Capturing Jove Lunge
Oh, how the cab stank. A rattling heater raised from the scarred seats the ghosts of dog-cheap cigars the driver must have smoked over decades. Like the one he was savoring now. Trapped in the back, Gus rolled down the window to let fresh air, cold and late January sharp, seep inside.
He regretted the boss insisting he take the train from New York to Providence rather than drive the Rover. Saul had sworn that the best way into this case was for Gus to appear down on his luck. Which meant a visit to a rag shop to buy some fellah’s former Sunday best. Underneath his trusty peacoat, though, Gus’s immense frame strained the suit’s threadbare patches.
The cabbie took a turn too sharp. Brakes squealed as the car struggled with the snow-covered road. The seams tore in Gus’s sleeves as he stretched his thick arms to keep from tumbling about the backseat.
When the house came into view, Gus whistled his appreciation. Saul had been square with him about the artist’s taste: something out of a storybook, with lots of shingles, a crooked roof, and plenty of eaves. Gus expected Boris Karloff to be sitting on the front porch with his hands cupped around a steaming mug of joe.
The cab slowed on the cobblestone driveway, which circled a frozen fountain. The driver chewed around the stogie stub and muttered that he’d return the next night for Gus, who grabbed his bag and had barely stepped out of the car when the cab drove off, one rear door swinging like a tarnished goldfinch’s broken wing. Gus considered pitching a rock at the cabbie’s back window, but he made it a point not to earn trouble while always anticipating some.
He’d have to demand that Saul send him someplace warm and inviting for the next job.
A pair of custom-made knockers, brass fists gripping lightning bolts, decorated the gaunt doors. Their metal felt colder than a moll’s heart and rang out like gunshots when Gus struck them against the wood.
A few minutes later the door cracked open. One rheumy eye glared at Gus, who cleared his throat. “Yeah, Mr. Moiren is expecting me.”
The door opened wider, revealing more of the dark-suited butler, a thin man in his late fifties with a blood-red eyepatch hiding the worst of the damage suffered by the right side of his face. The man’s rigid stance suggested he’d once served in the military. A Great War veteran, Gus suspected as the man moved aside for him to enter.
The butler accepted Gus’s peacoat. “Master Moiren will receive you in the greenhouse.”
“That ain’t like the poorhouse is it?” Gus made sure to bray like an ass; “Nothing’s a worse tell than a man’s laugh,” Saul always said, and if Moiren and the help thought Gus was a moron, it would make finding the girl easier.
“You may leave your bag here,” the butler said as he hung the coat on a nearby rack. Gus counted the other coats. None looked like they belonged to a spoiled rich girl, but that didn’t mean Samantha Kingsford wasn’t still here.
A grandfather clock in the many shadows of the foyer chimed three in the afternoon. Mournful sounds.
The house’s drafty interior wasn’t much warmer than the outside. Most rooms weren’t lit. Frost caked the windows. Gus rubbed his palms together. “All right, pally, lead the way.” His breath rose in the air.
“This way,” said the butler with lift of a hand.
Rich men didn’t impress Gus. They hid behind money. Or used it as license to be vicious and petty. But Saul liked dealing with the wealthy. Men like Donald Kingsford, father to one wayward daughter who needed returning.
“Big enough joint for just Moiren and you.” Gus paused to stick his head up the flue of a blackened stone fireplace roomy enough to roast a pig like they did in Polynesia. But the hearth was cold. What good were such things if they weren’t used?
“The master entertains on occasion.”
“This be one of those occasions?”
But the butler said nothing. He didn’t need to. Gus had already caught a whiff of perfume, expensive perfume, in the house’s draft. And this house lacked any feminine touch, so he doubted there was a Mrs. Moiren. No, Samantha Kingsford was here.
