A Thief's Inheritance

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Review Chain


Hobbs begins to question his posh new residence. Shortly afterwards, he attends an unusual party.

Chapter 14 (v.1) - Home at last (cont.)

Submitted: June 11, 2019

Reads: 27

Comments: 1

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Submitted: June 11, 2019

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A series of harsh knocks woke Hobbs from a dreamless sleep, and for an instant, he did not remember where he was. He instinctively reached for his pistol, yet he found no such comfort against his waist. He hadn’t slept without a weapon for nearly fifteen years; he may as well have been naked.

The door rumbled again with restless knocking. With a feeble shake of his head, Hobbs rose to his feet and shuffled to the door. As he pulled it open, a starkly familiar white face appeared, leering up at him with beady eyes and pencil-thin lips.

  “Gregory?” he asked groggily. The little mask scoffed haughtily.

  “Gregory?! You mistake me for that shrimp of a man!? Are you some kind of eccentric? Blind as a bat, are you?”

Hobbs squinted through the harsh red of the corridor. The boy before him wore a mask that was identical to the other children, yet he could clearly see that he was noticeably older and taller, perhaps ten years of age or more. The boy was wearing a spectacular tuxedo that gleamed like polished jet. His tie was flawlessly squared beneath his neck, but his jacket was still unbuttoned, revealing an ivory-white silk shirt and black cummerbund. Hobbs glanced down at the boy’s shoes.

  They’re probably worth more than my gun, he thought bitterly.

  “You finished gawking, have you?” the boy snapped rudely. Hobbs felt an immediate impulse to slap the boy across his silly mask.

  “There a reason you’re beating down my door, boy?”

The boy looked at him a moment, his grinning mask a seemingly poor reflection of his true feelings. But then, he chuckled dryly.

  “No doubt you’re one of us. Welcome to Ira, friend! The name’s Herschel. I had heard we’d received a new addition to the floor, and I wanted to see if you’d accompany me down to the Saturnalia. It’s your first time, correct?”

"Yeah…" Hobbs muttered, his face softening only slightly. Herschel looked him up and down, cocking his head and stroking the chin of his mask. The longer the boy stared at him without words, the more Hobbs’ blood began to boil. He felt like an animal on display, subject to unwarranted study from an inferior. Finally, the boy extended his hand.
  "You seem a decent sort. I’m sure we’ll be fast friends, you and I.”
Hobbs took his hand in a firm handshake. He squeezed as though he were greeting a man full-grown, expecting the boy to squeal like the brat he was, but surprisingly, Herschel matched the grip without weakness.
  "Hobbs," he replied simply.
  "Forgive my bumptiousness," Herschel went on. "You've yet to dress for tonight's affair. Some suitable clothing should be in your closet."
  "...thanks," Hobbs said without sincerity.
  "My, you're a prickly sort," Herschel replied, laughing. "I can't wait for the others to meet you."

Hobbs turned around without reply. He spotted the closet to which the boy had referred and moved to open it. Within, he found nearly every type of suit imaginable, along with a dozen dinner shirts and jackets, each one crisp and neatly hung. On the floor were several pairs of black leather loafers, all as glassy as obsidian.

  “I’d say you can play it however you’d like,” Herschel’s voice rang out behind him. Hobbs looked around, finding that the boy had entered his room of his own accord and was now standing next to him. He added with a curt nod, “It’s not especially formal, but some do aim to please.”

  “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll get dressed,” Hobbs said darkly.

Herschel nodded. “I’ll wait outside for you. Do hurry. The party will be starting soon.”

After several awkward minutes, Hobbs stumbled to the door in a dazzling tuxedo. The lack of freedom in his movements left little wonder as to why he had never worn such clothing before. He had never worn loafers before either; they slapped the floor with flat strokes, making every step feel twice as heavy as normal. He had fumbled with his tie briefly but gave it up as hopeless as he opened the door.  Herschel was waiting for him directly across the corridor. He was propped lazily against the wall, his hands nestled in his pockets and his masked face fixed upon the ceiling. He straightened as Hobbs emerged from his room, brushing imagined dust from his pristine jacket and trousers.

  “We’ll make a gentleman of you yet,” he said as he examined Hobbs.

