Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Dirty Job Chapter 18

18YO MOMMA SO DEAD THATOn her last day, Lois Asher r everyied. After not having fifty-fifty been able to astound up to go to the breakfast table, or into the living room to sit and watch TV for three weeks, got up and danced with crony to an old Ink Spots song. She was playful and full of laughter, she teased her children and hugged them, she ate a chocolate-marshmallow sundae, and she brushed and flossed afterward. She put on her favorite silver jewelry and wore it to the dinner party table, and when she couldnt find her squash-blossom necklace she shrugged it forward like it was a minor thing she must rush misplaced it. Oh, well.Charlie knew what was happening because he had seen it divulge mien, and blood br early(a) and Jane knew because Grace, the hospice nurse, explained it to them. It happens again and again. Ive seen volume rise up out of a coma and sing their favorite songs, and all I depose spot you is to bang it. People see the light come hold up into eyes that have been dull for months, and they start to place hope on it. Its not a sign of cleaveting well, its an opportunity to say good-bye. Its a gift.Charlie had too learned by observing that it really helped every sensation to let go if they were at least mildly medicated, so he and Jane took almost antianxiety pills that Janes therapist had prescribed and Buddy washed trim a time-released morphine pill with some scotch. Medication and forgiveness can make for joyous moments with the dying its like they get to matter to childhood and because nothing in the future matters, because you dont have to train them for life, teach lessons, forge applicable and practical memories, all the joy can be squiffy from those last moments and investment trustd in the controlt. It was the best and closest time Charlie had ever had with his nonplus and his babe, and Buddy, in the sharing, became family as well.Lois Asher went to bed at nine and died at midnight.I cant last out for the fu neral, Charlie give tongue to to his sister the future(a) morning.What do you mean you cant stay for the funeral?Charlie looked out the window at the giant ice pick of a shadow that had do its stylus down the mountain toward his mothers house. Charlie could see it churning at the edges, like flocks of birds or swarming insects. The point was less than a half mile away.I have something I have to do at home, Jane. I mean, I forgot to do it and I really, really cant stay.Dont be mysterious. What the hell do you demand to do that you cant learn your own mothers funeral?Charlie was printing press his Beta Male imagination to the breaking point to come up with something credible on the spot. Then a light went on. The other night, when you sent me out to get laid?Yeah?Well, it was an adventure, to be for certain, except when when I went to get my scalp sewed up, I also had a test. I talked to the doctor today, and I have to go get treatment. Right at once.You moron, I didnt send you out to have unsafe sex. What were you thinking?It was safe sex. Right, reliable, he thought, he al close to scoffed at himself. Its the wounds theyre worried most. but if I get on these drugs dependable away, in that respects a good chance that Ill be okay.Theyre putting you on the cocktail? As a preventative?Sure, thats it, the cocktail Charlie thought. He nodded gravely.Okay, then, go. Jane turned and hid her face.Maybe I can get rear in time for the funeral, Charlie verbalize. Could he? He had to find oneself both due soul vessels in less than a week, and hope that no new nominates had appeared in his envision book.Well do it a week from today, Jane said, turn back around, tears blinked away. You go home, get treated, come back. Buddy and I will submitle the arrangements.Im sorry, Charlie said. He put his arms around his sister.Dont you die on me, too, you fucker, Jane said.Ill be fine. Ill be back as soon as I can. work on back that charcoal Armani of yours for me to wear to the funeral, and Cassies strappy discolour pumps, okay?You? In strappy black pumps?Its what Mom would have involveed, Jane said.When Charlie landed in San Francisco there were four frantic messages on his cell phone from Cassandra. She had always seemed so calm, composed a horse barn counterpoint to his sisters flights of fancy. She sounded a wreck on the phone.Charlie, shes got him trapped and theyre discharge to eat him and I dont screw what to do. I dont regard to call the cops. Call me when you land.Charlie did call, all the way into the city in the shuttle van he called, but kept getting transferred to voice messaging. When he got out of the van in front of his store he hear a hiss coming out of the storm drain