Brown husks of acorns crunched underfoot. Leaves glided down from the canopy overhead – walnut browns and russet reds and soft lemon yellows. They looped and twirled in a gaudy death dance, determined to party out their last days before they rotted and returned to the earth.
The downward gradient steepened. Brendon’s girlfriend faltered on the path, unsure of her footing in the dwindling purple-blue twilight. Her blood-spattered dress flapped in the crisp breeze. Brendon extended his hand to help her. Her eyes, rimmed in bluish grey, met his from above gashed cheekbones, all of which jarred with her blonde schoolgirl bunches. Her mouth rose in a appreciative but toothless smile.
“Can you carry my wine?” she asked sweetly.
He took the bottle from her and put it in his bag next to his six-pack of beer. This was the first time Brendon had brought Jenny, his new girlfriend from university, to meet his ‘home friends.’ He would have preferred a different occasion to make such introductions, for the inhabitants of this remote village were freakish enough when not dressed as demons and ghouls. But when he’d let slip to Jenny about this Halloween party, she’d insisted on coming. Turned out she was quite the closet horror aficionado, to his mild disdain. ‘Alice in Butcherland’ – that’s who she was, apparently.
He, for his part, had opted for a passable Dracula costume, consisting of his dad’s old dinner jacket and bow-tie, a bin-liner functioning as a cape, some white face-paint and a liberal scooping of gel to slick back his hair. He’d already dispensed with the slip-on fangs; they were uncomfortable and made social interaction impossible. Waste of money they’d been.
“Hey, I’ve got no signal,” remarked Stacy (Bonnie Parker at this moment in time) from the back of the group.
“Me neither,” said Steve (Clyde Barrow).
What did it matter then, Brendon wondered, for Steve and Stacy phoned or texted no-one but each other. He could hear them making love-bird noises behind him, as if losing their phone signals at the same time proved how intimately connected they were. They were, to be frank, a most nauseating couple – always kissing, whispering, pawing and petting – no regard for who else was around. Brendon might have excused it had they been rapt in the passions of new love, but they’d been going steady for nearly two years.
“Nope, you won’t get a signal down here in the haunted hollow,” Vicky called from her place at the head of the group. She glanced over her bare shoulder at her four companions, white teeth grinning beneath her silver masquerade mask. “There’s nobody you can call, and nobody will hear you scream!”
She had a point. The hollow into which they descended, gouged into the landscape as if by an ogre’s finger, was isolated indeed. The roar of the nearby trunk road, audible almost anywhere in the village, was eerily absent here. It was so typical of Vicky, seeking total dominion over her subjects. She surely intended to make them scream tonight, and Brendon steeled himself against whatever she might have planned.
Relations between Brendon and Vicky had rarely run smoothly since some classroom squabble at age six (such was life when you grew up in a small village and knew everyone since forever), and their teenage years had hardened their hostility. Vicky liked to push people; hector them out of their comfort zones for her own amusement. She also knew how to play her charms, for which Brendon himself had twice fallen. The first time had been a spell of ‘play-dating’ in their early teens, the second a more serious fling when they’d come of age. Both he had come to regret.
Even now he found his eyes resting on her curly, auburn hair, which flapped gently against the freckled skin of her back and the string-up bodice of her black and burgundy dress. He chastised himself, and squeezed Jenny’s hand affectionately. She squeezed back harder, crying excitedly, “Oh! Look at that!”
A black iron gate loomed ahead, and contrasting starkly against it were two white skeletons. One was twisted with its spine through the bars, its bony fingers scrabbling at the earth outwith. The other was hoisted atop the gate with several spikes through its ribcage. Brendon had to admit that they looked pretty cool, not like the cheap plastic stuff the supermarkets sold. Vicky’s mum worked as a set designer in a big theater, so could obtain these kinds of props.
Vicky grinned. “Let these guys be a warning to you!” She heaved open the heavy gate until it was wide enough for them to slip through. “Welcome to the Manor! Enter if you dare, and dare if you enter!”
The Manor had lain derelict for decades, shunned by developers due to its subsidence. Through many Halloweens and many Christmases the tall house had brooded, each year a little more sunken and leaning. Indeed, everything at the base of the hollow – the trees, the bushes, the shabby patches of sun-starved grass – tilted inwards towards a gloomy pond, a kind of watery black hole that slowly consumed the earth in its proximity.
To the children of the village, the place had always held a mystical notoriety. “Stay away from the Manor!” warned the grown-ups. For sure, there were many practical dangers: rotten steps that could cave underfoot, rusty tools that lay strewn around, the dead waters of the dark pond. But in the streets and the school-yard, the menace had a name. It was whispered from child to child, divulged from elder to younger: Countess Esmeralda, Countess Esmeralda.
Night had all but fallen when the group reached the house’s imposing porch. Two lit pumpkins sat on plinths either side of the front steps, one grinning wickedly. The other bore a miserable grimace, and with reason: a knife was plunged through its side.
