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Chapter Twenty-eight

After shooting her Japanese TV commercial in Guam («Hey team — let's Pocari!»), Susan arrived back in Los Angeles fresh with the knowledge that the network had decided not to renew Meet the Blooms . Larry was in Europe, and he spent hours on the phone with Susan, reassuring her that her promising career had barely yet begun. She threw a duty-free bag filled with folded Japanese paper cranes into a cupboard. She waited three weeks to unpack her luggage from the trip. She took long baths and spoke only to Larry until she visited her First Interstate branch and learned that her long-term savings account, into which she'd been regularly depositing good sums for years, was empty. Her lawyer was in an AIDS rehab hospice and unable to help her, and her accountant had recently left town in the wake of savings and loan scandals, so Larry hired new and expensive lawyers and accountants. They did a forensic audit of Susan's life, and after months of document wrangling, playing peekaboo with receptionists and marathon phone tag, Susan learned that Marilyn had, quite legally, soaked up and then dissipated Susan's earnings — Marilyn who had been little more than a duty visit once a month up in Encino. «One of my numerology clients was a child star,» said Dreama, then living on her own in North Hollywood. «He got fleeced, too. The government has the what — the Coogan Law now, don't they? I thought the system was rigged so that parents couldn't swindle the kids' loot anymore.» Susan, heavily sedated, called Dreama frequently during this period. She murmured, «Dreama, Dreama,Dreama — all you have to do is come home late from a shoot wired with about three hundred Dexatrims, sign one or two documents buried within a pile of documents, and you've signed it all away.» «You two must have talked …» «Battled.» «What does she say? I mean …» «She says I owed it to her. She says I'd have been nothing without her. And you know what she told me when it became clear that she'd swiped everything I had? She said to me, ‘That's the price you pay for being a piece of Tinseltown trash.' » Dreama, not a shrieker, shrieked.«Tinseltown?» Larry continued paying the rent on Kelton Street, but he told Susan his accountant would only let him do it for one more year or until Susan had her own income again, if that came sooner. Jobs were hard to come by. Casting agents knew she wasn't a skilled actress and didn't think her marquee value canceled out her bad acting. Lessons did nothing to improve her skills, and the fact she was even taking lessons made her a subject of snide whispers in class. Larry seemed to be giving her far less attention, too, not because of her unbankability but because he knew that Jenna was the root of the problem. By the end of the Blooms run, Susan overheard Kenny the director say that if Susan ever got a role even as a tree in the background of a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie, it would be as an act of pity. The taping of the final two-hour episode was a bad dream to which Susan returned over and over. «Susan, dear, you've just learned your father has prostate cancer. Your face looks like you're trying to choose between regular or extracrispy chicken. Let's do a little wakey-wakey because we're close to union overtime, okay?» The cameras rolled: «Dad, why didn't you tell me before? Why all the others but not me?» «Cut! Susan, you're not asking him “Where is the TV Guide ?” You're asking him why he didn't share with you the most important secret of his life.» The cameras rolled: «Dad, why didn't you tell me before? Why all the others but not me?» «Cut!» Susan stopped again. «Susan, less TV Guide and more cancer.» «Kenny, can I use some fake tears or something? This is a hard line.» «No, you may not use fake tears, and no, this is not a hard line. Roger? Give me my cell phone.» A bored P.A. handed him a phone. «Susan, here's a phone — would you like me to give you a number and you can simply phone this line in? Or would you like to do it for the camera, for which you're being paid?» «Don't be such a prick, Kenny.» The cameras rolled: «Dad, why didn't you tell me before? Why all the others but not me?» «Cut! Roger? Please bring Miss American Robot here some fake tears.» Soon Susan began going to parties each night, not because she was a party hound but because her celebrity status entitled her to as many free drugs as she wanted, as long as she tolerated being fawned over or mocked by the substance suppliers. * I can't believe Susan Colgate's here at this party. * Basically, for a gram she'll go anywhere in L.A. County. For an ounce she'll be the pony that takes you there. As time went on, she learned not to stand outside the kitchens, where the acoustics were better and where she was more likely to hear the worst about herself. She had far too much free time on her hands, and with it she began to obsess about Larry. One early evening when Susan was feeling particularly alone and the phone hadn't rung all day, she decided she was sick of being iced out of his life, and went to his house. Larry had mentioned that Jenna would be away