As part of the build up to our events at the end of the month Paul Kane has been kind enough to let us publish one of his short stories online. So sit back and enjoy "Masques" from his collection The Butterfly Man published (of course) by P.S. Publishing.
He stood looking out through the gigantic window over the city, lights twinkling, mirroring the starry, moonlit sky. It was hard not to feel like he was above it all, not just because physically he was, but because that height brought a certain sense of detachment. Or at least it should.
If that were the case, then why was he awake at almost 2 am? And why was there a cognac clenched in his fist? A cognac he’d just used to wash down another dose of Temazepam; the drug he had prescribed for himself, and not for the first time.
The problem was that Dr Stéphane Rollin, the youngest medical genius of his generation, had one major flaw. He let his work get to him: he cared to the point where he could see the faces of the handful of people he’d not been able to help over the years. It had always been this way, from when he was a lowly intern, right up to the lofty position of senior “in demand” consultant at St Auguste’s teaching hospital. He could picture the face of the first patient he’d ever lost right now if he closed his eyes, a 52 year old man called Pierre-Louis who’d come in complaining of a pain in his leg and had died of a blood clot before Stéphane had been able to diagnose or fix what was wrong with him.
Pierre-Louis had definitely made him look more closely, to work faster, to be better, but that man had also been the first of those unfortunate patients he now carried with him forever.
He’d learned to cover this at work, rising in the ranks quickly and swiftly – with hardly anyone being able to spot this drawback under his cool and businesslike exterior. And he’d been able to handle the few cases he’d lost, the good he’d done far outweighing this. He was too hard on himself, deep down he knew that. But that’s what came of being pushed from an early age, by a single mother who’d demanded nothing but complete dedication to his studies.
But now, well, now things were different. There were many more faces tonight. Dozens, hundreds, that he hadn’t been able to save. And couldn’t block out, not even in the arms of Camille, his ex-model girlfriend who he’d met a little over two years ago when he diagnosed her rupturing appendix.
She was in the bedroom sleeping right now, didn’t have a clue what was really going on inside his mind. He’d shielded her from it, everything he’d seen since his first-hand exposure eight months ago. How could he talk to her about the things he’d witnessed? How could he talk to anyone?
His first encounter had been in a rural part of the south, at an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere. Stéphane had been called in to consult on the case, receiving a phone call from the World Health Organisation after an “incident” had been brought to their attention. They’d sent a helicopter, which picked him up on the rooftop. When he arrived at the camp that had been set up just outside what was being called the “Isolation Zone”, the amount of police there told Stéphane just how serious the situation was.
He was met by a Professor Lewisohn, whose work in the field of virology was well known to Stéphane. “What exactly is all this about?” he came right out and asked, as he was suiting up: putting on yellow HazMat gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus, clear plexiglass separating him from the world.
“We’re dealing with something that could, potentially, become a Level 4 Biohazard,” Lewisohn answered seriously, being equally blunt. Stéphane frowned, realising full well that the man was referring to a virus fatal to humans for which no treatments had yet been developed. Diseases such as Marburg and Lassa fever fell into this category. But this was new and Lewisohn would greatly value his opinion on the matter.
They were driven to the farmhouse in question, ground zero for the hazard. “The family inside were discovered by a visiting friend,” Lewisohn explained. “That friend rang the emergency services…but had contracted the disease herself by the time they arrived.”
“By touch, or inhalation?” asked Stéphane.
Lewisohn shrugged. “We’re hoping just by touch, as the person in question let herself in. She might even have touched the...” He let his sentence tail off. “But who knows.”
“Wasn’t the friend able to tell you anything more?” asked Stéphane.
Lewisohn didn’t answer that. Stéphane found out why when they parked up and entered the farmhouse.
She had died with the phone still in her hand, the receiver now on the floor by the chair in which she lay slumped. “Christ almighty,” said Stéphane when he saw her.
