They walked through a large latticed iron gate, across a dusty courtyard and through a door on the right which led into a large room. Jason proffered his right hand and imparted his name. Between his left hand and the material of the bag, and hidden from Xavier’s view, he held the Swiss army knife. Its three-inch blade was ready, should it be needed. Not a massive or intimidating knife by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be enough to give Xavier something to think about should he need to escape in a hurry.
“Oh, yeah, of course.” He grabbed Jason’s hand with a crushing grip and shook it twice. He didn’t make eye contact again until their hands had departed company.
Floor to ceiling bookshelves lined the left-hand wall of the room, interspersed by rosewood cabinets. A burl-wood conference table with blood-red swirls dominated the centre of the room, complete with twelve chairs positioned around its edge. A large oak writing desk, with a black leather work surface, stood at the far end of the room. The wall behind the writing desk was the solid canvas for an immense mosaic of dancing nymphs pouring wine from large jugs to reclining goddesses in scant attire.
Standing in each corner of the room were life-size angelic marble women standing on gold plinths. Gold leaf also enhanced their loose-fitting robes, which hung open and allowed for a glimpse of their pert breasts, reminiscent of ancient Roman or Greek decadence. The room appeared to be a shrine to female beauty and carnal lust.
Jason looked back to the bookshelves lining the walls. Several angel figurines, carved from ivory or bone, stood at random points along the shelves. Two beckoning angels stood before a row of red leather-bound books, the titles of which appeared as extravagant and illegible gold script. On another shelf, two angels danced between two large books with purple velvet covers, their titles in a more basic silver text. The title of one read Photography Volume 8: Submission, and the other, Photography Volume 4: Punishment. Previous and successive volumes were nowhere to be seen. The room’s decor looked gaudy in the extreme, a tasteless and unimaginative attempt at erotica, raising a derisory smile more than a pulse.
“Whisky?” Xavier asked, as he opened one of the rosewood cabinets.
“No water, but you can drink whisky? I can live with that.” Jason released his grip on the knife and let it fall into the bag.
Xavier sniffed. “Not quite.” He removed two small elegant glasses and a matching whisky decanter from the shelf inside the cabinet. He filled each glass and handed one to Jason.
Jason put the bag on the floor between his legs. “Thanks,” he said, while reading a plaque below a bamboo cane hung on the wall above a cabinet:
“It’ll have the same effect as water, so don’t drink it,” Xavier warned as he gazed into the amber liquid of his own glass. “Anyway, there’s more to a good whisky than just drinking it. Let it dance awhile with your other senses—taste it with your nose.”
Jason raised the glass to his nose and inhaled. The delicate smoky aroma awoke his memory, and Zoe’s playful voice came clear and slow from the back of his mind.
“Not much of a whisky drinker are you, Jason?”
“No, but I could get used to this.”
He was back in his first flat. A dingy one-bedroom affair that he shared with the cockroaches, encroaching mould, and other assorted household wildlife. But the first time Zoe had come to his home, his flat had lost its depressing veneer and become a palace in paradise. One of those simple yet rare moments that becomes woven into memory. The long years since, and the emotional hurricane that had blown upon the later years, had hidden that memory until now.
Zoe’s sultry voice came back to him once more. “Drink up lover boy, I want to fool around.”
“Take your time with it,” Xavier said, holding his glass an inch from his crooked nose. “Don’t let it become familiar.”
“This is good, but damn, do I want to throw it back.”
Xavier laughed. “I’ve got something else you might like. Were you a smoker?”
“Sometimes, yes. Wish I’d taken up the habit on a more permanent basis. Since something will get you in the end anyway, it might as well be an enjoyable vice that hammers that final nail.”
Xavier moved over to the desk, opened a drawer and removed a wooden box. He opened the box and offered its contents to Jason. “They’re Cuban. Rolled by real virgin thighs.”
Jason reached in and claimed a cigar. “Thanks. Is that true?”
“Doubt it. But in my mind there was a little virgin somewhere, sat in the sun with her short skirt hitched high, rolling this thing against her warm, sweaty thighs, and then using it as a dildo before wrapping it up and sending it to me.” He put the whisky down on the table, closed his eyes, and then ran the cigar under his nose. “Thank fuck my imagination still works.”
