After a lifetime of city living, Howard didn’t
know what to expect when he drove to the Volker’s remote vacation home in the country.
What he found was a twisting maze of redwoods lining the isolated roads. By dusk he
feared he was lost, and began to panic that he’d be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually he found the residence, grateful to arrive before nightfall.
He really shouldn’t have been there. As
a copyright lawyer, his experience was with companies led by the brightest minds in Silicon
Valley, finalizing patents for innovative technology certain to revolutionize the 2020’s.
Then he burned out. Howard retreated to the slow pace of a private consultant, which he
found enjoyable though uneventful until he received a letter from an Ike Volker seeking
a lawyer on behalf of his ailing father, the Peter
Volker. Unable to resist work from the legend himself, Howard accepted.
Howard, along with the rest of America, had seen
the Volkers many times in movie theaters. Howard’s parents grew up watching Peter
Volker and his wife Blanch star in black and white dramas, box office smashes now relegated
to the sentimental past. Peter and Blanch’s three children; Ike, Patty, and Joan,
were less successful actors, featured in respectable roles, although never the same caliber
as their parents. The entire Volker clan eventually disappeared into obscurity, becoming
a family of recluses.
for Hollywood royalty, the power couple divorced. Rumor had it Peter was too domineering
to tolerate, so Blanch left her family to live the life of an aging movie queen alone,
up until last week, when she died at age 85. Examining her will, Howard suspected she
planned to live forever, since the details of the document were vague and several assets
unmentioned. This necessitated legal counsel.
As time-consuming as it was to drive
up for an in-person meeting, Howard regrettably didn’t have a choice. At first, Ike
insisted everything be done through the mail, forcing Howard to explain with firm insistence
that the Volker family had to sign certain documents with an official notary (i.e. Howard)
present, in addition to hashing out various complex details. Ike eventually agreed. All
this resistance left Howard feeling like an unwanted guest as he parked his car under the
shadow of the estate.
The house had the charm of a rusted and abandoned luxury
vehicle. All the windows were completely shattered, each one sealed up with boards. The
shutters were in need of a fresh coat of paint. One of the gutters was split with decaying
orange leaves sticking out. The front door was hunter green, which accentuated the milk
white spider webs on the hinges. Howard lifted his legs to wipe his shoes but, finding
no mat, skipped that nicety and knocked.
The door opened to reveal Ike Volker. In his mind, Howard had pictured Ike just
as he was last seen on screen long ago: stunning with his tan complexion, blond hair and
youthful body wearing an eager grin for the camera. Instead, Ike greeted him with a gaunt,
anemic face, his photogenic smile replaced with thin lips and his drab brown eyes locked
in a stare as dull as a mannequin’s.
The silence was broken when Howard heard: “Ike greets the lawyer and welcomes
him.” Except Ike didn’t say this. From inside the house, a voice of an elderly
man, emitted from some electronic device, had made that announcement. Ike raised his arm,
motioning Howard inside. This disconnect between voice and body caused Howard to take a
reflexive step back, but out of a fear of being impolite, he entered, the door closing
All the lights were on inside, but
each bulb was so dimmed that Howard's eyes required a minute to adjust to the near darkness.
The faint light was similar to a movie theater, where only a smidge of illumination allowed
a patron to find his or her way in from the concession stand or restroom. Howard sniffed
the air, almost expecting the aroma of popcorn and butter.
They entered the foyer. Above was a chandelier, the gold
center chipped, each dangling crystal coated in dust. On the walls were pictures of Peter
Volker, from his early vaudeville days to more dignified roles at the close of his career.
shows the lawyer to the drawing room.”
Again, that same older voice provided Ike with directions. Ike pointed
to two open French doors. Howard approached the drawing room, as the voice said, “Ike
locks the front door.” Howard heard behind him not one, but three clicks as Ike locked
the door. The family was hell bent on being hermetically sealed off from the world.
