/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Sleep Disorder

Jack Ketchum

For years Ketchum (Peaceable Kingdom) and Lee (City Infernal) have written taboo-breaking horror fiction that's invariably provocative and sometimes good taste-challenged. This collection of their five collaborative stories is the literary equivalent of a frat-house Halloween party, full of cheesy shocks, raunchy sex and gross-out humor. "I'd Give Anything for You" and "Love Letters from the Rain Forest" have carbon copy plots involving nymphomaniacal young women who spurn wimpy suitors for studly hunks and pay for their choice with grisly fates. "Eyes Left" delivers more of the same, offering its account of an alluring female zombie who turns tables on a group of drooling barflies as a morality tale on the wrongness of sexual objectification. The title story, about a man unhinged in waking life by a secret existence lived in his slumbers, relies on a trite narrative shortcut-a tape recorder that catches the truth while he sleeps-to unravel its mystery. Only "Masks," about magically endowed masks that bring out the subconscious impulses of an intimate couple, succeeds in conveying the strangeness of uncanny experience. The book also includes first drafts of two stories, one by each of the authors, that show Lee to be the more prone of the pair to inventive descriptions of bodily functions. This book is unlikely to earn either author new readers, but neither is it likely to deter the hardcore fans at whom it clearly is aimed.

Sleep Disorder by Jack Ketchum & Edward Lee

I'd Give Anything For You

"Please, please don't do this to us, Clare!" Roderic pleaded from the imported flagstone steps of the great house.

Us, Clare thought. Thirty years old and still living with his mother. Jesus!

His voice called out nasal and forlorn behind her. "I'd give anything for you!"

How many times had she heard that in the last nine months? Big deal! She wanted to shout. Can't you take a hint? There's nothing I want from you! Instead, she turned.

"Look. It's not working out," she said.

He looked befuddled.

"What are you talking about? Things are great! You said you'd many me!”

“Oh, Roderic, I did not," she lied.

Early on, eight long months ago, that was exactly what she'd said. At thirty-one, she wasn't getting any younger. And Roderic had millions. Or, rather, his mother did.

"I'm sorry. I just can't see you anymore."

He went utterly vapid. "Is it…another guy?"

"Of course not!" she lied again. How dare he accuse her of sleeping around!

Anyway, Wardell wasn't just another guy. He was everything Roderic wasn't. Strong, handsome, assertive. And hung like fucking Dillinger.

She opened the door to the 300ZX — a birthday present from Roderic — and slid in.

"But what about Paris?"

She'd considered it. Paris might be fun. Except that Roderic's mother was going, too, and so was Fudd — the old lady's hoodlum manservant.

To hell with Paris. Wardell would be taking her to Cancun anyway after his next big score.

"Roderic, forget Paris. Our relationship is over. Get it?"

Obviously he didn't. But Fudd did. The guy was lurking by the side of the house in his long leather jacket, stacking a cord of firewood, dividing each round cut with one of those automatic log splitters. And the look he shot her said he'd be happy to split her neatly down the middle too. If anything, Fudd was loyal.

Mama apparently got the message, too. Clare could see her disdain pouring through the sitting room window.

Goddamn crinkled old weirdo.

Hell, they were all weirdoes.

"Darling, please, come back inside. We'll sit by the fire, I'll open the Louis XIII. Please!"

For God's sake, he was crying now.

"Please, I—"

"I know, Roderic. You'd give anything for me. No, thanks." She slammed the door and started up the car.

"Tell me!" He was sniffling outside the window. "Tell me what I can do to prove my love for you!"

Go play in traffic, she thought. How about that? You romantic putz.

She pulled out of the driveway. In the rearview mirror she saw him fall to his knees in Shakespearean anguish, his mother coming through the double oak doors and down off the porch to comfort him. Fudd glaring.

Poor Roderic, she thought. The man just didn't have a clue.

Wardell did.

She'd just walked into the apartment and already the deft, strong hands were unbuttoning her blouse, his tongue roving her mouth in greeting.

"You break the news to the wimp?"

She nodded. Now that it was over she felt a little guilty.

"God! He was devastated. I'm surprised he didn't take back the car." His hands shucked off the blouse and pawed her naked breasts. "He can't take back the car. He put it in your name for chrissake, remember? The dumb little creamcake asshole."

"Well, you can bet he won't be paying the rent anymore."

Wardell had his penis out already, which he often referred to as "Papa Fuck" or "Mr. Meat Missile." Wardell was not subtle.

"Fuck him and fuck his mama's money. Couple days, my next big score comes in and we'll be rollin' in it. Gimme that ass, babe. Over here."

He stripped off her jeans and led her onto the couch, got down on his knees and began those oral preludes which never failed to grease his skids. His tongue was not particular about which orifice it tended. It tended each and it tended well. In moments she was lost in raging heat.

It launched her into another world — a great big wet wonderful tongue world where she was the queen and sensation was her daily homage. The cleft of Clare's ass became a playground, and Wardell's tongue was the troupe of kids swinging from the monkey bars. It was hard to think of butt-licking with any notion of sophistication; nevertheless, Wardell proved a master, wielding his skills with a brazen expertise. His hot tongue laved, and prodded, licked and titillated, drew sloppy, wet swirls about that sensitive little starburst.

"Like it when I lick your asshole, huh?"

Clare staked to the couch with her feet pinned backed behind her ears, could fathom no response to her lover's less-than-urbane inquiry. Instead, she moaned and sighed, then abruptly shuddered when—

"But now I think I'll have me a taste of this here pie."

— his tongue re-navigated itself to a northerly direction. Her anus, evidently, was but an appetizer; now it was time for the entree. Clare whined at the avalanche of feeling, a sudden spike of swoony, pulsing pleasure which staked her hips fast to the couch. Her pussy felt separately enlivened, a furred, pink-blushing icon which reveled at the worship of its congregation — in this instance, Wardell's mouth. His tongue slid hard up and down over the olive-sized clitoris; his mouth sucked the free-flowing fluids out of her pussy like fruit juice from a straw. He sucked so intensely that Clare thought the delicious suction might actually relocate her uterus to the couch cushion.

"Ooo, you big hot wonderful love-tongue, you!" she wailed. "Eat my pussy till I'm cross-eyed!"

But, of course, she already was cross-eyed. She was stupefied, enraptured, enfrenzied. Currents of pleasure speared her ass to the couch. Her clit felt plugged into a wall socket as she moaned her bliss to an empty ceiling. Her first climax erupted with the impact of a five-ton wrecking ball striking a dam. The dam broke, and out gushed its reservoir. Her pussy pulsed like a cock coming, like a great big throbbing dick shooting wild plumes of sperm…

"Here's a little something to help you forget that mama-rich dickhead, honey."

This, of course, was a meiotic — it was not a little something. Clare often thought of Wardell's crotch as a Burger King: Home of the Whopper. His cock was a masterpiece, a thing of mystic beauty while at the same time frightening because of its size.

He flipped her to hands and knees and, with no further overture, buried himself in her.

"I dare you to think about him with my dick stuffed up your snatch," he said.

And she couldn't. Not with Mr. Meat Missile prodding the bulb of her cervix. Not with Papa Fuck plumbing the deepest regions of her womanly hole. She reached down under him and fondled testicles which felt as large as cue balls.

What a fuckin' man! she thought.

Machinelike, his cock pistoned in and out. Each stroke quaked her, retracted her sex and beat the air out of her lungs.

"Oh, yes," she moaned. "Yes! All the way in as hard as you can!"

With a snide grunt, Wardell obliged. To Clare it felt as though Wardell had just unreeled another three or four inches of hard cock into her slot. It was an excruciating mix of pain and mind-boggling pleasure. His cock was coring her like an apple.

"Uh-huh," Wardell promised. "I'll be bustin' my baby a big nut up this cooze. Honey, I'm gonna crank a load in you so hard my spunk'll be squirtin' out yer nose. You'll need the biggest hanky in the world."

Then—

Mid-stroke and midway to the gate for both of them, the telephone rang.

The answering machine kicked in. "Hello, this is Clare, I'm not home right now so please leave a…"

"Jesus Christ, you gotta be fucking kidding me," Wardell said.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

No, no, no, thought Clare, please, please don't let it be

"I'd do anything, darling," Roderic said, his voice drippy, weepy, sniffly, and disgusting. "I'd give anything for you…"

Wardell hadn't much cared for the telephonic coitus interruptus. So he'd worked off his lack of amusement at the expense of Clare's physical real estate. Not that she objected. Her orgasms ensued without abatement, in multiple fashion. What Wardell lacked in sophistication he more than made up for in cocksmanship. Other than that, she knew next to nothing about him. He'd never elaborated on his occupational pursuits, claiming simply to be a "salesman," and Clare never asked what he sold — though she doubted its legal status. He was muscular and brusque and incredibly handsome. Also very…enduring. And for her, right now, that was enough.

That night, though, she slept fitfully.

Roderic consumed her dreams. Roderic, who wrote poetry all day long and doted on his mother — whose wealth, she had once read in Forbes, ran to the mid-eight figures — who would pick her up in his conservative gray BMW and take her to the best clubs, restaurants, and shows, who would bring her gifts each week — jewelry, mostly — pay her rent, buy her a car, and leave delightful little cash envelopes beneath her pillow. Not bad for a girl nearing the far side of the hill, but…

…she guessed it was his mother. Crimp-faced, rouged, and paper-thin. Eternally sarcastic. He'd bring her home to the mansion sometimes for "romantic" little chats by the fire, snifters of Cordon Bleu, and — disappointingly for Clare — pre-ejaculatory sex, and his mother would always be there when they arrived, nodding curtly from the sitting room and offering some cryptic remark like "I hope you're taking good care of my boy," or "Good boys like my Roderic are easily taken for granted, missy," always calculated to be discreetly rude. Fuck you, Clare would think, and offer up a smile instead. For Mama.

It was no way to live.

To make matters worse, Fudd was always there too — about as cheerful as a mugshot. Never saying a word, all black glances and subtle scowls, skulking around in black leather driver's cap, mitts, and long-tailed jacket. She wondered how much the old hag was paying him to keep her ancient pussy stocked with pork.

The implication was clear: Mama Roderic would overlook Clare's gold-digging as long as she "took good care" of her "boy."

It was difficult, and it wasn't. On the one hand, Roderic was a loving, compassionate, romantic man. He was also fat and slack-muscled, pale as a fish belly, with a small, pathetic weenie that tended to give up its seed long before any serious amalgamation of genitals could be made.

Once while necking she had made the mistake of brushing his groin with the tips of her fingers. Oooops, he'd said. And showed her the wet spot on his custom-made Italian slacks.

On nights they actually made it to bed, he would usually have to apologize for the milky puddle on her belly moments after getting naked. "You excite me so much I just can't help it," he would tell her. There was no point sucking a dick that had spent its freight before she could even get it into her mouth. So that was out. And his own oral gestures proved equally futile, usually like a kitten lapping milk.

Which left her with her finger.

No. After nine months, restaurants and cold cash simply didn't cut it anymore — and Fudd and Roderic's mother coming with the package as they so obviously did only hastened her decision.

Besides, by then she had met Wardell. Who knew how to fill all the places Roderic left empty. I owe it to myself, she thought, as a modern woman, to pursue my spiritual, sociological, and personal well-being. As well as the gigantic cock.

Why couldn't Roderic understand? They simply weren't right for each other.

She didn't wish him any harm. She truly hoped he'd meet some frigid little blue-blood one day and live happily ever after. But…

She knew that some men would pine over a lost love for years. Become obsessive. Go to…extremes.

She hoped that wouldn't happen here. But maybe that was what scared her a little. Because there was something about poor little jilted Roderic that haunted her. Something deep in his eyes and in that forlorn, desperate promise of his…

…I would give anything for you.

Please Roderic, she thought, whatever you've got to give, take it elsewhere.

"Hey, love muffin." Wardell had awakened and was nudging her with something other than his hand.

It was an excellent distraction, and Clare was grateful. She provided a welcome silo. Her mouth. All that burgeoning cock inside her, the glans big as a baby apple.

"God, woman! You sure can suck good peter! Get it, sugar! Suck all that red-hot pecker-snot right out of that cock!"

Quaint.

But she did. Slipped a pinky into his ass to prod the overlarge prostate as his testicles jettisoned yet another copious ration of semen. And, at exactly the same moment, thought of Roderic

Jesus, Roderic! Go away!

I'd give anything for you.

That goddamn promise. What did he mean?

What would he give?

His fortune? His inheritance?

His life?

Jesus Christ, she hoped not. She didn't think she was ready for that at all. Definitely not. But you had to think about it. Was the crazy little sonofabitch going to try to prove something?

Was Roderick suicidal?

Nah.

Even if he was, there'd be Fudd and Mama to tie him down for six years if necessary. Until he got over it.

No problem.

Except that he phoned every day. Luckily, he tended to do that while Wardell was out, taking care of his "salesman" duties. But she started to hate the sound of her phone ringing.

Please come back darling, darling please, please, we were meant to be together, I would give anything in the world for you darling please… Good god!

Clare would never answer. But his calls were crowding her answering machine.

And at night he haunted her dreams.

Roderic in a tub, his slit wrists leaking cloudy red. Blue-faced in his BMW in a closed garage. Gunshot, poisoned, hanged by the neck.

His mother made scowling cameos. Shadowed by leather-clad Fudd, gloved hands opening and closing into creaking fists. "You take good care of my boy, missy," the dream-crone nattered."…you take good care of my boy, good care of my…"

Each nightmare ended the same. Roderic's corpse, the black mouth opening wide, filled with pus and maggots, the death-rattle voice. "I'd give anything for you."

Wardell became the vehicle of her oblivion. She resolved to fuck and suck the little twerp right out of her brain. And that was fine until, exhausted, she eventually fell asleep. There he was.

"I'd give anything…"

One morning Wardell was in the shower, whistling "Love Me Tender," when the phone rang. Clare snatched it up.

"Roderic, stop calling me!"

"Clare, please," he whined. "Talk to me. Listen, I want to come over.”

“No!"

"Wait! Don't hang up! Listen to me. Mother and Fudd have gone to Paris for two weeks. We'd have the whole place to ourselves. Please!"

"I don't want to come over. I don't want to ever see you again! Get it?”

“Buh-buh-but…I love you! At least tell me why—"

"You're fat, okay?"

"I'll lose weight."

"You're pale as an albino."

"A tanning booth — I'll buy one."

"You've got no muscles."

"I'll join a gym. I'll start working out. I promise."

This was going nowhere. No choice, she thought.

"You come in ten seconds flat, and you've got a little dick!"

Cruel, sure. But Jesus, what could you do?

"A sex therapist. I'll go to a sex therapist! And I'll get one of those penile implants and…"

She was going to scream. She knew it.

"Because, darling, I'd give anything for—"

Suddenly the phone was snatched away. Wardell stood there buck naked and dripping from the shower, his dick bouncing like a springboard.

"Look, you little creamcup fuckhead. Don't ya call here no more, understand? I'll kick your ass so hard your balls'll pop out your ears. I'll come over to that fancy mansion and burn it to the fuckin' ground and piss on the ashes and bury you up to your neck and shit on your goddamn head and when I'm done blowin' a nut up your mama's tired old ass I'll bury her right next to ya and shit on her head too. You take my message, dickbrain?"

God, Clare hoped so.

Wardell slammed down the phone.

* * *

The next day Wardell's "big score" came in. They flew to Cancun that evening. A month in paradise. Clare expected to work on her tan but it quickly became apparent she'd be working on her libido instead. She didn't mind. Wardell's cock was a boom that never lowered, his balls a veritable sperm factory that remained in production round the clock.

The nightmares stopped.

And so did all thoughts of Roderic. She realized that one night with Wardell's cock stuffed so far down her throat she was wearing his balls like sunglasses. Indeed sex had proved her release. And it was a release she couldn't help but pursue.

If variety was the spice of life, then each day and each night of their vacation offered Clare another bellyful of ripe red peppers. And, to stretch the metaphor to its absolute limit, Wardell was never reluctant to pour liberal volumes of cream into Clare's coffee. Where does it all come from? She wondered… And best of all, Roderic was gone. Out of her mind.

Forever!

Wardell had to leave a week early; a sudden "business deal" had arisen. A "customer" had an interest in his "product." Clare lounged on the beach all day. Each night, in bed, she masturbated well into the night. All she could think about was her lover's interminably stiff cock, the plumy hot balls, her thoughts forever and solely of Wardell and his earthy love for her. Getting fucked by Wardell was akin to dropping a box of Godiva into the lap of a chocolate addict.

Clare left Cancun four days early.

On the flight back she was so antsy to see him she could hardly keep her hand out from under her skirt. Once she got into the cab, she didn't try.

His car was there in its parking space. Bags in hand, she dashed into the apartment.

"Wardell? Honey?"

No reply. "Love-muffin's home." She dropped the bags and ran into the bedroom. Stared.

And shrieked.

Wardell lay sprawled on the bed, his face a dark shade of scarlet.

"Parachute cord's the best." Fudd emerged from the corner, leather-capped-and-gloved. "Piano wire's too messy. And nylon's unreliable. Last broad that dumped Roderic, I was doing a job on her with nylon, and the damned thing snapped on me. It got ugly."

Clare could see the deadly ligature sunk deep into her lover's throat. His face had swollen to a queer balloon, strangely distended.

"You should listen to your messages," Fudd said. "The old lady's not happy, let me tell you."

He stepped forward and she screamed. Last broad that dumped Roderic, I was doing a job on her…

But it wasn't a garrote that Fudd held out to her. It was a chloroform-soaked towel.

* * *

Clare awoke in Roderic's room. She knew it instantly. Even though her senses skittered like autumn leaves in the street.

"Oh, missy," his mother sat erect in a fine cane chair opposite. Fudd was standing behind her. "You were supposed to take care of my boy." Clare's tongue felt thick and sour. "We… we broke up."

"Broke up? You dumped him, you silly, selfish horse's ass! My boy is a gift to the likes of you! You know, you're not the first to treat him similarly, and Fudd always has been kind enough to give them what they deserve. But you? For some reason, I haven't the heart. Roderic loves you so." She sighed, pigeon breast heaving beneath the frumpy dress. "You should listen to your phone messages, missy."

Clare trembled. "I–I was on vacation."

"I know. Cavorting, no doubt, with that detestable narcotics dealer. Unfortunately Fudd and I were on vacation, too. But if you'd phoned in for your messages you might have prevented all of this."

"All of what?"

"Poor Roderic. He's a nice boy but admittedly an eccentric one — with some odd ideas about proving his love. Fudd found him…outside."

Clare's mind swam in muck. Her nightmares all came back to her. Roderick shot. Poisoned. Hanging.

"He's…dead?"

"No," she simpered. "No, thank God, he's not."

Fudd scowled and plugged a cassette into the tape player on the sideboard and walked off into another room. Hi, this is Clare! I'm not home now so please

Then Roderic's voice. "Clare! My love! Why won't you believe me? I'll prove it? I'll prove my love for you, prove that I'd give anything for you! Listen!"

A pause. A snap. A brief scream.

"That," the old woman informed her, "was my son cutting off his pinkie with a pair of tin snips."

The tape continued. Roderick sobbing. "There! Here's my proof. For each day I'm without you I'll cut off another part of myself. Goodbye, Clare." Clare did her math, paling. She'd been away over three weeks. Fudd reappeared with a blanketed bundle in his arms. He set the bundle on the bed. Undraped it and stepped aside.

Clare gasped. Her eyes bugged. She bent over and vomited. "Clare! You're back! I knew you'd come back to me!"

Roderic's bright face beamed at her.

"Ten fingers, ten toes." Roderic grinned proudly. "And the rest, I pre-applied tourniquets and used a hacksaw. The legs and the left arm were easy. But the right arm…I bet you can't guess how I did it!"

She vomited again onto the plush Persian throw rug.

"I crawled out to the woodpile, tightened the tourniquet with my teeth — and stuck my arm under the automatic log splitter. It did a nice, clean job."

She knew that for the rest of her life she would never escape the sight. Roderick swaddled on the bed. No arms and no legs. Just a living, talking torso.

"Do you believe me now? Do you believe me when I say I'd give anything for you?"

She could only croak a single word. "Yes."

"You've got your entire lives to spend together," said the old woman.

She got up and shuffled toward the door. "In time I'm sure things will work out nicely. For now, of course, Fudd will remain. To see that you comply.”

“Cuh — comply?"

Fudd smiled. His gloved hand twirled the garrote idly.

"Assume your responsibilities," said Roderic's mother. "And without a fuss. It's only fair." Her stern eyes held her fast. "I expect you to take very good care of my boy."

Fudd locked the door behind her. It took Clare a moment to realize exactly what the old lady was saying.

"Get your clothes off and get to it," Fudd directed. "You don't want to keep him waiting."

"Oh, darling," Roderic said. "Till death do us part! We'll have such a splendid time together."

For there was one part of himself Roderick hadn't cut off, and that part now throbbed erect for her.

Sort of.

Love Letters from the Rain Forest

Dearest Clara,

This field excursion has really turned out to be wonderful. You'd be astonished — my god! how I wish you could be here with me! This place is so different, so unimaginable! The Rain Forest is a world of its own, teeming with life and filled with the strangest beauty. The Team and I have already made several noteworthy finds, and I've personally isolated a half dozen species of Thallophyta that have never been catalogued. I couldn't be more excited, but…

You haven't written, Clara.

Surely you're not still angry with me over our spat. I won't believe that. What I said to you I said out of love — you know I did the purest love. I know I was jealous, childish. Even harsh. But a love like ours is rooted in truth. We must be truthful, Clara, and what in this world can be more important than truth? I know that you still love me. And I also know that once I've returned, our love will bloom again like the beautiful night flowers here, opening gently to each other in the dark.

Until then, never forget. You own my heart.

* * *

"Ready for a gander?"

Straker turned out of the station and cruised past the administration buildings. The campus shimmered in the high summer sun, a blinding green haze.

Bilks felt bored. Straker bored him and the campus work bored him and he damn near bored himself.

White…string…bikini, was all he could think.

Yeah, he was ready.

