by R. H. Kahil
An excavator in the wine cellars of a powerful family meets an old, dangerous inhabitant.
The Misfortunate Tomb of Fortunato
The rusted door was blanketed around the edges with cobweb upon cobweb. I had to sweep a particularly thick band from the handle before opening it. Even then it wasn’t easy. A nest must have been hiding in the handle because baby spiders crawled over my gloved hand. I shuddered and squashed them against the door. The security guard that had led me down shook his head and chuckled at my misfortune.
“Government wouldn’t let us send an exterminator down.” He told me in the light airy breath of an Italian.
“I will live,” I reassured him with a mirthful smile. I turned from his blinding flashlight and shouldered the door open enough so I could squeeze in. In front of me there was a passage narrow enough for one man to go comfortably. I couldn’t get back to Mr. Luchesi with any ease, so I poked my head through the gap and called out to him.
“Mr. Luchesi, now would be an appropriate time to give me…” A spider crawled down my neck, bringing me to a gasp, “The blasting caps.”
“Oh, yes sir!”
He rushed forward with my bag in hand, carefully stepping down the steep, slick stairs. The flashlight bobbed to and fro across the ground but it blinded me again as he passed the bag through the crack and into my ready hands. “Your flashlight will be the death of someone one of these days my friend,” I croaked. It was a thick Maglite, nearly a foot long. I slapped at the spider before it reached my earlobe.
“Sorry. Here,” he flicked it off and darkness took over. “You will need it more than I. I will try to open this door farther as you go on. Good luck, and please be safe!”
“Very good, thank you,” I said.
After taking a deep breath of preparation, I walked farther down the catacomb. Not twenty feet in the door behind me crashed to the ground. Mr. Luchesi cursed. Light fell across the darkness like a wave. The dirt was already sticking to my shoes but I figured, next to the ever present spiders, dirty shoes were the least I had to worry about down there.
The Dunn’s were a rich, old family, and had no heirs to this land anymore; the last dying off years ago. Until now no one could come to an agreement with the family’s rather astounding lawyer over the deed. They were renowned for their vineyards, a valuable local drink and important export to the government. The land was untouched for generations, and now there I was, sent to the catacombs to do an extensive survey. A cave-in was not what I was worried about either; my expertise on the use of blasting caps were also extensive. I had them with me, small charges, to blow away any obstructions I may find.
Bag light upon my shoulders, I walked into the darkness. It was suffocating; if the direct beam of the Maglite didn’t reach anything, that “anything” was a void I have never experienced before. The damp air was making my fingers wet and slippery on the smooth flashlight’s shaft. Black particles of dust and grit fell away from the narrowing walls as my body scraped it with each step. I had to pause often to readjust the light and cough into my fist; it almost brought me to my knees. But I will live! What a horrible place it would be to die. I made sure to have enough breath for Mr. Luchesi to hear me scream. I knew he would rush to my rescue, although I feared for his own safety down there; he was a giant among most of the men I encountered on a daily basis.
I could hardly move my arm enough to shift the flashlight. With each foot, the path grew steeper. I was far underground now. I squeezed through and entered a large hall with empty shelves on either side. I had finally reached the wine cellars. Halfway in, large holes took out most the wall, leading into chambers where old casks of wine were stored. Torches lined both sides. I couldn’t help myself from the desire to light one.
My steps echoed through the wine cellar while I approached one of the torches. A horrid smell leaked through the old bricks. Behind them was a raking, like someone dragging their fingers through the mortar. The noise set my spine on edge. Believing it was a rat, I rapped the wall with my knuckle. The raking fingers stopped and tapped back. My heart stopped for a moment. Swallowing, I rapped my knuckles again, this time in a longer sequence. I noticed pieces of the brick falling away.
Again, my tapping was mimicked. Chains clinked together. I tapped again, even harder than before. The torch flared. Startled, I jumped back with a choked curse. It gave ample light and I turned off the Maglite, no longer needing it. Gold glinted off of the wall, genuine gold! I scraped more of the grit away and found the image of a foot chiseled in the wall. Trampled beneath the foot was a vicious serpent, uselessly biting into the heel in a last attempt to poison its killer.
Before seeing the faded blue background I knew which family the crest belonged too; the politically powerful… I forgot their name. At any rate I knew of one of their infamous members. It was confirmed by their motto, engraved beneath the serpent’s coiling tail, Nemo me impune lacessit. “No one wounds me with impunity.” They were not a family to be insulted a long time ago, in the time of the Freemasons. I had heard many stories of one in particular, Montresor. He was the last one seen with his friend, a Freemason by the name of Fortunato. Stories told by my grandmother in childhood came back to me now; one of which told of a flame that wouldn’t die, guarding the dead man in Montresor’s old tombs. An American author had written his version of the story over a century ago, forever immortalizing the Montresor name in infamy.
