Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

. . . Warmer

. . . Warmer — illustrated by Stacy Nguyen

Before Edan Westmisley faxed his summons to my agent, my only legitimate (as in you could see my face) claim to semi-demi-fame was the Steppe Syster’s “Love Victim” video where I licked the tattoo of the chest of their lead guitarist, Cody Towers.

Yeah, that was me. Not that anyone makes the connection between the big-hair, tits-swaying-in-a-bikini-top, thong-bottomed retro pre-AIDS bimboid slithering up the paint-drizzled riser towards Cody’s semi-desirable, love-handled bare torso, tongue out and lashing against candy-apple lips, just before he notices me, slings his Stratocaster behind his pimply back and hoists me up by the armpits, so I can lovingly slurp off his licorice-icing tattoo (painted on over his Dermablend-smeared real phoenix-in-flames tattoo by a bandanna-covered bald-pated tattoo artist) in slo-mo close up, and what I am now, thanks to Edan Westmisly and his once-in-a-career offer—

—the offer he didn’t share with my agent, or with anyone employed in his hidden/not hidden studio; the offer which held out the promise of me becoming something far more spectacular and memorable than just a tattoo-devouring bimbo . . .

• • • •

“Thaaat’s riiight, kiddo, Edan Westsmisley, Gran’ Poo-ba-supremo at Genuis Productons, as in get your mini-skirted bum down to his office, pronto—”

It wasn’t unusual for my agent, Gerhard Berbary, to speak in italics, but for him to even come close to swearing (he was Canadian, which made “bum” synonymous with “ass” or worse), something much bigger than just another metal video shoot or frontal nude body-doubling part was at stake here, especially as far as Gerhard’s cut was concerned. And at this point in my “career,” considering how few videos, walk-ons and tit-’n’-ass inset shots he’d been able to round up for me, I knew that he would’ve sold my corpse for morgue gape shots if it would’ve netted him a commission . . .

Not that being dead could’ve made me feel any less uneasy than Gerhard’s wake-up call about Westmisley wanting me to come to his studio early that afternoon; while I didn’t consider myself an “insider” when it came to the music scene, I did have subscriptions to Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone and Spin . . . and with all my free time, especially after the “Love Victim” shoot, I’d had the opportunity to learn more than I actually cared to about Mr. Westmisly, formerly of the sixties Fluxus movement (a well-to-do group of what Gerhard dubbed “art-farts” which included Yoko Ono and her bare-buttocks-in-a-row film, really classy shit like that), and currently sole owner, stockholder, president, and producer-in-residence at Genius Productions Ltd., a record company that produced hard-core industrial, techno, alternative, and speed metal acts (like Steppe Syster), almost none of which ever charted higher than 150 on the Billboard Album Chart, but which were killers on the college charts—all the more ironic because Westmisley had supposedly (if the unauthorized bios reviewed in Rolling Stone could be believed) been all-but-bodily-thrown out of every university in Europe and on the East Coast, for a little more than simply flunking out or missing dorm curfew—

(—as in things even pay-to-say journalists like Kitty Kelly were afraid to reveal after one unauthorized bio writer turned up belly-bloated on the Nantucket shoreline after interviewing some ex-Vassar co-ed in her nursing home bed . . . the bed she’d been confined to after dating soon-to-be-ex-Harvard alumni Westmisley—

—one of the same universities he’d later endow with trifles like libraries, gymnasiums and radio stations during the early eighties, after he’d finished the last round of chemo-and-radiation for his near-fatal bout with skin cancer.

He’d contracted said skin cancer during a two-year round-the-world junket in his favorite yacht in the mid-seventies, when he was on his collecting binge . . . and he’d sped home across two oceans with close to a dozen countries breathing down his burnt-to-jerky neck, threatening legal action for whatever illegal/endangered baubles he’d “bought” . . .)

And now Edan Westmisley wanted me to drive to his office, for a reason even my agent didn’t know—I asked Gerhard twice, “You mean to meet with him, like face-to-face?” and both times, his answer was the same . . . and as maddeningly vague:

“You want me to read you his fax? Here it is: ‘Gerhard, please send your client from the Steppe Syster “Love Victim” shoot to my office for a private meeting, noon today.’ Hear that dear heart? The man said ‘Please’ . . .”

“He didn’t mention me by name,” I’d countered both times, as the phone cord wrapped itself around my wrist like a curly python, but Gerhard was adamant—I was his only client to appear in a Steppe Syster video.

“But Ger, Westmisley only produces records, as in musicians . . . his people handle videos, he just oversees what they come up with.” As I pleaded with him, I squeezed the receiver anxiously, my skin crawling under the remembered pressure of Westmisley’s smoke-glass-shielded eyes.

• • • •

I suppose people who saw the “Love Victim” video assumed that my tattoo-slurping cameo was morphed, but that wasn’t “Edan’s style.” Or so said Kenny, the director, while everyone waited for Mr. Bandanna to finish embellishing Cody’s chest as he stretched out like a fallen Christ on the drum riser, bitching about how much the black paint-thin icing tickled as the glumly sweating tattoo guy spent an hour of studio time painting faux needlework between Cody’s nipples. There was only so much butt-wiggling for Kenny to do in that hour, so eventually he confided, “Great Scarface’s into sensation, albeit visually simulated sensations . . . he can’t feel a damn thing anymore.” Kenny whispered in his irresistible Capote-esque drawl, glancing towards the rear of the studio, past the terminator of on-set lights, between every word. After the third or fourth glance, I looked back towards what he was staring at . . . Edan Westmisley, or some of him. He was a featureless, dark slice of shadow against the murky studio shadows, with only the plump, convex ovals of his sunglass lenses reflecting the arc-light glare.

