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Buyers Beware

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Alec scrolled through the online classifieds, scanning the tumult of hyperlinks before him as some random television program droned on from across the room. “No... no... no...” He swiveled his desk chair and leaned back as he let out a sigh of frustration, looking over his unimpressive and uninspired living area.

The TV in question, a remnant from his recently bygone college years, sat on a box of packed kitchenware opposite a pair of old lawn chairs, blaring one of those campy animated shows marketed to adults. Though somewhat lacking in story, it was second only to 90's sitcoms in terms of quality working background noise.

Small and dingy though it was, the place was his. The task of furnishing the one-bed, one-bath “slice of heaven”, as he described it, fell to him after his parents laid claim to what few possessions he left behind when he left for school. And so, he searched. Turning around to refresh the page for the 19th time in ten minutes, Alec was unsure he would ever find the right furniture for his new place.

A new advertisement: “Antique Dresser, '30s or '40s. 100$ obo” Alec clicked the link, and was met with detailed pictures of the piece. Looked to about six feet tall, made from solid wood. It had four drawers, each decreasing in height from the bottom up, with a pair of locking cupboards on top. An absolute steal, which made him nervous.

He went to respond, before coming face-to-face with the standard online boilerplate, phrases like “buyers beware” and “no guarantee” emboldened in contrast against the rest of the 1800-word snooze-fest. Basically, it boiled down to this: all items sold as-is. No returns, no refunds, no substitutions.

“No problem.” Alec accepted the terms and entered his details into the contact information field. “Ok, I give up. What's wrong with it?” Succinct, with a touch of humour, which might gain him a little favour with the seller. Alec hit send, and returned to his browsing.

It took the seller two hours to respond, ample time for him to secure the purchase of a television stand--or rather, a microwave stand, not that that the TV could tell the difference--and a not-too-shabby loveseat. “The left cupboard is locked, and I can't find the key. Otherwise fine. My mother left us a year ago, and I can't stand to look at it anymore.” An explanation that Alec found to be to his satisfaction.

The pair exchanged numbers and agreed to a 10a.m. Delivery. Alec shut off his computer and went to bed. Sprawling out on the mattress laying on his bedroom floor, he made a mental note: “Buy a bed.”

-

Alec rose out of a dead sleep to a pounding on his front door. The room was still dark, the soft glow of the moon unable to pierce the overcast sky above his roof. He sighed and climbed out of “bed.” Leaving his room and heading for the door, he passed by the mirror hanging on the wall of the front hall, in which he stopped for a moment to examine himself. He looked like hell, though any midnight caller should expect to be disappointed in that regard.

Peaking through the peephole, he saw the culprit: a woman, looking to be in her mid-forties. Her hair was as black as the bruises dotting what skin was not covered by her white, blood-spattered jacket. Clearly, she had been in some kind of accident.

“Oh my god! Hang on!” Alec fumbled with the door chain and the deadbolt as the woman continued banging on the door “Just a sec!” Coupled with his hypnagogic state, his hurry only prolonged the process as the adrenaline robbed him of his coordination. The whole ordeal took a confusingly inordinate amount of time, until the locks finally clicked.

“Are you o... kay...?” he found the porch empty. “Ugh... punk kids.” He shut the door, fooled by a group of teenagers, a make-up kit and fast feet. He sighed and went to return to his bedroom, stubbing his toe on the lime-green monstrosity that was his sofa. “Damn it!” He hopped around on his one good foot, cursing God with every foul word he knew. “Wait...” Alec blinked and examined the assailant.

This was not the tasteful red leather loveseat he had purchased the night before. For that matter, that particular item wasn't supposed to be collected until late-afternoon that very day. He turned around and looked a his TV, sitting atop what appeared to be a badly damaged segment of a marble counter-top. He would have to call the sellers and demand a refund.

Alec only made it one step towards the curious piece of furniture before freezing in place, robbed of his lucidity in an instant, feeling drawn towards his bedroom. He turned on his heels and slowly walked towards the seductive siren song. As he passed through the threshold, he saw it.

