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Authors: Dan Simmons

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BOOK: Carrion Comfort
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Harod climbed out of the water and padded across the tiles to a wet bar set back among the ferns. He poured a tall glass of grapefruit juice and looked back at Shayla. “Want anything, kid? I’ve got everything here. Even some Hawaiian punch if you’re feeling especially Mormon today.”

Shayla shook her head.

The producer dropped back into the Jacuzzi and rested the glass on his chest. He glanced up at a mirror on one wall and nodded almost imperceptibly. “All right,” he said. “Let’s talk about
The White Slaver
or whatever it ends up being called.”

“I don’t think that we would be interested . . .”

“You’ll get four hundred thousand dollars up front,” said Harod, “plus a percentage of the picture . . . which you’ll never see, bookkeeping being what it is. What you’ll really get out of it is a name you can bank at any studio in town. This thing’s going to be a fucking firecracker, kid. Trust me. I can smell big box office before the second draft of the treatment gets typed. This is big.”

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Harod. Mr. Borden said that if I wasn’t interested after hearing the initial proposal that we could . . .”

“Shooting starts in March,” said Harod. He took a long sip and closed his eyes. “Schu figures about twelve weeks so count on twenty. Location shots’ll include Algiers, Spain, a few days in Egypt, and about three weeks in Pinewood Studios for the palace stuff on the big soundstage there.”

Shayla stood up. Water glistened on her legs. She put her hands on her hips and glared at the ugly little man in the pool. Harod did not open his eyes.

“You’re not
, Mr. Harod,” she snapped. “I said no. No, I will not do your picture. I haven’t even seen the
. Well, you can take your
White Slaver
or what ever it is and . . . and . . .”

“And shove it up my ass?” Harod opened his eyes. Shayla was reminded of a lizard awakening. The water frothed around Harod’s pale chest.

“Good-bye, Mr. Harod,” said Shayla Berrington and turned on her heel. She had taken three steps when Harod’s voice stopped her.

“Afraid of the nude scenes, kid?”

She hesitated, then continued walking. “Afraid of the nude scenes,” repeated Harod and this time it was not a question.

Shayla was almost to the door when she whirled around. Her hands clawed at the air. “I haven’t even seen the script!” Her voice broke and she was amazed to find herself near tears.

“Sure, there are some nude scenes,” continued Harod as if she had not spoken. “And one love scene that’ll make the little teeny-boppers cream their pants. We could use a body-double . . . but we won’t have to. You can do it, kiddo.”

Shayla shook her head. She felt a rising fury that was beyond words. She turned and reached blindly for the doorknob.

“Stop.” Tony Harod’s voice was softer than ever. Almost inaudible. But there was something in it that stopped her more surely than a scream. Cold fingers seemed to curl around her neck.

“Come here.”

Shayla turned and walked toward him. Harod lay with his long-fingered hands crossed over his chest. His eyes were only slightly opened— moist, heavy-lidded—a crocodile’s lazy gaze. Part of Shayla’s mind screamed in panic and protest while another part merely watched in growing wonder.

“Sit down.”

She sat on the edge of the pool three feet from him. Her long legs dropped into the Jacuzzi. White foam splashed her tan thighs. She felt distant from her own body, staring down at herself with an almost clinical detachment.

“As I was saying, you can do it, kid. Jesus, there’s a little of the exhibitionist in all of us. Only you’ll be paid a fat fortune to do what you want to do anyway.”

As if fighting a terrible torpor, Shayla raised her head and looked into Tony Harod’s eyes. In the dappled light, his irises appeared to have opened so far as to leave only black holes in his pale face.

“Like now,” Harod said softly, so very softly. Perhaps he did not speak at all. The words seemed to slide into place in Shayla’s brain, cold coins tumbling into dark water. “It’s really quite warm in here. You don’t need that suit. Do you? Of course not.”

Shayla stared. Distantly, far back in the tunnel of her mind, she was a small child on the verge of tears. She watched in quiet surprise as her arm rose and her right hand slowly loosened the top of the bandeau and slid under the elastic. She tugged lightly and the lycra slid lower on her side, pulling tighter against the swell of her breasts. She pulled again on the right side. The fabric cut across her just above the nipple. She could see the faint red line fading where the elastic had pressed against her. She looked at Tony Harod.

