Susan rested her head against the cool glass of the train window, the sensation of the cold glass against her forehead initially uncomfortable and yet then oddly soothing. Her eyes were shut tight. There was little going past except more of the same. Looking out across the forest was pleasant enough at first but soon became repetitive. She didn't need to open her eyes to know that all she would see out the window was more of the same, a vast expanse of greens and browns with perhaps the occasional faint orange or yellow thrown in the mix. There was little in the way of development to be found until she reached her destination. The tour guide she had spoken to a few days earlier had in fact claimed that much of this land was protected. Building anything out here was expensive at best and impossible at worst.
Not that she minded that. It was nice to think there were still a few places like that, where people couldn't just burn, bulldoze or otherwise demolish everything in their path just to put up supermarkets, housing estates or malls. It was nice to think that there were some things that might last forever.
That said the splendour of nature quickly became the tedium of nature when it was all you had seen for the past hour. The pounding headache she was currently suffering from didn't help improve her mood either. She was bitterly regretting letting her friend Amanda talk her into going out with her the night before. As enjoyable as it had been to take a break from her research to actually enjoy the company of human beings who hadn't been dead for a few hundred years the aftermath was not pretty. A hangover and motion sickness were a less than ideal combination.
The voice that issued from speakers somewhere within the train compartment let her know that they'd soon be arriving at Havenfield. Reluctantly opening her eyes she went through the contents of her bag. Her phone and tablet were still nestled snugly within it and she decided to flip through her papers. They were a jumbled mish mash some of them handwritten while others were neatly typed out and had been printed off at one of the various libraries she'd stopped off at when she'd gotten the chance. She had wanted to save herself time later by typing up and spell checking and proof reading as she went whenever she got the chance to do so but at some point in the process she'd lost track and now had the sinking feeling she'd have to go back and re-type the whole thing when she was done.
Upon the first page was the title: "In search of Sebastian Stanfield: The Forgotten DaVinci"
Getting off the train as it pulled into the station she took a deep breath. The air really did feel cleaner out here. She had always thought that was just something vegans, hippies and white people who thought it was a good idea to put their hair into dreadlocks said to sound Wise and Connected to Mother Nature. But it really was better than in the city in that respect at least. The complete lack of signal on her phone and the knowledge that she'd have to get back on the train and travel about eighty miles to get a decent cocktail was less welcome. She stretched out trying to work out the kinks in her back and banish the pins and needles in her legs and feet. Sitting on the cramped train for nearly three hours had left her feeling like she'd been sleeping in a box.
She looked up and down the platform. Only one other person appeared to have gotten off the train with her. Stood about twenty or thirty feet away was another woman. A strikingly beautiful woman in fact.
Her hair was raven black and reached just below her shoulders. It looked silky and glossy like the impossibly perfect hair people on television commercials boasted could be achieved simply by using the shampoo and conditioner they were selling you. Susan felt a little twinge of jealousy to accompany the attraction she was currently experiencing as she thought of her own hair, a scruffy and matted mess that she was sure probably looked like a birds nest to the stranger. The woman had dark glasses over her eyes and when you combined that with the dark suit and black leather duster she wore it gave a very striking visual. Susan idly wondered who she was. She looked wealthy. Wealthy and impossibly well turned out. She could have been a model. Or a film star.
The woman glanced down the platform at Susan and gave her a little smile. Then she turned and walked away, eventually vanishing from view up the stairs. As she made her own way toward the exit Susan amused herself coming up with improbable stories for who the woman could be and why she was here. A glamorous spy, here on a secret mission perhaps. The kind who always had a clever quip prepared for when they dispatched the henchmen of their nemesis and who never ordered their martinis stirred. Or perhaps some famous movie star here to get away from the stress and tension of her career. Here in this out of the way town incognito to hide from the paparazzi and her adoring fans or have a clandestine rendezvous with a forbidden lover. Some scandalous Hollywood affair that could only be carried out in places forgotten by the hustle and bustle of the big city like this.
When she was finally able to get enough signal to call a cab Susan had it take her to the small hotel she was staying at. The sign had once declared the building to be the Lakeview Hotel. It now read the "La ei H e l" though you could see the imprint where the letters had once been. When she brought it up to the man at the check in desk he just grunted, puffing on the cigarette he was smoking in cheerful disobedience of the "Thank you for Not Smoking" sign.
"Kids. What can you do? We used to replace the letters but they just steal 'em again a week later"
"Like Sisyphus pushing that boulder" Susan replied trying to make conversation.
"Syphilis? What's syphilis got to do with it?" the man asked. Susan decided to give up trying to make conversation and instead just asked for her room key.
The room was small and despite the hotels name did not provide her with a lake view. It did give her a view of the street below so she supposed if she ever got the urge to stare at a Chinese restaurant or a furniture warehouse which had signs informing anyone who was curious that it was Going Out Of Business Everything Must Go then she would be well served. Still it wasn't as if she had booked the place for a luxurious getaway. She doubted she would use the room for much besides sleeping and sometimes eating.
As she looked out of the window something caught her eye. Walking down the street was a woman with dark hair in a dark black duster. She wondered idly if it was the woman from the platform. A sleek black car that looked like it cost more money than most people in this town would have seen outside of films came to a halt where the woman stood and a man dressed in a somewhat comically old fashioned chauffeurs uniform exited it, opened a passenger door for the woman and then got back behind the wheel, the car gliding out of view. Susan found herself pondering whether that had indeed been the same woman from the train station and if her fantastical speculation had actually been near to the truth. Perhaps she really was someone famous. Out here filming a movie perhaps. There was certainly no shortage of locations in the town that might be ideal to film a horror movie in.
The drive through the town had revealed numerous old and dilapidated buildings. Some looked modern if shabby while others looked as if they could have been transported through time from the 1800's to the present day. It was easy to imagine Dracula lurching from the darkened doorways. Or some mad scientist with a hunchbacked assistant lurking within the candlelit halls of the ancient and abandoned husks that had once been people’s homes, committing unspeakable acts in the name of some mad whim.
She was sure that it was incredibly tacky of her to be looking at a place that was home to so many people and making up lurid fantasies about it. She would hardly enjoy it if people came and gawked at her home or pointed and laughed at things they found ridiculous about her hometown. Still it was hard not to have such thoughts when some of the houses and abandoned buildings she had glanced out of the taxi cab window looked like the kind of place Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee might call home in one of their more macabre roles.
After a change of clothes and a chocolate bar that would have to serve as lunch she headed out to meet the cab she'd called and before long was on her way to the place she had actually come here to see. The Stanfield House. Or as the little sign outside it referred to it "The HISTORIC Stanfield House". The merit of that claim was extremely dubious. So far in her research into Sebastian Stanfield she'd discovered all of three books about the man, one of them self-published and replete with spelling errors. It didn't speak well of his pedigree as a historical figure that there were more books out there about William Henry Harrison than him.
There was no one else there when she walked through the front door and up to a ticket desk with a sign helpfully suggesting "Pay what you Think is Fair!" with a little smiley face beside it. There was no one at the ticket desk which suggested to her that whatever they'd been getting paid as a wage hadn't seemed very fair to them. There was also a small and somewhat amateurish looking black and white leaflet that looked like it had just been printed out and folded. Upon it were the words "Sebastian Stanfield! The American DaVinci!" and the similarity to her papers title made her wince. Still she doubted that the people who owned this museum would ever see her paper much less accuse her of plagiarising them. And looking around the dusty front desk she had a strong suspicion no one who owned this place could afford to sue.
"Ahem...the museum closes in twenty minutes ma'am" a voice called out to her. Turning she saw a blonde woman in a powder blue suit walking toward her. Her face was heavily made up and her eyes had a kind of manic friendliness to them that told her this was probably a tour guide. She had the look of someone who had to be Consistently Cheerful as a Profession that awful false happiness found on the faces of stewards, waiters and summer camp counsellors the world over.
"Susan? Susan Tanaka? I spoke with someone here on the phone a day ago?" Susan said. The woman’s fake grin relaxed somewhat and was replaced by a more genuine smile as she nodded and walked over to Susan, extending a hand with bright pink nails. Susan idly had the thought "It’s Obscure Historical Figure Tour Guide Barbie!" pass through her head and tried hard not to snicker. She then felt a little guilty for such a mean-spirited thought and tried hard not to look guilty. She dreaded to think what the ultimate expression this sudden clash of emotions produced was but it can't have been too awful. That or the woman was just good at not showing her discomfort.
"Of course! Yes that was me. I'm Anne, the curator. Well curator/tour guide. Slash...everything else. I'm actually the only person who works here" Anne said looking a little sheepish as she did so. Susan instantly took a liking to her with this little burst of embarrassing honesty. The fact she was extremely pretty even with the fake nails and bleach blonde hair didn't hurt either. She shook her hand warmly and motioned around the room the two of them currently stood in.
"Slow season?" she asked.
"Actually this year has been our busiest. Though that's really not saying much"
"Well at least I won't have to fight my way through the crowds to look around here" Susan said. Anne laughed softly and motioned for Susan to follow her further into the building. With one last look around the dusty and cobwebbed entrance hall Susan followed behind her wondering if Anne had forgotten about locking up the museum entrance or if it was simply that it was unlikely anyone would be breaking in here any time soon.
"I have to say it's rare we get many people from out of town even contacting us about Stanfield, much less coming all the way down here just to see our little tribute to him. He's not what you would call famous" Anne admitted as they walked down a long hall. Various portraits hung at regular intervals. They typically depicted fairly stern looking men in expensive looking suits. The Stanfields who had come before, Susan would guess.
"I think that's why I wanted to write about him. Everyone knows Edison, Tesla...I wanted to do something that hadn't been done a million times before.
Plus...this way no one will be able to accuse me of copying their paper, right?"
Anne let out another soft laugh at this and Susan decided that she had definitely taken a liking to her. As they entered a room that looked like it had once been a study she let out a sigh and gave a little shrug.
