The secret passage to the cellar blew into Jake’s face with air that smelled like the innards of a dragon—stale yet with a hint of smokiness left behind by the roasted meat. For several seconds, he stared into the nothingness below before switching on the flashlight and revealing the staircase hidden behind the wooden panels.
Jake couldn’t wait to find Elliot. Not because he cared much for the guy, but because it would please Knight so very much. Knight would recognize just how useful Jake was, how dedicated, and Jake would quickly be back to serving Knight in other ways than shoe shining or polishing Knight’s bike.
Though familiar with the morbid history of their clubhouse—and the cellar in particular—he’d never felt it was his place to invade the rooms where so many innocent people had perished at the hands of that madman William Fane, one of the original owners of the property. To be perfectly honest, the idea of going down there still creeped him out, but he wasn’t a baby (he was of legal drinking age since March!), and for the sake of Knight and the club, he would prove that Elliot didn’t deserve their trust.
The glow of the flashlight led him downstairs, licking the old stone and brick as it descended to the floor below.
The early morning hours were usually quite peaceful here in the clubhouse once everyone got tired of partying. Away from town, in the woods, nothing could disturb the peace, but there was something creepy about the complete stillness in the cellar. The sounds of Jake’s footsteps and breathing were the only ones around, as if they existed in a vacuum so intense the silence transformed into a quiet ringing in his ears.
If a drop of sweat dripped from his body to the floor, it would have probably made a noise loud enough to create an echo.
And he was sweating quite heavily despite the cool dampness of the air.
In which room had William Fane tortured his victims?
Jake’s hand moved across the ancient-looking wooden entrance to his left, but when he tried to open the door, it wouldn’t budge.
That wasn’t where the weird smells were coming from though, and Jake directed his attention at the crumbled wall farther down the corridor. Reddish dust clung to the moist walls, and the crushed pieces of brick piled on either side of the entrance betrayed its origin. A hammer and chisel rested on the floor, a testament to their user’s conviction that no one would come down to this creepy place and disturb them at work. For a moment it angered Jake that it could have been Elliot who damaged club property, but it didn’t take long for him to realize what a ridiculous idea that was. Elliot could have hardly carried a hammer this big, much less used it.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t hiding in the labyrinth of rooms down here.
Ignoring the unpleasant twist in his stomach, Jake rushed through the tear in the wall, because he wouldn’t let childish fears keep him away from things that needed to be done. Several doors stared at him with their uninviting rot, each surely hiding a darkness thicker than tar, secrets of the brutal man who’d murdered several dozen young men in those very corridors.
Jake had come here to make the patches proud, to make them see he was worthy of becoming one of them. Still, his voice came out an octave higher than he’d have wished it to.
“I know you’re in here”—he said even though he could as well have been talking to dust and old walls—”Come out. Let’s talk things through. You know, like civilized people.”
In the black void around him, something scraped against stone. It was a brief, silent noise, like that of a shoe gently moving against a damp floor, but in the near-perfect silence it echoed louder than a scream.
Jake’s heart picked up the pace of its march, and he dove into the room to his right, intent on finding the source of the sound. It could have been mice, but Jake wouldn’t take any chances.
Stepping inside, he raised his flashlight to see the entire chamber and recoiled so rapidly he stumbled over the threshold. Three pairs of empty eye sockets stared back at him from naked skulls. Two of them—one perched atop a barrel and one part of an entire skeleton locked inside a dog cage—contrasted with the gentile decor and the way the third corpse calmly reclined in a chair clad in what was remaining of an old-fashioned gown.
With blood rushing to his head, Jake stared at the scene in complete silence, half-expecting one of the dead bodies to raise their hand in greeting. But nothing happened.
It took Jake minutes to unglue his back from the wall and breathe normally again. Goose bumps crawled all over his arms even under his hoodie. When he finally moved across the dust-filled room, the floor whined under him as if it didn’t welcome his presence.
Well, tough shit, because he was sure that creeper Elliot was hiding somewhere in the spooky corridors, and Jake would be the one to catch him red-handed.
The entrance to the old cellar was concealed behind a moving wooden panel on the wall, so maybe there were more passages none of the patched knew of? Jake rushed over to the wall in clouds of dust coming off the carpet, and he placed his hands against the textured wallpaper that peeled off the damp walls. He had the distinct sense of being watched, as if the seated corpse followed his every step with her empty eye sockets.
