Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Excerpt from The Burning Hand by K. Drew

Omnimystery News: An Excerpt courtesy of K. Drew

We are delighted to welcome author K. Drew to Omnimystery News today.

K.'s second book is a suspenseful crime novel, The Burning Hand (Endeavour Press; June 2015 ebook format), and we are so pleased that he's provided us with an excerpt to share with our readers.

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I'VE GONE AND DONE A BAD thing, and now I'll be remembered for it" he said, the southern twang in his voice almost palpable. I thought I would throw up when a small grin erupted on his face. I had dealt with all kinds in my day, but Lionel Kent was the vilest snake to slither out of the swamps of Mississippi. He smirked at me through the double-sided mirror, almost aware of my presence and went on to describe in horrifying detail his encounter with Sue Casper, how he snuffed out her life, then raped her corpse before dismembering the body. Though there's no use dealing in absolutes, he's the closest embodiment of evil I've ever had the misfortune of meeting.
  I left before he could build to the chilling climax of how he escaped police capture for two months while hiding in plain sight. In actuality I had been watching him under surveillance during that entire time, like a bug in a masonry jar. Following him from a distance, I tracked his movements for weeks until I could time his every breath, living like a shadow under the cover of darkness. I had been brought into the case after Sue's desperate family had called me in a state of panic. They were terrified that their daughter would merely become another sad statistic, one more nameless missing person photo plastered on the wall of an anonymous police station unless my services were acquired. They begged me to take the case, promising me any earthly reward I desired if I would only bring their young daughter back — a mission which I couldn't fulfill, at least not in the condition they had hoped.
  Life is a harsh mistress, and I danced on the blade that sliced throats and spilled blood in the midnight gutter. As I walk down the hallway, I can hear the guards hauling the narcissistic beast away in shackles. The detective in charge of the case assures me they will place him in the dankest cell in the building and I'm relieved to see Kent's small silhouette vanishes behind a barred corridor to suckle at the teat of his concrete mama.
  I step out of the police station and onto the concrete sidewalk, riddled with cigarette butts and other debris. The cool night air offers me temporary relief, and I close my eyes and take a long drag from my cigarette as the sweat beads down my cheeks and soils the collar of my last clean shirt. Philadelphia always turns a bitter cold this time of year, a cruel reminder that yet another summer has passed us by and winter will soon be here. I pull my trench coat close and tie it about my waist, but the tails are drawn up by the sweeping wind which passes by like a street car. I don't go back to the office, at least not right away, I can't bear to be alone at a time like this. I'm also dreading the prospect of making that phone call to Sue's parents, her mother's desperate voice answering the phone, expecting it always to be the voice of her only daughter. Instead I venture down to Bert's, and take a seat at a stool near the door so I can look out the window at the passing crowds, I never know if it's the alcohol or the faces that ease my pain, but both seem to be in full effect this evening. I don't talk to anyone, not even Bert, who takes my order and reads my face like a playing card, leaving me alone to wallow in my misery. I honestly thought this case would end differently, that perhaps this time fortune would work in my favour.
  I can't excise the image of Sue's mutilated corpse from my mind, her eyes half-open and swelled with blood. No matter how many cases, no matter how many photographs, those eyes always do it to me, that look of broken life, beauty destroyed too soon. I take in enough drinks to ease the memory of Sue's mother and her pleading face as she described the clothes her daughter wore the last time she saw her.
   My palms are sweating, and despite my best efforts, I can't seem to stop them. My task is complete, my mission fulfilled, but yet the haunting emptiness still lingers like bad company. I drag myself back to the office in an attempt to focus what remains of my mind at this hour, but as I stumble past the desk I crash onto the cheap leather sofa, and despite my best efforts can't pull myself up. It's a pitiful bed, with torn arms which continually vomit stuffing all over the room, but in my exhausted state I immediately descend into a coma from which I won't awake for thirteen hours. I don't dream, and the sleep feels like a cheap lover's caress, it fills the void but does little for my morale. I finally return to consciousness to find that a new day has dawned and is already half devoured. My body aches in too many places to properly describe, and I simply sit there in a state of agony for a few moments, trying to escape the commitments that flood back to me through the afternoon light. Though my vision is bleary, all I can make out is the blinking light of the answering machine on my desk which winks at me like a candle in the wind as it turns on and off.
