Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Lisa Morton: The Death of Splatter

Lisa Morton



‘Stumpfuckers?’

Lee Denny looks up from his laptop and has to stop himself from gaping: the woman who has stopped by his coffee shop table and is commenting on his book title isn’t really beautiful, but with her dark crimson hair, lean curves and hint-of-husk voice she’s certainly striking. She glances from the paperback book beside the laptop and empty coffee cup, up to Lee’s face. Lee manages a smile.

‘It’s a horror novel.’

She picks it up, scanning the cover art which shows a pen-and-ink drawing of a leering hunchback in overalls, and Lee’s name in a jagged font.

‘You’re reading this?’

‘I wrote it.’

She cocks her head and arches one eyebrow, then reads his name out loud.

‘That’s me.’

Her next question surprises him. ‘I’d like to read it.’

He’s embarrassed to realise that he has simultaneously become hard (thankfully under the table) and has flushed, heat enveloping his face, making him stumble on his words. ‘It’s . . . uh . . . pretty rough stuff.’

She glances at the book one last time, then sets it down. ‘Sounds good. I’ll pick one up.’

He tears off a piece of slightly wadded paper napkin, pulls a pen from his laptop case and scribbles down a URL for her. ‘You won’t find it at your average chain bookstore, but you can buy it online direct from the publisher.’



She takes the bit of napkin and starts to turn to leave. ‘Are you here a lot? At this coffee shop?’

‘Almost every day,’ he acknowledges.

‘Good. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve read it.’

With that she turns and strides off. He watches her go, liking the way her boots clink authoritatively on the asphalt and cause each hip to ride up with her steps, one side to the other. She finally turns a corner and is gone without a look back.

Just then a waitress appears and asks if she can get him anything else. He actually jumps slightly, startled, and from her smirk he’s sure the waitress has seen his erection. He tells the waitress he’s leaving now, waits a few moments until he can walk upright again, then packs up the laptop and the paperback novel after laying a few ones on the table.

He’s quite sure he won’t be doing any more writing today.

* * * *

When Jed Kunkel came down out of the Ozarks, he was twenty-four years old, seven feet tall, 400 pounds and hungry for pussy.

At first he hadn’t liked the smell of the city - it smelled like garbage and puke and death. But then he’d gone into a supermarket, and had been surrounded by female odours. Now he’d decided to stay in the city for a while.

He got a job as a bouncer at a trendy nightclub. He knew the owners and other employees and patrons all made fun of ‘the hick’, but he didn’t care, because the nightclub was one big fuck pen. Jed came up with that phrase one night while standing at the door, and was so pleased by it that he smiled for hours.

The nightclub also made trolling easy. Up in the hills, back home, it’d been getting harder and harder to get women. Since the mines had closed, most folks had moved away; the few females left in the area who weren’t heavily guarded had long since fallen prey to Jed or some other predator.

But here in the city, at the nightclub, pickings were easy. Jed started one night with a thirty-ish, very drunken woman who’d been thrown out alone at closing. She got in his truck with a giggle and burp. He hoped she wasn’t going to barf. He hated that.

He drove her to the abandoned factory. He’d found it earlier that week, in a run-down industrial area. He’d located a side entrance where he could park his truck unseen. He’d sawed through one padlock and was in; he’d set the place up with what he would need.

By the time he arrived at the factory, the woman had passed out. That was fine with him; in fact, it was better. It made it easier to carry her in, strap her down on the table, carefully cut away her clothes. . .

. . . and then saw off her left leg just above the knee. While his nose went crazy with the delicious scents.

* * * *

Lee finishes out the week in a haze of anticipation mixed with a need to produce, to produce more words, more books. He finishes Slit Thing, the sequel to Stumpfuckers (although truthfully he’d had the novel sitting on the coffee shop table by his laptop for bait as much as anything else, a ploy that had apparently worked), and begins a new one.

And all the while, the girl is never far from his mind.

He goes to the coffee shop earlier every day, and stays later (to the great irritation of the wait help, but his attitude is fuck ‘em). He glances up often, even though he’s calculated a minimum of two weeks for her to get the book, read it and report to him. Still, he thinks she might be a fast reader, and the book, after all, is not that long a read.

She’s suddenly standing at his table on day eight.

She tosses down her own copy of Stumpfuckers, this one with a broken spine (so, Lee thinks, she’s one of those readers). He waits for her to tell him that it was disgusting, that it was sick, that he’s sick.

Instead she tells him it was amusing.

‘Is that a compliment?’ he asks.

She shrugs. ‘Good in parts, but too unrealistic.’

‘Unrealistic?’

She picks up the book again and thumbs through it. ‘Like here, on page thirty-six - you have a man being stabbed through the chest by a dildo. Not possible.’

