Author's Note: This novella was inspired by Jonathan Coulton's amazing mad-scientist-in-love song, "Skullcrusher Mountain." Jonathan Coulton releases all his material under an Attribution/Non-Commercial Creative Commons license, which makes fan-derived works like this one possible.
Of all the ways Jenna Masterson had thought her day might end, none had included being slung over the shoulder of some monstrous, hairy…well, she supposed she'd call him a man for now, since she wasn't sure what else he could be. He walked on two legs, had two arms and a head and features roughly where they were supposed to be, but after that any similarity to any man she'd ever known before came to a screeching halt.
She hadn't had much opportunity for anything more than a quick disbelieving stare before he'd grabbed her and thrown her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Her camera had gone one way and her digital recorder another, and her purse was probably still rolling down the side of the mountain. Not that she'd had anything more threatening in there than a half used-up tube of Rum Raisin lipstick.
Maybe if she'd listened to Old Henry down at the drugstore, she wouldn't be in this mess. He'd tried to warn her, but of course she hadn't listened.
"You'll want to stay off Skullcrusher," he'd said as he handed her a bag containing the lip balm and bug repellent she'd just purchased.
"Off what?" she asked, blinking at him. Was he psychic? How had he known that she was buying the bug repellent in preparation for an exploratory trip up the side of the mountain?
She hadn't been in Plainfield very long, and she supposed he might be pulling her leg. Then again, Old Henry (everyone seemed to call him that, from her landlady to the barrista at Starbucks…trust Starbucks to have an outlet even here in the boonies) didn't seem to be exactly the joking type. She'd seen cheerier expressions on Basset hounds.
Jenna had taken the bag from him and raised her eyebrows. "You mean Black's Peak?" It was the only place within twenty miles of Plainfield that deserved to be called a mountain, although back in Southern California it would have hardly rated a second glance.
He made a noise deep in his throat that might've been a chuckle. Then again, he could have just been fighting with a particularly belligerent piece of phlegm. "That's what it says on the map, but it's Skullcrusher. Just stay away, and you'll do fine."
At the time she'd thought maybe Old Henry was a decade or so past retirement and talking dementia-induced nonsense, but now she knew better. There was a reason he'd called this place Skullcrusher. God knows she was getting a headache right now, what with the way her skull kept knocking into the unknown Neanderthal's shoulder blade with every enormous step he took.
She couldn't really tell where they were headed, as her best view at the moment was of the hard-packed dirt and pine needles underfoot, and even that sight was diminishing rapidly. It had been well past five when she'd turned to put her camera away. The sun had been hovering just a few degrees above the horizon, and she'd known enough to realize that needed to get back to her car before dark. Not that she'd had the chance, as her captor had grabbed her just as she'd begun to unclasp the messenger bag she used to carry the camera and its spare batteries and one of the little notepads she took with her everywhere.
Now dusk was just about to give way to full dark — no shilly-shallying around with long, blood-tinged, smoggy sunsets out here; no, nighttime fell in a brisk and businesslike fashion, as no–nonsense as the rest of Plainfield's residents. By now she should have been safely back in the little two-bedroom house she was renting on the west side of town. Instead, she was being hauled steadily upward by the Missing Link…or at least its long-lost cousin.
Because they definitely were climbing, on and on into an increasingly dark night. The surveyor maps she'd looked at back in the newspaper offices pegged Skullcrusher Mountain — Black's Peak, that is — at 3,677 feet, which would have classified it as a foothill in her native Southern California. But here, climbing up out of the flat plain that had given the town its name, it looked, well, mountainous.
Not tall enough to deter the ambulatory hulk who had snatched her. How he was able to see in the dark, she had no idea; the sun was gone, and the moon not due out for some hours, but he moved steadily, with no missteps or stumbles. She supposed she should be grateful for that. All the head-bobbing was painful enough without factoring a trip over a tree root or a gopher hole into the equation.
If they even had gophers up here, of course.
She'd tried screaming when he first snatched her, on the off chance there might be some hikers or thrill-seeking teenagers roaming around in the woods. The Missing Link's cousin hadn't even bothered to tell her to shut up, and after a few minutes of turning her throat into the vocal equivalent of chopped sirloin, she realized he'd let her scream because there was in fact no one around to hear her. Ever since that moment of clarity, the journey up the mountainside had passed in silence.