  I haul myself from the sofa to the desk, moving like a living corpse crippled by rigor mortis and just barely muster the energy to push the play button. The machine is ancient, and I hadn't the energy or funds to purchase a newer model. The cogs begin clicking away inside the contraption like the ammo in a machine gun before it begins spitting out recordings of acquaintances and friends. Initially it was the usual gallery of rogues, Bert had left a message asking if I had arrived home safely. Then there was a message from my sister Dana, telling me with her usual disappointment that I had missed my niece's birthday party the week earlier. My headache was so intense I was on the verge of smashing the damn machine into the wall, when a voice suddenly spoke that I didn't recognize. It was an English man, clearly high born, the blue blood practically dripping through the audio speaker. His haughtiness undermines the urgency of his message which becomes more apparent as he speaks.
  "This is Oliver Billingsworth, I am calling on behalf of Baron Atwell of Jester's Den, a small town located in northern England" he says in an uneasy voice. "I am calling regarding a most sensitive issue, Baron Atwell's son, Sebastian, has recently gone missing and we thought it best to consult a private practice prior to involving the police. The Atwell family will cover any expenses you may incur during your voyage to Jester's Den, however your services are urgently required." He then rattles off all the details concerning addresses and hotels, informing me that "we have a lovely chalet in town that I believe you will find most comfortable." The message goes on for some time, taking up at least eight minutes of tape, and the eventually machine cuts out, ending abruptly before he can offer a polite farewell. It's the first case I've been offered in over eight weeks and I feel a mixture of nausea and anticipation. I had never been off the continent before, and the prospects of visiting England and having a paying job were tantalizing, especially since the rent on my office space was due in a little over a week.
  I venture into the washroom and begin the lengthy process of making myself look presentable. I gaze into the mirror which has a scar running down its center like a zebra stripe. I had promised to fix it years ago and never got around to it, though now it matches the rest of the office. The reflection that looks back at me is almost overwhelmingly sad, a broken man for a broken mirror. I admire my bloodshot eyes and yellow teeth, and marvel at the wreck I've become, it's hard work falling apart on a daily basis and I was no slack. I started this practice ten years ago with dreams of capitalizing on my gifts, a private investigator using unorthodox measure for finding missing persons. What my grandmother used to call the 'old voodoo,' turning on the internal compass and letting it guide you home, in short listening to the internal voice. It's a blessing and a curse, but a gift nonetheless, and I wear it like a cheap suit, trying to eke out a living. Now I'm no further up the chain gang than a street corner hustler or matchstick magician. Sometimes I think God is a comedian, and we're his opening act.
  I brush my teeth and take a shower; I even put on a clean suit in an attempt to fain respectability. Then I carry out the unenviable task of calling Mrs. Casper and breaking the bad news, she reacts just as I anticipated. She shrieks and cries out, then her voice dissolves into tears, there's nothing I can say, no words I can find that will ease her pain, they're just placebos now, the disease has already taken effect and ravaged her. I drop the phone back on the receiver and ease myself into the chair behind the desk, trying to pretend it doesn't bother me, that this job hasn't destroyed me, and any hope of finding a lasting relationship. It's been years since I've been on a date with a woman, and the prospects were wearing thing, between the degenerates that hang out at Bert's or the low lives I run into in this line of work, my social clientele was more than a little lacklustre.
  I gather up some random pieces of laundry off the floor and deposit them in the hamper. However I quickly desert the prospect of cleaning up the apartment after looking at the mountain of dirty dishes that threaten to topple over in the sink, despite the fact that I haven't eaten here in days. It's extraordinary how dirty a bachelor apartment can become when someone sets their mind to it, and the place was beginning to look like a house of horrors. The corners are cobwebbed and there was dust on everything. I briefly considered making the bed, but then reconsider — why ruin the overall décor? I replay the Atwell message a few more times, and nervously smoke a cigarette as I ponder the prospect of changing time zones. It's never good to make a decision under duress, and this was no exception, so I decided to take a walk.
  I jingle the keys in my palm as I walk down the hall, and out of the corner of my eye I spot a cockroach scurrying along the floorboard, no doubt looking for a better residence than the one offered by Winchester Arms. I pass by Evelyn's apartment, the matronly superintendent, catching her just as she runs out the door in pursuit of one of the harem of cats that populate her apartment. In the eight years I've lived in this building I've never seen Evelyn wear anything other than her nightgown. She's one of those women who has her hair permanently in rollers, as though she were preparing for a party that never happens. Her cynicism belies her warmth, and she has always had a soft spot for me, secretly hoping I would find a girl, fall in love and go live in the suburbs with a small army of children.
  "One of the patients escape, Evelyn?" I ask facetiously as the cat prances past me.
