The man stepped up and opened the door with a flourish before pausing. He hesitated, wondering what day it was. It was his natural inclination to step into the building and present himself. It was his stasis in life after all. His grey gloved hand began to tremble on the knob. No, he didn’t want to do this. He did not want to be here… did he? Then the door widened beckoning him. His hand held the knob and he allowed himself to go with it as his foot stepped up and across the threshold.
He looked around the foyer and into the parlor, again unsure, but plagued with a feeling of déjà vu. Superstitious, he thought and straightened with a false bravado and stepped inside. He turned to close the door and hesitated again.
The feeling of uneasiness struck heavily in his stomach and fear leapt into his chest. He had the inclination to cry out, but stopped himself. He stifled the cry with a cough putting his trembling hand to his face. Then he stiffened his back and looked around again trying to decide on the front desk, the cozy looking couch with the fire, or maybe the stairs. The decision alone threatened to unhinge him.
“Oh there you are?”
The man whirled around startled.
A very dark skinned woman with a scarf wrapped around her head was suddenly coming from behind the front desk. “Mr. Johnston, well now ain’t you just a sight?”
He swallowed and straightened even more. Where had she come from? “Ye… yes.” He said unsure.
The woman moved past him into the parlor and the over to the fireplace to stoke it up. “Come on in here sir. You apt to catch your death out there.” She said.
“Oh um, yes.” He said and entered the parlor and began to remove his gloves as the woman came behind him to take his coat. He froze when he felt her fingers brush his shoulders. Terror and titillation simultaneously assaulted him, but he relaxed when he felt the great coat slide off his shoulders and down his arms.
“Make yourself comfortable Mr. Johnston. I’ll fetch some brandy to warm you.” She hung the coat up and left.
The man seated himself in the chair and examined the room.
The latch on the front door sounded and it opened again even more slowly that the first man. He doesn’t pause, but he cautiously slips inside. He is a bit older than the first. He glanced into the parlor then poised himself and stepped up to the front desk to wait.
He turns and looks into the parlor as the woman suddenly reappears at the front desk. “Mr. Abel, welcome, welcome.” She moves from behind the counter and into the parlor and sets a tray on the table with several glasses and a large bottle of brandy.. “Come right on in here sir and seat yourself, I’ll get your coat directly.”
“Comfortable Mr. Johnston? I will serve you in just a moment after I attend to Mr. Abel.”
“Fine,” Mr. Johnston said, struggling to keep his air of confidence.
Mr. Abel is standing unsure at the entrance to the parlor. Then he catches sight of Mr. Johnston and freezes a moment.
Suddenly the woman is behind him and removing his coat as well. “There you are sir. Seat yourself and I will serve you both a nice brandy.” She hangs up the coat and moves around to the table. She pours two generous brandy’s and hands one to Mr. Johnston with a servant’s nod then turns. “Mr. Abel sir? Find your place, make yourself comfortable.”
Mr. Abel is still staring at Mr. Johnston, but snaps out of his trance and comes to take a seat. “Yes… yes of course.”
The woman waited for Mr. Able to seat himself on the couch then handed him a brandy. He sits back, but he is very tense and staring at Mr. Johnston as the woman leaves the room. He glances around the parlor very unsure then settles on Mr. Johnston again. He is just about to speak when the woman interrupts.
“Gentlemen, cigars if you wish.” She whooshes into the room and sets down an intricately designed cigar box beside the tray of brandy and opens it. She looks around satisfied and breathes. “Now will there be any…”
The front door opens and another man steps in. He looks confused, stops and stares back out the door for a moment.
“Mr. Cadwalader.” The woman exclaims and moves towards the man with a flourish.
The woman is a proper house servant with skin as black as coal and her dress is discreet, though she is voluptuous in every way that a man wants, with enough in front and back that most men will take notice. Mr. Johnston and Mr. Able seem somewhat oblivious to this. She moves in and moves around the parlor adding her scent to the air, honeysuckle and cornmeal if they had the mind the venture a guess. When she moves away the tension is broken for a moment and as she whooshes out of the room they both catch it and follow her. The effect distracts them from their own unease and they glance at her backside moving beneath the dress as she moves to the door.
