He is standing in a dark place, his own name forgotten, and no memory of how any of this came to be. The man blinks his eyes, senses he is not alone, then sees a shadow figure appearing in front of him. A creature coalesces out of the darkness.
The man recoils from the creature, tries to run, but his limbs are paralyzed. The thing stands before him, watching him. A smile plays across its face, an expression far worse than any snarl. The man is held captive by unseen bonds. He is terrified. His brain wants to scream. His body makes the attempt, but no sound comes from his throat.
The thing waves a hand in the gloom, as if shooing away an insect. At that gesture, memory floods back through the man’s skull. The return of memory is far more painful than the loss of it.
His name was Thorne. He was a man who held the world on a string. Now he is without power or privilege, the two polestars he held sacred every moment of his life. His treasures and baubles have been stripped away and their loss galls him. Fear is all that remains. The fear overmasters him and still he cannot scream.
The creature facing Thorne is man-like but not human. And that face, that hideous face! Green eyes stare out above perfect high cheekbones. The clean-shaven skin is not black or brown or tan but somehow all of those tones together. The mongrelization of race frightens Thorne. He hates blurring the lines between us and them, has always hated it.
The thing, the guide or whatever it is, shoots the cuffs on an expertly tailored suit. Silver silk rustles in the dark passageway. It crosses its hands, palm over wrist, a half-smile on its chiseled face. When it speaks, its voice is masculine, as smooth and cold as ice sliding over plate glass.
“Welcome to our facility. There will be a short tour before I show you to your quarters. The tour is intended to offer a bit of perspective. I believe some of the new guests find it helpful. Others are simply terrified, but no matter. Before we begin, allow me to offer a few cautions. You may experience some disorientation or nausea. This is perfectly normal given your recent trauma. You will not be able to speak aloud, but I am able to divine your thoughts should questions arise.”
Pleas and threats beat a thundering tattoo in Thorne’s brain, but he cannot force the words into his mouth. As if in response, his eerie host nods and smiles. That horrible oily voice echoes off of obsidian walls.
“Ah, yes, I am male, at least from your limited perspective. You may call me Az if you wish. Not my full name, of course, but A to Z encompasses everything in your language. Nothing? Not so much as a chuckle? Pity.”
A pause, that horrible half-smile again, a single nod.
“Your other question is quite common. The answer is the same for everyone. The facility does not make mistakes. You are here because you are meant to be here. More precisely, you are here because you chose to be here.
“As for your threats, they are a complete waste of time. You have no power here, none whatsoever, as you yourself realize. And no, no one gets to see the former Führer. He is on a very special level, very exclusive, above or below your pay grade, depending on your point of reference. Please excuse my little pun. Now, if you will follow me.”
The being named Az turns and begins walking with a measured pace. Italian loafers click against the polished floor. Thorne is yanked forward, towed along in the thing’s wake like a child’s balloon, his feet clumsy and shuffling.
Red lamps gleam at intervals along the sculpted black walls. The lamps cast a bloody glow across the silk of his guide’s suit. The floor and ceiling are carved of the same ebon stone and Thorne feels he is floating through a dark tunnel.
“As we tour the facility, I wish to make it clear that none of this would be possible without the amazing insights and generous contributions of our clients. Clients just like yourself. You should be proud.”
Az sweeps out a magnanimous arm.
“All of this magnificence, down to the finest detail, comes from you and others just like you. Your thoughts and deeds on earth became the building blocks as it were, the raw material for your new home with us. Ah, we are almost there.”
Thorne sees strange doorways spaced along either side of the echoing hallway. The doors are of different materials, some wooden, others gleaming metal or stone or opaque glass. Each is fitted into a recess carved out of the black stone and none have latch or doorknob, key or hinge. Az stops beside an ornate wooden door and turns to face him.
“This is one of my favorite rooms. It is quite ingenious in design, so elegant and spartan. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.”
The guide waves one hand in an elegant movement and the wooden door vanishes. He steps through the now open doorway and Thorne is compelled to follow.
The room is circular, its walls paneled in dark wood higher than a man’s reach. The ceiling arches into a pale dome that glows far above the wainscoted walls. In the center of the room is an old-fashioned barber chair and in it sits an aged gentleman. The chair revolves on a heavy chromium base, as if turned by a silent and unseen hand.
Beautifully wrought brass lamps are fixed to each of the wall panels, casting warm pools of light down the gleaming wood. The lamps illuminate framed silver gelatin photographs spaced at precise intervals around the room. The stark images appear to hover above their shadowed background, eye-level to the old man in the barber chair.
All the photographs are of men, both naked and clothed, frozen in moments intimate and revealing. A White man and Black man in profile, pale flesh of chest pressed to dark flesh of back. Two men in leather jackets, one above the other, locked in a lingering kiss. A naked Black man, listening and looking off-camera, as if hearing and seeing the approach of a lover. More images and more, encompassing the circle of the room, and in the center the hulking chair revolves, and the shrunken codger revolves with it.
“An esteemed gentleman from one of your Southern states who was, I believe, elected to serve the public interest. My apologies if that concept is as foreign to you as it was to him. He cannot hear us or see us. He is, in fact, unaware that we are even here. You can move about the room if you like, examine the photographs. They are quite stunning.”
But Thorne does not move. He stands frozen in place watching the chair as it turns, and the old grey head rigid and still. Thorne sees what the old man sees, as waves of fear and revulsion break over him.
