The Royal Family
Book I: The Reduction Method Chapters 1-14...............................1 Book II: Irene Chapters 15-47...........................................19 Book III: Visits and Visitations Chapters 48-75.........................73 Book IV: Billable Hours Chapters 76-82.................................117 Book V: The Mark of Cain Chapters 83-104...............................127 Book VI: Ladies of the Queen Chapters 105-116..........................163 Book VII: "Sometimes It Helps to Talk About These Things" Chapters 117-128...................................................185 Book VIII: Sunflower Chapters 129-139..................................205 Book IX: "Easier Than You Might Ever Dream" Chapters 140-142...........221 Book X: An Essay on Bail Chapters 143-157..............................227 Book XI: "Easier Than You Might Ever Dream" (continued) Chapters 158-167...................................................243 Book XII: The False Irene Chapters 168-209.............................257 Book XIII: "Business Comes First" Chapters 210-211.....................303 Book XIV: Domino Chapters 212-238......................................309 Book XV: Vigs Chapters 239-257.........................................339 Book XVI: The Queen of Las Vegas Chapters 258-262......................367 Book XVII: Buying Their Dream House Chapters 263-285...................379 Book XVIII: Feminine Circus Chapters 286-321...........................399 Book XIX: A Meditation on the Stock Market Chapters 322-323............423 Book XX: "Demons Are Here" Chapters 324-348............................429 Book XXI: Jesus Chapters 349-350.......................................467 Book XXII: The Wicked King's Secret Chapters 351-359...................471 Book XXIII: Justin Chapters 360-376....................................481 Book XXIV: Sapphire Chapters 377-382...................................503 Book XXV: The Truth Chapter 383........................................511 Book XXVI: Celia Chapters 384-433......................................515 Book XXVII: Geary Street Chapters 434-435..............................567 Book XXVIII: John Chapter 436..........................................575 Book XXIX: Space Invaders Chapter 437..................................585 Book XXX: Little Baby Birds Chapters 438-441...........................589 Book XXXI: Filial Duties Chapters 442-461..............................597 Book XXXII: The Fall of Canaan Chapters 462-478........................617 Book XXXIII: Kitty's Soliloquy Chapters 479-480........................641 Book XXXIV: Dan Smooth Chapters 481-528................................647 Book XXXV: Coffee Camp Chapters 529-590................................693 Book XXXVI: The Royal Family Chapters 591-593..........................767
| 1 |
So I'm over at the Hortons' with my stretcher and minivan and my able apprentice, young Matt Sheffler, because they found old George, the cemetery sexton, dead in bed this Thursday morning in ordinary time. And the police have been in to rule out foul play and the EMS team to run a tape so some ER doctor wired to the world can declare him dead at a safe distance. And now it's ours to do—Matt's and mine—to ease George from the bed to the stretcher, negotiate the sharp turn at the top of the stairs, and go out the front door to the dead wagon idling in the driveway and back to the funeral home from whence he'll take his leave—waked and well remembered—a Saturday service in the middle of April, his death observed, his taxes due.
We are bodies in motion and at rest—there in George's master bedroom, in the gray light of the midmorning, an hour or so after his daughter found him because he didn't answer when she called this morning, and he always answers, and she always calls, so she got in the car and drove over and found him exactly as we find him here: breathless, unfettered, perfectly still, manifestly indifferent to all this hubbub. And he is here, assembled on his bed as if nothing had happened, still propped on his left shoulder, his left ear buried in his pillow, his right leg hitched up over the left one, his right hand tucked up under the far pillow his ex-wife used to sleep on, before she left him twenty years ago, and under the former Mrs. Horton's pillow, I lift to show Matt, is a little pearl-handled .22 caliber that George always slept with since he has slept alone. "Security," he called it. He said it helped him sleep.
And really there is nothing out of order, no sign of panic or struggle or pain, and except for the cardiac-blue tinting around his ears, the faint odor of body heat and a little early rigor in his limbs, which makes the moving of him easier, one'd never guess George wasn't just sleeping in this morning—catching the twenty extra winks—because maybe he'd been up late playing poker with the boys, or maybe he'd had a late dinner with his woman friend, or maybe he was just a little tired from digging graves and filling them, and anyway, he hadn't a grave to open this morning for one of the locals who was really dead.
But this morning George Horton is really dead and he's really being removed from his premises by Matt and me after we swaddle him in his own bed linens, sidle him on to the stretcher, tip the stretcher up to make the tight turn at the top of the stairs and carefully ease it down, trying to keep the wheels from thumping each time the heavier head end of the enterprise takes a step. And it's really a shame, all things considered, because here's George, more or less in his prime, just south of sixty, his kids raised, his house paid off, a girlfriend still in her thirties with whom he maintained twice-weekly relations—"catch as catch can," he liked to say. And he's a scratch golfer and a small business owner with reliable employees and frequent flier miles that he spends on trips to Vegas twice a year, where he lets himself get a little crazy with the crap tables and showgirls. And he has his money tucked into rental homes and mutual funds, and a host of friends who'd only say good things about him, and a daughter about to make him a grandfather for the first time, and really old George seemed to have it made, and except for our moving him feet first down the stairs this morning, he has everything to live for, everything.
And it is there, on the landing of the first floor, only a few feet from the front door out, that his very pregnant daughter waits in her warmup suit to tender her good-byes to the grandfather of her baby, not yet born. And Matt's face is flushed with the lifting, the huffing and puffing, or the weight of it all, or the sad beauty of the woman as she runs her hand along her father's cheek, and she is catching her breath and her eyes are red and wet and she lifts her face to ask me, "Why?"
"His heart, Nancy ..." is what I tell her. "It looks like he just slept away. He never felt a thing." These are all the well-tested comforts one learns after twenty-five years of doing these things.
"But why?" she asks me, and now it is clear that how it happened is not good enough. And here I'm thinking all the usual suspects: the cheeseburgers, the whiskey, the Lucky Strikes, the thirty extra pounds we, some of us, carry, the walks we didn't take, the preventive medicines we all ignore, the work and the worry and the tax man, the luck of the draw, the nature of the beast, the way of the world, the shit that happens because it happens.
