Road-rage watching is the ugliest job in the city: A work of fiction
Copyright by Anne Hart
You also might wish to see my longer novel with this plot: How to Start Engaging Conversations on Women's, Men's, or Family Studies with Wealthy Strangers: A Thriller.
Photo and novel by Anne Hart.
10:00 P.M. MONDAY
Doctor Dawn Whisper, dreamed of spending her bonus at a Sedona, Arizona personality trait-related people watching convention to get out of Beverly Hills in the heat of August. There was a burst of pounding on her condominium door.
Groggy and outraged, she leaped out of a pre-work nap in the blackness and slipped on a book she had tossed on the floor next to her bed. Dawn skidded into the wall and went down hard. The pounding grew louder as she fumbled for the lamp switch, her heart kicking in her throat. Doctor Dawn Whisper's eyes ached at the light's brilliance.
She glanced down at the front cover of her new book. The photo had her open-mouthed beside a microphone and the title read, "The Nation's Number One Midnight Shift Radio Talk Show Psychologist."
There was a rush of fear as she listened to the pounding turn to kicking at the door. Dawn rubbed her backside and sidled over to the peephole. She peered through and saw it was Craig, her ex-fiance. Dawn opened the door, stepped in the hall, and shut the door. Unconsciously she leaned against it, locking herself and Craig in the hall.
"What's the matter? Don't you want me to see the mess?" Craig smiled at her, taking a key from his own pocket. He opened the door for her.
"I must be dreaming," she sighed. He let her in. At that moment she felt the power of his control and began to push against him to assert hers.
"I thought I asked for my apartment key." He handed it back.
Craig looked around at the messy room. "Are you expecting guests?"
They shared a smile. "I am now. I knew you were coming over, so I cleaned up a bit."
"Sure, you knew." His tanned, self-satisfied face mocked her.
He opened a messy closet and peered in. "A well-stocked closet, my love. Are you deliberating over this embarrassment of riches?
"I'm a brand name now, Craig."
"Sure you are. One radio producer pays you six figures. Another producer transformed all your novels into half-a-dozen mini-series for television. Let's see him do that with your non-fiction book. That's power."
"Why don't you talk with my publicist?"
Craig grinned and tossed her press packet on the sofa. "When I stuffed my card in her hand, she handed it back and walked away."
"You can't walk in and out of my life."
"For heavens sake, more than forty million copies of your books sold throughout the world."
"You believe me now--that I'm a household word?"
"A brand name..."
"I'm a guaranteed money-maker, today's mega-deal, and still afraid of becoming next winter's bag lady."
"Who packages you, Doctor Dawn Whisper? Who creates your visibility?"
Her stare bored through him. "What's the most powerful resource you have?"
Craig frowned. "My medical degree, I guess." He enjoyed her struggle to capture her composure.
"How many times have you sold out on your real dreams and settled for something less?"
"I never settle."
She looked into his eyes. "If you could perform one act of power that could change your life forever, what would it be?"
"Murder." His lips curled. Then he laughed loudly.
"Everybody has fears. What's the truth?"
He sat down. "Have you ever had a day when everything was great?"
"When you walked in, it ended. I hate to be left in the negative on a subliminal level, Craig."
"There you go being the psychologist again."
"Do you want to be cheered up instead of analyzed?"
"You know what I want."
"You're not timely anymore, Craig. That's why we broke up."
"Oh, you'll take me back, baby."
"You're about as passionate as an television infomercial. Sorry, but living here without marriage doesn't fly with me."
"I don't believe you," Craig sneered. "You talk strong, but your actions say you watched your father bully your mother."
"You're full of it." She looked around. "Your face just reminded me this place really is a mess."
The young radio talk show psychologist frantically ran around her tiny apartment trying to please him by stuffing her clothes under the sofa pillows. He saw that she was off-center, unbalanced by his unexpected visit.
"So you're looking for romance?" His touch was oddly soft and caressing, but she was conscious of his scrutiny and humiliated.
A stack of her own books grew from floor to ceiling in the middle of the living room. Her photo on the cover caught his glance. Dawn scrambled to pick up her clothes and papers from the messy room. She stubbed her toe and kicked over a pile of her books, and let out a stream of epithets.
Craig picked up a copy of her new book as he wandered into the kitchen and sat down in the breakfast nook. He opened her best-selling expose in the middle. As he sat down reading it, she scurried from room to room, leaving him deeply entranced by her expose of the world of diplomatic crime.
When she was out of the living room, Craig frantically searched for her phone. He found it under a sofa pillow and sat down, unscrewing the mouthpiece. Craig inserted a bugging device and put the phone back the way he found it. He picked up her book again.
As he turned the pages, looking for certain names, he accidentally let the book nudge a stack of dirty dishes on the table. The dishes rattled, swayed, and fell to the floor with a loud crash before he could catch them.
In the bedroom, Dawn's pace quickened as she searched for something under every pillow. Craig rose and went into the bedroom.
He stood still in amazement and glanced at the shelves.
"What is this?" His pride was seriously bruised by her behavior.
She squinted at him. "Are you wondering why I would sleep in a room filled with seventeen hundred toy teddy bears and lop-eared rabbits in ancient costumes?"
He nodded. The shelved and undusted toys stared back at him with enormous and penetrating black eyes. She felt a fiery swooping in her innards when she looked at them.
"It's as if speech could burst forth at any instant from the toy animals' mouths," Dawn said.
"Then what would they say?"
If you stare at them long enough, they'll inspire an auditory hallucination of poetry or music."
"Normal people don't hear idol's voices."
"Really? Dawn tilted her head. "Didn't you ever hear of the muses inspiring poetry and music?"
"You don't actually hear a voice," Craig insisted. "You imagine a picture or music or maybe words."
"Ancient people heard the loud voice," Dawn said.
"How do you know what ancient people heard?" Craig's voice rose an octave.
"That's what they wrote everywhere. They heard a loud voice externally, and they obeyed instantly." A thousand white rabbits and seven hundred teddy bears smiled their frozen happy faces like ancient idols.
"When did those toys arrive?" His flush receded, leaving two red spots on his salon-tanned cheeks.
"When you moved out."
His compelling eyes riveted her to the spot. "Well, I just wanted to tell you your stack of dirty dishes crashed to the floor."
"So, I heard it fall, but I didn't hear you cleaning it up." Dawn broke away from his gaze with difficulty. She looked under her bedroom desk, moving aside a large teddy bear in a fake mink coat. In back of the teddy bear was a black attache case.
She handed him the attache case. When he saw it, his only emotion was relief. Pleasure softened his stoney face. Craig had an air of authority and the appearance of a man who demanded instant obedience.
"I've only been gone a week."
Dawn pushed past Craig standing in the doorway and rushed to see what mess the dishes made. She glanced angrily at the white carpet. He had stepped in spaghetti sauce from the pile of broken dishes and trailed the sauce all over her Navaho white carpets.
"Well, aren't you going to help me clean up this mess?" Her embarrassment turned to raw fury.
"You're so independent, aren't you? Just look at you." She was on the floor, wiping up the mess. Craig followed her into the kitchen and swept her into his arms.
He began to kiss Dawn on her neck. She didn't let go of the dish cloth oozing with tomato paste and made sure she squeezed the stuff down the back of his beige suit jacket.
"I'm looking, Craig, and I see what I want. I envy you. I envy your salary even though I make twice as much--because your job's more secure. You know how broadcasting treats older women."
Her stomach knotted under his kisses which made her mouth feel like old paper, but she'd walked into it with her heart wide open.
"Why do you need another obstacle?" Craig insisted.
"Because I'm afraid of becoming a bag lady--being alone with no cash, napping in doorways, nowhere to rest. It's bad luck, and it's the biggest fear of women."
Craig threw back his head and let out a peel of laughter. "I hate leaving a messy apartment."
Her pace quickened as she continued to clean up. Craig followed her around.
"You're a terrific nuisance," she said. "I thought we split last week, that it was finally over and I could get on with it."
"I don't take no for an answer." A muscle clenched along his jaw. "How can you compare your radio talk show psycho-babble to my secure profession as a pathologist? It's a joke. I don't know why you won't marry me."
Dawn chafed at the thrilling current moving through her. "I'm going to be late again."
Craig waited, challenging her to go through with it, to change her mind. She lifted her chin, meeting his icy gaze head on. He kissed her hard, smearing her lipstick.
Dawn reached for his attache case on the table and used it as a wedge. She pushed the attache case with all her strength into his hard-muscled abdomen.
"You'll have to leave. I hate when you disvalue my wishes." Every curve of her body spoke defiance. He didn't resist.
"I work hard at what I do." She squeezed the remaining spaghetti sauce from the dish rag over the sleeve of his jacket. "Don't ever call me again."
He met her accusing eyes without flinching. "It's all right." Craig grabbed his attache case from her grip and headed for the door. When he was out of sight, she crumbled in tears and rushed after him as he walked down the hallway. She called out after him.
"I'm sorry. It's just that you disappear for weeks without warning. And then you suddenly show up just before midnight shift and demand that I give you full attention--as I'm leaving for work."
Craig paused with his hand on the open elevator door. He looked at her a long while. Dawn grabbed a copy of her book from the floor and rushed over to him, plunging it under his arm. He gave her a peck on the cheek, pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the smeared lipstick off her face.
"Are you afraid your listeners will find out how timid you really are and stalk you to death?"
"They know I'm sweet and cuddly, not timid, Craig dear."
"No they don't. I've heard you on the air. You're an obnoxious bitch."
Craig opened her book again and showed her some photos in the middle. "This kind of stuff may get you murdered by terrorists." He handed her back the book, but she shoved it right back at him.
"Keep it. I think pathologists are interested in the methods of murder diplomats use to preserve their immunity status."
"Vaccines for murder?" He laughed.
"There you go."
"Why won't you reconsider letting me move back in with you?" Craig's voice was firm and final.
"Now's just not a good time. What is it you love about me? The way I keep my apartment so clean?"
"I'll call you."
"Sure. Don't let the door hit you on the way out." He had sliced open a newly healed wound. "I deserve a man who's crazy about me."
He hugged her. "I'm crazy."
"You've got to be crazy to see a psychologist."
"Is constant change all you ever want?"
"The possibilites are more appealing than the security."
The elevator door opened and Craig stepped in. "I'll be waiting."
As soon as he was out of sight, Dawn grimaced, tears welling up in her eyes. She yelled out to him, knowing he couldn't hear her.
"I wish I could let you live with me."
Dawn hurried back into her apartment. She took Craig's picture out of the trashbin under her kitchen sink. She stared at it, kissed it, and burned it on the stove. Suddenly, Dawn looked up at the clock, her mouth open in dismay, and realized she was late for work again. She began to dial.
Craig slammed the door of his BMW and turned on the tape recorder to test his new bugging device. From habit, he knew Dawn always called her producer just before she left for the radio station midnight shift.
He didn't expect Dr. Tanya Tamirova, the famous Russian crypto-biologist and exobiologist, to be lying in the back seat of his car, reading a magazine by flashlight.
"I came back for revenge, just like I said."
"Revenge, eh? Then why aren't you waiting for me at home?" Craig exploded.
"Like a mistress should?" Why don't you let me insert a p53 suppresor gene into that malignant brain tumor of yours before you turn violent again and kill somebody." Tanya purred.
"Docile women bore me. I assume you saw your gynecologist?"
"You didn't even hear me. I said that p53 suppressor gene can switch off cancer. You're showing all the symptoms of a tumor on your right temporal lobe. That's the violence center. Don't you rememer what you did to me?"
"No. We came back from Moscow. Before that we were in Iraq. We're due by the end of the week in Guatemala. There's nothing
malignant about me, doctor."
"How do you know? Did you see another doctor?"
"You want revenge, so take it. Nothing else would bring you back. What do you want me to do, open up my head for you? What do you want, for heaven's sake? Haven't I gone through hell for you?"
"You remember everything. And you probably think I'm insane for coming back. Wait 'till you find out my reasons."
Tanya wore a blackbelt and karate uniform that melted around her curves like liquid plastic. The doctor liked to work out with people instead of machines.
She was the same age as Dawn, but as Asian as the Samarkand steppe from where she came to study in Moscow. Tanya defected the same month she met Craig at an international convention of exobiologists in Leningrad. Both had the same interest in common: tropical diseases, herbs, and poisons.
Craig's eyes burned through Tanya as he handed her his attache case. Suddenly, Tanya grabbed him around the throat and kissed him from an angle over his shoulder. His mouth was tight with strain as she broke her grip to open the attache case.
Inside were copies of Dawn's latest book. He glanced at a photocopied manuscript of her next book, not out yet from the publisher. He thumbed through a batch of letters tied together. Tanya took the letters and folded them into her pockets.
"Did she see anything?" Tanya's black eyes glowed with a savage fire.
"No. She's madly in love with me. I even proposed to her." The blood began to pound in Craig's temples.
A smile curved Tanya's mouth. "Brilliant women always make foolish choices in men." Craig turned up his tape recorder.
Craig turned up the volume to hear what Dawn said to her producer. The voices came loudly through the bugging device to Craig's tape recorder in his car.
"I know exactly why I'm late again," Dawn apologized to radio station K.W.I.N's manager, Jim Mc Cormick.
"What? Boyfriend trouble for the third time this month?"
Dawn answered her producer with a long whine. Craig, annoyed with the trivia, fixed his bugging device to record Dawn's conversation. He and Tanya wouldn't have to listen to Dawn's exchange of complaints with her station manager/producer.
Tanya opened a bottle of sparkling mineral water with herbal essences from the Amazon. She took out two crystal glasses from the back of his luxurious, rented car, and a decanter.
"What's this?" She looked at the amber liquid in the decanter, about to pour it gracefully into the glasses. Craig's voice broke as he grabbed the sparkling crystal decanter.
"That decanter's filled with urine." He tossed the contents out the window and returned the decanter to his glove compartment.
"You pig! You'd probably return it to the rental agency that way. I wonder what's in these expensive designer glasses?"
"Then drink from the bottle."
"It's not fashionable." Tanya bent over the seat and turned up the recorder.
"Neither is your career." Craig's voice had a steely edge.
Dawn's phone was silent. Tanya drank her own sparkling water to the halfway mark, then passed the bottle to Craig. He shrugged and turned away. "Carbonated drinks make my kidneys store water," he said in a deep tone.
"So she's on this week's best-seller list?" Tanya's voice was grudging."That's hate radio for you."
Tanya left the car to change her seat, to get closer to Craig. He slammed the door shut the second she stepped out, and he sped away.
Craig shouted to her as she clung to the car door, "I've just proved to myself that I'm immune to you."
Tanya fought hard, and no tears fell. Her courage was a rock inside her around which a sea of men crashed. He finally pried her fingers from his open car window by pushing the button that automatically closes the window. She let go in a hurry.
"You're dead meat," Tanya screamed, as Craig left her crumpled, but unhurt, on the empty road. The exhaust fumes belched in her face. Tanya sat coughing, as Craig's car disappeared around the corner.
* * *
12:00 A.M. TUESDAY
At Radio Station K.W.I.N. the station Manager, Jim Mc Cormick
shuffled papers from one end of his desk to the other. The station engineer relieved him of a stack of fan letters for Dr. Dawn Whisper. Jim cupped the phone with his shoulder as he continued his phone conversation with Dawn. She sat in what radio stations call "the box."
"Are you sure you don't want to talk about that boyfriend trouble?" Jim Mc Cormick asked. "Your listeners are complaining about the excess of repeat taped shows."
Dawn took a sip of herbal mint tea as she smiled her werewolf smile to Jim and spoke through the microphone. "Did you ever notice
that women feel more important if they get married, but men feel diminished?"
Jim threw her the California two-fingered hand sign for "hang loose" and twisted his lips slyly. "Do I have to give you permission to be happy?"
"Well, at least you have a day job, whatever it is. What is it, anyway?" Her violet-gray eyes shone like silver lightning. Dawn brushed a spiral curl of raven hair from her brow as Jim watched her set up the microphone.
"Pest control." He ground the word out between his thin lips. "Why don't you just stick to giving those seminars on how to avoid a controlling man?"
Dawn's mind refused to register the significance of his words. Her feelings for Jim were becoming confused. "Notice how you always think out loud, Jim?" Dawn watched the rainbow of lights blinking down the radio engineer's control panel like lights dying down a Christmas tree. "That's just like an extravert. You're an extraverted, sensing, thinking and judging man, J.M."
"So how's that going to make me rich?"
"And I'm an introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiver, she added. So when are you going to find me my typemate?"
"That's your job, Dr. Whisper. You're the radio popshrink who won't meet people face to face."
"I asked you never to call me a popshrink, Jim. Even D.J. is better than that." She adjusted her microphone once more as he signaled she was on the air.
"You've got to be crazy to see a psychiatrist, folks. So if your ordinary enough to just want to live the life you've imagined, then call me."
Jim gave her the o.k. sign and a smile of encouragement.
"It's open phones, tonight with Doctor Dawn Whisper, your favorite midnight love doctor and counseling psychologist."
Dawn straightened her disorganized desk as she waited for the phone lines to light up. The paperwork was hopeless, she thought. Jim spoke to her through the connecting phone line. His voice was respectful, but patronizing with its rural, midwestern accent. "What's the matter, bird? Has being in the cage finally got you?"
She couldn't answer Jim as his pointing finger signaled she had to push the button and receive her first call of the evening. Dawn's throaty voice broke into warmth and concern.
"Our topic tonight, is envy. Do you downgrade yourself to deflect envy?" Dawn stared at Jim, and he stared back. A thick sheet of bulletproof glass separated them.
"Okay, the boards are lighting up. Let's go to our first caller of the evening, guest therapist, Doctor Anne Joan Levine.
She sipped her tea as the first caller spoke in a nasal whine. "Hi, Doctor Whisper."
Dawn took charge. "Doctor Levine, why do so many women emphasize the less accomplished parts of their lives while men count their achievements?"
Dr. Levine's soothing voice picked up on Dawn's topic of the evening. "You might say, they're afraid of envy," the guest therapist responded matter-of-factly.
Only a mile away from the radio station, Gene Wright, telephone company switchman, turned up his radio louder. He drove his 17-year old V.W. Bug too fast.
Gene was late again for the midnight shift. Dawn replied in a tormented voice to a caller, unable to hold her raw emotion in check. He leaned forward to catch every word of his favorite radio show talk hostess.
"This is Dr. Dawn Whisper, the hound of the bitch box. That's what they pay me for--to be obnoxious. Don't worry, folks. I'm really a genteel lady at home. I'm lonely tonight folks. Nothing to do but go home and watch a hockey game."
"A hockey game?" Gene laughed. "Why would a female doctor of psychology be sitting home alone watching a hockey game?"
Gene drove his car with one hand. His other hand fondled Dr. Dawn's latest book which rested on his auto seat. Gene glanced at his watch and felt he desperately needed more of her, but he was already five minutes late for work.
A closeup of her oval, Egyptian face bled across the front of her book. The alabaster skin, full red lips, waist-length spiral curls, were magnetic enough to attract any man. She was funny, funnier than a stand-up comic, he thought.
"Make me laugh," Gene shouted at his radio. "Go ahead and make me laugh."
He stared down at Dawn's picture on the book cover for just an instant too long. As Dawn spoke on the radio, Gene thought he saw the mouth of her photo moving.
"This is your prime motivator, Dr. Dawn Whisper, therapist to the stars. We have a new caller. Hi, Betty. How can I change your life?"
Gene tried to tape record the radio program and drive. Oh, my God I'm late, Gene thought, as he studied her photograph with his enigmatic gaze.
The caller's silent pause was too long for Dawn. "Are you still there, Betty?" There was a loud sigh and a bit of stammering.
"Will you please take a deep breath and speak into the phone? You're drifting away on me."
Betty's voice cracked. "I'm afraid my husband is having an affair with his bookkeeper and wants to throw me in the street after thirty years of marriage. He doesn't believe in alimony, but I've never worked. I'm afraid of failing at fifty, if I even try."
"So you're finally realizing change never changes," Dawn said in a silky voice.
"I want to be a motivator, just like you, Dr. Whisper."
All of a sudden a streak of anger whipped Dawn's words. She channeled that anger like a lawyer, pointing her words like finely aimed needles at the hole in Betty's heart. "You're a manipulator with low self-esteem! The other woman's always more feminine."
"Are you as ugly as you are rude?" Betty answered quickly in tear-smothered words.
"I'm as beautiful as I am smart." Dawn cut her off.
Dawn could hear her pounding heart kicking brutally at her voice. "I'm sorry. You need this for your own good." Dawn sighed with exasperation.
"I'm going over your head to complain." Betty slammed the phone down, cutting off Dawn in mid-sentence.
Dawn kept speaking to all the listeners. "I get paid for being obnoxious. That's why this show has the highest ratings."
Gene turned his radio up louder so he could hear every one of Dawn's words. He began to laugh again as she was stirring up the K.W.I.N. listeners. The hound of the bitch box went to twelve-thirty traffic break and a commercial.
Dawn was the only woman who could make him laugh, he thought. Gene whispered to his radio grille, "I love you, but you probably wouldn't give a telephone switchman the hour of night. Or would you?"
Gene fondled his new car phone. He had it installed the day he received his "private investigator" license. He thought about how much more exciting moonlighting before work as a P.I. would be. What am I saying?, he thought. I haven't even had my first case yet.
Gene Wright's James Bond stance in the car mirror dissolved. He studied his large, black eyes, his wavy dark brown hair, his profile. Gene even practiced arching one black eyebrow until he could get it right. I look more like Spock from Star Trek than James Bond, he said to himself. He touched his ears to see how they'd look pointy.
Gene Wright's mind wandered even further as he began to talk to himself in the mirror. "I look like a real P.I. more than a typical night shift telephone technician. What's a switchman supposed to look like?"
He gazed in the mirror and twisted his lips. Then he spoke to himself in a voice that was velvet-edged and strong. "The name's Bond, James Bond."
Gene studied his face in the mirror and repeated the phrase in a voice even more low and smooth. Then Dawn Whisper distracted him as she came back to the microphone from traffic break.
Her voice sounded tired. "So don't listen to K.W.I.N. if you don't want to hear about responsibilities. This show's for winners who want to make their successful lives terrific. How come only human garbage calls this station? That's all you are--zombies. Quit calling. Change the station. You don't. You listen. You always listen."
Dawn imitated a very old lady with a quivering voice."Oh, Doctor Dawn Whisper, your internal thinking doesn't match your external experience. Men don't buy books on how to fix relationships. Let's hear from men in Southern California. Why don't men call me after midnight? Okay, we have a new caller from Beverly Hills. Hi, Rowena."
The woman's cool voice broke into her reverie, "Fortunately I can live my dream without your advice. Doctor, have you ever closed a sale? If so, then what was your best business deal?"
"I once traded virginity for prime California real estate." Dawn cut that caller off quickly.
Her assistant signaled to her. Gene was interviewed as the first male caller of the night.
Dawn pressed the button, now suddenly aware of her cage-like surroundings in "the box." As soon as Gene spoke, she recognized his voice. He was one of her most frequent callers. She let out a sigh of disappointment. Jim Mc Cormick and the engineer stared back at Dawn from the other side of the glass wall.
"Hello, Dr. Whisper? Am I on the air? This is Gene again, your telephone switchman."
"Yes, I remember. You told me you were good-looking, thirty-five, single, stable, and a gentleman. Have you found the right girl yet? If I remember correctly, you told me you had problems meeting women because you work the night shift."
She heard his full and masculine laugh. Gene's voice had depth and authority that unlocked her soul. "She hasn't met me yet, but I did buy your book and read the chapter on how to find your heroine."
Dawn wondered what Gene really did look like. She pondered whether there was any depth to him outside of his job that made her feel pulled down to its level.
She thought of her own father, and how hard she'd tried to raise herself above the level of his job. Dawn's dad sold his New York men's hat manufacturing business. He told everyone it gave him too many headaches. After three years of unemployment, he took a job mopping floors at night in the Navy Yard.
"Did you ever date an ambitious woman?"
"Was she afraid everyone would judge her by your job? Or did she leave you because you weren't responsible or a good provider?"
"Would you let me get a word in edge-wise?" Gene's lips puckered with annoyance. "Don't interrupt me."
Dawn jerked to her feet. "You've cut me off in mid-sentence, and this is my show. Did you know statistics reveal that men are eighty times more likely to cut women off before they've finished speaking?"
Gene took a deep breath. "I'm a private investigator now. I work days as a P.I. I just wanted to tell you I'm only a phone switchman at night."
She hated to admit how much his admiration cheered her. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"I've always had insomnia, since I was twelve."
"So now, you're this suave, private detective?" Dawn was glad of the dark studio that concealed the flush in her cheeks.
"Would you ever go out with a telephone switchman?" Gene looked down at her photograph on the cover of her book in his lap. His hands trembled.
"Last time you called you were desperately seeking a job, right? So somebody finally did give you the illusion of control, you multi-grain flake." She played a tape segment of canned laughter.
Dawn's voice was alarming as she basked in the knowledge of her power. Relief filled her as she cut him off with a tape recorded raspberry.
"Don't call this station again, idiot."
Gene broke out in humiliation. "You used me as the stooge. Entertainment's money. Keep listeners awake. Keep up the ratings. I'm the show."
He drove his car too fast around a sharp corner. Dawn's book slid off his lap. Gene bent down to pick the book up from lying on his gas pedal. Another car came swaying almost head on, and he swerved to avoid just missing it. He realized then that he'd turned his phone off by mistake.
Frantically, he tried to dial her back again. On his radio there was another caller she didn't like. Dawn gave her that ugly noise which she used to chase away unwanted callers.
"I don't take no for an answer," he said with a tightening jaw, as he got Jim McCormick on the phone.
"Sir, it's only a show. Lighten up. Don't take life so seriously." The producer tried to calm him down.
"I'm going to write a letter to the station," Gene protested.
Jim clicked the phone on him, and it went dead. "I'm a private investigator...." Gene talked to the dial tone.
He dialed again but heard a recording that repeated: "Thank you for calling K.W.I.N. Radio. All our lines are busy. Please hang up and try again."
Gene plucked his cassette tape recording from his machine and tossed it in his pocket. He looked down once more on the object of his beautiful obsession on the book cover. As he drove into the telephone company parking lot, he placed her paperback in his pocket. "She loves me," he thought.
Gene hurried through the interior of the West Hollywood telephone company switching room. He was more than forty-five minutes late for work.
Gene brushed by and greeted his co-worker, Bob Stanton, who presented Gene with a small wrapped gift. An angelic smile spread across his thin lips as he whispered, "Happy thirty-fifth birthday, you lucky playboy bachelor."
"Lucky? Maybe." Gene shot Bob a twisted smile as he pulled the present from Bob's hands. "Thanks." He hurried by, shouting, "The supervisor's on my tail." Bob turned to the photos of his own wife and two grown children posted above his work station and grinned.
Bob shoved the previous shift's trouble report at Gene's workstation and resumed testing the telephone lines for static. There was an ambient hum and the flickering of colored lights at the consoles as Gene brushed past the supervisor's angry stare.
As Gene began his three-second testing of each line for voice quality, Joan Cooke, the supervisor, a thirty-eight year old African American beauty, tapped him on the shoulder.
"Where have you been?" Joan shuddered. "Carmel's got trouble calling Sacramento."
Gene scooped up the trouble report and read it. Immediately, he began to test the phone lines listening for garble. Joan tapped him again because he didn't answer her.
"I've been working the four-to-midnight shift when I don't have to." Joan leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I mummified waiting for you. You're late again."
"I know," Gene whispered, continuing to test the lines with a one-eared headpiece.
Joan put her hand on his shoulder and dug her fingertips into his polyester shirt. He winced to listen to the line, not her.
"Not static again," he complained, ignoring her messages.
"You're late!" Joan tried to get Gene's attention, but he touched his forehead lightly in a mock salute.
* * *
1:00 A.M. TUESDAY
There was a long pause in communication between Gene and supervisor Joan. Then Bob couldn't stand the thickness of the tension any longer and spoke. "We're going into what radio stations call dead air. Why don't we get back to work?"
"Stay out of it, Bob," Joan retorted.
Bob looked at Gene. "Even my daughter's wedding didn't keep me from being late tonight."
"See?" Joan finally smiled at the impression Bob was trying to make for her. "Bob gets an above average evaluation this year. You know what you get?"
Gene shook his head. "Is it a bonus?"
"I'll show you what you get." Joan pulled a box out of her large canvas purse. "It's the fifth time this year you're late, so you get this birthday gift." Gene silently opened the shoe box. Inside was a fancy solar-powered miniature alarm clock. Gene stared into Joan's dark eyes. He faltered in the silence that engulfed them.
The supervisor broke her gaze first and walked away, a chill black quietness surrounding them. She gave into the tension that was building all day. "One more lateness and it's all over. Happy birthday!" Joan turned on her heel and left as Gene called out after her. "A switchman is a gentleman."
"Sure," Joan shot back, but the chill between them began to grow. Gene drowned the cold knot in his stomach with a gulp of hot decaffeinated coffee.
The buffet on paper napkins that Bob was spreading out before his workstation included a few slices of his daughter's wedding cake. There were two cans of soda pop, and unsalted pretzels.
Bob picked up a paper bag and dumped more snacks in a plastic bowl he took out of his desk drawer. He smiled warmly to Gene who sat next to him.
"Might as well have a birthday party for you."
Gene looked down at the snacks and shoved the bowl aside. He glanced at the slices of wedding cake and flooded with anger. He thought of the radio psychologist cutting him off in mid-sentence. Gene thought it was because he was a telephone switchman.
"If I were a millionaire industrialist with a doctor's degree in marital strategy, I bet she'd go out with me," Gene muttered to Bob as he tested another line for voice quality.
"You bet who'd go out with you?" Bob crammed a fistful of tiny cocktail pretzels into his mouth.
Gene turned on his pocket radio to the Dr. Dawn Whisper talk show.
"That love doctor." Passion inched through his veins at the sound of Dawn's radio theme song. Her voice was cold and exact. Gene listened with one ear.
Joan Cooke came back into the room and caught Gene and Bob listening to the radio. She turned it down for them, way down.
Neither craftsman paid attention to Joan when she lowered the radio. Bob crammed more snacks into his mouth and chewed like a starving man. Joan passed by the men on her way to another section, and Bob took out some wedding snapshots from an envelope.
"Maybe you should switch careers," Bob asked, spacing the words evenly.
"You know I can't afford to be someplace else." There was an edge to Gene's voice.
Joan came back with some papers in an envelope. She put her hand on Gene's shoulder and spoke softly as she passed him. "Seriously, This is the fifth time you've been late in two weeks. Where were you?"
Gene looked up at her and murmured satirically in his deep-timbered voice. "I was in the frame room fixing the equipment, that's all."
He arranged papers in front of him without really looking at them. Joan had a possessive desperation in her voice. "Look I know I can't control anybody else's behavior but my own, however..."
"Maybe this will help," Gene said. He thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out one of Dawn Whisper's paperback books.
Joan sighed, weary of argument, and read the title aloud. "Oh, The Perfect Motivator." She read the subtitle. "Reality is not the way I've told myself it is."
"Well?" Gene's back ached between his shoulder blades. He stood up, stretched, and placed the book in Joan's hands. "I really care." His eyes widened.
Joan put the book on top of her envelope to look at it for a moment, but then tossed it back at Gene. "I don't have time for this." She shook her head regretfully.
The book slid off the worktable and onto the floor. As Gene bent down to retrieve it, his sandwich bag fell out of his jacket.
Joan stooped to pick up the sandwich holding the plastic baggie upside down. She tossed it on Gene's counter, but the baggie opened. Tomatoes, lettuce, avocado and sliced turkey flew everywhere.
Gene threw himself on the sandwich as if it were a hand grenade he was trying to snuff with his body. He picked up the pieces and tossed the mess in a waste basket.
"Did I wish you a happy birthday?" Joan asked, sliding by him on her way to her office. He didn't reply, but carefully put Dawn's book back in his jacket pocket.
"Thanks." Gene rocked back and forth as Joan slammed the door of her office. He watched her through the glass door as she began talking on the phone.
Bob fiddled with his computer, trying to straighten out the telephone switching program's mess. By now half the machines were down.
"Still studying to be a private eye? I mean, I'm so busy marrying off my four daughters. Where do you get off having the time to be a private eye all day?" Bob's stammering voice was only a trace in Gene's ear.
"Knock it off, Bob."
Gene turned up his radio again, listening to the static with one ear on his headpiece.
"Why don't you just take one of my daughters before they eat up all the money I saved to buy the American dream?"
Gene spoke with lethal calmness. "You mean I have to ask your permission to have a hobby outside of work?" He took Dawn's book out and tossed it in front of him on the workstation.
Gene frowned. "Rudeness is funny entertainment that makes the sponsors rich."
Bob looked at Dawn's picture. "I ought to take that doctor over my knee and..."
Gene barked, "People with low-self esteem shouldn't call into radio station talk shows meant to keep drivers awake."
Joan was back and overheard Bob. She didn't waste any time responding to him as she swept by. "Jeez! What a critiholic!"
"Half your switchman spend their weekends getting high, and you pick on the guy with the least seniority." Gene laughed, but there was a firm strength in him.
Bob, in a defensive gesture, folded his arms across his chest. Joan looked at the two men. "What's the matter? Did I just overstep my bounds and invade the privacy of the good old boys network?"
"Well, yes," Bob said.
"No, wait," Gene, smiled. It's my birthday, and we all have work to do. Let the supervisor know how much we appreciate her holding this place together."
"Finally, you said something important," Joan added.
Bob gave Gene a second look. "I keep telling you that you don't have the energy to handle a second job."
Joan distributed the job sheets and checked Gene's equipment. She bended over Gene's workstation as he called over her shoulder to Bob. "They should get working wives."
"I'm all for moonlighting," she interjected. "One more lateness, though, and I'm suspending you." Then she walked out of the room.
As soon as she was out of earshot Bob shouted to Gene, "Kitsch bitch! You were sunlighting." Bob laughed. "I know what she needs."
Bob had left the intercom on, and Joan heard that crack in her office. She spoke back loudly so the entire building heard her over the intercom. "Uh huh, a raise! My husband split and I'm three months pregnant."
Embarrassed and red-faced, Bob clicked off his intercom. He hurried back to voice quality monitoring with Gene.
Gene turned on the radio listing with one ear monitor to continue listening to Dawn's four-hour radio shift. He monitored phone lines with his other ear, turning off the loud speaker which normally fills the room with voices from the phone conversations.
"Would you shut that offensive radio talk show off while you're monitoring phone calls?" Bob had finally had it with Gene's radio listening at the workstation.
Gene drew his lips in thoughtfully as he whispered to Bob. "Dawn makes the midnight shift less of a drowsy routine."
Bob waved his hand, signaling Gene to go back to work, but Gene glowed with enthusiasm. "Aw, come on, Bob, listen to her for a minute. See whether she makes you laugh. She just cracks me up."
"Last week I even heard my own wife on the radio tell Dr. Dawn Whisper that she was a Stepford Wife in training pants," Bob ranted. "Dr. Dawn called her a fascist in pantyhose."
Gene grabbed his pocket radio and thrust it at Bob's ear. For a moment he blasted Bob with a comment from Dr. Dawn.
"I'm successful because I'm lovable." Joy bubbled in Dawn's voice.
"Is she for real?" Bob yelled, reaching across the counter to click off Gene's radio. "I bet you've written her a million love letters." Bob's mind whirled with anger and confusion.
Gene regarded Bob with amusement. "She reads them over the airwaves. Just thinking about meeting her in person leaves me speechless." He stared into space with the radio pressed against his ear.
"That's bullshine." Bob laughed. "She makes up stuff from her fantasies. There isn't one useful or practical fact she says."
"How do you know if you don't listen to her?"
"Ask my wife," Bob said. "Just take my wife..."
Gene sneered. "I already own one parrot."
"When I married her," Bob continued, "she used to be a waitress. I'd cut my throat before I'd let a wife of mine go out there and work, getting all manhandled by guys. I don't want my wife stealing other guy's jobs."
"You could use another paycheck," Gene insisted.
A devilish look came into Bob's green eyes. "A man has to protect his ole' lady."
Gene ignored Bob and fished around his desk for a small tape recorder. He started the tape. Gene placed a featherweight ear piece in one ear to continue listening to the radio as he monitored phone calls from the side facing Bob. The sound of Dr. Dawn Whisper made Gene's face color fiercely.
"I haven't taken enough personal defeats to ruin my goals," Dawn exclaimed with intense pleasure. "Open lines this hour. I'm waiting for you. Come on, take your best shot. Analyze me. I'm sitting vulnerable."
Gene just finished making himself comfortable when the voice of his supervisor boomed forth over the intercom again. It drowned out the breathless ecstasy of Dawn Whisper's meanderings.
"Are you listening to the static, Mr. Wright, Mr Gene Allen Wright?"
Gene jumped and yanked out the tape recorder's earphone. He whipped himself into the phone monitor and continued to check the static with wild abandon, testing the lines.
"You're a real jerk, aren't you?" Bob called to Gene from across the counter worksite. "Why are you so obsessed with the Dawn Whisper show?"
Gene flashed his black eyes angrily, first at Bob, then at Joan behind the glass wall of her own office. "I told you that she makes me laugh." He stared into space. "I'd do anything to meet her."
"Maybe you're going to stalk her with a gun and...bang! Make like the nuts do to all those celebrities. Only the pretty girls die." Bob positioned his fingers like a gun and waved his hand in Gene's face.
Gene signaled back the thumbs up, all well sign. He tested his phone lines, ignoring Bob.
"You're so in love with the fantasy of her," Bob murmured. "If you ever meet her in person, I hope she turns out to be the vulture she sounds like." Gene turned up his tape recorder for a moment to blast Bob with another line from the true red lips of Dr. Dawn.
