"Damn it, Jess, you told me this place was abandoned! I'm out," I cursed as I turned my back to the stately, well-kept house that was very obviously not abandoned, making me lose whatever nerve I thought I had.
Jess and I were what you might call ‘disenfranchised youths’. Our prospects for the future were pretty bleak, and we were pissed about it. With things only getting worse for us this year, we had decided we were finally pissed enough to do something about it. Or, at least pissed enough to do something that made us feel like we were doing something about it.
Our plan was to raid what we believed to be an unoccupied home of our town’s wealthiest resident, taking anything of value we could carry while tearing the place up to ‘send him a message’. Ostensibly, anyway. Looking back on it, we were just lashing out, with no real reason to believe one act of petty theft and vandalism would be the impetus for any great social change. It would more likely be the impetus for us spending the rest of the pandemic in prison.
“I never said it was abandoned. I said it was unoccupied,” Jess insisted as he grabbed me by the shoulder. “It’s a guest house, where Chamberlin keeps any out-of-town guests when his mansion is overflowing with pussy.”
“I’m pretty sure Chamberlin’s gay, actually,” I muttered disinterestedly, turning my attention back to the house to see if there was any merit to what he was saying. It was a squat, stone, rectangular house that looked to be about fifty feet by forty. Two stories, plus an attic and basement. That gave it at least four thousand square feet of living space, and twice that if the attic and basement weren’t just for storing wine and antiques.
But it was the spacious, well-landscaped lawn that really made me doubt it was vacant. Weeded flower beds, trim bushes, and grass that had clearly been mowed within the last week were enough to make any hooligans looking for an easy target think twice.
“You’re missing the point, Az. It’s a guest house, and he can’t exactly keep his Illuminati bros somewhere shabby, now can he?” Jess asked. “If it will make you feel better, we can stake the place out for a bit, but I’m telling you; no one’s home.”
I let out a reluctant sigh, folding my arms across my chest as I considered the admittedly quiet house.
“Even if no one’s home, there’s no way it’s not monitored by security,” I insisted.
“It isn’t. Chamberlin values his privacy; as anyone who’s into as much messed up shit as he is would,” Jess claimed. “There’s no live monitoring, just security cameras that feed into an encrypted, onsite hard drive.”
“And how would you know that?” I asked skeptically.
“There was a news story about it a while back,” he replied. “There was a whole court case or investigation or something trying to get access to his surveillance footage. It wasn’t about this place in particular, but it’s how he operates. Look, this is the safest of his properties to target because he doesn't waste his bodyguards here when there are no guests. What the fuck does he care about the maid and gardener popping in to keep everything looking swanky? No one’s going to be watching the camera feed, and even if they do look it over, we’re covered since we got these.”
He gestured to his now completely non-suspicious bandana, which he wore because he thought that the nose wires in face masks were 5G antennas meant to increase adrenochrome production, or some bullshit like that.
"Even if no one's watching the surveillance cameras, there will still be motion detectors and entry sensors that will alert Chamberlin's goons to a break-in,” I argued. “They’ll be here in minutes.”
“Not without video confirmation they won’t. They got other priorities,” Jess countered. “Chamberlin’s got his mansion, his villa, his financial firm, his luxury apartment building, his hotel, his country club, I think the strip club, and probably shit we don’t even know about. His security isn’t going to be in a rush to check out what might just be a false alarm on what for him is basically a spare mattress. They’ll take their sweet time, which means we can take ours.”
I sighed, trying to figure out if anything he was saying made any sense. He really was piling a lot of assumptions on top of each other, and for all we knew we'd already been spotted and flagged as suspicious by the most advanced security AI money could buy. But the news report he mentioned did ring a bell for me, and it made sense that Chamberlin wouldn't risk anyone spying on him through his security cameras. He also owned a lot of real estate, so it wasn't unreasonable to assume that a comparatively small guest house would be a low priority for his security force. Maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t come running right away.
The thought of the Dragon Smaug, exploding into a murderous rage upon noticing a single chalice had been stolen from his massive hoard, suddenly injected itself into my mind.
“Let’s find someplace we can watch the house unnoticed until after dark. If we don’t see any lights on, we’ll go for it,” I proposed. I was actually trying to save face, since even if no one was home, I was sure the lights would be automatic. An unlit house like that would be way too tempting to burgle. Jess agreed, and we faded back into the trees that shrouded the entirety of the property, mostly shielding it from public view.
