Cliff Coria has been sitting in a lawn chair out front of the office of Ridgewood Motors for the better part of five years, four nights a week, from mid-afternoon until whenever he decides it’s not worth staying open any longer, and during that time he’s spent, he estimates, between five and six hundred hours staring toward the Celeste Motel across the street. That’s how long it’s taken him to realize that something funny may be going on. He might never have noticed anything if he hadn’t become fascinated by the sign in the office window of the Celeste. It’s a No Vacancy sign, but the No is infrequently lit. Foot-high letters written in a cool blue neon script: they glow with a faint aura in the humid Florida dark:
That cool, blue, halated word, then…that’s what Cliff sees as he sits in a solitude that smells of asphalt and gasoline, staring through four lanes of traffic or no traffic at all, plastic pennons stirring above his head, a paperback on his knee (lately he’s been into Scott Turow), at the center of gleaming SUVS, muscle cars, mini-vans, the high-end section where sit the aristocrats of the lot, a BMW, a silver Jag, a couple of Hummers, and the lesser hierarchies of reconditioned Toyotas, family sedans with suspect frames that sell for a thousand dollars and are called Drive-Away Specials. He’s become so sensitized to the word, the sign, it’s as if he’s developed a relationship with it. When he’s reading, he’ll glance toward the sign now and again, because seeing it satisfies something in him. At closing time, leaving the night watchman alone in the office with his cheese sandwiches and his boxing magazines, he’ll snatch a last look at it before he pulls out into traffic and heads for the Port Orange Bridge and home. Sometimes when he’s falling asleep, the sign will switch on in his mind’s eye and glow briefly, bluely, fading as he fades.
Cliff’s no fool. Used car salesman may be the final stop on his employment track, but it’s lack of ambition, not a lack of intellect, that’s responsible for his station in life. He understands what’s happening with the sign. He’s letting it stand for something other than an empty motel room, letting it second the way he feels about himself. That’s all right, he thinks. Maybe the fixation will goad him into making a change or two, though the safe bet is, he won’t change. Things have come too easily for him. Ever since his glory days as a high school jock (wide receiver, shooting guard), friends, women, and money haven’t been a serious problem. Even now, more than thirty years later, his looks still get him by. He’s got the sort of unremarkably handsome, rumpled face that you might run across in a Pendleton catalog, and he dyes his hair ash brown, leaves a touch of gray at the temples, and wears it the same as he did when he was in Hollywood. That’s where he headed after his stint in the army (he was stationed in Germany near the end of the Vietnam War). He figured to use the knowledge he gained with a demolition unit to get work blowing up stuff in the movies, but wound up acting instead, for the most part in B-pictures.
People will come onto the lot and say, “Hey! You’re that guy, right?” Usually they’re referring to a series of commercials he shot in the Nineties, but occasionally they’re talking about his movies, his name fifth- or sixth-billed, in which he played good guys who were burned alive, exploded, eaten by monstrous creatures, or otherwise horribly dispatched during the first hour. He often sells a car to the people who recognize him and tosses in an autographed headshot to sweeten the deal. And then he’ll go home to his beach cottage, a rugged old thing of boards and a screened-in porch, built in the forties, that he bought with residual money; he’ll sleep with one of the women whom he sees on a non-exclusive basis, or else he’ll stroll over to the Surfside Grill, an upscale watering hole close by his house, where he’ll drink and watch sports. It’s the most satisfying of dissatisfying lives. He knows he doesn’t have it in him to make a mark, but maybe it’s like in the movies, he thinks. In the movies, everything happens for a reason, and maybe there’s a reason he’s here, some minor plot function he’s destined to perform. Nothing essential, mind you. Just a part with some arc to the character, a little meat on its bones.
The Celeste Motel is a relic of Daytona Beach as it was back in the Sixties: fifteen pale blue stucco bungalows, vaguely Spanish in style, hunkered down amidst a scrap of Florida jungle—live oaks, shrimp plants, palmettos, Indian palms, and hibiscus. Everything’s run to seed, the grounds so overgrown that the lights above the bungalow doors (blue like the Vacancy sign) are filtered through sprays of leaves, giving them a mysterious air. Spanish moss fallen from the oaks collects on the tile roofs; the branches of unpruned shrubs tangle with the mesh of screen doors; weeds choke the flagstone path. The office has the same basic design and color as the bungalows, but it’s two stories with an upstairs apartment, set closer to the street. Supported by a tall metal pole that stands in front of the office is an illuminated square plastic sign bearing the name of the motel and the sketch of a woman’s face, a minimalist, stylized rendering like those faces on matchbook covers accompanied by a challenge to Draw This Face and discover whether you have sufficient talent to enroll in the Famous Artist’s School. Halfway down the pole, another, smaller sign to which stick-on letters can be affixed. Tonight it reads:
WELCOME SPRING B EAKERS
The Celeste is almost never full, but whenever Number eleven is rented, the No on the No Vacancy sign lights up and stays lit for about an hour; then it flickers and goes dark. Once Cliff realized this was a reoccurring phenomenon, it struck him as odd, but no big deal. Then about a month ago, around six o’clock in the evening, just as he was getting comfortable with Turow’s Presumed Guilty, Number eleven was rented by a college-age girl driving a Corvette, the twin of a car that Cliff sold the day before, which is the reason he noticed. She parked at the rear (the lot is out of sight from the street, behind a hedge of bamboo), entered eleven, and the No switched on. A couple of hours later, after the No had switched back off, a family of three driving a new Ford Escape—portly dad, portly mom, skinny kid—checked in and, though most of the cabins were vacant, they, too, entered eleven. The girl must be part of the family, Cliff thought, and they had planned to meet at the motel. But at a quarter past ten, a guy with a beard and biker colors, riding a chopped Harley Sportster, also checked into eleven and the No switched on again.
It’s conceivable, Cliff tells himself, that a massive kink is being indulged within the bungalow. Those blue lights might signal more than an ill-considered decorating touch. Whatever. It’s not his business. But after three further incidents of multiple occupancies, his curiosity has been fully aroused and he’s begun to study the Celeste through a pair of binoculars that he picked up at an army surplus store. Since he can detect nothing anomalous about Number eleven, other than the fact that the shades are always drawn, he has turned his attention to the office.
For the past four years or thereabouts, the motel has been owned and operated by a Malaysian family. The Palaniappans. The father, Bazit, is a lean, fastidious type with the skin the color of a worn penny, black hair and a skimpy mustache that might be a single line drawn with a fine pencil. Every so often, he brings a stack of business cards for Jerry Muntz, the owner of the used car lot, to distribute. Jerry speaks well of him, says that he’s a real nice guy, a straight shooter. Cliff has never been closer to the other Palaniappans than across a four-lane highway, but through his binoculars he has gained a sense of their daily routines. Bazit runs the office during the morning hours, and his wife, a pale Chinese woman, also thin, who might be pretty if not for her perpetually dour expression, handles the afternoons. Their daughter, a teenager with a nice figure and a complexion like Bazit’s, but with rosy cast, returns home from school at about four PM, dropped off by a female classmate driving a Honda. She either hangs about the office or cleans the bungalows—Cliff thinks she looks familiar and wonders where he might have seen her. Bazit comes back on duty at six PM and his wife brings a tray downstairs around eight. They and their daughter dine together while watching TV. The daughter appears to dominate the dinner conversation, speaking animatedly, whereas the parents offer minimal responses. On occasion they argue, and the girl will flounce off upstairs. At ten o’clock the night man arrives. He’s in his early twenties, his features a mingling of Chinese and Malaysian. Cliff supposes him to be the Palaniappan’s son, old enough to have his own place.
And that’s it. That’s the sum of his observations. Their schedules vary, of course. Errands, trips to Costco, and such. Bazit and his wife spend the occasional evening out, as does the daughter, somewhat more frequently. In every regard, they appear to be an ordinary immigrant family. Cliff has worked hard to simplify his life, though the result isn’t everything he hoped, and he would prefer to think of the Palaniappans as normal and wishes that he had never noticed the Vacancy sign; but the mystery of Number eleven is an itch he can’t scratch. He’s certain that there’s a rational explanation, but has the sneaking suspicion that his idea of what’s rational might be expanded if he were to find the solution.
When Cliff was eighteen, a week after his high school graduation, he and some friends, walking on the beach after an early morning swim, came upon a green sea turtle, a big one with a carapace four feet long. Cliff mounted the turtle, whereupon she (it was a female who, misguidedly, had chosen a populated stretch of beach as the spot to lay her eggs) began trundling toward the ocean. His friends warned Cliff to dismount, but he was having too much fun playing cowboy to listen. Shortly after the turtle entered the water, apparently more flexible in her natural medium, or feeling more at home, she extended her neck and snapped off Cliff’s big toe.
He wonders what might have happened had not he and the turtle crossed paths, if he kept his athletic scholarship and, instead of going to Hollywood, attended college. Now that he’s contemplating another foolhardy move—and he thinks taking his investigation to a new level is potentially foolhardy—he views the turtle incident as a cautionary tale. The difference is that no pertinent mystery attached to the turtle, yet he’s unsure whether that’s a significant difference. When he gets right down to it, he can’t understand how the Celeste Motel relates to his life any more than did the turtle.
Cliff’s scheduled for an afternoon shift the following Saturday. Jerry thinks it’ll be an exceptionally high-traffic weekend, what with the holiday, and he wants his best salesman working the lot. This irritates the rest of the sales staff—they know having Cliff around will cut into their money—but as Jerry likes to say, Life’s a bitch, and she’s on the rag. He says this somewhat less often since hiring a female salesperson, the lovely Stacey Gerone, and he’s taken down the placard bearing this bromide and an inappropriate cartoon from inside the door of the employee washroom…Anyway, Cliff comes in early on Saturday, at quarter to eleven, and, instead of pulling into Ridgewood Motors, parks in the driveway of the Celeste Motel. He pushes into the office, the room he’s been viewing through his binoculars. The decor all works together—rattan chairs, blond desk, TV, potted ferns, bamboo frames holding images of green volcanoes and perfect beaches—canceling the disjointed impression he’s gained from a distance.
“Good morning,” says Bazit Palaniappan, standing straight as if for inspection, wearing a freshly ironed shirt. “How may I help you?”
Cliff’s about to tell him, when Bazit’s pleasant expression is washed away by one of awed delight.
“You are Dak Windsor!” Bazit hurries out from behind his desk and pumps Cliff’s hand. “I have seen all your movies! How wonderful to have you here!”
It takes Cliff a second or two to react to the name, Dak Windsor, and then he remembers the series of fantasy action pictures he did under that name in the Philippines. Six of them, all shot during a three-month period. He recalls cheesy sets, lousy FX, incredible heat, a villain called Lizardo, women made-up as blue-skinned witches, and an Indonesian director who yelled at everyone, spoke neither Tagalog nor English, and had insane bad breath. Cliff has never watched the movies, but his agent told him they did big business in the Southeast Asian markets. Not that their popularity mattered to Cliff—he was paid a flat fee for his work. His most salient memory of the experience is of a bothersome STD he caught from one of the blue-skinned witches.
“Au-Yong!” Bazit shouts. “Will you bring some tea?”
Cliff allows Bazit to maneuver him into a chair and for the next several minutes he listens while the man extols the virtues of Forbidden Tiger Treasure, Sword of the Black Demon, and the rest of the series, citing plot points, asking questions Cliff cannot possibly answer because he has no idea of the films’ continuity or logic—it’s a jumble of crocodile men, cannibal queens, wizards shooting lurid lightning from their fingertips, and lame dialog sequences that made no sense at the time and, he assumes, would likely make none if he were to watch the pictures now.
“To think,” says Bazit, wonderment in his voice. “All this time, you’ve been working right across the street. I must have seen you a dozen times, but never closely enough to make the connection. You must come for dinner some night and tell us all about the movies.”
Mrs. Palaniappan brings tea, listens as Bazit provides an ornate introduction to the marvel that is Dak Windsor (“Cliff Coria,” Cliff interjects. “That’s my real name.”). It turns out that Bazit, who’s some ten-twelve years younger than Cliff, watched the series of movies when he was an impressionable teenager and, thanks to Dak/Cliff’s sterling performance as the mentor and sidekick of the film’s hero, Ricky Sintara, he was inspired to make emigration to the United States a goal, thus leading to the realization of his golden dream, a smallish empire consisting of the Celeste and several rental properties.
“You know George Clooney?” she asks Cliff. That’s her sole reaction to Bazit’s fervent testimony.
“No,” says Cliff, and starts to explain his lowly place in hierarchy of celebrity; but a no is all Mrs. Palaniappan needs to confirm her judgment of his worth. She excuses herself, say she has chores to do, and takes her grim, neutral-smelling self back upstairs.
Among the reasons that Cliff failed in Hollywood is that he was not enough of a narcissist to endure the amount of stroking that accompanies the slighted success; but nothing he has encountered prepares him for the hand job that Bazit lovingly offers. At several points during the conversation, Cliff attempts to get down to cases, but on each occasion Bazit recalls another highlight from the Dak Windsor films that needs to be memorialized, shared, dissected, and when Cliff checks his watch he finds it’s after eleven-thirty. There’s no way he’ll have time to get into the subject of Number eleven. And then, further complicating the situation, the Palaniappan’s daughter, Shalin, returns home—her school had a half-day. Bazit once again performs the introductions, albeit less lavishly, and Shalin, half-kneeling on the cushion of her father’s chair, one hand on her hip and the other, forefinger extended, resting on her cheek, says, “Hello,” and smiles.
That pose nails it for Cliff—it’s the same pose the Malaysian actress (he knows she had a funny name, but he can’t recall it) who gave him the STD struck the first time he noticed her, and Shalin, though ten-fifteen years younger, bears a strong resemblance to her, down to the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth; even the mildness of her smile is identical. It’s such a peculiar hit coming at that moment, one mystery hard upon the heels of another, Cliff doesn’t know whether the similarity between the women is something he should be amazed by or take in stride, perceive as an oddity, a little freaky but nothing out of the ordinary. It might be that he doesn’t remember the actress clearly, that he’s glossing over some vital distinction between the two women.
After Shalin runs off upstairs, Bazit finally asks the reason for Cliff’s visit, and, fumbling for an excuse, Cliff explains that some nights after work he doesn’t want to drive home, he has an engagement this side of the river, he’s tired or he’s had a couple of drinks, and he wonders if he can get a room on a semi-regular basis at the Celeste.
“For tonight? It would be an honor!” says Bazit. “I think we have something available.”
Suddenly leery, Cliff says, “No, I’m talking down the road, you know. Next weekend or sometime.”
Bazit assures him that Dak Windsor will have no problem obtaining a room. They shake hands and Cliff’s almost out the door when he hears a shout in a foreign language at his back. “Showazzat Bompar!” or something of the sort. He turns and finds that Bazit has dropped into a half-crouch, his left fist extended in a Roman salute, his right hand held beside his head, palm open, as if he’s about to take a pledge, and Cliff recalls that Ricky Sintara performed a similar salute at the end of each movie. He goes out into the driveway and stands beside his car, an ‘06 dark blue Miata X-5 convertible, clean and fully loaded. The April heat is a shock after the air-conditioned office, the sunlight makes him squint, and he has a sneaking suspicion that somehow, for whatever reason, he’s just been played.
Sunday morning, Cliff puts on a bathing suit, flip-flops, and a Muntz Mazda World T-shirt, and takes his coffee and OJ into his Florida room, where he stands and watches, through a fringe of dune grass and Spanish bayonet, heavy surf piling in onto a strip of beach, the sand pinkish from crushed coquina shells. The jade-colored waves are milky with silt, they tumble into one another, bash the shore with concussive slaps. Out beyond the bar, a pelican splashes down into calmer, bluer water. Puffs of pastel cloud flock the lower sky.
Cliff steps into his office, goes online and checks the news, then searches the film geek sites and finds a copy of Sword of the Black Demon, which he orders. It’s listed under the category, Camp Classics. Still sleepy, he lies down on the sofa and dreams he’s in a movie jungle with two blue-skinned witches and monkeys wearing grenadier uniforms and smoking clove cigarettes. He wakes to the sight of Stacey Gerone standing over him, looking peeved.
