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Chapter Eighteen

Susan had performed in shopping strips many times, and her afternoon stint at the Clackamas County Mall was by no means unusual. In fact, as opposed to pageant judges, she found the overwhelmingly geriatric mall crowds emotionally invisible, and performing before them neither chancy nor stressful, her only stings arising from the occasional heckling teen or a stray leering pensioner. Once in Olympia, Washington, mall security had removed an old lech who'd been wanking listlessly down by the left speaker bank, like a zoo gorilla resigned to a sterile caged fate. Susan thought it was funny, but hadn't quite understood what it was he'd actually been doing. She'd told both her mother and the mall cops she thought he'd been «shaking a donut,» which made the cops snort and Marilyn screech. When the cops briefly left the office, Susan had said, «Mom, please don't go filing another lawsuit. Not over this. Just let it go.» «Young lady, who knows what harm that man did to you.» «What harm?» «It'll be years before you even know, sweetie.» «Mom — no lawsuit. I'm sick of your suing people all the time. It's my birthday. Make it my present, okay?» Marilyn's face froze but then immediately thawed. «I'll just keep on shucking bunnies to help pay the rent. I suppose some body has to work in this world.» At the Clackamas Mall it had been arranged for Susan to perform a Grease medley, her routine that somehow dovetailed with the mall's Campaign for Drug-Free Kids. Susan's friend Trish had just turned sixteen, and drove Susan up to the mall from McMinnville. Marilyn was to follow shortly, after stopping to meet with a seamstress in Beaverton to go over Susan's autumn look. Susan and Trish parked, hooked up with their mall contact, and then crammed themselves into the Orange Julius bathroom where Susan's poodle skirt remained untouched within its paper Nordstrom's bag. From a gym bag, she and Trish removed black jumpsuits and thin red leather ties. Both combed their hair into spikes and applied gel and heavy mascara, then headed backstage. Susan's name was called, and the two climbed up onto the carpeted plywood risers. They walked like robotic mimes, Trish to her Casio keyboard, Susan to center stage. To the bored and distracted mall audience they might just as well have been dressed as Valkyries or elm trees, but Susan felt for the first time a surge of power. Trish hit the opening notes, at which point Susan lifted a riding crop she'd borrowed from one of Don's army buddies. She began to crack the whip in time with the rhythmic nonsense of «Whip It,» a by-then-stale new wave anthem. For the first time, Susan didn't feel like a circus seal onstage. Trish kept the synthesizer loud, and Susan could feel all other times she'd been onstage drop away — those years she'd been trussed and gussied up, barking for fish in front of Marilyn and every pageant judge on earth, joylessly enacting her moves like a stewardess demonstrating the use of an oxygen mask. But now — the faces — Susan was seeing genuine reactions: mouths dropped wide open, mothers whisking away children — and at the back, the cool kids who normally mooned her and pelted her with Jelly Tots, watching without malice. Suddenly the speaker squawked and moaned, and Susan turned around to see Marilyn ripping color-coded jacks from the backs of the Marshall amps while a mall technician lamely protested the ravaging. Heads in the audience shifted as if they were a field of wheat, in the direction where Susan now turned, glaring like a raven. «What the hell are you doing, Mom?» Marilyn plucked out more jacks, and her face muscles tensed like a dishrag in the process of being squeezed. Susan cracked the riding crop at Marilyn, where it burned Marilyn's hands, a crimson plastic index fingernail jumping away like a cricket. «Mom, stop it! Stop!» Marilyn grabbed the crop's end and yanked it away from Susan. She looked to be rabid and scrambled up over the 2-X-6 trusses and onto the stage. Susan turned to her audience. She was raging. «Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big hand for» — she paused as Marilyn raised herself awkwardly, like a horse from thick mud — «my overenthusiastic mother.» The audience smelled blood and clapped with gusto as Marilyn cuffed Susan on the neck. Three hooligans over by the Sock Shoppe shouted meows, at which point Susan went momentarily deaf from Marilyn's blow. Time stopped for her. She was lifted up and out of herself, and she felt aware for the first time that her mother didn't own her the way she owned the Corvair or the fridge. In fact, Susan realized Marilyn had no more ownership of her than she did of the Space Needle or Mount Hood. Marilyn's connection was sentimental if Susan chose it to be