The unfinished red-lined novel’s first draft lay scattered across Mel Banner’s coffee table, and the manuscript’s presence gave him away. The young woman the author had brought to his apartment thumbed through random pages of Banner’s Hacker with the air of a sophisticate that didn’t quite ring true.
“So you’re a writer? Have I heard of you?”
Having met the shapely blonde over dirty martinis less than two hours earlier, Banner couldn’t remember her name. Nancy, he thought, maybe Fran. Probably neither.
“Try rattling around the cheap bins in the rear of any Barnes & Nobel, you’ll find my work. But a writer writes, and I haven’t been able to do much of that lately. After my editor’s first read that particular draft looks like it needs a tourniquet, doesn’t it? My writing has been a case of more perspiration than inspiration lately.” Banner realized he was getting wordy, a bad trait for any writer, worse for a guy trying to score points with an attractive woman. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“A white wine will be fine.” The young woman perused another loose page, her attention falling short of riveted. “What sort of writing do you do? I notice you wrote ‘Fuck’ a lot on this page. Artistic license, or nothing else to say?”
Banner smiled at Nancy/Fran’s directness. Excessive obscenity was the signature of a lazy mind, someone once said, probably another frustrated fucked up author. But maybe the woman had a point.
“Hacker is an erotic piece. I’ve written mysteries and thrillers too. Whatever sells. At six cents a word I toss in a good many of the four letter variety to raise my net worth. The team of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ paid for this penthouse, back when New York Times book reviewers remembered my name. One novel almost cracked the Best Sellers List. Five Before Midnight, your basic thriller. Serial killer baits down-on-his-luck gum shoe with his kills. Ever hear of it? It was on t.v.”
“Didn’t think so.” Banner forced another smile. NBC had optioned his novel for a made-for t.v. movie. Featuring a cast of no-names it played once during television’s summer doldrums, then dropped from sight forevermore. But there seemed no need to get into the shortcomings of his mass appeal.
He wrestled the cork from a respectfully aged bottle of a sparkling German Riesling white, a 1979 Rheingau purchased at over $200 a pop during more promising times. Pouring two glasses he held one out for the woman who, comfortably reposed on his couch, had already taken off her heels.
“Better drink up. I may have to shop for the cheap stuff soon.”
“So you’ve been having trouble with your novel? Writer’s block?”
“A creative impasse. Inspiration doesn’t come easy. Sometimes you have to coax it. Successful novelists often find themselves in the unenviable position of one-and-done. I’m hoping I’m not among them.”
Swiping a strand of silky hair from her eyes the woman grinned. “So sometimes you have to coax inspiration with wine, or maybe a woman or two? I’m guessing, of course.”
Banner sat alongside her, moved closer. “Wine, women, Beyoncé on CD, whatever works.” He kissed her cheek, a bold yet fleeting enough move that seemed an appropriate preliminary to the mating ritual. “A writer takes his inspiration where he finds it. A song lyric, a passing remark from a stranger, bathroom graffiti, whatever. If I’m writing a thriller, maybe I’ll try skydiving. An erotic novel, I’ll inundate myself with some good porn. Mystery, I may hide a body or two in my basement, whatever sparks my creative gene. A good muse is often capricious, requiring a jolt of my adrenaline to liquor her up.”
“Must be difficult lugging those corpses twenty floors down the freight elevator when you feel inclined to write your murder mystery.”
“That’s why God made Hefty Bags.”
Nancy/Fran took a long sip from her glass and followed that with a longer scrutinizing of her escort, her eyes sparkling with the wine. “So, you’re casting for a muse? Perhaps I can help with that inspiration thing.” Her legs curled upon the soft white leather of the couch, her butterscotch tresses cascading to bare shoulders. Smiling with complete self-awareness of her allure, she waited for the writer to make his move. She didn’t have to wait long. A few tentative maneuvers on Banner’s part and the dance began. Minutes later the woman’s spaghetti strapped gown became strapless, then became gone. She lay moaning her desire, nearly naked on his couch alongside her emptied glass of wine.
