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When they were finished making love, she rolled his exhausted body over, and lay on top of him, staring at him intently. "Will you do it?" she asked him again. "Will you kill my husband?"
Morton was spent from their lovemaking ready to doze until he could find a likely moment to sneak out of the motel but when she asked her question, he fixed his eyes on her. Her body, which had only moments ago given him pleasure, now seemed burdensome as she lay on top of him. Her face was only centimeters from his, and he could feel her breath on his perspiration-drenched skin. He had a sudden impulse to push her off to escape from her and everything she had proposed fifteen minutes ago, before they started making love....
When she first made the proposition, he had allowed his mind to believe it was all a joke: some sick new form of foreplay, perhaps. In a strange way, maybe the proposition had even turned him on while they were in the moment. She had whispered terrible things into his ears: the ease with which he could break the husband's "pencil neck;" the ease with which he could dump the body out in the middle of nowhere, so that it would never be found. In the midst of their sex, the words and scenarios had been a forbidden aphrodisiac; but now that the sex was over, all the terrible fantasies died away, and he saw only the horror of it.
They were lying in the darkness he looked at her face via the dim light filtering through the motel's curtained windows. Outside the motel, he heard trucks rumbling past on the interstate highway. They were about forty minutes outside of Atlanta, Georgia at a motel where people came to fuck without pretenses. The rooms were rented by the hour; most of the couples arrived in separate cars; and as Morton listened in the silence, he heard them rattling beds in their furtive search for pleasure. The entire thing suddenly seemed sordid to him; and as he lay there, staring up at the wife, he realized he did not like the expression in her eyes. She was beautiful beyond words, but her eyes were like an abyss, ready to devour him. That same look had been in her eyes when she hired him a month ago to spy on her husband. For a while, Morton had allowed himself to believe that look was lust, but he saw now that she was only using him. He was a tool to her: a disposable means to an end. Even their sex was only a way of baiting him into the abyss. Suddenly repulsed, he pushed her off his body.
"...You're a cold bitch," he hissed; he went to get out of the bed, but she held his arm
"My coldness didn't keep you from enjoying my body."
He turned and stared at her, dumbfounded; after a moment, he shook his head. "You think because you spread your legs for me a couple times I'll be willing to risk twenty-five years to life?" And then, brushing off her hand, "Your stuff wasn't that good." He grabbed his pants from off the floor and began to put them on. His thirty-five-year-old body still reflected the twelve years he had spent in the Marines. The wife, who was twelve years his junior, stared up at him from the bed, her smooth features seeming almost angelic in the darkness. Morton tried not to look at her as if her beauty would somehow tempt him back into the bed. He moved quickly, in order to be free of her. Once his pants were on, he realized he had not put on his underwear. They were probably entwined in the sheets, and he did not want to dally or turn on the light to search for them. He just wanted to get out of there
"I can offer you money," the wife ventured from the bed. He had been buttoning up his shirt. He turned to face her again. His voice was low and dangerous:
"What didn't you understand about what I just said? I don't want anything to do with this."
"Are you afraid of my husband?" she taunted him. "You see how old and frail he is: you could easily "
"Stop it! ÉI told you we're not having this conversation!" He was breathing heavily, while she lay there calmly, and it annoyed him: seemed like a mark of weakness on his part. He sighed. "I don't care what you do to your husband," he said at last, " just leave me out of it." Then, as the entire scenario registered in his mind again: "Goddamn, how stupid can you really be? In all the mystery and detective stories you've seen, did you ever see the young, gold-digging wife get away with it?"
"That's where you come in."
He chuckled mordantly. "You mean while I'm rotting in jail, you'll be sunning yourself on your yacht?"
He cut her off before she could explain. "I told you before: I'm not talking about this with you." Looking down, he saw he had buttoned his shirt up wrong. He cursed and started unbuttoning. "ÉDo what the hell you want," he told her again, "but leave me out of it."
"...Okay," she said after a pause. "Will you at least finish your assignment?"
"You mean spying on your old man? I've followed him on three business trips already. He's not cheating on you. He doesn't even rent pornos in the hotel! You're wasting your time and money."
"It's my time and money to waste," the wife responded.
He went to point out it was the husband's money she was wasting; the cruel irony that she was sleeping with the man she had hired to investigate her husband's infidelity was not lost on him. However, at her statement, he merely groaned noncommittally.
