— PREVIOUSLY! —
The tap-tap of dripping water stirs him awake. Slowly the conventionally attractive man’s blue eyes begin to focus in the gloom.
He blinks quickly, aware again of rope around his wrists and chest, but with his superior intuition he feels at once that his surroundings are different. He can see stark shadows against cave walls, moving in the flicker of a distant fire.
“HELLO!” his voice ricochets. “SHOW YOURSELF, YOU FIENDS!”
There is whispering around him. From a room beyond this one comes a sudden whip crack and a low groan. The conventionally attractive man thrashes heroically, but the ropes stay fast.
“Good evening, my friend,” comes a voice from behind him, syrupy and sickening. “Since you seemed so unwilling to cooperate in your apartment, we thought we would bring you here.”
“SHOW YOURSELF!” The conventionally attractive man thrashes some more. A dark cloth spins around him and suddenly he is looking at a very small, very white bald man with a craggy face and glimmering eyes.
“PROFESSOR RENAULT! I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!”
“Yes! It is your old friend, Professor Renault! You did not recognize my voice!”
“I RECOGNIZED THE LIQUOR STINK, YOU FROG COWARD!” A thick hand slaps his conventionally attractive face.
“Enough, O’Farrell! You will ruin his marvelous countenance!” The ugly creep bows slightly and sinks back into the shadows, his orange forelock dangling. “HHHHLVVV AEG,” he says.
“SO YOU’VE SUNK TO USING THIS UGLY MICK TO DO YOUR DIRTY WORK!” The conventionally attractive man puffs out his chest in anticipation of another blow, but none comes.
“I have tried to reach you through conventional channels, but my letters go unanswered.” The old man moves in close as he speaks. “I see that my friend’s fists did not greatly damage your skin. I regret the necessity of his services, but you are a hard man to persuade.”
“I TOLD YOU I HAVE NO PATIENCE FOR–” Again he hears a distant whip crack. “WHAT WAS THAT!”
The old man’s eyes gleam, and he takes a brief sip from a bottle hung around his neck. “All will be revealed to you in good time, my old friend. For now we must reduce the swelling on your marvelous face.” He turns quickly to the ugly creep, still lingering in the shadows. “I trust the body is not badly damaged?” he asks, but it does not sound like a question.
— MEANWHILE —
Across town, Theresa sits at her desk outside the conventionally attractive man’s office door. Every few moments her eyes flick down to the black telephone, and then to the window. “Aw, Christ…” she whispers to herself. “Where are you, boss?…” The phone continues its silence. She glances at the photograph propped on her desk. It is her mother, some twenty years ago, at a state fair. Her mother, with her dark hair pulled back and her face turned up toward the sun. Theresa sticks a fingertip into her mouth, but there is no nail left to bite. “Oh, where is he?!” she cries aloud.
— MEANWHILE —
A group of boys are throwing sticks in an abandoned lot near the city’s edge. The summer sun retreats to a pale glow above the fence. One of the boys points his index finger and makes a sound like “brrratatatatatatatatatatat.” All the boys begin doing it, circling one another and then spontaneously falling to the ground, clutching at imaginary wounds. A small blonde boy picks up a pebble, tosses it lightly and hits it with a stick. It arcs up and up, sailing over the fence and toward the glinting sunset.
— MEANWHILE —
The conventionally attractive man ponders the silence after the professor’s departure. “THAT DEFINITELY SOUNDED LIKE A WHIP CRACKING,” he thinks, and the thought makes his head throb. He tries to take an inventory of his surroundings, but the gloom around him is vague. He sees the flicker on the gray stone walls. He hears the slight trickle of water. In a flash the voice on the phone comes back to him: “My sister…the Cave of Sorrow….” “COULD THIS BE THE CAVE OF SORROW SHE WAS REFERRING TO?” he wonders. It does seem rather unpleasant. But the woman on the phone had mentioned a name: Lord Death Man! Is he somehow connected to that old sot, Professor Renault? “PERHAPS THEY ARE ONE AND THE SAME!” the conventionally attractive man cries. But the idea rings hollow against the cave walls. “IF THIS IS THE CAVE OF SORROW, THEN THERE IS A GIRL HERE I MUST SAVE,” he shouts, tensing his chest against the rope. “I AM ON THE CASE!”
“You are on whose case?” The professor flutters back into view. The ugly creep lumbers behind him, carrying a small package.
“RELEASE ME, YOU CURSED SOT! I AM ON THE CASE!” The conventionally attractive man thrusts his face upward, his square jaw catching what little light is thrown off by the fire.
