After a busy several weeks of staying home, writing, publishing, and planning, Spiral Publishing is delighted to present Thursday Escapes! We’ll be sharing a different story from Kari Kilgore or Jason A. Adams on our site free each week. Just our way to try to help folks stay entertained while we’re all staying safe.
This week, it’s Jason’s short horror tale Oppositional. It’s also available in ebook and print, and in Jason’s Tales from the Squirrel Garden collection. Check back next week for Kari’s Science Fantasy tale Little Five, her first followup to Terminalia.
Curiosity – a terrible mistress indeed.
Phillip DeGranz, youngest Proctor of a prestigious university, meets a generous benefactor with an unwholesome secret.
A loving wife, a mysterious patron, and a myriad of dark secrets.
Will DeGranz fall prey to his own desire for knowledge, or will curiosity set him free in the end?
by Jason A. Adams
Phillip DeGranz didn’t trust the house.
He stood in the center of the long drive, the scents of foxglove, nicotiana, thistle, and many more herbs and flowers combined with the underlying odor of the septic’s leach field. The flower beds had once been well-maintained, but obviously not for a long while.
Phillip felt as though he were staring up a primordial tunnel, the extravagant growth arching above and closing in from the sides. The manor itself could be seen standing at the end of the tunnel, silently insulting the world with its aura of slowly moldering grandeur.
At first, Phillip couldn’t understand his strong reaction. Perhaps it was the way the bright sunlight seemed to shrink away from the windows, afraid to pass through the glass and into whatever rooms lay beyond.
But no, he believed it was the way there were too many shadows, more than the various angles and outcroppings of the ancient stone pile could account for. Or perhaps it was just the lingering taste of bitter, overbrewed tea and burnt sausages that had him feeling off kilter.
Poor Margaret. She was a lovely girl and he felt lucky to have won her, but after only several weeks of marriage she was still learning the domestic arts necessary for a happy and well-run home.
Phillip remembered his meeting with Dougal MacOwen earlier that week. He had heard MacOwen’s name at various university functions, but knew little more than that he was financially very kind to the school, and had some unusual theories regarding skeletal manipulation and its role in the healing of various disorders.
Phillip had been surprised and flattered when his secretary passed along MacOwen’s request for an interview. The man had been the soul of gentility, asking after Phillip and his family, discussing upcoming conferences and lectures, as well as expounding on his various interests, including anatomy.
“There are between 206 and 270 bones in the human body, dependent upon age and gender,” he’d said. “With the proper application of oppositional torque, any one of them may be broken without disturbing its neighbors. Several excellent minds are developing the technique to assist in the resetting of improperly healed fractures. A noble cause, wouldn’t you say?”
The man’s smile hadn’t changed a whit during this speech.
MacOwen had then gone on to explain his daughter’s troubles with osteitis, and how he had been drawn into curiosity and then partnership with her physicians before and after her unfortunate death from the disease. He had gone into some detail of her deformities, asking if Phillip had ever seen examples of such, although he had to admit his inexperience to the older man.
Phillip had been quite impressed with MacOwen’s command of the subject, and when invited to come see his home and laboratory, had readily accepted.
After time to consider MacOwen’s interests, and his strangely cool charm, Phillip had begun to wonder if his acceptance had been too hasty.
Perhaps he should have stayed at home this morning.
He knew he wasn’t himself at breakfast. Margaret was worrying over him like a mother hen.
The shy and awkward daughter of his old physiology professor had blossomed into a delightfully winsome young lady, but also one who had no truck with introverted academics.
“What troubles you about this meeting?” she finally asked.
“I don’t know, my pet,” Phillip replied. “Something about the man…his eyes, I suppose. MacOwen is certainly knowledgeable about osteology, and says he wishes to make a large grant in return for being allowed access to our facilities, but…”
“Osteology?” Now her brow furrowed in the charmingly childlike way which made her seem so much younger than her nineteen years. “I think I’ve heard you mention the word. The study of bones, isn’t it?”
Phillip pulled his young wife onto his lap and tickled along her ribs. “Human bones, Angel. The study of lovely skeletons like yours.” Phillip hands tickled her more strategically as he tried to turn teasing into something more, but she squealed and leapt up.
“You, sir, are a cad. You may be the youngest Proctor at the University, but you should have been Professor of Knavery!” She drew him to his feet, gave him a hug and warm kiss, then set his hat on his head. “Now go meet with this generous benefactor, my love, and come home a more learned and successful husband.”
