Victoria Page's eyes snapped open as the world around her crashed home. She shuttered as she gasped for air, filling her lungs with a rush. For a moment, that was everything. Breathing in and out. Ecstasy with each rise and fall of her chest, as if she held her breath since time immemorial. Maybe she had, at that.
Releasing her grip on the couch beneath her, she pushed herself up onto her elbows, wincing as she rose. Not from pain, but rather from its expectation. Only, there wasn't any. And a failed expectation at that. Not since high school, some twenty years ago.
Twisting, Victoria placed her feet on the floor. Her black silk dress matched the couch's dark green velvet. Where had that come from? She didn't own any black dresses, let alone silk ones. Bare skin met hardwood, and a dull cold worked its way up her legs. Looking down, she wiggled red painted toes on the worn floorboards.
A door opened to her left, admitting a tall man dressed in a butler's attire. With a ring of white hair encircling an otherwise bald head, he seemed to rush at shuffling forward. Passing her, he opened a nearby bureau and poured two fingers of a clear liquid into a tumbler over ice. He returned to Victoria, and with a bow and a faint smile of acknowledgment, handed her the glass.
“You,” he said, “will find this to your liking.”
Victoria said nothing. Taking it, she lifted it to her nose before throwing back the entire tumbler of gin in one go. The butler smiled, refilling the glass from the bureau and returning it to Victoria's hand. This time, the gin remained a fraction of a second longer.
“Where am I?” Victoria asked.
“A home for wayward souls,” the butler said, locking the bureau. “My name is Robertson. Should you need anything, I would be the one to ask.”
Victoria nodded. This whole thing was surreal, like some sort of waking dream. But despite that and all the questions that buzzed around in her head, she knew this was about as real as real could get.
Her life revolved around world changing events. Working as a defense attorney for one of the largest law firms in the nation inured you to the momentous. But this made those years in court seem like kids playing a pickup game of baseball.
Her hand rose to the neckline of her dress and she fished out the metal spike she wore on a chain. Worn smooth over the years, little remained of the designs that decorated its surface. All but gone, now the three inch piece of metal offered only a familiar comforting, weight.
She needed comfort now.
Or did she? It felt like she should, not knowing a thing about where she was or what was going on, but a pervasive calm filled her. Her pulse beat slow and steady. No hyperventilating. Palms dry and no sweat on her brow. Victoria should have been in a blubbering pool on the floor, her mind filled with unknown horrors. But even when forced to consider them, they fell away with a contempt she'd never felt before. No, she didn't need comfort. People needed comfort when she approached.
Robertson came to stand before her, hands clasped behind his back. “Your presence,” he said, “is requested in the central chamber. Would you like an escort, Ms. Victoria?”
“Yes,” Victoria said. “Thank you.”
The butler's smile widened a fraction. “No need. It's what I do.”
Victoria stood at the order. She eyed her client; a short, stocky man with a perpetual smile that everyone wanted to slap off his face. He stood slow enough that his contempt would be noticed but still escape retribution. Antonio Verdi, Underboss of the Peretti Crime Family, was nothing if not cocky.
Her Honor, Judge Rebecca Holloway, looked up from the scrap of paper she held in her hand. Refolding it, she handed the jury's verdict back to the clerk of the court. He opened it and read it for himself before stepping forward and reading aloud.
“In the case of Antonio Verdi versus the State of New York, on the charge of murder on the first degree, the jury finds the defendant not guilty. On the charge of corruption, the jury finds the defendant not guilty.”
The clerk stepped back as the courtroom erupted. People screamed obscenities at the jury, the judge, and anyone within earshot. Others, a significant minority, cried and cheered in support of the ruling. Hands reached across the railing and slapped Antonio on the back or shook his hand.
Victoria ignored every bit of it. Organizing her papers into a rough pile, she tucked them away in her leather briefcase. Not guilty on both charges. She'd done her job, and done it well. Though she did find it all a bit ironic, considering the foreman's new car had cost him a pretty penny.
A sharp crack filled the air as the judge's gavel slammed down again and again, calling for order. The room fell silent, and Victoria looked up, pulling her thoughts back to the matter at hand. Holloway's eyes stared down at her. Her and Antonio both. Victoria gave the judge her best poker face, wishing that Antonio would to do the same.
“Case closed,” Holloway said, once the room returned to its hushed state. “But I can't help but believe that a travesty of justice occurred. No, I cannot prove it nor do I accuse you or your client Miss Page. It's nothing more than a feeling stemming from years of wearing these robes. Be aware. Should I ever see you again Mister Verdi, I promise to do everything within my power to prevent a repeat. Pray I never learn of any perversion, or I promise that you will face every charge possible. Court dismissed.”
Holloway slammed her gavel down one last time and strode from the room. Murmurs rose as people began leaving in scattered clumps. Victoria smiled to herself, scooping up the last of her papers and tucking them away.
“Congratulations,” Antonio said, leaning over to clasp Victoria on her shoulder. “Another day with justice served on a silver platter.”