He knew he shouldn't complain. That was why he'd quit the city in the first place — he couldn't hack the rough stuff. He'd walked into a project laundry room one day and found two of his crack stools strung upside-down and gutted like deer. The M.E. noted that their genitals had been burned off first with a blowtorch. Another time Bilks and his partner had answered a routine domestic just in time to see some PCP Cowboy pull a tire iron out of his wife's head. The guy's little girl was in the bedroom, sliced up like cold cuts. The baby was in the tub.

Fuck that shit, man.

Whereas here, on the campus department, your real tough call was breaking up a frat party or running smoochers off the quad at night. And this time of year was even slower. The campus was in between summer sessions. No students — though most of the profs and TA's stayed on. That's what this babe was — Clara Holmes — a grad student working for the botany department.

And an eyeful.

How many times I jacked myself thinking of that rock-hard bod? he articulately asked himself. How many times I jumped Barbara's tired bones pretending she was Clara Holmes?

"You're a pretty quiet fella today," Straker remarked behind the cruiser's wheel. "What, the wife wear out your tongue last night?"

"I'm bored," said Bilks. "As in shitless. And you ain't helping any."

Straker laughed. When he laughed he cackled like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. It was a skinny laugh and Straker was a skinny person. Bilks hated Straker's laugh.

"Well, you won't be bored long. I got that new pair of binocs I was telling you about. Bushnells, man, with a zoom. We'll be able to count her eyelashes. Zoom right up her crack when she's lying on that tight, killer belly of hers."

It sounded good to Bilks. While scoping female grad students with binoculars did not exactly equate to conduct becoming of an officer, he saw little harm. He figured god made women beautiful for a reason; therefore, peeping on Clara Holmes was, in some esoteric sense, accommodating the Will of the Creator. Besides, a job like this had damn few perks, and she sure as shit was one of them. A jam-packed, bodacious hunka-hunka red-hot woman.

Every day at noon she'd lie out on the grassy campus quadrangle, working on her tan. Bilks considered the sexist-cop image: the tight, tan skin shining with oil, the zero body fat, the 36C's with nipples as big as the end of your thumb, all wrapped up in that white string bikini.

Jesus wept, thought Bilks.

"I saw her coming out of North Administration the other day," Straker said. "No bra. Just this tight orange halter and cutoffs creepin' so high up her ass her cheeks were showing. I swear it's hard to believe a dish like that was dating Moley. Bet his dick was one happy camper in that pie."

"Hold on. Back up a minute," said Bilks. "Who?"

"Moley. Howard Moley. Assistant prof in the botany department. You know. The guy who died."

Howard Moley. Oh yeah. He remembered the item in the campus paper. Some kind of mushroom scientist or something. Or fungus maybe. The guy got sent down to the Rain Forest on a Smithsonian grant. And died. But…

"Howard Moley dated Clara Holmes?"

"S'what I heard. For a couple months at least."

"But Moley was a fucking creamcake!"

"You got that right. Egghead wimp to the max. Word is she was only after him for his family's money, but in the end she couldn't keep her hands off other guys, so she dumped him."

Bilks sighed. Some things just didn't make a whole lot of sense in this life. Moley dating Clara Holmes was like Sharon Stone dating Mr. Rogers. "Jesus. Clara Holmes could be in Penthouse. Moley must have the Loch Ness Monster in his pants."

"Like I said, he comes from money," reminded Straker.

"Still."

"Funniest part is she dumped him a month before he croaked."

Straker parked in the back lot of the undergrad library which overlooked the vast quadrangle. He reached for the Bushnells in back.

"Hey, don't look so sad, good buddy. The lady is the biggest, toughest cocktease on campus. Everybody knows that. She was cheating on Moley right and left. Probably goes through box springs like you go through cigarettes."

It meant something to Bilks. He was a three pack a day man and counting. Still…

"How do you like that shit?" Straker griped. He was combing the quadrangle with the Bushnells. "First day she's missed all freakin' summer. Figures, don't it? We're all set to viddy that hot sweet tush with my brand new glasses and she ain't even here. Piss!"

Piss was right. Bilks felt disheartened. "Let's wait a while," he said, trying to be optimistic. "Maybe she'll show. What've we got to do anyway? Fight crime?" He stuck another Marlboro in his mouth, lit the match and then paused over the flame. "By the way," he said. "How did Moley die?"

* * *

The first letter came about a week after he'd left. She remembered it clearly even now, a week after he was dead.

Her memory was about a half-step from photographic. In matters regarding Howard there was reason to wish it were poorer.

Dearest Clara, the letter had read.

I feel awful about our spat. I want to forget it ever happened. Can we? You know how much I love you, don't you? And that I always will? Write and tell me you do know. And that you love me too. Make me the happiest man alive.

I miss you terribly, darling.

All my love, Howard

And she'd thought at the time, the man can't take a hint.

Okay, so she'd been involved with him a couple of months. The guy's parents had millions! What girl in her right mind wouldn't take a crack at it? Maybe the two of them could get along awhile, she thought, enough time for her to get her hands on a little of that green for her old age. Marriages could be short. Real short.

She'd tried it out, tested the water so to speak.

And decided it wasn't worth the swim.

The guy was pathologically dull. Didn't dance. Didn't like the movies. Never even wanted to go to any of the campus parties. Too busy reading about goddamn shelf fungus and mushrooms. Clara was interested in botany, sure (it was the easiest masters the college offered) but she wasn't obsessed with it, for god's sake. Howard pored over botany journals the way most men pored over skin mags. And that was another thing about Howard: he was equipped with neither the zeal nor the architecture to, uh, satisfy a woman's, uh, needs.

And a woman such as Clara had many such needs. But of course she'd filled that gap — no pun intended — with all the other guys, unbeknownst to poor little Howard.

No problem.

But he took too damn much attention. Smothering her with flowers and sticky displays of affection. She got sick of it.

So they'd had their little "spat." That was what Howard called it, anyway. She'd stood him up for dinner, then ducked his calls for a week, hoping he'd catch the drift.

No dice.

Howard was not only dull, he was often perfectly dense. He'd appeared at her dorm, actually curious at first, concerned, thinking that maybe something was wrong with her. And then, understanding, ludicrous in his ninety-pound-weakling rage.

"What the hell's going on?" he demanded.

She was cleaning up the room, faking a kind of nervous energy combined with a forlorn expression and, well, maybe a little cocaine. Double-whammy. It pretty much worked every time.

She picked up a stocking, worried it in her hands a little — though not enough to run the damn thing — and turned to him, sighing. "Oh Howard," she said. "I don't know what I want."

"After six months? You don't know?"

"Has it been that long?"

"Yes. It has."

"It's just that the things I like to do you seem to hate…"

"What things? I love being with you."

"I know you do — if it's dinner and long walks or sitting by the fire over sherry or playing chess. But you know, I like to go places, I like the clubs. I like to go dancing."

"Dancing!"

She did not appreciate being yelled at. She yelled back.

"Yes! Dancing! And you can't dance! You don't even try! You won't dance and you won't even go to a movie unless it's got subtitles and twenty old Frenchmen sitting around drinking wine. Do you even know who the hell Arnold Schwartzenegger is for chrissake?"

Of course it wasn't the dancing. Howard Moley was just a card-carrying nerd. Polyester slacks. Button-down shirts with a pocket full of pens, an academic scarecrow. Plus, he had long stringy hair which Clara hated on men. And he fucked like he danced — like a puppet on strings.

Howard was incredulous. "You want to break up with me because of dancing? Isn't love more important than dancing?"

"Howard, I never said I loved you."

"Of course you did!"

Clara remembered. "That was different. I was…drunk."

"Drunk, great. That's just great!"

He stomped back and forth across her room, waving his skinny arms. A plucked chicken reciting his litany of grievances.

"You lead me on, you sleep with me, you say you'll marry me, you tell me you love me…"

"Oh, Howard, I did not."

"And now all of a sudden you don't know what you want, you think you'd rather go dancing. That's just great. That's very mature. You'll go really far in life with ideals like that."

To hell with this, she thought. Enough's enough.

"Howard."

He stopped at her tone and looked at her. The tone was a very cold one. It was very, very easy for her to make it that way.

"Just leave, Howard," she said. "Just go away."

She watched the color drain out of his face and the thin lower lip start to tremble. And then he was jerking past her toward the door.

"Fine! I will. Have fun on the dance floor, Clara."

She opened the door for him as he babbled his way out into the hall. "I know you'll find lots of genuine fulfillment there. Absolutely. You'd rather dance than be in an honest, mature relationship with someone who really loves you. That's great. That's…"

She slammed the door.

"Wonderful!" she heard him through the door. "Go ahead. Dance your life away. See if I care!"

Jesus, Howard, she thought. You can't even make a decent exit.

And now, musing as she douched out the sperm Johnny had left in her last night, she wondered how decent an exit he'd made out there in the Rain Forest.

She wondered why she was even thinking about him when she could be thinking about Johnny. Johnny with the great tan and the runner's body. Whose I.Q. was probably close to his penis size — about a twelve.

But who was counting?

She appraised her nude body in the mirror — high breasts and puckered nipples, the dark-blonde pubic plot — but still her thoughts drifted.

She refused to feel guilty about Howard. He'd been dead for over a week now and their relationship had been dead for over a month. She was sorry he was dead, naturally, but it really had nothing to do with her. Sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, she thought.

How dumb could a guy be? All those silly, drippy love letters he'd sent her from Brazil. As though she hadn't made herself perfectly clear that night.

The schmuck had gone to his grave thinking they were still in love.

I love you so much. The words drifted back. They were the last words he'd spoken to her. He'd called from the airport, just before his flight. She'd said nothing. Hung up.

The Rain Forest was burning, its systematic destruction exposing new botanical phyla every day. The government had issued grants to get as many experts down there as possible. Every bionerd's dream, she thought. Howard was a mycologist, an expert on fungi of every category.

She also considered what else he was, or had been. Kind. Considerate. Generous.

Shit. There I go. Feeling guilty again.

Okay, maybe she had led him on a little, said she loved him once or twice when the subject of marriage happened to come up, maybe even indicated a kind of enthusiasm for the idea.

Hey, there was a lot of money involved. A lot to consider.

And she'd been pretty damn good to him all told, hadn't she? For a while?

She stepped naked into the bedroom. Her eyes went to the little box of letters on the bureau. Like a miniature coffin.

Howard had been cremated. The letters were all that remained of him now. They made her feel suddenly sad.

To hell with that, she thought.

I sure hope Johnny calls.

* * *

He was a drunk but he was gorgeous and at least he liked to dance. The more she tried to focus, though, away from Howard, the more precisely she envisioned the skinny, knob-kneed little nerd.

It was happening to her a lot lately. She'd be lying in bed masturbating for god's sake, a kaleidoscope of sweat-sheened studs writhing and panting through her brain, plugging all three orifices at once…when in walks Howard.

Jesus!

She guessed she did feel a little guilty. Poor guy. All alone in the Rain Forest, with his mushrooms and his fungus, his sample bags and his mosquito nets. He'd died loving her…

My god. She was about to start crying.

Over Howard!

The phone rang. She lunged for it.

"Johnny!"

The voice on the other end was loaded to the gills but she was still perfectly glad to hear it.

"Go for a ride, babe? A little dancing maybe, then maybe a little…”

“Get your gorgeous ass over here right now," she cooed.

* * *

Approximately one month previous, Howard Moley, mycologist, botanical scholar, and jilted lover, looked down in dismay at the dead ocelot. Creek scum filmed the animal's fine spotted fur. It had crossed the river just east, which struck Howard as odd. Why? he wondered. Why did you cross the river?

Ocelots were known to avoid water in all but life-threatening situations. This seemed strange. Stranger still were the dozens of bright and nearly blood-red bracki??? that studded the animal's hide. Most brackets or shelf fungi were saprophytic — they grew on stumps or dead trees. But this one clearly demonstrated a mammalian-capable mycelium, meaning that its food-support could be absorbed from dead animal tissue. This was very rare among stemless mushroom phyla.

In fact Howard had never seen a shelf fungus like this. The bright scarlet color, the white gill-like sporaphores, the razor-sharp ridges. Another new genus, he realized.

He'd already discovered several dozen unindexed thallophytesbodied fungus. Zoned polyphores, clitopili, tricholomas, rough-stemmed paneoli. The grid-by-grid burning of the forests was making passage to areas virtually unexplored. The collection teams were all going nuts — new insects, new reptiles, new birds, new plants. Everywhere. And lots of new fungi.

Howard unslung his pack and knelt at the ocelot carcass, removing a specimen container. A cellulose gel lined each container to keep the specimen fed. Fungi didn't need sunlight. No chloroplasts. Instead they procured carbohydrates from dead plant matter. And sometimes dead animal matter. Vermilius Moleyus, Howard dubbed it, and with forceps withdrew one of the bright-red bracket scales from the ocelot's hide. But then—

Clara, he thought quite suddenly.

These days not even the distraction of discovery lasted. Even here, where stepping on the tiniest snake could mean death, where a wrong turn could leave you skinned alive by a Urueu-Wau-Wau tribe, all he could think of was Clara. Why hadn't she answered his letters?

He sat on a stump and stared, his knobby knees sticking out. Sweat drenched his khakis. All around him the vegetation teemed — hopping, dripping, crawling with life.

The enormity of the thought astonished him.

I'm sitting in the middle of the Rondonian Rain Forest, walking where no human being has ever walked, seeing things no human being has seen, discovering fungi life we didn't even know existed a week ago, and all I can think of is Clara.

Oh my god I love her so much.

Surely by now she'd forgiven what he'd said in haste and anger that night. How could she not, knowing how much he loved her? Everybody had arguments. Everybody made up again.

Why hadn't she written?

He removed his jungle hat, wiped his brow.

Even this far west of the Guapore Reserve he could smell the smoke.

It seemed sheer madness to destroy all this for grazeland and tin mining. The only wood they took out of the forest was the cherry and mahogany. The rest they burned. It was easier. The World Bank teams were long gone and the FUNAI officials had all been paid off.

No one cared.

They're going to destroy all this, he thought, this treasure trove of life, because it's the easiest way to decongest the cities. Just that. Insane.

He was a mycologist, not an activist. All he could do was what he knew best — isolate and identify any new thallophyte, acquire as much as he could before it was all gone. It was a pity but…

What the…?

He was staring down at the dead ocelot. It occurred to him now that the bright red brackets seemed to surround the animal.

He flipped it over. The big red scales covered the other side too. Which meant…

The implication couldn't be denied.

The ocelot had been carrying the fungus.

These things were growing on the ocelot while it was still alive. There were many types of fungi that lived parasitically on live animals — but only the lower orders. The mildews, yeasts and molds.

An advanced shelf fungus like this had never been known to grow on a live mammal.

Until now.

Oh my god, he thought. Oh my god.

Wait till I tell Clara!

Clara rolled her eyes. After all these letters dripping with lovelorn drivel now this one arrives, full of botanical revelry.

The boy she'd met at the bar last night was gone. The bed still smelled of his sweat. The young ones never last, she theorized. But at least this one had lasted four times.

She lay back naked against the pillows and read.

Dearest Clara,

I've made an unbelievable find. I've discovered a new thallophyte classification that is absolutely remarkable.

At first it appeared to be a typical deuteromycetic shelf fungus, unusual enough, though — and you will appreciate this — in that it possessed a mammalian parasitic propensity. I found it on the carcass of a dead ocelot that had crossed one of the tributaries of the Cautario River which cuts out of the nearly impenetrable Guapore Botanical Reserve. What, you may be thinking, could cause an ocelot to cross water through such a treacherous perimeter? I pondered the same, and fast realized the obvious. Of course! The animal was fleeing the northeast fires, and had no doubt picked up free spores during its trek.

It grows at an incredible rate, Clara, with a strangely fibrous and unusually active mycelic network. And the evidence is clear — the fungus body was growing while the animal was still alive! Absolutely unheard of for a deuteromycetes! It's beautiful, too. Large, blood-red ridge bodies and bright white sporaphores. Gorgeous!

I'm calling it Vermilius Moleyus. The journals will be bending over backward for the story. I'll be famous!

More later. The Team Leader and I are about to autopsy the ocelot. Argh! Please write.

I love you, Howard

She tossed the letter aside, rolled her eyes again.

He discovers some new shelf fungus and acts like it's the Holy Grail.

Why did he even write at all? She'd deliberately answered none of his letters. When was he going to see the light? She was having too much fun now even to think about Howard. Too much fun and too much… God I'm insatiable! she thought.

She reached for the phone. Just about anyone would do now, she realized, flipping through her address book.

Anyone but Howard.

The old professor's face thrust forward. "Do you know what you're saying?"

All at once, then, Howard did.

If it feels good, do it, thought Clara. And this felt incredible.

She'd picked up Barney and David at Kaggie's, one of the more raucous off-campus dance clubs — and now they were playing a delightful game called "Sandwich."

Clara was the cheese.

She felt squeezed in a vise of lust. The bed shimmied; she thought of a truck driving over railroad ties. This definitely scratched her itch, relentless alternating thrusts drawing in and out of her… lower places. Yes, Clara was the cheese, all right…

Her next orgasm went off like subsurface demolition.

They lay there three abreast in bed, lolling on one another as their sweat cooled. Clara's perfect, tanned skin felt shellacked. And these two guys? Meat-rack jocks. Typical 1.9-average campus boneheads whose only genuine endeavor seemed to revolve around the perpetual emptying of their seminal vesicles. It was too bad the university didn't offer a B.A. in intercourse; they'd each put the proverbial blocks to her three times already, and it wasn't even midnight yet. They were, in other words, perfect male specimens as far as Clara was concerned.

"Well," Barney said, "now that we've played Sandwich, how about we play another game?"

"We could play doctor," Clara suggested, fully unabashed in her gleaming nakedness.

"Sounds good to me," David offered, stroking his elephantine penis just as unabashedly. "And it just so happens that Dr. David has a first class proctoscope."

"Let's play Ballgame instead," Barney countered.

"Ballgame?"

"Yeah, and tonight's a doubleheader. Get it?"

Barney began to stroke himself too. "Or how about just a good old all-American game of Hide the Salami?"

"Maybe I'm a vegetarian," Clara slyly remarked.

"In that case, honey, I've got a summer squash that'll make your day!"

Jock laughter erupted forth. Both their penises, hard yet again, bounced like springboards. But then Barney interjected:

"Say, I wanted to ask you something. Is it true you date Howard Moley?"

Jesus! Howard again! "Don't be ridiculous. We went out a few times, that's all. It was…an aberration…"

"I heard you were gonna marry him," David added.

"Howard Moley?" Clara lied. "Are you kidding?"

"No, huh? So then what's this?"

He reached over to the nightstand. Howard's latest love letter lay open there.

Shit!

"I noticed all the pretty postage on the envelope. Noticed it right away."

She tried to grab at it. Her breasts bobbed in his face. He kissed the still-moist surface of one of them and held the letter out of reach, laughing. Turning to read.

"Come on! Give me that!"

"Hmmm. Sounds like things are still on to me."

"Give me a break! He's nuts. It's not my fault. The guy…imagines things. He keeps writing me these crazy love letters! Like he's supposed to mean something to me. I haven't answered one of them. Doesn't matter. He just keeps on writing."

David laughed. "So you want him to get the message and he won't. That it?"

"Exactly."

"Got a Polaroid?"

Clara's brow creased. "Yeah. In the closet."

David got up and went to the closet. She admired his muscled backside and then admired the rest of him when he turned around.

"Loaded?"

"I think so."

"So let's send Howard some pix!"

"Hey. Terrific idea!" said Barney.

The smile blossomed on her face. "You guys are geniuses," she said. The mere idea, in fact, filled her more than plenteous bosom with wanton heat. More heat trickled elsewhere.

She took on Barney first while David played close-up lensman. "Say hello to Peter," Barney introduced. "Peter likes to be talked to." The flash popped as her mouth engulfed his penis. "I'll bet you always wanted to be in pictures, huh?" David suggested. Another flash pop as Clara climbed over Barney and put it inside her. And then again as she rode him, his hands squeezing her breasts.

David was using a lot of film but it didn't matter.

There was another pack around there somewhere.

* * *

The forest teemed with vibrant color. Insects buzzed the mosquito net. Strange birds whooped and cawed.

The forest didn't care.

Three of them were dead.

Three of the team's five members. Howard and the elderly team leader lay in a field medical station in a grubby thatch-and-mud village called Alta Lidia, consuming IV Ampicillin. Tomorrow they'd be helicoptered to the hospital in Vilhena.

"They're treating us like lepers!" the TL complained, noting that the sullen medics had roped their cots off at the far edge of the station, that they wouldn't come near them without rubber gloves and face masks.

The TL looked like death already in his netted cot. Nevertheless he managed the energy to rail at Howard.

"You goddamn idiot! We were breathing those spores for over a day! You and your rare fucking thallophyte. We're going to die, you asshole! Do you realize that?"

Howard ignored him. It was a whole lot better and perhaps, even more profitable, to lie there thinking about Clara, to let her memory caress him like a sweet breeze from home. He remembered all the sweet things she'd said to him, the times she'd said she loved him, her promises of fidelity, their affectionate way of making love. In Clara he had something to live for — something real and strong. Providence would not allow him to die.

It only remained to try to reassure the white-haired TL. He was obviously suffering.

"Try to relax," Howard said. "Most spore infections are no different from any foreign bacterial invasion. Simple antibiotics will knock them out. We'll be fit as fiddles and back in the States in no time. Guaranteed."

"Goddamn you, you goddamn asshole," the TL sputtered.

And gurgled and died. Coughing up a gossamer mist of fine white spores.

* * *

Clara felt kinda bad.

Just because Howard was a dufus, she didn't suppose he deserved this.

Dearest Clara,

The entire Team is dead, save for yours truly. Vermilius Moleyus, it seems, possesses a highly activated replication mechanism, air-dispersible. We all inhaled the spores. I'm at the main hospital now in Alta Lidia, on an impressive array of antibiotics. Thank god the med unit arrived in time. Please don't worry, I'm going to be okay.

