/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

NightWhere

John Everson

"NightWhere" is a great new novel from John Everson. Though I highly recommend the book to all fans of horror and suspense, this does come with the warning that the subject matter is extremely graphic and intense in both sexual and violent content. It is never gratuitous, however, for to hold back anything depicted in its pages would betray the premise and the book would suffer for it. “NightWhere” proves that not only has Everson grown as an artist over the last ten books, he is also brave enough to follow a story where it leads. Stephen King stated that once he finished “Pet Sematary” he put it away in a drawer thinking it too extreme for publication. The shock and awe of this high adrenaline narrative has much the same effect of that King novel or “The Exorcist.” As with many great horror novels, we begin with normalcy. Mark and Rae seem a happily married couple but for one main problem-Mark cannot satisfy his wife’s insatiable sex drive. He agrees to an open marriage and this works for them, up to the point of accepting an invitation to NightWhere, a covert sex club. In this new completely uninhibited environment, Rae finally achieves sexual satisfaction from some extreme BDSM provided there. She is then hurled into the perverse and violent inner sanctum of The Watchers who run NightWhere, disappearing from Mark’s life after the last time she goes to the club alone. I will not spoil the plot further except to state that Mark does truly love Rae and embarks on a quest to bring her back from the apparent damnation the club has drawn her into. This sets the book apart from other extreme horror novels I have read that explore similar themes. When the novel shifts to the POV of this tortured soul, the reader is right there with him, experiencing the degradation he continues to endure in hope of freeing Rae. I read the book quickly and felt kind of exhausted and devastated at the end. The book is extremely well written, providing the kind of reading experience you get from Cormac McCarthy “The Road” or Scott Smith’s “The Ruins”-relentless in both realism and emotional impact. If you can endure the extreme horror of writers like Edward Lee, I highly recommend this risky venture by John Everson. He takes the reader into the bleak darkness of addiction and obsession, but rather than relying on gore and shock, it is his emotionally charged depictions of the damned characters at its core that keep you hooked. – George Wilhite

John Everson

NightWhere

© 2012

This one’s for all those krazy, kinky kids who loved The 13 th, especially Meli Hooker, Colum McKnight and Sarah Ham. I hope this one gives you deeper, darker, decadent dreams.

Acknowledgments

NightWhere has been with me a long time. I first thought of the dangerously erotic, if still murky concept before I finished the final draft of Covenant, my very first novel. I remember telling Charlee Jacob about the idea during the World Horror Convention back in 2002, and I remember her urging me to sit my ass down and write it.

It took me a while to heed her advice, but ten books and ten years later, I finally put the last touches on NightWhere. Along the way, there have been many, many people who have been supportive and helpful in ways they probably don’t even know. I can’t list them all, but I do need to thank my editor, Don D’Auria, for taking me with him to Samhain and giving me the green light to go down this deep red path. And as always, thanks to my wife, Geri, and my son, Shaun, for indulging and letting me take the time away to go there. An appreciative nod also for support and inspiration over the years to Charlee Jacob, Edward Lee, Lucy Taylor, Tim Waggoner, Jonathan Maberry, Gerard Houarner, Jeffrey Thomas, Dave Barnett, James Roy Daley, Cheryl Mullenax, Bryan Smith and W.D. Gagliani.

I’ve been lucky to have many readers and reviewers follow me along for the ride through all of these strange and twisted stories, and want to thank Peter Schwotzer, Nick Cato, Colleen Wanglund, Tony Tremblay and Nanci Kalanta in particular for their support, as well as my longtime “street team” members P.S. Gifford, Sheila Halterman, Sheila Mallec, Erik Smith, Paul Legerski, Dave Benton, Lincoln Crisler, Peg Phillips, Martel Sardina, Raymond Brown and Damian Maffei. Finally, huge thanks to my Euro-horror connection, Rich Baldwin, and my web guru and horror movie co-host, Lon Czarnecki, (you should see the film fests we hold in my basement!)

It’s been a really long time in coming, so I hope all of my readers enjoy this twisted tale. I enjoyed, in a most perverse way, writing it…

Prologue

The world stretched away in a field of stalks. They were everywhere, as far as the eye could see. At first glance, it looked like a cornfield-branch after branch after branch of amber leaves standing quiet and still in the faint summer breeze.

But then Colum looked closer and saw that the amber wasn’t truly amber. The color was lighter, more suffused with a blend of white and pink. They were waves of fleshy grain, not amber.

And flesh was a good color description, because the stalks weren’t grain.

The top of each thin trunk held a head. Blonde hair hung in ragged curls down the shoulders of many, while many other scalps were shaved. The brunettes stood out in the field, their dark locks looking almost like spoiled produce in the midst of so much pale flesh.

Because it was truly a field of flesh. Thin, naked bodies all standing straight and tall, arms at their sides, heads forced to stare straight ahead. Nobody hung their face, nobody lifted their arms. The sea of naked men and women stood as one, stiff and ready. They stared in one direction and blinked only occasionally.

Mostly, they just stared.

And waited.

What the hell was this place? He’d gone down a corridor, looking for a private place to smoke. And somehow he’d gotten turned around. Meli always said he had no sense of direction. Of course she was always the one who liked to give direction. He imagined right now, back in the Blue Room, she’d already surrounded herself with five guys, all of whom were following her commands and working with hands and lips to pleasure different portions of her anatomy. He needed to get back there, to enjoy the view. But the old wooden door hadn’t led him back to the swingers club, it had led him to this…true obscenity. A Halloween nightmare.

He walked forward until he stood at the beginning of the field and now could see the details of the bodies. He saw the breasts of the women, sagging or proud, and the bellies, wrinkled or taut. He saw the veins on their thighs and the hair between their legs…or lack of hair. He saw the men interspersed between the hags and girls. Some had torsos covered in dark, wiry hair and others were pale and smooth. Their cocks all hung slack and still, despite being surrounded by nudity.

He walked through the field of naked humanity. As he looked closer, he saw not simply the tits and cocks.

He saw open gashes and the scars.

He saw the rips across the women’s nipples, the trails of past abuse sewn back in heavy black thread to something near normal. He saw the jagged rips across the men’s bellies, pink worms of flesh that cut through the black hair. He saw the stumps where arms once had been and the holes that earlobes once had covered.

And he saw the blood, still flowing.

This field had been flayed, but left alive to grow back in place, to recover. The scarecrows of the damned.

“Get out now,” a whisper came from somewhere deep within the bodies.

He looked at the nearest face and saw a man missing his lower jaw. A mound of pink had scarred above his windpipe, and a handful of broken teeth still clung to a gnarled mass of pink flesh and yellowing bone that grew beneath a crushed mound that might once have been a nose.

The face did not move. Its eyes did not blink.

He looked down and saw a latticework of pink that cut across the man’s shoulders and chest. Scars from some horrible beating or accident. Scars like a road map to a destination that…he did not want to know about.

“Are you the harvest, or the harvester?” a voice asked from somewhere inside the bodies.

Voices whispered from deep within the rows of bodies. The field of flesh suddenly drew a breath as one. The sound was slow and deep…a building gasp of communal awareness. Fear.

He could see the field shifting violently a dozen or more rows down the line. He heard something scrape against stone and then a scream. He turned, trying to locate the sound. But his vision was blocked everywhere by the bodies. And all of them had turned, if they could, craning their heads to stare at him, openmouthed.

“What?” he hissed at the woman closest to him. Her bloodshot blue eyes looked as if she’d pried them open with toothpicks. Her lips were drawn back in the semblance of a scream.

Nearby, to his left, someone did.

“Are you the harvest, or the harvester?” a voice called again from deep in the field.

Colum turned and saw something black rise above the heads of the bodies just a few rows beyond. The bodies in that area seemed to move and shake, as if a heavy wind was cutting through the field. Then he saw it again, a row closer. And again.

He began to back up, stepping down the narrow stone path towards the doorway that he knew was behind him. Somewhere. He hadn’t walked that far.

And then he saw the pole moving through the field and the long, curved silver blade at its end.

And the black-hooded man who carried it. The figure raised the scythe high in the air, taking aim.

The bodies all around him were staring in ghastly silence, breath drawn, as if waiting for him to say something. Do something. A whisper came at his shoulder.

“Run.”

But it was too late for that. The blade descended.

And someone in the field finally answered the insistent question.

“The harvest.”

Chapter One

Invitation

Rae

The phone call that changed Mark’s life came on a Monday. It was a particularly Mondayish Monday, in fact, and Mark was just getting into the car at 6:40 p.m. after an amazingly shitty first day of the week. He was already praying for the weekend and the week had only just begun.

Then the phone rang.

“Mark?” a thin, high voice asked through the line. “Mark, it came!” she said. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

It came?” he asked. “What is…it?”

“The invitation.” Rae’s voice trembled. Mark’s heart clenched.

“Did you open it?” he breathed.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t want to open it without you.” Her voice sounded a thousand miles away.

“Then how can you be sure?”

“I just am,” she said. “The envelope is plain but there are red letters on it that say To Mark and Rae.”

Mark shrugged. “Uh huh. Anytime I see an invitation that’s addressed to both you and me, I think utterly crazy thoughts too.” He cleared his throat. “But you don’t even know who it’s from.”

“Mark, there’s only one place this could be from. I think our names are written in lipstick, and there’s a big cock drawn in between them. I don’t think this is an advertisement from Macy’s.”

Mark smiled. “I’ll be home in fifteen.”

The invitation was simple. When you flipped open the folded front page, the inside read: “You asked for it. You have one chance to get it. Come to 2367 Riverside Ave. in Chicago tonight at 9 p.m.”

Mark held his breath as he read the words a second time. “How can we be sure this is it?” he asked. “I mean, it could be someone from another club we’ve been to.”

Rae smiled, and the blue of her eyes seemed to stretch into a silent laugh that always warmed Mark’s groin.

“Hold it up to the light,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.

He did.

As he did, he breathed in sharply. “Damnit, Janet,” he whispered.

The invitation was watermarked. Just enough to be visible in the light. Across the paper in nearly invisible letters it read: “NightWhere”.

Amelia

Amelia Hammond held the invitation in one hand. With the other, she fingered the scars on her chest. She could still feel the burning sensation of the night those trails had been etched in her skin; just the touch of her nails brought back the memory. Her skin shivered.

It remembered…

Illicit kisses and tawdry teases and…

…pain.

She peeled off the bra and continued to trace the white lines that fractured her breasts. She looked like a porcelain doll that had been glued back together after a fall from a tall shelf. Her nipples grew hard as she followed the map of her past. She loved the sensation as they contracted and pulled against the wide brown silver dollars of her areolas. There was a tension that filled her veins, a need.

And in the air of her darkened bedroom, she could hear a voice whisper.

The Red.

She knew the voice wasn’t in her mind. It was in the room with her. Invisible, but present. It spoke to her every night when she turned out the lights. Sometimes she left them on, hoping to escape into sleep before the whispers began.

The Red.

She shivered again, but this time not in pleasure.

In fear.

The truth was, she needed what lay beyond the heavy wooden door of The Red. But it took something from her every time. It was like a drug. She needed the pain, the degradation…she needed to let herself go all the way down. The lower she crawled, the better it felt. There was a snake inside her, and it twisted the humiliation and pain in her head to become a bitter, honeyed pleasure.

The Red was her cocaine.

Every morning after, she promised herself that she would not go back, that she would save some piece of herself from defilement. She picked up her acoustic guitar for the next few nights after and wrote songs about salvation and finding strength.

And every time the invitation came, she stripped out of her work clothes to stand naked and wanting in her bedroom, asking herself if she could do it again. She fingered the scars she’d earned the last time she broke her promise. And then she always went to her closet, pushed the blue business suits and conservative blouses aside, and pulled out the clothes she yearned to wear everyday from their shelf in the back. The trappings of fetish. She rolled on her black stockings and slipped her silky legs into her leather boots and sucked in her belly to tie up her black lace corset. Within the hour she would be at the address, whatever address, that was on the invitation. Amelia was a junkie for the flesh, for the pleasure, for the pain.

She needed NightWhere. The Blue Room had just been the beginning for her. It was child’s play now. Now…Amelia needed the heat and the bite and the blood of the labyrinth of The Red.

Though she wasn’t sure how much longer she could survive it.

Amelia set down the invitation and pulled her black stockings on.

Gordon

Sometimes Gordon Hayworth thought the whole fucking human race oughta be taken out, lined up against a wall and shot. He’d pull the trigger, if need be, but damned if he was going to go through the work to round them all up. Bastards would die with or without him anyway; the whole lot were stupid as shit.

Gordon enjoyed the images of these violent musings while sitting in traffic on I-355. He watched as a black Camry pulled out of the left lane and shot forward on the gravel shoulder, trying to barrel past all of the other hopeless idiots also trapped on the highway.

The Camry suddenly swerved and a sharp pop cut the air. Tire blowout, probably due to road debris. “That’s why you don’t drive on the shoulder, asshole!” Gordon yelled. The Camry jagged wildly and the driver overcorrected, plowing right into the door of a blue Dodge pickup.

Gordon laughed. “Now that…” he said, “…is justice. Asshole.” He turned up the radio and started singing along to a Boston song. It calmed his nerves.

The ride home sucked. It always sucked, but tonight…it was especially sucky. And Gordon was still in an especially foul mood when he stepped up the walk to his two-bedroom bungalow in Glendale Heights a half hour later.

The front screen door was unlocked (and it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been locked, since the giant rent in the screening rendered any lock a pointless formality).

Something crashed from inside as the screen creaked open and Gordon tossed his backpack to the floor. “Helloooo?” he called.

From the back bedroom, a thin, bedraggled woman hurried out, shaking her head. Her thin white tank top was plastered to her thin white form with sweat, and the straps to her black bra were tackily obvious across her shoulders.

“I hope you’re ready for something good,” Gordon said and cupped both hands around her waist. She squirmed in his grasp and tilted her head away as he bent to kiss her.

“Bitch!” he complained.

From the back bedroom a child cried.

“Don’t waste it on me,” she warned. “I got nothing left for you tonight, and you got one of them fancy invites again to your favorite club. So go do someone who cares. Or doesn’t care, I guess.”

She slapped an envelope against his chest and then pushed herself out of his grasp as he took it.

“I can take you with me,” he offered, for the umpteenth time.

The thin, angry woman shook her head. “Go beat and fuck whoever you want. Just pay the rent and feed your kid when you’re done, okay? I don’t care about the rest.”

From the room behind them, the crying escalated.

“What’s the matter with Freddy?” Gordon asked.

“He needs love,” she said. “Just like the rest of us. Not that you would understand that.”

With that she turned and disappeared back to the child’s room. Gordon poked his head in and looked at his baby, quiet now that it had its mother’s full attention, mouth on her breast. There’d been a time that the same act-only his mouth on her nipple-would have quieted the noise in Gordon’s head. But that time was gone. He needed more than just a tit now. A lot more.

He went back to their bedroom and stripped out of the clothes of the day. Then, still naked, he reached into the back of his closet and pulled out a leather handle. The rest of the whip followed, and he cracked it once on the bedroom floor.

For the first time in ten hours, Gordon Hayworth smiled.

Chapter Two

Initiation

“It’s almost eight thirty,” Mark called up the stairs.

Rae poked her head out of the bathroom, her hair spiked and gelled to look both windblown and styled. He loved the way the blonde strands wove in and out of the darker dyed stripes, married by the honey of her natural color. She looked perky and sassy, a girl who could laugh and kiss at the same time. Right now, her two hands were working on inserting an earring as she spoke.

“I know, I know, I know,” she said. “Who wants this the most? Don’t you think I’m hurrying? I’ll be ready in five.”

“Not sure if they will let you in if you’re late,” he teased, pacing. His stomach churned. Mark felt more nervous tonight than the first time they had ventured into the world of the forbidden. From the whispers he had heard in dark rooms about NightWhere, they were about to enter a very different game.

Some people loved the simple life.

But the simple life hadn’t been enough for Mark and Rae. Or at least not for Rae. She had wanted to go farther. Needed something different. Rae desperately loved Mark, but…in the end, he wasn’t enough for her, not really. She had a chasm inside her that begged for more, always more. No single man could or ever would be enough, though she tried to make it work with Mark.

Mark, on the other hand, was smart enough to realize that this wasn’t a slur on him, but simply a quirk of Rae’s psyche. From the moment that he’d met her, sipping tequila and flirting with the bartender at Huevo’s, he’d been completely taken with her. He knew from the start that she was untamable. Nobody could ever own her energy. But she did give a large part of it to him…and that was all he could ask for. He knew in his heart that if he gave her enough rope, she’d never feel trapped and would always come back to him.

And so two years after they had married, when he could tell she was struggling against the need to be faithful and seemed to need more, he had made the suggestion that they try the forbidden.

He would never forget that moment. She’d been lying in bed with him, the sweat of their lovemaking still drying on her bare skin. The sex had been good, but he could tell she was struggling with something. Trying to get more out of it. Trying to get more of him inside her. Trying to find…something deeper between them. Something new. Something to affirm that it was all worthwhile. The sterile white walls of their cookie-cutter suburban frame house were closing in. Day by day their home felt smaller and smaller. The mundane was smothering Rae.

Mark knew he couldn’t give anymore. And so he’d said the words that had changed everything. “Do you want to try having sex with another man?”

Rae hadn’t missed a beat. “Who did you have in mind?”

Mark hadn’t freaked out. His stomach may have contracted a little, and he was a little surprised at how eagerly she’d jumped on the offer, but he’d known in his heart for a while that this was what she really wanted. Rae needed to play or she would wither. And whatever was left between them would die.

“No one in particular. I’ll look for a swingers club if you want” was what he’d said.

“Cool,” she’d answered. When she’d turned to kiss him, her mouth was hotter than it had been during their lovemaking.

And so it had begun.

Mark himself had never needed the variety…not that he didn’t enjoy it. But he had done this all for Rae. And he had to admit, there was a voyeur buried not so deep inside him. There was nothing quite like standing in the shadows and watching her face light up when a guy came on to her and something inside her that had been dark for weeks suddenly ignited.

She couldn’t be contained…but she agreed to stay in Mark’s cage. Still, she lost her light there after a while. Until he let her out of her cage for the night. But, she always chose to go home with Mark.

That was enough for him.

But nothing was ever enough for Rae.

They had slipped easily into the swingers scene and Mark found himself sleeping with more wives than he had ever imagined slept around. Meanwhile, Rae enjoyed a parade of partners who provided both variety and an increasingly dark flair. Sometimes when Mark finished rubbing thighs with his partner of the night in the back of the club, he dressed and walked out onto the floor to find Rae being spanked, whipped or abused at the hands of someone he’d never seen before.

He’d made the mistake of intervening once, in someone’s basement in Humboldt Park, when a tall guy with bleached hair in a Revolting Cocks T-shirt was whipping Rae with a long, flesh-welting twine of leather straps. But when Mark had stepped between her punky abuser and Rae’s naked body, her hands tied up in white silken bonds leaving her helpless to stop the man’s abuse, she’d cried out at him in anger, not relief. “Get out of his way,” she’d demanded. “Just go home. Someone will bring me later.”

Mark tried to give her space, but increasingly he wondered where her dark side was going.

Right around the time he started wondering that was when he first heard the word NightWhere.

A secret sex club.

A place where your wildest fantasies could be enacted.

A place where you could be free… And be a slave.

Somehow each of those appealed equally to Rae.

“I want to go,” she said to him one night at a swingers mixer in the northern suburbs. She’d been masquerading that night as an X-rated cupid, with a fake bow and arrow strapped to her back and a Mardi Gras red mask over her eyes. While she hid part of her face, the rest of her was scandalously unclad. Mark had joked that her red nail polish and lipstick covered more of her than her outfit did-she wore only a tissue-thin piece of see-through red silk across her chest and a barely effective V shield over her crotch. Men groped her body even as Mark talked to her. He wanted to yell at a couple of them: “Could I just finish a conversation with my wife before you grab her tits? Please?”

Behind her, right after she’d blurted her desire to find NightWhere, a hairy-chested man with even fewer clothes on than Rae slipped his arms around her middle and whispered something in her ear. Rae had laughed, tossing her head back. Then she’d looked at Mark and said, “I’ll be back.” Then in a conspiratorial whisper she’d added, “I don’t think he’ll take very long.”

Mark watched as they danced on the private club’s dance floor, first touching only their fingers, and then more, her breasts slipping up and down against his chest. The man drew her hard against his body and she complied, slipping her hands around his back. Her fingers explored his flesh as they ground together on the dance floor, their moves increasingly dirty, as she flaunted her breasts and he grabbed and kneaded her barely covered ass.

This was going to take longer than she thought, Mark had realized, as he’d drifted back to watch it all unfold.

Watching her with another man both excited and humiliated Mark. He loved to watch her as his porno queen but he also realized that, no matter what he did, he would never be enough for her on his own…he was just the thing she turned to when she needed something stable and unmoving. That wasn’t what she needed normally. He was peanut butter…but someone or something else always brought the jelly…

Mark had wound his way deep into the heart of the secret web of Chicagoland swingers clubs with Rae, and sometimes they even traveled to Wisconsin and Indiana gatherings. But ironically, he was always the man at the bar who gave the pity fuck to the woman who was still alone late in the night…he never did straight trades with Rae’s parade of lovers, taking their wives or girlfriends in exchange for his wife…he looked for women whose partners had left them to fend for themselves. It wasn’t a totally intentional act, but maybe he did it because he understood the feelings of the ones left behind.

After the night that he’d asked Rae if she wanted to have sex with another man…the night he had set Rae free to have whomever she wanted…the months melted into years with increasing speed. On most days, Mark was a happily married man, ecstatic to get home from work to kiss his wife. And every few weeks, he was a troubled, but still somewhat happy man who offered her on the seedy underground altars of sex, allowing her to take any comers she chose, to scratch the itch that he could never touch.

Somehow, it had worked.

Until the day that someone had said to them, still hot in the afterglow of a night of musical-chairs sex, “Have you ever heard of NightWhere?” Rae’s eyes had lit up. She certainly had, but had not found anyone who knew how to get to the club. It was like an urban legend in swinger circles. A utopian place where no holes were barred, and no backs were left unscarred.

“Yes,” she’d answered the pale, thin man who’d asked the question. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know how to find it.”

“You don’t find it, it finds you,” the stranger had said, slipping a long arm around Rae’s waist and massaging her nude tummy a moment before descending lower. “You need to be invited.”

“Do you know how to get on the list?” Rae had asked, arching her back slightly and moving her body like a gently dancing snake against the man’s bare chest.

“I can get you an invitation,” the man had said.

That was when the game had changed forever.

There was nothing about the building that would have suggested that behind the brown door was a den of sin. Mark had parked on the street a couple blocks down and they’d walked the cracked and weed-overrun city sidewalk to the address quickly. As much from nervousness of the neighborhood as from anticipation of the night to come. Rae’s heels cracked on the pavement like small gunshots with every step. That’s what Mark thought they sounded like, anyway, until somewhere nearby, maybe a block or two away, something cracked with a larger, fast report. Now that was a gunshot. A moment later, someone screamed. And then the snaps of Rae’s shoes were all that echoed in the night air.

Her steps quickened.

“Not crazy about the neighborhood,” she breathed.

Mark shook his head. “Gotta agree. Though the architecture is tres modern.”

Rae snorted. “Modern Ghetto?”

This was the industrial section of town; the broken sidewalks snugged to brick walls that held no trace of architectural motive, despite Mark’s jibe. These were walls that were simply that-walls. Steel-framed windows flanked in crumbling concrete occasionally interrupted their unwelcoming façade but mainly…these were barricades. Proud factory faces that had grown old and creased with time.

The factories were gone now, and this South Side Chicago neighborhood remained quiet most of the days. Except for the warning shots of gangs and drug deals gone wrong.

“Well, I didn’t figure they’d set up shop at the Four Seasons,” Rae admitted. “But I still don’t like it!”

“It’ll be different inside,” Mark promised.

At last they arrived at the door. There was no sign. No Playboy symbol silhouette or kitschy neon sign saying Open 24 Hours. It was just a door, with the numbers 2367 in rusting letters nailed to the front.

“They could have at least gotten an address like 6969,” Rae said.

“Always looking for the extra kisses, aren’t you?” Mark laughed.

He lifted his hand to knock, but before his fingers touched the wood, the door creaked open six inches.

“Invitation?” a masculine voice demanded.

Mark pulled the folded paper from his front pocket and handed it to the hand that extended through the narrow opening.

The hand disappeared inside.

Mark looked at Rae. Her eyes were narrowed, her anxiety visible.

Mark leaned in to kiss her and she smiled just a little before gently pushing him back and nodding. “I’m okay,” she whispered.

The door opened.

From inside, a sinuous drum-and-bass combo pounded strongly. Blue and red lights reflected off the dark eyes of the doorman, who now revealed himself to them. He was tall, maybe five feet eleven inches, and thin. He wore a black, button-down shirt and dark jeans. Over his shoulder, Rae could see wisps of fog and the movement of tousled hair. A dance floor.

“You’re first-timers,” the doorman said simply. His tone left no room for argument, and Mark nodded.

“I will tell you this now,” the man said, his eyes unblinking. “And I will tell you this only once. You have been given a gift to come here. Very few people receive this invite. But there is a reason. What we do here? It cannot be revealed. Where we hold the club? It cannot be revealed. NightWhere exists where we want it, when we want it. Any member who reveals anything about this club outside the walls of this club…will be killed.”

The man smiled. Thinly. His lips were pink and drawn.

“I’m not joking here,” he said. “If you breathe a word of NightWhere to anyone, you will not live to see tomorrow. We are serious about this; it is the only way that NightWhere can survive.”

The man smiled then, and his teeth were shark white in the shadow. “Go in and sin.”

He moved away from the door and Mark stepped past him uneasily. Rae followed fast, both of them walking past the doorman until they stood in the open foyer. After weeks of wondering whether the subject of the furtive whispers was real, Mark and Rae got their first look at NightWhere.

Rae slipped her arm around Mark’s waist. “It looks normal enough,” she said.

He nodded. “Looks,” he said.

In front of them, a couple dozen men and women moved on an impromptu dance floor, dry-ice smoke jetting out in plumes between their feet. Now and then, when the grey cement of the warehouse floor was fully obscured, Rae could only think of one thing. They were dancing on a cloud.

“This is just the doorway,” Mark said. “Let’s have a drink and get the lay of the land.”

“I thought we were just going to get a lay?” Rae laughed. Mark could see the glint of excitement in her eye. She was anxious for the evening games to begin.

They skirted the dance floor and stepped up to the bar on the other side. A bartendress almost wearing half a black T-shirt and a leather skirt raised one eyebrow as Mark leaned in to order.

“You gonna tell me what to do, or am I gonna tell you what to drink?” she asked. Her voice was low and throaty, but somehow Mark could still hear her above the grind of the dance music.

“How about you make me a gin and tonic and a Corona,” Mark asked.

“Can’t make the Corona, but I’ll pour you one,” she answered with a wink.

“Don’t mind her,” a voice next to them said. “She’s an attitude with a slut.”

“Don’t you mean a slut with an…”

A brawny guy in a white T-shirt turned on his stool and put up a hand to stop Mark’s question. “Nope. I mean she’s one big attitude. And she’ll take it from anyone. Even you, if you’re still drinking here at 3:00 a.m.”

“Like anybody is still out here at the bar at 3:00 a.m.” the dark-haired bartender laughed. She held one slender hand out to Mark, while with the other she pulled the ripped collar of her black T-shirt down to expose her breasts. “I’m Sin-D,” she said. Mark got the cute spelling since one tit had Sin written in black marker, while the other was punctuated with a big D. She released the ripped cotton and pointed at the guy next to Mark.

“This is Asshole.”

The brawny guy laughed. “Thing is, she likes assholes. You’ll find that out if you stay near the bar too long. My name’s Kendrick.”

“Call him Dick for short,” Sin-D chimed in.

“You’ll find that she likes those too,” he answered. He held a hand out to Rae. “You can call me Ken. Or anything else you like.”

Rae felt her face flush as he gripped her hand and held it firmly. His hand was heavy and warm. A serpent was tattooed around his wrist. Rae felt instant, biblical temptation. Mark answered for her when the silence stretched. “Hi, Ken, I’m Mark and this is Rae,” he said. “She’s not usually shy.”

“I said she could call me Ken, not you,” Kendrick said, never taking his eyes off Rae. “And no, I don’t suppose she is shy,” he added, still squeezing her hand, then moving his fingers up to stroke the inside of her wrist. “Or she wouldn’t be here.”

“How much do I owe you,” Mark asked Sin-D as he handed Rae her drink.

She shook her head. “On the house. I live to serve.”

Kendrick looked at Mark and smiled. “First time?”

“Do we stand out that bad?” Mark answered. “No,” Sin-D said. “It’s not that. But we get to know everyone at NightWhere pretty fast-it’s a closed club, you know. So…it’s pretty easy to tell who’s only been here once or twice. After that…”

“After that, Sin-D’s probably slept with you,” Kendrick finished.

The bartendress slugged him. “I hope you’re ready for some welts, mister.”

“She promises a lot, but her flogging arm is soft,” Kendrick said.

“You are soooo going to hurt tomorrow,” Sin-D promised. “I want to warn you about one thing,” she said, moving out from behind the bar. She took Rae’s waist in her hands and moved closer, until the swell of their chests nearly touched.

“You came to NightWhere because you have sexual fantasies that you still have not been able to fulfill. Well…you can do anything you want here. Anything.”

She looked deep into Rae’s eyes, and Rae found herself moving her hands to Sin-D’s shoulders, engaging in the sensual dance.

“You can do anything at all here,” Sin-D said again. “We are invisible. We are outside the law. But you’ll never do anything here at the bar. If someone here talks to you, it’s just bullshit.”

She put her hands on Rae’s breasts, gave them a gentle massage and then pushed. “Get out onto the floor and don’t listen to a word this loser tells you,” she said. Sin-D grinned and pointed to the strobing lights of the dance floor.

“Go.

“Get.

“Fucked!”

Kendrick shook his head and took a deep sip of his beer. “Whatever,” he said, nonplussed. “I’ll be here waiting when you get back. I’m always waiting.”

“Because every now and then, there is a chicken that comes back,” Sin-D finished for him. “Ken bats cleanup.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Sin-D shook her head and pointed towards the dark corners of the room beyond the bar, where men and women danced provocatively in the dark. Farther past them, in the blue light of shadows, he could also make out nude bodies strapped on some kind of contrivance.

“This is the foyer of NightWhere,” she said. “Over there is the front room. This is the place to have a drink so you can kick off your shoes and move on inside. Sooooo…” she said, “…drink up, and get in there and get it on.”

Mark took Rae by the hand and led her out into the smoke and lights of the dance floor. “C’mon,” he smiled. “I’ll get you started.”

Rae kissed him, her mouth warm and soft. He could tell she was already excited. “You always do,” she said.

An old New Order bass line slapped through the fog and green strobe lights, as the singer sang about playing with his pleasure zone. Rae let the strap of her tissue-thin black blouse slip down her shoulder as she moved her hips and shifted her feet in a careful kaleidoscope across the floor. The blouse was really just strategic. If you looked hard, you could see all of her through it anyway, but it offered the illusion of clothing. It was a lot like this place. The black walls and black floors and mirrors that made it all seem larger and more grand than it really was…all just illusion. The clean smell of the smoke machines and the dancing arcs of light that made the whole place seem like another world. All illusion. It looked like a goth dance club, but this was simply the antechamber. The lobby, for pretense. People gathered here, got their blood pumping with a couple drinks and the ultra dance mix of an ’80s Depeche Mode song and looked for the reason to walk farther inside. Because nobody went anywhere just to stand in the foyer.

The dance floor was just the appetizer, not the main event.

People danced singly for a while there, running their hands seductively across their bodies, as if making love to themselves in public. And pretty soon, they weren’t dancing alone anymore. Not long after that, they weren’t dancing at all. At least not upright. And they most likely left the dance floor at that point for the seedier, darker corners of the club.

The beat from the speakers throbbed all around as Mark and Rae stepped into the mix of people on the floor. There were a dozen or so other couples moving in the circle that had been marked off on its perimeter with chairs and round tables. A few people stood on the sidelines, watching the action, but Rae loved to dance and didn’t slow as they stepped onto the floor. The vibration of the music sank into Mark’s bones, and while he was normally shy about dancing, it didn’t take long to fall into the rhythm. This was a dance floor unlike any normal goth or dance club because here…there were no rules. That was obvious at the start, as Mark watched one bald guy lift the black Harley T-shirt over the shoulders of a blonde woman. He dropped the shirt and fondled her tits right there on the floor as she ground her ass backwards against him. No false pretenses of propriety here.

Next to them, another couple had been engaged in a slow, very tight sway, but at the sight of the blonde’s disrobing, the woman-a thin little thing with a short-cut shock of black hair-suddenly broke away from the sinuous embrace with an equally rail-thin guy and instead knelt before the sumptuous, formerly Harley-clad, blonde, pressing her face to the blonde’s belly and reaching her hands around to cup the ass of the bald guy, drawing the three of them tight. Her former partner didn’t waste a moment, but instead moved behind the kneeling woman and raised his hand to spank her miniskirted ass. The skirt slipped up after he delivered the first couple blows, driving the small woman’s face against the blonde’s bare belly, before she moved her mouth lower.

Mark watched the spectacle and Rae bit his ear and whispered, “I think you can get some blonde or brunette here if you want tonight. But you might have to use your hand on them.”

“You know I don’t like that,” he smiled.

She slapped his ass playfully. “Well, maybe what you need is a mistress, since you don’t want to be a master.”

Just then, another man in a black silk button-down shirt split off from where he’d been moving closely with a fat woman whose heavy chest seemed ready to explode from the overly constricted confines of her pink blouse at any moment. He grinned as he shook his hips and stepped across the floor three strides to slip his hands up on Rae’s hips. Mark smirked at the tuft of wiry black hair that escaped the man’s equally black shirt. He had a sudden image of his wife braiding the man’s chest hair. Now that would be a different kink from the usual whips and chains…

“Those who give it out, get it back double,” the man yelled at her over the music. He leaned in to smell Rae’s neck, then raised a hand and slapped her across the ass. Mark could hear the snap even above the speakers, and Rae visibly stiffened. And then she turned to give Mark her back, and the stranger her smile.

“I hope so,” Mark heard her say.

The tall man winked at Mark and pulled Rae in close, kneading her ass as the music changed tempos and went into a steady, pounding pulse. It was machine-gun sex set to music, and the new couple oozed together easily, Rae sinking into his chest and moving her hips to offer him access.

He toyed with her, moving in and away from her, and then put both palms out in front of her face. Mark watched her grin at the game, and she answered by putting both of her palms on his and pushing their hands into the air as she danced in closer to him, close enough that her nipples brushed lightly back and forth across the man’s chest. Then he moved her hands down from pointing at the ceiling, and her blouse slipped down her thin biceps, exposing the upper half of a smooth breast.

The man didn’t waste the moment. He put one hand on her upper arm and urged the sleeve lower. Then he pulled her arm up and out of it, and Rae was exposed on the dance floor, one breast hanging out for all to see. The man covered it with himself, palming her nipple in his hand. Instead of fixing herself or pulling away, Rae only tilted her head back and closed her eyes, running a tongue over hungry lips.

The man leaned in and whispered something. Rae responded with an openmouthed kiss. He accepted, bending in to swallow her tongue as she slipped her fingers up his neck and into his hair. They writhed sinuously together for several minutes, their bodies locked, their mouths hungrily tasting, as their hips still moved with the beat.

Finally, he began to lead her off the dance floor. As they moved, the stranger began to spank her ass, gently, but continuously, in time to the music. Rae looked over his shoulder and caught Mark’s eye and raised her eyebrows, as if to say wow!

The green strobes poked the couple’s black outfits full of a hundred pinprick holes as they stumbled farther and farther away from the stage. The sound of the man’s hand against his wife’s ass echoed in time to the music and the two of them drifted across the floor away from Mark. He saw where they were going and shook his head.

The racks.

He didn’t understand Rae’s need for pain before accepting pleasure…sometimes it seemed that she wanted the violence more than the novelty of the new men inside her. But he knew he couldn’t give her the pain she craved. He’d tried using the floggers and paddles and he simply couldn’t go through with it. Not in a meaningful way.

Mark shook his head and smiled. His wife was insatiable; she could easily spread herself for five guys a day and somehow still wake up the next morning wanting more. He had been hurt and jealous once, when he realized that there was no way he could ever fulfill what she needed, not fully. But over time, he grew to realize that she did love him, even if she couldn’t tie herself to only one cock. She loved him even more for permitting her to exercise her needs with other men.

He let her go, knowing that he’d be the man she went home with. Sometimes he found himself a good lay at these clubs as well, while she indulged her pleasures, but he wasn’t driven to it, as she was. Mark would have been happy to have fucked Rae and only Rae for the rest of his life. She was a dynamo in bed-not surprisingly, since she never tired of slapping the sheets. Mark wasn’t opposed to fucking other women…thanks to Rae, he’d met some amazing females in the past five years at clubs like this. But he didn’t need it.

He couldn’t give her what she needed, that was for sure.

She always begged for him to hit her harder, and then begged him not to make her beg. He knew that he could never give her what she craved and so he let her go find it elsewhere, praying each time that she still loved him enough to come back.

And she always had.

Across the room, he saw her hold her wrists up in complete subservience, asking to be bound. Mark watched her clothing slip to the painted floor. After a while, he heard the sound of her twisted pleasure bleating above the screams of the techno music.

He edged his way off the dance floor after two men tried to sandwich him in a dance. In the regular world, Mark was pretty liberal-he let other men fuck his wife and had worn masks and costumes while fucking others himself. He’d given some floggings and taken them too, and he had no judgment on virtually any bacchanalia that Rae or his partners wanted to engage in. But he did have his preferences. And while he’d let a man flog him a time or two, he had no interest in dancing with one.

At the bar he ordered a bourbon, neat. Sin-D delivered it wearing only a smile. He couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows at her sultry brown skin. A pink jewel glimmered in the club light near the shadow of her belly button, and her breasts looked full and achingly ready for sin. She reminded him of the kind of girl you’d see playing volleyball in the middle of a summer’s day on Miami Beach. He realized that, below her neck, there didn’t appear to be a hair on her body.

“Looks like you’re a free man already, and I’m just a girl trapped here at the bar. I need to get me a double shot of love,” she said, stepping around the bar to ease her legs up and around his. She straddled his knee and he smelled the scent of vanilla and liquor on her breath. “You buying?”

Mark laughed at the bad pun and tilted back the bourbon, taking it all down with a burn and a cough.

“Let me pour you some,” he said and pulled her fully onto his lap. He ran his hands up her naked back and felt knobs of scarred flesh there. So, she likes the taste of the whip too, he thought to himself. After a moment, she slipped off his thighs and led him around the bar to a couch tucked against the wall. “I might need to stop to pour a drink once in a while,” she warned.

“Occupational hazard,” he began, but her tongue choked out the rest of what he’d been about to say.

Amelia didn’t pause as she walked into tonight’s NightWhere. She knew the layout by now. No matter what old building they settled in for the night, the space seemed to look exactly the same. Just beyond the doorman was the rookie bar and grill. The newcomers fresh from the Triple A league of swingers clubs and peep show hallways clung there for a while before they discovered what the club was really all about. The Blue Room was the just the starting dance of the damned for those who had been recruited. With its go-go cages and air of total orgiastic abandon, it seemed like nirvana to the first-timer, but the reality was, its offerings were pedestrian compared to the deeper reaches of the club. They needed to prove they were worthy to take that next step before they were invited in. But most of them eventually were. Something set each of them apart from the usual pleasure-seekers at strip and swing clubs. Some deeper weakness, some darker kink. Some need that took them beyond the mundane pleasure-seeker and kink jockey.

The Blue Room held some S &M trappings-wooden racks with chained manacles lined one wall, where the pain play began. The sound of whips cracking echoed above the industrial dance music now and then, when the synthesizers grew quiet. But the neophytes were still all about the tease-strutting and baring it on the dance floor, switching partners with the unabashed glee of kids set loose without rules for the first time in the midst of a toy store. They tried everyone and everything as fast as they could, anxious to embrace the dark seduction of NightWhere.

After a few nights, the Watchers intervened. Nothing happened in NightWhere that wasn’t seen by one of their number. No sin was too small to be savored. And those who were ready received a second invitation, different from the ones that got them into the club. The Blue Room was the appetizer. There were some who never really grasped that and never traveled beyond its blue strobe lights. But those people eventually stopped getting invitations to come to NightWhere…because the Blue Room was not the point. Not really.

The Watchers were quiet, but they were always in the shadows. They walked the club at midnight and passed paper discreetly into waiting palms.

Amelia had received hers six months ago. And now she wore the invitation around her wrist. The mark of the snake. Its blue-grey scales wound around her skin like a bond. The serpent’s mouth swallowed its tail, the ultimate act of self-indulgence.

Amelia walked through the middle of the dance floor, letting one hand slide across the hairy chest of a man whose eyes were closed in pleasure. She smiled and ruffled the hair of the head that worked at the man’s groin and then passed on. Getting off on the dance floor was like premature ejaculation. They’d learn.

She passed the wooden racks where a woman and a man were tied to polished oak arms, as a bare-chested, brawny man swung a flogger in each hand. He smacked the leather straps against the man’s back, which arched with every contact. The woman was braver. Her short, spiky blonde-and-brown hair was matted in sweat as she stiffened with each blow from the leather. Each blow caught her across her small, tight breasts. Her nipples were hard and the sweat pooled in her belly button. The woman whispered one thing after every blow.

“Harder,” she begged.

Amelia nodded as she watched. The woman reminded her a lot of herself. Taking it right on the chest. Needing it to go deeper, below the skin.

She didn’t recognize the body, and so she violated the torture zone, forcing the flogger to stop. Amelia slid one finger beneath the woman’s hair, lifting it from where it had plastered against her forehead.

“What’s your name?” Amelia asked.

“Rae,” the woman whispered. “Tell him to make me feel it.”

Amelia kissed Rae softly on the lips, enjoying the heat of her need there. “I’ll take care of it,” she promised. Then she took the flogger from the big man, who was streaming sweat already from the exercise.

“Let me show you what she needs,” she said.

When the first slap of the leather caught Rae’s breasts, she cried out.

“That’s better, isn’t it?” Amelia asked, and Rae nodded quickly yes, biting her lip as the straps fell again, and then dragged away.

Amelia whirled her wrist gently, but the sting of the leather on Rae’s flesh was audible every time she let her wrist go. Rae lost control and screamed out at one point, but she didn’t ask for it to stop.

The man in the rack next to her turned his head to stare at the whipping. His mouth creased, and he blinked back sweat nervously. The sweating “master” laid a hand on Amelia’s shoulder and gripped her tightly, a silent urge to take it easy. But Amelia only hit the girl harder, leaving line after line of red welts along Rae’s belly and thighs and then-smack, smack, smack-working her way up the girl’s body. Rae’s cries of hurt turned to mangled moans…but there was something orgasmic in the tone as the flogger turned red trails of agony into broken skin. Beads of blood now trailed in the wake of the leather when it bit the skin.

At last, Amelia set the flogger down and undid Rae’s bonds. She held the trembling woman close and kissed her hard on the mouth and neck, as Rae shivered with the aftermath of her first true paingasm.

When the trembling stopped, Amelia held Rae’s face between her palms and smiled. Rae struggled with a barrage of feelings; she wanted to kiss Amelia, and slap her at the same time. Her flesh burned, everywhere, and in the back of her mind she wondered how she would be able to wear a bra tomorrow. But mostly she felt a surge of love for this woman who had known exactly how to give her what she craved. No holding back. No halfhearted spankings or slaps. She had drawn blood. Amelia’s eyes held her own with a green flare that was piercing. Filled with a need that the beating had awakened in the other woman’s own flesh.

“I’ll look for you in The Red,” Amelia said. She bent down to take one last kiss, and was gone.

Rae sank to the floor and pulled her slut clothes close. She put her arms around her knees and rocked slowly on the floor, closing her eyes now and then to just live in the burn that followed every drip of sweat down her breasts and belly and thighs. Sweet heat.

The two men stepped over from the other rack and knelt beside her. Their erections were as obvious as their concern.

“Are you okay?” the flogger asked.

She looked up at him with eyes crying in desire and pained joy.

“Oh yes,” Rae said. “This is what I’ve been looking for.”

She pulled him down to the ground with her, wrapped her arms around his chest and cried.

Chapter Three

Deeper

The anxiousness that had plagued her earlier was gone now, thanks to the warmth and power of wielding the whip. Sometimes she just needed to be reminded of what she really needed. Amelia could fight against herself, but she would never win. She needed what NightWhere gave as much as she needed food or sleep.

Amelia worked her way to the back of the club and past the beginner’s flogging racks to an arched doorway in a shadowed corner. The entry was cordoned off with a red velvet rope, but Amelia stepped over the barrier and knocked. The door opened slightly at the touch of her knuckles, and without being asked, Amelia held her wrist out. Someone inside shone a small black light across her skin, and the snake there shimmered and glowed in the purple-hued light; the snake looked almost alive as the flash moved over it.

The hand disappeared and Amelia followed it inside.

The door closed behind her and the boom and throb of the Blue Room’s sound system suddenly disappeared. In its place, she heard a more appealing sound. The sound that made her blood pump faster. The sound that made her thighs grow damp and her groin warm. Her whole body, in fact, underwent a change as she stepped past the candle flames on either side of the room and heard the first few screams from beyond the foyer, back in the dark recesses. She took a deep breath and the stress of the week slid away from her as quickly as she shed her clothes. Once stripped, Amelia walked past the first dark curtain. The red lights trained from the ceiling and floor accentuated the road map of her scars, but Amelia didn’t care. She would make new ones tonight. Deeper ones. Always deeper…

“I’ve been waiting for you,” a man’s voice said.

A hand grabbed her by the hair and yanked her sideways, into a room cloistered by curtains dark as blood.

“It’s been too long,” he said.

Amelia looked up into his angry, dark eyes and matted black hair and grinned.

“I’ve missed you too, Gordon,” she said, reaching out to touch his bare, thick biceps. She trailed her fingertips down the gentle curves of his ribs and then brought them forward, teasing across his groin to the edge of the waist of his shorts. She began to work on the buckle of his belt, but Gordon slipped his hands around her wrists and forced her hands away from him. He yanked her backwards. Something sharp stabbed Amelia in the back, and she strained her neck, trying to see what. As she did, something pinched her skin again and again.

“Fuck,” she complained, and then looked at the wall and said it again, only this time it was more in a tone of admiration than complaint. “Fuuuuuck!” she said.

Gordon hoisted her wrists into the air and into two waiting leather shackles. He quickly pulled them tight and then he bent and slipped cuffs anchored to the wall near the floor around her ankles as well.

Amelia felt her breath catch as she considered what was about to happen. She couldn’t escape her bonds by leaning forward, and if she leaned back…her skin would be pierced by a hundred points of steel. The pinching she had felt was because the wall was lined in long, sharp nails, all pointing outward. She was bound against a vertical bed of nails.

Gordon bent to retrieve something that looked like a long black baton. Then Amelia saw what hung from the end of it, and her eyes widened. Her blood warmed, as her heart began to pound faster, long before the first blow. Terror tied inside anticipation. The sweat flowed instantly under her arms.

He held a cat-o’-nine-tails. Only…the end of each small whip glittered in the red light.

The glitter of metal.

Hooks.

“My wife was a complete bitch tonight,” Gordon said. “So I just want you to know that I need this just as much as you do.”

From somewhere not too far away came a moan of orgasm, followed quickly by a bloodcurdling scream.

Amelia saw something move on the far side of the room-the curtains shifted. She saw the pale jaw and black-pit eyes of a Watcher take position. They never missed an exhibition of pain.

“Let’s begin,” Gordon said. He smiled and raised his arm.

Chapter Four

Reality

It was 2:00 a.m. The street was so silent it was surreal. As if they had exited the noisy club to step into a lost ’50s noir film. Their footsteps echoed disturbingly loud on the concrete; the distant clattering rhythm of the elevated train could have been a block away. Mark held Rae’s arm as they walked hurriedly through the broken back end of the city. The sound of their steps only made them hurry more, as if they were chasing themselves. They didn’t speak the entire walk, but when they reached Mark’s car, Rae couldn’t contain her excitement anymore.

“That place was…amazing!” Rae said as she pulled the seatbelt across her waist.

Mark’s smile turned into a yawn, as he started the Sonata and pulled onto the street. “It was pretty wild,” he admitted. “You found a good guy, I take it?”

“A good girl,” Rae corrected.

“Oh really?” Mark grinned. “I’m sorry I missed seeing that.”

“Not what you think,” she said. “She knew how to handle a flogger better than any man I’ve ever met. You wouldn’t have wanted to watch.”

Mark raised an eyebrow. “You’re really getting into this pain thing.” He flipped the turn signal on and focused on the road, pointedly avoiding looking at his wife. Her obsession with whips and pain had seriously begun to worry him. At first it had seemed harmless enough, but now she didn’t seem to have an interest in sex without first getting, essentially, beat up.

“Did you at least get laid afterwards?” he asked finally.

Rae smiled as she thought of what she had done to the man she’d pulled to the ground. She’d basically forced him to take her, dragging him onto her and then suddenly flipping to be on top of him, demanding that he enter her and meld his penetration with her body’s already burning landscape of raw, lashed skin.

