I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my first in(s)ane mystery in The After Ward series, “Hyperlink from Hell: A Couch Potato’s Guide to the Afterlife.” Here’s the book description:
Murder. Mayhem. And at least one “bat” guy. Who says God has no sense of humor?
Albert Montclair, eminent psychiatrist and director of The Haven, has real trouble on his hands. Unsolved murders on the grounds are bad enough, but when “The World’s Most Dashing Couch Potato,” Reality star James Canning, loses touch with, um, reality, what’s the good doctor to do? Assign writing therapy, of course. “Jimmie” dutifully writes “Hyperlink from Hell,” his absurd memoir of kidnapping and murder, of time travel and wardrobe malfunction. Of Post-Traumatic “Death” Syndrome. Of good versus “bat.”
But after Al reads it, Jimmie goes missing and the doctor goes mad.Al checks out of the family castle and into a padded suite, and The Haven’s new director is desperate to cure him. She knows “Hyperlink” is the key to Al’s madness, but is Jimmie’s report to God fact or fiction, deceit or delusion? To solve the murders and save Al, the director must analyse the “hell” out of Hyperlink from Hell. Did Jimmie really go back in time to rescue the love of his life from her toothy ex? Or will the director need a padded room of her own?Just one thing is sure: the stakes are high, and pointy, in Hyperlink from Hell.
Still with me? Then here’s the first chapter. If you like it, please click through to Amazon, read the reviews, buy the book, read it, review it, become my biggest fan… spread the news far and wide, make me incredibly rich and insufferably smug… and I’ll give you a free copy of book two and my first born son. Sounds fair, right?
OK, books two AND three. And I don’t have any kids.
“How shall we begin, today?”
Al sits by the window, paralyzed by the sunlight that engulfs his leather armchair. His eyes reflect the sky: clear blue, no hope of rain. Like yesterday, like the day before yesterday, I reach out to smooth a tuft of pure white hair gone astray… to button up his button-down… to straighten his tie. To adjust the straps of his rubber waders.
But something’s different, today. The briefcase he carries everywhere — even now, even here — has changed its habits. Yesterday, it sat by his feet like a faithful retriever. Now it’s lying, unopened, on his lap.
He’s waiting for something, and so am I. It’s been three years, nine months and five days since the bodies were found, thirteen months since Al checked himself in. One year, today, since I took over his directorship. The little knot in my stomach is having a birthday. There are no balloons.
My mind is screaming, Get up! Get out of here! Put me out of a job!
I say, “How shall we begin, today?”
I sit on the footstool and pat Al’s hand, but he shows no response. Not to my words. Not even to my touch. Day after day, he pays silent homage to grief, to a lifetime burdened with the woes of countless patients… and to something else. Something he won’t tell me.
But enough is enough. “Al? Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
He blinks, and could that little twitch be a smile? Just what I’ve been waiting for.
It’s time for Al’s own method for getting to the crux of the matter: writing therapy. I set a netbook on his briefcase — wiped clean, a blank slate — and hold my breath. When I tried this approach before, Al sank more deeply into delusion; but it’s been months since then. I’ve tried everything else. We can’t talk forever about fly fishing and the weather, pretending nothing’s happened, that he’s still my boss and not my patient.
“Better out than in, Al. That’s what you always say.”
He turns to face me, squeezes my hand, and hands me back the netbook. “Careful, my dear. That’s how it starts.”
My little knot is unraveling. “What do you mean, Al?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he snaps open the briefcase and pulls out a folder and a handwritten note. When I reach for them, he takes my hand again, kisses my palm and tucks the note into it:
You asked me to write it all down. Every little thing that happened. What the Hell? Why not? I always wanted to write a novel. Or a screenplay. Or whatever.
So, here it is — whatever it is. But if You’re trying to trick me into learning something from this, good luck with that.
I look up from the note. “But this isn’t you. It’s him.”
Him. James Canning. The long-lost Lotto winner and reality show has-been. Al’s only private patient that he wouldn’t let me meet, wouldn’t even discuss with me. The only patient that ever went missing from The Haven.
“To get to me,” Al says, “you must go through him.”
With trembling hands, he removes part of the folder’s contents before gently laying it back in the case. He snaps the case shut and holds the papers out to me.
