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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

David J. Schow

Thomas Dunne Books




I had just wrapped up having sex with my best friend's ex-wife, after shooting naked pictures of her, when I heard a slight entry noise from the elevator end of the loft, and looked up into the face of a man holding a gun.
"Hi, Elias," said the man, whom I had never met.
The gun was formidable. I didn't know from guns. For me, shooting meant taking a photograph, and none of my other definitions had anything to do with firearms. I only knew that this pistol had a bore so big it looked as though I could stick my index finger in there with wiggle-room to spare. That was all the convincing I needed.
I thought, Maybe Clavius is pissed off at me, for banging his wife. Ex-wife.
My mental camera-eye framed the intruder. Backswept blondish hair (what used to be called "dirty blond"), blond brows, eyes the color of melting dry ice. He appeared too aware to be a cop, a creditor, or a politician as he looked around my workspace with the kind of non-smile that imparts zero warmth—a slit showing teeth.
"You do good work," he said. He was pointing at some of my blowups with his gigantic gun. He wasn't afraid to lose me from his line of fire. The sheer presence of the gun was threat enough.
"The perks aren't bad, either, I bet," the man said. He mimed oral sex at me—tongue poked into cheek; fist pumping near mouth.
Great, I get it, okay?
Then he did smile, and I wished he hadn't.
This man had nothing to do with Clavius, the ex-wife, or any sexual indiscretion that may or may not have transpired. If he had, he would have begun a punitive speech by now.
I was so damned tired I completely bypassed the expected stages of shock and fake outrage, the programming that makes people say stupid things like "What the hell do you want?" or "Who the hell are you?"
His suit was too snug and about five years past the style curve. What mattered was the physique inside that suit—tight as a race car. Thick rubber-soled shoes; practical. Silent.
"I don't have any money," I finally blurted out.
He laughed then, and that was worse than his smile.
"Then have some," he said. He plonked down a stack near my light table. Thick as a slice of old phone book; all hundreds. "Ten thousand, for your trouble," he said. "Do what I tell you, when I tell you, and convince me you can keep a secret, and you win. Even more exciting than that, you get to keep breathing. With me so far?"
Thus did I watch a long, exhausting day become an even longer, more exhausting night.
The older bank buildings and department stores at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine had undergone a tediously long rebuild into overpriced loft space. I had been fifth floor for little more than a year. I had never been burgled or bothered until now. It was late June, that period where the sun takes its time going down. Almost 9:00 P.M.; there were still threads of sunset to the west.
His gaze kept straying to my stuff on the wall. He vacillated between two in particular: Petroglyph, an up-angle on a row of bridge supports that dwindled with a Mobius infinity effect it had taken hours to capture (due to the light and shadow shifts in time-lapse), and Targets #5, which was unfortunate, since it was one of a series of painstaking double exposures of naked people superimposed on silhouette targets with the eyes, mouths, nipples, and groins shot out. I had hired a champion marksman to do the bullet work, since shaping was key. Tiny reports from a pistol that sounded more like a cap gun. Tiny bullets made perfectly circular, tiny bullet holes. My version of pointillism had rendered the subjects weirdly androgynous.
"I really do like your work," the gunman said. Then he made a come-on motion with his fist and two more guys with guns entered the room.
* * *
The reason I had been photographing Nasja with no clothes on had to do with Clavius—my mentor, her ex-husband. Photography is sex, as Clavius is so fond of saying.
The uglier reason was that Clavius had sloughed Nasja onto me as a consolation prize for some other manipulation, a hand-me-down, as if I were destitute or needed to be reminded of my second-string status to Himself. His most recent divorce had been mere preparation for jettisoning her entirely.
Worse than that, Nasja knew this, too. On some elemental level she realized her lifeline was withering, so she tried to hump me through the lens during the entire shoot. It was embarrassingly obvious to my assistants—Brady, the queen of cosmetology-under-fire; Joey, my loader and all-around gofer; or the anonymous reps of Clique magazine who all loitered like gargoyles on parapets, unblinking eyes on their text messages and tweets while they butted in to make sidelong creative "contributions" in harsh whispers designed to connote where the real talent was, here.
I had no idea what the Clique vampires actually did to justify their salaries, but there was a flock of them around every shoot I had ever done for the magazine. They were supposed to be assistants, handlers, intermediaries. They relayed messages from people with actual power. They always got in the way. They crossed the frame line and stumbled over cables and drove Joey nuts by leaving their lattes sitting on expensive equipment. They were too featureless for us to bother learning their remora pecking order. I finally had to clear the room … that is, I had Joey clear it, since I knew he'd enjoy rousting them. The persnickety photographer, you know. The tormented artist. When in doubt, blame the talent.
Inside the frame, it was just me and Nasja. Her with her meager heat and me trying to commandeer this depleted sexuality, hoping to extrapolate it into something vendible for the mutual benefit of everyone's bank accounts. I did the best I could to shoot around the scars from her last surgery. I had been in the room for the surgery. In fact, I had photographed that, too.
As the sun started to set outside, I knew the messages from Char would be piling up on both my answering machine and mobile voice mail. The hominid lurking deep inside me already knew how this shoot was going to end, so I ignored the pings on purpose.
Human language had not evolved a term appropriate to Char's status. "Girlfriend" was a total atavistic cringe. "Significant other" cued the gag reflex, or should have, for anybody with a brain. "Partner" always made me think of somebody with a banjo. Anyone who did not marry conventionally to reproduce indiscriminately was stranded with nomenclature a century out of tune. Somebody needed to devote federal grant money toward researching a better term.
Char knew I had to spend the afternoon with a naked Nasja. Char knew these things always ran late. Always. Char at least suspected that Nasja was desperate enough to try jumping my frog. Char knew what I thought about Nasja's decaying orbit with Clavius. Premise, conclusion. So all this unspoken stress was venting into voice messages logged as innocent inquiry but dripping with single servings of guilt and accusation in equal measure.
The sort of lanyard around your neck that compels you to go, Yeah, why the hell not?
For four hours straight my neck had been clenched as tight as a boxer's fist and I had cultivated a muscle tension headache that could force grown men to turn over their entire families to the Spanish Inquisition. I could smell my own sweat coming out foul and poisonous. When Joey reset the surge protectors on the big lamp transformers, I retreated to the bathroom just to get the press of wanting eyes off me. A tiny moment to unclench, in order to reclench anew and get the job done.
Sure enough; fourteen messages stacked up and blinking red; a personal best for Char. I ignored them. We were doomed anyway.
I locked the bathroom door. I did it rarely; it was not necessary; everybody knew this was the one-stop for blow, Visine, speed, Ecstasy, tampons, and a variety of prescription candy from Doc Ostrow, my overmedicated guru of all things in pill form.
The mirror told me nothing was wrong—that would be too obvious. I ran the tap to cover any noises I might make unduly, like bursting into tears for no reason. Two blazing lines, three Vicodin (the 600 series; not the wimpy ones), a whole bottle of lovely Alpine spring water (to offset the constipation), B-12 and vitamin A, with decongestants for dessert. The stainless steel sink was my font as I gave silent thanks to Doc Ostrow. Deep breath.
