WORSE THAN DEATH
A Mystery Novel by
Barbara J. Ferrenz
©2001 by Barbara J. Ferrenz
Mary Kate Flaherty is a wife and mother in the suburbs who makes her living writing erotic vampire novels under the pseudonym Theodora Zed. As one of her personal appearances to promote her books, she attends BloodCon, a horror convention, no longer dressed in jeans and tee shirt as a grocery-shopping Mom but as Queen of the Vampires in leather with white face, red lips, and long lashes. She meets up with old friends, other writers who she sees only at these events. Her closest friend is Conner Drake, quietly successful, good-looking in a boy-next-door sort of way. And she meets for the first time before this panel discussion Randall Valentine, young and talented and completely infuriating.
"Life after death is a basic tenet of most of the world's religions and accepted by most cultures. It makes sense to me that an exploration of the concept of vampirism is a reasonable outgrowth." Mary Kate heard her voice over the microphone. It sounded thin and young. She felt conspicuous under the fluorescent lights of the conference room. She sat at the end of the long, folding table, next to the sign announcing the topic: What's Worse Than Death?
Three other writers of speculative fiction and one author of nonfiction book about the afterlife shared the stage. All had copies of their own books propped on the table in front of them.
There was a good audience for this time of night. Conner sat in the first row, drinking the beer he had brought with him from the bar. Although he seemed somber and just vaguely interested in the subject matter, Mary Kate felt as if he hadn't taken his eyes from her for a moment. Less reassuring was the presence of Randall Valentine, several seats down on the front row. He seemed to be very interested.
"Theodora, you can't turn every discussion into one about vampires just because you write about them." George Moss, renowned for his intelligent, yet gruesome, splatterpunk trilogy, Ain't Just 'Possums Flattened On The Highway, rested his head on his fist as he looked around the others to see her. "I mean, half the fun of death is getting there." He laughed and appeared to enjoy the laughter from the audience. Mary Kate wondered how long he'd been saving up that last line for a good opening. This wasn't it.
"George, dear... She smiled. "... vampires are one of the oldest archetypes symbolizing mankind's fears ... and desires. I'm just saying that there's a parallel between religion's offer of eternal life and the vampire's offer of eternal death."
Ann Orenstein, author of Nightsongs and panel moderator, moved forward to speak into her microphone, bumping it with her nose. When the electronic noise and ensuing squeal died down, she said, "Excuse me. Folks, I think we're getting a little off-topic. As horror writers, we kill off many of our characters in many creative ways. The question we're asking here is, is death what our characters should fear and try to avoid most?"
George made a show of keeping his nose away from his microphone. "That's what I was saying to Theodora, Ann. Death is the end of the road. What our characters fear is dying. Dying is painful and ugly. It's the awareness that you will become nothing, the loss of all humanity and dignity. Death reduces you to an animal, no different from those that make our tires go thump-thump when we drive over their corpses in the road." He twisted his ponytail around his finger, obviously savoring his own turn of phrase.
"Well put," Ann said. "Do you have anything to add, uh,..." She checked her notes. ... Patrick?"
Mary Kate was curious about the opinion of the ex-priest, sociologist, Patrick Henley. She knew most of the novelists at one level or another, but the tall, gaunt man in the ill-fitting suit was an academic, an outsider. He had spent his life seriously studying what they made up for the purpose of entertainment.
He didn't seem to hear at first, then he drew in his thin shoulders further and spoke into the mike, his eyes cast down at the table. Even with amplification, his voice wasn't much above a mumble. "As with any kind of research, one must start with a premise, preferably one validated with quantitative data, but in the absence of that, as in the case of cultural belief systems regarding the afterlife, one adopts a presumption based on the frequency of occurrence and the generality of acceptance."
The audience's attention was breaking apart. Seat wiggling and looking around caused waves of motion that made Mary Kate a little seasick. She didn't think Professor Henley even noticed, as he never looked out at the recipients of his impressive and largely incomprehensible words. These people had come here for a show. They wanted to hear the writers of the books they had spent good money on say shocking things that nice folk aren't allowed to say. The professor's lecture droned on.
"So having accepted the premise that one is an animal, the subsequent collection of data, quantitative or not, will always result in the final judgment that one is indeed an animal, before and after death. There are those..." His eyes cut quickly over to George. "... who belittle their own existence in the universe and choose to identify with the lower beasts. I prefer to work from the premise that humankind is an earthbound, spiritual creature before death, and afterward, freed of mortal constraints, comes to his or her true fruition, as a force for good or evil."
Mary Kate's mouth dropped open, and she leaned way forward to get a good look at George's face. It was worth it. He hadn't missed it, even though the pointed insult had been couched in a bed of two-dollar words. George's round face was red, thick veins bulging in his neck. Even his ponytail was bristling. The mumbling academic had as good as called George a dog, and worse yet, he had done it in front of the fans. Mary Kate did the unthinkable. She laughed.