that night at her mother's birthday in Carson City. Susan knew that if she tried to use the intercom at the gate, or open the front door, she'd be frostily ignored. She cut through the next-door neighbor's yard, once home to a prized Empress Keiko persimmon tree, and approached the house from the back patio. She was shortcutting through the yard when suddenly the place flared up like Stalag 17. Five Dobermans with saliva meringues drooling down their fangs formed a pentagram around her, and what seemed like a dozen Iranian guys with Marlboro Man mustaches circled the dogs, handguns drawn. She saw Larry amble out onto his veranda next door wearing his postcoital silk robe, the one he'd stolen from the New Otani back when he'd been negotiating the Japanese TV commercial deal. A naked little fawn named Amber Van Witten from the TV series Home Life scampered out after him, eating a peach. Larry yelled to the Iranians, «Hakim, it's okay — she's one of mine,» and the Iranians, gaping at Amber, called off the dogs who, happy as lambs, bounded toward Susan to smell the urine puddle at her feet. Larry beckoned Susan into the house. She followed him into his den, where he made Susan sit on a towel he placed on the fireplace's flagstones, making her burn with humiliation. «Susan, it's over.» She started to say, «But Larry,» but her pants chafed, the urine had gone cold, and Amber poked her head in through the walnut wood doors. («Oh,hi Susan.») Susan stopped speaking. Larry said that he still wanted to be friends — and then Susan really did realize it was over. Larry said he had an idea, and that he could use Susan's help if she was willing to go along with it. He'd begun managing a new band out of England called Steel Mountain — «head-banger stuff for mall rats.» There had been a screw-up at the Department of Immigration and Naturalization, and the band's lead singer, Chris Thraice, needed a green card or an H-1 visa. If Susan agreed to marry him in order to get him into the country, she could earn 10K a month, live at Chris's house — no more Kelton Street — and have access to the social scene as something other than unbankable former child star Susan Colgate. So she asked him what the catch was, and he said that there wasn't a catch, that Chris was a closeted gay, so she wouldn't even have to deal with sex. A week later she married Chris in Las Vegas — cover of People in a black, almost athletic, Betsy Johnson dress. She'd never had so much coverage of anything like this in her career. Music was indeed a whole new level. She toured 140 concerts per year: all-access laminates; catered vegetarian meals; football arenas and stadiums. Everywhere they went little trolls out on the fringes pandered to their most varied substance needs. It was fast and furious but full of dead spots and time holes in Hyatt suites and Americruiser buses and airport business lounges. Susan felt like she was in a comfortable, well-stocked limo being driven very slowly by a drunk chauffeur. Larry was around full-time, but he was business only now; fun was over, or rather, fun had moved on. Sex was easier for Chris to find than for Susan. If Susan had liked stringy-haired bassists with severe drug problems and colon breath, she would have been in luck — but she didn't. The only thing that kept her around was access to free drugs, but a few well-placed questions to the people out on the scene's fringes allowed her to set up her own supply in Los Angeles, and she camped out at Chris's Space Needle house in Los Angeles. «I'd introduce you to my lesbian friends,» said Dreama, «but I don't think you'd find what you're looking for. And how can you continue to let yourself be in such a phallocentric and exploitative situation?» Susan ignored Dreama's PC dronings. «Chris tells me I should just phone up hustlers and bill them to the company. What a hypocrite he is. He found out I was seeing other guys — or at least trying to — and he turned into the Killer Bunny from Monty Python because I was putting his green card in jeopardy. If he were to walk into the room right now, we'd probably rip each other up.» «There ought to be some way for you to meet somebody.» «The only way anybody meets anybody in L.A., Dreama, is through work, which I don't have.» Just under three years into their marriage, Chris had an album tank. In the magical way of the music industry, Steel Mountain was, out of the blue,over. The record company withdrew support, money shrank and Chris had to start playing smaller arenas and cities, and he accrued the bitterness that accompanies thwarted ambition. Susan saw his snide side. Chris had his lawyer pay Susan her monthly 10K in the form of two hundred checks for $50, and then the checks started coming less frequently and there wasn't much she could do about it. One morning Susan went out to her car — a pretty little Saab convertible — and Chris had replaced it with an anonymous budget white sedan which Susan called the Pontiac Light-Days. «It's like driving a tampon, Dreama.» A year later Susan had a new agent, Adam, who took Susan on as a mercy client. He owed Larry fourteen months' rent on office space his B-list agency rented from Larry's