But Nancy is not asking for particulars. She wants to know why in the much larger, Overwhelming Question sense: why we don't just live forever. Why are we all eventually orphaned and heartbroken? Why we human beings cease to be. Why our nature won't leave well enough alone. Why we are not all immortal. Why this morning? Why George Horton? Why oh why oh why?
No few times in my life as a funeral director have I been asked this. Schoolchildren, the newly widowed, musing clergy, fellow pilgrims—maybe they think it was my idea. Maybe they just like to see me squirm contemplating a world in which folks wouldn't need caskets and hearses and the likes of me always ready and willing and at their service. Or maybe, like me, sometimes they really wonder.
"Do the math" is what George Horton would say. Or "Bottom line." Or "It's par for the course." Or "It's Biblical." If none of these wisdoms seemed to suit, then "Not my day to watch it" is what he'd say. Pressed on the vast adverbials that come to mind whilst opening or closing graves, George could be counted for tidy answers. Self-schooled in the Ways of the World, he confined his reading to the King James Bible, The Wall Street Journal, Golf Digest, the Victoria's Secret catalog and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. He watched C-SPAN, The Home Shopping Network and The Weather Channel. Most afternoons he'd doze off watching Oprah, with whom he was, quite helplessly, in love. On quiet days he'd surf the Web or check his portfolio on-line. On Sundays he watched talking heads and went to dinner and the movies with his woman friend. Weekday mornings he had coffee with the guys at the Summit Café before making the rounds of the half dozen cemeteries he was in charge of. Wednesdays and Saturdays he'd mostly golf.
"Do the math" I heard him give out with once from the cab of his backhoe for no apparent reason. He was backfilling a grave in Milford Memorial. "You gonna make babies, you've gotta make some room; it's Biblical."
Or once, leaning on a shovel, waiting for the priest to finish: "Copulation, population, inspiration, expiration. It's all arithmetic—addition, multiplication, subtraction and long division. That's all we're doing here, just the math. Bottom line, we're buried a thousand per acre, or burned into two quarts of ashes, give or take."
There was no telling when such wisdoms would come to him.
But it came to me, embalming George later that morning, that the comfort in numbers is that they all add up. There is a balm in the known quantities, however finite. Any given year at this end of the millennium, 2.3 million Americans will die. Ten percent of pregnancies will be unintended. There'll be 60 million common colds. These are numbers you can take to the bank. Give or take, 3.9 million babies will be born. It's Biblical. They'll get a little more or a little less of their 76 years of life expectancy. The boys will grow to just over 69 inches, the girls to just under 64. Of them, 25 percent will be cremated, 35 percent will be overweight, 52 percent will drink. Every year 2 million will get divorced, 4 million will get married and there'll be 30,000 suicides. A few will win the lotto, a few will run for public office, a few will be struck by lightning. And any given day, par for the course, 6,300 of our fellow citizens, just like George, will get breathless and outstretched and spoken of in the past tense; and most will be dressed up the way I dress up George, in his good blue suit, and put him in a casket with Matt Sheffler's help, and assemble the 2 or 3 dozen floral tributes and the 100 or 200 family and friends and the 60 or 70 cars that will follow in the 15 mile per hour procession down through town to grave 4 of lot 17 of section C in Milford Memorial, which will become, in the parlance of our trade, his final resting place, over which a 24-by-12-by-4-inch Barre granite stone will be placed, into which we will have sandblasted his name and dates, one of which, subtracted from the other, will amount, more or less, to his life and times. The corruptible, according to the officiating clergy, will have put on incorruption, the mortal will have put on immortality. "Not my day to watch it" will be among the things we'll never hear George Horton say again.
Nor can we see clearly now, looking into his daughter Nancy's eyes, the blue morning at the end of this coming May when she'll stand, upright as any walking wound, holding her newborn at the graveside of the man, her one and only father, for whom her baby will be named. Nor can we hear the promises she makes to keep him alive, to always remember, forever and ever, in her heart of hearts. Nor is there any math or bottom line or Bible verse that adds or subtracts or in any way accounts for the moment or the The blonde on the bed said: I charge the same for spectators as for participants, 'cause that's all it takes for them to get off.
I can get a hint, said Brady.
Oh, it's not a hint, the blonde said. I don't give a fuck if you stay. You just have to pay me, is all.
That's exactly why he's not going to stay, Tyler explained.
I'll be at the bar across the street, said Brady. Try to not take as long as you did last night. This is getting really old.
My heart bleeds, laughed Tyler. Of course, it always bleeds around now. It's that time of the month.
Are you a misogynist? said the blonde.
What do you mean?
Do you have it in for women just because they menstruate and you don't?
I'm going now, said Brady.
I said, do you hate women? the blonde went on.
Have a beer, sweetheart, said Tyler in disgust. The things I put up with.
The door closed behind Brady. Tyler continued to sit on the edge of the bed for a moment, listening to his footsteps fade down the hall. He heard a door open and a woman begin yelling in Chinese. Then that door closed, too, and he heard Brady's footsteps a little longer. When they had entirely died away, Tyler sighed and put his legs up. He did not bother to remove his shoes.
I'd prefer a wine cooler instead of a beer, the blonde said. I see you have plenty.
Help yourself, doll.
I'm not a doll. I'm a human being, and my name's Domino.
Pleased to know you, he said. My name's Henry.
I used to date a guy named Henry once. He was a real asshole.
It goes with the name.
Whatever. Are you going to get undressed or not?
I am undressed. Do you see me wearing a necktie? My brother wears neckties. He works downtown.
Look. I've got other dates to take care of, so can't we please move things along? Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it.
