1: Living the good life
The Moon was high and full over the San Diego mountains. Okay, I suppose they’re just hills, technically… but compared to Baltimore, my last port of call, they’re mountains. It provided the largely-cloudless night with the kind of illumination that often convinced people that they could drive all night without their headlights on, or walk the most secluded streets without fearing the shadows. It also made slightly uncomfortable the kind of people who might take advantage of the night to lie around on a mansion patio, nearby the infinity pool that faced the bay, totally naked.
People like myself, for instance.
Despite any amount of personal discomfort I felt for being thus exposed, however, I stayed right where I was, lying on a plush outdoor carpet just beyond the lip of the pool, next to a creature who apparently did not share my reticence for being exposed to the potential voyeurs of the night. And considering her tastes, not to mention her physical assets, I’d be willing to bet there were telescopes all over the neighborhood that regularly swung in this direction. But she showed no inclination to cover up, and frankly I was too tired to bother. I swear, I had probably lost five pounds in the last month, just from hanging out with this woman. And for the record: I don’t diet.
My uncharacteristically-poetic musings were finally broken when Gail, my new main squeeze, and formerly my older brother’s wife and main squeeze, rolled onto her side, pressing her warm and inviting flesh against my side, and said, “you look slightly puckered.”
I grinned. “Two hours of sex in a pool will do that to you.”
“Actually, I meant your forehead,” Gail said, poking me playfully in the ribs. “What are you thinking about?”
“How many of your neighbors have managed by now to catalogue the type and number of my pubic hairs while I lie out here.”
Gail seemed to consider my comment carefully. Instead of one of her typically off-the-cuff sexual remarks, she finally said, “Mike, I wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable when you’re with me. Ever. C’mon, let’s go inside.” Whereupon she stood up, striking the most incredible figure in the moonlight, and chivalrously offered me a hand up. (Does that even apply for women?) “We’ll let the bed have some fun for a change.”
“For a change,” I echoed wryly. It was true, Gail had managed to introduce me to almost every horizontal surface, quite a few vertical and inclined spots, and shapes that I didn’t even think two human bodies could fit into at the same time, all over her house. Gail loved to find, and exploit, inventive ways to have sex, and I have to admit, she even seemed to get more turned on by the fact that I was so far not shying away from any of them. At times, I wondered where I would finally draw the line… but so far, she hadn’t managed to invite anything into our sex-wrestling that looked like a line to me, so I kept coming. “I’m thirsty… is there—”
“Plenty of beer—” Gail started to say, then caught herself. “Plenty more besides beer… whatever you want.” She took my arm and walked me past the outdoor spa, past the sauna and into the entertainment room, where the fully-stocked bar awaited, with soft built-in lights that gave it a late-night-on-the-town glow. She steered me to a stool, and once I’d sat down, she gave me a pat on the rear, then stepped behind the bar, and asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Surprise me,” I said, as I watched my naked bartender work. If nothing else, I was sure she wouldn’t get me a beer. That was Pete’s preferred drink… Pete, my brother, that is. Pete, my brother, her ex, that also is. Maybe she hoped I hadn’t noticed her little slip-up back there… on the other hand, she wasn’t stupid, so I was pretty sure she knew I’d noticed, and was thinking hard trying to figure out a way to make me forget it. Therefore, I could depend on my next drink at her hands to be tasty, powerful, and sexually charging.
When she handed me the glass from behind the bar, I took a sip, and I swear, for a moment the walls changed color behind her. I gasped, and smiled. “You would make a great bartender.” I took another look at my glass. “No cherry?”
Gail smiled, and in response, came out from behind the bar. I looked down and saw, nestled among the smooth ab-lines of that incredible body, a cherry in her belly-button. She paused next to me, and waited expectantly for me to get my treat. Not to be one to turn down a cherry (finish that line yourself, you perv), I set down my drink and knelt down before her, ready to partake.
And I couldn’t help thinking to myself: Exactly what did I do to deserve such an incredible turn of luck in my life? At moments like this, it was hard to imagine that getting blackballed from my old job on the East Coast could be anything but the best thing that ever happened to me, bar none. Fate had dealt me a do-over for a going-nowhere existence, and I’d hit the life lottery on the first day. Increasingly, the mysteries behind the firing, the question of the mysterious “Merc,” and the concern over who had chosen me to be sacrificed upon the altar of secrecy, mattered less and less. Life had become heaven, with my own personal centerfold angel. And I didn’t ever want to turn this page. Slowly I reached out, seeking something to hang onto.
That’s when the cellphone on the bar started playing “Life in the Fast Lane.”
I wouldn’t say Gail jumped in surprise or anything. But when she turned in the direction of the ringtone, the cherry popped out of her navel and bounced on the tile floor. I looked down in disappointment at the cherry, and couldn’t help but reflect on the disturbing symbolism inherent in that moment; then up at Gail, who was already moving away and around the bar, reaching for her phone urgently. She picked it up from the bar as I stood up, and before she keyed it on, she flashed me a strange look. Then she hit the receive button and tucked it against her ear.
“Martin. It’s kind of late,” she said, revealing another talent she had: Being a master of understatement.
She listened to the voice at the other end for a time, without speaking. Abruptly, she looked at me. I couldn’t describe the expression on her face… I have recently proven that I’ve gotten really bad at reading people. Suffice it to say, she didn’t look happy. It occurred to me then, that I’d heard many different ringtones on Gail’s phone—she was the kind of person who used personalized ringtones for her contacts, and as a geek myself, I could get behind that—but I had never heard this one before. Finally she said, “Don’t worry. It’ll work out. I’ll see you there, okay? Don’t talk to anyone else.” She paused to listen. “Especially not her.”
