White Lies and Dirty Laundry

Another cutting room floor editing casualty from The Hot Girl that I liked enough to rescue from the trash.

Roosevelt Junior High, October 20th, 1971

Deanna clung to her open locker door with her right hand, leaned her head on the shelf inside. She couldn’t go to home room. She didn’t want to talk, or smile or lead cheerleading practice or read the afternoon announcements or do anything at all. Just for a day she didn’t want to be who she was. All she wanted was to be alone, and maybe have just one real friend she could tell about Gramma Cora. Goddammit. Was that too much to ask, really?

“Morning, Jackson.” Coach Stephens raised his chin at the growth-spurt skinny eighth grade boy in his doorway. “Some geniuses clogged the shitter in the band room next door.” He tossed the blue nylon bag full of his laundry at the kid like it was a medicine ball. “I’ll get you out through the girl’s side. Grab a hall pass in case you meet a stranger on that side of the building.”

Jackson tore off several pre-signed hall passes from the pad, hefted the laundry bag on his shoulder and followed Stephens to the center of the basketball court, the invisible wall between the only non-coed homerooms at Roosevelt Junior High.

Stephens chirped his whistle. “Heads up, skirts down, legs crossed, ladies. Man on business, comin’ through.”

Jackson knew he’d turned red, shielded his head with the bag and sent his eyes to the floor for his trek through the minefield of girl’s gym homeroom. Damn. They sat on the floor cross legged, or laid on their backs with an ankle on their knee, skirts dropped to almost there. He heard them all shuffling positions, heard the giggles, the “is that Santa Claus” and “what’s with the bag” and “uh-oh, panty check” comments that followed him across the basketball court until he was out the double doors, up five steps and in the hall headed toward daylight.

He raised his eyes, and opposite where the janitor had half the hall blocked there was a locker open, but all he could see were sweat socks and girl’s saddle oxfords. Cheerleader gear. And Mr. Han, the asshole French teacher and hall pass Nazi, was coming down the hall from the other direction, on a collision course with him and the cheerleader at her open locker. Shit.

Bonjour, Mr. Han.”

“Always halfway clever, Monsieur Jackson. You and the bag say it’s Wednesday. Who do we have at their locker who should be in home room?”

Jackson stepped sideways into the narrow space between the girl and Mr. Han, swung his laundry bag around and knocked the unseen girl back inside her open locker. He was chest to chest and almost eye to eye with Han in zero personal space for all three of them. He lifted a hall pass out of his back pocket with his thumb and finger, held it under the bag and waited until he felt her grab it.

“She was with me, Mr. Han. There’s shit, uh, sewage all on the floor by the band room on our side and Coach sent her to escort me out the girl’s side. So I wouldn’t do anything stupid or talk to anybody. And, um, anyway, she needed a book, that’s why he sent her with me. And she ran ahead of me. To get her book.”

Han reached around Jackson, checked the crumpled pink paper the girl pushed past the blue bag.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be, Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes sir.” Jackson stepped off in a hurry, just under the ‘don’t run in the hall’ rule, didn’t look back. Han followed him with his eyes until Jackson and the blue bag were around the corner.

“Miss Collings, are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. My grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. I just didn’t want to talk to everyone…anyone. That’s why I, um, ran to my locker. I’ll be okay. Really.”

“I understand. There’s never a good time for a funeral. Or Jackson.” He flicked the pink pass in his hand with his middle finger, handed it back. “Tell Stephens even he needs to put names on his hall passes. Why he’d send you out with that kid and the bag is beyond me.”

“Well, there is some really gross stinky poop and stuff on the floor on their side and Jackson can get in trouble. I mean pretty easy, and kind of a lot. And I did need my book.”

“It’s a good thing for you, Miss Collings, that everything you have said is true.” He pushed her locker door closed. “Home room young lady. Now.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced at the hall pass on her way, smoothed it out and put it in the history book she wouldn’t need for four hours. Jackson, the guy with the big blue bag, had spare hall passes and covered her, huh? Cool.

Toothbrush

via Daily Prompt: Toothbrush

“If you’re about to apologize, don’t,” she said. “This was my idea.”

He watched Zanie brush her hair back into the signature bushy pony tail, adjust the perfect, store bought cantaloupes in a bra with six hooks under a silky t-shirt.

She checked herself in his mirror, shook her hair. “I wish I still smoked.”

“I keep some of Dash’s cigarillos around here somewhere. And some weed from Hawaii somebody gave me.”

“I told you I have a meeting in half an hour. No weed. Find the cigarillos. And a Coke or beer or something. Where did all that polite Coach Cowboy host shit go?”

“Polite host mask comes off with my other clothes. Coke or Heineken?”

“That’s it? Coke and Hiney?”

“Carbonated French fart water. And a couple of Michelob Lights that might be a year old.”

“Make mine Hiney.”

He left that alone. He came back, tossed the box of cigarillos on the bed between them, handed off her beer and pulled a lighter out of the nightstand.