that way, or business, which made some sense, but no longer was Marilyn able to treat Susan like a slammed car door every time she lost control. Marilyn looked in Susan's eyes, realized she'd blown it and would never regain her advantage. This sent her into a larger swivet, but its ferocity now didn't faze Susan. She now knew the deal. Marilyn lunged at her daughter, enraged, but Susan looked back at her and with a gentle smile said, «Sorry, Mom, you're thirty seconds too late. You're not going to get me — not this time.» Marilyn's arms went around Susan's chest, half as if to strangle her, half for support. The clapping stopped and Trish ran over. «Mrs. Colgate,please. » «You backstabbing little whore,» she shouted at Trish. «Mom!» «She doesn't mean it,» Trish said, trying to wedge Marilyn and Susan apart. «We've got to get her off the stage.» Mall security arrived. Susan and Trish stood locked in place as two beefy men used all their might to keep Marilyn away from Susan. «Come with us, ma'am.» «No.» Susan said pragmatically, «Guys, let's get her into an office or something. She's jagging on diet pills. She needs a cool dark place.» «Traitor,» Marilyn hissed. Susan grabbed her mother's handbag. She and Trish followed Marilyn into an office, where Susan made her mother swallow some downers. She phoned Don to tell him they'd be late. Trish left at Susan's asking, and Susan drove her mother home to McMinnville. Dinner was take-out Chinese, and they all went to bed early. The next day was sunny and unseasonably hot for April, and Susan sat on the back lawn, suntanning her face between the two inner faces of a Bee Gees double album covered in aluminum foil. Marilyn beetled about between the car and the yard, planting multiple flats of petunias, daisies and white alyssum. This struck Susan as odd, but not unusual. The previous year, Don's workers' comp kicked in and the family had upgraded from a trailer to a house, albeit a small, weed-cloaked and rain-rotted house. But living in a genuine house seemed to satisfy Marilyn, who didn't give much thought to interior design, exclaiming only how thrilled she was not to have to disguise axles with rhododendron shrubs. Susan continued sunning herself, and in midafternoon she came in for iced tea and found Marilyn holding Don's hunting knife, a big honker from one of Karlsruhe's most sadistic factories. She was using it to carve notches into the wood of the door frame between the kitchen and the TV room — dozens of slits at various intervals ranging from thigh height up to her shoulders. Susan said nothing. Marilyn took a Bic pen and a pencil and began writing names and dates beside the slits «Brian 12/16/78, Caitlin 5/3/79, Allison 7/14/80,» and so forth. Don came in from the front hallway, his hands black with SeaDoo crankcase oil. «Mare,» he said, «whatthe fuck are you doing to the door frame?» «Raising the price of the house, honey.» Don and Susan exchanged looks. «Don't think I can't see the two of you exchanging concerned looks.» Before her the mythical young Brian had broken the five-foot mark. Don reached for his hunting knife, saying, «Gimme that.» But Marilyn flinched away, then swiveled around like a Shark versus a Jet. «Like fuck I will.» Susan and Don were stunned. «We're leaving this little sugar shack, kids, but before we do, I have to raise its value.» She continued carving slits. «Studies have shown that the price of any home can be raised by a consistent ten percent or more by simply planting about a hundred dollars' worth of annual flowers.» Allison reached four feet eight. «Flowers make a home feel lived in. Loved. So do growth charts. Growth charts indicate happiness, pride, devotion and stick-to-itiveness. Adds 5K to the asking price.» «And where might we be moving?» asked Don. «Wyoming, you cretin. Cheyenne, Wyoming.» «Oh, Mom — not that again.» «Yes,that, again. Houses are cheaper there. We'll have a guest bedroom and three bathrooms. And you, sweetie, can represent an entire state in the nationals. Only a handful of people live there. The competition's nil.Fifty-one gorgeous contestants and only one will win. Who will replace Susan Colgate as the next Miss USA? » «We're not moving nowhere,» Don said. «We're not moving any where, honey, and yes we are. This house is in my name, so off we go.» «She's loony today,» Don said to Susan. «Leave her be.» Susan went back to her tanning, and assumed the mania would pass. Later on, up in her room, she heard the normal clinks and clatters of dinner preparation below. Marilyn called Susan and Don to the table, and the tone of the night seemed altogether normal. Too normal. At that point, their ears roared and the house shook like a car driving over a speed bump. Susan's water glass tipped over and a framed photo fell from a wall. The three stood up — all was silent save for a faint hiss coming from the kitchen. They walked through the newly scratched door frame to see a manhole-sized gape through the ceiling, and another one directly beneath it in the floor between the stove and the fridge. Don looked down: «Jesus H. Christ — it's a meteorite.» Susan and Marilyn peered down at the blue-brown boulder that lay on the cracked concrete beside the deep freeze containing Don's venison from the previous fall. Don raced down the stairs, looked at the boulder and then looked up, speechless. The two women ran down to join him. «It's a miracle,» said Marilyn. «We've been spared. It's a sign from the Lord above that we are on the correct path, an omen to fill us with respect.» She fell to her knees and prayed as she had once before when visiting her kin back in the mountains. Susan looked more closely at the boulder. «Hey — it's melting, or something.» «Holy shit,» said Don, «it's shit. » It was a frozen ball of shit, accidentally discharged from the hull of an Philippine Airlines flight from Chicago to Manila, which paid for the new house in Cheyenne. Don called it «the shitsicle.» The airline settled swiftly and quietly. Within six weeks they were living in Cheyenne. Chapter Nineteen

The police finished scrutinizing the Susan Colgate shrine in the car's back seat and left the property. John spent the remainder of the day spacing out in front of the shrine and phoning Susan's answering machine, hanging up on the beep each time. He tried sleeping but instead had choppy naps, like pieced-together cutting room floor scraps punctuated with frequent eye openings and anxious pangs. In the late afternoon he gave up, took a shower, drank an algae shake, had a quick chat with Nylla, who was just returning from her exercise class, then drove the car down to West Side Video. Ryan was with a customer. Do you know the name of the movie, sir?» Ryan was asking the customer. «Oh, you know — that movie. I think it came in a blue box.» «Do you know who stars in it?» «That guy. You know?» «I'm not sure. Is it a comedy or a drama or — ?» «It's really good.» «Okay — any idea who directed it?» «That famous guy.» «Right.» John moved in. «Hey, buddy — go take a pill, and when your brain clicks in, send us a memo.» The customer was chuffed. «Excuse me. I'm trying to choose a movie, Mr. Whoever You Are. Do you have a problem with that?» John looked the customer in the eye: «You care what I think?» «Well, um,no. » «Then why are you asking me? Scram. People who know what they want have to get on with their lives here.» The customer skulked away, visibly distressed. «Oh thank you, John,» said Ryan. «You've no idea how long I've been wanting to say something like that.» «The sad residue of too many days lost in meetings with professional time-wasters.» «If you ever decided to make a film titled You Know — That Movie, it'd be the most popular rental of all time.» John scanned the store, then said, «Ryan — get off work and come on. We've got business to do.» «Not now — it's the dinnertime rush, I have to phone in the overdues, and tonight is the “Women Who Love Far Too Much” Special.» «Ivan and I want to buy your script.» Ten minutes later, in separate cars, they drove to the St. James Club bar. John arrived first, and ordered two scotches. Ryan arrived, breathless. «Before we discuss anything, John, I have to tell you that the police were in this afternoon and they were totally all over me about (a) my having built the Susan Colgate shrine, and (b) giving it to you. It was like I was strapped to an anthill and slathered in marmalade.» «She's gone missing. She didn't show up for some Showtime Channel movie she was doing. The cops harassed me, too. But I had to explain to them what I was doing sitting parked outside her house for an hour in the middle of the night with a Susan Colgate shrine in the back seat.» «Oh God — you're a freak!» Ryan laughed. John didn't laugh. «Aren't people supposed to be gone for at least forty-eight hours before they become a missing person?» «I don't know.» John put his head in his hands. «Drink.» Ryan drank. «Nylla — that's Ivan's wife — before I came down here tonight, we were chatting about this and that, and she told me that after the crash Susan was gone for a whole year before she came back. I didn't know it was for that long! I didn't. And it turns out nobody has any idea where she went. Not even the cops.» «But you knew she was in a crash …» «I was in and out of Betty Ford so much in '96 I don't even know who was president, you little smartass.» Ryan was slightly unsure of his footing with this powerful movie producer intent on buying his script, and didn't push the matter, but John went on. «This is to say that if Susan Colgate, who's like the patron saint of missing persons, goes missing, even