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