The other five found Gerald on the floor sometime in what they called the morning. It wasn’t really morning, only that the lights were back on, but it was the closest they’d come to morning in months, maybe longer. The interval between Duane’s appearance and Gerald’s was the longest yet, and the minute they — roused by Alan’s shout of “Hey, look what I found!” — saw the new guy sprawled there, they all had the feeling that whatever was about to happen would happen soon.
To Paul, who being a veterinarian had the most medical knowledge of the group, fell the task of reviving the new member of their little community. “Looks drugged, like everybody else,” he said as, having found a pulse, he now thumbed back Gerald’s eyelids. “Let’s get him ambulatory.”
Assisted by Alan and Mike, who each propped the unconscious Gerald by the arms, they walked him around the big, empty room in which they’d been imprisoned, keeping well away from the corner where they were forced to piss and shit, because there were no toilet facilities in the room. The room, which had no windows and which seemed to be ventilated only by two small ducts high up near the ceiling, had long since begun to reek of a noxious stench. The five of them, now six, generally avoided looking at that corner; the feeble pretense that it wasn’t there was one of the things keeping them tolerably sane.
As had been the case with the others, Gerald began coming out of his drug-induced stupor as he continued to be walked around the room. His eyes rolled in his head and he muttered incoherent nonsense. If Gerald’s case ran true to form, Paul estimated that by the end of an hour of ambulation Gerald would have shaken off the drug, as most of the others, with the exception of Rich and himself, had done.
Rich, who had been the first arrival, had awakened by himself. He’d said it seemed like it had taken days to come out of the trance, or coma, or whatever it was. It had been Rich who had inaugurated the practice of using the one corner as the bathroom, leaving the others little choice but to follow suit.
Paul, who had come next, though unable to move his limbs on his own, had asked Rich to help him walk around once he’d regained his senses. He had lain in a state of complete physical paralysis for at least two days, conscious, though unable to so much as blink his eyes. Due to the telltale effects, he suspected the drug to be a neurotoxic alkaloid produced by a species of blowfish used by Haitian voodoo priests to mimic death so closely that its victims are often buried alive. Dug up at night, they are enslaved by the priests, often for years of hard labor. This had set Paul wondering if, to the outside world, all of them were considered dead men, and about what their ultimate fate might be.
Sometime during the approximate hour they had walked Gerald around, spelling each other at intervals, the day’s food delivery had arrived through the Judas hole set at the bottom of the door, close to the concrete floor. Since their wristwatches had been taken, along with their money and all personal effects, during their periods of drug-induced stupor, they could not measure time with any exactness. Paul checked Gerald’s pulse and retinal response again and told them to put him in one of the chairs. A few old wooden chairs and filthy mattresses on the floor were the room’s only furnishings.
“Can you hear me?” Paul asked Gerald, who gave out a groan and looked for a few seconds like he might throw up. “Hey, guy! Do you understand me?”
“Yeah,” Gerald said after a few more unsuccessful attempts at communication.
“What’s your name?” Paul asked.
“Gerald, you’ve been drugged. We all have. You’ll come out of it okay. Give it another hour or so. You understand?”
“Yeah,” he said weakly, nodding.
“Can you remember where you were or what you were doing before you were drugged?” Paul asked. “This is important.”
“Eating,” Gerald said. “Eating pussy.”
“This is serious Gerald,” somebody in the group put in.
“Fuck you, man,” Gerald said, slurring his words. “This guy asked me what I was doing and I told him. I was eating a hooker’s pussy. I picked up the hooker on the Piazza San Marco, where they stand. For thirty thousand lira her cunt was mine to suck on for the next hour.” Gerald’s eyes swam in their sockets. “Fuckin’ room’s spinning.”
“That’s the drug,” Paul told him. “So you were eating pussy. Okay. Why were you in the … what did you say, ‘Pizza’ something?”
“Piazza San Marco. That’s in Venice, which is in Italy,” Gerald said. “I was there … I was there to … hey, what the fuck is going on here, who the fuck are you?” Gerald lurched to his feet, only to collapse to the floor again.
