Stately, plump Theresa Carbonieri came out of the bedroom and went to the stove. She started heating water for coffee.
It was Sunday morning. T.C. didn't like Sunday mornings, because nobody worked on Sunday so there was no reason for her to go around the apartment waking people up.
She emptied out the dregs of Saturday's coffee and washed the pot. Then she did the same for her ashtray.
T.C. was very fond of her ashtray. It was of a type more often found in the lobbies of hotels than in private homes, about three feet tall with a claw-footed base and a small handle at the top. The actual ashtray was glass, very deep and easily removable. She emptied it, washed it carefully and dried it, then she set it back onto its stand.
Then she lit her first cigarette of the day.
A few minutes later, as she was pouring herself a cup of coffee, the door to the small bedroom opened and Jan Sleet peered out. "What time is it?" she asked.
T.C. looked at the clock on the wall. "Nine-thirty. You want some coffee?"
Jan Sleet nodded blearily, coming into the room. She was wearing a nightgown and a long robe, leaning heavily on her cane.
"What happened?" she asked as T.C. handed her a mug of coffee.
"You came yesterday, you rented a room, you passed out. You woke up at around midnight and I cooked you some eggs."
"Where's Marshall and Vicki?"
She shrugged. "Vicki went to work. Marshall went with her."
Jan Sleet sipped her coffee. She glanced at the mug. "I take it with coffee. I mean with milk," she said, holding it out. T.C. took it. Jan Sleet looked at the sunlight coming in the window. "What time is it?"
"And they're not back yet?" she asked.
T.C. shrugged, handing her back the mug of coffee.
"Oh, thanks," Jan Sleet said. "Well, Vicki can take care of herself."
She sipped the coffee again, then looked puzzled.
"I–" she began.
"Cigarette?" T.C. asked, taking a wooden box from the little shelf over the table and holding it out.
"Huh? Oh, okay." She took one and T.C. fired up her big paperweight lighter and held it out.
The door opened and Finch came in, looking worried. He wore his bathrobe and slippers, with a battered fedora on the back of his head. He was carrying a small medical bag.
"Terrible," he said. He looked at Jan Sleet. "You've heard what happened last night?"
"No," she said, "Marshall–"
"Terrible," he repeated. "And right here in the building, too."
"It was?" she asked. "I thought–"
"I think she'll be okay, though," he said. He hung his hat up beside the door, said "Bah!" and vanished into the bedroom.
Jan Sleet turned to T.C. "I'm afraid–"
There was a knock at the door and Finch came back from the bedroom, saying, "I'll get it."
He opened the door and Marshall and Vicki came in. "Oh, there you are," Jan Sleet said. "I thought you were never coming back. I was just saying . . ." Then she looked up and saw their faces. "My god," she said, "what happened?" Marshall just shook his head as Vicki went to Jan Sleet's side and threw her arms around her.
Jan Sleet looked at Marshall in alarm, awkwardly putting her arm around the small, leather-jacketed figure.
Marshall drew in a deep breath and looked away. "I'm too tired now," he said. "Later." He went into the bedroom and closed the door.
Dave Sim is writing a novel, and publishing it himself in monthly, 20-page installments. When it's done it'll be 6,000 pages long. People laughed at this idea when he started, but now that he's over half-way done, and making a healthy income for himself in the process, they have to admit that he may very well make it.
It's an extraordinary work, funny and complex and irritating and beautiful. The main character has been Prime Minister and Pope, he's been in love with one woman, married a second and raped a third. He's been completely broke, and has had all the money in the world. He already knows the exact date of his death, and that he will die friendless and alone. The story is about equal parts politics, metaphysics, romance, war and humor.
Oh, by the way, the main character is an aardvark. It's a comic book.
Philip Henshaw opened his eyes to see Dr. Lee standing by the side of his bed.
"Good morning," she said.
He shook his head. "Not really. I feel lousy." He shifted in the bed, trying to get comfortable. He pressed the button that raised him to a sitting position.
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," she said, then seemed to hesitate. "You heard about Carl?"
He nodded. "Pete came by and told me yesterday. Fuckin' shame. Christ, Friday was supposed to be our big night. We play a couple of songs, I get stabbed and Carl gets killed. And I don't know what's up with Jenny. She didn't come by yesterday at all. I thought we straightened that–"
"That's why we're here," Dr. Lee said, and Henshaw saw Neil for the first time. He was sitting in the easy chair, leaning forward with his hands clasped. He didn't meet Henshaw's eyes.
"That's why we're here," Dr. Lee repeated. "I'm sorry. Jennifer Owens is dead. She was killed early this morning."
Philip Henshaw frowned, then planted his hands at his sides and pulled himself into a more upright position, wincing.
Then he looked up and nodded for her to continue. Dr. Lee drew in a deep breath. "As you may or may not know, she was pregnant. She wanted to get an abortion, but there was a group of protestors preventing anybody from getting into the clinic. We were helping her get in, but she was shot by a sniper."
Henshaw closed his eyes, thinking about this. "Anybody know who did it?"
Dr. Lee shook her head. "There's a big apartment building across the street. It could have been from any window, or even the roof."
Neil came and stood by the side of the bed. "I'm sorry as hell," he said. "It was my plan, mostly. I thought we could get her in without people getting hurt. Maybe–"
Henshaw waved a hand dismissively. "I appreciate that you helped her at all, after what happened Friday night. Look, I'm a little tired, but maybe you could do me a favor."
"Name it," Dr. Lee said.
"Find Tom and tell him I need to see him as soon as possible. Tell him about Jenny if he doesn't know."
Dr. Lee looked a little surprised, but she nodded. "Okay, easy enough. I'll send somebody by tomorrow to see if you need anything else."
He nodded and they left. Outside, mounting their motorcycles, Neil said, "I was surprised that he asked to see Tom. I don't think they've spoken for months. But they did both love her–"
"That's not it," she said impatiently. "He's got something in mind. I have no idea what it is, or what Tom Drenkenson has to do with it, but he's up to something." She made a face. "I wonder if we should have Tom followed."
Marshall opened one eye at the shout from the other room, assessed the state of his head, stomach and heart, and rolled over. Within a minute he was fast asleep again.
The next time Marshall woke up it was to the sound of a telephone ringing. He fumbled around on the bedside table, gradually realizing that there was no phone there, and that he had no idea where he was. Then the ringing stopped and he heard a woman's voice bark, "Unique Garage, Harry speaking."
He sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. The room was dark, the curtains drawn over the two windows, and the small clock next to the bed said it was 4:33. He couldn't tell if it was AM or PM. The door was open a crack, admitting a sliver of light, a wonderful smell of baking and a variety of sounds. He could hear people talking excitedly, feet scuffling and a few shouts of "Stay in line!"
By the time he was up and had the bedroom door open, he had remembered the apartment, T.C., Jan Sleet and Vicki, and also several other things he would have been just as happy not to remember.
T.C. was sitting at the kitchen table, holding the telephone receiver away from a small woman with brown hair and muscular arms, who was reaching for it and cursing. "It's not for you," T.C. said, handing it to a slender, middle-aged man with thinning hair, who took it and started to speak.
There were several other people in the kitchen, enough to make it quite crowded, and they were all standing in a line. Jan Sleet was in the front of the line, and he went up to her. "What's going on?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I have no idea." She turned to T.C. "What's all the fuss?" she asked.
"The phone only works when it feels like it, so we have to make calls when we can." She took an egg-timer and placed it on the counter as the small man continued to talk.
"I guess I'm next in line," Jan Sleet said to Marshall. "Who should I call?"
"Call the hotel. See if there are any messages."
"Oh, that's good idea."
"Meanwhile, introduce me around."
"Oh, you know I never introduce you to anybody," she said with a grin. She turned to T.C. "This is T.C. T.C., this is Marshall, my assistant."
"I've already met him," T.C. pointed out.
"Oh. Well, the man on the phone is Finch. The–"
The woman with the brown hair turned and held out a hand. "Hey, Marsh, I'm Nancy."
"Hi," he said as she gave him a firm handshake.
"But everyone knew her as Nasty," Finch said as he hung up the receiver. Nasty dove for the phone, not bothering to reply.
"I thought I was next," Jan Sleet said.
"You were," T.C. said, flipping the egg-timer over. "Try to be faster next time."
Nasty turned her back, obviously trying to speak into the phone without being heard, but then she slammed the receiver down. "Busy!" she said. Jan Sleet stuck out one of her long arms and grabbed the phone. T.C. started the egg-timer again.
Jan Sleet dialed a number, waited a minute, then identified herself. She held out her hand as she listened, and Marshall gave her a pen and a small pad.
She turned, puzzled, as Nasty grabbed the phone and T.C. said, "Hey, you had a turn already."
"Do you know somebody named Blacky Oliver?" she asked Marshall.
He laughed. "Even if I did I'm not sure I'd admit it. Why?"
"He left a message for me at the hotel. He wants me to call him as soon as possible, in order to discuss the disappearance of SarahBeth Wasserman." She turned to Vicki. "That's your sister, isn't it?"
Vicki's face flushed with anger, and she went into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her so hard the whole apartment shook.
Jan Sleet moved toward the bedroom door, but Marshall touched her shoulder. "Hold on," he murmured. "She seems pretty angry–"
"She wouldn't hurt me," she said impatiently, opening the bedroom door. Vicki was standing at the window, looking out.
"Vicki?" Jan Sleet said tentatively. Vicki didn't react. "Vicki?" she asked again, reaching out and touching her shoulder.
Vicki whirled around. "What?" she demanded. She looked as if she was barely controlling her anger.
Jan Sleet dropped her hand. "What's the matter?" she asked. She looked really baffled and hurt.
"I thought you and I just met by accident, that you didn't have anything to do with my family!"
"I don't!" she protested.
"Then how come you know who SarahBeth is?"
"I don't." She glanced at Marshall, who closed the door quietly and put his back to it. She sat on one of the beds and looked down at the floor. "This is a little embarrassing." She looked up, taking off her glasses. Her eyes were rather watery. "I have . . . visions," she said slowly. "Like dreams, I guess, but sometimes they show me things." She looked at Marshall, as if expecting him to laugh (and, under other circumstances, he might have). "Well, he says they're only dreams."
"What kinds of things?" Vicki asked quietly.
"Well, last night when the police brought me back to the hotel, I had a dream about your family."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"It was weird, like a big weird cookout. You had two sisters, and two brothers. The two sisters are around your age. One is tall and skinny like me, with thick brown hair she wears in a big braid. The other is not so tall, with bushy light brown hair. That's SarahBeth. Everybody's in love with her. The older brother was tall and lanky, with long brown hair and big sideburns. The other brother–"
Vicki shook her head. "Well, it's all sort of true, but really it's not. They're not really my brothers and sisters, I'm an only child. My mother got sick of me and sent me to live with them. They're really my cousins, except for the guy, he's my . . . he's SarahBeth's boyfriend."
"She sent you away?" Jan Sleet said, any rift between them obviously forgotten. She pulled Vicki down to sit beside her. "Your mother sent you away?"
"She wasn't married, and they tell me she's a little crazy. She just couldn't hack it. They said it was for my own good, but nobody asked me." She glanced at Marshall. "That's why I wanted to help Jenny last night. Same kind of situation. I haven't even seen her in years."
Jan Sleet nodded. "That is so sad. For a mother to send away her own child." She lapsed into silence, looking out the window.