  “What goes on at this so-called affair?” Hobbs demanded, wishing to draw the child’s attention away from his appearance.

  “It’s difficult to describe to one who’s cherry has yet to be popped, so to speak. The others will be there, of course, so mingling is a pleasant diversion. The main attraction, however, is the entertainment, which is sourced from various locations. I won’t spoil it for you, but let me be the first to assure you, the staff handles all dry cleaning.”

Hobbs narrowed his eyes. Herschel reached up and tugged at the ends of Hobbs’ jacket to center it.

  “And they are quite good at it,” he added. “I’ve nary a stain on anything I’ve ever worn to one.”

 “What the hell?”

Herschel laughed.

  “That was my initial reaction. You may think us as pompous do-nothings, but, trust me, there are many who conceal a wild side. I’m sure tonight will not be a disappointment.”

Hobbs made a weak sound of affirmation. He wanted to say that disappointment was not a word that had sprung to mind since he had checked in, but somehow, he felt that that would only confuse the boy. He further doubted that Herschel would react any differently than Gregory or Anton to his questions about their masks.

Was he going mad?

What am I even doing here? he thought. I don’t remember buying this place.

“Shall we go?” Herschel asked cheerily, shattering his reverie. Hobbs blinked and mumbled an approval. Herschel turned and began walking towards the elevators, as Hobbs shakily followed.

  “A lot on your mind?” Herschel asked as he peered at him over his shoulder.

  “How old are you?” Hobbs blurted suddenly, his voice cracking. Herschel howled with laughter.

  “I say, direct and absent frilly nonsense. The others will adore you, Hobbs. Hmm, I’m afraid I’ve lost track. Here at the Vulgate, we don’t celebrate the years we spend upon the earth. I’ve been here for quite some time, if that’s of any help. How old are you?”

“I was...I’m thirty-six.”

  “Goodness, you’re still a child.”

Hobbs froze in place. Herschel continued for a few steps, but then stopped and turned when he noticed he was no longer being followed. “Yes?” he asked lowly.

 “You’re a kid, a little kid. Behind that mask of yours, I know you’re just a boy.”

Herschel’s body shook with restrained laughter. Although it was apparent he found Hobbs’ words intensely amusing, his mask communicated something altogether different. It had changed somehow: the eyes were wild and unfocused, the smile crooked and malevolent. For the first time since he had checked in, Hobbs felt real fear. Something was terribly wrong. Herschel placed his hand on his chest, bowing slightly.

 “We wear so many masks, don’t we? Yet, deep inside, we are all as lost as children. I’m beginning to like you, Hobbs. You’re not as shallow as some.”

Without another word, he turned and resumed his carefree stroll. Hobbs bit his lip, wondering if he should return to his room. Coward, a tiny voice spoke to him. They’re only kids. They’re just playing games with you.

 “Yeah,” he replied as he took off after Herschel.  “Only kids.”


 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


 

The elevator sighed in grinding despair as it came to a halt on the ground floor. Herschel reached for the scissor gate and pulled it aside in a single, swift motion.

 “These creeping monstrosities never cease to annoy me. Slow, ugly, noisy… Thank goodness we don’t live any higher. I’d sooner leap from the roof than endure another second of that ride.”

Hobbs grit his teeth as he suddenly remembered Gregory’s cryptic message about the Vulgate’s highest floor.

 “Herschel, what’s on the ninth floor?”

Herschel glanced back at him for a moment, but then exited the elevator in a carefree fashion.

 “Haven’t you heard? A monster lives there.”

He laughed mockingly but said nothing more.

 “A monster?” Hobbs repeated, dumbfounded. “The fuck are you talking about? That a joke?”

  “Come now, Hobbs. Don’t take anything too seriously here. The ninth floor is something of a mystery, so rumors abound. It’s been closed for ‘renovations’ since I can remember, so people love to speculate. The latest gossip is that a ghastly monster with a penchant for slaughter resides there. Silly, isn’t it?”

  “Gregory said if I wanted to know, I could ask management. Has no one bothered to ask?”

  “Good luck getting a meeting. Those stuffy pinheads scarcely have the time to attend to their wives, let alone to us. That’s what the staff is for.”