“This is a helluva cool place you’ve got here. What were you in life?”
“I was a groundsman, but this wasn’t my place.”
“I know we’ve just met, Jason, but credit me with some taste. This is where my cunt of a wife ran off to. The guy she banged lived here. The fucker was my boss, and old enough to be her grandfather. A total perv, just look around at all this junk. Decrepit old fuck. Like I said, you got to jump on that shit. So I did.”
“Well, I killed them, of course. Had to be done. Funny, now I think of it. She was sucking him off. I expect that was all the old guy could manage. Anyway, they were both upstairs, in the main bedroom. He sat in a chair and she knelt between his legs. He looked so fucking stupid sat there, his trousers around his ankles. Looked like the old git was taking a dump. And she, that slut bitch, sucked on his old cock.”
“I can understand that riling you. What did you do?” Jason asked, as he rolled the cigar under his nose and enjoyed the aroma.
“Shot ’em. They saw me come into the room. ‘Let me write you a cheque,’ he said. Motherfucker thought I could be bought. He tried to stand, but his legs were wobbling all over the place, silly old sod. She went to stand up, too, but I pushed her back down. No dear, you stay there, I said, and put that slut mouth back where it belongs. The old guy was still trying to get to his feet, but the butt of my shotgun soon put him back in place. And once they were both ready, I put the barrel against the back of her head and fired. U-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-e! What a fucking mess. Blew a hole right through the bitches bonce and shredded the old fuckers rinky-dink, too. With one motherfucking shot. The old bastard didn’t die right away, though, took about an hour before I heard his death rattle. I sat on the bed and watched him. What a piece of art.” Xavier saw the look of shock on Jason’s face. “Let’s not get all judgemental about it, buddy. You killed your wife, too, if I heard you right.”
“No, sorry. You’re right. Just a helluva thing, that’s all. How long were you in prison?”
“Prison? I didn’t go to prison.”
“Fuck no. Once the old guy breathed his last, I put the barrel in my mouth and took a toke myself. Amazing! You’d think it’d be all dramatic and shit, blowing your own brains out, but it wasn’t like that at all. Just a light squeeze on the trigger and that was it. No flash, no bang, no pain at all. Just peace. Until it all went fucking weird when Satan’s daughter turned up. Fucking twisted bitch.”
“Who is she? I know her name is Lilith, but who… What is she?”
“I don’t know. All I know is she does whatever she likes, and there’s no way to stop her. Believe me, I’ve tried. And she doesn’t look much like a woman if you try to push her either, I’ll tell you that for nothing. She turns into a hellish storm of violence. She can make your fears come to life; fears you never knew you had.” Xavier looked distant for a moment and then continued. “Some twisted shit, she pulled. Even those bastard caretaker things are scared of her, and they’re pretty well indestructible. They grovel to her like she’s some kind of fucking queen. I presume you’ve met them already.”
“Yes, I’ve had that pleasure. What about the statues?”
“The statues? Oh, Lilith’s flowers. They can’t hurt you. Not unless you try messing with ’em. But it’ll be the caretakers that’ll fuck you up. The statues don’t do fuck all.”
“No, I mean, what are they?”
Xavier laughed. “They’re the people you’ve killed. They’ll surround you. Multiply like fucking rabbits, too.”
“Killed? But you said you killed your wife and your boss.”
“There’s at least a hundred statues out there.”
“Nope, some are covered by the desert. There are over three hundred out there. Circling this castle like they’re laying siege or something. So, no one’s told you about that little shocker yet? I was here a while before I found out about it myself. And it’s a gem. It’s not who you killed in life. They’re done and dusted. It’s the ones you’ve stopped from having a life.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You killed your wife, right?”
“If you didn’t knock her off, she would have had children. And not just her own kids, but the ones she would have caused, too.”
“Caused? What the hell does that mean? And what if she had no more children? I mean, we planned to have one, Emily, and that was it. I didn’t want any more, and I’m sure Zoe didn’t either.”
