The release of this novel is still some months off, but as promised…what follows is a preview of the second chapter of this final segment of Elizabeth and Cynara’s epic tale. An Immortal Heart Asunder evolves along to parallel, but distinct plot threads…each populated with its own set of characters…that flow through the novel like deep and dark rivers. These distinct threads intertwine over the course of the last few chapters…to cataclysmic effect.
This second preview chapter is entitled: The Blackest Addiction. It delves into a particularly dark realm that many will find uncomfortable…if not abhorrent. Be that as it may, it is a writer’s charge not to shy away from the controversial and the uncomfortable. Those who recall the unfortunate Cassandra Jasic, Elizabeth’s tragically fractured traveling companion from Closures in Blood, will divine the origins of this particular plot thread. While traversing over the darkest territory a writer can follow, this thread is the critical plot line that will set Elizabeth and Cynara’s eventual fate in stone.
Writers must be eternally wary of one particular pitfall when laboring at their craft…being too clever. I feel that, with The Blackest Addiction, I may have set out to write a bill of goods upon which it was simply impossible to deliver in light of the subject being presented. Thomas Greavy, it seems from the few who have previewed the material, can only be perceived in one unflinching way. Thus, my original intent and what I’ve ultimately written have quickly parted ways in this novels. Such are the inherent perils of creative writing, but being an intuitive writer, my instincts tell me that this is the way the story must be told…and so it shall remain…
With out further preamble…The Blackest Addiction…
Chapter Two: The Blackest Addiction
The only sounds to be heard in the darkened room were the barely audible whisper of the air purification system and the ragged breathing of the room’s sole occupant. Thomas Greavy sat before the screen of his Virtua system, mesmerized by the ineffably beautiful images that floated before his transfixed eyes…rendered with impossibly vivid three-dimensional, high definition perfection. They were so real…so angelic and hypnotic cloaked as they were in their mantle of unsullied innocence…that Thomas was literally drooling with the desire to reach out and run his fingertips over the taut flesh…young bodies that had yet to be tainted by the ugly prevailing realities of life in the mid twenty-first century.
As badly as he wanted to touch…to consume and ravage…the images on his screen, Thomas understood that they were virtual images, for all of their perfection…images of children conjured especially for his titillation. Greavy’s perverse black addiction had warped his reason and occluded his understanding that these graphic depictions were simply snippets offered by the purveyors of this heinous evil for the purpose of drawing him ever deeper into the mire of his vile affliction.
The images…like the shadow box that conveyed them…were merely a promise or an invitation to venture deeper into a black labyrinth from which there could be no extrication.
So Thomas watched the beautiful cherubs drift across his screen…all arranged in stylized postures of artful eroticism that masked the wretched ugliness and corruption that had inspired them. When the compulsion to reach out and touch that which could not yet be attained became more than he could endure, Thomas instead let his hand stray to his groin. Soon, his breathing came in fevered gasps and his hand became a frenzied blur on his rigid penis. He exploded to the scintillating image of a blond girl whose limpid blue eyes and pale skin reminded him of a delicate porcelain doll…innocence embodied.
Thomas closed his eyes and bowed his head, suffused by the intense rush of black shame that always followed release. As degrading as these shameful sentiments might be, they still lacked the efficacy to prevent him from returning to the black promise contained within the shadow box. In truth, the compulsion to delve into its forbidden waters was becoming increasingly difficult to resist and he found himself locked in this office with alarming frequency of late.
With his galloping heart thundering in his ears, Thomas opened his eyes and his gaze strayed automatically to the decidedly nondescript device that sat next to his Virtua console. The box reminded Greavy of a piece of polished anthracite…its only adornment being a flashing blue ray light that transmitted its illicit contents to his artificial intelligence console.
‘Smash it…put it on the floor and grind it to shards beneath your heel. It’s the only way to pull yourself out of the fetid sewer into which you’ve fallen…the only slim chance you have of being saved!’ A still rational part of his mind offered this desperate entreaty; the logical part that had made him one of the most successful commercial and corporate lawyers in England…helping him to accrue millions of pounds in personal wealth in the service of those who tolled their worth in the billions. Despite the prudence of this course of action, Thomas’ affliction was inculcated into the very fabric of his being…like a demon that is impervious to exorcism. He could no more give up the shadow box than he could divest himself of the perverse compulsions that had inspired him to acquire it to begin with.
As he considered the small, square device…with its flashing blue light that brought to mind images of a rapidly blinking eye…a frown of perplexity came over his face. He tried to recall the first occasion when he had learned of its existence, though the recollection was partially concealed within a haze that resisted his every effort to penetrate. He had been sitting at his console here in his home office…perusing innocuous images of children at play…when his screen had abruptly gone black. Initially, he had thought that the Virtua had malfunctioned, but then something had appeared on the screen…something wondrous beyond the faculty of words to articulate. He recalled that he been overwhelmed by what he had witnessed…hypnotized and set aflame by the very thing that had always plagued him. Now, however, his private obsession played across the screen not like something filthy and despicable, but as an expression of genuine love…something indescribably beautiful and sacred. He could be free to indulge the desires that he had struggled his entire life to conceal and repress…all thanks to this mysterious box that had floated on the console’s screen like the very keys to paradise.
