“A female detective you say?” Mrs Buford stared at me.
“Yes, and not just any detective, a paranormal detective,” I whispered.
“Oh dear, what’s next? Women wearing trousers!” And as if Mrs Buford’s words were an ominous prediction, a tall, athletic woman of about thirty, dressed in olive trousers, white shirt and matching waistcoat; walked into the dining room, followed by her handsome manservant.
With her hair tied in a topknot, minimal make-up and lips lined in a permanent smirk, Ms Storm looked every bit a lady detective of any man’s dream. But a paranormal detective? Did charlatans no more dress like Romanian gypsies?
I turned to my husband and whispered, grinding my teeth, “Hubert Arlington, how much did you pay this swindler to entertain our guests?”
“My dear Angela”, he said, his hand rubbing my shoulder, “Scarlett Storm is not a swindler, she is a paranormal detective of minor fame. In fact tonight she will regale us with her latest adventure from a far away land.” Hubert lowered his voice into a whisper, “When she was summoned into an empty, deserted village. Barren streets that carried the stench of evil.”
“Hubert, my question was, how much?”
“A hundred pounds.” He moved away, not meeting my gaze.
I wondered when my husband would stop whiling away our fortune on con artists, psychics and charlatans like Ms Scarlett Storm.
“Merry Christmas, Ms Storm!” Hubert engulfed Storm in an unwanted embrace as his chubby fingers swiftly ran by her perk bottom. But her expression did not change, like the calm before a storm.
Hubert seated her right opposite me, next to Dr McMahon and introduced her to everyone on the table. First came the expansive widow Mrs Buford, who managed to convey her disgust at a commoner seated amongst us, quite successfully. Then it was Dr McMahon, a doctor of allergies who had recently moved into our village and wouldn’t stop sneezing. He blamed the pollen.
To Scarlett Storm’s right, sat the glamorous Mrs Betty Potter, a former nightclub singer now married to the richest man in the village, one who was older to Betty by a few decades.
And then, of course, were Hubert and I, the hosts at our annual Christmas dinner. It did not matter that the Spanish flu raged outside, the Arlingtons never failed to host Christmas.
Storm’s manservant stood right behind her in rapt attention, his eyes never leaving his mistress.
“So, Ms Storm”, I said, “Hubert tells me you are a paranormal investigator.”
“Yes, Mrs Arlington, I am.”
“It is 1920 for heaven’s sake! Do people still believe in ghosts?” Dr McMahon exclaimed.
“Oh Doctor, ghosts are not to be trifled with. I could swear on Mr Potter’s life that our mansion is haunted.” Of course, Betty would swear on her old husband’s life. I wondered how much she gained to inherit if Potter dropped off the face of Earth.
“Well, Ms Storm is not just an investigator, she is an avid traveller too. Just last week she docked back into England after a year of travelling, as she banished ghosts and demons back to hell.” Hubert intervened, brandishing his unused sword in the air, excitement in his eyes.
“You are too kind, Mr Arlington. Yes, I have been travelling with Yuri…” Her eyes lingered on the man a little too long. “…In search for more than just ghosts.”
“And whereabouts has your search taken you, Ms…uh…Ms Storm?” Mrs Buford waved her white lace fan in the air and smiled at our esteemed guest.
“All over the continent.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I found a little in every single place that I visited, yet I found more than I had ever bargained for in a small village called Rannaküla, off the coast of Estonia.”
“Oh, pray, tell us more.” Betty almost threw herself on Storm. It was evident she had had one too many wine glasses for the night. But then again it was Christmas, and the Arlington household was known to pour wine in cascades. Who was I to change the rules now?
“It was around four weeks ago that we had just closed a case of a poltergeist haunting in Tallinn. In a few days, we were about to board ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ back to England, when there came a telegram from Father Rasmus Ivanov of the Church of Rannaküla. He had asked for my presence urgently, there wasn’t much else, except three ominous words ‘Evil is afoot’. The telegram was accompanied with two train tickets to Nova and an assurance that there will be a carriage waiting for us at the station.”
“Unknown villages in far away lands, how exotic.” Hubert sighed, his eyes never leaving Storm’s poker face. I looked at Mrs Buford, who rolled her eyes and mouthed the word ‘fake’; rather unsubtly.
