A Valentine’s Day Horror: “Here Comes the Bride”

It is the eve of the day of looooove, my dears, and to get you in the proper mood for the big red-drenched event, here is a properly horrific love story I wrote called “Here Comes the Bride.” It’s as fitting as a wedding dress on a rotting corpse; I think you’ll agree. It is also available in my short story collection Hopeful Monsters, which you may purchase if you so desire. Also remember that I still have that Patreon campaign going, so if you’ve any love left over after your V-Day load is spent, spare a drop or two for the Goddess, and you will be amply rewarded. And now, on with the dripping red love…

 

GoddessValentine

“You’re not bringing that girl here.”

Troy’s father was yelling, and even though Troy curled his body down as small as it would go, burrowing under the covers and clapping his hands over his ears, the man’s voice still resonated through his head like the toll of a great bell.

“Your father’s right, Troy.” Mother had gotten into the act too, and even though Troy couldn’t see her from his position, he could imagine her glossy pursed lips, her deeply furrowed brow. “We don’t even know this girl. And you know what happened those other times.”

Troy had a feeling his older sister would chime in next, and he was not disappointed. “How could you even get a girl anyway?” Sue sneered as Troy pressed his palms harder against the side of his head, trying to block out the sounds. “You sure you didn’t pay this one?”

Troy felt a single tear trickle down his cheek, and in its wake came a hatred made stronger by the knowledge of his fierce love for them—his family, his eternal tormentors. Their voices were all mixed together now, raining down on him from above, hemming him in with their ridicule until he was closed into an atom-sized box that he could see no escape from. He might have screamed, but because of the din of mingled shouts he couldn’t be sure. He pushed at his temples as hard as he dared, making flashbulbs of white light explode into the darkness behind his eyes. He knew they would stop berating him eventually, knew there would be blessed silence after they’d exhausted their vocabularies of disgust for him; but in the meantime there was only noise and pain, infinite in its intensity.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the voices finally started to dwindle—perhaps only minutes had gone by, perhaps lifetimes. Slowly, Troy removed his hands from his ears; the fingers were numb and sluggish, feeling as though they belonged to someone else. He pulled the covers away from his face and opened one eye a crack, peering into the gloomy dusk of his bedroom. Everyone was gone, and quiet reigned at last; the only sounds he could hear now were the reassuring hum of the central air conditioning and the distant buzz of a plane passing overhead. He sighed and fell back against the pillows, letting the cool air from the vents dry the layer of sweat on his skin. His family was upset, he knew, but he also knew that they would soon get over it. They would have to; Sonja was coming tomorrow. And when they met her, all their negative feelings would evaporate. They would love her, just as Troy loved her, and perhaps in her glow they would come to see Troy himself in a different light.

“She’s already on her way,” he whispered to his empty room, hugging himself with his long, pale arms. “Wait until you all see her.”

****

Candy Rattner, otherwise known as Sonja Andropova, threaded her way through the airport, a large duffel bag slung over one shoulder. She’d just flown in from Cleveland, but she had to hustle over to the international terminal, where the sap was picking her up. She’d told him she was arriving from Moscow, and of course he’d bought it. Why shouldn’t he?

As she walked, she practiced some Russian phrases under her breath, paying special attention to her accent. In her experience, Americans were generally not very observant about languages as long as she sounded suitably exotic—hell, most of them wouldn’t know a Russian word if it bit them on the ass. But each new scam was different, and one could never be too careful.

Candy hopped on the tram that ran between terminals, holding on to the silver bar with both hands and ignoring the appreciative glances of the rumpled businessmen leaning against the back of the car. She knew she was beautiful—her body tall and lithe, her olive skin flawless, her abundant black hair swept dramatically back from her sculptured face. She supposed she enjoyed the attention to a point, but deep down she understood that her appearance was simply a tool of her trade, a means to an end. She stretched, catlike, giving the businessmen a show, then switched her bag to her other shoulder.

The tram shuddered to a halt and Candy disembarked, moving smoothly through the crowd on her long legs. Her dark eyes scanned the signs, and when she saw one pointing toward the main terminal, she headed down a carpeted gangway, her jeweled sandals—shabby and a few years out of style—slapping against her heels. She glanced at her watch and frowned. Her flight from Cleveland had been delayed, but she still thought she could make it to the meeting point before Troy did.

Sighing, she thought of her latest mark. She had never met him before, of course—their most in-depth conversations had occurred over the Internet. She’d never even heard his voice. He had emailed her pictures of himself, though. He was a handsome young man, a little intense; not that it particularly mattered to her what any of them looked like. He had also sent her pictures of his house, and these she had scrutinized with great interest. The guy was clearly loaded, or at least his parents were. She remembered sitting in front of the computer in her two-room Cleveland apartment, grinning from ear to ear as she stared at that marvelous spread. If she could pull off this one gig, she had thought to herself, then maybe she’d be able to retire from the racket for good.

There was a large fountain in the middle of the terminal, its blue waters spewing foam high above the heads of the passing travelers, its rushing roar muffling all sound within a hundred-yard radius. Candy scanned the fountain’s marble lip, searching for a lanky, sandy-haired figure whose facial expression would suggest expectation, desperation, and perhaps just the faintest touch of shame. She saw no one, and her tense muscles relaxed a little. She felt around in her pants pocket, coming up with a crumpled five-dollar bill, then ducked into a nearby Starbucks for a latte to drink while she waited.

****

Troy spotted his beautiful bride at once. She was even more radiant than he had hoped, her taut figure perched gracefully on the edge of the fountain, her demure profile seeming to shimmer against the dull gray backdrop of the passersby. She was drinking coffee and peering down at an open book in her lap; a closer inspection revealed it to be an English phrase book.

For a moment Troy was loath to approach her, afraid she would twinkle out of existence like the crystalline falls of water that framed her angelic form. So much was riding on this meeting—what would Mother and Father say? They hadn’t come with him, but he could still hear their scornful voices echoing in his head. He clenched his fists by his sides and straightened his back, quickening his pace. He would make his family accept Sonja as his wife, that was all there was to it. She was right there in front of him, like a dream become flesh. She was perfect.

****

Candy felt his presence before she saw him.

When she looked up, he was standing no more than two feet from her, leaning slightly forward, his expression a little dazed. She was taken aback at his sudden nearness, but managed a quick smile. “You are…Troy?” she said in her practiced, broken accent.

There was a longer pause than was warranted, and Candy’s inner alarm seemed poised to jingle, warning her to abort the mission, which was how she always thought of these deals. But finally, after what seemed like an eternity in which the pounding water of the fountain served as the only distraction, Troy answered, “Yes.”

She smiled again, more broadly, hoping to conceal the uneasiness that had sprouted in her stomach. She couldn’t give up on this one, she thought; it might be her ticket out. She felt like she should say something more to him, but she couldn’t think of a single thing. “We go?” she asked at last, not wanting to sound too eager but wanting to fill the pounding silence up with words, however meaningless.

“Yes.” Troy seemed to snap out of whatever trance had held him, and he began looking around at her feet. “Do you have any other bags?”

Candy scowled prettily, as if trying to parse the sentence he’d just uttered, then brightened as pretended understanding dawned. She patted the duffel bag by her side. “This is only bag.”

Troy’s face seemed to sag a little at that, but he quickly recovered, holding out his hand. “Here, I’ll carry it for you.”

She let him take it, then got to her feet. She was nearly the same height as he was. As he headed for the signs marked Parking Garage, she kept a few steps behind him, smiling brilliantly whenever he glanced over his shoulder at her, which was unsettlingly often.

Candy studied him as they made their way out of the terminal. He was a little thinner than his pictures had suggested, but clearly in good physical shape. He was clean and well-groomed, his slacks and white dress shirt freshly pressed. He’d given his age as twenty-five, but to Candy he seemed a little younger than that, earnest and eager to please.

They reached the parking garage, neither having spoken. Candy gazed admiringly at the pearl gray Infiniti as Troy loaded her bag in the trunk. He came around and opened the door for her, which she thought was very sweet; as she got into the passenger seat, she rewarded him by lifting her skirt with a subtle hand motion, exposing a few inches of smooth upper thigh.

They exchanged few words on the drive; Candy was afraid of giving too much away, of slipping up in her finely crafted persona, and Troy, for his part, simply seemed nervous. He adhered strictly to the speed limit, she noticed, and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel.

After about forty minutes of silence, with not even a radio playing softly to fill the gap, the uneasy feeling began creeping into Candy’s stomach again. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, when suddenly Troy flipped on his blinker and turned off the road onto a narrow paved track surrounded by thick, overhanging trees. He turned toward her in the ensuing dimness. “Almost there,” he said.

She smiled and nodded, forgetting about making small talk in her eagerness to see her new surroundings. She leaned forward a little in her seat, peering intently through the windshield.

The house, when it emerged from the dense foliage, was far more fantastic than she had imagined. It was a palace, plain and simple, comparable to those sprawling English country estates she’d always lusted after in those old Merchant-Ivory movies. There was an enormous pond in front, grown over with algae but still dazzling, with a stone statue of a cherubic boy in its center, frolicking under a fountain of water that no longer flowed. The gardens were extensive, if a little overgrown; the flowerbeds needed weeding and some of the hedges were due for a prune, but otherwise the expanse was magnificent.

And then there was the house itself. Candy couldn’t help gaping at it as Troy guided the car around the circular gravel driveway. The main structure was made of a softly glowing stone of a speckled caramel color that blended organically with the surroundings. There appeared to be a massive center hub flanked by two wings, each with an octagonal tower topped with distressed castellations. There were numerous small square windows, many of them bearing intricate stained glass designs. The entire spread bore the unmistakable aura of vast wealth and power.

After a few moments, Candy became aware that Troy had stopped the car and turned in his seat to look at her with his rather unnervingly open expression. She could see that he wanted very much to please her. That was good, very good. “Do you like it?” he asked.

Candy was so overwhelmed by her unbelievable luck that she almost forgot to speak with a Russian accent. Catching herself just in time, she said, “It is so…beautiful. I did not know America looked like this.”

Troy laughed, and there was a hard edge to it that Candy didn’t like. “Most of it doesn’t. But this is your home now. Your life.” He smiled widely, and his teeth were very white in the shadows of the car’s interior.

****

If the outside of the house was beyond imagination, then the inside was almost surreal. As she entered through the carved wooden doors, she felt like an ant who had just stumbled over the threshold of Notre Dame—the ceilings soared high above her, inlaid with complicated tile patterns and alternating colors of polished stone. She held her breath, afraid that even the sound of a sigh would bounce back to deafen her.

“I’ll take your bag upstairs,” Troy said, his voice coming from all directions at once. “You can look around some if you want to. Don’t get lost, though.” That predatory smile again.

“I will just sit in here,” she said, gesturing to a sitting room on her left. She didn’t want to admit it, but the sheer vastness of the house frightened her. She had targeted quite a few rich guys in her time, but none of them had been this rich. She felt as though she might pass out at any moment. “Is okay?”

Troy shrugged. “Sure. When I come back down I’ll make us some tea and we can talk. Later on I’ll give you a tour, and then you can meet the family.”

Candy nodded and watched as he disappeared up the curving staircase with its iron banisters. When he’d gone, she wandered into the sitting room, which was filled to brimming with fussy claw-footed furniture that looked as though it had never been sat on. She poked into a couple of the drawers and highboys, but found nothing of interest. A few of the vases in the corners looked terribly expensive; perhaps they were Ming or something like that. There was even gold flocked wallpaper, of all things; Candy stepped toward the wall for a closer look, and noticed that there were lighter gold rectangles at even intervals along the walls, as though pictures had once hung there. She wondered what they had been, and why they had been removed.