Sunset came, and daylight faded, and yet not one light in, on, or around the house was lit up. It became so dark it was actually hard to make the nearly mansion-sized house out in the gloom.
“What did I tell you, man? Nobody’s home,” Jess declared as he started heading towards the stone fence. I started to object, but couldn’t think of anything to say. If Chamberlin didn’t even care enough about this place to put the lights on a timer, then Jess was probably right about the security being lax. I jogged over to him and together we hopped the fence and sprinted across the spacious lawn.
“Watch out for the koi pond,” Jess warned as we narrowly avoided walking into the decorative pool. “That’s more of what I’m talking about right there. Chamberlin’s real mansion’s got peacocks and flamingos and shit, and he has riding horses at his villa. A koi pond is some cheap ass landscaping for someone as loaded as him.”
“Jess – have you been to Chamberlin’s houses?” I asked curiously.
“What? No. What the hell would someone like me be doing in places like those?” he scoffed. “As far as he’s concerned, people like us aren’t even qualified to scrub his toilets.”
“It’s just that, this is starting to sound kind of personal, and I thought we were just trying to ‘stick it to the man’ or something,” I explained.
“That is all we’re doing; grabbing what we can and shitting on the rest from someone so rich they wouldn’t give a damn if we burned the whole house down,” Jess claimed as we reached the back door. He tried turning the knob, but it turned out that the maid did lock up on her way out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a pair of improvised lock picks he’d learned to make from a YouTube tutorial.
“You’ve done this before, right?” I asked skeptically.
"I've been practicing, yeah. Don't worry, I'll have this open in a couple of minutes," he assured me. I sighed, and as the seconds ticked by, I started to wonder if bashing the door down or breaking a window would make enough noise for a neighbour to call the police. Fortunately, it seemed I’d underestimated him, and he had the door open in barely a minute.
I froze, expecting some kind of alarm siren to start blaring, but there was nothing but silence and a dark hallway before us. Far from being emboldened by our level of success so far, a feeling of dread began to wash over me.
“Call me paranoid, but this is starting to feel too easy,” I said, the anxiety knotting in my stomach, pushing me to the verge of vomiting.
“Az, how many times do we have to go over this? Chamberlin not springing for decent security on this place is no weirder than an average guy leaving a tool shed unlocked,” he insisted, his tone growing irritable and impatient. “Get your flashlight out and let’s go! We’re wasting time!”
With a reluctant nod, I fumbled with my flashlight and followed him into the house.
The back hall led directly into a large living area, with furniture arranged in a way that reminded me more of a ski or hunting lodge rather than someone’s house.
“Holy shit, check out that TV! It’s almost a hundred inches, and probably 8K!" I said in an excited whisper. Without saying a word, Jess unsheathed his crowbar and started smashing it. "Dude, what the hell! Do you have any idea what we could get for that?"
“We can’t smuggle a hundred-inch TV out of here. Use your head!” he chastised me as the television fell off its mount and crashed to the ground. He moved his way into the kitchen and started smashing what I could only assume was antique bone china, something which was definitely transportable and pawnable.
“Not personal, my ass,” I muttered under my breath. Rather than join him in whatever catharsis he was trying to achieve, I slowly moved my flashlight across the living room in the hopes of finding something worth pocketing. My beam settled on a large, 19th-century portrait above the mantle, depicting three well-dressed businessmen. The one in the middle looked like Chamberlin – tall, slender, and handsome with dark brown hair, dressed all in reds, and that same punchable smug smirk on his face. I assumed it was his great-grandfather or something. I knew he had roots in Sombermorey going back a couple of hundred years or so.
The frail man to his right was older, with bushy white hair, pale greyish skin, and a pointed beard and nose. The only thing about him that didn’t look old and fragile were his vibrant green eyes. I got an odd sense of déjà vu then, like I had seen people who looked like that before, but I had no idea where.
The man on the other side of the portrait was the shortest of the three, but also the heaviest, looking to weigh more than the other two put together. There didn’t appear to be any neck connecting his round head to his pear-shaped torso, and he had a moustache and hat that were both small enough to be slightly comical.
It suddenly clicked in my head that these must be the Crow, Crowley & Chamberlin that Chamberlin’s financial firm was named after. It seemed that the Chamberlin line was the only one still around – an idea that made me more than a little uneasy.
“Jess! Hey Jess!” I hissed, hoping his little temper tantrum in the kitchen was drawing to a close.
“What?” he gasped between breaths.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, and right now I don’t care, but I came here for loot,” I reminded him. “Let’s go upstairs and check the bedrooms for jewellery or something."
