Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Dirty Job Chapter 15

15 THE CALL OF BOOTY Fuck puppets,† Ray said out of nowhere. He was on the stair-climbing machine next to Charlie and they were both sweating and staring at a row of six, perfectly tuned female bottoms aimed at them from the machines in front of them. â€Å"What was that?† Charlie said. â€Å"Fuck puppets,† Ray said. â€Å"That's what they are.† Ray had talked Charlie into coming to his health club with him under the pretense of getting him into the flow of being single. Actually, because Ray was an ex-cop, watched people more closely than really was healthy, had too much time on his hands, and didn't get out much himself, the real reason he asked Charlie to come work out with him was so he could get to know him outside of the shop. He'd noticed a strange pattern that had developed since Rachel's death, of Charlie showing up with people's property shortly after their obituary appeared in the paper. Because Charlie kept to himself socially and was secretive about what he did when he was out of the shop, not to mention all the little animals that ended up dead in Charlie's apartment, Ray suspected that he might be a serial killer. Ray decided to try to get close to his boss and find out for sure. â€Å"Keep your voice down, Ray,† Charlie said. â€Å"Jeez.† Since Ray couldn't turn his head, he was talking right at the women's butts. â€Å"They can't hear me; look, every single one has on a headset.† He was right, every one of them was talking on a cell phone. â€Å"You and I are invisible to them.† Having actually been invisible to people, or nearly so, Charlie did a double take. It was midmorning and the gym was full of lean spandex-clad women in their twenties with disproportionately large breasts, perfect skin, and expensive hair, who seemed to have the ability to look right through him the way that everyone did when he was in pursuit of a soul vessel. In fact, when he and Ray had first come into the gym, Charlie had actually looked around for some object, pulsing red, thinking that he might have missed a name on his date book that morning. â€Å"After I was shot I dated a physical therapist that worked here for a while,† Ray said. â€Å"She called them that: fuck puppets. Every one of them has an apartment that some older executive guy is paying for – just like he paid for the health-club membership and the fake tits. They spend their days getting facials and manicures, and their nights under some suit out of his suit.† Charlie was wildly uncomfortable with Ray's litany, talking about these women who were only a couple of feet away. Like any Beta Male, he would have been wildly uncomfortable in the presence of so many beautiful women anyway, but this made it worse. â€Å"So like they're like trophy wives?† Charlie said. â€Å"Nuh-uh, like wannabe trophy wives. They don't get the guy, the house, whatever. They just exist to be his perfect piece of ass.† â€Å"Fuck puppets?† Charlie said. â€Å"Fuck puppets,† said Ray. â€Å"But forget them, they're not why you're here.† Ray was right, of course. They weren't why Charlie was there. Five years had passed since Rachel's death, and everyone had been telling him he needed to get back in the game, but that's not why he agreed to accompany the ex-cop to the gym. Because Charlie spent too much time on his own, especially since Sophie had started school, and because he'd been hiding a secret identity and avocation, he'd started to suspect that everyone might have one. And since Ray kept to himself, talked a lot about people in the neighborhood who had died, and because he really didn't seem to have a social life beyond the Filipino women he contacted online, Charlie suspected Ray might be a serial killer. Charlie thought he'd try to get closer to Ray and find out. â€Å"So they're like mistresses?† Charlie said. â€Å"Like in Europe?† â€Å"I suppose,† Ray said. â€Å"But did you ever get the impression that mistresses worked this hard to look good? I think fuck puppet is more accurate, because when they get too old to hold the attention of their guy, they've got nothing more going. They'll be done, like marionettes with no one at the strings.† â€Å"Jeez, Ray, that's harsh.† Maybe Ray is stalking one of these women, Charlie thought. Ray shrugged. Charlie looked up and down the line of perfect derrieres, then felt the weight of his years alone or in the company of a child and two giant dogs, and said, â€Å"I want a fuck puppet.† Aha! thought Ray. He's picking a victim. â€Å"Me, too,† he said. â€Å"But guys like us don't get fuck puppets, Charlie. We just get ignored by them.† Aha! Charlie thought. The bitter sociopath comes out. â€Å"So that's why you brought me here, so I could show I was out of shape in front of gorgeous women who wouldn't notice?† â€Å"No, the fuck puppets are fun to look at, but there's some normal women who come here, too.† Who won't talk to me either, Ray thought. â€Å"Who won't talk to you either,† Charlie said. Because they can tell that you are a psychokiller. â€Å"We'll see in the juice bar after our workout,† Ray said. Where I'll sit at an angle so I can watch you pick your victim. You sick fuck, they thought. Charlie awoke to find not one, but three new names in his date book, and the last one, a Madison McKerny, had only three days for him to retrieve her soul vessel. Charlie kept a stack of newspapers in the house and, typically, would go back for a month looking for an obituary of his new client. More often, if the hellhounds would give him some peace, he would simply wait for the name to appear in the obituary section, then go find the soul vessel when it was easy to get into the house, with mourners or posing as an estate buyer. But this time he had only three days, and Madison McKerny hadn't appeared in the obituaries, so that meant she was probably still alive, and he couldn't find her in the phone book either, so he was going to need to get moving quickly. Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Korjev liked to do their marketing on Saturdays, so he called his sister, Jane, and asked her to come watch Sophie. â€Å"I want a baby brother,† Sophie announced to her Auntie Jane. â€Å"Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry, you can't have a baby brother, because that would mean that Daddy had sex, and that's never going to happen again.† â€Å"Jane, don't talk to her that way,† Charlie said. He was making sandwiches for them and wondering why he always got stuck making the sandwiches. To Sophie, he said, â€Å"Honey, why don't you go in your room and play with Alvin and Mohammed, Daddy needs to talk with Auntie Jane.† â€Å"Okay,† Sophie said, skipping off to her room. â€Å"And don't change clothes again, those are fine,† Charlie said. â€Å"That's the fourth outfit she's had on today,† he said to Jane. â€Å"She changes clothes like you change girlfriends.† â€Å"Ouch. Be gentle, Chuck, I'm sensitive and I can still kick your ass.† Charlie spanked some mayonnaise onto a whole wheat slice to show he was serious. â€Å"Jane, I'm not sure it's healthy for her to have all these different aunties around. She's already had a hard time losing her mother, and now you've moved away – I just don't think she should keep getting attached to these women only to have them yanked out of her life. She needs a consistent female influence.† â€Å"First, I have not moved away, I've moved across town, and I see her every bit as often as when I lived in the building. Second, it's not like I'm promiscuous, I'm just shitty at relationships. Third, Cassie and I have been together for three months, and we're doing fine so far, which is why I've moved out. And fourth, Sophie did not lose her mother, she never had her mother, she had you, and if you're going to be a decent human being, you need to get laid.† â€Å"That's what I mean, you can't talk like that in front of Sophie.† â€Å"Charlie, it's true! Even Sophie can see it. She doesn't even know what it is and she can tell that you're not getting any.† Charlie stopped constructing sandwiches and came over to the counter. â€Å"It's not sex, Jane. It's human contact. I was getting my hair cut the other day and the hairdresser's breast rubbed against my shoulder and I almost came. Then I almost cried.† â€Å"Sounds like sex to me, little brother. Have you been with anyone since Rachel died?† â€Å"You know I haven't.† â€Å"That's wrong. Rachel wouldn't want that for you. You have to know that. I mean she took pity on you and hooked up with you, and that couldn't have been easy for her, knowing she could do so much better.† â€Å"Took pity on me?† â€Å"That's what I'm saying. She was a sweet woman, and you're much more pitiful now than you were then. You had more hair then, and you didn't have a kid and two dogs the size of Volvos. Hell, there's probably some order of nuns that would do you now, just as a holy act of mercy. Or penance.† â€Å"Stop it, Jane.† â€Å"The Sisters of Perpetual Nookiless Suffering.† â€Å"I'm not that bad,† Charlie said. â€Å"The Holy Order of Saint Bonny of the BJ, patron saint of Web porn and incurable wankers.† â€Å"Okay, Jane, I'm sorry I said that about you changing girlfriends. I was out of line.† Jane leaned back on her bar stool and crossed her arms, looking satisfied but skeptical. â€Å"But the problem remains.† â€Å"I'm fine. I have Sophie and I have the business, I don't need a girlfriend.† â€Å"A girlfriend? A girlfriend is too ambitious for you. You just need someone to have sex with.† â€Å"I do not.† â€Å"Yes, you do.† â€Å"Yes, I do,† Charlie said, defeated. â€Å"But I have to go. Are you okay to watch Sophie?† â€Å"Sure, I'm going to take her to my place. I have an obnoxious neighbor up the street that I'd like to introduce to the puppies. Will they poop on command?† â€Å"They will if Sophie tells them.† â€Å"Perfect. We'll see you tonight. Promise me you'll ask someone out. Or at least look for someone to ask out.† â€Å"I promise.† â€Å"Good. Did you get that new blue pinstripe tailored yet?† â€Å"Stay out of my closet.† â€Å"Don't you need to get going?† Ray figured that it had probably started when Charlie murdered all those little animals he brought home for his daughter. Maybe buying the big black dogs was a cry for help – pets that someone would really notice being gone. According to the movies, they all started out that way – with the little animals, then before long they moved up to hitchhikers, hookers, and pretty soon they were mummifying a whole flock of counselors at some remote summer camp and posing the crusty remains around a card table in their mountain lair. The mountain lair didn't fit the profile for Charlie, since he had allergies, but that might just be an indication of his diabolical genius. (Ray had been a street cop, so it hadn't really been necessary for him to study criminal profiling, and his theories tended toward the colorful, a side effect of his Beta Male imagination and large DVD collection.) But Charlie had asked Ray to use his contacts on the force and at the DMV a half-dozen times to locate people, all of whom ended up dead a few weeks later. But not murders. And while a lot of items belonging to the recently deceased had turned up in the shop in the last few years (Ray had found antitheft numbers etched on a dozen items and called them in to a friend on the force who identified the owners), none of them had been murdered either. There were a few accidents, but mostly it was natural causes. Either Charlie was devious to an extraordinary degree, or Ray was out of his mind, a possibility that he didn't discount completely, if for no other reason than he had three ex-wives who would testify to it. Thus, he'd devised the workout ruse to draw Charlie out. Then again, Charlie had always treated him really well, and if it turned out he didn't have a mountain lair full of mummified camp counselors, Ray knew he'd feel bad about tricking him. What if there was nothing wrong with Charlie except that he needed to get laid? Ray was chatting with Eduardo, his new girlfriend at when Charlie came down the back steps. â€Å"Ray, I need you to find someone for me.† â€Å"Hang on a second, I have to sign off. Charlie, check out my new squeeze.† Ray pulled up a photo on the screen of a heavily made-up but attractive Asian woman. â€Å"She's pretty, Ray. I can't give you any time off right now to go to the Philippines, though. Not until we hire someone to take Lily's shifts.† Charlie leaned into the screen. â€Å"Dude, her name is Eduardo.† â€Å"I know. It's a Filipino thing, like Edwina.† â€Å"She has a five-o'clock shadow.† â€Å"You're just being a racist. Some races have more facial hair than others. I don't care about that, I just want someone who is honest and caring and attractive.† â€Å"She has an Adam's apple.† Ray squinted at the screen, then quickly clicked off the monitor and spun around on the stool. â€Å"So who do you need me to find?† â€Å"It's okay, Ray,† Charlie said. â€Å"An Adam's apple doesn't preclude someone from being honest, caring, and attractive, it just makes it less likely.† â€Å"Right. It was just bad lighting, I think. Anyway, who do you need to find?† â€Å"All I have is the name Madison McKerny. I know he or she lives in the city, but that's all I know.† â€Å"It's a she.† â€Å"Pardon me?† â€Å"Madison, it's a stripper's name.† Charlie shook his head. â€Å"You know this woman?† â€Å"I don't know her, although the name seems familiar. But Madison is a new-generation stripper name. Like Reagan and Morgan.† â€Å"Lost me, Ray.† â€Å"I've spent some time in strip joints, Charlie. I'm not proud of it, but it's sort of what you do when you're a cop. And you pick up on the pattern of stripper names.† â€Å"Didn't know that.† â€Å"Yeah, and there's sort of a progression going back to the fifties: Bubbles, Boom Boom, and Blaze begat Bambi, Candy, and Jewel, who begat Sunshine, Brandy, and Cinnamon, who begat Amber, Brittany, and Brie, who begat Reagan, Morgan, and Madison. Madison is a stripper name.† â€Å"Ray, you weren't even alive in the fifties.† â€Å"No, I wasn't alive during the forties either, but I know about World War Two and big-band music. I'm into history.† â€Å"Right. So, I need to look for a stripper? Doesn't help. I don't even know where to start.† â€Å"I'll go through the DMV and the tax records. If she's in town we'll have an address on her by this afternoon. Why do you need to find her?† There was a pause while Charlie pretended to find a smudge on the glass of the counter display case, wiped it away, then said, â€Å"Uh, it's an estate thing. One of the estates we got recently had some items that were left to her.† â€Å"Shouldn't the executor of the estate take care of that, or his lawyer?† â€Å"It's minutiae, not named in the will. The executor asked me to handle it. There's fifty bucks in it for you.† Ray grinned. â€Å"That's okay, I was going to help anyway, but if she turns out to be a stripper I get to go with you, okay?† â€Å"Deal,† Charlie said. Three hours later Ray gave the address to Charlie and watched as his boss bolted out of the shop and grabbed a cab. Why a cab? Why not take the van? Ray wanted to follow, needed to follow, but he had to find someone to cover the store. He should have anticipated this, but he'd been distracted. Ray had been distracted since talking to Charlie, not just by the search for Madison McKerny, but also because he was trying to figure out how to work â€Å"Do you have a penis?† casually into the conversation with his sweetheart, Eduardo. After a couple of teasing e-mails, he could stand it no longer and had just typed out, Eduardo, not that it makes any difference, but I'm thinking of sending you some sexy lingerie as a friendship present, and I wondered if I should make any special accommodations for the panties. Then he waited. And waited. And granted that it was five in the morning in Manila, he was second-guessing himself. Had he been too vague, or had he not been vague enough? And now he had to go. He knew where Charlie was going, but he had to get there before anything happened. He dialed Lily's cell phone, hoping that she wouldn't be working at her other job and would do him a favor. â€Å"Speak, ingrate,† Lily answered. â€Å"How did you know it was me?† Ray asked. â€Å"Ray?† â€Å"Yeah, how did you know it was me?† â€Å"I didn't,† Lily said. â€Å"What do you want?† â€Å"Can you come cover the store for me for a couple of hours?† Then, as he heard her take a deep breath that he was pretty sure would be propellant for verbal abuse, he added, â€Å"There's fifty bucks extra in it for you.† Ray heard her exhale. Yes! After graduating from the Culinary Institute, Lily had gotten a job as a sous chef at a bistro in North Beach, but she didn't make enough to move out of her mother's apartment yet, so she let Charlie talk her into keeping a couple of shifts at Asher's Secondhand, at least until he could find a replacement. â€Å"Okay, Ray, I'll come in for a couple of hours, but I have to be at the restaurant by five, so be back or I'm closing up early.† â€Å"Thanks, Lily.† Charlie sincerely hoped that Ray wasn't a serial killer, despite all the indications to the contrary. He would never have found this woman without Ray's police contacts, and what would he do in the future if he needed to find someone and Ray was in jail? Then again, Ray's experience as a cop could account for his never leaving any evidence. But why, then, would he continue to pursue the Filipino women over the Internet if he was just looking to kill people? Maybe that's what he did when he went to the Philippines to visit his paramours. Maybe he killed desperate Filipinas. Maybe Ray was a tourist serial killer. Deal with it later, Charlie thought. For now, there's a soul vessel to retrieve. Charlie got out of the cab outside of the Fontana, an apartment building just a block up from Ghirardelli Square, the waterfront chocolate factory turned tourist mall. The Fontana was a great, curved, concrete-and-glass building that commanded views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and that had drawn the disdain of San Franciscans since it had been built in the 1960s. It wasn't that it was an ugly building, although no one would argue that it wasn't, but with the Victorian and Edwardian structures all around it, it looked very much like a giant air conditioner from outer space attacking a nineteenth-century neighborhood. However, the views from the apartments were exquisite, there was a doorman, underground parking, and a pool on the roof, so if you could handle the stigma of residing in an architectural pariah, it was a great place to live. The address Ray had given him for Madison was on the twenty-second floor, and so, presumably, was her soul vessel. Charlie wasn't sure of the exact range of his unnoticeability (he refused to think of it as invisibility, because it wasn't), but he hoped that it reached twenty-two floors. He was going to have to get past the doorman and into an elevator, and posing as an estate buyer wasn't going to work. Ah, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If he got caught, he'd just have to find another way in. He waited by the door until a young woman in business attire went in, then followed her into the lobby. The doorman didn't even look at him. Ray saw Charlie get out of the cab and told his own driver to stop a block away, where he hopped out, threw the driver a five and told him to keep the change, then dug in his pocket for the rest of the fare while the driver pounded on the wheel impatiently and cursed under his breath in Urdu. â€Å"Sorry, it's been a while since I took a cab,† Ray said. Ray had a car, a nice little Toyota, but the only parking place he could find was eight blocks away from his apartment in the parking lot of a hotel managed by a friend of his, and when you got a parking place in San Francisco, you kept it, so Ray mostly used public transportation and only drove the car on his days off to keep the battery charged. He'd jumped in a taxi outside Charlie's shop and shouted, â€Å"Follow that cab!† thus completely terrifying the Japanese family in the back. â€Å"Sorry,† Ray said. â€Å"Konichiwa. It's been a while since I took a cab.† Then he jumped back out and caught a cab that didn't have a fare. He sneaked quickly up the street, going from light post, to newspaper machine, to ad kiosk, ducking behind each, staying in his stealth-crouch, and achieving nothing whatsoever except to look like a complete loon to the kid standing at the bus stop across the street. He reached the underground parking entrance of the Fontana just as Charlie was making for the door. Ray crouched behind the key-card pillar. He wasn't sure what he was going to do if Charlie went for the building. Fortunately, he'd memorized Madison McKerny's phone number, and he could warn her that Charlie was coming. In the cab on the way down here he'd remembered where he'd seen her name: on the register at his health club. Madison McKerny was one of the midmorning fuck puppets from the gym, and as Ray suspected, Charlie was stalking her. He watched Charlie fall in behind a young woman in business dress who was heading up the walk into the Fontana, then Charlie was gone. Just gone. Ray came out onto the sidewalk to get a better angle. The woman was still there, she'd gone only a couple of steps, but he couldn't see Charlie. There were no bushes, no walls, the whole damn lobby was glass, where the hell had he gone? Ray was sure he hadn't looked away, he didn't even think he had blinked, and he would have seen any sudden move Charlie might have made. Reverting to the Beta Male's tendency to blame himself, Ray wondered if maybe he'd had some kind of petit mal seizure that had made him black out for a second. Whether he did or not, he had to warn Madison McKerny. He reached to his belt and felt the empty cell-phone clip, then remembered putting his phone under the register when he'd gotten to work that morning. Charlie found the right apartment and rang the bell. If he could get Madison McKerny to come out into the hallway, he could slip in behind her and look through her apartment for her soul vessel. Just down the hall there was a table with an artificial flower arrangement. He'd tipped it over, hoping she was compulsive or curious enough to come out of her apartment to get a closer look. If she wasn't home, well, he'd have to break in. Odds were that with a doorman downstairs, she didn't have an alarm system. But what if she could see him? Sometimes they could, the clients. Not often, but it happened, and – She opened the door. Charlie was stunned. She was stunning. Charlie stopped breathing and stared at her breasts. It wasn't that she was a young and gorgeous brunette, with perfect hair and perfect skin. Nor was it that she was wearing a thin, white silk robe that just barely concealed her swimsuit-model figure. Nor was it because she had disproportionately large but alert breasts that were straining against the robe and peeking out of the plunging neckline as she leaned out the door, although that would have been enough to render the hapless Beta breathless under any circumstances. It was that her breasts were glowing red, right through the silk robe, glowing right out of the dcolletage like twin rising suns, pulsating like the lightbulb boobies of a kitschy Hawaiian hula girl lamp. Madison McKerny's soul was residing in her breast implants. â€Å"I've got to get my hands on those,† Charlie said, forgetting that he wasn't exactly alone and he wasn't exactly thinking to himself. Then Madison McKerny noticed that Charlie was there and the screaming started.

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