A few moments later she heard raised voices, and ducked her shoulders guiltily before realizing they were coming from upstairs. She crept back out into the hallway to listen, removing her shoes on the way so their heels wouldn’t flap and echo. She couldn’t really tell what was being said, but she heard Troy, a reedy, defensive whine, and then another male voice, deeper, authoritative. There were women’s voices too—one or two of them, Candy wasn’t sure. She assumed the family was not too pleased about her arrival, and her uneasiness ramped up another few notches. Surely Troy had worked this all out before arranging for her to come here? She hoped this whole gig was going to run smoothly; she hadn’t really bargained on uncooperative relatives sticking their noses in.

The voices died down, and then she heard footsteps reverberating over her head. She darted back into the sitting room and installed herself on the edge of one of the settees, snatching an architectural magazine from an end table and pretending to leaf through it. When Troy appeared on the threshold, she looked up expectantly, as if she’d been waiting for him all along. “Okay?” she said. She didn’t want him to know what she had heard; it might complicate matters.

His jaw seemed tight, but otherwise he gave no outward sign of distress. “Your things are in one of the guest rooms for now,” he said, and then his face reddened as he realized the implications of his statement. “I mean, there are lots of empty rooms. You can stay in whichever one you want.” He grinned awkwardly, then made a stiff gesture for her to follow him. “We’ll have tea out on the sundeck.”

After flashing him a look of pleasant blankness, as though she hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about, she began trailing along behind him, soon losing all sense of direction in the maze of twisting corridors. At last they entered a kitchen big enough to park a 747 in, and Troy set to work, pulling cups and saucers from one of a long phalanx of cabinets. Candy wondered why there were no servants, but she thought it better not to ask just yet.

While he worked, Candy made her way down the small hallway he’d indicated, which terminated in a pair of blue glass doors. She opened these and proceeded out onto a huge wooden deck that overlooked part of the gardens. Candy sat at one of the umbrella-covered tables, staring out at the early fall blossoms and wondering what in the hell she’d gotten herself into.

****

After tea and an awkward conversation in which the main thing Candy learned about her future “husband” was that he was the most socially inept person she had ever met, Troy cleaned up the dishes and led Candy on a rather perfunctory tour of the house. The doors of most of the rooms were closed, and stayed closed, usually with Troy explaining that the rooms were empty or only used for storage.

The house was vast and beautiful, and Candy tried to work up the requisite enthusiasm as she followed him around, but the flight and the stress of beginning a new con had finally caught up with her. “I am sorry, Troy,” she said haltingly. “I am very tired. Maybe finish another time?”

A deep, thunderous frown crossed his face so quickly that Candy wasn’t even sure if she had seen it. “That’s all right,” he said, taking her arm gently and leading her back down the hallway they’d just traversed. “You can rest in your room for a while, if you want. Then later we’ll have some dinner, and meet the family if they’re around.”

Candy’s stomach lurched at the prospect, but she only nodded and let herself be led through the already unfamiliar corridors.

At last Troy stopped before a door, opened it, and guided her inside. For one uncomfortable moment, it seemed as though he was going to follow Candy into the room, but with a jolt he stopped just a few paces over the threshold. He stood there, fists opening and closing by his sides.

“Thank you,” said Candy, hoping he’d take the hint, too tired to even look around at her new digs.

After a moment, Troy bowed his head at her once, formally, like a butler, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Candy let out a sigh of relief, immediately making for the massive bed that dominated one corner of the room, slipping off her shoes and setting them next to the duffel bag that Troy had brought up earlier. She wondered if he had looked through it, then decided she didn’t much care if he had. Let the sad bastard get a few jollies sifting through her unmentionables, she thought with a wry grin.

She stretched out on the bed, which was almost criminally comfortable, if a tad musty-smelling. She thought she’d fall asleep right away, but she just lay there, aching muscles slowly unfurling but her exhausted brain refusing to settle.

She assessed her situation. First of all, this was the biggest con by far that she’d ever attempted, and she had to fight the vaguely queasy feeling that she was in way over her head. The con would work the same, she told herself—how rich the guys were didn’t matter. And one look at handsome, sheltered Troy convinced her that he’d be a piece of cake to manipulate. He was clearly desperate for a woman; she speculated that he might be a virgin, which would make her job even easier.

She was worried about his family, though. From the sound of their shrieking this afternoon, she deduced that they were none too pleased with this whole situation, with her presence here. If they were able to get to him, to poison him against her…

But no, she couldn’t let that happen. She’d just have to play it cool—be nice as pie to the family when she met them, but then try to subtly undermine their influence whenever she was alone with Troy. Make it seem like it was him and her against his meddling relations. Yes, that was the smartest way to play it. She’d have to be careful that she didn’t get the idiot disowned, but hopefully she’d have made the haul and taken off before things got to that point.

Candy slowly realized that the same shouting she’d heard earlier had started again; she’d been so lost in thought that she hadn’t noticed it, so for all she knew it could have been going on for a while. Still tired, but galvanized by curiosity, she slid off the bed and crept toward the door, pressing her ear against the wood, listening.

It was the deep male voice speaking, which she assumed belonged to Troy’s father. Candy could only make out random phrases and stray words, but the man’s tone was one of obvious rage, but also, she thought, a hint of resignation.

“How is it…different?” the man bellowed, and Candy could almost imagine Troy cowering under the authority of that booming voice.

She heard Troy uttering something unintelligible that ended with “marry me,” then he said, “She’ll…I ask.”

Candy cursed under her breath. What had he meant by all that? She’ll do whatever I ask? Her frown deepened. Man, if he thought that, he was dealing with the wrong Russian mail-order bride.

The father was speaking again, louder. “We can’t…for you,” he said, and Candy clenched her fists in frustration. What the hell were they saying?

There was another exchange that she caught none of, and then there was the definite sound of a door slamming and heavy footsteps coming closer through the hallways. Quickly, Candy climbed back onto the bed and feigned sleep. A moment later, there was a firm knock on the bedroom door. She thought if she ignored it then Troy would go away, but the knocking persisted. Angry and strangely fearful, she got up again and slipped back into her shoes—because it seemed vulgar to converse in one’s bare feet in a house as grand as this one—and opened the door.

It was not Troy who stood there. This man seemed taller and broader, with a strong resemblance to Troy but with something harder behind the eyes. The blonde hair was shot through with gray, the skin around the eyes and mouth darkened by fine wrinkles. “You’re Sonja,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

Candy thought it odd that he had addressed her by her first name, but she let it go. “Yes.”

“And you are here to marry my son.” The flinty eyes narrowed, taking in her face, her body, her entire being.

Candy hesitated, her mind racing, but then said, “If your son will…accept me.” She lowered her gaze and then raised it again, like a deferential bow.

This seemed to be the correct answer, because the man’s features visibly softened. His eyes still glinted like steel, though. “You may have noticed that my son is a little…shy.” He was seemingly embarrassed to be discussing something as feminine as emotions. “He’s had his problems, I’ll admit that. But I hope that this time he’s found someone who can relate to him. Someone who will…stick around.”

Candy remembered to look pained, to pause as though struggling to understand the language. “Yes,” she said, thinking that the man’s use of the phrase ‘this time’ pointed to her not being the first, wondering how much harder that was going to make matters. “I think…I will like Troy.”

The man brightened, and suddenly he seemed much younger, more like a man than an obdurate brick wall. He even reached toward her, briefly, before catching himself, glancing in horror at the hand that had seemingly betrayed him. Then he backed up a few steps before turning and lumbering down the hall, not saying another word.

Candy closed the bedroom door, disturbed and relieved in equal measure. She was glad to see that Troy’s father wasn’t the ogre she’d been expecting, but that strange gesture just now, when he’d wanted to touch her… She shook her head. She’d have to watch herself around him, that was certain.

The exhaustion hit her again, more insistent this time, so, not even bothering to take off her shoes, she flopped across the bed and was asleep in an instant.

****

Troy was rooting around in the attic, sneezing uncontrollably at the clouds of dust he was kicking up, sending squealing rodents from corners with his clumsy maneuvering. He wasn’t worried about the noise he was making; Sonja’s room was two floors below in the opposite wing, and besides, when he’d peeked in on her earlier she had been sound asleep.

Troy tried to put the image of the beautiful Sonja stretched across the bedclothes out of his mind so that he could concentrate on the task at hand. He knew the key to the special room was around here somewhere; he had kept it well hidden for years, saving it for the momentous occasion of his marriage. He poked his fingers into the drawer of an antique jewelry box, but came up with nothing except dust and the desiccated carcass of a dead silverfish. Scowling, he wiped his hands on his trousers and opened the next drawer. Nothing there either. He was beginning to worry that someone had moved the key, but who could have possibly done that? Nobody knew about it but him, nobody came up to the attic but him. He had just forgotten where he put it, that was all. He was always misplacing things, and anyway, it was a long time ago.

At last he came across the key in the bottom of an empty violin case, tucked under a flap of decaying velvet. He didn’t remember putting it there, but that didn’t matter now. Curling the rusty metal into his fist, he made his way to the narrow staircase, leaving the attic in disarray behind him.

Once back in the hallway, he found himself so excited that he couldn’t keep from running down the carpeted corridors, taking the servants’ stairs down from the third floor to the second. His special room was in the very farthest corner of the east wing, a large oval chamber that looked out into the closed-in back garden. He tried to picture it now, as he hurried toward it, tried to set it in his mind before he saw it, to test himself. Over the years he had lovingly assembled every piece of furniture, every tiny detail in the room, in preparation for his wedding night. He could hardly believe the day was almost here; his heart felt as big as a bass drum in his chest.

At last, breathing hard, he reached the door to the room that he would share with his wife. He had always kept it locked; even when the maids had been here, they had been under strict orders never to enter it. Troy was the only one allowed inside; once he had arranged it to his satisfaction, he had sealed it up tight, only checking it every three months or so, cleaning and airing out.

He thought a ceremonial pause would be in order, but his excitement was too great. He thrust the key into the lock and turned it, simultaneously pushing the door inward and breathing in the scent of the place, the enchanting combined fragrance of rosewood and iron, old incense and fresh industrial rubber.

****

When Candy awoke she had no idea where she was for the first few minutes. Night must have fallen; the stained glass windows were black behind their colors. She sat up in bed, wincing at the pain in her stiff neck, and groped for the lamp on the end table. In its glow she could see the secretive contours of the room, strange but slowly becoming familiar. She caught a tang of perfume and wondered if someone had looked in on her.

After she had washed up in the adjoining bathroom and changed into a clean dress from her duffel bag, she decided she’d better track down her host. The house around her seemed deathly silent, but she supposed that wasn’t surprising given its great size. Perhaps the family had gone out.

As soon as she was in the hallway, she caught the unmistakable aroma of meat cooking, and she quickened her pace, suddenly ravenous. It took her a few false turns and dead ends, but she finally found the marble staircase leading to the ground floor, and from there she followed her nose to the kitchen.

A woman stood at the stove, her back facing Candy. This was Troy’s mother, she presumed, as the woman was also blonde, slim like Troy was, with long spindly arms and legs. She apparently hadn’t heard Candy come in, for she didn’t turn. Candy cleared her throat, loudly, and the woman jumped.

“Oh. Sonja.” The woman smiled and wiped her hands on a tea towel, approaching Candy with an open, friendly expression. Candy found it hard to square this woman’s demeanor with the shrill harridan she’d heard berating Troy earlier, but maybe she was just very good at hiding her true feelings. “You startled me, dear. I’m Alice, Troy’s mother.”

“Sonja Andropova.” Candy shook the woman’s hand. “Very nice to meet.”

“So, you’re from Russia.” Alice glided back to the stove, stirring something in a large silver saucepan. “What part?”

“Moscow.” Candy had considered telling the marks she was from some remote part of Russia, some village with an unpronounceable name, but she found that people were far more accommodating if they’d heard of the place she mentioned. Besides, she’d been to Moscow once, as a student, so she figured she knew enough about the place to bluff a little if she had to.

“Ah. Lovely place.” Alice didn’t say any more about Russia, and Candy was glad. “Have you met Leonard?”

“Leonard is…Troy’s father?”

“Yes.” Candy hesitated, thinking of how the man had come to her room. “Yes,” she said. “In…hallway.” She twisted her hands. “Where is Troy?” she asked, not really because she cared, but just trying to make conversation.

Alice continued stirring. “Oh, I’m sure he’s around. You’ll see him at dinner. Why don’t you go ahead and have a seat in the dining room?”

It felt like a dismissal, though the woman’s friendly tone never altered. Candy left the kitchen, not knowing exactly where the dining room was, but wandering around until she found it.

There was a large table in the center, draped with white linen and impeccably set for two people. Candy, confused, slid into a chair before one of the place settings. Wasn’t the whole family going to eat together?

Twenty minutes passed on the mantel clock as she waited, every now and then leaving her seat to study the crystal bowls in the china cabinet, or to stare out one of the long narrow windows at the overgrown gardens, lit at this hour by spotlights mounted on the side of the house.

Finally she heard a noise behind her, and turned to see not Alice, but Troy, his hot-padded hands bearing a huge ceramic bowl that appeared to be filled with a thick stew. He smiled at her as he set the bowl in the middle of the table, then he reached into his pocket and produced a Bic, which he used to light the two red candles in the table’s centerpiece. “I’ll just go get the bread,” he told her, and then disappeared before Candy could ask what was going on. When he returned, he carried a big basket filled with sliced bread that smelled as though it had just come out of the oven. Candy felt her mouth watering; she hadn’t had a decent meal in days.

“Please sit down,” Troy said, and as she did he answered her unasked question. “I thought it would be nice for just the two of us to have dinner together. The others will eat later.”

Candy thought this odd, since she and Troy had already had tea alone together and found not a single thing to talk about, and since she hadn’t been formally introduced to the family at large. But of course she kept her mouth shut. The rich were eccentric, she knew, and this family’s quirks were really no weirder than those of some of her other marks.

They passed the meal in relative silence, Troy seemingly wanting to talk but unable to think of anything to say, Candy concentrating on the food and on not giving herself away by saying something stupid or out of character. At one point, Troy attempted to start a conversation about his childhood, but it sputtered out fairly quickly.

Once Candy had finished two bowls of stew and four slices of the thick bread, she began to feel sleepy again and ready to go back upstairs to bed. To this end, she pushed her chair away from the table and made to excuse herself, but then Troy very suddenly announced, “We’ll be married tomorrow.”

She froze, trying not to let the shock of the statement show on her face. “So soon?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral.

Troy’s expression clouded over. “Don’t you want to?”

“Of course! Is okay.” Candy smiled, placating, hoping he didn’t notice the sweat that beaded upon her brow.

Troy seemed mollified. “It’s all arranged,” he said, and his gaze grew distant, as though looking through reality to what lay beyond.
“I’ve even got a dress for you. And a special room for us. Wait until you see. It will be perfect.”

Candy nodded encouragingly, then chugged half a glass of water in one go, trying to quell the panic. This was not in the plan at all— she’d never had any intention of actually marrying this guy. What was she going to do? Marriage would make everything legal, make her (and the money) easier to track down. On the other hand, if she skipped out tonight, she left with nothing; she’d be abandoning what promised to be the most lucrative score of her life, perhaps the one she could retire on. Her head began to pound.

Troy was saying something else, but she wasn’t really listening. She was so tired, and she had to think. She held up her hand to silence him. “Please. I am sorry. I must go back to bed now. We will talk more in the morning.” He looked to be getting angry again, so she hastily added, “I am very excited to see the dress.”

He was clearly still wary, but he smiled. “Sure, of course you need your rest. Big day tomorrow.” His smile stretched to disturbing proportions.

“Yes.” Candy got up from the table. “Good night, Troy.”

“Good night, darling.”

Candy’s skin crawled as she made her way out of the dining room and back through the profusion of corridors and staircases that eventually led back to her room. Once there, she tried to lock the door, but found she had no key. Instead she wedged a heavy upholstered chair against the door and then sat down on the bed, thinking. She was so exhausted that she could hardly keep her eyes open, but she forced herself to stay awake. She had to figure out a plan.

It was obvious she had to get the hell out of here as quickly as possible. She hated having to abort a mission as potentially enriching as this one, but Troy was seriously weird, if not completely unhinged, and things were progressing to escape velocity too quickly for her. She wasn’t sticking around in order to get embroiled in a legal—not to mention probably sexual—bond with the freak downstairs and his elusive family.

She yawned expansively, then stood up and began moving around. Why the hell was she so damn tired?

Sluggishly, she set about gathering the few items she’d taken out of her duffel bag and repacking them. She thought it best to make her escape right away, while Troy was otherwise occupied in the kitchen. She didn’t think he’d be able to hear her leave. She didn’t have a car, but she remembered it wasn’t far to the main road—once there, she could call a taxi and pay for it with the last of her cash. She’d have to charge a hotel room and figure out what to do from there.

Then an idea managed to filter its way into her muddled brain. It occurred to her that even though she was cutting the con short before it had really begun, she still needn’t leave with nothing. This house, after all, was chock full of valuable knick knacks that could be spirited away without anyone in the family being the wiser. A quick glance around her own room showed nothing promising, but Candy figured she could poke her head into a few rooms on her way out.

Slinging the duffel bag across her shoulder and wincing at the creeping numbness in her limbs, Candy pushed the chair aside and listened at the door for the sound of footsteps. She heard nothing, but became alarmed when her head drooped against the door, her eyes closing of their own accord. She snapped awake, not knowing if she’d been out for a second or an hour. What the hell was the matter with her? The horrible possibility dawned that Troy might have put something in her food, but why would he do that? As far as he was concerned, “Sonja” was here willingly and raring to get hitched. No, she had just eaten too much on top of the jet lag and fatigue, that was all.

She eased the bedroom door open and looked both ways down the hall, which was lit only by a few dim wall sconces. The coast seemed clear, so she forced herself out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.

There were several doors on either side of the hall, all closed, and to Candy the whole thing resembled nothing so much as a fancy hotel corridor. The first two doors she tried were locked; the third opened onto a room containing nothing but an old sofa covered with a plastic dropcloth. Candy’s feet dragged along the carpet as she struggled to stay upright. Her vision was even starting to blur a little. Well, she could have a nap in the cab when she had gotten out of this madhouse.

The next room was empty except for a stack of framed photos and paintings, leaning so the images faced the wall. Candy remembered the blank squares on the wallpaper in the sitting room downstairs and wondered if these were the pictures that had been removed. She considered going in to look, but she was so tired, and besides, it seemed like a waste of time; paintings weren’t the most practical objects to steal. She closed the door again.

The next two rooms were also locked, and Candy was considering simply leaving the house empty-handed, as depressing a proposition as that was. But the next door, the one adjacent to the main staircase, opened easily, and a lamp had been left burning within.

She swayed on the threshold, finally managing to focus her vision. This had to be Troy’s room; there were his dress trousers, folded neatly over the back of a chair, and there was the only picture of herself that Candy had ever sent him, blown up to poster size and pinned to the wall above the headboard. She shuddered.

Candy stepped farther into the room, thinking maybe Troy had left some cash or a fancy wristwatch lying around. As she approached the nightstand, something on the bed caught her eye.

It was about the size of a cat, and furry. At first she thought it was a dead animal of some sort, and her heart skipped a beat, but as she peered closer she saw that it was only a wig, long and blonde and startlingly realistic. Despite her muzzy state, Candy had to smile. So that was one of Troy’s dirty little secrets, was it? Funny, she’d never have pegged him as the transvestite type…

Her smile faded as she realized what lay beside the wig. There, in a rumpled tangle, was a red and white striped women’s blouse and a black denim skirt.

It was the same outfit Troy’s mother had been wearing when Candy had seen her in the kitchen earlier that evening.

Her fogged brain reeled. What the hell kind of sick Norman Bates shit was going on here? Her terrified gaze slid away from the clothes and settled on the dresser, whose surface was littered with cosmetics, men’s and women’s jewelry, and a few bottles of gray hair coloring. Hanging from a peg above the dresser was another wig, this one a darker blonde, and styled in a pert bob. Troy had told her he had a sister, hadn’t he? Jesus Christ.

Forgetting the valuables, she turned to run, but her legs had gone to jelly, wobbling threateningly beneath her. Troy stood in the doorway, beaming at her as though she was the Virgin Mary. Candy heard the duffel bag hit the floor as it fell from her nerveless grasp. Then she heard Troy say, “I see you’re making the family’s acquaintance,” and then she heard and saw no more.

****

Candy was aware of sounds and voices, and for a moment she thought she was back in her apartment in Cleveland, and that she was dreaming. And then suddenly reality came flooding back.

“I told you this one was no different from the others!” hissed a deep voice, very close by. “They’re all the same, didn’t I tell you that? She had her bag, Troy, she was running away!”

Candy didn’t want to open her eyes; the images her mind was conjuring up were horrible enough. The feeling in her limbs had returned enough for her to discern that she was lying flat on her back, and that her wrists and ankles were restrained.

“But I got her to stay, Father!” That was Troy’s voice, plaintive and childlike. “I got Mother to put some medicine in her soup, just to make sure. It isn’t going to be like those other times, I swear it!”

“Technically speaking, none of those other girls ever left either,” said a young female voice, chuckling sardonically.

“Stop teasing him, Sue,” Alice admonished, though of course Candy knew who was really speaking, even without opening her eyes. Troy’s “mother” went on, “All we want is for this girl to work out. We can’t keep covering up for you when they don’t.”

“I know, Mother, I know!” exclaimed Troy, switching back to his regular voice without a pause. “And I appreciate all you’ve done for me. But this is different.”

Candy felt a hand on her arm, and her eyes flew open like a shot. Troy was standing over her, looking down at her with a rather frightening expression of plainly psychotic devotion. Candy raised her head as much as she was able, struggling against her bonds. She was clad in a stiff antique wedding dress, and shackled to what looked like a hospital bed. When she looked beyond herself, beyond the staring face of the doting Troy, and focused on her surroundings, she nearly screamed.

The walls around her were black and shiny, like thick rubber or vinyl-covered pads. Worse than this, though, were the metal instruments she could see suspended from pegs around the room’s oval perimeter. The objects all had long probing rods and sharp points sticking out at odd angles, and Candy didn’t even want to imagine where one would insert them.

She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She struggled mightily, thinking if she could just get through to Troy maybe she could talk him out of whatever he was planning to do.

Before she could get a word out, Troy put a finger gently to her lips. “I know what you’re going to say, and I’m very sorry about the slight change of plans. But I thought you weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the marriage as I would have liked, so I just gave you a little encouragement.” He reached into his pocket, and now Candy noticed that he was dressed in an old-fashioned tuxedo that smelled vaguely of mothballs. He opened his hand to show her the object her had retrieved: A thin gold band with three square diamonds mounted side by side.

“It was my wedding ring, and my mother’s before that,” Troy said, Alice’s voice emerging from his lips, as though he was possessed by a honey-throated demon.

Candy cried out as Troy slipped the ring onto her finger. “You killed them!” she said, not bothering with the Russian accent anymore. “You killed your whole family!”

Troy’s eyebrows went up almost to his hairline. “I’ll have you know that I, my wife, and my daughter Sue are very much alive,” he said in his Leonard voice. Then he switched to the Alice voice, with a simultaneous change in demeanor. “We did leave Troy alone for a while, we admit that,” Alice said with something that sounded like regret. “But when we saw how much he needed us, well…how could we stay away?” Troy smiled, a feminine, motherly smile.

Candy couldn’t stop the sobs from coming now. “You’re crazy,” she said, pushing and pulling against her bonds, all to no avail.

Troy slapped her, savagely, across the face. “Don’t ever say that,” he whispered, speaking as himself again. He pointed to the ring on her finger. “Do you see that? You’re my wife now, Sonja. And wives do as their husbands ask.”

“I’m not your wife!” Candy screamed, tears backing up in her eyes, blinding her. “My name’s not even Sonja, and I’m not even Russian, I’m from fucking Ohio…” Her chest hitched and she found it hard to catch her breath. This could not be happening, there was just no way…

“Listen to her, poor dear,” said the Alice-voice.

“Yeah, you sure she wanted to marry you, bro?” added the Sue-voice.

Troy’s own personality returned. “Sonja and I would like to be alone now,” he said tightly. There was a long pause, then he regarded his captive with something like real affection. “They’re gone now, darling.” He brushed her cheek where he had slapped it, as though trying to heal the wound with his touch. Then his fingers skipped lightly over her chin and her neck, finally coming to rest just at the swell of her breasts. He looked to be in ecstasy. Candy wanted to close her eyes, to make it all go away, but she didn’t dare.

“It’s going to be wonderful, my love,” he said, backing up a few steps and shrugging out of his tuxedo jacket. “Those other girls before, they would do some of what I wanted, go part of the way with me. But there was always a point where they would want to stop.” He was unbuttoning his shirt now, and the removing it to reveal his pale torso. “They were never as devoted to me as a wife would be,” he went on. “And I never brought them here, to this room.” He had stepped out of his pants and underwear, and stood before her, his naked form dimly reflected in the shiny black walls. “You’re the first one I ever brought in here,” he said reverently, gesturing around the room at all the instruments glimmering on their pegs. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.”

Troy grabbed a handful of Candy’s skirt and began shoving the lace and tulle bundle up toward her thighs. Candy did close her eyes then, knowing it wouldn’t help but no longer wanting to see what her fate would be. In the darkness behind the lids she pictured that first day sitting by her computer, answering that stupid personal ad and looking forward to another conquest, another cash-in. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She wished she were back there, safe in her single-girl squalor. She wished she was anywhere. She wished she was dead.

Candy heard a metallic clang as Troy removed one of the instruments from the wall, and then heard his quickening breath as he approached her, preparing himself to test the bonds of matrimony. Candy clenched her teeth, and hoped to Christ her agony would be brief.

 

 

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We Painters Use the Same License as Poets and Madmen: Paolo Veronese Faces the Inquisition

If you liked my graphic novel The Tenebrist, which told the fictionalized tale of batshit Renaissance painter Caravaggio, then you might like this article I wrote on Paolo Veronese and his run-in with the Inquisition in Venice. Give it a read, why don’t you? Oh, and also, don’t forget that I have a Patreon campaign up to raise some filthy lucre for my horrific writing endeavors, so please help out if you can! Thanks, and on with the show!

Paolo_Veronese_007

Born in Verona in 1528, Paolo Caliari, Il Veronese was one of the unquestioned leaders of the Italian Renaissance; along with the work of fellow Venetian School artists Titian and Tintoretto, Veronese’s paintings and drawings would serve as an influence on later artists as diverse as Rubens, Velázquez, Délacroix and Cézanne. He was lauded for his opulent use of color and the realism of his drawing; after settling in Venice in 1553 his work was much in demand by both secular and ecclesiastical patrons. But despite his fame and success, his well-known credo of complete artistic license would eventually land him in a spot of hot water.

Veronese’s Last Supper

In 1573, Veronese set to work on a commission for the convent of San Giovanni e Paolo. It was to be a Last Supper, a massive work on canvas, measuring about thirty-nine feet wide and seventeen feet high. The work is a sumptuous feast of reds and golds, with stately columned arches framing the action, which features not only Christ and the twelve disciples, but also a host of other figures. These include servants, dwarfs, jesters, soldiers, and other “extras” not usually found in artistic depictions of the scene.

Veronese was clearly taking liberties with the well-worn subject, but apparently the authorities did not appreciate the painter’s creativity. No sooner was the work delivered to the convent than Veronese was summoned before the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition to answer to a charge of heresy.

The Inquisition in Venice

Though at that point in the 16th century the Inquisition still held full, terrible sway over most of central and western Europe, in Venice its power was decidedly limited by the Senate. Nonetheless, the Inquisition certainly had the power to harass and threaten (if not necessarily torture) subjects it deemed guilty of impiety, and in July of 1573 Veronese fell into the crosshairs.

At issue were the many extraneous figures appearing in the painter’s Last Supper. Veronese had painted the same subject several times before and drawn little comment, but in this particular picture he admitted the great size of the canvas had compelled him to embellish the scene with nearly three dozen unnecessary people. At the tribunal, the inquisitors asked Veronese if he felt it was “suitable” that the Last Supper contain “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities,” and went on to state that heretical German artists often added such figures into religious paintings in order to ridicule the Catholic church. The inquisitors also seemed highly offended by the figure of a servant with a bloody nose, the notable absence of the Magdalene, and the very obvious presence of a dog sitting directly in the foreground of the picture, looking out at the viewer.

Veronese’s Meager Defense

For his part, it was highly fortunate that the Inquisition didn’t have quite the teeth it had in other parts of Europe, for as Veronese listened to the litany of charges against his work, he could offer only feeble justifications. He claimed he had only added the figures as “ornament” to fill up the space, and that the offending dwarfs, servants and buffoons were supposed to be understood as occupying a separate room from Christ and the disciples. He further argued that the house of Simon, where the Last Supper took place, might realistically have contained such people.

Finally, he pulled out the “everyone else does it” defense, pointing out that the exalted Michelangelo had painted Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and other religious figures in the nude in the Pope’s Chapel in Rome. “We painters use the same license as poets and madmen,” Veronese explained to the inquisitors, pleading his case for leniency. “I had not thought that I was doing wrong.”

The Aftermath of the Trial

After his grilling before the tribunal, Veronese was ordered to “correct” the painting within three months. Specifically, the Magdalene was to be painted in place of the dog, and the offending “drunken Germans” were to be blotted out entirely. On this condition, Veronese was set free, much to his great relief.

As meek and frightened as the painter had been while facing the inquisitors, once he was released he took a rather cavalier attitude toward their judgment. The news of his trial made his work more popular and sought-after than ever, and Veronese took up his brush with zeal in order to keep up with the new commissions. But he never took his brush to the notorious Last Supper, leaving dog, dwarfs, and drunken Germans just as he had originally painted them. His only sop to the Inquisition was changing the work’s title from The Last Supper to The Feast in the House of Levi. It is under this title that the famed heretical canvas can still be seen today, at the Galleria della Academia in Venice.

Veronese, the passive-aggressive badass.
Veronese, passive-aggressive badass.

Sources:
Janson, H.W. (2001). History of Art. Abrams Books. ISBN: 0130197327.
MacFall, Haldane (1911). A History of Painting. D. D. Nickerson and Company. ASIN: B000YFTXCW.

“Lepidoptera”

butterfly silence

Stephanie Guthrie stood in the center of the pile of blood-soaked bodies, her arms outstretched, her face a blank mask. Children pointed and screamed, animals paced in their cages. Zoo employees gaped like statues, unable to believe what they had just seen. Soon enough, the police came to quell the panic, and then an ambulance came, and bundled the woman inside.

****

“I haven’t been able to get a single word out of her,” said Theresa Hill, the police psychologist. “Looks like partial catatonia.”

Vic Unger, the lead investigator on what was sure to be the most bizarre case the city had ever seen, made a disgusted sound. “Typical. And wait ‘til you hear what we got back from the lab guys.”

“What’s that?” The halls were nearly empty in this ward, and Theresa’s voice echoed like a snatch of memory.

“Cause of death for all fifteen people at the zoo,” Vic said, “was evidently a mass poisoning. In other words, they were gassed.”

Theresa raised her eyebrows at him. “Terrorists?”

Vic shrugged. “That’s why we need to get a story out of the sole survivor in there.” He scratched distractedly at his three days’ growth of beard. “She doesn’t strike me as the terrorist type, I gotta say.”

“No. Maybe the poison came from somewhere else, and Miss Guthrie was the only one lucky enough to survive it?”

“Could be, although witnesses say the people around her dropped dead as soon as she raised her arms, like the two events were related. Have you done any scans on her or anything? Checked her for brain damage?”

“Yes. Looks like nothing out of the ordinary so far.”

“Damn.” Vic was a handsome man, only in his mid-thirties, but already cultivating a look of hangdog cynicism that Theresa found amusing. They had reached the end of the hall, and the locked room where Stephanie Guthrie was being held for observation. Theresa produced a set of keys from the pocket of her coat and opened the door.

Stephanie was sitting rigidly in the chamber’s only chair, her hands resting stiffly on her lap. She didn’t look up as Theresa and Vic entered, but kept her gaze fixed on a spot just below eye level. A very long moment passed before she even blinked.

“Hello there, Miss Guthrie.” Theresa stood before the woman, her arms crossed. “How are we doing today?”

Stephanie, of course, did not answer.

“The investigator is here, Miss Guthrie,” Theresa continued, gesturing to Vic, who was standing slightly behind and to the left of her. “He’d really like to get to the bottom of what happened at the zoo on Saturday. Do you think you’ll be able to cooperate?”

More silence in which Stephanie’s chest barely rose and fell with her breathing.

Vic stepped forward at Theresa’s urging. “I’m Vic Unger, Miss Guthrie,” he said. “I’d like to help you, but to do that I need to ask you some questions. Is that all right?”

Another blink, another breath.

Vic wasn’t in the mood for this; his impatience was one of his few negative attributes. “Can’t you just hypnotize her or something?” he asked.

Theresa stared down at the top of Stephanie’s head. “That may become necessary, although I have to tell you ahead of time that hypnosis is sometimes not a very effective psychiatric tool. We generally only use it as a last resort.”

“Well, can you get started on all the other resorts? I’d really like to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

“As would we all, Mr. Unger.” Theresa smiled at him. “But cases like this take time. I’m sure you understand.”

Vic nodded. He did understand, but he didn’t like it.

****

The next day, driving up the interstate, Vic ran the facts of the case through his mind again, hoping to stumble upon a detail he’d missed the first few times. Last Saturday at approximately two-fifteen p.m. at the Langford County Zoo, thirty-two-year-old Stephanie Guthrie had been strolling through the butterfly garden in the company of her thirty-six-year-old fiancé, Ray Framington. According to witnesses—the few who were left alive, that is—they had been holding hands, and Stephanie had been smiling. Then suddenly, things had taken a macabre turn. In an instant, the woman had gone white, tilting her head slightly upwards as if she had just heard something that shocked her beyond her capacity to reason. Her eyes apparently
glazed over, and even though Ray Framington had shaken her, trying to discern the problem, she had acted as though he wasn’t even there.

Then, witnesses agreed, she had slowly begun to raise her arms, until they were even with her shoulders. At the moment when she opened her hands, spreading her fingers to their farthest extremes, the fifteen people closest to her—including her fiancé—had simultaneously begun to bleed from every orifice, and after an agonizing moment of this horrifying spectacle, all fifteen had dropped dead to the concrete like sacks of grain. As this was happening, Stephanie Guthrie stood as still as marble in the center of the action, her outstretched hands like white wings, her expression as lifeless as that of a china doll.

When the police and then the ambulance had come, she had said nothing, reacted to nothing. The EMT’s who strapped her onto the gurney said that she was completely docile, but also entirely lacking in humanity, like an empty husk.

Since then, her condition had not changed.

Vic took a swig of black coffee from his thermos, settling it back into the fork of his crotch. His dark mood was getting darker by the minute.

He thought of Dr. Hill’s mention of terrorists. That had been his first thought too, but something about the situation didn’t sit right. Besides that, a search of Stephanie Guthrie’s person had turned up nothing resembling a container in which the toxin could have been carried, and even her skin had only shown trace amounts of the chemical that had killed the others. It was all very odd.

Whatever direction the case was taking, the department was on his ass to put it to bed as quickly as possible, and to that end he was skipping lunch and driving up to Hastings to interview Miss Guthrie’s parents. He hoped they could give him some insight into her history, her personality; from long experience, though, he knew this wasn’t likely. He sighed and turned off the highway.