"Stanfield wasn't what you would call...respected in his field during his own lifetime. It's a tragedy really. If he'd been wealthier or had just been able to find respect, funding, recognition for what he was doing...if he'd been able to achieve the legitimacy that other inventors of his time found for themselves...
Well. I firmly believe he'd be seen as his generations Einstein if things had shaken out differently for him"
Susan nodded and took a seat as Anne went to one of the book cases and grabbed a few heavy looking volumes from the bookshelf behind her. None of them bore a title though each had a roman numeral upon them, starting at III and ending at VIII. As Anne laid them out in front of Susan she continued.
"Of course a major frustration for his work was the limitations of the technology of his time. It's like...a caveman having an idea for space flight. He might dream of reaching the stars but if all he's got to work with is rocks and sticks then making that dream a reality is impossible"
"He was that far ahead of his time, you think?" Susan asked. Anne nodded eagerly. Susan was pleased to see that she seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the subject. It would definitely make asking for the favour she wanted much easier.
"The designs that have been found...the drawings and schematics alone not to mention the prototypes that Stanfield created...if things had worked out differently we might have put a man on the moon in the 1860's not the 1960's. He was a genius. Even his critics and doubters at the time would talk about how alive with ideas his mind seemed to be to them. Mad ideas, they thought. Blasphemous ideas, some called them. But none of them could doubt that the man was brilliant"
"They just also thought he was insane" Susan finished and Anne grimaced at the word. It had probably been poorly chosen. Still if she'd offended her she at least hadn't offended her so badly that it caused her to anger. Instead she just let out another sad little sigh and nodded, sitting herself behind the desk as Susan began to flip through the books.
"Yes. Sadly that was the prevailing attitude of the day toward him"
Susan flipped through the pages and thought to herself that she could see how people back then might reach that conclusion. For a man who claimed to be a serious scientist to propose some of the theories and inventions Stanfield did in his day would be like watching a scientist today declare that he had thought of a way to create a potato chip powered car. And yet crude and unfinished as they were many of Stanfield's ideas and diagrams clearly had great potential. Designs for advanced flying craft. Schematics of advanced prosthetics. Designs for medical equipment that you could easily connect to devices now viewed as mundane and commonplace.
Of course there were also the more fantastical ideas. Flying suits. The designs for what had infamously been dubbed "The Devils Transmitter" and gotten Stanfield all but blackballed from the company of his peers in the scientific community. Complex notes regarding the "Augmentation of the human frame". It wasn't hard to see how Stanfield had become a figure of first infamy and then simply ridicule amongst the other minds of his time. Anne's caveman allegory was accurate.
"Well hopefully I can help change some minds about him. Although...." Susan began and then trailed off. Anne leaned forward and prompted her to continue.
"This stuff is great but I was hoping to see some of the...later stuff he worked on?" Susan said. Anne hesitated at that. A look crossed her face that made it clear that she was not at all certain that this was a good idea. Susan wondered if others had come here asking for the same. Or if perhaps it was simply that the subject matter in question was what made Anne so hesitant. The latter seemed more likely. Susan had a hard time believing many people even knew about the work Stanfield had done after coming back to this house where he and his daughter had spent the last days of their lives. It certainly wasn't the kind of thing that most legitimate biographers gave any serious thought to.
"We have a great deal more material in the public areas of the museum, you know. And there are some more volumes here I can show you..." Anne said and Susan nodded.
"And I would love to see them" she said earnestly. "But I was hoping to start with some of the things that weren't on public display?"
Anne bit her lip fretfully and fidgeted. Acting on a hunch that she had picked up on a certain vibe from Anne that told her that her initial physical attraction to her was not exactly one sided, Susan leaned forward across the desk. The physical closeness made Anne's cheeks flush a little and Susan gave her a playful wink.
"It would be a BIG help" she said.
"Well I suppose it wouldn't HURT. Though you'll have to be very careful. Much of the private material is extremely old and delicate. It needs to be handled with care" Anne said. Susan beamed widely at her.
"Trust me; I know how to be gentle"
Anne lead her down a set of steps and then another. They came to a large door in somewhat poor repair that clearly wasn't part of the usual tour route that Anne took people through the museum. Producing a rusty key from one of her pockets Anne gave the door a few hard shoves and it eventually creaked open, swinging slowly and somewhat resentfully inwards. Susan mused that if the rest of the town had already given off a hammer horror vibe this certainly took it up a notch. The creak was so loud it was almost too perfect. Part of her wondered if there was a sound effect cassette set up somewhere within the basement and this was part of the tour after all. She could imagine it being a hit at Halloween. Anne taking a group of spooked tourists down the old stone steps into this drafty old basement.
The room beyond was lit by flickering lights. There were dozens of shelves some holding books others holding various strange looking objects. Upon one of the walls was a portrait of Stanfield himself, a dark haired woman in a black dress stood beside him who Susan imagined must be his daughter. Carmina Stanfield was almost as much of a historical oddity as her father and if half the stories were to be believed the illness she had fallen victim to was half the reason Stanfield's life had taken the depressing trajectory it did.
"Of course there's nothing SINISTER about why this material is kept out of view. It’s simply a case of it being extremely fragile and much of it not really being the kind of thing the publics interested in" Anne said. Susan privately mused that she sounded as if she was trying to convince both of them.
"With most of the items down here we don't even know what they were for. Given the condition of his notes..."
"Can I see some of those?" Susan asked. She hoped she didn't sound impatient. She didn't want to annoy Anne especially given that she was the only one who she knew of who could give her access to what she wanted to see down here. Fortunately for her it seemed that Anne didn't mind her eagerness and she nodded, grabbing one of the large and heavy looking tomes off the shelf and allowing Susan to begin leafing through it. Occasionally as she did so she would glance up at some of the items on the shelves. Some of them corresponded with the drawings in the book while others she didn't recognise.
"And this is everything?" she asked. Anne shook her head.
"Some of it was sold off to a private collector a few years back. We were having financial difficulties. And some of it was taken away by....oh some kind of trust I think. Or museum? It was before I got a job here"
Susan nodded and returned to the book, flipping carefully through its aged and yellowing pages. She was eager to see this but also aware that being too rough with it might cause the pages to rip or crumble and then she wouldn't get a second chance. On each page were lovingly and meticulously drawn illustrations of fantastical looking devices. Devices that were not just unusual for the era Stanfield had lived in but for any era. The intricacy of the illustrations and the copious amounts of annotations around them made her wonder how long Stanfield had spent on each idea. How many days or weeks he'd spent carefully drawing out his Impossible Things.
Of course it was hard to tell given that the entire book was written in another language or languages. Parts of it resembled Katakana and Kanji while mixed with that were what looked like pictograms of some kind and then parts that looked like Latin. Susan possessed some rusty skills when it came to the first and last of the two and thought that the writing, while it possessed superficial resemblances to both, didn't truly look like either. As she settled on the next page she opted to ask Anne just what languages the book was written in.
"Language. And we don't know"
"Language?" Susan repeated. Anne nodded.
"All of this is in one language. One that Stanfield appeared to have created for himself from what we can work out. Or perhaps cypher would be a more accurate description"
"He wanted to keep his notes secret that badly?" Susan asked.
"We assume so. Why else write whole volumes in a language only he could read? The only words we've been able to translate are the three that Stanfield translated himself"
Without further invitation Anne began to flick through the book before finding the page she was seeking. The image on the page was a round sphere from which sprang what looked like piping or tubing of some kind. At the end of each of the tubes were sharp little points the purpose of which was impossible to discern. They looked like they could be scalpels or needles of some kind. In addition to the tubing multiple thinner lines sprung from the device like wiring or rope. The whole thing resembled some artificial octopus but one with far more limbs that any natural born sea dweller had ever possessed. At the top of the page was more of the same unreadable language but unlike the other pages in the book Stanfield had written below this one in English.
"The Eternity Engine"
"Is it here?" Susan asked casting a look around. Anne shook her head.
"Nor has it ever been. It wasn't one of the items sold off or donated...it simply wasn't here" she explained. Susan asked why that was.
"Who can say? Perhaps it was destroyed or stolen in the years before Stanfield's death. Or by thieves who raided the place before his body was discovered. Or it might be that he never got around to actually building it. Many of the items in these books were purely theoretical. The ones that Stanfield did build never actually worked of course...or rather the ones he did definitely didn't do what they were supposed to do"
Susan nodded. That certainly checked out with what she'd read about this stage of Stanfield's life. One of the books she'd read about him which spoke of him more as an oddity and a crackpot than a genuine inventor had spoken at length about the "Useless impossibilities" he'd spent so many years of his life inventing. It had postulated somewhat cruelly that his daughter wasting away from an unknown and quite incurable disease had snapped the mind of a man who was never all that together in the first place and that the end result was him escaping into fantasy to cope.
Susan took one last look at the devices that were on the shelves. Her eyes lingered on what looked like it might have been intended as some kind of surgical tool. It resembled a golden hand with each finger ending in what looked like a hypodermic needle. She winced at it. It surely had an innocent explanation for its use but it was hard not to picture it being something Robert Englund might wear while slicing and dicing his way through a cast of screaming teenagers.
"Do you believe what people said? About how he lost his mind?" Susan asked. It was perhaps a tad too blunt and straight to the point but Anne didn't seem to mind. Perhaps she'd heard the same question asked many times. It was likely at least a few of the people who visited the Stanfield house knew of its darker history.
"Do I think that his daughter’s death damaged him in some way? Yes I think so. I think it’s hard to imagine that kind of grief, that kind of loss not having some negative effect on anyone. Do I think it turned him into some mad butcher who was Jack the Ripper-ing his way through the townsfolk? No. Not for a second" Anne said.