“Looks like road-kill before it’s run over,” I whispered in Kenny’s hoop-lobed ear; he whispered in my thrice-pierced ear, “Oh no, Edan’s not road-kill . . . he’s an immobile, hulking beast that smashes and twists grillwork, before sending your car into the fucking ditch,” just as the suspended-in-darkness lenses drifted away to the clup-clup of his retreating lizard-skin boots. Once Kenny seemed sure that he was out of range in the huge studio, he added, “I’ve developed ‘shoulder eyes’ while working for him . . . all Edan has to do is stare at me, and my skin writhes . . . like getting a sunburn while staying dead-fish-white.”

I thought Kenny was just blissfully melodramatic, but once Bandanna-Guy was finished and Kenny started flat-clapping his hands, begging for “Qui-et” as he cued the lights and the assistant director set the electronic clapboard, I heard that steady, rhythmic clup-clup echoing in the far reaches of the studio, a staccato wooden-heeled counterpoint to the fuzzed-out tape the band was syncing to . . . and while I could barely see those disembodied shimmering discs of reflected light hovering behind Kenny’s muscular, T-shirted back, they began to bore down on my exposed skin, the way light rays exert a trace of real weight—an unseen, yet measurable pressure. If Kenny endured “shoulder eyes,” I endured “body eyes” . . . and by the time I snake-slithered up that riser and tiny splinters dug into my exposed midriff, my skin felt as if it were being smothered, each pore screaming for air, and once Cody’s sweating, calloused hands hoisted me up for my tattoo-tonguing close-up—Kenny barked orders at the Steady-cam operator, but his voice seemed filtered, as if unable to penetrate Edan’s suffocating stare—I forgot Kenny’s directions about keeping my eyes open, and began furiously lapping and slurping up bitter black icing, not caring where or how furiously I licked, until Cody jerked back, yelping, “Hey! Watch the nipple ring, wouldja?” after my left incisor snagged the gold ring jutting out from his raisin-like nipple, and Kenny soothed, “Go with it, Codeee, make it work for you,” but all the while I couldn’t shake that hand-firm pressure all over me, as if Westmisley’s eyes were doing a King Kong on my Fay Wray skin, so I wound up licking Cody’s Adam’s apple before Kenny burbled, “Cut! Per-fect . . . it’s a wrap. Hon . . . Honey, time to get up—”

Only, I didn’t want to get up, not with Edan still there, behind Kenny, I stayed on my knees until Cody hoisted me up by the armpits, roughly, and whispered, “Get lost, wouldja?” then stalked off to his dressing room, whining to Kenny, “She almost yanked my ring out, man.” I still couldn’t open my eyes, thugh, until Kenny shot back, “Just as long as it wasn’t in your dick . . . not that that’s big enough to pierce,” and under those playfully drawled words, I heard the ever-more-distant clup-clup of Edan’s boot heels, as he left the studio.

“Don’t mind that pimpled twit, dear, he’ll never stop you from working,” Kenny began as I opened my eyes, as if it was Cody I was so obviously scared of; not wanting to spoil Kenny’ fantasy about Edan being hung up on him, I just smiled, nodded, and took the hand-down he offered me, before stepping off that riser and out of the studio, into the fading-but-real touch of sunlight on my oxygen-starved flesh.

• • • •

“—listen, kiddo, do I question Edan Westmisley and still expect to make any more deals in this charming burg? If he faxed me a request that I personally swab out his private vomitorium with my tongue, I’d glaaadly do so—am I speaking English to you, or am I jabbering in fucking Greek?”

Privately replying, “No, Gerhard, you’d gladly do him if he’d stoop to dropping his pants for a third-rate wanna-be-like you,” I mumbled, “English, Ger,” before asking (even as my brain protested), “When did he want me there?”

“Noon . . . do you realize that any other of my clients would already be at Westmisley’s as I speak, doing the knee-dance under his desk in gratitude? And swallowing every damn drop? If he hadn’t of asked for you in particular, I’d have called one of my other clients . . . what’s the matter, you scared of the stories about him?”

Even though he had no way of seeing me, I shook my head of would-be-video-queen big-hair No; crazy producer stories were as commonplace as urban legends—didn’t Tina Turner once see Phil Spector pick up an apple core coated with cigarette ash out of a tray and eat it? The quirks and foibles of producers were the stuff of Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes” column, weren’t they? But the underground ‘zines, the grungy hand-Xeroxed jobbies sold at the bigger book stores, they had the real, fresh dirt on No-Eyes Westmisley: the overlord attitude with his engineers; the sudden, blackball firings; the kinky stuff his ex-lovers only hinted at; the way he circumvented customs with whatever fetishes or artifacts he’d glommed on to during that cancer-causing last jaunt of his; and how he’d beaten said cancer by going to Third World doctors who’d try anything, from whatever source, to heal what should never be healed . . . yet, despite all the weirdness he’d indulged in from the sixties on (long past the time when his fellow Fluxus members went respectable—like when Yoko made huggy-kissy with McCartney at the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame induction), Edan Westmisley was the original Teflon Dude, and never mind Ronbo Reagan.

No union could touch him. No woman—no matter what bed or cell or worse she occupied—could blackmail him. Whether it was out of fear, or because he was so well-insulated (old money rich, from a peerage in England), no one knew for sure, save for knowing that Edan Westmisley was about as close to a god as a man could be and still need to shake his dick after pissing (or so Kenny advised me during a chance meeting outside of Spago).

Yet, as powerful as Westmisley was, he’d said “Please” to the cut-rate agent of a would-be actress . . . someone who couldn’t do a tattoo-licking shot without almost removing a guy’s nipple ring the hard way.

To get a “Please” from Westmisley was far rarer than gobs of manna dripping on the Walk of Fame . . . a courtesy he wasn’t obliged to give to anyone, for anything. But as Gerhard gave me directions to Westmisley’s office-cum-studio, I wondered just what sort of price-tag—be it actual or something less tangible—was attached to that unexpected show of civility . . .

Now, I realize that Edan’s adding “Please” to that fax had nothing to do with politeness or any normal human civility, but was perhaps meant only to forestall suspicion.

• • • •

Genius Productions Ltd. was located out in the Hills, or almost past them, to be exact; to this day, I can’t find the spot on any map. But then again, since I’ve never driven near the place again, let’s just say it’s Out There. Anyhow, if you were to drive past it unknowingly, you’d never realize that you’d just whizzed past the entire complex—not that the building was hidden by trees or by a fence (Edan detested the obvious, in all things). It was just that the place was so unassuming that it barely registered. Oyster-white stucco exterior, minimal smoke-tinted windows, three squat stories, flat tile roof, superbly earthquake-proof in that there was nothing to break off (and reinforced from within by double-strength I-beams, as Edan proudly informed me), with only a bizarre metal sculpture adorning the brownish stubble of grass directly in front of the entrance to indicate that it wasn’t a warehouse or sweat-shop garment factory.

Yet, the sculpture itself was the key to both the identity of the building and the mentality of the man who designed and built it; from every angle but one, it resembled randomly staked Christian and Coptic crosses, of varying heights and widths, fanned out in a crescent shape across the lawn. But once a car was almost past the entire building, if you happened to look just so in the rearview mirror, the assemblage would suddenly meld together into a concave, seemingly smooth unbroken surface—save for the open spaces which read in reverse, since it was meant to be read in a mirror):

GENIUS PRODUCTIONS LTD.

It was so perfectly executed it was chilling, even if a motorist noticed the solid version of the sculpture (including the squared-off words), it only remained solid-looking long enough to barely register the words before dissolving into a scattering of haphazard steel as soon as the car sped forward.

But I didn’t feel privileged to have caught on to Edan’s single-glimpse-only sign, as I backed my Escort up and then drove into the nearly-empty parking lot to the east of the building; the selectiveness inherent in the design of that sculpture/sign galled me, perhaps because it gave no concession to unavoidable, human things like an eyelash getting in one’s eye, or someone blinking at that exact second, or something going wrong with the car, or with traffic. Happen to miss that fraction of a second of the sign’s wholeness, and a person might spend hours combing the freeway, searching for the elusive edifice just passed.

But the true pre-eminence of Edan Westmisley was waiting to be revealed to me; the double-paned smoked doors in front of the building were operated by a sensor, like those in a store, so that in itself didn’t spook me . . . but the lack of anyone—security guards, receptionists, cleaning men with big sloppy galvanized metal buckets, wanna-be recording artists hoping to get past the non-existent receptionists—I mean—anyone, inside that stucco, steel, and glass edifice did get to me. In a major way . . .

All I saw was a quarter mile of empty hallway, carpeted in the sort of plushy beige carpeting that mats down if you sneeze at it, extending in a straight line from where I stood to the back of the building. Which culminated in another door, this one industrial-steel-with-pneumatic-hinges (the emergency-only type usually seen in the rear of by-the-highway chain stores), and surmounted by a red-lit “EXIT” sign.

“You’re quite cold, yaw’know, just standing there.”

The voice was without a definable source, just simply there. But I was clued-in enough to realize that it was Westmisley’s languid, English-accented upper-class-twit voice (I’d seen that MTV interview Kurt Loder did with him just before he’d gone on that ill-advised yacht voyage and brought home a little more than a hold-full of illegal goodies), and nervy enough not to want him to realize how badly he’d frightened me, so I drew myself up to my full five-nine plus heels, smiled my toothiest should’ve-been-a-model smile, and forced myself to purr (didn’t Gerhard tell me how lucky I was to be here?), “And I don’t like being cold—”

“Start moving and you’ll begin to warm up—” At least the disembodied voice had a slight hint of warmth in it by then. When he stopped speaking, he began humming, a tuneless, one-note drone that allowed me to figure out that he’d planted speakers in the walls, ceiling, even under the carpeting . . . which made me feel as if I was walking down his throat. As I walked, casually swinging my arms with each step (even though I would’ve rather hugged myself by then, purely for the security of it) down that diffusely-lit hallway—recessed fluorescents that cast less than forty watts per fixture—I noticed there were doors set into the cream-colored Lucite walls; the pin-thin outlines were unmistakable . . . as was the lack of knobs.

Twenty steps down that runner of carpeting.

“Warmer.”

Ten more steps, slowing down near each door outline.

“Much warmer—”

Glance up, but still no cameras visible. Maybe in the fixtures!

“Waaarrrmmmah—” The humming became a throaty growl.

Two steps forward. Then one back. There. Just like with the statue outside, I didn’t see the unadorned embossed lettering over the one doorway until I’d almost passed by:

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”—Virgil

I might’ve been only a model-without-portfolio, an ass-or-boobs-for-hire body-double for straight-to-video flicks whose sole claim to semi-fame came during the increasingly infrequent airings of the “Love Victim” video, but I didn’t consider myself an uneducated bimbo, no matter what Gerhard thought. I’d finished high school, top third of my class, and had done a year-and-a-half of college, too. I couldn’t read Greek, but I’d heard of Virgil—not that I was ready to let Westmisley know that much about me yet.

“Verrry waaarm—” I moved a foot sideways, to the right.

“Hot—” The door slid open before me, gliding into the wall with a muted schwoosh of Lucite rubbing Lucite. Beyond me was yet more unmatted plush carpet, culminating in another blank cream wall. Smartass bastard. I trotted up to the unopened pocket door so fast Westmisley barely had time to blurt out “Boiling!” as the door opened, and I strode through the newly-revealed opening—

—into what looked, felt, and even smelled like a pit, like a droppings-piled bat cave, or some ransacked ancient tomb still swirling with the dust of disturbed mummified remains . . . the contrast between creamy-bright nothingness and prodigal fullness finally smashed the last shards of my pseudo-hip L.A. woman veneer; I stopped so abruptly I almost fell forward on to the swirling arabesques of his Persian/Oriental carpet from the built-up momentum.

