Monday, October 24, 2011

The Mandrake Ruse

We're already only 7 days away from the night of fright, Halloween! What a better way to celebrate it with a story guaranteed to give you shivers all over! Scott has graciously contributed a short story for the blog in hopes that you'll all enjoy. You can also follow him at (@ScottTheWriter) via Twitter. Let him know what you thought of his story in the comments below or shoot him a message!

The Mandrake Ruse

Chapter 1: Dark Clouds
A Hallowe’en story by Scott Bury
Matt always knew when his mother arrived in town: the wind would swirl from every direction at once, sending the neighbour’s weather-vane spinning clackety-clack and the yellow and brown leaves whirling along the road like a child’s top.
“Let’s get out of here,” Matt said to his wife, Teri. They packed a few things into a single suitcase and drove out of town, over the bridge to Wakefield. “We might as well stay somewhere nice,” he said.
“It’s too bad it’s so expensive,” Teri replied. She looked worried, but not about the money; she was weary of her mother-in-law’s antics.
They arrived at the hotel; Teri loved the way its rustic pretence did not mask its luxury. She lay on the bed and squirmed on the thick duvet. “This is so nice.”
Matt flopped down beside her and tried to undo a button. “There’s lots of time for that,” she said, gently pushing his hand away from her blouse. “I want to take a walk and see the fall colours.” She smiled and kissed him lightly, then sprang off the bed and opened the door. Matt sighed and shoved his feet into his runners again, then followed his pretty wife out.
They found a path that climbed a hill through a yellow and bronze forest. At the top, rock like a shield held the trees back enough to give them a view of the river where it bent to flow south toward Ottawa. They looked for the city’s skyline, holding hands. “Let’s make love under the trees,” Matt said.
Teri pushed his shoulder. “Silly,” she said, but then she frowned as she looked at the sky.
Matt followed her gaze. Overhead, the sky was blue, but black clouds were drawing together to the south, blotting out the sun. A gust ruffled Teri’s hair. She cried out, blinking and rubbing dust from her eye.
A small black cloud detached itself from the host over Ottawa and headed toward them, fast. Matt put his arm around his wife’s shoulder and pulled her back to the path. “We have to get off this hill, now.”
Somehow, the clearing had become wider, and the opening under the trees to the path, where they would be safe from the sky, was farther away. Matt recognized the phenomenon: his most common nightmare involved an expanding landscape that pushed his destination farther and farther away when he was racing against time to reach it. He held Teri tighter and started running.
Too slow. The black cloud got closer, was right on them and turned into a hail of dust, rocks and sticks whirling around them. Matt choked on dust. The wind knocked Teri to the rocky ground and she cried out again.
Then, it was gone. Dark wisps drew together over their heads, moved vaguely south again and disappeared. The air was still and quiet again, and they realized they were right at the edge of the trees, not hundreds of metres away. Somewhere, a squirrel laughed at them.
“It’s not laughing,” said Teri as she brushed dust off her pants and tried to straighten her long, brown hair.
“It sounds like it’s laughing,” Matt muttered, but he was still looking south. “She wasn’t after me this time. I’m not the main target. That was just a side blow.”
Teri looked at her husband, the way his whole attention was on the city under the black cloud to the south. “You have to go, don’t you?”
Matt sighed. His shoulders slumped. “I wish I didn’t have to.”
“She never gives you a choice. She’s not a mother, not one that you deserve.” Teri took her husband’s hand and led him down the path to the hotel. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay in the hotel. I’ll take a soak in the hot tub and drink some wine and read my book. I’ll help you when you need to get back.”
“I may be late.”
Teri stood on her tiptoes to kiss her husband. “Take the time that you need. But be careful.”
At the door, she looked into her husband’s eyes. “Matt, this time, don’t hold back. Make this the last time you have to do this.” Matt knew what she meant. He didn’t know if he could do what she asked.
The drive to Ottawa was nightmarish, his mother’s work, he knew. It took two hours to drive 35 kilometres on a smooth highway. There were curves and sweeping highway interchanges where there had been none two hours earlier. Trucks squeezed together and blocked Matt’s way, belching sulfurous fumes.
By the time he could see the bridge over the Ottawa River, Matt knew where he mother’s target was. He groaned. He was going to have to save the prime minister he hated most.
He parked his car on a side street in Hull and walked across the jammed bridge. No traffic moved. On the northern side, drivers honked their horns and craned their head out of their windows, wondering what the problem was.
Matt walked on the left, northbound side of the road. Nothing was coming from Ottawa. Once over the bridge, he saw three cars jammed like logs across the pavement, preventing anything from moving across. Their drivers slumped, eyes open but unseeing, jaws slack. Drool wet their chins. Matt touched one’s neck; she was still alive. He patted her hair, dyed purple, and continued to Ottawa.
Idle cars crammed the approaches on and off the bridge, their motors quiet and their drivers asleep. Matt could see that humans and machines had not crashed, just stopped where they were. He paid no more attention. He had seen it before.
He looked at his watch: midafternoon, but the light was a dim as evening. The clouds overhead were almost completely black. He did not look up at the swirling patterns, because he knew how his consciousness could become lost in them.
He knew where his mother and her followers would be. Say it, he thought. Use the right word. You’re always telling other people to do that. Use the right word.
Coven. My mother and her coven are at the Prime Minister’s residence.
He wove along Sussex Drive, between limousines and armoured SUVs. Drivers and guards slumped on the seats or lay on the pavement, where they had suddenly collapsed. Matt paused and straightened one man’s leg. “He’s going to have a terrible cramp when he wakes up if I don’t,” he muttered.
The gate at the driveway to 24 Sussex squealed open as fat raindrops started to fall. Both effects were two of his mother’s favourite touches, Matt knew. A man and a woman in RCMP uniforms lay on the floor in the little guardhouse just inside the gate; the woman’s eyes were open and she seemed to be looking in awe toward the swirling black clouds.
Matt stepped past. There were unconscious bodies strewn on the lawn, on the steps; one man had been obviously dragged away from the door and left with his head hanging off the top step, out of the way.
A dull reddish light spilled from the gaping front doors. Matt could hear women’s laughter and pretentious jazz music inside. He shook his head. “Oh, mother.” He took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold.
Inside, the air was hot, dry and smoky. He could barely see in front of him, but he followed the sound of laughter. Yes, that was definitely his mother’s cartoonish cackle, but there was a new sound, too, a shrill, gleeful and evil laugh. Matt shuddered: there was something familiar about that sound.
He came to double doors into a large meeting room. The only illumination came from a dull red glow that seemed to hang from the centre of the ceiling. Men and women sat, unmoving, around a long board table. Their eyes were unfocused and their mouths hung open. In the dim light, Matt thought he recognized some of them: politicians and diplomats from other countries. He had read something about the Prime Minister holding a conference to prepare for some big diplomatic initiative he had cooked up. Matt could just make out dozens of other bodies lying still on the floor or crumpled on top of each other against the walls.
And at the head of the table, in the biggest chair, Matt’s mother, Helen sat on the Prime Minister’s lap. She was stroking his chin, and he was looking toward her, but his eyes were unfocused and his jaw was slack.
Behind Helen was a group of women of different ages, sizes, races. They laughed and pointed at the people at the table, and at Matt as well, shrieking with their own amusement. Matt could not understand  anything they said.
Helen spoke without looking at Matt. “You took your sweet time getting here. I hope that I wasn’t too rough on little Teri, was I?”
“Teri’s fine. You know you can’t hurt her.”
Helen looked at him and messed up the Prime Minister’s hair. It was strange—it was the first time that Matt had ever seen a hair out of place on the PM.
“No, and I know I cannot hurt you, either. Not that I would ever want to, dear!” Helen stood. “How are you? It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen each other. Why don’t you ever visit?”
“What are you doing here, mother? This is extreme, even for you. You’ve never gotten tried one of your stunts with a government before.”
“Sure I have. You remember the 80s, don’t you? Bob Rae?”
“Okay, never the national government. I’ll give you one chance to undo what you’ve done and get out of here. Five minutes is enough.”
“I don’t think so, dear. I’ve worked very hard on this project. We all have, haven’t we, girls?” The coven behind her cheered and laughed.
A man sitting in the chair beside Matt suddenly fell face-forward onto the table.
“And it will be so rewarding. You know, I’m just sick about what this government of ours is doing these days. Aren’t you? I know your politics don’t agree with this man’s.”
“Politics have nothing to do with this stunt, mother. You think you can control him now, but it’s going to backfire on you.”
