your chin. The creases in your face crater like the Grand Canyon and that hair is in dying need of a colour.

Don’t worry we’ll have plenty of cash to sort these things out. All in due time.

It was my mother’s voice that spoke the words.

‘So, you think you can still dictate my life, huh?’ I asked the urn sat innocently beside me. ‘Coming to me in the night … and using mum!’ I said shaking my head. ‘How dare you use mum to get at me. No … no sir; it will all be over today daddy.’

Sarah, you sound hysterical.

I parked at the pay and display next to the beach. £1.30 for an hour’s stay was fine by me. I used the change which should have gone to that homeless chap that freaked me out. Grabbing the urn and my umbrella I headed out down the stone steps. The beach was quiet, a few dog and casual walkers here and there. The sea – wild with a strong scent of salt infiltrating my nostrils.

Surfers would embrace these high waves.

I reached the sea and put down my umbrella. My feet paddled in the ice-cold water and I took the urn holding it out in front of me.

‘Dad. I want to say something. What I put you and mum through was wrong, and I apologise. Thing is, you being in my home is a constant reminder, and I don’t want reminding of the last time I saw you alive. The night terrors are obviously my mind playing the guilt card. I hope you understand. Farewell daddy; be at peace.’

I unlocked the urn and emptied the contents into the sea.

Rolls of money fell into the water.

Bundles of £50 notes held by elastic bands washed out to the sea. There must have been a dozen or so.

What the hell?

I checked the urn and it was empty. Just an empty ceramic container. No ashes and now – no cash. The sea carried the money out and into the waves. I stood speechless as they disappeared under the water.

*

I ran back to the car as fast as my legs would take me. I yanked out my phone out and dialled Marcus’ office.

‘Hello, Marcus H-’

‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ I asked.

‘Sorry?’

‘The urn … it was filled with cash, not my fucking dad.’

‘I see. You scattered it then?’ Marcus asked, irritatingly calm.

‘Yes I scattered them. What’s going on?’

‘Come by the office and we can sort this whole thing out.’

‘Give me the code,’ I said.

‘Pardon me.’

‘The code … give me the fucking code to the case.’

And then Marcus gave it me. I questioned whether he was joking.

He wasn’t.

*

When I arrived home, I ran to the front door with excitement. My hands rushed the key in the lock and I shot through to the kitchen. The briefcase stood on top of the table as I’d left it. I pumped in the code and pulled back the lid.

My hands clasped my mouth like I’d been hit with an arrow in the chest.

Thud … thud … thud …

I took a double take to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me.

Ashes.

The entire case was filled with ashes.

*

Marcus sat behind his desk. I stormed in and smacked the table.

‘What is happening?’

‘Oh Sarah. You have been a naughty girl.’

‘What does that mean you fucking weasel?’

Marcus slipped his computer screen around to face me. On the monitor was the image of a hidden camera. It was staring at my father’s bed. My dad was in it.

‘Where did you get this?’ I asked.

‘Well, you see that your father had become quite suspicious following your mother’s untimely death. So, he set this camera up for proof if he ever needed it, which he certainly did. Didn’t he Sarah?’

‘No … this isn’t happening …’ I muttered, unable to steady myself.

I fell into the chair.

‘Let’s have a watch, shall we?’ Marcus said and pushed play.

I remembered. I didn’t need to see it, but I couldn’t take my eyes away. I entered the bedroom whilst dad was asleep. I remembered his face. I took the pillow and held it tight against his face. I pressed down harder and harder. Dad’s hands gripped as he fought, damn he tried to fight. Yet he was frail, all too frail. I pushed harder until he fell limp …

‘Oh dear Sarah,’ Marcus said. ‘First your mother and then your father.’

Thud … thud … thud.

‘Dad … had suspicions?’

‘The constant discussions over money? The arguing? He heard you say that you’d kill her?’

Mum needed an ambulance. I could have saved her but I didn’t make the call. I watched her die in front of me. Thud … thud …

‘He set me up?’

‘Of course,’ Marcus said ‘He was a dying man but you couldn’t be patient could you, Sarah? You had to have his fortune didn’t you?’

I was close to tears. Marcus had the incriminating evidence and my life was over.

‘The money in the urn was all that was left,’ Marcus continued. ‘Patrick had sold the property in Spain and donated his fortune to charity. The only possession he had was the manor house, which he has kindly left … to me.’

‘You?’ I asked.

Marcus chuckled. ‘He came to me with his suspicions a while ago and we made a deal. And when you make a deal with me, the agreement is final.’

‘Who are you?’

Marcus just smiled. There was a burning behind those eyes – a blackness.

Suddenly fear had substituted the rage in me. This … thing in front of me made my stomach churn.

‘What are you? Is that what the combination to the case was – a clue?’ I asked.

‘I take great pleasure in seeing a sinner’s world fall apart.’

‘The night terrors … the homeless man, it was you, wasn’t it?’

Marcus again smiled with his crooked teeth and burning eyes. ‘I like to have my fun now and again.’

I rushed to my feet almost stumbling to the floor. The blue carpet had changed to bare floorboards. The nice paint of the office had started to peel away. Marcus just sat watching my disbelief as the surroundings fell to desolation.

I ran out of the door which fell from its hinges to the floor. I headed down the stairs. The other small businesses in the building were vacant. Not a soul in sight. I fell through the door and turned to see the entire building boarded up and worthy of demolition.

I had to get home. I had to see Stephen.

*

I flew over the speed limit the whole way. I wasn’t thinking straight and who could blame me?

When I arrived home, a police car was parked outside the house. What had happened now? Had that Marcus thing got to Stephen?

I ran in the house and found two officers with Stephen huddled around his laptop. My face fell. They turned. I saw behind them the footage of me suffocating my father playing on the screen.

Tears fell down Stephen’s cheeks.

‘Sarah … how could you?’ he asked.

‘I … I’m sorry.’

The police officers moved toward me.

The briefcase of ashes remained on the kitchen table; the code still read 6-6-6.

Copyright © Ethan Maiden


Bio:

Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire.
Writing fiction has become a hobby over the past couple of years and he hopes to one day publish a novel.
Ethan notes Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft as influences behind his work.