This story is a product of prodding from Julia, my wife and inspiration. Her insistence that “sex sells” has led me to do a market research into the currently highest-trending mass-market erotica (dreadful stuff, which left me feeling dirty).
I give you now the result, my own take on this popular trope with a uniquely Egretian bent.
The young woman sitting in front of me was scowling in apparent frustration. Rather plain-looking, her hair was unkempt as if she went to sleep with it wet. She introduced herself as Antistia Chalybeia, daughter of Sextus Antistius Chalybeius. She was here to ‘interview’ me as she said, for a prospective job. I gave her the contract with my standard terms, and she proceeded to go over them with the most pernickety fastidiousness. She kept biting her lip as she read.
“What about this?” she pointed at a paragraph.
“What about it?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I can handle it.”
“Look, lady,” I said, “these are the terms all my clients have to accept. You said you had a problem, a unique kind of problem, that you would like resolved. You are obviously here because you have heard of me, heard of my reputation, know I am qualified. It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of options.”
“Oh, very well.” She took a reed pen, dipped it in ink, signed her name at the bottom and returned the contract to me.
“Now, why don’t you just tell me what haunts you?” I asked.
“I’m not sure where to start… I have been having very strange dreams lately. Dark dreams, disturbing ones, dreams that leave me tired and sore in the morning. I think I may have been cursed!”
“What kind of dreams?”
“I’m… I’m ashamed to say,” she blushed and bit her lip again.
“Very well, we can get back to it later. Now, tell me, has anything changed in your life recently?”
“We have just moved into a new house. I am still living with my father, and he recently bought a new house on the lower slopes not far from the forum. It was a deceased estate, an old man lived there and died alone. Despite the desirable location the price was low, as the old man died in there some time ago, without relatives or slaves, and the smell of his dead body permeated the place.
“My father had urgent business that required his personal attention in Hellica, and has left me in charge or moving our estate to the new location. I have arranged for everything, and took up residence in the new domus last month. The nightmares started soon after. At first I thought this was just the product of sleeping in a new place, without my father. The dreams were… of a kind that might occupy the mind of an unmarried woman. But as time wore on they took a sinister turn. And now I fear the time I have to retire at night!”
She looked quite distraught. I waited for her to recompose herself, sitting in silence and tapping my left index finger against my lips as I considered likely causes.
“There are several possibilities that I can see, Antistia. In order to determine the likelier cause and best course of action, I will need more details. Can you tell me more about your dreams?”
She looked up to me and asked, “Tell me Felix, have you ever been attracted to another man?” I must have recoiled visibly, as she lowered her gaze and bit her lip, as if trying to bite back the words she uttered.
“I am no stranger to those desires,” I replied, “though they are not my usual bent.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t know what came over me. I just had no other way to explain — ”
“Never mind,” I cut her off, “I think I get the picture. I’ll see you tonight at dusk at your domus.”
As promised, I showed up on her doorstep just as the sun disappeared behind the cropped peak of Vergu. I knocked on the door, and was soon answered by Antistia herself. She looked askance at the wicker basket containing two live chickens I held in my right hand and the brown and stained bag I held in my left, and admitted me in rather hastily.
“Are you ready to spend the night with me?” I asked once the door was closed and we were alone. Antistia blushed, lowered her eyes and bit her lip.
“I have never spent the night with a man,” she said.
“We’ll soon rectify that,” I smiled my most reassuring smile. “Though I promise you that I do not normally sleep with women when I spend the night in their company.”
She led me to her rooms, past the sitting room with its loom and into her sleeping cubicle. “Please get ready for sleep,” I instructed her.
For someone who professed innocence she was altogether far too keen to take off her clothes in front of me. I waited patiently while she slowly donned her sleeping tunic, darting sheepish glances at me the whole time. “I got you something,” I said as I fished out a red orchid — complete with open flower, stem, bulb and root — out of the bag I was carrying.