Stepping into the drawing room, Howard became confident the interior’s resemblance
to a theater was deliberate. All the seats faced the same direction: high sofas in the
back, smaller chairs in the front, tapered in height like an auditorium. Heavy maroon curtains
hung from the ceiling, hiding the thick boards nailing the windows shut. Wedged in
the corner, bolted to the wall, a large intercom speaker, the source of the voice. The
speaker was chrome and modern, out of place in the aged house whose walls were dawned with
sepia pictures from the past.
In the seat closest to
Howard (the front row), sat a woman he assumed to be Patty. Her build in the past had been
athletic, and the talk of Hollywood was that she performed her own stunts. But here her
face was round with flabby cheeks and fat, puffy bags under her eyes.
“Patty rises to greet the lawyer,”
said the voice. Patty did so, and lifted a plump hand for Howard to shake.
“Everyone sits, and the three exchange pleasantries.”
Ike and Patty complied. Patty opened her mouth, her eyes showing no life behind
them as the intercom asked, “how was your drive? Did you find the house all right?”
Patty closed her mouth, reminding him of a wind up doll with a grainy recording for a voice.
a deep breath, choking on the stuffy odor from the worn cushions on antique furniture:
once glamorous art deco pieces riddled with nostalgia and moth balls.
“If you don’t mind me asking...who
is that on the intercom?” What he really wanted to ask was ‘what is wrong with
you and what the hell is going on?’ but this brief time alone with the Volkers was
likely just a glimpse of a greater madness. He would proceed with caution, as if they
were sleeping beasts, and avoid the risk of upsetting them into a frenzy.
“This is Peter Volker. I am too ill to leave the bedroom.
Please excuse this unusual get up,” said Peter from the intercom.
“Well... OK Mr. Volker, but you may want to actually
see the docume—”
“Joan brings in finger foods for the lawyer,” Peter
interrupted. Joan’s silhouette appeared in the doorway. She walked over holding a
silver dish of warm shrimp fanned out in a circle around a saucer of vivid red cocktail
sets the tray down,” Peter narrated, and Joan rested the tray on a nearby table.
In her past roles, Joan often played the elegant and mysterious woman, looking lustful
and attractive on a balcony above the main protagonist, smoking an expensive cigarette
in the moonlight. Up close, she was now bony with awkward limbs and skittish eyes.
“Joan goes to the kitchen to chop vegetables
for dinner.” Joan complied, leaving Howard with Ike and Patty. “The lawyer
sits, eats a snack, and begins the reading of the will.”
Howard did sit but only looked at the shrimp,
his appetite slipping away by the second. He turned to the intercom, but couldn’t
bring himself to talk to a metal box. So, he spoke as if to Peter, while facing Ike
and Patty. As he began, he heard the sound of carrots being sliced in the kitchen.
“So, the will from Mrs. Volker is a bit
of a mess, I’m afraid.” Howard pulled the will out of his briefcase. “Blanch
Volker acquired several possessions since her will was last updated ten years ago. Most
of her assets will be split between her three children. The summer home in the
Catskills and two of her cars were just left, ‘to family’. That’ll be the more
difficult part, how to divy that up.”
“The lawyer completed his duty.”
Howard rested the document in his lap. “Well...no sir,
I haven’t. Even for the more organized sections, I’ll at least need one signature
from each of you,” he pulled out another sheet, “and we need to go over transferring
the monies to the respective bank accounts. Cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s.”
He handed a pen to Ike. “If you’d like to sign here, by the X.”
Ike and Patty sat like sacks of flour, Howard’s
words stirred no reaction. If not for their occasional blinking, Howard would assume
they had died in their chairs, gone to join their mother.
“Ike and Patty comply with the lawyer’s request.” Ike took
the pen, signed by the X, then handed it to Patty, who did the same.
a start,’ he thought, grateful to get closer to leaving. Howard lifted his head
and spoke a bit louder, “and Joan, I’ll need your signature as well.”
