The hunchback reminded Cassius of his first servant, Grimly. The gorilla-like-arms, heavy brow, and dull eyes; it was as if Grimly had returned from the Abyss.
Cassius supposed that’s why he agreed to interview Erogi in the first place, nostalgia. Foolish, since what Cassius really needed was someone to manage his manor’s expenses and grounds, not dig up graves and steal animals from the royal zoo.
Someone like his recently deceased steward, George.
Yet, while Cassius missed George’s financial acumen, his decade of service had been markedly boring. Balanced ledgers did not stir the blood, particularly when compared to adventures like stealing hair from a griffin’s mane.
Smiling at the memory, Cassius touched the scar on the back of his hand where the griffin had bitten him. Grimly lost two fingers that outing, still, they came away with their prize.
Cassius shook his head to clear his mind. Those days were past, as his curved, arthritic spine reminded him when he adjusted in his chair. He needed to focus on the present.
Cassius turned his attention back to Erogi. Perched on a stool that bowed under his bulk, Erogi alternated between nervously smoothing his dirty gray shirt and tugging the hair on his forearms, to sitting rock still, holding his breath and not blinking, like a hare waiting for a fox to pass. Dark stains marked Erogi’s armpits and the air smelled of onions.
“Do you know arithmetic? What is the sum of fifteen and thirty-two?” Cassius asked.
Erogi’s lopsided face twisted in concentration, or, possibly pain.
“Take your time.” While Erogi struggled, Cassius admired the towering shelves of books lining the library walls, though he felt ‘books’ an unworthy description. These great, bulky encyclopedias of forbidden knowledge were tomes, codices, portfolios, and grimoires. Original copies of The Goetia, The Key of Solomon, De Nigromancie, Pope Honorious’s Great Grimoire, and others graced the shelves.
To be caught with these taboo tomes in his possession was certain death, which is why black velvet drapes masked the library windows, requiring candles be used even in the afternoon. Cassius made certain Erogi was illiterate before allowing him into the library.
Cassius reached out and stroked the binding of Le Livre Interdit. The red leather warmed and quivered at his touch.
Erogi chewed his lip and swung his feet like a school boy sitting outside the headmaster’s office, but didn’t look any closer to arriving at an answer.
Taking pity on the hunchback, Cassius said, “Perhaps this was a mistake. We should…”
A heavy thud made the library door jump on its hinges. Cassius frowned at the interruption.
“Eeek!” Erogi squeaked, toppling off the stool.
“A bit jumpy,” Cassius noted to himself.
Cassius waited for the inevitable second and third knock before shouting, “Come!”
Rendel, Cassius’s zombie butler, opened the door. The zombie’s hair was dry and yellow as straw and the lower lids of his bloodshot eyes sagged, lending him a perpetually exhausted appearance. His suit was tight on the shoulders and the sleeves rode up high over his wrists. The grave robbers beat Cassius to Rendel’s crypt and he’d been forced to clothe the zombie with whatever odds and ends he found.
For the thousandth time, Cassius said, “Rendel, you only need to knock once.”
Rendel’s expression didn’t change. Proficient at basic tasks, Cassius found it difficult to teach Rendel new behaviors or change his habits.
Cassius sighed. “What is it?”
Rendel slowly raised his hand and mimed knocking on a door.
“Ah, a visitor.” To Erogi, Cassius said, “If you’ll pardon me, I’ll return momentarily.”
Erogi nodded as he righted his stool.
Cassius leveraged himself out of his chair with a grimace. If there was any cartilage left in his knees or hips he didn’t know where it was hiding. He shuffled out of the library and followed the heavy footed Rendel to the audience chamber.
Outside the audience hall were six hooks on which elegant cloaks had once hung.
But time had taken its toll. A washer-woman shrank Cassius’s favorite blue cloak. The silver cape with the gold fringe tore down the back and moths ate his aquamarine robe.
Only his crimson cape survived, though its hem was worn and its collar stained.
Rendel helped Cassius into the cloak and flipped the hood up, hiding his eyes in shadow. Cassius staggered under the heavy velvet and began sweating. With a determined grunt he straightened up as best he could. Appearances must be maintained.
Cassius stepped into the hall. As a young necromancer he arranged for a puff of smoke to mask his emergence from a trap door in the dais. Now he settled for a dignified, if somewhat slow, entrance.
The late afternoon sun cheerfully streamed through the hall’s tall windows. Cassius sighed. He preferred sinister thunder storms.