"Follow your dominant thoughts. Only in radio can a diploma mill psychologist with a C-minus average create hot ratings. Not I, of course. I went to an Ivy league college on a full scholarship." Dawn began to take more calls as Bob finally got up and turned Gene's pocket radio down.
"What nerve," Gene thought as he adjusted the knobs of his voice monitor. "Anyway, there's funnier stuff on the phone lines."
He kept hearing garble, and fiddled again until suddenly, the trouble disappeared. For a moment he thought how Joan Cooke could swoop down anytime.
He knew she'd fire him if she saw or heard him spending more than two or three seconds listening to strangers in the night. Gene thought about how they'd probably make him an example.
He felt a rush of adrenaline, cold as despair. Something inside dared him to be bold. Gene revolted against the closure of the system. Anything was worth a laugh to make the dreary night shift a little more playful. Everyone who worked with Gene was aware of his artisan sensibility.
At Bob's end, he listened briefly for the sound quality of each voice. After listening to a dozen voices, Bob cut into a hilarious conversation. A couple deeply in love were wooing eachother.
" Gene, listen to this." Gene had the same idea. "You think you got something, well, listen to this," Gene competed.
A woman's voice trembled. "Tell me what you want to do."
"I want to kiss your..."
Obviously, the couple couldn't stand being apart any longer. There was static again just when the words sizzled with nuances of delight.
"Oh, don't mumble now," Bob laughed. Bob fiddled with his vernier knobs. Gene laughed loudly with a mouth full of popcorn. "Now Doctor Dawn Whisper would tell him to fantasize his way to success."
Bob laughed so hard at the couple's private love talk that his sides began to ache. "You're going nuts," Bob wheezed between loud guffaws. "Now take me--married all these years, four adult daughters...."
"You must be real proud," Gene whispered, going on to check the next conversation as he glanced at the supervisor's glass wall.
Bob pounded the counter in front of him. "If only they were boys. Girls make trouble. When they were born I asked the doctor to check twice. Maybe he made a mistake. Four burdens on my wallet."
Gene laughed. "If you had all boys, you'd just complain about how much money they needed to impress girls. Get back to work."
Gene switched lines and fell upon fiery arguing between a couple. This time the man had a thick foreign accent. Gene listened for more than his required three seconds.
"You're a stone around my neck." The man's voice rose in pitch. "I want a divorce, and I want custody of the children. I'm sending them to my mother. American women have the morals of pigs."
The woman's voice sobbed, "You'll never take my babies out of the country. Now I know why you filed for divorce two days after you got American citizenship."
"You're dead, woman. If I catch you, I'll kill you."
"Who, the hell do you think you are?" The woman choked through tremulous sobs, "Your father was Hitler's pornographer."
Gene began to tremble in empathy, but Bob, listening to the same static-slashed voices, laughed. He stammered to Gene, but Gene signaled he was already on the static.
Bob nudged his elbow into Gene's ribs. "This stuff is coming from some foreign consulate office."
Bob traced the call on his computer as the couple's shouting escalated. Static was running wild, as if there were interference or electronic bugging on the line.
"I've got it," Bob said. "It's the Russian Consulate over on Gardenia."
By now Bob and Gene were both tuned in to the conversation as they were trying to do a back loop to find out the source of the static on the couple's conversation. Gene turned the conversation up louder.
"I'm not an animal," the foreign man said. Gene and Bob listened, but pretended to adjust knobs. The green glow of the computer screen danced on Gene's face and made an ambient hum that annoyed him. Bob examined the lines coming out of the Consulate as Gene back-traced them on the screen.
"How can you take my babies away after I had two Caesarian sections?" The woman pleaded in a thick New York accent.
The man's voice was heavy with sarcasm. "My mother will raise them. It's cheaper."
"I'll kill myself if you leave me." The woman's voice was rough with anxiety, and the man's words burned with ridicule.
Bob turned the volume down and nodded to Gene, still manipulating the lines. "Is there an illegal listening device jamming them? It's just like talk radio."
"You say something?" Gene didn't look up. He was too busy fixing the static which was now back on the line.
"No, just testing the lines, Gene, just changing the station."
Gene changed the lines. "What's the matter, can't get it up?" Bob cracked a wide smile. "You're the electronic brain around here. You're the daytime private eye."
"Go figure it out." Gene spoke with light bitterness.
Bob's impatience slowed down his work. "Is someone bugging the Russian Consulate? Is that why we can't fix the static? "Why do the lines always break down on my shift?" Gene let out a long, audible breath as he continued his work. Bob went on his break.
Gene thought about turning on the radio again to catch Dr. Whisper's final two hours of her four-hour shift. He thought about her again, about how she worked only a four hour shift and made a six-figure income. He wondered why she judged how people work. All he cared about, he thought, was how machines work.
That's not true, he thought. He wondered what Dawn was all about. He was turning on the radio, when the male voice on the telephone line startled him by its steely edge.
"This depression is keeping me awake, and sleep deprivation is torture. I can't go on any longer. A man is nothing without a job."
He changed the call quickly, feeling saddened, wounded by crisis. "Doesn't anybody ever sleep?" Gene whispered. "Why don't people go through their crises in the daytime?"
The next call confirmed his stereotype. A woman's voice rose an octave. "I'll take care of the arrangements after we get back from her funeral."
"God," Gene hissed through clenched teeth. "How come when somebody dies they always call a relative in the middle of the night to announce it?"
He went on to a monitor dozens of other calls. At five-thirty dawn was breaking about the same time Gene's break was over. He found more static and garble and repaired it.
Bells and buzzers blasted him as he pinpointed the trouble. Then, all was silent for a stretch. Gene, working elbow-to-elbow with Bob, stared at the clock as he gulped burning coffee with a look of relief.
* * *
5:30 A.M. TUESDAY
"Two-and-a-half hours left on this mind-numbing shift," Bob said in a husky tone. His eyelids were heavy with boredom, and he took out a deck of cards. "Cooke didn't have to stay the whole shift. She probably couldn't get anyone to fill-in."
"Sure, they all took their phones off the hooks," Gene said tersely. "Remember when you worked swing shift?"
Joan Cooke looked through the glass wall at the two men huddled over the computer and the frames. "They make a productive team," she thought as she wrote Gene's annual evaluation. At the space marked 'tardiness,'Joan left a blank. She watched the men smoothly fix the static as she slipped by to the snack room.
Gene wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He delved into his equipment wielding software programs instead of tools to repair a damaged phone line. As he was monitoring a new call, the static faded and then welled up like a baton. He jumped on it, and then he heard a man's voice loud and clear with pulsing static between the words:
"...want to murder Dr. Dawn Whisper, the radio popshrink..".
A second male voice interrupted, "Does she know?"
The first voice replied, "No. I've intercepted the telegrams and phone calls to the station and her home. She thinks..."
Five seconds of more static felt like an eternity to Gene's ears. He wondered if he had only imagined they mentioned Dawn's name in the same breath with 'murder.' The static garbled the man's words. He only heard part of what they were saying. Maybe it had to do with a play or a film, he thought for a moment.
After more static, Gene caught the words, "I'll pay you two million dollars to..." More static drowned out the rest of the message.
The voices disappeared. Gene doubled over his desk to catch whatever he could hear from his headphone. Gene's electronic skill brought life back to the switching machine.
"Two million isn't enough." The unaccented American male voice was cold and exact. "I'll have to take care of the publisher as well. What did you expect? After all, it's an unauthorized biography."
The other male voice had a slight European accent. He spaced his words evenly, Gene listened. "God, I love my job," he said to Bob.
"She's written two other trivia books on guerilla tactics for desperate women."
"Don't be so clever. America reads Dr. Dawn Whisper." The American voice had the ring of possessive desperation itself, Gene thought.
"What's the doc's address?"
"500 West Kendall Drive, phone, 555-9326."
"I'll be done in seven..."
Static buried the last word. "Seven? Seven what? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Days? Months?"
Gene's heart leapt wildly. His hands trembled. Do I have seven hours to save her from a killer? Gene thought.
"What's the matter? You suddenly went pale."
Bob's hand on the back of Gene's shoulder made him shudder. Bob watched the blood drain from Gene's face.
"You look like chicken fried death. Don't fall asleep on me now." Bob placed a plastic-wrapped muffin on top of the computer at Gene's workstation.
Gene scribbled and ripped the paper from the pad with such fury that he tore through his work reports. Wired, Gene dialed radio station K.W.I.N.
Bob looked at him and hissed through his nose. "You love your job. You love the panic atttacks, the stress, the outrage at the boredom of routine. It always gets you when the pressure builds and there's nothing to do but listen and wait."
"Emergency," Gene panted, ignoring Bob. "I must speak to Dr. Whisper. It's a matter of death. I'm a phone company employee."
"Please hold." A male voice forced him into that unconscious black hole to crush his impatience. After an eternity in the belly of the phone lines, Gene was switched to Jim McCormick.
"Calm down, mister. This is the station manager and producer." Gene was rambling. "Some guy's offering two million to have her murdered by seven something or in seven...Would you just call Dawn?"
"Dr. Whisper went home hours ago. She's only on from twelve to four. Besides, why don't you tell her publisher? Maybe he'll print more forbidden books. This isn't another bomb threat to K.W.I.N., is it?"
Gene banged the receiver in Jim's ear and dialed Dawn's home number. Dawn was in a deep sleep. The ringing phone in a pitch black room shocked her furious. Then the cold burn of panic left her heart hammering.
Dawn's trembling fingers squeezed the receiver as it covered her mouth like a dead, white bone. She forced down a deep breath. "Okay. Which relative died? Or is my book contract canceled?"
"Who's this?" Gene's curt voice lashed at her.
"Doctor Dawn Whisper. How can I help you? You must have Swiss cheese holes in the lucumi to have called me so late at home, you moron!"
"I'm sorry," Gene's tone was apologetic. "I have the wrong number."
"I'll say you have, you creep. Do you know what time this is?" Dawn banged the receiver, turned over, and tried to go back to sleep."
Gene ripped the scrap of paper with her address and phone number from his notepad and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He gave Bob a cold stare for a moment and saw that he was snoring at his workstation. A tuna sandwich keeled over his hand.
As Gene adjusted the 4ESS monitor, the computer screen sifted through the city's numbers and flashed Dawn's phone number on the tracer. He switched a few dials.
Lines and vectors narrowed on the computer until Gene attached a line to every phone call coming into Dawn's home. He set his tape recorder to catch the lines of incoming calls.
For a moment Gene thought about how any switching technician knew how to make any phone line loop back to the switching office. It was like tracing a call.
Gene just bugged Dawn's phone from inside the company office. A tape recorder was set up. Now he wondered how to get inside her condominium to find out who else was listening to her.
Gene yanked off his headphone and left his monitoring equipment at the workstation. He bolted out of the office and bumped into Joan Cooke as he passed her on his way out. Joan's voice rang with command.
"Where do you think you're going at six?"
She stopped Gene by his shoulders, but he pulled out of her grip and gently shoved her aside. "Emergency," Gene said with authority. "My father had a stroke and the ambulance never showed up."
"Last year when you took that extra week off, you said your father died of bleeding ulcers. "Wright, I'm suspending you."
"I have more than one stepfather." Gene replied without inflection. He hurried down the corridor and grabbed an outside phone repairman's uniform from a side locker.
The men's room was empty. Gene switched from his casual shirt and trousers to the uniform of a truck-driving field technician.
He placed the repairman's cap on his head and looked in the mirror for a moment. Gene wondered why technicians who wear uniforms and go out to people's homes make less than those wear casual clothing and fix computer testing equipment in the phone company building.
Joan tried to stop him in the corridor. She yelled at him all the way down to the elevators. "Liar! You don't deserve to work for the phone company." Joan ground the word out between her teeth as Gene slipped by her again.
Gene kept running until he found the security guard on the second floor who issued keys. He wiggled his badge.
Old Ben watched television and bridled his anger. Gene disturbed him with something non-routine. Ben, at seventy, hated change. He wrenched himself away from the monitor. "You know we can't let the trucks off the lot 'till eight."
"Emergency at K.W.I.N. radio. They have to be on the air before then, and their phone lines are down."
Ben handed Gene back his badge with the truck keys.
"Who would put out a contract on Dr. Whisper for writing a book exposing diplomatic crime?"
Ben thought for a moment. "Who will lose money?"
Gene ran out into the company parking lot wondering why his thoughts tasted like gall. I hate liars, he thought, but I'm not passive in murder.
* * *
6:30 A.M. TUESDAY
Gene's face was full of strength. He couldn't believe he found an empty parking space first. It stood in front of Dawn's Beverly Hills condominium complex off Wilshire Boulevard on a cul-de-sac thick with trees.
He admired the architecture of her condominium complex. It was one of those dazzling white buildings with the sidewalk cement still damp from recent construction.
Gene rang the bell as he gazed at the nameplate on the door which read: Dr. Dawn Whisper, Ph.D. He pressed his ear against the mahogany door and heard a vacuum cleaner. He rang a couple of times.
The vacuum clicked off and a husky, six-foot tall Norse maid answered. Her robust, bull-dog face was nearly eye-to-eye with Gene as he stepped back.
"Is the doctor expecting you?" Mrs. Schwarzenegger boldly leaned forward with her ham-hock arms folded across her chest.
"The phone needs repairing."
"Well, no one told me anything."
Gene's black eyes smoldered with fire. He shoved his foot inside and forced his way into the apartment, shoving the maid. Her massive body didn't budge. He pushed again, and she stood firm.
He showed her his phone company arm-patch and tool box. She took a look, but hesitated. He pushed again and broke the chain on the door. Mrs. Schwartzenegger assumed a karate position, lifting her skirt above her dimpled white thighs. Gene laughed and took out a new telephone from his tool box.
He held up the phone. "I'm just going to plug this into the wall." The maid looked him over as Gene walked around aimlessly. "This place is a mess." He shook his head regretfully. The maid reacted like a robot.
She started the vacuum cleaner and began to push it back and forth over the white shag carpets with the fervor of a prize fighter rocking her opponent.
"Wait a minute!" The maid stopped and cast him a glance of grey glacial ice. She jerked her head away from the cable he was laying. "We didn't call any phoneman." Gene watched her expression of surprise change to hostility.
It was as if their lives had been building up to this meeting for weeks. "Excuse me," Gene blurted. "I'm also a private detective by day, and Dr. Whisper is immediate danger of being murdered in seven minutes or seven hours or seven days, or seven..."
"I'll say she is, Mr. Private Deadbeat!" The maid grabbed Gene and tossed him in the air in a martial arts somersault. As his feet left the carpet, she smashed him in the head with the vacuum cleaner extension pipe. For an infinity metal became flesh and human turned machine. During his auditory hallucination the impossible became real: his eye balls whistled like a fevered man's ears.
"You loser...you worthless pile of manure." The maid's voice devoured him as he staggared to his feet. "You smell like you've just run a marathon. What do you mean, I keep a messy house?"
She charged at him again. The maid's head sunk back into the muscles of her bull neck. "I forgot to tell you, I'm a wrestler." She passed him between her bowled thighs like a Mack truck. "That's how I got this broken nose."
Gene tried to wrench himself from her solid grip, but it was useless. Suddenly the door flew open under her mighty kick, and he landed in the hallway with his feet straight up on the wall.
Nearby an elevator door opened as Dawn's door closed, and a couple walked out. The man turned to his companion and pointed to Gene bright green telephone company uniform and insignia.
"The phone company's scraping the bottom of the can these days. See what happens when a monopology breaks up and starts to lay off workers because of too much competition?"
The man's companion stepped carefully around Gene. "Don't be so negative, dear." She touched the man's shoulder. "Maybe the poor guy's just practicing his yoga meditation before a hard day's work begins."
When the people were out of sight, Gene stirred and pushed himself to his feet. Rage welled up at the bend of his arteries. He staggared down the corridor, finding it hard to keep his balance.
Nothing would stop him from tightening the countdown...seven... seven something, he thought. Seven hours? With his equilibrium renewed, Gene rang the bell of Dawn's apartment. The vacuum cleaner was still going as Dawn dressed in workout leotards cautiously opened the door. Gene hid in the stepwell of the fire exit.
Dawn looked both ways and walked outside without taking the keys, leaving the door slightly ajar so she wouldn't lock herself out. She listened, looked and waited. The only sound was her loud, nasal breathing.
"I'll have a look," Dawn said to her maid.
"Be careful," she answered in a thick, Norse accent. "The new shower curtains are going up now." Gene heard another door slam inside the apartment.
Dawn turned the bend of the L-shaped corridor. When she was out of sight for a moment, Gene dashed out of the emergency exit and into her apartment. He moved like liquid fire past the closed bathroom door where the maid's radio blasted sob shocks of heavy metal.
Gene stumbled into the exercise den and stepped cautiously over the gymnastic equipment. From inside a closet, he watched Dawn impatiently switch on her workout video.
As she started sweating to its Latin rhythms, the phone rang. Dawn hurried to answer it in her bedroom. She donned her money belt purse and slipped a fifty-dollar bill on top of the maid's handbag.
Now, Gene had his chance to staple a heavy circle of telephone cable wire under the window ledge. He ducked out the window, running more cable along the outside of the building and replaced Craig's wiretap with his own brand.
I've got to get inside her telephone, Gene thought, as he peered into the living room. Dawn returned to the den and stepped up on her treadmill exerciser. He watched the maid enter with a breakfast tray of grains and greens.
Dawn placed her second book, Loving A Loser, on her breakfast tray and went over some key points her publisher had asked her to update in a forthcoming edition. She took a bite of scrambled brown rice tofu and saw Gene standing outside her window ledge.
Telephone cable wire dangled in circles from Gene's tool belt. Dawn's mouth turned as pale as her cheeks as her scream drowned under the loud creak of the opening window. From behind the closed bathroom door the maid's heavy metal competed with the music of Dawn's aerobics video.
She screamed again, and Gene stopped short of entering. "It's okay, Dr. Whisper. I've already installed new cable inside your closet. I'm merely replacing the frayed phone wire."
Gene moved his shoulder in her direction to show her his phone company shirt patch.
She settled back, relieved. "So who let you in?"
"Did you order your maid from a parts catalog or assemble her from a box?"
Dawn laughed. "Then you wouldn't mind me dialing the phone company so I can be sure who sent you."
Dawn put her breakfast tray on the window sill. Gene couldn't step down into her apartment from the outside ledge without stepping right into her plate of stir-fried vegetables.
"Before you dial, I'd like to know who wiretapped your phone?" Gene ground his sneakered foot into her fine blue porcelain plate of carrot rosettes.
She grabbed her ten-pound barbell and pointed it at him more like a baton than a weapon. Gene rushed her phone, grabbed the receiver out of her hands and unscrewed the mouthpiece.
He held up a small microphone wiretap. "Don't you know the phone company's aware that someone's recording all your phone calls?"
Dawn grabbed it from his palm. "How do you know we're not doing a radio hook up?" She was careful not to let her fingers touch his.
His brows drew together in pain. "I'm telling you, doctor, every one of your phone extensions is probably wiretapped. Will you let me search the place?"
"Of course not. I'm calling the police."
"Be my guest; that would be practical. You want events to fit into slots. You want your phone men to be useful. Why the sudden interest in your shoes? Don't go shy on me now, extravert." Gene ran into the living room and unscrewed the other phone's receiver. He removed the wiretap and tossed it at her.
"Don't judge me, Dr. Whisper. You'll regret split-second decisions. I warn you, you'll get hurt."
"Now, don't tell me you're an intuitive feeling phone freak who fantasizes he's a detective!" She laughed at him like a volcano on the verge of erupting. "Now get out."
Gene felt a wave of rejection slice him in half. He whipped out the police stun gun he'd bought in private eye school and shot Dawn in the side of her neck.
She fell into his arms, momentarily unconscious and paralyzed by its electric shock. He buoyed her up and half-carried her out the door. As he exited, Gene passed the robust maid carrying the mildewed shower curtain in front of her face.
She dropped the curtain and wielded her broom like a baseball bat as she fled after Gene carrying Dawn down the hall. The same couple who stared at Gene with his feet up the wall now walked back to the elevator. Suddenly the maid came charging around the corridor bend and crashed into them with the mass of a linebacker.
Gene looked at the three of them on the hallway carpet as he passed, half-carrying Dawn with her head on his shoulder. He embraced and cuddled her as he turned his head.
"Stunned by my charms," he smiled to the folks as he stepped into the elevator. Gene half-dragged Dawn along the sidewalk for what seemed like an eternity before she stirred and regained her composure.
A neighbor passed him and asked, "What happened to Dr. Whisper?"
Before she could speak Gene laughed, "She's showing me how hypnosis works during meditation." The man entered the building as Dawn tried to scream.
Gene's broad shoulders were heaving as he smothered her with a kiss. It made her pulse beat in her throat.
"Who are you?" Dawn thrashed against his strong chest. The muscles of his forearms hardened beneath his sleeve, but she wrenched away. Somewhere, deep down, she was aware of his desire to protect her...from something.
Despite her fears she felt a hot and awful magnetism building between them.
"I'm not some nut trying to kidnap you," Gene begged. Every fiber in her body warned against him. Dawn thought, I always wanted a hero who was a rich and educated man.
Every woman is pulled down to the level of her husband's job, she said to herself. It is possible a telephone switchman could also be a woman's hero? No way, she thought.
People at gatherings would always ask what does your husband do for a living, and then proceed to pull you down to his reality, no matter how many degrees you had. I'm more secure than to let a man's job stand in the way, she thought, but if I connect with this man, I'll ruin my chances of reaching the ceiling in my own career. "In a few hours you'll be dead, unless I find out why someone put a contract out on you." Gene took out his stun gun again and waved it at her to show it off. She struggled with uncertainty.
"Don't you see? I heard death on the company voice quality monitor. There's a seven hour or seven day contract on you, lady."
His voice, which ordinarily was hypnotically calm, suddenly had an edge. "My job is on the line, and I'm trying to save your life!"
She really wasn't listening to him. "What's that stuff you shot me with? Will it poison me?" Dawn looked down at his stun gun.
"No, I told you I'm a private eye on your case."
"Well get off my case."
"Not until you're out of danger!"
He wiggled his stun gun in her face. "Real men always set their phasers on stun." Gene shot her a werewolf smile and overstepped her bounds. Dawn made a run for it. I've got to get out of here. He's crazy, she thought.
"I'm Gene Wright. It's a provocative study you've made of me, but you can't draw any firm conclusions."
He chased after her down the crowded, morning rush hour of Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of downtown Beverly Hills. Gene caught up to her and asked, "What's the matter, don't you think I deserve to walk your upper middle-class streets?"
As he ran side by side with her for a moment, he held out his phone company badge. She stopped, breathless, and took a longer look at his I.D.
"Who hired you to break into my apartment? Don't tell me the phone company." Dawn leaned against the glass window of a boutique to get her breath.
Gene took out a length of telephone cable from his tool belt and twirled it into a lasso as he talked. "All I know is that I heard two men plotting to have you murdered because you wrote an unauthorized biography."
Dawn, still exhausted from running, began to take little steps backwards closer to a crowded department store entrance. Gene twirled the cable wider, slowly moving toward her.
"You'll be human garbage in a few hours, lady." Gene moved very close to her, knotting the telephone cable wire as if it were a noose.
She looked deeply into his dark eyes. Gene pleaded with her. "I just want to protect you. Would you let me explain, please?"
"I won't give you that much power over me." Dawn's face became a marble effigy of defiance.
She took a breath mint out of her pocket and threw it at his face. It bounced off as he flinched, unscathed.
Gene grabbed her and tried to make her stop shouting by clamping his palm over her mouth. "I don't know you," Dawn mumbled, clawing his shirt and biting his thumb.
He chuckled with a dry sound, "I love you," and instinctively gummed his bitten finger.
Dawn whipped out a small can of mace from her moneybelt purse and sprayed it in Gene's face as he tried to control her flailing arms and legs with his powerful body. He stood six-feet four and she was as tall and thin as a willow.
Passersby turned and gawked, but continued, not wanting to become involved with Dawn. She threw a pitiful glance to one teenage boy going into the department store entrance and screamed. The boy glanced into a mirror, slicked down his military haircut, and ignored her. She sprayed him.
Mace vapors stung the passing crowd. Gene spun around and screamed, "I'm blind, I'm blind." A circle of gawkers formed around him as Dawn slipped away down the street.
He pushed through the crowd at last, rubbing his tear-smothered eyes and ran in total confusion. He turned over fruit stand stalls, pushing and shoving anything out of his way as he chased Dawn who had a head start.
Gene wiped his eyes with his handkerchief and followed Dawn down a cul-de-sac. He was about to reach her, and she was tiring when he bumped into a patrolman on his beat.
"Officer, that man's chasing me," Dawn sobbed breathlessly.
The cop tackled Gene, slamming his head into the pavement. Mace dripped from Gene's face as he tried to wrench himself free. Like a maniac, he pushed the officer away and bolted in the opposite direction as Dawn watched eagle-eyed. The policeman chased after Gene on foot. He ducked into a boutique and ran out the back, knocking over racks of designer lingerie.
Gene wiped his maced eyes on a pair of expensive satin and lace panties he grabbed off the counter. "Panty-sniffer," the saleslady yelled to the officer who was almost within an arm's reach of Gene.
She pointed in Gene's direction. The cop pounced on him, catching him as he dropped the panties and ran down an alley in back of the store. Gene leapt for the chain-link fence when the cop drew his gun and shouted, "Freeze, or your dust, man."
"It's okay," Gene yelled. "I'm a P.I. Only the lady didn't believe me when I asked her to look at my I.D."
"Sure," the cop spat.
Gene reached for his wallet. "I lost it." A pang of fear impaled him as he fumbled through his pockets.
The officer spun, wrestled, and and kneed him--face down in a construction site mud puddle. Gene felt the icey handcuffs snap shut behind him.
"How do you like this wedding ring?" The cop puffed.
Gene's whole frame sank from his own sight along with surrounding objects, leaving the pain standing forth as distinctly as a mountain peak, as if it were a separate bodily member. At last Gene's agony also vanished.
"Get these cuffs off," he begged. "They're too tight, and my wrists are numb."
"Shut up!" The cop kicked him into a spreadeagled position.
Gene thought he'd reason with the man. He thought for a half second about how much stress he'd been under. "I also work nights for the phone company. Help me. The lady will be dead meat. I've got to find out who set her up."
The square-jawed Beverly Hills patrolman sneered. "Maybe I don't want to get involved because you're a liar. Sure, that's it. We're going downtown, pervert. The lady will pick you out of a lineup."
"How do you know I'm lying?" Gene choked.
The athletic sandy-haired police officer nudged Gene in the ribs and dragged him to his feet. By this time the cop's partner had pulled up into the alley. He placed his hand over Gene's head as he shoved him into the back of the waiting police car.
* * *
10:00 A.M. TUESDAY
The same cop stomped over to the holding tank where Gene sat inside a knot of stinking drunks. Waddling in spike heels behind the cop was Joan Cooke.
At first he didn't see his supervisor. He came face to face with the officer. "I'm a private eye hired by the phone company to protect Dr. Dawn Whisper." The sergeant smiled from one side of his mouth as Joan Cooke stepped out from behind him.
"Oh, no!" Gene felt his heart was an old oak tree just lashed by lightning. He screwed his eyes up at her. "Do I still have a job?"
Joan nodded "no" without eye contact. "The phone company doesn't hire private eyes." She faced only the sergeant. Just before she left, she spoke loudly so Gene could hear. "I must be just and go by standards." Joan paid the bail money.
"Wait!" Gene shouted. The jail door swung open. He stepped swiftly. It clanked shut behind him sending shivers up his spine. Later, he rushed to Joan as she stood outside the building.
"Do you know what happens to innocent men in prison?"
Joan ignored his outrage. "You were monitoring calls looking for P.I. clients like some cheap, ambulance chasing attorney." She pulled away from Gene as he barely touched her shoulder.
Gene blocked her path. "I can't tell you why I had to see Dr. Whisper. If you ofund out what I heard, you'd fire me for listening on company time."
The same patrolman sneaked up behind them on the street. "He was chasing her down the street, holding some phone cable in his hands like a strangler."
Gene whirled around, suprised by the police officer's intrusion. "That's her imagination. I was trying to explain..."
Joan cut him off. "Were you talking to her? I read all the time about nuts who become obsessed with a celebrity."
"Yeah," the cop interrupted. "They always murder the girl so the two end up united in heaven--a Romeo and Juliet killing."
"Is that what you think?"
Joan pointed a sharp, red nail at Gene. "How many times have I warned you not to listen to the radio on work time?"
"Somebody's going to kill Dawn Whisper and I have to stop..."
The patrolman shoved him. "How do you know all this?"
"I can't tell you."
"You're free until trail." The officer poked him in the belly with his stick. "Dr. Whisper's pressing some hot charges against you for kidnapping and shooting her with a police stun gun."
Gene gave the patrolman a dirty look. He turned to Joan who was now behind the wheel of a company car. "Thanks for bailing me out. I don't have any living relatives."
"No wonder, since every year you tell me your father dies."
"I'm sorry, I was just doing my real job."
Joan softened. "Consider your wages docked for a year. If you weren't such an electronic hero at repairing that old switching machine, I'd suspend you, but then you'd never pay me back my bail money.
He jumped into the company truck next to her. "Look out once that new switching equipment comes, Mr. Private Eye." She made a hand sign of a gun and pointed between Gene's eyes as he squinted. "One groan from me, and it's all over. She drove him back to work. Later at work Joan asked him, "Why'd you do it?"
"I'll break company rules only in a life or death emergency."
Joan's senses reeled, as if short circuited. "Do you know how many guys would sell their grandmothers for your thirty-five thousand a year on a high school diploma?"
"Most sensible, practical, and useful men would pray for this job." He looked up at her and asked, "Were you ever a Marine drill sergeant?"
"Get your head out of the clouds!" He felt her hot breath on the back of his neck. "It's better to be in a rut than addicted to your feelings."
"If I find out you were eavesdropping on private conversations for more than three seconds, you're out!"
Joan slammed a stack of paperwork on Gene's workstation. "This is what you'll start on when you come back to work at midnight. Now go home and take a nap."
"Maybe I have seven hours...to find Dawn's killer before he finds her." As Gene stormed out, Joan threw her hands up in utter frustration with him.
Gene knocked frantically on Bob Stanton's, apartment door. A Yorkshire terrier with a squeaky bark rushed out of the kitchen as Bob swung open the screen.
"What's up? I'm usually napping this time of day." Bob shook his fingers with annoyance through his dissheveled hair.
"Would you shut that mutt up?" Gene wiggled his leg, but the terrier wouldn't let go of his pants cuffs. "I have a problem, but if I tell anybody at work, I'll get fired."
Bob sighed deeply. "I'll picket with you during a strike, but, that's it."
"So you're only a fair weather friend?" Gene put his head in his hands. The terrier nipped at his shoe and peed on the carpet.
Bob threw a towel over the dog and motioned to his wife to remove him to his basket in the utility room. She returned with rug shampoo and lathered up the stain under Gene's feet.
Bob's wife was still in a faded blue terry cloth bathrobe and curlers. She smiled gap-toothed at Gene. "Want to share the catch of the day?"
"Is it herpes, bronchitis, or flu?"
Bob grabbed the skillet from his wife's hands and shook it back and forth so he could almost taste the sizzle. He passed the dutch oven under Gene's nose. "Have some garlic shrimp, my old lady's way."
"Looks good, but I have to go." Gene opened the door as the small dog began to whine and scratch at the kitchen door. Gene let the dog out and began to pet him behind the ears.
"I overheard a guy on the phone put out a contract to have Dr. Whisper murdered."
Bob bristled. "I think your obsession with that radio shrink has gone too far."
"It's more like love."
Bob shrugged in mock resignation and rubbed his thumb and index finger together to make the money sign. "Fortune-hunting chippies like Dr. Dawn wouldn't give us the scum on her boiled milk. Take it from a retired Marine. I know what women look up to."
"Really?" Bob's wife overheard the guys from the kitchen and stepped between them holding out a plate of juicy fried shrimp. "So why are you so concerned with a radio talk show hostess?"
"I'm a licensed private investigator."
"Give me a break." Bob bit into a jumbo shrimp . "Has anyone ever paid you to take his case?"
"No. I'm just getting off the ground."
"So Whisper's your first, only she doesn't know it yet." Bob glowered at Gene and turned away. His wife handed Gene a bag of her prune and poppy-seed stuffed pastry to take with him. He poked his nose into the bag like a puppy and sniffed the sweet aroma.
Bob was happy to change the subject. "Go ahead, taste my wife's Shetland Island scones." He took out a pastry from the bag and shoved it into Gene's mouth until he began to cough.
"They're pasties," Bob's wife chuckled in her Scottish dialect. Bob's heavy Brooklyn accent was in sharp contrast to his British wife's. Gene spit the rest of the undercooked dough back into the brown bag and twisted it shut. He stormed out the door as Bob's wife laid a ham-hock sized elbow on his shoulder.
Gene looked back and smiled at Bob's Rubenesque wife as she handed him another bakery-sized bag full of her love. Bob stepped out on the duplex porch to inspect the second brown bag.
"I'll go through anything for the man I love," she muttered hastily as Bob took a whiff of the prune filling.
"She's referring to our joint checking account," Bob laughed. He inspected the pastries and began and munching on one.
"Taste those chocolate chippers," Bob said softly, his eyes narrowing. "Now, no woman who ever worked outside her home for joy money ever put such guts into a prune eclair."
Gene's throat began to close up. He winced and bit into the chocolate chip eclair, savoring the taste. Bob's wife threw him a mock salute.
Gene winked. "Dump him, Mrs. Stanton. He's a loser."
Bob gave his wife an impatient hug and moaned at his bad back. "I just love your ability to give with one hand and take back with the other." She stuffed her mouth with pastry.
He ignored her grimace and gave Gene the 'peace'sign. "I'm going right back to sleep. What are you doing with the rest of the day?"
Gene walked away slowly but looked back over his shoulder. "In seven hours or seven days or...anyhow, Dr. Whisper will be murdered, and I'm the only one in control."
"Well, if it makes you feel good," Bob chuckled, "but I'll take polker anytime over Dungeons and Dragons."
"This isn't a game."
"Yes, it is. You just want to prove you're a real P.I."
Bob pushed up the tip of his nose and raised his chin as he went inside. "There's nothing low-class about working the midnight shift as a telephone switchman."
Gene felt a curious swooping pull at his stomach. "Women like Dawn think there's a shortage of princes."
"Well, she's not going to admire your driving intelligence," Bob's wife laughed."
"I wouldn't bet on her until all the facts are in," Gene said seriously.
As Bob's wife opened the kitchen door, she accidentally let out their small dog. The Yorkshire followed Gene, then chased him down the street until he reached his car, and finally nipped him on the ankle. Gene shook the dog loose and jumped into his car, pulling away as he dropped the bags of pastry on the curb.
* * *
At radio station K.W.I.N. in West Hollywood, station manager, Jim McCormick gazed into a mirror that covered the desk wall of his small office.
Jim positioned himself in front of the full-length mirror. He drew his gun as if it were an extension of his personality. Twice he pretended to fire, striking police and military poses in a mock shoot-out.
As he adjusted his shoulder hoslter, Dr. Anne Joan Levine, his wife and a rival radio talk show psychologist, paraded into his office. Jim whirled around in surpise as his wife left the door ajar behind her.
"Didn't I tell you never to burst in on me that way?"
Dr. Levine ignored his command for an apology and tossed a letter on his desk to drive her point home. "This is from Dr. Whisper's lawyer saying you're harrassing her to have an affair."
"Shut up," he whispered in a strained voice. "She doesn't know I'm with the F.B.I. and the C.I.A."
"Oh really? She knows a there's a contract out on her life." "Can't you help for once on this diplomatic immunity case?"
Dr. Levine turned in disgust. "By coincidence, a telephone switchman overheard the whole conversation and recorded it."
"See that he gets fired, and get that tape."
"I underestimated you. You wanted him to hear everything going on at the Russian consulate. Do you think his termination is so easy to arrange? When he sues, the court costs and counsel will break you. Why'd you hand-pick that idiot?"
"He's a fan who calls into this radio station every night . He's fatally obsessed with the woman behind the microphone. And he's full of insecurities about his job and love life." Mc Cormick sat down hard, banging his kneecap on the corner of his desk.
He huddled around his pain. "He's the perfect psychological profile we want--so weak that he must play a role to be authentic. Dr. Whisper's a living legend. He can't resist her. She beckons to him: play me, live in me, make me real."
Levine met McCormick's gaze. "I get another profile on Gene Wright. He's sure of himself, stable, and strong. He knows his limitations and reaches them. He acts as if he deserves the best. He wants a sharp woman because that's the way he is--on the inside. I'm warning you, that man may lack formal education, but he picks up everything."
Mc Cormick smiled. "He has a double view of himself. Even in his fantasies, he's a private eye. The guy can't function on his job unless he feels important by doing something ugly or wonderful to a celebrity. I say he's dangerous."
"Dangerous? No. He's devoted, not unwavering. He only wants to please her out of his weakness." Levine hammered his desk for emphasis until her fist ached.
Gene suddenly rushed through the door into Jim's office. The security guard followed him in and dragged him out.
"All I want to do is buy some radio advertising time. Is that fair enough?" Gene shoved his elbow into the guard's ribs, and he doubled over in pain.
Jim nodded to the security guard to leave them alone. When the guard was gone, Jim drew his gun and pointed it at Gene's head.
"Sit down." Jim held the gun in front of him as if to cover his imaginary nakedness.
"I don't like nudity." Jim's blue eyes stared like cobalt into Gene's depthless black gaze.
"That's exactly the greetings I'd expect from my local station. Where'd you learn to handle a gun like that--in shock radio?" Gene slapped Jim's gun out of his face with the back of his hand.
"Running a West Hollywood radio station must be hazardous to your health." Gene rose as Jim sat.
Gene staggared dizzily around the station manager's office as Dr. Levine's eyes followed his hands. He fondled a photo of Jim wearing a gun holster over a jacketless white business shirt among a group of other men wearing the same.
