The Helltorch Episode 1.
Triggers: All of them!
Awakening nestled in silk sheets and down blankets instead of on a hard bed in a freezing, cockroach-infested apartment in Baltimore City felt like emerging from an alcohol blackout. The foreign bed’s comfort brought an uncontrolled panic and rush from the mattress to find clothes, not mine, neatly folded on a chair. A fine leather wallet lifted from the nightstand revealed my license, unnerving me further, knowing someone replaced my personal items. Donning the clothes and jamming the wallet in my pocket, I rushed to the bedroom door, pressing an ear to search the quiet beyond. Carefully opening and peering from the jamb showed a hall circling a spiral, descending staircase centered on the octagon-shaped landing, starred with doors and entryways. Hearing only my heavy breathing began a hurried walk and staircase descent into a silent first-floor octagon where a small foyer stood a few feet from the stairs. Unlocking and stepping into the eye-stinging, early morning light bore the front of an estate with a driveway snaking into the woods from the attached multicar garage to the left. A jog around the mansion made apparent the estate’s size as the woods surrounding the front yard circled the home, enclosing a wide-open space containing stables and other buildings in the rear. From the mansion, an old lane stretched a few hundred feet between two smaller houses continuing to the stables and fields of horses corralled in white picket fences, spreading to the distant woods. Brisk morning air brought awareness of cold sweating as I fought the impulse to run. I couldn’t, for seeing and swearing what I had.
Searching memory while returning to the front and entering the octagon summoned no recollection beyond drinking cheap vodka and passing out in my apartment after the incident. How long was I out? My wondering began a quick search of the sheening marble floors stretched between opulently furnished rooms and halls, all lined with unknown, priceless art. Many guest rooms, libraries, galleries, and other rooms of unknown purpose exposed no occupants. Revisiting the first-floor office to investigate a computer, I circled the desk to the high-back, soft leather office chair. From the desk's center, the laptop’s screensaver flashed, “Serve.”
Pulling hair, I fell into the desk chair as sickness struck with the truth rationality fought to believe a delusion or evil hoax. All was true, making me trapped in her service, and somehow, she brought me to this place. Recollecting the incident’s smells and sights turned the stomach, forcing the wastebasket’s grab as I slid from chair to floor, vomiting an empty stomach’s acidic bile. Leaning over the trashcan, I stammered, “I’m alive.”
Rising from the floor, leaning on the desk, and trying to make sense of circumstance renewed the urgency to learn my whereabouts. A tap on the computer’s pad cleared the screen saver showing nine a.m. Thursday and the weather for a Maryland zip code. I was somewhere in Hunt Valley. The incident occurred on Tuesday, and that night was the last in my apartment, leaving an unresolvable memory gap. I drank a lot but not enough to forget twenty-four hours, much less the move into a new house.
A less-panicked second search identified multiple tablets, audio, and other electronics filling the home. In the entertainment room, I slid fingers along a massive flatscreen’s console, noticing speakers tucked in leather walls along with environmental controls on a computer pad at the room’s entrance. Another small computer pad on the bar also accessed the home’s countless networked devices: as if the installer did not know a single laptop capable of the task and emptied an electronics store to be thorough.
In the bedroom, I found my photos and other personal items on shelves and in bureaus, less my clothes replaced by an overabundance of new, tailored-perfect attire that filled closets. Only fine products down to the towels, toothbrushes, and cologne brands filled the bathroom. Removing a shaving brush from the cabinet to study the fine bristles evoked disturbing thoughts of how she came to possess this place.
Despite the home’s foreignness, I felt dirty, and a look in the mirror reflected days of rough, unkempt facial hair, giving a look of sixty instead of fifty. I showered and shaved, which felt incredible as I applied the refreshing aftershave, never experiencing such lavishness. “If God is love, then the Devil is luxury.” Looking in the bathroom mirror reflected gauntness, having not eaten in two days.
I found the kitchen downstairs and the refrigerator packed with vegetables, meats, fruits, and cheeses. The freezer revealed still more frozen meats and pastries. Cabinets and pantries swelled with dry goods, and a spiral staircase in the corner led to a wine cellar, marked with a cute, bottle-shaped sign with an arrow pointing down. I ate a few thick slices of glazed ham topped with fresh pineapple and drank a bottle of mineral water while trying to imagine the horrifying creature as the person who purchased cute knickknacks decorating walls and counters.
Feeling better, I headed to the office but stopped when a female voice echoed from the octagon. “Hello.” Approaching cautiously, I found a fiftyish woman with a small grocery cart in the foyer. She hung a coat on the hall tree, stepped into the octagon, and stopped abruptly. “Oh, you scared me.” Her face brightened. “You must be the new Keeper. Please, could you help me with these groceries?”