The deaths had all occurred perhaps less than a year after the death of Stanfield's daughter. He'd shut himself away and gone from being the town laughingstock to the town recluse. Few people even remembered he lived there at all they saw him so rarely. Right up until the murders had begun. Bodies found lacerated with strange and ghoulish marks. Some looking as if they'd been ripped open, their flesh plucked apart like the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. All of them drained of blood and some displaying grotesque damage done to the internal organs. It had been the single most gruesome crime to ever occur in the town, one that had yet to be matched in infamy or ferocity. And as the police tried and failed to find a suspect the local talk turned to the "Mad Doctor" who lived so far outside of town.
Before you could say the words "Lynch Mob" a group of angry townsfolk had stormed Stanfield's house and broken in. Only to find that someone had beaten them to it. Stanfield was dead, his throat a bloody mess. He left no suicide note and despite no obvious signs of forced entry beyond the one that the mob had just committed themselves it was eventually ruled a homicide. Stanfield was officially recorded as another victim of the killer plaguing the town though that didn't stop people from suspecting him still. Particularly as the murders stopped after his body was discovered.
Susan shivered a little. She really didn't want to dwell on such things. It was hard not to however given where she currently was.
She asked Anne if she could come back tomorrow to take some pictures. Assuring her that there would be no flash photography that might risk damaging the items contained in the museum or its basement she got Anne's consent to do so. After a friendly goodbye after which Anne generously offered to call her a taxi, Susan stepped out into the cool evening and began to make her way toward the waiting car. It was as she did that her eye was drawn toward another car altogether. Loitering on the road directly in front of the Stanfield house was the sleek black vehicle she had earlier seen the dark haired woman getting into outside of her hotel room.
She paused in mid-stride and stared at it. Seeing the same woman twice in one day in a small town wasn't so odd as to be anything more than a coincidence. Seeing her a third time, so far from the main town in a spot that few people would ever come to and even fewer would approach after the museums closing hours? That began to feel far less like chance.
She told herself that it must be a different car. But then how many people in a town like this would be able to afford such an expensive vehicle at all? As she stared toward the car part of her wanted to approach it. To rap on the window and ask the occupant inside if she was following her. Another part was too afraid of feeling foolish if the woman inside had no idea what she was talking about or worse, if against all odds this was not in fact the same car and she wound up making an even bigger ass of herself. Before she could make up her mind the car started up and drove slowly off down the road.
Back at her hotel a quick shower and some so-so pizza gave her the energy to stay up a few hours longer. She scribbled out another page or two of notes on what she'd seen today along with a few quick bullet points to remind her what she wanted to write tomorrow when she felt more awake and alert. Even with food in her belly the long train ride was catching up to her and her body was craving sleep.
She found herself musing about what Anne had said. Why Stanfield? He was, in the grand scheme of things, a nobody. His work had been ignored when it worked and mocked when it didn't.
But perhaps that was what irked her. He'd died and now all that he was remembered for were a few lurid rumours that painted him as some kind of organ stealing ghoul. And few even had heard those. Susan wouldn't say she was preoccupied by thoughts of mortality, at least no more than anyone else was. She was agnostic and hadn't given a lot of thought to where you went, if anywhere, after death. If there was some great reward or reincarnation or if we drifted through the netherworld as spirits. But she did think a lot about what was left behind. Regardless of whether the soul existed, people’s time on this earth as a physical living being was finite. And all the living had to remember them by was what they left behind, for good or ill. That was the only thing that we knew really lasted forever. And perhaps it made her sad to think that for all he had done and tried to do, so little of Stanfield's legacy seemed to have made any impact.
Turning away from depressing musings about the point or lack thereof of the short timespan given to us on this earth, Susan curled up in bed and let sleep take her. Despite her exhaustion she slept lightly. And that was probably why the sudden scream roused her so easily.
She shot bolt upright in bed, heart hammering in her chest. Fumbling for the light switch she blinked away tiredness as her eyes scanned the room. She wondered if the scream had been part of a nightmare at first. Just some figment of her imagination brought on by the gruesome things she had been thinking about earlier. But the sound of raised voices outside her room made her doubt that explanation.
Pulling on a robe and opening her door just a crack she peered out into the hall to see maybe three or four people clustered around the open door of a room down the hall from hers. She felt ghoulish as she walked towards them to peer at whatever had caught their attention, like those people who slowed down when they passed car wrecks to get a good look at the twisted metal and broken bodies. She tried to tell herself that she was trying to see what had happened out of concern but she knew it was actually morbid curiosity that pushed her forwards down that hallway and made her peer above the heads of two of the shorter individuals in front of her.
It looked as if an explosion had occurred in a butchers shop. The white bed sheets and off-cream wall paper was splashed with crimson. In fact the sheets looked soaked through as if someone had been bled dry over the bed, their veins opened and their body hung upside down like a carcass at an abattoir. There were lines of red streaked across the walls and what looked like bloody footprints upon the carpet. The body laid upon the bed, a man in a state of undress with his throat and chest covered in what looked like medium sized holes as if someone had used a screwdriver to puncture his form repeatedly.
The grotesque damage done to his body had left it deathly pale and the clash of the bloodless looking corpse and the violent red of the blood soaking into the sheets and carpet around him created a ghastly contrast. He was splayed out on the bed as if he had been held down and she found herself wondering how many other injuries could be upon the body mercifully concealed by its pose and the sheet that covered the lower half.
The others stood in the hall were murmuring and in some cases shouting amongst each other as a man that Susan recognised as the man from the check in desk pushed to the front of the small crowd.
"Out of my way! Out of my way! There's been a terrible accident! There's an ambulance on its way"
"An ambulance?! What good will that do?"
"Accident? What do you mean accident?"
"Call the police!"
The clamour of voices and the stench of the blood from that awful blood soaked room made the corridor feel intensely claustrophobic to Susan. It felt as if the walls and ceiling were closing in upon her, compacting slowly to less than a tenth their size. She had to get away had to escape the smell of the blood and the sound of the fearful and angry hotel guests. She turned and made her way down the hallway unsteadily her legs feeling as if they might give out underneath her at any moment. She staggered into a stairwell and made her way down the steps but despite the distance she was putting between herself and the body the smell still seemed to invade her nostrils. It felt as if it was clinging to her body that awful coppery stench of blood and dead meat.
Her flailing limbs seeming to operate under their own power at this point and she found herself staggering out of the hotel lobby and into the street. Sirens in the distance seemed to confirm the clerks claim that help had been summoned though how he could possibly think that a doctor would do any good at this stage was beyond her. She took in deep lungful’s of air praying that it would banish the smell. She had earlier marvelled at how clean the air out here was but now she longed for the smells of the city. The pollution the stink of rotting garbage the thick and heavy odours issuing from dozens of restaurants cooking countless different kinds of cuisine. She wanted to fill her senses with anything that would block out the terrible smell of that terrible room.
Blinking away tears she rested her hand against a parked car beside the hotel entrance and tried to calm herself. She looked up and down the street for any sign of the arriving ambulance but instead her eyes found something else.
Parked across the street was the black car. And stood beside it was the woman in the dark suit and the dark leather duster. This time there was no mistaking her. Her china white features and the dark glasses that she still wore despite the lateness of the hour were instantly recognisable. She had also donned black leather gloves and was stood staring up at the moonless night sky posed as if she was standing for a photograph to be taken. As Susan stared at her she turned her head slightly and looked directly at her. She gave her a small smile and then got into the black car. Whoever was sat in the driver’s seat wasted no time in starting up the engine and driving swiftly away from the scene as Susan watched dumbly. Her mind was once more concocting fantastical ideas. This time a good deal less enjoyable in nature.
The ambulance arrived and the clerk spoke with the paramedics. After a brief conversation the body was being wheeled out and the clerk seemed to be heading off to whatever room of the hotel he normally occupied at this hour. Susan, having calmed her nerves somewhat at this point approached him to ask why the body was already being moved and when the police would be coming to take statements from people. She wanted to tell someone about the black car and the woman in the dark suit. And about the horrible suspicion that had entered her mind. That she had attracted the attention of someone with murder in their mind.
The clerk looked at her as if she had just approached him wearing her underwear upon her head.
"The police won't be coming. It was an accident" the clerk said.
"An accident" Susan repeated disbelievingly.
"Yes. A regrettable and unfortunate accident. I've already spoken with the paramedics and they shall be handling things from here"
"I saw that body. There is no way that anyone can have THAT happen to them by accident" Susan said insistently. The clerk grimaced and it was clear that he was eager for this conversation to be at an end.
"Regardless of what you may believe you saw I can assure you that there was no foul play at work here. Now if you'll excuse me..."
"I saw a woman!" Susan shouted and the clerk gave her a look. Stumbling over her words she continued, "I mean, today. This woman...I think she's been following me? Since I got into town I mean. And she was here tonight when this happened I saw her outside the hotel and..."
The clerk interrupted her before she could say more.
"Whatever you saw I assure you it has no bearing on what happened tonight. If you wish to waste the police's time with this that is of course entirely your business...but the matter has been settled and tragic while it may be the death tonight was not down to the actions of any other...person here"
Bidding her goodnight in a way that carried the same energy as if he had told her to "Go fuck herself" the clerk walked away leaving Susan to wonder whether she had awoken into a world that had lost all reason and common sense. The clerk seemed not to care that a murder had happened at his hotel. In fact he seemed determined to pretend that everything was perfectly ordinary. Not two hours ago a man had been lying dead in a room in this hotel the body torn at and drilled full of gaping holes and he was trying to claim that it was an "Accident"? Unless there had been a bed of nails in the room that the guest had tripped and fallen upon the idea of this death being an accident was a patent impossibility.
And so it was that Susan resolved to go to the police as soon as it was morning. She doubted she could get any more sleep tonight but also knew that getting a ride to the station at this hour was unlikely. And while sleep would be impossible a glass of wine or two to try and stop her hands from shaking seemed like a good idea. She managed not even a half hours sleep that night and found herself checking the door and the windows every few minutes as if expecting some blade wielding monstrosity to burst into the room and tear her apart.