“Did you forget I was coming over?” she asks.
“Of course not.” He gets to his feet, not the easiest of moves these days, given the condition of his back, but he masks his discomfort with a yawn. “You want some coffee?”
“For God’s sake, take off that T-shirt. Don’t you get enough of Muntz World during the week?”
Stacey drops her handbag on the sofa. She’s a redhead with creamy skin that she nourishes with expensive lotions and a sun blocker with special cancer-eating bacteria or some shit, dressed in a designer tank top and white slacks. Her body’s a touch zaftig, but she is still, at thirty-eight, a babe. At the lot, she does a sultry Desperate Housewife act that absolutely kills middle-aged men and college boys alike. If the wife or girlfriend tag along, she changes her act or lets somebody else mother the sale. Jerry plans to move her over to his candy store (the new car portion of his business) in Ormond Beach, where there’s real money to be made. For more than a year, he’s tried to move Cliff to Ormond as well, but Cliff refuses to budge. His reluctance to change is inertial, partly, but he doesn’t need the money and the young couples and high school kids and working class folk who frequent Ridgewood Motors are more to his taste than the geriatric types who do their car-shopping at Muntz Mazda World.
As Cliff makes a fresh pot, Stacey sits at the kitchen table and talks a blue streak, mostly about Jerry. “You should see his latest,” she says. “He’s got a design program on his computer, and he spends every spare minute creating cartoons. You know, cartoons of himself. Little tubby, cute Jerrys. Each one has a slogan with it. Every word starts with an M. What do you call that? When every word starts with the same letter?”
“Alliteration,” says Cliff.
“So he’s doing this alliteration. Most of it’s business stuff. Muntz Millennium Mazda Make-out. Muntz Mazda Moments. Trying to find some combination of M-words that make a snappy saying, you know. But then he’s got these ones that have different cartoons with them. Muntz Munches Muff. MILF-hunting Muntz He took great pains to show them to me.”
“He’s probably hoping to get lucky.”
Stacey gives him a pitying look.
“You did it with Jerry?” he says, unable to keep incredulity out of his voice.
“How many women do you see in this business? Grow up! I needed the job, so I slept with him.” Stacey waggles two fingers. “Twice. Believe me, sleep was the operative word. Once I started selling…” She makes a brooming gesture with her hand. “Does it tick you off I had sex with him?”
“Is that how you want me to feel?”
“How do I want you to feel? That’s a toughie.” She crosses her legs, taps her chin. “Studied indifference would be good. Some undertones of resentment and jealousy. That would suit me fine.”
“I can work with that.”
“That’s what I love most about you, Cliff.” She stands and puts her arms about his waist from behind. “You take direction so well.”
“I am a professional,” he says.
Later, lying in bed with Stacy, he tells her about the Celeste and Number eleven, about Shalin Palaniappan, expecting her reaction to be one of indifference—she’ll tell him to give it a rest, forget about it, he’s making a mountain out of a molehill, and just who does he think he is, anyway? Tony Shaloub or somebody? But instead she says, “I’d call the cops if I was you.”
“Really?” he says.
“That stuff about the girl…I don’t know. But obviously something hinkey’s happening over there. Unless you’ve lost your mind and are making the whole thing up.”
“I’m not making it up.” Cliff locks his hands behind his head and stares up at the sandpainted ceiling.
“Then you should call the cops.”
“They won’t do anything,” he says. “Best case, they’ll ask stupid questions that’ll make the Palaniappans shut down whatever’s going on. As soon as the pressure’s off, they’ll start up again.”
“Then you should forget it.”
“You’re a smart guy, Cliff, but sometimes you space. You go off somewhere else for a couple hours…or a couple of days. That isn’t such a great quality for a detective. It’s not even a great quality for a salesman.”
Slitting his eyes, Cliff turns the myriad bumps of paint on the ceiling into snowflake patterns; once, when he was smoking some excellent Thai stick, he managed to transform them into a medieval street scene, but he hasn’t ever been able to get it back. “Maybe you’re right,” he says.
After a therapy day with Stacey, Cliff thinks he might be ready to put l’affaire Celeste behind him. She’s convinced him that he isn’t qualified to deal with the situation, if there is a situation, and for a few days he eschews the binoculars, gets back into Scott Turow, and avoids looking at the Vacancy sign, though when his concentration lapses, he feels its letters branding their cool blue shapes on his brain. On Thursday evening, he closes early, before nine, and drives straight home, thinking he’ll jump into a pair of shorts and walk over to the Surfside, but on reaching his house he finds a slender package stuck inside the screen door. Sword of the Black Demon has arrived from Arcane Films. A Camp Classic. He tosses it on the sofa, showers, changes, and, on his way out, decides to throw the movie in the player and watch a little before heading to the bar—refreshing his memory of the picture will give him something to talk about with his friends.
It’s worse than he remembers. Beyond lame. Gallons of stage blood spewing from Monty-Pythonesque wounds; the cannibal queen’s chunky, naked retinue; a wizard who travels around on a flying rock; the forging of a sword from a meteorite rendered pyrotechnically by lots of sparklers; the blue witches, also naked and chunky, except for one…He hits the pause button, kneels beside the TV, and examines the lissome shape of, it appears, Shalin Palaniappan, wishing he could check if the current incarnation of the blue witch has a mole on her left breast, though to do so would likely net him five-to-ten in the slammer. He makes for the Surfside, a concrete block structure overlooking the beach, walking the dunetops along A1A, hoping that a couple of vodkas will banish his feeling of unease, but once he’s sitting at the bar under dim track lighting, a vodka rocks in hand, deliciously chilled by the AC, embedded in an atmosphere of jazz and soft, cluttered talk, gazing through the picture window at the illuminated night ocean (the beach, at this hour, is barely ten yards wide and the waves seem perilously close), he’s still uneasy and he turns his attention to the Marlins on the big screen, an abstract clutter of scurrying white-clad figures on a bright green field.
“Hey, Cliffie,” says a woman’s voice, and Marley, a diminutive package of frizzy, dirty blond hair and blue eyes, a cute sun-browned face and jeans tight as a sausage skin, lands in the chair beside his and gives him a quick hug. She’s young enough to be his daughter, old enough to be his lover. He’s played both roles, but prefers that of father. She’s feisty, good-hearted, and too valuable as a friend to risk losing over rumpled bed sheets.
“Hey, you,” he says. “I thought this was your night off.”
“All my nights are off.” She grins. “My new goal—becoming a barfly like you.
“What about…you know. Tyler, Taylor…”
She pretends to rap her knuckles on his forehead. “Tucker. He gone.”
“I thought that was working out.”
“Me, too,” she says. “And then, oops, an impediment. He was wanted for fraud in South Carolina.”
“Fraud? My God!”
“That’s what I said…except I cussed more.” She neatly tears off a strip of cocktail napkin. “Cops came by the place three weeks ago. Guns drawn. Spotlights. The whole schmear. He waived extradition.’”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
She shrugs. “You know how I hate people crying in their beer.”
“God. Let me buy you a drink.”
“You bet.” She pounds the counter. “Tequila!”
They drink, talk about Tucker, about what a lousy spring it’s been. Two tequilas along, she asks if he’s all right, he seems a little off. He wants to tell her, but it’s too complicated, too demented, and she doesn’t need to hear his problems, so he tells her about the movies he did in the Philippines, making her laugh with anecdotes about and impersonations of the director. Five tequilas down and she’s hanging on him, giggly, teasing, laughing at everything he says, whether it’s funny or not. It’s obvious she won’t be able to drive. He invites her to use his couch—he’d give her the bed, but the couch is murder on his back—and she says, suddenly tearful, “You’re so sweet to me.”
After one for the road, they start out along the dunes toward home, going with their heads down—a wind has kicked up and blows grit in their faces. The surf munches the shore, sounding like a giant chewing his food with relish; a rotting scent intermittently overrides the smell of brine. No moon, no stars, but porch lights from the scattered houses show the way. Marley keeps slipping in the soft sand and Cliff has to put an arm around her to prevent her from falling. The tall grasses tickle his calves. They’re twenty yards from his front step, when he hears the sound of boomerang in flight—he identifies it instantly, it’s that distinct. A helicopter-ish sound, but higher-pitched, almost a whistling, passing overhead. He stops walking, listening for it, and Marley seizes the opportunity to rub her breasts against him, her head tipped back, waiting to be kissed.
“Is this going to be one of those nights?” she asks teasingly.
“Did you hear that?”
“A boomerang, I think. Somebody threw a boomerang.”
Bewildered, she says, “A boomerang?”
Confused, she shelters beneath his arm as he reacts to variations in the wind’s pitch, to a passing car whose high beams sweep over the dune grass, lighting the cottage, growing a shadow from its side that lengthens and then appears to reach with a skinny black arm across the rumpled ground the instant before it vanishes. He hears no repetition of the sound, and its absence unsettles him. He’s positive that he heard it, that somewhere out in the night, a snaky-jointed figure is poised to throw. He hustles Marley toward the cottage and hears, as they ascend the porch steps, a skirling music, whiny reed instruments and a clattery percussion, like kids beating with sticks on a picket fence, just a snatch of it borne on the wind. He shoves Marley inside, bolts the door and switches on the porch lights, thinking that little brown men with neat mustaches will bloom from the dark, because that’s what sort of music it is, Manila taxicab music, the music played by the older drivers who kept their radios tuned to an ethnic station—but he sees nothing except rippling dune grass, pale sand, and the black gulf beyond, a landscape menacing for its lack of human form.
He bolts the inner door, too. Resisting Marley’s attempts to get amorous, he opens out the couch bed, makes her lie down and take a couple of aspirin with a glass of water. He sits in a chair by the couch as she falls asleep, his anxiety subsiding. She looks like a kid in her T-shirt and diaphanous green panties, drowsing on her belly, face half-concealed by strings of hair, and he thinks what a fuck-up he is. The thought is bred by no particular chain of logic. It may have something to do with Marley, with his deepened sense of the relationship’s inappropriateness, a woman more than twenty years his junior (though, God knows, he’s championed the other side of that argument), and she’s younger than that in her head, a girl, really…It may bear upon that, but the thought has been on heavy rotation in his brain for years and seems to have relevance to every situation. He’s pissed away countless chances for marriage, for success, and he can’t remember what he was thinking, why he treated these opportunities with such casual disregard. He recalls getting a third callback to test for the Bruce Willis role in Diehard. Word was that the studio was leaning toward him, because Willis had pissed off one of the execs, so one the night before the callback he did acid at some Topanga cliff dwelling and came in looking bleary and dissolute.
Looking at Marley’s ass, he has a flicker of arousal, and that worries him, that it’s only a flicker, that perhaps his new sense of morality is merely a byproduct of growing older, of a reduced sex drive. He has the sudden urge to prove himself wrong, to wake her up and fuck her until dawn, but he sits there, depressed, letting his emotions bleed out into the sound of windowpanes shuddering from constant slaps of wind. Eventually he goes to the door and switches off the lights. Seconds later, he switches them back on, hoping that he won’t discover some mutant shape sneaking toward the porch, yet feeling stupid and a little disappointed when nothing of the sort manifests.
He’s waked by something banging. He tries to sleep through it, but each time he thinks it’s quit and relaxes, it starts up again, so he flings off the covers and shuffles into the living room, pauses on finding the couch unoccupied, scratches his head, trying to digest Marley’s absence, then shuffles onto the porch and discovers it’s the screen door that’s banging. Thickheaded, he shuts it, registering that it’s still dark outside. He walks through the house, calling out to Marley; he checks the bathroom. Alarm sets in. She would have left a note, she would have shut the front door. He dresses, shaking out the cobwebs, and goes out onto the porch steps, switching on the exterior lights. Beyond the half-circle of illumination, the shore is a winded confusion, black sky merging with black earth and sea, the surf still heavy. The wind comes in a steady pour off the water, plastering his shorts and shirt against his body.
With this much wind, he thinks, his voice won’t carry fifty feet.
He grabs the flashlight from inside the door, deciding that he’ll walk down to the Surfside and make sure her car’s gone from the lot. She probably went home, he tells himself. Woke up and was sober enough to drive. But leaving the door open…that’s just not Marley.
He strikes out along A1A, keeping to the shoulder, made a bit anxious by the music he heard earlier that evening, by the boomerang sound, though he’s attributed that to the booze, and by the time he reaches the turn-off into the lot, his thoughts have brightened, he’s planning the day ahead; but on seeing Marley’s shitbox parked all by its lonesome, a dented brown Hyundai nosed up to the door of the Surfside, his worries are rekindled. He shines the flashlight through the windows of the Hyundai. Fast-food litter, a Big Gulp cup, a crumpled Kleenex box. He bangs on the door of the bar, thinking that Marley might have changed her mind, realized she was too drunk to drive and bedded down in the Surfside. He shouts, bangs some more. Maybe she called a cab from his house. She must have felt guilty about coming on to him. If that’s the case, he’ll have to have a talk with her, assure her that it’s not that she isn’t desirable, it’s got nothing to do with her, it’s him, it’s all about how he’s begun to feel in intimate situations with her, and then she’ll say he’s being stupid, she doesn’t think of him as a dirty old man, not at all. It’s like the kids say, they’re friends with benefits. No big deal. And Cliff, being a guy, will go along with that—sooner or later they’ll wind up sleeping together and there they’ll be, stuck once again amid the confusions of a May-September relationship.
As he walks home, swinging the flashlight side-to-side, he wonders if the reason he put some distance between him and Marley had less to do with her age than with the fact that he was getting too attached to her. The way he felt when she popped up at the Surfside last night—energized, happy, really happy to see her—is markedly different from the way he felt when Stacy Gerone came over the other morning. He’s been in love a couple of times, and he seems to recall that falling in love was preceded on each occasion by a similar reaction on his part, a pushing away of the woman concerned for one reason or another. That, he concludes, would be disastrous. If now he perceives himself to be an aging roué, just imagine how contemptible he’d feel filling out Medicare forms while Marley is still a relatively young woman—like a decrepit vampire draining her youth.
His cottage in view, he picks up the pace, striding along briskly. He’ll go back to bed for an hour or two, call Marley when he wakes. And if she wants to start things up again…It’s occurred to him that he’s being an idiot, practicing a form of denial that serves no purpose. In Asia, in Europe, relationships between older men and young women—between older women and young men, for that matter—aren’t perceived as unusual. All he may be doing by his denial is obeying a bourgeoisie convention. He gnaws at the problem, kicking at tufts of high grass, thinking that his notion of morality must be hardening along with his arteries, and, as he approaches the cottage, verging on the arc of radiance spilling from the porch, he notices a smear of red to the left of the door. It’s an extensive mark, a wide, wavy streak a couple of feet long that looks very much like blood.
Coming up to the porch, he touches a forefinger to the redness. It’s tacky, definitely blood. He’s bewildered, dully regarding the dab of color on his fingertip, his mind muddled with questions, and then the wrongness of it, the idea that someone has marked his house with blood, and it’s for sure an intentional mark, because no one would inadvertently leave a two-foot-long smear…the wrongness of it hits home and he’s afraid. He whirls about. Beyond the range of the porch lights, the darkness bristles, vegetation seething in the wind, palmetto tops tossing, making it appear that the world is solidifying into a big, angry animal with briny breath, and it’s shaking itself, preparing to charge.
He edges toward the steps, alert to every movement, and starts to hear music again, not the whiny racket he heard earlier, but strings and trumpets, a prolonged fanfare like the signature of a cheesy film score, growing louder, and he sees something taking shape from the darkness, something a shade blacker than the sky, rising to tower above the dunes. The coalsack figure of a horned giant, a sword held over its head. He gapes at the thing, the apparition—he assumes it’s an apparition. What else could it be? He hasn’t been prone to hallucinations for twenty years, and the figure, taller now than the tallest of the condominiums that line the beach along South Atlantic Avenue, is a known quantity, the spitting image of the Black Demon from his movie. Somebody is gaslighting him. They’re out in the dunes with some kind of projector, casting a movie image against the clouds. Having established a rational explanation, albeit a flimsy one, Cliff tries to react rationally. He considers searching the dunes, finding the culprit, but when the giant cocks the sword, drawing it back behind its head, preparing to swing a blade that, by Cliff’s estimate, is easily long enough to reach him, his dedication to reason breaks and he bolts for the steps, slams and locks the inner door, and stands in the center of his darkened living room, breathing hard, on the brink of full-blown panic.
The music has reverted to rackety percussion and skirling reeds, and it’s grown louder, so loud that Cliff can’t think, can’t get a handle on the situation.
Many-colored lights flash in the windows, pale rose and purple and green and white, reminding him of the lights in a Manila disco created by cellophane panels on a wheel revolving past a bright bulb. He has a glimpse of something or someone darting past outside. A shadowy form, vaguely anthropomorphic, running back and forth, a few steps forward, slipping out of sight, then racing in the opposite direction, as if maddened by the music, and, his pulse accelerated by the dervish reeds and clattering percussion, music that might accompany the flight of panicked moth, Cliff begins to feel light-headed. unsteady on his feet. There’s too much movement, too much noise. It seems that the sound-and-light show is having an effect on his brain, like those video games that trigger epileptic seizures, and he can’t get his bearings. The floor shifts beneath him, the window frame appears to have made a quarter-turn sideways in the wall. The furniture is dancing, the Mexican throw rug fronting the couch ripples like the surface of a rectangular pond. And then it stops. Abruptly. The music is cut off, the lights quit flashing…but there’s still too much light for a moonless, starless night, and he has the impression that someone’s aiming a yellow-white spot at the window beside the couch. Cliff waits for the next torment. His heart rate slows, he catches his breath, but he remains still, braced against the shock he knows is coming. Almost a full minute ticks by, and nothing’s happened. The shadows in the room have deepened and solidified. He’s uncertain what to do. Call the police and barricade himself in the house. Run like hell. Those seem the best options. Maybe whoever was doing this has fled and left a single spotlight behind. He sees his cell phone lying on an end table. “Okay,” he says, the way you’d speak to a spooked horse. “Okay.” He eases over to the table and picks up the phone. Activated, its cool blue glow soothes him. He punches in Marley’s number and reaches her voicemail. “Marley,” he says. “Call me when you get this.” Before calling the police, he thinks about what might be in the house—he’s out of pot, but did he finish those mushrooms in the freezer? Where did he put that bottle of oxycodone that Stacy gave him?
A tremendous bang shakes the cottage. Cliff squawks and drops the phone. Something scrabbles on the outside wall and then a woman’s face, bright blue, reminiscent of those Indian posters of Kali you used to be able to buy in head shops, her white teeth bared, her long black hair disheveled and hanging down, appears in the window, coming into view from the side, as if she’s clinging to the wall like a lizard. Her expression is so inhuman, so distorting of her features, that it yields no clue as to her identity; but when she swings down to center the window, gripping the molding, revealing her naked body, he recognizes her to be what’s-her-name, the witch who gave him the STD. The mole on her left breast, directly below the nipple gives it away. As does her pubic hair, shaved into a unique pattern redolent of exotic vegetation. Even without those telltales, he’d know that body. She loved to dance for him before they fucked, rippling the muscles of her inner thighs, shaking her breasts. But she’s not dancing now, and there’s nothing arousing about her presence. She just hangs outside the window, glaring, a voluptuous blue bug. Her teeth and skin and red lips are a disguise. Rip it away, and you would see a horrid face with a proboscis and snapping jaws. Only the eyes would remain of her human semblance. Huge and dark, empty except for a greedy, lustful quality that manifests as a gleam embedded deep within them. It’s that quality that compels Cliff, that roots him to the floorboards. He’s certain if he makes a move to run, she’ll come through the window, employing some magic that leaves the glass intact, and what she’ll do then…His imagination fails him, or perhaps it does not, for he feels her stare on his skin, licking at him as might a cold flame, tasting him, coating his flesh with a slimy residue that isn’t tangible, yet seems actual, a kind of saliva that, he thinks, will allow her to digest him more readily. And then it’s over. The witch’s body deflates, shrivels like a leathery balloon, losing its shape, crumpling, folding in on itself, dwindling in a matter of four or five seconds to a point of light that—he realizes the instant before it winks out, before the spotlight, too, winks out—is the same exact shade of blue as the Vacancy sign at the Celeste Motel.
It’s a trick, a false ending, Cliff tells himself—she’s trying to get his hopes up, to let him relax, and then she’ll materialize behind him, close enough to touch. But time stretches out and she does not reappear. The sounds of wind and surf come to him. Still afraid, but beginning to feel foolish, he picks up his cell phone, half-expecting her to seize the opportunity and pounce. He goes cracks the door, then opens it and steps out into the soft night air. Something has sliced through the porch screen, halving it neatly. He imagines that the amount of torque required to do such a clean job would be considerable—it would be commensurate with, say, the arc of an enormous sword swung by a giant and catching the screen with the tip of its blade. He retreats inside the house, locks and bolts the door, realizing that it’s possible he’s being haunted by a movie. Thoughts spring up to assail the idea, but none serve to dismiss it. Understanding that he won’t be believed, yet having nowhere else to turn, he dials 911.
Detective Sergeant Todd Ashford of the Port Orange Police Department and Cliff have a history, though it qualifies as ancient history. They were in the same class at Seabreeze High and both raised a lot of hell, some of it together, but they were never friends, a circumstance validated several years after graduation when Ashford, then a patrolman with the Daytona Beach PD, displayed unseemly delight in busting Cliff on a charge of Drunk and Disorderly outside Cactus Jack’s, a biker bar on Main Street. Cliff was home for a couple of weeks from Hollywood, flushed with the promise of imminent stardom, and Ashford did not attempt to hide the fact that he deeply resented his success. Nor does he attempt to hide his resentment now. Watching him pace about the interrogation room, a brightly lit space with black compound walls, a metal table and four chairs, Cliff recognizes that although Ashford may no longer resent his success, he has new reason for bitterness. He’s a far cry from the buzz-cut young cop who hauled Cliff off to the drunk tank, presenting the image of a bulbous old man with receding gray hair, dark, squinty eyes, a soupstrainer mustache, and jowls, wearing an off-the-rack sport coat and jeans, his gun and badge half-hidden by the overhang of his belly. Cliff looks almost young enough to be his son.
“Why don’t you tell me where her body is?” Ashford asks for perhaps the tenth time in the space of two hours. “We’re going to find her eventually, so you might as well give it up.”
Cliff has blown up a balloon, peed in a cup, given his DNA. He’s fatigued, and now he’s fed up with Ashford’s impersonation of a homicide detective. His take on the man is that while he may drink his whiskey neat and smoke cigars (their stale, pungent stench hangs about him, heavy as the scent of wet dog) and do all manner of grown-up things, Ashford remains the same fifteen-year-old punk who, drunk on Orbit Beer (six bucks a case), helped him trash the junior class float the night before homecoming, the sort of guy no one remembers at class reunions, whose one notable characteristic was a talent for mind-fucking, who has spent his entire adult life exacting a petty revenge on the world for his various failures, failures that continue to this day, failures with women (no wedding ring), career, self-image…Another loser. There’s nothing remarkable about that. It is, as far as Cliff can tell, a world of six billion losers. Six billion and one if you’re counting God. But Ashford’s incarnation of the classic loser is so seedy and thin-souled, Cliff is having trouble holding his temper.”
“I want to call my lawyer,” he says.
Ashford adopts a knowing look. “You think you need one?”
“Damn right I do! You’re going to pick away at me all day, because this doesn’t have anything to do with my guilt or innocence. This is all about high school.”
Ashford grunts, as though disgusted. “You’re a real asshole! A fucking egomaniac. We got a woman missing, maybe dead, and it’s all about high school.” He pulls back a chair and sits facing Cliff. “Let’s say I believe someone’s trying to set you up.”
“The Palaniappans. It has to be them! They’re the only ones who know about the movie.”
“The movie. Right.” Ashford takes a notebook from his inside breast pocket and flips through it. “Sword Of The Black Demon.“ He gives the title a sardonic reading, closes the notebook. “So you had one conversation with the Planappans…”
“Whatever. You had the one conversation and now you think they’re out to get you, because the daughter looks like a woman you caught the clap from back in the day.”
“It wasn’t the clap, it was some kind of…I don’t know. Some kind of Filipino gunge. And that’s not why they’re doing this. It’s because, I think, I started sniffing around, trying to figure out what’s going on with Bungalow eleven.”
Ashford grunts again, this time in amusement. “Man, I can’t wait to get your drug screen back.”
“You’re going to be disappointed,” Cliff says. “I’m not high, I’m not drunk. I’m not even fucking dizzy.”
Ashford attempts to stare him down, doubtless seeking to find a chink in the armor. He makes a clicking noise with his tongue. “So tell me again what happened after you and Marley left the Surfside.”
“I want a lawyer.”
“You go that way, you’re not doing yourself any good.”
“How much good am I doing myself sitting here, letting you nitpick my answers, trying to find inconsistencies that don’t exist? Fuck you, Ashford. I want a lawyer.”
Ashford turtles his neck, glowers at Cliff and says, “You think you’re back in Hollywood? The cops out there, they let you talk to them that way?”
Cliff gays up his delivery. “They’re lovely people. The LAPD is renowned for its hospitality. As for where I think I am, I trust I’m among guardians of the public safety.”
Ashford’s breathing heavies and Cliff, interpreting this as a sign of extreme anger, says, “Look, man. I know what I told you sounds freaky, but you’re not even giving it a chance. You’ve made up your mind that I did something to Marley, and nothing I say’s going to talk you out of it. Lawyering up’s my only option.”
Ashford settles back in his chair, calmer now. “All right. I’ll listen. What do you think I should do about the Palnappians?”
“If it were me,” says Cliff, “I’d have a look round Bungalow Eleven. I’d ask some questions, find out what’s happening in there.”
“What do you think is happening?”
“Jesus Christ!” Cliff throws up his hands in frustration, and closes his eyes.
“Seriously,” says Ashford. “I want to know, because from what you’ve told me, I don’t have a clue.”
“I don’t know, okay?” says Cliff. “But I don’t think it’s anything good.”
“Do you allow for the possibility that nothing’s going on? That given everything you’ve said, the multiple occupancies, the sign, the vehicles disappearing…” Ashford pauses. “Can you remember any of the vehicles that disappeared? The makes and models?”
“I’m not sure they’ve disappeared. I haven’t been able to check. But if not, they must be piling up back there. But yeah, I remember most of them.”
Ashford tears a clean page from his notebook, shoves it and a pen across the table. “Write them down. The model, the color…the year if you know it.”
Cliff scribbles a list, considers it, makes an addition, then passes the sheet of paper to Ashford, who looks it over.
“This is a pretty precise list,” he says.
“It’s the job. I tend to notice what people drive.”
Ashford continues to study the list. “These are expensive cars. The Ford Escape, that’s one of those hybrids, right?”
“Uh-huh. New this year.”
Ashford folds the paper, sticks it in his notebook. “So. What I was saying, do you think there could be a reasonable explanation for all this? Something that has nothing to do with a witch and a movie? Something that makes sense in terms someone like me could accept?”
This touch of self-deprecation fuels the idea that Ashford may be smarter than Cliff has assumed. “It’s possible,” he says, but after a pause he adds, “No. Fuck, no. You had…”
A peremptory knocking on the door interrupts Cliff. With a disgruntled expression, Ashford heaves up to his feet and pokes his head out into the corridor. After a prolonged, muttering exchange with someone Cliff can’t see, Ashford throws the door open wide and says flatly, “You can go for now, Coria. We’ll be in touch.”
Baffled, Cliff asks, “What is it? What happened?”
“Your girlfriend’s alive. She’s out by the front desk.”
Cliff’s relief is diluted by his annoyance over Ashford’s refusal to accept that he and Marley are not lovers, but before he can once again deny the assertion, Ashford says, “Your house is still a crime scene. You might want to hang out somewhere for a few hours until we’ve finished processing.”
Cliff gives him a what-the-fuck look, and Ashford, with more than a hint of the malicious in his voice, says, “We have to find out who that blood belongs to, don’t we?”
In the entryway of the police station, Marley mothers Cliff, hugging and fussing over him, attentions that he welcomes, but once in the car she waxes outraged, railing at the cops and their rush to judgment. Christ Almighty! She woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so she went to a diner and did some brooding. You’d think the cops would have more sense. You’d think they would look before they leaped.
“It’s my fault,” Cliff says. “I called them.”
She shoots him a puzzled glance. “Why’d you do that?”
He remembers that she knows nothing about the Black Demon, the blood, the slit porch screen.
“You left the door open,” he says. “I was worried.”
“I did not! And even if I did, that’s no reason to call the cops.”
“Yeah, well. There was weird shit going on last night. I got hit by vandals, and that made me nervous.”
They stop at a 7-11 so Cliff can buy a clean t-shirt—it’s a touch choice between a white one with a cartoon decal and the words Surf Naked, and a gray one imprinted with a fake college seal and the words Screw U. He settles on the gray, deciding it makes a more age-appropriate statement. They go for breakfast at a restaurant on North Atlantic, and then to Marley’s studio apartment, which is close by. The Lu-Ray Apartments, a brown stucco building overlooking the ocean and the boardwalk—with the windows open, Cliff can hear faint digital squeals and roars from a video arcade that has a miniature golf course atop its roof. It’s a drizzly, overcast morning and, with its patched greens and dilapidated obstacles, a King Kong, a troll, a dragon that spits sparks whenever someone makes a hole-in-one, etcetera, the course has an air of post-apocalyptic decay. The dead Ferris wheel beside it emphasizes the effect.
Marley’s place is tomboyishly Spartan, a couple of surfboards on the wall, a Ramones poster, a wicker throne with a green cushion, a small TV with some Mardi Gras beads draped over it, a queen-size box spring and mattress covered by a dark blue spread. The only sign of femininity is that the apartment scrupulously clean, not a speck of dust, the stove and refrigerator in the kitchenette gleaming. Marley tells Cliff to take the bed, she has to do some stuff, and sits cross-legged in the wicker chair, pecking at her laptop. He closes his eyes, surrendering to fatigue, fading toward sleep; but his thoughts start to race and sleep won’t come. He tries to put a logical spin on everything that happened, works out various theories that would accommodate what he saw. The only one that suits is that he’s losing it, and he’s not ready to go there. Finally, he opens his eyes. Marley’s still pecking away, her face concentrated by a serious expression. In her appearance and mien, she reminds him of girls he knew in LA in the eighties, many of them weekend punkers, holding down a steady job during the week, production assistants and set dressers and such, and then, on Friday night, they’d dress down, wear black lipstick and too much mascara, and go batshit crazy. But those girls were all fashion punks with a life plan and insurance and solid prospects, whereas Marley’s a true edge-dweller with a punk ethos, living paycheck to paycheck, secure in herself, a bit of dreamer, though her practical side shows itself from time to time—for a week or two she’ll binge on schemes to resurrect her fiscal security; then, Pffft!, it all goes away and she’s carefree and careless again.
These thoughts endanger Cliff’s resolve to remain friends with her, and more dangerous yet is his contemplation of her physical presence. Frizzy blond hair framing a gamin’s face; bra-less breasts, her nipples on full display through the thin fabric of her t-shirt; she’s his type, all right. He understands that part of what’s at play here is base, that whenever he’s at a loss or anxious about something or just plain bored, he relies on women to sublimate the feeling.
Marley glances up, catching him staring. “Hey! You all right?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Why?”
“You were looking weird is all.” She closes the laptop. “You want anything?”
“No,” he says, a reflex answer, but thinks about the things he wants. They’re all momentary gratifications. Sex; surcease; to stop thinking about it. He suspects that the real curse of getting older is a certain wisdom, the tendency to reflect on your life and observe the haphazard path you’ve made, and then he decides that what he wants above all is to want something so badly that he stops second-guessing himself for a while. Just go after it and damn the consequences…though in reality, that’s only another form of surcease.
“What do you want?” he asks.
She tips her head to one side, as if to see him more clearly. “I don’t think I’m getting the whole picture here. Did something happen last night? You know, something more than what you told me? Because you’re not acting like yourself.”
“I’ll tell you later.” He shifts onto his side. “So what do you want? What would make you happy?”