“Part One. And may God have mercy on your soul.”
My hand pauses, mid-air, grasping at nothing. Did he say “God”?
I take the papers without glancing at them, preferring to study Al’s face. The sideways squint of the morning sun casts it into stoic relief. His topography shows no new cracks, no signs of sarcasm. So that remark wasn’t meant to be funny, and it wasn’t an offhand comment. No, I must be wrong; he must be joking. The closest Dr. Albert Montclair comes to worship is his faith in Bertrand Russell — the mathematician, philosopher… and atheist.
Al’s eyes are fixed on the papers in my hand. He must sense my scrutiny, because he reverts to mumbling about the weather. Drought? What drought? His knees predict a storm of Biblical proportions. Here in New Orleans, he says, the forecast is wrong. Dead wrong.
But we’re in New York State.
Our shining moment, Al’s window of clarity, has come and gone. I’ll leave the netbook on his footstool, but I doubt he’ll use it. Not now. He needs more time to reflect the sky.
I promise him I’ll read the papers soon: next Tuesday, if not today. My Labor Day weekend has been planned for months. Steven and I are off to Martha’s Vineyard, and we’ve pledged to take no work with us. I try to smile at the irony; I gave Al homework, but he’s turned the tables on me.
I rise to leave, turn to go, but Al clutches my hand and insists I read the papers today. He only calms when I swear not to go home before finishing them. I close the door behind me, feeling guilty as a child caught skipping school.
Of course I want to read my homework. I’m dying to. I just don’t have the time. At The Haven, mornings are for rounds and administrative duties, lunch is shared with a conference call — on the menu today: the Chairman of the Board and his lackeys — and afternoons are for treating patients. I seldom have a moment to spare.
I keep Canning’s papers with me anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse between patients. But no. Even the restroom isn’t sacrosanct; I manage to read just the title, “Hyperlink from Hell,” before an intern bangs on the door, begging for a consult and blurting out details of what I assume is her husband’s infidelity.
Poor thing, she doesn’t need therapy, she needs a lawyer, I think, before realizing it’s the plot of her favorite soap.
I’ve barely dried my hands when an orderly drags me off to referee staff members fighting over a patient’s meds.
It’s 6:30, now. I’ve had no time for homework, and not for lack of trying. I’ve seen nine patients, settled three staff squabbles, and just “put the Bad Boys to bed.” That’s Al’s own euphemism for the final check on our more volatile patients. He always did it himself, and so do I.
If I don’t leave soon, the night staff will catch me, so I stuff Canning’s “screenplay, novel, whatever” into my briefcase. I could take it home, but I promised to read it here, tonight, and I’ve never lied to Al. Luckily, there’s no need to break my promise.
I call Steven to warn him I won’t be home for dinner, then sneak off to The Haven’s side gates — the gates that lead to Montclair Castle, Al’s ancestral home. The largest of the Hudson Valley estates built by America’s leading industrialists, the castle shares its grounds with a psych center for just one reason: Al insisted on walking to work. He built The Haven himself, on “the old back forty,” and Society hasn’t spoken to him since.
So, thanks to Al, the castle’s library counts as “here.”
I sign out with Security (“Goodnight, Wayne,” “See ya, Dr. Stapledon”), and The Haven’s inner gate scrapes open with the torturous scream of steel on steel. I make a mental note to call maintenance; that sound can’t do the patients any good. The gate screams closed behind me, and for the few long seconds before the outer gate engages, I’m trapped.
What if it stayed shut? There’s the intercom, of course, but if Wayne didn’t come…
I shake off a shiver, thinking That’s what cell phones are for.
Quiet as a sigh, the outer gate sets me free and glides to a clunk behind me. A flagstone path escorts me through dense shade, steers me around roots. Bone-dry needles crunch underfoot. These sentinel pines, planted too close together for their own good, shield The Haven from the only prying eyes for miles around: the heavy-lidded windows of the castle.
