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© 1998 Bobette Bryan
Seeing Jason sitting on the stone stairs that lead to J. P. Townsend’s massive tomb, Sheila slowed the red Ferrari and parked along what the St. Joseph citizenry had dubbed "Tombstone Row." Despite the dismal atmosphere of the old Victorian graveyard, she was anxious to see Jason again.
She was always anxious to see him.
There was something about the man that fascinated her, something that belied his good looks and dark appeal. He held an inner strength that sparkled through his intense dark eyes, and he was mysterious…witty…charming--characteristics that most men she’d dated lacked, and she didn’t intend to let him get away.
She just hoped she wasn’t making her interest too obvious. Hadn’t her mother always told her that men were put off by an aggressive, overeager woman? "Men like to do the chasing, Sheila. Remember that."
"Hey, good looking," she said, ending her statement with a hoot and a whistle, after she’d got out of the car. She’d bet that Jason had been so into the story he was writing that he hadn’t noticed that she’d driven by until now. He merely looked up from his notebook and smiled as she strutted toward him, and, when he did her heart melted like a Hershey’s kiss on a hot day.
Despite her mother’s sexist and archaic notions about romantic pursuits, Sheila hadn’t quit or slowed her efforts since she’d met Jason three months ago. He’d rented the other side of her mother’s duplex…and Sheila couldn’t have been happier with the new tenant. Of course that happiness had nothing to do with the fact that he was clean, quiet, and polite. In fact, the chance to see him again made coming home on the weekends from Maryville University seem all the more wonderful.
"Sheila. I had a feeling you’d make it into town this weekend."
"But of course," she said, taking a seat beside him and running her fingers slowly through her long blonde hair in a way that she hoped was enticing. "You don’t think I’d pass up an opportunity to see you do you?"
He chuckled and looked away. He had no idea how true her statement was.
"How’s the writing going?" she asked.
Tucking his pen into his shirt pocket, he said: "Great. The novel is nearly finished."
"I’m glad to hear it. Maybe after you get it written you’ll spend less time here." And more time with me.
"I doubt it. I have plans to write another and Mount Mora couldn’t provide a better atmosphere for a horror novel. And then, there’s not a quieter place in the world. The dead make little noise."
"They may not make too much noise, but there’s always a scent in the air here that I don’t like. Doesn’t it bother you?"
"The only thing I smell is fresh cut grass, cedar, and your perfume--not a more pleasant combination in the world as far as I’m concerned." He gave her a rakish grin as he spoke, and she was well aware of the sexual implication in his words. The funny thing was that he’d never made a pass at her. Most men she’d met were all hands on the first date.
Oh, he’d done his share of teasing, but he’d never tried to touch, kiss, or hold her, though Lord knows, she yearned for him to do so. For a while she thought that he wasn't interested in her, but then he’d give her that inviting smile and make some intimate comment, and she would be certain that she’d been wrong.
He had to be interested. Just had to be. She could see it in his eyes.
"I smell the fresh grass and cedar, but I also smell something that reminds me vaguely of rotting meat and the antiseptic my mother would put on my scrapes and cuts when I was a kid. The scent makes me feel queasy."
Jason laughed. "Indeed. Well, I guess I’m fortunate that I don’t smell it, or maybe it’s just that you’re afraid of ghosts."
"Or afraid of death," she added.
"There’s no reason to be afraid, Sheila. Life is just one big terminal illness and everyone is dying to check in here."
"Ha, ha, ha!" she said, and then she stood abruptly, swatting a mosquito who'd just tried to nail her. "Fuck!" she spat as her hand landed on it, ending its feast.
"My, what language. I should tell your mother."
"You’re too much the gentleman."
"I can be rather ungentlemanly at times though, Sheila. I guarantee it. Now about this obsession of yours with death--"
"My obsession? Who spends most of his time at the cemetery?"
"I can do so only because death doesn’t bother me. This place is no different from a public park it’s just a lot quieter and ten times more peaceful. The fact that the place bothers you only proves that you’re highly uncomfortable about the inevitable."
She only hoped that she and Jason, alone--in his apartment--in his massive bed--would be inevitable.
"Well, I hope the atmosphere has served to inspire that horror novel you’re writing."
She picked up his notebook, but he snatched it from her hands before she’d had the opportunity to decipher the small, neat writing.
