Mister Malcolm took no notice as the first knock slammed on the front door, the pounding cacophony of his racing heartbeat left the middle-aged man deaf to the sound of anything other than his own struggle. With a splintering grip, the man steadied himself against the sturdy wooden banister and inspected the nine steps that still towered above him. This would be a good place to rest, he decided looking around at the base camp needed to rebuild his spirits before completing his nightly ascension, a task that was growing more difficult each evening.
Every movement, no matter how fractional, resulted in the head of his femur grinding itself deeper into his hip joint like a pestle into a mortar. Mister Malcolm knew this was the source of pain because a surgeon told him as much. A relatively simple surgery could relieve him of the scrapping, the doctor would shave down the ball of bone at the top of his femur reducing the friction with his hip and allowing the joint to function painlessly as human evolution had intended.
Unfortunately, both his body and his wife’s mind were working tirelessly against evolution to ensure he did not receive the surgery he so desperately desired. His father-in-law lost his life to an infection after a simple procedure, a tragedy which resulted in his wife’s iatrophobia, a paralyzing fear of doctors. Her case made her weep at anything related to modern medicine. Instead of taking a simple pill to treat a headache, she saw herbalists and healers, who sold her alternative medicines and blatant lies. The revelation that he had even seen a surgeon, and not trusted the word of her so-called experts, led to weeks of badgering. The bottle of pain relief medicine hidden in his armoire may as well be a vial of heroin.
Mister Malcolm kneaded his palm into his backside, the pressure temporarily dampening the discomfort. Another knock carried through the front door, this time successfully penetrating the discord within his eardrums and alerting him to his guest. The pained man glanced towards the second floor landing another nine steps above him and grew suddenly fearful the caller would wake his wife from her slumber. The master bedroom was only a few paces past the landing, and he knew she would not let him hear the end of it if she lost even a second of sleep. Her herbalist recommended she get no less than ten hours sleep each night.
If she hadn’t fired their butler, Leon, the previous week for disposing of the apple cores she’d been secretly fermenting beneath her bed—evidently to be used in some sort of detoxifying cream—the knocking would not have been an issue. Leon would have aided him up the stairs to bed. Leon would have answered the front door. Leon would have solved the dozen headaches the week had offered like the ant infestation in the kitchen, the armoire’s wobbly leg, or the leaky bedroom ceiling. He would have done all of that and continued his primary task: helping Mister Malcolm maintain his distance from Missus Malcolm.
Mister Malcolm lowered himself onto his rear. Although he was angry to lose his vertical progress, he was grateful for the temporary reprieve from the pain of climbing. Going down the staircase, he had found, was a much easier process than scaling up it. The man rolled onto his belly and carefully slid himself downwards into the foyer. It embarrassed him that his body had forced him into such a ridiculous circumstance. If any of his colleagues were to ever witness or even hear about this, he might explode from embarrassment. Leon had been the only one to ever observe the exercise since he was the one who had initially suggested it.
Mister Malcolm pulled himself to his feet and, now back at ground level, found it was much more comfortable to move. Taking long strides with his right leg and short steps with his left kept the grinding to a minimum. Inclines proved the most difficult, but when he was able to avoid those, life became much smoother. As he unlocked the door and pulled it open, a blast of fresh spring air and a strange man pushed past Mister Malcolm into the stuffy old manor.
Before the homeowner could utter a word of protest, the stranger began to speak, “Mister Malcolm! Please excuse what may at first appear to be absurd rambling. I must acknowledge forthright how outlandish this is all going to seem to you. But seeing this is not the first time that we’ve had this exact discussion, and I’ve been able to convince you once before of my good intentions, I am confident we’ll have you back up to speed in just a matter of minutes. Before we begin, I beg of you to do your best to hang on every word I’m about to say for they will make the difference between life and death. Do you understand?”
Mister Malcolm tried to dissect a modicum of sanity from the stranger’s absurd chattering but found he had not understood a single word. The words had been hard to follow but equally distracting was what the stranger held in his hands: an impending avalanche of cash overflowing from the grip of skeletal fingers.