She flicked the phone off. This time, when she looked at me, I knew exactly what she was thinking. “Someone you know needs my help?”
She nodded her head.
2: Martin and me
Despite the moonlight, Gail mercifully drove with her lights on as we carved out of the San Diego hills, heading for town. Needless to say, we were now fully clothed, which for San Diego meant I had on a Hawaiian shirt and baggies, and my baggies actually had underwear underneath them. Gail, wearing a tank top and biking shorts, and no way to tell for sure if she actually had on underwear, would have looked positively angelic, if it hadn’t been for her expression.
Gail normally did not mind guys watching her. But on this occasion, she seemed uncomfortable knowing how closely I was watching her. Finally, she blurted out, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, will you just ask me already?”
“Boyfriend or business associate?” I asked calmly. I was starting to get used to Gail’s “relationships,” so I was just taking things one step at a time.
“Business associate,” she said. And then she added, “Mainly.”
I nodded. “I had a feeling. What did he tell you?”
“He’s been robbed,” Gail said. “And now he’s being blackmailed with what was stolen.”
“Does that mean, what was stolen wasn’t his?” Gail shook her head. “Then, it’s illegal.” Gail did not shake her head. “Should I ask?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” she said, abruptly turning into the parking lot of a set of modish-looking stucco townhouses. Even in the dark, I could make out the pastel colors on the outer walls… the official colors of American retirement chic. Gail parked, we got out, and she started for the unit on the end. It was a two-story unit, with the entrance on the side of the house, as opposed to the front like the other units. As we came around to that side, I saw a decent-sized balcony running along the second floor, and an expanse of windows… the place had a decent view on that side, but you’d have to ask those inside if they ever enjoyed it, because the windows were all opaque from the outside. A second door opened to a sidewalk that ran to the rear of the house, and ended at a ten-foot fence with a gate. Privacy ahoy.
When Gail reached the door, she tapped with her knuckle, once, then twice more. If that hadn’t been a coded knock, I’d turn in my official Maxwell Smart Portable Cone of Silence keyfob. We waited long enough for someone on the inside to come to the door and look out the eye-hole. After a moment, the door opened, and a man regarded us. He was about my height, maybe ten years older than me, but better-built, body-builder muscular from what I could tell through his clothes. He looked like he had the strength to kick my ass. On the other hand, his face suggested that he wouldn’t know the first thing about fighting. He had that serious lifelong-surfer look about him, the kind of guy who’s too mellow to hurt a fly. I was ready to put even odds on the word “Dude” being the first thing he aimed at me.
The guy looked at both of us, then just at Gail. “Gail,” he said. “Who’s the dude?”
I’d call that a payout.
“This is Mike. He’s my man.” I blinked. I don’t know the last time I’ve heard it put like that. Surfer-man looked me over quickly, nodded, then stepped back and opened the door all the way. We stepped inside, and the guy closed the door behind us. Once inside, Gail said, “Mike, this is Martin.” And, to Martin, she said, “Mike might be able to help.”
Martin looked at Gail. You know the feeling you get when people are talking around you, and the way they say things tell you that they’re not saying as much as they are saying? (Did that even make sense?) Anyway, that was the vibe right then. Martin asked Gail, “New?”
Gail looked at me, then told Martin, “Avocado-green.”
I just rolled my eyes. But Martin got the gist of what Gail was telling him, so he nodded, and motioned for us to follow him. “Let’s go to the office.”
He led us to a door off of the kitchen, which led to a set of stairs going down to the basement. I’m not sure why I didn’t think the place had a basement, but I probably should have known better. We went downstairs, and at the bottom landing, we found a door on the left, and a short hallway leading to a door on the right. I noted that both doors had deadbolt locks on them. We went down the short hall, and Martin unlocked the door and led us inside.
The office was small, but comfortable, with a sofa on one wall, a bookshelf on another, and a fairly modern-looking desk with one of the small Dell desktop computers and an LCD screen on its top, plus a few other accessories. Martin indicated the sofa, and we went to sit. As I sat down, I glanced at the bookshelf across the room. It was at that moment that I realized the bookshelf was not full of books, but of black-plastic cases… the kind that hold film cassettes. I’d guess at a few hundred, at least. I didn’t notice any unusual-looking gaps in the shelves, so it was probably a good guess that whatever was stolen, wasn’t from there.
Martin sat on the edge of the desk, and looked at me pointedly. To Gail, he asked, “Are you sure about this?” Meaning me.
Gail replied, “He’s Pete’s brother.”
To this, Martin’s eyebrows rose, and he looked at me again. “I should have seen it, dude,” he said, and he shook his head. “That’s how thrashed I am over all this.”
“So you know Pete,” I said, glancing at Gail.
Gail ignored my look, and before Martin could respond, she said, “Martin, tell me what happened. Do you know who robbed you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was Esmeralda.”
“Why would she do that?”
Martin looked at Gail sadly. “I screwed her.”
3: From vague to specific
I looked at Gail, and I was gratified to see that his explanation made as little sense to her. Gail had the presence of mind to say, “That’s not much help, Martin.”
“I don’t mean I screwed her,” Martin replied, shaking his head again. “I mean… well, yeah, I did… but it was… and when I did, I… see, there were these unexpected taxes, that I couldn’t… so I had to… I screwed her.”
I had absolutely no choice, but to cradle my elbow with one hand so my other hand could cradle my head. I was beginning to conclude that knowing Gail and having the greatest sex in the world wasn’t worth being exposed to people like this. Or maybe… it was close.
