Horla Fiction (November 2019)

 

INVITE ONLY

by ANTHEA MIDDLETON

 

STANDING at the edge of Grange Cemetery, he straightened his tie. Was it even a tie affair? The invite hadn’t been clear on dress code. There was no one around, which he supposed was to be expected at 1am. But he had been assured that this was a rather esteemed event. Unusual to hear nothing so close by.

The gate was latched open. A good sign. The invite hadn’t been clear on the entrance. All he knew was… Grange Cemetery. So needlessly mysterious, he thought. What an effort for a party. He walked along the outer path, under the shadowy trees – their branches arching down like monstrous fingers ready to pluck him up off the ground. The place felt vaguely familiar. But all these Edinburgh graveyards looked like this. So many of the tombstones had fallen over. He hoped that was just age, and not vandalism by the partygoers. Though from what he could tell so far, their party was entirely indoors.

He almost went right past it in the darkness, but as he got nearer the back wall of the graveyard, he noticed an elongated hill running across from one side to the other. When he got closer, he realised these were tombs, cut into the side of the ground. Beautifully ornate stone carvings, etched all along the front wall, to show just how wealthy the inhabitants were. So bizarre, he thought, that people would bury themselves with their money.

A few crypts along, there was an archway. It looked promising, party-entrance-wise. He walked through and sure enough, a small flickering candle in a lantern on the floor caught his eye. Next to it, another gate – also on the latch.

It opened onto a long corridor of abandoned crypts, broken up by crumbling stonework and the occasional empty bottle of Peroni. Classy teenagers in Marchmont. But it irked him. The invite had seemed so prestigious. Even – he had to admit – the elaborate quest to find the place had been well thought out. You’d think if they put all this effort in, they could have cleared away the bottles.

He liked Peroni though. Hopefully they’d have some as an option. The invite made it sound like they’d be drinking the blood of virgins.

About halfway down, there was another lantern at the inner wall. This time there was no gate. Only a raised tomb, the lid slightly askew. Please don’t let there be a corpse in here, he thought, bracing himself and pushing it to the side. He took a moment before he looked in, preparing for the worst. But it was just a narrow staircase.

He clambered in, noting his suit chafing on the edges, covering him in corpse-dust. He should have worn something less expensive. If everyone was in shirts and jeans he’d be raging.

Once he cleared the top of the fake tomb, the stairs were well-lit. Candles of course. It did add to the ambiance, but it was surely a pain for whoever had to light them all before these parties.

At the bottom of the stairs, he turned the corner and was immediately faced with a burly, moustachioed gent in a tuxedo jacket and kilt. His immediate thought was he was glad he hadn’t worn jeans. His less immediate thought was that this man had his arms crossed, was about nine times his size, and looked like he was about to blame him for beer bottles in the crypt above.

‘This is invite only, sir,’ he said, looking him up and down.

‘I have an invite.’ He was unimpressed. Was he not the sort that looked like he’d have an invite? He had an expensive suit and he’d put gel in his hair. He’d even washed off some of the aftershave after realising he’d choke everyone within 10 metres.

The security guard picked up a clipboard from a small antique table. ‘Who invited you?’

‘Michael Craig. I assure you that I–’ He was cut off by the door suddenly opening. Two girls, doubled over in hysterical laughter, tumbled out. They were both dressed in floor-length ball gowns, the taller girl in blue sequins and the other in pale pink. They had masquerade masks over their eyes.

The guard turned to them and said, ‘You can’t get back in if you leave.’

‘Ooh, sorry! We just came out to… To get him!’

The security guard, appearing a little flustered by all the sudden activity, tried to turn his attention back to the matter at hand. ‘Invited by Michael Craig, you say? And your name?’

‘He’s with us!’ Blue Sequins grabbed his hand and pulled him through the door.

‘I’ll be checking with Michael,’ the guard called to their backs, as she closed the door behind them.

The door opened into an expansive, decadent cavern and he was overwhelmed by a strong smell of incense, mingled with the inevitable smell of damp earth you get from being underground. He must have walked down a lot of stairs, as even if the arched stone ceiling was touching the graveyard grass above, it still towered at least 4 storeys tall. Each floor had balconies cut into the stonework, where glamorous drunken people talked and laughed and fondled. The ground floor also heaved with party guests, all surrounding – but not sitting at – an enormous ornate wooden table that ran almost the length of the hall. A small orchestra played a strange classical-rock hybrid of Highway To Hell in the corner.

Did Edinburgh have this many rich elite? There had to be at least 200 people in the room. He’d been under the impression this was very exclusive. 200 people, plus the orchestra, the doorman and whoever lit all the bloody candles… How did they keep the whole thing so secret?

‘You’re late,’ Blue Sequins said. Her friend had disappeared and she’d removed her mask. He was glad of that. Masks were weird. Her sequins glittered and sparkled under the lights.

‘For what?’

‘For the party. You missed all the magical devil-summoning crap.’

‘Er… I just came when my invite said.’

‘You’re lucky. I don’t know why Michael even bothers with it. No one comes for that stuff anymore. Everyone is just here to get shitfaced. Were you here on New Years when he had that virgin tied to the table? Christ, that was awkward. Also, no way was she a virgin. Just saying. Anyway, drink?’

‘Um… I guess. Is it virgin blood? Or goat blood? I’m not keen on anything in the general blood spectrum, really.’

She giggled. ‘I’ll get you a glass of wine.’

Wine was okay, he supposed. Though he’d have killed for a beer.