holding company. He phoned and told Susan she had a big break, that a young director with a development deal at Universal wanted her to play the deranged ex-girlfriend in a high-budget action movie he was making. «Susan, this kid is young and he is hot. » «What's he done?» «A Pepsi commercial.» There was silence from Susan's end of the line. Finally she asked him, «What's it called?» «Dynamite Bay.» «Why do they want me ?» «Because you're an icon and you're — » «Stop right there, Adam. Why me ?» «You undervalue yourself, Susan. The public worships you.» «Adam?» «He approached each of the cast members of the old Facts of Life show before you, and none of them wanted to do it. So he chose you instead.» «Oh. So I'm now retro?» «If being retro and hot is a crime, you're in jail, Susan. In jail with John Travolta, Patty Hearst, Chet Baker and Rick Schroeder.» Susan made the movie, and enjoyed herself well enough, but afterward was again unoccupied, which was worse than before, because she'd tasted work again. Chris was off-tour, and in the house much of the time. He and Susan fought all day, both reeling with disbelief that they were bonded to each other. Susan eventually moved into Dreama's place, where incense burned incessantly, and where Dreama's numerology clients barged into the bathroom to ask Susan if a 59 should date a 443. Between her pitifully small savings and her monthly income, she had just enough to rent a tiny Cape Cod house on Prestwick. As Dynamite Bay 's 1996 release neared, Susan began doing press. She was in New York doing an interview with Regis and Kathy Lee. It was familiar, and this time she loved it. Chris finally got his green card and the two agreed to divorce after the movie had run its cycle. The movie fared reasonably well, but led to no new offers. At the hotel in New York, before leaving for JFK, Susan spoke with Dreama, who reminded her about an upcoming dinner at the house of a mutual friend named Chin. Dreama was going to bring Susan a new set of numbers to help her make future decisions. Susan felt rudderless. The harmless nonsense of Dreama's numbers made as little sense to her as anything else. On the way to the airport, Susan asked the car driver to pull over at a deli just before the Midtown Tunnel, where she popped out and bought some trail mix, bottled water and a Newsweek . She had mentally entered the world of air travel, and put her brain into neutral, not expecting to have to use it again until Los Angeles. Chapter Twenty-nine

Vanessa dissected her first brain one hour before she learned the correct technique for making a moist, fluffy omelet. It was in the tenth grade at Calvin Coolidge High School, Franklin Lakes, Bergen County, New Jersey. She was in biology class, where students were divided into groups of four, each assigned a pig. They were told to stockpile their observations, and then afterward the class would discuss brains. Vanessa had been given her own brain. In the Bergen County School system, Vanessa was always being given a brain to herself. It wasn't so much that she was a round peg in a square hole — it was more that she was a ticking brown-wrapped parcel in an airport waiting lounge.Treat Vanessa Humboldt differently . Vanessa dissected her pig's brain quickly, with a forensic speed and grace that chilled her teacher, Mr. Lanark. Next came home ec, in which Mrs. Juliard demonstrated for the class the proper way to whip eggs, pour them into a buttered nonstick pan (medium-low heat) and use a Teflon spatula to gently lift up the edges of the nascent omelet to allow the runny egg on top to trickle underneath and cook. Once done, the eggy disk was folded over onto itself and presto, «a neat-to-eat breakfast-time treat.» The students followed Mrs. Juliard's technique. Near the end of Vanessa's omelet creation cycle, as she folded the egg over onto itself, her life was cut in two. Vanessa stood in home ec, undoing the fold, and then folding it again over onto itself in different ways. The other students finished their omelets, ate them or disposed of them, according to their level of eating disorder, and prepared to leave, but Vanessa stood rapt. Her classmates were students who'd known Vanessa since day care, who'd seen her reject Barbies, hair scrunchies, Duran Duran and sundry girlhood manias of the era, opting instead for Commodore 64's, Game Boys and the construction of geodesic domes from bamboo satay skewers. They giggled at her. «Vanessa, honey — you're not angry or anything, are you?» asked Mrs. Juliard, who, like most of Vanessa's teachers since kindergarten, trod on eggshells around her. They feared an undetermined future torture that would subtly but irrevocably be dealt them should they in any way displease this brilliant Martian girl. As for Vanessa, she looked upon high school as a numbing, slow-motion prison, to be endured only because her depressingly perky and unimaginative parents refused to make any effort to either enroll her in gifted-student programs or permit her to skip grades, which they worried, ironically, might cripple her socially. Her parents viewed high school as a place of fun and sparkling vigor, where Snapple was drunk by