Harod smiled ever so slightly and nodded.

As if given permission, Shayla pulled the suit down sharply. Her breasts bobbed softly as they came free of the orange fabric. She was very white there with only a few freckles dotting the tender skin. Her nipples were taut, rising quickly in the cool air. The areolae were brown and very wide, and were outlined by a few dark hairs which Shayla found too beautiful to pluck. No one knew that. Not even her mother. Shayla had not allowed anyone, not even Avedon, to photograph her breasts.

She looked back at Harod but his face was only a pale blur. The room seemed to tilt and spin around her. The noise of the pool recycler grew louder until it throbbed in her ears. At the same time, Shayla felt something stir inside her. A pleasant warmth began to fill her. It was as if someone had reached directly into her brain to softly stroke at the plea sure center there as surely as palm and fingers would stroke the soft mound between her legs. Shayla gasped and arched involuntarily.

“It’s really quite warm,” said Tony Harod.

Shayla ran her hands over her face, touched her eyelids with something akin to wonder, and then ran her palms down her neck, across her collarbone, and stopped with her fingers pressing flat against her chest where the pale flesh began. She could feel her pulse fluttering in her throat like a caged bird. Then she slid her hands lower, arching again as her palms slid across her suddenly painfully sensitive nipples, lifting her breasts as Dr. Kemmerer had taught her when she was fourteen, but not examining them, merely pressing, pressing against herself with a pleasurable pressure that made her want to scream.

“There’s really no need for a suit at all,” whispered Harod.
he whisper? Shayla was confused. She was looking right at him and his lips had not moved. His slight smile showed small teeth like sharp, white stones.

It did not matter. Nothing mattered to Shayla except getting free of the clinging maillot. She pulled the material lower, tugged it over the slight swell of her belly, and raised her buttocks to slide the elastic from under her. Then the suit was only a clinging fold of fabric on one leg and she kicked it free. She looked down at herself, at the inward curving arc of thigh and the vertical, not quite V-shaped line of pubic hair that rose toward the demarcation of her tan. For a second she was dizzy again, this time with a distant sense of shock, but then she felt the stroking begin inside her once again and she leaned back on her elbows.

The Jacuzzi frothed warm water at her thighs. She raised a hand and slowly traced a blue vein where it pulsed under the white skin of her breast. The slightest touch brought fire to her flesh. The soft mounds of her breasts seemed to contract and grow heavier at the same instant. The noise of the pool seemed to synchronize and then syncopate with her thudding heartbeat. She raised her right knee and dropped her hand to the inside of her leg. Her own palm slid higher, disturbing the water droplets that gleamed on the thin, golden hairs of her upper legs. Warmth infused her, filled her, controlled her. Her vulva pulsed with a plea sure she had known only in that guilty twilight before sleep, known before only with a filter of shame now missing, and never known with this overwhelming sense of heat and urgency. Shayla’s fingers found the moistened folds of her labia and she parted them with a soft gasp.

“Too warm for a suit,” said Tony Harod. “For either of us.” He took a final sip of his grapefruit juice, hoisted himself up on the tile, and set the glass far back from the edge of the pool.

Shayla slid around, feeling the cool tiles under her hip. Her long hair tumbled around her face as she crawled forward, her mouth open slightly, using her elbows for leverage. Harod was leaning back on his elbows with his feet kicking idly at the water. Shayla paused and looked up at him. In-side her mind the stroking intensified, found her core, and slid slowly along it in teasing strokes. Her senses registered only the ebb and flow of oiled friction. Shayla gasped and involuntarily clenched her thighs together as wave after wave of preliminary orgasm rippled through her. The whispering grew louder in her mind, a teasing sibilance which seemed to be part of the plea sure.

Shayla’s breasts touched the floor as she leaned forward and tugged down Tony Harod’s swim shorts in a frenzied motion that was somehow both violent and graceful. She pulled the bunched fabric down over his knees and into the water. Black hair marched down from his belly. His penis was pale and flaccid, slowly stirring in its nest of dark hair.