The undistinguished fellow in the mirror stared back with his doubts. I could not describe him; I'd have to show you a photograph. If I mugged myself the only description I could give to the police would be brown eyes, about six feet, tamed goatee, black medium-length hair gray at the temples, dark clothing—er, it all happened so fast I didn't get a good look. I mopped my face and the nubbled cloth came away yellow with toxins. My spiritual effluvia.
"Ah, but don't get me wrong," I told the mirror. "I love my work."
Sunset relaxed me. If a day scorched my skull, dusk offered an opportunity for a general reboot. For me, bald daytime, especially early morning, just looked off. Shadows fell in the wrong direction. Unremitting light was the quickest path I knew to headache-land. The rods in my eyes were brimming over with rhodopsin, much more romantically known as "visual purple," which was responsible for my acute night vision. Doctors and astronomers called it the "dark-adapted eye." Sunlight destroyed rhodopsin. This provided a great excuse to wear dense sunglasses while most of the working world was doing whatever it is they did when awake. It added mystery. I preferred working at night anyway. Less ambient lunacy at night, if that doesn't sound paradoxical to all you moon fanatics. And moonlight never caused anyone to get skin cancer.
I could see shades of gray where your eyes would perceive only dead, uniform black. I could distinguish shapes in an absence of light.
Ninety minutes later, I was distinguishing the shape of Nasja's disarrayed coif bobbing up and down in my lap, thinking this is what fascist fellatio must be like.
Joey had shut down the shop and the creatures from Clique had withdrawn to their busywork cocktails and dish-laden natter. Nasja and I downed some vodka, our usual toast to another completed session.
Her idea, originally. Vodka. Russian. End of debate.
Ex-pats from the former Soviet Union share a peculiar prejudice when it comes to Americans. They insist they are better educated, more cultured, worldly, and aware—endlessly, as though to compensate for the fact they bailed from a cesspool of economic privation as little better than social whores, usually via some form of scumball baksheesh. Or the commercial emigration realities of a fine-boned face and a thoroughbred body. They even brag—endlessly—that the Russian Mafiya are better criminals than Americans. They perceive the land of opportunity with unearned contempt as a boundless midway of suckers, dupes, marks, and norms just begging to be plucked … which wasn't far wrong.
Which is possibly why I could barely work up a mock of passion, a simulated performance based on ballistics, hydraulics, and friction. What transpired down at my groin was a mercantile exchange. My eyes kept seeking the clock on the Blu-Ray player. Every time I looked, the number clicked by one. It became a sort of side game.
Nasja had been quite a looker not so long ago; a high-fashion version of that ingénue from the summer tent-pole comic book movies, the one whose name nobody can remember now. I couldn't bring myself to grope her too much. Her breasts had been burglarized by implant removal and her flesh was mealy on the bone from anorexia. Whenever she glanced up with her too-big, greyhound eyes I tried to look like I was enjoying myself. Someday, I thought, I'll reflect that I actually fucked this woman, with an odd sense of accomplishment, but it was more fun to have done than to actually do. I had never considered that perhaps Nasja wanted to fuck me; she just would.
I was thinking about Char.
She would arrive around midnight or one. She would deploy a watertight lie and avoid kissing me at first, and I would smell the mints on her breath and confirm that she had been in her idea of a better world, fucking Clavius—my "superior"—the whole time. This thought, this story-yet-to-unfold with unerring predictability, had the strange perk of stiffening me just as my penis was going on the nod in Nasja's mouth. Nasja interpreted this signal as the excitement preceding a volcanic curtain-ringer of a climax, and went up-tempo. We were done pretty quickly after that—one more vodka, icy-cold—and she was out the door within fifteen minutes. She didn't kiss me, either.
Char herself aspired to the editorial chairmanship of some edgy magazine, partially due to her refreshing lack of the new Victorianism. I suppose we lasted two years or so because she was one of the very few women who did not come to me directly from the Clavius pipeline—that hit parade of soulless beauties unattainable by the rank and file. She did not know Clavius. We met at an event that had nothing to do with Clavius. We ate dinners and clocked social events completely unrelated to Clavius, and frankly I had begun to feel like a freed man, or at least a kid willfully staying up past bedtime. The first time we spent a night together, we talked ourselves hoarse and got so tired that we did not burden ourselves with the performance obligations of sex. We actually slept. Feel free to jam your finger down your throat, but it was true. Most newcomer pairings lard too much urgency onto a first copulation that is supposed to "feel" spontaneous. Char and I bided our time and were rewarded for our patience and insight, or at least that's how I like to enshrine it in memory. At the time, I thought, I chose you, and thereby deluded myself that the world wasn't so dire. I guess it was inevitable that Clavius would charm her. He had won me over the same way—seduced me without any sex.
When the guy with the gun showed up instead of Char, you can imagine how derailed I felt.
* * *
My two newest visitors had also come bearing sidearms. They walked in, scanned the space, then very politely holstered their weaponry. One tall, one small, with the laser eyes and disposition of enforcers—the guys who hold you while the main guy punches your internal organs to puree.
The main guy kept his gun out, still gesturing with it.
"These are your two newest assistants," he told me. "You point out what you need for a decent photo shoot and we all take a short ride across town. You get to shoot some pictures—kinda like what you were doing in here—and you develop 'em for us, and then we go away forever unless you try some kind of foolishness, in which case I will put this gun in your mouth and pull the trigger until it's empty, and this holds nine hollow points, which means a great big ole mess and no head for you no more. You copy?"
I had said maybe five words since he first walked in. I looked around as though suddenly teleported here from a nice barbeque or a chummy funeral.
"Whatever you say," I said.
These men wanted to take me out of here. Char was coming. Char could be spared this madness. Our personal soap opera paled next to the threat of death. I did not want anyone to die. Like everybody, I thought black thoughts but I didn't want to precipitate anyone's death, not even these intruders who had come to change my whole life.
That, in retrospect, was my problem: I didn't care enough about anything to kill it.
There on the table: ten large, tax free, for a quickie. Forget the guns.
"Figure an hour," my new life advisor said.
"What do I call you?" I said.
"Why?" His gaze went flinty. "Why does that matter? Do you care? You think you're going to Google me or something? Friend me? Do you honestly believe a name is worth a dry rat turd? What fucking planet do you live on?"
Automatically I felt the urge to apologize, which was even more stupid. Instead, I pointed out a good package of minimal, transportable equipment (something I knew how to do on autopilot) and the two heavies geared up.
If I could pretend this was just a normal, eccentric gig, I might survive to continue wearing my own body.
The northern freight elevator was actually installed in the building during the reconstruction to add bogus veracity to the concept of loft living, in a space not originally designed as a loft. It was a sell point. We rode down in silence and wound up packed into a rental Crown Victoria, me in the backseat with my gun-toting guide.
He was still irritated.
