CHAPTER ELEVEN – Post Mortem
"So, was it everything that you had hoped for?" Eugene asked in a flat, disinterested tone that starkly contrasted his rapidly twitching tail.
"I'm beyond expectations. I only care about results," the old woman answered. Her reply was as stern as the severe expression set on her stony face.
"And…" Eugene prompted.
"Was he the last one?" she inquired without looking away from Donovan's body swinging from the living room rafter. Eugene had to admit that the subtle swaying was both hypnotic and grotesque.
"Are you certain of that?"
"I'm good at what I do."
"So you've told me on numerous occasions."
"Because it's true. You asked for the rest of his line, and I've given it to you."
"I won't find out about some stray cousin or distant nephew?" she baited.
"Not a chance. Trust me."
"Fine. But I'm sure this was the last one. Anything to be rid of you," Eugene grumbled. He felt his scruff starting to bristle.
"Then why did you take this assignment in the first place?"
"Not my choice. The word came down from above."
"Your lack of free will only further undermines my confidence in your supposed abilities."
"You know my boss – would you argue?"
"No," the woman ceded after a moment's consideration.
"So you asked, we answered, and the deal is done. Vengeance served, right?" Eugene stood and stretched as cats are prone to do, flexing his front claws into the hardwood floor and pulling his spine into a long, undulating curve, back and then forward.
"I suppose…" she murmured, but Eugene was left with the distinct impression that this wasn't over yet. Of course it wasn't. Special assignments were never so easy.
"What else do you want? I'm still not even sure how you talked my boss into taking this one because we don't usually do this kind of thing, and yet here we are. You asked for vengeance, for the deaths of everyone descended from your Arthur Donovan, and that's what you've got. It was even a little poetic, bringing him out here to relive all of this. Cruel, but artsy. You do have a flair for this stuff. And with him, they're all dead and gone. No loose ends, no long-lost relatives. I even checked to make sure that he didn't have any bastard children out there that he didn't know about, and while I can tell you that he wasn't all that picky about his conquests, he was careful enough that he didn't father any kids. Done deal. Arthur Donovan and his line terminated right here in front of you, about three minutes ago."
"You talk too much," she sniffed derisively, still refusing to look down and acknowledge him.
"So I've heard, but someone needs to say it, and since I'm the only one here…"
"I expected that I would feel..." she trailed off, betraying the first hint of emotion that Eugene had seen in her since his assignment had begun.
"Relief? Happiness? Peace? Satisfaction? Accomplishment? The infamous and highly overrated closure?" Eugene suggested when she said nothing else.
"Maybe if you tell me what this is all about, I might be able to shed some light. That's primarily what I do, after all," Eugene offered. He gritted his teeth as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but it was the truth, and if nothing else, he was a little bit curious. Yeah, sure. Make the joke about curiosity killing the cat, but there was a lot of truth in that old chestnut. And since he had simply been forced to accept this case without any explanation, he really had been dying to know a little bit more. How often did he get teamed up with a spirit of vengeance? Never. Not in all of his years and all of the weird little favors that he had done for the boss. He hadn't expected a first at this point in his existence – not when he thought that he had already seen it all.
"There's not much to tell. Surely nothing as scandalous and vulgar as you're expecting."
"So you're telling me that Arthur did you wrong and you're just lingering around here to mop up the mess?" Eugene scoffed.
"More or less," the crone admitted.
"I expect humans to be petty little creatures, but you're… evolved. You're practically a demon at this point."
"And so you think that I should have let go of the hurt that set me on this path in the first place?" she concluded without any hint of emotion. Eugene also expected that a spirit of vengeance should be a little bit angrier.
"Expectations always disappoint. That's why I've found it best not to expect anything. Pity that in this case, I couldn't follow my own rules."
"So you've got nothing?"
"I had everything. Then I met Arthur Donovan. And then it was all taken from me, and I suddenly had nothing left except a burning desire for vengeance. You probably know the rest."