Inside, the party-goers were greeted by dozens of candles – prodigious pillar candles with gnarled stalactites of wax, skewered onto ornate stands. The flickering orange light threw weird shadows about the hallway, periodically venturing into crooked corners, then flitting away in a game of chicken. A suit of armor stood to one side, while on the opposite wall an Elizabethan portrait followed the intruders with holographic eyes. More props from the theater, Brendon assumed. Fake cobwebs weren’t required; the spiders had seen to that more than adequately.
The group proceeded to a lounge, where a hearty fire burned in a hearth. A mad scientist was present, hunched over an elaborate chemistry set, sporting a lab-coat that was more red than white.
“Hey Laurence!” said Brendon.
The scientist turned, eyes gleaming keenly in the candlelight. A brutal row of stitches was drawn across his forehead, and a joke meat cleaver nestled on his head, ketchup dripping profusely from the wound line. “Oh, hello Brendon,” he replied, before laughing manically. “Or should I say, Count!” He laughed again.
Laurence had moved to the village at age fourteen, which in a place like this made you little better than a tourist. His odd mannerisms and social awkwardness only added to his outsider status, though a brainy chap he clearly was. His idiosyncrasies made him a prime target for Vicky’s cruel games and general bossiness. No doubt she’d had him toiling his backside off to set up this party.
“Laurence, this is Jenny, my girlfriend,” Brendon introduced. “Jenny, my pal Laurence.”
Laurence extended a wolf’s paw (evidently he didn’t care about mixing costume themes). “Hey, nice costume!” he said to Jenny. “Alice in Butcherland, right?”
“The very same!” Jenny returned, flashing a blacked-out grin. She nudged Brendon. “See? Everyone knows Alice in Butcherland.”
“Well I didn’t,” said Brendon.
Jenny winked at Laurence. “I’m afraid Brendon’s a Halloween humbug!”
“Not at all,” Brendon countered. “Occultism and death-worship are among my favorite pastimes, and I enjoy nothing more than sweating away in overpriced plastic costumes made in China!”
“Same here,” said Laurence, missing the sarcasm. “Hey, you fancy a bevy? I got you covered!”
Laurence turned a tap on his intricate assemblage of glass tubes and conical flasks. A bright green liquid spurted into a test-tube, dry ice mist frothing over the rim. Laurence handed the virid concoction to Brendon, who eyed it warily.
“This looks rather potent.”
“Meh. There’s a little vodka in it,” said Laurence. “Not much.”
“The alcohol content is the least of my concerns.” Brendon brought the tube to his nose. It had a metallic, bitter scent. “I’ll stick to beer if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself.” Reclaiming the test-tube, Laurence downed it in one, belched, and laughed again. The three went to seat themselves. Steve and Stacy were already embroiled with each other on a sofa, while Vicky lounged in a stately armchair, directly facing the fireplace. The dancing flames reflected off her silver eye-mask.
“Vicky, I adore your costume,” gushed Jenny. “Is it a specific character or just a general Gothic look?”
“Why, I’m Countess Esmeralda, of course,” Vicky proclaimed. “Don’t tell me your boyfriend hasn’t told you about Countess Esmeralda!”
“Indeed he hasn’t,” said Jenny, glancing pointedly at Brendon.
“Oh. Well in that case, let me tell you.” Vicky paused, milking her moment. All went quiet, save the crackling of the fire and the bubbling of Laurence’s chemistry set. Even Stacy and Steve had extricated their lips to listen to the tale.
“Countess Esmeralda was a noblewoman,” Vicky regaled. “She lived here at the Manor, oh…” she waved a hand “…about five hundred years ago.”
“Three hundred,” interjected Steve. Stacy quickly agreed that yes, it was three hundred years, and gave Steve a kiss to celebrate his brilliance.
“More recent still than that; the murders happened in seventeen ninety-seven,” Laurence stated with his characteristic precision.
“Don’t give away the story!” hissed Vicky. “The important point is that Countess Esmeralda lived here a llonngg time ago. She was married to a Count, obviously, but had fallen out of love with him. She had no problems loving his wealth and title, however, and she was very possessive. So imagine her displeasure when she discovered he was banging the maid!”
A few snickers sounded around the circle. “Oh yes,” smirked Vicky. “Esmeralda was furious, but she wasn’t the sort of woman to fly into a temper tantrum. No – she kept quiet; she bided her time; she plotted a thorough revenge.” Vicky straightened herself. “For all we know, Esmeralda might have sat in this very armchair, gazing into this very fireplace, while she hatched her depraved plans.”
The storyteller paused, lapping up the attention. “Halloween night came, and Countess Esmeralda dressed to kill. She decked her slender figure in her finest gown.” Vicky patted her own dress. “She slid on her opera gloves.” Vicky stroked the velvet garments that sheaved her arms from fingertips to elbow. “She donned her masque of death” – Vicky tapped the mask that concealed her upper face – “silver as the moon that shone upon the hollow.”