  "Winston!" she yells after the feline. "You know I always hated that one, I named him after Churchill, fat as a small calf he was," she replies crossly. "He was bad from day one, he reminds me of you" she says eyeing me with mock suspicion.
  "You look quite nice" she says with surprise, taking note of my suit and manicured hair.
  "I'm considering a new case" I say proudly, shaking the loose change in my pocket, and she laughs giddily.
  "Why don't you get out of this business, and out of this neighbourhood," she says suddenly turning serious, the concern in her voice palpable "how long do you think you can keep this up, Wade?" Don't you want to settle down while there's still time, get married, and have a family" she asks with real hope in her eyes. "Married men live longer you know" she says optimistically.
  "Yeah, only because their wives won't let them die" I return mockingly. She scolds me and hits me across the arms lightly, but giggles as she returns to her apartment.
  "What about my niece, you remember the pretty one with the red dress," she says, the hope in her voice rising to the dizzying heights of the Chrysler building. "You went on a date with her a month ago" she continues, pressing the issue. Initially I pretend that I don't remember and then realizing she won't drop the issue I say "Oh yeah, the social worker who kept trying to analyse me during dinner. It was the most depressing meal I've ever sat through" I tell her.
  She purses her lips and raises an eyebrow as though performing a comedy skit, and says "She's still single," waving her ring finger in the air "you'll never do better you know".
  "Perhaps," I say in a stoic voice, adding "but I'll never feel worse either".
  "You know you ain't that young any more Wade, what are you these days, thirty-seven?" she asks aggressively.
  "Thirty-eight" I say, wincing slightly at this admission, since I look at least ten years older.
  "You only live once" Evelyn states in a poetic tone.
  "Yes," I reply "but how many times can you die?"
  "Well you're the expert on that" she says, spotting Winston at the end of the hall, toying with the cockroach as though it were a ball of string. Evelyn chases after him, running clumsily in bare feet down the hallway and disappearing down the adjoining corridor. I descend the six flights of stairs to the lobby which is dimly lit for this time of day, it is rounding three and my appetite is beginning to return. The entire building has a dullness about it that's comforting and yet depressing, and I make my way outside quickly, desperate to breathe some fresh air. The afternoon breeze hits me like a slap to the face, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. I make my way down Frankford past Liberty Bell Centre to the Delaware River. I need to be near the water when I think, I always have, ever since I was a kid and my old man would take me and my sister camping in White Haven. As I cross the bridge, the cars whiz by like baseballs, causing the beams to rattle like a snake's tail. I look down at the river that passes through the city, churning like the sewers of hell.
  I take a photo of Sue from my breast pocket which her mother had handed to me with care only two months earlier. It was her graduation picture from high school, her face is still not fully mature and her plump cheeks tighten under her blue eyes as she smiles. Her blond hair rolls down her shoulders over her ivory sweater, and you can tell this is one of the first times she has ever worn makeup from the awkward line of the eye shadow. She looks like an angel, but then they all do, and I can't help but recall the circumstances around her death as I look at her image. I had been the one to find the body, busted into Kent's woodshed and discovered her bloody remains dismembered only a few hours earlier. The corner of the photo slices into my finger and I suck the wound until the blood stops flowing. I gaze at her face until I can't bear it any longer, and the nausea in my stomach threatens to erupt in a stream of bile, then I toss the photo into the waters blow. More of a symbolic gesture than a necessary one, and finally the sickening feeling in my gut ends, like expelling a demon after the conclusion of an exorcism. The photo hits the surface of the water, causing ripples which permeate in all directions until Sue's effigy sinks to the bottom of the river.
  In the distance I can hear a police siren crying out like a hungry child and there is the vague aroma of burning rubber in the air. I look out across the cityscape, the sun just beginning to descend behind the buildings. I start to feel nostalgic when I look at this city from a distance, most of the time I'm too lost in the haze of daily routine to really appreciate it. It never ceases to amaze me how Philadelphia can be so disgusting and so beautiful at the same time, like the desert around an oasis. I soak it in like a hot bath, marinating in the ambience, this is my home and I'll miss it when I leave. The back alleys and vagrants, the charm and revulsion, it has me wound around its finger like a greedy orphan. Once my head is clear and the hangover has entirely passed, I begin to make my way back to the office. On the way I stop by Tony's Eatery and pick up a meatball sub, no use making a decision on an empty stomach. As I wolf it down back in the apartment, I call up my travel agent and leave him a message to price me a flight for the UK, telling him to charge it to the Atwell account. God never closes a window without opening a trap door, and I was ready to fall through mine.