As I steadied myself, I became aware of—

—Eyes. Everywhere around me. Square-and-triangle Kachina doll eyes, tight-lidded slits in the faces of African fertility figurines whose bodies were little more than knee-to-chin engorged vaginal lips. Glass and plastic orbs set in the nappy heads of mounted game animals, more than a few of them from extinct or endangered species. Pin-prick gargoyle eyes, unblinking in their stony intensity. Wrinkled, fine-lashed lids drawn tight over the sunken orbs of several shrunken heads which hung by frazzled, beaded topknots. Blanc concave pupil-less eyes in chipped Grecian and roman statuary fragments. Frosting-bright sockets in Mexican sugar skulls. And peep-holes set in the gold and silver irises of the rows of gold and platinum records which formed dividing lines between the shelved antiquities and oddities covering the walls of Westmisley’s office.

And reigning supreme in that silent, frozen freak show was Edan Westmisley himself, his purple-wattled, burst-capillary red-and-mottled-grayish-tan full moon of a face suspended over a bridge of semi-clawed, torturously-linked fingers under his ill-defined chin, his eyes protected with those oval smoky glasses, his carefully-brushed and dry-sprayed graying hair (a wig, perhaps?) a glowing nimbus over his ruined features . . . but despite the almost heavenly way his neatly side-parted hair seemed lit from within, the effect wasn’t angelic in the least.

His immaculate gray Italian silk suit, starched-till-it-shone white shirt, and burnished pewter-tone tie didn’t register on my consciousness until a few disoriented seconds had passed (I did know his boots were lizard skin, as Kenny had claimed); precious seconds during which he was able to survey and . . . catalog me with those near-hidden, impartial, appraising eyes of his. As if I was yet another item he could buy, then mount on those cluttered walls of his . . .

That much I realized when he smiled; not a friendly, glad-to-meet-ya smile, but a stiff rictus of those purple-tinged lips, which parted to reveal a fence-like double row of white, flat-surfaced teeth . . . seeing that pseudo-smile, I knew that whatever words came through those bloated lips, past those hard-edged, perfect teeth, wouldn’t convey one iota of whatever a jaded, world-weary man like Westmisley might still be capable of feeling, if, indeed, he felt anything for anyone at all.

I think I smiled in reply; I don’t recall much besides him pointing out a chair, and me easing into its spongy depths, unable to speak . . . unable to think, actually. Drumming his blunt-tipped, crescent-clawed fingers (each ridged nail perfectly manicured, save for the tip of the left forefinger, which was missing above the last joint) on top of his empty, black-wood-surfaced desk, Westmisley said without preamble:

“Lovely . . . how you licked away that buffoon’s tattoo . . . I could almost hear the uppermost layers of flesh parting from his chest . . . an exquisitely painful moment, especially the way the chap winced until his eyes fairly watered—”

“I snagged his nipple ring with my incisor,” I blurted out, my face flushing at the memory. “Kenny said he’d edit it out, but—”

“But he didn’t . . . I assume you can figure out why.” There was no question mark punctuating his voice, as if positing that I should know such a thing. Directly behind his left shoulder, a particularly rabid-looking Indonesian carved mask leered at me until I felt incredibly exposed, vulnerable, and found myself babbling, “Not really . . . Cody seemed to be so piss-upset about it, I just figured Kenny would edit it out—”

“As he intended to do, until I told him not to. That flash of pain in the guitarist’s eyes was precisely what I wanted. The object, as it were, of the entire tattoo-removing scene. The act leading up to it was only a means to a most specific end . . . after all,” he added, his Twit-of-the-Year tone growing softer, yet darker, with each carefully enunciated syllable, “I could have had that sequence morphed in less than half the time it took that tattoo artiste to embellish that blubbery fool’s epidermis with frosting, and probably at a comparable expense. The resulting faux tattoo, and you as well, were fungible . . . all I ever had in mind was seeing that unfeigned twinge of agony in the chap’s eyes, accompanied by an unrehearsed grimace of pain about the lips. Nothing more than what might’ve been accomplished by a swift, clean thrust to the uncapped groin . . . but via a more aesthetic route. A small tidbit for the visually jaded.”

His short speech finished, Westmisley laced bent fingers into a fleshy shield before his lower chest and stared at me until I could almost make out his eyes behind the infernally reflecting lenses . . . slow-blinking, turtle-wattled eyes, small shiny balls set in a webbing of crinkled, oddly shiny skin. Those eyes were so unnaturally bland, so removed from pain or any sort of inner suffering, I wondered if they were cosmetic contact lenses, perhaps to cover sun-induced discoloration or disease; no one who had gone through such indisputably painful treatments for cancer should’ve possessed such calm, untroubled eyes.

Oh, I’d heard of people with no threshold of pain, who never felt so much as a headache, but that was a rare condition; what could the odds have been of such a rich, worldly man also being blessed with freedom from external or internal agony? Yet, for him to intentionally inflict pain on another—

“But it was an accident . . . I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I countered, as I shifted around in the chair, trying to assume a more upright position, but the chair (a modernistic, nubby-surfaced marshmallow perched on a stem-like base) seemed to have no internal framework . . . just layer upon layer of spongy softness, with no hard core to pull myself up on. So there I sat, legs slightly splayed, arms loosely akimbo, head just barely supported by the high back of the stupid seat, yet still trying to hang on to whatever dignity I possessed.

