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Deadline

Well, as I've been fighting with my home internet access lately and a severe case of exhaustion to boot, I haven't had time to really update this journal lately. Not that there has been anything to report lately, mind you.

So, instead, here's a story originally published in the British horror magazine, "Thirteen."

Enjoy:

Deadline
by
Joseph Paul Haines










It was in January of 1900 that my business brought me to Boston during the cruelest part of the year. A new century was upon us and there was optimism in the air that the lean times of the past might soon get behind us. I had finished up my dealings with a certain European count in search of an estate in the Massachusetts countryside and I had a number of days at my leisure until I needed to once again head south to the warm environs of Florida.

So it happened that I found myself at the estate of my good friend and writer of some renown, Charles Bekeley. I had a standing invitation to make room with him whenever I was in the area, and I called upon him the very moment I was available.

I had no idea that I would learn a secret that I would carry with me these fifty-odd years.

The two of sat in his study, enjoying our third snifter of Napoleon Cognac. Truth be told, this particular room in Charles's estate never brought much comfort to me and I avoided it whenever possible. Do not mistake me here, as the room was as comfortable as Charles's hospitality with its high stone walls and solid wood floors. Only the best of literature found refuge here amongst his bookshelves and any cigars not hand-rolled by the masters of Cuba were strictly verboten.

It was the d├ęcor that set my apprehensions at large. The fireplace consisted of a single piece of alabaster carved into the hideous face of a gargoyle; the fire contained within his gaping, fierce maw. Two-foot incisors, both stalactite and stalagmite, held the burning logs in place. At the far end of the room, a single door, banded with iron and no more than thirty inches in height, sat in silent foreboding. A great iron chain and lock secured whatever lay behind.

It may have been the drink, what that rendered my nerves immune that particular evening to this macabre spectacle; or I may have grown accustomed to Charles's odd taste in furnishings, but I was at ease therein for the first time in memory.

His writing desk lied behind our great, leather armchairs.

"Did I ever mention," Charles said, swirling the cognac in his snifter, "that my desk once belonged to G.D. Heartwell?"

"Whom?" I asked. The lateness of the hour was upon me and my wits were not as sharp as they might have been.

Charles smiled at my ignorance. "I'm not surprised your readings have not taken you to that particular stretch of the literary forest. He was a rather troubled fellow who wrote tawdry little tales of terror. Most likely he won't be remember ten years hence."

I have never been one to hide my emotions well, and I'm sure my distaste showed in my countenance. "Well I should say not. Who wants to read stories like that?"

Charles wrapped his lap blanket tighter around his legs. "Poor chap actually died at that desk. Oh, others say differently; but I found his maid's diary whilst clearing out the house. This used to be his office."

In spite of the fire, I found myself chilled. "My God, Charles. Why do you insist upon working in here then? That's perfectly morbid of you."

His gaze fell to the floor as he cast about for an answer. He mumbled, and I still to this day believe he said, "I don't have a choice."

"What was that?" I asked, but I was denied the satisfaction of an answer as a hideous squeal of what might have been bending metal echoed throughout the chamber.

Charles shot out of his chair, the fine crystal of his snifter shattering against the stone face of the fireplace. He grabbed my arm in a fierce manner.

"Now what's this!" I asked, abashed by his sudden, violent outburst.

His eyes were wide and he trembled; by God yes, he trembled this mountain of a man, and he shoved me toward the exit to his chamber. "Get out!" he shouted. "Get out and do not return until I seek you out! Go to your chambers and stay there."

"Charles," I said. "I don't underst--"

"If you value our friendship you will do as I say!"

I didn't understand what had so possessed him to act in such an extraordinary manner, but he was my friend and I was obliged to him his hospitality. I turned to go, and that was when I saw it.

Or, that was when I think I saw it. I'm not sure even to this day. The cognac flowed freely through my veins and the chill of the room's mysterious origins ran throughout my subconscious, but I saw, or believed I saw, the most incredible sight.

The small door at the end of the room bowed out from its center and I heard the rattle of a heavy iron chain against the bands of steel. My stomach threatened to empty itself and I felt beads of cool sweat form upon my brown.

"My God," I said.

"Get out!" Charles yelled. I looked in his eyes.

Rationality had fled his gaze along with his manners.
I turned and fled to the confines of my chambers.

That night passed more slowly than any other in memory. The snow shower heightened in intensity and entombed us in the estate as neatly as the pyramid in Giza did Amen-Ra.
I ensconced myself under the heavy goose-down comforter upon my bed and stayed there as quietly as I could. My bladder felt stretched to its limits and the pervasive chill in my chamber did not to alleviate my discomfort. As time passed with no ill-bred creature of night come to call, my rationality slowly returned along with a bit of my courage. I feared for my friend's sanity, and my concern for him slowly overcame my fear of the earlier proceedings in his chambers.

I left my room, and made my way to his chamber door, where lamplight spilled from beneath its heavy wooden frame. I lifted my fist to knock, then stopped when I heard a noise from within.

I placed my ear to the wood and listened. I heard a quick series of scraping noises, which, after a few moments time, I identified as the sound of a quill upon paper. He was writing. My mind somewhat appeased, I started to step away from the door when I heard something else, something I still to this day tell myself was a trick of the imagination.

I heard a door creak upon its hinges. And then, then, I heard scraping upon wood, as if tusks of bone were being dragged along the floor.

The scratching of Charles's writing intensified, quickened to a frantic pace and I could hear the labored breaths of his effort as clearly as if I had been in the room. He sobbed once, a baleful, lingering moan of overwhelming horror.

The bone upon wood sound multiplied, the sound emanating from multiple locations within Charles's chamber. My curiosity could no longer be contained and I reached for the doorknob.

The noise stopped.

Just as suddenly as it had come, it vanished.

"Charles?" I said. "Are you well?"

A moment passed where I began to have serious doubts about my dear friend's condition and just as I was once again about to enter, he said, "I'm fine now. I will see you in the morning."

Reluctantly I returned to my chambers. I don't believe I slept that night.

The sun came up the next day and brought with it a break in the storm. The countryside lay blanketed beneath five feet of snow and nothing, neither man nor beast, stirred upon its surface.

Charles met me for breakfast soon after, looking none-the-worse for the prior evening's phantasmagoria. He smiled at me over a steaming cup of tea and said, "I finished a new story last night."

"Did you?" I replied, peering over the edge of yesterday's edition of the Boston Globe. "I'm surprised you could work at all."

"Well," Charles said, his smile suddenly enigmatic, "you have to write when the muse strikes."

There was nothing in the world that could have made me pry any further. I raised the newspaper once again in front of my face. "Indeed," I said, and we never spoke of it again.


End


Joseph Haines, signing off from The Edge of the Abyss.




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