Against Eden

 He swore on his mother’s grave, but then he swore on just about everything these days. He got to his feet trying to ignore the damp patches on his knees from the wet mud and grass he had just been standing in and stumbled out of the graveyard with a bottle of whiskey gripped tightly in his right-hand.

 Jon Browning had made a promise to his mother, on her death bed no less, that he would become a better man, yet nothing had changed. He still lived in a rundown house with his sister and his aunt in Devil’s Acre, his place in Oxford University was not as sure as it had been and Jon didn’t know how to fix anything. He took another slug of whiskey and deliberately stepped in the puddles on the street so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of his reflection. His brown hair was still slicked back but his clothes were not as pristine as they had been that morning. They hung, slightly rumpled, on his tall, thin frame, and his hazel eyes looked much more tired than any twenty-one-year-olds should.

As he neared his home, he took the cap to the whiskey out of his pocket and closed it, slipping the bottle back into the bushes where he kept it hidden. He took out a piece of bread from his other pocket and hurriedly scarfed it down, hoping that it would mask the smell of alcohol on his breath and his aunt would be none the wiser to his activities that day. He was supposed to have been in classes in Oxford, but he had skived off and gone to a billiard hall instead. It was well after dark and she would already be curious as to where he had been.

Slowly Jon opened the door to the tiny house and hung up his jacket. The place he called home was simple, only one floor with three rooms and a kitchen where most of the activities in the house took place. There was always a fire roaring in the hearth and for that he was grateful but sometimes the warmth wasn’t enough.

“Jon Browning,” a stern Irish voice addressed him. “It’s almost supper time, where have you been?”

            “Class let out late Aunt Mary,” he lied coolly. “And on my way home I stopped to visit mom and dad.”

His aunt regarded him for a moment or two before sighing. “I wish you would have told me Jon. I would have given you a few farthings to buy some flowers. How were the graves? Did they look well?”

             “For a dreary day in London they looked fine,” he shrugged.

His Aunt turned to him with a tray in her hands. “Why don’t you go and give your sister her dinner.”

He nodded and took the tray, which had a bowl of vegetable soup, and a slice of bread on it. He got to his feet and walked past the couch near the fire where he usually slept and into one of the small rooms.

             “Jon, you’re home!” his seven year old sister, Annabelle, said. “I missed you.”

He sat the tray of food down on his sister’s land and gently, brushed back wild crimson locks out of warm brown eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back and almost immediately Jon wanted to cry; his sister looked so much like their mother that it was like a punch to his gut.

“You just saw me this morning Belle,” he reminded her.

            “I know,” she replied sheepishly. “But I missed you anyway.”

            “I brought your dinner,” he said sitting down next to her and picking up the spoon.

            “I think I can feed myself today,” Annabelle told him.

            Jon handed her the spoon and watched carefully as the little girl slowly raised the hot liquid to her lips.

            “Blow on it Belle,” he told her gently. “It’s hot.”

            Once his sister was finished her dinner, Jon went back to the kitchen where he and his Aunt eat their own food in silence.

            “She fed herself tonight,” Jon told his aunt.

            “It’s always good to see her have a day of strength,” she replied.

            Annabelle was still suffering the adverse effects of Scarlet Fever. The same illness that had killed their mother and their younger brother Thomas, who had been named for the father that passed away before he could meet his youngest child. When his mother and siblings got sick, Jon had sent for his Aunt Mary, his mother’s older sister. She had been with them ever since, taking care of Beth, who was spared but still weak from the sickness.

            “I need some fresh air Aunt Mary,” Jon said when his dinner was finished. “Won’t be gone but ten minutes.”

            His mind was getting restless and he needed to get away from the cramped house. He grabbed his jacket and was outside before his aunt could protest.

            “There you go, making up lies again,” a voice Jon didn’t recognize addressed him. “They told me you would.”

A young woman, probably around Jon’s age, stepped out of the shadows and looked him over. Her blonde hair was piled stylishly on top of her head and she was dressed in the newest fashions Jon recognized from the Parisian fashion magazines his mother used to read.

“Excuse me?” he asked the young women. “Do I know you?”

“No,” she answered simply. “But, your father knew my father. They were close friends before Thomas died, and my father promised that if he could ever do anything for your family, he would.”