Taking a bag from her hands began her pulling the cart to the kitchen. “I am Ms. Barb, the house manager.” She shot me a glance as we entered the kitchen. “House manager sounds like a title, but it’s just a fancy way of saying maid. Linsey is my niece, and she helps me clean, but she is not here today on account of exams. You’ll meet her tomorrow or Monday. Have you settled into your room?”
I frowned. “Yes. I slept there last night.”
She removed items from the refrigerator and loaded new items. “Perfect. Now, Linsey and I clean and prepare foods throughout the week for you and the workers. I’m sure you are aware per your contract that you can leave anytime during the hours we are here. If you must leave at night or on the weekends, the house must be secured with all alarms armed. The Doyenne is very fond of her art, and there has been no theft for the fifty-seven years I worked and lived on these grounds.”
“So, you live here?”
She laughed, “Good Lord, no. Only the Doyenne and you live here. I live in the old servant house on the lower fields where I grew up with my family.” She pointed out the kitchen window. “The small house on the right. The other house to the field’s left is the property manager’s. Mr. Freddie was raised here also. He’s a good man; we’ve known each other since birth. Our families worked here since forever. You’ll meet him soon enough.” She moved pots and pans, readying to cook. “I am sure you've been informed by the hiring service, but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not go over your position’s details.”
“Now, besides securing the house, you must take your phone, which can access all the home’s cameras. If you must leave for more than a day, call me, and arrangements will be made to watch the house. No one, unless authorized by you, me, or the Doyenne, may enter the house other than Linsey, Mr. Freddie, myself, and you. It is your job to ensure the home’s security, repairs handled, and personnel management. This estate requires much upkeep and everyone, including me, answers to you to ensure this purpose. Your title is “Keeper,” and you will always be addressed this way to show authority. Do you understand, Keeper?”
I laughed slightly, “That’s a bit formal, Ms. Barb.”
She raised a finger. “The Doyenne is a wonderful woman and provides for everyone better than any company. She asks little in the way of formalities and only that her home is kept safe.”
“I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. When does the Doyenne arrive?”
Ms. Barb sat a measuring cup on the counter and laughed, “The Doyenne has not come home in three years. She has many business and philanthropic responsibilities and trusts us with the home’s care.” Ms. Barb walked towards the octagon. “Keeper, come with me.”
She led me to a parlor near the foyer where old photos and paintings hung, furnished with a single gold-leafed clawfoot chair that faced a husband, wife, and young girl’s portrait. I didn’t notice the creature’s young version in prior searching nor the marble top buffet behind the chair, which now seemed oddly decorated with a fine brandy, crystal snifters, and junky, old, small radio.
Ms. Barb pointed to the painting. “This is all that remains of the Doyenne’s family. Perhaps it is not my place to say, but she is the last of an old house and endured much hardship and loss, starting with a teacher who did unspeakable things to her in childhood. Not long after, a stable fire stole her parents. When she comes home, she will sit in this room, listen to music, and commune with her family’s ghosts.” Ms. Barb tugged my arm towards a portrait of a beautiful, stately woman between forty-five and fifty. “This our Doyenne. She is a doyenne of travel, art, and culture but loves her home and fills it with generosity and caring. Linsey became my ward when my sister and her husband were murdered in a home invasion. That was the last time the Doyenne came home, and she took care of us and paid all the funeral expenses.”
I nodded, hiding my confusion. “I’m sorry that happened to you and your niece.”
Ms. Barb lowered her head. "Thank you. It has been a few years, but Linsey and I are well because of the Doyenne. Linsey lives at the college but works here during the week in her off-hours. The Doyenne pays for school and promises Linsey a career when she graduates. She only asks that Linsey achieve good grades. She would not be doing so well if not for the Doyenne's care and generosity."
I smiled. “That is wonderful.” But her words of the demon’s kindness rang insane, having seen the terror.
Ms. Barb walked to the room’s door. “You will not find a single person here who has not felt her kindness and love. Everyone works here for life. The Keeper, before the last, worked twenty years before Alzheimer’s struck him down. He lives at the finest facility paid for by the Doyenne, and she visits him when home.”
I followed her into the octagon. “Ms. Barb, what happened to the last Keeper?”
She entered the kitchen and turned to me. “He was only here three years but showed such promise before he began heavy drinking and became unstable. One day I found him unconscious, sprawled naked in the entertainment room with a dirty movie blaring sex through the house. I called the Doyenne who fired him; he was gone a week ago.” She sighed. “Perhaps the Doyenne’s generosity is a curse to some people. Wealth reveals everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Keeper, if you’re a bad person, wealth just makes you a worse person.”
I nodded as she walked back to the kitchen. “Keeper, we placed your things in the office desk; your other belongings are in your room. Let me know if you can’t find anything. Hopefully, we didn’t misplace your belongings.”
“Thank you.” Until now, fear drove action but passed into confusion. Maybe this job was not so bad a thing. Never had I lived in such poshness or held such a position, and her demands might prove good? Perhaps serving her meant a second chance to be a better person.