“Yes,” she answered simply. “Did you?”

He laughed. “Apparently I’m one of those antisocial types. The bartender had to take me under her wing.”

“Her wing, huh?” she laughed. “I’m guessing that’s not all you were under.”

“No,” Mark admitted. “She was pretty good.”

Rae sighed. “I can’t wait until the next one.”

“Who says we’ll be invited?”

“We will,” she promised. “I talked to a couple people about it. We’re in.”

Something in Mark’s belly sank. All at once, for the first time since they’d started playing in the lifestyle, he found that he wanted, more than anything, to have a boring life. He wanted to cut the grass on the weekend and watch football and maybe have some boring missionary sex with his wife once or twice a week.

He didn’t want to bed horny women with tattoos on their asses and perversion on their brains. He didn’t want to see his wife tied up and banged by beefy bald guys who preferred wearing leather chaps to jeans.

In his heart, Mark just wanted to be like normal people.

But one sidelong glance to the woman in the passenger’s seat said that there was nothing that Rae wanted less than that. And so he didn’t say a word.

Rae stared at the welts on her skin in the bathroom mirror. She’d let Mark undress and go to bed ahead of her so that she could have a minute to herself alone. She winced as she peeled her bra and shirt off the dried sweat and beads of blood that crisscrossed her chest. She didn’t want him to see her like this, not now. Rae could tell something was bothering Mark about the club. He’d acted a little funny when she’d finally come out of the bondage area and found him lounging at the bar, nursing a beer. She couldn’t figure out what the matter could be-she’d seen the bartender that he said he’d banged…a hottie. So he’d gotten it good, and she herself had found what she needed… What was the problem all of a sudden? Mark hadn’t had any issues with her sleeping with others in years. She pulled a nightgown over her head and made sure in the mirror that none of the welts were visible. She didn’t need to give his nerves any ammunition…though she didn’t know how she was going to keep the damage hidden long enough for it to heal.

She reached out to turn out the light and grimaced as the silk caught on the edges of raw skin.

“Wow,” she whispered. This night was going to take a while to live down. But in her heart, she was already ready to go back.

“NightWhere,” she said with silent lips as the lights went out. The word echoed in her mind with the reverence of a prayer.

NightWhere.

Chapter Five

Return

Mark barely had the phone to his ear when Rae’s voice announced: “It’s tonight!”

Mark knew what she meant without asking. For the past month that’s all Rae had talked about. Her interest in pain which had long been bubbling near the surface seemed to have exploded into an obsession after their first trip to NightWhere. She’d bought books on bondage and submission. She’d tried to get Mark to flog her and when his slaps disappointed, she’d tried to turn the tables on him. She cornered him in the bedroom one night with thigh-high black boots, a leather corset, black gloves and a long, wicked-looking leather whip. He escaped from that with a couple of well-placed spanks and a deep kiss. She’d given in quickly and with energy-sex had not been that good with her in a long time, he’d thought at the time.

But it had only been the foreplay for what she truly desired.

“It’s tonight,” she repeated. “Are you almost home?”

Mark opened the garage door a half hour later and stepped into the house to find his wife lounging back on the couch, clearly posing for him. He did a double take.

“Do you like?” she asked.

Rae leapt up and did a twirl. The chains connecting the two small leather cups of her bra rattled as she did. Small chains hung in twin silver waterfalls across her bare belly. A curtain of ill-concealing metal.

She also wore a short black leather skirt and black fishnet hose beneath it. Chains looped from the waist of her skirt, and she wore silver bracelets of chain as well. Around her neck, she had a collar of chain bound to leather. She had painted her lips black and wore dark shadow around her eyes. Rae was darkly, dangerously stunning.

“Have you been watching Rocky Horror?” Mark asked.

She stuck her tongue out. “You have an hour to hit your wardrobe and attempt to keep up with me.”

“And then?”

“We have to drive to the north side.”

“I’m no Tim Curry, and anyway, I don’t think I restocked my fishnets,” Mark joked.

Rae pursed her lips. “I don’t think those would look good on you anyway. I picked you out a shirt upstairs. See what you think.”

Mark grinned. “Now you’re dressing me, huh?”

She slapped him on the ass. “Hurry up!”

“Don’t wear out your wrist before we leave,” he warned, hurrying away from her towards the stairs.

“I could say the same thing to you,” she laughed. “Better not take too long up there.”

While the last edition of NightWhere had been housed in a run-down section of the city, tonight’s invitation took them to the upscale part of town. The Evanston neighborhood was lined with tall, old trees, and the building they pulled up in front of looked one hundred years old. It was a grey-stone high-rise with ornate limestone accents and watchful gargoyles surrounding its roof. They walked into the U of its courtyard, Rae holding a black mesh cape around her bare midriff as they hurried to enter and get out of sight of any bystanders in the neighborhood.

Mark opened the heavy wooden front door and they stepped inside. The lobby floor was all black-veined, creamy marble, and a gilded elevator hugged one side of the wide room. A set of slowly curving steps led away from the street to their left. They stood there in the lobby, lost for a minute.

“Are you sure…” Mark began, but Rae interrupted him.

“There!” She pointed at the gold antique top of the elevator, which used a needle to show the floors. On the right-hand side, right after the number 12, a small black oval was pasted on, right over the place where 13 should have been. In the center of the circle, two letters were limned in grey: NW.

“It’s upstairs,” she said, moving towards the elevator.

“On the thirteenth floor,” Mark said quietly. “Of course.”

They got on the elevator and pressed the black button that was also obscured with a small black disc reading NW.

The elevator creaked and ascended, each floor ticked off by the slow clockwise ascent of an arrow above the door. And then the needle stopped, and a bell chimed, and the gold doors opened onto a long, dark hall. They stepped out and saw a handful of dark doorways along either side of the hallway. But their destination was clear. At the end of the corridor, they could see flickers of blue light from beneath a door, and the throb of a bass-and-drum groove echoed dully in the air. They walked quickly down the hall. Rae clutched their invitation for the night like a life preserver.

Mark raised a fist to knock, but the door opened before he touched it.

A hand reached out, its fingernails glittered obsidian, its wrist was encircled by the dark ink of a symbol they both recognized from their last visit: a self-devouring snake tattoo.

Rae handed over the invitation, and a moment later they were inside. The volume of the music was overpowering inside of the doorway, and when the doorman leaned in to say something, Mark found himself yelling back, “What?”

The tall man grinned and motioned them to walk behind a curtained area on the other side of the door. The black-velvet draping deadened the sound of the band a little, and the man took Rae’s hand in his own, at the same time reaching out to grab Mark’s.

“You came back,” he said. “We are excited to have you as part of our secret family. The first time…we let you look and decide if this is really what you want. Some don’t return. Most do, because we don’t give out invitations lightly. But those that do come back to us a second time…almost never leave.”

The man held out a long hand that looked paper white against the black curtains. Rae took it, and the man pulled her closer, raising her arm to kiss her knuckles with exaggerated slowness. When his eyes caught Rae’s, she felt instantly weak. As if the connection literally sucked the energy from her soul through her eyes and fingertips.

She drew in a breath as his eyes held her own. His face was thin and drawn, but his eyes…they were like black holes. His eyes were wide, and in the dim light she could only think that they were pools of black. Pools of electric, magnetic black. She couldn’t look away. Seconds seemed like minutes, and she could almost hear him speaking in the silence between their eyes. The words were nonsense, but they sounded important. Like ancient knowledge. Secrets lost. Then without warning he broke the connection and held out his hand to Mark, still keeping his eyes on her.

“My name is Tailor,” he said. “They call me a Watcher, because I’m here to watch! But not just as a voyeur-though I am one.” He laughed. “I’m also here to make sure the night goes well for everyone. NightWhere can be everything you’ve ever wanted…or everything you were ever afraid of. Let me know how I can help you find what you need here.”

“Thank you,” Rae said. “I think I found what I needed here last time. I just need to find her again. She told me that she’d see me, um, in a place called The Red?”

Tailor’s lips spread. “All in due time,” he promised. “Until then…” he motioned towards the moving green and blue spotlights and the band playing on a stage before them, “…go in…and sin!”

The doorman slid away from them, still smiling with some hidden humor. Rae leaned up and kissed Mark hard on the lips after Tailor passed. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s get some sin!”

She pulled him by the hand out onto the dance floor. The band-dressed in requisite black-was in the midst of a gloomy rock set. The singer crooned almost in monotone, as he picked a heavy Stratocaster. Next to him, the bassist practiced androgyny and boredom, standing stock-still in silk sleeves, black eyeliner and lipstick. His hair was kinked and hung on his shoulders, but only his fingers moved, throbbing a steady thunder on four thick strings. Behind him, the drummer’s mascara ran across bloated cheeks as he pounded out a challenge to the rest of the band. Off to one side, behind a wall of smoke, a tall, bony man who reminded Mark of Ric Ocasek hung intently over his keyboards, filling the spaces between the beats and the guitars with strings and fuzz. He wore sunglasses in the dark.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. They were hypnotic. And energizing at the same time. The small crowd on the dance floor didn’t stop moving. Mark and Rae had to edge their way in to find a place to dance to the hypnotic, hazy groove. They ended up between an androgynous couple who both appeared flat-chested beneath their ripped T-shirts, but who both wore fishnets and eyeliner (were they both women? men?).

On either side of the stage metal stairs led to cages suspended in the air. A line of men and women ascended and descended the stairs in a slow but steady procession while the band played. They took turns above the dance floor, fondling and fucking the gyrating cage prisoners before returning to the floor.

Beneath the cages and against the black metal walls, a dozen men were down on all fours, collared and chained to hooks on the walls as women strode back and forth fondling riding crops in their hands.

Periodically people slipped away from the strobing blue lights in twos and threes, and sometimes fours, to claim the only partly public cots that were strung out around the place beneath velvet tents. Many of them returned from the tents without even bothering to pull their clothes back on, driven by the beat of a favorite song to dance clothed solely in the sweat of their bacchanalian passion.

The band slipped into a dreamy interlude, with something like a sitar punctuating the still-urgent beat as the singer suddenly opened up and showed he could sing more than two notes. And he could sing…with a charisma that melted inhibitions.

The couples on the floor surged closer to the stage, bodies pressing against each other indiscriminately as the singer hugged the mic. You could taste the lust in the air at that moment. Mark felt himself growing erect from the scent of sex all around him, as much as from the sight of it. Rae shook the chains of her leather bra against Mark, and then twisted to the right to rub her barely concealed breasts teasingly against a man’s biceps with a smile at the man and a wink back at her husband.

A thickset redhead with a wide face and too-bright eyes shoved into Mark and Rae’s circle and leaned closer to Mark, as she kept an eye on Rae to gauge the other woman’s reaction to the intrusion. Rae only smiled and slipped her arms around the biceps guy to make space for the woman to move in. And she did…leaning forward to make sure Mark saw that her freckled chest was braless beneath the thin red dress she almost wore.

Mark shot Rae an evil look-she knew he was not into big girls-and humored the woman with a couple of short hip sways together, before he put his hands on her shoulders and excused himself.

He could almost hear Rae laughing as he escaped to the bar. He wasn’t worried about leaving Rae…she was eager to explore. An obligatory dance with her hubby was a nice gesture, but…he knew the score-he was only holding her back.

The band stepped up the energy and launched into something gothic behind him, maybe Bauhaus…or Joy Division…Mark wasn’t sure. He just knew it sounded like the growlingly ’80s club scene he vaguely remembered. Hell, the singer even looked like Ian Curtis from his brief Joy Division heyday-wan, thin face and close-cropped hair broken by two intensely wide eyes. He looked angry as he sang, but the sound was comforting somehow, regardless. Mark watched for a minute and then turned away to the bar with a smile, ready to order a Jack and Coke. His eye was caught by a blonde woman who sat alone, at the far end of the bar, so he didn’t notice who was mixing drinks until she spoke.

“Just couldn’t stay away, could you?” Sin-D said. She leaned forward across the wood, the intricate tattoos on her bare shoulders exposed. Finely detailed, her left arm showed a witch star in a clouded sky and the hands of the dead rising from the earth beneath it. A broken tower faded into the horizon of her biceps beneath the low-hanging strap of her black tank top.

“Once you’ve had black, there’s no going back?” Mark joked.

“You better be talking about my shirt, not my skin, baby. This is a hard-core tan! You want black, you’ll have to hit the floor some more,” Sin-D said. “You want hot, fast and naked white girl with a shot of tequila…get your ass back here.”

“I warned you last time, she’ll do anyone, and usually does!” A broad-shouldered man in a red-and-grey-checkered shirt held out his hand. “Kendrick, remember?”

Mark took the hand and nodded. “Sure, I remember. Only my wife gets to call you Ken.”

“Gotta separate the men from the toys,” Kendrick winked. Then he made a big show of peering over Mark’s shoulders and looking beneath his bar stool. “Huh. Looks like I’m too late here. Someone’s already cucked your goose?”

“I told you she wasn’t normally shy,” Mark said.

Sin-D pushed Kendrick’s shoulder away from the bar. “Git!” she said. “Can’t you see this boy needs a stiff drink from a soft bartendress?”

Mark smiled. “How about just a Jack and Coke for now?”

“You want Jack’s Cock? Has this place turned you that fast?” She exaggerated a roll of her eyes. “How disappointing.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Liquor?” he pleaded.

“Ah, so easily swayed. Now he wants to lick her.” Sin-D reached down and lifted her skirt, unveiling the smooth-shaven bronze skin he still remembered very clearly from the last time. Sin-D was hotter than hell. Mark wasn’t embarrassed easily, but Sin-D’s completely overt sexuality made his face warm.

Kendrick laughed and shook his head. He clapped Mark on the shoulder. “Take a flashlight if you hit that, so you don’t get lost.” He held a drink up in the air in Sin-D’s direction before walking off towards the dance floor. Sin-D flipped him off and then rested her head on her elbows on the bar, blinking doe-eyed at Mark. When he didn’t react to the innocent pose, she slid one finger down the front of her tank top until a nipple popped free.

“How ’bout a li’l nip of a nip?” she offered.

“How about you just pour me a drink from the bottle for now?” he suggested with a smile.

“I was good enough for you last time,” she pouted. “Fuck ’em and leave ’em, I get it.” She poured a long stream of Jack and then squirted a shot of cola on top. “I like the fuck ’em part though, you know?”

“I do know,” Mark grinned.

Sin-D pushed the long-discussed drink across the bar just as a couple came up, hands groping each other with almost embarrassing freedom. Sin-D moved down the bar to help them, and Mark took his Jack and Coke with a smile, pulling himself up on a stool. He turned to look at the band, who, beneath the fog and the blue-green lights, seemed to be channeling something from an early Cure album. The keyboards hummed beneath a dark but steadily moving bass.

“So, do you cum here often?” the woman on the stool next to him asked. Mark turned to take her in and was struck by the intensity of her ice-blonde hair and pale, high cheeks. She was stunning and delicate, in a Nordic kind of way. If she’d been lying on a white sheet, he thought she might have looked the lighter.

“And I meant cum with a U,” she added.

“That’s kind of a personal question, isn’t it?” Mark smiled.

“No, it’s kind of a bad cliché,” she answered. “But that’s what you’re supposed to do here, right?”

“Speak in clichés?” Mark asked.

“More like cum in clichés, I think,” she mused. “Look at them.” She waved a hand at the girls on the dance floor. The band had revved into “Blue Monday” and the black fishnet and teased hair of the women in the crowd moved faster, the sexy goth trappings just window dressing; they all knew they’d be nude in one corner or another of this place within the hour.

“They’re just having fun,” Mark answered.

“It’s always fun until somebody loses an eye.”

Mark cleared his throat. “Ahem…I think you’re the one with all the clichés.”

She didn’t answer him right away. Instead she took a long drink on a glass filled with something clear…and ice. Mark didn’t believe that it was water. He stared at her fingers circling the glass. They were long and creamy white, with unpainted nails. The soft look of her skin made him yearn to reach out. As soon as he looked at her, he ached to touch her. She looked as naturally beautiful as anyone could. Her eyes flickered wider then and met his own over the top of the glass. Still, she sipped. Finally, she set the glass down and stared at him straight in the eye.

“Why are you here?” she asked quietly. “Why did you come to NightWhere?”

“Why does anybody come here?” he asked. “To have fun.”

“That’s not why anybody comes here,” she said. “NightWhere is not about fun, it’s about obsession. If you follow that rabbit into its hole, you will become a very lonely man.”

“That or a man trapped in a hole.”

“I’m serious,” she said. “You don’t want to really be here, I can tell. And that means you’re not only going to get lost, you’re going to get lost without reason.”

“Hey, you hitting on my customers?” a chirpy voice piped up from behind the bar. Sin-D propped her head on her hands and nodded at the blonde. “She’s a downer, man. I’ve listened to her before. Maybe it’s all that Russian vodka she drinks. Want to come over here and give me a hand behind the bar? I could use a little help right now.” She made a visible play of looking down the cleavage showing in the V of her skintight tank top and then pressed her arms against her sides to accentuate it. “Please?” she asked, in a patented little-girl voice that made Mark grin.

“Rain check?” he asked and patted Sin-D’s arm. “I’m just getting to know…um…” he turned to the snow-white woman beside him.

“Selena,” the woman whispered.

“…Selena here.”

“You’re sure?” Sin-D asked, pouting, while dragging one long black fingernail under the swell of her tank top and again pulling the material down as far as it would go. Mark saw the pink hint of her nipple before she rolled her eyes beneath the raccoon coat of mascara, licked the tip of her tongue to her lip, and then faded back from the bar.

He turned to Selena and shifted the conversation back at her. “What are you doing here, if you’re so down on the place?”

“I’m waiting for someone,” she said. “Hoping he’ll leave with me. If not…well, I’ll at least get to hear some music and have a couple of drinks, right?”

“I guess,” Mark said. “Though this isn’t exactly the typical destination for a casual drink.”

“Look who’s talking?” Selena laughed. “What are you doing sitting in the back at the bar?”

He smiled and took a drink. “My wife is really into this. I don’t really mind it…hell, how could a guy mind, right? Coming here is like she gave me a Free Sex card, for chrissake. But yeah, I’m kind of in the same boat as you, I guess… At this point…I’m just waiting for her to come back.”

Selena’s ice-blue eyes narrowed. “Has she mentioned The Red yet?”

Mark shrugged.

“If she goes in there, you will never have her back, I’m just warning you.”

Selena leaned towards him to whisper something, but just then a man walked up to the bar. He was tall and rail-thin with a shaven head and hairless chest. He showed it off in a black-mesh shirt. Effete would be the word for him, Mark thought.

“Is there a problem with the music?” the man asked with a thin grin. “We could have the band perform a striptease, if that would help you get in the mood.”

Mark laughed. “No, I don’t need to see that drummer naked!” The drummer in question was bald and looked fiftyish and about 200 pounds overweight. “We were just talking.”

Selena didn’t say a word…she just stared at the man, as if by staring she could wilt him.

“The night moves fast in NightWhere,” the man said with a crooked smile. “I wouldn’t want you to miss the pleasures of the club because you lost track of time. Do consider taking a walk around, before it gets too late.”

“Got it,” Mark said. He nodded, but made no move to leave his stool. The man stood still in front of him for a moment, searching for something to say. And then he leaned across the bar, said something to Sin-D, and walked away.

“Kharon,” Selena said quietly. “A Watcher.”

“C’mon,” Mark said. “Let’s you and me take a walk.” There was something about that guy he just didn’t like.

Selena slipped from her stool and together they moved to the dance floor, swaying slightly in time to the bass-and-drum combo.

Rae hated to admit it, but she’d felt relief as her husband had walked away towards the bar. Part of her recognized that they had reached the divide; NightWhere was her ticket into the places she had only dreamed of before…places that, honestly, she was afraid to admit that she’d dreamed of. It was not the place for Mark; he didn’t have the need burning inside his bones like she did. He couldn’t follow her here, not now. In the most private place, Rae walked alone.

She let the dark, pounding beat of the band sink into her bones as she slowly moved to the back of the club, back to where the slaps of leather on flesh resounded, even above the echo of the drums. Fingers reached out from the crowd to trail across her bare arms as she passed by. She welcomed their touch, but didn’t slow to answer their invitations. There was only one thing she wanted now.

The feeling of surrender.

The feeling of the dark, welling up through her skin.

“How can I help you?” a voice said from next to her. “My name is Kharon.”

Rae looked up and saw a man with large eyes watching her intently. His head was shaved, his face pale, his lips barely pink. The faint stubble of his beard looked like salt and pepper against his skin, and she found herself instantly imagining how it would feel rubbing against the soft skin of her breasts. He had that magnetism-that weird electricity that in just a moment of speech made you want to be closer to him. In the strobes of the dance floor, his features jumped and jagged, sharpened and smeared-he was both extreme and soft as the light shifted.

“I was looking for a woman,” she began, but stopped as he began to laugh.

“Aren’t we all?”

“She was here last time, right here in this room. I met her at the racks…she made me feel deeper than I ever have before. She whipped me…”

“This is not narrowing it down much,” Kharon said, again with an audible trace of humor in his voice.

“I need to find her again.”

The man stared at her until the silence between them was filled with nearby cries. Rae could almost count the pores of his forehead as she stared back at him, daring him to hold his game longer than her.

“I want to show you something,” Kharon said and began to walk away. Rae wasn’t sure what to think…but she began to follow. He stepped through the aisle of whipping racks, where five pasty-white men had volunteered to be flogged and cried out like wounded kids with every light blow.

Rae stepped past them in disgust. She could tell with a glance that they were dabblers-they flirted with the pain but, really, they craved the humiliation. She had no use for them and hurried to catch up to Kharon, who slipped into the shadows of NightWhere as easily as paper slipped away on the breeze. Something inside her demanded that she not lose him.

Her eyes found him again, just ahead, and she quickened her step. He opened a black door hidden in the black wall at the back of the club and Rae ran across the intervening space to follow. She caught the door before it closed and darted inside to join him in wherever it was he was going. But on the other side of the door, she realized that she had left…everything…behind.

When the dark door shut behind her, Rae felt suddenly alone in a room of shadow. The air seemed to glint with some kind of floating light… But it was a hazy, cottony illumination. The strangest, most ethereal beams bled from random holes in the dark. Rae stepped forward and a dozen bells chimed, announcing her walking presence. She felt nothing touch her. Even her feet seemed to move across air. But with the movement of every muscle, the room sang, betraying her feet.

Not so far ahead, she could see the man, still walking.

Bells chimed and sang as she followed, the cacophony growing louder the faster she walked. Rae couldn’t see what was causing the bells…her skin seemed to touch nothing as she walked through cool black air. But with every step, the echoes of chimes and other shadowed sounds flared painfully in her ears.

Finally she stopped and the cacophony also stopped. The man she chased turned to face her, a look of amusement in the crack of his lips.

“If you want to follow me,” he said, “you must learn to walk between the shadows. You still have much to learn.”

With that, he turned and disappeared into the dark.

Rae ran forward, trying to find him, but as she moved away from the club, the noise grew so loud that she stopped and held her hands to her ears. She couldn’t see anything…the room was black. Now that he was gone, she was totally in the dark. An orchestra of angry sound assailed her ears.

“Wait!” Rae called, trying to be heard above the din, but nothing answered.

“Shit,” she said to herself. She put her hands out, crying again, “Wait,” and the air chimed.

“I will not be afraid of noise,” she promised. But she no longer walked ahead. Rae retraced her steps through the dark, hoping that her feet were truly following the same path and not leading her in circles. The sound inside her head pounded until she felt her eyes swell. She wondered if her ears were bleeding. But little by little it began to diminish. And then her hands met a wall.

She moved along it, a little to the left, and a little to the right, looking for the door. Her hand knocked against something cold and metallic, and Rae grinned, curling her palm around the knob and turning…and then she was suddenly out of the stark aural pain and back in the blue haze of the club. The bell screams turned to human cries of pleasure and pain. Rae smiled. The cries of passion sounded like home. She moved towards a man with a riding crop, and when he favored her with a grin, she bent over and offered herself to his hand.

She accepted his slaps with interest…but as his hand touched her, she felt cold. Bored.

There was sting in his spanking, but something wasn’t connecting with her. He didn’t give her what she needed. Rae began to look around at the other subjects being spanked and whipped around her, and realized there was more to her need than simple pain.

Her chest was filled with a horrible void. Rae found herself struggling not to cry.

“Were you looking for me?” a voice asked. Rae looked up and Kharon stood behind her, a riding crop in his right hand.

“Yes,” Rae admitted. The relief flooded her voice as she wiggled her hips for him to see. She needed him.

He leaned down and pressed his lips to her own as his left hand slid from her bare shoulder, down the velvet skin of her back, to finally cup the soft skin of her ass. His hand squeezed.

“There are things that you must learn if you are to follow me,” Kharon said. “And the first is this.”

He stepped back and raised his hand. Then brought it down.

In moments, Rae’s cries joined the moans that reverberated above the band in the Blue Room.

Cries of wanting.

Cries of ecstasy.

Cries of pain.

Chapter Six

In The Red

The sound of the lash on Amelia’s skin made Gordon’s cock hard beneath his leather. The woman lurched and shook against the stone wall of the torture chamber he’d led her to with every kiss of his whip.

“Are you mine?” he called after every strike. The whip left red weals on top of the latticework of white scars that made up most of Amelia’s body. And after every strike came Amelia’s muffled, tearful refrain-“No, you fucker”-taunting his violence to reach another level.

He obliged, cracking the whip against her ass and thighs, letting it land on the soft flesh of her waist, and dragging its harsh bite against her rib cage. She bled, but he did not stop. This wasn’t a place where people dabbled in pain. This wasn’t the amateur zone where fat men wore diapers and pretended to take discipline until their pathetic cocks were so aroused that they came in their pants from the feathery attention of play whips.

This was The Red. And nobody came here to play. This was the place for pain, real pain. And tears. And blood. And at the end of it all…release. Euphoric, life-threatening and -altering release. The only safe word here was not a word at all-it was complete and utter obedience. And even that would likely only get you more pain.

Gordon thought of the things that had pissed him off today, this week, and he brought the whip down harder, losing himself in the cathartic feel of beating a human being who refused to say no to a bloody pulp…yet not even touching her with his actual fists.

Sometimes he longed to do that actually. He was allowed to be violent here, but the reality was, he was still just hiding behind a whip-his desire was to sit on top of some moron and beat the life out of him, one blow at a time. He had never dared to try that, even here.

From the wall, after a flurry of wicked, fast, wet-sounding leather cracks, he finally heard the words he’d been waiting for.

“Yes, I am yours,” Amelia called out.

Gordon dropped the whip then and smiled as he pulled her closer to him. He ran a hand over Amelia’s wet back and brought his fingers back red. His grin spread wider, and he reached up and untied her wrists from the hooks. She staggered when he grabbed her by her elbows and raised her to stand before him, solely on her own feet. Then he asked the question again, as she swayed with exhaustion in the dark, and her bleary eyes struggled to focus on her torturer.

“Are you mine?” he asked again.

“Yes,” Amelia whispered. Sweat trickled down her cheeks and black hair plastered across one side of her face where she’d leaned on the wall for support.

“To do whatever I want with?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Gordon knotted a fist and stared at the naked, pathetic woman in front of him. Her breasts were small but her nipples were erect. Her belly was thin and flat…the dark hair below her belly button was trimmed short. She would have been pretty, if her skin didn’t look like an egg that had been shattered and glued back together.

Gordon punched her in the stomach.

Amelia gasped and doubled over, but his hand grabbed her by the hair and yanked her upright.

“Anything?” he asked again.

She nodded.

The slap of Gordon’s hand resounded above the noise of the other tortures going on in The Red. He caught her cheek and then reached out and held her by the nipple of her left breast, pinching as hard as he could with his thumb and forefinger.

Amelia gasped and cried. “Anything.”

“I can kill you?” he said simply.

Amelia looked at him with a spark of fear, and yet, strangely, hope in her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, a thin drool of blood beginning to seep from the side of her mouth.

“Not yet,” he said and pulled her close, smashing his lips to hers, tasting the blood he had drawn and enjoying the feel of her tongue, which at first hid deep in her swelling mouth and then ventured out to twist with his own.

After toying with her for a few moments, he pushed her away and undid his belt before kicking his pants to the floor. His cock bobbed anxiously, and he guided Amelia across the room to lie across a wooden horse. “Hold the rings,” he commanded, and she rested her breasts on the wooden bar of the horse as she reached down to hold the two iron rings that extended from it. He pressed his cock between her bloody legs and felt barely any resistance as his head kissed her lips. They were wet with need and blood. The lubrication of her pain let him enter her without resistance.

Gordon moaned as he ran his hands along the wounds he’d dug in Amelia’s back, and then pressed his whole body to hers as he struggled to slide himself deeper inside her, so deep that he could pound out her heart with his cock. He wanted to own her insides as much as he did her outsides. He grabbed her breasts cruelly and squeezed, slamming against her from behind, his pace speeding up quickly as her own voice joined his in an arpeggio of animal pleasure.

Gordon saw red as he came inside her.

Amelia saw red as he came inside her.

The room ran red as he came inside her…drops of blood began to rain from the ceiling and run in sheets down the rough stone walls to coat their skin as the couple moaned in the rhythm of their passion and finally moved past their climax to drop gasping and amazed to the floor.

The floor, too, ran red with blood.

Gordon ran a finger across his skin and looked puzzled. She couldn’t have bled that much. But as he looked, the nude woman before him was awash in crimson. It ran in drops across her breasts, and a red rain coated her pussy in the color of horror…and life.

A man walked into their space and held out a hand to Gordon. His skin was so pale that he looked blue. His nudity was not shocking, but somehow pure; his cock hung unaroused. And while his skin seemed completely hairless, his face looked old-wrinkled and tired. But also…pleased.

Gordon took his hand and stood.

“You’ve awakened the room,” the Watcher said. “You are ready.”

“Ready for what?” Gordon asked.

“The rabbit.”

Chapter Seven

The Rabbit

Only losers hung out at Firkin’s Pub on Monday nights. Losers who liked to drink. Alone. Because there weren’t any pickups left at Firkin’s after 10:00 p.m. on a Monday night. They rolled the carpets up in Roselle, and Travis wished they’d lock the doors to this pathetic excuse for an English pub when they did. Because without a locked door…he had to stay open.

And right now…he soooo wanted to close. Travis sat on a stool behind the register at the bar and waited for the last patron to leave (an old man who nursed a Fuller’s ESB as if it were 100-proof liquor-taking it down carefully, sip by sip). Meanwhile, beneath the bar, Travis flipped through a copy of Bondage Monthly. He loved to think about the leather and the chains, but Travis never would go beyond the page. He sat here at the bar night after night and watched the hopefuls connect and disappear…he knew some of them were probably doing the stuff he saw in his magazines. But he didn’t know how to meet them. Or really, how to suss them out. And honestly, if they came on to him…he’d probably run anyway.

Travis wanted it…but not enough. So he flirted with the pages and fantasized…and sat in his place at the bar, pouring drinks for people who were living. Unlike him.

He was enjoying a particularly hot spread-featuring a chick with long carrot-hot hair in black-leather straps that covered none of her private parts, merely bordered them, and a black man who held a cell phone and looked bored as the woman worked through a series of pictures of her in various unconventional (and physically demanding) poses to interest him-when the door to Firkin’s opened. A thickset man walked in and sized up the bar. Which didn’t take him long since the place was virtually all empty seats. And then he walked to the bar.

He studied a photo in his hand and then looked up and repeated the evaluation, this time on Travis. A grin spread across his face as he sat down on a bar stool.

“What time do you close?” the man asked.

“Depends on who is here,” Travis said, smiling. “Honestly, I was hoping that as soon as the last bit of that Fuller’s over there was done…” he nodded at the old man in the corner, “…that I might be able to close it up for the night.”

The man slapped a twenty dollar bill on the bar and asked, “Would you keep it open for me?”

Travis shrugged. “I guess. What are you having?”

The man smiled and said, “Give me a Bud. And keep the change.”

Travis’s eyes went wide, and he poured the four-dollar beer. The man nodded as he delivered it, but didn’t say another word until the old man in the corner stood up, slapped his empty glass down on the bar and mumbled, “Good night.”

And then the man at the bar drained his Bud and looked Travis right in the eye.

“You’ve always wanted to be stripped naked and given a good whipping, haven’t ya?”

Travis gulped at the forward question. “Um…huh?”

The man grinned. “I know what you want,” he said. “And I can help you. Nobody has to know. All you have to do is say yes.”

Travis blushed and opened his mouth to say something…but no words came out.

“What are you looking at there?” the man asked, pointing over the edge of the bar to the magazine.

Travis opened his mouth again, but still said nothing. The man reached over him and pulled Bondage Monthly out and waved the cover of a man in a black leather mask at the bartender.

“I…” was all he could say.

“Close the bar and come with me,” the man said again. “I know a place where you can go and live this magazine. Women in leather, men with whips…it’s what you have dreamed of. It’s what you sit here reading about every night.”

“How do you know so much about me?” Travis asked.

“They have been watching you. They want you to come and join them.”

“Who are they? Where is this place?” Travis asked, looking interested and scared at the same time.

“NightWhere.”

Chapter Eight

Home Alone

When Mark pulled the car into the garage at 4:00 a.m. after their evening at NightWhere, Rae was out the door almost before he put the thing in Park. She had said nothing the entire ride home; she’d simply stared out the window, as if she were watching a movie.

He followed her into the house and kicked his shoes off as she went to the fridge and tilted back a bottle of water. He saw something sticking out of the middle of her purse on the table, and he stepped over to see what it was. The paper was red, with black writing on it.

“What’s this?” he asked while pulling it out.

Rae shrugged and set the bottle down.

He looked at it and held it out to her. The front had a simple illustration on it-a black snake, twined in a circle until its mouth met and ate its own tail. Around the image, in black letters, it said simply, “The Red”.

Rae looked at it and then reached out to take it and shove it back in her purse. “Just a flyer,” she said. “Someone handed it to me at the club.”

But Mark knew better. He heard Selena’s voice in his head: “Has she mentioned The Red yet? If she goes in there, you will never have her back, I’m just warning you.”

An hour later, Mark watched her sleeping and knew that something was different. In all of the times they had played the switch-partners game, Rae had never come home to him so silent. So elsewhere. The first time at NightWhere, she had returned to their bedroom excited.

The second time, she returned, but did not really return. On their ride home she had stared out the window. He’d asked how she’d enjoyed her night, and she’d sighed a distant, “Fine.” She didn’t ask about his experience. And she wouldn’t elaborate on her own.

When she’d joined him in bed, she had given him a smile and a quick peck on the lips-the way old people might say good night. Then she had rolled on her back and groaned slightly, before closing her eyes. That was it. She was gone.

Mark was scared to death about what would happen the next time they went. Would she come home with him at all?

“I’m worried,” Mark said the following night. He’d met Randy after work up at the Quigley’s. “It’s never been like this between us.”

“Have you talked to her about it?” Randy asked, lifting a Guinness from the bar and taking a long swig. “You know that making this thing work is tricky. It’s not like a normal relationship, but the key is still communication.”

Randy was a friend that Mark had made at one of the swingers clubs he and Rae had spent many a weekend at over the past year. In fact, Randy had slept with Rae several times; they had even had him over to the house a few nights. Mark trusted him with more than just his friendship.

“I’ve tried to ask her about it, but she clams up every time. She just says this club gives her what she’s been looking for. What she needs.”

“Then that’s a good thing,” Randy said. “If you can handle it.”

Mark laughed. “You know I can handle her with others. This is different. Something else is going on here. I’m worried about this pain fixation she’s got now. All she ever wants seems to be whips and pain…”

Randy frowned. “She’s always been kind of aggressive but…I don’t know what to tell you there. I know S &M’s a big part of this NightWhere club. I’ve never been there, but the people who get invited…they’re pain freaks. That’s the rep. All I can say is that if you want to keep getting invited, you’re going to have to find a way to play along.”

“Do you know anyone else who goes?”

Randy tilted back his beer and belched. Then he winked at Mark and grinned. “Not really. They don’t let pigs in.” He stretched and looked at the ceiling a minute, visibly thinking.

“You know, people talk about NightWhere, but nobody really knows much about it. It’s almost like an urban legend. There was a woman who used to hang out with us-and I mean, literally hung out-the chick was fuckin’ stacked! She was one of those who was into the flogging and stuff, used to have nipple piercings and shit. Loved to get bent over the couch and have her hair pulled during, you know? She used to talk about wanting to find NightWhere, and then one weekend she came back to the club and said she’d been there. I remember it because she had really beautiful skin when she came to the club-perfect complexion, no tattoos or moles or zits or anything like that. Pretty, though she had a little extra on the side, you know? Anyway, after NightWhere, she showed up with whip marks all over her body. I was afraid to touch her-I remember that-I was afraid she’d start bleeding on me! But she talked about NightWhere the same way it sounds like Rae is-she was absolutely in love with it, even though it looked like they’d thrown her under a truck. She talked about one of the guys there too; I sort of wondered if she was more into him than anything else. But I never got the chance really to ask her.”

“Why not?”

“She never came back to the club again after that night.” Randy shook his head. “You know, people kind of come and go through the club over time. I’d guess there were probably some others who didn’t come back after they found NightWhere. I mean-look at you guys, for example. Haven’t seen you in weeks. Does Rae want to come back?”

Mark shrugged. “She hasn’t mentioned it since the first night at NightWhere.”

“See what I mean? We’ve had others at the club who had a thing for whips and chains…they never stick around that long. Whether that’s ’cuz they were bored since most of us don’t go there, or because they got sucked into NightWhere…who knows? All I know for sure is, they didn’t come back.”

Chapter Nine

Dying for It

The bruises were deep. The black was yellow on the edges, but mostly…still black. Parts of her kept bleeding. She had to move every few hours so that she didn’t scab herself too painfully to the couch. That would only hurt worse.

She tried to stand, but fell back to the couch after a red-hot something snapped in her back. She saw her guitar sitting across the room and longed to strum it…the music would help take some of the pain away. But she didn’t think she could walk that far across the room. And her fingers were swollen and thick. She probably couldn’t play it.

Amelia didn’t know how she’d managed to get herself home. But she knew that she couldn’t go to work tomorrow. Maybe not the rest of the week. She tried to move her arm and nothing happened.

Maybe not ever.

The room felt like it was spinning, but Amelia hadn’t had anything to drink.

Drunk on pain.

She needed water. Her lips were dry, and something inside her felt wrong. Broken.

Amelia pushed off the couch again, and this time managed to stagger to the kitchen where she downed two glasses of water. The pain in her lower back grew, and she realized she had to make another stop on the way back to lie down. The bathroom.

She managed to get herself to the toilet without falling, but when her water came it burned…and when she staggered to her feet she saw the water was dark. She refused to think about that. She flushed and downed another glass of water before she fell back onto the couch.

“You’re broken,” she whispered out loud.

The last time she’d come home bleeding on the outside, but this time…she was bleeding inside. That was probably a worse thing, she considered.

Her eyes fluttered closed as she focused on the pain, tasting it, enjoying it, living in it…

“Wake up Amelia…”

The voice was soft, but firm. Amelia opened her eyes and saw Kharon before her. He was just as she remembered, bare-chested and pale, but with his crotch sheltered in black leather and silver chains. He smiled at her, and his teeth looked as hungry as happy.

“You can’t let go here,” he whispered. “You must come back, and enter The Black.”

Amelia tried to raise her head, but failed. “The Black?”

“There is more to the journey than The Red,” he said. “Come back one more time. For The Crossing. Wait for NightWhere.”

“Yes,” Amelia whispered, just before passing out.

AC/DC on the stereo. “Back in Black.” Because nothing that went before or after was quite as transcendent.

Vanilla incense burned in a candleholder on the kitchen counter. Maybe it was girlie, but he liked vanilla.

He liked bourbon too, and he filled a snifter with Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year. Hard to find. Hard to afford.

He was going to drink it down, slowly. And when it all felt right…

…the knife that killed his father.

Perry Pierce didn’t have a lot to live for anymore, but he knew what he liked. Good music, good smells, good buzz. And then he’d use the same knife that he’d killed his father with and let the blood out. It had been beating within him for so long, wanting to leave…it was time to let it go.

Mike was out tonight, and that was part of the plan. He knew Mike had a thing for Tony-they were at a game and, if Mike came home, he’d come home drunk. But more likely, he wouldn’t come home at all. He’d end up at Tony’s and claim that he was too drunk to get back.

Perry knew better. He was being cheated on, and Mike was too much of a chickenshit to cop to it.

Perry didn’t know what Tony had that he didn’t have, but there you go…people just fuckin’ suck, in general. And not in a good, gay suck way. Just sucked. In a kick-’em-in-the-teeth-’cuz-it’s-every-ass-for-himself kinda way.

There wasn’t anything you could do to hold the ones you loved close. They were yours for a little while, and then they slipped away. If you didn’t kill them, or cancer or AIDS didn’t kill them, they killed themselves. Or at least the love you had. Everyone moved on, whether you were moving or not.

Perry was tired of moving.

He took a sip of the bourbon and felt the heat spike across his tongue and then trail down the back of his throat. It was hot like a good blow job, he thought with a smile.

“Fuck me,” he whispered and took another sip. He wanted the world to spin, but he didn’t want to waste the bourbon. It was powerful stuff, the kind that should be savored.

He let it lay on his tongue and thought about all the times he’d let Mike tie him to a wall and whip the shit out of him. He thought about the dungeons they’d gone to together, Mike showing him off like some trophy fuck.

He thought about the time he’d gone to that secret club. The invite had come when Mike was out of town, and Perry had checked it out. He couldn’t hide the bruises, though, when Mike had come home, and they’d almost broken up over that. Perry had ignored the following invitations.

He toyed with the knife and thought of the day his father had come after him, screaming at him like some maniac. “Faggot?” his dad had screamed. “No son of mine is going to be some kind of faggot…”

Perry relived the moment again and again. The words were in his head like a recording, but worse was the memory of his father stepping into the kitchen and holding a bottle out, threatening his son. Perry had grabbed a knife from the steak knife holder and warned his father back.

“No son of mine will…” his dad had said just before impaling himself on the knife in Perry’s hand.

He’d run after that. And run with the knife. He’d kept it close ever since, as a reminder. A reminder of what he’d done. What he could do. Tony beat him, but he was never afraid…he knew what he could do.

Perry emptied the glass and poured another thirty dollars of bourbon into a glass. Maybe it was a waste, he thought, since he’d be gone before the burn really went deep.

“Fuck it.”

He pulled the knife across his wrist and let the red bleed out into his lap. He watched, with a strange disconnection, as the blood streamed across his forearm and then down his thigh to wet the floor.

And then someone was there, in the room with him. A man he remembered from the sex club. Dark eyes and pale skin, a chest to die for.

“Back in black…” AC/DC sang as the CD started over, but Perry thought about it and laughed…this man was more white than black.

“Wrap it up,” the man suggested, pointing at Perry’s wrist. “Someone will come for you tonight. She will take you to The Crossing,” the man whispered.

Perry didn’t know why or how, but somehow he found himself staunching the intentional flow of blood from his wrist with a strip of material from a T-shirt.

“Sure,” he said, answering the man. He felt hypnotized…the man was beautiful. His words were seductive in a way that he couldn’t explain. “I will. Why not?”

“Come to The Crossing,” the man said. “Don’t let yourself go alone.”

And Perry nodded, taking a sip of the bourbon and staring at the red stain growing through his T-shirt. “Why not?”

The man wasn’t there anymore to hear.

Chapter Ten

Dreaming

Sometimes the night seemed to last forever. Sometimes Rae wished it would never end.

Right now…she was feeling the former. She’d been awake for hours, as next to her, Mark slept, sometimes snoring faintly. She wished she could let go and dream, as he did. Instead, she lived inside her memories, reliving every moment of her last night at NightWhere.

Every time she thought of Kharon, her skin grew flushed. She wanted to be with him now so badly her breasts ached. The memory of his touch was like a smoker’s lust for a cigarette. Once she began to see his face, his chest…she couldn’t let go of the memories. Her crotch warmed and grew wet, and her hand moved there to ease the itch that built…and then her fingers had to move faster, massaging that hungry spot faster and faster until she had to stop and quietly slip her panties down her thighs and around her ankles so that her fingers could more easily be buried inside her sex. Carefully, she moved her hips faster in a tight motion, sucking her fingers inside her as, next to her, her clueless husband slept.

In the midst of it all, she saw Kharon’s face as if he were right there, and heard his voice as if he were licking and whispering in her ear.

“Come back to me,” he said.

“Stay with me,” he said.

“Forever,” he whispered.

Gordon rolled over and looked at his shrew of a wife. She may be tiny but she snored like a truck driver, and drool wet her pillow.

If he could have, Gordon would have taken a hammer to her head and ended her miserable existence. He often drew great autoerotic pleasure from imagining just that. He hated her.

But if he did that, there’d be nobody to take care of the kid. And someone had to do that while he went to work.

So he let her live in his house and eat his food. But in his heart, Gordon wanted to kill her. To finally sever her hold on him. She’d dragged him into her life and used the baby to hold him there. It was never what he’d wanted.

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine his life without her, but instead all he could think about was the sound and feel of his whip cracking down on the flesh of Amelia.

He kept seeing the open O of Amelia’s pain-thirsty mouth. That, and the face of one of the NightWhere Watchers. He didn’t know them by name, but he knew them by sight. And this one, in particular, he’d seen around the club a lot. The Watcher kept saying things to him. Things like:

Kill.

Fuck,

Kill.

He liked the way this guy thought.

And then the guy showed him the pictures of a blonde and a redhead tied to the rack. They were fuckin’ stacked bitches…and naked as jaybirds…and bleeding from the cuts that someone had slit across their breasts.

Gordon reached between his legs to calm the excitement there, and instead of bringing himself off, he lost himself in the dream.

In the back of his mind, a voice whispered, “Come to NightWhere for The Crossing.”

Amelia shook on her couch and moaned. A scab pulled loose from the whip tracks on her back and blood began to flow again into the fabric. She hadn’t moved from the sofa in hours. She was barely alive.

“Come back,” a voice said in her ear. “Join us in The Crossing.”

“Yes,” she whispered. The thought of returning to NightWhere made her blood pump faster. But her eyes still did not open.

Chapter Eleven

Three Strikes

Rae taunted the speed limit the entire drive, and when she finally hit NightWhere, she didn’t slow down. Mark followed behind her, wondering if she even remembered that he was there. Tailor’s familiar black fingernails slipped around the door as it opened. She held out their invitation to the doorman, and as soon the door opened, she strode forward without looking back, fishnets pronounced and visible, corset overt and begging attention. She didn’t stop to stare into the doorman’s hypnotic eyes and get weak-kneed or to tell her husband where she was going.

Rae was on a mission.

Mark got it. He almost wasn’t hurt when she turned around inside the club and pecked him quickly on the lips before forcing a dismissive smile and then walking quickly away from him. She knew what she wanted.

Mark…wasn’t sure anymore.

He’d thought he wanted Rae, but now… He couldn’t satisfy her, and he didn’t think he held her attention anymore. He didn’t yearn for others to take her place, or even to have alongside her…she was the woman who made him hot! But she had told him to play the field, because she herself desperately needed to.

And now…he was bored.

He didn’t want this. He wanted a wife.

Mark cut across the room to the bar as Rae disappeared straight into the throng dancing in the center of the club. The fact that some of the women weren’t wearing shirts didn’t even interest him at the moment. Sometimes all you really wanted was your own set of tits to grasp. And Mark’s were walking away…looking for another thrill.

“Hey, stranger,” a voice said, and he looked up to see a pair of lilting blue eyes that he recognized.

“Hey,” he said, smiling faintly at Sin-D.

“You know, usually, it’s three strikes, you’re out.”

“Huh?”

“People don’t come to NightWhere to sit at the bar,” she said, “Unless you’re a loser like him.” She pointed at Kendrick who sat at the far end of the bar.

He raised a glass and grinned. “Lost her already?” he said. “That must be a new record…you’ve been inside, what, three minutes?”

“Fuck you,” Mark said, a little annoyed. He couldn’t have said whether that annoyance was more at Rae or Kendrick at the moment.

“Wouldn’t you rather fuck me?” Sin-D asked, slipping her hand inside her spandex white top and pulling it down across the brown skin of her tits until the pink of her nipples began to show. Mark was beginning to think this was her trademark come-on.

“She’s very needy,” Kendrick offered. “She looks good, but they never come back for seconds, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Sin-D stuck her tongue out at Kendrick. “That’s ’cuz people don’t come here for the bar. They’re out there, having a fuckingood time,” Sin-D pointed towards the dance floor and the coitus cots that were only half-hidden behind velvet curtains spaced around the perimeter of the room.

“Exactly,” Mark said. “Are you going to show me one?”

“I think I already did,” Sin-D smiled. “But if I have to run you through the paces once more…I guess I could.”

Sin-D winked and went to help another patron at the far end of the bar, as Mark settled onto his stool.

“Really?” a quiet voice said at his elbow.

Mark turned, and met the piercing eyes of Selena. She was sipping a martini, crystal liquor, clear and clean. Just like her.

“Really what?” he asked.

She raised a faint eyebrow and shook her head. “I was hoping after the last time that you might come to your senses, and stay away from the rabbit hole.”

