By Owen Lean
There are specific phrases in the modern parlance that are overused to the point of becoming as meaningless as they are odious.
“It’s been one of those days” is most definitely one of them.
However, should one find oneself chained to a wall, showered in blood, lectured on how the Mayor was going to sacrifice you, within only a few hours of arriving in town, it does feel relevant.
Everything had started going wrong eight miles outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. “Whispering” Amy and her gang decided that our train was a perfect target for a hold-up. Thankfully, she had the sense to realise that my party were not suitable marks, but the time it took her to fleece the rest of the passengers significantly delayed our arrival.
The blasted curse I picked up in Tombstone had been getting worse by the hour. Thus by the time we finally arrived at the Cheyenne Club, I was so desperate to get to the bottom of everything that I was far from the peak of my wits.
On a better day, I’d take my time to get settled in. I’d have paid more than a casual ear to the old men nattering about exsanguinated cattle and a gutted cowboy. I might even have paid attention to my travelling companions when they told me to ‘cool my heels.’
“Jonah Essex, y’all is wound up like a corked bronco, ” Allie hissed. “Getcha self a snifter and cool down ‘fore you go charging in half-cocked.”
I coughed in response. Eight times. Again. Each time something heaved in my lungs, like a collection of old musket balls tied up with catgut.
“No helping it.” I hear Miss Perfect snort. It was similar to the laugh that Lady Boyet had firmly imprinted on my brain. Except where Angeline’s had that joyful lilt that kept rebounding in my memory, Christine’s was full of scorn. A Girton girl, through and through. “Have you ever seen a Bichon Frise with a tummy ache? Nothing but stressing and whining. Poor little lap dogs just aren’t used to things getting rough.”
“Hell hath no fury…” I muttered to myself, then turned to where Christine was making eyes at an oblivious Allie. “My dear ladies, I’m sorry if my demeanour is not to your satisfaction. In my defence, however, I will note that I am currently hours from hideous death!”
For a moment, the three of us stood there, as silent as Tonton, until Christine finally said: “I claim those boots.”
“Sure, but I get his cards,” Allie said.
I swallowed the last remaining dregs of my pride and kept mum until we arrived at Cheyenne House.
The mansion was just as sumptuous as one might have expected. The kind of place one might imagine William Vanderbilt to consider ‘modest lodgings.’ Thankfully, I was not too flustered to notice the triangles carved subtly into the roof peaks, each with an eye in the centre. This was clearly a Masonic lodge. Hopefully, the little I’d learned from my old contact in Great Queen’s Street would give me an advantage.
I raised the knocker and gave eight raps on the square door plate. A man in a red suit and hat opened the door. He had a nose like a broken eagle’s beak and the kind of mutton chops one might lose a tuppence inside.
“Good evening. You are not a face I recognise.” He spoke with a voice he presumably thought was refined, but the sibilant “s” betrayed his lower origins.
“Good evening, Brother,” I said, reaching my hands forward and grasping his elbow with my left hand. I firmly shook his hand with my right. I pressed my right thumb into the space between his second and third finger – a move I’d been told would indicate I wasn’t only a Mason but held a Masters rank – and was pleased with the way his eyes softened in curious recognition. “I imagine you were expecting Mr. Healey,” I coughed. “Sadly, he has become somewhat indisposed, and so it became necessary to replace him.”
“That is unfortunate, Brother.” He said, breaking the handshake and readjusting his square cufflinks. “Please forgive my ignorance, but I know not your name.”
“Yes, I am Jonah Essex. This is Miss Allie Hensman and Miss Christine Perfect. The silent one is Tom.”
“Evenin’.” Allie tipped her hat. Christine stayed silent but sniffed the air without even a hint of subtlety about it. Her dogs shrunk at her heels. Tonton simply nodded.
“Jonah.” He nodded, ignoring the women altogether. “I am Lew; you said you came in place of a Mr. Healey?”
“Indeed.” I proceeded to tell him of the book and the curse that had laid me low – it seemed a fair enough trade to me that they would lift it in return for the personal delivery of the item.
“Goodness me, that is unfortunate. Sadly such a cure would be beyond my understanding, but I’m sure the Worshipful Master can assist. Come with me, Jonah.” he started to lead me in, then paused. “Will your companions be joining us?”
I turned to my posse, who brooked no objection. Though Christine did raise an eyebrow as I informed him they would. Lew simply smiled in response, and we followed him in through a service entrance.
Sitting at a square table, coughing up what once was my lungs, it finally dawned upon my useless mind that this wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped.
Perhaps it was the wet conditions, or my brain finally turning over how ‘Lew’ had behaved. Then again, mainly it was the guard who reeked of death and whiskey along with seven lackeys that tipped me off.