Both panel and on-lookers stared at her in silence. Only Conner smiled, though he tried to hide it behind his fist. Mary Kate blushed behind her make-up.
She was grateful when Ann Orenstein cleared her throat and drew the attention away as George sputtered over a response.
"We have about ten minutes left. Let's open the floor to questions."
Randall Valentine shot up out of his seat. "I have a question for Theodora Zed, Queen of the Vampires." His Adams apple peeked in and out of his green turtleneck. "Horror has traditionally expressed the dark side of our existence. How do you justify writing novels in which death is romanticized?"
Mary Kate still hadn't recovered from her previous gaff, and the wine she had earlier was starting to make her sleepy. She stifled a yawn, then affixed a smile. It's show time. "You don't have to use the whole title, Randall. Your Highness will do. Just kidding. Call me Theo."
"Okay, ... Theo," he said condescendingly.
She worked to keep her smile going. "I don't feel I romanticize death. I see it more as accepting the dark side of life, the loneliness and despair, and looking to the other side for fulfillment. The vampire lover can focus completely. He doesn't have to get up at six to go to work in the morning. He doesn't have to worry about job stability, property taxes, or mowing the lawn. You just have to get used to the idea that he's dead."
Some of the audience members tittered. Mary Kate had used this same speech in a fanzine interview a couple of months ago, and was glad she remembered it.
Looking out, she could see some familiar faces. Some were writers, most flirting on the edges of discovery, but the majority were the people who kept them in printer ribbons-the book reading and buying public. And what made this audience special was that their taste in reading ran to the macabre.
Given their predilection for gore and supernatural atrocities, they appeared unusually normal. The horror conventions attracted a young crowd, but a few long-time, diehard fans still came, even though they'd look more at home at an Amway convention. What really distinguished these attendees from those of a mystery or romance book convention were the small pockets of true aficionados who dressed for the occasion.
Mary Kate recognized most of them. Their whited faces and dyed black hair showed up at most of the cons and readings. She was popular with them because of her own bizarre appearance. She flashed a smile of greeting at the motley group in the back of the room. As she did, a figure in a long, black hooded cape came from behind them and pushed through the door to the corridor. Mary Kate didn't blame him. It had been a long evening, and she was ready to go herself.
"So, Theo," said the still standing Randall Valentine, who was quickly getting on her nerves. "I guess I didn't emphasize the word, 'romanticize,' enough. Isn't it true the main thrust, so to speak, of your books is getting your heroines laid, and that these are romance novels with neck-biting thrown in as a novelty?"
She looked to Conner for support. He was sitting on the edge of his folding chair, wearing an angry expression she hadn't seen on him before. His hand tightened around his empty beer mug. Turning back to the kid, she decided she had had enough of his foolishness. "What's your problem, Randall? Fifty thousand copies of my last novel sold out worldwide. Somebody likes them."
"That's my problem, Thee-o." He drew the name out maliciously. "While you're raking in the bucks writing pure crap, serious writers are ignored because we aren't appealing to the prurient interests of the lowest common denominator."
A chorus of boos erupted from the back of the room. A voice shouted out, "Hex him, Theodora!" She thought of a few choice things she could say, but before she could, Ann Orenstein bumped her nose on the microphone again.
"I think that's enough for tonight. Thank you, ladies and gentleman, for coming. Let's have a hand for our panelists."
As a weak applause went around, Randall gave Mary Kate a triumphant glare and left the room with his head high, ignoring the heckling from the costumed fans near the door. Mary Kate dropped her head into her hands, exhausted. She felt someone rubbing her leather-clad back and looked up to see Conner. She smiled wearily.
"Come on, Vampire Queen," he said, "let me buy you a drink."
"You sure you want to be seen with me? I'm not a serious writer, you know."
His jaw hardened, the way she had seen it when young Mr. Valentine was trashing her. "The little nobody punk. He had no right to talk to you that way. Somebody ought to tie a knot in that scrawny neck of his, that'd shut him up."
She had never seen him angry before. Mildly irritated, yes. Frustrated, yes. But never out and out angry. It was a little frightening. She had always seen him as a big huggy bear, the Gentle Ben type. The hard focus of his eyes suggested a grizzly. A grizzly with a major mad on.
"Forget it, Conner. I have. We've weathered these young, unpublished geniuses before. It's like my son, David. He's thirteen now, and he knows everything, and I know nothing. As far as he's concerned, I've been living the last thirty-six years in a box, just waiting for him to come of age and enlighten me."
The jaw softened, and she felt relieved. Conner took her hand, and they stepped down from the stage. The room had emptied quickly, as the bar closed at two a.m. At the doorway, he stopped and put his hands on her shoulders.