“Good god, sir!” The visitor’s dreadful appearance sent Mister Malcolm limping backward into the foyer, fear surpassing the pain from his hip. Half-hidden behind the raised collar of a peacoat and a slouched herringbone cap, the figure of death stood before him. Mister Malcolm had never seen a true dead body before, only the undertaker’s embalmed masterworks disguised to give the appearance of life. Even with Mister Malcolm’s unfamiliarity with cadavers, this man was a clear portrait taken of those too poor to afford the undertaker’s cosmetic finish.
“I assure you, Mister Malcolm, I am no specter, goblin, or ghoul but rather a normal man whose body has traveled too long past its own time,” the skeleton shifted and revealed more ghastly grey skin shrunken around his skull. “My name is Cecil, and I am here to save your life from an impending disaster. The money I hold in my hands comes directly from your study, specifically the safe cleverly hidden in the masonry on the right side of the fireplace.”
Cecil spoke with the excitable rhythm of a teenager, words tripping over one another as they stampeded from his mouth. It was hard for Mister Malcolm to follow along through the fearful chatter of his own teeth. Cecil crossed deeper into the foyer and beckoned with his sunken skull for Mister Malcolm to follow.
“$16,425 is what you paid me to save the lives of you and your wife,” the stranger called over his shoulder as he entered into the study.
Mister Malcolm cautiously trailed behind, his instincts screaming at him to demand this Cecil creature leave the manor at once. As a tactical businessman however, he knew better than to listen to his gut. He knew numbers and facts; he had built his entire fortune ignoring his instincts and listening to his ledgers. The numbers were the very reason that he refrained from shouting. $16,425 was the exact amount that was stored within his secret safe.
“How did you—” he started as he entered the study. Cecil sat comfortably in the oversized armchair by the fireplace before standing once more and repositioning himself in the loveseat next to it. Mister Malcolm steadied himself in the doorway and wondered whether anything in his desk would make for a decent weapon.
“Know what was in your safe? Because you gave it to me, sir. As I mentioned, I have traveled through time to save your life and already know all the contents of that box including your father’s golden watch which was willed to your brother but you, the executor of the estate, hid it away to keep for your own.”
A cold panic rushed over Mister Malcolm; he’d never told a single soul about pilfering his father’s watch and blaming the theft on the help. Cecil was backlit by the simmering fireplace that Mister Malcolm had forgotten to put it out before heading to bed.
“You told me to tell you that, on our first encounter, that it would quickly convince you of my honesty. It worked on our second encounter. Has that fact convinced you of my foresight?”
Mister Malcolm gawked at the stranger. Who was this man and how did he know so much about the contents of his safe? He supposed the man was most likely a con artist and the sunken face had to be some sort of makeup trick used to distract him, but what of the money? Why would a thief bring money with him and how could he know the exact amount? He had added an additional $65 that very evening, random pocket money he’d accumulated over the week; not a could have possibly known.
Probe him for facts, he thought, find out who sent him. Obviously, someone with close access to the house was watching him in preparation for this heist. The list of suspects was short: Leon and Missus Malcolm. No one else had been within the confines of his study for several months as he preferred to lead a private home life. Could it be the poor jilted butler? Or was it the selfish wife? What reason could she have to rob him? She already had unfettered access to his fortune, and he bent to her every wish. Had she taken a low-class lover who sought to run away with his cash reserves? That wretched woman. It was bad enough she was restricting him from the hip surgery he so badly wanted but—that was it! She was keeping him from spending the money because she planned to have him murdered and take all the money for herself. It made sense. Why allow him to spend tens of thousands of dollars if he’d soon be dead. It would be wasteful!
A soft tickle across the back of his knuckle interrupted his line of thought and sent a chain reaction up his arm all the way to the back of his neck; the tiny hairs rose to attention, one by one, like a reverse-domino demolition. Mister Malcolm instinctively slapped his left hand with his right seeking to brush off whoever had made contact. Expecting to find the skeletal hand of Cecil, he was less surprised to find two black ants squashed within his palm.