Soon I'll be home and in your arms again, Clara.

My love for you is stronger than ever. I can actually feel it growing every day. I close my eyes and see us walking hand in hand. I see us growing old together. There's just no room in me for depression or worry over this. I'm so full of you.

My love always, Howard

She sighed. The poor blind sap. Sick, lonely, holed up in some awful South American hospital — and still thinking she loved him.

Well, her own letter would finally cure that.

It made her feel a bit shitty, knowing he'd receive it bedridden, sick, a thousand miles away. All those pictures. All those positions.

Her most recent pickup stirred beside her on the bed. Young, muscular, and very enduring. Nickname "Cucumber," and for a reason that was more than understandable. His eyes slitted open, his face half buried in the pillows. The monumental turgidity against Clara's thigh reassured her.

"A little more cream for your kitty?" Cucumber inquired.

Clara brazenly spread her legs.

"Meow," she replied.

* * *

The doctor's voice sounded muffled behind the baby-blue surgical mask. He was American, one of the last U.N. Assessment Group members, so at least he spoke English. At least Howard could understand the words, however grim.

"I regret to say, Mr. Moley, that the blood tests don't look promising. The spores…"

Howard coughed white dust, his throat aching like a strep infection even as he interrupted.

"I don't get it. The spores are a simple unicellular gamete! Even the weakest antibiotics will kill them."

The doctor's eyes were small and hard above the blue mask. "The blood-born mechanism of these particular spores, Mr. Moley, seems to be functioning identically to that of a lipid-aggregating virus. Once in the bloodstream they encloak themselves with medium- and low-density serum triglycerides, so they're able to protect themselves from all immune-system response and antibiotic therapy. In other words, Mr. Moley…"

Howard waved him off. He didn't need to finish. Already Howard's body had fully broken out in the bright red ridges of the fungal shelf. Some were quite large, the size of coffee saucers cut in half. Because of the tough, fibrous mycelium which had grown through his body like a web of wires, they couldn't be removed. He could feel smaller ones growing in his mouth, in his nostrils, even at the edges of his eyelids.

Yesterday he'd lifted his hospital gown to check his groin. No penis remained visible. Just a sharp red nest of glistening fungal ridges. In other words, he finished for the doctor, I'm going to die. "We'll do everything we can to keep you comfortable," he said. Howard nodded.

"Here's a letter for you, by the way. If you like, I'll open it and read it to you. If that's easier."

A letter!

"No!" He reached out a fungus-chipped hand. "Please. Leave."

The lovely florid script was Clara's. His pulse rose. Suddenly, in spite of the terminal prognosis, he felt blazing with light.

The light of love, he realized.

And Clara had at last written back to him, to verify her own love.

I can die now, he thought, even before opening the pink perfumed envelope. He did not fear death now. He wouldn't die alone and forgotten.

She's written. She still loves me.

His scaled fingers fumbled. His ridged face drew up in the brightest smile.

Out dropped a stack of Polaroids.

He looked at the letter. It contained one line.

Here's how much I love you.

His eyes felt held open by fish hooks. His heart slugged in his chest as his blood reverted to sludge.

His scale-encrusted fingers flipped through the deck of photos one by one. Each picture, once its image registered, felt like a shovel of grave dirt dropped into his face.

* * *

It was a bright, wickedly hot Saturday afternoon when Clara learned of Howard's death. She'd been walking back to her dorm from the quadrangle where she sunned herself every day in a white Bill Blass string bikini. A good tan was top priority. She was surprised how few women strove to be appreciated; Clara's most personal goal was to turn every male head she passed, and it was a goal she'd long since achieved. It particularly tickled her to know that the two campus day-shift cops went out of their way to scope her on the quad with binoculars every day. She'd always give them a show, to tease them up. Yeah, it's nice to be appreciated. Her body, and the extent she went to keep it looking good, she regarded as an aspect of her womanhood which deserved to be celebrated. And, well… It's also a great way to reel in cock, she thought, and a woman like Clara — she needed to reel in a lot of that.

But—

She'd stopped at the Student Union for a campus paper. And there it was in boldface.

ASSISTANT BOTANY PROFESSOR DIES IN RAIN FOREST

Poor Howard. The genus of shelf-fungus that was going to make him famous had also killed him. A "blood-born spore infection," the article reported. "Antibiotic resistant."

A heavy grief settled over Clara like a weighted net.

It lasted for all of two minutes.

Because suddenly there were Barney and David, coming through the lobby, smiling. David in his tight jeans, Barney in his more fashionable khaki baggies. Muscles straining their tank tops, and something else straining at their groins.

"Sandwich anyone?" asked Barney.

And Clara was hungry.

It was weeks later that she received his final letter, delayed by overseas mail.

She read it over, thankful that he'd obviously died before getting those awful Polaroids she'd sent. They'd been weighing on her conscience lately.

Dearest Clara, the letter said. I still love you.

Howard

It was shorter than usual, thank god.

"Rest in peace," she muttered, and tossed the letter into the garbage.

* * *

I'm a monster, he'd thought, giggling as he plodded toward the nurses' station. Walking didn't come easy. Not when your body sprouted hundreds of fungal shelf bodies. But he plodded on, inspired to the very end by love.

At 4 a.m. the floor was vacant, the skeleton crew of nurses all busy with their bed checks.

Howard crunched across the floor.

Writing had been harder even than walking, yet his scarlet, scaleencrusted hand had eventually penned his final love letter to Clara Holmes. Before he'd sealed the envelope he'd coughed up several million white spores onto the letter, invisible against the paper. By now the tendrillike mycelium of Vermilius Moleyus had wormed into his brain. He could think only in snatches. Air…dispersible…

…blood-born…

…via inhalation…

He shuffled down the hall to the desk, then shuffled back to his bed, where he died moments later, his ridge-studded face set in the faintest of smiles. Love had prevailed. No one had seen him place his letter in the OUT box on the counter of the nurses' station.

* * *

"Just our luck, huh," Straker was still complaining. "I look forward to a gander at that dish every day. I mean, she might as well be wearing dental floss."

Bilks frowned. No gander today. Where the hell is she?

Just as the car backed out of the undergrad library lot, their radio started squawking. "Campus Unit 208, 82 with guard at Morril Hall, Room 304. Investigate possible Signal 22."

Bilks frowned. He frowned a lot. "10-4," he answered.

"What the fuck's a Signal 22?"

"Unknown trouble," Bilks recited off the code sheet.

"Some call. Shit." Straker pulled onto Campus Drive. "What was that loke again?"

"Morril Hall, 304." He checked the student directory. And stared. "Anybody we know?"

"Morril Hall, room 304. Clara M. Holmes."

"What's this 22 shit?" Bilks asked.

The security guard, a criminal justice major part-timing, seemed fidgety. "Complaints about a smell."

"You don't say. Stinks worse than a Georgia hoghouse."

"No answer when I knocked. And her car's in the lot."

Bilks nodded. A moment later the floor RA appeared, a chubby blonde in flip flops and an avocado sundress. "What is that?" she asked, her nose crinkling.

"We won't know what till you open up," said Bilks.

The girl unlocked the door with her master. Took one glance into the room and fainted.

The stench hit them like a runaway truck. The security guard turned away and threw up in the hallway. Bilks and Straker gagged as they entered the cramped room.

Time to go back to the city, thought Bilks.

At first he wasn't even sure the thing on the bed was human. But it had to be. Despite the mass of queer, flat, glistening red ridges, like slimy chips of stone, that covered the body so completely you couldn't see an inch of flesh between them. It had to be because the thing had a head — topped by short butter-blonde hair, neatly coiffed.

That, and a white string bikini.

Masks

"The bedroom's down this hall," he said. "You'll find a box at the foot of the bed. I'd like you to wear what's inside. Only what's inside." He smiled and poured them each a second glass of cognac, handed one to her. The crystal sang against her fingernail. She drank and touched the delicate silver chain around his neck, felt its warmth between her thumb and forefinger — his warmth — and let it fall.

She turned to do as he said. On the wall in front of her was a mounted stone image of the triadic Shiva Maheshvara. The face on the left was female, on the right, male. In the center, the mask of Eternity. An ancient masterpiece. Where in God's name had he plundered this? she thought.

Below, on a pedestal, stood a terracotta figurine from Tlatilco over seven hundred years old — the dual-faced "pretty lady" that the Toltecs buried with their dead. And on the opposite wall, a relief carving in black granite. Kali. His apartment was filled with treasures. Scythian goldwork. Bassari and pre-Christian Polynesian sculpture. The restored fragments of twelfth-century Norman mosaics — two of them — occupying an entire wall in the living room. A "Harrowing of Hell" from a fifteenth-century psalter. The dealer/collector in her was reeling.

So was the woman.

It wasn't the cognac. It was the man. This man.

She'd waited a lifetime for one who just might be her equal. "Christine," he said.

She turned and saw him backlit by the glow of the fireplace. He raised his glass to his lips. "When you get in there, be sure to light the candles."

His bedroom was modest and spare, though every piece spoke quietly of his taste. A simple walnut mirror hung over a Hepplewhite chest of drawers. An old, primitive oak wardrobe that had probably once belonged to the servant class. A Saladino bookcase, a Louis XVI writing table and a Louis XV bergère. A William and Mary four-poster bed.

Two candles stood on the Louis XVI, two more on an inlaid cherry nightstand by the bed. Wooden matches lay in a Georg Jensen silver pit plate. She lit the candles and turned off an oil lamp.

From the wall beside the bed sprang a wooden Magalenian atlatl carved in the shape of a horse. Yet another masterpiece.

Christ…

A plain white hatbox sat on the bed. She opened it, parted the taupe tissue within.

And stared into the face of an African lioness.

Magnificent.

She touched it. The fur was real, smooth and soft in the direction of its growth and courser as she moved her fingers against the grain. A soft linen lining had been sewn in. Rich creamy leather fashioned the wide nose and think dark lips and carbon-black lashes seemed to flutter above each eye slit — she could not imagine what time and care it had taken to do this. Perfect, genuine whiskers lanced from the snout.

She picked it up. Her fingers teased around the edges. Some sort of plate obviously had been slipped inside to give the mask some rigidity, plastic or thin wood. The mask felt surprisingly light, delicate as Tibetan silk. Beautiful, she mused.

The ears lay back flat against the head. They and the open mouth gave the lioness an appearance of waiting. She could almost see her in the tall, waving grass of some veldt. Crouched, scenting the wind.

She stepped out of her kidskin heels, unzipped the back of her dress and allowed it to flow down her shoulders, heard its silky hiss to the floor. She draped it carefully over the back of the bergère. Then the stockings and the black slip and finally the sheer lace bodysuit. She stood naked before the mirror, aware that already she was participating in some sort of arcane ceremony with him. That this was not just sex but ritual. The thought excited her in the way that sex itself hadn't for a very long time.

Her body was the object of that ceremony.

Her body…and the mask.

She'd never had a child. She had never allowed the tight smooth flesh to disappear. At forty her body still deserved to wear the mask. She took it to the mirror.

There was no strap. It was designed to extend across the back of the skull almost to the neck. Her own coiffed hair was nearly the same color of the lioness' fur. She could simply tuck it in.

She slipped it on.

The fit was perfect.

She leaned in close to the mirror and turned her head from right profile to left. Then stepped back and gazed at herself.

The mask hugged her like a second skin.

She was aware that she was trembling. It was warm in the room but her nipples had gone rigid, dark.

A cat, she thought.

A predator.

You've never been so beautiful

Trace sweat gathered between her breasts. In the mirror she saw the door open slowly behind her.

He stepped silently into the room. He'd changed into a sheer, plum-colored kimono. She saw him smile at her image. She turned.

"You like it?"

"Stephen, it's… spellbinding."

"I'm glad," he said.

He moved across the room to the bed, reached beneath it and withdrew a second box. He smiled again.

"It's Tutsi, isn't it?"

His smile widened as though impressed. Or…

"You knew this was coming, didn't you?"

She nodded, smiling too beneath the mask.

He opened the box, extricating its contents from the tissue. He looked up at her and opened the kimono and let it fall off his shoulders. He was naked. She saw that, like her, the years had barely breathed upon his body.

In his hand he raised the massive head, its mane trailing eighteen inches at least. Its dark wide mouth hung open in a howl.

He drew it on over his head.

She sensed the sudden pull of him as he held his arms out to her and she saw the shadow of his erection, saw the muscles of his arms twitch and the muscles of his shoulders. She crossed the distance between them and the supple grace of her walk seemed like something unknown and new to her.

She knew what sex with him would be like. Something crimson. A crimson gash in time.

She wanted his hands on her, the long polished nails tearing.

She gazed into the eyes behind the mask, saw them flick across her body like the tongue of a whip. Were his eyes different somehow? No, she thought—just hungry. His hands were electric as he reached for her — power flowing from fingertips, bared ends of wires. Power that had nothing to do with wealth or position or even intellect, but something deeper and much older.

She could feel it clawing out of her too. A power of her own which very nearly matched him.

Already she could taste his blood.

The sheets were streaked with blood.

It was morning.

The masks lay beside them on the bed.

She watched him sleep.

He was Stephen and she was Christine and they lay in bed in a Manhattan loft in Soho. Outside, below the windows, were shops and galleries. One of them was her own — she, Christine, with a masters in history and an doctorate in art — who had never wanted for anything nor ever failed at anything, born of New York privilege, who had been engaged not once, but twice, only to find each man bereft and even empty in both the moral courage to stand up to her and the wisdom not to try. Who had neither regretted these men nor missed them. Who had been quite content alone to this very moment.

Below too and uptown were Stephen Gannet's offices — Gannett Financial Services, snapping at the heels of giants like Paine Webber, Salomon Smith Barney, Dreyfus, and outperforming all of them. He said he'd been in the military once but he didn't seem the type. Before and after, he said, he'd prowled the world while his curious fortunes amassed. He'd been on digs but spoke of them as though bored. She only knew a little about him. Fortune suggested a net personal wealth exceeding ten billion dollars. She'd looked him up. In the financial world the fact that he chose to live in SoHo was considered eccentric if not downright crazy. He supported the arts and was notorious for ignoring all other forms of charity.

They'd met at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, at a benefit for the Lincoln Center Library of the Peforming Arts. They'd talked about sculpture, architecture, Expressionism and Post-Impressionism, and Post Neo-Expressionism. She found him more than knowledgeable. And amazingly attractive.

They went to bed. And now…

Her body ached, stung.

Claw marks etched her breasts and thighs. She could feel their sting glowing across her back.

Yet she'd given as good as she'd received. You only had to look at his shoulders.

Cats, she thought. A mating of lions.

God knows what we did.

She could remember only in knifelike flashes of flesh on flesh, torso to torso, torso to back. She remembered him pulling so astonishingly hard at her nipples that she came merely from that. At some point they'd discarded the masks to use their mouths, their tongues, their teeth, but that seemed to change none of the scarlet animal fury of their lovemaking. Something had worked its way inside them. Some primal kiss of fantasy, some gossamer thing that lit her nerves and dropped her into fiery bliss.

She'd come, it seemed, for hours on end.

"Morning," he said.

"Good morning."

"Any regrets?"

"Not a one."

"Good. That's good."

Her eyes took him in. Her thoughts could not. The words just seemed to slip out of her.

"Who are you?" she said.

He smiled. "A collector, nothing more. Rich by accident and then design. Much like you." She watched him idly trace a scratch on his neck with his index finger. A scratch she'd made the night before.

"I collect little pieces of cultures, anything that's left. So damn much has been plundered. There's truth in those pieces, you know — and power in truth. You could say I try to collect some of that power. All too often those little pieces scattered all the hell over the world provide the only remnants of entire civilizations."

Little pieces? Her eyes accessed the room. His nonchalance astonished her. So much of what he referred to as "little pieces" were actually priceless relics. Each room in his apartment could be a mini-museum worth millions.

"You must've been everywhere," she said.

"Nearly, I suppose. From Troy to Knossos to Ninevah. From Hastings to Golgotha to the Seven Hills of Rome. Yes." His voice darkened. "From cenotes to ziggurats."

Fascinating. But his previous words resurfaced, like shadows standing just behind her. Little pieces. Power. Truth.

The wounds of his passion radiated on her skin.

She shook her head. "I wish I could remember…"

"What happened? Last night?"

"Yes. Not that it really matters. It was… wonderful."

His face grew stolid. Like a mask.

"Of course it matters. Do you want to know what happened? I mean what really happened?"

She nodded.

"It was the masks. The masks happened."

"The masks…yes, but…"

He leaned up on one elbow. "We're living in an age that's been so thoroughly demythologized, there's nothing left. You know that Christine — you know that as well as anybody in our field because you see it every day in your gallery. Art today has no mythology. Which is why so much of it is empty, drained of its real vitality, exsanguinated. And why we prefer the works of former eras, other cultures, things…so…old."

He was right of course. They'd known instantly they had that in common.

"People think that masks are about nothing more than children at Halloween. But take a good look at Mardi Gras and you see what masks can do. Even today. People get monumentally, fabulously drunk. They trash the streets. They do drugs they wouldn't ordinarily touch. And they fornicate with anything that moves — regardless of gender. The masks release them, Christine. The masks separate the chaff from the real seeds of the soul. But what they forget, and what we know, is that all they're doing is tapping into a kind of vestigial power based on a much, much earlier magic. When the powers that the masks invoke weren't just psychological. They were far-reaching. Cosmic, limitless, without parameter."

He smiled.

"There are no parameters," he said.

"You're saying we did that? Tapped into…"

"Something we don't understand. And why? Because the parameters don't belong to us. So much is scattered. So many cultures, so many different visions… There's so much to dissimulate, you know?" His bare shoulders shrugged. “What do you think?"

He lifted a finger, traced the claw marks on her breasts, then down her belly, then across her soft white thighs.

She shuddered, then laughed.

"I think it bears…further investigation," she said.

"So do I."

* * *

They arrived in a Rolls Royce White Shadow. Date of manufacture: 1916. Original owner: Nicholas Romanov.

The crowd at the door parted for them immediately.

The Rolls matched their own plumage. The white owl was Athena's bird.

Athena. Wisdom. War.

The feathers of her mask were real, luxuriantly arranged over a light wire frame with a soft satin lining, which was then affixed to the lined insert. The beak was a carven???(carved or craven?) horn.

Stephen's was a faceplate of pressed gold — the image, perhaps, of the sun god Apollo. Athena's brother.

They wore white satin floor-length cloaks and when they handed them to the woman at the club entry they were naked but for the masks, and wholly anonymous. She stood silent while patrons stared. To the pressure rings on her nipples he attached two long silver chains, trailing them down across her belly and reattaching them to two more rings on each of the lips of her labia.

They moved slowly side by side down the long dark hall and the crowd parted for them a second time.

Heavy chains and black leather manacles hung from walls and ceiling. A fat man tied by ropes to the steps of a wooden ladder was being whipped with a riding crop by his mistress. Few bothered watching.

Another man hung suspended from the roof of an iron cage. A crowd had gathered inside to watch two women insert needles through the flesh of his thighs and arms, swabbing at the specks of blood with balls of cotton. Further on, a rail-thin, multi-tattooed young woman was being racked by two hooded men in black leather pants and naked to the waist. They too had attracted their admirers. But Christine felt all those eyes shift to her as they passed in a tide of speculation.

Many had begun to follow.

He led her to a low dais inside another cage. She raised her arms to the manacles above her head and spread her legs wide to the shackles on the floor. The crowd gathered, grew, jockeyed for position. Captive bird. He gently removed the first chains and then the rings from her nipples and labia and then turned and spoke to the crowd.

Behind them, music blared. Slayer. Danzig. Killing Joke.

They heard him in spite of it. Not quite believing at first — not quite having heard or seen exactly this before. There were sidelong glances and nervous laughter. They hadn't seen this coming.

Nor, for that matter, had she.

"My sister," he said. "I give her to you. To touch, to know. To love as you see fit. One caveat. No pain."

Nods from the crowd, eagerly submitting.

The hunger in their eyes, and the smell of oil and leather.

He stepped aside. The sun god offering up his bounty.

She felt the touch of a dozen hands — male and female — all at once, stroking, squeezing her breasts and thighs, her ass, a finger probing delicately inside her ass, another in her sex, flicking, rolling the aching clitoris, moving slowly in and out, moving wetly across her belly, replaced inside by two more fingers, then three, then four, male and female both, stretching her wide into a pink fleur-de-lis, the tongue of a tall black woman moving deep inside her mouth, hands and heat and lips and teeth gently biting, gently pulling at her swollen nipples tender from the pressure rings and the long, deep scent of human breath and human flesh.

She felt serene. Soaring. Stroked by a dozen hot winds.

The white bird sailing through the night.

And came and came again.

In the dream she stared, amazed. Beyond the dusk she saw cities, or things like cities. Cities so old they were black. Odd architectures which extended along a vanishing line of horrid lightlessness. A raging terra incognito. Horizons crammed with stars sparkled close against cubist chasms. She saw buildings and roads, or things like roads, tunnels and pyramids and strange flattened edifices whose chimneys gushed oily smoke. It was a necropolis, systematized and endless, endless as eons. Squat, stygian churches sang praise to mindless gods. Ataxia the only order. Darkness the only light.

She lay paralyzed in the black, muttering dream. Small, soft nubs prodded her. Hands, or things like hands, reached out to touch her rice-paper flesh.

She saw it all. She saw time tick backward, death bloom into life, whole futures swallowed deep into the belly of history.

* * *

In the night she awoke to the sound of him crying.

He no longer lay in bed with her. He sat naked in the dark at an Edgewood secretary, its mahogany writing lid opened.

A hand-dipped candle flickered.

"What? What's the matter?" she said.

Sleep had refreshed her. Even the dream, so oddly terrifying, seemed to rekindle her. His crying had thrust her into consciousness. Into strangeness. Not the dream.

"Stephen?"

"I'll lose you," he said.

"No you won't."

"Of course I will."

"Come to bed. You're not going to lose me."

A pause in the fluttering light. "You'll be the first then," he said. "Yes. I'll be the first. Now come to bed."