"That's not what I meant…"
"Great. At least Donovan could make some interesting conversation. Vain, self-centered, wandering, and defeatist, but interesting," Eugene grumbled, sinking back to the floor. Technically, his work was done. He could just leave. No one would expect him to stay. Even his boss would have to realize that his work was done. He had been assigned to help this former lady achieve her own vengeance, and he had. See, that was the twist with spirits of vengeance. They stalked the earth to help others get revenge, but they couldn't do a damn thing to settle their own scores. Let that be a lesson. When a demon offers you a deal, there's always a catch. Demons don't give without taking something, and even when they tell you what they're going to take, they like to slip another little catch into the bargain. I do it. Vengeance demons do it. My boss does it. Demons lie. It's what we do.
"I'm not one of your lost lambs, little sphinx. As you said, I've evolved well past all of that." Eugene was sure that he finally detected just a hint of melancholy in her voice, and that was enough of a chink in the armor that he decided to wriggle his way in. It was simply his nature to unravel whatever was in front of him.
"Sure. But not far enough past that you were willing to let him live out the rest of his miserable existence – and make no mistake, he was quite the miserable wretch," Eugene observed, casually licking his paw as he usually did when he was plotting his next move.
"Good. Arthur's progeny deserve no less."
"What was Donovan to Arthur? Not that it really matters now, but I like to get my details straight, just in case I need to relate the tale later on…"
"Donovan was Lucretia's son, Lucretia was Theodore's daughter, Theodore was Gillian's son, and Gillian was Arthur's only…" the old woman's voice trailed off in a distinct choke of emotion, so Eugene knew that the game was tilting in his favor. "She was his only surviving child," she concluded in a pained whisper.
"Not much of a family tree…" Eugene remarked as nonchalantly as he could.
"Twisted and gnarled – best yanked out and left to shrivel," she scowled.
"And how did this sad little family cross paths with the likes of you?"
"The usual way."
"Fate?" Eugene offered.
"Love," she corrected in a bitter tone that reeked of everything but devotion. "All worthwhile vengeance is rooted in love."
"You would have gotten along great with Donovan…" Eugene muttered under his breath, but he instantly regretted his offhand remark when she turned her full, venomous gaze on him for the first time.
"Pray never utter such blasphemy in my presence again, little sphinx, or I'll have bitter words with your master," she hissed. She suddenly loomed over Eugene like the spectral fury that she truly was, shimmering with a burning rage that finally revealed both her underlying nature and her true power.
"Fine, but let's remember that I'm still the bigger and badder of the two of us – right, old lady?" Eugene growled, baring his teeth in what looked like both a threat and a smile.
"I have nothing left to lose, so your threats mean naught to me," she dismissed, shrugging off her bile and shrinking back into the tall, thin semblance of her former human form.
"Your choice, lady. But if you don't have anything else to say, I'm going to get going. Places to be and people to see, bait, torment, and otherwise enlighten."
"Do you even know my name?" she asked quietly, returning her full, somber attention to Donovan's hanging corpse.
"Nope. I can't get a clear read on you," Eugene admitted.
"As in Beale Point?" Eugene asked, feeling his dear old nemesis – curiosity – rearing its ugly head again.
"One and the same."
"So tell me your story before you fade away."
"So my time here is really done?" the Lady Beale asked.
"More than likely. Your vengeance is served, so your power should burn out pretty quickly with nothing left to stoke the fire within," Eugene explained.
"I suppose that's fitting enough, and that would explain the darkness all around me. I'm not used to it being so cold and dark…" she murmured. "You'll be the last one to know this story, so guard it well."
"That's another one of my talents."
"Very well," Moira said in a hushed, defeated tone. "I was born not too far from here. I was born into nothing, but I was raised well, and I married well. That was all that a girl could hope for in those days. To marry well, be taken care of, bear children, and tend to her family. I see that it's not much now, but it was all that I aspired to in my youth.
"I caught the eye of the widower Liam Beale after his third young wife died. Perhaps I should have listened to the rumors about town regarding the fates of my predecessors, but so many women died in childbirth or of the fever back then. How was I expected to be swayed by mere gossip when he laid the sun, moon, and stars out before me? You've seen the mansion on the hill, and even in those days, the whole town was named after him. I would be local royalty. I thought that it was my dream come true.