He seemed to boil over; he pressed the muzzle of his pistol against my temple.
"My name is headshot, you rich dick!"
"I'm not … rich…"
"Shut the fuck up!" he yelled. "What is that?" He mimicked a puling weasel voice: "‘Euuuw, what do I call you?' Is that some kind of hostage bullshit you learned from HBO? Humanize the assailant so he won't fucking kill you? Did I ask you who you fucking were? No! Am I going to blow your fucking face off if you don't shut the hell up and do as you're told? Yes!"
The shaved apes in the front seat were glancing backward, as though concerned for their leader's calm.
He blew out a harsh sigh. "Jesus, you guys make me fucking mad."
I risked answering. "Uh—me?"
"Yes, you, moron! All you privileged horse cocks with your faggoty little photo shoots and goddamned hot models and little fucking cocktail parties and receptions and magazines and christ you piss me off!"
We dropped down to Sunset and headed west, toward Beverly Hills.
"I'm not saying anything," I said.
"You don't have to. It's oozing out of your skin. Fear. Pure animal panic. Because tonight the real world suddenly butt-fucked your little dream existence."
He seemed satisfied with that—or at least mollified—and we finished the trip in silence except for a few directions. Turn here. Pull in there.
Below Sunset off the Strip there existed a number of big-ticket hotels not on the paparazzi map, hidden-panel sybararies that catered to a clientele who paid large for guaranteed privacy and excellent room service with no questions asked and no request too outrageous. Security was plainclothes and omnipresent.
As we debarked in the parking garage my captor advised: "Signal. Shout. Do anything and you're all done. Be businesslike."
I nodded. Without a title or pseudonym to mark him, I had shortformed him in my mind as Gun Guy.
Suite 240 rated a presidential subtitle and came with polarized blackout glass. You could fire up a searchlight inside and no one outside the building would see a hint. My new crew and I entered the largest room of four in the suite, lavishly appointed. Cigarette smoke unreeled in lazy webs across the air. The occupants of the room had butted about half a pack in waiting.
Gun Guy steered me around for introductions.
"Elias, say hello to Cognac."
Seated on a wingback sofa was a brassy, implanted redhead who resembled whats-her-name, that British soft-core celebutard. She had on steel-tipped spike heels, about two parallel miles of nylon stocking, a garter belt, an extremely constrictive bustier, and little else except her work smile. I noticed her jade-green eyes were contacts. Several pounds of burnished hair like a four-alarm blaze. She waved perfunctorily. "Meetcha."
With an exaggerated stage whisper my keeper added, "I don't think Cognac is her real name, do you?"
There was also a birdy older man wearing John Lennon spectacles. Hair plugs marched in a straight line across the top of his face like a row of shoe polish–brown cornstalks.
"Cognac there is a prostitute," said the gunman, "and this fellow here we'll call the Professor, because he'd pop a clot if I mentioned his real name."
Indeed, the Professor immediately turned crimson at the fleeting notion of exposure, and coughed artificially to cover his panic. I realized I was probably looking at another ten grand each, for these two.
"And in here, you'll find our special guest star."
He led me into the master bedroom. On the California king was a large vinyl body bag containing either a person or two hundred pounds of really expensive appetizers. He unzipped it and unfortunately, shazam, dead man. My gut plummeted.
Nobody I knew, but somebody I could recognize, and put a name to.
* * *
You've seen Clavius's work everywhere. If you lived in New York City, you might decide to attend a party or elite gallery function based on whether Clavius might actually show up. If you worked in an upscale office there was probably a Clavius print on the wall, framed in brushed aluminum, and if you're upscale enough, it would be numbered and signed with his distinctive scrolled "C." Celebrities queue to his favor. Sous-chefs fawned and prepared off-the-menu vegetarian dishes for him. He occasionally surfaced among luminaries on the news; more rarely on pop rot like E! or Entertainment Tonight.
Touching the finer things by proxy has always been a big deal in America. Who's-who has cash value, like getting your hair chopped and dyed at Talia's in the 90210. Bonus points if Talia comped you.
Of course, Clavius wasn't his real name, but that was de rigueur for men of his stature. His few approved photos depicted him as a florid Teuton with a severe crew cut and the penetrating gaze of an ocean carnivore. We met about five years ago at a place called the New World Inkworks, which no longer existed in Los Angeles … as did most things in Los Angeles.
New World Inkworks was not one of those 24/7 Xeroxeries, but an actual publishing time warp that reeked of the old school: hot glue guns, rubber cement, rubyliths, pasteups, X-Acto knives, and real, live physical layout done on light boards. Its professed specialty was high-end lithographs and limited edition art prints on special acid-free stock, many done for the Getty Museum's gift shop. The owner, kommandant, and chief ramrod was a man straight out of a Broadway road show of The Front Page named Harry "Boss" Wiley who—yes—actually wore the visor and arm garters you're thinking of right now.
Due to the looming specter of digital everything and the need to keep the lights on at New World, Boss had neatly divided his profession to address both high culture and low. He had doggedly cemented a reputation as the go-to guy for artsy-fartsy print work while cultivating an after-hours relationship with more mainstream media. In other words, by day he actualized canonical art for the masses, and after dark he kept his staff comfortably busy with porn, for the real masses. More American than Boss you just didn't get, as an entrepreneur.
My own lack of a studio, facilities, portfolio, repute, and walking cash brought me into Boss's orbit. In one of three back rooms Boss kept a behemoth of a retired Linotype machine, despite the space it absorbed, purely in honor of his romance with print. Next to that Linotype I humped many graveyard shifts running off-color folio pages for the likes of Pubes!, Just Past Jailbait, FunBag, Foxy Moxie, Drip Groove, Nipplemania, Sluts 'N Tarts, Gashette, Hollywood Loaf, Spankers, Grease Man, 2 Young 2 Date, Hot Trotting Tots, Cave Boy, Wet 'N Squishy, Yeast Beasts, Fistful of Udders, The Diary of Gloria Hole, Muff Divas, Great Big Onez, Marine Discharge, Blood Vamps, Gooey, and a variety of their high-quality sister publications. The sheet stacks were a never-ending catalogue of artificially moistened vaginae, peter-pumped cocks, leering browneyes, and glassy mannequin stares in ceaseless aggro recombination. You get inured to the flood tide pretty quickly if you don't want to start dropping letters from the alphabet soup made of your brain by the busywork or the Mandarin hours.
The payoff, for me, was the serviceable darkroom Boss also maintained. It was all mine when the adult entertainment portion of my shift was completed.
I'd never liked color photography much, although I'd done my share. Attenuated night vision heightens your discrimination of gray tones, not color, which is why I keep the vitamin A in my medicine chest—to encourage more rhodopsin in the rods of my retinas.
Clavius, as it happened, was attracted by the angle of having a porn sweatshop grind out the posters and prints for a show planned at a West Village gallery called Beneath 5th Street. His highbrow reputation was in no way compromised by his excellent nose for sleaze and he needed a confluence of the two in order to maintain street cred and his cachet as an edgy innovator. So Clavius approached Boss with nearly all the ancillary work for the show whose title won him his big-time sobriquet—"C."