Thomas remembered that his initial reaction to this unsolicited invitation had been extreme distress…as if someone had divined his most closely guarded inner secret. Terrified, Thomas had managed to resist the enticement and had redoubled his efforts to keep his unhealthy attractions tightly leashed. Yet, like all of those who labor beneath the burden of this terrible affliction, Greavy soon found himself being drawn back to the seductive promise that this shadow box held forth like a moth being drawn toward the flames of its own destructive obsession.
A week later, Thomas found himself sitting in a Soho cafe on a drizzling afternoon. The man sitting across from him spoke with a slight Eastern European accent, which Thomas could not quite identify, and wore a perpetual half smile that never quite touched his eyes. He neither offered his name, nor asked Thomas to provide his…for which Greavy was genuinely grateful…though something about the man’s mannerisms intimated that he knew everything about Thomas…every sordid detail of the growing infirmity that was ravaging his soul.
The most unsettling aspect of this assignation was that Thomas could recall absolutely nothing of how it had been arranged or what precisely it was that this furtive transaction was offering. He suspected that the particulars had been conveyed during that odd intrusion on his Virtua console, but if so, they had somehow been scoured from his memory. Still, a connection had been made and now he found himself sitting across from this vaguely sinister, albeit nondescript fellow, wondering just what it was that had compelled him to come to this seedy part of London…a district that he normally avoided like the plague.
The sense of being led…of being traduced assailed him like a maddening itch.
Slowly, the man slid a rather mundane black box across the scarred wooden table with the gravitas of one conveying the key to the king’s treasury. Thomas eyed the seemingly inconsequential device questioningly and then shifted his gaze back to the man, who was regarding him with the ghost of a smile playing at his thin lips. “What sits before you has been named the shadow box…a rather cryptic moniker for what is, in truth, the gateway to your hidden desires…a means to fully indulge the repressed proclivities of your dark passion.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Thomas had protested and though his precise British tone had been indignant, his heart had begun to pound in his chest.
The man offered Thomas a knowing smile and remarked, “Come now Mr. Greavy…there is no need to be disingenuous. I know exactly why you’ve come…even if you are not entirely certain. To me you are…what is the quaint western phrase…an open book?”
Thomas attempted to speak, but his mouth closed with an audible plop. He was within close proximity to open panic then and he could feel perspiration beginning to form on his brow. Unexpectedly, the man reached across the table and squeezed his forearm in reassurance. Initially, Thomas stiffened, but was suddenly suffused by a placating warmth that seemed to reduce all of his concerns to mundane and foolish trivialities. “There is no need for anxiety, Thomas. We are both men of the world who have come to this juncture of our own accord…partners in a transaction that will, I can assure you, prove mutually beneficial.”
He released Greavy’s arm and sat back, nodding encouragingly at the black box. “This device contains a blueprint for the complete indulgence of those desires that you have struggled so desperately to repress since you were of an age to recognize them for what they were. It is also an impregnable fortress to ward those desires from those who would judge and condemn you for having proclivities that are simply part of your nature. That rather inconspicuous-looking device will guide you toward the ultimate expression of those long-held fantasies while insuring that you will never be held accountable for feelings and actions over which you genuinely have no control.”
“I’m still not entirely sure I know what you mean,” Thomas murmured, unable to drag his entranced gaze from the shadow box which seemed to be calling to him like a silent siren’s song.
The stranger smiled and waved his right hand dismissively. “Do not concern yourself with minutiae, Thomas. The shadow box will disclose its full potential over time and if you allow it to guide you to a point where you are fully ready to accept your true nature, you and I will come together again. For now, take it to your sanctuary…the place where you have begun to explore these nascent feelings…and allow it to demonstrate its wondrous potential.”
“What do you want…in exchange?” Thomas had demanded and though he had attempted to affect a peevish tone, his voice had rung fearful to his own ears. Thomas suspected that he would become hopelessly shackled by whatever arrangement he might make with this obscurely terrifying man.
“There is no need to discuss remuneration now, Mr. Greavy. Once you have had the opportunity to explore the rich tapestry contained within, you can decide what remuneration would be sufficient. Should you decide that the promise it offers is not to your eclectic taste, you may merely dispose of the shadow box and this entire matter will be forgotten. Seldom in life does one come upon the good fortune to realize their dreams with absolutely no risk or complication…how could you possibly eschew that one rare opportunity?”
