Sunday, January 24, 2021

drinkdrankdrunk: "The Hand Of Montenado" by Mark Justice

I am a dead man.  I know that now.  My greed has brought about my death.  I can already begin to feel the cold chill of the grave pressing against me, tightening around my throat.  Is that a shadow?  Is that Death?  The howls outside … are those merely cats, trees bending in the wind, or is that Montenado?

I should explain.  I received a package today, a plain box, with my name on it; but my name is irrelevant.  All you need to know is that I will soon be dead, thus my great haste to share my story.

I opened the package.  Inside was a small bag made from the most exquisite purple velvet.  I opened the bag, and inside was the hand of Montenado, Count of Spain.  The hand was severed, its fingers grasped tightly in a vicious claw as if it still were in the grip of pain spasms from being chopped from its arm yet still looking as if it were trying to clutch at something.

Inside the hollow of the palm was a small manuscript.  I took the parchment out and began reading.  When I finished, I knew I had brought about the deaths of three others as well as my own demise.

Count Montenado was rich, powerful, vain, and arrogant.  Upon his right hand, he wore a signet ring, a deep blue sapphire with a diamond set into its face, the Count's emblem on it.  Rumor had it that this ring had properties far beyond the sapphire, diamond, and gold from which it was made.  That's what gave the Count all of his powers.

I wanted that ring.  I wanted that power for myself, so I hired three men.  Their names aren't important.  Three men from the lowest strata of civilization, if you could call it that.  Petty thieves and thugs.  Their mission was to steal the ring off the hand of Montenado and return it to me in exchange for a hundred gold pieces.

I sent word to these men, months ago, and heard nothing in return.  I thought they had vanished, had run away with the ring themselves.  Then, when the King's courier came into town, crying that Count Montenado had been assassinated, I knew they had been successful in their mission; but where were they?  No word had been given, no message, nothing.  I thought I had been betrayed by the thieves who I hired, myself stolen from the very thieves I hired to steal.  Now I know my suspicions were wrong, as this parchment plainly shows, written in the hand of the last thief.

They snuck in, past the guards, to where the Count was.  He had had a party, had been drinking heavily, and was entering his chamber to sleep.  The thieves snuck in and attacked the Count en masse.  One stabbed him in the heart, and another stabbed repeatedly over his writhing body, enough times to kill many men.  The Count lay still.  Surely, he was dead, but the Count was not.  He grappled with them, cursing and muttering something under his breath.  Finally, the Count succumbed to the repeated stabs to his belly and chest, the blood pouring freely and spilling onto his bed.

They struggled but could not pull the ring off.  It was as if the ring were inexorably part of his hand.  They took out their long knives and began to cut through his arm, severing the hand at the wrist.  As one thief tore the severed hand free from the bloodied arm, the fingers contracted into the claw I now see before me.  Startled, the thief let loose of the hand, but the fingernails sank deep into his flesh, causing him to scream.  Ripping the nails out of his skin, he put the hand into a bag and ran from the room, just as the palace guards made their way into the bedroom, to the floor that was now slick with spilt blood.

The thieves celebrated their victory that night in drunken wantonness.  They began to squabble about who was to watch the hand.  There was fear that one would to try and take the ring and kill the others.  No one trusted the other.

They decided who would keep watch over the hand by a game of contest.  They threw knives at a wall in their sleeping room.  One of the thieves won and took the bag with him.  The next morning, the two thieves went to his room and knocked on the door.  There was no answer.  They began to get suspicious, to think that they had been duped, and that he had stolen the hand in the night.

They kicked the door in.  Inside the room, lay the thief on the bed, his head twisted completely around, his neck one large purple and blue bruise.  His tongue was hanging out of his mouth, swollen, bloated like a slug.  The smell of death filled the room.  Some kind of eerie scratch marks were found along the walls of one side of the room, from the window to the thief's body.  On his throat and face were distinct impressions, like fingers.

Quickly, the two remaining thieves grabbed the bag and looked inside.  The hand was still there.  The ring was still there.  They were frightened and didn't know what to think.  They decided to stay and watch the hand together in case someone, or something, tried to prevent them from returning the hand.

The next night, the thieves were staying in a common room, waiting for the passage that would bring them back here to me so that they could get paid.  They could feel the chill in the autumn night.  A thick cold mist began to move around like a shroud in the night air.  The noises outside ceased.  They could feel their hearts pounding in their chests, throbbing in their foreheads, beads of sweat dropping.  Their breath came quicker, fast and shallow.