“I wouldn't be so carefree,” Victoria said, looking up from locking her briefcase's clasps. “It appears, Mister Verdi, that you have found yourself at odds with Judge Holloway. A judge, any judge, is not someone to cross without due consideration.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps. But I hear she's up for re-election next year. Maybe her opponent will be more considerate of our interests. My people will be in touch about the bill.”
She watched him step past her, walking up to a small group of men that stood off in a corner. People like that never changed. They believed themselves impervious from any attack, no matter what direction. Only when their world crumbled down around them, did they see the house of cards they'd built.
If even then.
At least she was secure. She did her job to the best of her abilities. It didn't matter in the least if he was guilty or not; only the end result. And that result would cost him a king's—or mobster's—ransom.
Victoria pushed herself up from the couch to stand on unsteady legs. She still expected pain at any second, but nothing changed. That seemed impossible as remembered fragments flitted here and there. Thighs snapping like twigs. Glass shattering. The world spinning with blurred colors.
Then waking up here.
Robertson shared a polite smile as he stepped past and opened the room's sole door. Victoria bid farewell to the maroon walls, before stepping through into the hallway. A sense of loss filled her as she passed the threshold. Familiarity lacking only some personalization, as if the room was part of her but not yet.
Victoria's feet slapped on the bare wood as they passed down hallway after hallway. Each looked the same as the last, dark walls lit only by gas wall sconces glowing with a flickering flame. Doors studded the walls at odd intervals, their placements defying any logic. She would pass one impossible room only to turn a corner to find another improbable hallway. Right turns would leaver her feeling like they were heading backwards. Up was left. Down spun in circles. None of it made sense.
Only, with each step, it grew more natural. She had no idea how or why. Her mind seemed to twist with the space, connecting to this reality with every moment that passed. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this. Yet, it all felt right. Familiar. Appropriate. Looking back, she could see herself as an abstract idea. Like she was still Victoria Page, but one that grew more obsolete with each tick of the second hand.
She knew that feeling. A deep seated sense of wrongness that felt nothing but correct. Monsters, murderers, and drug addicts that talked about their chosen vices this way. Never before had it made sense, always viewing them with a silent air of contempt. Only now, she understood. The need to press forward grew even as she felt the last slivers of herself snap and retreat to the back of her mind.
The hallway dipped down and for the first time in what felt like years, her mind and body agreed on her direction. Relief flooded through her. Relief not at the world making sense again, but rather the end of this journey. A cold settled over her like a warm blanket. Her mind pushed away the last shreds of emotion and a relaxing calm filled her.
One more turn and the floor leveled out. Four murals hung from the walls, lit by two gas lamps hung on either side of a heavy wooden door. Robertson headed straight for it, but, drawn like a moth to flame, Victoria paused at each as she passed.
No placards hung from the walls to describe them, but for the first three none were needed. The scenes were obvious, in both subject and celebration. Dead bodies lying in the muck of No Man's Land on the fields of Antietam. Apothecaries treating the Black Death in the streets of Paris. Children held empty plates while Irish families attempted to flee barren fields.
Victoria marched into her office, briefcase strap over her shoulder. The Verdi verdict earlier today had been a coup. A real feather in her cap, and she stood all the straighter for it. Jealous eyes followed her as she made her way to her corner office. If she kept this up, the law firm of Hartman & Wicketts would soon become Hartman, Wicketts, & Page.
Yes, she liked the sound of that.
Setting her briefcase on the floor beside her, she booted up her laptop. She stared out of her twentieth-story window as she waited. Yes, if she kept this up, it would only be a matter of time before she made partner. And if they denied her that, then she'd take her skills someplace else. Someplace they'd appreciate her, relegating those fools to obscurity.
Shaking herself, she fetched a Diet Coke from the mini-fridge she kept hidden in the corner of the room. The top popped with a satisfying hiss. She took a sip as she returned to her desk to pull up the next case on her docket.
Morning slipped into afternoon and into evening as case after case touched her desk. Nothing quite so high profile as Verdi, but not quite menial either. She had assistants for that nonsense. No, this was her special work that required her personal attention. Attention her clients paid for.
Three more cans of Diet Coke stood empty next to the first when the sun's rays first touched the horizon. She sat back and ran her hands through her hair, stretching when a knock rang through the room. The most beautiful man she'd ever seen standing half through her office door, his eyes riveted on her. Heat rose in her cheeks and her mouth went dry. It was all she could do to smile. She gave it her best bet before glancing away to tuck a stray hair behind her ear.
“You're Miss Page, correct?” he asked. “You ran the Verdi case?”
She nodded, not meeting his eyes. “Yes,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
Anyone out in the main offices could have told him her name. Coming in here to ask a silly question when those peons out there could handle it. Why hadn't he asked one of them? Victoria looked up again as the office door clicked shut. Through the glass she could see the empty chairs and clean desks. Had she worked through closing time? Which meant that she had the run of the office. Ideas flitted through her head as her visitor approached.