“Not really up to me,” he said. “She’s here, so I’m here.”

“Your loyalty is admirable,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “But misguided. I don’t see her anywhere. You need to choose your own course. There’s nothing to admire in the lemming.”

Mark could see Sin-D and Kendrick watching them, as the bartendress mixed a drink for a balding businessman-looking character at the end of the bar.

“You’re here for the same reason I am,” Mark reminded Selena. “So what’s your excuse?”

Sin-D finished with her customer and returned to insert herself into the conversation, leaning down on her elbows between Mark and Selena. “How’s it going? Something I can help with?”

“No,” Mark laughed and took Selena’s hand. “We were just about to dance.”

Selena didn’t resist, or question his abrupt shift, and followed him out to the dance floor. Mark could feel Sin-D’s eyes following their every step. There was something the bartender didn’t like about Selena-he’d felt that from the first moment he’d met her. But there was something about Selena that Mark did like, very much. She seemed like a straight girl-she told it like she saw it. She wasn’t appalled by sex, but she wasn’t here to spread her legs for every guy who asked either. She seemed genuinely worried about him, though, and he wanted to find out…why.

The band played a slow goth dirge from The Cure, something about prayers for rain, and Selena wrapped her arms around his neck as she swayed with him. He put his hands around her midsection and realized how skinny she was. But soft. His fingers gripped her waist and she moved gently with him, swaying to the music with a faint, secret smile on her lips.

She leaned her head on his shoulder and whispered in his ear.

“I liked you that first night we met,” she said. “I was kind of wishing you might get out of this.”

“My wife came home from here the last time with a flyer,” he said in Selena’s ear. “All it said was ‘The Red’.”

“Is that why she came back?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. But she made a beeline for the back of the club as soon as we got here.”

“If she goes that way, you’ve lost her forever,” Selena said. “I’m not trying to be mean or anything, I’m just telling you the truth.”

“Where is it?”

“The Red?”

He nodded.

“Back beyond the racks. But you can’t get in there without an invitation. It’s a club within the club.”

“Show me,” he asked.

Selena nodded and led him off the dance floor to the back of the club. They walked past people necking in the corners and then people groaning as the floggers fell.

“Window dressing,” Selena said, pulling him past the handful of nudes on the racks. “This is all just a tease.”

She pointed behind them at the men and women, fat and skinny, naked and clothed in leather…they came in all shapes and sizes. The only constant was that they clustered around the black boards and steel chains that made up the row of racks at the back of the club.

“They’re playing at this,” Selena said. “The real pain artists, the one your wife wants to find…they’re in there.”

She pointed down the wall towards the corner. An arch of grey stones surrounded a double wooden door. The doors were made of dark wooden slats, held together by iron bars that attached to the hinges on one end and curled out into a circular snake design at the other. The center bars were the most ornate, with the snake forming a large circle and then instead of biting its tail, as the usual emblem of NightWhere did, the heads of these snakes slipped upwards from the tail to hold round iron doorknockers in their fangs.

Mark didn’t hesitate. He walked past a velvet-rope barrier to lift the doorknocker. But Selena grabbed his shoulder.

“You can’t!” she said.

“My wife’s in there,” Mark laughed. “I certainly can.”

Instead of knocking, he pulled the door open and caught a glimpse of candle flames and deep-red light in the space beyond. A scream as overwrought as the clincher from a B-grade horror movie escaped from somewhere within.

And then the door slammed shut, pushing Mark back into the main room of NightWhere.

“Can I help you?” a male voice asked from behind them. His hand rested on the top half of the previously open door. Mark turned and saw a pale man with his other hand resting on Selena’s shoulder. Her lips pressed tightly together but she said nothing.

The man grinned, his face little more than a skull with skin and stubble. He looked like a Nazi camp survivor.

“My wife is in there,” Mark said.

The man shook his head in agreement, cocking his chin slightly as he stared hard at Mark’s eyes. “And so…”

“And so I’m going in to find her.”

“Nobody goes into The Red without an invitation,” the thin man said. His bony fingers kneaded Selena’s shoulders as he spoke. Mark saw her tremble in revulsion as they slipped lower across her chest with each motion.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever. We’re here as a couple, and where she goes, I go.”

He reached out to pull the iron ring of the door again, but a cold grip instantly took his wrist.

“I don’t think you’re understanding the way things work here, exactly,” the man said. His voice was ice. “If your wife gave you an invitation, I will let you go in. Otherwise, the modus operandi of NightWhere is…every man for himself. Your wife has her own itch to scratch. It is not yours, or you wouldn’t be here while she is there.”

The man pressed his skinny, bald chest up against Mark’s shirt. His eyes were slanted and wide, his pupils deep black orbs in a circle of steel. They inched closer until Mark could feel the man’s breath on his lips. “Nobody gets into anything here without an invitation,” he said. “And you are not invited.”

A hand slipped around Mark’s waist from behind. Selena.

Warm breath tickled his neck from behind as she whispered. “C’mon,” she said. “Just forget it.”

The man’s eyes seemed to widen even more in a dangerous humor, and Mark saw his skin crease in a river of wrinkles as his mouth opened in a cackle dark and grim.

“I’d listen to her while you can,” the man laughed. “Enjoy her-she won’t last long. I will guarantee that.”

Selena’s hand pulled him hard then, and this time Mark complied, stepping back away from the door.

“Come back when you are wanted,” the man laughed and pulled the wooden door open to step through himself. A flash of red shadowed his head, and he was gone, the door shut with a heavy creak behind him.

Selena held Mark’s arm and pulled him towards the dance floor beyond the row of masochists along the wall playing with whips and floggers. “I want you,” she said quietly.

Mark shrugged her hand away.

“I want my wife,” he said, and walked towards the bar.

Chapter Twelve

Invitation 2

Rae stepped through the medieval wooden door in the back of the club and felt her heart stop. The invitation had grown damp between her fingers in the short time she’d held it, but then, almost as soon as she’d stepped in front of the iron-hinged doorway in the back of the club…someone came to snatch it away.

The door had opened, and she had been pulled into The Red.

Everything changed.

The modern, blue-light-and-black-metal and ripped-fishnets, dark-techno feel of the outer club disappeared and she was in a place that felt like the antithesis of the Blue Room. This place was ancient. Like catacombs.

Her skin felt cool and clammy as the light of a hundred candles inset in the walls lit her way, and when she stepped past the candle foyer, the deep light of The Red slid across her skin, absorbing her into its world. She was in a different place…the room in which she’d entered NightWhere was almost on a different planet than this. That was casual. Out there, it was just a game. Sex and pain for fun. Frolic.

Here…she felt…nervous. Like a tourist in the dank caverns of a horror movie. The shadows misted dark and hot around her. Clouds of foul air hung in the long hallway, hiding whatever lay beneath it. Rae’s feet-and whatever was near them-were obscured from view…still, she stepped forward.

The wooden door closed behind her with a snap.

She turned, but there was nobody inside the dark. She saw the shadow of the door and the flicker of candle flames. A hint of the fog drifted past like a grounded cloud.

“You came,” a voice said from the fog ahead. His eyes glowed red, like fire.

“I was invited,” she said.

“Yes,” the voice agreed. “You were.”

Rae stepped farther into the main hallway of The Red, and in the bloody shadows, she saw the nude shoulders of a man. She moved faster, intrigued. That’s when the slap caught her across the shoulder blades.

“Ouch,” she complained.

The voice in the dark laughed.

She heard the sound this time before she felt it. The crack of leather. Followed by the white flash of contact pain. As the sound faded, the pain blossomed orange and hot across her breasts. Her nipples stung with the shock of unexpected abuse. She gasped and stepped back, but didn’t cry out. Instead, Rae hugged herself, wrapping her arms in protection across her violated skin.

“You can’t hide here,” the voice said.

Suddenly, a light glimmered to life high above them. A single bulb in a corridor of shadow. But as it lit, a softer, deep-amber glow rose from the floor around her. Rae saw vague silhouettes moving in the dull light.

“Show her,” the voice said.

On command, hands grabbed Rae’s shoulders and as she turned to see who had touched her, more hands gripped her ankles. She was dragged through a doorway, and then her arms were lifted towards the ceiling, and with a rip, the hooks of her corset were yanked one way, then the other, and then the garment was gone. Moments later, her skirt was gone too. She felt cold fingers slipping along the top of her thigh, and then her fishnets were ripped away as well. Rae stood naked in a room of shadows and shadow watchers.

With her clothes, the hands were gone. Rae stood alone in the center of the strange cavernous place. Things moved along the perimeter. Things she could only just barely see.

“What do you want?” she asked.

The deep voice laughed. “What do you want?” it countered. “Why are you in The Red?”

“I was invited,” she said.

“You were invited because you asked. What is it that you need?”

“I need to feel,” she said. Her voice cracked.

“Mmmmm,” came the reply. And then…

Snap.

Something broke across her rear end. Rae jumped, holding the stinging flesh of her ass, but another crack broke the dark and sent a spike of white pain up her arm as the leather bit across the joints of her fingers.

And then another slap took her in the belly.

And another across her thighs.

And one on her calves.

And one on her back.

Rae began to cry, jumping from the bites of the whips, but craving them at the same time.

Finally, when she doubled over, a voice whispered again, this time right in her ear, “Is this what you want?”

And Rae could not contain her answer. Part of her hated herself for it, but the bulk of her agreed.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”

The lights in the room abruptly went out, and Rae blinked, trying to see something in the inky blackness.

“We’ll let you know if we want you,” the voice said. And then it was gone and Rae was alone in the dark.

Chapter Thirteen

Going Back for More

Selena seemed like a nice girl. Okay, hardly a girl…definitely a woman. But Mark wasn’t interested. Not now. Not after having someone tell him that he was blocked from walking into the room where his wife was. The scene played over and over again in his mind, and he couldn’t let it go.

Wouldn’t.

He ordered a shot of Johnny Walker Black from Sin-D, who leered at him, cupping a breast for him to see its pale, sexy nipple. “Body shot?” she asked, and he smiled in spite of himself.

“Not tonight,” he said. “I think this shit would burn that beautiful skin.”

“Sometimes burning is good,” Sin-D said with wide eyes and the pink tip of her tongue touching the edge of her lip. She pushed the whiskey across the bar at him. “You need to live a little,” she added.

Mark downed the shot in a gulp and then pushed the glass back.

“I think I’m going to go do just that,” he said.

He made his way through the crowded dance floor and past the racks where two men were taking turns flogging and fingering a woman who had legs like tree trunks. Her breasts looked heavy as cow udders. Mark shuddered. But the skinny guys looked like they were getting off on playing with her. One of them was fully nude and sporting wood.

Mark waited until the area near The Red was clear of people, and then he ducked under the red velvet rope and hurried to the shadowed arch of the double doors. The Watcher who’d been there earlier would no doubt be back any second. Obviously they kept an eye on this entryway. To keep out people like him.

He pulled the iron ring and the right door creaked halfway open. Mark slipped inside and pulled it shut behind him.

Everything changed in that moment.

The pumping beat of the band outside was replaced with another throbbing sound…only this one was more organic. More sexual. The air was heavy, humid and hot. And the walls on either side of the entryway had dozens of small oval alcoves inset in them. Candles burned in each of those spaces. The room glowed and rippled with the flicker of the flames. The ceiling glowed faintly, but seemed to do so with its own light. It looked as if it was made of heavy glass, and a low red light glowed behind it. But the light wasn’t coming from any one direction…the whole ceiling seemed to bleed a viscous bloody color.

Mark stepped past the entryway and into a long hall. He walked to the right and passed a room with writhing bodies, all shifting and moaning on a floor studded with what looked to be nails. He stepped inside the entry a moment, squinting through the faint red light to see if Rae was there.

A burly man with a back as hairy as a gorilla’s was driving himself between the legs of a middle-aged woman close to the door. She lay back across the floor of nails, her arms outstretched as if she welcomed the man’s sex, but with every thrust, her heavy breasts shook and she screamed out in what sounded far more like pain than pleasure. When the man pulled out of her and rolled her onto her belly, her back resembled a pincushion; a thousand spots of red glimmered in the low light and began to run as her blood, uncorked, flowed from the wounds.

Mark winced. No pain, no gain?

Nearby, a thin, aging, black-haired woman held what looked like a college-aged boy by a chain that hooked to a leather collar around his neck. “When I say jump, I mean jump!” she yelled and hit the kid across the ass with a wooden paddle. He cried out, but in the next moment, she yelled, “Jump,” and he did, screaming as his feet came down on the nails.

Then she slammed the wooden paddle across his penis, and the kid screamed even louder as he lost his balance and fell backwards, impaling his ass and shoulders on the nails. The woman jumped on him then, straddling his abused cock and forcing her tongue into his mouth even as he continued to scream. She closed his lips with hers and then reached down and guided his cock inside her. How it had remained erect, Mark couldn’t fathom. The kid wrapped his arms around the woman as if he truly loved her. The sound of his pain was dulled, but not stopped, by the suction of her lips, but soon her own bleats of pain joined his as he pushed against the floor and rolled her over, pinning her wrists and her back to the nails with his body. His cock never left her, as they fucked and rolled, fucked and rolled, until both of their bodies were nothing but a bloody rash.

Mark felt sick.

This was not sex play.

This was horror.

It had only taken him a minute to confirm that Rae, thankfully, was not in this room, but…where was she?

He slipped back out of the room and walked a few steps farther down the hall. He heard the sound of the whips before he reached the door. They slapped wet and sharp, with a rhythm that was unmistakable. And the screams that answered each crack told the rest of the story.

Mark peered around the edge of the door and saw three men, nude from the waist up, standing around a woman who appeared to be hanging from the ceiling. At first he wondered why there were so many ropes stretching from the ceiling to her naked flesh, but then one of the men shifted his stance and Mark understood.

She was hung from the ceiling by hooks. Each rope ended in a steel barb that pierced the skin, in sequence, from her shoulders all the way down to her calves. Six crank wheels surrounded her, and when one of the men turned the handle on one, the ropes that held the hooks in her calves and thighs began to pull up until her body hung at a forty-five-degree angle. One of the other men reached out and pinched one of her nipples between his fingers, pulling on it until it stretched from her body like almond taffy. The woman cried no, and someone in the room laughed. That’s when the man abusing her breast pulled a long knife from a sheath in his leather pants.

Mark shook his head and hurried on. Now he knew he was right to come here…he had to find Rae before they did something horrible to her. This was wrong, all wrong. He understood a little bit about the pain and pleasure dichotomy, but this was something else.

This was hell.

The next room was full of people, and Mark strained to see what was happening. He could hear the bleats of pain, but the light was so faint, he couldn’t make out anyone’s face.

But then he didn’t need the light. He heard Rae scream. Mark abandoned stealth mode and rushed into the room, pushing people aside as he struggled to see in the darkness.

That’s when the lights came up, and the room suddenly glowed in a harsh white. It brought tears to his eyes and he blinked to clear them. But when he could see again, he wanted to cry in earnest.

Rae stood in the center of a circle of nude men and women, her arms outstretched. Her wrists had leather bands around them, and chains were hooked to each of those bands connecting her arms to the ceiling. Her ankles were similarly bound, the chains extending to walls on either side of the room, forcing her to stand with her legs spread wide.

All of the circle around her held whips or floggers with long leather straps. Some of those straps glimmered with the silver of steel.

Rae’s face was run with black from mascara…her tears had turned her into a ghastly clown. The marks of whips crisscrossed her breasts and back, angry red welts wrapped around her like red rope.

Mark pushed the people away from her and screamed, “Leave her alone!”

Nobody stopped him as he stepped into the center of the circle, reached up and unhooked the leather bracelets on Rae’s wrists from the chains and then did the same with her feet. As he did, her blood smeared across his hands; her back and legs were a mess of bleeding cuts.

“Mark, what are you doing? No,” Rae complained blurrily. She almost seemed drunk. Mark wondered if they’d drugged her before doing this. Fuckers!

Hands grabbed at his shoulders then, as well as at Rae’s. But Mark’s fists fended them off. He felt someone’s nose crush in a warm rush beneath his fingers, and a second later he punched a woman in the gut who was still holding a whip. She doubled over before the next guy grabbed at Mark and tried to stop them from leaving.

“Enough,” he yelled. “You’ve hurt her enough. I’m taking her home.”

He held her around the waist and began to push their way from the room. “Wait a minute,” Rae begged, pounding on his back. “I want my clothes!”

He stopped and she bent to pick them up. As she did, Mark realized the room had gone silent, and Rae’s torturers all stood still, in a single file along one wall. None resisted him. The one who had refused him entrance to The Red when he’d come with Selena stood in the center. “I told you this was for her alone,” he said quietly.

“Not anymore,” Mark said and pulled her from the room. He wouldn’t let her stop until they were back in the Blue Room, with the familiar sounds of ’80s goth rock pounding from across the stage. Then he let Rae pull her skirt up over her hips and half shrug on her corset (he clasped some of the hooks) before he dragged her from the club.

Rae didn’t speak on the way home. Mark knew better than to press her, but after a few miles, he couldn’t stop himself. Her clothes were ripped and bloody. He could see the pale skin of her ribs through the side of the corset that exposed the flesh just beneath her shoulder. She looked like someone who’d been attacked by a man with knives.

“Why did you let them do that?” he asked. “Did they drug you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know why, or you don’t know if you were drugged?”

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Mark felt his anger surge. “I thought our deal was full disclosure,” he said. “If we do this, there are no secrets-isn’t that what you said?”

Rae turned her head to stare out the window. In the glass, she no longer saw the night neon of the city passing by the car. She could see the shadows of The Red moving. Nude forms shifting this way and the other. Hands with long fingernails reaching out.

The crack of the whip…

Already, she yearned to go back.

Chapter Fourteen

Rabbit in a Cage

Travis had a feeling that something was wrong. Deadly wrong. He remembered tending bar. And then there had been someone coming in and asking him to go to a club…a place where he’d be comfortable…

And the next thing he knew he was waking up in a dark, cold place. His back was stiff. He couldn’t feel his legs.

And then he heard the voice speaking somewhere nearby.

“Now,” the voice said. “Make him wake up.”

The pain was almost instant. It cut across his belly like a steel ruler slapped down hard. He felt cold and then fire in the same breath. Travis opened his eyes.

Wide.

“What the fuck?” he cried out, and around him he heard a dozen people begin to laugh.

“What the…” he echoed, but nobody responded.

The pain came again.

Travis saw something glow in the far corner of the room. Then another light grew closer. And another.

It looked as if a dozen candles had been lit, and little by little, they moved in tighter.

Travis could see the faces behind the candles now. Faces with dark eyes and creased brows and smiles that looked more hungry than amused.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Just your pain,” someone answered.

And that’s when the hurt began.

When he woke up, they were still there. Waiting to begin again.

The ugliest one spoke.

“Here’s what we need from you,” the Watcher said. “We need pain. You need to bring it. You need to feed us. And in return…”

“What?”

“We know what you want,” the voice whispered.

Travis felt a stir. If they would just tie him up and make the world change in his head… All he wanted was someone to make him feel used.

“Think harder,” the voice laughed. “We will make you feel more than used. We will make you feel dead.”

“Pass?” Travis said, growing more and more afraid as the pale lights closed in, illuminating faces that did not smile.

“Too late” a voice said. “Once you’re in NightWhere, there are no passes. Or safe words. Everything is dangerous.”

Chapter Fifteen

Going It Alone

The doorbell rang, but by the time Rae made it downstairs, whoever had come had already gone.

But there was something left behind. A red envelope.

Her heart began beating faster. She knew what it was without picking it up. An invitation to NightWhere. She pulled it from the mailbox and let the door slam behind her as she ripped the seal open. Inside, an ornate script read:

It’s time for a rabbit hunt.

And there can only be one hunter.

Come alone to NightWhere tonight at 7 p.m.

Beneath that was a handwritten address. Rae didn’t recognize it, and so she crumpled the envelope, dropped it on the table and walked upstairs to the computer in the den to map it. As she did so, she knew in her heart that she had to leave the house before Mark came home. The invitation said to come alone. It didn’t specify which of them was to come, but she knew.

This time was not for him.

NightWhere was for her, and her alone.

As for the rabbit hunt…she had no idea…but she could feel her teeth ache at the words. Her stomach shifted at the possibilities. A rabbit was soft and defenseless…a hunt meant someone would be trapped…maybe hurt in the course of the chase. The more she pondered the words, the more she was dying to know.

She stripped and pulled open her underwear drawer. In the mirror, she noted that the bleached ends of her hair looked even lighter against the tan of her bare shoulders. Her breasts were creamy in the evening light, luminous. Rae made a face at herself and then laughed. She looked good. And she knew it. She loved that confidence…and would use that tonight with someone. Maybe Kharon? The lash marks from her last time at NightWhere had nearly faded completely, she noted, turning halfway around to see her back in the mirror. Some of the places where she’d been whipped still told the story in pale-pink lines across her skin. She suspected that, after tonight, she would have new scars on the brown of her back.

She selected a red silk bra that was nearly see-through and matching panties from the drawer and pulled them on. Then she found a red silk dress rimmed in black lace-more of a slip than a dress, really-and shrugged that over her head. It was tight at the waist and dipped low down her chest, exposing both cleavage and a hint of her bra. She checked it in the mirror, and nodded at the low swell of tantalizing flesh against and beyond the black lace.

Grabbing a pair of black-and-red heels, she hurried downstairs and snatched the car keys from the kitchen counter. A moment later she was pulling out onto their subdivision street and checking behind her to make sure the garage door had begun to close.

She didn’t notice the slate-grey Sonata that did a U-turn and began to follow her down the main street a few seconds later.

If he had turned the corner any later, he would have missed her. It was a Wednesday night, and Mark had been thinking that he was coming home after a shitty hump day to a quiet, relaxing dinner. Alternately, he’d thought, since he was getting home a little early for the first time in a week, maybe they might head out to dinner. But both of those plans hit the sewer just before he reached their subdivision, when he saw Rae’s little silver Mazda sitting at the light across from him. Heading in the opposite direction.

At first he wasn’t sure it was Rae. But then the car in front of him moved up a few feet and he could see the FU at the end of the Mazda’s license plate. Rae’s little in-joke at dirty personalization. The plate read LUV FU. To most it looked like a drunken Love You. Mark knew it stood for Love (to) Fuck You.

He wondered if she was heading up to the store to get something for dinner, and on a lark, he decided to follow her. He figured he would pull up in the parking lot right next to her at the grocery to freak her out. Make her laugh.

When the light changed, Mark crossed the intersection, but a block away did a U-turn. Then he worked his way back through traffic until he was just a couple cars behind the silver Mazda. He didn’t think she’d seen him. He couldn’t wait to see her face when he pulled up right next to her at the Meyers.

But Rae didn’t drive to the supermarket.

She drove right past the Meyers they always went to.

Where was she going then?

At the next light, Mark picked up the cell phone and dialed her number. She was just a car ahead of him now, and before the light changed, he saw her reach away from the steering wheel and then look at something in her hand. But she didn’t put it to her ear. After a couple more rings, Mark heard his wife’s recorded voice ask him to leave a message.

He clicked the END button on his phone and considered. She was going somewhere, and didn’t want to talk to him right now. That did not bode well for a romantic dinner. Something was up.

Rae had been acting weird lately. Taciturn. She insisted that nothing was wrong, but she never wanted to talk. And now she had just refused to take his call?

Mark sighed and squinted against the sun as he tried to keep her car in sight. She headed west, and then after a while turned north on Route 45, heading through Orland and towards Countryside and LaGrange.

He felt a little guilty for doing this, invading her privacy…but not enough to stop. He needed to know.

What the hell was she doing here? Mark asked himself, trying to hold his car far enough back that she wouldn’t see and identify him, but also anxious to pull up and see where she was going.

He followed her until she pulled off the main highway and into a cluster of buildings. Mark didn’t enter the parking lot, but instead pulled to the side of the road, hoping he could keep her in sight.

She wove around the parking lots of two buildings and then pulled into a space. Mark looked in his rearview mirror and then pulled forward a few meters, until he could see her car better. After a moment, he saw her get out of the car. The red silk of her dress shook in the breeze as she walked away from the car. She was definitely not dressed for a quick shopping trip, he noted. Mark picked up the phone and dialed her number again. And again, he watched her pick up her own phone, check the number, and ignore the call. She tossed the cell inside her car and slammed the door to shut it inside. Then she walked to the sidewalk, and stepped up to a doorway.

Mark stared at the sexy red dress and the high red heels and his anger burned. Was she really sneaking around to fuck someone else when they already had an open marriage arrangement? Why? She knew that he would let her…but their agreement had always been full disclosure.

He sank back in the car and turned the radio up. As AC/DC screamed about a highway to hell, the acid in his stomach began to boil.

The address was in an industrial park. Low-rise, brown-brick buildings stretched out along the road with nondescript signs and addresses: 2303-01 Enterprise Systems, 2303-05 Dynamic Graphics, 2303-07 Friedman & Associates. This wasn’t a strip of businesses where you came to browse; you only came here if you had very specific business and knew exactly where you were going. Rae knew where she was going. Her insides tingled because she didn’t know what she would find when she got there.

Her phone rang for the second time, and she saw that it was Mark. Again, she thumbed the button to ignore the call. She did not want to talk to him right now. Could not. She didn’t know how she would face him in the morning, but she couldn’t tell him right now what she was doing. He’d insist on trying to join her, and she didn’t want the argument. She turned her phone off and threw it back in the Mazda before shutting the door. She was going to another world now, and didn’t need the distractions of this one. She locked the car and walked down the smooth cement path towards the building. Her steps clicked with the distinctive sound that only a stiletto makes, and she smiled. She loved dressing like this. It did something to her, inside, to know that guys would drool when they saw her.

The outfit was inappropriate for public display (unless you were a streetwalker), but there didn’t seem to be anyone around to be offended (or turned on) by it. Which was odd, this early in a business park.

Rae knocked on a chocolate-colored door. The sign next to it said only 13. The first two letters of the address had been blocked out by a hand-drawn sign. It read NW. The door opened before she finished her third knock.

“You came,” Tailor said, pulling her inside. He looked at her invitation, but only for a split second. He seemed to have expected her. “And you came alone.” He nodded, and his dark eyes flashed with the light of the early evening sun. His face looked pleased.

He took her hand in his own and pulled her inside. When he shut the door, Rae found herself in the familiar layout of NightWhere. She didn’t know how they did it, but no matter where the club was housed, in whatever type of building, once you stepped through the doors, it always looked exactly the same. Uncanny. This time though, there were very few people present. Sin-D was at her post at the bar, and a woman in a latex outfit sat on the far side of the room by the racks. But nobody was currently being flogged. A nude man walked across the dance floor but the stage was silent. As he passed them and continued towards the bar, Rae noted that his back was a mess of freshly opened gashes. Blood dripped across his buttocks and down his thighs.

She thought it seemed early for anyone to have gotten that messed up already.

“Tonight is a special night,” the doorman said. “I’m sure you noticed that we called you here a couple hours earlier than usual. There’s a reason. We have lots to do before midnight strikes. Go to The Red, and Kharon will fill you in on everything.”

Mark waited in the car for few minutes, debating on whether or not he should go in. Finally, he pulled the gearshift out of Park and let the Sonata begin creeping down the shoulder. After a few cars passed him, he punched the gas and cut onto the road and headed towards home.

He wasn’t going to confront her in front of whoever she was with. He didn’t need that drama, and he didn’t necessarily want to admit that he’d followed her. He’d wait to see what her explanation was later, when she finally came home.

But his plan changed almost as soon as he made it home.

Mark walked into the kitchen and headed straight to the fridge for a beer. He popped the cap and took a long, deep swallow. His heart was a mix of emotion. Angry with her for sneaking. Angry with himself for not stomping in after her and demanding that she come home. But at the same time, he felt the edge of a black depression looming near. She was only doing this because he didn’t fulfill what she needed, a voice inside him said. He wasn’t man enough. He was a failure…

Mark closed his eyes and struggled to clear all the voices away. Rae would come home and have a good explanation. She had always been straight with him, and there had to be a good reason for this. He shouldn’t have spied on her.

That’s when he noticed the crumpled red envelope on the kitchen table.

“You bitch!” he whispered, as he slammed the beer down and uncrumpled the envelope.

He knew where it came from without touching it.

Rae hadn’t gone to cheat with another man. She’d gone to NightWhere.

Without him.

Mark chugged the rest of the beer and picked his car keys back up. He may not have had the invitation, but he knew where NightWhere was tonight.

They had agreed to do this together, or not at all.

Mark got back in the car.

Chapter Sixteen

The Hunter

The ancient-looking door to The Red creaked open as she approached. Rae couldn’t help but smile as she saw Kharon’s preternatural, large eyes staring out of the dark at her. He reached out a hand and stroked her cheek.

“So beautiful,” he whispered.

Rae felt her face flush. Something about this man made her melt. And his touch…

“I am glad you understood the invitation,” Kharon said. “After last time, I do not think your husband is ready for NightWhere.”

Rae shook her head. “He doesn’t understand.”

Kharon ran a cool finger down the bare skin of her chest, hooking it inside when he reached the edge of the V in her dress. “Neither do you,” he smiled and pulled her close to him with that finger. “Yet.”

He bent until his eyes were just an inch from her own. His tongue traced her lips. His touch made her shiver, but as soon as Rae opened her lips to accept him fully, he pulled away.

“Tonight is the night of the rabbit,” he said. “We already have one here, and we need you to go and fetch us the other.”

“You want me to go to a pet store?” she asked, confused.

Kharon laughed. He turned and walked through the antechamber of candles and into the dark hall beyond.

Rae followed him into a small room that seemed to ooze red light from its corners. The light was just enough to see walls glistening in something dark and liquid. On the far wall, a man was chained. A pale, bald man stood nearby. A Watcher. His hands were stroking the chained man, gently…as you would a pet.

“Here’s our first rabbit,” Kharon said. “We’ll run him later. But first, you have to bring back another. It’s hardly a race if we don’t have two.”

“I don’t understand,” Rae said.

“You are going to go to this address,” Kharon said. He handed her a piece of paper. “His name is Perry Pierce, and he wants NightWhere. I’ve already talked to him about coming, though he doesn’t really understand yet. You should have no problem bringing him in.”

He grinned. “Just coax him with stories of whips and chains. I don’t think your own wiles will help this time around.”

“What happens when I do?”

“You will be rewarded,” Kharon smiled. Lightly he traced his finger down her right side before slipping it around to cup her ass.

“But what will happen to that guy?” she pointed at the man chained to the wall. “And this Perry?”

“You’ll just have to see,” he said. “But first you have to bring him back.”

Mark pulled up to the industrial park for the second time in an hour and was about to turn into the parking lot when he saw the red flash of Rae’s dress in a doorway. He flipped off his turn signal and passed by the entrance to flip into the parking lot at the next one. He hoped she hadn’t seen his car. He eased into the lot at the far end and watched as she walked to the Mazda and got in. Moments later, she pulled out of the industrial park and Mark followed, careful to let a couple cars get in between them.

He thought she was going home. If so, he’d hang back from the subdivision for a few minutes and then follow her in.

But then she turned west and headed away from their house. She pulled into a pet store and he followed slowly, careful to park around the building from her. That had him really scratching his head, since they didn’t own any pets. She was only inside for a few minutes and then they were back on the road again.

What the fuck, he said to himself. He was following his wife like some damned detective. Where the hell was she going now?

Rae drove through the business district and into the suburbs. About fifteen minutes later, she slowed, and then after a couple blocks, put on her turn signal and pulled into the parking lot of a cluster of two-flat buildings. Mark passed the complex by and pulled into the parking lot of Santa Fe Burritos, a small fast-food joint next door. From where he parked, he could see Rae as she walked towards the front door of a building all the way across the lot.

This was getting increasingly weird.

Mark settled back to wait. The clock seemed to crawl, but it was only twenty minutes later that Rae reappeared. She wasn’t alone. Behind her, a man in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt followed.

Mark leaned forward and squinted across the parking lots, trying to get a better view.

“What the hell?” he said.

He could swear that Rae had the guy on a leash. He could see the collar around the guy’s neck, and it looked like Rae pulled him by a chain. He could see flashes of light reflecting off it as they walked.

She opened the passenger’s side of her car for him and he slipped inside. Rae closed the door on the man and then walked around to the driver’s seat. A minute later, Mark pulled out of the lot and followed her back the way she’d come. All the way back to the industrial park.

All the way back to NightWhere.

Mark watched from the edge of the parking lot as she led the man to the doorway that he’d seen her come out of an hour before. The door opened a crack at her knock and then swung open fully. Mark caught a glimpse of a pale man in the opening, and saw Rae hand over the chain. The doorman took it and pulled the man inside as the door swung shut behind the three of them.

Huh.

So Rae was providing NightWhere shuttle service? Was this someone she’d met there before? He hadn’t looked familiar.

Mark toyed with the idea of going to the door, but he knew he’d never get inside. After the way he’d carted Rae out last time, perhaps he’d never be let back in. He turned the key and put the car in Drive.

This time, it seemed, he was going to have to go home from NightWhere alone.

Chapter Seventeen

Running the Rabbits

Rae had always had a dark streak. A place inside her that craved pain. A place that desperately desired to see blood. She’d never really told Mark; he just thought he was lucky to have a girl who actually enjoyed watching horror and action movies with him on the weekends. But it was more than that. There was a black flower in her heart, and every time she set foot in NightWhere it blossomed broader. It was as if someone had finally taken the lock off the hidden dungeon in her soul and set all that darkness inside her free.

She had enjoyed telling Perry about NightWhere and how the Watchers had been secretly watching him, following his personal flirtations with leather and chains, dominance and submission. She guessed quickly that he was suicidal; there was a bloodstained rag around his wrist. At first he’d seemed dull, not quite there, as she tried to describe why she’d been sent. But he’d grown more alert as she talked about the rooms of pain. He’d been afraid at first when she’d appeared out of the blue on his doorstep, insisting that he needed to go with her to a sex club. But she’d used both her own story and her body to persuade him. While Kharon hadn’t believed it would be a benefit, Rae knew that even a gay guy could be won over by a sexy woman. Especially when she promised to get him flogged. It had really taken no time at all to get the collar on him.

The dog collar had been her idea. When Kharon had told her how much Perry thirsted for the lash, she was inspired. She’d seen a pet store on her way here and on a whim had pulled in. And her gut had been right. Perry had almost melted at the sight of a collar. He literally shivered with excitement when she fastened it around his neck.

Now that she had led him on a leash into The Red, she warmed to the idea of what would become of him.

When she handed Perry’s chain to Kharon, his eyes stared deeply into hers. He put three fingers on her cheek. Rae could almost feel him reading her soul. The longer he held her eyes, the more weak her knees felt. Looking at Kharon did something to her…Rae couldn’t explain it, but she knew she couldn’t bear it for long at any one time. Still, she craved that weak, tingling feeling that spread through her spine as he stared into her eyes.

Then he broke the contact, straightened up and led her and Perry to where the other rabbit was chained. He clipped Perry’s chain to the wall and walked to the corner, where a long row of whips and flogs were hung. There were also some metal devices which, Rae had to admit, were completely alien to her. She really wasn’t sure what they were for. Kharon didn’t demonstrate them to illustrate their function though. He pulled a simple black-leather whip from the wall and presented it to her. “You’ve done well,” he said. “This is for you. Your first mark of honor. Use it well tonight, and perhaps someday, you may even reach The Black and meet the Night Mother.”

Rae opened her mouth to ask what The Black was but Kharon had already turned away. “It is time for the race,” he called out. Another pale-faced Watcher came into the room then, leading a burly man in his wake.

“Rae,” Kharon said. “This is Gordon. He brought in Travis, our other rabbit. Perhaps you’ll play together one of these nights.”

Rae looked at Gordon and had her doubts about that. The man looked ugly, fat and mean. There was no attraction there for her, though his arms looked thick enough to handle giving a good flogging.

The other Watcher unhooked Travis from the wall and handed his leash to Gordon, while Kharon handed Perry’s to Rae.

“They are your catches, so you will start them down the course.”

He led them out of the room and down the dark hall.

“Where are we going?” Perry asked. His voice sounded lonely in the dark. The Watchers didn’t answer. Instead, they continued silently down the long hall, passing the torture rooms one at a time until they emptied into a long, cavernous hall.

The hall felt like a sauna. Red steam hung low to the floor, lit by the bloody glow of the ceiling. Two rows of people stood facing each other, several feet apart. They were clothed solely in weapons. To protect their bare skin they held chains, whips, cudgels…

“Here are the rules,” Kharon said. “There are thirteen red snakes, and thirteen black snakes. The Living Path has these snakes pinned to their bodies-I have chosen where, so you will find them in different places on each person. Perry is to collect all of the red snakes and put them in his bag. Travis will search for all of the black. Whoever gets all thirteen of their color first is the winner and will be allowed to Crossover.” He pointed to the shape of an arched bridge on the far end of the room. It was half-hidden in eerily swirling, colored fog, and Rae couldn’t see its end.

“The loser will face the pit,” Kharon pointed to a glowing hole in the floor beneath the bridge. Rae could see the occasional flare of flame from the glowing hole. Now she realized why the room was so warm.

“You can see how it might be beneficial to work your way quickly past the hardships. Because…there will be hardships in this race. The Living Path cannot move from their places or they will also face the pit…but they can use the implements in their hands.”

Kharon led Gordon and Rae to the start of the Living Path and raised his hand in the air. Rae felt Perry straining against the leash, anxious to run to the first person in the Living Path to search him for a snake.

Kharon’s hand flagged down. “And…let the rabbits run!” he said.

Rae released her leash and watched as Travis and Perry ran to the first two people in the human line.

She watched as Perry ran to the first naked man who began the Living Path on the left. And she cringed as the man brought a long iron chain down to smack against Perry’s ass.

Travis had been excited at first about this scene. It was far more imaginative than most of the scenarios the bondage magazines dreamed up. When Kharon’s hand signaled the start of the race, he ran to the right and saw a small black snake pinned through a woman’s belly button. The snake was just a couple inches long-and fake. It was a rubber representation of a serpent. He bent to try to undo the safety pin that cut through the snake and into the woman’s skin. He slipped his fingers against the warmth of the woman’s belly, trying to cup the snake so that he could press the safety pin open, when all at once the air cracked behind him, and he felt the sting of a whip across his back. Then another whip cracked. And another. Travis fell to his knees, as the leather cut him deep across the ribs. He tried to fumble with the pin again and the woman hissed, “Just rip it off, you idiot.”

“I’ll hurt you!” he said, which only drove the woman to laugh.

“Why do you think we’re here?”

Travis grinned. He couldn’t disagree with that. He grabbed the snake and yanked as the woman rained a flogger down across his back. When he grabbed the snake, however, her attack subsided, and instead the woman gasped, as the pin that had held the snake to her skin came away with a sliver of her flesh still attached.

Travis moved to the next person in line, a brown-skinned Middle Eastern man. A black snake was pinned to the skin of his hairy inner thigh.

“Sorry,” Travis said, and this time he wasn’t gentle or tentative. He yanked hard on the snake. At the same time, three more whip cracks split the air, and one of them sank a hook into Travis’s ass. “Fuck,” he cried out, and stumbled away from the man with another snake. He shoved it in the small leather satchel that Kharon had given both “rabbits” to hold their prizes in. It was the only item they were allowed to have on their bodies. The sting on his backside was starting to make him question the ingenuity of this game…

On the other side of the aisle, Perry was having a similar experience. The people with the black snakes whipped at his legs and back as he pulled red snakes from the arms and breasts and legs of the Living Path. Soon his hands were slippery with blood from the skin he tore out of those who’d held the snake, but it wasn’t nearly as much blood as was now coating his back.

Part of him loved the pain, but part of him cried in agony. And he knew, with ten more snakes to claim, that it was going to get much, much worse.

Back at the starting line, Kharon took Rae and Gordon by the elbows. “Come with me,” he said. “You began the race, and you will end it.” He led them behind the Living Path until they arrived at the foot of the bridge of The Crossing.

“Take off your clothes,” he commanded. Despite her usual lack of inhibitions, Rae felt funny releasing the hooks of her bra in front of Gordon. But he had no problems stripping off his T-shirt and letting the bulge of his belly hang free as he dropped his jeans. Rae thought his cock looked like a stub, not a stalk. No, she decided, pulling her panties down to expose herself to him, Gordon would not be a man she played with. She needed more than just a hand that could use a whip. And he clearly didn’t have it. Maybe that was why he needed so badly to dole out the pain.

Kharon reached into a deep, wide bucket and pulled out a snake with two hands. It must have been twelve feet long, Rae thought, staring at the copper-red scales. Its head was a diamond, eyes beady and yellow-green. Its tongue flickered nervously as Kharon brought it to her. “You are the red flag, and Gordon the black.” Carefully, he draped the snake around her, laying its head in one of her hands and then wrapping the cool scales of its belly around her breasts and middle. Its tail curled and tightened around her thigh.

“Be calm, and it won’t bite,” Kharon warned.

“Is it poisonous?” she asked, an edge in her voice.

He grinned, lips pale and wide. “Only if it bites you.”

Then he stepped to Gordon and repeated the same thing, this time with a snake as dark and glossy as obsidian.

Rae turned towards the Living Path and watched the whips cracking down on the two men. Perry had reached the halfway point. He was a person ahead of Travis, and quietly she rooted for him to win. He was her rabbit, after all.

But then suddenly Perry yelped and fell to the ground, his head disappearing into the low-hanging cloud of bloody fog.

When he came back up, he was holding his leg and screaming. The steel fangs of a wolf trap gripped his ankle. “Jesus Christ,” he cried, struggling to pull the jaws apart to release his foot.

Every time he tried to loosen it, the trap only snapped back and his screams grew more horrendous. Meanwhile, the whips continued to lash out at him, now catching him in the face and the balls as he rolled around trying to loosen the jaws.

Travis was now two snakes ahead of him and Perry thought of how much worse being thrown into a pit of fire might be than the agony of the thing biting off his leg. He took his hands off the trap and instead crawled forward. The next guy was a tall, thin man, who was so busy whipping at Travis, he didn’t even notice Perry until Perry yanked the red snake off his body. He noticed then, because the snake had been pinned to the foreskin of his cock.

Perry crawled forward and was ripping the snake from a woman’s fleshy arm when he heard a horrible cry from just ahead.

Travis had found that sometimes the fog hid more than just animal traps. It hid small pits with knives. He was lying on his back, crying, with his leg in the air as the blood streamed out of his foot to drip on his chest.

“Oh my God,” he screamed. “It hurts. It hurts!”

Perry nodded his head. Inside, he answered the pain that shot through his leg with every tiny motion. “Yeah, it hurts. But not as bad as fire.”

He pushed forward, passing Travis and getting to the eleventh and finally twelfth person in line. He left them bleeding from where he ripped the snakes from their flesh. He wasn’t tentative about it at all now-he saw the prize-he ripped and ran before their weapons could connect, if possible.

And still, the whips cracked and the chains slammed. Sometimes he saw stars, but he kept moving. Someone with a cudgel beat on his ass as he crawled. He wanted to turn and rip the weapon out of their hands and beat them back with it, but he knew that would only slow him down.

Perry could feel the blood flowing down his back from where leather and hooks had broken his skin. And his leg felt very wet. He wondered how much blood he was losing; after all, he’d already bled once earlier today. He was not in a position to lose much more.

He was ahead though, even dragging the trap behind him. He only had one more snake to go. He saw that Travis had finally stopped bawling and was back in the game. He dragged his leg to the final person in line, and then suddenly, the ground dropped out from under him.

Perry fell into a hole and suddenly he felt his skin stabbed by what seemed to be a hundred knives.

And he wasn’t far off. The fog swirled, disturbed and pushed away by his fall. He had slipped into a small four-by-four pit that was filled with crisscrossed steel spikes. If they hadn’t been so close together, he would have been impaled. It would have been over. Instead, for the most part, they had just broken the skin slightly. One spike, however, had stabbed all the way through his arm, which had hit the bottom of the pit first, and he could see the bloody tip of another coming out of his right thigh. There were sharp, hot points of pain all around his back and ass.

Perry screamed. And panicked. The pain was worse than the trap. His entire body was on fire, and he was afraid to pull his arm and leg off the spikes. He didn’t know if he could get out on his own.

“Help me,” he yelled. But nobody did.

“Please,” he called again.

And then, like a ghost in the mist, he saw the face of Kharon. The man’s eyes were like black holes in a face pinched and thin. “There is no mercy here,” the man said and was gone.

Not far away, Perry heard Travis scream and knew that he’d found his own pit. He grit his teeth and worked his arm off the spikes, screaming all the time. It helped. Slowly the bloody steel tip disappeared through his arm and then the flesh jerked up, fully free. The blood quickly poured from the hole left behind, spattering his chest.

Perry refused to focus on the wound, but instead reached up to grab the edge of the pit with his fingers. His wounded arm wasn’t a lot of help, but he slowly pulled his body up from the spikes, trying not to put any more pressure on the parts of his body that remained on the steel tips. As he did, he could feel the blood pouring out a dozen hot holes in his butt and side. With both hands on the edge, he took one look at the spike that had punctured his leg and said a silent prayer. Then he pulled as hard as he could with both hands, and pulled his body out of the pit.

He could feel the spike pass through his leg, like a cold icicle dragging against his bone. Perry didn’t stop screaming the entire time, and he didn’t even realize he was. His sole focus was on lifting his body out of the pit and getting the final red snake. He would not end up in the pit of fire. He would not.

The last person in line was a thin, heavily scarred woman. She held a flogger with barbed steel points. Perry tried to get close enough to her to find the snake, but she cut him again and again, whipping the barbs onto his back and arms and pulling back.

“Damn it,” he screamed and reached up to grab her arm. He caught it and pushed, dropping her to the floor. She was a smaller woman and obviously well abused but still muscular. She kicked and punched as he squeezed the flogger from her hand. Nobody had said that he couldn’t tackle the Living Path.

He didn’t see the snake on her arms or breasts or legs or…and then he saw it. Just the faint red tip.

The damn thing was pinned up her pussy.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he complained. With one hand he whipped her with her own flogger, keeping her down.

With the other, he reached up inside her and got a grip on the rubber of the thin snake, slick with her own excitement. He squeezed it tight and pulled. Hard.

The woman gave out a cry, but Perry didn’t stick around long enough to see the damage the snake had done. He rolled away from her instantly with the wet token in hand and dragged himself past the last member of the Living Path. There were ten yards between him and Rae. He saw her standing there before The Crossing, a red snake her only covering, as it twined and moved slowly around her. He thought of her promises of S &M a few hours before and cursed her beneath his breath. She was a snake all right. She’d never mentioned spike pits and wolf traps and a contest to the death.

“Run, rabbit, run!” one of the Watchers cried.

Perry had to laugh at that. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be running again at this rate. But he pulled himself forward with his hands, dragging his mangled leg along.

He glanced behind and saw Travis had reached the last of his snake holders, a burly man who was beating the other “rabbit” with a chain. Perry pulled himself to a three-limbed crawl, crying out with every foot he moved forward.

That’s when the floor turned to wire.

Barbed wire.

It bit into his hands and knee.

“God damn it…” He punctured his palms and knees again and again, but Perry would not stop. The pain was just his state of being now…nothing could keep him from moving forward. His cries of pain were as much a part of him as breathing now. Unconscious. Constant.

Travis limped his way forward, warned that something bad was ahead. He was wary, but fast, and in a minute he’d caught up to Perry, who now was just a few feet from Rae.

But then he ran into a thin wire that stretched across the rabbit run. Perry had crawled under it, never even seeing it, but Travis ran right into its razor edge, slicing open his gut.

He fell backwards with a woeful scream.

“Oh, you fuckers,” he cried. “This is not like whips and chains at all.”

Travis held his hand to his gut, crimson flowing fast between his fingers. Perry didn’t waste the moment. He crawled across the last two yards and placed his bag of snakes at Rae’s feet. Kharon stepped between Rae and Gordon and picked them up. He counted them and smiled. “This rabbit wins!”

Travis was still a couple feet away from Gordon, and he broke down at the pronouncement.

“I don’t want to die,” he sobbed.

Kharon knelt at the man’s chest and patted his head. “There are really no losers in this game,” he whispered. “You won’t die. You both will get what you’ve always wanted.”

Then he motioned to Gordon. “Help me.” Between the two of them, they held Travis aloft and carried him to the edge of the fire pit. The black snake slid slowly around Gordon’s arm. It wound up Travis’s bloody shoulder and then slithered around the man’s neck. In moments it had knotted itself like a spring around Travis.

“You wanted pain,” Kharon said. “You will receive it here. Forever.”

Kharon pushed Travis forward and he fell instantly, toppling face-first into the molten fire below.

His screams began instantly. Strangely though, they didn’t slow as he was swallowed by the fire.

Kharon addressed Rae. “Take him to the bridge,” he said, pointing at Perry. “He has earned the right to Crossover.”

Rae looked at the man at her feet and then back at Kharon. “Shouldn’t we take the trap off his foot first?”

“If you wish,” he said. Kharon bent down and with both hands, pried the trap open and let Perry’s bloodied foot slip free. The floor was instantly covered in a rush of new blood from the wound.

“Cross over,” Kharon said. It was a command.

Rae helped Perry up, so he stood on one foot. As she did, the red snake slipped onto his arm. It coiled around and around until it held Perry in a vise grip.

“The snake will be your strength,” Kharon said and pointed across the bridge.

