Jack Chambers, former dot com millionaire and feared corporate raider, was scared and clueless.
He had no memory of the past few hours. He didn’t remember anything at all before walking down a rough, gravel-strewn path through a dark, thickly-wooded area. The black of night contrasted sharply with the thin light of a full moon trying to burst through the tangle of trees that surrounded and pressed down on him, forcing him to pause for a second to catch his breath.
Resting his hands on his knees, he set his jaw and tensed up as if ready to pounce. Though his chest had tightened up and the hollow ball of nervous energy in his stomach threatened to overwhelm him, he would not let it. Years of hostile takeovers had taught him when someone had him in their sights, and he had that feeling now.
The sounds of night were all around him, suffocating him, watching him. Judging him. He looked about as if there might be some sort of clue, something telling him where he was or what was going on. Desperation was closing in, threatening to swallow him whole, fight it though he did. He dug into his pockets, and his wallet was gone. Cell phone, too. Had he left them in the car? Where was his car? He shook his head as if that would help him recall. Figures, he thought, sighing. The simple fact is that when it comes right down to it, everyone is alone.
The sudden caw of a crow lighting from the branches directly to his right startled him and he jumped; heart racing and eyes wide. In a fit of temper, he yelled to no one. Ignoring the electric warnings of his mind, he lurched forward. “Can’t find out what’s going on standing here,” he said, so on down the path he went.
Sweat began to drip slowly down his face as the sounds of the night began to slowly quiet to almost nothing. The dark forest closed in, and the first strains of panic eked out all over his body, threatening to overwhelm him. “Just keep walking,” he muttered to himself, “find a phone, call a cab, and figure it all out later.” Having a plan should have calmed him down, but if anything the deepening silence got louder and more insidious. No momentary loss of confidence, he feared he was losing his mind.
He had a sense of impending violent dread, as if something was pulling him onward in steady succession, neither hurried nor relaxed. He was definitely losing his nerve, what little ‘cool’ he had left. All sound was dead by this time, his footfalls hanging like corpses in the wind. He could see no good escape route, and he feared to slow down, lest his unseen pursuer pounce upon him unaware. The silence was deafening; by far the loudest sound he had ever heard. It was so quiet that he could hear the sound of his watch.
That’s when the laughter started.
Coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, the last vestiges of his composure melted away like wax from a flame, growing his fear exponentially. He wasted no time at all and bolted, moving reckless down the gravel path as if the very fires of hell were at his back. On and on he ran, never seeming to get anywhere. He ran and ran, laughter following him until no longer able to take a breath, he had to stop. Hunching over, he surveyed his surroundings. He was still on the same gravel-laden path, which appeared well worn. He could see footsteps, recent ones, leading around the corner. But the more he studied them, the fainter they became until they disappeared altogether.
I must be going crazy, he thought. That would explain a lot. Not that it made him feel any better at all; he was just grasping for any minute wisp of an idea, something that makes sense to fall back on.
Just ahead, the path started to climb upwards, becoming quite steep as it went on for what seemed like forever. He crested the hill, out of breath, exhausted. That’s when he saw the house.
It was a monstrous old mansion, like one of those haunted houses you always see in old horror movies. He scoffed, trying to convince himself he was being ridiculous, though there was that one tiny corner of his mind that held on to the idea that the was going to his doom. He saw no lights on, but somehow he knew that there was someone there. The relief that entered him like a warm bath was tinged with fear, and it was only through sheer force of will that he was able to move forward. Maybe they have a phone I could use.
He bounded up the half-dozen or so steps to the wide arching double door, taller than any he had yet seen. The doors were wide, and halfway up there was a large sun-shaped doorknocker. That gave him pause as the tinge again began to grow larger. Inside he was screaming, telling himself to leave, to take off. He suspected that somehow, he didn’t have a choice. He didn’t like that so much, but might as well get this over with. He couldn’t see any other options. He lifted the huge handled and rapped on the door three times, it making a deep, hollow boom as he waited for an answer.
Almost immediately, a very distinguished looking man in his mid-sixties opened the door. He was dressed in an immaculate black tuxedo, complete with long tails. The look on his face went from bored to please when he looked into Jack’s eyes, though his smile did little to settle Jack’s nerves. He opened his mouth, speaking in a very distinguished sounding English accent.
“Ah, Master Chambers!! We’ve been expecting you! Please come in! It’s good to see you arrive!”
Any comfort he felt was dissipating rapidly. This was just too much.
“What?!?! Who the hell are you? How do you know my name?”
The man burst into laughter, making every inch of Jack’s skin start crawling at once. “Ah, that’s a good one, Master. Now, if you follow me, I’ll show you your quarters.”
To hell with looking calm. Jack backed up slightly and put up his hands.
“N-no thank you. I… I just want to use the phone,” he stammered. Tiny needles were piercing his skin all over as his mind was starting to go numb. How the hell does this guy know who I am?
“Phone, sir? I hope you’ll pardon my confusion, Master, but I don’t quite follow you.”