Vicki nudged her with an elbow. "Sorry I got mad," she said.
Jan Sleet waved a hand, as if dismissing the whole matter. She smiled. "So, how do you like it here so far?"
"Well, sometimes they insult me, sometimes they ignore me. It's kind of like home, except none of them are trying to have sex with me."
There was a knock at the door. Marshall opened it and T.C. stuck her head in. "If you're finished bonding in here, there's a big batch of warm cookies and a fresh pot of coffee."
"These are good cookies," Jan Sleet said.
T.C. snorted. "How would you know, skinny as you are?"
T.C., Finch, Jan Sleet and Marshall were sitting on the high stools around the kitchen table. Vicki sat on the edge of the table, her feet dangling.
"So," Marshall said to his employer, "what's our plan for today? Do we run around like lunatics for several hours until you collapse again?"
She shook her head. "No, before we do anything I have to organize my thoughts."
T.C. leaned forward. "Ah," she said, "then you'll be wanting to rent on a long-term basis? I feel confident we can work something out."
There was a knock at the door, and Vicki jumped down off the table to answer it. From where the others sat they couldn't see the door, but they heard a young woman's voice ask, "Is Marshall in?"
T.C. looked at him and rolled her eyes, grinning. Marshall leaned back in his seat to see who it was. Christy poked her head into the kitchen, her full red hair obviously newly brushed. "Hi, folks," she said, gradually bringing the rest of herself into the room.
"Don't come in here, please," T.C. said, "I'm taking a bath."
"What?" Christy asked, taking a step back.
"Hi," Jan Sleet said affably. "Who are you?"
Christy came forward quickly, her hand out. "I'm Christy. I met Marshall and Vicki last night." She pumped Jan Sleet's hand. T.C. looked as if she could barely keep from bursting out laughing. Christy turned to Marshall, putting her hands in her pockets. She smiled, hunching her shoulders in her leather jacket. "Just thought I'd drop in and say hi."
"Hi," he said.
"Hey," she said. "Last night," she shrugged. "Pretty bad. You okay?"
She smiled. "Well, I really should run. Maybe I'll see you around the Quarter sometime."
She quickly backed out the door, giving a final little wave as she left, then there was a moment of merciful silence.
Jan Sleet said, "Looks to me like you had a busy night last night. Is this what I pay you for?"
"It really wasn't–" he began.
Vicki giggled. "I guess I should be glad I didn't have to come home by myself."
"Well, I don't think–" he began.
"You know," Finch said as he poured himself more coffee. "I wouldn't have thought a girl like that was, well, your type."
Marshall didn't try to respond to that.
Vicki grinned and leaned towards him. "Nice pair of bazangas, too," she whispered.
Christy poked her head back in again and said, "Oh, I forgot, here's your briefcase." She slid it just inside the door and left.
Most fiction is based on two lies, the Little Lie and the Big Lie.
The Little Lie is the one that most people start to understand when they are very young, which is that fiction depicts people who never existed and events that never happened.
Crushing as this can be when you're five, people usually manage to adjust to it, and in any case it is certainly not unique to works of fiction, being also true of many books classified as "History," "Religion," "Biography" and so on.
The Big Lie, however, has more meat on it. It's the lie about the nature of reality (and the nature of the mind as well). In fiction, usually one thing is being shown to us at a time. One conversation, one group of characters, one train of thought. In reality, a lot of different things are always happening at the same time.
A magazine article, a cool breeze, a pang of regret, an itchy calf, the photos under the desk blotter, that woman in the shorts, is my hair sticking up again, that bastard at work and when is that dentist appointment? This is what reality can throw at us in only a few seconds and, since the brain is shaped by the reality, the brain can handle it all pretty easily. It can even do this in the background if necessary, leaving the bulk of its resources free for writing this.
James Joyce was the first writer to really attempt to depict this, but if he took the first steps it was William Burroughs who took the last ones. Some may disagree with the apparent finality of this statement, there will always be those who plan on going where no one has gone before, but I think Burroughs in his middle period novels broke information down about as far as it could go and still have any perceptible meaning. At his furthest extreme he was pretty close to Tristan Tzara pulling random words out of a hat to make poems.
It is easy, when reading books like "Nova Express," to think that Burroughs is just pulling words out of a hat, but he is a far cry from a Dadaist. He's got some pretty specific information he wants to convey to the reader, and I think that's why his later novels (particularly "Cities of the Red Night," probably his masterpiece) are far closer to conventional narrative than any of his earlier books after "Junkie."
If the purpose of writing is to subvert (in the most profound sense), to tamper with the prerecordings that determine everything that happens in the universe, then it seems to me that the more people who read something the more subversive it can be.
There was no enjoyment in the beer. The Amazing Frankie dropped the empty can into the trash. She had no buzz, and couldn't remember the flavor. She might as well have been drinking soda water.
She opened her guitar case and (for the third time) checked that she had her strap, picks, extra strings, tuner and lead cords in with her guitar. She checked the inside pocket of her leather jacket again to make sure she had the scrap of paper with the address. She checked her hair in the mirror.
"I'm going," she called into the bedroom. "The audition, you know," she added.
The crying had stopped about fifteen minutes before, but the silence was no better.
They had already discussed whether she should go, of course, and it had been decided that she should. But now she knew she wouldn't. She put her guitar case back in the closet and went to the refrigerator for another beer.
Marshall occasionally imagined the rather unpleasant possibility that he was going to end up working for Jan Sleet forever. At times he even visualized a small cottage out in the woods where they would retire someday, whiling away the hours in endless games of backgammon. In his most gloomy moods that small cottage started to resemble a rather battered mobile home.
However, if this was how they ended up, he would get his revenge. He would devote some of those idle hours to writing his memoirs.
Right now, sitting in the kitchen in T.C.'s apartment, he was occupied in trying to imagine a situation where his boss would actually look like she belonged. Perhaps some lost city where all the women were as tall as tall men, with limbs like pipe cleaners and huge goggly eyes.
Of course, that wasn't why she didn't fit in here in T.C.'s kitchen. The reason she didn't fit in here was her clothes. Most of the people he'd seen over the weekend wore jeans or shorts or skirts, with T-shirts and sweatshirts and flannel shirts. But Jan Sleet would no more have worn any of those things than she would have worn a leather jacket, an evening gown or a bikini bathing suit. Today she was wearing a 3-piece dark blue pinstripe suit with a pale blue silk shirt and a gray tie.
She sat in T.C.'s small, grimy kitchen, drinking a beer (she'd even asked for a glass, which had cause a bit of a stir). She was perched a little unsteadily on one of the tall stools around the small, high kitchen table, just as if she was one of the gang. With her feet up on the rungs of the stool, her knees sticking up and her hands resting on them as she clasped the glass of beer, she resembled a very well-dressed praying mantis.
If anything, she seemed to feel that by setting a certain example she might even start a trend or two, and soon everyone there would be wearing a suit and drinking their beer out of a glass.
Marshall thought this was very unlikely. He'd never seen Finch wearing anything but his pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, and it was hard to imagine Vicki not wearing her standard all-black ensemble of T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and leather jacket.
But Jan Sleet obviously wasn't worried. She'd just quietly continue to set an example. The others would come around eventually.
Jan Sleet sat on the edge of her bed, smoking a final cigarette (Marshall was very strict about not allowing her to smoke in bed). They were alone in the room, with the door closed. She looked at him steadily for a minute. "Are you going to tell me about last night?" she asked gently.
He nodded. "Okay. Give me a cigarette." She tossed him the pack and her lighter. There were six cigarettes left, and by the time he'd told her the whole story of Saturday night, about the briefcase and the Quarter and the Jinx Ride and the death of Jennifer Owens, they'd smoked them all.
He had left out only one thing. He hadn't mentioned Dr. Lee's guesses about why Jan Sleet was in U-town. Marshall had no idea what his employer's reasons were, and bringing it up might give the impression that he was fishing for information.
"That's a heck of a story," she said, stubbing out her last cigarette. "No wonder you two came in looking like you did."
"You know," he said slowly, "with this book thing on hold, maybe this is something you could write about. Nobody's ever going to hear about it otherwise."
She made a face. "I can't write about things I haven't seen, you know that. It always comes out wrong." She smiled. "You know what I think?" she asked. He shook his head. "I think you should write about it."
"Me?" he demanded.
Jan Sleet lay on her back, staring up into the darkness, wondering if Marshall was asleep yet. She could hear his breathing, and it sounded quiet and regular. She had no idea how much time had passed since they had turned out the lights.
She decided to chance it. She reached up and found the lamp on the small table at the head of the bed. Holding her breath, she slowly pulled down on the chain until the light clicked on.
Marshall was lying in the other bed, his back to her. She waited for a moment, quietly slipping her glasses on, but he didn't move.
She grinned, rolling over onto her stomach. All day she had been saving a treat for herself.
Her jacket hung over the back of the chair next to her bed. She reached out her arm and rooted through the pockets, finally pulling out the small roll of papers. "The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature" it said in smudged pencil on the outside.
She stretched, wishing as usual that someday she'd find out what it was like to sleep in a bed that was longer than she was. Then she pulled off the rubber bands, unrolled the greasy papers and started to read.
Perry Nelson published his first novel ("The World") when he was eighteen years old, and his second ("Distance and Time") when he was almost twenty. Both were enormously successful, if not universally respected.
To his detractors he is overly earnest, completely lacking in humor, irony, wit or elegance. To his enthusiasts (and there are many, very few of whom are critics) he is scorned by the literary establishment because he is more concerned with human beings than with clever prose or literary games.
The Usenet Newsgroup alt.perry.nelson.die.die.die gets several hundred messages a day. They run the gamut from obscene screeds (most of them from teenage boys whose girlfriends are Perry Nelson fanatics) to some devastatingly sharp parodies.
In reviewing "Distance and Time," the New York Times said "This rather damp volume shows what happens when a dry, clinical precision is pressed into the service of sentimental oversimplification. Not since Henry James have so many characters analyzed so much and done so little."
The Village Voice merely quoted the Old Man: "The over-examined life isn't worth a rat's ass."
Jan Sleet opened her eyes. The morning sun was streaming in through the curtains, birds were chirping and there was a Case to Solve!
She swung her legs out of bed and stood up. Marshall was still asleep and she moved briskly to his bed and shook his shoulder. "Come on, Mr. Sleepy-Head," she said cheerfully. "The game's afoot! We . . ."
It was around then that she realized she was standing without her cane, and then she started hearing a voice way off in the distance somewhere.
She had this dream quite often, the dream about starting the day wide awake and ready for adventure. But in reality most of her mornings began as this one did, with Marshall shaking her and saying, "Come on, time to get up."
She opened her eyes. Marshall was already dressed, showered and shaved. She sniffed the air. "Bacon and eggs?" she asked as she found her glasses and put them on.
He shook his head. "Pancakes. T.C. must be the last person in the world to make them with bacon grease."
She picked up her cane and levered herself erect. "Come on," she said, "we–"
"Here, put this on," he said, handing her a robe. "You can't just walk around in your nightgown."
"Oh, sorry," she said.
Many years ago I was asked to write a series of short reviews of science fiction novels that I thought were particularly deserving of praise.
The first one I chose to write about was "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany, even though it was not in print at that time.