It was a gathering of earth-toned, biomechanoid photo studies, post-Expressionist, post-post-Industrial, pre-Millennial; a style that has since become known, in our new century, as Meltdown, to predate it from "mashup." Now, today, Clavius had left all that far behind in the quaint past. I looped all of it in the darkroom at New World Inkworks, and since Clavius was so fussy about quality control, he hung around while the waterfall of porn flew from the presses. We got to talking and it wasn't long before he said, "I've got something perfect for a fellow like you, if you think you're game."
I told him what cameras I had, what equipment. Showed him some samples of my own work. He was already sold—more or less—due to a conflict of schedule, and I was an at-hand solution. He pulled a couple of four-by-fives out of his Halliburton case. Hot-lit full bodies of a woman with bangs, long, straight, flat hair that looked to be the color of café crème, and huge luminous eyes, almost like a siren from Japanese anime brought to physical life. The eyes were the thing. They commanded your attention, sucked you in, and dealt no mercy.
"This is Skorpia," he said, then laughed. "No shit, that's really her name; she's Greek. My problem is that I have to be at ‘C'—my show—at precisely the same time as her surgery is scheduled."
I was supposed to ask, but I just raised an eyebrow.
"She's having a couple of ribs removed," he told me. "A little brow work and some butt implants to round her off—see?" He flipped up another full-length shot from the rear. Skorpia was nude and about as unsexually posed as I'd ever witnessed. "That's a problem with the taller ones—no ass. Her ass is like the line between two of my fingers when I clench my fist." He demonstrated.
I asked how tall she was.
"That's the miracle. Six foot five, barefoot."
Barefoot and buttless, I thought. Poor baby.
"With the ribs removed she'll be able to corset to fourteen inches; can you imagine how she will take the world by storm?"
I was supposed to agree, so I did.
"I need you to photographically document her surgeries," Clavius said. "Every stage of every procedure. I need to see inside her as much as possible. What do you think?"
I was supposed to show no more adverse reaction than if he had just offered to open a door for me, which he had. So I nodded. Fine, good.
He clapped me on the shoulder, a conspiratorial brother now. Then he offered the boon he knew I expected: "Do this thing, and a year from now, you will be famous, yourself."
There it was, and I didn't have to sign in blood, or anything.
* * *
Now do this thing, and presumably, I got to live.
The dead guy in the body bag was not Clavius, which I will admit was a flash-forward brought on by paranoia and my own retroactive guilt about getting jiggy with his recently discarded wife … even as he was probably dancing a similar mambo with my girlfriend-of-record.
The dead guy in the body bag was Dominic Sharps, whose face I knew from TV whenever the news was about the Los Angeles Police Department. There was no mistaking his identity; even the news was in hi-def now. I was pretty sure that yesterday, Mr. Sharps had been breathing. His gray eyes were wide open and unseeing.
"That crap you see in the movies where the bereaved survivor honorably closes the eyes of the dead person with the gentle touch of two fingers or the palm of the hand? Total bullshit. Never happens." My captor, Gun Guy, seemed proud of this knowledge.
Dominic Sharps had not been dead for very long. His skin had gone waxy but there was no smell of rotting meat; not yet. His fingernails were white from the blood evacuation; lividity had probably begun on his back and buttocks. His eyes were starting to sink into their sockets. If this was the pre-rigor mortis state, he had only been dead a couple of hours.
"We've got to move before he stiffens up any more," said my gunman. "Set up your lights. Professor, get your ass in here and finish what you started!"
With his makeup and bronzer and hair plugs, the Professor didn't seem that far away from corpse land, himself. He brought in a case full of cosmetics and I realized why Sharps looked so … odd. He had been partially made up already by the Professor, which accounted for the weird skin tone. Dead people first turn grayish, then slightly violet. Sharps's dead flesh had the simulated glow of living tissue.
"I want this lighting dead natural," Gun Guy directed me, missing his own irony. "As though the only source is that lamp, right there. Fire it up."
The Professor fully unzipped the bag. The late Mr. Sharps was naked. The cosmetology was to be full body. Then he withdrew a thin metal rod about five inches long with one knobby end. It looked like a surgical tool.
He must have seen my eyebrows go up.
"This is really inconvenient," the Professor said in a reedy voice, almost introspective. "At the moment of death, an erection is natural. That has already subsided. Too bad we couldn't get him sooner."
"I threw this together as fast as I could," said Gun Guy with a snarl. "Get past it."
I think I fumbled my film load when I saw the Professor slide the rod into the dead man's penis, as easily as you'd replace an oil dipstick.
Now the naked, dead Dominic Sharps had a fake erection to go with his fake complexion, I thought, devoting the rest of my energy to not losing my mind, or gibbering, or bumbling my lips with one finger like an imbecile.
Cognac was standing behind me, also naked except for the stockings and heels. She obviously spent a lot of spin class time keeping very fit.
She squirted a generous amount of Astroglide onto her palms and moved past me, saying, "Excuse me, sweetie."
She greased up and squatted down after the bullyboys removed the body bag and patch-glued Dominic Sharps's hands in place—one on her thigh, one on her forearm, the same as positioning a mannequin. The Professor zeroed in to do touch-ups on the fingernails.
"How's my hair?" said Cognac, looking back over one shoulder at me.
"Ah … good," I said.
If this was a real photo shoot, I would have had her comb it straight back and add just a little powder to cut the shine to emphasize a "wild" aspect. I would have ditched the incandescent lighting. I would have dashed to my bathroom and started searching for hemlock.
The Professor pushed the physiognomy of the late Dominic Sharps into different expressions for each photo. The face stayed in position like clay.
"Start shooting," said the man with the gun. "They don't all have to be masterpieces."
It will always be difficult for me to describe the ensuing half hour, even though I was thinking, Well, this isn't the weirdest shoot I've ever done.
* * *
Clavius's first assignment was for me to photograph Skorpia's surgeries. Right before my eyes and lens, she was reduced to a mere poundage of raw flesh. Thank the gods her face was covered for most of it. That way she was without identity, the way the mutilations of a splayed car-crash victim are masked by blood. The slicing and dicing of her glutes were yet to come. The main attraction of the first workday was a single marathon session—rib removal, breast augmentation, and brow job. There was so little actual blood flow that, through the lens, it looked surreal.
I had two digital video rigs for coverage on the blow-by-blow, and moved in close with a Hasselblad or one of my Nikons whenever I was permitted. Clavius had specified fast film, high grain, almost no depth of field—no peripheral detail was wanted here. I myself was without identity as well, smocked and filtered, my hands in latex, my feet sterile-bagged, perspiration darkening the HEPA cap that prevented any wayward hair from escaping into the operating environment.