She remained out of sight until Peter said, “Joan enters the drawing
room. Joan complies with the lawyer’s request.” Joan followed her father’s
words, signing next to her brother and sister’s signature, then remained standing,
only inches from Howard, holding a butcher knife in one hand, the blade slimy from raw
Joan stood immobile, staring straight
ahead. Only her faint breathing betrayed the life inside her. Howard shifted in the seat,
leaning away from the woman who appeared broken, too damaged to find her way back to the
kitchen. He really wished she’d lose the knife.
“Joan goes to the kitchen.” She did,
and Howard breathed a sigh of relief.
“The lawyer stands to leave.”
seated, placing his finger on the paper, still several legal steps short of an escape.
“Unfortunately sir, I do need you to sign here too. If you like, I can come up to
your room for your convenience. Then we have to discuss—”
hands the lawyer a check.” Ike reached his arm out in a stiff motion, and Howard
took the check from his hands.
He looked at the amount. “Oh God...sir...this is...way more than
the price for my consultation. Really, this is…”
“The lawyer will be compensated for his discretion.”
The large sum
couldn’t change the fact that the drive up was pointless without all four of the
Volker’s signatures. This strange arrangement was beginning to get tiresome and the
children had proven themselves useless. On the other hand, Peter Volker, although eccentric
and clearly deranged, could surely provide a signature if Howard came to him.
Perhaps even work with him on the more intricate details of the will.
“We actually got a bit more to do. But before we address
that, may I use the restroom?”
“The first floor bathroom needs cleaning,” said Peter.
“I’ll...uh...use it anyway. I’m sure it's
fine. I’ll find it myself. No need to trouble getting up.”
through the foyer he found the bathroom across from a staircase leading to the second
floor. Out of sight from the children, he dared to take a few steps up, finding a closed
door at the top of the stairs, light spilling out from the bottom.
Checking once again that nobody would follow him (‘how
could they?’ he thought, ‘they haven't been instructed to’), he tiptoed
upstairs, careful not to cause creaking on the decrepit floor boards, all the while avoiding
the splinter-laced wooden banister.
Once on the second floor
he found three other doors down the hall, each with a name displayed: IKE. PATTY. JOAN.
No name was outside the door he assumed to be Peter’s. Coming from inside Peter’s
room was a low and steady hum, which Howard assumed was some appliance. Perhaps a heater.
He knocked softly. No answer. Howard knocked again, this time twisting the knob and walking
in. Peter wasn’t there.
Directly in front of Howard, standing up on a table was a
smart device he instantly recognized: Janus. Howard was quite familiar with this model,
and was on the legal team that drafted the patent. Janus served as a virtual assistant,
artificial intelligence that could converse with the user.
Beside that was a microphone for the intercom, the ON
button kept down with duct tape. Any noise would be announced through the house. He’d
have to tread carefully. Howard read on the screen:
Tuesday (Lawyer version)
the family wakes up
the family brushes their teeth
>0845: Joan makes breakfast. Ike reads the mail. Patty brings
her father the newspaper.
He scrolled down to the time he arrived.
>18:00: Lawyer (keywords:
Sign. Will. Payment. Snack. )
Howard swiped over to the main menu.
Name: Peter Volker
Voice: male, older (#11)
He stopped reading and stepped away, afraid to set the
device off. The walls were covered with movie posters, starring Peter Volker. Some as a
cowboy, some as a soldier, one as a tuxedoed spy. The back of the small room had a bed,
royal blue covers neatly made and tucked in. A newspaper rested on top of the pillow. Beside
that was the source of the low hum: a freezer.
The contents of the room allowed the entire morbid picture
to fall into place. The children had lived with their father in this house. Peter Volker,
as controlling as his reputation claimed, micro-managed the family minute by minute. When
too debilitated to walk, he would bark orders into the intercom from his room.
maybe last week, maybe last month, or years ago, Peter died. The children, so used to
living under his command, paid top dollar for a programmed smart device to replicate the
patriarch’s voice and schedule so nothing would change. They could continue to live
the only way they knew how: with dear father dictating each and every decision of their
need to look in the freezer to know what lay inside, a thought too overwhelming to stomach.
