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Just in time for Halloween
(Not for Children)
I’ve seen a proof of the print edition of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink from Hell, and having read the ebook version, and I have to say, this book is better in print. Not only are the pages beautifully designed, but having a two-page view of the story turns out to be helpful to the read. This discovery modifies my unqualified enthusiasm for ebook readers. I’m astounded.
Maybe Hyperlink is better in print because the story is a complex mystery. Though it’s written in a clear, easy-to-follow style, the pieces are not easy to put together. The print version, allowing easy glancing-back, makes that process easier. I’ve also said that like a lot of complex works, this one improves with each reading. It has footnotes, for heaven’s sake. You have to be fairly smart to ‘get it,’ or possibly a trifle in(s)ane. (Are people ever inane? I don’t know. Hyperlink from Hell has me thinking/writing beyond the box.) Its irreverent and bawdy attitude may offend some readers. There are puns all over the place. You’ve been warned. And oh, yes, it’s a story within a story.
HERE’S THE COVER BLURB:
HYPERLINK FROM HELL
“Holy shit! I love it!”
—The author’s kid sister
(Bribed with Candy)
“I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down,
so I wet ’em!”
—Incontinent Monty Python fan
(Friend of the Author’s Mom)
“A magnificent overstatement of hyperbole; an amplification of aggrandized embroidery; an extravagant stretch of caricature; a yarn, a traveler’s tale, a fish story, a tall tale of puffery and boasting; a rant.”
—Someone who owns a thesaurus
“Ponderous and annoying.”
—The author’s oldest sister
(No Candy for Her)
“Diabolical. Fecund. Funny.”
—Some Snotty Rag
“It’s good. Or it could be bad.
How the Hell should I know?”
Hyperlink from HELL
A Couch Potato’s Guide to the Afterlife
In(s)ane Mystery ahead.
If you have any sense, or sensibilities,
this senseless novel will surely offend some
or all of them. Just put the book
down, and back away.
“How shall we begin, today?”
Al sits by the window, paralyzed by the sunlight that engulfs his leather armchair. His eyes reflect the sky: clear blue, no hope of rain. Like yesterday, like the day before yesterday, I reach out to smooth a tuft of pure white hair gone astray… to button up his button-down… to straighten his tie. To adjust the straps of his rubber waders.
But something’s different, today. The briefcase he carries everywhere—even now, even here—has changed its habits. Yesterday, it sat by his feet like a faithful retriever. Now it’s lying, unopened, on his lap.
He’s waiting for something, and so am I. It’s been three years, nine months and five days since the bodies were found, thirteen months since Al checked himself in. One year, today, since I took over his directorship. The little knot in my stomach is having a birthday. There are no balloons.
My mind is screaming, Get up! Get out of here! Put me out of a job!
I say, “How shall we begin, today?”
I sit on the footstool and pat Al’s hand, but he shows no response. Not to my words. Not even to my touch. Day after day, he pays silent homage to grief, to a lifetime burdened with the woes of countless patients… and to something else. Something he won’t tell me.
But enough is enough. “Al? Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
He blinks, and could that little twitch be a smile? Just what I’ve been waiting for.
It’s time for Al’s own method for getting to the crux of the matter: writing therapy. I set a netbook on his briefcase—wiped clean, a blank slate—and hold my breath. When I tried this approach before, Al sank more deeply into delusion; but it’s been months since then. I’ve tried everything else. We can’t talk forever about fly fishing and the weather, pretending nothing’s happened, that he’s still my boss and not my patient.
“Better out than in, Al. That’s what you always say.”
He turns to face me, squeezes my hand, and hands me back the netbook. “Careful, my dear. That’s how it starts.”
My little knot is unraveling. “What do you mean, Al?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he snaps open the briefcase and pulls out a folder and a handwritten note. When I reach for them, he takes my hand again, kisses my palm and tucks the note into it:
You asked me to write it all down. Every little thing that happened. What the Hell? Why not? I always wanted to write a novel. Or a screenplay. Or whatever.
So, here it is—whatever it is. But if You’re trying to trick me into learning something from this, good luck with that.
I look up from the note. “But this isn’t you. It’s him.”
Him. James Canning. The long-lost Lotto winner and reality show has-been. Al’s only private patient that he wouldn’t let me meet, wouldn’t even discuss with me. The only patient that ever went missing from The Haven.
“To get to me,” Al says, “you must go through him.”
With trembling hands, he removes part of the folder’s contents before gently laying it back in the case. He snaps the case shut and holds the papers out to me.
“Part One. And may God have mercy on your soul.”
My hand pauses, mid-air, grasping at nothing. Did he say “God”?
I take the papers without glancing at them, preferring to study Al’s face. The sideways squint of the morning sun casts it into stoic relief. His topography shows no new cracks, no signs of sarcasm. So that remark wasn’t meant to be funny, and it wasn’t an offhand comment. No, I must be wrong; he must be joking. The closest Dr. Albert Montclair comes to worship is his faith in Bertrand Russell—the mathematician, philosopher… and atheist.
Al’s eyes are fixed on the papers in my hand. He must sense my scrutiny, because he reverts to mumbling about the weather. Drought? What drought? His knees predict a storm of Biblical proportions. Here in New Orleans, he says, the forecast is wrong. Dead wrong.
But we’re in New York State.
Our shining moment, Al’s window of clarity, has come and gone. I’ll leave the netbook on his footstool, but I doubt he’ll use it. Not now. He needs more time to reflect the sky.
I promise him I’ll read the papers soon: next Tuesday, if not today. My Labor Day weekend has been planned for months. Steven and I are off to Martha’s Vineyard, and we’ve pledged to take no work with us. I try to smile at the irony; I gave Al homework, but he’s turned the tables on me.
I rise to leave, turn to go, but Al clutches my hand and insists I read the papers today. He only calms when I swear not to go home before finishing them. I close the door behind me, feeling guilty as a child caught skipping school.
Of course I want to read my homework. I’m dying to. I just don’t have the time. At The Haven, mornings are for rounds and administrative duties, lunch is shared with a conference call—on the menu today: the Chairman of the Board and his lackeys—and afternoons are for treating patients. I seldom have a moment to spare.
I keep Canning’s papers with me anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse between patients. But no. Even the restroom isn’t sacrosanct; I manage to read just the title, “Hyperlink from Hell,” before an intern bangs on the door, begging for a consult and blurting out details of what I assume is her husband’s infidelity.
Poor thing, she doesn’t need therapy, she needs a lawyer, I think, before realizing it’s the plot of her favorite soap.
I’ve barely dried my hands when an orderly drags me off to referee staff members fighting over a patient’s meds.
It’s 6:30, now. I’ve had no time for homework, and not for lack of trying. I’ve seen nine patients, settled three staff squabbles, and just “put the Bad Boys to bed.” That’s Al’s own euphemism for the final check on our more volatile patients. He always did it himself, and so do I.
If I don’t leave soon, the night staff will catch me, so I stuff Canning’s “screenplay, novel, whatever” into my briefcase. I could take it home, but I promised to read it here, tonight, and I’ve never lied to Al. Luckily, there’s no need to break my promise.
