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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Cat Eyes Scream
by D.K. Smith

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Go to first instalment of "Cat Eyes..."

The door was shaking, its doorbell was ringing, and John was swearing as he rushed downstairs to answer it. He grasped the knob, wrenched open the door...

And it seemed that his gaze crashed squarely into a man's upheld police badge. "Do you know a Mr. Bill Fence, Mr. Quire - better known as 'Billy?'" asked the man from behind the badge. "It was noted on his computer that he e-mailed you several times."

John looked from one pair of sunglassed eyes to the other. He stammered. "Uh--uh--Billy?" Neither officer spoke. "Billy--Billy the Orphan?" The officers exchanged knowing glances. "Have--have you found him? I've been trying to contact him for several days - he hadn't told me yet where he lived--"

"He's dead, Mr. Quire," said the officer on the left.

"May we come in?" inquired the officer on the right.

John stepped aside, and the two detectives, in their snappy three-piece suits, entered the house, the second slamming the door shut. The first began walking through various rooms, looking in nearly every direction, while the second cornered John against the wall. "How well did you know Billy?"

"Um--not really all that well, I guess."

"Clear!" shouted the first officer.

"Hey!" John shouted, pushing from the wall. The second officer slammed him back. John sputtered with shock. "Don't move until I say so, son," the second officer advised.

"You don't have the right to search my house!" John exclaimed.

"How old are you?" asked the first officer.


"Then we have the right to do whatever the hell we want, ya hear?" To John's silence, "Tell us everything you know about Billy."

Faced with their pressing gazes, he babbled what little he knew. Billy was a nineteen year old orphan. He was a computer genius that John had met on the Internet. John knew that Billy lived alone someplace nearby, but Billy had never told him where.

"Why were you associating with him?" asked the second officer.

John shrugged. "Someone close to my age, who lived alone, was a computer whiz... I was thrilled that he associated with me." John neglected to mention Billy's neat ability to annoy squares like his Mom and Dad.

"Haven't you forgotten something?" the first officer inquired.

Confused, John shrugged. "No. What?"

The detectives seized his shoulders, one each. "Let's take him in," said the first.

"Yeah, let's," echoed the second.

They almost threw him toward the door. "Hey!" John yelped. Ignoring his cries, they pushed him roughly down his house's walkway, the second detective opening the car door while the first almost kicked him into the seat. In seconds the car engine roared and the two detectives were driving. "Where are you taking me?" John shouted.

"Shaddap," said detective number two.

"Get me outta here, you piece of shit!" John almost screamed. "My little sister's coming home--I gotta be there or my Mom'll kill me--"


John paled. The second detective was holding a gun.

A long moment of silence, and then the two officers burst into laughter. "Look at him! Look at his little acned face! He looks paler than a witch's tit!" The two's laughter redoubled as the car slowed to a stop before a red light.

John grabbed the car door and wrenched it open. He was halfway out when the second officer had him by his shirt, by his shoulder, had him back in the seat.

"Gimme the goddamned cube, Richy," the officer growled as he slammed the car door shut.

From the glove compartment Richy produced a palm-sized, obsidian colored cube. The second officer grabbed it and thrust it before John's face.

John's next memory was of a tall, tall building, rising into the night sky. "Where... where am I?" he mumbled. The detectives were escorting him through a huge parking lot, vacant except for their solitary car. They wordlessly lead him through a large, double-doored entrance, into a vast, empty lobby. An elevator answered immediately to the press of a button.

When the elevator had reached its destination, the two men pushed him from it, into an immense, darkly lit office. They remained in the elevator as the doors closed. Several yards from him was the largest desk he had ever seen.

Behind the desk was an elderly, brooding man, whose withered white hair made way for an emerging pink scalp. His countenance, eyes hidden under harsh, thick eyebrows and a furled brow, seemed vaguely reminiscent of gnarled tree branches being consumed by rot.

"Do you know my daughter?" the man asked in a gravelly voice.

Frantically, John tried to think of any girlfriends whose fathers he had slighted.

"Well?" The man repeated.

"I'm... I don't know." The man nodded as John fidgeted. Finally, "I'll be going now," John said.

Did the man's lips turn upward ever so slightly? "Where?"

"None of your business." John turned toward the door.

And just as suddenly turned back. The office light was very dim, and from the sole, shadowy light of the desk lamp, the man's face seemed like glass shards. "Would you like to visit my daughter?" the old man asked. "You do want to see my daughter."

"Of course. Anything you say."

"You'll stay for dinner with her."

"Of course."

The man nodded curtly. Abruptly he swivelled his chair so that its back faced John.

John slowly returned to the elevator. It opened promptly, and the two men took him by the shoulders into its narrow confines. As they descended, John said, "I don't understand. I did everything he said."

One of the men grinned. "Just couldn't help yourself, right?"

"Yeah." John looked at him. "How did you, how did you--?"

The man shook his head. "Kid, you don't want to know."

They took him to a mansion in the ritzy part of town.

After depositing him at the front entrance, the two men returned to their car, to drive from the circular driveway and recede through the double gates. Though alone, John felt no urge to flee, to jump the gates and run home to his little sister. He had to meet the old man's daughter and stay for dinner.

He knocked.