However apart from some raised voices from the room next door she didn't hear or see anything else that night. Not that this calmed her. If anything it just made her anxiety even worse. By the time the first rays of the morning sun began to shine through her window she was a nervous wreck and she'd finished both bottles of wine in the minibar fridge.
It didn't take her long to make her way to the local police station but she found herself waiting longer than she would have expected to actually speak to anyone. When she was finally escorted into a small office it had been nearly forty minutes since she first arrived. She had a hard time believing that a small town police force like this had that much taking up their time and wondered if this was a case of the town’s cops not having much interest in making outsiders feel welcome. Or perhaps just outsiders who looked like her. Still if that was the case the man who sat behind the old oak desk that dominated most of the cramped office didn't do anything to show it outwardly. Instead he just motioned for her to take a seat. He looked like he'd gotten even less sleep than she had and the weary look on his face was matched by the tone of his voice as he asked her how he could help in a way that suggested he was praying that whatever she wanted wouldn't require anything approaching effort.
Susan did her best to explain things as coherently and succinctly as she could. She'd spent most of the previous night and the cab ride over thinking about how to explain her suspicions without sounding like a crazy person at worst or just a paranoid at best. The man behind the desk (Who according to the nameplate on his desk was named Andrews) nodded and made little "mm-hmm" noises at times before leaning back and letting out a loud sigh.
He drummed his fingers upon the desk before opening his eyes and leaning forwards to give her a less than friendly look.
"So your story is that this woman who followed you from the train station broke into the room of the person next to you in this hotel, killed them to freak you out, stuck around afterwards to taunt you and then just drove off?"
The way he said it left no doubt as to what he thought of her story. And admittedly when phrased that way the whole thing did sound ridiculous. Or at the very least strange. Hearing someone else repeat it back to her made her realise just how unlikely the whole situation was but at the same time it didn't allow her to shake the feeling that as strange as all of this was it didn't mean she was wrong.
The man behind the desk didn't seem to share that view however. And he wasted no time at all in making that as clear as crystal to her.
We've already been made aware of what happened last night. It's an open and shut case. An accident. An unfortunate accident but an accident"
"The man was TORN APART! It looked like someone had taken a fucking power drill to him! What, did he just "Accidentally" decide to do that to himself?" Susan snapped. Outside she could hear a few loud murmurs and glancing out of the office at the men and women moving around the station she could see that a few of them had stopped what they were doing and were looking in her direction as well. Taking a deep breath she prepared to try again but Andrews just held up a dismissive hand for silence.
"The matter has been settled. Now you’re not the first person I've seen come through here, try to play amateur sleuth when something they think is peculiar happened around these parts. They're all the same. They all think us poor local hicks must be dumb as a sack of hammers and they'll figure out something we didn't. And it always ends the same way. No one ends up happy"
Susan didn't particularly like the way that he said that. But she was also smart enough to know that starting a fight with this idiot was probably a quick way to get herself thrown in a cell for a few days for "Disturbing the peace" or something like that. And so she did her best to keep her temper in check and as tempting as it was to tell this condescending little prick exactly what she thought of him she instead replied in as calm and level a tone as she could:
"At the very least will you talk to this woman I saw? Find out what she was doing at the hotel that night, why she's been following me?"
Andrews let out another long sigh. He puffed out his cheeks like a deflating balloon as he leaned back in his chair, his relaxed posture only serving to further aggravate Susan. She hadn't known what to expect when she'd come here today but she'd allowed herself to dare to hope that a police officer might be a little more concerned about a possible homicide and a stalker.
"No one in town I know of who matches the description you gave us. And I'm not about to waste my officers time and the towns money on a manhunt for someone who you think might be following you around. Look if you see her again and she threatens you or does anything to make you feel unsafe, call us. Maybe then I can help. But unless that happens..."
"I get the idea"
Susan stood up to leave. She could see that she was wasting her time here. She didn't know if the man sat behind the desk was lazy or a crook but either way she wasn't going to be getting any help from him or anyone else here. As she made her way out of the office he called after her. He asked her how long she planned to be staying in town for. She answered truthfully that she only planned to be here for one more night before she headed back home.
"Probably for the best" he replied. And once again she didn't like the way he said it one bit.
She was tempted to just cancel her plans and get an early train home. But she'd already booked the ticket and money was tight. She didn't much like the idea of having to spring for another train ticket home on top of the other expenses the trip had already cost her. On top of financial concerns she did still really want to get those photographs of Stanfield's inventions, notebooks and research notes. Some of that stuff had probably only ever been seen by maybe two or three other people who were still alive. Having it included in her paper would definitely make it stand out from the crowd and would be a nice little feather in her cap. She also wouldn't mind seeing Anne again and saying a proper goodbye after how friendly and helpful the woman had been.
And, she told herself, it wasn't as if she knew she was in danger. She tried to convince herself that perhaps she really was making too much of all this. The eerie reappearance of the woman in black. The horrific scene in the room near hers. Maybe she was seeing danger to herself where there was none. Maybe the woman and her constantly crossing paths yesterday had just been some strange coincidence. Maybe the scene in the hotel room hadn't been what she thought it was. The cops, the paramedics the hotel clerk...they all insisted it was an accident. Either dozens of people in the town were all in on some labyrinth conspiracy to conceal the nature of one random man’s death or else perhaps the sight of the blood and the lateness of the hour had made her shocked mind see the scene differently than it actually was. Perhaps it really had been an accident.
What was more likely: that all these random people were willing to cover up a murder or that she was wrong? Occam’s Razor told her that the latter had to be the answer.
She arrived back at the Stanfield house later that afternoon. Despite being within opening hours this time the place was no livelier than it had been the day before. It seemed that Anne had been looking forward to her visit or else had very little else to do to occupy herself that day as she was sat at the ticket desk absent-mindedly tapping a pen she was holding against the wood until she caught sight of Susan. Her face brightened at once and she called out her name, standing up to walk around and greet her warmly.
"I was beginning to wonder if you weren't coming! Or something had...." she began but stopped herself. Susan apologised as she placed her bag gently on the ground so as to not damage the camera equipment within. She elected not to go into the gory details of what had made her late as she doubted that Anne wanted to hear all about that. Instead she elected to just say that she'd had to "Take care of something that came up, unexpectedly" which seemed to be explanation enough.
"It's so good to see you again. We so rarely get any visitors here much less one's who are so eager" she said as they once again made their way through the house and towards the stone steps that lead down into the basement. She walked a little closer to Susan this time and Susan found that she didn't mind the closeness at all. Now Anne had dropped the falsely cheery smile and manic wild eyed lunatic energy she'd sported when they'd first met she was surprisingly easy company to be around. Susan could easily see how the life of a tour guide/curator was a good fit for her. She seemed like the kind of person who naturally put people at ease.
Entering the chilly basement once more Susan found her eyes drawn towards the unsettling golden contraption on one of the shelves almost as soon as she entered. Given what had happened it was hard not to stare at the sharp tipped points of those fingers and not have her mind go to unpleasant places. Still she forced herself to tear her gaze from it and instead back towards the stacks of books on the shelves. She'd decided that she'd start by getting some pictures of the sketches and diagrams that Stanfield had drawn. Then a few shots of the actual finished inventions down here and finally some shots of the stuff in the public parts of the museum to finish up.
She knew it was probably more than she'd actually need for the paper but if she was being honest with herself she wanted these for herself as much as for that. It would be nice to be able to look at these whenever she wanted. To have a little something to show the work she'd done here.
As much as she tried to put it out of her mind while photographing the images and notes in the books her eyes kept straying towards the golden glove on the shelf. Not even making idle small talk with Anne took her mind off it. Anne cheerfully chatted away about how long she'd been living here in Havenfield and how she'd moved here with family "A long time ago" and "Put down roots" and how that while "Work sometimes takes me away I could never bear to leave here for good, you know?" all of which she agreed with fairly short responses like "Yep" or "Mmmm hmmm" or "That's true". It wasn't that she didn't want to talk to Anne or didn't enjoy having her down here with her but rather that she couldn't stop thinking about that damn glove.
"Hold on a second" she said, interrupting something Anne had been saying. She walked over to the shelf and examined the golden glove. It was, of course, spotless. As clean as anything so old could expected to be. What had she expected to see? Dried blood? Some grim sign that someone had used this to commit the butchery she'd seen (Or thought she'd seen) in the room near hers?
She became aware that Anne was leaning over her in the same way she was leaning over the glove and with a deeply worried look on her face. She imagined that her behaviour must look truly bizarre to her and she stood up swiftly hoping that she wasn't blushing at how embarrassed she felt. She felt awkward enough around people that she genuinely liked (As she was starting to like Anne a great deal) and she didn't need to have her thinking that she was some kind of absent minded weirdo.
"Is everything alright?" Anne asked sounding concerned. Susan nodded and turned away from the glove and back towards where her camera rested. She was about to say that everything was fine but instead decided to take a somewhat different tack. She decided to ask Anne if she was aware of anything odd that had happened in the town recently. She decided to ask Anne if she'd ever heard or seen anything around town that had struck her as odd or worrying.
"Well our town’s only claim to fame is that one of its residents was accused of being a serial killer. Does that count?" Anne replied. Susan actually found herself smiling. No, not only smiling but grinning. God it felt good to be able to grin like this, she thought to herself. She hadn't had a reason to genuinely smile like that all day. And if she was being honest with herself she'd had few reasons to genuinely smile that way at all in recent months. The night out with her friend a couple of days prior had been the first genuinely enjoyable evening she'd had in a long while.
And as odd and frightening as the previous night had been in this moment all she could think was that she very much would enjoy spending more time with Anne.
"I was thinking something a little more recent than a hundred years ago" she said and this time it was Anne's turn to grin.
"I can't say anything comes to mind. Well nothing...specific. There have always been stories, rumours. Small town legends. The usual kind of thing" Anne said.