There was an aspect of the Carney pitchman to this last facile bit of salesmanship and Thomas could hear the rational part of his mind imploring him to assiduously reject this stranger’s temptation. In the end, he had succumbed to the urging of his dark affliction, just as the man sitting across from him (who was not truly a man at all) knew he inevitably must. For men such as Thomas Greavy, the irresistible craving eventually surmounted the most dogged resistance with a trenchant need that would not be denied.
Thomas had snatched up the box and stuffed it into his stylish overcoat. He cast the man a final ambivalent nod and fled the cafe like an errant child who has stolen a sweet roll from his mother’s kitchen.
It was a measure of Thomas’ discipline…or perhaps his deeply ingrained fear…that he had managed to leave the shadow box in the bottom drawer of the desk in his home office for the better part of a month. He was ferociously determined not to heed the incessant call it seemed to emit, correctly gleaning that, once he started down that particular path, there would be no turning back.
Thomas had first become cognizant of his proclivity when he was a student in law school. The only son of a wealthy industrial developer, Thomas had been blessed with both good looks and intellect…though he would later come to suspect that the god of genetics had a cruel way of balancing out such dispensations. Tall and athletic, with a handsome face that was dominated by striking blue eyes, Thomas was never at a dearth for beautiful young ladies to help him pass his idle time. Yet, despite the constant attention of some of the most attractive young socialites that London had to offer, young Thomas would find himself walking by primary schools in Knightsbridge or Mayfair, staring at the playing girls in the way a pirate might look upon an unattended cache of gold bullion.
Only when he noticed a school yard monitor scrutinizing him suspiciously, did he realize that he had been standing in the shadows, watching the third grade children play for the better part of an hour. Averting his face, which had flushed to a deep scarlet, Thomas had hurried away and had never went anywhere within the vicinity of that particular school again.
The urge that had driven him to skulking in the shadows of innocence, however, was not so easily banished and Thomas Greavy was forced to confront and acknowledge a terrible truth…he was a pedophile…or at the very least, had the potential for that awful affliction in the fabric of his privileged being.
Consumed by a nearly unbearable sense of shame, Thomas had nonetheless set about constructing an elaborate facade of normalcy, while waging a trying and incessant internal war to keep his demon tightly leashed. Upon completing his education, Thomas had employed his easy, gregarious manner and his social pedigree to open doors into the best legal firm in London. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, he had parlayed this into a career that could have been compared to a rapidly rising sun. By the age of forty-two, Thomas Greavy had what was for all appearances the perfect life. At the age of thirty, he had married the eerily beautiful Isobel Murray, actually stealing this coveted beauty away from a minor member of the Royal Family…a feat that only raised his esteem in the eyes of his peers. Their union had yielded two beautiful daughters…Penelope and Muraday, ages ten and eight respectively.
It had been in these two living jewels that Thomas had been faced with his darkest challenge. Even at their young ages, the girls were already showing the same promise of their mother’s exquisite, refined beauty. There were times when he would find himself watching the girls as they played or concentrated on their piano lessons and the nascent stirrings of his demon would suffuse him with the darkest thoughts a father could entertain. They filled him with shame and self-loathing…but they persisted, leaving Thomas Greavy feeling ineffably vile. Desperate, Thomas had turned to his exquisite wife to dampen these abhorrent incestuous desires. Isobel was the very quintessence of a refined, prim English beauty, but behind closed doors she gave herself to Thomas with very few reservations…privately delighted that her husband seemed almost frantic to indulge in the pleasures of her nubile body with an appetite that was insatiable.
Never once in their years of marriage, did it occur to the loving Isobel that Thomas’ unbridled carnal passion was inspired by a need to quell a lust of a far more insidious nature.
Penelope and Muraday were Thomas Greavy’s greatest source of happiness…and also the living potential for his cataclysmic undoing…living dichotomies that would inevitably lead the tortured Greavy to his brutal demise.
Thomas’ war might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the coming of the shadow box and the beguiling seduction it held. As he had explored the device, Greavy had been drawn deeper into the thrall of his black addiction…pondering things that he had managed to keep sequestered in the deepest recesses of his troubled soul since first discovering his inherent flaw. As the man in Soho had foretold, there had come the inevitable offer…a means to transform black desire into action…without the slightest possibility of being held accountable for any consequences. Greavy possessed enough intellectual pragmatism to discern that these offers of indulgence without consequences must invariably prove false. Still, the corrupting power of his addiction was such that it occluded all reason.
It was at this wicked juncture that Thomas presently found himself on this dark and drizzly London night. He shifted his gaze from the Virtua screen to the office’s single window, beyond which darkness held court over his exclusive Knightsbridge neighborhood. The throbbing in his temples was a maddeningly distracting thing that made all well-considered thought virtually impossible.
He glanced at the shadow box and was suddenly consumed by a black hatred for the unassuming little device…a fury so intense that he felt certain he would smash the box to dust. Instead, he reached out and caressed its cool, polished surface the way a lover might lay hands upon the object of their adoration.
There followed a subtle metallic click and a small panel slid open on the box and a circular button arose from the device’s interior. Thomas cried out and started to rise, but then his eyes were involuntarily jerked back to the screen of his Virtua console. What he saw there caused him to gasp. She was there…in all of her unsullied majesty…the blue-eyed, blond cherub who now haunted his dreams and circled incessantly around the periphery of his conscious thoughts.
To his astonishment, she began to speak…addressing him directly…filling his soul with both argent lust and paralyzing trepidation.
“We finally meet, Thomas…I was so hoping that we eventually would.” Her child’s voice was so melodic and caressed his ear with the sweetest intonation…exactly as he had imagined it would in all his fevered dreams. “Do you know my name?”
There was a coy, teasing edge to this simple query that struck Thomas as most unchild-like, but he was far too beguiled to give this disparity any meaningful consideration. In a dreamy, distant voice, he murmured, “Persephone!”
“Yes…Persephone…if you would wish it so…I can be your Persephone,” the porcelain vision suggested with a distinct note of gleeful anticipation. “You need only press that button and those long-hidden desires will be yours…I will be yours for as long as you would have me…and no one need ever know.”
Thomas could feel his index finger gravitating toward the button of its own accord…so powerful was his primal need to see this virtual fantasy be made into living, breathing flesh. He glanced back toward Persephone, whose limpid blue eyes seemed to be charting the progress of his hand with unrestrained eagerness. With a monumental exertion of will, he pulled his hand back and stood up, sending his chair careening across the room.
A sorrowful shade appeared to slip across Persephone’s lovely faced, but when she spoke, her tone was one of reassurance. “It’s okay Thomas…don’t fret. When you finally make an accommodation with the truth of who you are…I will be here…waiting for you. Bye-bye for now.”
The cherubic image abruptly vanished from his screen and the button retracted back into the shadow box with a barely audible whisper…like a withdrawn promise.
Thomas regarded the device for a long moment…with his blood thundering in his temples and his penis lying along his thigh like a throbbing piece of iron. ‘It’s inevitable you know…you will press the button…either that or the day will come when Penelope or Muraday will become your Persephone.’
Now Thomas could not suppress the groan of negation that escaped his lips, but once he had given thought to his darkest fear…the demon could not be called to heel. He stowed the shadow box in its locked drawer…now secured by a thumb-print encrypted lock…and fled the office. The upper hall was immersed in darkness and he stumbled along the runner carpet, before pausing briefly before the door to Muraday’s bedroom. Opening the door, he peered in to find the night light casting a subdued yellow glow over the sleeping face of his beautiful daughter…and to his horror, the black urge began to pulse in his soul like a pernicious cancer that cannot be cut out.
In the terrible moment of epiphany, Thomas Greavy knew that his conscience had spoken the unequivocal and unavoidable truth.
He closed the door as quietly as possible and leaned his forehead against the polished oak, unable to prevent the falls of tears that were ultimately as meaningless as they were ineffective in quelling the dark fire that inspired them. Inevitably, his black addiction would be served and if so, was it not better to see it sated through the shadow box rather than on the product of his own flesh?
There was an aspect of practical consideration that roused a dread chill in Greavy’s heart and suddenly he found himself needing to get out of the opulent flat and into the open air. He hurried down to the main floor and paused outside of the door to Isobel’s reading room, but he did not go in…fearing that his roiling thoughts would be laid bare on his face. “Dear, I’ve come down with a monster of a headache and I’m going to take a short walk…maybe the cool air will take the edge off.”
“Be sure to take an umbrella, Thomas…I’ll wait up and maybe we can have a cup of tea when you come back,” she called distractedly…engrossed in another of her beloved Victorian era mystery novels.
Thomas drew a quivering breath, wishing desperately that he could find contentment in the arms of this extraordinary woman who had given herself to him so unreservedly.
Taking a rain repellant jacket from the closet and eschewing the umbrella, Thomas Greavy set out on what would prove to be the final walk of his tortured life.
The streets of Knightsbridge were virtually deserted on this blustery September night. It was nearly eleven o’clock and the swirling winds and cool drizzle had resulted in sparsely occupied streets. Thomas walked along the darkened streets only peripherally aware of both the inimical weather and the dearth of traffic. In his preoccupation with the intensifying war raging within his beleaguered mind, Thomas also failed to notice the shadow that had slipped out of concealment and was now trailing after him with lethal intent.
Three blocks west of his flat, Thomas cut across the rain-soaked street with the intention of meandering along the winding trails of the green space that dominated a huge swathe of the affluent neighborhood. He gave no thought to his personal safety because this section of the city was perhaps the safest in London…if not all of Europe by the mid twenty-first century standards. A web of cameras now covered the city like a blanket and was especially dense in the more affluent neighborhoods, where the wealthy had vociferously demanded that their security needs be met. This omnipresent eye…along with cutting edge AI identification technology was a powerful deterrent to all but the utterly deranged and so Thomas never even considered that he might be in jeopardy as he approached the main gates leading into the path.