“No, you’re still not getting it. Look, life ain’t as simple as you think it is—the point of it, I mean. We’re given life to experience things. Love, wonder, passion, all that good stuff. But it was a mistake, because with the good shit, also comes the bad.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Xavier? You sniffing something else other than the whisky?”
“I wish. No. Stick with me here, Jase, because it’s a horse’s kick to the gonads, but you need to know it. You and your wife may not have had any more rugrats, but every moment of your life, with every decision you make, another you is spawned into existence. One of the other versions of you may have had more kids. The same goes for your wife. But you killed her, and in doing so, you also killed all the possible spawned versions of her, too. And not just them but any life that would have come into existence from your wife’s interactions with anyone else. Because if life can exist, it will and does exist. But if the chain is broken, it fucks up the cosmic machine. We’re a paradox throwing a banana at the feet of old Father Time.
“I should have listened to Peter.”
“Who the fuck’s Peter?”
“He was in a pub after I died, and he said if I asked for God’s forgiveness I’d go to heaven.”
Xavier barked out a rasping laugh. “Oh, shit. Don’t believe that crap. You say you saw a guy called Peter after you died?”
“Yes. In a pub.”
“Well, I saw my best friend after I blew my brains out, on a tropical beach. I was walking along the same beach. How did I get there? I don’t know, and at the time I didn’t care, either. I’d just sucked on my old twelve-bore pipe in this place and then I was walking along a beach somewhere, with no recollection of pulling the trigger. This castle was in the middle of the countryside, miles away from any beach. But I didn’t question that, didn’t even question that my best friend was there too. He had died a year before—wrapped his car around a tree. Yet, there he was, sitting on a poncey deckchair, a big smile on his face. ‘How ya doing?’ he asked. We talked for a while and then he asked me if I regretted what I’d done. ‘No fucking way,’ I said. Anyway, that chafed me for ages after. I wondered if I should have repented and got a first class ticket away from here. I like this place now, but back then I whined to myself about it. Kinda like you’re doing now. What a pussy I was. This place is fun on an epic scale. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.”
“Still, I think I should have listened. I’d be with my daughter in heaven right now.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“No. Lilith was fucking with you, friend. I used to think the same way you do, and even took up the challenge. Lilith’s little game, what a joke. I almost made it to the mountain, too. Then I met a guy who knew everything. Russian fucker.” Xavier ran his fingers through his explosion of hair. “What’s his name? Fuck it, I can’t remember.”
“Everything about what?”
“Just… everything. That was his punishment for not giving a shit in life. When he died and came here, he received knowledge about everything.”
“How is that a punishment? I wouldn’t mind knowing everything right now.”
“Not that kind of knowledge, you wouldn’t. There are all kinds of shit inflicted on the damned here in hell. You and me are killers, so we’re surrounded by the sandmen. Shit, what was his bloody name? Anyway, he was a man with power and influence but chose to ignore the suffering going on around him. When he died, they asked him why he’d done nothing about it. His reply was that he didn’t know. Well, now he knows everything. Doomed to see and experience all the pain going on around him, but now he can’t do a thing about it, even if he wanted to. The big guy in the sky has a sense of humour, don’t you think. Anyway, he told me it doesn’t matter what any of us had said, whether you regretted your misdeeds and ask for forgiveness or not. You’re fucked, no matter how much you grovel at Lilith’s feet. It’s all part of her fun. She likes you to believe that you had a shot at paradise if you repented. Twisted bitch, hey?”
“Sent to hell for not giving a shit… Apathy… Sloth?”
“One of the seven deadly sins.”
“You know your Bible, hey? Good for you. It won’t help.”
“No, I heard it mentioned in a film once.”
“Oh, right. No, that list is a human invention. God don’t care about all that crap. True, if something you do causes pain or death for someone else, you’ll get sent here. But, what are the other ones? Isn’t lust and gluttony on that list, too?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Well, God wants you to enjoy your life as much as possible. As long as you don’t hurt anyone, He doesn’t give a shit. Steal a million in gold and fuck a hundred prostitutes while licking champagne off their bare titties, and God will smile as the pearly gates are opened for you. But if anyone gets hurt, the gates are shut and Lilith comes out to play. Suffering, killing, and cutting innocence short—those are the only things to avoid.”