“Pesky little creatures. Did you know they’re attracted to water? Like moths to a flame.” Cecil noted, “Now, if you would please open your safe, please?”
“My safe? Open my safe for you?” scoffed Mister Malcolm, “I’m sorry, but I have several theories as to why you are actually here, and every one of them is telling me to keep that safe closed.”
“Oh, do they?” smiled the ghastly stranger. Cecil took two intimidating strides towards Mister Malcolm. It would be hard to convince anyone that the chilling effect of his grin was created by anything other than decades of decomposition. Makeup, Mister Malcolm assured himself.
“Hold this,” Cecil dumped the piles of money into the homeowner’s arms before pacing back to the fireplace, peeling back a panel of stone with a hidden hinge, and revealing a sturdy looking safe with a combination lock.
“I’ll open that over my dead body,” the man spat at suspected thief.
Cecil chuckled, “When did you lose your virginity to Analeese Meade? It wouldn’t happen to have been on—” the dial of the combination lock spun in his rotting fingers, “8-28-12?”
The door of the safe popped open and, when Cecil turned back to face Mister Malcolm, his arms were filled once more with an identical pile of money.
“You’ve not been very accepting of my presence thus far, but this is the point where you need to stop questioning me and start believing me. You and your wife are meant to die tonight. I am a time-traveler, and my presence here can stop your deaths but first, I require payment.”
“Payment? If I am to believe your ludicrous tale, you said I’ve already paid you. In my arm’s, I hold the payment.”
“Yes, you have paid, but—”
“But if I’ve already paid you, if you’ve already come here—if my future is changed by your former actions—why have you come back? Why bother to even speak to me? To burden my mind with the complications of your business. I’d gladly pay you more for you to leave here, reverse time and stop yourself from ever visiting my doorstep.” The visitor’s loud laugh irritated Mister Malcolm. Who was this man to come into his home and fill his mind with these insanities? “Sir, I do not believe your story. Not one bit. I don’t believe the silly makeup smeared on your face. I will gladly pay you a handsome sum and will not alert the police if you will give up the ghost on this whole affair and just reveal to me your plan, specifically whether it was my wife or my former butler who sent you to steal from me.”
“Do I look like a thief to you? A criminal? I can assure you that I am none of these things. I am a man of honor, and there is nothing honorable in me taking your money without informing you as to why,” Cecil’s tone stiffened. “There is also very little honor in paying away your problems for the sake of easing your mind.”
Cecil glanced at the clock on the wall. “We need to hurry this up. The time is almost upon us.”
Mister Malcolm was irate now. “I’ll give you the money from the safe plus the money you brought and an additional $2,000 tomorrow if you’ll just tell me the true meaning of your visit.”
“There should be a $5 bill on top of your pile. Would you mind reading the serial number for me,” asked Cecil, completely ignoring Mister Malcolm’s offer.
“Why,” Mister Malcolm shouted, becoming unhinged.
“Let me put it to you in the simplest way I possibly can: you paid me to save your life, which I did. However, due to extenuating circumstances, I was forced to erase that timeline entirely and start anew. So, yes, while I have earned that money that I just put in your arms, I have yet to earn it from you. Now if you don’t mind read me the serial number so I can prove to you that I am in fact a time traveler and that we hold in our arms the same exact stack of bills.”
Mister Malcolm stared at him. This man obviously had heavily researched his life. Somehow, he collected facts and secrets about Mister Malcolm, his first love Analeese, the stolen watch. He already had his money, but he would not allow this man to trick him.
“Mister Malcolm, there is only one thing I can say that will convince you to read that serial number. There is a reason I came back tonight and did not go back to my own time after saving your life on our last interaction.” Mister Malcolm stared blankly at the conman waiting for him to continue. “After I saved both you and your wife, you asked me to come back and save only your life. I am here because your wife is going to die in six minutes and you’re going to pay me to let that happen.”