Perry put his arm around Rae’s shoulders and his other hand on the bridge rail. Slowly, she walked him up the wooden planks to the rise in the middle. Kharon called from behind. “Rae, stop. This is not your time. The Crossing is only for him.”

She stopped, and Perry pushed himself down the other side of the bridge by going hand over hand on the rail.

When he reached the other side, he cried out once.

Just once.

“What’s the matter?” Rae called, but Kharon was at her side instantly. “He can’t hear you,” he cautioned.

“I just saw him,” she said. “I’d think he could still hear me.”

“He’s crossed over,” Kharon explained. “He may never talk to you again.”

He turned to Gordon and shook his head. “Your rabbit lost,” he said. “You’ll have to feel what that’s like. Put your hands on the bridge.”

“Flog him,” he commanded Rae.

She lifted the whip that Kharon had given her not long before. She raised it and tested how it felt as it came down, at first gently on the man’s back. Then she raised it and brought it down harder. And then she really gave her arm a flick and smiled at the sound the leather made on Gordon’s back. She could feel the place between her legs growing wet as she beat him, and at times she let her eyes roll back in her head as she released the leather. She had almost always been the recipient of the pain, but this energy…she liked it. It was power in its most brutal form. She’d wielded power over plenty of men in her life-using her body and promises of the taboos that she could fulfill. But that was all subtle teasing. An art and a form of power. But this…this made her belly tighten. Her lips swelled and her entire body warmed.

Whipping Gordon was like sex without the penetration.

Rae felt hands touch her ankles and calves. And then something wet licked her flank, and a tongue traced the curve of her ass. More hands touched her, but Rae kept whipping Gordon; she was getting off on the way his back welted visibly with each slap. She looked down briefly and saw that the entire Living Path had gathered in a mob around her. Some of them were touching her, but many were working on each other, fingers and tongues plying each other’s sex with increasing urgency. The air grew thick with the smells and sounds of copulation, and when the hands reached around from behind her to pinch her nipples, she almost dropped the whip as her nerves released a pent-up electric jolt all the way to her clit. A tongue traced her inner thigh, and she looked down to see a woman kneeling in front of her. Still Rae whipped, and Gordon shivered in his place on the bridge. His legs trembled with every blow. The ground between his legs was wet. Rae laughed at his weakness, but did not stop, even when he sank to his knees.

Something prodded Rae from behind, and she felt someone’s cock easing between her legs. She widened her stance slightly, barely thinking about it, but giving the stranger permission to slip inside her. She raised her arm back once more, but this time when the whip cracked against Gordon’s ragged back, he fell to the ground.

Rae surrendered as well. The feeling of having a thick man inside her was overpowering in her current state, and she bent over, gripping the rail of the bridge as she gave up control, and Gordon crawled away. She shook her ass slightly, wiggling the cock to draw it as deep as possible inside her. The woman who had been licking between her legs adjusted and crawled now in front of her, fastening her mouth on Rae’s breasts, sucking each in turn. Rae offered them uncontrolled access to her body. She closed her eyes and focused on the sparks of sensation that electrified her groin and chest with every kiss and thrust.

Hands pulled at Rae’s hair, and someone slapped her. The violent nature of the crowd began to surface-they weren’t in The Red because they enjoyed simple doggy-style scenes. She cried out, but then her mouth was full of leather…someone had put the whip between her teeth…and now with the rhythm of the man fucking her, she was slapped and punched by various members of the Living Path who had all gathered close. Fingernails gouged at her back, and the woman who had been sucking gently now bit hard on her nipples, so hard Rae tried to scream. But she couldn’t…her mouth was choked with leather.

Instead of fighting back, Rae worked to spread her legs farther apart, urging the stranger to own her as he (or someone) yanked on her hair like a bridle. She welcomed the abuse with the pleasure…had dreamed of it in her secret fantasies all of her life. This moment, right here, with its mix of sex and blood and sudden exchanges of power and pain, may have been the fulfillment of almost every dark desire she’d hidden deep inside her heart for most of her life. Rae abandoned herself to the degradation of the moment. Where The Red took her…she would go.

To the side of her a big woman climbed over Gordon and sat on his face, forcing him to eat her sex or smother. Maybe both. Another man sat on Gordon’s chest and French-kissed the big woman as, beneath them, Gordon shook and moaned, trying to escape. Trying to breathe.

Rae felt her orgasm build like a storm. Her legs began to tremor and her arms shook. Something in her head almost seemed to pop, and then she was falling forward, landing on the chests of two people who pulled her down with them, and the man behind her followed as well, crushing her into this mound of licking, sucking, scratching flesh as she screamed her climax into the leather of the whip. Someone put their hands around her neck and throttled her as she came. She choked and gasped for air, the room growing hazy in her eyes, freckled with pinpricks of red light.

Her body felt like a fireworks display, full of crazy light and heat and tingling and explosions, one after another, until she couldn’t see straight. She gasped hard trying to draw air through her strangled throat, knowing that she couldn’t go much longer without it, and at the same time moaned for more abuse, begging for immolation in the moment of mingled fear and ecstasy.

She didn‘t know when the hands left her neck or the whip fell away or her invisible partner finished, or when the others around her left. The next thing she really knew, Rae was nude and damp and alone on the cold floor.

Kharon stood over her, holding her slinky red dress. He dropped it on her chest and frowned. “The dawn is almost here,” he said. “NightWhere is done. Until the next…”

He turned and walked away, into the shadows.

Rae pulled the dress over her head and found her bra and panties on the other side of the room. When she walked through the Blue Room there was almost nobody left. Someone was taking the last cords away from the stage, and Sin-D was clinking glasses behind the bar.

Tailor still guarded the door, though morning approached. He nodded as Rae slipped past him and out into the crisp air of dawn.

She felt more alive and more afraid than she ever had before in her entire life.

She never wanted to leave NightWhere.

But she knew that in the end…it might kill her.

Chapter Eighteen

Relation Slip

Mark heard Rae come home, but instead of leaping up to interrogate her, he rolled over and listened with his eyes closed as she stripped, threw her clothes in the hamper and got in the shower.

When she finally did come to bed, it was almost 6:00 a.m. She cuddled up behind him, slipping her arms around his neck and chest, spooning herself against his ass. It felt nice, but didn’t diminish Mark’s anger at being left behind.

“Fun night?” he asked finally.

“The best in my entire life,” she murmured sleepily. “I can die happy now.”

“Glad I could be there to share it,” he said.

“Sorry, baby, the invitation was just for one of us.”

“So I don’t even get the courtesy of you answering my phone calls or letting me know? You knew I’d be worried.”

Her arms slipped away from him. “I just didn’t want to argue about it,” she said.

“Are we still a team, or what?”

“We are,” she said. “But NightWhere is what I need.”

“And you are what I need,” he answered.

“I know,” she said. Her voice was very quiet. Almost sad.

“Next time will be different,” she promised.

The alarm went off, and Mark hit the Off button.

“This is going to be a long day,” he grumbled and rolled from the bed. His eyes burned from lack of sleep, and the heat of the shower didn’t do much to help.

Rae curled into a ball, hugging a pillow between her legs, as she listened to Mark move about in the bathroom. When she closed her eyes all she could see were scenes of her being kissed and beaten, petted and fucked. She opened her eyes to clear the visions, but as soon as she closed them, the moments of penetration and violence returned. The ghost memory of the warmth of bodies enfolding and loving and hurting her all at once tingled beneath her skin. She tightened her hold on the pillow as she agreed quietly with Mark.

“Yes it is,” she whispered.

There was a new princess in the castle of perversion. And Amelia was not happy about it. The worst part was, Amelia had given the girl some training herself. And Rae had taken to the lash like an addict to heroin.

Tonight, Kharon had chosen Amelia to stand in the Living Path as the new girl ran the rabbits along with Gordon.

Amelia had been sidestepped. Kharon had come to her in her house and had given her the strength to survive to see The Crossing. But he had witnessed her weakness then too. And so the baton had passed. Kharon had chosen another to fawn on.

Very few ever survived the torture of The Red long enough to pass through into The Black. In Rae, Amelia saw her own chances dwindle. Those who ran the rabbits were being tested. It was an important moment for the Watchers. Who had enough desire, mixed with enough cruelty, to bring an innocent to NightWhere to endure the ultimate degradation?

Could it be that the Watchers were wrong, and Rae didn’t really have it? Perhaps she was still too stupid and naïve about what NightWhere really was? Amelia prayed that was the case. Rae had only been here a few times, after all. She did not have the history of pain and understanding etched on her skin, like a road map to every conceivable destination of pain, as Amelia did.

With Gordon the loser in the rabbit race, his own star had fallen some too, leaving a newbie as the star in the Watchers’ eyes.

Amelia knelt in the bathtub as dawn slipped in the window of her small apartment. Drops of blood dribbled down her thighs, and she rinsed it with warm water and soap before lubing up a finger with antibiotic cream. Then she slid it inside her to coat the ripped flesh where Kharon had seen fit to pin a snake.

The cruel bastard had told her it was the only place that he could find without a scar.

Well, she was going to have one there now. A big one. And it gave her an idea. Something that would bring the princess down and remind the Watchers who could really take-and dole out-the pain. Who could enjoy cruelty the most.

Nobody should ascend to The Black ahead of her. Certainly not a pretty little clueless girl.

Amelia put on a pad to staunch the flow and dressed. Then she went to her dresser drawer and pulled out a flesh-colored dildo. One of her favorites. She fingered the fake veins and the bulbous head, and considered how she might have it modified before the next invitation from NightWhere. She knew a guy who did all sorts of steel and plastic model making, and he was also a pretty dark soul. She’d seen him at plenty of fetish nights over the years. She thought he might be willing to help her make some alterations to the way this particular sex toy functioned. Something that might really give the princess a “pop” when she tried to use it.

“I’ll show you what it means to get nailed,” Amelia grinned. “We’ll see who can take the pain.”

Chapter Nineteen

Gone

“Rae?”

Mark called her name absently as he walked into the house. It had been a sucko day, and he would rather have gone straight to the bar. He really wanted to pound a couple beers and try to forget the afternoon. Part of him hoped Rae had cooked something good for dinner so he could lose himself in a food high. But part of him hoped she hadn’t…so he could drag her out of the house and really pig out. Speaking of pig…maybe barbecue. If he could sell her on it…

“Rae?”

He dropped his laptop case in the corner and walked through the kitchen, flipping on the light even though he continued right on, into the next room. He smiled at that. She always complained that he wasted electricity.

The living room was silent, and the front room the same. He knew without going up the stairs that Rae wasn’t home. But then…where?

He changed clothes and then came back to the kitchen. A crumpled fragment of red paper lay on the floor and he bent to pick it up.

And then unfolded it.

He knew the paper. Knew the envelope. Another invitation from NightWhere.

Mark’s heart sank. What the fuck? She had gone again without him? They had agreed that she wouldn’t go back there without him. That they were a team and had to be on the same page with this. Over the past three weeks, it had seemed like things were getting better. At first she hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but then slowly she had divulged the story of what went on in The Red. Of how they played a surreal game of sex and violence…and of how much that appealed to her.

He knew he couldn’t tell her not to do it, and he couldn’t offer to fulfill that desire for her in any real way…it just wasn’t in him. But he was afraid that she was going to get hurt in these perverted games. Rae didn’t really know these strangers-what if someone took the whip too far? Or the piercing and cutting? He had tried to plead sense to her about putting herself in real danger, but in the end, he’d simply made her promise that she wouldn’t do this without him nearby, at least. To pick up the pieces, if need be.

He crumpled the envelope back up and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she’d just gone into town to get a special outfit for tonight or something once she’d received the invite. He waited a half hour and then found some leftover chicken in the fridge to reheat. But it was hard to eat. Rae hadn’t just gone to the store.

She’d gone to NightWhere without him.

And this time, he couldn’t follow her.

He forced another few bites down and then got up to look outside. Then he sat and ate a couple more mouthfuls. And then he got up to look outside. No matter how many times he looked, Rae wasn’t to be seen.

Finally sometime after midnight, Mark walked to the front door and switched off the outside light before locking the door.

Part of him cried inside, knowing that somehow, inexplicably, this was the end. His wife hadn’t left him for another man, she’d left him for other men. More than that really. She’d left him for a lifestyle.

She’d left him for pain.

Mark went to bed, but couldn’t fall asleep. Instead, he played back all of the times he’d told Rae that she could do whatever she needed. He just wanted to keep loving her. He just wanted to be the one she came home to in the end.

At 3:25 a.m., she still had not come home.

At 6:00 a.m. he got up and showered, and then sat for an hour at the kitchen table in his robe, sipping his coffee alone. Finally, Mark pulled on a polo shirt and went to work.

Mark had called home every hour during the day, and the answering machine just kept picking up, with Rae’s cheerful voice asking him to leave a message.

When he got home from work that night, Rae still had not come home. Nor had she called or e-mailed. Mark walked every room of the house, as if she might really just be hiding in a closet somewhere, and all he had to do was find her. Hide-and-seek.

Mark didn’t know what to do.

Over the course of their admittedly nontraditional relationship, Rae had stayed out until the next morning once or twice with other men. But in the past, it had always been with his permission, and she’d never stayed out the whole next day.

He couldn’t go anywhere to look for her, and he didn’t really want to call the police to report her as a missing person either. What was he going to say? “My wife went to a sex club-I have the envelope from the invitation right here. She went to a place that has no address and she hasn’t come home since.”

What would they say to that? Aside from politely gagging back laughter, there wasn’t much to be said. “Sorry, dude, you left your wife up for grabs. Obviously she decided to shack up once and for all with someone else.”

Mark didn’t know where to turn for help. But somehow, he had to find her.

First though, he had to find NightWhere.

Chapter Twenty

Crawling Through the Wreckage

Where did you start to look for a place that only appeared once a month? And never in the same spot.

Mark had never returned to any of the other sites where NightWhere had been held, but he decided to drive back to the first one, down on Riverside Avenue in the South Loop. He knew he could get back there easily-it wasn’t too far off the expressway. Maybe there’d be some kind of clue there. What kind of clue that might be, he didn’t know.

All he did know was that he was grasping at straws.

An hour later, Mark was walking down the cracked sidewalk of Riverside, noting how much more run-down the area looked in the light than it had at night when he’d walked with Rae here. The door to the place was unlocked. He stepped inside, and the room stretched out ahead, long and empty. There was no furniture, and the industrial, grey carpet was stained with brown circles in a variety of places. Looking up, it was easy to see why. The white panels of the drop ceiling were also stained in rusty circles. The roof leaked, and nobody was here to care.

He walked through the place and saw the crumpled, yellowed sleeves of used condoms here and there in the corners. On the floor in the hallway, he found a black postcard that had the familiar self-devouring snake logo around the gothicly styled letters NW.

All it said was:

Night

Where

Your dreams…and nightmares come true

There was no phone or address. It was a calling card-something to say “we were here” but not who we were. And perhaps it was aimed to set the idea of NightWhere in some unsuspecting sex addicts’ heads. Subliminal marketing.

Mark folded it up and slipped the card into his back pocket. Then he began to move towards the exit. There was nothing there. Hell, he couldn’t even figure out how NightWhere had fit into that space. It had all seemed so much bigger the night he’d brought Rae here.

Thinking about that, he walked back along the south wall to follow the layout he knew that the club had. He pointed to the right and could imagine the bar and the stage set over there, though it still seemed a bit tight. But then he got to the end of the room, where the “Intro to Flogging” racks would have been…and he wasn’t sure how they could possibly have fit here.

He understood that things always looked different when they were empty, compared to when they were filled but…even if the racks could have been set up back here…where was the door to The Red? They hadn’t gone through it that night, but it had been there.

He walked along the back wall and then in the far corner found a small white steel door. It was certainly no ornate wooden medieval arched doorway, but he turned the handle anyway. The door opened, and Mark stepped through it.

Into a back loading dock.

Okay. Wrong door?

He stepped back inside and walked all along the back wall but found no other doors.

A chill gripped his stomach.

This was absolutely where he had brought Rae the first night. And yet, it was impossible for NightWhere to have existed in that space.

Mark walked out of the old building and got in the car to drive to the last place that they’d held NightWhere. In an industrial park.

It was easy to find-of the three locations he knew of, probably closest to his house. He even remembered the address-someone had changed the real address to NW13. The piece of paper that had marked the building as NW was gone now and the doorway was simply 2303-13. Mark could see through the dirt-streaked windows that the place had been vacant for a long time.

He tried the door and, just like the last place, it was unlocked. He stepped inside and instantly shook his head.

There was no way NightWhere could have been held here.

The three times he’d been there, he’d noticed that it was impossible to tell the difference between the locations once you walked inside. While the places hosting NightWhere were all radically different, the inside layout of each had been identical. Always there was a walk through the entryway and a long gap until the bar where Sin-D held court to the right. And then the stage just in front of that, and the whipping area way down the aisle towards the back. And then darker areas that he hadn’t traveled to the left, including the door to The Red.

When he walked into the industrial park building that he’d seen Rae enter (twice!), he didn’t see any way that NightWhere could ever have existed there. The room beyond 2303-13’s door was about twenty feet long and maybe forty feet deep. And that was it. The stage and Sin-D’s bar would have taken up virtually this entire space.

Mark walked the entire room, searching for a doorway that would have opened onto some other aspect of the club. But the only other door opened to a back parking lot.

After circling the room twice, Mark left and went back to his car. There was one other person who could vouch for what NightWhere had been that night. Who might have some information about Rae, in fact. He remembered the route she had taken, and he thought he could find his way back. He’d followed Ridgely Street east until Pontrain Avenue. And then had headed north.

Mark walked back to his car and started it up. He pulled into traffic and began to retrace his route of that night, as he’d followed Rae. He remembered turning at the main streets. Because he’d been so curious about where she was heading…the route had stuck in his head.

But once he turned onto Bailey and headed east again, he wasn’t sure. He knew it was along here but…

Then he saw the sign for Santa Fe Burritos and grinned. He remembered that. It was right next door to the lot that Rae had pulled into.

He pulled in just before reaching the Mexican place and parked near the entryway to the two-flat he had seen Rae enter. He remembered that night clearly-Rae in her red dress, walking out of the door farthest from the restaurant, a loud-shirted man following her on a leash.

Mark got out of the Sonata and walked up to the apartment door. He rang the doorbell and waited. Then he knocked on the door; he couldn’t tell if a doorbell had actually rung inside.

Mark waited on the stoop for another minute before pressing the doorbell buzzer again. Something creaked to his left.

“You’re not going to find him that way,” a voice said.

Mark turned and saw a thin, grey-haired woman pushing open the door of the next flat. Her glasses were so heavy they made her eyes look poached.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Boy’s been missing for almost a month,” she said. “Police have been here a couple times. Hope nothing bad happened to him. He was such a sweet boy. Always willing to help an old lady, you know?”

Mark thanked her and returned to the car.

So Rae had literally kidnapped the guy. What the hell? And what did that mean about her disappearance? Had she chosen to stay away, as he’d suspected? Or had she been lured into something that she could not escape?

He started the car and pulled away, wondering…now what? He had no other way to connect to the club.

Mark decided to drive to the north side of the city-to the other location where he knew NightWhere had been. An old building in Evanston where they’d taken the elevator to the thirteenth floor. He got a little turned around when he left the expressway, but eventually he found the building. He recognized the façade’s gargoyles and the courtyard. He parked and walked into the building’s lobby, remembering the staircase and old-fashioned elevator in the center. He got on the elevator intending to go to the thirteenth floor (which had been labeled NW when Rae and he had ridden it). But when he went to push the button, there was nothing labeled NW or 13. He only saw buttons labeled 12 and 14. Mark took a deep breath. This was the right building, he was sure of it. And he was also sure that there had been a button between 12 and 14 when he’d been here last.

He rode the elevator to the twelfth and fourteenth floors, in case NightWhere had somehow managed to relabel all the elevator’s buttons that night. But each floor was the same. He stepped out and saw a long hallway with numbered rooms. Apartments. He walked to the end of each and faced a blank wall. There was a small door in each of those walls, made of glass and surrounded by red. A fire extinguisher sat inside each of those glass doors, not the entryway to a sex club.

There was no room here that could have hosted NightWhere.

There was no thirteenth floor.

Anyone who hadn’t seen what Mark had seen, right here in this building just weeks before, would have said there was no NightWhere.

But he knew better. Mark had been there.

And his wife was still there.

Chapter Twenty-One

Waking Up

The blood made her feel strange.

Rae woke and it was everywhere. It dripped from the ceiling. It flowed in a slow wave across the floor. It rolled down the walls in a quiet, steady drain. The air stank of rich, wet iron, and when she woke, its warmth moved in a humid fog all around her. When she sat up, the blood on her back grew instantly cold.

Rae shivered.

The last thing she remembered, someone had been whipping her. But it had gone farther than that. Men had come to her with knives and dipped their points in her breasts. Women had pressed things that hurt between her legs and laughed as they’d acted like men, pantomiming sex with her.

Someone had slapped her across the face with a board, and even now Rae could feel the throbbing from that hurt continue.

But now…

She looked around, propping herself up on her hands. Everything was red. Even her. The blood coated her body; she wore it like a translucent veil.

“The beauty in sadness is you,” a voice echoed through the room.

“What do you want?” she asked, watching the blood flow all around her, licking her flanks as it slid by. She wanted to move, to get out of its way, but it was…everywhere. And she had to admit that its touch, if gruesome, was warm.

“I want you,” the voice said. A faint laugh. “And I seem to have you.”

“What is this place?” she asked. The room glowed with the heavy light of death.

“The Red is just the entryway,” the voice said. “You can stay there if you want. And you’ll have blood and pain to your heart’s content. This room…is the divider.”

The voice grew silent, and Rae rubbed the congealing blood across her naked breast with one hand, trying to scratch an invisible itch. It felt as if she were coating herself in cooling jelly, and instead of stopping, once she had finished scratching the itch, she continued to massage the blood against her skin. The image of Countess Bathory in a bath of blood flashed before her eyes, and Rae now understood that woman’s hideous obsession. She was reveling in it now herself. It looked obscene to be coating her body with blood with her hands. And yet…it felt amazing. Evil and decadent.

“Divider between what?” she finally asked, picking up the conversation again.

“Between The Red and The Black,” the voice said.

“The Black is why we’re really all here. It’s where you can become one with the Night Mother, the Midnight Queen, and really transcend. Pain means nothing. Pleasure means nothing. All that matters is that you still can feel…something.”

Something then touched her back, massaging the wet warmth into her shoulders. Rae felt her hair stick to the fingers, which slipped up and around her neck, matting the hair further.

“Stand up,” the voice commanded.

She did, and the room suddenly seemed smaller. The ceiling was just above her head and the walls just a couple feet away. Rae stood in a cube the flowed blood from all six sides, and the voice encouraged her to touch it.

“Feel the flow,” it said.

“Touch the life as it flows by. That warmth…was someone…”

She did hold her hands to the ceiling and took a deep breath as the crimson slipped around her fingers and dripped down her arms.

“I can feel it,” she said.

“Then you may soon be ready to pass through,” it said.

Rae looked confused. “Pass through?”

“Indulge in the blood, become one with the life flow and you can walk through the curtain,” the voice said. She realized, finally, that the man sounded like Kharon.

“Pass through to what?”

“To The Black,” he said.

Something about the idea of joining him in a darker place excited her, and Rae slipped her fingers between her legs. They were well lubricated. She imagined a pile of dead, gutted corpses stacked above the ceiling of this room, contributing to her strange blood bath as she enjoyed its stickiness against her sex. How evil this was, to have so much blood flowing like a river, and to bathe in its scent and touch. She was not grossed out or offended by the death that slipped around her from all sides. Oh no. She found it exciting. And as she thought about the death of those who’d contributed to it, and the fact that they were now lubricating her middle finger, she gave out an involuntary moan of pleasure.

The voice all around her began to laugh.

“I have chosen well,” he said.

Chapter Twenty-Two

A Strange Meeting

Days passed, but Mark didn’t tell anyone that his wife was missing. What could he say? “Rae went off to a sex club to fuck strangers and never came home?” It was true, but it sounded pathetic.

They didn’t go out with other couples that much anyway. Most of the couples they knew in regular life were usually too passé for words. All they wanted to talk about was football and their whiny kids. Mark stayed out of that boredom, and when Mark and Rae met sex friends, it was usually within the confines of a club. The doors to those swingers clubs were like walking into another world…and when you walked out, you left that world (and those people) behind. So it was pretty easy for Mark to just ignore the fact that his wife was missing (at least publicly) and carry on with life.

All he hoped was that, after the next NightWhere, she decided to come home.

He watched the calendar and waited. He knew that in three to four weeks, there’d be another iteration of NightWhere.

It was two weeks after Rae disappeared that Mark ran into a familiar face. He was staring at the weathered veins of a jalapeno pepper in the produce aisle and wondering exactly how hot that pepper might really be when she walked up and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, stranger,” she said.

Mark looked at the long white hair and couldn’t help but smile.

“Selena,” he said.

She nodded. “I’ve been called that,” she said. “And worse.”

Mark felt a seed of hope blossom in his heart. At last, someone who might be able to put him on the path. A path that had grown completely cold for him. “Hey, Selena,” he said. “I could use your help.”

She pursed her lips and shrugged. “What do you need?”

“I have to find NightWhere,” he said.

Selena looked instantly nervous. “Let’s talk about this outside,” she said.

Mark could take the hint. You didn’t talk about this stuff in front of pedestrians. He finished throwing a few things into his cart as Selena walked along beside him, clearly happy to talk about breakfast cereals and hair products, but loathe to discuss dangerously perverted sex clubs in public.

Once they got outside with a small cart of groceries, he pushed back.

“Tell me how I can get to NightWhere again,” he said as they walked through the parking lot.

“Get in your car,” she suggested. “Before your ice cream melts.”

“I didn’t buy any ice cream.”

She looked around nervously and then nodded at the car. “Just do it.“

Mark loaded the groceries and got in the car. Selena was the only person he had seen in two weeks who even believed in NightWhere, let alone had been there. He was not going to lose her.

He slid into the driver’s seat and Selena joined him in the passenger’s seat.

“I hope you don’t mind giving an old friend a ride,” she said.

“You’re not old,” he pointed out.

“But I am a friend?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Well, you have kept me company,” he smiled.

“I’d like to do that some more,” she suggested. When Mark looked at her, she had one blonde eyebrow raised and a hopeful smile on her face. He stared at her for a minute, taking in the pale softness of her features, the gentle slope of her cheek and the ice-blue stare of her eyes. If he weren’t married, he would have thrown himself at her feet begging for any kindness or favor she’d deign to give.

Now…he looked at her and thought she looked amazing…and then reminded himself that he was married. And without Rae participating or condoning, he wouldn’t go any farther. Mark had never been the one who really, really wanted to swap. He knew that was stupid and counterintuitive and all that…guys were always the ones who wanted to play the field, right? But it was what it was.

“So how can I find NightWhere?” he asked again.

“You can’t,” she said. “It only is found by the people it wants to find it.”

“I need to find it,” he said. “I need to find my wife.”

“Let me guess,” Selena said. “She didn’t come home after the last time?”

Mark described how she’d left him out two months ago, but how she’d driven from the club and picked someone up to take back.

“So what did she say about that afterwards?” Selena asked.

“She just said there was a guy who needed a ride, and she volunteered to go get him. And she promised that she’d take me with her to the club the next time we got an invitation. But then two weeks ago I came home and she was gone. She hasn’t been back since. And I found out that the guy she picked up never came home after the night she picked him up.”

Selena leaned across the seat and put her hands on his shoulders. He couldn’t help but see the shift in the milky-white skin of her cleavage as she leaned into him. It made him want to pull her closer…he did intend to stay true to Rae and honor their deal, even if she wasn’t right now…but God, Selena was beautiful.

“Mark, listen to me,” she implored. “If Rae has given herself to NightWhere, then she is damned. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’re just torturing yourself if you try to find her. And if you go into the club again, you may not get out of it alive either.”

“I can’t believe that,” he said. “Rae loves me. She’s just been sucked into this club and has lost her head for a while. I need to find her before she really gets hurt.”

“It’s already too late,” Selena insisted. “NightWhere is more than just a club. I think you realize that by now. Once someone enters The Red it’s really too late, but if she’s been with them for two weeks…”

“Help me find her,” he begged.

“I can’t, Mark. You don’t know where they are.”

He looked at her with eyes brimming with anger and frustration. “I need help here,” he said.

Selena touched his face and smiled sadly. “I know,” she said. “And I want to help you. I really do. Let’s go out to dinner or a movie or something. But I can’t lead you to NightWhere.”

“I’m going home,” he said, looking at the beautiful woman in his passenger’s seat. “Where am I dropping you?”

“I’ll stay here,” Selena said. She reached into her handbag and pulled something out. A pen. Finding a scrap of paper, she wrote down a number and handed it to Mark.

“Give me a call,” she said. “I’d like to see you again. Preferably not in NightWhere.”

She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry about your wife, I really am.”

Then she slipped out of the car and closed the door.

She waved before turning and walking away from him across the parking lot. Mark was tempted to call her back. Just the scent of her left behind in the small space inside his car excited him. She had offered herself to him, and he’d said no. The brain in his pants was now thinking of ways to convince himself to call her back, but Mark shook his head. She was beautiful and sexy and nice. But he wanted Rae. And until Rae agreed that he could go sleep with her, he was not going there. He was stubborn and formal that way. It’s what kept him sane when the world grew crazy. Boundaries and rules, even when the rules were about cheating.

He watched Selena wind through the cars and knew that he needed to find another way to track Rae down.

He just couldn’t think of what that way might be.

Chapter Twenty-Three

After After Hours

After the doors closed at dawn, NightWhere went to sleep.

She had intended to go home, though she didn’t really want to. And then Kharon asked her if she wanted to stay. How could she say no?

She didn’t.

He led her down a hall behind The Red. It wound in a spiral, slowly descending as they passed room after room, all the doors closed. The carpet was the color of ash, the walls a fresh claret. They reminded Rae of the blood room, glinting with light like flowing liquid. Most of the doors were closed, and those that were open…slammed shut just before they reached them.

“Where are we going?” Rae asked.

“You’ll need a place to sleep,” he said. “And after the past few hours, I’d guess you need a place now.”

As if on cue, she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand.

Her guide smiled and ran a cool hand down her back. She trembled at his touch; her skin was puckered and torn from the whips and flogs and hooks that had kissed and bitten her skin over the past few hours.

“Here we are,” he announced presently and opened the door to a suite. Rae stepped inside and Kharon followed, closing the door behind them. Rae walked a couple steps down a hall. To the left was a small kitchen and straight ahead a couple more steps was a living room. A black leather couch hugged one ocean-blue wall, while a black widescreen TV occupied most of the visible surface area of the other.

She walked through the living room a couple steps down a hall, past the open bar that looked into the kitchen. The bedroom occupied the end of the hall, past a small bath. The room seemed immense as she stepped inside, but that may have been due to the color; the entire room was painted in black-ceiling and walls were the hue of midnight, and even the carpet was a shade of black. Framed around the room were photographs of humans in coitus-but these were not simple art porn prints. Some of the women had been photographed lying on silver steel beds, while being penetrated by women with gently tapered knives fastened to their waists in place of strap-ons. There were bloody men strapped and stretched on racks, while women adorned only in chains straddled and fucked their faces and cocks. In one image, a woman forced her sex upon a beefy man’s face as she held a pipe cutter to his hard cock. Blood dripped from the place where the metal touched his flesh. There were images of men and women bleeding from a hundred whip marks, all of them clearly aroused and enjoying whatever partner they mounted or were mounted by. In one scene, a man with two bleeding stumps for legs French-kissed a woman who had hamburger where her hand should have been. The handprint on her naked white ass dripped fresh blood and both of their bodies were dotted and smeared with the quickly draining remnants of their lives. Yet their tongues still played…

In the midst of the gallery of pain porn was a huge, king-size bed. Its bedspread and pillows were silken black, and as Rae stood still in the room taking it all in, Kharon put his hands on her hips, holding her firmly from behind.

“I hope you approve,” he said.

“Oh yes,” she smiled. Even after the night’s exertions, she felt herself warm at the mood the room set. “It’s perverted as hell. It’s…amazing.”

Kharon slipped his hand under her shirt and softly stroked the fresh wounds on her back. His touch was like a balm to her; all of the complaints of her tortured skin faded. His hands did not stop on her back. He reached around to press his palms to her tummy and slipped them lower to toy with the swollen lips of her labia, exposed beneath her skirt. Then slowly, he drew his hands up her sides and rib cage until his fingers neared the underside of her breasts. In seconds he had slipped above them too, gently cupping her softest flesh and then teasing her nipples hard between the cool tips of his long fingers. He breathed against her neck and Rae melted back against him, dying for his touch. She had dreamed about him since the first moment they had met, but she had never dreamed that she would have him like this. Alone in a sensual room, all to herself.

Kharon drew the shirt over her head, and Rae didn’t resist. She took a deep breath and enjoyed the sensation of being undressed by another, as if she were a child.

Then he loosed the button of her tiny skirt and drew down her stockings until she stood nude, a white statue unmoving in the center of the black room.

He undressed himself then as Rae watched, slowly exposing an emaciated form. His ribs were visible, barely covered, it seemed, by his blue-white skin. He was pale as a corpse and thin as a rail. She could almost see his bones move beneath the parchment of his flesh. Every vein on his arms stood out in blue relief. Rae realized that he was hairless-completely, utterly hairless. Could he be this way from shaving? Or was he naturally bald? She didn’t care, she just had to feel it for herself.

She stepped forward as he stepped out of his long black pants. His body was day to the night of his clothes, and Rae put her palms on the pale, bluish nipples of his chest, anxious to feel this strange but powerful man. He was not beautiful; just the opposite. And yet, something about him drew her, attracted her, and she knew that whatever he asked, she would do. No matter how evil or dirty or foul. She pressed her breasts to his and kissed his neck as he stretched to the side, allowing her access. She breathed in his scent, faintly acrid, like burned hair. She felt his cock shift and grow between them, until it pressed against the inside of her thigh.

“What do you want from me?” he asked, pushing her hair aside to whisper in her ear.

“You,” she answered. “I want you.”

He bent against her and slipped an arm under the backs of her knees and then hoisted, lifting her all at once into the air. He laid her on the bed and climbed on after. He crawled on top of her, propping himself up on his arms to stare down at the small erections of her breasts. He bent to lick and then bite them. She squirmed at his kiss.

His mouth moved from her tits to her neck, and then his tongue was in her mouth. It felt strange. Liquid smooth, but winter chill.

“You’re freezing,” she whispered, when he slid closer, and his penis pushed for her to give him access.

“Then warm me,” he said. “Before you grow cold too.”

She spread her legs wide, lifting her ankles to rest on his shoulders.

“Whatever you want,” she said.

“I want you, here, in the dark for me,” he said, pushing himself like melting ice inside her. She moaned and accepted him, pulled him closer in a way that she hadn’t with a man in a long while. She wanted him to be not just inside her, but IN her, part of her.

“Take me,” she whispered. Part of her thought of Mark at that moment, as there was something about this sex that was different from just a swinger’s tryst. Something deeper was happening.

“If I take you, you belong to the dark forever,” he warned, long black eyes staring hard into hers as he shifted in small, tight circles against her groin. She drew in a breath and let it out, again and again, small sharp gasps of pleasure. Rae looked deep into his eyes and thought about his words. She thought about the pictures of people being impaled all around her and of the rabbits she had helped run not so long ago. She thought of Mark and smiled. He’d been good to her but…

“I’m yours,” she agreed, dragging her nails down Kharon’s back and closing her eyes as she felt the rush of his orgasm cascade inside her.

The cool flesh of him drove her heat to an explosion that left her senseless, head spinning on the damp black pillows. She cried out again and again as he spent himself inside her, and her moans continued even after he drew away and ran his fingers across the soft skin of her cheek, delicately, yet she could feel the edge of his nails.

“Until tonight then,” he whispered finally and slipped off the bed.

The lights turned off in the other room, and then the door to the hall opened and closed, leaving Rae exhausted and spent, in the midnight room.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Searching

The ad read:

Feel the Lash, Taste the Knife.

Do you want it?

Bondage-A-Go-Go

The Cat Club

3713 Broadview

Thursday, August 18

9 p.m.

Mark bent the page over and leafed through the rest of the free magazine. Nearly every page featured an ad for an escort service or adult video store. He had been in the adult scene for a while now with Rae, but he’d had no idea there were so many outlets locally.

He pulled another magazine off the rack in the vestibule of Galaxy Adult World and skimmed through the pages looking for any other options. The last six pages were dedicated to personal ads, and he thought those might be a source for leads as well. He’d decided that his only hope of finding Rae was to seek out some of the more extreme sex events that hid in the city’s basements and warehouses after hours.

He and Rae had been recruited at a swingers club…so obviously NightWhere looked for people in those places. With its focus on pain, where better to search than at the city’s extreme bondage clubs?

At least, that was Mark’s theory.

He rolled the two magazines up and stuffed them in his back pocket. Then he went inside.

The cash register and a case display of condoms, jellies and vibrators was next to the door as soon as he stepped into the store. The place had racks of porno mags in the front, from Hustler and Penthouse to more obscure titles like Golden Girls and MILFs and Gangbang Brothers. In the back half of the store, the walls were covered with DVDs divided by type-from Straight, Gay, Bi and Bondage to Lesbian and Amateur. A sign on the wall at the back of the store pointed to a stairway and read Peep Shows, 25 Cents.

On the counter by the door, a small poster board was covered with Polaroid photos of women holding their shirts up to their necks to expose their tits, obviously taken right there in the store. At the top, in marker, it read See Who We’ve Seen!

Mark stood and looked at the Polaroids for a minute, wondering if he’d recognize any of the women. There were Mexicans, blacks and whites, fat and thin, old and young. But none that he knew.

“Need help?” a voice from behind the counter asked. Mark looked up to see a thin, older guy watching him. The man wore heavy black-rimmed glasses that made his eyes look too close-set. He apparently hadn’t shaved in a day or two.

Mark opened his mouth to say no, but then caught himself. He was used to dismissing shop clerks, but…that’s why he was here.

“Actually, yes,” he said. “Have you ever heard of a place called NightWhere?”

The guy raised an eyebrow. “That some kinda underwear store?”

Mark grinned. “No-it’s where as in a place, not clothing,” he said. “It’s like a heavy-bondage club.”

“Private club?” the guy asked. “I’ve heard of Bondage-A-Go-Go, but not NightWhere. ’Course, those dominatrices are always starting up some new dungeon. One gets busted and they pop up with a new name the next week a block away.”

“No, it’s a bigger kind of deal than that,” Mark said. “But it’s in a different place every month.”

The man grinned, looking at Mark over the tops of his glasses. “That’s smart,” he said. “Keep the prudes and the police away.”

“Something like that.”

The man shook his head. “Can’t help you though. I guess if you’re in the scene, you’ll find it.”

“Or it’ll find you,” Mark mumbled.

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” Mark said. “Thanks.”

He left the store. The next Bondage-A-Go-Go gathering was just two nights away, according to the free adult magazine ads. He prayed that he had better luck there.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The Morning After

Her back was groaningly stiff when Rae sat up. The silk of the sheets slid easily down from around her skin as she rose in the bed. Part of her was surprised that the blood from the wounds she’d sustained on the rack the night before had not dried and scabbed the sheet to her. She stretched and looked around in the dark, momentarily disconcerted. She remembered the night before, but for a minute she wasn’t sure where she was. And then she remembered that Kharon had left her here.

Kharon.

Images of his white body moving on top of her own flesh came at her in a rush, and she felt instantly warm.

She had agreed to stay in NightWhere, here in this room, after everyone else had gone home. She had promised herself to Kharon forever.

The memories all came back in a rush, and she found herself whispering one word.

“Wow.”

Rae assumed they had to get up and out of this building though. NightWhere couldn’t stay in one place for long, or the place would get busted. The police would never let any adult club be this extreme. She knew that most bondage clubs kept the patrons at least partially dressed and never broke the skin with their floggers. They were more for play than foreplay.

She shifted in the bed and was reminded of how different NightWhere was. They didn’t shy from doling out pain here.

She slid from the bed, feeling her way along the nightstand to the wall. There had to be a light somewhere… Kharon had turned one on and off in the living room last night. But at the moment, she couldn’t see enough in the dark to even find a switch. There were no windows here; this truly was sensory deprivation, level black.

“Good sleeping room,” she whispered.

Finally she found a switch and turned it on, squinting her eyes against what she assumed would be a wash of light. But she quickly opened them. The switch turned on a row of three red bulbs in the ceiling. They lit the room enough to get around in, but she felt as if she were walking in a photographic darkroom.

Rae frowned and stepped into the living room. There she found a more utilitarian light. She stood naked in the center of the room, taking it all in. Again she wondered at the decor. She appeared to be in a regular, permanent apartment, if one decorated with the eye of a denizen of NightWhere. But…they couldn’t set rooms like this up every month for the club; perhaps this was a room that had already been set up in this building, prior to NightWhere’s arrival?

Looking at the black walls, she thought that seemed unlikely.

Rae went into the bathroom to pee; it felt as if she hadn’t gone in hours and hours. When she stood up, she saw a black silk robe on the back of the door. She began to slip it on, but then caught herself in the mirror.

She turned to the side and looked at her shoulder, and then edged around to stare at as much of her back as she could crane her head to see.

There should have been scabs and puffy red marks where the whips had cracked just hours before.

Rae frowned.

Her back appeared blemish-free. She could see the smooth curve of her shoulder and the gentle bumps of her spine. Her skin looked pale and pure in the mirror.

“I guess I can’t complain about that,” she murmured and pulled the robe closed, cinching the ties. “I’m sure I’ll be bloody again tonight.”

Something inside her squirmed with anticipation at the thought. “You are one sick girl,” she said to herself.

A voice answered her private admonition.

“Are you ready?” a man called from the living room. Rae stepped out, and Kharon was there.

“For what?” she asked.

“For your first day in NightWhere.”

“I guess I need to get some clothes on first,” she said.

He waved a hand. “You look perfect just like that. A robe is more than many wear around here. We keep the heat high, so clothing is just for fashion, not for warmth. We don’t like to have too much in the way of what we’re all here for.”

He stepped closer and ran a hand up the silken material from her waist to her chest. He cupped one breast, forcing the nipple to show itself through the thin material. “You can take this off whenever you like,” he said. “Remember where you are.”

Rae leaned into his hand, exulting in the feeling. There was something about this man, some innate power, some innate…sexuality. On the surface, he was not beautiful. She pictured his deathly white skin and bony chest as he’d mounted her last night. Normally, she would have found such a man repulsive. But…she wanted him again, just as she had then.

He smiled, as if he could read her mind.

“Not now,” he warned. “We need to get you your badge. The day will pass quickly and then we’ll be opening the doors again.”

“What badge?” she asked, and Kharon held up his wrist to show the familiar twining-snake tattoo. “This shows everyone that you’re not just passing through. You’re one of us. You live here now.”

“But, Mark…all my things…”

“Do you really want to go back to that life?” Kharon asked. “You said last night that you would be mine forever.”

Rae felt a warmth in her gut as they walked down a long dark hall, back towards the Blue Room. Every day here with Kharon? Every day a chance to walk naked through a crowd? Every day a chance to whip and be whipped.

“I do,” she said. “I guess I just didn’t think I would stay here all the time.”

“You are either in or out,” Kharon said. “You can’t be a visitor forever.”

Rae nodded. “What about Mark? Can I tell him…”

Kharon shook his head. “We will tell him. It will be easiest that way. He’ll be angry, but I think he’ll understand. You were meant for this place, and he…wasn’t.”

As they walked into the main room, he pointed out Sin-D, who lounged on a chair near the bar. She underscored his point about the clothing-optional nature of NightWhere. Sin-D wore only a pair of black fishnets and a sheer black baby doll top. Open access, if any men cared to step up to the chair.

“She will take care of you,” Kharon promised. “She’s gotten pretty good with the needles. Then we’ll need to find out what you can do around here during the day to earn your keep, before the doors open.”

“But, don’t we need to move to another place?” she asked. NightWhere had always been in a different building each time she had come.

He put his hands on her shoulders and aimed her at Sin-D. But before he pushed her forward, he leaned to her ear to whisper. “We already have moved,” he said. “Everything’s set here for tonight.”

He licked her ear and said, “You were asleep a long time.”

The tattoo hurt, but in the end, it looked awesome. Sin-D worked quickly, pricking the ink into Rae’s skin and the snake took shape around Rae’s wrist in no time, twining and winding around her hand to eat its own tail.

When she was done, Sin-D leaned back and smiled. Rae thought her teeth made a delicious contrast against her tan skin. The other woman’s breasts pressed sumptuously against the thin silk; she may as well not have worn anything. She wore a belly button ring as well. And shaved her pussy. Also pierced.

“Do you like what you see?” Sin-D asked.

Rae blushed. She hadn’t meant to stare so obviously. But Sin-D was definitely one hot chick built for hot nights. And she knew that Mark had fucked her at least once. Something she guessed he wouldn’t get to do again. Part of her felt guilty for leaving him so suddenly, so easily, for this…after all, he’d indulged her in all of her sexual adventures, whether he really had wanted them or not.

But in the deepest core of her heart, she did not ever want to go home again. She had found a place-maybe for the first time-in which she really felt at home. It was dark and wicked and full of pain and perversion.

And she fucking loved it.

Sin-D stepped forward and put her arms around Rae. She took Rae’s hand and entwined their fingers. “Don’t think too much,” she advised. “Just do what you want to do.”

She leaned in and kissed Rae hard on the mouth. Sin-D’s tongue was thin and moved fast in her mouth, and Rae felt herself respond, sparring against Sin-D’s quick tongue with her own. She felt the other woman’s breasts move and meld against her own, and Rae moved one hand down Sin-D’s back to massage the other woman’s silky ass. Her fingers slipped across Sin-D’s skin as if it were slick with oil.

Normally Rae didn’t play much with women; it was the hardness of men that she craved. But every now and then, she had indulged. And Sin-D definitely excited her.

Sin-D’s hand disentangled itself from Rae’s and while still tongue-wrestling, she slid her fingers beneath Rae’s robe. She put one hand on Rae’s crotch, tracing the edge of the hair down between her legs and then back up the other side before cupping her whole mound and massaging it with a ripple of fingers. Then she moved a hand over Rae’s breasts, gently kneading them up and then letting them fall before taking the nipples between her fingers and pinching.

Rae gasped in her mouth and Sin-D smiled. Then she pushed Rae’s robe to the floor and led her behind the bar to the couch.

“Lie down on your back,” she said.

Rae did, and suddenly Sin-D’s ass was in her face, and the lips of her smooth pussy pressed against her mouth. A warm, wet tongue began to loosen the folds between her own legs and Rae gasped, opening her mouth without another thought to take the other woman’s sex in. In minutes, she was moaning into Sin-D’s pussy, as wet with her own saliva as with Sin-D’s lubrication. Her own hips bucked in a rhythm matching the staccato squeaks of her partner.

Rae’s orgasm came fast and hard, and neither woman held back on screaming out the joy of their release. Rae was still blinking from the rush when her partner’s body shifted and Sin-D’s wide smile appeared at Rae’s face. The other woman knelt next to the couch and gave Rae a fast kiss.

“You taste nice,” Sin-D said. Then without a beat, she added, “Have you ever fucked a horse?”

Rae made a disgusted face as her eyes widened.

Sin-D laughed. “Baby, don’t look so shocked. It’s a lot of fun. They feel soooo different than a guy, I don’t care how ‘hung like a horse’ he might be, no guy has anything like that.”

“Um, okay,” Rae said, unsure of what to say.

Sin-D held up Rae’s wrist, glossy with the antibiotic cream she’d applied after finishing the tattoo. She pressed her own snake to Rae’s.

“You’re one of us now,” she reminded. “You can do anything you want here. I mean anything. Don’t be shy about exploring. You already know you can whip people to your heart’s content, but there’s so much more here than that. You want to really do it doggy style? Just ask. Kharon will have a Great Dane for you in no time. You want to stab a guy to death while you fuck him? Just ask. Kharon can make anything happen. And the nastier you get…” Sin-D raised one eyebrow high, “…the more he likes it.”

Sin-D stood up. “So don’t hold back, huh?”

Rae sat up on the couch and looked at Sin-D. On the surface, she looked like a mischievous, playful beach baby. But she also had scars that suggested that she had indulged in NightWhere’s darkest corners. Rae had felt them on Sin-D’s back when they’d made love. And Sin-D had a snake around her wrist to prove that she was not just a perky sex kitten. What else had she done to join NightWhere full time? What dream did this place fulfill for her?

“What have you always wanted to do, but never could out there in real life?” Sin-D asked.

Rae thought about all of the times she’d been with Mark and the urges she’d held back. He’d let her play a little, but she had always had to be careful. There were times that she had held her hands around his neck just a little too long and really scared him.

“I like the fucking a guy to death idea,” she admitted softly.

Sin-D nodded. “Nice. Do you like sharp or blunt objects?”

“Just my hands,” Rae whispered, squeezing her thighs tight as she spoke.

“You are so going to enjoy NightWhere.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

A Clue

His first thought upon walking into the dark bar lit with a combination of neon beer signs and long strands of colored Christmas lights was, “Well, this certainly isn’t NightWhere.”

