A cold dark fog hung over the avenue like a veil. The darkness swallowed the surrounding landscape and created an army of shadow figures at every turn, like the memory of a nightmare. This did not bother the man in the black trench coat. He knew this road like the back of his hand. He had walked it many times with his father to visit his grandfather’s grave at Layman’s Cemetery. Even though the man’s father was long dead, buried next to his own father, the man in the black trench coat had not lost the habit of visiting the graveyard at dusk. Tonight, however, visiting the dead was not the only thing on the man’s agenda.
The man in the black trench coat walked the deserted avenue, his keen eyes scanning through the fog, seeking out his destination. It did not take long for the man to come to the rug shop near the cemetery. It stood alone, separate from the other shops, towering ominously. You would think this fact would make it ever more noticeable and suspicious, but commuters hardly ever raised their eyes to it. To the public, the rug shop dealt with antique oriental rugs. The man had come not for rugs, but for the shop’s underground market. The rug shop was a primary location for purchasing and trading in smuggled artifacts from many illegal digs in Asia and South America. Only a few “private” collectors knew of the existence of this trading. The man had fought tooth and nail to discover its location from other prestigious collectors and had, for the past eight years, conducted business with the owner of the rug shop. It had pleased him that it was located in such a familiar spot, near Layman’s Cemetery.
The man in the black trench coat floated silently toward the shop’s back entrance. He knew the door would be open, since he had scheduled an appointment. The man slid through the door like a shadow and breathed the stale air. He was in a small storage room in the back of the shop, where the contraband was stored. In the left hand corner was a stack of dusty old rugs. The rest of the room was covered in crowded shelves and stacked crates containing the “merchandise”. There were small carvings and many finely crafted treasures among the overall cluttered array of old things, but these did not interest the man in the black trenchcoat. He glanced cooly over the small room twice, then met the eyes of the shopkeeper. The shop’s owner sat at a small crowded desk on the right hand side of the room. When the shopkeeper saw the man at the doorway he grinned a crooked grin and stood up.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite customer,” he said in a gruff voice. The shopkeeper proceeded to drag his large figure from behind the desk, huffing as he did so. “I have many new items I think you might be interested in. They are from an old village in Tibet and they’re…”
“I am not here for browsing,” the man in the black trench coat interrupted coldly. “Your telegram said you had received my ‘item’. “
The shopkeeper’s grin crumbled like dry sand. “I figured you were here for that,” he said sourly. His good humor had completely disappeared. “Follow me,” he said grimly, picking up a candle. He lumbered out into the hallway on the far side of the musty room.
The man in the black trench coat followed him excitedly. He had waited all week for his appointment in anticipation. He even had trouble sleeping for the past couple days due to his excitement. The man felt giddy, like a boy who knew when he arrived at the sweet shop that he would receive his favorite delight. The shopkeeper came to a small black door. He produced a ring of keys and began flipping through them. The man in the black trench coat noticed the shopkeeper’s hands were trembling slightly. The man paid this no heed. The shopkeeper was getting along in years and had most likely developed a tremor.
The shopkeeper took a deep breath and opened the door slowly. Cold decayed air wafted from the doorway and caused the man’s arm to gooseflesh. The man in the black trench coat shivered and squeezed into the room behind the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper lit the single gas lamp on a small table and his face appeared, haggard and worn. In the dim light the man in the black trench coat could make out a dark shape hanging on the wall. It appeared as though someone had hurriedly thrown a black cloth over it. The cloth was crumpled and crooked and the silhouette of a round object could be seen just beneath the veil. In one swift motion the shopkeeper pulled the cloth off the object and stepped back nervously.
From under the cloth appeared a beautiful porcelain mask, It materialized as a sleeping woman. The air around it seemed to go dark and the hair on the back of the man’s neck stood on end. The man shuddered and the shopkeeper backed away further. The mask was a pearly white, in mint condition, with shapely red lips and closed eyes with luscious lashes. The man in the black trench coat was filled with a great desire for the mask. He wanted it, he needed that mask.
The shopkeeper cleared his throat. ”That was found in the tomb of a Dowager Empress within the Forbidden City in China”, he said regaining his composure.