“Jesus, Martin,” Gail finally said, “will you just tell us what happened?”
Martin hung his head, then lifted it and examined the ceiling, then turned it and searched the walls. Presently, he said, “Es found out I conned her out of her fair share of the last video.”
Now we were getting somewhere, though I wasn’t sure I liked the direction. I looked at Gail. “Video?”
Gail rolled her eyes at me. “It’s not what you think.”
“We’ll see about that.” I looked at Martin. “Go on. How did you con this girl?”
Martin shrugged. “Got her drunk, had sex, and got her to sign a contract she was too trashed to read.”
I had to give him credit. He hadn’t sugar-coated it. “But she found out. And did what?”
“Well, she showed up and brought some kid off the street with her. I mean, not a kid… just… off the street. Wanted me to try to sell her on working for me.”
“Doing more videos?” I asked, sharing the same looks with Gail.
Martin shrugged and nodded at the same time (neat when you get to see it, actually). “She turned out to be a strung-out junkie… no one I could use. But while I talked to the kid, Es had gotten into the big vault and hauled ass with a bunch of tapes, and contracts. That was last week. Didn’t realize it until the other day… I haven’t been back there much this week, and I didn’t realize it had been opened. Then she called me, and told me to pay her what I owed her, or she’d go to the cops with the tapes, plus accuse me of rape and coercion.”
I nodded, partially impressed that the word “coercion” had even managed to get out of the surfer-boy’s mouth. “So, I guess these are nasty porn vids, with, I dunno, barnyard animals or—”
“Mike!” Gail snapped, surprising me with her venom directed at me. “We didn’t do any illegal porn films! It wasn’t porn at all, for God’s sake!”
I stared at her. Hard. After about five seconds staring back, Gail said, “I swear, we didn’t do any porn!”
“Well,” I said, “what else could get him blackmailed over it?” This was not a rhetorical question. If they weren’t discussing illegal porn, I didn’t know what else could get them into blackmail-level trouble. “Come on… what are the films about?”
“They’re instructional films,” Martin replied. “On yoga techniques.”
I stared again. Harder. “Yoga,” I repeated.
“Yoga,” Gail replied. After a pause that I was trying to make pregnant as possible, she added, “Okay… not just a traditional production.”
Here it came. “Let me guess: Naked.” After a moment, Gail nodded. She didn’t seem to want to look me in the eye. “What else?”
“Couples,” Martin supplied. “Intimate.”
“So: Intimate couples yoga, in the nude,” I summed up. When neither of them contradicted me, I said, “And that’s not illegal?”
“Not with no sexual contact,” Martin replied, “it’s not.”
“Per se,” Gail added.
“What?” I sighed.
“Some of us models were… young… when we did the—”
“Intimate couples yoga, in the nude, with minors,” I summed up. “That’s illegal.”
Gail nodded. “Pretty much.”
“Lord luv a duck,” I said.
“What?” Martin said.
“Huh?” Gail said. “Did you say—”
“No,” I said quickly. “Let’s stay on topic, here! So, Esmeralda stole tapes showing some of your minors… and what? Proof of age contracts?” Martin nodded. “That I suppose won’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny?” He nodded again. “Can you pay her off?”
Martin shook his head. “I already used the money to pay the taxes I owed, man.”
“Is there anything else he can do?” Gail asked.
I looked at them both, as I contemplated the possibilities as I knew them. Finally I crossed my hands across my chest, and said the only thing that would come to me.
“He can start packing. I hear Mexico can be nice.”
4: That’s it?
“That’s all you got? That’s it?” Gail snapped.
“Is there an echo in here?” I snapped back. Just as quickly, I checked that. It was just the chapter title. “Uh, I mean, I’m an IT guy. I’m not a magician, able to make minors older with a wave of my hand. I can’t fake birth certificates. I don’t know any D&D incantations that will dissolve your stolen tapes from a distance. And I can’t print money!” I looked at Gail and shrugged. “Babe, I don’t know what the court is likely to do to you if they see those films.” I looked at Martin. “But you, dude, are screwed.”
Martin looked at Gail. “Dude, that’s harsh.”
“Mike,” Gail asserted, “there must be something Martin can do!”
“Besides buy new luggage, you mean? Look, I can only think of a single other thing you can do: Give her something of equal or higher value than what she wants out of you.”
“Like what?” Martin asked.
“As I see it,” I said, “you only have one thing of value, don’t you?” Martin stared back… I don’t know if he was in denial, or just being obtuse, so I just said it. “Your business.”
“What?” he said. So now I knew: Obtuse.
“Yup. Let her have it… give her all your tapes. Give her the rights to all future sales. Make her realize that she can make so much more on that stuff than blackmailing you.”
“Well… that’s crazy!” Martin said, throwing up his hands. “What am I supposed to do for a living, dude?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said coyly. “Maybe… something legitimate? Like yoga films with adults… with clothes on?”
Gail screwed up her face. “Who’d buy that?”
“Yeah,” Martin insisted, “there’s a reason we did it the way we did it!”
“But it was illegal,” I shot back, feeling like I was talking to children now. “Hell, you’re better off giving that shit away than continuing to sell it!”
“And what about Es?” Martin asked. “What if she continues to sell it?”
“What of it?” I said. “If they’re all hers, then it’s her head in a noose if someone turns her in. And incidentally,” I added, “you will be in the perfect situation to do that, if she double-crosses you after the deal. Make sure she knows that. What do you think she’s more likely to want to do?”
Gail was starting to get it. “To just sell the stuff and make easy money.”
“Right,” I said. “And in the meantime, Martin can start producing… oh, I don’t know. Have you ever considered grownup porn?”
Martin shrugged. “Well… yeah, sure, I’ve considered it. But you need a hook these days, to rise above all the junk that’s out there.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said. And as quickly added, “Uh, from what I’ve heard of the market. Anyway, it’s your job to find your hook: Exotic locales. Cheap locales. Weird sets. Girls with accents. Costumes. Something…”
“Whoa, hold on,” Martin interrupted me. “I almost forgot one thing.”
He looked at Gail, and I saw her eyes widen. The color drained out of her face. Her mouth hung open, and I thought for a moment she was gonna pee herself. Instead, she said one word: “Veronica.”
“Veronica,” Martin echoed.
“Veronica?” I said.
“Veronicaaaa,” Gail replied, drawing out the last syllable in an annoying fashion.
“All right!” I snapped. “Before I have to start combing through the Elvis Costello catalog, somebody explain the big deal with Veronica!”
“She—” Martin started, then his voice caught in his throat. He swallowed, and started again. “She… she’s…” Another long pause, and another gulp, before he finally got the next word out, making it sound like acid on his tongue: “Ukrainian.”
Oh, yes, you know I paused for effect. Then I said: “Ukrainian.” I looked at Gail. “Ukrainian?”
“Ukrainiannn,” Gail replied, drawing out that last syllable again.
“Stop that! Look, what’s the big deal about Veronica’s being Ukrainian?”
“Don’t you know anything?” Martin said at once. “Everybody knows, when it comes to business, there are three things you just don’t mess with: Mother Mary; Mother Nature; and mother-fucking Ukrainians!”
“Cute,” I said. “But what’s that got to do with—”
“Veronica was one of my performers,” Martin explained. Not.
“I gathered,” I said. “And I repeat, what’s—”
“She was underage,” Gail said.
“Duh!” I shot back. “Don’t make me say it again!”
“She found out what we were doing could get her arrested,” Martin said.
“And she wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get her arrested.”
“And so… she made me sign a waiver, forbidding me to sell the assets without her permission.”
“And if you do?”
“If I do…” Martin gulped again, and Gail looked like she was going to be sick. “If I do, I’ll… I’d have to… I’ll have to…”
“Just say it, for God’s sake.”
“…I’ll have to have sex with her.”
Yes, that’s what he said. I looked at Gail, to confirm I had heard what he’d said, and the look on her face confirmed it nicely. I looked back at both of them, unimpressed.
“There’d better be a lot more to it than that,” I said.
“There is,” Gail said sickly. “She’s a black widow.”
“A black widow?”
“A black widowwww…”
5: Curse of the Spider Woman
Okay, I admit it, I was surprised when Martin opened the door to the part of the basement he called “the studio,” and turned on the lights. I expected to see fake dungeon walls, ratty cots, wall racks of weird sex toys that would scare—well, me—and I didn’t know what else.
Instead, I saw a taping studio. A white room with one of those corner-smoothing things against the wall, big lights on stands, two microphones on boom stands, three beefy-looking cameras on mounts, a desk with a computer seated on it, and some cabinets by the door. Another door, just by this one, had a plaque with the universal man and woman icons that usually meant “bathroom.”
“Surprised, aren’t you?” Martin said. “See? No dungeon walls, ratty cots, weird sex toys or whatever else you were expecting.”
Ah. I wondered how soon my thoughts would start leaking. That was probably a good sign. “So, okay, looks legit enough. Even though it isn’t. Where’s this tape you want me to see?”
“Actually, I’ve got it on the hard drive,” Martin said, walking over to the computer desk. He booted up the computer, and one of three portable drives he had sitting next to it on the floor. Then he sat down, logged onto the PC, and started combing through files. In a moment, he seemed to have found what he wanted. “Okay, take a look.”
He double-clicked on the file, and a viewing screen filled the monitor. And on it were two people, a man and a woman… excuse me, a boy and a girl. The boy looked like he could have been 21 or more… but the girl…
No… that wasn’t a girl… it was a… human spider! This girl was doing the yoga poses with the boy, both very close and intimate, without being… intimate. And it was a good thing, because I probably would have had to leave the room. That’s because this girl was waif-thin, almost skin and bones… and based on her poses, clearly a contortionist, to-boot. She had short-cut black hair and the kind of heavy makeup that kids do, and… I dunno, there’s something about contortionists that’s just plain freaky… but when they are built this thin, they just look… supernatural!
After a moment, I heard Gail say, “Breathe, Mike.”
I did. I hadn’t realized I wasn’t. And when I did, I said, “Okay, that’s just wrong. Turn that off!”
Martin did as ordered, and said, “Now do you see how serious this is?”
I tried to imagine Martin—hell, anyone—trying to have sex with that… that… I swear, my mind was yelling, La-la-la-la-la-won’t-go-there-la-la-la-la! Then something occurred to me. “Hold on… that tape is how old? A few years?” Martin nodded. “Well, she can’t possibly still look like that! …Right?”
“No, she doesn’t,” Gail admitted.
“She’s lost weight,” Martin said.
I swear, I wanted to throw up. Good thing I hadn’t eaten anything in hours.
“It gets worse,” Gail said.
I pointed at the now-mercifully-dark monitor. “What could be worse than that?”
“There’s something about Veronica,” Martin said, and choked on his own words for a moment.
Gail continued for him. “Veronica has this… physiological… we don’t know what it is. It’s been said that no doctor has ever found out what causes it. But within a year of having sex with her, your…” Gail swallowed in discomfort. “Your junk just goes bad.”