His dresser, unlike the strange and foreign objects in his living room, was exactly as pictured in the advertisement. Six feet tall, solid wood. Four drawers, each decreasing in height from the bottom up, and a pair of locking cupboards on top. It comforted him. He smiled and placed his hand on it, feeling the sleek and shiny finish, which seemed to radiate its own cheerful glow across the dark room.

Then he heard her sweet voice behind him, as beautiful as a the raspy gurgle of a cat being strangled with razor wire. “Alec.” He turned around and saw her. Eyes as black as onyx and deep as the Marianas Trench, from which oozed blood as red as a rose. Her malformed teeth glistened like a radiant-cut yellow topaz, locking together like a bear-trap behind her smiling blue lips, which reminded him of the lake he had visited in the summers of his childhood.

She was stunning. The most gorgeous woman he had ever laid eyes on, in fact. Alec was absolutely smitten. He couldn't help but lean in to kiss her.

He was still grinning as he felt the woman's crooked teeth sink into the flesh of his neck.

-

Alec sprung out of a dead sleep to a pounding on his front door. The room was now light, the soft, sparse clouds unable to halt the sun's rays. He reached up to feel his neck, only the find his skin unbroken. The banging continued as he climbed to his feet and headed to the front hall. He stopped to examine himself in the... he didn't own a mirror. He shook his head and chuckled a little before continuing to the door. He looked around his living room: cardboard boxes and lawn chairs, as he had left it.

Satisfied, he looked through the peephole. There was a woman about his age, smiling sweetly at the door, occasionally glancing at her wristwatch. He unlocked the deadbolt and almost reached for the chain that existed exclusively in his dreams. Rolling his eyes at his own confusion, he turned the door lever. “Yes?”

“Alec...” she fumbled with the scrap of paper in her hand, before holding it at eye level “...Erikson? I brought the dresser.” Alec leaned to look over the girl's shoulder and saw the black pickup truck. The object in question was in the back, lashed down with five lengths of bungee cord.

“Oh... yeah. Sorry, I must've overslept.” He reached up to rub the sleep from his eyes. “Oh no, it's only 9:15. We forgot about traffic when I agreed to 10 o'clock. I tried texting you.” Alec pulled his phone out of his pocket “Hay. Got 2 cum early. Goin 2 cottage with bf. That cool?” along with 3 missed calls.

“Oh... sorry, I guess it was set to vibrate. Hang on.” He closed the door, donned his shoes, and opened it back up. As the pair walked down the walkway, Alec noticed a man—most likely her boyfriend—untying the cargo from the bed of the truck. The girl went over and planted a kiss on the man's cheek as he was pulling out the built-in ramp.

“Hey, you must be Alex.”

“Erm... Alec, and yes.”

The man shook his head.

“Oh, sorry dude.” He reached out to shake Alec's hand “I'm Chris, and I take it you've met Anna?”. Chris gestured towards the item's seller.

“Yeah... so, about the dresser?” Alec did not mean to sound as rude as he did, but between his restless sleep and lack of his morning ritual of coffee and a cigarette, he wasn't much in the mood for pleasantries.

“Right, right.” Chris went to the passenger-side door and pulled a large dolly out of the back seat of the four-door cab and carried it back over to the ramp and the tailgate. “Little help?” Alec and Anna climbed into the back of the truck and struggled to lift the chest of drawers onto the device before strapping it in.

“Jesus Christ, this thing must weight 300 pounds!” The closer examination confirmed Alec's estimate of six feet in height, in addition to about four feet in width and two feet in depth.

Chris rolled the dolly down the ramp and towards the house as the other two kept it steady. Getting it through the front door was difficult, to say the least. The bedroom door was another beast entirely. In a short while, however, they had finally positioned it to Alec's liking, against the wall across from the foot of his mattress, at the expense of the couple's desire to beat the cottage traffic.

Alec tried to offer them an extra $50, but they refused. Anna just seemed happy to be rid it. The pair left and Alec filled the kettle and set it on the stove, letting it boil as he went to change his clothes. As he stepped on a creaky floor-board, he heard something stir inside the large piece of furniture, like a billiards ball rolling across a wood floor.

Curious, he turned to face the edifice. Tapping his bare foot on the floor, he began opening all the drawers. They were all empty, of course. Therefore, by process of elimination, he reasoned that the culprit must reside in the left cupboard, which was locked. He resolved to call a lock-smith in a few days, and continued changing.