Hobbs scowled as he watched Herschel lead the way into the main lobby, strutting with insufferable arrogance. He knew the boy was lying but had no way of proving it. He further doubted that he could trick the answers from him; he was no normal child, after all. None of them were. In fact, the more time he spent in this place, the more convinced he became that he was not in the company of children, but something hidden, sinister, and cunning. Yet, what could he do? He had no direction, no leads. Herschel had been right about one thing: he was as lost as a child. For now, he deigned to play along with his companion, at least until he could learn more about this place.

  “It is good to see you again, sir,” a courteous but dispassionate voice said. “And might I add that you look absolutely stunning in that Canali.”

Hobbs turned his head and saw the same frozen expression to which he was now accustomed, yet he recognized the chestnut-brown hair swept back with pomade.

  “Hello, Gregory.”

  “I trust the room is to your satisfaction?”

  “It is.”

Gregory nodded and then indicated to the paintings that dotted the walls of the lobby.

  “Please take a moment to examine the fine art that we have only just placed not fifteen minutes ago. We like to rotate the art on a regular basis. You may notice that they are of a decidedly different motif than when you first entered this establishment.”

Hobbs followed Gregory’s hand to the nearby wall and saw several paintings, each splashed with indecipherable gesticulations of vibrant color. Their patterns made him uncomfortable, but he did not tear his gaze away. From the corner of his eye, he could see that Gregory was looking not at the paintings, but at him.

  “I’m afraid I don’t understand art like this,” Hobbs said finally, turning to meet Gregory’s mask.

  “Don’t try to,” Gregory replied with a slight shake of his head. “Its purpose is to provoke the emotion, that which is at constant odds with our understanding.”

  “You an art critic or something?”

For the first time since they had met, Gregory laughed.

  “Art critic. Such a dissonant term, if you will excuse my forwardness. The spectrum between art that is ‘good’ and art that is ‘bad’ is defined only by the misfortune of the creator. Art, sir, is a representation of what we plebeians take for granted. This artist, for example, has spent his life suffering torments the likes of us could scarcely fathom. He is loved for it. His legacy will live on for eternity, his art hailed as priceless. Funny, don’t you think? In the light, a man tends to see only with his eyes. Yet, once that light is gone…”

He turned and looked at the nearest painting as he sighed deeply. “…such wonders he will make.”

Hobbs looked at the paintings a second time. A small part of him hoped to see what Gregory could see in them; he doubted that he had ever valued anything as much. He immediately felt foolish.

  “You know, my daughter used to love…”

  “You have children?” Gregory asked abruptly. Hobbs snapped his head around and found Gregory a full step closer to him than a moment ago. The mask stabbed through him with dead eyes. Its smile was almost eager, hungry.

  “…yeah. Two daughters,” Hobbs said slowly.

  “Interesting,” Gregory breathed, his manner now more subdued. “Families are not often seen here at the Vulgate. In fact, I cannot think of a single resident here currently that has any relatives. Ironic, considering that tonight’s affair is a celebration of love and life.”

A knot formed in Hobbs’ throat. He felt isolated now more than ever.

  “What about you? Any family?” he asked.

  “I’m flattered that you care enough to ask, sir. I simply never found the time, I’m afraid.”

A sudden shout split the modest atmosphere of the lobby. Hobbs turned his head to find Herschel quickly approaching, his hand waving earnestly at him.

  “There you are, Hobbs! I say, chit-chatting with the help, now are we? This way, this way! I have some people you must meet before the festivities begin!”

Herschel ignored the malignant glance that Hobbs shot him as the boy placed his hand on his back and began pushing him towards the end of the lobby. Hobbs looked at Gregory and nodded farewell.

Gregory dipped his head slightly as he stood motionless, his hands tucked neatly behind his back.

Hobbs was led through a wide hallway with walls as white as milk. The floors were coated with the furs of countless creatures of every color imaginable. The walk felt long and awkward; Herschel did not speak, but rather whispered inaudible words that he seemed to find unusually humorous.

  “Where is everyone?”

  “Just ahead, my boy. We shall be fashionably late, if you’re familiar with the idiom.”