“What’s your father’s name?” Jon asked. “What is your name for that matter?”

“My name is Angelica Montgomery,” she said, her sharp acidic eyes piercing him. “My father is Charles Montgomery. Our families have been friends for a very long time but our fathers sadly drifted apart when your parents got married.”

            “I wouldn’t know,” Jon shrugged. “My father didn’t like to talk about his past.”

            “That isn’t surprising,” she smirked, smoothing a nonexistent wrinkle from her pristine black coat. “Your father gave up a lot when he married your mother. I know how your family is living with both parents gone, I know that you’ve gambled away the money that was supposed to pay for your Oxford education and I know that as of right now, you have no plan.”

            Jon was not used to feeling so exposed, especially in front of a woman, but everything about Ms. Montgomery was putting him on edge. She fired off random, seemingly vague details about his life and his family and yet, he somehow felt as if she had ripped the deepest secrets out of him and was ready to go back for more. Ruthless was not a word he tended to think of when it came to the fairer sex but he couldn’t think of a better one, and he certainly didn’t want to underestimate this woman.

            As he stumbled to find something to say Angelica walked a few steps closer to him and held out a crisp white business card. Cautiously Jon approached her and took it from between her gloved fingers.

Enforcers of Eden

801 Cavendish Place, London, England

            “Is this supposed to mean something to me?” Jon wondered.

            “Not yet,” she answered back cryptically. “But if you want answers, or are in any way curious, be at that address tomorrow promptly at noon.”

She turned and walked away, her fashionable heels clicking on the London streets.

“Oh, and don’t worry, your Aunt won’t hear about your current predicament from us.”

            Jon looked down at the unassuming little card and tucked it in his pocket. He looked up again, intending to press Ms. Montgomery for more information, but she was already gone. Without thinking much of it the young man retreated back inside. His Aunt was standing at the sink doing dishes when he came back inside.

            “Go say goodnight to Belle,” she told him, using a soapy hand to brush an auburn lock out of her face.

            Jon walked up behind his Aunt and without warning wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her. He was nearly a foot taller than she was so it was a clumsy embrace, especially when she reached up to try and pat his cheek with her damp hand. He wanted to show her he appreciated all she was doing but he didn’t have the words.

            “Goodnight Jonny,” she whispered as he broke away. “God protect you until tomorrow.”

            He entered his sister’s room and sat gingerly on the edge of her bed. She was already asleep, her slight frame rising and falling with her labored breaths. Her skin was pale, its color made more evident by how it stood out against the red of her hair. Before her illness, Belle had been just as fiery, but now she could hardly get out of bed. Aunt Mary did her best, but they couldn’t afford to take Belle to a doctor or someone who might actually be able to help her. Jon was running out of ideas and he was afraid he might lose his sister. That was simply not an option he thought, pulling out the business card he had been given again.

            He kissed his sister gently on the forehead, thinking of what Angelica Montgomery had said earlier. Jon had quipped that his father hadn’t liked talking about his past and the young women had said that wasn’t surprising. Had she known his father? It didn’t seem fair considering that Jon had never known his father that well. Thomas Browning had been a merchant and didn’t seem to sit still for long. “He’s always traveling so he can give us a better life,” his mother would say time and time again but a better life never came and neither did his father. Every so often he would show up for a few days but never enough time for Jon to learn anything about him or spend time with him. He had even died while he was out on one of his trips, his body brought back to their family weeks later. As Jon laid back on his bed he made up his mind that tomorrow he would find out everything about his father he had never known.

Jon left early that morning, dressed in his Oxford uniform, and began to walk toward his destination. At a few minutes before noon he arrived outside a non-descript stone building and tried to figure out what this could all be about but nothing outside gave anything away. There wasn’t even any kind of monikers on the front door when Jon finally knocked at eleven fifty-nine. To his surprise Angelica Montgomery was the one who answered the door and ushered him inside.
            “I’m glad you decided to come Jon,” she started speaking as she led him through the building.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on,” he stammered as he tried to keep up.

“Don’t worry,” she turned and gave him the same fierce smirk she had the night before. “We can fix that.”