“Oh, son, it wounds me that you have no confidence in your mother!” Helen looked angry now. Her red hair stood up around her head and her eyes started to glow yellow. “I can change the direction of history, now!”
“You can do nothing but cause disasters. I’m shutting this down, starting now.” Without taking his eyes off his mother, Matt concentrated. His brows came together, his shoulders tensed. He ignored the shaking in his knees and pushed with his mind.
The red glow flickered; outside the windows, the sky became noticeably lighter.
“Matt, stop it! You will love my plans!” Sweat started running down Matt’s face. The red glow died away and natural light came in through the windows.
One of Helen’s coven, a short, young woman with long hair like a squirrel’s tail, shrieked and sprang toward Matt. She spat on her hands, rubbed them togther and flung the spittle toward him, screaming a curse. The spit mixed with the sweat on Matt’s face.
“I’ve told you, you can’t hurt him, Lauren,” Helen said. “The devil himself knows I’ve tried.”
Lauren cursed and slapped Matt across the face. He flinched, but did not move nor take his eyes from his mother. Behind him, someone groaned and stirred. Outside, wind blew apart the black clouds. Lauren raised her hand again, but Matt caught it without looking at her, then pushed her away gently. Lauren’s eyes widened in shock and fear; she stepped backward, twice, tripped on an aide and fell on her backside.
“Matthew, I can make you rich!” Helen cried.
Matt concentrated harder. He had to lean on the table. “Rich! You are rich, you hag.” He laughed and the wind blew open one of the boardroom windows. Clean, fresh air swept the room. More of the entranced people stirred and groaned. “You’ve done nothing to me but impoverish me for years! How many times did you destroy my businesses or jobs?” Another window crashed open. Helen could see blue sky.
“You have just enough time to get out of here for good before all these people wake up,” said Matt. “I’ll let you go if you give me the talisman.” He pointed at the object on a leather strap around his mother’s neck. It bound the magic that powered his mother’s spells today. From a distance, it was a shapeless lump; up close, he could see some kind of vegetable, in the shape of a shrivelled, twisted inverted y, almost like a man’s shape. “Mandrake. Mom, you’re such a caricature.”
“No! It’s mine!” Behind Helen, the rest of the coven moaned and cried. “Shut up!” she screamed at them. “Please, Matt, it’s taken years of planning and effort! We can make the world the way we know it should be!”
Matt snapped the thong, put the root in his mouth and swallowed it whole, grimacing from the pain as it made its way down. Lauren barked a laugh. “That’s death, in that quantity.”
“You know there is a price for taking that,” Helen said, her usual smugness back.
Matt nodded. Suddenly, he heaved and retched. He doubled over, coughing and choking. Lauren looked at him with glee on her face. “Is he dying?”
“Not yet,” said Helen.
Matt retched again, but straightened. He heaved one last time, then reached into his mouth and pulled out what looked like a thin string. It seemed to still be secured inside him, somewhere. He pulled out a strand as long as his hand. “Is that enough?” His words were slurred around the string.
Helen shook her head, so Matt pulled another two inches of string out. It was painful, but it had to be. “Knife,” he said hoarsely.
Helen took out a small, wooden blade. She held the edge close to Matt’s lips and snipped the string, but Matt pulled the strand away from her. “You cannot have it. You’ve taken enough, already.” He pulled out a lighter that he always kept in his pocket just for this situation and lit the string. It vanished into smoke. “You’re finished, mother,” he said. His voice was weak and it was all he could do to keep from collapsing in front of her. “I’ve absorbed your magic. You have about two minutes left to get away. I’ve been very generous.”
“Yes. That really won’t make Teri happy, will it?” Helen said in her smug voice.
“Don’t say her name again.”
Helen came close and touched his face. He could see, now, the deep lines in her skin, the frayed greyness in her hair. “Oh, Matt. I know you better than anyone else. I knew you would take the talisman. You always thought you were smarter than me. It never occurred to you that I would anticipate your every move.”
“You didn’t know I would come,” said Matt. His voice was hoarse. “You attacked me to draw me out.”
Helen smiled even more smugly. “I knew you would come when you saw the clouds over the city.
“And I knew you would take the talisman. That’s why I chose mandrake root. It’s poisonous, even to you. But it’s not the source of my power. And now, you’ve cut your life-string even shorter, sacrificed years—for nothing.”