As he pulled on his t-shirt, however, he heard a loud crash coming from the kitchen. Running out to investigate, he yowled in pain as he stepped in the boiling water spreading across the linoleum floor. The kettle was on its side on the ground, the last few puffs of steam wisping into the air as it bled its contents freely across the room.

“Fuck.” It was an old kettle, and was known to shake rather violently as it boiled. He must've left it too close to the edge of the stove. He hopped to the bathroom on one foot and climbed onto the edge of the tub. Running the water as cold as he could stand, he stuck his foot under the flow, sighing with relief.

It was almost 10 minutes before he dared trying to stand on it. Limping over to the vanity, he pulled the mirror open to reveal what few medical supplies he had. Examining the contents, he decided on a benzocaine spray his parents had bought him after his wisdom teeth extraction. It was designed for teeth, and had expired several years prior, but it was better than nothing. Sitting on the toilet, he spritzed it onto the sole of his left foot.

The initial stinging gave way to a cool tingling sensation after a moment, leaving him relatively pain-free. Pulling out the pair of white socks he had stuffed into the front pocket of his jeans, he slowly pulled them onto his feet, taking extra care not to disturb his wound. Leaving the bathroom and heading to the front hall, he reached into the closet behind his shoes for his old work boots and pulled them out.

Gingerly sliding his feet into them, he knotted them tightly and walked into the kitchen, armed with a pair of towels. He tossed them onto the mess, and walked across them to turn off the stove. He decided to let it cool before cleaning it up, as it was almost time to pick up the rest of his furniture.

-

It'd been four relatively uneventful days since Alec had purchased the brobdingnagian artifact of teak, rosewood, and brass, each book-ended by the same recurring dream. A few minor details changed: sometimes his television would be sitting on a plastic folding TV tray, pointed at a ratty old polka-dot recliner. Other times, it would be one of those large, Madison Avenue style office chairs and his desk from elementary school, and once it was even a bookcase of adult literature and a sex-swing.

However, the core concepts of the dream remained static: a knock at the door, an injured woman, his dresser, and that hideous witch who he found more and more irresistible every night, only to wake up and revile at the memory of her image. It was almost 11pm, nearly time for bed. Alec had given his house a respectable décor with his meager budget, but was always looking for new furnishings.

As he switched over from the classifieds back to what he had been reading before--“101 Things That Go Bump In The Night, and How to Bump Back”, a humorously poorly written treatise on dealing with nightmares--he heard a tapping at his door.

He climbed out of his chair and sauntered over to look through the peephole. He saw a middle-aged man, maybe 45 or 50 years of age. He was balding, a few stray strands of grey permeating what otherwise brown hair remained on the back and sides of his head. He bore a concerned expression, stopping occasionally to look back and forth, or over his shoulder, as though he felt he were being followed.

Alec opened the door a crack and stuck his head out. “Yes?”

The man looked somewhat unsure of himself.

“A... Alec... Erikson?” Alec flexed his arm, prepared to close the door at a moment's notice. This man did not sit right with him.

“Speaking.” This seemed to encourage the stranger a little.

“Yes... you bought something from my daughter? Anna Jackson?”

Alec nodded and relaxed a little. “Yeah. Why?”

“I... need it back.”

Alec felt an unpleasant shiver rise up his spine. “Why?” He could almost feel the twinges of resentment and anxiety creeping across the wrinkles and folds of his brain. It was his property. How dare this man come and try to take it from him?

“I just need it back. I've got a vehicle... a-and a dolly.” Were the roles reversed, would the man have given up his own daughter, had Alec said he just needed her?

“I'm sorry, but the answer is no.” With that, he slammed the door in his face and locked it. He vaguely heard the weak little man shouting profanities, hitting and kicking the door, but he didn't care. Pushing the power button on the computer monitor as he passed, he walked into his bedroom and flopped on the bed. Before he passed out, he noticed his dresser, and smiled.

