Authors: Felicity Sparrow
“He’s gone,” I say.
An invisible wall between us shatters.
Erik steps back. I step inside.
To close the door, he must move behind me, and his arm grazes my back. His head dips toward mine with that small gesture. If I lift my chin, our noses would be only inches apart. And if I inhaled, gravity might draw us together for a kiss.
The latch clicks.
The world is much darker with that door closed.
“It’s time to work,” Erik says. The words land on my nerves like the sour chords produced by slamming one’s hands into a piano.
Breathing is easier when he moves toward the kitchen, but it feels like Erik has divested something else of importance from me.
He’s muttering to himself as he walks. “Insolence. Praising you for your talent as though he has any stake in it.”
He shakes his head. “Downstairs.”
Erik uses a key to unlock the door at the rear of his kitchen. For some reason, I’ve always assumed that’s a locked pantry door. It only occurs to me now that I’ve never actually seen him going into his office basement, and that this must be the entrance.
The stairs on the other side are steep and dark and endless.
There is something frightened and animal beating inside of me, resisting Erik as he urges me toward that door.
I am a prey animal, akin to a doe or a rabbit. I will be eaten if I go down those steps.
His hand rests on the small of my back briefly, and his palm is so hot that it burns through my shirt. The touch nearly unravels me. It certainly unravels any hint of resolve I might have had.
“Problem?” Erik murmurs.
He’s still touching me.
I can’t speak, so I only shake my head.
And I go down those stairs.
His fingers slip from my back to my waist, then to my elbow, and finally take my hand. Erik’s skin is rough from all the work he does in the forest, from those many hours out on the lagoon.
The light from the kitchen vanishes within a few steps. Darkness consumes us. There is a faint red light at the bottom of the stairs, but I can’t tell how far we have to go to reach it.
Between the dim red glow and the impenetrable darkness, I can imagine that Erik Duke really does keep some kind of special hell underneath his house. The shapes dancing in my vision are not products of my eyes trying to adjust; they are cavorting demons waiting to devour me once Erik delivers my body into their hungry arms.
Adrenaline has taken me. I have stopped moving down the stairs. I don’t realize it until Erik’s guiding hand tugs on mine.
“You’re almost there.” His voice echoes strangely. He could be anywhere. His touch doesn’t truly orient me to his position.
“How deep does your basement run?”
“Under the lagoon,” Erik says. “Very deep.”
So very, very deep…
We reach the bottom and there are no demons. The red light comes from the kind of bulb designed to preserve one’s night vision. But when Erik flips a switch set into the wall, standing lamps come to life, revealing the basement around us.
I am here. I am the first to enter the darkness below Erik Duke’s house.
The idea is thrilling enough that my fear abates, permitting me the temporary gift of rational thought.
I drink in the sight of my surrounding. The basement is so large that I can’t see its boundaries from where I stand at the base of the stairs, but the walls nearest me are concrete, stained with water.
Otherwise, it is mostly an ordinary office. There is an antique desk, the kind that you would expect Erik Duke to work at, with a laptop on one side and a typewriter on the other. The wooden chair doesn’t look comfortable. He suffers for his art.
He also has bookshelves. Many bookshelves. I don’t need to look at them to know that he’ll have classics alongside airport bestsellers; I already know that his taste is very diverse. He is a man who loves reading as much as writing.
Those are not the only furnishings in his basement office, however.
There is no iron maiden, as the internet rumors, but what I find is almost equally morbid.
His walls are lined with hooks. Heavy steel hooks, shiny and clean, mounted with thick bolts. It looks like he polishes them.
As I wander deeper into the room, drawn by the lure of the strange, I find myself standing next to a classic car half-covered by a white blanket. It’s one of those old things with wings on the side, painted the color of the sky and waxed to a perfect shine. I can imagine fifties greasers cruising around town in such a car.
That sleek machine stands in stark contrast to the harvester behind it. The farming equipment is large, its teeth jagged and cruel, murderously deadly. There’s no way he got that down the stairs. I wonder if he built the basement around it somehow. I don’t dare pass the harvester to see what else he has—it looks as though it might leap forward and bite me.