He had taken but three steps into the tree-lined, cobble path, when he was confronted by a sight so improbable that he stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth hanging agape in the steady drizzle. Less than twenty yards from where he stood, a small girl was bouncing a shiny red ball against one of the low stone walls that delineated the walk at intervals.
Utterly flabbergasted, Thomas quickly looked over his shoulder and then swept his gaze around the park, most of which was obscured by thick curtains of darkness. Greavy’s initial reaction to the improbable spectacle of finding a small girl…alone and vulnerable…in a public park at this late hour, was one of parental indignation. The notion that responsible parents would allow such a thing was incomprehensible. True, this was Knightsbridge and one of the safest neighborhoods in England…but this was a small and vulnerable child…a temptation for the filth that infested every part of city…Knightsbridge included.
‘Filth like you, Thomas?’ A sly voice inquired from the shadowy morass where his addiction lived and thrived. ‘One man’s monumental act of negligence…is another man’s unexpected opportunity.’
Thomas shook his head in emphatic negation and whispered fiercely, “Never like this…I’d never sink so low!”
‘Really…is that why you can hardly watch your own daughters while they sleep anymore? Can you deny that you experience those nascent stirrings of ugliness every time you do?’ the voice persisted with ruthless mirth.
Before Thomas could offer a caustic rejoinder in his own defense, the girl abruptly stopped bouncing the ball and turned to face him. In the odd distortion of the moment, it seemed as if a celestial spotlight had focused its clarifying light on the spot where she stood. The girl was blessed with the face of an angel. Her large, luminous blue eyes shone with an innocence that only the very young could project and her beautiful face was framed by a mass of spiral curls that fell past her shoulders in a tumble of red fire. She offered Thomas a radiant smile and waved…a child-like gesture of delight that rendered the transfixed Greavy immobile. “Hello…Thomas. Would you like to play with me?”
Slowly, she extended her slender right arm with the shiny red ball perched on her open palm as if offering the most precious of delicacies. Thomas was only distantly aware of the low moan that escaped his lips…a discordant sound that was part denial and part smoldering hunger.
She laughed again and suddenly spun about, skipping along the cobbled path that led deeper into the green space’s interior.
“Come Thomas…if you want to play…follow me…catch me…and we can play whatever game you want!” she called over her retreating shoulder and giggled in that intoxicating way that rendered all logic meaningless.
Thomas stood in the drizzle for a long time, literally trembling with the desire to follow, while trying to heed the cautionary plea of the more composed aspect of his conflicted soul. ‘For the love of your family, go home man. You have to know that something is drastically wrong here…how could she possibly know your name?’
Greavy blinked as rivulets of rain ran down his face unnoticed. This was indeed the salient question that defined the improbability of the situation into which he had unwittingly blundered. The girl could no more know his name than she could be here…in this city green space near midnight on rainy a September week night. His every instinct was exhorting him to heed the advice and flee this park and return home and as desperately as he wanted to do this, Thomas Greavy implicitly grasped that he had reached a critical juncture from which there could be no turning away. If he returned to his wife and children, Thomas was certain that his black addiction would continue to grow like a rampant cancer until the last of his resistance had been surmounted. Then he would fall under the thrall of the shadow box and its insidious promise…or he would ultimately commit an unspeakable act that was far more damning.
Yet, if he could find this girl and lead her back to her family…unmolested and unharmed…Thomas suddenly felt certain that he would be able to permanently shrug off the grasping clutches of the evil compulsion that had haunted him since he was a young man.
Even as he succumbed to this facile, disingenuous logic, Thomas never considered that it had been proffered by the very malignancy that had tormented him all these years. He set off after the red-haired girl, fervently believing that he might actually be able to conquer his personal demons if he could just see her to safety…a symbolic refutation of the black disease that had plagued him since his youth.
She led him on a convoluted chase through the park, stopping at intervals to bounce her red ball against the low stone wall…only to set off again when Thomas came within close proximity of being able to reach out and touch her. Growing frustrated, Thomas ran his right hand through his now thoroughly soaked hair and called, “Little girl, stop now. Why are you alone so late at night? What is your name?”
She did a graceful pirouette and exclaimed, “My name is Cassandra…I’m here because you want me to be, Thomas.”
With this rather cryptic response delivered, she was off again, skipping into the darkness…though now she strayed from the illuminated path for the first time, heading off into the dark center of the green space.
‘Don’t go in there Thomas…turn and run…now!’ The voice of reason entreated, though now there was a clear chime of apprehension in its tone.
“Don’t be ridiculous…get a grip on yourself man,” he chastised himself. There was nothing to fear in this park…certainly not a mischievous eight year old girl. If the grim truth be laid bare…he was the most dangerous predator currently stalking this upscale Knightsbridge piece of artificial nature.