"So I married him, and I moved into that mansion. From the outside, it looked like a castle, but once inside, I realized that it was a prison. I wore the finest clothes, attended every party, had high tea every afternoon, and didn't ask too many questions about some of the goings on in the den late in the evening. It wasn't my place to concern myself with my husband's business affairs, so I turned a blind eye, even when I heard about some of his wicked schemes and underhanded deals. I was determined to live my dream.
"It was clear enough from the start that he didn't love me. He didn't love anything but his brandy, hunting parties, and power. He only needed me to produce an heir, and we set to work at that straight away. It was distasteful, but many of life's duties are less than pleasant. I endured. It was my duty to endure.
"Our first child was stillborn, and our second died in my womb. My husband was furious, and he showed his displeasure with his fist, but there was nothing that I could do. As I said, his mansion was my prison, and I grew to fear that it would become my tomb.
"That was when I first met him. Arthur Donovan. He was a working man, far beneath my new social stature, but when he came to work on the house, I had someone to talk with, and I was quite smitten with him. He knew all the right things to say, and despite the potential scandal, I found myself carrying on an affair underneath my husband's roof. I knew that it was wrong, but Arthur said that he loved me, and I loved him in a way that I could never love Liam. He told me that we would run away together, and that he would take me away from Beale Point. I believed him. He promised me freedom and a future. After learning the bitter lesson that a palace was nothing but a pretty, empty place, I was willing to run away with nothing just for the chance to be happy.
"Imagine my delight and horror when I found myself with child for the third time. Imagine my dread and thrill at the notion that the child within me might be Arthur's and not Liam's. Imagine my pride and terror when I gave birth and held my son, still not sure who had fathered him. He would bear the Beale name, but I grew certain that he was a Donovan by blood," Moira paused with a wistful smile, folding her arms in front of her as though she was cradling an invisible infant. Her serenity lasted only a moment before the air crackled around her and she continued in a hardened voice.
"I wanted to run away with Arthur, but he kept putting me off. Liam grew more distant, and I realized that he believed that I had fulfilled my purpose, so he had no more need for me at all. I was little more than a nanny to his heir, and he treated me no better than the hired help.
"I escaped into town one evening, and I found Arthur. I found him at home with his wife and their infant daughter. I had no idea that he was married. I suppose that I should have known, and I'm sure that I had no right to be as angry as I was, but I was a woman scorned. I lashed out at Arthur and his wife, and that was my downfall.
"His wife went to my husband, and as soon as Liam knew of the affair, he realized that the son he was raising as his own was probably not truly a Beale at all. I knew that he would kill me, just as he had killed the three wives who came before me. I never expected that he would kill my child first," Moira stopped speaking completely, and Eugene glanced up, anticipating tears in her eyes, but he was surprised to find only the smoldering flames of hatred and vengeance. Her humanity must have burned away long ago to leave her in such pain but too hollow to weep.
"I had no proof that Liam had killed my son, but I put a healthy child to bed, and I woke the next morning to find him cold and dead in his crib. Liam didn't seem surprised and never looked up from his breakfast. I was inconsolable, alone, wretched. I wanted to die. I wanted Arthur to die. But above all, I wanted Liam to die for what he had done.
"My husband was my first act of vengeance. I killed him with his own precious brandy. Poisoned in his den, thrashing on the floor in front of his shocked and helpless friends. It was my turn to stand over a dead Beale without a tear, and everyone knew what I had done. The sheriff and the judge were there – they drank with Liam often in exchange for turning a blind eye to so many shady deals – and there was no need to bother with an arrest or trial. Liam wasn't even cold before they drug me outside and hung me from the big oak tree in the side yard.
"I'm not sure that I put up a fight until the very end, and even then, I only struggled because I realized that I should have poisoned Arthur and his wife first.