Tyler untabbed his beer and burped. The hard grey beetle-shell of his face seemed to express embitterment, but it was only tension. His narrowed eyes guarded his soul by occluding and devaluing it. Tonight he was vulgarizing himself still further to play some conception of an appropriate part, perfectly aware of his inconsequentiality to the blonde but habit-driven to conform and mimic, just as when, spying on some potentially unfaithful banker in the financial district, he'd wear his old London fog and stand with the suspect's photograph hidden inside the latest Wall Street Journal. And tonight he was a nasty old whoredog.—Let's see what you look like naked, he said.
Then she took her dress off, presenting to his secret-loving eyes belly-wrinkles like sandbars, and she took her bra off to let him see her round breasts bulging with silicone, and for him she took off her panties to give to his view her crusty blackish-reddish crotch. Lying on the bed long-legged with her red shoes on, she let him finger-trace the highway of a motorcycle wound, the white island of a bullet wound pigmented with granules or black hairs. Then the pipe's orange reflection glowed on her cheek as she squatted, inhaled, took the pipe out, kissed him, exhaled her smoke into his mouth: taste of bubblegum breath, her tongue in his mouth, then the numbness and heartracing happiness.
Thank you, he said. That was good of you. (When he said it he meant it. But after all, he thought a moment later, it isn't as though doing that cost her anything. Everybody has to breathe out.)
You want some gum? she said.
Well, what do you want?
I was wondering if you knew the Queen of the Whores.
Hell, no, the blonde said.
She lit the pipe again and got on all fours to blow her drugbreath into his mouth, looking very pretty with her buttocks high. Probably she meant to outshine his glimmer of unreadiness, since quick beginnings help make quick endings. She had things to do. He put an arm around her, pulling her toward him as he returned her kiss. Without knowing why, he'd begun to like her, drawn perhaps to the quickwitted, sarcastic rudeness and desperation of her. But business barred him from showing it. Brady wouldn't have cared if he laid her, but sexually she did not speak to him because he was in love with another woman whom he was not supposed to think of in that way and therefore perpetually did, now imagining the blonde to be her so that the blonde saw his hard face soften and his eyes dreamily open into nothingness as she pressed her mouth tighter against his, believing then, not unreasonably, herself to be the cause. Domino liked the world to think well of her. Gesturing, her arm incredibly jointed yet smooth like her breast, smooth and multi-lit like a wax pear in rainbow light (he knew perfectly well that it was the crack that so pleasantly exaggerated things), she lay on her side, caressing the mattress while her folded shoulder-shadows flickered.
Well, said jocular Tyler, if you did know, who would she be?
She might be me! laughed the whore, throwing herself onto her back with disconcerting suddenness. Then she took his hand and funnelled it down into her crotch.
That's true, he said, pretending to consider. Why, she might even be me, or Mr. Brady.
That your friend? He sure looked like a loser.
He is a loser. But he pays me.
You gonna pay me?
You'd better pay me. I don't take to being gaffled.
Now honestly, said Tyler. Do I look like the gaffling type?
As soon as he'd breathed down the clean and bitter smoke well moistened by her lungs, his heart had begun to beat even faster, so that he felt as alertly alive as if he had been terribly afraid instead of being perfumed with delight.
Anyway, what do you want to find the Queen for? I couldn't care less about that bitch. I don't work for anyone but me.
I guess you and I are through then, he replied.
But we didn't do anything! You still going to pay me?
Yeah, I'll pay. And maybe sometime we'll even do it. (Tyler said this to all the whores. He was very polite that way.)
You'd better pay me or I'll get tough, said the blonde, not entirely able to eyelid her pleasure at winning something for not engaging in an act she usually hated (and Tyler, perceiving all this through his now renarrowed eyes, felt illogically, ridiculously hurt).
How can I get in touch with you? he said.
That's easy, honey. I'm at the El Dorado on Sutter between Taylor and Jones. Sometimes I change my room, but wherever I am, I always face the street, get it? Just stand under the windows and whistle four times. Or if you're in a car, honk four times. Do you have a car?
The loser does.
He does? What kind?
Here's fifty bucks, Domino. I guess I'll be seeing you.
Lying naked on that bed, playing boredly with the gold chain that lay across her breasts, she waggled her ass, hoping to interest him so that maybe she could charge him more. But he'd gotten up and was looking out the window. She sighed and got dressed.
Don't forget me, she said in a way that showed she'd already forgotten him.
He didn't think he would. He thought he could remember the long white track, the eye-shaped bullet scar.
| 2 |
The hotel had improved since the Indians took over. It didn't stink as much, and there was no litter on the floor. Behind the white curtains stained with round brown spots like old blood, the window (which he'd opened to let the staleness out) faced a gulley walled by bricks, kindred windows, and fire escapes. From down below shouts floated up like seagulls. The windowsill smelled like urine. Tyler leaned out and saw a black man who stood smoking a cigarette, the man's hair very black and shiny against the dun evil of the alley.—This has gotta be my low point, he muttered. What a stupid job.—He waited until Domino emerged from the hotel. When she didn't look up, he felt oddly disappointed. She'd barely sipped her wine cooler, so when she'd gone and the black man had sauntered away, he threw the bottle out the window and listened to it smash ...
| 3 |
Any luck? said Brady, whose tone implied that Tyler would never own any of that commodity.
Of course she said she didn't know anything.
Did she say that she knows the Queen?
No, she didn't say exactly that.
Had a Pinkerton team work for me once, chuckled Brady, opening a bottle of pills. They told me they have a rule that you're not supposed to get emotionally or sexually compromised. But I don't give a shit.
Tyler was silent.
I said, I don't give a shit what you do.
Let's keep this professional, boss.
Did you ever get the impression that she was lying to you?
Why should she lie to me?
You care to answer my question?
She said that she doesn't give a damn about the Queen. Usually when somebody goes to the trouble to say that, that means that she does give a damn. But if that's a lie, it's not a very important lie.
It's not my policy to tell you what I do or do not consider important, said Brady.
Yeah, boss, I know it isn't.
Brady took a dictaphone from his shirt pocket, pushed the button, and intoned into it: There were days and days of such false starts, but since this is one of those rare occasions when discretion actually serves the turn of narrative interest, I shall refrain from dragging those people and episodes into this.
