This week, we have a spooky story, The Legend in Apartment 3B, by Clabe Polk. Don’t read it in the dark!

Benjamin Withers pulled his hat down nearly covering his eyes and bending his head, scrambled headlong through raging torrents of water rushing along the curbs to the gutters. Lightning, its brilliance momentarily eclipsing the feeble wavering of the street lights, extended its forked tree of destruction across a roiling pitch-black sea of clouds; a detonation rattled glass windows along Wither’s path threatening to add showers of shattered glass to the torrential downpour. Damn, that was close! Withers thought while pulling his raincoat tighter as he ducked under the awning spanning the façade of a dusty antique shop occupying the first floor of Edgar Worthington’s ancient apartment building. What the hell, Edgar? Couldn’t they have buried you on a sunny day?

A narrow stairway, dimly lit by the light of a single low-wattage bulb, led to three upper floors each with four apartments served by an equally dim hallway. Worthington’s apartment, 3B, located at the rear of the third floor adjacent to the rusty fire escape, was small and cramped as apartments in old historic buildings often are; the door, before which Withers now stood, his raincoat dripping water on the floor, was given to sticking…especially in wet weather. Turning a key in the lock, he had to use considerable force to open the door.

Apartment 3A’s door opened with a rattling squeak; an old lady peered out. “Who’re you? What’re you doing?” she demanded crossly, “Mr. Worthington’s dead…’e’s not cold in the grave yet and you’re robbing ‘im blind?”

“No…no, ma’am, certainly not…not at all!” Wither’s exclaimed. “I’m Mr. Worthington’s attorney…executor of his estate. Do you understand? I’m most definitely not here to rob him.” He held up a business card from his law firm, Carlton, Withers & Lowe gesturing for her to take it. “My card, Ma’am.”

A cat scooted between the old lady’s legs and bounded down the stairs. Ignoring the cat, the old woman eyed Withers suspiciously. “You’re not here to rob ‘im?”

“Of course not…Ma’am, you know your cat got out?”

“He’ll be back, Attorney-man. Black cats are like death; they go wherever they want and always come around when you least expect them,” she said turning her back and closing the apartment door.

Yeah, I heard you, lady, he thought as he entered Worthington’s living room. Something killed a perfectly healthy man. Maybe death does come around like the old woman’s cat…that’s as good an explanation as any.

A fireplace lined with cold ashes dividing two sets of bookcases greeted Withers from across the room. A shiny pitch black crystal ball balanced delicately on an ornate wooden pedestal divided the mantle evenly between two heavy dark carved wooden candlesticks bearing thick half-burned candles. Candle wax in frozen rivers ran down the carvings partially obscuring them. Withers’ eyes widened. What the hell are those things? Gargoyles? You’ve got to be kidding! And a scrying ball…is that what that black thing is? What did Worthington do with that?

A sofa faced the fireplace; two upright chairs on either side faced each other like sentinels, a coffee table between them. The right wall was lined with additional bookcases. Hundreds of books filled the shelves; some old leather-bound volumes tattered and torn by repeated use. Others seemed damaged by insects, the faint odor of mothballs clinging to them with stubborn determination. Dozens were encased in the dust, mute testimony they had remained motionless on the shelf for untold years. A fleeting impression flooded over him; some of them are many hundreds of years old, he thought. Undoubtedly a baseless assumption…a ridiculous absurd thought, he scolded himself. Focus on your job!

Nor were moldy old books the shelves’ only occupants. One shelf held ornate daggers housed in an etched glass case; another crystal bowls bearing etched esoteric symbols the meaning of which Withers could not guess.

To the left, a door led to a small kitchen and dining area. Along the wall ahead stretched a short hallway leading to two rooms, a bathroom between them. Through the open door of one of the rooms, he could see an office. Worthington’s office…where I need to go. But he couldn’t. Not just yet. Not while those bookshelves beckoned. What sort of man was Edgar Worthington? The volumes on the shelves would be a perfect place to find out. But as he examined the books with growing awareness hair began to rise along the base of his neck and with a growing sense of unease, he realized that the books spanned the wide breadth of esoteric mysticism, ritual magic, shamanism, exorcism, and the occult and transcendent rituals of many different cultures. Who the hell was Edgar Worthington really? The man who collected these books is certainly not the client I thought I knew.