"Police academy?" Gene asked. "This isn't a military uniform." He pulled the black and white photo off the wall and turned it over.
"The rubber stamp reads: F.B.I. Dept. of Human Resources, Washington, D.C." Gene smiled. "Are they selling these in dime stores now? Or did you pose in costume with a tourist-track photographer?"
"I hear from my psychologist wife that you've had some auditory hallucinations."
"Sure. They're on this tape." Gene handed him a cassette. "Oh, copies are everywhere."
"We think you faked the tape at the phone company," said Dr. Levine.
"To win fame by association with a radio celebrity and wealthy author," Jim added.
"Wealthy? On a radio talk show host's salary?" Gene laughed.
Dr. Levine nodded and pushed Gene back into the desk chair. She pulled up another chair and sat next to him.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" She formally introduced herself.
"I'm in a hurry," Gene interrupted her vehemently.
"Maybe you don't know, but telephone switchmen soon develop the sensitive ears of the blind." Gene's face almost touched Dr. Levine's as he spoke hoarsely.
"I recognized your familiar voice as Dr. Whisper's frequent guest psychologist and stand-in."
She took his hand in hers. "Have you heard of the bicameral mind and auditory hallucinations--the way some people used to hear a loud voice coming from heaven?"
"Have you heard that Dr. Whisper's dead meat at any moment because she believes in the freedom of speech?"
Dr. Levine shouted him down. "Before one thousand B.C., hearing voices occured by stimulation of the right hemisphere of the brain under stress. When consciousness developed into introspection, people stopped hearing voices."
"You should be in therapy with Dr. Whisper."
"The gods have left us." Dr. Levine gazed at the striped shadow of a fan on the ceiling which appeared to arch and stretch. "Boy, I bet you never get a word out, married to such a talkative psychologist. Gene twisted his mouth in one direction, and Jim in the opposite.
Dr. Levine ignored him and continued. "First people actually heard the chieftan talking, telling them how to do the job right."
"That sounds like my supervisor."
"Don't even think of being a comic," Jim barked. He spun Gene's rotary desk chair until he was dizzy. Gene exploded with a sense of raw urgency. He kicked the chair over, and swung Jim by the collar. Dr. Levine stepped between them, without interrupting her train of thought.
"Later their tribal leader's voice became the voice of territorial gods. The auditory hallucinations told the people how to build houses and plant barley."
Impatience lit up Gene's face. "Why don't you just ask me whether I hear voices?"
"So you do!" Dr. Levine adjusted her smile.
"No, I just monitor 'em for static." He let go of Jim's lapels and handed her the cassette tape.
"So what do you want me to do?" Jim lead Gene to the door as Dr. Levine played his tape.
Gene raised his shoulders with tension at Jim's aloof manner. "What's going on here? I'm monitoring voice quality for garble, when all of a sudden some goon comes on the line saying he's paid two million to have Dr. Dawn Whisper killed by...boom! Static!"
"If you want to purchase advertising on the air, I suggest you see Mr. John Creen, our salesman. His office is next door." Jim gritted his teeth and shoved Gene out fast.
"But? Wait a minute!" Gene protested. Dr. Levine stepped out after him.
"Don't worry," she retorted in icey sarcasm. "We have the problem under control, and obviously, you're out of it."
He choked on his own words. "I have a right to know, because I have no reason to believe any of you. Talk radio is C.I.A. now, right?"
The psychologist's eyes lit up. "You'd sacrifice Dr. Whisper. Don't close up when all the facts aren't in yet." Dr. Levine stepped inside the office and locked Gene out.
He pounded on the door and shouted until a giant-sized security guard wrestled him away. "She's not going to take your slaps like a soldier and never make a sound."
Jim's throaty voice from behind the bolted door drew the rest of the office crowd away from their blaring radios. "Anybody who comes bursting in my office like a maniac deserves mowing down like one."
"I could sue you for pulling that gun on me," Gene answered over his beating heart. The guard walked him out of the building exit. An hour later Jim had Dawn's secretary leave an urgent message on Gene's answering machine.
* * *
12:00 A.M. SATURDAY NIGHT
Dr. Dawn Whisper, color coordinated down to her underwear in denim and a Greek fisherman's cap, sat with her legs folded under her in "the cage."
It was eighty degrees inside the recording booth and humid. On the advice of her lawyer, she decided on a guest for the evening at the last possible minute--Gene Wright.
He wheeled his desk chair in a semi-circle and clicked a ball point pen nervously until she extended her hand and steadied him. Her voice was curteous, but patronizing. "We're on the air in five seconds--no background noise, please!" He braced his chair against her desk.
She pinched the pen out of his fingers and tossed it into a cup filled with pencils. He grabbed it from the cup, spilling the contents over with a crashing sound.
"Klutz!" She screamed in a whisper. "You'd make a fortune in comedy reviving the Three Stooges."
"Sorry, it's my gold award pen." Gene looked up at her with the child in himself giving her the pout of a newborn lamb.
The red lights blinked "On Air," and Dawn's violet-silver gaze of false innocence imploded into a critical squint. "We have a surprise guest tonight, folks," she murmured mysteriously. The words tingled strangely on her tongue.
Gene nursed the microphone as if it were too precious to defile. "Why would someone offer a foreign guy two million to murder you?" He smiled at Dawn seated next to him as his fingers lightly brushed her thigh.
She swiveled quickly, turning her back. As Gene rested one hand on her shoulder, she grabbed her corded microphone off the desk. He watched her walk to the glass wall that separated her from the engineer's office.
She took a deep breath. "I need my personal space. If someone wants my job that much, why didn't he just call my manager?" Dawn wedged herself into the corner.
He leaned forward in his chair and spoke in a controlled voice. "Why'd you hire me all of a sudden as your private eye?"
"Oh, not me.... My station manager hired you because you work cheap."
"Do you believe in equal pay for equal worth, doctor?"
"Now don't make me feel off-centered. That's the first sign a wife notices when she knows her husband doesn't love her anymore."
She took a deep, unsteady breath. "Folks, I notice that my mystery guest, private eye, Gene Wright, is suspiciously fondling his microphone. Tell me, Mr. Wright, does nervously rubbing that microphone quench some deep thirst within you to solve crimes?"
"Not really," Gene said calmly. "I still believe the average person should get involved when he witnesses a suspicious conversation."
"So, it looks like Mr. Wright is Mister Right, after all," she laughed. "Some cheap mouth-breathing, nose-picking jerk is always stalking me, fantasizing he's in love with Dr. Dawn. Which one of you out there is the real jerk? Pick up that phone. I have an open line now."
Not one phone line on the board lit up. Gene watched her pacing, leaning against the walls of her cage, sipping a cup of caffeine-free barley tea.
"How can you stand it?" He asked on the air. "Wouldn't you rather be working outdoors in the sunshine?"
She took his question as a cue to perform. "It satisfies my impact hunger. We're all caged in this recording booth--in one way or another," she snapped. "It's universal. Everybody craves new chances. As long as we're stuck on this crowded, noisy planet, all we can do is grow."
Gene inclined his head of thick, dark brown curly hair. In a way, his profile reminded her of an ancient Aegean statue.
"Doctor, if you don't belong to one man, I guess you belong to them all."
They broke for a commercial. Dawn burst in on her producer.
"Jim will pay you the current rate for a P.I. with no previous experience and superior electronic skills."
"That don't sound fair enough. What about life experience?"
She rushed back to the cage and finished the segment. Later, she took Gene aside into an office.
"I feel guilty knowing I should hire you myself," she said with easy defiance. "We know this is your first case. Just look at it as an internship to get some experience."
"I'm not some college student in his twenties."
"I thought you want the chance to save your favorite celebrity."
"You're no celebrity. Get some reality here," Gene pierced her complacency. "You're a broadcast psychologist."
Gene grabbed her and kissed her passionately. She resisted at first, then squeezed his chest. Jim looked up in surprise through the glass booth wall. A moment later Jim ran in and pulled his gun on both of them. He pressed the cold steel barrel against Gene's cheek.
"You know what they do to separate two dogs in heat," Jim said firmly.
Gene gave Jim's .38 a raw and primitive look. "Bang! You're dead. It could happen just like that. So you need more than phone company electronics."
"Put the gun away. This is a radio station, a place of free speech, idiot!" Dawn reprimanded her producer with all the challenge and argument of a trial attorney with Gene as her jury. "You are convincing." Gene smiled. He wondered how she could love the fire and verve of a good argument and draw more energy from it without tiring.
"You're too beautiful for radio. When will you sell out to T.V. for the big money that comes with loss of privacy?"
"When they stop saying to almost every woman over thirty-five, 'You're too old. You're too ugly, and you don't defer to men.'"
She became a subtle, electric fire that drew power by stoking the angry, red coals in all men, Gene thought. "That's what I love about you," he said. "It's seeing how you grow."
Dawn's eyes widened in surprise as she stared at Gene, but he was sure of himself. "Oh, strictly as a fan, of course," he added.
Jim grabbed Gene's wrist and forcefully tried to lead him to the door. Dawn jumped between the two men, trying to pull them apart. Jim's iron grip tightened on Gene's arm.
"That's not your job, Jim. If you see me in trouble with a guest, you call the security guard." Dawn hid her trembling hands behind her back.
Jim's voice rang with command. "Maybe you'd like to run this station like a Field Marshal, since you enjoy giving orders so much." His brows flickered.
Is that a promotion?" I'd certainly run it more efficiently."
Gene pulled out of Jim's grasp. "Don't worry, Doctor Whisper. I'm sure your producer worries that your insurance won't cover this incident."
Jim nodded with a taut jerk of his neck. "You're weirder than I thought, Mr. Wright."
"Maybe I'll see you in court," Gene replied sharply as Jim pivoted like a soldier and ignored him.
"The traffic break's ending in fifteen seconds." Jim hurried back to his office.
Dawn hid her feelings from Jim, but not from Gene. He steadied her trembling hand between his large hands, then placed his card on her desk. "Lady, I'm more vulnerable than you are." He squinted at Jim. "That man shouldn't control so much of your life."
Gene turned and walked away, an island of slow, precise movement amid her confusion. He pulled the clip out of his gun and tossed it to her. Dawn caught it. Her voice was seductive, and the reply was obvious as she watched Gene flinch. He slammed the studio door on his way out.
"The only protection I need is a trust fund," she said. He came back inside the office and stood face to face with her. Gene's smile was wide with deep dimples in his cheeks and chin.
"O.K., have it your way, doctor," he sighed. She slipped the gun into his new private eye shoulder holster under his windbreaker.
"I hope you have a license to kill," she added. Gene left without answering.
After station break, Dawn avoided looking into Jim's eyes as she hurried past him. He grabbed her wrists gently.
"You're not going on until the bomb squad opens that crate," Jim said.
"Don't be ridiculous," she barked. "That crate's no bomb."
"How do you know?" Jim shouted, pointing to the big crate in the corner of his office.
She pulled out of his grasp ruffled and anxiously entered her booth, switching on the microphone. The phone lines were flashing.
The station engineer gave her the signal and count-down from behind the glass wall. Dawn's hands trembled, but her voice was cold and exact.
"Glad you could hold on through the traffic break, Inez. You're boring, and if I were living with you, I'd push you around also, you coward!"
Inez screeched. "Obnoxious bitch! I've got three toddlers under five."
There was a smile in Dawn's voice. "Self-concept is destiny. Face it. Your real father wanted a boy.
"He was afraid of the feminine part of himself. And now you have to deal with that dirty old god inside you. He wants to have a cock fight with any guy who comes along."
Music welled up--the station's theme song for her show. She poured herself a cup of the world's most expensive coffee--from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. Dawn had her secretary grind the coffee beans just before her guest arrived.
She ordered Evian mineral water to brew the coffee with in the glass electric pot on her desk. When she stirred in a spoon of sugar, it just wasn't a cheap stainless steel studio cafeteria spoon.
Dawn always used Chinese porcelain because she couldn't stand the taste of metal utensils. She insisted on buying Peluge brand sugar from France in a gourmet shop in Beverly Hills.
Just before she set the coffee before her guest, she sprinkled it with tiny edible gold flakes--24 karat pure. Gene left his cup standing, and now there was a fly floating on the top of the world's most expensive.
Dawn savored the aroma of deep sweetness as she poured fresh coffee into a Royal Minton cup from England. It was gold-plated, except the lip and inside. The dark coffee filled the cup of the finest white bone china. She sniffed and compared it to the cheap poster print of a Dali painting on the wall.
She didn't quite have time to take a first sip of the coffee. The music ended, and Jim held up a sign to the glass wall. It read: BIG PACKAGE CAME FOR YOU.
Jim waved to Dawn from outside the booth. He pointed to the gift-wrapped crate. Jim wheeled it in front of her from behind the glass wall. He waved the crate slightly to see whether anything inside jiggled. It was about six feet high and three feet wide.
Dawn shrugged her shoulders and signaled back with a raised finger to wait until the next break. Jim shook his head and fist at her with confusion. She spoke to him through her microphone.
"It looks like a refigerator--or a coffin."
His motions became angrier. The clerical employees gathered around him outside her booth and stared back at Dawn. She looked back at him with the same angry gaze. Finally, Jim put his ear to the silent box.
During another station break Dawn ran wildly through the corridors of the radio station to Jim's office. She madly tore off the wrapping paper. It read "Happy Birthday." Jim and her secretary helped pry open the pinewood crate. Inside was a mahagony-colored coffin.
"Look out!" Jim shoved her and the secretary under a desk. "There way be an explosive device inside."
"So I'm a better superman than you," Dawn laughed as she stood up and ripped at it. She pried open the coffin with the fire place polker in Jim's office. He had wheeled it on a dolly from the engineer's room to his own office.
"At least the audio room will be safe." Jim ground the words out.
Inside the coffin was a note tied to a live black rat running a treadmill. The rat's screen cage rested on a note tied to a copy of her book.
Dawn tore the note out of Jim's hands and read it aloud. "You belong in the sewer." With a sigh, Dawn banged the lid shut and punched at the air. "That poor animal could have died in that crate." She pursed her lips at the rat, nuzzling the cage and blowing a kiss. "It's alive. Look at those large, pitiful eyes."
"Get that filthy rat out of here." Jim groaned as the secretary left the room shaking her head in half relief and half disgust.
"If you inhale dust or mold from its droppings, you'll get pneumonia or some other horrible virus."
"Not until you call Wildlife and ask them where can I donate an itsy bitsy big black rat in a cage?"
"Oh, I'd volunteer to take it," Jim sneered. "Unfortunately, my cat would die trying to vomit after wolfing down that sewage." Dawn looked askance at him as she swept the small rat's cage into her own office and placed it on a table near a window.
* * *
2:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY
The phone company ran a day for the first time in a year with no lines breaking down. Gene busied himself with monitoring his lines for voice quality as he occasionally squinted at Bob was asleep at his workstation.
Gene lifted Bob's headphone, which had slipped down over his face, and put it back on his ears without disturbing him. Then he turned up the voice quality monitor loud enough to blast him awake. Bob leapt up and adjusted his vernier knobs without missing a beat. Gene stuffed his mouth with a cookie and pretended not to notice.
For a while nothing was happening deep into the midnight shift. Gene delved into a paperback novel at breaktime, and then fell into his routine of testing each line for two seconds.
Halfway into the shift, static welled up again in the voice quality of another call coming from the Russian consulate. The phone number flashed on his monitor screen.
Gene brought up the address through his tracer, and it pulsed on the screen. He made all the phone lines inside the Russian consulate go right into his switching office at the phone company. The number locked in, traced, and recorded.
Gene thought about how well he mastered wiretapping before he was twenty-five. He remembered where he went for the information: a well-hidden Washington bookstore loft frequented by intelligence officials and mystery writers.
He took out another small tape recorder from his desk and hooked up the phone lines in the Russian consulate so all future calls record automatically. There was no need to step inside the consulate.
And then he listened and waited, as if stretched over a kettle drum straining a molecule at a time, probing for one shattering boom. He thought of the switcher as an invisible, velvet eye and listened as the two Russians began to tempt their tongues with syllables of madness.
"I'm sending Norov and Mosky in the lead car now," a deep throaty voice, thick with hoarseness wheezed into the phone. "Go to the Russian Consulate office, Dr. Tamirova. Immediately!"
A strained female voice in a soft, Central Asian accent interrupted. "At this hour? And why are you speaking in English? I told you never to speak in English on the phone."
"Did you expect someone from Guatemala actually to speak with you in Russian?" The man hammered.
"If we are to succeed in our mission, Questor..." Static blotted out the woman's petulant voice. Gene frantically jabbed at the controls on his switcher, bringing the voice into focus for just a moment. He heard only the man's voice say, "Dr Dawn Whisper must never know what hit her."
More static drowned the conversation. Gene wrote down the address and number on a slip of paper and put it into his shirt pocket as he bolted.
On his way to the elevator, he nudged Joan Cooke carrying two cups of coffee from the vending machine. The burning coffee drenched her white linen suit as she screamed. "Did you forget to have your break or are you taking industrial strength laxatives?"
Gene barked, "Out of my way, extravert." He leapt into the elevator as the doors were closing.
"You'd better be working hard in twenty minutes when I put the cleaning bill on your desk--in advance." She called after him. "I'm taking this suit to the most expensive drycleaners in Beverly Hills."
Gene took the phone company van out of the lot and drove for a long while through the Los Angeles highrise jungle. He pulled into an alley across from the Russian Consulate where he could watch unseen.
A black Rolls Royce inched through the streets following close behind him and edged toward the building. Gene glanced at the 3:00 a.m. marker on his luminous dial watch.
Spotlights dazzled the alley next to the consulate office. Then a second Rolls back up car appeared two blocks behind the lead car and followed it.
Gene watched through binoculars as the two stocky men inside the Rolls monitored an impressive array of electronic gadgets.
Readouts pumped architectural data across their screen. Gene's binoculars scanned the diplomatic license plates that read CAL.BUX.
"These guys are professional hit men," Gene said to himself. "They dress the part." He watched one man inside the car shape a plastique bomb like it was an abstract sculpture and insert it into a cassette tape recorder.
The man put the tape recorder into his attache case. Up ahead the lead car's brake lights blinked in a pattern on signal from the second car.
Outside the Russian consultate building, the thin shadow of a tall man moved along the walls. Gene managed to crawl under the Rolls and stick a listening device beneath the fender. He dragged himself back to his car, unnoticed.
The two men in the Rolls spoke in English, but in a code that Gene couldn't crack. The fat man spoke tech-talk over Voicelink. "Gotta weasle dumped from target. Re-enlist second time. Brutus was brutish with his Cretan cutie. Let go. We got you on the subtle electric fire. Grid's skidding. Over."
Gene watched the lead car swirl into the diplomatic parking lot. The man in the second car also watched the lead car appear on his screen map as a glowing violet hexagon on a moving grid.
"What's that?" There are 134 dialects spoken in the Caucasus. The fat man in the second car spoke to his partner in one of those rare Caspian languages.
"Let's find out." The two men stared at each other a beat before going after Gene's phone company truck.
* * *
Three o'clock in the morning at the phone company, and Joan Cooke took her twenty-minute break. She strutted into the switcher's workstation and suddenly became enraged at Gene's absence from his computer screen. Bob frantically stabbed at the equipment, trying to repair static as it broke out of control on all the phone lines.
Joan leapt at Bob's machine with wielded screwdriver. "Where is Gene?"
"He's napping in the break room."
"Well, drag his butt in here. Call one of the others on the day list to come in if he's out. I'm going to give him a suspension."
"You're making a mistake. Gene will be back as soon as his break is over."
"You don't have anything under control."
"What's the matter, can't you get it up?"
Bob looked up at her from his workstation. "Maybe you can't get it down."
"You're the switchman around here."
Bob poured her coffee. "So why take that out on Gene? Didn't they teach you anything besides organizational development?"
"That man's incompetent." Joan sipped the coffee and sat on the edge of his desk.
"Gene's the best we've got here. The hiring freeze turned him into a hero." Bob spat in his coffee. "None of you female supervisors promoted up from clerks ever had a rat's ass course in electronics repair."
Joan leaped to her feet. "You're getting a poor evaluation, sucka! And so's Mr. Sleeping Beauty! Can't you guys sleep during the day? No. All of you have day jobs."
"That's just fine. So it's okay to sleep sitting at the workstation, but not in the break room during your legal break." Bob tossed a screwdriver against the equipment. This time Joan laughed loudly.
"No supervisor has to come in for the midnight shift. Look at me. Is anybody around here able to fix anything?"
"Sure as hell you can't," Bob laughed.
Outside the Russian Consulate, Gene's phone company truck remained parked in place and looking empty. Gene sat on the floor of the van. He installed a gadget he'd built at home as part of his P.I. correspondence course--a van periscope with infra-red binoculars.
He watched the Russians in their car as they watched him with their infra-red lenses. Gene can only see the outline of their car in the dark, but they can see his van.
Darsinov, the driver in the first car, watched the point car turn the corner on his grid map. "What was that shadow?" asked his partner, Deebyan, in a thick Slavic accent.
Using Voicelink, Darsinov wheezed, "Maybe it's the security man." Deebyan rolled his eyes at Darsinov.
Inside the lead car, a second unit, another two Russians, Mosky-Aslan and Norov shared a private joke. Mosky coughed and sputtered on his stifled laughter. "Am I hallucinating, or is that a phone company truck?" Norov asked.
"This late at night?" Mosky-Aslan yammered in a staccato, Central Asian accent that could only come from the north edge of the Caspian sea.
The two Soviets looked closer with binoculars and saw nothing more. Gene sat on the floor of his van.
"Why would the phone company leave their truck parked in front of the consulate all night?" Norov yammered flatulently. Mosky-Aslan answered with more staccato. "Maybe it broke down. Maybe someone took it for a joy ride. Who knows?"
Norov spat. "No. Someone's spying on us."
"So, we spy back."
Gene closed his phone truck silently. He glanced in the vehicle's mirror, turned his baseball cap backwards, and put on a phone installer's uniform.
He took out a wiretap and ducked behind a corner of the Consulate. The men with their infra-red night binoculars saw nothing but the empty van.
The wiretap cost him a month's salary. It translated Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and Farsi into English and fed back to a laptop computer within car phone range. And it came with his private investigator correspondence course in a plain brown wrapper.
Gene moved on his belly under the lead car with his wiretap. He attached it to the car's underside as effortlessly as if he were sticking a wad of gum under a school desk. The device pulsed a red light.
Gene bought it in one of those electronic stores that sells everything you want to know about eavesdropping to private investigators. The device acted as a transmitter to track the car. It was also a wiretap for the car's phone. Once more, it translated Russian into English as it flashed back to Gene's laptop computer.
Gene crawled out from under the parked car and moved on his belly to wiretap the second Russian's car exactly the same way. Then he crawled back to his van. He slowly opened the door and sat, cross-legged on the floor booting up his laptop computer. He quickly assembled his own P.I. infra-red periscope and watched through the homemade binoculars what was now happening in the lead car.
The two Soviets were still watching the van, peering at an empty seat. "I still see nothing," Norov complained.
A cat meowed loudly as it leapt into a garbage can. Norov and Mosky-Aslan jumped at the rattling noise and took a second look. They saw only the alley cat pass by. Mosky-Aslan sighed with relief. He said something scientific first in Russian, and then something religious in his Caspian mother-tongue so Norov wouldn't understand it.
"Speak in Russian," Norov whined. "I told you to only speak in Russian around me.
"That's not my first language," Mosky-Aslan shot back. "That's not even my real name. I'll always be an Azerbaijani...."
"Shut up!" Norov nudged him in the ribs. Norov turned the dial on his own listening device to hear the conversation inside the back seat of the lead car. One Soviet spy was wiretapping another Soviet spy. For a moment attention slipped off the phone company van.
Inside the lead car sat a man in his mid-twenties from a third world nation. Mr. Bayangi Sula. Next to him was Dr. Tanya Tamirova, head of exobiology research, Moscow.
The young and beautiful Russian doctor smiled at Bayangi. She took out a small leather case and opened it. Tanya held up a small dart covered with poison.
"This is an extract of Brazilian curare from the Jivaro head hunters of the Amazon. Here's the zombie powder from Haiti which paralyzes. And there's the dried venom from the Black Mamba snake of central Africa. It's truly an international solution."
Banyangi took the plastic-wrapped dart from her. "Nothing is too good for the man who married my sister, took all her money, and fed her flesh to the piranhas."
Tanya closed her attache case. "I can't understand why your sister put her name in one of those international mail-order bride catalogues.
"Can't you see that men who feel threatened by a woman of their own culture only marry foreigners because they want a punching bag? They feel so bad about themselves. What's lacking in your own culture that you seek in another? He probably thought she wanted his money."
"What about all those good marriages never in the media?"
Tanya pursed her lips. "Are you sure the wives never talk because they are so happy? They crouch in fear, unable to speak their husband's language. They're disoriented in a new country."
"Sometimes I wonder why there are no mail-order grooms catalogues. It makes me glad I'm a doctor." Tanya tossed Bayangi the keys to the Consulate's back entrance.
Gene listened in and watched through his own infra-red binocular periscope, unseen, the second car and the lead car. Bayangi and Tanya caught his attention. Nothing much was happening with Norov and Mosky-Aslan. Tanya's voice trembled with static on Gene's tape recorder. He turned the volume up to maximum.
Gene reached for his thermos of coffee on the seat and unscrewed the lid. He poured. A loud cackle of static blasted his ears as he was about to take a sip. It startled Gene into dropping the cup and spilled burning coffee into his lap.
Gene tensed the corded muscles of his chest as he cut the static on his wiretap. Suddenly, the tape recorder picked up every sound. He listened carefully as he watched Tanya and Bayangi with his periscope infra-red binoculars.
Bayangi loaded his dart gun. Gene watched both cars unseen as Bayangi hurried to the consulate building and opened the locked door.
Gene followed close behind Bayangi. The night security guard walked out, seeing the parked cars in front of the building. As he hurried to the cars, Bayangi slipped past the security guard unseen, but Gene stepped on an empty soda pop can and distracted the guard. Gene had to make a break for the floor of his truck.
Tanya motioned to her driver. "That American ambassador is an animal." He smiled and gazed at her through the car's mirror. "How many foreign diplomats go around marrying American women for their money and then murdering them?" Tanya asked.
"The studies have shown, comrade, that it's the cooks and chauffers with diplomatic immunity and the foreign students who marry the American girls. Then they murder them for their California Riviera real estate. Finally, they pillage the property. Diplomats never kill for sex, Dr. Tamirova. They work in triples--for raw, commercial land."
"Of course it's not a question of sex appeal," Tanya wheezed. "If a foreign lover thinks you like sex, he'll stop in the middle. Dr. Dawn Whisper announced it on her radio show last night. She's the media authority on what it takes to be a man's woman."
"Why does an American man stop in the middle?"
"Because he thinks he made you laugh."
"And a Russian?"
"Show him how much you like it, and he thinks you control his body with passion. So he stops in the middle to reclaim his power."
"That's pillage," the chauffeur agreed. "No one pillages anymore. What are we, pogrom Cossacks?"
"No, merely exobiologists from Samarkand."
Gene looked suspiciously at a police officer ahead of him. The officer began to chat with a night security guard near the Russian consulate building.
The sound of the motor running distracted the officer. Gene leaped out of his van, sneaked past the empty police car, and peeked in its window. He saw a riot gun and impulsively swiped it.
Up ahead the lead Rolls Royce burned and belched black smoke. Gene grapped the police car radio and broadcasted. "Private detective requesting back-up from city police and MediVac...Diplomats down in front of the Soviet Consulate building."
The armored bodies of Norov and Mosky spilled into the street. Tanya pulled her driver by his arm and dragged him out of her car.
Nothing went over the airwaves. Gene stammered. "It's a fake police car." He peered down the dark street. "The officer had the car up ahead wired and detonated."
Gene ducked into the shadows of a doorway as the police officer ran back to his car. He sped away without noticing Gene had grabbed the riot gun from the back seat.
Tanya dashed down the street as Gene ran for his truck. She ran into Gene and the riot gun. Tanya screamed as her body slammed into his in the blackness.
He beamed his pocket flashlight at her. As Tanya turned her head, Gene noticed a scar on her throat as if someone once slit it.
Gene spotlighted her z-shaped scar. Blinded by the glare, Tanya reacted automatically. She maced him.
"Get out of my way," Tanya cried.
"I can't see."
"Neither can I."
She tried to run, but Gene lurched out like a robot. He ripped a piece of her blouse off to rub his burning eyes. She pulled away. As the stinging subsided, Gene ran after her down the alley on the side of the building.
"Capitalist pig," Gene shouted to her. She turned and slapped his face.
Gene grabbed her shoulders as her driver sneaked up behind him. He raised his arm and came down hard with raw, red fury, hitting Gene on the back of his head with the handle of his Browning 9 millimeter. Gene pitched forward, his face in a puddle near the sewer drain.
The rain eased up a bit. The chauffer lit a cigarette, took a puff, and bent on one knee. He pushed up Gene's shirt sleeve. Then he stubbed out the butt in Gene's bare armpit.
Gene winced and squinted at them groggily. "I'm back in business." He faded in and out of consciousness.
"What happened to glasnost?" Tanya asked.
The driver looked up at her like a basset hound. "Apparently, the Soviet Foreign Service is run by American organized crime."
Tanya bent down and examined Gene. She turned his head so his nose was out of the rain puddle.
"Leave him." Tanya sighed. "He has the braincase of a Java ape man."
* * *
12:30 A.M. THURSDAY
Gene found no time to suppress a headache. He monitored phone calls unblinkingly for relaxation. Groggily, he tested the line for voice quality, tuning in on the Soviet Consulate building.
He wiretapped the Consulate so all its phone lines went directly into the phone company's switching office. There Gene recorded the calls on a small tape recorder he locked inside his top desk drawer. Gene made sure the wiretapping always occurred directly from the phone company switching office.
Bob whistled. "Did I ever teach you how to wiretap any phone from this office?" His green eyes glistened like tidepools, reflecting the luminescent phone numbers dying down his screen.
"Tell me something I don't know, for once." Gene laughed out of one side of his lips. "Anyone working in the switching office can wiretap every line from here." A flood of data coruscated across his monitor.
Gene tuned into Dr. Whisper's radio talk show during break time. Then he went back to monitoring more voices. As he listened in on a midnight call coming out of the Russian Consulate, a man's voice caught his attention.
"You didn't finish with the hound of the bitch box."
"She'll be at the Consulate party." The second male voice had a thick accent.
"How will I get in?"
"It's a private party for some ambassador from one of those Latin American countries and his Austrian whore. You'll receive an invitation in the mail."
The second voice broke out in fiendish laughter. "Dr. Whisper don't know two million is on the way to her, yet. See to it she never finds out."
Gene busied himself tracing the phone call to a particular office in the Consulate. He wrote down a code number and kept recording the conversation.
At the end of his shift, Gene went home as usual. He expected the relentless insomnia that plagued him since the age of twelve. Gene remembered the first morning of the seventh grade when his head shattered the windshield. The family car ran into a drunken school bus driver making a kamikaze run at seven in the morning.
Instead of insomnia, drowsiness and double vision shoved him down a deep hole. Gene remembered someone rammed a funnel in his mouth and forced him to swallow a drug to put him out.
He convulsed into a troubled sleep that stimulated the right hemisphere of his brain. Loud auditory hallucinations commanded him from somewhere just in front and above his face. He tossed about to dodge the voices, but there was no where to hide.
At eleven in the morning, his clock radio alarm buzzed loudly, shocking him out of a deep, drugged sleep. The pain in his head throbbed like a gargoyle's wings in hardening cement.
Gene turned over as a wave of weakness hit him. He felt a stinging sensation in his forearm and instinctively rubbed it. As he looked down, it bled with puncture marks.
Someone had broken in here last night, he thought. He dialed Bob.
"Someone injected me with something to make sure I was out until that alarm went off."
Bob sighed heavily into the receiver. "Maybe you dreamed."
"No, I'm telling you, someone's on to me since I went out there last night."
"You went where last night?"
"Nevermind, Bob. It's just that someone hit me and left me lying in the street for an hour."
"Did some security guard press charges?" Bob whined. "Geez, why do you always look for trouble? What's the matter, is your job getting too routine?"
Gene looked around his room. "You never asked whether I'm hurt. Don't answer. I'll see you at midnight." He hung up on Bob.
Bob's wife was listening on the extension. "More trouble?"
"What a jerk!" Bob said to his wife. "This guy I sit next to at work...he's always sticking his nose into other people's business."
"That's because he's single, right?"
"No," Bob replied. "It's because management passed him over for a promotion to supervisor. Instead they promoted some dumb broad from the clerical pool."
"So? Without the union behind management, she'll be the first to be fired as surplus when the lay-offs start. They need you, honey. You're skilled craft."
"Not any longer, tootsa. Craft's surplus now that computers went fiber optic."
Bob's wife flipped another apricot pancake onto her plate. Bob fell silent.
Electronic noises took over as he slumped in front of the television and drifted into an elevated, altered state with the latest tabloid morning talk show.
Gene dragged himself out of bed and drowsily stumbled into the shower. He pulled the curtain aside and was about to turn on the hot water when he looked down into the stall.
Curled up in a fetal position was the nude body of the Russian doctor, Tanya, he met briefly last night. Gene jumped back at first. Then he bent down to touch her.
She was cold and deader than piles strangled by a rubber band, he thought. There were two empty champagne glasses turned over and stuck onto her small, round breasts. A corked bottle of champagne floated on the water which just covered her body. A box of bubble bath was half-empty. The bubbles still floated on the surface of the cold water.
Gene put his hand into the water and touched her shoulder. It was cold as rigor mortis. He rushed to his phone and called the police.
Detective Peter White was the first to enter Gene's apartment, followed by two officers. Then the coroner came, and then the photographer.
"Someone strangled her sometime during the night. The coroner says between two and four in the morning." White sneered as he sat next to Gene's on the narrow bed. "Maybe you have a multiple personality that's hiding this morning?"
"I work the midnight shift," Gene stammered.
"Well check it out."
Gene leaned over the body as White held him by the arm.
For a moment he studied her throat. The scar isn't there, Gene thought. He was about to touch her neck when White pulled him back.
The scar on Tanya's throat flashed briefly in his mind. It was the first detail he noticed, almost as if she wanted him to see a signal to distinguish her.
"Call the F.B.I." Gene demanded.
White circled him. "Someone strangled her with this telephone cable."
He whipped a cord of telephone wire around Gene's neck. "Does that sound familiar?"
Gene stared him down. "Don't look at me."
"You're our suspect."
"The first woman to enter my new apartment leaves in a plastic bag. How's that for housewarming?" He poked around in the bathroom.
"Don't go in there," White shouted.
Gene noticed from a corner of his eye that a small change purse protruded from behind his toilet bowl. He put his foot over the purse and kicked it out of sight behind the toilet.
"Can I use the toilet for a moment?"
"Go take your leak," White coughed.
Gene scooped up the tiny purse and wedged it into the hollow cardboard toilet paper roll. White called out from outside the open bathroom door where he stood with his back toward Gene for a moment of privacy. "Odd, isn't it?"
"That you'd go to all the trouble of having a tub installed inside a shower stall."
"That's the landlord's business. I just rent a bachelor studio." Gene called out.
"Don't bother flushing. We have to check the tank for evidence."
"Who was she?" Gene shouted.
"Don't you know?" White taunted.
"How'd she get into my tub? All I know is I came here after work, and passed out."
"Didn't you use the bathroom last night?"
"I didn't open the shower curtain."
White walked around Gene's apartment. He snooped in the drawers. "How can you stand living in such a small bachelor pad?"
Gene walked out and answered a knock on his door. The coroner came in, squeezed past Gene, and took a sample of water from the tub. Gene looked at the flask as the coroner bagged it.
White walked into the bathroom. The three men pushed past one another until White grabbed Gene by the shoulders and held him briefly over the tub. The coroner pulled the plug. They watched as the water gurgled down the drain. At the bottom a yard of telephone cable snaked back and forth. It had a telephone jack at one end.
"Looks like we might have found the murder weapon," White said to the coroner. He put the length of cable in a plastic bag.
Gene looked at it closely. "That's the special cable we installed in the foreign consulates on their request."
"We'll get back to you about the consulates. Don't take any sudden trips."
The coroner gave him an empty plastic bag. "Don't flush your toilet until I return."
"And what am I supposed to do with this?"
White shoved past Gene forcefully. As Gene bent over the toilet to give White space to reach the bathroom door, the purse dropped from his shirt pocket into the toilet. He started to retrieve it when his elbow accidentally hit the flush lever.
The tiny purse swirled and went down the drain. Gene frowned with the most awful look of disappointment.
The coroner spun around in the small bathroom and yammered. "You actually flushed that toilet!" He squinted at White who stood in the bathroom doorway brushing the jamb for fingerprints.
"I'm sorry. This room's like a closet," Gene stammered.
Gene settled into a chair next to the bed. His head hung down, and he mumbled under his breath. The floor rippled with stripes of shadow. He stared blankly, held there by the weight of his fear. White opened the drapes, staring outside for a moment at the bright sunshine of a hot morning. The drapes were navy blue and darkened the room again as he finally closed them.
The ceiling shattered into motion by a fan that appeared to arch and stretch. White leaned forward. Gene wrenched away from White, who stepped closer and held him, pulling him to his feet. Gene wrenched away as if stung in the forehead by a bullet. He noticed how White's head made unconscious contact with the shoulders of the coronor and the fingerprint officer as they filed by his coffin-like apartment.
He sensed his own retreat to animal grace after the long betrayal. Gene kept silent and motionless until the fingerprint man took his prints on a piece of tape to match it with what he might find on the shower stall or tub.
White handed him a test tube. "Give me a semen sample."
The fingerprint men pulled the sheet off Gene's bed and dropped it into a plastic bag. White pointed to the bathroom.
"We'll compare what's on the bedsheet to what's inside the corpse. Then we'll do a DNA match on you."
White put his hand on Gene's shoulder, drawing over him like a blanket. Gene sneered, crouched down like an animal, and screamed. "The thrill of power!"
White laughed, looked askance at the coroner, and repeated. "Come downtown with me to do a blood test. Stay in town. You're still our only suspect."
"Fish and disinfectant, the air smells of fish and disinfectant," the coronor complained as he hurried through the door.
"How do I appear to you?" Gene asked with impatience.
White opened the heavy drapes again and looked up. "You know what I say to every suspect?" He took a little white business card out of his pocket and handed it to Gene.
"The sun is heavy as a magnet to which all the souls have stuck."
"Okay. I needed to know whether you're learning disabled or illiterate. Believe me, it's important."
"Don't get funny with me," Gene blurted. "I bet all the dyslectics are suspects. I hope they sue you."
"I'm dyslectic," White said. "I learned to read in community college, and it took me fourteen years. So what does that make me, a killer or a cop? The prisons are filled with impulsive people who can't read."
"What shall I say?" Gene turned his back on White. "Can I trust you with my life to find out who set me up? Can a dyslectic detective fight a corrupt legal system? Or am I alone with a demon?"
"So now I'm incompetent?"
"Maybe too competent and corrupt. Who paid you to set me up?" Gene confronted White. "Cops with a problem overcompensate. I listen to the Dr. Dawn show, so I'm not crazy."
White pulled back the drapes and saw writing on his window. "Did you scrawl this stuff?" White sniffed at the writing.
"What do you mean?" Gene went to the window.
"I never saw that graffiti before."
The coronor came over and scraped a sample. Then the fingerprint man dusted the window.
"Lipstick," the coroner said, feeling the waxy, red material. "It's fresh."
Gene interrupted them. "That stuff melted from the heat of the sun. Maybe it was there when I moved in the apartment five years ago."
"No," the fingerprint man said. "It's fresh. I'll test it to make sure." He put scrapings into a plastic bag. "When the forensic lab report comes back, we'll know for sure."
"Do you want to tell us something?" White shot him a hard squint. A wet, hacking cough exploded point blank in Gene's face.
Gene barely breathed as he hurried past the coroner who dialed a phone number. He nodded to White. "I'm a licensed private investigator." Gene moved without a sound. "I've got to make a stop at work."
"Do you have any clients?"
"Doctor Dawn Whisper."
* * *
2:OO P.M. THURSDAY
Gene drove to work, requisitioned for a repairman's van, and reached the Russian Consulate building as fast as he could drive through Hollywood traffic.
He walked through the lobby in street clothes, signed on for the public tour, and wished the receptionist happy glasnost October revolution day. She smiled broadly. "This is our first open house."
"I'm so sorry communism collapsed like an empty womb," Gene said bitingly.
"Oh, don't be sorry." The receptionist pursed her full lips. "When I get out of U.C.L.A, I'm going to make films and three hundred million dollars like your moguls."
"No you won't pretty lady," Gene cackled through his chewing gum. "Sexual harrassment's gonna getcha."
A beautiful tour guide came over. Gene noticed that she looked exactly like Tanya. Was she Tanya's twin, he thought? He did a double take.
Gene thought, is this the real Tanya? Or was the body in his tub the real Tanya? Is she a twin or a triplet? What's going on? He thought some more, wondering whether his eyes were playing tricks.
Gene circled around the tour guide. He noticed the same scar on her throat that Tanya had when he met her last night. It was a z-shaped scar, red, newly healed, and dotted with stitch or staple holes.
Someone did a crude job of sewing up her throat, he thought. Gene wondered, why would a doctor permit that kind of workmanship.
He looked down at her scar. Gene knew she was Tanya, and that the woman in the tub was the real tour guide who was her lookalike or twin.
Or maybe the scar was of the paste-on variety. Gene wondered why. He followed the tour guide back to her desk in the lobby.
"Haven't we met before, twice? Once in my bathtub. Or are you a triplet? And why'd you have your buzzard-faced chauffer knock me over the head?"
The tour guide backed up, confused, ignoring his words. "I'm sorry."
"You should be."
Her accent was thick. "I'm Miss Azeri. The Consulate Open House Tour will be leaving in five minutes. If you haven't already signed our books, please do so now."
"Are you Russian?"
"No, I lived in Samarkand for a decade, but I come from Kurdistan."
"Then why would a Kurd work as a tour guide in the Russian consulate? You should be in Iraq fighting for your people. I read nerve gas was used to supress the Kurds. Some fled to the Soviet Union."
"My mother's Russian and she works here."
"That explains why a Kurd would flee to Samarkand where a Turkish dialect is spoken. I would have thought a Kurd would go to Iran."
"The Kurdish language is not Indo-European, it's Kavkaz. We would not go to Iran. We would go deeper into the Caucasus mountains."
"Oh, just checking. When I went to private eye school, they gave us half a dozen books on Soviet ethnology. It blew my mind."
"Most Americans wouldn't know a Russian from an Uzbek."
Gene signed on as the tour guide eyed him with annoyance. He looked her over.
It was Tanya, he thought, but so was that body in his bathroom with the same fake scar. Gene reached out to rip off the scar from her throat when a security guard's hand caught his strongly.
"I know American men would like to touch our women, but it is against the rules of the tour." The guard towered over Gene and outweighed him by a hundred pounds.
"My plastic surgeon could help you. I'm sorry."
"It's all right." The tour guide waved her rigid hand horizontally at the guard. He went to the rear of the tourist line and checked behind him for stragglers.
The tour proceeded quickly from one empty assembly room to the dining hall. Gene followed the telephone cable to a small room off the tour.
A crowd of curious Americans gathered for a moment around the long dining table to study the stoneware and menus.
"Do you people still serve borscht and kasha knishes at diplomatic dinners?" A man from the tour asked. There was a peal of laughter.
"I used to wolf down ten kasha knishes an hour when I lived in Brighton Beach," the man continued.
A lady with a thick accent replied. "It's Odessa by the sea now because so many Russian immigrants moved near Coney Island. I bet there's more Russians in New York than in California. What do you think?"
"I like the weather on the West coast better," the tour guide answered.
"Brighton Beach Russian immigrants are mostly Jewish," the man said.
"That's right," the tour guide added. " And remember that Brighton Beach Russian immigrants came as Jews from Babylonia between 500 and 900 A.D. Rabbinical scholars went to the Crimea and then to Russia to teach the Kuzaris their religion."
The same man raised his voice and spoke in a New York accent." All I really wanted to know is whether you served borscht with sour cream which is high in cholesterol or non-fat yogurt?" Another wave of laughter shook the crowd.
"Don't get me wrong, but I think you're diplomats are dropping left and right because of those high-fat menus. Again there was a peal of laughter.
"I bet more Russians died from Eastern European cooking than fell in the World Wars."
"I get the picture," the tour guide shouted in a nasal voice. "All right. Russia has her stand up comics, too."
"How come you people always say mother Russia instead of the fatherland?"
"Well, that's obvious," the tour guide said angrily. The Nazis referred to Germany as the fatherland. Now let's get on with the tour."
She picked up a piece of silverware. "This pattern represents our tribute to women as doctors. More than seventy-five percent of our doctors are female."
"Maybe that explains why physicians are the lowest paid professionals in the Soviet Union," the funny man blurted.
"What Soviet Union?" A woman in the crowd laughed.
The tour guide was losing control of her group. "Lighten up, this is glasnost open house. Enjoy the tour." Her breath came raggedly with impotent hostility. The tourists admired some beautifully hand-painted plates.
Gene seized that opportunity to duck into the small room. He followed the phone wire. The tour guide was too busy lecturing on the history of Russian consulates on the West coast to notice he left the tour group.
"The meetings are not in session." A glint of humor shone in the tour guide's eyes. "So if you'll follow me, friends..."
Gene entered another small room in the consulate that looked like a walk-in closet. It lead to a sliding door, and he pushed it aside. He followed the phone cable to a small office room upstairs.
Searching around, he slipped a wiretap device over the consulate's anti-bugging equipment to override it. Gene spliced some cable and attached another listening device near a desk phone. He plugged a wiretap into the fax machine.
Down the hall Gene heard the footsteps of the security guard coming closer behind the closed door. He quickly dumped a wastebasket onto the floor and flashed his penlight/camera on a scrap of paper.
It came from a memo pad. He studied the pen indent marks of a phone number scrawled and then scratched out. Gene rubbed a pencil over the indentation marks on the paper. It revealed a phone number. He copied it into his own shirt-pocket address book.
Gene recognized the man's voice. It was the guy who said he paid to have Dawn murdered.
He never forgot a voice in his photographic memory, not after years of monitoring for voice quality. The nasal accent was unmistakable.
"Hello, who's there?" The man's voice repeated.
"Sir, the phone company's testing your lines."
"Everything's fine at this end."
"I'm sorry," Gene insisted. "This is your area customer representative. We've never received any payments for your last six bills. May I have your name for billing proof?"
"It's not in my name. I'm a house guest."
"May I have the name and address where you're a guest?"
"You tell me, phoneman." He spoke in a nasty voice. "You have the records, or you wouldn't be dialing me." There was a click.
He heard a key in the office door and scurried out into the closet, through the sliding door, and back into another small office near the dining hall.
"Were you looking for something?" Surprise siphoned the blood from the tour guide's cheeks.
"Where's the head?" Gene suddenly took notice of his shoes.
"You mean our Ambassador?"
"No, the john, the comfort station."
"Wait a minute....I'll walk you."
He stumbled next to the tour guide staring at his shoe laces. She stopped at the end of the corridor in front of a mahogony door.
"I'll wait outside and then escort you back to the group." She rocked back and forth on her high heels.
In a minute or two Gene rejoined the tour group and followed the crowd through all the rooms of the consulate building.
"What about any secret rooms or passages?" Gene looked directly at the red, z-shaped scar across the tour guide's throat.
"This is the electronic age," the tour guide laughed.
"Really?" Gene's voice rose.
"Did you know that when Russians have to pause out loud they close their mouths and say, m-m-m? When Americans reach dead air while speaking, they open their mouths and insert the sound, o-h-m? Each language fills up dead air space with a different sound. That's how to crack a spy's cover."
"Until they can think of something new to say?"
"I learned about each country's taboo colors and different sounds people make when they're in pain in my private investigator correspondence course."
"Why do you want me to think you're dumb and innocent?"
"Oh, I'm a Teddy Bear." Gene smiled broadly. "Do you ever listen to radio broadcast psychologists?"
He radiated charisma that drew her like a magnet, and the smoldering flame she saw in his black eyes swept her into motion. "Look at these newly painted walls. The color is lemon meringue with ochre. It's the favorite hues of our latest leader."
"I like the way you stripe drab colors over pastels. It makes a man want to defect from the cake to the icing." Gene smiled.
"I bet you don't know the taboo color of Russian society," she said softly.
"Well, let's see," Gene thought a moment. "Blue is taboo in China. White starts a fight in Japan. Write in red and you're dead in Saudi Arabia. Green isn't keen in Russia."
She walked ahead of him and turned her head to look back. "Don't tell me. You heard that on the radio too."
"Beats watching television." Gene walked beside her now, his hands in his pockets. "You should listen to Dr. Whisper. She knows all about diplomatic immunity. She even has a vaccine for it, a book which sold two million copies last year."
3:00 P.M. THURSDAY
Doctor Dawn Whisper ran along a private California beach and down a long pier. Her cerise thong-bikini fit her as if she painted it on with lipstick.
The wind tore through her ebony spiral shoulder-length curls, and the sun tanned her dark olive skin to mahogony. Dawn had the slim, winged-goddess look of an Egyptian Venus. Her full, red lips never ceased asking the fatal riddles of the Sphynx.
Any man who listened to her cold commands obeyed instantly, losing his "analog I," personal space, and finally, his consciousness.
Dawn permitted no space to think between her command and her listener's compulsion to act prompty. She was the goddess and men wanted to make their idol happy. After all, they carved her themselves from the typing pool and night school.
Dawn thought as she ran down the pier. I'm a voice, an auditory hallucination that imprints in my listener's brain...in the right hemisphere opposite Wernicke's area on the left. I'm going to use info-mercials, she thought. I'll run print ads with black background and white writing with my photograph in white on black to imprint their brains.
Dawn ran a list of guerrilla marketing tactics through her mind how she was going to increase listeners to her station, her midnight show. Who sleeps in Hollwyood? She thought again about seeing Craig now.
On her vacation, Dawn rushed to keep her last date with Craig Evans, her ex-fiance. He'd called her and asked her to go cruising for the weekend so he could have his lawyer work out their palimony division of property. She'd get the computer, and he'd get the fax machine, she thought.
Dawn eyed Craig's sports fishing boat in the distance. He stood on deck toying with a pole, reeling in the line in a leisurely way as she ran toward him.
Craig opened an ice chest and wiggled a bottle of her favorite mineral water at her as she boarded the boat. She noticed he was shirtless, tanned, and his knees protruded from the holes in his jeans.
She quickly analyzed him in her mind. Craig was a passion killer, a dance-away lover, she thought.
Dawn made up her mind to ask for her half of the property in the Beverly Hills condo they both had furnished together. For the past year, they were platonic roommates, each paying half their salaries to meet the high mortgage payments.
"How's life treating you?" Craig kissed the top of her head.
Her unsteady gaze bore into him in silent expectation. "I'm still surpassing my wildest dreams." Craig swung her into the circle of his arms.
Two divers dressed in scuba equipment circled underneath the bottom of Craig's sailboat. Dr. Tanya Tamirova pitted her Soviet-made scuba gear against the paraphernalia her driver outfitted himself with in West Hollywood.
Tanya strapped her underwater rifle between her legs. She motioned to her chauffeur where to stick his detonator.
The two swam silently carrying their equipment under the pier, skimming the bottom of Craig's boat. Tanya helped her chauffeur to plant her remote control rifle securely under the center of the deck.
Her electronic detonating device allowed the rifle to fire through the flimsy boards of the sailboat floor from a distance by remote control. It worked exactly like the remote control device that makes a model airplane fly.
Six feet above Craig's large hand took her face and held it gently. "Are you ready for the cruise of your life?"
"Sorry, love, but our two ships already passed in the night."
Craig put his arms around Dawn and carried her onto the deck. "You can keep the furniture." She was curious, seeing the change on his face.
"Why did you come all the way out here if not to take this cruise with me, darling?" Craig asked.
"I'm trying to find out who put a contract out on my life for writing that unauthorized biography of our fine ambassador."
Craig's mouth covered hers hungrily. She leaned into him until he pulled away as she was letting go.
"You're still the same stubborn clown I took pity on in college." He yawned with a long, exhausted sigh.
"At least spend the day with me in Catalina. No obligation to buy."
She thought for a moment. "Only if you promise to settle everything today. I don't want to come running out here again for paperwork."
The boat drifted into the calm waters. Craig turned on the music tapes and gazed into her face. "The sunlight in your violet eyes shone like bits of gleaming porcelain. Your dark hair is as beautiful as black satin," he smiled.
She danced slowly to the music. "Where'd you read those lines, Craig, in my book?"
"Of course." Her reaction amused him. His mouth twitched, and her lips trembled with the need to smile. "You're a fortune-hunter. If I pass the word around every man with status or money will be on guard."
Craig pulled her closer. She insisted again. "Let's not waste important time. Somebody's trying to kill me, and I think you know who it is."
"I just came back from those medical conferences in the Soviet Union. What would a pathologist know about diplomatic crime or immunity?"
"You're an expert on tropical poisons, Craig. That's the crux of my book on diplomatic immunity."
There was a cold edge of irony in his speech. "Do you have any rich relatives who died recently and left you a lot of money?"
"Relatives?" She thought a moment. "What has that to do with someone trying to murder me for writing a book exposing diplomats?"
"Well, if you had rich relatives who died and left you lots of money, then you'd stop being such a...fortune hunter."
"I have scruples." Her voice was deep and dusty. "My visibility keeps me in the public eye. I make more than you do. My books are best-sellers, and I have a doctorate in clinical psychology."
"You don't have to defend yourself, darling. You're a loser."
"I know you can pick up the phone and cancel my program in a minute, and my books will go out of print."
"That's why you need an anchor to offer some stability in your life. A pathologist will always have an income. You're nothing without me."
"Honey, without you, I go to sleep knowing I'll be alive in the morning."
"You're so financially insecure, that no matter how many millions your books earn, you'll always need an audience."
"Craig, please, let's not argue on our last time together."
"You'll go to any extreme to get attention, Doctor Loneliness. Maybe that's why you're the ultimate performer. Look at your audience--night crawlers."
Craig threw back his head and let out a thunder of laughter. Then he pulled her close to him, and they danced slowly. She thought to herself, he needs therapy.
"Would you like to share your pain with me, Craig?"
"Poor darling. You transferred the conflict between your dependency on your mother and your hostility toward her to me and probably other women."
"It's you who need therapy, darling," Craig teased. "Why would an achiever like you fall into the arms of the doctor who abuses her?"
"Abuse, Craig?" She struggled against a wave of nausea. "I need you only to sign the quitclaim deed on my condo."
"My attorney handles the paperwork."
A short distance away Tanya's motorboat bobbed unseen behind a rock. She and her driver climbed aboard. Tanya smiled fiendishly as she picked up a pair of binoculars and peered at Craig's boat.
Tanya unpacked her remote control electronic device. Her driver peered through his binoculars as Craig and Dawn danced to the center of the sailboat.
The chauffeur slipped the binoculars back to Tanya. She watched and waited until Craig stood over the center spot she'd marked on his boat the last time she was on it. "What's it going to be, then? Do I still have a chance with you?"
"I'm afraid it's over, Craig. I feel off-balance every time we finish a conversation on anything."
"You are off-center. Besides, the loss of balance has a purpose. It replaces a defective consciousness."
"I don't need your verbal abuse to replace my consciousness automatically by my unconscious. When I'm with you, I'm lonely. And everytime I want to express my feelings you crush me...you, you introvert! I can't keep it in any longer. I have to share this with someone."
"Maybe you can tell me why every woman in my life is a
There was a cold edge of irony in Dawn's voice. "If a man thinks you like sex, he'll stop in the middle."
Craig wound her hair around his fingers. "It's instinctive."
"The same fire that melts wax hardens steel," Dawn said with quiet emphasis. "I chose a proverb and use it as my goal, to prove a point."
"Why? What point?"
"How appropriate I've chosen an Arab proverb as my goal, Craig."
"You've proved everything in that book of yours. I told you your words will kill you someday. That's what happens when you share, when you open your mouth."
"The public has a right to know about diplomatic immunity crimes."
"People high up in power play for high stakes. You know you're not essential to anyone."
Her voice was like silken wood. "Remember when you went to that Leningrad conference and the ones in Moscow and in Central America? I followed your research on tropical poisons used by Soviet spies on their defectors. Maybe I guessed right when I named the creeps who are flooding the Soviet black market with street drugs. They knew too much.
"You're as crazy as your clients."
"Really? I found your research notebook in the possession of the American Ambassador the same day he murdered his wife with a poison stronger than cobra venom."
"She died of a blood infection."
"No, Craig. He stabbed her in the thigh with a tiny pellet on the end of an umbrella spike. She hardly felt it. The coronor said there was nothing but a small, round spot they thought was a tick bite."
"It was lyme disease."
"Lyme disease is treatable. Nothing could be done to save the Ambassador's wife because he had her killed. She knew what he was up to."
"He had diplomatic immunity. Maybe you didn't know his wife's family ran a drug ring from the tip of Latin America to the Soviet black market."
"I see you've read my book."
The ferocity of his passion was frightening. "There's nothing new in your book," Craig said. "That method of poisoning with an umbrella spike has been in television films and espionage documentaries many times.
"So? Then it's a common method you can read about in any intellligence book store frequented by foreign government agents."
Craig's voice strained. "Oh, sure. There are chains of intelligence bookstores everywhere."
"Well, look at the recurring ads in those spy and mercenary magazines. If they didn't bring in business, the suppliers would stop advertising."
"I think people are incapable of understanding and accepting any point of view other than their own."
"Then why are so many people trying to kill me for writing it?
"Probably because every time you write a book you choose a blasted proverb and then try to prove it throughout the book. How simplistic, dry, and boring. Where's your passion, your emotion, your enthusiasm? Why do you pick a ridiculous proverb and then try to make it come true?
"How else do you prove a point?" Dawn's feeling sank as if she were standing on a fish. "What's your proverb, Craig? Come on, everybody has a proverb to live by. It helps you reach your goal. What's yours? All that glitters isn't gold? Or everything that's good is costly?"
Craig's voice thawed. "No." He paused a beat. "I don't need to chatter high-flown gibberish."
"What's the matter? Doesn't your fantasy have free-play anymore?"
"How does one do one's 'duty' to oneself?"
"You take yourself too seriously, Craig."
"Maybe it's time we both lightened up." His broad shoulders heaved as he sighed with impatience.
"I know what makes me grow toward the light." She held eye contact. He glanced away first.
Dawn reached for the bottle of mineral water, stepping away for a moment, leaving Craig over the spot.
While her back turned toward him, Craig pulled a length of telephone cable wire from under a towel. He quickly wrapped it around Dawn's neck. Dawn struggled as he began to strangle her from behind.
Her arms flailed wildly, but couldn't reach him. It was so quick, she couldn't scream before the cable wire silenced her voice to a whisper.
He pulled her back to that center of the deck as she tried to kick him in the groin. He prepared for that and shoved his knee and thigh between her legs. It looked as if they were dancing the Lambada as Tanya watched the struggling from her motorboat.
Dawn wrestled with him. She put up the most exquisite fight for her life as his grip tightened the wire around her throat. She tried a karate kick. Dawn tried to bite his nose, but couldn't get that close to his face.
She tried to squat and reach out for the fishing pole propped against the table, and grabbed it. Dawn slapped him across the face with the fishhook. He wrestled it out of her hand, and the pole flew overboard.
At the last breath of her life, Craig kissed her hotly on her foaming, blue lips. A final jolt of adrenalin allowed her to push against him once more, but he didn't budge and wrapped his legs around her waist.
Tanya looked through her binoculars and saw Craig sitting on the marked spot. She gave her driver the horizontal sweep of her hand. He detonated the electronic device's remote control. It set off the underwater rifle, an automatic firing weapon that sent a round of bullets from underneath the boat into Craig's groin.
Dawn screamed as the bullets ripped through Craig's body, barely missing her. His blood splattered her body as he staggared and keeled overboard still holding onto the cable wire. It wrapped tightly around his knuckles. He went down hard.
Dawn coughed, took a few labored breaths, and took a flying leap over the edge of the drifting sailboat. In the distance, Tanya laughed as her driver put his arms around her shoulders.
"Craig shouldn't have betrayed me with that woman. She doesn't love him like I did, and she's a medical school dropout."
The driver smiled back. "I don't see any Craig."
Tanya shrugged her shoulders and inhaled sharply. "Find me another man. I'm nothing without a man to beat down to size." She fingered the red, z-shaped scar across her throat.
"Yes, doctor Tamirova." His eyes narrowed as he dusted off his hands.
Dawn circled the boat and swam toward the cove, an underground grotto she played in when she was a child. The sailboat drifted away as Dawn reached the cove. As she pushed upwards to rise from the shallow water, Dawn bumped into Craig's floating body.
She screamed hoarsely, reached down to drag him out of the water, but saw how mutilated his dead body was. She finally dragged him onto the beach and left, too tired to examine him further.
Dawn stumbled away naked, her thong bikini and strapless top torn away by the brisk swim to shore. She sobbed and spoke to herself. I've got guts. I'm in charge of my survival, and I'll get it all together.
She snaked out of the water and looked out from behind a rock near the sea cave. Then she crawled through a hole in the rock. She pushed herself down a crawl space in the small grotto. Dawn finally slithered out on the inside of a sandstone sea cave riddled with seagulls, pigeons, and a few bats.
Dawn stumbled and slipped on the bird droppings as the noise of helicopters circled overhead. She ran the gauntlet of the cave, slipped and fell in the droppings and rotted seaweed.
She pulled herself up again and then slipped on a pool of slime coming face to face with the carcass of a dead rat. The stench made her light-headed as she bolted up and ran. The live rats and squirrels scurried beneath her bare feet. Dawn twisted her legs avoid stepping on them.
She ran what felt like a mile to the cave opening on the other side of the sandstone beach cliff. Dawn finally emerged in a sheltered children's beach crowded with toddlers and mothers.
A pre-school class assembled at the mouth of the cave. She counted a few teachers, aides, and a gaggle of pointing, gawking four-year olds. She walked naked through the gauntlet of glazed stares, mother's hoots and teacher's warnings. A young girl cried, "I'm calling the police."
Dawn found a pizza-stained newspaper in a beach trash can. She wrapped it around her torso and trekked through the hot sand that burned her bare feet.
A queue of students and teacher's aides surrounded an ice-cream and snack stand about two hundred feet ahead. Dawn ran and was out of breath when she sidled up to the stand.
"Where's the nearest phone?"
"Didn't you ever hear of waiting your turn in line, lady?"
The sand's heat was unbearable without sandals. "Please, it's an emergency!"
The teenage boy in front of her grimaced to get her attention. She looked over his shoulder at the concessionaire. He pointed to the phone next to the restroom and showers further ahead.
Another four hundred feet of burning sand and she reached the pools of wet sand and leaking showers. There was two phones. One was out of order. She ran up two steep flights of splintered stares to a grass and concrete foot path above the beach.
Dawn sighed with exhaustion. She ducked into the restroom and looked in the mirror, holding the stained newspaper from her neck to her mid-thighs. Craig's drying blood caked in her matted hair.
The showers were ice cold. She put her newspaper on the sink while she showered. Suddenly the cleaning matron walked in and tossed it in the can.
"Don't toss that!" Dawn screeched. She opened her eyes under the needle showers as the cleaning lady walked out of the stenchingly hot room.
I hate public bathrooms, Dawn thought. She muttered to herself angrily. Dripping wet, the ice-cold concrete floor was a relief from the hot sand to her bare feet. Dawn dipped her arm into the trash can and waded through yesterday's disposable diapers, paper towels, and tissues. She retrieved the sticky newspaper.
She wrapped it around her torso. Dawn ran her fingers through her hair until she found her silver metal clip baret still intact on the back of her head. She transferred the baret to the newspaper to hold it together. Poking two holes in the paper, she clipped the baret, and it held.
Dawn reached the street. An infinity of quiet, white cottages with Spanish tiled rooftops stood in a row all covered with red geraniums. She found the telephone, and it was out of order.
A block down the coastal street which hugged the beach, she found a cafe. In the back a small gift shop sold sea shell art objects.
The young, beach crowd in the dainty cafe stopped their chatter and looked her over. "What's the matter?" Dawn screeched. "Can't I make a fashion statement for pizza stains?"
No one reacted. Her voice rose again. "Well, when is someone going to help me? I'm not making a T.V. commercial dressed in this stinking newspaper."
The waitress rushed over to her. "No body's ever going to get involved in this place, honey."
"Don't you want to ask me what happened?"
"So, who raped your? Who left you like this?" The waitress sneered at her. "I'll call the police for you."
"Obviously, I don't have coins for the phone outside." Dawn grew more hostile. She flashed a section of thigh for the waitress in front of the restrooms in the back, where the phones were.
"Lady, forget rape and think murder. I lost my bikini while swimming. I need some clothing before I call the police to tell them what I saw."
"Okay, just stay calm. I'll get you my other uniform from the back."
"I am calm. I have to be. I'm a psychologist, and I just saw my ex-fiance murdered on his boat."
The pretty blonde waitress ran into the kitchen and grabbed a green uniform from a hook on the back of the door. She handed it to Dawn.
"At least you can walk in the street." The waitress paused and looked down at Dawn's bare feet.
"Wait a second. I've got rubber thong sandals laying on top of the towel rack. Take 'em. I just found out sandals are pure pain on a waitress's feet."
"Thanks." Dawn rushed into the restroom and put on the green dress and sandals. She dumped the newspaper in the trash can and put her baret back on her mangled hair to keep it out of her eyes.
An instant later she was tugging at the waitress's elbow. "I'm afraid my designer bikini had a built-in change purse with an inside zipper. I kept my keys and a twenty-dollar bill in it, and it's on the bottom by now. Can you help me get back to L.A.?
"You're in a real mess, honey." The waitress glared at her. "Look, I'm on split shift. After the lunch break's over at two, I'll drive you home. You're in real luck. I take classes on this day of the week in L.A. and am off in the afternoon."
"Thanks a million. I just didn't want to call the police until I talk to this private eye my producer hired." Dawn sighed.
The waitress turned her head as she went to pick up a tray of food. "If I were you, lady, I'd call them from here before they ask why you waited so long. It makes you look guilty."
"Don't worry. I'm innocent. I need some space to phone my lawyer."
Dawn sat down at the back table. "You want something on the house?
"Thanks. I haven't had lunch, yet. Bring me a vegetarian sandwich and an iced herb tea."
"Sure, honey, but how can you eat after just witnessing a murder?"
Dawn stretched her arms horizontally, palms up and stared coldly at the waitress. "Nothing arouses my taste buds more than the sensual scent of death.
"Are you from that horror comic book convention upstairs?" the waitress cackled.
Dawn froze a grin. "My mouth waters. I do a cold burn."
"Maybe you need a cup of coffee."
"Notice how quickly the smell of a neglected public toilet relieves constipation. So start those hunger contractions already, Miss...What's your name?"
The waitress looked at her askance and hurried away.
* * *
4:00 P.M. THURSDAY
Inside an apartment near the Russian Consulate, an afternoon tea party overflowed with guests. The open house policy continued, but at one hundred dollars a head. The proceeds went to an obscure international scientific exchange organization.
Gene walked in carrying his toolbox. To the bouncer he said, "Phone service person." Gene pointed to a phone on a small table in the living room. The guard nodded and Gene headed straight for the phone and began to fiddle with it.
Gene thought about the situation. He talked to himself as he tinkered. The crowd shoved their tickets at the guard. He didn't want to pause to make me sweat for my right to repair a jack. Gene couldn't help laughing.
A woman behind him cackled loudly. "This Central American Ambassador's party is really jumping, but what's the connection to the Soviet Consulate?"
He stared at her. "I'm just the technician."
"Oh," she sighed. She pointed to a young man who was glaring at Gene. He narrowed his eyes to slits. "That man who's watching you is Bayangi Sula, the ambassador's son. I don't know which Latin American country, but they're doing some business with the Soviet Consulate. Isn't that strange?"
"Not in southern California," Gene smiled.
When she wobbled away, Gene looked back at the full-blooded Mayan Indian. The lady came back with a plate of food. "Try some of these cream cheese balls rolled in black caviar."
Gene looked at her. "No thanks. I'm just the hired help."
"Don't you people ever take time for play?" The woman laughed, slapping him playfully on his muscular shoulder.
Gene laughed back. "My work is play. You don't really think life's serious, do you?
She engaged him further. "Don't mind me. I'm an extreme extrovert."
"No. I enjoy listening to you while I fix this phone. Keep talking."
"That Bayangi Sula guy's also in the Foreign Service. He works as an assistant to his father, with full diplomatic immunity. I heard he picks up girls and forces them in back of his car. They can't touch him because of diplomatic immunity."
Gene watched Bayangi who kept his eyes riveted to his hands. Gene followed the cable to an extension phone in a small office next to the living room. He removed the dial piece and pocketed the number.
"Why'd you do that? The lady trailed after him, watching his every move."
Gene glanced at her. "Look at this number, lady." He showed her the dialpiece. "This is the same number I traced at the phone company the other day."
He pointed to the jack. "This spot's where someone phoned a hit-man. The guy probably put out a contract for the murder of radio station K.W.I.N's most popular midnight psychologist."
"You don't say," the lady wheezed. "Well I'll be a gossip columnist's mouthpiece."
Gene pulled out a slip of paper with the photocopy of a phone number scrawled on it. He showed it to the dowager. "This is the number I traced. He removes the dialpiece from his pocket. "And this is the same number."
The lady followed Gene back to the original phone in the living room. "Look at this dial number."
"It's different." The lady looked at him.
"Really?" Gene slowly peeled the label with the new number that covered the old one.
"The old number is the same as the one you wrote on that piece of paper," the lady giggled.
"You just solved a murder." Gene said thickly.
The lady began to giggle, her chest heaving until she began to wheeze with an asthma attack.
"Now don't get the vapors. Maybe you'd like to leave the room and lie down on some couch."
"Vapors?" She giggled through her wheezing. "That's what they called a gas attack ninety years ago. If anyone gets the vapors, you'd better be the one to leave the room." Her loud, high-pitched laughter was beginning to attract attention.
Gene signaled the ambassador's son. Bayangi's gaze had never left him. Bayangi left his guests and walked toward him.
"Have we met?" Bayangi said in a thick accent. His stare was bold as he checked Gene.
"Not yet. Did you know the person who ordered Dr. Whisper's murder called his hit man using this exact phone? It also rings in the Russian Consulate office. Does this condominium belong to that Central American ambassador, or to a Soviet diplomat? Or do you live here?"
Bayangi took charge with quiet assurance. "Why am I supposed to hear this?"
The corner of Gene's mouth twisted with exasperation. "I'm a private investigator." He took out his identification and shoved it under Bayangi's nose.
Bayangi laughed loudly. "Entertainers use the service entrance."
As Gene begins to press the peeled-off label back on the phone dial, it rang. Gene jumped back, startled.
"Excuse me." Bayangi walked away quickly to pick up the phone in the small office. Gene hurried away and mixed with the guests.
The same lady sidled over to him again. "Did that intellectual tell you not to converse with the guests because you're a phone technician?"
"No, but I thought he's say it if that phone call didn't pull him away."
"Saved by the bell," she smiled. "It's a shame. This is diplomat's open house. Everybody in L.A. is welcome if they pay a hundred dollars."
"He should have invited the homeless for lunch instead."
As Gene shoved past a dozen more guests, he saw Tanya Tamirova standing tall over the heads of the crowd. She was chatting with her driver. He headed straight toward her as she stood near the door.
Gene grabbed a tray of hors d'oeuvres from a table and pretended he was serving. He shoved the tray under Tanya's breasts.
"Haven't we met thrice before?"
She smiled at Gene. "Perhaps. I don't recall."
"On the tour."
"Oh, I don't remember, I take so many tours."
"And maybe in coldwartime."
Tanya began to walk away. "I'm an exobiologist. Would our paths cross?"
He followed her. Tanya opened a side door which lead to a library. When she opened the door he stepped through and sat down in front of her. She browsed through the book titles.
Standing in the library, pouring through copies of Dr. Dawn Whisper's book, Diplomatic Crime/Diplomatic Immunity In America, stood a diplomatic foursome.
"Let me introduce myself," the man said to Gene and Tanya. "I'm the ambassador from Centralia."
"The newest country in Central America?" Gene asked.
"Yes. This is my companion, Austrian fashion designer, Lorelei Braun."
Gene watched them for a moment like a book voyeur in peeping Tom academia. He perused the books himself. "So this is what an ambassador reads."
"He collects, but he doesn't read." Lorelei added in her deep voice.
The Centralian ambassador looked at Gene. He rubbed his hand over the cover of Dawn's book. "Why are you staring? Didn't you ever see a book on diplomatic crime before?"
"It's just that I listen to the author on the radio every night."
"Did you read her other book, The Perfect Motivator?" Lorelei asked. "She really gets inside your head."
The ambassador sneered. "Shock rumor is big media business." At that moment the American Ambassador to Centralia entered the library. He pressed Dawn's book tightly under his arm.
Gene eyed him. He was livid with rage. The Centralian ambassador passed Dawn's book to his mistress.
"Lies. These are all lies about me. Stop that woman." the American Ambassador said to the Centralian.
All heads turned to the American ambassador. He tossed Dawn's book loudly on the table and scurried out of the library in a rage.
Gene followed the American ambassador out of the library. Commotion followed as more diplomats filed into the library to pick up copies of Dawn's unauthorized expose, hot off the press.
Gene sneaked into a corner and continued to peruse the library bookshelves. A few more diplomats filed into the library, setting off a commotion. They held up their copies of Dawn's latest book.
"Diplomatic Immunity, Diplomatic Crime," one diplomat mumbled. He read the book's title to the crowd now filling up the small condominium library. "
"So you say it's tabloid gossip," Gene interrupted.
"It's outrageous slander! I'll sue." A foreign service aide complained to Gene.
"Go ahead. The psychologist's loaded."
"No she isn't," a young secretary cried out. "Her publishing company also owns television and radio networks. Didn't you know?"
Gene's eyes widened. "Wait a minute. How'd you know Dawn Whisper just came into money and no one told her yet? She's going to receive two million. And there's a contract out on her life by some geek the American Ambassador hired."
"That's a bunch of free speech bullshine." The American Ambassador leaned against the door frame.
"I ought to sue you for passing that rumor."
"Would you like to pass my kidney stone instead?" Gene walked past him back into the living room. He lifted a hor d'oeuvres and popped it into the Ambassador's open mouth.
"Where did you hear that, sir?" The Ambassador walked up to Gene and spit the snack discreetly into a linen napkin.
"On the telephone, of course, mister manners. Or are you the one who just hired a hit man to snuff her because some relative left Doctor Dawn a cool two million?"
"Preposterous!" The ambassador held his hand over his mouth to stifle his rising emotions.
"Really? So far nobody's talking with Dawn about money." Gene sidled past him. The American ambassador to Centralia proceeded into a small sitting room decorated in blue and gold. He joined Tanya as Gene followed. She smiled to both men. Bayangi joined them shortly after.
Gene spotted Bayangi's spiked ring. Was it the one with the poison dart, he thought? Gene remembered overhearing a conversation through his eavesdropping device while he sat in his van. There was Tanya, Bayangi, and later just her and her driver, he pondered.