In all his years as a practising doctor, he’d never seen anything quite like this before. If he hadn’t known it was a woman, and if she hadn’t been wearing a skirt and top, he wouldn’t have been able to tell. Because her face was featureless, completely red in appearance: not from some sort of rash; no, this was where the blood had pumped through her pores, covering every inch of skin as if someone had smeared thick tomato sauce all over it. Her hands were the same, a deep crimson in colour, and from the way her clothes were saturated, it was clear that the rest of her body had sweated blood as well. Her passing had not been an easy one: that much he could tell by the way her hands gripped the arms of the chair, scarlet fingers digging into the material.
But the family, oh God the family…
They’d obviously been getting ready for breakfast when this hit. The father had collapsed over the table, his blood turning the chequered tablecloth maroon. Mother had been coming in from the kitchen, perhaps hanging onto the doorjamb there for support before toppling headlong onto the floor.
Stéphane had walked around that table, hardly able to look at the final two victims: by their size children, one probably about five, the other little more than a baby in a high chair. He heard someone just behind him and blinked away the tear welling at the corner of his eye, before Lewisohn had a chance to see it through the clear mask.
“You can see why we brought you here,” said Lewisohn, still on the other side of the room. Stéphane looked across, puzzled. He’d felt sure the man was closer than that. “We could definitely use someone of your diagnostic expertise to figure this out.”
It was true, Stéphane could usually crack a case from whatever symptoms presented – his colleagues often joked that he made House look like an amateur – but even he had to admit he was damned if he knew what had caused this. Whatever it was, it had struck the family fast: crippling them before they’d had time to get to a phone. It had overcome the friend just as quickly, barely giving her a chance to dial the emergency services and warn them. But were it not for that, this…this sickness might already have spread. As it was they had a chance to contain it and study the site.
Looking out now over the skyline, Stéphane took another swig of the brandy, draining the glass he was holding. His hand was shaking, he was shaking – the memories, as always, doing their worst.
They’d taken what samples they could back for analysis, but to date they hadn’t revealed their secrets to him. Had the mystery disease been contracted from wildlife? A scratch from an animal? Some kind of weird variant of foot and mouth which had passed from cattle to humans – causing bleeding instead of blisters? Something from the Ebola family perhaps? Or a biological attack of some kind? Something man-made? But why use it all the way out here – unless it was some kind of dry run? The more he studied it, the less he was able to determine.
In the end, frustrated at his lack of progress, Stéphane had returned to St Auguste’s, in the hopes that they wouldn’t see any more “incidents” of this kind. But he hadn’t forgotten, could never shake the images of how that family had met their end.
Then, a little over two months ago, Stéphane had seen the first reports on the TV. To begin with, a handful of cases: rarities all; anomalies. But soon, very quickly, people were dying in great numbers in the rundown parts of the city, his city. Their bodies – when discovered – were completely red, having sweated out most of their own blood. Sufferers complained of sharp pains and dizziness before the attacks, and the final stages came upon them swiftly. The authorities were informing people that there was nothing to worry about, that the disease was carried through direct bodily contact and had spread in these areas because of poor living conditions. The screen threw back images of the sick in local hospitals, lying in their beds, doctors and nurses running back and forth attempting to ease their suffering.
“That’s awful,” Camille had said, sitting beside him on the sofa, but an hour later – and after watching some rubbish reality show – she’d dismissed it almost entirely from her mind. Which was more than Stéphane could. Those people were dying because he hadn’t been able to figure this out; it had followed him here because he hadn’t been able to find a way of stopping it.
The next day he got in touch with Lewisohn at The WHO. “All we can really do is monitor the situation,” the Professor had told him. “Keep on looking for a cure. But if this escalates, Stéphane, it won’t be long before the military take over completely and infected areas will have to be sealed off.”
Neither of them said what they were both thinking: how long before this becomes airborne?
The clock in Stéphane’s living room struck two, causing him to jump. When he turned, Camille was in the doorway, silky nightie clinging to her curves. “What are you doing up, my love?” she asked.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said honestly.
“Come back to bed,” she told him, “and we’ll see what we can do about that.”
Placing the glass down, Stéphane followed her back to the bedroom, but if he slept tonight he knew it would have more to do with the Temazepam and cognac than anything Camille could muster.