-

Alec rose out of a dead sleep to the sound of his front doorbell ringing. The room was still dark, the soft glow of the sun unable to pierce the canopy of broad-leaf rain forest trees above his roof. He sighed and climbed out of “bed.” Leaving his room and heading for the door, he passed by a painting hanging on the wall of his front hall, in which he stopped for a moment to examine himself. He looked like Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (as the brass plaque on the frame confirmed), though any midday caller should expect to be disappointed in that regard.

As he reached for the door, he noticed Anna sitting on the chair at his desk, reading “101 Ways People Bump Back, and How to Bump Harder”, a humorously poorly written treatise on dealing with insolent mortals who try to stop you from achieving your evil goals. She spun around to face him, causing Alec to gag at her hideous figure.

Her voice was as grating and harsh as an angel strumming on a harp or a Beethoven Sonata. “Hey, Mr. Erikson.” Her eyes were a disgustingly deep blue, like a constrictor strangling a rabbit, ready to unhinge its jaw and devour it whole. Her skin was rough like a porcelain statuette, perhaps in the form of pair of demons devouring a saint's heart. Her teeth were as straight and white as the line on the back of a skunk, and the putrid scent of her expensive designer perfume fit the bill.

All he could do was run, past the Salvador Dali painting of melting clocks, through the unusually long hallway, and into his room. He fell to his knees in front of the dresser, cowering in its warm aura. His terror only increased as she entered the room shortly after. Anna knelt next to him and caressed his cheek, her touch feeling like a red-hot iron, the scent of his own searing skin filling his nostrils. Somewhere, he heard more ringing. “It's my father.”

He was still cowering as he felt her blood-red lips press a kiss against his forehead.

-

Alec jerked out of a dead sleep to the sound of his phone ringing. He vaguely remembered Anna, who he found so disgusting in his dream. Shaking his head, he grabbed his phone and pushed talk. It was the construction firm at which he had applied a few days before. The person they had hired hadn't been a good fit for the job, and they needed him to come in.

It was a far-cry from his chosen field of philosophy, but he needed the cash, and so agreed to be there in a two hours. He climbed to his feet and headed for the kitchen, filling the kettle and putting it on the stove. After the fiasco that was his first morning at the house, he had always remembered to put it on the back burner, to prevent another spill.

He reached into the cupboard to grab his favourite mug, only to find it missing. He turned around to check the dish rack and leaned his head into the living room to check his desk and coffee table. Nothing. Finally relenting, he grabbed one of the less desirable cups, with a floral pattern on the body and a handle held on only by a few dabs of super-glue.

He added a scoop of instant coffee, or “dirt in a jar” as he called it. If powdered creamer is referred to as “coffee whitener”, then rightfully this should be called “water blackener”. He carried it over to the couch and sat down, lighting a cigarette and taking a drag. Grabbing the remote, he turned the TV on and set it to the morning news. They were reporting on a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean.

Not that Alec cared. His attention was directed at the door, or more specifically, the large crack between the edge of the door and the frame. He set his coffee on the table and bolted up to investigate.

It appeared as though someone had tried (and failed) to break the door open with a pry-bar. Both the lock and the handle were fully intact. “Motherfucker...” he growled. It must've been that man: Anna's father. Clearly, having failed his diplomatic mission the night before, the bastard had tried a more direct approach. Alec would have to worry about security later. He had to get ready for work.

He downed the acrid black liquid in two large gulps and set the cup on the counter with nearly enough force to break it before crushing his cigarette in the ash tray. His anger burned brighter and hotter with every step of the short walk to the bedroom, only to calm as his object of affection entered his field of vision. It made him feel warm and fuzzy inside, truly the best purchase of his life.

For a moment, he smiled, forgetting about the cruel little man that wanted to separate them. He opened the various drawers, removing his clothes for the day: a pair of boxer-briefs, ratty old work jeans, and a t-shirt. Gingerly closing them, he carried the outfit over to the bathroom and set them on the vanity.

Alec turned around and opened the shower curtain, only to see his mug sitting face down on the floor of the tub. “What the hell?” he felt the rage boil up within him once again. So, someone had been in his house, moving his belongings around, perhaps to drive him insane. The man wanted to make Alec easy prey. A whimpering, gibbering mess when he came to take Alec's beloved piece of furniture from him. Putting the mug on the vanity, he stripped down and climbed into the tub.