Gene studied the ring closer as he sat next to Bayangi on the satin brocade sofa.
"Bob Willard," the American Ambassador said curtly to Bayangi as they shook hands. Gene noticed that Bayangi gashed the ambassador's hand with his spiked ring.
"Excuse me," Bayangi said in a lilt. "My father's clumsy ring makes it hard to shake hands."
"It's only a scratch." The ambassador sighed. He lifted his glass and dabbed the thin red line on a napkin.
Bayangi led the American ambassador, Ron Willard, to a private room. Gene followed behind as the door shut in his face. He gazed through an air conditioning vent as Bayangi led Willard upstairs. Gene took the stairs to a penthouse. It was an unguarded private apartment. When he heard the door close, he stuck his listening device suction cup on the door and read the name, Bayangi above the doorbell. It was Bayangi's own apartment.
He slipped his credit card in the door jamb and jimmied the lock. He opened the door an inch, peered inside. Gene saw the men assembling in the living room beyond a corrdior.
Inside the penthouse apartment bright sunlight glared through the parted drapes until Bayangi pulled them shut. The men sat down, and Gene ducked into a narrow closet in the foyer.
Through a slit he watched Bayangi's chauffeur
walk behind a dark-complected teenage girl. Her clothes looked painted on: high-heeled boots, tank top, and a black leather miniskirt.
Her hip-length straight brown hair spilled to one side, circled by a knot of braids. The small girl sniffed the air and looked around, narrowing her almond-shaped amber eyes to a slit. She studied the Ambassador with fierce, probing eyes and inscrutable expression.
"I told you, I don't deal in third world female slavery." The ambassador exploded, then doubled over in pain from a gallstone.
As he raised his head a moment later, Willard's face was pale and pinched like a glowering mask of rage. Bayangi's expression mirrored Willard's like a trapped memory of his own emotions.
"Get her out of here," Bayangi said in a deep tone. He motioned to the chauffer. Gene opened the closet door another inch in time to see the chauffeur leading the girl out. He listened and waited as if stretched over a drum--until the footsteps disappeared and the chauffeur returned alone.
Willard laughed tensely. "You brought her to a consulate party knowing the press is here?"
Bayangi's voice hardened as he sneered. "Isn't she young enough for you? Where's your ex-wife and her money now, Mr. Ambassador?"
"I didn't mean to strangle your sister, honest," the Ambassador stuttered.
"She just screamed when...she found out I embezzled all the funds...after the divorce...." Willard's reply was like an echo from an empty tomb.
"I want you to tell me what you want," Bayangi added.
"Where do you keep the girl? Tell me and I'll tell you what I want." The Ambassador moved slowly moved toward him.
"Where's my sister's body?"
"Buried at sea."
"Shut up!" Bayangi's head turned as he nervously scanned the room.
Bitterness spilled over into his voice. "Did you look into my sister's heart and smell her badness? Did you tell her--better she should be dead than grow up and shame me?"
"I told her what her father said. That better he'd flushed her with the condom into the bay. Better dead than to be born a girl to shame him later as a tramp. I told him to ask the doctor to check twice when she was born. That maybe she was a boy, that girls make trouble. Better she should be a cripple or be dead."
Bayangi moved so close to Willard there was no personal space between them. They exchanged beads of sweat. "And why'd you tell my sister this?"
"I wanted to make sure it stuck to her mind."
"It's what I heard her father screaming when she was nine. You know I was in the house. Aren't our children milk sisters?"
Bayangi growled. "What goes on at diplomatic parties is not for children." At the base of his throat a pulse beat and swelled as though his heart had snaked from its usual place.
Bayangi backhanded Ambassador Ron Willard across his face. Willard fell back into the chauffeur's grasp. The chauffeur's arms circled him like a crab, then tossed him into a satin chair. Bayangi laughed with raw fury.
"Women are like donkeys in your country," Willard stammered.
"People will do anything for an American passport and a job, but not when it involves family honor."
The chauffeur stepped between the men. "Tell me, Ambassador, what will you do for money?"
Willard fingered his bulbous nose and smiled from a corner of his thick, purplish lips. "You told me you weren't making enough money in the Foreign Service of your republic."
"I'm the ambassador's son, not his servant," Bayangi replied.
Bayangi took a roll of dental floss out of his pocket. He tore off a piece and smiled with eyes cold as rigor mortis.
He dangled the floss in front of Willard. "In my country, this is what our women wear as thong bikinis." Gap-toothed Bayangi whistled a high-pitched laugh between the serrations of his shovel-shaped incisors.
The laughter detonated Willard's heart. Bayangi cleaned his teeth with the floss and spit a bit of fruit on the Ambassador's cheek. Willard twitched in disgust.
Again Bayangi spit specks of food on his own boots.
"Eat it!" Bayangi commanded.
His chauffeur shoved Willard down and kicked him in the groin. Doubled over in a peak of pain, the American Ambassador obeyed. He ate the speck of food off of Bayangi's polished boot.
He began to beg. "Your sister headed a drug ring that stretched from one end of South America through every Central American republic with Russian black market connections. Her money was dirty."
"My sister was only eighteen."
"Hurting me won't bring her back. I know you're the real power behind your sister."
"I'm just a college student with diplomatic immunity."
"Your father paid off both the Russians and someone so high in power in my country that he's untouchable."
Bayangi laughed and turned his back on Willard. He walked to the window. Gene opened the closet door another inch and strained to hear voices which appeared to recede.
"In seven minutes you'll be a zombie, too. Family honor." Bayangi gave his native sign for death to his chauffeur. "Whek!"
Willard made a run for it. The chauffeur nodded without stopping him. Instead he watched Bayangi's face for a second signal. Then he drew his wavy knife. The American Ambassador froze in fear for an instant, then struggled with the chauffeur.
Bayangi pushed Willard into the indigo sofa as Gene watched from the closet. The three men struggled and rolled onto the oriental carpet.
Gene saw Bayangi scratch Ron Willard in the nostril with his curare poison ring. Willard squealed as insane red lights danced before his eyes. The chauffeur muffled the Ambassador's noise. He put his hand over his mouth as the chauffeur began to punch and kick at Willard's belly.
"You got thirty seconds left," the chauffeur panted. Bayangi checked the door again and darted around nervously.
Willard gasped. "Idiots! You don't have the man who made me embezzle my wife's money. He's an American billionaire."
"He's your brother," Bayangi said hoarsely.
"I didn't want an American impeached as the Vice President of a Central American nation." Willard crawled.
"That's twenty seconds more than you gave my sister when you strangled her with telephone cable."
"Please." Willard groveled and vomited across his shoes.
"We're tying up loose ends. How many doctors work for you?"
"Is that what it's all about--greed and power? Fools! I'm just his lackey, carrying out orders. You got the wrong man, again. It's not about power or greed, it's about the presidency. The president is dealing world-wide in drugs to pay off the national deficit. The president of..."
Bayangi knocked the wind out of his chest with his knee. "This doesn't leave a trace. One scratch of curare and black momba venum inside your nostril. Ten seconds."
"I'm just a patsy in the Foreign Service. You want the scientists, the pathologists."
Willard's heart pounded an erratic rhythm. "You must go higher up in government to find the man behind us. That American who ran for the presidency of two Central American republics.
"The impeached one?" The chauffeur scoffed.
Sweat blinded Willard. He looked up. "He put the contract on your sister before he set up citizenship in Centralia."
"I don't believe you."
"I have proof. It's in the diaries in the hands of that radio psychologist. Please, I'll get the diary for you. The publisher had to check the facts first."
"The American Ambassador a hit man for an impeached American vice president of a Central American country?" Bayangi laughed. "Speak of a fool and his money..."
Bayangi kicked Willard in the groin. He keeled over and died trying to vomit. Willard's body slumped against the closet door. Gene listened a long while until he heard two men's footsteps descend the stairs. After a while, Gene kicked out the closet door, shoving the body of the American Ambassador aside.
He hurried downstairs wearing a sickly smile of disgust. "How are you?" Gene said calmly. He tapped Bayangi on his ring with a pencil. The crowd and noise of the party crushed in on him.
"Would you like to shake hands?"
"No! Err--arthritis," Gene said. He clasped his hands in back.
Tanya interrupted the two by stepping between the men. "I'm so sorry. I must leave."
She extended her hand. Bayangi shook it, noticing she was wearing the same kind of ring. Before he could react to the sight of her ring, she already scratched Bayangi. He pulled away, wincing at the slight sting.
"Oh, excuse my long nails," she sighed. "They tend to scratch, but men love that feline look."
Bayangi stared at her through allergic shiners--puffy, dark-circled eyes. "No they don't." He groaned weakly.
Gene scrutinized the two as Bayangi slowly took Tanya's pink hand to his lips. He kissed her fingertips. He looked at the poison ring on her finger.
"Careful, it's loaded, she whispered. Bayangi's eyes widened and glazed over. As Gene watched the two, he saw the werewolf smile on Bayangi's lips grow rigid while Tanya's smile melted.
Gene rushed over to him with a plate of sandwiches. "Care for seconds?"
"I'm afraid seconds are all our ambassador's son has at the moment," Tanya's silken voice lowered an octave.
Bayangi sucked his palm. "Tanya," he moaned.
"I'm afraid I've detonated his heart," she said in a thick accent.
The poison took effect, and he slumped into an overstuffed chair. Tanya walked away calmly. Gene looked at Bayangi and felt his pulse on the side of his neck. He knew that he was dead.
"Boy, that woman is bad luck," Gene said to a passing waiter carrying a tray of caviar. He dumped the sandwiches. Gene followed her.
No one paid attention to Gene or Tanya in the crowd. The doorbell rang as Tanya put her hand on the knob to exit. She opened it and Bayangi's chauffer clamped his hand over hers so she couldn't walk out.
All heads turned to the open door as a crowd of reporters and a television news crew burst into the party.
A woman blurted, "Surprise! Today we honor the visiting Soviet Central Asian doctor of exobiology and biomedical engineering, Tanya Tamirova. We've brought a welcoming committee to take you on tour of the new molecular genetics institute."
The crowd pushed in tighter and filled the room to capacity. Gene struggled to take a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and moved with difficulty through the crowd to reach Bayangi.
Bayangi messed from both ends like a baby. Women were passing by, giving Bayangi dirty looks as his eyes stared straight ahead. Gene hurriedly stuck the sunglasses on Bayangi so no one would peer into those Sphynx-like eyes that rolled up so only the whites showed.
As the waiter passed again, Gene grabbed the tray of fancy sandwiches from him and propped it squarely on Bayangi's lap. He watched Tanya as she broke away from the crowd and headed into the restroom.
He followed her and heard her jiggling the broken lock. She finally closed the door with a paper towel, but it opened slightly by itself. Gene watched her through a crack in the door as she washed her ring in the sink. Tanya hovered around the sink cabinets, opening a drawer, searching. He watched her wipe out her ring and return it to a box in the bathroom wall safe.
So she's familar with the safes in this diplomatic apartment, Gene thought. Her ring box is in there. He tried to figure out the connection while walking upstairs to find out where Bayangi took the Ambassador. Tanya went upstairs, not seeing Gene. In the shadows at the top of the stairs they met.
"You again," Tanya sighed.
He sidled past her. "You're a triplet. You have to be."
"No, really, I'm not, darling," she said in a satin voice. A dusky rose blush began to spread across her sallow cheeks.
A crowd of reporters followed her upstairs, pushing Gene aside. The newsmen crowded in, nearly suffocating Gene, shoving him against her soft body.
He stepped between Tanya and the news cameras. "Why would a doctor of exobiology work as a Russian Consulate tour guide on Glasnost day? It's a low-paid clerical job."
"In my country, as soon as many women get into a field, the pay drops." A peal of laughter cut through the crowd of reporters. Tanya smiled at them and ignored Gene.
Tanya turned to Gene and the reporters standing in front of him in the doorway. "My cousin let me take over during her lunch hour only. It was a fantasy I couldn't resist...to play tour guide, to be a travel agent. Compared to the low salaries of doctors, a travel agent makes...."
Gene interrupted. "Does her supervisor and the KGB know she breached security?"
"Can't you lighten up, phone man?" Tanya's voice rose an octave. "What security is necessary? Some people don't know how to play at a party."
Gene pushed his way through the crowd of reporters roaming the upstairs rooms, taking photographs. "Only if murder is a three-ring circus. Where's your poison ring, doctor?"
He thought a moment. "Plastic surgery, that's it." Gene turned to the reporters. "She's had plastic surgery. Who else would make their face look like that to commit murder?"
"What a rude technician. I'm not old enough for a face lift." Tanya smiled, straightening her hair.
"Who's this man?" A reporter turned to Gene with a microphone.
"I'm here to fix your phones, lady. The phone company's aware of murder threats on a radio talk show hostess's life, and those calls are coming from a phone in the Russian Consulate."
"Really, some people will go to any extreme for attention when reporters are around." Tanya threw Gene a mean stare.
Gene grabbed Tanya by the shoulder. "Three women made to look like you...one murdered, so far, in my tub."
The reporters began to close in on him. He captured an audience. "I'm a private eye trying to stop a murder."
"He has an intuitive's imagination stuck in a sensing job," she insisted.
"Who are you this time, phone technician or private investigator? With your fictive personality, I think you'd enjoy playing detective if you want to immortalize yourself."
The reporters drew closer. Tanya walked away, but they followed her. He followed them. "I don't know whether to put you under contract or observation," she laughed nervously.
Tanya grabbed her purse from a small table. She tried to leave.
Gene blocked her path between the stairs and the reporters. "How'd you get that scar across your throat--in combat?"
Tanya turned, walked up to him, and ripped off the scar.
"This is just a conversation piece--in bed. I think scars are sexy."
"A beauty mark?" Gene exploded. She dangled the clear plastic fake scar like a band-aid and blew gently in his face.
"I'll try that next time over my appendix," he sneered. Gene hurried down the stairs and bolted out the door. The reporters looked at her in anticipation. "So let's have the story," a reporter asked impatiently.
* * *
6:00 P.M. THURSDAY
The Los Angeles rush hour traffic pained Gene's eyes. As he pulled away in a phone company van, the cellular phone rang.
"You don't know how many people at the phone company I went through to get this number. This is Dawn. I'm calling from Lindbergh Field in San Diego."
Gene felt a sinking feeling tug at his innards. "Doctor Dawn Whisper?" He heard only her sobbing.
"You're out of control, honey." Gene said in an act of raw possession. "So you finally want to share feelings with me."
Her hardness electrified him. "They've killed Craig."
"I don't know. They shot him. They had their chance to get me. Why are they waiting?"
"Why?" Gene said. "You're a thinking woman. I'm a feeling man. Tell me. How does an extraverted, intuitive, thinking, judging woman share her pain with an introverted, sensing, feeling, perceiving man?"
He heard her crying again. "I've read one of your books on psycho-type. How can I use your type and temperment research to track down your hit-man before he gets you?"
"Get me out of here."
"I'll pick you up before my night shift starts."
"I don't know where to go next. Craig was in on it with them. He tried to strangle me with telephone cable."
"Figures. Murders always come in threes."
"And war always starts in the home. I need to see you." The time on the coin phone ran out, and Dawn didn't have any more change.
She yammered at him before the operator interrupted for more coins. "What are you mumbling about? Craig, my fiance for ten years, just tried to kill me."
"It has to be part of a master plan." Gene said.
He drove into the parking lot at the phone company to return the van. For the first time, she listened without trying to think of her reply.
Gene spoke frantically. "Get out of there. Take any plane anywhere. Take the next plane out."
"Okay." Dawn looked at the printed schedule in her lap.
Gene panicked at the dead air space. "What's the matter?"
"The next flight's out to LAX."
"Then I'll meet you in L.A. airport. I'll take the week's vacation I'm due. Where are the police?"
"I didn't speak to anyone important."
"Love, I'm charged with murder. That Centralian Ambassador's son's dead too. Can't you think of somebody who would give you two or forty million in his will or as a bribe?
There was a long sigh on the other end. "No, I can't. Wait a minute. There's this professor of Mayan mythology. He specializes in Central American archaeology."
"What's he to you?"
Dawn gave a nervous cough. "About six months ago he mailed me an ancient Mayan relic--a crystal skull. There was a scroll inside the box written in chicken scratches. I don't know Mayan from Assyrian. Maybe they wrote on stone or clay and not on scrolls. The skull I checked out. It's really Mayan, a polished rose quartz."
Gene took some notes. "Why would he send you a priceless relic?"
"You know my hobby is Mayan archaeology. My third stepfather's a professor emeritus in the field. It's just that I can't read their alphabet."
"What has this guy have in common with you now?"
"To catch the real smugglers, the government once set up the professor with forty million dollars to track down a huge shipment of ancient Indian gold stolen from Latin America. He disappeared with the money, the government said in the official report. I know better. The government gave him a new identity. Now someone inside broke his cover, and the smugglers who ran away are after him."
"I think there's a connection between you two. They're after you because they think he stored the money with you."
"That nutty professor is crazy enough to leave a forty million dollar collection in my care and forget to tell me anything about it."
Dawn heard something just outside the phone booth. She looked around the crowded airport and gasped. "There's a tough-looking Indian following me."
"For heaven's sake, get out of there," Gene said.
The man wore a red headband over long hair tied in the back with a leather thong. Dawn watched him turn his back and move his fingers nervously through his pockets searching for something.
Blue beads swung from his neck. His arms dripped in Indian jewelry. Odd, she thought, over a three-piece gray flannel business suit worn on a hot day.
She watched him duck into the phone booth across from her. He carried a cassette recorder in one hand and a brief case in the other.
"What's going on there?" Gene shouted.
"I worked for mom's third ex, that professor, in graduate school. He used to drill me on Mayan famines. My thesis dealt with how ancient people hallucinated voices of their dead ancestors. Then they heard the voices of dead kings. Some heard voices coming from severed heads preserved in honey. Later, talking idols became their personal gods. Finally, some men heard a loud voice from above and named it either one God or a spook in the sky."
"Get practical for once," Gene insisted.
"Okay. This is not the time to lecture you on the evolution of consciousness. That's what I get for being an open-minded perceiver. You're a closed-minded judger."
"I'm trying to protect you. Maybe you're a secular humanist, but religion runs deep in my South Carolina Scotch-Irish kin."
"Maybe I need you to put the facts in front of my eyes. All I have are values of right and wrong. Don't ever pull me down to cold reality when I'm my world of ideas.
"All I want is to keep you alive, Dawn."
"I trust my intuition to keep me alive. You trust your senses. That's why we need each other but can't stand working together."
She grated on his nerves. "Would he want you dead? Is he in your expose of diplomatic crime, also? Does he work for that Ambassador?"
"Let's find out." Dawn became fully aware of her surroundings. "He wanted to connect priceless relics like crystal skulls to new age movements. He was studying the evolution of consciousness. It's psycho-archaeology."
Gene thought a moment. "He sounds strange enough to have that kind of money. I bet he's a retired industrialist."
"I'd like the tycoon to teach me to hallucinate voices of my personal gods from my seventeen hundred teddy bears." Dawn jested.
Gene churned inside. He tapped his foot nervously. He ran up a bill on the cellular phone. "So he's worth millions, eh? Greedy? So why would he leave it to you?"
"He's alive and well in Westwood. And the only relics he's leaving me are the creditors hounding my mother ten years after their divorce."
"What did you two have in common?"
Dawn thought a moment. "We talked about the future of the human brain--evolution. I told him that emotional man was on his way out because emotions were criminal. He insisted emotions are necessary for human reproduction.
"I argued that technology was changing the human brain--making it logical, unemotional, and soon all emotion would be dead."
"So what was the conclusion?"
"I insisted man would return, innocent, to Eden--until the computer-gods broke down. He insisted that a few good men with a vestige of emotion left would invent it all over."
"There's never a computer technician in Paradise when you need him," Gene laughed. "God, I love to repair machines. What else did you and the professor talk about?"
"He knows everything about ancient gods and mazes and Mayan writings. Did you know there was also a Mayan book of the dead with recipes for poisons and snakebite cures?"
"Why would some exotic professor tell all this to you?"
"Oh, people aren't exotic, Gene. Birds are exotic." Her voice rose in surprise. "Nobody listened to Doctor Gorton. Anyhow, I switched graduate schools. After spending a summer scraping shards of broken pottery, broadcast psychology addicted me to my own adrenaline. I'm nothing without excitement on the job."
"And I'm working steady without it," Gene snapped.
"There's no such thing as job security," Dawn argued.
Suddenly the tall Indian darted out of the opposite phone booth. He walked across to Dawn and knocked on the glass booth wall. She didn't respond.
"What's going on there?" Gene said.
Dawn screamed as the man tossed his cassette recorder at the phone booth glass. It crashed against the glass, but didn't break it. The recorder split open, revealing the mechanism of a plastic bomb. It malfunctioned, hissing in a cloud of smoke.
The man looked down, mystified at the malfunction. Dawn ducked under the phone booth seat. Then as the man ran, she followed him, darting around the sputtering swirl.
She left the phone dangling with Gene ranting on the other end, "What's going on?"
Guards ran toward the cassette parts. The smoke bomb sent thick clouds now choking the airport crowd near the escalators. Dawn followed the man into another crowd leaving from a flight that just landed.
He ducked into the men's room. She looked bewildered, then left without following him further.
Dawn ran up the ramp, through security, and boarded her plane as it was about to depart.
"What goes through a man's mind when he tosses a bomb in your face," Dawn said to the flight attendant.
"Oh, don't say that b-word on this plane, lady, not even jesting."
"Think about it," she snarled. As she glanced over her shoulder in conversational mood, Dawn caught sight of the tall Indian from the corner of her eye.
"Look at him," Dawn said to the flight attendant. She pointed to the Indian. "Did you ever see an Indian with headdress and long hair dressed in a three-piece suit? That's a Brooks Brothers suit, I bet you. Watch him. He tosses malfunctioning bombs at people in phone booths."
The young, blonde flight attendant tossed her head defiantly and smiled. Dawn threw up her hands, and the conversation turned to violence.
"Fifty bucks says that Indian's got some weapon on board. Why don't you call security and check him out?"
"Geez, we don't stop people because they have long hair and look Hispanic," the attendant shot back. "Are you crazy?"
"What if I told you he just threw a bomb in my face by the phone booth? It failed in a cloud of smoke."
"Sit down, please, we're taking off. If the man really threw something in your face, you'd be screaming for the police. I'll talk to security to watch him."
"You don't believe me, do you? I can't let the police stall me on my trip."
"Why should I? What are you--a privelege character?"
"Don't say that. That's what my fourth grade teacher called me whenever I needed attention."
"Would you sit down? Or do I have to call security."
"Would you please do that?"
"This is my first flight," the attendant said. "Please, let it go smoothly or I'll get a poor job evaluation."
Dawn buckled her seat belt. Three seats behind Dr. Dawn Whisper sat Dr. Tanya Tamirova hidden behind dark glasses and a leopard-skin pattern beret.
Under the beret was a babushka tied in back. She moved up a seat and centered herself directly in back of the tall Indian where she could watch both Dawn and him. Silently, Tanya slid open the lock on her attache case.
Gene still was shouting "hello, hello," into his company car phone when the security guard came out. "It's time to turn in the truck. The installers are going out in ten minutes." Gene tossed the keys over.
"What are you doing here hours before your shift begins?" The security guard bent over and peered in the window as Gene rolled it up.
"Did you ever try to get a word in edgewise with Joan Cooke when she bursts in at night?"
"When she can't get a daytimer to come in for the midnight shift, she even calls on me," the security guard laughed.
"Don't laugh, you're working swing shift yourself this week. I bet you keep your wife in stitches with those mood swings."
"Shut up!," The guard jested, punching him teasingly on the shoulder. Gene jumped out and flashed his phone company badge at the guard. He headed straight for his supervisor's office.
Joan Cooke checked her computer printouts as Gene approached her desk. "What are you doing here on the four p.m. to midnight shift--looking for overtime?" She snarled at Gene, forcing a constipated smile.
"I need a week off. It's a personal emergency," Gene blurted. "I'm on a private investigation case this time that..."
"I'm slapping you with a month's suspension without pay, you dork."
"Please, it's an emergency. There's a death involved."
"Yours, no doubt." Joan took a sudden interest in her shoes.
"You never let me get a word in edgewise." Gene imposed an iron control on himself. "Why so insecure that you have to hide behind a wall of words?"
"Maybe you'd rather it be a wall of fat?"
"You were a clerk-typist 'till they promoted you over me."
"Wooo, jealous," she laughed, shaking her mighty hips.
"I studied electronics for two years in the Air Force. Yet you always treat me like an abused child."
She shook her head and bared her teeth in a skull-like grin. "Does it take your manhood away, sucka?"
She flirted. "Take your choice--a poor work evaluation this quarter or a law suit for sexual harrassment." She tossed some papers at him.
His left eyebrow rose a fraction. "Grow up!"
"I'd rather be right than loved. You're not tough enough, Gene. How does a female supervisor get respect?"
"Try being human."
"My life is about morning sickness during rush hour and divorce papers at lunch."
"Then take a vitamin B complex supplement and meditate two hours a day, but don't make me crawl."
She stared at him, wiping the beads of sweat on her upper lip with the back of her hand. "Go look on the bulletin board, yo-yo. If no one else signed up for time off, you can take your vacation now."
She chewed and cracked gum loudly. Then she turned her back on him and began to dial.
Gene nodded and stormed out of her office. In the break room he found the bulletin board vacation sheet. The date was blank, so he signed up for a week off.
Gene lounged casually against Joan's office door frame. "Thanks," he said. She nodded to him and continued her computer keyboarding.
"Well, aren't you going to wish me success in solving my first private eye case?"
Without missing a keystroke, she said stridently, "Nobody ever takes me on a vacation." He flinched at the tone of her voice.
"I'm sorry. I can put myself in your shoes. Maybe I can even feel what it's like to be pregnant, nauseus, tired, and going through a divorce."
"Do you? I'm management. I don't have a union. A woman without seniority is the first fired. Computers will replace a third of us in the next five years."
"At least you have electronics technician skills."
"You'd better believe I can also teach them to you."
"All I survive on is my seventh grade typing course and a general high-school diploma."
She poured herself a cup of tea and held one out to Gene. He took it and sipped.
Joan lifted her chin. "Everything else in life I've learned was through on-the-job training."
He looked at her for a long, silent moment, cold as despair. "Whenever something breaks down night or day, who do you always call first?"
"You--when no one else can fix it." She folded her arms across her pendulous chest.
"I'm sorry." He looked down. "I'm outraged. They passed me over for a promotion and snatched you out of the clerical pool."
"You must really be ticked off."
"Management made you, a clerk-typist, my supervisor. No one ever trained you in electronics technology. They taught you organizational management psychology."
"Why do you think I always call you when no one else can fix the trouble?"
"Maybe you want me to burn out."
"You're surplus now."
"So are you. I heard you took clerical practice in high school instead of algebra. Well, I struggled with technical courses all he way through community college." Gene jerked his thumb commandingly at himself.
"You know how it was in the seventies about promoting women."
"You don't know how to repair the equipment. They never sent you to school for electronics." Gene looked into her dark eyes.
"I'm a woman. I'm black. And I'm physically challenged."
"Yes. Didn't you know I got multiple sclerosis for my thirty-second birthday present? Last week a guy goosed me on the job because he didn't think non-technical women should be supervisors."
"Oh, my God. I'm so sorry."
"I've got everything except a Hispanic surname, honey."
* * *
10:00 P.M. THURSDAY
Dawn grew impatient during the short flight between Los Angeles and San Diego. The lady next to her changed seats to be near relatives she recognized on the flight.
At first, Dawn slid over, glad to grab a window seat. She closed her eyes and drifted off. She dozed, unaware that the tall Indian moved swiftly from the back and sat next to her.
When she opened her eyes, he was staring hypnotically into hers. Immediately, she recognized him as the man who had tossed the malfunctioning gas bomb at the phone booth. Behind him, Tanya sat propped on one elbow exploring the contents of her attache case.
Dawn slid past him and headed for the restroom, moving past Tanya. He followed her. Tanya gazed into her compact mirror, watching the two start down the aisle.
They both returned together--he, from the men's room, and she, from the women's. Dawn looked around to change her seat, but they were all full.
Dawn took her seat first, then the Indian pushed his way back and sat directly in front of Tanya. Dawn began to thumb through a magazine as the man silently watched Dawn read. She felt his gaze boring into the "third eye" in the middle of her forehead and swiftly turned to him.
"Mister, do you know me from someplace? It's rude to stare."
The Indian didn't blink. Staring into her eyes he motioned a few letters in some kind of sign language.
"Oh are you a deaf-mute? I'm sorry." Dawn touched her ears and mouth. He didn't show a trace of emotion in his face. She returned uncomfortably to her reading.
In the seat behind him, Tanya opened her attache case and removed a tiny dart gun. The airline attendant walked down the aisle handing out small pillows to several passengers. Tanya flung her free arm in the flight attendant's path and placed the pillow in her lap.
As soon as the attendant passed, Tanya grimaced and pretended to sneeze. She crushed the small pillow to her face to block another sneeze.
"God bless you," Dawn responded by habit as Tanya sneezed. "Thank you," Tanya responded. She looked up. Tanya pretended to sneeze again.
As Tanya sneezed loudly into the pillow, she fired her silent little curare dart gun through the pillow. It pierced the base of the skull of the Indian in front of her. The dart worked exactly like a miniature animal tranquilizer gun.
The dart's slimness made a hole no bigger than a mosquito bite. And the poison was deadlier than cobra venom.
The Indian slapped the back of his neck and motioned with his hand to brush away a flying insect. Dawn watched him from the corner of her eye.
His eyes rolled up, and his head fell back against the seat's head rest. As he slumped, dying, a loud blast of gas stenchingly escaped his orifices.
The Indian leaned over and fell into Dawn's lap. She turned to Tanya sitting behind her.
"Didn't anyone ever teach you manners? What nerve." Dawn turned and motioned to Tanya. She shoved the Indian back into his seat. "Some people are so rude."
"Yes. Some people are real deadbeats." Tanya said in a soft lilt.
"I used to have a radio talk show on proper etiquette for business women traveling alone."
"Really?" Tanya said. "It's hard being a female scientist traveling alone around the world. I think manners are so important."
"So what kind of science do you practice?"
"That's odd. My ex-fiance was a tropical poisons specialist."
Dawn turned to look out of the window. Slowly the dead Indian began to slip from his propped-up position, edging toward Dawn's lap. First his head rested on her shoulder.
Finally after more shoves and falls, the Indian keeled over face down in Dawn's lap. More foul gas loudly escaped his orifices. Again Dawn turned to Tanya for aid.
Tanya pretended to be sleeping with featherweight earphones on her head. The pillow half-covered Tanya's face.
Dawn signaled the flight attendant. "Excuse me. The man next to me is sick."
"Would you like something to drink?" The attendant replied.
"No, I said this man's unconscious."
The pretty young blonde took the man's pulse. She looked up bewildered. "He's dead."
The attendant looked at Dawn as she sniffed the foul air with disdain. "Did you bring a cheese on board?"
"I'm sorry ma'am."
"Can I change my seat?"
"Do you see any unoccupied seat? No one's officially dead 'till the plane lands. It's the law. I'm afraid you'll have to sit and bear it."
"Where's the oxygen masks?" Dawn snarled.
"I'll put a blanket over him," the attendant said.
"Don't you know when people die, their bowels relax?"
"Here's a towel."
The attendant left to retrieve a cover for the body. The passengers were asleep or reading papers, and didn't look up or want to get involved.
"In 1964, a neo-nazi kicked my mother in the spine and called her a dirty Jew in a train going from Asbury Park to New York. No one looked up from his paper to help." Dawn said to Tanya.
"That's human nature," Tanya replied. "People respond to advertising, not real life--black background with white letters imprint the brain."
"Thanks. I needed a slap," Dawn sighed.
No one noticed the dead Indian under a blanket. Suddenly a toddler screamed violently down the aisle. Dawn watched the screaming child and the man next to the child holding his ears. The toddler's mother tried everything to calm the screaming child.
Dawn ducked under her seat and retrieved her brown bag lunch. She stood up and gave the dead man a glance as she twisted her legs to pass him. Dawn grabbed the briefcase wedged between him and the arm rest of the seat and tucked it into her tote bag.
She fanned away the odor around his body into Tanya's face. Tanya grinned and whipped out a perfume vial, giving the air a spray of lemon-scented cologne.
"Care for a lemon spritzer?" Dawn asked. She slipped the tote bag strap over her shoulder.
Tanya sneered. Dawn pulled the two-foot long packages of limburgher cheese and salami out of a shopping bag and peeled off the giftwrappings.
"Well, here goes the best birthday present I ever bought for my producer." She placed it across the man's lap to overpower the stench. He softly emitted gas like an auto exhaust pipe.
She walked to the screeching tyke at the back of the plane who swung a shopping bag in his mother's face. Tanya watched her.
Dawn nudged the man sitting next to the child with his hands over his ears. In the window seat the distraught mother tried to calm her child by singing a Lebanese lullaby. She bounced the toddler on her knee.
Dawn touched the man's shoulder to get his attention. "Do you want to change seats? I really enjoy sitting next to a child."
"Thank God!" The man sighed loudly, lowering his hands from his ears. He stood up and offered his seat to Dawn. She pointed to her empty seat next to the dead Injun leaking gas.
"Oh, a window seat," the man grinned.
"Don't disturb the man sitting next to you with the big cheese and salami on his lap. He's sleeping soundly. You don't mind the smell of limburger and warm beer, do you?" Dawn gave him a dead-pan face.
"With the cold I have, it won't make a difference." The man shrugged. "Anything's better than a screaming Mimi." He hurried down the aisle.
The flight attendant draped a second blanket over the dead man's body. She put the salami and cheese on a tray, placed it back on his lap, and walked on.
She passed Dawn on her way to the back room. "Nothing can pass through those two layers of blankets."
The attendant whispered in Dawn's ear. "No publicity, please on this short flight. If we call attention to him, the passengers will panic and then sue for emotional damages."
Dawn began to play with the screaming child. He stopped crying. Before the plane landed, Dawn visited the restroom and removed the Indian's attache case from her large purse. She rolled thick wads of paper towels around her fingers just in case some poison needles darted out from a booby-trap lock.
Dawn squatted on the cold, wet restroom tile and slowly pried the lock. The case opened in the usual way with no tricks. A small, ancient Indian gold and clay relic rolled out of the briefcase along the restroom floor. Dawn studied it a few minutes. She tapped it, and it sounded hollow.
Nothing else was in the briefcase. Dawn cut up the lining with her nail scissors, then the outside leather. She found no other contents and put the case back in her purse.
The plane landed a few minutes later. Dawn stopped at the airport telegraph office to pick up the money Gene had wired. She hurried to a waiting cab and struck up a conversation about her work.
"What I don't understand," the taxi driver shouted over the blaring of a truck's horn, "is what goes through a woman's mind when she dials a radio psychologist."
"She's looking for an emotional connection, and her husband's probably yelling, 'Give me a break!'" Dawn said.
She leaned forward. "He's really looking for a breakthrough. Instead, he says 'break.' So he cuts off his wife in mid-sentence."
He glanced over his shoulder in conversational emphasis. "And she cuts him off in the bedroom."
"Every wife acts out her husband's hidden feelings," she said with a smile.
The driver pulled up to the curb and flipped the meter flag. "You wanted the Los Angeles Museum of Anthropology?"
"I worked here in my college days," Dawn said. She handed him the fare. "Don't spend it all in one place." He laughed and pulled away.
Dawn paused before the entrance. She wondered whether her producer had set her up and whether Gene could be trusted. She froze around outsiders.
Inside the Los Angeles Anthropological Museum, Dawn walked the winding staircase to the physical anthropology laboratory. She drifted through the dark, dusty halls to a small office and knocked on the curator's door.
Doctor Marz half-hid behind his computer. In back of him she noticed a shelf of jars with brains floating in formaldehyde and a few skeletons lying across the lab tables.
Dawn smiled in surpise at her old physical anthropology professor. "Hello, there. I can't believe ten years have passed already. What happened to Doctor Gorton?"
"Marz screwed his eyes up to an overexposed photograph of Dr. Gorton which hung on the wall.
"That's who I came to see."
Marz laughed fiendishly. "He retired maybe three years ago. I started here in physical anthropology right after he left. He was a ceramicist."
Dawn circled the small office. She took out a Mayan maze game from her purse and stood it up on his desk.
"You thought you switched Mayan mazes, but I have the real one." She unscrewed the hollow game puzzle from the dead Indian's attache case.
"What are you talking about, lady? You need the cultural anthropology office down the hall." Marz lowered his eyes and opened the door for her to leave.
"No, Doctor Marz." Her violet eyes flashed. "Those ancient Indians were smart. Look inside the false bottom."
Dr. Marz emitted a weird wail. He smiled revealing a row of gold teeth. "Surely, you don't think I want that cheap, clay imitation made by some art student."
"Really? I used to build replicas of ancient Mayan relics for Professor Gorton. Take a forty million dollar look."
Dawn smashed the maze game on Marz's glass coffee set tray. A game box with a false bottom and a handful of large diamonds scattered on the desk top.
"Go ahead, break my tray."
"You'll pay, you pushy bitch."
"Say, do you really enjoy your job?"
Dawn had to figure something else. "Is this forty million dollars an inheritance from Dr. Gorton? He's alive. Every Hannukah he sends me an enameled dreidl with no return address. Why is he hiding? Does it have something to do with this maze box?"
"I don't know."
Marz examined the relic. "It's the astronomical jargon that's priceless. This is a cheap, Aztec copy."
"The stuff inside the maze is another maze."
She waited for his reaction. "You're walking rigor-mortis."
A skull-grin bloomed on his face, and a large v-shaped vein throbbed larger with each pulse beat across his receding forehead.
Marz grabbed the maze inside a maze and opened the parchment carefully. It just about fell to dust.
"Can you read this Mayan script? Or is it Yucatan Aztec?"