Matt slumped and looked up at his mother from under his eyebrows. “Not for nothing. For your knife.” In one movement, he pushed her hands away, pushed her to her knees and grabbed a fistful of her hair in one hand and the wooden blade with the other. He began to hack at her hair until it piled on her shoulders and the floor and writhed like dying worms.
Helen screamed so loudly that the French windows shattered. The coven shrieked along with her until the air vibrated against his ears. They gathered around him. Some tried to pull Helen away, but he held onto a handful of hair as he hacked the rest off. Helen’s blood hissed when it hit the ground, but Matt did not care.
Other members of the coven cast spells at him, or tried to push him off their queen. But if Matt did not want a witch to touch him, she did not touch him.
They did manage to distract him, however. Even Matt could not simultaneously concentrate on repelling the coven, hacking off his mother’s store of magical power and dispelling her earlier spells. As he roughly shaved her head and endured Lauren’s weak pounding on his back, the air became still and thick and the clouds darkened. Matt snarled and dug the edge of the blade into his mother’s scalp, peeling it away to the bone, ignoring her writhing and screaming beneath him. He only stopped when a six-inch strip of hair and bloody skin ripped off her skull and Helen collapsed, flat, onto the hardwood floor.
Lauren tried to pick her up. Matt ignited the hank of hair in his hands, then smeared it onto the carpet, drawing a bloody, sooty circle around himself to keep the witches away. Then he lit the rest of the dying hair and watched it disappear into smoke.
Helen looked at him, her face bloody and horrible, her head naked without its mane. “Matt, how could you?” Matt ignored her until all her hair had burned and blown away in the breeze. The light was steadily getting better as the clouds dissipated.
Helen was actually crying. Those were real tears running down her cheeks, Matt realized. Lauren was crying, too. “You have stopped my plans, but you are paying the price now, aren’t you?” Helen said. Her voice was a horrifying croak. “Oh, Matt, you miscalculated. No one survives mandrake.”
Matt fell to his knees. “You’re finished. You have about a minute to get out of here before these people wake up. You don’t have to worry—you know as well as I do that they won’t remember any of this.”
The coven helped Helen get up. Two witches held her between them, and her dark blood smeared their naked shoulders. “You’re finished, too. The rest of us can look forward to seeing what Lauren, here, can do.” She laughed, and the coven laughed with her, even though blood bubbled out of her mouth.
The witches holding Helen straddled brooms, brushes pointing forward, and lifted their queen. The other witches, including Lauren, mounted up as well, and one by one flew out the open window.
“Brooms, mother? Really? Do you always have to be such a caricature?”
The Prime Minister blinked and moved his head. Even though he was dizzy and weak, Matt knew he had to get out of there immediately.  He staggered to the open window and looked north, then closed his eyes. His head hurt. He opened his eyes again. Yes, there was an oak tree, just beyond the balcony. He staggered toward it until he was under one of its branches, and then his vision blurred.The pain in his head and in his stomach was all he could think of for several seconds until he regained control of his body enough to say one word: “Teri.” His voice was a rasp in the wind.
“Teri.” He could see her now, her long brown hair, her big green eyes. She was looking at him, but she could not reach him, not yet, not until he said her name a third time. He was weakening, though. His mother had demanded more of his life-string than he had anticipated. He forced the air out of his lungs, through his raw throat and managed to pronounce her name one more time: “Teri.”
He could see her clearly now, standing, nude, in the hotel room. She reached forward and took his hand. Matt stumbled off the balcony on Sussex Drive and into the hotel room 35 kilometres away, falling into his wife’s arms. She held him and kissed his mouth. He could feel warmth and strength flowing back into his body. He let it come in for a full second, then broke the contact.
“You swallowed mandrake?”
“There was no other way,” he said.
She kissed him again, her naked skin spreading against his. He never knew what happened to his clothes at times like this.
The mandrake was affecting Teri, too. Matt pushed her away. “I can’t take more from you.”
Terri went to the hotel desk, where she had arranged her vials and cups. She picked up a small wooden cup, swirled its contents and spat in it. Then she held it to Matt’s lips. When he had drunk it all, she put the cup back on the table and collapsed onto the bed.  “We can’t keep doing this, Matt.”
“We don’t have to. She’s done. Finished.”
“Then why do I have this feeling?” She snuggled up against him.
Matt felt weak, but not sick anymore. He pulled his wife close against him, enjoying the feeling of her naked skin against his own, even if it could only be for a short time.

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