Entering the den and sitting at the desk, I opened the top drawer revealing a smartphone. Powering the device showed an assortment of numbers, including Ms. Barb, Mr. Freddie, unknown staff, and contractors like plumbers and the alarm company. The resources required to maintain the estate amazed me as continued rummaging of the desk’s contents revealed incident reports from prior Keepers dating back several years and blueprints of the grounds, home, and essential areas. To familiarize myself with this place and job would take weeks.
Accessing the phone again, I found a 'house' icon, and activation produced multiple thumbnails of rooms and property zones, each individually showing more views of a target area. Viewing the den, I stood and held the phone before me to reveal camera views from around the ceiling's edge. A close examination of the sculpted molding revealed tiny cameras hidden in the artistry. “Amazing.”
I returned to searching the laptop’s contents as a feeling of luckiness rose in spite of fear, for never had such a job befell me. Some need kept me alive, perhaps my military and intelligence experience, and maybe the situation offered the chance to become a good guy despite her wrath. I rubbed my chin, whispering, “Just gotta make sure they’re really bad people.”
The computer’s contents contained rich people's routine activities: house upkeep, grounds repairs, art restoration projects, and other chores of the privileged. Finding the prior Keeper’s last journal entries began a confusing, disturbing read, which I stopped and restarted at the first entry. His first entry mirrored my day’s events, having also awakened in the house, but his writing quickly devolved into long, rambling, lunacy-inspired entries. I stopped reading and sat a long time in an increasing dread that made me want to cry.
He couldn’t handle this job; seeing her power unhinged him. Ms. Barb shed some light on the situation; the Professor made sense now. I leaned back in the chair and mulled the circumstance, adding no clarity to my role, but for certain, this palatial prison held no hope of escape. Pulling the laptop closer, thinking the record required and keeping in mind my predecessor’s carelessness, I typed a new journal.
Day One: The Incident
I took a bad job, needing money, and realized the judgment error the first day. The dank, mildewed corridors smelled of rust and rotten wood. No matter how many lights hung in the halls, the darkness overwhelmed with the unnaturalness of working in a tomb. I worked crap jobs for the military in dangerous combat zones or gangsters, setting up computers in abandoned, often decrepit buildings to hack or money launder. No job, legal or not, had good locations: working for good pay in comfort was rare.
Turning aimlessly in the labyrinth corridors, I felt an unusual lostness for having good direction. Something about this place intensely unnerved me. The small underground facility probably served as a drug or children trafficking depot; I neither knew nor cared. The job, installing a security system, would finish in a week, only requiring wires raised above the perpetually damp stone floor caused by proximity to the Loch Raven reservoir. Located in a turn-of-the-century storm drain, long since forgotten by the state, the place’s oldness amplified eeriness. Walking back the way I came, my boot’s water squishing resonated in the hall until interrupted by a large figure’s emergence from a corridor that nearly knocked me over. “Sorry.” Jimmy stopped.
“It’s cool.” I gained my footing.
“Hey, you want in on some action?” His big, pie face stared in the dim light. Jimmy was a troglodyte, likely only excelling in sports until even the high school teachers could no longer hide his stupidity and failed or passed him along with no hope of a career. I met many such buffoons, either as dutiful soldiers or strongmen for the ambitious. He was evil by accident, which made him no less evil since he broke bones or killed without hesitation when ordered. I met him in the morning but understood him completely in ten minutes.
“Jimmy, I just got here today. I don’t even know what’s in this place. What the fuck action are you talking about?”
“Oh, sorry, man. So, you don’t know?” He stared wide-eyed.
Losing patience, I snapped, “Know what, Jimmy?”
He threw his hands in the air, waving them as he walked away. “Ah, man! Are you in for a surprise; follow me.”
A fear pressured my chest, which I ignored and allowed curiosity to drive steps behind Jimmy as he talked, “She just arrived this morning just before you did. This is where the Professor keeps her now.”
“The vegetable,” Jimmy said over his shoulder, again forgetting my newness to the place.
“Oh, sorry. Me and the other guys have been watching her for years. This is where she’s going to be kept from now on. She don’t do nothing cuz she’s brain dead from the drugs. One of the guys got the idea back some years ago to fuck her, and we been doin’ her ever since then. She’s hot for a vegetable.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
Jimmy stopped in front of a room where four huddled guys peered in the door. I cautiously approached to find another troglodyte with his pants around ankles, thrusting into a filthy twenty-something girl sprawled nude on a metal gurney. Her dirty arms hung from the table, swaying to the motion as he grunted and mashed her breasts in hands. Her head rolled, showing her face through matted hair dirtied beyond color recognition. Just a worn doll blankly staring until life sparked a blink.
I turned away. “What the fuck is wrong with you guys?”
Jimmy laughed, “Ah, man, she don’t know. She been like that for years.”