“She put on her persona of pomposity…” Brendon interjected.
Vicky dismissed him with a tut. “And so began Esmeralda’s frenzied spree… of murder! She dispatched the butler first, so that he couldn’t raise the alarm. While he stood polishing the glassware, she crept up behind and bludgeoned him over the head!”
“Didn’t she put poison in his wine?” Laurence queried.
“No, she bludgeoned him,” Vicky insisted.
“I heard that she poisoned him.”
“You heard wrong!”
“What does it matter?” Brendon said. “It’s just a story, folks. Changes every time it gets told.”
“Fine. Have it your way,” said Vicky crossly. “After poisoning the butler, Esmeralda enticed the Count to their marital chamber, promising a rare night of passion. Instead, she got him drunk and imprisoned him within, then went after the maid – the Count’s lover, remember – with a knife. The maid tried to escape by wading through the pond, but alas…”
“Oh my God, she drowned?” guessed Jenny, gripping Brendon’s hand tighter.
Vicky shook her head. “Pond’s only waist deep; no chance of drowning. No, the maid made it across the pond, but Esmeralda was lying in wait on the other side…” Vicky slid the edge of her hand over her throat to illustrate the maid’s fate. “Leaving the maid limp and lifeless in those lonely waters, Esmeralda returned to the house. She smothered the poor children in their beds, then went to dispatch her husband by the same blade that had drained his lover’s lifeblood.
“But the Count wasn’t as subdued as she’d anticipated. He wrested the knife from her fair hand and chased her from the house. She tried to climb the gates, but slipped and was impaled on the spikes.” Vicky clutched at her gut. “And so ended Countess Esmeralda’s rampage of death… with her own!”
Vicky smiled, her green eyes roving behind the mask from one party-goer to another. She delivered her postscript: “But the Count’s troubles didn’t end there. His wife had been smart to wear her opera gloves, and only his prints graced the handle of the blade.”
“Fingerprinting hadn’t been invented back then,” Brendon pointed out.
“Quiet!” snapped Vicky. “The Count knew the gallows awaited him, so he hid his wife’s body in the cellar and fled the country.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It is said that every Halloween night, when the moon rides high above the hollow, Countess Esmeralda rises from her tomb, hunting for the Count, so that she might complete her revenge!”
Quiet lingered for a few seconds before the group murmured in appreciation of Vicky’s storytelling. Stacy and Steve resumed their canoodling, and Laurence fetched himself another test-tube of the vibrantly coloured grog.
“So is Countess Esmeralda’s body still in the cellar?” Jenny asked.
Vicky nodded solemnly. “Perhaps beneath our very feet. In all these hundreds of years, no-one has dared go down there.”
“I reckon we should,” said Jenny giddily. “Imagine being the first people to do so since the Count!”
Brendon pulled a face, wondering what kind of weirdo he’d chosen for a girlfriend. He wasn’t sure what disturbed him more: Jenny’s grisly sense of adventure, or the seriousness with which she seemed to take this bullshit story.
“Well,” said Vicky coyly, “I do happen to know where the trapdoor for the cellar is. I can show you if you really want, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to disturb the Countess, especially on Halloween night of all nights, when she’ll be rising from the dead to do her haunting!”
“All the better!” enthused Jenny, leaping to her feet. “Come on, Brendon. Let’s go!”
Brendon didn’t move. “I’m fine just chilling with my beer, thanks.”
“Shall I bring you your slippers, granddad?” Jenny crooned.
Vicky chuckled. “Leave him, Jenny. He’s always been a scaredy cat.”
“Nope, I’m just wise to your wild goose chases,” Brendon retorted. To Jenny he said, “Go and explore if you want, but you’ll only end up looking a fool.”
The two girls went off. Shortly after, Stacy and Steve disappeared upstairs to further their romance, leaving Brendon and Laurence to chew the fat. Laurence knocked back several more test-tubes, his words becoming noticeably slurred, until he got unsteadily to his feet.
“Don’t suppose there’s a little boys’ room around here?”
“I reckon it’s the bushes outside,” Brendon replied.
“Right-ho.” Laurence staggered to the door. He clapped a hand to his mouth as he went, muffling the squelch of vomit. Brendon felt all the more glad he’d stayed clear of Laurence’s mystery potions.
The fire had died down to blood-red embers, and Brendon tossed on another log. He checked his watch; more than half an hour had passed since Jenny and Vicky had gone off, and not a peep could be heard of them. As much as he didn’t want to traipse around this old house, he really ought to check up on th–
“Brendon!” A cry echoed from somewhere in the house. “Brendon!!”
Brendon rushed to the door, his heart thumping. “Jen!! Where are you?!”
Jenny hurried towards him through the darkness. “Brendon, you must come! V-vicky…”
“What?” demanded Brendon. “What’s happened!?”
