Springing the Trap, by Ray Dean

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Waiting just inside the great doors of the Bowles home, Asphodel watched both the parlor and the door. One of the last remaining servants in the home, she was used to covering multiple responsibilities at one time. With a quick look at the assembled personages gathered in the parlor, she was convinced her duty to the front door was nearly over. At her count, nearly the entire population of the village was clustered in the next room, their prying eyes flickering over the opulent furnishings and the still form laid out amongst the flowers Asphodel had so carefully cultivated over the years.

The cook approached, a subtle curtsy in her movement, a bowed head in the direction of their employer. “What’s it to be, Del? Make more cakes?”

But Asphodel was tired of the guests that had come. She longed to rid the house of the curious souls that had invaded their home. “Let the plates go empty. They will leave soon enough and we,” she took the cook’s hand in her own, “will finish the mistress’ list.”

Cook nodded, her eyes worried, her hands warming slightly. “Good. Then I’ll be off.” Without waiting for a response, she slipped off down the hall toward her own refuge.

Determined to hurry along the inevitable, Asphodel turned toward the parlor and gathered her remaining resolve to act in such manner as her mistress would have expected. She had but reached the parlor door when the front door shook with the wind, a heavy rattle that nearly concealed the knock that sounded a heartbeat later. The combined sounds echoed off the interior walls, shaking the beaded trim of a lamp beside the door.

She thought to leave it unanswered. Her head hurt, her hands quivered with cold and exhaustion, and she longed for peace.

Another knock.

Torn, she looked back at the door and the dark shadow visible through the frosted glass. Drawing herself up, her posture straightening into its customary rigid line, she turned back and opened the door.

The man on the step smiled at her, his hands folded over the top of his walking stick. He lifted a hand, a lazy movement full of grace, and touched the brim of his dark high hat. “Good day to you, young lady.”

She opened her mouth to echo the greeting, but she found her tongue leaden and unresponsive. She managed to nod as her eyes sought his features for some kind of recognition. There was none.

The man outside their home was indeed a-

“Stranger.” He finished her thought and stepped through the portal, moving around her toward the parlor, his walking stick tapping lightly on the hardwood beneath their feet. “Aren’t we all at some point,” he turned back and caught the searching confusion in her eyes, “strangers that is.”

A nod was all she could manage in response.

“But for now,” he continued, his steps marking an oddly familiar cadence in her ears, “let us visit with the dead. For they are the best of company, hmm?” He preceded her into the room, for she trailed a few steps behind him.

She followed, her own curiosity piqued.

The assembled mourners were busy in their own clutches, scattered about the room, nary more than an arm’s length from the tables of food provided as their reward for their attendance. They spoke in low-tones and hid behind fans or a gloved hand when their topics turned to less than civil subjects.

They had become quite comfortable in their visit and focused on their own pursuits, until he reached the center of the room.

Conversations stopped, some in mid-sentence, and one of the guests paused with a bit of cake against their lips.

“Good afternoon,” he greeted them with an indulgent nod, “I do believe that you have all outstayed your welcome. I am quite sure that if you stay, I shall find your presence tiresome. Perhaps,” he gestured toward the front door, “it would be best…”

Asphodel waited for someone to object. Certainly, some of the more prominent personages from the village would have a few choice words to offer him no matter how pleasant his tone.

Yet, none of the elegantly dressed mourners offered up a complaint. Murmuring their customary messages of condolence, they left the room and quit the home entirely with a vacant smile that matched their concern.

Following them to the door, Asphodel managed to grasp the door as it swung shut, closing it with a quiet and resounding click. She turned and watched the last guest lean toward the body, his gaze moving over the old woman from head to toe.

“You’ve done your duty well, so far.”

Asphodel felt her hand shift to the pocket of her apron, brushing aside the delicate pair of scissors dangling from her chatelaine to feel the subtle thickness of the paper shifting beneath her hand. Her list. The instructions her mistress had left for her.

