So far Coot Jenkins, Rafi Hamid, and Jack “Black Jack” Jackson had not seen hide nor hair of any other living being since their arrival on Whateley Isle. The entire estate festered like one giant dying thing. From barren trees to the cracked earth and dusty stone monuments of the mansion’s gardens, everything indicated the evidence of life but no longer the presence of it. The manor was more of a crypt than a dwelling. While there had been not another soul to be seen, it appeared as though the enormous house itself had welcomed the three travelers. From the moment the rusty main gate of Whateley Manor opened under its own power and beckoned the trio onto the grounds, there was an intuitive path laid out for the men to follow.
As they made their way through the dilapidated ruins of what had once been a grand estate, the wind murmured like the calm before a sudden thunderstorm. The sound of tools rang out, stopping the three men in their tracks.
“Look there,” said Rafi to the sheriff and the prospector. He pointed across an open span of cracked earth and crumbling tombstones that comprised the Whateley family plot.
A burly teenage boy tended to the shambles of the cemetery. He moved with a lumbering brutishness that seemed like he possessed a strength too great for his frame. While he said nothing and focused on his work, there was a tangible otherworldly aura that radiated from the boy. He appeared human, but otherwise everything about his being screamed that he was a creature not born of flesh and blood.
“He hasn’t seen us. Probably best we keep it that way,” said Rafi, barely louder than a whisper.
Black Jack and Coot nodded in agreement and the three men hung back to watch the strange boy tending the grounds. Despite the awkward hulking motions of the Caretaker, there was a reverent tenderness in the way he went about restoring the headstones and other grave markers. The men from Gomorra did not have to wait too long before the boy plodded out of sight. Once the peculiar primal charge dissipated from the atmosphere, Jackson, Rafi, and Coot continued to follow the trail that led them through the desolate remains of the Whateley estate.
The three men stood before the looming double doors of the Whateley Manor while sharing a silent exchange of apprehensive eye contact. So far this place had seemed to greet them in a foreboding sort of way. Their advance seemingly halted, for several long heartbeats they did nothing but shift their weight from one foot to the other on the creaky porch planks. They furtively attempted to glean some knowledge of the inside of the manor through the narrow gaps in the drawn crushed velvet curtains that hung from the large windows on either side of the doors.
“Maybe we should knock?” Coot said. He kept his voice light and nodded at the door in a way to suggest that it should be one of his two companions that actually took the risk of formally announcing their presence to the residents of the manor.
“Well go right ahead. Nothing stopping you,” responded Rafi with a wink.
Coot huffed like he had just had his last piece on the checkerboard captured. He gave a quick look to Black Jack, who wore a rather uncharacteristic smug look and motioned for him to move along. Coot proceeded to raise a fist to knock on the door. Before the prospector could rap his knuckles on the wood, the double doors flew open with such a violent whoosh that they nearly pulled themselves from their hinges. Coot let out a frightened yelp and nearly tumbled from the porch. Jackson and Rafi had each drawn and cocked the hammers on their peacemakers before Coot had finished his excited utterance.
The moment passed and the doors remained still. Nothing stirred within the house, or anywhere on the estate grounds. Even the wind no longer dared to make its presence felt. Coot, Jackson, and Rafi stared into the abundant darkness inside of the Whatley Manor as if staring into the face of a night terror come to life. The blackness had a tangible presence to it, almost as if the shadows within the dim foyer were trying to escape from the confines of the house and seep out onto the porch like a pool of spilled ink. After several more lengthy moments of nothing but stillness and shadows, Jackson and Rafi both uncocked and holstered their guns.
“Well I was the one who knocked. One of you fellers go on in,” said Coot.
“You didn’t really knock,” Jackson said with a humorous grimace.
“Oh stuff it, sheriff,” Coot said. His frown garnered a harmonious, almost fraternal, chuckle from the two gunslingers flanking him. “Anyways I reckon it’s a good thing we’re all a ball of nerves about this place.”
“How do you figure that?” asked Rafi.
“Well if the Whateleys didn’t have the grit to make the likes of y’all get flustered, then they wouldn’t be the sort we need to go after Stone and his lot,” said Coot.