popular crack-free children who deeply loved and supported the Coolidge Gators football team. They viewed Vanessa'a intelligence as an act of willful disobedience against a school that wanted only for its students to have clear skin, pliant demeanors, and no overly inner-city desire for elaborately constructed sports sneakers. But all of this was different now, because of her omelet. «Vanessa? Are you okay, honey?» Vanessa looked at Mrs. Juliard. «Yes. Thank you. Yes.» She looked at her dirty utensils. «I'll wash up now.» She skipped her next class and waited until noon, sitting on a radiator near the cafeteria. She knew nobody would ask Vanessa Humboldt if anything was wrong for fear that the response could only complicate their lives. The noon bell rang. She waited five minutes, then walked through the staff area into the faculty room, where teachers were lighting up cigarettes and removing lunch from Tupperware containers and the microwave oven. The vice principal, Mr. Scagliari said, «Vanessa — this room is off limits to — » but he was cut short. «Can it, Mr. Scagliari.» Voices simmered down and then stopped. A student in the faculty room was still, in late 1980s New Jersey, a rarity. Vanessa was straightforward with them, as though she were informing them about a transmission that needed fluid changing, or the proper method for planting peas. She said that she was leaving school that afternoon, and that she was probably as happy to be gone as they would be to have her out of there. She stated what the staff had known all along, that she could ace any graduation test they could throw her way, including SATs and LSATs. She also said she would be contacting the American Civil Liberties Union, the local TV and print media, and that she would locate a hungry, glory-starved lawyer to do her dealings. She had $35,000 in savings stashed away from waitressing and playing the horses and could easily support such a gesture. The staff masked their surprise with pleasant faces. She sounded so reasonable. Vanessa went on to say that contacting her parents wouldn't gain them much ground, as they were more concerned about her prom dress than her future ambitions. In her own head she was already at Princeton and Calvin Coolidge High School was only a bad dream after a strong curry. She walked out the front doors and over to the parking lot, where she got into the battered Honda Civic she'd paid for herself and put her plan into operation. Within a month she was out of the Bergen County school system, and accepted at Princeton for the next fall in a joint mathematics—computer science program. But as she drove home that afternoon, Vanessa thought of eggs and she thought of brains. She wondered how it was that maybe twenty thousand years ago human beings didn't exist — and yet suddenly, around the globe, there appeared anatomically modern people capable of speech, language, agriculture, bureaucracy, armies, animal husbandry and increasingly arcane technologies dependent on refined metals, precise tools of measurement and elaborate theoretical principles. It all had to do with the brain — which upon dissection struck Vanessa as a large flat gooey sheet of omelet elaborately folded over onto itself into the gray clumpen hemisphere. Vanessa had decided that twenty thousand years ago the human brain decided to fold itself over one more time, and it was that single extra fold that empowered brains to create the modern world. So simple. So elegant. And it also helped to explain why Vanessa was such a freakazoid, so cosmically beyond the others in her school. Vanessa realized that her brain had made the next fold — that she, in some definite and origamilike way, represented the next evolutionary step of Homo sapiensHomo transcendens — and that her goal in life was to seek out fellow Homo transcendens and with them form colonies that would bring Earth into a new golden age. At Princeton she encountered fellow advanced humanoids and she no longer felt so alone. But she was disappointed to discover that such petty failings as jealousy, political infighting, fragile egos and social ineptitude were just as prominent among her new colleagues as they were among the old. Phil from the Superstrings Theory group was a pig. Jerome the structural linguist was a pedantic bore who lied about meeting Noam Chomsky. Teddy the quark king was a misogynist. Vanessa correctly surmised that her life needed balance, and one polar afternoon, when ducking into an arts building for a dash of heat, she attended a surprisingly enlightening lecture on the Abstract Expressionist paint dribblers. From this lecture she decided that balance in her life would come from the arts, and that fellow Homo transcendens must surely await her in that arena. She sought out any artistic gesture that proposed human evolution beyond Homo suburbia . She attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight screenings for two years running, dressed as Susan Sarandon, which left her with a lifelong yen for midwestern twin-set outfits. She read sci-fi. She tried joining Mensa but was turned off by the bunch of balding men who wanted to discuss nudism, and women who refused to stop