“Vicky… she w-went down into the cellar and h-hasn’t come up again! I keep calling out her name and she d-doesn’t answer! There’s just… silence!”
“Is that so?” Brendon’s concern subsided to annoyance. He drew Jenny to him, massaging her back to calm her. “Vicky’s just trying to frighten you,” he explained. “It’s what she does.”
“But she’s been gone ages!”
“Stop giving her attention and she’ll come out soon enough.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Br-Brendon.” Jenny trembled in Brendon’s arms. “Can you come and take a look, p-please? For me?”
Brendon sighed. “Alright then.”
Jenny led him down a winding passageway, sporadic clusters of candles lighting their way. They arrived at a large, open trapdoor.
“Right, so she’s down there, is she?”
Jenny nodded. Brendon stepped to the edge. “Vicky!” he shouted. “Vicky, you can stop fooling about now!”
The trapdoor effused only darkness and silence.
“Vicky!! The joke has gone far enough! You’re frightening Jenny, and I won’t stand for it!”
Brendon knelt beside the opening and shone his phone light into the void. It picked out only the uppermost few steps. The blackness seemed bottomless, but also close and claustrophobic. A nasty damp smell wafted up, like wet laundry left in a bag to fester, but several times worse.
“Vicky, I’m giving you one last chance to make your presence known,” he said sharply. “Otherwise I’ll have to assume there’s no-one down there and shut this trapdoor.” He rattled the bolt to authenticate his threat, thrilled by the thought of leaving his nemesis to stew in dankness and darkness. “And I won’t open it until morning!”
Jenny wasn’t impressed. “Don’t be harsh, Brendon! Vicky might be injured down there – unconscious! You’ll have to go down and find her.”
Oh, I’ll have to go down there, will I, thought Brendon. What happened to the intrepid cellar explorer? But he held his tongue and cautiously eased a foot onto the top step. The staircase was stone, so at least it wouldn’t collapse under him. Instead he risked slipping and breaking his neck – a cheery thought.
Below, rats screeched and scurried. Brendon swore. How he was hating this party! Here they were, adults, old enough to go in pubs and nightclubs, playing silly beggars in a horrid old house. And all for Vicky’s twisted entertainment.
The phone light barely scraped the darkness. “Hand me those candles,” Brendon requested of Jenny, now with his torso at trapdoor level. Jenny handed him a tall candle-holder with a ring of candles, which he gripped in his free hand like Neptune’s trident.
The stench intensified – sulfur and ammonia. How could Vicky stand it down here? Brendon reached the bottom of the stairs and his feet sank into earthy mud. Shuddering, he called out again for the errant girl, but got no response save the further clamor of rats. He could only see so far into the gloom, but didn’t want to see further.
“I don’t think she’s here, Jen. Maybe she slipped out while you ran to find me” – he coughed from the mouldy air – “or maybe there’s another way out.”
“Please take a look around,” Jenny beseeched him, “just to make sure.”
Swearing under his breath, Brendon ventured onward, holding out his phone like a crucifix. He made out a humanoid outline before him, and flinched.
“For fuck’s sake Vicky!!”
But Vicky, if that’s who the figure was, made no sound or movement. Brendon swallowed. There was something strange about the way the figure carried itself: listing, drooping, ever so slightly swaying. It wasn’t standing at all; it was hanging!
“Vicky,” he repeated in a choked voice. He compelled himself to take another step forward, his arm shaking the light violently. “No…!” he whispered.
The black and burgundy dress had been shredded to ribbons, draped sparsely about mottled grey-white skin. No, not skin – it was… Brendon found himself face to face with the gap-toothed, hollow-eyed grin of a skull. The tattered dress flapped against a ribcage, out of which protruded dull black metal – three iron spikes.
“NNNOOOOO!!!” Brendon dimly recognised the wail as coming from his own larynx. He whipped around, the ghastly sight imprinted on his mind. In his panic he barged the candle-holder, tipping it to the floor and plunging the cellar to near blackness. Up the steps he scrabbled, not caring as he banged his shins, feeling only the ghastly presence behind him, and his desperation to escape it.
Then the cackling laughter started.
It came not from behind but from above. A faintly illuminated silhouette towered over the trapdoor opening – feminine and in a flowing dress.
“Making friends with Esmeralda?” Vicky laughed. She shone a torch into the cellar and Brendon saw the skeleton for what it was: another of her theater props. He unloaded a barrage of expletives, most directed at the prankster, but the worst reserved for himself for falling for her trickery.
“I’ve seen a new side to you tonight, Brendon,” Vicky said sternly. “How wicked of you, wanting to lock me in the cellar ’til morning! In fact, I think you deserve to spend the night down there with Esmeralda!”
The trapdoor groaned as Vicky lifted it from the floor. “Don’t you dare, you bitch!” Brendon snarled.
“Language like that ain’t gonna help you.”
“Aww, let him off,” came Jenny’s voice. “He’s had a fright, poor thing.”