Receiving no response, he tried the door and found it open. He entered a very large, luxuriously decorated room. The lush carpet was colored crimson, and the spacious walls were ornamented by strategically placed paintings. Dominating the scene was a large, winding staircase. Above it there was a painting which caught John's eyes.

The portrait seemed to beckon him: a young, adolescent woman, with long blond hair and deep, green eyes. She looked darkly to the foreground with a solemn, introverted gaze, though in the background, there resided elements bright and gay. He felt as though the figure was beseeching him to draw near and speak -

"Who the hell are you?"

He looked aside sharply and did a double take. A young woman stood against the staircase's balustrade, having emerged from the hallway beside it. "Yes, the painting's of me," the woman snapped.

"Who the hell are you and what are you doing in here?"

The woman before him had obviously been the painting's model. She was, however, two or three years older now, and she was not quite as beautiful. Her face was pale, and darkness encircled her eyes. Her unkept hair was knotty, and she was adorned in baggy clothes so wrinkled seemingly she had not changed them for weeks.

"Hi, I'm. . .John."

"Like I give a fuck. Get OUT!"

He took a backward step. "I--I think your Dad sent me."

She inspected him. He endured her spiteful, reproachful gaze, which ended when she removed a cigarette from her breast pocket. Without a word she turned, and stomped away. "Hey, wait!" John dashed up the stairs after her.

Moving uncertainly through a dark hallway, he saw an open door, through which he found her. She was seated in a terribly messy room, of which the most remarkable feature were several computer monitors flickering on a large desk. The girl was taking a lighter from beside a keyboard. "What do you want now?" she asked irritably.

"Um... your dad said I was supposed to meet you."

She slammed down the lighter, and took a deep drag of her cigarette. "Are you like me?"

When he did not answer, she opened a desk drawer, and from it removed a whiskey tumbler and a bottle of liquor. Filling the glass, she offered it to him. His stomach turned, and when he did not accept, she downed the booze herself in one shot.

"Shit," said John, as she blithely lifted the cigarette and took another long drag. Once more she poured a glass and offered it.

Tentatively he took the drink. "Drink it," she said. "It's the best way to shake it off."

"Shake what?" he asked.

"You knew Billy, didn't you?"

His response was slow. "No, not very well. How did he die?"

"How did he die? How did he die?" She burst into a peal of laughter. "The same way we both will--in the claws of that damned bitch!" she screamed almost deliriously.

"What bitch?"

The woman grabbed John's whiskey, rose and stumbled to a nightstand beside a filthy, rumpled bed. John heard someone shout: "Hey, Sadie! Sorry I'm late. Had a call--" Into the room burst a uniformed police officer. His voice died when he spotted John. "Who are you?" the cop asked.

"My dad sent him," came Sadie's voice, now muffled from the bedsheets.

The officer looked over John's shoulder. "How ya doing, Sade?" he asked. "I brought what you wanted." From a paper bag under his arm, the officer removed a liquor bottle.

John backed to the door. "You're bringing her booze?"

The officer studied him. He was a sandy blond, with blue eyes and freckled cheeks--he looked to be in his early twenties. John noticed two more bottles in the bag. "What do you think you're doing, giving that stuff to her?" John exclaimed. "You're a cop!"

"Look, I don't give a flying fuck what you think, okay?" snapped the officer. "As long as I'm here to make sure she can handle it, it's none of your fucking business!" The officer pushed John from the room and slammed the door in his face.

John backed slowly from the door. He was considering what to do next when he heard, "You have to forgive them."

He turned. Before him was an old lady, dressed in plain if not inexpensive clothes. She had blue eyes, and ruddied cheeks with soft wrinkles which just seemed to scream 'grandmother'. "I am Elsa, Sadie's grandmother. And you?"

Though apparently serene, taunt lines in her face seemed to belie the outward calm. "John." He pointed to the door. "Do you know--"

Elsa nodded calmly. "It's the only way."

A moment of silence, then John said, "Fuck this. I'm getting out of here." He brushed past the woman, and started pounding down the stairs. "Alex said you were to stay for dinner!" Elsa called after him.

"Screw him," John snapped as he headed for the door. His head was beginning to ache.

"It's not a good idea to disobey what Alex says," the grandmother warned, hesitantly following him.

John whirled. "Look, I am sick and tired of all you people telling me what to do! In one year, in one year I will eighteen, and then, you all can just kiss my ass! But it doesn't matter anyway. You're not my parent. And those two stupid detectives who came to my house--I don't think they're really cops. So since there seems to be a lack of authority around here, I am leaving." John turned and opened the door.

He screamed as his head seemed to explode. He swore fire was coming out of his mouth, he swore his skull was melting--and through the fire he saw her. He saw the cat-eyed lady, leering at him, with those eyes. They burned green, with slitted cat's pupils, and they were hypnotizing him, controlling him, possessing him like a demon. He stumbled from the threshold, and the pain ceased.

From the stairwell, Elsa smiled sadly. "See what I mean?"

Gasping, "Fuck you," John swore.

He threw himself over the threshold. He screamed, he screamed.

He screamed.

John slowly opened his eyes.

He was lying on a bed in a dark room. The covers stank, as if they had never been washed. From somewhere he heard a regular sound of breathing, soft, sussurating, even comforting.