With a distinct shudder, Withers stepped into the hallway leading to the office. He felt eyes watching him from behind near the apartment door. The feeling was so strong, he turned expecting to ask who was there…but seeing nothing, he turned back into the hall and hurried into the office thinking, what an odd feeling! He shuddered uncontrollably, closing the office door behind him. He knew he should have felt safe, but instead, he felt as though something planned to entrap him in the office; he felt the tight chest and difficulty breathing that accompanied anxiety. You’re being paranoid, he scolded himself again. Grow up!

Taking a moment to compose himself, he surveyed the office. The desk surface contained only a calendar, a couple of pieces of paper, a packing tape dispenser, and two candlesticks identical to the ones on the mantle. Gargoyles again…what’s with this man and gargoyles? Suppressing his discomfort, Withers recalled the little he knew about gargoyles. He could remember his European history professor in college calling them “…fierce depictions of dragons or griffins used as architectural fixtures to drain rainwater away from a wall. The mouths with all those stone teeth were merely rain-spouts, but they often intimidated the illiterate peasants, striking fear into their hearts.” Damned sure intimidated me, he thought as he sat down at the desk and studied the gargoyles in closer detail. Like those on the mantle, some of the carved detail was covered by hardened candle wax. Nevertheless, he felt the eyes of both; red malevolent eyes that seemed to follow every move he made.

Feeling unnerved, he shook himself and focused on the other items on the desk. As he reached for one of the papers a loud thunderclap shook the building on its foundation and the lights flickered and dimmed for a second or two and then recovered. Thoroughly shaken, he grasped the chair arms with white knuckles; and then relaxing a little as the lights recovered, he felt in his pocket for his cigarette lighter. He couldn’t stand the thought of lighting the candles. In his imagination, the gargoyles were bound only by the unlit candles; in his mind, they snarled and strained to be unleashed by the lighter. The building shook with thunder once again rattling windows like a prisoner might rattle the bars of his cell. Once again, the lights flickered and dimmed…longer this time.

Shaking off his fear, Withers reached for the top paper on the desk; A parcel service next-day air shipping label. It had been filled out but remained unused. It must have been urgent to use next-day air, he mused, but if it was urgent, why didn’t Worthington use it?

He noted the label reflected Worthington’s apartment’s return address; so he planned to send it from here. The shipping address read:

“Dr. William Stein, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.”

Anthropology? Withers’ eyes rose to the office wall where numerous framed documents hung. One, in the center, was larger. He crossed the room to examine it. It was a college diploma announcing that the University of Chicago granted Edgar Worthington a Ph.D. degree in anthropology. He observed the date was five years earlier.

The other framed documents proved to be certificates of membership in academic and honor societies, and various awards and recognitions related to anthropology. Apparently, Worthington had made a name for himself in anthropology. William Stein must have been a colleague…or a mentor. Thunder shook the building once again. Again the lights flickered, but this time Withers reached for a bookshelf below the framed certificates. There he retrieved a bound Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Paleo Devils and Demons Among Remote Indigenous Peoples of the Malaysian Rain Forest”.

Opening the book to the abstract he began reading:

“Legends exist among the isolated tribes of Borneo of evil living among them; a curse or a demon of great antiquity. Tales, handed down from generation to generation are remarkedly consistent. They all begin with the discovery of a perfectly round, smoothly polished obsidian ball, or orb, by the first man to live on the Earth. According to the legend, the demon is obsessed with recovering the ball, lost to the demon’s realm through black magic. Witnesses tell of periodic reappearances of the orb once each generation along with sitings of a strange winged animal. These sitings are followed by one or more unexplained deaths in the village.

