It’s about two o’clock in the afternoon, early March. In South Boston that means a cold hard rain that ruins any memories of the sun. Doesn’t matter, because I’m in my office, wearing a twentyyear-old thrift-store wool suit. It’s brown but not in the brown-is-the-new-black way. My shoes are Doc Martens, black like my socks. I’m not neat and clean or shaved. I am sober but don’t feel sober.
There’s a woman sitting on the opposite side of my desk. I don’t remember her coming in, but I know who she is: Jennifer Times, a flavor-of-the-second local celebrity, singing contestant on American Star, daughter of the Suffolk County DA, and she might be older than my suit. Pretty and brunette, lips that are worked out, pumped up. She’s tall and her legs go from the north of Maine all the way down to Boston, but she sits like she’s small, all compact, a closed book. She wears a white T-shirt and a knee-length skirt. She looks too spring for March, not that I care.
I wear a fedora, trying too hard to be anachronistic or iconoclastic, not sure which. It’s dark in my office. The door is closed, the blinds drawn over the bay window. Someone should turn on a light.
I say, “Shouldn’t you be in Hollywood? Not that I watch, but the little birdies tell me you’re a finalist, and the live competition starts tomorrow night.”
She says, “They sent me home to do a promotional shoot at a mall and at my old high school.” I like that she talks about her high school as if it were eons removed, instead of mere months.
She doesn’t smile. Everything is serious. She says, “I need your help, Mr. Genevich,” and she pulls her white-gloved hands out of her lap.
I say, “I don’t trust hands that wear gloves.”
She looks at me like I chose the worst possible words, like I missed the whole point of her story, the story I haven’t heard yet. She takes off her right glove and her fingers are individually wrapped in bandages, but it’s a bad wrap job, gauze coming undone and sticking out, Christmas presents wrapped in old tissue paper.
She says, “I need you to find out who has my fingers.”
I think about opening the shades; maybe some light wouldn’t be so bad. I think about clearing my desk of empty soda cans. I think about canceling the Southie lease, too many people double-parking in front of my office/apartment building. I think about the ever-expanding doomed universe. And all of it makes more sense than what she said.
“Say that again.”
Her blue eyes stay fixed on me, like she’s the one trying to figure out who is telling the truth. She says, “I woke up like this yesterday. Someone stole my fingers and replaced them with these.” She holds her hand out to me as if I can take it away from her and inspect it.
“May I?” I gently take her hand, and I lift up the bandage on her index finger and find a ring of angry red stitches. She takes her hand back from me quick, like if I hold on to it too long I might decide to keep those replacement digits of hers.
“Look, Ms. Times, circumstantial evidence to the contrary and all that, but I don’t think what you described is exactly possible.” I point at her hand. I’m telling her that her hand is impossible. “Granted, my subscription to Mad Scientist Weekly did run out. Too many words, not enough pictures.”
She says, “It doesn’t matter what you think is possible, Mr. Genevich, because I’ll only be paying you to find answers to my questions.” Her voice is hard as pavement. I get the sense that she isn’t used to people telling her no.
I gather the loose papers on my desk, stack them, and then push them over the edge and into the trash can. I want a cigarette but I don’t know where I put my pack. “How and why did you find me?” I talk slow. Every letter and syllable has to be in its place.
“Does it matter?” She talks quick and to the point. She wants to tell me more, tell me everything about every thing, but she’s holding something back. Or maybe she’s just impatient with me, like everyone else.
I say, “I don’t do much fieldwork anymore, Ms. Times. Early retirement, so early it happened almost before I got the job. See this computer?” I turn the flat-screen monitor toward her. An infinite network of Escheresque pipes fills the screen-saver pixels. “That’s what I do. I research. I do genealogies, find abandoned properties, check the status of out-of-state warrants, and find lost addresses. I search databases and, when desperate, which is all the time, I troll Craigslist and eBay and want ads. I’m no action hero. I find stuff in the Internet ether. Something tells me your fingers won’t be in there.”
She says, “I’ll pay you ten thousand just for trying.” She places a check on my desk. I assume it’s a check. It’s green and rectangular.
“What, no manila envelope bulging with unmarked bills?”
“I’ll pay you another fifty thousand if you find out who has my fingers.”
I am about to say something sharp and clever about her allowance from Daddy, but I blink my eyes and she is gone.Two
Right after I come to is always the worst, when the questions about dreams and reality seem fair game, when I don’t know which is which. Jennifer Times is gone and my head is full of murk. I try to push the murk to the corners of my consciousness, but it squeezes out and leaks away, mercury in a closed fist. That murk, it’s always there. It’s both a threat and a promise. I am narcoleptic.