“Bad?” I repeated. “How bad?”
Gail did not want to use the words. Slowly, she raised her hand to her throat. She extended a single finger, and used it to do a back-and-forth motion under her chin.
I gulped. “That bad?” Martin looked like he was about to faint. If he did, there was a good chance I would’ve joined him. “So… uh, okay, you get yourself to Mexico, and—”
“Don’t you understand?” Martin said. “She’ll come find me! She’s got friends! Ukrainian friends! They’ll find me! She’ll make me have sex with her!”
“Oh, God… That would be worse than death!” Gail wailed, and I wasn’t sure I could say she was overstating things. “He can’t sell out! He just can’t! What she’ll do to him… it’s just not right!”
So many nasty things were running through my head at that moment, not the least of which was a plague-carrying spider-woman forcing herself on a guy, that I could hardly think. In fact, even breathing was proving to be challenging. “Well,” I said, “suppose you gave Esmeralda everything but Veronica’s tapes? Like she’d even want them…”
“Of course she’d want them,” Martin whined. “Do you know how valuable Veronica’s tapes are?”
Ever have one of those moments when you were sure your eyes were about to pop out of your head and go rolling across the floor? I was so there. “You can’t be serious! She’s popular? She’s practically an alien! And I mean an Alien alien!”
“You don’t know the biz, dude,” was Martin’s reply. “It takes all kinds…”
Actually, I do know the biz. And he was right, of course: The most popular stuff on the web is always the deviant stuff. And that Veronica… well, watching her willingly couldn’t get much more deviant. My eyes presently stopped popping, and visions of rotting junk presently started dancing in my head. I can tell you, it was not a happy dance.
“What am I gonna do?” Martin moaned.
Gail looked at him sympathetically. Then she looked at me. “There must be something we can do to help him?”
I tried to think a moment. But lord help me, I could only come up with one thing.
“Get me to a Starbucks,” I said, “before I pass out.”
6: Desperate plans
I was trying my damndest to enjoy my grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, nestled like a scared child hiding under his blankie in the little corner table of one of the few Starbucks that are mercifully open at four in the morning. Problem was, it wasn’t working. Visions of Veronica the Lethal Ukrainian Spider Woman kept popping unbidden into my head, and it was making it as hard for me to concentrate as a male barista trying to out-sing Mariah Carey. (Trust me, I know whereof I speak… pray to whatever Gods you favor that you never, ever find out which Starbucks, or which barista, I’m talking about.)
Listening to Martin and Gail wasn’t much easier on my nerves. Between his moaning about Veronica, and her grousing about Esmeralda, I was beginning to lose it. No, edit, cut that, and paste: I had lost it an hour ago, and I was still unable to find it again.
“Okay,” I finally announced, “this really isn’t helping! Can you guys try to think of something that would scare Ukrainian mobsters and spider-people? I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating, here.”
“I don’t know… bigger Ukrainians?” Gail suggested.
“Having to go back to Ukraine?” Martin ventured.
“Okay, not bad… but not helpful,” I said. “We don’t have bigger Ukrainians, and we don’t have anything on them that would deport them. What else?”
Martin shrugged. “Italian mobsters?”
“No,” Gail said quickly. “Ukrainians are more afraid of the people in this place, than they are of Italian mobsters.”
“Huh?” I blinked.
Gail nodded at the counter. “Homophobic. Most of them are die-hard old-school Catholics.”
“Oh.” I drained my coffee on that tidbit, but could see no way to solve this problem by throwing gay Starbucks baristas at Ukrainian mobsters and women who looked like Death’s ugly sister. And I was about to say so…
When, suddenly, I thought of a way.
“Martin,” I said abruptly, “how long has it been since Veronica saw you?”
“Uh,” Martin mumbled, thinking. “Couple years, I guess…”
“Good. Gail: Can you find us a great makeup person? I mean, really, really realistic good.”
After thinking a moment, Gail said, “I know someone who owns a shop in town—”
“Perfect! Get ahold of ‘em, and tell ‘em—guy or girl?”
“Better than perfect! —tell him we need him for an emergency job, today. And tell him we might need him a few days.”
Gail’s face began to light up. “You have a plan.”
“Yes, I do.” I looked Martin up and down, sizing up the possibilities. “It’s a long shot, but it’s probably the best shot you’ve got. Gail, get me back to Pete’s place.”
I wish I could say it was odd showing up at my brother’s apartment, the place where I also crashed when I wasn’t with Gail, at six in the morning, after being out all night. Fact is, hanging out with Gail regularly kept me out all night, usually humping like crazed rabbits at her place, before she’d drive me here, kick me out of the car at speed, and go to work. So in this case, the only thing unusual about my coming in at six in the morning was that Gail came in with me, followed by Martin.
As we closed the front door, we heard a toilet flush. A moment later, the door to the hall bathroom opened, and Pete came out. He was fully au naturel, and when he saw us, he merely yawned, clearly not concerned that he was starkers in front of his brother, his ex, and an old acquaintance. “Oh… morning,” he said tiredly. “I think there’s cereal in the cupboard.” Then he turned, and trudged back to the bedroom.
Before he closed the door, he said, “Nice to see you again, Marty.”
Something about that moment bugged me. I looked at Gail, and she looked at me. “Tell me,” I sighed, “he’s not on any of Martin’s tapes.”
Gail shook her head. Thank God. That was an image I would not have been able to handle, on top of everything else.
“When you think your makeup guy is up,” I said, “get him here, with his bag of tricks. I’ve got some documents to rustle up in the meantime.”
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Gail asked me, as I stepped gingerly past the detritus littering my Borg alcove, formerly known as Pete’s dining room, and sat down in front of my Toughbook.
“Hey,” I said, “it’s either this, or shopping for Samsonites.”
7: The set-up
My plan might not have been the most concrete one, because it depended way too much on timing. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see much choice in the matter. Martin seemed pretty sure Veronica and her boys would be showing up at his place any moment, looking for him, so it made sense to get him out of there long enough for me to do my work. I had to prepare a new website, spoof some dates, and make it look like it had been around for a while, to support my story. Then I had to concoct some paperwork. Fortunately, with tools like Photoshop, it was easy to create things like logos, and with apps like Word and Acrobat, it was as easy to create forms and documents. I did it all in an afternoon, aided by the Gods Copy and Paste, knowing that very little of it needed to stand up to detailed scrutiny.
One thing about the web is, everybody uses it to check things out. Another thing is, most people don’t really look too deeply into the websites themselves… they tend to accept whatever they see at face value, if it looks honest enough. Notice I said “honest,” and not “professional.” These days, a lot of amateurs, and pre-professional talents, use the web to post information or drum up business. If a website looks like it was put together by someone who is for real about what they are doing, it does not even need to look professional. Just honest. It can be harder to pull off, but the right touches tend to sell the illusion.
That morning, I told Martin to call Esmeralda, and make the offer of the entire collection. Naturally, she agreed, and Martin looked positively ill when he hung up. In fact, I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to need Gail’s make-up guy after all… he was halfway to what I had in mind, without any help.
At about one, Gail’s makeup guy showed up. Pete let him in, and when he knew the guy wasn’t looking, rolled his eyes in amusement. That’s because the guy looked as stereotypically gay as you can look without a prescription… which, to my mind, was perfect. He came in wearing tight black slacks, a mustard-yellow shirt, a cream scarf tucked into the neck, and a hairdo that looked like it would have left the stylists at Cuts laughing their asses off for hours.
“This is Kyle,” Gail introduced us.
“Pleased to meet you all,” Kyle said, and I thanked my stars and garters he didn’t lisp too much. I mean, selling is one thing, but too much is too much. “Who am I here to work on?” He looked at me, Martin and Pete eagerly. “Can I pick?”
“Him,” Pete and I said and pointed at Martin simultaneously.
“Sure,” Kyle grinned, giving Martin a stronger once-over. “So, what are we going for? Younger look? Euro-trash? Red carpet? Vampire?”
“Vampire?” Martin repeated.
“Oh, it’s all the rage,” Kyle told us. “Everyone wants to look dangerous.”
“We want him to look dead,” Gail said.
Kyle looked at her. “Come again?”
“As in ‘dead man walking’,” I elaborated. “Sick as a dog. Get it?”
“I… think so…”
“Say,” I asked Kyle. “Ever make up yourself?”
“You could use some work, too.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “You look way too healthy yourself. By the way: Can you act?”
Kyle leaned back and extended his arms dramatically, wrists hanging appropriately, and smiled. “My good fellow: Did you think I was born this way?”
“Good man,” I said. “We’ll explain as we go…”
The rest of the day progressed pretty well. As I said, I wasn’t sure about our timing, so we had to have Kyle make Martin up, then explain in detail how to maintain the makeup job and fix it on a moment’s notice. We didn’t know if he’d have to, but it was a possibility… and messing this up would be really bad for Martin, so we went the extra mile. Kyle also made himself up, and by the time he was finished, the two of them looked like they’d need each other’s help just to stand up.
Gail had watched all of this with fascination. Early on, she had asked me, “Are you just hoping to out-scare the horror queen?” That was when I explained my full plan to her. When I was done, she nodded. “I like it. If it works.”
“There’s always that catch,” I admitted.
“Still,” she said, “I think we’ve got a good shot at it.”
“I certainly hope so,” I said. “I wouldn’t want a bunch of Ukrainian mobsters after me. Especially after my girl roped me into this mess in the first place.”
Gail responded by slapping my butt and saying, “I have faith in you, lover.”
At that moment, my cellphone rang. “Mr. Schitzeiss? This is Kinkos. Your documents are printed up and ready.”
“Thanks. We’ll pick ‘em up within the half-hour.” I hung up, and looked at everyone. “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.”
The four of us headed for the door, leaving Pete to watch us go. “Sure you don’t need me for anything?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “but stay nearby. You never know when things might get weird.”
Pete looked us over. “Too late.”
8: The Spider Woman cometh
Kyle had come to Pete’s place in his own car, which was perfect for our plans. At my instruction, Gail and I headed for Martin’s place in her car, while Martin and Kyle waited about ten minutes, then set out after us in Kyle’s car.
Gail drove directly into the townhouse parking lot. We both took a good look around the area, whilst trying not to look like we were looking about the area, for the trademarked loitering locals or parked cars that would suggest surveillance… but neither of us saw anything. On the other hand, neither of us were professionals at spotting tails, and for all I knew, we could have parked on a couple of them. So we got out casually, and I made sure the manila folder I pulled from the car was visible in my hand. We walked to the front door, and rang the bell. Naturally, no one answered, so we retreated to the corner of the house, where we could be seen from the parking lot, and spent time in small-talk.
About five minutes later, Kyle’s car drove into the lot. As we watched, Kyle and Martin got out of the car, and started for the townhouse. We waited by the corner until they reached us, and Martin said, “Thanks for waiting, guys. Why don’t we go on inside?” He was a decent actor, at least, though he looked a bit nervous… and that was helped along by the makeup job Kyle had given him… but in this case, that was a good thing.
We all returned to the front door, and Martin started to unlock it… when seemingly out of nowhere, we realized five guys had just appeared behind us. We all jumped in surprise, then cowered, because I’m telling you, these guys looked scary.
“Why don’t we all go inside?” one of them said, in a Russian-accented voice (hey, I don’t know from Ukrainian). Martin had already unlocked the door, so we were summarily herded inside. Okay, I hadn’t expected things to happen this fast… but what the hey; might as well get it over with. We crowded into the living room, where another of the men said, “Sit.” We sat, Martin and Kyle next to each other on the sofa, Gail on the other end of the sofa, and me in a chair next to Gail’s side of the sofa.
I was brave-slash-coy enough to ask, “What’s going on?” to no one in particular, and that earned me a nasty look and a “Shut up” from one of the thugs. So I shut up, and the four of us sat there silently while the five of them stared us down. Then we heard footsteps approaching the open front door. Presently, the owner of the footsteps reached the landing, and stepped casually inside.
Yes, it was the infamous Veronica… and I had to suppress a shudder. Her ruffle-filled salmon-colored blouse, black pencil skirt and three-inch heels made her look like a walking bag of pale bones, something that would have looked right at home in a Tim Burton animated feature. In addition, she had that hungry look, like someone who hadn’t had sex in quite a long time (for some strange reason). She strode in slowly, head up as if her neck somehow didn’t bend anymore, and regarded us with piercing eyes staring down her long, thin nose. Just looking at her made me think, any man who had sex with her, even once, could probably make his own junk rot off through sheer force of will…
Then she opened her mouth… and of all things, it got worse. “Hello, Martin,” she said in a grating half-falsetto voice (don’t ask me to explain what “half-falsetto” means… all I know is, that’s what it was like). She looked carefully at Kyle, with an expression of clear distaste, then over at Gail and me. “Nice to see you again, Gail. Who’s your friend?”
“Veronica,” Gail nodded, but didn’t reply beyond that, and it was easy for me to keep quiet. After a moment, Veronica turned back to Martin.
“So… Martin,” she started, taking a step in his direction. Martin and Kyle actually managed to shrink into the sofa. They didn’t need to act much, either. “Word on the street is that you’re about to lose your precious film collection.”
“How… how did you know that?” Martin asked.
Gail knew, and her eyes narrowed angrily. “Esmeralda.”
Veronica smiled at Gail. “She was never one to keep news to herself. She knew how much I would want to know all about it.” She turned back to Martin. “And you know what I told you would happen if you did that.”
Kyle looked her up and down, and intoned, “Oh, God.”
That was my cue. I suddenly pointed at Veronica, looked at Gail, and said, “Wait a minute. Is this…? This is the girl you told me about, isn’t it?” Gail gave me a warning look, but I moved on as if too brave, or stupid, to notice (take your pick, I know which one I’m going with). “You’re the Veronica! The Ukrainian girl! Who was threatening to…”
I let that drag off, and stared at Veronica. Then I looked at Martin. And then I chuckled. “Ma’am—”
“—uh… yeh. Listen, I heard all about what happened from these guys… and I am on your side, here. You deserve satisfaction.” Whereupon I turned to Martin. “Martin: She wants you to do her to make things square, right? Well, you’ve got no choice, dude. I suggest you just do her, and get it over with.”
Martin stared back at me. “Dude?!”
“No, I’m serious,” I maintained. “You did her wrong, man, and you gotta keep your promise.” I looked back at Veronica, and smiled. “Go ahead. Do her.”
Naturally, this had taken Veronica aback, and her thugs were looking pretty uncomfortable all of a sudden. I guessed they weren’t really prepared for unexpected bouts of thinking. Veronica abruptly demanded, “Who are you?” And before I could respond, she finally noticed the manila envelope still in my hand, which I had begun to impatiently bounce on my knee. “What’s that?”
I looked down at the envelope and paused, as if I was trying to think of what to tell her… and that was all the opening she needed to lunge forward and snatch the envelope from my hand. She looked quickly at the label on the envelope, then ripped it open and removed the papers inside. “You were delivering this?” she demanded, and I gave her a look that suggested that I didn’t dare deny it.
She stared at the documents, and in a moment, her eyes went wide. She dropped the documents on the floor, scattering them at our feet. Then she stared at Martin, again at Kyle, and I could tell that for the first time, their sallow and significantly unhealthy appearance was beginning to register on her.
“Laptop!” she snapped, making us all jump. One of her boys dashed outside, while Veronica glared at me with enough intensity to drain a year out of my life. The thug came back with a laptop and handed it to her. Before he could step back, Veronica grabbed the collar of his shirt and made him bend over in front of her. Kyle gagged.
While we watched, Veronica placed the laptop on the thug’s back, and started typing. She could only be checking out the website referenced in my dummy papers that I had so cleverly crafted, giving me a background as a medical intern doing charity work on the side, so I offered another silent prayer to the gods of Mercy.
She continued to stare at Martin and Kyle, sizing up the situation. Then, I saw her eyes soften. At least, they got a lot less nasty. “Well, well,” she said presently, taking a step back from the sofa, “it seems that fate has already taken a hand. And it serves you right, Martin… it’s your punishment for engaging in such aberrant behavior.” Her minions all gave him disgusted looks. “In this case, I’d say you’re getting your just desserts. And I don’t even have to sully myself in the process.” This seemed to please her, for she moved away from Martin.