“Thanks.” She held on to his lighter hand after she blew the smoke sideways. “I was thinking while you were gone.”

He lit his own cigarillo, waited.

“Thinking I should tell you the rest of the reason for ‘this’.”

“Your call. I don’t have to apologize, you don’t have to explain.”

“I’ve spent the last four years as cover for a gay jock. So when I walked my stringer gig I could get some career shit off the ground with no man interference. I saw all the holes I could plug if had a little time, didn’t have to worry about money for a couple of months and bought a set of serious Hollywood qualifications to fix…A problem. I thought when this move to the warehouse next to Dwight’s is done I might need to let someone in. Someone I could work with. And trust. Navarro told me about your Golden Rule number two. This afternoon has to be that way.”

“What afternoon?”

“Good.” She smashed the cigarillo down in the ashtray and chugged the rest of her beer. “Do you have a clean toothbrush I can use?”

“Depends on whether I can still brush my teeth with it when you’re done.”

“Charmingly perverse.”

“It’s a gift. There’s a new one in the drawer on the right side of the sink.”

“Kind of late to be worrying about germs.” She stuck her feet in her heels that immediately made her five inches taller than he was, walked past him and into the bathroom.

“Is this where I cue ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ and watch you drive down Ocean with the top down and your hair blowing around while a little bitty tear lets me down?”

“No.” She wiped her mouth on a hand towel, draped it over his shoulder. “I’m in my production van. And sad, whispery folk songs gag me. Your tear was a nice touch but I know it’s bullshit. Here is where we swear a blood oath to take ‘this’ to our graves.” She blew in her cupped hands, checked her breath. “So far you’ve gotten in my shit, told me a clown punching to old Playboys in your dad’s closet story, whined about the healthy crap all the ‘Oh my God if I gain an ounce or get a zit I’ll die’ girls eat and turned my idea of a quickie to find out who the hell you are into most of an afternoon. You’re a keeper.”

“I didn’t say anything about punching the clown.”

“I have brothers.” She shook out the ponytail again, got chest to chest with him. “You and I ate lunch, found out we have a lot in common that is mutually beneficial professionally, we’re production house neighbors, and we plan on working closely together on a number of projects. Can you repeat that on demand?” She got two inches from his eyes. “I don’t care if they pull out your fingernails. Lunch. Friends. Period. The end. You fuck anyone in this circle jerk mess of a softball team Little Miss Calimex handed you and I’ll be outside the door with a camera and crew. Professionals. Lunch. Friends. Period.”

“The end?”

“This is how good I look leaving. Remember to miss me.”

The Art of Drowning – Episode 8

Mundane Madness – by Phil Huston

Caswell reached over Kylie’s shoulder, tapped the mouse, dragged the playback bar backwards under the video. He let it play for a few seconds and tapped it again.

“There. That frame. Clean it up. Get it out to the two closest coastal territorials. If nothing drops, expand. North and south, not inland.”

“He came in from the water side.” She wasn’t sure if she should feel insulted or ordered about. “He could have come from anywhere.”

“Look at him, Kylie. He’s bloody Aqualung, having a hell of time dragging the body. Whatever he floated in on, it can’t be much. He doesn’t have a car or access to a barrow or a dolly or a friend to help. Our ‘evil wind’ put a tenner in his hand and told him where to take the body. The locals know him. Find him for us.” He could feel the room continue to tighten. “Please.” He paused a proper beat. “The camera is brilliant.” Unasked and possibly dangerous, but he left those on the shelf.

Kylie made a half turn in her chair, her eyes wide. “They’re amazing, aren’t they? They work like cellphones and they’re smaller than the rubber on my pencil.” She practically stuck the pencil in his nose to make her point. “I can zoom it in and out with my phone.” She held up her iPhone like he’d never seen one. “And I used the Juliette herself for an antenna. With a fine wire to the hull?” Maybe he understood. “I signed the req form and when I told the woman that I was working with you and Shona it showed up in two days. Two days! I never get…But, um, are you sure? About Aqualung being local?”

“Until you tell me different.”

“I’m more of a doctor. And a scientist. Than a, um, policewoman, Detect, Cas. Caswell.”

“All to say you’re a first order problem solver with the broadened perspective the heart of a singer brings. Some problems are mundane, like where did our Aqualung come from. He takes us up the ladder to where mundane stops and the puzzle begins. You’ll have your plate full of doctoring and science-ing soon enough. Send a FAX or email through the system, and wait. But not long. Let me know if you don’t get prompt and courteous responses, even if they have nil. When Shona calls, text me. I’m gone fishing.”

“Fishing?”

“For mundane.”

She wanted to ask him if they were running, or seasonal, fresh or salt water and what kind of bait, but…Most men, especially the older ones, were humorless sods. The DCI seemed different. Still, times like this she wished she’d had a father.

***

“It’s not new, but bloody hell, Shona.” Caswell let out a soft whistle, ran his hand along the fender of the dark blue BMW X5.