"You're a special lady, Mary Kate. Don't ever underestimate yourself. Anyone who doesn't appreciate you for who you are is just ... just stupid."
Standing and looking up into his face suddenly took on a flavor it never had before. She let his hands hold her up as she leaned forward, wondering about the harm of one little taste. Were his lips rich and spicy, or warm and comforting? They were certainly inviting, but she knew it was dangerous. As his head bent toward hers, she looked down at the pointy toes of her spiked shoes. One tiny morsel could lead to complete abandon.
He cleared his throat and stepped away. "Let's go get that drink."
The room was too warm. She spoke without looking at him. She was afraid to look at him. "No, Conner, I'm really tired. I think I'll turn in early. You go on ahead. I'm sure the gossip will be rich tonight, and I'll want a full report tomorrow."
He nodded, but looked preoccupied. After a moment, he said, "Well, good night, Mary Kate."
"Goodnight," she called after him. His hand lifted in a half-hearted wave as he ambled down the dim hallway. She considered running after him, and, for a brief moment, saw herself saying, "I changed my mind," as she took his arm.
They had, after all, had many drinks together over the last four years, as well as many late into the night conversations alone in hotel rooms. But he had never looked at her that way before, at least, not that she had noticed. And still more alarming, she knew she had never looked at him that way, either.
"It's been a long day," she said, taking off the four-inch heels, immediately feeling small and dumpy. Her hamstrings twanged from being stretched all evening. She hooked her fingers into the shoes and padded up the carpeted hall, trying to remember where her room was.
She pulled the key fob out of her pocket to check the number. 416. She'd need an elevator. Earlier, there had been a crowd of people around her when she had gone from the bar to the conference room. If she'd passed an elevator, she never would have known it. Another hall intersected, all directions promising what seemed to be miles of floral carpet, awash with dim nightlights. The one to the left felt like a likely candidate, so she headed off that way. The room numbers were no help. The first floor only had conference rooms in this wing.
Past a number of doors marked "Utilities" or "Employees Only," the hall ended at an exit. Having had numerous experiences getting lost in large hotels, Mary Kate decided to go with what had worked for her before. She went out. She would go around to the front of the building and enter the lobby, where a friendly desk clerk could give her specific directions to her room. Her total lack of a sense of direction had always been embarrassing, but she had found techniques for coping with it.
Outside was unlighted, and Mary Kate watched with some dismay as the last of the illumination shrunk with the closing of the door. Underneath her stockinged feet was a large concrete pad with huge metal boxes on either side of the doorway. Pipes and hoses snaked out of the boxes like techno-Medusas.
She guessed they were air-conditioning units. One kicked on with a loud, industrial hum, startling her. She squeaked, throwing up her arms as she ran up the sidewalk. Stopping to catch her breath, she laughed. I should have gone with Conner, she thought. He always walks me to my room. That thought would have been completely innocent yesterday, or even early this evening.
She walked along in the dark, not wanting to think about it, but unable to get out of her mind that spark of electricity set off by the meeting of their eyes. It was only when a pebble cut into the sole of her foot she realized she was carrying one shoe. "The Medusa box," she said, knowing she must have dropped it when the air conditioner frightened her, but also knowing she wasn't going all the way back there. She backtracked a short way anyway, but didn't want to go too far. The parking lot was within sight, which meant the bright lobby doors weren't far beyond.
"I guess I'll have to be the barefoot Vampire Queen the rest of this weekend."
Finding a black shoe in the dark was a task she wasn't up to. Starting back, she saw a figure move near the parked cars in the lot. A distant streetlamp threw out enough light for her to recognize the hooded cape from the panel audience. It moved toward her.
"Hi!" she called out. "I remember you from the panel."
The black figure stopped and seemed to be weaving on the lawn between the trees.
"Are you okay?" Mary Kate called. It didn't answer, but stepped back, then forward, as if undecided which way to proceed. The silence tripped a switch in her head, bringing on the full realization of her situation. She was standing outside a dark building, where nobody knew where she was, and a few yards away was a silent, disguised person behaving erratically, making no attempt to identify himself. This was not good. In fact, it was downright spooky.
"Well, I've got to go now." Her voice was high and quavering. She took a couple of steps backward, banging her heel on the edge of the sidewalk. The cape advanced toward her, the bottom of it brushing the grass, giving the impression that it was floating.
Mary Kate turned and ran, limping and hopping, the runs in her nylons bursting up her legs, not sure if she was imagining soft footfalls behind her. As she fell into the daylight brightness surrounding the glass double doors, she looked back. Every tree and shrub could have been concealing him. He could be right around the corner. She pushed through the door and hurried to the desk.
"What's the quickest way to Room 416?