That's beautiful, boss. Are you what they call extemporaneous?
Nope. And a year from now my common stock is going to split two for one. You tag her?
Locator fluid under my thumbnail. She let me touch a scar on her leg. I worked it in good.
How good we'll know in a minute. Anything else?
Said you were a loser.
I must be, to hire you. Well, show me.
It's all wired up, said Tyler. Pinkerton guys were the only other private eyes you did anything with? Somehow I figured you worked in the security field. Guess I was wrong. Turn the TV to channel seven and then click the remote three times, like this. Uh huh. Now wait a minute. Okay. See that blue dot? That's Blondie, and she's staying on the grid. Going down Leavenworth—now see; she's turning at Turk. Stopping for a minute, probably having a little chat with her dealer, but we'll mark it ... okay, now she's coming up Jones; she's just done three sides of a square; she's back on her beat. And I'd guess she's scratching her scar; that's why the blue dot flickered there for a minute. I'd say she's not going to lead us to any Queen. You never know, though. That's the beauty of this job, Mr. Brady. This place she keeps going to is probably just a bar, but we'll mark it, too. Computer says it's a parking garage. Maybe she takes guys there to give head. Anyhow, it's in the system. See her walking up and down the block? A slow night. But at least she got picked up by us losers.
| 4 |
Dark tracks of ecstasy down which slid blinking lights and fluffy lights, rays of warmness on cold tracks; these carried Tyler and Brady past brick hofbraus and pavement-holes. Ahead, a police car turned the corner. Pizza lights marked the edge. Then all the brightnesses started getting skinnier. White-lit arches launched them down long white slides tulipped with lamps, and they passed the Peacock Club, outside of which the first whore of the evening stood fussing with her science-fiction garter belt. Whores white and black swayed in the light. Their legs shook automatically. Tyler looked steadily out the passenger window, photographing that huddle of girls with his brother's old Minox. Expense account stuff, so gaffle me, sister. He'd thought the camera was practically invisible, but clippety-clop: three whores were running away.—Such sweet scared little fishies! cried Brady.—Tyler cleared his throat, wondering whether he might be catching a cold. His brain ached. They oozed down Hyde Street, waiting to breast the current of lights whose source-spring was a single rectangle of yellow high up above the corner; then there were yellow market-lights, gold lights, apartment-lights and lady-lights issuing from a hotel awning and its grating, and sex-light coming from the girl against the wall. Lonely sparks and tangents strung on hills tried to siren them away from the square rectitudes of ordinary stores. Brady would not be distracted. He stopped at an arched brick building whose scaffolding mutated against its glass. There a fat lady hiked up her skirt and pretended to masturbate, staring straight into his eyes. Through the open window Tyler said: Can you take a message to the Queen? It involves money. —Don't start shittin' me, said the fat lady. I'm not datin', so you can't haul me in for datin.'—We're not cops, said Brady brightly, but the fat lady only said: Uh huh, and you really love me and you won't come in my mouth and the check is in the mail.—Winging chevrons of gratings vanished her between vertical stripes of garage-light. Dauntless Brady swung the car back into the groove of traffic, undazzled by blinking lights on metal, dazed only by the other cuntsharks. Tyler smiled gently at the square buttocks of a van just ahead. For a moment he thought of Domino. Then the nauseating glitter on fences and gratings caught him. Breaking through a yellow lurch of hotel-lights, he saw a man checking his watch on the corner. Tyler knew that the man resembled him. The man was up to something. He winked at the man, who flinched, and then they were past. Above an awning like the roof of a mouth, a whore was smiling and bending from an orange-lit window. Tyler exposed two rapid frames (no flash, 6400 ASA) and noted the location.
Might as well roll down your window at every black girl you see, said Brady abruptly.
My window's always down, boss. I don't care how chilly it is. What makes you think she's black?
Just a feeling. That's how I imagine her. Tell me how you imagine her, and don't you dare lie to me.
Oh, I guess I could see her as one of those solarized naked blondes in an old Man Ray print. You know, with those haunting eyes. Are you into photography?
Well, I hired a guy to wire up a women's locker room once.
I collect books on photography, admitted Tyler with a certain shyness. Brady, who prided himself on knowing people, could tell right away that here lay his hireling's monomania, on which, given any encouragement, he'd discourse with arid learnedness, like other people on hockey, stamp collecting, their pets or children.—I collect photographs, too, Tyler was saying. It sort of goes with my profession. On Sundays I sometimes like to play around, you know, do nudes, double triple quadruple exposures ... There's one. You want to pull in toward the curb, boss?
A black whore was rubbing legs at the light, crunching potato chips. She wore a silver paper skirt. Tyler mouthed the word "Queen" at her and she shrugged and waved. Brady shook his head.
Pasty-faced white girls at the corner of an alley grinned as if at a party. Tyler jumped out and asked them if they'd seen the Queen.
She never comes before ten o'clock, a girl said. Why, you got something for her? You can give it to me. Honey, you can give it to me.
Lights hurt the mirror of a parked truck.
Between two dead grey towers, a girl in a sweater swung her tits like a waitress in a truck stop slamming down a plate of fried eggs. She whipped her hands at them, glaring fiercely.
That's quite a luxuriant nigger girl, his boss said.
You from the South, Mr. Brady?
Why, do I have an accent?
No, I just wondered.
Well, stop wondering and ask her the question. That's what I'm paying you for.'
Tyler crooked his finger, but the girl only spat loudly on the sidewalk.
The Queen wouldn't like that sort of behavior, you know, he said to her.
What the fuck do you know about what the Queen likes? the whore shouted. You think you're good enough to jump the Queen?
Why? said Tyler. Are you trying to tell me you're a big enough bitch to eat the Queen's pussy? Does she let you do it on alternate Tuesdays?
I oughta cut you, the whore said. She wore silver stockings that came all the way up to her buttocks. Peering sulkily, she bent and picked something up from the sidewalk.
Find out what she grabbed, whispered Brady.