“Good,” he said as he dropped into one of the chairs in front of her desk. “Don Reilagosa sends his regards and wants to inform you that your services will not be needed any longer.”
“What?” Confusion filled Victoria's mind. She tried to push thoughts of this man out of her head and focus on his words, but it was like swimming through molasses. “I thought he'd be happy at Mister Verdi's acquittal.”
“The verdict isn't the issue.”
“Then what? I did—”
“Perhaps, Miss Page, it was in the best interest of the Family for Mister Verdi not to walk the streets a free man. And to Don Reilagosa, how is as important as why. Corrupting jurists. Tisk, tisk, tisk.”
“If that was what he wanted, then why didn't he speak up? I could've done it, done what he wanted. He didn't need to send you after me. Why didn't he contact me?”
“Have you ever read Alfred Lord Tennyson? 'Ours is not to reason why; Ours is to do or die.'”
“I don't read poetry.”
“Shame. It really illustrates the human condition.”
With that, the man pulled an automatic pistol from under his jacket. Victoria dove for the floor as the air split with each shot. Glass behind her shattered and a strong breeze, unfamiliar in this room, tore at her hair and clothes.
Victoria tried to scramble away, but the man strode around her desk and pulled her to her feet. He smiled with dead eyes as he threw her into the compromised glass. It broke as she crashed in and through into the sky beyond.
The world became a mass of noise and sound as she fell. Colors blurred, her eyes unable to focus on anything as the ground rushed at her. This made no sense. She'd done everything, done her job the best she knew how. Why was she—
Her legs hit first. Pain shot up her body with only enough time to register as she slammed into the roof of a parked car.
Victoria left the third painting to face the fourth. Or what would have been the fourth had there been anything beyond a blank white canvas. No, not blank. That was the point. Obscure but significant. She smiled. Yes, it fit her mood very well indeed.
Stepping away, she turned her attention to the heavy wooden door that marked the end of the hallway. Beside it, Robertson stood with back straight. For the first time since leaving her rooms—they were her rooms—he met her eyes. They glowed with pride at his office mixed with the joy of doing a job well. And behind it all, fanaticism danced in the flickering gas lights.
“The key, Mistress,” he said, pointing to a square hole set into the metal beside the door's ring handle.
Reaching up, Victoria snapped the chain around her neck holding the Nail in place. She admired it, studying it for the first time in decades. It felt cold, yet warmer than her own flesh, and heavy for its size. Understanding she'd always feared, she now accepted. The implications and realities all wrapped together. This bit of metal wasn't anything less then her soul itself.
And with it, she'd unlock her future.
Twirling it over and through her fingers, she shoved it into the keyhole. The door lock clicked open at a flick of her wrist. With a deep bow, Robertson pulled the door open and ushered her into the room beyond.
An over-sized round table dominated the space, a chair standing at each of the four points of the compass. People sat in three of the four chairs, while servants stood behind each occupied seat. More gas lamps lit the chamber, the light disappearing into the inky black above.
Victoria nodded to the other Three, each in turn. A man in bronze armor stood and returned her greeting, only his glowing red eyes visible behind his helm. To her right, a child sat with distended stomach and emaciated limbs. No matter how much food he shoved into his mouth from the plates stacked high before him, it would never be enough. Across the table from her, a sickly woman sat, shrouded in rags. No amount of darkness could hide the boils and warts which shone bright against her pallid skin. Weak hands waived away Victoria's greeting, nails black with disease and joints swollen.
None said a word as Victoria pulled out her own chair and sat. Behind her, Robertson came up to push her into place. A smile came and went as he stepped back and took up his station should his skills be needed. She suppressed the joy that threatened to overwhelm her. Soon, but one thing remained. Before her, a golden plate sat on the table bearing a large ring of thorns. She eyed it for a long moment, relishing its beauty, before picking it up and placing it on her own brow.
“Your queen has arrived,” she said in an unfamiliar voice but one all her own. A smile slid across her features as a shiver ran down her back. “Shall we get to work?”
Thank you for checking out my short story, Devils. I hope that you enjoyed it!
If you would like to read more, please check out my debut novel, The Red Dress. You can find copies of it at Chimp's Comix. Just ask Nick or Jeremy to guide you to it.
Not everyone can run a private detective agency with their spouse, but Daniel Atwell loves working for his wife Stephanie Hawthorne. Sure, they make a great team, but he'd go crazy if he didn't push her buttons occasionally.
Perhaps that's why he agrees to meet with Andrea Swope, a selfish old girlfriend who wants help in curbing her husband's infidelity. After rejecting her business, the pair think they are done with Andrea until they learn about her murder that same day in a botched robbery, kicking off a city wide manhunt.
Months later, the police are stumped and the grieving widower turns to Stephanie for answers. In short order, Daniel learns enough about his old flame that he wants to lead the lynch mob himself.
Yet, not everything is as it seems. Daniel soon has his hands full with a shady animal shelter and an uncooperative local political campaign. Now if he could only figure out what it all has to do with a certain missing red dress.