Vicky withdrew. Brendon hurried out in case she changed her mind. “See, Jen,” he said, his voice still tremulous. “This is the kind of trick Vicky likes to…”
He stopped short at the sight of Vicky and Jenny laughing warmly together. Vicky raised her hand and his girlfriend high-fived it.
“You were in on this?!”
“Oh lighten up, Brendon!” Jenny slapped his chest. “It was just a joke. Don’t be such a Halloween humbug!”
Brendon turned away gruffly. “I’m getting another beer.” He stomped off, the girls giggling and whispering behind him. The three returned to the lounge to find Laurence, sitting slumped against the wall next to his chemistry set.
“You alright mate?” Brendon asked, though Laurence clearly wasn’t. The red stains on his lab-coat were joined by a frontal splurge of straw yellow, which led in an incriminating stripe to his lips. His face was a yet grosser shade. Brendon had always thought people turning green when sick was an exaggeration, a cartoonist’s trope. But even by the flickering firelight, Laurence’s virid hue was unmistakable.
“Pisshead!” sneered Vicky. “What a state!”
Jenny, being a medical student, knelt beside Laurence. She touched his shoulder, and in response Laurence heaved, like a wind-up toy nudged into motion. A further quantity of vomit spurted from his mouth.
“Oh dear, Laurence,” said Jenny. “Let’s get you sorted out.” She requested some water from Vicky, who went to fetch a bottle.
“Is he going to be okay?” Brendon regarded Laurence’s complexion with concern. “Not seen someone so ill with booze before.”
“Oh, he’ll survive,” said Jenny, standing up. “Might wish he hadn’t tomorrow though.” She slid an arm around Brendon. “Hey, I’m sorry for the trick I played on you. It was mean of me.”
“No harm done, I s’pose,” Brendon grudgingly admitted.
“I’m going to make it up to you.” Jenny ran a hand down Brendon’s lapel. She whispered in his ear, “Upstairs, second door on the left. Go make yourself comfy and I’ll be up to join you.”
“I should make sure that Laurence is okay first,” said Brendon.
“I’ll take care of him,” Jenny whispered. She softly kissed his neck then released her embrace. “You deserve to relax. Go up and warm the bed for me.”
Brendon acquiesced; Jenny knew what she was doing. On his way out he paused in the doorway and smiled at his girlfriend. “You’re forgetting I’m the vampire,” he said. “I should be kissing your neck.”
Jenny winked. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Brendon mounted the candlelit stairway, arriving at a landing. A further staircase led to a higher floor, from which floated the noise of Stacey’s and Steve’s activity. Brendon didn’t care to hear their running commentary of compliments on each other’s prowess, so hastily entered the second room on the left, as instructed, and closed the door behind him.
The room was large and sparsely furnished, dominated by a four-poster bed. A pair of lanterns sat on bedside tables, throwing their weak light onto a brown-stained wall. The bed’s curtains, which might have one day been lavish, had rotted to threads, leaving a wooden skeleton. A camp mattress sat atop the old frame, presumably provided for the party, graced with a scattering of rose petals.
Brendon smiled weakly to himself and removed his jacket and shoes. He wasn’t entirely at home with making out with a zombified children’s character in this dim and derelict place, though he suspected such details would become unimportant once they got down to it. He laid on his back and watched the light dance across the mottled ceiling. After the drama in the cellar and the trouble with Laurence, he suddenly felt very tired. As his eyelids fluttered closed, he dimly realised he’d forgotten to pick up a beer downstairs, and was pleased to hear the clinking of glassware as the door clicked open and then re-closed.
“You’ve thought of everything,” he murmured dreamily.
“That I have, darling,” came the reply. Brendon jolted awake, for the feminine voice belonged not to Jenny, but…
“Shuush!” Vicky sat on the side of the bed, putting one index finger to her lips and prodding the other into the soft patch beneath Brendon’s breastbone, pinning him down with the lightest touch.
“What are you doing here?!” Brendon demanded. Vicky said nothing, only brushed her curly hair behind her shoulders, her skin milky under the sparkling mask.
“I said what are you doing here!? Jen is supposed to be coming!” It briefly crossed Brendon’s mind that Jenny might be in on this; that this was another set-up between the two of them; that Vicky had, within hours of meeting, wrapped his girlfriend around her finger. But the idea quickly dispelled. No, this time Vicky was acting alone, trying to put a spanner in his relationship. Any minute now, Jenny would come in and see them…
“Get out!” he hissed. “You can’t be here!”
“How ungrateful, when I’ve made up this room for you,” Vicky tutted. “I even brought you something to drink.” She gestured the dark bottle and slender glasses on the bedside table. “At least have a drink with me.”
