There was the black iron gate, tipped with gleaming spikes and glossy like black oil, slowly opening itself up to allow the car to enter the grounds beyond its jaws. The gray gravel crunched underneath the black rubber tires like gnashing teeth and broken bones. One looking through the vehicle’s windows would see no trees with graceful trunks and colorful leaves, or beds of bright flowers to break the monotony of an empty field of long grass. The straight double rows of darkened hanging lights gave no sense of comfort to Gregory Harbor either as he approached the foreboding house that was once the home of his childhood friend.
The car took only forty seconds to roll up the driveway to the mansion and be parked in front of the ostentatious entrance, but Gregory Harbor thought it took twenty years. He remembers his father telling him at one time that he lived most of his adult life on the other side of town from the brother he despised, but that crossing the distance to meet him when his mother passed away to finally make amends for the decades of wrong felt like crossing the expanse of the world. Most people merely say they understand what that feeling is when told about it – the feeling of returning to someplace dreadful that one hasn’t been for a long time. For Gregory Harbor, coming back to this place made it feel like the personification of the years of his absence had dug into the recesses of his mind to wrench out each and every memory of James, Rachel, and Meredith Dunwell for the sadistic pleasure of making him as miserable as possible.
The real world, unfortunately, gave him no time to fully subdue his rebellious subconscious, as his chauffeur opened the door for him. Beyond that, the doorway was open to a trickle of men in black and navy blue coats and women in expensive dresses. They were each cordially welcomed into the house by the head butlers in their complementing black suits and bowties, gray pants, and white gloves, who carefully and organically organized the flow to resemble sand passing through an hourglass.
Harbor resigned himself to his inevitable business, clutched his black bag in his hands and exited the BMW. Stepping outside, he carried the quiet of the car interior with him, as he continued to deal with the contrasting memory of happily playing hide-and-seek in the hallways with the three children of the house with the nightmare of witnessing the treehouse topple to the ground while James, Rachel and Meredith were inside. He ignored the people who turned their heads in his direction and whispered conspiratorially to their plus ones. Only the voices of the mansion staff were acknowledged as he crossed the threshold into the lavish foyer. While meandering through the few people who were idling near the doorway, he followed the general traffic of rich folk toward the ballroom, past a sign that announced Dunwell Family Charity Auction.
Walking into the ballroom, he glanced around at the innumerable paste-and-copy grinning faces of varying skin tones with the same shining white teeth that all hid the same selfish and greedy bastardly thoughts of stripping a once-well-to-do family of every last shred of dignity it had remaining. Gregory Harbor would have loved nothing more than to hire some random madman to execute each and every last one of the vultures swooping in to desecrate the legacy of the only real friends he ever had in life. But while the satisfaction of seeing them die would have been truly cathartic, the knowledge that none of them would have ever sanctioned such an action would have ultimately weighed on his heart and doomed him to misery.
“Mr. Gregory Carlyle Harbor,” an elderly voice rasped behind him, cutting through the buzz in his head and giving him the kind of clarity that only fear can give a man. He turned around to see the one individual he had heard of that truly frightened him, though he had merely heard of him. The man’s large coat and wide hat did little to hide his small stature and brittle figure. He grasped a gnarled, twisted black cane with wrinkled, skeletal hands and claw-like nails. His elderly face could have been cut out of a twisted oak, his beard resembled a dangling clump of cobwebs, a pair of green, snake-like eyes, and a grin like the cat that caught the canary.
“Mr. Dorian Ambrose Wood,” Gregory replied. “What is London’s shadiest and most eccentric investor and power broker doing in New Zealand at a charity auction for a fallen family? I don’t recall any of the Dunwells doing any business that you would be interested in.”
The man simply laughed, a quiet, evil and scraping sound that grated Gregory’s ears. “Why on earth is the most ruthless banker in Canada doing at the home of a bunch of dead country bumpkins?” After a moment where Gregory fought to maintain his composure, the wizened old wretch carried on. “I’ve had an eye on you for some time, and my sources have told me for the longest time that they suspect you to be some manner of machine. You have followed the same routine for the last seven years, pursued no relationships with anyone outside of business, and wouldn’t show up for funerals, parties, or pleasure trips.”
“So when I suddenly decide to go out of my way to go all the way to New Zealand to attend a charity auction of all things, you decided that you simply needed to know why,” Gregory swiftly deduced. Mr. Wood simply nodded. “If you’re here, then you’ve probably already learned about my connection to the Dunwells, how I was a friend to their children during my youth, before my parents moved our family out of the country.”
“As well as how you were the sole witness to the demise of the small ones,” Mr. Wood continued, cackling. “But you’re not here solely for sentiment, are you?”
Gregory’s throat closed.
Dorian hacked out a laugh once more. “The Dunwells were never really anything much. They had a lot of money, but no one knew where it came from. You seriously can’t be the only one whose heard the rumors that they made their fortune stealing valuable art pieces and selling it on the black market. That’s why all these people are here. They’re going to buy anything they can get their hands on, because it may very well be hiding something even more valuable inside. And since you, a no-nonsense money-making machine who happened to be childhood friends with the kids of this family are here, I suspect that those rumors have some basis in fact.”
“We both came here already knowing that,” Gregory said, glaring at him in the hopes it would cause a stroke and kill the devil before him. “Why repeat it to my face?”
“You should know me well enough, Mr. Harbor,” Mr. Wood said, as he drew himself in front of Gregory’s face. “They don’t call me the Eldritch Evil of the East End for nothing.” He backed off and walked away, leaving Gregory alone to clench his fists and calm his rage.
He looked to the back where the auction items were held and approached them. He quickly found the one which he would save from these monsters and would finally allow him to quiet his soul. It was a large, childishly-impressionistic painting that Rachel titled Sweethearts in a Treehouse, of the ramshackle treehouse James built in an old maple tree, set during autumn. In the treehouse were two young children stealing a kiss. One was Meredith. The other was him.
A small tear glistened as it slid from his cheek to the cold, unforgiving, wood floor.
© Mark Skrzyniarz, 2019. All rights reserved.