Gomorra’s Sheriff shrugged. “I guess you got a point there.”
From inside of the manor came a rush of dank air. It washed over the men standing outside the doors like the hand of Death himself. The whole building seemed to let out a serpentine hiss as the three men once again focused on nothing but the shadows inside the Whatley’s abode. Just when silence had returned to fill the empty air with more generous helpings of nothing, candles and oil lamps flared into life from beyond the threshold, leading into the innards of the manor. Somehow the inside of the illuminated house managed to look even less inviting than its darkened state.
“You gentlemen going to argue amongst yourselves outside my door all day, or are you going to come in? You wanted to talk to me, didn’t you?” came the distorted echo of a confident and commanding voice from somewhere in the depths of the house.
“Mr. Whateley?” Coot asked. His voice shook more from fear than age.
“At your service, and you lot, please feel comfortable calling me Nicodemus. No need to stand on formality,” the echoing voice said.
“All right, we’re coming in,” said Jackson.
Coot and Rafi followed in the sheriff’s footsteps. As they entered the house, some of the candles began to burn brighter than the others. It appeared that the house welcomed the three men like a voiceless host greeting the guests to a dinner party. The lit path guided the men up the grand stairway rising up at the far end of the main foyer. With careful steps, Jackson, Coot and Rafi made their way up the creaking planks to the manor’s second floor. Following the candlelight, they navigated through the neglected hallways and corridors, passing statues and suits of armor covered in dust and cobwebs. The self-lighting candles brought the three men to a slightly ajar door. The door swung open on its own, revealing a study nearly bursting at the seams with all sorts of macabre paraphernalia. At a writing desk on the far end of the room sat Nicodemus Whateley, a glass of dark red spirits in one hand and a smoldering pipe in the other, smiling a devil may care grin.
Nicodemus looked the trio over, before settling his gaze upon Rafi Hamid. “Death is but a minor inconvenience, no? Welcome back to the land of the living. For now.“ He then motioned to a small bar table. “You men care for a drink?” he asked.
“No thank you sir,” said Black Jack as he led the other two men into the study.
“Suit yourselves. I tried to be hospitable,” said Nicodemus. He put his feet up on the desk. “Now you gentlemen came all the way out here, there has to be something you want from me,” he said.
Coot stepped forward and took his hat from his head. “Mr. Whateley…” he said. He stopped as a piercing violet flash glinted in the eyes of the man behind the desk. “Excuse me, Nicodemus sir, we need your help. All Hell’s about to break loose in Tombstone and we need some capable fellers to make sure it don’t happen. Fellers like you,” Coot said. He clutched his hat tightly to keep his hands from shaking.
Nicodemus swirled the contents of his glass before taking a leisurely sip. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’d say that Hell’s already broken lose in Tombstone,” he said.
“So you know about Jasper Stone? Once he’s done there it’s only a matter of time before he heads this way,” Rafi said as he moved to stand side by side with Coot.
“Oh, I know full well about Mr. Stone. You were not wrong to come here, thinking that I should have a hand in what is to come,” Nicodemus said. His curl of his mouth indicated an intentional vagueness.
“Good, so you will help us then. If we get a move on we can get to Tombstone before Stone leaves town,” said Coot. Hope glimmered in his eyes as he placed his hat back on his head. Coot started to turn to leave but he was stopped dead in his tracks by the sound of a hollow raspy voice.
“You boys don’t need to go all the way to Tombstone if yer looking for me,” said Jasper Stone as he emerged from behind a standing screen partition in the corner of the study. “You boys don’t want to do that just yet. Plenty of time for that in a bit,” he said.
Blackjack and Rafi both went for their guns. Stone cast his arms out to the side far and away from the pair of Colt Dragoons tucked into his gun belt. The gesture sufficed to stop the two gunslingers from completing their draws.
Nicodemus laughed softly, although his voice was filled with a lurking malevolence that had the power to cut flesh and break bone with its unrepentant evil. “I said I should have a hand in what is to come, not that I would help you gentlemen. I’m no fool. If I’m taking a side, you best believe it will be the winning one. It’s going to be Stone’s world soon enough and everyone needs to get right with that fact,” Nicodemus said. He then he stood up and smoothed the wrinkles from his purple suit.
