Tired tonight, masses of work to deal with, so a story for bedtime instead. Mummylonglegs, you have mail from another incarnation. Look for the Italian/Roman connection and you'll see me.
This is another unpublished story but part of the Blackthorn family series. They are not for the easily spooked. Fifties-style twist at the end. Yes, I'm old.
Jen Blackthorn pushed open the door of her new house and lugged in three pots of paint, two bags full of wallpaper and paste, and a pack of paintbrushes. She deposited her load in the hallway and opened the door to the lounge.
Her husband, Zach, sat where she had left him. He stared at the wall, his arms loose at his sides. Jen stomped over to face him, her hands on her hips.
“You haven’t done a thing, have you?” She pointed at the brass keyhole, set into the wall. “I thought you were going to deal with that ridiculous thing so we could wallpaper in here.”
Zach’s eyes shifted from the wall to his wife’s face. He lifted a pot of filler into view. “I did. Twice.”
“Oh, come on.” Jen ran her hand over the keyhole. The brass chilled her fingers. “This hasn’t been touched.”
“I did.” Zach’s voice was flat. He rose from his chair and opened the filler. “Watch.”
Zach spread filler over the keyhole. He pressed it in with his fingers, until the hole blended with the wall.
“Right. Finally.” Jen marched back to the hall. “That’s all you had to do, a few seconds of work, and it’s taken you hours to do it.” She picked up the paint and returned to the lounge, where she set the pots in the middle of the room. “Now you can do some painting while that sets. What the—?”
Zach’s face twisted into something between a smile and a grimace. The keyhole sparkled as though newly polished, all trace of filler gone. Jen ran her fingers over it again. It was perfectly smooth, and cold. She glared at Zach. “How did you do that?”
“I didn’t.” Zach stared at the keyhole. “Every time I fill it in, it just soaks away.”
Jen shook her head. “You’re being ridiculous. Look, it can’t be that big a hole. That’s an outside wall, so it’s not like there’s a room behind there.”
“What’s it for, I wonder?”
Jen rolled her eyes. “We’ve been through this. It’s not ‘for’ anything. It’s a bit of meaningless, stupid decoration put up by the nut who used to live here. There’s no door, no cupboard, no nothing. It’s a stupid brass keyhole plate fitted into the middle of a blank wall, and I want it gone.”
“I don’t think it wants to go.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Give me that.” Jen snatched the filler from Zach’s hand. She pushed the soft paste into the keyhole until it could take no more, then wet her finger and smoothed it over. “Right. It’s gone.” Jen moved towards the door but stopped beside Zach. “You fetch the rest of the stuff in here. I don’t want you cleaning out that hole again.”
Head bowed, Zach left the room. Jen shook her head and wondered what had possessed her to marry Zachariah Blackthorn in the first place. Oh, he stood to inherit a fortune once his father passed away, but in the meantime he was of little use. Jen narrowed her eyes. It was the thought of one day moving into Blackthorn Manor that kept her with this loser. Nothing more.
Zach returned with the wallpaper and set it beside the paint. He looked past Jen and his shoulders sagged. “Told you.”
Jen wrinkled her nose and turned around. The keyhole gleamed against the wall. She ran her fingers over it once more. “To hell with it,” she said. “Just paper over the top.”
Jen surveyed the wallpapered room. She had to admit, shiftless as he was, Zach made a decent decorator. If only he could hold down a job. Jen ran her hand over the place where the keyhole lay hidden and smiled. The thick wallpaper covered the offending hole without so much as a ripple. If it started to show later, she could hang a picture over it.
She clapped her hands together. “Right, Zach. A cup of tea, then we can get started on the woodwork. We can have this room finished tonight, if we get moving. Then I can order a carpet tomorrow.”
Zach nodded and headed for the kitchen. Jen sat on the floor and prised the lid off one of the pots of paint. Sunset yellow, a favourite of hers but one she knew Zach hated. Well, tough. When he paid the bills, he could get to choose the colours. She reached for the pack of brushes. A glint of metal caught her eye.
The keyhole’s brass plate sat flush with the surface of the wallpaper.
Jen rose to her feet. Zach could not have done this. The wallpaper was trimmed, not torn. He would have had to take time, using a knife, to cut it so perfectly, and he wasn’t even in the room. Jen leaned closer, until her eye was level with the hole. On the other side, a skull grinned at her. Jen yelped and jumped back.