She sets the laptop on the floor and comes over to the bed and makes a shooing gesture. “Scoot over. If this is going to be a deep conversation, I want to lie down.”
He’s slow to move, but she pushes onto the bed beside him and he’s forced to accommodate her. She plumps the pillow, squirms about, and, once she’s settled facing him, arms shielding her breasts, hands together by her cheek, she says, “I used to want to be a singer. I was in love with Tori Amos, and I was going to be like her. Different, but one of those chicks who plays piano and writes her own songs. But I didn’t want it badly enough, so I just bummed around with music, gigged with a few bands and like that. One of my boyfriends was a bartender. He taught me the trade, and I started working bar jobs. It was easy work, I met some nice guys, some not so nice. I was coasting, you know. Trying to figure it out. Now I think, I’m pretty sure, I want to be a vet. Not the kind who prescribes pills for sick cats and treats old ladies’ poodles for gout. I’d like to work out in the country. Over in DuBarry, maybe, or down south in Broward. Cattle country. That would make me content, I think. So I’m saving up for veterinary college.” She grins, fine squint lines deepening at the corners of her eyes. “Someday they’ll be saying stuff like, “Reckon we better call ol’ Doc Marley.”
He’s shamed, because this is all new information; he’s known her for three years and never before asked about her life. He recalls her singing about the house and being struck by her strong, sweet voice, how she bent notes that started out flat into a strange countrified inflection. He doesn’t know what to say.
“You look perplexed,” she says. “You thought I was just an aging beach bunny, is that it?”
“That’s not it.”
“I suppose I am, technically, an aging beach bunny. But I’m making a graceful transition.”
A silence, during which he hears cars pass. The beach is extraordinarily quiet, all the spring breakers sleeping in, waiting out the rain. He remembers a morning like this when he was eleven, he and some friends rode their bikes down past the strip of motels between Silver Beach and Main, hoping to see girls gone wild, and seeing instead spent condoms floating in the swimming pools like dead marine creatures, a lone girl crying on the sidewalk, crushed beer cans, the beach littered with party trash and burst jellyfish and crusts of dirty foam, all the residue of joyful debauch. It never changes. The gray light lends the furnishings, the walls, a frail density and a pointillist aspect—it seems the room is turning into the ghost of itself, becoming a worn, faded engraving.
“Why do you always act scared around me, Cliffie?” Marley asks. “Even when we were together, you acted scared. I know the age thing bothers you, but that’s no reason to be scared.”
“It’s complicated,” he says.
“And you don’t want to talk about it, right? Guys really suck!”
“No, I’ll talk about it if you want.”
She looks at him expectantly, face partly concealed by dirty blond strings of hair.
“It’s partly the age thing,” he says. “I’m fifty-four and you’re twenty-nine.”
“Close,” she says. “Thirty.”
“All right. Thirty. Turning a year on the calendar doesn’t change the fact it’s a significant difference. But mostly it’s this…blankness I feel inside myself. It’s like I’m empty, and growing emptier. That’s what I’m scared of.”
“Well, I don’t pretend to know much,” Marley says. “I could be wrong, but sounds to me like you’re lonely.”
Could it be that simple? He’s tempted to accept her explanation, but he’s reluctant to accept what that may bring. Rain begins to fall more heavily, screening them away from the world with gray slanting lines.
“What do you see in me?” he asks. “I mean, what makes someone like you interested in a fifty-something used car salesman with a bad back. I don’t get it.”
“Wow. Once you start them up, some guys are worse than women. Out comes the rotten self-image and everything else.” She glances up to the ceiling, as if gathering information written there. “I’ll tell you, but don’t interrupt, okay?”
“We’re friends. We’ve been friends for going on four years, and I like to think we’re good friends. I can count on you in an emergency, and you can count on me. True?”
“You make my head quiet,” she says. “Not last night, not when I’m in party mode. But most of the time, that’s how I feel around you. You steady me. You treat me as an equal. With guys my age or close, I can tell what’s foremost on their mind, and it’s always a battle to win their respect. Like with Tucker. That may explain why I’ve got this thing for older men. They don’t just see tits and a pussy, they see all of me. I’m speaking generally, of course. I get lots of horny old goats hitting on me, but they’re desperate. You’re not desperate. You don’t have a need to get over on me.”
“That might change,” he says.
She puts a finger to his lips, shushing him. “Everything changes, everybody’s kinky for something. Some guy shows up at my door with a muskrat, a coil of rope, and three pounds of lard, that’s where I draw the line. But normal, everyday kinks…They’re cool.” She shrugs. “So it changes? So you’re fifty-four with a bad back? So I’m kinky for older men? So what? And in case you’re going to tell me you don’t want to be a father figure, don’t worry. When I’m around you, I’m always wet. Some times more than others, but it’s pretty much constant. I don’t think of you as my dad.” She blows air through her pursed lips, as if wearied by this unburdening. “Fucking is just something I do with guys, Cliff. It doesn’t require holy water and a papal dispensation. It’s not that huge a deal.”
“That’s a lie,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says after a pause. “It’s a fairly huge deal. All right. But what I’m trying to say is, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll cry and be depressed and hit things. My heart may even break. But it won’t kill me. I heal up good.”
The rain beats in against the window, spraying under the glass, drenching the ledge, spattering on the floor, yet Marley doesn’t bother to close it. She sits up and, with a supple movement, shucks her t-shirt. The shape of a bikini top is etched upon her skin and in the half-light her high, smallish breasts, tipped by engorged nipples, are shockingly pale in contrast to her tan. It strikes Cliff as exotic, a solar tattoo, and he imagines designs of pale and dark all over her body, some so tiny, they can only be detected by peering close, others needing a magnifying glass to read the erotic message that they, in sum, comprise. She lies down again, an arm across her tight, rounded stomach. Sheets of rain wash over the window, transforming it into a smeary lens of dull green and silvered gray, seeming to show a world still in process of becoming.
“So,” Marley says. “You going into work today?”
“Probably not,” he says.
Before going into work the following day, Cliff stops by the cottage. It’s a sunny, breezy afternoon and all should be right with the world, but the stillness of the place unnerves him. He peels police tape off the doors, hurriedly packs a few changes of clothes and, an afterthought, tosses his copy of Sword Of The Black Demon into his bag. If things get uncomfortable at Marley’s, he’ll move to a motel, but he has determined that he’s not going to spend another night in the cottage until the situation is resolved, until he can be assured that there’ll be no reoccurrence of blue witches and flashing lights and two-hundred-foot tall swordsmen.
He pulls into Ridgewood Motors shortly before two and, from that point on, he’s so busy that he scarcely has a chance to glance at the Celeste. Jerry’s in a foul mood because Stacey Gerone has run off and left him shorthanded.
“She’s been screwing some rich old fart from Miami,” Jerry says. “I guess she blew him so good, he finally popped the question. That bitch can suck dick like a two-dollar whore in a hurricane.”
Dressed in his trademark madras suit and white loafers, Jerry cocks an eye at Cliff, doubtless hoping to be asked how he knows about Stacey’s proclivities; he’s brimming over with eagerness to divulge his conquest.
Jerry’s pudgy, built along the lines of Papa Smurf, with a tanning-machine tan like brownish orange paint and a ridiculous toupee—he cultivates this clownish image to distract from his nasty disposition. Thanks to this and an endless supply of dirty jokes, ranging from the mildly pornographic to X-tra Blue, he’s in demand as a speaker at Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce dinners and has acquired a reputation for being crusty yet loveable. He acknowledges Cliff as a near-equal, someone who has the worldliness to understand him, someone in whom he can confide to an extent, and thus Cliff, knowing that Jerry will vent his temper on the other salesmen if he doesn’t listen to him brag, is forced to endure a richly embroidered tale of Jerry’s liaisons with Stacey, culminating with an act of sodomy described in such graphic detail, he’s almost persuaded that it might have happened, although it’s more likely that the verisimilitude is due to Jerry’s belief that it happened, that through repetition his fantasy has become real.
This is the first Cliff has heard of the “rich old fart,” but he’s aware that Stacey played her cards close to the vest and there was much he did not know about her. He tries to nudge the conversation in that direction, hoping to learn more; but Jerry, made grumpy by his questions, orders him out onto the lot to sell some fucking cars.
A little after five o’clock, he’s about to close with a young couple who’ve been sniffing around a two-year-old Bronco since the previous Friday, when Shalin Palaniappan strolls onto the lot. She walks up to Cliff, ignoring another salesman’s attempt to intercept her, and says, “Hi.”
Cliff excuses himself, steers Shalin away from the couple, and says, “I’m in the middle of something. Let me get somebody else to help you.”
“I want you,” Shalin says pertly.
“You’re going to have to wait, then.”
“I’ve waited this long. What’s a few minutes more?”
With her baggy shorts and a pale yellow T-shirt, her shiny black eyes, her shiny black hair in a ponytail, her copper-and-roses complexion, she looks her age, fifteen or sixteen, a healthy, happy Malaysian teenager; but he senses something wrong about her, something also signaled by her enigmatic comment about waiting, an undercurrent that doesn’t shine, that doesn’t match her fresh exterior, like that spanking new Escalade with the bent frame they had in a few weeks before. He leaves her leaning against a Nissan 350-Z and goes back to the couple who, given the time to huddle up, have decided in his absence that they’re not happy with the numbers and want more value on the toad they offered as a trade-in. Cliff feels Shalin’s eyes applying a brand to the back of his neck and grows flustered. He grows even more so when he notices a young salesman approach her and begin chatting her up, bracing with one hand on the Nissan, leaning close, displaying something other than the genial manner that is form behavior for someone who pushes iron—then, abruptly, the salesman scurries off as if his tender bits have been scorched. Most teenage girls, in Cliff’s experience, don’t have the social skills to deal efficiently with the two-legged flies that come buzzing around, yet he allows that Shalin may be an exception. The couple becomes restive; now they’re not sure about the Bronco. Cliff, aware that he’s blowing it, passes them off to John Sacks, a decent closer, and goes over to Shalin.
“How can I help you?” he asks, and is startled by the harshness, the outright antipathy in his voice.
Shalin, looking up at him, shields her eyes against the westering sun, but says nothing.
“What are you looking to spend?” he asks.
“How much is this one?” She pats the Nissan’s hood.
He names a figure and she shakes her head, a no.
“Do you have a car?” he asks. “We can be pretty generous on a trade-in.”
“That’s right. You always take it out in trade, don’t you?”
Her snide tone is typical of teenagers, but her self-assurance is not, and her entire attitude, one of arrogance and bemusement, causes him to think that there’s another purpose to her visit.
“I’m busy,” he says. “If you’re not looking for a car, I have other customers.”
“Did you know I’m adopted? I am. But Bazit treats me like his very own daughter. He caters to my every whim.” She reaches into a pocket, extracts a platinum Visa card and waggles it in his face. “Why don’t we look around? If I see something I like, you can go into your song-and-dance.”
He’s tempted to blow her off, but he’s curious about her. They walk along the aisles of gleaming cars, past salesmen talking with prospective buyers, pennons snapping in the breeze. She displays no interest in any of the cars, continuing to talk about herself, saying that she never knew her parents, she was raised by an aunt, but she’s always thought of her as a mother, and when the aunt died—she was nine, then—Bazit stepped in. Not long afterward, they moved to America and bought the Celeste.
“There!” She stops and points at a silver Jag, an XK coupe. “I like that one.
Can I take a test drive?”
“That’s a sixty-thousand dollar car,” says Cliff. “You want a test drive, I’ll have to clear sixty thousand on your credit card.”
He goes into the office and runs the card—it’s approved. What, he asks himself, is a sixteen-year-old doing with that much credit? He knocks on Jerry’s door and tells him that he has a teenage girl who wants to test-drive the SK.
“Fuck her,” says Jerry without glancing up. “I’ve got a dealer who’ll take it off our hands.”
“Her card cleared.”
“No shit? A rich little cunt, huh?” Jerry clasps his hands behind his head and rocks back in his swivel chair. “Naw. I don’t want a kid driving that car.”
“It’s the girl from the Celeste.”
“Shalin?” Jerry’s expression goes through some extreme changes—shock, concern, bewilderment—that are then paved over by his customary. “What the hell. He throws a lot of business our way.”
Cliff doubts that a man who rents motel rooms for twenty-nine bucks a night could be boosting Jerry’s profits to any consequential degree, and he wonders what shook him up…if, indeed, he was shaken, if he wasn’t having a flare-up of his heartburn.
Shalin, it turns out, knows her way around a stick shift and drives like a pro, whipping the SK around sharp corners, downshifting smoothly, purring along the little oak-lined back streets west of Ridgewood Avenue, and Cliff’s anxiety ebbs. He points out various features of the car, none of which appear to impress Shalin. It’s clear that she enjoys being behind the wheel and, when she asks if she can check out what the SK is like on the highway, he says, “Yeah, but keep it under sixty-five.”
Soon they’re speeding south on Highway 1 toward New Smyrna, passing through a salt marsh that puts Cliff in mind of an African place—meanders of blue water and wide stretches of grass bronzed by the late sun, broken here and there by mounded islands topped with palms; birds wheeling under a cloudless sky; a few human structures, dilapidated cabins, peeling billboards, but not enough to shatter the illusion that they’re entering a vast preserve.
After a minute or two, Shalin says, “My mother and I…I mean, my aunt. We shared an unique connection. We resembled each other physically. Many people mistook us for mother and daughter. But the resemblance went deeper than that. We had a kind of telepathy. She told me stories about her life, and I saw images relating to the stories. When I described them to her, she’d say things like, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly!’ or ‘It sounds like the compound I stayed at on Lake Yogyarta.’ I came to have the feeling that as she died—she was sick the whole time I was with her, in dreadful pain—she was transferring her substance to me. We were becoming the same person. And perhaps we were.” She darts a glance toward Cliff. “Do you believe that’s possible? That someone can possess another body, that they can express their being into another flesh? I do. I can remember being someone else, though I can’t identify who that person was. My head’s too full of my aunt’s memories. It certainly would explain why I’m so mature. Everyone says that about me, that I’m mature for my age. Don’t you agree?”
Scarily mature, Cliff says to himself. He doesn’t like the direction of the conversation and tells her they’d better be heading back to the lot.
“Certainly. As soon as I see a turn-off.”
She gooses the accelerator, and the SK surges forward, pushing Cliff back into the passenger seat. The digital readout on the speedometer hits eighty, eighty-five, then declines to sixty-five. She’s putting on a little show, he thinks; reminding him who’s in control.
“Aunt Isabel spoke frequently about the man who made her ill,” Shalin goes on. “He was handsome and she loved him, of course. Otherwise she wouldn’t have risked getting pregnant. He said he couldn’t feel her as well when he wore a condom, and since this was at a time when protection wasn’t considered important—nobody in Southeast Asia knew about AIDS—she allowed him to have his way.”
A queasy coldness builds in Cliff’s belly. “Isabel. Was she an actress?”
“You remember! That makes it so much easier. Isabel Yahya. You cracked jokes about her last name. You said you were getting your ya-yas out when you were with her. She didn’t understand that, but I do.”
She swings the SK in a sharp left onto a dirt road, a reckless maneuver; then she brakes, throws it into reverse, backs onto the highway, raising a dust, and goes fishtailing toward Daytona.
“Take it easy! Okay?” Cliff grips the dashboard. “I didn’t give her anything. She gave it to me. And it obviously wasn’t AIDS, or I’d be dead.”
“No, you’re right. It wasn’t AIDS, but you definitely gave it to her.”
“The hell I did!”
“Before you became involved with Isabel, you slept with other women in Manila, didn’t you?”
“Sure I did, but she’s the one…”
“You were her first lover in more than a year!”
Shalin settles into cruising speed and Cliff, sobered by what she’s told him, says, “Even if that’s true…”
“…she could have seen a doctor.”
“She did,” says Shalin. “If you hadn’t gotten her fired, perhaps she could have seen the doctor who attended you.”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t get her fired! She vanished off the set. I didn’t know what had happened to her”
Shalin makes a dismissive noise. “As it was, Aunt Isabel went to a bomoh. A shaman. I can’t blame you for that. She was a country girl and still put her trust in such men. But when he failed her, she wrote you letters, begging for help, for money to engage a western doctor. You never replied.”
“I never got any letters.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“She didn’t have my address. How could she have written me?”
“She mailed them in care of your agent.”
“That’s like dropping them into a black hole. Mark…my agent. He’s not the most together guy. He probably filed them somewhere and forgot to send them along.”
They flash past a ramshackle fishing camp at the edge of the marsh, wooden cabins and a pier with a couple of small boats moored at its nether end. Their speed is creeping up and Cliff tells her to back it down.
“It’s an astonishing coincidence that we bought the Celeste and you started working for Uncle Jerry,” she says. “It almost seems some karmic agency is playing a part in all this.”
Cliff doesn’t know what troubles him more, the idea that the coincidence is not a coincidence, a thought suggested by her sly tone, or the implication that an intimate relationship exists between Jerry Muntz and the Palaniappans. Now that he thinks about it, he’s seen Jerry, more than once, stop at the motel for a few minutes before heading home. He has no reason to assign the relationship a sinister character, yet Jerry wouldn’t befriend people like the Palaniappans unless he had a compelling reason.
“All of what?” he asks.
“Aunt Isabel was a woman of power,” says Shalin. “By nature, she was trusting and impractical, not at all suited for life in Manila or Jakarta. She ended up in Jakarta, you know. In a section known as East Cipinang, a slum on the edge of a dump. We survived by scavenging. I’d take the things we found and sell them in the streets to tourists. We had enough to eat most days. Tourists bought from me not because they wanted the things we found, but because I was very pretty little girl.” Her lips thin, as if she’s biting back anger. “Isabel could only work a few hours a day, and sometimes not that. Her insides were rotting. She received medicine from a clinic, but the disease had progressed too far for the doctors to do other than ease her pain. She’d lost her beauty. In the last years before she died, she looked like an old, shriveled hag.”
“I’m sorry,” Cliff says. “I wish I had known.”
“Yes, you would have flown to her side, I’m sure. She often spoke of your generosity.”
“Look, I didn’t know. I can’t be held responsible for something I didn’t know was happening.”
“Is that what it is to you? A matter of whether or not you can be held responsible? Are you afraid I’m going to sue you?”
“No, that’s not…”
“Rest assured, I’m not going to sue you.”
Her voice is so thick with menace, Cliff is momentarily alarmed. They’re within the city limits now, driving in rush hour traffic past fruit stands and motels and souvenir shops, not far from the lot—he can’t wait to get out of the car.
“Isabel, as I told you, was a woman of power,” says Shalin. “In another time, another place, she would have been respected and revered. But ill, buried in the slums, power of the sort she possessed could do her no good.”
“What the hell are you getting at?” he asks.
She flashes a sunny smile and goes on with her narrative. “Isabel loved you until the end. I know she hated you a little, too, but she maintained that you weren’t evil, just profligate and vain. And slight. She said there wasn’t much to you. You were terribly immature, but she had hopes you’d grow out of that, even though you were in your thirties when she knew you. She was basically a decent soul and power was something she used judiciously, only in cases where she could produce a good effect. It was among the last things she transferred to me.” She sighs forlornly. “Taking control of me was the one selfish act she committed in her life. You can’t blame her. The streets had left me damaged beyond repair and she was terrified of death. Of course these transfers are a bit like reincarnation, so it’s not exactly Isabel who’s alive. I mean, she is alive, but she’s a different person now. There are things that are left behind during a transfer, and things added that belonged to the soul who once inhabited this body.”
“You’re out of your tree.” He says this without much conviction. “All you’re doing is screwing with me.”
“Right on both counts.”
She slows and eases into the turning lane across from the lot, waiting for a break in the traffic.
“Now,” she says, “I use my power to get the things I want, to make my family secure. Sometimes I use it on a whim. You might say I use it profligately.”
She edges forward, but brakes when she realizes she can’t make the turn yet. A semi roars past, followed by a string of cars.
“One thing Isabel didn’t transfer to me was her love for you,” she says. “I imagine she wanted to keep that for herself, to warm her final moments. She was almost empty. All that was left was a shell, a few memories. Or maybe she didn’t want me to love you. You know, in case I ever saw you again. Do you suppose that’s it? She wanted me to hate you?”
“You can get by after that red pick-up,” he says.
“I see it.” She makes the turn, pulls into the lot and parks. “If that’s so, if that’s really what Isabel wanted, she got her wish,” she says. “No child should have to endure East Cipinang. You have no idea of the things I was forced to do as a result of your nonchalance, your triviality. Your shallowness.”
She looks as if she’s about to spit on him, climbs out of the SK and then bends to the window, peering in at him. “This car won’t do, I’m afraid,” she says, blithely. “It corners horribly.”
“What’re you trying to pull?” he asks. “You were at my house the other night, weren’t you?”
“If you say so.”
“What the hell do you want from me?”
She straightens, as though preparing to leave, but then leans in the window again, her teeth bared and black eyes bugged. Except for the color of her skin, it’s the face of the witch, vividly insane, without a single human quality, and Cliff recoils from it.
“If you want answers, watch Isabel’s movie,” she says, her face relaxing into that of a teenage girl. “I believe you have a copy.”
Cliff sits in his office for an hour, hour and a half, not thinking so much as brooding about Shalin’s story. It’s absurd, impossible, yet elements of it ring true, especially the part about him giving Isabel the STD. He digs deep, mining his memories, trying to recall how she was, how he felt about her, and remembers her as a simple girl, not simple in the sense of stupid, but open and unaffected, though it may be he’s prompted by guilt to gild the lily. She didn’t seem at all “a woman of power,” but then he didn’t take the time to know her, to look beneath the surface. His clearest memories relate to her amazing breasts, her dancer’s legs and ass, and to what a great lay she was. He wishes he could remember a moment when he loved her, an instance in which he saw something special about her, but he was a superficial kind of guy in those days, and maybe still is.
Thoughts buzz him like mosquitoes, a cloud of tiny, shrill thoughts that swarms around his head, diving close just long enough to nettle his brain, questions about Shalin’s story, more memories of Isabel (once a trickle, their flow has become a flood, but all relating to how she looked, smelled, felt, tasted), and disparaging thoughts, lots of them, remarking on, as Shalin put it, his triviality, his nonchalance, his shallowness. If he could go an entire day without his life being captioned by this dreary self-commentary…
The phone rings, and he picks it up, grateful for the interruption. His agent’s mellow tenor brings all the infectious banality of SoCal to his ear. After an exchange of pleasantries, his agent says, “Listen, Cliff. I was in New York last week. I had this crazy idea and you know me, what the hell, I pitched it to a couple of publishers. I said, What if Cliff Coria wrote a book, a memoir, about his life in the movies. This guy’s acted all over, I told them. Spain, Southeast Asia, Czechoslovakia. You name it. And he’s smart. And he’s seen celebrities in unguarded moments. He’s kind of an insider-slash-outsider. He can give you a view from the fringes of Hollywood, and maybe that’s the clearest view of all.”
“I don’t know, Mark.”
“Don’t you want to hear how they reacted?”
“They were excited, Cliff. There could be serious money for you in this. And if the book does what I think it will, it’ll generate significant heat out here.”
The Celeste’s Vacancy sign switches on in the twilight, seeming like a glowing blue accusation. Cliff lowers the Venetian blinds.
“I believe there’ll be interest in you as a character actor,” Mark goes on. “Not just cheesy parts. I think I’d be able to get you serious work. I know you can do this, Cliff. Remember those letters you used to send me? Like the one about Nicholson’s ass hanging out of the car when he was banging that bit player? That was fucking hilarious! Come on! All I need is a few chapters and a rough outline.”
Cliff assures his agent that he’ll give it a try. He leaves a note for Jerry, saying he’s going to take a few days off to deal with some personal problems, and then heads for Marley’s place. Crossing the Main Street Bridge over the Halifax River, which bisects Daytona, he sees several old men fishing off the bridge, half in silhouette, motionless, with buckets at their feet, the corpses of blowfish and sting rays bloodily strewn along the walkway, and thinks that if he were ever to take up fishing, this is where he’d like to drop his line. The idea of joining those sentinel figures appeals to him, as does the thought of hauling up little monsters from the deep.
At the apartment Cliff pours a vodka from a bottle chilled in the freezer, turns on the TV, and pops Sword Of The Black Demon into the DVD player. While the opening credits roll, he calls Marley and tells her he’s coming up to the Surfside sometime between nine and ten. He fast-forwards through the movie until he finds the entrance of the witch queen and her chunky blue retinue; then he sits on the edge of the bed, sipping vodka, watching Isabel Yahya and the other women attending a ceremony in a torchlit cave made of acrylic fiber painted to look like rock—it involves the queen choosing a new fuck toy, a young Filipino youth with oiled muscles. She leads him to the royal chamber, where a bed with blue satin sheets awaits, screws his brains out and, while he’s helpless, limp and nearly unconscious from her amorous assault, she drains him of his soul, laughing as she coaxes it forth by means of a lascivious dance. The soul resembles a stream of pale smoke from which faces surface. Cliff assumes them to be the youth’s memories. The smoke dwindles to a trickle and at long last, after much eye-rolling and twitching, the youth dies.
In another scene, Ricky Sintara, a striking young man with even larger muscles, also oiled, and Dak Windsor enter the cave, seeking to capture the queen and persuade her to divulge the whereabouts of the wizard who has loosed the black demon; but they are themselves captured by the royal guard. The queen drags Ricky off to suffer the same fate as the youth, but once in the sack, Ricky proves to be no ordinary man—his incomparable lovemaking renders the queen hors de combat. This is all shown tastefully—no actual penetration; only full frontal female nudity—and dredges up a chuckle from Cliff, because Ricky, a fine fellow and terrific drinking companion, would on occasion wear women’s clothing when relaxing during the shoot and had a boyfriend who was prettier than the majority of the actresses.
Meanwhile, in another part of the cave, Dak is chained to the wall and Isabel is preparing to scourge him with an S&M dream of whip whose lashes appear to be fashioned of live scorpions. He takes a few strokes, writhes in pain, calls out to God for assistance, using a specific phrase that causes Isabel to realize that he is the son of the doctor who saved her village from a cholera outbreak years before—she was a little girl at the time, but developed a crush on the teenage Dak that lasts to this day. Turned aside from the path of evil by the power of love, she frees Dak and they kiss, a miracle of osculation that changes her skin from blue back to a pleasing caramel, and together, along with Ricky, they flee the cave, carrying with them the comatose queen.
Lashed to a bed in Ricky’s shack (the hero has hewed to his humble village origins), the queen strains mightily against her ropes, mimicking her earlier struggles in the act of love, breasts heaving, hips thrusting, tormented by Ricky’s questions, and eventually she yields up her secrets. But that night, while Dak and Ricky are reconnoitering the wizard’s lair, she calls out to Isabel, whom she still controls to an extent. By means of her occult powers and a cross-eyed, beetling stare, she coerces Isabel into untying her bonds. She then knocks her to the ground and stands over her, waggling her fingers and projecting dire energies from their tips, bursts of blue light that cause her former minion to shrivel, to grow desiccated and wrinkled, dying of old age in a matter of seconds.
Is that, Cliff asks himself, what Shalin wants him to believe may be in store for him? He recalls her talk about Isabel’s premature aging, her comment regarding a karmic agency being involved in all of this—a sudden withering would be an apt punishment according to karmic law. But he refuses to believe Shalin capable of doling out such a punishment.
He goes to the refrigerator, pours another vodka, and watches the rest of the movie. The queen escapes through the surrounding jungle, but is killed by Ricky, who throws his magical dagger at her. It tumbles end over end, traveling hundreds of yards through the darkness, swerving around clumps of bamboo, tree trunks, bushes, and impales the fleeing queen through her malignant heart. Dak grieves for Isabel, but is bucked up by Ricky and rises to the moment with renewed zeal. With the help of a friendly shaman, they plot the attack: Dak will lead the simple villagers (there are always simple villagers in Filipino fantasy movies) in an assault on the wizard’s palace, distracting the evil one so that Ricky can sneak inside and do him in.
The battle goes badly for Dak at first. The villagers are being hacked to pieces by the wizard’s guard. All seems lost, but the ghost of Isabel appears, wreathed in swirling mist to disguise the fact the actress is no longer Isabel (a love scene between her ghost and Dak was intended for the night before the battle, but she vanished from the project and a rewrite was necessary), and she inspires him with a message of undying love and tells him of a secret tunnel into which they can lure the guard and fight them in a narrow confine, thus neutralizing their superior numbers. As this is happening, the Black Demon accosts Ricky outside the palace and all, again, seems lost. Not even he can defeat a giant. But the ancient gods, played by white-bearded men wearing silk robes and several busty Filipina babes in brocaded halters, intervene. They whisk Ricky and the Black Demon away to a cosmic platform surrounded by a profusion of stars and clouds of nebular gas (glowing, Cliff notices, rose and purple, green and white, like the lights he saw outside his cottage), shrink them to almost equal size (the demon still has a considerable advantage), and let them fight. Fending off blows with a magic bracelet given him by his dying father, a silvery circlet wrought from the stuff of a dying star, Ricky bests the demon and takes his sword—it is, by chance, the only weapon that can slay the wizard. He is returned to planet Earth where, after a torrid chase, the wizard changes into a huge serpent that Ricky chops into snake sushi.
In the final scene, also rewritten late in the game, a big celebration, Ricky wanders about the village, a girl on each arm, searching for his pal. Following an intuition, he divests himself of the ladies and enters the local temple, where he finds Dak on his knees, praying for the soul of Isabel at an altar surmounted by her portrait. He puts his hand on Dak’s shoulder. The two men exchange sober glances. Then Ricky kneels beside him and adopts a prayerful attitude. Solemn music rises, changing to a bouncy disco theme as the screen darkens and the end credits roll.
Cliff thinks now that the last scene might have been intentionally ironic. He recalls that the director dogged Isabel throughout the shoot and seemed miffed when she got together with Cliff. He may have fired her because she wouldn’t sleep with him and rewrote the scene to make a point. Not that this bears upon anything relevant to his current problem. He drains his vodka, idly gazing at the credits, puzzling over the film, wondering what Shalin wanted him to take from it. Maybe nothing. Maybe she just wanted him to endure the pain of watching it again. And then he spots something. A name. It flips past too quickly and he’s not sure he saw it. He hits reverse on the remote, plays it forward, and there it is, the logical explanation he’s been seeking, the answer to everything:
Special Effects: Bazit Palaniappan
He knew it! They’ve been trying to gaslight him the whole time. He remembers the F/X guy, a thin man in his fifties with graying hair who bore a passing resemblance to the owner of the Celeste. He must be Bazit the elder’s son and dropped the Jr. after his father died. Why didn’t he mention the connection? Surely he would have, unless he was too excited at seeing Dak Windsor. No, he would have mentioned it. Unless he had a reason to keep quiet about it…which he did. It occurs to Cliff that Bazit might be one of those soul transfers such as she claimed to have undergone, but he’s not buying that. With knowledge gained from his father, Bazit tricked up the dunes around Cliff’s cottage and put on a show. Shalin must have assumed that he wouldn’t watch the end credits.
Exhilarated, Cliff starts to pour another drink, then decides he’ll have that drink with Marley. She gets off at ten—he’ll take her out for a late supper, somewhere nicer than the Surfside, and they’ll celebrate. She won’t know what they’re celebrating, but he’s glad now that he didn’t burden her with any of this. He trots down the stairs and out into the warm, windless night, into squeals and honks and machine gun fire from the arcades, happy shouts from the Ferris wheel, now lit up and spinning, and the lights on the miniature golf course glossing over its dilapidation, providing a suitable setting for the family groups clumped about the greens. The bright souvenir shops selling painted sand dollars and polished driftwood, funny hats and sawfish snouts, and the sand drifting up onto the asphalt from The World’s Most Famous Be-atch (as an oft-seen t-shirt design proclaims), and the flashing neon signs above strip clubs and tourist bars along Main Street, the din of calliope music, stripper music, tavern music, and voices, voices, voices, the vocal exhaust of vacationland America, exclamations and giggles, drunken curses and yelps and unenlightened commentary—it’s all familiar, overly familiar, tedious and unrelentingly ordinary, yet tonight its colors are sharper, its sounds more vivid, emblematic of the world of fresh possibility that Cliff is suddenly eager to engage.
It’s a good week for Cliff and Marley, a very good week. There is no recurrence of demons, no witches, no bumps in the night. Jerry is furious with him, naturally, and threatens to fire him, but he has no leverage—the job is merely a pastime for Cliff and he tells Jerry to go ahead, fire him, he’ll find some other way to occupy his idle hours. He works on the book and is surprised how easily it flows. He hasn’t settled on a title yet, but anecdotal material streams out of him and he’s amazed by how funny it is—it didn’t seem that funny at the time; and, though he’s aware that he has a lot of cleaning up to do on the prose, he’s startled by the sense of bittersweet poignancy that seems to rise from his words, even from the uproarious bits. It’s as if in California, those years of struggle and fuck-ups, he realized that the dream he was shooting for was played-out, that the world of celebrity with its Bel Air mansions and stretch limos and personal chefs masked a terrible malformation that he hated, that he denied yet knew was there all along, that he didn’t want badly enough because, basically, he never wanted it at all.
The relationship, too, flows. Cliff has his concerns, particularly about their ages, but he’s more-or-less convinced himself that it’s all right; he’s neither conning Marley nor himself. He can hope for ten good years, fifteen at the outside, but that’s a lifetime. After that, well, whatever comes will come. It’s not that he feels young again. His back’s still sore, he’s beginning to recognize that he needs more than reading glasses, but he no longer feels as empty as he did and he thinks that Marley was spot-on in her diagnosis: he was lonely.
They make love, they go to the movies, they walk on the beach, and they talk about everything: about global warming, the NBA (Marley’s a Magic fan, Cliff roots for the Lakers), about religion and ghosts and salsa, about dogs versus cats as potential pets, about fashion trends and why he never married, and veterinary school. Cliff offers to help with the tuition and, though reluctant at first, Marley says there’s a well-regarded school in Orlando and she’s been accepted, but doesn’t know if she’ll have enough saved to go for the fall term. Cliff has major problems with Orlando. There’s no beach, no ocean breeze to break the summer heat, and he dreads being in such close proximity to the Mouse and the hordes of tourists who pollute the environment. Rednecks of every stamp, the blighted of the earth, so desperate in their search for fun that they make pilgrimages to Disneyworld and commingle with one another in a stew of ill-feeling that frequently results in knuckle-dragging fights between hairy, overweight men and face-offs between grim-lipped parents and their whiny kids. But he says, “Okay. Let’s do it.”
He’s scared by what he’s beginning to feel for her, and he’s not yet prepared to turn loose of the pool ladder and swim out into the deep end; but his grip is slipping and he knows immersion is inevitable. At times, in certain lights, she seems no older than twenty. She’s got the kind of looks that last and she’ll still be beautiful when they cart him off to the rest home. That afflicts him. But then she’ll say or do something, make a move in bed or offer a comment about his book or, like the other night at the movies, the first move he’s attended in years, reach over and touch his arm and smile, that causes him to recognize this is no girl, no beach bunny, but a mature woman who’s committed her share of sins and errors in judgment, and is ready for a serious relationship, even if he is not. That liberates him from his constraints, encourages him to lose himself in contemplation of her, to see her with a lover’s eye, to notice how, when she straddles him, she’ll gather her hair behind her neck and gaze briefly at the wall, as if focusing herself before she lets him enter; how her lips purse and her eyebrows lift when she reads; how when she cooks, she’ll stand on one foot for a minute at a time, arching her back to keep on balance; how when she combs out her hair after a shower, bending her head to one side, her neck and shoulder configure a line like the curve of a Spanish guitar. He wants to understand these phrasings of her body, to know things about her that she herself may not know.
The ninth morning after Cliff quit working for Jerry (he hasn’t made it official yet, but in his mind he’s done), he’s lying in bed when Marley, fresh from a shower, wearing a bathrobe, tells him she’s going to visit her mother in Deland; she’ll be gone two or three days.
“I meant to tell you yesterday,” she says. “But I guess I’ve been in denial. My mom’s sort of demented. Not really, though sometimes I wonder. She never makes these visits easy.”
“You want me to come along?”
“God, no! That would freak her out. Totally. Not because you’re you. Any man would freak her out…any woman, for that matter. She’d hallucinate I’m having a lesbian affair, and then all I’d hear the whole time is stuff about the lie of the White Goddess and how we’re in a time of social decline. It’s going to be hard enough as it is.” She hoists a small suitcase out from the back of the closet. “I want this visit to be as serene as possible, because the last day I’m there, I’m going to tell her about Orlando.”
“It’s not that big a move,” he says. “You’ll still be within an hour’s drive.”
“To her, it’ll be an extinction event, believe me.” She rummages through her underwear drawer. “One day you’ll have to meet her, but you want to put that day off as long as you can. I love her, but she can be an all-pro pain in the butt.”
Gloomily, he watches her pack for a minute and then says, “I’ll miss you.”
“I know! God, I’m going to miss you so much!” She turns from her packing and, with a mischievous expression, opens her robe and flashes him. “I’ve got time for a quickie.”
She leaps onto the bed, throws a leg across his stomach, bringing her breasts close to his face; he tastes soap on her nipples. She rolls off him, onto her back, looking flushed.
“Better make that a long-ie,” she says. “It’s got to last for two days.”
After she’s gone, Cliff mopes about the apartment. He opens a box of Wheat Thins, eats a handful, has a second cup of coffee, paces. At length, he sits on the bed, back propped up by pillows, and, using Marley’s laptop, starts working on the book. When he looks up again, he’s surprised to find that four hours have passed. He has a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant on South Atlantic, then drives home and works some more. Around eight-thirty, Marley calls.
“This has to be brief,” she says, and asks him about his day.
“Nothing much. Worked on the book. Ate lunch at Lim’s. How about you?”
“The usual. Interrogation. Field exercises. Advanced interrogation.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“No, it’s not…but I don’t want to be here. That makes it worse.”
“Are you coming back tomorrow?”
“I don’t know yet. It depends on how much aftercare mom’s going to need.” A pause. “How’s the book coming?”
“You can judge for yourself, but it feels pretty good. Today I wrote about this movie I did with Robert Mitchum and Kim…”
“Shit! I have to go. I’ll call tomorrow if I can.”
“Love you,” she says, and hangs up.
He pictures her standing in her mother’s front yard, or in the bathroom, a little fretful because she didn’t intend to say the L word, because it’s the first time either of them have used it, and she’s not sure he’s ready to hear it, she’s worried it might put too much pressure on him. But hearing the word gives him a pleasant buzz, a comforting sense of inclusion, and he wishes he could call her back.
He falls asleep watching a Magic game with the sound off; when he wakes, a preacher is on the tube, weeping and holding out his arms in supplication. He washes up but chooses not to shower, checks himself in the mirror, sees a heavy two-day growth of gray stubble, and chooses not to shave. He breakfasts on fresh pineapple, toast, and coffee, puts on a t-shirt, bathing suit, and flip-flops, and walks down to the beach. It’s an overcast morning, low tide, the water placid and dark blue out beyond the bar. Sandpipers scurry along the tidal margin, digging for tiny soft-shelled crabs that have burrowed into the muck. People not much older than himself are power-walking, some hunting for shells. One sixty-something guy in a Speedo, his skin deeply tanned, is searching for change with a metal detector. During spring and summer, Cliff reflects, Daytona is a stage set, with a different cast moved in every few weeks. After the spring breakers, the bikers come for Bike Week. Then the NASCAR crowd flocks into town and everywhere you go, you hear them display their thrilling wit and wisdom, saying things like, “I warned Charlene not to let him touch it,” and, “Damn, that Swiss steak looks right good. I believe I’ll have me some of that.” But the elderly are always present, always going their customary rounds.
Being part of the senior parade makes Cliff uncomfortable. In the midst of this liver-spotted plague, he fears contagion and he goes up onto the boardwalk. Most of the attractions are closed. The Ferris wheel shows its erector set complexity against a pewter sky; many of the lesser rides are covered in canvas; but one of the arcades is open, its corrugated doors rolled up, and Cliff wanders inside. Behind a counter, a short order cook is busy greasing the grill. Three eighth- or ninth-graders, two Afro-Americans and one white kid dressed hip-hop style, backward caps and baggy clothes, are dicking around with a shooter game. As he passes, they glance toward him, their faces set in a kind of hostile blankness. He can read the thought balloon above their heads, a single balloon with three comma-like stems depending from it: Old Fucking Bum. Cliff decides he likes playing an old fucking bum. He develops a limp, a drunk’s weaving, unsteady walk. The kids whisper together and laugh.
At the rear of the arcade, past the row of Ski Ball machines, where they keep the older games, the arcade is quiet and dark and clammy, a sea cave with a low ceiling, its entrance appearing to be a long way off. Cliff scatters quarters atop one of the machines, Jungle Queen, its facing adorned with black panthers and lush vegetation and a voluptuous woman with black hair and red lips and silicon implants, her breasts perfectly conical. When he was a kid, he’d lift the machine and rest its front legs on his toes so the surface was level and the ball wouldn’t drop, and he’d rack up the maximum number of free games and play all day. It didn’t take much to entertain him, and he supposes it still doesn’t.
He plays for nearly an hour, his muscle memory returning, skillfully using body English, working the flippers. He’s on his way to setting a personal best, the machine issuing a series of loud pops, signifying games won, when someone comes up on his shoulder and begins watching. Ashford. Cliff keeps playing—he’s having a great last ball and doesn’t want to blow it. Finally the ball drops. He grins at Ashford and presses the button to start a new game.
Ashford says, “Having fun?”
“I can’t lose,” says Cliff.
Ashford looks to be wearing the same ensemble he wore during the interview, accented on this occasion by a fetching striped tie. The bags under his eyes are faintly purple. Cliff’s surprised too see him, but not deeply surprised.
“Have you guys been watching my building?” he asks.
“You didn’t answer the buzzer. I took a chance you’d be somewhere close by.” Ashford nods toward the counter at the front of the arcade. “Let’s get some coffee.”
“I’ve got twelve free games!”
“Don’t mess with me, Coria. I’m tired.”
The two men take stools at the counter and Ashford sits without speaking, swigging his coffee, staring glumly at the menu on the wall, black plastic letters arranged on white backing, some of them cockeyed, some of the items misspelled (“cheseburgers,” “mountin dew”), others cryptically described (“Fresh Fried Shrimp”). The counterman, a middle-aged doofus with a name badge that reads Kerman, pale and fleshy, his black hair trimmed high above his ears, freshens Ashford’s coffee. Even the coffee smells like grease. The arcade has begun to fill, people filtering up from the beach.
“Are we just sharing a moment?” asks Cliff. “Or do you have something else in mind?”
For a few seconds, Ashford doesn’t seem to have heard him; then he says, “Stacey Gerone.”
“Yeah? What about her?”
“You seen her lately?”
“Not for a couple of weeks. Jerry said she ran off to Miami with some rich guy.”
“I heard about that.”
A shorthaired peroxide blond in a bikini, her black roots showing in such profusion, the look must be by design, hops up onto a stool nearby and asks for a large Pepsi. She has some age on her, late thirties, but does good things for the bikini. Ashford cuts his eyes toward her breasts; his gaze lingers.
“Ain’t got no Pepsi,” Kerman says in a sluggish, country drawl. “Just Coke.”
“This morning around five-thirty, one of your neighbors found a suitcase full of Stacey Gerone’s clothes in the dunes out front of your house.” Ashford emits a small belch, covering his mouth.
“Any idea how it got there?”
Alarmed, Cliff says, “I didn’t put it there!”
“I didn’t say you put it there. You’re not that stupid.”
“I haven’t been to the house for three days. I just drove by to see if everything was all right.”
The blond, after pondering the Pepsi problem, asks if she can have some fries.
“You want a large Coke with that?” asks Kerman.
Again the blond ponders. “Small diet Coke.”
Kerman, apparently the genius of the arcade, switches on the piped-in music, and metal-ish rock overwhelms the noises of man and nature. Ashford, with a pained expression, tells him to turn it off.
“Got to have the music on after nine o’clock,” says Kerman.
“Well, turn it fucking down!”
“You got no call to be using bad language.” Kerman sulks, but lowers the volume; following Ashford’s direction, he lowers it until the music is all but inaudible.
Ashford rubs his stomach, scowls, and then gets to his feet. “I have to hit the john. Don’t go away.”
As he walks off, the blond leans the intervening stool and taps Cliff on the arm. “Do I know you? I believe I do.”
Cliff mentions that he was once an actor, movies and commercials, and the blond says, “No, that’s not it. At least, I don’t think.” She taps her chin and then snaps her fingers. “The Shark! You used to come in. You were seeing Janice for a while last year. I’m Mary Beth.”
All the women at the Shark Lounge, waitresses and dancers alike, are working girls and, after hearing about how Janice has been doing, Cliff has an idea.
“Have you got time for a date this morning?” he asks.
That puts a hitch in Mary Beth’s grin, but she says coolly, “Anything for you, sweetie.”
“It’s not for me, it’s for my friend. He needs to get laid. He’s a cop and the job’s beating him up.”
“You want me to ball a cop?”
“He’ll welcome it, I swear. Make out you’re a police groupie and you saw his gun or something. And don’t let on I had anything to do with it.”
“Whatever. It’s two hundred for a shave and a haircut. You know, the basics.”
“Shit! I don’t have two hundred in cash.”
“What about a credit card? I do Visa and Master.”
She hauls up a voluminous purse from the floor beside her stool and digs out a manual imprinter.
“Hurry!” he says, looking toward the bathroom door as she imprints his card.
Once they’ve completed their transaction, he says, “I didn’t mean to go all business on you. It was…”
“It’s no thing. I do a lot of business with older guys this time of day. It beats night work. They’re usually not freaks, so it’s easy money.”
“I know, but you were being friendly and I….”
“Oh, was I?” The blond shoulders her purse and smiles frostily. “You must have me confused for somebody else. I was working the room, Clifford.”
“Cliff,” he says in reflex.
“Okay. Cliff. I’m going to move to another stool so I can make eye contact with your buddy. But I’m down here most every morning, so if you need me for anything else, you just sing out.”
Cliff doesn’t know why he does this type of thing, plays pranks for no reason and without any point. He wonders if had it mind to compromise Ashford, to get something on him; but he doesn’t believe it’s about manipulating people. He figures it’s like with the sea turtle—he’s showing off, only for himself alone, his audience reduced to one. Another instance, he thinks, of his nonchalance.
Ashford returns and tells Kerman to bring him a glass of water. He swallows some pills, wipes his mouth, and says, “They should blow up that john. It’s a fucking disaster area.”
“I can help you with that.”
“I was in a demolition unit during Vietnam.”
Ashford’s eye snags on something— Mary Beth is sitting across from him, eating her French fries, giving each one a blowjob, licking off the salt and sucking them in. He tears himself away from this vision and says to Cliff, “We haven’t been able to locate Miz Gerone, so officially you’re a person of interest. If that blood on your house matches DNA the lab extracted from her hair brush, I’m going to have to bring you in.”
Cliff offers emphatic denials of any involvement with her disappearance. “We fucked occasionally,” he says, “but that was it. We didn’t have much of an emotional connection.”
“I know this is a frame. But the way you’ve handled everything, telling that story, lying about your girlfriend, it…”
“That wasn’t a lie. I couldn’t get back into my house because you were processing it. So I went over to Marley’s after you released me, and things got deep. I swear to God that’s the truth.”
“Doesn’t matter. It looks bad. You want to know something else that looks bad? I got a copy of one of your movies in the mail the other day. Jurassic Pork. Came in an envelope with no return address.”
“Aw, Christ. I did that picture for the hell of it. I was curious to see what it was like.”
“Somebody’s trying to besmirch your character.” Ashford chuckles. “They’re doing a hell of a job, too, because you were definitely the shortest man in the movie.”
“Prosecutors love to drop that sort of detail into a trial. Juries down here tend to think poorly of pornography. But the frame is so goddamn crude. The person doing the framing must have no comprehension of evidentiary procedure.”