* * *
When he walked into the massive space confined by a lattice of fogged glass and damp copper, Gus shook off the house’s chill like a soaked dog. The humid air reeked, a bit like an outhouse in July, a bit like Brussels sprouts steaming on a plate. Gus had been born in the city; Central Park was the only spot on Earth with so much green. The closest he’d ever come to the jungle was admiring Johnny Weismuller in that Tarzan talkie. But Moiren’s greenhouse had taken a chunk of South America or maybe Africa and held it prisoner in Providence. Gus didn’t spook much, but he knew he didn’t belong surrounded by all the wild foliage.
A voice from on high called out, “Welcome.” Gus looked up. Half-hidden behind shoots and wide leaves, a scaffolding covered part of the greenhouse wall. A man, wearing a bruise-colored satin smoking jacket and a ridiculous hat that looked like it should be made of glass and covering a stack of donuts, not red felt with a tassel, stepped towards the railing. He held aloft a struggling rabbit for a moment, then dropped the animal down into the brush. “Our Jove Lunge, the Man of Daring, has arrived.” Nestor Moiren—Gus recognized him from the photos Saul had spread over his messy desk—clapped with limp wrists.
“The name’s Gus.”
“As if it matters.” Moiren began descending a flight of stairs. His slippers echoed through the greenhouse. “How are you finding Providence?”
“Yes. It is.” Moiren had a puffy face but thin lips. Gus had seen other men wear that same smirk, usually right before they threw lead around or tried to shiv you in the guts. “Did your man tell you what I require?”
Gus rubbed his square jaw. Saul had a number of guys working for him. Gus normally was called when the job required brawn and intimidation, not retrieving runaways. But Saul thought that a guy playing off Moiren’s fascination with muscle would have an easier time getting the girl back. “Said you needed some hired muscle.”
“Indeed I do, but not the sort you’re used to providing.” Moiren turned to the butler. “I think the ‘Howl of Black Shuck’ will do nicely.”
The butler bent with an audible creak and left the greenhouse.
“That name I called you...Jove Lunge—”
Gus shrugged as he slipped off his jacket. Sweat had begun to seep down his back and armpits.
“—have you never read the Jove Lunge adventure stories?”
“Never made it past the racecards.” Gus loosened his collar. “So who you want me to slug?” When people thought he was just some sap, they’d grow lazy…and show their hand sooner. Gus could tip a car but he was no easy mark.
Moiren chuckled like a dying man’s last wheeze. “A rare Nepenthes, but that comes later. Here we are.” Moiren lifted a hand as the butler returned carrying a framed painting.
Gus paid little mind to art. He did appreciate the photos in Iron Man Magazine. But those museums all over Manhattan were too quiet for his liking. Not that there was anything quiet about “Howl of the Black Shuck.” The hackles rose on the back of Gus’s thick neck as he glanced at it.
One glance at the figure of Jove Lunge, his uniform flayed to shreds by the panther in his path, told Gus that Moiren liked his men strapping, bulging muscle and taut sinew. Lunge held in one clenched fist an exotic dagger. When Gus examined the panther, he realized the beast wasn’t at all a cat but an immense black dog or wolf with blood-red eyes.
“I do love my work.” Moiren motioned for the butler to withdraw as if shooing an errant fly. “There are others, if you wish to see the gallery.”
Gus shook his head. He wanted nothing more than to step out of the hot greenhouse and pour a cold beer down his throat.
“No? Pity.” He took a few steps closer to Gus. “What I need from you is to pose.”
“Pose?” Saul had shown Gus the covers. His first thought was, how many boys bought the adventures of Jove Lunge, Man of Daring to jerk off to pictures of their hero’s physique. Did their mothers find the books hidden beneath the bed and wish their husbands had even a tenth of Jove’s stature?
“Yes, yes. One would think, after thirty covers, I would have committed to memory every display of hard muscle and tendon the Man of Daring possessed.” Moiren stroked his lips a moment. “But I find it more satisfying to draw from life, capturing the moment.”
“It’s your spinach.”
“An apt bit of jargon,” Moiren said and rubbed a nearby leaf as large as Gus’s head.