Herschel chuckled again at his own comment. They finally reached a large set of wooden doors that extended to the ceiling. Miniscule designs were carved into the surface of the wood that at first appeared to be intricate symbols, yet as Hobbs gripped the heavy brass handle, he realized that the markings had not been made by any tool. The lines were rough and patterned in tight groups, as if ripped out by fingernails. He swallowed and pulled on the heavy door with considerable effort. The disturbing marks were immediately forgotten.

A vast, polygonal ballroom of sparkling light opened up before him, with walls nearly twice as high as that of the exterior corridor. Colossal paintings hung from every open surface, depicting grand compositions of battle. Each picture bore the same theme: that of a general celebrating glorious victory atop a stallion, while the faceless defeated were trampled beneath thundering hooves. As his eyes trickled down the walls of the room, Hobbs noticed the tidal movement of the other guests. His suspicions about the other residents proved true as he scanned the room: they were children, all bearing the same grinning, white masks.

  “I must be fucking insane,” he whispered through clenched teeth.

  “Sandra!” Herschel cooed. “You look marvelous! Here, I want you to meet the newest addition to our little family! Hobbs?”

Hobbs tore his eyes away from the dense crowd and saw a small girl with white-blonde hair approaching him. Automatically, he extended his hand. The girl studied him for a moment, and then turned and looked at Herschel.

  “Does your friend not know how to greet a proper lady?”

  “I’m not sure,” Herschel giggled. “I’ll be sure to let you know when he meets one.”

The girl scoffed and stormed away.

  “What’s her problem?” Hobbs asked.

  “Oh, she thinks she’s the cat’s meow around here, simply because she’s been on Libido the longest. Overrated floor, if you ask me. Whores, the lot of them. She won’t be such a proper lady after a few drinks tonight, I promise you.”

  They’re kids, goddammit, the voice growled in his ear. Hobbs bit his lower lip, suppressing his desire to respond.

  “Oooh!” Herschel breathed excitedly. “Over here, Hobbs! Let me introduce you to someone worth knowing!”

Before he could respond, Hobbs found himself being pulled by the hand towards a small table surrounded by several children in elegant clothing. An assortment of fancy finger foods decorated the table, along with crystal bowls filled with a rich, dark substance. Hobbs studied the aromatic liquid with a deep curiosity before Herschel called his name once again. One after another, he shook hands with several children from various floors. Their names faded from his memory nearly the instant they were spoken; he was far too anxious now to maintain focus on anything. He was hearing the voice again, and he hated formal settings with rich assholes. The fact that he had met no one seemingly above the age of thirteen did not lessen that discomfort. As Herschel became lost in another banal conversation with his friends, Hobbs turned towards the table and picked out a morsel that looked particularly appetizing. The moment he bit into it, however, the lights dimmed significantly. The din of the room stilled into a hushed exultation of awe as a single light beamed down onto a raised platform in the center of the room. Hobbs had not noticed it at first; the platform stood about four feet off the floor, nearly as tall as some of the children standing around it. He looked from the light to the platform but saw nothing else of note.

  “It’s about to begin!” Herschel whispered. Hobbs glanced down at him. In the darkness, the expression on the boy’s mask appeared wilder than ever, with frantic eyes beneath twisted eyebrows and a wide, hollow smile.

  Did it always have eyebrows?

He could not remember.

  “Look there, Hobbs!” Herschel gushed, pointing across the room. “The first one!”

Hobbs turned his head, but not before he heard the scream. An unholy shriek of unconscionable terror shook the hushed room, followed by an outbreak of cheers and laughter from the crowd. Hobbs squinted through the dark as the single light fixture spun around, guiding its beam towards the source of the screaming. The beam landed upon a grown woman, bound by her hands and legs. Towering above even the tallest child, Hobbs could clearly see the woman as she was led towards the raised platform. Children jeered and laughed as she passed them, toasting one another with joyous triumph between bouts of insults. As she drew closer to the center of the room, her manic cries formed into coherent words.

  “Where is she, you monsters?!” she wailed. “Where’s my little girl!?”

Hobbs stood, frozen into complicit shock, as he watched three large boys push the woman against the platform. One of them had a pistol pointed at her back. With a high-pitched roar, the boy with the pistol ordered the woman to climb. Timidly, she clambered onto the stage without the use of her hands. Once she had succeeded, she opened her mouth to object, yet remained silent when the armed boy waved the pistol threateningly in her face.