And again, the dream.
In it, he saw the rooms. The coloured rooms.
The first blue, the second purple. As he moved through them, he took in the green of the third space, the orange of the fourth, the white of the fifth. He was aware that behind him there was laughter, and when he turned he could trace a line back down through the rooms to the place he’d come from: the place he’d dreamed of before.
The party; some kind of ball. He’d been there only moments ago, hadn’t he? Mixing with the guests, dancing. The visitors wore strange clothes, old fashioned, the women twisting and turning in beautiful gowns that must have cost a fortune. The men were no less regal in their attire, with chains hanging from their necks, complimenting the folds of their tunics. But all had one thing in common: their faces were obscured, each covered with odd-looking disguises.
Some simple, painted affairs, others much more ornate – resembling animals, birds, fish. Some people were eating, others drinking wine. Everybody was obviously enjoying themselves. Except one person.
The person he’d followed into these rooms in the first place. The person who’d been mingling with the crowd as well, his red, blood-splattered robe mocking their pleasure.
He’d tried to shout out, to get the interloper to stop, reveal himself: for, as it was they had their back to him. Yet no words would issue from his mouth.
How dare he! How dare this intruder come here and spoil their fun? Actually make fun at their expense?
At his expense.
These were his thoughts now, and they made him angry. That was why he was moving through the rooms, eager to grab hold of this villain, with the intention of hanging the swine – or maybe…
The knife was out of its sheath even as he thought it. He’d teach the man a lesson he would not soon forget. As if this reminder of the plague was not enough, he’d had the nerve to enter these rooms set aside for guests only, which the servants had spent so long preparing.
How dare he! Just how dare he!
It spurred him on, even though he seemed to be moving so slowly – the figure ahead increasing in distance if anything. He contented himself with what he would do when he eventually caught up with the wretch, bathed in the light from those windows, which illuminated the colours: the blues, the purples, the greens… Shining on them as he passed.
Orange and white, then violet. So close now to the last room, the black room where the swine would find no escape. Where there were no doors but one.
The one he would be blocking off, knife in hand at the ready.
But he was actually gaining on the robed figure now, time speeding up. He had his free hand stretched out, fingers just inches away. They brushed the material of that bloodied robe. Then, with a stretch, they found purchase. His hand came down on the man’s shoulder, simultaneously pulling him round to face him.
And what he saw made him scream out loud at the top of his lungs.
“Baby? Baby…wake up!”
Camille was shouting, looming down on him – her face ashen in the moon’s glow. Stéphane gasped and scrambled back on the bed.
“Sweetheart, it’s all right. You were just having a nightmare,” Camille said, reaching a hand up to brush the hair out of his face.
“What?” he said, confused. “No…”
“Ah-huh,” said Camille. “Listen, I’m worried about you. I don’t think you should go in to work tomorrow; take some time off. Maybe we could book a holiday.”
Stéphane’s breath was still coming in short bursts, his heart racing. The sheets pulled around his naked body felt damp.
Blood…was his first thought. I’ve been sweating blood.
“What?” he repeated, as he hadn’t really heard Camille’s words.
“A holiday, just you and me. I think you need to get away from that hospital for a while, maybe go down south.”
He shook his head. “Out…out of the question! There’s…I have too much work to do.”
“You’re working too hard, Stéphane. You know it and I know it.”
Stéphane looked over at the clock by the bedside table, the digital numbers telling him it was 4:30. Hardly worth going back to sleep; he’d be getting up in an hour or so.
“I’m okay,” he said, patting Camille’s hand and removing it at the same time. “Really, I’m okay.”
As he climbed out of bed he knew her eyes were trailing him. And he knew she was right. Maybe he was working too hard, but he had to do something to make sure there wouldn’t be any more faces waiting for him when he got back home that evening.