Storm ignored the exchange. “It was only next afternoon that our carriage dropped us at the edge of the village, refusing to go any further. Even after I offered him money, he mumbled something about evil curses and skittered from there like a terrified rat. From then on, it was an uphill walk for us, and I was glad for Yuri who carried my luggage without a grump. In about an hour of hiking, we came upon an empty town square.”
“Oh Ms Storm, who wouldn’t want a manservant like Yuri?” Mrs Buford almost salivated as she roamed her gaze down the man.
Storm gave Mrs Buford a tight smile, “The village square of Rannküle boasted neat, cobbled streets that lay bare in all four corners surrounded by stone buildings, balconies crowded with creeping flower beds, and unenthusiastic signs marking businesses. The sun was in its dying throes threatening to snatch away light anytime, and an eerie silence pervaded our senses. I feared it was too late. I feared the evil that threatened Father Ivanov had consumed the town.
We walked around the square, peeping into shops and homes looking for any sign of life. It was as if every single person in that village had just disappeared, out of the blue, leaving everything they ever owned.”
“There can be a million reasons why a village square would be empty, a ceremony for one.” Dr McMahon sneezed to let his scepticism be known.
“Ah a man of science,” Storm turned to the Doctor. “And you are right, Dr McMahon. With the loud roar of the sea behind, it took us a while to catch the sound of the whispered prayers that the wind carried. When we looked around the clustered tenements surrounding us, more than a hundred yards away, we found the village church standing tall.”
“And what did you find there?” Mrs Buford was on her fourth glass of wine.
“To quote Freud, ‘Immorality, no less than morality, has at all times found support in religion.’ And what we found in that church should never have been found.”
“Whatever did you find, Ms Storm? Pray, don’t leave us in suspense.” I was positive that sarcasm flowed like wine from my lips. Yet, Storm smiled at me, her first tonight.
A sudden chill engulfed me as we waited for Ms Storm’s long pause to pause. In spite of a raging fire in the fireplace, the dining room felt oppressively cold. I witnessed a frozen breath leave Betty’s painted lips as she shrunk into her pink pashmina.
Ms Storm continued, unaffected by the chill. “We saw the village folk gathered inside the church for what we assumed to be prayers, and thus you can imagine my shock at walking up to the church pew only to find three girls, not more than thirteen, tied in chains like rabid animals.”
Mrs Buford sucked in a loud breath and downed another glass of wine.
“And rabid they were, in deplorable stages of undress, the girls looked filthy. Their mouths foamed and they howled as a man of habit brandished each girl’s forehead with the sign of the lord.”
The silence in the room was stifling, as though the people around me had forgotten to breathe.
“What did you do, Ms Storm?” Hubert finally took a breath.
“What I always do when I witness such brutality. I pulled out my Beretta and pointed it right at the head of the man, commanding him to stop. He turned around to stare at me with crazed eyes, and almost like clouds parting, his eyes cleared and he uttered, ‘Ms Scarlett Storm’. It did not take me long to realize that this was Father Rasmus Ivanov.”
“Interesting.” Dr MacMahon stuffed a piece of braised turkey in his mouth and gulped it down with scotch on the rocks.
“I thought so too. Nevertheless, I commanded him to stop the barbaric act immediately and demanded an explanation. As the village folk crowded around us, and the foaming girls curled on the floor, shivering, Father Ivanov told me the story of the possession of Mary, Ava and Darja, who were also best friends. It started after ‘All Hallows Eve’ when the girls had been playing in the woods. Mary had found a small wooden box with strange, ancient carvings all over it. Finders being keepers, Mary had brought the box back home, but the girls fought everyday for its possession. It was then decided that each girl would have the box in her home, every third day. Thus started the bizarre events of Rannaküla.”
“I am freezing in my boots, aren’t you Angela dear?” Hubert shook me back into reality. It was indeed freezing, I asked Marbella, the housekeeper, to tend to the fire and keep the wine flowing.