"What kind of stories?" Susan asked. Anne looked as if she would very much rather talk about something else. Anything else. From the look on her face Susan got the impression that whatever the subject matter of these stories might be it would not be something that made for cheerful listening. And that did little to calm the increasingly anxious thoughts plaguing her brain.
Still she decided to turn the subject of conversation back towards slightly more cheerful subject matter. As she finished taking the rest of the photographs she and Anne spoke a little more about Stanfield. Instantly Anne's mood seemed to pick up as the familiar energy and passion returned to her voice. She spoke almost reverently about the work that Stanfield had done here in this very house and how lucky the town was to have had "A bonafide genius living amongst them. Not that they appreciated him" she said and with that last statement her tone briefly became bitter and almost angry. However it was only for a moment.
She would eagerly point out particular inventions or gush cheerfully about the artistry of the designs on the pages. She seemed as enraptured by the designs themselves as she did fascinated by their possible purpose.
"He could have been an artist, I think. He painted that himself" she said pointing towards the portrait that hung on one of the walls.
"I didn't realise" Susan said, looking for an artist’s signature on the portrait. Anne said that it had been mentioned in one of his journals that he'd kept after moving into the house to care for his ailing daughter and work on his projects in private. Susan assumed that it must have been one of the ones that had been written in English instead of the strange made up language that he had created to keep his research notes safely confidential.
She found herself wondering more and more about that. Why had he so fiercely guarded his secrets? After all at the time he had come to live here in Havenfield he had lost all respect and standing in the scientific community. Whatever little amount of regard his fellows had ever held him in had vanished. He was seen as a lunatic and a dreamer. There was little chance of anyone seeking to steal one of his ideas for themselves. In fact there was no chance as far as Susan could see. It would be like Thomas Edison breaking into a lunatic asylum to copy down the scribblings one of the patients had left on the walls.
Unless she supposed he was convinced that there was something dangerous about these inventions. Something that could be mis-used. Something that could harm people. Unless he was worried about what could be done with what he left behind. Well if that had been his goal he'd succeeded. Probably the only other person alive who would have been able to read those journals would have been his daughter Carmina. With the Stanfield family gone the Stanfield legacy amounted to this museum and the items gathering dust on its shelves.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Go ahead" Anne replied.
"Why work here? In the museum I mean, not the town. What made you want to do this?"
Anne looked thoughtful as she considered how to respond to that question. She paced around the room and for a few moments her demeanour, her pose...everything about how she held herself changed. Something about it seemed odd to Susan for a moment but the moment passed just as quickly. Anne stood in front of the portrait of Stanfield and Carmina with her back to Susan and seemed to be staring at it very intently. When she at last replied her voice was tinged with a surprising sadness.
"I suppose I'm like you, with your paper. Neither of us can bear to think of Stanfield's accomplishments...all that hard work and effort he put into his work to try and help the world...just being forgotten"
Her answer was so similar to what she'd been thinking the previous night that Susan's immediate response was "You haven't been reading my notes, have you?"
The flippant remark seemed to cheer Anne up as when she turned around she was smiling. There was still a sadness about it though. Susan wondered how many hours she spent here in this house, all by herself. The only person working at a museum few people wanted to visit or care about. The lone curator of a obscure piece of history, working to try and keep it from being forgotten altogether. She imagined it must be an incredibly lonely sort of job. In fact she found herself wondering if she'd been the first person to come here in who knew how many days or weeks. She wondered how much of Anne's cheerfulness was brought about just by having another person to talk to at last.
"Just a vibe I got off of you the other day" Anne replied. She took a few steps closer.
"One of the vibes I got off you" she added. She seemed to hesitate for a few moments before speaking.
"Look. Do you have to head back to New York today?"
"I'm here for one more night" Susan replied. Anne nodded and fell back into silence briefly before speaking up again.
"I don't suppose you'd like to get dinner? Tonight maybe?"
"I think I'd like that" Susan told her.
As the two made their way back up the stairs she heard Anne let out a little noise and turned in time to see that her foot had slipped on one of the stairs. With quickness that she wouldn't have thought she possessed Susan grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her back towards her.
"My hero" Anne said with a little smirk. Susan grinned bashfully and was so caught up in the moment and the pleasant feeling of Anne's body now closer to hers that it took her brain a moment to register something. When it did though it provoked a surprised response.
"Jesus, your hands are like ICE" Susan said. Anne pulled them out of Susan's grasp and stuck them in her pockets looking self-conscious. Susan regretted her shocked outburst when she saw this reaction but she hadn't been able to help it. The other woman’s hands were freezing cold.
"Its chilly in that basement" she said by way of explanation. Susan nodded and the two of them made their way up the stairs. They made arrangements to meet later that evening with Susan giving Anne the name of the hotel she was staying at. That was something else that had made her happy to accept Anne's offer. Spending as little time as possible in that building was just the way Susan wanted the rest of her stay in this town to go. And if that also meant spending more time with the one person she'd met here during her short stay whose company she genuinely enjoyed then all the better.
With a fond farewell and a promise to Anne that she'd be waiting for her in the lounge of the Lakeview Hotel at six that night Susan set off to the waiting cab. There was no black car loitering in the lane ahead this time. She was beginning to convince herself that the strangeness and awfulness of the previous day was behind her. The woman in the dark suit had just been some strange random woman. Whatever had happened in that room down the hall from hers....it wasn't her concern. She was going to spend her last night in Havenfield enjoying herself and then she would go home and finish her paper. And put all thoughts of strange mysteries and gruesome deaths as far out of her mind as she could.
Back at the hotel she showered and changed and checked her phones messages while she looked through the photos she'd taken that day. She'd be happier once they were all printed out...she never felt that digital photographs looked quite as good as the "Real thing"...but they were decent she thought. Her phones voicemail less so. Another worried message from her sister. Another call from the hospital. A few text messages from friends making general chit chat. Nothing to absorb her for long.
As she looked through the photographs however something kept bringing her back to the one of the page concerning the Eternity Engine. Something was gnawing at the back of her brain, something that kept bringing her back to that image. It wasn't until she stepped outside to have a cigarette and looked up at the Lakeview Hotel's sign or rather what was left of the sign that she realised what it was. That she realised what her brain had been trying to tell her.
Working rapidly she made her way through the text on the page she had taken a photograph of. Using the fact that she knew what eight letters of this made up language or code or whatever it was meant she used the zoom function on the photos to identify as many occurrences of them in the text regarding the Eternity Engine at the top of the page.
What she was left with resembled a game of hangman or a crossword puzzle. She began doodling guesses as to what letters might fit. The first sentence was almost certainly Once (Something) in the chest of (Something) the Eternity Engine's is designed to reverse the (Something) of the (Something) by Re-Engineering the (Something) of the (Something).
It wasn't a lot to go on but it was a start. And, she thought to herself, a start that she could build on. Imagine, she thought, if she wound up being the first person to crack the code Stanfield had written these notes in? If she was the first person in a hundred years to be able to decipher exactly what he had been working on. Even if it only worked for this one particular page and this one particular invention that would be an accomplishment. Even what she'd achieved so far, she thought to herself, was an accomplishment. She was the first living person in a century to look at these notes and understand even a small part of them.
Feeling rather proud of herself she put the notes back in her bag with a satisfied grin. "The Woman who cracked the Stanfield Code". It had a nice ring to it. Definitely something to leave behind. Maybe even something that people would remember.
She went down to the hotel bar to wait for Anne to arrive. Still buzzing with satisfaction over her historical sleuthing earlier she felt like nothing could spoil her good mood. And while she wasn't entirely wrong she was not entirely right either as she found out when a man came up to sit beside her at the bar with a worried look on his face. He looked familiar to her for a moment but at first she couldn't place him. Then she realised that she'd seen him the previous night in the hallway. He'd been one of the guests who had, like her, clustered around the room of the dead man and witnessed the grisly aftermath of whatever had happened to him.
"Hi" she said in a way that was polite enough but also made it fairly clear that it was just the casual politeness of someone who does not want to spend a lot of time talking to the person they are greeting. The man nodded stiffly and ordered a drink. Taking a deep swig of it once it arrived he set the glass down on the bar and then looked over at her again.
"You’re that girl from last night. The one what the clerk was arguing with" he said.
"Yeah I'm sorry if I...caused a scene or whatever" Susan said, aware of the patent absurdity of the statement. She doubted anything she could have said or done would have caused more of a scene than what had already happened that night.
"You were right y'know. Weren't no accident. Whole thing stinks"
She was a little curious now. Who was this man and why had he decided to approach her like this? And more to the point did she want to know? She would be leaving town tomorrow. Did she want to spend her last night here getting drawn into whatever was happening at this hotel or in this town in general? Still she remained seated where she was and didn't say or do anything to discourage the man. In fact she turned in her seat a little so she was facing him and he seemed to take that as an invitation to say more.
"Was on the force too many years to not know a goddamn murder when I see one. An that's what that was sure as I'm sitting here talking to you. That were a murder And that's not all"
"What do you mean not all?" Susan asked. She needed to know more now despite the voice in her head telling her that she would probably be better off if she didn't. Now that she'd started listening she needed to hear the whole thing.
"There were people here earlier. Men. Taking stuff out of that hotel room where they found him. Everything he had, looked like.
And a woman were with them. Talking to the clerk. Doing some kind of deal looked like"
Susan had a horrible feeling she knew what the answer to her question would be. But she asked it anyway. And the man's response when she inquired what the woman liked like made a chill run through her body.
"Dark suit. Dark hair. Dark glasses. Real pale, too. Looked like there weren't a goddamn drop of blood in her body. White as a glass of milk" the man said.
Susan asked him if he had heard what she and the clerk talked about while she was there. He hadn't because they'd apparently gone off to the clerk’s office to talk over whatever the details of this arrangement were. But what the man said next only added another piece to an increasingly complex and baffling puzzle.