For the second time tonight, Mister Malcolm’s heartbeat drowned out the world around him. His mind swirled and he could hardly hear himself slowly read off the numbers from the $5 bill. His voice trembled with every syllable. Cecil stepped towards him, holding out another bill with the identical serial numbers printed upon it.
Cecil’s voice filtered in through the pounding, “Are you ready to listen?” Mister Malcolm’s head bobbed slowly up and down in shock. “Good!” Cecil smiled snatching the $5 back from his now accommodating host and tossing it in the waning fire. He turned back to smile at Mister Malcolm once more before dropping the remaining $16,420 from his clutches into the fire.
“This is real,” Mister Malcolm stammered, “you wouldn’t have burned my money if you were robbing me.”
The man looked dumbfounded at the pile of cash in his own hands, “This really is the same money? I gave this to you…before?”
“Yes you did. If I kept that money, then you and I would both retain the same pile of bills going forward. Do you really think it’s fair for you to pay me without losing a penny? Honestly, just think about the US treasury alone. How confusing would it be for them to find two identical bills from this year in circulation? They’d quickly be able to identify that neither of these bills are in fact forgeries and then some poor young fella on the printing line would surely lose his job. That would create a ripple, which is what I like to avoid in these little business ventures of mine.
“Yes, a ripple. I have different rules and regulations to follow when dealing with a client in need of future help versus a client who needs history-changing. I have no problem tinkering in the times of others, but I’ll do nothing to jeopardize my own lifetime. I am stubbornly unwilling to travel before my line of consciousness. And dare I say, no amount of money is worth the risk of running headlong into battle.”
“You’re from…the past? When?”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Now follow my instructions very clearly if you hope to survive what comes next. Hand me the money.”
“Yes, okay. What should I do now?” asked an eager Mister Malcolm.
“The loveseat in front of the fire, sit in it quickly. It is of the utmost importance that you stay in that seat and do not move an inch.”
“Okay,” the man grunted as his hip scraped once more. Pausing for a moment, he asked, “But wait, how will my wife die?”
“The water spot growing on the ceiling above your bed. The one you’ve yet to call someone to look at, just as you have not had an exterminator rid your house of ants or carpenter come inspect your armoire. Those were all Leon’s tasks, were they not? The source of the water is a leak in the attic. This leak has been prevalent for some time and has caused a beam in the attic to rot away. That beam is located directly above your bed. In a moment, the house will lurch as the rotted wood splinters and collapses atop your wife’s body.”
Mister Malcolm felt ill as he tried to sit still on the comfortably cushioned loveseat, it wasn’t as comfortable as the armchair, his favorite place to rest in the entire house.
“How long until it’s done?” gulped Mister Malcolm, sweating nervously in his seat.
Cecil’s gruesome eyes turned to the ceiling, which was decorated with ornate metal tiles and a lavish chandelier. There was a faint crackling from above them. The creature took the stack of money from Mister Malcolm’s hands and set it atop the stone mantle.
“In just a moment you will be free of her,” Cecil said. A soft orange glow traced the edges of his wicked smile.
“Good, very good,” Mister Malcolm struggled to match his smile. Soon his wife would be dead, and he would be free to live his life without the tether she’d tied around his neck like a noose for so many years.
“Yes,” Cecil agreed plainly. He lowered himself onto the loveseat beside Mister Malcolm, “While we wait, let me tell you the tale of the night you and your wife died in this house.”
His bony frame inched uncomfortably close to the middle-aged man. Mister Malcolm could feel Cecil’s stare pressing into him.