This is the review I wrote:
Dhalgren By Samuel R. Delany (1973, 879 Pages)
When this novel came out, I had several friends who were real science fiction fans. They were in science fiction clubs, put out APAs, and went to conventions (all things I didn't do, though I did read a lot of science fiction). From what those friends told me, this book (coming after some very popular short stories and the novel Nova, which they all loved) was quite controversial when it came out. They all read it (or at least started it, some quit half way through), but it was not popular.
Too long. Too experimental. Maybe even too downbeat. Science fiction closer to William S. Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the science fiction fans that I knew back then were not reading Naked Lunch or Nova Express, I can tell you. Or Ulysses or Finnegans Wake for that matter (Delany deliberately evokes Joyce here, as he did in other works from this period). Nor were they reading Gravity's Rainbow, which was also published in 1973. Delany's novel is more similar to Pynchon's than it is to any other "science fiction novel" published that year.
In a year that might or might not be 1975, a loner comes to a city called Bellona. Some disaster has happened there, cutting it off from the rest of the United States. The outside world has mostly forgotten about Bellona, out of sight and out of mind. There are only a relatively few people left living there (many were killed in the unspecified disaster, many of the survivors moved away). There's no gasoline, only sporadic electric power, no official law or government. The sky is covered in clouds of smoke that hide the sky (and, in the one moment there is a break in the smoke cover, two moons are visible).
The loner has no name. This could be a cliche, but Delany carries it off by making him an individual from the beginning, (with almost all of his memories, he just can't remember his name) and by focusing most of his attention on what he's seeing, not on him. Not having a name only bothers him from time to time. People start calling him Kid (spelled Kidd in the first half of the book, Kid in the second half). He finds a notebook (many of its pages already written on) and uses the blank pages to write poems. Eventually he loses track of which pages are his writing, since all of them seem to relate to his experiences.
There are cities in literature which function almost as characters as well as settings. Dublin in Joyce's Ulysses is one type of example, Personville/Poisonville in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest is another. Bellona (the city is mentioned in other of Delany's works from this period as well) is really part of the fabric of the book. There are a lot of people who stayed there after the disaster, either gamely pretending things were still more or less normal, or using the complete freedom to live in some way they couldn't otherwise. And some people (like Kidd, it seems) have come there because of what's happened. It's a way for them to reinvent themselves, either for a while, until they feel like returning to their real lives, or because they just don't fit in anywhere else.
In the kitchen Finch and Nasty were sitting at the table. T.C. stood at the stove, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth as she made pancakes. There was a jug of syrup and a stick of butter on a saucer in the center of the table.
"Morning," T.C. barked. "Good thing you two took the back room, one of you snores like a motorboat."
Marshall's expression didn't change as he slowly tilted his head in the direction of his employer, who was already saying, "I don't snore."
"Honey, either you snore or you were running a wood-chipper in there last night."
Nasty yawned. "I heard it, too. I had to close the bedroom door." She tugged down the bottom of her sleeveless sweatshirt, indicating the five-ring logo it bore. "I need my sleep. Olympic trials are coming up soon."
"I think we're all aware of that by now," Finch said quietly.
T.C. flipped the last pancake onto a big platter and Nasty yelled, "Me first for pancakes!"
There was a brief scuffle around the stove, during which everybody got pancakes and coffee and everybody except Jan Sleet got back to the kitchen table, where there were only four chairs.
"Hey," Jan Sleet said. She had been slowed down by trying to figure out how to carry a plate and a mug and still have a hand free for her cane.
The other three turned to look at Marshall. He stood up and went to the stove, where he carried Jan Sleet's plate back to the table for her. She carried her mug herself, and he held her chair while she sat down. He squeezed his plate and mug onto the table and stood between Nasty and Jan Sleet.
"Pancakes," Nasty announced to nobody in particular, "a good training breakfast."
Marshall was wearing a short-sleeved knit shirt and casual slacks, and as he finished his pancakes he suddenly realized that Nasty was looking intently at his upper arm. She reached out and pinched it between her thumb and forefinger.
"Not bad, Marsh," she said. "You play any Pong?"
"Pong?" he asked.
"Ping-Pong, of course. Want to play a game?"
He smiled. "Well, you know, I used to play a little when I was in college. I was pretty–"
Great," she said. "They've got a table down in the rec room, and I've got a paddle you can use."
"I have a question," Jan Sleet said to Finch as Nasty vanished into the bedroom. "Yesterday you came in with a bag of some sort, it looked like a doctor's bag, and you said–"
"God, can you believe this?" T.C. demanded as Nasty came back in carrying a Ping-Pong paddle and what looked like a small banjo case.
"C'mon, Marsh," she said.
"Look at that!" T.C. barked, pointing at the television on top of the refrigerator.
"But I did want to find out–" Jan Sleet started as there was a knock on the door.
"I don't know what to do," The Amazing Frankie said as she came in, nearly crashing into Marshall and Nasty as they left.
"What–" Marshall began, but Nasty pulled him out and closed the door.
"I don't see what more I can do," Finch said to Frankie.
"Is this about what happened yesterday?" Jan Sleet asked quickly.
"What's all this yelling?" Vicki asked, coming into the room rubbing her eyes. She wore a black T-shirt that hung down to her ankles.
"You can talk to her, I guess," Frankie said. "I've tried–" She waved her hands in frustration. Her hair wasn't sculpted into her usual D.A., but hung down around her face.
"You'd think there wasn't anything else going on in the world but Perry Nelson," T.C. said scornfully, still looking at the television. "Pretty soon they'll have a whole news broadcast just for News About Perry Nelson."
"What?" Jan Sleet said, looking at the TV for the first time.
"Last night," Finch turned to Jan Sleet, "you were asking about last night . . ." but her attention was now totally focused on the TV.
Finch shrugged and went to the stove for more coffee, then he and Frankie went out. Vicki jumped up so she was sitting on the edge of the table.
"Is this Perry Nelson guy any good?" she asked, taking a sip of Jan Sleet's coffee.
"What?" Jan Sleet asked as the weather report came on. She looked around. "Where's Finch? I wanted to ask him–"
"He went downstairs," T.C. said. "Our friend Frankie lives down there."
Jan Sleet sat with her chin on her fist for a minute. Then she looked at Vicki. "Perry Nelson?" she asked. "He's a writer."
Vicki nodded patiently, draining the coffee and putting the mug down. "I know that," she said. "My sister's crazy about him. She reads his books over and over. She used to send him these long, intense letters that none of the rest of us were allowed to read. Not that we ever wanted to, but she made it clear that we couldn't, that it was too 'private'." She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she said it.
Jan Sleet nodded. "I've got his latest one in my bag, by my bed. Take it and read it if you want." She looked around. "Where's my coffee?"
"You finished it," T.C. said, getting down from her stool. "You want some more?"
"Oh, yes, please."
"I'm going back to bed," said Vicki.
T.C. gestured at the back bedroom. "You might want to sleep in there," she said. "It gets pretty busy in the other bedroom during the day."
Tom Drenkenson stood under the awning in front of the hospital and wondered again if he should go through with this.
Early that morning he had been sitting in the February Island Coffee Shop, drinking a cup of very bad coffee. He had been surprised by the sound of somebody knocking on the window. He looked up and saw Christy of the Jinx, the morning sun glowing in her red hair. She'd smiled and made various hand gestures that were apparently meant to indicate that he should stay where he was.
She ran around to the entrance and came quickly down the line to his booth. She looked so young and gorgeous and awake as she slipped into the seat opposite him that he found himself squinting.
Of course, she wasn't there for a social visit. She gave him the message that it was very important he go see Philip Henshaw as soon as possible. Then she carefully wrote the hospital building and room number on a napkin. Watching her walk out, Tom felt about sixty years old.
His first reaction had been to forget the whole thing. Who did Philip Henshaw think he was? He stole a man's girlfriend and his band, and then he expected that man to jump when he snapped his fingers? Tom thought not.
But he couldn't help but wonder what the hell it was about. Why in the world would Henshaw want to see him? Knowing Philip Henshaw, it wasn't so they could share a good cry.
Well, unfortunately, there was only one way to find out.
So, he stood under the awning in front of the hospital and tried to think one more time if this was a good idea. The day was windy and cool, the sky overcast, and he wrapped his ancient black trench coat tighter around him.
"I believe that everything is understandable. I believe that, at the end, there will be no loose ends, no unanswered questions. All mysteries, including all human emotions, thoughts, urges and ideas, can be studied, analyzed and solved.
"On one hand, this is why I have had some success in solving crimes that have defied traditional police methods. On the other hand, it is also at least one reason that my academic career has been somewhat less than spectacular."
"If I were a magician (a career which I still consider from time to time), I would conclude every performance by explaining how all the tricks were done. And I do not think that this would take all the fun out of the evening, any more than understanding any other aspect of life takes the fun out of it."
– Professor Janice Stiglianese
T.C. sipped her coffee and smiled. She took a small pad of paper from the shelf over the kitchen table and started to total up the rent she was getting.
There were three bedrooms in the apartment. The front one was hers. Finch, Nasty and Vicki were currently sharing the middle one (which had once been the living room), and Jan Sleet and Marshall were in the rear bedroom, off the kitchen, which had probably been designed to be the maid's room. David had been sleeping there, but now he was gone and didn't seem to be coming back.
"Toting up your ill-gotten gains?" Finch asked.
"And it's a tidy little sum, too," she said happily, folding the piece of paper and putting it in her pocket.
The apartment door opened and David came in. Finch said, "Oh, hi," then turned to T.C., who was seized by a sudden coughing fit. David waved and went back into his room. Finch raised his eyebrows at T.C., who seemed to be experimenting with some new facial expressions.
David came back in and poured himself some coffee.
"Is it my birthday?" he asked.
"No," said T.C. "Why?"
He came over to the table. "I thought perhaps it was," he said casually. "Because somebody very thoughtfully put a tiny little girl in my bed."
T.C. smiled ingratiatingly. "Well, you do have to admit that it beats a mint on the pillow." David sighed. After a moment, T.C. continued, "Well, now, there's kind of an amusing story behind that." Finch leaned forward as if he didn't want to miss a word.
David sat down. "You rented my room again, didn't you?"
"Of course, that's one way of looking at the situation. The other way is to say that I've made both of us some money in a rather inventive way."
"By renting my room."
"Well, yes, more or less."
David looked at Finch, who shrugged as if it was certainly not up to him to explain anything.
David turned back to T.C. "And where is this money that I'm supposed to be getting from this?"
Tom Drenkenson stepped off the elevator and looked around. Corridors went off in both directions, and he couldn't tell which way he was supposed to go to find Henshaw's room. There was a desk right opposite the elevator, but nobody was sitting there. He didn't see anybody around.
He tried one direction and about halfway down to the end of the hall he found the room. Each room had a clear plastic panel beside the door displaying a card with the patient's name and various places for obscure numbers and check-marks to be entered. Tom peered at each one in turn, hoping they were up to date. The whole place gave the strong impression it had been abandoned.
Finally, near the end of the hall, he found a card with "Peter Hinshaw" typed on it. The rest of the jottings on the card didn't mean anything to him, so he went in.
Henshaw was lying in bed, and he looked up as Tom spoke.
"I hear you wanted to see me," Tom said, stopping just inside the door.
The "rec room" was a featureless room in a far corner of the basement. It was empty except for a Ping-Pong table and a couple of flimsy-looking folding chairs. Nasty laid her small hard shell case on the table and snapped it open. Inside, cushioned in padding, was a Ping-Pong paddle, and, in a separate compartment, a neat row of Ping-Pong balls. Across the rubber surface of the paddle it said "Nasty" in bright red script.
Along the polished handle in block letters it said, "Pro-Line."
"Merchandising," she said proudly, holding it out for his inspection. She took a few practice swings. "Once I win the Gold, every Pong rat in the country will want one of these."
"I'll bet," said Marshall.
She tossed him a ball and moved to the far end of the table. "Serve it up, Marsh," she said, swaying a little from one foot to the other.
He did, trying to remember how to do some of the trick shots which had been his stock in trade in college. There was a crack as the ball hit the table and then whizzed past his cheek.
"Good serve," she said. "Gimme another."
He put his hand to his earlobe. "I think I'm bleeding here," he said.
She glanced over. "Probably just a little abrasion. Don't worry, head wounds always bleed a lot."
Henshaw grimaced as he swung his feet out of bed and pulled on a flimsy robe. He picked up the cane that was hooked over the railing at the foot of the bed and got to his feet. "Come on," he said, "it's time I did some walking."
Out in the corridor they started a slow walk toward the window at the far end. Henshaw walked with a bad limp but with a lot of determination. Tom thought sadly that they would probably end up discussing the details of the injury, but Henshaw had other things on his mind.
"How do you feel about Jenny being dead?" Henshaw asked.
Tom looked surprised. "Since when did you start asking stupid questions?"
"Okay. So, how do you feel about whoever killed her?"
Tom didn't answer. As they passed the elevator he noted that there was still nobody at the desk.
"I'll tell you how I feel," Henshaw went on. "Have you heard about what happened on Friday?"
"You mean when Jenny stabbed you?"
"No, I'm talking about Friday morning." Henshaw's voice was quiet, his face grim. "I'll give you the short version. Some guys tried to stick us up. One of them held a gun on Jenny and . . . well, he put his hands on her in ways that I didn't appreciate. So, when I got the chance, I blew his fucking brains out." He stopped and turned to look directly at Tom for the first time. "Given that," he said, "you can imagine what I want to do to the son of a bitch who killed her." He turned back and they started walking again.
Playing Ping-Pong with Nasty was a strange experience. Marshall had noticed that the wall behind her had some sort of strange diagonal pattern about five feet from the floor, and he quickly found out what it was. Whenever she missed a shot (which wasn't often) she turned and chopped angrily at the wall with her paddle, leaving a long, thin dent.
Mostly, of course, she was kicking his butt. She bounced in place like a tennis player whenever the ball was in play, and seemed able to get to almost anything. His only successes were when he managed to put a good spin on the ball and hit a shot that barely made it over the net before it died. Any shot hit with force was quickly returned with more force.
He wondered how long he had to do this before he could quit without completely losing face.
"I'm going to be stuck in this place for at least another few days," Henshaw continued. "I'd be out already, but I got some kind of infection and my leg's blown up like a balloon. By the time they manage to fix that I'll probably catch something else. So, I can't deal with this situation myself. I need–"
"Oh, no," Tom said. "I'm not going to–"
"Not you," Henshaw said sharply. "No, I need somebody who can handle this kind of thing. And I know who." He looked glanced at Tom with a small smile. "Have you met Pete's new friend?"
Tom stopped in his tracks. "You mean starling?" He lowered his voice when he said the name, though there was nobody anywhere around.
"Of course. I want somebody killed, and that's what she does. I've seen her in action, a little, and she's not going to be easy to stop." He jerked his head slightly and they started walking again.
"Leaving aside the fact that this whole thing seems insane to me," Tom said slowly, "I guess my first question is what you think I have to do with it."
"I can't go get starling myself, obviously. I can't call her up on the phone, and I prefer not to use a runner. I need you to go see her and tell her I want to hire her. Don't say any more than that. Have her come here. I'll do the rest."
"Why don't you just get Pete to do it?"
Henshaw shook his head as they reached the window and turned to walk slowly back the other way. "No, not him. Two reasons. One is that our friend Pete is, I'm afraid, a moral man, and I don't think he'd approve of this."
Tom looked even more morose but didn't say anything.
"And also, Pete never liked Jenny. I'm sure he doesn't really care who killed her. But you do, and don't tell me you don't."
"Why didn't you just have the Jinx go get starling for you?"
Henshaw shook his head. "No, I don't want them to know about this. And anyway, they don't have a stake in this either. If they wanted to do anything they would have done it already."
Marshall insisted on sitting down for a few minutes before they went back upstairs. Nasty didn't sit, of course, but just pushed the table up against the wall and hit shots that way while she waited.
After a minute she laughed. "Boy, when T.C. introduced me to Vicki and said she was going to move in, I was excited I can tell you."
"It's that damn little bed, the one they built into the windowseat. The shortest tenant has to sleep there. That was always me, until now."
Marshall smiled. "You should try playing Ping-Pong with her sometime."
Nasty laughed. "Vicki? Are you kidding? She's not big enough to reach over the table."
"Ask her. She might surprise you." He stood up. "Well, I guess–"
The lights went out.
Tom shook his head sadly. "What kind of movie do you think you're in?" he asked.
Henshaw laughed, then he said, "Wait a minute." He patted his flimsy blue robe, looking for pockets that weren't there. "You got a piece of paper?"
Tom shook his head.
"Come on," Henshaw said, moving more rapidly now. The next room that they came to, he slipped the card out of the clear plastic display panel beside the door and flipped it over. The back was blank, and he grabbed the pencil which was hanging by a string and started to write, humming and then half-singing, "What kind of movie do you think you're in . . ."
He folded the card and looked again for a pocket to stick it in.
"I'll bet the nurses love you," Tom muttered.
Henshaw laughed again. "Well, the patients do. I've started emptying bedpans when I do my walking. Nobody else does it. And this morning they just shoved the meal cart off the elevator but nobody ever came to bring the trays around, so I did that, too. Last night the woman across the hall from me screamed for an hour, so I made her take a little pill Carl gave me last week. I have no idea what it was, but she quieted right down."
"Never mind all this," Tom said. "What about this crazy starling idea?" He lowered his voice again when he mentioned her name.
Henshaw nodded. "Yes, what about it? Are you going to do it?"
Tom reflected that if this was all a movie, emptying bedpans and carrying around serving trays would have served as "a humbling experience" for somebody like Philip Henshaw. But, since it wasn't a movie, he was obviously doing these things without being humbled at all.
Tom stopped as they reached the door of Henshaw's room. "I'll do it," he said, then turned and walked back toward the elevators.
The lights all went out. The basement room was pitch black and Marshall heard the Ping-Pong ball bounce off into a corner.
"Marsh?" came a quavery voice, and for a second he thought someone else was in the room with them.
"You there, Marsh?" she asked again, and he held back the flippant reply that had come to him.
"I'm here," he said quietly. "What happened?"
"The power," she said slowly. "It . . . where are you?"
"Don't move," he said, his voice calm and quiet. He stood up and moved forward slowly and carefully, his arm extended in front of him. "I'm coming," he said. "Just don't–" and his hand touched and cupped her shoulder, half on worn sweatshirt and half on sweat-slick skin.
He moved beside her, keeping his hand on her shoulder.
"What about the power?" he asked.
He heard and felt her take a deep breath and pause. "It goes out sometimes," she said, her voice a little steadier. "I don't know if somebody does it or it just happens. But, you know, that's what happened on Saturday." She was speaking slowly and clearly, as if telling a story to a group of children. "Frankie's roommate Beth came down here looking for me. The three of us were going to go out to dinner together. But I'd already gone upstairs to shower, so she was alone when the lights went out and . . . somebody . . ."
"Somebody attacked her?"
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah." Her voice was wavering again and he slowly rubbed her upper arm with the heel of his hand. "When we found out where she'd gone we came down, but he was long gone. She's still all shook up about it."
"I'm sure she is. Listen, would you rather we wait here or try to find the stairs and get out?"
"Oh," she said, "let's just wait for a while. There's a whole bunch of rooms and halls and stuff down here, and we might get lost."
Suddenly there was a wavery light in the doorway and Finch appeared, carrying a flashlight and still wearing his bathrobe.
"Thought you were down here," he said. "Didn't think to bring a light, huh?"
"We'll know better next time," Nasty said. "Thanks for coming down, Finch. Marshall was a little jumpy, but I calmed him down."
Finch winked at Marshall as Nasty turned to put her paddle back in its case.
While I am always willing to hold unpopular opinions (that Casino Royale is a great movie, that the supreme achievement in music since the year 1900 is the organ break from Del Shannon's "Runaway," that radio was not really improved by adding pictures to it, etc.) it is always gratifying to find out that at least some of those opinions are shared by others.
I've been raving about Dhalgren since it was published. I'm perfectly willing to continue to do so without any help or encouragement from anybody else. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon The Ash of Stars, the first book of critical essays about Delany's writing that I've seen. Of course, I immediately read the two essays about Dhalgren.*
In reading these essays I am struck by two things. One is the number of references (mostly deliberate) in my book to Dhalgren (some of them have been there for so long that I forgot where they came from). The other is the extent to which I am, in doing this, following Delany's lead, since Dhalgren is full of references to other works (and to various mythologies and even some real people), including the references to James Joyce (and, of course, Ulysses is full of these types of references as well).
There turns out to be a bit of serendipity to all this referencing, by the way. "Bellona" in Dhalgren is a city on Earth (in his book Triton it is a city on Mars). I have used the name for a country on Earth (we'll pay a visit there eventually), where there is a war going on, a war which some of my characters follow and others try to ignore. It turns out that, according to one of these essays, the name Bellona is from Roman mythology. She was the sister of Mars, and was the goddess of war.
And was mentioned in Finnegan's Wake. Damn.
Anyway, if what I am attempting here is simply an accurate representation of the inside of my own brain, it becomes increasingly obvious that the brain in question has never been exactly the same since reading Dhalgren.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
(1974, 801 pages, Wesleyan University Press)
Trouble on Triton (formerly "Triton") by Samuel R. Delany
(1976, 312 pages, Wesleyan University Press)
Ash of Stars (ed. James Sallis)
(1996, 224 pages, University Press of Miami)
* Dhalgren is, I am pleased to learn, one of the top ten best-selling "science fiction" novels of all time.
It was a cold night. It still felt like autumn, but winter was obviously very close. Paris zipped up his jacket and put his hands into his pockets as he walked along. He didn't like to think about winter. There were too many people living on the street, and in the parks, and in unheated apartments.
He turned the corner, pushed open the broken glass door and entered the February Island Coffee Shop. The warmth was welcome, and he thought it probably had a lot to do with how crowded the place was. He walked down the row of booths to what looked like an empty one, but as he came to it he saw that it did have one very small occupant.
Vicki looked up. "Oh, hi," she said, pushing her long black hair behind her ear. After a moment she asked, "You alone? You want to sit with me?"
"If you're sure . . ." he said.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I'm sorry I'm a little spaced out. My mind's going in all different directions."
He sat opposite her. "So, I hear you're working at the Quarter," he said after a minute.
She nodded. "I'm just getting a bite before I go to work. Do you know T.C.?"
Paris shrugged. "I've met her a couple of times. On movie night."
"Well, I'm staying at her place, along with Jan Sleet and her assistant Marshall." She looked up. "Movie night?" she asked.
He laughed as a waitress brought a plate and put it in front of Vicki. "If you're staying at T.C.'s, you'll find out about movie night." He leaned forward. "What is that?" he asked.
She picked up a fork and poked at it dubiously. "Noodle Delight," she said.
"Somehow you don't look delighted," he said as she lifted a crusty part with one hand and pulled out some noodles with her fork.
"How is it?" he asked as she chewed.
"It's not that bad, actually," she said, still chewing.
Paris caught the waitress' eye. "I'll have what she's having," he said.
"Anyway, with all those people at T.C.'s it gets a little crazy sometimes. I felt like eating alone."
"So, how you've been since Friday?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I feel like it's been at least a week. I don't even know where to begin. After we left you in the park on Friday night I stayed at Pete's apartment. Saturday morning he sent me to T.C.'s and she rented me a room. Saturday night I went to work, and Marshall went with me. Work was okay, but afterwards . . ."
"You went with the Jinx and Jennifer Owens," he filled in.
"You heard about that?" she asked.
"It's been all over. Nobody mentioned you, though."
She sighed. "It was just a mess. I wish I hadn't been there."
He reached out and squeezed her hand. "Hey, you did what you could. That's better than not doing anything."
She shrugged. "I guess so. It came out to the same thing in the end, though."
"Is there another dance coming up?" Vicki asked. "I enjoyed the last one a lot."
"I don't know. There may be one later this week. I'll let you know if I hear anything."
"Okay, thanks, though I guess I couldn't go anyway, unless it was on a Sunday. I have to remember I have a job."
"Very conscientious of you. You'll be a big improvement over Bobo, I'm sure." He paused, as if aware he was bringing up a delicate subject. "Do you mind me saying that you seem like kind of an odd person to be a bouncer?"
She folded her arms. "You think girls can't be bouncers?"
"It's not that. I mean, I hate to mention it, but usually bouncers are . . . well . . ." He sighed. "I assume you're aware, Ms. Wasserman, that you're a wee bit on the small side."
"I am?" she demanded. She looked down at herself. "Son of a gun!" she said. Then she looked up, grinning. "Maybe it's like an equal opportunity thing."
"I sense there's something you're not telling me," he said as the waitress placed his plate in front of him.
"And I, sir, sense there are quite a few things you haven't told me. Shall I go on?" She started chewing another forkful of noodles.
He held up his hands. "I give up. I forgot the most basic rule. No, you keep your secrets and I'll keep mine. Friends?" He held out his hand across the table.
Her tiny hand vanished into his as they shook, and she resisted the impulse to give him a bone-crunching squeeze.
Fortunately, Vicki knew a lot about kerosene lanterns.
The power was off at the Quarter. Frances had worked in the basement for twenty minutes, yelling curses all the while, but this had produced no results. "I can't figure it out," she said, appearing from the back of the bar carrying two kerosene lanterns. "I've got to get cleaned up, you guys. Light these, will you?"
She put them on the bar and vanished back toward the bathrooms. Donna lifted one of the lanterns dubiously. "Light them?" she asked, turning it around and examining the base. "Where do you plug it in?"
Vicki was sitting at the bar (an old telephone book on her stool), realizing that on a slow night being a bouncer could be a really boring job. She was thinking that if she could find a small box or a milk crate to stand on she could help wash some dishes or something.
"Plugged nickel for your thoughts?"
She turned, a little startled. It was Chet, grinning. In the flickering light his red hair, high widow's peak and pointed beard made him look quite Satanic.
"Oh, hi," Vicki said as he sat down.
"Hello," he said cheerfully. "I hear you've decided to join our little community."
She smiled. "News travels fast," she said.
"It does around here. If we've done nothing else, I think we've launched gossip into the next century."
The door opened again and Chet turned. "Ah, Petronius," he said. "Welcome."
Pete came over and said hello, but Vicki thought he looked a little distracted. He and Chet moved to a table.
An hour later the crowd at Chet's table had grown, including Paris, Christy and Rex from the Jinx, and several other people Vicki didn't know. They'd pushed two tables together and moved one of the kerosene lanterns from the bar.
Christy had fooled around at the pool table for a few minutes after she'd come in, just lining up impossible shots and halfheartedly trying to make them. Then, very casually, she'd strolled over to where Vicki was sitting.
"Is Marshall coming tonight?" she'd asked, looking a little sheepish.
Vicki shrugged. "He didn't mention it. I don't think so."
"Okay, thanks." She started to move away, then she came back. "Don't tell him I asked, okay?"
Vicki nodded, holding her finger to her lips. She smiled as Christy went over to Chet's table.
Vicki sat at the bar, sipping a mug of coffee. Chet, Pete, Paris and the others seemed to be having a good time, but she thought it was more important to try to get back on Frances' good side after the flare-ups on Saturday night.
"Is it usually this quiet on Monday?" Vicki asked.
Tonight Frances' hair was black, as black as Vicki's, cut shoulder-length with bangs in front. It looked like she was wearing a black helmet. Her face was very pale, with six thin black horizontal lines drawn across her left cheek.
She looked around the place before answering. There were about ten people with Chet and Paris' group, and a few other people sitting alone, but the big room did seem kind of empty.
"Usually the end of the week is a little busier, but it's hard to predict."
After a minute Vicki said, "I like your hair like that."
Frances came around the bar and sat next to Vicki. "You're going to keep right on being friendly, aren't you, even though it's driving me crazy?"
Vicki shrugged. "Sure. It's the way I was brought up. We're not rude like city folk."
Frances smiled. "You're certainly not dressed like a hick, if you don't mind my mentioning it."
"I thought I should try to fit in. Also, I've heard that appropriate attire can help make a favorable impression on one's employer." She raised her eyebrows in a question.
"Okay, I'm impressed. I'll warn you, though, there's no promotions in this job."
Vicki looked downcast. "No? Oh, that's too bad. I had my heart set on someday working my way up to Bouncer Supervisor."
Frances laughed. "As long as you don't want a raise, you can be Bouncer Supreme for all I care."
Vicki squared her minuscule shoulders, stuck out her chest and looked serious. "Bouncer Supreme," she said in her deepest voice. She nodded. "I like that."
Frances laughed again and patted Vicki's back. Then the door opened and she turned nervously. A seedy-looking man with sandy hair and wearing a shabby black trenchcoat came a little way into the bar and looked around.
"That reminds me, Bouncer Supreme," Frances said, leaning down to speak in a lower voice. "I hear some buzz that we may be raided tonight." Vicki placed her coffee mug on the bar. "If that happens, be very cool. They may arrest people, they may close us down, or I don't know what. But they're probably not going to start really hurting anybody unless somebody provokes them. Don't give them an excuse."
Vicki nodded soberly. "Okay. What if they do start something?" she asked.
"Take your cue from me," she said as the man in the trench coat left again. "If I make a move, back me up and fast."
"What about that guy who just came in?" Vicki asked.
"Him? Oh, no, that was Tom. He's okay. He was probably just looking for somebody."
Chet grinned, stroking his goatee.
"I think everybody here in u-town can basically be divided into three categories–" he began.
Donna was putting more beers on the table. "Yeah," she said, "big strapping manly tippers, little weeny baby tippers and absolute slimeballs." She held out her tray.
They dutifully piled crumpled bills on it until she went away.
"As I was saying," Chet began again, after taking a healthy swallow of beer, "people–"
"Is this a new theory or one of the old ones?" Pete asked.
"He wants to know if he should bother to write it down," Rex said.
They all laughed as Pete whipped out a pad and a pencil. He licked the tip of the pencil and poised it over the pad, looking eagerly at Chet.
"First of all," Chet said, leaning back in his chair, "there are natives. That's anybody for whom this is their natural environment. Natives fit in as soon as they arrive. They know how to act, what questions to ask, what things to pretend they don't see, and what dishes not to order at Feb Isle." They all laughed.
"Then there are tourists. They may try to act like natives, but they're just visiting. Sooner or later they'll go back to who and what they used to be. Sometimes they come here by accident and sometimes on purpose–"
"But isn't that an important distinction?" Pete asked, shaking a cigarette out of a crumpled pack.
Chet shook his head. "I don't think so . . ."
Pete struck a match and was about to light his cigarette when a tall, slender woman with straight dark hair came up behind him. She reached down and grabbed his wrist, slowly pulling his hand up so she could light her cigarette with his match.
He laughed as she sat down. "Hello, Emma. How's everything?"
"Oh, same old," she said in a low, throaty voice. She waved at the crowd in general "Hi, all," she said.
They all said hello.
"We're doing classifications," Chet explained. "So far we've got natives and tourists. The third group are the ne'er-do-wells. Crooks of various descriptions, anyone–"
"I think that's much too nice a word for them," Emma said. "Ne'er-do-well sounds kind of raffish, like some sort of charming rogue." She smiled languidly, smoke curling from her mouth. "I have been known to do foolish things for people like that. I think 'predator' would be a better word for the creatures you're talking about."
The front doors crashed open and a wave of policemen poured in.
"Everyone calm!" Frances yelled, standing up as the cops ran past her. They took up positions around the perimeter of the room.
Frances turned to the one nearest her. "What's up?" she asked.
"I'm what's up," said a tall man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a sallow face. He strolled in, his hands in the pockets of his blue suit.
"Hello, Novak," Frances said. She cocked one hip and held out her wrists.
"Keep them," he said as he passed her. "It's no fun when you give in so easy."
He looked around the room. Everybody was motionless. "I'd like some of you to stand." He started to point out a few specific people, including Paris, and as each one stood he went over and frisked him.
"Is this a raid?" Frances asked Novak as he pocketed Paris' gun.
He looked around slowly. "If you push your luck. We just want to look over the clientele." He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket.
"What are you looking for, Novak?" Chet asked. "Or should I ask who?"
Novak didn't even bother to answer. He just strolled among the tables, looking at everybody, shining the light in their faces as he passed them.
"How goes the search for Jennifer Owens' killer?" Chet asked.
Novak turned and grinned. "That investigation is proceeding in a satisfactory manner."
"How did I know you were going to say that?" Rex asked quietly.
Novak came back to Frances. "You got a key to the basement?"
"There's not much down there," she said.
He shrugged. She reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out two keys on a small ring. "You want–"
"Don't worry about us," he said, taking the keys. "We won't get lost." He motioned for a couple of the uniformed cops to follow him and they headed for the rear of the club.
"Novak really livens up a party, doesn't he?" Chet remarked to nobody in particular. "Natives, tourists, ne'er-do-wells and–"
"Predators," Emma amended. "And that includes Novak just fine."
"Anything to find down there?" Chet asked Frances quietly.
"Nothing they want, unless they want to confiscate Kingdom Come's equipment. We stashed it down there Friday night." She sat down wearily on a bar stool.
Rex laughed. "Novak couldn't find a moose in a bathtub anyway."
Vicki had a hunch this wasn't true, but she didn't say anything.
Novak seemed to take forever in the basement. Nobody had spoken or moved around since he'd left the room. Finally, after a few minutes, Paris came over and sat on the stool next to Vicki.
He leaned over, obviously about to whisper something to her, when there was a strange two-tone whistle from somewhere outside. He stood up, glancing toward the door.
One of the cops swung his rifle a little more in Paris' direction.
"What's up?" Vicki whispered.
"I've got to get out of here," he replied.
She glanced around. "No chance."
There was a scream from outside and the cop's attention wavered for a second. Paris barreled for the door and out.
The street outside was deserted, so he had to guess which direction to go in. The worst choice was obviously to stay where he was, though, so he quickly decided and ran down the block as hard as he could.
"Where are we going?" Vicki asked.
He hadn't realized she'd followed him out. She ran beside him, easily matching his pace, her long black hair streaming out behind her.
"I'll tell you in a minute," he said, turning the corner and finding that he'd run in the right direction after all. He yanked his bandanna up over the lower half of his face.
"You'd better stay out of this," Paris said to Vicki as they slowed, looking at the tableau in the middle of the street.
There was a crumpled figure in a short, brightly-colored dress, lying between two men. The man on the left stood casually, leaning on a baseball bat. The other had a golf club raised over his head. There were stains on the dress that looked like blood.
Paris reached inside his T-shirt and pulled out a whistle, blowing it as hard as he could as he ran toward the men.
Vicki hesitated as Paris tackled the man with the golf club. The club went skidding away as they fell to the street, but the man, although surprised and off-balance, was much bigger than Paris, and the other man quickly raised the baseball bat over his head, ready to bring it down on Paris' back.
That was enough for Vicki. She ran forward, surprising even herself as she jumped from about ten feet away and sailed over the man's head, grabbing the bat as she went past. Her hand stung from the impact as she landed about fifteen feet further down the block, falling to her hand and knees.
She stood and turned quickly, almost losing her balance again, and realized that she had been moving so fast that none of them had seen her. Paris was still wincing, waiting for the blow to fall, and the man he was wrestling was still trying to get a choke hold on him. The other man was slowly bringing his hands down, waving them as if they hurt, and obviously wondering where his baseball bat had gone.
"HEY!!" Vicki yelled at the top of her lungs, and it was as loud as a thunderclap.
Her voice echoed down the deserted street, and they all looked up. She stood in the center of the street, holding the baseball bat out in front of her. Her face was grim. The bat looked huge in her tiny hands, probably about as long as she was tall. She snapped it in two and threw the pieces away.
"THAT'S ENOUGH!" she said in a voice that rattled windows and then slowly echoed away. The man who had been wrestling with Paris scrambled to his feet and ran.
The other man reached under his jacket and frantically pulled out a gun but Paris lunged for him and tried to grab it. They fell to the street, rolling into the gutter, and Paris yanked at the gun with all his strength and heard a crack. His heart pounded as he thought the gun had gone off, but then he realized the gun was in his hand, and the man was screaming, huddled into the fetal position, holding one hand in the other.
"I think you broke his fingers," Vicki said. She hauled the man up to a sitting position and wrapped the golf club around him, pinning his arms to his sides. She grabbed the seat of his pants and yanked him to his feet and then gave him a shove. "Don't come back until you can get that off," she yelled as he ran away.
The boy in the dress got to a sitting position and looked around, his eyes wide. "What happened?" he asked breathlessly.
"You lucked out," Paris said quietly, sitting on the curb. "We heard the whistle."
Vicki sat down next to Paris, who was trying to catch his breath. He untied his bandanna (which had slipped off his face during the fight) and wiped his face and head. After a few moments the boy got to his feet and came and stood in front of them. His dress was torn, his long blond wig was all crooked and he walked with a limp. He took the wig off and held it in his hand.
"Thanks," he said. He fingered the whistle around his neck. "They tried to grab it off me. I only got to blow it once."
Paris nodded. "The word's getting out on the whistles. We'll have to think of something else soon." He looked up. "This your first time out?"
"Yeah," the boy said sheepishly. "How did you know?"
"You need some help with the makeup. And it's not really a good idea to go out alone."
"I went to the Cave," he explained. "I'd heard about it, but it took a long time for me to get up my nerve to go. As soon as I came in somebody gave me the whistle, but then before I could really meet anybody the cops came in and threw everybody out."
"Uniformed cops, with one plainclothes in a blue suit?" Paris asked. The boy nodded. Paris looked thoughtful. "Well, now we know where Novak was before he came to the Quarter," he said to Vicki. "He's hitting all the hot spots tonight."
"Thanks again," the boy said, obviously unsure about what he should do next.
"No problem," Vicki said. "And, take my advice, get some better-looking underwear."
The boy smiled for the first time. He leaned forward. "Hey, I like the ears. Are they–"
She smiled. "All natural. Sorry."
Paris said, "Listen, what's your name?"
"Loretta," the boy said quietly.
"Try the Cave again tomorrow night. I'll be there, and I can introduce you around."
"Okay, great. And thanks again. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Is this what you were doing on Friday night?" Vicki asked when they were alone. "When you left the dance?"
Paris smiled. "I was wondering if you'd ask me about that. I was sorry–"
"I followed you to where the people had been beaten up," she put in.
His eyes widened. "You did? I'm impressed. An hour ago I wouldn't have believed you, but I guess now I do. Can I ask–" She shook her head. "Okay," he continued. "I'm a member of a gang called the Wild Fruits." She giggled. "It's from a book by William Burroughs. We started as more of a social club, just a fun thing. But then a couple of us were beaten up pretty badly one night. One died a day later in the hospital, and the other one still walks with a cane.
"Well, after that it seemed foolish to go on just having fun. So, we started to try to think of ways of protecting each other and ourselves." He looked at her. "I want to ask you–"
"I know what you want to ask me. You want to know if I'll join your gang. And I guess you want to know if I'm queer. You wouldn't have cared an hour ago, but now . . ." She shrugged, then went on before he could respond. "The second part is none of your business. The first part, I'm going to have to think about." She stood up. "I'd better be getting back."
"To the Quarter? What if Novak is still there?"
She shrugged. "I don't get paid for standing around on the street, or even for saving boys in dresses. You coming back?"
He got to his feet. "No, I'm beat. And I don't think Novak's about to give me my gun back. Listen, tomorrow's Tuesday and that's the big night at the Cave, so maybe I'll swing by the Quarter on Wednesday night."
"Okay." She pointed at the gun he still held in his hand. "Well, at least you got another gun."
He smiled wryly, getting to his feet. "Where do you think I got the first one?" he asked, putting it into his pocket.
It was the darkest hour of the night.
Daphne the dog was sitting on a roof, thinking doggy thoughts, when her ears perked up. She stood up and padded quickly to the edge of the roof. She leaned forward, peering out across the river, straining her eyes and her ears.
It was black, nearly invisible black, showing no lights as it slipped across the sky toward her. It passed so low over her head that she ducked instinctively, the fur on the back of her neck standing up at the low hum of its passing. She barked at it halfheartedly, then sat down and said, "shit."
"I agree," came the disembodied voice of her friend.
Five blocks from the roof where Daphne sat, an enterprising teenage boy pedaled along on a bicycle. This had been a busy night for Fifteen, busy and profitable, but he was about ready to call it a night. He wondered what time it was.
Besides wondering about the time, he was thinking about two things which were much more important. One was the little wad of sweaty dollar bills in his left sock. He counted them again in his mind. A twenty, two fives and seven singles. Pretty good night's work.
Fifteen was a runner, sort of a low-tech replacement for the phone and postal services, and he had one final envelope in his right sock. This was going to be his last delivery, just a couple more blocks and he could think about sleep.
The other thing on his mind was the bicycle he was riding. He had taken it when its owner had unwisely leaned it against a wall while he ducked into an alley to relieve himself.
This didn't worry Fifteen, those sorts of transactions happened all the time. What worried him was the fact that the longer he rode this bike the more familiar it seemed. He was more and more certain that, as recently as the previous Friday, it had belonged to his friend Pete. He'd been hoping all night that he wouldn't run into Pete. Tomorrow morning he'd get up early and find some paint to disguise it.
Suddenly he skidded to a stop and looked up.
Dr. Lee opened her eyes. Neil stood by her mattress, a shiny automatic in his hand. CJ stood next to him, her arm held straight out in front of her. Dangling from her huge hand by the scruff of his neck was Fifteen. He waved. "Hi," he said.
"Turn him the other way."
CJ swung him around to face the wall while Dr. Lee pulled on a T-shirt.
"He insisted he had to see you," Neil said.
"Turn him back," Dr. Lee said. CJ swung him back around to face her again.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I saw it again," he said, his smile fading.
She sighed. "Put him down," she said.
"Fifteen?" the quiet voice came as he was getting on his bicycle. He quickly dismounted and wiped his hands on his pants.
"Yes?" he said, trying not to sound nervous. "Miss Christy?"
She stepped out of the alley, coming up quickly to stand right next to him. "Is it true?" she whispered. "About the surveillance?"
"Well, if she hasn't told you I don't think I should. She might get mad."
Christy obviously took this as a "yes."
Fifteen was several blocks away before he realized he'd missed a good opportunity to ask Christy out on a date.
Perhaps the most frequently misunderstood statement in the history of the United States (though he was in Switzerland when he said it). Generations of left-leaning college students have embraced the Old Man, only to drop him again when they actually read his writing. What they originally took for a desire to tear down the United States was actually intended as a simple boast that the Old Man himself wasn't about to go anywhere.
Though certainly now more famous for his (perceived) warmongering, for his irascibility, and for (perhaps) killing his first wife than for his writing itself, his books continue to sell, and no university press is considered serious if it doesn't feature at least one (usually unfavorable) book about the Old Man. The recent publication of a new edition of "The Big Finish" with the censored passages restored is a best-seller.
And, appropriately, we may never know if he'll live up to his boast to outlive the USA or not. He was supposed to have been murdered four years ago, but new evidence suggests that he did not die after all. If alive, he would be in his nineties.
They sat drinking coffee together in comfortable silence.
The man behind the counter of the gloomy tea and coffee store was slender and unshaven, with disorderly hair and sunken eyes, as if he hadn't been sleeping well. He wore a ratty T-shirt, so old its original color was hard to tell, and a pair of cut-off jeans.
He was a bass player, though he didn't think he'd be playing very much in the near future since one of the members of his band was dead and the other was in the hospital.
Sitting cross-legged on the counter in front of him was a girl, apparently about fifteen, not more than three and a half feet tall. She had green eyes and long, dark hair, tied back to reveal large ears which ended in points almost as high as the top of her head. She wore all black: T-shirt, leather jacket, jeans and high-top sneakers.
She worked as a bouncer in a local bar. Though very small and slender, she had enormous physical strength.
"Jenny used to sit there," Pete said, startling Vicki who had apparently been thinking about something else. "Well, not on the counter but on that stool. When she was Tom's girlfriend, she'd come by and ask me stuff. She was new in town, but she didn't want him to treat her like a hick. So, she acted like she understood everything he said to her, then she'd come to me to find out what was going on." He smiled. "Like he was the text and I was the footnotes."
"I know how she felt," Vicki said. "I've just been keeping my questions to myself."
"Questions? Like what?"
She paused for a moment. "Well, when I first got here, it seemed like . . . It was so different from where I grew up, and I didn't know how I got here, so I thought it must be a dream. Or a whole different world. But now I think maybe it's the same world, just a different place. I didn't think one place would be so different from another."
"Well, I know one easy way to find out," Pete said, reaching under the counter. He pulled out the phone and placed it in front of her. "Call your folks."
She reared back in alarm. "Call them?"
"Sure. Hang up when they answer, if you want."
Vicki picked up the phone, then put it down again. Pete sipped his coffee.
Finally, she picked up the receiver and dialed a number. After a few moments, her eyes widened and she hung up quickly. She leaned back, letting a long breath out through pursed lips.
"It was my grandfather," she said.