No, Mark reminded himself. This was Bondage-A-Go-Go, a monthly bar scene meet-up for those who flirted with the S &M set.

Flirted was the right word though, he realized as he walked the club. The waitresses were all wearing black skirts and tight black tops. If they poured drinks as deep as the cleavage, you’d get drunk here really fast, he thought.

On the lower level, a DJ spun some ’80s techno, and couples and groups clustered at the long wooden bar and around some black highboy tables. Upstairs, a crowd had gathered around a small stage to play voyeur to the beating.

If you could call it that.

A fifty-something businessman wearing only white briefs and a steel-wool mat of chest hair bent over a sawhorse as a woman in a black leather corset and thigh-high black boots twirled and slapped a flogger against his back.

She might as well have been dusting the furniture, Mark scoffed silently, as he watched her tease the man. She didn’t land a slap that would turn the skin red, let alone break it.

Then Mark laughed at himself. Six months ago, this would have been as far as he would have considered going. And now he was making fun of it as too tame?

He made a mental note of the flogger’s face, so that he could find and follow up with the man later, and retreated to the bar at the side of the second floor room. Perhaps with a little side conversation, he might uncover someone with a lead on NightWhere.

Mark ordered a Sam Adams from a bartender with more piercings than birthdays. He leaned sideways against the bar, half watching the fetish play across the room, and half eyeing the rest of the patrons clustered around him.

He hated this part. Mark had never been terribly outgoing, and hitting people up cold was not his style. But still he tried. The guy next to him on the right looked as likely as any. He was balding and thin, wearing a healthy dose of black.

“Hey,” Mark said. “Do you go to these things a lot?”

The guy looked at him and shook his head. “Just checking it out,” he said.

“Gotcha,” Mark said, taking a sip of his beer. “I’m checking it out too, though I was hoping to find a place where they really let loose, you know? This seems…kinda tame.”

The other man raised his eyebrows and simply said, “Hmmm.”

“You wouldn’t know of anyplace, would you?”

The guy pursed his lips and shook his head. “Can’t say that I do. Good luck to you.”

The man went back to sipping his own beer and Mark looked to his other side. After a couple minutes, he started talking to a woman with long brown hair who had clearly started going to seed some time ago. But you could still see a hint of the wild “tease” in her brown eyes. And while her waist was no longer a girl’s, you could tell that at one time, the freckled cleavage and well-curved legs had drawn more than just a look or two.

“Have you ever gone out there and gotten flogged in public?” he asked, trying to break the ice.

She laughed. “Nah. I get whipped enough at home. Why would I go out for the humiliation when I can get it there?”

She winked. “I just like to watch. It’s a fun scene now and then, you know?”

“Been there,” Mark agreed and began to look around for another prospect.

A couple minutes later, he felt something warm around his neck. He turned back and found a face full of freckled cleavage at eye level. The woman was standing next to him now, arm around his shoulders. “I’d like to watch you,” she said, her voice slurring just a hint. “We could go into one of the bathroom stalls…”

He smiled and gently removed her arm. “Not tonight,” he said. “I’m looking for someone.”

She pouted. “And I thought that someone might be me.”

“Have you ever gone to NightWhere?” he asked.

She looked at him blankly, one brow crinkling. “Is that, like, code for something?”

“It’s just a place I’m looking to find.”

She drifted away after that, and Mark scoped the place again. A dark-complexioned girl who looked vaguely Slavic sat beside him next. She had on a leather bra and matching skirt and black hose. He suspected there was nothing under the skirt and had a hard time not looking at her belly, which was flat and perfect, with a thin pucker just above the skirt that he wanted so much to lick…

Mark mentally slapped himself and made eye, instead of belly button, contact. The woman looked about twenty-eight, old enough to really know how to screw but young enough to still have perfect skin. She wore a pale-pink dress that narrowed to two straps as soon as it cleared her chest. She had kinked, black hair that covered the straps and wanted to cover her face. She flipped it back every few seconds as she talked, because when she talked, she liked to hold her face low, so that she could look up with her eyes. A transparently provocative, yet still highly effective ploy. Mark found himself wanting to kiss her before he’d even told her his name.

“…and he really likes to see me in corsets,” she was saying. Mark realized, as he nodded stupidly at whatever she said, that he had no idea who she was talking about. Hopefully (presumably) it wasn’t her father…which meant that she had a boyfriend or husband and thus that she was probably not on the market for him. Not that he was interested, he reminded himself. Yeah, right.

“Does he like to tie you up and whip you?” Mark blurted out, and the woman smiled. “Well, duh. But mostly we just like to dress up as different people in movies, and try to say their lines as we’re making out, you know? Like we are really Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman or Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.”

She looked at him and suggested, “Maybe you could come home with us and be the cameraman while we play?”

“Will we be filming Love Story or Debbie Does Dallas?” Mark asked.

“I was thinking more Debbie does Chucky,” she laughed. “My husband is a dwarf.” She pointed across the room at a very short man in the front row of the flogging circle.

“He can even do trapeze-we have a swing above the bed at home.”

“Let me guess,” Mark asked. “He does a midair swing dismount…to mount.”

She flipped a trail of black, kinked hair out of her eyes for the tenth time and smiled widely. “How did you know?” She rolled her eyes. “And he ‘hits it’ every time. Like a dart.”

Mark was beginning to think he’d stumbled on a freak show, not a bondage club.

“Can I get you something?” the bartender interrupted, nodding at his empty beer glass.

Mark looked away from the dark-haired girl with relief. She was hot…but freaky in ways far worse than whips and chains.

“Yeah,” he said. “I need to find someone who knows about a bondage club called NightWhere. Do you think you can help?”

The woman looked at him for a moment, thinking. “I think we’re pretty much it,” she said. “But if not…Bradley might know,” she said, pointing to a leather-clad guy in the flogging audience. “Most people just come here for it, you know? Aren’t you enjoying the show? Why don’t you get in line? You can get flogged too, you know?”

Mark smiled. “That’s not it,” he said. “I’m looking for NightWhere because I’m looking for someone there.”

A hand slipped over his biceps and squeezed. “And I told you, you’ll never find her on your own.”

Mark turned from the bartender who floated on to her next drink and looked at the pale, ice-cool face of Selena.

“You following me?”

“Only if you’re following me,” she said. “Thought you’d be here. It’s the only bondage night in town. At least, that they advertise.”

Mark looked into those ice-blue eyes with irritation. “Look,” he said. “I need to find my wife. Will you help me find NightWhere?”

Selena shook her head. “No can do, my friend. I can’t help you get back there. You don’t have an invitation.”

“Then leave me alone.“

Selena took her hand from his shoulder.

“Mark, I am just trying to help you.”

“Then help me find Rae,” he said.

Selena shook her head. “That absolutely won’t help you. I can guarantee that. Now, on the other hand, if you took me home…”

Mark smiled thinly. “You know that if things were normal, I’d be flattered, and would probably even be able to take you up on it, if Rae approved. And she probably would. But I wouldn’t do it without her, that’s the thing.”

“So why is it that you are here alone, looking for someone who can help you find her?” Selena asked. “Obviously, she isn’t seeing your relationship in quite the same way.”

“If you’re not going to help me find her, then you’re just in the way,” Mark said. Soooo…”

“I’ll be around when you come to your senses,” Selena promised. “Call me?” She pulled out a business card from her thin black purse and handed it to him. “I know you already have my number but…here you go again,” she said. “I hope that I’ll like you. It would be nice if all this was worth it.”

Mark couldn’t help but see the sway of her hips as she walked from the bar to the stairs, ice-blonde hair gleaming in the oscillating strobes. She was a beautiful, perfect piece of ass.

But she wasn’t Rae. And she wouldn’t help him find her.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

A New Boy

Her wrist burned with the memory of the needles. But her chest burned with a stronger sensation.

The sensation of desire. And pride. Mixed together in a cocktail that left her almost giddy with excitement.

Rae was part of NightWhere. Not just someone who got an invitation. And tonight she was dressed for the club as she never had been before. In her new room she’d found her outfit for the night waiting for her on the bed.

She had smiled, knowing that Kharon had been there. He was preparing her, taking care of her. She almost felt like calling out for him to help as she put the outfit on. There were studs and leather lacings everywhere…but in the end, the majority of her skin remained exposed. The leather stretched across and cupped her breasts like a cool hand. Two straps led up to a neck collar, which, along with the straps and the bra piece, were studded with silver metal. Two thin strips of leather led from each breast to a waist belt, and the pieces were connected by an interlocking weave of leather laces. One thin strip of studded leather led from below the wide silver belt buckle to slip between her legs and cover her crotch. It widened in back, but not enough to cover the bulk of her ass. Two fat leather straps with buckles remained after she managed to clip all the belts on the form-fitting torso outfit. She wasn’t sure at first where they went, but ultimately, she realized they were belts to strap around her thighs. She supposed they might hold up stockings if she had any, but none were provided. She fastened them around where they seemed to fit, and they did seem to complement the thinner wrist straps.

While she had no stockings, what she did have were shoes. Black, fat, high-heeled shoes. The heels were at least four inches tall, but wide, so that she wouldn’t fall. Still, she felt like she was stalking across the room in Frankenstein’s boots when she walked to the mirror.

She applied the black lipstick and eyeliner that had been lying on the bed with the rest of the outfit and admired herself in the mirror. She was a dominatrix without a whip. All leather and steel and provocatively half-clad flesh.

“Yeah,” she whispered, admiring herself. She liked what she saw.

Now, tattooed and black-lipsticked and clad only in thin strips of metal-studded leather, Rae watched the initiates walking in through the front door as Tailor checked their invitations. Some of them looked nervous-first-timers, probably. Some looked hopeful; she remembered her own anxiousness that second and third visit.

But now she was of the inner circle.

Then she saw a familiar face coming in through the door-the woman who had flogged her so well that first time. The woman she’d been looking for on her next visit.

Rae walked quickly across the room to intercept. The woman was superthin. Her face betrayed lines of stress, and her bare arms and legs were crisscrossed in lines of lighter skin. Scars.

“Hey,” she said, smiling as she held out a hand. “Remember me?”

The woman stopped and looked at her coolly. She nodded, but didn’t reach out to accept Rae’s hand. “Sure.”

“My name’s Rae,” she continued. “I’ve looked for you the past couple of NightWheres…you were so good to me the night we met.”

“Yes,” the woman responded, still not offering her hand. “I’m Amelia. Congratulations.”

Rae frowned, confused. “For what?”

Amelia nodded at Rae’s wrist. “I see you’ve made it to the inside.”

Rae held up the snake tattoo and smiled. “Oh this? Yes! Kharon asked me to stay overnight last night, and I said I’d stay forever if he’d let me. This morning he gave me this.”

“How sweet,” Amelia said. Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “Did he give you his class ring to wear around your neck too?”

“No,” Rae said, confused by the chilliness of Amelia’s reception. “But this whole scene is really cool. I’ve been looking for NightWhere for years, and just didn’t really know it. Now that I’ve found it, I don’t want to ever leave.”

“I don’t suppose you will,” Amelia said. She smiled thinly and walked past Rae towards the back of the club. “I’ll see you later, I’m sure.”

Bemused, Rae watched Amelia walk away. What had she done to deserve the ice treatment? The last thing she knew, they’d had a great session near the racks. She thought back, trying to think if there had been some problem at the end of that night, but…

“Rae,” a voice called. And then cool fingers slipped around her elbow. Kharon stood behind her. “We need you in The Red. There’s something that must be done tonight. Consider it…your initiation.”

Rae smiled, but inside, her stomach trembled.

Initiation?

She thought of sorority hazing and wondered…in a deviant sex club, what sort of thing would an initiation involve?

Her heels clicked faster and faster as she crossed through the growing crowd in the Blue Room, anxious to find out.

“Here she is,” Kharon said. His teeth smiled wide and white in the dark room. A small crowd of NightWhere regulars was gathered there, in a room just off the entrance of The Red. Three of them were Watchers. She’d learned quickly that not everyone who was in the in-crowd of NightWhere was a Watcher.

Watchers were different. Easily recognizable. Rae didn’t know why, but the Watchers all seemed to look alike. They were thin, almost emaciated, and their skin was white as a cave amphibian; they didn’t appear to have ever gone out in the sun in their entire lives. They almost always wore black leather-of course, almost everyone here wore leather but…there was just something about the Watchers. They walked differently, talked differently…they were like the sex club elders even if they didn’t look old.

Kharon took the hand of a middle-aged man in the center of the circle and led him to Rae. “This is Peter,” he said. “I want you to take him around the club tonight. Show him the ropes. Do whatever it takes to make him happy here. But bring him back here at midnight.”

Kharon smiled at Peter and said simply, “Enjoy it. This is your night.” Then he signaled to the others and the group streamed from the room, leaving Rae and Peter alone.

“Well, hi there,” she said, holding out a hand. “My name is Rae, and I guess I’ll be your tour guide tonight!”

“Peter Rathburn,” he said, squeezing her hand tightly before letting it go. “I didn’t realize when I got my invitation that I would have my own private sex queen as an escort if I came tonight.”

Rae laughed. “Not sure if I qualify as a sex queen, but thank you.”

He nodded at her small but prominent cleavage, pressed up by the leather, and her barely concealed crotch. “Well, you look like a sex queen to me! So, do you help run this place?”

Rae snorted. “Hardly. I’ve come here a few times, but I love it so much I’m staying on for good. But…I don’t really know what I’m helping with yet.”

“Apparently, the entry level position here is ‘Welcome Wagon’. Sorry about that!” He smiled awkwardly, as if embarrassed.

“Don’t be,” Rae said. “I’m happy to show you around. Come on.”

She took him by the hand and led him out of the dark room and into the red-lit hallway. “I’m surprised that you actually are starting here,” she said, motioning at the murky hallway. “Normally people don’t get access to this part of the club right away. It’s called The Red.”

“Why not?” he asked. “I get the red part-all the lights here are red. But why is it restricted?”

Rae considered for a minute and then shrugged. “Well…what the hell, they said to give you a tour. Follow me.”

She pulled him down the hall, away from the exit. “Let’s see what we can see.”

The screams advertised the action before they even turned the corner to the first doorway. They stepped inside the room and stopped almost immediately. A group of six or seven stood a few feet away, surrounding a small stage. It was a bare stage, except for one thing.

A giant, ten-foot-tall cross grew from the floor to dominate the room. And from it, a nude woman hung.

She was Italian, Rae thought. Her skin appeared dark in the red light, and her hair was black and lustrous. She still showed underarm hair, black and wispy, and her crotch was a thatch of heavy black bush. But the denizens of the room were not paying attention to her bounteous body hair. A man wearing only a leather belt and a black jockstrap stood before the cross. A black leather hood covered much of his head. He held a long black pole that tapered to a thin, barely visible end. While it may not have been easy to see, it was easy to hear as it slapped against the crucified woman’s skin.

He slapped it across her small tits and thin-stretched belly with a practiced ease-whip-smack, whip-smack.

With each connection, the woman yelped, but otherwise didn’t complain. And the man didn’t slow. He flicked the fishing-pole-like cane and caught her on the breast and the chin and the belly. Her body reddened and she still never said a word. Only cried out, and moaned in between.

“What they love even more than sex in NightWhere is pain,” Rae said to Peter. “And back here, in The Red, they really get into it. Things are a lot tamer out in the main club area.”

Peter shrugged. “I’m here because I love the pain,” he said softly. “I suppose that’s why I got the invitation. I was at a local swingers club not too long ago, begging for people to use a whip on me. And when they could never get up the courage to really use the thing, I took it and showed them how you are supposed to use a whip. Made the guy bleed, and after they pulled me away from him and untied him from the pipe I’d tied his wrists up to, they threatened to call the police on me. I said, ‘C’mon, he asked for it. I mean, really…he did! How else could I have tied his wrists to a water pipe in the basement?’ He was a way bigger guy than me!”

“And that is exactly the difference between the real world and NightWhere,” Rae said. “Here, you can ask for it and it might happen. But you have to be a part of it-you can’t just wander in and out. Because…you’re either in or out.”

It occurred to her as she said it, that she was a parrot of what Kharon had said to her.

“And you’re in,” Peter said. “Do you have a boyfriend, or…”

“Husband,” she answered, stepping away from the caning as the woman’s cries grew louder. “And he’s out.”

Peter slipped an arm around her mostly bare ass and said, “Well, I’m here because I want to be in.”

She didn’t shrug him off. He wasn’t a muscular stud or anything like that. He wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd, even a crowd of ten. But Rae liked Peter. He seemed honest and easy to talk to.

“C’mon,” she said, pushing him out of the crucifixion room and into the red-lit hall. “Let me show you the regular part of the club. Start at the beginning.”

“Sure,” he said. But in a moment, he stopped her.

“Wait,” he said. “What’s this?”

He pulled her closer to the hallway wall, which held a long series of black-framed pictures. They were lined up three and four tall as you walked along the hall. There were so many that Rae had never really stopped to look at them in the couple of times she’d been here. They became overwhelming-wallpaper-by their sheer number.

But now she did look; she stepped closer with him.

The pictures were probably in color, but in the heavy red light of the hall, they appeared almost black and white. In one photo, a man was stretched out naked on a rack, legs pulled taut in one direction, while his arms were clearly, painfully stretched in the opposite. Two nude women bent over his torso. The photo couldn’t show what they were doing given its perspective, but it did show what they held at the end of their fingers.

Knives.

And those knives looked to be touching various portions of the man’s anatomy, some more private than others.

The photo below that showed the same two women holding knives up in the air, with something hanging from each blade. Something paper thin and dripping…

In the photo next to that, a woman stood smiling as wide and provocatively as she possibly could. She held her hand on her hip and cocked it out, as if she were ready for an ass slap.

What made the photo disturbing, however, is what she wore as a pink boa. It hung around her neck and draped across her pendulous breasts. And if you looked a little closer at the photo, you could see the body in the background that she’d carved her boa from. He lay on the floor, semivisible between her legs. A glistening pool ringed the body, which betrayed enough head and chest hair to identify it as definitely male. The pool clearly emanated from the empty hole where his intestines once had been.

“Wow,” Peter said, staring at that photo. “That’s really crossing the line.”

“Yeah,” Rae agreed. “I haven’t seen anyone wearing guts as an outfit around here. Though I guess, I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

“Really?” he asked. “You think they could kill someone here?”

“If it was sexy, yeah,” she said, “I do.”

He squeezed one hand on her ass. “I can’t believe I finally found this place,” he said.

“You want to kill someone?” she said. Something inside her clenched at the idea.

“No,” he said. “My fantasy has always been to be the guy on the table.”

“I can put you on the table,” Rae promised. “There’s a nice row of racks out here in the main part of the club,” she said.

She led him away from the photos to the door back into the Blue Room section of the club.

“Here you go,” she said, pointing at the half-dozen racks against the back wall of NightWhere. Three of them were currently occupied by people, two men and a woman. Half-clad people wearing black leather hoods stood at the front of the racks. At least one was a woman, but all of them slapped a mean whip, as the sound of leather hitting flesh echoed through the space, regardless of who was wielding the weapon.

“Is that the kind of thing you’re looking for?” Rae asked.

Peter shrugged. “Kinda, I guess.”

“But you’d like more,” she pushed.

He nodded. “I have some pretty bizarre fantasies.”

Rae slipped her arm around his waist. “I think you can probably find just about anything you want here.”

“Anything?” he asked.

She nodded. “I don’t think NightWhere is the place where normal people go. Nobody is going to judge you here. All you have to do is say what you want and…”

“What if I wanted you?” he asked.

Rae smiled. “We can talk about that.”

“Right now?” he asked, cupping her ass.

She pressed a hand against his and moved it to her waist. “Later, maybe,” she said.

Rae took Peter’s hand and led him away from the racks and over to the dance floor. The band was playing a metal track that she didn’t recognize, but the beat still made her sway. Peter saw that she was moving to the music and began to emulate her.

They danced amid a floor filled with others, all trying to get off with the music. The bass line throbbed right down in the crotch, so it wasn’t hard. Or really…it was hard. At least on Peter. Rae felt his cock pressing against her like a rod as they danced-he was definitely enjoying his time with her. But she was also working the leather outfit pretty good, rubbing herself against him and grinding her boobs into his chest.

She liked this guy. He was nothing much to look at, with his wide face and thinning hair. The flesh around his eyes looked a bit puffy, pouty. The lines of age began at their corners, and there was grey in the black hair of his temples. Beneath his black cotton shirt, she could tell there was some extra flesh as well. Peter looked a little heavy and worn, but he wasn’t pushy. He clearly was attracted to her, but was willing to let her do all the moving. He definitely needed a guide to NightWhere before he got in too far. He seemed almost…too fragile for this place. In a way, he reminded her of Mark.

Rae leaned in tight to his chest and rested her head on his shoulder as the music slowed to a gothic crawl. “Why are you here?” she whispered at the stubble of his jaw.

He slipped a hand across the bare skin of her ass and squeezed before daring a tiny slap. “Why are any of us here?” he said. “To live. And die.”

Rae rolled her eyes. “Ooooh, deep!”

She pulled him off the dance floor. “Come on,” she said, “I’ll show you deep.” She led him towards the bar.

Sin-D was wearing white latex tonight. It made her bare skin look even more brown than usual. You could see her outfit across the club, and Rae grinned as she watched the bartendress tease one of the men at the bar. Sin-D leaned forward so that his nose was smothered in her cleavage.

“This drink’s on me,” Rae promised, pushing Peter onto a bar stool.

“What’ll it be?” Sin-D said, leaning across the wooden bar to stare eye to eye with Peter. “You going to drink her, or me? ’Cuz I’ll tell you this, one of us is gonna end up sitting on your face tonight.”

Rae almost choked on her laughter. “I promised I’d show you deep,” she said. “They don’t get any deeper than Sin-D.”

“That’s what the last guy who told me he had nine inches said,” the bartendress grinned. “But I think the problem was that he just wasn’t really that big.”

“How about a Dewar’s on the rocks?” Peter said.

“Is that your polite way of saying you’re going to Do Hers, not mine?” Sin-D asked with an exaggerated wink. She pushed the drink across the bar, along with a Tequila Sunrise for Rae.

“Wow,” Peter said when Sin-D moved down the bar to help another customer. She bent over to get something from the floor and the white latex miniskirt allowed him a clear view of her tanned behind above her thigh-high white boots. “And wow again,” he breathed.

“She’s all yours if you want her,” Rae said. “My feelings won’t be hurt… I was there this morning. She’s worth some of your time.”

“Not my interest, at the moment,” Peter said. “But she is a character.”

“So what is your interest?” Rae asked.

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Well, that outfit you’re wearing certainly suggests some of what I’m looking for.”

Rae smirked and hooked her thumbs beneath the thin leather straps that connected the bustier to the thick leather collar around her neck. “What, this li’l ol’ dominatrix rag?”

He placed a hand on the swell of her breasts and slipped it up until his fingers stroked the metal studs on her collar.

“Yes, exactly,” he breathed. His voice was quiet.

“Have you been in the BDSM scene a long time?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he said. His eyes looked nervous, almost ashamed, and he stared into his drink.

“How did you end up here, then?” she asked, puzzled.

He shrugged. “I’m guessing someone was paying attention to the kinds of magazines that came to my P.O. box. One day I got the invitation to this place, and…after dreaming about this for so long, I couldn’t say no. I had to check it out.”

Rae smiled and took a sip of her drink. So, he was a virgin, of sorts. Hard to believe that anyone in this place could be so untried.

“Is it the leather that excites you, or the nudity, or the danger, or the pain?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, grinning. “I want it all.”

Rae considered his dark shirt and faded jeans. He looked about as casual as you could get. “You need some leather for yourself,” she said.

He made a forced smile. “I know,” he said. “But I just…I dunno… I’ve never been able to buy it. I feel stupid dressing up like that for myself, and…”

“And you’ve never had a partner who wanted to,” she finished.

He nodded.

“Hey Sin-D!” she called. In a moment, the bartendress was draping her bosom across the bar and staring up at them with eyes flashing all the over-the-top clichés for come-hither that eyes have ever invented.

Rae ignored the show. “Where do you think I could find some matching leather studs for my stud here? He needs an outfit to go with mine.”

Sin-D laughed. “Are you kidding? Drag that baby boy to my office. We’ll set him up good.”

Rae pulled Peter off the stool and around the back of the bar to a doorway. The three of them stepped inside, and Peter whistled.

“She wasn’t kidding,” he said.

The walls were completely covered with an octopus tangle of studded leather belts, codpieces, bras and more. In the corner a box overflowed with rubber phalluses and various colored vibrators. A couch was tucked against the far wall, and a plastic woman rested there, her mouth permanently open and painted exaggeratedly red.

“Welcome to the toy box,” Sin-D said. “I think I know just what you need.” She walked over to one wall and fingered several long belted devices that hung from a hook. “You a 36 waist,” she asked. “Or a 38?”

“Try a 36,” he said. “You’re good.”

“You have no idea,” she said. “Rae, strip him.”

Rae smiled and unbuttoned Peter’s shirt. There was a faint look of alarm in his eyes, but she leaned up and gave him a soft kiss on the lips. “This is what you’ve wanted,” she said. “Enjoy it.”

He swallowed hard and nodded. Meanwhile, having exposed a bushy-haired chest, Rae continued and undid his belt, then popped the button on his jeans. She felt his body shiver as she pulled them down and helped him step out of the pant legs. His gasp was audible when she pulled his briefs down, letting his already half-hard cock flop out to dangle exposed.

Rae smiled at that. Kneeling, she put her hands on his hips and moved her lips up the shaft of his penis, instantly turning it hard as rock. It pointed to the ceiling, and his breath came faster. Rae grinned at the easy effect a few touches and nakedness could have on a man. She pursed her lips and pressed them to the head of his cock in a wet, puffy kiss before she opened her lips and let him slip inside her mouth, wetting him gently and then pulling back.

“All right,” Sin-D interrupted. “None of that yet. Let’s make him a slave and earn that release, huh?”

“Mmm-hmmm,” Rae agreed and pulled her mouth away, pressing wet lips to Peter’s mouth for just a moment.

“Let’s see if we can cram that big ol’ dick into this little pouch,” Sin-D said. “And no, you making it slippery didn’t help with that.”

Moments later, they walked Peter out to the Blue Room again, but now, his outfit nearly matched Rae’s. A small leather codpiece held his manhood in, and twin leather straps crisscrossed his chest in an X. They connected to an oval ring in the center of his chest and then strapped across his shoulders to do the same X trick across his back.

A pair of black leather combat boots completed the look.

“I feel like a character in a bad gay porno shoot,” he murmured.

Sin-D giggled, and Rae pointed out, “This is what you wanted.”

He nodded, clearly embarrassed to vocally admit it.

“I think it’s time to introduce you to the racks,” Rae said. “You need a good spanking!”

Peter’s smile brightened.

“Come with me, slave,” Rae said and pulled him by the ring on his chest across the club.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Revenge

They say the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions, but Mark had the best intentions, and the road was proving very difficult to find. The bondage night had proven a bust, though he had to wonder about Selena showing up again out of nowhere. It creeped him out a bit…as if she was following him. Maybe she was acting as a spy for NightWhere.

Either way, he hadn’t gotten anything from her. He stared at her card where it sat on the kitchen counter. He wasn’t going to be calling her anytime soon. Whatever she wanted, it had nothing to do with taking him back to NightWhere.

Mark walked through his empty house and felt lonelier than he ever had before in his life. He picked up the postcard that he’d found in one of the abandoned NightWhere locations and stared at it again.

Night

Where

Your dreams…and nightmares come true

No lurid photos. No other indication of any kind about what it meant. But as he stared at the seemingly obscure phrase, he noticed that there was something more to the card that he hadn’t seen before. Faint grey lettering was just barely visible along its edge. Not much of a promotional gambit-most people would never see it. But it was there: “www.nightwhere.666”.

Mark frowned. Dot-com, sure, but there was no web suffix of.666 that he’d ever heard of. He took the card to his computer and launched an Internet browser. As soon as it loaded his home page, he typed “www.nightwhere.666” in the web address window. He bet that he’d end up with some “No Such Page” style message, but instead, his computer screen suddenly turned black.

Slowly, like a movie animation, the word NightWhere materialized at the top of the screen, silver letters carving through the black, in an arch over the tangled image of a snake.

Below the logo, a headline also appeared: Do You Know This Molester?

Mark gasped.

Beneath the headline, was a photo of a man’s face. The very same face he saw in the mirror every morning. There was no question; this was no “that guy looks like me” scene.

The photo was of Mark, grinning full face at the camera.

“Holy shit.”

Beneath the photo it said:

Mark Rogacz may look like just an innocent bystander, but he has flashed dozens of girls at a local grade school near his house and is believed to have had sex with at least five children aged 8-12.

He has a long history of sexual abuse and police have speculated about the possibility that he has hidden away the bodies of some of the girls he has slept with in the basement of his home.

This man appears affable and trustworthy, but he is actually a very dangerous sociopath. Police suspect he may have even murdered his wife, who has not been seen or heard from in several weeks.

If you see him, do not interact with him; call the police immediately.

“What the fuck!” Mark sat back in his office chair and stared at his own mug shot staring back at him from the computer screen. His chest felt like ice. How could they do this to him?

He didn’t ask why…he knew why. Because he hadn’t played along. He had tried to pull Rae away from NightWhere, and when she’d gone anyway, he’d tried to find her.

But, Jesus…if this was on the Internet, how long would it be before police were at his door, ready to pull him in for questioning?

Probably not too long, he speculated.

“They’ve ruined me,” he whispered to the empty room. “First they took my wife, and now they want to take what’s left of my life too?”

Mark clicked the X with a sharp finger snap to the mouse and closed the browser. Then he sat back and took a deep breath.

He had to find Rae. For his own sake now, as well as her own.

He stood up and went into the bedroom to change out of his sweatpants and into his jeans. It was after 11:00 p.m., but he needed to go out. He knew places where the city came alive after dark. And that’s where people might have information on NightWhere.

He wasn’t going to find NightWhere sitting in his house…or looking on the Net.

And based on what he’d just seen online, it looked like he didn’t have a lot of time left to find it before the authorities came looking for him.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Dark Dreams Come True

The sound of the leather on his back sent a shiver down Rae’s spine. Mark would never have allowed her to flog him like this…and if she’d tied him up and beat him anyway…he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it. The enjoyment of pain just wasn’t in his makeup.

But Peter couldn’t get enough.

The skin of his back was burning pink when someone asked her to stop. Rae looked up from her focus and smiled. Perplexed.

“Stop…why?” she asked.

The man, decked out in blue jeans and a leather vest, looked at Peter and said, “Because you’re really hurting him.”

“Exactly,” Rae had laughed and turned away to continue the process.

She swung her arm harder with every stroke and reveled in seeing his body shift and arch off of the rack. She could see that part of him yearned to be beaten and part was, at the same time, pulling away, afraid. She wanted to warm the skin of both sides. She would turn his fearful side into a slave of the whip.

But maybe not tonight.

Peter’s back was welting and red, and her arm tired. And at this point, what Rae honestly wanted to do to him…

A clock tolled.

A cool hand closed around her wrist. “It’s time,” a familiar voice said. Kharon removed the flogger from her hand, as two other Watchers undid Peter’s bonds.

“Tonight is a special night,” he said. “And I have something special in mind for you and Peter.” Kharon put his arm around Rae and let his lips graze the top of her head.

“You have a cruel streak that I adore,” he said. “Let’s see how deep it runs.”

He led the way to the heavy wooden door of The Red. They passed the velvet ropes and Kharon pulled the iron ring to open the way. They stepped inside to the candlelit foyer. Screams echoed from somewhere in the distance. A girl with silver hair gently rubbed down Peter’s back with a wet rag. He arched his back when she hit the tender spots, but when he looked at Rae he smiled. “Thanks,” he said.

They walked down the long hallway and passed the crucifixion room and the others that Rae was familiar with. But soon they were in a part of NightWhere that she had never been to before. The bricks seemed to change with their progress; the walls grew from modern and smooth to darker red, with uneven grout and chipped and pitted bricks. The walls all glinted with heavy moisture. In some areas, the wetness seemed to flow steadily across the bricks in what looked like a stream of blood.

“Where are we going?” Rae asked after walking a while.

“The last room before The Black.”

“What is The Black?” she asked.

“You’ll find out, depending on what you do in this room,” Kharon said. “I have every confidence that you will meet the Night Mother very soon.”

Finally, they reached the end of the hallway. The brick here seemed to weep cement, and the air smelled of heavy mold and something richer. Almost metallic. The light was low too; everything was cast in a long shadow, and scuttling sounds came from the dark places on the floor as they walked. Rae wanted to lift her feet higher than they could ever reasonably go, uncertain of what lurked along the damp floor.

They stepped into a room that looked like a medieval castle dungeon. The walls were rough-hewn grey stone, and the lighting was provided by flames in sconces set every few feet at eye level along the walls. In the center of the room was a stone table. It was raised just three feet off the ground, and its center was adorned with the ubiquitous symbol of NightWhere-a scaled serpent that ate its own tail.

Kharon went and stood at the head of the table, while six followers took positions on either side, men to the left and women to the right. All of them wore black silk robes, loosely sashed. They were obviously naked beneath. Rae thought the scene looked like a Victoria’s Secret version of a druidic ritual. Sackcloth had been replaced by obsidian, sensual silk. And nobody wore hoods. This was a different group of people than she was used to seeing out in the Blue Room of the club; though, like all the Watchers, they had a similar look to Kharon. They were pale and thin, with complexions like corpses. The women all had small breasts; two of them had barely sashed their robes, and the grey nubs of their nipples were exposed as they stood next to the table. Their ribs were visible beneath what looked to be flawless marble skin.

The men appeared strangely thin and as hairless as the women from what she could see beneath their robes.

“Strip him, and then lay him down before us,” Kharon commanded. His voice was quiet, but firm.

Rae turned to Peter and pushed the robe that someone had covered him with to the floor. She kissed him softly on the lips and then pushed him back to the table. He lay back and scuttled forward until his head lay in the indentation that was also the dark head of the snake carved into the rock’s surface.

Kharon nodded at the chains coiled at the corners of the table. “Restrain him,” he said. The twelve gathered around the table remained silent.

Rae walked in front of them and picked up a dark iron chain. At its end was a manacle, and she stretched it out to cuff Peter’s left hand. She walked in front of Kharon and did the same to the right. Then she returned to the foot of the table and fastened heavy cuffs around his ankles. They snapped together easily. Peter shifted on the table, pulling halfheartedly against the bonds and rattling the metal as he did. Testing. He wasn’t really trying to escape, but he did discover that his limbs barely could move. He was lying there completely vulnerable-spread-eagled and trapped.

Rae smiled when she noticed his cock; it was half-erect and shifted slightly across his upper thigh as it grew. This complete loss of control was exciting him.

“Now strip and mount the table,” Kharon said.

Rae took a breath. She’d known that this was coming and she wasn’t shy, but to have such a formal array of watchers as she knelt over a man…she wasn’t used to that sort of attention. She undid her studded neck collar and its weight fell forward, pulling the strap of leather away from her breasts and belly. Her skin goose-bumped, even though the room was warm. Then she loosened the buckle and released the last hold of the leather on her waist. It fell to the ground, leaving her naked. Her body was damp beneath the leather, from all the exertion of flogging Peter just a few minutes earlier, and now that sweat on her groin and between her thighs felt cool. She breathed in deeply again and climbed onto the table, straddling his thighs-kneeling upright, eye to eye with Kharon, who remained at the head of the stone table. He nodded, and those pale lips seemed to hint at a smile. He reached into his robe and pulled out a knife. It looked ceremonial; its handle was jet black and glimmered in the flicker of the torchlight. The silver blade also caught the orange light and looked to be six to eight inches long. It curved upwards in a graceful arc to its needle-thin point.

Kharon handed the knife to her. “Carve your name in his heart.”

Rae took the knife but didn’t move instantly. She wasn’t sure what he meant, not really. She had drawn blood on people before with the whips, but she had never intentionally cut someone.

“He is lucky that your name is short. Start on his breast and cut your name into him. When your name bleeds from his chest, we can begin.”

Rae swallowed. The knife felt heavy in her hand. She laid the blade against Peter’s right breast and drew it down gently, trying not to cut too deep. But the knife was razor sharp. Blood welled instantly as she drew it down. When she began to draw the curve of the upper half of the R, the long line to the left was already weeping red tears. She completed the right leg of the R and then dragged the knife up and down in an inverted V quickly, to make the A.

Peter didn’t say a word as she cut him-he lay there and just watched her face-it felt like he gave her permission to draw his blood, and Rae didn’t question it. She cut the E, and Peter’s chest ran with his blood. It welled up and drops escaped the troughs of the cuts and began to weep across his ribs and down the canal of his sternum to pool in his belly button.

Kharon spoke, but Rae could not tell what he said. His words were a harsh cacophony of syllables that sounded foreign and guttural. At first she thought maybe it was Latin, but then she thought not. She had taken Latin in high school, and there were too many unfamiliar tones to this tongue. Kharon spoke faster and faster though, and the words grew louder as his energy increased. And then his cadence grew to a high point and he nearly shouted one word, “Faut!”

As one, the twelve women and twelve men drew blades from where they’d been hidden in the pockets of their robes. The knives were much like the one that Kharon had given Rae. Long ceremonial daggers. They let their robes drop to the floor and stood with their knives raised in the air. Rae let her eyes wander, wondering what they were going to do with the blades. Part of her worried that they were about to stab her to death in some weird sacrificial ritual, but Kharon’s promise that she would see The Black, depending on her performance here, stilled that fear. Her presence on top of a chained man implied that she was to do something more than that…simply being a sacrifice didn’t equate to doing something and earning a reward.

She looked at the line of pale-skinned men and again thought how they all looked like Kharon. Long, heavy penises hung between their thin thighs, and their sunken bellies were hairless and white. They could have all been carved from marble. And the female Watchers-they had breasts, but barely. They were thin and hairless people, all of them. It was as if they’d bathed in bleach-their skin was beautiful and smooth and white. And then they stepped closer, so that their beautiful, strange skin touched the table, their thighs pressing against the stone where Peter lay.

And then in a heartbeat, their flawless bodies were speckled in red.

As one, the twenty-four standing around the table drew their blades across their own wrists and loosed streams of blood. Some of them drew the knives deep enough that the cuts sprayed blood out in an arc of red. The others still cut themselves deep enough that their blood ran fast down their arms.

Kharon alone remained robed and still.

The rest reached out with bleeding arms, and suddenly they all touched Rae. She was pushed back and forth, as they rubbed their blood across her chest and back. When her skin was smeared and coated in their blood, they removed their wrists from her and instead, one by one, held them to Peter’s face.

“Drink,” Kharon instructed. “And join the body.”

When Peter turned his head away, Kharon reached out and put his hands on either side of the man’s head. He pressed Peter’s face forward to stare at the ceiling. And another white-skinned Watcher held a bleeding wrist to the trapped man’s lips.

“You must drink from us, before we drink from you,” Kharon said gently.

Peter’s tongue came out slowly then, and he licked some of the crimson from the wrist in his face. As soon as he did, the arm was withdrawn and a woman’s took its place. And then a man’s. The Watchers alternated, until Peter had tasted them all. His lips were glossed in crimson.

Then Kharon said something else in the strange foreign tongue and the Watchers raised their knives again, as one. But now, they did not cut themselves.

They cut Peter.

This time, he was not silent. Peter cried out.

The knives stabbed at his thighs and his ribs. Two blades nicked his neck from either side. The blood of the word RAE in the center of his chest was suddenly overshadowed by the blood that dripped from between his ribs and across his hips and calves. The rock table was quickly awash with crimson, as it bled down his ribs and pooled around his body.

“Take him now,” Kharon commanded, staring straight into Rae’s eyes.

“Take him…how?” she asked, suddenly very afraid. Her skin felt cold in the heat of the room, and the man beneath her no longer looked desirable…he looked abused. Pathetic. Lost.

“Take him inside you,” Kharon explained. His eyes did not blink as he looked at her. She could feel his judgment upon her. Either she did as he expected, or she failed. She knew in a flash what he wanted. Rae wasn’t sure how she could possibly fuck Peter at this point, after he’d been stabbed more than two dozen times, but when she looked down, she saw that, in fact, his cock was hard. He was getting off on the pain.

She reached down and picked it up, holding him between her legs. The blood that covered his skin acted as lubricant, and she stroked him with it, coating his sex in his own life. Then she pulled him up between her legs and, with a sigh and gasp, pushed him inside her.

Kharon said something, but she did not hear. Rae only had eyes for Peter, who lay beneath her. His face was drawn in an expression both fearful and turned on. His eyes flicked back and forth from the Watchers to Rae’s face. She moved him inside her, adjusting his cock with nudges and thrusts of her hips, and as she looked at his bleeding body beneath her, something that had long lain buried, but only barely, in Rae’s psyche surfaced. She suddenly realized that she was enjoying his pain. She watched his wounds gape and weep as she pressed herself on him, and when he gasped at the pain, she felt a thrill of pleasure run up her spine. A little orgasm. She had hurt him, and she was hurting him now, as she used him. And she liked it.

Rae knew in that moment that she was evil. Had always been evil. Wanted to keep being evil. She’d tried to hide from it, but the reality was…she wanted pleasure and didn’t care how she got it. And if she had to hurt someone to get it…

Her hips ground faster against Peter as she accepted the understanding of herself. She’d hidden from the realization in the sex clubs and “sharing/caring” trappings of the other swingers. They all pretended to care about each other and to be sharing a lifestyle. But suddenly it hit her in a flash. They didn’t care. She didn’t care. All she wanted was to fuck. And she loved the idea that she was fucking the life out of the man beneath her. With every push of her thighs against his, more blood flowed from the wounds in his sides. The word RAE on his chest grew difficult to read as the blood pooled and spread. She leaned across him and with her breasts rubbed at the gash of her name until the word could no longer be read.

“Your blood is mine,” she whispered, not really understanding why she’d felt the need to say it.

But then Kharon stepped forward and, with a simple thrust, dropped his silken black robe to the ground like the others.

“Your blood is mine,” he echoed, drawing his knife across the soft skin of her breasts. She felt a pinching sensation, and then suddenly heat, as the blood began to seep from her nipples like hell’s milk.

“Let him drink,” Kharon said, and Rae bent lower, until her nipple was at Peter’s lips. He opened his mouth and took it in, smearing his lips with crimson, as Kharon’s cut continued to bleed.

Rae felt the pain of the cuts on her chest, but they didn’t seem to stop her pleasure. Instead, the pain quickened her rhythm, and she pressed harder against Peter’s hips, drawing him as far inside her as she could. Their bodies slipped together in a bloody lubrication that was warm and wet and continued to build. Peter was bleeding steadily from so many cuts across his body that, every place Rae touched, she slid. It was hot and exciting and…she knew…deadly.

Peter moaned beneath her, and she could feel his lust within her, moving, pressing, shifting.

She increased her rhythm, excited by his entrapment, excited by his blood. He lay beneath her, face shifting through a kaleidoscope of emotions: pain, excitement, fear, lust…

Rae could feel her own orgasm approaching, as she pressed her hands to his wet shoulders and slapped her crotch to his. The room resounded with the echo of her passion, their bloody, wet skin meeting and retreating, and then, just at the moment of her release, Kharon leaned forward and picked up the knife she had discarded from the table. He held it out for her to take and smiled at her complete abandon.

“Kill him,” Kharon commanded.

Chapter Thirty

In the Darkest Hour…

The alley smelled like stale piss and old garbage. The sour scents reminded him of more desperate days. Back when he’d been a single guy, he’d come down into the seedy parts of South Chicago to take care of business here. Sometimes a guy had to cum, and if he didn’t have a woman at home waiting to accept it…well, he came here.

Literally.

The neon sign out front read Dreams in electric-blue light, only the D was unlit. So instead it was reams. That worked too. Guys went in there and got reamed in the video booths downstairs. And there were reams of bad sex videos lining every inch of the upstairs.

The entry door was glass but had been obscured by paper taped on from the inside. It had one message, just above the handle. Adults Only.

He pulled the door open and stepped inside. It was a whole ’nother world there. The walls were lined with porno DVDs and the glass case at the front of the store where the cash register sat was filled with imitation penises. Mark didn’t waste any time. He walked straight up to the cashier, a thin man with grey disheveled hair and a mustache that did its best to hide his lips. Mark had decided to be direct this time and simply come right out and ask everyone in the adult scene that he could find.

“Have you ever heard of NightWhere?” he asked, and the man looked back at him blankly. But in the overhead mirror, Mark saw that his question had interested someone. A head had popped out of the DVD aisles as soon as he’d said the name NightWhere.

Mark turned and stared down the aisle towards the man who had shown interest. The guy faded back as Mark approached, ducking around the aisle and disappearing. But Mark wasn’t fooled. He quickened his step and poked his head around the Bisexual aisle and found him. And the him turned out to be a familiar face.

“Kendrick,” he said. “What a lucky break-long time no see!”

The man pursed his lips and nodded, all of his body language saying that this wasn’t a lucky break in any way.

“How are you?” Kendrick asked, eyeing the end of the aisle nervously.

“Been better,” Mark said. “Rae hasn’t come home since she went to NightWhere last month. I’ve been looking for someone to help me get back to the club. I need to find out what happened to her.”

“I’m sure she’s okay,” Kendrick said. “You know Sin-D, she takes care of folks.”

“It’s not Sin-D I’m worried about,” Mark said. “I’ve seen some of what goes on in the back of the club.”

Kendrick shrugged. “Well, if you get an invitation next month, I guess you should go and check it out.”

“I don’t want to wait until next month to see my wife,” Mark spat. “I want to go see her now. And I need help. You are one of the in-crowd there. Help me get back to the club.”

“Can’t do that,” Kendrick said. “You know that. If I took you there, I’d never get invited myself again. I could get in big trouble just for talking about it with you.”

“Come on, man,” Mark begged. He struggled to keep his voice low. “You know the way. I need your help.”

“No,” Kendrick said. “And if you don’t want to end up chained up in one of the back rooms for the rest of your life, I’d suggest you stop asking people about the club. They don’t like publicity. And they will do just about anything to stop it. I promise you.”

Kendrick raised an eyebrow pointedly. His mouth was a thin line, his eyes flashed with something near anger. None of the laid-back, party-boy humor Mark remembered in the man was evident.

“Listen to what I’m saying,” Kendrick said. “Now, if you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to ask the cashier to call the police. Get away from me. Now.”

Mark put his hands up in the air, exaggerating abdication. “Fine,” he said. “But what if it was your wife out there? What would you do?”

Kendrick looked at him in total, cold seriousness. “I’d divorce her and find a nice girl,” he said. “But that’s me.”

Mark backed away from the man, who seemed totally different than the guy he’d had drinks with at Sin-D’s bar just a few weeks before.

But Mark wasn’t done with Kendrick. He had stumbled on Selena and had failed to pry any information from her. Now he had found another denizen of NightWhere. He didn’t expect that he’d be lucky enough to walk into the supermarket and “just happen” to find Sin-D or one of the handful of others he knew from the sex club.

No.

This was it, right here. There was a good chance that Kendrick was his last chance to find Rae.

Mark stepped out of the porn shop and into the shadows of the alley. When he was out of the immediate fan of the spotlight above the door, he stopped and leaned back against the cinder-block wall of the building. In his pocket, he toyed with the box cutter that he’d taken from the garage when he left home. He never came to this part of town without a little protection. The dark alleys here had always made him nervous, though aside from being propositioned by a drug dealer once, nothing had ever happened to him here. Still, Mark had always come downtown prepared for anything. Now maybe that would pay off in a way he’d never intended. He was going to become the guy he himself feared.

There was only one way out of the porn shop, and Kendrick was still inside. Mark rubbed his back against the rough wall and fingered the button on the box cutter.

He could wait.

He didn’t have to wait for long. The Adults Only door shuddered open about five minutes later, and Kendrick stepped out onto the broken asphalt of the alley, a black plastic bag in his hand. He looked to the right a little nervously and then turned to the left.

But his caution proved too little, too late.

Kendrick’s eyes opened wide when he felt the cold metal against his throat.

“One word and you’re going to bleed,” Mark said. “We’re going to take a walk. I don’t want to bother anyone else who might be trying to get into the store. Let’s walk.”

He pointed at the darkest corner of the alley. “If you try to run, I can tell you two things. Number one, I will cut you before you get away from me. This thing is razor sharp, and I’m pissed off. Number two, this alley is a dead end. So let’s just walk nice and quiet down the way, out of sight, so we can talk, huh?”

Mark kneed Kendrick in the ass, and the other man began to walk, slowly, away from the door of the porn shop.

When they had gotten twenty or thirty yards and stood near a rusting green garbage bin, Mark said, “That’s enough.”

Kendrick stopped and turned to look at his abductor. “You can’t make me tell you anything,” he said.

Mark smiled, but it was the smile of a man who had nothing to lose. Not a smile of humor in any way.

“You’re right, I can’t make you tell me anything,” he agreed. “But if you want to live, I’d suggest that you do.”

Kendrick rolled his eyes. “You’re acting like a nut job, you know that?”

“You fucked my wife, didn’t you?” Mark asked.

Kendrick looked uneasy. “Maybe,” he said. “But that’s what people do in NightWhere. You fucked Sin-D. I saw that. So why are you ranking on me? I have nothing to do with your issues.”