Twisted like some contortionist jockeying for the most comfortable position in a confining space, she whispered close to his ear, “Wouldn’t your bed be more comfortable? I mean, assuming you’re feeling creative, of course.” Unfastening the top buttons of his shirt, she seemed surprised when Banner stopped her advances cold.
“You go on in. It’s on the right. I’ll join you in a minute.”
All modesty departed, the woman didn’t bother covering her breasts. Banner appreciated his date’s lack of inhibition while he studied her cat-like movements. Wearing a silky pink wisp of panties most of which had disappeared up the crack of her ass, the blonde crossed the room stopping to peek over her shoulder. “Don’t be too long. Inspiration cools quickly, you know.” She left the bedroom door open.
Banner’s brain replayed the last minute. The woman’s words could have come from Lauren Bacall’s mouth. The idea occurred to him that instant. Snapping on his hand held recorder and making a quick stop in the kitchen he rummaged through a drawer. Rejoining his date in the darkened bedroom he dispensed with all small talk.
“Understand,” he explained to the siren beneath his sheets, “this is only for the purpose of research, okay? I have no intention of – – well, of doing any harm. Okay?” He placed the recorder on the night stand, climbed into bed, and pulled a long serrated bread knife from behind his back. “I’m sorry if this frightens you.” His apology seemed ridiculous.
The woman at first gasped, then giggled nervously, but her amusement became short lived when Banner pinched the thick blade flat against her throat. He wasn’t smiling. If anything, he seemed to seriously examine her reaction.
“What are you–?”
“Really, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to hear you talk, listen to what you might say in this particular circumstance.” Straddling her, Banner tightened his grip on the knife. “Listen, we can fuck our eyeballs out in a few minutes. I really want to fuck you, you know. But right now, I want you to just express what you’re feeling.”
“I – I can’t – breathe. You’re pressing too hard against my throat. Please …”
“Oh, I’m sorry … really.” She was scared, maybe a little terrified. That was good. He loosened his grip. “See, Hacker, it’s an erotic horror story I’m writing. I just need to place myself – and you too – into the moment, feel what my characters feel. It’s my method to get my creative juices flowing. It’s like improvisational theater, just make-believe like a dramatic scene in a play. Psychodrama, the acting coaches call it. Inspire me, okay?”
“Christ , are you out of your …?”
“Anger? Good. That’s good. Talk. Just talk.”
“You’re not going to hurt me?”
“No. Hell, no.”
“Promise. Talk to me. Free associate. It’s easy.”
She attempted a smile, failed miserably. “I’m scared shitless, okay? I can’t tell if you mean to hurt me or not. I’m hoping you don’t, but even so, I’m thinking only some kind of psychopath would do this, so I’m not feeling real comfortable being near you right now. I guess I’m having trouble believing you. Listen, I think I want to stop this now, all right?”
“That’s good. That’s very good. Just a little longer. Go on. Please – – I wanted to address you, but I’m afraid I forgot your name. I’m sorry, really.”
“You’re joking , right? You’ve got a knife at my throat!”
“Please.” Banner’s civility made him come off like the Sir Walter Raleigh of lunatics.
“It’s Mandy. Listen, for real, I’m feeling a little –” She struggled against the blade pressed against her flesh.
“Mandy. Of course. So, Mandy, what’s happening inside right now? Are you feeling scared? A little ill? Are you afraid you may pass out? Tell me everything, will you do that for me, will you, Mandy?” Banner realized he sounded like some fool begging to cop a quick feel, but that was all right. He had to know everything, had to hear everything she wanted to say.
“Listen, I’m getting sick. I’m going to throw up if you don’t let me out of–”
“No, that’s all wrong, Mandy,” he told her. “Vomiting isn’t erotic. Try harder.”
“Cutting my throat isn’t erotic either, you sick fuck! Let me go!”