Jess nodded and sheathed his crowbar. He didn't look sated, just resigned to the fact that what he was doing wasn't actually going to make him feel any better about whatever was bothering him.
We crept quietly up to the second floor, though I don’t know why. Since Jess’s little rampage in the kitchen hadn’t brought anyone downstairs, it seemed safe to assume the house was deserted. Once we were upstairs, I just turned the first doorknob in front of me, expecting to find nothing more extraordinary than a neatly kept spare bedroom.
Instead, what I stumbled into was some kind of 19th-century laboratory. It ran most of the length of the second floor, and I suspected that maybe it had at one point been multiple adjacent bedrooms, since there were a couple more exits into the hallway further down. There were tall bookshelves holding well over a thousand hardbound tomes, alongside shorter, sturdier shelves for jars and vials of strange liquids, preserved specimens, and unsettling looking artifacts. There was a writing desk, a telescope, and three workbenches, none of which had any chairs by them. A section of ceiling was missing at the far end, enabling a mechanical lift to ascend into the attic, and likely down to the lower floors as well. Throughout the room was a haphazard collection of steampunk looking contraptions of all shapes and sizes, the crown jewel of which was an actual brain in a vat.
The brain, along with a little bit of its original spinal cord, was buoyantly suspended in a clear, bubbling liquid. The vat was mounted on a wheeled podium made from dark oak and polished brass. The front side sported several closed panels and an analogue interface of glass dials and ebony knobs. Beneath and beside the panel was a pair of shelves, each of which supported a folded-up, mechanical arm with a claw grasper. To one side of the vat itself was a polished gramophone horn, and on the other side was a miniature Tesla coil. On the backside there was an accordion-like bellows, constantly rising and falling, which was presumably what was aerating the vat.
Strangest of all, perched on top of the vat was a vintage bowler hat.
“What the fuck?” I muttered as I stepped into the room, taking in the bizarre scene as quickly as I could. I spun around to Jess, who looked just as confused as I was. “Did you know about this?”
“No way man, I swear. This is some Jules Verne shit or something,” he replied, slowly stepping towards the brain in the vat. “I’m not a doctor, but this brain looks real to me. This thing isn’t just some Halloween decoration or something; it’s an actual preserved human brain.”
“That is so fucked up, man. Why would someone preserve an actual person’s brain like that?” I asked, shirking away from the abomination in mortified horror.
“Like I said, Chamberlin’s a fucked-up dude,” Jess replied, a devilish grin spreading across his face.
“Jess, dude, what are you thinking?” I asked, already know what he was going to say.
“Only that this freaky thing here must be a hell of a lot more irreplaceable than a TV and some dishes," he answered, raising his crowbar to smash the vat to smithereens.
Before I could object, the Tesla coil sprang to life and shot him with a bolt of indigo electricity, sending him tumbling backwards and crashing to the floor.
“What the fuck!” he screamed, clutching his torso in agony. The brain began to glow with a ghostly blue aura, tendrils lapping out at the vat like a plasma ball, and the podium rolled itself on creaking wheels towards us.
“Well lads, I was hoping not to have to play my hand, but you’ve gone ahead and forced the issue,” a monotone voice boomed from the gramophone horn.
“Jesus Christ, you’re alive!” I screamed.
“Better! Alchemically Reanimated!” it boasted. “A proprietary concoction of protoplasmotic rejuvenatives and protectorants was all that was required to keep me from the Dread Persephone’s realm.”
I told myself that it couldn’t be real, that it was some remote-controlled prop someone was using to scare us, but… the brain, the undeniably real, human brain, was able to move about inside the vat with the ease of lively fish. It was moving itself with that inexplicable aura that flickered when it spoke. I tried to think of everything I knew about cryogenics and brain-computer interfaces to find some possible rational explanation, but there wasn’t one. I was staring at a glowing, disembodied, still conscious brain in a vat that was telepathically controlling a clockwork, lightning-shooting automaton.
“Az, run,” Jess gasped, pleading with me to leave him behind. I wasn’t ready to leave him just yet though, so I tried dragging him towards the door. Another bolt from the Tesla coil not only slammed the door shut but locked it as well, demonstrating far more precision than should have been possible.
“Sorry gents, but I’m afraid an Irish Goodbye is quite off the table,” the brain informed us. “Allow me to properly introduce myself then; I am Professor Whitaker C. Crowley, or at least what’s left of him; occult scholar, alchemical consultant, and silent partner in the enterprises of Seneca Chamberlin.”