“All the better for the desired effect . . . why do you think I told Kenny to hire a woman to devour Cody’s tattoo? All the members of the group were similarly embellished, some with more pleasing designs . . . but only he sported pierced nipples. And the nipple is such a sensitive area of the anatomy . . . much more so than the earlobe, don’t yew think?” He stared at my ears, with their trio of studs per lobe, and I reflexively pawed my hair over my ears before replying, “Yeah . . . I don’t know how anyone could have that done—”

“Getting your ears pierced didn’t hurt?” Behind those shining lenses, something flickered for a second in his pale eyes, something eager, hungry—

“No—wait, I mean, yeah, it hurt, y’know, but it wasn’t a major thing . . . not enough to stop me from having more holes put in, but an earlobe isn’t a nipple—”

“No, no, it isn’t,” he agreed, in a surprisingly regretful-sounding tone. Then shifting his voice from wistfulness to its former briskness, he went on, “You probably realize I didn’t ask you here to discuss body piercing and tattoo-removal . . . listen carefully to this, would you?” Nearly smiling for real, he unlaced his fingers and reached over to his left, where he pressed a slightly-recessed portion of the desk-top. A few seconds of hissing static followed, the sound coming out of every wall as well as the ceiling; white noise amplified and captured on ferrous oxide, then came this almost-familiar looped sample, its tune nearly buried in industrial drum-beats and fuzzed-out electric techno synths, with additional layers of reverb and redubs—

“Is that the intro to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’?” I ventured timidly, having decided that Westmisley got off on whatever information he could glom on to from people; in reply, he said softly, “Lukewarm . . . it’s the drum-line from ‘Goody-Two Shoes,’ Adam Ant’s solo effort—but wait—” With his right, whole index finger, he motioned for me to lean forward. Despite the squishiness of the chair, I leaned

—and a fraction of a second later, this . . . voice cut through the beat, redubs, and reverb; just a single sustained note that somehow grew stronger, louder and needier by the minute. When it seemed that no set of lungs could power a note for that long, that energetic a period of time, the voice swooped down to a shivery whisper, droning on and on in a rhythmic, chant-keen-prowl melody without actual words . . . definitely not house, not quite speed metal caterwauling, nor thrash, and certainly not a grunge growl, but whatever this . . . sound was, it was definitely hard-core. And miles beyond any alternative music I’d heard before . . .

More like . . . elemental. Pre-primitive, but with a hybrid industrial/thrash/techno back-beat swooping in and around every flutter and trill of that incredible, inexhaustible set of pipes.

And as I listened, I felt myself wanting, needing to move, to just free whatever it was that made me alive in my body, to shake flesh and bones and pulsing blood to that impossibly fast over 140 beats per minute melody . . . I can’t remember getting up, but a couple of minutes into the song, I was up and dancing around the cluttered, musty-aired room, my limbs jerking from places deep within me, my head rolling sinuously on my neck, my eyes almost but not quite closed, as if I’d just dropped a cocktail of smart drugs, or E—

—but when I found myself face-to-face with one of them, it was like a switch had been shut off in my brain, leaving me frozen in unblinking place before the wall opposite Westmisley’s ebony desk.

I was virtually eye-to-eye with a trio of the most gawd-awful ugly . . . constructions I’d ever seen anywhere, be I sober or stoned, and as I gazed at their oddly slick and slightly moist-looking surfaces, I wondered how their owner could bear to look at them while sitting serenely behind his desk, especially since their lidless eyes were all but locked on his shielded ones.

They were about twenty-some inches tall, like baby dolls, only no kid would’ve taken one of those things to bed with her. Big bald heads, the skulls ivory-pale with nary a hint of hair stubble, just filmy-thin shiny flesh, with gelid glassy eyes set into the sockets and open jaws filled with glistening over-sized ivory teeth. No hint of flesh on the exposed arms, just finely-carved bones attached to each other with some sinewy-looking waxy amber threads. The rest of the bodies were wrapped in quasi-mummy-style linen bandages, culminating in a blunted point where the feet should’ve been. Repulsive as they were, I couldn’t stop staring at them; whoever fashioned these images did an ingenious job of waxing or varnishing or . . . wetting the surfaces to make everything glisten in a not-sunny-but-it-should-be manner, so that the skulls and their pencil-thin arm bones shone like they were resting under clear, clean water instead of being exposed to the drying, polluted L.A. air.

Just then, the song died away, culminating in a fevered, intense whisper before the final triumphant whoop, and I was able to speak once more, now that the song had released my body and mouth.

“Wha . . . what are those things?”

“What do you think they might be?” That same cold toying voice I’d heard upon entering the building. Not wishing to be suckered in again by the sheer power of his ability to possess things, to manipulate that which was just beyond his reach, I concentrated on the middle figure, taking in the gelid yet hazy tan-irised eyes, and began, “Uhm . . . representations of dead people—”

“Warm,” he conceded.

“Or . . . life after death, like spirits?” After the intense work-out I’d just experienced, I still had trouble organizing my thoughts.

“Waaarmer . . . “

“Really old spirits,” I ventured, to which he replied in a terse whisper, “Hot . . . they’re Kakodiamones. Ancient Greek for evil spirits. Very rare representations . . . I acquired them three years ago or so—”

Without needing for him to explain further, I realized he was talking about his final yacht voyage; within months of returning home he’d haunted every cancer clinic in the world, trying to halt the fast-spreading, disfigurinig melanomas which threatened to all but rot the flesh off his carcass—the indy ‘zines and even Loder on MTV attributed it to too much time spent lounging in equatorial and Mediterranean sunlight and not enough time spent smearing on sunblock. As my gaze cautiously roamed his corrugated flesh, while I tried to appear as if I were maintaining polite eye contact, I was struck by the irony of such a powerful, old-money dude not bothering to shell out a few bucks for a case of SPF thirty-two sunscreen, but then again, if what I’d read in those same indy rags was true, parts of his body which didn’t show in polite company were still . . . viable, according to those ex-mistresses who were willing or able to say anything at all about him.

After taking in every ridge, wattle, and unexpected contour of his face, I realized that the subject of his repulsive, spit-shined figurines might hit too close to home, make him uncomfortable (or possibly invoke his legendary, quirky temper), so I took a conversational side-step and asked, “Isn’t that inscription over your outer door Greek too?” in an over-confident voice which made me cringe in retrospect, for Westmisley’s puce-mottled shining lips jerked into a chilly smile. “Just warmish, if that. Actually, it’s from the Latin . . . Virgil was a Roman, after all. It means, “I fear the Greeks even when they offer gifts.”