The Windsor chair creaked when he rose. The candlelight licked his skin. She stopped him as he crossed the room.

"And bring the masks," she said.

Then later, lamb and wolf.

He was the wolf.

Nanticoke, she guessed. Or Wicomico or Conoye. Tribes which had thrived along the Chesapeake from 10,000 B.C. until the 1600s, when England had christened the New World with metallurgy, gunpowder, and smallpox. These masks were possibly all that remained of them.

She was the lamb — in rut, squirming beneath the cunning predator. The masks clicked when their faces touched. They were wood, hand-carved a thousand years ago by shark-tooth awls gingerly tapped with hammers of flat slate. Both, again, had been laced to the linen-covered insert plates, the eyeholes of which matched exactly those of the masks.

The wolf's eyes hovered over her. They seemed strangely murky-blue, not like his eyes at all, nor a wolf's. For a moment they stopped her. She looked at the eyes behind the mask as if studying something acrostic. Sumerian cuneiform. Druidic glyphs. The Runes of the ancient Norse.

Mindless now. Something as dead as all those languages.

She sensed sapor and heat. She felt the flavor of his sweat and tasted the sound of his panting breath. She lay impaled, pinned to the bed, writhing beneath him, staring up into the otherness of his eyes. And then suddenly he reached up, tore the wolf-mask from his head and his mouth was at her breast — suckling her, suckling at the lamb and pulling hard and long, drawing the breastflesh deep and then deeper into his mouth and raking her nipple with his teeth, squeezing the breast with his hand, milking her, so that she felt something give and rise inside her, a small thick pulsing flow. Her eyes rolled upward, her teeth crimped her lower lip.

Then the lamb was felled.

Sated, the wolf rolled off her, slaked. The veneer of sweat cooled her skin as it dried. She continued to orgasm briefly, little pelvic stutterings, long after he'd withdrawn. Her breast ached. The tracery of scratches on her body felt luminous, sensorial glitter running along her nerves.

Jesus, she thought, her breath husky beneath the mask. She glanced over and saw a thick drool across his lips. Her own milk like semen on his face. Blood of the Lamb.

She fell asleep…

…and dreamed again. The strange, milky-blue eyes peered querulously at her. She lay naked, procumbent now. The lamb before the slaughter?

No, this wasn't like that. Beyond the scape of sheer black, she heard muttering. It seemed echoic, sullen. Small, soft things entered her, not simply her orifices, but between her fingers, between her lacquered toes. Then, wet speckling. Cold. Hands, or things like hands, smoothed over her sleek back, down her thighs, the backs of her calves, the bottoms of her feet.

One climax after the next, subtle yet strangely powerful and so different. Her mind felt like a labyrinth now, an Eighth Century Chinese puzzle box only now beginning to open.

What had he said?

You'll be the first, then.

The climaxes seemed to be extracted from her, a long string of warm beads, little animals let loose…

And the black muttering drew on and on.

Later she wakened again, her face hot behind the mask. She didn't want to remove it though. She didn't know why. Stephen slept silently beside her. The candle had burned to a stub, its light diminished. She slid out of bed, padded barefoot past countless relics of countless times and out of the room.

Down the carpeted hall.

In the den stood a Federal-Period highboy, circa 1760. Over it hung a British "Brown Bess" musket and below that a blunderbuss whose hand-forged barrel must have been made a century before that.

She noted the Stradivari in its frame, complete with rosined bow. On the facing wall hung a crude iron mask of Xipe, the Aztec god of good fortune. And beside it, Quetzelcoatl.

Would these be the masks they wore next?

Or would there even be a next?

And why had she wondered that?

She parted the French doors, stepped out into the evening's sultry heat. A moon the color of jack cheese blundered above a reef of lit clouds. She stretched on the balcony, feeling her muscles loosen, offering her nakedness to the moon. The street below remained half-alive — only stragglers from parties and bars and whatever, the tired sad dregs of the city out at four in the morning — but up here?

No one could see her but the gods.

Her dark nipples stood erect. She rubbed her navel with her finger and flinched. An electric sensation. Then she touched herself lower and sighed.

In the pearlescent moonlight she let her hands open over the tight contours of her body. More electricity. Through the double-layered eyeholes of the mask, she gazed upward.

The moon shifted to a blur.

The sky turned black-pink.

A hundred dead cultures, she thought. A thousand. They've all looked at this same moon. A century ago or fifty centuries.

Her mind flowed; something gripped her. She knew she loved him. She had no idea exactly how or exactly why. Only that she loved him more than she'd ever loved anyone in her life. It wasn't just passion, it was all of it. His sheer unknowable depth, his grasp of life and the flow of time and cultures. Even his strangeness, crying in the dark. And she thought that perhaps the loves of her past weren't loves at all but just a long line of spoor leading to the point of time in which she now stood. Naked. Satiated. Giddy and exuberant.

Her vision shifted, gazing high into the dark. Not a dream this time, but a waking scape of abstraction. The black muttering kissed at her ears. She rose on her tiptoes when she sensed the tiny proddings. She felt so different now and she knew it was because of him, because of Stephen.

The man of her dreams? Nothing quite so trite. A man forged of the world, a man with sensations so far removed from the fodder of flesh that was her past.

A man to love, to be a part of.

She let the night's caress release her, then drifted back inside. The mask — thick carved wood plus the insert — should have felt heavy by now, but instead it felt like translucent skin. Her gaze roved the room.

From Troy to Knossos to Ninevah, she thought as her eyes strayed over his relics.

He's been everywhere. Everywhere on earth.

She stopped before a Shogun mirror with fabric inlays. Her image — her masked image — looked back.

She was beautiful, but…

The eyes.

Blue as the ocean, with a skein of milk.

Not her eyes at all.

Unsettled, she whisked the mask off. Tricks of candlelight and scintillant passions. Her senses, right now, couldn't be trusted.

The Asian carpet felt warm under her bare feet. She still felt too restless to return to bed. She wandered back to the highboy, opened the center drawer set with mother of pearl and flower petals of white pine.

A folder in there, atop a strange mound of clutter. She picked up a piece of the clutter and found it rigid, yet thin as newsprint. A curved I-beam the color of balsa wood that didn't even flex when she tried to bend it. What was this stuff?

And what was in the folder?

She set the wooden lamb's mask on top of the highboy's veneered mantle. Slid out the folder and opened it.

Yellowed sheets of paper, along with grainy black-and-white photographs.

Here was a picture of Stephen, in a military uniform, bending over a long piece of something in the desert. So he had been a soldier after all. The thing looked similar to the cryptic balsa beam she'd just handled. Another photo showed the I-beam up close, with markings, much like glyphs, embossed along its center.

She picked a sheet of paper out of the folder at random and read:

TOP SECRET, SPECIAL ACCESS REQUIRED. TEKNA, BYMAN 21 April 1972

Dear Mr. President:

Enclosed you will find our official analysis of the aforementioned incident concerning the vehicle tracked by NORAD on 18 April 1972. Crash perimeter verified, 198NE, 2017S, near the Nellis Military Reservation. All Army CIC and recovery personnel have been properly debriefed. Recovered material now in transit via INSCOM Technical Escort Unit, 61st Ordnance, to W-P AFB. Please advise in compliance with AFR 200-1.

Stephen D. Gannett, Major General 0–7 Commander, Air Force Aerial Intelligence Group Fort Belvoir, Virginia, MJ-12/Dept. 4

She stared at the sheet as though it were a skiving of human skin in her hands. Behind her the door clicked open.

"From Troy to Knossos to Ninevah," came his flowing voice. "From Galilee to Agincourt to the blood-fields of Carthage where Hannibal lost his dream."

The room seemed to hush beneath her stare.

He was wearing the mask again but she could still see his eyes, the eyes so blue, with veins of milk. He stepped forward once, twice. A third time. Measured, even steps. His hands opened out like a preceptor on an ancient mount standing before smoking crevices and plinths of obsidian and granite dolmens encrusted with the blood of the innocent.

"And from Kingman to San Angelo to Roswell," he said. And now his voice resembled a sound akin to crumbling rocks. "There is such truth in little things Christine, be they from here or from places we can't conceive. The little things, in a sense, are ghosts that haven't quite given up all their flesh."

His eyes moved toward the highboy and something in her nearly understood.

She snatched up her own mask from its top. Her fingers pressed against it. The wooden lamb mask stared up inert. But beneath it… The insert. The satin-covered lining.

She untied the insert from the mask's carved holes. The mask clunked to the floor — dead wood and nothing more.

The covered insert lay in her hands now like something stillborn. She untied its velvet strings, slipped the insert from its delicate lining. And withdrew…a second mask.

It shone silver, like metal, in the candlelight.

It had no weight at all.

"So much power in truth, and so much truth in culture, Christine." His milky-blue eyes stared hard at her through the face of the carven wolf. "All cultures, all relics. It's a symbology of life, isn't it? Mythology needn't belong exclusively to us. We'd be stupid to believe that."

Only then did she fix her own eyes on the insert, on the mask within the mask.

What looked up at her was this:

A curved plate in the shape of an inverted pear. The tiniest slit for a mouth. Only a rudimentary bump for a nose.

And two spacious holes for eyes.

"In nearly all cultures, though," he said, "three is the charm." Her own eyes rose, then, back to him.

The wolf leapt.

And as the lamb was finally run to ground, the black muttering rose again from the deep, deep well of her soul.

Much louder this time.

It was nearly celebratory.

Eyes Left

Happy Hour at the World Cafe. 69th and Columbus.

At 4:30 after work, that was where we came. Neal from his studio and John from behind his camera over at ABC and yours truly from She Who Must Be Fed — otherwise known as Microsoft Word. Pretty much every day. There were other regulars who'd come and go but we three formed the core of it. We'd stand there talking at the bar, drinking and munching trail mix with Neal feeding the juke a couple dollars now and then to keep the blues and country flowing and so that John wouldn't start in with his goddamn Frank Sinatra.

You had to be careful with John and Sinatra. He'd play a whole CD and sooner or later he'd be singing along.

And we watched the ladies, of course.

Today was Neal's day On Point.

"Eyes left," he'd say.

That was what we did. Stake our claim on the liquor industry, tell jokes and bitch about life in general and listen to sweet blues and watch the women walk by along the hot summer sidewalk. We'd been doing it for years.

The only difference now was that some of the women were dead.

The women. They're the first best reason to love summer in New York City. The sidewalk outside the big plate glass window on Columbus brought along an endless procession of them — almost as though they were walking by just for us, just for the appreciation radiating out from inside. Sure, I know what you're thinking. A bunch of horny sexist pigs. Reducing women to the sum of their sexual parts. But it's not like that at all. At least not for me. For me there's a kind of reverence to it. All that beauty and diversity. All those blessings to our little lonesome planet walking around in shorts and tanks and halters. I'm serious.

You ask me, the best that fifty-one percent of the human species has to offer can be found right here in the City. L.A. just can't hold a candle to it. Neither can Boston or San Francisco. You don't believe me? Come over to the World Cafe some time and sip your Bud and keep your eyes on that window.

Of course it's a little different now.

You can mostly tell the dead by the grayish look to the skin or of course if they've been mutilated in some way but from the distance of bar to sidewalk not by much else. You might notice that the hair had little sheen maybe. That the sun didn't catch it right. But you had to get up close to see the clouded eyes or the blue fingernails and you didn't usually want to get that close. If you did, that was what your sidearm was for. And none of us had shot one in a long time, male or female, old or young, and didn't care to.

The dead walk briskly in Manhattan, just like everybody else. Thing is, they have no place to go. The law protects them now, at least to some extent, but they're not allowed to work jobs or have careers. They get food stamps, welfare, public housing. I pretty much always felt sorry for them. Sure, a small percentage get out of line now and then, would rape somebody, mug somebody, rob a liquor store. But no more than the living.

Most of the bum rap they got came from the cannibalism thing. That's what the crazy ones would do, kill regular folks and eat them. There was a lot of hysteria over that at first. That's when the mayor revoked the Sullivan Law and passed the concealed-carry ordinance. But once the Army retrieval squads rounded up the crazy ones you didn't hear much about cannibalism anymore. Hardly ever.

Fact is, the dead don't seem to fuck up any more than the living. It's a simple, primitive prejudice against a minority, nothing more. Sure, you wanted to be careful, just like you wanted to be careful of a lot of things and people in New York. But I'd stopped carrying my own gun a long time ago. A lot of us did.

Still, it was kind of like a game with us, a bar contest.

Seeing who could pick out the dead ones.

"Eyes left."

This one sure wasn't dead. Chestnut hair tied back long and gleaming, tan shoulders glowing in the sun. Curve City too, if you know what I mean. The silky dandelion-print dress seemed spun onto her. Low cut and no bra.

"Jesus," said John, "are those nipples or fuckin' spark plugs?"

John could be crude but he had a point so to speak. Her nipples were extremely elongated and hard, like they wanted to spike through the fabric. "If they're sparkplugs," Neal said, "maybe they need to be regapped. Know a good mechanic?"

"Notice that nipples are back this year?" I said. "For a while you hardly ever saw them."

John nodded solemnly. "It's a good thing. It's a godsend."

Then she was gone and two pretty smiling Goths walked by dressed in black, chrome nubs glittering in their vampire-red lips. It's eighty degrees out there and they're wearing black. They were holding hands. "You gotta love this town," I said, smiling.

We turned back to our drinks and talked about Tom Waits on the juke. Neal had seen him fall off his piano stool in Nashville. Whether it was part of the act was still open to question.

"Eyes left."

John let out a low whistle. "Can you say chest fruit?"

"No, but I can say mammiferous," I said. "Can you?"

"What she needs," said Neal, "is an exemplary and thorough breast examination, care of Dr. Neal, to be promptly followed by regular pants-sausage injections on a daily basis."

"What if she's a vegetarian?" said John.

"Then I've got a plantain that'll change her life."

"You guys are terrible," I said.

"Listen to him," John said. "We're terrible and he's standing there cross-legged."

Then it was back to the drinks and talk again. Cigarettes had gone up nearly fifty cents. Rent control was once more being threatened in the legislature. ABC grips were considering a walkout. The usual New York bullshit. Then, "Eyes left," again.

"Call it," John said. "Dead or alive."

"Alive," Neal said but then his squint grew narrower.

I knew she was dead before she was halfway by the window. "Dead," I said. Easy on the eyes at first, sure. But then you caught the autopsy staples showing in the gap between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her peach blouse. She glanced in at us and you could see it in the eyes.

"The winner!" said John. "Anna, get this gentleman another Dewar's on me and another Heiny for myself."

"What am I," Neal said, "chopped liver?"

"And a plate of chopped liver for Dr. Neal of the exemplary breast exams."

These guys. I mean, you can't take them anywhere.

Anna knew us all pretty well by then though and poured refills for everybody. No chopped liver made an appearance. We drank.

"Gustavo told me a story last night," Neal said. "About those apartments over the flower shop. Hey, where the hell were you two guys last night, anyway?"

John shrugged. "I was home doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle and listening to ole Blue Eyes. What, you go out every night? I had to work today. Not everybody's an artiste and makes his own fuckin' hours. Some of us gotta work in the morning, y'know?"

"I was on the computer," I said. "Online from about ten to midnight. They did another Dead Chat last night."

Neal made a face. "Why do you bother with that shit?"

"He's a voyeur," John said, "of the dead."

"No, I just like hearing what they have to say. And let me tell you, they have some stories. When they start writing novels I'm really fucked.”

“Eyes left."

We looked. "Hubba hubba," Neal said.

A real head-turner. Tall and sleek with mile-long legs walking along like a runway model in this sheer off-the-shoulder top and flowing organdy dress. Lots of jewelry and fiery red hair.

The redheads always get to me.

Behind us Anna laughed. "You perverts! She's dead!"

She was right. When she turned her head you could see the long, unhealed gash along the side of her throat. Like somebody had tried to cut her head off but didn't quite make it.

John groaned.

"So much for hubba hubba," I said.

Neal ordered a plate of fried calamari and Anna went to place the order with the kitchen. We watched her too. Anna was quite a looker herself but way off bounds. You didn't mess around with your bartender.

"So? Like what?" John said.

"Huh?"

"Those stories you were talking about. These Dead Chats. What's so fuckin' interesting?"

"Okay. Take this guy last night. Ninety-two years old, starved to death in his own apartment. Got out of bed one morning, got dressed, wanted to take a leak but his bedroom door wouldn't open. He starts yelling for his nephew, who lives with him. Nephew's only sixty-four. No answer. So the old guy opens his bedroom window, takes a four-story piss, then goes back to pounding on the door and yelling for his nephew. Who still doesn't answer."

"Where's the nephew?"

"I'm getting to that. So this poor guy's trapped in his bedroom with no phone and no food and nothing but a John Grisham novel to keep him company. Can you imagine that? He's trapped in there for a week with John Grisham. So finally he just lies down on his bed and dies."

"So then he comes back, right?"

"Right. And you know what they say. Sometimes they're stronger than when they were alive. So he pushes at the door and this time it opens. What's been blocking the door is the nephew. He's dead on the floor from a heart attack."

"How come he didn't come back like the old man?"

"No brains."

"Say what?"

"See, the nephew had a plate in his head from a war injury. So when he fell down behind the heart attack his head slammed into the radiator knob. Pops the plate right out of his skull along with half of what's inside. Rats made short work of whatever was left."

John laughed. "I dunno whether you call that good luck or bad. For the nephew I mean."

"Got me. Depends on your point of view, I guess most of them seem pretty content, though. At least they're walking around."

"Eyes left! Quick! Man, is that one hot dish or what?"

John and I looked. Then gagged.

"Yeah, one hot dish of ground chuck," John said.

"Prick!"

She was roadkill in a sundress, probably pushing three hundred pounds and all of it rot. One eye was gone and so was her lower lip. At least she'd done her hair up nice. Neal was having a good old time though, laughing at our expense.

"Now that's what I call a wood-killer," John said.

I had to look away. "Jesus, I bet she leaks, leaves a trail of drippings. There oughta be a law against the ones like that."

"The dead aren't toxic, remember?" Neal said. "Nobody knows why but they're not. So there's no reason there should be a law, you bigot. Come on, now. The dead are people too."

He was mocking me. I probably deserved it. I could get a little preachy sometimes on the subject of the dead. There were laws to protect them these days and I agreed with those laws. A lot of people didn't. But sometimes it got to be a little much even for me, seeing the really-maimed or rotten ones like this. I once saw a guy walking down Broadway carrying his guts in front of him in a wicker basket.

Wasn't pretty.

"You were saying something about Gustavo and last night? Something about the flower shop?"

His calamari had arrived in front of him and Neal was nibbling the batter off a piece of squid to expose the grey-black tentacle. That wasn't pretty either.

"Oh, yeah. Last Saturday he's sitting here in the bar tossing back a few tequilas and notices a couple of squad cars pull up over there. They don't have their lights on or anything but he just happens to notice them and while he's talking up some woman beside him, he keeps an eye on them. Comes from growing up in Spanish Harlem — you watch the cops. Anyway, they're no sooner out of their cruisers when the old lady who runs the flower shop comes out and she's yammering away and keeps pointing up to the third-floor apartment over the shop."

"That apartment's been empty for years," John said.

"You bet."

"So what happens next?" I said.

"The cops — four uniforms — go up into the apartment and they're in there a while. The old lady's still outside wringing her hands and looking like she's gonna have a heart attack right then and there. So Gustavo says fuck it, leaves his drink on the bar and walks over and asks the lady what's going on and the lady tells him that she keeps hearing this loud banging sound coming from upstairs. She's spooked. The apartment's wiring's bad and nobody's supposed to be up there. She's too scared to check it out herself so she calls the cops.

"Finally they come back down, and three of them are carrying kids wrapped in blankets. Little kids. A few minutes later an ambulance arrives. Turns out the kids are a year old, two years old, and about three years old — two boys and the oldest one's a girl. Their parents went dead two days ago, OD'd on heroin and then came back with brains so fried they were totally retarded, wandering around and jabbering and bumping into walls. But that's where they were living, in the old apartment over the flower shop. Squatters, sneaking in and out at night."

"So they died. And came back…?"

"Five days later. But for those five days…"

"Oh shit. Nobody to take care of the kids. They're lucky they didn't starve to death."

"Right. And the apartment's a total shithouse. Gustavo talked to one of the cops and I guess it was pretty grim. Garbage all over the place, clothes and dirty diapers and human shit all over the floor. The three-year-old told them that they were drinking out of the toilet bowl. Sinks hadn't worked in years."

"What'd they do with the parents?" John said.

"Dead junkies walking? Took 'em straight to the ovens. Can you believe it? Stuff like that happening right across the street?"

"So what was the banging sound?"

"Huh?"

"The banging sound the old lady heard."

"Oh jesus, yeah. The three-year-old was whacking cockroaches with a hammer. That's what they ate."

My stomach went sour. John was shaking his head. But it was just another case in point as far as I was concerned. Some people were total fuck-ups, alive or dead.

Even after the roaches-as-baby-food story Neal still had the munchies. He ordered two more sides. Oysters on the half-shell and grilled octopus. I ordered another drink.

I guess we were all getting pretty tanked. The ass-end of Happy Hour was long gone and it was getting dark. We listened to Jagger singing "Midnight Rambler" on the juke. The bar was filling up. Now that the sun was going down most of the action was coming in. Down at the end, Madeline was sitting with her current squeeze and we heard her laugh at something he said, the same phony laugh she always used on them, a lawyer's laugh, dry as a ten-page brief. Madeline drank zombies. She thought that was pretty funny.

"Be honest," John said. "You ever make it with one?"

"With a dead woman?" I shook my head. "Never. But Burt did. You know Burt, he'll fuck damn near anything."

Neal laughed. "Burt? That psycho's so perpetually horny he'd probably fuck this plate of octopus."

"Better finish it quick then," John said, "case he comes in. Burt say it was any good?"

"Said it was damn good, actually. Wasn't what he expected, her being dead and all. I guess it got pretty lively. Of course he had his Colt under the mattress just in case. He said they're not cold inside the way you'd think. More like room temperature."

"Stands to reason," John said.

