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A Dirty Job Chapter 24

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24

AUDREY AND THE SQUIRREL PEOPLE

Charlie could hear things scurrying under the porch as he walked to the front door of the Buddhist center, but the weight of the enormous pistol he’d stuck down the back of his belt reassured him, even if it was pulling his pants down a little. The front door was nearly twelve feet tall, red, with reeded glass running the length, and there were arrays of colorful Tibetan prayer wheels, like spools, on either side of the door. Charlie knew what they were because he’d once had a thief try to sell him some hot ones stolen from a temple.

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Charlie knew he should kick down the door, but then, it was a really big door, and although he had watched a lot of cop shows and movies where door kicking had been done, he was inexperienced himself. Another option was to pull his pistol and blast the lock off the door, but he didn’t know any more about lock blasting than he did door kicking, so he decided to ring the doorbell.

The scurrying noises increased and he could hear heavier footsteps inside. The door swung open and the pretty brunette he knew as Elizabeth Sarkoff – Esther Johnson’s fake niece – stood in the doorway.

“Why, Mr. Asher, what a pleasant surprise.”

It won’t be for long, sister, said his inner tough guy. “Mrs. Sarkoff, nice to see you. What are you doing here?”

“I’m the receptionist. Come in, come in.”

Charlie stepped into the foyer, which opened up to a staircase and had sliding double doors on either side. He could see that straight back the foyer led to a dining room with a long table, and beyond that a kitchen. The house had been restored nicely, and didn’t really have the appearance of a public building.

The inner tough guy said, Don’t try to run your game on me, floozy. I’ve never hit a dame before, but if I don’t get some straight talk quick, I’m willing to give it a try, see. Charlie said, “I had no idea you were a Buddhist. That’s fascinating. How’s your Aunt Esther, by the way?” He had her now, didn’t even have to slap her around.

“Still dead. Thanks for asking, though. What can I do for you, Mr. Asher?”

The sliding door to the left of them opened an inch and someone, a young man’s voice, said, “Master, we need you.”

“I’ll be right there,” said the alleged Mrs. Sarkoff.

“Master?” Charlie raised an eyebrow.

“We hold receptionists in very high regard in the Buddhist tradition.” She grinned, really big and goofy, like she didn’t even believe it herself. Charlie was totally charmed by the laughter and open surrender in her eyes. Trust there, with no reason for it.

“Good God, you’re a bad liar,” he said.

“Guess you could see right through my moo-poo, huh?” Big grin.

“So, you are?” Charlie offered his hand to shake.

“I am the Venerable Amitabha Audrey Rinpoche.” She bowed. “Or just Audrey, if you’re in a hurry.” She took two of Charlie’s fingers and shook them.

“Charlie Asher,” Charlie said. “So you’re not really Mrs. Johnson’s niece.”

“And you’re not really a used-clothing dealer?”

“Well, actually – “

That’s all Charlie got out. There was a crashing sound from straight ahead, glass and splintering wood. Then he saw the table go over in the next room and Minty Fresh screamed “Freeze!” as he leapt over the fallen table and headed toward them, gun in hand, oblivious, evidently, to the fact that he was seven feet tall and that the doorway, built in 1908, was only six feet eight inches high.

“Stop,” Charlie shouted, about a half second too late, as Minty Fresh drove four inches of forehead into some very nicely finished oak trim above the door with a thud that shook the whole house. His feet continued on, his body swinging after, and at one point he was parallel to the floor, about six feet off the ground, when gravity decided to manifest itself.

The chrome Desert Eagle clattered all the way through the foyer and hit the front door. Minty Fresh landed flat and quite unconscious on the floor between Charlie and Audrey.

“And this is my friend Minty Fresh,” Charlie said. “He doesn’t do this a lot.”

“Boy, you don’t see that every day,” said Audrey, looking down at the sleeping giant.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. “I don’t know where he found raw silk in moss green.”

“That’s not linen?” Audrey asked.