-

It was as ingenious as it was simplistic: forfeit a few dollars of his pay in exchange for as much of the damaged raw materials he could fit in his trunk. The owner of the building he had spent the day demolishing had no use for it, and “the boss”--Gregory O'Shea, as he was known to those who did not depend on his approval to feed their families--would have to spend an arm and a leg, his first born child, and everything up-to-and-including the kitchen sink just the ship it to a recycling plant.

And so, for the measly price of 20 dollars, he loaded up his old Mustang with screws, nails, rebar, brackets, and various other pieces of hardware, before driving home with his plan in mind. He carried the items into his house, one rusty, stinky, and heavy load at a time. He had thought he had brought enough screws for the job, but on his final inventory, he noticed he was a few short. It didn't matter, the job was fool proof, and cut-corners would make very little difference in the end.

First he installed the U-brackets into the door-frame, five on each side. He had seen this specific style of barricade at various times during his childhood schooling: a bar goes across the main gate of the castle to stop it from opening. Simple though it was, if it could keep the English out of Orléans, it could keep the feeble old man out of his house, and away from his treasure.

Alec slid five pieces of rebar into the brackets, and tried to pull the door with every fiber and muscle of his being. Realising he was more likely to pull the doorknob (or his own shoulder) from its proper housing than he was to successfully open the door, he wiped the sweat from his forehead, satisfied.

Next, he began work on the windows. His original plan had called for five bars, but he figured three, installed vertically, would be sufficient, first the kitchen window, then the pair of living room windows, and finally the bedroom window. He counted the supplies he had left: six rods, four screws, and about a dozen nails.

He tossed the nails in the trash, having no need for them. Two screws for every bar meant he would be able to block the small bathroom window with two bars. He placed the remaining four bars in the umbrella stand next to the front door, sure he would find some use for them, and headed for the bathroom, his tool-belt clanging and jangling at his waist.

As with the others, he began the long task of drilling holes in the rebar, every-so-often spritzing coolant across the red-hot drill-bit. Next he went to work on the window frame, drilling until he reached the outer brick, before screwing in an anchor.

Finally, he assembled the improvised barricade, screwing the bars into the anchor. He stepped back to admire his work, only to trip and fall into the bathtub, taking the curtain-rod down as he went. It took a moment for the shock of the fall to be replaced with the stabbing pain in his hand. He pulled it back and immediately saw the blood gushing down his palm and across his wrist. He lifted the curtain underneath him to see the half-dozen missing screws, upon which he had impaled himself.

Of course. How could he be so stupid? The damaged door wasn't a failed attempt to get in. It was a successful attempt by a skilled criminal who had the sense to cover his tracks. The evil old man was still in his house. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, struggling to dial 911 through the blood. They said they would be there in 10 minutes, and urged him to stay on the line. But he couldn't do that. His most prized possession was in danger.

Scrambling out of the tub (and nearly breaking several bones in the process), he pulled a roofing hatchet and a ball-peen hammer from his belt, wielding one in each hand. Alec peered his head out the bathroom doorway, checking the hall for his enemy. There wasn't a trace of him. Tip-toeing towards the living room, he looked over the railing separating the living room from the dining room. The bars were in place, the bastard was trapped.

-

Alec went through the rest of the house, room by room. Deep down, he knew he would be in the bedroom. Then he knew he would be in the closet. Then he knew he would be hiding under the sink. The scumbag was crafty, changing hiding spots every time Alec turned his back to him, but he knew he would find him eventually. In the distance, Alec could hear the sirens approaching.

“I’m sorry Mr. Erikson, but we've swept the house four times. There's no one there.” Alec let out the approximate hybrid of a growl and a gasp as the EMT swabbed the freshly sutured cut on his hand with alcohol.

“Well, do it again.” Officer Tompkins met Alec's scowl with his own look of frustration.

“Look, we dusted the front door, but the lock is fine. Whoever tried to break in didn't get far. No one was in your house but you. Now you're sure you didn't put those screws there?”