Thomas Greavy was about to discover just how woefully incorrect this particular assessment would prove to be.
Thomas plunged into the darkness, unmindful of the way that the sodden grass sucked at his expensive Italian loafers. The inadequate light made it nearly impossible to see, but he could hear the lilting peel of her laughter coming from somewhere in the inky darkness up ahead. His internal monitor would not desist in its attempts to dissuade him, growing more frantic with every step he took. ‘She’s leading you, Thomas. Surely your infirmity hasn’t warped your judgment to a point where you are incapable of discerning something that is so glaringly obvious? Something is using your disease to entice you here…you’ve got to see that!’
Thomas stopped abruptly as if the dire implications of that last notion had finally torn him from his fevered trance. His fingers dug painfully into his thighs and his lips twisted in a perplexed frown. Suddenly, he could not recall exactly what it was that had drawn him into the green space in the first place. In a tremulous voice that he scarcely recognized to be his own, he called tentatively, “Cassandra?”
“I’m here, Thomas…waiting by the fountain. Come and join me and we can play whatever game you want,” Cassandra promised and though the voice was very much that of a young child, the subtle intimations spoke directly to the monster that resided in the darkest corner of Thomas Greavy’s diseased heart. He started forward again and suddenly a curtain of light seemed to coalesce out of the very air, shimmering through the trees less than forty meters from where he stood. With his breath coming in ragged gasps and his pulse throbbing painfully, he hurried toward the light and emerged into the circular heart of the green space. A bronze statue of some long forgotten war hero…from a long forgotten colonial war…towered above the bowl of the fountain around which were arrayed several ornate wooden and wrought iron benches. The girl was standing with her back to Thomas…peering intently into the cascading water, which appeared to glitter like tumbling diamonds beneath the harsh glare of the circling halogen lights.
Thomas hesitated on the periphery of the well-lit circle, glancing nervously up at the ring of motion sensitive cameras that sat atop scrolled columns, spaced at even intervals along the edges of the common. Those cameras, Thomas knew, had been installed as a deterrent against exactly the type of evil a twisted part of his soul was presently contemplating.
As he vacillated in the shadows, a strident electric hiss tore through the central common and each camera erupted in a brilliant shower of argent sparks, effectively blinding the unseen giant that kept vigilant watch over this part of the old London.
“Come and play Thomas,” Cassandra encouraged and now her voice had assumed a dreamy quality that made Greavy shiver violently. “There’s something floating just beneath the surface of the water…it’s so beautiful. Won’t you come and see it with me…the mean people can’t see us now…and I do so want to be your special friend.”
There was an irresistible imperative in the plea that would not be denied and Thomas felt his legs propelling him forward of their own volition while the blackness surged through his veins like a wildfire during the tinderbox heat of summer. He extended his right hand with no clear understanding of his own intention and still the embodiment of his every perverse desire did not turn to greet his fevered approach.
His quivering hand fell upon her small shoulder and he was immediately assailed by an intense jolt of electricity as if he had clutched an exposed electric wire in the rain. When he was again able to open his eyes, Thomas found himself confronted not by a young and pristine child, but by a woman who was several inches taller than he was. Like Cassandra, her red hair fell past her shoulders in a tumble of spiral curls and her face was the epitome of feminine perfection. Yet it was her deep blue eyes that held Thomas’ gaze and caused his heart to palpitate wildly in his broad chest. In their infinite depths, Thomas could discern not the slightest hint of humanity…only an unaccountable glacial hatred that turned his blood to ice water in his veins.
“Not exactly what you were hoping for, Thomas?” she inquired in a rich, smoky voice that was rife with disdain.
Thomas attempted to speak, but his throat had constricted painfully and all that escaped his lips was a wheezing gasp. He began to turn away, but her right hand shot out with the speed of a striking cobra and clutched his throat like a steel vice. “I take it that you’re not quite pleased with this particular manifestation of Cassandra…is that not so, Thomas? I don’t appeal to your particular taste?”
Thomas attempted to dislodge her arm, but despite pulling frantically at her slender wrist, she held him fast, regarding his futile efforts with a disdainful smirk that did not touch her horrible eyes. Finally, she released him and he stumbled away, gasping and clutching his throat which had been abraded by her grasping fingers.
He stood upright and in a voice made shrill with burgeoning terror, demanded, “Who are you…what is happening?”
“Who I am is of little consequence and as for your other question…you, Thomas, have arrived at your moment of reckoning…as all foul creatures of your ilk inevitably must.”
“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about…where is the girl…Cassandra?”
The blow that struck him was delivered with rapier precision and with the force of a mallet. In the next instant, Thomas found himself lying flat on his back and peering dazedly up into the intensifying rain. His fingers played gingerly over his shattered right cheekbone and he could feel warm blood flowing freely from his broken nose.