Here in the trees, Al and I once stumbled on a wayward flock of castle tourists. They seemed embarrassed, if not repentant, to be caught sneaking a peek at the loony bin. Al often greeted visitors with a wink and a smile, saying he’d done his best to improve the neighborhood but the Vanderbilt Mansion was still down the road. That day, however, he had just one word for our stragglers before shooing them onto their proper path:
Al was still my boss, then, and James Canning was his most famous patient — but what I knew about Canning wouldn’t have filled a page on his case file, a file I’ve yet to access. Some might wonder why curiosity didn’t get the better of me, why I didn’t devour Canning’s records once he was gone and Al was no longer in charge. But something held me back. For me, Canning’s file was forbidden fruit. At least, that’s what Al once called it.
I wonder if he meant me to be tempted, all along.
Before Canning disappeared, I saw his face only once: grinning from a supermarket tabloid at the check-out stand. It seemed “The World’s Most Dashing Couch Potato” had Hollywood looks and a professed TV “addiction.” I flipped through the tabloid, to find that he’d bought a supermarket chain with his Lotto winnings before starring in his own reality show.
It was from that article, not Al, that I learned Canning was blessed with more than a disarming smile. He had hyperthymesia and an eidetic memory. Commonly known as “autobiographical” and “photographic” memories, those traits are extremely rare. Take them in conjunction, add ADHD and stir… and what a life-long case study Canning would have made, if only he hadn’t flown the coop. Imagine remembering almost everything you’ve seen and done, everything you’ve read, but having trouble focusing on any of it.
I catch a heel on a grasping root and realize, too late, that I should have focused on my feet. Arms flapping wildly, I stumble out of the trees into still-bright sunlight, briefcase launching skyward.
It lands with a thud.
I smooth my skirt and recover the case (still intact) and my dignity (slightly less so), before following the path once again. I’m relieved that Canning’s papers didn’t fly away, lucky that my “Chicken Dance” went unwitnessed. That’s because Matilda, the castle’s retired head housekeeper and sole remaining occupant, has spent this dry, dreadful August on a cruise instead of surveying the grounds with her trusty binoculars. She’s not due back for a week.
The castle and garden tours are over for the day — and after this weekend, for the season. Thank goodness. The regular tours were bad enough, so last winter, when I learned the Board had plans for a “Montclair Murder Trek,” I challenged the proposal. They wouldn’t have dared such a thing when Al was director, but without him the outcome was never in doubt. I kept my job, but lost the fight.
Murder is more popular than ever, these days. All summer long, plump, giggling, gawking tourists have toddled into the castle, left their sticky fingerprints and toddled out again.
Sorry, Al. But if you want things to change…
Get up. Get out. Put me out of a job.
As Al’s assistant, I walked this same route daily, but not alone. Before strolling together to The Haven, we’d share a pot of tea in his library, planning practical jokes for the next Board meeting. We’d spend our last workday hour there, too, discussing patients. How giddy I was, under the influence of Al’s confidence in me and a glass of his single malt. But he never trusted me with Canning. Not until today.
Today, I’m vowing to burn these silly high heels… but then my path winds past the chapel and all silly thoughts are exorcised. One of the bodies was found in the chapel.
This walk was once a pleasure; now it’s a gauntlet of painful memories. Maybe that’s why I wear these shoes. Survivor’s guilt has three-inch heels.
My path skirts the old stone carriage house. Decades ago, it was gutted by fire and rose from the ashes as a garden workshop. The tourists call it charming; the groundskeepers call it the shed. Like all the castle’s outbuildings, it’s besieged: ravaged by ivy that would tear apart less stalwart structures. When mayhem happens slowly, we call the carnage picturesque.
Picturesque? Yes. But body number two was found in the shed.
After the carriage house, my path splits. The left side leads uphill, to the firehouse, but I veer right, past the ponds where I sometimes feed the fish. Not today. Today, it’s straight to the library and James Canning’s “Part One.”
As I trip down the last, gentle slope to the castle, Al’s change of heart about God starts nagging at me. If grief tests the faith of a believer, could it have the opposite effect on a skeptic? That, plus Al’s advancing years, might explain his turning to God.
If he were someone else.
I stand at the door with eyes closed, wishing Matilda would open it. It’s her right to live here for the rest of her life. That could be forever; she’s ninety-two and shows no symptoms of relocating. She’s the closest thing to family that Al has left, and I sometimes discuss his case with her. Unethical, perhaps, but I simply have to.
I ring the bell — out of habit, respect, more wishful thinking? — before opening the door with my key. Once inside, I disable the alarm, then reset it for most zones before crossing the foyer to Al’s library, the circular foundation of one of the false towers. I say “false,” because there’s no staircase winding up and up, as any self-respecting tower ought to have. The castle’s towers are just round rooms stacked like the layers of a cake, each part of its respective floor.
Unlocking the library, I can’t help smiling. This was Al’s only folly, his “square pegs in a round hole.” He tricked a round room into sheltering thousands of books, the most angular of objects.
Thanks to the legacy of thick stone walls, the castle is cool as a cathedral year round — but the library is stuffy and dark. Crushed velvet drapes, drawn tightly over leaded windows, dare sunlight to crack the spines of Al’s first editions.
I fling caution and the drapes aside, and crank open just one window. The others, stubborn and warped, defy me. Al always said they waited too long to retire, like him, that they couldn’t be expected to operate smoothly, without complications.
I pluck the papers from my briefcase, kick off my heels, and curl up in the twin to Al’s favorite armchair. Over the desk, his portrait — a painting I commissioned myself, since he’d never have been so vain — seems to nod in approval.
Or maybe he’s asking, “What took you so long?”
Hyperlink from Hell:
A Couch Potato’s Guide to the Afterlife
by James Canning
Part One: Delusions of Grandeur
1. Smoking May be Hazardous
“Oh, enough about you! Let’s talk about me,” Monique said. Above her head, a string of outdoor lights — the ones shaped like chili peppers — shivered in the sudden breeze and went out.
“All right,” I said, tapping my last-ever cigarette on the rim of her piña colada. “What would you like to know about yourself?”
Hoping my breath was awful, I leaned toward her and leered. At least, I think it was a leer. I probably should have practiced that, because she didn’t even flinch. Instead, her mind wandered over to the poolside bar with her drop-dead body in tow.
“A Quaalude for me, and a Quickie for the gentleman.”
Monique was sipping her way through the cocktail alphabet, and I’d promised to join her at “Q.” Oh, I knew she was cheating. She had to be. No one could survive all that booze, so her drinks were probably virgins. So what? If we made it to “S,” she’d promised me a double round of Sex on the Beach under the Tequila Sunrise.
Don’t blame me. It was Monique’s idea of a birthday present.
Ah, Monique, I bet your real name is Monica, I thought, taking another drag. I’d told her to call me Dave, my best friend’s name. She just kept calling me “Sugar.”
I turned to watch her chat with the bartender, who might — in even dimmer light — have been as handsome as a bullfrog. Now, he could give lessons in leering. Whatever alternate universe Pedro came from, he had guts, balls, chutzpah. Whatever ugly guys have when they hit on gorgeous women.
Maybe he has a big attribute, hidden by the bar.
My Rolex buzzed the hour: three AM. I took one last puff and stubbed out my butt in the World’s Most All-inclusive Ashtray — where transfer-printed, grass-skirted pygmies danced the hula in the shadow of Angkor Wat.
Where was I, and what was I doing there?
“There” was “Bougainvillea-ville,” a Hell-hole hideaway in the Yucatan that had seen better days, and clientele, in the ’eighties. Where else should I have been, with Jenny?
Jenny was somewhere else, in the arms of some other guy. Her crumpled Note whispered from my pocket, even after all that time: I never loved you… don’t try to find me… I’m going back to Rick.
A local urchin was tugging on my shirt. He looked about eight. A scrawny eight. His face and feet were dirty, but his hands were clean.
“Mister señor?” The kid held out a hand and tried to smile.
What to do? I considered adopting him; celebrity adoptions were all the rage. But who’d give me a kid — even this kid — with my reputation? He’d be better off without me.
I decided on a small trust fund. I’d work out the details later, but to get things started, I tucked some pesos into his hand, ruffled his hair, then waved a wad of dollars at Pedro.
“Get this kid something to eat… for about ten years! And throw in a parent or guardian.”
Pedro made a quick call, then herded the kid up the steps toward the hilltop kitchen’s blazing lights. For the weeks (years? decades?) I’d been there, those lights had burned like a beacon all night, every night. If that was to keep the cucarachas in check, fat chance.
As Pedro lumbered back to the bar, the last customer belched, peeled himself off his barstool and announced, “‘To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia,’” before stumbling off, leaving the place to the three of us.
I watched to make sure he didn’t follow the kid, then resumed wallowing.
What the Hell was I doing there? Two obvious answers came to mind, both busting out of a plunging neckline. Monique’s twin peaks were back from the bar. At this point, I believe I burst into song: “America the Beautiful,” in homage to the “mountains’ majesty above her fruited plain.”
I don’t want to talk about it.
For her part, Monique was going on about my eyes — how blue they were, or was it green? How from the moment we first met…
Pedro delivered our drinks with a gracious grunt. Finally, something to keep the mescal in my gut company. And the worm. I gazed into Monique’s colored contacts, knocked back the Quickie and choked. Bourbon, rum, and what’s that sweet stuff? Orange liqueur?
A Quickie is bourbon in lingerie. There had to be faster ways to kill myself.
I could smother myself with a plastic bag…
I’d have settled for paper. It’s slower than plastic, but biodegradable.
For a fleeting moment, I felt like a bag boy again: eighteen years old, working at the market I bought later, when all the money rolled in. That was my first “Can-Too,” the first of the chain.
I grinned at Monique’s chest. To Hell with plastic. I could smother myself in her breasts! Suicide was a sin, but at least my thoughts could be held against me. I grinned at my own little joke, thinking, God has no sense of humor.
Monique’s voice droned on and on, with the hypnotic quality of a medieval chant, reminding me of what a friend of my mom’s, an ex-priest, used to say about religion: “The music’s great, but the lyrics stink.”
He’d completely missed the point. He must be in Hell by now.
I was jerked back to the table by, “That’s a sweet little ass you got, Sugar.”
I’d been sitting on my ass for hours; how did she know it was sweet? With all the droning, there was no chance to ask her, so my half of the duet only played in my head: Look, I know I’m attractive. It’s just good jeans — I mean genes! It’s only luck, so don’t go on about it.
Monique stopped chanting and stared over my shoulder, neglecting to blink. That was odd. Just a second before, her false lashes had been flapping flirtatiously.
Was someone creeping up on me? Her husband? Better yet, a boyfriend? Boyfriends were more jealous than husbands. Boyfriends were prone to rash, head-busting behavior!
But it was just Pedro, with a round of R: “Red Rasputin. Vodka, Grenadine, Pepsi-Cola.”
I knocked it back, and Monique leaned forward to whisper something. Let’s see, what was it? Oh, yeah:
“R is for Roofie.”
The last thing I remember is quoting Speedy Gonzales. “‘No mas tequila. Already muy loaded.’”
* * *
I woke up naked and hog-tied, on a filthy mattress on a filthy floor in the filthiest hotel room I’d ever seen. And I’d seen a few. I wasn’t born filthy rich, as You know.
The room was littered with empty beer and whiskey bottles. Another big empty loomed where a TV had been ripped from the wall.
My head was splitting. The smell of the mattress was gagging. My throat was dry as a witch’s — well, as You might expect, under the circumstances.
“Thirsty, Sugar?” someone drawled from across the room.
Ah, the twin peaks of Mount Monique! I should never have taken up climbing.
But I didn’t remember any climbing. Or Sex on The Beach. I’d missed the Tequila Sunrise!
Chafing as it was to watch Monique sipping soda in her shabby armchair, my attention was drawn to the door — creaking open — and Pedro, whose secret with the ladies was sawed-off and double-barreled.
Coke in hand, Monique sauntered over to close the door while Pedro lurched to the mattress and flopped down beside me. His bullfrog grin widened as he admired the Rolex on his wrist. Funny, I felt so naked without it.
“Monique,” I croaked, one eye on Pedro’s grin, “we didn’t…? Did we?”
She sipped. “What do you think?”
Pedro slapped a newspaper down on the mattress. It was the Mercury News, my home paper in San Jose. The newspaper’s main headline and article were blacked out, but I could read the date: October 27th. Yippee, it was still my birthday! I was thirty-six.
The paper also said: “James Canning Missing in Mexico. See page 5.”
Page 5? Remind me to cancel my subscription.