“Within days of finding the box, the blacksmith’s one-year-old boy was found in the crook of an old Wychelm, half-eaten. The day he went missing, the cobbler’s wife had seen these three girls walk out of the woods with stains of blood all over their dress. Upon questioning, they claimed not to remember going into the woods. Of course, no one in the town would think children capable of such perverseness. Until next week, when the headmistress, Ms Eliise Kukk, was found hanging by the highest branch of the same Wychelm, her entrails fell all the way to the frozen ground. And this time the headmistress was last seen talking to none other than our girls.”
“It did not stop there, a few days later the girls were caught red-handed biting into a still alive kitten. Like a bunch of ravenous hyenas, they laughed as they relished their raw meal. It was then that Father Ivanov realised this was no case of simple possession. Demonic evil was at play, he decided to send for me.”
“Oh, this is more than I had ever imagined. Ms Storm, the audience is rapt in attention listening to this fantastic tale. What did you do next?” Hubert exclaimed.
Scarlett Storm looked right at me, her gaze piercing into my soul, “Mrs Arlington, if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. The moment I entered that church and witnessed a man of faith brandishing little girls, the villagers with their crazed eyes and their fetid stench, I knew the evil had spread. It wasn’t just contained in those girls; it festered like a wound in every single man, woman and child in that village.” She paused for effect and lowered her voice. “It was a case of mass demonic possession.”
“How positively sacrilegious! I am not sure I want to listen to it anymore.” Mrs Buford was the first to break.
“Even I had had enough of that blasphemy, Mrs Buford. My methods of exorcism are unorthodox; I do not believe in driving the demon away, I believe in coaxing that critter out into a trap. In this case, though, it was simple. We had to get hold of the source of evil.”
“The box!” Betty exclaimed. “How very clever, Ms Storm!”
“Yuri, known for his nimble hands, and quiet gait, often resorts to unlawful means for the greater good.” Storm continued. “That night he slipped into Father Ivanov’s quarters and found the box tucked neatly under his pillow. Before dawn, we had packed our belongings and were on our way back to Tallinn, two tickets to England waited for us.”
“Whatever happened to the girls?” Dr McMahon asked, just as his body wracked with breathless coughs.
“I had sent a messenger down there, he assured me that the village is recovering from the ‘infection’ that had assaulted them. He reported that the girls had been committed involuntarily to the nearest asylum. Alas, not all evil can be driven away in a box.”
“This is bollocks!” Mrs Buford said, in between two gulps of wine. “Your tale reeks of fabrication.”
“Mrs Buford,” For the first time Yuri spoke up, “Would you like to see the box?”
Hubert stared at Ms Storm, “You brought it with you?!”
Storm smiled and lifted her right hand. Yuri pulled a small, wooden jewellery box from his pocket and gently placed it on Storm’s palm. I shivered; the room had gotten even colder if that was possible. My eyes never left the box; with intricate carvings on every tiny surface, I could see why the box enthralled the girls so.
Storm brought her hand to the centre of the table, for everyone to see that piece of blasphemy. I sniffed, a rancid smell wafted from where she held the box.
“Avatud.” Storm said. As if on command, the box opened and the room filled with that fetid odour. A red smoke arose out of the open box; my eyes followed it as it moved back and forth like a giant, blindworm that was testing its ground. It snaked around the table until it stopped, facing Dr McMahon.
The Doctor laughed, “Nice parlour trick, Ms Storm.”
“Sööta.” She whispered. And before the last syllable was out of her mouth, the smoke entered Dr McMahon’s mouth and oozed out of his orifices like his blood was evaporating. Dr McMahon screamed in excruciating agony.
So did Marbella, Mrs Buford and Betty.
“Ms Storm! Stop it this instant!” Hubert shouted, pulling out the shotgun from the mantle of the fireplace. Before I could blink, the red smoke was in Hubert, my Hubert, tearing him from inside out. Everywhere I looked there were piercing screams of agony.
The smoke filled the room, like tentacles of a giant sea monster, violating all the humans surrounding me, tearing into them, chunks of their flesh flying around me like confetti.
I think I screamed too, I screamed as Hubert fell into pieces before me. I screamed as I watched our friends being torn into bits by that blasphemous smoke. I screamed as Marbella was thrown into the air, her white cotton uniform smearing red by the moment. I screamed as Storm walked towards me, still carrying the open box in her hand, still intact, still smiling.
‘If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Aphiwat chuangchoem
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