It was common knowledge that Lord Terrence Hastings had a habit of collecting masks of the strange and whimsical – even the macabre. Most visitors to Whitely Hall (of which there were few) recanted their discomfort at the menagerie; the walls seemed to ‘gain life’ at night, lit only with eerie incandescence from a single gas lamp in the hall where the lord kept his prized possessions. A haunted house, most called it. If not haunted by true spectres, then by the curious fellow that proudly called such a grisly abode his home.
And as Stuart Langsdale stared up at the pale, gaping face without eyes affixed to the wall, he couldn’t stop those ridiculous notions from creeping to the forefront of his mind.
“This is a recent acquisition, you said?”
“Indeed,” Lord Hastings replied proudly. The strike and hiss of a lucifer filled the room, soon accompanied by the ashy smell of a lit cigar. “A rarity that I had been pursuing with utmost effort. I call it ‘The Boy’s Head’.”
Langsdale grimaced at the gruesome moniker, forcing himself to turn. “Where did you acquire it?”
Hastings puffed on the cigar, a blue ring of acrid smoke haloing his head. He reached into the pocket of his dressing gown, retrieving a silver cigar case. He offered it to Langsdale, who declined with a shake of his head. “I have a keen eye for such things, Inspector Langsdale,” the stout man stated happily, slipping the cigar case back into his pocket. “I acquire my trinkets from all across the globe, as you can see. Some I even create myself.”
A broad gesture encompassed the expanse of the wide, dimly lit room. Langsdale cast his gaze about the ghastly menagerie of faces – ‘trinkets’ that consisted of Plaster of Paris, feathered and beaded faces, painted ones, porcelain ones, and others that seemed to have no explanation. Some smiled, some laughed with open mouths. Most simply stared. But, whilst all were disturbing, there was none more so than the face of the young man.
Langsdale returned his attention to his quarry. “That does not answer my question, Lord Hastings. This ‘Boy’s Head’, as you call it, is why I am here. A rather frantic fellow came to Scotland Yard this morning; we were barely able to get the story from him, through tremors and faintness.” He eyed the burly man over his shoulder. “According to him, he was an overnight guest at your residence last evening. He was awoken by a terrible scream in the night.”
“Could have been a fox.”
“He heard it from within.” Langsdale narrowed his eyes. “And when he asked the butler for an explanation, he was told it was of no concern and to return to his room until morning. At which time he presently fled.”
Lord Hastings paused to take a long, thoughtful drag on his cigar.
“Are you a married man, Inspector Langsdale?”
Langsdale’s frown increased. “Yes, sir. What of it?”
“Do you love your wife?”
“What has that to do with this discussion?”
“I confess that I have never loved anyone stronger than my own darling Charlotte,” Lord Hastings continued on, as though he hadn’t heard Langsdale’s reply. “She was the apple of my eye, classically beautiful and perfectly modest.” Puffs of smoke escaped his lips like a chugging steam engine. “Or so I had believed.”
Langsdale’s ears perked. “Sir?”
The look upon Hasting’s face had rapidly changed, within the blink of an eye. Where he had once been full of hot air and rather convivial, his jowls now drooped lopsidedly with gritted anger. Eyes, dark as coal, shimmered in the scant light provided by the room’s singular gas lamp.
“Love is fickle, Inspector Langsdale. You would be wise to remember that. Though I suppose the blame is partially mine. I made the mistake of letting go my old footman, in favor of someone younger and stronger.” The embers of his cigar glowed an angry red, with a large intake of breath. “I must have been a simpleton to assume that such a young beauty like Charlotte would remain loyal to an old man like me.”
“What are you getting at, man?” Langsdale commanded.
Lord Hastings chuckled – a deep, dark chuckle that set Langsdale on edge. The burly man blew one last cloud of smoke before crushing his cigar into a crystal ashtray on the console table he stood beside. Then, he proceeded toward Langsdale with slow, methodical steps. He came to a stop at the inspector’s side, dark eyes heavily considering the gruesome face on the wall.
“Such a fine piece, this. One of a kind, in fact. A tough hunt, but worth the trouble in the end.” He shook his head, clicking his tongue.
Langsdale stared at his large companion, the musky taste of second-hand cigar smoke ashing his mouth.
After a heavily pregnant pause, Hastings turned those dark, calculating eyes on Langsdale. His expression abruptly made sense of the man who’d run for his life the previous night.
“It was a well-deserved and rewarding victory – against one younger and stronger.”
Horror sank Langsdale’s stomach. A tremor took up in his knees, turning them to jelly as his gaze returned to the lifeless, gaping visage above their heads. The gas lamp’s flickering light cast the face in eerie shadow, mouth and empty eyes seeming to stretch and contract in what Langsdale was now realizing was a petrified scream of terror.
“My God,” he gasped, whirling on his companion. But he was too late; a pistol from the opposite pocket of Hasting’s dressing gown was drawn, taking deadly aim upon Langsdale’s chest. A wicked grin spread his lips, like the horrible smiling masks around the room.
“I must say, I do not yet have the mask of a police inspector from Scotland Yard. It will make a fine addition to my trinkets.”
T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City, MO. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal literary magazine, as well as a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. She has also written for The Black Fork Review and Havik Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones.