Part 1 of the "Girls" triptych
Monica found a body on the Internet. It told her I didn't think it was a good fit, though that wasn't true. The girl's body was a perfect fit for the one it would be replacing: skeletally scrawny, due to a life of malnourishment, no doubt. Mom was scrawny, too, though grinding poverty wasn't the issue with her. It was the cancer. Mom could afford food. Mom had enough money to feed the proverbial army. The girl on the computer screen looked like she hadn't had a good meal in her life. In terms of physique, for very different reasons, she and Mom were practically twins.
So when I told Monica I didn't think the girl was a good fit, we both knew I was talking about color. Dark as a berry, you could call her, opposed to Mom's pale as a Gouda cheese.
"You know how much a Romanian would cost us?" Monica wanted to know, as she pushed the key to print the picture of the dark brown girl.
"What do you mean 'us'?" I asked. "This is coming out of Mom's pocket." I stopped at adding: "isn't it?" I wracked my brain for other poor white countries the body brokers might conceivably mine for product.
The printer clicked and hummed, feeding out the Sub-Continent Girls page, full body link, with the picture of our potential donor. She was, under the influence of our less-than-state-of-the-art inkjet system, even darker than she'd appeared on the screen. And haunted. The girl looked scared to death. As well she should be. She was a bargain, less than half the cost of virtually any European girl, and according to the pop-up blurb on the screen from the courier service that would transport her across half a globe subject to selling like a little brown hotcake, due to her affordability.
Monica slipped the paper out of the printer, and fixed me with a grim expression. "I'm going to show this to Mom, see what she thinks."
"If it'll save her ten thousand bucks," I said, "I'm sure she'll think it's gangbusters." Mom, with four million and change in a regular savings account, still clipped grocery store coupons.
"Fifty thousand," Monica corrected me, her lower lip quivering off the last syllable.
"F-fifty ..." I stammered.
Monica nodded, with one fat tear rolling down her cheek.
"Because of ..."
"The lip," Monica said, finishing my thought, and touching her own perfect upper lip with the oval of a blood-red fingernail. The girl suffered the deep gash of a twisted cleft pallet, which didn't matter one wit, since the part of her from the neck up with the exception of her eyes, for some other recipient would end up in an incinerator. The cancerless body was all that Mom needed.
Monica's fingers, quivering, hovered over the keyboard. "I'm going to buy her," she said in a hushed voice."
I laid a hand on her shoulder, thinking: Death Certificate. Hit the code and send Mom's money, and that girl is dead.
"They can't trace it, can they?"
Monica shook her head, her fingers resting atop the plastic keys now. "The Scrambler ..." she said.
For a pretty penny that was going to pay for itself (Mom's money) we'd had an illegal scrambler installed in our computer. All transactions, however sordid drug purchases, pornography viewing, the procurement of prostitutes or organ donors via the X-Web were untraceable.
"You know what it'll be like for her, Monica, if someone doesn't buy her." I was going to say she'd get sold into the sex trade, but that lip probably precluded that. "She probably wouldn't live more than a year or two more anyway."
That was probably true.
"She'd probably end up in a chop shop in Hong Kong," Monica said just above a whisper.
Where they'd take her apart a piece at a time, I left unsaid. A kidney, a lung, an eye or two, keep her alive while they sliced out pieces of her.
Monica sobbed into her hands, then gasped in a deep breath, collecting herself. Fingers drifted to the keyboard, hesitated, then flew. Keys clattered. She was fast enough that I didn't have a ghost of a chance of catching the password to her mother's account; and it seemed almost like I could hear it, like a mad wasp hissing by my ear a cool hundred and twenty-five thousand bouncing off a satellite and ending up in the coffers of Sub-Continent Girls, Inc.
Monica leaned back, put her hands over her face again, and then mumbled through her fingers: "Let's go tell Mom."
We found her in the "throne," the big-cushioned wing-back chair in the living room. The hiss of her green oxygen tank sat silent so she could smoke a cigarette.
Monica glided silently to her and dropped to a knee, took her mother's crone's claw in her own smooth hand. Rose Rose Shea, my mother-in-law dragged deeply on her cigarette, but didn't take her eyes off the rotund holy man on the fifty-four-inch laser screen of the TV He assured the doubtful that God loved them, as a small hologram pop-out asking for money for his ministry floated out into our living room in the form of a young dandy in a shark skin suit, wearing a flashing grin beneath the eyes of a Gila monster. Mom stabbed her cigarette into the corner of her mouth and picked the remote control off the end table, and like a sharp-shooting space cadet she zapped the glowing pop-out to smithereens. She cackled: "I already sent him a check this month."
"Mom," Monica repeated.
Rose puffed, "What!" turning her steel-eyed attention to her daughter.
Monica flinched forty-five years old, and the old lady still had the whammy on her.
"We found a ... we found a girl."
"Who's we?" Rose wanted to know, casting a frigid glare my way. She was well aware of our web search; she had, in fact to use a generous choice of words requested it, just after she'd changed her will. Should Rose Shea die before a suitable donor body could be located, Monica Shea Neff's inheritance was going to that fat Holy Man on our TV screen.
"If he had anything to do with choosing my new body, it's probably some chesty little sexpot."
"And he'll molest me ..." she rasped, her words dripping acid. "He'll molest me while I'm helpless, before my spinal cord has heeled, touch me with his hot, dirty hands ..."
"MOM!" Monica had risen from her kneeling position to a crouch, so she could cradle her mother's face. I slipped backwards. My stained soul and filthy intentions were often whenever the Holy Spirit brimmed over the top of her an ongoing concern of Rose Shea's.
Then like a gust of wind scattering a pile of dried leaves, Rose's lung's rattled. She fell back in her chair. Monica reached for the oxygen tank and turned on its hissing flow with one hand as she fixed the nostril tubes into her mother's nose with the other; and I turned and escaped, slipping off to the garage, suffering nightmarish visions of Rose Shea's sepulchral grey face affixed to the round voluptuous curves of a Las Vegas show girl, as a pop-out drifted away from the TV set, an angel in white robes chirping a ditty about laundry soap that would render your clothes Heavenly clean.
I kept a small refrigerator in the garage. I kept beer in it. I opened the door and pulled one out, popped the top and drank half of it down in one cold chug, then shook myself like a wet rooster, trying to erase the thought of carnal contact with my mother-in-law from my mind. But the dirty image hung there, so I finished the beer and grabbed another, and poked the button on the wall to open the garage door.
The metal panel rolled up on its tracks, nearly noiselessly, like a rising curtain, and when it had risen three quarters of the way to its destination, chest level, the words: "Viejo! Que Paso?" sang out.
"Who," I said, as the door chunked to a stop, "are you calling an old man, you bastard?"
Joe laughed, heartily. Back when I was still employed at Trad-Com, pulling home the big bucks, Jose (Joe) Barajas mowed my lawn. Mowed and fertilized and weeded and maintained an extensive sprinkler system for me. That task, once I was downsized, and Rose decided my chances of finding another situation were looking pretty dim (an accurate assessment, I'm sorry to say), the lawn maintenance thing came to me.
"You lawn looks like shit, viejo," Joe observed.
He stood in my neighbors' yard, visible to me from the chest up behind the retaining wall separating our different property levels. In his muddy hands he held a computerized sprinkler head he'd just dug up.
I ignored his good-natured insult and said, "I thought you didn't really work anymore, Joe; I thought you hired all the manual labor out."
Joe'd snuck into America ten years ago, and he immediately lied to the Immigration and Naturalization people about his tenure here to take advantage of the '06 amnesty. He then embraced this great country, and prospered.
"What can I say, Roger," Joe grinned, gold teeth flashing in the late afternoon sunshine. "When you hire these damned illegals, sometimes Immigration comes around and scoops up part of your work force."
My former lawn man fiddled with the sprinkler, poking a small screw driver into its electronic guts, as a pop-out from the TV slipped through the wall like a little ghost, obeying its target audience program. It was a foot-high cocktail waitress long coltish figure, breasts pushed into a gravity-defying mode with a frosty bottle of beer in her hand. She levitated at chest level; her image, at this distance from the projection discs, was weak, see-through; her voice wavering with the tenuous connection as she sang a sappy old song, something about summertime, and the living is easy.
"Man," said Joe. "That's some TV your old lady got."
I stepped out of the garage as Joe bent to pop the sprinkler back into its connection. The waitress followed me, fading into oblivion as I left her range, the little bottle of beer disappearing last.
Finished with his sprinkler system maintenance, Joe hoisted a leg up onto my level and hopped into my yard, a squat, stocky brown Mayan, sinewy, tough as a chunk of beef jerky in pressed jeans, a rhinestone-button cowboy shirt and a pair of lizard-skin boots.
"Looks like you're dressed for a night on the town, Joe," I said.
"I am," he replied, holding his dirty hands away from his sides. "But one of my guys gets picked up by La Migra and can't finish his route, and then some asshole ..." he nodded in the direction of my neighbor's house, "... gets me on the cell phone cryin' about his sprinkler needs to be adjusted or he'll get brown spots on his lawn ..." Joe shrugged and smiled. "What's a guy gonna do, huh; ya gotta take care of business."
"You do indeed, Joe-man," I agreed. And business was undoubtedly good: a big bright-blue eight-banger pickup truck with a lavender-tinted painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe embossed on its passenger side door gleamed at the curb. If it stayed there for more than thirty minutes, the Neighborhood Association would send me a warning letter about providing parking space for "gaudy vehicles." The Association hated gaudy.
"Just like you," Joe grinned, eyes twinkling, "Only your business is takin' care of that old lady."
"You want a beer, Joe?" I said, trying to avert this line of talk. My entrepreneurial former employee we'd forged something of a garage buddy friendship after I'd let him go liked to play up the idea that I "took care" of my mother-in-law in the bedroom, for my keep.
"Si," said Joe to the beer. "As soon as I wash my hands off."
He stepped around to the walkway leading to the front door to use my hose to squirt the mud off his hands. I plucked him a beer from my refrigerator and pulled two lawn chairs out and set them up in the front of the garage, as a miniature doctor in a white smock and horn-rimmed glasses drifted through the wall wanting to know if it might be time to consider an erectile enhancement aide.
Joe came around the corner, shaking water off his hands. I shoved a beer at him; he took it and grinned at the doctor as he opened the can.
I sat down. Joe sat beside me, as the doctor faded out, replaced by a beautiful couple, too young to need erection enhancing drugs, writhing in slow motion between silk sheets to a synthesized romantic tune.
"Looks like the old lady's tryin' to give you a hint, Roger," Joe said, nodding at the little ghost lovers.
"That old lady," I replied, "is gonna be dead if we don't get her a body in about a month." And there goes her money, I left unsaid. I didn't have to tell Joe; our previous beer-soaked conversations had filled him in on my domestic situation, amusing him greatly.
"Chingao," said Joe. "Then you're gonna have to get you a real job, hombre."
I called Joe a bastard, and told him about the body Monica had ordered. I left out that the girl was still alive, and that by ordering her we'd put a "humanitarian euthanasia" into effect.
Joe took in the tale of the Internet purchase in silence, then said, "What's wrong with the vieja Jeff? Heart? Lungs?" he tapped his own chest with thick callused fingers.
I grabbed us two more beers and said, "Mostly lungs."
Joe rubbed a thick finger along his mustache. "You know, ese, there's this viejo in La Jolla, I do his lawn; I brought a kidney across the border for him a couple a months ago, saved him five thousand bucks.
My beer paused on the way to my mouth, then sank slowly back down to rest on my knee. "You smuggled a kidney?"
Joe fixed me with a conspiratorial gaze. "You don't think I bought that truck, or my house in Carlsbad, on my lawn mowin' profits, did you?"
"A kidney ...?"
"And before that, a heart," Joe said. "And last year, I snuck one of those pigs that you can transplant their organs into people, you know, for a lady out in Temecula."
"A pig ..." I'd heard about them. The FDA was dragging its feet on approval of these genetically engineered pig donors, so rich people who couldn't afford to wait for human organs were going to Ensenada to have pig innards installed or were having the animals smuggled into the states by guys like Joe, apparently.
I looked at my former lawn guy with a newfound respect as he questioned me about where I'd bought my body. He was very knowledgeable. He was, as it turned out, familiar with Sub-Continent Imports; he'd moved parts, even a body once, across the border for various customers before, and he assured me that I could save a bundle by having our girl shipped into Mexico where greasing the skids of illegal importation was easier and driving her across the border myself. And he let it be known that, for a fee, he would be willing to go along and show me how the import business was done.
I stabbed a hand through my hair and thought about the bottom line. Money saved on the body deal would go directly on to the Roger/Monica account. Monica would make sure of that. The old lady didn't need to know we'd cut some costs.
Joe and I haggled on the price of his services, coming to a mutually agreeable number before we shook hands on the deal, as a pop-out nurse in an antiquated starched white uniform floated out from the house, tossing an elongated silver pill up in the air and catching it.
"Suffering from a private itch, in a private and sensitive area?" she wanted to know.
"I got somethin' for your itch, lady," Joe said as he let go of my hand. She smiled broadly, kindly, holding the suppository out now between her thumb and forefinger.
Joe and I sat in side-by-side lawn chairs as the late afternoon sun glinted off the side of his truck, making the Virgin look as if she had a tear in her dark brown eye. We had another beer to seal the deal we'd made, then Joe, his face flushed, staggered down my driveway and crawled behind the wheel of his gaudy truck and roared away, as a letter from the Neighborhood Association glowed to life on a computer screen three doors away.
I stumbled inside, and found Mom slumped in her chair, her breathing a low growl. I followed the hum of the computer and found Monica, her mouth hanging open, sitting in front of the screen. A sweating plastic tumbler sat beside the mouse, half full of melting ice cubes and diluted red wine. Our girl Number 377214-A stared at us doe-eyed, like the condemned creature she was.
I touched Monica's back and got no response, so I turned the chair so she was facing me. In the light from the hallway a flow of spittle gleamed out of the corner of her mouth down to her chin.
She'd gotten into Mom's morphine again.
Sensing an opening, I leaned over and whispered in her ear: "I can save us some money."
She grunted and lifted a glazed look my way, with a dim bulb of awareness coming on deep in her eyes. I walked her through getting back on X-Web and into Sub-Continent Girls to change the delivery of our girl to the nearest pick-up point in Mexico Ensenada, sixty miles south of the border. She was compliant, like a zombie, so I had her shift the money the transaction had saved us into my personal savings account. I was going to need it, half of it to pay for Joe's savvy in getting the body across the border. The other half was mine. When I asked her for Mom's password, though, a sharp awareness flickered through the doped-up glaze in her eyes, and I backed off.
With the change in delivery done, Monica drifted off again, her chin falling slowly to her chest. I shook her shoulder. She groaned. I grabbed her wrists and pulled her to her feet, led her upstairs to our room and dumped her across the bed. Then I went down to the garage and grabbed another beer, to toast my ingenuity.
I took her to dinner the next night, where I nursed my beer, a dark amber pint with a half inch of snowy foam on top. Monica ordered a third pint for herself, then pointed to my glass.
"Gotta drive," I said. "But you enjoy.
She smiled across the table at me. The first two pints had taken the hard lines away from her eyes, loosened the small muscles around her mouth as we sat across from each other at Bloggie's, the micro-brewery out on Melrose Drive, by the courthouse complex.
The hospice nurse, Colleen a voluptuous red-haired forty-five year old given to pinch-mouthed glares when she caught me checking her out was sitting with Mom, giving us a rest from her care.
The waiter brought Monica's beer, a golden Loma Alta Lager. The expression this brought to my better half's face took ten years off her, made her look like the girl I'd married. I reached across the table and took her free hand and said, "You look beautiful."
She beamed, drank down a quarter of her pint and set the glass down on a bull's eye on the wet ring it had left on the table.
Our dinner arrived: Chicken Alfredo for Monica, a small pepperoni and jalapeño pepper pizza for me. The food at Bloggie's in spite of the warehouse ambience is first rate. We dug in. Monica needed another pint to wash the Alfredo down, and as she twirled the last of the cheesy noodles onto her fork, I broached the subject:
"Well," I said, "Tomorrow you're off to Barstow."
Monica's fork froze halfway to her mouth; she smiled. "Yes, dear, one more step to getting Mom's money situation sealed up tight." A dangling noodle swung back and forth in front of the cleavage her V-neck sweater revealed. She brought the noodles to her mouth and sucked them in. As she chewed, she said, "You're not going to have any trouble with the body, are you?"
"None whatsoever," I said, in full confidence. That morning I'd called Joe and arranged for him to do the pick-up by himself, and deliver our girl straight to the house. He agreed it might be better that way, less suspicious. He thought the Customs guys at the border might want to take a second look at a gringo and a Mexican guy riding together in a truck. You didn't want those guys taking second looks.
Monica, as I'd hoped, didn't remember making a change in plans. She'd printed out the initial pick-up instructions from Sub-Continent Girls. Originally, I was to meet a courier at the McDonald's in Del Mar, just east of the famous horse racing track, three days from today. I'd load the insulated crate into the back of her SUV and drive it to the Barstow clinic, up in the high desert, where they did the head transplants. Monica's job was to deliver Mom two days prior to the arrival of the body tomorrow to have her prepped for the operation. My money-saving delivery switch kept the day the same; but Joe was to pick our girl up in the McDonald's in Ensenada and transport her across the international border under a shipment of piñatas (another sideline of his) in the back of one of his work trucks, a primer-patched, faded-out blue Chevy van.
Monica swallowed her noodles and took a long draught of beer, then clumped her glass down and smiled and said, "You don't know how relieved I am to have this all taken care of."
She slept nestled up against me on the drive home, seat belt law be damned. I had to lug into the house over my shoulder, her hands hanging toward the floor, slapping the backs of my thighs as I staggered under the weight of her across the threshold.
Colleen, the hospice nurse, glided out from the living room, turned a look of heartfelt compassion at my unconscious wife. "It's all the stress," I explained, shooting a look in the direction of the living room, where Mom loomed. "Go upstairs and turn down the covers for me, will you," I said, nodding at the stairs.
"Poor dear," Colleen said.
For a woman of such a robust figure and rounded curves, our nurse, I noticed, had a very perky spring in her step as she bounced up the stairs.
I trudged up in her wake, through a wispy cloud of subtle floral perfume.
Colleen waited by the bed. I dumped Monica. Springs squeaked as she bounced. Colleen bent over to take Monica's shoes off. I wanted to goose her Colleen but stifled the urge, as Monica mumbled, "What are you doing?"
"Getting you into bed, dear," Colleen said, as she tugged my wife's slacks off and tossed them to me. "Where's her nightgown?" she asked.
I pulled one out of Monica's drawer, tossed it. The folded flannel square hit Colleen on the side of the head as she pulled Monica's sweater off, then it slid down to her shoulder and hung there. She shot me hard look, but I thought I saw a twinkle in the eye, a sly smile twitching the corner of her mouth. With practiced motions, Colleen dressed Monica for bed, then heaved her into position and pulled the covers up. Monica snorted, like a snuffling pig, and then rumbled into rhythmic snoring.
"There," Colleen announced, straightening up and running her hands down her ribs, smoothing out her own sweater. "That's done."
"Thank you," I said, holding eye contact with her. She returned my gaze; and if there wasn't a hint of come hither there, I didn't see anything hard or peremptory in her expression either. "There's something else we could get done, since we have the opportunity now." I considered winking, but thought that might be a little too obvious. Instead I just raised one eyebrow.
She read me like a book. "You're not serious?" she said.
"But I am," I replied, and to my surprise, she came toward me, moving with, if I wasn't mistaken, an extra little wiggle in her walk. Her eyes were half lidded when she reached me. She placed her hands on my chest, gently, and pushed me out of the room.
I grabbed her wrists with a gentle firmness, conveying, I hoped, a certain urgency as I tried to guide her down the hall, in the direction of the bedroom of my flown-the-nest daughter. Colleen gave me a parted lips look that made my mouth water and pushed me back, saying, "No, not up here."
"Where ...?" I whispered, as, in the space of a half a heartbeat, Colleen's eyes went wide and her lips peeled away from her teeth in a wild expression that went well with her action, that of giving me a mighty push in the direction of the stairs.
I had her wrists, I could have pulled her down with me, so letting go ... I don't know, maybe it was chivalry. I let her go as I screamed, "SHIT!" I windmilled my arms, trying to maintain my hold on the second-floor landing. I might have succeeded; and Colleen apparently feared I would, so she lunged in again to give me another shove to make sure I didn't, and I grabbed the front of that V-neck sweater, down by the hem at her waist, and toppled. She screamed and dug her heals into the carpet. The sweater stretched out to a remarkable length as the distance between us increased, and I hung there, leaned back at a forty-five degree angle to the horizontal, as if tethered by a straining rubber band; and she, reflexively, bent herself in half at the waist, to let the garment peel away; a tactic that, had it worked, would have allowed her to stay on the second floor while I fell. But the sweater snagged at her armpits, and Colleen, with her head wrapped in thin wool, was pulled into me. My face hit her bare flesh, just beneath her bra. The wool fabric of the sweater's front snapped tight against my back, just beneath my shoulder blades, wrapping us in to each other; and thus bound, we did a bumpy slide down the carpeted stairs to the first floor.
We clunked to a stop when my sweater-shrouded head hit the tiles of our entryway, leaving Colleen and I angled up the stairs, sweater-wrapped, with Colleen's prodigious breasts lifted and separated by a lacey black brassiere, with an assist from gravity now cushioning the sides of my face.
Colleen writhed, cursing impressively as she struggled to disentangle herself; and I too, in an effort at disengagement, tried to pull away. But gravity was again a factor. With my legs lying higher than my head, my undulations kept me sliding in the direction of a deeper and tighter burrowing inside her woolen garment. By the time we'd slid down to a horizontal off the staircase onto the tile floor, her bra it was, as it turned out, one of those front-clasp affairs had popped apart, freeing up her heavy breasts and allowing them to pummel my head without mercy as she fueled by her rage at this violation fought to free herself.
This didn't happen silently. Colleen's complaints echoed off the tiles, resonating in the full expanse of the high ceiling room.
But all things, as they say, must pass. She was ultimately able to break free, bouncing up to arrange herself into a decent state, her cheeks flaming as she raked her fingers through her disheveled red hair, as a prelude to kicking my ribs and storming off to the living room to retrieve her purse.
I sat up, took a deep breath and flinched as Colleen stalked back out and hit me in the head with her purse, swinging it from the long black strap. It felt as if it were filled full of nails and marbles and buckshot. It knocked me flat. She jerked the front door open, digging it into my kidney, and she was gone.
I sat up. The engine to her car roared like a grizzly bear at the curb; her tires screamed like a puma. I rubbed the bruise on my side where she'd kicked me, and looked up the stairs to see Monica standing on the landing, gazing down at me with a look of drunken incomprehension. Thoughtlessly, I raised my hand and gave her a little finger wiggle of a wave, as the hiss of labored breathing drew my attention in the direction of the doorway to the living room, where Mom stood. Her expression from the morphine also contained no hint of understanding. I got up and led her to her recliner. She followed along like a lamb. When I went to take care of Monica, I found her in bed, back in alcohol's leaden embrace, snoring almost as loudly as Colleen had screamed.
Monica and Mom took off for Barstow in the morning. I stayed home and kept an eye on the new lawn guy I'd hired to take care of my yard. I had a bankroll now, and I'd be damned if I was going to broil myself to death out under a blazing sun.
The lawn guy's name was Emilio. He stood about five foot two. His level of English competency told me he'd only been here a few months; and he had a crumple-fender truck and a weed whacker and a lawn mower that looked like it had about a hundred and forty thousand miles on it; but he worked cheap, and I sat in the shade of the garage with a good book and glanced up occasionally to make sure he did his job.
I'd just stood up to freshen my drink when Emilio ran over a sprinkler head down by the curb, inciting a geyser. Rainbows arced as I abandoned my lawn chair and iced tea to go turn off the system at the main valve. As the mist settled, and Emilio took off his baseball cap to scratch his head, I wished, fervently, that I had Joe back on the lawn maintenance job.
That day and the next were heaven: sports on television, beer, nachos for dinner, doughnuts for lunch. But on the day of the delivery I got a call:
"Roger," said the familiar voice in my ear. "We got us a little problemo."
I was sitting in my lawn chair in the garage again, gazing out the open door at the sprinkler Emilio had installed as it watered a hundred and eighty degree arc of the street and sidewalk instead of my lawn.
"What do mean, Joe," I answered. "You got the body or what?"
"I got the body."
He was to deliver it to me today, and we'd slide into the back of the SUV, and I'd roll it out to the desert.
"So what's the problem?" I wanted to know, fearing transportation damage of some sort. Corpses frozen in liquid nitrogen are, according to the literature, brittle and prone to breakage if they aren't properly packed. I thought maybe some rough handling had lost us a hand or foot.
"She's not exactly in the condition you thought she'd be in," Joe said.
Out of the earpiece I heard a horn honk, then cursing in Spanish over a wash of border blare.
"Where are you, Joe?" I asked.
"I'm sittin' in the traffic jam at the border.
Oh shit, I thought. "There gonna be a problem getting across?" I said, my heart dropping.
"No, no, nothin' like that," Joe assured me.
I let out a deep breath. I should know better. The Customs guys are more interested in catching potential terrorists these days that they are stopping petty smugglers; and besides, Joe had assured me he'd applied some grease.
"So just get her up here, Joe. If she's got some dings or dents from the shipping, the docs can take care of that."
"No dings, Rog; no dents."
"Then what ..."
"She ain't dead, Rog."
"What?" I said, dumbly. All I could think of was Mom, and the possible catastrophe of her death. "Yeah, I know, Joe, that's why you got to get that body up here, before the old lady does die on us."
"I ain't talkin' 'bout the old lady, Rog."
My jaw fell as it hit me.
"You're talking about ..."
"I'm talkin' about your girl, Rog; she ain't dead; she's alive; I had to get something at the pharmacy down here to knock her out. She was rustlin' around under my piñatas like a little rat." I could hear him take a deep breath. "This is gonna cost you, Roger. The deal was to bring a body across, not a live girl."
"Oh shit," I said, as the muscles started to tighten in my chest. "Oh shit!"
Joe rattled into my driveway an hour and a half later, his van packed to the gills with a jumbled rainbow of piñatas. I moved my lawn chair out of the way and waved him to drive inside. His exhaust fogged the place as I pushed the button on the wall to lower the garage door.
He climbed out from behind the wheel, a grim expression creasing his face. We haggled. He wanted more money for the change of our girl's condition, stabbing me with little complaints about the inconvenience I'd caused him; I parried that transporting a live body over the border probably carried less of a legal penalty than bringing a corpse across. He countered this by saying he'd had to buy drugs and administer them to an uncooperative recipient, bringing in a blow-by-blow description of wrestling with the wiry little thing in the back of his van, applying a headlock, receiving a scratch on his cheek from ragged fingernails (readily observable); and having his finger bitten nearly to the bone when he forced a fistful of pills into the girl's misshapen mouth.
He held up a bloody digit, wrapped to thrice its size in what looked like the material from an old white undershirt.
I peeled him off a roll of bills from the wad I'd extracted from my bank account. He stuffed it in his pocket and led me around to the back door of the van and opened the door for a view of floor-to-ceiling piñatas, with a small dirty dark brown foot sticking out of the mass, between the rear legs of a cardboard-bodied, tissue-haired quadraped. Joe grabbed the little foot and pulled. Limp as a dishrag she came, dragging donkeys and pigs and monkeys with her. I cradled her head as it cleared the edge of the van's carpet so it wouldn't drop and bounce off the cement.
"Nice catch, Rog," Joe said, as I eased her to the floor. "But a little bump up there ain't gonna matter; that's the one part of her you won't be needin'."
The uneasy feeling I'd had in my stomach since I'd found out she was alive twisted itself into a painful knot. Our unconscious girl was as tiny as a bird, as dark as the berry that bird would dive into the bush for. Her upper lip was twisted cruelly, revealing missing incisors and misshapen canine teeth. The nose, an off-kilter button, was crusted with dried green snot, and her hair with a heavy layer of dust blurring its blackness looked like it'd been styled with kitchen knife. She wore a wraparound garment of dirty beige that had ridden up as Joe and I pulled her out of the van, revealing a pair of legs no bigger around than the small end of a baseball bat.
The girl moaned; her arm the size of two of my conjoined fingers floated up and fell across her eyes; and I collapsed.
I'd heard of that happening to people, but never experienced it first-hand. It was like my skeleton had dissolved at the prospect of taking this living creature up to have her killed.
After Joe's border call, I'd phoned the Second Chance Clinic in Barstow. I told them the situation. They steered me to what they called a "prep-house" in Victorville, conveniently right on the way up there, just off Interstate 15, where, for a price, of course, I could have our girl "medically prepared" for the operation. They even made the appointment for me, for early the next morning. I told them I was as good as on my way.
But confronted with the sight of the starved and deformed and surely over a brief, brutal lifetime tortured creature on my garage floor was like God slapping me along side the head. And the next thing I knew I was leaned up a against Joe's van's rear tire as the piñata man tilted a can of Mexican beer to my lips.
I snatched it from him, poured it down in one long sloppy gulp, then I slammed the can on the floor, burped and followed Joe's gaze to the closed garage door, where our girl was sitting, her back leaned against the cold metal, eyes bleary, and her breath coming in deep panicked gasps.
"It's gonna cost you, amigo," Joe said, about my request that he take the girl up to the Second Chance Clinic.
"How much, Goddamn it," I whispered. We were in the breakfast nook. Joe had tied the girl's wrists to the handle on my sliding garage door. A half-dose of Mom's morphine and three of Joe's Mexican beers had me drifting back down to a level plane.
The number he shot across the table at me sent a jolt up my spine. Joe, observing this, waited until my grip had eased on the edge of the table before he said in a low tone: "You're asking me to have somebody killed, Roger. That don't come cheap."
I couldn't do it; I couldn't take that girl up to the prep house. I was I had to face it a fucking mess; but I didn't have, in my account, anywhere near the kind of money Joe was asking for. I drew in a deep breath, and then shot a number back across the table at him half of his asking price. Joe shook his head with an expression of tombstone immutability set into his square brown face. "No bargains, Roger. You got my best offer."
I leaned back and drew in a hissing breath.
Joe said: "You think this is somethin' I wanna do, Rojerio."
I crossed my arms on the table and laid my head down. "I gotta think," I said. I panted into the cradle of my arms, scattered thoughts of doom bouncing around inside my skull like panicked birds, as the sudden implacable warmth of Mom's morphine took hold, wrapping its soothing tendrils around my soul.
A bird screamed, a vulture with blood-red eyes, its obscene beak full of yellow misaligned teeth. It hopped toward me, black feathers falling to reveal oozing wounds on patches of bare grey skin as it issued another piercing cry. The muscles in my torso spasmed in my attempt to lurch back away from the horrid thing and I opened my eyes to dusk, a dim breakfast nook.
"Oh God," I said, straightening up in my chair.
I was alone. No Joe. The phone rang with the scream of that vulture.
My movements proved heavy. My attempt to answer the call resulted in knocking the phone set off the table into a plastic clatter on the tile floor. When movement had stopped, Monica's electronic voice whined: "Roger? Are you there?"
I slumped off the chair, thudding on the floor on my ass; I reached for the receiver and missed with an errant grip, sending it sliding away, spinning.
"RO-GER!" Monica's voice from the earpiece spiraled upward in a sizzling electron vortex. "Roger, punch the holo mode; I need to talk to you."
I punched speaker phone instead I didn't think I could do a face-to-face at the moment then I leaned back on the cool tiles to gather my thoughts. "Hi, babe," I said, hoping she didn't notice the tremor in my voice.
"Where the fuck are you, Roger; Mom's touch and go!"
I sucked in a deep breath, then let it out with the words: "I've got the girl, Mon."
I heard Monica's own exhalation of relief, followed by a silence.
"I'll be up there tomorrow," I said, trying to sound in control.
Another silence, this one pulsing with dark vibes. Then: "If you take off now, Roger, you could be up here in three hours."
I placed my hands on the chair and pushed myself up to my feet. "There's been a little, um, problem with the girl, Monica."
The explosion of curses blowing through the airwaves turned the air in the kitchen smoky blue and scared a small mouse out from its lair beneath the sink. The little rodent skittered on slick tile before its paws caught traction. It careened away, colliding with the baseboard on its exit from the room. I let Monica finish her vent, and answered her culminating query "What the blankedy-blank-blank-blank kind of problem are you talking about, Roger?" by telling her the girl had some physical problems that needed to be attended to before the body was transferred to Mom's head. I went on to say as I calmed myself, getting into the zone, as they say that I'd already arranged for the fix, and I'd have her there ready to go tomorrow afternoon. It was, I thought, a brilliant flash of necessary deceit that had led me into an improvised claim that I needed some money from Mom's account to get the girl "taken care of" for the operation.
Monica's mom, though, didn't raise no fools. The wife sweet, money-obsessed wife wanted to know where I was going to have the fix done; and exactly what the fix entailed; and when she had that information, she informed me, she'd shift the money to them (not me) after she'd investigated for herself on the web the competitive costs of the procedure.
The thought of playing hardball crossed my mind, an "I've got the girl and you don't" leverage, and a "you dance to my tune or you don't get her," gambit. But of course Mom's survival was in my best interests, too. If she happened to die while I was playing the blackmail game, a whole bunch of money would go bouncing off of synchronous satellites like errant eight balls, never to return again to Roger Neff's pool table.
I held out on the details and just gave her the name of the prep house, along with my password, BRITEFUTURE, to access the account I'd set up with them, then hung up to the sound of my wife of twenty-one years calling me an idiot.
I shivered at the prospect of her reaction when she got the news of our girl's condition, and the cost involved in altering that condition for the operation.
But all's well that ends well, was my thinking, as I trudged from the kitchen to get our girl, to tie her up in preparation for the trip to Victorville.
The thought of the bright future dimmed, though, when I stepped into the garage and found it unoccupied, except for a lone piñata pig with a pink tissue paper pelt and a dopey grin of a dumb beast who doesn't know that a baseball bat figures prominently in its future. Our girl was gone; a strand of frayed rope Joe had tied her to the door with hung loose from the handle.
I kicked that pig to pieces, then staggered through a storm of falling tissue paper, back inside to hit the speed dial for Joe's cell phone.
My first thought on finding the garage empty was that Joe decided to accept my offer and had taken the girl, and was on his way right now to the Second Chance Clinic up in Victorville. But did I give him the clinic's name? I couldn't recall. I must have. Unless ...
Unless Joe had taken her to try and extort more cash.
I checked the time. I'd been out an hour and a half. If he was on his way to Victorville, I should catch him climbing up the Cajon Pass, that four thousand foot rise from sea level that Interstate 15 tilts into outside of San Bernardino.
I dialed Joe's cell phone and the in-dash holo receiver in Joe's Virgin of Guadalupe truck. His square brown face congealed in a levitating image, just head and shoulders, hands at the ten and two positions on his steering wheel.
"Joe, you've got her, right?" I asked, my voice cracking.
A magnificent jumble of glossy black hair that bounced beside Joe's right ear loomed in the holo range, and the face of a full-lipped Mexican beauty framed in raven-black tresses partially eclipsed Joe's square cinderblock of a head. "Who's the gringo?" she wanted to know.
Joe nudged the girl aside with a big wet kiss on the cheek and then he said to me, with a leer, "Yeah, Roger, I got her."
The girl squealed like she had been pinched as her hand swung into holo view, backhanding Joe's chest. Joe chuckled like a lecher.
"Not her, Joe" I gasped, "The girl; our girl."
Joe's eye took on a cautious cast, fearful of admitting lawbreaking on public airwaves. "What girl, Roger?"
"Pinñata girl, Joe," I growled through gritted teeth.
"Why would I have her, Roger?"
His girl's hand snaked into the holo and touched his chin, then slithered over to the far side of his face to stroke his jaw.
"To make money to so you can keep up your payments on the big ugly truck of yours," I hissed, sensing myself getting close to losing it.
Joe's head size doubled as he thrust himself closer to the limited range in dash holo set-up. With his face as hard as a rock and a cold fury I'd never seen in his eyes before, he whispered, "Whose truck you callin' ugly, pendejo?"
I collapsed onto the breakfast nook dinette bench, my hand covering my eyes. "Shit, I'm sorry, Joe. The girl is gone."
"Joe's head shrunk as he leaned back in the driver's seat. His girl's head loomed again into the
holo, giving me a black stare before and after she'd kissed Joe's cheek."She was in the garage when I left, Roger," Joe said, his face going soft as eyes his eyes took on a dreamy look from his girl's ministrations.
"She's not now, Joe," I replied.
"Well maybe," Joe said, as his girl stuck her pink tongue in his ear, "maybe she untied herself. You better go look for her."
I hung up and staggered out to my front porch and stood there gazing into the gathering dusk, a violet sky slowly deepening toward dark purple. The streetlights blinked on as my screen door sighed into its latch. Mindy Hutchroft's gargantuan Ford Extreme rolled down Meadowbrooke Street on shoulder-high tires. She turned right on Starlight Drive, passing in front of our house. Her silhouette behind the wheel waved.
Ghostly cones of yellow light were solidifying under the street lights that glowed at the end of the arms that arced from the light polls out over the streets. Full darkness was fifteen minutes away, and that would mean my girl was gone.
It was time for action.
Instead of searching down Starlight drive, to my right on a route that exited our enclave on College Avenue and led out to the Wal-Mart, and civilization (she was irretrievable if she went that way and got mixed in with the general population) I chose the dead-end of Meadowbrooke Street. It was fifty-fifty. If she'd gotten out into traffic, I wouldn't be able to retrieve her anyway, was my hunch. But she'd be scared witless, confused. She'd surely just look for a dark nook to hide in.
Inside, the phone rang. I punched "holo" on my belt pad and slipped back to the kitchen. Colleen's upper half floated above the phone set. Mom had made her an offer that she couldn't refuse, well-paid employment to serve as her personal nurse during her recovery from the operation. It would take, at Mom's age, several months for the head-to-body neurology to re-establish itself. Colleen had quit her hospice duties and gone with Mom and Monica up to Barstow. She'd be living with us indefinitely.
"You'd better get the body up here, hot shot; Rose won't last the night."
"Where are you calling from?" I asked. "Is Monica around?"
"She's inside with her mom; I'm in the parking lot, in my car."
"There's a problem with the girl," I blurted. I looked out the kitchen window, and the darkening sky. "I've lost her."
Colleen flinched, then rubbed her eyes and moaned, "Oh, Jesus. I told Monica not to let you handle this." She dropped her hand and stared at me and said: "How do you lose a body, Roger, and what's this shit about that clinic in Victorville? Monica's pissed."
"It's not a body; she's alive."
Colleen's chin dropped as her eyes goggled at me. Her image shrank as she leaned back away from her dashboard.
"She's somewhere out in the neighborhood. I've got to find her."
Her holo swelled as she leaned in. "If you don't have her in your car, on the way up here in one hour, Roger Neff," Colleen said, her holo bosom shivering with the quake of emotion, "I'm going to suggest to Monica we use the surrogate."
"Surrogate?" I said.
"Dr. Wu has offered us a temporary solution." Colleen said. She bit her lip, shot a glance at a spot off the holo. "But," she continued, bringing her gaze back to me, "it's won't be cheap."
"Shit," I said. "I'll find the girl."
"I'll call you in an hour."
"I'll be Barstow-bound," I said, with a lot more confidence than I felt.
The lots here in Eucalyptus Glen are quarter-acre affairs, stuffed with luxuriant and expensive landscaping, lots of places for our girl to hide. If she knew how to work a gate and had gotten into a back yard, I was sunk.
I took my flashlight, shined it into hedges and under driveway-parked Hummers and BMWs as I made my way along the sidewalk on Meadowbrooke.
Bethany Bretonovitch built like a brick shithouse, though I was in no condition at the time to appreciate that architecture came out and asked what I was looking for as I craned for a line of sight behind the Mexican fan palm that rustled beside her entryway in the evening breeze.
Venus glowed in the eastern sky, and the first stars of the night twinkled in from the void. I told her Rex had gotten loose. Rex was Mom's deceased Chihuahua; he slept now in cryonic extension in a vat of liquid nitrogen in the Petco Life Extension Foundation's restorium down in Chula Vista. But his demise was recent, and Bethany couldn't possibly know about it. She and Monica hadn't spoken since Bethany had taken off her top in the Jacuzzi at the Christmas party.
"Oh, the poor little guy," Bethany crooned. "Your mother-in-law must be beside herself."
"She is," I said.
My buxom neighbor, wearing tight jean shorts and a tighter tank top, oozed across her lawn at me, her face pinched into an expression of commiseration. "I'll help you look for the little man," she said.
Bethany poking around under bushes, her breasts riding gravity's groundward pull as she leaned to inspect dark crannies, was a compelling thought; but the pull of money disobeying gravity in an electron flight to a satellite outweighed carnal interests.
"No, no, Beth, that's all right; not to worry. I'll find the little man. Maybe I'll go home and get some dog bones, you know, entice him out of his hiding place."
I had no more finished this sentence when a very un-Chihuahua-like roar exploded next door, echoing back and forth between the high stucco walls of the two houses.
"Oh my God!" Bethany hissed, dancing in my direction to grab a hold of my arm, pressing a surgically augmented breast that was as round and firm as a honeydew melon into my ribs. "It's Benito!"
Benito was the Smithfield's pit bull, a mindless brute.
I groaned, at the feel of her Bethany's breast; at the certainty that our girl was in deep trouble.
Benito had chased me off my own front yard into the garage one time, damned near getting a bite of my butt. He appeared, as Bethany clung to me, a dense dark shadow diving into a massive bush beneath the Smithfield's front window, bellowing with a feral bloodlust, eliciting a scream from within the foliage.
A scream that went deathly quiet, as Benito dragged a small body out by its head. The dog lurched obscenely, with muscular jerking motions. His prey flopped like a slab of boneless meat as Benito tugged a flap of flesh the size of my hand free. He'd have killed her it was our girl, as it turned out if Bethany hadn't shrieked like a Kung Fu queen and danced across the lawn and kicked him square in the nuts, sending him ass over tea kettle, over the girl and back into the bush. He scrambled out of there yowling and dashed off into the night as a floodlight mounted over the Smithfield's front door blazed to life, illuminating Benito's prey sprawled out on the lawn. The front of her skull was a raw wound. Her face, from her upper lip to her brow ridges, was gone. It lay on the lawn beside her. Blood, bright red in the floodlight's high wattage illumination, burbled from her skull.
"HEY!" Rick Smithfield, fat, hairy, shirtless on his front porch, yelled at Bethany and me. "YOU TWO BETTER NOT BE MESSIN' WITH MY DOG." A cartoon pop-out from his entertainment center floated through the door, a voluptuous inflatable sex toy doll. She hovered beside his ear, cupping her breasts and cooing that her name was Tammi, and that she was SO SO HORNY ...
Bethany, after taking a gape-mouthed look at our girl, turned away from the body and threw up. I shuffled backwards, thinking of making a run. But my legs thought otherwise as they gave out from under me for the second time that day; and Rick Smithfield, finally seeing his dog's victim on his lawn, said, "Oh sweet Jesus! What the hell happened here?"
"You'll be happy to know," said red-haired Colleen, "that Rose's transplant from the surrogate to the permanent donor body went well." She wore a thin fabric sweater, lime green, low-cut. Her breasts, lifted and separated, looked magnificent. Her smile held a cruel little twist.
I had no interest in the transplant. I was in jail, had been for a year and nine months now, convicted of illegally importing our girl, with ten years tacked on for allowing her brush with death. They couldn't disprove my story that I'd brought her in as a maid and Monica wasn't going to rat on me and implicate herself. So the D.A. went the easy route and got me twenty-five years. If I behaved myself, I could be out in a third of the time.
"How'd you like to do a strip tease for me, Colleen?" That's what most of the jail hologram receptions were used for wives and girlfriends doing sex shows for their inmate men, a privilege earned for good behavior.
"You wish," she said, her eyes sparkling.
"Yes I do," I replied. This was the first holo call I'd received.
"Well, tough titty, said the kitty," she said, thrusting them at me.
"Nicely put," I said, letting my eyes linger there.
Colleen crossed her arms under those delectable accoutrements and tilted her head. "No, Roger, what I'm calling for is I wanted to run you a couple of holo tapes, to let you know how things are going with Maya and your mother-in-law.
Maya was our girl. Colleen, who'd weaseled herself an extension as Mom's personal recovery nurse, had been e-mailing me once a week about Maya's progress. After the doctors saved her life, sewing her face back on as best they could, she'd been adopted by a wealthy couple from La Jolla who heard about her on the News. They were raising her as their own daughter now, and had footed the bill for more than a million dollars worth of reconstructive surgery.
"How is the girl?" I said.
"I'll run it," Colleen said, as she disappeared from the holo pad, to be replaced by a small brown adolescent with a glossy ponytail bouncing on the back of her head beneath a safety helmet. It was a softball game; she was dashing from first to second base, a steal. She slid in, sending up a cloud of holo dust. A mitt with the bulge of a ball in its pocket dropped into the frame a half second too late. Safe! She smiled. Her teeth were perfect; the ghost of a scar tinted her upper lip; a very thin white line ran beneath a cheekbone. She bounced to her feet and brushed dirt from her white pants, beaming.
"She looks like an American girl," I mused.
"She needs another operation or two," Colleen informed me as she reappeared, replacing Maya. "The nose isn't quite perfect." Colleen touched her own perfect nose as she said this.
This was no surprise. Colleen's e-mails had kept me up on Maya though this was the first holo I'd seen of her. But news of Mom had been sketchy. I'd told Colleen I didn't really want to hear about it, unless the old shrew dropped dead. So all I'd learned was that there'd been a temporary donor unsuitable for long term use for a period of nearly six months, followed by the acquisition and the body of a Mexican woman, an illegal immigrant killed in a car crash in Escondido a crushed head, a pristine body, thirty two years old, purchased from an ambulance-chasing body broker.
At Mom's age, going outside the law was the only way to get a body, it seemed.
"Thanks for the update, Colleen," I said, "But if you're not going to show me your breasts, maybe you could get a holo of Maya and her teammates showering themselves up after the game."
Colleen curled her lip up like I'd just shoved a turd under her nose. "Tch!" she said. "You are so disgusting."
"Get them to use soap," I said. "Lots of bubbly soap."
"I've got another holo," Colleen said.
"Unless it involves naked women, save it."
"Well, she is naked," Colleen allowed.
"All right!" I said. "I'm hoping it's you."
"Actually," said Colleen, with a smirk creasing her pretty face. "It's Rose."
"Oh God!" I blurted, kicking myself back in my chair. The thought of my mother-in-law, bare-assed, with loose grey skin hanging off her skeleton, was not on my wish list.
But then it hit me: she's got a new young body, a thirty two year old. Maybe it'd be O.K., if ...
"I hope you put a bag over her head, Colleen," I said as I eased myself back down in my chair.
She ignored this. "When you couldn't bring the body that day, the Second Chance Clinic offered us an experimental donor, to hold her over until we could get a permanent one."
I didn't like the gleam in Colleen's eye. She was talking about the surrogate donor. she was going to show me Mom on the donor's body. My God, they might have used a man body for a surrogate.
"They'd taken heart and livers and kidneys from these donors before, but they'd never done an interspecies head transplant before," Colleen explained.
"You must have heard of this, how they're genetically engineering these animals, filtering out the stuff that causes organ rejection, then cloning them. They've been doing heart and kidney transplants off these girls for three years in Europe now."
I stood up and pounded on the door. to no avail. Automation was big in the prisons these days, to cut down on the need for guards. The door was on a time lock. I had forty-five more uninterrupted minutes with my holo experience.
"This has been on the Internet for quite awhile; we set up our own web site. People will pay fifty bucks a pop to watch this," Colleen said. "Are you sure you haven't seen it?" Her tone of voice was so innocent, the glint in her eyes so mean. "There are certain people who will pay for this type of, um , entertainment, and Monica and I had to think of a way to defray some of the costs, after you blew that money on the girl."
"Colleen," I pleaded. "Don't!" What was it Joe had said about his imports, from Mexico. For rich people in need of transplants, he snuck ... Oh my God, it was a pig; they were cloning pigs for organ harvesting ...
"Let me roll it for you, Roger," Colleen grinned. "I think you'll enjoy it. The donor was young, in her prime."
I pressed my back against the door, then spun around and pounded on it. Behind me, a porcine squeal pieced the holo room. My stomach churned. I turned slowly. It was like the carnage of a car crash you're passing on the freeway you don't want to look, but you are, for some perverse reason, compelled to. As my spin brought her into my peripheral vision, I closed my eyes until I was facing the holo pad, into a frontal assault of a squeal so loud it was like an ice pick in the ear, a wave of high-pitched sound waves that vibrated my eyelids.
I gasped in a deep breath and opened my eyes. Rose, on all fours, faced me. Her complexion was rosy, with a sheen of health and high spirits; her body was that of a two hundred pound sow pink, plump, with the muscle tone of a very young adult. The look on her face was one I never in my wildest imagination thought I'd see: one of a deep salacious yearning.
"She's in heat, Roger," Colleen's voice over informed me. "She needs a man."
"Oh ..." I groaned, my back sliding down the door until I was sitting.
I clapped my hands over my eyes, hyperventilated. Rose grunted obscenely; and when I looked anew, she'd turned her back to me, offering up her engorged pudendum, as her voice human, with the guttural undertones of her donor demanded with a frantic lust, in the vilest of terms, the services of a man.