"Will you finish the assignment?" she asked again. " I'll double your fee."
Once again, he stopped and stared at her. The surreal glow from the fluorescent light outside the motel window was cutting across her face. He again saw she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Her skin was like creamy chocolate so soft and fragrant he sometimes worried he would bruise her during their lovemaking: ruin her perfection. She was the kind of woman men had sacrificed themselves for over the centuries. Indeed, she was the kind of woman a man was happy to just be seen with; but once again seeing the ugly expression in her eyes, Morton shook his head.
He had almost allowed himself to be trapped by her; but he was free now, able to see things clearly after weeks of blindness. In fact, he suddenly felt sorry for her husband. In every way, her husband, Templeton Ferguson IV, had the type of life people were supposed to envy. The old white man had a fortune in the hundreds of millions: his home and possessions were extravagant; his wife was young and stunning. A side of Morton had liked making love to the wife solely because she was Ferguson's wife. The thought of taking something from such a powerful man had turned him on. Also, like most men, Morton had believed his penis had miraculous powers when it came to women. He had allowed himself to believe it was the good dick he had hanging between his legs that had made the wife choose him over a Harvard-educated multimillionaire. He had allowed himself to believe his good dick had compelled the wife to risk her life of wealth and comfortébut he knew now the wife's sex had only been bait for the trap. For a while, he had taken the bait, and swallowed it whole, but he was free now, immune to her spell.
The wife was still lying on the bed, looking up at him intently. Despite everything he had said to her, there was a calm, confident expression on her face; and as he watched her closely, he realized she still believed she could talk him into killing the husband. It was written plainly on her face. Just as he had believed his dick could make her do something impossibly stupid, she believed her pussy could make him throw his life away. He smiled. Now that he had seen her clearly, he felt calm and confident and vengeful. Both she and her husband had wronged him: the wife had used him; the husband's wealth and power mocked his manhood somehow, making him feel like a petty fool. Remembering the wife's proposal to double his fee, Morton realized that taking more of their money would prove his superiority over them; indeed, if he played his cards right, he knew he could continue screwing the wife indefinitely. All he had to do was string her along: bait her like she had baited him. Seeing how easy it would be, his smile widened. In fact, his smile was so peculiar that the wife looked at him confusedly; to cover himself, Morton blurted out:
"On second thought, I guess I can finish the assignment." He was still smiling.
The wife, too, began to smile, because she allowed herself to believe it would only be a matter of time before she wore down his defenses. "Good," she said at last. And then, throwing off the sheet seductively: "The night is still young. You may as well come back over here and keep me company."
Morton's eyes caressed every delicious curve of her body. He reminded himself to resist her spell, but his dick was stirring in his pants, so he smiled and walked back over to the bed.
One day after the wife's motel room proposal, Morton was in Orlando, Florida at the hotel where the husband would be staying. For Morton, this was already the most profitable assignment he had ever had. So far, he had collected over $7,000 from the wife. He worked freelance through an agency, which took in all the cases and then doled out assignments to their member detectives. He had seen their ad in the paper the day he got out of the Marines. After a six-week course, he had started his career as a private detective. Most of his clients had been jealous or distrustful spouses who wanted their mates followed. So, when he first met Mrs. Ferguson a month ago, everything had seemed routine. When she started coming on to him, he had thought he hit the jackpot. Even after last night's realizations, he felt as though he were one of the luckiest men on earth. He knew he could keep this going for at least another month, by which time he should have gotten another $15,000 from the wife. This was perfect.
He had caught a morning flight to Orlando, so he could be at the hotel when Mr. Ferguson arrived. He had already checked into the hotel and hired a rental car, which was waiting in the hotel parking lot. He was at the hotel bar now. There was a long mirror behind the bar, which meant he had a good view of the lobby and entrance without actually having to turn around. He looked at his reflection, and was pleased. With the money he had gotten from the wife, he was able to dress much better nowadays. He actually looked dapper in his new designer suit. He had a smooth, light-brown complexion, and what African Americans had come to call "good hair." Growing up in New York City, everyone had assumed he was a Puerto Rican. He had never met his father, and as his mother was dark-skinned with short, coarse hair, he assumed he had gotten his traits from his father. His mother had always been vague about his father. The few times she had talked about him, there had been something inscrutable in her eyes: either love or terror. He had assumed the combination was either the result of abuse or unrequited love or any of the other clichés that produced single, unwed mothers in the black community. At the same time, as none of his childhood friends had had fathers either, he had never gotten into the habit of expecting a father to be around.