We traveled to Borneo to investigate this legend, and accompanied by a native archeologist, traveled deep into the rainforest seeking the truth.”

Withers leaned back in the desk chair and rubbed his eyes with his hands. Borneo, Demons? You’ve GOT to be shitting me! His thoughts wandered to the black orb on its exotic wooden pedestal on the mantle. Black obsidian orb? No! Surely not THAT…that’s a crystal ball isn’t it?

Thunder crashed. The lights dimmed…then went out. Then, flickered once and came back on. He reached into his pocket for the lighter and eyed the candles uneasily. Maybe he should leave now; he could come back tomorrow he told himself. Turning to the window, he stared at the sheets of water pounding relentlessly against the windowpane and the utterly featureless pitch blackness beyond until an immense flash of lightning followed by a resounding crash as the voltage forged a path to ground provided a momentary flash of brilliance. In that flash, he could swear he saw a strange creature in the alley below; a winged creature with talons and pointed ears, and skin that reflected the sudden brilliance like gold foil…a creature staring up at him through the apartment window. A sudden chill, like ice water streaked through his nervous system, turning his skin to goose-flesh, making his scalp crawl…and then the lights went out and stayed out.

With shock and trepidation, he realized the wildly dancing flame of his lighter was due to wildly trembling hands threatening to drop the lighter before a candle could be lit. Grimly, with clenched jaws, he concentrated on using both hands to steady the lighter enough to light one candle. Then, still using a two handed-grip, he managed to light the other candle. Flickering candlelight filled the office casting dark ever-changing shadows into the corners; the changing shadows fanning the fire of his fear and imagination. The red eyes of the gargoyles, now reflecting the yellow and orange tones of the candlelight, still followed him. Screw you! He told them silently.

Opening a desk drawer, he discovered a book inside. Opening it, he discovered a journal. Very well, Worthington, let’s see what you’ve been up to recently. The first page was dated January 1st:

“I called Stein to wish him Happy New Year, and then Daud bin Hadi called from Sematan and told me the black orb had reappeared. I instructed him to get the orb, pack it carefully and ship it to me immediately. Daud expressed alarm. He said the devil would kill the family possessing the orb and kill both him and me for taking it. I patiently explained the nature of superstition and some rational reasons for the unexplained deaths finally managing to convince Daud of the urgency of acquiring the orb for study. He promised to leave immediately for the jungle village to obtain it.”

Withers licked a finger and turned the page. A loud knock at the door eclipsed the background roar of the rain and thunder. His blood ran cold. Who the hell was that? What could anyone want in a dead man’s God-forsaken apartment on a crappy night like this? Should I answer it…or ignore it?

The knock sounded more urgently. It seemed to Withers as though the candle flames flickered and danced to the tempo of the knocks. I’ll ignore it.

Again the knock came…evermore urgently; the door vibrating on its hinges. Shit! “Just a minute,” he called from the office. Crap! I forgot there were no lights in here, he thought as he stumbled from the hallway across the front room to open the door. Should’da brought the candle, he thought as he reached into his pocket for the lighter.

The peephole revealed nothing. The hallway was pitch black; no trace of light anywhere. Who the hell would be knocking in a perfectly black hallway with no light at all? He turned to retrace his steps across the room. Screw it, he thought, they can knock ‘til hell freezes.

A sudden flash of lightning lit the room in momentary brilliance; a resounding clap of thunder was followed quickly by an audible “click” as the door’s bolt slid back followed by the squeak of hinges long unoiled. Petrified with fear, Withers held the lighter up and struck the flame. In the wavering light of the flame, a short, exceedingly ugly man stood in the doorway. A sly grin that stopped short of dark pits where eyes were expected revealed oddly pointed teeth. Withers decided the eyes were too black to see in the dark; that’s the only rational explanation for those…what? Pits? Holes? Before he could respond the hideous mouth opened and a malevolent chuckle escaped.