Gus bet the Arrow Collar Man never had done this. “So I should—”
“Unbutton your shirt, Mr. Lunge.”
Gus did as asked, and when the old shirt fell to his waist, he was mindful that, in his current surroundings, he imitated a flower with drooping white petals. Only, he didn’t like thinking of himself as a posy.
“Stretch your arms wide. Curl them in. And...release. Yes, you may well be the best I have seen in some time. Lately I’ve received such poor offerings….” Moiren sighed. No, more like hissed.
“Now, rip your undershirt.”
“What?” Gus looked down at the tight cotton taut over his torso. The front was damp with sweat, darkened by his chest hair.
“Rip. That. Undergarment. Now.”
Gus shrugged, then took hold of the shirt by the curve by his neck and tore. Worn fabric ripped apart in his fists.
A silken leash of saliva linked Moiren’s parted jaws. The man’s excitement was evident in his trousers.
“Don’t you need your paints or something?” Gus asked. He brushed the front of his chest to tease the man.
“Yes, yes.” Moiren’s voice had softened to an awed whisper.
The man’s trance broke. “Oh, we can’t begin painting now. The light fails. Too weak to illuminate the necessary daring. That will happen come morning. Besides, you have yet to meet my other guests.”
* * *
Once out of the greenhouse, Gus wiped the sweat from his chest with the ripped undershirt, and felt that buttoning his shirt was akin to returning to civilization. The butler took him upstairs, via a groaning staircase and down a dim hallway of closed doors. The butler stopped at the third. “This will be your room for the night. Supper is served within the hour. Proper attire is hanging in the closet.” The butler turned a key in the lock. “Do not be late.”
Gus anticipated a room decorated like a madame’s boudoir, with plenty of pillows, dark furniture, and too much burgundy, like God spilt the wine all over the place, not a room with holes in the plaster walls, a sagging bed that belonged in a flophouse, and by the water bowl and mirror, a pipsqueak in his undershirt, with his suspenders hanging down and a face full of lather. The kid held a straight razor. He could have stepped off the streets of New York, been any of the city gamins, swiping fruit, picking pockets, all the best ways for a dirty squirt to learn the hard lessons life demanded.
“You don’t look old enough to shave,” Gus said as he threw his travel bag on the bed. Bad springs groaned. Sleeping on that would be rough.
“And you look like the lost son of Kong.” Gus couldn’t place the kid’s accent but had to admire his moxie, though his eyes were wide, showing nerves. “The Empire State Building is thataway, big fellah.” The kid gestured at the window with the razorblade.
Gus strode over to the kid, who retreated in turn until he bumped against the slender table beneath the water bowl. Warm water sloshed them both, but most of it dripped down the kid’s scrawny chest.
“W-What, you wanna see my diploma?” the kid asked.
“Who the hell are you?” Gus forced the kid against the faded wallpaper.
“Haven’t you ever read a Jove Lunge novel?”
“Lemme guess. You’re the shoeblack boy?” Gus grabbed the kid by the neck. The lather made the grip like catching an eel in water, but he didn’t want to strangle the kid, just make sure he knew who was tops. The razor dropped from the kid’s hand to clatter on the floorboards. “Perhaps you should find another room.”
“I-I can’t,” the kid rasped. “Moiren...”
“He put you in here?”
The kid nodded. Spittle frothed his pretty lips.
Gus released the kid, who collapsed to the floor, where he sputtered a while. Gus kicked the blade out of his reach, not that he looked like he had any spirit in him. “So?”
“Moiren didn’t know if you’d rather have kitten or keister.”
“So she is here.” Gus wiped his hands dry on the towel.
The kid shrugged. “The girl? I just saw her once, when she came in.” The kid rubbed his neck. “Moiren’s sedan brought her.”
“What’s your name?”
“Carl. Carl Heim.”