“No, it’s silk.”

“Hmm, it’s so wrinkled, I thought it must be linen, or a blend.”

“Well, I think maybe all the activity – “

“Yeah, I guess so.” Audrey nodded, then looked at Charlie. “So – “

“Mr. Asher.” A woman’s voice to his right. The doors on Charlie’s right slid open, and an older woman stood there: Irena Posokovanovich. The last time he’d seen her he was sitting in the back of Rivera’s cruiser, in handcuffs.

“Mrs. Posokov…Mrs. Posokovano – Irena! How are you?”

“You weren’t so concerned about that yesterday.”

“No, I was. I really was. Sorry about that.” Charlie smiled, thinking it was his most charming smile. “I hope you don’t have that pepper spray with you.”

“I don’t,” Irena said.

Charlie looked at Audrey. “We had a little misunderstanding – “

“I have this,” Irena said, producing a stun gun from behind her back, pressing it to Charlie’s chest and sending a hundred and twenty-five thousand volts surging through his body. He could see animals, or animal-like creatures, dressed in period finery, approaching him as he convulsed in pain on the floor.

“Get them both tied up, guys,” Audrey said. “I’ll make tea.”

Tea?” Audrey said.

So, for the second time in his life, Charlie Asher found himself tied to a chair and being served a hot beverage. Audrey was bent over before him, holding a teacup, and regardless of the awkwardness or danger of the situation, Charlie found himself staring down the front of her shirt.

“What kind of tea?” Charlie asked, buying time, noticing the cluster of tiny silk roses that perched happily at the front clasp of her bra.

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“I like my tea like I like my men,” Audrey said with a grin. “Weak and green.”

Now Charlie looked into her eyes, which were smiling. “Your right hand is free,” she said. “But we had to take your gun and your sword-cane, because those things are frowned upon.”

“You’re the nicest captor I’ve ever had,” Charlie said, taking the teacup from her.

“What are you trying to say?” said Minty Fresh.

Charlie looked to his right, where Minty Fresh was tied to a chair that made him look as if he’d been taken hostage at a child’s tea party – his knees were up near his chin and one of his wrists was taped near the floor. Someone had put a large ice pack on his head, which looked vaguely like a tam-o’-shanter.

“Nothing,” Charlie said. “You were a great captor, too, don’t get me wrong.”

“Tea, Mr. Fresh?” Audrey said.

“Do you have coffee?”

“Back in a second,” Audrey said. She left the room.

They’d been moved to one of the rooms off the foyer, Charlie couldn’t tell which. It must have been a parlor for entertaining during its day, but it had been converted into a combination office and reception room: metal desks, a computer, some filing cabinets, and an array of older oak office chairs for working and waiting.

“I think she likes me,” Charlie said.

“She has you taped to a chair,” Minty Fresh said, pulling at the tape around his ankles with his free hand. The ice pack fell off his head and hit the floor with a loud thump.

“I didn’t notice how attractive she was when I met her before.”

“Would you help me get free, please?” Minty said.

“Can’t,” Charlie said. “Tea.” He held up his cup.

Clicking noises by the door. They looked up as four little bipeds in silk and satin scampered into the room. One, who had the face of an iguana, the hands of a raccoon, and was dressed like a musketeer, big-feathered hat and all, drew a sword and poked Minty Fresh in the hand he was using to pull at the duct tape.

“Ow, dammit. Thing!”

“I don’t think he wants you to try to get loose,” Charlie said.

The iguana guy saluted Charlie with a flourish of his sword and pointed to the end of his snout with his free hand, as if to say, On the nose, buddy.

“So,” Audrey said, entering the room carrying a tray with Minty’s coffee, “I see you’ve met the squirrel people.”

“Squirrel people?” Charlie asked.

A little lady with a duck’s face and reptilian hands wearing a purple satin evening gown curtsied to Charlie, who nodded back.

“That’s what we call them,” Audrey said. “Because the first few I made had squirrel faces and hands, but then I ran out of squirrel parts and they got more baroque.”

“They’re not creatures of the Underworld?” Charlie said. “You made them?”

“Sort of,” Audrey said. “Cream and sugar, Mr. Fresh?”

“Please,” Minty said. “You make these monsters?”

All four of the little creatures turned to him at once and leaned back, as if to say, Hey, pal, who are you calling monsters.

“They’re not monsters, Mr. Fresh. The squirrel people are as human as you are.”

“Yeah, except they have better fashion sense,” Charlie said.

“I’m not always going to be taped to this chair, Asher,” Minty said. “Woman, who or what the hell are you?”

“Be nice,” Charlie said.

“I suppose I should explain,” Audrey said.

“Ya think?” Minty said.

Audrey sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and the squirrel people gathered around her, to listen.

“Well, it’s a little embarrassing, but I guess it started when I was a kid. I sort of had this affinity for dead things.”

“Like you liked to touch dead things?” asked Minty Fresh. “Get naked with them?”

“Would you please let the lady talk,” Charlie said.

“Bitch is a freak,” Minty said.

Audrey smiled. “Why, yes; yes, I am, Mr. Fresh, and you are tied up in my dining room, at the mercy of any freaky thing that might occur to me.” She tapped a silver demitasse spoon she’d used to stir her tea on her front tooth and rolled her eyes as if imagining something delicious.

“Please go on,” said Minty Fresh with a shudder. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It wasn’t a freaky thing,” Audrey said, glancing at Minty, daring him to speak up. “It was just that I had an overdeveloped sense of empathy with the dying, mostly animals, but when my grandmother passed, I could feel it, from miles away. Anyway, it didn’t overwhelm me or anything, but when I got to college, to see if I could get a handle on it, I decided to study Eastern philosophy – oh yeah, and fashion design.”

“I think it’s important to look good when you’re doing the work of the dead,” Charlie said.

“Well – uh – okay,” Audrey said. “And I was a good seamstress. I really liked making costumes. Anyway, I met and fell in love with a guy.”

“A dead guy?” Minty asked.

“Soon enough, Mr. Fresh. He was dead soon enough.” Audrey looked down at the carpet.

“See, you insensitive fuck,” Charlie said. “You hurt her feelings.”

“Hello, tied to a chair here,” Minty said. “Surrounded by little monsters, Asher. Not the insensitive one.”

“Sorry,” Charlie said.

“It’s okay,” Audrey said. “His name was William – Billy, and we were together for two years before he got sick. We’d only been engaged a month when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. They gave him a couple of months to live. I dropped out of school and stayed with him every moment. One of the nurses from hospice knew about my Eastern studies course and recommended we talk with Dorje Rinpoche, a monk from the Tibetan Buddhist Center in Berkeley. He talked to us about Bardo Thodrol, what you know as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He helped prepare Billy to transfer his consciousness into the next world – into his next life. It took our focus off of the darkness and made death a natural, hopeful thing. I was with Billy when he died, and I could feel his consciousness move on – really feel it – Dorje Rinpoche said that I had some special talent. He thought I should study under a high lama.”

“So you became a monk?” Charlie asked.

“I thought a lama was just a tall sheep,” said Minty Fresh.

Audrey ignored him. “I was heartbroken and I needed direction, so I went to Tibet and was accepted at a monastery where I studied Bardo Thodrol for twelve years under Lama Karmapa Rinpoche, the seventeenth reincarnation of the bodhisattva who had founded our school of Buddhism a thousand years ago. He taught me the art of p’howa – the transference of the consciousness at the moment of death.”

“So you could do what the monk had done for your fianc???” Charlie asked.

“Yes. I performed p’howa for many of the mountain villagers. It was a sort of a specialty with me – along with making the robes for everyone in the monastery. Lama Karmapa told me that he felt I was a very old soul, the reincarnation of a superenlightened being from many generations before. I thought perhaps he was just trying to test me, to get me to succumb to ego, but when his own death was near and he called me to perform the p’howa for him, I realized that this was the test, and he was trusting the transference of his own soul to me.”