Chapter 2

I left on a Sunday for England, packing my sad belongings in a ratty suitcase with scarred corners and loose seams. I dropped the luggage on the mattress like an anvil and it bounced a few times as I furiously dropped clothes and other paraphernalia in it. On my way out of the building I called on Evelyn, who I asked to watch the place while I was out of town. She looked at me with confusion and disappointment as she petted Winston between the ears.
  "We're gonna miss you around here, Wade" she says with a sad expression.
  "When I'm working, it's Mr. Harlenday" I say with mock respectability, and she shots me a glance that stings like a razor.
  "I'll have Winston guard it with his nine lives" she says, as I flip the top of my fedora hat and bid her adieu. She waves from the window as I board a taxi to take me to the airport and I watch from the window as the hazy blur of downtown Philadelphia fades from view like a distant memory.
  The flight was a long one, populated with the type of passengers you imagine killing if left deserted on a lifeboat. There's a colicky baby at the back of the plane who is perpetually unhappy, squealing like a caught pig and an equally irate man ahead of me who complains to his dutiful daughter about everything from the state of health care to his bowel movements. The elderly woman sitting next to me insists on carrying on a lengthy conversation, which is in fact a veiled monologue. She's English and her sense of humour is so dry it could snap like a piece of parchment. She wears large black sunglasses which shield the sides of her eyes, enclosing them completely, and explains that she suffers from a rare eye disease which is slowly causing her to go blind. She's dressed in a dark green suit and her salt and pepper hair is slicked back in a bun, she smiles at me sweetly as she recounts every detail of her trip to Philadelphia to meet with a leading ophthalmologist.
  "This condition is so unique they tell me I'm one in a million" she says half-joking, "the odds are better for winning the lottery, but I say they can keep this prize." She then removes her glasses momentarily for dramatic effect and reveals the milky white cataracts which have overtaken the pupils of her eyes, and I shudder slightly. I listen mostly out of pity and exhaustion, and she chews off my ear as though it were a mint left on a hotel pillow. I stare out the window, feigning interest in the conversation, drowning my boredom in a Bloody Mary, trying to phase out the endless dribble which spouts from her mouth.
  "Did you have culture shock?" I ask politely, cradling my drink in my hands as though it was a specimen waiting to be analysed.
  "There has to be culture to be shocked" she says sharply. Her mild English accent belying her wicked temper, and she moans "I just don't understand you Americans."
  "What's not to get?" I sigh, growing increasingly irritated with her chatter.
  "It's such an excessive country, too much land, too many people and too many guns" she states as though reading a eulogy.
  "You don't have guns in England?" I respond facetiously and she cuts me a fierce glance.
  "Of course, but we also have reason" she reveals in a voice that reminds me of Masterpiece Theatre reruns, bringing our exchange to a screeching halt.
  The breakfast they serve us is terrible; the eggs are so runny they slosh across my platter each time we hit a bit of turbulence. I push the tray away after a few mouthfuls and spit the partially chewed food into my napkin. The stewardess comes along and mercifully takes away the putrid food and brings me another drink. When we land the group of passengers quickly disperse to retrieve their luggage and I am left at the arrival gate, searching for a ride.
  It is then that I spot a tall man wearing a black suit, holding a sign marked with the name 'Harlenday.' I hadn't anticipated this degree of preparation on the part of the Atwells, and I'm relieved to discover that I will not have to fight my way through the masses for a taxi.
  I walk over to the man and shake his hand vigorously, saying "Nice to meet you."
  His reaction is less than enthusiastic, and he simply asks me "You Harlenday?" I nod and pat my luggage which bears my initials, and he turns and begins walking out the terminal gate to a black car which waits just outside the building. I follow, unsure if he wants me to take my own luggage. He pops the trunk and throws my belongings into the carriage, and then takes to the wheel. This is the only exchange we share during the forty-five minute drive to Jester's Den. To be quite honest I'm actually relieved not to have to talk to anyone, the exhaustion is starting to hit me and I sink in my seat, my eyes growing weary. I pull my coat around me like a blanket and drop my hat in front of my eyes so as to block out the morning sun. If there is any culture shock to feel, it will have to penetrate through the four drinks I consumed during the flight.
  The sky turns slightly overcast as the morning descends into afternoon, and we arrive at the Atwell house around one o'clock. I'm astonished at the sight that welcomes me, in a small town which could accommodate no more than ten thousand people, the Atwell mansion stands out like a crown jewel. The house is set back about fifty feet from the roadway and occupies an entire city block. Around the property is a tall black iron gate giving the estate a slightly militaristic look, resembling the small fortified cities of the medieval world. The walls are made of red brick with ivy that climbs across them like serpents, rising upwards to the roof which is shingled with black slate. The shape of the house resembles a python that's eaten a pig, with a tall central façade that juts upwards near the centre, buttressed by smaller wings which sprawl outwards across the property, receding at the flanks. It looks Edwardian, and though the house is older, it appears to be well maintained and the grounds which surround it are beautifully manicured. There's a short tiled walkway which leads to the front door, and surrounds a fountain planted in the middle of the lawn. In front of the door is a series of short columns which shoulder a small portico.
  The chauffeur gets out of the car and lights a cigarette before opening the trunk and retrieving my luggage. He stays only long enough to finish his cigarette, and quickly departs when he realizes he won't be receiving a tip. His only farewell is a puff of black smoke blown in my direction as he speeds away, and I begin my trek up the walkway to the house. After ringing the bell, I wait patiently for the door to open. A small, lean man with thinning gray hair finally arrives and offers to take my bags, I recognize his distinctive voice almost immediately from the recording; he's Oliver. He's wearing a black vest over an immaculate white shirt and though his demeanour is restrained, he has a warmth that puts me at ease. Though I refuse his offer to carry my bags, he insists. As he grabs them from me he displays the strength of a much younger man, and I get the impression that Father Time has not been kind to him. As we walk through the foyer he tells me "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Harlenday," adding in a kind voice "I trust that your flight was enjoyable."
  I am too overwhelmed by the surroundings to answer him, and simply offer a nondescript grunt as I look at the amazing chandelier that hangs overhead, and the grand staircase that welcomes us as we walk into the house. I knew the Atwells came from money, but this exceeded even my expectations. Oliver leaves my bags in the foyer and leads me through the large double doors into the study. We're greeted by a strange vision, a middle-aged man is hunched over a large table which is covered by a diorama. The entire surface is peppered with small soldiers who have been positioned in some sort of battle. He is so engrossed in his work that he doesn't hear us come in and Oliver is forced to announce our arrival.
  "Baron Atwell" he says in a soft voice "Mr. Harlenday is here to see you." The Baron rises and shakes my hand, he is clearly a man in his forties, though he is extremely well preserved and his manicured hands quickly give away the fact he has not worked a day in his life, at least not the kind of work that I'm accustomed to. Oliver stands next to the Baron for a moment and asks him if there is anything he needs, an offer the Baron rejects. The two form a perfect mirror image of one another, the Baron still has a full head of hair, light brown with small patches of grey fashionably located at the temples. He's dressed in a dark brown suit which showcases his ample physique and the red ascot under his white shirt gives him an air of sophistication. Oliver quickly leaves to attend to his other duties, and the Baron watches as he walks out the door and shuts it behind him, ensuring that we have total privacy.
  "We didn't mean to interrupt you" I say, taking a seat in a large leather chair.
  The Baron shakes his head and his forehead creases, "Not at all, idle hobbies are the only thing that seem to steady my nerves these days, well, that and this" he says, holding up a short glass of what appears to be whisky. "Can I get you a glass?" he asks, taking a sip from his own. I nod and he begins pouring the contents of a large decanter into a glass from the small side table behind him. He hands the glass to me and it glints in the remaining sunlight that cuts through the curtains of the large bay windows behind the Baron.
  "We're coming up to the five-hundred year anniversary of the founding of Jester's Den and this diorama will be the centre piece in city hall, I'm just finishing the final details" he says as he shifts a few of the figurines slightly. I marvel over the extreme detail and craftsmanship of the battle scene. Each soldier is perfectly articulated with individual features and armour. Even the topography looks to be accurate, from the views I garnered while inside the car on the way into town.
  "I realize that it is all rather unorthodox, dragging you halfway across the globe for a case" the Baron says in a mild voice, "but this is a very sensitive issue and we needed your assistance specifically."
  "I don't know how much help I can be" I say candidly, "I'm more accustomed to dealing with cases of adulterous husbands than missing heirs."
  "They say you're the best," the Baron states, taking another sip from his glass "you certainly charge top rates."
  "That shouldn't be a problem for you, Baron" I respond, looking at the lavish surroundings and admiring the elaborate mouldings which decorate the ceiling.
  The Baron shakes his head and gives a slight laugh, "this estate is actually inherited, it has been in my family for centuries, I do not properly own any of it, I actually live off a rather modest monthly stipend."
  I'm a bit shocked by this revelation, and that the Baron would be so direct about his shortcomings.
  "Well, this is a hell of a house," I offer admiringly, adding "all I got when my mother died was a few dishes and a fake fur coat."
  The Baron laughs in that restrained English fashion that makes you feel vulgar, then begins to recount the history of the construction of the manor. "It took over two hundred men working for three years to build this structure, and that was over a hundred and twenty years ago."
  "It was built to survive a bomb" I say, taking a small chocolate from a small porcelain dish on the Baron's desk.
  "It's funny you should say that," the Baron says with a sly smile "during the second world war the Nazis briefly occupied this area and they intended to destroy Atwell Manor. They hollowed out the foundational beams in the basement and laid dynamite throughout the entire house, but the soldiers couldn't bring themselves to detonate it" he says in a reverential voice, adding "My grandfather told me that some of the bombs are still down there."
  "Remind me never to light a match in the basement" I say half-joking, while chewing on another chocolate.
  The Baron smiles, and as he looks out the window to admire the view he states "This area has a way of casting a spell on visitors." He finally returns to himself, and looking at me, adds "But then I don't need to tell you about the power of the supernatural, do I; tell me Mr. Harlenday, how would you describe your methods?"
  I squirm slightly in my chair, I always feel a bit uneasy when asked to give a synopsis of my routine, it's a bit like standing naked in front of a lover for the first time. "Well," I say awkwardly, "every land has a spirit, the hand that can be felt but not seen, I let it guide me, point me in the right direction."
  "And Jester's Den," he asks curiously "have you met with the spirits of this land?"
  "None that I'd care to mention" I say, recounting the offensive personalities I encountered on the plane.
  "Five hundred years ago a man like you would have been burned at the stake" The Baron says in a voice that borders between concern and wry humour.
  "A few more cases like Lionel Kent and I will be" I say in a self-pitying tone, taking another sip of the whisky.
  "Yes, I heard that it didn't end as anticipated" he states in a diplomatic voice, adding supportively "you came highly recommended."
  I know this last statement is rooted in politeness; no law enforcement agency would ever view my line of work as legitimate.
  "My son is missing" he says in a restrained tone, which belies the underlying urgency, "I need you to find him." I could vaguely sense the intense emotion in this last statement, and though the stiff veneer of rigid protocol prohibited him from crying, I could make out the quiver of his lower lip and a moistening in the whites of his eyes. "I'm a widower, Mr. Harlenday, my wife died years ago just after Sebastian was born, he's all I have in the world and I want to keep him safe" he says, refusing to make eye contact while he speaks.
  I begin by asking all the typical questions one does in times like these. "Has he ever run away?" I probe as the Baron takes a seat on the chaise lounge, busily stuffing his cherry wood pipe with tobacco and striking a match.
  "Never" he answers, almost indignantly, "Sebastian is very conscientious, he is an excellent student, and an ideal child." His voice takes on its earlier cadence of condescension and all emotion leaves his face.
  "Even ideal children can go wild from time to time" I state, almost cutting him off mid-sentence. I get up and start to walk around the room, passing by the opulent furniture and gilded paintings which line the walls. "How long has he been missing?" I ask, running my finger along the book spines, examining the titles which occupy the endless shelves. Many of them are first editions and no doubt have a considerable dollar value attached to them.
  The Baron's eyes follow me suspiciously as he reveals that it has been four days since Sebastian was last seen before going to bed, and that the police have not yet been notified. When I inquire why he hasn't involved the authorities, he tells me "Jester's Den is a small community-everyone talks, and I would much rather deal with this situation privately."
  I nod and comment that "The gated fence keeps the intruders out and the rumours in."
  The Baron expels a large puff of smoke like the valve of a steam engine and then replies "I don't let anyone near me who doesn't have something to hide."
  This last statement seems oddly cryptic and I ask him "Do you always research the people you employ?"
  "Yes," he states with a macabre joy, "take you for instance," he says, turning to me like a scientist looking over his test subject. "You attended Penn State University for two semesters during which time you failed every one of your classes. You were eventually expelled for academic indecency, when you were accused of having another student write your exams."
  "It was the most humiliating experience of my life," I say in a low voice.
  "Because you were thrown out?" he says in a stoic voice.
  "No," I offer sadly, "because he still failed all of the exams."
  "Then you understand what it is to wish to keep a matter private" he states, pushing the burnt match around in the dish of the ashtray. "I'll pay you whatever you require," he says in a direct manner "I just want this dealt with, we need Sebastian here."
  I promise the Baron I will do whatever I can, adding the caveat that "I have a few requirements."
  "Such as?" he inquires with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance.
   "I want to stay here in the manor, I need to sleep in Sebastian's room" I state ambitiously.
  He scoffs at my request, and leaning back in the chair and chewing nervously on the pipe, he replies "I'm afraid that's impossible."
  "Those are my demands," I say forcefully "I assure you that nothing will be stolen or damaged, but I need to be close to his belongings."
  He ponders over my request for a few more moments, and then finally relents, offering a begrudging "very well." He then gets up from his chair and shakes my hand, telling me "Oliver will take you up to Sebastian's room." The Baron pulls the long velvet rope which hangs next to the door and Oliver appears a few moments later, he tells him that I will be staying for the evening in Master Atwell's room and Oliver eyes me suspiciously. Before the Baron walks out the door, he looks at me and says "I certainly hope you know what you're doing." Then he departs, leaving a billowing puff of smoke in his wake. Though this farewell is less than encouraging, I feel reassured that if I can gain access to Sebastian's world, he will be found.
  Trailing behind Oliver as we make our way through the manor, I take this opportunity to learn something about the Atwell family. "What exactly does Baron Atwell do?" I ask with the cadence of a five year old.
  "Do, Mr. Harlenday?" Oliver responds, slightly befuddled by my question.
  "How does he fill his days, how does he earn an income?" I return, slightly frustrated with his evasiveness.
  "The estate was bequeathed to him by his great uncle along with a sizeable fortune which he subsists on" Oliver responds, not entirely answering my inquiry. We reach the top of the stairs and take a right down a lengthy hallway wallpapered red and enter the third door.
  "What the hell does he do all day?" I ask as Oliver lays my suitcase down on the chest at the foot of the bed.
  "Baron Atwell maintains the estate and the family titles, he has private visitations with political and royal officials, and makes annual appearances at various charitable events, both national and local," he states, as though reading a press release. He then humanizes his response by adding "and during his leisure time he enjoys croquet and hunting."
  "So he's the tenant of his family title" I comment, walking around the room and examining the small trinkets which populate the side tables and mantle.
