Howl Tower (continued)
Charlotte had no idea of the life-and-death struggle she would face tonight just to make it out of the building.
She glanced back at her computer, copied her client’s email into MercurySays and pressed Submit. “They are feeling anxious,” MercurySays replied. “So, say that being concerned about results is sensible. Then, remind them that being too cautious can invite further problems.” She tapped away at her keyboard following the advice while pondering what delight she might eat for tonight’s dinner.
A multi-tasking master, her AirPods were blasting Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” adding a layer of excited energy to the last day of the working week. “All you need are looks and a whole lot of money,” she sang along, feeling smug about her achievements.
Apart from the cleaners, the offices were now empty. Most executives had left early to beat the traffic or to start savoring the exquisite whiskey on offer in the city’s most exclusive, private clubs, which were just a block or two from her office. And, of course, behind those club doors, 100-million-dollar deals were negotiated, business networks forged, ultra-rich egos played and plotted in secret, and media was strictly forbidden.
But, Charlotte wanted to finish her emails. It was one of her secrets of success. That insatiable drive. Trying to outwork everyone. She was out of the gates and running before her bleary-eyed competitors arrived at their office on Monday morning.
There’s an urban legend regarding Howl Tower that’s being spread via ‘send to all’ chain emails. A story some claim to be true, while others argue it is an exaggerated lie, twisted and warped over the decades for the entertainment of each whisperer. It goes like this.
Every 11 years, on the 11th of April, for one night only, a demon roams the building. It hunts for a new soul to lure onto the 13th floor, where their free will is stolen, transforming them into the demon for the next 11 years. This victim will perform shocking acts that ensure the family never loses control of the land upon which the building stands.
This horrible saga began with a deal between two entities, located in separate dimensions. You might have already guessed those two entities were human and non-human. The negotiation took place when a family that originally (and accidentally) built the first wooden structure on a haunted grave site in 1811. Worldly riches and glory, for generation after generation, was promised to them in return for corrupting a single soul every 11 years to carry out whatever deeds were needed to keep that family in power. That’s allegedly the story. We aren’t looking for any legal trouble. Now, you might be thinking that’s a great deal. Probably, worth it. A win-win for the family. Wealth and protection, forever. And a demon working for them like an employee.
Two centuries, and countless re-building and renovations later, the 80-story “Howler” sits atop the original slice of land. Of course, the grave would have been hard to identify, and the multi-story underground carpark would have removed all trace.
Some people are quick to notice the ‘1111’ detail entwined into that alleged story. A numeric sign of God’s power, many saw it as a spiritual signal not to be ignored or overlooked. Some say that it’s a sign that an almighty angel is nearby. Legend says, the demon chose these numbers as a twisted joke, a sick jest for anyone clever enough to find if they peeled back enough onion layers of deceit.
There was also a gaping hole in this tale that everyone who worked at Howl Tower pointed out the first time they heard it. The building didn’t have a 13th level, which immediately debunked the urban legend. In many countries the number 13 is considered unlucky, so building owners will deliberately leave it out by going from Level 12 straight to Level 14. In fact, the Elevated Enterprise, or ‘Double E,’ estimates that 89% of high rises with their elevators installed do not have a 13th floor button. Believers of this tale say it’s just another vile trick that is set to distract and confuse. So, the demon could keep on with its secret job: devouring a soul every decade or so.
Now, eleven years had passed. Today was the 11th of April.
A hard rat-tat-tat on Charlotte’s office door snapped her to attention. “Come in,” she replied in a high pitched, slightly startled voice. She switched off her music.
“Sorry ma’am,” said the cleaner, “Didn’t mean to alarm you. Was just checking to see if all the doors were locked before we leave. I didn’t realize you were still working.”
Charlotte shrugged off her surprise. “Oh, that’s okay. I was just finishing up. I’ll lock my office on my way out. Thank you, though, for checking.”
“No problem. Have a great weekend!” the cleaner replied cheerfully as he closed the door.
Charlotte knew of the urban legend. She was well aware of today’s date. People in the building had been murmuring about it all week. As a diehard horror and thriller fan, she knew all the characteristics of each sub-genre: comedy horror, dark fantasy, gothic, Lovecraftian, paranormal, post-apocalyptic, psychological, psychos, slashers, serial killers, and all the rest. Whether they were books or movies, their fright-filled roller coaster stories consumed her weekends that left her social life deader than a film’s iconic opening kill. It was as though these stories possessed her, but she knew they weren’t real. Clearly, her no-nonsense, evidence-based life in the real world had kept her balanced. Charlotte had always dreamed of being a CEO and now she could live that life to the full. She would never let a rumor, no matter how intriguing, interfere with that.
She packed her things and checked the time. It had gotten away from her.
