“This is no place where you are welcome!”
“Go back! Go back!”
He wasn’t sure whose they were exactly. But they didn’t really bother him. He had been hearing people speaking in his mind since he’d been eight years old. They were as unremarkable to him as the sight of his own hands. And the fact that these voices were brand-new ones made no particular difference.
As for what they kept on telling him … well, they were talking to precisely the wrong person. Thanks to the ceremonies he’d performed, he was becoming very special, and could do almost anything he wished. He’d be transforming before too much longer. Becoming something more than human. Just a few more sacrifices ought to do the trick. So he wasn’t going to be scared off by any vague warnings like these.
Cornelius chuckled, shaking his large head. And, after a couple more minutes, they simply faded away. He had already driven well inside the town.
The rain had stopped a while ago, leaving everything around him shimmering with damp. The streets were broad and empty, with nothing to slow him down. A sleepy place, which was what you would expect in this part of the world. He passed through suburbs for a while, mostly filled with wood-built houses, not special in any way. Except … his gaze kept flitting to a high, bumpy hill that rose against the night sky on the western side of the town. There seemed to be some much larger residences on the crest up there. And that intrigued him.
Ahead, some slightly taller buildings came in view. The avenues grew narrower. There were more stores and restaurants than there had previously been. He kept on heading in, ignoring the stoplights. And finally wound up at the central square he’d noticed from outside this town.
‘Union Square,’ a sign informed him. It was pretty large for a community of such apparent insignificance. And was full of shadows, in spite of the way it sprawled.
It was surrounded by globe-shaped lamps, shining like little amber planets. At the center was a huge bronze statue of a stern-faced man. By the way that he was dressed, he’d lived a very long time back. Some hero from the Revolution, maybe?
Cornelius didn’t stop. He cruised around the square’s perimeter. Most of the buildings surrounding him, on closer inspection, turned out to be offices, all their windows dark. The river that he’d spotted flowed nearby, a sturdy metal bridge running across it.
At the north end -- dominating the whole place -- was an edifice that took up that entire side of the square. It rose four stories, and its stonework was ornate. There was a flight of wide steps leading up to the front door. A matching pair of statues, seated lions, were on either side of those. And a massive clock hung above them. He was in no doubt that this was the Town Hall. There was a motto carved above the doorway -- VALOR IN EXTREMIS. But no indication, still, of where he had wound up.
Directly to the south of it, there was another large building with Doric columns on display out front. A theatre apparently, by the posters on the wall. The play currently on show was The Crucible by Arthur Miller. And there was a matinee this weekend. Brigadoon .
A street to his left had some gaudy neon signs, for eateries and bars. And there’d be people there, for sure. But not the kind that he was seeking. He preferred clean-living, decent folk for his ceremonies. Homebody types, for whom a glass of eggnog was a sinful pleasure. The spilling of their blood -- after all -- pleased the Old Ones so much more.
He found himself cruising by a post office. And, by the sign beside its shuttered entrance, finally discovered where he was.
Raine’s Landing? Cornelius had never even heard of the place. But there were so many towns dotted through this part of Massachusetts, hidden by the woodlands from the outside world. And so he shouldn’t be surprised.
Special Fun, though? Fun, fun, fun? Where could he go to find him some?
Back in Boston, he had favored the well-heeled districts for his little visits. The Back Bay and Beacon Hill. He preferred to visit educated folk. They were better equipped, surely, to appreciate the subtleties of what he did. The clever classical references, especially when he carved the symbol into them. But where did such people live around these parts?
His gaze lifted to the hill again. It was not too far away. And this time, when he looked at it, he seemed to feel a tugging, deep inside of him. Almost as if something were drawing him that way. It was not simply an instinct. The old, familiar voices … they were talking to him once again.
Cornelius swung the car around, and headed off in that direction.
The weirdest thing happened, a couple of minutes later. He had found the main road leading to the hill, and was about to start climbing the gradient, when a bus went by. It was painted green, and brightly lit inside. And there were a couple of drowsy-looking passengers on board. But he couldn’t see the driver. How could that be?
He had obviously not been looking properly, or in the right direction. His pulse bumping faintly, he continued up.