As I passed over a brick engraved with the serpent’s head again, it slid into the wall and landed on the ground with a hollow thump. I blinked at the hole. The smell was far worse now than it was before. I swallowed a cough. The flame died. Joy warmed my body as much as the fear of sudden darkness. I would not find a body down there, as the story went. Not even an ember flickered.
“No one insults me with impunity, yet here you are doing that very action.” A fluid voice spoke from the darkness.
Joy was gone in an instant, and the fear stirred my guts. “How did I insult you sir?”
“Your very existence here.”
“I was sent down here to make sure the cellars were safe enough for travel. The vineyards-“
“- Hush now, you fool!” the voice chided. It was right in my ear. I jerked around, turning the Maglite on. The beam speared the darkness but showed me no one. It didn’t even reach the far wall. “Someone bought my land?”
“I would need to know who you are first.”
“Another insult,” the voice screamed, “Do you wish to be locked in the chains?”
“Sir, I’m being honest. I don’t know who you are.”
He sighed, a mournful breath that passed over the nape of my neck and around the curves of my ears. I shuddered but could not bring myself to turn around yet. I stared at the boot. “Alas, my name is Montresor. Even now, my name means nothing in Italy?”
My mouth went dry. No. That couldn’t be! The flame had died. But I didn’t know if there was a body behind the wall; although, the facts based on stench alone gave me a hint. “Stories, to frighten children from coming down here. It is safe,” I paused, considering my words, “For people who know what they’re doing.”
Montresor laughed, “You think you know what you are doing down here? No, man, you are but a fool insulting me with your stupidity. Are you under drink?”
Who speaks like that anymore? Finally, I turned and swung the light every which way. “I will ask again. Are you under drink?”
“No,” I finally answered. It was truth. Drinking while far beneath the beauty of Italy and trapped in the darkness was a terrible idea. I knew the risk. On my third pass with the Maglite a man stood before me. “God’s grace!” I gasped, stumbling back. I tripped over the brick and the wall gave way behind me. I would have been embarrassed by my clumsiness if I had not been so horrified.
When the wall finished collapsing Montresor gawked at me with the face of a madman who was not ready to be discovered in a hysterical episode. He shook his head and dark, short, curly hair lost its place around his ears. His face reddened with the passing seconds as I stood without taking my gaze off of him. I didn’t want to insult him... not again.
Bells jingled as I regained my balance and something nudged my back. Confused, I turned, expecting a storage room. No, fate was not so kind. I had brushed against a skeleton, browned and gnarled beyond recognition with age- if it weren’t for the jester’s joyous hat hanging loose against the skull’s crown. The stories of children and tired grandmothers was true. I was the misfortunate one to find Fortunato’s tomb!
“If God had any grace left in his accursed body you wouldn’t be down here!” He took a few seething breaths and asked, rather kindly for such a deranged man, for my name.
“Alfonso,” I told him as calmly as I could. I glanced back at the skeleton. It was pinned to the wall by chains. They were still strong and coiled between his ribs, embracing his spinal cord. There were more chains hanging beside him and encircling his wrists.
“That is a noble name,”
“So I’ve been told,”
“Fortunato, you see, he was noble man. It was sad to see how his life turned out.”
“You were friends,” I said.
He nodded and looked at the skeleton, eyes watery. His mouth twitched from an old memory. “You are in horrible shape old friend,” he laughed suddenly, “Was it the flame that ended it all? You had such a horrible cough.” He turned to me and I could finally see the color of his eyes, a deep green. Envy, the green monster?
“I have not seen his body for over three hundred years.” Montresor admitted.
“Three hundred years?”
That was horribly wrong. I had thought he was simply a crazy man who had lived down there for too long. Even as I played along, I had my doubts. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “But I have the sudden urge to shake your hand.”
Montresor titled his head like a dog watching a rabbit and slowly extended his hand. I reached out for it and went through. My skin felt a rush of coldness, like I had taken a swim in a Russian river. “You,” I started. “You really are the Montresor.”
“You are learning.” He smirked, and pulled his hand away.
“Why did you kill Fortunato?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Are you afraid of punishment?”
The apparition clucked his tongue and pursed his lips, “That’s not for you to find out Alfonso.”
“It’s been three hundred years. The world will be curious, and it-“
“- It would leave a taint on my family’s name.”
“And murder didn’t?”
He couldn’t find any words.
“It would add scandal, your name can become relevant again.” I tried to entice him.