for one day, then Missing Persons ought to get right on the case, right?» Ryan asked, «When you two met, she knew who you were? How much did you guys talk? How did you leave it? What was she wearing?» «We went walking. Must have been three miles. It was damn hot out, too. She didn't break a sweat once. It was like in high school, like we were off to get milkshakes with Jughead and Veronica.» Some cashews appeared on the table. «Ryan, do you know that before I made my decision to put myself out of commission I'd been really sick?» «No.» «I was. I technically kicked the bucket over at Cedars-that's what the doctors said. And you know what I saw when I flat-lined?» «What?» «Susan.» «What can I say to that?» «You tell me.» «John — come to the light!» «Alright, so it was a Meet the Blooms rerun that was on the hospital TV a few minutes before I bottomed, but it took me months before I figured that out. But it was still her. You know what I mean? And I'd just gotten used to the idea that seeing her face and voice was meaningless, and then today happens — and now I don't think it's so meaningless anymore.» A waiter came by. Ryan's drink was empty. He ordered another. «A Singapore sling, please.» He didn't know what to say to John. «A Singapore sling ?» said John. «Where are we? In a Bob Hope movie? I feel like I'm having drinks with my mother.» «It's a jaunty ironic retro beverage.» «You little twerp. I pioneered irony and retro back when you were shitting your Huggies.» John looked at the waiter: «A rusty nail, please.» Ryan was fidgeting. John said, «Well, I suppose you probably want to discuss your script. We'll buy it. Don't get an aneurysm or anything.» Ryan looked relieved but nervous. John said, «You don't have an agent, Ryan, do you?» Ryan's face was flushed. «Nope.» «Good for you. You just saved yourself forty-five grand.» Ryan's flush drained away. His face stopped. «Oh, this is good,» said John. «I can see the little cartoon cogs and wheels in your head trying to do the arithmetic to figure out the offer. I'll put you out of your misery. Three hundred grand.» «You're messing with me.» «You have a shitty poker face, Ryan.» Ryan's drink arrived, but he pushed it away. «I want to remember this clearly.» «You've got a stronger constitution than I ever had.» He held his glass up. «A toast.» They clinked glasses, sipped and then John said, «Ivan doesn't trust something unless it's way overpriced. If I told him I'd gotten “Tungaska” for five grand, it would have ended right there. I pulled the number 300 out of the air. I could have made it more.» Ryan sat, immobilized. «Hey, c'mon, Ryan,» John said. «Sing — dance — do a little jig or something. Make me feel like an aging benevolent fart.» «No. John. You don't understand. You've just changed my life as if you'd given me wings or blinded my eyes. I feel dizzy.» «Believe me, this isn't the way it usually happens. Normally, Ivan and I would be trying to engineer some way of fucking you ragged on the deal. But I'm feeling mentorish. I'll hook you up with a lawyer. Sign the paper and you're set.» A cocktail of money, shared secrets and ironic beverages made Ryan bold. «John — what was the deal with last year? I know about as much as anybody does who reads the tabloids. What happened? What was it you were wanting to do back then?» John looked at Ryan kindly but sternly. «Not now. Not tonight. Tonight is about success.» They soon split up, but some hours later, after zooming through Susan's tapes, John phoned to ask Ryan if he could take him up on his corny offer to indulge his feelings for Susan. It was past one in the morning, and Ryan was polishing «Tungaska» and didn't want an interruption, but John persevered. And then Ryan revealed he had to go out on an errand and would be busy. «O kay, Ryan, you can just tell me your offer to riff about Susan was a courtesy, like telling some loser actor to come play squash sometime to get rid of him.» «John, I've got to go help my girlfriend with something.» «Girlfriend?» «What's that tone in your voice?» «Me? Nothing. All I said was “Girl friend?” » «You think I'm gay.» «Did I say that?» «It was in your voice.» «Well, you are, aren't you?» «No.» «I don't believe you.» «God, let me make a phone call. Hang up, eat a Scooby Snack and I'll call you in five minutes.» John hung up. Three minutes later the phone rang. «Vanessa says you can come help us.» «Help with what ?» «You'll see.» He gave John Vanessa's address in Santa Monica. They agreed to meet in one hour, but John was early. Vanessa opened the screen door, calm and bookish in horn-rimmed glasses and a wool sweater set imported from some other part of the century. John thought Vanessa looked like one of the murdered Clutter daughters of Kansas. She asked him to sit on a side chair. «Would you like something to drink, maybe?» «Uh — a Coke.» «Sure.» She went into the kitchen. John heard the fridge open and close, along with other friendly kitchen sounds. Vanessa looked smart in a way John knew she was helpless to conceal. She had the laser-scanning eyes of the highest-paid personal assistants, the ones who single-handedly made Neanderthal teensploitation film producers seem classy and hip by scripting the brief, urbane speeches they gave while donating comically large checks to well-researched and cutting-edge charities. Vanessa was quite obviously some freak of nature marooned on the shores of the bell curve's right-most limits. «What do you do for a living, Vanessa?» John asked, stretching out his neck as if it would help lob his words around a bend in the wall. «I work at the Rand Corporation.» This didn't surprise John. «No shit. Doing what?» «Think-tanking.» «You sit around in beanbag chairs all day and think up military invasion strategies and ways to suppress the development of electric cars?» She pretended not to have heard that and came in and handed him his Coke. He took a sip and paused. «Hey — this is really delicious!» The sweetness delighted him, and he chugged down half the glass. «Wow. I'd forgotten how good a simple Coke could be.» «It's not the Coke, it's me. I added sugar to it. Two teaspoons.» John hacked. «You added sugar to Coke ? That's revolting.» «Don't be stupid.» She sat down on an IKEA couch—sofa bed then in the couch mode. «Everybody bitched and moaned when Coca-Cola went and changed their formula in the eighties. If you want 19 50s— style Coke, add some bloody sugar to it. Besides, John, you seemed to like it.» They sipped in silence for a minute, and then Vanessa said to John, «Ryan says you think he's gay.» «Well?» Obviously she didn't. «He's my boyfriend, John.» She took a sip of her drink. «Mine's a Diet Coke, but I mixed sugar in with it. It has a really perverse taste.» John stared her down. «I love Ryan, and he loves me.» «I love my friend Ivan, but I don't date him.» «Oh, shut up. Eros. Agape. Sex. Friendship. All of that. I'm not dense.» «You mean there's some eros in there?» Vanessa's eyes glinted, but she said nothing. «Well, it's not like Tarzan and Jane, but it's real. He's genuine about me. » John bit an ice cube. «You're obviously the Nurse Crandall type. You know, Nurse Crandall lets down her hair and Dr. Hunnicutt says, “Nurse Crandall, good God but you're gorgeous. I had no idea.” » «That would be me.» She looked out the window. «Ryan's car's here. We didn't have this chat, okay?» Ryan walked in and the trio was off to Long Beach. Ryan leaned in between the driver's seat and the front passenger seat and said to John, «If you want to talk about Susan with Vanessa, go right ahead. She's totally cool.» «Thank God,» said John, embarrassed. «Susan Colgate was an idol for me, John,» said Vanessa. «You know, the role she used to play on TV — the smart daughter finding meanings and patterns in this nutty world. It's like my own family.» John said, «I know what you mean. I have this feeling like she's got my keys. You know, like she knows my combination even though I can't get it right.» «That's what Vanessa does for a living,» Ryan said. «At Rand. She finds meanings and patterns. Combinations.» «What's your specialty?» asked John. «Like Ryan said, I'm a finder.» «A finder ?» «Just what it sounds like. Ever since I was a kid, if something got lost, people came to me to find it for them. I'm able to locate things. I ask questions. I look at data. I make connections. And then I find what's lost.» «Bullshit.» «My my, a naysayer — how quaint.» Vanessa took on the charged aura of an ATM about to feed forth large quantities of cash. «Give him an example,» said Ryan. «Fair enough. Let's talk about you, John Lodge Johnson, born November 5, 1962, Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal Zone. You have one undescended testicle and you smoked Kent cigarettes heavily between the years 1983 and 1996. You've been questioned but never charged in a dozen assorted narcotics investigations since 1988. You're right-handed, but you use your left hand for throwing baseballs and masturbating. As of two years ago, you owed the IRS just over 11.3 million dollars, which was repaid eight months ago after a complete liquidation of your assets, as well as a cleansing of your bank accounts, two of which, in Davos, Switzerland, you didn't think the IRS knew about, but they did, and you're lucky you revealed their existence or they would taken a fork and dug out your undescended testicle and eaten it for lunch. You blood type is O, and your IQ is 128. You've been prescribed over thirty different psychoactive pharmaceuticals in the past decade, invariably obtained with overlapping prescriptions throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. You're