PROLOGUE - 1842
Albert stepped slowly down the steep stairs. The sound of each boot step amplified against the high walls. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face. “Finnegan? You down there?” he called out glancing along the basement floor from the landing. His foot stumbled. Pull it together, man. Won’t serve you any good to appear shaken in front of him. He removed a small flask from his vest pocket. Courage, only a drop. He took a quick slug from the bottleneck. His eyes watered from the whisky’s punch.
Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the glass panes. Standing at the foot of the steps, surrounded by wood planks, bags of concrete, and various tools, he glanced at the unreachable windows. Not a regular drinking man, he grimaced with the next burning slug of whisky. He never touched the vile drink before accepting the task of designing Blackstone’s house. The house, he now knew, was cursed with the blood spilled during its birth. Wiping the sweat from his face, he feared it was too late for him to escape. His stomach roiled rebelling against the whiskey. I’ve got to try to make things right. He brought the back of his knuckles against his mouth to repress a belch.
Reverend Charles Blackstone, Just call me Rev, hired Albert to be the architect of the Rev’s dream home. Albert walked along, trailing his fingers across the smooth wall, cursing the day he agreed to the job. The Reverend had specific demands; demented demands; demands that came with no explanations. Demands like a basement dug sixteen feet deep, and rooms with windows so high no one could reach them. Maybe the Rev thinks if the basement is deep enough, no one will find the bodies.
A sharp pain ripped through his finger. “Ow!” Albert inspected the blood dripping from his middle index, the fingernail bent back. Red drops smeared across the white wall where his finger had snagged against an almost invisible protrusion. His brows came together as he examined the wall closer. I wonder whether the Reverend was cursed by this house or is simply insane.
“Ah, there you are Bertie. What the hell do you want?”
Albert jumped. He brought the flask tight to his chest. Finnegan, the overseer, was a mean drunk. By the looks of him, Albert could see that he already had plenty to drink. Stringy brown hair, now streaked with gray, hung in his face. His shirt, askew, pulled away from his pants. Albert’s nose crinkled as he took a step back from the stench. He replaced the flask back in his vest pocket with a shaky hand before turning to face his adversary.
“Well, what are you looking at? Did you have sumpin to say or did you want to kiss me? Heh, pretty boy?” Finnegan swaggered towards Albert.
Albert hesitated. Finnegan didn’t take kindly to those who questioned his authority. Under normal circumstances, Albert wouldn’t have said anything, but there had been too many accidents and too many deaths. You’re not controlling your men. The slaves are being accosted nightly. How are they supposed to work when they can barely move? Material costs are double the estimate and I’m damn sure you’re embezzling the building funds. He couldn’t say these things and expect to walk away unscathed.
Instead, he ran his hand through his thinning hair. “Nothing good will come from this house,” he whispered.
“Is that right?” Finnegan asked. A hard smile crossed his face.
Albert took a few steps backward. His stomach rolled with fear. He straightened his vest and stood taller.
Finnegan sneered at him. “I’m a busy man. What is it you want now?”
“About your men.” Albert crossed his arms over his chest. He stammered, “You need to take control of the situation.”
“And what situation would that be?” A flush immediately began to redden Finnegan’s face.
“Slaves cost money and your men are making them worthless with their nonstop abuse.” Spittle slipped from his lips. Albert took a couple of steps toward Finnegan momentarily forgetting his fear of the big man. “The expenses are out of control.”
“There’s more where them came from and the Rev has plenty of money. I ain’t worried about it and if I’m not worried, then you don’t need to be botherin’ me with it either.”
“How many have died building this house? How many have been murdered?” Albert pushed on.
Finnegan’s fists clenched. “Now you listen to me, you little snot nosed, sum bitch. I’m in charge of the darkies here, not you.” His bloodshot eyes grew redder as his rage escalated. Finnegan patted the wall with his fat hand. “Unless, of course, you want to join ’em. Why we’ve got a few buried right here on the other side of this wall.” He stepped closer to Albert. “No one questions me how I run my business. I do the asking.”
His short fat finger poked Albert’s chest forcing him backwards. “For example, why the hell does this house have doors that open to nothing but a solid wall? Are people supposed to walk through walls? Do you expect the darkies to come in the front door?” he asked. His voice shrilling higher with each word.
“I do my job as I’m told and you best do the same,” mumbled Albert although he knew Finnegan was right. There was no escape in case of fire. There were plenty of windows but they were all set high. No one would be able to reach them to climb out. “You get control of your men or you’ll be replaced,” Albert pushed out his chest trying to appear larger. “I’ve spoken what’s needed to be said. Matters improve or I’ll speak directly to the Reverend.” He turned his back to the overseer and started toward the steps.
Finnegan reached behind his back and pulled a hammer from his pocket. He raised his arm to the back of Albert’s head. “You ain’t talking to nobody.”