Plymouth Drive, this street was called. And it got so steep in some places that the motor of the aging Chrysler growled. There was a succession of hairpin bends, some of them giving him superb views of the whole township, lit up in the darkness like a Christmas tree. The size of the place struck him all over again. This ought to be some dinky little burg but, for some reason, wasn’t that. Then he was amongst the massive residences that he had seen from below.
Disappointment started to worm through his bulky frame. The folks up here seemed to be terribly particular when it came to the matter of security. Each of these places had big high walls, or dense, towering privet rows protecting them. The gates were firmly locked, and in most cases you could barely see the actual dwellings. Trees got in the way.
But the couple that he could make out … they genuinely made him gasp. One was a vast, sprawling pale stone manor, Grecian pillars -- not unlike the theatre’s -- around its portico. And another -- quite bizarely -- was an exact reconstruction of the Taj Mahal. How crazy was that? For Pete’s sake, how much money did these people have?
Looming high above him, at the crooked peak, was another mansion that looked -- if anything -- even stranger. Caught in silhouette against the moon’s glow, it was the last word in brutal, ugly Gothic. Its grounds were overgrown, the branches of countless trees twisting against the night sky. And the place had a huge spire, like a cathedral. Insane!
Even crazier, instead of a crucifix, there was a massive W on top. It had to be the owner’s initial. That was taking ego to its very furthest limit, wasn’t it? Cornelius felt pretty sure he didn’t want to go up there.
But he was still being drawn as if by a magnet. The instinct was tugging at him from the left hand side. So he turned at the next corner, found himself on a much smaller lane. There was no sidewalk. The pavement was ill tended and broken in parts. Bushes scraped against the body of the car as he progressed. The branches of sprawling elms and oak hung overhead, and kept on dripping from the recent downpour. It was as dark in here as a coalmine. The white tail of a rabbit flashed in his headlights before vanishing.
Finally, he reached another pair of wrought-iron gates, much smaller than the ones he’d passed. They looked slightly rusty. And there were a chain and padlock hanging from them, but not fastened. This homeowner, apparently, was not as careful as the rest.
Cornelius grinned, killing the engine and the lights. And without making a sound -- he was so very good at that, despite his size -- he clambered out.
There were a few small conifers beyond the gate, and then a broad, rolling lawn that glistened moistly. He moved across it swiftly, lightly, silently. That was why the newspapers had all dubbed him ‘The Shadow Man.’ The only thing that witnesses had ever seen of him? A brief glimpse of his silhouette, in somebody’s back yard.
He’d been getting tired of Boston anyway, he thought to himself. It was time to spread his work to regions new.
And this seemed an excellent place to start.
The house itself was far more compact than you would imagine for such large grounds. No grand residence like the others that he’d seen on the main drag. It only qualified, if anything, as a good-sized cottage. It was covered almost entirely in ivy, wearing the stuff like a big fur coat. A tall brick chimneypot protruded from the sharply angled roof.
There were gorgeous silken drapes with oriental patterns on them at the leaded windows. And, by the number of lights on in the place, somebody was definitely home.
Cornelius snuck around to the rear. His breathing had sped up a little. The lawn squelched underneath his tread, letting out a musty odor. He skirted past some rose bushes, their petals and leaves beaded with rainwater. Then, rounding the corner of the building, a conservatory came in view.
The glass was lit up very brightly, shining like a diamond. Inside, at the center of the tiled floor, was an antique-looking bureau with a roll-down lid. What a curious place to put such a thing. There was no other furniture except a wicker couch, and a load of plants in big glazed pots with Chinese characters on them.
Standing in front of the bureau was one of the most peculiar figures he had ever seen. A man, in his eighties at the very least. He was painfully thin, his back severely hunched. But he was smartly dressed, entirely in black. His shoes. His shirt -- he wore no tie. His dapper suit, which had an overly long jacket. The darkness of his clothing made his lengthy mop of pure white hair all the more striking. It seemed to sprout in every direction before flowing in thick, tangled locks across his shoulders, down his back.
The fellow seemed engrossed in something, with his head tucked down. So -- reasonably sure that he would not be seen -- Cornelius ventured closer.
The man’s face was unusual too. The nose was hooked. The chin was sharply pointed. The eyes seemed sunken, lost in gloom. Cornelius could see, the nearer he got, that the jacket wasn’t merely too long. It was an actual tailcoat.