He began that day by pouring over more test results for the virus, which now officially had a name thanks to the media: they were calling it “The Bloodbath”. Not a bad moniker considering the amount of people who were falling for it. And all because Stéphane didn’t get it. There had to be something he was missing…
For weeks now he’d not only been perusing the original samples again – running simulations in an effort to try and come up with some kind of treatment – he’d also been doing some historical research. If there was even the slimmest chance this disease had been around before, then it might help in their quest to fight it.
The internet had proved a good starting point and turned up a few probable leads. The symptoms were close to those of tuberculosis, so Stéphane ran searches for any kinds of variants of this in written history. On a couple of occasions he thought he might have something, but they turned out to be nothing more than embellishments on the disease by fiction writers.
The Black Death was another avenue he was exploring, as some believed that might have been caused by a viral hemorrhagic fever – or VHF – rather than a bubonic plague.
A Red Death instead of Black, mused Stéphane as he sat back in his chair, tapping a pen against his lips.
He was about to continue his search, going through accounts one after the other, when a call came through to his office. A young man had been brought into the hospital after crashing his car nearby. The paramedics had delivered the injured guy to St Auguste’s for treatment, little realising that the blood on him wasn’t simply due to the accident. “He’s bleeding from his pores, Dr Rollin,” the medic from downstairs said frantically, “just like on the news.”
“Tell everyone to put surgical masks on, right now!” he said. “I’m on my way.”
So they had one. Finally, a live sufferer in their hospital. Stéphane wasn’t sure looking upon his face was a good idea, but he had to – it would spur him on more. Urge him to find a cure for this Red Death.
By the time he got down there, after donning gloves, scrubs and mask himself (by rights he should have some kind of air-purifying respirator as well), the victim was arresting: spasming and crying out in pain. Held down, he coughed up into the face of a nurse that was beside him, the blood hitting her forehead and eyes – she screamed and fell back against the wall.
Before Stéphane could order any kind of treatment, the man went rigid and collapsed back on the bed. Stéphane stepped closer, but again there were no features to see. Just a mask, like those first victims back at the farm: a mask of blood covering his face.
The nurse was still screaming as Stéphane ordered the area to be sterilised, for them all to immediately hit the showers and soap themselves clean while he called it in. As he looked up, though, he thought he saw one of the doctors at the man’s bedside flicker and change: the scrubs becoming robes, the surgical mask becoming-
A hand fell on his shoulder, another nurse – male this time – asking if he was okay?
Okay? Were any of them? How could they be? How would they ever be again?
When he turned back again the doctor in front of him had returned to normal.
They all had to be tested and declared clean before they were allowed to leave that day, and only the nurse who’d been in contact with the blood was kept overnight for observation in the isolation ward.
He was not in the mood for what he found when he returned to his apartment. Camille and a bunch of her buddies – only a couple of whom he knew – were in their living room. They were all dressed smartly, the women in eveningwear the men in suits. Some were seated, some standing admiring paintings on the wall or other ornaments, and they all had drinks in their hands. When she saw him come in, Camille got up and met him at the living room door.
“You’re late, darling,” she said.
“Something came up, a patient,” he told her. “What’s going on?”
“Dinner party, remember? You said this date would be okay.”
Stéphane vaguely recalled Camille mentioning something the other week, but hadn’t really been listening – he’d had a lot on his mind lately. “Look, could we do this another time? It’s been a long day and-”
“They’re all here now.” Camille looked over her shoulder and waved back. “Come on, Stéphane. Go get changed and I’ll fix you something to drink. You’ll feel better once you’ve relaxed.”
A dinner party with a room full of strangers wasn’t his idea of relaxing, but he didn’t feel like arguing either, or chasing them out. He was too tired for that. Stéphane went into the bedroom and took the pills out of his jacket pocket, popping one before tossing his raincoat onto the chair by the bed.
When he returned, the guests were already being ushered into the dining room by Camille, and the smell of some kind of chicken dish was wafting through from the kitchen. As she placed a glass of red wine in his hand, Stéphane was beginning to think this might not be a bad way of staving off the faces, the memories, after all.