She looked up and saw that his smile was gone. Harod’s eyes were perforations in a pale mask. There was no warmth there. No excitement. There was only the intense concentration of a predator gazing at its kill. Shayla did not care. She did not know what she saw. She knew only that the stroking in her mind had intensified, going beyond ecstasy into pain. Pure plea sure flooded her nervous system like a drug.

Shayla laid her cheek against Harod’s thigh and reached for his penis with her right hand. He idly batted her hand away. Shayla bit into her lip and moaned. Her mind was a maelstrom of sensation which registered only the goadings of passion and pain. Her legs twitched in random spasms and she writhed against the edge of the pool. Shayla moved her lips along the salty expanse of Harod’s thigh. She tasted her own blood while she reached to cup Harod’s testicles in her palm. The little man raised his right leg and gently pushed her sideways into the pool. Shayla continued clinging to his legs, straining against him, making small noises while her mouth and hands sought him.

Maria Chen entered, plugged a telephone into a wall outlet, and set it on the floor near Harod. “It’s Washington,” she said, glanced once at Shayla, and walked out.

The warmth and friction left Shayla’s mind and body with a cold suddenness that made her cry out in pain. She stared blindly for a second and then pushed herself backward in the foaming pool. She began trembling violently and covered her upper body with her arms.

“Harod here,” said the producer. He rose, took three steps, and slipped into his terry-cloth robe. Shayla watched with bruised disbelief as his pale loins were covered. She began to shake even more violently then. Chills coursed through her. She raked at her hair with her fingernails and lowered her face to the foaming water.

“Yes?” said Harod. “Goddammit to goddamn hell. When? Are they sure he was on board?
. Yeah. Both of them? What about the other one . . . whatshername?
No, no, I’ll take care of it. No. I said
take care of it. Yeah. No, make it two days. Yeah, I’ll be there.” Harod slammed the receiver down, strode to a wicker chair, and threw himself into it.

Shayla reached as far as she could and pulled the wadded maillot into the pool. Still shaking, nausea making her dizzy, she squatted in the bubbling water to pull on the suit. She was sobbing without being aware of it.
This is a nightmare
was the thought that echoed through her spinning mind.

Harod picked up a remote control and clicked it at the large video projection screen set into one wall. Instantly the screen lit with an image of Shayla Berrington sitting on the edge of a small pool. She looked to one side, stared vacantly, smiled as if enjoying a dream, and began pulling down the elastic of her swimsuit. Her breasts were pale, the nipples erect, the areolae large and visibly brown even in the poor light. . . .

“No!” screamed Shayla and beat at the water.

Harod turned his head and seemed to notice her for the first time. His thin lips twisted into a simulacrum of a smile. “I’m afraid our plans have changed a bit,” he said softly. “Mr. Borden won’t be involved in this particular film. I’ll be the sole producer.”

Shayla stopped her frantic slapping at the water. Her hair hung across her face in moist strands. Her mouth was open and strings of saliva hung from her chin. Except for her uncontrolled sobs, the only sound was the purr of the pool recycler.

“We’ll keep to the original shooting schedule,” Harod said almost absently. He glanced up at the big screen. Shayla Berrington was crawling naked across dark tiles. The naked torso of a man came into view. The camera zoomed in on Shayla’s face as she rubbed her cheek against a hairy white thigh. Her eyes were glazed with passion and her mouth pulsed roundly like that of a fish. “I’m afraid Mr. Borden won’t be producing any more films with us,” said Harod. His head rotated toward her and the black beacons of his eyes blinked slowly. “From here on out it’s just you and me, kid.”

Harod’s lips twitched and Shayla could see the small teeth. They looked very white and sharp. “I’m afraid Mr. Borden won’t be producing any more films with anyone.” Harod turned his gaze back to the screen. “Willi’s dead,” he said softly.