“The garage had a note. Four-wheel drive, no bullshit. You’ll just deny it, so I won’t ask. I will ask about four-wheel drive.”

“We need to travel close to the water. Low tide at just gone half past.”

“Looking for?”

“Where Kylie’s Aqualung could have beached his boat at high tide. I checked the charts against his arrival time. He didn’t want to drag the body far.”

“You did research work?”

“Kylie was wounded. Scientists and doctors doing boredom. Couldn’t load her up with more and you were busy getting England’s daily missing sorted for us.”

“You backed up on her?”

“She’s a sensitive lass, Shona, and so in love with her toys.” His voice was on the border of humor and sarcasm, and he followed it with a tight smile across the hood of the BMW. “More to it, like you she’s the defensive that being young and bright brings, and not used to me.”

“You’ve had more Ladies First diversity training?”

“No. Dear old Mum’s manners well preached. Good people are hard to find. Harder to keep. Especially when they’re female.”

“Caswell’s compliments and candy, eh? That’s why I’m driving the beach in a drug runner’s wet dream and you’re on goggles duty. In future, if you’ve flowers on your mind? I’m allergic.”

“All the more reason, then.” He shot the tight smile again, opened the passenger door.

***

“He stays in a stone shed on the cliffs off the end of Barnes Farm point.” No one had thanked her for finding the Aqualung suspect, which she was starting to think was an unkind nickname, and Shown was driving like a wild woman. “He scavenges at night.” She had to close her eyes. “He picks up what he can afford at the off license, but no one sees him drink, or drunk. Do you think he –” The blue SUV skidded sideways, Kylie knew they were over the cliff. Caswell was out before it stopped moving, banged the door of the stone shed open.

“Gone. Dammit.” He twisted either way in a hurried survey of their location, swore again under his breath. “Kylie. The quick look now, or with us?”

“Um, I –”

The door slammed, Kylie was thrown against the back seat and Shona was grinding grass and dirt up fifteen feet high behind them. They could hear Kylie singing under her breath, her fingertips on the window as she watched the shed fade away… “and you snatch your rattling last breaths, With deep-sea diver sounds…And the flowers bloom like Madness in the spring…”*

***

Shona killed the lights almost a mile away and idled up on the grassy rise before it turned to sand, the same half mile point as always from the Juliette Simone. They hoped the half-moon between clouds would be enough and settled in to wait. In such deep silence they could hear each other breathe.

“There.” Shona hissed, pointed at a spot halfway between them and the Juliette, thirty yards to the right off straight line.

“Kylie?”

She adjusted her night vision binoculars. “That’s him.”

Shona and Caswell were out of the car, running. She jumped out behind them and was surprised at how quickly they had closed on Aqualung. He was ten yards away when it started.

The screech was deafening. Feedback meets giant steel grating on steel. And the wind. It was all they could do to stand, much less move against it. It started to swirl, picked up speed and sand, spinning faster and faster until vision blurred and the wind became part of the screech from hell. They held up their forearms to protect their eyes, their faces sandblasted.

Kylie’s “No, no, no, nooooo….” was picked up by the wind and amplified a thousand times. Figures who could have been made of cellophane stood around the Juliette, watching, arms folded, immune to the screeching, screams and sand.

Kylie screamed “No, no, no, no, NO!” again, and Aqualung exploded into a fine, red mist that blended with the spinning sand. Sand and blood, the rags he wore and bits of bone. They could barely breathe. Shona flashed on a holiday in Brighton when she was seven, knew she was drowning. The ocean found her a skinny, unworthy sacrifice and spit her back on the beach, choking, coughing up her watery insides in giant heaves.

Kylie’s soft voice blended with the raucous agony of the wind, sand and blood, rags and bone. And it began to abate. The softer she sang, the quieter it became. The all-enveloping, self-contained twenty-yard wide hurricane dropped from somewhere over their heads, down to their waists, on down to their ankles like a dying hula hoop, eddying around their feet until it was no more.

When the song had faded from her throat, Kylie dropped to her knees and fell sideways into Caswell’s leg. He picked her up in both arms, held her like a rag doll while he and Shona stared at the spot where the fisherman they’d nicknamed Aqualung had been. A spot scoured clean by the wind and sand as if nothing had happened.

***

“A French lullaby you said?” He tossed the t-shirt they’d all used to clean their faces over the back seat and waited for Kylie to finish chugging a bottle of water. All three looked like shell shocked, blood covered sun and sand burned tourists.

“Yes. From my Gran. I don’t know why…” Kylie twisted the cap off her third bottle of water, opened another, handed it to Shona, who stuck her little finger in it and tried to get sand out of her ears and nose. Caswell blew his nose on a gas receipt, held it up for the beach breeze to carry away, poured his remaining water over his head. He bent, shook his head like a retriever before he straightened.

