Once upon a time, a lawyer needed to travel deep into the heartland.
She had had some initial successes, but the Höll case had turned into a sprawling mess. The family's countersuit had been filed in Sundown, seat of the county with the same name and two days by car from the nearest airport or train station.
The sun was already setting when she reached Crossing. Her red convertible had ably carried her through the stubbly corn fields and along the dusty roads, but she was running low on gas. She drove past the drab and squat buildings of the township, until she reached the gas station, equally small and equally sad.
The slack-jawed attendant wordlessly filled the tank and cleaned the wind-shield then hurried inside. She felt the cold wind on her skin and hurried in after him. '11.27' said the mechanical readout atop the register. Inside her wallet she found a 10 $ note and a few coppery coins. She cleared her throat and forced a smile. "Would you take a check? Card?"
With a grunt the man pointed at the sign on the wall behind him:
She exhaled. "I see. Is there a bank? Or something?"
"Post Office. They've got a counter." His teeth were crooked and yellow.
"I see." She glanced at the small golden watch on her wrist. "I don't suppose they are still open?"
"Listen," she lifted up the bill, "I'm only about a dollar short. And... ."
"I figured I'd - I'd swing back and - nevermind." She handed him her passport instead. "A lien, then."
He grumbled and leafed through the papers. "Victoria von Auric." For a heartbeat, she glimpsed her photo. She did no longer wear glasses. And her black hair had been shorter then. Even her make-up had looked off, unfinished, back then. He studied the picture for a long time.
"Naw. I don't trust all that at all. How am I to tell if it's fake or only foreign?"
"I assure you... ."
He closed the passport. "No. Gimme me your keys."
"You can not be serious." She put away documentation and wallet. "There really is no reason to behave like this."
"Keys or I'll call the sheriff."
"Do." She smiled cooly. "I feel like the proper authorities can only be of help."
He laughed. "My brother-in-law won't be in a good mood neither, though."
"Fuck." Her smile disappeared. She tried to read his face, but found no indication of trickery. He seemed dangerously self-satisfied instead. Mocking even. She turned around and walked away.
"Were do you think you're going?" he hurried after her.
"Getting my luggage." Her voice was even, but the scowl of her pale face betrayed her growing anger. She did not turn around.
From the open trunk she tore the large, brown suitcase and set it, swaying, down by her feet. She could see the attendant's smile. He was close and he had seen her struggle with the weight. She grabbed her briefcase and slammed shut the lid.
"Here." She threw him the keys.
They jingled as he caught them. "Wasn't that hard after all - eh?" He stuffed them into his pocket. "Listen," his smile did not seem inviting, "where'll you go? It's dark - ain't it?"
Victoria hoped he would not notice her shudder. "Is there a motel in town? Preferably on that'd accept a check?" She did not quite manage levity.
"Naw. There's Al's up in Grayling. They're open all night. Three miles that-a-way." He pointed westwards along the road.
"Thanks." She walked away.
A pothole stopped the clickety-clack of her heels. She almost lost a shoe to the mud and almost dropped her load. Then she noticed the footfalls.
The man had followed her. And he was moving closer. She dropped her baggage with a thud. He moved closer. The lock on her suitcase had sprung open. White blouses and black lace panties spilt forth. And the man inched closer still.
"What do you want?" she asked. Her voice loud and trembling.
He took another step. Then stopped. "Figured I'd offer some hospitality. A bed an' a bite to eat." He took another step. "And I can be gentle."
"No." She carried a pocketknife in her inside pocket. A practical choice for any traveller; for to plot self-defence would be paranoid. Or so she had told herself. With luck, she would be able to open it in time. "No," she said, louder this time.
He took yet another step. Victoria stumbled backwards. He followed. Matched her step for step.
"Stop!" Her hand rested on the knife.
"Suit yourself." He took a final step towards her then finally stopped. She could feel his breath on her face. "Suit yourself." He turned and slowly walked away.
Only when his steps had died away, did she exhale. She peered into the darkness, half expecting him to return from nothing. But he was gone. She collected her clothes and, with a curse on her lips, walked the forlorn road.
Blue moonlight guided her through the amber shallows of grain, until she saw the light. A flickering halo rose from the ground, from under a block of concrete buried deep in the fertile soil.