  "Yes sir, as he's the last male heir of the Atwell name" Oliver states, watching me wander through the space which he has guarded for so many years.
  "Except for Sebastian" I correct him.
  "Quite right, Mr. Harlenday," he says in a remorseful voice "I apologize for my oversight."
  I don't like people who apologize too quickly and to my relief he finally leaves the room after ensuring that there are adequate toiletries. This place looks more like the lobby of a historical museum than a teenage boy's bedroom. The overall mood is sombre, and despite the aroma of lavender in the air, it's quite a gloomy space. The walls are lined with dark oak, and adorned with decorative insets which are heavily shellacked and shine under the light of the small chandelier that hangs from the ceiling. I try to imagine myself at sixteen living in this world of opulence and stuffiness, a prospect which no doubt would have ended in disaster. Sebastian's bed is pristine, crisp hospital corners without a wrinkle on the sheets. The whole scene is unsettlingly perfect, and his small portrait which sits on the mantle stares blankly out at me, like a child's face on the side of a milk carton.
  I take the frame off the shelf and look at it for a few minutes. Beneath his heavy lids, his watery blue eyes seemed to cry out, as if begging for something. He had a face that could seduce, beautiful and helpless. His blonde hair was a tussled mass of curls that looked like the serpents of Medusa's mane, perhaps the only part of his appearance that wasn't perfectly manicured. His smile was as evasive as the Mona Lisa, and though his lips curl slightly at the edges, his expression could hardly be called jovial, but instead looked more like thinly disguised melancholy.
  I return the photograph to the mantle; I pass my fingers over the white marble of the shelf and it sends a chill through my hand. The façade of the fireplace is covered with ornate woodwork carved in the shape of a series of cherubs all of which vaguely resemble Sebastian, whose image sits at the apex. The faces are remarkably detailed, and their infantile features are executed with such startling accuracy that I'm hypnotized by their gaze. The eyes of each angel have been carved out and inset with glass orbs which give them an eerie, animated quality. The glass is tinted blue, the same translucent pale colour of Sebastian's eyes, perhaps to mimic the colour of the ceiling. The series of twinkling jewels which stare at me resemble a starry night, all except one, whose eyes are conspicuously coloured a fiery red. The shiny veneer on the glass has grown dull, causing the cherub's eye to resemble the blank stare of a cataract victim. There's a slight chip in the material which I don't notice until I touch it and the jagged edge slices into my flesh, causing a thin stream of blood to trickle down my forefinger.
  The pressure of my touch is just enough to cause the glass to move, and I can hear a spring release as I move backwards. To my right, at the base of the fireplace, a small compartment opens. I stare at it in shocked amazement as I lap up the blood that's now migrated all the way down to my wrist. I quickly realize that this is a priest hole, a compartment for precious items which require hiding in case of intruders. Inside the dark hole I can barely make out the contours of a chest, it's old and leather-bound with two belts which wrap tightly around its sides. They meet at the center and are joined by a large antique lock, perhaps as old as the chest itself.
  I gently lift it from the crevice, and deposit it on the bed. I stare into the hollow abyss of the keyhole, trying to catch a glimpse of the inner workings that operate its fulcrums. Though the cavern is filled with an endless series of cobwebs, none of them have touched the chest, indicating that it's been removed recently. I shake the case a few times to try and discern its contents, with little success. I briefly consider busting the lock, however as I take a closer look at the contraption, I quickly realize that this would be an exercise in futility. Constructed from iron, the latch was jammed into the body of the lock and would be impossible to dislodge without the proper tools. I lay my hand over the top of the box and caress the lid, there's a strange warmth that emanates from inside. I try to envision the young Sebastian's hidden world trapped within this chest and I briefly consider asking Oliver to find me a chisel and hammer, but even the thought of this work makes me feel tired.
  Exhaustion overtakes my thoughts, and I lay the chest on the floor, leaving it until morning, and close the priest's hole. Looking out the window, I can barely make out the silhouette of the full moon over the sycamore trees which line the perimeter of the property. I unpack my meagre belongings, strip down to my underwear, and head into the lavatory to take a bath. I'm amazed to find that Sebastian's personal washroom is close to the size of my apartment, and equipped with extravagant amenities, including a pedestal bathtub. After a twenty minute soak, I put on a pair of pyjama pants and brush my teeth which ache as I run the bristle along my worn gums. The rest of the house has already gone to sleep and I follow suit, turning off the lights and adjourning for the day.
  I lay down on the silk sheets and wrestle around, trying to loosen the sheets which wrap around me like the coils of a boa constrictor. The dark room appears smaller at night, and the walls seem to close in around me as I slip into unconsciousness. I begin to recall the contours of the room, the edges of the wardrobe, the curve of the bedpost, and the arms of the chandelier. My mind travels across the floor, resting at the locked chest which sits abandoned. I marvel at what surprises might lie within, the secrets of a quiet youth born into this privileged prison. That terrifying and magic process begins anew and I try not to fight the sensation as I enter into the strange world populated by phantoms. I twist in the cracks and crevices of the antique lock, descending further into the world of dream, falling from one bottomless chasm of the subconscious into another, until I finally land at an entryway draped in red velvet.