I call Steven to warn him I won’t be home for dinner, then sneak off to The Haven’s side gates—the gates that lead to Montclair Castle, Al’s ancestral home. The largest of the Hudson Valley estates built by America’s leading industrialists, the castle shares its grounds with a psych center for just one reason: Al insisted on walking to work. He built The Haven himself, on “the old back forty,” and Society hasn’t spoken to him since.
So, thanks to Al, the castle’s library counts as “here.”
I sign out with Security (“Goodnight, Wayne,” “See ya, Dr. Stapledon”), and The Haven’s inner gate scrapes open with the torturous scream of steel on steel. I make a mental note to call maintenance; that sound can’t do the patients any good. The gate screams closed behind me, and for the few long seconds before the outer gate engages, I’m trapped.
What if it stayed shut? There’s the intercom, of course, but if Wayne didn’t come…
I shake off a shiver, thinking That’s what cell phones are for.
Quiet as a sigh, the outer gate sets me free and glides to a clunk behind me. A flagstone path escorts me through dense shade, steers me around roots. Bone-dry needles crunch underfoot. These sentinel pines, planted too close together for their own good, shield The Haven from the only prying eyes for miles around: the heavy-lidded windows of the castle.
Here in the trees, Al and I once stumbled on a wayward flock of castle tourists. They seemed embarrassed, if not repentant, to be caught sneaking a peek at the loony bin. Al often greeted visitors with a wink and a smile, saying he’d done his best to improve the neighborhood but the Vanderbilt Mansion was still down the road. That day, however, he had just one word for our stragglers before shooing them onto their proper path:
Al was still my boss, then, and James Canning was his most famous patient—but what I knew about Canning wouldn’t have filled a page on his case file, a file I’ve yet to access. Some might wonder why curiosity didn’t get the better of me, why I didn’t devour Canning’s records once he was gone and Al was no longer in charge. But something held me back. For me, Canning’s file was forbidden fruit. At least, that’s what Al once called it.
I wonder if he meant me to be tempted, all along.
Before Canning disappeared, I saw his face only once: grinning from a supermarket tabloid at the check-out stand. It seemed “The World’s Most Dashing Couch Potato” had Hollywood looks and a professed TV “addiction.” I flipped through the tabloid, to find that he’d bought a supermarket chain with his Lotto winnings before starring in his own reality show.
It was from that article, not Al, that I learned Canning was blessed with more than a disarming smile. He had hyperthymesia and an eidetic memory. Commonly known as “autobiographical” and “photographic” memories, those traits are extremely rare. Take them in conjunction, add ADHD and stir… and what a life-long case study Canning would have made, if only he hadn’t flown the coop. Imagine remembering almost everything you’ve seen and done, everything you’ve read, but having trouble focusing on any of it.
I catch a heel on a grasping root and realize, too late, that I should have focused on my feet. Arms flapping wildly, I stumble out of the trees into still-bright sunlight, briefcase launching skyward.
It lands with a thud.
I smooth my skirt and recover the case (still intact) and my dignity (slightly less so), before following the path once again. I’m relieved that Canning’s papers didn’t fly away, lucky that my “Chicken Dance” went unwitnessed. That’s because Matilda, the castle’s retired head housekeeper and sole remaining occupant, has spent this dry, dreadful August on a cruise instead of surveying the grounds with her trusty binoculars. She’s not due back for a week.
The castle and garden tours are over for the day—and after this weekend, for the season. Thank goodness. The regular tours were bad enough, so last winter, when I learned the Board had plans for a “Montclair Murder Trek,” I challenged the proposal. They wouldn’t have dared such a thing when Al was director, but without him the outcome was never in doubt. I kept my job, but lost the fight.
Murder is more popular than ever, these days. All summer long, plump, giggling, gawking tourists have toddled into the castle, left their sticky fingerprints and toddled out again.
Sorry, Al. But if you want things to change…
Get up. Get out. Put me out of a job.
As Al’s assistant, I walked this same route daily, but not alone. Before strolling together to The Haven, we’d share a pot of tea in his library, planning practical jokes for the next Board meeting. We’d spend our last workday hour there, too, discussing patients. How giddy I was, under the influence of Al’s confidence in me and a glass of his single malt. But he never trusted me with Canning. Not until today.
Today, I’m vowing to burn these silly high heels… but then my path winds past the chapel and all silly thoughts are exorcised. One of the bodies was found in the chapel.
This walk was once a pleasure; now it’s a gauntlet of painful memories. Maybe that’s why I wear these shoes. Survivor’s guilt has three-inch heels.
My path skirts the old stone carriage house. Decades ago, it was gutted by fire and rose from the ashes as a garden workshop. The tourists call it charming; the groundskeepers call it the shed. Like all the castle’s outbuildings, it’s besieged: ravaged by ivy that would tear apart less stalwart structures. When mayhem happens slowly, we call the carnage picturesque.
Picturesque? Yes. But body number two was found in the shed.
After the carriage house, my path splits. The left side leads uphill, to the firehouse, but I veer right, past the ponds where I sometimes feed the fish. Not today. Today, it’s straight to the library and James Canning’s “Part One.”
As I trip down the last, gentle slope to the castle, Al’s change of heart about God starts nagging at me. If grief tests the faith of a believer, could it have the opposite effect on a skeptic? That, plus Al’s advancing years, might explain his turning to God.
If he were someone else.
I stand at the door with eyes closed, wishing Matilda would open it. It’s her right to live here for the rest of her life. That could be forever; she’s ninety-two and shows no symptoms of relocating. She’s the closest thing to family that Al has left, and I sometimes discuss his case with her. Unethical, perhaps, but I simply have to.
I ring the bell—out of habit, respect, more wishful thinking?—before opening the door with my key. Once inside, I disable the alarm, then reset it for most zones before crossing the foyer to Al’s library, the circular foundation of one of the false towers. I say “false,” because there’s no staircase winding up and up, as any self-respecting tower ought to have. The castle’s towers are just round rooms stacked like the layers of a cake, each part of its respective floor.
Unlocking the library, I can’t help smiling. This was Al’s only folly, his “square pegs in a round hole.” He tricked a round room into sheltering thousands of books, the most angular of objects.
Thanks to the legacy of thick stone walls, the castle is cool as a cathedral year round—but the library is stuffy and dark. Crushed velvet drapes, drawn tightly over leaded windows, dare sunlight to crack the spines of Al’s first editions.
I fling caution and the drapes aside, and crank open just one window. The others, stubborn and warped, defy me. Al always said they waited too long to retire, like him, that they couldn’t be expected to operate smoothly, without complications.
I pluck the papers from my briefcase, kick off my heels, and curl up in the twin to Al’s favorite armchair. Over the desk, his portrait—a painting I commissioned myself, since he’d never have been so vain—seems to nod in approval.
Or maybe he’s asking, “What took you so long?”
HYPERLINK FROM HELL
A Couch Potato’s Guide to the Afterlife
Part One: Delusions of Grandeur
1. Smoking May be Hazardous
“Oh, enough about you! Let’s talk about me,” Monique said. Above her head, a string of outdoor lights—the ones shaped like chili peppers—shivered in the sudden breeze and went out.