Victoria left the road and crossed the field. She walked down the slippery stairs and stopped at the threshold of the steel door, only slightly ajar. Inside there was a fire and electrical light besides, enough for her to read the signs: 'US GOVT' 'PROJECT G---' 'DO NOT ENTER'.
She did enter. Driven by curiosity and, she admitted, hounded by fear, she entered. The heavy door closed behind her.
A single weak bulb dangled from the drab, grey ceiling. Its weak light mingled with the dancing orange from the concrete fireplace in the middle of the large, subterranean hall.
Few shelves lined the wall, most were empty or contained nothing but empty glass bottles. At the back, in the penumbra, she could see the stark outline of steel-frame beds.
The smell of food reached her nostrils. Three open cans were cooking on the sooty grating, tossed over the open fire. Her stomach gurgled. She dropped her burdens where she stood.
On the shelf closest to the firepit she saw, among condiments and other tableware, a clean-looking, stainless steel spoon. "Hello? Anybody?" She called out, but received no answer. She grabbed the spoon and called out again. No answer.
She crossed the room. Spoon in hand she hovered over the flames, then she called out for the third time. Silence.
All three cans seemed to contain beans, though those in the first had boiled down into a thick, brown mush. The ones in the second were hard and chewy and tasteless besides. The contents of the third were edible.
She plundered pepper and sauce from the rack. And then, standing close to the warming fire, wolfed down the whole can.
She bent down, sated and satisfied, to place the empty tin on the floor. There she spied, low on a distant rack, a small stack of magazines. She whistled, bored, but happy about her discovery.
Victoria again crossed the room. The murky glow made her strain her eyes as she squatted down beside the shelving and checked out the first.
An old hunting periodical with entirely too many technical specifications of rifles. She quickly pushed it aside.
The second showed on its yellowed cover a naked woman on her knees and surrounded by male genitalia. She picked up the third.
Inside politics, hidebound and favoured by some of the older partners; under normal circumstances she would not have bothered. And as she read the old issue, she found the arguments spurious on their face and rendered laughable by the judgement of time. She did not bother with another article.
Tension crept down her spine and a ball of anticipation had formed in the pit of her stomach. She looked around, half expecting to see the missing inhabitants appear from nothing, and, finding no one, picked up the filthy mag. Driven by queer curiosity, she leafed for the editorial or any other writing, but only found candid pictures on the crusty pages.
She glanced across the empty room. She glanced back at the lascivious images and again into the silent shadows. She swallowed and looked around once more. Anticipation had coloured her cheeks and she could not deny the rising heat.
The pictures, dirty and demeaning, of a platinum-blonde starlet taken roughly inside some rural rest-stop were uncomfortably close, yet tantalizingly alien. Her fingers were trembling as she pushed aside her panties.
Her movements along the edges of her sex were slow and careful; unlike the rough thrusts the blonde suffered from her jackbooted other. Breathing faster and faster, she feverishly flipped the stiff pages and her fingers snaked closer, deeper to her core. Her mouth formed to a quiet O and her own wetness invited her between the lower lips, so gently parted.
A sudden noise, maybe imaginary, almost sent her sprawling. Hurriedly, she threw aside the magazine and jumped upright. With her heart yet racing, she again crossed the room. On the shelving she found three bottles filled with clear liquid. The alcohol would calm her nerves.
"Anybody here?", she called out with the first bottle already in hand. The room was silent. She removed the cork with trembling fingers and drank. The foul taste made her cringe. She sputtered and spit out the thick and sickly spirit.
Disgusted, she went for the second bottle. The weak drink was not enough to wash away the acidic aftertaste. Nevertheless, she emptied the whole bottle of watery wine. With some trepidation, she tried the third.
She did not quite taste bourbon. The booze was too acrylic with a clear paint-thinner aftertaste. She drank deeply and walked, bottle in hand, across the room.
Though she could not hear anyone or anything, she did not return to the magazines. She was giddy, yet growing tired, and the alcohol surely dulled her raging thoughts. And in the twilight beds were waiting for her. Another sip.
She stopped by the first bed. Stains covered the sheer pillow. Toothpaste or saliva, she hoped. Emboldened by drink and by the tips of her fingers, she moved aside the blanket. White splotches covered the once-striped mattress and clustered around the middle. Victoria quickly moved on.