Dark murals of heathen gods and goddesses decorated the walls, the polished black marble floor reflecting them like a mirror. Maintaining the audience chamber was one of Rendel’s primary duties, and he did not disappoint.
In front of the podium stood a bald gentleman wearing a black suit and carrying a black leather medical bag. Small dark patches marred the suit’s sleeves and legs, long set stains that wouldn’t come out no matter how much scrubbing was done. A scar ran from the man’s forehead to right cheek, a patch hiding his ruined eye. His surviving blue eye darted around the room, searching each shadow with intense concentration. A gold cross hung from a chain around his neck, and he patted and stroked it as if to remind himself it was there.
Cassius flipped his hood back, a dramatic gesture ruined when he used his sleeve to pat the sweat from his forehead. “Mister Van Helsing, thank you for coming on such short notice.”
Van Helsing gave a stiff bow, never taking his eye off Cassius. “I came as soon as I received your note. It sounds as if you have quite an infestation. Four vampires I believe?” Even at a distance Cassius could smell the garlic on the man’s breath.
Cassius nodded. “They’ve nested in the cellar. I’d deal with them myself, but, unfortunately, I’m not as spry as I used to be.”
“I understand completely sir. Sometimes it’s best to let the professionals deal with these situations. My rates are very reasonable and include cleaning the area and disposal of the remains when the job is complete.”
“Excellent. Rendel will show you down,” Cassius gestured to the zombie who appeared behind him. “Oh, and Mister Van Helsing?”
“Please do not visit any other areas of the manor without Rendel as an escort. I cherish my privacy.”
“Of course, sir.” Van Helsing gave a short bow and followed Rendel from the hall.
Once they left, Cassius struggled out of his cloak and returned it to its hook. He frowned at the tarnished neck clasp and rubbed it with his thumb, to no effect. Rendel would need to polish it.
Cassius shambled back to the library. In his prime, no vampire would dare trespass on his property, let alone make a home in his cellar. Now, he was reduced to paying a laborer to deal with them.
Cassius was only half surprised when he found himself standing before the door to his workshop. Lost in his thoughts, he must have turned right when he meant to turn left.
A cobweb, home to a desiccated spider skeleton, decorated the corner of the door and dust coated the doorknob.
Cassius touched the face of the door, like a husband caressing the gravestone of his beloved wife. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the last time he used magic.
He remembered his first summoning, the crackling electricity that made the hair on his arms stand up, the surprising scent of mint, and the flickering blue phantasm that screamed at him for a full minute before dissipating.
He remembered collecting mandrake by the light of the full moon, exploring Egyptian catacombs in search of the Book of the Dead, negotiating with the Kaiser for a traitorous advisor’s heart.
He remembered the sulfuric succubus dragging Grimly into the blazing Abyss.
Yet Cassius couldn’t remember when he retired from magic. Was it even a choice? Or had he simply, stopped?
Angrily, Cassius swept the cobwebs away. Then he retraced his steps to the library.
Rendel intercepted him before he could enter.
“What is it now? Did the vampires already eat Van Helsing?”
Taking no notice of his master’s annoyed tone, the zombie slowly shook his head no. Rendel made a strange up and down gesture.
It took a full minute before Cassius recognized the signal. “There’s a torch wielding mob outside the gates?” he asked.
The zombie nodded.
“But, why?” It was a rhetorical question. Cassius knew better than to expect an answer.
He took Rendel’s arm and tottered his way outside to the courtyard.
The crowd of angry villagers outside the manor’s iron gate was impressive. Cassius spotted pitchforks, clubs, torches, and, to his delight, a musket. He felt flattered.
“There he is!”
Jeers and insults were hurled at Cassius. Some of the mob struck the gate with their clubs, making it ring like a cathedral bell.
Cassius realized he had forgotten his cloak. “Drat,” he muttered. “I’ll just need to be intimidating without it.”
The shouting changed to confused whispers.
“Is that really him?”
“I thought he would be younger. And taller.”
A man with a large belly, a top hat, and an air of authority squinted at Cassius through the bars. He looked vaguely familiar.
“Cassius?” the man seemed confused.
Cassius drew himself up to his full height, his vertebrae popping. “Yes, it is I, Cassius the Necromancer. What brings you and your friends to my home, um, Sheriff Lawrence?” Cassius hated the quaver in his voice.
“Actually, it’s Mayor Lawrence. Sheriff Lawrence is my father. He’s retired now.”
“Get on with it!” shouted a ruffian from the rear.