"Get one at high noon this time of year, I bet she cooks," said Neal.

"But what about winter? Be like sticking your johnson in a Slurpee."

"It'd be different, that's for sure." He shrugged and sucked down an oyster. Then his eyes bugged and he swallowed fast. "Eyes left, gentlemen," he said. "I mean really left!"

We looked.

"Christ in a coffee shop," John said. "She looks like…she looks just like…"

"…Daryl Hannah," I said. "Oh my god."

And for a moment I thought the tall, willowy blonde peering in through the window really was Daryl Hannah. The resemblance was utterly uncanny. The long, wild hair, those thick, parted lips, that graceful neck, those big, bottomless eyes.

Neal damn near knocked over his scotch.

"She's looking right at us!" he whispered.

She was.

I was loaded enough to shoot her a smile and raise my glass. Neal and John just gawked at her.

"Know what, fellas? I'm not sure she's looking at us," John said. "I think she's looking at you, slugger!" He slapped me on the back. Hard. Scotch spilled. Ice tinkled in the glass.

But he was right. It was me she was looking at. Our eyes held for a moment.

And then she was gone.

John slapped me again, easier this time. "Don't take it too hard, old buddy. You know the babes. One minute you're Mr. Chick Magnet, you're fucking Fabio for a second, and then…"

"Chopped liver," said Neal.

"That's right, chopped liver. Maybe she caught one of your two grey hairs. Thought you were old enough to be her daddy."

"I am old enough to be her daddy."

"Nah," said Neal. "She took one look at our man here and realized he was out of her league. That she's outclassed all the way. Huffed off probably to pout about it."

"No she didn't," said John. He was looking over my shoulder. "Huh?"

"She didn't huff off. She's coming in."

I turned and there were those eyes on me again, directly focused on mine like lasers coming toward me. There was something deliberate and almost predatory about the way she walked. The designer jeans were so tight they looked sewn onto her hips and legs. Long, long legs. Daryl Hannah legs. I get my share I guess but I knew I didn't deserve this. God was either smiling or laughing at me. I didn't know which.

She stopped directly in front of us and her gaze took us all in. "Who's got the balls to buy me a drink?" she said.

"Why does it take balls?" I said. First thing that came to mind. The scotch speaking.

"Because after a couple I might be more than you can handle. When we go back to my place, that is."

I guess we all came pretty close to losing our drinks through our noses on that one.

Bar-tramp, I thought. Either that or a prostitute. Though I'd never seen a whore who looked as good as she did. But when they came onto you that hard, you knew something was wrong. Ordinarily it was an instant turn-off. Not with her, though. Not with some Daryl Hannah look-alike. With this one it went the other way. You just had to play it through. See where it went.

"You sure know how to make an impression, lady," John said. "Thanks. I'll have a Hurricane. Who's buying?"

I was. I introduced her to John and Neal and told her my name. She shook hands like a man, hard and abrupt.

"And you?" I said.

She laughed. "You care about my name? You guys really give a damn about my name? Come on. That's not what you care about."

The smile softened it some but she was still being an asshole. Haughty, arrogant, maybe buzzing on something stronger than a Hurricane — whatever the hell that was. Maybe even crazy. In a bar you got used to seeing them now and then.

She asked what we did for a living. Another turn-off under most circumstances, asking right off the top that way. But we told her. Artist, cameraman, writer. She didn't seem particularly interested or particularly uninterested either. Just seemed to take it in. Normally you tell a woman you're a writer the next question is what do you write. Not with this package. She nodded and drank and pretty soon the first one was gone so I ordered her another.

Her long slim fingers plucked at a piece of Neal's grilled octopus and she swallowed it down. Didn't ask. Just took. Her privilege.

John offered her his barstool. She said she'd stand, thank you. And that was fine with us because leaning on the bar the way she was her breasts were straining one way through the tank top and her butt the other. In those jeans it was a sight to see. She was beautiful.

I didn't like her one bit. But she was beautiful.

Her blonde hair glowed, a luscious fog about her head. She smelled like musk and roses. Her eyes were so damn bright they seemed to blur like neon whenever she moved her head.

Men are from Mars, they say. And women are from Venus. War on the one side, love on the other. Well, sometimes that's simply not the case. Sometimes it's the woman who wants a conquest, sexually speaking. Wants sex the way a man will. Doesn't care to be wined and dined, doesn't want to hold hands in the park and get flowers on Valentine's Day, couldn't care less for kissy-face and all that lovey-dovey bullshit.

She wanted what we wanted. You didn't see it every day. It was intriguing.

"I know what you're thinking," she said to me.

"Huh?"

"I know what you're thinking. You do play the game, don't you? Most of you guys do."

"What game? What am I thinking?"

Her entire face seemed to give off light. "You're thinking, 'is she or isn't she?'"

I just looked at her. I didn't know what the hell she was talking about. "Is she or isn't she what?" John slurred. By now he was piss-drunk. Her gaze scanned us.

"Is she or isn't she dead?"

She reached over for Neal's cocktail fork and no! I thought as she buried the fork into the wide-open palm of her left hand, slamming it through like a ball into a baseball glove and suddenly I could see the tiny pitchfork tines sticking out the other side.

No blood.

She didn't even flinch.

She just kept looking at me. And smiled.

"Fooled you, didn't I. All three of you."

I think we breathed then. I know what we must have looked like, open-mouthed, staring down at her hand while she pulled the fork out again and tossed it on Neal's plate. There were still a couple of oysters there. She held her hand up and turned it, showing us the bloodless punctures. "Fooled us?" Neal said. "Ma'am, that's an understatement."

What you have to realize is that for us this girl was a fucking bombshell, and I don't just mean in the looks department. If anybody in this freaky city were experts on telling the dead from the living we figured it was us, or at least that we were well into the running. And we didn't have a clue — not with her. She was right. She'd fooled us all completely. "Your skin," I said, "your hair…?"

"Diet supplements. Magnesium, Vitamin E and Potassium mostly. Some of us are learning." She sighed. "Okay, boys, who wants to blow this pit stop and get on with it?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "If you're dead, how come you're drinking…whatever the hell it is you're drinking and…?"

"Eating octopus?" Her eyes narrowed. "You believe everything you hear? What? We can't go into bars but you can? We don't like a drink now and then? You buy into all those moronic stories about how we can't eat anything but human flesh? Isn't that the same thing as saying all Irish are drunks, all blacks like watermelon? I'd hoped you guys were a little more evolved than that."

I saw her point. She was whitebread just like us but now that she was dead she was different too, she'd slipped into a new minority group — and one we little understood. So who were we to make judgments about her?

"It's a different society now," I said. "We hear things about you, you hear things about us. I guess the only way any of us is going to get it right is to talk to one another."

"Oh, gee, isn't that sensitive," she laughed. "Get real. You don't want to understand the dead any more than we want to understand you. There's plenty of what I guess you'd call common ground though." Her eyes went to my pants. "Isn't that what this is all about?"

She was putting it right on the line. I wondered why the living so rarely did that. Why we always played these goddamn games.

"I hear you," I said. "You call it."

The next piece of octopus she picked off Neal's plate she seemed to swallow whole.

"Okay. Who's going home with me?"

The question was for all three of us but she directed it straight at me. Those eyes again. A beautiful, perfect dead girl's eyes.

"Who wants to know what it's really like…to do it with someone like me?"

I finished my drink and called for the tab. "She's not beating around the bush," I said, sounding a whole lot more confident than I felt. "Gentlemen? Neal?"

He shook his head. "I'm a married man, boys. No can do.”

“John?"

His face went blank. You could practically hear his brain ticking off the countless possibilities, all the pros and cons. Then he stood up. "I'm there," he said.

We paid and followed her to the street.

It was hot that day but the night seemed hotter still. The streets were more crowded than usual, a forced march of barhoppers searching out liquid relief.

"If you don't mind my asking," I said, "how did you…?"

"Die?" The question didn't faze her. "Brain tumor. Simple."

I wanted to ask her more. It was common wisdom that it was the brain that mobilized the dead and that destroying it was how you put them down for good. So it stood to reason that any damage there, like a tumor, would at least cause some dysfunction. But she was functioning perfectly. I wondered why.

I didn't ask, though. Too clinical, too damn anti-erotic. And we were moving along at the fast pace she set for us like a couple of slightly woozy dogs trotting behind their mistress.

Booze, beauty and forbidden sex. It'll make a dog of you every time. "Can you believe we're actually doing this?" I whispered to John.

He shot me a look and a grin. "Well, yeah!"

"I dunno…something's not right."

"Hey. You're the one who's always mouthing off about how the dead should have equal rights. So what about equal shtupping rights? She wants some action, we're the guys who're gonna give it to her. And she's the one who asked for it. So what's the problem?"

It made sense, I guess.

He nudged me. "And if she gets froggy? Relax." He flipped up the front of his shirt and I saw the snubnose stuck in his belt.

"Come on, guys," she called over her shoulder. Her voice lilting like a song. "I mean, exactly who's dead here?"

She lived in a split row house up on 89th and Amsterdam. Welfare housing. Not exactly a total dump but pretty damn close. Her high heels tapped up the stairs. You could smell piss faintly in the dimly-lit stairwell — did the dead still piss? — and half-erased graffiti swirls decorated the walls. Nothing to deter us. Not when you could look up and see that Class-A butt riding up and down in those jeans. We were beyond the point of no return now. That primordial toggle in the male brain had been switched to the on position for the duration.

She unlocked triple deadbolts. It looked like somebody'd smeared shit on the door. I hoped it was just more bad graffiti. Then she opened the door and switched on the lights and stepped inside. For a moment we just stood there.

"You gotta be shitting me," John said.

Inside it looked like the Presidential Suite at the St. Regis. Whatever that might look like. Russet wall-to-wall carpet, long sable couches, finely crafted Hepplewhite furniture and one of those fifty-inch-screen tube TV’s in the corner. Some pretty high-end art hung from the walls and the curtains could've been Byzantine tapestries.

We stepped inside.

"Some joint," John said.

Our hostess didn't respond. She just stood there appraising us while we moved into the room and looked around. I finally stated the obvious question.

"I thought that…that the dead lived on public assistance.”

“Only because that's all that people like you will allow us.”

“Come again?"

"Hey! What's this 'people like you' bullshit? You invited us here, remember?" said John.

"True. I don't have to appreciate your politics though, do I?"

"No, you don't. Though my buddy here's a liberal Democrat. But how about you cool it with the big bitch attitude, okay? Be nice."

She nodded, smiling. "Okay. Back to the subject. You wanted to know how I can afford all this, right?"

"Yeah."

She slipped the tank top up over her head. Underneath she was naked.

And perfect.

"What do you think?" she said.

John groaned. "Ah, I should've known. A fuckin' hooker. Hey, are we fuckin' morons or what?"

"That's not the deal," I told her. I was seriously pissed off. "You came on to us and all we did was go along. We don't pay for it."

"You will tonight," she said.

She slipped a big semi-auto out from behind the phone stand by the door in less time than it takes me to swallow. The gun had a long black can on the end of it. A silencer.

She pointed it at John. "And Johnny," she said, "don't even think about pulling that little pea-shooter in your belt. Between your shirt and your beer-gut that thing's been harder to miss than what passes for your dick. Thumb and forefinger, champ. Take it out and drop it on the floor. Slow." John hesitated. She cocked her gun.

"If you don't, I'll punch so many holes in you you'll whistle when the wind blows. Count of three, tough guy. One, two…"

He parted the shirt, reached down and dropped the gun to the floor. "Now wallets. Toss 'em over here by my feet."

We did that too. You didn't have to have a doctorate from M.I.T. to figure out now how she'd furnished her apartment. She wasn't a whore, she was an armed robber, luring guys to her apartment and then ripping them off.

A dead armed robber.

And we knew what she looked like. And we knew where she lived. She wasn't letting us out of here alive.

John looked at me and I looked at him. And I thought we were saying something a whole lot like goodbye when she fired the shot into his chest. The silenced report sounded like a single light clap of hands. He went down like a wall of mason blocks. She'd hit him directly in the heart, blood arcing a yard up out of the bullet hole.

I watched the arc dwindle. To nothing.

"I hope you sad fucks have some decent credit cards."

Now the gun was on me. She was enjoying this. Her nipples were as long as thumbnails. I wondered if she'd always been this way or if the tumor had turned her vicious.

"Listen," I said. I was shaking. "We can work this out somehow. We can…"

"Shut up." She fired two more rounds into the side of John's head. The side of his skull blew off and brains like old clotted oatmeal flecked with red were suddenly all over the floor.

I understood the russet carpet.

"Wouldn't want him to come back. Would we? The world's a better place without that drunken troll."

All I could do was stand there expecting to die in seconds. I couldn't move. I felt stupid and slightly sad, like I'd lost an old friend. And not John, either.

"So now me?" I managed to say. "Just like that?"

She laughed. "You mean, 'after all we've had together?' Not necessarily."

She was holding the gun almost lazily — like you'd hold a phone receiver you weren't exactly going to use right away. But there was a good ten feet between us. If I went for it I'd be dead on the floor right next to John.

"You can't get out," she said. "The door locks automatically, the windows are barred and you can yell and scream all you want to but let me tell you, the neighbors won't complain."

Of course not. The neighbors were all dead, like her.

"So what do you mean, 'not necessarily?'"

She shrugged a smooth bare shoulder. "Whether you live or die depends on you."

My stare told her I didn't get it.

"I see assholes like you every day. We're not even people anymore, to you we're not even human. We're nothing more than a bunch of animals."

"That's not true. Yes, there are tons of bigots out there. But I've been trying to tell you all night long. I'm not one of them."

I was pleading for my life, not my principles. And she knew it.

"Sure you are. You're no different. Liberal Democrat, my ass. The proof is the fact that you're here in the first place. You goddamn guys, you all think it would be a riot to have sex with the dead. Something to laugh about, something you can brag about to your buddies. Well guess what? Here's your big chance."

She ran her finger down the gun barrel.

"And if you do a real good job, I won't kill you."

It was crazy. It made no sense. It was what we'd come here to do in the first place and now she was turning it into some kind of weird life-and-death challenge. But could I believe her?

What choice did I have?

Strangest thing was, I knew I could do it. Even with the gun in her hand. Even with John dead on the floor. I could put the blocks to her then and there. I looked from her mouth to her breasts and was I hard already. Maybe death and fear are aphrodisiacs.

I took off my shirt and dropped it to the floor. I slid off my belt and dropped that too. "All right," I said quietly and took a step toward her. She started to laugh.

"You should be so lucky!"

Now I really was lost.

"Not with me, you jackass." She reached for a door back near the drapes that opened to a block of darkness. "Mom? Billy? Come on out." Their stench preceded them. I could barely breathe.

"Mom burned up in a car accident," she said. "My brother Billy drowned in the Hudson. But they both came back. I take care of them now."

They shuffled across the room, knelt awkwardly at John's body. The woman had no face at all, just char. Her body looked like a skeleton covered with blackened bacon. The boy's flesh was mostly green and hung slack now that he'd lost his floaters' bloat over a naked ribcage that seemed stuffed with meatloaf. Two eyes gleamed from a mottled blood-pudding face. And what we'd heard about the dead — that they were sometimes far more powerful than they'd been in life — was true. Effortlessly these two palsied-ruined creatures opened John's gut and pulled things out of him and then for a while there were nothing but munching noises until she broke the silence.

"Mom likes it hard and fast," she said. "But not too hard. You know, pieces could fall off. You've got to be careful."

The faceless thing looked up at me through black clotted eyes and did something with its mouth that might have been a smile. I could see the crisped breasts, the scorched sex between its stick legs.

"And Billy's gay. Try to get him off with your mouth, otherwise he's gonna put the whole thing up your ass. Ouch!"

Already its cock was getting hard. The glans looked like a spoiled green tomato.

They both began to crawl in my direction.

"You're the one who wanted to have sex with the dead," she said. The gun was cocked and pointed at me. "So get to it."

She kept her promise — she obviously didn't kill me. So I guess I got it right. They keep me in the back room now with Mom and Billy, shackled.

I hear her bring in other guys all the time. None of them last long. I hear a pop and that's the end of them. So far I'm their favorite. I figure she must have singled me out after all that evening at the bar. And the sex? It's horrible, sure, it's hideous. But it's better than being their next meal. You'd be surprised what you can do if it means staying alive just one more day.

But their appetites are…awful, tremendous.

My only hope is that Neal's out there somewhere looking for me. Looking for his buddies, John and me. That he's got the cops onto it, maybe. That somehow, against all odds he'll find me. That maybe one of these days she'll slip up, make a mistake — she'll go by the World Cafe again and Neal will be On Point that day at the big plate glass window watching the ladies go by in their short summer skirts and tees and tank tops and see one who looks just like Daryl Hannah.

Eyes left.

Meantime it's winter now. The City's cold in winter. And it's very cold in here.

Sleep Disorder

Bill Dumont never dreamed.

Hadn't for as long as he could remember. The popular wisdom was that you simply had to dream or you'd go crazy — you'd maybe already be crazy — so he assumed he did, really. He just couldn't recall a thing. Not a single image. Practically speaking that was as good as not dreaming at all. Which was fine with him because he doubted that his dreams were going to enlighten him much.

Bill Dumont was a Grade-A, All-American bastard and he damn well knew it. His father had been before him and probably his father before that. He got to live the life every day. He didn't need to dream about it too.

But there had to be dreams. Or elsewhere would all this talking come from?

He talked in his sleep.

Pretty much every night if you were to believe Annie, his current live-in girlfriend. Or Laura, his soon-to-be-ex wife. Or any of the squeeze he got on the side. And he guessed it had started way back in college because he remembered he'd sure scared the hell out of Harry, his last roommate, the second night in their apartment together by sitting bolt upright in bed and saying, "I have come to you through space and time — but not through New Jersey." And then going back to sleep again.

Harry was kind of leery of him for the next week or so. Couldn't blame him.

New Jersey for god's sake.

"What you dream," he'd said, "is how you see others, seeing you."

Well, Harry was a psych major so what could you expect? He could talk some mean Freudian, Jungian or Reichian dynamics but Bill was less interested in Harry's analysis than in his wallet back in those penny-pinching college days. Harry was a rich kid. Harry also had a crush on the proverbial tall, dark and handsome Bill Dumont — and Bill didn't want to fork out all that tuition money if he didn't have to. And as the saying went, it was all pink on the inside.

Bill feigned a fervent affection for the entire senior year, secretly boffing cheerleaders and business majors on the side, taking them to nice expensive restaurants on Harry's cash. Between the tuition and party money, Bill took the poor chump for a small fortune. When Harry got the gist, he blew his head off — day after graduation. Too bad. But hey, Harry's mental problems weren't Bill's problem.

This dreaming business, though. From age thirty on, everybody complained about Bill's talking in his sleep. Laura had even bought earplugs. Which he thought was pretty damn rude. But at least the bitch never really complained much after that, except occasionally about the earplugs bothering her. "Go sleep on the couch if you don't like the damn things," he'd suggested once but she never did. Laura was insecure and Bill was — well, proverbially tall, dark, and handsome. He loved to think about other women when he was putting the blocks to her, pretty fair lay though she had been.

But as for the talking, Bill supposedly spoke in a clear, conversational voice and everything he said evidently made perfect sense — or would have, if you could find a context for it.

But you couldn't. At least he couldn't. Because the context was the dreams.

And he never remembered his dreams.

The talking was a minor annoyance as far as he was concerned. It didn't disturb his sleep. Annie even seemed to find it funny at first.

"Who's Millie?" he remembered her asking one morning. There was a scratch on one of his knuckles, a little dried blood there, and he was looking at that trying to figure out how it had gotten there while he slept.

"What?"

"Who's Millie? You talked in your sleep last night." She laughed. “'Millie, Millie, Millie,' you said. Your lover on the side, huh?" Then she laughed again. She trusted him.

He didn't know why she should.

He laughed too, almost too quickly. "Millie, that's what we call Reginald Milton, one of my best clients. He hands me half a million a year to let him in on all the hot IPO's. Thank god for guys like Millie."

Decades of practiced lying had given Bill a knack for credible comebacks in a pinch. There was no Reginald Milton, no "Millie." Millie was a cute but abundantly flawed fifty-dollar trick he picked up once in a while when Annie was away on business.

And it occurred to him then that this talking shit could possibly get him into trouble. There was a whole lot of stuff Bill didn't want to be yammering about in his sleep. Or anywhere for that matter.

He'd put together a little over two million in untraceable cash from various grossly illegal tactics and it was all carefully secreted in the living room wall behind the couch. He'd jigged one section of the panel with a magnet, so it was removable. You just had to know exactly where the section was.

Also stashed behind the wall was the highly valuable coin collection Annie had inherited from an uncle. Back before she'd moved in with him the collection had been stolen from her apartment in a regrettable burglary while she was out of town. And what a coincidence! Laura had a couple hundred grand in bearer bonds which had also been stolen from her apartment in a regrettable burglary back before they'd married. The bonds were there, behind the wall.

Bill didn't need to be talking about such things, ever — much less in his sleep with Annie lying right beside him.

It pissed him off. He wasn't supposed to be talking in his goddamn sleep.

It was a little worrisome.

Some nights it was funny what he'd say and some nights — when Annie needed her sleep and he'd wake her shouting "Mail it!" — it could get annoying. But nothing more than that.

What was really annoying was the snoring.

The first time she elbowed him in bed he was mortified.

"You were snoring," she said.

"I was not."

He glanced at himself in the mirror. His eyes looked puffy, saggy. Usually he got up feeling pretty good.

"I was not."

He couldn't believe it — wouldn't believe it. Snoring was something old people did. He was forty. His father had snored and you could hear it through every room in the house. There was nothing at all funny about that. It was repulsive. It was so…out of control.

If there was one thing Bill Dumont couldn't stand it was lack of control. That was exactly why he'd left Laura — and his son Philip too. Without looking back, without a twinge of guilt.

They hadn't the foggiest notion of control.

Laura chronically late, forgetting appointments, forgetting to put gas in the car after it got below half a tank for godsakes, scattered.