The bartender returned with his drink: whiskey "neat." One of the things he had always loved about drinking was ordering his drink. There was something sexy about getting a bartender's attention and saying, in a suave voice, "Whiskey, neat." It was like James Bond's "Shaken, not stirred." He smiled.
The bartender was an old white man with a muzzle. "Y'all want anything else?" he asked with a thick Southern accent. Despite Morton's good mood, his smile faded away. He had been living in Georgia for two years now, nevertheless, he still had to concentrate when he heard the thickest Southern drawls. Even when he understood them, he was always left with an anxious feeling: an infusion of panic and dread. More likely than not, it had something to do with all the childhood horror stories his mother used to tell him about the South. She had been a superstitious woman; around their house, she had kept various pouches and smelly concoctions to ward off evil spirits and hexes. In spite of the fact that she and her family had moved to New York City during the 1970s, when she was a teenager, she had talked as if she, herself, had been a runaway slave; all her childhood stories had seemed like things from slavery days. The villains had always been slave masters; invariably, the victims had been enslaved either by the brutal wills of others, or dark magic.
One night, around his sixteenth birthday, he had heard her screaming out in her room. At first, he had thought a robber or rapist had climbed up the fire escape and into her window. He had run into the room with a baseball bat; but by then, his mother had not been screaming anymore. On her face, there had been a terrified scowl as if she had seen the face of the devil. When he went to shake her and ask her what was wrong, he had seen she was dead. Later, the doctors had said it was a massive heart attack: her heart had literally exploded in her chest.
He had moved in with some relatives, who had been just as superstitious as his mother, but he had sworn he would turn his back on potions and backwardness and all his mother's insane warnings. Indeed, after high school, when he joined the Marines and was stationed in Georgia, he had seen it as a test of his manhood: a chance to finally shake off all his childish superstitions. Through the Military, he had been stationed all over the world; but when he was discharged from the Marines two years ago, something about the South had called to him. He had never given it much thought. Maybe a side of him had wanted to know his roots. Maybe it had been that he had no particular place to go. Either way, even after two years of working down here as a private detective, a thick Southern drawl still made his skin crawl.
The bartender was still waiting to see if he wanted anything else. "No thanks," Morton replied. After the man left, Morton sighed. His mother was still inside of him like a genetic predisposition to a disease. He took a sip of his drink, and liked the burning sensation in his throat. In truth, he really did not want to think about his mother right now. He wanted to turn his thoughts to happy things. He remembered the $7,000 of the wife's money he had in the bank. After he was through trailing Ferguson on this business trip, he would have another $10,000 in the bank. Ferguson was always going on business trips, which meant Morton would have guaranteed income for the foreseeable future. His smile returned, and he took another sip of his neat whiskey.
Feeling invigorated, he swiveled on his bar stool and watched the lobby. Most of the people in the hotel seemed to be there to visit Disney World. In the lobby, there were at least a dozen families with those ridiculous Mickey-ear hats. They seemed like some strange cult; the Mickey hats were like demented yarmulkes. Hordes of Disney-hyped kids were rampaging through the hotel lobby like wild dogs; parents were either screaming for them to calm down or slouched on the hotel lobby's couches, worn out. At times like these, Morton was happy he was child-less.
As he was about to take another sip of his drink, the husband came through the door and began to make his way to the reception desk. The old man walked with a stoop; everything about him seemed to droop. His suit, which had perhaps fit him perfectly thirty years ago, was now three sizes too big for his shrunken body. With the heat outside, the man's wrinkled skin seemed to be oozing off his bones like plastic placed too close to a flame. His thinning hair was matted to his scalp by his sweat, causing his gigantic ears to stick out prominently. The man shuffled up to the desk as if the balls of his feet were in agony. A colorfully attired bellhop followed him, pulling his two bags on a cart. The bellhop, a pimple-faced teenager, was taking pains to go slowly and match the man's miserly pace. There was something farcical about it, and Morton was waiting for the bellhop to lose patience and run the old man over with the cart.
