Here’s a Weird tale that came out recently in Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire, now edited and republished in the brand new Two-Hour Transport anthology. Many thanks to editors Vince A. Liaguno, Nicole Bade, and Theresa Barker for featuring me!
“Hello, Mr. Pinder.”
The wood door stood open, framing a woman of about Paul’s age. He’d neither heard her come in nor seen it in his peripheral vision. He rose from his chair.
She didn’t move. “Sophia Martinetti, director of funds. Thank you for waiting.”
Everything about her was richly dark — her Mediterranean complexion, her long, glossy hair, her stockings and executive pumps, even her lipstick. She looked like a woman that Paul, in a previous life, might’ve seduced if no men were available. Just for the challenge of it.
She scrutinized him. “You do like to stand out. Ms. Bamford said you’d be amusing.” She did not extend her hand to shake his.
“I do my best,” he said.
“Follow me, then.”
They entered a bright and sterile hallway lined with offices. Judging by the length of the corridor, it ran from the corner lobby along the entire length of the building to the next corner, where it presumably turned right and continued. Martinetti led and spoke without glancing back at him.
“I’m very pleased that Ms. Bamford shows such interest in our research at Temple Laboratories. I would’ve preferred to meet her in person today, of course, but I accept her request to send you alone. Her philanthropy is legendary, and she manages to keep her financial and intellectual business quite private. We only accept investors who demonstrate the utmost discretion.”
“She’s a modest woman,” Paul said of his teacher. “All her work with children requires her to maintain that privacy. Her little antagonists have accused her of being a Satanist, Illuminati, a cult leader. The only shallow associations they’re capable of making. And they don’t even know about all of…” he gestured broadly, even though Martinetti wasn’t looking at him, “…this. Those accusations are based solely on her books. The ones she wrote, I mean.” He sensed that he told Martinetti things she already knew, kicked himself for being such a neophyte still.
He passed doors of wood similar to that of the lobby, with titles that included varied disciplines: tenebration, genesis, hagio-linguistics. From what he’d heard and read, Temple Laboratories’ investigation into metaphysics was frenzied, no particular focus on any field of study. Even their goals were in question. Pure research? Marketable knowledge and products? Perhaps something else entirely. Even so, the members of Charlotte Bamford’s circle regarded Temple Laboratories as marvelous and intimidating. Paul himself burned with the desire to find out more about them.
Martinetti huffed. “Ten novels about the so-called occult, children brandishing wands and turning into dragons and such trash, and she won’t even admit to her intellectual interests.”
“Openness is an excellent distraction from the truth,” Paul quipped.
He nearly walked into her as she stopped and turned to peer at him. “Is that a Wilde quote, or Houdini?” Her eyes held such darkness that it was difficult to discern pupil from iris.
Did she mock him? Paul shrugged and tried not to react. Martinetti continued. “Is that why you wear all white and bleach your hair? To distract?”
Paul paused to consider his answer. This tour existed as a formality. He came as an emissary of Charlotte, and he knew that Martinetti tested them both by proxy.
“Do not fuck with Sophia Martinetti,” Bamford had told him. “She’s all business. An absolute shaman when it comes to financial relations. She’s probably a sensitive, so don’t even attempt to lie to her. Try anything funny and we’ll be permanently on their blacklist.”
“What would I try?” Paul said, feigning obliviousness.
Bamford gave him that look she reserved for situations of the greatest gravity. “Stop it, Paul. This is profoundly serious, more so than anything I’ve allowed you to do. More serious than your sacrifice.”
Paul immediately rubbed the place where his left ring finger had been, a wedding vow to his first and greatest love: the pursuit of secrets.
Bamford continued, “I can’t be there. You know I would if I could. Go there, observe, find out what you can, and answer the pertinent questions. Do not try to charm Martinetti, do not leave anything behind you, do not accept gifts, and for God’s sake, do not try to deceive her.”
Paul promised to restrain himself. He’d sacrificed so much to get to this point, not just the finger he’d severed ecstatically at the beginning of his apprenticeship. No career—Charlotte Bamford took care of him now, requiring a different kind of work. Little contact with family and former friends, and no more boyfriends. They took his mind away from his studies. Even masturbation was limited outside of ceremonies.
“Spend your energy wisely,” Bamford was fond of telling him. He’d never expected the occult to be so sexually repressed.
Paul, a man who’d dreamed of knowing these secrets since he could read, gave up anything Charlotte Bamford asked. He would’ve given his sex organs entirely if that had been the price. One finger? Yes, mistress. Right away, mistress.
“I admit my clothes are a mode of distraction,” Paul told Martinetti. He watched her eyes as their focus point darted around his face. He met the challenges of Martinetti’s test with eagerness.