Dr. Marz looked at the scroll with a magnifying glass. "Those Indians wrote on stone, not scroll."
"What is it then?"
"It's a fake. The scroll's authentic. It's second millenium Akkadian--old Babylonian from the time of Hammurabi. Why did you shove it inside a Mayan maze box?"
"Me? That's the way it came in the mail. Is it a Piltdown man hoax?"
"Perhaps. Someone wants you to think the ancient Babylonians of 1,750 B.C. sailed to Central America."
"You mean they enscribed the voices of their gods on this scroll?"
"Now wait a minute," Dawn interrupted. "Even Hammurabi carved his words on black stone columns or wet clay tablets. The Egyptians wrote on papyrus scrolls and the Hebrews."
"I can read Babylonian scrolls."
"Your specialty is Central American archaeology. When did you learn Akkadian--on one of your drug and antiquities smuggling ventures in Iraq? Who's your Iraqi connection? Does he have diplomatic immunity?"
"You're having a tantrum in every cell, lady."
"I read all about you. When did you study in the Mideast? Everything written about you points to life-long work in Latin America."
"I'm familiar with Mesopotamia," Marz insisted. "This scroll is written in Akkadian, but it's not about Babylon. This stuff is ancient Mayan and Aztec astronomy."
"What does it say?"
Marz translated. "The two Indian nations traded crop astrology. The genealogy of a Chinese wise man--Loo Ping, the first man who sailed to Central America with a Babylonian astronomer."
Dawn thought a moment with her hand on her cheek. "Gorton once told me an ancient scroll described Chinese acupuncture points, but it's from Guatemala."
"I know about his theory. He argued the invention of the violin, called the hoo, sailed from China to the new world."
"Well, I never saw an ancient New World Indian playing Chinese music on the violin."
"That's because you didn't live in Guatemala in ancient times," Marz guffawed.
Dawn examined the relic. "Are you saying all this came to the Mayans in ancient times by Chinese junks carrying Babylonian horoscopes?"
"They traded with the Near East through the silk routes. Then they plied the Pacific."
"Women take a different approach to business then men. Maybe some Malaysian maiden sailed there." Marz rolled with laughter, mocking her. "If you believe a word I say, you're an imposter." Dawn backed out the door. "You're wasting my time."
"Read this." He pointed to the cuneiform writing on the scroll.
"It tells of the struggles of the Mayans living under the rule of the Chinese in Central America." Marz exploded in side-splitting laughter.
"A couple of courses in archaeology can be dangerous to an amateur sleuth like you. Obviously, broadcasting popular psychology pays better."
"Those chicken scratches look more like twelve thousand year old petroglyphs. That's not the language of Babylon," Dawn insisted. "It's a coincidence."
"Really," Marz smiled crookedly.
"How do I know you're not making this up to ridicule me? Maybe it's a four-thousand year-old recipe for pigeon pie?"
He placed a colored filter over the scroll to protect it from a flash of light and photocopied it. Two images of the chicken scratchings flew out of his machine.
"Why are you trying to fool me?" Dawn curled her lips back like a chimpanzee and thrust her head forward so she stared eye-to-eye with Marz. "I read those ancient Mayan languages. Not well, mind you, but I'm as into this as a lay person can get."
Marz threw up his hands. "These diamonds belong to the museum now."
"I can't leave this stuff. I don't know you."
He pointed to a name plate on his desk. It read: "Dr. Franz Marz, Ph.D. Curator of Central American Antiquities.
"That doesn't prove you and the name plate match."
"Good day, Miss...Miss."
"Doctor Dawn Whisper."
Marz shoved her out the door and closed it. She stood there in silence for a minute until he opened it again.
"Oh, I forgot. There's a small reward for returning the scroll that wasn't yours anyway."
Dawn kicked the door in. "Like hell it isn't. The postman delivered the scroll to me at the station last month.
"It disappeared before I had a chance to examine it closely. Then it turned up on some dead Injun with leaking gas in midflight. That same man hurled a bomb at me, but it imploded."
"Lady, you're rambling." Marz tried to close the door, but she pushed in on it and entered his office. He pulled a gun from his desk drawer and pointed it at her.
She pointed her finger at the pistol. "Don't tell me if one gun can't go off, the other will?" Dawn laughed loudly with a wide open mouth. "Never mind what you say the scroll says, you jerk. I'll tell you what it says. Just what Gorton wrote me that it said. Now where's Gorton?"
He fired the gun twice as she ducked behind the door. It jammed. Marz looked down at his gun.
"It'll never go off when you have to perform in front of a successful woman. Anytime a man wants to make war, it's because he isn't getting quality in the bedroom."
Dawn leaned against the door, holding onto it for support. "Take me to your Iraqi connection. Is he an American? Is he in Central America? When I'm through with him, he'll only want peace."
"I only wanted to scare you off with an unloaded gun. I'm calling security."
"You know as much as I do about the authors of the Mayan Book of Mazes."
"Come back in. I'm sorry." He laughed. "You're crazier than the astrologers."
"What's the matter, can't you picture a time before writing when people toyed with mazes--a time when the right hemisphere of the brain was god?"
Marz turned the Mayan maze upside down. "Takwatl, daughter of the rising sun, it reads. Does that mean it's made in Japan?"
He hooted a raspberry. "Mazes represented the underworld. Now get out of this museum."
The security guard entered and drew his gun. Dawn backed away slowly. Marz loaded his gun, and the two pistols pointed at her face.
"Don't you dare treat me like a robber. I came to show you my own relics, you idiots! I'm a collector. Don't you care who I am?"
She sidled past the guard who danced around her. Marz waved his gun, motioning for her to leave. Dawn did a high kick, and the guard's gun flew from his hands into the air, landing in a fishtank on Marz's desk.
"Never point a gun unless you mean to use it." She turned to leave. Marz grabbed her shoulder, and she slapped his cheek. "You're underloved and overweight. What's even more scary, is that crime pays you less than my advance on three books exposing crime. What a waste of seven years of college."
Marz looked at her startled and off-guard. He nodded to security to back off. "Don't make noise. This is a museum of research." Dawn put her finger to her pursed lips.
"If I find out you killed Craig or in someway planned his murder, I'll be back. In fact, if I find out you paid Craig to strangle me, I'll reveal it to the world."
"You need a therapist," Marz said. "You're showing the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease."
"You're strange as hell." Dawn walked out.
She left the diamonds and scroll on Marz's desk. He watched her blend into the stream of museum visitors.
At the museum exit, she glanced at the clock and hurried to find a taxi. In a flash she removed Marz's wallet from her brassiere and lifted a crisp twenty dollar bill.
"To LAX," she blurted.
"Oh not again," the taxi driver whined. "You're the tenth airport fare before lunch hour."
Dawn waited outside the airport entrance as Gene's car pulled up. Dawn hopped in, and they crawled bumper to bumper through Los Angeles traffic.
Gene put his arm around her shoulders. She looked down at the green waitress's uniform she still was wearing.
"So, tell me about your flight." Gene kissed her on the back of her neck.
"Well, the bomb in the airport fizzled. Lucky, huh?" She gave him the warmest smile he'd ever seen.
Gene thought she liked to joke, that she enjoyed playing the role of radio talk show popshrink. He didn't interrupt. He thought about how easily she broke the sexual tension between two strangers with nothing in common.
"How do I top that?"
She sighed. "You don't have to top me."
"I'm sorry." He looked straight ahead at the traffic as he drove. "I'm not a controlling man. My mother gave me enough rope."
"Oh, here it comes," he said in a cartoon character falsetto. "Let your feelings out. Have a good cry on my shoulder. You can cry, can't you? You're the first woman I met who never cried in front of a man."
"There's nothing worse than a dead Injun with leaking gas."
"Something happened to the engine?" His eyes widened as he turned to her. "What happened? Did your plane nearly run out of fuel in mid-air?"
"There was plenty of gas."
"Then what? Come on, spill your guts."
"You really wouldn't want me to do that in your car."
Gene said impatiently. "I thought you're too pooped to joke with me. Where to first?"
Dawn shook her head in confusion. "A dusty corner of my old university library."
* * *
8:00 A.M. FRIDAY MORNING
After almost an hour in traffic Gene and Dawn walked up the library steps and headed toward a dark corner of the upper stacks. They poured through illustrated books and monographs on Mayan and Aztec archaeology in the Central American collection.
Dawn pulled one catalogue from the stacks and showed Gene a collection of illustrated Mayan stone writing and maze boxes. She flipped through the books until she found the page that showed writing on leather scrolls. She showed it to Gene.
He noticed instead a printed color slide of Mayan crystal skulls sculptured out of rose quartz crystal and clear quartz. The skulls allowed strange light patterns to pulsate and change color.
"There's what they used for fortune telling, I bet," Gene said.
"You're right. They looked into the crystal skulls and read the light patterns for omens."
Gene studied the crystal skulls in the book. "Does this have anything to do with you?"
"This is it," Dawn whispered. "See the mazes carved inside the crystal skulls? According to the ancient Indians, the skulls heal wounds and wound heels."
"What's inside those mazes?"
Dawn pointed to another picture of a crystall skull. "Artisans sculptured those skulls with human hairs and sand over generations for a hundred years. They dug tunnels or mazes inside the skull so the patterns of light exploded into other worlds."
"Oh, sure. And all those guys are trying to kill you because of some chicken scratchings in your fan mail?"
"I know it has something to do with those skulls. They're a key to the mazes. It all connects to diplomatic crime today."
Gene slammed one of the heavy books to close it. Dust blew up in his face.
The sound echoed throughout, and a library clerk walked by signaling him. "Shhh! Lower your voices."
Dawn hated holes right through his heart. "That reminds me. I know exactly the man to see."
She made a phone call and hurried Gene outside where there was a small park filled with the sleeping homeless. They sat an hour on the park bench as taut as high tension wires.
The two fended off every type from winos and drug peddlers to pregnant homeless teenagers. "Plead my belly for a dollar?" one of them asked Dawn.
"Where'd you learn that eighteenth century brogue?"
"In drama school."
"Another homeless unemployed pregnant actress? Well, here's a bill." Dawn gave her five dollars.
"If you want to see your name in lights," Gene chuckled, "learn how to type on a computer. There's plenty of work at the phone company."
"They're laying people off by the thousands. Computers replaced 'em." The pregnant teenager walked on.
"Don't remind me." Gene whistled nervously.
A second hour on the park bench passed before Dawn spotted Dr. Millen. He limped through the path, skewering discarded donuts on his dagger-sharp cane.
Millen wobbled over to them, smiling. He hugged Dawn and shook hands with Gene. "Strange we meet like this after so many years."
"What do you mean?" Dawn looked into his fathomless blue eyes.
His head shook with Parkinson's. "Human garbage."
He peered at the tent city for the homeless hastily erected in the park with cardboard boxes and rotting wood. Dawn put her arm around his shoulders.
"What do we do, bulldoze it down for the Olympics? Remember your five years in concentration camp? They bulldozed it then--for the Olympics. Who talked about human garbage back then, eh?"
Gene helped the old man sit. Millen smiled at him.
"Gene, Dr. Millen was my third stepfather. He followed Dr. Gorton's work for years. That's the professor I worked for summers for six years."
"Let's go," Gene said. He helped Millen move toward his car.
"Dr. Gorton's missing now for over six months," Millen said hoarsely.
Gene drove Millen north on Hollywood Boulevard. The air reeked of feces and urine, a melange of odors with which Dawn was becoming increasingly familiar.
Millen man kept a handkerchief over his nose until the palm-lined malls of Beverly Hills appeared. "Emphysema?" Dawn asked.
"No. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams smells like New York."
Dawn leaned toward Gene. "The postmark on the tablet reads, Qwatl, Guatemala. It's a town of maybe five-hundred, deep in the jungle ruins. The original Indian dialect is still spoken in defiance."
Millen, silent and brooding, finally spoke. "Gorton worked with the Qwatl Indians in rural Guatemala. He tried to prove they were terrific faith healers.
"I'm about to publish his book on psychic surgery, but where do I send the check? Gorton researched the Mayan Book of Mazes for psychic surgery references. Qwatl means 'jungle' in Mayan."
"I thought 'qwatl' meant giant bird," Dawn added.
"Well, have you ever seen a jungle without birds?" Millen laughed.
"Doctor Millen," Dawn murmured, "what's the most powerful resource you have?"
"Look, if there's one act of power you could perform that would change your life forever, what would that be?" Dawn held out her hands as if the information she'd receive would be heavy.
Millen thought a moment. "My most powerful resource is dependability. And if there's one change I could make that would change my life forever, it would be in my environment not in myself."
She turned to Gene. "What about you?"
Gene gulped hard, then answered indulgently."Only shocking statistics can change the environment. My most powerful resource is curiosity. And if there's one thing I could do that would change my life forever, that would be to marry you."
She looked deeply into his eyes until he looked away first. He waited for her to reply, but she said nothing.
Millen took Gene's and Dawn's hand in his. "Why don't you two come with me to Peru to look for U.F.O. hot spots?"
"Not this time," Gene said.
Dawn smiled nervously. "Don't you remember a day in your life when everything went perfectly?" She led them into their own vivid thoughts, flashes of places and faces.
"Now, go to a time in your life when everything was awful. Can you see the misery all around you?"
Gene nodded and squirmed. "I don't need you to bring back bad memories. I can do that on my own."
Millen wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Everybody I ever loved died. Now, why'd you make me think about that? I can feel my blood pressure rising. A migraine is starting."
"All right. Escape to that day when everything was beautiful and perfect. Don't you wish that time would continue forever?"
The two men sighed as they tried to recall that perfect day in their past. "The perfect day happened only once in my life," Gene said.
Millen rubbed his eyelids. "I remember my twenty-first birthday. My college years were the best in my life. No financial responsibilities, sitting passively all day in lecture halls, reading Jungian psychology, going to films, and my parents paid for everything."
"Lucky you, but I bet it hurt when you had to support yourself." Gene said.
He nodded. "I didn't care that my mother took her first job at fifty-four years of age. She scrubbed floors as a beauty parlor cleaning lady to put me through college and pay the mortgage on a Coney Island four-plex. I wasted her money on liberal arts courses considered worthless in the job market."
"You're lucky you found a job teaching anthropology," Dawn said.
Gene bent over and touched Millen on the shoulder. "I know Ph.D's driving cabs on the midnight shift. You're lucky you don't have to be an academic gypsy, that you have tenure."
"What tenure?" Millen laughed. "I live off the income from the four-plex my mother left me. In case of a depression, live on real estate rentals."
"What about your career?"
"I drift from job to job, taking whatever fate brings to me. It's exciting, keeping open for all chances, not knowing from one day to the next what I'll do for the next ten hours."
Dawn folded her arms across her chest. Let's continue to play mental car games. "You must be an INFP like me--introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving on the Myers-Briggs Test Indicator."
Millen shook his head. "I'm an intuitive thinker, not a feeler. Over two million people took that test of temperment. I wish more people used it to solve major problems."
She knew how sensuous her voice sounded. "It's only when I'm on the air that I extravert my auxiliary. That means I function publicly using only my second best. And my second best is wearing the mask of an extravert."
Gene laughed. "Why, you're a closet extravert. That's why you hide behind a radio microphone."
"Everybody wants to know his own type and temperment so he can make more informed choices." Dawn spoke in a low, seductive voice. "Frankly, people exhaust me."
"Be true to yourself." Millen scowled. "If people make you sick, then stick to writing your grandiose exposes of diplomatic crime."
"The only way a communicator can survive is to create visibility in the media," Dawn said. "Adapt or die."
"All I know is that I hate routine." Millen smiled.
Gene twisted his mouth. "And all I know is that I'd die without job security. Change would destroy me. Without a plan or control, I'd implode."
Dawn lashed out. "My whole life is a desperate act of self-defense against a man who wanted to control me."
A silken thread of warning chilled her voice. "It's not a coincidence that my first radio focused on combatting white collar domestic violence."
"I don't understand," Gene hotly interrupted. "Your ex-fiance dies in the act of murdering you, and here you're talking about mental car games, crystal skulls, and feelings."
"He tried to strangle me with telephone cable wire. Can't you see he set you up?" She bounced around Gene like peanut oil on a hot wok.
"I know who shot him," Gene said. "Can you take a look at this Soviet exobiologist and tell me whether she could be his jealous mistress? She killed him for his research notes on tropical poisons, not because he monitored your media strategies."
"So love and romance never came into play?" Dawn said.
"Civilized people kill for lost power, not because a relationship goes sour," Gene explained.
Dawn squeezed Gene's hand. "Pathologists kill for the same reasons phone switchmen kill--when they no longer value their career track or reputation."
Millen wheezed. "I always taught you as a teenager that people kill when they lose their self-esteem. That's what makes war. Nobody commits murder or espionage from blind rage. Start at the family level if you want to end war and crime."
"Craig was a thinking man," Dawn said. "Feeling felt alien and undeveloped to him. He strained toward full humanity and failed."
"Why did he leave you?" Gene asked.
"I asked him to tell me how it feels to withdraw affection when I beg for it."
"So he was a minute man?"
"More like a tease. Once on New Year's Eve, he kissed me all over until he could hear the excitement of my breathing. And then he'd jump away so fast and turn over instead of making love."
Millen clamped his hands over his ears. "This I don't want to hear."
Gene spoke only to Dawn, shutting Millen out for the moment. You're a psychologist and you still couldn't tell this man was so afraid?"
"He was a dance-way lover, a regular passion killer. If he saw I'm enjoying sex, he'd stop in the middle. Craig used to look down at me when we made love and laugh nervously at me. Then he'd say, 'You like it, don't you, you little bitch.' He never told me what scared him about women."
Gene blushed. "I bet his football coach tried to molest him in high school. I remember at fifteen my high school gym teacher passed by and put his hand on my crotch. I never forgot it and never told anyone because I'd take the blame."
"Craig didn't trust women. He used them. I went back to him every time my job felt insecure. What's your biggest fear?"
Gene struggled to smile. "I don't know when I'll get layed off as surplus."
"So here we are. My biggest fear is ending up a shopping bag lady in the gutter because I don't have technical skills like computer programmimg."
"Ph.d's in psychology are so common," Millen said. "I bet no one paid you for your internship. Now, if you studied to be a tax attorney like I told you..."
"Naturally," she sighed. "That certain 'fear of abandonment' makes people murder. I have no technical skills. I'm a throwaway person. So what stops me from lashing out?"
"Can you imagine? Fear of love makes people kill one another?" Gene said.
"Either that, or they hear voices and instantly obey their cold commands."
Millen sighed. "Four thousand years ago everybody heard loud voices from heaven. Every brain had a god's-voice-and-hallucination side on the right and a labor side on the left.
"Look at ancient poetry," Dawn said. "It was all dictated by the voices of the dead kings, the ancestors, and then the gods."
"Writing came along and forced people to think on the left side. That soon wiped out auditory hallucinations. People began to think, to plan mutiny, and to become refugees."
"Well, in the future," Gene blurted, "there won't be any emotions or poetry. The whole world will be orchestrated by computers.
"When they break down and can no longer repair themselves, we'll all be back in Eden, innocent as a cave man. Don't you know we come full circle over again?"
"You should hear the confessions of courtroom psychiatrists." Dawn said.
Millen warned half seriously, "People who murder for love always keep secret diaries that tell why. Now take a sociopath who murders for power because he never considers feelings.
"Success always leaves clues. There's a tragic motif running through the person's life that's so subtle, it's almost undetectable like an inner, electric fire."
Dawn became instantly wide awake. She noticed in the dashboard mirror that a black car followed them for miles. Suddenly the car tailgated, and then moved parallel. It rammed their wheels.
Dawn saw two men in the black car. She pointed to Gene who suddenly became aware of danger. The man peering out of the window grinned.
"Get a look at that Neanderthal hulk." Gene clenched his jaw.
"I saw him in the museum." Dawn glanced at the thin, swarthy man next to him. He turned and sneered.
"Why's he trying to run us off the road?" Dawn asked.
"Do you have something of theirs worth forty million? Who paid a hit-man two million to murder you?" Gene spoke loudly enough so the men in the black car overheard.
"I dumped everything on Marz's desk when I walked out of the museum, I thought." Dawn dropped to the floor and crouched there.
Millen's foot hit the gas pedal. The car sped, trying to evade the two men. Again the black car bumped their tires and smashed into their door.
Millen swerved. The Neaderthal hulk shot twice into Millen's car, missing them, but by only an inch. Millen ducked and swerved again, speeding ahead of the other car.
"Everybody tried to stop me from publishing that book on diplomatic crime and immunity. My publisher gave me the highest advance on a nonfiction book in publishing history."
"How much?" Gene yelled.
"Seven figures, and I'm not even the President's wife."
Millen swerved again. "So what can I do to help you?"
* * *
10:00 A.M. FRIDAY
The black car sped in front of them, then pulled out horizontally to cut them off. Millen's brakes screeched as the car came to a halt in a cloud of dust. The three hit the floor as the Neanderthal hulk fired a round from his automatic. The windshield rained down on the seats.
Millen noticed something odd. "They're firing over our heads. If they wanted to kill us, we'd be dead by now."
Millen slowly crouched on the gas pedal and began to steer without seeing ahead. Suddenly the firing stopped, and the men sat inside their car in silence.
Millen stepped on it. His battered car raced ahead, while the black car followed close behind, firing, but deliberately missing the people in the car.
A few minutes later, the road wasn't rural any more. Millen drove another half hour without interruption until he came back out of the desert and onto a crowded Los Angeles suburban freeway.
The black car followed them until Millen pulled into a shopping mall. Only then did it pull away and disappear. Gene wrote down the license plate number. "It's probably a stolen car, or the plates are fake," he said.
Millen looked down at the four flat tires. Dawn called a taxi. "What do you think is happening at your house?" Gene probed. Millen looked at him sheepishly. "You're wondering what I'm up to, aren't you?"
Gene paid the taxi fare. Inside Millen's home the walls displayed Mayan, Aztec, and Incan artifacts. The three fell, exhausted into the overstuffed chairs and enjoyed a painful moment of silence.
"Archaeology is detective work," Millen said. "You can't get away from repetitive fact checking."
Gene nodded in agreement. "It's all data analysis in the end."
"Can the two of you come with me to Guatemala?" Millen looked at Gene with a savage intensity.
Gene was too startled by his suggestion to offer any objection. "My supervisor gave me the week off, reluctantly. Actually, she owes me a few weeks vacation, since I never took any sick leave."
Dawn kissed Gene on the lips, pulling him down beside her on the white ultra-suede sofa. Her face was full of peace. Yet she fought the dynamic vitality he exuded.
Meanwhile Millen retrieved a transparent quartz crystal skull from his coffee table. He moved it back and forth under the lamp light. Dawn watched hypnotically. The dancing clouded lights reflected a rainbow of colors and bizaarre shapes.
"This is just a cheap Aztec copy of the original Mayan skull." Millen brought it closer. "It's a thousand years old."
Gene looked into the crystal sculpture. "What craftsmanship!" Dawn turned it upside down as the lights inside the crystal arched and receded throwing a striped pattern across her face.
She looked deeply into the crystal skull. "I see other worlds in there."
"The original Mayan rose quartz skulls are priceless," Millen said. "Each family spent a generation slowly carving that skull from quartz. They used only human hair and sand to polish it to the exact dimensions of a human skull. It took at least one hundred fifty years to finish it."
The black car parked down the street from Millen's home. Dr. Marz and a Neanderthal-looking hulk leaped out and quickly sneaked into Millen's house. The Neanderthal slipped a plastic credit card through the sliding glass back door bolt.
Suddenly and silently the two were in the living room. Millen twitched. He let out a long, audible breath.
"Here comes trouble," the Neanderthal man laughed in a nasty tone.
Millen recognized Marz as a rival colleague. "Still breaking into sealed tombs with a credit card?" Millen exhibited the patience he encouraged in Dawn.
Marz and Neanderthal pointed automatic weapons. "We're checking into a motel," Marz said. He pointed outside to his parked car.
"I hope it's not one of the x-rated adult motels." Gene deep voice simmered with passion.
"How would you know?" Dawn said in a contemptuous tone.
"Your latest forbidden book is out," Marz said. "It's all over the radio and television news."
"Why would you care? It's about diplomatic crime. You're an art appraiser."
"Priceless art is the root of diplomatic crime," Marz sneered.
"So is foreign censorship of an American book," Dawn added.
The Neanderthal hulk pointed his automatic weapon at the three and motioned for them to leave.
Outside Millen's house, Marz shoved Dawn, Gene, and Millen
into the back of the car. The Neanderthal hulk drove nervously.
Marz pointed his weapon at Gene while he chewed on a toothpick. Gene leaned forward until the two men were eye to eye. "So you like to study ancient ape men? How'd you decide on that field, by looking in the mirror?"
Marz spat the toothpick in Gene's face as a hollow laugh exploded from his chest. Gene flipped the pick right back at him. Marz punched Gene in the stomach, and he doubled over.
Millen distracted Marz. "What do you want with me?"
"You have something that belongs to me," Marz said cryptically.
Gene stayed doubled over long after the pain receded. In that position, he tugged at the 'locket' around his neck until the chain broke.
Gene stuck the small, round tracking device under the back seat and clicked the button. It gave off a pulsing signal.
Marz fixed his gaze on his colleague, Millen and Dawn until the car pulled up beside a shoddy, adult motel. The Neanderthal hulk waved them out as he hid his weapon under a folded jacket.
A fan turned slowly in the drab motel lobby. Marz registered while the others waited in the back parking lot next to a vending machine. The Neanderthal hulk held his weapon in one hand hidden under his jacket while he fumbled for change.
Gene stood next to the vending machine. "Look at that! Four lousy quarters for a can of soda."
The Neanderthal hulk found his correct change. He pumped the quarters into the vending machine.
Dawn grinned at him. "There are eighteen teaspoons of sugar in every cup."
"Don't drink it. Your teeth will dissolve." Millen added, signaling Dawn with a smile.
Gene pressed closer to man and machine. "Did you know sugar causes sugar crashes which causes violence?"
"Aw, shut up," the Neanderthal hulk bellowed. He kicked at the machine that just swallowed his last four quarters.
"That's true," Dawn said. "The sugar makes your adrenal glands release the fear hormone."
"So you get angry to fight the fear, and you hit someone," Gene said. He grabbed the man's weapon. The hulk yanked it back and punched Gene, knocking him against the wall. Gene kicked the hulk in the stomach, and he went down hard in a ball of red, raw urgency.
In a moment he leaped at Gene. "I don't need a can of soda to do this." Dawn grabbed old Millen's cane from under him and thumped the Neanderthal hulk from behind in the groin. He went out as Marz came back.
"How far can you run?" Marz breathed hard, shuddering with excitement. He tore at his sweaty brow as he pulled the hulk's weapon from beneath him. Marz deftly threw his jacket over it.
"It's got to be at least a hundred and five in the sun," Dawn complained.
"Got any change?" Gene looked at the vending machine.
"All right," Marz said. He reached into his pocket and took out a few quarters.
Gene dipped into his pockets and gave four quarters to Dawn. "Thanks. We can share a sixteen-ounce can of tooth decay."
"I'd like some low blood sugar tremors--and aluminum poisoning of our brains," Dawn said calmly.
Dr. Marz put his four quarters into the machine. It swallowed his money. The Neanderthal hulk rested against the side of the machine, oblivious to the shade. Gene pointed to him. "The dragon ate his change."
"Why didn't you say something?" Marz said nastily.
Marz jiggled the coin return. It ignored him. A spike of anger exploded. He kicked a hole right through its metal heart.
Marz kicked the vending machine again, and again. He grabbed its sides.
"I know this monster will give me free soda if I shake it hard enough," Marz yammered.
He continued to push it. The top heavy vending machine started to rock back and forth.
"Marz, cut that out," Dawn hollared. She put her hand on Gene's bare chest and felt the heat.
"You're right. Sugar addiction can drive a guy nuts," Gene said. Her hand dabbed at a bloodstain the size of a postage stamp that formed on his torn shirt.
"This top-heavy bitch weighs a ton." Marz rocked the machine by pushing on the front top of it. He got the machine moving, but couldn't control the rocking.
The vending machine fell with suprising speed. Marz and the Neanderthal hulk squished beneath the half-ton monster.
"Voila," Gene said with a flourish. He kicked at the automatic weapon under Marz's jacket.
Millen grabbed his arm. "Let's get out of here."
"I wish I had my video camera," Dawn said. She scooped up a half dozen cans of soda that came rolling out of the machine.
The three scrambled into the black car and sped away. "Who's going to pay for a new lock on my front door?" Millen asked meekly.
"Aren't you interested in finding out who wants me dead?"
Dawn flashed Millen a grimace of impatience. He shrugged.
"It's the flake who murdered that woman in my tub," Gene said fiercely. "If that wasn't Dr. Tanya Tamirova, then how does the Soviet doctor fit?"
"Psychology says it's always a woman scorned. Where to now?" Dawn sighed.
"The passport office, and then my office," Millen said. "You'll find this voodoo root in Guatemala. I'm afraid."
"Your office is in Philadelphia," Gene said.
"You didn't think my vacation home in Los Angeles had anything to do with my Philadelphia office, did you?" Millen smiled.
"You mean we have to fly all the way to Philadelphia right now?" Gene buried his face in his hands.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Dawn made a wry face.
"Then you two can fly with me all the way to Guatemala. Isn't that a fun weekend?" Millen smiled. "It's my treat."
The red-eye special left the kind of bags under their eyes that only a drunken sailor wouldn't notice. By the time they reached Millen's university office, their luggage flew to Guatemala.
"Where's the lock?" Millen groaned as he opened his office door.
"It looks like the janitor's using your waste basket as a toilet." Gene said mockingly.
"You ought to be in the funnies!" Detective Peter White grinned from ear to ear. He propped his feet on Millen's desk and rocked the desk chair.
"Your wiretap attracts two-legged pests." White added.
Gene smiled at him and extended his hand. White didn't shake it. "I guess we both play detective on the same radio frequency."
"Who's he?" Dawn asked.
White bolted out of Millen's chair and clamped handcuffs on Gene. He relaxed. There was only a flinch and a gasp of surprise.
Dawn and Millen blocked White's exit, but White moved his jacket to the side to reveal his holstered police gun.
White grinned. "You won't make me use this on a university campus, now will you?"
"I can see you're ready to expose your phallic symbol in front of all these coeds." Dawn tossed her head. White pulled his jacket over his holster.
"Don't bother reading me my rights," Gene growled. "I don't have any."
"Three murders, and you're out." White said.
Gene nodded. "And I'm still your only suspect?"
Dawn stepped between the men. "Let me explain. I'm a psychologist and a radio talk show hostess."
"Sure, my wife listens to you. Go ahead, fix my relationship," White said with sarcasm. "They call you the hound of the bitch box."
"Please, I'm Dr. Whisper's stepfather," Millen pleaded. "I assure you she's a credible witness."
"Sure." White opened the door and eased Gene out, holding him by the arm.
"If you'd only let me explain how I witnessed these murderes. Why aren't you taking me seriously?" Gene stammered.
White ignored Gene and looked straight into Dawn's large violet eyes. "You're always telling women how to make men marry them and open their wallets. You're a man hater."
"I tell my listeners how to be a man's woman, how to find committment, how to fix relationships and how to survive. I'm talking guerrilla tactics for women over fifty in poverty."
"Man-hater!" White repeated.
"Why?" Dawn insisted.
"Shut up, nag!" White shoved Gene into a corner, without taking his eyes from Dawn's full red lips. He slapped his open hand across Gene's mouth to stifle his protests.
"After my wife listened to you, she kept nagging me about what a withholding controller and a miserly provider I am. She said I'm not her superhero comic book idol. I wasn't her fantasy Indian lover searching for a maiden to sacrifice. What are you telling women?"
Millen laughed so loud he nearly split his sides. Dawn pursed her lips at White.
"I'm an avid archaeologist at heart practicing clinical psychology."
"Clinical?" White bit his tongue with rage. "Clinical psychology for entertainment radio?"
"It's more educational than T.V. police violence," Millen said.
"You rabid dog!" White shouted to Gene. "I'm taking you in on charges of murder one as soon as I make this phone call." White handcuffed Gene to the door.
Gene extended his leg to block his path. "Look inside my wallet. I tell you I'm a licensed private detective."
Millen shuffled through his desk to find the phone. A mess of papers and packages spilled chaotically.
"I'm betting that you're an anal retentive obsessive compulsive control freak." Dawn laughed nervously.
"The jumble will confuse your need for orderliness, and you'll give me that one moment of distress to disarm you."
"Honey, you ain't seen a slob like me." White said. He dumped the mess of papers on the floor and found the phone inside a desk drawer.
Millen shuffled through a stack of packages and papers that White missed. Two mounds piled high in disorder came crashing down. Millen turned the brown paper package over. "Hmmm...it's postmark today." Millen tore the paper off.
Gene struggled against his cuffs. "Don't open it, Millen."
"Don't be silly." White manhandled Gene, unlocking his handcuffs, then locking it instantly with Gene's hands behind his back.
"Let's go." White insisted.
"Wait a minute. It's from Guatemala," Millen said. He quickly tore open the package. Millen took out a rose quartz crystal skull and switched on the light. He held it up to the lamp.
"It's genuine Mayan," Millen said nervously. "This skull could be over a thousand years old. Even you can tell the difference between this and my Aztec copy."
The rose quartz skull shimmered and glowed a rainbow of colors. Clouds inside the quartz changed shape under the light.
Dawn grabbed White's arm and urged him to take a look. He slowly bent over the skull, pulling Gene with him.
"White? Is that your name?" Dawn asked. "I recognize your voice from my phone. You're the creep who keeps calling me. You made those death threats and sent me that rat in a coffin."
White made a dash for the door, but Gene and Millen blocked his path.
"Lookout! He's corrupt as this." Millen lunged forward as he swung the crystal skull in a left hook across White's square jaw.
He went down like a prizefighter.
"Get these cuffs off of me," Gene cried. White's body knocked the breath out of him.
Dawn dipped her hands into White's pocket and retrieved the key. She quickly unlocked Gene's cuffs. He whipped White's arms behind him and cuffed White to the handle of the filing cabinet.
Dawn frowned. "Corrupt cops are like incontinence pants--full of crap and all over your ass."
"Didn't your mother ever wash your mouth out with soap?" Gene asked.
"Sure, but I learned shock words in exctinct languages."
The team of three ducked out the door and ran to the black car. Gene pulled off the tracking device, re-strung it on the gold chain in his pocket, and placed it around his neck.
"Neat, huh? Mom always kept track of me this way. Dad invented it first to locate rare birds."
"I recognized White's voice. He called the station at least a dozen times, threatening me." Dawn's voice was cold and exact.
Millen thought a moment. "I know the tycoon behind all of this. Remember on page twelve of your third book?"
"Oh, my goodness!" Dawn slapped her own cheek. "We have to be in Guatemala like yesterday."
* * *
12:00 P.M. SATURDAY
The plane battled a drenching rain all the way to Guatemala. Airport taxis were soggy as they crawled out of their hiding places. "Can you tell me where we're headed?" Dawn shouted hoarsely over the whacking of the taxi's windshield wipers.
"The Qwatl jungles...point of origin of the ancient Mayans just before ten thousand B.C." Millen peeled back the damp lapcover.
"Honey, in ten thousand B.C. everybody grew five feet tall, hunted red meat, and slept in the mouths of caves." Dawn peeked out repeatedly to determine where they were.
Millen twisted his mouth. "Qwatl's a volatile area. No American archaeologists are digging there."
"Why must we get to Qwatl?" Dawn asked.
"It's obvious," Gene pointed as he looked out the window at the car speeding alongside his taxi. "There's Dr. Tanya Tamirova and her bulldog-faced driver."
Dawn stuck her head out of the window to take a good look at Tanya. The Soviet doctor's rain-glasses reflected Dawn's grinning face. Torrents of horizontal rain slashed her with a thousand thongs.
Gene looked behind Tanya's car and saw the others. "Here comes trouble again--Bayangi's hit-men."
The car behind Tanya's skidded into the passing lane and darted in front of her. Now both cars followed the black lead car with Bayangi's men.
One car swerved to the left and Tanya's car drove on the right. The taxi wedged between the two cars.
"Get lost," Dawn commanded the driver in Spanish. He nodded and veered deep into the surrounding jungle.
The farmland and mountains combined as the taxi pulled up to a muddy clearing. The sheared rain forest overflowed with people crushing into a rickety bus to sprawl on the hard, dusty seats.
Millen paid the driver and scrambled for the bus. They managed to push and shove their way to the back seat, where room for three was available on a long, hard unstuffed leather seat. The air reeked with exhaust fumes and people's sack lunches.
In a minute, the bus rolled between the silted rivers and the jungle. It snaked up a hill and halted beside an army of grimacing Indian farmers. Their Centralian jeeps stormed the bus, rolling up the mud like dung beetles.
Millen peered from the foggy window and tried to open it to see the commotion. The humid bus halted.
"Why are we stopping here?" Dawn asked nervously.
Millen jumped out and ran to the jeeps. "What's the problem?" The farmers silently stared at him. One spat on the ground near his feet.
Millen picked up a weed that the horizontal rain blew from one of the jeeps. He rushed back with it. Gene fought his way through the stiffling bus to the driver.
"What's going on?" Gene asked Dawn to translate.
"The farmers need to board. There's trouble between those who live in the rain forest and the villagers who are trying to sell their crops to foreigners."
"What rain forest?" Gene sighed and stepped out, looking around at the cleared jungle and the thick mud streaming under the torrents.
Millen pushed his way to the back of the bus. "Here comes an army of real, mean hashish farmers who cross between here and Centralia. They're probably going to meet those Soviets in the black car."
The professor held the weed up to Gene and Dawn. Millen sniffed it. "It's hashish. I should know. I've studied paleobotany long enough."