“Take it easy, guy,” Alan said, as he and Rich picked him up and put him back in the chair. “That shit fucks you up. Don’t try to move for awhile.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m sorry. I just don’t … this isn’t the hotel … what’s … who the fuck are you?” Gerald tottered to his feet again. Pushing Alan and Rich away he bolted for the heavy steel door set in the cinderblock wall. Tripping over his own his legs, he fell against it, howling in pain.
Paul turned him over and checked him out. He had a few scratches on his face but otherwise seemed okay. “Gerald, listen carefully,” Paul said. “Like the rest of us, you’ve been drugged, kidnapped, and brought here. We don’t know where this place is, why we’ve been abducted or by whom. We don’t even know for sure how long we’ve been here. That’s why we want to know as much about what you can remember as possible. It could help us figure things out.”
“Yeah, sure,” Gerald said and tried to stand. “Lemme lay on that couch over there.”
“What couch?” Duane asked.
“The one over there, next to the window.” He waved one hand weakly in an attempt to point.
“There’s no couch or windows in here, guy,” Duane told him.
“Bullshit. I can see it,” Gerald said. “A big, white, kidskin leather couch with a glass-top coffee table in front of it.”
“You’re hallucinating, Gerald,” Paul said. “That’s why we’re asking these questions now. We’ve all seen things in here. Angels, giant mice — ”
” — Human-headed caterpillars,” Alan chimed in.
“Exactly,” Paul went on, though he shot Alan a brief, telling glance. “And our memories aren’t right either. It’s like they’ve been altered.” Paul didn’t add that, at least in the cases of three of the six, there were some signs that operations on their brains had been performed, though he hadn’t noticed any signs of cranial scarring on Gerald. “So whatever you can tell us….”
“Yeah, sure,” Gerald said. “Put me on the couch. I gotta lay down.”
“Put him on one of the mattresses,” Paul told Alan and Rich. Once Gerald was lying comfortably, Paul asked him to tell him about himself. What he did for a living, for example, and the last date he could remember, why he was in Venice, and anything out of the ordinary that had happened on his trip.
“I’m a car salesman,” Gerald said. “But you know what? I fuckin’ hate cars. Maybe that’s because I deal with them every day. So I figured I’d take my vacation in Venice because there are no cars.”
He was pretty sure it was August 11th when he ate the hooker’s pussy, because his flight out of Marco Polo was on the 12th. Otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary happened to him, except that once he tripped on a slice of pizza he felt somebody had deliberately left in the street to hurt passersby and almost broke his face.
“That any help?” he asked.
“You sure it was August they got you, guy?” Duane asked.
“Yeah, pretty sure. How come?”
“Because I remember they got me in September, which would mean we’ve either been here considerably more than a year, which I don’t think we have, or that you’re full of shit, or that your memory’s already messed up.”
“I’m telling you what I remember,” Gerald said testily. “Take it or leave it.”
“He got a scar?” Alan asked Paul.
Paul shook his head.
“Scar? Whaddaya mean ‘scar?'” Gerald demanded.
“Some of us have scars on their heads which might indicate that they’ve been operated on. You don’t seem to have any scar, so you’re not one of them.”
“Shit,” Gerald cursed. He stared at the door. “You tried breaking out?”
“First thing,” Rich said. “I was the first in. I tried alone. Then me and Paul tried. Then Mike, Alan and Duane when they got here. That door’s solid steel, gotta be three, four foot thick. You couldn’t blast it open.”
“Shit, I need a cigaret.” Gerald said. “Anybody got one?”
Paul told Alan to check the food delivery. Sometimes there were what they jokingly called “smokes” included. Alan came back with a crumpled Viceroy pack containing three home-rolled cigarets. There was a book of matches too. Paul held out the pack.
“You can smoke these but they’re not tobacco,” he said.
“What are they?” Gerald asked, eying the cigarets.
“We think they’re shit,” Paul said.
“You mean as in ass muffins?” Gerald replied. Paul nodded. Suddenly he didn’t want a cigaret anymore and left the pack with Paul. “How about you guys?” Gerald asked. “How did you get here?”