Vic parked in front of a modest brick townhouse and slid out of the car. He’d called the Guthries yesterday to set up the meeting, and now, as he walked up the driveway, he noticed the curtain twitching as someone peered out at him. He pretended he hadn’t seen.

His knock was answered by a rail-thin man in his mid-sixties, clean shaven with a slick bald head. His eyes were absinthe-green, sharp and wary. “Come in, Inspector…Unger, was it?”

“Call me Vic, Mr. Guthrie. Thanks.” Vic passed over the threshold and immediately spotted Mrs. Guthrie, who stood nervously at the end of the hall. She was also in her sixties, still fairly youthful and fit, though the few lines on her face appeared deep with worry.

At Mr. Guthrie’s invitation, Vic took a seat in the living room, choosing a worn upholstered chair near the unlit fireplace. He
noticed a framed photograph of Stephanie on the mantel, and for a moment he marveled at the difference between the cheerful girl in the picture and the sullen zombie he’d seen back at the hospital. Mrs. Guthrie offered tea, which Vic politely refused. He waited until the couple had settled themselves on the matching sofa across from him, and then he got straight to the point.

“Let me just say that I want nothing more than to see that Stephanie gets the help she needs, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he began. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the situation is very grave. Fifteen people are dead, and it appears that Stephanie may somehow be involved, as either a victim or a perpetrator. As I told you on the phone, she is refusing or unable to speak, so anything you can tell me would be greatly appreciated.” He pulled a tiny tape recorder from his jacket pocket. “May I?” The couple murmured assent, and he switched it on.

Mrs. Guthrie’s lower lip was trembling. “I just don’t understand how any of this could have happened,” she said. “Stephanie never hurt anyone. And she would never do anything to hurt Ray—she adored him.”

Mr. Guthrie was nodding in agreement. “Yes, there must be some mistake. I’m sure she was just the victim of a horrible attack, or perhaps a freak accident.”

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” Vic said with a tight smile. “Please forgive me, but I have to ask some of these questions. Now, about Ray, they were engaged, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Had they been having any problems, though? Arguments? Had her behavior seemed any different recently?”

Mr. Guthrie was shaking his head before Vic had even finished speaking. “We just saw the both of them on Friday night. They came over for dinner. Nothing was wrong; they were happy, laughing. Talking about the wedding plans.”

“I just can’t believe Stephanie would have anything to do with anything so horrible,” Mrs. Guthrie said. Her eyes were glistening, but she spoke firmly. “The poor dear. Especially after—”

“Yvonne!” Mr. Guthrie bellowed.

Vic fixed each of them with a hard stare. “Especially after what?”

“Nothing, Inspector,” said Mr. Guthrie. “My wife was just going to say, especially after we had just seen her the day before.” He shot Yvonne a warning look that he probably thought Vic didn’t notice.

“George…” She reached out and touched the back of his hand.

Vic’s impatience was beginning to flare up again. “It won’t help your daughter’s case if you keep information from me,” he said, trying to tone down the irritation in his voice.

“She’s not our daughter,” Mrs. Guthrie said with a defiant glance toward her husband. “I thought you might have found that out by now.”

“Yvonne, I told you…”

Vic put up his hand to silence Mr. Guthrie, who was clearly approaching a meltdown. “Let your wife talk, sir.”

“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Guthrie, patting her husband’s hand again. “It was his brother and sister-in-law, you know.”

Mr. Guthrie looked ready to explode, but Vic preempted him with a calming gesture. “Go on, Mrs. Guthrie.”

“It was such a long time ago. Stephanie was only about ten at the time,” Yvonne said. “A very bright child, she was. We didn’t see her often back then, you understand. Her parents—that’s George’s brother and sister-in-law—lived in Rosemere, about ninety miles north of here. But we saw them on holidays, of course.”

Vic wondered if this story would be going anywhere relevant, but he leaned forward in his seat, silently encouraging her to continue.

“Well, it happened at Stephanie’s school,” Yvonne said. She glanced over at George, who had covered his face with his hands. “It was one of those open house nights, you know, where the parents come to meet the teachers and so on. Do you have any children, Inspector?”

Vic did, a baby son, but he shook his head no. He didn’t want Mrs. Guthrie getting sidetracked.

“Well, it was the funniest thing,” Yvonne continued, to Vic’s relief. “Not funny, of course, but strange. I don’t think anyone ever figured out exactly what happened. It was all so sudden. One minute, there were kids and parents milling around the classroom, looking at all the projects the children had made, and then the next minute…”

Mrs. Guthrie waved her hand vaguely in the air. Her bottom lip was trembling again. “I wasn’t there, you understand,” she said, her voice going hoarse. “But I heard all about it. The papers said there was blood everywhere, covering everything. And all those poor little children…” The tears finally came, and Yvonne pressed her hands to her lips, and indication that she could not continue.

Vic looked to Mr. Guthrie, who looked haggardly back at him. “What happened?” Vic asked.

“They all died, what do you think happened?” George rasped. “My brother and sister-in-law, some other parents, teachers, a bunch of kids. Almost everyone in the room, as a matter of fact. Stephanie and one other person were the only ones who survived.”

“But what killed them?” Vic urged, exasperated. “Was it a shooting?”

Mrs. Guthrie had recovered enough to speak again. “I told you, they didn’t know what it was. Everyone just dropped dead, near as I can figure from the news stories. No one was shot, they were sure of that, but…” She trailed off, shrugging. “I guess they didn’t have all the fancy forensic science they have nowadays. Anyway, it was in all the papers back then. The Rosemere Gazette, a couple of others.” She sniffed and wiped at her nose primly with a handkerchief she had produced from her pocket.

Vic made a mental note to check the archives for news stories about the deaths; he didn’t remember hearing about it at the time, but he hadn’t been much older than Stephanie then, and he doubted that any news story, no matter how bizarre, would have made its way into his teenage psyche all those years ago. “Was Stephanie questioned after all this happened?” he asked.

Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie looked at each other. There was a long pause, then Yvonne finally said, “She was never the same afterwards.” Her voice was so soft that Vic had to lean farther forward to hear her. “She just kind of…vanished into herself. Not surprising, I suppose, after such a trauma. George and I got custody—we were the closest relatives, you know, and we were happy to do it—but we couldn’t reach the girl. She had to be…hospitalized for a while.” Yvonne looked as though she might be on the verge of losing it again, but she clenched her jaw and held herself together.

“How long was she hospitalized, Mrs. Guthrie?” Vic had lowered his voice to match hers.

“Oh…almost two years, I think it was.” She sounded almost apologetic, as though the girl’s illness was a personal failing. “I hated to see her in there, I really did, but…well, what else could we do?”

“They did help her in that hospital, right enough,” Mr. Guthrie added. “Stephanie was never the same as before, but once she came out of there she was much better. Not like she was, but still okay.” Now it looked as though George might break down crying again.

Vic thought he had caused the couple enough anguish for one day, so he switched off the recorder, replaced it in his pocket, and stood to go. “Thanks very much, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he said, reaching out to shake their hands. “I’ll be in touch. And if you think of anything more, give me a call.”

“We certainly will.”

Vic left the pair to their heartbreak, and made his way back to his car, where he finished off the thermos of now lukewarm coffee. His earlier hesitancy, it seemed, had been wrong; he had obtained quite a bit of interesting information from Stephanie’s adoptive parents. And now it seemed like the reticent Miss Guthrie wasn’t quite as above suspicion as she had first appeared.

****

Theresa Hill locked her office door behind her, then retraced her well-worn steps down the hall to Stephanie Guthrie’s room. It had been four days since the incident, and very little progress had been made. The woman was easily the most difficult case she’d ever run across, and as such, was maddeningly intriguing.

Stephanie had not moved during Theresa’s absence. The doctor fetched a chair from an adjacent room and placed it a few feet from Stephanie, then closed the door.

Perhaps hypnosis was the only way to reach the patient, Dr. Hill mused. Certainly nothing else had worked—Theresa had tried cajoling and threatening, withholding food, appealing to Stephanie’s love for her family and her dead fiancé. The woman had sat there through it all, stoic, emotionless. She wasn’t completely out of it, Theresa knew—she had been eating a little, and could be counted upon to get up and use the bathroom when necessary, but beyond that she was a shell of a person, an automaton.

Theresa began today’s session as she had begun the others, talking to Stephanie in low tones, addressing her frequently by name in order to place focus on her core identity. As with all the other times, Stephanie did not react, not even to make fleeting eye contact with the doctor.

After about fifteen minutes of this, Theresa sighed and stopped talking. Clearly it was time for a different approach, one she had been putting off for days. She reached into the pocket of her coat and drew out the small metronome she had brought from her office; she got up and placed it on the seat of her chair. She turned it on, and its winking silver needle began to tick back and forth with a sound like a wooden cane tapping on pavement.

“I don’t know if you can hear me or understand me, Stephanie,” said Dr. Hill, standing off to the side with her hands clasped behind her back. “But if you can, I want you to look at the object in front of you. Concentrate on it very hard, and ignore everything else but it and the sound of my voice.”

Theresa had no idea whether Stephanie was complying or not, since her blank expression did not change. She pressed on. “Good. Just keep looking at it, focusing on the needle going back and forth, back and forth.”

Again, there was no discernible reaction, but Theresa continued on, allowing her voice to become softer and softer until it was a pleasant drone in the drab room. At last, she said, “Now, Stephanie, I want you to close your eyes.”

For a long moment nothing happened, and Theresa’s hopes began to fade. Perhaps they would never be able to reach the woman; perhaps the bizarre deaths at the zoo would remain forever unsolved.

Then Stephanie’s eyes fluttered closed.

Theresa almost leaped for joy, but managed to keep her voice level, even as her heart hammered against her ribcage. “Very good, Stephanie. Now I want you to go back to last Saturday, the day you and Ray went to the zoo. Do you remember?”

Stephanie didn’t answer, but her brow furrowed as though she’d just heard some troubling news. Theresa was so elated to see a change in expression that she immediately moved on to the next question. “What happened that day, Stephanie? Can you tell me?”

The patient’s frown deepened, and her eyelids began to twitch. Theresa thought she saw the woman shake her head, ever so slightly, but it might have been wishful thinking. “Can you tell me what happened, Stephanie?” Dr. Hill persisted, trying mightily to keep from badgering her. “You were walking along with Ray, weren’t you? There were some other people around. And then what?”

Two tears squeezed from beneath Stephanie’s closed lids and trickled down her cheeks. Her face was a mask of horror and sorrow, and Theresa considered waking her up right then, but at that moment Stephanie began to move.

Her arms, which had been dangling loosely by her sides, started to rise, almost as though they were attached to a puppeteer’s strings. Stephanie’s eyes remained closed, but her face contorted, seemingly fighting against the actions of the rest of her body.

Her arms were now outstretched, level with her shoulders, and as Theresa watched, the woman unfurled her fingers like flower petals and spread them wide. The doctor opened her mouth to ask what she was doing, but then Stephanie’s eyes flew open and her gaze fixed fully on Theresa, the zombie stare now replaced by a look of frightening, hyper-aware intensity. The doctor backed up a step.

“The voice,” said Stephanie, the words little more than a creak of muscles long unused.

Dr. Hill was so shocked that the patient had spoken that she stumbled over the next question and had to repeat it. “Whose voice, Stephanie?” she asked, trying to maintain contact with that unsettling stare. “What did it say?”

Stephanie’s eyes widened, becoming round black holes in the midst of her ghostly visage. There was a sound from behind, but Theresa ignored it, intent upon her patient’s words.

“Lepidoptera,” Stephanie said, and then her entire body seemed to collapse in on itself, her arms dropping back to her sides, her head falling forward until her chin rested on her chest. Blood came, first in a trickle and then in a torrent. Frantically, Theresa clapped her hands, attempting to wake the patient from the hypnotic trance, but the sharp sounds of her palms smacking together had no effect other than producing a flat echo against the gray concrete walls.

****

Vic stomped on the gas, urging the car to go faster, even though he was already exceeding the speed limit by a considerable margin. He hoped to Christ his hunch was wrong, but a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach suggested it wasn’t. In fact, if Dr. Hill had gone ahead with the planned hypnosis, then it was probably already too late.

After leaving the Guthries’ the day before yesterday, Vic had gone straight to the Rosemere library and spent the better part of the afternoon examining the newspaper archives on microfilm. And there, just as Mrs. Guthrie had stated, was the entire unbelievable story, laid out in all its puzzling detail, though Stephanie, being a minor, was not mentioned by name. Police at the time had been mystified, and even though Vic had scoured the later records, hoping for some follow-up, he had found nothing further, other than a short article a few months after the event which speculated that the deaths had been caused by some freak chemical seepage into the classroom, since the victims had apparently all succumbed to some unknown poisonous fumes. Just like the fifteen people at the zoo, Vic had thought grimly.

Only one other person had survived the accident twelve years before, and that was a young teacher by the name of Bill Travers. Vic had spent the previous day tracking the man down, only to find out that he had died in an institution, having been in a near comatose state for nearly ten years following the occurrence at the school open house. And after speaking to one of the older nurses who still worked at the hospital where Travers had died, Vic discovered something else—that when a doctor had attempted hypnosis in order to reach the poor man, Travers had ended up dead, the doctor catatonic. Post-mortem examination of Mr. Travers had revealed that his death was caused by the same mysterious chemical that had killed
the parents and children in the classroom, and the same one, Vic knew, that had killed the fifteen people at the zoo last week. He’d had a report back from the lab boys on that, too—they had no idea what the substance was, other than that it was sort of like a pheromone, but deadly poisonous. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, Vic had said sardonically.

But there was a minor detail that nagged at Vic. The nurse at the institution where Travers had breathed his last had supplied him with a grainy, black and white videotape of the hypnosis session where Travers had died. The similarity with Stephanie’s case was chilling, as the man sat very still in his chair, seemingly insensate, as the doctor stood over him, intoning a list of questions that was meant to draw him out of his traumatized state. But suddenly, the man’s eyes had opened, his face had wrenched apart in a silent scream, and he had uttered a single word: Lepidoptera. The tape stopped just as his lifeless body slithered to the floor.

Vic blew through a yellow light that turned red the second he passed under it. He didn’t understand exactly what the mechanisms behind all this were, but the outcomes seemed abundantly clear. Something was causing these people to transform from normal, functioning human beings into…what? Was it some kind of killer virus triggered by environmental factors? Or even by some internal apparatus that lay dormant in the body until a particular moment caused it to flower?

Vic didn’t know, but he did know that both Stephanie Guthrie and Theresa Hill were in horrible danger. Even though he had abandoned the idea of God long ago, he began reciting a litany in his head, something like a prayer, though to who or what he was praying he couldn’t have said. Please let it not be too late, please let it not be too late…

After what seemed like hours of driving, the unobtrusive sign identifying the Mayflower Psychiatric Hospital loomed through his windshield. He turned the car without slowing down, feeling two tires leave the ground, and then tore down the long, tree-lined road that led to the parking lot. He pulled abruptly to the curb and leaped from the car, leaving the door wide open and the keys dangling in the ignition.

Doctors and nurses turned to stare at him as he belted down the halls, flashing his badge at anyone who looked as though they may try to stop him, squeezing through the digitally locked doors the second the shocked guards had opened them. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum, and his lungs were filled with the mingled odors of urine and sweat and formaldehyde.

He headed first for Dr. Hill’s office, but saw immediately that she was not there. His heart sinking, he continued running, down the endless corridors, deeper into the bowels of the hospital.

At last he arrived at Stephanie Guthrie’s room. He turned the knob and found it unlocked, which made his hopes dim even further. He was almost afraid of what he would see as he pushed open the door.

For a split second it appeared that everything was fine. Dr. Hill was standing in the middle of the room, leaning toward Stephanie, who sat in the chair she had barely moved from for several days, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched. An echo hung in the air, as though Dr. Hill had just asked a question that awaited an answer.

Just as Vic was about to speak and announce his presence, Stephanie’s eyes opened and fixed on the doctor’s. Her lips parted with a soft plip. Vic darted into the room, knowing what she was about to say, but for some reason time seemed to have slowed, the way it does in dreams. Stephanie seemed very far away, her mouth opening like a tiny black O. “Lepidoptera,” she said, and then her entire frame collapsed, and blood began to ooze from her nose and mouth. As Vic watched, she crumpled to the floor, her eyes already beginning to glaze over, the single word she had spoken humming around the enclosed space like a hellbent mosquito.

Dr. Hill was clapping her hands, obviously trying to awaken a patient that would wake no more. She still had not noticed Vic at all. She moved toward Stephanie.

And then Vic felt it, that word the woman had whispered, tunneling into his brain like an earthworm through the loam, lodging in the deepest part of him. He could feel it radiating outward from this command center, infecting his flesh, his entire molecular structure. He could feel it squirming within him, using him for its own devilish purposes, waiting for the moment when it would unleash itself upon the unwary, making of him an unwitting carrier, accomplice, slaughterer.

Dr. Hill finally turned and saw him standing there, and just before his brain began its inevitable withdrawal into its cocoon, he managed to lock gazes with her. She had fallen to her knees next to the corpse of her patient, clearly suffering the same appalling fate as he. Vic tried to smile at her, if only to show that they were now joined in their shared contagion, but he couldn’t quite do it.

At last he felt his body falling, and his thin veneer of rationality dissolved completely, his thumping heart keeping time with the ticking beat of the metronome.

The Rosenhan Study and the Fine Line Between Sane and Insane

A landmark 1973 study demonstrated that telling the difference between sanity and insanity isn’t so cut and dried.

insane-asylum-dayroom

In principle, it should be easy to tell a sane person from one suffering from a mental illness. But in 1973, David Rosenhan, a professor at Stanford University, published the results of a fascinating experiment in the journal Science. It seemed to show that perceptions of a person’s sanity may be colored by context; that is, if one is labeled mentally ill, all subsequent behavior may be filtered through that perception.

The study hit the psychiatric community like a thunderclap, causing a furor that didn’t die down for almost a decade. And though many legitimate criticisms were leveled, the experiment still suggests the important role context plays in diagnosing mental illness.

“On Being Sane in Insane Places”
Eight completely sane people volunteered to participate in the experiment. Each of them turned up at a psychiatric hospital, claiming they had heard voices repeating the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud,” though they were no longer hearing the voices now. Other than this one symptom, the volunteers were told to behave exactly as they normally would, and answer questions about their life and family background completely truthfully (only their names and professions were changed).

All eight volunteers were admitted to their respective hospitals, seven with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and one labeled a manic-depressive. Experimenter Rosenhan was curious to see how long it would take before hospital staff realized that the volunteers were perfectly sane, especially since he had instructed the “pseudopatients” to act normally once admitted and to never mention the bogus auditory hallucinations again.

Never Recognized As Sane
The answer to the question of how long it would take to detect the fakery was apparently “never.” Though the patients were all released after an average of nineteen days (with the shortest stay being five days and the longest fifty-two), all but the manic-depressive were labeled as “schizophrenic, in remission” upon their release.

While in the hospital, even the most innocuous of the volunteers’ behavior — lining up early for lunch, writing in a journal — were noted and commented upon as though symptomatic of mental illness. Rosenhan took this to mean that the very fact of being in a place where mental illness is expected biased the hospital staff to see perfectly normal behaviors as pathological. Intriguingly, many of the genuine patients at the various hospitals recognized that the volunteers were “faking,” even if the doctors and nurses evidently did not.

Psychiatrists Criticize the Rosenhan Study
Rosenhan’s paper in effect threw down a gauntlet for the psychiatric community, and many took it up and began publishing rebuttals. While some critics simply tried to single out the hospitals in the study as particular “bad apples,” other arguments were more substantive. Repeated auditory hallucinations, psychiatrists pointed out, are indeed a symptom of schizophrenia, and this combined with the fact that the “pseudopatients” had apparently been troubled enough to come to a psychiatric hospital seeking help would have been enough for any competent psychiatrist to admit them to a hospital for observation.

Moreover, the genuinely ill patients at the hospitals acted more or less “normally” a great deal of the time, so the difference between them and the “sane” volunteers might not have been so striking as to merit immediate notice. Finally, hospital staff taking notes about the patients’ behavior was simply standard protocol, and said nothing about whether the specific behaviors were pathological or not.

Psychiatric Hospital Conditions
Though criticisms flew thick and fast, many experts did acknowledge that conditions in psychiatric hospitals could be improved, with more involved and compassionate staff and less reliance on medications. Since the study was published in 1973, changes in health insurance costs and structures have made it more likely that genuinely ill people will fail to get help or be discharged early than well people admitted. However, many of the findings in Rosenhan’s study about the extent of context-dependence on diagnosis still resonate in the field of psychiatry.

Source:
Ingram, Jay. The Barmaid’s Brain and Other Strange Tales From Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2000.

Excerpt From an Untitled and As-Yet-Uncompleted Erotic Horror Story

Hi again, kids. This right here is a story I started working on a few months ago, but for some reason haven’t got around to finishing yet. I probably will finish it at some point, and eventually I’d like to feature it in another short story collection I want to have put together this year, but in the meantime, read the excerpt and tell me what you think! Suggestions for plot twists and titles are also welcome.

Also, kindly remember I have an ongoing Patreon campaign to raise funds for this writing thang I do. Even pledging just a couple bucks a month will be a big help, so if you like what I do, then consider contributing! Please and thank you. And now, the main feature.

Flyaway hair? Stand Head and Shoulders above the rest. (Sorry.)
Flyaway hair? Stand Head and Shoulders above the rest. (Sorry.)

It all came out through the holes, wet and glistening silver like strands of spider silk. It’s her again. How could that be? James began to pull more quickly, his heartbeat accelerating. In moments the palm of his hand was crisscrossed with the stuff, metallic yet somehow soft at the same time, its shafts clotted with black. James brought his hand up to his nose and took a heady sniff. He could smell the secretive tang of the below, that organic stench. He closed his eyes.

He didn’t know how long he sat that way, hunched over the bathtub, but he was suddenly brought out of his reverie by a banging on the door. “Hey, are you all right in there?”

He turned toward the voice. Shit. He’d almost forgotten. “I’m almost done. Be out in a minute.” He fumbled a plastic baggie out of the pocket of his sport coat and gently slipped a handful of the hair into it, giving it a final caress as he did so. He kept back a few fine strands that he rubbed between his fingers, relishing the feel of the drain-slime sloughing off in his hands. He then pursed his lips and drew the strands slowly into his mouth, using his tongue to swirl them around his teeth. Angel hair. He smiled.

With another glance at the bathroom door, he swallowed and stepped to the sink to wash his hands. His face in the mirror looked mostly normal to him, with just a hint of a devilish curl at the corner of his lips. He wiped his hands and opened the door. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“Oh, that’s all right.” The woman by the bathroom door was short and rotund, not at all the way he imagined the possessor of the hair would look. “I just got a little worried. Thought you were sick or something.”

“No, no. Just a little…something I ate. Would you like to see the upstairs now? I think you’ll really like the layout up there. Lots of natural light.”

The woman nodded and followed him as he mounted the steps and continued his seller’s spiel. As he spoke, his mind wandered to the hair in the drain, to the sensuous, glimmering impossibility of it. He patted his pocket to make sure the baggie was still there, the bag that he would add to the two other identical ones he had stashed away in the drawer of his bedside table at home. He asked himself again, How was it possible? Three different houses in different parts of town, and yet he had pulled the same woman’s hair from the three drains: same unusual silver-silk color and texture, same loamy scent of promise lurking beneath the pungent sewer-odor. Extraordinary.

****

That evening, he sat in his dim, cramped office, his sport coat hung over the back of his chair, a forgotten cup of coffee beside him. Plastic baggies made a milky-slick grid before him on the faux wood desktop, and his hands trembled slightly as he held them there, inches above the expanse, quivering in anticipation of the first touch.