Jack had enough practice in judging whether or not people were lying to know that the man was genuine in his bewilderment. He could sense no deception whatsoever. Was he an idiot, then? Does he really not know what a phone is? A momentary flash of irritation prompted a desire to strike the man, but he held back. It would be my luck he’s some kind of lunatic or an axe murderer or something. Probably not a good idea to piss him off.
“Excuse me,” he said in his most polite tone, “why do you keep calling me Master?”
There was that look of genuine confusion again. “Don’t you remember, Master? You sent word yesterday that you would be arriving soon, most likely today. I am Alfred, your butler.” He paused as if waiting for a response, but the snicker that escaped Jack cut off quickly. “Ah, but of course not. They never do.” He flashed a disconcerting smile and waited, as if expecting a reply.
Jack’s anxiety level was rising. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know you, and I didn’t make any arrangements, at least I don’t think so…”
“Master,” said Alfred, “I don’t mean to interrupt you but you certainly did make those arrangements. I spoke with you personally.”
Truth be told, Jack wasn’t sure. He didn’t remember anything from the last few days at all. Had he? He didn’t think so. He sure as hell didn’t know any “Alfred”.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any of that, and I don’t remember you. I’m kind of foggy.”
With real concern, Alfred said “I’m sorry to hear that, Master. Maybe if you lie down and relax for a bit, you might have an easier time remembering. Let me show your room.”
“Yes,” he said, “maybe that would be best.”
“Very good, Master,” said Alfred, “It’s this way.”
Alfred turned and proceeded to walk forward into the ornately decorated foyer. They came to a grand spiral staircase, winding upward as far as he could see. The carpeting was black with very intricate white and silver patters crisscrossing and intersecting at odd angles that seemed to make sense. A sense of real despair began to settle in on Jack, the numbness of his mind being near complete. That small corner of his mind still screamed at him, but he no longer paid any attention to it.
As he followed, he began to notice that there were portraits; hundreds of them, maybe thousands lining the walls. There were dates under them, every one of them. More than that, all the people in them had the look of men and women resigned to where fate had taken them. Every square inch of space on the walls going up the endless staircase was covered with portraits. Fear started to spike, but he was unable to do anything but observe it.
“What are these portraits? How many of them are there? There seem to be thousands!”
“Millions, actually sir.”
What? Surely not. The man was joking. Or mad. Visions of strange, lurid men committing unspeakable horrors filled his head, and his heart was threatening to beat right out of his chest.
“Th-that’s quite a lot, Alfred.”
“Indeed, Master,” said Alfred, turning to give him a look that chilled him to the bones.
The two soon reached the end of the stairs. Directly opposite was a door, a wooden door with an iron handle. Alfred pulled open the door and held it for Jack. “Your room, Master.”
“Thank you, Alfred.” Jack didn’t want to enter the room but he knew that he had no choice. It was a nice enough room. There was a desk against one wall and a few old Victorian-style chairs with black upholstery, ornately carved backs, and arms. Lining shelves around the room as a large collection of thick, dusty books. In the centre of the room against one wall was a large bed with delicate see-through black and white curtains. He thought he could just make out the shape of a man sitting up in the bed, unmoving.
“Who is that, Alfred?” There was no mistaking the fear in his voice this time.
“See for yourself, Master,” said Alfred, gesturing toward the bed as if inviting him inside. The look on his face was colder and Jack knew it was not an invitation. He crossed the room, walking right over to the bed and pulling back the curtains.
There, lying in the bed was his corpse. He knew it before he saw the mans' face. The skin had a kind of purplish tint to it, a trickle of blood coming out of his nose. His clothing had been disheveled and his arms were spread out. There was a small mirror and the remnants of a scattered white powder on the mirror.
“Now do you remember, Master?”
He did. He had been holed up in his five-star hotel room, having just returned from another successful hostile takeover bid. How clever he had been! He had lulled the man into thinking he was going to save the man’s company, only to change his mind and sell it off after it was too late for the man to do anything. He would be ruined, but it was his own fault. The man had begged on his knees for Jack not to go through with it. He had laughed at the sad, pathetic little man, signed the papers and walked out of the room. The wailing cries followed him all the way down the hall to the elevator. Not the first time, he smiled to himself. He took a cab back to the hotel. He had reached his room, confident in his mastery of the universe. Opening the safe in his room to take out the mirror and the baggie, he had doled out a few lines on the mirror, rolled up a hundred-dollar bill, and gone to town. He remembered snorting them real fast, wiping his nose off as the familiar rush set in. He could still feel the panic that set in as he realised that his heart was beating faster and faster and wouldn’t stop.
He hung his head. He knew the truth of what had happened without having to say it. Knowing it to be hopeless, he raised his head to look into the cold eyes of Alfred once more.
“Alfred, how long do I have to stay here? When can I leave? How long?”
“I’m afraid you’ll never leave, Master.”
Even as the words hung in the air, Jack knew where he was.
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