“That’s not something I can get right with,” said Coot.
“Me neither,” echoed Black Jack.
Rafi Hamid stayed silent but fervently shook his head.
“Oh I was hoping y’all would be disagreeable. I suppose if you got yer minds made up, we can get to business,” Stone said. A monstrous leer stretched the white leathery skin of his unliving face into bizarre proportions. He leaned back and bent his knees in a relaxed shooter’s stance.
The study was as quiet as a grave. Rafi and Blackjack put themselves between Coot and Stone. Nicodemus’ study reeked of death and ashes. The three men from Gomorra broke into a nervous sweat while the quiet continued for an immeasurable length of time. Everyone in the room had a different sense of how long the standoff endured, but they all would have admitted that it lasted more than any of them cared to suffer, save for Stone. The pale man obviously savored the lingering moment.
At last Nicodemus stood up. “I’ll go ahead and leave you fine gentlemen to settle your differences.” Hands and cards blurred and a darkness formed behind the huckster. With a quick half-turn, Nicodemus stepped into the portal which dissipated as he vanished from sight.
Stone then tilted his head to the side and squinted his sunken eyes at Rafi.
“You got something special in ya but you ain’t ripe just yet. Be a shame to end you before you could give me a real contest,” Stone said. He shifted his deadened gaze to Black Jack and looked the sheriff up and down. “But you sir, I’ve got the sense that you are in your prime,” Stone continued.
“Care to find out?” said Jackson, as he too assumed a shooter’s stance.
“Indeed I do. Say when,” Stone said. A murderous smile washed over his face. “First thing, why don’t you two clear out. I’ll be back in Tombstone soon enough and I expect ya’ll to have a proper posse there to meet me,” he said to Coot and Rafi.
The two men looked at each other before a nod from the sheriff allowed them to find the will to move from where they had been stuck to the floor. They began to slink out of the study but were stopped just before they reached the door.
“Oh, ol’ Coot,” said Stone as the prospector was one step away from exiting the room. “You can go, but I’m going to need you to leave the box.”
“What box?” Coot responded.
“You know the one and if I have to ask you again, it will be with my guns,” Stone said.
Reluctantly Coot pulled the polished wooden box of elixirs from his rucksack and placed it on the floor of the study. “There you are,” said the prospector.
Stone made unwavering eye contact with Rafi Hamid. “All right you boys can go on now. I’ll be seeing you real soon,” Stone said.
“Don’t count on it,” Rafi said. He then turned to Jackson and gave courteous tip of his hat to the sheriff that was returned in kind. Rafi lead Coot from the study and their footfalls soon faded into the darkness of the manor.
Stone and Blackjack wordlessly sized each other up and stared each other down. There was nothing more to be said. It became so still in the dimly illuminated room, that it seemed as though time had ground to a halt. Everything froze motionless for one fleeting second that could have lasted until the end of time. Then the world came back to speed with the breakneck force of a runaway steam train as three gunshots ended the standoff.
As fast as it had ended the first time, the quiet returned once again. The only thing different in the study was that the scent of death now intermingled with the acrid smell of gunsmoke and fresh blood. Stone walked forward and looked down as the motionless form of Jack “Black Jack” Jackson and the two symmetrical side by side holes punched into the tin star on the sheriff’s vest. Stone’s fingers moved to a bloodless bullet wound that had pieced his own heart. “Well I’ll be,” he remarked in a state of shock. He tipped the brim of his top hat at the body of Black Jack after returning his Colt Dragoons to his gun belt. “Nice shot, lawman.”
Stone waited a moment, taking in the sight of the only man who had ever been able to match his speed on the draw. Once he had finished paying his respects, the pale man went to the box that Coot had left on the floor of the study. He knelt down and opened the wooden container. Jasper Stone gritted his teeth and laughed in frustration as the empty box looked back at him. “Sneaky ol’ codger,” he said to himself. He stepped out into the hallway of the manor and called into the darkness after the fleeing Coot and Rafi. “You two better run fast, because you got the blazes of Damnation coming hard on yer heels.”