“Withers is thee, Snicker is me. A deep dark orb I’ve come to see; I sense it on the mantle be. If thou would live, give it to me; the only way I set thee free,” the apparition gurgled in a strangled voice its form blurring and reforming in the flickering light. “If thou would not, I will not, and in thy grave will surely rot. The soul in thee belongs to me and I will never set it free.”

Another blinding flash of lightning came as the lighter flame died out. The door stood open; there was no one there. Slamming and locking the door, Withers pushed a chair against it and stumbling around other furniture in the darkness, made his way back to the office where the candles still lit the haunting faces of the gargoyles. The journal was still on the desk where he left it. Opening it, he read:

“January 10th –Not heard from Daud since the 1st, I was relieved when he called today. He reported he had visited the village deep in the jungle along the Kapuas River and had obtained the black orb as I’d asked. The village Shaman had performed numerous banishing rituals on the orb and, even then, insisted Daud place the orb in a container without touching it. Four days later, he shipped the container to me by air freight. I expect it to arrive on the thirteenth.

I called William to tell him the news; I had finally had proof of my thesis…the legendary black orb for observation and testing. He seemed as excited as I to see it first hand.”

On the floor next to the desk, a box sat open. Picking up the box Withers examined the originating address on the shipping label; “Daud bin Hadi, Sematan, Indonesia”. The label confirms the journal entry. He turned back to the journal and flipped the page.

“January 13th – The package arrived about lunchtime. The description I had previously heard about a black orb was true; it resembled a black crystal ball like a centuries-old scrying ball. The surface was polished perfectly smooth; unmarred by scratches, scars, stains or blemishes. There were no foreign mineral inclusions as one might expect in a natural stone or crystal. It was impossible to imagine how its perfect obsidian globe could have been produced by any process of nature…certainly not a lava flow.

I told William of its arrival and advised him I was sending it on to his laboratory tomorrow.

January 14th –I endeavored to get some work done before packing the orb to send to William. Drawn to the polished surface of the ball, I allowed my mind to explore the perfection of that surface for a few moments. Drawing me deeper,  I found myself completely immersed…and perhaps, a captive of the crystal. The darkness in its depths was as perfect as the stone’s dark surface and just as malevolent. I felt I was not alone; the depths were dark, but not silent; there were footsteps and rustling, the sound of rushing winds and low moans. I sensed something in front of me;wide-spreading wings, talons and an overwhelming stench beyond anything in my experience. “You don’t belong here,” threatening words formed in my head, “leave now…or never leave.” A palpable “snap” and once again I sat at my desk.”

A portal? Is that possible? To where? Or, if not a portal to some astral world, was it a portal into Worthington’s own subconscious? A practical man, Withers did not believe in portals, astral entities, parallel universes, and such things. Was this proof that his view of the supernatural or extra-natural was invalid? This is crap! My imagination’s out of control and that’s all there is to it. Get a grip, Withers! As if to highlight his turmoil, lightning ripped through the sky in jagged streaks outside the window followed by thunder that seemed to rumble forever like distant artillery. The rain still fell in sheets. He turned another journal page; still January 14th.

“Yet another strange event happened. Having lived here only weeks, I don’t know my neighbors. A strange man came to the door. He called himself “Snicker” and said he lived in 4B. He asked me directly if I had received a black crystal ball from Borneo. Wary, I answered “no”. I laughed and asked him who he thought would be sending me anything from Borneo? Without hesitating, he replied, “Daud bin Hadi from Sematan.” I ordered him to leave, and then closed and locked the door in his face. I heard him outside the door reciting some type of incantation in a harsh voice. Setting the dead-bolt, I returned to the office. Certain spells and incantations invoke protective spheres. After the encounter with Snicker, I was rattled enough to try one. Digging out my notes on Shamanism, I prepared and uttered an incantation invoking protection for the apartment. I should have protected the whole building.

I heard no more from Snicker, but that afternoon, I received an email from Malaysia telling me of the death of Daud bin Hadi in Sematan.”