“Alright, alright, there’s no need to be rude. I’m sorry Cassius, we’re at the wrong address. Do you know where this fellow, ummm, Frankenstein, lives?”
Cassius tried to hide his disappointment. “I believe his is the castle on Tower Hill.” He pointed toward a dark citadel in the distance. Clouds black as a raven’s wing churned over the battlements and lighting lanced down and danced along the stone towers.
Cassius threw an accusatory glance at the traitorous blue sky over his manor.
“Darn it,” Mayor Lawrence said. “Looks like another two miles, men!”
He received groans in response. Still, the crowd dutifully started up the road.
“What about me?” Cassius asked.
The mayor smiled. “Oh, you have nothing to worry about, Cassius. You certainly made folks nervous back in my father and grandfather’s days, but no one worries about sorcery now. This Frankenstein, on the other hand, is robbing graves and sewing body parts together. That’s just dangerous. Sorry for the disturbance.” The mayor tipped his hat and followed the crowd.
“I’m dangerous too,” Cassius said in a sad voice no one heard.
As the last of the villagers straggled out of sight, Cassius turned smartly on his heel and marched back to the library at a brisk pace. He refused to acknowledge the cracking and grinding of his knees. Rendel struggled to match his stiff-legged waddle to Cassius’s determined stride.
Cassius threw open the library doors. If his elbows were not so arthritic, the doors would have slammed against the walls. As it was, they clunked firmly against the plaster.
“Femur, what part of the body?” Cassius barked at a bewildered Erogi.
Erogi looked around as if Cassius spoke to someone else. Realizing the question was directed at him, Erogi screwed up his face in thought. “Da arm? No, wait, da leg. Yea. No, definitely the arm. Or leg.”
“Close enough. Mister Erogi, this is a large estate. By all rights I should be hiring an assistant who is good with figures and can look after the grounds. Nevertheless, I’m hiring you. Do you know why?”
The hunchback bit his lip and confessed, “No.”
“Because I think you are man who can dig up graves and find me a femur when I need one. What do you say?”
Erogi nodded enthusiastically. “I can do dat.”
“Excellent. Get the coach ready, we have a skull to collect.”
Erogi frowned. “Um…”
“The bone in your head.”
“Skull,” Erogi tapped his temple. “I’ll remember.”
A half hour later they raced toward the village in Cassius’s coach. Erogi drove the team with abandon, snapping his whip over the heads of the snorting, lathered horses. They hurtled along the twisting, winding road, yet Cassius found the ride smooth and comfortable. Erogi instinctively guided the horses around ruts and avoided bumps that on previous trips jarred Cassius’s spine out of alignment.
“Another skill, what a pleasant surprise,” Cassius murmured as he drew his cloak tight around his thin shoulders and peeked out the coach window.
The storm caught up with them as the sun set. Black clouds boiled overhead and a trident of lightening flashed across the heavens as thunder shook the earth.
“Perfect,” Cassius smiled.
The cemetery lay outside of the village, a tradition hearkening back to the plague years. Cassius always found it remarkably convenient.
Standing in front of the tall fence, Cassius frowned. “What’s this?”
A sign, No Trespassing, dangled from the gate, which was secured with a heavy lock and chain.
Eyeing the lock, Cassius grumbled, “Frankenstein is ruining everything.”
Beside him, Erogi held a lantern and a shovel. A sack was tucked in his belt. “Sir?”
“Never mind. We need to get inside. Let me see, I used to know an opening spell…”
With a swing of the shovel the hunchback smashed the lock. The rattling chain slid into a pile on the ground and the gate swung open with a squeal like a tea kettle.
“That works too,” Cassius said. “The grave we need will be in the rear, beneath a large oak. Assuming Frankenstein hasn’t already raided it.”
As they picked their way between the graves Cassius tsked disapprovingly at the neglect. Weeds sprouted around the headstones and flowers left by loved ones rotted and moldered rather than being collected.
They arrived at the oak tree. “Dig here,” Cassius said.
As Erogi’s spade pierced the dirt, Cassius patted the gravestone. “It won’t be long now, old friend.”
The heavy, wet smell of the churned earth brought back fond memories: collecting the left hand of a convicted thief, using a bellows to capture the fetid air from the lungs of a pauper in the Potter’s field, blending into a crowd of mourners so he could clip a lock of hair from an unsuspecting widow.
With each hard-won prize Cassius acquired more knowledge. The shades of Pharaohs taught him the secrets of the afterlife. Imps schooled him in techniques for taming dragons. A cuckold’s vengeful specter listed the women having an affair with the mayor, the secrets of mayors and sheriffs being the best defenses against village mobs.