Glancing back at the stiff trio, I remarked, “Considering what they look like, no wonder Virgil said—”

The puckered skin of his lips twisted into a full moue as he answered in a slightly peevish tone, “I’m certain that Virgil wasn’t referring to Katharine, Kerenze, and Kristine here—” Noting my puzzled expression, he elaborated with a crépe-lidded wink. “I’ve found the best way of dealing with the unknown and the frightening is trivialization, condescending pet names, inappropriately silly—”

“‘Silly,’” I found myself echoing with a dumb nod of my head, until Westmisley’s expression shifted from indulgent to irritated, then, with a flick of his clawed hand, he indicated the concealed tape deck in his desk-top and asked, “Well, what do you think of this?”

Giving Westmisley my most sincere would-be model smile, I began slowly, while making my way back to that impossibly pneumatic chair, “The singer . . . god, she’s fabulous. Just incredible . . .” Then, remembering that Westmisley had actually composed music, back in his Fluxus art-fart days, I backtracked, “. . . I mean the music itself was fantastic, but that voice . . . to sing like that, she must’ve been opera-trained, like Pat Benatar, or Linda—”

At that, Westmisley again pursed his lips into a crooked moue, as if I’d insulted his newest musical acquisition in an unknown way, so I quickly added, while trying to lean forward, “But she blows them away, no contest. I’d love to see the reaction of the first rave crowd who hears her—”

It was then, for just a fraction of a second, that he let down his guard—or at least allowed whatever it was that he was thinking or feeling to change his expression; no sooner had I uttered those last words than his features softened, as his eyes (through the tinted lenses) grew wistful, their surfaces sheened with unmistakable moisture, and, for a moment, he once again resembled the fairly-good-looking-in-a-snooty-British-fop-way producer he’d been before the low-hanging Mediterranean sun made his skin go supernova. It was like this song, this singer, meant so incredibly much to him; the pride he felt at that moment was all but palpable—

—and, watching his ruined features melt with inner warmth, something went slightly soft and vulnerable in me; looking back on it, I can only describe what happened to me as being like that . . . momentum thing which occurs when you lift up one of those hanging steel balls and let it strike the rest of the balls suspended from that rack of five or six balls, when the moment of impact causes the last ball in line to fly free of its fellow balls. You’d think the last ball in line moved in sympathy with the first ball, rather than it being a controlled, impersonal reaction. His changed expression was that first ball. And my feelings were free-flying far from reality when my eyes registered those shifting features . . .

There was a beat of silence as I let my voice trail off, then, while I still flew high and loose, words tumbled out of my mouth.

“I’ve been to a few raves, but nothing they played matched this . . . it’s . . . it’s like you tapped into her, and put all of her there is on to a master tape . . . it’s life, in a song. Something that sweeps you into it and doesn’t let go until it’s done with you—”

Cutting off my stream of babble with one slicing motion of his curved right hand, Westmisley leaned forward ever so slightly, and asked softly, his voice teasing in its insouciance, “What do you suppose she looks like, while singing?” Then, as if sensing that I’d need prompting in order to answer him, he thumbed on the tape player, albeit at a lower volume. I concentrated as I listened, letting my mind paint an image to match the voice before I spoke again.

“Wild . . . jerking like Janis Joplin, not holding back at all . . . sweating, she’s dripping . . . hair’s all spiked where she’s run her hands through it as she sings . . . I see her dripping with chains, little rings digging into her skin between them . . . if she’s wearing anything, it’s mostly ripped off from all her flailing around . . . ribcage is heaving, the hollow of her throat is fluttering . . . she’s just sweating and gleaming there—”

The silence which followed that wordless melody was painfully loud and echoing in my ears. I slumped back against the billowing padding of my chair, eyes half closed, and finished, more to myself than to him, “—then she just collapses in a shiny heap, panting softly. That’s . . . that’s what I see when I hear her . . .”

“I suppose that’s one way of picturing her,” Westmisley reflected in a tone which somehow suggested that his mental image was far, far different from mine—but also one he was disinclined to share.

Before I could ponder his words (as I’ve done so, so many times since), he smiled again, then added, “How would you like to . . . act out what you’ve just described to me?”

That time, I needed no time to reflect on his words—or their implicit meaning. I’d been knocking around L.A. and the fringes of the music scene long enough to recognize his pitch for what it was, as my mind scolded me What else did you think he’d want from you? Did you think you had any talent he could exploit?

He was talking C & C Music Factory, Black Box, even Milli Vanilli time. As if I was some hick bitch who’d just stepped off the Greyhound from Bible-Belt, USA in search of instant fame-’n’-fortune.

“I won’t lip synch,” I said tersely, remembering all the negative press those video body-doubles had accumulated so quickly—and so permanently. I was about to get up and leave when Edan replied softly, his voice almost seductive in its faux warmth, “But I know what you do do . . . you wait in an overpriced, undersized apartment, waiting for your barely-in-the-loop agent to come through with yet another crotch shot or back-of-the-stage-only video shoot. Between each ever-more-infrequent gig, you wait. Growing a little older, a little less firm, a little less ‘in’ and a lot more desperate. I’ve checked your . . . résumé. You’ve tumbled from B-flick body-doubling to Euro-market crotch-grinds for U.S. made-for-TV films. And despite what our sweet friend Kenny assured you, that nipple-sore guitar god has spread the word about that wicked incisor of yours—”

“But it was what you had in mind when—you used me—”

“Shouldn’t one use what is bought? And if so, isn’t re-using it up to the owner, too?”

I stood up, ready to head for that Open Sesame door . . . knowing that what waited for me beyond that endless, empty plush-floored hallway was just as barren—and without any potential surprises lurking behind those paper-cut-edged doors. I knew I was meat . . . which meant being devoured or left to rot. I sat down again, biting my lips to keep quiet, while Westmisley purred, “Thought you’d agree . . . now, how limber are you? I expect more than a mere mouthing . . . my divas dance,” he added with a spittle-flying burst of emphasis that made this slab of meat begin squirming on the plate, as if I’d been cut into steak but not yet placed on the sizzling grill—

Trying to remember if Genius Productions Ltd.’s client roster boasted any other high-profile diva types, I decided to buy mental sorting-out time by asking, in an off-hand tone, “Poor thing . . . she must be terribly fat, or homely, for you to go through all this trouble . . . I’ve seen how the press eats performers alive when word gets out about them doubling for a singer . . . but with a voice like hers, could she really be that bad-looking?”

