Coverart by Steven Warrick
Atalik’s body, according to the county records, was interred on his estate in the family mausoleum. The magnificent mausoleum rivaled that of Heinrich Schliemann’s in Greece, shaped like a temple with marble columns and carved reliefs. It wasn’t an original part of the estate but had been built shortly after the property was purchased.
The architect, Matthew Rodriguez, worked on many of the renovations made to the estate. The mausoleum was one of his last projects. He was fascinated with secret passages and giving his clients a little something extra in each design whether they requested it or not. He died in a car accident returning to the city one weekend after a party at the estate. His will, which was immediately contested by his family, left everything, including his portfolio, to the count. It even when so far as to say that Atalik was the sole executor, which gave Atalik the right to dispose of his body however he choose. Knowing Matthew’s mother was old-school Catholic, he had the body cremated and the ashes mixed in with the cement for a planned extension to the house’s foundations. Atalik had everything in it shipped to the estate.
Atalik liked to infer that he came from old money, so the deceased members of the Bath family were moved from their original resting places to the mausoleum after its completion. It cost him a pretty penny in bribes to move the bodies and begin a cemetery on private land. At one moment he even thought of abandoning the project due to cost, but being defeated by a penny was not something he could allow. Eventually the site was even sanctified by a member of the local clergy to ensure the peaceful rest of its inhabitants. He had never had close relations with any of his family after he graduated from high school. The few living relatives he did have stayed as far away as they could. None of them ever seemed tempted to ask their cousin for a favor beyond being left alone.
According to Em, her father had a secret crypt built in the basement of the house for himself and his “special” wives. It was for the three women who gave him a child. Each one received a cash payment of a million dollars and a swift divorce, and died within two years.
Each was brought back to the estate and interred. All total, Atalik was married seven times, but only three of his wives survived him. Helena Jacqueline Antoinette Bath was in the process of divorcing the old scoundrel when he died. She left the house prior to the funeral, taking her small spending allowance with her. Her refusal to stay and see him buried surprised no one, once she knew the contents of the will. In the nearly decade-long marriage, he had never changed his will. It hadn’t been changed since the year after Emily was born. Her allowance was a provision of the will that allowed for her to receive a cash disbursement of three thousand dollars once a month for five years after his death; after that time the amount would be cut in half. The money was less than a third of what Antoinette spent in a month on clothing, beauty treatments, and entertainment. It was her entertaining of young men that incited the divorce proceedings.
The first time Em saw the crypt was when she was six years old. The youngest, most precocious of the children, she was always wandering away or, in the words of the nannies and tutors, sneaking off. It truly wasn’t malicious. She was just a naturally curious and restless child. Mihaly called her Houdini because of her repeated seemingly impossible escapes from their lessons and training. One moment she was working quietly alongside her brothers, and the next she was gone. It didn’t seem to matter who was watching her; there was always a moment when no one was looking, and she knew how to take advantage of it.
She was smart enough never to explore when her father was in attendance. More than one nanny was fired for failing to keep an eye on little Em. It was impossible in his mind that she could be so clever or they so absent-minded.
It was late in the evening when she slipped out of her room and made her way to the basement. Like the rest of the estate, it was unbelievable huge and mostly off-limits to the children. The buildings were under constant repair and renovation since its purchase. In her young mind, the basement, with its stone floors, timbers, and dust, was King Minos’s labyrinth beneath his Cretan palace, where Athenian youth were sacrificed to the bloodthirsty Minotaur.
Em was pretending to be the hero, Theseus, who saves the princess from the beastly Minotaur, when she heard the rhythmic sounds of footsteps hitting the stone floor in unison. She swiftly moved behind one of the wine racks. Her father, his manservant, Gerald, and four robed men came into the chamber. The men, who worked in various positions on the grounds, were carrying a long ebony box. The party came to an abrupt stop at the far end of the room. It seemed like they would have continued to walk forward into the stone wall if Gerald’s arm had not flowed up as a signal to stop.
Fear and intrigue held her tightly in place. She thought they would merely be depositing the crate and returning momentarily. After all, there was no place for the men to go except the way they came. She crouched as low as she could while still keeping an eye on the strange group.
Her father raised his arms and began muttering in Latin. When he finished, a section of the wall slid back, and the ensemble entered the newly formed doorway. Em nearly snickered at her father’s horrid elocution; had she demonstrated such poor pronunciation, she would have received a beating that would continue until she corrected the error. Consequently, she and her siblings practiced continually, drilling one another until they had mastered each lesson. Mihaly led his younger siblings in these drills. Sometimes they sneaked into one another’s rooms to prepare for assessments. No matter how intensely they practiced, their father and the tutors always found a reason to punish them.
The door closed as quickly as it had opened. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it didn’t deter Em. This mystery was too much for her to pass up, so she waited, watching, shivering on the icy floor. The Minotaur was safe for another night.
By the time they came out of the chamber, Em had nearly fallen asleep; only the return of rhythmic footsteps sounded just in time to keep her from nodding off completely and banging her head on the floor.
She waited until after the stomping sound had ceased to echo before she moved to investigate. It didn’t take her long to find the floor latch and open the crypt’s door. Secretly, she praised the Hardy Boys novels she had recently finished for helping her quickly locate the trigger for the door. Not that she would ever tell Mihaly, who had suggested the series. It just wasn’t proper to let your big brother know you thought he was cool or appreciated his advice.