Gus nodded. “Okay, Carl, you better clean up. I don’t share a bed with bums.” What kind of a job did I get into here? he thought. Nancies in a weird greenhouse wanting to paint me stripped down fighting boogeymen.
* * *
The dining room was long and narrow. Everything was dark wood and shining silverware, which left Gus thinking of a coffin at a funeral. At least a fire roared in the fireplace chasing away some of the chill. Moiren, now dressed in a tuxedo and a Kraut’s spiked helmet, sat at the far end of the table. Gus took a seat at the man’s left. He fingered a knife and wondered, if necessary, could he make the throw? He remembered that time in Red Hook….
“Ah, I see your oldest friend’s son has arrived,” Moiren said as Carl walked into the room. “Do join us, Timmy.”
The kid cleaned up well, some would even call him pretty, with that chestnut hair slicked and parted down the center.
“Mr. Lunge, I won’t ask you to recount your time spent exploring Egypt with the professor, who fell victim to the Blue Pharaoh’s sinister death traps. I applaud your kindness at making Timmy your ward and constant companion on your more recent adventures.”
“Hope you’re luckier than your old man, Timmy,” Gus said.
Carl took the seat directly across the table from him.
When she sauntered into the room, Moiren rose from his seat. The photographs of Samantha Kingsford that Saul had shown Gus failed to capture her smolder. Her hair might as well have been coiled flames. She wore a skimpy number that would have given the happiest of married fellahs nervous ideas. Those lips, red and plump, savored rather than breathed the air. She was trouble, all tied up like a kid’s Christmas present.
“Miss Samantha, how pleasant you could join us tonight.”
“And who is she?” Gus asked. “Jove’s squeeze?”
Moiren giggled a moment. “Oh, no. She doesn’t have a part to play. At least, not yet. That all depends on you, Mr. Lunge.”
“I hope we’re having steak. I just adore a good cut of meat.” Samantha took the only empty seat, beside Carl, who glowered at her with about as much fondness as a mouse would to an alley cat.
“I haven’t quite decided her role. She would make an excellent ingénue in distress. Or maybe a temptress playing a risky game. Yes, I think you would all agree—”
“I hope that the dress came free with the perfume.” Carl rubbed his nose. She gave him a scathing look in return.
“Well, now that we are all here.” Moiren gestured to the butler, who poured red wine for all. “A toast. To Jove Lunge in the Jungle of Doom. And to proving Oscar Wilde right. ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.’”
Gus brought the wine to his mouth, hesitated a moment, then trusted that the same iron gut owned by his father would keep him safe from mickeys. The wine tasted sour, but Moiren smacked his lips in appreciation. It must have been expensive, probably from France or Italy but kept dusty in the cellar for years.
“And what will be the feature course tonight, sir” asked the butler.
“Mr. Lunge, as the guest of honor the choice is yours. Would you prefer the game hen—”
Samantha ran a finger around the edge of her wine glass. Gus felt something touch his thigh beneath the table. Her stockinged foot probably.
“—or the capon?”
Carl’s face blushed and he looked into the fire.
Gus realized Moiren wasn’t talking food. Was the man testing him? Could he suspect why Gus was really there or was this simply a game for his amusement? Neither situation sat well with Gus.
“Perhaps he would like a nice prawn, sir.” Gus stiffened when the butler’s long fingers stroked their way down his back.
“I’ll take the capon.” Better a familiar dish than one he didn’t like prepared….
“No one ever picks the prawn,” the butler said with a heavy sigh and returned to the kitchen.
Samantha wore a bored pout, what reckless, rich girls like to try on when they’ve been turned down. Carl squirmed, almost as if Gus had grabbed him by the throat again.
* * *
After dinner, they followed their host into a drafty drawing room decorated—no, Gus decided that wasn’t the right word—marred or maybe cursed by his paintings. A Jove Lunge broke the jaw of a masked man with a fierce right hook; another Jove strangled a man in an underground grotto’s pool; a dangling Jove clutched the torn canvas of a dirigible covered in Oriental characters; Jove crouched, ready to pounce, behind an idol that resembled a leering squid before which scarlet-robed men prepared to sacrifice a chesty dame. Each painting, each cover, was more reckless, more absurd than the one before it.
