Katrina Monroe's The Rack
John C. Foster
Jack London said that a person can’t wait for inspiration; she has to go after it with a club. Or in this case, with a big, wooden box adorned with nails and a wide window for viewing the show.
“I’d like to thank you, John,” I tell my latest client. “I was all set to put you on the rack, but after reading MISTER WHITE, I got a better idea.”
Bunny taps on the window with a long, red-lacquered fingernail. John cringes at the sound.
“Knock it off,” I say to Bunny. “He’s not a fish.”
She shrugs, returning to her desk and the baleful task of doing my long-overdue taxes. There are some interesting deductions for those of us in the torture trade; you just have to know where to look.
There’s a slit just below the window for air and answers to navigate. Still, his breath comes in short bursts, as though rationing it. His arms are tied above his head with nylon rope and secured to a nail in the back of the—for lack of a better word—coffin. His feet are tied at the ankles, as well. I would have left the ankles free (there’s not exactly enough room for him to kick his way out), but the man insisted.
I’m a considerate mistress, after all.
“Tell me, John…” I stroke one of the many nails protruding from the box. “What were your biggest influences in writing Mister White?”
Bunny yips. She read the book, too, and pales when I mention the name.
“Jesus, do we really have to do the interview here? You said there would be a bunny rabbit! I was thinking a nice café or maybe some place with martinis…”
I snort. Silly John.
“Anyway, the influences for MISTER WHITE were Robert Ludlum’s Cold War spy novels (Bourne Identity, etc.) and John Carpenter’s terrifying nemesis from “Halloween,” Michael Meyers. The way you could never escape him, no matter what. I wanted to see what a has-been operative might be able to do against him in a story that moved like a spy thriller but never let the reader escape a feeling of dread. I wanted it to be scary, to make readers feel the same way I felt the first time I saw Michael Meyers walking down Jamie Lee Curtis.”
“Good boy,” I say and reward him by plunging the first nail beside his head, barely missing an earlobe.
His eyes open wide and white and his jaw drops and I can almost see the scream at the back of his throat. I could just it.
“How do your own fears play into the things you write? Do you write to exorcise them, or taunt them into the light?” I ask.
Hesitation. Only a fraction of a second, but long enough to test my patience. Another nail plunges through the box, framing his face in sharp metal. This time, it nicked the lobe. A small bloom of blood blossoms.
He squeals, and then his voice comes fast and jittery. “I wallow in my fears like a pig in shit. In real life, I learned long ago to turn straight into what scares me and go after it. That doesn’t work with my lingering childhood fears. The imagination that used to kick my ass when I was small. I mean, I can still get jittery in the dark, all alone. Sometimes I’ll remind myself I’ve got a pit-shepherd mix sleeping in the next room…although she’s more likely to wake up if I open up a slice of cheese than for an intruder. I hope that being able to mine the raw stuff that still scares me makes it onto the page.”
“Mmm, cheese,” Bunny says.
I throw her an exasperated look before returning to John. “So hard to find good help these days, eh, John?”
He swallows. Sweat beads on his forehead and upper lip and tears well at the corners of his eyes.
I grin. “Does living in New York influence the things you write? Or do you imagine you’d write hard crime and horror pretty much anywhere?”
“Hey, before I answer, these aren’t tears, it’s dusty in here!”
“Of course they aren’t, John.” I punch a nail through, which pins the webbing between his thumb and forefinger to the wall.
He bites back a cry. “Okay, New York. I’d be writing this horror and crime stuff if I lived anywhere…but in my mind, New York is the Ur City, it is the original repository of grit and I was drawing on this notion long before I moved here. I’ve lived in Boston and Los Angeles, great towns, but neither fed me like New York City. I just finished the rough draft of a hard crime novel titled HANGING AT THE HOLIDAY that I’ve been describing as my love song for NYC. A blood stained, ugly love song.”
A lovely sentiment. “Let’s forget fiction for a second. You’re a cook? What’s your signature dish? (You should know that had you brought some, I wouldn’t be so inclined to torture you in this way.)”
Snot dribbles over his lips, turned up at the corners in a rueful smile. “You kidding? If I’d brought it you’d only get ideas. I’ve never wished more that I was a vegetarian…because my signature is probably a rack of ribs, slow cooked until the meat slides right off the bone. I like eating with my hands…case in point: my girlfriend and I were recently at this Laotian place that served roasted pig face. No shit, pig face. You had to tear off the jaw bone with your hands. It was hilarious and delicious.”
I wonder aloud if pig face tastes anything like human face. “They call it , you know.”