"Sorry, only my editor reads my work before it’s printed, love."
"Can you at least tell me what it’s called or what it’s about," she pouted.
"It’s as yet titled, but I’ll tell you that it’s about a woman like you, a woman who’s afraid of the unknown, afraid of death."
"Actually, I’m more afraid of wrinkles and sagging breasts. Maybe I need a touch of his immortality," she chided, pointing toward Townsend’s impressive tomb. Obviously, the identical sphinx, carved out of pink marble, that flanked both sides of the stairs had been put there to impress, and the Egyptian symbols above the double doors were merely an means of adding aesthetic appeal to the pink gray façade of a building that was nearly as large as a modern house. But legend had it that Townsend hoped for immortality and that the Egyptian symbols and architecture of his final resting-place had been instilled there in the hopes that he would attain that goal.
"Immortality?" Jason laughed. "Why would you say that?"
She’d forgotten that Jason wasn’t from around here.
"Never mind. It’s unimportant."
"On the contrary. I’d like to hear all about it. Don’t forget that I’m writing a horror novel. Maybe you’ll give me some interesting tidbit to add."
"Sorry, but I really don’t know much about it, or Townsend beyond what I heard growing up in this area. All I know is that old J. P. Townsend, was a robber baron and railroad tycoon who lived in the latter Nineteenth Century. He was the richest man in town and had a hand in everything. I guess he was as ruthless as the millionaires of today."
"I don’t necessarily believe that millionaires are ruthless. Their activities create jobs and the products they promote or manufacture makes life easier for everyone."
"You have a point there, but as I understand it, Townsend was a cruel and ruthless man. And…anyway, from what I’ve heard, he was buried similarly to an Egyptian Pharaoh and inside there’s a lot of Egyptian symbols and decorations on the walls. Similarly to King Tut’s tomb. I’m surprised the man didn’t try to take it with him like Tut."
"How do you know he didn’t?"
"There could be a fortune in there."
"I doubt it."
"And you’re right. There is no money inside, " he said.
"How do you know?" She put a hand on his, excited.
"I had a look."
"How? It’s locked."
"No it isn’t."
"Yes it is."
"That’s okay. I’ll just take your word for it."
"Sounds like you’ve tried it before, Miss Sheila Blain."
"Of course I did. I grew up down the street. Remember? I used to come here sometimes when I was a kid with friends--you know the things kids do. I was dared more than once to take a look inside at old Townsend’s body. Luckily for me, the door was always firmly sealed," she added with a chuckle.
"But the curiosity remained?"
"I think it did."
"I swear it hasn’t."
"Go on, take a peek, Sheila. Who’s going to know? Who’s going to see you other than me? Now’s your chance. See if Townsend is immortal or a mere skeleton in his great sepulchral palace."
"Did you look—I mean at Townsend?"
"A gentleman never tells."
She laughed suddenly, the grimness of their conversation summoning a bit of hysteria inside her for reasons that she couldn’t understand. Still, if he’d but sleep with her, hold her like she wanted him to, she’d take a look inside that tomb.
Then again maybe not.
She turned to look at the forbidding brass doors that had turned blue-green due beneath the hand of time and weather. Behind them was a plate of glass that was so weathered and dirty that nothing could be seen through it. She knew it well. She’d tried to do so often enough in her youth. But even if that door was unlocked as he claimed, there was no way that she’d allow Jason to coax her to take a peek inside.
"There’s really no need to take a look. I'm sure that Mr. Townsend, even with all his money, is just as rotted and dead as all the others buried here."
"And if he isn’t?"
She laughed again. Her voice carrying on a sudden breeze that brought a fresh waft of decay and chemicals to her nostrils. "Surely you don’t think that?"
He shook his wavy head. "No. Not for a second. But I prefer to think that anything’s possible. Still, I’m a person with a curious nature. Ever since I could remember, I’ve always searched for answers to explain the world around me. I didn’t have a whim of anxiety about taking a look inside to satisfy my curiosity, and I think you should do the same. You may never get the chance again. After the caretakers discover that someone broke the lock."
"When you peeked inside, as the—the interior damaged?"
"Not that I could tell."
"And Townsend—he was probably encased in cement right?""For God’s sake, Sheila. If you’re so anxious to know, take a look."