“All right,” I said, tapping my last-ever cigarette on the rim of her piña colada. “What would you like to know about yourself?”
Hoping my breath was awful, I leaned toward her and leered. At least, I think it was a leer. I probably should have practiced that, because she didn’t even flinch. Instead, her mind wandered over to the poolside bar with her drop-dead body in tow.
“A Quaalude for me, and a Quickie for the gentleman.”
Monique was sipping her way through the cocktail alphabet, and I’d promised to join her at “Q.” Oh, I knew she was cheating. She had to be. No one could survive all that booze, so her drinks were probably virgins. So what? If we made it to “S,” she’d promised me a double round of Sex on the Beach under the Tequila Sunrise.
Don’t blame me. It was Monique’s idea of a birthday present.
Ah, Monique, I bet your real name is Monica, I thought, taking another drag. I’d told her to call me Dave, my best friend’s name. She just kept calling me “Sugar.”
I turned to watch her chat with the bartender, who might—in even dimmer light—have been as handsome as a bullfrog. Now, he could give lessons in leering. Whatever alternate universe Pedro came from, he had guts, balls, chutzpah. Whatever ugly guys have when they hit on gorgeous women.
Maybe he has a big attribute, hidden by the bar.
My Rolex buzzed the hour: three AM. I took one last puff and stubbed out my butt in the World’s Most All-inclusive Ashtray—where transfer-printed, grass-skirted pygmies danced the hula in the shadow of Angkor Wat.
Where was I, and what was I doing there?
“There” was “Bougainvillea-ville,” a Hell-hole hideaway in the Yucatan that had seen better days, and clientele, in the ’eighties. Where else should I have been, with Jenny?
Jenny was somewhere else, in the arms of some other guy. Her crumpled Note whispered from my pocket, even after all that time: I never loved you… don’t try to find me… I’m going back to Rick.
A local urchin was tugging on my shirt. He looked about eight. A scrawny eight. His face and feet were dirty, but his hands were clean.
“Mister señor?” The kid held out a hand and tried to smile.
What to do? I considered adopting him; celebrity adoptions were all the rage. But who’d give me a kid—even this kid—with my reputation? He’d be better off without me.
I decided on a small trust fund. I’d work out the details later, but to get things started, I tucked some pesos into his hand, ruffled his hair, then waved a wad of dollars at Pedro.
“Get this kid something to eat… for about ten years! And throw in a parent or guardian.”
Pedro made a quick call, then herded the kid up the steps toward the hilltop kitchen’s blazing lights. For the weeks (years? decades?) I’d been there, those lights had burned like a beacon all night, every night. If that was to keep the cucarachas in check, fat chance.
As Pedro lumbered back to the bar, the last customer belched, peeled himself off his barstool and announced, “‘To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia,’” before stumbling off, leaving the place to the three of us.
I watched to make sure he didn’t follow the kid, then resumed wallowing.
What the Hell was I doing there? Two obvious answers came to mind, both busting out of a plunging neckline. Monique’s twin peaks were back from the bar. At this point, I believe I burst into song: “America the Beautiful,” in homage to the “mountains’ majesty above her fruited plain.”
I don’t want to talk about it.
For her part, Monique was going on about my eyes—how blue they were, or was it green? How from the moment we first met…
Pedro delivered our drinks with a gracious grunt. Finally, something to keep the mescal in my gut company. And the worm. I gazed into Monique’s colored contacts, knocked back the Quickie and choked. Bourbon, rum, and what’s that sweet stuff? Orange liqueur?
A Quickie is bourbon in lingerie. There had to be faster ways to kill myself.
I could smother myself with a plastic bag…
I’d have settled for paper. It’s slower than plastic, but biodegradable.
For a fleeting moment, I felt like a bag boy again: eighteen years old, working at the market I bought later, when all the money rolled in. That was my first “Can-Too,” the first of the chain.
I grinned at Monique’s chest. To Hell with plastic. I could smother myself in her breasts! Suicide was a sin, but at least my thoughts could be held against me. I grinned at my own little joke, thinking, God has no sense of humor.
Monique’s voice droned on and on, with the hypnotic quality of a medieval chant, reminding me of what a friend of my mom’s, an ex-priest, used to say about religion: “The music’s great, but the lyrics stink.”
He’d completely missed the point. He must be in Hell by now.
I was jerked back to the table by, “That’s a sweet little ass you got, Sugar.”
I’d been sitting on my ass for hours; how did she know it was sweet? With all the droning, there was no chance to ask her, so my half of the duet only played in my head: Look, I know I’m attractive. It’s just good jeans—I mean genes! It’s only luck, so don’t go on about it.
Monique stopped chanting and stared over my shoulder, neglecting to blink. That was odd. Just a second before, her false lashes had been flapping flirtatiously.
Was someone creeping up on me? Her husband? Better yet, a boyfriend? Boyfriends were more jealous than husbands. Boyfriends were prone to rash, head-busting behavior!
But it was just Pedro, with a round of R: “Red Rasputin. Vodka, Grenadine, Pepsi-Cola.”
I knocked it back, and Monique leaned forward to whisper something. Let’s see, what was it? Oh, yeah:
“R is for Roofie.”
The last thing I remember is quoting Speedy Gonzales. “‘No mas tequila. Already muy loaded.’”
I woke up naked and hog-tied, on a filthy mattress on a filthy floor in the filthiest hotel room I’d ever seen. And I’d seen a few. I wasn’t born filthy rich, as You know.
The room was littered with empty beer and whiskey bottles. Another big empty loomed where a TV had been ripped from the wall.
My head was splitting. The smell of the mattress was gagging. My throat was dry as a witch’s—well, as You might expect, under the circumstances.
“Thirsty, Sugar?” someone drawled from across the room.
Ah, the twin peaks of Mount Monique! I should never have taken up climbing.
But I didn’t remember any climbing. Or Sex on The Beach. I’d missed the Tequila Sunrise!
Chafing as it was to watch Monique sipping soda in her shabby armchair, my attention was drawn to the door—creaking open—and Pedro, whose secret with the ladies was sawed-off and double-barreled.
Coke in hand, Monique sauntered over to close the door while Pedro lurched to the mattress and flopped down beside me. His bullfrog grin widened as he admired the Rolex on his wrist. Funny, I felt so naked without it.
“Monique,” I croaked, one eye on Pedro’s grin, “we didn’t…? Did we?”
She sipped. “What do you think?”
Pedro slapped a newspaper down on the mattress. It was the Mercury News, my home paper in San Jose. The newspaper’s main headline and article were blacked out, but I could read the date: October 27th. Yippee, it was still my birthday! I was thirty-six.
The paper also said: “James Canning Missing in Mexico. See page 5.”
Page 5? Remind me to cancel my subscription.
Pedro lit a cigar with my lighter, the one engraved, “Smoking will kill you someday, love, Jen.” Last year’s birthday present. Right before she dumped me.
“Canning. That funny name for supermarket guy,” Pedro said. “How much you worth, Jimbo? You can tell me. I am so trustworthy. You give me million dollars, I give you Coca-Cola. Fair trade? That’s peanuts for you.”