It was dark outside as she closed and locked her office door on the 66th level. Not a soul in sight. The sound of her Yves Saint Laurent heels echoed in the quiet corridor as she made her way to the elevator, half watching where she was going while rummaging through her $52,000 Hermès Birkin handbag to make sure she hadn’t left her phone on her desk. She touched the elevator button but it didn’t light up. “Odd. Maybe the bulb had blown.” However, walking down 66 flights of stairs in her $1,900 heels was not going to happen.
To her left, a door suddenly slammed shut at the far end of a barely lit corridor. Every hair on her neck stood on end. Her body was scared. She started talking to herself, bolstering her courage: “I am way too skittish right now. I thought this place was empty. I don’t want to be here by myself, not tonight. I should have left earlier. Get a hold of yourself, girl. Let’s just get out of here.” She squinted hard and saw a man in coveralls moving in the distance. She scolded herself: “See, it’s just another cleaner.”
She called out: “Excuse me! I’m not sure if this elevator is working properly. Could you look at it please?”
He looked up but didn’t reply.
“Rude,” she murmured quietly. Then, out loud again, she said: “This elevator may be faulty. Could you please call someone?”
It was then that she realized he was moving toward her. He was much closer now. She caught a glimpse of his face as he flashed in and out of the fluorescent lights and dark shadows, trudging towards her at a steady pace. His eyes and shoulder-length greasy hair were as black as night. His skin was a deathly pale yellow, the color of a full moon.
She’d never seen him before. Her logical mind tried to slice through her rising fear. “He must be new. Probably doesn’t speak English. He looks like he’s sick.” But, her fear won out.
He walked right up to the elevator and pressed the button. It opened immediately like it had been waiting for him and nobody else.
Relief washed over Charlotte as she thanked him with a nod and bright smile as entered the elevator. She was mildly surprised when he followed her in.
She pressed the B1 button but it didn’t light up. The doors closed. The man stepped in front of her. He seemed to press a button and the elevator began to descend.
Then she noticed the cleaner’s smell. It was like an ancient, musty, moldy sheet of cloth found under the floorboards of a derelict house. It was the smell of death and decay. Charlotte’s imagination took control. It was all those horror movies she’d watched. She imagined walking through the semi-transparent body of a malevolent spirit. It was that type of smell.
She shook herself back to reality and used her nicest voice. “Excuse me. Could you press B1?”
He didn’t respond.
She immediately broke into a prickly sweat. Adrenaline pumped, and her emotions spiked her nervous system into flight mode. But, she had nowhere to run.
Then Charlotte had an urge, developed over years of being a CEO, to check something. Which button had he actually pressed? She peered around his shoulder to see the number 13 glowing brightly. Was this a dream? Was she asleep? Maybe she shouldn’t have watched ‘Dream Warriors’ last night. No more Freddy Krueger.
The figure suddenly turned to face her and Charlotte half fell into the back corner of the elevator.
When a person is possessed by a demon, their eyes don’t turn black like some stories say. It is actually the victim’s pupils dilating to an impossible degree. The blackness devours all light.
Charlotte was now held by the invisible force of his stare of emptiness. Her mind swirled and warped dizzily. Then, she realized she desperately needed fresh air. She was suffocating.
The elevator’s recorded voice announced their arrival. “Level 13. Doors opening.”
Then, Charlotte was hit with an almost unbearable wave of thick, musty, heated air. The man, if that was what he was, grabbed her arm and shoved her out of the elevator. Now alone, she staggered forward, gasping for breath and dumbstruck by the sight in front of her. It was a stone bridge.
She turned back to the elevator, pressed the button but it did not light up. She pressed again. Nothing. She ripped open her bag and checked her phone. No signal.
Charlotte took a breath. The heat and stench made her gag. Then, she paid closer attention to the bridge. It stretched out over a blackness that could have been 1,000 miles deep for all she knew. Beyond the bridge loomed a 200ft high castle, its conical slate roof cutting into the swirling black clouds above. Magenta-colored lightning cracked through the darkness. Looking behind her, she saw the elevator door had been carved into a cliff face that rose so high that it disappeared from view. So, what could she do? Her rational mind kicked in and she counted three options. She could sit and wait. She could cross the bridge and see where it led. Or, not her best option, she could leap from the bridge into the black unknown, hoping this was all a fever-induced dream and she would wake up.
She spoke to herself: “Okay, if the elevator is a gateway into this netherworld, it’s also a gateway out. It must open somehow.” A wave of searing humidity swept up from the darkness below, a hot steamy sting. With every ounce of courage she could muster, she began striding over the bridge, feeling the heat of the stones through the soles of her Yves Saint Laurent’s.
A few minutes later, she entered the castle’s courtyard. Feeling exposed, she pressed hard against its damp walls, keeping to the deepest shadows despite the stifling heat. There was zero chance she was going to yell out for help. You never know if a place is truly deserted. Maybe, you’re being stalked. It was a rule she’d seen broken by characters in films and books many times. But it made for a good jump-scare, often catching the audience unprepared with a mouth full of popcorn.