“So you believe me?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but I believe something’s going on at the Celeste.” Ashford has a sip of water, sneaks a peek at Mary Beth, who returns a wave, which he brusquely acknowledges. “You know of any way a used car can be given a new car smell?”
“Polyvinyl chloride,” Cliff says. “The stuff they make dashboards out of. It comes in a liquid form, too. The manufacturers use it as a sealant. When a dealer has to take a car back on warranty, some have been known to slap on a coat of PVC and resell the car as new.”
Ashford takes out his notebook. “What was that? The sealant?”
Cliff repeats the name. “The stuff’s poison. Every time America has a whiff of a new car interior, they’re catching a lungful of carcinogens.”
Apparently unconcerned by this threat to the nation’s health, Ashford says, “I might have found that Ford Escape. About five years ago, we were investigating a stolen car ring and we thought Muntz could be involved. We put a man into his service center in South Daytona. Nothing came of it, but I still had my suspicions. I went up there Tuesday and there was a red Ford Escape sitting out back under a tarp. I had one of our people take a look at it. It had that new car smell, but the engine number had been taken off with acid and the paint job wasn’t the original. The car was originally gray, like the one you saw.”
“If Jerry was chopping cars, they would have cut it up within an hour or two of bringing it into the shop,” Cliff says. “It’s been a month.”
“He might have a special order for an Escape. It might be a present for one of Muntz’s bimbos. Maybe he had a buyer and the guy has a cash flow problem. Who knows? Maybe it slipped his mind. Muntz is no Einstein.” Ashford’s cough is plainly an attempt to disguise the fact that he’s taking yet another look at Mary Beth. “He’s got papers, but the name on them doesn’t check out. He claims the guy came in off the street and said he won the car on a quiz show. I haven’t got enough to charge him, but my gut tells me that was your Escape.”
“So what’s next?”
“I might check in to the Celeste tonight and see what’s what. Vice has some expensive cars they use for undercover work. I can finagle one for the night, tell the guy on-duty at the yard I need it to impress some woman. That should get me into Room Eleven.”
“You think that’s a good idea?”
“I can’t see what else to do. I don’t have much time. If Gerone’s DNA comes back a match to the blood on your house, you’re going to become the sole target of the investigation.”
“I thought you said you believed me!”
“I may buy your story. Some of it, anyway. But no one else does. The only reason you haven’t been arrested is there’s no evidence, no body. I’m on my own. The captain…” Ashford grimaces. “He’s a results kind of guy. He’d love to make this case. It would look good on his resume. You’re about as close to a Hollywood celebrity as we got around here, and a trial would get him exposure. It’d be huge on Court TV. He won’t authorize me to do diddley until after the DNA comes back. If it’s a match, you’re in the shit.”
“When’s it due back?”
“Depends how far behind the lab’s running. Maybe two-three days. Maybe tomorrow afternoon.”
“Fuck!” Cliff tries to concentrate on the problem, but he’s too agitated—he flashes on scenes from prison movies, the wavy smear of blood on his porch, the face of the witch. “You shouldn’t do this alone.”
Amused, Ashford says, “Yeah, it’s going to be rough, what with demons and all.”
“You don’t know what happened to all those people.”
“First of all, we don’t know it’s ‘all those people.’ We don’t even know for sure about Gerone. Second…” He pushes back his coat to reveal his holstered weapon. “I’m armed, and I have thirty years on the job. I appreciate your motherly concern, but nothing’s going to happen that I don’t want to happen.”
“Have you asked yourself why they only disappear people who rent Number Eleven?”
“Well,” says Ashford after pretending to contemplate the question. “I guess because it has a magic stone buried underneath it.”
“You don’t have an answer, huh?”
“Maybe there’s a hidden entrance,” says Ashford, registering annoyance. “Or you just didn’t see the people leave. Maybe they take them out in little pieces. I got way too many answers. I got them coming out of my ass. That’s why I’m going up there, man. That’s how you work a case.”
Unhappy with this attitude, knowing he can’t influence Ashford, Cliff says, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this for me.”
“Jesus!” Ashford gives a derisive laugh. “You think I’m doing this for you? I don’t give a flying fuck about you. I’m doing this because I enjoy it. I dig being a cop. I hate to see bad guys get away. And that’s what’s going to happen if you become the focus of the investigation. We might get Muntz and the What’s-the-fuck’s-their-names for auto theft, but if they’re guilty of murder, I want to make sure they don’t slide.”
Cliff has new picture of Ashford as a rebel, a loner in the department who never advanced beyond the rank of sergeant because of his penchant for disobeying his superiors. He realizes this picture is no more complete than his original image of the man, but he thinks now that they’re both part of Ashford’s make-up. He wonders what pieces he’s missing.
“Go on, get out of here,” Ashford says, still irritated. “We’re done. Go play your free games.”
Cliff hesitates. “Give me your cell number.”
“What the hell for?”
“If you’re in there more than two hours, I’ll call you.”
Ashford glares at him, then extracts a card case from his jacket and flips a card onto the counter.
“Call me before you check in,” says Cliff. “Right before. So I’ll know when the two hours are up.”
“Fine.” Ashford signals Kerman, holds up his cup, and grins at Mary Beth. “See you later.”
As often happens when Cliff is under duress, he’s inclined to put off thinking about crucial issues. He returns to Jungle Queen and finds that his place has been taken by a bald, sunburned, hairy-chested man in a bathing suit, a towel draped around his neck, who has frittered away all but two of his free games. Cliff watches for a bit, drawing a perturbed glance from the man, as if Cliff is the reason for his ineptitude.
He spends the rest of the morning pacing, puttering around the apartment, his mind crowded with thoughts about Stacey. They didn’t care for each other that much, really. The relationship was based on physical attraction and sort of a mutual condescension—they both viewed the other as being frivolous and shallow. Nevertheless, the idea that she’s been murdered makes him sick to his stomach. He switches on the TV, channel-surfs, and switches it off; he vacuums, washes dishes, and finally, at a quarter past one, needing to talk it out with someone, he calls Marley.
“I’m in the middle of something,” she says. “I’ll call you tomorrow.“
From her emphasis on the word, he understands that she probably won’t be home tonight, that she’s trapped by her mother’s impending breakdown.
He drives to the Regal Cineplex in Ormond Beach, where a movie’s playing that he wants to see, but after half-an-hour he regrets his decision. It’s not that the movie is bad—he can’t tell one way or another—but sitting in the almost-empty theater forces him to recognize his own emptiness. It’s still there; it hasn’t gone away. He’s reminded of the first month after he returned to Daytona, when he attended matinee after matinee. He missed being part of the industry, and watching movies had initially been a form of self-punishment, a means of humiliating himself for his failure now that the work wasn’t coming anymore; but before long those hours in the dark, staring at yet not really seeing those bright, flickering celluloid lives, brought home the fact that he was missing some essential sliver of soul. He hadn’t always missed it—he was certain that prior to Hollywood he’d been whole. Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, show biz had extracted that sliver and left him distant from people, an affable sociopath with no particular ax to grind and insufficient energy to grind it, even if he had one. He hoped Marley could bring him back to life, and he still hopes for that, but hope is becoming difficult to maintain.
He walks out into the empty lobby and stands at the center of movie displays and posters. Pitt and Clooney, Will Smith and Matthew McConaughey, posed heroically, absurdly noble and grim. He buys a bag of popcorn at the concession stand from a pretty blond teenager who, after he moves away, leans on the counter, gazing mournfully at the beach weather beyond the glass. Thinking that it was the violence of the film that started him bumming, he tries a domestic melodrama, then a bedroom farce, but they all switch on the Vacancy sign in his head. He drives back to Marley’s apartment in the accumulating twilight, a stiff off-shore wind beginning to bend the palms, and waits for Ashford to call.
By the time the call comes at ten past nine, Cliff’s a paranoid, over-caffeinated mess, but Ashford sounds uncustomarily ebullient.
“Black Dog, Black Dog! This is Dirty Harry Omega. We’re going in! Pray for us!”
Cliff hears high-pitched laughter in the background. “Is someone with you? I thought you didn’t have any back-up.”
“I brought along the hoo…” He breaks off and asks his companion is it okay he refers to her as a hooker. Cliff can’t make out the response, and then Ashford says, “I brought along the beautiful, sexy hooker you set me up with.”
“Are you crazy?” Cliff squeezes the phone in frustration. “You can’t…”
“He wants to know if I’m crazy,” says Ashford.
An instant later, a woman’s voice says, “Ash is extremely crazy. I can vouch for that.”
“Mary Beth? Listen! I want you to have him pull over. Right now!”
“Everything’s under control, Coria,” says Ashford. “I’m on top if it.”
“And behind it, too. And on the bottom.” Mary Beth giggles.
“You can’t take her in there!” says Cliff. “It’s dangerous! Even if there’s nothing…”
“Bye,” says Ashford, and breaks the connection.
Stunned, Cliff calls him back, but either Ashford has switched off his phone or is not picking up.
There’s the missing piece to the Ashford puzzle, the one that explains why he never rose higher than sergeant: He’s a fuck-up, likely a drunk. He didn’t sound drunk, but then he didn’t sound sober, either. His friends on the force probably have had to cover for him more than once. He has to be drinking to pull something like this. Cliff tells himself that Ashford has survived this long, he must be able to handle his liquor; but that won’t float. He should go over to the Celeste…but what if he fucks up Ashford by doing so? He puts his head in his hands, closes his eyes, and tries to think of something that will help; but all he manages to do is to wonder about Mary Beth. Recalling how she slipped into business mode this morning, he’s certain Ashford is paying for her company. Six or seven hundred dollars, plus dinner and drinks—that would be the going rate for all-nighter with an aging hooker. Ashford, he figures, must earn thirty-five or forty K a year. Spending a week’s wage for sex would be doable for him, but he couldn’t make a habit of it. But what if this is his farewell party and he’s crashing out? Unwed, unloved by his peers, facing a solitary retirement—it’s a possibility. Or what if he’s on the take and this sort of behavior is commonplace with Ashford. Cliff has a paranoid vision of Jerry Muntz slipping Ashford a fat envelope. He rebukes himself for this entire line of speculation, realizing there’s nothing to do except wait.
Thirty minutes ooze past. Wind shudders the panes, rain blurring the lights of the boardwalk, and he calls again. Ashford answers, “Yeah…what?”
He’s slurring, his voice thick.
“Just checking on you,” Cliff says.
“Don’t fucking call me, okay? Call when it’s been two hours…or I’ll call.”
“Are you in Number Eleven?”
To ease the strain on his back, Cliff lies down on the bed and, perhaps as a result of too much adrenaline, mental fatigue, he passes out. On waking, he sits bolt upright and stares at the alarm clock. Almost midnight. If Ashford called, he didn’t hear it, but he’s so attuned to that damn ring…He fumbles for the phone and punches in Ashford’s number. Voice mail. After a moment’s bewilderment, panic wells up in him and he can’t get air. Once his breathing is under control he tries the number again, and again is shunted to voicemail.
He talks out loud in an attempt to keep calm. “He’s fucking me around,” he says. “Motherfucker. He’s twisting my brains like in high school. Or he forgot. He forgot, and now he and Mary Beth Hooker are passed out in bed at the Celeste.”
Hearing how insane this monologue sounds, he shuts it down before he can speak the third possibility, the one he believes is true—that Ashford and Mary Beth are no more, dead and done for, presently being carted off to wherever the Palaniappans dispose of the bodies.
He flirts with the notion of calling the police, but what would be the point? If they’re alive, all it would achieve is to attract more attention to him and that he doesn’t need. If they’re dead and he calls, he’ll instantly become a suspect in multiple murders and they’d most likely pick him up. But he still has an out. He calls Marley. Voicemail. He leaves an urgent message for her to call him back. If he knew where her mother lived, the street address, he’d drive to Deland and pick her up, and they’d get the hell out of Dodge. Where they would go, that’s a whole other question, but at least they’d be away from Shalin and Bazit. That’s okay, that’s all right. Tomorrow will be soon enough.
He tries Ashford a third time, to no avail, and lies down again. He doesn’t think he can sleep, but he does, straight through to morning, a sleep that seems an eventless dream of a dark, airless confine in which insubstantial monsters are crawling, breeding, killing, speaking in a language indistinguishable from a heavy, fitful wind, coming close enough to touch.
It’s not unreasonable to think, Cliff tells himself, that Marley’s still into it with her mother and that’s why she hasn’t called; but it’s nine AM and he’s growing edgy. He calls the police, asks to speak with Sgt. Ashford, and is put through to a detective named Levetto who says that Ashford’s always late, he should be in soon, do you want to leave a message?
“No, thanks,” says Cliff.
Screwing up his courage, he does something he should have done last night—call the motel.
“Celeste Motel,” says Bazit. “How may I be of service?”
Cliff rasps up his voice to disguise it. “Number Eleven, please.”
“Number Eleven is vacant, sir.”
I’m looking for some friends, the Ashfords. I could have sworn they were in Eleven.”
A pause. “I’m afraid we have no one of that name with us. A Mister Larry Lawless and his wife occupied Number Eleven last night.” Cliff thinks he detects a hint of amusement in Bazit’s voice as he says, “They checked out quite early.”
After trying Marley again, Cliff sits in his underwear, eating toast and jam, drinking coffee, avoiding thought by watching Fox News, when an idea strikes. He throws on shorts and a shirt, and heads for the arcade where he met Ashford the previous morning; he stakes out a stool at the counter, orders an orange juice from Kerman, and waits for Mary Beth to appear.
Last night’s deluge has diminished to this morning’s drizzle, but the wind is gusting hard. It’s a nasty day. Churning surf ploughs the beach, massive, ugly slate-colored waves larded with white, like the liquidinous flesh of some monstrosity spilling onto shore, strands of umber seaweed lifting on its muddy humps. The bruised clouds bulge downward, dragging tendrils of rain over the land. A mere scatter of senior citizens are braving the weather; in the arcade, a handful of debased souls, none of them kids, are feeding coin slots with the regularity of casino habitués. If she’s alive, the chances of Mary Beth putting in an appearance are poor, but Cliff sticks it out for more than an hour, scanning every approaching figure, prospecting the gray backdrop for a glint of whitish gold with black roots. His thoughts grab and stick like busted gears, grinding against each other, and the low music of the arcade, a muttering rap song, seems to be issuing from inside his head.
He reaches for his cell phone, thinking to try Marley, and realizes he has left it on the kitchen counter. He hurries back to the apartment and finds a message from Marley. “Hi, Cliffie,” she says. “I’ll be home soon. Mom’s no longer threatening suicide. Of course, there could always be a relapse.” A sigh. “I miss you. Hope you’re missing me.”
The message was left five minutes ago, so he calls her back, but gets her voicemail. It’s twenty-three miles to Deland, a twenty-minute drive at Marley’s usual rate of speed. At worst, he expects her to walk through the door in a couple of hours. But two o’clock comes and she’s not yet back. He calls obsessively for the better part of an hour, punching in her number every few minutes. At three o’clock, he calls the police again and asks for Ashford. A different detective says, “I don’t see him. You want to leave a message?”
“Is he in today?”
“I don’t know,” says the detective impatiently. “I just got here myself.”
Cliff is astonished by how thoroughly the circumstance has neutralized him. He knows nothing for certain. There’s no proof positive that Stacey is dead, no proof at all concerning the fates of Mary Beth and Ashford. There is some evidence that Jerry is involved in criminal activity, perhaps with the Palaniappans, but nothing you can hang your hat on. He has every expectation that Marley is safe, yet he’s begun to worry. He can’t raise the alarm, because no one will believe him and the police think he’s a murderer. If truth be told, he’s not sure he believes Shalin’s story—events have gone a long way toward convincing him, but it’s perfectly possible that she’s playing mind games with him and that’s all there is to it. When the DNA results come back, as they could any minute, at least according to Ashford, then there may be some proof, but if the DNA doesn’t match Stacey’s…Nada. Yet it’s the very nebulousness of the situation that persuades him that his life has gone and is going horribly wrong, that he’s perched atop a mountain of air and, once he recognizes that nothing is supporting him, his fall will be calamitous. He should do something, he tells himself. He should leave before the DNA comes back, pack a few things and put some miles between him and the Palaniappans whom—irrationally—he fears more than the police. He can call Marley from the road, though God knows what he’ll say to her.