The second bed lacked pillows completely. Only a thin rug covered the layers of cardboard stacked atop the creaky frame. She moved on to the third.
Victoria could smell starch and soap and under the clean, off-white blanket she found a clean, off-white sheets. With a contented sigh, she pushed the blanket against the wall and sat down on her makeshift divan. The mattress was hard, but not too hard, and each slow sip lulled her closer to sleep.
Yawning, she rose and stripped. Shoes and socks, then the navy-blue blazer. She placed it carefully at the foot end of the bed and then undid the top buttons of her blouse. Sudden shivers crept down her spine. She peered into the dark corners of the room and noticed nothing. Victoria frowned. The room was quiet, but she could not shake the feeling of being watched. Still dressed in blouse and skirt she wrapped herself in the blanket.
Laying on her side, she did not dare close her eyes. Shadows were playing by the fireside and against the ebb and flow of her heartbeat she could sense the outside. Cicadas sang and larger animals yet might move in the distance. A howl.
But the heavy door was closed. Shut and secure. She held her breath and listened. Even the pheadrean chorus was silent, impossible to hear through door and walls. Sleep came softly and dreams did not disturb her.
Then hands, like paws, ripped away the covers. She slowly opened her eyes then quickly bolted backwards. Three men had surrounded her.
The largest held her blanket, the others knives. With her back pressed against the wall and outnumbered, Victoria tried a smile. "Hi."
They stood, unflinching, like statues or scare-crows, dressed in their ill-fitting jeans overalls. She could read no emotion on their cold, leathery faces. A drop of sweat ran from her forehead and dropped to her chest.
"I called," she lowered her head, "I'm sorry. I was being nosy." She touched the mattress. "And I have been entirely too bold. It's just ... ," she looked up, but they offered no answer. "I've had a bad night and - again I was being presumptuous - but I could not resist. Also I've got some money in my purse," she pointed at her discarded luggage, "and I'd be happy to offer recompense." Receiving no answer still, she picked up her blazer and shoes. They followed her across the room in silence.
The large one had left the bedding behind and accepted the bill with a growl.
"Anyways," she eyed the door, "I oughta leave. It's been - it's been grand."
"Wait," the giant said.
Victoria, still barefoot, inched toward the door.
"Wait," he motioned and the others put away their blades.
She had almost reached the door.
"Wait," he made no move to stop her. "My brothers and I - we didn't mean to scare you."
Her briefcase, perched precariously atop the suitcase, swayed and toppled. "Fuck." She scrambled to retrieve it, yet they kept their distance. "Okay," she exhaled. "Okay."
Hidden beneath the metal flooring was a large storage room. From there her hosts carried canned peaches and clear liquor. They kindled the fire and placed four rusty folding chairs around it.
Victoria had claimed the chair closest to the door. They ate their beans and she sipped whisky and watched. They did seem peaceful. Lacking in table manners and poorly dressed. Hard muscled and armed with steel, but not hostile. Victoria allowed herself a smile.
"Pass me that bottle, will ya?"
The large one took a large swig, then passed it on. "So, where' ya from?" He made a show of patting down his overall, until he found his pocket knife in the front pocket. Victoria's heart was beating faster.
He chose the tin-opener and cut into the peach can. Her breathing calmed.
"New York. For the last two years. Before that," she was interrupted when he handed her sugar water and fruit.
With honeyed lips she continued her tale. They were eager to hear about the city. About sky-scrappers and subway cars. About all-night dances and cocktail lunches. In fact, she rarely saw the inside of the courtroom and did not care for most of her colleagues, one way or the other. For her rapt audience, however, tedious paperwork turned to international intrigue and mutual disinterest became charged rivalry. Her outline of the Höll case had them at the edge of their seats.
Victoria glanced at her watch. Half past three. She had been lonely, she realized, since she had finished her studies. Since she had left her home behind. And him.
Three pairs of hazel-brown eyes still clung to her lips. She had tried to be courteous and she had tried to draw them in. Her questions had been gentle, inviting even. She had not been probing. Yet, only the large one had answered and only in short sentences.
He had reaffirmed that they were brothers. He was the middle one and she thought she could now identify the oldest by the scar over his right eye. Everything else was vague: They did not like the locals or maybe had never even met them. They had lived inside the bunker for a long time, maybe forever. Nothing more, even their names remained occult. She might have asked another question, but decided to tell one more tale about Mr. Howe instead.