What did your friend say? cried the whore suspiciously. She came over to the car. Seeing Brady's dark suit and necktie, she smiled, softly offering her goosepimpled thighs.—You datin'? she said. I'd much rather go wiv you than him.
Yeah, he's dating, said Tyler. He wants to do you and the Queen at the same time.
What do you keep talkin' 'bout the the Queen for? It's bad to talk about the Queen.
Another girl walked past, her garters glittering like frosting and mica against the scaly diamonds of gratings. Shivering, she shot a bitter look at Tyler and shouted: Am I your only secret slave? Am I the only one you're getting paid to practice slavery on?
Get lost, said Brady.
Look, said Tyler to the suspicious whore. A hundred bucks if you take me to the Queen.
The whore whirled and clip-clopped away in the direction that the other girl had come.
You scared her, said Brady reproachfully.
Let's follow along, boss. We might learn something.
That's a spurious and specious linkage, said Brady.
Your assumption that because I say the word nigger I must be from the South. You're trying to stereotype me.
We'd better follow the girl, boss.
You tag her?
Yeah, with that dime store earring she grabbed. Soaked in locator fluid. I dropped it out the window when she was yelling at me.
I don't trust that locator fluid. If it's so good how come the FBI doesn't use it?
I don't know, boss. I never worked for them.
Because you're a loser?
Are you evading me?
What would I want to evade you for, boss?
Because you're spending my money and wasting my time.
I could try and pull some old court records, Tyler muttered, ducking his head.
Well, maintain visual. An earring, huh? That was a good one.—Brady smiled, recollecting multitudes of other girls seduced by tented alleyways sheltering cases of earrings; they slowly bent their heads in submission to that glitter. He was rich.—Come on, come on, come on.
Sure, said Tyler. We'll just keep rolling and rolling along.
They tracked the suspicious whore through a dozen neon spiderwebs to some kind of overcast garageworks behind a grating, red car-skulls watching from beyond. Tyler sat listening to the heavy clop of that glossy-shoed girl so sour-sweet with the sweat-drops glistening from her meaty shoulders as she ran through the cold night. She'd gotten inside the grating somehow (a fat van had blocked the view), and now she vanished among the red cars.
Okay, boss. We can't go in there now; it's too obvious. It's the same place that Blondie went to last night. We'll check it out tomorrow.
Was her name really Blondie?
She called herself Domino.
Then call her Domino. Are you a misogynist? sneered his boss with a grunting laugh.
A tall black girl crossed the street with mincing clicking steps, drinking from something in a paper bag. There were frothy things on her breasts like silver spit. Other women were already smiling over her shoulder.
| 5 |
Lest it be believed that only Tyler indulged in monomania, I may as well mention that Mr. Brady was a devotee of the cottonwood tree.—A cottonwood plank in a horse stable will outlast an oak plank two to one, he said.
Is that a fact, said Tyler, counting receipts.
I personally laminated cottonwood four-by-fours to show what they could do for high-grade railroad crossings, said Brady, who reminded him of a camel-necked tan goat without ears he'd once seen, gnawing sadly on the railing of its cage.—I talked to the engineers and they just loved that idea. But I couldn't get anywhere with the purchasing department. Mr. Brady, they said to me, I'm just gonna have to be real blunt with you. Unless you're willing to pay these purchasing agents something under the table, it'll never happen.
Is that right, said Tyler. There was a whore he knew that he thought he could go halves with. She could spout nonsense about the Queen on Brady's money and give him a kickback. He didn't want this job to end yet. Brady must be rich rich rich. He belonged in the kind of hotel lobbies where patrons whisper instead of shout.
We ran an experiment where we were grinding those cottonwoods for cowfeed, said Brady, while Tyler was thinking: I really ought to check my answering machine.—How about that, he said.
And we had to fight every pharmaceutical company in the country. They wanted to pollute our meat with that teramyacin, that auromyacin. Those idiots at the college up there are the equivalent of the prostitute press. They went right along with the pharmaceutical companies. We couldn't get it off the ground because of the money pressure out there.
Well, I'll be, said Tyler. Are you sure they weren't evading you?—Later he went to look for the whore he could have gone halves with, but she'd been arrested.
| 6 |
Is he your boyfriend or is he your boss? said the crazy whore, her eyes gleaming like the wristwatches of hopeful young lawyers.
My boss, said Tyler.
(The room smelled like mold.)
He reminds me of the guy who got shot 'cause he kept lookin' at the robber's face. I said to him, you just don't know how to get robbed.
I can take a hint, said Brady, not getting up to go.
He reminds me of those big she-males in the street, the whore said.
Better be careful, said Tyler, guiding the conversation into interesting channels. Maybe the Queen's listening.
I don't care what she hears because very little of what she hears is real.
I can take a hint, Brady repeated, getting more comfortable. He obviously loved all this. Tyler didn't. He might have, if he'd been working alone. But this was a waste of time.
I'm just a beginner compared to Sapphire, the woman said. I haven't gone as deep as she did before she was even born.
Who's Sapphire? said Tyler.
Don't you even know that? She's the Queen's special darling. She can't talk.
Well, you can sure talk up a storm, said Brady. Find me an ashtray, would you?
I don't want you to talk, the whore went on. Maybe that one patheticism, what's it going to accomplish? This place is very high-class, and you know what happened? I told myself, and I told myself, but the mirror fell off and broke. `Cause I paid my rent check. I don't need to pay it till tomorrow. Or is it not your day to be near me? Or am I whispering too much?
Oh, no, ma'am, not at all, said Brady. He winked at Tyler.—Transient psychotic symptoms. Good money there.
What the fuck are you talking about, boss? said Tyler.
The crazy whore frowned at Tyler and pointed at Brady.—His jollies would be bigger if he sat in the closet. Then he couldn't see me but would just feel me being nude. I'm not saying you can't get something out of me.
Want to try it, boss?
Sure. Is there a chair in that closet?
