CHAPTER ONE

 

Chase Little was nearly mesmerized as he stared into the abysmal void. It wasn’t as if something was pulling at his consciousness, but that the black was so deep, so rich, like nothing he’d ever seen before. If the night sky could be without a moon or stars, perhaps it could achieve such utter darkness.

Keri Holloway had hired Chase to paint her house. At least he’d thought it was her house she wanted painting. It turned out she was interested in having a pair of closet doors painted black of all colors.

Black was black, but this stuff was in an old unmarked bucket and, according to Keri, it was hazardous. Chase just about scoffed at her, but she’d insisted that he be careful not to allow the paint to dry on his skin, that it would put holes in his clothes like some kind of acidic agent. He just about walked off the job. The woman was mad. He asked how he was supposed to paint her closet doors if it was going to put holes in his clothes. It made no sense, but she insisted that the paint would coat the doors without issue. After a moment to consider her proposal, Chase told her it would be two hundred (a ridiculous price to paint a pair of closet doors), and he was shocked when she accepted the fee. Easy money.

The closet doors had a texture from previous paint jobs, yet after applying the black paint, the texture disappeared as if it hadn’t been there in the first place. Chase had never seen anything like it in all the years he’d been painting.

Mindful of the paint, he wiped his hands of tiny black dots. He didn’t believe what she’d told him about the paint eating holes into his clothes, and certainly not his skin. He’d dealt with acidic chemicals, paint strippers, and knew what it felt like to have his skin burned. This paint smelled strange, but it was just like any other paint.

The job was pretty much in the bag. Just had to clean up and collect his pay. After tightening the lid on the bucket, chase began folding his drop cloth when Keri stepped into the room.

“How is it going?”

She startled Chase. Something about her speech pattern struck him as odd. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was almost as if she was nervous.

“All done. That’s some interesting paint. It covered so well in just one coat. Never seen anything like it.”

“Yes, I know. It’s my own recipe.”

“What? No way! You made this stuff yourself? Really?”

She didn’t respond but stood there with the most peculiar look on her face, eyes wide, almost sparkling with awe or even confusion. The woman looked crazed for a moment, as if she’d just slipped into the throes of a mind warp, a momentary lapse of sanity. Chase felt the slightest twinge of horror as if she was going to pull a gun or a knife on him. There was no way for him to explain why he felt that way. It was something in her eyes, something there for but a moment that fled just as quickly.

“Is the paint dry?” she asked.

Chase swallowed hard. He’d been holding his breath, as well as a four-foot retractable rolling pole. Somehow, this menial question seemed as large as life itself.

“Um, uh, Well, let’s see.”

He turned to look at the doors, reluctant to touch them for fear of ruining what was looking like a damn fine paint job. He tilted his head to have a look at the sheen by the light coming in from an adjacent window.

“Hard to tell. But it looks dry to me.”

What happened next happened quickly. There was no way Chase could have prevented the assault, even if he had seen it coming, for the sheer strength and agility presented from Keri was uncanny. She lunged toward him so unexpected and shockingly that Chase froze up, bracing himself for the collision with the closet doors he’d just painted.

But he didn’t collide with the doors at all.

Everything went black. For a fraction of an instant Chase thought he’d hit the doors so hard that he was knocked out of consciousness, but no, he was cognizant. There was a light and he felt a sudden chill like being dropped into a cave. Blinking his eyes, they finally adjusted, but he had no idea where he was.

He certainly wasn’t in Keri’s house.

Aside from the change in temperature, the atmosphere was the same. The hair on Chase’s arms stood on end for a moment, perhaps from static electricity or maybe fear. When his eyes adjusted, he could see that he was in what appeared to be a dungeon.

The force with which Keri pushed him caused his head to loll backwards giving him a minor case of whiplash that put an ache in his neck. He rubbed the sore spot while surveying his surroundings. The floors were constructed of stones that appeared to be well tread upon, dark not in natural color, but with grime, reminding Chase of the streets just off the boardwalk at the bay.

A noise caught his attention away from the stone floor. He looked up and gasped at the sight of something monstrous. He became flooded with adrenaline as he mentally prepared to deal with what he witnessed across the chamber. It had several heads and an astonishing array of arms protruding at random. One of the heads spoke and Chase realized this abomination was no immediate threat.

“Get out of here.”