All the paths and corridors that she silently explored steered her towards the tallest turret. The entire structure seemed to be designed to lead every visitor to the same place. The higher she climbed up the twisting stone staircases, the less intense and unbearable the heat became. Was that a plan to keep people climbing? A small reason not to turn back? “Clever,” she whispered to herself, while debating if the next stone she stepped on would trigger a trap door hiding a snake-filled pit of spikes.
After what felt like an eternity of tense tip toeing passed multiple empty bed chambers, lavatories, kitchens, and halls, and climbing staircase after staircase, Charlotte finally reached the highest room in the castle. A large door confronted her, and the phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” had been burnt into it by a fiery, sharp iron stake. She knew what it meant. The same words were scrawled across the walls beneath the Paris Catacombs in the horror film “As Above, So Below.” It meant: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” She’d witnessed characters venture past this warning and still make it out alive. It gave her a sliver of hope. She planned to do the same.
She pushed the door open slowly. It creaked. Inside sat an ancient, pale man with black eyes, facing towards an arched window. He stared out towards the rumbling storm clouds. Bright pink lightning flashes lit up the room making it initially hard for Charlotte’s eyes to adjust. He sat in a carved, dark walnut, chair. He wore a knee-length coat, knee breeches, a vest, and a linen shirt. It was standard business attire that someone would wear in the 18th century.
Charlotte’s initial thought was to run. Because running keeps you alive. But the man merely pointed towards the wooden table in the middle of the room with his skeletal finger. There sat a chalice and some kind of ancient parchment. He didn’t say a word, look up, or leave his chair.
Charlotte tentatively approached the table. The cup contained a disgusting black liquid. All that heat and exercise had made her deliriously thirsty. “Clever” she thought again. The parchment had elegant handwriting on it. “You must drink from the Chalice of Oath. Like those that came before you. Only then may you return through the passage in which you came. Deny this offering and you will spend your remaining days in the dungeon of the damned. Accept, and be called into action when the time is right.”
Charlotte’s mind raced. Then, her business brain kicked in. She said: “That’s one hell of a deal!” Then, she thought “Deal!” Let’s negotiate. Get a better deal. Ask for what you want. Aim high and expect the best outcome.”
“According to legend, you only have one night to find a new soul.” She paused and looked at her Rolex that was now badly scratched. This had to be a dream. Charlotte drew on the power of silence hoping it would force a reply out of the silent man. It did.
“You will die just like the other souls who tried to negotiate. Wearing chains, locked in the black hole of our dungeon. The enforcer will go back into your world and punish those close to you with horrors greater than any human could imagine. Choose wisely my dear” the man hissed. “You may suffer but so too did my family. Poverty and disease were killing them. I made this deal to save them from a terrible fate. I sometimes wish I hadn’t. Anyone who might get in our way will be tormented, to death if necessary.”
There was the weakness Charlotte was waiting for.
“Okay. Let’s stop it now.” Charlotte was in full horror-story mode. What was the best plot to get this thing resolved forever? What did this guy need? It was simple. He needed hope.
She sat in a chair in front of the table with the chalice. She remained silent for a long time. She was actually letting the clock wind down but she didn’t let on. Once the day turned to the 12th, the trouble would vanish … one way or another.
Time slowly ticked by. Charlotte asked the man a question: “Does the demon need you to give it power?”
“So, if you weren’t here, the demon could not …”
“Yes.” The old man seemed to be grasping at “hope.”
“So, you are the link between the demon and the world of humans.”
“People have tried to kill me but I am already dead.”
“But, you are dead in the world of the living.”
Somehow, Charlotte not only inspired hope in the ancient man, she also inspired a profound sense of courage. They followed the spiralling staircase down from the tower. They crossed the courtyard and the bridge. At the cliff face, they found the elevator door and, with great grace, the old man entered to his inevitable doom.
As they descended, he gradually crumbled to dust. Cool fresh air gushed in as the elevator doors opened.
Somehow, Charlotte got down to the executive car space under the building. She drank an entire bottle of spring water that was permanently held in her vehicle and she wished there were another. When she got home, she groaned and fell, fully clothed into bed.
In the morning, she blinked once and moaned. Then sat up startled and confused in her own bed the next morning. Her alarm was playing ‘Sunny’ by ‘Boney M.’ The lyrics rang out “Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain. Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain. The dark days are gone, and the bright days are here, my Sunny one shines so sincere…”
She decided that the castle, the old man, the curse, all of it was some weird dream.
She dragged herself out of bed and splashed her face with cold water.
Only then did she notice that she was still wearing yesterday’s work clothes. More than that, her beautiful Rolex was still on her wrist.
But, the most astonishing thing was that there were scratches all over the watch face.
It was not a dream. But, she had won.