“How much are you asking for it?” the man in the black trench coat asked, trying to keep the want out of his voice. The man had inherited a collection of unique death masks from his father, who had in turn inherited them from his own father, who had been an archeologist by trade. Even though his father had considered collecting the death masks a harmless hobby, for the man in the black trench coat collecting these masks had occupied the majority of his life. It had become an obsession. And he could afford such an obsession. Along with inheriting his father’s mask collection, the man had also inherited his father’s stocks and bonds and a large sum of money. Most of his money was spent on the death mask collection. The man in the black trench coat could pay any price if he had his heart set on a mask… and his heart was set on this enchanting porcelain Empress mask from the Forbidden City. The peaceful face seemed to beckon to him.
The shopkeeper scratched his stubby chin. “One thousand dollars,” the shopkeeper said finally.
“I will take it,” the man in the black trench coat said greedily.
“Great,” the shopkeeper exclaimed, sounding surprised and relieved. “I will wrap it up for you.” The shopkeeper shuffled toward the porcelain mask and gingerly picked it up with the black cloth being careful not to touch it, as though the mask might bite him. He wrapped the black cloth around it, wincing, and placed it in the small crate that sat beneath the mask’s old perch. The shopkeeper quickly closed the lid and breathed a hushed sigh of relief.
The man in the black trench coat watched the proceedings calmly. He thought the shopkeeper was childish for seeming to be so frightened by the beautiful mask. The man suddenly saw the image of a child uncomfortably holding up a worm because his friend had called him a coward. He snickered under his breath. The shopkeeper handed the man in the black trench coat the crate. He glanced at the man’s face and frowned before hurrying past him out the door. The man followed the shopkeeper to his desk, clutching the crate against his chest. The man in the black trench coat removed his wallet and counted out a thousand dollars in cash. He thanked the shopkeeper apathetically and then left excitedly, trying to keep himself from skipping all the way home.
Immediately after returning home, the man took the mask out of the crate and unwrapped it from the black cloth. He held it up to the light and relished in its beauty. The man hummed a strange tune as he walked to the room where his death mask collection hung, swaying to the beat of the otherworldly hymn. The tune seemed to come from the mask itself, but the man was too distracted to notice.
The man hung his new treasure in the spot reserved for it: precisely in the middle of his collection. The man stood in front of his porcelain Empress mask proudly, feeling his life was now complete. The mask aroused him and he went to bed feeling satisfied.
The man’s deep sleep was interrupted by a wafting melodic voice calling to him from outside his room. The tone seemed to vibrate like the voice of a lark. ”Regenold…Regenold... where are you... please come out and play… don’t leave me alone...” The voice continued to hum sweet music like the song of his dreams. It floated from the mask room like delicate flower petals on a sweet summer breeze. With a will that was not his own, the man sat up in bed. He slid out from beneath his sheets and walked dazedly downstairs.
The voice beckoned him to come. “Regenold… Regenold… this way…”
A giggle like a bubbling spring trickled into his ears. The man followed the voice until he stood in front of his beloved porcelain mask. The clock struck midnight. Suddenly the air around him crackled with white hot rage. The mask’s eyes opened and its expression contorted with wrath. Its red lips parted in a sharp toothed grin from ear to ear.
“Put me on Reg and we will have a little fun…”
Obediently the man put on the mask. Tendrils of hair emerged from the edges of the mask and wound around his arms like smoke. Suddenly the world was darkness. The mask spoke to the man for the final time:
“Got you Regenold… I got you…”
The last thing the man saw was two glowing eyes half closed with laughter, piercing through the darkness.
The next morning the grounds keeper at the Layman’s Cemetery found the body of Regenold Scott sitting against his grandfather’s grave. His eyes were bulged and his tongue was a ghastly shade of purple. The autopsy placed time of death at around midnight, cause of death, asphyxiation. That same morning, around 3 am, the rug shop burned to the ground, with the shopkeeper inside. All that remained of him was charred bones. The police were baffled. The only lead they ever received was the testimony of a homeless man who reported seeing a tall man shrouded in darkness wearing a white mask standing in front of the blazing rug shop. He swore he saw the mask move as it cackled with laughter. This testimony was dismissed as nonsense and the case went cold. Later that week, Regenold Scott was buried next to his father and grandfather in Layman’s Cemetery.
The porcelain mask was never found.