Saturday, Dec. 13, 1980

awoke to bright sunlight through branches. It was one of those crystalline, warming winter days which makes living in the South so much less depressing than merely surviving a Yankee winter. I could see the green palmettos above red rooftops. I had Mr. Thorne open the window a crack when he brought in my breakfast tray. As I sipped my coffee I could hear children playing in the courtyard. Years ago Mr. Thorne would have brought the morning paper with the tray, but I had long since learned that to read about the follies and scandals of the world was to desecrate the morning. In truth, I was growing less and less interested in the affairs of men. I had done without a newspaper, telephone, or television for twelve years and had suffered no ill effects unless one were to count a growing self-contentment as an ill thing. I smiled as I remembered Willi’s disappointment at not being able to play his videocassettes. He was such a child.

“It is Saturday, is it not, Mr. Thorne?” At his nod I gestured for the tray to be taken away. “We will go out today,” I said. “A walk. Perhaps a trip to the Fort. Then dinner at Henry’s and home. I have arrangements to make.”

Mr. Thorne hesitated and half stumbled as he was leaving the room. I paused in the act of belting my robe. It was not like Mr. Thorne to commit an ungraceful movement. I realized that he too was getting old. He straightened the tray and dishes, nodded his head, and left for the kitchen.

I would not let thoughts of aging disturb me on such a beautiful morning. I felt charged with a new energy and resolve. The reunion the night before had not gone well, but neither had it gone as badly as it could have. I had been honest with Nina and Willi about my intention of quitting the Game. In the weeks and months to come, they— or at least Nina— would begin to brood over the ramifications of that, but by the time they chose to react, separately or together, I would be long gone. Already I had new (and old) identities waiting for me in Florida, Michigan, London, southern France, and even in New Delhi. Michigan was out for the time being. I had grown unused to the harsh climate. New Delhi was no longer the hospitable place for foreigners it had been when I resided there briefly before the war.

Nina had been right about one thing— a return to Europe would be good for me. Already I longed for the rich light and cordial
savoir vivre
of the villagers near my old summer house outside of Toulon.

The air outside was bracing. I wore a simple print dress and my spring coat. The trace of arthritis in my right leg had bothered me coming down the stairs, but I used my father’s old walking stick as a cane. A young Negro servant had cut it for Father the summer we moved from Greenville to Charleston. I smiled as we emerged into the warm air of the courtyard.

Mrs. Hodges came out of her doorway into the light. It was her grandchildren and their friends who were playing around the dry fountain. The courtyard had been shared by the three brick buildings for two centuries. Only my home had not been parceled into expensive town houses or apartments.

“Good morning, Miz Fuller.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Hodges. A beautiful day.”

“It is that. Are you off shopping?”

“Just for a walk, Mrs. Hodges. I’m surprised that Mr. Hodges isn’t out. He always seems to be working in the yard on Saturdays.”

Mrs. Hodges frowned as one of the little girls ran between us. Her friend came squealing after her, sweater flying. “Oh, George is at the Marina already.”

“In the daytime?” I had often been amused by Mr. Hodges’s departure for work in the evening; his security guard uniform neatly pressed, gray hair jutting out from under his cap, black lunch pail gripped firmly under his arm. Mr. Hodges was as leathery and bowlegged as an aged cowboy. He was one of those men who was always on the verge of retiring but who probably realized that to be inactive would be a form of death sentence.

“Oh yes. One of those colored men on the day shift down at the storage building quit and they asked George to fill in. I told him that he was too old to work four nights a week and then go back on the weekend, but you know George.”

“Well, give him my best,” I said. The girls running around the fountain made me nervous.

Mrs. Hodges followed me to the wrought-iron gate. “Will you be going away for the holidays, Miz Fuller?”

“Probably, Mrs. Hodges. Most probably.” Then Mr. Thorne and I were out onto the sidewalk and strolling toward the Battery. A few cars drove slowly down the narrow streets, tourists staring at the houses of our Old Section, but the day was serene and quiet. I saw the masts of the yachts and sailboats before we came in sight of the water as we emerged onto Broad Street.

“Please acquire tickets for us, Mr. Thorne,” I said. “I believe I would like to see the Fort.”