"Looked at the log book while they was in the clerk’s office. Wanted to know who'd been staying in that room" he said. Susan nodded and prompted him to continue. The old man finished his drink and slammed the glass down harder than Susan felt was strictly needed before answering her.
"Nobody. Weren't nobody supposed to be booked into that room. Weren't nobody meant to have been there this whole goddamn month"
Susan pondered this new information carefully before she replied.
"So he was what...a squatter? A burglar?"
"Maybe", the old man said. He was already standing up to leave apparently considering the conversation at an end at this juncture much as Susan very much wanted to ask him more questions.
"Or maybe the hotel didn't want no record that he was here"
With that he slowly walked away heading out of the bar and out of sight. Susan considered giving pursuit to ask him more questions to ask him what he thought all of this meant. If he really was a retired police detective like he said maybe he was someone who could help her figure out why this woman seemed to be pursuing her since her arrival here and more to the point what it had to do with the strange and violent goings on of the previous night. But before she could her eyes beheld a far more welcome sight.
Stood in the hotel lobby, dressed smartly in a pink and red suit, her make up rather more carefully and expertly applied than it had been before and with a wide smile on her face was Anne. Susan walked towards her, calling her name and as soon as Anne's eyes fell upon her the smile widened even further. She leaned forward and planted a small kiss on Susan's cheek which Susan was more than okay with.
"Look at you! You look...amazing" Anne said. Susan tried to shrug the compliment off. She was certain that she hardly looked anything special. The clothes she'd brought with her in her travel bag were not the kind of thing she'd been planning to wear for a date but she'd done her best. She told Anne that she thought she looked incredible as well and the two of them set off out of the hotel and into the night. The restaurant they were going to was within walking distance and as they walked Susan tried not to think about what the old man had said. All the same she found herself glancing behind her every now and then. She was certain that at any moment she'd see the black car gliding after her. Or the woman in the dark suit and the dark glasses walking silently and stealthily behind them with a knife or something worse in hand, ready to pounce upon her and Anne.
However they arrived at the restaurant without incident and soon they were seated at a table and drinks had been ordered. While the waiter went to get them Anne placed a hand on Susan's. Like before it was icy cold but this time Susan didn't comment upon it. She was worried it would be something Anne was self-conscious of, with how she'd reacted earlier that day.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Anything you like", Susan replied.
"Is something wrong? Because you kept checking behind us the entire walk here" Anne asked. Susan thought about telling a lie but she decided to instead go for giving SOME of the truth. She really didn't want to spend her date with Anne talking about a gory possible murder but she could also see that Anne clearly wasn't stupid and could tell that something was frightening her. Before she could Anne spoke.
"If it’s about...you know...this...people here are more open minded than you might think small town people would be. It's safe for us to be out together" Anne said.
"I wish that small minded idiots were all I was worried about right now" Susan replied.
Carefully she explained to Anne about her arrival and the woman at the train station. How she'd seen the woman or her car at various locations she'd been at the rest of that day and had found out today that the woman had been lurking around the hotel while she'd been out. She left out the part about the murder and the worrying feeling she was getting that something larger than a simple stalking was at work here.
Instead she simply said that she'd gotten a worrying and dangerous feeling from the woman which wasn't exactly a lie. It was very true that she felt that the woman in the dark suit was dangerous. She just didn't bring up exactly why she was sure that was the case.
Anne asked her if she had spoken to the police. Susan assured her that she had but that at the same time she very much doubted they'd do much to help. Again this was at worst a half-truth. The fact was she was increasingly certain that the police wouldn't do anything because after what she'd learned today she was beginning to think that what she'd earlier dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theory...that the cops might somehow be actively involved in covering up the murder that had taken place...might well be the truth or close to it.
Even with the parts she left out it was clear that what she kept in was enough to worry Anne. Or perhaps she was just that obviously shaken and frightened that it was easy to see even without her revealing everything. Either way Anne clutched her hand tighter and leaned forward a little.
"I promise you, this is a safe town. I know it might not seem like it right now but...this really is a decent place to live. I don't think you have anything to worry about while your here. But if it would help I mean you could...if you don't want to stay at the hotel tonight...you could..."
"Wow, you move fast" Susan said. And as Anne let out a laugh and then told her she hadn't meant it like THAT Susan found herself laughing again as well. The tension had broken. She was here in a normal restaurant with a normal person doing normal people things. No knife wielding serial killer was going to lurch out at her. No sinister conspiracy was following her or plotting against her or seeking her demise or worse. She was a college student doing research for a paper and having a night out with someone she found incredibly good company. And once again she could put everything else out of her mind.
As they enjoyed their wine the two of them talked animatedly. Anne explained how she'd moved to Havenfield years ago with family and that after they had passed she had travelled for a bit before returning to the town to settle down. She'd been working as the museum curator since the previous one had passed a while back and she admitted with a little bashfulness that outside of Susan she hadn't really made many connections or friends in town. She confessed to being a little anxious around new people and that she found getting out and about a bit of a challenge at times. She spoke so honestly and so warmly that it made Susan feel a little guilty about her earlier half-truths.
Susan for her part talked about back home. Her overprotective family (Anne said she could definitely relate to that. "My father used to think I was his whole world. I mean he wasn't a bad guy just...SO overprotective. I had a pretty sheltered childhood") and about her time at college. She eagerly described her friends back in New York, talked about fond memories of going stage diving at concerts, the road trip she'd taken with her friend Amanda and a girl she'd been dating back then that had taken them all across Europe, about her favourite professor back at college and how excited she was to present her findings when she got back.
She carefully changed the subject whenever Anne brought up her plans for the future. She really didn't want to get into that right now. She didn't want to spoil the evening.
Instead she decided to bring up her little revelation earlier. The fact that she might have found a way to decode at least some of Stanfield's notes. As soon as she did this Anne's eyes widened and a look of genuine shock crossed her face. She immediately asked to know more and so Susan explained what she had done and the process she had used to do it.
"Once I realised that I knew how to read those three words it just clicked that that meant that as long as the rest of the text on that page follows the same code...which logically it must...then I could use that to decipher some of the text. And if I could decipher SOME of it..."
"Then you could start to decipher all of it" Anne said.
"Exactly! Just think...I could be the first person in years to actually know what these notes say" Susan said excitedly.
Anne had a look on her face that Susan couldn't quite place. She leaned across the table conspiratorially and lowered her voice a little.
"Well. The second one sitting at this table" she said. Susan was sure that if she were a cartoon character this would have been the point her jaw dropped.
"Have you...have you decoded some of Stanfield's notes as well?" she asked. Anne was about to reply when her phone went off. Apologising quickly she flipped it open and began speaking to whoever was on the other end. Her expression darkened the longer the call went on and the cheerfulness and the mischievous little smile she had sported turned to a frown and a look of annoyance. When the call was done she hung up and gave Susan an apologetic look. It was clear that something was wrong and sure enough the next thing she said revealed just how wrong things had gone.
"I'm so sorry about this. That was the janitor over at the museum...there's been a break in, he says. The cops are already there. It looks like I'm going to have to head back there to sort this out"
"Do you want me to come with you?" Susan asked but Anne shook her head, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"No, you stay. There's no reason both our nights should be screwed up by this. I'm just...I'm really sorry about this. I was really looking forward to tonight. I really wanted to do something normal, you know?"
Susan could absolutely relate to that feeling and she told Anne so. Apologising again Anne called for a cab and shortly she was gone, headed back to the museum. Susan sighed to herself. It looked as if her hopes to have an enjoyable last night in Havenfield had been dashed to pieces. She tried her best to enjoy the meal on its own merits but eating by herself, no matter how nice the meal was, couldn't really compare to spending more time with Anne. Deciding against dessert she instead paid up and decided to head back to the hotel.
The building was oddly silent as she entered. Silent and dark. As she made her way back towards her room she felt strangely isolated. There was no sound coming from any of the other rooms. No TV's switched on blaring out the sound of sitcom laugh tracks or music. No loud or even medium volume voices from behind the closed doors. It was if she was the only person in the building. The silence all around made the beating of her own heart in her chest and the sound of her footsteps on the rough carpet sound like a cacophony. The overall effect was deeply eerie.
But it was nothing compared to the feeling that she experienced when she saw that her room’s door was wide open. She knew for a fact that she'd closed it behind her after she left. She wasn't remotely that absent minded and as she entered the room any possibility that the door just hadn't closed properly behind her as she left disappeared completely. Her room had been ransacked. It was clear that someone or perhaps multiple people had searched through her things.
Even though she hadn't brought anything worth a great deal of money with her the feeling of anger and distress she felt at that moment was palpable. The idea that someone had just let themselves into her room and been through her personal belongings made her feel ill. She started to try and tidy the things that had been left lying around the room and try to work out what, if anything had been stolen but she could feel early on that she was too angry to do a good job of it. As far as she could see her things were still here which just made this seem even more senseless and only served to make her even more infuriated. The idea that someone might have done this just for the sake of vandalism made her dearly wish that she could get her hands on whatever bastard had done this.
And then she realised that something was missing. Something had been taken. Her translation of the Stanfield Code. Someone had taken the sheet of paper on which she’d scrawled down the beginnings of her attempt to translate it from the cypher Stanfield had written his work out in into English.
Taking out her phone she punched in 911 and waited only for nothing to happen. No signal. Typical. She knew that there was a landline down at reception and she was halfway towards the stairwell that lead back down towards it when she smelled it. The familiar sickening scent that she'd only been unlucky enough to experience once before. The smell of blood.
Further down the hall another door was hanging open.
She knew she didn't want to see what was in there. But just as sure as she was of this she was also certain that she couldn't force herself not to look either. The same grim inquisitiveness that had pushed her down the hall the night before was at work now. Making her walk down the hall toward the door. Making her look into the darkened room within. Forcing her to take in the sight that waited for her.