“We wish we knew,” Paul answered. “None of us knew each other before, were in or even near the same places when we were drugged or can figure out any reason why we should have been abducted. We don’t even know how we were drugged, just like you.”
“So one minute you’re eating a hooker’s pussy and the next …” Gerald began.
“Exactly,” said Paul, who’d pulled up a chair and sat on it wrong-side out, with his arms hanging over the back. “We’re waking up in here. Except that it’s been a long while since anybody else has joined our select group,” he went on.
“Yeah, so what?” asked Gerald.
“So maybe something might happen,” Mike answered. “We’ve been getting the feeling the other shoe’s about to drop lately. Now that you’re here.” He shrugged. “Who knows?”
Having learned nothing of value from Gerald, they set about eating the food that had come through the Judas hole a little while after they had awakened from their probably drugged sleep and found Gerald lying on the floor.
Since they all lost consciousness at around the same time, soon after the lights went out, they suspected gas was pumped into the room, probably from the ventilation ducts near the ceiling. That would explain how the new arrivals could be put in the room without the others knowing it and how objects came and went from time to time.
The food was all canned goods, and the cans were usually dented, like the kind that were supermarket rejects. In order to get at the food, their keeper or keepers provided them with only a single rusty can opener — the “church key” they called it — and from time to time even that mysteriously disappeared, leaving them with cans they had no way of opening.
Then the can opener would reappear, often in the most unlikely places. Alan had awakened one “morning,” for example, to find it sticking out of his asshole, while in Rich’s case, it had been surgically inserted into the fleshy muscle of his left calf.
After days of ravenous hunger and savage thirst, he had been forced to submit to the torture of having it pulled out without benefit of anesthesia or antiseptics so the others could eat and drink. Though Paul had done his best to sterilize the wound, all they could use was urine and strips of Rich’s shirt for a sanitary dressing. Rich had bled for days and now limped noticeably, though Paul claimed he’d been fortunate not to have developed gangrene.
Rich’s wasn’t the only injury suffered during captivity. They’d all been abused. Out of all of them, only Alan had not yet been hurt, although Alan was one of those who had operation scars on his head — two white, horizontal lines visible high on his forehead — and his escape from harm was probably due to pure chance.
Mike had gone crazy one day and hallucinated that plastic robot insects were swarming all over his body and sucking out his blood. He had lost his nipples fiercely rubbing his body against the cinderblock walls in an attempt to rid himself of the parasites nobody but he saw or felt. Duane had lost an eye when somebody had attacked him and sucked one of his eyeballs out. The memory of precisely which person had been somehow obliterated from the group.
Paul himself had suffered the worst experience of them all. One morning, they had awakened to find that Paul had been transformed into a woman. Not just any woman, but the most beautiful woman any of them had ever laid eyes on, even though she resembled Paul closely enough so that there was no mistaking who it was. She had come to them naked, like Athena risen from the head of Zeus, and she came on to all of them, wanting sex.
Somehow, despite their weakness and injuries, the other four inmates found themselves as overstimulated as the she-Paul. Their sexual organs had become grotesquely enlarged and they could have sex for days on end without tiring. The fucking went on and on, despite their noticing that the she-Paul had gotten pregnant and that her belly was swelling out to monstrous proportions.
Their copulations continued just the same, even after the she-Paul’s enormous womb was the size of an inflatable life raft, and then, in the middle of a clusterfuck, the she-Paul’s brood sack suddenly burst open. That’s when the giant caterpillars with the human faces made their appearance. The things were five, six feet long, as big as Alsatians, and incredibly strong.
They attacked the other four, knocked them down and raped them, inserting rubbery, tentacle-like parts from their mouth things down their throats and other flexible, probing organs into their rectums which they could feel somehow joining inside them, and causing them excruciating agony. It seemed like they suffered through entire days of this, even when the “night” came and the lights went off, until one “morning” they awoke and everything was the same as it had been before. Even Paul was back to normal again.
This was the last of the episodes of that type for a long time. Since the debauch, real or hallucinatory, they had simply been waking up, eating the food, occupying themselves as best as possible, adding to the already sizeable agglomeration of shit and piss in the toilet area, and going to sleep at “night.”