When the old man finally reached the front desk, Morton sat up straighter and smiled: he liked it when his plans worked out. Now, he could just sit back and observe even though he did not really expect there to be anything worth observing. Templeton Ferguson IV was as boring as they came: a workaholic millionaire, obsessed with aggrandizing his immense wealth. Remembering that he was being paid from the old man's money again enlivened Morton's spirits. He was about to smile again when he looked up and saw a young, beautiful businesswoman was about to walk past him. She was in a red suit, but the length of the skirt seemed more appropriate for a go-go bar than the boardroom. Morton's eyes traveled slowly up her long, shapely legs. She tossed her hair over her shoulders as she walked, and Morton bit his lower lip, moaning, "umm, ummm, ummmmm!" as if eating something delicious.
At the sound, the woman looked in his direction. At first, she only looked at him curiously; for a moment, he thought that she would give him a flirtatious smile, but then, all of a sudden, she began to scream!
Morton jumped, causing the whiskey to spill all over him. The woman seemed so terrified that, for a moment, he believed she had to be screaming at someone or something else. He glanced over his shoulder, but there was nothing there. When he looked at her again, she was backing away from him, terrified, almost toppling over a chair. Everyone was looking in their direction now. Instinctively, Morton glanced at Ferguson: the old man was looking directly at him! The woman was still screaming; she tried to take off running, but only tripped on a chair leg and crashed face-first into one of the glass coffee tables. The thing shattered, and the woman lay there as if dead. Morton had not moved in all that time. He forced himself to not look in Ferguson's direction again, but he had no idea what he should do. People were going to the woman now, and trying to tend to her: he could not just sit there looking indifferent and out of place. He got up and tried to blend into the crowd. The way the businesswoman was splayed on the ground, Morton could see her panties. They were pink, lacy thongs. He looked away guiltily. Hotel security was rushing up now, telling everyone to stand back. That helped Morton to blend in. However, without being asked, one of the Disney World moms pointed Morton out to hotel security:
"She started screaming at him," the woman explained, gesturing to Morton as her toddlers clutched at her shorts.
"Yeah," someone else added. In fact, dozens of people were staring at him now, whispering to one another
The businesswoman groaned from the ground; everyone looked down at her, and then back at Morton.
"I didn't do anything to her!" he said inanely. "I was sitting there minding my business!" Sweat was beginning to bead on his brow. He felt like a bad criminal. A side of him wanted to make a run for it just like a bad criminal. "I ain't do nothing!" he said again.
Another of the security officers came up to tell everyone the ambulance was on its way. The other officers again tried to get everyone to move on; one of the officers came up to Morton: "Are you staying in the hotel?"
"Sure I checked in this morning."
"You have your room key?"
Morton got it out of his pocket, and the security officer noted the number. Morton felt sick. One of the tourists was trying to take a picture of the unconscious woman, but the security officer stepped up to stop him. While the officer told the man to put away the camera, Morton moved on.
He felt slightly lightheaded. Looking around, it occurred to him he had lost sight of the husband. To hell with it! he thought to himself. He needed another drink. Looking down, he noticed his clothes were damp from the spilled whiskey. Yet, somehow, he could not bring himself to care. He had to get another drink first. He returned to the bar and ordered vodka. After the bartender put down the drink in front of him, he reached into his pocket and took out a cigarette. He noticed his fingers were shaking, and this disturbed him. He was feeling his pockets for his book of matches when a hand with a lit lighter suddenly appeared in front of his face. The hand was wrinkled, and had huge age spots. He noticed how long and sharp the fingernails were like claws. The hand had an unidentifiable scent that disturbed him. When Morton looked up, he saw Ferguson smiling at him!...It took all his willpower not to jump. Instead, he inclined his head a little, to light the end of his cigarette.
"Thanks," he said at last, with the cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. His lips were trembling.
The old man sat down on the bar stool beside him; Morton's mind was working frantically, but there was nothing to do but sit there.
"...You smell just like her," Ferguson started. He, too, had a thick Southern accent.
Morton tried not to think about it. In fact, his mind was not thinking much of anything. The only thing he could do was stare at the old man. On the other hand, Ferguson was at ease. He smiled, and took a cigar from a case in his jacket pocket. First, he sniffed it lovingly, then he lit it. There was something almost ritualistic about the entire thing: something dark and paganish
The man took his first hearty puff of the cigar, squeezing the thing tenderly between his claw-like fingers; Morton stared at the fingers again, cringing, but that brought him back to his senses. He remembered what the man had said; he spoke up breathlessly, as if he had been holding his breath all that time:
"I smell like who?"
