Serial Killers: La Serenissima (Part 2) by Susan Anwin

Serial Killers are part of our Trembling With Fear line and are serialized stories which we’ll be publishing on an ongoing basis.

If he was up to anything shady, he could have done it already, she kept telling herself as she followed him down a dark tunnel amidst fluttering cobwebs and blinking gas lamps. Holly had no idea such lamps were still being used anywhere in the city. Saltpeter flowered on the ancient bricks. Ahead of them she spotted a flaming head hovering in midair. “Can you see that?”

Her companion didn’t seem to be bothered by the apparition; he kept walking with the same long strides. Once they passed it, Holly saw it was just a random person going in the opposite direction with a lantern in hand.

“Who was that?”

Kian shrugged. For a while the only noise was the dripping of moisture and her shoes scraping on the paving stones. 

“How did you do that thing with the echo?” Holly asked after a while to break the silence.

“It’s pretty neat, huh?” Kian bragged.

Ahead of them light diffused the smoky gloom and soon they arrived to a gypsy’s den stuffed with all the clichès of the country fair fortune teller, down to the crystal ball, the candles and vials on the shelves. A curtain, embroidered with Kabbalistic symbols covered the wall on their left. 

“This is Lady Cherlindrea,” Kian gestured at the ample lady on the other side of the purple velvet covered table. “She’s a witch.”

“What’s up Gertie? Found a new mousie?” Lady Cherlindrea asked.

“Why does she call you Gertie?” Holly murmured under her breath. “Is that your name?”

“It’s her thing,” Kian murmured back. “She was Above, hollering to herself,” he said to Lady Cherlindrea. Holly felt her face burning. 

“Oh. She might be a perfect fit here,” the witch noted. She took a fat, black candle from the cluttered shelf above her head. “Do you want your future read?”

“Um, no, I’m good.”

Nonetheless Lady Cherlindrea went on lighting the candle. She swept the flame towards herself. “Oh yes, I feel a fair amount of dissatisfaction in you. Is everything okay?”

Holly pressed her lips together. “You said ‘others’,” she turned to Kian. “Who else?”

“She doesn’t want her future read,” he commented and dragged the curtain aside. Holly’s mouth fell open. They were on some kind of subterranean balcony. A whole city sprawled under them, teeming with people dressed in impossible costumes. Some of the mythical beasts looked more lifelike than costumes and masks would allow, but Holly didn’t want to go down that road. It was a cross between a bazaar and some kind of circus. Rope dancers balanced on the clotheslines between the houses, acrobats swung from one swing to the next, caught midair by their companions, trailing golden dust in their wake. Beautiful ladies and ladyboys contorted themselves on hoops. 

A pasteboard moon grinned its cheesy grin amidst a myriad of swirling, undulating stars above impossible shaped houses that leaned drunkenly towards each other above the meandering streets. 

Some of the cobblestones lit up under the feet of the motley crowd. They reflected the changing hues of the gas lamps, playing in all the colours of the rainbow and then some Holly didn’t have a name for. There was music too, alien tunes played on unknown instruments. The discordant tunes should have been jarring, but instead they created an odd kind of harmony. 

“What is this place?” she breathed.

Kian touched her arm. “Come.”

They snaked among the crowd in narrow little alleyways, absurd garments hanging from the cobweb of clotheslines above their head. Fire eaters perched on gables blew flames above them. No risk management at the workplace training for these folks, Holly mused. The buildings they passed looked like they could topple over at the slightest prod. One of them had a transparent wall that waved like water. She couldn’t resist touching it; she rubbed the moisture between her fingertips. One of the people inside looked up at her, and she hurried to catch up with her companion. 

“Kian?”

“Hmm?” he half-turned back to hear her better through the din. 

“Am I dreaming all this?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“You’re not helping, you know that?” she snapped.

He shrugged a narrow shoulder. “I don’t know about that. Am I supposed to help you with anything?”

Holly gave up. It was hopeless.

They passed a tavern. A gargoyle – must be some kind of birth defect, Holly thought feverishly, it’s not an actual gargoyle – waved at them. “Come on in, try our speciality wine. It tastes like all the colours of autumn and the song of the sirens.”