There were no more warped hallucinations, no more twisted games with the can opener, nothing out of the ordinary except for the essential dilemma of where they were. Their routine had become one of endless monotony.
And this is why it had occurred to all of them that something new was about to happen, that the conditions of their captivity would soon be taking a new turn for the better or worse. Gerald’s appearance seemed to be confirmation that things would be changing soon. It was the first break in the monotony in … well, in a very long time.
It was Alan who first noticed something taking form at one corner of the room. This was while they were finishing eating the last of the dented cans of Heinz lima beans from the food delivery.
With the can, from which he had been slopping rancid beans into his mouth tipped at an angle, he sat stock still and stared at the apparition as it took form. He called to the others, who looked in the direction of what Alan saw, which was a male human figure, wearing casual clothes, and a plain blue ball cap. He stood near the door and looked at the six captives with a bemused expression, but he didn’t say a word until they had all silently approached him.
“Do you know me?” he asked. “Huh, assholes? Do you know me?”
“Don’t tell me we’re in an American Express commercial,” Gerald, whose sense of humor had not yet been killed by adversity, said.
“Oh, you’re quick, I’ll give you that,” the guy responded. “You’re really very, very quick.”
“Jump this guy,” Gerald shouted. “He’s from outside.” He made a move toward the figure and crashed right through it, hitting his head hard on the solid steel door.
“Okay, so you’re some kind of hologram or something,” Paul shouted. “Who the fuck are you?”
“So you don’t know me, right? Don’t answer that. You don’t have to answer that. I’ll tell you who I am. I’m the guy who put you here, that’s who I am. I’m the guy who had all six of you drugged, abducted and brought to his place, which might, or might not be on a remote island somewhere in the Mediterranean that I happen to own.”
“Why, man?” Alan shouted. “Why’d you do this to us?”
“Ah, there’s the fuckin’ rub!” the guy answered back, patting Alan on the cheek with a solid-feeling hand. “But you have a right to ask. After all you’ve been through, you got a right to know. So I’ll tell you. In a word, ‘revenge.’ I brought you six assholes together to get revenge.”
“Revenge on who exactly?” Paul asked.
“Ah,” he said, with a broad grin. “Now you’re getting to the heart of the matter. Who indeed?”
“Fuck you and your riddles,” Gerald cursed. “Talk straight, you prick!”
“Spoken like a true asshole,” the guy told him. “Okay. Here’s how it is. One of you dickwads has made a very serious boo-boo. This guy fucked me over. But he fucked with the wrong guy when he fucked with me. The other five of you are innocent, at least as far as I’m concerned because nobody’s really innocent, if you get my drift. I chose you at random.”
“But why — ” Paul began.
“Shut up and let me finish, jerk,” the guy silenced him. “Like I said, one guy is guilty, five are innocent. The deal is this. Between yourselves, you find the guilty party and you kill him. How you do it is your own business, but if you find the asshole and kill him, then I’ll let the other five go. Scout’s honor.”
“Just like that,” Rich said. “We kill one guy and you let the other five go.”
“Yeah, and how would we even know which one is guilty,” Alan put in, “assuming we accept what you’re telling us to begin with?”
“How you assholes find the scumbag is your own business,” the speaker replied. “But yeah, I’ll let the rest of you walk. Just like that. Providing, of course, it’s the right one. That’s the catch.”
“What you’re suggesting is completely crazy,” Paul told him. “We’re supposed to kill one of us, without knowing who it is or what he’s done to deserve it. This is just another twisted headgame. Frankly, we expected it, you fucking sadist.”
“Sure it’s a game,” the guy said. “What isn’t? But you think it over. By the way, you guys can call me ‘the Doge’ from now on. As in ‘the Doge of Venice.'” Before he vanished he pulled something from a pocket and tossed it on the floor. “Read ’em and weep, guys,” he added. “But we’ll talk later. After one of you is dead.”
Then he disappeared. What he’d left behind were obituaries from various local newspapers published across the United States. The obituaries were for every one of them, all six, including Gerald. The causes of death were various.