There's a very tiny looking kid living upstairs, the crazy whore said. He's a spy for the Queen. `Cause maybe I'll identify him to the point where I'll be able to cup my buttocks properly. And then I'll just make the bed. So what if he spies. So what if the Big Bitch is listening. You know what I've been waiting for? You know what I want to say to her? I want to tell her, I want you to do it to yourself, Big Bitch. I think that'll just bring back the Golden Age. Byzantine. I remember how to hold off and how to gaffle. See how my fingers are naked? Poor me! Your friend has to understand, you know. The little kid can see right through the ceiling, 'cause he's got good eyes. He doesn't know if you guys are alive or dead, so I said dead.
Well, thanks, said Tyler agreeably. (Brady was snoring in the closet, with an unlit cigar in his hand.)
The crazy whore scratched and scratched. Possibly she had scabies.
So does the Big Bitch have a name?
A name is just something you use once for your job. Then you throw it in the trash, so vigs and pigs can't get you. See what I mean? My name is just Pussy. But after I'm done, then my name is Tongue.
What you said just made me sad.
You see what I'm saying?
Yeah, I get it. But does she have a name?
Maj or midge, they're all mosquitoes, just sucking blood and sperm for money. Maj is like majestic but she's not Maj. She's just the Big Bitch. And most of them are young girls. You might be shocked.
Oh, try me.
Naked, hard-nippled, with red lines across her belly, the crazy whore glided sleeves and panties across her hair.—My dollars' worth of cunt is fifty dollars, she hissed. And my dollars' worth of crack is fifty dollars. Then I'm too hypersexually active to care. I have the Mark. You don't have the Mark yet, but you will. You know what the Mark is?
It's in the Enemy's Book. First chapter. That's not too much to read, but you're just a little too much to be humble. Your normal visit's just a normal visit, right?
That's right, honey. Just a normal visit. Maybe my boss will jerk off in your face or something.
The crazy whore twisted and leaned against the moldy wall, and her rear stuck out.
Tyler pulled his best confiding face and whispered: I like it when you talk about the Queen.
And I like you to say what you said, she replied. 'Cause my pussy's a nervous thing, like some kind of fungicide. And now we have to stick something up my pussy like a baby powder. Your body is prisonering me, Mister, like a car crashing into several people, like six at one time. But the Queen is the goddess of my vision. She's full of compassion and envy. She'll notice when you have something she doesn't remember. `Cause everything comes from her. She won't leave anybody here. Little spy, you around me yet? I'm not concerned with that as much as with agreeing with beautiful colors. Or haven't you noticed? I hate Sapphire. You know why? Her colors are more beautiful than mine. Sapphire's perfect. She's the Queen's little pet. I want to kill Sapphire because I'm jealous, but I won't. I want to kill you and take your money but I'm afraid. Now, all I have to do is kill a bug that's this big. My spiders would incubate areas inside my artificial nerve. They lay their eggs in it, 'cause it's plastic. Plastic is dead to hold my eyes into my head. But the Queen has living rotting eyes. Something about me will not let me see you. But this is going to be real. Really real, she wept, beginning to masturbate.—I've got good luck but you can't come in. `Cause I'm with my ex-husband. I think you can tell from your voice that I want to be with you again.
She pounced on Tyler and slammed her tongue into his mouth. He sighed and patted her naked ass, massaging in locator fluid with a half-life of three nights. She pulled away almost at once. She was licking her lips in the light of the crack pipe flame as she bounced on the bed, rubbing her clitoris.—Well, that pipe works pretty good, she said.
Tyler took one hit out of politeness, felt the good feeling, sighed, got up, and knocked on the closet door.—Huh? said Brady, awakening.
Let's go, boss. I think we're wasting time with this one. I gave her ten dollars.
The crazy whore wasn't paying attention to them anymore. She was picking little wads of tissue out of her cunt.
After they left, though, she proceeded to the parking garage at a desperate run.
When Tyler, tuning in to channel seven, became apprised of this news, he raised his eyebrows and smiled at his boss. He didn't even think any longer about the whore he could have gone halves with. He was getting interested in this project for his own sake. Truth to tell, in his sphere he was hopeful, confident, creative. The fact that Brady might be capable of dealing severely with people who disappointed him might have contributed to the alacrity of a different subaltern, but Tyler, for all his other failings—disorganization, mental inertia, withdrawal, and above all moral uncleanliness—was no coward. Brady therefore scarcely impressed him in a more than diffusive way. And the episode of Domino, who in and of herself exercised upon him retrospective fascination, had begun to raise within him certain almost magical expectations which he'd otherwise abandoned in life (with one incestuous exception which we'll get to later). What if the Tenderloin (for instance) comprised a worthwhile puzzle whose solution might enlighten him? (I'll make a few phone calls on the local level, he murmured to himself.) What if destiny actually had gifts in store for one whose habits had long since confirmed him in giftlessness?
So you didn't get a name, Brady said.
She mentioned somebody named Sapphire, but I don't think that's the Queen. And Big Bitch, Maj, all that stuff, I don't really believe ...
I always thought this Queen was a little like Gotti in New York, Brady laughed. I always thought you really burden yourself once you go out and make a big name for yourself.
Yeah, maybe that's her thinking, said Tyler, not really listening.
The crazy whore stayed inside the garage for only about ten minutes, which implied that it might be some kind of message drop. (Brady yawned and did not cover his mouth.) Then her glowing trail unraveled itself almost as quickly as it had formed and snailed, shrinking all the way back to Ellis and Jones, where she stopped for five minutes, probably to make a crack buy, and then back to her hotel room. Tyler smiled again.
I'm tired, Brady said.
Tyler left his boss sitting in the car outside, tiptoed up the stairs, and put his ear to the crazy whore's door. He heard her singing in a sad voice:
They called me Flower-of Gold,
| 7 |
His boss had to go to Vegas for business. Tyler drove him to the airport. Then he drove home and took a cab to North Beach on Brady's nickel, just to see what the cab drivers knew. The first driver didn't know anything. Tyler was feeling pretty good. He went out for Italian food, pretending that the woman he wasn't supposed to love was sitting across from him. If he sat at home he'd get depressed. He didn't like to read anymore, and he hated television. Darkroom chemicals were expensive. There wasn't a lot to do.