Philip constantly losing things at school — his lunchbox, his gloves, his new down jacket. So what if he was only five years old? That's what Laura kept telling him — Bill, he's only five! So what? Did that mean you automatically had to yell for a glass of milk every time the Jets were on the goddamn five-yard line?

Everybody had excuses. Laura's mother had cancer. It was on her mind. Of course it was. He knew that. And Philip, according to his counselors at school, had a mild learning disability which he would eventually learn to cope with nicely.

Eventually.

In Bill's book none of that mattered. You either had control of things — of yourself — or you didn't.

He'd stood it for five years. Then he dumped them. Three months later he found Annie sitting on a barstool at the Allstate. You could do that if you were in control. Make your life over on a dime.

He was living proof.

That was two months ago now and he'd managed to talk Annie into moving in with him and everything was fine.

But now this…

…indignity.

Snoring.

He tried everything. Special pillows from The Sharper Image. Sleeping on his back. On his left side, on his right, on his belly. Finally Annie bought earplugs too.

And mornings he'd wake up angry. Because he knew what he'd done the night before. There were nights lately he even woke himself up. It was that loud.

Snoring. Like an old man. He was starting to look lousy in the morning. Like an old sick man who was failing, losing control. Tired. Slack. There was too much hair coming out in his comb.

Next I'll be wetting the bed, he thought.

He went to work with a tic in his upper lip that just wouldn't quit. His eyes red-rimmed and swollen.

"Bill? You okay?" asked his partner, R.J., another less-than-reputable broker.

"Uh, why do you ask?"

"You look like shit."

All right. That about said it all. R.J. was a forthright man. They were very forthright with one another about which clients they were going to sink in favor of their own till and which they'd swim along with. So in spite of the blow to his vanity he wasn't put off by the observation.

"You're not back into the coke again, are you?"

"No I am not back into the coke again. I haven't been sleeping right. Wake up feeling rotten. Annie says I snore so loud sometimes the windows rattle."

"You got to get yourself squared away, man. We gotta be on the mark. How can we beat the SEC if you're all wrung out and strung out?" As if that weren't clear enough he made it clearer. "Your work's been slipping, Bill, you're fucking up. Unfuck yourself."

Bill got the message. He could guess the reason for all this. Job stress, pure and simple. Bill was not only proverbially tall, dark, and handsome — he was also the proverbial workaholic. It was starting to wear him out. To be on the mark for his job he needed to be rested, but the snoring and sleep talking were taking their toll on his rest. They, in turn, were caused by the stress. The snake was eating its goddamn tail here. He needed some leisure, needed to blow off some steam, so he figured he'd do just that.

Annie never got home from her job until seven, so by five Bill was blowing off some serious steam — if seminal fluid could be referred to as steam. He had Millie bent over the kitchen sink, her dollar-store skirt pushed up to her bra, his Armani slacks pooled at his ankles. Millie was short, so Bill was lifting her up by the hips, banging away. At one point, as the crisis neared, it might have looked like he was trying to stuff her down the drain — an appropriate symbol, since that's where her life had gone years ago. When he was done he nearly collapsed.

"Wow," Millie said through a mouthful of chipped teeth. There was also a sharkfin nose. He wasn't that discriminating — at fifty bucks a pop the price was right. She seemed winded.

"You've never given it to me like that. Bad day at work or something?"

Bill was offended. How dare this bitch make some personal judgment about him? She was a whore, period. Not some buddy of his. He pulled up his pants, frowning.

"And if you don't mind my saying so," she went on, "you look like…"

"I look like what?"

She pulled her skirt back down, sheepish now.

"You were going to say I look like shit, weren't you?"

"No," she said. "But I mean… I mean, look at yourself. Your face is all red, you've got veins sticking out. Are you okay?"

Annie had a little mirror encircled by sea shells hanging above the stove. Bill about wailed when he looked into it.

She's right, and so's R.J. His eyes were sunken and bloodshot. Veins pulsed fat as earthworms at his forehead. I do look like shit…

What the hell was happening? In the course of a week or so, all this had come down on him. All of a sudden, Bill Dumont was tall, dark, and not terribly handsome anymore.

He supposed he appreciated Millie's honesty, at least to some extent. "Here," he handed her some money. "Get out."

"Are you mad at me?"

"No, I'm tickled fucking pink."

"I'm just concerned for your health! You don't look good. You look sick!"

I look like shit. "Get out." He spun her around, shoved her toward the door.

"Hey, this is only thirty dollars!"

"I'm a little short today. With that nose on you, you're lucky to get ten."

"I got a kid!"

"Your trick-baby's not my problem. Use rubbers. Get out. And let the door hit you in the ass on the way."

He could hear her blubbering in the hallway. Whores shouldn't be allowed to have kids anyway. She's probably on welfare, sapping honest taxpayers like me. The state should make 'em all get abortions.

"Bill," Annie said when she got home, "you look like shit."

Bill's shoulders slumped as he sat on the couch with his beer. If one more person tells me that, I'm gonna go on a killing spree. Starting with her.

"And I've been thinking about that," she continued. She walked to the couch with a white paper bag in her hand and pulled out a box.

"I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner. The snoring, the tossing and turning at night, the narcolalia…"

"The what!"

"The talking in your sleep, Bill. These are all signs of a progressive sleep disorder. And sleep disorders can lead to serious health problems. Like hypertension."

She ought to know. Annie was an LPN for a hypertension clinic.

"Dr. Seymour let me bring this home." She was unwinding a long black rubber tube from a plastic box with a little LCD screen on it. It was a blood pressure monitor.

"I don't have high blood pressure," he said.

"Well, let's see. They call it 'The Silent Killer,' Bill. You can have it for years and not know it. And sleep disorders, especially those with snoring as a symptom, can drastically raise your blood pressure. When you snore, you're not getting enough oxygen, see, so your vascular system constricts, to speed blood flow."

She wrapped the cuff around his arm. "Don't move." Then she began pumping a rubber squeeze ball. The machine started beeping.

He hadn't had his blood pressure taken in years. Why the hell should he? Only old people got high blood pressure.

"Look, Annie, I don't have high blood pressure."

The beeping stopped. "Bill, you do have high blood pressure. It's 180/110. That's way too high."

"It could kill you, for godsakes. You could have a CVA."

"What's that? Like an SUV?"

"Cerebral vascular accident — a stroke, Bill. It could cause an MI, too.”

“What's that? Military intelligence?"

"Myocardial infarction. A heart attack."

Fuck this shit, he thought. She was spooking him.

But why would she exaggerate?

"I care about you, Bill," she said. She bent over to meet his eyes and he could read the concern on her face. "I love you."

Jesus. He hated the L Word.

"I want you to go see the doctor," she said.

He was looking down at her impressive cleavage and it occurred to him that if he really did croak from high blood pressure he'd never have his hands on those beauties again. Some other guy would.

"I'll see the doctor."

Which he did, in spite of his reluctance.

Dr. Seymour was Annie's boss. The guy looked hungover but Bill didn't care. Annie trusted him. The doctor wrote him two scripts.

"One's a diuretic, a water pill. It reduces total blood volume, very reliable for hypertension. But for off-the-roof blood pressure like yours, you need something else too."

Off-the-roof. That's just fucking great. He did something rare for him. He kept his mouth shut and listened.

"The second pill is called Clonifil," Seymour said. "Take it when you get up and just before bed. It's a calcium-channel blocker."

So much for keeping his mouth shut. "I don't care if it's a blocker for the New York Jets so long as it makes my pressure go down."

"Oh, it will." Did Seymour cut a small grin? "It'll make some other things go down too. But let's work on one thing at a time. Your health is the priority."

Bill slumped. He didn't like that line about things going down. "Can't you get me some of that…"

"The Big Blue? Oh, sure. But not for six months. Your metabolism's got to have time to acclimate to the calcium-channel blocker. Like I said. One thing at a time."

Wonderful. My dick is dead for six months. Shit. It wasn't right. "Is it really that bad?"

"Clinically, you have Stage Four Malignant Hypertension, Bill. There is no Stage Five. Zero over zero is what your blood pressure will be if you don't take these pills."

Bill took the pills. Annie wasn't all that great in the sack anyway and Millie was just a hosebag who didn't always smell good. He could live without it for six months. But there was no way he was going to let R.J. take all those clients he'd spent years setting up.

No way in hell.

* * *

Bill liked order in his life so he bought himself a little plastic pill box to put his next day's meds in. There were three slots inside, one marked MORNING, one NOON, and one NIGHT. He barely had to pay for the meds because they were included in his healthcare package at work. Two bucks per script. He didn't like the idea of having to pop pills — but if his life depended on it? No big deal. The pills would save his life, Dr. Seymour said. And most of the side effects he barely noticed. Save one.

The diuretic made him piss like a racehorse.

Five times a night he was getting up. Annie muttered once in her half-sleep, "At least when you get up to use the bathroom, you don't snore."

Calm down, calm down, keep your cool, he thought, bladder throbbing fit to burst. Stay in control. It would be nice to strangle her sometimes but that was just a fantasy.

Hell, she was an excellent cook.

And the medications worked. His blood pressure dropped into the normal zone, which thrilled him. What didn't thrill him was that he continued to snore and talk in his sleep. And he still looked like a truck had run over him every morning when he woke up.

Acclimate, acclimate, he kept repeating. It would all take time. Just like Dr. Seymour said. At least things were getting better, weren't they?

One night he woke on the street in front of his apartment in pyjamas (???alternate spelling?) and a raincoat, and he was kicking some old man's poodle and the poodle was trying to bite him through the pyjama bottoms and doing a pretty good job nipping at him and the old man was shouting.

And the morning after that he woke up with his hands around Annie's throat.

Squeezing.

It was a bright sunny morning, breeze wafting through his twentythird-floor window, everything perfectly normal except he was on top of her, choking her, so far into it she was already way beyond screaming. His eyes flashed open and he felt her fingernails claw his cheek, looked down into a face already turning blue and her tongue like brown meat, protruding like a fat wriggling slug and heard himself bellowing, roaring, glanced up into the dresser mirror from their bed and saw a face that was not any face he knew, crimson-eyed, gloating over her, gloating over his kill-to-be.

The phone rang.

He let go.

And for a moment just stared down at her shocked disbelieving eyes while she tried to fill her lungs again, her right hand fluttering to the deep red imprints on her neck.

He rolled off and answered the phone.

His voice sounded thick, strange, bubbling up through a film of mucus.

"Hello?"

"It's final," said Laura, icy calm on the other end. "As of Friday. They'll be serving you the papers. You're a free man. I just wanted you to know."

"How much?"

"What?"

"What's it costing me?"

She sighed. "You really are slime, you know that? Are you at all aware that you missed Philip's birthday three days ago?"

"How much?"

Click.

Not even a how you doing? he thought. Well, he wasn't doing too well anyway. But then neither was Laura.

She didn't know it yet but he'd taken out a $500,000 loan six months ago, a second mortgage on the house, neatly forging her name. Now that the divorce was final the house was hers. And according to New York State law so was half the debt. Collection was going to break her and the kid pretty much completely. Surprise, surprise. He'd pay back his half anytime he felt like it after the finalization. After all, he had plenty of money behind the living room wall and more coming in all the time.

Annie was in the bathroom. He could hear water running. He could hear her coughing. Deep. Lung-coughing.

He looked at himself in the mirror again. Same old face, all right — but there was something gone soft about it somehow, a slight almost imperceptible jowling effect at the edges of the chin, a puffiness to the cheeks. If he hadn't shaved that face every day for twenty-five years he probably wouldn't have noticed. But he did.

He didn't like it.

It scared him.

It had happened overnight.

By the time Annie came out of the bathroom in her robe and slippers he'd started to shake.

"Sorry," he said. "I don't know what the hell…"

"I'm packing," she said.

"Come on."

She turned on him, fuming. "Look, I don't know what that was about and I don't want to know. You could have killed me. You're crazy or something. The things you say…"

"What? What do I say?"

She looked at him. "God, Bill, you don't know?"

And then she'd barely speak to him. He tried to convince her to stay, to give him another chance. But she wasn't buying.

"You talk, you snore, you moan, you get up and take walks…"

"I moan?"

"…and now you try to strangle me. Get some help, Bill. You're falling apart."

And then she slammed the door.

Too bad. Annie wasn't all that much in the brains department but she kept the place clean, did the laundry, and he loved her poulet gumbo.

He stayed home from work.

Why not? He could afford to. If you didn't get caught, insider trading was extremely profitable.

Between financial reports on CNN he got up and checked his mirror. His face actually looked a little better. Then he checked his blood pressure with the machine, and it was 135/75, well within the normal range. He actually felt kind of perky, he was actually half-close to a good mood, until he remembered…

The things you say.

The phrase kept haunting him.

So what did he say?

Around four in the afternoon he showered and went out. He took a cab to 47th Street Photo, where a bearded young Hasidic Jew sold him a Realistic Micro-25 Voice-Actuated Microcassette Recorder at half price. He cabbed home. There was no setup, really, just an on-off switch, a playback and a rewind. The microphone was built in. The kid in the store said it only recorded when sound was being made, some sensor or something. He turned it on and went to sleep.

His phone rang.

Not his real phone this time but the building's intercom. What time is it? he thought, and then Christ! You've gotta be shitting me! Had ten gallons of water been dumped in his lap? His groin was drenched, the sheets and mattress beneath him saturated, and the smell told him the rest. He'd wet the bed, in a monumental volume. It's the damn diuretic! he thought but the intercom buzzer kept nagging, screaming at him. He got up in what seemed early-morning darkness and groped his way along the hall to the kitchen and picked up the receiver, aware of how wet his hands felt, sweaty, almost all the way up the elbow.

"Yes?" And his voice was really wrong again. Like he was coming down with a major cold or something. Almost a full octave lower than what he was used to.

"You're going to have to stop the hammering, Mr. Dumont. We're getting complaints down here. I'm sorry."

"Hammering?"

"Yes. And the shouting, too, I'm afraid."

Bill's joints locked up. "Shouting?"

"Yes, sir. According to the neighbors' complaints. And there were quite a few of them."

"What was I shouting?" Bill insisted.

"Something about blondes, I think one neighbor said."

Terrific. Millie was a blonde, one of many in his life. God knew what else he'd been bellowing about.

"Anyway, Mr. Dumont. It's a little early for things to be so loud. If you don't keep it down I'm going to have to call the police. And whatever you're hammering — are you building furniture or something?”

Think, think. "A knickknack rack that my sister brought me from North Carolina. I had to put it together. She's a blonde, by the way. I guess I got a little pissed at her when the joints wouldn't align. Sorry." Pretty bad comeback he supposed but it would have to do,

"Sure, Mr. Dumont." A pause. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, fine, and I'm really sorry about this. It won't happen again.”

“Okay, Mr. Dumont. Have a good day."

He hung up, careful not to slam the receiver down. Fuck! Shouting? Hammering? He switched on the hall light, thinking okay, now we'll see and walked back into the bedroom, switched on the light there too and pressed REWIND on the recorder.

And for the first time saw his hands, his forearms.

Covered with blood. Not sweat. Blood. Some of it crusted over and some of it fresh, especially across the knuckles — and then he looked at the headboard where the tape hissed its way through the recorder. Then he looked a few feet left of the headboard, above the night stand. Something was missing.

What was up there? What was gone?

The picture. On the wall above the nightstand, there'd been a photo of Annie he'd taken on the ferry. Big smiles, big boobs, big happy love-eyes. It was gone, replaced by bloody knuckle marks in the sheetrock. Christ, even the nail the picture had been hung on was driven into the wall — no wonder his hands were so savaged.

His eyes went to the floor. The photo lay face-up on the carpet, frame destroyed, glass shattered. Annie's smiling picture torn and ruined.

I'm losing it, he considered. And at that precise moment he really felt he was. He'd never been like this in his life. He'd always been in control, always. You had to be if you wanted to accomplish anything in this world.

He ran to the bathroom and turned on the water. The right hand was worse so he scrubbed it with his left. Calm down, calm down, he kept telling himself. He had to maintain control. What happened? What the hell happened?

He'd got pissed off at Annie, so he'd got up in his sleep and started beating the daylights out of Annie's picture. Shouting at it. As if it were her.

Had to be that.

He looked up in the mirror. The face peered back at him through swollen eyelids. He looked…

Bill had to admit it. He looked insane.

His heart was thudding; it felt like something dying in his chest. Slow, hard beats. His chest felt tight, twingy. He thought of cords all twisted up, and then he remembered what Annie'd said about heart attacks and strokes. He sat down on the bed — the urine-soaked bed — slapped on the cuff and began to pump. His blood pressure was sky-high.

The sun was just coming up in the window. He took deep breaths repeatedly, then went to the kitchen, opened his plastic pill box and took his morning medication. Closed his eyes, took more deep breaths. Relax, relax, he kept telling himself. Then a big glass of orange juice, which definitely hit the spot. In a few minutes he began to feel better, less tense. The cords began to unwind.

All right, he thought. Take it nice and easy. You're together now. Whatever the problem is, fix it. Take control.

"And the problem," he said aloud, "starts here."

He snapped down the PLAY button on the recorder.

Dead air at first. Then intermittent hitches of snoring.

Then lots of snoring. Deep, sonorous breathing sounds that repelled him, disgusted him. Jesus Christ! he thought. It sounded like somebody drowning!

And then there were moans — my god! He did moan! As though something or someone in his sleep were squeezing him, tormenting him, making him sound old and weak and whiny. It was nearly as bad as the snoring.

And then some kind of bubbling sound, long, drawn out. Under any other circumstance it would've been funny, it would've been fucking hilarious. It could've been one of those Candid Camera things. Some guy asleep making more noise than a ward full of convalescents. Yeah, hilarious until he remembered that he was the one making the noise. It's loathsome.

Then more snoring.

More moaning.

Combinations of both.

Then…

Finally he started talking. "I heard you got it all figured out," he said. And then something that was much too soft to hear or for the recorder to pick up, unintelligible.

Then he said, "You should have seen it coming."

It was impossible to tell how much time elapsed between phrases since the recorder only activated during speech or sounds loud enough to trip the machine's sensor.

"You should've heard the Grateful Dead," he said, "they played that Peter-and-the-Wolf song. You know the one. 'All I said was come on in.'" More. "This gun sweats when it gets hot, it does."

And "It's a noisy room.”

And "It was me and Lou Rawls. They had us locked up in there with nothing but milk bottles and soup."

What the fuck? It made no sense at all.

Then…

"What a bunch of dipshits. What a bunch of hosebags. I know, I know. They think I’m stupid?"

Who could he be talking about?

"The bitches. They're all bitches."

All at once Bill had a pretty good idea who.

"I'll show 'em." A very dark chuckle. "Oh, yeah. You gotta be on the ball to make it in this world. You gotta be in control. You eat or get eaten. You take or get taken from. Nobody takes from me."

Bill agreed with this philosophy of course. They were his own words He smiled. Asleep or awake he stuck to his guns.

Then his smile faded at the next utterings.

"Yeah, I showed 'ern. I got all their shit, all of it, the bonds, the collection, right behind the couch, the stupid bitches…"

A long long series of snoring and moans followed.

"Fuck," he said. "Jesus wept." The very worst thing he could possibly say in his sleep, he'd said. He stood stock still, eyes unblinking, unbelieving. But then he relaxed again.

What am I shitting a brick about? he thought. Last night I blabbed where the loot was, sure, but Annie wasn't here. She walked out on me!

Of all the nights he could run his mouth he'd picked the one night she wasn't there!

Still, though…

He should check, right?

Bill didn't consider it paranoia or insecurity on his part. It was simply prudence. There was no way that Annie could've heard this revelation. She was gone.

Still…

Bill went to the living room and pulled out the couch — and then didn't know whether to cry or scream, whether to tear the place apart or just lie down on the floor and rot there.

The wall panel was unseated.

He fell to his knees and looked inside.

Everything was gone. Of course it was.

The bearer bonds, the coin collection, the two million-plus in ill-gotten gains.

All of it gone.

The only thing back there right now was a handwritten note in Annie's florid script:

ASSHOLE

Bill trudged back to the bedroom wearing a thousand-yard stare. How the hell was this possible? The panel had been secure yesterday — he checked it every day — and Annie'd packed her bags and took off way before he'd checked that afternoon.

Last night, he realized.

It was the only answer. Annie had ripped him off last night. But she hadn't been in the apartment.

Or had she?

I'll just find her and kill her, he thought. Not the most reasonable solution but he liked the sound of it. Calm down, calm down, he thought. Get your ass under control.

An instant later he began to feel a little better. He willed himself to feel better. Life had its ups and downs, right? Well, today was one of the downs. Definitely one of the downs. He'd had them before, hadn't he? He'd risen above it.

So what? The bitch took my stash. I must have mouthed off about it last night too, then she came back tonight and did the job while I was asleep. Big deal. Score one for her. I've still got plenty of stuff in the works. Half a dozen months from now I'll have just as much money in that wall as I did yesterday.

There. Much better.

Being in control was a wonderful thing.

But it still bugged him. Women were treacherous. Of course they were. He knew that. But how the hell…?

A thought came to mind and it was a doozy of a thought. He headed for the front door, fast, just to prove himself correct. He always turned the second deadbolt at night before bedtime and Annie didn't have a key for that. So how the hell could she have gotten in? Unless tonight of all nights he'd forgotten to lock it. But he never did that.

He stared at the little brass knob.

In the locked position.

The only other person who had a key to that deadbolt was Laura. From back in the days just after he walked on her, before Annie, when they were still talking like adults and he was making a show of maybe reconciling so he could occasionally play hide the salami with her.

And that's when he heard her voice.

From the bedroom.

He ran back.

The recorder was still going.

It was Laura's voice on the recorder.

"…bag of shit," she hissed. "Well, now he's really gonna get his. And good god, didn't you loathe all that snoring and moaning? Disgusting. I had to put up with it for five years."

A second whispered voice agreed. "I haven't gotten a good night's sleep the whole time I was with him. Can't tell you how many times I wanted to cut his head off just to make him shut the hell up!"

Annie's voice. On the tape. With Laura's. Which meant… They'd both been here last night. Listening to him!