‘Are you sure?’ he asks with a slight smile, trying to sound provocative, flirting.



Her answer, without hesitation: ‘Yes.’



He feels as if he’s somehow losing an important game. He has no idea where to go now, so he falls back on a criticism that has been levelled at him by other women he’s known (usually briefly): ‘Did you think it was . . . uh . . . misogynistic?’



She’s smiling now. ‘Of course. So what?’



He’s at a loss again, when she adds, ‘I bought your other books, too. I’ve already read most of the sci-fi one . . .’



‘Wire Mistress?’



‘Right.’



A long pause, which he finally breaks. ‘Well?’



‘Stumpfuckers is better. I don’t really like science fiction. And what’s more is ... I don’t think you do, either.’



‘Well, uhhh



She glances around his table, where a half-empty coffee cup is the only sign of an order once placed. ‘Do you ever stop writing long enough to eat?’



‘I really just like the coffee here—’



She cuts him off: ‘I didn’t mean here.’



Goddamn, he thinks, this woman is actually asking me out. ‘Oh. Yes, I do that at least once a day, usually at night.’



She leans down over him, so close he can smell the musk of her shampoo. She types an address and a name onto the end of his document. ‘Meet me there at eight.’



He glances at the address, and has no idea where it is, but nods vigorously. ‘Okay. Yeah.’



She starts to turn to go, then catches herself. ‘Oh, by the way - you misspelled “Arkansas”.’ Then she smirks and exits sidewalk right.



He watches her for a while, then looks down at the name she’s typed.



Claudia.



* * * *



His head had never quite healed from the surgery to remove the prohibchip. Of course the operation had been done by a blarket doc, most of whom had probably never even heard of medical school; it had left him with a gaping scar above the right temple, and a large scabby patch where hair would probably never grow again.



Of course the woman he’d had tonight hadn’t minded - especially not after he’d slapped the neuropatch on the back of her neck. It had worked just as the doc had promised, and the girl had dumbly followed him to the abandoned tech plant he’d already chosen. Once he’d had her wired to the old steel work bench, he’d removed the neuropatch so she was again aware. It made him even harder to watch her struggle, to hear her shrieks and gasps.



After the first rape, he got hungry, so he put the neuropatch back on her. He reckoned he could have just finished killing her, but he thought he might come back for more later; after all, a man got hungry for more than just food. In fact, maybe he’d start a collection, a whole room full of his flesh toys. In the meantime, while he was gone it wouldn’t do to have anyone who happened to be wandering through this derelict part of the cityburb overhear screaming. So he patched her again, just to be safe. He went through her pockets and found her creddisk, and decided to eat at something better than his usual noodle takeout.



Tonight his wire mistress would provide for him, in so many ways.



* * * *



Lee returns to his basement, thinking about Claudia, thinking about himself. Thinking about the last date he had, two years ago, with a comic book store clerk. Her name was Vicky; they’d dated twice, then she’d been busy and had stopped taking his calls. They’d never even kissed; worst of all, he couldn’t go to that store again.



Lee thinks about the first time he’d been laid, when a college roommate had set him up with the stripper at a party. Fifty bucks had got him fifteen minutes in a hotel linen closet. The stripper had been in her forties, with skin like a worn leather bookbinding and hair like dead leaves; at the time he hadn’t minded - he’d finished the instant he slid into her - but later the thought of her made him nauseous.



Now there is Claudia, the first woman who has shown interest in him in a very long time. She doesn’t seem to mind that he’s slightly paunchy, with rumpled clothes, fraying at the cuffs; that his hair is, at twenty-eight, prematurely receding. She likes him for his work. She’s intrigued by him. That makes her sexy.



Lee begins to imagine their relationship going further, and sees potential problems: he doesn’t work, and usually has very little extra money. He lives in a friend’s basement; although his friend wouldn’t mind seeing Lee with a woman (in fact, he’d probably kneel and shout for joy), there’s the matter of Lee’s pride. He doesn’t even have a car.



But maybe Claudia won’t care about these things. Maybe she’ll be so taken by him that she’ll overlook these small shortcomings. Maybe she’ll become his muse, exciting both his body and his mind. Maybe she’ll think he’s great in bed.



He changes into his best shirt and the heavy boots he bought in a garage sale; they’re a size too big and usually give him blisters, but he likes the way they look: rugged; slightly menacing.