“More anger. Okay, I can work with that. That’s good. Give me some more …” With his free hand Banner reached to turn the recorder’s speaker closer towards the woman.
“You’re recording this?” She struggled beneath him. “Goddamn it, enough of this! Get off me!”
“That’s great, Mandy. I was expecting genuine fear, maybe some screaming too. But that’s not you, because you’re going for full throttle outrage, aren’t you? Great!”
Mandy’s eyes swam with tears.
“Please … I don’t want to do this. I’m not into this sort of – – Just let me leave, okay?”
Banner seemed confused. “Is this fright, then? The anger, that was just a ruse, a defiance
of some sort? You were trying to trick me, using phony indignation in the hope of unnerving me? I’m just trying to understand the moment, the fear, you see?” Banner tightened the blade beneath her chin drawing a small streak of blood. It trickled near one bared breast and the woman’s eyes widened.
“I don’t know. I don’t know! I can’t think straight! I just want to leave!”
“More! Tell me more!” Banner dug the knife in a little deeper, careful not to sever the tendons of her throat.
“Yes! I’m scared, all right? Is that what you want to hear? I’m angry and I’m scared, and if I could I would kill you right now for doing this to me, kill you with that same fucking knife you have at my throat, you crazy cock sucking maniac! You want to see me pee myself? Put that into your best seller, you bastard! Are you satisfied?”
“Yes,” Banner said. With nothing more to add, he withdrew the blade from the woman’s throat. His eyes never left hers.
Rubbing her neck Mandy saw her hand glistened red, stared at her own blood with no expression as if studying something alien and separate from herself. When she moved to get out of the bed Banner stopped her.
“Don’t go, not yet. I mentioned this was an erotic horror story I’m writing, didn’t I?”
Mandy found strength only to nod.
“Well, then,” he added. “We haven’t really gotten to the erotic part yet, have we?”
She looked at him as if the man were certifiable.
“You expect me to fuck you after all that?”
“It’s my method,” Banner said. “Whatever works, remember?”
“Yeah, well maybe you remember how I said inspiration quickly cools. And mine has.”
Climbing from the bed she pushed Banner from her, but he lay both hands against the woman’s shoulders shoving her back against the pillow. He straddled atop her, removing his pants in awkward stop/starts because she was struggling.
“My inspiration hasn’t cooled. In fact, I think it’s really kicking in. You’re doing fine, Mandy. Just fine. Let’s finish this scene, okay?”
“Get off me, goddammit!”
“If you want to scream, that’s okay. I won’t mind.”
“GET THE FUCK OFF ME!!’
But he did mind, so when she screamed he placed a hand over her mouth. “It’s just for effect. This is how a real killer does it, isn’t it? He shuts his victim up, fucks her, then kills her? Or maybe he kills her first, and then – – ? I’m only guessing, of course.”
“Mmmphhhh!!!” She tried to scream again but couldn’t, then tried biting his hand. This was good.
Banner forced his way inside her, felt the woman grow warm and moist. “Can’t help yourself, can you? This turns you on even while you’re scared half to death, isn’t that right?” He removed his hand from her mouth, looked long into her eyes. “Tell me everything you’re feeling.”
“I’m feeling like saying ‘Fuck you!’” She shrieked. Loud.
“Artistic license, or nothing else to say?”
She was moaning, and beneath him Mandy’s hips undulated as if detached from the woman’s ability to control their motion. Although Banner held his stare firm she turned her head, refusing to look at him. Her breaths came hard.
“Your pussy … it’s wet! Talk to me, dammit! Talk to me!”
“Stop! Stop now!”
She struggled to speak, seeming too unsettled to know what else to do.
“What I’m feeling … is … confused … so confused because … you … you didn’t have to do this … like this. I would have slept with … you … anyway … I wanted to sleep with you … You … didn’t have to … didn’t have to …”
“I had to do it like this! Can’t you see that? I had to!” He slapped her hard across the mouth, but not hard enough to draw blood. She looked at him with complete bewilderment and he slapped her again, harder. “I had to do that too!” This time she bled.