It was the old man. Part of her had already suspected that was who it would be. He was slumped upon the bed his neck and chest sporting numerous puncture wounds. The body had been less brutalised than the one the previous night but that was hardly much in the way of comfort. Dead was dead. Murder was murder. Just because this murder was less messy than the one she'd seen last night didn't make it any easier to cope with it. Laying there in a pool of his own blood with his throat and chest shredded and pieces of himself spattered across the carpet and over the walls was what had once been a human being.
Something was on the table. It took her a moment to realise what she was looking at. When she did she wished desperately that she could delete the sight from her brain. Laying there on the table was the old man’s heart. It had been cut cleanly out of his chest or else ripped clean out with brutal strength. And whoever had done it had then simply left it on the table. Had discarded it casually after clawing a human beings body open to tear it free.
She could feel vomit rising in her throat. She had to get away. She had to get somewhere safe. She had to get the fuck out of this fucking hotel. And then she had a thought that came to her unbidden and refused to leave her mind.
Her room had been ransacked. And at the same time this man had been killed. The two could be unconnected and yet hadn’t she been unable to shake that strange feeling ever since the first death she’d witnessed that somehow there was some connection between the deaths and what had brought her here?
The woman in the dark suit and dark glasses. Could she have come here for the same reason she had? Could her journey here always have been connected to Stanfield and his strange history and bizarre inventions…and was it possible that she was willing to kill for whatever it was she had come here for? The coincidences seemed to line up all too neatly…the two of them arriving in this small, out of the way little town together…the fact that her car had been outside the Stanfield house that day she’d first gone there….and now she’d seemingly struck again while also robbing her of the work she’d done to research Stanfield’s inventions….
Could the people who’d been killed be connected as well somehow? Or had they just seen too much…witnesses to this woman being involved in something.
The woman. Stanfield. The “Eternity Engine”. It all seemed tied together in some way, pieces of a puzzle that she couldn’t quite put together. And at that moment putting it together wasn’t the most pressing thought on her mind. Instead she was thinking about how Anne had told her that she’d also translated Stanfield’s books…and how that car had been loitering outside the museum where she worked…and how there had been a break in at Anne’s museum that very night…
What if Anne was in danger as well?
If this unknown woman really had been watching her somehow or had employed someone to spy on her…maybe even the clerk at the hotel or one of his employees, slipped a sizable bribe for their assistance…it would explain how she knew about her success in decoding some of the Stanfield text. And it would mean they knew that Anne had as well.
Which would almost certainly put a target on her back.
She knew that right now she should be trying to find a way to contact the police.
Just as she knew that it was likely that Anne might have already headed home or to the police station but it was possible that she was still at the museum dealing with the break in. And as much as she distrusted the police in this town after what had happened when she'd tried to report the previous nights murder she could always hope that she might find someone, anyone who would actually listen to her now. Someone who wasn't so stupid lazy or corrupt that they'd actually do something to keep her safe from whatever it was that she'd found herself wrapped up in.
And right now she needed to know that Anne was safe. And that what she was caught up in hadn’t put her at risk as well.
She didn't bother to try and alert the clerk to what had happened. Given what the old man had told her earlier she was fairly certain that he was in on what was happening here. She couldn't put together why or how yet but that was a secondary concern right now. What she was certain of was that this hotel was not a safe location to stay in and that the people or person who ran it was at the very least turning a blind eye to whatever was happening here.
When she got outside she managed to get signal on her phone. She honestly didn't know how she managed to make herself sound calm enough over the phone to call for someone to take her to the Stanfield house. As soon as she was in the back of the cab it felt like she was about to have a minor panic attack. The cab driver didn't seem to much care and the only reaction he offered to her distress was to ask if she was "Going to throw up" in his backseat because as he explained "I get it taken out of my pay if they throw up in my backseat". She told him she was fine with as much irritation in her voice as possible and tried as best as she could to think about what she was going to say. How on earth she would even begin to explain what had just happened.
The cab came to a stop and after she thrust the money into the drivers hand and asked him to wait there and keep the engine running and before she knew it she was making her way up the house ahead. The lights were still on and the front door was open so she assumed that Anne was still talking things out with the cops about what had happened. She hoped to whatever god or gods or whatever was listening that the cops here would be more willing to listen and to help than the asshole she'd spoken with that morning. And as that thought came it struck her how insane it was that all of this had happened in the course of a day. Before today she could count the number of murders she'd seen on the fingers of no hands. The most frightening thing to happen to her was a couple of cat-calling creeps who'd followed her a block or so from a club. The worst things she'd seen were limited to documentaries, horror films and true crime websites. Now she'd seen two dead bodies, both of them the victims of a murderer who had ripped them open and she was certain that she was being targeted by a stalker with some measure of influence or control over the people of the town. It was like she'd taken a wrong turn and stumbled into the plot of a crime novel.
As she stepped through the door she called out Anne's name. There was no response and so she ventured further into the house. Some rooms were still darkened and empty while others had the lights on. She would peek into them calling out for Anne as she did. Each of them was silent and devoid of life. No sign that Anne, the police or anyone else had entered them in quite some time. As she made her way through the building each step only increasing the unbearable sensation that she was utterly, inescapably alone in this place she continued to call out for help. Her eyes fixed on something at the end of the hall the way a drowning sailor might lock onto any light in the distance as a ship that could rescue them. There was a door ajar and a light on beyond it and she unsteadily stepped through it to find a part of the house she hadn't seen on either of her previous visits.
It was a bedroom, by the look of it. A bed, dresser drawers, a wardrobe, a table with a mirror, jewellery boxes and...
Her heart leapt into her throat. For a second she was sure, in the dim light, she was looking at a human head placed there on the table. It was only as she fumbled for the light switch and her eyes adjusted to the dark that she realised what she was actually gazing at. It was a dolls head with a wig placed upon it. A blonde wig.
She imagined it must be Anne's. It looked like her hair. Or what she'd taken to be her hair. And she was still pondering why Anne might wear such a thing when her eyes drifted to the contents of the table in front of her. There were various articles of makeup. Some of it was the kind of thing one might expect to find anywhere at any given cosmetics counter at any given store that sold such things. Other items were more unusual. Face paint and other prosthetics you might expect to see in the makeup department of a TV show or a film. Anne's press on nails were popped off and carefully arranged on the table. And beside them...beside them was something that made Susan cry out softly.
She pressed her hand to her mouth to stifle the noise. There on the table was what looked like a pair of eyes. Anne's eyes.
As her own focused more clearly she saw that they were artificial. In fact as she reached out to touch them she realised they were cold and had the feel of glass or plastic to the touch. None of this made her feel any less confused or frightened. She was halfway through calling out Anne's name a final time when a door clicked open and a figure stepped out.
It was Anne. But it also wasn't. The hair wasn't the bleach blonde of Anne's hair. The hair was black and glossy and straight. The skin wasn't like Anne's. It was bone white. She was shorter than Anne, no doubt because the addition of heels and lifts in Anne's shoes granted her a tallness that this woman lacked. As she backed up against the wall all Susan could do was stare at the woman who stood before her. As she rubbed the last of her face paint off on a towel she held in her hands the woman in the dark suit stepped into the room. Tossing the towel aside she turned her head slowly to look at Susan and the final and crucial difference became clear. Her eyes...her eyes were black glass. Black glass with twin red points blazing somewhere in there centre.
Susan couldn't breathe. It felt as if the world was about to collapse inwards upon her.
"I realise this must be a little alarming" Anne said. Except even her voice was different now.
"Are you going to kill me?"
It was the first thing that popped into Susan's head. Anne or whoever she was shook her head. She took a step closer. Now she saw her up close like this Susan could easily see how much her profile resembled the woman in blacks. She felt like a fool for not having seen it earlier. Take away the trappings...the different skin complexion, the change in hair colour and the wildly different wardrobe...and the two were twins.
"Do you want to die?" Anne asked. Her tone wasn't threatening. It sounded curious. As if she was genuinely asking the question with the desire to hear the answer from Susan's own lips. She backed up slowly as Anne regarded her carefully. Those little red points of light seemed to twitch and expand and shrink as she stared in her direction.
"Are you...did you...did you do something to Anne" Susan asked. She shook her head and smiled. It was the same smile from the train station. The same smile that night at the hotel.
"There never was an Anne. It's just a name. A name I use sometimes. Anne was me. Just like Claire. And Jane. And Mary. And more"
"So…who are you?" Susan asked. "Anne" or the person who had called herself Anne seemed to consider her answer for a moment. Her expression was hard to read. The lack of eyes did not help. But finally she answered.
My name is Carmina Stanfield. And this is my home"
Susan turned and ran.
She ran through the hall and towards the exit of the house. She ran toward the freedom of the open air and the waiting cab. She spared a single glance behind her and found nothing waiting. She was yelling at the driver of the cab when it happened. It was so swift that it was almost a blur. As if all of it occurred too fast for the human eye to quite keep up with. In an instant Anne or Carmina or whoever she was stood upon the roof of the cab. And in the next moment Susan watched what occurred.
Something came from the woman’s fingertips. Long thin wires or tubes tipped with sharp little points. The cab driver was screaming as they wrapped around his body and dragged him through the window and into the air. Whatever they were made of was durable and strong and his struggling and kicking and screaming didn't seem to perturb Anne/Carmina in the slightest. And as the tubing wrapped around the man’s body the sharp little points at the end seemed to find their target. As Susan watched in petrified fascination mixed with horror they began to dig into the man’s form.
They began to burrow into his body. He was screaming to heaven for someone, anyone to come and save him. He was howling for someone to make it stop as first the points of the needles and then the tubes slid into him. Through his arms, his legs and his chest they wormed their way through his body making human Swiss cheese out of his thrashing and twitching form. He was unable to articulate words at the end. Blood was pouring across the cab and over Carmina as the tubes ripped into the man. His skin and muscle was being peeled apart with a sound that made Susan's stomach turn as he screeched one final time and fell still. The tubing was pulsing. Fattening as a sound like someone gulping down a pint of beer could be heard. The man’s body twitched one final time and then fell still
The tubes retracted and dropped what was left of the man to the ground. His body looked as if it had been ripped open from the inside out. Carmina was caked in blood and as she turned to look at her Susan found that her limbs had given up ignoring the commands of her brain. She couldn't run if she wanted to.