"Stop, Jason. I don’t want to." she was getting angry now. Why couldn’t he just tell her what he’d seen? Why was he toying with her?
"I guess so. Yes, I believe I am."
"Of what you might see?"
"Yes, of what I might see. I’m going. I’ll see you later."
"What? You just got here!" His face showed his displeasure; and normally she would have stayed, but her enthusiasm for romance had been crushed beneath his morbid preoccupation. And, quite frankly, he was scaring her.
"I’ll let you get back to work. Mother could also use a hand in the kitchen, I’m sure. Besides, I make it a habit of never being in a cemetery when the sun goes down. Drop by for dinner tomorrow if you can. Mother has a big spread planned."
"I wouldn’t miss Sunday dinner at the Blain house, only I’ll be out of town tomorrow. I have some business to take care of in Kansas City, so I guess this is adieu until next weekend."
Sheila just nodded. She was being silly, and she knew it. She didn’t understand why she suddenly felt so depressed or uneasy. All week she’d thought about coming to St. Joseph to see Jason, and yet she was more than willing to part his company now.
Still, he didn’t seem overly bothered about. He merely picked up his pen and went back to work as she walked away. And as she got into her car, she realized exactly what had troubled her so. She’d felt used—felt as if he’d merely been playing on her emotions in the interest of his novel. Of course, that was it.
What a silly reaction. She knew it. Maybe it just bothered her that the novel seemed more important to him than her. She wasn’t used to having to work so hard to get a man’s interest.
With a Cover Girl face and a Playmate’s body, landing a man was usually a given.
Oh, well, there was always next week.
When the weeked arrived, Sheila was her usual jovial self as she drove to the cemetery in search of Jason. Her mother had told her that she hadn’t seen him much all week. In fact, he hadn’t returned to the duplex in a couple of days or if he had, he’d done so very quietly.
But he couldn’t be too far. His sleek, black Mercedes was still in the driveway.
She only hoped she found him. She’d purchased the clinging black dress she wore with him in mind. One way or another, she was going to land him this weekend, if not in her heart then in her bed.
She parked the Ferrari along Mausoleum Row like she’d done so many times before and got out of the car, looking for Jason. But he was no where in sight. At Townsend’s tomb, she climbed the stairs and stood on the landing, the height of which allowed her an advantageous view of the cemetery.
Still, there wasn't a trace of her mysterious friend.
As she stood there, she felt a shiver run through her as if someone was slowly running an icy cold feather down the length of her body. She realized suddenly that this was the first time that she’d ever been alone here.
She didn’t like to be alone at Mount Mora.
It was broad daylight. One ‘o clock. What could be termed a beautiful sunny day; nevertheless, she felt those familiar inklings of fear she’d felt as a child when her playmates had challenged her to take a peek inside.
The same way that Jason had teased and toyed with her about it.
She’d thought about their conversation all week, and she’d realized that she’d acted foolish. What would it have hurt for her to take a look inside? Maybe it would have earned a bit of admiration in his eyes. Instead, she’d stalked away like a spoiled child.
Thinking about it, she shook her head.
She still felt a bone chilling coldness from the atmosphere around her. It seemed to seep into her body with the veracity of a long, sharp knife. But she realized that she was only feeling the pangs of an overactive imagination.
She turned toward Townsend’s tomb and stood there for a moment.
She should go in and prove to herself that she could, that she was capable of it. Brave enough. No longer a little girl, but a mature woman.
Besides, it might help her score a few points with Jason the next time she saw him.
Moving toward the doors, she paused when her hand landed on the handle. It was hot. Eighty degrees. But the handle felt cool.
Of course it feels cool, she told herself, the tomb is shaded by the large oak trees that flank the west side of it.
She looked all around, wanting to make sure that no one was watching her. It bothered her to think that someone might catch her in this act. It bothered her that someone might know about her intense curiosity about death.
But no one was around and so no one would be the wiser.
She nudged at the door, and it opened with a rebellious squeak. Gasping, she stepped inside, immediately taken by the ornate gold walls covered with Egyptian symbols and what were apparently letters. Below them were pictures of Egyptians working, harvesting crops, while others presented the spoils of their labors to a great King who sat on a throne. Along both sides of the chamber were statues of various sizes and colors. Some of them looked as though they belonged in a museum.