  “Secure her!” the armed boy shouted to his fellows. With mechanical precision, they took the chains binding the woman’s ankles and fastened them to a protruding link at the center of the stage. Then, they leapt away and melted into the shadows of the crowd. The room fell utterly silent. Aside from the woman’s gentle whimpering, Hobbs could hear nothing. The natural oscillation of the mob had ceased completely. Every masked face was fixed upon the woman at the center of the room.

  “Where?!” she screamed suddenly. “What have you done with her?!”

She fell to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. For what seemed an eternity, Hobbs watched the broken woman. He surveyed the silent sea of masked children, but none moved, until at last he heard a soft cry which made his blood run cold.

  “Mama?”

A young girl emerged from the unmoving mob. She was dressed in a fine evening gown but wore no mask. Her face dripped with fear and sadness, and as Hobbs looked at her, he instantly thought of Jen. He felt a sudden compulsion to move closer.

  Don’t move, the voice whispered. He obeyed.

The woman stared at the young girl, stupefied. Her mouth hung open as she struggled to inhale. The girl took another step closer.

  “Mama?” she repeated.

  “Bethany?” the woman whispered finally, hope fluttering in her voice. “Is that you, baby?”

The girl nodded emphatically. Nascent tears shimmered in her vivid, blue eyes. She broke into a run and jumped onto the table. With a euphoric leap, she threw herself into the outstretched arms of the woman.

  “Thank God!” the woman sobbed as she cradled the girl tightly. “You’re safe now, Beth. You’re safe with me.”

Hobbs held his breath as he watched the spectacle before him. The silence was crushing; he swore he could hear the tiny hearts beating in the children around him amidst the quiet. Then, after a time, the woman lifted her head and stared into the crowd. The young girl was still clutched closely against her chest. The woman showed no signs of weakening her hold, and instead rotated the girl with her torso as she scanned the room.

  “Please,” she declared firmly. “Let us go.”

There was no answer.

  “Please, have mercy. Let us go!”

  “Mama, where would we go?”

The woman pulled the girl back and looked at her. Hobbs squinted. He could not make out the girl’s face clearly, but he swore he could see a wide smile. Suddenly, the woman shrieked and reflexively fell back. A streak of blood flew into the air as the woman grabbed her wrist and moaned in pain. The girl twirled back gracefully, her dress fluttering like falling leaves. In her hand was a long, silver knife, stained with red. The woman looked from her injured wrist to the girl.

  “What’s happening, Bethany?! What did they do to you?”

The girl began circling the woman, tracing her footsteps along the edge of the platform. As her face came into full view, Hobbs saw eyes drained of all life, a grin as wide and evil as the masks of the children. With her free hand, the girl reached behind her back and pulled out a large, flat object. Hobbs felt his heart stop in his chest as she raised the object and pressed it to her face. It was a white mask, with dot-eyes and an impossibly wide grin. The woman screamed in agony.

  “Bethany, no! Come back to me!”

The girl spun and faced the others, her loose hair spilling down around her mask messily. She squealed with delighted laughter.

  “This one was most convinced! Now, who fancies a taste of her!”

The crowd erupted into a roar of jubilation. A hundred voices rose up as children stormed the platform with violent zeal. Hobbs stood motionless as he watched the once placid party-goers transform into feral animals, pushing and tearing through each other in an effort to reach the screaming woman first. Like enraged ants, the children swarmed over her writhing body, rending with nails and teeth. For only a moment, Hobbs looked on in abject horror. Yet, before the woman had even stopped screaming, he turned his head and closed his eyes. Sweat bubbled from his skin. The voice in his head was shouting at him in overlapping sentences which he could just barely understand,

  GETOUTLEAVETHISPLACENEVERRETURN….

Hobbs felt the urge to vomit. He turned and stumbled through the few remaining children who were surging towards the stage. As the crowd thinned, he broke into an awkward run and burst through the ballroom doors. With an explosive gasp, he collapsed against the exterior wall and began hyperventilating. Desperate for air, he found he could think of nothing except Jen and Adelaide. He had to save them from this, no matter where they were.

No place was far enough from this nightmare.



© Copyright 2019 A. G. Smith. All rights reserved.

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