They’d turned up the moment we’d settled in, while our host went to discuss ‘our predicament.’ I was just assessing how many of them Tonton could handle and whether the three of us could manage the rest, when Allie whispered to me.
“Hey. You do realise this is a trap, right, Essex? Normally I’d assume you got some kinda plan, but the way you’ve been…”
I tried to retort, but only managed to hawk a splatter of blood which landed in what suspiciously resembled an octagon…
“Likewise”, Christine growled. “Would you mind enlightening us as to it? Because I’m starting to realise that you don’t actually KNOW that women aren’t allowed in Masonic lodges.”
“Bloody hell.” Christine snarled then turned to Allie. “Darling, any objection to a change in Alpha?”
“Be my guest.”
“Right. Boys,” She spoke to her dogs, who whimpered in response, “Yes, it’s cow’s blood, horrible stench, don’t worry about that. When I give the word, I need…”
“Wait,” I said, finally getting a grip on my breathing. “We have a few moments. Let me see what our ‘host’ is doing.” I pulled out my deck and gave it a quick one-handed Charlier cut. “It’ll just take me a moment without something of his to focus…”
My sad excuses were cut short by Allie sliding a square cufflink over to me.
I looked at it. Then looked up at Allie. “Thank you..” I paused then continued, “Listen, I’ve been a bit of an arse today and…”
“Just get on with it, Essex.”
Thankfully the First Edition had given me a few new ways to beat the Joker at his table. Within moments I had become Lew’s Mind Rider.
He sat in what seemed to be a cave lit by far too many candles. To his left stood a woman with a white streak in her hair. She was the kind one might not notice in a crowd, but was clearly the one who cursed me at the casino. She was looking bored, but seemed to regard Lew with curiosity just as a robed man in front of him spoke.
“Of course, Mr. Baird. Thank you.” The man got up from the blooded pentagram he was sitting in and turned.
“Miss Perivale. It seems my benefactor had no more need for our guest, so if you don’t mind I…”
“Do what you will, Mr. Mayor. I’m needed in Deadwood.” Then turning and looking right through Lew’s eyes added. “Good luck.”
I broke the spell. I came to my senses in a cold sweat. A small puddle of black vomit was on the table in front of me, reeking of the sort of odour one would expect from the sewers in Junkyard. I recoiled from it just as the face of one of the goons came slamming down, followed by Allie’s fist. A cry of hounds set upon their undead leader. The hounds’ mistress ripped a lackey’s throat out with her teeth.
Lucky for him, it is not a full moon. I thought to myself. Well, unless you believe those stories about Ronan Lynch.
“Thrilling sport,” Christine laughed. I realised my incompetence as they’d decided to start without me. Then I realised something else.
I didn’t feel the curse.
I didn’t waste time analysing it, but sprung my cards and swivelled to where I hoped Tonton had left some for me.
Instead, I saw Tonton towering over me, the glazed look in his eyes of one who has become a Puppet.
“Hello, Mr. Essex.” He spoke in the Mayor’s voice.
Somewhere between there and unconsciousness, I encountered Tonton’s fist.
The shock of having a bucket of cows’ blood hefted into my face was enough to bring me around. It usually is.
Coagulated lumps drifting down my face told me the blood had been outside of the cow for a good while. They’d chained me to a cave wall similar to the one I’d seen through Lew’s eyes. Allie was on my left, seething with silent rage. On my right, Christine was less quiet, snapping at the air and screaming in anger. The one thing I could be grateful for was that it appeared that our captors had stripped us down to our underwear before restraining us, so they had spared my suit the literal blood bath.
“It’s been one of those days,” I muttered.
“Now, now, now.” A familiar undead man said. He was sitting in a rocking chair and whistling the Camptown Ladies song to himself. I could see that his few remaining teeth hung on by only a couple of rotten threads. “Ain’t no use struggling. His Worship sealed them himself.”
“His Worship?” I asked. “How decidedly unmasonic.”
The man laughed. “He’s been waitin’ a long time for that book. And ‘parently, you’re just the right kinda sacrifice to open the gate.”
Oh. A gateway to Hell, no doubt, presumably to flood the town with Jokers and the like. Rude and insane, far from my kind of cult.
“And I’m looking forward to a bit of fresh meat.” He added, looking at my ribs and salivating.
That was when Allie finally spoke. “I know you. Yer Alferd Packer, yer still as famous as hot beans in Colorado. Word is y’ate at least four men before they sent you up the flume.”
“I did what I had to survive.” Packer spat at her. “Though I confess, I developed something of a taste fer it.”
“And so yer on the Dodge with these loons? In exchange fer what? Guard duty?” Allie carried on.
“Something tells me,” I said, acting distracted. “They won’t have much need for a guard after overrunning the city with a demonic host.”
