Sunday, October 19, 2014

Men of the City

Men of the City
By Randy Benivegna (A.K.A. Daniel Skye)


          The forces of time can wither the flesh and grind the bones to ash. Only the soul is truly immortal. Only the soul is capable of withstanding the test of time.


          The entire room harbored the putrid fragrance of decay. Death’s perfume was so overpowering that Gunther Hansen was forced to don a breathing apparatus just to be in the same room with Cutter.
          The device was also a safety precaution, as doctors were still unclear of Cutter’s affliction. All the tests that Charlie Cutter had undergone were inconclusive and the doctors were uncertain if this mysterious illness was contagious. Hence the gloves and the breathing apparatus Hansen sported on his daily checkups.
On the first day, Charlie developed a nasty cough and terrible flu-like symptoms.
On the second day, he was coughing, running a high fever, and bedbound.
By day three, Cutter’s skin had broken out in terrible rashes, sores, and blisters that ran up and down his body. And he was coughing up blood by the handful.
Come day six, Cutter didn’t even have enough strength to stand on his own two feet. Anytime he’d try to stand, his knees would buckle and his body would crumple to the floor.
When Hansen came to check up on him the seventh day, Cutter was oozing puss and blood from every sore and blister that riddled his flesh. His skin had the pigment and texture of rancid meat. Locks of fallen hair rested beside him on the covers.
His wretched features frightened the children so much that his son and daughter refused to visit him or bring him food. Even his wife had grown distant. More and more, it was Hansen that Cutter would see bringing him his food or the daily paper.
In his perishing state, Cutter had requested the company of his attorney so he could draw up his last will and testament. His stocks had already been traded, his debts liquidated, most of his assets sold at auction to provide for his family in the event of his demise.
It was the pact that haunted him. He was so close to freedom. And that fact terrified his beneficiary, who would do everything in his power to make sure Cutter never achieved his goal.
“Gunther,” Charlie croaked. “How do I look?”
“Never better, sir,” Gunther declared and cracked a smile that Charlie could not see behind the apparatus, but the thought was still there.
Gunther Hansen was Charlie’s loyal, obedient assistant. A servile drudge, Gunther’s sole mission in life was to serve Cutter. Rarely did he dare question his master’s motives.
A laconic man, Gunther was never accused of being the loquacious type. If he said more than ten words it was practically considered a monologue.
“Gunther, I’m going to need you to do something for me,” he said. “Come closer.”
Gunther leaned in as close as comfort and safety would allow him and Charlie whispered forth that he wanted Gunther to phone a local escort service.
“If you insist, sir,” Gunther said. “But may I remind you of the Mrs. Cutter before I do so?”
“The girl’s not for me,” Cutter assured him. “Well, she is. But it’s not what you’re thinking. My plans are a bit more devious than that.”
Cutter whispered his plan, sparing no details as Gunther Hansen stood aghast.
“Sir, I can’t in good conscience allow you to go through with this.”
Charlie Cutter regarded this insubordination as tantamount to a slap in the face. Nobody defied Charlie Cutter. Nobody…