— ♦ —

K. Drew is a Canadian writer residing in Niagara Falls. In addition to his novels, he has produced the scripts for numerous short films which have been shown at over forty film festivals and have garnered eight international awards.

— ♦ —

The Burning Hand by K. Drew

The Burning Hand by K. Drew

A Crime Novel

Publisher: Endeavour Press

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)

Jester's Den, England. The American detective Wade Harlenday has been brought to England to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy socialite named Sebastian Atwell, the son of an affluent and prominent Baron. Harlenday's methods aren't particularly orthodox for a private investigator, relying on his internal compass and listening to his inner voice, but he's particularly well suited to such a case.

After spending a number of nights in the Atwell mansion it soon becomes apparent that Sebastian was no ordinary young man but instead led a sordid secret life, engaging in the seedy underbelly of Jester's Den. Harlenday's suspicions are confirmed when a mutilated corpse is discovered in the trunk of an abandoned car by the water. But rather than drawing the case to an end Harlenday finds it impossible to leave the town. As he learns more about young Sebastian and the disturbing details of his life Harlenday's determination to find his killers only strengthens.

However he soon discovers Sebastian had a huge number of enemies and everyone in Jester's Den apparently had reason to both love and hate the Baron's son, making the task of finding his killer an almost impossible feat.

Can Harlenday get to the heart of the mystery behind this gruesome killing? Was it a random attack or perhaps something more calculated?

The Burning Hand by K. Drew

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