“And now there’s one last duty for you to perform.”

He leaned toward the body and plucked a stem of flowers from one of the many pots surrounding Mrs. Bowles’ still form. Lifting the bloom to his nose he took a deep draw of the scent. “Vervain. Lovely.”

She couldn’t help but smell the scent, even from across the room. The older woman had shown her how to cultivate the blooms in their sunroom. Propagation took a sure hand and Mrs. Bowles’ advanced age had made things difficult. The blooms she displayed for the viewing had been grown with her own care and devoted attention, much in the same way that she had prepared the body.

He held the stem between two fingers and twirled the cluster of blossoms in a slow circle, his eyes fixed on the vibrant purple petals. “Prayers,” he nodded at the thought, “and the others?” His gaze traveled around the room, marking the blossoms and foliage that had been placed for the viewing. “Marigold and zinnia,” he looked at Asphodel with a measure of respect, “mourning… grief. The colors mix well in the room.” The dark green paper that lined the walls of the parlor did make an elegant contrast to the vibrant warm colors of the flowers, some tinged in yellow. The tall vases set aside from the large windows along the main wall held long stems of gladioli in pinks and white, their flowers tapering in size to the tips. “Surely,” he wondered, his eyes watching her movements carefully, “those blossoms were your choice, ‘piercing the heart.'” His chuckle of amusement left her cold. “You mourn her.”

Asphodel blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. The man was a stranger and she would not show him the true depth of her pain.

“Please, dear girl, do not take umbrage at my… indelicate nature. I have long since learned that speaking my mind, in plain terms, makes communication difficult at best when I do not bother to use pretty words.

“I have a rather delicate duty of my own,” he disclosed, “one prescribed to me in the strictest of terms.” He smiled and she felt a chill crackle up through her body from the floor. “However, I do from time to time, take requests.” He took a breath, pausing to gain her attention in a direct exchange between them. “And Mrs. Bowles had one when I saw her last.”

“You,” she gasped, “when did you see her?” Mrs. Bowles had not left her home in months and Asphodel knew each and every visitor that had stepped inside the house.

“Why, just the other day she asked me if you,” he paused, looking intently at her face, “would come with us when we leave.”

She felt the very air around her stir, as if a person had walked past her as she stood, stock still. The thick wool of her gown was no protection against the odd and prickly feeling that chilled the thin muslin of her chemise against her skin. “Go with you? Who-”

“My generosity is not entirely meant to make her happy, the old dear, she has quite a delightful way about her. I understand that she has come to dote upon you much like a daughter and that is worthy of consideration.” He moved toward the windows, but shied away from the direct light of the climbing morning sun. “What is worthy of note, however, is a more… pressing matter that has distracted me.”

Asphodel listened intently, much like she’d done years before when her mother had instructed her in the duties of a housekeeper, rapping her across the knuckles when she’d lost her focus or forgotten an important point. She listened because he inspired a dull fear within her breast that she had only tasted before, and it had left her changed. Vigilant.

“I’ve taken a fancy to you, my dear.” He reached out a hand and trailed it through the air beside her face, his palm less than an inch from her cheek. He didn’t touch her, but she felt it just the same. Cold, prickly frisson of sensation. “I would like to see if such a thing would last.” He lowered his hand, but the sensation on her cheek didn’t disappear, it was transfigured into a flare of heat that brought the pain of loss. “Come with us.”

Try as she could, she couldn’t move away from him or raise her arms to push his hand away. Her thoughts were clear, insisting that she refuse his offer, but when she thought to say the words she found she could not manage to form them through sound or movement.

“You could keep us company. That would suit me.”

He moved away and suddenly air filled her lungs like a bellows, expanding her ribs painfully against her corset. She watched as he walked across the room toward the body. The curved panes of glass in the front of the china cabinet distorted his image, elongating the skin at his temples and the point of his chin. It took his handsome face and twisted it into the shadows.