“Silent partner?” I scoffed. The thing had the volume control of a Dalek.
“I am aware of the irony of that title!” it screeched. “Your friend is dying, so I’d advise you to watch the sass if you expect any help from me!”
I looked down to take a good look at Jess, and saw that the brain was right. He was bleeding out, no doubt about it. I nodded my head in somber agreement, slowly rising to my feet and lifting my hands over my head.
“Can you help him?” I asked softly.
“No, Az, please. I know what this thing does to people. I won’t be one of its experiments!” Jess ranted as he coughed up blood.
“You make it sound like I’m some sort of mad scientist,” the glowing brain in the vat chuckled through its gramophone, the pattern of arcing light forming the outline of a smile. As horrifying as it was to look at, the implications of what Jess had just said sunk in nonetheless.
“You know what this thing does?” I asked him coldly. “Jess, what the fuck have you gotten us into?”
“I know. I lied. I’m sorry. I was in pretty deep with Chamberlin, but that’s over now, and I swear to God I didn’t know that this was where he kept that thing!” Jess screamed as the red splotch on his chest grew larger.
“Struggle all you want boy; you’ll only bleed out faster,” Crowley said as he wheeled over to his shelf of potions. His bronze graspers unfolded, and began preparing a syringe. "Do you feel him yet? Cold Hades grasping at you, pulling you down to his Underworld? You don't want to spend eternity there. Trust me, I know. But one shot of this to your brainstem and your consciousness can stay bound to your central nervous system forever. Granted, if you've yet to master astral projection, the experience seems to be… less than idyllic, but I’ll leave it to the philosophy majors to debate if it’s worse than literal Hell.”
“Az, don’t let him stick me with that stuff man!” Jess pleaded, tears of existential terror streaming down his cheeks. Crowley was coming straight at us now, his Tesla coil already crackling, ready to put either of us down in an instant if he needed to. My eyes darted around wildly for any possible weapons, but the only things within reach were monstrous deformities preserved in formaldehyde.
I grabbed one and held it out like a crucifix between us and Crowley, hoping he was smart enough to realize what I was threatening him with.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, though the fact that he backed up a bit while turning down his Tesla coil suggested he knew exactly what I was doing.
"This is formaldehyde. It's flammable, even explosive, right?" I asked. "You pull any more of your Palpatine crap on us and your whole lab goes up in flames!"
Crowley made a sort of sighing sound with his bellows, and shut his Tesla coil off completely.
“Now drop the syringe!” I ordered. This time, Crowley hesitated. “Drop it!”
"I'll set it down; it would be a shame to waste it," he said as he placed the needle onto the nearest table. Jess started to laugh, and with his last remaining strength brought himself to his feet.
“Now, my friend and I are leaving, and you’re staying here, got it?” I asked authoritatively.
“No Az, you’re the only one getting out of here,” Jess said, picking up a jar with a pickled Polyphemus inside. “I’m dying no matter what, and I’m not going to die for nothing.”
Before I could say anything, he charged at Crowley, smashing the jar right over the Tesla coil. I watched in horror as the two grappled each other, Crowley’s graspers crushing Jess’s hands, but Jess slamming Crowley against another shelf, bringing multiple jars of formaldehyde down on both of them. Either in panic, desperation, or just a short circuit, Crowley fired his Tesla coil, immediately sparking a blaze that engulfed them both.
“Run!” was Jess’s final word to me. There was nothing I could have done to save him then, so I ran. I ran past them and out the next door down from the one we came through, down the hall, down the stairs, and out the back as the second floor burned behind me. I’m not sure how I managed to jump the fence without Jess’s help, but I did. Adrenaline, I guess.
The next day, the news reported that Jess had died in the fire. They said the fire was arson, that Jess was the arsonist, and made no mention of a secret laboratory run by a floating brain.
I don't know if Crowley survived the fire. I don't know if he managed to inject Jess with whatever that stuff was, or if it really did what he said it did. I also don't know if Chamberlin knows I had anything to do with the fire or break-in, but I left town in a hurry anyway. I’ve gotten pretty far north, pretty remote, but maybe not remote enough. There's a real nice gold sedan parked across from where I am right now, probably too nice for anyone who lives nearby.
If the worst happens to me, I want to make sure that a public record of what really happened exists somewhere. Jess wasn’t an arsonist; he died trying to kill an abomination that never should have existed in the first place.
I only hope for both of our sakes, for all of our sakes, that he succeeded.
Written by The Vesper's Bell