Providence is at the best of times a dubious place, reflected Justinian Whelt as he trudged through the chilly, largely empty streets, and this is not the best of times.
Once-skeletal trees, newly beginning to bud and blossom, opened themselves to the clouded sky, but Justinian paid them no mind. He was deeply in thought, the events of the past few days whirring emptily in his mind as though they were so many swarming insects. None of it made sense; or, perhaps, it made too much sense.
After all, had he not from the beginning occupied himself with morbid pursuits, and fancied himself so similar to those hapless gentlemen whose appreciation of life's darker elements inevitably led them to confront a terrifying conclusion, a chilling end? Was that actually to be his lot?
Coming home, he placed the plain brown paper package upon his kitchen table. He had accepted it, willingly or otherwise, and although his rational instinct insisted that he burn it forthwith, a deeper and far greater force within him compelled him to carefully cut it open. Paper? No... a story.
He skimmed through it, but it was clearly incomplete; indeed, not even terribly well-written. But setting these considerations aside for the moment, he was struck by the last filled page, whose only words were a bold and sinister
To Be Continued...
Justinian sat back, pondering the ominous closure, and then got to his feet. He felt that he needed a change of scene; this story was too intense, too convoluted for him to rightfully accept at face value. The door closed behind him with a bang, releasing him into the chilly spring night.
As he walked, strange, nightmarish implications festered in his mind. What was the meaning of it? Did someone want something from him, or were they simply trying to toy with his mind? He considered the possibility that this was part of a far greater, far more sinister plan, but discarded it: after all, it was probably just his morbid fancies running away with him again.
There was a crash, a shattering, and a scream; he turned the corner quickly and hastened to the Annmary Brown Memorial, a venerable building and evidently the source of the disturbance. It was closed for the night; he heard police sirens, and glimpsed a shadowy figure escaping the scene. Taking a deep, preparatory breath, he gave chase.
When he finally caught up with the fugitive, the other wheeled around suddenly and caught him by the lapel, hissing, "Justinian Whelt. Don't be a fool. This is only the beginning." A flashlight opened upon them, and the figure was gone, leaving Justinian blinking in confusion.
He learned the name of the victim: Samantha Jonnet. A curator, apparently. The police let him go after only a few questions.
When he returned home, more of the story awaited him, its new paragraphs once again closed by that terrifying, unfinished
To Be Continued...
"To be continued," Justinian muttered to himself. For how long? How long would this continue?
Fortunately, he had a friend, someone who could help him figure things out. A psychologist, ironically, but a man well-versed in the sort of occult difficulty in which he currently found himself embroiled. Thomas Weinstein had been helpful in the past; he might well be helpful again.
A short walk later, he was waiting in the lobby of Rhode Island Hall, the Brown University building where his friend was employed. His eyes kept coming to rest upon the man who sat opposite him; a tall man, in a dark coat, with dark glasses. A disturbingly striking figure. His thoughts were interrupted, however, when the receptionist called, "Mister Whelt? You're next."
The door closed behind him, and he was in Weinstein's room. The psychologist stood to welcome him, extended his hand, and then his face began to assume an expression of horror. To Justinian's surprise, he found a firm pressure on his arm, forcing it forward, towards his friend and advisor; a roll of tape lay on the desk. Stifling a scream, he beheld himself forcing Weinstein back into his own chair, taping his mouth shut... the man in black. The man in black had followed him somehow, was in the room, was smiling silently as he moved Justinian's body in this act of unthinkable horror.
It was not very long before Weinstein's body lay across his desk, the pens protruding from his impaled eyes, the barbed wire that the dark figure had supplied Justinian wrapped around and around his hands. Justinian was shaking. The sinister figure whispered, "Who's left? Whom will you kill next, Justinian? Who's the enemy here - is it me or is it you?"
"What do you want with me?!" The tortured cry rang hollowly within the room, empty save the corpse and Mister Whelt: the figure in black had vanished.