The cab driver back to the Sunset was a Russian who was listening to a scratchy cassette of sad Russian songs sung by a woman whose voice was more rich and expressive than the crazy whore's, but her sadness was the same. The driver obviously loved it. Every time the dispatcher tried to call him on the radio, he'd sigh: Idiot.
Were you a soldier? said Tyler.
The Russian nodded glumly, whistling.
What was your job?
Meteorologist, said the Russsian, and Tyler didn't believe him.
You must have seen some bad things, Tyler said.
The Russian nodded.
I saw two people get killed today, said Tyler, just to see if he was listening.
Tough, growled the Russian sympathetically, shrugging his pale wide shoulders.
Do you know the Queen? said Tyler.
Not in my organization. Another one. Before, was in mine. Now finished.
Tough, said Tyler, shrugging his shoulders.
Your country finished, said the Russian. You have a problem, a black problem.
| 8 |
The ruby light winked on his answering machine, like one of Carol Doda's nipples back in the old days on the neon sign for the Condor. Carol Doda had a lingerie shop on Union Street now. Once Tyler had gone inside to pick out something for his sister-in-law Irene, but he hadn't bought anything, and he never knew whether or not the woman at the cash register was Carol Doda. Now he sat sipping at his Black Velvet, halfheartedly checking boxes on his surveillance report for Brady while he gazed across the street at one of those prismatic Victorian windows aflame with something which tigerishly shone beneath curtains. When he finished the whiskey, the answering machine was still blinking.
A long, friendly message: Somebody wanted him to spy on her husband to see if he were being unfaithful.
Tyler called back.—You know, lady, he said, divorce in California is no-fault. You don't have to prove adultery to file.
Oh, I understand that, the woman said. I just want to know. I really need to know.
Knowledge is pretty expensive, said Tyler dreamily, checking boxes on his surveillance report. And I'm booked up shadowing royalty right now. Tenderloin royalty.
How about a hundred dollars? the woman said.
A hundred wouldn't even prime my pump, said Tyler. If you want to prime my pump you have to give me five. And it could run into thousands. What if he only does her once a month? What if he takes her out of town? If he goes out of town then I've got to go out of town, too, and that's going to cost you.
You're kind of discouraging, the woman said. Almost insulting, too, I should say.
I aim to be, said Tyler. I want you to think long and hard before you decide to go through with this. Most people who come to me don't like what I show them.
Five hundred is an awful lot of money, the woman said. And you're not very nice.
I agree. So why don't you think about it and go to your teller machine to check your bank balance and look your husband in the eye and decide if you want to hate him even more than it sounds like you already do? You're welcome to hate me instead. That's my advice, and it's free advice.
Thank you, the woman said palely.
All right, said Tyler.
He had another Black Velvet and called his brother's place, but there was no answer. He started to call Brady at the hotel, but thought better of it and hung up.
| 9 |
He tried to locate Sapphire on three databases, but of the sixteen women he found, two supposedly dwelled in Ketchikan, Alaska, and none of the others showed up in California. Maybe the crazy whore was just crazy. More likely, Sapphire was an unregistered nickname.
| 10 |
I seen you! giggled the next girl. She had reddish-pale hair, and the bulb-light exposed her pimpled cheeks.—You was with that blonde Strawberry. No. That's not Strawberry. That's Domino.
And what's your name? said fresh-from-Vegas Brady, who always wanted to take charge.
Why? said the smoothwaxed lips. You datin'? You datin'?
Of course I'm dating, said Brady, oozing what Tyler considered to be unprofessional glee. My name's Mr. Breakfast, and this is my friend Mr. Lunch. He says he's not sexually or emotionally compromised. Do you believe him?
I never heard names like that before, said the lips. Set just above that pale chin, they almost reached the gigantic sunglasses.
Well, what's your name then?
Kitty as in pussy?
Hey, Mr. Breakfast, you got me wrong. I'm not a prostitute. I've just fallen on some hard times, that's all.
How much you got to spend?
Uh huh. You wanna feed my kitty? And does Mr. Lunch wanna do somethin'? You can come in my mouth or anything you want.
Speaking of mouths, Tyler broke in, guess what your friend Domino told us.
Friend? That bitch ain't my friend. Any friend she had she stabbed in the back long ago!
She told us she was the Queen of the Whores.
She did? Shit! And you believed her? That bitch must've been strung out. Too much junk!
She told us all the other girls worked for her, said Tyler, sounding as stupid as he could. She said she's the Queen.
She's not. There's no such thing.
But she said—
I don't care what she said. She's full of shit. She don't have shit. It's a man's world.
You know, said Brady in wonder, she was really strange. She started getting friendly as soon as we started giving her money. Why do you think that is?
Oh, shit! laughed Kitty.
Tyler hung his head.—And Sapphire said ... he whispered.
What do you mean, Sapphire said? That retarded bitch can't even talk! Only mouth she uses is the one between her legs ...
But the Queen ...
How many times I got to tell you there ain't no Queen? If there was a Queen, she'd just be a pimp that's got a pussy. Why should you care? You don't want to hang out with no pimp.
You think we should see Domino again? said Tyler. Maybe if we gave her more money she could explain things to us.
Don't have nothing to do with her would be my advice.
Well, what should we tell her next time we see her?
Her? Tell her get lost, man. She's a nut! All she's gonna do is get you in trouble. She probably has warrants and shit.
Tyler nodded solemnly. Well, Kitty, why don't you and Mr. Breakfast go do your business in that parking garage over there? I'll just sit here and jerk off.
Mr. Breakfast is gonna make you wait on him? cried Kitty in amazement. Tell him he oughta pay you for that.
I'll tell him.
You hear that, Mr. Breakfast?
Yeah, I heard, Kitty. Now let's go to that garage.
I don't trust that garage. I'll take you to a better place.