A final kiss and embrace, and Phillip waved farewell from the hansom cab’s window, already looking forward to his lovely bride’s company that evening.
And so Phillip was here. At this point it would be impolite, not to mention cowardly, not to ring the bell. Perhaps MacOwen had forgotten the appointment.
He walked toward the towering entry door, telling himself his lack of speed was due to his appreciation of the fine gardens.
He did not need to ring, however, as MacOwen opened the great black barrier, strapped and studded with heavy iron, just as Phillip gained the top of the stair.
“My dear DeGranz,” he called, that same hatefully genial smile still avoiding his dark blue eyes. “Do come in and enjoy my home. I have been eagerly awaiting the chance to share my endeavors with you.”
Phillip entered, studying every detail of the foyer in an attempt to reassure himself.
The attempt failed.
The thick rugs and heavy tapestries silenced their footfalls and deadened their voices. The room seemed quite dark in spite of the many windows surrounding the doorframe.
Three other doors led further into the belly of the house, all the same ironbound oak as that behind, which MacOwen now shut to with a reverberant boom like the final closing of the mausoleum.
His host opened the left-most door and stood like a manservant, his princely kilt and jacket at odds with his pose.
“My study,” he said, motioning Phillip in. “I apologize for the absence of my man, but he left my service all of a sudden and I am still interviewing. Still though, I haven’t forgot how to pour a proper whisky.”
Phillip preceded the big Scot into a room filled with macabre failures of life. Glass jars covered every shelf and table, containing various alcohol-marinated monstrosities.
Here a poor babe with two legs, three arms, and a second head; there another infant with most of its skull and all of its brain missing; and on the desk a horrid example of cyclopia—a tiny body with only one eye, a slit of a mouth, and no other facial features at all.
He shuddered in disgust. He was a scientific man, but preferred case studies to these hideously immediate nightmares. Phillip had to focus on the fireplace to keep from tasting his breakfast anew.
“Marvelous, aren’t they?” MacOwen asked as he busied himself with the whisky bottle. “The human form, supposedly made in the image of that god we cast in our own, and just look what Nature can do with Her blind randomness.”
Phillip took his glass, and another quick glance at the gruesome collection. “Yes, I see. But MacOwen, however did you acquire such a collection?”
“Simplicity itself,” replied his host as he sat in an overstuffed armchair by the cold fireplace and waved Phillip to its mate. “I have several friends in the medical community, as I am somewhat of a student of the ars medica myself. They sometimes gift me with interesting specimens in return for knowledge gleaned from my own humble osteological studies.”
This was the moment when Phillip knew himself to be well and truly trapped.
In spite of his misgivings, he wouldn’t be able to leave without seeing those experiments for himself, no matter how much he dreaded the revelation.
This obsessive curiosity had led him into grief more than once, but he could no more resist the compulsion than an eater of opium in some heathen den of vice.
“Where is your laboratory?” he heard himself ask, knowing he should instead run for the doors and freedom. “I would be honored to share in what you’ve discovered.”
No help for it.
None at all.
MacOwen’s smile finally changed, reaching his eyes at long last. “You are most kind. I was indeed hoping you would be willing to assist me in one or two small matters of osteology.”
Here he rose and swung aside the seemingly solid fireplace to reveal a tiny portal, scarcely five feet high and two wide, heavily barred and shackled, which he unlocked with a cunningly intricate key.
They passed down the dark stone stairs, MacOwen’s shoulders brushing either wall. The light from the lantern he held cast an ogre’s shadow back over Phillip, who shivered with unease.
His trepidation was only increased by the dankness of the air and the steady drip-drip-drip of moisture from the low ceiling.
Finally, the stair ended at a broad landing before a huge bronze door, green with verdigris except for the highly polished lockplate and handle.
MacOwen swung the door open, the massive slab nearly silent on heavily greased hinges.
The two men stepped into a cavernous room, with cathedral arches of brickwork above, and black soapstone flags below. The chill darkness was vanquished by dozens of buzzing sparklights as MacOwen pulled a large, double-bladed switch on the wall.
The smell of the room nearly stopped Phillip in his tracks, like an aggressive and unprovoked blow to the face.
