At home, finally – standing in the dark, humming refuge of his kitchen after two weeks on the publicity tour for the launch of his new book series – Jake Deans tossed the keys to his new Mercedes onto the granite countertop, closed his eyes, and breathed. Playing the role of the big shot bestselling horror novelist, with all its delightful perks, was over for a while. Now the books for which his publisher had advanced the funds for the car and the other visible symbols of his success would have to be written. And that meant a trip to the wine cellar.
Heart pounding, he hyperventilated at the thought of what lay behind the door at the bottom of the stairs leading off the kitchen. In his two weeks away, he’d enjoyed dreamless, unbroken sleep for the first time in years. He’d been able to eat anything from foie gras to beluga caviar without his stomach tying itself in knots. He’d felt so well. But the high-living celebrity author was the fake Jake. The real Jake was standing in his kitchen now, hoping he could go down to the wine cellar and do what he had to do without pissing his pants, passing out or losing it in an infinite variety of other ways.
He had to do it without delay, or it would all get worse. Far worse.
He punched in the security code and the door slid open with a cold exhalation. The lights along the stairs guided his shaky steps down, down to the domed chamber of unfinished brick, with the storage bays radiating off it into still darker, colder aisles. Stomach already churning, he sat at the round table in the center, where his laptop already glowed, booted up and ready.
From behind him somewhere came the burp of a cork emerging from the neck of a bottle, and the pour of a nice vintage – it was always a very nice vintage – into a balloon glass. And then came the halting step, and the cold hand’s grip on his shoulder.
He tried not to look up into the face. After all the pretty faces that had surrounded him on tour, and the decent ordinary faces he’d encountered on the trip home, he knew the face would seem all the more hideous by comparison. Yet he was impelled to look, and could not mask his grimace of fear and disgust.
“Aren’t you going to say hello, Jake? I’ve been waiting so long for you.”
Sam hadn’t changed, of course. The left side of his face – the flesh melted, scarred and drooping, eyeless and earless – still seemed unrelated to the coarse but intact right side, which wore its perpetual smirk, revealing twisted teeth stained purple with cabernet and syrah. As he leaned down, his breath – like the dregs of a thousand barrels of wine overlaying decayed raw meat and rank cheese – nauseated Jake.
“So, Jake: Who makes your success, with all its enviable trappings, possible?”
“You do.” Jake struggled not to vomit on the computer as Sam’s fingers slid up his neck, feeling his pulse flutter under their malign exploratory touch.
“That’s right. In fact, how many of Jake Deans’ published works were written by Jake Deans, if by Jake Deans we mean the pathetic wannabe who travels around giving lectures and appearing on talk shows under that name? How many, Jake?”
“A-plus, Jake! And yet I understand you’re promising our fans something totally new, totally different, something you began working on in Hawaii during your just-completed tour?”
“I read your Twitter feed, asshole. You’re hinting you may leave the horror genre behind. What were you thinking of, maybe giving Dame Barbara Cartland a run for her money? Or getting all literary on me, like the next Jonathan Franzen? Seriously, Jake. Your head’s filled with gore, slime, monsters, and psychopathology, and it’s going to stay that way. I’ve brought something I’m sure will straighten you out.”
“Oh, God, no–“
Sam threw back his head and laughed, and Jake noticed rivulets of dried blood on his throat. “Just a little something to remind you where you came from. To inspire you.” Still laughing, Sam disappeared into one of the storage bays.
He reemerged dragging the pale corpse of a naked woman. She was young and slender and had probably been very pretty before her head had been bludgeoned and her neck sliced ear to ear. It must have happened while Jake was on the way home from the airport; her blood was only starting to congeal. “Say hello to Nancy Jane. By the way, she was a real fan, and I feel sure she’d be thrilled to know she’s helping us research our next book. Taste her.”
Suddenly light-headed, Jake couldn’t breathe. But he was not so beside himself that he failed to notice the handcuffs on Sam’s belt and the pliers he was casually rapping against his left palm. Jake got down on all fours beside the body. Apart from the smell of the blood, which in the coolness of the cellar had not yet been overtaken by that of decay, she still wore a hint of a clean, sweet fragrance. He imagined her dabbing it behind her ears that morning, never thinking it would be for the last time.
“Taste her,” Sam repeated.
Jake lowered his head, his lips touching the gash on her neck.
“Now taste her there.” Sam pointed between her legs. “Never mind,” he said, seeing Jake’s reaction. “Dead or alive, doesn’t make much difference as far as pussy goes. Now get up, Mr. Jake Deans. We’ve got a deadline to meet. Two thousand words before we can knock off for the day.”
Jake sat before the computer and tried to still his hands enough to type.