Brandy was poured. Moiren struck a match to a pipe, one of those long affairs with reeking tobacco, like a bad fruit pie left too long in the oven.
The butler offered them cigarettes from a silvered case. Samantha reached over Gus’s arm to take one.
“So, was it Daddy?” she whispered to him as the butler offered a flame.
She leaned closer. “I assume it was either Daddy or James who hired you.”
Gus began to suspect this wasn’t the first time Samantha had strayed. “Lady, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Moiren hired me to be his hamfatter or model or something for the weekend.” He glanced in the direction of his host, who had taken Carl aside to show him some etchings.
“I read those tiresome Jove Lunge books. He rescues the girl at the end. Every time, even when she’s no good for him.”
“Doesn’t sound like Jove’s a sharp fellah.”
“No. Doesn’t. Some girls don’t want to be rescued.” She blew a stream of bluish gray smoke into his face.
“Isn’t always up to the girl. Not when she’s featured on the society page. All it does is make men wager on how fast and far they’ll run. Like they do the horses on the racing pages.”
She frowned. “Unless you have a sedan in your pocket, I’m not going with you back to New York, Mr. Lunge.”
The reward for her return was not scratch, but Gus found himself curious why she was there. Couldn’t be for the company; Moiren was one brushstroke away from being tossed into the loony bin. No, something was wrong, so he scrapped his original plan of grabbing her, kicking and screaming over his shoulder if he must, and stealing one of Moiren’s cars.
“So am I the only one here who doesn’t appreciate art?” he asked.
A bored expression passed over her features. Even though Samantha knew the truth she dismissed him as uninteresting. She seemed not to care if their host knew as well. Was that part of this entire game, or was she daring him to bring her back home? And why, Gus had to wonder, had she run away to Moiren’s in the first place?
* * *
Gus sat up in bed clad only in his boxers, smoking one of his own cigarettes, not the awful tobacco Moiren offered. He was waiting to see who’d come through the door. Despite his being a gambling man, he wouldn’t have wagered. Could be any of the lot.
The knob turned. The door opened a couple inches and the kid peered past the frame.
Maybe I should have played the favorite, Gus thought and motioned for him to come inside.
“Why’d you pick me? You don’t seem a queer.”
“Maybe I don’t like uppity dames.” He tapped a bit of ash over the side of the bed. “Or maybe I like kids that are scared of me.”
“I’m not scared.”
Gus patted the edge of the bed. “Then you better get over here.”
Carl walked over to the bed and lifted the pack of cigarettes from atop the sheets. He tapped out one and set it between his lips. Then he plucked the lit cigarette from Gus’s mouth to set his own smoldering. “You trust Moiren?”
Gus let loose a laugh. “Kid, I don’t trust anyone.” He stroked Carl’s thighs through his trousers. He normally didn’t play with rabbits, but the kid was begging for it. “Some don’t worry me, though.” Moiren though, Gus had to admit, something about the man worried him.
“I asked Moiren why he—”
“Hired you?” Maybe the kid was no chump after all. “What he say?”
“That Jove Lunge had a connection with all his comrades. If Lunge didn’t have feelin’s for Timothy, then the paintin’ would be insincere.”
“And pairing us up is supposed to start feelings?”
“Like a couple of real nancies.” Carl laughed, but he kept those brown eyes on Gus.
Yeah, begging for it. “I can feel you shaking.”
Gus grabbed at the kid’s crotch, squeezing tight, not enough to cause pain, but staking his claim. The kid definitely trembled. Moaned a little, too.
“Maybe you don’t trust me.”
Carl reached out to touch Gus’s bare chest. His fingers tugged lightly the curled hair, squeezed the hard slabs of pectoral muscle. “Honest, you’re bigger than I’m used to. I think it would be like wrestling a bear.”