Pedro lit a cigar with my lighter, the one engraved, “Smoking will kill you someday, love, Jen.” Last year’s birthday present. Right before she dumped me.
“Canning. That funny name for supermarket guy,” Pedro said. “How much you worth, Jimbo? You can tell me. I am so trustworthy. You give me million dollars, I give you Coca-Cola. Fair trade? That’s peanuts for you.”
He kindly blew the smoke my way. “You sell a lotta peanuts at those markets?”
“A whole lotta.” I breathed in deeply, but second-hand smoke wasn’t gonna cut it. “How about a smoke, and that Coke?”
“Oh, I am generous man, but smoking is bad for you. And no Coke.”
He motioned for Monique to fetch me some water. She filled a paper cup from the faucet and pressed it to my lips, saying, “Drink it, or the next one’s from the toilet.”
I drank it.
Pedro took a swig of Jack Daniels. “How you like your water, Jimbo? Your guts gonna do a little tap dance? ‘Montezuma’s revenge,’ eh?”
“Listen, Pedro,” I said. “This may be your first starring role in the re-run that is your life, but it’s not mine. Could you can the tourist crap?”
Pedro’s lips curled back. He had remarkably white teeth for a villain. I should’ve been more polite.
“Can? Tourist? Crap? Oh, Jimbo, you make me giggle. How much that sense of humor cost you, eh?”
But he’d already set the price.
I said, “If you want the money, I’ll need my phone and a pair of pants. And that Coke.”
“You want fries with that?” Pedro jumped up and cracked my head with the bottle. I saw rainbows, but didn’t black out.
Monique hollered, “Not so rough! Are you nuts?”
Panting and swaying, Pedro leaned toward me and belched. His breath burned my eyes. I lay there bleeding, head throbbing, wondering how the Hell I was going to get out of there.
I scanned the room again. One window. No extra charge for the bars. There was a copy of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” on the nightstand. Which of these geniuses was reading that?
In my cheeriest voice, I asked, “Who likes the classics? I’m a ‘Bullwinky’ fan, myself.”
Monique stared at me blankly. “Bullwinky?”
“You know, the moose. And Roscoe the flying squirrel?”
“Pedro,” she said, “how hard did you hit him?”
But Pedro didn’t answer. He and his shotgun were busy flopping back down on the mattress. When the bouncing stopped, my eyes came to rest on the blacked-out newspaper.
“What’s with the blackout?”
“What you mean, Jimbo? You wanna back out? No back out of this deal.”
“I give up,” I said. “I wish this was a dream sequence.”
“Dream sequence? How you know this notta dream sequence?”
“I just know.”
“How you know? You naked. People always naked in my dreams.” He waved the shotgun at Monique. “Whassa matter, her tits not big enough for your dreams?”
“Sure they are,” I said. “I just hate dream sequences.”
“Me, too,” Monique said.
Pedro jumped up again. “Me three! Funny, eh? Arithmetic. We got so much in common.”
“God? Shoot me now.”
Those four little words… they just popped out. I swear I didn’t mean them.
* * *
“Sign this,” a shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guy said, holding out a clipboard.
What do you know? Shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guys have no pubic hair.
Right, like You wouldn’t have looked.
He poked me with the clipboard. “Sign it. And stop looking down there. Your file doesn’t say anything about you being gay.”
I glanced at the clipboard. The paper on it was blank. “What is it?”
“Being gay?” He tapped the pen on the clipboard. “Surely you know —”
“What’s on the clipboard?”
Tap, tap, tap. “I couldn’t say.” He looked like he could, but he wouldn’t.
“Hey, is this the dream sequence?”
“No,” he said, but at least he stopped tapping. “You’re just dead.”
“Jeez. You’re shittin’ me. I don’t feel dead.”
“It’s one of the perks. And I Shit You Not. I never ‘Shit’ anyone. It’s part of my job description. Sign here,” he said, tapping the paper, again. “Sign. Sign. Sign.”
Tap, tap, tap.
“I don’t sign things I can’t read,” I confessed. “It’s kind of a thing with me.”
Made-of-light Guy grinned. Even his teeth were shimmery, and that gave me the creeps. I looked around us. Everything — or should I say nothing? — was shimmering, like the static you get when you turn off the cable, but the TV’s still on. Only see-through.
At least I was dressed. And sober.
“Trust me,” the guy said. “You’re just one in a long line of dead leading men. It’s your ‘last starring role in the re-run that was your life,’ so to speak. Could be worse. Could be a cartoon.” He tapped the clipboard again. “Sign right here. God requires faith, if nothing else.”
I signed, against my better judgment. “God, huh? Sure I can’t get that in writing?”
“No.” He snatched back the clipboard, leaving me to wonder which it was: No, I couldn’t get that in writing, or No, he wasn’t sure I couldn’t get that in writing.
I think he read my mind.
“A little humility wouldn’t hurt,” he said, his milky little eyes narrowing to slits.
My own eyeballs were starting to tingle; this whole thing was making my skin crawl. Or maybe it’s the shimmering, I thought, waving an arm through the scintillant soup, the malicious miasma. There was something about it that looked… well, the only word is “curdled.” I bravely stuck out my tongue for a taste, and got a mild electric shock.
“What is this stuff?”
“It’s Sparkling Ectoplasm. That’s vodka, nutmeg, cream and lemon juice. Plus our own secret ingredient that makes it fizz.” He leaned forward and hiccupped. “Big secret. It’s seltzer! Never, ever, think that He has no sense of humor. He hates that.”
“I’ll remember,” I mumbled, wiping my tongue on my sleeve.
“I know you will.”
* * *
The next thing I knew, I was a shimmery naked guy, standing on a sidewalk in Silicon Valley. Folks rushed by, dashing to their high-tech lunches. They couldn’t see me — which was good, considering all that naked business.
Naked, not naked, naked again… Someone can’t make up His mind.
With a fizzy “pop,” Monique appeared beside me. She was shimmery, too. “Sugar! How sweet. Did you miss me?”
“Mount — uh — Monique! What are you doing here? You don’t mean…?”
“Yup. Pedro shot me, too. All because he didn’t use the waste basket. I had to laugh, didn’t I?”
“Waste basket? What waste basket?”
And so she told me the gory, glorious details of my death: a wayward sheath, a slip, a fall… and a big old bang.
“That’s what I get for being raised a Catholic.”
Oh, well, so he slipped on a used condom and the gun went off. At least he didn’t shoot me on purpose.
Monique ran her fingers through her scalp. Did I mention we were bald? I thought not. Still, she had a very shapely scalp.
She said, “I never slept with Pedro, you know.” I hadn’t asked, but that didn’t seem to matter. “We tried once, but he’s got a dick the size of a cocktail weenie. I’ve got a clit as big as that.”
Monique blushed all over — think Sparkling Ectoplasm with a splash of cranberry — and glared at me. If she was daring me to comment, I didn’t.
She went on, “When he flipped it out, I got the giggles and burst into baby talk. ‘Who’s an itsy-bitsy boy, then? Who’s a dirty little fella?’”
“Are you nuts? No wonder he shot you.”
Monique shrugged and looked around us. “Where do you think we are? Some sort of Purgatory?”
I felt my chest swell. “It’s San Jose! It’s my home town! And isn’t Purgatory a big word for you?”
“I’m not an idiot, you stupid shit. That was an act.”
“No need to be rude, Sugar,” I said. “Hey, are you allowed to swear in Purgatory?”
“Obviously. But I bet it adds to the time.”
I looked her up and down. “I can live with that.”
She grinned. “You think? I had a nice, long talk with that shiny guy —”
“Long talk? I just got here!”
“I don’t think time works the way we’re used to. Anyway, after I signed the clipboard he said, ‘From now on, consider yourself an exhibit. No touching.’”
“What’s the penalty? We’re already dead.” I reached out to cup her shimmering breast, but my hand went right through her.
“No touching is the penalty.”
Suddenly, Monique wasn’t shimmering anymore, and hair was sprouting all over the place. Looking down, she said, “No more waxing for me. It’s just insane how fast it grows back.”
Huh, who’d have guessed it? She really is a red—
“Adam and Eve!” someone shouted. “You never heard of fig leaves?”
Yes, the people on the street could see us now, and one of them had a Brooklyn accent. A small crowd was forming. And hooting. And whistling.
Someone called my name.
This isn’t Purgatory. It’s Hell.