He kindly blew the smoke my way. “You sell a lotta peanuts at those markets?”
“A whole lotta.” I breathed in deeply, but second-hand smoke wasn’t gonna cut it. “How about a smoke, and that Coke?”
“Oh, I am generous man, but smoking is bad for you. And no Coke.”
He motioned for Monique to fetch me some water. She filled a paper cup from the faucet and pressed it to my lips, saying, “Drink it, or the next one’s from the toilet.”
I drank it.
Pedro took a swig of Jack Daniels. “How you like your water, Jimbo? Your guts gonna do a little tap dance? ‘Montezuma’s revenge,’ eh?”
“Listen, Pedro,” I said. “This may be your first starring role in the re-run that is your life, but it’s not mine. Could you can the tourist crap?”
Pedro’s lips curled back. He had remarkably white teeth for a villain. I should’ve been more polite.
“Can? Tourist? Crap? Oh, Jimbo, you make me giggle. How much that sense of humor cost you, eh?”
But he’d already set the price.
I said, “If you want the money, I’ll need my phone and a pair of pants. And that Coke.”
“You want fries with that?” Pedro jumped up and cracked my head with the bottle. I saw stars, but didn’t black out.
Monique hollered, “Not so rough! Are you nuts?”
Panting and swaying, Pedro leaned toward me and belched. His breath burned my eyes. I lay there bleeding, head throbbing, wondering how the Hell I was going to get out of there.
I scanned the room again. One window. No extra charge for the bars. There was a copy of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” on the nightstand. Which of these geniuses was reading that?
In my cheeriest voice, I asked, “Who likes the classics? I’m a ‘Bullwinky’ fan, myself.”
Monique stared at me blankly. “Bullwinky?”
“You know, the moose. And Roscoe the flying squirrel?”
“Pedro,” she said, “how hard did you hit him?”
But Pedro didn’t answer. He and his shotgun were busy flopping back down on the mattress. When the bouncing stopped, my eyes came to rest on the blacked-out newspaper.
“What’s with the blackout?”
“What you mean, Jimbo? You wanna back out? No back out of this deal.”
“I give up,” I said. “I wish this was a dream sequence.”
“Dream sequence? How you know this notta dream sequence?”
“I just know.”
“How you know? You naked. People always naked in my dreams.” He waved the shotgun at Monique. “Whassa matter, her tits not big enough for your dreams?”
“Sure they are,” I said. “I just hate dream sequences.”
“Me, too,” Monique said.
Pedro jumped up again. “Me three! Funny, eh? Arithmetic. We got so much in common.”
“God? Shoot me now.”
Those four little words… they just popped out. I swear I didn’t mean them.
“Sign this,” a shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guy said, holding out a clipboard.
What do you know? Shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guys have no pubic hair.
Right, like You wouldn’t have looked.
He poked me with the clipboard. “Sign it. And stop looking down there. Your file doesn’t say anything about you being gay.”
I glanced at the clipboard. The paper on it was blank. “What is it?”
“Being gay?” He tapped the pen on the clipboard. “Surely you know—”
“What’s on the clipboard?”
Tap, tap, tap. “I couldn’t say.” He looked like he could, but he wouldn’t.
“Hey, is this the dream sequence?”
“No,” he said, but at least he stopped tapping. “You’re just dead.”
“Jeez. You’re shittin’ me. I don’t feel dead.”
“It’s one of the perks. And I Shit You Not. I never ‘Shit’ anyone. It’s part of my job description. Sign here,” he said, tapping the paper, again. “Sign. Sign. Sign.”
Tap, tap, tap.
“I don’t sign things I can’t read,” I confessed. “It’s kind of a thing with me.”
Made-of-light Guy grinned. Even his teeth were shimmery, and that gave me the creeps. I looked around us. Everything—or should I say nothing?—was shimmering, like the static you get when you turn off the cable, but the TV’s still on. Only see-through.
At least I was dressed. And sober.
“Trust me,” the guy said. “You’re just one in a long line of dead leading men. It’s your ‘last starring role in the re-run that was your life,’ so to speak. Could be worse. Could be a cartoon.” He tapped the clipboard again. “Sign right here. God requires faith, if nothing else.”
I signed, against my better judgment. “God, huh? Sure I can’t get that in writing?”
“No.” He snatched back the clipboard, leaving me to wonder which it was: No, I couldn’t get that in writing, or No, he wasn’t sure I couldn’t get that in writing.
I think he read my mind.
“A little humility wouldn’t hurt,” he said, his milky little eyes narrowing to slits.
My own eyeballs were starting to tingle; this whole thing was making my skin crawl. Or maybe it’s the shimmering, I thought, waving an arm through the scintillant soup, the malicious miasma. There was something about it that looked… well, the only word is “curdled.” I bravely stuck out my tongue for a taste, and got a mild electric shock.
“What is this stuff?”
“It’s Sparkling Ectoplasm. That’s vodka, nutmeg, cream and lemon juice. Plus our own secret ingredient that makes it fizz.” He leaned forward and hiccupped. “Big secret. It’s seltzer! Never, ever, think that He has no sense of humor. He hates that.”
“I’ll remember,” I mumbled, wiping my tongue on my sleeve.
“I know you will.”
The next thing I knew, I was a shimmery naked guy, standing on a sidewalk in Silicon Valley. Folks rushed by, dashing to their high-tech lunches. They couldn’t see me—which was good, considering all that naked business.
Naked, not naked, naked again… Someone can’t make up His mind.
With a fizzy “pop,” Monique appeared beside me. She was shimmery, too. “Sugar! How sweet. Did you miss me?”
“Mount—uh—Monique! What are you doing here? You don’t mean…?”
“Yup. Pedro shot me, too. All because he didn’t use the waste basket. I had to laugh, didn’t I?”
“Waste basket? What waste basket?”
And so she told me the gory, glorious details of my death: a wayward sheath, a slip, a fall… and a big old bang.
“That’s what I get for being raised a Catholic.”
Oh, well, so he slipped on a used condom and the gun went off. At least he didn’t shoot me on purpose.
Monique ran her fingers through her scalp. Did I mention we were bald? I thought not. Still, she had a very shapely scalp.
She said, “I never slept with Pedro, you know.” I hadn’t asked, but that didn’t seem to matter. “We tried once, but he’s got a dick the size of a cocktail weenie. I’ve got a clit as big as that.”
Monique blushed all over—think Sparkling Ectoplasm with a splash of cranberry—and glared at me. If she was daring me to comment, I didn’t.
She went on, “When he flipped it out, I got the giggles and burst into baby talk. ‘Who’s an itsy-bitsy boy, then? Who’s a dirty little fella?’”
“Are you nuts? No wonder he shot you.”
Monique shrugged and looked around us. “Where do you think we are? Some sort of Purgatory?”
I felt my chest swell. “It’s San Jose! It’s my home town! And isn’t Purgatory a big word for you?”
“I’m not an idiot, you stupid shit. That was an act.”
“No need to be rude, Sugar,” I said. “Hey, are you allowed to swear in Purgatory?”
“Obviously. But I bet it adds to the time.”
I looked her up and down. “I can live with that.”