Now Mandy was crying full out, choking on her own tears until her body heaved in spasms. Banner climbed off her, watched the tears well in her eyes and slide darkened with eye shadow in slick tributaries down her cheek. He reached out hoping to hold her, hoping to make her feel better, but she waved her arm at him, pushed him away. He tried again, then again. Eventually he pulled her close, felt her quivering with fear against him. She stopped fighting, sinking her face into his chest.
“It’s all right, Mandy,” he told her. “Really, it’s all right. I never intended to hurt you. Never.” He rubbed a knuckle against her face, catching a wayward tear. Wiping the blood from her mouth he waited until the whimpering stopped. When her shaking subsided she turned her head to him.
“Are you going to let me go?” She seemed too weak to struggle any more.
“In a moment.”
The woman’s next reaction caught him off guard. “You were so interested in me telling you what I was feeling … what in Christ were you feeling?”
Banner had to think. It was a good question.
“I was feeling really strong. Powerful, you know? In control of not only you, but the whole fucking world. The more you resisted, the stronger I felt.”
Mandy hesitated, managed to collect herself. “You’re crazy. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I’m fully aware of that. Artists often sacrifice their own sanity for their craft. But you helped give me inspiration, you actually helped. For a moment there I think I found John.”
The woman’s breaths steadied. “What? – – Who’s John?”
“John Wiley. He’s my serial killer. Hacks up women, then eats them; he even eats their bones. He’s a hack writer too, hence … Hacker. Clever? The character is dark, mysteriously handsome. Your basic sociopathic jerk who gives not a shit for anything except his next rush, the kind of guy every woman seems to fall in love with at least once in her life.”
Mandy managed some composure. “I’ve had my share of jerks.” She rubbed her throat. “Tonight included. Tell your John Wiley I’m getting dressed now.” She climbed from beneath the sheets. Banner placed a hand on her shoulder, but this was not another attempt to restrain her.
“Please. See, I’m putting the knife down, here on the stand. Just stay a while. The night’s drama is over. Honest. Consider it a fool’s manner of doing research. Because that’s all it really was. We can talk for a while, can’t we?” Banner seemed seconds away from adding
‘Come on, will ya, huh? Will ya? Will ya?’ But he didn’t have to. Wrapping silken sheets around her, Mandy sat on the edge of the bed, saying nothing.
“Tell me about this John Wiley,” she finally said. “This guy every woman falls in love with? Why is that, do you think?”
Banner smiled. “You would know that better than I. You tell me.”
“No knife to my throat?” She tried smiling but gave it up.
Mandy’s eyes shut as if she were picturing the man. “Because he’s dangerous. A guy like that, he’s an adrenaline rush, like some wild roller coaster ride. He’s unpredictable and passionate about what he does, makes no excuses for his behavior. That shows power, self- assuredness. The man knows how to get his way, but he isn’t arrogant about his strengths and gives not a shit about his weaknesses. He knows who he is. Women cream their bikini briefs for a guy with that kind of confidence.”
“But he’s also a killer.”
“Hey, Scott Peterson gets love notes in prison. Probably a few interesting tits and ass photos as well. Ted Bundy and The Boston Strangler had no problem picking up young girls either, you know. Serial killers aren’t always wonks like Son of Sam or Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Banner’s excitement grew.
“You understand those types, do you? Men who know their way around women? Men who kill?”
“I’ve met my share of them, at least the former.” She eyed the knife still on the night stand. Banner pretended not to notice. “Maybe even some of the latter …” She leaned closer and whispered “Kiss me …”
“You wanted ‘erotic,’ you asked for inspiration, so let’s do it. Kiss me. Hard.”
“Your lip is still bleeding.”
“I don’t care.”