“Innocence? You mean children?”
“Yep. You know, that part of life when you still think the fat man is coming down the chimney once a year or the pink bunny will leave you chocolate eggs. God loves the naive wonder we have as children, and he fucking hates it when those innocent eyes are closed too soon. That’s another one the caretakers deal with.”
“How can you enjoy being here, Xavier?”
“I don’t know, but I do. Like I said, your dick shrivels up like a slug on a hot day, so you can’t get your kicks that way, but there are other pleasures. You wanna see?”
“How I spend my time.”
“No. Thanks, but I’m still heading for that mountain. I want out of this place. Do you think Lilith will honour the deal? Or is it another way she gets her kicks?”
“What did she offer you?”
“My life back, with my wife and daughter. Without all the shit that happened.”
“Oh, yes. She’ll give you that, all right. But it ain’t as straightforward as you think, and besides, the mountain is a long way away, with lots of weird and wonderfuls on the path.”
“You said you knew something that would help me, what is it?”
“I’ll do better than that, my friend, I’ll show you.”
Xavier put his whisky and cigar on the table and then walked to where a large-breasted angel was looking down from a high shelf. He reached up for the angel and looked over at Jason with beaming excitement. “Welcome to the perv palace.” He pulled on the angel. There was a click and a secret door appeared in the lower section of the bookshelf. Xavier pushed the door open and stepped through. A moment later, his head leaned back into the room. “You coming or not?” Then he disappeared again.
Jason reached into his rucksack and checked where the hammer and knife were. Making sure he wouldn’t fumble, should they be required in a hurry, he walked over and stood by the door for a moment.
It opened onto a narrow stone corridor. He watched Xavier make his way to the opening at the far end, about sixty feet away, and wondered how far he would let his own stupidity take him. He knew he should turn and run; he also realised that naivety was reigning supreme with his judgement at the moment. Get out of here, he thought, this man’s brain is off kilter. Why take a risk by following him any further into his lair?
Xavier looked back and called out, “Come on. It’ll be clear as day when you see. I need to show you first. Then I’ll tell you something so simple you’ll kick yourself for not realising it before. But you have to see this first. Then you’ll know how to get to that mountain.” He was nearing the end of the corridor, and a moment later he disappeared into a room beyond.
Jason felt a moment of relief. At least it’s level, he thought, and not going down to some hidden dungeon somewhere beneath the castle. If Xavier wanted to attack, he could have done it already. He’s a big guy and could’ve kicked seven bells of shit out of me at any time. Why would he bother going through all this—the whisky, the cigar—unless this is part of his new-found fun he was talking about? Shit, Jason, you’re paranoid. He checked the bag once more. Would his makeshift armaments be enough against this guy? Calm down, he’s okay. Mad as a box of frogs, but okay. Keep your distance, though. Jason stepped through the secret door and into the corridor.
Emblazoned depictions of men and women in outlandish sexual positions appeared on the sandstone walls, carved deep and polished to a high shine. Jason thought the Kama Sutra had been the inspiration for the wall art, but as he walked along the corridor and studied the many scenes, he realised, inspired or not, these depictions had come from a depraved and twisted mind. Women hung from, and lay strapped to, contraptions constructed for sadomasochistic domination. Moments of forced submission and sexual deviancy called to Jason’s eyes, inviting him to explore the spectacle, examine what a degenerate human mind can conceive. The further along the corridor he walked, the further from mere fetishism and closer to outright torture and murder the depictions became, all glistening in the rare light.
He ran curious fingers over the cold stone thigh of a woman who lay upon a banquet table, her naked body visited upon by the feverish eyes of twelve men and an enormous bull who all sat along the far side of the table. The bull sat in the centre between the twelve men. An inscription below the carving read:
They are but food for your pleasure, so eat well.
After a minute or two, he reached the end of the corridor and stepped into a room so bizarre in its construction it caused him to stop dead in wonderment.
Xavier had a look of bubbling madness as he said, “Perverted fucker, hey? This is how the rich spend their money.”