"I can't have witnesses" she said.
And she stepped down and walked towards her, her voice calm and level as she did so.
"I never lied to you Susan. I want you to know that. Not exactly. And what I said...I meant it.
Left some things out.
I was fifteen when it happened. The disease. My body betraying me. Every organ failing. My own blood raging against me. No cure. No hope. When my father brought us here to find a way to save me. To keep me alive"
Susan stared in fascinated terror at the figure approaching. Like Venus from the clam shell Carmina was approaching her slick with the blood of her kill. The tubes had retreated back inside her fingertips and were no longer visible. The red points in her eyes seemed to blaze brighter. As she watched she licked the blood from her fingers as if it was a succulent dressing upon a well prepared meal. Carmina's body language was utterly ordinary as if what she had just done was no more unusual than savouring a glass of wine.
"He knew things. He had been to places...places on this world that aren't like anywhere else. The same places he learned the language he wrote his journals in, I imagine. The same places he learned that there were ways where one could not only cheat death...they could master it.
He perfected his artistry there. And he found a way to make me live beyond death. Outside of its reach.
But nothing comes without...sacrifice"
Susan managed to find her strength to stand and run. With no other good options available she ran back toward the Stanfield house. If she could barricade herself in one of its rooms she could call someone. Anyone. If her phone could just get some FUCKING SIGNAL again she could call for help. Call the cops. Call her friends. Call anyone. Everyone. She couldn't hear Carmina pursuing her but that didn't mean much. She hadn't heard her pursuing before and that hadn't stopped her tearing the cab driver open like she was coring an apple. She ran through the house stumbling into one room after another. Looking for one that had a lock on the door or anything that she could barricade it with.
And she heard Carmina's voice from somewhere behind her.
"He gave his own life to test it. His own blood.
It lives within, you see. It burrows into your heart. And it gives you life. But you have to feed it. You have to give it blood. It needs it. You give it blood and it gives you...life"
"You’re a...a fucking vampire!" Susan screamed into the darkness. There was a soft laugh. Anne's laugh. Carmina's laugh. It sounded like it had before. She laughed the same at this as she had at Susan's jokes and anecdotes when they'd talked and flirted over the previous two days.
"I suppose. We're not what the stories say though. There's no curse. No bite on the neck. Just the engine. And the blood. And the transformation. I was cut open. Bone replaced by metal. Veins and arteries replaced by wiring. My body peeled open like an orange. Aware. Of every second. Every moment. Being re-made from the inside out. Agony beyond imagining. Ecstasy beyond comprehension. The engine feeding on it all. Feeding and feeding and still hungry for more"
"You’re going to kill me" Susan breathed out. She was huddled in the dark of one of the rooms. Her body hunched over her knees touching her chin. She desperately wished more than anything that her hands would stop shaking. Could her body just give her a little fucking dignity in death?
"Do you want to die?"
The question was the same as the one that had been asked moments earlier. Susan shut her eyes tight. The voice sounded closer when it came again.
"Do you want to die?
The tests. The treatments. The ones you stopped showing up for"
"You don't know anything" Susan muttered. But the voice when it came was confident and assured. Arrogant even.
"I know you gave up, Susan.
Like your body did.
Lung cancer...a bad way to go. Probably worse without treatment"
"You don't know ANYTHING!" Susan screamed at the darkness. She looked around the room. There was no sign of Carmina. But her voice seemed to carry through the house. She could be hiding somewhere in the shadows of that room or in one of the adjoining ones. It was impossible to tell. It was like her words were coming from far away and close by all at once.
"You were researching my father. That brought you to my attention. And when you had my attention...I learned about you"
"To kill me", Susan finished. That laugh again.
If I had to. I'm not a monster, you know"
"You killed those men....slaughtered them" Susan muttered. The laugh sounded closer this time. Could she feel warm breath against her cheek or was it her imagination? She had no way of knowing for sure.
"The man in the hotel room? A rapist. He was...procured. I have connections. In this town and beyond. They help me find my meals. Help me be...."
"A picky eater?" Susan finished bitterly. The laugh. Warm and soft and filled with genuine mirth.
"Something like that. The other man tried to blackmail one of my associates. He had to be silenced. And the cab driver...unfortunate. I prefer not to kill the innocent"
"Well that makes it okay then" Susan spat bitterly. There was a sigh from somewhere in the room. She could see twin red dots in the blackness. She knew what they were.
"No. It does not. And I am sorry. This is not what I wanted to happen"
"You wanted to kill me somewhere more isolated I'm sure" Susan muttered.
"I had no intention of killing you. The only crime I have committed against you is theft. I stole your notes on your translation of my father’s notes. And I deleted the photograph of the Eternity Engine. I apologise for this. But no one else can know of how it works"
"Get it over with!" Susan shouted. She wanted her to just do it. Kill her. Put her out of her misery. End the fear building in her heart with every passing second. But she would not.
"I don't want to kill you.
I told you...I became...interested in you. And...I didn't lie. Before. I did not deceive you about how I feel. About you. About how I feel around you"
"Then what the hell do you want?" Susan asked. There was silence in the dark for a while. She wondered if Carmina had left. But finally she spoke again. There was something in Carmina's voice this time. A sadness or a regret.
"I want you to live"
Carmina was beside her now. Susan took a deep breath as her hand gently wrapped around her neck. She could feel the tips of those needles brushing against her skin. She could feel each breath against her skin. She could see the strange red light that glowed within those black glass eyes fixed upon her.
"You could leave. You could live another year. Two years perhaps. Or...I could give you more. I could give you eternity"
"As a slave" Susan replied. Carmina shook her head.
"No. As an equal. As something like me. As someone with me...if you want...or to live your own life if you wish. The world can give you nothing. I want to give you forever"
Her tone was genuine. As Susan stared at her face she saw her lips curl into perhaps the most unhappy smile she had ever seen. It was a smile devoid of joy or humour but instead one that seemed to take a bitter pleasure at some private joke at the wearers own expense.
"Would tears convince you of my sincerity? I'm afraid they are rather difficult for me" Carmina said and tapped a finger at the strange glass orbs that resided in her eye sockets.
"Does it hurt?" Susan asked. The sad smile was replaced with a more thoughtful look.
"Creation...destruction...they always hurt. You have to die, a little. But after...after it's something else altogether"
"And then...everything. Forever. No death. The engine repairs everything" Susan thought about the offer. As Carmina's needle-like fingers softly caressed her throat she thought about what she had said. To live forever. To be forever.
She thought about the hours spent in doctors’ offices and hospitals. She thought about the tiresome men and women who had droned at her telling her not to do this, not to go there, not to spend the tiny amount of time she had left to live living. She thought of how utterly alone she had felt every time she'd stepped into one of those ghastly antiseptic rooms. She thought about how little she had to leave behind. She thought about how if the disease took her one night no one might notice at all until the squawking of her ill-tempered pet bird got too loud and too unruly for the neighbours to put up with or until she fell behind on her payments to the various organisations that wanted her money.
"You what...bite my neck?" she asked. Carmina shook her head.
"Not quite, no"
It hurt. It hurt like dying. Maybe worse than dying.
Strapped down to a table she felt her skin being delicately peeled open. She felt cold blades slicing through nerve and muscle and soft fatty tissue. She felt agony beyond anything she had ever experienced before. She was not a stranger to pain but what she felt now was beyond that. Beyond broken bones and sliced flesh. And then when the when the blades found her bones, when the machinery began its true work, she realised that what she had experienced so far was nothing at all. A prelude. A prologue. It opened new worlds of agony to her brain as she felt the transformation take place. Smooth breakable human bone replaced by something else. Something beyond humanity. Something beyond mortality. And in the pulsing wet mass that was her body it was placed. The engine. The second Eternity Engine.
Carmina's ability to read her father’s notes must have made it easy for her to create another. Susan wondered if she was the first Carmina had done this to. Her brain felt a twinge of jealousy at the idea that she was not unique in this way and the ludicrous nature of that thought in this situation might have moved her to laughter in any other circumstance. For a while everything went dark as her eyes were removed.
Then when they were replaced the world swam back into focus in ways she never would have imagined before. A beautiful terrifying wonderful rainbow of motion and sound and detail. She was reborn. She was dead. She was alive.
She was more alive than she had ever been.
Dawn broke. The first faint rays of the morning sun. The pain was gone now but her body felt sensitive. Raw and fresh as if every sensation was a new one. As if every sight, every smell and even the faintest brush of contact against her skin was something beyond the ordinary. The restraints on her ankles and wrists had been released and slowly she sat up, the motion making her dizzy for a moment.
The door was open and further down the hall she could see that the front door was likewise. She could hear the scurrying of field mice. The flutter of bird’s wings. And she could feel the hunger of the engine that burned inside her chest. That throbbed and pulsed and thirsted for the substance it needed to keep going. She swallowed hard as she stood afraid that it would hurt at first. It didn't hurt but it felt strange at the same time. Her limbs felt as if they belonged to someone else. She felt effortless, devoid of mass. As if she had slipped free of gravities tyranny. Months of her body betraying her, making her a prisoner within her own form and now she had transcended it. Freed herself from it.
She stepped down the hall slowly at first and then with more confidence. The sun on her skin was warm. Her artificial eyes allowed her to gaze directly up at the blazing orb in the sky.
The hand on her shoulder made her turn, to see Carmina stood there beside her. She smiled at her and Susan smiled back.
"What do I do now?" Susan asked.
Anything you want"
The tubes extended from the tips of Susan's fingers. She felt herself rising up into the air. Luxuriating in the sunlight. She tilted her head back and opened her mouth wide in an expression of purest rapture.
The Eternity Engine burned within her. And forever beckoned.