Kian stopped, his whole posture a wordless question. 

Holly spread her hands. “I don’t have the local money, whatever it is.”

“Don’t worry about that.” 

They entered the establishment and settled at a table. The gargoyle brought them two cups, or rather chalices; etched crystal panels set in a gemstone-studded gold filigree frame. Liquid the colour of sunshine bubbled in their depths.

Kian gestured towards her cup. “Will you just stare at it?”

Holly lifted the chalice to her lips. The heady scent alone felt strong enough to get her wasted. It tasted silver and scarlet on her tongue, like honey and cinnamon and cloves, like autumn bonfires built of fallen leaves. It covered her throat in liquid fire. She must not have been accustomed to strong booze or it was laced with something as from then on Holly couldn’t recall much of the night beyond fragments. 

At one point they were at a countryside fun-fair, with oddly alive-looking attractions. Kids were screaming behind the clown’s rictus at the front of the roller coaster, and the fluffy toys in the claw machine box seemed to scramble against the glass. 

Holly came to her senses next in the mirror labyrinth. She was alone; there was no sign of Kian. The walls seemed to rearrange themselves at every turn as she stumbled on aimlessly, but she was too doped to panic just yet. Her reflections moved out of phase with her, as if the walls were windows instead of mirrors, showing endless versions of herself, each of them having their own separate lives independently of her. Disoriented by the weird shapes, shadows and images, Holly was soon hopelessly lost. 

The next time the darkness lifted she found herself in a lavishly decorated chamber. Condensation glided down the sides of dewy champagne flutes. Crystal chandeliers rotated between embroidered velvet draperies showering the room with crumbs of light, gauze curtains led to invisible nooks at the back. 

A score of scantily clad girls swarmed around Kian, his hand pale on their gold-dusted skin. Not all of them were girls, or entirely human, neither of which lessened their appeal. Their slow dance was a counterpoint to that of the chandeliers, dizzying Holly with their opposing movement.  

From the opulent bordello she was hurled into the nightmare vision of a monstrous building gobbling up the landscape, a steel-and-glass beast trampling on everything in its way. It radiated an evil atmosphere and Holly just wanted to scuttle before it noticed her.

Cut; she was being carried in a tunnel. Shards of light penetrated the darkness, sounds got through to her muffled, as if she was wrapped in a layer of cotton wool. 

***

Lying in the darkness she didn’t know where she was, then she recognised the revolving chair in her bedroom, the towel she used to dry her hair a few days ago still draped over the back. Her flat was in one of the new housing developments, one of those blocks of flats pulled up in the last few decades, carefully devoid of colour, soul or character. 

The events of the previous night flooded Holly’s mind, flashing like the colourful panes from a stained glass window. 

She didn’t get a chance to go back to the theatre in the following weeks. She was buried under a mound of work at the council, sitting at the desk in her little cubicle all day – that’s how she came across the project in one of the group emails. It was a plan to pull down a ramshackle theatre in the 8th district to make room for a new office building, that might attract investors and pop-up businesses, launching a sort of economical renaissance in the area. The lockdown was due sometime over the course of the next month. Holly imagined a steel-and-grass monstrosity with a Starbucks or some other hipster haunt on the ground floor in place of the tattered velvet curtains and glitter trailing acrobats. I have to warn them.

Susan Anwin

Originally from Budapest, Hungary, Susan Anwin graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 2019 (Creative Writing postgrad). She has 50+ publications to date; my flash-fiction Talk of Armadale trees was published in the anthology My Favourite Place (Scottish Book Trust, 2012). Her name appeared on the cover of Aphelion Webzine in March and July 2017, February and August 2018 and November 2019. Starting in March 2019, Art Here Art Now serialized her stories. Reprinted in Horror Without Borders, an international anthology, one of her stories has been translated into Russian.

Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis is a member of the HWA and writes dark speculative prose and poetry which has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Flame Tree Press' A Dying Planet and Nosetouch Press' Fiends in the Furrows. She is the author of gothic novella, Bottled, from Silver Shamrock Publishing and the novelette, Asylum of Shadows from Demain Publishing. Her first novel, The Way of the Mother, is due out in October, via Silver Shamrock. She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org/ and on twitter @el_Stevie.

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