He kissed her, tasted the cherry wine sweetness of her lips, her tongue warm and moist in his mouth. He felt her pull him close. The woman seemed lost in some swirling maelstrom.
“John … John …”
“You – You called me John.”
“Don’t stop. Please …”
He filled his mouth with her breast, slid himself inside her.
“No … not yet … not yet …”
She clung to him, clawing his back like some enraged animal, but Banner didn’t pull away. He couldn’t even if he had wanted to. Mandy’s arms seemed everywhere.
“Now …” she whispered. “Now!”
Lost in the moment Banner felt the burning rush build inside him.
But there was something else … something important …
The knife on the night stand! He had almost forgotten, almost left himself wide ope–
Mandy sank the blade deep into his back. Banner felt the stabbing pain as the metal crunched into his shoulder bone. Grimacing with sudden agony he felt the bedroom swirl wildly like some maniac carousel careening out of control, but the sensation lasted for only a moment. The woman was laughing while an expanding pool of Banner’s blood soaked his sheets.
“You see? I can be creative too!” Mandy shouted into his face. She still held the knife twisted inside his flesh. Banner could only stare at her. Who would have thought the woman was that strong? She had bested him, and he had been a fool to allow her.
“So? Do you have your inspiration? Have you found John? I believe I have! Like most men, your story’s protagonist has over estimated himself! Hacker, my ass! He’s just another self-serving prick who can’t see past his own ego!” She laughed again. The sound echoed inside Banner’s head. Twisting the knife one last time she whispered into the author’s ear, “Goodbye, John.”
Her laughter was the last thing Mel Banner heard before the room faded to black.
Waking in a cold sweat Banner lay in his bed for a while. His shoulder ached a little with phantom pain, but that was all. His head, now that was another matter. It hurt like a bastard.
It wasn’t quite morning and outside remained dark. He managed to pull himself up and reached for the night light. For a moment he thought maybe he should search for the knife, but that would have been pointless. The woman had gone away, just as she always had. Fortunately the memory of her lingered. He rubbed his forehead. His brain still felt wine soaked.
The recording device lay on his night stand. At least he had gotten something out of the events of the evening. He punched the ‘PLAY’ button.
“‘Understand,’” he heard himself say, “‘this is only for the purpose of research, okay? I have no intention of – – well, of doing any harm. Okay? I’m sorry if this frightens you …’”
Then the woman who called herself Mandy spoke.
“‘What are you …?’”
The voice that came from the recorder did not belong to a woman. It was his own voice, and this time Banner had made no attempt to disguise it as he had often done whenever his creative well had run dry.
His own voice.
His own muse.
[“‘Really, I’m not going to hurt you.’”]
The effect he heard from his recorder was that of a man talking to himself, but that was all right. No matter that the blonde had taken residence only inside his frontal lobe, Mel Banner had taken all the inspiration from the woman that he had required.
No knife. No blood. His brain had provided a little smoke and some mirrors, that was all. But maybe also another best seller? At least the germ of an idea for one?
Hacker was about to come to life, courtesy of that extraordinary muse who came around to visit every now and then. ‘Mandy’ she called herself this time. What had she called herself the last time? Nancy? Fran? Brunhilda?
Did it matter?
[“‘You’re crazy. You know that, right?’”
“‘Yes, I’m fully aware of that.’”]
That much probably was true, but within five minutes it wouldn’t make any difference. He turned on his computer, opened a new file. Mel Banner had a novel to write.
… well, maybe in a minute. All that drinking last night, and he had to pee. Bad.
His head throbbing, Banner made his way to the bathroom. He felt dizzy too, weak. The night’s imbibing had taken its toll. He hoped there were some aspirin left in the cabinet.
Inside the bathroom Banner stopped himself cold. His jaw dropped. Alongside the tub lay his electric carving knife and some Hefty Bags. A crimson smear stained the floor leaving a thick track along the porcelain side of the tub. Banner pulled the shower curtain open.
“Oh shit …”
By Kenneth Goldman