Sitting, he squeezed shut his eyes, as even in darkness he felt dizzy. Opening them once more, he dimly saw the desk and the monitors.

"So wonderboy wakes up, huh?"

He turned to see the police officer sprawled in a nearby chair. Despite the darkness, he was for some reason wearing thick sunglasses. His badge glinted softly in the dim light. "I guess they got you, too," he said.

"Got me how?" John asked.

The officer sighed. Then slowly, as if his limbs were leaden, he reached to the desk and poured liquor into a whisky tumbler.

"Drink this." John did not move. "Go on, go on!" the officer said, voice cracking. "Take it!"

John took the glass. Awkwardly raising it to his lips, he swallowed. The liquid burned like acid. He coughed. "The whole thing," the officer insisted. "All at once. Go on." John slammed the liquor down his throat.

When he had opened his eyes again, "What the..." The ceiling light was on and merrily glowing. The monitors were a-glow, and so were the desk lamps. "Who turned on all the lights?" John asked plaintively.

The officer shook his head. "They were already on." John gaped. "It makes everything seem dark," the officer offered sadly. "They obviously haven't worked all the bugs out yet." He took the glass from John and refilled it. "Drink."

John took the glass and hurled it back. Suddenly his headache stopped, and now the room seemed too bright, and he understood the officer's need for glasses. John's focus and vision seemed sharper and clearer. "Um," he licked his lips, "I've never drunk before, but... this isn't what I expected."

"It shouldn't have been," the Officer said. "It's an anomaly specific to what they've done to both you and Sadie." The Officer looked past John, to where Sadie was sleeping on the bed. "Call me Frankie."

John squinted at the police officer, at his gun, his handcuffs--even his badge. "I'm not lying to you," the officer said, looking just like the cops who came to lecture at John's school. "Right now you need to be drinking."

Suddenly, probably in reaction to his own words, the cop burst into violent laughter. He could not seem to stop himself, either. John listened silently, as the cop's laughter became so intense he could not distinguish whether the cop was laughing or crying.

When his tears finally began to fade, the Officer leaned forward, and cupped Sadie's cheek with a tenderness John had never before seen expressed. "We were going to get married," he said. "We were going to have kids." With loving strokes he removed strands of hair from Sadie's face. "But her father was violently against it. Said he didn't want his Harvard bound princess eloping with a blue-collar, high-school graduate who just wanted to be a cop."

"How did he stop you?" John asked.

Frankie leaned into his chair. "You can do a lot when you have a billion-zillion dollars and a huge corporation to back you." He paused, then, "Have you ever heard of NIRVO?"

John considered the conversation's sudden shift. "NIRVO? I read about it. It was a prototype computer specially designed to create a new sort of virtual reality. Yeah... it was based on a new principle, internal virtual reality. Conventional VR methods create an external illusion of reality, by manipulating the senses - eyes and ears, and so on. With NIRVO they hook up wires directly into the brain, and stimulate the subject's perception of the reality from the inside out: internal VR, so to speak."

The officer rose. Walking to the desk, he opened a drawer. "Could you imagine the potential of that," he asked, "If they could do the same thing, but without the wires?" John shrugged. "They've done that with this." From the drawer he produced a black, obsidian cube. "Her father funded the research which created this. And he even developed a special little purpose for it all on his own."

From the drawer the officer removed a brochure and tossed it to John, before wandering across the room to lean by the door, and fold his arms. "Go on, read it."

The world "SAMPLE" was stamped liberally on the pamphlet. Its beautifully glossed cover showed a happy, smiling family, the mother and father's arms draped proudly over two teen-aged children. "Have A Wonderful Family!" large, yellow letters proclaimed. John flipped through the pages.

   If you're a parent, you know how difficult it is to raise an adolescent in today's society. With the rising teen suicide rate, how can you protect your loved one from undesirable influences? Asterisk Industries is pleased to announce a perfect solution."

Below was a heading quoted from the Bible:

   "'Thou shalt always obey thy father and mother.'"

"Parents have the legal right to do as they wish with their children (barring physical abuse), as long as their child is under eighteen. So not only is our procedure perfectly harmless, but it's legal, too!"

John turned the page, to a heading marked "Give Your Teenager the Gift of a Happy Mind." Beside it was a picture of a grinning adolescent, who seemed just a little too happy. The caption was: "Your child will never disobey you again."

"What the fuck is this?" John asked slowly. Suddenly he saw another picture on the page, that of a black, obsidian cube. "Oh, shit... is that why I did everything that old man said--"

Frankie smirked. "Beginning to figure it out, huh?"

A sudden shocking crash at the door made John blanch. Frankie whirled but he never had a chance to remove his gun. Now he lay on the floor, bleeding from where a pistol butt had struck him. Standing over him were the two men who had once identified themselves as detectives. One was holding a gun. The other was grinning. "Hiya, Johnny."

Behind the two men was Elsa, her face drawn and hallowed. "Don't hurt her, please," she begged. John looked from the men to Sadie, who was still unconscious on the bed. "Can't you see she's sick?"