As he watched, the man reached into the top of the desk, and began fingering something inside it. But the angle was wrong, he couldn’t make out precisely what.
There was a back door to the house, a few yards from him. Cornelius moved across and tried the knob. It turned easily, and that pleased him. Like the front gate, it had not been locked.
His breathing became harsher, and his heartbeat increased. This was promising to be very Special Fun indeed. He’d not had things so easy in a good long while.
He went into some kind of pantry, stacks of foodstuffs and crockery on the shelves around him. The floor was hard, another tiled one, and he slipped his shoes off before pressing on. By the time he reached the inner hall, the narrow blade was gleaming in his fist again.
There were lights on above, when he reached the staircase. But no one seemed to be moving around up there. There was not the tiniest creak or murmur. So -- with luck -- perhaps the old man lived here on his own.
The artwork on the walls around him looked extremely strange. He studied it warily. It depicted fire-breathing dragons, and even more peculiar beasts. Chimeras, he thought they were called. Griffons, Gorgons, a Hydra. Cornelius felt slightly anxious as he took it in. What sort of twisted mind collected stuff like this? Maybe he had come to the wrong place.
But the rest was regular enough. A cabinet with porcelain figurines neatly lined up on display in it. More plant pots, and an umbrella stand. That made him feel a little easier.
He worked his way through to the back, still getting the strange sensation he was being guided there.
The bright lights of the conservatory filled his vision. The old man’s back, turned to him, was a solitary dark column, like an exclamation mark. The guy was mumbling something, maybe reading from a book. If so, it had to be a foreign one. He didn’t recognize a single word.
Everything seemed to be hurting Cornelius slightly, as it usually did by this point in the proceedings. The intense electric glow, pressing at his eyeballs. And the unfamiliar murmured phrases, banging at his ears. His lungs were getting painful, and his ankles ached from his own weight.
He had to stop this. This discomfort and uncertainty. And there was only one way he knew how.
The old coot still hadn’t noticed he was there. And so Cornelius raised the blade a little higher, then continued to creep up on him.
“Partez!” the old man shouted suddenly. “N’existez pas!”
Cornelius jerked, then cast his gaze about. Who was he talking to? They were completely alone here. Blackness pressed at the conservatory’s panes, so that they might as well have been in outer space. Only the distant stars were looking down. Except Cornelius knew the word ‘alone’ was not entirely true. The Old Ones were still watching him. Expected certain things of him. And he’d not fail them.
“Un oeil invisible!” the man chanted.
‘An oily’ …? What was the old fellow yammering about? He’d met some strange ones in his day, but who was the real crazy person around this neck of the woods?
Shifting his weight again, he didn’t test his footing carefully enough. His toes came down on a loose section of tile. Which rattled.
Finally, the old man turned around.
This happened occasionally. Cornelius had gotten used to it, and knew what to do. He beamed at the man hugely. And spread his arms to display himself.
You see? Aren’t I beautiful, so close to transformation? Aren’t you glad I came into your home tonight?
But the old man, just like all the others, didn’t seem impressed by that. His gaze darted to the knife instead.
Viewed up close, his face had even more irregularities than could be picked out from outside the windows. One of his irises, the left, was cataractous, milky. The other was a shade of turquoise that Cornelius had never seen in human eyes before tonight. It put him in mind of a cat. There were two large moles on the guy’s cheek. And his eyebrows sprouted like white crabgrass, beetling.
The aged face filled up with startlement at first. But then, to his surprise, it blazed with anger.
And that was when Cornelius saw the man was holding something in his own right hand.
He thought, at first, it was some kind of weapon. But it didn’t seem to be that. It was a rod, for sure. But not large enough to do any harm. About a foot long, and as narrow as a pencil. A pure matt black, like the man’s clothes. So dark it almost seemed to draw the light in very slightly. Except that there was something shining at its upper tip.
What had he been doing with something like that? And more importantly, Cornelius wondered, what was he planning to do with it now?
The man wasn’t reacting in the way that the folk who he dropped in on usually did. There was no apparent fear. He didn’t try to back away. Instead, he simply stood there, almost casually, working the stick between his wizened fingers. And he still looked angry, certainly. But a puzzled air had blended in with that. There was a question in his one good eye.
Then he pursed his lips, and voiced it.
“You are … an outsider?”
His voice crackled like a pile of leaves. But … what exactly did that mean?
The old man looked him up and down.
“You shouldn’t even be here. How on earth did you get in?”
Which was a stupid question. Cornelius felt bored, answering it.
“The back door was open.”
All he got was an offended look, as if he’d just said something genuinely dumb. Or maybe they were talking at cross-purposes, somehow?
“No. I understand which of my doors are locked and unlocked. How did you get into the Landing? How did you get past the curse?”
Past what? This made no sense in the slightest. Maybe the coot was insane, or senile. It would be better for everyone concerned if they got to the business in hand.
Cornelius took another step forward, and announced, “I’m here to teach you Special Fun.”
And those words normally sent people on a fast descending spiral. They’d start begging him. Their eyes would fill with tears. But this fellow simply held his ground. And then, to his surprise, grinned nastily.
“Now I see why you are here. You’re one of the disturbed ones, aren’t you? The destructive ones. Like Saruak. Like Jason Goad. You’re so messed up in here --” he tapped his forehead, “you ignore the voices, and the curse has no effect on you. We have dealt with your kind several times before, my boy. Do you seriously imagine I’m afraid of you?”
This was the first time -- ever since he had become the Shadow Man -- that anyone had spoken to him in such a way. Cornelius could scarcely believe his ears. A tremor ran through him, mostly indignation. He was the one with the power, the knife. Who did this elderly degenerate think he was?
He reached into a pocket of his baggy sweat-pants and produced a roll of duck tape.
“I have to bind you first,” he said. “And gag you. I realize it’s uncomfortable, but I need to have your complete attention.”
The nasty smile remained in place. “Is that so?”
“I won’t lie to you. There’s some actual pain involved after that. But it’s necessary. A means to an end, you see?”
The good eye glinted with sarcasm.
“Yes? And what might that be?”
“The End is coming soon. The End of Days. And to survive it, I must do the Old Ones’ bidding. If I do it properly and well, they will allow me to transform, become a higher being. I’m already most of the way there.”
The fellow simply shrugged.
“As I first suspected, you’re completely crazy. Listen to me carefully, now. It would be far better for you if you left here right away. Nothing good will happen to you otherwise.”
Which left Cornelius’s head reeling with astonishment. What … was the old man planning to fight him off with only that little stick? Or was there something else? He could see no bulge beneath the tailcoat, nor in any of the pockets. So the fellow didn’t seem to have a gun.
But something happened, the next instant, which utterly astonished him. The old man’s face abruptly glowed, a startling pure white. His massed wrinkles were flensed away by the stark brilliance of it. He suddenly looked forty years younger. His body filled out, and he held himself completely straight.
The cataract had gone too. Both of his eyes glinted with a turquoise sheen. He looked very vital and alive. He bared his teeth and snorted. Then he threw his right hand -- the one holding the stick -- back across his shoulder, a motion like a coachman drawing back his whip.
And when he brought it cracking down …?
Panic tore into Cornelius. He felt sure he was in danger, though he wasn’t sure exactly how. A startled yelp came from his throat. Then he went rushing at the man, as quickly as he could.
The tip of the rod was shining brighter. Maybe it was a taser of some kind? It began swinging down at him. The figure wielding it looked thoroughly triumphant.
But he wasn’t so smart, really. People always made the same mistake. They looked at him, the doughy mass of body. And they never guessed how fast he really was.
The rod was barely halfway down when Cornelius’s blade reached its target, pushing in through the fabric of the coat and plunging deep into the old man’s body. And Cornelius didn’t stop at that. He turned the blade in its bed of flesh, then dragged it up until a rib-bone stopped it.
The transformation was immediate. The old man’s wrinkles all came back. And his expression changed one final time, despair replacing triumph.
Until finally, even that was gone.
The corpse was lying crumpled by his feet, blood spilling out across the floor.
Cornelius felt disappointed. Thoroughly let down, to tell the truth. It had been enjoyable, yes, watching the old man understand that he was beaten, for all of his superior airs. But it had been so very quick. Over and done with in less than a heartbeat. And where was the Special Fun in that?