Once the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them, for surely I didn’t have enough clout to get away with a taunt like that with someone as hideous-looking as Edan Westmisley . . . but his reaction proved to be far more frightening than an unleashed flood of curses or show of temper could’ve been—

—he simply leaned back in his chair, laced his talon-like fingers behind the back of his had-to-be-wigged head . . . and began laughing, a deep, bubbling-from-his-toes chuckle that soon brought pearl-like tears to his shielded eyes and exposed both rows of teeth back to the first molars. He rode his swivel chair like a bronco, while the laughter erupted from his heaving chest, as if he were mentally replaying Monty Python’s “Killing Joke” skit, prior to him keeling over in a spent heap of ruined flesh—then he simultaneously stopped rocking back and forth and placed his tight-skinned curved hands on the desk before him, while regarding me with a sly, I-know-something-you-don’t smile.

“How bad do you suppose she looks?”

Like you, prick, my mind raged, while I forced my lips to smile prettily before replying tentatively, as if this were simply another mind-game, “Oh, overweight, no tan . . . couch-potato city—”

“Brrr . . . cold, cold, cold,” he teased in a voice that carried no hint of humor, while his eyes danced and glittered behind the dark convex glass.

Remembering some article in Spin mentioning that the only artists signed to his label were bands, all-male bands—(my divas dance)

—I shrugged my shoulders and tried, “Stringy hair and skin like the inside of an English muffin,” not caring how he’d react; true, he may’ve just been referring to divas in general before, but that “my” was far too possessive to be figurative . . .

“Hmmm . . . warmish, but not very.” He still half-smiled.

Glancing at his wall-ensconced trophies for inspiration, I ventured, “Bug-eyed, or cross-eyed?” while staring at that Indonesian mask, and was rewarded with “Warmer . . .”

Wishing that this guy was into harmless quirks like chomping down on ash-breaded apple cores, I laced my fingers in front of my waist before suggesting, “Too skinny . . . like she’d make Kate Moss look like a blimp?”

“Uuummm, warm—”

Mentally tallying my “warm” score, I formed a mind-picture that looked teasingly familiar . . . even if it was too impossibly ugly to be seriously considered. He has to be playing another Genius mind-game . . . like that sign outside. I’m just seeing pieces . . . all I have to do is step back a few paces to get it

Shifting slightly in that pillow-like chair, I looked around at walls that stared back at me, and asked, “Is it true that this studio is called “Genius” in honor of your I.Q. score when you were a boy in England? I’ve read that in a couple of articles—”

“Which means more than one person has bollixed it up, doesn’t it?” Westmisley’s smile was a lop-sided smirk, underscoring the peevishness of his voice, as he went on, “It’s yet another reference to the Romans, like Virgil . . . they believed that just as each woman had her Juno, so a man had his Genius. A spirit which gives each person his or her being, a sort of guardian angel, protecting them throughout their lives. Although sometimes said protection is very limited indeed,” Edan mused, as his stub of a finger caressed one cratered cheek, “forcing the person to seek out other forms of protection.”

“You’re really into ancient cultures, aren’t you,” I asked as brightly and wide-eyed-video-queenly as possible, hoping that he’d dropped the “warmer” game for good. I thought that if I could pull his attention back to himself, to his all-consuming needs, he’d forget that I’d been gauche enough to ask why my services would be needed by him . . . especially after he’d taken such pains to remind me exactly why I couldn’t turn down his offer . . .

But I’d forgotten that meat shouldn’t think or hope at all.

“‘Into ancient cultures,’” he echoed softly, each syllable eating into the room’s silence like a drop of acid, leaning forward slightly and adding in that same stinging, biting whisper, “All of us, me, you, that spotty lout with the edible body ornament, my lovely friend Kenneth, every man-jack of us, is the result of ancient culture. Nothing’s new, nothing. No artwork, no song, no work of literature . . . nothing at all. Different configurations, that’s all. Took me a long time to realize that, starting in the sixties, back when all my co-conspirators in artistic challenge were trying to set this bloody sphere of water and mud on its arse. Only then, I was content to haul out what was very old and try to pass it off as new by changing bits of it around. Music as art form, or some self-deluding rot like that.

“But I wasn’t any more profound than Yoko was with her bare bum—which included my vertical smile, by the way, before I broke free of the whole Fluxus movement. No one realized how far back I’d been digging for my work . . . probably because I didn’t go back far enough. Nothing I’d done was old enough to be new. Which was so frustrating. The kind of frustrating one needs to get out of one’s system in any way, any form . . . When I couldn’t do what I needed to do, I switched gears, went the ‘those-who-can’t-do-teach’ route, only for musicians, ‘can’t do’ becomes ‘can produce’ . . .

“That gave me credibility, additional power . . . as if I really needed more,” he added, with an icy-toothed grin.

“Yet I never got over my love of what was old, what was exotic simply because it was old enough to be forgotten. Quite an addiction, actually a bigger rush than the usual hands-on power games I’d played since I was in short pants . . . and if one can do that ferreting into the forgotten times, forgotten places, all on one’s lonesome, quite unlike a curly-headed tot, that rush can be intoxicating. Better than dropping ecstasy or listening to derivative house-techno-thrash gibberish,” he admitted with a self-deprecating wave of his hands.

“Although this last time around, I quite outdid myself . . . I certainly outstayed my welcome in the Mediterranean, at least as far as that curly-haired, cherubic former tot was concerned . . . But,” he confided with a wink in my too-confused-to-react direction, “the fact that my personal Genius chose that time to go on temporary holiday was outweighed by what I brought back with me—aside from my obvious ‘gift’ from Apollo, of course . . . you do realize that Apollo was the Greek sun god, no?”