A hand, appearing from seemingly nowhere, grasped Finnegan’s wrist as he was bringing the hammer’s head down. Finnegan saw Reverend, just call me Rev, Blackstone towering over him. His mouth fell open with no sound escaping.
The Reverend was a tall strict man, standing at a firm six foot six inches. His body, massive in the shoulders, overshadowed most men. Always dressed in a solid black suit with a crisp black shirt, his appearance more like the devil than a spiritual shepherd of men. His black hair was slicked back, not a hair out of place, as he held Finnegan’s wrist above the man’s head.
“You don’t want to do that, Finnegan.” His voice was quiet and commanding.
Finnegan met the Reverend’s eyes. The drunk man's knees began to shake. He faced two red pits of blazing fire in the place where the Reverend’s eyes should have been.
Finnegan blinked hard. The towering man’s eyes were their normal icy blue. The Reverend let go of Finnegan’s wrist. The hammer clashed to the ground. A clanging echo reverberated against the concrete walls.
Albert, upon seeing the hammer, pulled a small pistol from his belt. “You bloody coward,” he hissed.
The Reverend stepped between the two men. “Put that away, you fool. There is nothing going on here. A simple misunderstanding is all.”
Albert stared at Finnegan, but lowered the gun.
The Reverend’s firm hand patted Albert’s shoulder. “Put your rage away. I will settle this. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Albert slipped the gun back into his belt visibly shaking.
“Good man,” Rev said. “I believe you have work elsewhere. You should go now.” Waving his hand, he dismissed Albert as he faced Finnegan. “I will take care of matters here.”
Albert backed away and scurried up the stairs. He did not want to be here when the Reverend settled with Finnegan. He left the basement without looking back, knowing in his heart he wouldn’t be seeing the overseer again. The door clicked softly behind him.
“Now that we’re alone…” Rev gazed down at the overseer.
Finnegan legs were shaking. He wet himself as his knees buckled and he fell unwillingly before the Reverend.
“Tell me, my son.” His voice was smooth as a river stone. “Take the burden from your shoulders. Is there something you wish to unburden from your heavy soul?”
Finnegan felt his spine melting. “No Rev, I swear. It was as you said. Nothing more than a misunderstanding.”
“Really? What was this misunderstanding?” His voice was calm and hypnotizing.
“Albert was concerned over the dead darkies. I can’t control them all, you know? They’re clumsy, unskilled and, and...” He mumbled off staring at the ground refusing to glimpse the Reverend in the face. I can’t see those eyes of fire again. Never again in my whole life.
“Is that all?” Rev drawled. “I thought perhaps you wanted to tell me about the stealing of the church’s money, or perhaps, how you were sabotaging the building of this house with inferior material.” Rev laid the tip of his riding crop across Finnegan’s neck.
Finnegan’s blood ran cold. He stammered as he stared at the floor. “It wasn’t like that...I didn’t mean... I was...”
The Reverend sighed. “I can see you don’t understand what this house is to become. What this house means to God.” Rev held his hands out. “It’s more than a palatial home. This house is being built for people like you. He smiled. His slow drawn southern voice dripped as a sticky, maple syrup.
Finnegan relaxed as he raised his face to the Reverend, hypnotized by the soothing baritone voice. The Reverend cupped Finnegan’s chin and gazed into his eyes as a father speaking to a wayward child.
“I’m building this house as a home for people like you. Yes, worthy people. They will visit with us, dine on the finest food, and drink to their content. Through their journey with us, they will be freed from the destructive path they have chosen. Yes. This will be a house of redemption for people like you.” His eyes blackened. The red fire returned. He tapped the riding crop on the palm of his hand, bright sparks flying off the end. His voice grew loud as thunder. Finnegan clasped his hands over his ears.
“Liars, thieves, murderers. They will all come and enjoy the fruits of our labor. They will face their sins and they will repent.”
Finnegan’s skin paled. He shook uncontrollably under the heated gaze of the Reverend.
“Or,” Rev continued, his voice returning to his normal soothing baritone. “They, like you my friend, will never leave this house.” He smiled, laying the crop on Finnegan’s shoulder.
Finnegan flinched, the crop singeing his shirt.
Rev sighed deeply. “I see you need time to reflect on the error of your ways.” He turned away.
“No. I swear on my sweet mother’s grave. It’s nothin but a misunderstanding,” Finnegan’s voice garbled. He cleared his throat, forcing his tongue to speak. Finnegan grabbed at Rev’s long coattail. “Where are you going?” He tried to stand, but his legs would not move. “Please, don’t leave me here.”
The coat slipped out of his fingers. Rev climbed the stairs without looking back at the begging man. A loud ominous click was the only response he gave to Finnegan as he closed the basement door behind.
Several moments passed before Finnegan found the strength returning to his legs. He could stand. His bad temper returned as well. He shook his head as if waking from a bad dream.
What the hell happened? He ran up the stairs and attempted to open the door. It wouldn’t budge. There was no lock on the door, but still it wouldn’t budge. He examined the edges and saw nothing out of order. Had the door expanded? He could see it fit in the doorway, as it should.