"...Like my wife," the man said with an inscrutable expression. When the words registered in Morton's mind, he felt a sudden chill come over him. He felt the panic of a criminal who realized he had been cornered. The old man's eyes were probing devastating. However, that was when the husband added, "Your girlfriend must use the same perfume as my wife."
Morton stared at him for a few seconds before he allowed himself to be relieved. "...Does she smell like whiskey?" he tried to joke.
"No," the man said with a chuckle, "but I can smell her perfume even under all that spilled whiskey."
Morton took a long drag of the cigarette then, because he had nothing to say and he needed to think. The cigarette tasted horrible, and his face soured.
The husband was still looking at him closely: as if cataloguing every minute detail of his actions. Morton took another deep drag of the cigarette: it tasted so bad he felt nauseous afterward. Seeing Morton's facial expression, Ferguson got another one of his cigars from his pocket and offered it to Morton. "After what just happened," the old man began, "you look as though you can use a good cigar."
"Yeah, thanks," Morton said as he took it, but he only ended up putting the cigar in his whiskey-soaked shirt pocket. As the husband puffed his cigar, Morton found himself staring at the man's fingernails once more
"What do you think set her off like that?" Ferguson drawled.
"What?" Morton said to buy time.
"The woman who screamed at you: what do you think happened?" As he said it, he turned back to the scene. Hotel security had cordoned off the area, but the woman was still lying prone on the ground, like a corpse; people were still congregating on the fringes, trying to get a look. The sight of the woman brought a shudder to Morton, so he turned back to the bar, and took another long drag of his cigarette. He forced himself not to look up at the mirror behind the bar, which gave a perfect view of the woman's body. He felt lightheaded and sick. " I always wonder about things like that," the husband continued abruptly, startling Morton. "One moment you're going about your life, thinking you're on top of the world that you're the master of everything and then, before you know what's happening to you, you're fucked." He smiled weakly here: not an inviting smile, but an ominous one.
"Maybe she got too much sun," Morton attempted to joke again. At this, the old man smiled more broadly, causing his wrinkly face to crease in many improbable and unsavory ways. Morton looked away, and took another drag of his cigarette.
"...I've always hated this goddamn state," Ferguson went on. "My family used to own land down here in the middle of the swamp. My grandpappy tried to drain it and grow crops on it, but nothing would grow on it but weeds. ÉAnd the draining did not take: within a few years, it was flooded again. That near drove him to bankruptcy. ÉWhen slavery ended, my grandpappy was ruined. He killed himself on that land: went out into the swamp and slit his own throat. Some say he made a deal with the devil to get back his property."
Morton stared at him, disturbed. He remembered his mother's stories
"My pappy sold that land as soon as my grandpappy died," Ferguson continued. "...But I guess Pappy still loved this state, since he used to bring me down here as a kid for summer vacations. One summer, we were driving down some shit-hole road in the middle of nowhere when we came upon a carnival show. It was a tourist trap in the middle of the swamp. Me and my pappy got out and paid our two bits to see the show. It was an alligator wrestler: a huge man about your age, dressed in a bearskin suit, so that he'd look like some kind of savage. There was a carnival barker there, telling everyone how the bearskin guy had been raised by a lost tribe of Seminoles, and how he had mystical powers over all beasts. He went on and on with this hokum. Of course, it was all a show for the tourist. Even I was loving it. I must have been about eleven at the time the age when you fall in love with all kinds of sordid, melodramatic shit....They had this pen with a huge alligator in it. The bearskin guy jumped over the railing then, and into the pen. The alligator snapped at him, causing everyone to gasp. Little kids grabbed their mother's skirts; mothers turned their eyes away and grabbed their husband's arms. Of course, the wrestler jumped out of the way effortlessly the way he had thousands of times before. The carnival barker was talking excitedly, but he did not even have to look to narrate what was going on. They had done this show thousands of times. With a lightning quick movement, the bearskin guy was behind the alligator. Soon, he had the alligator's neck wrenched back and the mouth closed. The once mighty beast seemed suddenly broken and weak. In fact, the bearskin guy was able to keep the alligator's mouth closed with his chin. The crowd applauded. Mothers who had before hidden their faces now looked on in awe and relief. And then, in another mighty movement, the bearskin guy pried the alligator's mouth open and held his head between the jaws. People again gasped and clutched one another. The bearskin guy had done it thousands of times...but then, in the blink of an eye, something went wrong. He seemed to lose his balance on the mud. ÉThe insides of alligator mouths are like spring-loaded pressure sensors. As soon as something touches them, they clamp down. The bearskin guy lost his balance and the next thing you know, his neck was inside the alligator's mouth. The creature clamped down and started its death twirl....That's how alligators rip meat from their victims. They clamp on, and then twirl their bodies, so that the meat is ripped off. The bearskin guy's body looked like a rag doll being tossed around. For the first few seconds, nobody could utter a sound....And then the guy's head rolled off. It rolled up to me as I stood just beyond the pen's railing. When I looked down at the head, its eyes blinked some reflex brain action perhaps. That's when everyone started to scream."