The woman ushers the man away from the door and closes it quickly. “There now. Don’t want nothing coming in here that aughtn’t be, now do we?” She escorts the man into the parlor. She removes his coat and hat and takes a sniff of the coat, makes a slight face and shakes it out saying, “The cigars are right next to the brandy sir. Help yourself and have a seat while I tend to you.”
Mr. Cadwalader looks at the two gentlemen and composes himself quickly. He methodically steps around the table, chooses a cigar and gives the two ogling men a nod.
“Gentlemen,” he says and settles into one of the chairs just as the woman pours a brandy and hands it to him. He lights the cigar and settles back crossing his legs as if he’s seated in his own home.
“Will there be anything else sirs?”
The men don’t answer and the woman gives a proper nod before leaving.
Mr. Johnston and Mr. Abel settle back down, but both continue to glance up at Mr. Cadwalader who seems completely content as he contemplates his cigar.
Mr. Abel leans forward to the box and chooses one as well. He lights it, takes a quick puff and contemplates for a moment. “Mr. Cadwalader?”
Mr. Cadwalader looks up, “Yes?”
“I find it interesting to see you here.” Mr. Abel said.
“Well certainly, a man of your position.”
“Well, now. I wouldn’t say that, after all I am a gentleman just as…”
“Yes, well, anyone.”
“Well would it interest you to know that I am not a gentleman, as you stole my land and…”
The front door opened again. The men all turn as the woman appears at the counter. “Mr. Haines sir. Come right in. Come right on in.”
The woman dotes on him more so than the others. She takes his coat and hat and quickly hangs them up before returning to take his arm and lead him into the parlor. She sits him down in the chair on the other side of the lounge and even fluffed the pillow for him as he settled. Then she poured him a brandy, handed him a cigar and lit it.
Mr. Haines was visibly disturbed, but he allowed himself to be manhandled and waited on as he looked at each face in turn including the woman. He held his brandy and cigar as if he wasn’t sure what to make of then.
“Mr. Haines,” the woman said. “Is you alright?” When he didn’t answer she stood quickly. “It’s getting cold out there, ain’t it?” She dashed to the fire, stoked it up and added a log. Then she mumbled something under her breath and it seemed that the log caught quicker than one would expect it to. A moment later the fire was blazing. “There now, I think that will just about do gentlemen.” She stood, “I would like to welcome you all. It is so wonderful to have…” The door opened. The woman stopped speaking and looked up curiously. “Just a moment.”
Mr. Haines looked visibly frightened and when the woman left, addressed the men. “Where in the blue blazes am I?”
The other men looked at him. Mr. Cadwalader seemed to be the most at ease.
“I demand to know what the meaning of this is. Cadwalader is this your doing? I must say I received word of your demise, but that must have been an exaggeration.” Mr. Haines demanded.
Mr. Cadwalader stopped puffing on his cigar. “I beg your pardon?”
The woman reached the door just as the fifth man entered. She stopped when she saw his face. “Mr. Rauch.” she said breathlessly. “Mr. Rauch, what are you…? You ain’t supposed to be here sir.”
The man looked back out the door, just as confused as the rest of the men, but when he was told he should not be there he straightened and closed it defiantly. “Nonsense woman, where else would I be?”
“No sir you don’t understand, you wasn’t like the…”
“Is that Cadwalader?” Mr. Rauch ignored the woman and walked past her into the parlor.
“Haines set down his brandy and his cigar. I do not jest sir. Your death! Several months ago, before the bank attempted to take my farm, but after you acquired my fathers, paying no heed to the marauders who burned the fields and ravaged his stock. I swore to him on his deathbed that if I ever had the fortune to see you in person I would tell you exactly what I thought of you. You are a cad sir, and a fiend. You have no honor and I find you grossly lax in any sort of compassion, or humanity.”