The building wasn’t an office but it wasn’t quite a home either. If Jon had been pressed to give it a name, he would have said it looked like some kind of club, which with a name like Enforcers of Eden, he assumed it was. The smell of fresh lacquer hung in the air and the dark wood of the floor had such a strong shine that Jon could tell they were freshly polished. He followed his hostess up a set of winding stairs made of the same dark wood and down a long bleak hallway. The one thing that made Jon Browning the most uneasy was the fact that he yet to see anyone else besides himself and Angelica. Doors, each one identical to the one before it, lined the hallway and the young man could only assume that someone was within them but the whole building was hushed except for the click of heeled shoes on the floor. Finally, at the end of the stark, windowless hall, Angelica stopped at a set of ornate double doors that looked out of place among the dozens of twin entrances. The young woman raised her hand and rapped sharply three times, the sound echoing through the halls in a way that made Jon shiver inwardly.

“Enter,” came a deep voice from within.

Trying to remain calm, Jon followed Ms. Montgomery inside where a man with greyish blonde hair was sitting behind a large oak desk. As he approached Jon noticed that the desk wasn’t resting on top of the wood floor, but it had been built into it; there were no legs, and no crack that showed any separation. Jon wasn’t sure why the desk was so fascinating to him, but he knew that it had to be as old as the building and if The Enforcers of Eden had been here any length of time than the desk had seen them through a lot.

“Mr. Browning,” his attention was called back to the older gentleman. “I’m Charles Montgomery. I’m glad to finally meet you, I see a lot of your father in you.”

Jon shook the man’s outstretched hand and then sat down in the chair that Angelica indicated.

“Thank you for having me sir,” Jon managed to say, simply to be polite.

He chuckled darkly. “Don’t thank me just yet son. Did your father ever tell you anything about The Enforcers of Eden?”

Jon shook his head no, suddenly feeling very uneasy. Between Angelica’s vicious viridescent gaze and her father’s nefarious laugh he was tempted to make some excuse and flee right there.

“The EoE has been around since the Middle Ages,” Charles Montgomery began as if he had recounted this story thousands of time. “It started simply as a group of people who wanted to keep safe from the plague so they isolated themselves from those infected and waited for the plague to pass. It worked, and soon those people began to realize that all the evils of this world lay with those who cannot help themselves. Ever since then, we have existed to weed out those incapables that live in our world. The sick, the elderly, the infirm, these are all people that Enforcers work to get rid of.”

Jon sat in shock but said nothing, afraid of what might happen if he were to object.

“Your family has long been connected with The Enforcers of Eden, but when your father married your mother, he turned his back on us all,” he stated gruffly.

“What was wrong with my mother?” Jon asked sharply.

“It isn’t a matter of character son,” he replied, waving him off. “We just like to approve of the people our members marry. If they are not other EoE members we like to try and welcome them into our fold. Your mother wasn’t interested in joining us, so your father made his choice.”

“What does that have to do with me?” Jon asked.

“Well,” he smirked in a fashion eerily similar to his daughter. “You know what they say about the sins of the father, Mr. Browning. Your father turned his back on his family and his friends and look what happened to him and his children.”

“Are you threatening me?” Jon probed, the hair on the back of his neck beginning to rise.

“I’m educating you,” Mr. Montgomery answered in a clipped, even tone. “Teaching you things you won’t learn in any Oxford classroom or billiard hall.”

Jon tried to swallow the lump that had risen in his throat. “I’m sorry sir, but I hardly knew my father. I can’t be expected to pay for anything he did.”

“Look at it this way Jon,” he stopped smirking and looked serious. “You can go back to your Aunt and your sister, in your little hovel and you can stay there for the rest of your life. You can keep drinking and gambling away your money and drive your family to ruin or you can join us.”

Looking from the stern and stony face of Mr. Montgomery to the face of his daughter didn’t help Jon understand anything any better.

“What would happen if I were to join?” he finally asked.

“Well, you wouldn’t be able to go back home,” Charles Montgomery started. “But your Aunt and Annabelle would be taken care of. I promise that they would be out of that house and onto a better place before you could even give them a second thought. You have a good mind Jon, we need someone like you helping us with our financial affairs.”