“Don’t ever speak that name again…it’s an obscenity rolling off your odious tongue,” the woman growled menacingly.
In a garbled voice, Thomas moaned, “Why are you doing this to me?”
His tormentor did not respond. Instead, she reached down and seized the back of his coat, before roughly hauling the much heavier man to his feet and dragging him over to the fountain. Moving her mouth closer to his left ear, she intoned, “It isn’t what you’ve done, Thomas…as much as what you are and given time…what you will become as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. You and I both know what lurks beneath this erudite British exterior, Thomas…let us throw back the veil and have a brutally candid look.”
With this, she plunged his head under the water and held him there, despite his panicked effort to break free of her grasp. In the frazzled confines of his mind, her voice boomed like apocalyptic thunder. “Open your eyes and see what you really are…see the face of your sick obsession and your disgustingly twisted soul.”
And so Thomas Greavy complied and what he saw threatened to break his tenuous grip on sanity for here he found himself confronted by the monster that lived in the pit from which his sickness had found its origin. Gone was the ruggedly handsome British aristocrat, supplanted by a balding, pot-bellied man with watery eyes and thin, petulant lips that were always slick with spittle. Two small eyes leered from above a hawkish nose and in those eyes there radiated a mindless hunger that could never be satiated. The man’s body was twisted and deformed until it resembled something constructed from spite and malice and Thomas knew this was the personification of his black affliction…the way he would actually appear to those who would fall victim to its monstrous evil. With this image indelibly emblazoned in his mind, Thomas found himself being jerked out of the water and tossed to the grass some ten meters from the lip of the fountain.
“And so you see Thomas, I know precisely what you are and denial would only insult my intelligence…something that would be a grievous error should you be so foolish as to cling to this pointless charade of innocence,” she intoned evenly, though her luminous blue eyes made it explicitly clear that the penalty would be agonizing beyond all comprehension.
Thomas rose to his feet and turning quickly, began to sprint in the direction from which he had come. Glancing over his shoulder, he was relieved to see that she had made no move to pursue him, but that relief quickly curdled to emasculating dread when he turned his head only to discover that she was standing directly in front of him.
Colliding with the statuesque red-head was very much like running head long into a brick wall and Thomas again found himself lying on the wet grass, clutching his injured chest and gasping for breath. In the next instant, he found himself being dragged across the grass by invisible hands that then lifted him to his feet and slammed him against a tree hard enough to lacerate his scalp. His arms were drawn back around the trunk of the tree and Thomas cried out in agony as the tendons and ligatures in his shoulders were stretched until he was certain that his arms would be torn from their sockets. Three bands of orange effulgence materialized to secure him to the tree and soon the acrid stench of burning clothing filled his nostrils.
In the terrible moment of fear, Thomas Greavy knew, unequivocally, that he would not leave this green space alive…that his affliction had led to his undoing…just as he always had known it would.
She approached him slowly, crossing one long leg in front of the other as if relishing his moment of abjection…as if deriving ineffable pleasure from his primal fear. “You see Thomas…that is the true countenance of a man who follows a little girl into a darkened park on a rainy night. It is the twisted ugly visage of a man who masturbates while watching eight year old girls behind locked doors. It is the insufferably repugnant image of a man who visualizes his two daughters when he is making love to his beautiful wife!”
By the time the woman had finished her diatribe of condemnation, she was shrieking and her blue eyes were now blazing red that evoked images of glowing coals. Thomas’ body jerked with every accusation and he finally wailed, “Stop…please enough! I never wanted this…never…I’ve fought my whole life to keep it hidden…to keep it repressed.”
The woman’s eyes reverted to their former shade of beguiling blue and she tenderly laid her palm along his fractured cheekbone…gazing in fascination as his tears of shame pooled against the side of her hand. Sympathetically, she murmured, “I believe you Thomas.”
There followed an incisive pain as something penetrated the fabric of his mind and began to rummage through the muck and mire of his most tightly guarded secrets. As a horrified Greavy peered around in incredulity, ghostly images of his virtual fantasies began to coalesce out of the very night air. They began to circle slowly around the pair, but the superficial veneer of artificial eroticism had been savagely stripped away to reveal the deplorable cost of their exploitation. Their child’s eyes were dead and their faces were contorted portraits of living misery, eloquently conveying the extent of the degradation they had been forced to endure. The moan of loathing and anguish that escaped Thomas’ bloody lips was a visceral thing that could not be feigned.
“Here are the true faces of those who pay the price for your filthy addiction, Thomas. Theirs is a suffering that can only be assuaged in death because their innocence has been sullied beyond any hope of reclamation.” Thomas listened as each word flayed his tormented soul and then came the two hovering images that tore his heart asunder. Penelope and Muraday drifted by and in their formerly expressive and lovely eyes remained not even the slightest vestige of vitality as if their spirit had been extinguished by a violation too immense to be articulated…or endured.