Mark nodded. “No, you don’t. But you can help me fix them. And you may be the only one who can.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Kendrick said. “I just go there to have fun.”

“Bullshit,” Mark said, pointing at the snake tattoo on Kendrick’s wrist. “The people who have that tattoo run NightWhere. You are not just some neophyte party boy there. I’m betting you’re one of their recruiters. Which means you know how to reach them.”

Kendrick shook his head. “I can’t do anything…”

Mark pushed the steel of the box cutter’s shank against Kendrick’s throat. “If I push the button up on this, you’re going to be breathing through a hole in your neck. I’m not normally a violent guy but…you know what? I don’t fucking care anymore. There’s only one thing that I want. I want to get back to NightWhere. That’s it. End of story. And you can help me. I know you can. And if you won’t? Well…I may very likely push this button because it’s been a long month and I’ve got a lot of frustration built up at the moment. I’m kinda sick of being pissed off.”

Kendrick’s eyes widened as Mark pressed him against the brick wall. “You know they’re prepared for this sort of thing,” he said. His voice cracked as he said it.

“Then let them deal with me,” Mark suggested. “All you have to do is take me to them, and your part is done.”

Mark pressed the box cutter harder against Kendrick’s throat. “I am going to count to three, and then I’m going to give you a new hole in your head,” he promised. “One, two…”

Kendrick shoved Mark hard, at the same time aiming a knee to his groin. The flash of pain didn’t slow Mark-it was more of the last straw that sent him into action. He threw himself at the man, catching Kendrick around his knees.

Kendrick tried to pull his feet free, but instead overbalanced himself and went down, hard on the asphalt. He let out an ooff as he hit the ground and then Mark was on him, sitting on his back.

“I was not kidding,” Mark said. He clicked the blade of the cutter out. “I don’t care anymore,” he said. “You can either help me, or bleed to death.”

Mark pressed the open blade against Kendrick’s throat, and crimson bloomed against and around the blade.

“One, two…”

“Okay, okay,” Kendrick coughed. “I have a number you can call. I don’t know what they’ll do, but it’s all I can tell you to try. I can’t take you anywhere tonight.”

Mark pulled back and let Kendrick sit up to retrieve his phone. Mark wrapped one arm around the man’s neck from behind and kept the blade of the razor in place. Kendrick couldn’t move without being cut. Then Mark reached into a pocket and pulled his own phone out. He dialed the numbers as Kendrick read them.

The phone rang three times and then a cool male voice answered. “A snake can only eat its tail once, but a woman can give head a thousand times.”

“I’m looking for NightWhere,” Mark said.

“Aren’t we all?” the man on the other end of the line said. “Didn’t Kendrick tell you, we don’t want to be found?”

“He did,” Mark admitted. “But the razor at his throat made him reconsider.”

“Hmmm,” the man on the other end of the line said. “I trust you’ll let him go unharmed.”

“Sure,” Mark agreed. “As long as you tell me how to return to NightWhere.”

“I will send someone to show you the way,” the voice promised. “But it will not be tonight, or tomorrow, or even next week. The next meeting of NightWhere is October 18th. I’d be happy to have you there for that. Meet me there at Dreams in two weeks-on October 18th at 7 p.m. I will guide you into the hell you seek at that time. In the meantime, I want you to set Kendrick free.”

“How do I know you will keep your word?” Mark asked.

“You don’t,” the man said calmly. “But I will. You have my number now. And you have no choice really. You can’t keep Kendrick there for long, or someone is going to discover you and call the police. And I can’t come to you right now. I will be there for you on the night of October 18th.”

“How will I find you?” Mark asked.

“NightWhere finds you,” the man said. “That’s the way it has always been.”

There was a click, and the line went dead.

Mark released Kendrick, who pushed himself away on the asphalt, rubbing his throat with one hand as he did so.

“You’re going to get far more than you bargained for,” Kendrick said. “I hope you’re ready.”

“I’m ready to see my wife again,” Mark said, retracting the blade of the box cutter.

The man pushed himself up and off the ground, and shook his head at Mark. “Well, thanks to you, I’m not sure that I will ever be back at NightWhere again,” he said. “Asshole.”

“Sorry, man, I had no choice.”

“Word of advice? If you value your own life at all, you should give up your wife and start over. It would be better for both of you if you did that.”

With that, Kendrick sprinted towards the entry door of the porn shop. But when he reached it, he kept going, turning the corner with his fist in the air, his middle finger extended.

It might have been useful to follow him, to find out where he lived in case the man on the phone had lied. But Mark let him go. He had talked to someone at the club, someone who claimed that their next meeting was two weeks away. He hoped the man kept his promise. He hoped the man met him here.

A chill gripped Mark’s stomach then, as he thought…but how did the man even know where here was? The man had identified that he was at Dreams without Mark saying anything. Maybe Kendrick had called NightWhere after Mark had left the place?

He heard Kendrick’s voice in his head, “You’re going to get more than you bargained for.”

Who were these people, Mark wondered. It was as if he’d stumbled into a secret society that met in the catacombs and traded secret passwords and handshakes. And based on Kendrick’s warnings…potentially got rid of people who crossed them.

Permanently.

Mark swallowed hard and tried to tell himself that he was being ridiculous. The club was secret because it had to be-otherwise the cops would bust it. But NightWhere weren’t the Mafia. They weren’t going to kill him just for insisting they let him see his wife again. He just hoped that, when he did see her, Rae would come back home with him. He couldn’t imagine what he would feel like if she said no. If this really was the end.

He walked slowly back out of the alley and down the busy street to his car. The next two weeks were going to take forever to pass by.

Mark got in his car and started the engine. All he could see in his mind’s eye was an image of Rae gagged and chained against a rack.

He wanted to have the key to free her. To be the key.

To bring her back home with him.

Mark whispered to himself in the silence of the cab of his car: “I’m coming, baby. I’m coming.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Gordon

There are moments in everyone’s lives that they wish they could change. That insult you hurled at your father just before he had a heart attack. That moment when you were drunk and leaned over to kiss your best friend’s girl. Or that moment that you took a steak knife out of the wooden block by the kitchen sink and plunged it into your wife’s face. Actually, her right eye.

Gordon wished he could have taken all of those moments back, but mostly, he wished he could undo the last. He could live with his dad going to the grave hating him. He could live with the broken nose his friend had given him for tasting his dumb slut’s tongue when they were both drunk.

He was going to have a hard time living with Miriam’s corpse, though, which was currently bleeding all over the linoleum. He hated messiness. So this only pissed him off further. Gordon pulled the tablecloth off the dining room table and threw it over her. He had to go take care of Freddy, who was crying in the back bedroom again. Then he’d decide what to do with the naggy bitch that bore the boy.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He had loved her once. Before Miriam had turned into a nag. An endlessly bitching, whining shrew. He didn’t know exactly which word had finally broken his bubble of protection. Was it pathetic, dickless, loser or joke? One of those words had made him drop the piece of leftover ham in his fingers and pick up a knife. It was all a red blur in his mind now.

Gordon pulled the tablecloth back and stared at the congealed blood across his wife’s face. The silver blade of that fateful knife was spotted in red above where it protruded from her eyeball, and the white of that eyeball was also spotted in her blood.

Gordon had rocked Freddy to sleep in the next room, and now he was going to take care of some outstanding business with the boy’s mother.

Actually, he’d already taken care of business when he’d pulled out the knife and silenced his haranguing wife once and for all. But sometimes taking care of one problem only led to others.

Like a body.

And child care.

Damnit.

Gordon wrapped Miriam in the tablecloth, after pulling the knife from her eyeball. Something creamy oozed out from the hole as he did, but Gordon didn’t wait around to consider what it was. He pulled the cloth over her mouth, silent for the first time in all these fucking years.

He wouldn’t miss her.

But Freddy would. Gordon was going to need some child care.

He’d deal with that tomorrow. After he tucked Freddy’s mom’s body in the basement. He slung her corpse over his shoulder and clumsily twisted the doorknob to the basement. He maneuvered her weight (slight as it was) through the opening and then carried her down the wooden plank stairs.

“You ain’t ever gonna yell at me again,” he whispered. And then he dropped her body to the sand of the crawl space and shook his head.

“Nope, never again.”

Gordon smiled, in a crazy, I-have-finally-gone-over-the-rainbow way and walked away from her without burying the body or saying any other last words.

Sometimes, you were just done.

But for Gordon, done was just a temporary thing. He couldn’t just leave Miriam here like this. But she would keep for now.

In the meantime, he had things he wanted to do. Things that would hurt. Not himself. But someone else. Like that Amelia chick. In fact, after sticking the knife in Miriam’s eye and then feeling the way she had jerked and trembled as he held her while the life bled out of her, and then laying her down on the floor, still kicking… Well, after experiencing that, he had a feeling that he could finally do something to satisfy Amelia’s desire for pain. He was looking forward to the next invitation from NightWhere, more than ever.

Of course, this time, he was going to have to find a babysitter.

Chapter Thirty-Two

October 18

The time passed slowly. Mark worked every day at his job-sometimes to the extreme-burning the midnight oil because it was somehow comforting to throw himself into a project. Of course, in the back of his mind he also knew that the only reason he was doing it was because he was desperately trying to avoid something else. Something that was poisoning his soul.

The weekends were endless, but in the end, two weeks did pass. And finally, the day came that had seemed as far away as Christmas to a kid in June. And Mark stood in front of the porno shop where he had tackled Kendrick. It was October 18.

Mark wasn’t sure where to go when he got to the shop. Should he stand around and paw through DVDs until someone approached him? Loiter in the alley?

After standing outside of the paper-obscured door for a minute, he decided to call the phone number that Kendrick had given him the last time and “announce” that he was here waiting. On the third ring, a voice answered.

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

“I’m at the porn shop, like you said.”

“Good,” the voice answered. “What do you want from us?”

“I want to come back to NightWhere,” Mark said. “I want to see my wife again. My wife and I were coming together, and then she started going without me.”

“Perhaps she was the only one invited.”

“I’d like to come back,” Mark said again. He tried to stifle the nerves in his voice.

“You’d like to find your wife, Rae,” the voice corrected.

“Well, yeah,” Mark said.

“My name is Kharon,” the voice said. “I will let you visit NightWhere one more time, to satisfy your curiosity. But you will need to stay with me; I will be your chaperone. And this will be the last time.”

“That’s fine,” Mark said. “Can you tell me…is Rae okay?”

“Rae is doing exactly what she has always wanted to do,” Kharon said. “And if you ask me, I think you should leave her to that. But since you are so persistent…I will give you this last chance to talk to her. But you must do one thing first.”

“Anything,” Mark promised.

“Then here is what you must do,” Kharon said. “One of my people is waiting for you downstairs by the peep-show booths inside the building. His name is Dan, and he will be near Booth 13.

“You must go downstairs and do exactly as he says. He will show you a film. At the end, if you still want to come to NightWhere, Dan will escort you to me.”

The line abruptly clicked off.

Mark pocketed the phone and looked at the door to the porn shop again, as he took a deep breath.

Adults Only.

“Here comes one now,” Mark said, and reached out to open the door.

It was warm inside the store. After standing around in the chilly night air outside, the smell of Pine-Sol and the warmth of humid heat were good. A thin guy with crazy hair and rectangular glasses stood behind the bar scratching a lamb-chop sideburn repeatedly. Mark nodded at him and walked down an aisle of Amateur DVDs, browsing idly at the pale breasts and pink nipples that flashed out at him from all of the covers. On the back wall of the store was the sign for downstairs.

Peep Shows 25 Cents, it said, with an arrow pointed south.

“Going down,” Mark murmured and headed towards the stairs.

The stairs had once been white tile, but now they were just grey. Smears of mud and scuffs from black heels all but obscured the original color. But it was the smell that really told Mark he was descending into the bowels of a porn shop.

The stairwell smelled of old cum and mildew. At the bottom of the steps, Mark turned a corner and the fluorescent glare of the upstairs shop cut off. The hallway below was like another world-a slumbering place. The light was dim, the shadows long. Mark walked to the end of a short hall and found a display with a small lamp aimed over the glass to illuminate the movies that were on display in the booths that lined the adjoining hall. Behind the glass were rows of DVD cases with channel numbers listed above them. If you went into a booth and plunked in your money, you could tune the TV to watch titles like Bosom Buddies and My Wife’s Breast Friend.

Mark looked behind him, down at the line of open doors. The peep-show cellar was oddly quiet tonight. Odd because the evenings were usually when these kinds of places filled-with guys stopping into the porn shop for a quick stroke or blow job after work before they returned home to their harpy wives. Everyone needed an orgasm once in a while. Even if it was a solo flight.

But tonight the peep show booths were all but empty.

Except for one guy, who was pacing down at the end of the corridor.

Mark turned away from the DVD case. The guy at the other end of the hall was here for him. Had to be. There was nobody else here. He took a deep breath and walked towards the man. The numbers on the doorways on the right side of the hall were going up-7, 9, 10, 11-he knew instantly that the guy stood in front of 13.

Of course he did.

Mark walked up and held out his hand. He forced himself to be totally over the top.

“Hi,” he said. “Are you Dan?”

The man turned and flashed a smile through two pale lips. He was bald, and his eyes looked grey in the dim light. He wore black leather pants and a black T-shirt. His skin looked sickly white in contrast to his outfit. He raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Mark?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mark said. Dan did not accept his offered handshake.

“Take off your clothes,” Dan said.

“Huh?”

“Strip,” Dan said. “I want you to drop all of your clothes, and then I want you to step into Booth 13 and watch a short film. Either do that, or get out of here.”

Mark balked, but before he said anything, he remembered his conversation with Kharon. He knew that this was a test…he either did what he was asked, or he would not be seeing Rae again.

Swallowing once, Mark pulled off his shirt and dropped it to the long-stained and dirty floor. Then he kicked off his shoes, unbuttoned his jeans and dropped them to the floor as well. He pulled his wallet out of the back pocket and stood there in socks and underwear in a hallway in front of the strange pale man.

“Naked,” the man said. His face was completely devoid of expression.

Mark turned to the side and slipped off his underwear, kicking them off to lie on top of his jeans.

“I’m not taking off my socks,” he pronounced, thinking of the scum that had come upon this floor on a regular basis for God knew how long.

The man held out a gold coin. “Watch the movie,” he said. “Then tell me if you still want to go to NightWhere again.”

Mark nodded. Part of him wanted to scream, No matter what you show me, I want to go back to NightWhere because I need to find my goddamned wife!

But he refrained.

Instead, he took the coin and stepped into Booth 13. He closed the door and pushed the coin into the slot. Instantly, the TV monitor came to life, at first showing a naked blonde on a hotel bed, lying back and mouthing for the camera with fat, sensual lips, “Do you want to know what I could do to you? Call me, at 8-6-6…”

But then the scene changed. The advertisement faded out and a darker room took over the screen.

Suddenly, the TV scene looked a lot more amateurish. A lot more real. It showed a man, chained to a stone table. The guy was youngish, thirty-something. His hair was dark, and his face warm and instantly likeable. Maybe he was Italian, maybe Greek, but his dark, wide complexion somehow telegraphed that this was the kind of guy you’d be friends with on the first conversation.

Mark wondered about the chains around the guy’s wrists and ankles, but the guy looked happy; his eyelids fluttered, and his cock was clearly hard. A big cock, from the way it lay across his belly.

Why was he smiling? Mark wondered briefly…and then that question was answered, as a sensual hand reached into the film frame.

The woman ran her hands up the chained man’s arms until they covered his wrists and then she leaned her face in as well, so that she was visible on the screen.

Mark recognized her instantly. He’d had a suspicion just from seeing her hands.

The woman leaning over the chained man’s body was Rae.

He wasn’t terribly surprised to recognize her, given the circumstances that had landed him naked in a porn shop video booth.

What was surprising was that…Rae was holding a knife.

A moment later, he quailed as she lifted the blade above the man’s chest, but she didn’t suddenly plunge it down to stab his heart; instead, she lowered the knife slowly and used it to etch her initials in blood across the man’s chest. And then she set the knife aside and began moving her crotch in a rhythmic motion on top of the man, clearly turned on by the blood.

Mark felt himself grow hard, watching his wife grind atop the chained man’s hips. He had always found something incredibly exciting in seeing his wife with another. He could never have lived their swingers lifestyle if he hadn’t. The need to always feel someone new was Rae’s, but he couldn’t say that he hadn’t enjoyed watching the results.

Mark watched as she lay her chest against the man and rubbed her nipples in the blood of her name. Then she raised herself back on her knees, still grinding her pussy down on the man’s groin, drawing his cock in and out of herself. Apparently being cut made her “victim” hard as well, because she was clearly enjoying his erection.

Mark’s hand unconsciously gripped himself as he watched Rae fuck. He rubbed himself, enjoying her obvious, unbridled excitement. He moaned slightly when she opened her own mouth, approaching orgasm thanks to using the man beneath her.

“You are naked and masturbating in a smelly basement peep show booth to a video of your wife fucking a man that she’s just carved her name into with a knife,” Mark whispered at one point to himself. He recognized the absurdity of it all, but that didn’t make him take his hand off his cock.

Watching her hips slowly move up and down on another man’s crotch made him breathe faster. He fixated on the muscles of her ass as they shifted, and watched her skin move across her shoulder blades and the small nubs of her backbone. She leaned over the man and let her hair fall forward, sometimes brushing the guy’s face as she bent in to kiss him and rub her own chest to his.

When she pulled back up and rode him vertically, the camera moved around to capture the lust of her facial expressions. Her mouth hung open in a continuous O of carnal excitement, and her chest was smeared red with her lover’s blood.

Mark stroked himself as she stroked her lover, rocking on him to guide his cock deeper. The sound of his wife’s moaning from the tiny TV speakers-punctuated by the deeper grunts and groans of the man on the table beneath her as she ground herself hard against him-brought Mark quickly to his own point of losing control.

But then, as Mark felt his own muscles tensing, as he forgot the place where he was and the reason he was here, as the pleasure wave grew, the camera pulled back and he could see that Rae and her chained lover were surrounded by people wearing dark robes…and all of them held knives as well. And then all of them dropped those robes and leaned in to stab at the man on the table. In minutes the scene was a bloodbath, with two dozen naked people smeared in blood all leaning close as Rae continued to increase her motions, fucking the man on the table as he bled to death. The man clearly screamed out in pain at his wounds, but Rae didn’t slow her forced use of him. If anything, her sexual rhythm grew faster.

Then the ringleader, Kharon, picked up the discarded knife that Rae had used to carve her name into the man’s chest and handed it back to Rae.

Mark heard what Kharon said clearly. And the man beneath her did too, as he suddenly began to twist and roll, trying to get away from Rae.

“Kill him.”

But the man didn’t, couldn’t, throw her off of him. His arms and legs remained chained, and she pinned his protesting midsection down to the table with her hips and ass. She held the knife out in front of her and stared at it.

“No,” the man beneath her said. His voice was faint, but Mark could hear him say it over and over again as he shook his head from side to side. “No, I was only joking. I didn’t mean it.”

Rae held the knife out in front of her, unmoving.

In front of her, Kharon said something, but Mark couldn’t hear what it was. The camera shifted slowly around until Rae’s face was fully in frame. And Mark could see her decision solidify. He could see it in the sudden steel of her eyes and the lines that crinkled briefly in her forehead. And the mean smile that suddenly overtook her lips.

The camera pulled back again just in time for Mark to see her move the knife lower, holding its blade to the man’s neck.

Mark’s erection suddenly went away, and his face craned closer to the small TV screen, as he watched what enfolded next. He had a horrible feeling about where this was going.

And he was right.

The blood welled up around her blade, but Rae still moved her body on top of the man, slowly grinding her ass up and down on him as she pressed the knife to his throat. She leaned down and her body hid the knife for a moment.

Mark could tell she was kissing the man, and when she straightened her body again, the man’s face had quieted. He no longer looked afraid and wasn’t saying no.

And that’s when Rae brought the knife down really hard against the soft skin of her lover’s neck.

The man’s mouth opened wide, but no sound came out. She’d severed his vocal cords.

And then she lifted the knife and brought it down again.

And again.

Mark could see the crack of her ass clenching and moving, the faint creases of cellulite across her ass growing pronounced and then smoothing; he knew those motions and muscles from years with his wife-and years watching his wife.

Mark realized that as Rae was killing this man…she was cumming. Hard.

“You have got to be shitting me,” he breathed, as he watched her grind and stab, grind and stab.

And then the camera shifted, and Kharon reached down to the table and grabbed the man’s head by its hair, lifting it into the air, as Rae still moved in her own final throes on top of the body.

“NightWhere,” Kharon yelled, as he held the head high. “Descend.”

And a moment later, all of the people in the room leaned in to touch Rae and the man she had brutally murdered. Mark’s wife was covered by two dozen arms and faces and heads and backs as they surrounded and massaged her and the dead man…

Her eyes turned to stare at the camera with a dull sheen of distance; she could be drugged or in ecstasy, Mark couldn’t tell.

And then a voice came from the dark behind him. Mark turned away from the TV screen for a second to locate the source. There was a hole in the black-painted wall of the booth, and he could see the liquid glint of an eye and hear the steady rasp of heavy breathing.

“She is happy now,” a voice said from the hole in the wall. “This is your last chance-leave now and both of you will be happy.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Mark insisted.

He looked away from the glistening eye, to see his wife, his beautiful Rae, bending down to lick the blood off the chest of the man she’d killed, before she kissed his motionless lips.

She looked up again towards the camera, with her eyes half rolled back in sensual pleasure. With one hand, she massaged blood into her own naked breasts.

Mark turned away from both the screen and the eye behind him, suddenly feeling sick. He stared at neutral ground, the peep show booth door.

But nothing in a porn shop was neutral.

The door opened, and Dan stood there. His face showed no expression, but he asked one question.

“Do you still want to go back to NightWhere?”

From the corner of his eye, Mark saw the image of his wife covered in both blood and the bone-white hands of the bystanders near her.

“Yes,” he said. “I do.”

The man nodded. Something pricked Mark’s naked thigh.

Mark looked down and saw a hand withdraw through the hole between the peep show booths. The eye he’d seen before had been replaced briefly by a hand with a needle…

Mark wondered what the hand had injected him with, but suddenly he also felt increasingly slow…lethargic. The air suddenly swam with colorful spots, as the dark grew strangely darker. He knew it was nothing good.

Mark realized he couldn’t move.

And then his legs gave out beneath him, and Mark collapsed naked on the cold tile of the dirty porno booth.

Only then did two men suddenly swoop in to the narrow space to wrap him in a blanket. Part of him still was conscious of what was going on, but Mark couldn’t stop them as he was rolled back and forth on the floor into the blanket. Then the world disappeared when his face was covered by a black silk gag.

His body was lifted off the cold floor and Mark was escorted silently from the club, leaving all of his clothes, wallet and car keys behind.

His captors didn’t expect that he’d be coming back.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Waking up

Mark woke with something holding his arm down. He tried to move it, but…nothing happened. So he tried the other arm. And had similar luck.

His legs, also, refused to move from their place on his bed.

A bed that felt strangely cold.

Mark’s eyes blinked, but those seemed to be the only muscles currently working. He’d just have to work with what he had. He focused on the shadows, moving his eyes around the room, taking in every detail.

The ceiling was red as blood. Mark’s eyes traveled all along it, following the swirls and cascades. It ran darker and lighter in places, but it didn’t fade away. And the more he looked at it, the more it seemed as if the color wasn’t simply painted and static; it seemed to…move. To flow. The color bled down the walls and into the shadows near the floor. Mark’s head slowly tilted to one side, and he realized his neck muscles were working, as well as his eyes.

That’s when he saw that there was more than simply red on the walls. In the distance, there were people. People hung from hooks on chains. People who were naked and bloody.

Mark wondered if he looked like that. He wasn’t quite sure what was holding him, or why he couldn’t move. Was he chained and bleeding to death? He panicked for a moment. What if they’d cut his limbs off entirely, and drugged him so that he couldn’t feel the pain. He struggled to turn his head all the way to one side, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that his arm and hand were intact. Then he realized what the cold white struts were that his wrist was chained to.

Bone.

He looked down across his chest and saw that his midsection was restrained by huge curved struts of ivory as well. He looked as if he was being held prisoner inside a giant’s rib cage. He was trapped in a cage of bones. But how had he gotten here? And where was here? The last thing he remembered was standing naked and aroused, watching the video of Rae, literally fucking a man to death and then…

“You just couldn’t stay away from us, huh?” a voice said from behind him. “You wouldn’t join us, not really, but you couldn’t stay away. Quite the conundrum, really.”

Mark struggled to turn his head to see the source of the voice, and out of the corner of his vision on the left, he finally saw the pale flesh of someone standing nearby.

“Who are you?” Mark asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Well, yes…I would.”

A figure moved into view. Pale flesh covered by faint, downy hair. Two legs and a flaccid cock, right in Mark’s field of vision. The skin of the man’s cock glinted with silver-it was pierced in multiple places, as was the belly button above it.

Mark struggled to move his head back upwards, and saw the chest and neck and chin of the man. Or woman.

Yes, the stranger had a cock, but…he/she also had the ultimate fair-skinned, pale, sensual-looking body, with a pair of gorgeous, perfect breasts, full and prominent. Mark was instantly aroused as he stared. Each nipple was erect and piercings connected them with a thin chain. His/her lips were full and sensual, if almost colorless, below a thin, patrician nose and eyes so startlingly blue, they were captivating.

He wanted to stare into them without speaking for hours.

And then he remembered…despite the gorgeous tits, there was a cock dangling below. She/he was a hermaphrodite.

What the fuck?

Mark struggled to open his mouth and make his vocal cords work. When they did, they croaked a faint, ragged question.

“Who are you?”

“You can call me Damia. I’m the guy you don’t want to know,” the man/woman said. “I’m the girl you don’t want to know too. Because…I like sex, but even more, I like…blood. Lots of it.”

“What do you want with me?” Mark asked.

The creature laughed. “Sex and blood, for starters!”

“Kharon said I could see my wife if I came here.”

Damia put one hand on the rib bones enclosing Mark’s chest and swung her leg up over the table. He/she straddled Mark, leaning forward on the bones until her breasts pushed through the gaps. Mark felt the cold of metal studs against his thigh, as Damia leaned down to stare hard into his eyes. She cupped his cheeks in her hands and opened her mouth to kiss him.

He tasted metal as her tongue forced its way inside his lips, and as he stared into her eyes, her face suddenly grew fuzzy. As her edges blurred and she faded away, he began to see other things.

He saw:

…The blood spurt of a headless neck, as the openmouthed face of a bearded man lay below it, on a stone floor. His arms still twitched in death throes as Damia’s grinning face came into view to lick the gory stump of the man’s neck as if it were a sensual delicacy…

…The entrails of a woman hung from a hook being gently lifted by four hands from the long slash in her abdomen and draped around another woman’s shoulders. The guts glistened wetly and the woman who wore them as a bloody boa stroked them gently, as if she were stroking the fur of a pet. The woman had beautiful breasts and a long cock. Damia…

…The wide eyes of a dark-haired man whose head was locked down to a table with a steel band. A sensual hand with long nails held the sides of the man’s head as her thighs clenched and pressed her groin against his face, but when she drew back, Mark saw that, again, it wasn’t a she. The man beneath her spit pearly white froth from his mouth, but Damia’s beautiful, cruel face laughed, and she picked up a small dagger. She stroked his forehead with her free hand for a moment, before she took the blade and cut just above his chin and just below his nose. His lips slid down his neck to the table as a torrent of blood suddenly ran across his ears and pooled in the hollow of his neck. He screamed, and his teeth looked more red than white. Then her thighs covered the man’s lipless mouth again…

…A nude woman hung from a stone wall by two chains. Hooks gouged through the soft flesh of her hands, and chains wrapped around her wrists and looped around the hook, ensuring that the flesh wouldn’t give way and allow her to fall to the stone floor just a foot beneath her feet. On either side of her, twelve black-robed men and twelve black-robed women held smaller chains that each ran to six-inch hooks whose barbs were buried in the woman’s body, starting just above her breasts and ending in the space between her thighs. Damia stepped into the picture. She knelt before the woman and licked at the bloody mess that had been the lips of the woman’s sex. Her tongue then left bloody trails as she worked her way up to the woman’s breasts and then finally her neck and lips. Mark could see her excitement, as her cock thrust outward and her hands moved faster all across the woman’s flesh, smearing the woman with her own blood. Then she stepped onto the stool and pressed herself past the hooks and into the woman’s sex. The woman screamed as the motion pulled at the hooks in her hands and torso, but Damia’s thrusts only increased in intensity until at last he/she yelled above the din, “Pull!” And with that, the twenty-four robed people pulled on the chains hooked into the prisoner’s body at once, and the woman’s flesh peeled back beneath her as Damia’s own moans suddenly grew louder than the screams…

“Stop it!” Mark finally screamed and the horrible visions suddenly were replaced by the steel-ringed eyes of Damia, just inches from his own.

“What’s the matter?” she asked in a voice both sweet and husky. “Don’t you have a taste for The Red? Your wife does, you know. She may turn into one of my best students at the rate she’s going. There is a bloodlust in her so deep…”

“Lust, yes,” Mark interrupted. “Rae could never get enough. And she liked things to get kinky, but she’s not mean and horrible like this…”

Damia laughed. “You saw the film. That was real. We granted her deepest, darkest wish-she was able to fuck a man literally to death, and she came with the heat of his blood dripping across her chest and down her thighs. Don’t tell me she is not ‘horrible like this’.”

“You did something to her,” Mark insisted. “You drugged her or something…”

“We did nothing but open the door to who she has always been,” Damia said. She leaned forward to lick a steel-studded tongue across his lips. Then she pressed herself up from the bones that trapped Mark to a sitting position.

“You were never enough for her,” Damia pronounced. “You are barely Blue Room material; you could never survive an hour of The Red. You should have just let her go.”

“I can’t,” Mark said. “She’s my wife. I love her. I have to see her again.”

“There is only one way that Kharon will allow that,” Damia said. “You have to take your own journey into The Red. If you can perform the tasks set for you in the first three rooms, you will find Rae waiting for you in the next.”

“And if I can’t do what you ask?”

“Then Kharon promised to give you to me,” Damia smiled. The hunger glowed in her eyes. “You will become another one of my memories,” she said. “Shall I slice off your parts, one by one, as we make love? Or would you prefer the hooks and chains? Or something more original?”

She reached beneath the table and released something there with a click. Then she lifted the cage of bones from pinning his chest and opened the locks that held his wrists tight.

Mark felt sensation rush back to his limbs in a fire of pins and needles, and he struggled to sit up. The room spun around him as he did, and he almost cried out at the sensation returning to his hands and legs. He stifled that, knowing that it would only earn him more taunts from the hermaphrodite.

Damia held out a long, thin arm, and Mark accepted her hand out of reflex. She pulled him from the table, and he almost fell. But Damia propped him up with an arm across his shoulders. Mark could feel the cold steel of studs on his skin; Damia’s arms and shoulders were pierced in a line of steel and her back was dark with a maze of hellish tattoos.

“Let us begin,” she said as he staggered towards a wooden door.

Chapter Thirty-Four

Jealousy

Amelia picked up her silken robe from the stone floor and slipped it over her shoulders. Kharon had invited her to be a part of the ceremony, one of the twenty-four voyeurs. She had been allowed to wet her blade on Peter’s flesh, but Rae held the center of attention. She rode him to death, as she and the other Watchers looked on.

First the rabbits, and now the sacrificial table. It was all about Rae anymore.

Amelia drew the sash tighter around her waist and felt a heavy weight in one pocket. She smiled. She had an answer for their new blood queen.

As the Watchers filed out of the room, Amelia approached Rae, who lay slumped over the bloody mess that had been Peter.

Amelia ran her fingers down the other woman’s spine, gently tracing the bones beneath the skin. Rae looked up, strands of hair trailing across her cheek, matted with a mix of tears and blood.

“Let me help you down,” Amelia suggested, and Rae accepted her hands, sliding her legs to the floor. Rae stood still, her face blank.

“Are you okay?” Amelia whispered. “That was intense.” The room had completely emptied; even Kharon had left. Slowly, Rae nodded.

“I killed him,” Rae said. “I really did.”

With one hand, Rae ran her index finger slowly over her left breast, smearing a thick trail of blood there in the few white spots that remained, until the white of her tit was fully painted in Peter’s death. When she looked up again, she was smiling.

“And I liked it,” Rae said.

Amelia nodded. “It’s a kick, isn’t it?”

Rae’s eyes welled up. “But I killed him,” she said again.

Amelia took Rae into her arms and hugged her. “I know, baby,” she said. “And I know what you need now.”

Rae looked up from her shoulder, eyes a mess of black mascara and smeared blood. “What?”

“You need a little of what you gave,” Amelia said. She walked to the wall near the door where a rack of whips and weapons stood. She picked up a small flogger with its black leather straps, each one capped by a small barb of metal.

“You’ve been a bad girl,” Amelia said, holding the flogger up for Rae to see. “So I’m going to have to punish you.”

Rae’s eyes widened, and then she nodded. Her knees felt weak, and something inside her thirsted for a taste of the pain she’d just delivered.

Amelia kissed her and then commanded, “Turn around.”

Rae put her hands on the edge of the stone table where Peter’s body lay and stiffened as Amelia’s hand slapped her ass. The other woman spanked her a dozen times with the palm of her hand, gradually increasing the force until the flesh reddened. Then she stopped and cupped one of Rae’s butt cheeks in her palm and squeezed, tightly.

“I see why Kharon likes you,” Amelia said. “So sexy, seemingly so innocent but…so evil. You’re deceiving.”

Amelia hit her again across the ass, this time with the back of her hand. And then Rae shivered as the first bite of the lash scored her back. The pain was perfect. She closed her eyes and let the red wash over her mental vision. The leather stung and then burned and then ripped…she could feel blood begin to drip across her flanks as Amelia surprised her with each slap. The heat moved from her back to her ass to her thighs. And then Amelia stopped.

“Turn around,” Amelia said.

Rae faced her and Amelia pushed her backwards until Rae’s ass touched against the cold edge of the stone table. Then Amelia slapped her across the face.

“Slut,” she said.

She slapped her again, harder.

“Bitch.”

And again.

“Whore.”

“Murderer.”

Amelia’s eyes were bright, and her robe undone. Rae saw the sweat glistening between her breasts. Her tummy was slick with it, and her sex was swollen and ready. Amelia stepped forward and grabbed Rae’s hair with her hand. She pulled on it until Rae cried out, and then she forced Rae to her knees and stifled her complaints with her crotch.

“Drink deep,” Amelia said, smothering Rae’s upturned face between her legs. Rae did, licking hungrily as Amelia used her, knocking Rae’s head repeatedly against the stone. And then Amelia pulled back and yanked Rae up to her feet again by her hair. “Lay next to him,” Amelia said.

Rae lay back on the table, her head just beneath the dead man’s arm.

“I have a present for you,” Amelia said and reached into her robe’s pocket. She withdrew a long imitation of a human cock. “I want you to lie there and do nothing,” she said. Amelia pinched one of Rae’s nipples between her fingers, pulling it until the skin of the breast stretched flat. With her other hand, she moved the fake phallus between Rae’s thighs. Rae spread her legs to help, pushing against Peter’s dead body to gain room on the table.

“Oh my God, is that good,” Rae moaned, as Amelia slowly worked the head of the thing inside her.

“It’s going to get better,” Amelia promised.

“Yes, it is,” a voice said from the doorway.

Kharon.

Amelia’s chest tightened.

“Take it out,” he suggested quietly.

Amelia pulled the phallus back and winced as Kharon stepped up to the table and pinched one of her well-scarred breasts just as she’d pulled on Rae’s.

“I have a different idea,” he said, motioning for Rae to get off the bloody table. “Take her place,” he said.

Amelia shook her head. “Thanks, but I don’t feel like it right now,” she said.

“Now,” he said.

Amelia climbed onto the table and lay back, closing her eyes.

“Help me,” he said to Rae, and together they bound her to the table with the chains that had been used on Peter. Amelia’s left arm was bent across the dead man’s chest and her left leg shoved Peter’s limbs almost off the table.

Kharon handed the heavy phallus to Rae. “Fuck her with this,” he said simply.

Rae was confused about the demand for turnabout, but she complied, pushing the thing into Amelia’s wet nether lips. The other woman resisted, clenching her muscles against the intrusion, but she was too damp to deny it. Rae thrust the phallus inside her, as Amelia begged for her to stop.

“Please…don’t…please…don’t,” she said. Rae couldn’t fathom why Amelia was trying to refuse the pleasure.

Kharon stood next to Rae with his arm loosely around her naked waist as he rebuffed Amelia’s pleas.

“Don’t stop,” he commanded again and again.

And then he bent close, and Rae could smell the strong excitement on him. He whispered in her ear and then asked, “Do you understand?”

Rae nodded, and he pointed at the end of the phallus, where a metal loop extended. “Now,” he said.

Rae slipped a finger through the metal loop as she pushed the phallus deep inside Amelia with her other hand. And then she pulled the loop, like a rip cord.

Hard and fast, just like Kharon had told her.

Amelia’s scream was deafening.

“Don’t stop,” Kharon said. He reached around Rae’s back and fondled her breast as she continued to move the toy in and out of Amelia. But the woman on the table thrashed against her chains. Her initial screams were now horrible, harsh gasps of pain. Rae felt her fingers grow wet and warm, and looked to find them covered in blood.

“Pull it out,” Kharon said.

Rae pulled, but the thing seemed to stick inside of Amelia. “I can’t,” she said. “It won’t move.

“Fast and hard,” he reminded.

Rae put both hands on the phallus and pushed it forward before yanking it back. It resisted at first, but then slid free. As the head popped out of Amelia’s sex, a gush of blood followed, painting the table further.

Rae held up the phallus in horror as Amelia’s screams died to hitching cries. A row of small nails lined the rubber shaft on four sides. They only protruded a half inch or so, but they were covered in bits of gore.

“Jesus,” Rae said, her stomach filled with ice.

“Not here,” Kharon laughed. He walked to the table and stroked Amelia’s hair. “Don’t feel bad,” he said. “That’s what she had planned for you. Our Amelia has a bit of a jealous streak it seems.” Amelia’s eyes fluttered and closed.

“But why?” Rae said.

“She wanted to go into The Black. And I chose you instead.”

“What is The Black?” Rae asked. “I don’t even know…”

“Later,” he promised. “For now, I want to see her give head one last time. She was always one of my favorites.” He pointed at the base of the phallus. “Push the ring in.”

Rae did, and the nail points disappeared, hidden within the device again.

“Get on the table and put it in her mouth,” he demanded.

Rae’s eyes widened. “But…”

“Do it.”

She gulped, not sure if she could go through with this. But when Rae looked into Kharon’s eyes, all of her resistance faded. The pleasure of giving pain consumed all, and she smiled, her skin flushing warm as she soaked in his gaze. He filled her, silently, with his evil, and she accepted. Wanted. More.

Rae climbed up on the table and straddled Amelia, her thighs instantly wet with the woman’s clammy sweat as she kneeled and leaned over the other woman’s chest to press the bloody rubber cock’s head against Amelia’s lips as Kharon had commanded. Amelia’s mouth remained half open from crying, but before the head of the thing had gotten past her teeth, Amelia clenched them shut.

“Open your mouth,” Kharon commanded. “Now. I can think of worse ways to punish. Ways that will leave you bleeding for an eternity.”

Amelia’s teeth opened, and Rae shoved the false dick into her mouth until Amelia began to gag. Once it was inside, Kharon put one hand on Amelia’s head and the other on her chin, holding her mouth shut.

“Deeper,” he said. “She has amazing capacity.”

Rae pushed the phallus farther into Amelia’s throat.

“That’s my girl,” he said, smiling at Amelia’s bugging eyes and bloating cheeks. She was puking in her mouth, yellow fluid leaking out of the corners of her lips, but he wouldn’t let the mouth open to release it. Instead, he nodded at Rae.

“Pull the ring,” he said.

It seemed impossible, but at his command Amelia’s eyes opened even wider…

Rae slipped two fingers through the ring and looked once at Kharon’s face. His eyes glowed red in the low light. The blue of his veins made him look like a living statue. When she stared into his eyes, she felt like a schoolgirl with a crush again. Her knees trembled and parts of her grew instantly, heatedly moist. She would do anything for him. Anything.

Like kill a woman.

Especially a woman who had just been ready to puncture her own womb.

Rae felt the steel of revenge coil like a chain inside her spine, and the soft part of her that had been sickened by this just moments before was washed away. A smile of anticipation lit her face, and she stared at the bulging eyes of the gagging woman beneath her.

Rae pushed the phallus as deep as it would go into Amelia’s throat.

And pulled the ring.

The stifled scream echoed horribly through the room as Kharon finally released his hold on Amelia’s head. Blood poured with bile from her lips, but every time Amelia tried to shake her head to get Rae to remove the device, it only drove the nails through the soft skin of her tongue and throat deeper.

“She always enjoyed giving fellatio,” Kharon said. “Show us how you do it, Amelia.”

He was answered only by gurgling screeches.

“That’s it,” he encouraged, running cool fingernails down Rae’s spine. “Give it to her. Harder. Let her truly taste The Red at last.”

Rae pushed and pulled the thick phallus in and out of Amelia’s throat, but it barely moved. Kharon put his hand on hers and together they drove the deadly cock deeper. Rae felt her vision blur as his body touched hers and his hands worked her own. She barely noticed when the noise from the bloody wreck of a mouth below her stopped, because Kharon had begun to kiss her.

Their hands at last left the weapon lodged crazily in Amelia’s mouth, nails protruding in front of and behind her teeth. Amelia’s blood was shocking against Kharon’s skin, as Rae’s fingers left it smeared in trails across his chest. When he smiled, he looked less happy than hungry. He wanted more than just the violence. His eyes glowed in the low light, and he pushed Rae down to lie across the bellies of Peter and Amelia. She lay on a pillow of the dead as he followed, climbing above her and then bringing his hips close.

“Do you want to go farther?” he whispered, as he slipped inside her without any resistance. Rae opened herself to him as her fingernails clenched his back, wanting only to pull him closer.

Kharon covered and filled her, and in her head The Red melted to Black.

“Yes,” she gasped.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Lesson One

“There are three lessons you must learn,” Damia said. “And to teach you, we will give you three tasks. I don’t think that you will embrace these lessons, as your wife has. But you must get through them if you are going to see Rae again.”

The hermaphrodite led him down a dark hallway.

“Where are we going?” Mark asked.

“To your damnation,” Damia laughed. Her voice sounded like a girl’s giggle, but there was a deeper hint to it as well. The edgy grate of a ghoul’s seduction.

Mark watched the pale globes of her ass walk ahead of him. The grins of skull faces leered at him from her rear, their mouths shifting subtly as she walked. Her entire back was a maze of hellish images, interrupted and decorated by silver studs and rings that pierced her flesh. Thin chains dangled from the studs on her shoulders to hook on to the posts that protruded from the top of her ass. Mark supposed that she probably never wore clothes; they would catch and rip at all the metal on her skin. Damia was attractive; dangerously alluring. He felt himself responding to her exotic pull even as he swallowed repeatedly in fear of what was ahead. He wondered what evil he was being led into.

“Lead me not into temptation,” he mumbled.

Damia laughed uproariously. She/he turned and grabbed Mark’s cock with long white fingers, rubbing the tip of her fingernail across the top. “Don’t give me that shit,” she said. “You love the temptation. And we’re going to lead you into it, through it and beneath it.”

The hermaphrodite reached both hands around Mark’s neck and pulled his lips close to hers. “It’s the damnation you’re afraid of,” she said, as she moved against Mark, making him cringe inside. “And whether you see Rae again or not, you will be damned,” Damia said. She licked his lips.

“You want me right now, despite it all, don’t you?”

Mark gave the faintest nod, unable to deny it.

Damia squeezed his crotch once with her hand to confirm and then pushed herself away from him, still laughing.

“You have no idea the depths to which you can go,” she said. “But I’ll leave that for Kharon to explain. He’s waiting for you there.”

Damia pointed at the flickering orange-and-red light just ahead. It emanated from a room on the left, a beckoning call of light that flickered against the crimson ceiling of the hall. She walked to the doorway and extended one hand towards it, a gesture for him to enter. Mark looked at Damia’s thin cheeks and studded breasts and cock and wet his lips with his tongue. His mouth was dry, and he suddenly felt a paralyzing fear. He couldn’t go through with this. He didn’t want the pain. He didn’t want to give it.

Damia giggled in that girlish ghoul voice again and stretched one of her breasts taut by pulling on the metal bar that pierced its tip. “You can have me instead of Rae if you want,” she taunted. “Maybe you will finally admit to yourself that you’re a pathetic faggot as well as a coward. I’ll give you what you want, I promise you. I can give you things that Rae never could. But first, you have to begin your journey.”

She pointed again at the room’s entry. “Kharon doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Mark stepped past her, and jumped as Damia’s hand smacked his ass when he passed.

All he could see was the fire. It was like he had stepped into another world. To the left and right, a few yards in each direction, he could see the dark stone of walls that rose to meet a blackened ceiling. A line of fire burned along each wall, and the smell of cinder and smoke permeated his senses. Mark walked down the path in the center, between the guttering flames. His skin instantly warmed, and the stone beneath his bare feet was almost as hot as the midday sand on a beach when the sun beats down hard in summer. Sweat began to trickle down his back and along his ribs as soon as he stepped into the room.

The stone beneath his feet stretched on and on, and Mark walked, as if down a long city street. If city streets had curbs made of flame and skies of blackened stone.

After walking a minute or two, he saw figures ahead. They stood in a circle around something, and part of him hoped it was Rae.

It wasn’t.

The figures stood around a pit. The circle opened as Mark reached them, and he saw that three stairs of rough-hewn stone descended three feet beneath the floor.

At the head of the circle, directly in front of him, stood Kharon.

The man smiled. His eyes looked black against his pale, chalky skin that reflected the orange light of the flames.

“Remember,” Kharon said, “you demanded this. We would have let you go, but now that you are here…there is only one way. You cannot go back.”

“I just want to see Rae,” Mark said.

Kharon nodded. “You want more than that. But you will have what you ask for, if you can pass through the next three rooms.”

He pointed at the stairs leading downward. “First you must be baptized.”

Mark hated to think what baptism might mean in NightWhere, but he descended the steps and stood half underground, only his face and chest still above the floor, as all around him Watchers stood in a circle staring down.

“Let us begin,” Kharon said, and, as one, the group dropped their robes and stepped forward, so that Mark’s head was just below their knees. The ring of pale bodies blocked his view of most of the fire, and as he looked up past their knees, Mark saw that there were an equal number of men and women here. All looked ghastly pale in their nudity, and their skin was all covered in ragged scars. One woman only had one breast, a crooked pink scar stretched across the center of her rib cage where the other would be. One man was missing an arm, and several of the throng lacked fingers; their hands looked like broken flippers. Two women had empty holes where their eyes should have been and one of the men had a white, milky eye. Mark looked away from him; the sight of that blind eye creeped him out more than the strange situation itself. All of the people were thin to the point of starvation, with rib and pelvic bones visible through the parchment of their sickly skin.

Something wet hit him in the back, and Mark turned to see one of the men holding a flaccid cock and urinating, directly on him.

“Fuck!” Mark yelped and tried to step out of range, but something hit him from the other side. A woman, spreading her legs wide and prying her labia open to aim, peed on him from above. “Jesus,” Mark yelled, turning away from her and right into another stream of urine. It was hot and stank and in seconds it was streaming at him from all sides of the pit. He turned to climb back up the stairs, but a black man barred his path, pissing right into his face. Mark wiped the foul liquid out of his eyes. He gagged back the puke that wanted to rise and walked in the other direction, only to be barred by the hot spray of Kharon’s cock.

Mark let out one last yell of disgust and then, in surrender, stood still, closing his eyes and bending his head. He couldn’t escape and there was no place to run. There was nothing he could do but accept it. He knew there were those who got turned on by being pissed on, but all it did for Mark was make him feel disgusted. But he knew that it couldn’t go on forever. All rain must end. Especially human rain. So he waited.

And finally, the streams did stop, and he was left standing in a three-inch puddle of two dozen people’s urine.

He looked up at Kharon and again wiped the drops of piss from his face.

“Is that it?” he asked.

Kharon shook his head and pointed back towards the stairs. “Now you have to drink,” he said.

Mark looked at the man who stood one step down in the pit with him. He recognized his best friend from college. Richard Crest. The only guy he’d ever really worried about losing Rae to. Because he almost had. That had been back when Mark first realized that he could not hold her on a leash, not tightly. She had been sleeping with Richard on the side for six months during their senior year. When Mark had walked in on them one night, he had almost broken it off with his two best friends at once.

But Rae had slowly talked him down. She loved him. She wanted to stay with him. She just needed…a little more sometimes. And, well, Richard had it. Actually he had…

Mark looked at his old friend now, standing naked and stroking his penis erect on the stair. Yeah, Richard had a little more. He had a lot more.

“How ya doin’, buddy?” Richard asked. “From what I hear, I’m not the only one who had to take care of Rae for you.”

Mark shook his head. “No, but it has always been me that she loved.”

Richard nodded. “I see. So then, enlighten me, where is your lover girl right now?”

The words hit Mark right in the softest part of his chest. Where was she indeed?

“She’s here at the club,” he said.

“Seems like she’s not here saving her faithful lapdog from getting pissed on,” Richard observed. “Very telling.”