His grin drops like a brick off a building.
“I’m only kidding,” I say. “Mostly.”
Bunny clears her throat and taps her wrist. We’re running short on time.
Back to it, then. “A lot of authors I talk to hate to read their stuff out loud (myself included). How do you feel about readings?”
“I used to avoid them like a kid with lima beans, but when my second novel came out this past spring, I decided I had to stop ducking them and I’ve done half a dozen or so in a couple months, including reading alongside the great Tom Monteleone at Stokercon in Vegas,” John says. “The man can deliver one helluva reading. Other than being uneasy about getting up in front of people, I don’t like to do things that make me feel like a writer but aren’t writing…but I’ve accepted that I have to do them. The first time I read my single mantra was ‘don’t fuck up.’ Since then I’ve been trying to improve with each reading and find the experience as enjoyable as it is unnerving.”
I stroke a nail hovering just in front of his eye.
“Hey, uh, I don’t want to be a whiner but I can’t feel my hands or feet.”
I affect a terrible German accent. “You want I should make you eat your fingers like Herr Weiss does?”
He shakes his head so hard the box rocks.
I nod once. “Wilde said that you could tell what kind of person a man is by the books he reads when he doesn’t have to. What are your guilty pleasure reads?”
His gaze never leaves the nail inching toward him at an agonizingly slow pace. “I’m not sure if I have any that are guilty pleasures, but there are some that I read just to ease off the pressure because they taste like candy. I’ll chew through Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books in a day or two and put aside any other reading during the experience. Same goes for the Prey series from John Sanford. Since Gillian Flynn broke onto the scene I’ll drop anything to read whatever new book she has. This has sort of expanded into a ‘ladies who write killer thrillers’ genre in my mind. If it says ‘In the tradition of Gillian Flynn’ there’s a good chance I’ll grab it, which is how I found Ruth Ware and Paula Hawkins. But I don’t feel guilty about any of them, especially this last thriller category. They’re kick ass books. It’s just that through some arcane system, I’ve decided that the writers mentioned above I get to read ‘just for fun’ instead of for ‘fun and learning’ (though I’ve learned things from each of them). Look, I want to stay focused on the questions but what’s that dripping?”
Bunny leaps from her seat and inspects the box, as all matters of maintenance are her territory. She peers inside the box through the window and chuckles. “S’your blood, dummy.”
I flick her nose. “No name-calling.”
“Yes, mistress,” she says as she trudges back to the desk.
With the nail an inch above his eye, I demand Netflix recommendations. “I just finished STRANGER THINGS (holy crap!) and need something to binge between rack sessions.”
“Holy crap is right! “Stranger Things” was awesome. I’m assuming you already watched the new “X-Files” season? There’s a UK show called “Black Mirror” that is absolutely brilliant, a must watch. You can also stream old episodes of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” which are from the ‘70’s. While Kolchak is as funny as it is scary, there was one episode I saw as a kid, with these store manikins that moved…scared the crap out of me. There’s also a wicked Canadian show called “Darknet” that I recommend.”
The nail scrapes his eyelashes. A shudder racks his body and he blinks furiously as though he could clear the threat away like a bit of sand.
He doesn’t notice the other nail on a collision course with his palm.
“What are you working on now?” I ask.
“Let’s see. I just sent in NIGHT ROADS to Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. This is book two in the Libros de Inferno series that kicked off in 2015 with DEAD MEN. I’m revising my crime novel HANGING AT THE HOLIDAY and expect to have a collection of short fiction coming out either in the fall or next spring titled BABY POWDER AN OTHER TOXIC SUBSTANCES. My novel THE ISLE is with my agent so I’m hoping for good news soon, knock on wood. (On wood! Not on me!) I’ve talked to Grey Matter Press about revisiting the horror of MISTER WHITE in a new book and there’s a Wild Hunt idea I’ve been toying with for a while…so lots of pots bubbling over on the stove.”
“Good boy,” I say and withdraw the nail hovering in front of his eye.
The tension in his body releases and I allow him a moment of rest before jamming the second nail into his hand. Bones crunch and blood races down his arm. I press my ear to the slit below the window, every note of his scream like a blood-stained, ugly love song.
JOHN C. FOSTER was born in Sleepy Hollow, NY, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. A writer of thrillers and dark fiction, Foster lives in New York City with the actress Linda Jones and their dog, Coraline. Dead Men was released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing on July 22, 2015 and Mister White by Grey Matter Press on April 5, 2016. Mister White the Short Story was included in the anthology Dark Visions Vol. 2 in 2013, also by Grey Matter Press. For more information, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com.