She de-corked the bottle and poured out the contents, dark red and slightly clotted. She brought the glass to his lips before he could speak. The drink was rich, heavy, slightly smoky, and Brendon realised it wasn’t ordinary wine, but port. He’d had it once before at Christmas. It was also stronger than ordinary wine, and he felt the alcohol’s effect within seconds. A little dribbled over his chin as Vicky upended the vessel. She refilled the glass. He felt her squeeze his thigh.
“Vicky, please. Jen could come in and–”
“I locked the door,” Vicky purred. Now she straddled him, her thighs rubbing against his. She tossed aside his bow-tie and unbuttoned his shirt. She loosened the strings on her strapless bodice; it slipped a little about her cleavage.
“Enough!” Brendon cried. “Let me go!”
“Let you go?!” Vicky laughed. “Am I keeping you?” She raised her palms. “Are you saying that you can’t fend off a damsel like me? You must be weak of will.” She lowered her hands and placed them gently on his chest. “For I see you are not weak of body.”
“Ah, Vick!” Vicky arched her back in bliss, the bodice threatening (promising) to fall around her torso at any minute. “When was the last time you called me Vick?”
It was during the brief, tumultuous period when he and Vicky had been going out, Brendon knew well. But he said nothing. His gaze fixated on Vicky’s mouth and chin beneath the silver mask – on her grinning rouged lips and small white teeth. They evoked desire and hatred in equal measure.
“You may call her your girlfriend” – Vicky brought the port glass again to Brendon’s lips – “but your heart is with me.”
Brendon tried to protest this assertion, but only spluttered port everywhere. Vicky wiped his lips, then pressed a finger to them. “Calm,” she purred. “Submit to me.”
Brendon’s vision narrowed into tunnels, closing around those infuriating lips. He felt himself sink into the mattress, the weight of Vicky’s abdomen upon him. Time distended as he submerged into warm, feverish blackness. Orange candlelight waxed and waned, along with the shadows it threw on the mold-stained wall…
When, with a violent spasm and a bellowed war-cry, Brendon came to, he was alone, still on the bed. The port bottle had overturned, leaving a dark red puddle on the floor. His state of undress hadn’t progressed since he’d zoned out – his shirt still on, his flies still zipped up – and he took this as a hopeful sign that any infidelity with Vicky had not been serious.
He climbed groggily out of bed, mindful that Vicky might be hiding in the shadows, ready to jump out and torment him all over again. But no – he even looked under the bed – she had truly deserted him. And Jenny? Had she come up during this time? Goodness knew what she might have seen or heard. Shakily, Brendon buttoned his shirt, put on his shoes, and went to the door. It was locked.
“Vicky!” he called angrily, rattling the door handle. “Vicky!! I know you’re there!”
Silence ensued, so Brendon banged on the door. “VICKY!! Let me out of here at once!”
Then a scream rang out.
It was distant and faint, but its terrified edge left no room for it to be Halloween high jinks. It had come from outside, Brendon discerned. He ran to the window.
Prising the rusty catch, he threw open the pane and stared out into the night. The moon, high above the hollow, cast the world into a cold contrast of black and silver. Shards of moonlight rippled on the pond, and Brendon spied the source of the disturbance. A figure was crouched at the bank; he was sure it was Vicky. A second figure slipped from the grip of the first, limp and passive into the waters. Brendon was even surer of its identity.
“JEN!!” he roared, watching his girlfriend slide into submersion. Vicky looked up, her mask glinting towards Brendon for a split-second before a cloud covered the moon and darkness fell like a curtain. Brendon roared again into the black night.
He ran to the door, threw himself against it with a flurry of blows. But wood and lock held fast despite the ravages of time. There was no practical furniture with which to break the door down, so Brendon returned to the window and clambered out. He lowered himself while gripping the sill, extending his arms in the manner those fire evacuation videos instructed. He had no idea what he might be dropping onto.
He landed painfully on his ankle, but tumbled onto soft ground and was otherwise unhurt. He hobbled towards the pond, the clouds shifting from the moon to return some illumination. Pale blue floated on the pond’s surface like a giant lily petal – the colour of Jenny’s costume! Brendon could hear bubbles rising. Repeating his girlfriend’s name, this time hoarsely, he stumbled into the pond.
The stagnant, stinking water soon reached to Brendon’s waist, and his feet sank into clay sludge at the bottom. He lost his footing, and fell splashing up to his neck. Jenny’s billowing dress had nearly vanished below the surface, entangling with her body in the murky water. Brendon grappled desperately to lift her. Her limbs dangled uncoordinated. She was face-down, and Brendon dropped to his knees as he turned her over.
His gut froze as her eyes met his. The shock eye-shadow had smudged, but in its place the eyes were imprinted with real terror. Brendon tried to raise Jenny further, to clear the water from her airways, but her head swung sickeningly away from him. Her throat had been slit – a second smile from ear to ear. Blood gushed warm from the wound, and similar warmth emanated between Brendon’s legs as his bladder abdicated its duty.