“Nice to see you too,” Mark said.

Richard laughed. “It will be,” he said. “You have no idea.”

Kharon’s voice rang out across the pit. “Drink, or drown,” he said.

Mark looked back at Richard. His friend was smiling, but his smile held very little humor.

“Here’s the thing, ol’ pal. You’re kind of a pathetic loser, and I don’t know why I ever hung out with you. I should have taken Rae away from you just to save her a lifetime of grief. But, you know, 20/20 vision and all that. At the moment, I’m looking forward to one of the best blow jobs of my life. And you’re gonna give it to me.”

Mark shook his head and laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Richard crossed his arms, letting his hard cock poke straight out at Mark’s face. He shook his hips to make it weave in the air, pointing…

“Drink, or drown,” Kharon said again.

“Here’s the thing,” Richard explained. “Unless you suck the cock that Rae really loved, you’re not getting out of here. And Kharon’s got a hundred other followers who would be happy to come and piss on you for the rest of the night.”

Mark turned and looked back at Kharon. The Watcher’s lips twisted down, in a sneer. He said nothing, but his head nodded, slightly.

All around the pit, the naked guards stood close, not allowing any place for Mark to pull himself up and run away. Not that he knew where he could run to anyway. Behind them, a dozen more white legs walked into position. And behind those, he saw another line begin.

“You don’t have a lot of options, my friend,” Richard laughed. “But you better do a good job. Otherwise…Kharon’s just going to make you do it again. And you know, I’m the judge. So…make it count.”

Mark felt tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. When he’d come to look for Rae, when he’d insisted that he be allowed to see her, he’d never thought that he’d have to endure shit like this. And now…Richard was right. He didn’t have a lot of options. He bent down until his face was eye to eye with Richard’s crotch. Then he closed his eyes and opened his mouth. Something smooth and yet hard entered his lips. And pressed against the top of his mouth. It moved against him.

Something inside Mark died at that moment.

“Rae did it a lot better,” Richard remarked.

Someone in the onlooking crowd began to laugh, and soon the rest joined in.

Mark refused to open his eyes, but tears leaked from their edges. They streamed down his cheeks, cutting through the wetness of his humiliation.

And then he heard his mother’s voice.

“Oh my goodness, Mark, I never knew.”

He opened his eyes. He pulled away from Richard and stared in complete disbelief. His mother stood with the crowd of Watchers, naked as the rest of them. He cringed at the sight of her low-hanging breasts and grey thatch of crotch hair-things he never wanted to see.

But worse, his father stood naked next to her. Dad looked just as he had the last time Mark had seen him, five years before. Just before he’d had a heart attack and died in the bathroom. A year before his mom had ODed on sleeping pills.

They were both dead and couldn’t possibly be here now. Yet…

“I never thought a son of mine would be a cocksucker,” his dad said. The disgust dripped from his words. “Look at you! Look at what you’re doing. Is that what your mother and I taught you? No wonder you can’t keep your wife happy. Poor thing. She deserves better. You really are disgusting. I don’t think I can ever look at you again.”

His father turned away and took Mark’s mom into his arms, slipping his arms around her wide back and waist. Mark had to look away when they began French-kissing, and his mom began to grab his father’s wrinkled, hairy ass with clear intent.

But looking away from his impossible parents only put him back to the hard dick in front of him.

“You either make this cum, or you’re going to get another shower,” Richard reminded. “And if you don’t get busy, you’re going to have to start on me all over again.”

Sure enough, Mark saw that Richard’s steel was turning to taffy.

Mark closed his eyes once again and pushed everything from his mind. The thing in his mouth, the sounds of his parents fucking nearby, the laughter of the surrounding crowd. He forced himself not to throw up and pictured Rae’s broad, welcoming smile.

He had to see it again.

That would make all of this worth it.

He hoped.

Mark opened his mouth.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Last Time

The invitation came just in time.

Gordon had hidden the body in the loose sand of the crawlspace a few days ago, but he couldn’t hide the fact that his wife was no longer at home. He’d told the couple people who asked about her that they had had a fight and that she’d stormed out.

After he’d laid her body in the basement, he had driven her car to a neighboring town and left it in the supermarket parking lot just to add some substance to the lie. So her car was gone. He’d put some personal belongings in the backseat for good measure, along with an overnight bag with deodorant, toothbrush, minipads, condoms and underwear and a T-shirt. So far, apparently, the grocery hadn’t noticed it-nobody had contacted him about finding it.

He’d called up Miriam’s sister, Belle, to see if she could watch Freddy for him the next few days while he was at work since Miriam “had apparently run off”. Belle was usually free, since she hated actually doing anything resembling regular fucking work. She seemed to spend all of her time surfing Facebook and spying on her friends, if she wasn’t texting them. But she did love her nephew, so he locked that problem up with one phone call.

He thought there was a delicious irony in having Miriam’s sister sit on his couch and take care of his baby, while her sister was lying in the sand just a few yards below her feet.

Belle was younger and better looking than Miriam ever had been. But she had the same propensity to flap her gums too much. Tonight, he’d given her two twenties to stay late, in addition to having been there all day. Belle never turned down money. Sometimes he wondered if she’d have done it if he’d offered her a couple of Ben Franklins to suck his dick.

He hoped that he wouldn’t have the time to find out. Though he was tempted to try.

Gordon had packed a small overnight bag with his own bathroom essentials and extra clothes and had stowed it in the passenger’s seat of his Toyota pickup.

He hoped that, after tonight, he wouldn’t be coming back.

Belle would be pissed when he didn’t come back, but she’d take care of Freddy. So he wasn’t worried about his son. Kid’d probably be better off without either of his parents in the end.

They’d probably eventually discover the body in the basement, but what would he care? If things worked out, Gordon would be a full-time resident in NightWhere and wouldn’t be seen in the Granville Heights subdivision again.

He didn’t like to think about the possibilities if he did end up coming back home tonight.

But he was really feeling good about the idea that he wasn’t coming back. He knew how to handle a whip and a cane. He knew how to be cruel. Why would they say no after he had proven his loyalty for so long?

He would do anything that they asked.

Anything.

Gordon ran his thumb along the edge of the razor-sharp knife he kept sleeved at his waist. He smiled and licked away the small drop of blood that gathered on the head of his thumb. He looked forward to whatever twisted shit the freaky Watchers at NightWhere could come up with.

Anything.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Woke Up With a Monster

Everything hurt.

Her brain throbbed. Pain pulsed like the rhythm of a train. She didn’t want to open her eyes. For a moment, she didn’t. She simply thought back to what had happened sometime this morning. Sometime after she’d emerged, bloodstained and naked from the gothic doorway that guarded The Red.

She had had to tell Sin-D about what had happened to Peter and Amelia. The bartendress had smiled at Rae’s composure (or lack thereof) and poured her a vodka with a splash of cherry juice. “Virgin blood,” she’d laughed, pushing it forward. “Drink it up, you need it.”

“Have you ever done anything like that?” Rae asked at dawn, round about her third drink of “virgin blood”.

Sin-D laughed and then slipped the thin straps of her shirt down from her shoulders, exposing the globes of her breasts. But that wasn’t what she wanted Rae to see. Sin-D turned her back to Rae and said, “Touch it.”

Rae reached out and put her fingertips on the bronze skin of the bartendress’s shoulder blades. They were covered in a network of thin pink lines, culminating in two rippled puckers on either side of her spine. Rae could feel the gnarled flesh of the scar tissue there; it was different to feel it, rather than to simply witness that Sin-D had scars.

“I’ve done worse things than that,” Sin-D said. She turned and for a moment, Rae was confronted by the wide, pink silver dollars of the woman’s prominent nipples before Sin-D pulled up her shirt.

“You can do anything in NightWhere,” Sin-D said. “Killing is easy. Surviving to do it again…that’s the hard part.”

An hour later, the club closed for the coming of morning, and Kharon turned up at Rae’s unsteady elbow to escort her back to her room.

An hour can allow a lot of alcohol to enter the bloodstream.

Rae struggled now to open her eyes, as she thought about Kharon and what he had taken from her. What he had given to her.

In the windowless dark of her new bedroom, he had shown himself to be more than simply the man who ran this strange sex club. He was the god who ran it.

When she had taken his robe from him and let him stand strictly naked before her, Rae nearly pulled away.

She had seen it before, on the first night she’d stayed. But at a glance, Kharon was hideous.

His face was gaunt, his chest bony and small. His belly was white and sickly looking, and his entire frame seemed a bit crooked, as if he’d been broken and sewn back together again and again. She knew he had saved her life, and yet, some part of her knew too that he was sucking her life dry for his own purposes. She had no illusions-Kharon was not benevolent. But what did he really want from her-that’s what she didn’t know. He was demanding, but also kind, as if she was some kind of sexual pet. She liked being a pet.

She had watched him kill the “rabbits” and had done his bidding when he demanded that she kill Peter and Amelia. He had no qualms about taking life.

When would it be her turn?

All those things ran through her brain, but when he put his hands on either side of her head and guided her mouth to his hips, she didn’t resist. Just the opposite, really. Part of her reveled in the danger of being this man’s pet. If he was a man at all… She’d realized over the past few days that there was more to NightWhere than sex and pain.

There was a darker, deeper element. And she had begun to wonder if Kharon and the other Watchers were even still human.

Certainly their needs were familiar, she thought as he guided her head up and down in his lap.

Her head was pounding with a burgeoning hangover when she felt something gush behind her lips and down her throat. The taste was acrid and bitter, and when she looked up, Kharon’s eyes seemed to glow with a fiery light.

As his orgasm dripped from the corner of her mouth, she looked into those eyes and asked him, “Where are we really? This isn’t some abandoned warehouse that we’ve taken over just for the night.”

He grinned faintly and shook his head.

“Are we in hell?”

Kharon laughed. “Hell is for the dead,” he said. “We are in NightWhere.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Lesson Two

Despite appearances, humans are hardy creatures. On the surface they seem weak and easy to take down-they have no external skeleton, spines or protective armor, lack the advantage of long deadly claws or sharp teeth and can be fatally wounded with just one blow. They appear soft, fleshy, easily broken.

But…strangely…despite their apparent outer frailty, humans are resilient beasts. They thrive on hardship-witness the generations of men and women in India who live on the brink of starvation their entire lives. Humans survive and triumph over the bitter cold of Antarctica and the sandstorms and brutal heat of the Sahara. And never mind the elements. There are dozens of stories about individuals, abducted and locked in depravity, who have weathered daily physical abuse, only to emerge unbeaten years or even decades after first being locked in someone’s dungeon.

Humans are survivors.

They outlive. Outlast.

When everything looks impossible, the human brain somehow trumps the physical impossibility and pushes the frail flesh farther.

All that said and considered, Mark wasn’t sure that he could survive the second challenge put before him by Kharon.

After the humiliation episode was over, they had taken him to a small bedroom where he had spent part of the night leaning over the toilet in the adjoining bathroom and throwing up. Then he’d spent an hour in the shower trying to cleanse himself from the degradation.

But he had finally fallen asleep. And when he’d awoken…Damia was standing next to his bed. He/she was nude, yet with the decoration of the tattoos and metal studs covering her body, the nudity barely registered with Mark at first.

But Damia didn’t let it rest. She swiveled her hips at his eye level, letting the bluish-pink head of her cock slide back and forth on Mark’s sheets. Taunting him.

“You licked the dick last night pretty good,” she teased. “So how about giving me a little of that lip now?”

Mark shoved her away from his bed and sat up.

“Tease,” Damia complained.

“Fuck off,” he said.

“We’ve got a few minutes,” she said, moving back to the bed and climbing up on the mattress to kneel in front of him. “Let’s fuck off together.”

Mark rolled out of bed and looked for his jeans, hiding his crotch from her view.

“You’re not going to find those here,” the voice from the bed warned. “Kharon won’t allow you to hide yourself from us. We get to see you all the time. All of you. No secrets. Have to say, the view’s not too bad.”

Mark thought about how enjoyable it would be to put both of his hands around that thin neck and strangle the life from Damia until her fruity musical voice was silent for good.

“You’d have a much harder time strangling me than you think,” Damia said. Her voice was dangerously low.

Mark looked back at her and saw that her face held none of the sarcastic, playful humor she normally teased him with. She looked very ready to see him try to do her harm. And he sensed that if he did…despite her willowy form and half-female softness…he’d take the harder fall.

Mark didn’t risk it. He slipped off the bed and used the bathroom. When he came out, he joined the waiting Damia at the door.

“What’s the evil of the day?” he asked, half joking.

“Pain,” she replied, not joking at all.

Once again, Mark followed the leering skull tattoos of Damia’s backside down a long hallway. When their walk began, he’d thought they were in the dark, but soon he realized that there was always a darker place than the place he’d been before. The red haze that had glowed along the floor at the start of their walk soon deteriorated into pitch. Every few yards, a candle sconce lit the walls, which all looked strangely shiny and wet. But in between, the shadows seemed impenetrable. He hurried to keep up with Damia, as sometimes her pale rear disappeared into that blackness, and as afraid as he was of what was to come, he was more afraid of being lost out here in the corridor. There were movements as they passed along, and sometimes, far away, the echo of screams. God knew what lurked in the corners.

“God doesn’t know,” Damia answered his thoughts from ahead.

“Stop doing that,” he said. It was disturbing to know that the freak could tell every thought that went through his head.

“Not every thought,” Damia laughed, answering his head again. “But when your thoughts scream, I can hear you. And if I’m a freak, well…” she stopped and turned, and Mark almost ran into her. She leaned forward and planted a wet kiss on his mouth. “…well then you’re a freak lover!”

Mark wiped her spit off his lips with the back of his hand. “Not by choice,” he said.

“You chose to be here,” she retorted. “You know you want it.”

He opened his mouth to answer, but she put two fingers to his lips. “Later,” she promised. “You can have your way with me then. Now, Kharon is waiting. You don’t want to make him wait. Trust me on this, if nothing else.”

Mark nodded, and Damia motioned for him to step through a dark doorway that exited the hall.

They were waiting.

Twin rows of black-robed figures stood in a line that led down the rough-hewn stone floor. The foreground of the place was shadowed and warm, but Mark could see the orange glow of flames far down the other end. The place seemed to stretch on to infinity, an endless floor of grey-stone bricks and shadowed walls far to the left and right that were lined with wall sconces belching gutters of flame that both lit the room with dancing light and scorched the air with sulphur.

Damia’s cool hands pressed him forward, and Mark walked down the aisle between the figures. They didn’t move as he passed, but he could see the flare of light in their eyes as they watched him walk.

Kharon stood at the end of the aisle. His long pale face was instantly recognizable to Mark from yards away.

“You’ve gone through humiliation for Rae,” Kharon said as Mark drew closer. “But now you must go through pain.”

Kharon gestured to one of the figures at the head of the line of still figures. A large man separated himself from the rest and walked to stand at Kharon’s side. “This is Gordon,” Kharon said. “He’ll be your guide through this maze of hurt. I can guarantee you that he won’t be gentle. Many people in NightWhere bear the scars of his beatings. His wife did not survive them. But in the end, he is just your guide. You will decide how fast and how far you want to go. I have only this warning: There is no going back. Once you begin this path, the only way out is through. If you try to return to where we stand now…you will die.”

Gordon dropped the robe, and Mark could see the stature of the man. His gut was huge, but so were his shoulders. His arms and legs looked thick as stumps, and when he lifted his arm and cracked a whip against the stone floor…the huge room did not absorb the sound. It slapped loud and clear.

Mark looked around at the silent figures. None of them responded to his gaze in any way. He was just about to look back to Kharon when his eyes lit on one pale face beneath the dark hood of a robe. A face that looked familiar. He looked back and caught her eyes and instantly knew that, yes, he’d been right. She, contrary to all the others, met his gaze with a stare that was filled with empathy and hope.

Selena. What was she doing here?

He held her eyes for a moment, and was about to open his mouth to say something when she shook her head from side to side. The movement was quick and faint…but clear.

No. Betray nothing.

He nodded his head once and she smiled, just a hint of upturn to her lips. Then her eyes blinked, and Mark looked back at Kharon.

“Are you ready to face the pain?” the ghoulish man demanded. “I offer you this one last chance to turn around and go back to your little life. Let this all go. Forget about NightWhere. Forget about Rae.”

Mark took a breath. He would have liked nothing more than to have taken a pass on this. He didn’t think he would ever wash the events of yesterday from his mind. Every little while a horrible memory from the pit suddenly popped out of nowhere to flash before his eyes.

He looked away from Kharon and saw Selena staring at him. Her chin moved almost imperceptibly up and down. Yes, she was encouraging. Take the ‘out’.

Mark forced himself to look away from those eyes buried in the shadow of a black cloak.

He had come this far. He was not going to leave Rae at the hands of this…beast. God knows what Kharon had done to Rae already.

“I have to see Rae once more,” Mark announced.

Kharon nodded his head and answered with a sardonic smile. “As you wish.”

He stepped to the side and filled the gap where Gordon had been. Then he pointed towards the glow of fire on the room’s horizon. “Go in and sin.” He waited a moment and then added, “Or die.”

Mark walked past the Watchers and into the shadowed spaces beyond. Behind him, a whip cracked. He ignored it and walked forward, moving towards the orange light ahead. He couldn’t tell if there was a path there or not, but clearly he was meant to move towards the light.

Another crack echoed from behind him, only this one made him double over. The sting of the whip bit in just beneath his left shoulder blade, and the force of its slap pushed him off balance.

He walked faster, but Gordon continued to dole out the lash. It cracked against the right globe of his ass and he could feel the skin blistering with heat. It cracked against his spine and his back cried out in dull, continuing pain afterward. It ripped the skin of his shoulder blades and stung against his thighs. In minutes the entire backside of his body felt molten with heat, and when he walked he could feel the skin stretch and complain, telling him again and again where the whip had been.

Mark quickened his pace, almost running to escape the steady, rhythmic crack of the leather. But the faster he moved, the faster Gordon followed. The man matched Mark step for step.

He looked ahead. The path he walked appeared to be bordered by something just ahead. The darkness grew darker every few feet; something hung ahead in the shadows. Mark broke into a run. He did not want to be whipped anymore. That was Rae’s kink, never his. For a moment he escaped the sting of the whip; the bigger man couldn’t run as fast as he could, and Mark smiled at the little victory.

The murky shadows ahead grew closer and began to take shape as he ran. Almost triangles, the dark shapes peaked at the top and extended on either side lower to the ground. Mark ran towards the one closest to him, hoping to find some kind of shelter or escape from Gordon. But as he finally drew closer and the darkness slipped away, Mark knew that there was no shelter from this. He had found nothing of protection. He’d found, maybe, his own undoing.

The dark shapes were crosses. Great, wooden beams. Like the one that Jesus Christ hung from, only flipped upside down. Mark stopped in front of the one closest to him and stared at the eyeless corpse that hung upside down from the beams. It was a woman, her feet nailed ten feet in the air, her hands held with iron spikes to the wooden crossbeam at waist height above the ground. Her body was red.

Not because it was covered in blood.

But rather because it wasn’t covered in skin. She was a corpse scoured of skin, and her mouth hung open. She drooled, what little blood remained in her veins siphoning out of her mouth.

Not dead long, Mark thought.

He grimaced at the sight of her raw flesh, but the real things that made him sick to his stomach were the black pits of her eyes. A few bits of white skin still clung to the bridge of her nose, but her eyes…they were cut out; no lids covered the pits where her eyeballs once had been. They were just holes, gouged deep into her brain. Something dim and grey leaked from their sockets to drip on the stone below. Mark realized that the cross was anchored in a stone ditch on the side of what had been his path…apparently it was a truly defined path-on either side of him, a row of crosses stretched, anchored in the stone upside down. The end result was that the blood of the victims drained down the wood and into the stone ditches on the side of the road. Mark could see the ditch ran red with a flow of blood; it had to be a couple inches deep as it drained down the slight hill, back towards the edges of the room where he’d first entered.

Something cracked against his right shoulder and Mark cried out, turning around to face Gordon.

“I was just…”

“Do not turn around,” Gordon growled. “Never turn around. You’re looking at those who tried to turn back. If you turn back…there is a cross here for you.”

With that, the leather-clad “guide” sucker-punched Mark. He doubled over and fell to the ground on his ass, lifting his head to stare into the empty eyes of the dead woman. Something crawled in the flesh near her nose, just beneath the surface. He could see the tiny network of veins shift and move as something struggled to escape.

Mark shook his head and rolled to his feet. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he murmured and began to hurry along the path again. The familiar sting of the whip cracked his back again. His bare feet slapped along the uneven stone pavement, passing the flayed flesh of dozens of people who hung upside down, their skin removed, their breasts or genitals dangling from their bodies like raw meat. None of them had eyes-just empty holes in the fleshy decay of their heads. The farther he ran, the less scarlet their flesh became; their heads began to appear blackened and decayed, and some even betrayed the yellowed hint of bone protruding through elbows and the edges of eye sockets.

It was like a marathon through a nightmare. From ahead of him, the smell and sounds of the fire began to grow more palpable, and Mark strained his eyes to the path ahead, pulling his gaze away from the gore along the way.

The crosses did not stop at the fire.

Mark closed the gap quickly, now and then darting left and right to avoid the smack of the whip he knew was coming, and sometimes succeeding. He could hear the heavy breathing of Gordon behind him. The man wasn’t made for this kind of chase. And that gave Mark his only edge. In close quarters, Gordon could easily crush him.

But then again, this wasn’t so much a chase as a herding. According to Kharon, there was no way back. And Mark didn’t suspect there was any way to escape along the way. They were in some hellish dungeon that would only allow exit by running the gauntlet. Painful as that apparently was going to be.

The orange glow that he’d been seeing from a distance since entering the chamber and walking through the row of Watchers was finally at his feet. The air was thick with the smell of ash and cinder. Mark stopped at the edge of the fire pit, though Gordon’s whip did not. Mark cried out as it hit him again. He could feel the flesh turning raw and beginning to bleed in various places on his back. His skin cried out with every shift of muscle now. But he couldn’t go farther.

The path had ended in a sea of orange coals. He could see a stairway dozens of yards ahead, and an ominously high stone wall, but between here and there…was a glowing sea of embers. Smoke hung in clouds above it, almost hiding the rows of crucified corpses in a dismal fog. The crosses continued in a dual row on either side of him, straight into the coals, and the bodies in the midst of the fire pit were blackened and smoking. The scent of burned hair and overcooked meat hung in the air. Some appeared to have had all of their flesh sizzled and burned away; they were nothing but dark skeletons hung from the beams of wood, dusky teeth grinning sickly amid skulls skinned in char.

“Jesus,” Mark whispered again.

“Not here,” Gordon said. “Not here at all.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” Mark said. “So now what?”

“You walk the path of fire,” Gordon said.

“Like hell.”

“Exactly like hell.”

“I meant, there’s no way…”

Mark turned to look at his captor. “I can’t survive walking over that.”

Gordon shrugged. “That’s what they thought, and look at them now.”

“Yeah,” Mark laughed grimly. “They’re dead.”

“What makes you think they’re dead?”

“Well, they…”

Mark looked at the bodies on the crosses, especially those whose heads hung just a couple feet above the glowing coals. As he stared, he realized that now and then, the bodies shifted and jolted. Maybe it was because the flesh was bubbling and burning and popping, as he’d first assumed, but then again maybe…

“No way,” he said.

“We are in NightWhere,” Gordon said. “Kharon told me that the crucified are still alive. They can’t die. They tried to escape the path of pain…and they were punished. Kharon won’t let them die.”

“How can he stop it…”

Gordon lifted the whip and readied himself to crack it. “Walk the fire,” he commanded, and the leather snapped with a resounding crack at Mark’s feet. He jumped and felt the blood well up on the edge of his heel, where the whip had caught.

“Fucker,” he said.

“I can beat on you all day,” Gordon said. “And I’d love to do it.”

With that, he lifted his arm and the whip began to rain down on Mark without pause. The thin leather caught him in the back and the neck and slipped around and ripped against his cheek. Mark screamed in anger and turned on Gordon, grabbing at the leather.

He missed it the first time, and the whip smacked against his chest, leaving an instant red welt across his breast. But the next time Mark was ready; his hands held on to the braided leather and would not let it slip through. He pulled, trying to yank it from Gordon’s grasp. But instead, he only pulled Gordon closer to him. And the bigger man laughed. With one beefy fist, he punched Mark in the mouth.

Mark went down, releasing the whip as he slapped his hands on the hot stone ground, trying to keep from falling into the glowing pit.

“Do you know how these people lost their skins?” Gordon asked.

Mark curled in a ball on the warm stones, protecting his face and cock from the sting. His arms and back and ass absorbed one brutal slap after another.

“I’ll tell you how,” Gordon said, when Mark didn’t answer. “They refused to go through the fire. And instead of having their skin burned off, they had it whipped off…by someone just like me.”

The whip came down again and Mark screamed. “Stop it!”

Gordon grinned. “But I’m enjoying this.” He kicked Mark in the thigh and then again in the back. And then in the ass. With each prod, Mark rolled just an inch closer to the glowing pit of coals. His skin was already red and swelling with the heat coming off the sea of fire.

Fire was actually a misnomer. While there were occasional tongues of flame that erupted from the field ahead, the reality was that the stone path ended in a moat of glowing coals. On the other side of the pit was a stone path that led to a wall and a stairway out of this valley of hell…but to get there…

“You have thirty seconds,” Gordon said. “And then I’m going to start using this. I’d prefer, honestly, that you don’t cross the fire. But that’s your choice. I’ll be here for you, if you stay. And I don’t have to be gentle anymore.”

Mark looked up and saw what Gordon held in his hand. His captor had slipped the whip into a holster on his black leather belt, and now in its place he held a flogger. But at the end of each leather strap, the flogger featured a metal hook.

“I call this the shredder,” Gordon said. “I used to use it on my friend Amelia, and by the end…even I barely recognized her. Funny thing was, a month later, she was always ready for more. I don’t think you are half the woman she was.”

“What happens if I cross the coals?” Mark asked, staring at the ripples of orange and yellow that flickered across the top of the bed of fire.

Gordon shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been here before. But Kharon said that I can’t let you come back, or it will be me walking those coals and hanging from a cross. Believe me, I’d much rather that be you than me.”

Mark made a decision. He crawled to his knees and nodded at Gordon, holding his hand up. “I’ll go,” he said. “Just let me stand up.”

Gordon ran a hand across the sweat of his balding scalp and shrugged his enormous arms. “You have five. Four. Three…”

Mark jumped up and ran. He bolted past Gordon and aimed towards the row of figures he saw still standing far in the distance. The Watchers hadn’t moved. His heart pounded and his breath came hard after all the running he’d already done, but now he felt a sense of victory. He’d ducked the asshole with the whip and the flogger, and he was going to blow past the asshole with the fucking druids from hell down by the doorway and get the fuck out of this goddamned place.

Mark loved Rae, but faced with the glowing fire of the pit…he realized…maybe not quite enough to voluntarily walk through fire for her. Sometimes those love songs about doing anything for your lover exaggerated just a bit.

Sorry, he said in the depths of his heart. I’d like to walk the line. But I can’t.

He ran, until the rough stone disappeared from beneath his bare feet.

Mark hung in midair for a second and then fell five feet to the bottom of a stone pit. The pain was instant.

“Shit!” he screamed, as his leg twisted beneath him and his raw skin slammed against the stone floor at the bottom of the trap. Something trickled underneath his ass, and then he felt a burning sensation.

Gordon looked over the top of the pit. “I’ve got news for you, pal,” the large man said. “The pit is no better than the fire. They pipe acid down this canal every few minutes. And if it touches you… Well…”

Mark could already feel his skin blistering from where a few drops had touched him. He clawed his way up, careful not to step on any of the wet parts of the stone ditch.

He looked down the channel and saw there was more liquid coming, just as Gordon promised. A thin trickle flowed at the center beneath his feet, but down the way…the crest was growing.

“How do I get out?” Mark asked.

Gordon pointed to indentations in the wall a few feet away.

“You can go forward, but you can’t go back. Kharon told you that. If you don’t get out of there in the next couple minutes, you won’t be going anywhere.”

Gordon was right. Already the thin trickle of yellowish liquid at the very center of the brick canal had grown to a six-inch creek. And it was growing every second, the bitter scent of its acid growing with it. Mark watched as it cascaded over the edge of a brick that he’d been standing on just a minute earlier. He shifted his feet and straddled the bottom of the acid canal, making his way over to the wall with the carved stairs.

When he reached it, he quickly pulled himself up and out of the canal. The burn where he’d been touched by the liquid felt like flame, and his skin there was beet red. Behind, the rush of acid sounded like an ocean, as the deadly liquid filled the canal. He stared at the canal and shook his head in disbelief. He’d walked across this place before, and the ground had been flat. Now…there was no way back to Kharon except through the river of acid. And no way forward except the pit of fire. This place was like a Rubik’s Cube, and someone had just shifted a row behind him.

“You have thirty seconds to walk the coals, or I’m going to take all the skin off your ass,” Gordon said. “And frankly, again, I’d rather you stayed right here. I’ve had a shitty week, and I wouldn’t mind taking it out on you.”

“Not interested,” Mark said, daring for a moment to look away from Gordon’s toothy smile to the waves of heat that swam above the orange light beyond. If he took a running start…could he vault himself across the fire in just a handful of steps that didn’t ruin his feet forever?

“Ten, nine, eight…” The rake of steel cut into Mark’s back, and he yelped.

Gordon laughed. “Feel good?”

It didn’t feel good. Mark could feel hot wetness seeping down the crevice of his armpit.

The only way to Rae was forward.

Mark clenched his teeth, stared at the rock path on the other side of the coals, and made his decision.

He ran.

The first step was awful. Sizzling, horrible pain lanced up his calves and Mark screamed. But that was before his other foot set down on the burning coals. He almost fell face-first into the fire, but somehow, that human instinct that says “never give up” kicked in and Mark instead raised his burning right foot and forced it down again onto the fire, propelling himself forward.

Never give up, he screamed in his head, but his feet and calves screamed something else.

They screamed agony.

Mark cried and yelled and felt his skin blister and crack as the pain shot up his heel and toes. The fire was unbearable and yet, if he slowed or stopped, his entire body would be engulfed…face, arms, privates… Mark stayed on his feet three more hideous steps and then the pain was too much. He put his left foot down and it collapsed beneath his weight. But that just made the agony worse.

His knee fell to the fire and Mark put out his hands to stop himself. That’s when the pain really started.

“Oh God,” he cried as the skin of his hands seared and burned, and the hair on his legs curled and smoked, and the fire began to eat him.

He screamed so loud he felt something crack in the depths of his throat.

The wave of heat turned his vision to flame. But Mark refused to die. With some hidden vestige of strength he used the pain to throw himself upright again, and, screaming at the top of his lungs, planted his foot hard on the coals once more, and then again…

The stone path on the other side of the bed of coals felt almost cold as Mark threw himself upon it, shaking and quivering with burning pain. He screamed and cried, and rolled across the stone, every movement opening a deeper pain in his body. He could feel his flesh still bubbling, suppurating, dissolving from the heat he had just forced it to endure.

“Oh God,” Mark cried, as every part of him screamed in agony.

Something shifted behind him, rock grinding against rock. Mark struggled to turn, to look back. He could see Gordon standing on the other side of the fire, watching. And he could see the path that he now lay upon. The path behind him was disappearing. Brick by brick, the perimeter that bordered the fire was letting go, slipping into the pit of coals. He had escaped the fire, but it was not letting him go that easily.

The fire was moving towards him, brick by lost brick.

Mark struggled to move forward, but every movement was fresh agony. His entire body was burned, and his feet and hands and knees still felt as white-hot as when they were on the fire. The pain was hideous and he lay down for a moment, just letting the agony take him. But then the rocks beneath his feet dropped away, and the heat of the coals blossomed up to embrace his feet and ankles.

The pain was hideous and immediate. His feet were in an oven.

Another row of bricks disappeared, and the heat embraced his calves.

Mark slapped his blistered hands to the rock and pushed his body forward, crying the whole time. His breath came in fast, horrible gasps but he forced himself to keep moving. Dull grinding crashes continued behind him, and he knew that the coals were gaining ground. His only hope was to reach the stairs ahead and to pull himself up and out of this hell. He crawled forward, inch by inch, gradually increasing his speed until he was at the wall. The rocks continued to give out; the fire pit was now just a couple yards away from the wall.

Mark looked up at the stairs and saw that they did not actually continue down to the ground. The last step was a good ten feet above the stone floor.

“No way,” he cried. “Not fair.” Tears coursed from his swollen eyes as Mark looked at the only salvation he could see, well out of reach of his hands. “Not fair!”

And then he saw the tunnel near where the base of the steps should have been. A black hole in the wall that kept him close to the fire. Apparently he was supposed to crawl through that.

Mark crawled painfully over to it and looked inside. Behind him, the grinding smash of rock slipping against rock and then falling away continued. The heat on his back grew. And now he could feel it more acutely than ever.

He crawled into the narrow tube, and something poked his arm. He looked down and saw a steel blade, just a half-inch long, protruding from the stone.

“Great,” he thought and pressed on, but then his knee spiked with more than just the pain of burned skin. Then his palm did too.

He stared at the path ahead and saw that it was littered with silvery bits of pain, all protruding from the floor and walls of the passageway. He couldn’t go forward without getting sliced to ribbons.

Another crash of rock. Mark looked behind and saw that the orange bed of coals now extended right up to the entrance of this passage.

Can’t go forward, and now can’t go back.

Mark lay his head down on the stone for a moment and cried. This was not what was supposed to happen. He was supposed to visit the crazy sex club, remind his wife that she was his wife, and go home. They would have some long conversations and again find the thing that had made them get together in the first place. Bad episode in their marriage over.

This was not supposed to have been a trip through hell. A flash of the priest at their wedding crossed his mind and a memory of himself saying, “For better or for worse…”

“I did not sign on for this,” Mark grimaced and then pushed forward. “This is beyond worse.”

There was no help for it, love hurt.

He looked at the blades jutting out from all surfaces of the walls and floor of this ever-narrowing tunnel. There was a faint light ahead, and behind him, the rocks continued to fall away into the fire.

Love hurt real bad.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

A Shade of Being

After Kharon left her, Rae lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She’d never really looked at it before, but now that she did…she saw that it wasn’t just a flat black ceiling. The room had appeared to be painted black to her when she’d first come here, but now…she realized that there was more there.

She had felt from her first time in the room that someone was watching her. Now she knew why. Someone was. Many someones.

The ceiling was covered in pictures of faces. They were incredibly faint. Ghosts. At a glance the ceiling was dark as the night sky but the longer she stared at it, the more the faces became recognizable. Old men and women, children, girls in their twenties and middle-aged men. All of them appeared pensive. Or angry. None of them smiled.

And all of them seemed to be looking right at her.

Rae’s bladder turned cold. Who would put something like that on a ceiling? How could you go to sleep knowing that the ceiling was watching you? She couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it the night before.

She rolled off the bed, not taking her eyes off the faces. But as she did…the eyes followed her. The movement was faint, but it was there.

No way, she told herself. You’re imagining it. Rae walked to the bathroom and watched as all the faces on the ceiling shifted a bit, and the eyes remained trained on her. Wide, unblinking eyes that moved as she moved.

Her fear was realized. The faces were not paintings at all.

They were alive.

Or more likely, they were dead.

“I can’t stay in this room,” she said. Rae pulled a black robe from the closet and quickly tied the sash.

She stepped out of the room and into the hall.

There was nothing there.

Rae could not see anything in front, above or to the sides of her. No light, no walls, no ceiling. She stood in utter blackness, with only the faintest light from the doorway behind her making it possible to see herself.

“Holy shit,” she breathed. Where was everything? She stepped away from the door, holding a hand out in front of her to find the wall she knew had to be there just a few feet away. She stepped carefully, incredibly slowly.

Inches grew to feet and then to yards. She knew that she should have reached the other side of the hallway by now. She looked over her shoulder, and the outline of the door to her room was already beginning to look small. Far away.

“Kharon?!” she called out. Her voice seemed to disappear in the void. No echo. She hardly could hear it herself. The air in this black no-place chilled her skin; she could feel the goose bumps rising all across her thighs and arms. It slipped up the gaps in her robe to the bare skin beneath. The temperature seemed colder somehow than it had just minutes ago when she’d stepped out from her room.

Rae called again and again. And still her voice sounded tiny and faint in the endless black. There was no answer.

The idea that she could become lost here, separated forever from the comfort (if creepiness) of her room, occurred to her, and that made the cold feel even worse. Rae began to retrace her steps. She’d rather be stared at by ghosts than stand out here blind. Lost in nowhere.

Her heart beat faster and she quickened her steps towards the door. What if her doorway disappeared into the black just before she reached it?

What if she never saw anyone or anything again? What if the last light snapped shut and she was trapped here in the total black, with nothing in every direction?

Rae reached out to grab the doorframe as soon as she was close enough. She imagined that it would disappear just as her fingers touched it.

Instead, they slapped against the hard surface and she clutched the doorframe for dear life, at the same time forcing herself to breathe slower. She had begun to hyperventilate.

“Why are you out here?” a voice asked.

Rae jumped. She turned to see the faint outline of a man a few feet away. His eyes seemed to glow in the faint light that escaped her room.

“Kharon,” Rae said. Her voice was filled with relief. “I was looking for you; I was afraid…”

“It’s daytime outside,” he said. “When the sun comes up, the carpets of NightWhere all roll up too. This place only exists at night.”

He took her by the arm and pushed her ahead of him, back into her small apartment. “You’re one of us now,” he said. “You need to sleep now, so that you’re ready for the night. You need to heal all of your hurts and be new again for the dark to flay.”

“My head is killing me,” Rae admitted. “And I’m not sure a few hours’ sleep are going to totally cure it. If I could sleep at all.”

Kharon shook his head. “You’ll wake renewed. We all do. It’s what NightWhere does.”

He led her into the bedroom and untied the sash of her robe. But Rae held his hand from releasing it.

“Wait,” she begged. Then she pointed at the ceiling. “What about them? I can’t sleep with them staring.”

Kharon looked at the faces that were faintly visible across the black of the ceiling. They all clearly were staring at Rae.

“They’re harmless,” Kharon said. “They’re from the Field of Flesh. The faces of those who have gone before.”

“Where did they come from?” Rae asked. “I woke up and they were there…they creeped me out.”

He smiled. “They’ve always been here, you just couldn’t see them before. Now that you’re sleeping in NightWhere, and you’ve been blooded…you’re becoming one of us. Your eyes are opening. You’ll see more and more in the coming days. Your inner eyes are awakening. They won’t hurt you. They’re voyeurs. They only live to see. And there’s just one thing they want to see.”

He pulled her hand from his and drew the robe down past her shoulders, exposing her skin.

“Lie down on your back,” he commanded.

Rae licked her lips. The idea of lying naked below a sea of ghostly faces…

“Lie down,” he said again. His voice left no room for argument.

Rae did as he commanded.

“Pinch the nipples of your breasts,” he said.

She complied, hesitantly. But the thrill that shot through her chest and down her spine quickly alleviated her nervousness. She had never been shy, in fact she got off on being watched. She just wasn’t comfortable with ghosts as her voyeurs.

But the voyeurs clearly were pleased. Their faces all turned to focus on her, beneath them on the bed, and scowls turned to anxious smiles.

“Now show them what they want to see. What they want to do.”

Kharon took one of her arms and guided it towards her thighs. With whitened fingers, he pulled her legs apart, exposing her labia to the crowd above.

Rae slipped one finger inside herself and began to masturbate for the faces of the Field. Heads nodded and eyes brightened.

She had always loved being watched. As she saw the excitement grow in her audience, she began to writhe and moan on the bed for them. She loved being a performer. The faces above answered her with open mouths. From somewhere she began to hear the faint sounds of sexual moans and cries. The fear she’d had at the start faded as Rae realized what they wanted.

They wanted what she yearned to give. She bucked beneath them, wishing in her heart that they could manifest and join her.

Her wish only made the faces above grow more solid and the groans of ecstasy louder. The room was soon glowing with ghostly desire.

Kharon smiled as he watched her work her hips faster. He began to back away from the bed. He nodded to himself. He’d been right about Rae from the start. She was his best student in years.

“Sleep soon,” he whispered, as he stepped out of the bedroom, leaving Rae to perform for the ghosts of those who were rooted here, never able to leave The Red behind. They would gladly spend an eternity, watching.

Chapter Forty

Afterburn

Mark picked his way through the tunnel, struggling to put his hands and knees down on ground that didn’t hold razor edges. The more he focused on keeping his hands safe, the more his back and shoulders and thighs ended up getting nicked and bit by the blades that also pierced the walls and ceiling.

He knew now that he was going to make it. He could see the opening of the tunnel just a few feet away.

Mark wanted to sprint there, but he held himself back, carefully picking his way past the knives that jutted out of the stone on all sides of him. And finally, he arrived-bloody, shaking-at the exit.

He hesitated before putting his hand over the threshold.

Was there some last trap, some guillotine blade that would swing down to punish the foolhardy who leapt over the gap?

Mark felt his body tremble. He couldn’t remain on his hands and knees for much longer. Willpower alone had kept him from collapsing before now. But willpower was running out.

He took a deep breath and extended his hand through the opening, gritting his teeth as he anticipated…something.

Nothing happened.

“Fuck it,” he whispered. “If it kills me, I’ll be better off.” Mark pushed himself out of the tunnel and onto the flat, cool grey stone of an open, empty room.

Nothing happened.

He lay his entire body down on the cold stone and cried. Actually, he did more screaming and swearing than actual crying. His body was an open nerve. His legs and arms sent nonstop, white-hot pain to his brain. The skin felt as if someone held a flame to it, without pause. It hurt like hell to move and hurt even worse to just lie there and feel the throbbing, blistering complaints of his dying flesh. Add to that the flaying he’d received on the way to the fire pit, and the dozens of nicks and deeper cuts that covered his back and legs and arms where the tunnel’s obstacle course of blades had beat him, and there wasn’t any place on his body that didn’t scream from abuse.

He had made it through the tunnel of blades before the fire caught up with him, but now, he wasn’t sure how long he would actually survive to enjoy the victory. Mark couldn’t move. His eyes were swollen nearly shut, and his hands were thick with blood. The cuts were not closing, and he had nothing to wrap them in. If he could even move enough to bandage himself.

In his mind, Mark pictured Rae as she’d been when they’d first met. A pretty, quick-witted, funny girl. She’d seemed a little shy that first date, when they’d gone to see a bad Nicholas Cage movie and he’d kissed her afterwards in the car outside of her apartment. Her lips had been warm and full against his, and he’d breathed in her breath like the sweetest fragrance. The memory of that first kiss, of the more tentative girl she’d once been…that was the Rae that he still loved with all of his heart. That was the Rae that he knew still existed, somewhere beneath the scarred skin of her back and the demanding sexual creature who simply could never get enough anymore. Of anything.

She’d been descending in a spiral of degradation for years now, but NightWhere had found whatever that last barrier was in her soul…and had stripped it away completely. Mark juxtaposed the image of first-date Rae with the pain slut he’d watched the past few times at the club, and prayed that after all this, there was still something left of the Rae he’d fallen in love with to bring home.

“Having second thoughts,” a high-pitched voice taunted. “Maybe in the end, she really wasn’t ‘all that’?”

Damia.

Mark struggled to lift his head. He blinked one eye open in a swollen squint. The hermaphrodite stood just a couple feet away, hands on hips. Behind Damia, he saw a row of black-robed feet. Kharon stepped to the front. “You’ve passed two of your three trials,” he said. “But the next may be the hardest of all.”

“I can’t move,” Mark hissed.

Damia and Kharon reached down and grabbed Mark beneath his armpits, dragging him upright. He let out a horrible scream as the balls of his feet touched the stone and tried to accept some of his weight. The blisters that ballooned from the skin that wasn’t completely charred black burst and wet the floor around his heels.

They walk-dragged him down a long stone hallway with walls that glistened red in the dim hellish light. Then Damia took him completely into her arms and held him against a stone wall as a shower of water cascaded from somewhere overhead. Where it touched his skin, Mark felt a strange mix of both ice and fire, but his screams of anguish diminished to coughs and moans…his vocal chords were shot. He didn’t even try to open his eyes anymore, he simply hung against Damia’s breasts and let the water wash the blood away.

A few minutes later, he was lying in a bed, shaking so hard his teeth rattled. Mark struggled to open his eyes, but they seemed locked together. The pain screamed inside him, but he couldn’t let it out…he was locked inside himself with the waves of agony.

“Sleep,” a voice somewhere said. “Let it go now.”

Chapter Forty-One

Plea

Kharon stood outside in the dark. The shapeless, formless black of nothing roiled all around. Daytime had come, and NightWhere slept. Mostly.

Another cycle of sin delivered. Kharon never tired of the nighttime. He existed to lead people into the dark. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The air of limbo was chill and heavy. He savored the moment of solitude. They were few for him; he needed to sleep soon to be ready for a new cycle, and once he woke…NightWhere was demanding.

“Let him go,” a voice behind him begged.

Kharon opened his eyes in surprise. Nobody disturbed him at this secret moment between the death of night and the birth of day.

She stood nearby, pale skin aglow in the black.

He smiled and slowly shook his head. “He demanded to be here,” Kharon said. “I explained to him what the toll would be. I offered him the chance to turn back.”

“He doesn’t understand, not really,” she said. A tear glistened on the marble of her cheek. A liquid ruby against the pale marble of her skin.

“He has free will. He made his decision. I cannot make you leave, but you cannot interfere. If you do… Then you lose-eternally. I will make sure you decorate a cross in the pit and no one will be able to stop me. Do not go beyond your bounds. His path is nearly done. For better or worse.”

“You mock those words,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he grinned. “Yes, I do.”

Chapter Forty-Two

Lesson Three

Mark opened his eyes to a room that glowed faintly from the corners of the floor and ceiling. The room’s edges bled a reddish light, enough to lift the darkness and wreathe the walls in bloody shadow. Everything seemed blurry at first, and he wondered for a split second where he was before he reached up to wipe his eyes.

He realized as he did so that he could reach up to wipe his eyes.

Without help. Or pain.

The events of the last night flashed in his head and he took a deep breath. The pain had been…unbearable. He had been sure that despite making it through the fire and blades, he was a dead man once he reached the other side. So much of his body had been burned, so much blood lost… Hesitantly, he tried to move his legs.

They slid across the cool silk of the sheets without problem. They felt a little achy maybe, but no more so than after any good, deep night’s sleep. He felt rested. As the fog completely cleared, Mark realized that he felt…good.

He sat up.

No pain.

Mark held his arms out, palms up, and studied them in the faint light. When he’d exited the tunnel of blades, his forearms had been covered with blood, and the palms of his hands had been hamburger.

Now? They were clean. The skin unbroken.

Had he dreamed it all? The whole scenario seemed ridiculous when you thought about it. What sex club would really have moats of fire and acid tucked in its back hall…or a tunnel designed to kill you with a thousand cuts by the time you reached the other side?

Had they slipped him a hallucinogenic?

Mark stared closer at his hands. The normal, familiar creases extended from his wrists up to the center of the palm and then slipped across in a double-lined fold at the center.

But there were other marks on his hands as well. A lattice of pale-pink lines. And on his left hand, a faintly puckered circular pattern. As he stared, he remembered putting that hand down right on top of a blade protruding from the floor. He’d only seen it as the edge was slipping past the skin and into his palm. The pain at lifting that hand back off the knife had been excruciating.

The cut was healed. It looked like a scar from years before.

Mark slipped his feet off the bed and stood up, staring down at his legs, which also, on the surface, looked unblemished. But when he bent over, he could see that parts of the skin, where it had literally been burned away, were paler than the rest. He saw the faint pink scars where the blades had cut beneath the dark hair of his legs.

“How long have I been asleep?” he whispered.

Something moved in the other room.

Mark turned towards the sound just in time to see the glint of red light flicker off a couple dozen silver studs and posts decorating the otherwise flawless skin of a hermaphrodite’s shoulders and ears.

“Did you dream about me?” Damia asked with a knowing lilt. “No worries, I’m here for you!”

“No,” Mark refuted. “But how long was I out-last night I was…”

“A bloody mess?” Damia finished for him. “Yes, you were. But a good night’s sleep in NightWhere cures everything. If you survive the night…you’ll be just fine the next morning. One of the perks, you know.”

Mark shook his head. “No, I didn’t know. But how…”

Damia stepped closer, pushing her chest out until the studded tips of her nipples brushed against his. “Don’t ask,” she said, lifting her mouth to cover his. Mark felt something warm and hard move against the skin of his thigh, and felt a surge of disgust. He pushed her away. “No,” he said.

“Still not ready for the best, huh?” she grinned. She pinched a nipple with one hand and held up a turgid penis with the other. “I guess I’ll have to take you to the rest then. Last chance.”

Mark shook his head.

“Suit yourself. You would have enjoyed me a lot more than what you’re about to do. Trust me.”

Mark said nothing, but followed the tattooed skulls for the third time down a dark hall. They passed the room they had entered on the first day, and Mark recognized the doorway that they had entered last night.

He slowed down a moment to look inside, but there was nothing there…just darkness, with the hint of an orange glow far away.

“I know how you enjoyed it, but we’re done there,” Damia joked. She slipped a hand around his wrist and pulled.