And it was quiet up here…too quiet. Shouldn't she have been hearing the first owls, or sounds of some sorts of creatures in the forest? People in Plainfield had warned her about wolves, saying that the packs had been coming west out of Yellowstone for years. Not that she was really looking forward to a run-in with a bunch of possibly rabid wild canines, but at least a wolf call or two would have reassured her that she and her captor weren't the only living things on the whole mountain.
Then the Neanderthal slowed to a stop. She heard grinding metal and twisted around, trying to peer past the mass of his deltoids to see what had finally halted his steady upward climb. A reddish light flowed out of an opening in the mountainside. She blinked. Were those torches?
"Not yet," he said, the first words he had spoken since he seized her. A large ham-like fist descended, and everything went black.
She was exquisite. The best yet. She lay on the cot where Scarface had placed her, hair a fiery mass against the pillow. Her lashes formed two dark crescents against her cheeks. He knew it was necessary for Scarface to knock the women out before they were brought in here, and yet he wished she were awake.
He wondered what color her eyes were. Blue? Green? He supposed he would know soon enough.
Scarface lingered to one side, watching. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck and said, "She's a screamer, Master."
His tone was too flat to be construed as overtly critical, but it still required some rebuke. "You say that about all of them."
"It's because they all scream."
He knew there was no arguing with that statement. Yes, he supposed that someone taken off her guard might scream when confronted by as imposing a specimen as Scarface. But of course he wouldn't admit that Scarface was right; doing so would only be a sign of weakness.
With some effort he turned away from his latest captive. Although he would have liked nothing more than to wait there until she awoke, he knew it would be some time before she regained consciousness. Scarface could bring her to him when the time came. It was always better to have the women come to him in the laboratory, where they could be properly impressed by their surroundings.
"I'll be in my lab," he said, and left without bothering to wait for Scarface's nod. His assistant knew what to do.
As did he.
The last time she'd felt this craptastic had been after a night of drinking tequila shots at El Coyote with that photographer from Newsweek. Jenna pressed a hand against her throbbing forehead and forced herself to open her eyes.
A stone ceiling met her aching gaze. The light in here was odd — yellowish orange, with a strange flickering quality. Torches?
Stifling a groan, she sat up and took a quick glance around. No, not torches, but sconces which emitted illumination that at first glance appeared to be from candles but was far brighter. She forced her shaking legs over the edge of the cot and stood, then stumbled the few feet to the barred wall that enclosed the space where she'd been left. One of those odd sconces was only a few feet away. By standing on her tiptoes, she could just see inside. It held a rectangular element, from which the not-candlelight emerged. It did waver the way a candle would, but the pulses were too regular, as if the device had been programmed to imitate a flickering flame but had fallen just a little short on the verisimilitude factor.
"The Master invented those," came a deep, almost familiar voice, and she whirled. The Neanderthal stood a few feet away from the bars of her cage.
His appearance did not improve on closer inspection. Now she could see the horrible scars that crisscrossed his face, turning his features into the world's most frightening topological map. What the hell had happened to him — tragic incident with a threshing machine when he was a boy?
"The Master?" she echoed.
"I will bring you to him now." From somewhere within the enormous shapeless coat he wore he pulled out a set of keys, one of which he stuck into the lock of her cell.
For one wild second Jenna entertained the idea of rushing him, taking him off-guard while the cell door was barely open, and fleeing into the night. Then she took a second look at the length of his arms and guessed he could probably grab her before she got two feet. She sighed. So much for heroics.
Meekly, she stepped out of the cell and allowed him to guide her down a short corridor and then up a long, winding flight of stairs. She noticed that the steps beneath her feet, the walls around her, and even the roof above were all carved out of dark-gray granite. Maybe she'd watched too many James Bond movies with her dad when she was a kid, but the place looked just like the secret lair of some super-villain.
Which two hours ago she would have said was impossible and crazy, but who else but a complete whack-job would live in the guts of a mountain and employ someone who looked like the Missing Link to do his dirty work?
"Who's the Master?" she asked, the words sounding a little breathless even to her. Apparently, all the stair-climbing machines in the world couldn't quite prepare a person for the endless stairways inside Black's Peak. Her head pounded in time with each step, and she wondered whether she dared ask for some ibuprofen.
That sounded ominous. She tried to imagine what kind of man would have the cojones to boss someone like the Hulk here around, got a few mash-ups that fell somewhere between Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, and gave up. Unfortunately, sheprobably would know soon enough. At last the stairs ended, and they emerged in a long, wide hallway. More of the sconces lit this area. From somewhere off in the distance she thought she heard male voices, but she saw no one. Not that anyone roaming around in here would be likely to help her out. Besides, while unnecessary heroics sometimes got you on the five o'clock news, they could also lead to you being messily dead. She'd rather wait and see how things shook out.
The hallway ended in a pair of riveted steel doors. Her captor paused and placed his thumb on what appeared to be a state-of-the-art biometric scanner on the wall to their right, and the doors swung inward.
Beyond the doors was a room that could have been cobbled together from every mad scientists' wet dream from the dawn of black and white horror movies. Banks of equipment whose purpose she couldn't even guess at thrummed and pulsed with strange light. Some kind of generator hummed off in a corner. Rows and rows of glass vials and jars — some filled with unpleasantly proportioned specimens — filled an enormous stack of shelves off to her left. And was that a Tesla coil arcing and sparking over there to the right?
In the midst of all this Hollywood scene-setting doesn't this need a hyphen? Scene-setting? stood a tall man in a white lab coat. His back was to the door, but he turned as Jenna and her jailer approached.
As mad scientists went, he could have been much worse. He definitely needed a haircut, and his nose was long and beaky and his eyes partially obscured by a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, but even so, she'd had worse blind dates.
"Welcome to Skullcrusher Mountain," he said. He smiled as he spoke, although there was something off about his expression, as if he really didn't have much practice smiling at people.
Despite everything, she had the overwhelming urge to burst out laughing. This had to be a joke, right? At any moment someone was going to bust out the cameras and Ashton Kutcher was going to be laughing in her face, flashing that goofy grin of his.
Then again, that stupid show had been cancelled awhile ago, hadn't it?
She crossed her arms. "The map says this is Black's Peak."
The mad scientist's smile slipped a fraction of an inch. He glanced past her to his henchman. "Scarface, leave us."
The Neanderthal nodded and then retreated out the door they'd come in through. Jenna didn't know if she should be relieved or worried that he'd been dismissed in such a summary fashion. And "Scarface"? Really? Nice way to keep throwing the guy's disfigurement right back in his, well, face.
"I am Dr. Black," the mad scientist told her. "This mountain has always belonged to my family."
"Convenient. Were they in the kidnapping business, too?"
"Well, that's usually what they call it when you grab someone and forcibly spirit her away to a secret mountain fortress."
He tilted his head to one side. She couldn't be entirely certain, because the light from the Tesla coil kept bouncing off his glasses, but she thought she saw his eyes narrow. "I prefer to refer to it as 'collecting.'"
A little surprised at her own boldness, she said, "Call it whatever you want, but I'm pretty sure it's still a federal crime even around here."
His smile reasserted itself. "Perhaps, but I don't recognize your government."
Great. So not only was he some kind of mad scientist with a yen for redheads, but he also sounded like some kind of Libertarian Tea Party nut-job. They were the kind who invariably wrote massive ten-page letters to the editor of the newspaper as to exactly why the federal income tax was illegal and why they had the right to declare himself a sovereign state and free of any obligation to the United States of America. And now she was stuck inside a mountain with one of them.
She shot a surreptitious glance around the lab but didn't see any signs of stockpiled weapons or tinfoil hats. Not that that meant anything.
"I'm sure the local branch of the FBI would find that fascinating, Dr. Black. I'm guessing they'd be willing to give you a good amount of time to explain your position — something like five to ten years, probably."
No reaction. He didn't even blink. Either he honestly didn't think he'd done anything wrong, or he was so far around the bend that the prospect of an extended stay in federal prison didn't bother him a bit.
"Dinner?" he asked.