Gus let go of the kid’s crotch but grabbed his arm and pulled him down into bed, onto him. “Get ready to make me growl, kid,” he muttered before his lips overcame Carl’s.
* * *
While the kid slept, Gus slipped out of the bed. He opened his bag. The only change of clothing was a thick black sweater and dark trousers—he did not intend to stay for breakfast. At the bottom of the bag was a pair of brass knuckles. He didn’t like guns and had delivered the goods over the last six years without having to resort to one. He slipped the heavy brass into a pocket.
He found the door locked. Not much of a surprise. He could force it easily, but that would be tipping his hand too soon. And he still didn’t know where Samantha was staying in the mansion. That left the window.
He glanced back at Carl. If Gus did find Samantha and did throw her into the back of whatever sedan Moiren kept in his garage, where would that leave the kid? A loose end. Saul hated loose ends. Gus wasn’t fond of them either. But coming back for the kid would be a mistake. You don’t wager on a slow horse.
The window latch turned without effort and Gus stepped out on to the ledge. He was thankful that, though the night air was bitter cold, it lacked a biting wind. He inched along, wary of his step, peering into the other windows he passed, but saw no sign of Samantha.
As he neared one set of eaves, he noticed an old barn a couple hundred feet away from the house. Moonlight showed fresh footprints in the snow leading back and forth. That made Gus curious. He didn’t care for the feeling—he wasn’t paid to be inquisitive, he was no flatfoot or private dick—but everything about Moiren left him on edge. Not knowing what was in the barn seemed like a mistake. Mugs like him didn’t outlive mistakes.
He jumped off the ledge, his landing cracking the semi-frozen surface of the snow, before rolling to his feet. He looked over his shoulder. The mansion remained dark and still.
The barn doors looked ready to collapse inwards. Yet a massive padlock was meant to deter entrance? Gus took hold of the latch. The muscles in his arms strained as he tore it free of the doors, which buckled but didn’t fall.
Gus didn’t step inside until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The old scent of hay couldn’t disguise a new odor. Musky. An animal, big and furred. His ears caught the rattle of chains from deeper in the barn. Cautious, but curious what the hell Moiren was keeping inside, he crept forward.
A moment before he noticed the crimson eyes high off the ground staring at him, Gus heard the rumble. A growl.
Heavy paws pounded the packed earthen floor of the barn. The heavy chain warned him, and he stumbled back, slamming against the doors, as massive jaws began snapping the air where he’d stood seconds earlier.
Black wolves aren’t supposed to be the size of Packards.
A hand reached in through the cracked doors and pulled Gus back into the open. The shivering butler held a lantern. Moiren, dressed in a heavy fur coat, cradled an elephant gun in his arms. He wore another ridiculous hat, a tricorn, the sort you saw in a Wyeth pirate illustration, and a tremendous smirk.
“So, Mr. Lunge, would you say this night is fit for neither man nor beast?”
“What is that thing!?”
The butler shut the doors.
“A lusus naturae. A fantoccini created especially for my art.” Moiren looked over his shoulder at the house. “Shall we head back, or would you prefer to re-enact something I painted ages ago?”
As they trudged through the snow, Moiren rested the rifle against his shoulder.
“Are you a good shot?” Gus asked.
“I’ve studied the male anatomy all my life. There are entry wounds that will never heal properly, leaving a man crippled for life. I suppose I could aim to be kind, but what sport is that?”
Gus’s guts told him that Moiren wasn’t boasting. He no longer seemed like the silly fool Gus thought he was. The danger level had just doubled. Gus paused and turned back to the barn. “How many Lunges have there been?”
The other two men stopped. The butler began counting on his fingers.
“I mean, have you ever used the same fellah twice?”
Moiren wheezed that awful laugh. “Twice? My good man, I’d be astonished.”
“Sir, might I recommend some brandy and Benedictine to warm us?” said the butler.