I let it hang in the air for a bit, giving Packer time to bite.
“Watcha talkin’ ‘bout” His words whistled through his near-toothless maw.
“Well, y’ain’t as good as you once were.” Allie kept her cool stare on him. “I reck’n they might decide an infamous cannibal’s just the ticket to seal the deal tonight.”
I nodded. “I’ve seen that room. It’s built with four plinths, isn’t it, one for each compass point? I imagine four is a meaningful number to whatever these guttersnipes worship. I only see three of us, though…”
“Yer just trying to mess wit’ my head,” he said. At the same time, his eyes said: Oh good lord, I’m going to die, aren’t I?
Allie and I said nothing, letting his paranoia do the work. He looked like he was ready to free us when the sound of footprints made him stand to attention.
“Quick!” I said. “They’re coming. Make a decision.”
“Ah ain’t jus’ gonna…”
“Oh, SHUT UP, Packer!” I said, “I’m not talking to you.” He swivelled to look at me, and I stared right through his eyes the way I saw ‘Miss Perivale do. “Come on. I don’t know what happens to you if the host dies. But I’m willing to bet it’s hardly pleasant.”
Packer backed up in fear as he realised what I was doing. “No! Ye stay where ye belong,” he said. Then his eyes rolled back, and his posture changed utterly, his old withered limbs carried more like a Shan Fan prize fighter than a decrepit prospector. He nodded at us, and one by one, ripped our chains clean off the walls, tossing me the keys before leaving the cell to meet our jailors.
Keen though I was to make the cultists pay for this ignominy, I didn’t rush to unlock our cuffs. They were allowing the screams from the other side of the door to tell their tale. Christine picked up the rocking chair and smashed it against the wall, tossing each of us an impromptu club from the remains.
On the other side of the door, the bodies of the cultists that had until recently served as Packer’s lackeys lay strewn across the floor. Each of them had several large chunks bitten clean off by disturbingly large jaws. Packer himself had vanished.
“Always heard he’d an unholy appetite,” Allie said, stepping over the mess without so much as a second thought. The caves led through the ritual room I’d seen earlier, now as coated in blood as we were. Mayor Byrne and several other robed figures stood in a loose circle, looking somewhat surprised that their sacrifices were upright and unaccompanied. A book lay open in front of the Mayor. I decided I’d earned the right to keep it now.
In a way, I was grateful. I’d been waiting for a chance to test out my recent discoveries. As the spectral cards appeared in my hand, Hell’s Fury rose from the ground coating me in flames.
In the brief encounter that followed, Mayor Byrne became precisely what his name sounds like, and the few cultists not smart enough to run didn’t fare much better.
As we left the caves and returned to the Masonic lodge built atop them, I finally felt things started going my way. Then the clock struck eight, and two things happened in quick succession.
Firstly, I felt once again like I’d been punched through the lung and began coughing uncontrollably. Secondly, our path was blocked by our erstwhile travelling companion.
You see, that’s the thing about a Tonton Macoute. They have a lot of respect for a powerful sorcerer. He’d shifted his allegiance to me before, but clearly, this cult had surpassed me in its mind.
Before I could control my breathing and cast a hex – he’d grabbed Allie and myself in one hand each and thrown us straight through a door into a storeroom. My head crashed into a trough full of blood as the Tonton roared at Christine. At first, I thought that was the end for my fellow countrywoman. Then I realised she wasn’t even paying attention to him. She was staring transfixed in our direction. A drop of blood fell on my head. I looked up.
They’d set the trough to catch blood as it drained from their victims. In this case, those unfortunate souls were a pack of five beagles strung up by their hind feet with their throats slit.
Christine’s eyes were on fire. Her pupils flashed red and gold. She let out a growl which turned into a piercing, staggering howl as she spun on Tonton. A high note of mourning warfare that elongated through the night – and took her mouth with it. The entire front of her face stretched out into a ravenous snout. Her golden hair fell down her back, exploding across her body as she grew into a eight foot tall rust-red behemoth.
Miss Perfect grasped the giant by his shoulders, and in a single motion lifted him into the air. An inhuman roar came from her throat as she pulled, splitting Tonton’s neck down the spine. One by one, his ribs popped apart and then, silent and stoic to the end, the two halves of him splattered against opposite walls.
Christine looked at us. Then bounded off into the night.
“‘Spose we’d better go save the city from her…” Allie said.
“Yes.” I coughed painfully again and thought of the woman with the white streak, “Then I believe I must go to Deadwood.”
“Sounds like a hoot,” Allie said. “Can we get a bath first?”
“Yes,” I said. That was the first order of business I decided as a howl rang through the night. I then looked over at Allie.
“Christine first,” we said together.