Alec didn't feel like dealing with a charge of “assault on a peace officer”, and so, simply nodded for the fourth time. “Well, unless we get a hit on those fingerprints, there's not much more we can do here.” Alec was done trying. He just wanted the men to leave so he could be alone with his dresser. Just the thought of it made waves of tranquility wash over him. “Also, that 'security system' violates at least half a dozen by-laws. However, given the circumstances, I'm going to give you thirty days to remove them. I expect to see real security bars on those windows when I drive by next month. Understand?”

Alec nodded again as the man tending to his wound taped the final length of bandage in place. After a short, stern speech about tetanus shots, the streets finally cleared and Alec returned to his house, half expecting a man in a hockey mask to jump out and cleave him in half. He replaced the five lengths of rebar and locked the door. It was 8:30, and he still had time to make dinner and browse around on the computer.

Opening the freezer to view what tasty delights he had in stock, it was hard to decide between the 99 cent microwave pizza that gave him heartburn and the frozen gas-station burritos which gave him the runs. Picking the lesser of two evils, he unwrapped the pizza, put it on a plate, and slid it into the microwave.

As the pizza spun under the dim yellow light, he pulled out his phone and shuffled through his received calls. Anna seemed like a nice enough girl, maybe she could talk some sense into her crazy father. “Hey. Anna Jackson. Leave a message.” Alec let out a quiet chuckle at the synchronized beeps of the voice-mail system and his own meal.

“Hey, Anna. It's Alec. I bought the dresser from you? Your dad came by to try and take it back and... um... could you just... talk to him, or something? Thanks.” The phone beeped once more as he ended the call. She was a nice girl, she didn't need to hear about her dad trying to break into people's houses.

He removed the pizza from the microwave, barely making it to the counter before burning himself. “Did someone order an ice-cold pizza on a burning-hot plate?” Alec snickered to himself as he went to the computer, hoping to pass the time while he waited for the temperature to drop below “surface of the sun” level.

-

Alec rose out of a dead sleep to the sound of Cthulhu undulating and gurgling at his front door. The room was still dark, the featureless cosmos spanning unto infinity above his roof, as black and empty as life itself. He sighed and climbed out of “bed.” Leaving his room and heading for the door, he passed by the observation window for the ice-rink a couple stories below, in which he stopped for a moment to examine himself. He looked like a nine year-old pee-wee hockey player getting a two-minute penalty for roughing, though any Great Old One should expect to be disappointed in that regard.

Peeking through the peephole, he saw the culprit: a hideous amalgamation of a man and an octopus. Countless tendrils dangled from its chin--if it could even be called that--and its skin was scaly, like a snake or an alligator, yet sleek and squishy, like a squid or a dolphin. The unholy creature moved its eye to the peephole and banged its claws against the door.

-

It took a moment for Alec to return to reality. He was standing in his living room, inches from the door. His situation, which seemed so real mere seconds earlier, began to fade away as the twin claws of logic and reality tore it to pieces. “Claws...” he leaned forward to look through the peephole.

It was that man again, Anna's father. His worried demeanor from his previous visit seemed gone, replaced with a rage that radiated through the barricaded door and into Alec's soul. “What do you want?” Alec shouted, unwilling to open the door and risk betraying his fortress to the enemy.

“My dresser, you son of a bitch!” Alec supposed the question was rather redundant. “Too bad! It's mine now!”

The man growled and slammed both fists against the door. Alec could hear the muffled huffing and puffing.

“Look... maybe... we got off on the wrong foot. Let's talk, okay?”

His castle was impenetrable. His beloved was safe. What harm could it do? “Okay.”

“Alright, Alec. My name's Henry. Henry Jackson. See, that was my wife's dresser. Her father bought it in the 30's. It's sort of... an heirloom.”

It would seem innocuous enough, what Alec had brewing in the clever recesses of his mind. An innocent contribution to the conversation or a show of good faith, rather than a trap. “Where... where'd he get it?”

Without missing a beat, Henry said it. The one word that made things what they are today. “London.” It wasn't that he was trying to lie to Alec. He just wasn't as attentive to his wife's stories as he should've been. Had he paid her more mind, things could've been different.