“No lasting harm?” He got a nod from Shona. Kylie beamed a smile, grabbed his forearm and scooted from the back of the X5. “I was wondering, working with you two, when the weirdness was going to start.” She looked into her partners’ worried, red faces, shook Caswell’s arm. “If whatever that was didn’t jam the camera? We can watch it on my phone! So much for mundane, huh?”

The Art of Drowning – An Ethereal Mystery

3 writers, no destination – What could go wrong?

Ash N. Finn  The Perilous Reading Society  & Not Very Deep Thoughts

 

  • From Aqualung, copyright Ian Anderson.

The Art of Drowning – Episode 2

Font of Wisdom – by Phil Huston

Shona Nevill watched Caswell’s expression change with the air as he got closer. Half a mile away where they’d both parked it was almost twenty degrees warmer. And a lot drier. The cold, wet air howled off the sea and up the shallow cliffs then somehow lost its push over that short distance. Like it went straight up and abused everything in the first thirty yards of the coastline with it’s angry fallout and died, leaving nothing but it’s damp, cold breath behind.

He handed her a coffee, the cardboard cup still warm. “How’d you get the call on this bloody desolate bit of business?”

“Charm.”

“That’s shit.”

She let go of a short snort. “I was researching a missing persons. One thing led to another, here we are. I asked for you. I think I need someone who can see straight. This has gothic overtones.”

“Ghosts and goblins and Henry’s headless wives again?”

“Maybe.” She fought the wind and a large manila envelope, pulled out a handful of papers.

“Home office? War office? It’s a distorted rust bucket, Shona. And why the hell is it this far in and not in the water?”

“It’s in there.”

“Please. Redacted to fish wrap. You had to squeeze a story from this or I’d be at my guitar lesson.”

“My ass. You’d be playing hillbilly rubbish with that lot at your local.”

“That’s my guitar lesson.” He offered her the papers back.

“Okay. According to this it took a torpedo not far from shore. Torpedo didn’t go off and plugged its own hole. Not completely, they took on water, but made it past the breakwater and beached it. Home security watchers didn’t know who they were and killed them all when they walked up the beach. Farmers and shotguns and fear.”

“That explains some of the redactions, not how it got to here.”

“War time. Reclamation of salvageable material. They winched it to where it sits. No one paid any thought to the torpedo stuck in its side and when they went to re-lash the winch line it went off and killed nine men and a cow. The war ended, the country went Mrs. Dalloway and ye olde England faded away.”

“That was a hundred years ago. What were they carrying the home office is afraid of after all that time?”

“I can’t get that story. Yet. Just yeah, we know about it, here it is, a hundred-year old steel carcass.”

“The torpedo explains the look of it. Still doesn’t explain you and me in the frozen fog.”

“A woman I met on the missing persons sent me here.”

“She said go to this rusty old boat, it’s a font of wisdom?”

“No, she said evil rides the sands borne on a desert wind and the dead go down with the dead of the sea. Mentioned this place in a moment of lucidity. She said the visions and the winds had stopped for a while, but they were back.”

“How long has she been in the institution?”

“Forty years, give or take. The shrinks said she was doing better until she saw my case’s face flash on the television. She went off, I got the call, decided to go see her.”

“We’re here because a bat shit crazy old woman who sees evil in a sandstorm took a dislike to your missing’s face? Shit, Shona.”

“I didn’t have anything else. You bring that torch that shames the sun?”

***

Caswell broadened the beam to take in a four-foot circle after it landed on the first skull, Shona grabbed his forearm for a second, let go. “This is a fricking catacomb, Cas. Holy…damn.” She followed his beam across an eight-foot expanse, counted twenty skulls. Two high, ten across. Bones thrown like driftwood into iron footlockers, a fifty-gallon steel drum that had been cut in half, lying scattered on the sand covered floor. “Uh oh.” She shined her own beam on a much more recent carcass. “Money on that being my missing.” The body had been slowly mummifying. Decomposing, shriveling into a salted human ham in the sea air.

Caswell barked “Leave it” when she reached for the body. “Leave it all.”

“What the hell, Cas? This is a crime scene.”

“This is a hundred-year killing field. Back out. Fill that envelope with dry sand if you have to walk to find some, come back in the tracks you made coming in.”

He had Shona put her hands on his hips and back out with him while he sifted the sand over their tracks. He watched it blow as the wind drifted in and sifted the sand around on its own until he was satisfied and they were out.

“Get forensics down here for DNA. One forensics. Someone who’s not a Labrador in Gran’s crystal. The girl who sings while she rolls dead bodies around would be good. DNA from the skulls and your missing, somewhere it won’t be noticed. Don’t make a bloody scene out here. No lantern cars, no work lights, no tape, no hazmat suits. Tourists don’t go down as far as we did and force a door that shouldn’t have opened and hardly squeaked. It needs to keep looking that way.” He pulled his latex gloves, threw them in the front seat of his car, unzipped his jacket. “Why do you call me for the creepy ones, anyway?”