punning or laughing at their own spoonerisms. Half a year before graduation, a dozen companies battled to employ Vanessa, but she chose the Rand Corporation because they were in Santa Monica, California, close to Hollywood and what could only be a surplus of advanced geniuses. She was not above movies — they were the one genuinely novel art form of the twentieth century. Her work in California was pleasure, and at night she went out into the coffee bars of Los Angeles, meeting dozens of young men with goatees and multiple unfinished screenplays. Some were smart and some were cute, and some were quick to charm, but it was Ryan, three years later, whom she deigned to be the first other member of the new species. She found him by accident late one night, at West Side Video after an evening of hmm ing and uh-huh ing her way through another round of goatees-with-screenplays. She was returning a copy of an obscure but technically interesting early eighties documentary,Koyaanisqatsi, and muttered, more to herself than to anybody nearby, that the film's repetitive minimalist soundtrack didn't induce the alpha-state high she'd read about. «Oh, then you'll have to listen to it again, but you have to watch it at a proper theater, and it will work, you know. You'll reach alpha every time.» «You did?» «Well, yes. That's one of my favorite films.» Vanessa spoke with pleasure. «I liked it, too, but …» «Oh, you know — you have to see it on a big screen. You really do . Maybe I'm being too forthright here, but let me ask you this — would you come with me tomorrow night? There's a nine-thirty showing of Koyaanisqatsi at the NuArt. If you came here at eight, we could eat something vegetarian beforehand. You are vegetarian, aren't you? I mean, your skin… .» There was a weighted pause in which emotion and options blossomed before them like time-lapse flowers. And they were off. They went to Koyaanisqatsi the next night. They went to more movies. Vegetarians, they refused to eat any food that might have tried to resist capture. Ryan was a screenwriter and woodworker, and he was the only Hollywood writer Vanessa had yet encountered who didn't feel as if the world owed him both a Taj Mahal and a large clear rotating lottery ball stuffed with fluttering residual checks. «Tungaska» was genius. Vanessa twinged with the urgency felt throughout the ages by all women who have struggled to put their loved ones through med school or its equivalent. Vanessa was determined to be the one who discovered him, who pollinated his talents and supported him during his rise. Then one night she snuck into the video store and found Ryan entwining his signature into that of her own. She felt sure it must be love. She had a few doubts about him — his Susan Colgate worship, his Caesar hairdo and his underwear, which looked not merely freshly laundered but freshly removed from the box. But no one whom she found tolerable had ever enjoyed her company before. «Vanny look — it's a Class 3 electrical substation with» (gasp) «a WPA bas-relief on the doors. Pull over!» They were on the way to a Hal Hartley re-release Ryan insisted they not miss. Ryan let Vanessa drive. Their children would be magnificent. Chapter Thirty

The morning after John, Vanessa and Ryan had their numbers read by Dreama, John sat on a towel outside the guesthouse and bombarded Vanessa and Ryan with phone calls. It was an effort to spur progress in the hunt for Susan. On John's fourth call to Vanessa's office, her patience was taxed. «John, I could get fired if the company learned I was using their system to track down two nut cases across south central Wyoming.» «So they're still in Wyoming?» «Three hundred miles west of Cheyenne, passing through … at this moment … Table Rock, Wyoming.» John then phoned Ryan and grilled him about Susan's history in Wyoming. «Susan's mother returned to Wyoming after Susan left TV. But Susan's originally from Oregon.» «So her mother may be in Wyoming, then?» «She was a few years ago, back when Susan recovered from her amnesia.» «Amnesia — pffft.» John sounded disgusted. «Amnesia's bullshit, Ryan. It's only a movie device.» «Either way, nobody knows where she went for that year. For that matter, where did you go when you dropped out of sight, John? You've still never told me.» «I went nowhere.» «Brush me, Daddy-O. Jack Kerouac,man !» «No — Ryan — you know where I went? I really went nowhere. I ate out of dumpsters. I slept under bridges. I traipsed around the Southwest and got gum disease and my skin turned into pig leather and I didn't learn a goddam thing.» John hung up. He mulled the morning's information over and became convinced the key to the mystery of Susan's whereabouts lay in finding Marilyn. He phoned Vanessa and ran this idea past her. «John, the LAPD tried locating Susan's mother and they couldn't find her. And besides, Susan and her mother hate each other. I've had two solid years of Sue Colgate trivia drizzled onto my brain. I've had to drive Ryan to the twenty-four-hour Pay-Less at two-thirtyA.M. to buy two-sided mounting tape for his shrine. I've been forced to watch Meet the Blooms reruns on tape instead of going to chick flicks since around