He takes the bus to the address she’s given him. It’s not a great section of town; in fact, it looks like an urban war zone. He feels reluctance when the bus pulls away, stranding him in front of a grocery store with signs in a language he doesn’t even recognise and rusted bars across the windows. He checks the directions he’s printed out from the online map, and sees it’s only three blocks or so...three blocks down a street where most of the streetlamps have been shot out, and the graffiti is in layers. Half a block ahead of him are two six-foot-tall teenagers with net shirts and tattoos, watching him in amusement. He tries to keep his head down as he passes them, and drops his feet heavily with each step, emphasising the sheer heft of his boots. They ignore him, but he can feel their eyes on his back and he finds himself walking faster.



At last he’s at the address, which turns out to be a hole-in-the-wall Thai cafe. It can’t have more than half a dozen tables inside, lit by bare bulbs overhead. In the back is a dusty altar, with food and drink set inside a red alcove. There’s a dead fly in one window.



Claudia’s inside, waiting for him.



He enters and takes a seat, smiling.



‘You’re late.’



He smiles a sheepish apology, and tries not to stare. Stare at her leather vest, small and formfitting, with nothing on beneath it.



A middle-aged Asian man in a stained apron mutely hands him a menu. He takes it and glances down the single page that looks as if it was done on a typewriter sometime in the 1970s. He snickers at the name ‘Prik King’. Claudia tells him it’s the best thing here, if he doesn’t mind spicy. He assures her he doesn’t, even though he knows that he’ll pay for that boast later in the night.



The meal is uneventful, with very little Smalltalk exchanged. The food is adequate; Lee’s not that familiar with Thai, and thinks it’s all too spicy. He’s pleased that she offers to pay for herself, since it saves either his wallet or his pathetic explanations. Afterwards, they exit into the asphalt desolation. Lee asks her how she found this place, and she tells him she used to come to this neighbourhood to buy crystal.



‘For a friend,’ she adds.



They reach her car, an older-model sedan, free of bumper stickers or other unnecessary decorations. She tells him she has to get up early in the morning, so she’ll say good night here. He’s disappointed, until she hands him a piece of paper with her phone number written on it.



‘Call me,’ she says, ‘and next time I promise it won’t be so early.’



He briefly considers asking her for a ride, then decides to maintain that illusion for a while longer. He tells her he’ll call. He means it, too.



She pulls out, leaving him to find his own way back to the bus stop, his feelings a clash of optimism and anxiety. She expected more, he’s sure of it. He should have offered to buy her dinner. He should have tried to get her to talk more. About herself. About his work. He should have tried to kiss her goodnight.



But he hoped she just thought he was mysterious, maybe wary of his own passions. After all, he was the author who Darkrealm magazine had once called ‘the splatterest and punkest of the splatterpunks’. He’d have to make sure she saw that quote.



Suddenly the neighbourhood didn’t scare him any more.



* * * *



Geek loved the buzz he got off the hunt. In many ways, he preferred the hunt to the actual kill. The final spurt was good, oh yeah, but it didn’t last as long as this. He didn’t think anything in the world could feel as good as watching the girl from across a street, following her, knowing that she was already his.



In fact, he felt like God.



* * * *



He calls her the next day, in the early evening. He asks what’d be a good night for her, and is pleased when she says tonight - but this time he has to choose what they’ll do, and it needs to be good.



He has an idea as soon as he hangs up. His friend is home now, upstairs, and Lee asks to borrow his car. His friend smiles and hands him the keys when Lee tells him he has a date.



He logs onto the web and heads for the local newspaper site, where he soon finds the article he wants. He makes a few notes, straightens up and heads for her place.



She lives in a small duplex in an ordinary, slightly lower-middle-class area. Not nearly as bad as where they ate last night, a fact he’s thankful for, especially since the car is not his.



She’s waiting outside and as she climbs in she asks where they’re going.



‘No, no, that’d spoil it.’



She smiles, apparently satisfied with this answer.



He drives to a large shopping mall across town. It’s late for the stores by now, so die parking lot is largely empty.



‘A mall?’ she asks dubiously.



‘Not the mall. We’ll start in die parking lot, though.’



He drives to the edge of the lot. A few feet away is a small road encircling the mall; beyond that is undeveloped woodland, dark and thick. He parks, grabs a flashlight and gets out; Claudia follows.



He allows a dramatic pause.



‘So?’ she says.



‘Remember that story from about three weeks back? The girl’s body they found in those woods?’



Claudia nods.



Lee goes on: ‘They found her car right about here. They figure she was forced into the woods, where her assailant raped and then killed her. He really tore her up.’



Claudia looks around. ‘How do you know this is where the car was?’



‘I have a friend on the force.’



Of course he doesn’t; but he figures she’ll buy into it. Most people seem to think every writer these days has ‘a friend on the force’.



He shines the flashlight towards the woods. ‘Want to see where it happened?’



‘What do you think?’ she says, grinning.



He leads them across the small frontage road and finds what looks like a small, seldom-used trail in the brush. They follow it silently until it opens into a small clearing, surrounded by two fallen and half-rotted logs. It’s fall, and the ground is thick with mulchy leaves, damp and springy underfoot. He circles the light around the open space.



‘This is where it happened. Where he brought her, raped her and killed her. Right here.’



Claudia follows the light beam forward, examining the area intently, as though hoping to find a missed clue, a drop of blood. When she turns to him, her eyes glitter, caught in the ray of light.



‘Did you do it?’



Lee’s jaw drops for a second. It didn’t occur to him that she might get that idea. ‘So, what, you think that just because of what I write . . .?’



‘Why else would you bring me here?’



‘Ahh,’ he stumbles for a beat, then, ‘I guess we’re thinking alike, because I thought if you liked my books you might like something like this.’



It works; she laughs and nods.



‘Okay, so you didn’t do it.’ She almost sounds disappointed, then looks at the brush again. ‘So how do you think it happened?’



He considers for a moment, then steps backwards, the way they’ve just come. He mimics pushing someone before him. ‘They figure he had a gun or knife. He made her walk ahead of him, until they came about here. Then he—’



‘No,’ she cuts him off. ‘No more tell - it’s time for show. I mean, you don’t have to actually kill me.’



Lee utters one nervous bark before he catches himself. ‘You want me to . . . ah . . . hurt you.’



‘C’mon, that doesn’t sound like the Lee Denny who wrote Slit Thing.’



‘Oh, you’ve read that one too?’



‘I’ve read all of them.’



Lee begins to think she’s lying. She could be trying to trap him. Hell, she could even be with the police. Christ, he thinks to himself, am I suspect?



She picks up a long, mouldering branch, so rotted it can barely support its own weight. ‘Do you think she struggled? I do.’



She suddenly swings the branch.



Lee reacts by reflex, turning, drawing back, and the branch impacts on his left shoulder. It disintegrates instantly into a pulpy mess, but the pain is still enough to make both his fear and anger flare.



‘Maybe she left her mark on him—’



She raises her hand, with its long plum-coloured and filed nails. The hand comes down, and this time Lee does more than flinch - he catches the hand, stopping her, pushing her back roughly. She stumbles on the mulch underfoot, but doesn’t fall.



‘What would have happened if she’d screamed, do you think?’



She inhales deeply, opens her mouth - and Lee panics. He scrabbles at her, clumsily, and they both go down, tangled in the thorns and mulch. Lee is as dazed as she is; it takes him a moment to realise that he’s on top of her, and that she’s laughing at him.



‘Gee, Lee,’ she begins sarcastically, ‘do you think the real rapist was a stumbling idiot too?’



‘Fuck—’ Lee tries to push away from her.



‘You can’t leave now, Lee. I haven’t even screamed yet.’



This time he clamps his hand over her mouth first. She twists her head and bites him, leaving three red crescents in his fingers. He cries out in pain and shock, then reacts without thinking, striking out. The slap leaves her breathless and dazed.



When she can talk again, she looks at him and tells him, ‘I’m still not afraid of you yet.’



Lee understands the game now, and he begins to claw at her. He tears the buttons on her blouse, and nearly apologises.



She stays silent, but goads him on in other ways. Once she bites his ear, hard and painful; once her hand comes up and tears at his hair.



The sex is awkward but quick. When it’s over, Claudia picks herself up and silently walks back to his borrowed car. He drives her home; she goes back into her duplex without ever looking at him. ,



When Lee gets home, he’s surprised to see he’s got her blood on his shirt. Not a great deal of blood, just a splotch the size of a quarter -but her blood, nonetheless. From when he hit her. When he raped her.



Lee struggles to think the situation through, to understand if this was entrapment or manipulation. But those questions bother him less than the dull, sick sense of disgust which has engulfed him. Disgust so strong it’s a physical sensation knotting in his stomach, disgust at both her and himself.



Anxiety, dread, disgust, whenever he thinks about it. And it’s all he can think about.



* * * *



The slit thing had been fun to kill.



Jed had knocked it half out with one punch, then taken it into the woods, down by the river. There he’d torn its clothes off, feeling his long cock harden with each rip. The slit thing had regained consciousness while he was thrusting into it. The look on its face had been priceless; Jed had laughed when he’d seen it. Then he’d had to knock out three teeth when it screamed.



He thought he’d probably near killed it by blowing his wad, but just to be sure, after he’d finished he’d smashed its brains out with a big river rock. Then he’d gone home to a big meal of home-cooked ham and eggs. He’d eaten an entire carton of eggs, washed down with a six-pack of long-necks.



He lay back on his single coy, and stared at the wood ceiling, feeling warm and sated and pleased with himself. Yessiree, he thought, the world seems mighty fine tonight.



* * * *



Lee doesn’t leave the basement for the next two days. He doesn’t write, he doesn’t drink or listen to music; the television’s on, but he doesn’t watch it. The sound is turned down so low that it becomes a light babble, a string of noise to keep the silence from completely deafening him.



Instead, he tries to decide what to do. At first he thinks about calling her, but as one day passes, and he’s two days past that night, and there are no police at his door, he realises she’s not out to see him land in jail. Plus he’s terrified to call her. What if she tells him she’s been badly hurt, maybe even wants him to pay for her medical bills? What if she tells him she has AIDS? Worst of all, what if she tells him she’s had better?



At some point he realises it’s now Saturday morning and he’s scheduled for a signing at a local science fiction bookstore today. In a few hours he’s supposed to smile and chat up fans and sign copies of Wire Mistress and play the part of hip envelope-pusher. Instead, he’s so unnerved at the idea that she might show that he almost calls and cancels.



A half-hour before the scheduled time he decides to go; maybe it’ll be good for him to get out, to see other people, to see readers who will remind him of his passion and vocation.



He shaves, drags a comb through his hair (and winces when he passes over a small spot where a few strands have been yanked out), throws on a leather jacket and walks out the door. He’s fifteen minutes late to the store, but they expect that from authors, especially the ones with reputations to maintain.



He scans the line of thirty or so, queasy with anticipation, but she’s not there. Relieved, he takes his place at the folding table behind stacks of his books and gets out his favourite signing pen, the one with a little skull face sculpted onto the top.



The third or fourth in line passes Lee a rolled copy of Stumpfuckers and asks the dreaded question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’



For the first time, Lee almost tells the truth: that he’s really not very good at characters or plots, but as long as he pushes the gore and perversion nobody will notice. Instead, he falls back on the rote answer he uses for interviews, about how he’s just reflecting mankind’s every-increasing capacity for horror. The fan looks impressed and clutches his signed paperback as if it were a holy relic.



Normally Lee loves signings; in fact, the sense of appreciation, even of adulation, is probably the reason he writes. He knows these people think of him as an iconoclast, an artist, a pathfinder through the fields of feel-good meta-fiction.



But today he notices, for the first time, things about them that annoy him. For one thing they’re all young, much younger than him, several even sporting unresolved acne conditions. For another thing, they’re all dressed like him, a uniform of black leather and denim. But worst is the way their eyes gleam when they talk about his books. Their voices drop, becoming slightly huskier; some of them sweat or shake. They’d probably like to think the look is feral, but now it just looks somehow needy, like a penniless junkie.



At some point he knows he hates them.



Lee signs the books dutifully, but leaves the instant the allotted time is complete. He knows the store personnel will think him rude, or snobbish, but he doesn’t care. He has to escape from these fans, these outsized children who devour impossible paperbound bloodshed in order to call themselves rebels.



He has to escape - but has nowhere to go.



* * * *



Our interview with Lee Denny was scheduled to last for just one hour during the recent Splatter2001 convention, but actually took three hours because the ever-generous Mr Denny continued to sign books for fans during our poolside chat. Denny has only been writing professionally for four years, but during that time has produced an amazing six novels and a dozen short stories. Fans have bags of books, and invariably mention their favourite Lee Denny-penned scene of death or mutilation (I hear the murder-by-corkscrew scene from Blood Kin mentioned several times). Lee’s relationship with his fans seems a natural place, then, to begin our conversation.



Q: You seem to have a real connection with your readers.



A: I’m giving them something they don’t get anywhere else: release for their rage. Rage is something our society creates, but refuses to acknowledge; if we experience it, we think we must be freaks, there’s something wrong with us. Twenty years ago punk music provided an outlet; now it’s extremist fiction.



Q: Then do you think of yourself as a horror writer? Or as a writer of ‘extremist’ fiction?



A: I don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. I write what I feel. I’m lucky that a lot of other people feel the same way; I’m also lucky that they can’t write!



Q: Aren’t there a lot of imitations of your style appearing online now?



A: So I’ve heard, but I haven’t read any of it.



Q: You haven’t? Don’t you read other horror books?



A: I’m usually too busy writing!



Q: Okay, let’s try a tough one: How would you react if one of your books was found in the possessions of a mass murderer?



A: Oh puh-LEASE! We’re not going to get into this old question again, are we? Okay, if we are, I’ll just say this: if somebody did something really good after reading one of my books, I wouldn’t get any credit, so why should I get blame if somebody does something bad? It’s ridiculous.



Q: So you wouldn’t be just a little flattered?



A: Hey, if it sells a few more books . . . seriously, if I said I was flattered, then that would mean I’m agreeing that my books somehow inspired this nut to kill.



Q: Would you ever consider killing someone in real life?



A: Well, there was this one editor. . . (evil laughter, then) I have considered it - but haven’t we all?



* * * *



He calls her the next day.



He’s surprised when she answers on the second ring, even more so when she tells him she wondered what happened to him.



If she wondered, he asks, then why didn’t she call him?



‘Because,’ she replies, ‘I didn’t have your number.’



The wave of simultaneous relief and disbelief and frustration that passes through Lee ends with him dropping to his couch, his knees to weak to support his weight any longer. ‘So you’re . . . you know, okay?’



‘Christ, Denny, if you’d been any gentler I would’ve been dressed in diapers. You know, you’re not very much like your books.’



He pushes his fingers into his lank hair, pulling. ‘They’re fiction, Claudia.’



‘Oh, now they’re just fiction? What happened to the guy who told an interviewer he’d considered killing someone?’



‘You’ve read that too.’



‘Yes.’



‘I don’t understand. Why would you want me to be like Jed, or the Creek, or—’



She cuts him off. ‘I don’t want you to be like them, Lee. For one thing, you’re too smart, and you’re not big enough. And I don’t think you’re from some backwoods place like the Ozarks.’



‘I was born in Chicago.’



‘Right. I figured.’



A long pause, followed by his question: ‘So what is it you want from me?’



‘Maybe I’m just trying to figure you out.’



Fair enough, thinks Lee. I’m not exactly Joe Normal.



‘Let’s go out again.’



Some part of Lee’s mind screams No!, she can’t be trusted, she’ll get too close, she’s maybe even dangerous. But the thought also excites the reptile brain, and before he can stop it he hears himself answering, ‘Fine.’



She tells him she’s busy for the next two nights, but Thursday should work. This time she’ll pick him up, about 8 pm. He tells her to pick him up in front the coffee shop, and she laughs at his caution, but agrees.



He hangs up, nervous but excited. He thinks about the conversation, and reassures himself about the upcoming date: This time I’ll control it.



Then he puts up his feet and jerks off.



* * * *



Marty’s collection is growing - he’s got eight of them now, all neatly laid out and trussed up in the second-storey bedrooms. ‘Course two of ’em are about done for, so he figures he’s really closer to six, but that’s not so bad, either.



He thinks about fucking one of ‘em, but he’s nearly dried up, he’s already done so much of that. He wanders into the kitchen, thinking maybe he’ll fix himself something to eat when he opens the utility drawer and his eyes happen to fall on Pappy’s corkscrew, that big ol’ spiral thing he used to open his cheap bottles of red wine with.



Marty gets an idea, and he’s so excited about it that he forgets all about food. He takes the corkscrew and rushes up the stairs. He’s heard about lobotomies, how they calm down the loudest patients in the state loony-bins, and he’s getting mighty tired of having to constantly re-tie that one in the back bedroom, the one with the short brown hair and the small ass.



Sure enough, when he comes into the room she’s rolling around, trying to get the ropes loose again. He lays the corkscrew down where she can’t see it, then he ties her tighter, enjoying her little whimpers. Then he gets a board and a roll of duct tape; as her terrified eyes roll in her head, he slides the board under her head and duct-tapes her head to it, giving her almost no leeway. Then he holds up the corkscrew triumphantly, and feels positively God-like at the look of stark, over-the-edge-of-sanity horror on her pretty face. He doesn’t really know anything about lobotomies, so he just puts the point between her eyes and starts turning.



At first it’s hard to get the point in (he remembers Pappy always struggled a little with this part too), then the corkscrew bites down (into the skull, he figures), and the turning becomes easier. Soon she stops struggling. He’s surprised at how little blood there is - until he removes the corkscrew. Then it gushes forth, a bubbling spring of red.



And the girl is dead.



He’s disappointed, mainly because of the work of burying her now . . . but then he remembers he’s still got seven more.



And a world of billions outside the house.



* * * *



When she picks him up, she compliments him for being on time.



‘So,’ he asks as they speed away from the coffee shop in her car, ‘dinner and a movie this time?’



‘Oh, I’ve got something much better in mind. Just wait.’



She turns up the radio, blaring a thrash metal song by a band he doesn’t know, and he wonders for the first time how much younger she is. When the song ends, they’re entering the downtown area, a bewildering array of one-way streets and towers that block the sky.



‘So what is the plan for tonight?’



‘It’s a surprise.’



He nods, and feels that gnawing uneasiness inside again. He realises he has no chance of controlling this situation - or, probably, of controlling any situation with her. In fact, the truth is: he fears her.



