Secrets of Passages

The door was stuck. Not the first time it’d happened to me but no less infuriating for it. There should have been an instruction card near to hand for the occasion so I thumbed on my flashlight app.

The light popped on just above the bridge of my nose. I furrowed my brow so that the beam would be tighter. Less chance of it shining through the cracks around the door. I moved my head back and forth methodically.

No card.

Damn it, Boston. You’re crap at details.

“It’s one of the Great Houses,” you told me. “That shit always works.”

Not this time, apparently.

I smooshed the the heel of my hand against my forehead to shut off the light. Now there was a chance this whole thing was some kind of trap. In the dark again, I ran my fingers up and down and around the frame. Along the top were two latches. Locked from the inside. I wondered who passed through here last and why there was a need to lock the door after.

Some small effort was rewarded with both latches flipping open though neither wanted to. Rather than barging out, I listened for sounds of anyone near the other side of the door.


I pushed the door open a crack and waited. Still nothing. Deep breath, slow release and I went through.

Nice hallway. I didn’t recognize the portraits on the wall opposite me. A quick glance left and right. I was alone in the hall.

“Welcome.” A female voice. Nice. Quiet. Another voice and another until there was a mob of voices welcoming me. I was still alone in the hall. The dull red carpet, the white walls yellowing at the top, the brass sconces that needed dusting and the portraits were all the company I had.

Of course, the portraits. The owner had infused the voices of the subjects into the house system. I supposed there’s a certain comfort in being surrounded by people you knew all the time. At least they’d never talk back.

“Jimmy Cavanaugh,” a strong lady’s voice said. “I thought never to see you again.”

I turned to look at the public side of the door I’d came through. Romana ForByrne, a former client, in her prime. Lovely as ever, haughty with a hint of cruelty. No wonder I’d been attracted to her. Her unmoving portrait was quite good.

“Countess,” I said with a deep bow. “Is this your house?”

“I am not myself. I can’t access that information.”

“Of course not.” The infusion was a program after all. And it recognized me. Time was limited and I had business elsewhere.

Romana was Eleaus Mortion’s second wife. He had a theatrical bent and a fundamental misunderstanding of my relationship with her. Dollars to donuts I was in his house.

“Gotta run, Romana. Stunning portrait.”

“Flatterer.” I swear I heard a smile in her voice.

All the infusions logged interactions. Mortion knew it was me on premises. I was guaranteed safe passage having come through the network. Probably best I not take chances on his honoring custom, though. If he was in the house he could try to keep me from leaving.

Eleaus Mortion didn’t like me, I didn’t like him. I wouldn’t put it past him to try and kill me. Even though he couldn’t.

“Go left. Around the corner and just past the clock.”

“Is anyone coming for me?” I took a step away from her but looked directly at her portrait.

“I am not myself. I can’t access that information.” I was unsurprised. “Go,” she said. I went.

It wasn’t far to the junction of the two hallways. Before I rounded the corner I blew Romana a kiss.

The clock was just ahead and the servant’s door was on the far side. It opened with a  gentle push of my hand on the side. Though it was tempting to pause for a moment I slipped through and pulled the door shut behind me.

A weak but steady light showed me the way ahead. It wouldn’t take long to get down to the kitchen now.

Why the hell would Boston have sent me to Panklin Mews? He knew Mortion didn’t like me.

The house above hadn’t shown the decrepitude I found in the kitchen. Mortion had let the place go. Of course he didn’t care about his servants so that made a kind of sense. Shafts of light stirred the dust in waves and the place was eerily silent. One of the windows rattled when a gust of wind hit it. Maybe the house was running on batteries.

I took my time making my way to the way out. I peered around corners and stayed in shadow as much as I could. It didn’t matter.

Eleaus Mortion sat at the head of the table in the servants’ hall. “Cavanaugh. Come in. Sit.” A chair next to him slid out quickly and with a shriek.

“You don’t look so good, Eleaus.” He was ghostly white. I stayed at the opposite end of the table. For all the good it did me.

Mortion, half of him visible above the table, poked me in the chest with his pudgy finger to emphasize his invitation. “Sit. Sit. Sit.”

He glowered as I sat. Ghosts are tetchy and despite some solidity, Mortion was as much a ghost as his second wife upstairs.

“Drink,” he said. “Smoke with me.”

When I hesitated he went on. “I’m dead, Cavanaugh. I can’t hurt anyone any more.”

“The smoke can, though. I’ll drink the terrestrial booze.”

“Suit y’self.” As only a specter can, Eleaus Mortion walked back through the table to his chair and waved his hand. A bottle of good whisky and a glass floated over and landed in front of me. “Pour your own,” Mortion commanded.

“To the Builders,” I said. “May they always plumb true.”

“Ya, the Builders.” Mortion saluted the toast and downed his drink. When he put the glass down it was full again.

I don’t get uncomfortable in silence but I was anxious to leave. “What’s it to be then?”

Mortion dismissed my question. “I’ll be on my way soon enough.”

“Why hang around?” The whisky was good and I resisted the urge to down it in one gulp. Damn it, I was nervous.

“Business,” Mortion said. “Did Boston give you something to pay for your passage?”

I nodded and Mortion gestured for me to give it over.

“The map first,” I said.

For the briefest of moments Mortion’s expression changed to intense rage and then it was gone. He hated me and having to deal with me. Good thing he was dead or Boston might’ve had something to worry about.

Mortion slid an envelope at me. I produced the flat box Boston had given me and slid it across as I touched the paper. I scooped it up and stood. “We’re done.”

“Ah, give me a moment, Jimmy.” He patted the velvet box and flapped his other hand for me to sit. He turned the box around three times. “I’m fading and I forgive you your trespasses against me.”

I didn’t say anything. He was fading and I could clearly see through him. At last, he shrugged and opened the box.

No drama. No flash of light or clap of thunder. Nothing. He was gone and the box snapped shut. Then sank into the table. I knocked twice and got up to leave.

Now that was done, I decided to see if I could find some appropriate clothes. The chef at Panklin Mews, Fururlar, had been a friend of mine long ago. Maybe he’d left some clothes behind. I decided to check. He was close to my size and liked to bathe.

His entire wardrobe was still there. I found a travel bag and stuffed three coats and three pants in. Some socks and t-shirts too. I decided to check the butler’s wardrobe and it was all there too. As was the housekeeper’s.

What happened here?

The house exhaled as if it’d been holding its breath.

A foul stench hit me then, like a ball peen hammer. It was humid and reeked of decaying flesh. I’m not ashamed to say I barfed.

I apologized to the housekeeper and ran for the door out. I didn’t look back. Whatever had killed them all was still active and Boston had set me up for Mortion to kill. Screw them both.

The door unlocked and opened on creaky hinges so I dashed out into the crisp fall air. Up the stairs and full speed across the gravel drive to the dormant and uncut lawn. My lungs appreciated the fresh, cool air like it was a fine wine. I took a moment to get the smell out of my nose and ran like hell. I didn’t stop running until I reached the edge of the estate.

That’s how I’ve stayed alive all these years: don’t be afraid to run.

On the road, I pulled out the map. It was genuine. Mortion had been enough of a gentleman in the end to honor his promise. Even though he assumed whatever he’d let loose could kill me. I wondered if it’d killed him too or if he’d died of something else after he fed his household to it.

Made no difference to me in the end. I was alive, I had some clothes courtesy of an old friend and a familiar world to tread upon.

And now that I had the map I could travel wherever I wanted through the channels of the Great Houses. As long as I could get into them.

Things were looking up.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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