She stood with her hand on her chest and her eyes closed, waiting for her heart to slow, when Zach’s voice made her jump again.
“I found something.”
“You scared the crap out of me. Don’t sneak around like that.” Jen scowled at her husband, and at the object in his hand. “What’s that?”
“A key, I think. It was at the back of one of the kitchen drawers.”
“You think? Can’t you even tell what a key looks like?” Jen snatched the object from Zach’s fingers and examined it. It was a key, made from what looked like a long bone. She sniffed, her gaze alternating between the key in her hand and the little brass plate on the wall.
“You think it fits?” Zach’s eyes brightened.
Jen snorted. “What if it does? There’s nothing to open. It’s just a pointless decoration.” Perhaps, she thought, or perhaps there was something behind that wall. A secret door, so well made that its outline could not be seen. A prisoner, sealed in for centuries, possibly with some ancient treasure. She twirled the key in her fingers. In the kitchen, the kettle whistled.
“Go and make that tea.” Jen closed her fingers around the key. “We’ll worry about this keyhole nonsense later.” She waited until Zach left the room before raising the key to the lock. If there was anything valuable hidden here, there was no need to let Zach in on it. Jen slid the key into the lock and turned it. Deep within the wall, something clicked.
The key warmed against Jen’s hand. She pushed, then pulled, but no crack appeared. Nothing to indicate a door, or even a hatch. Jen curled her lip. It was a pointless affectation, a folly of decoration. The previous owner must have fitted the keyhole, complete with lock, simply to baffle later residents. The skull was part of that joke. Jen made to pull the key from the lock, but it was stuck fast.
“Oh, great, now I’ve got this damn thing sticking out of the wall.” Jen put both hands on the key and pulled hard.
The joints in her fingers popped so fast they sounded like a machine gun. Jen shrieked at the pain and tried to release the key. Her fingers refused to comply. Her elbows separated with a thunk, her shoulders left their sockets with twin bangs. Jen fell to her knees, the pain now forming blurred spots in her vision. She tried to call for Zach, but her jaw dislocated and fell open.
The heat in the key grew and spread along her arms. The tips of her fingers oozed blood as bone pushed through skin. Fingerbones melded with the key and slid, one after another, into the lock. Jen’s hands, now as limp as gloves, still could not relinquish their grip.
When the bones of her forearm passed through her hands, they tore skin and pushed Jen’s boneless fingers aside. She blinked away tears and forced back the bile in her throat. Her upper-arm bones followed, disappearing through a keyhole that could not possibly have accommodated their diameter. Did it expand, or did the bones shrink? Jen could not be sure, through the tears that filmed her eyes, nor did she care. All she wanted was for it to stop.
Ribs separated from sternum and spine with a serial rattle. Hip bones split, leg joints cracked, and all travelled through the loose flesh of Jen’s arms to disappear into the keyhole. The bones of her spine followed one by one, somehow managing their migration without breaking the nerves within. Jen was not spared the feeling in her lower body by any merciful severance of her spinal cord. Nor was she spared a single sensation of crack and splinter while her skull separated and made its long and tortuous way through her flesh.
The key released her torn and bloodied fingers. Jen’s body slumped to the floor. Her eyes still saw, her ears still heard, and every nerve ending screamed its agony into her brain. Jen tried to move, but managed only a tremor here, a shudder there. Above her, the key rotated and the lock clicked.
Zach smiled down at her, holding a cup of tea. “I didn’t think you’d be able to resist.” He took the key from the lock and slipped it into his pocket. Jen tried to open her mouth, to beg him, plead with him to do something, anything. Even kill her, to stop the pain. All that came out was a gurgle.
“I suppose you want the pain to stop. It will, soon.” Zach took a seat and sipped at his tea. “Your lungs can’t work without ribs, you see, so you’ll die of asphyxiation in a few minutes.” He glanced at the open paint pot. “Yellow. I hate yellow. I hope you kept the receipt.”
Zach sighed. “It’s a pity, really. You had all the qualities of a Blackthorn, but you turned out to be just another gold-digger. That’s why we brought you here.”
Jen fought to breathe, but could not inflate her lungs. No, she wanted to say. I bought this house. I chose it. You didn’t bring me here. I brought you. Her sight faded, her chest burned with the lack of air.
Zach took another sip of tea. “This house belongs to the family, Jen. Always has, and still does, since I’ll inherit it back from you.” He tilted his head and smiled. “Every family has a few skeletons in the closet, you know. This is where we keep ours.”