“I’m not dumb,” I whispered. “I’ve been to college—”

“So have I, so have . . . tons of them. I suppose it was what I learned there that put me in this fix—” again he tapped his lopped-off finger against his flesh, producing a drum-like leathery thonk that turned my stomach and guts to mush—”all those tales Thomas Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton translated from the Greek . . . all those marvelous creatures with unbelievable, fantastic attributes. What I wouldn’t have given to have heard the melody of Pan’s pipes, or the song of the Sirens luring sailors to their doom—can you imagine how captivating, how alluring, their voices must’ve been for men to risk all, forsake all, just to continue listening to that deadly melody under that lethal sun? And think, not one of them lived long enough to find out what sort of throat produced such bewitching arias, alas—”

Unsuccessfully trying to sit upright in that adiposity-squishy chair, I flicked a strand of hair out of my eyes and said, “But none of them died . . . the Sirens were just a myth, like the Cyclops and the witch who turned men into pigs and dogs, so nobody missed—”

All he did was smile at that, but the genuine nature of that smile, the eye-crinkling completeness of it, shut me up faster than a back-handed smack across the lips.

And think, not a one of them lived long enough—

My agent wasn’t the only man in L.A. who literally spoke in italics . . . but Edan was no closet-queen, like Gerhard, or sweet, gentlemanly Kenny. Westmisley used his verbal italics most sparingly . . . most pointedly—

And as he continued to smile at me, his vaguely reptilian flesh merrily crinkled around those dancing eyes (my divas dance), I felt that burning pressure on my exposed back and shoulders, as if a steady gaze was being aimed my way, only Kenny’s appellation “shoulder eyes” didn’t cut it at all—what I felt was more like “shoulder daggers”—

Hundreds of painted, carved and inlaid eyes watched me impassively as I gracelessly clawed my way out of that cupped fleshy palm of a chair, dropping unceremoniously to my knees before I was able to regain my footing and make for that closed pocket door, my hands extended before me like those of the newly-blind, as I tried to walk while peering through cast-down lids and capri-shell lashes, so as not to see those shiny-raw things Edan had so playfully named after collecting them—if, indeed, he’d merely obtained them at all—but just before Westmisley obligingly opened that sealed Lucite door, and it shwicked aside in a rush of sterile, unscented displaced air, I heard his soft, soft whisper behind me.

“Much waaarmer . . .”

• • • •

Edan Westmisley’s latest diva, capriciously dubbed “Cer-een,” made her first and last appearance at a rave held in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Santa Monica a few weeks later. And while the cops blamed what happened on some bad “E” which was passed out that evening and early morning, the fact that all the people who died were men more than told me what had really gone down. From what those who survived had to say to Spin and Circus, or (at much greater length, and in gorier detail) to the tabloids, Edan had actually listened to me that afternoon, in as far as what I’d said about what the singer looked like. Whoever the lip-syncher was, she’d been far more desperate than I was—word was she was pierced in places no sane person should allow themselves to be pierced, and that her black spiked hair resembled bits of wire shoved in her scalp. Nobody mentioned how well she moved; after she opened her mouth behind the headset microphone, things like writhing and being limber didn’t matter at all. But what went down in that strobe-lit warehouse didn’t derail Westmisley’s latest diva; he merely sidestepped the issue by using that voice as an un-credited sound-bite on other Genius records . . . which is probably what he meant to do all along. Or what he should’ve done, if he hadn’t been consumed by his twisted need for revenge, after his own flesh went nova . . . the price paid for living through what no man before him had survived.

The press almost found him out after one dance-mix engineer decided to isolate the voice from the rest of a bootleg tape made during the Santa Monica rave, but when his wife found him dead in his home studio, word was she only played so much of the tape before setting fire to it, and the studio itself.

Even that episode did nothing to stop Edan from blowing his own horn one last time . . . Just as he’d predicted, I was sitting in my over-priced, too-small apartment, watching my expanding waistline in my hall closet mirror and not really caring one iota about my increasing girth, when the Express Mail package came. There wasn’t much in it, just a cassette, some photos in a plain manila envelope, and a self-taped video. No note, no last verbal jab . . . although once I heard that naked, raw voice on the tape, torn free of the lulling, masking over-dubbed music, and thumbed the eight-by-ten inch black-and-white photos out of the envelope, I couldn’t bring myself to watch whatever it was he’d videotaped, for I knew I wasn’t nearly insane enough to live with myself after watching it. The way Edan was, or had become after his last voyage in the land of the Sirens. And before he’d turned the tables on them in memory of every other man they’d managed to kill.

I’ve since burned the photos, but removing the images from my mind isn’t as easy as licking off a tattoo the hard way. He’d kept them as they originally were for a time, long enough to photograph them. Aside from being small, delicate, they were more or less human looking. Before he flayed them, taping their voices as he did so. But only above the waist; after they finally died, and were preserved with whatever it was he used to render them glassy-hard above, it was obvious from the lone shot of the unwrapped one that he’d taken pains to keep the flesh of the legs and what was between them soft enough to keep enjoying, perhaps in honor of those who’d died before being able to enjoy them.

After all, word was that the skin cancer didn’t ruin all of his skin . . .

But, despite my own flabby body and my descent into crotch shots, despite all that Westmisley did to ruin me, I’ve never needed or wanted to personally verify that rumor . . .

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A.R. Morlan

A.R. Morlan’s short fiction (under her own name and three pen names) has been published or is forthcoming in over one hundred twenty different magazines, anthologies, and webzines in the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. Her stories are collected most recently in Of Vampires & Gentlemen: Tales of Erotic Horror, The Fold-O-Rama Wars at the Blue Moon Roach Hotel and Other Colorful Tales of Transformation and Tattoos, The Chimera and the Shadowfox Griefer and Other Curious People, and The Hemingway Kittens and Other Feline Fancies and Fantasies.