The two bitches were in cahoots!

And he could see them now, huddled there together, crouching in the dark, waiting for him to sleep-babble the location of the bonds and coins. Cunning, devious bitches.

All right. Score two for them. But, man oh man, do I have a three-pointer coming.

The vengeance when it came would be sweet, but he'd have to be smart, be cool, be reasonable.

Be in control.

He'd work something up nice and sweet for both of them and when the time was right he'd fix their wagons so they never rolled again. Bill Dumont did not like to be made a fool of.

"It was only a matter of time," said a voice on the recorder. "When sleep talkers go into REM, they tend to reveal the things they most want to hide. Along with a lot of gobbledegook, of course. Unacknowledged guilt mixing with subconscious backwash. You just need an informed person to separate the gobbledegook from the data. Our plan worked. I was fairly sure it would."

This third voice wasn't Laura's and it wasn't Annie's either. It was a man.

And it rang a bell.

That fuckin' doctor! Annie's boss! Seymour!

The three of them were here last night!

It boggled the mind! But he still didn't get it. How could they have known exactly which night he'd sleep-babble the location of his stash?

Annie, now: "And thank God you were right. I've hated that scumbag for so long. And I knew he stole my uncle's coins."

"Were we a couple of fools," Laura said. "Falling for that lying, thieving piece of shit!"

“—Shhh!" Annie said. "Keep your voice down. You'll wake him up."

"No need to worry about that," Seymour said. "The benzothiamide (???Benzthiazide?) you were adding to his nighttime dose of Clonifil is not only the latest hypnotic on the psychiatric market, it's one of our best sleeping pills. It's a diazepam analogue…"

"Urn, could we talk in the English language please?"

"My point is that even if he got up right now and began somnambulating, he wouldn't know we were here. He wouldn't enter a waking state if you screamed in his face, that's how powerful this drug is. I'm just sorry about the side effects."

"Yeah, Annie. He could've killed you."

"Yes," Seymour said, "I told you to be careful. One side effect is night terrors in persons with high serum sodium levels, which is the case with hypertensives."

"Well, it was a chance I had to take," Annie whispered. "I needed to be right by his side every night so I'd hear him when he decided to start talking about it. But the other night, that was the last straw. That psycho scared the shit out of me."

"Well, we got lucky. We got what we needed tonight." The doctor again. "Speaking of which, let's go get it. Behind the couch, correct?”

“Yeah," Annie said. "Come on."

The machine deactivated for a second, then voices turned it back on again.

"Oh, I just can't believe it!" Laura was squealing with joy.

"Not just the coins and the bonds but…it looks like Billy-Boy has been up to some work on the side," Seymour said.

Annie's voice. "God! Look at all this money! There must be a million dollars here."

Bill was paralyzed. No. Not a million. Two million. And change. Seymour was chuckling. "Looks like we're all quite rich. Let's go, ladies. My place. The champagne's on me."

More squeals of delight.

It seemed to be over and as the saying goes, enough was plenty. He'd been duped perfectly. And he couldn't help but be furious. Control, control, he kept telling himself. Deep breaths. Calm down. His chest was tightening. But it wasn't over. There was more.

Laura's voice. "Wait. What about him."

"Don't worry about him." Seymour said. "I've already taken care of him.”

“What did you do?" Annie said.

"What we discussed. I emptied his morning Clonifil capsule and refilled it with potassium dichloride. He'll have a massive heart attack within thirty minutes of taking it. With hypertension on his medical files no one will give it a second thought."

A door opening. And closing. Keys in the lock.

Then his own voice shouting, fists pounding on the wall.

He turned it off.

Bill's eyes felt practically lidless. Chest ever tightening, he staggered to the kitchen and rechecked what he already knew. The little blue plastic pill box that he always put his next day's meds in before bedtime.

The slot for his Clonifil was empty.

Bonus: First Drafts

Good Seeing You

By Jack Ketchum

This story is the basis for the Ketchum/Lee collaboration SLEEP DISORDER

He never dreamed.

Hadn't for a long time. At least not that he remembered.

The popular wisdom was that you had to dream or you'd go crazy — you'd already be crazy — so he assumed he did, really. He just couldn't remember anything. Practically speaking that was as good as not dreaming at all. Which was fine with him.

But there had to be dreams. Or else where would the talking come from?

He talked in his sleep.

Pretty much every night if you were to believe Annie. Or Laura, his wife. And he guessed it had started way back in college because he remembered he'd sure scared the hell out of Harry, his first roommate, their second night in the dorm together by sitting bolt upright in bed and saying, "I have come to you through space and time — but not through New Jersey."

And then going back to sleep again.

Harry was kind of leery of him for a week or two.

What you dream, he said, was how you see others seeing you.

Well, Harry was a psych major and a little too cute for his own good.

But from thirty on everybody complained about the talking. Laura had even bought earplugs. Which he thought was pretty rude.

He talked in a clear, conversational voice and everything he said made sense, or would have, if you could find a context for it.

But you couldn't. Because the context was dreams.

And he never remembered dreams.

The talking was a minor annoyance. Annie even seemed to find it funny at first.

"Who's Millie?" he remembered her saying one morning. There was a scratch on one of his knuckles, a little dried blood there, and he was looking at that trying to figure out how it had got there in his sleep when she said, who's Millie.

"Huh?"

"Who's Millie? You talked about last." She laughed. "Tell Millie not to buy until the divorce comes through. It's going to get very messy.—

He laughed too. "Sounds like I was trading," he said. He worked the floor of the Stock Exchange. He guessed he was dreaming about that.

Though he had no idea what a divorce would have to do with it. And he didn't know any Millie.

Annie shook her head. "You're really something," she said. "It was mostly as clear as a bell. 'Tell Millie not to buy.'"

"Hope she took my advice," he said.

Some nights it was funny and some nights — when Annie needed her sleep and he'd wake her shouting "Mail it!" — it was annoying. But nothing more than that.

What was really annoying was the snoring.

The first time she elbowed him in bed he was mortified.

"You were snoring," she said.

"I was not."

He glanced at himself in the mirror. His eyes looked puffy, saggy. Usually he got up feeling pretty good.

"I was not."

He couldn't believe it — wouldn't believe it. Snoring was something old people do. It was impossible. He was forty.

His father had snored and you could hear it through every room in the house. There was nothing at all funny about that. It was repulsive. It was so…

…out of control.

If there was one thing Bill Dumont couldn't stand it was lack of control. That was exactly why he'd left Laura — and his son Philip too for that matter. Without looking back, without a twinge of guilt.

They hadn't the foggiest notion of control.

Laura, chronically late, forgetting appointments, forgetting to put gas in the car for godsakes, scattered.

Philip constantly losing things at school — his lunchbox, his gloves, his new down jacket. So what if he was only five years old? That's what Laura kept telling him: "Bill, he's only five!" So what? Did that mean you automatically had to yell for a glass of milk every time the Jets were on the five-yard line?

Everybody had excuses. Laura's mother had cancer. It was on her mind. Of course it was. He knew that. And Philip, according to the counselors at school, had a mild learning disability which he would eventually learn to cope with quite nicely. Eventually.

In his book none of that mattered. You either had control of things — of yourself — or you didn't.

He'd stood it for five years. Then he dumped them. Three months later he found Annie sitting on a barstool in the Allstate. You could do that if you were in control. Make your life over on a dime.

He was living proof.

That was two months ago now and he'd managed to talk Annie into moving in with him and everything was fine.

But now this…

…indignity.

Snoring.

He tried everything. Sleeping on his back. On his left side, on his right, on his belly.

Finally Annie bought earplugs too.

And every morning he'd wake up angry. Because he knew what he'd done the night before. There were nights he even woke himself — it was that loud.

Snoring. Like an old man. Like an old sick man who was failing, losing control. He was starting to look lousy mornings too. Tired. Slack. There was too much hair coming out on his comb.

Next I'll be wetting the bed, he thought.

It didn't work out that way exactly.

Next he woke on the street in front of his apartment in pyjamas and a raincoat, and he was kicking some old man's poodle and the poodle was trying to bite him through the pyjama bottoms and doing a pretty good job of it and the old man was shouting.

He went to work with a tic in his upper lip that just wouldn't quit. His eyes red-rimmed and swollen.

* * *

And next morning woke up with his hands around Annie's throat.

Squeezing.

It was a bright sunny morning, breeze wafting through his twenty-third-floor window, everything perfectly normal except that he was on top of her, choking her, so far into it she was already way beyond screaming. His eyes flashed open and he felt her fingernails claw his cheek, looked down into a face already turning blue with the tongue like brown meat, protruding like a fat, wriggling slug and heard himself bellowing, roaring, glanced up into the dresser mirror across from their bed and saw another face that was not any face he knew exactly red-eyed and gloating over her, gloating over his kill-to-be.

Then the phone rang.

He let go.

And for a moment just stared down at her shocked disbelieving eyes while she tried to fill her lungs again, her right hand fluttering to the deep red imprints on her neck.

He rolled off and answered it.

His voice sounded thick, strange, bubbling up through a film of mucus.

"Hello?"

"It's final," said Laura, icy calm on the other end. "As of Friday. They'll be serving you the papers. You're a free man. I just wanted you to know."

"How much."

"What?"

"What's it costing me?"

She sighed. "You really are slime, you know that? Are you at all aware that you missed Philip's birthday three days ago?"

"How much."

Click.

Not even a How You Doing, he thought.

Well, he wasn't doing too well anyway.

But then neither was she.

She didn't know it yet but he'd taken out a $500,000 loan six months ago, a second mortgage on the house, neatly forging her name. Now that the divorce was final the house was hers. And according to New York State law so was half the debt. Collection time was going to break her and the kid completely. Surprise, surprise.

Annie was in the bathroom. He could hear the water running. He could hear her coughing. Deep. Lung-coughing.

He looked at himself in the mirror again. Same old face, all right — but there was something gone soft about it, a slight, almost imperceptible jowling effect at the edges of the chin, a puffiness to the cheeks. If you hadn't shaved it every morning for twenty-five years you'd never have noticed. But he did.

He didn't like it.

It scared him.

It had happened overnight.

By the time Annie came out of the bathroom in her robe and slippers he'd started to shake.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what the hell…"

"I'm packing," said Annie.

"Come on."

She turned on him, angry.

"Look, I don't know what that was about and I don't want to know. You could have killed me. You're crazy or something. The things you say…”

“What. What do I say?"

She looked at him.

"God, Bill, don't you know?"

"How the hell could I know!"

And then she wouldn't speak to him hardly at all. He tried to convince her to stay, to give him another chance. But she wasn't buying any. "You talk, you snore, you moan, you get up and take a walk…"

"I moan?"

"…and now you try to strangle me. Get some help, Bill. You're falling apart."

And then she slammed the door.

Too bad. Annie wasn't much in the brains department but she wasn't half bad otherwise and he liked her poulet gumbo.

He stayed home from work.

Why not? He could afford to. If you didn't get caught, insider trading was still extremely profitable.

Between financial reports on CNN he got up and checked his mirror. His face still looked rotten but at least it hadn't gotten worse. From what he could see it hadn't changed at all.

The things you say.

The phrase kept haunting him.

So what did he say?

Around four in the afternoon he showered and went out. He took a cab to 47th Street Photo, where a bearded young Hassidic Jew sold him a Realistic Micro-25 Voice-Actuated Microcassette Recorder at half price. He cabbed home. He set it up and taped it to the headboard of his bed. He switched it on.

And fell asleep halfway through Nightline.

His phone rang.

Not his real phone this time but the building's intercom. What time is it? he thought. He got up in the dark and groped his way along the hall to the kitchen and picked up the receiver, aware of how wet his hands felt, sweaty, almost all the way up to the elbow.

"Yes?" And his voice was really wrong again. Like he was coming down with a cold or something. Almost a full octave lower than he was used to.

"You're gonna have to stop the hammering, Mr. Dumont. We're getting complaints down here. I'm sorry."

"Hammering?"

"Yes. I'm sorry."

"That's…yes. That's okay."

He cradled the receiver and switched on the hall light, thinking okay, now we'll see and walked back into the bedroom, switched on the light there too and pressed rewind on the recorder.

And for the first time saw his hands, his forearms.

Covered with blood. Not sweat. Blood. Some of it crusted over already and some of it fresh, especially across the knuckles, and then he looked at the headboard where the tape hissed its way through the recorder and saw the smeared stains, the bruised wood and gouges.

There was no pain. Not even under his long, split, newly manicured fingernails where splinters of wood protruded. He couldn't feel a thing.

He ran to the bathroom and turned on the water. The right hand was worse so he scrubbed it with his left.

The flesh felt soft. Like touching a burn. Like pus rising just beneath the surface.

He looked up into the mirror. The face that peered back at him through swollen eyelids looked bruised and sore. He opened his mouth and saw graying teeth, milk-white pustules lining his gums and palate.

The base of his tongue was black.

And now he was sweating.

He stripped off his pyjama top. The rash looked almost like a gleaming red t-shirt spread all across his back and upper body.

He felt the urge to scream, to run raging through the room smashing things.

What was it? AIDS? Cancer?

How dare this happen to him?

Overnight.

He pulled out a fistful of hair. The scalp was so soft he hardly felt it.

All right, he thought. Control. You're awake now. Take control.

He went to the phone, flipped through the Rolodex until he found his doctor's name and dialed. He told the answering service it was an emergency but that, no, he was not about to go to the hospital thank you very much, just have him call the minute he gets in. And yes, he knew it was four in the morning. I pay him for four in the morning, he said. Just have him call.

Then he turned on the recorder.

Playback.

At first there was only snoring.

Lots of it. Deep, sonorous breathing sounds that repelled him, disgusted him.

And then there were moans — my god! he did moan. As though something or someone in his sleep were squeezing him, hurting him, making him sound old and weak and whiny. It was nearly as bad as the snoring.

And then some kind of bubbling sound. Breathing, he thought. It must be. It's loathsome.

Finally he started talking.

"I heard you got it all figured out," he said. And then something that was much too soft to hear or for the recorder to pick up, unintelligible. Then he said, "You should have seen it coming."

The tape only rolled when he spoke or when there was noise in the room so it was impossible to tell what the interval was.

"You should have heard the Grateful Dead," he said, "they played that Peter-and-the-Wolf song. You know the one. ’All I said was come on in.’" It made no sense at all.

Then suddenly he started howling, bellowing, slamming at the headboard so loud he had to turn the level down. Bits of words and phrases came flying though like shrapnel.

"Ahhhhh!..you don't not to me you don't…dammit! Dammit!..frrrrragggh!..break him!..break him up!..get even!..mmmmmmmmm…break him utterly!.."

And then he had to turn it up again. Because what he was saying was so much softer than the rest of it — he had to hit rewind twice to hear it all. "Tell Millie not to die until the divorce comes through. It's going to get messy."

Not buy. Die. Annie'd got it wrong.

He wasn't trading.

It hardly even sounded like his own voice. He listened again. Something too…musical about it. In the tones. He couldn't say what.

Almost like a woman's voice. It was low and hard to hear. He decided to go on. But the rest of the tape was just more roaring. More pounding. No wonder the neighbors complained.

He went back to that line and listened again. "Tell Millie not to die until the divorce comes through. It's going to get very messy."

He took a stiff shot of scotch from the bottle on the sideboard and then another and another. Where the hell was that doctor?

He curled up in the bed, shivering, the recorder held in both hands like some sort of shiny metallic teddy bear. Except that it wasn't very comforting. He played the tape over and over — and just before he drifted off to sleep again he thought it's not Millie it's Willie, and Willie was what Laura called him sometimes.

Laura. Who'd just got her divorce.

Tell Willie not to die before the divorce comes through. It's going to get very messy.

And for the first time in memory remembered what he dreamed. In the dream he was glutinizing.

He was lying on the bed and it was as though he were on a spit or a bed of stoked hot coals or something instead of a Sealy Posturepedic because his flesh was melting, fat running streaming down his body, staining the sheets yellow, brown, then red — and finally black as charred skin broke and slid across his chest, his thighs, his belly, all of it pooling underneath him like some foul overflowing stew, dripping off the sides of his bed and pooling there too. Messy. Horribly messy.

But there wasn't any pain. Only a sick, dreadful sensation in his stomach that he'd really gone and done it this time, he'd lost control in the worst possible way and that this was what, disgustingly, it all came down to, no boiled down to ha ha ha, flesh and fat breaking up and sliding, falling, dripping on the Persian rug.

"It's going to get very messy," he heard himself say and then there was good old Harry standing at a psych podium saying, "what you dream is how you see other people seeing you," and then Laura stood over him watching. "You really are slime, you know?" she said. And this time he had to agree.

He really was.

As he woke — as his left eye oozed down over his cheek to join the right eye already melting on his chest — he saw he really was.

I Would Do Anything For You

By Edward Lee

This story is the basis for the Ketchum/Lee collaboration I'D GIVE ANYTHING FOR YOU

"Please, please don't do this to us, Clare!" Roderic pleaded from the flagstone steps of the great house. It was his mother's house, for God's sake. He's thirty years old, Clare thought, and he still lives with his mother. Forlorn, nasal-voiced, Roderic attested: "I would do anything for you!"

How many times had he said that in the last nine months? Big deal! Clare wanted to shout as she turned in the court. Can't you take a hint? "It's just not working," she said.

He splayed his hands, befuddled. "What do you mean it's not working? Things are great. You said you'd marry me!"

"Oh, Roderic, I did not," she lied. Early on, of course, she had responded very positively to his nuptial allusions. Clare, at thirty-three, wasn't getting any younger, and there were literally millions of reasons why a girl might want to be married to Roderic. But… Money isn't everything, she pondered. It got to the point where the relationship simply didn't suffice. "I'm sorry," she feebled. "But I just can't see you anymore."

Roderic's gape turned vapid. "Is it another guy?"

"Of course not!" she chose to spat. How dare he suspect her of sleeping around! Besides, Fudd was more than just another guy. He was everything Roderic wasn't: strong, handsome, assertive, and…well, he had a big penis. She opened the door to the 300ZX (which Roderic had bought her, by the way) and was about to get in.

"But what about the trip to Paris?" came his next idiotic query. "Don't you want to go?"

Paris might be fun, but there was a catch. Roderic's mother would be going too, along with Dallas, that ruffian manservant of hers. Fuck that shit, Clare articulated. Anyway, Fudd would be taking her to Cancun after his next score. "Roderic, I'm not going to Paris with you. Our relationship is over. Get it?"

Obviously, he didn't, but Dallas did. The sinister manservant, in his long leather jacket, glanced up blank-faced from the side of the house. He was stacking a cord of firewood, after dividing each round cut in one of those automatic log-splitters. The glint in his eyes just then…terrified her.

Worse, though, was the look of disdain on Roderic's mother's face, which could be seen now in the sitting-room window. The crinkled visage peered through the glass, causing tiny hairs on the back of Clare's neck to stand on end. Weirdoes! she thought.

"Darling, please," Roderic yammered on. "Come back inside. We'll sit by the fire, I'll open the Louis XIII, and we can talk. We'll talk this thing out."

"Roderic, read my lips! No new to—" Clare blinked. "Er, I mean, it's over!"

For God's sake, he was crying now! Men were such babies. "I would do anything for you," he sobbed. "I would build a temple. I would row a league. I would climb the highest mountain, cross the driest, hottest desert—"

Clare rolled her eyes. What a romantic putz!

"Anything, Clare," he wept on. "I would do anything." He paused to sniffle. "Tell me how I can prove my love."

Play in traffic, how about that? "Goodbye, Roderic!" she shouted. She slammed the car door and drove off. The estate shrunk behind her amid glowing topiary. In the rearview, as she descended, Roderic fell to his knees in grief as his mother and her leather-clad servant approached the porch to comfort him.

Poor Roderic, Clare mused. Have a nice life.

"There's my juicy little love-muffin," Fudd said when Clare came back to her apartment. His tongue roved her mouth in greeting; her 36C's tingled against his muscled chest. Already, the deft, strong hands unbuttoned her blouse. "You break the news to the wimp?"

"Yes," she said rather sadly. Aftermath. Guilt. But why should I feel guilty? She'd told Roderic the truth, and now it was done. "I'm surprised he didn't take back the car," she remarked.

Fudd's hands shucked her out of the blouse, baring her unfettered breasts. "That little creamcake fairy can't take back the car," he informed her. "He put the title in your name."

"And you can bet he won't be paying my rent anymore."

Fudd had his penis out already, which he often referred to as "John Henry" or "Mr. Meat Missile." He pressed it against her. "Fuck him and his mama's money. Coupla days and my next big score comes in. You and me, we'll be rollin' in green."

Clare sighed. Fudd rubbed her back on the couch, his firm touch banishing her stresses. "Now let's gander that ass," he said. He stripped off her jeans, propped her on hands and knees like convenient furniture. "Ooooo-eee, that's shore one humdinger of a butt, ain't it?" he complimented. "Gots to get me a taste of this little hole." Clare moaned at his next gesture: Fudd's tongue, by the way, was not particular about which orifice it tended, and as for her "little hole," it clenched in spasmodic pleasure, the likes of which she'd never experienced with any man, much less Roderic. In moments, Clare felt like a bitch in high heat. Then Fudd's own pants came down. "Here's somethin' to help you forget about that mama-rich wimp. Make way fer John Henry, yeah boy!"

Clare gulped as Fudd made good with his promise. His inordinately large cock slid right up into the slot of her sex, bulging her. Each stroke pushed away more of the memory of Roderic. "There ya go," Fudd said in somewhat less than the King's English. "Ain't got no reason no more to worry 'bout that creamcake, not with my cock up yer snatch. How's ya like that big rod plumbin' yer pipes, huh? Gots me a load of love juice I'se just been savin' fer this purdy thing. So how's about rubbin' them there balls whiles yer at it?"

"Oh, honey," she moaned. She reached under and fondled testicles which felt heavy as cue balls. She could feel blood vessels pumping in the large, intricate sac. "Stick it in harder."