His hands still bleeding from the barbed wire, the miserable Justinian had no option but to slip out the window. It was going to be a long night; and he knew there would be more of the story awaiting him when he returned home.
To Be Continued...
Justinian skimmed the story that lay before him, its pages still more filled than before. He still felt sick from his earlier encounter, and this tale was not helping things at all. It had taken a strange twist, describing an old feud and a murder that had taken place a generation ago. The father had been killed by a "mysterious avenger" who resented his inquiries into matters better left untouched, but the son was still alive, and indeed appeared to have taken up his father's work. Justinian frowned as he read on... from the activities and description of this "avenger" alone, he seemed remarkably similar to the black-coated figure Justinian had just seen.
One detail that continually puzzled him was the emphasis that the story placed on the house in which the father had lived. Or... it seemed, actually, as though it might be a more general statement about the father's family line. "The house had fallen into ruin. Amidst the decay, a vine as red as blood was growing, a twisted thing, but obscured for all the other growths that climbed there. The house was nothing but vines, dead foliage that could conceal anything; such things, left untended, have been known to breed murder. Like father, like son."
Justinian stood. Something had been triggered in his mind... a house of vines... yes, he knew the place. Throwing on his coat, he began to walk. Soon, the vine-wrapped house loomed before him, its vegetative encrustations seeming to shroud it in some kind of guilt or mystery. As he approached the door, he observed with a feeling of defeat that the black-coated man was waiting patiently just outside. As the apparition pulled open the door, he spoke with quiet malice.
"Come inside; I've been expecting you. Let me show you what I've done. Why so surprised? I'll always be one step ahead. I thought you knew that."
To Be Continued...
Justinian awoke from a black sleep. He was sickened and repulsed by the horror that the vine house had held, but rest held no comfort for him; visions of mutilation danced across his closed eyes. He went into the sitting room and noticed with some surprise that no more of the story had been written, although a letter from a friend of his with whom he had not been in recent contact lay nearby. He opened it carefully.
It appeared that his friend had been injured in an unexpected attack by a figure in a black coat just the other day; that he had only recently resumed consciousness in the hospital, and urged Justinian to visit him as soon as he could. Justinian frowned, wondering how he was to track his friend down, when he observed an address tacked onto the end of the letter that had previously escaped his notice. "Once more into the breach," he said to himself.
"I'm sorry," the hospital receptionist told him, "we don't have anyone by that name registered here. Room 415 has been empty for days. Let me look in the records for you." She tapped a few keys and waited, then said, "Oh, I see. I'm sorry. That patient passed away several weeks ago."
Justinian stood in the empty hospital room. Light shone in through a window; the bed was neatly made. "He was the first person on my list," whispered the black-coated figure.
To Be Continued...
Justinian sat in his room. The story and its brown paper packaging lay scattered across the room, torn and shredded; the letter, supposedly from his friend, had been thrown into the fire. His head was spinning. Who had written that letter, so clearly in his friend's hand? Why would they do this, why deceive him so? And now, alone in his room, the dark figure surely somewhere nearby, what hope did he have? He knew what happened in the horror stories, inevitably. He thought he knew what would happen next. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the end of the story, of his story, writing itself.
The man in black placed his hand upon Justinian's shoulder, causing him to start. The grip was gentle, but cold. "Your name is next, Mister Whelt. It is your turn." The figure crossed the room to the front door, which opened easily at his touch, and turned to eye the uncertain Justinian. "Right this way."
He was frozen in terror. The man said it was his time; who was he to argue? There lay his life, inked out across the scattered pages, inevitable, unchanging, already written. Had he any choice but to accept his end? And even if he had that choice, what was the point? His friends and associates were dead, or would be. The figure knew his name and his soul. Had his entire life been nothing more than a miserable travesty, a cosmic joke?
Justinian carefully got to his feet, and walked towards The Black Man, who smiled. The door closed behind them.