The bags were ordered along a spectrum, with the palest blondes at the upper left positions gradually shading toward the severest blacks at the lower right. The three strange silvers occupied their own place at the very top of the grid, and it was these that James gravitated toward with his shaking fingers, prolonging his delicious agony by stroking the plastic of the baggie briefly, so briefly, then pulling away.

At last he could stand it no longer, and snatched up the baggie containing today’s acquisition. He pulled apart the seal and plunged his hand greedily inside. The hair had dried since this afternoon, and its texture was so delicate that he could barely feel it on the skin of his palm. He brought it out and held the strands under the desk lamp, watching the light play across the shaft of the hair like a prism, like fiber optics. He held it there for a long time, staring, transfixed. He itched to bring it toward his lips, to feel it coiling its way down his throat to nest in his stomach, but…

Something was wrong. He forced his gaze away from the silver hair and scanned the plastic grid, the neat squares containing their multi-hued filaments. There was still that charge, that longing, but it was different than before, less intense. He frowned. Carefully, he placed the silver hair back into its bag and placed it at the top of the grid. It wouldn’t do. This was something special, something that couldn’t be treated with the same ritual. The three baggies lay there, taunting him deliciously, marriageable women amidst a sea of cheap whores.

He shook his head, both aroused and disturbed. He snatched up one of the other baggies from the center of the grid without really looking at it. What did it matter? He drew the mouse-brown strands from the bag and let them hang between his fingers. With his other hand, he unzipped his jeans. His erection was tentative, his confusion over having to settle for a cheap whore for tonight stymieing the usual hard throb. He took his cock in his hand and stroked, the fingers of his other hand caressing the substandard hair. His thoughts raced. The silver hair, there on the desk. Perhaps he should look at that, think of that while he dallied with the inferior specimen. His cock immediately responded as his eyes focused on those three baggies, and he groaned as the motions of his hand grew faster. As the inevitable explosion drew near, he stuffed the brown hair in his mouth and barely even bothered to move it around with his tongue before swallowing it just as he released his seed across his pants, the desktop, the array of baggies. The hair tickled as it made its way down his esophagus, and he sat back in his chair, breathing hard, watching his erection wilt, feeling the pleasant tinge of the air conditioning on his damp flesh.

****

The house had been empty for several months, and James had shown it to four prospective buyers so far. None had made an offer. James wasn’t sure exactly why; he didn’t see anything particularly wrong with the place that a little elbow grease couldn’t fix. The plumbing was old, and gave the rooms a vaguely dank odor, but James found the smell strangely comforting, and was always bothered when his clients wrinkled their noses at it as they toured around. It was a perfectly lovely house otherwise, small but pleasantly secretive, painted in cool watery hues.

He unlocked the door and went inside, setting his phone and all his papers on the kitchen bar just off the living room. He was meeting a new client today who had seemed intensely interested in buying, and he was determined to get at least an offer, even if he had to force the woman to sign on the dotted line.

He made a quick survey of the place, dusting off surfaces with his hand and picking up dead bugs and stray leaves. He paused on the threshold of the master bathroom, where the wet smell was the strongest, and breathed deeply. He could go in and check the drain, it would only take a moment…he had been in this house before and collected specimens, but there were always a few strands he’d missed. His memory drifted back to the silver hair in the baggies at home, and his fingers twitched. Only a moment…

There was a gentle knock on the front door. James straightened his back. His cock was stirring against his thigh, straining against the front of his khakis, and James quickly tried to calm himself, glancing down to ensure that the bulge was not as obvious as it felt. The knock came again, and James waited another few beats before heading purposefully down the hall, hoping he looked presentable.

“Ms. Dell?” he said as he opened the door. It occurred to him much later that he had known, seconds before he saw who was standing on the doorstep, that it would be her.

“James,” she said, immediately familiar. She was framed like a portrait against a late autumn landscape, the black tree branches in the yard seeming to spread out behind her like the clawed hands of a giant, presenting her to him. The afternoon sun on her silvery hair made it ripple like liquid fire.

He stared. She seemed content to stand and be stared at.

After an age, he wordlessly stepped aside and let her enter the house. She brought the silver glow of the outside in with her, and she also brought a scent that seemed to mesh with the clammy tang of the house, and the two scents combined into a dark perfume of dirt and sweat and marshland that made James dizzy.

Ms. Dell smiled at him, a deceptively distracted smile that nonetheless made him feel as though he had been penetrated by a laser. She began to amble about the living room, looking idly up and down, her black silk dress clinging to her flesh as she moved. He wanted to speak to her, but he was afraid of breaking the spell.

She disappeared into the shadows of the hallway, and James stood there stupidly watching the place where she had been, as if her aura and underground scent had left a ghost of her behind, and then came her throaty voice thrumming from the very walls. “Are you coming?” she asked.

He stumbled down the hall, his heart clenching. He didn’t see her at first; there was only the shifting diffused light from the windows making dancing patterns on the water-blue walls, but then there was a hint of movement off to his right, and of course there she was, standing before the bathroom sink and gazing intently at her reflection. She turned her head slightly as he entered. His mouth was dry. She was so very close, and the smell of her was heady, mingling with the stench from the plumbing, the stench that always clung to the hair she had left for him to find in the drains.

She placed her bone-pale hands on her hips and slid the fabric of her dress upwards, bending over the sink as she did so that the twin moons of her ass were just visible. James moved behind her, feeling as though his body was no longer anchored to the earth. Ms. Dell was still looking into the mirror, and now her eyes raised to meet his in the silver reflection of the two of them. Her eyes were black and bottomless, pipelines into the eternal. She waited.

James fumbled for a moment, and in the eerie silence the sound of his zipper freeing him was like a rip in spacetime. Then he was inside of her, and as he watched her face in the mirror he saw her lips part and emit a high, gurgling sigh, though her gaze never faltered, her unblinking eyes boring into him as he bore into her with heightening intensity.

As he neared climax, she arched her ass and pushed against him with terrible force. He clenched his teeth, trying to hold on as long as he could. She threw her head back so that her glorious silver hair flew out in a fan, and James snatched fistfuls of it as it cascaded toward him, curling his fingers and pulling her toward him with it, until he felt as though he would rend her in half. She made that startling cry again, that liquid burble, and then he lost it, howling in pleasurable agony, ripping twin skeins of hair from her head with his clenched fists as he came.

He withdrew from her and collapsed against the bathroom door, lowering his head so that he no longer had to stare into those reflected black eyes, which were still unwaveringly watching him even now. He glanced down at his hands, at the knotted silver strands like fine wire festooning his fingers. He longed to taste them one by one, to savor them on his lips and tongue, but he would not do it while she was watching, despite the strange intimacy they had just shared.

Ms. Dell straightened and smoothed her dress. James noticed a single pearl of semen on her inner thigh, and the sight made his head swim.

She turned toward him, and in James’s vision she almost seemed to waver, all blacks and whites like a projection from an old film. Then she spoke, and became solid again. “May I have a minute?”

James looked dumbly at her until she cut her eyes ever so slightly toward the door. Realization dawned, and he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Yes. Please,” he said hoarsely. He shuffled into the hall, chastened, and she closed the door gently after him.

Should he stand there and wait? What would happen now? Everything was surreal and dreamlike, though he was certain he was wide awake. He leaned slightly toward the bathroom door, but couldn’t hear anything at all. Then, suddenly aware that she could open the door at any moment and see him lurking there like a vulture, he wandered back down the hall and went into the kitchen to wait for her.

The light coming through the windows shifted further to the west and took on the sparkling cast of honey as the afternoon went lazily on. James had heard no sound from the bathroom for a long while, and at last he stole into the shadows of the hallway and pecked meekly at the door. “Ms. Dell?” He felt vaguely ridiculous that he did not know her first name.

Silence greeted him, and his skin prickled with cold. He called again, his voice blasphemy-loud. Very faintly, he thought he heard an aqueous echo, a bubble in a drain, but when he turned the knob and entered, the bathroom was empty.

The succulent wet smell of her still remained, and James leaned over the sink, mimicking the posture of Ms. Dell as he had fucked her. He stared into the mirror, almost expecting to see her black eyes looking back at him. But no, it was just his own haggard, bearded face, its blue eyes ringed with red.

Feeling another stirring in his loins, he pressed his face to the bottom of the sink, drawing all the below-stench up into his nostrils like a greedy eater. Frenzied, her pulled the drain stopper up and out into the sink basin, and saw that the shaft of the stopper was wrapped in a shining cocoon of silken silver hair.

****

The following day James had no pressing obligations, and as soon as his eyes opened he was out of bed and hurrying toward his office down the hall.

He would have believed that the entire experience with Ms. Dell had been a dream, if he didn’t have the twisted locks of her hair in a large baggie in his hand. He had slept with it under his pillow, stroking it with one hand while his other played frantically about inside his boxer shorts. Sometime during these pleasurable activities, he had hit upon a brilliant idea with what to do with Ms. Dell’s hair, something that he hoped would be worthy of her magnificence.

“The Expulsion”

PriestDevil

“Thanks for calling CastOutCo, we’re steamin’ mad at demons. How can I help you?”

“I’m not sure whether I should be calling or not.”

Father Buck rolled his eyes, aiming another pencil at the ceiling tiles. “What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s my son. I don’t know where to turn…”

The woman started talking, and Buck made some peremptory notes, and then began doodling on the edges of his legal pad. The symptoms she was describing were fairly typical; Buck already had all the information he was likely to need, but it made the clients feel better if they were allowed to vent.

When the woman paused to take a breath, Buck jumped in. “We’re awfully swamped, but I think I can squeeze you in this afternoon at two-thirty, if that’s okay.” He glanced up at the wrestling calendar tacked to the wall of his cubicle; there was nothing written there.

“Thank you. Yes, as soon as possible.” Her voice was forceful and harsh through the phone, as though she really wanted to say, You’d better get your ass here yesterday, buster.

“See you then,” Buck said, and almost hung up, but then remembered to tack on, “Thanks for calling CastOutCo.” The woman had already rung off. Buck put the phone back in its cradle, hoping the manager hadn’t been listening in.

With a sigh, he buttoned up the shirt of his uniform, which looked like something a priest would wear if he moonlighted as a motorcycle mechanic; it was black, with a faux white collar and an embroidered name badge with a little orange cross stitched on it. Buck slid his feet off the desk and crammed his black cowboy hat onto his balding pate. He couldn’t hear a peep in the office; the other associates were probably sleeping or cruising the Internet for underage girls. Business had been tanking, and it was all thanks to Big Pharma—parents were generally unwilling to fork over obscene amounts of cash to an exorcist when they could just stuff their kid full of Ritalin.

Buck got up from his chair, causing the chair and his back to squeak in protest. He hoped this tinpot operation could stay afloat until he retired; he was too old to go pounding the pavement for work, and besides, banishing demons wasn’t really an in-demand skill in the job market these days. He sighed again, heavily, and glanced at his watch. If he left now, he’d probably have time to stop and get a beer.

At two-thirty-eight, after three beers and a bowl of nachos, Buck pulled his rickety Ford to the curb in front of the client’s house, which was a typical faceless suburban confection painted in trendy Mediterranean hues. There was a dark green minivan in the driveway, with a sticker on the back proclaiming that their kid was an Honor Student at Insufferable Brat Middle School, or some such crap. Buck scowled.

The woman had the door open before he’d even got all the way out of the car, and she looked exactly as he had expected her to: Pinched, too skinny, with meticulously styled brownish hair and high-waisted jeans. Buck smiled and raised a hand in greeting, but she just looked at him with a steely expression. He muttered under his breath as he retrieved his box of supplies from the back seat.

Once inside, the woman didn’t even offer a drink or so much as a how-do-you-do; she just marched through the maze of cream-colored hallways, leaving Buck to scuttle along behind her. She stopped on the threshold of what looked like a sitting room, and thrust her finger forward.