She grinned. “You think? I had a nice, long talk with that shiny guy—”
“Long talk? I just got here!”
“I don’t think time works the way we’re used to. Anyway, after I signed the clipboard he said, ‘From now on, consider yourself an exhibit. No touching.’”
“What’s the penalty? We’re already dead.” I reached out to cup her shimmering breast, but my hand went right through her.
“No touching is the penalty.”
Suddenly, Monique wasn’t shimmering anymore, and hair was sprouting all over the place. Looking down, she said, “No more waxing for me. It’s just insane how fast it grows back.”
Huh, who’d have guessed it? She really is a red—
“Adam and Eve!” someone shouted. “You never heard of fig leaves?”
Yes, the people on the street could see us now, and one of them had a Brooklyn accent. A small crowd was forming. And hooting. And whistling.
Someone called my name.
This isn’t Purgatory. It’s Hell.
2. Better the Devil You Know
A blonde and a Porsche both screeched to a halt beside us. It was Jenny, my ex, in the car I’d given her. A car named Hamlet.
“What the frak are you doing?” (Jenny never swore; she was a “Battleship Galaxtica” fan.) “You were supposed to meet me at Julio’s! With clothes on, I might add. And who the frak is that?”
Huh? Jenny was supposed to be in New York with her old boyfriend, wasn’t she? Blah blah blah, I’m going back to Rick, remember? And there was more—wait for it: I’m keeping Hamlet.
“Get in the car! Can’t you see they’re taking your picture?”
Jenny was right. The crowd was riddled with cell phones.
So much for page 5. I hopped in, and heard a holler from the sidewalk.
“Thanks for the ride, Sugar!”
Crouching there naked and goose-bumped, Monique looked unsure whether to scream or strike a pose. The drooling professional geeks were keeping their distance, for now—the better to get a full body shot—but what would happen when they stopped snapping? Sure, it was Monique’s fault that I was dead, but…
Jenny slammed Hamlet into gear. I put my hand on hers. “Jen?”
With an infuriated squeak, Jenny popped Hamlet out of gear, leaned over me and opened the door. “Get in!”
Monique scrambled onto my lap, and we sped away from the curb. Traffic honked and careened around us as Jenny ran a red light, mumbling, “What the heck am I doing?”
I wondered that, myself. She’d let Monique in without a fight, and now she was NASCARing through town with her naked ex and his naked… companion, committing one moving violation after another. This was no way for a Society girl to act.
Hamlet’s top was up and his windows—soon raised—were dark. Fewer people could see us now, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore the naked girl on my lap. Sitting skin-to-skin. On my lap. My naked lap.
“I have a confession,” Monique said, shifting her weight. “That shiny guy didn’t say we couldn’t touch. He said we weren’t allowed to—”
“Frak!” Jenny shrieked, swerving the car to miss a hearse. “Did Dave set you up with this bimbo, for your birthday?”
“Hey! I’m not a bim—” Monique stopped, mid-protest; I guess the situation had dawned on her. “Fair enough.”
“This is not happening,” Jenny said. “Please tell me I’m dreaming.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but according to the powers-that-be, this is not a dream sequence. And Dave’s in Chicago. What are you doing here, anyway? You were in New York with what’s-his-name.”
“You’re babbling, Jimmie. Are you on something? I haven’t been home since Daddy’s funeral, and I don’t leave ’til tomorrow. You bought my ticket, for God’s sake. Who’s what’s-his-name? And we played tennis with Dave and Sally yesterday!”
“Yesterday? You’re the one who’s on something. Hey, what did you say before, about Julio’s? It burned down months ago!”
“For your information, I just came from there. The special was blackened tuna, but not that blackened. And… stop drooling!”
I was getting hungry, or was it thirsty? Monique’s majesties were bouncing with every pothole. I could hear what Jenny was saying—but faintly, as from a galaxy far, far away.
“So, you play tennis, Jimbo?” Monique asked coyly.
I glared. I harrumphed. I cleared my throat. “Tennis? That’s what stands out to you about this conversation? Tennis?”
“What about golf, then? Did you ever get a hole-in-one?”
Jenny shrieked at her, “Hello? His girlfriend is in the car! I don’t know who the heck you are, but let’s skip the formalities!”
A minute later, Hamlet screeched to a stop at the Macy’s entrance of Valley Fair mall. Jenny opened her purse, grabbed a wad of cash and threw it at Monique.
“Get out. Everything’s half off in the bimbo department.”
“Now, Jenny,” I said, “I don’t think you’ve thought this through.”
“Besides, I’m just getting comfortable,” Monique said, brushing the bills from her lap. “Listen, Lighter-girl? You are the one who gave him the lighter last year, right? ‘Smoking will kill you someday, love, Jen’? Kind of a back-handed present, wasn’t it?”
Jenny went pale. Not shimmery-pale, more like albino. “Last year?” She opened her purse again, took out a gift box and handed it to me. “I picked this up from the engraver this morning. How the heck do you know about it, Bimbo?”
I tore open the gift wrap, and pulled out my brand new lighter. I was dumb-struck.
Monique snatched the lighter from me and looked it over. “Not a scratch on it. Fascinating. I guess time doesn’t work like we’re used to.” She handed the lighter back to me. “About that tuna… let’s get it to go.”
Jenny’s response was a strangled monotone: “I thought I told you to shop.”
“If you insist,” Monique said, reaching for the door handle. “I’ll get arrested, but the tabloids will post my bail. In return for my story, of course.”
Jenny squeaked, and steered the car back into traffic.
“Your place?” I guessed, as Hamlet took aim at the 280 onramp.
“To start with,” Jenny said, without even glancing at me. “Nicole’s in Europe, so we can stay at her cabin in Tahoe until this blows over. I’ve got her keys at my place. We should be able to get in, get some clothes, and get out before the paparazzi get there.”
Oh well, at least someone has a plan.
“What about me?” Monique asked Jenny. “Who’s Nicole?”
“Shut up. My best friend. And there should be some spandex in with the Halloween costumes.”
“Anything will do. I’m easy.” Monique turned to look outside, and her elbow hit the window switch. Thanks to her magnificent peaks, a busload of tourists got a brief Alpine holiday right there in the Valley. The bus driver blasted his horn in tribute. I think he was crying.
Jenny hit the gas, passed the bus, then pulled Hamlet onto the shoulder. I thought she’d had enough, that she was kicking us out after all, but she wriggled out of her long leather jacket and handed it to Monique.
“Thanks,” Monique said cheerily, covering herself with the jacket. “So you’re Jen. I’m Monique.”
“I’ll stick with Bimbo.” Jenny raised the window with the driver’s side controls, then pulled back into the slow lane.
Monique shifted her weight again, prompting me to take a mental cold shower, but I couldn’t get the water cold enough. Snow… Icicles… Over the river and through the woods… Grandma’s house. That’s good. Grandma! God rest her soul, there was nothing sexy about Grandma. She liked knitting. Remember that kitten, the one tangled up in the yarn? Grandma was always surrounded by kittens… pussies…
Oh, God. Bless me, father, is stream-of-consciousness a sin?