Gus thought a stiff drink might be the only thing sane waiting for him back at the house. The job wasn’t going to be easy any more.
* * *
“Were you frightened?” Moiren asked as he sipped his drink from a flame-warmed snifter.
“I think when you see a wolf the size of a city bus, you’ve every right to sweat a little.”
“Well said. You are not only a man of action—scaling walls and trudging through my backyard tundra, but also a man of sense. Both admirable qualities in a hero.”
“Heroes are short-lived.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Lunge. You’ve faced some terrible things—the Hindoo Rahu, Captain Dream and his Zeppelin Marauders, even the Sons of Caqueux in Brittany…a favorite of mine, I must admit. Just picturing their weaving nooses from the sleeves of condemned criminals leaves me quivering.
“But they’re only stories.”
“Only? Your modesty is a disservice.”
“But you know I’m not really this Lunge fellah.”
Gus looked at the butler, who gave a tiny nod of disapproval. No, of warning. Too late, because Moiren threw his snifter against the wall.
“You are Jove Lunge!” Moiren ran a hand through his hair, dislodging his tricorn hat. The butler picked it up and brushed the felt with his sleeve. “Don’t you see…I need you to be him.”
But Gus didn’t see, didn’t follow him…because the edges of his vision had grown cloudy. He looked down at his own glass and fell forward off the chair.
* * *
The headache, the awful dryness in his mouth, the reluctance of his eyes to open wide enough to see right, all told Gus he had one mother of a hangover. Only, he couldn’t remember having more than a glass of the strong juice that could strip varnish with its fumes. Guess his only inheritance from his old man wasn’t proof against something slipped into his drink.
He groaned and rolled over, felt someone warm next to him, cracked his eyes again. Some young guy, dressed like a boy scout, started rubbing Gus’s stomach.
“Please tell me you didn’t help me cross the street and into a bar.”
The kid’s hand drifted lower than Gus’s waist. “I did my good deed. Twice last night. But today….”
Gus wiped his face with one hand. Despite the way he felt, the kid was managing to wake the rest of him. “Carl, right?”
The kid nodded. Looked even a bit hurt.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“That butler knocked on the door an hour ago and brought us our costumes.”
“Any chance he brought a cup of joe—or better a beer?”
“Moiren wants us in the greenhouse.”
Gus sat up and winced. Then, other memories from last night came back to him. Sneaking outside. Seeing the largest mutt in the world chained up in the barn. The mickey in his drink. The butler must have carried his unconscious body back to bed—not that the guy looked like he could handle a sack of potatoes, let alone a dead weight of over two hundred pounds. Maybe he’d had help. Gus looked at the kid. That guileless face smiled at him, even as he stroked Gus’s dick. Maybe he wasn’t so innocent after all.
“Not now, junior,” he said, and took Carl’s hand off him. Then he rose out of bed and went over to the washbowl. He dipped his head into the cold water to chase away the fog behind his eyes.
“Go down and tell Moiren that I’m not stepping into that vegetable soup he calls a greenhouse without breakfast.”
Carl left. A few minutes later, the butler brought into the room a tray with cold meats and warm eggs. More importantly, there was a coffee pot.
“Do get dressed quickly. I’ve never seen the master so eager to begin painting.”
I bet, Gus thought.
* * *
The clothes were khaki, short-sleeved and -legged. A bit snug around the thighs, but Saul’s tailor always paled whenever he had to measure him. The hard hat, which the butler insisted be referred to as a pith helmet, felt ridiculous. Gus missed his regular derby.
He followed after the butler on the way to the greenhouse when a thump! stopped him. To his right was the drawing room, the door askew. He opened the door and saw Samantha resting atop the divan, one arm stretched down to the floor. A crystal tumbler lay on a damp patch of the Oriental rug.
“I’d watch what you sip here,” Gus said, and sat Samantha up. She looked pale, her eyelids fluttering like a caged bird’s wings.