“Not within the Freemasons,”
“Is that what you wanted with Fortunato? All of this has to do with them?” I could see him tugging at the collar of his dark coat.
“He insulted me, disgraced me in front of them. It wasn’t just his wine you see? My family owned the trading business, and as part of the Freemasons I could control the routes through politics. We were the kings and queens, but he took everything!”
“You are a fool,” he bared his small, yellow teeth at me.“I lost money trying to get my way back in. A lot of it mind you, enough to kill a man. He who was once a friend had become enemy. Wine became more lucrative when he replaced me; but I didn’t have much to give. So he took everything and gloated about his peculiar tastes in drink, as if every other drunkard knew nothing. How could I stand by and let the entire world fall to its knees for a drunkard?”
I nodded in agreement with him, if only to keep him talking. As he moved around, I saw the blade of a foot long saber sheathed at his belt. His fingers tapped the hilt like fish swimming to the water’s surface for food. He was ready to kill me. His secret was out, but one man knowing it was an insult. I nodded to him again and slowly made my way to the tunnel. His eyes seemed to glow as he watched me with a thin-lipped grimace. He knew where I was going, and he didn’t approve.
“This is where we depart Montresor,” I told him. “I’m glad the stories are true.”
He said nothing as he approached. I turned. “Don’t you dare turn your back on me!” he suddenly yelled.
I turned just once, for the final time, “You know Montresor, if you were a really good businessman, Fortunato’s insults shouldn’t have stopped your progress.”
I was a few feet away from the tunnel when the blade struck me in the back. It sliced through the bag of blasting caps and imbedded itself a few inches into my flesh. I yelled in pain. Montresor was on top of me right away. He pulled the blade out. Rolling hard, I attempted to throw him off of me. It was in vain, his writhing form was steady atop me as we struggled; I could not fight blindly. He pinned my face to the ground with a horrible strength- and the freezing fingers of a poltergeist. Next, screaming into the wet stones, horrified, I felt him press the tip of the blade against my throat.
“Fool, you’ll know my glory.” He said hoarsely, driving the blade ever closer to my carotid artery. I had hoped he was a common villain, speaking before he kills his victim. Fate was not so kind. He was centimeters away from succeeding. I prayed to God, for his grace, to make this quick.
There was a bellow from within the tunnel. It startled Fortunato enough to pull the blade out. I gasped and twisted my head to see. The Maglite showed me Mr. Luchesi in all his gigantic glory rushing towards us. He lifted his foot in a vicious kick and connected solidly with Montresor’s face. There was no crunching nose bones. He merely grunted, as if there was no pain. And well, being a ghost- poltergeist- I’m sure he didn’t feel anything. The kick was hard enough to throw him to the ground.
Mr. Luchesi helped me to my feet and then threw me against the wall, putting himself in harm's way. Montresor lunged forward with the knife in both hands. It lodged cleanly through Mr. Luchesi’s collar bone and through the back. A great shot none-the-less, but nowhere near the heart or important organs. Mr. Luchesi screamed and as Montresor pulled the blade out, intending to use it again, the giant head-butted the poltergeist. Next, he grabbed Montresor by the throat and quickly threw him to the opposite end of the cellar.
It was just enough for us to escape. Mr. Luchesi squeezed through the narrow wall sideways. He was far more agile than his size suggested. “I’ll take the caps,” he said, pulling the bloodied bag from my shoulders. I didn’t realize how much I was bleeding until I felt the wet heat running down my back and from my throat. But I will live. Montresor was clawing at the air at the entrance of the tunnel, screaming, unable to pass. I laughed at him, he was stuck with his burden. He couldn’t leave. But this couldn’t happen again.
“Mr. Luchesi, now would be an excellent time to give me the blasting caps. We need to seal this place.”
He handed me the bag. Working quickly, I taped two blasting caps to the ceiling. They were fuse-head electric caps; requiring an electrical charge from the electric match I applied. I reached into the bag and felt relief when the charge was intact. His blade had sliced through one of the blasting caps, leaving the most important piece alone. One would be enough to set off the other.
Fists pumping in the air, Montresor got to his knees and hopelessly stared at me. His eyes watched the caps. I reached the first one and at that time bells jingled in the silence. Montresor’s eyes widened in terror. He shook his head. There was a scrape of metal on the ground, and then the lumbering form of Fortunato’s brown skeleton stepped into view. He held a long piece of chain between his hands. Silent, he wrapped it around Montresor’s throat and dragged him away. I applied the charge and scrambled back in time for the small explosions to leave both beings in eternal torment. For a small time I could hear Montresor’s scream, and then finally, blessed peace.