The old man sighed at the end of the story, looking melancholy. "That's what I think about every time I visit this goddamn state: how people think they're in control of a situation, but are only waiting around to be fucked."
Morton knew that he should say something, but the only thing he could think to do was look away from the man's probing eyes. Something about the old man's story had touched him, and he felt somehow tainted. He instinctively looked away, searching for a way to escape. The woman was still on the ground; people were still congregating on the fringes to get a look at her even though hotel security had told them to disperse. During the old man's story, Morton had forgotten all about the woman, but seeing her on the ground again only set off new anxieties. The woman was still unconscious, lying prone. When Morton looked back at Ferguson, the same intent, disturbing expression was on the old man's face. The man's eyes were not old man's eyes: they were bright and sharp. Morton felt doomed somehow
"Are you here on business or pleasure?" the husband drawled before puffing on his cigar.
Morton again noticed the man's nails: how long and sharp they were. It was another off-putting fact. Morton had never been this close to him before. The man had a dry, musky odor like something long dead that had just been dug up. Morton winced at the thought, and then pretended to cough to cover up the wince. The husband stood up and patted his back. The sensation was like a cold, damp tongue, even though the man's skin did not actually touch him
Morton had to get away! The next thing he knew, he was thanking the man for the cigar and bidding a hasty retreat. It was the absolute wrong thing to do, but he was through with this game with this case. He was panting. The cigarette in his mouth tasted rancid, so he spit it out, onto the lobby floor. One of the Disney World moms saw this and frowned, but he was fleeing escaping before it was too late. In his haste, he pushed past some of the people who had gathered on the periphery. The prospect of fresh air compelled him to go outside. He needed to be revived cleansed. He found himself shuffling along, like the old man had shuffled. For an instant, he allowed himself to wonder if Ferguson had known him if the man's questions had all been part of an elaborate ruse to entrap him. However, the thought opened up nightmare possibilities, so he rushed ahead as if fleeing from his own thoughts. He did not need this at all! He wanted to get back home leave this godforsaken place and this assignment behind him. He would call the wife after he felt sane and calm again, and tell her it was over: that he was through with this case....Yet, as he headed outside, even these thoughts failed to soothe him. He felt marked somehow as if no matter where he hid, he would always be within reach of a man who smelled of newly uncovered death....
When he exited the hotel, the heat was stifling. He stood there wheezing for a while. The hotel overlooked a busy highway; in the distance, there were the skyscrapers of the city center. Morton needed to see something organic and real something that was not manmade and corrupt. His mind went to his mother. For once, he felt her apprehensions about the South. Ferguson's story had opened his soul to the terror that had always been beneath the surface of his mother's stories. In his mind, Ferguson was suddenly like an old-time slave master. Morton could see him on a plantation in the old days, sitting on his porch, orchestrating the systematic dehumanization of Morton's kin. The image was so vivid that Morton felt his guts tighten
Something in the sky caught his attention. When he looked into the heavens, he saw what at first seemed like a floating shadow. He stared at it, mesmerized, as it got closer and closer. For five or six seconds he stood transfixed, holding his breath. Eventually, he saw the shadow's movements were birdlike but it was huge: the size of a truck! He blinked a few times, hoping the thing in the sky was only an optical illusion; but the closer it got, the more definite it seemed. Also, something was wrong with the world: even though it was the middle of the morning, everything suddenly seemed dark. Where there had before been the sound of rushing traffic, there was now only stillness; he glanced around, realizing there were no people around him no Disney World toddlers and their moms; no hotel personnel...