"That's what I broadcasted on the radio so many times," Dawn insisted. "I'm talking about the Russian black market smuggling drugs out of Latin America."
"Your book also said they imported stuff from the Mideast hashish farmers as well," Millen added.
"It's cheaper here. Mideast farmers aren't as invisible as the ones from Centralia," Dawn said.
"How'd they cross over into a clean country like Guatemala?" Millen asked.
"It's obvious someone sneaked them through." Gene said.
Dawn pulled the hashish apart and flung it away. "I smell manure. Is there a politician in the house?
"Take a look at the deported American multi-millionaire who's the impeached Vice President of Centralia." Gene felt the heat of her hand on his shoulder. Millen nodded with a tight-lipped grin.
The Indian farmers carrying their bales of hashish from the jeeps pushed into the already overflowing bus. The climbed on the roof, tied their bundles under pelting rain, covered it with plastic. When no more could cram into the bus, they sat on the roof.
Then a few farmers began to throw some people off the bus and take their seats. Dawn, Millen, and Gene decided to leave the hijacked bus before they leaped off.
They waited outside a few moments. "You didn't even pay your fare," the driver shouted to them in vain. He waved his clenched fist at them. A farmer kicked him out of his seat and started up the bus.
The three waited on the side of the road as Tanya's chauffered car drove up to the bus. Tanya and her driver walked to the bicycle rack on the back of the bus. Her driver opened the bus's trunk and began to remove automatic weapons.
Gene, Dawn, and Millen stared in disbelief watching the exchange of weapons for hashish by the Russian exobiologist. The crowd of bus passengers mulled around in the rain, shaking their fists angrily, mumbling, yammering epithets, but doing little else.
The farmers waved the automatics at each face in the crowd before they packed the weapons into their jeeps. Tanya and her driver bullied the crowd with their Kalashnikovs. Bayangi's right hand man, Baba, leaped forward from the black car and boarded the bus.
The farmers carried crates out of their jeeps and set them before Tanya. Her driver busied himself loading the hashish and handing out automatic weapons to the farmers in return.
Tanya stood in the driving rain and looked at Dawn, Gene, and Millen. "Well, what are you staring at?" Tanya asked.
Gene walked up to her. "You never smile with your eyes, Dr. Tamirova. The muscles of your cheeks never rise."
"Do you give everything a slow looking over?"
"How much did you pay them?" Gene said sternly.
Tanya threw him a foul look. She turned away, ignoring him. Then she grabbed an AK.47 automatic weapon and slapped it against her long, thin thigh. She tossed him the unloaded weapon like a Marine drill sergeant. He caught it, took it apart easily, and tossed it back to her.
"Four years in the Marines taught me you don't mess with female Marine helicopter pilots," he lied. "Which branch of the Soviet military did you command, lady?"
Tanya laughed as she caught the weapon he tossed back to her. "You're too cowardly to come within ten feet of a military recruiter," she laughed.
"I have a dossier on you a foot thick, phone man." She backed off, handed her driver the gun, and boarded the bus.
"You remind me of batman's cat-woman," Gene shouted.
"I'm afraid you absorbed the personality of the fiction characters you see in the media because your own self is weak," Tanya said. "You're the the type of nut who'd kill somebody famous to get your name in the paper."
"Maybe that's what you want the world to believe about me," Gene said. "That's why you set me up to take the fall for your dirty work."
Tanya, dressed in a tight, black jumpsuit felled the bus driver with one sting of her needle ring to his carotid artery. "He'll wake up with a hangover in four hours." She spoke in a silken voice.
"We're taking this cargo all the way to the border. Get in." She motioned to Dawn, Gene, and Millen. Her driver pointed a weapon six inches from Dawn's face.
"Why the border?" Gene asked Tanya.
"So I can catch a plane to Cuba and then on to Moscow."
"Why do you want us?" Millen shouted.
The driver shouted as he drove away, "This cargo's bound for Havana." Baba grinned at Gene revealing a row of gold metal teeth filed to razor-sharp points.
"So that's it," Dawn whispered to Gene and Millen. "They're smuggling the hashish to the black market in Moscow." The three took seats in the back of the bus as it snaked the hairpin roads. The bus skidded on slippery mud more than it drove straight at ten miles per hour.
Exhaust fumes filled the bus until Tanya kicked out the back window. "I really don't want you to die this way," she laughed.
"I read your book with passion." Tanya called back.
"Nobody reads a book with passion," Dawn said.
"How'd you guess what I did for a living? I'm not even a diplomat?"
"I worked like an ox in research," Dawn yelled.
"You needed paid contacts. Who were they?" Tanya asked.
"Mother Russia," Dawn sneered. "I write like an extravert. I talk to people.
Tanya put her hands on her hips. "No you don't. You write like an introvert, you look up ideas in professional journals and books instead of talking to people."
"Really?" Dawn answered. "Then how do you explain the success of my radio talk show?"
"Closet extroverts are gifted speakers, but they slip into agoraphobia under stress," Tanya said.
"It's all jungle from here on," the driver interrupted.
"Just drive north." Tanya pinched her driver on his shoulder.
Millen stood up. "No. We have to go south."
"And I catch the plane to Havana at the border, by the Mayan temple ruins. All of you...you're coming with me to Moscow."
"Is that where you store your hashish, on top of Mayan ruins?" Gene asked.
"Isn't that what it's for? Ruins to salute those who are about to be ruined?" Dawn said.
"Hashish goes twice as far in Russia. Haven't you heard of the new age revolution? Everything with a supernatural power to it costs more."
"If you're so rich," Gene said, "then how come I saw you working as a tour guide at the Russian Consulate?"
"Oh, shut up, ape man," Tanya said with disgust. "My research in tropical medicines can't stop for you."
Gene folded his arms and zapped her with his unwavering gaze. She looked into his fathomless, black eyes, unable to pull away from the electric current. "What do you use hashish for?"
"Relieving the nausea of cancer patients," Tanya snapped. "All you see are illegal drugs. I use extracts of ancient herbs as a healing tool."
"Somehow, I can't see you as a saint working in a Moscow hospice." Gene spoke in a deep-timbered voice.
"You're a good telephone switchman," Tanya sighed. "Why don't you stop playing amateur private detective?"
"I told him moonlighting would be bad for his health." Dawn shrugged at Tanya.
"It's time for a change of politicians." Millen interrupted.
Gene lunged at Tanya's driver. The driver stopped the bus and grabbed Gene around the neck.
Tanya gave Gene a swift kick in the groin. "Thirteen years of Russian ballet lessons finally came in handy, ask you say."
Gene doubled over and rolled down the bus aisle like a leather rugby ball. The driver dragged him to the back seat. He flattened him, face down by sitting on the small of his back.
"What should I do with the Americans?"
"Nothing here," Tanya pulled the bus in gear and parked it on the side of the muddy road.
She walked back and put her arm around Millen's shoulders. "I need your help as an archaeologist."
"Translate this." She pulled a photocopy of a scroll from her pocket and showed it to Millen.
"Sorry..my reading glasses are in my luggage."
Tanya shrieked in frustration and nearly yanked Dawn's hair out by the roots. Dawn screamed.
"It's too bad your secret third book is all about how Central American hashish farmers supply the Russian black market."
"No it's not. It's about diplomatic crime by immunity."
Gene groaned, and Millen attended to him. Tanya violated Dawn's personal space. "Unfortunately, you made me the unauthorized star."
"So you put a contract on me," Dawn said.
"Oh, no way!" Tanya sucked her long, red fingernail. "The Soviet Ambassador put the contract out on you."
"The Soviet Ambassador doesn't put out contracts," Dawn insisted.
"It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it." Tanya smiled.
Gene sat up in pain, moaning. He took a deep breath. "He has diplomatic immunity like the rest."
"So?" Dawn asked.
Baba eyed Dawn as he fingered his automatic weapon. "Don't you even think of parking here!" Dawn sneered and pointed to her private parts.
Tanya turned for a split second to look at Baba. Dawn took advantage and made a leap for her weapon. Baba tackled her in an instant before she could disarm Tanya.
"Even the ambassador's cook has diplomatic immunity," Baba laughed. He kneed between her thighs until she lay spreadeagled on the wet bus floor. "Even his chauffeur..."
Dawn struggled upward, clawing at his face with her long acrylic nails. Baba trained his weapon on her chin and belched loudly in her nostrils. She yelled for Gene to help.
Tanya grinned. "Are you going to act or react?"
"That depends on whether I have courage or intelligence," Gene replied.
Gene punched his balled fist with his right palm ramming his elbow into Baba's weapon. The automatic skidded along the aisle.
When Baba chased after it, Gene kicked him in the groin with his spiked hiking boot. Dawn moved like a bubble severed from her emotions. A swift heel-kick under Tanya's nose took her out.
Millen's razor-sharp cane-end pierced one side of the chauffeur's neck and came out the other. He stepped on the brake as effortlessly as the sea makes waves.
Tanya's driver slid off his seat and vomited blood on Millen's shoes. His eyes turned up so only the white showed.
As he fell on the pedals, the bus skidded into the soft shoulder of the road and stopped. Suddenly the bus rocked quietly as two introverts making love. Then the quietness came alive with the screeching of macaws in the relentless rain.
"I think I'm in love with you, Gene." Dawn shuddered.
He looked around. Millen was standing, open-mouthed at the steering wheel.
"I've always loved you, but why would a woman like you give a telephone technician the time of night?"
Dawn twisted her mouth. "I think that the lower her self-esteem, the more a woman wants someone different."
"It's a matter of self-respect, not self-esteem," Gene insisted.
"Sorry, but the higher her self-esteem, the more a woman wants someone like herself." Dawn drew him close to her.
"Why do you really think you're in love with me?"
Dawn kissed his bare chest where his shirt tore. "I'm not falling in love with what you do, but the kind of man you are."
"How can you be sure? You're still in shock and grief over Craig."
"Grief for a man who tried to strangle me with phone cable?"
"He knew I'd be the perfect patsy. Craig deliberately wiretapped my condo. He wanted me to hear his plan."
Millen came over to them. "He realized the phone company monitored calls for voice quality. You worked the midnight shift. He got your name from your detective correspondence school."
Dawn grabbed Gene by his dark, curly hair. "It's on page 98 of my second book. I tell how diplomatic criminals use phone company equipment to set up innocent employess to witness or take the fall for a murder."
Gene took her in his arms. "I read that book. That's why I called you. Why did you treat me like a mouth-breathing, nose-picking idiot?"
"K.W.I.N. pays me six figures to be obnoxious and rude on the air. It's for the ratings." She dropped her lashes quickly to hide the pain.
Gene kissed the creamy expanse of her neck. He looked deeply into her half-closed violet eyes and lifted her chin.
"The phone cable...Craig strangled that Tanya lookalike in my tub to make it look like I murdered her. The perfect phone switchman patsy. He listened to all my calls to you."
Dawn took a deep breath. "On the air you appeared obsessed with me, a crazed fan. The police thought you stalked me because I called you a multi-grain flake on the air."
"Where's the mug shots of the creeps who stalk Hollywood celebrities?" Gene asked. "What kind of a fictive world do they live in? Why do they always ask who am I tonight?"
"God forbid, too many. They don't answer fan mail anymore. Radio talk show hosts get shot at. The death threats pour in. There's too many crazies out there, and they're still denying it."
Millen handed Gene a weapon. "Let's get out of here."
The three pulled down the plastic cover from the rooftop cargo. They eased their way up the road under the canopy like a translucent dragon. The pelting rain finally slowed to a drizzle.
"I know what Craig planned," Gene said. "When he killed you, he could blame the frequent caller from the phone company."
"Craig always taped me--even when he left the area. He came back for that attache case a week after he moved out. I put all my tapes in it for the past two months."
"He kept it in his condo."
"Tanya has it now, I'll bet." Millen said. "You were the perfect pastsy, all right."
Gene coughed. "Listen to the tapes. They set me up as a working-class fan obsessed with a radio talk show psychologist who constantly rejects him, makes him the butt of her rude jokes."
"You revealed everything about your life on the air, the place you work. Craig called employment to verify everything. You always used your real first name."
"How many Genes work the night shift at the phone company?"
Gene's eyes glazed over with a lovesick stare. Dawn looked back at him and smiled.
"Don't look at me like I'm your warm puppy." Gene said. "So you're really falling in love with me?"
"Yes. Do you believe it?"
"I'm afraid to love you."
"I promise never to hurt you. This is real life...no ratings."
Dawn gave him an exquisite smile. They embraced under the plastic cover.
"Cut it out," Millen cried.
"A doctor in love with his patient? I'm not your patient, am I," Gene stammered.
"You're the strongest man I ever met." Dawn said with emphasis.
"I admire you, Gene. I love you for your kindness and devotion in the face of brutal rejection. I love you because you're slow to anger and quick to solve my problems. God knows you have enough of your own."
Gene caressed her dark-complected face. "Dawn, darling. You're not the hound of the bitch box after all. You're sweet...and lovely." She lifted her chin, and he kissed her passionately on her full, red lips.
"You're so romantic. I can never say no to love," Dawn sighed. "If I were you, I'd certainly say no now," Millen shouted. "Keep walking up this road. There's a village just over the hill."
They walked a few feet in silence. Then Gene turned to her and narrowed his eyelids to slits. "How can you be sure I don't love you for your money or celebrity by association?"
"Oh, Gene, what am I going to do with you?" She kissed him on the back of his neck.
"You know you have no ambition to rise higher than a switchman. Remember you told me that you feared being terminated when they considered you for a manager? You told me management can't join the union. I know you value job security more than anything else."
He nodded in agreement. "You're uncanny in analyzing people."
"That's because I know you're an ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs Test Indicator--an introverted, sensing, thinking judger. You don't like to make any sudden changes in your work."
"You're right. I'll keep working for the phone company. The detective work is only a backup--unless they lay me off as surplus."
"I told you I'm an INFP, an introverted, intuitive, feeling perceiver. I only use my ENFP extraverted auxiliary to make a living on the radio. At home, you'll find I'm an introverted writer who takes the phone off the hook after work. People make me sick."
"What on earth are you talking about, lady?" Gene laughed.
"I'm referring to the sixteen basic personality types in this world, darling. At least your type wouldn't spend money on a mistress like Craig did."
"Are you insecure, darling?"
"Will you still love me after a night of monitoring phone calls on the radio?"
"What about your monitoring phone calls for voice quality at the phone company?"
They both uttered the same words together. "What do you think?"
"Never let me go." Dawn sighed as Gene embraced her.
Millen tugged at the plastic cover. "Will you two come on? The sun's out."
"Can't you see both of us really are alike?" Gene said.
"I want to know how people work," Tanya said. "And you want to know how machines work."
Gene nodded and walked on. Inside the bus, Tanya stirred and came to. She staggared out of the bus, holding her nose inside a sweat shirt and caught up to them.
"You filthy pig! You broke my nose." She shouted hoarsely and limped toward the three.
Millen spun around. "She did you a favor. Now you can get that bulbous nose of yours narrowed to look like a movie star."
Tanya caught up to them and cried. "Do you think I'm all alone here?"
* * *
6:00 P.M. WEDNESDAY
Suddenly from over the hills a trio of Indian farmers in jeeps moved down and closed in on them. One Indian drove up to Gene and silently looked him over. He jumped out of the jeep carrying a bale of very dry hay under canvas.
The Indian ripped the covering off and kicked the square of hay at Millen and Gene. "This is hashish mixed with hay. Are we loading on the bus or not?"
"Who are you?" Millen asked.
"Sartu. I work for Dr. Tamirova."
Tanya searched Gene, Dawn, and Millen for weapons and pulled off their rings. "So you two capitalist pigs are falling in love," Tanya snorted.
"I don't know anyone more capitalist today than a Russian scientist," Dawn murmured satirically. "What's it to you?"
"I'm a big fan of yours." Tanya gave her body a raking gaze. I collect your tapes and sell them in the Soviet Union. "De hound of de beetch box, eh?"
"My tapes on the black market in Moscow?" Dawn chuckled.
"Of course, it's much safer to tell listeners how to find Mr. Right," Tanya said. "What makes you so commercial in Moscow is that you ridicule and insult your callers. We forbid those pleasures in my Samarkand."
"What should I do with them?" Sartu sighed with exasperation.
Gene sat down on the bale of dry hay. He fumbled in his pocket.
"What no Asian castration on the air waves?" Dawn ground the words out between her teeth.
"Apparently, your search for Mr. Right paid off. You found Mr. Wright." Tanya pinched Gene on his backside. "What a waste on a bitch like you." She shook her head in despair and trembled.
Tanya dabbed her nose. "Dr. Whisper, I have a problem. You wrote this book where I appear in a dreadful light."
Gene whispered. "Light!"
Gene inched his never-used cigarette lighter gift (from Bob) out of his pocket. He moved his hands slowly behind his back and flicked it twice. In a moment, the flames licked the sky.
Sartu jumped, leaped for his automatic weapon, and opened fire with a round. Everyone ducked under cover as Sartu reached over his shoulder and tossed Tanya his spare Uzi.
Dawn charged into Tanya's belly head first as Tanya belted out the beats of the Uzi in a circle. Tanya fell into Sartu's arms. Instantly, Gene jumped at him, wide-eyed, grabbing Tanya's wavy knife from her fist. Tanya pressed a nerve in Gene's hand, paralyzing him for a second. She caught the knife before it hit the mud and deftly slit Sartu's throat across his scar.
"He's a traitor to me," Tanya cried. She looked into Gene's eyes as he tried to move his paralyzed hand. "I injected venom between your thumb and index finger."
"It works like lightning." Gene shuddered.
"Your hand will be back to normal in an hour." Tanya looked around her and headed back to the bus. Gene, Millen, and Dawn chased her. Two shot-dead Indians lay spreadeagled over the hood of their jeeps.
"Why'd you silence them?" Gene ran after Tanya. She turned her head. "They are traitors--hashish farmers who are more interested in selling their poison than putting priceless Mayan crystal skulls on the Russian black market."
"Since when are you interested in crystal skulls?" Dawn shouted.
"I'm a sophisticated Russian doctor. It's only natural to collect Pre-Columbian art in Moscow or even Samarkand." Tanya grinned.
Gasoline poured from the exhaust pipe, running red with blood. Gene tossed the flaming bale at the bus's gas pipe as Tanya came crashing out of a broken bus window. Millen leaped behind her.
Millen rolled behind a rock where the jungle grew dense. Tanya let loose with her automatic again. The three crawled into the bush, moving along in the darkness through pools of slime.
The bus exploded engulfed in flames. Tanya kicked Sartu's helper from the hood of his jeep and climbed in. She drove past them as they dug into the mud.
Tanya shouted hoarsely to them. "The American Ambassador laundered those Indian's money for years, investing in antiquities here."
As soon as her car was out of earshot, Dawn lifted her face from a pool of green slime. She felt along the leaves for Gene's hand. Millen grabbed her ankle and hoisted himself to his feet.
"Everything she said is in my book," Dawn sighed. "The Russian Ambassador laundered the American Ambassador's money from hashish farming all over Central America, from Centralia to the border.
"Why didn't they want your third book published?" Millen wiped his face with a dead man's shirt.
"I wrote a full investigative expose on it."
Gene slapped his hand against his forehead. "Then Tanya created a Russian black market for Central American hashish...the filthy capitalist pig!"
"Their farmers leave a heat track. We must get to Qwatl right now!" Millen pushed them to move ahead.
Millen, Gene, and Dawn jumped into the second jeep, shoving the last dead Indian off his own hood. Gene tossed out a cargo of hashish into the muddy road. "Suck on this," he blurted, as the bale of hashish landed on top of a green snake winding toward the vehicle.
They careened toward a village flanked by farmland. The moon's pallid chink revealed the outline of a farm house whose overhanging roof sheltered a rusty military truck.
Gene pulled up far enough down the road to be invisible. The others leaped out and sidled up to the windowless building.
Dawn circled the spacious farmhouse and returned to the back. She motioned Gene and Millen over to examine the ladder that leaned against the whitewashed stucco.
Slowly, they climbed the ladder to the skylight and hoistend one another onto the flat, tiled roof. They peered down into the skylight.
"It's a warehouse," Gene whispered. "What do you make of it?" He said to Millen. The three of them sat on the roof and looked down from the skylight's glass pane. "Stolen antiquities," Millen said softly. "It's Mayan, all right."
They sneaked across the roof, sliding slowly toward a small roof skylight that revealed another storage room. Dawn peered down. "Stashes of hashish," she muttered under her breath. "No doubt, it's some narcotic weed."
Millen squinted. "Hashish."
The sound of an engine flared up in the darkness. Below two pure Indians with military police uniforms turned on their flashlights. They inspected the outside of the house.
"Loco, this stuff's bad," he said in Spanish. "Something is wrong." He flashed his light on the jeep a hundred feet down the road.
"Guani, let's go," the other Indian urged. He spat out his chewing gum. Dawn watched them from the rooftop. She pointed to their flashlights inside the jeep. Gene looked down cautiously. Millen peered into the skylight at the antiquities packed in crates with hashish shipments.
They watched the two Indians in military uniforms knock on the door and go into the farmhouse. The three bent over the skylight, watching the two military men supervise the crates full of antiquities and artifacts. The workers sealed and stamped the crates with pictures of canned green chili peppers.
Two other men came into the room and hugged the two men in military uniforms. They shook hands. Dawn glued her face to the skylight to see who the men were. Two men looked European. Another two workers dressed like Indians.
Millen and Gene watched a worker pack a crystal skull in newspapers. He centered the skull on a bed of dry hashish, then stuffed the crate with more newspapers. The military man sealed and stamped each crate.
"Some crates of pickled peppers," Dawn whispered.
"Smuggling Indian antiquities is as big a business as smuggling hashish." Gene added.
"No it isn't," Dawn said. "My book's about tracking Latin America's most notorious drug traffickers working under diplomatic immunity."
"I'd get them to the states," Millen said. "And the C.I.A. would get them off, scott free."
"Six times they appeared as guests on my radio show," Dawn said. "They posed as antiquities smugglers and scholarly archaeologists or as diplomats set up in consulates around the U.S.A."
Millen pointed. "It's the Mayan Moon Goddess. That carving is thousands of years old and stolen from the capital's museum."
He strained his eyes. Twenty feet below the skylight, an Indian prepared the sculpture to be shipped.
Dawn twisted her face in protest. "Do you think she came from outer space?"
"How should I know?" Millen wheezed. "If you could write a book of the dead in Mayan ten thousand years ago, who would you worship?"
Gene stretched his body over the skylight to take a closer look. Suddenly the skylight gave way in a shattering explosion. He plummeted through the atrium and landed in the arms of a Mayan goddess. The statue's outstretched arms cradled him like a pieta.
Millen and Dawn peered through the shattered skylight at Gene being borne by the ancient metal statue. Gene took a deep breath, cleared his head, and looked around in confusion.
"Who the devil are you?" The tall man asked in Spanish.
Gene didn't understand. Slowly, he slid out of the statue's arms and shouted: "Oh, powerful Yucca, alien from the galaxy called Zeti Reticuli. Oh, ice age Mayan maiden. What did you say to provoke the sacrificial priests to smash you like a battered wife? Did you wear your feathers too tight? Or did you make men feel powerless?"
Loco elbowed his military insignia in Gene's face. "What are you doing here this time of night?"
"Get him," Guani commanded.
The other two men looked up at Dawn and Millen bending over the skylight, open mouthed and frozen in shock. Loco kicked a crate from under a table and dragged out an animal tranquilizer gun.
"Tonight the hunting season officially opens," he snorted.
"I'm an American," Dawn screeched from above. "We're American media on assignment," Millen blurted.
Loco let loose with an animal tranquilizer dart, shooting Dawn under the chin and Millen in the Adam's apple. The two quickly tumbled through the skylight, a hot bubble of poison in their throats. Guani filled a hypodermic needle with the same animal tranquilizer and pumped a dose painfully into Gene's groin.
The two European men waved the death color to Loco and
Guani--a red handkerchief. The Indians dragged Millen and Dawn off the crate they crashed onto and quickly tied them up inside an alligator crate. Guani tied Gene's hands and rolled him on top of Dawn and Millen in the statue's coffin.
"Seal it?" Guani asked.
"Not until I find out why they are here," the tall man answered. The other man stuck out his protruding lower lip.
The Indians in military uniform pocketed some money. They followed the two taller men into another room filled with museum pieces from floor to ceiling. The tall man opened a door, and Guani ran inside and sniffed the stored bales of drying hashish.
"How would you personally like to bring this from Iraq to Lebanon, launder it in Central America, and sell it in Russia, eh?" The tall man looked Guani straight in his drooping eyes.
He laughed and paid off the two military men. "You want?" The Indian shook his head. Guani grabbed at the money and disappeared into the other room filled with pre-Columbian sculpture.
* * *
7:00 A.M. SUNDAY
Morning came loudly as macaws entered the open skylight and hovered above the drying bales. Their squawking detonated Gene's senses as he spiraled in the splintering crate. He stirred, pulled at his ropes and shook Dawn and Millen awake. It was so humid they could barely breathe.
Dawn turned to him. "Geez, at least you know now that someone didn't put a contract to reach me in seven hours."
"If the man thinks he's God, then he'll do what he has to do in six days and rest on the seventh." Gene groaned, rubbing the site of his animal tranquilizer vaccination.
"What do you mean?" Millen snorted.
"He said on the phone he'd take seven days and then rest because he's God." Gene pulled at his ropes. Sweat dripped in his eyes.
"Well, what kind of a man in your book thinks he's a god?"
Dawn thought a minute. "A man who has auditory hallucinations, who speaks to idols....a man who hears bicameral voices from overstimulation to the right hemisphere of his brain."
"That American multimillionaire who's the impeached Vice President of some Central American nation is like that. I remember reading a psychological case study of him. You wrote it yourself, you fool." Millen ranted.
"He collects pre-Columbian idols and once paid a fortune for a crystal skull he heard making hissing sounds."
Dawn slipped her sweaty hands out of the bonds. She quickly untied Gene. "How do I take your detective school correspondence course? I want to become a licensed private eye. It's the only move an investigative psychologist can make."
Gene smiled, lifted his chin, and closed his eyes. "I'll give you my supplies and books." He gently squeezed her arm.
Millen thought a moment. "When my book on Mayan figurines came out, he even wrote me a fan letter. I'm amazed how hard he washed the statue's mouth in the hope of understanding the garbled speech."
"Well, my book clearly denies the man's schizophrenic." Dawn insisted. "He's a throwback. The impeached V.P. owns a bicameral mind, just like all people thought with before three thousand B.C."
Millen slowly sat up and helped Dawn and Gene climb out of the stiffling crate. "Gene, did you know that writing, wars, and floods caused mass migrations?
"Did you know suddenly people became conscious of themselves when society became too complex? And the god's voices abandoned them around 1,000 B.C."
"Aw common, folks." Gene punched his way out of the box.
Do you want to know the reason why people didn't understand the garbled speech at the tower of Babel? It's because the auditory hallucinations of god's voices receded and the ego popped forward." Millen said.
"We're history," Gene hotly interrupted. "How do we get out of this place?"
Dawn untied Millen. "We walk out as the news crew from Sixty Minutes, Gene." You're a sensing type. As an intuitive feeler, I drop reality at the sound of danger and sell escape."
"At least I pulled your head out of the clouds," Gene confessed.
"I'd rather have my head in the clouds than wallow in your rut."
Millen teased. "Making fantasy real is a billion dollar business."
"I'd rather be dead than not live my passion." Dawn drew her hand horizontally across her throat.
"You became rich selling escape to women addicted to their own adrenaline rushes. Why?"
"Ask any dead comic." Dawn's shrill voice pierced him. Gene looked into the pale radiance of her eyes.
Fear was sharp as a knife within his pounding heart. "Your tabloid radio schlock is more addictive than cocaine."
"Dawn pulled on Gene's arm. "The right word is kitsch, not schlock. Besides, I have a keen eye for the patterns in life. And you have a keen ear. Maybe we should team up and solve diplomatic crimes together. When this is over, I'm infiltrating Iraq with a short-wave radio."
He needed to believe, to follow her, to try anything. Gene helped Millen out of the crate. "Sure, she get ratings," Millen said. "Maybe she disguises her innermost feelings as popular culture."
"You dare to compare me with these drug-peddling sensation-seekers? Let's go." Dawn crawled across the room.
"At least what I do has some social value. I thought you admired my efforts to expose crime and help listeners take life a little less seriously at midnight."
"Would you lighten up, Gene?" Millen growled. "Drive-in psychotherapy is entertainment."
"Sure," Gene howled. "Midnight work is too serious. Take your pick: murder, repair, or conception?"
Dawn took his hand. "Look, you proved yourself a master at solving crimes."
"You're my first case," Gene shouted. "Maybe I get to prove myself one more time and show a good telephone switchman always remembers how to take on the enemy."
"Maybe the real enemy is a phone company about to lay me off because I'm surplus," Gene said. "These guys are dead serious about destruction."
"My midnight radio career is about keeping listeners awake. Why do you have to act out all my repressed fantasies?"
Gene peered through the bars on the small inside window that led to the hashish storage room. Staring back, Loco pressed his face against the window bars and burped loudly. He unlocked the heavy door.
"I've brought you some of our bread. Eat it. Indian bread is the holy of holies."
"What's it laced with?" Gene stepped back.
Guani followed Loco into the antiquities room wearing his weapons like jewelry. "Who untied you?"
"We hallucinated the voices of the statues," Dawn sneered.
"Never mind. In this heat, you could slide through the kitchen sink."
Guani kissed the bread and touched it to his heart and then his forehead before putting it back on the plate. Loco walked over to the small hot plate and refrigerator and whipped up an omelet.
He beat the eggs a few seconds, then spat into it, then stirred the eggs, then spat again. He whisked and spat once more, all the time watching Gene and Millen.
"How do you feel?" Loco laughed.
"Groggy," Gene said.
"I wish I brought my video camera." Dawn motioned to Millen.
Guani dabbed at the bleeding cold sores which covered his lips. He ran his tongue over the sores and spat again into the omelet before oozing the eggs into the sizzling lard. He eased a half dozen green chiles into the pan.
"Where's the cheese?" Loco growled. He opened the small refrigerator.
"It went bad." Loco laughed. He left the room and returned shortly carrying a tray piled with Guatemalan food--mixed grains and fried bread.
Millen asked him in Spanish, "Where do the Russians sell your hashish?"
Loco folded his arms across his chest. "All over the Soviet Union, European, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, Australia...especially to capitalist Russians vacationing on the Cuban Riviera...." He laughed.
"Cuban Riviera?" Millen sneered. His forehead throbbed.
Dawn interrupted. "How did the Russians get into world-wide drug dealing? Who's behind Soviet organized crime?"
"American money," Loco laughed. "Let the sword decide." He lighted a cigar. Guani flipped the omelet and served it to them.
"Eat it." Guani shoved the plate along the length of the marble table until it came to rest in front of Dawn.
"Don't touch it," Gene shouted. "The guy who spat in it has herpes."
"Yuck!" Dawn jumped up and tipped over the entire table.
"I spent two years learning English just waiting for you to come here." Guani waved his arms at her.
Millen whispered in Gene's ear.
"So you're all American reporters," Guani said. "We want publicity in your country."
Gene rolled his eyes at Millen. Dawn nodded to play along.
"Did you see the new palace that Doctor Sanchez is building? You've never seen a billion dollar palace."
They followed Guani's thoughts. "The Russians spent too many years behind the curtain. So when they run like rats from a sinking ship, they grab Western money.
"Didn't you know your own country has a secret government? It's higher than the president who's flooding your country with drugs." Guani revealed his secret. "How else can they pay the national debt?"
"That's what I wrote in my forbidden book," Dawn said. "I wrote fiction, and somehow hit upon the truth. Now, which one of you wants me dead?"
"You started digging in the wrong country, lady. You should go to Iraq to find your source."
"What would an Egyptian Jew like me want with Iraq?" Dawn said. "We're the crew from Sixty Minutes, and we start to roll in an hour."
"You want the billionaire American who drops twenty million a week with the sheiks in the casinos of Europe."
"Who's your boss?" Gene asked.
Guani looked at Loco. "You," he pointed to Millen. "Old man, give me that cane."
"No," Millen yelled. "I can't walk without it."
Gene blocked his path. "We're journalists, man. All we want is the news. Give us a film and we'll show what you want to the world."
"Who organizes crime in Russia?" Dawn asked.
"An American, of course."
Guani stopped short of pulling Millen's cane from under him. "I'll take you to Sanchez and the impeached Vice President of our little republic."
"We're looking for an American expatriate billionaire named Barnett," Dawn insisted. "And I don't believe you impeached him. He's still alive."
* * *
12:00 P.M. SUNDAY
The interior of Sanchez's billion-dollar palace in Centralia restored the hanging gardens of Babylon to the Mayan temple of the Moon. And that was just the courtyard. Inside, Barnett duplicated the Incan ruins at Machu Pichu. The place looked more like Peru than somewhere in the jungles of Central America.
Gene stumbled through the halls between Loco and Guani listening to the echo of his boots on the marble. "This reminds me of the time when I was in the fourth grade in Brooklyn when Mrs. Feldhoone asked me where my father was born. I told her Central America.
"She said, 'Your father was born in Central America?' I wanted to be funny. I joked. 'Sure, I said--right in the central part of America on the lower East side of New York.' That lousy teacher flunked me in geography."
Dawn and Millen followed, goosed every two steps by the rifles of two more guards. As they walked inside a tunnel connecting the courtyard to the palace, seven shots, sounding like bombs, plugged their ears tight.
The ancient mummy-face of an Indian servant peered from behind a half-open door. Gene's eyes picked up Sanchez.
"Why didn't you say you were Dr. Tamirova's guests?" Sanchez squatted.
Dawn laughed nervously. "You know everything around here."
"I'm here strictly to fix your electronic equipment. Aren't you installing intercommunication devices for your new television station?"
"I can't wait forever," Sanchez said.
"The T.V. show's about what you export. When will you tell my broadcast crew what you do for a living?" Millen improvised.
Sanchez pointed the way for the trio to follow. He motioned for Guani and Loco to wait in the foyer. "The biggest palace in the world is ready for the world to see. Where's your equipment?"
"On its way," Gene said.
"The most important point to make is that the builder is one of your own." Sanchez sucked his fat fingers.
"Which American is the brains behind you?" Dawn remained indpendent. "If I'm hosting this show, I want to know what I'm reading in front of the camera."
"That's good. Play it to the hilt." Millen whispered in her ear. "They think we're some news crew that's coming."
"I'm sorry," Dawn sighed impatiently. "Your seven-gun salute stuffed my ears up tight."
"God rested on the seventh day. What about you?" Sanchez's fat neck bobbed as he laughed.
"Oh, I'm an observer," Dawn said. "Actually, Gene says I'm scheduled to be murdered. Do you know any hit-men who do it on the sabbath and then rest?"
Sanchez stiffened. "You're here to do a news segment." He walked them deeper into the bowels of the palace to a data-processing room.
"I want to know who's working this at the highest level in my own government," Dawn insisted. "I know there's a secret government in my country higher than the president who's smuggling drugs into the U.S.A. It's happening to pay off our national debt.
"Are you going to assassinate him with your pornographic gun as soon as he finds out? Is that what happened to Kennedy? Or is the President pushing drugs himself to pay off the national debt?
"What I don't know is whether this is also happening now in the Soviet Union. Who's supplying the Russian black market? Organized crime? Who?"
"John Barnett," Sanchez announced. "Are we on the air?"
He held out his hand, pointing to another room. Dawn, Millen, and Gene stepped into an elevator and shot up to a penthouse suite.
"A billion dollar palace, eh?" Gene said. "Is the air conditioning expensive in the middle of this rain forest?"
The door slid open to reveal a room papered in goldleaf. The latticed windows overlooked an inner-walled courtyard. A blast of cool air hit them as they followed Sanchez.
"I want you to meet the American who makes the Russian Minister of Defense eat out of his hand."
They followed Sanchez into a windowless room. Everything was splashed in forest green--chairs, rugs, paintings, walls, and sculpture.
"The walls are three feet thick and bulletproof," Sanchez said.
A thin, balding American in a three-piece suit sat at his presidential desk. "I'm ready, Sanchez."
"Meet the retired Vice President of Centralia, John Barnett."
"Impeached is more like it," Dawn thought aloud.
Barnett stepped out of the shadows. "Do you know why I'm living here?"
"Don't crap me," Dawn said. "You paid me to write your unauthorized biography."
She scowled at him. "Then you put out the word I inherited the money."
"You're the media. Publicity is why you're here. I told you someone so high up in government that he's untouchable is the prime mover. Why do you think they impeached me?"
"An American expatriate, a vice president, yet of a Central American nation that you have no ties to, caught for laundering Russian drug money?
"Something clicked in Barnett. "Isn't that reason enough? I'm surprised."
"You staged your own impeachment. Why?" Dawn jerked her thumb commandingly in Barton's face.
The shriveled American studied her a moment. "Where's your news crew? I don't see any cameras or equipment."
Millen's muscles shook with Parkinson's. He slurred his words. "Why would a Central American vice president put a contract on Dr. Whisper's life?"
"Oh, please, my Russian lackey insisted on it. How else could I bring the media down here? How else could I get publicity for my cause and save my own ass?"
"What do you want?" Gene asked.
"Brick by brick I put up this palace."
"Do you want the media to help reinstate you as Vice President? Is that it? Look around this jungle, did you see the poverty surrounding your billion-dollar palace?"
Barton watched Gene's eyes. "Do you think I'm like the sheiks who drop twenty million a week in the casinos of southern France? "When did you ever see me gamble and lose? I want to run for the presidency of the United States, with help from the media, from you."
Dawn let out a peal of laughter. "Why would anyone vote for a deported American who smuggles drugs and antiquities to the Russian black market?"
"I'm a billionaire now. And I know the President of the United States pushes drugs on the American people to pay off the national debt."