He’d dealt with dead bodies before, but he was still not exactly used to them. Realizing that we were all sacks of meat moved by brains had never sat all that well with Jake, and yet after the first death he’d witnessed, a certain understanding settled in him. No one was invincible, no one was immortal. Even the strongest man could (and would) end up in the dirt one day. Even him.
As Jake’s fingers traced the wallpaper, another creak from the floor made him pay more attention to movement in the dark. Could it have been a rat? A cockroach? Step by step, he illuminated each corner with the flashlight. Whenever he shifted, shadows lengthened in the yellow glow, creating the illusion of movement. If anything, the beam made the space creepier, exactly the kind of place a guy like Elliot would love. Why an amazing man like Knight gave that guy the time of day remained a mystery, because Elliot hadn’t earned someone so handsome and kind.
No, Knight deserved to be cherished and doted on.
Jake scowled when the thick fabric sank under his feet with a damp sound, as if he were stepping on moss, but a small irregularity under his foot made Jake stop. Ignoring the three skeletons watching him in silence, he moved his boot over whatever was underneath the carpet. The thing was hard to the touch and shaped like a long and narrow piece of metal or rock.
Jake kicked it, but it didn’t budge.
He already had an idea what it could be though, and pride swelled in his chest that others, including Knight, had missed what he’d found after just minutes down here. It could only be a hinge. A hinge meant a door, and a door meant a room where Elliot could be staying without permission.
Jake sneered at the thought of anyone willingly living in a dark, damp cellar, right under a room with three corpses. But Elliot was a weirdo, and a fan of a serial killer, for fuck’s sake! It would surely not be beneath him to shiver with glee at what normal people would run away from screaming.
Jake shoved away the armchair along with the long-dead lady, and peeled the carpet off the floor as if it were a layer of skin, attached to it with years of dust and mold.
And there it was. A trapdoor.
Despite the grim surroundings, Jake grinned. “You’re not hiding from me, you fucker.”
The wooden door was large enough for two or even three men to easily pass through side-by-side, and Jake had to strain his back when pulling it up by the heavy iron handle, but he wouldn’t be defeated by rusty hinges.
With a grunt of relief when the door finally budged, he opened it, leaning the heavy slab of wood and iron against the wall. A damp, vinegary stench blew into his face from below, but he grabbed the flashlight and shone into the hidden room. A dull grunt left his lips when the yellow beam hit a huge padlock that kept a metal grate in place just below the trapdoor. Not Elliot’s lair then.
Jake flashed more light into the hidden chamber, just to be on the safe side, but what he found was a well-like space with stone walls, empty save for yet another skeleton lying naked on its side. A shudder went through Jake’s body. He’d found yet another of William Fane’s torture chambers, or a holding cell where a lone man died of hunger and thirst once his deviant captor had been killed. There was no point in wrecking the padlock.
Jake was about to pull back and shut the trapdoor when movement drew his attention back to the walls that must have been part of a natural cave under the house when this cellar was first built. The glow from his flashlight drew a line along the edge of the room, but when he focused on the skeleton again, twin red spots reflected the illumination back at Jake. He startled so abruptly he had to grab the heavy trapdoor for stability as his windpipe narrowed in fright. It was a pair of eyes. Small like two beads, watching him from below, they hypnotized him to stare at the tiny creature hiding in the confines of the corpse’s rib cage.
Jake raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Seriously, rat? There’s nothing left on those bones for you.”
But the rodent crawled along the spine, all the way into the skull, eventually exiting through the skeleton’s open jaws. Its reddish gaze never looked away from Jake. It’s thin body, black as tar, seemed to pour out of the dead man’s mouth, and now that Jake saw all of the animal, he was coming to realize that it had wings. But how could a bat have gotten in there? How had it survived locked under the floor? Maybe it had followed him in and he hadn’t noticed it crawl into the hidden chamber?
He rolled his eyes, because he didn’t have the heart to lock the poor thing in and let it starve. “Come on, I don’t have all day for this. Come out. Don’t make me go down there to get you.” Jake gestured with his hand, even though the bat couldn’t possibly understand him.
