The night that Rohan Berry found The Skull Ring, the late evening sky had been ripped open by the first and long awaited storm of a stifling summer. Most people were overjoyed and danced in the street, wild and free. Rohan, however, awoke slowly and painfully from his deep and drunken sleep in a dingy alleyway at the back of the local Methodist church. Illuminated only by the light of a stained glass window, his throbbing, rheumy eyes eventually focused on a glinting piece of metal beside a vomit and blood encrusted dumpster.
He stared at it for a moment and waited until he felt strong enough to move into a sitting position. Then he checked the pockets of his paint- splattered black leather jacket and was relieved to find his hip flask still contained a couple of mouthfuls of brandy. He downed its contents and let the booze wash over him. Eventually, he leaned over and picked up the sparkling piece of metal. It was a ring with a skull and crossbones emblazed upon it, as well as some strange symbols that he didn’t recognise. Rohan, put it in his pocket, struggled to his feet and staggered out of the alleyway toward his studio, his hand tingling.
‘Ride Of The Valkyries’ blasted through the studio as Rohan got to work on two large canvases at the same time. For some reason, he was invigorated with creative energy for the first time in many years. He rushed from canvas to canvas, his arms flailing wildly, maniacally, until he eventually collapsed in a heap on his worn leather sofa. Gazing on his masterworks he was consumed by an elation he had previously never experienced. He closed his eyes and was soon smothered by sleep.
Dark dreams sliced through Rohan’s slumber like a stiletto. Nightmares slashed at his unconscious mind. Images of death, slaughter, blood. So much blood. When he awoke in the wan light of dawn, screams still echoed through his thoughts. After a moment he realised that he grasped The Skull Ring and that it had burnt a skull and crossbones into the palm of his hand.
He staggered off the sofa and into the bathroom. Stood in the shower, alternately turning the water from boiling hot to freezing cold but still the images came back to him like a flashback in a horror film.
He walked back into his studio to see if he could find some booze and focused on the paintings he’d completed the night before. He had absolutely no recollection of painting them. It was as if he was seeing them for the first time. They were horrific. Scenes of anguish, slaughter, torture. Slashes of red and black. And they were magnificent.
David Malcolm used a napkin to shine his expensive cufflinks. Contemptuously sniffed the air in the run down bar that Rohan had dragged him to. Drank his water from the bottle, avoiding the dirty glass. The bar’s red lighting was presumably to mask its grubbiness but it certainly wasn’t succeeding. Rohan sat sipping his third brandy, looking smug.
‘I must admit,’ said David. ‘You’ve surprised me. You really have. I did think you had it in you. Well not anymore.’
Rohan looked at his agent with a mixture of pride and arrogance. It had been so long since David had sold one of Rohan’s paintings that both had given up hope of him ever having a major New York exhibition.
‘So, you think Matsumato will be interested?’ said Rohan. He drained his drink and crunched the ice that remained.
‘I’m sure of it but you’ll need more paintings for a full exhibition, you know that.’
‘No problem. I’ll work on something tonight.’
He should have been stressed but he felt more and more confident. He stroked the ring that was now on his index finger.
David’s eyes suddenly sparkled. He grasped Rohan’s hand.
‘Where did you get that?’ said David. ‘It looks familiar.’
‘A family heirloom.’
David scrutinised the ring.
‘If it’s what I think it is …’
He licked his lips.
Rohan pulled his hand away and pushed it into his pocket. He stood up.
‘I need to take a leak.’
He stormed through a graffiti-stained door. As soon as it closed, a pony-tailed behemoth stepped in behind him.
‘You must be on a suicide trip,’ said Butler. He pushed Rohan against the wall. ‘Considering how much you owe me, I can’t believe you’d come into my local.’
‘Don’t you worry, young man,’ he said. ‘You’ll be getting what you’re owed and more.’ He handed over half of a wad of notes that David had given him earlier.
Butler was surprised. Flicked through the notes and stuffed them into the back pocket of his jeans.
‘Yeah, that’s okay but you know if you come into my territory like this, where everyone can see you, I still have to make an example of you.’
Rohan yawned and Butler growled. Threw a punch. The Skull Ring glowed as Rohan grasped Butler’s fist and crushed it to dust, then jabbed a finger into one of Butler’s eyes and gouged it from its socket. The screams were like a terrifying symphony. Consuming. Invigorating.
The art gallery was silent. Matsumoto and the guests had headed off to some swanky New York nightclub and Rohan sat alone in the darkness drinking wine. Basking in his newfound success. A door creaked and Rohan turned as David staggered toward him. Looking drunk. Wielding a knife.
‘The Skull Ring,’ he slurred ‘I want it. Now. ’
Rohan tried to move but was like an insect trapped in amber as David lunged at him and slashed and slashed again until the world turned red and black.
Exhausted, David looked down at Rohan’s mangled corpse and dragged the blood-stained ring from its finger. Grasping it in his hand, he felt The Skull Ring’s heat and its horrible power. He was invigorated.
He was consumed.
*First published in Nightmare Illustrated*
Paul D. Brazill is the author of A Case Of Noir, Guns Of Brixton and The Neon Boneyard. He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. He has edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste.