Saturday, August 18, 2012
The book opens deep beneath the streets of New York City, where, unbeknownst to the city's residents, Top Secret Government experiments are being carried out on the city's homeless population. The subjects are being injected with microscopic nanobots that are supposed to accelerate the body's natural healing processes. While the experiments are successful in that the body suddenly has the power to not only heal itself of minor wounds, but to regenerate lost limbs. Medical miracle? Decidedly so, if it wasn't for the side effects. It seems that in order to carry out the functions for which they were designed, the nanobots consume an awful lot of the body's energy, which creates in the subject an insatiable need to feed, and if that need is not sated, the nanobots will start to consume the host in order to obtain that energy. Even if the host dies, the nanobots continue to animate the dead tissue, driving it to devour living organisms in order to obtain the energy it needs. Under the experimental conditions, before things can progress to this point, the "infected" is subjected to a 50,000 volt taser blast, which effectively kills off the nanobots.
It would seem that they have everything under control—until one of their infected subjects manages to escape. Driven by this insatiable hunger, he attacks and bites the first person he sees, a young woman by the name of Jess. The fear of being returned to the underground lab outweighs the need to feed, and out man is on the run, leaving in his path one bitten body after another. It is only then, when Jess takes ill, dies, and comes back, that we learn that these nanobots are living organisms with the ability to reproduce, and they can be transferred from host to host. With the hopes of containing the outbreak, Jess and her husband are "kidnapped" and taken below ground. It's too late for her, but they are able to save Jack. But saving Jack was not done out of the goodness of their hearts, an attempt to atone for their sins. Something more sinister is at work here. Will Jack fall victim to the government scientists, or will he be able to, with the help of his new-found allies, escape the underground labs into a city gone to hell, a city where the dead outnumber the living?
When I first started Machines of the Dead, I thought I was going to be in for some trouble. I tend to be a purist where my monsters are concerned—werewolves are half-man/half-animal killing machines, NOT men who turn into oversized wolves; vampires are undead creatures of the night that prey on humans to survive, not romanticized objects of affection that want to date us, NOT eat us; and zombie are reanimated corpses with a hunger for brains and human flesh—so to attempt to blend horror with Science Fiction (a genre I avoid due to the tendency to get overly technical), I admit to having some reservations. The origin of the zombie in horror fiction has always been ambiguous—radiation caused by an asteroid passing too close to the earth; God's punishment on the sinners; medical experiments gone awry; Haitian servants run amuck; alien possession. There has never been a definitive cause for the zombie outbreak; theories, yes, but never, in my limited exposure to zombie fiction, has there been one true cause of the outbreak. Usually it's the "Why is this happening?", with no one around to supply the answer. So when the cause of the outbreak was spelled out so clearly as being purely scientific and not supernatural, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I'm still not sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed the book immensely.
Part of the success, I feel, is the author's refusal to get bogged down in the scientific aspect of the novel and focus more on the horror elements, that being the zombies. He explains what the nanobots are and what they are supposed to do without going into all the details as to how they do what they do. Other—and I don't want to say more experienced authors, but that is the first phrase that comes to mind, so I'm going with it—more experienced authors might attempt to go into the scientific details as to how the nanobots worked, and if that had been done, Bernstein would have lost me as a reader.
In addition to focusing on the zombies, Bernstein also focuses on character development, even those minor characters who, because of the attention that's been given to them, are killed off, much to the surprise of the reader because it seemed as if they were being groomed for a larger role. It was reminiscent of the discussion they had on The Talking Dead, the discussion panel that airs following showings of The Walking Dead, when they warned the viewers not to get too attached to any of the characters because any and all were in danger of being killed off. That helps to create a sense of urgency as you read, and you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat hoping that certain characters are going to make it through to the end. And then there are characters who are supposed to be the good guys that you take an immediate disliking to and you hope they get killed off some time soon.
As much as I enjoyed the book, it is not without its flaws, the biggest is the tendency to repeat certain bits of information that were recently revealed in detail. One example that jumps to mind is when the reader is being given Zaun's backstory—and maybe the reason this example comes so quickly to mind is because I can't stand the character of Zaun and any flaws I find might tend to be magnified. The author has just finished giving us a complete inventory of the types of martial arts Zaun has been schooled in, and a page or two later, it's mentioned again. In detail. It's almost as if Bernstein didn't trust the reader enough to remember what was previously spelled out. There were a couple of other minor elements that stood out for me like a sore thumb, and it's something that needs the be shared equally between author and publisher, but I place most of the blame on the publisher. I'm not going to spell it out here because the average reader probably won't even notice it, but it's something I did bring to the author's attention.
The other issue I had was the lack of zombie action. It's there, but I wanted more. Granted, this is the first book in a proposed trilogy, so I'm willing to forego it at the moment. The central focus of this first novel was to create the apocalyptic background against which the book is set and and to introduce us to the characters.
Overall, I feel Bernstein did an excellent job of blending the genres of horror and SciFi. The pacing of the book, for the most part, is swift and fluid, like a rapidly moving river, but there are parts where is does grind to a halt as we are fed a character's (read Zaun) backstory. Again, maybe I'm harping on this because of who the character is, but I feel releasing bits of the characters past in bits and pieces would have helped improve the flow instead of feeding it to us in one fell swoop. I have a feeling, though, that we won't have this issue in the second installment, as the main characters have already been introduced.
The bottom line: Is it worth reading? Most definitely. In a market that is quickly becoming over-saturated with zombie novels, Machines of the Dead offers a refreshing new look into the cause of the outbreak, and as innovative as it is, you won't see any running zombies here... and that's a good thing. So go ahead and pick it up. You won't be disappointed. Then again, maybe you will, as the book does leave you hanging in the end, and you'll be chomping at the bit for Book 2, which isn't available yet. You've been warned.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
When choosing something to read, sometimes I look for something short. Nothing too involving, just something I can tackle in one sitting. I saw Erik Gustafson's My Garden, My Lover being promoted in one of the Facebook groups I belong to that is devoted to self-published authors. Since the dawn of the Agency Pricing Model, I have found myself reading more and more self-published authors simply because of the price. Sure, most of it is schlock, but there are some rare gems. And then there are those like Gustafson, who, to me, is a diamond in the rough. With a little polish, I can see him going far.
With that said, let me start by saying this was the first time reading anything by Gustafson, and I admit to being pleasantly surprised, while at the same time being disappointed with My Lover, My Garden. The premise was a bit over the top, which didn't bother me. It's somewhat simple -- an socially inept man finds a passion for life in the gardening skills he honed under the tutorial of an estranged uncle. When the uncle dies and leaves everything to his favorite nephew, the man's passion soon becomes an obsession, and rapidly moves on to his sole purpose for being. He gives up everything so he can devote every waking hour to the his one true love.
When the younger brother turns 18, he, like most children, seeks to escape the prison that is his parents' home, and with nowhere to go, he turns to his brother. He quickly finds out just how far gone his brother really is, and when he seeks to "rescue" the older man from his own life, the garden, like a jealous lover, rises up and seeks to destroy the threat. As far-fetched as this might seem, I found myself caught up in the story, which in and of itself would warrant 3 or more stars if I was assigning Star Ratings, so why only 2 stars? The book is an e-book, so I was basing how far I had to go based on my "percentage". Just past what I thought was the halfway point (about 60%), the story takes an incredulous turn, and I was left with an uneasy feeling that the author had grown tired of the story and and wanted to wrap it up as quickly as possible. But still I pushed on, figuring I still had another 40% to go for a satisfactory resolution, but then at around 63%, the story was done. The balance of "book" is devoted to promoting the author's new novel, which, by the way, I didn't read. I never read sample chapters that appear at the back of books, but that's just me.
Will I risk reading something else by this author? Yes, I'll take a chance because he was able to involve me in what I was reading. Would I recommend this particular work? Sure. It's short and can be finished in one sitting, but just be prepared for an unsatisfactory wrap up.
Monday, January 9, 2012
The week leading up to the day of the funeral had been a blur, thanks in part to the injections that Doctor Mark had been supplying to the family on a regular basis. It was only a mild sedative, and he did it with the best intentions, but when the effects wore off, Greg was an inconsolable mess. He had taken to drinking, and Ro-Anne, thanks to the unexplainable access to Christy’s memories, couldn’t remember him ever drinking to the extent that he was now. A beer or two now and again, but that was it. When he had more than two beers, his ugly side would begin to show, so he had learned to keep his alcohol intake to a minimum. The harder stuff, which is what he had been consuming, didn’t bring out his darker side; if anything, it had the opposite effect. He became a self-pitying retch, and it was pathetic to watch. Seeing him in that condition made it hard for Ro-Anne to keep her goal in mind. The same held true for his friends. The love and support they showed the entire family in their time of need was touching. She had to focus on the past to keep the fire inside her raging; otherwise, she might be tempted to abandon her cause. She could not allow that to happen. She must not let that happen. They had to pay.
During the week, when she wasn’t under the influence of Doctor Mark’s sedative, she had had time to think about the recent turn of events within herself. She had come to the conclusion that by successfully doing away with the Other, she had absorbed the girl’s essence, thereby absorbing her memories, making them as accessible to her as her own. She was able to recall events of the girl’s life that she normally would have had to coerce out of the Other. There could be no other reason for it.
There had also been times during the week that she thought she saw the spirit of the woman in the house. It surprised her at first, but she realized she shouldn’t have been surprised. Just as she had hung around because of unfinished business, Christy’s mother might be doing the same. It had never occurred to her until she caught a flicker of something that the woman might be out for revenge, just as she herself was seeking revenge. The only thing she was banking on, if that was the case, is that the woman wouldn’t be able to bring herself to act against her own daughter, no matter what the girl had done. She was also hoping that it would be awhile before the woman came into her own as a spirit. Ro-Anne had known immediately that she had died, but it had taken her awhile to learn that there were things she could do in her spectral form. If the woman was a fast learner, there might be problems. She wasn’t counting on it though; in life, the woman didn’t come across as being all that swift.
Now that the funeral was over and everybody had gone home, Ro-Anne found herself alone with Jeff and Greg. She marveled at Jeff’s strength. He mourned the loss of his mother, but his attachment seemed to be to his father. He was attentive to his father’s needs and was quick to tend to them when Mark wasn’t around. Given the amount of scotch Greg had consumed after the funeral, Mark didn’t want to administer the sedative, but he did leave some with Jeff and showed him how it was to be given should he feel his father needed it. Together they had gotten Greg up to bed and undressed. Mark had checked in with her to make sure she was okay, then he had taken his leave, promising to call later in the evening. The week had taken its toll on Jeff, but he had stayed strong. He had been checking on her earlier in the week, but seeing that she was managing to stay strong herself, he had devoted his time to Greg. He had seemed genuinely concerned for her because she was supposed to have been closer to their mother than he was, but the death of their mother coming so close on the heels of her own near death experience was the explanation given for her not grieving as strongly as they had expected. After Jeff and Mark put Greg to bed and Mark left, Jeff had checked on her before taking himself to bed. She suspected that he’d been taking hits of the bottle himself during the course of the day, but it wasn’t enough to be obvious, just enough to keep himself loose.
Knowing they would both sleep the night away, she needed to move things along with her own plans. She had lost valuable time this week, and she found as time went by, it was getting harder and harder to hold on to her rage towards these men. More than once she wondered who had consumed who on the day she fought with the other. She was feeling more and more of the Other in her own thoughts and she wondered if maybe she hadn’t lost the battle after all; she still had her own thoughts and memories, which she used to bank the fires, but it was taking more and more energy to keep the fire alive.
She stood in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom. Greg lay on his stomach. He must have been tossing in his alcohol-induced sleep because the blankets covering him had shifted and his bare ass was exposed. Her first impulse was to go in and cover him, but then she realized that was the Other thinking. She reached back into her past and could see those buttocks rising and falling as he thrust into her. He had been the first, and the pain of his brutal first thrust into her had been like a hot spike impaling her. She had screamed, begging him to stop, but he had only looked into her eyes and laughed. He had been the first to have his way with her, but he would be the last to go. Thinking of what he had done then, and what he was doing now, upholding the law as the sheriff of this shit-hole town sickened her. The hypocrisy of it did not escape her, and now, thinking about it, she couldn’t wait until she saw the fear in his eyes as her realized the crimes of his past were back to haunt him. She wanted them all to know.
But couldn’t people redeem themselves?
No. She forced that foreign thought deep into the dark recesses of her mind. That was the Other talking, and she wouldn’t allow It to sway her from her chosen path. She turned away from Greg’s unconscious form. She still hadn’t buried the pillowcase she left in the clearing, and she realized now she was glad she hadn’t. She would need the gun to carry out some of her plans. She would take care of that tomorrow. She had other things that needed to be done first, but she would need to be careful.
Returning to her room, she took the cash she had kept. Many times during the week she had wondered what she would spend it on. It couldn’t be anything too obvious because that was raise some questions as to where she got the money from, but the more she thought about it, she knew she would use the money to help further her plans. This way there would be nothing in the house to arouse suspicion, and the blood money would be aptly used to spill more blood. She booted up her laptop and got online and did a search for adult bookstores in the area. She didn’t want anything too close to home, so she decided on one that boasted twenty-four hour operation in Boston. She wrote down the address, shoved it in her pockets, then grabbed the car keys. Greg had handed her the keys a couple of days ago saying that since she had her license she may as well make use of the car. Better she make use of it than trying to sell it when she would only be looking for her own car in a couple of years anyway. She wasn’t supposed to leave town with the car unless he was with her, but what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. She ran up the stairs for one more quick pit stop before heading out.
She returned to town three hours later with a couple of bags full of props. When she had walked into the bookstore, the clerk had eyed her suspiciously, and she was all set to be given a hard time over her purchases, but the clerk, on seeing how much she was spending, didn’t bat an eye. When she left, she made one more stop at a hardware store and picked up some rope and some industrial strength latex gloves before heading back to town.
By the time she got back to town, it was dark. She pulled the car into the parking lot of an all-night diner. She grabbed the gloves out of the shopping bag and slipped them into her purse before getting out of the car. Across the street was a twenty-four hour self-service laundry mat. The lights were on, but the place appeared to be empty. She could see that a few of the machines were on, so she figured the people were in the diner. Diagonally across the street was a gas station. It was closed for the night, but the red neon sign in the window remained lit, the reflection of the light on the pavement looking like pooled blood. In all directions, the streets were deserted, which was good. There were lights on in some of the houses, and she longed to be with her family. Not Greg and Jeff, but her real family, the one she never had. The husband and children that those men robbed from her on that night. The longing only served to fan the flames. With a firm resolve, she locked up the car and started toward her destination.
The street she was walking along was lined with trees, the branches thick with summer foliage that blocked out the glow of the street lamps. She was like a shadow among shadows as she made her way up the street. She traveled about half a mile along the darkened alleyway of trees before reaching her destination. The church was dark except for flickering votive candles that illumunated the stained glass with a soft glow. Next door to the church the rectory stood. On the first floor light flooded out from one window on the right side of the house. On the other side, there was a faint radiance, as if the light from the other room was casting its glow across the hall to dispel the darkness gathered there.
Without hesitation, she started for the rectory, climbing the two steps up the porch. There was no straying from the path she was on she reminded herself as she rang the doorbell. While she waited for Father Ritchie to answer the door, she mentally rehearsed what she was going to say. The curtain to the side of the door move and she saw the priest look out. He was quick to open the door when he saw who it was.
“Christina,” he greeted her as he held the door open for her. “It’s so late. What brings you here at this hour?”
“I needed to get out of the house,” she said as she slipped past him. Of all the others, he was the one she feared the least. Despite what he had done to her all those years ago, she knew she held no interest for him any more. At the time, she couldn’t understand the nervousness he displayed whenever he was around women; after all, he was a handsome man. Now, though, since he had been around the house for most of the week, she understood all too well what prompted the nervousness. She saw it in the way he looked at the other men, how he looked at Jeff. There was a hunger in his eyes, the same kind of hunger that was reflected in the eyes of the guys as they took their turn with her. Lust. Pure, unadulterated lust. The man was a homo. No wonder he became a priest. She wondered if he really kept his vow of chastity, or were there a bunch of altar boys that he diddled on a regular basis? Or maybe there were frequent trips to that bookstore in Boston. Whatever he was now, it did not excuse him for the things he had done. It was time to atone for his sins.
She turned to him as he closed the door. “It’s okay that I came her, right?”
“Of course, my child.” He escorted her into the living room. “Does you father know you’re here?”
After she took a seat on the sofa, she said, “I left a note for him. Jeff was exhausted and went to bed after Doctor Mark left. Dad had a little too much to drink and fell asleep.”
“Don’t judge your father, my dear. He’s been through quite an ordeal. You all have.”
“I’m not judging him. I’m just saying.”
He took a seat in the recliner situated just to the side of the sofa so he could look at her comfortably as they talked. “You’ve surprised everybody this week.”
She looked at him with mild curiosity. “In what way?”
“How well you’ve been holding up. Considering how close you and your mother were.”
“I guess it hasn’t really hit me yet. Dad’s been a mess, and Jeff, well, Jeff’s young, and I need to be there for him. He’s been strong for dad, but he couldn’t carry it all on his shoulders. That wouldn’t have been right or fair.”
“Well, if you need to let it out, you can. Nobody here will judge you.”
She stiffened, looking around. “You have company?”
He looked puzzled for a moment, then understood what she was implying. “No, not at all. We’re alone. I meant in the House of the Lord, nobody will be judge. The Lord only hands us what he knows we can handle, even if we don’t think we can. If only we had the kind of faith in ourselves that he has for us.”
She relaxed some and settled back on the sofa.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
She nodded. “That would be nice. Thank you.”
He got up and started for the kitchen, when she asked, “Can I use the bathroom?”
“Of course you can. Up the stairs, last door on the left.”
She relied on Christy’s memories to guide her. On the second floor landing, she used the bathroom, then crossed the hall and opened the door opposite the bathroom. A flight of stairs led up to the attic. As kids, she and Jeff used to play up there all the time after mass, when Greg and his wife came over for tea with Ritchie.
In the kitchen, Ritchie tried calling Greg to let him know that his daughter arrived safely, but there was no answer. The answering machine didn’t even pick up, which meant they hadn’t cleared the messages all week, which was understandable. He seemed to remember Mark saying he turned the ringer off on the phones so they wouldn’t be disturbed. He took two glasses from the cupboard and an ice cube tray from the freezer. He cracked some ice into each of the glasses, then got two cans of Diet Pepsi from the fridge, He placed them unopened on a tray, added the glasses, and as an afterthought, he added a plate that he filled with cookies. He was just returning to the living room when he heard the toilet overhead flush.
After setting the tray down on the coffee table, he took his seat and waited for Christy’s return. When she didn’t come back down after five minutes, he got up and went to the foot of the stairs. “Christina?” he called out so softly he doubted she could have heard him through the bathroom door. He placed one foot on the first step, his hand on the banister, and tried again, this time a little louder. “Christina, are you okay up there?”
When no response was forthcoming, he began to feel a little nervous. Had she passed out up there? Had the stress of the past week’s events finally overcome her and she collapsed? He bolstered his courage and went up the stairs, going straight for the bathroom door. He knocked softly on the door. “Christina? Are you okay?” He had his ear pressed to the door trying to hear if she was muffling her sobs, but all was silent within. “I’m coming in,” he said, grasping the doorknob. He twisted and pushed the door open. The lights were out in the small tiled room so he flicked them on to find the room empty.
He turned, wondering where she could have gone, and noticed the door to the attic. The light wasn’t on, but that didn’t mean anything. It was entirely possible that the bulb blew out, that’s how often he went up there. He glanced down the hall to his bedroom door, which was closed, just the way he left it, so he could only assume the girl went up to the attic. But why?
Fear suddenly clawed at his stomach when he thought of one possibility as to why she went up there. Overwhelmed with grief, he wondered if the girl felt comfortable enough her to commit suicide. She and her mother had had a very close relationship, and in the entire week, with the exception of that first day, he had not seen Christina cry once. It wasn’t good for anybody to hold in that kind of grief. Convinced that that was the only reason she could have for venturing up into the attic, he raced across the floor and through the doorway. He took the steps one at a time, going more slowly in the darkness that he wanted to. He needed to stop the girl before it was too late. He stumbled once on the stairs but managed to stay upright, and finally gained the landing. “Christina?” There was no reply and he hoped he wasn’t too late.
There was no light switch at the foot of the stairs, something he had complained to the parish about on numerous occasions, but they claimed it wasn’t in the budget to have any wiring redone, so he had to make do with the bare bulb and draw string that hung suspended in the middle of the room. He made his way towards the center of the floor, shuffling along in case he should stumble into something.
He was halfway to his target when the attic was suddenly filled with light, temporarily blinding him. There was the sound of footsteps as somebody moved rapidly across the floor, going around and coming up behind him.
He jumped at the sound of the girl’s voice. He felt something hard press into the small of his back, and a little shove that forced him to stumble forward. He continued until he stood under the light fixture before turning around. Christina stood at the head of the stairs, and it took his mind a moment to register that she held a gun on him. “What’s going on, Christina? What’s this all about?”
She ignored the question. “Strip, Father.” Her voice was cold, and he could practically taste the venom with which she said the word “Father,” like it was something vile that she needed to get out of her mouth.
“Christina. . .”
“Stop calling me that,” she demanded.
“Christy. . .”
“Not that either.”
“What. . .”
“I said, Strip.”
He didn’t know what was going on, but she had a gun. He didn’t think she had the nerve to use it, but he wasn’t about to take any chances. There was something not right with the girl, and considering everything she had been through in the past few weeks – moving, the loss of her mother, her own near-death experience – it was entirely possible that her mind had snapped. He’d had crisis management training, but never at gun point, and he clung to the hope that he would be able to talk her down from whatever emotional roller coaster she was on. Without waiting to be told a third time, he started to take off his clothes.
As he undressed, he felt the need to keep her talking. He couldn’t understand her refusal to acknowledge her given name, but that wasn’t the important thing at the moment. He wanted to know her intentions, as she came into his home and was holding him at gunpoint. “I know you’re upset by what’s happened, but that’s. . .”
“You have no clue, Father. Upset doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Again, there was that bitterness. After all that had happened, had she lost her Faith in God? Was she taking out her anger and frustration on him because he was God’s representative here on Earth? “Christina. . .”
“I told you not to call me that!”
He had his shirt off and had just slipped off his shoes. “You don’t have to do this. You. . .”
“Stop talking. Don’t talk. Just get your clothes off.”
He was about to say something else, but thought better of it. In silence, he removed his trousers and stood there before her in his socks, underwear, and t-shirt. A flush colored his cheeks, and he didn’t know if it was from nerves or embarrassment. Crossing his hands in front of his crotch, he bowed his head, admitting defeat. He would accept whatever humiliation she dished out if it would make her feel better and start her on the road to emotional recovery. Of course, he was thinking rape, and he hoped his inability to perform with her wouldn’t anger her further. There was no telling what she would do if he couldn’t do what she wanted.
"Don't stop there," she commanded. "Keep going. All of it. Off."
He slipped off his socks. The floorboards beneath his bare feet were cold, and they sent shivers coursing over his body. He slipped his t-shirt over his head and tossed it with the rest of his clothes. There was a moment’s hesitation when he went for his underwear when he caste a look towards Christy, pleading with his eyes. She gave a wave with the barrel of the gun, indicating that he should keep going. The underwear went, and he stood there, in all his glory, hands clasped in from of him.
“Move over there,” she said, indicating a support beam a couple of yards away. He inched over to it, not wanting her to be startled by any sudden moves. He wasn’t sure how comfortable she was with a gun, and the last thing he wanted or needed was to have it go off by accident.
When he was in front of the beam, she took a step closer. “Put your arms around the beam.”
He stepped behind it and then wrapped his arms around it, hugging it tightly. He could feel the rough texture of the raw wood against his bare skin. He watched as she took something from her purse. Whatever it was gleamed in the overhead light. She held them out to him, and when she did, he saw it was a pair of handcuffs. “Put these on,” she told him.
Reluctantly, he did as he was told.
Once he was secured, she walked around him, sizing him up like a prized cattle being put up for auction. When she pressed the cold steel barrel of the gun against his flesh, he inhaled sharply and held his breath. She rubbed it up and down his left side, across his shoulder blades, and down his spine. When he felt her slide it lower, coming to rest just above his buttocks, he closed his eyes and started to pray silently. He felt the gun slip between his ass cheeks, felt her body press against his, and she whispered in his ear, “Bang.”
Then the pressure was gone and he slowly let out the breath he’d been holding. A startled shriek broke from his lips when she playfully smacked him on the ass. She laughed, and if there was any other sign that he needed that he was in deep shit, that was it. Her footsteps echoed on the floorboards, and she came into view. She was still fully dressed, still held the gun, although it was at her side for the moment, and not aimed at him. She wasn’t looking at him, either; she was looking down, her hair hiding her face like a curtain. He didn’t dare say a word for fear he would anger her again. There was no telling how much was needed to push her over the edge of toying with him to scare him to death and actually placing the barrel up his ass and pulling the trigger. The girl was in need of psychiatric help, more help than he had been trained to handle in this crisis management training.
When she finally looked up, she gave him a shy smile, and a ray of light showed through the gathering darkness. “Don’t go away,” she told him as she started for the stairs. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“You can’t leave me like this.”
That brief glimmer of hope shattered when she sent daggers his way. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” she growled at him. “Those days are over.”
She descended the stairs without a look back, leaving him to wait and worry.
That was the worst part, being left alone with his own thoughts. They ran wild trying to figure out what he had done to Greg’s daughter to deserve what she was doing to him, and for the life of him, he couldn’t think of anything. Instinctively, he pulled at the handcuffs, but he had closed them a little too much when he had put them on. He couldn’t slide his hands through. If he had something to lubricate his hands, they might slide through, but anything that could be used to grease his hands was either in his bedroom or in the kitchen. There might be something in the boxes, as most of what was stored up here was stuff he didn’t want prying eyes to see.