He heard a beating noise: the sound of two immense wings flapping in the wind. His eyes bulged as he stared up at the thing in the sky....The shadow bird. He remembered the story his mother used to tell him, about the demon the slave master sent out to punish and reclaim his escaped slaves. Morton could not move; he doubted he was breathing anymore. Even as the creature drew closer, its body seemed to remain as a shadow as immense darkness. And then, Morton saw the creature's face. He made out its eyes: two fire-like slits against the darkness. By that time, the creature was upon him. When its huge mouth opened, revealing the infinite darkness within, Morton screamed. He tried to run for his life to flee but by then it was too late. In one bite, the creature engulfed him; and then, he found himself careening through the infinite darkness. There was no pain, but he felt the darkness digesting him breaking him down. He tried to scream and break free, but it was too late.
...One second, two seconds, three seconds. That was how long he seemed to be in the darkness before hundreds of stark, terrifying images began to flash before him. He saw slave shacks and whippings and four hundred years of unspeakable brutality. Most of the images flashed in his mind too quickly for him to analyze them individually, but the collective horror of all the images stayed with him. As he was drawing near his limits, the last image appeared. It lingered a little longer than the others maybe an entire second. It was a rose bush, bursting with the biggest white blossoms he had ever seen. Yet, the image terrified him, as if he had seen the face of the devil
Miraculously, the darkness let go of him; instantaneously, he opened his eyes and screamed. ÉBut when he looked around, what he saw made no sense. He was inside now in a hotel room that was not his own. It was more posh. He was lying on a king-sized bed. When he looked down, he saw that he was naked. That was when the door to the adjoining room opened, and Ferguson emerged from the suite's dining room. "I was wondering when you were going to wake up," the man said with an expression Morton could not read.
Morton tried to move to cover his nakedness but his limbs were like lead
"Don't try to get up," the husband advised him.
Morton stared at the man, his eyes quailing. "Wha...what happened?" he stammered, looking around again. He remembered the floating shadow: the shadow bird
"Don't worry about that now," the old man tried to reassure him. "I had them bring you to my suite after you collapsed. But you'll be perfectly fine now I knew how to bring you back." The man had a sponge and an ice bucket in his hands; he came over to the bed then, and started swabbing Morton's bare chest. Morton gasped when the cold sponge touched his flesh
"You had an elevated temperature," the old man explained, " I had to get your body's core temperature down."
" I'm fine now," Morton said, desperately hoping the man would stop nursing him. But the man did not stop. He was swabbing Morton's chest and abdomen with a pleased, far-away expression on his face that made Morton feel sick. Just as the sponge passed over Morton's navel, on its way down to his crotch, something within him rebelled; marshalling his strength, he grabbed the man's hand, stopping its downward progress. "I'm fine!" he said again a little too forcefully but his internal panic could not be denied. He would have fought the man off if he had the strength beaten in his brains, like the wife wanted. He was panting again; the husband smiled, and patted Morton's hand.
"Yes, you'll be fine," the old man said enigmatically. Morton tried to move again, but he still did not have the strength. He looked toward the windows at that moment, but the blinds were closed. The husband saw where he was looking and smiled.
"I always keep the windows closed and curtained," he revealed. "Even as a kid, I always hated windows especially at night. I always thought something was looking at me from the darkness. In my bedroom at home, there are no windows no way for the darkness to get in when I'm sleeping...."
Morton stared at him for a long while. He had to purge the man's story from his mind before he could think straight again. Glancing down, he saw his clothes were on the floor strewn in various piles, the way they were when he tore them off to be with the wife and his other lovers. Now that he thought about it, his body had the disembodied feeling he usually had after good sex; his crotch felt slightly sore drained. A side of him had been fighting to keep from acknowledging it. A sense of panic spread over him as he looked up at the old man.
"You're shaking," Ferguson observed. He was still standing there with the sponge in his hand. Morton looked at the thing as if it were a knife. Gnashing his teeth, he forced himself to move! His limbs were still like lead, but he summoned all the power of his body and soul to escape.
"Don't try to get up," the old man told him now, but Morton ignored him. In fact, he pushed him to the side as he lurched over to his clothes. Leaning against the wall, he managed to pull up his undershorts. Yet, by the time he was finished, he knew he did not have the strength to put on the rest of his clothes. The old man was saying something trying to persuade him to return to bed but Morton refused to hear. Soon, the rest of his clothes were in his hands. He was stumbling over to the door. The old man was pushed aside again. Morton was panting exhausted but he refused to stop: to allow his body to acknowledge its weakness.