“You shouldn’t have,” she positively giggled as she took the flower. She reached out for the flower, but let her fingers caress mine as if by accident when she took gentle hold of the stem above the hanging bulb.
“It will sweeten your sleep, as I’m afraid you’ll have to chew on something unsavoury first.”
I set to work. From my bag I took out all the necessities for the incantation I was about to perform: herbs, candles, bones of a dog picked clean by ants, a dead snake with the ferret of his last meal still lodged in its gut, my dagger — the usual stuff. I opened a small pyxis and extracted a small mass wrapped in leaves. “Chew on this,” I told Antistia as I handed it to her, “I mixed in some honey to make it more palatable.”
She reached out and took my hand in both of hers, then picked up the leafy mass between thumb and forefinger. She lifted it to her mouth and gently licked it at first, her pink long tongue running along the small orb. She put her lips to it, then slowly enveloped it completely, swallowing it in its entirety. I have never seen anyone so fascinated by green almonds with honey.
While she was busy fellating the medicine, I arranged the rest of the paraphernalia I brought with me around her bed. I combined, mixed and spread about all the elements that had to be prepared on the spot, chanting an incantation under my breath the whole time. When I was done her sleeping couch resembled a funeral bed.
“Only some last arrangements are ready, my lady,” I said. “And then it will be time for you to sleep and for me to deal with the source of your dreams. This next thing though, I am afraid it might seem a bit… disturbing for a young woman such as yourself. I hope you will realise there is no impropriety meant — it is strictly necessary for the job.”
She looked at me for a long moment, biting her lower lip, and then nodded her assent.
I took a small wooden bowl and my dagger and laid them in front of me on a small tripod table. Next to them I put a small bunch of bound cypress boughs. I took one of the chickens I have brought out of the wicker basket, and chanted my way through slitting its throat and draining its blood into the bowl.
“Ready?” I asked Antistia.
“What about the other chicken?” she asked me.
“What? Oh, no, that’s just for my dinner tomorrow. Now, I need you to bend over your bed. I will hit you six times with the cypress rods, which I will then dip into the blood and spray it on each of the walls, floor and ceiling. It might help if you count with me. Here, bend forward, put your hands on the edge of your bed, and hold tight.”
She did as instructed. I raised the hem of her sleeping tunic over her thighs, over her buttocks. She shivered slightly as my fingers brushed the naked skin of her body. “It needs to touch skin, and this way is better than flogging,” I explained. “Ready?”
She nodded, her face was hidden from me.
I picked up the cypress rods, and whacked her on her bum. She gasped and shuddered. “Count,” I said, as I dipped the tips of the rods in the bowl of blood.
“One!” she almost shouted. As the uttered the word, I lashed out with the rods towards the nearest wall, and left a spatter of blood droplets on it.
We continued this way five more times. She shuddered each time as I spanked her with the rods, and though I could not see her face I could swear she was aroused by it. It was rather distracting, as I had to keep up my incantation and time the spraying of the blood with her utterances.
After we finished I examined my handiwork. I was quite satisfied with the red marks glistening on the walls, floor and ceiling, the arrangements on the bed and around the room.
“We are all ready now. This is the part where you need to sleep, to dream. I, as mentioned, will not sleep with you — but will sit on the couch to stay guard and watch for the source of your nightmares.”
Took her long enough to fall asleep. She kept trying to chat with me, so I ‘remembered’ another important component for the ritual, and placed a coin in her mouth, in the same tradition as funerals. I also placed a coin on each of her eyelids, to prevent her from staring at me mutely with her doe-like eyes.
Soon after I heard Antistia’s breathing slow down and deepen. Night was out in force now, the darkness barely illuminated by the stars. This was two nights before the Nones of October, and tomorrow was one of the dies religiosi, the ‘black days’ considered unlucky by our people. It was said that on these days the mundus, the world below, had its doors wide open and the lemurs of the dead were free to cross the threshold into our own world.