They emerge on the other side of downtown into a desolate industrial district. Even the streetpeople don’t cluster here, in these blocks of rusting corrugated metal buildings with broken windows and cracked-pavement yards.



His stomach twists, the unconscious association taking another instant to materialise in his mind: oh Christ. This place looks like something out of my books.



‘Claudia, where are we going?’



‘I told you, it’s a surprise. Something I’ve been working on the last few days.’



She pulls the car up before a chain-link fence and leaves the engine running while she runs out to take the broken padlock from the chain holding the gate. She swings the gate wide, then returns to the car. She drives down a short way, past one outbuilding to a large, battered warehouse.



There’s light coming from one of the dust-laden windows.



He almost decides to tell her he’s not leaving the car, or that he’s walking out of here. He truthfully is not sure how far it is to a bus stop, or a phone, but at this point a hundred miles through this constructed desert seems preferable to what he’s beginning to fear is in that building.



Then she’s opening his door, excitedly urging him out of the car.



‘Claudia



‘Come on, Lee. I’ve worked really hard to make this special for you.’



She seems sincere, he thinks. Maybe I’m wrong.



So he allows her to pull him from the car, to take his hand and lead him to an ancient metal door, creaking slightly on rusty hinges. She uses a flashlight to find their way, first through a long-abandoned office, filled with splintered desks and the remains of a 1973 calendar still fluttering on a wall, then through some sort of medical station, with large signs pointing out the location of the eye wash, which looks like a metal drinking fountain with the spout pointed straight up. There’s a strong chemical stench pervading the place, even after nearly thirty years of disuse. Lee starts to wonder why it hasn’t been torn down, and then realises there’s simply no reason to build anything better here.



Then they walk through a last doorway and out onto the main floor of this place, and Claudia turns off the flashlight because there are two propane lanterns spilling light onto a work bench a few feet away.



A work bench where a woman is tied down.



At first he thinks she’s dead; she’s not moving, and she’s so silent that Lee can hear the tiny hiss of the lantern flames. Then, as if reading his thoughts, Claudia dances forward and steps behind the bench.



‘She’s not dead, Lee, if that’s what you’re thinking.’



Lee’s feet won’t carry him closer. ‘What is this, Claudia?’ he asks, knowing how stupid he sounds.



‘You know what it is.’ She picks something up from a table behind her, and Lee sees it’s covered with small objects: tools, saws, knives. And books.



It’s a book she’s picked up. She flips it open to a page she obviously knows well.



The book is Stumpfuckers.



She begins reading: ‘“By the time he arrived at the factory, the woman had passed out. That was fine with him; in fact, it was better. It made it easier to carry her in, strap her down on the table, carefully cut away her clothes—”‘



Lee cuts her off. ‘You don’t have to read any more.’



Claudia sets down the book and holds up instead a small knife. ‘You can use this. I’ve got scissors, too, just in case.’



‘And then I’m supposed to saw off her leg, I suppose.’



Claudia waves the knife and smiles. ‘Not with this, of course.’



Lee finds his legs now, and he walks forward to look from the table to the unconscious woman. ‘How did you get her here?’



‘Oh c’mon, don’t you remember, in Slit Thing he uses that tranquilliser on the woman? Your research was good - it worked just like you said it would.’



Lee thinks he might vomit, but he works to hold it back. He thinks absurdly of another line he wrote in Slit Thing, a line one victim repeats over and over: This can’t be happening.



He looks at the proposed victim. She’s young, probably about Claudia’s age, dressed simply in a blouse and skirt she might have worn to work that day, before she stopped by the bar on her way home, before she let the friendly woman with crimson hair buy her a drink . . .



‘Okay, Claudia. This was fun. Now cut her loose and let’s go.’



Claudia barks a short, disdainful laugh. ‘Cut her loose? I can’t cut her loose, Lee. She’s seen me.’



Oh God.



‘This is not going to happen.’



Claudia looks at him for a moment, then, frustrated, says, ‘I don’t get you. You write this stuff all the time, but when somebody gives you a chance to experience for real, you shy away. This could take your writing to the next level.’



‘I write fiction, Claudia. I don’t need to live it to write about.’



‘In other words, what you write is all fake. Isn’t it, Lee? It’s all completely phony, isn’t that what you’re telling me?’



Before he can answer, the woman on the table moans and rolls her head slightly.



Lee’s horror escalates to panic, ‘If we cut her loose and drop her off where you found her, she might not even remember you—’



The woman opens her eyes.



‘Too late, Lee - she’s seen you too, now.’



The woman struggles to focus - and then she begins to scream.



