Henry David Firenze tapped his polished walking stick on the tile beneath his feet. The incessant rapping reminded Brent of a raven, just above the chamber door. "Any time now, Mister Bragg" said the older, stiffer man. "You've had ample time to fill it."
"Just a moment, Sir. If you please..."
"I do not. What do you take me for, Ebenezer Scrooge? Are we now in some sick fantasy world of yours? A Dickensonian tour of your little mind? Stop screwing around and give me what you owe me."
Brent Bragg shuffled around the counter to where Henry Firenze waited. His disappointed eyes averted from the elder's. "I don't have any more, sir. I'm sorry."
Firenze whipped the walking stick up hard and fast, striking Mr. Bragg upon the temple. The younger man fell in slump onto the tile floor, blood trickling from the fresh wound. "Stupid man." Mr. Firenze barked. He crossed around behind the counter, long, gaunt strides forcing his great coat to flow out behind him. He looked ghastly, almost wraithlike. "So, you've run out, have you? We'll see about that." He paused at the apothecary cabinet, the one with the large doors. Nearly skeletal fingers reached out from under the sleeve of the great coat and clutched the glass knob of the dark oak cabinet. The hinges screamed furiously when swung open, and Mr. Firenze stood tall, eyeing the contents of the small chamber beyond. Nothing he wanted. Nothing he was owed.
Mr. Henry David Firenze grew angrier with each passing second.
A cough startled the old man. He pivoted on one foot prepared to strike, cane at the ready. "Who's there?" he demanded.
A small girl stepped out from under the counter. "I'm sorry to have startled you, Sir" She held her doll close to her chest, and trembled a bit as she spoke.
Mr. Firenze put the cane down. His eyes brightened, and he relaxed. He seemed softer, grandfatherly. "Oh, I'm so sorry to have startled YOU, my dear, eh... what is your name?"
"I'm Matilda. Matilda Bragg."
Mr. Firenze smiled wider and thought to himself, "We've run out,” he said. “HA. Run out of others'. But you had one all along, didn't you?" He straightened, dusted his coat off, and bowed slightly to her, taking her hand. He kissed it, tasting the sweet, young skin under his dry, leaf-like lips. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Bragg. Might you have a moment to escort me to the carriage?"
Young Matilda blushed and giggled, and understood the importance of being polite. "Yes sir, but my daddy should like to know where I've gone. I'll just tell him now..."
"Your daddy stepped away for me…”
“I didn’t hear him leave, Sir…”
“You'll be alone for a while. Perhaps we could leave him a note and I could buy you a sweet at the shop downtown?"
"I would like that very much, Sir” Matilda said more brightly now.
"Alright then, I'll just, ah, yes... a note." Mr. Firenze reached over and scribbled onto a piece of paper, leaving it on the counter. It was of no significance. "Now, shall we?" and he offered his arm to the child.
Matilda took it with a mischievous grin, as though she was doing something naughty.
They left the shop, and entered the carriage standing at the curb. As expected, black, with four enormous black steeds harnessed to it with black leather. No writing adorned the door, indicating that this was a private coach, not a hired one. Matilda stepped in first, Firenze behind. They were seated in rich luxury unlike the little girl had ever been privy to in her short life. Firenze sat upright, not slouching, and glared out at the front window of the business he had just left. They started off in a flourish of hoof beats.
"My daddy isn't coming back, you know." Matilda spoke quietly. It startled Firenze in a way he didn't expect. Gooseflesh rose on his skin.
"No?" He answered. "I guess he isn't"
"That's okay. You're going to take me to, to… Him, aren't you?"
"I am," Firenze answered. He was feeling quite queer just now, far away and foggy headed. There was something wrong with this girl, and he wasn't sure what it was.
"You're the man that the other children call The Gatherer, aren't you?"
“I am.” Mr. Firenze shifted his gaze to the girl’s eyes. “Does that scare you?”
“No.” Matilda answered. “He told me you would come for me one day. I’ve been waiting.” She narrowed her eyes and went on, “I’m not scared of you, Mr. Gatherer, Sir. I’m not scared even a little.”
Mr. Firenze felt a chill run up his spine, and he clutched his walking stick firmly. “What else did He tell you, my little sweet? Did he tell you what I do with the children I take? Did he describe what happens to them?”
“No. Just that you would come for me.”
“Well then. That’s not very useful at all, is it? I’d have made sure to tell you what would happen to your young flesh, my dear. I would have told you how you would never see your parents again, and I would have made damned sure to tell you how to avoid being taken. Of course, if I had wanted you to avoid capture. So, what do you think He wanted you to know for?” Firenze was feeling in control of himself again.
“Just so I’d know when the time was right.”
“Right? Right for what?” he questioned. “Right for the taking? Right for the reaping? For what, I ask you?”