Thomas lifted his ravaged gaze to the woman and moaned, “I would never do that to them …never! I…I love them more than I can begin to explain.”
“Again Thomas…I believe you, but the beast that is inextricably intertwined with your essence is a malevolent entity of its own mind…and it is powerful beyond your sensibilities to fully grasp. Inevitably…inexorably…it will surmount your grim resistance and usurp control of your flesh and when it does…one of these children will pay the ultimate price.”
Thomas was frantically shaking his head now…though the harsh light of acceptance had flickered to life in his tortured eyes. “I don’t want this thing in me.” He met her awful gaze and adjured, “Can’t you help me…can’t you cut it out…get this demon out of me.”
The woman, who Thomas correctly deduced was not really a woman and who had deliberately enticed him into this ignoble end, regarded him with something that might well have been remorse. She leaned closer, until her full lips brushed his wet hair. He could feel her sweet breath tickling the hollow of his ear and shuddered. “You are a rare creature, Thomas Greavy…a man who seems wholly undeserving of the cruel fate that has been imposed upon you.”
She drew back and regarded the terrified lawyer thoughtfully and in her luminous blue eyes Thomas thought he could detect the germination of a notion…one that might well spare his life. “If I could somehow excise this pernicious disease, Thomas…as you say, cut it from you like a cancer.” She pursed her lips as though in intense contemplation and then mused, “But where is the root source of your disease, Thomas? That really is the salient question.”
Stepping back a pace, she extended her long right arm with her palm open. As a thoroughly mesmerized Greavy gazed on…first in puzzlement and then dawning horror…a jade-handled dagger with a wicked curving blade materialized in the woman’s finely-boned fingers. She considered the dagger and her beautiful countenance reflected clearly on its deadly surface. Even in the extremity of his terror, Thomas could not mistake the profound note of melancholy that underscored her words as she revealed, “The girl…Cassandra…was indeed how I appeared as a child, before monsters of your stripe scoured her soul…her innocence…from existence. They were far more loathsome than you would ever be…even if your disease was allowed to run its abhorrent course. I would let you live, but first I must cut that core from your flesh…to purify you.”
Grasping her awful intent, Thomas began to whimper, frantically trying to break free of his restraints. His tormentor oriented the tip of the blade toward Thomas and began to move it in an indolent circular motion as though beset by indecision. “Now where would this filthy parasite reside…here perhaps?”
She pointed the tip at his groin and now Thomas began to babble for mercy. With a precise slashing gesture, the blade tore easily through fabric and the tender flesh beneath. Thomas’s plea for mercy became a silver-throated wail of agony as blood, shockingly red, covered the front of his trousers and his severed member lay on the grass like a dead slug.
“Then again…maybe it’s here…deep in the pit of your guts…along with the other muck and mire.” A forward thrust of the wicked blade parted the muscles of his abdominal wall with the ease of a hot knife passing through butter and his intestines spilled from the massive rent in a repulsive, steaming wave.
“Or could it be that your heart has become a requiem for your perversion?” She then thrust her hand into his chest and her powerful fingers passed through flesh and bone as if it was spectral. When those fingers clutched his floundering heart, Greavy attempted to scream, but all that escaped his lips was a wheezing hiss…along with a trickle of blood and phlegm. Peering directly into his dying eyes, Cassandra offered Thomas a hideous parody of a smile and then closed her fist about his heart like the snap of a bear trap. Deep red blood exploded from his mouth like a geyser and the light in his eyes abruptly guttered and was extinguished. The explosion of blood did not spatter Thomas’ murderer, but rather passed through her and sullied the grass in a three meter fan.
In a voice that resonated with madness and cruelty beyond all understanding, the creature that had once been a beautiful young girl named Cassandra Jasic growled, “Or does it hide in the deepest corner of your twisted mind…like a poisonous, bloated spider…biding its time in the shadow.”
She thrust her fingers into Thomas Greavy’s lank hair and pulling his head back, removed it from his body in three swift, powerful strokes. Dismissing the ghastly headless corpse from her mind, she carried the severed head across the common and threw it into the fountain as though discarding something ineffably repugnant.
She then began to stroll in the direction of the exit on the far side of the green space. In the moments before she had snuffed this latest twisted bit of excrement from existence, Cassandra Jasic had gleaned intimations of a new and ominous manifestation of this timeless disease. She found herself feeling decidedly perplexed by the image she had dragged from Thomas’ tortured mind. The black box certainly seemed innocuous…but Greavy had regarded it as the ultimate purveyor of every black fantasy…a corrupting agent that would only incite these monsters to more heinous acts of evil…stoking their perversion like a diabolical fire.
“The shadow box,” Cassandra whispered and the ghost of a smile took shape on her exquisite face. Until now, her quest had been random…extirpating weeds that she would encounter by chance. Now, however, she had found something upon which to focus her attention…and her infinite rage.