Fudd obliged. Christ, his cock was so big she thought she could feel it in her stomach. "Yeah, just like that," came her hot whisper. "All the way in as hard as you can. I want you to fuck me till I can't see straight. I want you to fill my pussy up with your come…"

But the muse fell to bits when the phone shrilled. "You gots ta be fuckin' kiddin' me," Fudd complained mid-stroke. His penis withdrew, and slapped her on the bottom like a scolding hand. Oh, no no no, Clare fretted. The answering machine engaged: "Hi, this is Clare! I'm not home now so please leave a message — beeeeeep!"

No no no, please don't be

"I'd do anything, darling," came Roderic's weepy, sniffly bumbling. "I would do anything for you."

Fudd hadn't much cared for the telephonic coitus interruptus, so he'd worked off his angst at the expense of Clare's physical real estate. Not that she'd objected: her orgasms ensued without abatement, and in a multiple fashion. What Fudd lacked in societal sophistication he more than made up for in cocksmanship, and with a prostate (judging by the volume of his discharges) that must've been bigger than a douche bag. He'd never elaborated upon his occupational pursuits, claiming simply to be a "salesman," though Clare sorely doubted the legality of whatever product it was that he "sold." He was muscular and brusk, and indelibly handsome. He was also very…enduring.

That night, though, Clare slept fitfully. Her sex was sore and full of enough sperm to fertilize China several times over, while an equal ration slowly digested in her stomach. She couldn't help but think of Roderic. He wrote poetry all day and doted after his mother, whose wealth — Clare once read in Forbes—topped mid-eight figures. Most every night he'd pick her up in his conservative-gray BMW and take her to the best clubs, restaurants, and shows. Each week, too, brought an array of gifts — jewelry mostly, the best kind — plus he paid her rent, bought her a car, and left nifty little envelopes full of cash under her pillow. This was not a bad life for a gal nearing the bad side of the hill. But…

She guessed it was his mother — crimped-faced, rouged and stick-thin. Eternally sarcastic. Often Roderic brought Clare back to the mansion (for romantic chats by the fire, snifters of Cordon Bleu, and, to the disappointment of Clare's libidinal system, pre-ejaculatory sex) and his mother would always present herself when they arrived, nodding curtly from the sitting room and offering some cryptic remark which always seemed discreetly rude. Such as "Good boys like my Roderic are easily taken for granted, missy," or "I hope you're taking good care of my boy." Fuck you, Clare would respond in thought and then offer a big bright smile for Mama Roderic. And always hovering at the old woman's shoulder was the omnipresent Dallas — the manservant — who looked about as cheerful as a WANTED mugshot. He never said a word, offering only blank glances and subtle scowls, and he always dressed in thuggish black leather: driver's cap, mitts, a long-tailed jacket. Clare wondered how much the old hag paid him to keep her ancient pussy stocked with pork.

But the implication was clear: Mama Roderic would overlook Clare's gold-digging so long as Clare took "good care of her ‘boy.’"

In all, Roderic proved a loving, compassionate, and very romantic man. He was bursting with spirit, and true spirit was one half of any real relationship. Unfortunately, he fell a bit short with regards to the other half: the flesh. He was slack-armed and fat, pallid as a fishbelly, and… Well, if love could be measured in inches, Roderic sported about four and a half of them. Not that it generally mattered, though; more often than not, the rich boy's loins gave up their seed well before any serious amalgamation of pudenda could be made. Sometimes, while necking, Clare would make the grievous mistake of brushing his groin with her fingers. "Ooooops," he'd announce and then display the starchy wet spot on his custom Italian slacks. On nights when they actually made it to bed, "Oh, darling, I'm sorry," he'd apologize for the milkish puddle on her belly. "You excite me so much I just can't help it." The same too for Clare's mystic fondness for fellatio. In eloquence, it could be said that Clare found delight in the application of her oral cavity to male genitalia, and in less than eloquence it could be said that she liked to suck cock. But why bother when said cock spent its seminal freight before she could even get it in her mouth? Roderic's own gestures at oral service proved equally futile. Was he trying to imitate a kitten lapping milk? God! How could any woman get hot for such a piddling technique? Which left her instead to counterfeit her orgasms and entreat herself of her finger later, or go home and call on her personal doctor. That is, Doc Johnson, who always made house calls provided the batteries were good.

No, after nine months, fine restaurants and moolah just didn't cut it, and the interminable scowls of Roderic's mother and her poker-faced sidekick only helped speed Clare to her decision. Besides, by then she'd met Fudd, and he knew how to fill the places that Roderic left empty. I have to move on, she determined. I owe it to myself as a modern, sophisticated woman to pursue my introspective well-being as well as my sociological and spiritual actualization, not to mention my sheer, unbridled delight for Fudd's beautiful, gigantic cock. Why couldn't Roderic understand? She truly hoped that he'd one day meet some nice frigid little blueblood and live happily ever after.

But some men, she knew — particularly hopeless romantics like Roderic — would pine away for years over a lost love. They became obsessive. They would go to…extremes.

Perhaps that's what scared her a little. There was something about poor little jilted Roderic, something deep in his eyes that made her feel haunted by his forlorn and desperate promise:

I would do anything for you.

"Hey, love-muffin?" Fudd had wakened, and was nudging her with something other than his hand. "Mr. Meat Missile's a-jumpin'."

Oh, good, she rejoiced. Anything to get her mind off that look in Roderic's eyes, and that scary-sad tone in his voice. At once she pushed Fudd back and gave Mr. Meat Missile a welcome silo — in this case, her mouth. She hoped the distraction would serve her well: all that burgeoning cock in her chops, that glans — large as a baby apple — squeezing her tonsils, and the indescribable flavor of her own womanly fluids melded with sperm "Bet that creamcake pissant wussy never gave you a cock like this, huh?" Fudd groaned deep in his throat, holding her head. "Good gawd, love-muffin, I say ya damn well shore can suck a good peter."

Quaintly stated. Yet on Clare sucked, pausing only to glaze an alternate testicle with her tongue, or to tease the tender peehole. "Aw, get it, sugar!" resounded Fudd's next erudite ingratiation. "Suck all that hot peckersnot right outta that there cock!"

And so she did. Fudd's vesicles jettisoned yet another copious allotment of semen into Clare's talking hole, as she slipped a pinky into his anus to prod the overlarge prostate. She got a mouthful, to say the least. Like ordering egg drop soup from The China Chef and tipping the carton all at once. Yet with all this earthy distraction, Roderic's promise effused in her mind. I would do anything for you. Would he? Anything? What did that mean?

Would he…injure himself? Would he…

My God, would he commit suicide?

Again, the promise fluttered.

I would do anything…

And as Clare sucked out the final vestige of her lover's "peckersnot," she dared to consider the dreadful question: Just what would Roderic do to prove his promise?

* * *

He phoned every day. Gratefully, Fudd was out at such times, discharging his "salesman" duties. Clare soon learned to hate the sound of her phone.

"Clare, darling please! Please come back!"

"We were meant to be together!"

"I love you more than any man on earth!"

And, ever the promise: "I would do anything for you!"

She'd never answer, he'd always leave messages. And at night he haunted her dreams. She'd seen him in a scarlet bathtub with his wrists sliced open. She'd seen him blue-faced as his BMW idled in the closed garage. She'd seen him gun-shot, poisoned, hanged by the neck. Roderic's mother would make scowling cameos. "You take good care of my boy, missy," she'd insist, shadowed by her leather clad Dallas, whose gloved hands creaked as he opened and closed his fists."…good care of my boy, good care of my boy, good care of my boy," the dream-crone would go on. But the nightmare always ended the same. Roderic's corpse, however dispatched, would come back to life, speaking in a death-rattle voice to reaffirm:

"I would do anything for you."

She'd wake in convulsions, groping for release. Soon she resolved, I will fuck and suck Roderic right out of my mind, and Fudd always provided a willing scapegoat in his cock. Each night reverted to a sexual tableau, be it oral or coital. Fudd became the vehicle of her oblivion, and when sheer fatigue forestalled further orgasms via Clare's mouth or reproductive channel, she'd plumb a wet thumb in and out of his anus and vigorously jerk him off. Eventually the furious demand of her hand unseated one final dollop of sperm, whose warm strings she'd always greedily lap up. But these distractions only lasted as long as the acts themselves, and the nightmare images always returned, as did the nightmare promise:

I would do anything for you.

One morning Fudd was in the shower, crooning "Love Me Tender." Clare lolled in bed, exhausted, her sex nearly turned inside-out by the previous night's ministrations of Fudd's log of love. She winced when the phone rang.

"Clare, please," whined Roderic's voice. "Talk to me!"

She grabbed up the phone. "Roderic, stop calling me!"

"Listen. Don't hang up. I want you to come over—"

"No!"

"Mother and Dallas went to Paris for a month. Please, Clare! Come over. We'll have the whole place to ourselves."

"I don't want to come over, Roderic. I don't want to ever see you again!"

"Buh-buh-but I love you!"

"I don't love you!"

"You used to, though — I know you did. I'm still the same person now that I was then. Darling, I do anyth—"

"I know, Roderic. You'd do anything for me. But can't you get it through your granite head—"

"At least tell me why you don't want me anymore."

Clare ground her teeth. You asked for it, Roddie. "You're fat, Roderic. I can't be seen in public with a fat guy!"

"I'll lose weight," Roderic matter-of-factly replied.

"And you're pale as a ghost."

"I'll get a tanning booth."

"And you don't have any muscles, Roderic. All girls want their boyfriends to have muscles."

"I'll start working out. I'll join a gym."

This was impossible! The last resort, Clare concluded. What else could a woman do? She didn't want to be mean, but he left her no choice. Get ready, 'cos here it goes.

"You come too fast, and you've got a little dick!"

If there was any way to decimate a man's persistence, this proclamation was it. But instead of falling into glum silence, or hanging up, Roderic immediately responded, "I'll go to a sex therapist — oh, oh! — and I'll get one of those penile implants. No problem."

No problem. Clare felt herself deflating. He was a gadfly that could not be swatted.

"Because, darling," he went on, "I would do anything for—"

The phone was snatched out of Clare's hand. Fudd, naked and dripping, brought the handset to his ear. "Listen to me, ya little creamcake eight-ball. Don't'cha call here no more. Or I'll kick ya in the dick so hard yer balls'll pop out yer ears. I'll come over to that fancy mansion of yours and I'll burn it down and take a piss on the ashes. I'll bury ya up to your neck, son, and shit on yer head, and yer mama too, after I'm done blowin' a nut up her tired ass with my John Henry." Fudd hung up and addressed Clare: "You think that fairy creamcake got the message now?"

Clare fell back into bed. My God, I hope so, she thought.

The next day, Fudd's big "score" came in. They flew at once to Cancun, their first real vacation together. Clare expected to work on her suntan, but she quickly discerned that most of her time would be spent in bed, not on the beach. Fudd's penis was a boom that never lowered, and his scrotum a veritable sperm factory. Clare was either pulsing off in orgasm, or experiencing one generous allotment after the next of Fudd's testicular milkshake. To Clare's bliss, the nightmares stopped, and so did all thoughts of Roderic. It's over, she reflected one night with Fudd's pork sword so far down her throat his testes assumed the position of sunglasses. Roderic's out of my mind and out of my life — forever.

Clare spent the last day alone; Fudd left a day early to make "another score." She lounged on the beach all day, and masturbated all night, finding that even a 24-hour span without her macho human sod-pounder was intolerable. She flew back the next day so antsy she could scarcely keep her hand out from under her skirt, and she did, in fact, stroke her parts whilst driving back from the airport's long-term lot. Bags in hand, and her sex anguishing for Fudd's priapic attentions, she dashed into the apartment. "Fudd! Godzilla! I'm home!" she exclaimed. "Ready for an oil change?"

But no reply was forthcoming. He must be here, she reckoned. His car's outside. "Love-muffin's back!" She strode for the bedroom. Bet he's waiting in bed for me. Waiting with that big, hard cock

But, now, big and hard it was not. Clare stared, then shrieked. Fudd lay sprawled naked on the bed — clearly as dead as dead could be — and his face dark-scarlet and strangely distended. Then a figure emerged from the corner, leather-capped and leather-gloved.

Dallas. The manservant.

"Parachute cord's the best," he elucidated. "Piano wire's too proverbial, not to mention too messy. And nylon's unreliable. Last chick that dumped Roderic, I was doing the job on her with nylon and the damn thing snapped on me. It got ugly."

Clare, locked in stasis, noted exactly what Dallas had done: he'd garroted Fudd, leaving the deadly ligature about her lover's throat such that the face had swollen to a queer balloon. Then one of the manservant's hands displayed the cassette from her answering machine. "You should listen to your messages," he advised. "The old lady's not happy, let me tell you."

Last chick that dumped Roderic, was all Clare could think now. I was doing the job on her… She screamed as Dallas stepped forward. But it was not a garrote that the manservant so expertly wielded, but a chloroform-soaked towel…

Clare awoke in… Roderic's room, she realized. Her senses skittered like autumn leaves in the street. Her head thumped.

"Oh, missy," wisped the familiar voice. Roderic's mother, simpering and rouged, sat erect in a fine cane chair opposite her. "You were supposed to take care of my boy."

Clare's tongue lolled. "But we…broke up!"

"Broke up? Hmmph! You dumped him, you silly, selfish horse's ass. My boy is a gift to the likes of you. Other women have treated him similarly, so Dallas here has always been kind enough to give them what they deserve. But you? God knows why, but I simply didn't have the heart. Roderic loves you so much…"

Clare tremored. Dallas glared at her. Then the old lady, stiff in her frumpy dress, went on, "You should listen to your phone messages, missy.”

“I was on vacation!" Clare blurted.

"Indeed, and making whoopie, no doubt, with that detestable narcotics dealer. Unfortunately Dallas and I were on vacation too. But if you'd listened to your phone messages then you could have prevented all of this."

"All of what?" Clare rasped.

"Poor Roderic. He's a nice boy but admittedly an eccentric one, and he has some strange ideas about proving his love… Dallas found him…outside."

Clare's mind swam in muck. She pictured her nightmares: Roderic committing suicide in an array of ways. "He's dead?" she ventured.

"No," the old woman firmly stated. "No, thank God, he's not."

The scowling manservant, then, plugged the cassette tape into a player and walked off to another room. "Hi, this is Clare! I'm not home right now so please leave a message — beeeeeep!"

An unearthly pause, then Roderic's voice warbled, "Clare, my darling, why don't you believe me? So be it! I'll prove it! I'll prove that I would do anything for you… Listen!"

A pause. A sliding snap! Then a brief scream.

"That," informed the old woman, "was my son cutting off his pinky with a pair of tin snips."

Clare gasped.

Roderic continued on the tape, sobbing: "So be it. Here is my proof. For each day that I'm without you, Clare, I will cut off another part of myself."

Clare did her math, paling. She'd been away for… Twenty-four days! Dallas reappeared, a blanketed bundle in his sturdy arms. He set the bundle on the bed. Undraped it. Stepped aside.

"Clare! You're back! I knew you'd come back to me!"

Clare's eyes bugged. Then she bent over and vomited.

Roderic's bright face enthused, "It wasn't easy. Ten fingers, ten toes, and…well…the rest. I pre-applied the tourniquets and used a hacksaw — the legs and the left arm were easy. But it was the right arm that was the trick. Bet'cha can't guess how I did it!"

Clare erped??? up more vomit onto the plush Persian throw rug.

"I crawled out to the woodpile, tightened the tourniquet with my teeth, and stuck the last arm under the automatic log splitter. It did a nice, clean job."

Clare, for the life of her, could not escape the sight: Roderic swaddled on the bed. No arms. No legs.

Just a living, talking torso.

"Do you believe me now?" asked the happy head atop the trunk. "Do you believe me when I say that I'd do anything for you?"

Clare could only croak a single word: "Yes."

"You've got your whole lives to spend together now," the old woman said. "In time, you'll see it's for the best." She rose and made for the door. "Dallas, of course, will remain for a spell, to see that you comply."

Dallas, ever-so-faintly, smiled. His leather jacket shined. One gloved hand idly twirled the garrote.

"This is your fault, missy, so now it's time to pay the piper," Roderic's mother metaphored. "Assume your responsibilities without a fuss, please. It's only fair." Her stern eyes held fast. "I expect you to take very good care of my boy."

When the old woman left and locked the door behind her, Clare gulped hard. For it took her a moment to realize the full weight of the implication…

"Oh, darling," Roderic spoke. "We'll have such a splendid time together! Till death do us part!"

…there was one part that Roderic hadn't cut off. And that part, now, stood heartily erect for her.

"Get your clothes off and get to it," Dallas directed. "You don't want to keep Roderic waiting."

Afterword

By Jack Ketchum

Collaboration's pretty natural for me.

I'm surprised it isn't for every writer.

What's writing after all but sophisticated, highly organized play? When you were a kid, who did you play with?

Other kids, of course.

Presuming you were lucky enough to have some around.

I sure did. I played alone back by the brook a lot. But I also played with all the other baby boomers on my small-town dead-end street. When they weren't kicking my butt, that is.

But any good game of King-of-the-Mountain or Cowboys `n Indians or Treasure Hunt is all about collaboration. About shared fantasy. Sure, you can argue about the rules now and then but if you're not really on the same page as your playmates, the game just won't work. You're shot down, you stay down. Period. You hope your luck's better next time.

When the fantasy really works it's hell to have to go home for dinner, too. You don't wanna. Same thing with writing. When you're on a roll, when you're inside the fantasy, you hate to have to quit. It's usually only exhaustion that makes you quit. Your body's call to dinner, so to speak.

Then, my first paying job in the arts was as a singer. Since I didn't play an instrument, a good piano player or guitarist was an absolute necessity — as important as remembering the lyrics to whatever Elvis, Jolsen, Beatles or folk song I was singing at the time. What was needed was a fellow traveler, somebody who was not just backing you up but was actively conspiring with you to seek out the meaning of the song and the feeling inside the melody and lyric. With the exception of the occasional a capella tune it was not something you could do alone. You needed collaboration.

Shortly afterwards I did a few seasons of summer stock. I was lucky. My fellow cast members, directors and production crews were good, hardworking people practically to a man. In fact over the course of four seasons I remember only one goddamn diva and nobody could stand her. And I think that there's nothing quite as satisfying as rehearsing a play with a group of like-minded souls whose only real goal is to get it right, to do your best to honor the drama and the production. To share whatever fantasy the author's set in motion.

By the time Ed Lee approached me to do a story together, I'd even collaborated twice on the writing end, many years before. As a young fresh-out-of-college teacher in Massachusetts I'd staged two original musical plays co-written by me and my cast of kids at Brookline High: Springs Comes Slowly Up This Way and The Lord High Teller of the Other From the Which.

Delightful experiences, both.

Of course they were. I was playing with kids again.

And hopefully what's come through in these stories more than anything is the fun Lee and I had creating them. There's nothing in here that's going to change foreign policy or save the whales or even break your heart. We did this just for fun, folks. And for no other reason whatsoever.

It's nearly ten years ago now since Lee first sent me a story of his called “I'd Do Anything For You”, so you'll have to pardon me if my memory's a bit shaky on specifics. I do recall that it was a finished story — Lee just wasn't happy with it. The first thing I did was change the word "do" in the title to the word "give". It seemed to me that poor Roderick's condition at the end simply demanded it. I may have provided the two-word punchline that caps the piece, I'm not sure.

But my job was largely editorial in nature. Lee tends to write long at least initially while I tend to write as compact as possible from the get-go so I know I did some cutting. I probably trimmed the sex scenes and some particularly colorful verbiage regarding male and female anatomy, social interaction and bodily fluids.

But as you know, I also left a whole lot in.

That accomplished, I sent my version back to Lee so he could do some fine-tuning and that was that.

A couple of years later he sent me “Love Letters From the Rain Forest”—also a complete manuscript — the correct tone of which seemed to be eluding him. I think I saw the problem almost immediately. His scientist, a highly educated man, has fallen for someone who in the original manuscript is an unregenerate slut and total bimbo. I softened her somewhat and bolstered him, brought the two characters together in some nether-region of the at least reasonably possible. And once again I did a bit of cutting. That one, as I recall, went back to Lee as did the first story and then back to me again for final polish.

It was four years before we'd work together again, this time on “Masks”, a story I'd begun but couldn't find the right ending for. It's rare that I begin a story without knowing almost exactly where I'm going but this time I did. I had the three initial masks down — the lioness, the owl, and the lamb — all of which entered the tale as written. I had the characters. And I had the premise, that masks were themselves magic and worn through the ages in nearly all civilizations in order to evoke it. But it was Lee who came up with the mysterious "mask within the mask" ending. I never would have got there on my own.

At the risk of embarrassing him, I think Lee's generally a much more imaginative plotter than I am. I tend to need a kind of reality-map to work from most of the time. Which is why so many of my stories proceed from fact. That's also why I went back to him twice more, once with a fragment and once with a completed story, to solve each of their particular problems. The fragment — a relatively long one — was “Eyes Left”, which I'd originally conceived for the John Skipp's Mondo Zombie anthology and then dumped in favor of one called The Visitor. Again I had the basics, a small group of barfly buddies gathered at their local waterhole watching the girls go by. Only this time some of the girls are dead. And one of them looks just like Daryl Hannah, who I actually did see stroll by the window of the World Cafe one rainy summer afternoon, tight wet t-shirt and all.

Memorable.

But I didn't know where the story was leading. I sent a copy to Lee. He did.

He took it to her apartment and the mayhem which ensues.

Finally, “Sleep Disorder” was a finished yarn I'd originally titled “Good Seeing You”. This time I did have the ending but it struck me as flat. Hell, it was flat, and obscure to boot. My ending had our main character eventually morphing into what he dreamed, a surreal conceit similar to what I'd done years before with “The Holding Cell”, a much better tale than this one. Until Lee got hold of it. We had a couple of phone conversations and Lee said he could go one of two ways, either work with the ending as-is or conceive a new one which would have more kick. I said go with your gut, with the kick, and I'm glad he did.

I came up with the title change eventually and Lee approved it, and then we swapped it back and forth as we had the other stories for polish. He'd tinker here, I'd tinker there. Nothing major.

Just us playing.