The exasperated voice came from the head of an old man who was balding, hair dark gray as if the natural color was finally giving up the fight to rule his follicles. “Go back the way you came. She’ll make you like us if you don’t. Just go!”

Chase’s voice was caught in his throat. What was he supposed to say to a mangled mass of flesh? The bodies were piled atop one another as if fused together with some kind of organic fleshy weld. It was ghastly. He could hardly stifle the urge to vomit from the wretched smell emanating from the body mass like foul breath and body odor with a twinge of decay.

“Go back!” The old man’s head yelled this time, and that seemed to take everything out him. He was powerless to the mass of bodies he was attached to. Some of them were dead, others alive, or at least appeared that way. The old man was the only one who spoke. Some of them wheezed and moaned as if in immense pain and discomfort.

As if the past minute happened in slow motion, Chase snapped out of his daze and looked over his shoulder. Behind him was a wall much like the floor he stood upon. Turning in a circle, he realized that he was walled in.

“There’s no way out.” His voice was a whisper that quivered with rising panic that bubbled in his mind. From a young age, Chase had been mildly claustrophobic. Used to put himself in large boxes to see how long he could take it before freaking out, but this was precisely the kind of situation he most feared. Not quite as tight as, say, a coffin, but just as closed off to the world, and it was beginning to get to him.

A sound from behind startled him. He turned and witnessed something penetrate reality. It wasn’t like wading in a vertical pool of water so much as a being pushing through space and time. First came the arms, thin and sleek, hands tipped with elongated fingers, the tips fashioned with tiny barbs like miniature fish hooks. Next came the head, what Chase immediately considered to be an elaborate Halloween mask he soon realized was far too real, even in its grotesqueness. Skin stretched tight across a skull that was uniquely structured, the eyes too far apart, the cranium oblong, and a series of mouths that almost resembled the clustered appearance of a shark’s teeth. The body was lanky, structured as a human’s, yet visibly devoid of gender.

Thrown into defense, Chase swung his rolling pole at the creature, smacking it across its oblong head. It roared and leapt forward, hardly fazed. Chase attacked with an onslaught of blows to the head. In a fight for his life, he wasn’t concerned whether he killed the monstrous thing or merely incapacitated it.

The creature hit the ground with an exasperated grunt. The eyes remained open, however the blood-pink color had been vanquished, leaving cloudy cataract orbs that stared into nothing.

Chase backed away. This wasn’t the kind of thing you turned your back on. He didn’t want to let it out of his sight. If it were to become animated again he would be in big-shit trouble. When he reached the wall the beast had pushed its way through, he paused, standing in a way that allowed him to see the thing out of the corner of his eye. He extended his pole toward the wall expecting the metal end to grate the stone, but also half expecting what happened. The tip of the pole disappeared. He paused, half of the pole dipping through reality, and gently jiggled it, then swung it. There was no resistance.

A glance at the thing on the ground. Its eyes remained cataract. It didn’t move. The body pile remained silent. The old man’s face at the apex of the fleshy collage watched Chase, eyes expectant, yearning yet remaining silent.

Free hand placed palm up just before touching the illusion, reluctant to push it through as if it would eat away his fingers like acid. Did he want to go where that thing came from?

He touched the invisible wall as gently as he could. His fingertips pressed through without pain. It was as if there was nothing there at all. He looked over his shoulder at the incapacitated creature and then pushed his entire hand through half expecting something to grab him from the other side. That thought was enough for him to retract both his hand and the pole.

The creature stirred. Alarm flashed on the old man’s face. He opened his mouth as if to say something but remained silent. He mouthed the word “go” several times.

Chase took a deep breath. He’d hit that thing hard enough to fracture the skull, were it made of bone like a human’s skull. That it was coming out of its daze illustrated how resilient it was. This was not the kind of foe Chase wanted to tango with again.

He didn’t even want that thing seeing where he went. Hoping for the best, Chase walked into the wall, wincing as he passed through. He thought for sure he would smack into it, but he slipped through the void and into Keri’s master bedroom. The smell of potpourri and lavender soap invaded his nostrils, quickly overshadowed by the peculiar odor of Keri’s black paint.

Stepping forward from the void he just traveled through, he stopped and turned. Behind him stood the black closet doors.

A face emerged from the black.

Chase grabbed his pole in a defensive gesture, prepared to fight.