“Jen.” It was a desolate sigh that sounded from Brendon’s mouth. He carried his sweetheart to the bank; there was nothing he could do for her but furnish some dignity upon her corpse. Gently he lay her on a carpet of fallen leaves. He closed her eyes so she could rest without nightmares.
And the fiend who had done this?
Across the pond, the dress-clad woman walked with her back to Brendon. Curly hair bounced gently against her bare back. Her gait was breezy, betraying no hint of the barbaric slaughter, but the blade in her hand confirmed her guilt.
Brendon clenched his fists, his shock and sorrow re-channeled into fury. Had jealousy incited Vicky to murder his girlfriend? Had she flipped at the sight of him happy with someone else? He watched as she ascended the front steps of the house and disappeared into the candlelit entrance.
Laurence! He was in there, perhaps sleeping off his alcoholic excess. And Stacy and Steve – light flickered in a window on the top floor. He couldn’t leave them at the mercy of this madwoman’s malevolence. He would do whatever it took to stop her. In Jenny’s name, Brendon would do it. Weaponless but war-ready, he approached the house.
Laurence was still in the lounge, untouched by the blade, but dead all the same. The lad lay contorted in the jagged wreckage of his chemistry set, perhaps having lurched there in some violent spasm. His skin was mottled yellow-green and bloated, his eyes glassy in the firelight. Vomit pooled in his open mouth.
“Shit!” Brendon groaned at the sight of his friend. But his mourning was cut short by a cacophony of cries, male and female, echoing down through the house. He raced up the first flight of stairs, then the next to the top floor. As he approached the source of the shouts, the male ones ceased, while the female grew increasingly hysterical.
Brendon burst into a bedroom similar to the one he’d visited on the lower floor. Steve was sitting up in bed. His unclothed torso had been repeatedly hacked until the rib-cage had splintered. Steve’s head rested against the wall, ringed by a halo of red. The look on his face was similarly beatific, with his eyes rolled upwards and his blood-filled mouth hanging in a crooked grin, as if, despite the brutality of his last seconds on earth, he had died in rapture of Stacy and her wonderfulness.
Said lover cowered in a corner in her negligee, the curly-haired assassin looming over her. Stacy seemed not to notice Brendon’s entry into the room. Her petrified screams quietened to whimpers, and as Vicky pressed hands over her collarbone, a melancholy resignation fell across Stacy’s face, as if accepting that where Steve had gone, love and fate bound her to follow.
Vicky raised the knife. Brendon’s diaphragm forced upwards in a wordless shout as he bore witness. The blade plunged swiftly and smoothly into the front of Stacy’s throat, severing trachea and spinal column and pinning her to the wall. Her face froze at the instant of impact. Blood trickled down.
Vicky pulled out the knife, letting Stacy’s body slide to the floor. She slowly turned to face the intruder. Her frontal appearance was shocking, though it shouldn’t have been surprising. Blood soaked her dress and opera gloves, giving the material a dark, matte sheen. Her upper chest, face and mask were likewise splattered scarlet. The mouth smiled between giddy breaths, as if she’d just beat her personal best in a cross-country run.
Brendon’s own breath came in ragged gasps. Several times he tried to speak, but had neither words nor the composure to voice them.
“Yes, I know; I was supposed to smother the children,” Vicky said calmly. “But these two aren’t children, and smothering wouldn’t really be practical. What does it matter? The story changes every time it is told; you said so yourself.”
“St-st-ory!?” Brendon stammered. It flooded back to him: the maid in the pond with her throat slit, the butler poisoned as he polished glasses. “Y-you mean, you’re acting out the st-story of C-Countess Esmeralda…!?” His mind desperately clutched at the hope that this might yet be some cruel hoax – an elaborate prank of sliding blades and copious ketchup. But he had held the lifeless body of his girlfriend in his arms, and no stage wizardry could account for that.
“No acting.” Vicky took a step towards Brendon. The metallic stench of blood was the final authentication. “I am Countess Esmeralda!”
“You’re a deranged, sick, psycho bitch!” Brendon returned.
Vicky pursed her lips. “If I be deranged, it is you who has deranged me.” Her tone seemed somehow purer than Brendon remembered it – almost ethereal. “Keeping me imprisoned in this pit, with no sunlight to speak of and even scanter social life. I may not love you, but I’ve always honored and obeyed you. And in return, you commit infidelity with a lowly maid!” She spat. “Am I not good enough for you!?”
“You need help,” Brendon murmured.
“I need help? Who’s holding a knife on whom?” Behind the mask, the eyes narrowed with murderous intent. Brendon jerked sideways as Vicky swung the knife. He felt a cool rush against his neck and momentarily thought the metal had sliced him, but it smashed into antique plaster behind his head. The assailant made to extract the blade, but he shoved her away. She tumbled and sprawled across the floorboards, surprising Brendon at his adrenaline-fueled might.
