I knew I was on the right street, but the GPS signal was lost. So I parked and walked, looking for house numbers. On the moonless night, the only light came from the shade-drawn windows. I found the house—white, wood-paneled with dark-framed windows, a covered porch, a manicured yard with flowers and bushes, and a low hedge fence with a wrought iron gate. Tasteful, but not what I expected for a recording studio.
I paused at the iron gate. It felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds: no cars, dogs barking, or music, only the night breeze stirring leaves on the poplar trees and flowers in the yard.
The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she had done some acting, and I should try out. She would make the arrangements. Based on what she’d read in my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.
I suddenly had a vision of meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold chill shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my talent. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly from the gate and turned to leave.
A sound came from the dark porch: whispers or bird chirping. Was someone laughing at my expense? Were they in on this little joke? Two shadowy figures stood facing one another and talking. They hadn’t noticed me.
The porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald, spidery-limbed, and barely clothed. They reminded me of characters from a fantasy sketch. The acting invitation must be legit. Now I felt foolish for doubting.
Standing tall, I pushed through the gate and up the four steps to the porch. The hooded figure slid the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.
“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her accented, musical voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent, and I had just told her about our meeting this morning.
Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in an Icelandic saga, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, would have better suited a space ranger.
The pretty girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”
“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I haven’t known many stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.
“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials. She regrets she cannot stay to watch your performance.”
“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir.”
The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth. I fought my reflex to jerk back. The measures some actors took to get into character astounded me.
Redir left and the girl turned to me. “Mr. Johnson,” she said, touching my arm then sweeping back her cloak closure. Beneath it she wore a star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome manner rekindled my ambition.
“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”
“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”
She led me inside to an antique roll-top desk where a contract had been prepared for signing. Beside it lay a jade fountain pen. The quaint, feminine room had Chinese décor wallpaper, cornflower blue curtains, polished oak floors, and Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation. Floral-styled, glass shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.
I barely skimmed the two-page contract before signing it. “When will I hear if my talent is acceptable?”
“I will be able to tell you before you leave this evening,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time tonight, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”
“Of course,” I said, without any idea what Clothelik meant.
“The recording should not take long. If it doesn’t go well, it may be very short.” With that she led me to the hall and motioned to an open elevator. Remaining outside, she flutter-waved goodbye and pushed the down button.
The elevator door opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of a nineteenth-century hotel in an old movie. A muffled groan came from up the hall and something banged against the wall. A thin strip of light leaked from an unlatched door onto the red carpet. I pushed it open slightly and peered in, prepared to leap back if the source of the groans proved to be coupling passion.
The room had Italian-tiled floors and animal skin carpets: lion, tiger, and zebra. A fire blazed in a stone-sculpted fireplace. A glass and silver clock centered on the marble mantel was flanked by cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood red drapes covered two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful, light-haired, young woman struggled in a four-poster, mahogany bed, her wrists and ankles stretched on leather thongs out to the posts, her mouth gagged.
The woman’s clothing was torn open, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Her wide, soft, blue eyes pleaded for help, but her twisting motion struck me as intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my canvas trousers slide open. As I approached, the woman’s twisting became more urgent. Her head shook. No. Her eyes darted to something behind me, something at the door. Everything went dark.
I awoke barely able to move, my eyes tightly closed against jabbing pain at my wrists and ankles, my mouth choking on a gag. I tried to reach but my hand refused to move. I found myself tied to a poster bed. Blood red drapes were pulled across the windows. Prominent, bare breasts blocked my view of the roaring fireplace. Rocking to lift my head, I heard the bedpost bang the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. A leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.
A hand slid inside the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d just come off safari. He approached slowly. His dark eyes drank in the nakedness of my bound, womanly body then focused to my heaving breasts. He smiled wickedly, unbuckling his pants as he approached. I twisted and tried to scream. Then another hand slid inside the bedroom door. It was large and long with claws like the curved tines of an old thrashing machine. I tried to warn the man, thrusting and pointing my shoulder. That only drew his eyes to my upraised nipple.