In all the screams he’s described in all of his novels, Lee Denny has never imagined anything like this. The scream is impossibly loud, ragged on the edges, as if torn from some part of this woman. Lee wants more than anything to make that sound stop. He bends over the woman, ridiculous in his attempt to calm her. ‘It’s okay, you’ll get out of this—’



He pulls at her wrists and discovers Claudia has bound her with duct tape, yards of the stuff. He looks around and sees the knives on the table behind him. He reaches for one, but the woman screams even louder when he turns back to her. ‘No, it’s okay, I’m just going to cut you loose—’



And then Claudia is behind the woman, with the small knife held to the woman’s jugular. She stops screaming, afraid to move even the smallest part of her throat.



‘You see? I know more about how all this stuff works than you do, Lee. You don’t really understand people. In fact, I think I could be a much better writer than you. You’re not willing to take that final step, are you?’



Lee backs away, his hands shaking so that the knife he held drops to the ground, the small clink sounding like a cannon roar in the echoing stillness of the cavernous space.



‘Oh Jesus, Lee, are you really crying?’



He is. He didn’t even know until she told him.



‘What a loser. No wonder your books suck.’



She bends over the woman with a fresh determination. And Lee runs.



He runs, regardless of door frames he bashes into, of jagged metal that reaches out to tear his clothing, trying to shut out the screams behind him.



He makes it out of the warehouse and down the driveway, out of the fence and down the dark street. He runs, hoping he’s heading-towards something like a phone or a taxi or even another sign of human habitation. He runs until his out-of-shape body betrays him and he has to double over, gasping for breath. Then he does vomit. When it’s done, he falls back for a moment, depleted.



He begins to think now: should he call the police?



And what they’ll find: a madwoman, a bloodied victim - and everywhere, his books. His fingerprints on a knife. Her testimony that it was his idea, that he was a partner until he chickened out.



He forces himself to move again. After another block he comes to the end of the industrial section and sees what he needs: a bar. The Tender Trap.



He heads for the bar and goes in. It’s a dive, regulars with missing teeth and callused hands lined up on the dozen stools, a few more clustered around the tables and the fifteen-year-old pinball game. Lee makes sure his order is memorable - two shots of their best tequila. He spills one on the foul-smelling senior next to him and barely evades a fist light. He asks what time it is.



After an hour in the bar - all he can stand, and then some - he leaves. On the way out he trips and knocks over a chair, drawing more curses and hoots.



He’s sure they’ll remember him now. He’s got an alibi.



He finds a phone outside and calls his friend. Luckily he’s home, and Lee tells him roughly where he thinks he is. His friend manages to find it after forty minutes; Lee tells him only that he got stood up by a date. His friend laughs and sympathises.



Lee doesn’t sleep that night; instead, he finds an internet radio channel that monitors police broadcasts. He listens until 2 pm the next day, but there’s no mention of a murder in the industrial district. He realises it could be a very long time before the body is found.



Maybe he’ll sleep in the meantime . . . but he doubts it.



* * * *



Lenny was haunted by the ghosts of his own regrets.



At twenty-nine, he thought he was too young to feel this old. The burden he carried felt like a thousand years of life, not the quarter-decade he’d been conscious. It didn’t show to the outside world — they saw only a sandy-haired, slightly introverted young man, who spent most of his days painting - but inside Lenny could feel his own spine cracking from the weight. He couldn’t imagine going on another fifty or sixty years. He tried to understand how he had come to this, and his mind always came back to one thing:

It had started with her.

* * * *

Lee’s first novel of ‘non-extreme fiction’ isn’t going well.

He started it just yesterday, something to take his mind off that night, now two weeks ago, but his heart’s really not in it.

He’s read the newspaper every day since, but he’s never seen a report on a murder in that area. He guesses it could be weeks, even months before the body is found.

After another frustrating bout with the new book, he decides to check his e-mail. There’s an unusually large message from his publisher. Sometimes the publisher passes fan letters on to him; sometimes fans even send him photos or artwork. This e-mail has a file attachment, a graphic; the publisher’s brief note says only that this was sent to him, with a note asking that it please be forwarded to Lee Denny. The file attachment reads ‘sceneofthecrime.jpg’.

Lee opens the photo.

It shows Claudia, in the warehouse, laughing in the bluewhite glare of a camera flash. And sitting beside her, an arm around her, laughing, is the ‘victim’.

Lee stares at the photo on his screen for a moment, then promptly closes and erases the file. He drops a note back to his publisher, asking him to please not forward any more mail to him. Then he takes the last two weeks of the newspaper into the bathroom, places them carefully in the tub and sets fire to them. Inspired by the last few glowing embers, he repeats the action with every copy he owns of every one of his books. He deletes the files from his computer, including the new novel.

Then he grabs a bottle of beer, turns on the television, settles back into the couch and tries desperately not to think about the next fifty or sixty years.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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