at the corner.I missed finishing with you, l everyplace, came the voice.No time, Charlie said, hopping over the halt and running into the store.You never called, purred the Morrigan.Ray was behind the counter mousing through with(predicate) Asian c uties when Charlie came storming through.Youd better get upstairs, Ray said. Theyre freaking out up there.No kidding, Charlie said as he passed. He took the stairs two at a time.He was fumbling his key into the lock when Cassandra threw the access open and pulled him into his apartment.She wont let him go. Im afraid theyre sack to eat him.Who, what? Thats what you said on my voice mail. Where is Sophie?Cassandra dragged him to Sophies room, where he was met in the doorway by a growling Mohammed.Daddy Sophie shrieked. She ran across the room and leapt into his arms. She gave him a with child(p) hug and a sloppy kiss that left a chocolate Sophie-print on his cheek. Down, she said. Down, down. Charlie put her down and she ran back into her room, but Mohammed prevented Charlie from entering, pushed his nose into Charlies shirt, leaving a giant dog-nose print in chocolate. Evidently there had been a chocolate orgy discharge on in his absence.His mother is supposed to pick him up at o ne, Cassandra said. I dont know what to do.Charlie strained to see around the hellhound and saw Sophie standing with her hand on Alvins collar while he menaced a little boy who was crouched in the corner. The little boy was a little wide-eyed, but otherwise unhurt, and he didnt seem that frigh 10ed. In fact, he was hugging a box of Crunchy Cheese Newts, and was eating one, then feeding the next one to Alvin, who was dripping hellish dog drool onto the kids shoes in anticipation of the next newt.I love him, Sophie said. She went to the little boy and kissed him on the cheek, leaving a chocolate smear. Not the prototypical. It appeared that this little guy had been suffering Sophies affections for quite some time, for he was covered with chocolaty goodness and orange Cheese-Newt dust. I want to keep him.The little boy grinned.He came over for a playdate. I guess you scheduled it before you left, Cassandra said. I thought it would be okay. I tried to get him out of there, but the dogs wont let me by. What are we passing to describe his mother?I want to keep him, Sophie said. epic kiss.His name is Matthew, Cassie said.I know his name. He goes to Sophies school.Charlie started into the room. Mohammed blocked the doorway.Matty, are you all right? Charlie said.Uh-huh, said the chocolate-, cheese-, and dog-drool-sodden kid.I want him to stay, Dad, Sophie said. Alvin and Mohammed want him to stay, too.Charlie thought that perhaps he had not been strict enough in setting limits for his daughter. Maybe after losing her mother, he just hadnt had the heart to say no to her, and now she was taking hostages.Honey, Matty has to get modifyed up. His mommy is coming to get him so he can go be traumatized in his own house.No Hes mine.Honey, tell Mohammed to let me in. If we dont get Matty cleaned up, he wont be able to come back.He can sleep in your room, Sophie said. Ill take care of him.No, young lady, you tell Mohammed to get I have to pee, Matthew said. He climbed to h is feet and skipped by Alvin, who followed him, then under Mohammed and past Charlie and Cassandra to the bathroom. Hi, he said as he went by. He closed the door and they could hear the sound of tinkle. Alvin and Mohammed bullied their way through the doorway and waited outside the bathroom.Sophie sat down heavily, her feet splayed out, her lower lip pushed out like the cowcatcher on a move engine. Her shoulders started heaving before he could hear the sob like she was saving up breath then the wailing and the tears. Charlie went to her and picked her up.I?CI I?CI, he he he he Its okay, honey. Its okay.But I love him.I know you do, honey. Itll be okay. Hell go to his house and you can quench love him.Noooooooooooooooooooooo She interred her face in his jacket, and as practically as his heart was breaking for his daughter, he was also thinking about how much Three Fingered Wu was going to ding him for getting the chocolate stain out of his jacket.They just let him go pee , Cassandra said, staring at the hellhounds. Just like that. I thought they were going to eat him. They wouldnt let me near him.Its okay, Charlie said. You didnt know.Know what?They love the Crunchy Cheese Newts.Youre kidding?Sorry. Look, Cassie, can you clean up Sophie and Matty and take care of this? I have some stymy in my date book I have to take care of right away.Sure, but Sophie will be fine. Wont you, honey?Sophie nodded sadly and wiped her eyes on his coat. I missed you, Daddy.I missed you, too, sweetie. Ill be home tonight.He kissed her, got his date book from the bedroom, and ran around the apartment collecting his keys, cane, hat, and man purse. Thanks, Cassie. You have no idea how grateful I am.Sorry about your mother, Charlie, Cassandra said as he passed.Yeah, thanks, Charlie said, quickly stop consonanting the edge of the sword in his cane as he went by.Charlie, your life is out of control, Cassandra said, now slipping back into the unflappable persona that they we re all used to.Okay, Ill need to borrow your strappy black pumps, too, Charlie said as he headed out the door.I think Ive made my point, Cassie called after him.Ray stopped Charlie at the bottom of the stairs. You got a minute, boss?Not really, Ray. Im in a hurry.Well, I just wanted to apologize.For what?Well, it seems silly now, but I kind of suspected you of being a serial killer.Charlie nodded as if he were considering the grave consequences of Rays confession, when, in fact, he was trying to remember if there was all gas in the van. Well, Ray, I accept your apology, and Im sorry I ever gave you that impression.I think all those years on the force made me suspicious, but Inspector Rivera stopped by and set me straight.He did, did he? What exactly did he say?He said that you had been checking some stuff out for him, getting into places he couldnt get without a warrant and so forth, stuff that youd both get in a lot of trouble for if anyone found out, but was helping to put the ba d guys away. He said thats why youre so secretive.Yes, Charlie said solemnly, I have been fleck crime in my spare time, Ray. Im sorry I couldnt tell you.I understand, Ray said, backing away from the stairway. Again, Im sorry. I feel like a traitor.Its okay, Ray. But I really have to go. You know, fighting the Forces of Darkness and all. Charlie held his cane out as if it were a sword and he was charging into action, which, bizarrely, it was and he was.Charlie had six days to retrieve three soul vessels if he was going to get caught up before he returned to Arizona for his mothers funeral. Two, the names that had appeared in his date book the like day as Madison McKerny were seriously overdue. The last had appeared in the book only a orthodontic braces of days ago, when he was in Arizona yet it was in his own handwriting. Hed always thought that he had been doing some kind of sleep writing, but now, this was a whole new twist. He promised himself he would freak out about it as so on as he had some time.Meanwhile, with the near-death hand job and the dead-mom thing, he hadnt even done the preliminary research on the send-off of the two, Esther Johnson and Irena Posokovanovich, and both were now past their pickup date one by three days. What if the sewer harpies had already gotten there? As strong as theyd become already, he didnt even want to think about what they could do if they got hold of another soul. He considered calling Rivera to watch his back when he went to the house, but what would he say he was doing? The sharp-faced cop knew there was something supernatural going on, and hed taken Charlies word that he was one of the good guys (not a hard bewray when hed seen the sewer harpy driving a three-inch claw up his nostril only to survive nine rounds of 9 mm in the torso and slake fly away).Charlie was driving with no destination, heading into Pacific Heights just because the traffic was lighter in that direction. He pulled over to the curb and call ed information.I need a fall and address for an Esther Johnson.Theres no Esther Johnson, sir, but I have three E. Johnsons.Can you give me the addresses?She gave him the two who had addresses. A recording offered to dial the number for him for an additional charge of fifty cents.Yeah, how much to drive me there? Charlie asked the computer voice. Then he hung up and dialed the E. Johnson with no address.Hi, could I speak with Esther Johnson, Charlie said cheerfully.Theres no Esther Johnson here, said a mans voice. Im afraid you have the wrong number.Wait. Was there an Esther Johnson there, until maybe three days ago? Charlie asked. I saw the E. Johnson in the phone book.Thats me, said the man, Im Ed Johnson.Sorry to bother you, Mr. Johnson. Charlie disconnected and dialed the next E. Johnson.Hello, a womans voice.Hi, could I speak to Esther Johnson, please?A deep breath. Who is calling?Charlie used a finesse that had worked a dozen times before. This is Charlie Asher, of Ashers Sec ondhand. Weve taken in some merchandise that has Esther Johnsons name on it and we wanted to make sure its not stolen.Well, Mr. Asher, Im sorry to tell you that my aunt passed away three days ago.Bingo Charlie said.Pardon?Sorry, Charlie said. My associate is playing a scratch-off lotto ticket here in the shop, and hes just won ten thousand dollars.Mr. Asher, this isnt really a good time. Is this merchandise you have valuable?No, just some old clothes.Another time, then? The woman sounded not so much bereaved as harried. If you dont mind.No, Im sorry for your loss, Charlie said. He disconnected, checked the address, and headed up toward Golden Gate Park and the Haight.The Haight mecca for the Free Love movement of the sixties, where the beatnik Generation begat the Flower Children, where kids from all over the country had come to tune in, turn on, and drop out and had kept coming, even as the neighborhood went through alternating waves of renewal and decline. Now, as Charlie drove d own Haight Street, amid the head shops, vegetarian restaurants, hippie boutiques, music stores, and coffeehouses, he saw hippies that ranged in age from fifteen to seventy. sulk oldsters panhandling or passing out pamphlets, and young, white-Rastafarian dreadlocked teenagers in flowing skirts or hemp drawstring trousers, with shining piercings and vacant pot-blissed stares. He passed brown-toothed crackheads barking at cars as they passed, a peaky holdover here and there from the punk movement, old guys in berets and wayfarers who might have stepped out of a jazz club in 1953. It wasnt so much like the hands of time had stood still here, more like theyd been thrown in the air in exasperation, the clock declaring, Whatever Im outta here.Esther Johnsons house was just a couple of blocks off Haight, and Charlie was lucky enough to find parking in a twenty-minute green zone nearby. (If the time came that he ever got to talk to soulfulness in charge, he was going to make a case for sp ecial parking privileges for Death Merchants, for while it was nice that no one could see him when he was retrieving a soul vessel, some cool Death plates or black parking zones would be even better.)The house was a small bungalow, unusual for this neighborhood, where most everything was three stories tall and painted in some(prenominal) simulation would contrast most with the house next to it. Charlie had taught Sophie her colors here, using grand Victorians as color swatches.Orange, Daddy. Orange.Yes, honey, the man barfed up orange. Look at that house, Sophie, its purple.The block did have its share of transients, so he knew the doors of the Johnson house would be locked. Ring the bell and try to get up through, or wait? He really couldnt afford to wait the sewer harpies had hissed at him from a grate as he approached the house. He rang the bell, then quickstepped to the side.A pretty, dark-haired woman of about thirty, clothing jeans and a peasant blouse, opened the door, l ooked around, and said, Hello, can I help you?Charlie nearly fell through a window. He looked behind his back, then back at the woman. No, she was looking right at him.Yes, you rang the bell?Oh, me? Yes, Charlie said. Im, uh you meant me, right?The woman stepped back into the house. What can I do for you? she said, a bit stern now.Oh, sorry Charlie Asher I own a secondhand store over in North Beach, I just talked to you on the phone, I think.Yes. But I told you that it wasnt important.Right, right, right. You did, but I was in the neighborhood, and I thought, well, Id just drop by.I got the impression you were calling from your shop. You got all the way across townspeople in louvre minutes?Oh, right, well, the van is like a mobile shop to me.So the person who won the lotto is with you?Right, no, he quit. I had to efflorescence him out of the van. New money, you know? All full of himself. Will probably buy a big rock of cocaine and a half-dozen hookers and hell be bust by the w eekend. Good riddance, I say.The woman backed another step into the house and pulled the door partway shut. Well, if you have the clothes with you, I suppose I can take a look at them.Clothes? Charlie couldnt believe she could see him. He was completely screwed now. Hed never get the soul vessel and then well, he didnt want to think of what would happen then.The clothes you said you thought might belong to my aunt. I could look at them.Oh, I dont have those with me.Now she had the door closed to the point where he could see just one blue eye, the embroidery around the neckline of her blouse, the dismissal on her jeans, and two toes. (She was barefoot.) Maybe youd better check another time. Im trying to get my aunts things together, and Im doing it all by myself, so its a little hectic. She was in this house for forty-two years. Im overwhelmed.Thats why Im here, Charlie said, thinking, What the hell am I talk about? I do this all the time, uh, Ms. Mrs., actually. Mrs. Elizabeth S arkoff.Well, Mrs. Sarkoff, I do this sort of thing a lot, and sometimes it can get overwhelming going through the possessions of a loved one, especially if theyve been in one place for a long time like your aunt. It helps to have soulfulness who doesnt have an excited attachment to help sort things out. Plus, I have a pretty good eye for whats valuable and whats not.Charlie wanted to give himself a high five for coming up with that on the spur of the moment.And do you charge for this service?No, no, no, but I may make an offer to buy items youd like to get rid of, or you can place them in my shop on consignment if youd prefer.Elizabeth Sarkoff sighed heavily and hung her head. Are you sure? I wouldnt want to take advantage.It would be my pleasure, he said.Mrs. Sarkoff swung the door wide. Thank God you showed up, Mr. Asher. I just spent an hour trying to figure out which set of elephant salt-and-pepper shakers to keep and which to throw away. She has ten pairs Ten Please come in.C harlie sauntered through the door feeling very proud of himself. Six hours later, when he was waist deep in porcelain-cow figurines, and he still hadnt located the soul vessel, he lost all sense of accomplishment.So she had a special connection to Holsteins? Charlie called to Mrs. Sarkoff, who was in the next room, inside a qualifying in wardrobe, sorting through yet another huge pile of collectible crap.No, I dont think so. Lived her whole life here in the City. Im not sure if she ever saw a cow outside of those talking ones that sell cheese on TV.Swell, Charlie said. Hed been through every inch of the house except the closet where Elizabeth Sarkoff was working and he hadnt found the soul vessel. Hed peeked into the closet a couple of times, taking a fast inventory of the contents, and didnt see anything glowing red. He was get-go to suspect that either he was too late, and the Underworlders had gotten the soul vessel, or it had been buried with Esther Johnson.He was heading do wn toward the basement again when his cell phone rang.Charlie Ashers phone, Charlie said.Charlie, its Cassie. Sophie wants to know if youre going to come home in time to tell her a story and tuck her in. I gave her dinner and her bath.Charlie ran up the stairs and looked out the front windows. It had gotten dark and he hadnt even noticed. Crap, Cassie, Im sorry. I didnt realize it was so late. Im with an estate client. Tell her Ill be home to tuck her in.Okay, I will, Cassandra said, sounding exhausted. And, Charlie, you can clean up the bathroom floor. Youve got to do something about those dogs getting in the tub with her. There are drifts of Mr. Bubble suds all over your apartment.They do enjoy their bath.Thats cute, Charlie. If I didnt love your sister Id hire someone to break your legs.My mom just died, Cassie.Youre playing the dead-mom card? Now? Charlie Asher, you Gotta go, Charlie said. Be home soon. Charlie pushed the disconnect button four times, then one more time, just t o be sure. Cassandra had been such a sweet woman, only days ago. What happened to people?Charlie bounded into the bedroom. Mrs. Sarkoff?Yes, still in here, came a voice from the closet.Im going to have to be going. My daughter needs me.I hope everything is all right.Yes, not an emergency, Ive just been gone for a couple of days. Look, if you need any more help No, I wouldnt think of it. Why dont you give me a few days to sort things out and Ill bring some items by your shop.I dont mind, really. Charlie felt silly yelling to someone who was in a closet.No, Ill be in touch, I promise.Charlie couldnt think of any way of pressing the situation right now, and he needed to get home.Okay, then. Ill be going.Thank you, Mr. Asher. Youve been a lifesaver.Youre welcome. Bye. Charlie let himself out and the front door locked behind him with a click. He could hear stirring below the street the rustling of feathers, the distant calls of ravens as he made his way back to where he had parked his van. And when he got there, of course, it had been towed.When she heard the front door lock, Audrey went to the back of the closet and moved the big cardboard wardrobe box aside to reveal an elderly woman who was sitting calmly in a folding lawn chair, knitting.Hes gone, Esther. You can come out now.Well, help me up, dear, I think Im stuck like this, Esther said.Im sorry, Audrey said. I had no idea hed stay that long.I dont understand why you let him in in the first place, Esther said, creaky but on her feet now.So he could satisfy his curiosity. See for himself.And where did you get that Elizabeth Sarkoff name?My second-grade teacher. It was the first thing I could think of.Well, I guess you fooled him. I dont know how to thank you.Hell be back. You know that, right? Audrey said.I hope not too soon, Esther said. I really need to visit the powder room.Where is it, lover? hissed the Morrigan from the grate on Haight Street, near where Charlie was trying to flag down a cab. Youre sl ipping, Meat, said the hellish chorus.Charlie looked around to see if anyone else had heard, but passersby seemed very intent on their own conversations, or if alone, were staring intently at a point only twelve feet in front of them on the sidewalk, both strategies to avoid eye contact with the panhandlers and crazy people who lined the sidewalk. Not even the crazy people seemed to notice.Fuck off, Charlie said, in a furious whisper at the curb. Fucking harpies.Oh, lover, this teasing is so palatable. The little ones blood will be so deliciousThe young homeless guy sitting just down the curb looked up at Charlie. Dude, get the clinic to up your lithium and theyll go away. It worked for me.Charlie nodded and gave the guy a dollar. Thanks, Ill look into that.Hed have to call Jane in Arizona in the morning and find out how far the shadow had moved down the mesa, if it had moved. Why would what he did or didnt do in San Francisco affect what was happening in Sedona? All this time hed been trying to convince himself that it wasnt about him, and now it appeared that it very much was about him. The Luminatus will rise in the City of Two Bridges, Vern had said. What kind of dependable prophecy can you get from a guy named Vern, anyway? (Come on down to Verns Discount Prophecy The Nostradamus with the Low-Price Promise.) It was absurd. He had to keep going forward, doing his part, and doing his best to collect the soul vessels that came to him. And if he didnt, well, the Forces of Darkness would rise and rule over the world. So what. Bring it on, sewer hoes Big deal.But his inner Beta Male, the gene that had kept his kind alive for three million years, spoke up Forces of Darkness notion the world? Okay, that would be bad, it said.She so loved the smell of Pine-Sol, said the third woman that day to claim to have been Charlies mothers best friend. The funeral hadnt been so bad, but now there was a potluck in the clubhouse of a nearby gated senior community where Budd y had lived before he moved in with Charlies mom. The couple had returned there often to play cards and socialize with Buddys old crew.Did you get some sloppy joe? asked best friend number three. Despite the hundred-degree heat, she wore a pink sweat suit emblazoned with rhinestone poodles and carried a nervous little black poodle under her arm everywhere she went. The dog licked her potato salad while she was distracted by talking to Charlie. I dont know if your mother ever ate sloppy joe. Only thing I ever saw her take in was an old-fashioned. She did enjoy her cocktails.Yes, she did, Charlie said. And I think Im going to go enjoy one myself, right now.Charlie had flown into Sedona that morning after spending the night in San Francisco trying to find the two overdue soul vessels. Although he couldnt find a burial notice for Esther Johnson, the pretty brunette woman at her house had told him that she had been interred the day after hed first gone to the house in the Haight, and he assumed that the soul vessel had been, once again, buried with her. (Was the brunettes name Elizabeth? Of course it was Elizabeth, he was fooling himself to even judge to forget. Beta Males do not forget the names of pretty women. Charlie could remember the name of the centerfold of the first Playboy hed ever swiped from the shelves in his dads shop. He even remembered that her turnoffs were bad breath, mean people, and genocide, and resolved that he would never have, be, or commit any of those things, just in case he ran into her sometime when she was casually sunning her breasts on the hood of a car.) There was no trace of the other woman, Irena Posokovanovich, who was supposed to have died days ago. No notice, no records at hospitals, no one living in her house. It was as if shed evaporated, and taken her soul vessel with her. He had a couple more weeks to get to the third name in his date book, but he wasnt sure what he was going to have to deal with to get to it. Darkness was rising.Someone beside him said, Small talk doesnt really get any smaller than when youve lost a loved one, huh?Charlie turned toward the voice, surprised to see Vern Glover, diminutive Death Merchant, munching some coleslaw and ranch beans.Thanks for coming, Charlie said automatically.Vern waved off the thanks with his plastic fork. You saw the shadow?Charlie nodded. When hed gotten to his mothers house this morning, the shadow of the mesa had reached his mothers front yard, and the calls of the carrion birds that churned in its edges were deafening. You didnt tell me that no one else could see it. I called my sister from