Erogi’s shovel struck something solid.
“Brush away the dirt,” Cassius ordered as he directed his lantern’s beam into the grave, illuminating the casket lid cracked by Erogi’s shovel.
With a grunt, Erogi pried the lid open. A miasma belched from the grave and Cassius covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve. Erogi, surrounded by the fetid air, retched until his gut was empty.
When Erogi finished, Cassius said, “We just need the head.”
Erogi grabbed the head by the hair and pulled. Cassius heard a juicy ripping sound and Erogi was left holding a clump of scalp.
“No, no, you must decapitate him. Use the shovel. Not like that, you’ll smash the skull. Put the point beneath the jaw, up against the neck. That’s it. Push and use the shovel as a lever.” With a pop the head flew out of the grave and landed at Cassius’s feet.
“You probably didn’t need quite so much force, but effective nonetheless. Close the casket and fill the grave. We want to be respectful after all.”
Cassius picked the head up and brushed some of the maggots from the forehead. Flakes of skin went with them. Deflated eyes had collapsed into the sockets and the lips were drawn back to reveal gritted teeth, as if in pain, though Cassius knew the man died peacefully in his sleep.
“Hello, George,” Cassius said. He stuffed the head into the canvas sack and cinched it tight. A rain drop landed on the back of his hand. A moment later a downpour drenched them.
As Erogi patted down the last shovelful of dirt, they heard a deep voice yell, “Who’s there?” The watchman’s lantern flickered in the distance as he walked toward them. Cassius thought he spotted the shadowy outline of a pistol in the guard’s hand. Then he heard the dogs.
“Run!” Cassius shouted as he doused his lantern. He started limping toward the gate, splashing through puddles and slipping in mud. Erogi loped along beside him.
Cassius didn’t panic. A lifetime spent fleeing royal assassins, ruffians, and religious fanatics meant it would take more than a graveyard watchman to fluster him. Although, Cassius didn’t recall his knees and ankles rattling so much in the past. Perhaps the rain would allow them to evade capture.
Cassius heard more shouts and saw another lantern near the entrance.
“Damn it, where did all of these guards come from? It used to be a caretaker who stayed in his shack and napped. What has Frankenstein been doing to these people?” Cassius gasped. In the future, he would keep closer tabs on his neighbor. Assuming there was a future.
Cassius stopped to catch his breath. Between the heavy, soaked cloak and his old legs and lungs, Cassius knew he couldn’t escape.
“Go, hide yourself,” he ordered Erogi.
The hunchback looked from Cassius to the approaching lanterns, and his Neanderthal face hardened with determination. Dropping his shovel, he picked Cassius up and slung him over his shoulder.
“Oooof,” Cassius gasped in surprise.
Erogi sprinted on, but the hounds were closing. Shoving back his hood, Cassius saw the slavering beasts, howling and snapping their jaws as they raced toward them.
“What a way to go, killed not by a rogue demon, but by cemetery guard dogs,” Cassius muttered.
One of mongrels put on a burst of speed, closing the gap, and launched itself at Cassius. At the last moment he was whisked up and out of reach.
Erogi scrambled over the cemetery fence like a monkey in a tree. Cassius found himself standing on the other side, laughing as the dogs hurled themselves against the bars, howling in disappointment.
Cassius and Erogi hurried to the coach and were soon traveling back to the manor.
Cassius patted the sack on the seat beside him. The moon would be full the following night, the perfect condition to summon spirits.
George would be angry at being brought back. He specifically told Cassius he wanted to remain in the afterlife.
“On the other hand,” Cassius thought, “George assumed he was going to Heaven. Things may have gone the other way. He might be thankful to return.”
Comforted, Cassius relaxed. With George managing the manor, Cassius would be able to focus on his magic.
He felt the urge to perform truly impressive sorcery. A spell that would put Frankenstein to shame. Something demonic, perhaps.
Twin bolts of lighting leapt from opposite ends of the sky and collided in a flash that lit the sky like day.
Cassius smiled. He had never felt so alive.
JOHN LANCE lives in New England with his beautiful wife and two lovely daughters. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Strangely Funny, These Vampires Don’t Sparkle, and others. He has also written a collection of childrens’ short stories, Bobby’s Troll and Other Stories and the picture books Priscilla Holmes, Ace Detective and Priscilla Holmes and the Case of the Glass Slipper. His blog is at www.johnmlance.com.
Tags: Halloween, Storyblitz