And stopped in front of me. “I should have my boys kick your ass for trying to get me in bed with that fag,” she said. Simultaneously, her boys seemed to… I don’t know, sort of expand, and somehow suck some of the light itself from the room, and at that moment, I was sure I looked as pale as Martin and Kyle, without any makeup. “But you actually did me a favor by being here… so I’ll let it slide.” As I started to breathe again, she looked at Gail. “If this is your idea of a good time, sister, you’d better hurry up and wear him out. Your batting average isn’t getting any better.”
Gail wisely didn’t respond, and after another moment of staring us all down, Veronica looked at her boys, and they all paraded out of the living room. The last one out looked back at us, grimaced, and backed out, leaving the door open.
9: The Spider Woman go-eth away
None of us moved for about a minute. I was the first, bending over and retrieving the documents from the floor. Kyle was next, with the statement, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Martin was next, with, “Dude, did we just now, like, not die? Cool!”
Then Gail stood up, walked to the door, and closed it. She then turned to me, and said, “Mike that was the most ballsy thing I think I’ve ever seen!” I didn’t notice Martin look at her and start to protest, but a quick glare from Gail kept him quiet.
“Well, I’m just glad it worked,” I said, collecting the documents and slipping them back into the folder. I handed them to Martin. “I’d destroy those if I were you. It’ll help to sell the situation, if you’re too embarrassed to keep them.”
“Not without looking at them, first,” he said, and pulled them out of the envelope. I have to say, I had done a pretty good job whipping up a set of bogus documents, contracts and blood test results, all of which did a pretty convincing job of depicting Martin as HIV-positive, with a less-than-positive outlook, as tested by my small private lab. The website work had further sold the illusion, and all the effort had been worth it to see Veronica’s expression when she thought Martin was already pretty much terminal. “Dude, you do class work,” Martin said finally. He held them up for Kyle to see, but Kyle shrank back from them.
“I never want to touch papers like that, even when I know they’re bogus! I agree, destroy them!”
“No problem,” Martin said. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think I really had AIDS. But… what if she comes back in a year or something, and I’m still here?”
“Just tell her it’s dormant,” I said. “She’s not a doctor, so she can’t question that… but it should still keep her off your—(I shuddered appropriately)—junk. And maybe in the meantime, you can think of some way to pay her off with part of whatever business you go into next. Preferably something legitimate?”
Ironically, even after all this, Martin’s face actually fell. “Legit? Dude… where’s the profit in that?”
I looked at Gail in amazement, before I said, “You have until Veronica comes back to figure that out.” I was pretty sure Martin would catch my drift.
“I catch your drift,” he said. Good: Thoughts leaking. All must be right with the world.
“And speaking of which,” Gail said, “I think it’s time we took off.” She walked over to Martin and gave him a hug. Then she took him by both shoulders, and said, “You, mister, are an idiot. Straighten up your act! Don’t make me have to do this again, or I’ll cut off your junk myself.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” Kyle protested. “There’s such a shortage of good junk in this world.”
“Tell it on the mountain,” Gail said, leaving Martin’s side to slip a hand into the crook of my arm. “Come on, lover. It’s been a long day… I’ll bet you’d like some rest.”
“You know it.”
“Too bad you’re not going to get any.”
I sighed. “I know it…”
It was six a.m. again, when we got back to Pete’s apartment. Gail had, as promised, kept me up most of the night in celebration, and I’d even gotten her to show me some of the yoga moves she had used when she worked for Martin. Needless to say, they were great for getting my attention, and they did a lot to make the night last even longer. But I was now tired to the bone, and needed some real sleep.
Just like the day before, as we entered, we heard the toilet flush, and a moment later, Pete came out of the bathroom. He also had the same tired expression, and lack of clothing, as yesterday morning. He looked at us, and said, “It’s getting so a guy can’t walk naked through his own house anymore.”
At that moment, his bedroom door opened. Riley, Pete’s main squeeze and my backup Starbucks connection, walked out of the bedroom, also unabashedly stark naked, and wrapped a hand around his arm. “Please, dear, no free shows for the guests. You’re not off the clock, yet.” She smiled sweetly to us, and led him back into the bedroom, and I heard Pete intoning, “Work, work, work…” as they closed the door behind them.
Gail and I exchanged smiles, then wandered into the kitchen. As I pulled a carton of orange juice from the fridge, I asked matter-of-factly, “Veronica was talking about Pete when she mentioned batting averages, wasn’t she?”
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Gail replied. “Especially from her.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “I’d much rather believe it from you.”
“Then why can’t you?” she asked plainly.
“Maybe,” I said, “because you seem to want to avoid telling me anything about your past, or your life, outside of our sexual congress. Why can’t you?”
Gail seemed to consider the question. “It’s… complicated.”
“I’m not,” I said.
“I know,” she nodded. “That’s the problem.”
She handed me an empty glass.
It must be noted that this story’s characters and nationalities do not represent actual persons or nationalities, living, dead, or from another planet. Any similarities to actual persons or nationalities, living, dead, or from another planet, is unintentional, and if you happen to know of any, please keep it to yourself. I just ate.
Denial of Service is so hot it needs lead-lined baggies! Everybody wants to know:
What’s the deal with Mike?
What’s the deal with Gail?
What’s the deal with Pete?
What’s the deal with Mike and Gail?
What’s the deal with Pete and Gail?
What’s the deal with Mike and Pete?
What’s the deal with Gail and Pete and Mike?
Was Veronica really that scary?
When’s Mike gonna buy a car?
What’s Pete’s favorite brand of beer?
Does Gail like cats? I have to travel to India for a year, and I don’t have anyone to take care of Lexie…
Okay, okay, enough! I promise, some of these questions will be answered… soon! For now: Corona; and No, she just has enthusiastic PR guys…