“And I do love Houdini,” he went on, deciding that openness was the best route with Martinetti, even after his quip. “I like the glamour that causes others to underestimate me. I like dazzling flashes of light and what I can accomplish while everyone’s blinking.”
Martinetti regarded him with blank eyes. She resumed walking. “As we continue the tour, do nothing to change the energy of the building. It’s perfectly balanced. If I find you using disruptive instruments or intentions, I have permission from Ms. Bramford to take whatever measures are necessary to resolve the situation.”
She would, he thought. She’d cut my throat in an instant. Paralyze me. Or worse. No, he certainly would not “fuck with” Sophia Martinetti.
They reached the end of the hallway, turned right, and began down another long corridor, slowing their pace. Paul noticed that subtly but surely the hallway sloped upward. The acoustics of it had been altered–perhaps by physical design, perhaps by other means–so that the merciless tock of Martinetti’s heels on the tile didn’t reverberate from the walls.
For the first time, he noticed fist-sized cameras mounted periodically along the tops of walls.
He tried to ask questions without obvious answers. “I noticed the slope of the floor. Do the corridors get shorter, laid out in a spiral?”
“Indeed. But I don’t expect we’ll travel all the way to the apex.”
He decided to use a little humor. “Oh? I don’t even get to see the gift shop?” He gave his best boyish smile.
Martinetti clucked a short laugh and looked at him. “No plush Cthulhu dolls, I’m afraid.” Was she warming to him? They continued walking. Bamford’s words came to him again — do not try to charm her.
Here, on the north side of the building, rooms featured generous observation windows beside the doors.
“This wing is for show, as is the next. Investors and other guests may observe the experiments with reduced risk of contamination.”
Through the first window, Paul watched a naked woman of about fifty, in profile, performing something akin to tai chi. Lit only from the back, her shadow on the wall seemed wrong, somehow darker than it should be.
Martinetti continued. “The glass is opaque on the inside, not mirrored. It lets light out but not in. There’s a parallel glass on the opposite wall inside. Behind it, members of the research staff observe the experiments. We can’t see them, they can’t see us, and the subjects can’t see anyone.”
“Is there something unusual about her shadow?”
“Some shadows are thicker than others. They linger a bit longer than they should when the casting body is moving. The goal is to isolate a shadow from its casting body.”
Why? he thought.
“Why not?” Martinetti said aloud, staring into the observation room.
The nude woman moved more quickly now, her dance maintaining its fluidity.
“If she moves subtly enough, we suspect she can trick the shadow into losing synchronicity. Confuse it, so to speak.”
“Confuse it? Is it conscious?”
“Oh no. It’s only a shadow. But it has attractions and patterns, like all things. Those can be shaped or deranged.”
They passed other windows. Through one, Paul watched a calico cat revolving end over end in mid-air, neither rising nor falling. Through another, he saw a plump blond fellow using a bamboo cane to whip the footsoles of a man bound to a table. Each time the instrument whacked him, the skin of his entire body changed color, flesh tones at first, then shades of blue, green, and violet.
“Where do you find your subjects? And how do you ensure discretion?”
“Our own researchers are required to participate in the experiments. Everyone you see is a scientist working for Temple Laboratories. Most we recruit. The occasional aspiring psychic shows up looking for a job, but they find nothing here. Discretion is ensured through a combination of threats and screening. We screen efficiently.”
Martinetti went on without need or questions, suddenly and suspiciously forthcoming. “Most of them want merely to feel complicit in something rare and powerful. You can relate to that. I feel your desire burning a hole in your chest. You’re even hungrier for it than most of the members of Bamford’s little club.”
Paul felt himself blush, something he still couldn’t control. “You’re reading me deeply.”
“No, Mister Pinder. You’re not so deep.”
They rounded the corner to the East corridor. Again in the distance, the passage turned to the right.
“This,” said Martinetti, lingering on the first word, “is the hallway dedicated to sexuality.”
They stopped at the first window. Paul watched as two young men engaged in foreplay on a cushioned examination table. One was a slim and milky redhead, the other muscular and dark. Wireless electrode patches clung to them along several meridian points.
“And what is going on in this room?” He knew Martinetti monitored his every reaction, so he didn’t bother to hide the arousal in his voice or any other aspect of his body. Paul wished he could hear the little noises of their pleasure. He wished that he could join them.
“This study measures male sexual energy. Soon, we’ll begin harnessing it. Did you know that two men together have a higher energy output than three or more? We’ve tried many combinations. It works best to keep female subjects and researchers as far away as possible.”
She took a few steps back from the window. “If I stay, I’ll risk contaminating the experiment. I’ll be back to get you in a moment.” She walked around the previous corner and the clicking of her pumps became inaudible almost immediately. As she disappeared, Paul saw the small video recorder keeping its eye on him from the corner. God only knew what other sort of instruments they had trained on him at this very moment.