He hoped to disprove his own theory by opening the freezer to find something harmless,
like pizzas or steaks. That his intuition was wrong, a victim of an overactive imagination.
His fingertips pried the top open, feeling the cold air run up along
his hands and arms, releasing a hissing sound. Through the sliver of light he saw the frigid
eyes of Peter Volker, lids frozen open, the body of a star sealed shut and preserved alongside
his legacy, cared for by his most devoted fans.
Howard recoiled and whispered to himself, “who the hell
are these people?”
“This is Peter Volker.” Howard jumped. “I am too ill to
leave the bedroom. Please excuse this unusual get up,” Janus announced, eager to
answer his question.
whispered Howard, but that only made things worse.
“Joan stops stirring the soup.”
Howard heard the scraping of furniture against the hardwood
floor down below. Footsteps at the base of the stairs grew louder along with his thudding
heart. These steps were different from before. These were not docile and submissive saunters
but a panicked and unhinged hustling coming right for him. He held the screen close to
his face and scrolled through the menu, his fingers trembling, searching for some command
to make them go back downstairs.
“Daddy!” Ike screeched. He arrived faster than
expected, and in a bolt of startled terror Howard dropped the device, where it broke in
half on the floor. In the doorway stood Ike and Patty, with Joan a few feet behind them,
her hands up to her face, still clutching the handle of the knife.
A dead silence spread through the house. The three
Volkers stared at the cracked case and busted circuits they had relied on for their
shared delusion, too stunned to move, as if reliving their father’s death all over
“You killed daddy!” Ike and Patty swarmed Howard, forcing him to the ground.
Patty used her weight to press on Howard’s chest, and Ike’s moist, soft hands
gripped his throat, all the while crying, “you killed daddy, you killed daddy…”
In his fight
for survival Howard barely noticed Joan creeping behind them, her arms jerking wildly in
the air, the light reflecting off the blade of the knife. “What are we supposed to
do? What are we going to do! Ike! Pat! What do we do now?” She asked, pacing. Howard’s
vision started to fade. He grew dizzy. Patty pounded on his chest. Ike barked in his face.
Howard kicked at them to no avail.
In a surge of energy he managed to force Ike’s hands
off his neck just enough to whisper, “Ike stops choking the lawyer.” His voice
was hoarse from strangulation, and he was unsure if they understood him. Ike
stopped. “The children backed away from the lawyer.” All three did.
Howard massaged his throat and looked up. The faces had
lost a bit of their venom, but each one was still quite shaken. He contemplated making
a run for it, but between the three of them (and Joan’s knife) he doubted he could
make it out alive.
goes back to make dinner.” The three looked at one another. Joan cautiously stepped
away, heading downstairs. “Ike and Patty help the lawyer off the ground.” Ike
reached out a hand, helping Howard to his feet. “The lawyer, Ike and Patty go downstairs
together.” They did.
His breath returning, Howard ran to the front door.
Claustrophobia gripped him as he pulled on the door. It didn’t budge, locked shut
with three different combination locks.
Howard’s voice rose, shouting into the air, “the Volkers
unlock the door.” He spun around, finding Ike and Patty standing shoulder to shoulder
by the base of the stairs. Joan stuck her head out from the kitchen. Three pairs of hungry,
glassy eyes looked back, all glaring at Howard one warning: don’t stop. His release
was the one command they would not obey.
To avoid another attack, Howard muttered, “the lawyer
joins the Volkers in the dining room for dinner.” As he ate the roasted chicken and
sipped his soup, he would pause throughout the meal to instruct Ike to cut his potatoes,
Patty to drink some juice, or Joan to add more salt.
The hesitance between him and the family subsided, and a
truce was struck: he would avoid slaughter if he played along. Howard was resigned
to this fate until he thought of a way out. So, he continued for one week, then two, then
The lawyer was losing hope.
Logan McConnell is a 29-year-old health care worker.
He is a lifelong reader and new to writing fiction. He has an upcoming short story for
Schlock! Webzine this winter. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia
E. Butler. and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in
Tennessee. Twitter: @LMwriter91