It was almost loving, the way the specialist slit her open and yawned her wide and took things out and put in other things. Certainly intimate. Most major organs inside your body are a sickly pink or a jaundiced ochre, except for the dark purple and bluish vasculature. Other mystery components looked startlingly inappropriate, like bundled white tube pasta. No matter how sweet you smell on the outside, on the inside you stink like a slaughterhouse or killing field. My lenses fogged up more than once.
I shot the row of autoclaves, too. In one stainless steel dish, saline bags with serial numbers. In another, two short ribs, pitted and porous like big fossilized fingernails. In a third, mounds and scraps of shining tissue limned in bright red oxygenized blood. Each stage of Skorpia's transmutation was labeled in black pen on cloth tape. Before, during, after.
The anesthesiologist—the gas passer—was bored to begin with, and nearly nodded off in the middle of the carving and resectioning. I saw his head bob. Skorpia's monitor emitted a dire flat beeping noise and I could sense one of the nurses getting ready to ask me to leave the room. I documented it all. This team was hot, and Skorpia was stabilized immediately. She would wake up in pain, mummified in a chrysalis of bandages from which it was hoped a rare beauty would emerge—rarer still, because it had been created with a knife, like sculpture. So rare that it was a million-to-one impossibility in the real world. In turn, she would inspire millions to covet things they could never achieve, not that it would stop them from buying an array of pricey consumer products based on her physical say-so.
Later, Skorpia married a tycoon of paper products—bathroom tissue, nose-blow, burly towels—and devoted her time to a great many charities. She shunned the limelight because she was getting on in years; christ, she was nearly thirty-five when Clavius threw her back into the pond, and consumers certainly didn't want to look at a spokesperson that old unless it was to siphon off money to save dolphins or build puppy shelters or feed retards in Africa with no fingers or toes.
For an hour in the historical time line, she had been a goddess.
Then, in the hospital, she was my key to the future.
After Skorpia came Nasja, about eighteen months after my first meeting with Clavius. He asked me to shoot the removal of Nasja's breast implants, making a sidelong joke about how it could be another triumph in my "series."
Nasja was packing old-school silicone bags that had ruptured and migrated, the material intermeshing with fat and muscle tissue to produce ungainly lumps that were gathered by gravity into the undercurve of each breast. Excision of this annoyance was very time-consuming, very cut-and-paste; the threat of metasticization was very real. What concerned Clavius was not the issue of survival, but the sculpting of the beautiful, or in this case, the resurrection of beauty as he defined it.
Hence, the scarring, which I could not unsee through my lens, earlier today. The skin under her breasts was as taut and furrowed as beef jerky.
Clavius next sent me to the city morgue to photograph dead people, which is where I learned what little I knew about how the dead should look.
I embraced digital photography at the same time as everyone else, but I maintain my love affair with photochemical processing—light and alchemy versus pixels. Silver gelatin positives from mystic broth rather than output from a printer. Clavius liked that. He introduced me to some people, I got a loft and a studio and a minor reputation, I did some arguably successful shows, and I branched into style spreads for commercial advertising clients, but all of it in Clavius's shadow. I was, at best, a protégé, not to become a fully formed human in my own right until the Master died, or had a gender reassignment, or gave up his materialistic life for Buddha, or something.
Nasja really had nothing to complain about. She had gotten a green card and citizenship out of her deal with Clavius; she would rebound from the divorce and no doubt become some kind of grande dame of fashion opinion.
But back there in my narcotic-festooned bathroom, before the sex, during the shoot, I couldn't kick the thought that I needed something different. I needed a clean breath. I needed out. Maybe I just needed a break from serving the Master, and an opportunity had presented itself earlier the same day.
A movie pal of mine named Tripp Bergin had called to suggest I might experiment with broadening my retinue by taking on a unit photography job on a film that was to start shooting in New York and Arizona in less than a month. The designated picture-taker had been benched, or gotten a better offer. Tripp was what they called the UPM, or unit production manager, one of those guys still waiting for his first chance at directing, which never seemed to come because he was such a good UPM. Bills arrive regularly whether you get paid or not. Tripp advised that there might be a delay, or more dramatically, a push forward for "commencement of principal," which is movie-speak for when they actually begin filming.
I had about forty seconds to mull this over before the shoot with Nasja absorbed the rest of my day. I backfiled it, weighing the flavors of such a new and different assignment. Whether I could be beckoned.
After that, I think you're caught up on what happened next.
* * *
I shot eight rolls of Cognac having simulated sex with the late Dominic Sharps. The Professor, who seemed to be some kind of defrocked mortician, applied makeup cagey enough to satisfy the camera. The bullyboys twisted and turned Dominic into various positions, mostly female-superior in deference to the dependent lividity. Dominic was starting to get stiff, you should pardon the expression. And ripe.
"Good?" asked Gun Guy.
Cognac dismounted and hit the bathroom briskly. The Professor lined up his bottles and jars in a carrycase designed like a box for fishing tackle; it was fussy enough to suggest a professional kit. The two enforcers, whom I had named in my mind as Rondo and Mongo, dumped the naked corpse back into the body bag.
The gunman seemed relieved, as though he had beaten a ticking clock. "Take him to the Kitty," he told Mongo. To Rondo, he said, "Give the Professor a lift home." When Cognac reemerged, having added a jacket to her original ensemble, he asked, "You good?"
"Lobby, cab, Hilton, 3500, wait for further instructions," she said. Her coming and going would not be remarked in a place like this.
"Don't forget to douche," Gun Guy said as she wisped out the door.
I was the only asset of this fireteam that did not know the protocol. I had been denied a membership card and knowledge of the secret handshake.
"I'll take care of Elias here," said Gun Guy. It sounded more ominous than his actual intent. He could grab my film rolls and decamp, but I remembered he had mentioned something about being around for the actual processing of the film … which would bite major ween, if Char had returned in my absence.
All his obvious bad guy skills aside, my abductor was an excellent time manager. We were in and out of the realm of corpses in under two hours, including the coffee he more or less forced on me to keep me awake.
"Let me ask you a question," he said when we were back in the car. "You ever get tired of shooting all those gorgeous women?" He looked over at me quizzically. "You can talk. I'm not mad. I was just a bit irritated about our time frame."
"Did you kill that man back there?" I blurted.
His lips went tight and flat. "No. You haven't answered my question, and I asked first."
Did I—? If there's a dumb question I've been asked more since meeting Clavius, I couldn't think of what it was. It was a tourist question. Probably best not to spotlight that, for my keeper.
"It's a job," I said. "Technical job."
"Blow job, more like. You get paid a lot of money for this technical job?"
"Sometimes it's good. Not ten grand good for a loan out, but healthy." It was deceptively easy to slide down into shoptalk.
"Those lofts aren't cheap," he said with a glimmer of his previous contempt.
"I do a lot of work for another artist—print jobs, model wrangling."
"Oh, yeah? Who?" He wanted celebrity. He wanted to know which stars I knew.
"Clavius? He's kind of world famous."
He snorted. "Never heard of him. He ever shoot for 2 Young 2 Date? Now that's some fucked-up photography."