What was Monique saying? Oh, yeah: “I kinda like Bimbo; it’s growing on me. Rhymes with Jimbo. Wait, my mistake—JUMBO!”
Jenny nearly rear-ended a semi, and I nearly… well, the less said about rear-ending, the better.
Forty minutes later, we rolled over the Golden Gate bridge and, soon after, into Jenny’s garage in Sausalito. While the garage door closed behind us, Monique backed off my lap and out of the car, and pirouetted herself into Jenny’s jacket.
Jenny unlocked the kitchen door and walked right by the ringing land line. She couldn’t answer it; it could have been the media. And if she took the phone off the hook, they’d know someone was home.
I turned off the ringer.
Jenny led us to her walk-in closet, which was the size of most people’s living rooms. From Monique’s gasp, I inferred that this was a good thing. I’d never thought about it, before.
The girls waited outside while I dressed first, since I was the one with goose bumps now. Lake Tahoe would be cold, but I had no winter coat. Not here. I did have a few changes of sweats, a hoodie, some socks and two pairs of sneakers.
While I dressed, I considered these questions: Was this my chance to relive the past year, to get it right? Should I tell Jenny she was doomed to dump me? That seemed nuts, but how could I keep her from leaving me if I didn’t know why she’d done it?
I felt my heart beating fast, so fast that I stopped tying my sneakers to check my pulse. I didn’t have one. So much for living in the past. I really was just another dead leading man, starring in the re-run that was my life.
I’m dead but I’m decent. “Come on in, girls.”
I grabbed a suitcase and started cramming my stuff into it. Jenny, who’d apparently thought twice about dressing Monique in spandex, rummaged through a bag of charity clothes. Monique had ideas of her own: sprayed-on jeans and a skin-tight sweater. Jenny threw up her arms in defeat, then kicked us both out of the closet so she could change and pack.
While that was going on, Monique and I ransacked Jenny’s fridge and cupboards. They were nearly empty, since she’d planned to be elsewhere. We were the walking dead, with hearty appetites, in the land of frakking Mother Hubbard.
For the trip to Tahoe we took the other car, an aging Explorer named Piglet. The SUV was a must for the mountains, and this little Piggy would slip right under the paparazzi radar. It was registered to Gramps, Jenny’s grandfather, who only drove it when he visited from New York.
Monique snoozed in the back seat. I drove, silently rehearsing arguments for Jenny not leaving me. Jenny stared out the window. Maybe she was trying to get up the nerve to say something, too. I hoped it wasn’t:
I never loved you. Don’t try to find me. I’m going back to Rick.
If she’d never loved me, why would she have rescued me? One answer kept creeping up, unbidden, from the deep, dark matter of my brain: paparazzi.
But no one seemed to be following us.
We bypassed Sacramento and stopped in Roseville for gas. Jenny hopped out, paid cash, and hopped back in again, never once looking at me. Back on the road, I decided to tell her the truth.
“Listen, Jen. Monique and I are dead, and we’ve been sent back in time. That part seems certain. I guess we’re being tested, or on a mission from God or something. Trouble is, He didn’t bother to tell us what.”
Her response was silence, followed by, “You met God?”
I glanced at her. What was that expression? Disbelief? Disgust? “I know how it sounds, but we didn’t meet God Himself—”
She sat there, glaring at me from Piglet’s roomy passenger side, while I told her almost everything. I told her that she’d left me with a Note, but no explanation. I told her about my year of drinking dangerously. I told her about the Quickie and the condom and the big blam, and that shiny naked guy with the clipboard.
I left out Sex on the Beach. Why mention it? It never happened. And it never will-have-been-going-to happen, either. Not if I could do something about it.
Jenny wasn’t buying my story. For the rest of the trip she hardly spoke, although from time to time she blurted out, “How? What? Why?”—all the while holding up her hand like a traffic cop, to silence my answer. As if I had one. If it weren’t for paparazzi and the lighter, she’d probably have thrown me out of the car. And who could have blamed her?
Sure, I’d known about the lighter. So had Monique. That was our only proof that we weren’t making this up. Some proof! If I’d had the lighter with me when I jumped into Hamlet, or if I’d still had the Note, or could walk through a wall or disappear…
But no; I was depressingly solid. It wasn’t fair. A guy shouldn’t have to prove he’s dead, just so his ex won’t dump him.
I suddenly remembered that I didn’t have a pulse. What could be better proof than that? I extended my wrist for Jenny to check it.
She did. “Your heart rate’s a bit fast, for a dead man’s.”
I checked it myself, and still couldn’t feel it. So God did have a sense of humor, and it stunk. Why was He doing this to us? Wasn’t the breakup bad enough? No, that never happened, I reminded myself, at least not yet. So what was the point? To give me—us—another chance?
We weren’t off to a great start. Jenny thought I was lying or nuts, and Monique’s and my naked pictures would be bouncing all over the Internet, and the six o’clock news… and…
And only the networks would blur the naughty bits.
“Is there anything you’d like to tell me?” I asked Jenny. “About what’s-his-name, maybe?”
She looked out the window, again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But you know your mother will see those pictures, online.”
“Crap.” Mom was online all the time, with her genealogy habit. She’d already traced her branch of the family tree back to Shakespeare’s second cousin, twice removed. Mom was no prude, but she deserved an explanation. At least I didn’t have to worry about Dad. He wasn’t even a bud on the family sapling. Mom had never told me his full name, just that his middle name was “Gene.” My middle name.
When it came to Jenny’s family, there was only Gramps. Her relationship with him was already strained; this wasn’t the first time we’d been press-worthy. Last time, Gramps cut her off without a dime. She only had Piglet to remember him by.
I asked her, “What about Gramps?”
Jenny didn’t answer, just stared at the scenery streaming past.
Hills… trees… higher hills… taller trees.
I didn’t know what to think, how to feel about her. The Note I knew by heart, that broke my heart…
She hadn’t even written it yet.
“You don’t deserve me,” I said. “I mean—”
Up went the hand. “I know what you mean, but what can we do about this mess?”
“Well, we’ll need a good story—”
Jenny snorted. “Go on.”
“I’ll write a press release and email it to my PA. She’ll do the rest. Then we lie low.” That didn’t make sense, for all kinds of reasons that didn’t occur to me at the time.
Monique yawned from the back seat. “Press release? You can’t say you were kidnapped. Or drugged. The cops won’t let that go without an investigation.” She shrugged her shoulders in the rear view mirror. “And you can’t blame me. I haven’t done a thing, yet.”
Thirty miles from Tahoe, it started snowing. Soon after that, Jenny had me steer Piglet up a steep, secluded driveway. Bumping and grinding through the trees, I wondered what would happen if we got snowed in.
At least if Piglet couldn’t get out, the paparazzi couldn’t get in.
The driveway ended in a wide clearing occupied by one huge cabin: Lincoln Logs on a grand scale. I parked by the porch steps, turned off the ignition and pulled out the key.
Jenny snatched it from my hand and replaced it with Nicole’s solid-gold smiley-face keychain. “Light the stove, and turn on the electricity and the water,” she said. “You’ll need to prime the pump. There’s a jug of water for that.”
“Pump? Sure,” I said, but I wasn’t sure. When did Jenny learn about priming pumps? Like Nicole, she was born to money. Old money: butlers and boarding schools and debutants’ balls kind of money. “Where are you going?”
“We’ll need perishables. There’s a market in the next village.” She tugged off her wool hat, twisted her long blonde hair into a knot, then pulled the hat back on and tucked in the flyaways. She completed the look with mirrored aviators she took from her bag. “An old couple owns the store. They shouldn’t recognize me like this.”
“Get chocolate,” Monique said, slipping out of the back seat.
My only request was for booze.
I got out, and Jenny slid into the driver’s seat. She rolled down the window, but waited until Monique was out of earshot to whisper the cabin’s alarm code.
“If you frak it up, press ‘star’ and try again. And listen: there’s a shotgun and a rifle. They’re under the floorboards in the master bedroom, under the rug. That little key is for the case. The shells are in there, too.”
“Guns? What do we need guns for?” Not that I didn’t like guns, but…
Jenny managed a half-smile. “It’s isolated here. You never know what’s lurking. You might need to scare off a bear. But don’t kill anything, not even paparazzi.” She lowered her voice again. “And keep an eye on Monique. Just an eye, you hear me?”
Jenny flicked me right between the eyes, and hollered at Monique, “Hands off Jimmie, Bimbo! He’s not on the market!”
I was dying to kiss her, but didn’t dare. Piglet rumbled away, and Monique helped me lug the bags to the porch. I unlocked the cabin door, disabled the alarm, found the breaker box and flipped up the main, wondering how the alarm worked without power. Some kind of battery system, I guessed. Solar powered, maybe; there were panels on the roof. But how did the system call for help? Carrier pigeon? Bat signal? I’d seen no poles outside, no wires for a land line. Maybe they were underground.
We left the bags in the entryway. I took a speedy tour of the downstairs: sky-high living room with mountain view and deck, kitchen, bathroom—and found several phone plugs, but no phones. Just an auto-dialer for the alarm system.
I carried the bags upstairs. There were four bedrooms for three people. This was too much choice, too much responsibility. Too much math. I dropped the bags in the hall and went back downstairs, where I found Monique staring at the AGA in the kitchen.
She’d obviously never seen one before, so I filled her in: “‘The AGA cooker is a stored-heat stove and cooker invented in 1929 by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist Dr. Gustaf Dalén (1869-1937), who was employed first as the chief engineer of AGA company. The cookers are today manufactured by the Aga Rangemaster Group.’”
I assumed “huh?” meant “go on,” so I did. “‘AGA is an abbreviation of the company name, Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator.’”
Monique was grinning. “Gas accumulator? It takes one to know one. Why are you a walking dictionary?”
“More like Wikipedia. I have hyperthymesia, and an eidetic memory.”
“I remember stuff.”
“Oh,” she said, grinning wider. “So you’re the too much information people always talk about.”
Next, I examined the living room’s colossal woodstove. It came complete with newspapers, kindling, and super-sized matches that could double for magic wands. From the look of the system, the stove probably heated the whole house and water for showers—in the winter, at least, when solar couldn’t fly solo.
Speaking of showers, there was only one bathroom: the one downstairs. I figured that was Nicole’s idea of roughing it, until I remembered that building permits were sometimes doled out based on the number of toilets. With her connections, Nicole could easily have found a loophole in that rule, so she probably equated having one john with saving the planet. You know the type: all her teak was sustainable, but she couldn’t resist that ocelot coat.
Years ago, I’d overheard Nicole call me “trailer trash”—something I’d never mentioned to Jenny. Now, in Nicole’s house, I felt the urge to scratch myself and fart. But Nicole wasn’t around to tease, and there was something else to consider. Something was missing. Something important.
Aww, shit. The remote! And no remote equals no TV!
Talk about roughing it. Disgusted, I yanked open the stove and opened the damper and air inlet. In case something was blocking the chimney, I lit a big wad of newspaper and tossed it in. Even with the heavy weather and cold chimney, the smoke drew just fine. It was a miracle.
I wasn’t looking forward to priming the pump, wherever that might be, but fire I could do. I’d been a Cub Scout, briefly, before getting kicked out for swearing at the Scoutmaster. He’d banned my best friend, Stinky, from his all-white pack.
I constructed my fire: a Rembrandt in kindling and logs, if I say so myself. Meanwhile, overhead, Monique’s borrowed boots dashed from room to room. If she was casing the joint, she was welcome to anything monogrammed “N.”
And now, with a touch of my super-sized match, let there be heat!
Building a masterpiece was one thing; keeping it going meant more wood. Outside, the snow was floating down in big, “Charlie Brown Christmas” flakes, but melting on impact. I hauled armloads of wood in from the porch, dragging my feet. Pump-priming was the only thing left to do. I’m a city boy, so sue me. Plumbing requires faith, if nothing else.
I peeled off my sneakers and climbed the stairs sock-footed, hoping to catch Monique sticky-fingered, but it seemed she’d found the mother lode of sheets and, overcome by math, had made all five beds in four rooms for the three of us. I found her in the smallest bedroom, and spied on her from the doorway while she tucked in the top sheet.
Humming all the while, Monique smoothed blankets and plumped pillows, then stood back to admire her work. The heat from the stove hadn’t reached upstairs, yet; I could see her breath. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I’d never seen her breath while she was alive, and now that we were both dead…
Monique gasped and whispered, “I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with ‘M.’” She tiptoed over to a stuffed toy, a giant, moth-eaten mouse perched on a chair in the corner. “‘O Mouse!’ ‘I’ll get you, my pretty!’”
She was mixing up her children’s books. Let’s see… Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz.
Monique snatched up the mouse, dusted it off, and tiptoed back to the bed with it. She tucked it under the covers and stroked its cheek, then bent over to kiss it between the ears.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
Monique jumped, blushed, and pushed past me into the hall. I followed as she practically skipped down the stairs.
“What can I say? I’m bedroom-oriented,” she said, sitting down on the second step up. “And kitchen table, and elevator. And rooftop, if it’s not too steep or too cold out.”
I sat down next to her. “Stop it.”
“Feel like breaking the rules, Jimbo? Sex-on-the-Beach is out; how about Sex-on-the-Stairs? I owe you.”
“I said stop it. It’s not funny. I’m not blowing my chances with Jenny.”
“O. M. G.! Jimbo has forgotten he’s dead!” Monique jumped up, stripped off Jenny’s parka and tossed it on the newel post.
“Am I dead?” I asked, trailing her into the living room. “Are you? All we know is there’s supposed to be no touching. What else did that shiny guy say to you?”
Monique kicked off Jenny’s boots, flopped on the couch and stretched out.
“I asked you what he said.”
She wiggled Jenny’s socks at the woodstove. “Oh, nothing. We just did it.”
Monique just chuckled.
“Make yourself useful, then,” I said. “Find the pump. Prime it.”
“Don’t you know where it is? Haven’t you been here before?”
“It must be in the cellar. And no, I’ve never been here. Nicole and I aren’t pals. My blood’s not blue enough for her.”
Monique sat up, looking thoughtful. “Maybe it is now.”
