Another gorgeous day in paradise.
Well, it wasn't really that gorgeous. The sky was white with smog rather than a traditional clear blue, and out-side the air-conditioned environment of his Lexus, the temperature was far too warm to be comfortable. And it wasn't really paradise. Just a few blocks down Sunset, transplanted pieces of used white trash, their dreams of stardom shattered, were either working as record store sales clerks, selling their bodies on the street or dealing drugs in their grim attempts to make ends meet.
But here in Victor Lowry's world, everything was ﬁne. Tentative tourists were walking up the Rodeo Drive sidewalks with their usual mixture of bravado and ner-vousness, knowing they didn't belong but still prepared to aggressively defend their presence at the drop of a hat, while the matrons of Beverly Hills emerged from their gated homes on their way to multihour lunches with their friends and the young brides of older execu-tives jogged along the winding roads pushing elaborately customized baby strollers.
Victor ﬂew by them all, ignoring the speed limit as he swooped down the hill toward Wilshire and his ofﬁce, CD player cranked up to earsplitting volume. Banners for the latest exhibition at the LA County Museum of Art hung from streetlamps as he turned left off La Brea. His parents were donors and permanent members, and he'd gone to the museum practically once a week when he was a kid. But the exposure hadn't taken, and it had been years since he'd been inside the buildings. He felt guilty about that-but not guilty enough to actually start going. His interest was in pop culture not high culture, and the way he saw it, life was too short to go around feigning interest in subjects that didn't appeal to him . . . even if it would impress other people.
Like his dad.
Victor turned hard into the underground parking ga-rage, waving his electronic passkey to open the gate and pulling into the space marked with his name. There was no reason for him to have his own ofﬁce, really, but apparently his father wanted him to pretend that he was some sort of businessman, that he had skills and talents of his own and wasn't merely coasting through life on the coattails of his family.
Victor got into the garage elevator and pressed the button for ﬁfteen.
The old man was one of those power-of-positive-thinking guys. He didn't seem to realize that it was luck more than anything else that had led to his prosperity, and he continued to believe that focus and determina-tion accounted for his success. It was why he had called his son ''Victor.'' He'd wanted to give him a name that meant something, that was descriptive of something to which he could aspire, and though Victor didn't really like his name, at least it was a name-as opposed to ''Champion'' and some of the other appellations that his dad had originally considered, all of which sounded like descriptions of racehorses.
The ofﬁce had been a carrot, an attempt to woo him into a life of purpose and productivity. He even had his own secretary, Amy. And while Victor still didn't ﬁnd the business world at all appealing, he felt obligated to put on the engaged-and-highly-motivated-son act and, at the very least, go through the motions. Because if he didn't make a go of it, Amy would be unemployed, as would several programmers who did not work out of his ofﬁce but over whom he was in charge. He didn't want that on his conscience.
Slowly but surely, against his will, his dad was reeling him in.
Victor resented him for that.
The elevator arrived at the ﬁfteenth ﬂoor, and he walked down the carpeted hallway past the mortgage company and the property management ﬁrm to the un-marked door that led to his ofﬁce. Amy was typing something on her computer and she looked up when he entered. ''Good morning, Mr. Lo-Victor,'' she cor-rected herself.
He smiled. ''Good catch.''
''Sorry. I'm still not used to the informality.''
''That's what working for my dad'll do to you.''
Amy held out a stack of mail. ''Are you in today?''
''For the morning,'' he said. He walked past her desk into his private ofﬁce, pretending to sort through the mail. Victor liked Amy, but he had a sneaking suspicion that part of her job was to keep tabs on him and report back to his dad. It was why, even after six months, the two of them were emotionally still at arm's length with each other, and why he spent most of his time away from her. Several times, he'd considered letting her know what his dad had told him, that despite her loyalty and hard work, she would be out on her ear should Victor screw up this opportunity. But he had the feeling that she would immediately tell the old man, who would feed her a reassuring lie, and then his relationships with both his father and his secretary would be more strained than they already were.
He threw the mail on his desk and stood next to the window, looking down at the trafﬁc on Wilshire Boule-vard. He shouldn't have come in today. He should have just called Amy, told her he was busy, and spent the day cruising around, having fun.
There was still the afternoon.
He ﬂopped down into his chair, turned on his PC and then swiveled around in a circle while he waited for the computer to boot up. There wasn't really any work for him to do, but if he touched base with the programmers, had Amy send an update memo to their clients and an-swered his e-mail, it would look like he'd accomplished something today and he could bail, guilt free, after lunch.
Victor accessed his e-mail. There was the usual spam and assorted interbusiness correspondence, but jumping out at him was a message from his father, sent earlier this morning. He called it up, his stomach already tight-ening. Whenever his dad e-mailed him, it was always with some sort of ''suggestion'' that was really nothing more than veiled criticism of his job performance, a helpful reminder that he was not as smart or as success-ful as he should be.
Not this time, though.
Instead of words, streaming video appeared on his monitor, and the knot in Victor's stomach tightened even further as he watched, his dread growing as he viewed the unfolding images. A close-up of a growling dog's face pulled back to reveal that the dog's head was severed and sitting atop what looked like a wedding cake. The camera panned around, ﬁnding not only the animal's lifeless, bloody body on a white-sheeted bed, but a mutilated bride and groom lying on the bedroom ﬂoor, their faces shoved into matching dog bowls. Words appeared onscreen, white letters against a black back-ground: THIS IS WHERE IT BEGINS.
Suddenly, two naked old people, an Asian man and a dark, possibly Hispanic, woman, were in what looked like an empty garage, dancing crazily on oil-stained ce-ment, lunatic smiles held tight on their otherwise pain-racked faces.
The man's genitals had been hacked off.
The woman's breasts had been sliced from her chest.
Both were bleeding profusely from their wounds, the blood mixing with the dried oil on the garage ﬂoor and making a sickening sticky puddle. No audio accompanied the images, and the sight of the two old people in their grotesque dance seemed all the more frightening for the silence. It gave the scene, in a strange way, a documen-tary verisimilitude that sound would have lessened.
The dancing grew quicker, more jerky, as though the camera had sped up, and the entire scene spun, became blurry, segueing into an extreme close-up of a yellow plaque-covered tooth, which once again pulled back to show the growling mouth of the dead dog.
Victor stared at the blank screen, feeling more un-nerved than he'd expected. He'd seen far worse things in horror movies, but the immediacy of the video and the sense that it was real, that it was a recording of actual events rather than a staged depiction of a ﬁctional narrative, made it seem especially disconcerting to him.
And the fact that it had been sent to him by his dad? That was the creepiest thing of all.
Copyright © 2023 by Bentley Little. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.