Cadawalader was flustered. “You forget yourself sir!”
The tension in the room was suddenly broken when everyone looked up to Mr. Rauch standing in the entrance to the parlor.
Mr. Rauch laughed. “It is you man? How wonderful.” He moved into the room and put his hand in Mr. Cadawalader’s shoulder. “Well not surprising, you cheated everything else, why not death, am I right old boy?”
Cadawalader stared up at the man. “Rauch? Is that you? You’ve aged.”
“Well taking on your position at the bank has added some wrinkles and gray hairs. You haven’t changed a bit. Five years. You look the same as the day…” He stopped. And slowly looked around the room. He didn’t seem to recognize anyone except…
Haines went pale.
“You!” Rauch checked his coat for what might have been a pistol or a mace. “I will have you in irons.”
Haines stood. “In irons you say. The death of my wife sir, on your account. You would have me in irons, I would have you killed.” The two men went at each other over Mr. Abel who tried to move out of the way.
Mr. Johnston wasn’t paying any attention to the ruckus. He was staring at the woman who stood at the entrance to the parlor watching the men with cold delight. Then a sudden moment of clarity struck him. “Cousteau!” he shouted. He said it so loudly that the men ceased their struggle.
At the sound of her name the woman turned to face Mr. Johnston. There was menace in her eyes then she began to smile. “I must declare Mr. Johnston, as you were the first to arrive, I did believe you would be the first to recognize me, but it took you so long.” The woman moved into the room and as she did so the fire blazed higher. “I didn’t know how the rest of you would be. Mr. Haines.” She said with a sad smile. “I knowed I wasn’t much back then, but you started sneaking me around for a hump since I was twelve. I thought you might have recognized something, but I was nothing more than a dog you done had your way with. I ‘spected to see you Mr. Cadawalader, and you Mr. Abel, but Mr. Rauch… I don’t know why you here sir. You weren’t there, was you? My memory ain’t failing me that much. How long has it been, twenty years?” She moved to Mr. Rauch with a pleading look on her face. “What you done sir? You was good to me. Tell me why you here?” She pressed against him.
“What’s this now, woman?”
Cousteau the woman took his hand. “I got to know why you here.” She pulled his gloves until they came free and she grasped his palm. “Oh!” She became sick with shock. “My daughter? Mr. Haines’ daughter!”
She went week and dropped to her knees and bowed before the man and wept. She shook her head and wailed.
“I done declared… I cursed you all. All of you and any of yours that lay a finger on me and mines. I cursed you all. I will see each of you again. I’ll have a place waiting for you in hell.”
Catawalader and the other men went pale. “Madam Cousteau!” One of them spoke suddenly in remembrance.
The woman looked up. Her face had changed. Her eyes had sunken and gone black. Her mouth hung at an odd angle and her skin looked as if it had been severely burned. The fire place blazed with heat and flame.
“Welcome gentlemen. I been waiting for you a long time. I do hope you enjoy your stay. I am certain that I will enjoy having you all.”
The men stood shocked. Mr. Rauch stumbled back out of the parlor and fell. He stood and ran to the front door. In the parlor behind him the screams had already begun. He grasped the handle of the front door and yanked. The door came free.
Outside the door there were others. Others who wanted to play. Others who wanted to play with Madam Cousteau as well as with the five gentlemen. It was hell after all. Madam Cousteau had a place for them waiting, but it was doubtful any of them would have a chance to reach their rooms.
A tentacle from some unmentionable thing that had known pleasure and pain far more than any of them had experienced reached out from the empty nothingness and snatched Mr. Rauch right out of the doorway. It was so fast that he came right out of his shoes and his feet touched the back of his head. The door slammed behind him. It is possible Mr. Rauch simply lost his way and wasn’t supposed to be there. After all, it was a very big place and there was something waiting for everyone.