The boy sat stoutly in a red recliner, his feet dangling an inch or two from the floor. Behind him were the tangled wires and controls of a forgotten video game, and clutched in his hand was a half-eaten Ho-Ho. He considered his mother and the stranger with flat-lidded eyes.

“What’s the kid’s name?” Buck hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

“Logan,” the woman hissed back. Then she moved aside and let Buck into the room.

“What’s up, Logan?” Buck put his box casually on the floor at his feet. The boy glanced down at it, and then looked back at him. “Something going on I should know about?”

The kid burped, and Buck got a cloudy snootful of root beer and Ho-Ho filling and brimstone. “Who are you?” Logan asked.

I’m Spartacus, kid, who do you think? Buck smiled. “Just someone who wants to help you. My name’s Father Buck.” He wasn’t really a father to anyone or anything; he’d never even done that cheapo ordaining deal on the Internet. The titles were company policy.

Logan’s face puffed up like an egg sac and turned a livid shade of green. The exorcist ducked in case the kid was going to spew, but all that came out were words. “He doesn’t need any help, wretched human,” the kid croaked, in a voice rather reminiscent of intestinal gas. “I am in…um…complete control now.”

Buck pulled up a nearby chair and sat facing the boy. It looked like it might be a long afternoon. “And who, pray tell, might you be?”

Logan’s face deflated in an instant, and he was again a normal, contemptuous pre-teen. “You already know my name is Logan. Are you retarded or something?”

Buck sighed inwardly. The beer and nachos seemed to be having a neighborly dispute in his digestive system. “I know you’re Logan. I’m talking to the other person inside of you.”

Logan just looked at him quizzically, but then the swollen green face returned. “You’ll never free the child from our crutches…I mean clutches!” The shining red eyes glanced to the left, as though consulting an invisible someone standing just behind the recliner. Then they fixed on Buck again. “Try anything you want! Dunk me in a tank of holy water! Read me boring bits of the Bible! Stick a silver crucifix up my nose and…uh…call me Sally!” Another small burp escaped the demonic maw. “Oh! And…um…your mother wears army boots?”

On top of the indigestion, Buck’s head had begun to pound. This was exactly what he needed today; this demon was only a damn trainee. He had dealt with a few of them in his time; trainees were usually a bigger pain in the ass to exorcise than fully accredited demons. Buck reckoned it had to do with the trainees’ inexperience, their desperation to succeed at their first big possession. Trying to ignore his throbbing temples, Buck said, “Junior demon third class, I want to talk to your supervisor.”

The green face registered childlike surprise, and then quickly reverted to a grimace that was apparently supposed to be terrifying. “What are you talking about, pitiful human? I’m an all-powerful…what? No, I can do it… Oh, all right!” In an instant the petulant green visage dissolved into a much less human countenance, reddish and reptilian. Yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils regarded Buck with impatience. “Yes?” its deep, gargling-drain voice said.

Buck reached into his supply box and produced the standard-issue silver crucifix, then held it at arm’s length in front of him. “I command you and your acolyte, in the name of all that is holy, to leave the body of this boy in peace, amen, et cetera.”

The supervising demon blinked. “Yeah. Well, look, can you do me a big favor and not bust my chops here? I mean, the trainee’s gotta learn this possession jazz, right? You understand.”

Buck had expected this, so he put down the cross and retrieved a vial of holy water from the box, which he proceeded to open and sprinkle liberally onto Logan’s pudgy shins. The flesh sizzled a little, but remained unblemished. The demon rolled its eyes. “Hey, didn’t the kid just tell you that none of that stuff was going to work? You been watching too many Hammer movies or something?”

Buck pulled his worn Bible from the box and began reading from it, but he’d only got through one paragraph before the demon waved its hands for silence. “Okay, put a sock in it. I’ll make you a deal,” the supervisor growled. “Let the trainee do his possession thing, pass his test, get his certification, and then I promise we’ll leave the kid alone and go possess someone else. Would that make you happy?”

Before Buck could answer he realized that Logan’s mother had breezed into the room and was standing so close behind him that he could feel her breath riffling his hair. “Yes, Mr. Demon! Please leave Logan alone. In fact, why don’t you go possess that Taylor slut down the street? She’d probably enjoy it.”

Buck closed his eyes. The headache was starting to make him see stars. “Ma’am, if you’ll please let me handle this…”

The woman cast a furious glance down at Buck. “The demon offered a deal, and if you’re too pigheaded to take it, then I will.”

Buck was trying to explain to the woman that demons were actually not renowned for their honesty and their stringent keeping of promises, but she had already marched past him and planted herself directly in front of the demon, hands on hips, ass muscles clenched. “I agree to your compromise,” Logan’s mother intoned grandly.

“Well, hallelujah,” said the supervisor, and in a flash Logan’s face lost its lizardly appearance and reverted back to being puffy and green. “Hail Satan!” the trainee demon shouted exuberantly, then opened its froggy mouth wide and released a massive column of fire straight at Logan’s mother.

Buck instinctively shielded his eyes, but he could still feel the searing heat of the infernal flames as they consumed the woman utterly. She hadn’t even had time to scream.

When at last the heat had dissipated, leaving only a thick greasy stench like overdone pork, Buck reluctantly took his hands from his face and stared at the human-shaped tower of ash that teetered before him. When he exhaled, the tower collapsed into a cascade of papery black flakes that came to rest in a neat pile on the ecru carpet.

“Oops,” said the trainee demon.

The lizard face was back again, yellow eyes seeming to blaze like exploding suns. “Oops? Oops? Is that all you have to say for yourself? All you had to do was levitate the chair with the kid in it, maybe do a bit of freaky writing across his pasty midsection, but no! You had to go torch an innocent woman who’ll be going to heaven now, her soul lost to us forever! Junior demon third class, you fail!

The green face returned blubbering. “But sir, it was just an accident…let me try again…”

“Try again? You’ll be lucky if I let you scrape old hoof shavings off the bottom of the Styx. Now come on!” Logan’s face went through one more horrible transformation, from reddish rage-filled lizard to sobbing greenish egg sac, and then he was just a regular boy again, his cheeks pink from exertion. His stomach rumbled and he looked down at it.

Buck was still sitting in his chair, unable to process what had just happened. A strange wind, perhaps caused by the departure of the demons, stirred the pile of ashes and scattered them in a pattern that looked sort of like an angel, if you squinted hard. Buck stuck his toe into the pile. Well, there goes my commission, he thought glumly.

Logan, who had been watching Buck’s actions with an elaborate lack of interest, took one last look at the blackened cinders that had once been his mother. Then he turned his chair toward the television, stuffed the rest of the Ho-Ho into his mouth, and picked up his video game controller.

Another excerpt from “Red Menace”

Hey kids, it’s me again, reminding you that my book Red Menace is available for your reading pleasure, both in ebook and print formats from Amazon, and ebook format directly from Damnation Books. Read the excerpt below! Buy the book! Read it, love it, write a review. Thank you, my lovelies.

RedMenaceCoverBlog

Paige’s eyes snapped open in the darkness. She didn’t know what time it was, only that there was no faint sign of dawn yet showing through the windows—and that Daniel was sleeping deeply beside her, his body heavily still.

Just before she had awakened, she was having a horrible dream where she was sitting in the balcony of a dimmed concert hall, looking expectantly at the stage below, which was bathed in the glow from the red footlights. An orchestra was arrayed on the stage, though Paige couldn’t see any of their faces because they all wore red hoods. The effect of the crimson light on the similarly colored hoods was unsettling, making the movement of the fabric seem turgid, liquid, like slowly draining blood.

At last, the orchestra raised their instruments as one body. The music stilled Paige’s heart for several beats. It was an infernal music, and in the dream, Paige thought of a story she had once read about a violinist who had sold his soul to the devil to be able to play like a virtuoso, only to send everyone who heard him spiraling into madness. Surely this orchestra was just as miraculous in their command of tone and timbre, in their deft manipulation of the snaking harmonies, but the miracle, if it was one, was of a satanic nature, just like in the violinist story, welling up from the darkest recesses of the soul. Paige wanted to scream but could not, wanted to cover her ears but could not move her arms. She was rendered motionless by the music, a stone carving from which a trapped consciousness peered out helplessly.

At the crescendo of the piece, just when Paige felt that she could not listen anymore, all the musicians upon the stage turned toward her in unison, the movement causing their hoods to fall back with soft and somehow obscene whispers that could still be clearly heard, though the din of the music carried on uninterrupted. Their faces were all white, grinning skulls, the black of their multitudinous eye sockets made even blacker by the wavering scarlet light, their expressions seeming to mock her.

She suddenly did scream then, feeling the stretch of her lips, the vibration of the sound in her dream-throat just as she would in waking life, though nothing emerged but silence. She just had time to glance down at the audience and see that they had all turned toward her too, accusing her with their skeleton eyes, and then she woke, her breath catching in her throat, making her cough. Daniel stirred a little but then turned onto his side and resumed snoring. Paige’s eyes struggled to identify familiar shapes in the darkness, a curtain rod or light fixture she could focus on so that she wasn’t seeing the endless parade of red-tinted skull faces peering at her with their empty yet somehow malevolent gazes.

As her heart rate calmed, she reflected on the sound that had surely wakened her. Even in the bare, few seconds after launching out of sleep, she heard a telltale echo throughout the house, the remnants of a solid sound that had not issued from her mind, however rattled. The sound could not have been very loud, or it would have woken Daniel also. Paige lay very still, feeling sweat pooling in the hollow of her stomach, straining her ears for the slightest noise.

An interminable stretch of time passed, and Paige began to think the sound had been a product of her fervid imagination after all. She closed her eyes, reluctantly settling back into sleep mode, but then she heard it—a tiny, slight wheeze, like the breath of a mouse behind the walls. Paige wondered what it could be, and as she frowned out at the surrounding darkness, the other sound came—the devilish music of the skeleton orchestra. She leaped out of bed and was halfway to the door of the bedroom before her brain even registered the movement of her body. Daniel was awake now too, his voice thick with sleep, calling her name, but Paige was already out the door and climbing the stairs to the attic room, two at a time. Some part of her must have instinctively known that the horrible sound was coming from the clock in the black room, but it was only now, as she reached the landing, that she became consciously aware of it. Just as she did, the chime came again—a deafening and doom-laden gong seemingly accompanied by the combined screams of all the tormented souls in hell.

The thought of that coffin-tall clock singing its malevolent song to the gleeful audience of that one red-windowed eye in the otherwise abandoned black room filled Paige with a horror that compelled her quickly down the hall and through the door of Helena’s attic aerie, not caring if the old woman thought she’d gone right off her rocker. She just wanted that fucking clock to stop.

Paige tore into the attic room, intending to march straight into the Red Death suite and smash the clock’s smug face with her bare hands; however, she stopped dead in her tracks at the strange sight of Helena, sitting upright and cross-legged on her narrow bed in a small circle of lamp light, her eyes closed, her ogre face bearing the serene expression of a stone Buddha. She was dimly aware of Daniel’s presence behind her, and she felt his breath upon her neck. As she stared at Helena, the echoes of the horrible chimes danced all around them, like whispering little caper-demons scurrying for the corners and concealing their evil laughter behind tiny, clawed red hands. Then, the chime came once again, full and resonant, seeming to shake the house to its foundations. Paige clapped her hands over her ears the way she had been unable to do in her dream, even though this had the awful effect of making the sound closer, more intimate, as if it was coming from inside her own head.

When the last of the chimes had finally died away, Paige cautiously drew her hands away from her ears, listening to the silence that now seemed like the world’s sweetest music. After a moment, she realized her cheeks were wet; the tears had spilled without her knowledge. She stared at Helena’s blissful figure, feeling exhausted, empty, and suddenly afraid.

The old woman’s eyes opened, and the fishy, white one twirled in its socket while the normal eye fixed on Paige, a shimmering jade-green jewel in the lamp light. Helena smiled her sunken smile. “I was afraid it wouldn’t work anymore,” she said.