How long was I asleep? My office is dark, but it’s always dark. I have the sense that a lot of time has passed. Or maybe just a little. I have no way of knowing. I generally don’t remember to check and set my watch as I’m passing out. Time can’t be measured anyway, only guessed at, and my guesses are usually wrong, which doesn’t speak well for a guy in my line of work. But I get by.
I paw around my desk and find a pack of cigarettes behind the phone, right where I left them. I light one. It’s warm, white, and lethal. I’d like to say that smoking keeps me awake, clears the head, all that good stuff normally associated with nicotine and carcinogens, but it doesn’t. Smoking is just something I do to help pass the time in the dark, between sleeps.
On my desk there is no green and rectangular ten-thousand dollar check. Too bad, I’d quickly grown fond of the little fella. There is a manila envelope, and on my notepad are gouges and scratches in ink, an EKG output of a faulty heart. My notepad is yellow like the warning traffic light.
I lean back in my chair, looking for a new vantage point, a different way to see. My chair complains. The squawking springs tease me and my sedentary existence. No one likes a wiseass. It might be time for a new chair.
Okay, Jennifer Times. I conclude the stuff about her missing fingers was part of a hypnogogic hallucination, which is one of the many pithy symptoms of narcolepsy. It’s a vivid dream that occurs when my narcoleptic brain is partially awake, or partially asleep, as if there is a difference.
I pick up the manila envelope and remove its contents: two black-and-white photos, with accompanying negatives.
Photo 1: Jennifer Times sitting on a bed. Shoulder-length hair obscures most of her face. There’s a close-lipped smile that peeks through, and it’s wary of the camera and, by proxy, me. She’s wearing a white T-shirt and a dark-colored pleated skirt. It’s hiked above her knees. Her knees have scabs and bruises. Her arms are long and closed in tight, like a mantis.
Photo 2: Jennifer Times sitting on a bed. She’s topless and wearing only white panties. She sits on her folded legs, feet under her buttocks, hands resting on her thighs. Her skin is bleached white, and she is folded. Origami. Arms are at her side and they push her small breasts together. Her eyes are closed and head tilted back. A light fixture shines directly above her head, washing her face in white light. Ligature in her neck is visible, as are more than a few ribs. The smile from the first photo has become something else, a grimace maybe.
The photos are curled, a bit washed and faded. They feel old and heavy with passed time. They’re imperfect. These photos are like my memories.
I put the photos side by side on my desktop. On the lip of the Coke-can ashtray my cigarette is all ash, burnt down to the filter. I just lit it, but that’s how time works for me. My constant enemy, it attacks whenever I’m not looking.
All right. Focus. It’s a simple blackmail case. Some entrepreneur wants Jennifer to invest in his private cause or these photos go public and then she gets the gong, the hook, voted off the island on American Star.
But why would a blackmailer send the negatives? The photos have likely been digitized and reside on a hard drive or two somewhere. Still, her—and now me—being in possession of the negatives is troubling. There’s more here, and less, of course, since I don’t remember any of our conversation besides the finger stuff, so I light another cigarette.
The Jennifer in the photos doesn’t look exactly like the Jennifer I’ve seen on TV or the one who visited my office. The difference is hard to describe, but it’s there, like the difference in taste between butter and margarine. I look at the photos again. It could be her; the Jennifer from a few years ago, from high school, the Jennifer from before professional makeup teams and personal stylists. Or maybe the photo Jennifer is margarine instead of butter.
I pick up my notepad. There is writing only on that top page. I was dutifully taking notes while asleep. Automatic behavior. Like tying your shoes. Like driving and listening to the radio instead of actually driving, getting there without getting there. Not that I drive anymore.
During micro-sleeps, my narcoleptic brain will keep my body moving, keep it churning through some familiar task, and I won’t have any memory of it. These acts belong to my secret life. I’ve woken up to find e-mails written and sent, soup cans stacked on my desk, peeled wallpaper in my bedroom, pantry items stuffed inside the refrigerator, magazines and books with their covers torn off.
Most of it is likely junk, including my doodle arrows. The narcoleptic me is rarely accurate in his automatic behavior. The numbers don’t add up to any type of phone number or contact information. But there’s south shore plaza, Jennifer’s public mall appearance. She and I need to talk. I get the hunch that this blackmail case is about as simple as quantum physics.