Mark grabbed at the doorframe and missed. But his hand slid along the wall and felt something warm and wet there. When he pulled it away, his palm was slicked in red.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Just what it looks like,” Damia laughed. “It flows from the flaying beds to irrigate all of our walls. Pain is the lifeblood of NightWhere.”

Mark stared at his hand in disgust. With no place to clean it, he finally wiped it off on his thigh.

Damia walked on. The corridor grew narrower, the ceiling constricting until it was just above their heads. At times, Damia ducked as she walked to avoid a gnarled outcropping in the rock.

Mark was more aware than ever of how the walls glistened…he imagined Damia and he were microscopic, walking inside a vein.

The corridor ended in a doorway. It looked heavy and medieval-dark, rough-hewn boards held together by dark iron strips. Damia pulled it open and waved Mark inside. “It’s time for you to do your part to keep our corridors wet,” he/she said.

Mark shivered at the words. He didn’t like the sound of that.

The room was a torture chamber. Unlike the last two places they had taken him, which had seemed to extend on and on, this room was very contained. Maybe fifteen feet long in one direction and twenty in the other.

A circle of the robed figures stood just ahead. As Mark stepped forward, the front of the circle parted to reveal what was at the center.

A woman. She was nude, but appeared to have been painted; her skin was black as pitch. Her head was covered in a burlap bag that was tied with twine around her neck, and the NightWhere logo of a snake curled in a spiral to eat its own tail was painted across the midnight color of her belly in red. Her arms were tied above her head to a pole. Her ankles were also fastened.

Kharon stepped out of the mob. His ghoulish face showed what was supposed to be a smile, Mark thought. Yellowing teeth spread beneath lips so pale they appeared grey.

A corpse smile, he thought.

“Humiliation,” said Kharon. “Pain.”

The Watcher stepped closer to Mark and wrapped long coffin-ready fingers around Mark’s wrists. His touch was cold as the grave and hard as bone. Mark couldn’t help but see the ribs pressing through the man’s parchment-thin skin, or the blue veins that protruded across the man’s chest and waist where he was poorly covered by the robe.

“You’ve passed the trials where your own life was the toy. Today, you’ll need to use another. We have a willing victim here for you. She needs to be defiled. We have drawn you the map of her degradation. It remains up to you to complete.”

“And if I do, you’ll finally let me see Rae?” Mark asked.

Kharon nodded. “You will see her if you do this. But I warn you…she will not see you as the knight in shining armor you think you are being. She is happy here. And she is trying to complete her own final steps towards the place she has always yearned to go.”

“I’ll take that risk,” Mark said.

Damia stepped forward and pressed a black leather whip into Mark’s hand. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she laughed.

Kharon turned the woman so that her naked back and ass faced Mark. “Whip her until her flesh melts beneath your power.”

Mark gulped. How far did they expect him to go?

“Remember what you looked like at the end of yesterday?” Damia whispered in his ear. Her eyes flared with excitement. “That’s what you’re going to do today…to her.”

He raised the leather and snapped it forward. The end landed with a flat slap against the woman’s shoulder blades. She didn’t flinch.

“You’ll need to step it up a notch,” Damia laughed from behind him. “Or we’ll be here for a year.”

Mark pulled his arm back and snapped the whip harder the next time, and this time it actually did make a cracking sound. Where it touched the moon of the woman’s ass, the black paint flaked away, and the paler skin beneath bloomed red.

“Better,” Damia said. “But still pathetic.”

Mark pulled back and let the leather go again, and again, each time growing a little harder and firmer in his delivery, and slowly beginning to cover the woman’s back in hurt.

“I don’t see anything yet,” Damia taunted. “Are you kissing her with that thing, or flogging?”

Mark rolled his eyes. He wasn’t used to handling a whip, and he didn’t really want to hurt this woman either.

“Unless you find a way to enjoy the hurting…you’ll never pass this trial,” Damia whispered in his ear.

Mark was sweating now, the exertion of handling the whip made his armpits and chest grow damp, but still he struggled to hit harder. He tried to imagine the woman not as some innocent stranger, but rather as Kharon, or Damia…people whom he wanted to hurt.

The gambit worked.

The more he thought about Damia’s cartoonish back in front of him, the harder he was able to make the whip snap. Weals of red began to pinstripe the woman’s back, and when one blow landed perfectly across the woman’s snow-white ass, the skin instantly changed color-from the faux black to a more human-hurt purple-and a moment later, a spot of blood appeared at the top of the mark.

Behind him, Mark heard voices begin to chant. He couldn’t tell what they said, but it seemed ritualistic. Maybe demonic. Certainly rife with evil.

From somewhere deep within the walls a steady pounding began as well. It echoed through the small room like a heartbeat, steady and slow.

Mark’s arm began to tire, but Kharon urged him on. “Speak your thoughts,” the ghoulish creature urged. “Tell us about the pain you inflict. Tell us why you defile this woman.”

“I…want…to…whip you…to death!” Mark said, slamming the whip harder and harder into the woman’s back. Blood now broke from several places on her skin, dripping down her shoulder blades and ribs as he beat her, while explaining through clenched teeth, “If this were you, Kharon, I’d…be…happy!”

Two hands grabbed Mark at the waist and ran down his thighs.

“What, you don’t want to whip me to death?” an annoyingly feminine rasp asked, while a tongue wet the back of his knee.

“If I could…Damia…” Mark promised, “…I would…kill you.”

The whip was hitting the body wetly now. The woman’s back ran with blood, and Mark could see the deep red lines that bit down beneath the skin-carved canals in her flesh.

The woman flinched, but never screamed. Mark wondered at one point if she was truly even conscious.

But then two robed figures stepped forward and took the woman by the shoulders, turning her around to face him.

Mark’s breathing was now coming hard, and he bent over, struggling to catch his breath.

Damia stepped up to the woman, ran a finger down her back and held the finger up, dripping with blood. Then the hermaphrodite used it to draw a circle around her sex.

“Let’s see how well you’ve mastered the whip,” Damia said. “When you hit the bull’s eye, we’ll move on to the next stage of our little…game.”

“Jesus,” Mark said. “I can’t hit her there. C’mon.”

“You’re going to quit now?” Damia taunted. “I knew you’d never go through with this. Rae is better off where she is-without you.”

“Fuck you,” Mark said and pulled his whip arm back. As he did, he felt something tug against the leather. He looked back to see one of Kharon’s helpers holding the last tail of the whip. A black-haired woman with deathly white fingers fastened something silver to the edge of the whip.

A metal hook.

“Time to go fishing,” Damia said. “Remember, the faster you hit it, the faster you quit it!”

Mark felt a sinking sensation in his groin. The first time he hit this woman, he was going to rip her skin. And to hit the place he was supposed to…with a hook? Jesus fuckin’ Christ! His arm felt frozen in place…he couldn’t do this.

“Rae never loved you,” Damia whispered behind him. “She only loved to be defiled. Think about that…marrying you was her way of being degraded…”

Mark struck out with the whip without thinking. The anger took him over. The hook caught just to the left of the woman’s belly button, but instantly pulled free, a trickle of blood flowing in its wake.

“Nice shot, Sherlock. Maybe aim next time? You didn’t even hit the circle!”

The next slap caught her above the belly, beneath her left breast. A jagged wound appeared as soon as Mark pulled the whip back. He held the whip in his hands for a moment then, and stared at the three-hooked implement that was tied with a heavy filament to the end of his whip. It really was just an old-fashioned, three-pronged fishhook.

“If that were me up there, would you miss?” Damia asked. Her voice was a seductive tease in his left ear.

“No,” Mark growled and readied his arm to release the whip once more.

He caught her five more times across the belly and with one horrible strike hooked her breast, stretching the skin out taut before the flesh released the hook and began to drip blood, down across her belly and down across the target Damia had drawn in the woman’s own blood.

With each miss, the woman’s body shook, and when the hooks caught her breast, she did give out a faint, gurgled scream.

And then Mark held his arm back and took a deep breath, really focusing before he let the whip go. The slap of the end of the leather hit right between her legs, in that narrow cleft where every man wanted to go, and where now, none would enter without seeing the scar that Mark had made. When he pulled the whip back, setting the hook and then gouging her as he called it back, there was skin stuck to the hooks, and the delta of the woman’s crotch instantly blossomed in angry red.

Someone stepped up and took the whip from Mark’s hand, replacing it with the hilt of something heavy. He brought his arm down and saw that he now held a black-handled dagger.

The robed figures moved as one and released the woman from the pole. Her arms fell from above her head like dead weight, and she clearly needed support as the group escorted her to a stone table in the middle of the room, behind the pole she’d been tied to.

They lifted and laid her on her back. Damia took Mark by the elbow and led him to the table. “Now comes the fun part,” she said. Mark didn’t like the way she emphasized the word fun.

“You’ve made your mark on her backside, but now you must make our mark on her front. She will forever be marked as a sacrifice to NightWhere.”

Mark looked at the hermaphrodite with total incredulity. He held up the knife. “Are you suggesting that I cut her with this?”

“Not just cut her,” Damia clarified. “You will follow the pattern we have drawn on her belly. And please don’t make any mistakes…you only get one shot at something like this.”

“I’m not going to stab somebody,” Mark said. “I could kill her!”

“Don’t stab too deep then.”

The Watchers moved and stood in line on either side of the table. The woman lay still. Mark held the tip of the knife to the top of the spiral snake. His hand shook visibly.

“Cut her,” Kharon commanded. “Use her flesh as your own. She is nothing. Clay to mold. Make her in our image.”

He’d come this far and already had turned the woman’s back into a bloody, torn mess. If he could keep his cuts very shallow, he wouldn’t hurt her too badly. And then this nightmare would all finally be over. Mark took a deep breath and pushed the edge of the knife against the woman’s skin. It resisted only for a second, and then the blade sank in. The blade was sharp. A thin trail of red instantly bloomed around the edge of the knife, and Mark struggled to keep its contact with her skin very gentle. He only wanted to break the skin, not go deeper.

He moved it a few inches, beginning to make the first arc, when Kharon stepped forward and put a hand on his wrist. “Cut her, don’t tickle her.”

“I don’t want to kill her,” Mark said.

“She is aware of the risk. Press harder. I want to see her flesh part.”

Mark’s heart beat harder, and he felt the tears well up in his eyes. He had done a lot of things in his life that he was ashamed of. He had done a lot of things that he really didn’t want to do.

Nothing had prepared him for this.

Mark pressed the knife in farther, and the woman on the table moaned. The blood flowed out from around the blade now, heavily. Drips poured over her side and spattered the rock slab.

“Much better,” Kharon said. Then he began to speak. The words were guttural, foreign, but the rest of the robed figures apparently knew them. They soon joined in, until the small room echoed with the sound of chanting in unison.

To Mark, the words sounded evil.

He pressed the knife along the snake drawn on the woman’s belly, and gulped as the blood flow increased. He could see the flesh pulling apart under his knife, opening an inch deep to reveal her insides.

Sweat poured down his sides and tears wept absently down his face.

Mark cut.

And then the knife seemed to disappear inside her as he pulled it around the final curve near her belly button. Blood sprayed out and pooled across her middle, before flowing to the table. The woman screamed faintly beneath the burlap, and Mark could see the pink of her guts inside…the blade had slipped through her dermis to breach her belly.

“Oh shit,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

He drew the blade out and stepped back from the table.

The chanting rose to a fever pitch as the woman’s cries grew. At last Kharon raised his hands, and the room went silent.

“She is ours,” Kharon announced, as four of his followers went to each corner of the table. “Now make her yours.”

Damia suddenly curled around Mark’s leg, brushing her breasts against him. With a cool hand, she stroked his penis, which despite Mark’s wishes, instantly grew erect.

“Take her,” Damia said. “Use her for your pleasure.”

Mark shook his head. “No, I can’t. We need to get her a doctor-one of those cuts is too deep. She’s going to bleed to death.”

Kharon shook his head. “She will have no help until your defilement is finished.”

Mark hesitated, and then realized that the only way to end this was to go through it. Protesting would only lengthen the time it took to get help.

He put his foot on a step at the foot of the table and crawled above the woman. “I’m sorry,” he said again and again as he positioned and pressed himself inside her. She was warm and wet. Lubricated by her own blood. As he pushed his body against her, the blood flowed faster from her belly, and Mark’s own stomach was quickly coated in the sticky warmth of her blood.

“Make her yours,” Damia urged. “Take her deeply.”

Mark stared at the black-painted breasts and the red snake cut below them and felt his cock respond to the horror in a way he would never have guessed. He was incredibly hard now, and his motion increased as he surrendered to the primal act. The woman groaned with each thrust, and soon Mark’s own moans joined hers, and he let go, spasming again and again until he was gasping for breath.

When at last he pulled back, the blood had smeared across all of her stomach and chest, washing much of the black paint away. He could see the true color of bloody, tan skin beneath the crimson.

“Get her a doctor,” Mark demanded.

“There is just one more thing you must do,” Kharon said. “Stand and wash her clean.”

“Give me a washcloth then,” Mark said.

There was laughter.

Kharon shook his head. “You were washed clean by all of us not so long ago. You have the means. Use it.”

Mark knew instantly what he meant. He shook his head. “I’ve done enough.”

“Her defilement is not complete until you have shown her how low she is to you. Worthy only of being your receptacle. Do it now.”

“I want to see Rae,” Mark said.

“When you finish here,” Kharon said. “Not before.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mark whispered.

“Not here,” Damia laughed. “I told you that.” With her hands she pushed him to stand upright above the bloody woman on the table.

“Wash the night from her,” Damia said. “And she will be reborn to NightWhere.”

Mark struggled to do as they demanded. But nothing came. He remembered all of those times he’d stood at a urinal and been flanked by men on either side and found it impossible to go…and sometimes had left without doing anything, only to return five minutes later.

He closed his eyes and tried to focus. And eventually…he felt his tubes open. When at last he released, he opened his eyes and watched his penis dissolve the black paint from the woman fully. It washed away even faster than it seemed it should have, until the woman on the table was no longer painted in anything but her blood and Mark’s piss. Kharon walked to the head of the table and untied the burlap sack from around her head, as his helpers released her arms and legs.

“I promised you that if you completed the three levels of NightWhere, you would see your wife once more,” Kharon said. “Here she is.”

Mark looked down in horror as Rae’s face stared up at him from the bloody mess he had made of her body. Her brow was creased in pain, but there was a trembling smile on her face.

“Oh my God, Rae, I didn’t know.”

He dropped to his knees and put his hand on her hair. “I would never have done this if I’d known it was you.”

“I know,” she whispered. “That’s why they covered my face. I wish that I could have watched.”

He leaned down to kiss her. She allowed him, but did not respond.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said. “Let me take you out of here now. You need a doctor.”

Rae shook her head and pushed Mark to lie down on the slab. She rolled herself on top of him, gasping with pain as she did, as fresh blood oozed out all along the circle of the NightWhere snake.

“I’m not leaving here,” she warned, her voice hitching in pain with each word. She ground herself against his crotch, her eyes rolling back in her head as she did. She gave out a handful of guttural moans that were as filled with anguish as pleasure. To Mark she sounded hideous, but when Rae finally focused and looked down into Mark’s eyes again, she smiled.

“Thank you, baby. I have only one more trial to pass before I can go into The Black.”

“What is that?” Mark asked.

Damia stepped forward to the table and helped slip two white gloves over Rae’s hands. When the hermaphrodite stepped away, Mark saw that each of Rae’s fingertips ended in silver. The gloves had claws.

Triangular, razor-sharp blades. As the weapons registered, Mark felt hands grab his ankles and wrists.

“This is the fun part I was talking about earlier,” Damia said. “I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

She gestured to a dark corner of the room, and a figure stepped forward. Mark could have sworn she was not in the room before. “This is the Night Mother, our Midnight Queen. Yvonna,” Damia said. “She has been waiting for this for a long time.”

Yvonna was beautiful.

And horrible.

Her skin was black as pitch; Mark couldn’t tell if she’d been painted as Rae had been, but she looked just as strangely black. The thrust of her nipples was only slightly less dark than the midnight of her skin. The sign of the snake was tattooed on her midsection in the same way that Mark had carved it into Rae. But the image of the snake repeated itself over and over across her cheeks and forehead and arms and legs. Tiny snakes were visible on her eyelids and when she raised her hands Mark saw that even her palms were scored with the snake.

Mark struggled briefly against the hands that gripped him, and Damia continued speaking as Yvonna stepped closer. Damia reached up to stroke Rae’s cheek.

“Her final trial is that she must have sex with your corpse and take your death seed inside her as she feeds your life to Yvonna,” Damia said. The playful lilt of her voice no longer sounded filled with wry humor. She was unsmilingly serious. “Corpse seed will be Rae’s danake-her coin-to enter the door of fire and truly belong to the night.”

Yvonna smiled, revealing ice-white teeth that shone strangely against the black of her skin. She looked like some kind of denuded demon covered in dark symbology.

Rae flexed her steel-clad fingers and smiled down at Mark’s face.

“You always said you’d give your life for me,” she said, her voice a playful whisper. “Well, honey…now I want it.”

Chapter Forty-Three

Breaking Dawn

Mark looked back and forth between the sigil-covered demon-woman, Yvonna, and his blood-spattered, demonically grinning wife. He wasn’t sure how she could even be kneeling upright with all of her wounds. He could see the pink coils of her intestines through the slit in her belly. Yet she was not only upright, she was menacing. Rae reached down with her forefinger and drew its blade across his chest. She didn’t press, yet instantly a line of crimson welled on his skin.

“I won’t take too long, I promise,” she grinned, moving her legs to straddle him, getting in position for the fuck of his life. And death.

Mark made a sudden lunge with his hip, knocking Rae off balance. She gave out a cry of pain as her wounds gaped open. She fell to her side. As the Watchers were distracted for a second by Rae’s fall, he yanked his right hand out of the grip that held it, slamming the Watcher hard against the edge of the table with his sudden pull.

As the Watchers grabbed at his arm to restrain him again, Mark wrapped his fingers around the dagger that he’d used on Rae. He swung it in an arc across the side of the table, slicing arms and hands that reached for him. Rae grabbed him around the neck, trying to pull him down. Mark looked up once at her eyes, and saw a woman that he had never seen before.

She looked hateful. Murderous. The love that he had once imagined in her face was completely gone. She only wanted him for one thing.

Mark was willing to sacrifice a lot for Rae. He’d already given more than he thought possible. But he didn’t intend to give her his life.

He stabbed her in the chest with the knife, and she screamed in anger, falling back. Then he sliced the wrist of the Watcher holding his other hand, and leapt forward off the table right at the two who held his feet.

After two quick stabs, they released him and Mark didn’t waste a second. He ran for the door without looking back.

He sprinted down the long corridor, past the rooms of pain and degradation, and darted through an open arch to a small foyer where dozens of candles burned. Noise grew behind him. Mark yanked open the heavy wooden door and then pulled it shut behind him.

He recognized the room as soon as he stepped into it.

The Blue Room. He’d managed to get back to the front facade of the club. He now knew that this was just a false face-the real NightWhere was behind the medieval doors. In The Red and The Black. The Red seemed to be just another word for hell. Mark did not want to find out what The Black was. Though Rae seemed determined to get there.

The outer room of the club was alive with people still. They danced in a half-clad bacchanal to the gothic tones of the band, and a handful of people were lined up to get drinks from Sin-D’s bar. The bartendress looked up as he took stock of the club, and her eyes widened when she saw him.

Mark didn’t waste time. He bolted to the front door, pushing aside the ever-present doorman as the pale man’s long fingers grabbed futilely at his shoulder.

“You can’t go out now,” Tailor insisted, but Mark threw himself against the door and forced his way through.

“I have to,” Mark said.

“Wait!” someone screamed from the club, but Mark pulled the door shut. Then he turned around and looked at where he’d ended up.

Instead of leading outside, the exit from NightWhere had put him in another room. This one had a large window on one side, and a desk and rolling chair on the other. It appeared to be someone’s office. Only, the chair lay on its side, and the window was so dirty you could barely see outside. It didn’t look like a place that had been used in a long, long time.

Mark ran to the door on the other side and turned the knob, but it wouldn’t open. And the lock appeared to be on the other side. There was no button to press or knob to twist to unlock it from within.

Behind him, the door opened up and Tailor stepped out. “You can’t leave,” the doorman said. “Come back inside.”

Mark laughed. “No fuckin’ way.”

He grabbed a paperweight from the desk and threw it as hard as he could. It caught Tailor right in the forehead, and the doorman collapsed with a grunt to his knees.

Mark grabbed the chair from beneath the desk and lifted it over his head. With a yell of anger, he flung it against the window. The glass exploded and a cool draught of dawn rushed into the room. The doorman was getting to his feet, and Mark righted the chair from where it had fallen sideways on the floor. Then he stepped up on the chair and jumped like a diver to arc through the window.

He landed with a whoof of expelled breath on a patio paved in red brick. His shoulder felt raw, but he didn’t slow to look at the damage. Already he saw a half-dozen Watchers reaching through the broken window a few feet above. He ran away from the window as somebody leapt out behind him. He realized absently that he’d fallen into a courtyard. On the far side, he could see the dark opening of an alcove and he ran to duck through it. Behind him he heard the slap of feet against the pavement.

Mark threw himself into the dark alcove, praying that there would be a door to the outside.

“Over here,” a voice called from his left. “Hurry.”

He looked in the direction of the voice and saw a figure standing there at a doorway. One hand was on the knob while her other motioned him closer. “They’ll catch you if you don’t come now.”

Mark only took a millisecond to realize that whether this was a trap or not, it was his only option. There was no other exit from the alcove and the Watchers were right behind him. Damia ran in the middle of a crowd of six black-robed Watchers. The white of her skin stood out against the night and the robes. And as Mark turned, they entered the alcove with him. He launched himself to the door as hands grabbed for his waist.

Mark swung his fists backwards at his pursuers as he ran forward, thwarting the grabbing hands with punches. He threw himself through the door, landing off balance on the floor just inside. It slammed shut behind him and he heard the metallic click of a lock setting just before the air was filled with the hammering thuds of fists pounding on the outside of the door.

“Shit,” he gasped, raising himself to a crouch. “Thanks.”

Then he squinted in the dark, trying to make out the face of his savior. The place was too dark, but hands slipped gently around his shoulders and helped him back to his feet.

“Come on,” a feminine voice said. “The lock won’t hold them for long.”

“Why are you helping me?” he asked.

She put an arm around his waist and walked him quickly down a dark hall.

“Because you tried to save her,” she said. “That was a really loving, selfless act. But you could never have saved her. Those who have chosen The Black…are already damned. But you…you still have a chance. I want to help you get clear of all this.”

She pulled him forward, pressing against his back as they navigated the shadowed hall. It was as if they were racing through a tunnel, with a light of salvation at the far end. A few yards ahead, Mark could now just make out the outline of a door. The grey light of dawn filtered in through its small window. As they got closer, Mark could finally see a little bit of his surroundings. He looked up at the woman who guided him and instantly knew her familiar pale-white face. She was almost albino. Beauty in shades of cream.

Her eyes were filled with fear.

“Hurry,” Selena said.

“I am,” he said.

“If they catch us, they will kill both of us.”

Selena pulled him through the door. Mark looked around, disoriented for a moment. For the first time in hours his world wasn’t masked in shadows and dimly lit by bloodred light. He was able to see his surroundings clearly. The first rays of the morning crept over the horizon and reflected off the quiet rush of the canal nearby. He looked back at the building they’d just exited and knew exactly where they were. The abandoned fuel refinery on Kedzie. He used to pass this on the way to work each day. They were at the edge of Blue Island. Behind the door stretched an office building and beyond that was a steel castle of tanks and towers that belched white smoke into the crisp air.

“Come on,” he said. “We need to follow the canal up to town.”

They broke into a run along the sidewalk. Behind them, Mark heard the slap of other feet on the pavement. They rounded the office building and Mark led the way left, towards the gate in the complex’s perimeter fence. He pointed as they ran. “There are some businesses just a few blocks away. We can get help there.”

Selena followed him through the gate, and they had only gone a few yards down the sidewalk outside the refinery when Mark realized the sounds of pursuit had died away. He darted a look behind them and saw nothing but fence and empty asphalt. He slowed his run to a walk.

“Where did they go?”

“It’s dawn,” she said. “They need to close the club. There’s no point in drawing attention to this with a crowd of half-naked people running down the city streets. They know how to find you. They can always find you. They’ll be back.”

Mark shrugged. “Then I guess I’d better get ready.”

Selena looked him up and down once. “I’d suggest that first you’d better get some clothes.”

Chapter Forty-Four

Breaking Down

Rae cried. But every tear hurt. Her body was racked with pain so extreme she couldn’t move. She curled up on the stone table and called for Kharon. After Mark had run, the room had emptied, all except for Rae. As her face pressed against the cold stone, she felt her heart pumping louder in her chest. Struggling.

Her breath came in short, hard gasps.

While Kharon had been in the room, she’d felt electrified with power. Now she could feel her life slipping away. It was hard to keep her eyes open, and when she stared at the blood-drenched walls, her vision fuzzed and faded.

She blinked and forced herself to breathe.

A burning hand stroked her hair, drawing the sweating, bloodied strands away from her eyes.

Rae looked into the black eyes of Yvonna. The Night Mother smiled faintly at her, with blackened lips. Then she leaned down to kiss Rae.

As the strange woman’s lips touched her own, Rae felt her pain and fears melt away. A heat built in her mouth and bled like a wave of honey down the back of her throat. The excruciating pain in her abdomen slowly turned to a pleasant burn; at the same time the acid-hot burning in her crotch and across her back where the skin had been ripped away faded to a pleasant hum of feeling.

Rae felt adrift on a buzz of pain and pleasure, mixed up and cross-wired. She sighed as Yvonna’s face pulled away.

“I’m dying,” Rae whispered.

“Not yet,” Yvonna promised. She pressed two black fingertips, each one emblazoned with a tiny snake, to Rae’s eyelids, nudging them closed.

“Sleep,” she whispered.

Chapter Forty-Five

A New Plan

The dumpster top was bulging; clearly pickup day was near. Mark threw the lid back and looked for something he could use. Cars were beginning to pass by on the street out front; he could hear the quiet rush of the occasional vehicle echo through the alley. Selena stood like a sentinel nearby, clad only in a black robe.

But Mark was clad in nothing, and he needed to remedy that so that they could find a way back to his house. Just a few blocks from the refinery was a strip mall that held a pizza joint, a 7-Eleven, a tailor and a cleaners. He was betting on some refuse from the latter two to cover at least some of his skin.

He leaned against the cold green metal of the dumpster and shivered. He hated to touch the garbage bin with his bare skin, but what choice did he have? He pushed aside some boxes and a plastic garbage bag. Something smelled bad as he pushed the refuse around inside, and he prayed that he’d find some scrap of cloth or discarded pants before he found the reason for the stench.

Bingo!

Just behind a coffee carton, he saw a bundle of dark blue. Mark hung over the side of the dumpster and fished it out. He tossed it on the pavement and then went back in for more. There were several balled-up bits of clothing.

He separated them on the ground and found that he had a woman’s sundress, drenched in something wet and foul, a fat man’s pants (the reason for the disposal was obvious-the seam of the rear end was completely ripped out) and a handful of stained or otherwise unwearably damaged business shirts.

Mark shook out the fat pants and a blue striped shirt with a long yellow stain down the front, and pulled them on. He hated to think about the last thing to touch the material, but…he couldn’t walk naked down First Street during morning rush hour. Or ever, really.

“What do you think?” he asked, pivoting briefly for Selena. He’d tucked the shirt into the pants, but to keep them up, he had to hold a six-inch bunch of the waist with his left hand.

Selena smiled faintly. “You look like you’ve lost some weight,” she quipped.

“Uh-huh,” he said. “Now we just need to find a way across town so that I can get some real clothes. And I’m guessing you’ll want more than a black silk robe eventually.”

She nodded. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“I don’t suppose you have any cash or a bus token hidden in that robe?”

She shook her head.

“Let’s start walking then.”

“How far?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Tinley Park’s probably about ten miles so…let’s just say it’s probably going to be a late lunch.”

They walked in silence for a while, though Mark kept sneaking glances at Selena. She held the black robe tightly around her with arms crossed. But he could still catch a hint of her cleavage where the robe V-ed. It was her face that really drew his eye though. Her cheekbones were high, her skin flawless. Her eyes were stunning, when she looked at you. Ice blue and large, when she talked directly to him, Mark felt himself lose all ability to think. The pale skin and thin eyelids and white-blonde hair…she made him weak if he let himself pay attention.

Luckily, for a lot of the walking she looked straight ahead and seemed inclined to say nothing.

“Why did you help me this time?” he asked. “You wouldn’t help me and take me to the club to find Rae before.”

She looked at him sidelong before answering. A long, considered look.

“I told you already,” she said. “I won’t help anyone go to NightWhere. But you deserved help to escape. You were prepared to give everything to save your wife. Even if she doesn’t deserve it, you deserve someone to help you after something like that. I didn’t want to see them kill you.”

“Why were you there at all?” Mark asked. “I’ve gotta assume nobody gets in on those kinds of ceremonies as a newbie.”

Selena nodded. “I’ve watched things at NightWhere for a long time.”

“So you’re a Watcher.”

“Not the way you mean.”

“Then how?” Mark kicked a stone with his bare toe and grimaced.

“I look for people like you,” Selena said. “And I try to convince them to go home, where they belong.”

“Sounds like a lost cause.”

“Most often,” she admitted.

The traffic grew around them as they wound down Waverly to Pulaski, zigzagging their way west as people filled the roads on their way to work. They made a strange pair; Mark holding his ballooning pants on, and Selena walking in a silk robe. At one point, Mark heard a wolf whistle behind them. He refused to take the bait and turn around.

When they finally turned onto less traveled roads leading past the forest preserve and suburban houses instead of strip malls, he was relieved. He’d been worried the whole walk through downtown that eventually a squad car was going to pull over and start questioning them. But aside from gapers, they passed through the suburbs unbothered. Selena didn’t talk much without prodding, and after a while, he let her be, to walk in silence.

Mark’s calves and feet were numb by the time they reached his subdivision. He wasn’t big on walking in the first place, and had certainly never gone barefoot for hours before. He guessed they’d been walking for more than three hours when they finally staggered up the driveway to his house. He went around to the backyard patio and pulled the hidden house key from the statue they kept it hidden under (for just this sort of contingency…though they’d never imagined needing it quite for a reason like this). Then he unlocked the back door and held it open for Selena to enter.

He locked it again behind them. He didn’t imagine that would stop one of the Watchers from reaching them, if they were so inclined. But it might slow them down a bit.

The house felt…empty. The hum of the refrigerator was audible, and the LED on the microwave read 10:23. The morning light was grey, which didn’t help the mood. The sky had turned overcast during their long walk.

Selena stood near the kitchen table, still holding her robe closed tightly.

“So…” Mark said, “…do you want something to eat? Or shower and clothes first? I’m dying to get out of these things.”

Selena smiled. “A shower would be good.”

He led her up the stairs to his bedroom and showed her Rae’s closet and drawers. “You’re a little taller than Rae, but you should be able to find a T-shirt and sweatpants or something,” he said. “I can go shower in the other bathroom at the same time. We should have enough hot water in the tank.”

He started to walk out of the bedroom, but then stopped at the look on her face. Her eyes had widened, and she’d taken a deep, halting breath as he’d moved towards the door. She was petrified.

“What’s the matter?” Mark asked.

Selena blinked twice, then opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing.

Mark stepped back towards her and put a hand on her shoulder. “What?”

“I…just…” she gulped. “It’s silly, but just don’t leave me alone right now, okay?”

“You want me to shower with you?” Mark asked.

She bent her head slightly, as if embarrassed, but her eyes looked up, pleading silently. “Please? Would you mind?”

Mark laughed. “How could I say no?”

She didn’t smile. “I just need you to stay close to me right now. Don’t leave me alone.”

“Okay,” Mark nodded. “Got it.”

He began unbuttoning the dingy shirt. “And I’m not going to be shy, seeing as you’ve already seen the merchandise earlier today.”

She did smile at that. “Yes,” she agreed. “In all sorts of compromising positions. You should be more careful of the company you keep.”

The image of Rae kneeling above him with blades ready on each finger to slice him flashed in Mark’s head, and it was his turn to be grim. “Yeah,” he said. “Who’d of thought it would work out like that?”

Selena let the black silk robe fall to the floor as Mark kicked the baggy, ripped pants away. She kicked the robe with one foot to land on his discarded clothes. “I don’t want to see that thing again,” she said quietly.

Mark only half heard her comment. His attention was on her body. He’d known since their first meeting that she was beautiful, but she was more than that.

She was breathtaking. Her skin was white as snow, flawless. Her waist was a perfect hourglass, framing the dark, thin pucker of her belly button. Below that, a short thatch of cream-colored hair covered her sex, while above she had two of the most sensational breasts Mark had ever seen. They were full, lush and seemed to answer to their own gravity; her wide, pink areolae boasted hard, darker nipples that stood straight out from her chest. His body responded to hers instantly.

Before it got too obvious, he stepped towards the bathroom, pulling her by the hand. Once inside, he leaned into the tub area and turned the water towards hot. After a minute of waiting with his hand in the stream, the water warmed, and he pulled the shower switch.

“Did you need to use the toilet?” he asked. He felt his face flush at the question. He felt terribly awkward right now, in a way he wasn’t used to. He thought Rae had trampled all embarrassment from him with her heels over the years. But right now, he felt like he was on a first date. A damned strange first date.

Selena shook her head. “I think I walked it all out.”

Mark considered his own needs and shook his head. “I got something.” He assumed she’d back out of the room as he lifted the seat, but instead, just as he let go, he felt two cool hands wrap around his chest from behind and the softness of breasts on his shoulder blades. Mark’s eyes widened, and his stream stopped for a minute at the surprise of her touch. Selena leaned her head on his shoulder and clung to him as he struggled to finish. Her closeness made the whole act a little shaky to complete, but finally, the last short spurts came out and Mark reached out to flush the toilet. Then he pulled the shower curtain aside for her to step inside. “Do you want me to sit here while you wash, and then I’ll get in?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, once she stood inside, she grabbed his hand and pulled him inside with her.

“Okay,” Mark said, as the water hit him, and he found himself rubbing up unintentionally against her breasts. The woman was staring at him with those ice-blue eyes. Her gaze made him weak. It felt as if she could look inside his mind. “Shampoo’s right here,” he said, pointing behind her at the bottles sitting at the front end of the tub.

Selena glanced behind and nodded. Then she put her arms around his neck and pulled him close to her, hugging him tightly.

Her lips brushed his cheek, and she whispered in his ear. “Don’t leave me?”

Mark rubbed his hand gently up and down her back and the curve of her ass. “Not going anywhere,” he answered. They stood like that, holding each other for a while, as the steam gathered around them like a cloud. Finally, Selena released him and turned towards the water. She bent to grab the shampoo bottle, and Mark gasped as she did. Not at the heart-shaped curve of her rear (which was amazing) but rather at her back. When she began to squeeze shampoo on her hand, he put his fingers on her shoulder blades and traced the scars there.

“What happened?” he whispered. Everything about her seemed perfectly formed, her skin without blemish. She was the epitome of every Scandinavian model’s dream. Piercing eyes, wide white smile. Breathtaking curves. Beautiful skin. Except for her back. Angry pink scars puckered near her shoulders, as if someone had stabbed her twice and then twisted the knife around and down.

“It was a long time ago,” she said.

“But what…”

Selena turned and pushed him under the water, moving herself out of the spray. “You’re going to get cold,” she said. He dunked his head back and then pulled it out of the water. She reached up without asking and began to soap up his hair. Mark raised an eyebrow but didn’t protest. Her fingers were long and gentle, and they moved from his hair to lather his chest, and then his crotch. She held his cock softly, stroking the soap along it three times before reaching lower to soap his balls. He felt a finger extend farther, prodding his ass gently.

“Jesus,” he whispered, closing his eyes. For the first time in three days, nobody refuted the name.

Selena bent to rub the insides of his thighs. She knelt in front of him then, but rather than touching him sexually, she seemed almost to be studying him. Memorizing him. She pressed her lips to his belly, and then moved her fingers over his skin, as if trying to sample every pore. She moved her hands slowly, lovingly, following the hair down the front of his thighs and then slowly stroking his calves and the backs of his knees. She cupped his buttocks and then rose to her feet again, trailing her hands up his ribs before resting them on his arms and leaning in to give him a soft, lingering kiss.

Mark didn’t move the whole time, he couldn’t. He was lost in her attention. And then she reached behind her and brought back the shampoo. Handed it to Mark.

“I’m unclean,” she whispered.

“We’ll remedy that,” he promised and poured shampoo into his palm. Then he repeated the ritual that she had just performed. He slipped his fingers into her hair, massaging her scalp, and then rubbing the soap in gentle circles across her back. Then he slipped his hands back up to gather more soap from her hair. He moved the suds with a featherlight stroke along her neck and unconsciously held his breath as he rubbed his hands around her breasts, enjoying the way the soap and water shone on her porcelain skin. Her nipples hardened at his touch, but he followed her lead and rather than trying to arouse, he knelt and continued to soap her tummy and thighs. Hesitantly he moved his fingers across the wiry tuft of hair at her crotch and she moved her legs apart farther, allowing him to move his hand into the cleft, carrying the soap into the warmth of her sex and up to the pucker of her ass.

He moved his hands down one leg, tracing the edges of her toes before moving to the other foot and then working his way back up that leg. When he’d pressed and kneaded and touched every part of her skin, he stood flat against her, chest to chest and tentatively, tenderly kissed her lips. She opened her mouth to him then, and he tasted her tongue for the first time, as it gently probed against his lips.

Mark’s eyes widened as her hand reached around and held him by the nape of the neck, drawing him harder against her mouth. He could see the smile in her eyes at his reaction. He could also feel how close he was to entering her, and he longed to press that point. But…

“Not here…” she said, drawing away from his kiss. She twisted away to turn off the shower and then pushed the curtains away. Mark stepped onto the throw rug that covered the bathroom tile and reached into a closet to get her a clean bath towel. She took it and ruffled it over her head before drawing it across her shoulders and around in front to dry her chest. The pink of the towel was striking against her skin; Mark thought she looked like a lingerie model as she crushed it across the swell of her chest. He pulled his own burgundy towel from the back of the bathroom door and dried himself, hurriedly. He didn’t want to lose the moment. He wasn’t sure if it was already lost.

She finished drying herself before him and then stepped closer, taking his own towel from his hands. “Let me,” she said and bent down to run the towel up the backs of his legs. Then she let it drop and stood up. She took his hand and pulled him into the bedroom.

The bed was still unmade. When Mark had gotten up the last time, he’d not bothered to fix the sheets. She pulled them to one side and pressed Mark down onto the mattress. He put his head back on the pillow and watched as she flipped one leg over his middle and slowly crouched down on his lap.

Part of him was embarrassed to have such pure beauty touch his hairy flesh. He was not built for a model. She should be with someone who…

Mark’s internal dialogue of insecurity was cut off when she reached down to stroke and then ease him inside her. He gasped at the feeling of her lips around him. She was warm and velvet smooth as her sex gradually let him in, sliding up and then down, up a little and down farther, easing him all the way, until their pubic hair was pressed flat, their sex joined tightly. Mark thought it may have been the most gentle, yet intense, start of sex he had ever had. Every nerve in his body sang with desire for her, and the room seemed to spin when she leaned down and her breasts tickled his chest. She took his tongue in her mouth and then pulled back, smiling.

“…here,” she said, at last completing her sentence from the shower.

Mark took a series of sharp, deep breaths as she rocked their hips in a steadily increasing rhythm. He moaned, without meaning to, and then nodded his head quickly in agreement.

“Here,” he echoed.

Chapter Forty-Six

NeverAfter

The bedroom was grey with the fall of dusk when Mark opened his eyes. He yawned and felt his belly growl. He’d slept the entire afternoon away. Correction. He stared at the ivory skin of Selena’s back next to him. They’d slept the entire afternoon away.

Again he marveled at her body. The moon of her ass peeked out from the sheet as he propped himself up on his elbow. With his hand he touched the warmth of her hip and followed the silk-smooth skin to her waist. Her face was half-obscured by twisted strands of ice-blonde hair, and her breasts were crushed beneath her arm. But Mark could follow the path up her ribs and around the shoulder blades to where her scars were. The only thing about her that was imperfect.

Mark traced the scars. What had happened to her? Part of him knew, but he didn’t want to admit it. He’d begun to suspect before Rae had ever disappeared. NightWhere was more than an extreme sex club. The Watchers were more than human. Or maybe less.

And Selena? What was she?

She stirred and rolled onto her back to see him better. “Hey,” she whispered. She still sounded sleepy.

“Hey,” he answered and bent to kiss her. When he pulled his lips away, he rested there on his elbow, just a foot from her face, watching her for some sign. Some proof. And then finally, he just spoke what had been on his mind for longer than he cared to admit.

“You’re an angel, aren’t you?”

Selena’s eyes flashed, and she frowned.

“Thanks but…”

“No, I mean it,” Mark pressed. He slid his hand around her back and traced the knotty flesh of a scar with his fingertips. “You’re an angel. Apparently a fallen angel, since they cut off your wings. Isn’t that what this is from? When did it happen? Why?”

“I can’t…talk about it.” Selena said. “Please don’t ask me.”

“The whole club,” Mark said. “It’s just a doorway to hell, isn’t it?”

Selena stared at him without answering.

“Isn’t it?” he insisted.

“If that’s your theory, then I can’t really be much of an angel, can I?” she said.

“You said this morning that you try to steer people away from it,” Mark said. “Sounds like the work of an angel. NightWhere is hell, right?”

“It’s a place of ultimate sin,” she acknowledged.

“How did you end up there?” he asked.

“I’m here for you now,” she said. “Let that be enough.”

Selena reached up and put her arms around his back, pulling him down into an embrace. “Let me stay with you,” she whispered. “Leave all that behind and let me take care of you now. My arms, my love can heal you. It’s why I’m here.”

Mark took a deep breath. “Don’t you need to go back to NightWhere? Don’t you belong there somehow?”

“I can never go back,” she said. “Not now.”

“But you have to,” he said.

Selena frowned. “Why?”

“Because I need you to take me. I hurt Rae. I might have killed her. I have to get her out of there.”

Selena shook her head vehemently. “Are you crazy? You can’t go back. They will kill you. And if Rae survived until dawn, then she is healed by now. You saw it happen yourself. Sleep heals all wounds in NightWhere. That way, when the night comes round again, they can start the pain all over again. Fresh.”

“I won’t leave her for them,” Mark said stubbornly. “They did something to her. Brainwashed her. I have to get her out of there before they do kill her.”

“She’s made her choice, Mark,” Selena said. “You can’t force someone to salvation.”

“No, but I can at least give her the chance to choose it. She will never have that chance inside NightWhere.”

“You can’t go there.”

“You’re going to take me.”

Selena sat up and took Mark’s hands in her own. “I cannot go back to NightWhere,” she said.

“Cannot, or will not?” he pressed.

“Will not.”

“So you can find your way back.”

Selena sighed. “NightWhere is like a beacon to those who have spent enough time there. If I look, I can always see it burning in the distance. It’s connected to me. But they can look the other direction. They’ll know that I’m coming. They’ll know if I’m there.”

“I need you to show me the way,” he insisted.

“Listen to me,” Selena pleaded. “If I return to NightWhere… They will torture me forever. You’ve seen the pits of fire. The crosses of the damned.”

“They left you alone before,” he pointed out.

“They couldn’t hurt me before. There was a deal. Now that I’ve helped you…”

“But you’re an angel,” he said. “Use your powers.”

“Stop saying that,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“If you are really here to help me, then you have to do this for me,” Mark said. He knew he was being stubborn. Utterly, stupidly stubborn. But the part of him that had loved and protected Rae all of these years…letting her have her fun but always shepherding her home…wouldn’t let him simply walk away. Even after she’d tried to kill him. She had always relied on him to be her safe word, if it came to that. Now he was going to have to use force to give her the protection she needed, but didn’t want.

“Take me back there tonight. Just get me to the door.”

Selena hung her head. Her breath hitched, as she struggled to stifle a cry. But it came anyway. When she looked up, Mark gasped.

The pure white skin of her cheeks was marred by twin trails of darkest red.

Selena wept blood.

“Oh my God,” Mark said. “You’re hurt.” He touched her cheek with his finger and showed her the drop of red on his fingertip.

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

She slipped past him, out of bed, and went to the bathroom. When she returned, her face was clean.

Mark got out of bed and met her in the middle of the room. He put his hands on her shoulders and stroked her arms. “It’ll be okay,” he promised. “I’ll go in armed at dawn. I’ll get her out just as they have to go to sleep. I’ll bring her home, and she’ll have to stay here for the day. If she decides to go back after that, I’ll have to let her go. But I want to give her the chance to make that decision outside of the influence of NightWhere. You can’t say no to that. I want to save her soul.”

He forced her to meet his eyes. “There is always a chance for forgiveness, right?”

Selena looked away.

He changed the subject. “Right now, let’s get something for dinner, all right?”

Mark walked to Rae’s dresser and pulled out a University of Illinois T-shirt that Rae liked to wear around the house. Selena accepted that and a pair of blue sweatpants without a word.

Then Mark pulled on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt himself and led her to the kitchen.

He looked around in the freezer and found chicken and Italian frozen dinners. Selena shrugged. “Whatever,” she said. “I’m not really hungry.”

“We haven’t eaten all day!” Mark laughed. “Or don’t angels have to eat?”

“I’m not an angel,” Selena said. Her voice was sharp. Under her breath she added, “Not anymore.”

“Ah ha!” he said. “So you admit it.”

Mark pulled a bottle of wine from a rack on the counter. “Can you drink?”

“I’m just like you,” Selena said. “I’m nothing special. And yes, I’d love a glass of wine.”

“You’re something very special,” he countered, twisting a corkscrew into the bottle. “You’re amazing.”

“If I was so amazing, you would stay here with me,” she said. Her voice could not have sounded more disconsolate. “I asked you this morning not to leave me alone. I might not be here anymore when you get back.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Selena shrugged. “I have been a part of NightWhere for too long. I don’t know what will happen when I am out here.”

“Out here?” Mark said. “The real world?”

She nodded.

“I won’t leave you,” he promised.

“But you will,” she insisted. “If you go into NightWhere again, you won’t come out.”

Chapter Forty-Seven

Pawned and Ready

The fact that the pawnshop was still open after 10:00 p.m. in a dark alley of the river district was one clue that it was probably not the most law-abiding place on the planet. People selling and buying used stuff long after dark were desperate.

Mark needed a place that would cater to desperate. And he’d visited his ATM to make sure he could pay the price.

He stepped inside with Selena close behind him. A bell on the door jingled loudly as it opened. Mark walked a few steps down the main aisle and took a quick visual inventory of the store. There were stacks of VCRs, DVD players and stereo equipment in one corner, and guitars and amplifiers dominated another quarter of the store. But it was the case right near the cash register that interested Mark. The glass revealed more than a dozen handguns. In a case on the wall behind the register, a row of rifles hung. Mark was a little surprised to see some military-issue weaponry there as well.

The proprietor was a thin, gangly man in a ratty, grey button-down shirt with two days’ growth of beard and black plastic-rimmed glasses.

He sat behind the counter watching a small television set. Mark couldn’t tell what the show was, but he could hear the fake canned laughter. The man didn’t say anything, and Mark walked along the perimeter of the glass counter, looking at the array of guns. He really didn’t know enough about firearms to know what was good or bad. But he liked the look of one with a squarish muzzle and equally blocky handle. It looked like a spy gun. Get in, shoot fast and silently, get out.

That’s what he intended to do tonight.

He walked past the case to a wall of Chinese throwing stars, stilettos, hunting and Bowie knives and switchblades.

Mark picked a couple off the wall and hefted them, trying to decide if he wanted to have a back-pocket backup plan.

He chose one with a dark wooden handle that was carved to conform to the fingers of the hand. The knife blade tucked into the handle for easy hiding in one’s back pocket. Mark nodded. He’d been a Boy Scout. It was a good idea to “be prepared”.

Selena was idly thumbing through DVDs in a rack nearby. Mark walked to the counter and pointed at the squarish gun. “How much for that one?”

The thin man eased off his seat with a small grunt and stepped to the case. “The Ruger?” he said.

Mark noticed the word was emblazoned on the handle. He nodded.

“Depends on how fast you want it,” he said.

“I need it tonight,” Mark said.

“Uh huh.” The man nodded, as if that was a common request. “You know we have gun laws in this state?”

Mark nodded.

“Let me see some ID.” The man held his hand out as Mark pulled a driver’s license from his wallet. The man took it and held it up to the fluorescent light on the ceiling. He raised an eyebrow as he handed it back. “Looks like a real one. You a cop or something?”

“If I was a cop would I hand you a real license?”

“Maybe. Lift your shirt.”

It was Mark’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Looking for wires.”

Mark guessed at the logic for that. He lifted the T-shirt up and turned around, giving the man a good look at his chest and back.

“Flash me.”

“You’re serious.”

The man nodded.

Mark looked at the door. The parking lot remained empty. He undid his belt buckle and lowered his jeans a foot, then pulled them up fast.

“Her too,” the man said.

Mark turned towards Selena, who walked up to the counter. She’d been listening. “You didn’t tell me we’d be strip-searched,” she said.