The conversation over the first course of melon or soup revolved around either investments, politics or sport. As Camille took away the dishes and began serving up the coq au vin, the couple to Stéphane’s left, Hélène and Jacques, were also keen to shoehorn holidays into the mix. “Your lovely lady tells us you might be going away soon?” Hélène said.
Stéphane attempted a smile, then took a long drink of his Merlot. “She’s trying to persuade me, but things have been a bit…hectic lately.”
“Count yourself lucky you’re not involved in all that Bloodbath business,” chipped in Gabrielle, a middle-aged singleton that Camille knew from the fashion world, whose plastic surgery fetish had resulted in a permanently surprised expression.
“Lucky that’s all been confined to the ‘slums’, you mean,” added a guy called Philippe who Stéphane didn’t know and didn’t really want to. “Still, nasty.”
Stéphane remained silent during these first ignorant remarks. But as they all tucked into their meal, they just couldn’t leave this juicy topic of conversation alone.
“Best way to deal with it would be some sort of cull,” spouted Pascal on the right, who had something to do with antiques, while his wife nodded vigorously.
Stéphane stared at him in disbelief. “Those are people you’re talking about,” he said. “Not animals.”
“Not far off in some of the less…discerning parts of town,” joked Philippe in-between mouthfuls of chicken, but shut up when Stéphane turned his gaze on him.
Camille shot Stéphane a look that said “what are you playing at?”; he ignored it.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Those people are dying,” said Stéphane.
“But they’re…” began Pascal, then suddenly dropped his knife and fork on the table, the metal clattering against the crockery of his plate. His forehead furrowed and he let out a low moan. His wife stopped eating too, turning to see what was wrong, but by then Pascal was clutching his side.
“Stéphane…” said Camille, biting her lip, perhaps wondering if it was her cooking that had done it.
Now Pascal was bellowing with pain, grabbing his side again, attempting to stand but not being able to find his feet. He collapsed back into his chair. “Oh my God,” said Pascal’s wife, feeling his forehead. “He’s burning up!” When she brought her hand away again, it was red.
To Stéphane’s left, Hélène and Jacques were also attempting to stand, wobbling to their feet. Their faces were screwed up in pain and, as he watched, crimson began to ooze from the skin of their cheeks, making it look like they were crying tears of blood.
Gabrielle began to scream. Not because of what she was seeing, but because it was also happening to her. The permanently surprised expression became even more shocked as blooms of red flowered at her temples, her chin. When she looked down at her arms, she shrieked again because they too were weeping blood, the trails running down and dripping from her fingers.
Neither of them said what they were both thinking: how long before this becomes airborne?
“Stéphane,” repeated Camille, “do something!”
But as she turned to him he saw her own face was awash with blood. She gritted her teeth and emitted a loud whine, doubling over with the pain. There was a bang, as Philippe fell onto the table, then slid down over the edge, taking some of the tablecloth with him.
Stéphane’s mouth fell open; he didn’t know what to do next.
Then he felt a presence behind him, and he turned quickly, half-rising, knocking over his glass of wine; the redness ran like a river across the white cloth.
No-one should be there, but he saw a robed figure, now turning, making its way out of the dining room.
No, you’re not really here… You’re from my dreams; an hallucination brought on by the Temazepam, mixed with the wine… You’re not real, you hear me. Not-
Stéphane looked back round at the people at the table, to Jacques gargling in his own juices as he reached out pleadingly for help, to Camille – oh Lord in Heaven no…not Camille; her face painted over, a flowing red canvas with no eyes, nose or mouth.
Stéphane twisted around – it was a blessed relief not to see any more of its effects – and just caught the edge of the robed figure’s cloak as he exited the room. He went after him, leaving the screams and cries of terror behind.
Running through the doorway into what should have been the hall, he found himself in another room. A large room; a blue room.
You’re still tripping out. Tripping when you should be helping the people back there, your…Camille’s friends…
He looked back and through the doorway, saw the folk there, those still standing, faces covered in red masks. And somehow he knew it was that bastard’s fault, the one who was ahead of him.
Looking down, Stéphane realised he still had his dinner knife in his hand.