He had just named one of the skin rags I used to pump out at New World Inkworks. Prepubescent-looking teases with ancient eyes. I released a long, slow breath. "Smaller world than you think," I said. "I used to help publish that magazine."
"No shit? For real? Man, you know any of those models?"
Zeus, I thought, please don't let him ask for my autograph.
"No, I just ran the printing press. One was pretty much like another. That was a long time ago."
"Kinda makes you a pornographer, doesn't it?" he said.
Well, maybe in the eyes of some froth-at-the-mouth kids advocate, but I just ran the presses and cashed Boss's paychecks. I eagle-eyed the layouts for reproduction quality, not subject matter, and could honestly not remember whether the barely legals had fallen to this season's socially correct side of the fence. The American national hysteria over pedophilia mandated that documents galore be kept on file—such as the infamous "2257," short for U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2257, one of the many uproarious results of Traci Lords lying about her age during the last gasp of videotaped porn. In many other places in the world, this outcry was no big deal, which was why that famous writer guy had moved to Bangkok, because he got sick of being thought of as a criminal. But I wasn't invested in the sociology of it; I wasn't a dad and never planned to be, and I moved in a world where most of the players did not have the encumbrance of children.
"Pornography is in the eye of the beholder," I said.
"So is necrophilia," said my keeper. "You'd better hope those pictures come out kissing fresh."
"What happened to "—I choked on Dominic Sharps's name—"the body? Can I ask that?"
His gaze went pewter. "No."
"No chance I could get you to wait till tomorrow for me to develop the photos?"
The gun was back in his grasp like magic. "Listen, dickhead: I am not your buddy, your collaborator, or your fucking customer. For the last time: you do what I say or I'll kill you. Otherwise, you go back into shut-up mode. Mister Kimber here insists."
I guess he was talking about the pistol. All I could tell you was that it was massive, squared-off, and black as death.
I didn't want to see Mister Kimber upset. Because then Mister Kimber might speak.
* * *
I was terrified that Char might have returned to the loft during my witching hour absence, which meant she would be brought into the crosshairs of my one-night-only puppeteer, the man with the scary matte black gun.
The last time I had seen her, we had both been tightrope-walking around the renewed argument about who was fucking whom, and why. Swigging from a oversized mug of herbal tea with ginseng, she was drifting through the studio with her kimono open, aware of the control that gave her.
Char was one of those blond women with brown eyes so dark they seemed almost Hispanic. She often joked about her gene mix as what happens when a nobleman rapes a peasant girl. She had a big round ass like an inverted heart shape. Long slender legs that elevated her rear end in a Bantu aspect, uncompensated by nearly perfect martini-glass breasts that were mostly nipple. No implants for her, no Botox, no laser vaginal tightening, or tummy tuck. No rips to iron out the smile crinkles at the corners of her luminous eyes. At least she's real, I used to think. In the time it took "smile crinkles" to become "crow's feet" in her estimation, she began to talk about working behind the scenes instead of in front of the lens, leading naturally to her current aspiration to become one of the arbiters of perceived style. Her self-evaluation was almost cruel.
I had a lot of mirrors in the loft, and any one of them could trigger the Fat Discourse, most of which consisted of rote repetition, kind of like when you learn soliloquies from Shakespeare in school and can't get them out of your head for the rest of your life. Maybe that's why she was cruising around my rooms with her kimono dangling. I thought it was casually sexy; she was looking to score more points in today's round of the Discourse.
"Jesus … I am getting so fat; how can you stand to be around me?"
Cunning, that—framing her fear as a begged question.
A word of advice to all you heterosexual males out there: Don't ever get sucked into the Fat Discourse. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing you can say or do that will improve your situation. Even running away is a tacit agreement that your ladylove is, in fact, fat-fat-fat. Never mind that Char was a tight 110 pounds for her height. Never mind that she could turn heads on a water weight day. Do not agree. Do not disagree. And worst of all, don't try to be understanding or honest, because by lip-wiggling in this mode you will condemn yourself to slow death by compromise.
Yes, honey, you are packing on a lot of lard. That one's a no-brainer.
No, honey, you look just fine. Liar, she'll say.
It makes you curvy; I like it. Forget "curvy." Anything you say—soft, voluptuous, shapely, contoured—will only be perceived as a cheating deceitful euphemism for the worst of the world's f-words. If you use words like "Titianesque" or "fulsome," I pity you. If you have had occasion to make comment about her "backyard" or "junk in the trunk," you're probably dead already.
And if you say nothing, you're doomed anyway. If the bout ends in a draw, the tiebreaker will be the sighting of a hitherto unnoticed varicose vein on the back of a knee … and the incoming artillery will begin pounding again.
If a varicose vein or stretch mark could send me over the edge, I never would have lasted long enough to tell this story. I would have been history years ago. We were both cowards, Char and I, using easy, flammable deprecations to palliate our own deeper fears. The way Char kept rechecking herself in my many mirrors, seeking outward evidence of her betrayal, basically told me what I wanted to know. I tried to force her into saying it anyway.
"For fuck's sake," she said, firing off the other f-word to shorthand the sentiment that I should grow up and get real. "I'm just working an angle with C. You know exactly how he is. Worse, you know exactly how this fucking business operates and you don't need me to educate you. God!"
Since I hit her in the face with it, she hit back. I can't fault her.
"Besides, what was up with you and little Mizz Soviestski Nasja? Every time she sees you she practically leaps in the air and kisses you with her big flapping baloney cunt. No wonder they call her Nasty."
Was it Whistler or Wilde who said we're all whores, and the only difference is haggling over price?
If Char stays over, we won't have sex. Again.
Char doesn't stay over.
Now, when Gun Guy and I reentered my loft, I saw Char's clothing dropped in an errant trail from the doorway to the bathroom. Her bare feet were sticking out of the fresh Egyptian cotton sheets on the foot-thick futon I had custom-built.
"Oh, christ," muttered Gun Guy under his breath. "Don't go all watery on me, Elias. Don't you ever work late into the night? Is that the bitch from before?"
"Then hop-to, and let's try not to wake her up. You don't want her to wind up in a can of cat food like your buddy Dominic Sharps … do you?"
Take him to the Kitty, he had said back at the hotel. My stomach bounced. Dominic Sharps was being ground up into kibble, probably this very moment.
My L-shaped darkroom has a revolving airlock-style plastic doorway like a tube within a tube. It's about the size of a phone booth—a cramped phone booth. Gun Guy would not allow me to go through alone. Buster Keaton would have loved our tight little rhumba.
I've got filtered safelights on rheostats preset to different light grades. The tanks and trays, rubber and plastic, are ganged in the center of the room, the same place you'd find the main butcher's block in a decent kitchen. The smell of chemicals—Tetinal mixes, from Europe, plus the acetic acid odor of stopbath—and the background metronome of constantly running clean water on a drip-tap are omnipresent and more than a little bit comforting.
This room was my alembic, my alchemist's furnace.
"How long does this shit take?" My keeper was not being properly reverential.
"Develop, stop, fix, wash, dry," I said. "I used faster film to compensate for your lighting; I'll have to push it a couple of stops in the bath."