the death of grunge. Sure, I know all that stuff I pulled out of databases. But I know the tabloid stuff, too, and Sue Colgate hates her mother.» A neighbor's leaf blower turned off and John marveled at how quickly the world became silent. He walked back inside the house with the cordless phone. «Vanessa,please. Wherever the mother is, we'll find Susan. You know it, don't you, Vanessa?» Vanessa didn't answer. «I know you know it, Vanessa. You're the professional finder, not me.» He sat down on a couch and watched sun break through woven slots in the curtain, like a cheap hotel in Reno back in the seventies. An unwashed dish in John's sink settled with a clank. John took a breath. «You're smart, Vanessa. You're pretty. You could easily pass as a human being if you wanted to. It gives you a kick to fool the others. But I'm worried about Susan Colgate, and I'm worried about her in a way I haven't been worried about anything before. You may not be worried, but I know you care. I know you do.» Vanessa was quiet a moment and then said, «Okay.» John sighed and looked at the ridges in his fingernails as he continued. «Susan. Shit — she's been around the goddam block so many goddam times that it makes me cry. And yet there she is, still this glorious creature.» The sun went behind a eucalyptus tree and John's room became cool and gray. He could hear the leaves rustle behind him and through the phone line he could hear occasional office noises from Vanessa's end. «I need you to help me, Vanessa. You're my agent of mercy. My oracle. You may be a space alien, but you're a good space alien. Superman was a space alien, too. And this afternoon — this is the chance fate's throwing your way to replace that uranium heart of yours with blood.» Someone called Vanessa from across the office. She called back, «In a second, Mel.» John could hear her breathe. Vanessa said, «Her name's Marilyn, right?» «Yes.» John went outside and lay back and basked in the sun. This was his first real solar exposure since the day he was sick in Flagstaff. Ryan phoned him. «John, how'd you get Vanessa to agree to do an MSP?» «A what ?» «I have to call Vanessa. I'll call you right back.» Both men speed-dialed Vanessa, but Ryan got to her first. John's body began to throb with curiosity, with an urge to know that felt like an urge for sex. He walked back inside the guesthouse, picked at a piece of cold pizza in the fridge and tossed some Chinese food flyers into the trash. The phone rang. Vanessa said, «So I see that Number 11 has gone and blabbed about the MSP.» «Not really,» said John. «But you know what? Here's my guess. You and your egghead palsy-walsies have some scary new gizmo that can locate a lost hamster from outer space. Am I correct?» «You're a smart one. Meet me for lunch at the Ivy by the Sea. I don't want to leave Santa Monica. Use your big macho clout and get a table for three.» John was there early, then Vanessa arrived. They were surrounded by chattering dishes, tinkling glasses, car noises and seagulls screeching outside. Both were slightly twitchy with their own worries. Vanessa was speaking her thoughts aloud. «I'm going to lose my job if I get caught. What am I saying? I will get caught. It's only a matter of how many minutes before they catch me.» «Caught doing what, Vanessa?» «You'll find out soon enough.» She made a tetrahedron of cutlery, using the tines of her forks to join a spoon and a knife. John knew she wanted to ask him something, and he was right. «John …» «Yes, Vanessa?» «Do you think I'm — »she took a big gulp of breath — «cold?» «What? Oh Jesus, Vanessa, please don't go taking me too seriously. It's not a good idea.» «Don't flatter yourself, John. But I mean it. Do you think that I'm capable of — .» «Of what?» Vanessa blushed. «This is so embarrassing. Okay, I'll say it: of being loved. » Vanessa looked as if she'd suddenly discovered she was naked in public. «Yeah, of course you are, Vanessa. But — » «But what ?» Vanessa's voice expressed weakness for the first time John had noticed. «You're lovable, Vanessa.» John tried to think of how to phrase what he said next. «But you've gotta rip your chest open and expose your heart to the open air, let it get sunburned, and that's bloody scary.» He bit an ice cube. «Even still, most people seem to do it automatically. But you and I — it makes us balk.» «And … ?» «Shit. Like I'm the person to speak? Thirty-seven and single. But I did make The Other Side of Hate, and you know why it bombed?» «Why?» «Because I thought I could fake it. It was so humiliating when it tanked. People think I don't care, but I do. Those reviews were just — ouch.» «But now?» «I guess the thing about exposing your heart is that people may not even notice it. Like a flop movie. Or they'll borrow your heart and they'll forget to return it to you.» The air between the two of them was thick and warm like in a tent. Neither knew what to say next. Ryan came in out of breath. «Try finding a taxi in L.A. My car battery's dead.» He made does-he-know? eyebrows at Vanessa. She shook her head. John had the desperate look of somebody who's about to quit a job they've held for twenty years. Vanessa explained to him what an MSP was — a complex computer program, the opposite of a SpellCheck — a MisSpellCheck. The premise of the MSP is that all people consistently misspell the same words over and over, no matter how good a typist a person might be. Misspelling patterns are idiosyncratic — unique like fingerprints, and the MSP also takes into account punctuation patterns, rhythms and speeds. «You could log on as Suzanne Pleshette or Daffy Duck, but the MSP will identify you after about two hundred fifty words. It's so finely tweaked, it can tell you whether you're having your period or if your fingernails need trimming.» John asked why the cops hadn't run an MSP already. Vanessa said: «This is hush-hush stuff, John. They only do it if they think you might be linked to a missing plutonium brick or to trace you if they think you're violating your position in the witness protection program. It's not a standard security check, let alone for a starlet missing a few days. It also sucks up so much memory that all the in-office computers develop Alzheimer's while it's in use.» John slapped a $100 bill on the table. «Come on,» he said. «We're going to Vanessa's office.» John and Ryan were in the car following Vanessa. John phoned Ivan to see if he'd fly them in his jet stowed not far away at Santa Monica Airport. John could feel Ivan's sigh on the other end. «To go where, John-O?» «Wyoming, probably — I'm only guessing. For Susan.» Ivan hesitated. If nothing else, the Susan Colgate fixation had brought John back from the dead after Flagstaff. «There's the European marketing meeting for Mega Force this afternoon. You said you'd be here.» Ivan was silent a moment, then spoke. «Okay, John-O.» «Great. We'll be on the tarmac in a half hour.» It was a brainless sunny day, and the high noon sun flattened out the world. The trees looked like plastic and the pedestrians like mannequins. Patches of shade formed deep holes. As arranged, Vanessa parked her car in her company's lot while John and Ryan parked across the street. «It's Security City in there,» said Ryan. «They don't just take your picture when you drive in there. They take your dental X-ray.» «Do you have any idea what Vanny's doing right now, Ryan? She's going to get fired for using this MSP thing.» Ryan said, «You call her Vanny?» John waved his hand in a well-of-course-I-do manner. Ryan then asked John, «Well, we knew she might get fired. Is she doing it for me, or is she doing it for you?» John laughed a single blast of air. Ryan fiddled with the rearview mirror outside the passenger door. «You know, John, when you grow up these days, you're told you're going to have four or five different careers during your lifetime. But what they don't tell you is that you're also going to be four or five different people along the way. In five years I won't be me anymore. I'll be some new Ryan. Probably wiser and more corrupt, and I'll probably wear black, fly Business Class only, and use words like “cassoulet” or “sublime.” You tell me. You're already there. You've already been a few people so far. «But for now — for now me and Vanessa — Vanny, really do love each other and maybe we'll have kids, and maybe we'll open a seafood restaurant. I don't know. But I have to do it now — act quickly, I mean — because the current version of me is ebbing away. We're all ebbing away. All of us. I'm already looking backward. I'm already looking back at that Ryan that's saying these words.» They sat and stared at the low-slung corporate-plex. The tension of waiting for Vanessa was becoming too much. They didn't talk. They tried the radio, but it came in choppy so they turned it off. A bus stopped beside them and John and Ryan watched the passengers inside it, all of them focused forward and inward. The bus pulled away and they saw Vanessa burst out of the company's front door carrying a cardboard bankers' box. Her stride was off as she speed-walked to her parked car. She pulled away onto the main road, up beside John's car. She rolled down her window and said, «C'mon, let's go to the airport.» Her eyes were red and wet. «Are you okay?» «Just go. I'll meet you there.» She sped away. By the time they reached Vanessa at the Santa Monica Airport's parking lot, she'd composed herself. «Shall we go to Cheyenne, then?» she asked. «Honey?» said Ryan. «It's okay,» Vanessa said. «I didn't like it there anyway.» «I never even got to see your cubicle.» Vanessa opened up the bankers' box and Ryan looked inside. There was a Mr. Potato Head, a framed four-picture photo booth strip of her and Ryan, a map of Canada's Maritime region, and several plump, juicy cacti. Ivan was at the airport. John slapped him on the shoulder and introduced him to Ryan and Vanessa. Ten minutes later they were up in the air. «I found her,» Vanessa said. «Where?» said John. «She's working for a defense contractor. In the paralegal pool. Radar equipment. Guess what name she's using.» «Leather Tuscadero.» «Ha-ha.» She looked out the window below at the warehouse grids of City of Industry. «Fawn Heatherington.» «That's so corny,» Ryan said. «It's like something right out of The Young and the Restless .» «Ivan,» said John, «make sure we have a car waiting