“Marvelous!” says the professor. “O’Farrell!” The ugly creep stoops and unwraps the package. He removes a length of twine and hands the bundle to the professor, who removes a dripping red steak. “Here,” he says, lowering it over the conventionally attractive man’s left eye. “We must reduce the swelling…”
The steak is cold and not unpleasant, but the conventionally attractive man cannot let the opportunity for heroism pass. He jerks his head away and attempts to butt his forehead into the professor’s. The steak hits the stone floor with a slap, just as a fat fist socks him in the gut.
“GODDAMMIT!” he shouts.
“You are a very willful young man,” the professor says, picking a bit of dirt off the steak. His eyes are full of admiration. He lays the steak again over the conventionally attractive man’s left eye, and this time it stays there, the pain behind it already dimming.
“Let this rest there,” he says, “and then we will see about giving you a tour.”
— MEANWHILE —
At her desk, Theresa has arranged the contents of her pocketbook into three neat rows. There are the two lipsticks, a wadded up handkerchief, six bobby pins. She is feeling very hungry. “Nerts!” she cries. “I will wait ten more minutes, and if he doesn’t call, I will go home.” She glances at the clock. It is Thursday, and on Thursdays the conventionally attractive man makes her stay late and eat with him at the diner downstairs. They make her a hamburger with extra onions and she nibbles it demurely while the boss eats slice after slice of lemon cake, his knees banging into hers under the table. He tells her about his favorite shows on the radio.
She pulls a page off the top of her legal pad and begins tearing it into strips, and then tears those into more strips. She lets them fall to the desk.
— MEANWHILE —
In the Possible Cave of Sorrow, the conventionally attractive man plots his escape. Renault holds the steak as the ugly creep works to untie him. “HE IS EVEN UGLIER FROM ABOVE,” the conventionally attractive man thinks as the creep bends over his ankles. “AS SOON AS I AM FREE OF THESE BONDS I WILL DISPATCH THESE GOONS AND MAKE MY ESCAPE!” But when the rope falls slack to the floor the conventionally attractive man remains seated, enjoying the cool weight of the steak over his eye. “FIRST I WILL GAIN THEIR CONFIDENCE BY FOLLOWING ORDERS,” he thinks. Renault removes the steak from his face. “To your feet,” he says, and the ugly creep hoists him up, quickly pulling his hands behind his back and locking them there with a pair of strangely comfortable handcuffs. “I AM COMPLYING!” the conventionally attractive man cries.
With Renault in front, the ugly creep shoves him down the corridor, Renault gesturing and talking all the way. Presently they arrive at a solid wooden door with a crack of light escaping beneath. “Here we are!” says Renault. “Hold him tight please, O’Farrell.”
“I SENSE THE PRESENCE OF A WOMAN IN DISTRESS!” the conventionally attractive man thinks. His ears hurt.
The old door swings open and in the glaring light the conventionally attractive man sees a Woman in Distress. She is shackled to the wall, her head hanging limply. She barely raises it to stare back at him with heavy-lidded eyes. He notices her pale dress is torn. She is moderately good looking with an expensive haircut and a body that makes him want to apologize. She does not seem sufficiently attired for the damp and cool of the cave. No sooner has he taken her in than his superior powers of observation register Another Woman in Distress standing just to the side. She has been stripped almost to nothing but her stockings and undergarments and holds a whip in her left hand. “THEY HAVE DRESSED HER AS SOME KIND OF LADY-HENCHMAN!” he thinks. The conventionally attractive man politely averts his eyes. “MADAMS, I WILL FREE YOU FORTHWITH!” he screams, looking at nothing, and then spins to deliver a roundhouse kick to the ugly creep, who avoids him with uncharacteristic deftness. The conventionally attractive man stumbles headfirst into the wall, an explosion of stars blurring his vision. “GLLLLK K,” the ugly creep chuckles. “Where did you find this jag-off?” slurs the woman shackled to the wall.
— MEANWHILE —
Back at the office, Theresa stares blankly at the shreds of paper that litter her desk. There is a quick knock at the door, and then a head pops in. It is Val Webb, a young architect at the firm next door. “Hiya, Tess!” he says. “Working late again?”
“Oh Val!” she cries, “It’s just awful–”
“Sure it is. Say, I’m going to head down for some grub with the steno pool. Care to join us?”
“Oh Val! I shouldn’t; I’m waiting for–”
“Hey, no problem!” he says, and gives a quick salute before shutting the door. Theresa sits for a moment in her chair, the smell of Val’s cologne slowly reaching her. She glances at the clock on the wall. Oh, where is her handsome boss?! It has gotten so late, and she is so hungry! “Wait up, Val!” she cries, grabbing her coat.
— TO BE CONTINUED! —