I was awoken from my chthonic reverie by a long drawn out moan. Antistia was sitting in bed, her eyes still closed. Her skin was covered with goosebumps, though the night was warm. She sat there for a moment, and then her hair began to float gently in a breeze that had no business inside that closed room. I could feel the crackling of magia crawling on my skin, and knew that whatever she was experiencing was more than just the disturbing dreams of a frustrated young woman.
She swung her legs off the bed, stood up, and walked out of the room. I followed in her wake, my dagger in my right hand and the dead snake coiled on my left arm. Antistia walked slowly yet without pause. She reached a staircase at the back of the house and descended to the cellars. She reached an alcove at the back, where stood a herma — a square marble pedestal with a bust of some ancient ancestor. Eyes still closed, she reached out her hand and placed it on the marble phallus carved midway up the herma, stroked it gently and then pulled on it.
A section of the wall at the back of the alcove slid aside noiselessly and Antistia stepped through. I stepped in after her, and froze in horror. In all my years of dealing with the dregs of society I have never seen such a sight.
The room was suffused with a dim red glow, providing garish illumination to the scenes of atrocities spread casually about. Various skeletons and desiccated bodies were arranged around the room, frozen in a disturbing tableau. Some were simply arranged as if engaged in various positions of coitus; some were chained to crosses, beams, beds; some were employing whips, rods, ropes, blades on each other; one was even nailed to the ceiling. I counted about fifty. This must have been the dark doing of the previous owner, a monument to a lifetime of perversity.
As I stood stupefied with horror, the skeletons — some with leathery skin and remains of hair still attached — came alive in response to Antistia’s presence in the room. A grey shimmering outline filled each skeleton, animated it. The shades of the dead returned to their earthly remains.
Antistia stood in the middle of the room on a small dais and raised her arms above her head. The shades gathered round her, undressed her, and proceeded to perform on her acts of such sexual depravity that would turn away even a mad satyr.
I recoiled in horror and ran away. I reached the bedroom where I had left the live chicken, gathered it quickly and made my way back to the room. I tried not to observe the ongoing deeds too closely as I stood in the opening. I pierced the squawking bird’s neck with the fangs of the snake and let a drop of blood drip on the threshold. As if responding to a mighty gong, the lemurs of the dead stopped and stared at me with their grey vacant eyes. Cursed though they were by the atrocities performed on them by the previous late master of this house, they could not resist the living life-force.
The shades started to advance on me, and I retreated out of the room, out of the cellar, out of the house. As this was late on an unlucky night there was no living soul on the streets on Egretia that wasn’t forced to be there. Those that were must have thought themselves mad, at the sight of a lunatic waving a dripping chicken above his head, running through the streets followed by fifty grey shades of the dead.
I reached the mundus cerialis — the hemispherical pit located in a declivity off the crest of the Meridionali near temple of Ceres. I threw the chicken in, its life force now almost completely spent, into the dark pit and followed it with my money pouch.
The shades streamed after the bird through the mundus and into the underworld, picked up the coins to pay the ferryman, and continued down into the dark depth, never to be seen again. I pushed madly at the lapis manalis, the stone covering the pit. It was a heavy block of rock that fitted the opening closely as a door, and yet the thought of those shades coming back gave the strength of ten men as I heaved and pushed till I closed the pit after them. I collapsed panting to the ground. When the priests come at dawn tomorrow to perform the closing rites they might be puzzled, but that was not my concern.
I collected my fees a few days later, when Antistia was certain that the nightmares have stopped. Typical for me, they turned out to be too meagre compared to the risk I faced. As for Antistia, while I have removed the curse that afflicted her home and body, I fear the scars on her psyche will linger for a lifetime. I can only feel sorry for her eventual husband, as I have no doubt her insatiable need for experimentation in the bedroom will drive most men mad.
If you enjoyed this Felix short mystery, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!