“The same reason you make me do all the detail work. We’re a team.”

“Ab fab, Dahling. I’m off to my guitar lesson.”

“Off for a pint and the Honey Drippers. More?”

“The forensics girl who sings. She’s the one.”

“You’re too old and not her type.”

“I know, but she’s a lovely voice, she’s smart and takes orders if they’re explained. We’re going to need her, Shona. This one is creepy.”

“You said that.”

“I said it again. And not for the last time.”

Image – Ash N Finn

The Art of Drowning – An Ethereal Mystery

3 writers, no destination – What could go wrong?

Ash N. Finn  The Perilous Reading Society  & Not Very Deep Thoughts

 

 

The Roommate

From ‘The Hot Girl’ Part Three

England was cold. A deep, set in cold. Not a big snowfall cold, just a background damp gets-in-your-bones cold. It was thirty-seven degrees, it had rained almost every day for the first two weeks she’d been there and tonight was no different.

“Come on. Goddammit, open.” The cold drip from the useless, narrow awning over the door was going straight between her collar and her neck. “If you don’t –” She bumped the stubborn door with her hip when she twisted the key and the solid wood door with a thousand coats of pain banged open, dropped her into the flat on her hands and knees. She crawled inside, shook off the rain like a wet Golden Retriever. A quick glance told her Merriam had a fire going, that was rare, and really nice. And music. A soft, folky kind of — “NOOOOOOO! NO NO NO! MERRIAM STOP!! I MEAN IT, DON’T. OH MY GOD. OH – MY – GOD!!” Deanna was about to bite a hole in her right index finger.

“Deanna? Lass? A ghost is it?”

“Just don’t, okay? Put it down, okay? Just…Don’t. Okay?”

“Don’t what okay?”

All Deanna could see was the straight razor in Merriam’s right hand and a guy’s rapidly failing erection in her left. He was stretched out on the nap mat in front of the fire, shirt and sweater still on, nothing below the waist. He’d rolled his head to the side to stare at her. Merriam was on the far side fully dressed, leaning on her hip, legs stretched out, working the now half-staff erection with her fingernails. There was a bottle of scotch sitting on the floor beside the guy on Deanna’s side, two short water glasses beside it. The big soap cup with JOHNSON on it that was usually on the sink in the bathroom that Deanna thought was weird but okay, if that’s how Merriam shaved her legs, was sitting on the left side of the guy’s abdomen. Kind of in the way of Deanna being able to see exactly what Merriam was doing.

The guy turned his head back to Merriam. “I’ll be seeing a knock down then, her having a look?”

“No, love, your money’s well spent. This is our American lass I told you as might be about. She’s not much for a drink or a shag or even a naughty bit of chat. Early days, though. He’s coming back, your lad. Never mind her. Sure as the sun rises she’s seen a todge or two and yours is naught to set in the record books.” She scratched his chest like a dog and giggled.

“True told but it pleasures me well enough. And thinking of her helps him along. A stunner of a drowned cat.” They both snort laughed. He raised his head more, sipped from one of the glasses.

“Lay back, love, I’ve Johnny’s full attention again.” Merriam dunked the beaver bristle brush in a bowl of water, spun it around in the JOHNSON soap cup and lathered up the floor guy’s fully recovered manhood while she held it from the tip, her fingers like a claw. She picked up the razor again, moved in with it.

Deanna screamed, banged into the end of the couch, spun off it into her room and slammed the door.

***

Twenty minutes later Merriam knocked lightly. “Deanna? All’s done.”

“I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know. I don’t.”

“Nothing to see, lass. He’s off down the pub.”

“Really? Gone? Did you clean up the blood? Oh, God. Am I in trouble just for being here?”

Merriam pushed the door open and sat on the bed next to her completely freaked out flat mate. “There was no blood. I’m a professional, lass. I’ll have an Italian peach shaved into a nectarine if I choose. Come out. The fire’s back up and your hands are ice.”

Deanna wrapped herself in a hunting scene throw from the back of Cat’s couch, sat cross legged off to the side of the fire and sipped warm, slightly scotch infused tea while she watched Merriam wipe the nap mat down with alcohol and a paper towel.

“So you just shave them? You don’t, you know, I thought you were going to, well…” she blushed. “You know, whack it off. Not like that, but…”

“A shave is all, and as some feel it they may ‘let go.’ I’ve no trouble with that unless it’s been too long and too much or they have the power of a fire hose. She held out her hands, mimicked holding a high pressure hose pulling them around. “That’s a mess as I’ve seen and cleaned and I’ll not wish for another.”

“God, Merriam, that’s disgusting.”

“The mess? It can be, but twenty quid, some double that for a shoulder or leg massage, all for a half hour spent. Nothing depraved in a shave, Cat’s ill thinking tossed. That’s my advert and that’s what I do. If they choose to bring their spunk to the mat that’s their doing, not mine.”