“Philly!” cried Alec joyfully. “It was made in Philly!” Stupid old man. Stupid old Henry. He couldn't help but imagine the foolish man being torn to shreds by his verbal landmine. Couldn't help but imagine that pathetic waste of life pulling at the bear trap around his leg. Gullible Henry, squirming in his net.

“Damn it! Fine! Philly. Look, I just need something from the cupboard. I've got the key right here.”

Alec leaned against the door and saw the chunk of metal through the lens. It was a tantalizing prospect, to be sure: the mysteries of the dresser revealed. He was almost dumb enough to fall for it. Almost. “Fine. Slide it under the door and I'll get it for you.”

Henry gritted his teeth and inhaled sharply, like bellows fanning a forge. “If you just let me in for a minute--”

“Slide it under, or walk away.”

The man growled in helpless frustration. What was he to do against Alec's expert fortifications? “This isn't over.”

And with that, the man left, driving away in his black pickup truck. Alec had seen a similar vehicle somewhere, but was too tired to fish through his memories. He checked the bars one more time and headed back to sleep.

-

Alec rose out of a dead sleep to the sound of the commotion on the streets outside of his house. The room was still light, the event horizon of the black hole unable to pierce the thick of the angels and demons battling in the sky above his roof. Bombs exploded, sirens blared and people screamed as Alec tried to get his bearings. He was confused. He couldn't think straight. “What the...” his head pounded in sync with his heartbeat as he lifted himself off his mattress.

He walked over to the window and saw the battering ram, over 100 meters long, banging on the adamantine gates of Tartarus. The men and women working the device howled in agony as their fetid overlords cracked their whips against their backs, their chains rattling with each movement. Each impact shook the earth beneath him, the banging resonating through his house.

“It's my father.”

He turned, startled to see Anna standing next to him. She didn't possess the horrific features she had in his last dream. She simply looked plain, tired, and afraid. “What?” Alec followed her pointing finger to the demon overlooking the scene. He was teen feet tall and walked on cloven hooves, his serpentine tail swaying back and forth behind him. Henry, to be sure, but not pathetic or old or feeble as Alec had remembered him. No, this was a man of control and strength and power. A god walking the mortal earth.

“He wants to imprison you. You disobeyed him, and now he wants his revenge.” Alec was terrified. The demonic voices boomed in his head. They wanted him. They wanted Anna. They wanted the dresser.

“So what now?”

“You set us free, to set yourself free.” Alec spun around to see Chris leaning on the wall across from him, arms crossed at his chest, bearing a sad, mournful look. Yet, behind it, there appeared a glimmer of hope.

“What? How?” He wanted this to end, and would do anything to make it happen.

Chris' frown curved upwards ever so slightly as he pointed to Alec's right. He turned to see his dresser, whose burst of holy light nearly blinded him. To its left stood a woman, looking to be in her mid-forties. Her hair was as black as the bruises dotting what skin was not covered by her white, blood-spattered jacket. Clearly, she had been in some kind of accident.

“All you have to do is look, Alec.” She placed her bloodied hand to the side of the dresser and gently tapped it.

“The lock...”

She nodded in response and gestured towards Chris. Chris picked up Alec's toolbelt and grabbed the crowbar, tossing it to Alec. It clattered loudly at his feet, and he knelt down to pick it up, eyeing the small door that stood between him and salvation. He was heartbroken to damage his love, but what choice did he have? If it loved him as much as he loved it, it would understand. He wedged the claw into the small gap between the cupboard door and the frame as tears streamed down his face.

“It's the only way, Al--” Anna's encouraging words were cut short as the ram delivered its killing blow, shattering the large gate and its many bars. The shouting of slaves and the footsteps of titans echoed deafeningly across the earth.

Realising his window of opportunity was closing, he growled and leaned into the tool, fracturing and splintering the wood with a barely audible crack as the door swung open. He reached inside and pulled out the object interred therein: a skull. Not just any skull, but the skull of St. Benedict, protector against evil.

He heard the throaty growl in the doorway and turned with a clever smirk on his face. No demon could stand against him, now. There stood Henry Luciferus, Lord of the Burning Hell Fire, grinning with blood-lust as he held the two-tine spear in his hand. Alec let out a soft, growing chuckle. Poor Henry. Foolish, pathetic old man. Twice in one night, he had walked into Alec's trap.