The monster took the man’s head with a single stroke, sending blood gushing like water from a ruptured fire hose. Then the grotesque beast reached for me and everything went dark.
I found myself on the red carpet again, in the hallway lined with wall sconces. Groans drew my attention to an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.
A dark-haired man stood over a naked, trembling woman bound to a four-poster bed. As the man worked his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. Fresh blood stirred my nostrils and aroused my hunger. The struggling girl excited me: her horror-filled eyes, her tender, quivering flesh. Drool streamed down my widening, long-fanged jaws.
I next entered the room as a hotel cleaning lady discovering two mutilated bodies, then as the police investigator, then the sobbing, frightened mother. I found other victims: a schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, role after role until the scene changed.
I was on the rolling deck of a square-rigged ship in a storm-tossed sea. A wave thrust me back against the taffrail. Mountainous waves rose, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. Waves crashed and sent white water sweeping across the deck, pulling cannons, barrels, and boxes against their lashing. Reefed courses swayed on the masts above me. Only the main and foremast staysails held our position against the wild, shifting wind.
“Cap’m,” a man shouted against the gale. The scurvy dog had several teeth missing, the rest pitted black. His half-scalped head poured like a waterfall. The man pointed and I turned. A frigate rode in our wake, gun ports open, flying the red British banner. “She be fast upon us, Cap’m. Soon as this storm blows, she be fast upon us an’ we be surely dead.”
The gunwales exploded in splinters a moment later; a foremast yardarm crashed to the deck; grappling hooks flew into the shattered yards and rigging followed by the shouts and howls of the boarding party. Cutlasses slashed and thrust; halberds jabbed, twisted, and tore; and flintlocks flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.
I next saw the pirate raider from the helm of the British frigate, then as the chief gunner, then as a boy falling from a mast to drown in the sea.
The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My tired horse stumbled on a stone. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my back, too far to reach and snap off. I’d already broken one from my arm. My buckskin ran red. The war-whoops were closer. Topping a rise, I looked down. My cabin was a smoldering, black shell, the corral beside it, empty. No fresh horses. I was trapped. I next topped the rise as a Shawnee brave riding down a wounded man running from his dying horse.
Horrors, battles, and disasters followed in rapid succession, endlessly, on and on.
Suddenly things quieted. I was on my back in the red-carpeted hallway. Ding, the elevator door opened. I forced myself to stand and stumbled through. The door closed and I felt the lift. Another ding. I pushed off the handrail to get my shaking legs moving.
The room was quaint and feminine with Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.
“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table was a silver tray with a coffee carafe and two blue China cups and saucers. On her lap was the document I’d signed.
“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are so impressed with your work. Such an amazing career.” She patted the space beside her and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands. The strong coffee felt like a forgotten memory.
“My career?” I asked, barely coherent. “What career is that?”
The girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly fastened. “Your acting career, of course. You completed twelve series, each with twelve episodes, and played every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a fabulous career. You are my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are very, very, VERYrich. I am richer too, of course, for having signed you.”
“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I don’t even recall hearing your name.”
“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record one hundred forty-four sensational episodes. Your experiences filled our entire allowance.”
“What … What are … Clothelik?” I asked between exhausted breaths.
“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, my sister Redir Radnoub and me. She’s not a recruiter, so she is not authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”
I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head as if I understood what she said then I asked, “You say I am a rich man?”
“Oh, yes, soon to be one of the richest in the galaxy. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll be the most famous and popular. The violence and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held your species back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you may have to wait to collect your considerable fortune. Do not worry, however. Our contract empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. We never close, so you can come at any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of our subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The sum will likely exceed the total value of this star system.”
She smiled her little-girl smile then chimed, “Thank you for such wonderful experiences, Mr. Johnson. Is there anything else I might do before you leave?”
Looking down at my China cup, I said, “I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”
“Exactly alike. Eighteen from the same litter.”
I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.
“Why Friday night, of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took two,” she looked at the grandfather clock along the wall, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Time compression keeps down our recording costs.”
She walked me to the front door out to the porch. “Oh, one thing I should mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where to find you, they would descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their furious frenzy. Not to worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”
With that she stepped back and turned off the porch light.