The second thing to cross his mind was trivial, but it was something that made the waiting seem interminable. When he stripped, he should have taken his watch off along with everything else. Since it was still on, he was able to count down the seconds, the minutes that she was gone. He had no idea where she had gone to, although he had feeling she was no longer in the house. He thought he had heard the door slam shut. His only hope is that she forgot to leave the lock disengaged. She wouldn’t be able to get back into the house then, and he would only have to wait it out until ten o’clock the following morning when his housekeeper arrived. Yeah, it would be embarrassing to be discovered this way, but at least he would still be alive. It was better than the other option.
She was gone about forty-five minutes. He heard the door slam shut again. She must have puttered around on the first floor, because it was about ten minutes later when he heard her coming up the stairs. But she didn’t come right up to the attic, which meant she was snooping around on the second floor. There were only two other rooms on the second floor besides the bathroom—his office and his bedroom. Neither place was appropriate for her to be snooping because although most of the private things were kept up here, there were things that he accessed on an almost daily basis that would not be suitable viewing for a young girl.
Another fifteen minutes passed before he heard her coming up the attic stairs, and she was dragging something behind her. He could tell by the clunking thumping it made on the stairs. When she came into view, she held a couple of shopping bags in one hand, and behind her she dragged the heavy chair he kept at his desk in the office. She set the shopping bags down by the stairs, then dragged the chair across the floor. She was staring up at the ceiling, and she positioned the chair beneath a low-hanging structural crossbeam. He noticed there was something rolled up and stuck in the back pocket of her jeans. Once she was happy with the placement of the chair, she turned and looked at him.
“Have you been a good boy while I’ve been gone?”
The smile she wore slipped, turning into a malicious grin that sent chills all over his body, like thousands of baby spiders crawling all over him. “I think not. In fact, I think you’ve been naughty.” She took out the rolled up object from her back pocket and unrolled it. He recognized it immediately, and it was suddenly like ice running through his veins. She wasn’t going to kill him; she was going to expose him, which was a fate worse than death. “Very naughty, indeed.” She started to flip through the pages of the porno magazine that showed young men, very young men, engaging in sexual acts with men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers.
His mouth was suddenly dry and he tried to work up a mouthful of spit so he could speak. “What. . .” His voice cracked. He swallowed against the dryness and it felt as if he were trying to swallow a cup full of cotton balls. “What are you going to do,” he was finally able to croak.
She tossed the magazine at his feet. “I think you need to be punished, Ritchie.” She crossed the floor and took another magazine from the shopping bag. He recognized that one as well. The cover was curled he had looked at it some many times, and if she tried to open it, she would find that some of the pages were stuck together. My God, this was so embarrassing.
She tossed that one on the floor as well. “And to think you had everything I needed already here. I didn’t have to buy any of this shit.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a couple more magazines, but these ones he didn’t recognize. She flipped through the pages of those ones as well, pausing a moment to admired the centerfold. “My, my. He is a big boy. But I think he’s a bit older than you like ‘em.” She showed him the picture he was looking at; the kid was young, over eighteen because of the publication’s modeling agreement, but looked younger, and he possessed a dick that would split a guy in two if he tried anything with it. She was right, though; while the guy looked young, he was older than he liked them. A lot older.
“And lookie what else I found, you bad boy.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a bottle of lubricant and a dildo, the battery operated kind that vibrated. He could tell by the hot flush on his face that he had turned scarlet. He watched with a growing sense of horror as she put that on the floor and reached into the shopping bag yet again. This time she pulled out a coiled length of rope. She sat down on the floor and proceeded to tie a noose. She was going to kill him after all and tarnish his reputation by leaving all this stuff around. There was no way he could let that happen. He had to try and talk her out of whatever she had planned.
“You don’t have to do this. I’ll pack my bags. I’ll leave town.”
She ignored him. To his horror, she started to whistle while she worked on the noose. When she was done, she got up and climbed up onto the chair, taking the rope with her, and tossed the noose over the beam. She looked around, trying to find some place to secure the other end of the rope. He knew what she was looking for and he prayed that she wouldn’t find anything. Her eye sight was better than his, because the next thing he knew she was off the chair and crossing the floor. On one of the support beams that ran floor to ceiling there was a mooring mount. He’d never noticed it before, but then again, he rarely spent more time than was absolutely necessary up here. After she secured the rope, she climbed back up onto the chair and tested the rope.
Knowing that he was on step closer to death, he started to sweat.