Astringent odors of vinegar and alcohol coated his nose and throat, along with an undercurrent of something organic yet foul, the smell of some wild beast’s well-kept but long overused cage.
The odor then filled his mouth as he gasped in horror.
Nothing obviously gruesome was here, only the promise of gruesome acts to come.
Stocks and stays of various farrier’s configurations were plainly meant to hold different animals in an array of poses, but it was the large medical examination table, gleaming copper set into a six-inch deep well over four drains, that most caught his eye.
The miasmic stench rising from these drains cut through the other aromas, invading his already outraged sensory cavities.
Then he noticed the chair.
It sat beside the table, a monstrous mockery of an invalid’s wheelchair, with clamps for hand, feet, and head as well as straps for torso and thigh. The dark oak, ubiquitous in this place, was smooth and polished, but with an array of dark stains which Phillip prayed were only due to dampness and age.
His skin crawled its way into gooseflesh, every follicle drawing up in terror, and he felt the stabbing pain of a hypodermic needle between the fourth and fifth vertebrae at the nape of his neck.
The sensation lasted only the briefest of moments.
He lost his body only moments before his consciousness.
His entire world was agony now.
His bones had been broken one at a time over…hours? Days?
He had no idea.
Enough narcotic had been administered that he was denied the relief of pain-induced unconsciousness, but not so much that he didn’t fully appreciate just how badly his body was being misused.
Phillip had to admit to himself that MacOwen’s theory of oppositional torque was correct, as he felt and heard his left stirrup snap. The pain of the break wasn’t really noticeable over that of the tiny pincer piercing his tympanic membrane.
Ah, Margaret. I would have enjoyed growing old with you.
“I hope the gallows man and then the Devil show you the mercy you deserve, you inhuman bastard!”
“Don’t be such a child,” MacOwen said with a chuckle and an admonishing finger, cheerful as ever. “I am in as much danger from the Devil as I am from the Will O’ the Wisp, and judges are quite inexpensive in my experience.”
He was busy wiping down another specialty device, this one with a large turn-screw connected at ninety degrees to a blunt steel worm.
Phillip tried not to imagine which bone it was for.
“You will be a marvelous addition to science, and to my collection,” MacOwen said, forcing his new horror into Phillip’s mouth and turning the screw. “I shall be curious to see how your speech changes once your palatine bone splits.”
Phillip thought about his lectures given at Oxford’s anatomy department, soft words exchanged with his beautiful Margaret, the simple joy of singing a favorite tune.
With his jaws wrenched open he couldn’t ask, but he rather hoped MacOwen would kill him soon.
As if reading his thoughts, MacOwen stopped twisting the device’s screw.
“I have a wager on you, you know.”
“I bet 150 guineas that I can break 150 of your bones before the shock finally kills you.”
“Uunnnngh…” Phillip was confused, trying to plead for both mercy and an explanation, but could only manage animalistic grunts as the device simultaneously pressed against tongue and palate.
MacOwen leaned over him, staring directly into his eyes as he manipulated his hellish tool.
“Three years ago, the College of Anatomy was short of cadavers, especially those showing skeletal deformities.”
“The Proctor in charge of procuring specimens had just received an award for budgetary management.”
Phillip tried to struggle, but the chair held him fast.
“This Proctor saved money by utilizing some very unsavory sources. Gypsy grave robbers, for example.”
“I learned from one of those Gypsies, one who occupied this very chair, that they desecrated the tomb of one Tabitha MacOwen, dead before her time of a rare bone disease.”
“These Gypsies sold her to this Proctor, who then had her poor wee body butchered by inept buffoons who were incapable of learning from her.”
Phillip’s tormentor leaned close, eyes burning with hatred, fingers tightening on the wicked machine’s turn-screw.
“That Proctor’s name was Phillip DeGranz.”
A final violent twist of the screw, and Phillip’s head exploded with pain and the horrible sensation of the two halves of his palate tearing upwards into his sinus cavity.
As his vision narrowed to a point, then went dark, Phillip just had time for one last satisfaction.
MacOwen had lost his bet after all.
Copyright © 2020 by Jason A. Adams
All rights reserved
Published 2020 by Spiral Publishing, Ltd.
Book and cover design copyright © 2020 by Spiral Publishing, Ltd.
Cover art copyright © 2020 by kmiragaya/DepositPhotos.com
Print ISBN-13: 979-8-6147-9199-5