As is typical of most people who live in close proximity to a popular tourist attraction, I had not taken notice of it for many years. It was an act of sentimentality to visit the Fort now. An act brought on by my increasing acceptance of the fact that I would have to leave these parts forever. It is one thing to plan a move; it is something altogether different to be faced with the imperative reality of it.

There were few tourists. The ferry moved away from the marina and into the placid waters of the harbor. The combination of warm sunlight and the steady throb of the diesel caused me to doze briefly. I awoke as we were putting in at the dark hulk of the island fort.

For a while I moved with the tour group, enjoying the catacomb silences of the lower levels and the mindless singsong of the young woman from the Park Ser vice. But as we came back to the museum with its dusty dioramas and tawdry little trays of slides, I climbed the stairs back to the outer walls. I motioned for Mr. Thorne to stay at the top of the stairs and moved out onto the ramparts. Only one other couple— a young pair with a baby in an uncomfortable-looking papoose carrier and a cheap camera— were in sight along the wall.

It was a pleasant moment. A midday storm was coming in from the west and it set a dark backdrop to the still-sunlit church spires, brick towers, and bare branches of the city. Even from two miles away I could see the movement of people strolling along the Battery walkway. The wind was blowing in ahead of the dark clouds and tossing whitecaps against the rocking ferry and wooden dock. The air smelled of river and winter and rain by nightfall.

It was not hard to imagine that day long ago. The shells had dropped onto the fort until the upper layers were little more than protective piles of rubble. People had cheered from the rooftops behind the Battery. The bright colors of dresses and silk parasols must have been maddening to the Yankee gunners. Finally one had fired a shot above the crowded rooftops. The ensuing confusion must have been amusing from this vantage point.

A movement on the water caught my attention. Something dark was sliding through the gray water; something dark and shark-silent. I was jolted out of thoughts of the past as I recognized it as a Polaris submarine, old but obviously still operational, slipping through the dark water without a sound. Waves curled and rippled over the porpoise-smooth hull, sliding to either side in a white wake. There were several men on the dark tower. They were muffled in heavy coats with hats pulled low. An improbably large pair of binoculars hung from the neck of one man whom I assumed to be the captain. He pointed at something beyond Sullivan’s Island. I stared at him. The periphery of my vision began to fade as I made contact across the water. Sounds and sensations came to me as from a distance.

Tension. The plea sure of salt spray, breeze from the north-northwest. Anxiety of the sealed orders below. Awareness of the sandy shallows just coming into sight on the port side

I was startled as someone came up behind me. The dots flickering at the edge of my vision fled as I turned.

Mr. Thorne was there. At my elbow. Unbidden. I had opened my mouth to command him back to the top of the stairs when I saw the cause of his coming closer. The youth who had been taking pictures of his pale wife was now walking toward me. Mr. Thorne moved to intercept him.

“Hey, excuse me, ma’am. Would you or your husband mind taking our picture?”

I nodded and Mr. Thorne took the proferred camera. It looked minuscule in his long-fingered hands. Two snaps and the couple was satisfied that their presence there was documented for posterity. The young man grinned idiotically and bobbed his head. Their baby began to cry as the cold wind blew in. I looked back to the submarine, but already it had passed on, its gray tower a thin stripe connecting the sea and sky.

We were almost back to town, the ferry was swinging in toward the slip, when a stranger told me of Willi’s death.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?” The garrulous old woman had followed me out onto the exposed section of deck. Even though the wind had grown uncomfortably chilly and I had moved twice to escape her mindless chatter, the foolish woman had obviously chosen me as her conversational target for the final stages of the tour. Neither my reticence nor Mr. Thorne’s glowering presence had discouraged her. “It must have been terrible,” she continued. “In the dark and all.”

“What was that?” A dark premonition prompted my question. “Why, the airplane crash. Haven’t you heard about it? It must have been awful, falling into the swamp and all. I told my daughter this morning. . . .”

“What airplane crash? When?” The old woman cringed a bit at the sharpness of my tone, but the vacuous smile stayed on her face.

“Why, last night. This morning. I told my daughter . . .”

What aircraft?” Mr. Thorne came closer as he heard the tone of my voice.

“The one last night,” she quavered. “The one from Charleston. The paper in the lounge told all about it. Isn’t it terrible? Eighty-five people. I told my daughter . . .”