heterosexual but have done three-ways with guys a few times, only at the request of the present female. Months ago, before your much publicized vanishing, you attempted to transfer all of your copyrights and future royalties to the Ronald McDonald House, but thanks to your friend Ivan, the courts rejected the transfer and instead set up a trust, which will soon be convening to evaluate your mental fitness, restoring to you a whack of dough you had seriously thought was gone forever. I'd send Ivan a fruit basket, John Lodge Johnson.» John was mute. «Isn't she great?» said Ryan. «You want more?» Vanessa said. «Almost ninety-five percent of your phone calls go to either New York or California. Your monthly consumption of phone sex averaged ninety-five hundred dollars across the years dating from 1991 up to your vanishing. If you've made a sex call since, I have yet to know about it. Your single most frequently dialed number is that of celebrity madam Melody Lanier of Beverly Hills, who, I bet you didn't know, has recurring bouts of malaria and who also lost her left baby toe in a Vespa crash in Darwin, Australia, in 1984. Nobody avoids the scrutiny of I, Vanessa Humboldt. There.Ta-da! » «Melody is not my madam. And you're a monster.» «Don't be so thick. It's all out there. You just have to know where to look.» «She's good, eh?» said Ryan. «She could find you an abortionist in Vatican City.» «If it makes you feel any better, I'm not creative. I leave that to my boy genius here.» She patted Ryan's knee. Quickly the car off-ramped, and Vanessa pulled into the front of a sterile blue mirrored-glass cube, a large laboratory building surrounded by a dense putting-green lawn. «We're here,» she announced. «This is the office where a certain weasel named Gary Voors cheated me out of a few grand in freelance research commissions.» «She got hosed,» said Ryan. «Fifteen grand. But I did some research on him and this company and it's doubtful I'll ever get my dough. My mistake. I should have checked their financial patterns beforehand. Come on, now — out of the car.» Standing in the parking lot, Ryan asked Vanessa which window was by the staff lunchroom. She pointed out one nearby. She then went to the trunk of the car and removed a 4-gallon red plastic gas can. John skittishly approached Vanessa, who said, «Put out your hand.» John balked. «Oh, be a man about this, John.» He held out his hand and she poured a fine, granular substance onto it. Vanessa said, «These tiny, almost invisible little bowling balls are clover seeds. And now we are going to use them to have fun with spelling.» She began pouring the seeds out in a large flowing script, onto the putting green grass. John understood that she was writing something. «What are you writing?» «She's writing out the words “Gary's banging Tina,” » said Ryan. «Who's Tina?» «The CEO's wife. They leave a sloppy trail behind them, too. And I wouldn't have dragged Tina into this except that she's the one who made sure that Gary got the credit for my ideas.» «Clover seeds quickly penetrate the turf,» said Ryan. «And once they seed, their roots are like tentacles — the shoots show up a deep, dark green in about ten days.» «Just a few days before Gary returns from Bermuda. What a coincidence,» said Vanessa. She finished her large, graceful lassoing of letters. «The only way to get rid of the words is to remove the turf,» said Ryan. «Smart, eh?» «Done.» She headed back to the car. «That's it?» «Chop-chop. Let's get a move on.» A minute later they were on the freeway again. Vanessa was still driving. John was getting the jitters. He was having dark thoughts about what could have happened to Susan. Though his movies were violent and their characters often sick, John had never thought of them as being real . For the first time in his life he began visualizing the violence of his films entering his life and it made him feel queasy, and now he knew a bit of what the people who sent him letters chiding him for gore might be feeling. Ryan said, «Vanessa and I are going to help you find Susan.» «Leave it to the cops,» said Vanessa, «and she'll be luncheon meat before anybody finds her. Let me put out a dragnet tonight. Come over to my place tomorrow afternoon at five. I'll give you the results and throw in dinner.» She paused. «Are you okay, John?» «Why?» «You look like you've seen a ghost.» «I'm fine. Vanessa,» he said, «I have a question for you.» «Uh-huh?» «Why are you helping me? I mean, you don't know me — you don't — » «Oh, stop right there. My angle is Ryan. You helped him, and so I'm helping you.» «And?» asked John. «And that's all. Please, why don't you tell me the real reason you're so obsessed with finding Susan Colgate, huh? For all I know, she could be wearing a Girl Guide costume and decomposing underneath your front porch — and maybe all of this search stuff we're doing is a ruse designed to deflect attention away from you. » John was dismissive: «Not the case.» «Okay then, why look for Susan Colgate, John?» «It's because …» «Yes?» John squeezed and squeezed his brain with his fingers like a hard-to-open bottle of olives. «It's because she knows that people were meant to change. She knows it's inevitable. And she seems to recognize I'm at a point in my life where I can't transform anymore. I sound like a country-western song. Sorry.» «Well, to me it looks like you're stalking her. It could seem kind of creepy to her.» «I'm not stalking her, Vanessa. I'm trying to find her. Nobody's taking this disappearance seriously, except us.» «Hey, what's in this for Susan?» Ryan asked. «Assuming we rescue her from being tied up on top of the railway tracks.» John glared at him. «Sorry.» But Ryan's question got John to thinking. What did he bring to Susan's table? Was he just another fucked-up Hollywood guy for her to take care of? No, because — because what? John reached down deep into the hole of his mind, trying to grasp onto a nugget of reason. He thought of the desperately lonely woman reading the Architectural Digest, and he thought of the woman he'd met outside the Pottery Barn who'd fed him dinner, the secret nation of Eleanor Rigbys who existed just under the threshold of perception. That this secret nation existed was new to him. That he might help fix it was even newer. «We have a lot in common,» he blurted out. «Huh?» Both Ryan and Vanessa had each gone on to new thoughts. «Haven't you noticed that the couples who stick together the longest in life are the ones who shared some intense, freaky experience together? Jobs — school — a circle of friends?» «Yeah?» «Well, Susan and I did that, too.» «But you have no idea where Susan went after the crash, John. I mean, you're talking about disappearance, right?» «Ryan, that's what we learned about each other during our walk — that we both went to the same place. At the moment I don't know her specifics, but that'll happen once I find her.» They fell silent. Vanessa was frozen at the wheel, as if driving through a snowstorm. They were in one of thousands of cars on a ten-lane freeway jammed with cars, even in the darkest part of the night, rivers of cars headed God knows where. Nobody spoke. John slept all of the next day. That night, over a simple pasta primavera, Vanessa emptied out her net for John and Ryan to see her bounty. «Susan Amelia Colgate was born on March 4, 1970, in Corvallis, Oregon. Her mother, Marilyn, was married to a Duran Deschennes, but never actually got divorced.» «She's a polyandrist,» said Ryan. «A what ?» asked John. «It's the opposite of bigamy. When a woman has two or more husbands at once.» «This Duran Deschennes guy got killed in 1983 and the mother married Donald Alexander Colgate in 1977, so for seven years she was a polyandrist. But my hunch is that Don Colgate has no idea he was hubby number two. I bet we three, along with Marilyn herself, are the only people in on her secret.» Vanessa continued. «Susan grew up in McMinnville, Oregon-in a trailer, at that. She was a frequent entrant, finalist and winner in literally hundreds of beauty pageants during her youth. Her biggest win was the 1985 Miss USA Teen pageant in Denver, but she surrendered her crown there onstage, to LuAnn Ramsay, now wife of Arizona's governor, I might add.» «This stuff I already know,» said John. «Internet. Library. Magazines. Tell me something new.» «In 1997 she was presumed dead in the Seneca plane crash, but she wasn't, and to this day nobody knows where she spent almost exactly one calendar year. Even I couldn't find anything there.» «Such modesty.» «Well, I did find something. » «What?» John pounced. «It may be nothing, but when I was patterning her phone data — » «What phone data?» «Oh, grow up. The era of privacy is over. As I was saying, I was patterning her phone data and found an anomaly. Her most-dialed phone number is to a guy named Randy Hexum. He lives out in the Valley. So I did a scan on him, and it turns out he's from Erie, Pennsylvania. His real name's Randy Montarelli and he lived thirty miles away from the police station where Susan turned herself in and claimed amnesia.» «And?» «They both arrived back in L.A. at the same time a year ago,and he went to work for Chris Thraice. Randy Montarelli-slash-Hexum also has almost no data attached to him since leaving Erie. It's damn hard to have a dead data file, but he's done it. It's bloody suspicious.» «He's in the Valley?» «Yup.» John was up in a second, carrying the emptied plates into the kitchen, screwing the cap back on the Coke. He put it in the fridge. «Let's go.»

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