He began after the robed figure, who had now stepped through into a second room, blue giving way to the purple in there. It was all frighteningly familiar from his dream. Stéphane knew that when he ran through the purple room, in pursuit of the figure, he would pass into… Yes, there it was, the green one, then orange and next white, followed by violet.
Once more, although he was running, he was not even close to catching up with the figure – who seemed, if anything, to be moving incredibly slowly. Stéphane practically fell into the final room and blackness descended on him. Blackness tinged with red: the windows in here tinted scarlet.
The figure had halted and remained with his back to Stéphane. Suddenly nervous, the doctor gripped the knife and raised his free, trembling hand.
A large ebony clock up on the wall suddenly chimed the hour. Stéphane looked at it and when his eyes fell again, the figure was turning.
Its face was a skull, bleached and bare: and twin “eyes” shone red out of its hollow sockets.
Stéphane let out a shrill yell.
When he sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat again, he was aware that the alarm on the clock at the side of him was beeping.
Air was hard to come by, but as he looked around, gauging his surroundings, recognising the familiar bedroom even in this half-light, his breathing slowed. There was a figure beside him, laying still. Camille. How the alarm and his restlessness hadn’t woken her, he’d never know.
God, that had been intense, more so than any of the previous times. Stéphane had felt like he was really there, that the people at the dinner party had been dying. That Camille had been dying. That the robed figure was real.
The robed figure wearing the-
Rubbing his face, he turned on the bedside lamp and looked over at his girlfriend again. “Camille…Camille, are you awa-”
The sheets covering her were stained red.
Stéphane’s heart almost stopped there and then. He reached out a hand and this time it was shaking more than it had done in the dream. Then he withdrew it, getting out of bed instead and walking around to the other side.
Her face was in shadow, but even he could see that it was no longer a face at all. It was a mask. A red masque. Stéphane’s fist went to his mouth and he stepped back, nearly tumbling over the chair there.
No, this was not real. This could not be real… How could he have passed on the virus? He’d been tested, cleared! It didn’t make any sense.
He could no longer stay in the room, in his apartment.
Pulling on his clothes, Stéphane raced from there and didn’t look back.
When he arrived at the hospital, he was told the news that the nurse had died.
Not only that, but the disease had spread rapidly throughout St Auguste’s. Patients and staff alike were taking up beds, the wards littered with victims who were haemorrhaging their lifeblood onto the crisp, folded sheets; the air filled with the screams of those in agony.
Red on white; white on red. A portent of death, especially in a place like this.
Stéphane retreated to his office, only to find a message waiting for him on his answer machine. It was from Lewisohn. The first cases had been reported in England now, in Germany, Russia – even the United States.
“I-I don’t think there is much hope for containment now at all,” he was saying. “The virus is disseminating too quickly.”
Stéphane sat back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. The “faces”, the masks of the dead were too many now, people he hadn’t been able to save. He couldn’t confine them to home, they were invading his mind here at work too – dammit, they were here in this very building today!
There had to be a way – something to put a stop to this. To save those yet to be infected, and at the same time avenge those already dead.
There was. And he knew what it was now.
Stéphane took a handful of his pills, then left his office again. He searched, moving from floor to floor, ward to ward, snatching up a scalpel from an abandoned trolley as he went. He searched for the one thing that could give him his answers.
Just when he was beginning to think he wouldn’t find it, he saw the robed figure bending over one of the patients: up until recently a junior doctor herself at St Auguste’s.
The Red Death. This plague, this disease given form which was now sweeping through his hospital, his city…his world. “Hey!” he shouted, and those who were still able-bodied, or were only in the early stages, looked over, no doubt thinking him insane – because none of them could see it. None of them had ever been able to. But it had been there on every occasion, right from the first bodies that they’d found at the farmhouse. Always at his shoulder.
The figure looked up, still wearing that skull mask – then turned its back on Stéphane.
No, not again. Not this time. This time you’re going to face me in the flesh – this time I’m going to kill you!