She sashayed away to a table weighed down with hors d’oeuvres and a gigantic wineglass fountain, flirtatiously greeting the other patrons as she passed. He watched her extract a wineglass and was surprised when another immediately appeared from the centre to replace it. There couldn’t be an infinite number of wine glasses though. He made a mental note to push that silly wine fountain to its limits.

A youthful man with a monocle stopped as he was passing and said, ‘I’m Cameron. You’re new.’

‘Obvious, is it?’

‘You look too fascinated. The regulars all act like this is the most boring thing they could do on a Saturday night.’ Cameron raised an appraising eyebrow. ‘Although if you do start to find it boring, come find me. I’m sure we could think of some fun activities to do together.’

Blue Sequins arrived back with the wine. She glared at Cameron, who glared right back.

The truth was, he wasn’t interested in either of them. He looked around for a diversion, to remove him from the awkwardness, when suddenly a voice boomed over the loudspeaker. The orchestra and chatter silenced. Everyone turned towards the table in the centre of the room where there was now a slightly smarmy looking middle-aged blond man standing at the head.

‘Friends!’ he cried, dramatically, ‘I hate to interrupt your revelry – ‘

Blue Sequins hissed under her breath, ‘Well shut up then, Michael,’ and Cameron rolled his eyes.

‘… but we all know why we are really here. The Gateway to Hell was formed over 300 years ago by my forefathers –’

‘Every time!’ she said, slightly less quietly now. ‘Why do we have to hear this every time?’

‘They built this crypt for two reasons. The first, was to enjoy the company of their friends, away from the pressures of everyday life. The second, of course, was to honour their success. To this day, the esteemed Gateway to Hell members pay tribute to the devil himself, as thanks for the fortune life has bestowed upon us. He is here tonight. He walks among us. And so, we must give our thanks. Who here will lay themselves at the Devil’s feet?’

This was getting too weird. He loosened his tie, which was starting to feel restrictive. This was not the sort of diversion he’d had in mind.

‘I will sacrifice myself!’

He looked around for the source of the voice and saw a young woman with short brown hair pushing her way through the crowd to the table. He wondered if there were any teenagers hanging around outside. Maybe he could just go spend the rest of the night with them. Do some graffiti, or whatever kids did these days. Would it be okay to slip out during the ceremony? He doubted the security guard would take kindly to it. Might seem rude.

The woman didn’t even need help. She climbed right up onto the table and lay down. Ready for the sacrifice.

Were they going to kill her? He looked at Cameron, and his sequined companion. They didn’t seem too fazed. Surely if Michael was about to stab someone through the heart, they’d be more worried.

He looked back at the table. Michael now had helpers, who were shackling her down. She began to howl, which was very strange, he thought, since she had volunteered.

‘The Devil is taking me!’ she screamed. ‘It’s happening!’

It was too much. He could put up with many things, but not outright slander. He straightened up his tie again and made his way up to the table.

The shackling men had started a sort of humming chorus while the woman thrashed around. The orchestra had started up a much more sombre tune. He preferred AC/DC.

He cleared his throat and tapped the blond man on the shoulder. Startled, Michael turned and looked at him questioningly.

Michael probably thought he was volunteering too. This was going to be difficult.

‘I’m not actually taking her,’ he said.

Michael looked back at him. ‘You what?’

The humming gradually faded out, and the woman even eased up on the thrashing, as everyone became interested in the new exchange.

‘She says I’m taking her. I really only came because I was invited. I don’t even know where I’d take her to. Unless she means taking in a… er… sexual sense? And I’m certainly not up for that in front of 200 people on this table. Which is kind of rickety-looking close up.’

She’d stopped thrashing and was staring at him, uncomprehending, along with the rest of the room.

‘What the Hell do you think you’re doing?’ Michael shouted. ‘Who are you? I don’t even recognise you.’

‘You invited me. About an hour ago. So here I am. Had to get an Uber from Leith or I might have been here sooner, but –’

‘WHO ARE YOU?’

He sighed. He hadn’t wanted it to come to this. He hadn’t even planned on a reveal. Naïve, he thought. Some time someone would just invite him to a party for fun.

Michael went pale. ‘What… What’s happening to your head? What…?’

Good. The horns were visible. Sometimes they weren’t obvious with the hair gel, especially in dim lighting.

‘Anyway, the point is, I’m not actually into…’ he waved his hand at the table and the now-still woman, ‘…this. But thanks for the invite.’

There was no sound in the cavern. No shuffling. No nervous titters. He was beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. ‘I think I’ll just be off.’

As he walked back to the door, the crowd parted, giving him a wide berth. He detracted the horns, figuring they weren’t helping much. The security guard didn’t even look him in the eye. He was about to leave, when he suddenly turned back, remembering why the graveyard had seemed familiar. ‘Oh, Michael?’

The speaker’s voice shook. ‘Yes?’

‘Your great-great grandad threw a rager of a party here once. It was way better than this.’

***

Up the dusty stairs again. He was glad he hadn’t replaced the tombstone lid. When he got back out into the graveyard, he saw three hooded teenagers smoking by the wall.

‘Hey,’ he said to them. They glared up suspiciously, their faces shadowed by the light from their cigarettes. ‘Could I have a beer?’

 

 

***

 

Anthea Middleton relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland, from Ireland three years ago and started attending a weekly writing class. Since then she has completed an 80,000-word science-fiction draft and multiple horror short stories. Other experience includes writing for her local and university papers as a student, and PR for a branch of Vincent’s, a charity for the homeless that she works with in Ireland. She has also published two scientific papers in academic journals and has built, run and regularly updates her own blog. She writes software as well as fiction, and works as a web developer in a small start-up in Edinburgh.

www.antheamiddleton.com