They began to see the shadow in the fog, but it wasn't quite a shadow.  There was a strange, uncanny blue glow to its translucence.  Was it the moon, a trick of the eye?  They looked closer into the form and saw a man's face begin to take shape.  He raised his left hand up and began tapping on the window.  He raised his right arm, and there was no hand.  They knew right then that this was Count Montenado.

They began to scream and pass the bag back and forth, trying to pawn off the hand to one another.  "What do we do?  What do we do with the hand?" they cried.  "Do we give it back?  How do we prevent a ghost from getting us?"

They tried in vain pushing the chest of drawers against the window, but it fell like a child's toy as the glowing, ghostly presence entered the room, the outstretched hand, the stump of the other.  The thieves saw the look of evil, of anger, of hatred, of hell itself burning in the eyes of Montenado as he began to slowly move toward them.

They began to panic.  One held the bag, then the other.  They screamed and clawed at the room's door, but it would not budge.  They beat against the door and screamed mercilessly, howled as if their lives depended on it; but it was as if the entire world was dead.

The ghost began to move toward the thief who held the bag.  The thief’s knees buckled, and he collapsed on the floor, sobbing, whimpering "no, no" as Montenado continued toward him, his hand outstretched.

The ghostly fog enveloped the thief and muffled the sobs and pleas for mercy.  The other thief could see Montenado's hand reaching as it clutched around the throat of the thief on the floor and began squeezing.  The other thief heard the man choking, gasping for breath, then the sickening wet snap, the grinding crunch of neck vertebrae breaking.  The dead man's head fell limp; he dropped to the floor with a heavy thump and released the bag.

The thief looked at the ghost, who turned around, looked toward him and smiled.  A cold snap and flash of red and white flashes in the thief's head made him woozy.  He waited, not breathing for he forgot what it was to breathe, then watched as the ghost oozed back out the window, his eyes never leaving their fixed gaze upon his, his smile never changing.

The thief wasn't quite sure what to make of this.  Why didn't he kill me? he wondered.

The next night, the lone thief took the bag, put it in a box, and shipped it away, happy to be rid of the hand of Montenado.  That night, he lay down, happy, thinking that all of his troubles were over.

He began to feel the cold air again, the night grow silent, the fog thicken and billow in around his window; and he knew that Montenado was waiting there for him.  He knew there was nothing he could do to prevent his death; so he began writing quickly, hurriedly, as he had only minutes to go.  He wrote this note, the very one I now hold in my hands, that Montenado would not rest until all those who took part in his thieving of his life, in the thieving of his hand, in the thieving of his ring, would meet their own dooms.

As he finished the note, he put it in an envelope, slipped it under the door, put my name on it, with a gold piece.  Now, I have to assume that the thief is dead, as he writes:  "I can feel Montenado's presence in the room.  He is starting to congeal right now in the fog.  He is coming for me; I am undone, doomed for stealing from him.  You are next, doomed for hiring us to do the wicked deed …” 

That's the last thing he wrote, and now I have the hand of Montenado.  My greed, my undoing.  What have I unleashed?  What have I done by sending these thieves out to steal this man's ring?  I have unleashed this harbinger of doom, this evil avenging spirit.  How can I put it to rest and save my own life, for I now believe that Montenado is after me?

What?  What is that?

There is a sudden cry outside, a shrill shriek as if an animal was in danger; then it suddenly stops.  I feel the wind howl.  I think it's the wind.  The moon is bright tonight, and there's a fog creeping in, but we're nowhere near the water.  What is this fog, and what is that mysterious shape within it?

My heart begins to pound.  I know this is Montenado.  I can feel his presence growing thick in the room.  I must write this to you, to anyone who'll believe.

I know that he's after me.  I know that my time is short.  I will soon no longer dwell among the living.  I can feel him already.  Damn my greed!

I write this now to warn you.  Because you now know the secret of the hand of Montenado and of his ghost who roams, you have become a co-conspirator in my crime.  When you lay down your head to sleep tonight, look outside.  If you feel the wind begin to change and grow cold and feel beads of sweat grow on your forehead, and if you see a fog roll in, know that it is your doom.  Know that Montenado is after you and will not rest until all who know this dread secret are dead like him.  The fog will thicken, the room will grow dark, and you will feel his hand clutch around your throat, slowly strangling the very breath you take until you are dead.

Now that you know, good luck to you; but I fear nothing will save you, for we will all be dead men by the hand of Montenado.

Mark Justice is the author of several books.  His latest is Toxic, a nonfiction work.  I am pleased to run on his work on drinkdrankdrunk!

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