Stéphane set off after the thing, ignoring the calls from his fellow doctors. The Red Death passed through into another ward, and Stéphane was not surprised at all to find that the colour in there had changed from the usual stark ivory to blue. Pushing on the double doors, the robed figure entered the next room, and Stéphane saw a hint of plush purple. Ignoring the cries of the dying in bed as he ran past, Stéphane stuck to its heels, through the purple and into the green, then orange, wards (there should not have been this many all in a row). The white one wasn’t that much different to how it should be, except that it was more bleached, the people’s faces in here – Jesus, their faces! – were in negative. It was with a sense of relief that Stéphane plunged through the doors into the final ward.
And there he saw The Red Death waiting for him, back still turned.
Stéphane raised his hand, determined to once again spin the figure around – but he didn’t need to. The Red Death turned of its own volition. And spoke:
So, finally, we meet.
The words jangled in Stéphane’s head. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?” he asked, having now found the one person he could – he must talk to.
I think you know that already, answered the figure, its skull mouth not moving at all. You look so much like him, you know. The Prince.
“Who? I don’t understand.”
After everything I did, he still found a way to escape me. A child, an illegitimate child born of one of the servants. One of the servants who survived.
Stéphane had no idea what the hell he was talking about: what Prince? What servant? Survived what? He was about to ask again what was going on, when he remembered the dream of the party…Not the dinner party, but the one from long ago, with people in old fashioned garb. Had that been him? No, not really – and some part of him knew that the man who’d thrown the affair hadn’t cared about anything but himself and his own safety: celebrating the fact that he wasn’t outside with those victims of the plague.
It has taken some manoeuvring, but you have finally come to me – just as he did. A change of name over generations, just one more mask to hide behind. But his line could not escape me forever.
The voice sent shivers down Stéphane’s spine. “He was my ancestor, wasn’t he?”
The Red Death nodded. He hid from me, but I found him. Just as I have found you.
“But I’m not him!” argued Stéphane. “Whatever you think, whatever you want…it doesn’t make sense. Why kill all those people just to get to me?”
The Red Death laughed then, long and hard. It was no less chilling. Such an ego. I do this because it is what I am. Inevitability. This is, and always has been , your destiny.
“But I’m not him,” Stéphane said again. “I…I wanted to save those people, I care about them. I’m not hiding.”
You hide from your true nature, The Red Death continued. The faces haunt you because they represent something else. They conceal the fact that you failed. You like to win. It is not the souls themselves that you care for!
This made Stéphane angry. “No!” he shouted and came at the robed figure with the scalpel, “I will kill you and then all this will be over.”
The Red Death swatted aside the weapon, gripping Stéphane by his neck. The gloved hand felt cold on his skin.
If you care so much for them, then the cure is still within your reach. Your life…for theirs.
Stéphane clawed at the hand but could not shift it. He’d been foolish to think that he could fight this creature. There had never been a cure, no man could ever have found it, because this disease wasn’t like any other. But it was still offering him a way to…to win.
No, to save the others.
“Show me,” said Stéphane. And it did. The Red Death’s eye-sockets glowed, and he could see now a future where the sick were healed, where the onslaught of the virus was at an end. Where it simply petered out, just as it had done before all those years, all those centuries ago. In exchange for one thing. In exchange for his essence, which he had to give gladly: the sins of the father revisited on the “son”. “Do it, then. If you’re going to – just get on with it.”
The Red Death nodded again, satisfied. Then Stéphane began to feel heat in the hand that gripped him. Or was it on the skin at his neck, burning up. And the pain, dear God, the pain! At different points inside him simultaneously, like his vital organs were exploding.
But that was nothing compared to the bleeding. The thick gouts of redness that were forcing their way up through his flesh, running down his face, covering him. Drenching his whole body, causing the clothes to stick to him.
He saw only one face now, felt sorry for just the one person: reflected in the glowing eyes of The Red Death. It was the face of Dr Stéphane Rollin.
As everything began to blur around him and he felt himself slipping into shock, Stéphane heard the sound of a clock chiming the hour from just beyond where The Red Death had been standing.
Then there was nothing but blackness.
Blackness tinged with just a hint of red.