I recognize both the car and the harvester in the same way that I recognized Lake Symphony when I first arrived, though. They’ve been prominently featured in books of his. Famous ones.
Of course, aren’t they all famous?
Erik leans a hip against his desk, arms folded, shirt pulled tight around his shoulders. “What do you think?”
I can’t stop staring at the hooks on his wall now that my attention have been drawn back to them.
The hooks, even more than the harvester, make my heart pound.
Don’t ask. You don’t want to know. It’s none of your business.
I ask anyway. I can’t help it. “What are they for?”
I’m a stupid girl.
Erik picks a length of rope up off of a bookshelf. It’s thickly woven, a kind of black silk. “When I’m struggling with inspiration, I act out scenes from my books. It helps me visualize the scenario.” He gestures to the hooks with the rope loop. “These are from
The Count to Midnight
Now I recognize them. The villain of that book was a murderer, a butcher. These devices on his walls are meat hooks. The kind used for hanging sides of beef so that the blood can drain.
Beef isn’t the only kind of meat that the villain from
hung on those hooks.
These hooks look so sharp.
I’ve been staring at them for so long that I don’t realize that the author is standing behind me until he speaks. His voice is a rumbling bass. “Do they frighten you?”
“It’s morbid,” I admit. “Especially considering how scary that book was. You got so deep into Hector’s head—and now I see why, I suppose, you could so effectively wrap yourself up in him. Because you had the props.”
“They’re functional,” he says. “Not props. Everything here functions.”
“I’m impressed.” It’s a small miracle that I can keep speaking, much less sound as casual as I do. “The hooks were only in two scenes. Installing them would have been a lot of effort just to complete those chapters.”
His eyes bore into me. “They have multiple uses.”
He is toying with that rope as he watches me. He loosens it, uncurls it, lets the end drag along the floor.
Every motion makes the muscles of his arms flex. Reminding me of his strength.
I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’ve descended into a basement with a man much stronger than I am—a basement that nobody can reach aside from Erik himself.
Yet it’s not just fear thrilling through me. At least, I don’t think that’s fear burning hot between my legs.
Isolation is useful for more than one reason.
Banish the thought, Christine
. He is a client. A bestselling author-slash-recluse. He’s only of professional interest to me, no matter what the heat building in my core suggests.
There is nothing professional about the way that Erik is looking at me, either.
“So you enact scenes when you’re stuck,” I say, just to say anything at all. “Where are you stuck now?”
“Let me show you,” he says. “Act out this scene with me.” His fists tighten on the ropes. His knuckles are white, the veins on the back of his hands bulging.
“With the, um…” I swallow. “With you and the rope?”
Considering the books that he writes, he could be inviting me to do anything. My mind runs wild. I envision being tied up and having my throat slit, just like the victims in
. Or perhaps being strung up by my ankles, left to dangle. Or simply choked—if such a thing could be simple.
My fear must show in my eyes.
“I won’t hurt you, Christine,” he says. “I will never hurt you.”
I believe him.
“Okay,” I say.
There are only a few feet between us. I cross the distance and extend my hands. If I took one more step, I could span my fingers over his chest, feel the muscles hidden underneath his shirt.
That thought is almost as dangerous as my thoughts of murder.
He loops the ropes around my wrists and cinches them tightly. Then he presses the end of the rope into my palm. I curl my fingers around it instinctively.
“This is a special knot,” he says. “You have to hold the end of the rope to keep it from releasing. It’ll unravel immediately if you open your hand. Until then, it’s very…” He yanks. The rope digs into my wrist. “Secure.”
The surprise of that jerk makes me release the rope. He’s being honest with me: the loops around my wrists immediately release.
A shaky laugh escapes me. “Oops. Sorry.”
He ties me again without responding. It’s the same knot as before. He gives me the end.