Finnegan slammed his fist against the oak without expecting much. Two and a half inches instead of the three ordered, but thick enough. He wasn’t disappointed. The door didn’t move.
“Let me out of here! Someone open the door!” Finnegan screamed. Turning around, he glanced up at the basement windows. The sun's final light filtered through bouncing against the high walls.
I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the night in a basement. I built this door and I will rip it out. He stomped down the steps muttering. And when I get out, I will find Albert and put my boot so far up his arse, he’ll be chewing on the leather. And then I’ll put his arse down here to spend the night. Finnegan grinned. He flew down the steps to scavenge what he could. He found a screwdriver and hammer. That’ll do the trick. He bounded up the stairs and slipped the flat blade between the seams in the door. The blade stuck. He pulled it back, but the blade wouldn’t budge. It wouldn’t go up or down. It was frozen solid. Sweat ran across his palm. His stomach began to twitch. This isn’t possible.
“Albert! Are you on the other side? You best let me the hell out of here before...”
Finnegan jerked around. Shadows formed across the cluttered floor. Long, unearthly, dark shadows. He looked up to the windows forgetting about Albert. Soon there wouldn’t be any light. If I can get up there, the window is big enough for me to climb through. I’ll have to work fast.
He removed the planking from extra flooring stashed in a corner. Bringing it to the wall, he slanted the boards to create a makeshift bridge. He brought over a barrel. His muscles heaved under the load and sweat poured down his back. The support had to be strong enough to hold his weight. The sun was setting faster than his work was progressing.
A board behind him shifted. A bucket of nails spilled across the floor. A scream pierced his ears. A scream from inside the empty basement. Sweat blanketed his face. He ran up the stairs, his hands flailing on the door until his bloody knuckles left the blonde wood painted red.
“I’m sorry Rev. I want to confess. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Finnegan crumbled at the door. People are going to answer for this. I’ll get back at the Rev and his sissy boy, Albert. His brain fought against this thinking. Have you already forgotten the Reverend’s eyes of fire? He shook his head. It was impossible. The sun had been reflecting off his eyes. That’s all it was. He was a fool for thinking it was anything more and foolishness is what had gotten him into this mess.
Only a glimmer of sunlight peeked through the windows. The basement floor was now dark. He pulled a match from his pocket and dragged it along the wall. Sulfur wafted up to his nose as the flame ignited. Holding the lit match above his head, he returned to his makeshift ladder.
He dropped the spent match before gingerly taking the first step on the board. It gave a little but it would hold if he moved steadfast. One step after the other. Another. The boards started to slip. He forced his legs to move quicker. He grabbed the windowsill.
The makeshift fall was swift and sudden as boards collapsed clattering to the floor. Finnegan’s body slammed into the wall. His fingertips grasped the top of the windowsill ledge. He had to catch his breath before pulling himself up. He was sweating profusely. Using his feet, he climbed the wall like a spider. He exhaled. He had made it. His elbows rested on the windowsill ledge. He breathed heavily and shook the sweat from his eyes.
The last of the sunlight was gone. He could see the stars in the sky across the field. A slim, dark skinned woman tended an open fire roasting chickens. He banged on the window and called to her. Bile rose in his throat from his fury as she ignored him. His body began to slide down. He crept up closer to the window to unlatch it.
A scream pierced his ear from behind. He involuntarily jerked, losing his footholds. His body’s weight pulled him downward, sliding from the ledge, losing precious leverage. His legs spun like a pinwheel frantic to regain traction. Finnegan pulled himself back up and reached for the latch, hands shaking badly. He reached to pull the latch. His fingers stumbled against the immobile lock. He blinked hard. His eyes stung from the dripping sweat. He tried again. The latch opened with ease. His triumphant laughter echoed against the walls below. He pushed the window up and grasped the outside ledge.
“Massa? What is you doin up there?” a sweet voice called from behind him.
Finnegan leaned his face across his arms and laughed. About damn time.
“I’m trying to get the hell out of ...” Finnegan looked over his shoulder. The basement was empty.
The window slammed down breaking his hands. He screamed, his arms straining to stay on the ledge.
“Help me Massa, I’m hurt. Please help me Massa,” a voice whispered. He felt a pull on his foot. More voices joined and more hands pulled at his legs.
“Help us Massa, help us!”
He looked blindly down to the empty room, the voices filling his head becoming louder. The pulling was more insistent and his strength gave way. He fell to the floor. The cracking sound of his breaking ankles reverberated off the walls. Mad with pain and fear, he screamed at the reaching touching hands grabbing and pulling at his body. They pulled at his face, his arms, and legs. Teeth bit down on his broken fingers. He didn’t think he could scream louder but he did. There were teeth everywhere on his body now. Bodies covering him muffled the sound of his screams.
Blackness was coming and from far off, He could hear the Rev saying,
“You need time to reflect on the error of your ways.”
It was the last thing he heard.