“Just so we’re clear,” said Minty Fresh. “I would not trust you with my car keys.”

The iguana musketeer poked Minty in the calf with his little sword and the big man yelped.

“See,” Charlie said. “When you’re rude it comes back on you – like karma.”

Audrey smiled at Charlie, put her tea on the floor, and folded her legs into the lotus position, settling in. “When the Lama passed, I saw his consciousness leave his body. Then I felt my own consciousness leave my body, and I followed the Lama into the mountains, where he showed me a small cave, buried deep beneath the snow. And in that cave was a stone box, sealed with wax and sinew. He told me that I must find the box, and then he was gone, ascended, and I found myself back in my body.”

“Were you superenlightened then?” Charlie asked.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Audrey said. “The Lama was wrong about that, but something had changed me while performing the p’howa for him. When I came out of the room with his body, I could see a red spot glowing in people, right at their heart chakra. It was the same thing I had followed into the mountains, the undying consciousness – I could see people’s souls. But what was more disturbing to me, I could see that the glow was absent in some people, or I couldn’t see it in them, or in myself. I didn’t know why, but I did know that I had to find that stone box. By following the exact path into the mountains that the Lama had shown me, I did. Inside was a scroll that most Buddhists thought – still think – was a myth: the lost chapter of the Tibetan Book of the Dead…It outlined two long-lost arts, the p’howa of forceful projection, and one I hadn’t even heard of, the p’howa of undying. The first allows you to force a soul from one being to another, and the second allows the practitioner to prolong the transition, the bardo, between life and death indefinitely.”

“Does that mean you could make people live forever?” Charlie asked.

“Sort of – more like they just stop dying. I meditated on the amazing gift I’d been given for months, afraid to try to perform the rituals. But one day when I was attending the bardo of an old man who was dying of a painful stomach cancer, I could watch the suffering no longer, and I tried the p’howa of forceful projection. I guided his soul into the body of his newborn grandson, who I could see had no glow at his heart chakra. I could actually see the glow move across the room and the soul enter the baby. The man died in peace only seconds later.

“A few weeks later I was called to attend the bardo of a young boy who had taken ill and was showing all the signs of imminent death. I couldn’t bear to let it happen, knowing that there might be something I might be able to do, so I performed the p’howa of undying on him, and he didn’t die. In fact, he got better. I succumbed to the ego of it, then, and I started to perform the ritual on other villagers, instead of helping them on to their next life. I did five in as many months, but there was a problem. The parents of the little boy summoned me. He wasn’t growing – not even his hair and nails. He was stuck at age nine. But by then the villagers were all coming to me with the dying, and word spread throughout the mountains to other villages. They lined up outside of our monastery, demanding I come see them. But I had refused to perform the ritual, realizing that I was not helping these people, but in fact freezing them in their spiritual progression, plus, you know, kind of freaking them out.”

“Understandably,” Charlie said.

“I couldn’t explain to my fellow monks what was happening. So I ran away in the night. I presented myself to be of service to a Buddhist center in Berkeley, and I was accepted as a monk. It was during that time that I saw, for the first time, a human soul contained in an inanimate object, when I went into a music store in the Castro. It was your music store, Mr. Fresh.”

“I knew that was you,” said Minty. “I told Asher about you.”

“He did,” Charlie said. “He said you were very attractive.”

“I did not,” Minty said.

“He did. ‘Nice eyes,’ he said,” Charlie said. “Go on.”

“There was no mistaking it, though – the glow in the CD – it was exactly the same presence that I could sense in people who had a soul. Needless to say, I was freaked out.”

“Needless to say,” Charlie said. “I had a similar experience.”

Audrey nodded. “I was going to discuss all of this with my master at the center, you know, come clean about what I had learned in Tibet – turn the scrolls over to someone who perhaps understood what was going on with the souls inside of objects, but after only a few months, word came from Tibet that I had left under suspicious circumstances. I don’t know what details they gave, but I was asked to leave the center.”