It was like expecting a banquet, and winding up with a bag of potato chips instead. Cornelius pressed his eyes shut, feeling beads of sweat run down between them. Then, he started to think more clearly.
There were certain things that the Old Ones expected him to do. Certain rituals. He was obliged to carry them out.
He crouched over the figure. Unbuttoned the tailcoat, and then ripped away the black shirt underneath. And, working diligently, he began to carve into the loosely withered flesh.
Once that he was satisfied, Cornelius stood back up and looked around again.
The stick the fellow had been brandishing had rolled away, and was lying against one leg of the antique bureau. He gazed at it. It looked like the blackest thing he’d ever seen, a bottomless strip of shadow on the patterned tile. Except for its tip, which was still subtly gleaming.
Wiping the blade and pocketing it, Cornelius went across. He stooped, examining it more carefully. It was not smooth, as it had first appeared. There were dozens of small symbols carved into its rounded surface, none of which he recognized. They made him feel anxious again. What precisely did they represent?
But symbols could not harm him, surely? So he picked it up.
He almost dropped it immediately. Because, when his chubby fingers touched the rod, he felt a mild charge run through them. The tip gave a shimmering flash.
There was one simple reason that he held on to it, in the end. The stick was so light he could barely feel it. Scarcely heavier than air, in fact. What, in the names of the gods …?
No more pain came. So he held it up to eye-level, gazing at it closer. Might it be a pointer? A baton, like a conductor might use?
A … wand? Could it possibly be that?
Cornelius answered many descriptions, but ‘cynic’ was not one of them. He already believed in magic. How could you explain the Old Ones’ existence otherwise? He knew the world was full of things that science could not possibly account for. But an actual embodiment of sorcery?
Standing back up, he held the rod the way the old man had. And shook it gently. Its tip released a few sparks, and they lingered several seconds before vanishing.
He chortled. Oh, this might be even more fun than the Special type he usually had. The real question was figuring out how to make this work.
“What do you do, huh?” he asked the rod.
He shook it a little harder, letting out a few more sparks. And nothing more than that.
“I represent the Old Ones, you know. So you’d better reveal your secrets, or they’ll be mad at you.”
He lashed it back and forth, but that got no reaction whatsoever.
“Whatever that old fool used you for, I own you now! So do the same for me!”
He swung it around in a broad circle. What little weight there’d been between his fingers disappeared completely. Cornelius could still see the thing. Except its shape and color were changing.
As he watched, it ceased to be so very dark. The wand became pale gray. Then its edges started breaking up.
It turned to smoke before his startled gaze. Cornelius lurched back, trying to let go of the thing. But it would not drop from his grasp.
Looking down, he could see why. He let out a shriek. It was not simply the wand that was dissolving into vapor. The same was happening to his fingers. They had turned a similar pale gray.
It spread out right across his hand. There was no pain, but terror overwhelmed him. He shook his wrist furiously, turning round in circles, making small, horrified gibbering noises. Nothing that he did made any difference. His wrist turned to gray smoke -- then his upper arm.
And that was when a new idea occurred to him. Maybe this was supposed to happen. Maybe this was what the wand actually did. Cornelius stopped moving, trying to calm down. It wasn’t easy, but he forced himself. Because … perhaps this was part of his destiny. What the Old Ones had wanted for him all along.
He watched as his whole arm dissolved. His body broke up the same way.
He felt his head begin to fade, and peered at his reflection in the dark, surrounding glass. There were only his eyes left. They let out a glint, then vanished too. His entire frame was lost from view, just pale mist by now. He tried to move around, and found that it was easy. He just had to will himself in a direction and he drifted there.
High in the conservatory, a single panel was propped open. Presumably for ventilation, since it was still warm, despite the rain. Cornelius wafted up toward the opening, spilling out through it into the night air. He swept across the grounds in the direction of the rusted gate. Went by the abandoned Chrysler.
Floated back to Plymouth Drive, then headed back the way he’d come.
Lord, so many lights below him. So many dwellings filled with people, drowsy, unaware. And there would be no stopping him in this new form he had assumed.
Those newspapermen, back in Boston, had been right about him without even knowing it.
He really was the Shadow Man.
Copyright © Tony Richards 2009.