In the observation room, the brown-skinned man straddled the chest of the other.
What did Martinetti suspect he might do? Break the window and join in? Cut his knuckles on the glass and stain his flawless white jacket? Of course not. It had to be something deceptively simple. Distraction.
Everything in the hall continued still and quiet. No sound of Martinetti. No one else in the hall. He breathed into the fight or flight response and gathered his focus. Then he turned back to the observation window.
They both stared at him–directly at him. The men’s faces were hungry, almost malicious. Could they see him? Martinetti had clearly stated otherwise. She could’ve been lying. They both approached the glass, stalking him. Paul stood unmoving as the pale one pressed his body against the glass, arms up, palms near his shoulders. The window cut a large enough frame to reveal him from the crown of his head to mid-thigh.
The other man embraced his lover from behind, tucking his face into the white neck. The pale man’s mouth opened as he shut his eyes but Paul heard nothing through the glass.
They’re distractions, he assured himself. Something else is happening. What?
For a long moment, nothing changed. Then all at once, a crack opened in the glass, the two men climaxed, and the outpouring of their energy bombarded Paul. All three collapsed backward, the crack in the glass branched and branched again, and Paul realized that he’d also emptied his libido into his own briefs.
Martinetti emerged from around the corner. She took in the scene. The two men behind the glass now embraced on the cushioned table. The glass held together.
“You said they couldn’t see me,” Paul said.
“Yes. But they knew you were there. Interesting.”
“They made eye contact with me. Both of them.”
“Hmmm.” Martinetti lingered at the opposite wall, as far from the glass as she could stand. The equipment still measured the experiment, or else she wouldn’t stand so far away. She asked Paul, “Did you touch the glass?”
“I didn’t.” Paul’s heart raced.
He thought he could smell his own fluid through his pants. He looked down to his crotch before he could catch himself. No visual evidence there. He looked back to Martinetti. “Did I contaminate the experiment?”
“No, Paul. You did exactly what was expected.” Her words did nothing to soothe him. “There’s a restroom halfway down this hall, on your right.”
He needed no more prompting. He passed several more observation rooms: one that contained a sleeping man suspended by his feet, with what appeared to be a taproot growing from his shaved skull; another that had no portal to the hallway but was filled with water, an aquarium in which a man appeared to make love to something with more than four limbs; and one in which only a large amethyst cube rested on another cushioned table in the center of the room.
He finally found the door to the single-occupant washroom, utterly ordinary on the inside. A blessing. Paul took down his pants and washed and dried himself thoroughly. Still being tested, he thought. Looking into the mirror, he took a moment to congratulate himself on the coolness with which he handled the situation.
He opened the door to see Martinetti, flanked by the two naked men. The men stared at him as the ever-stoic Martinetti gazed at the cell phone in her hand.
“We’ve accepted Ms. Bamford’s generous offer of investment,” she said.
The two men caught hold of Paul and locked his arms behind him, pulling him out into the corridor.
“She has decided to invest you.” Martinetti approached him and placed her index finger on the spot between his eyebrows. Paul scoured his knowledge frantically for the right trick, the best distraction that would buy him time to get out of there. Her finger felt like a brick balanced on one of its corners, the weight of it pushing into his head instead of downward. A rivulet of blood slid from the point of contact and down the length of his arrogant nose. He struggled to maintain consciousness.
“Welcome to what you’ve always wanted, Paul.”
As he faded, he had the futile thought that Martinetti must’ve gone through this same ordeal. Perhaps even Charlotte…and then he was out.
He regained consciousness on a cushioned platform in a small observation room. Two men, different from the two who had grabbed him, stood naked, one to each side of him. Paul could feel his own nudity before seeing it.
“Let’s begin,” said the man to his left. He ran his hands along the length of Paul’s body, and the other knelt to the floor. Paul surrendered and allowed himself to be stroked, to be studied. He breathed into his panic. He knew he couldn’t escape. Half of him didn’t want to.
When the man on his right stood again, he held an object the size of a hatbox. Paul recognized it immediately, though he’d only seen it for an instant. It was the amethyst cube he’d glimpsed just before finding the washroom, and it glistened in the clinical light. The man set it onto Paul’s groin. It weighed less than he’d expected.
Something living stirred inside the cube and seemed to shudder—something spindly and sharp. Arachnid, arthropod, Heaven only knew, it scratched its little limbs against the inside of the violet prism.
“What’s in there?” Paul asked, his curiosity and arousal outweighing his fear.
Both men grinned down at him in horrible serenity. “You’ll know soon enough. Telling you now would ruin the experiment.”