She jumped down from the chair and went to retrieve something else from the shopping bags. Her hand reached in and came out with the gun. Done with her preparations, she returned her attention to him as she reached deep into her jeans pocket. She produced the key to the handcuffs and showed it to him. “Now,” she said, as if instructing a child, “I’m going to give you the key. You are going to wait until I get back here where I’m standing now, then, and only then, are you going to open the cuffs and free yourself. Is that understood?”
He licked his lips and nodded. He wondered what his chances were of overpowering her before she could get a shot off.
“Then you are going to put the key and the cuffs on the floor and you are going to climb up on that chair and put the noose around your neck. Is that clear?”
Again, he nodded. Fat chance, he thought.
But once she handed him the key, he did exactly as she had instructed. With the noose securely around his neck, she approached the chair, then picked up one of the magazines from off the floor and handed it to him. “Now, I want you to jack off.”
He shook his head slowly. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “No,” he somehow managed to say. He hated that his voice was trembling, betraying his fear, but what else could he do with a noose around is neck and a gun pointed at him.
She shoved the barrel of the gun against his nut sac. “You wanna keep ‘em?”
“Then jack off. Jack off and we’ll all be happy.”
She took a few steps back as he flipped open the magazine. Despite the terror that filled him, the sight of the glossy photo spread of the child and the older man forced his baser desires to override any thoughts of his impending death and he felt himself respond. His hand dropped down to his crotch and he took his hardening cock in hand. He tried not to look at Christy, but he couldn’t help it. While he stroked himself, his gaze flickered from the magazine to the girl holding the gun. She was smiling at him. “That’s right,” she said. “You like that, don’t you? Feels good, doesn’t it?” He couldn’t believe that she was encouraging him. She had said if he jerked himself off, they would all be happy. Was that all this was going to turn out to be? Some sick fetish on her part. He wouldn’t be surprised if she reached into her pants and started fingering herself, but she didn’t.
“You know,” she continued. “I see the way you look at Jeff. You’d like to do things with him, wouldn’t you? Things like they’re doing in that magazine.”
He glanced down, and in his minds’ eye he saw himself and her younger brother in place of the models, and he could feel his climax fast approaching.
“I can make it happen. I can arrange for the two of you to be together so you can fuck him. Just like you fucked me.”
Something in her words didn’t sound right, but he was too far gone in the fantasy to realize what it was. Just the thought of his forbidden desires becoming an actuality was enough to put him over the edge. He closed his eyes as his orgasm caused his muscle to seize up. His cock pulsed in his hand as he came in spurts all over the floor. His breathing came in ragged gasps and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. His muscles unlocked and his legs began to sag, but the feel of the noose tightening around his neck forced him to take control and straighten them. He looked at her, unsure if the words she had spoken had been meant with sincerity, or if they were said because she knew it would push him over the edge, because – God forgive me – he wanted so much to be with Jeff. Maybe have Greg join in.
He let the magazine fall to the floor and reached for the rope around his neck.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He froze. The gun was pointed at him again.
“I thought. . .” He paused when she took a step towards him.
“What? What did you think? That I would let you walk out of here? That I would let you run to Daddy and tell him what I did to you? And once I was out of the way, in some hospital or institution, you’d be able to console my baby brother? To hold him? Fondle him? You sick bastard!”
The fear was returning, and his heart was racing again; this time it wasn’t from sexual release, but from pure unadulterated terror. But he had to confront her with what she said. “You said if I jerked off for you, we’d all be happy.”
She seemed to think this over for a minute, her face taking on a mask of seriousness. When she looked at him again, there was a crazed look in her eyes and a feral grin on her face. “I lied. No. Wait. I didn’t lie.” She looked at the cum-splattered floor. “I think you were very happy for a moment,” she looked and met his gaze, “wouldn’t you say?”
“I won’t tell anyone about this, Christy, I promise.”
“I told you not to call me that,” she raged. “My name’s not Christy! And it’s not Christina!”
He looked at her, completely confused. Had the recent chain of traumatic events caused her to take on a second personality? It wasn’t unheard of, but from what he could remember, it was usually physical or sexual abuse that spurred on that kind of thing. The confusion must have been evident on his face as he tried to figure out this piece of the puzzle, because her next words left him even more confused.
“My name,” she said, “is Rhonda.”
Rhonda? Why did that name sound familiar?
“Rhonda. Anne. Darcy.”
The proverbial light bulb went off in his head and recognition dawned.
“But. . . but you’re. . . dead.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I am, no thanks to you and your buddies.”
“You can’t be. You’re dead.”
“You said that already. And you want to know something?”
He looked at her, his face completely blank.
“So are you.”
And she kicked the chair out from under him.