“Where did you learn to tie knots like these?” I ask. “You weren’t a Boy Scout, were you?”
Mirth flashes over his face. “The Boy Scouts don’t teach
kinds of knots.” He takes both of my wrists. “Hold tight.”
And then he is leading me to those silver hooks.
They are just a little bit too tall for me to reach, but they are not too tall for Erik. He uses the rope to stretch me onto my toes.
The ropes loop easily over the metal hook, though I must be on the very tips of my toes to permit it. Once I relax into place, the hook supports my weight easily. They’re just as sturdy as they look.
Stretched to my absolute limit, my shirt rides up an inch and my slacks ride down. My belly is exposed to him in the way a hawk exposes the belly of a rabbit. I am breathless—partially because having my arms pinned above me makes it difficult to breathe, and partially because Erik is still touching me, holding me.
Erik slides a hand down my ribcage before stepping away.
It’s not easier to breathe after that.
“So…what’s happening in the scene?” I gasp.
Erik is occupied with the pages of his book now, as though he is immensely interested in what secrets they hold and has forgotten me. “It’s between Clara, the woman in the town, and the man who’s obsessed with her.”
I supply the name reflexively. “David.” And then my cheeks heat. I’m not supposed to have been reading his book yet.
But he looks pleased.
Well, if not exactly pleased, then…satisfied.
“Clara and David,” he says. “Yes, that’s right.”
He skims a hand down my side. My abs clench, my knees press together. Erik doesn’t even look up from the pages.
“David has been obsessed with Clara for a long time, though she doesn’t even know him. He’s been dreaming about Clara, thinking about what he wishes he could do to her—and she doesn’t know him.”
“What doesn’t she know?”
“Anything,” Erik says. “He’s some guy who lives outside her town. He comes in for groceries sometimes, or fuel, but he’s one face among dozens. Meaningless to her.”
Even from the few pages I’ve read, I know that’s not true. “He’s left an impression on Clara. She’s been thinking about him, too.”
Erik goes on as if I didn’t say anything at all. “David wants to know Clara. He sent his friend to talk to her—get to know her. That’s what’s been happening these last few chapters. His friend, Trevor, is learning about Clara and sending the information back to David. And now David’s having Trevor lure Clara back to his house.”
It sounds so menacing when he puts it that way. “Luring” her, like he’s planned something terrible for once she arrives.
Considering this is an Erik Duke novel, there probably is something terrible going on.
It’s impossible to deny the parallels to reality, though.
“Did you lure me down here?” I whisper. “Down to your basement?”
Erik’s eyes spark again with dark mirth.
There’s a mystery lurking behind the twist of his mouth, as though shadows might spill from his tongue if he parts his lips. I’m reminded that every perversion he’s ever written about was born from his mind before it ever made it to the page.
“Clara is trapped.” Erik’s gravelly voice is deeper than before.
Christine is trapped
That’s what I hear him saying.
With finality, he adds, “And I’m not sure what David will do with her now that she’s in his grasp.”
He sets the pages down on his desk. They give a satisfying
against the wooden surface.
Erik rounds on me, sizing me up. He’s not trying to hide his interest in my body now. He’s breathing a little harder, as though we have gone running together. In a manner of speaking, I suppose we have—the exertion of sharing one’s work in progress is akin to a mental marathon.
His mind has dropped deeper into his book, deep into Clara and David’s story.
I am following him down.
He’s looking at me, but I’m not convinced that I’m what Erik is really seeing. He runs his hands up my ribcage again. His fingers burn paths up the underside of my arms to my elbows.
My body arches toward him in a gesture of instinctive surrender.
I’d entered the basement intending to read his book, but what I want from him now is far more physical.
“What will he do with her?” Erik asks. “What will I do with you?”
The basement is so vast, and yet it feels like there is nothing beyond the space our bodies occupy.
“I think that…” My mouth is so dry.
Am I really going to say the words that I’m thinking? It’s such an obvious invitation. He’ll think less of me for being so forward. Goodness, I’m thinking less of myself just for considering it.