He grimaced as though from a gas pain. "Whatever; never mind. Just get on with it."
Joey, fine yeoman that he is, had ghosted in and out of the darkroom to make sure my workaday tasks were relatively painless. Some of the earlier Nasja shots were corrupted by what seemed to be a mysterious light leak—one of my stationary cameras needed a new body. Most likely it was the old Nikon F2, which has a senile hinge cover, requiring me to tape up the seams. I couldn't bear to part with it. That camera had been with me a long time.
As had Joey. While Joey was an ambient presence in my life, I couldn't recall the last time I actually looked at him or took note of his passage. He was like those PAs on a movie set—interchangeable warm bodies on call to execute pestersome little missions, up for almost anything because that's their job. I assumed Joey may have desired to surf my wave the way I rode the breaker provided by Clavius—but he had never articulated that to me. He did aspire to direct fetish videos, which was his idea of a dream job. He was spunky and devil-may-care, yes, but also vital in that he provided major support for my disassociative runaround. He was the opposite of the proverbial squeaky wheel; he was the part of my whole machine that worked diligently and did its tasks silently and efficiently, to the point where I rarely noticed him.
I couldn't tell you, for example, how many facial piercings Joey had. A lot. How many tattoos. A shitload, mostly of monsters from classic creature features of the 1930s through 1950s, interspersed with some Celtic and Maori jazz. He shaved his head, perhaps to outfox an already apparent pattern baldness in the making. I did remark once that aliens could use his skull for a landing site. I tried to conjure his face and realized I'd never taken a picture of him. He'd gotten a labret. A stud in the middle of his tongue. Ornaments straight through the hard cartilage parts of his ears. Bars rowed through his brows and one perfectly centered in the squeezy piece of skin right between his eyes, like a bracket on which to mount spectacles.
One of my enlargers was a Kaiser I'd upgraded for halogen lights. Its lens carrier was matte black aluminum and when it pivoted out, a little indicator light came on. For some reason, Joey had unplugged the enlarger, perhaps for some extracurricular work on the sly. No sweat; my lab was his when I didn't need it. I swung the lens carrier out of our traffic zone. Usually it was not in the way unless more than one person was toiling in here.
"What's all this about?" I said as I worked. "I mean, you can't really blackmail a dead guy with racy photos, so they must be for someone else."
"Hey!" It came out like a bark. "You don't rate that information, Sherlock, so shut the fuck up and do what you do best, all right?" He tried to find a safe place to lean, and rummaged out a cigarette.
"Not a great idea to smoke in here."
"Really?" He made an obstreperous show of flinking his Zippo lighter. "Ask me if I give a rat fuck." He drew slow sustenance from the tobacco while the smoke curled silver against the red worklight now engaged. "God, where do you get off being so precious?"
"Just another rich dick, I guess," I said. His earlier outburst had gouged deeply, because all the time I had to deny being a rich dick—subphylum rich horse cock, as he had said—I wondered whether I was devolving into that very organism.
"I've met a hundred guys like you," he said, "and they all whine about wanting to know what's really going on, as if that matters. Serfs, fretting about shit that's beyond them. Who the hell cares who gets elected, or who gets bribed, or who shuffles where? You are a component of an operation. The big picture of that operation is none of your goddamned business. The bag is none of your business."
"The bag?"
"The bag of money," he said, enjoying another deep drag. "In hard-boiled stories it's always about a bag of money. Who has it, who takes it, who's got it, and why. It's a MacGuffin, like Hitchcock said. It doesn't matter. It is ambiguous. It used to be called the weenie. It's the stolen jewels or the missing papers. It doesn't matter."
Obviously this man I was prepared to dismiss as a mere thug had an opinion about this topic, and he wanted to hammer me with it. It was weird enough that this criminal was citing Alfred Hitchcock.
"The bag. The MacGuffin. The weenie. Not your concern. Your concern is surviving this transaction, period. Then your role is played. Done. You win by me not killing you. Or your girlfriend out there. Did you get all that?"
"Got it," I said. "It's a good speech. Who'd you learn it from?"
"Oh, fuck you." He butted his smoke in the runoff from the sink and looked around for a trash can that I pointed out in the semi-gloom. He pitched the butt and rubbed his fingers together.
He seemed mildly interested in the workings of the enlarger, but did not ask parvenu questions while I worked up glossies. There's a stack of file trays taller than I am and each slot contains different paper. He saw my hand hesitate from one slot to the next.
"It's just…" My excuse died in my throat. I had just had a flash thought, a microscopic, potential gesture of rebellion over my enslavement. An assertion that I could possibly have more grit than some quaking tool about to fill his own diaper with terror. This hesitation would betray me; this man would notice apprehension, even if it was only imaginary. I had to cover what I wanted to do with what I was doing anyway.
"It's just this paper," I said, trying not to stammer. "This stuff isn't going to show up on the Internet, is it?"
His expression curved downward into disapproval. "You were supposed to be paying attention, Elias. Digital doesn't work. Digital cannot work. This is hard-ass, photos-in-the-envelope, old-skool physical evidence. It's not for some goddamned blog. Digitizing them would mean someone had manipulated them."
While he dressed me down, I drew my print stock from the topmost shelf, what I called my "Clavius paper," because it contained a digital watermark with unique properties. Fanatical about copyright, was Clavius.
It was my sad way of leaving a bread crumb, since I had no desire to engage in single combat with this man who might just as well murder me when my job was done, and if he killed me tonight, he would kill Char too, and nothing would remain to mark the encounter … except for my use of the Clavius paper. As a gesture it was as futile and hopeless as it was pathetic, a weak lunge against expert bondage, and I battled to not let the sneakery show in my eyes. Fight this guy? I had seen fights in movies, and none looked like something I could manage without getting mangled.
In the resultant photos, it appeared that Dominic Sharps was having a fairly wild sexual rodeo with a hireling, and that, I assumed, was why Gun Guy had shown up in the first place. Why the Professor had been brought in, too.
"Who was that guy, the makeup artist?" I said, trying to feint.
"Stop talking," my evil overlord said, not for the first time.
What else had my team members talked about? The Kitty—where Dominic's corpse was to be taken. The Hilton—presumably the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Wilshire where it met Rodeo Drive. Take a cab to the Beverly Hilton, 3500—a cash amount or maybe a room number?
Why was I even thinking about this?
When Gun Guy had bundled up proofsheets, negatives, and prints, he paused before we exited the darkroom. "Hold still," he said. "Open your mouth a little bit."
I did it almost automatically, as though he had spotted food in my teeth.
His pistol was out like a striking viper and something hard and bladed on the muzzle clanked against my front teeth as he grabbed the back of my neck and stuck the barrel straight in to sit on my tongue. My eyes teared up immediately. My breath husked and slobbered against unyielding metal that tasted like machine oil. He had me.
Mister Kimber had me.
"Count to ten in your mind," said Mister Kimber's operator.