“Demon, I rebuke you!” he shouted and held up the skull, still cackling madly.

Henry hissed and growled, steam and smoke rising from his body as the holy protector's gaze burned him alive. “I'm... taking you... with me!” The ailing creature hurled his weapon at his adversary.

Alec was still laughing as the two points sunk into the flesh of his torso.

Thompkins held the trigger of his stun-gun tight as Alec convulsed on the floor before him. The skull rolled out of his hand and rattled against the baseboard, dropping teeth in its path. He could hardly believe it, having been in that house four times the night before, all the while only meters away from the partial remains of Sarah Jackson, Anna's mother.

The officer and his partner had been sent to investigate an anonymous tip while another patrol was checking out the supposed location of two bodies, later identified as Chris and Anna. They had called in the cavalry when no one answered the door, only to knock it down and find a hysterical madman, brandishing a crowbar in one hand and a skull in the other. Two more officers made their way around him and knelt down to make the arrest.

-

No one enjoyed being part of the “Legal Blunder of the Decade”--as papers called it--save for Kendra Miles, Alec's court-appointed defense. The seemingly open-and-shut case put her small legal practice on the map. Sarah had talked about leaving her cold, distant husband many times, as friends and family would later attest. When she disappeared, they all simply assumed she got away. Simply climbed into her car, put the pedal to the metal, and never looked back.

The tip, combined with DNA testing, proved otherwise. The murder of Anna, Sarah, Chris Buchanan, and Henry--or so everyone assumed--with the defendant found psychotic and hysterical, holding the skull of one of the victims. It was supposed to be one of the simplest cases of the prosecutor's career. In the end, however, it took over three months for Alec to be able to utter the words “not guilty”, and less than five minutes for Miles' secretary to find the advertisement online.

Examination of Anna and Alec's exchange revealed that only the previous owner--in this case, Henry Jackson--could have been able to place anything in that cupboard, let alone a skull. Additionally, the fingerprints on Alec's damaged front door were found to match hundreds of prints lifted from the Jackson house. The closed-circuit footage of the supposedly dead Henry gassing up Chris' truck over a thousand miles away was the final nail in the coffin.

Jury deliberation took all of fifteen minutes before they came back and delivered their verdict of innocence. Though his parents and siblings were relieved beyond words, Alec himself couldn't care less. He had made his choice the moment he came to in the back of that cruiser. He was tainted, touched by darkness and evil in all its forms, both human and ethereal. Every day he would see Chris jogging down his street, or Sarah getting waved over by the hand-held metal detector at the courthouse, or Anna looking pityingly at him from the jury bench.

Finally knowing that his innocence had been confirmed to his family—his last gift to them—he said “good night”, told them he loved them, went to his old bedroom. They found him hanging from the light-fixture the next morning.

-

“The supply closet is less than 20 feet away, assholes!” shouted Bianca to no one in particular. She had looked away for scarcely 30 seconds to double-check the inventory form. When she reached for her pen to sign it, however, it was missing. The other officers had lately begun to steal her pens. As though they could convict anyone without a properly organised evidence locker. Regardless of the way everyone else looked down on her, she knew her job was important.

She sighed and stood up, heading into the deep recesses of the labyrinth of shelves and totes. The sign-out sheet in the back would have a writing implement of some kind. As she ventured towards her goal, she passed her favourite item in the whole building: an early 20th century dresser. For no logical reason, it always seemed to calm her when she was having a bad day. She couldn't help but feel hatred every time her eyes drifted towards the damaged cupboard. How someone could damage such a magnificent piece of furniture, she would never understand.

As she turned to walk away, she tripped on a plastic container that someone had carelessly left in the middle of the aisle. She flew forward and landed on a wooden crate covered in a black plastic tarp. She felt sharp objects pierce her stomach and chest. She howled in pain and rolled off. The wounds were shallow, but deep enough to draw blood. “What the hell?” The crate was evidence from a drug bust, used to bring a kilo of marijuana across the border. It was supposed to be empty. She growled and lifted the tarp.

Inside the crate, she found her missing pens.



Credited to Aleister Vickers 

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