"So, not another world after all," Pete said, as if making a note of the fact. "Just a different part of the same one."
They were silent for a few minutes, then Pete said, "I keep thinking about Saturday night. I really should have gone with you guys."
Vicki shrugged. "It wouldn't have made any difference."
"Oh, I know. But I should have gone anyway."
"Was the baby yours?" she asked, looking down at the counter.
He shook his head. "I really doubt it. We were always careful, Jenny and I. She wasn't careful with Henshaw, though. Her–" he closed his eyes and shook his head. "I wonder sometimes," he said, "what the hell I was thinking."
Vicki shrugged. "Well, I know it looks bad now, but these things happen."
"I guess." He shook his head. "I was about to say 'well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,' but that's not true. It seemed like a terrible idea at the time, but I did it anyway."
"Hey, you should see my family. We do stuff worse than this before breakfast."
"I guess that's why you don't seem to be in any big hurry to get back, huh?"
"I wanted to ask you another question about Saturday night," Vicki said. "When Jenny said that you knew people who could help her, who was she talking about?"
Pete shrugged. "I'm not really sure. She could have meant the Jinx, but I don't think so. She was more surprised than anybody when Dr. Lee offered to help her. I think she was probably talking about starling."
Vicki giggled. "The crazy one? The woman who shot all those people at the Worlds Fair? Oh, right. Like she's going to ride into town and help Jennifer Owens."
Pete smiled a little nervously. "Well, she's living in my apartment."
"starling. She's been staying there since last week."
Vicki shook her head, still smiling. "My grandfather says she doesn't exist."
"Oh, no, she exists alright, and . . . well . . . she's a friend of mine."
He paused, as if this information was news to him.
"So," Vicki said, "you think Jenny wanted you to get starling to help her?"
"Thinking back on it, I do," Pete replied. "Jenny and starling spent some time together last Thursday, and apparently they kind of hit it off. I mean 'hit it off' considering that Jenny never got along with other women, and starling is . . ." He shrugged.
"Crazy," Vicki suggested.
"Yeah. So, given all that, it seemed they got along okay. It turned out starling's eyes are pretty bad, and Jenny gave her a pair of glasses. Plus, it was Jenny who told starling how to find the woman she and I had been searching for. So, starling might have helped her, though I'm not sure what she could have done.
"Of course, this is all hindsight. At the time I just assumed she was talking about Randi. People are always after me to get Randi to do this and that for them."
"Randy?" Vicki asked. "I don't think I've met him."
"Randi with an 'i'," Pete explained. "I thought you met her at Duffy's. She's . . ." He looked up and blinked, then smiled. "Hello, Randi," he said.
"Hello, Pete," came a warm, friendly voice that seemed to fill the room. Vicki jumped, the mug slipping from her fingers.
The mug slipped from Vicki's fingers. It didn't hit the floor, though, but paused in mid-air (the spilled coffee pouring itself back inside) and then floated back up to her hands.
"I didn't mean to startle you," Randi said. "My ears were burning. Well, if I had ears."
"That's okay," Vicki said in a small voice, trying to see where the voice was coming from without seeming to look around the room.
"We did meet, Vicki, more or less," Randi continued. "The first night you were here, at Duffy's. I was there with my boyfriend, Chester. You may remember him, the handsome man with the red hair and the beard."
Vicki nodded. "The one who talked to himself, and then vanished when the shooting started? I thought he was a wizard or something."
Pete chuckled. "Randi must have done that. Chet's no more a wizard than I am. It's the beard that makes him look like that. Now, on the other hand . . ." He smiled. "Randi, how would you describe yourself?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," she said. "Omnipotent, omniscient, all that sort of thing."
Vicki laughed in spite of herself. "Pretty hot stuff, huh?"
"Hey, even the IRS doesn't mess with me," she said with a chuckle.
Vicki smiled, too, finding Randi's enjoyment infectious. "Is there anything you can't do?" she asked. "Create a rock so big you can't lift it, something like that?"
"Well, I don't know about that, I've never tried. It sounds like a silly idea. But I will tell you this, I'm not very good at telling jokes. I mean, I think I tell them pretty well, but mostly nobody laughs."
Pete grinned. "She's not that good a drummer either."
"Well, I think I'd get better if you'd let me play more than just that one time. I . . ." She paused and a soft sigh filled the room. "No, Pete, I guess we shouldn't take that thought any further."
They were silent for a moment until Pete said, "You know, one time some people tried to start a religion based on Randi–"
"Oh, don't tell her that story," she said quickly. "That's a terrible story. Anyway, Vicki, I'm very pleased to finally meet you."
"If you did that with Chester, beamed him out of Duffy's when the shooting started, I can see why Jenny Owens thought you could help her," Vicki said.
"I don't think she did mean me," Randi said thoughtfully, "because she didn't believe I exist. For example, Pete, when I took you folks to the Emergency Room after she stabbed Philip Henshaw last Friday, she thought she'd fainted and then come to after you brought her there. She just edited me out of things."
"Would you have helped her?" Pete asked.
"No, I don't think so. I found her rather annoying. But I think you're right, that she was talking about starling. God, that would have been a horror. Can you imagine if starling had been at the clinic? She would have just killed everybody. She has some wonderful qualities, but she's not much good at strategic thinking."
Pete nodded, tapping his fingers on the worn countertop. Then he looked up. "Randi," he said hesitantly, "speaking of starling, can I bother you for a favor?"
"Sure," she said, and both Pete and Vicki felt a brief stab of nausea, then they were standing in Pete's apartment. They heard Randi say, "I'll bring you back to the store when a customer comes in."
Vicki stood in Pete's apartment and regarded the most dangerous woman in America.
"She just sits there," Pete said, pointing at starling, who sat at the kitchen table, her head propped on one fist. "She doesn't move. She hasn't said a word in days." The lines of worry in his forehead, which Vicki had noticed the night before, were now back again.
"Well, she is supposed to be crazy," Vicki said, thinking how much starling looked like the huge poster that Johnny Mac had on his wall.
"Maybe that's it," Pete said. "But she wasn't like this before. She used to talk. She used to get excited about things." He sat opposite her, then stood up again. "She doesn't eat," he said. "I'm really worried." He went and stood next to her. "You need to eat," he told her. He poked her in the shoulder. "Eat," he said.
"Eat what?" Vicki asked, looking around.
"Oh, I've cooked meals, I've brought in take-out. She doesn't touch it. But that's not even the weirdest thing. This morning she woke me up and put a cup of coffee next to my bed. She'd made me coffee! I can't really explain how bizarre that is. I couldn't have been more surprised if she'd – I don't know – jumped up and danced a little jig. She even had milk in it. Nobody has milk." He leaned way over and whispered in Vicki's ear, "The coffee was really terrible, too."
Vicki stood looking at starling for a minute, then she jumped up on the kitchen table and sat down facing her. "Tell me what happened," she said to Pete, her eyes still on starling.
So he told her about the search for Deirdre Hammersmith, the Kingdom Come rehearsal on Friday morning, with its violent and bloody ending, and starling's discovery that Jenny Owens knew who Deirdre Hammersmith was.
"Late Friday night," he concluded, "you remember I ran into you in the park. Then you and I came here, and you went to bed while I went out for breakfast. While I was eating she came in and sat with me, but she didn't say anything. She went to work with me, but then after a while she left. I thought that was probably it, that she was leaving town, but when I came home she was here. She's been sitting there ever since."
Vicki thought for a minute, still looking at starling, then reached out and beeped her on the nose. Pete tensed, ready to dive for cover.
Pete tensed, ready to dive for cover, but starling didn't react to having her nose beeped.
Vicki jumped down off the table, took Pete's hand and pulled him into Carl's bedroom. She closed the door behind them. "Okay, here's what I think," she said. "She's done something, something bad, and now she's punishing herself for it. I guess it's something you don't know about."
Pete looked skeptical. "What could be worse than what she's done before? I saw her kill a man by ripping his throat out with her teeth!"
Vicki shrugged. "I don't know. But that's what it looks like. And it's something to do with you, that's why she's doing it here in your apartment, and why she made you coffee." She leaned back against the wall, frowning. "My sister did something like this one time, that's what this reminds me of. There was this boy I kind of liked, and when she found out she made it a point to screw him. She didn't even care about him, she just wanted to make a point, but then she felt a little bad about it afterwards. She followed me around for a week, not saying much but looking sad and trying to do little things for me, like do the dishes when it was my turn. It was creepy. I didn't know what was going on, but then I found out what she'd done and it made sense."
Pete was starting to be convinced. "And maybe she won't talk because she's afraid it'll slip out. She sometimes says things without thinking." He looked at the closed door to the other room. "But what is it?" he asked. "What did she do?"
As they went back into the kitchen they heard a weird shuffling sound from outside the apartment door. Pete was in no mood for jokes and tricks, so he went to the door and yanked it open. Vicki peered around him to see who it was.
It was a woman with very short blond hair, wearing a black sweatshirt and jeans. She was sitting in the doorway as a dog sits, a leather collar around her neck and a leash in her mouth. "I'm sorry," Pete began, his voice shaky, "he's not . . ." He glanced back into the apartment as if Carl might suddenly lope out of the bedroom, a wicked grin on his face, whistling.
Pete gestured helplessly and then, tears welling up in his eyes, he fell to his knees and embraced the blond-haired woman. She pressed her head against him, and then, dropping the leash on the floor, she started to lick his cheeks.
Vicki was rather surprised at this scene, but she quickly turned and looked at starling, who was sitting rigidly, looking at Pete's shaking back. Her thin lips was pressed together and her eyes were wide. Vicki had never seen anybody look so tense.
After a few minutes Pete stood up and went to the stove. He had left Carl's bedroom door closed, and the dog-woman went to it and scratched. Vicki opened it for her. She went in and sniffed around the walls, then she went into the center of the bed, circled three times and then lay down and closed her eyes with a big moaning sigh.
"That's Daphne," Pete said to Vicki. "She was Carl's dog."
Vicki was saved from having to think of some way to respond to this when they heard a little bell ring and Randi whispered "Customers," and suddenly they were back in the store.
Pete and Vicki waited while the couple browsed around the store.
After they were gone, Vicki said, "I should be going."
Pete looked up. "Didn't you come by to see me for some reason?" he asked. "I thought you wanted to talk to me about something."
She shook her head. "No, not really. I guess I'll see you around the Quarter."
He nodded. "I'll be there tonight, on the early side. Everybody will be there."
Vicki was halfway back to T.C.'s before she realized she had no idea what he'd meant by this.
Marshall came into the kitchen in time to hear T.C. say, "Now, if you want my suggestion, the way to get this–"
Jan Sleet shushed her, glancing at Marshall.
He smiled. "I know, God forbid I should know what's going on."
Jan Sleet shook her head. "No, you'd just tell me I'm crazy."
He climbed up on one of the stools. "I can do that anyway."
"Now, here's my idea," T.C. said. "You got any relatives in the clergy? Priests, ministers, nuns, that sort of thing?"
Jan Sleet shook her head. "Nope, not a single one. Some Italian, huh?"
"Well, even . . ." T.C.'s voice trailed off and she looked at Jan Sleet as if she hadn't noticed her before. "You're Italian?"
"Well, half. My dad is."
"Sleet? What kind of Italian name is Sleet?"