"As soon as I finished strangling to death from the boughs of that tree, Khul'tsen came to me. I was sure that I had descended into Hell, but instead, she offered me a new dream to replace the one that had been so thoroughly destroyed. She offered me the gift of vengeance, and I seized it. Another fool's dream, as it turned out," Moira scoffed. "I could exact vengeance for anyone but myself. There was no justice brought to bear against Arthur or his wife. I couldn't do anything else to avenge my son and myself. I couldn't, but I soon learned that others could.
"I had learned some lessons from Liam in how to strike a backroom deal. Arthur drowned in a freak storm. His wife suffered horrible poverty and died of a pox, but their precious Gillian survived long enough to have a child of her own before a jealous lover slit her throat. Theodore drank himself to death before he was thirty and died face down in the gutter, leaving behind a bastard daughter. Lucretia was a troubled soul from the start, so it didn't take much prompting to convince her to slaughter her children and hang herself, but she failed to kill her son, so I had to make one more deal to finish my masterpiece. That deal was with your master, and now you should know the rest," Moira concluded. She still watched Donovan's lifeless husk without a trace of real satisfaction.
"Resourceful creature, aren't you?" Eugene purred at the end of her tale. He had expected a tragic story of love gone wrong with all of its betrayal and heartbreak, but he hadn't expected quite so much death. To find out that Moira was a murderess before she had become a spirit of vengeance explained so much – no wonder a top-flight demon like Khul'tsen had recruited this human.
"I suppose," she murmured.
"Treacherous in life and death," Eugene assured. "I'm impressed, and that's saying something because I don't impress easily."
"Then I suppose that I should thank you, little sphinx."
"You might not want to do that."
"Why?" Moira asked in a distracted tone. The human pendulum still dominated her attention.
"I've done my part, and now it's time to collect for services rendered." That got her attention, but it was too little, too late. Eugene had expected that a woman so attuned to betrayal would have seen this coming.
"I swore my services to your master…" Moira gasped before her words trailed off in a shriek. She dropped to her knees, curling tight against the spectral flames engulfing her.
"I know, but he already has Khul'tsen for that. You're good, but you're not that good, and you really would have started fading away after tonight. You'd be little more than a wraith in a decade or two," Eugene shrugged.
"But why?" she howled, already fading into a mere shadow.
"It's what I do."
"No…" Moira protested in a dissolving whisper.
"Like I said, my orders came down from the top. It's nothing personal," Eugene paused, waiting for her aura to burn to no more than an ember. "Thanks for the story, though. Now that I've collected your tale, I'll carry that piece of you with me forever. That's way more immortal than you would have been as either a mortal mother or a spirit of vengeance."
Eugene knew the pained glance that Moira threw his direction before she vanished entirely, leaving nothing but a whiff of brimstone and sulfur where she had fallen. Betrayal. He had a tale to match every time that he had earned that particular reaction – and he had collected so many more tales than he could count. More than the sands of the desert or the stars of the sky. Humans, demons, spirits, ghouls, monsters, beasts, and demigods. He had collected stories from all of them. And with their stories came their souls.
Eugene inhaled deeply, and he felt the essence of Moira Beale settle within him. Human fable claimed that cats could suck the souls out of newborn babies – if only people knew what the most gifted felines could really do.
He paused to lick some stray dust from the tip of his tail, his eyes drifting left then right and back again as he watched the late Donovan Gunn swinging from his noose. He really had sort of liked the guy, as messed up as he was, but there would be more where he came from. There were always more. Humans were an endless column of ants, and his boss liked to hold a magnifying glass in the sun to zap them one by one. It was petty, but everyone needed some entertainment from time to time, and humans were fun. Besides, they should know by now not to trust a demon, no matter how cute, fluffy, and helpful that demon might seem. Demons lie. Demons cheat. Demons betray.
Do you get that? Never trust a demon. Never. Never ever.
Eugene stretched the kinks out of his spine again before he trotted off toward the surf, slipping out of this reality and vanishing from sight. The waves continued to crash. The moon continued to light the endless surf. The salt spray mixed with the smell of burned timbers and lingering brimstone.
And Donovan Gunn hung alone, the end of his line, staring vacantly into the abyss.