          It was on one of his frivolous spending sprees that Charlie Cutter passed by a garage sale and ordered his driver to stop. Of all the items available, it was the painting that had caught his eye.
The painting depicted nine individuals against a twisted backdrop of a dark, brooding city. The ninth individual was not fully depicted like his counterparts and appeared as more of a vague apparition that blended in at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting.
The fourth man from the left of the painting bore a striking resemblance to Cutter. The man’s wrinkled face, stern demeanor, and cold, fixed eyes made Cutter feel as though he was gazing upon his illustrated doppelganger. The likeness was not only uncanny, but quite disconcerting. Had someone been watching him when they sketched this piece?
And so began his obsession. He knew it belonged with him. He felt it in his bones.
The men’s heads had been converted, adapting to the gargantuan structures that stood erect in the background. The tops of their skulls merged and fused with the towers and skyscrapers that ascended to the bleak sky above, transforming them into architectural monstrosities.
The buildings seemed to oppress their minds, weigh them down, and force them into submission. The painting magnificently captured the profound rage and despair that Cutter felt for a city he was once so enamored with. These were the true men of the city. Men that Charlie Cutter could empathize with.
          The seller was not even sure how he came to acquire the painting. He just happened to stumble upon the eccentric work while cleaning out his attic. The artist was unknown, and the painting was not signed, initialed, or dated.
          “I’ll take it,” Cutter had told the seller, not even bothering to negotiate the price.
          Cutter had the painting mounted that evening and hung up on the wall that faced his bed, so he could gaze upon every morning he woke and every night before he closed his eyes to sleep.
          Those days, Cutter spent most of his time brooding in his cavernous mansion. Every day he’d glare out his windows that overlooked the same city that once held a special place in his heart.
But as many years passed, Charlie had grown jaded and disillusioned with the city he once had such deep admiration for. A city blackened by filth and corruption and greed.
A city that had been violated and robbed of its purity. Day after day, he watched its beautiful façade decay, and his stomach churned just at the sight. And God never heeded his calls to restore beauty and splendor to the streets and neighborhoods.
God had shunned him. The city had shunned him. And he had no more willpower to resist. The city’s nihilistic attitude had prevailed. Charlie had no choice but to submit to it all. If he couldn’t save the city, he’d at least be a part of its downfall and profit from it.
It was this attitude, this hedonistic crusade that had led Charlie to this ostensibly unbreakable pact. Charlie began to desire more than life could ever grant.
He wanted flashy cars, expensive clothes, an extravagant home, extended vacations to exclusive, exotic paradises. He wanted to taste exotic fruits and taste equally exotic women. And there was only one way to turn these fantasies into reality. So Cutter had pledged his soul to Satan in exchange for wealth and prosperity.
But as Charlie grew older and watched his dreams come true, the harsh reality of the pact began to dawn on him. And he scrambled desperately to try and find a way out.
A close confidant that dabbled in the black arts had referred Charlie to an occult specialist named Declan Frost. When they spoke on the phone and Declan heard the urgency in Cutter’s voice, he made it a priority to stop by the mansion and speak with him in private. He’d heard that same dreadful tone a thousand times before.
The painting Charlie had purchased–he wasn’t the only one it seemed to emulate. Declan Frost was a pale, gaunt man in an aqua blue suit. Black lensed glasses were tightly secured to his face, giving him a passing resemblance to the man in the center of this painting. Charlie had heard of life imitating art, but this was getting absurd.
“It’s marvelous in a way,” Declan had told Cutter. “Satan can give you anything you desire and the price is always the same. It never fluctuates.”
“Indeed,” Charlie nodded, unamused. “And how do I go about fixing this mess I’ve found myself in?”
“It’s not so simple,” Declan said. “You can’t just file bankruptcy on your soul. Satan doesn’t comprehend Chapter Eleven. First you’ll need a sacrifice. Doesn’t matter who. A bum, a prostitute, your next-door neighbor. It’s your call.”
“Tell me more,” Charlie said, intrigued.  And Declan laid it out thick for him. A guaranteed way to cheat Satan out of your soul. He wouldn’t be welcomed into Heaven, but his soul would be exempt from a life of Hell. He would be free to amble through the plains of space and time.
The graphic details sickened even a man with Charlie’s warped senses. But if it had to be done to save his soul, it had to be done. Except it wouldn’t be his soul anymore.
Once he gouged out the heart of his chosen sacrifice and swallowed it whole after reciting the ancient passage that Declan had shared with him, their soul would be absorbed and Charlie would be Charlie Cutter in name only. A small price to pay for an eternity of freedom.
It was a few short days later that he fell ill, just before Charlie’s plans could come to fruition.
“I won’t help you do it!” Gunther said emphatically.
“You ungrateful little bastard,” Charlie castigated him. “After all I’ve done for you. Don’t you understand? Time is running out! All I need is one sacrifice! It could be anyone! A hobo junkie, a waif or a runaway, anyone! All I need is the heart so I can transfer their soul to my body! That’s all I need to be free!”
“You’ve gone mad,” Gunther shook his head in disapproval.
Cutter rolled the covers from his body, exposing the hideous lesions and blisters that adorned his flesh. He found the strength to lift himself from the bed and he lurched forward, a murderous glint in his eyes.
Gunther froze, unable to defend himself. Fear had glued his soles to the wool carpet he soon writhed upon in his imminent struggle with Cutter.
Knocked to the floor, it was as if Gunther had finally regained his senses. And he struggled with all his might to keep Cutter at bay. He was weak in his unhealthy state, but his impulses possessed him, giving him the strength he needed to persist.
The butcher knife had been by his side the whole time, tucked underneath the covers. And now the blade glistened beneath the ceiling fixtures as it descended towards Gunther’s chest.
“The heart!” Charlie cried. “I must have the heart!”
Inches from his heart, the blade came to a halt as an eerie din grabbed Charlie’s attention.
It was the painting. It pulsed and throbbed as if it were alive. The canvas cracked and bubbled as the contents of this painting oozed forth and manifested before Cutter’s unblinking eyes.
Before him stood the vague apparition that had blended to the right-hand corner of the painting. Its blank face, dark exterior, and lack of substance made Cutter instantly grasp just who had come to pay him a visit.
“Hello, Cutter,” it spoke. “It’s time. I told you before. The skin will wrinkle, the bones will deteriorate. The flesh is weak. The body is weak. Only the soul is truly immortal. And now yours belongs to me for eternity.”
In seconds, the apparition had vanished from Gunther’s sight, and all the life had been drained from Charlie Cutter’s body as he lied motionless on the carpet.
Hansen torched the painting that very same evening, ignoring the demand in Charlie’s will that he be buried beside it.

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