Withers barely heard the next thunderclap that shook the building. Snicker? He was weird enough, but a demon? Was that possible? A practical, enlightened, and logical man, Withers knew nothing of demons. He’d heard of possession but knew nothing about it. Incantations and protection? Curiosity began to win over fear. He removed the printed email from its place between the pages of the journal. It was from the Commissioner of Police in Sematan, Sarawak, Malaysia:

“ Dear Professor Worthington, with the deepest regret we inform you of the death of your associate, Daud bin Hadi. We located your contact information in bin Hadi’s wallet along with instructions to contact you in the event of his death. Our investigation into his death continues, but current evidence does not indicate foul play.”

No foul play? What the hell did he do? Commit suicide? Why would Daud commit suicide after bringing the orb out of the jungle? There has to be another explanation, he thought. He didn’t believe in coincidence. Going into the bush seeking occult antiquities was not the act of a depressed person. So what killed Daud bin Hadi? Realization chilled him to the core; first, bin Hadi, then Worthington…am I next? Does this so-called devil really kill everyone that touches the orb? I’m responsible for getting this thing out of here…where does that leave me? Where does Snicker, the ‘neighbor’ in 4B, fit in? Is he the demon or another victim whose body will be found somewhere like bin Hadi’s.

He turned to the window. The rain slackened to a light drizzle; the lightning retreating into the distance. Thunder-claps were fewer and farther between. Here and there the pale yellow glare of street lights could be seen penetrating the gloom. Why not the lights in this building? He stepped close to the window for a better view down the alley.

Decisively, he fetched the black orb from the mantle carefully handling it by its wood base. Diligently, he placed it into the shipping box and stuffed bubble-wrap around it. Then, he sealed the box thoroughly, taping the mailing label securely to the top. I hope Stein knows what to do with this thing; I’d hate to make him a victim just by sending it to him. But then, wasn’t that exactly what happened to Worthington? I can’t do spells and incantations; maybe he can. Maybe he has some way to protect himself.

Withers leaned back in the office chair. It was still raining, but the orb was encased in the shipping box; now, he felt better. He turned another page in Worthington’s journal:

“The knock on the door was the old lady in 3A. She stared at me in the strangest way, her black cat rubbing against the wall across the hall gave me the creeps. I politely invited her in. Shaking her head violently, she refused as she backed away; the cat exploring along the door frame and along the threshold. I said she had a nice cat. One side of her lip curled slightly at that. “Black as the darkness of men’s souls,” she said, “black as the pit of Hades. Black cats are like death,” she said walking toward her apartment, “they go wherever they want and come around when you least expect them,”

Shit! The same thing she said to me, he thought. The rain quit. Pulling on his coat, Withers picked up the box containing the orb and opened the apartment door.

Snicker stood outside the door. They were face to face. Withers could smell his foul breath. “Go thou might, but that will stay,” he gurgled, “bring it out so I can play. Stay inside, your soul will pay. Soon will be your dying day.”

Slamming the door in Snicker’s face, he locked it and returned to the desk pounding on it with his fists in frustration. Am I a prisoner? His mind raced through an endless jumble of thoughts at light speed. He turned Snicker’s doggerel: “Go thou might, but that will stay. Bring it out so I can play.” over and over in his mind. He sensed there was something in it he was missing…but it continued to elude him. His mind wandered…Wait! The protection spell! What if Snicker can’t enter the apartment to get the orb…but I can LEAVE the apartment WITH the orb…and if I do, he’ll take it from me. I’m protected in the apartment. I’m a prisoner, too. He thought back to the last page he read in Worthington’s journal. Crap! There are two of them. The old lady in 3A was scared shitless to come inside when Worthington invited her. The protection spell must work against her, too. He walked over to the window where he assessed his chances of leaving through the window and climbing to the alley below to be zero.