“No, all of it is disgusting. You played with it! Those nails of yours, I saw that. You can’t say you have nothing to do with it when he was, well, you know, all big and everything from you doing that stuff.”

“So I have a bit of play. And truth told that’s my fun in it. I rate myself a first in todger gardening without shame as I like to see a Johnny rise and bloom. There’s something for me in knowing that, and all stays free of romance or another sweaty hump and gone, mess in the bed shag. A bit of a chat and a stroke. I’m in control and I have my fun. They leave as a polished billiard’s cue and pair with a load off, and I’ve had mine.”

“But the police. What about the police, and you just sort of, well, you know doing that and everything?”

“I’ve never! I shave, I do.” She winked. “And that’s all. I’ve had a copper or two as well. One on his own and another to see as I was up to. The mug stays out and the lather goes on and it’s a shave. As told, they bring what they will, I bring a razor and cup. You truly believed me to be relieving him of his bits of man bother altogether?”

“Yes. Sorry. I just saw the razor, and him and, and…Yes.”

“Your worry was for the mess and the after, or for him?”

“No, not him. I was worried about your new rug and the blood and everything. You can cut them all off if you want, I don’t care.”

“The lad in the frame on your chest as well?”

“Especially him. Only maybe you could save it in a jar in the freezer or something and I can get it put back on him when I go home.”

Romantics

She reached out with her first two fingers, touched the painted plate at 17 Molton St, London, and  left them there as big, silent tears rolled down her cheeks. People stared, she didn’t care. Deanna had ridden the train, by herself, from Cambridge to London for this visit to the last of William Blake’s original residences, only to discover it was another commercial address, not a shrine. She finally dropped her fingers, lowered her head in disheartened resolution.

“‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet, Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’” A black wool coat covered arm ending in a manicured hand reached out, touched the plaque where Deanna’s fingers had been. She looked up and an elegant man, easily her father’s age or older, had taken up residence on the sidewalk beside her.

“You know about Blake? Really? That was him, the opening to London. I’ve always read it as bleak, but it was beautiful, how you quoted it. Sorry…I never…” She looked down again, the cloud over her returned.

“One needs to stand in a man’s shadow to understand his journey, and his poetry.” He handed Deanna a clean, folded, white handkerchief. “Dry your eyes. That was his story, his London. Commerce and need ruled the day in Old London Town, then as now. Blake knew that, as should you.” He took in all of Deanna, from the savage scissor attack of her hair to her ill fitting jeans and bulky sweater, the ski jacket tied around her waist and well worn running shoes, her pale complexion and sad eyes. “Student, or…” He wondered how a man his age should address a possible street girl or one of the thousands of foreign kids “finding themselves” by riding trains, smoking hash and sleeping in the growing number of hostels.

“Student. Newnham, Cambridge.” She turned, grabbed his coat behind his elbow, and glared at him. “It’s a bar, mister whoever you are. Blake’s house is a fucking bar! How can they do that?”

“It’s not him in Westminster Abbey, nor St. Mary’s. Nor any other place where they’ve hung a plaque with his name. Blake lives here,” he touched his chest over his heart. “Which I daresay is where he’d much prefer to reside with you.”

“Really?”

“Yes. As much as we can know a dead man’s wishes. Step inside. It’s a landmark, not a grave. My treat?”

“NO. It’s a —”

“Fucking bar. Yes, you’ve said. And I said one should trod the path of the man and salute his memory. Sandwiches and expensive drinks with a French flair make it no less Blake’s. I’m on my own today and it has been an age, several ages I might be obliged, since I’ve enjoyed a lively discussion of Blake with an overly serious young woman.”

“Are you a professor or something?”

“Or something. If it will put you at ease, I ask only for conversation. I am not, as is commonly observed when men my age seek to engage with young women, ‘a dirty old man.’”

Deanna could tell by the long wool coat, open scarf, creases, shiny shoes and hair cut he wasn’t dirty, or too old. Too old for that, but not too old to eat lunch with like a professor. And he had quoted Blake.

They followed the hostess to a small table at the back wall where he held her chair with one hand while he draped his coat over his own, sat down across from her.

“Okay.” Deanna felt trapped against the wall. “No funny business. I don’t do that.” She watched as he settled his napkin on his thigh and pushed his menu aside and she allowed herself to absorb some of his relaxed demeanor.

“A tired girl a long way from home, who has so obviously spent her food allowance on a train ticket to London only to arrive and discover desecration of what she thought Holy, then proceed to carry on crying about it, I wouldn’t think a ‘funny business’ type.”

“How do you know? Do you look for ‘funny business’ types?”

“No. I have daughters. One of them a hopeless romantic. I cried here myself when I was seventeen. Not so anyone would know, but there I was, just as you were. Would you prefer to sit on this side, and I on yours?”

“No. No that’s…I’m okay. Now.”

“Good. Blake and a double ham croissant are on order, I believe? Swiss or?”