I shook my head slightly. The gun seemed as big as a breadbox stuffed into my face. My jaw throbbed. No way would I count. He would pull the trigger at nine and a half. He would cheat.
"Count. One. Two. Three," he said, soft as a lover's purr.
He kept counting. I couldn't feel any part of my body below my neck. All my attention was on the heavy steel fucking my mouth—Mister Kimber, all up in my face, preparing to speak.
He allowed for a little dramatic pause between nine and ten.
Then he withdrew the gun.
I was sobbing, I think. "Jesus christ!" I rasped out, crashing to my knees, upsetting small stack of plastic manual trays and knocking over an old timer that didn't work anyway, but hit the floor with a resounding ding!
"Now listen to me, Elias. That's what death feels like. That's what it will feel like for you, your lady friends, and anybody else you know if you fuck with me. If you're smart, keep the money and forget everything about tonight. Or you'll taste this for real. Here."
He pulled the top part of the gun back with a metallic shucking noise and a bullet flew out into his hand—least it was what I took to be a bullet, with a nasty divot scooped out of its blunt nose. My night vision allowed me to see clearly enough in the darkroom to perceive the mechanism: as one bullet jumped out through the side-ejector hole, another one from the clip bumped up to take its place. Gun Guy handed me the bullet he had just liberated.
"That's so you'll remember," he said. "That's the one with your name on it. You played fair so you get to keep it as a souvenir. But, remember."
I was hoping there wasn't snot on my face when an abrupt rush of odor announced that something far worse had happened, lower down. Below the belt.
"Holy shit, Elias," he said, puckering his face.
The smell was distributed by agitated air because the revolving door to the darkroom was moving, too.
Char poked her head in, her eyes sleepy. "What's going on in here, you guys?"
* * *
After all of the above, now Char wanted to argue.
It was the middle of the night. Both of us had pounded through the day, had our drinks, had sex—separately but more or less equally—plus I had run off on an extracurricular adventure of my own, and now Char wanted to stoke up the fight furnace. I was completely exhausted, devoid of calories. At this late hour I might have been able to muster enough intelligence to read a page of book or watch five minutes of movie or clip my toenails … not this.
This ordinarily required skill, preparation, alertness, and energy to burn, and my needle on all of those items was down to E.
"I don't care who your weirdo pal is," she said. "I don't even care that you got the runs from—what, drinking too many White Russians?"
I was glad Char was able to at least amuse herself.
She had, at least, bought the lie that I'd had an unfortunate gastronomic event while talking to an old buddy from New World Inkworks in my darkroom in the ayem. What was his name? Uh, Kimber. From there I moved on to the falsehood that my friend Kimber had come to pick up some negatives and a framed print. He caught on quickly and even seemed pleased when I handed him Targets #5 right off the wall.
"I thought you weren't going to sell those," Char said, pointedly illuminating my fakeout.
"It was a gift," I countered.
"They're misogynistic," she said with her head turned away. She had never liked the Targets series; the few times she did not dismiss them as sexist, she had called them too violent.
I lurched for the bathroom like an automaton and took two showers, trying to scrape off the last twenty-four hours with a hard-ass brush and soap artificially concocted to smell like melons. I had designed the big tiled multijet stall myself. It was still damp from Char's arrival, which had been at about 2:30 A.M.
What usually bothered me was Char's habit of talking around whatever bothered her, which was a tactic designed to confer guilt not onto her as the initiator of the conflict, but me as the one who has been goaded into referencing something specific in a comeback. It was lowly point-scoring, beneath us. Tonight, of course, she dived right in and I found out I didn't like that approach any better.
It was time for one of us to check out, anyway. I quickly reconsidered Tripp Bergin's offer of out-of-state movie work—a safe house. When you snipe at each other past a certain point, partners start acting like defense and prosecution, seeking flaws and advantaging strategic openings and making polite war on the people they supposedly care about. Conflict avoidance is not just a skill; sometimes it's a necessity. Right now the tension had hit that phase where, in bioterrorism terms, an epidemic is possible but inoculation is still available.
Char cut right to the chase, which was kind of admirable.
"I saw the fucking tape, Elias! For christ's sake, don't play stupid!"
Nasja had this habit of running video whenever she and I—as she put it—"made love." She said she masturbated to it but I didn't buy that for an instant. She was aware of her place in the carnivore conga line and was backstocking ammunition that might come in handy later; the phrase Gun Guy might have used was "load so you don't have to shoot." Sexual metaphors of this stripe tend to make me laugh at wholly inopportune times, and this was one of those, too.
I clenched my teeth really hard to keep from laughing, partially from delayed hysteria. I was naked and damp in a bathrobe and I smelled like melons. What kind of melons? I wondered.
Nasja had left without taking her tape, knowing Char was incoming. There was some piece-pushing afoot on the chessboard tonight, guaranteed. But I just didn't care—about Nasja's little intrigues, my videotaped damnation, Char's rage, or anything. It just got funnier.
"Go ahead, yuk it up," said Char with a sneer. She was naked too, in a robe, smelling of the same yet unidentified melon. For me to laugh—apparently at her—was so wrong there was no cure, no truce, and zero forgiveness. "I'd laugh my ass off, too, because you're so ridiculous."
"No, I'm brilliant enough not to deny it," I said, trying to tamp down my mirth, realizing now I was comporting myself like a lunatic because I was still alive. "Can't you see that it's just part of this goddamned power play with Clavius? Isn't it obvious?"
"What it is, is disgusting, period. I erased it."
My heart deleted one beat, then sped up. "What do you mean, you erased it?"
She stopped, turned to look as though she had been distracted from walking away. "I erased it, Elias. Erased the tape—the mini-DV."
"No, no, no, what I mean is, how did you erase it?"
"What?" It seemed I was challenging her technical proficiency. "Are you kidding? I wound it back and recorded over it. Do I look like I have a degausser in my bag? Jesus, you really are hopeless."
I needed this icy clear: "You rewound the tape all the way, then hit RECORD. Did you put the lens cap back on?"
"Shit, Elias, I don't know! For fuck's sake!"
Nasja's favorite roost for the camera was in the low crotch of a potted Madagascar Dragon in the main living area. I liked this plant (also called the Red-edged Dracaena) for the berserk convolutions of its branches.
Char grumbled something acidic about me wanting to save my greatest hits for a sizzle reel, then reclaimed the bedroom for herself. She had this monastic ability to compartmentalize, and once she dispensed her anger—or at least transferred it to someone else—she could sleep like the proverbial babe, as though innocent. She might have started this evening with some crippled thought of a reconciliation or perhaps just a calm zone, but now that was shot to hell. Tomorrow morning she would leave me a third of a mug of her leftover lukewarm coffee and a Post-it note, and we would be done.
In most senses, I was already past this.
Sure enough, the camera was still there, aimed at the sofa group in the main living space, and past that, the front foyer through which Gun Guy and I had entered. The lens cap was off. And the little red light, which had a square of electrical tape masking it so as to not give the camera away, was still glowing.

Copyright © 2012 by David J. Schow