Jon got to his feet and walked over to the window, trying to think things over quickly. He had sworn on his mother’s grave that he would be a better man and he didn’t think that involved what was being asked of him here, but it did mean taking care of his family. His sister was the most important thing to him, and if she didn’t get some kind of medical attention she might die.

“We need your decision Mr. Browning,” Angelica was the one to speak this time. “Enforcers don’t like to waste time.”

A tear slipped out of his eye and onto his hand before he turned around again. “I’ll do it.”

Charles Montgomery lips spread into a smile that didn’t reach his eyes before he pulled a piece of paper from his desk. “Just sign on the dotted line, and we’ll take care of everything Jon.”

With a flick of his wrist Jon felt as if he had signed away his life and without even an explanation to anyone. Still, he thought as Angelica whisked him away to show him his new living quarters, this would be better than visiting his sister lying beside his parents.

After a few months of living with The EoE Jon started to get used to things. He worked with two other men keeping careful track of the group’s finances. However, Jon couldn’t shake the ache in his heart that was usually filled with his sister’s presence. One evening, after all his work had been done, he decided to take a walk back to his old house. He knocked and when no one answered the door, Jon assumed that Charles Montgomery had been good to his word. He turned the knob on the door and found it was open, so he went inside for old time’s sake.

There was no fire roaring, there was no warmth and it smelled faintly of some kind of oil or petrol. The walls had been stripped of all their adornments and pictures and the bedrooms were all totally bare. The only thing that remained was a piece of paper posted over the fireplace.

This house and all those within it are here by condemned by The Enforcers of Eden and will be dealt with in whatever way they deem fit. Do not go looking for the occupants unless you want a similar fate to befall you and yours.

                        Charles Montgomery, Chief Enforcer of The EoE

 Jon’s eyes fell on the words ‘dealt with in whatever way they deem fit’ and his heart fell faster than a stone dropped off a cliff. He had thought that his membership would keep his sister out of an early grave when it seemed he may put her in one. Without a second thought he snatched the paper off the wall and went running from the house toward the nearest police station.

“Help!” he managed to cry out as he tried to catch his breath. “Someone please help me.”

A gray-haired man in spectacles who was sitting behind the front desk looked down at Jon.

“Calm down son,” he spoke calmly. “I’m Captain Harding, and I cannot help you unless you tell us what is wrong.”

Jon thrust the piece of parchment under the old man’s nose. “Something has happened to my family.”

The officer adjusted his spectacles a little before looking, intently, at the piece of paper he had been presented. “We have seen a few letters like this over the years. The EoE seem to be a slippery bunch, we can never seem to find any trace of them when we go to investigate.”

“Officer, please, will you at least come to my house and take a look?” Jon asked desperately. “My little sister is only seven and we already lost both our parents.”

The elderly man looked at Jon for a moment or two before sighing. “I’ll get a few of my men to go along with us and see if we can find anything. I don’t want you to get your hopes up though.”

“I can lead you right to their headquarters,” Jon stated firmly.

“Let’s just see about your family first,” he said, two younger officers coming up behind him.

Jon followed the three men out into their carriage where he was instructed to climb up and tell the driver where to go. A few nerve-wracking moments later they arrived back at Jon’s old home. He hopped down from the carriage and rushed through the front door, however it wasn’t empty like it had been before.

             “My dear Jon, it looks like you’ve gone and done something stupid,” he was sickened to see Angelica standing there with her familiar smirk painted on her lips. “I suspected that you would be weak and try to reach out to your family, I didn’t think you would be foolish enough to involve the authorities.”

           “I knew you would want to deal with him personally Miss Montgomery,” Captain Harding stepped up and bowed slightly to her.

              “You are a credit to The Enforcers Captain,” she told him. “Now could your men please help me escort Mr. Browning back where he belongs?

            The Captain nodded and snapped his fingers.

“What did you do to my family?” Jon demanded as he scrambled forward, toward the wicked woman.

“You needn’t worry about them anymore Jon,” she replied coolly. “All you need to know is that you will never see either of them ever again.”

The two policemen rushed into the house before he could lay a hand on Angelica Montgomery and dragged him out kicking and screaming.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” he insisted. “This isn’t what I wanted!”

Angelica laughed as she lit a match. “There you go, making up lies again.”

 Tossing the match over her shoulder she left the small house as it was slowly drowned in snarling flames.