“Yes. Yes, Swiss. Please. Did you know…”

***

Evan Drucker stood in the entryway of his Dawson Place home, handed his wife his coat and scarf, kissed her longer than the usual peck.

“So is it takeaway or some other mischief you fancy?”

“Takeaway? I might do. I took a walk and ate out once today.”

She dropped his coat over one arm and reached for a hanger in the closet she’d opened. “You’ll have me ask again?”

“No. Have you had a call from either of the girls?”

“Not midweek. I wouldn’t, would I? They have school and lives of their own.” She hung the scarf over the coat and closed the closet door. “Now I’ll have that ask, if you don’t mind.”

“I ate lunch with our Avey today.”

“Avianna? Where?”

“Having a quiet cry at Blake’s on Molton.”

“You took her there often enough. The two of you banging on like a pair of Romantic rabblers.” She picked up the faraway look in his eyes. “Our Avey’s away at school in the States, Evan. So who was it you saw shed tears for your Blake?”

“Her name was Deanna Collings, or so she said. An American girl studying in Cambridge, come to mourn at Blake’s. Seemed quite bright and deeply informed. She was a mess of a pretty young girl, though, and scared to death. Called what’s behind Blake’s plaque ‘a fucking bar.’”

“Ah, with the mess of a look and the language then it was our Avey.” She smiled, tugged on his tie. “I hope you’re both the better, having had Blake on for lunch. The kitchen’s cold and I fancy a curry. You?”

“I fancy a prayer for all our faraway romantic daughters, and a drink.” He reached one arm around her, leaned and kissed her on the forehead, checked her expression when he let her go. “Right. And a curry.”

Russian Interference

Saturday, Noonish, Connie’s Frozen De-lites – Venice Beach, CA

“Hey, Stuart.” She smiled, wiped her hands on a red and white striped towel. “The usual?”

“Hey, Connie. Yeah. Extra walnuts?”

“Got it. We ever gonna see another album out of you guys?”

“Not as soon as we wanted. This one was spread out all over the place, keeping Dooce and Freemont out of each other’s way. Dooce played the same freakin’ guitar solo on like three tunes. We didn’t catch it till last night.”

She pulled a scoop out of a small bucket of water, bent over into the freezer. “The same? Really?”

“Close enough. Bobcat sent him to the woodshed with a thermos of expresso loaded Starbucks, a stack of old Benny Goodman jazz albums and a bag of some different weed. He’s been smoking the same shit since the Super Bowl party where he brought in his crop. We all think he just needed to change his channel.” He glanced up for a second. “Gulls are noisy as all hell this afternoon.”

“It’s the stale chips box-lunch tourists.” She looked over his head, pointed with her chin. He turned, sure enough. The smoked glass limo bus had unloaded for lunch on the beach and the air was full of seagulls and the ground covered in tossed stale potato chips.

“I liked it better when they went straight to Disneyland. If they’re going to stop, they could pull up closer to your ice cream coach.”

“No thanks. Tourists, no English, all the pointing, the gulls pooping on everything and all that? Foreigners don’t tip for shit, anyway. I’ll live.”

He nodded agreement, watched Connie the ice cream truck girl embed walnuts into his French Vanilla ice cream. Listened her talk about her dogs while she hammered nuts and ice cream into coexistence on a piece of marble tile. She really enjoyed her job and smiled a lot, always made it an enjoyable experience to buy ice cream from her. She’d told him once it was because a lot of things in her life got worked out on that piece of marble.

He thanked her, took the cone hand off, put a dollar in the tip jar and didn’t bother to look up when he stepped away and onto the sidewalk.

There was a scream. He heard it just before a violent collision sent him off across the grass rolled up in a ball of asses, knees and elbows with someone. They ricocheted off a fifty-five-gallon drum turned trash can ten yards from their point of impact and came to rest a few yards from the can. He and whoever, they seemed to be made out of nothing but lightly oiled caramel colored velvet that smelled like coconut oil and flowers, were twisted into a human Rubik’s cube. And his left shoulder? Gaw-awd dammit. A female voice with a mild Russian accent was talking to his nose. She hadn’t lost her Doublemint gum in the collision and was calm, in spite of whatever had happened. She had great teeth and her nose, all of her he could really see, looked like the rest of her felt. Slightly oily.

“Nice to meet you, ice cream no pay attention boy. Dangerous, your way you meet girls. Just to say ‘Hi, girl,’ is too much? For you? You wave. Maybe I stop. Only maybe.” She unhooked from him, one arm and one leg at a time, from under and around him. She rolled out and away and ended up sitting cross legged and straight armed, hands on her knees. He was on his back, one knee up, his left shoulder on fire. She looked at him like he was some curiosity that had fallen out of the sky. A block of frozen pee from an airliner maybe. Or maybe a piece of Sputnik. She held out her hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

“You said that.”

“You forgot the polite way of how to meet a girl, no pay attention, no apology ice cream boy. So I try again for you. Taisia. Nice to meet you?”