Ignoring the grandmother's pleas, one of the men approached Sadie while the other remained in the center of the room. "That damned cop lovebird of her's," the stationary one drawled, probably Richy. "Some fucking Prince Valiant he is--feeding her all that booze." The second man peeled back one of Sadie's eyelids. "Shit. She's so spaced out it will take hours to get NIRVO in sync again. That computer's hardly worth a damn when she's drunk. The old man will kill us..." John grabbed the half-empty liquor bottle and put quickly it to his lips.

"...We'll just have to take our lumps and be done with it." The man turned. "Hey, put that down!"

With a shuddering gasp John slammed the bottle onto the desk. It was empty.

"What are you, some sort of fucking hero?" Richy asked. "Fuck you--lie down on the bed beside the girl."

John grit his teeth. "And do what?" he asked.

The two men looked at each other. They shared another smile. "Gee, I think Johnny's rebelling," Richy purred.

"Yeah," the other laughed. "It's all them booze and drugs. Kids these days." Grinning, Richy raised the gun and aimed it in John's face. "Maybe the old-fashioned method will work."

John remained still. Suddenly all laughter was gone. "You think I won't shoot you?" Richy asked. "You're supposed to end up dead anyway. The ol' man thinks you might know too much."

"Yeah," the other sniggered. "About some of NIRVO'S 'temporary malfunctions.'"

"He's in love with the damned thing. Anyway, he just told us to off both you and that cop, so--" Richy turned, aimed at Frankie's face, and--

The two violent bangs seemed to tear apart the small room.

The gun dropped from Richy's hand. Limp and silent like a rag doll, he fell.

"Holy shit!" the other man screamed.

Elsa stood in the doorway, Frankie's gun in her hands. "You bitch!" the man screamed. The man lunged at her. John tackled him and the two crashed against the wall. John buried his fist in the guy's stomach, then cracked his knuckles into the man's face. The other drew a switchblade from his pocket.

He laid a slash across John's cheek, another across his chest. John screamed, stumbled back, grabbed a liquor bottle from the desk and shattered it over the man's head.

The man stumbled dizzily. He laughed.

He hit the ground. He did not move again.

John fell against the desk, struck the floor. Elsa slowly lowered the nine millimeter. John watched, as she slowly knelt, and with trembling hands replaced the gun in Frankie's holster. Then with strength it seemed impossible she would have, she grasped Frankie under his armpits and heaved him to the desk beside John. "I'll be back with some rags," she said tremulously. Before leaving, she knelt by the two prone bodies, and felt their necks.

A minute or two later, she returned with some damp rags. She seemed strangely calm, as if from shock. Kneeling beside them, she placed a damp rag carefully against Frank's head, who moaned as he slowly regained consciousness. "Are they alive?" John asked.

"They're both dead."

With disbelief, John stared at the two sprawled bodies. "They're dead? I. . .I killed a man?"

She nodded. From under the blankets they heard Sadie groan.

The next John knew, Elsa had removed Sadie from the bed too. She tried to cover Sadie's eyes, but Sadie saw the bodies, and screamed hysterically. Moments passed as Elsa clutched Sadie's head to her bosom, whispering softly. Finally, Sadie fell into place beside John, her face pale, tears still leaking from the eyes. John was unsure how the old woman possessed such strength. Yet now she silently tended to each of them, as they lay dazed, weak as babes. John might have found her eerily beautiful if he were not in such pain.

"He was gonna kill us," Frank lisped. "Her father--he was gonna kill me. Me. He was gonna kill me." Elsa shushed him, as Sadie withdrew a liquor bottle from the paper bag. "We can't keep letting this go on," he continued. "We've got to stop him." He paused. "We gotta kill him ourselves," he said.

Both women stared at him. "Well, look at him." Frank said, pointing to John. "He hadn't even done anything, and, and..."

"Is that why you're here, John?" Sadie asked. "So someone could get killed?" She was nursing a liquor bottle, paradoxically gaining lucidity with each swallow.

"No," John stammered, confused.

"We've got to find him," Frankie swore. Suddenly he screamed, "Damn it, we got to kill him!"

Elsa again calmly quieted him, putting a hand on his knee. A long, silent moment; "Okay," Sadie said finally. "I'm for it." Taking another long drink, "I don't care if I have to shoot the son of a bitch myself."

The lines in Elsa's face were suddenly tighter. "You don't mean that," she whispered.

"Yes I do!" Sadie cried. "He's going to control everyone. The minds of every teenager. He's gonna control the entire world, 'cause that's the type of fuck my Dad is! All because he couldn't have his little girl all to himself--" She threw the bottle, it shattered and doused the corpses below. "He had to have his little girl all to himself forever! Why do you think that fucking cat-eyed bitch is in my image? I hate him!"

Elsa said only, "Help me get them to the bathroom."

As they stumbled down the hallway, Sadie was clutching the last liquor bottle, babbling, "Have you seen her, John? Maybe you think I'm insane, but have you seen the lady with green eyes? She looks almost exactly like me. The lab technicians just laugh at me when I tell them about her. . .they say NIRVO couldn't be the cause. . .but have you seen the green-eyed lady, John? Please tell me you've seen her. . ."

"Yeah," said John, surprised at the force of his answer. "I've seen her." A pause. "I hate her."

"Oh, thank you..."

An air of unreality settled over John as they entered the bathroom. They applied water to their wounds, no one speaking a word. He wondered if this were some elaborate dream, some terrible hoax, caused by that woman with green cat's eyes--

"Are you coming?" Frankie asked.

After a moment John realized the question was directed to him. "Who, me?" he stammered.


"To... go kill someone I don't even know? You two are really serious about this? Sadie?" he turned. She was in a corner, mumbling. "Sadie?"

"You don't understand," Sadie whispered. "Once you gaze upon the green-eyed lady, you live with her for life. You can fight her. You can hurt her. You can even almost kill her. But you can never free yourself of her. She's here," Sadie lifted the by now almost empty liquor bottle, "For the rest of your life." John watched the brown liquid trickle down the bottle neck.

"We gotta fight," Frankie said. "We gotta--"

"If none of this was real, we wouldn't know it, would we?" John asked suddenly. "NIRVO is flawless virtual reality. If someone's found a way to use it without all the wires then... this might not be real."

Sadie swallowed. "You idiot, don't you get it by now? Drinking screws up NIRVO. It has to compensate for the spiraling brain chemistry, and shit, it does a real bad job of it. You end up finally having a smidgeon of independent lucidity. If I wasn't drinking, I'd be totally insane." She hiccuped.

John's head was spinning. "How exactly does NIRVO exist inside the brain? What is its power source? Is there some sort of chip implanted on me somewhere?"

Sadie shook her head sadly. "I don't know--I've tried to find out but by god I don't know!"

"We're wasting time," Frank said tersely.

"Are you insane!" John almost screamed. "It's wrong. Can't you guys see? None of this is real, this is obviously some sort of delusion! I couldn't have killed a man! I just couldn't, couldn't--" John pounded the sink, looked up to his bloodied reflection in the mirror. Without thinking, he slammed his fist into the glass. His reflection shattered.

Sadie burst into laughter. "We're all so sane," she started singing. "We're all so saaannne," she lifted the bottle, just to find it empty.

"I can't believe it," John mumbled. "Those two really were going to kill us."

"All of you, please, be quiet," Elsa pleaded. She took a towel, wrapped it round John's wrist. "None of your cuts are that deep," she said, trying desperately to sound as if everything were normal. "You'll be fine--"

"Shut up!" Frank roared at Sadie's caterwauling. "I'm sane! I'm fucking sane, ya hear! I haven't been exposed to that damned cube!"

"Oh!" Sadie raised her hands to her hair, and flipped the long strands to the ceiling in a crazy, ecstatic gesture. "But Frankie darling, how do I know you're real?" She giggled.

"Of course I'm real!" Frank said almost frantically.

"We're all real," Elsa said firmly. "We'll hide the bodies--no one will be looking for them, they're criminals--"

"That's bullshit!" Frank snapped. "I'm a cop--I know what men above the law can do! He'll send more, Elsa, don't you see, he'll send more--he'll send hordes!" John watched the sweat beading on Frank's brow. "I'll never be able to sleep again. Every, step, every--every little fucking noise will be someone coming to kill me don't you understand! I DON'T WANT TO DIE! The eighty year old fuck is trying to kill me and I DON'T WANT TO DIE--because, because--I--I gotta protect Sadie, that's why..."

"This isn't happening," John said.

"There's got to be another way," Elsa stated firmly.

"THERE ISN'T!" Frank screamed. "Oh, fuck, why was I so stupid! I had my back to that door--they could have killed me, they almost had me, I would have been powerless--I'm such a FUCK!"

"Shut up!" Sadie snapped.

In the ensuing silence, Sadie's eyes glimmered. Almost, John realized, as he clutched his bloodied fist, she could have been outrageously beautiful, if not so trampled and pale. "I have drunk this entire damned bottle," she declared. "And before I leave, I'll drink another. And when I kill my father, I will be completely, cold, fucking, sane."

No one spoke. Elsa's face was so taut now John could just see the bones underneath; her lips were trembling and her eyes were wide. Having everyone's attention affixed so firmly on her, Sadie took this moment to smile brilliantly. She tossed her hair, threw the bottle into the wastepaper basket, and outstretched her hand to Frank.

Frank removed his gun, popped the clip and briefly inspected it. Bullets gleamed in the black magazine. Reinserting the clip with a snap, silently he offered his palm to Sadie. She ignored it and took his gun instead. "Daddy usually works alone at night at the office," she said.

Elsa burst into sobs, all trace of control leaving her. As if an afterthought Sadie laid her hand briefly upon Elsa's shoulder, then left without further word.

Frank said, "If you decide to come, here's the address." He handed John a card. Then they were both gone.

Elsa stooped over the sink basin. "Could you please give me a minute?" she asked hoarsely.

Entering the dim hallway, John listened to the bathroom door close behind him. He realized suddenly that the light was decreasing again, for no apparent reason. He approached the stairwell, and stared through the windows in the mansion's front door, and watched as a police cruiser passed the mansion's gates and vanished. And he watched as the light passing through those windows slowly dwindled to became black.

"Why's it getting so dark? Elsa?" he called. Shivering, he turned. Oddly, the business card Frankie had given him seemed to glow in the light. He held it upward.

On it was a picture of a tall, skyscraper tower, fronted by a vast parking lot. "Asterisk Industries" was written in flowing cursive beside the picture. "Dedicated to Caring." The skyscraper burned as if it were alive.

"It's that building," he said. "It's that fucking building." Looking upward dizzily, he saw the portrait above the stairs. Floating in the pitch black darkness, the painting's green eyes glowed.

"Elsa!" he screamed.

Vaguely he heard the sound of the bathroom door opening; moments later he felt a touch on his hand. "I'm right here," she said.

Without warning he seized her and hugged her like she was his mother. "The woman, that monster's gonna get me," he whispered. "The monster's gonna get me."

"It's all right," Elsa soothed. "We're the only ones here."

"Are the lights on?" John asked, clutching her even tighter. "I'm scared of the dark. . .I'm going blind."

"All the lights are on," Elsa assured him. "It's that damned NIRVO--" he heard the bitterness.

"Why are they doing this to me," John cried. "I'm just a boy--I'm a good boy."

"It's not your fault," she said anxiously, "The darkness is just temporary. At least that's what Alex always says. That's Sadie's father--he always had to control things. Everything. And no one ever really tried to stop him from controlling his daughter except his daughter. When she said she was going to marry Frankie, he used that damned thing on her. And no one dared stop him. Not even me." A moment of silence, "Here, let me take you to the kitchen... there's a mini-bar there for the adults, let me get you a Jack Daniels--"

"We gotta stop them, Elsa."

He was answered by silence. He upheld the business card. "I've seen this place before," he said. "It was in this building that Billy died. You see, he told me about this secret website..."

John sat at Sadie's desk, surrounded by the several glowing monitors. As the modem made its noises of frying bacon, he lifted the bottle of Jack Daniels and drank it like water.

"Are you sure this will work?" Elsa asked tentatively.

"No." The web browser appeared. Touching the keyboard, he began typing. "Now, I just access my website, then go to where my POP for my mail is... I should still have Billy's letter..."

After several moments: "All right. This is the letter he sent me. And here's the link." He clicked. "I just hope to god they haven't changed it--"

On the screens appeared an image of a tremendous cylindrical skyscraper. "They didn't." The tower windows were lit with a powerful flush of bright light, as if despite the background night sky, daylight burned in the building. "It's just the same as when Billy and I first found it. Just the same."

He clicked on the building's entrance. Past double doors were floor tiles which stretched through darkness. The lobby was long, and huge, as if a deserted mall. Here and there were faceless statues. There and here was an unmanned desk. There was the sign on the wall: 'Vertigo.'

"I've been here before," John said. He chuckled. "They must have screwed with this site, man. Subliminal messages in the pixels or something. Or maybe it really does download a virus, hell, I don't know. But obviously they traced it back to me, though. That's probably why those two guys really started knocking at my door."

"Sadie found this site too, through Billy," Elsa said quietly. "Her mother was here at the time... she said Sadie nearly went crazy. Crazier than she already was."

"Yeah." He raised his hand to wipe his brow. He froze. "Um... Elsa..."

On the monitor, an exact replica of his hand had appeared. He closed and opened his hand, and the same occurred on the screen. "Oh, fuck," he chuckled, half-hysterically. "They've really fucking done it. There is no reality anymore, Elsa. There's no line between the two--Elsa, I'm IN the fucking computer!"

"Calm down," Elsa whispered. "You're right here." She clamped her hands his shoulders. "I'm right here. Right behind you. This is what's real, this is what's real."

He was silent for several moments, breathing hard. "All right," he said finally. "I'm here." Elsa squeezed his shoulders again. John reached to the bottle, which was set aside the brochure and the cube Frankie had placed there. He put it to his lips.

Through the computer speakers he suddenly heard, "John?"

He sharply turned his head. On the right monitor he saw Frank and Sadie. "What the--"

"Sadie? Sadie, do you hear me?" Elsa called.

"John, what are you doing here?" the Sadie on the monitor asked.

"Here?" John said crazily. "I'm not here."

"Sure you are. You're standing right here--"

"Who are you talking to?" Frank asked.

"John. He's standing right--"

"It's the connection," Elsa said. "This website must be a virtual depiction of the actual building, Alex's actual corporate headquarters. Since Frank and Sadie have just entered it, for some reason it's represented on the website. And since you and Sadie are connected through NIRVO, it must be creating a virtual image of you in her mind. It's a virtual reality bond, so to speak." Elsa put her hand to her cheek. "You know, this has incredible potential--"

"But that building really exists," John insisted groggily. I've been there, physically, when those two guys dragged me--"

"It exists virtually, too. Sadie's physically there, you're virtually there."

"C'mon," the Frank on the monitor said.

"Follow them," said Elsa. "Don't let her shoot anyone."

"Yeah, right." Grabbing the mouse, he followed them to the elevator. He stood behind them, as the elevator doors opened, and entered with them. Strange that he did not remember the elevator from the last time he had visited the site--

As the elevator rose, Sadie said, "Can't you see him? John's standing right there!"

"Maybe you'd better give me back the gun," said Frank.

"No! I'm gonna shoot him!"

Frank grimaced. "Yes, I know but... on the ride over... look, maybe this isn't such a good idea." Frank hit the elevator's STOP button.

A momentary silence, then, "Fuck you, Frankie." Sadie slapped his hand away and viciously jabbed a button. "You piece of shit, now you're getting cold feet? NOW? You fuck!"

"Give me the gun, Sadie, this is wrong, I, I don't know what I was thinking--just give me the gun."

"Back!" Sadie screamed, raising the weapon, aiming at Frank's chest.

His arms half raised, "Sadie."

Tears were in Sadie's eyes. "I gotta stop this. I can't take it anymore. I'm just gonna stop this."

"Say something!" Elsa hissed.

"Uh--Sadie, give me the gun," John said. Then he realized he was not there. He squeezed shut his eyelids, "Shit!"

Sadie looked toward him. With an eye toward Frank, she stepped close to the monitor and handed him the gun.

John opened his eyes. Looking from the screen to his hand, he found himself clutching a heavy nine-millimeter pistol, its grip warm and sweaty from Sadie's hand.


"It's okay, John. I think she's really putting the gun on the ground," Elsa said.

"No, no, it's in my hand..."

"You're not holding anything."

John grabbed the liquor bottle. Staring at his hand, he guzzled, and swallowed, and swallowed. Slowly, the perception of the black handgun's heavy, textured grip started fading...

Frankie approached Sadie and took her by the shoulders. "Sadie, I know you're going through torture but... I was just mad before, I, I wasn't thinking straight. Let's just talk to him, okay? There's no need to kill anyone."

"Fuck you," Sadie said again. "John's got it now. John knows what the green-eyed bitch is like. He'll use it. Won't you, John--John? Frankie, he's fading!" she screamed.

John wrenched the bottle from his mouth. On the monitor Sadie was writhing in Frank's grasp, "He's fading, he's fading!"

"I'm right here!" John shouted. "I'm not--I'm not going nowhere."

Somewhat mollified, Sadie stopped screaming, though she still struggled in Frank's grasp. The elevator pinged and the doors opened. All three looked past the sliding doors.

In a circle of light streaming from a pole several feet away, stood an elderly man. He was before an easel and he had paintbrushes and a palette in his hands; John recognized him as the man who had sent him to Sadie. "Is that him?" he asked Elsa. "Her father?"

"That's him," she said.

On the canvas was a picture of the green-eyed lady. Sadie also saw the painting; struggling free of Frank, she approached her father slowly. He was humming to himself, paintbrush flicking over the countenance of the lady with green cat eyes. He had her in a pose loving and familiar, as if the cat-eyed lady knew him and he her; they were easy and happy, like lovers, like father and daughter.

The humming ceased when the old man realized who stood beside him. Slowly, he turned. Once again John was struck by the similarity between the cat-eyed lady and Sadie, however there was a marked difference between them. One was sinister. The other was desperate.

"Ah, Sadie," said her father with a flourish. "Meet the twin you never had."

Sadie stared at the portrait. "That's... that's her. But... all those times... I thought you were painting me." She raised her glance, stared at him with gimlet-eyes.

Her father hesitated, then, "That's how it began, yes."

Frank stepped forward. "You tried to kill me today."

"Yes," replied the old man. "You and that young John fellow. My reasons for killing you are obvious, but killing John was an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if someone died while connected to NIRVO."

"You can't to that," Frank said. "You can't just experiment with people."

"I thought he might become virtual," the old man mused. "He'd end up existing on a nonphysical plane--" His speech was abruptly interrupted when Sadie grabbed his painting. "What are you doing?" he cried with horror. Sadie raised the canvas, and with a cry, broke it over her knee. Her father, palette and brush flying to the ground, seized her wrists and forced her against the wall. Frank intervened by seizing both of them, attempting to separate them, and Sadie was screaming, her father was shouting--

A flash of bright light; silence befell the scene. Standing in the room's center glowed the cat-eyed lady.

Her eyes were like flames, and hypnotizing like a snake's. Yet her entire image lit the room, as if electric light seemed to fizzle round her. The old man left his daughter's side, and raised his arms before the image. "You came!" he shouted joyfully. "Bless you, you came! My daughter--my true daughter!"

"He's nuts," Frankie said, bemused that the struggling had suddenly ceased. "There's no one there."

Sadie was pressed against Frankie, cowering. "How can he say that?" she whimpered. "I'm his daughter. Me. Me."

The holographic image passed the old man, to cast her eyes over the three before her. She bristled like a dragon at the sight of Sadie. "Who's she?" she asked, voice like the hiss of fire. "Who comes into my domain? This is my place, mine! This is where he loves me! Not you!" She paused, and straightened. "Unless you've come to be punished. That's what I do--I punish those who do not obey him!"

"No!" the old man cried. "She's done nothing wrong!"

The cat-eyed lady cast her eyes toward John. "What about him?"

For the first time, the old man looked in John's direction. "I know him," the cat-eyed lady said. "He's the only one who ever truly got away."

"It's John," the old man said

"Is he mine? Do I get to punish him? Is that what you will, Father?" She took a forward step, obstructing the old man's image. "He tried to disobey an adult, earlier. Perhaps," she cocked her head, "He should come with me to Hell."

Suddenly John was aiming his virtual gun at her. She laughed. "You dare to threaten NIRVO? You dare to threaten me? Oh, you surely deserve punishment now."

She fixed her eyes on him. Suddenly John was helpless. And he smelled smoke.

"John?" Elsa was shaking him. "John!"

He felt flame.