I'll pay ten bucks extra to take me into that garage, said Brady caressingly.
Kitty scuffed her high heels sadly on the sidewalk.—No, thank you, Mr. Breakfast. I don't never go in there.
| 11 |
The new hotel room smelled bad. Brady, who'd turned the TV on, ignored it, almost slicing the stack of photos with his nose. The bed sagged down toward him, the blue and white bedspread like the bottom of a canted swimming pool. The TV glowed orange and said: ... the significance of this historic achievement. The two men stood discussing money over the round table. Tyler leaned, staring very hard at the stacks of expense money. The eyes in his grey face slowly narrowed as he thought: If only all this money belonged to me, I could run away with Irene. I could take her down a well and we'd stay there making babies and never get out ... —Brady, whose feet hurt, leaned backward on his heels, looking softly down at the money while he was explaining. Although the greenbacks lay between them, it was obvious to whom they belonged: Brady kept pointing to them and sometimes touching them, while Tyler gazed down almost shyly. The window was open, and across the gulf between ratridden buildings another window was open, through which the blonde whore Domino was watching them. Tyler smirked and waved. Brady did not see.
I think the garage is the place, said Brady.
Well, boss, you might be right.
You don't think so, do you?
It's too early to say.
| 12 |
Arentcha cold? the whore said.
A sunburst of hair, short arms over boobs bigger than the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Her sweater was as nice as light.
You going to warm me up? said Tyler, as enthusiastically as if he hadn't asked that question a hundred times already.
The black girl's hair was bright against the dirty white of a massage parlor wall. She leaned to nurse her hair as if' it were some elaborately tender creature.
Tell you the truth, said Tyler confidentially, I'm looking for the Queen.
Honey, you done come to the wrong place. This here's a hundred percent girl you're talkin' to! Try the Black Rose.
You know what I mean. Not that kind of queen, but the one that runs things. The Big Spider. The Empress of Darkness.
Honey, sure I know what you mean but it gonna cost you big. It gonna cost you.
How much? he said.
(Her eyes were the shadows behind fences.)
Whatcha really wanna do?
Let's duck into that parking garage and you can give me a blow.
Sure, honey. But not there. I know a better place.
What's wrong with that? I see girls go in there all the time.
It's just not a good place.
So Tyler went with her to the alley. As soon as he'd paid her, he saw her run into the parking garage.
| 13 |
Did she say she knew the Queen?
No, but she implied it.
Did she say she knew the Queen? his boss repeated.
Okay. Do you believe she knows the Queen?
Do you believe she knows that you believe it?
Can you give me a basis for your belief?.
When I said that a pretty girl like her probably got a lot of people to tell her things, she was flattered. She relaxed. She opened up, so to speak—
Are you emotionally compromised?
Tyler sighed.—Not yet, boss.
I think I understand. And then?
She made a reference to the parking garage. She said she never goes there. It's on the tape. You heard it?
It's not my policy to comment on what I did or did not hear. Not to you. So let's keep rolling.
Well, then I said I knew what parking garage she was referring to and I winked at her. Then she laughed.
So it was nonverbal?
I follow. Do you believe that she believes the parking garage is where the Queen stays?
And do you also believe that the parking garage is where the Queen stays?
Okay. So we're ready to meet the Queen.
Do you believe that we're ready to meet the Queen?
Yeah, I guess so.
Are you sure?
Why aren't you sure?
Maybe she's dangerous.
How might she be dangerous?
I don't know, boss. But I'll tell you honestly. I didn't believe in this at first, but now it's starting to spook me.
What can she do to you?
Probably nothing that I can't do back to her.
Do you want to go in?
I'll do it.
Would you rather have more time?
Is it because you want more expense money?
Oh, partly. And partly because I don't know what we'll find.
Don't worry about money, Henry, said his boss with surprising gentleness. I promise I'll take care of you. Will you go in with me tomorrow?
Do you want to go in with me or would you rather go in alone? Don't lie to me.
I'd rather go in alone. I don't know how good your breaking and entering skills are, Mr. Brady. You already told me that private eye stuff isn't your field. And it makes me uneasy when a client wants to help me break the law. But I don't mind if you have a good reason, or if you get off on participating, just like Domino said. In my book, you're emotionally compromised. But if you want to distract the ticket guy that'd be useful.
I get the hint, said Brady with a grin. It's okay. I trust you.
| 14 |
Past the boarded-up bakery on Larkin Street Tyler wandered the following forenoon, his hand on his wallet as if life were really good, past the school sign and into the dark garage.—It's a perfect place, Brady had said. Nobody's ever here. Nobody but whores. —Tyler walked back to the bakery, got into his car, and drove up the slanting urine-smelling tunnel. On the second floor he backed the vehicle against the wall and sat watching the ramps—the standard orientation of any prudent man getting a blow job. As a matter of fact, Tyler did not like blow jobs. But backing against the wall remained prudent. The cold friend in his armpit did not show. The ramp to the third floor was cut off by a grating which seemed to have been down for a long time. There was light behind it, light sweating and stinking on concrete.
Nobody around, Brady tying up the attendant with some endless complaint ... Perfect. He stuck a straw into the little spray can of Wallylube and tooted the lock. Then he thrust a half-diamond pick into the keyway and started lifting pins. They all dropped, one by one; the lock was in good working order, as a Queen's lock ought to be, especially on her chastity belt. He listened as they fell: a six-pin lock. Now for the tension wrench and the plug spinner ... Just enough tension, thank you ... He decided against the raking method and went by feel. He was holding the pick in just the same way that Brady held that fat vulgar rollerball pen of his. With the hook pick he raised the driver pins above the shearline, chamber by chamber; the plug rotated three or four degrees, making a shelf on which the top pins must rest so that they couldn't slam back down like a vindictive whore's teeth. (No sidebar, fortunately; this was not a General Motors car lock.) Now the bottom pins could move unobstructedly in their channels of vileness.
The lock opened on the fifth bounce. He stepped into the greasy light. mystery she holds there. (Continues...)