WHOMP! Something hit the window hard. He felt the impact in his head as he leaped backward crashing into the desk and somersaulting over it, falling into a heap on the floor. Scrambling backward in terror, he pushed himself deep into the corner of the room opposite the window staring wide-eyed at the apparition plastered upside down just outside the glass. Blue sparks flew from a pale blue field just outside the window wherever the creature touched it. Long sharp pointed fangs dripped venom that fell into empty space above the alley; there were mere slots where a nose should be. The creature had pointed ears and four feet ending in enormous talons and wings folded over its back like a moth. Covered in scales, that glittered with iridescence in the shifting light of street lights and distant heat lightning, the thing stared straight through the window at Withers who cowered paralyzed in the corner. It opened its mouth, still upside down, and howled a foul warbling wail that could have rattled windows for blocks around. Then, it began to move; crawling until it was right side up and crawling along the outside of the building. That’s when Withers realized the beast had come down the outside of the building from Apartment 4B…Snicker’s apartment. But that damned sure isn’t Snicker…at least I don’t think it is.

Recovering slightly from the shock, he could hear whispers and rustling in the hallway outside the door. The old woman?

There was a loud knock on the door. “Attorney-man,” came the old woman’s sing-song voice, “give us the orb and we’ll leave you alone…” she broke off in a frenzy of manic laughter, “…really alone.” She resumed her hideous laughter as though she would never stop. “Toss it out, Attorney-man,” she cackled, “we’ll catch it!”

Without warning, the apartment lights buzzed and flickered a time or two, then resumed steady lighting. The woman’s insane laughter faded into the background. He didn’t know where the creature at the window had gone; he really didn’t want to know. Is that it? The storm’s over? He knew it wasn’t but he was thankful for the lights. He could snuff the gargoyle candles.

His mind reverberated with the old woman’s cackling words, “Toss it out, my dear, we’ll catch it?” Would they…if they didn’t know it was coming? He looked down at the box with its red and black “Fragile-Handle With Care” labels and wondered how fragile the orb really was. If it was obsidian, it was glass and although hard, potentially breakable. He wondered what the result might be if the orb were broken; better yet, shattered. What if I drop it on the concrete below? Would it shatter? If it did, would the spell be broken?

A risk, he recognized, but I have to do something. The protection may not last forever.

His letter opener was suddenly slicing packing tape followed closely by the sound of tearing cardboard and the crinkle of flying bubble-wrap as it left the box headed for the floor. He felt his hands throwing the black orb through the window pane…not so much from rational thought as desperation. Shattered glass from the window peppered the alley below a split second before the orb shattered into a million fragments on the alley pavement.

Withers felt, rather than heard primal, visceral screaming; a gut-wrenching screech tearing his soul from his body and flinging it like refuse into Hell. Abruptly, the screams choked off. He knew Snicker was gone, back to whatever realm he came from. The old woman, too. He could not explain how he knew; he just knew. Relief flooded through him in a warm flush.

And then the apartment door opened. A black cat entered and made its way purposefully through the apartment to the office. Withers saw it enter…the old woman’s words burned forever into his mind; “Black cats are like death; they go wherever they want and always come around when you least expect them.” He could hear her cackling, taunting voice calling to him from the deepest, darkest recesses of his subconscious, “Nothing personal, Attorney-man; the cat’s the cleaning crew, you understand…cleaning up dust and debris; eliminating the loose ends.”

First bin Hadi, then Worthington…now me. I suppose it was inevitable, but I never suspected the cat.

The End

***

CLABE POLK is the author of The Detective Mike Eiser Series and The Adventures of Harry Morgan Series of crime/action novels, as well as The Road to Armageddon. He has also written numerous short stories and flash fiction pieces that occasionally appear in e-magazines and anthologies. He enjoys woodworking when not busy working on his new science fiction series, or adding new books to the Detective Mike Eiser Series. 

He brings a deep love of natural sciences and more than thirty-seven years of professional environmental protection and public safety experience to his writing.  

He lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, two daughters, and the family’s Cockapoo named Annie. 

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