Or so he thought, because once Jake put down his flashlight, the tiny thing spread its webbed wings and floated into the air. It clashed with the bars, making Jake lean back in surprise, its claws and the hooks at the tips of its wings clanking against metal in a desperate attempt to hold on.
Jake hid his hand in the sleeve of the leather jacket he was wearing over the hoodie and extended it above the metal bars to help the little fellow. “Almost there…” he said when the bat grabbed his arm with its claws.
Jake pulled his arm up once the creature passed through the bars, but the longer he stared at the animal, the less he understood its anatomy.
Bats had wings attached to what was effectively their arms, and this thing looked more like a tiny, winged monkey than a rat. Once Jake stood up with it clinging to his arm, it made the ugliest hiss, showing off its needle-like teeth.
“Off! Go on, shoo!” Jake hissed back at it and tried to shake it off now that it was safely out of the cage.
With the only source of light remaining on the floor, the animal was a shadow with burning red eyes. Should they be even glinting like this in the dark, with no light coming its way? The moment he made the effort to shake the thing off with all his strength, it made a dash at his face, maneuvering past Jake’s hand with a wild screech.
Jake screamed, but the sound was cut short when his mouth suddenly filled with stone-cold flesh. The hooks on the creature’s wings dug under his jaw, causing pain so sharp his legs gave from under him, and he fell to the dusty rug. Hands grabbing at the animal, he pulled on it hard, but it was like peeling skin off his own head at this point. The thing pushed on, forcing Jake’s jaws open with its girth. He bit down hard, desperate to free his windpipe, but instead of crushing bones or drawing blood, an ache spread up his tooth, as if it were his own bone that cracked.
He twisted on the floor, and he must have pushed at the flashlight with his foot, because the yellow glow was sent spiraling around him. The empty eyes of Fane’s victim watched him from the cage, huge, lipless grin in place.
Desperate to free himself of the creature, Jake kept his jaws tight on the stone-like flesh, and soon enough the sharp claws released his skin, but when Jake got bold enough to breathe again through his nose, the thing crawled in deeper, poking its head at his throat as if the only place it could think of hiding in was Jake’s rib cage.
Jake rolled to his back and grabbed the bat again, trying to squeeze and twist its flesh, only to hurt his palms on the rough hard scales.
He could no longer breathe.
Hot tears streaked down his face when the pressure inside made him gag, but then the skin of the creature gave, becoming soft as rotting flesh. Jake fought his disgust, biting down and desperate to kill the creature when the flaccid flesh exploded with liquid straight into his throat. Thick as tar, it flooded his windpipe and drizzled down his chin.
His body heavy and weakened from the lack of oxygen, Jake slumped to the floor, desperate only to breathe at this point. The moment he managed to inhale through his nose, the thick goo that had spilled out the corners of his mouth before shot up his chin and sank into his nostrils.
Jake thrashed in clouds of dust while the shadows watched him from the walls. He grabbed at his face, wanting to wipe off the choking liquid that vaguely smelled of sulphur, but there was nothing there. Nothing on the floor, nothing on his face, not a sound anywhere around but his own heaving.
He grabbed the flashlight and, still barely catching breaths, illuminated every corner of the room.
Jake couldn’t believe the hangarounds were already gone. The MC’s most important business partner, Mr. Magpie, was to stay at the clubhouse for the first time ever. Every surface needed to shine. Every single item needed to be cleaned and polished, yet nobody but Jake seemed to care. Even though Beast had generously offered money to people willing to help out with preparations, even though being a hangaround should mean not only booze and orgies but also dedication, being part of an extended family, everyone was gone the moment the clock struck ten on the morning of Magpie’s arrival. Back to their daily lives, as if helping out at the clubhouse were a factory job they did to pay the bills, not a way to support the community formed around the Kings.
Once again he was faced with the fact that most hangarounds didn’t care about the club after all. They were only there for the fun and thrill of it, but real work required far more dedication. No wonder the Kings hadn’t found anyone they considered prospect material in a while.
So there he was in the bathrooms closest to the concert hall where the club held all their big events, on his knees with bleach in one hand and a brush in the other, correcting some slacker’s job. Jake had found spots right in the middle of the floor, as if it hadn’t been washed in the first place. Un-fucking-believable.