He ripped the knife from the wall and pointed it across the room at Vicky. She picked herself up and straightened her mask. Her mouth was condescending as her eyes swept Brendon up and down. The bloodied knife-handle shook in his trembling grip as he extended his arm.
“So,” Vicky said coolly. “How will the story end this time? See you at the gate to find out.”
She flitted through the door. Brendon watched her flee down the stairs, footsteps fleet but dainty. He spurred into action.
He didn’t know his intentions for pursuing her – didn’t think to consider them – but the knife stayed raised and ready in his hand. Vicky was one flight of stairs ahead of him. He caught a glimpse of her in the hallway, fleeing through the front door. Outside now, the moon outlined her shoulders. She was heading, as promised, for the gate.
Brendon rasped the cold air as he struggled to keep up. The rushing pulse in his ears was joined by a discordant wailing. How will the story end this time? If it ended in accordance with tradition – the murderess impaled on the spikes that bounded her domain – he wouldn’t shed a tear for her.
But the gate lay open.
The wailing grew louder, and Brendon now saw its source. Two emergency vehicles were negotiating the downward track into the hollow, drawing erratic blue arcs in the darkness as they bounced on the uneven terrain.
The first vehicle, an ambulance, streamed straight past. Paramedics jumped out and ran into the house. The second, a police car, halted in front of Brendon. Squinting into the headlights, he discerned two officers getting out. One of them was Constable Ian Ferris, long-time village bobby and friend of Brendon’s parents. The other was Tanya Andrews, a junior officer who’d been in the year above Brendon at school.
“Did you see her?” called Brendon. “She was running this way; she must have passed you!”
Ferris only stared darkly at the bedraggled, blood-stained youth brandishing a knife.
“You need to find her!” Brendon persisted. “Vicky Yates – she’s gone crazy! You need to find her! She’s out of her head! On a killing spree!”
“Brendon?” The back door of the police car opened and Vicky stuck her head out. Relief washed over Brendon: they’d caught her! They’d caught her!
“Brendon, how’s Laurence?” Vicky asked.
“You fucking know, you monster!” Brendon growled.
“Jenny was worried by how sick he was.” Vicky’s voice came thin and tremulous now – none of her previous smugness. She’d removed her eye-mask. “I went to get help while she stayed with him. How’s he doing, Brendon? Is he okay?”
“He’s dead,” came the grim assessment of a paramedic emerging from the house. “Looks like he’s been poisoned.”
A second paramedic appeared at the front door, visibly shaken. “Two fatalities upstairs! Stabbed!”
“There’s another by the pond,” Brendon stated bitterly.
Ferris wore a stony expression Brendon hadn’t seen before. “Okay lad, don’t make this any worse. Let’s put the weapon down, shall we?”
Brendon looked at the knife before him, still instinctively raised, blood darkening on the glinting blade. He lowered his arm sheepishly.
“Place it on the ground and step away!” barked Ferris.
“Get here, you piece of shit,” Andrews hissed in his ear as she bundled his wrists into handcuffs. Ferris knelt to collect the knife in an evidence bag and a fresh fear washed over Brendon.
His wife had been smart to wear her opera gloves, and only his prints graced the handle of the blade…
“Oh my God, Brendon,” gasped Vicky. “What have you done?”
Brendon stared back at her. The moonlight shone pale on her anxious face. She didn’t have any blood on her!
“Hey!! It wasn’t me who did this!” Brendon bucked against Andrews’ restraining grip. “She did it! She’s lying to you! Putting on an act!”
“Brendon! What are you saying?!” exclaimed Vicky.
“Stay in the car,” Ferris instructed her, before turning to Brendon. “You’re under arrest.”
“But she did it!!” Brendon screamed. “She was running away! You picked her up on the track, right?”
“No, son,” said Ferris grimly. “The young lady came to the station. She ran all the way to the village to get help.”
“But that can’t be! I saw her in the house just minutes ago!” Brendon blabbered in astonishment. “You’ve got to believe me!!” But his protests met only icy glares as Andrews marched him to the car.
Ferris tried his radio, to request the numerous personnel a crime scene this atrocious demanded. The Manor would need to be sealed off, kept sterile for forensics. It was imperative to keep out the press, who’d no doubt salivate at a Halloween party massacre. He swore; the walls of the hollow proved impenetrable even to police frequencies. So he and Andrews returned to the car. It pulled away up the track, taking the young man in the disheveled Dracula costume in its custody. The medics kept a grim vigil by their ambulance.
Nobody saw, inside the house, the candle flames waver as a svelte figure slipped through the passages. Nobody heard the cellar trapdoor open, then close.
Countess Esmeralda descended through the blackness. She lay herself to rest in the fetid earth, until another Halloween should summon her from it. Her blood-stained gown rotted away and her flesh blackened. Bones crumbled to powder as centuries raced by.
All that remained was a tarnished masquerade mask, and a cackling that reverberated in the tomb. Countess Esmeralda had her revenge on the Count.
Credit : Lewis Blow
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