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August 16, 2012

I Hraet You (29)

 Beat 29: Breathless Gasp!  The Villain Revealed!

“Now, start walkin'.”

Mrs. Overdose prodded Patton with the shotgun once more.  “Better get a move on.  I got an itchy trigger finger, and a lot of accidents tend to happen when I’m around.  So yeah, pushing your luck?  Not a good idea.”

Patton didn’t even bother looking back, or giving her his common growl (one whose rumble had been noted to scare off tigers).  He just started walking toward Haldane Manor, hands clenched into fists, and the veins in his bazooka-sized arms thumping heatedly.  As his slow steps made the ground tremble, JP and Trixie -- flanking him with eyes fixed on the old manor -- matched his movements.  As they approached, the manor almost seemed to grow before their eyes; it loomed well above them, widening and lengthening, to the point where it could likely hold ten houses within its walls.  The sky itself seemed to darken, and with it came a frigid wind unbefitting a summer day.

Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you? JP asked, looking up at the sky.  All that’s missing are a few lightning bolts and flapping bats, and we’d be in the middle of a B-movie’s set.


Trixie looked back at Mrs. Overdose.  “I don’t get it.  I’m the one ya want, right?  So why’re ya gettin’ these two involved?  They didn’t do a thing.”

“I get paid when I have the full set.  And even if I can’t get that…well, at least I still have Elly May.  I’m sure once I get you back to Rockwood your head’ll fetch a pretty penny.”  Her finger stroked the trigger.  “So in a way, you can think of these two as insurance.  You so much as take a step out of line, and I’ll turn these two into the worst Jell-O you’ve ever seen.”

“Ya no-good little --”

“Better keep your cool.  I can see your muscles gettin' all hopped up and ready to lash out.  One more twitch, and the kid gets his head blown off.”

“You want me to tie her up for you?” JP asked.

But Trixie ignored him.  “How’re ya so --”

“I’m a bounty hunter, and a damn good one at that.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t pay attention to the little things in life -- like the cells shifting around in your calves.”  She tapped a finger against the side of her head, gracing a few subtle crow’s feet.  “I may be old, but I’m a lot more skilled than your entire generation’ll ever be.  So be a good little girl and don’t try anything stupid.”

Trixie covered her face and moaned.  “Sure wish I could get some respect ‘round here.”

The quartet stood before the mansion’s front doors at last -- massive slabs of wood, befitting its castle motif.  “So do you want me to knock?” Patton asked.  “Or should I just rip the door off the hinges and club you with it?”

“Just try it, big boy.”

“Oh, sorry, I guess I should mind my manners when I’m with elders.  Tell you what -- I’ll feed it to you instead.”

“Just push the damn doors already.  Seriously, what part of ‘I have a shotgun’ do the three of you not understand?”

Patton shoved the doors open; as the hinges squealed, Mrs. Overdose herded them all inside, and kicked the doors shut on entry.  JP had a point -- if the mansion’s exterior looked like a B-movie’s set, then its interior practically had them thrown into the film’s world.  Decaying brown walls, with crumbling balconies and stairs affixed to them.  Tattered paintings so faded they held little more than inky blotches.  Candles that had melted ages ago, leaving cold, hardened puddles of wax within mottled trays.   At least a dozen halls, all blacker than the dead of night, leading to unknowable -- or unwanted -- depths of the mansion.  And as if to mock the entrants, a burgundy carpet -- faded and frayed, but a carpet nonetheless -- stretched from the staircase onward.  It did little to cushion their feet; if anything, it sent a glacial chill up their bodies.

JP, Patton, and Trixie all tried looking around to regain their bearings and dissect the situation, but with little success.  Even with the morning sun shining outside, only a few slivers of light helped to brighten the room.  JP held a hand in front of his face.  Bad enough that the darkness half-obscured it; worse that the color had practically been sapped from his skin.  “Is it just me, or does it feel like we stepped into a completely different story?” he wondered aloud.

“Yeah, I know what ya mean,” said Trixie, likewise inspecting her body.  “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Both of you, do me a favor, and don’t say ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’  It never leads to anything good.”

Patton nodded, and slid an eye towards Mrs. Overdose.  “So?  What do you want from us now?”

She didn’t bother answering, of course.  She just headed toward the doors, and sat down pretzel-style in front of them.  Of course, she kept the shotgun cradled like her baby; sensing no threat, she lowered her head a bit as if to rest, and started swirling her reed around rapidly.  “Kids today are such dimwits.  Haven’t you noticed yet?”

“Noticed what?”

Mrs. Overdose pointed her reed at the ceiling.  “He’s here.”

A metallic rattle rang from above, immediately drawing the captives’ eyes.  The source?  A massive chandelier, somehow managing to sway smoothly on its weathered chain.  But amidst the threaded jewels and curling metal, something more sat upon it -- a cloaked figure, barely distinguishable from the shadows.  “Now, now, there’s no need for such harshness, Mrs. Overdose,” he announced, deciding to stand atop the frail metal.  “Ku fu fu…those who have yet to open their minds are sorely lacking in perception.”

“Quit yer yammerin’ and show yerself already!” Trixie yelled, taking a step forward in spite of the shotgun-toting sentry.  “I’m the one ya want, so here I am!  So get down here and --”

“Miss Walters, you’ve misunderstood me -- vastly so.  I’m not just here for you.  I’m here for everyone.”