The floor beneath her feet shifted, the worn Persian rug bunched in the arch of her boot, stumbling her step. He reached for her, pushing a cold wave of air through her body.

It stole her breath away for a moment, chilling her to the bone, but she managed to move again, lifting her foot free of the wrinkle.

“You don’t need to run from me, child.”

Her eyes narrowed at him, suspicion darkening her gaze. “You frighten me.”

He stopped. A sudden cessation of movement that made her own feet stumble. “Frighten you?” His tone slowed, stretched tight like the strings in the pianoforte. “That is none of my concern, my dear. Bringing you along is a gift, an indulgence, if you will.” He turned, a half circle, as he looked about the room. “Hurry, now. Finish what you need to do and we shall be off.” He lifted his eyes and met her own in the distorted reflection of a crystal vase on the mantle. The flicker of demand she saw in them twisted within her chest.

She knew him now. She’d felt the same fearful shiver a few nights before when Mrs. Bowles had lain abed gasping for air, her hands clutched at her throat and chest, crushing the lace of her gown. She had known the cold touch of air that danced across her skin, stealing the warmth of life from her like a leech.

A window blew open, the curtains stirring from the floor, reaching toward them like greedy arms. He looked at the window, his eyes turning away.

Asphodel moved a step back, a step to the side, her feet as undecided as her mind. She lifted her hands, sliding them along the familiar starched fabric of her apron. The paper in her pocket. The folded square that crumpled slightly at her touch. The list of traditions that had seemed so odd before gave her new life.

He heard the scuff of her boot on the floor, turned his head to fix her with his gaze, and saw the intent in her eyes. “No.”

She felt the corners of her mouth lift at the hint of fear in his tone. “I will not go with you.” Asphodel took one step toward the foyer and then another. She looked as though she planned to escape.

“Stop.” He growled the word through his clenched teeth. She continued to move he reached out a hand. “Don’t.”

She reached her destination a moment later, her lungs filling with air over and over as her heart thundered in her chest. Grabbing fistfuls of the black crepe that she had draped over a tall gilt frame, she nodded as she gathered her courage. “I will not go with you.”

“Be reasonable,” he pleaded. “I should have said something else, perhaps I should have given you a promise or two. You will see,” he explained, “what fun it will be to travel by my side.”

“Lies. You mean none of it, and I,” her knuckles paled as her hands began to shake, “have something to offer you instead.”

He started, a quiver of confusion in his expression. Laughter scratched its path up his throat and scraped over his tongue. “What can you offer me?”

“You said you admired this house. You said how much you desired a place in the world like this to call your very own.”

There was a pause before he answered, as though he thought through every word as if it reminded him of the twists and turns in a labyrinth and he feared the outcome. “Yes, I did.”

“Then,” she sighed, sensing freedom a heartbeat away, “stay.”

She yanked the heavy fabric drape free from the carved frame and let the fabric pool at its base. He was frozen in place, the edge of the black drape tangling with the hem of his pants, covering the high polish of his shoes. He saw the mirror before him and sheer panic was etched into his features.

“No, please!”

His plea was too late.

Gone was the man that had commanded the room only a moment before. Gone from the tangle of black fabric and scented air.

He no longer stood a few feet away from Asphodel’s shivering frame. Yet, when she turned to look at the mirror, he stared back at her from its cold metallic surface. Reaching into her apron pocket she withdrew the list one more time and read through the entries her mistress had so carefully documented for her. The entry had struck her as hooey, an old tale passed on by women with much imagination and little to distract them from morbid rumination. But, one day she knew that she would write the same warning to those who would survive her. Tell them to cover the mirrors at her passing to save themselves from the trap that might be sprung open then. To save themselves.

~~

Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to explore. She has a future publication in an Edgar Allan Poe Steampunk anthology. Links:  Ray Dean’s website can be found at www.raydean.net and you can friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayDeanAuthor

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Posted on May 6, 2015, in Contest, Issue 16: Shinigami Stories—Reaping the Harvest of Souls and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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