She picked a statue of a scarab that that been carved of some precious blue stone. She didn’t know a lot about Egyptology. St. Joseph, Missouri was a long, long way from the Nile, and they didn’t offer any courses on it at the local college, but she’d read somewhere that scarabs represented eternal life.
Eternal Life!Suddenly she remembered her purpose in coming inside. She wanted to see. She wanted to know.
And the only thing in the tomb that remained a mystery was the coffin that set on a splendid dais along the center of the far wall.
She moved to the side of the coffin, thinking that the lid was probably too heavy to open anyway.
At least she’d try, and then when she told Jason about it, her experience would lend believability to her statement.
Amazingly, it was light, apparently made out of some thin paperlike substance despite it’s rich look. She gave a terrified yell when it opened, not because of what she saw, but because of what she expected to see. Actually, she saw nothing other than the coffin’s beige interior. There was no body inside.
She sighed with relief.
But how could that be so?
Had someone stolen Townsend's body?
She gave a yelp then spun only to find Jason at the doorway. She’d been glad to see him before, but never more so than now.
She tried to smile though her heart was still beating like a bomb.
"Jason, you about scared me to death."
"Sorry, love." he said. "So it appears that you finally got up the nerve to look inside. I’m impressed." He said, closing the door behind him.
The action refueled her anxiety and she felt the adrenaline steadily rush into her blood stream. She was just relieved that the large windows on the top of the tomb prevented the interior from being encapsulated in complete darkness.
"Well, I did it, Jason. And now I’m outta here."
"Not so fast," he said blocking the path. "Did you get a look at Townsend?"
"He’s not here, Jason. There’s no body. Now, please, open the door."
But he wasn’t about to. Instead, he moved forward, and she found herself moving back with each step he took until she was at the coffin again.
"I wonder where old J. T. can be?" he asked, pointing to an engraved plaque that was barely visible on the wall behind the coffin.
She squinted. It said Jason Thomas Townsend.
Horror like she’d never felt before filled her. Of course, the name was only a coincidence. It had to be, and yet, she was terrified nevertheless, a feeling which came not only from being in the tomb, but from the man who was looking at her with a murderous gleam in his eyes. Suddenly she wondered what she'd seen in him.
"I’m leaving!" she snapped.
"I don’t think so."
"You were mightily interested in getting my attention before. What—you’d be so eager to leave me now?"
"Just let me go. I promise I’ll never tell a soul. I’ll—"
"I don’t care who you tell, Sheila. What could anyone do to me?"
When she said nothing, he continued. "Let me tell you a little story, since you’re such a big history buff, and I know how much you've been aching to know more about my novel. J. T. Townsend was a greedy man, just like you thought. He was very greedy, even unto death. Nor did he take favor to the fact that he was going to die just like all the other poor mortal souls on earth. You see, Townsend always thought himself better, more deserving of life than the other fools she shared the world’s oxygen with."
When he grasped Shelia, lifting her up into his arms, she screamed, which didn't deter him from continuing his story.
"He was certain that there had to be a way out of it…a way to cheat death. He was a businessman. He knew all about bartering and trading. If there was some way he could make his immortality profitable to the God’s who control things above, he’d have it made."
He put Shelia in the coffin. Suddenly, she was too terrified to fight.
"He, or rather I, found the deal I wanted in Egypt. All the money I’d sunk into countless digging in the Egyptian soil years earlier paid off. They had a lesser known God…a God forgotten by man. Through some scrolls and that little statue over there," he pointed at the statue of a half-man half-cat looking creature, "I conjured up the God and made a deal just as I’d always conducted business deals."
She closed her eyes, hoping that he was just joking, hoping that he'd come to his senses and let her go.
"I could live forever as long as I gave him fresh souls. It’s simple really, all I have to do is place someone in this coffin and the God slowly takes the soul of the person as the body deteriorates. In return, I get to live how ever many years that person had left. It can be such a hassle having to return to this foul little city every so often to do this grim deed, but I fear, it’s necessary if I want to keep breathing. But don’t take it personally, Shelia. It’s just business after all. And don’t worry. Death will come quickly. I promise."
He closed the coffin lid and she heard him walk away. Her screams rent the air but no one heard them. No one came to give her aid…and slowly she felt herself drifting away.