Wizened hands grip the arms of the chair and the knuckles of the hands are white and bloodless. Bands of iron bind bony arms to the chrome arms of the chair. A crown-like band of iron encircles the bald head. When the liver-spotted face rotates into view, Thorne tries to look away, but he cannot. He cannot move any more than can the head held fast in the iron crown’s grip. The prisoner has no eyelids. His lidless eyes glare in a baleful and perpetual stare. What he stares at, what he is forced to stare at, is an endless procession of photographs as he rotates forever in front of them.
Thorne wrenches his eyes away from that horrible face and turns to Az. The smiling demon holds out a hand to indicate the nearest black and white image.
“If you look below the frame, you will notice one of the more delicious details, a little accoutrement provided to us by our guest.”
Thorne sees a simple brass plaque below the lower edge of the framed photograph. There is an identical brass plate beneath each of the images. Each plate is engraved with a dedication: Funded by The National Endowment for the Arts.
He looks back to the old man’s staring eyes, watches as the grimacing face rotates away with the motion of the chair. The head is in profile now, still turning, and the voice of Az breaks the spell.
“Come, there is more to see.”
The passageway feels familiar after the horror of the old man’s cage. Thorne is relieved when his keeper waves a manicured hand and the wooden door reappears, blotting out the silent torment behind it. Az turns and walks away. Thorne is led and he follows, without choice or will to do otherwise.
Thorne hates this thing, man or demon, whatever it is, with its shiny suit and weird, handsome face. He wants to lash out at it, shout it down. Then he feels a searing pain in his head, stumbles against the wall. He rights himself and sees the demon leering at him.
The wave of pain subsides, and Thorne realizes they have come to a halt. They are standing before a doorway filled with thick plate glass. A faint greenish glow seems to pulse behind the glass, but he can see nothing else.
“This is a much more, ah…, kinetic room. We will remain here in the hall. The chamber itself is quite dampish, as you will see.”
Az’s hand parts the still air and the heavy glass becomes in an instant as clear as crystal. Thorne is drawn forward against his will, his face as close to the glass as a child at an aquarium exhibit.
Sunlight slants through green-hued water, illuminating the bodies of two drowned men. They float just above a river bottom, feet hidden in swaying tendrils of waterweed, their bodies slack as marionettes cut from their master’s strings. Pale skin shows from beneath work clothes long out of fashion. The drowned men’s chins are on their chests and Thorne cannot see their faces.
His own hand reaches for the shimmering glass, as a small boy who would tap the sleeping creatures awake. He tries to still the motion but cannot. Three fingertips rap against the clear window three times and the stillness is broken.
The drowned men burst into life, clawing toward the mirrored surface of the water. They thrash and swirl, try to climb each other, desperate for a single breath of life-giving air. But they cannot rise. Now he sees the heavy chains that bind their ankles, chains that disappear into the watery weeds at the bottom of the slow river.
A huge image hovers above the water, as if a giant were peering down to watch the aquatic struggle. The face is handsome, the skin dark, no longer that of a boy and not yet that of a man. His eyes are bright under the brim of a felt hat and his mouth bears only the slightest trace of a smile.
The drowning men flail and thrash, but they cannot reach the surface or the face that hovers above the gleaming water. Their struggles change to spasms. Convulsions rack the chained bodies. Flailing arms jerk, grow still, and drift downwards. Eyes close and heads fall forward. The two men sink back down until their feet disappear again into the weedy river bottom.
The portal goes dark before Thorne’s eyes and he sees only the dim reflection of his own jowled face. He turns away, repulsed, and shambles after his demon Virgil.
The dark corridor glows black and red and seems to go on forever. There are no turnings, no other passages crossing the one Thorne trudges down.
He is sweating from abject fear and unaccustomed labor. Stinging rivulets trickle into his eyes. His hair is plastered to his forehead in lank disarray. Thorne is stumbling, almost falling to the floor, by the time Az comes finally to a halt. That horrible smile floats in front of Thorne’s stricken eyes.
“Well, here we are at last. Our tour is now complete, and it is time to show you to your quarters. They have, of course, been prepared especially for you. I do hope you find them suitable.”
Az raises a hand to indicate a doorway. Thorne sees a door woven from some sort of rattan or bamboo, a flimsy thing from one of those shithole countries whose names he could never pronounce. Az waves the fingers of his raised hand, the slightest of gestures, and the door opens.
The dark corridor is of a sudden awash in a blaze of equatorial sun. A cacophony of pounding drums fills the passageway, pulsing like a thousand heartbeats. Eager black arms reach out from the chamber and Thorne cannot shrink away. Firm hands close over his flabby flesh and draw him inside.
Rich voices rise in a joyous chanting to the accompaniment of the thundering drums. The sky above is a burning blue and below it a circle of dancing bodies leaping and stamping on bare red earth. Thorne is thrust into the center of the circle and the pulsing rhythm fills his body against his will. His muscles begin to spasm and jerk, chasing the beat of the drums and failing to find it.
Thorne’s panicked eyes search beyond the gyrating ring of dancers, frantic for the doorway and a path to escape. He catches a glimpse of the open door and wills himself to run, but his body continues its clumsy dance.
The last thing he sees is the demon Az, for demon he is, the torrid sunlight shining upon the silk of his suit. Az is dancing in a perfect sinuous swaying. Dancing and smiling, he raises one hand in a farewell as he backs through the doorway. The raised hand falls. Then doorway and demon disappear forever.