"John, get me in there," Elsa was saying, "get me in there!"

With a scream Sadie threw herself across the room at the cat-eyed lady. The lady was surprised, and John fell to his knees when her attention was taken from him. Sadie crashed harmlessly through the cat-eyed lady's image to the floor. "He is not your father!" Sadie screamed. "He's mine! He's mine! DAMN you!"

John raised the gun. He fired.

The lady raised her eyes to him as her body was perforated by bullets which did her no harm. He fired until he only heard clicks.

A stunned silence overtook the room. It was broken only by Frank as he ran to Sadie's side, knelt beside her and propped her into a sitting position. Sadie screamed.

Then John saw. Her father was strewn upon the ground, hand outstretched, mouth open. Blood was dribbling out of his mouth. His body was riddled by bullets.

"You killed him," Sadie said. "You, you killed him. How, how could you..."

John was trembling. "It wasn't a real gun," he said. "It couldn't be a real gun... could it... no, it couldn't..."

"You killed him."

"I, I--"

"You killed him!" At once Sadie rushed to her father's side. "You shot him!" she raged, "How could you! How could you!" Whirling to the cat-eyed lady, "Punish him!" she screamed.

The wildcat green eyes flared.

"I'm going to die," John realized.

"I'm gonna die... "

"It wasn't my fault."

John sat on the filthy, rumpled bed. On the desk the monitors still flickered. Yet the air was bright. Outside the mansion it was morning. The long night had passed and was done.

"It wasn't my fault," he said for the thousandth time. "It wasn't my fault."

Elsa entered the room. She carried a tray laden modestly with some food, which she laid beside him on the bed. When he did not look upward, she put her hand on his shoulder. "They'll find her," she said. "They'll find her sooner or later."

"Yeah." Somehow, he was not so sure. Sadie had looked crazed, she had looked like a vampire in those final moments, like a demon, or a creature possessed.

Outside a bird was singing. John tried to guess which type, but could not. It sounded good. It made him sad, though. It made him strangely and inexplicably sad in the purest sense of the word. He could not understand the feeling. It was inexplicable.

To Elsa, "You saved my life," he said with difficulty.

Elsa smiled. "Frankie had said that obsidian cube only worked for adolescents, but I couldn't just stand by..."

With everyone else helpless, Elsa had taken action. She had activated the obsidian cube and looked into it, and through it had somehow linked herself into the same virtual reality with John. She had imposed herself between John and that green-eyed woman, and with a simple, no nonsense gesture, Elsa had slapped her.

The cat-eyed lady had been shocked, stunned, surprised. She remained so as Elsa slapped her again, then again. Until finally the cat-eyed lady burst into tears. She ran to the prone body of her creator, to clutch helplessly at it and sob. And the two had stayed there, crying over the loss of their creator...

"Only someone like you coulda have done it," John said. "Someone with enough authority, someone who was... old enough to show that bitch she wasn't god. Shit, Elsa." John shook his head. "What do I do now?"

The cat-eyed lady disposed of, Elsa had turned to John. She had helped him to his shaky virtual feet, while Frankie inspected the body of Sadie's father. "He's dead, Sadie," he said. "I'm going to call an ambulance... he's had a heart attack."

"No," Sadie moaned. "John shot him."

"John's not here, Sadie," Frankie said patiently. "And there are no bullet holes that I can see. Oh, shit--I have to get my gun."

"That's not right!" Sadie screamed. "Ask her--" jabbing a finger to the cat-eyed lady beside her, "Ask her!"

"There's no one there," Frank said, approaching the open elevator.

"Ask her!"

"Who? Who is she?" Frank took his gun from the floor. He popped the magazine.

"My--my sister. She's my sister, Frankie! Ask her!"

Frank turned, revealing a gun clip full of glittering bullets. "There's no one there," he said.

"Alex discovered the key principle about NIRVO," Elsa said. "That it didn't create a "virtual" reality... It created an "actual" reality. That cat-eyed woman is as real as you or me, she's alive. She's Sadie's computational facsimile--her alter-ego--she is Sadie with all her rage and anger. She was the virtual daughter who lived in a virtual world in which she had everything she wanted, including," Elsa smiled sadly, "An actual father who worshiped her more than his actual daughter."

Frank had been escorting Sadie through the parking lot. Lacking a little in sensitivity, he had even been smiling. "The old fuck's gone," he said, squeezing her arm. "He's gone! There's nothing between us--" Suddenly she had broken his grasp and run into the midnight streets.

She had not been found since.

"Do you think it really was a heart attack?" John asked.

Elsa was slow in responding. "Of course," she said finally. "Of course, it was just a heart attack. After all, he was old. Old like me."

"They're both gone," John said. "The website's gone, the NIRVO mainframe in the building's been turned off. I can think again, thank god. But Sadie's nowhere to be found. And I betcha that somehow the cat-eyed woman is out there with her. Two counterparts, computer and physical. Where do you think they're going? What do you think they'll do?"

Elsa squeezed John's shoulder. "I don't know." John saw that tears were glimmering in her eyes. "I don't know. I just want my Sadie back. I just want her back with me."

From someplace outside the windowless room, invisible and unidentified, a bird continued its sad, sweet, mysterious song. John could not help but wonder if it was real...

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