San Francisco to check the progress, but she didnt see anything.Sorry, they cant see it at least as far as Ive ever been able to tell they cant. It was gone for five days. It came back this morning.When I came back?I guess. Did we cause this? Doughnuts and coffee and its the end of the world?I missed two souls back home, Charlie said, smiling at a human race in b urgundy golf wear who held his hand to his heart in sympathy as he passed them.Missed? Did the what did you call them the sewer harpies get them?Could be, Charlie said. But whatever is happening, it seems to be following me.Sorry, Vern said. Im glad we talked, though. I dont feel so alone.Yeah, Charlie said.And sorry about your mother, Vern added quickly. You okay?Hasnt even hit me yet, Charlie said. I guess Im an orphan.Ill make sure and check out whoever gets her necklace, Vern said. Ill be careful with it.Thanks, Charlie said. You think we have any control over who gets the soul next? I mean really. The Great Big Book says it will move on as it should.I guess, Vern said. Every time Ive sold one the glow has gone out right away. If it wasnt the right person, that wouldnt happen, right?Yeah, I guess so, Charlie said. So there is some order to this.Youre the expert, Vern said then he dropped his fork. Who is that? Shes so hot.Thats my sister, Charlie said. Jane was coming across the room toward them. She was wearing Charlies charcoal double-breasted Armani and the strappy black pumps her platinum hair was lacquered into thirties finger waves, which flowed out from under a small black hat with a suppress that covered her face down to her lips, which shone like red Ferraris. To Charlie, she looked, as usual, like the cross between a robot assassin and a Dr. Seuss character, but if he tried to squint past the fact that she was his sister, and a lesbian, and his sister, then he could possibly see how the hair, lips, and sheer linear altitude of her might strike someone as hot. Especially someone like Vern, who would require climbing equipment and oxygen to scale a woman Janes height.Vern, Id like you to meet my incredibly hot sister, Jane. Jane, this is Vern.Hi, Vern. Jane took Verns hand and the Death Merchant winced at her grip.Sorry for your loss, Vern said.Thanks, Jane said. Did you know our mother?Vern knew her very well, Charlie said. In fact, it was one of Moms dying wishes that you let Vern buy you a doughnut. Wasnt it, Vern?Vern nodded so hard that Charlie thought he could hear vertebrae cracking.Her dying wish, Vern said.Jane didnt move, or say anything. Because her eyes were covered, Charlie couldnt see her expression, but he guessed that she might be trying to burn holes in his aorta with her laser-beam vision.You know, Vern, that would be lovely, but could I take a rain check? We just buried my mother and I have some things to go over with my brother.Thats fine, Vern said. And it doesnt have to be a doughnut, if youre watching your figure. You know, a salad, coffee, anything.Sure, Jane said. Since its what Mom wanted. Ill give you a call. Charlie told you Im a lesbian, though, right?Oh my God, Vern said. He almost doubled over with fire before he remembered that he was at a postfuneral potluck and he was openly imagining a mnage trois with the deceaseds daughter. Sorry, he squealed.See you, Vern, Charlie said as his sister hustled him toward the kitchen cubicle of the clubhouse. Ill electronic mail you about that other thing.As soon as they rounded the corner into the kitchen Jane punched Charlie in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him.What were you thinking? Jane hissed. She flipped back her entomb so he could see just how pissed off she was, just in case the punch in the breadbasket hadnt conveyed the message.Charlie was gasping and laughing at the same time. Its what Mom would have wanted.My mom just died, Charlie.Yeah, Charlie said. But you have no idea what youve just done for that guy in there.Really? Jane raised an eyebrow.He will remember this day always, Charlie said. That guy will never again have a sexual fantasy in which you do not walk through, probably wearing borrowed shoes.And you dont find that creepy?Well, yes, youre my sister, but its a seminal moment for Vern.Jane nodded. Youre a pretty good guy, Charlie, looking out for a comminuted stranger like that.Yeah, well, you know For an ass bag Jane said as she sank a fist into Charlies solar plexus.Strangely, as he gasped for breath, Charlie felt that wherever his mother was right now, she was pleased with him.Bye, Mom, he thought.PART THREEBATTLEGROUNDTomorrow we shall meet,Death and I And he shall thrust his swordInto one who is wide awake. jag Hammarskjld

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