“What?”

The figure took hold of the chandelier’s chain, and held fast to it as it lowered him to the ground.  “Let me be perfectly clear for you, Miss Walters.  And for you as well, you Hoigleheimer kin.  And yes, even you, my fair Mrs. Overdose.  You see…”  He leapt off the chandelier, and drew himself back up as it reeled back toward the ceiling.  “Everything will proceed as I dictate.”

He snapped his fingers, allowing a spotlight to shine upon his magnificent form.  “I am Gaston Leroux.  And the world will be mine.”     

He stood a fair bit above six feet, but looked even taller thanks to his top hat.  And he looked taller still thanks to his horrifically gaunt frame; his limbs, his hips, and even his ribs all seemed crunched together, or at least a bit too familiar with a torture rack.  As if to compensate for his sickening form, he had appeared before them in an almost inappropriately dapper costume -- a dark carmine jacket and slacks, laced and trimmed with white frills and seams.  He left his jacket wide open, the lapels’ edges as sharp as knives and framed by an array of gold buttons; beneath the jacket, a white vest, accented by a plume-like black scarf.  A gold cord extended around his neck, fastening a high-collared cape to his body, and letting the black-shelled fabric drape over his shoulders’ edges. 

And the mask.  JP, Patton, and Trixie hadn’t taken their eyes off it for a moment; even Mrs. Overdose, in spite of her disinterest, glanced up at it every now and then.  It begged to be stared at; it beckoned to them like a siren’s song.  The white shell, just barely reflecting their faces back at them; the vine-like patterns, violet and thorny, creeping up its left side; the eyes and mouth, each curled like crescent moons into a haunting grin…

If the captives needed any proof that the man before them could spell their doom -- once, twice, and three times over -- they only had to look at that mask.  But in case they needed just a little bit more proof, Gaston provided with ease.

A knife -- almost a sword -- had been thrust through his heart.

“Whoa.  Didn’t see that coming,” said Patton.  He folded his arms.  “Nice costume, fancy entrance…I’m impressed.  You’re manly, in a twisted sort of way.”

Gaston bowed gracefully, his white-gloved fingers lashing like power lines.  “Why, thank you.  I aim to please.”

“Mr. Hoigleheimer, don’t compliment the bad guy!” Trixie yelled.

“I gotta give credit where it’s due.  Besides, a compliment isn’t gonna stop me from ramming my fist down his throat.”

“Ku fu fu…my, my, such bestial impulses…you’d best calm down, good sir,” said Gaston, moving his arms through the air with needless flourishes.  “After all, I AM quite familiar with your southern companion.  Aren’t I, Miss Walters?”

“If yer tryin’ to say we’re pals, ya got it all wrong, ya no-good sonuvabitch,” Trixie growled.  “I dunno why yer so crazy about givin’ me hell, but if ya keep it up, then I’ll --”

“Oh?  What’s this?  Have I neglected to tell you my master plan?  My, oh my, this is quite a misstep on my part.”  Gaston turned around and started pacing, his cape rustling about as he continued his deliberate motions.  “How embarrassing.  Calling myself a villain seems like little more than an unwarranted boast.  You would think that I, with so much preparation beforehand, would tend to such an obvious matter well beforehand…”  He shot a glance back at them, his neck craned at an unsettling angle.  “Given my ‘unique situation’, I had more than enough time.”

“S-so spill it already!” JP yelled.  He took a step forward, and thrust a finger at Gaston.  “Go on!  Go ahead!  Tell us!  Put us all at rest, then!  T-tell us who you are, because OBVIOUSLY there’s NO WAY you’re what we think you are!  Because that’s impossible!”

Patton looked down at his quivering child, and then turned to Trixie.  “He’s afraid of ghosts,” he explained.

“Oh yeah.  I was startin’ to think that myself a little earlier.”

“I…I am NOT afraid of ghosts!”  JP crammed his hands into his pockets -- though that did little to hide the shaking…or his simultaneously paling and bluing face.  “Obviously, it’s impossible -- IMPOSSIBLE -- to be afraid of something that CLEARLY doesn’t exist!”

“He’s really scared of ‘em, huh?” Trixie asked.

“Yeah.  Halloween’s always a real problem for him,” said Patton.

“Hey!  HEY!”  JP forced his (teary-eyed) face into his typical scowl.  “Talking time is over!  Finding-out-who-the-villain-is time is now!”  He pointed at Gaston again…who in the interstice had started lying on his side like a Frenchwoman waiting to be painted.  And with his back turned to them, no less.

“…Oh, are you finished?  I scarcely noticed; your performance was just so boring I could hardly be bothered to pay attention.”  He waved a hand through the air, his fingers lashing about as usual.  “Ku fu fu…your only saving grace is that I’m not a critic.”  Gaston spun to his feet, his cape sweeping about as he threw out a hand.  “I am an entertainer -- an actor, and craftsman of the highest caliber.  And this show -- this very world…”

He clamped his hand into a fist.  “It will dance until the bitter end.”

Mrs. Overdose sighed and shook her head.  She’d started to wonder if she’d ever get paid.

TO BE HEARTINUED…

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