Jake sighed and glared at the bottle in his hand. It read that inhaling the fumes might be toxic, so maybe the hallucinations he’d experienced a few days back, when he entered the cellar looking for Elliot, had been caused by some weird mold or chemicals? Maybe he’d contracted some kind of long-forgotten flu from the air down in the cellar, like those people who’d died after opening Tutankhamun’s coffin? That would have been just his luck. He’d die a prospect, without having ever earned a patch of his own. And if contact with Egyptian mummies could kill people, then who could vouch for the safety of two-hundred-year-old skeletons in New England?
A slight fever had been plaguing Jake since the descent into the cellar but he’d kept it to himself, unwilling to bother anyone about it. The nausea and constant heartburn were much harder to ignore, so he was planning to ask Rev about that since he was the oldest member, and older people usually knew more about medical shit. But Jake would only do that after Mr. Magpie was gone. The last thing he wanted was to be a distraction at such an important time.
Still, as scorching heat traveled up his gullet and bit the back of his throat yet again, he popped another antacid. The pills didn’t help much, but there wasn’t anything else he could think of in terms of fighting the weird symptoms, and the minty aftertaste was at least soothing.
He shuddered and sprayed more bleach on the toilet seat before scrubbing it energetically. Mr. Magpie himself might not use any of the facilities here, but someone from his entourage might, and Jake would have hated it if that somehow reflected badly on them. One can always judge a host by the state of their restrooms, was what Jake’s mother always said. Well, at least she used to when he was still welcome back home.
Bile rose in Jake’s throat, hot as if he’d had wasabi for breakfast, and his eyes watered. He dropped the sponge, bending in half from the pain in his throat.
Why him? Why today?
His head bobbed as he slid to the floor, and he consoled himself that at least the tiles were clean for once, so he didn’t risk kneeling in someone’s piss.
The bitter heat kept shoving against his gag reflex, and it was the most bizarre of feelings when the pressure—physical and solid like a chunk of flesh— invaded his throat from the inside. Jake shut his eyes, resigned to his fate, and pushed on his stomach to make himself vomit and be done with it. Relief trickled down his body along with cold sweat when he spasmed over the toilet, but when he expected bitter liquid, it was scorching hot air that came out of him. Light flashed so brightly he could see it even with his eyelids shut. Within split seconds, he opened his eyes to stare at melting plastic licked by blazing fire.
Shocked and frightened by the explosion, he fell back on his ass, staring at the toilet lid dripping down porcelain as if it were a surrealist painting come to life. With sweat running down his back, Jake attempted to convince himself that Joker must have spiked his food with some magic mushrooms. But then his throat, sore from… whatever that was, contracted with a violent cough. Jake was stunned to see tiny balls of fire erupt from his mouth each time, and he frantically shifted around in the stall so that they hit the wall rather than wood or plastic.
His brain was a boiling pot of disbelief as he pushed his palms against his mouth, attempting to keep the flames in, but when the fire licked his skin, there was pleasant warmth, without even a hint of pain.
The taste of sulphur on his tongue reminded him of that time Knight had dared him to put out a match in his mouth, but even with the entire stall smelling like fireworks, Jake’s head was clearer than it had been for a while. The pressure that had been building up inside his gullet all night and morning was now gone, as if the torching fire he’d released had been the cause all along.
He stared at the toilet bowl, only now noticing in the corner of his eye that the heat had caused one of the white tiles to crack. His brain was a mess soaked in liquor he hadn’t drunk, but as much as he wished to dismiss what had just happened as a hallucination, that wouldn’t make the toilet seat return to its former state.
What. The. Hell. Was. Happening?
He got up, but then the burn came back, and he coughed once more, sending sparks toward the toilet paper that went up in flames.
“No!” Jake yelped and grabbed it in panic, sending it straight into the toilet where it hissed and released smoke, but at least he’d put out the fire.
Once more, Jake looked to his hands. Not a hint of redness where he’d just handled a burning item. He took one more glance into the toilet to make sure his eyes hadn’t played a trick on him, but there was no denying the half-burnt roll was there, still floating in the bowl and soaking up more water.
With a sneer, he rushed out of the stall to drink from the faucet and ease the discomfort in his throat, but as soon as the cool liquid went down, he pulled out his phone. Cleaning would have to wait.
He opened a web browser and typed in ‘Why do I choke up fire?’.