“On this unaltered night in time, on the night I did not come to your door, you ascended that grand staircase only to slip backward when you reached the top step. I watched your body crumple as each step took a turn pummeling your body,” Cecil’s voice turned to a snarl. The words came fast as each syllable became more pronounced. Mister Malcolm attempted to stand up, but Cecil closed his rotted fingers tight around the man’s shoulders and pinned him to the loveseat. “I watched your wife race from bed to find you broken at the base of the stairs. The horror on her poor face. She used all her might to drag you to the study onto the comfort of this very sofa. She lovingly tended to your every need, applying lotions to ease the pain of your broken frame. I watched the accident unfold so I would know just how to stop it. You were crying out like a child, so loud that neither of you heard the cracking of the floorboards above you; I saw the passion in her eyes and the fear within yours as the ceiling above you gave way and the armoire from your bedroom crashed down to decimate your fragile bodies.”
“You said we died in the bedroom!” Mister Malcolm cried out, struggling to pull himself free of Cecil’s bony grasp. The ceiling above crunched once more and Mister Malcolm squealed in terror. The distinct splintering of wood filled the room.
“I LIED!” roared Cecil. “The leak in the attic, which you chose to ignore this week, has been running down through the walls and slowly filling beneath your bedroom floor. The floor began warping beneath the weight giving the appearance that your armoire was crooked. The trail dripped further down into the wall behind the kitchen, gathering puddles that attracted armies of ants, which will continue to congregate for years while the leak grows until this entire structure rots on the inside and collapses down upon itself.”
“Stop it! Release me!” stammered Mister Malcolm. The tin tiles on the ceiling above were beginning to bow and flex as the thundering of failing timber filled the room. Mister Malcolm watched a group of ants scurry across his attacker’s gaunt face and disappear into a small crevasse.
“The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah!” screamed Cecil over the sound of impending doom. His delicate mandible swinging wildly; unhinged, just as his story had first seemed.
“Get off of me, you fool!” shrugged Mister Malcolm. Moldy raindrops leaked from the ceiling, the storm growing heavier with each passing second.
“THE ANT’S GO MARCHING THREE BY THREE, HURRAH, HURRAH!” the ghoul smiled down.
The ceiling above them erupted and, through a shower of splintered wood and falling debris, Mister Malcolm’s armoire came crashing down into the study like a meteor. The armchair next to the loveseat where they sat exploded beneath the weight. Shrapnel covered the screaming strangers as a third cried bellowed from the bedroom above them.
“Or was it in the armchair where she kneeled at your feet and tended to your wounds?” the creature snarled as he loosened his grip on Mister Malcolm.
Cecil rose to his feet, towering like a giant over the cowering Mister Malcolm. The creature took all the money from the mantle and lobbed it into the fireplace. The rising flame filled the demolished room with Cecil’s monstrous shadow.
“You thought me a murderer?” The skeleton raged as he pulled Mister Malcolm up by his shirt collar and shoved him back into the fallen armoire. “You believed I would fail to save a life so I could improve the quality of yours? Do you believe you are blameless in the misery shared by you and the missus? That she is the sole source of your pain? I had opened your life for you in our last meeting, had given you and your wife a bridge to reconnect your souls and your only request upon learning my powers was to take her life. To let her die for that worthless paper.” Mister Malcolm trembled before the creature. “I debated, and it was a heavy philosophical debate for me, allowing you to sit in that chair. A large part of me wished to allow your miserable soul to believe salvation had come to you. Allow the relief to sink in just before the falling armoire did as fate had intended to your hateful body. But I am not like you, Mister Malcolm. I am a good man. I am no killer. I do not save lives for money or glory. I fear what would happen if a creature of your selfish philosophy were to ever possess my power.”
Mister Malcolm laid back and stared up through the broken hole in the ceiling. The fire calmed as the last of the $32,850 crisped into ash. Through the pounding in his ears, Mister Malcolm could hear his wife screaming from the bedroom. The front door slammed, and Cecil was gone.
Mister Malcolm struggled across the piles of soaking debris, wincing with each motion, towards the broken armoire. He pulled the shattered door from its hinge and reached inside to retrieve his secret bottle of pain relief, only to find the pills had been replaced with a dried garlic clove and a note from his wife about protecting his kidneys.