He raised his arm from the elbow, hand up. “Stuart.” She squeezed his hand like it had juice in it she needed for something. “Ow. Say that again. Twa-waw-ayzeeah?”

“Close. Taw-eezh-ee-uh. You should see in Cyrillic. It becomes more clear for you.”

“No, I shouldn’t.” He rolled onto his right side dragging his left arm and shoulder. “Fuckin’ ow! Jesus.” He stared for a split second. “Do you like wax your entire body?”

“No. Only where you should not be looking so close if you are hurt. For those places you should be one hundred percent of yourself. You? Maybe one hundred and ten. Or twenty.” She leaned forward, pushed him over on his back, sat on his chest and frowned while she worked her hands over his left shoulder. Her bikini was one of those three poker chips and a couple of shoelaces jobs, and she didn’t wax everywhere. He knew because he was so engrossed in the way the sun and her body fuzz were working together with the perfumed coconut oil that she had to tell him twice to rotate his arm and shoulder.

“With you I repeat everything? Why is that? Nothing broken, you will live. Something hit you?”

“You.”

“No. I am strong but I am a girl and not so hard to cause pain.”

He thought he might be getting that way and was glad when she stood and pulled him up by his right arm.

“Shirt.” She held out her hand, waited. He obeyed and she got right up on the non-bloody cross-shaped dark purple dent at the very top of his upper left arm. She walked off tip toe on her skates and re-set the trash barrel they’d knocked over, held his shirt sleeve up to where the welded angle iron support frame crossed in the front of the barrel, and nodded.

“Is here.” She pointed at her discovery and a rusty cross on his t-shirt sleeve, looked at him, pleased with her space case ice cream cone boy meets six-foot-four Amazon Russian skater girl train wreck forensics. “Is better you than me, no attention ice cream boy.”

“Any gentleman points for that?”

“Not today.” The backhanded t-shirt hit him in the face with some force. She bent over and started to pick up the trash scattered in their wreck. Jesus, she shouldn’t be…

He pulled the shirt on and squatted to help her with the trash, eyes wide. Sweet, sweet Jesus. He almost forgot about his shoulder before he suggested that she might follow his lead in the squat versus bend.

They dropped the last waxed coke cup and hot dog wrapper back in the can. She brushed her hands together, made a face, wiped and squeezed them on the back pockets of his Levis. Jeeeez-zus. She could charge for that.

“You have car? Mine is too far. I will drive. For X-rays. Come.”

“In skates?”

She stitched her eyebrows together, looked at him like he was the most pathetic dumbass on the planet. “Of course, I remove them before. I am smart Russian girl, not Polak joke person.”

“You have a license somewhere?” No more bikini than she had on he didn’t want to start guessing.

“Commercial. In my skate.” She let a small grin run across her face, looked at him like she knew what he’d been thinking.

“Cool.” He handed her his keys. “It’s a stick. Can you handle it?”

“Stick?” She spun his key ring into her palm. “All the men, they say to me, ‘Taisia, is like tree, can you handle it?’” She gave him a slightly crooked smile. “Today is good because at last I meet one honest American ice cream boy. I like you too much already.” The open-palm whack between his shoulder blades rattled his teeth. Jee-eez-us. He had towels in the trunk. He’d find a way to get her to sit on one and not get that oily business all over his seats.

***

Sunday, 10:47 AM – La Brea, CA

Burke noted the shocky teenage girl in a white apron sitting on the curb with a plainclothes female from Hollywood Division, thought it best to leave them alone. He flashed his badge at the uniform on yellow tape duty and swam upstream against a small army of exiting haz-mat suited forensics people and into the back of the La Brea Haagen-Dazs.

“Morning, Burke.” His task force partner, a young woman from the FBI named Laschelle, handed him a coffee.

“They open already?”

“Nope. I worked at a Farrells up in the Bay in high school. All the coffee machines are the same. I’m Federal. Who’s gonna complain?” She motioned him closer, lifted the lid on a three-gallon ice cream bucket.

“Holy…Goddammit…” Burke jerked his head up and back, collected himself before he looked back down at the severed head covered with walnuts in an otherwise empty French Vanilla ice cream bucket. “Anyone we know?”

“Musician. Stuart O’Connell? Uniforms found his car burned out in a West Hollywood alley. The bucket came from yesterday’s trash. He’s fresh.”

“This is what, five?”

“Six, if you count that one on the cactus at the Harbor Freeway onramp.”

“No note on that one, I’m still not sure. Walnuts are a nice touch. Any reason, you think?” He popped a stick of clove gum, offered.

“No thanks. Shit smells like funked up old shoes, Burke. Too early in the morning.”

“Sorry. The walnuts?”

“Who knows. Do you think there’s a reason for any of these?”

“I’m starting to think one of you is unhappy with my side of the gender line’s manners. Note?”

“Of course.” She handed him the index card, the note written in purple lipstick.

He should have apologized – He shouldn’t have stared