He hadn't blinked, but she did. "Um…what?"
"It's time for dinner. If you would join me?"
And he honest-to-God held out his hand to her. Jenna stared back at him for a few seconds, once again struggling against that incongruous desire to erupt into hysterical laughter. What would he do if she refused?
But she had no doubt that he was crazy, and she'd always read it wasn't wise to upset a crazy person…especially one who appeared to have her completely in his power.
So she took a step forward, and then another, and laid her hand on top of his.
This one seemed to be smarter than the others. Not, of course, possessing an intellect anything close to his, but her apparent lack of fear and the pithy comments she'd delivered during their first encounter told him that she was a definite cut above the specimens Scarface had collected in the past.
Now she sat at the table across from him, looking quite beautiful in the reflected glow of the lamps despite her disheveled hair and stained clothing and the faint bruise on her forehead. Scarface tried to pull his punches when he could, but even the lightest of his blows always left some sort of mark.
As soon as she'd been brought here, he'd given the order for a fine meal to be prepared. Luckily, one of his henchmen had proved to be a much better cook than he was brute muscle, and dinners of late had been uniformly excellent. This meal, though, had to be a cut above even that. He wanted to make a good first impression.
This time, things would be different.
Scarface had carefully gathered up her scattered belongings and brought them to him, and so he knew that his latest catch was named Jenna Masterson, that she must not have been in the area for very long because she still had a California driver's license, and that, according to the press card she carried in her wallet, she now worked for the Plainfield Bugle. A reporter, which would explain all the questions.
She held up a piece of meat speared on a fork and inquired, "What is this?"
"You get prime rib on Skullcrusher Mountain?"
He met her gaze. She'd answered at least one of his questions; her eyes were gray-blue, like storm clouds. "I can get anything I want here."
That seemed to unnerve her a bit. She glanced away and put the piece of prime rib in her mouth and chewed deliberately. Then she lifted the glass of wine next to her plate and took a swallow. "That includes Bordeaux, apparently."
Normally he didn't drink very much, but the prime rib called out for a worthy companion, and he thought the wine might reassure her a bit. After all, that was what people did, wasn't it — had dinner with wine and conversation?
He couldn't be entirely sure, as his previous captives had spent most of their time screaming, not engaging in polite dinner chitchat. What a waste of roast goose the last one had been. He hadn't even bothered to break out the wine for her
But he had a good feeling about this Jenna. She seemed to be made of sterner stuff. He thought she might do very well. He hoped so, for her sake.
"So how do you do it?" she asked.
She paused and regarded him carefully. Her features might have appeared delicate in repose — soft, even — but when she was awake her chin had a certain forthrightness that spelled possible trouble ahead. "Live in a mountain and do apparently whatever you want. No one notices?"
"People notice what they want to." He did not think it necessary to indulge in confidences, not in this, their first encounter.
"Hmm." She lifted the wine glass and drank, giving a little nod at the end that could have meant anything. Approval of the wine, possibly, or perhaps a simple acknowledgment that he was the one in charge and therefore didn't have to give any responses he didn't want to. Then, "Old Henry told me to stay away from Skullcrusher."
Not surprising. It had been Henry Larkin's daughter who had gone missing all those years ago, who —
He reached for his own wineglass. No point in thinking of her laugh, silenced for more than twenty-five years now. He'd never dared ask his father what had happened to her, but he knew.
"Do you have a first name, Dr. Black?"
Jenna Masterson was staring at him, one eyebrow lifted slightly. He gazed back at her, nonplussed.
"Well, seeing as you were nice enough to invite me over and break out the good wine, I thought we might as well be on a first-name basis."
Impossible that she could be teasing him, but he thought he detected a certain glint in her eyes. Still, he would concede that she had a point. Giving her his name might advance a certain intimacy between them.
She made a slight choking sound, then swallowed a bit of Bordeaux. After one final cough, she replied, "Really? Is that a family name?"
He had no idea. It was the name his father had given him. "Not that I'm aware of."
"Theo," she said, as though testing out the word.
No one had ever called him that, not even his mother. But somehow he found he liked the sound of it on Jenna's lips. Yes, he would allow her to use the nickname.
"Is that better?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, it is."