"Oh, that's just my pen name. My real name is Stiglianese. You know, there's an amusing story about that–"
"Damn, if I'd known that I'd have given you the special paisan rate on the room. Oh, well, it's too late now." She sipped her coffee. "Anyway, if you want to get these–"
"Mmmmmmm!" Jan Sleet drowned her out, waving to indicate Marshall.
"Would you like me to leave?" Marshall asked. "I could go out and sit on the fire escape."
"I'll give you an example, then," T.C. said. "My uncle Lou died a couple of years back, and he'd told us he had a burial plot all picked out and paid for. He even took us out to the cemetery and showed it to us.
"Well, after he died, it turned out he had put a down payment but hadn't actually paid the balance. I pointed out to them that, under the circumstances, it was unreasonable to expect him to pay what he owed."
"They were not receptive to this point of view," Finch said as he came in.
"They were not receptive to . . ." she continued, then she stopped. "Were you there?" she demanded.
"No," he said, pouring himself some coffee, "but the story has kind of a familiar ring to it."
"So, what did you do?" Jan Sleet asked.
"Well," T.C. continued, "early one morning I got my sister the nun to come along, wearing her habit of course, and we had a couple of strong guys with shovels–"
The door opened and Vicki came in. "Vicki!" Jan Sleet said, grabbing her cane and standing up, "I'm glad you're home. I need your help with something. Come on." She pulled her toward the bedroom, then turned to T.C. "Thanks for the suggestions, but, well, I have my own methods."
They vanished into the bedroom and closed the door. Marshall sighed.
A moment later Jan Sleet poked her head out of the bedroom and said, "Nobody come in. This is girl stuff." Then she closed the door again.
About a half hour later they emerged from the bedroom. Jan Sleet's hair was brushed and she was wearing her best black suit with a bright yellow silk shirt open wide at the throat. Even her glasses and her cane looked as if they'd been polished.
"And where do you think you're going?" Marshall demanded.
"Investigating," she said piously.
"She's got a date," Vicki amplified.
"Well, it's not a date date," Jan Sleet clarified. "It's a snooping date."
"Has he got any money?" T.C. asked.
"Not a bit," she said cheerfully. "But he has information."
T.C.'s expression told what she thought of the relative value of these two commodities.
Marshall peered at Jan Sleet more closely. "Are you wearing makeup?"
"Just a little," she said. "Vicki put it on."
Marshall glanced at Vicki, and she said, "Hey, I know how to do that girl stuff."
Jan Sleet limped to the door and opened it. "I may be late," she said airily, "so don't wait up."
She left and Marshall made a face. "Well," he said, "I certainly have no intention of waiting up."
Marshall had gone to bed early. He'd been kind of tired, and besides there was obviously a party being set up and he wasn't really in the mood. A couple of times he'd been awakened by riotous laughter or other party noises, but each time he'd just gone back to sleep again.
* * * * *
"Hey!" A rough hand shook Marshall's shoulder. He winced, opening his eyes. The room was nearly pitch black.
"Your boss is back, and she's passed out," a voice said.
"I'm busy. Come on." He realized it was Nasty. The party was obviously still going on in the other room. The bedroom door was open, and there was a lot of noise coming in but very little light.
"The electricity is out again. Come on, Marsh, up and at 'em."
He sat up and heard her leave the room. His eyes were starting to adjust and he wondered what time it was. He found his pants and pulled them on.
In the kitchen, everything was illuminated by the sickly glow from the black and white television on top of the refrigerator. He could see T.C., Finch, Nasty and several other people in the kitchen. The apartment smelled like beer and cigarette smoke and the kitchen table was littered with empty beer bottles.
A scream came from the television and a sudden bright light from the screen illuminated Jan Sleet lying in the middle of the living room floor. Marshall moved toward her, banging his shin on something and half falling onto the sofa.
"Keep it quiet in there," T.C. said.
"This is the best part," Finch said.
"You said that half an hour ago," Nasty said sourly.
"Hey, the dog's leaning on me again!" a familiar voice yelled, and Marshall could barely make out The Amazing Frankie's huge pompadour in the gloom. "She's gonna shed all over my black pants!"
"That girl in the cabin, wasn't she killed in the barn a while back?" someone asked.
Marshall looked back to see what had tripped him. It was Vicki, sitting near the door with her legs straight out in front of her.
"That's the other movie," Finch said with quiet authority.
"She's drunk," Vicki said triumphantly, gesturing vaguely at Jan Sleet.
"You mean this isn't all the same movie?" Nasty asked suspiciously.
Marshall looked more closely at Jan Sleet as his eyes adjusted better to the darkness. "You know," he remarked over his shoulder to Vicki, "I'm almost certain she was wearing a different shirt when she left the house."
There was no response except for a flushing sound from the bathroom. He turned and saw that Vicki was asleep.
The bathroom door opened and Pete came out, wiping his hands on his T-shirt. There was a candle burning in the bathroom, and by its light Marshall could see both Jan Sleet and Vicki more clearly. Vicki started to snore quietly. Pete stepped over her on his way to the kitchen.
"Hey," Marshall said to Pete. "Did you bring–"
"What's she doing on the floor?" Pete said curiously, apparently noticing Jan Sleet for the first time.
"This movie sucks," Nasty said. "Let's watch the other one."
"Did you bring her home?" Marshall asked him.
Pete looked back as a speed boat motor started. There was a chorus of "They're going into the boat house!" from the kitchen, followed by T.C. saying, "They've got the fucking reels out of order, that's the fucking problem."
"What?" said Pete. "Oh, no, I have no idea . . . I've been here," he said hurriedly. He waved his hands in impatience as the boat motor revved. "It's movie night!" he finished, as if that explained everything.
"Wasn't her hair straight before?" The Amazing Frankie asked. "What's with this shag thing?"
"That's the other one," Pete said as he took another beer out of the refrigerator, holding up a hand to steady the television.
Marshall lifted Jan Sleet and carried her into the bedroom. He placed her on the bed, then quickly went back out to get Vicki. She was so small he was afraid someone might step on her by accident as they made their way to the bathroom.
"It must be good, it's directed by the same guy who did the one we saw last week," Finch said.
"I think it is the one we saw last week," David said as Marshall heard a dog bark.
"What's she say?" Finch asked.
"She says if a movie sucks, it doesn't matter who directed it," Pete said. "Fundamentally, like most dogs, she's not an auteurist."
"She's a damn dog!" T.C. said. "If she had her choice we'd be watching fucking Lassie." Then she yelped. "Hey, stop biting my foot!"
"Pour some more beer in her bowl," Pete said. "She likes that."
As Marshall placed Vicki on the other bed, Jan Sleet moaned behind him. He turned and heard her giggle and then say, "Big surprises to come!"
When Marshall came back into the kitchen, two women were bringing in bags full of clinking bottles. "Beer here!" they announced.
T.C. motioned Marshall over, handed him a beer and pointed at a teenage boy in the corner. He was squatting next to a woman with short blond hair and patting her on the head. T.C. said, "That's my niece over there."
"Nephew," the boy said, waving.
"Whatever," T.C. said, her attention obviously more on the television.
"Call me Fifteen," the boy said.
Marshall had just time to notice that the TV was plugged into an extension cord that snaked out the window when the television went off, plunging the apartment into complete darkness. Marshall heard a voice he didn't recognize saying, "The power must have gone out in my place, too. Damn."
He heard a hard slap on wood. "Alright, who wants coffee?" T.C. demanded. The dog barked.
Pete walked home slowly, wondering again where his bicycle had got to.
Movie night had been fun, a good distraction, but now his mind was back going around in the same circles again. Vicki's theory about starling had made a lot of sense. He tried to concentrate on figuring it out, but he always ended up stuck thinking about starling sitting at his kitchen table, motionless.
Suddenly, Daphne barked and ran forward, nearly pulling the leash out of his hand. He ran forward a few steps, tugging back to slow her down.
"What is it?" he demanded, sounding more irritable than he'd intended to.
To his surprise she stood up, grabbed his arm and pointed up at the sky. "Look!" she said.
It was large and black against the night sky, blocking the stars as it passed. Instinctively they stepped into a doorway. He was surprised to realize that Daphne was as tall as he was.
"It's the surveillance thing," he said, his voice falling into a whisper. "This is the first time I've seen it."
"You know about it?" she demanded, her grip on his arm tightening.
"Oh, yes, Frances told me last week. It comes over every night."
"Boy, Frances really does know everything. What else did she say?"
"Not much more than that." It was gone by then and they stepped back out onto the sidewalk. "One possibility is that they're using some sort of heat thing, something that senses heat, to figure out where all the tunnels are."
She smiled. "It sounds like you're not up on all the latest scientific developments."
He shook his head. "Damn, now I'm being insulted by a dog." He tugged on her leash. "Come on, let's go home."
As he was being pulled down the sidewalk Pete made a mental note that he had to think more seriously about the Daphne situation. As soon as he figured out about starling.
Pete awoke and he was already sitting bolt upright in bed, his heart pounding in his chest.
He'd got it. All the facts and theories that had been tumbling around in his head had finally formed a pattern. He had figured out the one thing, the only possible thing, that made it all logical.
starling had killed Carl. He had no idea how or why, but it made too much sense. It explained everything that she'd done since Friday night. Her obvious anguish, her self-enforced silence, her punishing herself in front of him.
Of course, is also meant Randi had misled him when she'd told him about Carl's death, but that was certainly possible if she thought she had a good reason.
But now, what to do?
Pretend it wasn't true?
No, not about Carl.
Throw her out?
Leave her free to kill more fun-loving drummers (and quite possibly one obsessive-compulsive bass player as well)? No.
Call the cops?
No, he was no fink. And besides, he couldn't bear to think of the horrors they'd inflict on her.
He looked over at where she slept at the kitchen table, her head resting on her folded arms.
She was asleep. He knew where her guns were. Nobody would complain, in fact he thought he remembered something about a reward, dead or alive.
He went to her battered airline travel bag and got the gun, the little one Henshaw had stolen. He had no idea how to check if it was loaded or not, but he knew Henshaw had only fired it once. He glanced over at the door to Carl's room. It was closed. He didn't want Daphne to come in until it was all over.
It was the reward which made him pause. He hated the thought that anybody (especially starling herself) would think he'd killed her for the money.
He stood by the kitchen table. He looked down. Her eyes were open.
She didn't even raise her head.
"Go ahead," she whispered.
He shook his head, suddenly angry. "No," he said. "You want that, you do it yourself." He put the gun down on the table next to her and went to the stove.
"Carl's funeral is Friday," he said over his shoulder. "You should go. I imagine it'll be huge. Carl had a lot of friends." She sat up straight and started to speak. "Nobody knows what I know," he said more quietly. "And nobody will."
"Aren't you afraid," she asked, "if you're the only person who knows?"
He shook his head.
"Well, I am," she said quietly, her eyes on the gun Pete had placed in front of her.
"You're not going to hurt me," Pete said. "And, if you do, well, most of the people who would have cared are dead now anyway." She started to speak, but he held up a hand. "Just don't tell me how it happened. Don't tell me anything about it."
Her eyes widened. "You don't want to know?"
He shook his head. "No. At least not yet." He picked up the coffee pot. "Do you want some coffee?" he asked, in a louder voice than he'd intended.
She sat up straighter and pulled her chair up to the table. "Yes, please," she said.
"Okay," he said, filling a saucepan with water. "Then I'm going to cook some breakfast, and you're going to eat it."
She picked up a book of matches and lit the candle in the center of the table.