The chamber was lit from an aperture running around the perimeter between the wall and stone floor. A shiver dashed down her spine when she noted the eerie similarity of this chamber to the one in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
In the center was a stone sepulcher with her father’s name etched into it, along with his birth date and an epitaph—the date of his death waited to be carved. Along the walls three ebony boxes exactly like the one she had seen carried in were standing on end facing the sepulcher, except these boxes appeared to have glass fronts. There was one for each of the three walls before her.
Had Em been a fearful child, she would have run from the room and not taken another step. However, the physical and emotional abuse she had endured prevented her from experiencing the normal fears of a six-year-old child; she had seen too much and knew it wouldn’t kill her.
The boxes were like shiny bobbles left out for a magpie to snatch; the least she could do was inspect them. Em moved towards the one on the left for no other reason than her eye had turned in that direction. As she advanced on her target, an unexpected queasy feeling built in her stomach. She attributed it to the cook’s latest experiment, not knowing any better.
There are some things in this world that every child should be prevented from seeing, but Em continued forward, as she always had and always would. It only made sense in her mind to keep moving. She had no way of knowing what the crypt truly held or how similar its contents would be to one of Poe’s chilling tales.
The faint light caused her eyes to strain; however, the figure of a woman was becoming clear. Forward. Always forward. A foot away from the glass, details came into focus. Another chill ran through Em. The woman’s face was obscured by a veil, so Em tried to balance on her tiptoes for a better look. Her failure landed her face first on the frigid stone floor.
Her head ached, but her eyes widened when she read the name—Marcella E. Bath, her mother’s name—etched on the base in golden script. To her credit she didn’t scream or run from the room. She did crawl to the next black casket and then the last, reading the names of her brothers’ mothers.
Making her way back up to the main house, Em began to build a wall between her consciousness and the new knowledge, trying to shred apart the carefully constructed mental configuration that kept her young mind from collapsing in on itself. Children, after all, are the ultimate survivors. Forward, just keep moving forward. Back out of the basement, through the kitchen to the back staircase, up to the second floor, and down the hall to the nursery.
At six years old, she still slept in the nursery and would continue to do so until she turned eleven, when she had her first period. The decor of the nursery reflected Atalik’s predatory nature. The furnishings were all dark wood, and a mural of a jungle took up the largest wall in the room. The animals weren’t cute or cartoony, but realistic. In two of the corners, a hunter was positioned with rifle in hand, aiming toward the animals in the center. The opposing walls contained trophies from Atalik’s various hunting expeditions. A pair of kudos with their stately spiraled horns took up positions on either side of the door, with a lioness positioned directly over it. A few of the nannies interviewed by Atalik declined the position after seeing the room he had so thoughtfully decorated for his children.
The light flicked on as soon as she entered; Atalik sat on the bed, patting it slightly. His face wore its usual sinister smirk, a forewarning of his intentions. Em didn’t even freeze for a single moment. Hesitation would only make things worse. Forward she walked, taking her place beside her loving father and silently sliding the last brick in place. She had learned not to flinch when her father reached for her.
His hands gently brushed the hair away from her forehead. The grin dissolved when he noticed the mark blooming on her temple.
“Tell Papa how this came to be.”
“I was playing, and I fell, Papa.”
“And where was Ms. Kasik?”
She tilted her eyes down, trying her best to appear demure and innocent; manipulation was a survival skill she had learned early.
“Mmm,” she said as she bit her lips slightly, “I went into the cellar when she wasn’t looking.”
“The cellar is out of bounds, young lady.”
“I know, Papa. I apologize for breaking the rules. I wanted to play where the boys wouldn’t hear me. They think playing Theseus and the Minotaur is moronic.”
“I see. And that is how you got the bruise, fighting the Minotaur again?”
Em nodded a shy affirmation. The wicked grin returned as Atalik tucked her into bed, placing a tender kiss on her forehead. Exiting the room, he chose the door leading to Ms. Kasik’s room.
As much as he relished disciplining his offspring, he never tolerated anyone else doing so without permission. The offense was especially odious if a visible mark resulted. Ms. Kasik was clearly guilty of neglecting and thereby injuring her charge.
The next day Miss Amber Russo, the nanny for her brothers Andras and Sandor came in to prepare her for breakfast. Em asked about her nanny and was dismissed quickly. The next week a new nanny was hired, a Ms. Ingrid Picador from Newark, New Jersey. She would remain with the family for three years before exiting in a similarly mysterious manner.
Atalik had a hedge maze built on the property for the amusement of the children. Em was allowed to play in the maze without her brothers under the supervision of her new nanny. She never went into the basement again to play.
The fate of Ms. Andrea Kasik is unknown. No record could be found of her being employed after her dismissal. She wasn’t the first or last employee to go missing over the twenty-five years that Atalik lived at the estate. Detective Anderson told me when I spoke with him that there wasn’t anything they could do. No one could find anything substantial to link the estate with their disappearances—no bodies, no evidence, no crime. Strangely enough, very few missing persons cases were filed. They just vanished. Charges couldn’t be filed based on rumors and speculation.
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