He glanced over his shoulder. The butler remained in the doorway, his face turned in the direction of the room’s frosty windows. Decorum or lack of interest?
“Mr. Lunge.” Samantha rested her head on his shoulder. “Do...do you want to know my hidden…my…my secret?”
Her perfume had faded. Only by being so close against her flushed skin could he catch a trace of its former elegance.
“He promised me…Moiren said, ‘Your father will never forget how I paint you.’” She slipped an arm around his neck, but the gesture seemed not one of seduction but to lean against his chest for strength.
“Listen, I don’t think you know the truth about Moiren’s paintings.” Gus thought back to the massive beast kept in the barn.
But she nodded, a sloppy, drunken gesture. “I want that cold bastard…Daddy to be...haunted.”
Gus began to wonder if returning all those girls had been for the best. He’d never failed before. Could deal with Saul’s fury at not bringing Samantha back, but he had to confront Moiren first.
The butler cleared his throat. “She’s for later, Mr. Lunge. Master Moiren is considering…well, the unheard of. He thinks you may be worthy of two paintings. You should feel honored.”
The man adjusted his black jacket a moment. “Save the tempest for the greenhouse, sir. As for her—” The butler kicked the fallen glass under the divan. “She’ll do for the sequel. The Last Libation.”
“Who writes these books, anyway?”
The butler gestured for Gus to return to the hallway.
“Damn it, who writes them?” Gus yelled. He wanted to grab the guy by his monkey suit’s lapels and smash him through a wall.
“Don’t you know?” When the butler grinned, his scar rippled like a snake across his face.
* * *
Moiren stood by an easel in the heart of the greenhouse. He had traded one odd hat for another, a soft Frenchie number. His smock was stained, mostly in shades of an ugly brown. Gus told himself that had to be paint and not dried blood.
The surrounding plants were bloated and mottled. One had black thorns that seeped a clear fluid that could have been tears. Another resembled a gigantic trombone or Englishman’s pipe.
“I do hope you both come to appreciate my Nepenthes rex. I’ve spent the last decade cultivating it from seedlings found in the Amazon.”
“Listen, pal, I think you should know I didn’t come here to be your inspiration.”
Moiren smirked. “The Marquis once wrote, ‘Truth titillates the imagination far less than fiction.’”
“I don’t know what your game is—”
“Art. Rooted in suffering is art.”
Gus nodded at Carl. “C’mere, kid. Sorry, Moiren, but I think your guests have had enough of your hospitality.”
The familiar click of a safety made Gus’s head turn. The butler had leveled the elephant gun first at Gus, then at the kid.
“I have painted Lunge with bullet wounds in the past.” Moiren lowered his voice, perhaps to sound soothing. “You will all be free to go once I am finished.”
Gus cursed. He shouldn’t care about some gunsel, but the way Carl looked at him, like a dog fearful it would be kicked to the curb, stopped him from tackling the butler. “Fine.”
“Wonderful. Now young Timothy, would you please take a few steps back.”
Carl nodded and slowly shuffled backward until he bumped into the swollen body of one of the plants. Emerald vines snapped around his limbs and he was lifted off the ground.
The tendrils dropped the kid into the gourd belly. They heard the splash and Carl began screaming, in fear, in agony.
“Not yet, Lunge,” shouted the butler, who turned the rifle at Gus. An elephant gun would blast a hole through him.
“It’s eating him alive!” Adrenaline rushing through his blood, Gus grabbed at several of the twisting vines, his ham-sized fists squeezing sticky fluid from them as he tore them apart.
“Yes, yes. Enzymes and mutualistic insect larvae and all that jazz.” Moiren waved a paintbrush in bored annoyance, and then turned back to his canvas. “Now whatever happens, don’t move.”
Steve Berman has sold nearly a hundred articles, essays, and stories since he began writing in his late teens. He is a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology (Where They Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe, Lethe Press 2014). He lives in southern New Jersey. He happens to love October, especially the 31st.