for us on the tarmac at the other end. And make sure there's a map inside it. We'll be there in a few hours.» Vanessa said, «There's something else strange I found out.» «What?» asked John. «Judging from various spikes in her typing speeds and frequencies compared against her other data — she used to do data inputting for the Trojan nuclear plant up on the Columbia River back in the late eighties — particularly as regards her use of SHIFT key and the numbers one to five, I'm going to make an educated guess here.» «What would that be?» «Marilyn's going through menopause.» John looked at Vanessa and then turned to Ivan. «Ivan, Vanessa now works for us. » «Good,» said Ivan. «What will Vanessa be doing for us?» «Running our world.» John felt a bit better for having conspired to make Vanessa lose her job. He was smoking furiously now. «I thought you quit last year,» said Ivan. «I smoke when I'm worried. You know that.» Ivan noticed that John made no connection between his current posture in the jet, alert and driven, versus the crumpled heap he'd been on the floor months previously. They landed in Cheyenne. An airport worker directed them to their car. Ivan asked Vanessa to be navigator. «No time to start your new job like the present.» She sat in the front, and Ivan leaned over and whispered to Ryan, «The secret to success? Delegate, delegate, delegate — assuming you've hired somebody competent to begin with.» Ryan felt like a thirteen-year-old being given advice by a cigar-chomping uncle. They drove through the city. It was a cold hot day on the cusp of a harsh autumn. The air felt thin and they managed to hit every red light as they wended through this essentially prairie town that was more Nebraska than Nebraska, certainly not the alpine fantasia conjured up by the name Wyoming, or from John's prior experience in the deepest Rockies filming The Wild Land. «Over there,» said Vanessa, «the blue sign. Calumet Systems — purchased just last week by Honeywell.» They encountered yet another low-slung corporate glass block surrounded by a parking lot full of anonymous-looking sedans and a wire fence topped with razor wire. A security Checkpoint Charlie precluded their entering the lot. Vanessa made John pull the car into the Amoco station across the street. John said, «Ivan, did you bring the binoculars like I asked?» John looked, but didn't know what to expect to see — Marilyn making coffee in the cafeteria? Filing a letter? Readjusting her Peter Pan collar?» «Can I see those, John?» He handed Ryan the binoculars and Ryan scoured Calumet's lot. John turned on the radio and settled on a Spanish dance station, which Vanessa turned off. «This is no time for the Cheeka-Chocka.» Ryan said, «I can see her car.» «Bullshit,» said John. «No. I do. It's a maroon BMW. I remember it was in the news footage when Susan went home to her mother's.» John said, «Paralegals for prairie defense contractors don't drive BMWs.» Ryan continued staring at the car through the binoculars. «John, you forget the settlement Marilyn made and then lost with the airline after the Seneca crash. She's clinging to her last remaining item of wealth like a lifeboat.» «It was a claret-colored BMW,» said Vanessa, adding, «So what's the deal, John? I mean, we find Marilyn and then what? We trail her all day and all night? To what end?» «She'll lead us to Susan.» «How do you know that? My professional finding instincts are baffled.» «We don't know where Susan went that year — nobody does. But Marilyn vanished, too, and now suddenly we find she's Fawn von Soap-Opera working here in Cheyenne at a defense plant. I mean,two people in a family vanish? That's no coincidence. Defense contracting? Spying? Espionage? Who knows. But there's a link. A strong one.» «Oh my, » said Ryan. «I don't quite believe this myself, but La Marilyn has left the building. She's walking toward her car. Jeez, what a mess she is.» «Let me see,» said Vanessa. «Work isn't over until five. Why's she leaving early? Shit — Ryan's right. It is her — with a $6.99 hairdo and a pantsuit ordered from the back of a 1972 copy of USSR This Week. I thought she was supposed to be stylish or something.» She kissed Ryan. «Agent 11, you are good. » John started the engine to follow Marilyn, who was pulling out of Checkpoint Charlie. They turned onto the main strip, just then plumping up with the beginnings of rushhour traffic. They skulked three cars behind her for many miles, past a thousand KFCs, past four hundred Gaps, two hundred Subways and through dozens of intersections overloaded with a surfeit of quality-of-life refugees from the country's other larger cities, with nary a cowboy hat or a crapped-out Ranchero wagon to be seen in any direction. They drove out of Cheyenne's main bulk, and into its fringes, where the franchises weren't so new and the older fast-food outlets were now into their second incarnations as bulk pet-food marts, storage facilities and shooting ranges. Marilyn pulled the car into the lot of the Lariat Motel. She got out of the car and ran into room number 14. «Well, kids,» said John, «guess where we're spending the night.»

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