When she checked her watch again, she had told two more and another half hour had passed. "It's late," she said. The brothers looked at each other. They spoke to each other in a language she did not understand. Low and rumbling roars, almost thunder.
"We've only got the three beds," he said, "and Urs," he pointed at the eldest, "doesn't wanna give up his." He saw her grin. "Yeah," his cheeks turned red. "Mine's - I was busy. Much to do. And we didn't expect company," he trailed off.
She squirmed against the cloth backrest. "I do not want to impose. And I expected to sleep upright anyway."
"Nonsense." His voice was forceful.
Victoria looked down. "Not to be presumptuous, but if we could share a bed I would not mind." She had no reason to be embarrassed, but she felt relief when the elder brother, when Urs, gave her a small nod.
The chairs scrapped across the metal floor then the large one turned out the light. Urs removed his boots in firelight and took the spot closest to the wall. Victoria nestled herself under, but sleep escaped her.
First she unhooked her bra, then squirmed free off her skirt. Even then, at the edge of sleep, she chafed against his mass and his rough clothing.
"Do you?" she had gently touched his side and he stared at her, eyes glinting in the dark. "Isn't this uncomfortable for you as well?"
He did not answer for the longest time; long enough for her to doubt whether he had understood her at all. "Naked," he grumbled, finally. "No, "he paused as if in thought. "Naked," he finished.
"I don't mind," she heard herself say. It had been a long night. She felt strangely safe and the air seemed charged with a puzzling expectation. A development waiting to be revealed. One she could almost, but not quite, sense.
"Not look. Close - not look."
She closed her eyes and heard the rustling of fabric. Clothing on skin followed by him moving himself away, further still and hugging the wall. She kept her eyes shut. Strange pictures, called forth by proximity or scent, played and chased at the theatre of her mind and became dreams.
Of course she had turned towards him. Always was she drawn to warmth and always, even when alone, was she called to share the dream. Why he had turned towards her, she could not guess. And even in dreams, she knew; knew she was far away from their lover's nest. And yet, when she felt the warmth of his breath, she moved closer. He had never been this muscular, but that seemed just fine to her.
"Freak!" He screamed and jumped away. "Freak!"
Victoria startled awake. He had grabbed the blanket, but her sore body resisted cold and noise. Realization came slowly.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. The cotton shirt covered his chest and arms, but she had not stopped there. "I didn't," she paused. She did. And she knew.
"Come here." Her voice was soft. "Sit." She patted the spot beside her. He looked at her, then obeyed. "You're not a freak," she said and hoped that she had not judged the situation wrongly. He regarded her with tilted head. "And I am sorry," she said and opened her arms.
He melted into her hug. All strength had left his massive form and she gently placed his head on her shoulder. Then the blanket began to slip. He jolted and covered himself, but she had already seen. Even in the twilight of the distant embers had she seen his diminutive erection.
"Freak," he whispered. His cheeks were red and his voice was sad.
"Shh." She too felt herself blush. Felt the heat. "It's only human." She was only to aware of her own human needs. "Do you," she paused, "do you mind?" She placed her hand on the edge of the blanket.
He looked at her. Silent.
"Only human." She moved lower. He gasped, but did not stop her. His body was warm and he moaned when she reached his cock.
"Freak," he protested, but she silenced him with a kiss. With their tongues still commingled, she slid on his lap and ripped away the blanket.
"Here." She clasped his hand into hers. His fingers were rough. Rough between hers and rough on her body. They gasped as they slid lower. He touched the inside of her thigh, but she pushed him further.
Their hands found her panties and her waiting sex. She felt her own wetness. Her need. She bucked against the fingers and pushed herself against his dick.
He gasped and bucked. She bit his lip. Moving faster and faster until his warmth spread between her legs. "Fuck." She threw herself against his spasm, teased out all her need. "Fuck."
"Loud," he whispered, "brothers."
"Fuck," she whispered. His cum had stained her fingers. She must be burning. Mad. "Fuck. Do you think?" She could see the mischief in his eyes, she was sure. Her heart was racing and with her wild blood came wild ideas. Boys. Boys playing their boyish games. Dirty, boyish games. "Right?" she whispered. "You wouldn't be jealous?"