“So you formed a posse of spooky animal things and moved to the Mission,” said Minty Fresh. “That’s nice. You can let me loose from this chair now and I’ll be on my way.”

“Fresh, will you please let Audrey finish telling her story. I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent reason that she hangs out with a posse of spooky animal things.”

Audrey pressed on. “I was able to get a job as costumer for a local theater group, and being around theater people, basically a bunch of born show-offs, can put you back into the swing of a life. I tried to forget about my practice in Tibet, and I focused on my work, trying to let my creativity drive me. I couldn’t afford to make full-sized costumes, so I began to create smaller versions. I bought a collection of stuffed squirrels from a secondhand store in the Mission, and used those as my first models. Later I made my models out of other taxi-dermied animal parts – mixing and matching them, but I’d already started calling them my squirrel people. A lot of them have bird feet, chicken and duck, because I could purchase them in Chinatown, along with things like turtle heads and – well, you can buy a lot of dead-animal parts in Chinatown.”

“Tell me about it,” Charlie said. “I live a block from the shark parts store. Never actually tried to build a shark from spare parts, though. Bet that would be fun.”

“Y’all are twisted,” Minty said. “Both of you – you know that, right? Messin’ with dead things and all.”

Charlie and Audrey each raised an eyebrow at him. A creature in a blue kimono with the face of a dog skull gave Minty the critical eye socket and would have raised an eyebrow at him if she’d had one.

“All right, go on,” Minty said, waving Audrey on with his free hand. “You made your point.”

Audrey sighed. “So I started to hit all of the secondhand stores in the City, looking for everything from buttons to hands. And at at least eight stores, I found the soul objects – all grouped together at each store. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who could see them glowing red. Someone was imprisoning these souls in the objects. That’s how I came to know about you gentlemen, whatever you are. I had to get these souls out of your hands. So I bought them. I wanted them to move on to their next rebirth, but I didn’t know how. I thought about using the p’howa of forceful projection, forcing a soul into someone who I could see was soulless, but that process takes time. What would I do, tie them up? And I didn’t even know if it would work. After all, that method was used to force a soul from one person to another, not from an inanimate object.”

Charlie said, “So you tried this forceful-projection thing with one of your squirrel people?”

“Yeah, and it worked. But what I didn’t count on is that they became animated. She started walking around, doing things, intelligent things. Which is how they came to be these little guys you’ve seen today.

“More tea, Mr. Asher?” Audrey smiled and held the teapot out to Charlie.

“Those things have human souls?” Charlie asked. “That’s heinous.”

“Oh yeah, and it’s better that you have the soul imprisoned in an old pair of sneakers in your shop. They’re only in the squirrel people until I can figure how to put their souls into a person. I wanted them saved from you and your kind.”

“We’re not the bad guys. Tell her, Fresh, we’re not the bad guys.”

“We’re not the bad guys,” Minty said. “Can I get some more coffee?”

“We’re Death Merchants,” Charlie said, but it came out much less cheerful-sounding than he’d hoped. He was very desperate for Audrey not to think of him as a bad guy. Like most Beta Males, he didn’t realize that being a good guy was not necessarily an attraction to women.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Audrey said, “I couldn’t just let you guys sell the souls like so much secondhand junk.”

“That’s how they find their next rebirth,” Minty said.

“What?” Audrey looked at Charlie for confirmation.

Charlie nodded. “He’s right. We get the souls when someone dies, and then someone buys them and they get to their next life. I’ve seen it happen.”

“No way,” Audrey said, overpouring Minty’s coffee.

“Yep,” Charlie said. “We can see the red glow, but not in people’s bodies like you. Only in the objects. When someone who needs a soul comes in contact with the object, the glow goes out. The soul moves into them.”

“I thought you’d trapped the souls between lives. You’re not holding these souls prisoner?”

“Nope.”

“It wasn’t us after all,” Minty Fresh said to Charlie. “She was the one that brought all of this on.”

“What on? What?” Audrey said.

“There are Forces of Darkness – we don’t know what they are,” Charlie said. “What we’ve seen are giant ravens, and these demon-like women, we call them sewer harpies because they’ve come out of the storm sewers. They gain strength when they get hold of a soul vessel – and they’re getting really strong. The prophecy says they are going to rise in San Francisco and darkness will cover the world.”

“And they are in the sewers?” Audrey said.

Both Death Merchants nodded.

“Oh no, that’s how the squirrel people get around town without being seen. I’ve sent them to the different stores in the City to get the souls. I must have been sending them right to these creatures. And a lot of them haven’t come home. I thought they just might be lost, or wandering around. They do that. They have the potential of full human consciousness, but something is lost with time out of the body. Sometimes they can get a little goofy.”

“No kidding,” said Charlie. “So is that why iguana boy over there is gnawing on the light cord?”

“Ignatius, get off there! If you electrocute yourself the only place I have to put your soul is that Cornish hen I got at the Safeway. It’s still frozen and I don’t have any pants that will fit it.” She turned to Charlie with an embarrassed smile. “The things you never think you’ll hear yourself say.”

“Yeah, kids, what are you gonna do?” Charlie said, trying to sound easygoing. “You know, one of your squirrel people shot me with a crossbow.”

Audrey looked distraught now. Charlie wanted to comfort her. Give her a hug. Kiss her on the top of the head and tell her that everything was all right. Maybe even get her to untie him.

“They did? Crossbow, oh, that would be Mr. Shelly. He was a spy or something in a former life – had a habit of going off on his own little missions. I sent him to keep an eye on you and report back so I could figure out what you were doing. No one was supposed to get hurt. He never came home. I’m really sorry.”

“Report back?” Charlie said. “They can talk?”

“Well, they don’t talk,” Audrey said. “But some of them can read and write. Mr. Shelly could actually type. I’ve been working on that. I need to get them a voice box that works. I tried one out of a talking doll, but I just ended up with a ferret in a samurai outfit that cried and kept asking if it could go play in the sandbox, it was unnerving. It’s a strange process, as long as there’s organic parts, stuff that was once living, they knit together, they work. Muscles and tendons make their own connections. I’ve been using hams for the torsos, because it gives them a lot of muscle to work with, and they smell better until the process is finished. You know, smoky. But some things are a mystery. They don’t grow voice boxes.”

“They don’t appear to grow eyes, either,” Charlie said, gesturing with his teacup at a creature whose head was an eyeless cat skull. “How do they see?”

“Got me.” Audrey shrugged. “It wasn’t in the book.”

“Man, I know that feeling,” said Minty Fresh.

“So I’ve been experimenting with a voice box made out of catgut and cuttlebone. We’ll see if the one who has it learns to talk.”

“Why don’t you put the souls back in human bodies?” asked Minty. “I mean, you can, right?”

“I suppose,” Audrey said. “But to be honest, I didn’t have any human corpses lying around the house. But there does have to be a piece of human being in them – I learned that from experimenting – a finger bone, blood, something. I got a great deal on a backbone in a junk store in the Haight and I’ve been using one vertebra for each of them.”

“So you’re like some monstrous reanimator,” Charlie said. Then he quickly added, “And I mean that in the nicest way.”

“Thanks, Mr. Death Merchant.” Audrey smiled back and went to the nearby desk for some scissors. “But it looks like I need to cut you loose and hear how you guys got into your line of work. Mr. Greenstreet, could you bring us some more tea and coffee?”

A creature with a beaver’s skull for a head, wearing a fez and a red satin smoking jacket, bowed and scampered by Charlie, headed toward the kitchen.

“Nice jacket,” Charlie said.

The beaver guy gave him a thumbs-up as he passed. Lizard thumbs.

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