Paul was reported to have died in a boating accident off Cape Hataras. Alan had been hit by a crosstown bus going east along 72nd Street in Manhattan. Mike was the victim of a robbery-murder in a liquor store he owned. Rich committed suicide by drowning himself in a lake. Duane had fallen into what was described as “automotive machinery.” Gerald had died in a plane crash between O’Hare and La Guardia airports, though his occupation was listed as “noted cellist” instead of “car salesman.”
“More mindfucking,” Paul said, after reading the clippings. “These could have been printed anywhere.”
“Maybe we’re even hallucinating again,” Rich suggested.
“Definite possibility,” Paul replied. “Holograms can’t produce material objects like newspaper clippings, for one thing. For another let’s examine what it is we saw. I saw a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses in leisure clothes. What about you? Alan, you first.”
“I saw the same guy, but he had on a ball cap and wasn’t wearing glasses,” Alan said.
“I saw a kind of clown with angel’s wings,” Gerald said.
“I saw a blob,” Mike said. “Just a black, churning blob that talked.”
Duane had seen a burning bush while Rich hadn’t seen anything, only heard the “Doge’s” voice coming out of thin air.
“See what I mean?” Paul summed up. “We’ve all seen different things. It’s just another hallucination.”
“I don’t know,” Rich ventured. “This one was different. Especially the part about the obituaries. None of the other hallucinations left anything behind before. And none of them spoke to us. This one was different.”
“Yeah, and there’s something else I just realized,” Alan put in. “The lights are still on. They didn’t go off. They usually do around this time. It’s like they want us to, you know, make our decision.”
They looked at each other for awhile.
“What did that guy call himself?” Rich asked.
“The Doge of Venice,” Paul reminded him.
“Hey, Gerald,” Mike next said, “didn’t you say the last thing you remembered was being in Venice?”
“Yeah, so what?” he shot back.
“So nothing. There was just this connection between what you said and what the, uh, Doge told us.”
“So what are you implying?” Gerald asked edgily.
“Good. Because I didn’t like the sound of what I heard.”
“But it’s funny, though,” Alan remarked. “I mean, that it’s awhile since anybody new shows up, and then you come along, and suddenly this guy, or whatever he is, appears to us. And first you say ‘Venice’ and then he says ‘Venice.'”
They all looked at each other again, without speaking, and then everybody’s gaze fell back on Gerald. Paul stopped Gerald from being scapegoated by quickly interposing himself between him and Mike and Rich, who’d simultaneously taken steps in Gerald’s direction, and for awhile Gerald sat isolated and brooding against the wall. But the rest of them talked it over, and the more they talked it over the more it looked like Gerald was the guy the Doge had meant.
And, after all, the lights were still on. For the first time in what seemed like months, the “night” hadn’t come.
Paul couldn’t stop the other four a second time when they went for Gerald, who punched Alan in the face and ran off, only to be grabbed and held by Mike and Rich while Alan and Duane punched and kicked him as savagely as they could.
Gerald was far from dead, though. Covered with his own blood, he managed to break loose again and run for the room’s steel door. He pounded furiously on it, but it of course wouldn’t even budge, let alone open.
As they came for him again, he ran toward the room’s other end. They caught him by the toilet, and he went pitching into a large mound of shit. Rich broke one of the chairs across Gerald’s back while Alan and Duane held Gerald’s face in the shit until he couldn’t help breathing it in.
Gripping the pieces of the smashed chair, Rich looked at Paul and held out the fragments. Slowly, hesitantly, Paul reached out. Then, morosely shaking his head, he took the fragments, and smashed Gerald viciously across the spine, holding the jagged remnants of the seat and two chair legs in both of his hands.
After Gerald was dead, they backed away from the corpse, shocked by what they had just done, but at the same time elated by the knowledge that by his death they would all be freed from their prison.
Covered with blood and shit, without a word spoken, the five survivors approached the place where the Doge had made his first appearance, and waited for him to reappear.
They knew that he would. They knew. Because the lights were still on, and the night hadn’t come, and for the first time in who knew how long, they had done something that, if not exactly of their own free will, was at least under the circumstances a fairly close approximation.