In the end, he takes a half-measure and drives to the cottage, deciding that he’ll pack and wait there for Marley to call. The surf in Port Orange is as unlovely as that in Daytona, the sky as sullen. Wind flattens the dune grass, and the cottage looks vacant, derelict, sand drifted up onto the steps and porch. When he unlocks the inside door, a strong smell rushes out, a stale, sweet scent compounded of spoilage and deodorizers. Eau de Cliff. He tiptoes about nervously, peering into rooms, and, once assured that no one is lying in wait, he grabs a suitcase and begins tossing clothes into it. In a bottom drawer, underneath folded jeans, he finds his old army .45 and a box of shotgun shells. The shotgun has long since been sold, but the .45 might come in handy. He inspects the clip, making certain it’s full, and puts it in the suitcase. Headlines run past on an imaginary crawl. Actor Slain In Deadly Shoot-out—Details at eleven. He finishes packing, goes into the living room, and sits on the couch. A cloud seems to settle over him, a depressive fog. He can’t hold a thought in his head. It’s been years since he felt so unsound, as if the fluttering of a feather duster could disperse him.
The overcast turns into dusk, and for Cliff it’s an eternal moment, a single, seamless drop of time in which he’s embedded like an ancient insect, suspended throughout the millennia. He feels ancient; his bones are dry sticks, his skin papery and brittle. The phone rings. Not his cell, but his landline. He reacts to it sluggishly—he doubts Marley would call him at this number—but the phone rings and rings, a piercing note that reverberates through the house, disruptive and jarring. He picks up, listens yet does not speak.
“Mister Coria? Hello?”
Cliff remains silent.
“This is Bazit Palaniappan, the owner of the Celeste Motel. How are you today?”
“What do you want?”
“I have someone here who wishes to speak with you.”
Marley’s voice comes on the line, saying, “Cliff? Is that you?”
“I’m afraid she’s too upset to talk further. I’ve arranged for her to have a lie-down in one of our bungalows.”
“You fuck! You hurt her, I swear to God I’ll kill you!”
Unperturbed, Bazit says, “Perhaps you could come and get her. Shall we say, within the next half-hour?”
“You bet your ass I’m coming! You’d better not hurt her!”
“Within the next half-hour, if you please. I can’t tie up the room longer than that. And do come alone. She’s very upset. I don’t know what will happen if you should bring people with you. It might be too much for her.”
His cloud of depression dissolved, Cliff slings the receiver across the room. He’s furious, his thoughts flurry, he doesn’t know where to turn, what to do, but gradually his fury matures into a cold, fatalistic resolve. He’s fucked. The trap that the Palnaniappans set has been sprung, but Marley…He removes the .45 from the suitcase, sticks it in his waist, under his shirt, and thinks, no, that won’t be enough. They’ll be watching for him, they’ll expect a gun or a knife. His mind muddies. Then, abruptly, it clears and he remembers a trick he learned in blow-it-up school. He goes to the drawer in which he found the .45; he takes out two shotgun shells, hustles back to the living room, rummages through his desk and finds thumbtacks, strapping tape, and scotch tape. He makes a package of the shells, the scotch tape, a few thumbtacks, and a length of string; he drops his shorts and tapes the package under his balls. He’s clumsy with the tape—his hands shake and it sticks to his fingers. The package is unstable. One wrong move and everything will spill onto the ground. He adds more tape. It’s uncomfortable; it feels as if he shit his pants. He stands at the center of the room, and the room seems to shrink around him, to fit tightly to his skin like plastic wrap. He’s hot and cold at the same time. A breath of wind could topple him, yet when he squeezes his hand into a fist, he knows how strong he is. “I love you,” he says to the shadows, and the shadows tremble. “I love you.”
Cliff burns across the Port Orange Bridge. It’s not yet full dark when he reaches the Celeste, but the Vacancy sign has been lit. Across the way, with its strings of lights bobbing in the wind and clusters of balloons and people milling everywhere, the used car lot might be a tourist attraction, a carnival without rides. He pulls up to the motel office and spots Bazit standing at the window, his arms folded. Bazit must see him, but he remains motionless, secure—Cliff thinks—with his hole card. He jumps out, heads for the door and, as he’s about to open it, feels something hard prod his back.
“You stop there,” says Au Yong, stepping back from him. She’s training a small silver hangun on him and scowling fiercely. Cliff’s right hand sneaks toward the .45, but Bazit emerges from the office and steers him into the shadows, where he pats him down. On discovering the .45, he makes a disapproving noise.
“I want to see Marley,” Cliff says.
“You will see her,” Bazit says. “In due course.”
Au Young says something in Cantonese; Bazit responds in kind, then addresses Cliff in English, “My wife says for such a negligible man, you have a very powerful weapon.”
“Fuck your wife,” Cliff says. “I want to see Marley now.”
Bazit continues patting him down, but does not check under his balls. “You will see her,” he says. “And when you do, let me assure you, she will be unharmed. She is resting. Shalin is with her.”
“You tell that bitch, if she…”
Bazit slaps him across the face. “I apologize, sir, for striking you. But you mustn’t call my daughter a bitch or say anything abusive to my wife.”
Again, he speaks to Au Yong in Cantonese—she looks at Cliff, spits on the grass, and goes into the office.
“This way, please.” Bazit gestures with the .45, indicating that Cliff should precede him toward the rear of the motel, toward Bungalow Eleven. “Don’t worry about your car. It will be taken care of.”
As he moves along the overgrown path that winds back among palmettos, Number Eleven swelling in his vision, Cliff’s throat goes dry and he feels a weakness in his knees, as might a condemned prisoner on first glimpsing the execution chamber. “Come on, man,” he says. “Let me see Marley.”
“I hope you will find your accommodations suitable,” says Bazit. “At the Celeste, we encourage criticism. If you have any to offer, you’ll find a card for that purpose on the night table. Please feel free to write down your thoughts.”
At the entrance to Number Eleven, he unlocks the door and urges Cliff inside. “There’s a light switch on the wall to your left. Is there anything else I can do before I bid you goodnight?”
Cliff opens the door and steps in. Of the hundred questions he needs answered, only one occurs to him. “Was it your father who did the special effects for Sword Of The Black Demon?”
“No, sir. It was not.” Bazit smiles and closes the door.
Cliff switches on the overhead and discovers that the lights of Bungalow Eleven are blue. It doesn’t look as bad as he imagined. No dried blood, no spikes on the walls. No bone fragments or ceilings that open to reveal enormous teeth. He tries the door. Locked from without—it appears to be reinforced. He fends off panic and goes straight to work, dropping his shorts and unpeeling the tape that holds the package. The entrance to the room is a narrow alcove, perfect for his purposes. He tapes a shotgun shell to the back of the door, the ignition button facing out. Then he tapes a thumbtack to the wall slightly less than head-high, the point sticking through the tape, aligning it so that the door will strike it when opened. He has to use the string to sight the job, but he’s confident that he’s managed it. The bathroom door slides back into the wall, so it’s no good to him. He searches for a hidden entrance. Discovering none, he tapes the second shell to the front door, a foot-and-a-half lower than the first, and lines it up with a second thumbtack.
An easy chair occupies one corner of the room. He drags it around, angles it so that it faces the door, and sits down. Booby-trapping the door has taken it out of him. He thinks that the adrenaline rush wearing off is partly to blame for his fatigue, but he’s surprised how calm he feels. He’s afraid—he can almost touch his fear, it’s so palpable—but overlying it, suppressing it, is a veneer of tranquility that’s equally palpable. He supposes that this is what some men feel in combat, a calmness that permits them to function at a high level.
The blue light, which annoyed him at first, has come to be soothing, so much so that he finds himself getting sleepy, and he thinks that the Vacancy sign may have had a similar effect when he stared at it from the used car lot. He wants to stay alert and he looks around the room, hoping to see something that will divert him. The windows are covered by sheets of hard plastic dyed to resemble shades. Except for them, everything in Number Eleven is blue. The toilet, the rugs, the bed table coated in blue paint. The sheets on the bed are blue satin, like the witch queen’s sheets in the movie. That bothers him, but not sufficiently to worry about it. He tries to estimate how long he’s been here. Maybe thirty, forty minutes…The sheets seem to ripple with the reflected light, gleams flowing along them as if they’re gently rippling, and he passes the time by watching them course the length of the bed.
He thinks this could be it, the sum of the Palaniappans’ vengeance—they’ve finished with their games, and in the morning they’ll reunite him and Marley. They appear to know everything about him, where he is at any given moment…all that. Perhaps they know he’s basically decent and that he didn’t intend to injure Isabel. That thought planes into others about Isabel, and those in turn plane into memories of the movie they made together. He can’t recall its name, but it’s right on the tip of his tongue. Devil Something. Something Sword. She flirted brazenly with him on the set, but there was an untutored quality to her brazen-ness, as if she didn’t have much experience with men and knew no other way to achieve her ends. He recalls seeing her off the set, in a Manila hotel, room service on white linen, high windows that opened onto a balcony, how she danced so erotically he thought his cock would explode, but once he was inside her, that part of him calmed down and he could go all night. It’s a wonder he didn’t notice she loved him, because all these years later he sees it with absolute clarity. She would lie beside him, stroking his chest, gazing into his eyes, waiting for him to reciprocate. He thought she was trying to impress him with her devotion, to trap a rich American for her husband, and, while that might have been true, he failed to recognize the deeper truth that underscored her actions. It’s the same with Marley, and he understands that, at least in the beginning, he treated her with equal deference, dealing with her as one might a sexy puppy that was eager to bounce and play. It was convenient to feel that way, because it absolved him of responsibility for her feelings.
Other memories obtain from that initial one, and he becomes lost, living in a dream of Isabel, and when a point of blue light begins to expand in mid-air, right in front of him, he thinks it’s part of the movie he’s replaying, part of the dream, and watches from a dreamlike distance as it expands further, unfolds and grows plump in all the right places, evolving into the spitting image of Isabel as she was in The Black Devil’s Sword or whatever, blue skin, black nipples, lithe and curvy, her secret hair barbered into exotic shapes, and she’s dancing for him, only this dance is different from the one she used to do, more aggressive, almost angry, though he knows Isabel didn’t have an angry bone in her body…it’s as though she has no bones at all, her movements are so sinuous and supple, bending backwards to trail her hair along the floor, then straightening with a weaving motion, hips and breasts swaying, a sheen of sweat upon her body as she flings her fingers out at him, like the queen…in the movie…when she danced…
Cliff feels pain, not an awful pain, but pain like he’s never felt before, as if an organ of which he has been unaware, a special organ tucked away beneath the tightly packed fruits of heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and intestines, insulated by their flesh, has been opened and is spilling its substance. It’s not a stabbing pain, neither an ache nor a twinge, not the raw pain that comes from a open wound or a burning such as eventuates from an ulcer; but though comparably mild, not yet severe enough to combat his arousal, it’s the worst pain he has known. A sick, emptying feeling is the closest he can come to articulating it, but not even that says it. He understands now that this is no movie and that something vital is leaking out, being drawn from his body in surges, in trickles and sudden gushes, conjured forth by blue fingers that tease, tempt, and coax. He tries to relieve the pain by twisting in the chair, by screaming, but he’s denied the consolation of movement—he cannot convulse or writhe or kick, and when he attempts to scream, a scratchy whisper is all he can muster. It’s not that he’s being restrained, but rather it seems that as the level of that vital essence lowers, he’s become immobilized, his will shriveled to the point that he no longer desires to move, he no longer cares to do anything other than to suffer in silence, to stare helplessly at the beautiful blue witch with full breasts and half-moon hips, sweat glistening on her thighs and belly, who is both the emblem and purveyor of his pain.
His vision clouds, his eyes are failing or perhaps they are occluded by a pale exhaust, a cloud-like shadow of the thing draining from him, for he glimpses furtive shapes and vague lusters within the cloud; but they are unimportant—the one wish he sustains, the one issue left upon which he can opine, is that she be done with him, and he knows that she is nearly done. His being flickers like a shape on a silent screen, luminous and frail. But then she dwindles, she folds in upon herself, shrinking to a point of blue light, and is gone. Her absence restores to him an inch of will, an ounce of sensitivity, yet he’s not grateful. Why has she left him capable of feeling only a numb horror and his own hollowness? He wants to call her back, but has no voice. In frustration, he strains against his unreal bonds, causing his head to wobble and fall, and sits staring at his feet. Sluggish, simple thoughts hang like drool from the mouth of whatever dead process formed them, the final products of his mental life.
After a while, an eon, a second, he realizes that the pain has diminished, his vitality is returning, and manages to lift his head when he hears a click and sees the door being cautiously opened. A woman with frizzy blond hair peeks in. He knows her—not her name, but he knows her and has the urge to warn her against something.
“Cliff!” she says, relief in her voice, and starts toward him, bursting through the door.
Two explosions, two blasts of fire, splinter the wood and fling her against the wall, painting it with a shrapnel of blood, hair, scraps of flesh and bone. She flops onto the floor, an almost unrecognizable wreckage, face torn away, waist all but severed, blood pooling wide as a table around her. But Cliff recognizes her. He remembers her name, and he begins to remember who she was and why she was here and what happened to her. He remembers nights and days, he remembers laughter, the taste of her mouth, and he wants to turn from this grisly sight, from the burnt eye and the gristly tendons and the thick reddish black syrup they’re steeping in. He wants to yell until his throat is raw, until blood sprays from his mouth; he wants to shake his head back and forth like a madman until his neck breaks; he wants very badly to die.
From outside comes the sound of voices, questioning voices, muted voices, and then a scream. Cliff understands now how this will end. The police, a murder trial, and a confinement followed by an execution. As Marley recedes from life, from the world, he is re-entering it, reclaiming his senses, his memories, and he struggles against this restoration, trying with all his might to die, trying to avoid an emptiness greater than death, but with every passing moment he increases, he grows steadier and more complete in his understanding. He understands that the law of karma has been fully applied. He understands the careless iniquity of humankind and the path that has led him to this terrible blue room. With understanding comes further increase, further renewal, yet nonetheless he continues to try and vomit out the remnant scrapings of his soul before Shalin returns to gloat, before one more drop of torment can be exacted, before his memories become so poignant they can pierce the deadest heart. He yearns for oblivion, and then thinks that death may not offer it, that in death he may find worse than Shalin, a life of exquisite torment. That in mind, he forces himself to look again at Marley’s disfigured face, hoping to discover in that mask of ruptured sinews and blackened tissue, with here and there a patch of skull, and, where her neck was, amidst the gore, the blue tip of an artery dandling like a blossom from a flap of scorched skin….hoping to discover an out, a means of egress, a crevice into which he can scurry and hide from the light of his own unpitying judgment. He forces himself to drink in the sight of her death; he forces himself and forces himself, denying the instinct to turn away; he forces himself to note every insult to her flesh, every fray and tatter, every internal vileness; he forces himself past the borders of revulsion, past the fear-and-trembling into deserts of thought, the wastes where the oldest monsters howl in the absence; he forces himself to persevere, to continue searching for a key to this door-less prison until thick strands of saliva braid his lips and his hands have ceased to shake and cracked saints mutter prayers for the damned and blood rises in clouds of light from the floor, and in a pocket of electric quiet he begins to hear the voice of her accusatory thoughts, to respond to them, defending himself by arguing that it was she who originally forced herself on him, and how could he have anticipated any of this, how can she blame him? You should have known, she tells him, you should have fucking known that someone like you, a jerk with a trivial intelligence and the morals of a cabbage and a blithe disregard for everything but his own pleasure, must have broken some hearts and stepped on some backs. You should have known. Yeah, he says, but all that’s changed. I’ve changed. With a last glimmer of self-perception, he realizes this slippage is the start of slide that will never end, the opening into a hell less certain than the one that waits upon the other side of life. He feels an unquiet exultation, a giddy merriment that makes him dizzy and, if not happy, then content in part, knowing that when they come for him, the official mourners, the takers under, the guardians of the public safety, those who command the cold violence of the law, they’ll find him looking into death’s bad eye, into the ruined face of love, into the nothing-lasts-forever, smiling bleakly, blankly…