I stared into his face for the first time in over a year. His hair was shorter than I remembered, only down to his shoulders, but still a coarse, pure black that held an unnatural, quasi-purple sheen, like the skin of a black snake. His face also shone with a preternatural paleness and his teeth were rotting. He popped a lemonhead into his mouth.
“I think it’s great that you’re writing again,” Luther said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your manuscript. I found it in the cabin. I’m considering trying to get it published when I’m done with you. Good title, Desert Places. My only fear is that no one will believe what you went through if I try to pass it off as non-fiction. Wouldn’t make a bad potboiler though. Who was your agent?”
I just glared at him.
“Come on, Andy, this book could be huge. Set me up for life. Help me complete my renovations here. You’re a celebrity.”
“If I agree to help, will you let Violet go?”
“Oh, I’m sure I can come up with some other way to elicit your cooperation that’s fun for me. Speaking of...” He smiled, spit the white lemonhead pit across the floor. “We should give Violet a little help in finding us. This is a big factory, after all.”
Luther walked across the room toward a waist-high cart with a control panel on top the size of a laptop. On the side of the cart, a rack of tools had been mounted to the metal frame.
“I kidnapped this brilliant engineer,” Luther said over his shoulder. “He not only built and wired these chairs, but he was their first occupant. I’ve got plans for this entire place—there’s so much potential—but for now, meet my new toy.”
He wheeled the cart toward my chair.
This was the most light my eyes had seen in I didn’t know how long, and I drank in my first decent glimpse of the place—a warehouse of sorts, ten or fifteen thousand square feet, with a high ceiling.
Across the room, I noticed another chair like mine. A bulky coil of cables extended out from the underside of the wooden gurney, and then the package spliced—one group running into the control panel, another disappearing through the wall.
My chair, I realized, was identical.
Luther stood at the control panel, smiling down at me.
“You truly cannot imagine how fun this is. I told my IT guy I wanted a device that could establish immobilization and then deliver heat, cold, electricity, perforation, abrasion, blunt force trauma, pressure—all the elemental forces. Imagine if the Inquisition had had the benefit of electricity? So Andy...” He was turning a knob now, something beneath me beginning to hum, a subtle vibration in the chair. “What’s your pleasure?”
SHE realized that she was awake.
Still lying on a hard floor in the pitch-black.
Her right ear throbbed, and when she touched it, her fingers grazed a swatch of dried blood and skin that had begun to scab over.
Her stomach ached.
“Max,” she whispered. “Oh, God.”
She fell apart and wept, realigned herself to the horror that had become her life, and then gathered herself together again.
She’d shifted in her sleep and it took five minutes of walking into walls before she finally stumbled out of the break room and back into the corridor.
She stood there for a moment, waiting to see if some image might emerge out of the dark, but nothing did. A disconcerting hum, like the sound of wind moving through a tunnel, broke the silence, though it seemed a great distance away—far above her.
She went on as before, the knife out front, one hand trailing along the wall, figuring she must have slept for hours, because her clothes were almost dry.
The corridor ended in another stairwell, and she climbed several flights until she reached the top and pulled open a door.
Light streamed in.
She stood at the entrance to a large room sectioned by cubicle space. The light was weak and gray and still it burned and she had to stand there for several minutes, letting her retinas grow accustomed to the onslaught of daylight.
Through the maze.
Depressing partitions of long-vacant workspace.
Cheap desks and chairs. Rogue paperclips. Stray power cords.
She stopped in one cubicle and stared at a calendar still pushpinned into the fabric wall—six years out of date.
Light slipped in through wide, narrow windows near the ceiling that gave no view but of the sky. The hum was loudest here and the sound was of wind blowing through those glassless windows, passing through the room like breath over an open bottle top.
IN the end, Luther still decided.
He shaved my leg with a straight razor below the knee and scrubbed the skin with warm, soapy water.
Dried it with a towel and put on a pair of plastic safety glasses, my stomach already in knots.
He unholstered a high-powered soldering gun and a roll of 21 gauge 60/40 solder from a rack that contained a variety of high-end tools—pliers, augurs, slate cutters, drills, shears, even a ball peen hammer.
The first sensation was the liquid-metal burn of the solder.
My skin blistered, and I didn’t scream at first, having endured real pain before, and knowing it ebbed and flowed.
But this just kept coming, and with it the rush of panic, of trying to handle something I couldn’t stand or stop, and after he’d laid three inches of melted alloy onto my leg, my throat finally gave voice to the scream it had been dying to unleash, and I raged against the restraints only to confirm my complete immobilization. Only my fingers and toes could move.
Luther didn’t even look up, just kept at his work as tiny coils of smoke lifted off the solder, and he didn’t stop until he’d reached the top of my foot.
Already the metal was cooling, bonding to my skin, and though the pain of the brilliant heat was fading, the nerves in the newly-traumatized flesh had just started to sing.
He made three lines down my right leg, each approximately sixteen inches, each a searing revelation of pain.
When he’d finished his work and I’d worn myself out screaming, I watched him reholster the soldering iron as sweat ran down into my eyes.
I couldn’t believe it, but I registered the briefest moment of relief. Of hope.
The pain, still mind-blowing, was abating, and I’d survived it.
Luther pushed the cart that held the control panel and the tools away from my gurney and started across the room.
“This,” he called out, “I have to keep far away from the electronics and other tools. You familiar with neodymium?”
SHE continued on, soon passing out of the room of cubicles and into a short hallway that accessed larger offices.