She pulled her boots back on and wandered off to find the pump. I brought in more wood. A few minutes later, I heard the rattle of pipes followed by a long, low groan and a whoop. I dropped my logs and rushed into the kitchen, only to find Monique proudly displaying the sink.
“Eureka!” she said. “We have… hey, Jimbo, is this water?”
I couldn’t answer that question. A thick reddish-brown substance, possibly liquid, was drooling out of the faucet.
“It better be water,” Monique said. “I feel a flush coming on. Dead girls need to—”
“Don’t spell it out, just go!”
While Monique dashed to the john, I watched the drool turn to orangeade, and finally to clear water. Then I noticed a jar of instant coffee on the countertop, next to an electric kettle.
Instant coffee? Nicole? How the haughty had fallen.
I filled the kettle and plugged it in, wishing I could call Jen’s cell and remind her to get creamer.
No phone. No TV. One frakking toilet.
A few minutes later, Monique was sitting across from me at the table, watching me stir sugar into black coffee. I didn’t ask if she wanted any. I had something else on my mind.
“Monique, why was that newspaper headline blacked out, back in the motel?”
She patted my hand. “I couldn’t say. I can’t remember.”
I didn’t believe her, not at first. But then she said, “That’s weird, though. I can remember the newspaper being there… just not what was on it. Maybe I didn’t read it, but I should remember that, then, right?”
She shrugged. (She shrugged a lot.) “Ask me something else.”
I sipped my coffee. It tasted like rusty drool. “What?”
“No, why! Why don’t you ask me why? Why did I do it? And how did I get mixed up with Pedro? Aren’t you even curious?”
“Not really. It was for the money, what else? Once I woke up, I figured you were a hooker and Pedro was your boyfriend-slash-pimp.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Any of that coffee left?”
A minute later she sat back down with her mug, took a sip and choked. “Sugar?”
I slid the bowl toward her.
“No, I mean you. Jimbo.”
“Don’t call me Jimbo. Or Sugar.”
“I can’t call you Jimmie. She calls you that. Lighter-girl.”
“Some people call me J.C.,” I offered, but she wrinkled up her nose at that. “Jimbo it is, then.”
“Well, Jimbo, you’ll laugh when I tell you.”
“I doubt that. Just get on with it.”
“Well, I was stranded. Didn’t have any money. I was down in Mexico on a shoot, and got rolled.”
“Shoot? Rolled? Try different verbs. You’re not making any sense.”
“I modeled to pay the bills, but I’m really an actor. I was there on a photo shoot, when I heard about a film there on location. They needed sextras—that’s sexy extras, not porn doubles. I don’t do stuff like that. I got the part of ‘topless waitress,’ and that’s where I met Pedro. He was a stunt-double.”
She lifted her mug to her lips, then put it down again. “But then the leading lady said I was a distraction—”
“That you are!”
“—so they canned me. I was down to my last few bucks and one credit card, when I got rolled. Uh… mugged, I guess. Rolled would mean I was unconscious at the time. That would’ve been better.”
She looked away, far away, and I realized what she wasn’t telling me. “Yeah, well, so what? Everyone’s a statistic,” she said. “Look at you.”
Her voice was steady. Defiant. “You asked for a story. There were three of them, good old American boys. They said I had it coming, that I was ‘over-sexed and overdue.’ When they were… done… they made me get dressed. Then they dumped me out of the pickup, at forty miles an hour.” She turned to meet my eyes. “Give or take.”
I stared at the table, unable to speak. That was probably for the best; I had no idea what to say.
“They never caught the guys. The cops thought it was hit-and-run, and I was too out of it to tell them otherwise. My jaw was wired shut, anyway, and I had unpronounceable internal injuries. Both my arms were broken, too. And one leg.”
She jumped up and wriggled half out of Jenny’s jeans, then turned around to show me the mottled red scars on the backs of her thighs.
“Skin grafts. Four months in the hospital,” she said, tugging the jeans back up. “Got out about a year ago. Come to think of it, it was just about yesterday.”
I went to pour my coffee down the sink, feeling guilty for something I hadn’t done. All this time, I’d thought of Monique as a bombshell sum of dynamite parts, and not much more. I felt bad about that, too, but…
But she was still a kidnapper.
Staring at the outdoor thermometer, I felt like someone was out there, watching. You never know what’s lurking. Is that You, God? Or just paparazzi?
No answer, and no movement but Charlie Brown’s snowflakes.
“When does the laughing start?” I asked, turning around. “After what happened to you, why are you so—” how could I put this? “—friendly?”
She shrugged. “Don’t let the bastards win? But just when I figured all men were bastards, Pedro found me in the hospital. He came every day after work. Paid my bills, even hired a nurse for me when I got out.”
“Why didn’t your family come and get you? Why weren’t they there all along?”
She paused before answering, “No family. Anyway, when the movie wrapped, Pedro took the bartending job so he could work nights and take care of me in the daytime.” She stirred her coffee absent-mindedly. “I know it sounds silly, considering he killed me and all, but he was great up to that point. He did everything for me. Even got my teeth fixed.”
I couldn’t suppress a grunt. “I get it. Saint Pedro!”
“You don’t get it. You should have known him when he was sober. He was my best friend. The best I ever had, anyway. Women don’t like me much, and men…” She paused again, to burn two holes through the smiley-face wallpaper with her eyes. “I wish I knew why he killed me.”
What could I say? “Me, too.”
“Listen, Pedro knew a writer with a script. The guy thought if he had a big money backer, he could get a producer to look at it.” She glanced at me, then just as quickly glanced away. “Pedro recognized you right off, you know.”
“He never said so. And I was there for weeks before—”
“He wouldn’t bug you. He knows the business. People need their privacy.”
“What a guy. He respects your privacy, then blows your face off!”
“You want to hear the rest, or not? Pedro said you knew directors, that you knew everyone who was anyone—”
“Let me get this straight. You kidnapped me so a friend of a friend could make a movie? I died for that? We died for that? That’s just perfect.”
“It gets better. It was all show. The kidnapping, everything. It was just to get your attention, to prove we could act. It was part of the screenplay.” She shrugged. “It seemed like a cunning plan after that many drinks… Well, mine were mostly blanks, but Pedro got drunk and forgot. Except for you, nobody was supposed to be loaded. Especially the gun. And then things went all Tarantino on us…”
“I’m still not laughing,” I said.
 I imagined them singing We are the World, in Esperanto.
 Did You know that we “borrowed” the dollar sign from the peso sign? The cent sign from the centavo? Of course You did.
 Quoting the author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared without a trace in Mexico in 1913, aged 71.
 I guess I should’ve wondered where it came from, but under threat of embarrassing death—or worse—I didn’t think of it.
 Time doesn’t fly when you’re not having fun.
 It has come to my attention that in some universes, Bullwinky is known as “Bullwinkle.” That is so weird.
 Death by condom. Truly a tragedy of Eros.
 In a fevered fit of fealty, based on realty
 Another tragedy. She could at least have named it “Romeo.”
 What was I thinking? It was exactly how Society girls act.
 Although, come to think of it, “dumber-struck” seems more appropriate.
 I had a brief, comforting Wonder Woman flashback, then Poof! It was gone.