“For this.” Matilda smiled coldly. She straightened, and turned her dolly around. It was stitched to look like Mr. Firenze. In her hand she held a long pin, a hat pin from her mother’s dresser, and with a painful, slow sweep of her arm, she drove the pin into the eye of the doll. Mr. Firenze screamed and howled, dropping his stick and clutching his eye. “Obviously Mr. Gatherer, He wanted to make sure you didn’t see this coming.” With that, she drove the pin into the second of the doll’s eyes. Mr. Firenze again screamed. Matilda pierced the doll’s throat and instantly Mr. Firenze stopped screaming. “Quiet now, Mr. Gatherer. Can’t have you screaming for the whole trip”
Mr. Firenze slumped in his seat, just a blind old mute now. He felt around for his stick, found it, and began wildly waving it around. He felt it strike something soft, something firmer, and kept flailing it around. He heard the girl moan, and then he heard something fall to the floor of the carriage. Suddenly, he could see and speak again. The girl was crumpled in a heap, the doll somewhere under the bench.
“You little monster! You tiny little creature. He wants me out of the picture, does he?” Mr. Firenze brought his walking stick down again and again, turning what was left of Matilda’s perfect face into something unrecognizable. But he could still see the rise and fall of her chest. She was alive still.
The carriage stopped, and the door was swung open. Firenze gathered up the girl and stuffed the doll into his pocket. He lurched out, arms full, and made his way into the manor house just up the short walkway. As he approached, the front door opened. A butler stood, unmoved by the scene.
“Your coat, Master?” the butler asked as Mr. Firenze strode past.
“Never mind that, Ronald. Get the laboratory open. I need The Machine.
Mr. Firenze worked the knobs and dials on The Machine. Matilda lie on a table, leather bound and bleeding. He stroked the slides, made some corrections, and threw the switch. Lightning leapt from Matilda’s eyes, flames belched from her body in several places, and she shuddered wildly. Mr. Firenze reached out from his chair and grasped the large brass handle adjacent the controls. The room grew dark, and lightning leapt from his eyes now, blazing the room and settling into a rhythmic throb of malevolent energy. He rose, never letting go of the handle.
“Ronald! Get the jar!”
The butler brought over a jar, ornate and gilded. Mr. Firenze placed his free hand in the jar, and screamed a maniacal scream. Power surged from his fingertips, spilling like ooze into the jar. With that, the room fell silent.
Ronald closed the jar, placing it gingerly on the control panel. “Shall I fetch you dinner, Sir?” he asked unemotionally.
Mr. Firenze slumped in the chair, spent. “Yes. My dinner.”
“Very good, Sir. You’ll feel better after having eaten.”
“Oh, yes, Ronald. I will feel better, indeed.” He smiled a wet, dark smile. He would feel better.
The dining room was ablaze in gas light. Dinner was steaming on the table when Mr. Firenze seated himself in front of it, and he ate greedily. The wine was drained, the napkin piled on the plate, and Mr. Firenze sat back in the chair. Ronald took the plate and glass away, and placed a large snifter of brandy in front of his master.
“I’ll bring your dessert, Sir?” he stood patiently while Mr. Firenze decided.
“No, Ronald. Just the jar, if you would. That shall be my dessert.”
“Very good, Sir.”
Ronald returned yet again with the jar, again delicately placing it in front of his master. “Will there be anything else tonight, Sir?”
“No, Ronald. This will be fine.”
“Very good, Sir. Before I leave you, I would like to remind you that He will be coming this evening. I was instructed to leave the invitation on the door. Shall I still do that?” Ronald stood silently waiting for an answer while Mr. Firenze thought.
“Yes, do that as always. He is welcome here, no matter what transpires. It is through His grace that we enjoy this life, and he will always be welcome.”
“Very good, Sir. I’ll leave you now.”
Henry David Firenze smiled and waved Ronald away. He pulled the jar closer, examining the contents and seemingly deciding if he should so what he intended. “Damn it all to hell.” He decided, and opened the jar.
Lightning flared up in small swirls, licking up the sides of the jar. Mr. Firenze laughed quietly, and tipped the jar up to his lips, drinking in deep, satiating gulps. The lightning danced on his lips, arced across his face, and brightened his eyes. He had never taken a child’s essence into himself before, and it was maddeningly intoxicating. He understood now why it had to be children - there was no way an adult could possibly taste so innocent. His visitor tonight would know this innately and would understand, for Cináed Dubh had Mr. Firenze deliver him many jars over these past years, each filled with a child’s essence. Each one gathered and delivered in the same way.
Tonight, however, would be different. Tonight, Mr. Firenze would have the upper hand, and the tables will be turned forever. Tonight, Cináed Dubh would cease to be the recipient of the life-extending qualities contained in the jars. Tonight, Mr. Firenze would be the master. He could feel it. He could still taste the power on his lips.
Henry David Firenze would pay his benefactor back for the attempted betrayal, and the children of England would never be safe again.