Miraculously, he was in the hallway. He was in nothing but his underwear; a middle-aged woman came out of the elevator and gasped. He pushed past her and entered. Luckily, there was no one else in the elevator. He pressed the button for his floor. He was wretched and sick.
He realized he needed something to drink: either water or something stronger. He needed to be cleansed: to be purified of whatever was within him. His mind went to the shadow bird. He shook his head and willed his thoughts to go elsewhere, but when his thoughts gravitated to what the husband might have done to him, he felt suddenly weak. He felt raped violated but on a spiritual level, not just physical. His body slumped, and he leaned against the wall to maintain his balance
The elevator door opened onto his floor. Two young men were waiting to get on. They laughed when they saw him. A crude joke was made. Morton did not hear. He lurched out of the elevator, then groped against the walls to get to his room. There were more people in the hallway. He ignored them was too overwhelmed by his internal panic to even acknowledge them.
Mercifully, he was soon standing in front of his door. His key was in his pants, and his pants were still in the pile in his hands along with his other clothes. He fished out the key, then opened the door. Once he was inside, he allowed himself to collapse onto the floor. He lay there as if dead. The coarse carpet irritated his skin, but he did not move for at least five minutes. He saw it was late afternoon: his window was open, and he saw the eerily beautiful sunset. He reasoned he had probably been unconscious for five or six hours. For the first time, he wondered why the hotel had not sent him to a hospital. He suspected the old man had snuck him up to his suite after he collapsed. That was the only thing that made sense....But why had the old man done it? Revenge for Morton's adultery?...Or maybe the old man had gotten some kind of perverted thrill? Morton's mind again flashed with horrific possibilities of what the old man might have done to his unconscious body. He groaned and forced himself to stand. He needed a hot shower. The impulse overcame him suddenly. He needed to be cleansed....And maybe a shower would revive him.
He turned on the light. The room was immaculate: white carpet, white sheets on the bed, white curtains. Nevertheless, Morton still felt dirty inside. He stumbled over to the bed and collapsed onto it. Maybe ten seconds later, the phone rang. It was next to the bed, on the nightstand. He stared at it in bewilderment for a moment; but then, realizing the wife was the only one who knew he was there, he grabbed the receiver eagerly.
"Hello!" he said. Somehow, he was desperate to talk to her, but a man's voice answered.
"This is hotel security, sir."
The disappointment made Morton pause for a moment. "...Okay," he said eventually.
"I thought you'd want to know about that incident this afternoon with the woman who started screaming at you."
Morton practically had to force his mind to return to it. With everything that had happened since then, that incident seemed like something that had happened years ago. "...Is she okay?" he said at last even though he did not really care.
"Physically, perhaps, but she's had a nervous breakdown."
"Oh....What caused it?"
"Who knows? But she kept talking about some kind of creature."
"...A creature?" he whispered, his mind unraveling.
"Yeah," the man said, as if embarrassed, " she said it was hovering over you, eating your soul."
Morton stared ahead numbly: it was all he could manage.
"...Sir?" the security officer asked after the long silence.
"Yeah," Morton said hoarsely.
"Anyway, I only wanted to let you know everything's fine. Good day." The man hung up the phone, but Morton knew things were not fine. Everything was wrong....What had the husband done to him? He tried to think back to reconstitute the hours of unconsciousness but nothing came.
Morton grimaced and sat up in the bed, letting his feet fall to the floor. He checked the travel alarm clock on the nightstand: it was almost 7 P.M. now. It was getting dark outside. He decided to call the wife, even though he had no idea what he would say to her. He picked up the phone and dialed her cell phone number. When he was transferred to her voicemail, he cursed and hung up the phone in frustration.
He was weak and hungry. He considered going down to the buffet or better yet, driving to a real restaurant and eating himself into a stupor. His thoughts returned to the shadow bird, but he only shook his head now. Some people dealt with their fears by becoming rational. He churned the entire thing about in his mind and told himself the incident had been some kind of heat-induced hallucination. He had been overwrought from talking to the husband, and then he had run outside and passed out from the heat and panic. He told himself there was nothing within him that his life was not being consumed by the darkness. It all made sense as long as he did not think about it too deeply. He was rushing now as to keep himself preoccupied. He had thought before about taking a shower, but he was suddenly terrified of being still, as if his fears would catch up to him. He put on the rest of his clothes, then headed outside. As he closed the door behind him, he vowed he would get the hell out of this place tomorrow. © 2009 by D. V. Bernard