I left her there by the railing. There was a crumpled newspaper near the snack bar and under the four-word headline were the sparse details of Willi’s death. Flight 417, bound for Chicago, had left Charleston International Airport at 12:18
Twenty minutes later the aircraft had exploded in midair not far from the city of Columbia. Fragments of fuselage and parts of bodies had fallen into Congaree Swamp where night fishermen had found them. There had been no survivors. The FAA, NTSB, and FBI were investigating.

There was a loud rushing in my ears and I had to sit down or faint. My hands were clammy against the green vinyl upholstery. People moved past me on their way to the exits.

Willi was dead. Murdered. Nina had killed him. For a few dizzy seconds I considered the possibility of a conspiracy, an elaborate ploy by Nina and Willi to confuse me into thinking that only one threat remained. But no. There would be no reason. If Nina had included Willi in her plans, there would be no need for such absurd machinations.

Willi was dead. His remains were spread over a smelly, obscure marsh-land. It was all too easy to imagine his last moments. He would have been leaning back in first-class comfort, a drink in his hand, perhaps whispering to one of his loutish companions. Then the explosion. Screams. Sudden darkness. A brutal tilting and the final fall to oblivion. I shuddered and gripped the metal arm of the chair.

How had Nina done it? Almost certainly not one of Willi’s entourage. It was not beyond Nina’s powers to Use Willi’s own cat’s-paws, especially in light of his failing Ability, but there would have been no reason to do so. She could have Used anyone on that flight. It
have been difficult. The elaborate step of preparing the bomb, the supreme effort of blocking all memory of it, and the almost unbelievable feat of Using someone even as we sat together drinking coffee and brandy. But Nina could have done it. Yes. She
have. And the timing. The timing could mean only one thing.

The last of the tourists had filed out of the cabin. I felt the slight bump that meant we had tied up to the dock. Mr. Thorne stood by the door.

Nina’s timing meant that she was attempting to deal with both of us at once. She obviously had planned it long before the reunion and my timorous announcement of withdrawal. How amused Nina must have been. No wonder she had reacted so generously! Yet she had made one great mistake. By dealing with Willi first Nina had banked everything on my not hearing the news before she could turn on me. She knew that I had no access to daily news and only rarely left the house anymore. Still, it was unlike Nina to leave anything to chance. Was it possible that she thought that I had lost the Ability completely and that Willi was the greater threat?

I shook my head as we emerged from the cabin into the gray afternoon light. The wind sliced at me through my thin coat. The view of the gangplank was blurry and I realized that tears had filled my eyes. For Willi? He had been a pompous, weak old fool. For Nina’s betrayal? Perhaps it was only the cold wind.

The streets of the Old Section were almost empty of pedestrians. Bare branches clicked together in front of the windows of fine homes. Mr. Thorne stayed by my side. The cold air sent needles of arthritic pain up my right leg to my hip. I leaned more heavily upon Father’s walking stick.

What would her next move be? I stopped. A fragment of newspaper, tumbled by the wind, wrapped itself around my ankle and then blew on.

How would she come at me? Not from a distance. She was somewhere in town. I knew that. While it was possible to Use someone from a large distance, it would involve great rapport, an almost intimate knowledge of that person, and if contact were lost it would be difficult if not impossible to reestablish it at a distance. None of us had known why this was so. It did not matter now. But the thought of Nina still here, nearby, made my heart begin to thud.

Not from a distance. Whoever she Used would come at me. I would see my assailant. If I knew Nina at all, I knew that. Certainly Willi’s death had been the least personal Feeding imaginable, but that had been a mere technical operation. Nina obviously had decided to settle old scores with
and Willi had become an obstacle to her, a minor but measurable threat which had to be eliminated before she could proceed. I could easily imagine that in Nina’s own mind her choice of death for Willi would be interpreted as an act of compassion, almost a sign of affection. Not so with me. I felt that Nina would want me to know, however briefly, that she was behind the attack. In a sense her own vanity would be my warning. Or so I hoped.

BOOK: Carrion Comfort
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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