"I heard that one before from the guys who blast rock music at alleged U.F.Os from desert cliff tops. Only they wrote me that the culprit is a secret government higher than the president made up of a dozen scientists."
"You're a stunner," Gene said. "Everybody knows diplomatic immunity means diplomatic crime."
"I'd hardly call the Soviet Minister of Defense and the Russian Ambassador lackeys." Dawn smiled. "On the record--what's the real story?"
Barnett sat down and spoke only to Dawn. "They didn't want you naming them in your unpublished book."
"My book is on every supermarket rack by now."
"The terrorists get turned onto one another instead of on us."
"So you're causing mini-wars?"
"Precisely. I set the Arabs up to attack one another. My corporations are all over the world. Look at the Russian Minister of Defense. He won't involve the Soviet Union in anything now."
"What Soviet Union?" Dawn laughed.
Gene moved his chair closer to Barnett. "Why are you laundering drug and black market antiquities money for all of your foreign corporations and for the Russians?"
"The capitalist Russians," Barnett added.
"All the time I served as Vice President of this tiny Central American Republic, I thought about what really went on back home. "I thought about how a secret government in the United States could form right under the president's nose. Why else would the president want to push drugs on the spineless then to pay off the national debt?" He pounded his fist.
"You always voted Republican," Millen interjected.
"So the secret government is composed of top physicists and other scientists?"
"Of course," Barnett said. "They only wanted to save the Earth from pollution and overpopulation. The only way they can raise billions is to push drugs on the American people and the Europeans. So you lose the weak ones and the poor. There's too many poor people on this planet already. What this world needs is a strong boss!"
"You're evil," Dawn exploded. "Even Russia flushed her strong boss."
"No, I'm not. Did you ever see me cut down a tree?"
"You pushed drugs on millions of children. All I can do for you is set you up on the lecture circuit and let the public see you as you are."
"I didn't force anyone to buy. Only the spineless need it. Who needs weaklings on this planet?"
"If we broadcast your story, the American people won't buy it."
"The contract on you is to lure you here. If we implied less then murder, would you have come all this way? Do you know what my publicist's bill totalled? I want the world to see that forbidden book. I want everybody to know the secret government will soon issue plastic identification cards. It's coming to a cashless society. My banks control everything electronically."
"I don't believe you. Craig tried to strangle me."
"Tanya picked him off before he finished."
"Why did he want to kill me?"
"He thought you and Tanya worked together for me. She didn't choose him to be one of the twelve scientists who rule the secret government. He tried to get you out of the way. You revealed the scientists who framed the President of the United States for pushing drugs to pay off the national debt."
"How did I reveal these scientists? What are their names?"
"The heading of each of your chapters spells their names in code. Only the C.I.A. knew this. Craig worked as my informant."
Gene looked him over. "Who would think of tracing foreign ownership of money laundering banks to an American whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower?"
"You're human garbage. You're all human filth." Millen mumbled under his breath.
Barnett smiled. "I see you read Dr. Whisper's book."
"Wait a minute," Dawn's temper flared. "Half of my latest book is fiction. I made it up from a gut feeling. Are you telling me this theory is real?"
"I bet it's a publicity gimmick to keep you in the news until you run for President of the United States," Millen said.
Barnett pressed a key, and a flood of information coursed through a computer screen. "Publicity stunt? Maybe those code names in your chapter headings were put there for publicity."
Barnett gave her a werewolf smile with a skull grin. "Now where are those cameras? Without my money helping the environment, there won't be any oxygen to breathe in fifty years."
Sanchez returned and motioned for them to leave with him. "We'll see whether your cameras and equipment are here." Gene looked at Millen and shrugged.
* * *
2:00 P.M. SUNDAY
Dawn, Gene, and Millen rode in one pickup truck.
"What's going to happen to us when they find out I'm a freelance flake? I begged your producer, but why should he believe a fan? And that Detective White thinks I'm a murderer. How do I get out of this alive?"
Dawn put her hand over Gene's as he steered the pickup. "Do you think Barnett would be happy being a guest on my radio talk show?"
"You saw his face," Gene said. "Gloria Swanson in the final scene of 'Sunset Boulevard."
"No, billionaires don't want cameras," Millen said. "It's not publicity he wants, believe me. That's what he wants us to think."
Behind them in a white limousine Barnett, two body guards, and Sanchez followed. Suddenly a third car, a black hearse, approached from the opposite direction and followed the pickup truck.
The third car speeded parallel to the pickup and began to bump it, pushing Gene's vehicle off the road. Dawn looked into the window of the hearse. She saw four rigid shadows propped in the back seat and a driver she recognized as her mentor.
"It's Professor Gorton," she screamed. "He's dead."
Gorton had a Thompson trained on him. The first rounds passed over Gene's head as he dropped to the floor.
Gene jerked the pickup into a gully. "A phone would come in handy right now."
Dawn ducked beside the pickup as Gorton leaped out and emptied the clip at her. Dawn barely made out the figure of someone sitting in the back seat of the hearse.
Gene pulled Millen under him. He glanced at the hearse. The figure propped in the shadows didn't stir.
Gorton saw Gene's head coming up. "Sorry, but they're making me do this," Gorton scowled. "I knew you would come here."
"What's the matter? Did you plan your own death, Gorton?" Dawn shouted from behind a boulder.
"I think it's time we phoned our employers." Gene stammered.
Gene crawled back into the pickup and crouched low. He started up the truck. The wheels spinned fruitlessly as the truck dug deeper into the gully's hardening mud.
Gorton hurried over to the trio, pointing his Thompson at Gene. Barnett snatched Sanchez's machine gun and came up behind Gorton carrying the Kalashnikov and five clips of ammunition.
Two bodyguards flanked Barnett, their chest criss-crossed by dripping bullets that glinted like jewelry. The two froze. Dawn scampered up to Gorton.
"Why'd you send me the Mayan maze box with the diamonds? What's scratched on the tablet?"
"It's the find of the century. Do you know what the tablet says?"
"It's a fortune cookie naming the twelve in command of the secret government."
"Maybe," Gorton growled. "And maybe it's a message from Chinese space brothers to the Mayans on the merits of acupunture on sacrificial virgins."
"So the corn crop prospered that year." Dawn nodded.
"No, Qwatl went to the dogs after a famine. They left the gold."
Dawn slowly walked towards Gorton. "Don't try to hide behind archaeology crap."
Barnett moved forward and Gorton fired a clip six inches from his head. The first round hit one of his bodyguards in the neck and low in the belly, driving him back and passing through him. The bullets shattered Barnett's limousine window beyond.
Gorton emptied the clip into the second bodyguard, keeping him upright and sliding him back through the mud against the car window and then through it.
Gorton spinned around, surprised as Millen leaped from behind the boulder. He reeled a moment, then Millen and Gorton ran toward each other and embraced, hugging. Gorton flung the weapon over his shouldler.
Gorton spat. "You son of a gun. I haven't heard from you in thirty years."
As the two slapped each other on the back, Barnett rushed over.
"What are you bringing me?" Millen shouted.
"I had to fake my own death. Did you hear that Barnett?" Gorton repeated himself each time louder.
"Don't you see? Now I can prove the Mayan scribes are humanoid space aliens using Chinese acupuncture on ape-man to create Peking man in their image."
"You're crazy, Gorton. You made an idiot out of me."
Gorton tossed his notebook to Barnett. Sanchez leaped out from behind the limousine and let fly a clip that drove Millen and Gorton back over a grassy area. He kept them upright until the ammunition drove the two over a sheer cliff four hundred feet above a stream.
"You had me impeached, you bastard!" Barnett waved his balled fist as he bent over the ravine, spitting. Sanchez waved Gene and Dawn ran back to the pickup and tried to push it out of the mud.
Barnett turned and peered into the pickup. "I don't know who the hell you are, but you're not getting out alive."
Gene laughed weirdly. "Aren't we the guys hired to install your electronic equipment?"
"I checked you out." Barnett fell silent.
"Fine," Gene said. "Then you won't mind telling us why you killed Millen and Gorton."
Sanchez roughed Gene up and kicked sand in Dawn's eyes. Barnett pulled them out of the truck. "Gorton's eccentricity worked well. He did have direct evidence of the secret government."
"Do you know what I like about you?" Barnett asked Dawn.
She looked him in the eye as he spoke. "You're a non-traditional investigator in a non-traditional setting--and you're a young woman. I thought they sent me a fifty-year old bag."
Dawn slapped Barnett sharply across his cheek. "My beautiful mother is a fifty-five year old woman. You're on the air, mister, and every fifty-year old woman is going to get you."
Sanchez lighted his cigar and blew the smoke in Gene's face. "You also remind me of Gorton." Barnett spat. "He started ranting about Chinese space maps and flights to Mayan temples."
Barnett spat again, hitting Sanchez's boots. "Gorton collected writings of tens of thousands UFO abductions throughout the ages. Nobody took his talk of secret governments seriously. He put in too much disinformation about UFO abduction treaties."
"Lunaticking is a million dollar market," Sanchez said.
"What about government disinformation? Who hired you to pass disinformation about a secret government and UFO crap to the public?" Dawn asked.
"Gorton faked his death because he's a government agent." Barnett coughed on Sanchez's smoke. "All Gorton proved is that the Indians invented acupuncture, not the Chinese. He said crystal skulls have healing powers. Who's going to take seriously a man who talks like that in public?"
"No one can disprove anything he said," Gene insisted.
"The man's a nut, a flake. The government paid him to spread disinformation on the media, in books. You fell for tabloid personalities, Dr. Whisper."
"He won't have to fake anything now." Dawn thought a moment about how to distract Barnett. She turned to Gene. "Oh, darling, I'm in love with you. Will you marry me?"
Gene's eyes widened. He stepped out of the car. "I'm staying right here." He held onto Dawn's arm and dragged her out with him. They sat down by the side of the dirt road.
Barnett followed them. "You're coming with me to see this."
He dragged them about five hundred feet to an Indian village deep in the jungle. Sanchez walked behind them, his Kalashnikov trained on the two. They stumbled through a bat-infested cave into an ancient ritual camp complete with petroglyphs.
By dripping torchlight that flickered against the silence of the dark, Barnett fashioned the statue himself in the divine craftsman's house.
"What the hell are you doing?" Gene said. Sanchez lighted another torch he wedged into a crack in the rock.
"Welcome to the shrine house," Barnett humbled himself.
Mayan antiquities stood timelessly on stone altars, a collection of priceless treasures. Before Barnett, the floor rippled with stripes of shadow. Sanchez shattered the torchlight
into motion by waving a fan that appeared to arch and stretch.
Barnett leaned forward. His eyelids fluttered. He swayed to the deep voice he made as he uttered one, long note. Suddenly, he heard a faint hissing that appeared to rise from behind the immense obsidian eyes of his personal statue-god.
At once Barnett recognized the loud voice he heard clearly as if from a bird perched behind his ears. Its cold command left no space to think between the hearing and the act. He obeyed.
"Carve the statue this high," the voice dictated. He repeated it aloud to Sanchez. Barnett followed every measurement with perfection as the figurine commanded in a loud voice. "Hear my words," Barnett wrote at the base of the statue. The statue's voice came from behind its monstrous eyes. It told him how to create it, and he repeated the directions aloud to Sanchez.
"You're schizophrenic," Dawn blurted. "You've regressed to the bicameral mind of all ancient peoples."
"Oh, normal people sometimes hear voices," Sanchez said.
"Would you vote for a man with auditory hallucinations? This man would be president." Gene added.
"He served four terms before the impeachment." Sanchez said.
Barnett drifted into a trance as he swiftly fashioned the figurine for his shrine house. He slipped the wood deftly under the obsidian knife, reeling with the voice only he heard. And then a chorus of voices welled up in his head, and finally his own eternal chanting in the tedious gray tones of the cave.
He stood in the shrine room. "This is one of the great god-houses, just like the ones in Nippur or Yucatan." His voice rose an octave.
Barnett gazed out at his god's eyes and squinted as if blinded by the sunburst of light from the torch. He pushed beads of malachite across the statue's beetling brows which rose in high relief against the torchlight.
Sanchez lighted Barnett's favorite incense in ancient clay bowls. The shafts of smoke quivered, sweetening the warm air with myrrh.
Barnett took a deep breath and ran his fingers across his balding head. "Let the opening of the mouth ritual begin as I take up my office as President."
Barnett stared ahead, six-feet-four and pale. His eyes blazed like a topaz sunburst. He fixed his gaze on the face of his personal god which arched and receded by the torchlight. Sanchez flicked on a battery-operated tape recorder.
A Mayan 12-stringed harp twanged nasally. The flat, high whistle of a flute melted into nuances of delight. A goat-skinned drum beat out a drone.
"I'm beginning the daily ritual," Barnett whispered hoarsely. He washed, dressed, and fed the wooden statues, forcing millet in their mouths.
Sanchez sprinkled pure water as Barnett enrobed the ugly statue in golden garments layered in sheepskin.
In front of the 'god' tables bore rotted flowers and the dried flesh of fish, poultry, and goats.
Barnett pulled out a slab of petrified bread and coagulated honey in ancient Mayan jars. He turned to Dawn, wild-eyed. "We must abandon the statue to enjoy the meal alone."
He ran deeper into the dark recesses of the cave. A minute later Barnett returned. He sniffed the rotted food with disdain, and ate what the 'gods' left over.
Barnett watched the eyes of the statue as he stuffed himself with the petrified food. Dawn shuffled over to him. "I see you're keeping your god in good temper."
She motioned to Gene and whispered. "Humor him and Sanchez. I think they're testing us, or Barnett's bonkers for good reason."
"If you wonder whether I'm appeasing the liver of the gods," Barnett said, "it's only at the expense of my own liver." He swallowed the last handful of dried goat's flesh and reclined against the tables.
An angry voice resounded in Barnett's brain, admonishing him. He stopped a minute to listen. "Oh, I hear it a little above and to the right of me--a loud voice from heaven." Barnett panted. "This took years of training and support to revive."
"Do you hear it or see it?" Gene asked. "Is it like monitoring voices for static or quality at the phone company?"
Dawn studied Barnett's face. "Did the external voice ever command you to sacrifice your son like Abraham in the Bible?"
"No, no!" He turned to the monstrous eyes on the statue. "I can't resist it's cold command, no, not ever."
"Look at those eyes on the statue," Gene said. "Those staring, black eyes must take up at least twenty percent of the face. Maybe someone hypnotized Barnett?"
"Schizophrenic," Dawn shook her head. "Or total regression to a normal bicameral man of three thousand B.C."
A sunburst of light appeared before Barnett's eyes as if emanating from the statue's eyes. He gasped.
"What do you see?" Dawn screamed. "Draw it for me."
He sketched it as he hallucinated. Sanchez peered over his shoulder, fingering his chin uneasily.
"Did you loose your analog 'I'--your mind-space for the self?" Dawn asked.
"I don't understand," Barnett said breathlessly.
"Where's Barnett, the man who's capable of deceit, lying, and violence? All I see is an innocent child obeying his personal voice on commmand, hearing the voice before he has time be conscious of thinking it."
Barnett listened and waited. And with his hand extended, reached out to touch the light and to draw it. The voice condemned. He immediately obeyed its cold command.
"Throw yourself at the feet of the President and beg his forgiveness, for the President is your personal god." He repeated aloud exactly what the voice dictated.
Barnett looked at Dawn and Gene sitting on a rock. "Rise you two. Can't you face your god eye to eye as an equal?"
Dawn whispered to Gene. "He's acting pre-conscious. I can't tell whether he's faking it."
"Oh, he's a fake all right."
"Everybody in my psychology class read The Origin Of Consciousness In the Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, written by Julian Jaynes in nineteen-seventy-six. It's a classic. Barnett probably read it and wants me to think he regressed."
"Barnett's a killer, a lunatic. Even a tiny bananna republic impeached him as Vice President. Would you deport this man from the U.S. for trying to run for President? Oh, he's unconscious all right." Gene's temper flared.
"We know what eventually happens to a reclusive, eccentric American billionaire playing strong boss in Central America." Dawn said.
"The starving peasants revolt, go communist, and string him up?"
"No! He ends up buying all the radio and television stations and working for the C.I.A."
"I said face me as an equal!" Barnett yammered. "There's no need for prayer, for begging. Just ask. I'll command. You'll obey. See how beautiful it is to listen to your voices?"
He finished off the last morsels of rotting food. "Let the opening of the mouth begin," Barnett announced to Sanchez.
The man's head bobbed as he walked. Sanchez nodded. "Make the gods speak again!"
"Find her! Barnett screeched. "Find my exceedingly wise commander, princess of all the great gods, exalted speaker who owns me. And I am her slave. Summon her!"
Barnett clutched his figurine. "Obey your personal god. Act quickly." Sanchez grabbed the larger statue and dragged it out of the cave. Barnett followed. Sanchez's weapon goosed Dawn and Gene with every advancing step. He shouted, "Do what he says and keep your mouth shut."
"Let the washing of the mouth begin!" Barnett slapped lime on his face. He painted his cheeks with yellow ochre from little pots lined up at the mouth of the cave.
The god-statue with the face of inlaid malachite rocked back and forth as Sanchez strained to hoist the heavy weight along the path.
At last Barnett stood facing the statue eye to eye as an equal. "I kneel, and I grovel before my personal god," he said to Gene.
"I understand," Barnett said. He stood slightly under his 'god' which rested on a platform.
"Do you see? We're almost equals, but for an inch difference in our heights--just like Hammurabi of Babylon and his god, Shamash."
Gene humored him. "What's with the big eyes on the statue?"
Barnett plunged his hand into a vessel filled with stagnant water. He rubbed the god's wooden mouth seven times as Sanchez faced the statue east, west, north, and then south.
"Heh, heh...I'm washing it in the ancient Mesopotamian tradition, not the Mayan. Maybe now that I've washed it's mouth, it will say something important."
He looked it in the eyes and shouted. "Maybe now it will speak more clearly!" He rubbed it harder. "Speak, damn you, speak you bastard!" He fell the ground to catch his breath. Barnett wiped his brow, squatted and fixed his gaze on Dawn.
"What now?" Dawn sneered. "Is it saying anything dirty?"
Barnett rubbed the statue's mouth once more. Sanchez carried the statue on a bier to a stream's edge. Imbedded in ceremony and incantation, Barnett plunged his hand again in the bowl of holy water. He washed the statue's wooden mouth a few more times.
"Speak!" He shouted. The silence was thick and impenetrable. Barnett shook the statue, pounded at its mouth, rubbed its insides with a solution of tamarisks, reeds, sulphur, gums, salts, oil of pomengranate, date honey, and blue stones.
"I stole this special ancient mixture from an antiquities museum in Baghdad especially for you, you little tramp." Barnett kicked the statue in its mouth.
"Oh, I don't have patience for this act," Gene whined. "He's stalling for time--waiting for someone to come here."
"He could kill us anytime he wants," Sanchez said.
"Not that easily." Gene crawled closer to Sanchez.
"I'll make that Harpo Marx effigy speak," Gene commanded. He led the statue back into the road as Barnett shrieked, "Foot that advances, foot that advances..."
He looked to the heavens. "I've tried the Mayan way. I've tried the Mesopotamian method. "Return to me!"
Barnett threw his hands up. "The gods have abandoned us just like the cruel Assyrian kings sang. I tried the Mayan way, but now they're all silent."
He trailed after Gene dragging his weapon in the dirt. Barnett took the hand of the statue and led it to a throne in a cave niche. Under a golden canopy, he washed the mouth once more.
Dawn followed him back into the cave with Sanchez moving like a Cheetah at her side. He goosed her again with his Kalashnikov.
"Do that once more, and I'll..."
"You'll do what?" He laughed, blowing smoke in her face. "For the money he pays me, he can make a plaster wall recite Hamlet, for all I care."
"Fake it until you make it, eh?"
Dawn stepped behind Barnett as the torchlight thre her high cheekbones into bold relief. She narrowed her eyes to slits and spoke in a feigned trance.
She sang in rapid fire, rhyming every other line exactly in mumbo-jumbo, speaking-in-tongues nonsense. Dawn raised her slim hands.
The rhythm got Barnett. It was the hexagonal pentameter, the right-brained rhyme of made-up words in a made-up tongue.
"Is there a vision--a voice?" Barnett gasped.
"I need the bright sunlight."
"Okay, okay," he panted. Barnett hurried out of the cave. Dawn rushed out holding Gene's hand. Sanchez plodded behind them cursing under his breath.
Once outside, Gene reached into his pocket and flipped a quarter. He held it out for Barnett to see. The sun glinted off the shiny metal, blinding Barnett for a split second.
Barnett squinted, off-balance, slid sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and unfolded them. Gene took advantage.
He glanced at his own reflection in Barnett's mirrored sunglasses. Gene grabbed Dawn's arm and made a run for it just as Sanchez tossed the Kalashnikov against the rock to take a leak.
* * *
4:OO P.M. SUNDAY
Gene and Dawn headed toward the circle of mountains, leaping over boulders and dead, white bones. Barnett jumped into his car. Sanchez hurried in, and bodyguards appeared from holes cut in the mountainside.
In the distance, Gorton's hearse horn sounded. Dawn and Gene ran toward the parked vehicle and stopped in their tracks.
His head hung out of the window. "I saw four men sitting in the shadows in that back seat," Dawn said as she approached. "At least they looked like men."
Now she saw his face for the first time as his shoulders slumped over the blasting horn. "Good God, it's Jim McCormick, my station manager!"
"What's my producer doing here?"
An open briefcase dangled from McCormick's wrist, handcuffed to him. Inside the case, layers of United States hundred dollar bills fluttered in full view, but untouched. A black leather strap suspended the money inside.
"Don't even think of stopping to count it," Gene said.
"We can't leave it here for Barnett."
She flipped through a wad of bills. "What would he want with it? He's a billionaire."
Gene pulled her away. "That looks like the forty million hanging over you." She reached for the briefcase.
From the looks of that money, either he paid your ransom, or he's your hit man." A mechanism in Gene's mind clicked away.
"Leave it be," Dawn groaned. He took her hand as they made a run for it into the nearby Mayan ruins. Dawn pointed toward a Mayan Temple pyramid. "Up here. I did excavation work with Gorton in this place before I switched to a psych major."
Barnett's car passed McCormick, ignoring money for the time, and followed Gene and Dawn. They ran up the steps of the Indian pyramid as Barnett threw off his windbreaker to signal his bodyguards. The two fired a clip from the Thompson, ricochetting off the rock steps. Dawn and Gene disappeared inside the temple ruins.
Barnett's temper flared, and he spat on his shoe. He drew his Browning 9 millimeter, made sure the safety locked, and pushed it into the pitch black chambers of the Mayan tomb.
He smoothed the beads of sweat on his upper lip with the Browning, a professional's handgun--thirteen shots in the magazine and space for another in the clip. A future president should always carry such a professional's gun, he thought.
His bodyguards waited outside as Barnett followed Dawn and Gene up the stairs and into the Mayan Temple.
Gene called out from inside the tomb's maze, past the sacrificial temple alter. "Are you waiting for our cameras to arrive? Is this how you treat a news crew here to give you publicity so you can run for president in the United States?"
"Shut up!" Barnett scowled. "I checked you out with one phone call. You're not from a television news crew. Dawn's down here because she exposed me in the book I paid her to write."
"Why don't you sue her publisher for libel?"
Dawn crouched motionless in the blackness. Gene dragged her along the dirt, deeper into the ruins. He stumbled into a trap door of loose mud bricks. Gene lowered himself in the darkness and felt around.
"There are descending steps," he whispered. Dawn crawled down in front of him and eased out her small pen flashlight from a pocket.
It sent a dull, yellow beam on the stone steps. The hexagonal forms cut into the rock of the pyramid. They lowered themselves into a tomb with the roof so low, they had to crouch and shuffle forward in a squatting position.
Gene reached the bottom of the pyramid first, then Dawn. They felt their way along the pit and squeezed through a narrow opening in the rock. On one side a dead wall hit them head on. They sidewinded to the left. Barnett's footsteps echoed above and grew louder.
Dawn and Gene squeezed through a funnel-like opening in the rock. Suddenly, they stood inside an immense room. Faint beams of sunlight poured through pinhole openings in the ceiling to form stars against the blackness of the tomb.
The pen flashlight revealed Mayan bas-relief: winged Indian gods with beak-nosed faces and Capellid skulls. Carvings of giant flying repile-birds with teeth and webbed wings guarded the walls. Mayan profiles shimmered in turquoise, black, and orange sacrificial robes.
They turned a corner, descended a flight of worn stone steps, and came to a glass-walled telephone booth. Modern sign posts dug into the red clay floor directed visitors to a subterranean entrance to the colorful bas-reliefs.
"So they fixed it up for the tourists." Gene said.
"There's no secret place overgrown with jungle anymore. The farmers slashed and burned to make room for livestock grazing. They charge amateur archaeologists seven hundred a week to dig out here. It's becoming a tourist trap. How else do you raise money out here after you cut down the trees?"
"It looks like you came out here before."
"Every summer in graduate school, until I enrolled for my doctorate in clinical psychology."
She noticed a glint of metal. "Look! The old ice cream peddler's cart is still here!"
She pointed to a steel box on wheels that looked like a baby carriage. Dawn opened the freezer door. It swimmed with insect droppings and dead roaches. She slammed it shut and sighed.
Gene pulled her toward him. "I understand why you prefer excavating minds to pot sherds."
"No one understands me."
"If you like digging through crap, then go to law school."
"Oh, Gene, it's beyond that. It's about studying the evolution of consciousness."
"Okay. Some people are more interested in what makes people work. Until I met you, I only cared about what made machines work."
"I learn a lot more about ancient history from unlocking the modern mind."
"That's ironic," Gene said. "You're ruthless on radio. How many listener's egos have you ripped apart?"
"Are you still taking life seriously?"
"The original life force did."
"And I say it's show-biz. That's entertainment. I sell escape. People call me because they thrive on their own adrenaline rushes and need a quick fix. If Dawn Whisper went off the radio, they'd turn to home video."
"On the midnight shift all I have between me and boredom is that pocket radio. It's mobile and cuts into the routine."
"The radio talk show will never die because you can take it with you to the top of scaffolds or into the labor room."
Gene wiped bat droppings from his hair. "Do you really think my job uses all of my creative intelligence?"
"What makes you think mine does?"
"You know how to create visibility. That's why you're rich and powerful."
Dawn put her arms around his waist. "Like I always say on the air: the same fire that melts wax forges steel. And I'm that fire. Without a proverb to work toward as my goal, I'm nothing."
He kissed her and knew he accomplished far more than he intended. "Stay tuned," Gene said.
Her maddening hint of arrogance drove him closer. He tried to learn her by heart. And she drank in the comfort of his protectiveness.
Dawn kicked open another small rotted wood door that half-hung on one hinge. It collapsed, exposing a rickety outhouse with a wet, wooden bench toilet. Suddenly the shaft filled with brilliant light.
"They installed the john for tourists," Dawn said. "I need to use it." Dawn pointed to the rotting wood door. "There's no sink and no running water anywhere."
"If you don't mind the stench, be my guest." He removed his windbreaker and tossed it to her. "Tuck this around that hole in the wood so you don't sit in that slime."
She decided to first have a look where she'd sit. The shaft of light ended inside the toilet bowl. Dry sand below swarmed with frenzied rats snapping at one another. Dawn jumped away and gasped.
Gene ran over and peered into the toilet. "They're waiting for the next meal." He shook his head and bleated. "Now snakes would be worth a scream."
He motioned for her to back away from the outhouse. Gene propped up the door for privacy. She heard from outside the closed door the amplified echo of his tinkling. A smile crept up on her lips. He walked out of the outhouse with a serious expression and looked over her shoulder as he zipped his fly.
"Well?" Dawn sighed.
"Go ahead, use it to your heart's content. I've drowned all the rats."
She gave him an odd glance, then walked in and propped the rotted door. "You're disgusting."
Gene hurried to the phone booth and jimmied it with his key chain knife so it would work without coins. He sighed with relief at the operator's voice in Spanish.
"I speak only English," he said. "Can you get the police?"
Dawn hurried over as he tried to give the number and make a long distance call. The operator didn't speak English and connected him to her supervisor.
Barnett poked the Kalashnikov into the shaft and fired a burst down at them. Gene looked up, and bullets skimmed the top of the phone booth. Barnett still had a long way down.
Sanchez covered him as the two began to climb. Sanchez fired at Gene as he scurried, looking for a hole to escape the maze of rooms. He pushed Dawn ahead of him, grabbing her arm. The round pinged upward piercing the ceiling.
Gene got behind the ice-cream cart and rolled it like a stroller into the shaft. Barnett saw the cart coming down and thought Gene attacked.
The roar of the bullets tearing through the cart echoed throughout the ruined temple, and the concussion wave flung Barnett and Sanchez across the shaft.
Gene held Dawn close to him as the building shook. He pounded a door with his feet. It opened. He felt the building shake as he slid to the door. The floor trembled, and the temple yawed.
Then the motion ceased. Dawn fell against his chest, knocking the wind out of him. For a long while the silence felt unreal.
Above, Barnett, Sanchez and his two replacement bodyguards stirred. They began to ascend the pyramid steps instead of trying to get down the shaft to Gene and Dawn.
They reached the top and entered an astronomical observation tower. Barnett glanced at the frowning face of an ancient Mayan deity's statue whose eyes aroused him to frenzy.
Gene kicked his way out of the maze. He hesitated as she ran. Gene pulled her back. "No. They'll pick you off from on top of that pyramid."
He darted back into the phone booth and squeezed her in with him. "I know how to dial my office directly."
"There's no time."
Through a stairway leading down from the astronomical observation tower, Barnett began his climb into the pit. Sanchez followed with the bodyguards.
Barnett took a can of mace out of his pocket and sprayed an army of rats that nipped at his ankles. He sprayed himself in the face when a flock of parrots nesting in the rocks flew into him to escape the mace cloud.
Deep within the winding corridors of the pyramid temple maze, Dawn tried to leave the phone booth. The door jammed. Gene jiggled it.
"Why did you close that rusty door?"
"Habit, I guess," Gene apologized.
"I'm dialing my office no matter what happens."
Gene hotwired the phone with a tiny screwdriver on his keychain. He dialed a toll-free international code to his central office, and then dialed a number that connected to his supervisor's office. It rang twice.
"Joan Cooke, here," a faint voice sounded over static.
"This is Gene Wright calling from Qwatl, somewhere in the jungles of Central America."
Suddenly, he heard a click on the other end.
"My supervisor hung up on me."
* * *
6:00 P.M. SUNDAY
They looked at each other a beat. Gene covered Dawn with his shirt and her windbreaker.
He began to rock the phone booth back and forth. They gave it a final push, and the booth tumbled over in an echoing crash. In the fraction of a second before he heard the sound, Gene knew his reality surpassed his wildest dreams of accomplishment. The glass shards flew everywhere.
"It's them!" Barnett heard the loudest roar he ever heard in his life echoing along the shaft. He motioned Sanchez and the men to follow the sound.
Gene and Dawn scrambled out of the phone booth and shook the glass slivers from their clothing. Suddenly Gene darted back into the overturned booth.
"Come on, you obsessive-compulsive," Dawn nagged.
"You can't leave a phone off the hook. It'll register back at the office as out of order. A technician will come out."
"When? In six months? There's a two-month wait to get a phone installed here."
"That's the point." Gene took the phone off the hook. "Those guys are sitting around with nothing to do."
Gene and Dawn ran deeper into the mazes, running toward a ceremonial double door in the distance. As they went deeper into the belly of the pyramid, the maze became more complex.
They entered a maze of smaller chambers. Her flashlight pen revealed paintings of two winged reptile deities on both doors guarding a maiden standing next to an ugly priest.
"What's that?" Gene pointed.
"She's probably in for an acupuncture treatment," Dawn joked.
A dozen crystal skulls lined the walls. She saw what looked like Chinese faces mixed with Mayan gods and gargoyles offering bowls brimming with maize to the crystal skulls.
Halfway through a complicated maze that sidewinded up the inside of the pyramid Barnett caught up to them. He ducked as Gene passed him going in the opposite direction.
As Gene passed, Barnett clicked his weapon. Dawn and Gene leaped into the blackness of the maze. Barnett fired a round into a chamber sealed from daylight.
"Don't sweat it," Barnett called to them.
He blasted a hole the size of a compact car in the chamber. Dawn crawled along the dust until her lips touched the cold, dry belly of a sleeping snake. She jerked away and knocked over a sacrificial altar. Gene clasped his hand firmly across her mouth.
Barnett whirled around and fired at the sound.
"Let's go to opposite corners," Gene whispered.
"Why should we separate it the dark?"
"Sounds from opposite corners will confuse them."
"Did you do any military time?
Gene let out a long, audible breath. "I almost volunteered for four years in the Marines as an electronics technician, but spent two years studying computers at a community college instead."
She pointed her thumb at her heart. "Four years in the Marines as a helicopter pilot."
Something inside him shriveled. He fought it with a burst of competence. "Stop castrating me and listen for once."
"Oh, don't you dare give me orders. My father gave me orders. He wished he had a son instead of me."
"What did he do?"
"He solved his unconscious incestuous desires by distancing from his daughter like most fathers."
"And I always thought you were daddy's darling."
"At the age of nine, he told me, 'I wish I flushed you down the toilet with the condom before your mother conceived.' And I haven't deferred to a man since."
"How'd you stay in the Marines?"
"They made me an officer because of my doctorate in psychology."
"Did you go into psychology to solve your own problems?"
"Of course. Let's inch out of here."
Dawn released his hand and moved toward the opposite wall.
At the opposite end, Sanchez cornered Dawn and took aim as she ran through the maze like a rat. Gene yelled to distract him, sensing her danger, but not seeing anything in the darkness.
Barnett hurled a wavy knife at the sound of Gene's voice, and missed. Gene somersaulted from the whoosh of the knife cutting the air.
He took cover behind another stone altar propped against a dead-end wall. Years of monitoring the faintest telephone noise pollution trains a switchman's ears to listen for the mountains to slam or a needle to hit the floor in darkness, Gene thought.
At the top of the pit Tanya and her replacement driver came up behind Barnett and Sanchez. Baba dripped in ammunition and slipped his Kalashnikov to Barnett.
"Talk some sense into them," Barnett quivered. When Tanya smiled at him, the corners of her mouth turned downwards.
Tanya leaned on her spike-heeled thigh-boot. "I'm going down." She kicked open the trap door at the top of the astronomical observation tower and scurried inside.
Two flashlights under her arms shone like the beams of an approaching car in the blackness. She looked down at Gene and Dawn clinging to opposite walls of the L-shaped maze, crouched in the dirt.
An echo of Tanya's voice rolled back to her. "Rats! Which shall it be? Glasnost or Perestroika?"
Gene shaded his blinded eyes from the bright lights. She moved her flashlight to Dawn's eyes.
Barnett fired wildly into the pit at anything that scurried under Tanya's beam of light. Baba caught a ricocheted bullet in his eye from the stone altar he leaned on.
Baba fell through the dark pit into the maze and flopped next to Dawn. She rolled away from the wetness of his pooling blood, following the trail with her fingertips as his blood flowed downward. Then her hand found Baba's Kalashnikov. She pulled off his ammunition belt.
Sanchez saw Gene and fired downwards into the pit from the opposite wall ledge. In a split second, Tanya turned from firing in Dawn's direction and riveted Sanchez. He pitched over, going down the two-hundred foot drop over the stairway. Sanchez fired a round into the blackness.
Tanya focused her flashlight on Gene and tossed him her Thompson. Gene caught it.
"We're on the same side." Tanya echoed as she adjusted a Kalashnikov on her shoulder.
"I'm on the human side. Do you believe the new age myths Barnett's feeding you?" Tanya helped him up.
"Since when do you trade in open minds?" Gene grabbed one of her flashlights and searched for Dawn.
Dawn found him quickly. They hugged each other.
Barnett and his two new bodyguards began to fire on them. Dawn fired back, burning a hole through his belly. The second bodyyard reloaded, but his Thompson jammed.
"We'll do it the traditional way," Barnett shouted. He pulled a sling shot off his back and grabbed a stone, firing it at Tanya's head. It missed. Tanya bounced to her feet like a cat and moved them out of the black pit.
"There are two more false doors in this maze. I'll show you the way out," Tanya said. She shoved them along in front of her. "Get going."
Tanya's weapon slid off her shoulder with a loud crash. As she bent over to pick it up, Barnett's bodyguard lunged at her, grabbing her around her slim waist.
Twelve years of Russian ballet training as a child came in handy. Tanya kicked up her spike-heeled boot. The metal heel pierced his throat. He gurgled. In the blackness, Tanya used her other foot to shove his face back to remove her heel from his Adam's apple. He fell dead, wrestling her to the slimy ground.
Tanya somersaulted from under his heavy body and retrieved her Kalashnikov. Barnett lowered himself down a well and stood below them in a deeper pit. He reached up to a ledge and pulled on Tanya's leg as she winded the narrow ledge of the maze. Dawn and Gene skirted the narrow ledge behind her.
Tanya kicked at him, but Barnett pulled off her boot as she clung to a protruding rock above. Barnett grabbed the boot and propped it in his sling shot. He fired upwards, and the spike-heeled boot flew threw his flashlight beam nailing Tanya between the eyes.
Tanya screamed, smiled her vampire hooker grin, and keeled over the ledge. Gene flashed his light on her ten feet below.
She lay spreadeagled and unconscious. A red blossom fanned out in the middle of her forehead like a third eye.
Tanya's driver jumped Barnett. The two men struggled and rolled in the snake pit below. Tanya's driver kicked Barnett in the head. Barnett rolled away, and his boot only grazed him.
The driver leaned on an elbow. A starving rat dug his teeth into the driver's hand. In that instant of hesitation, Barnett pulled a handgun out of his pocket and fired point blank into the driver's face.
The bullet passed through him and hit a statue on the altar. It broke loose and crashed down, just missing Barnett.
Gene looked at his Thompson. "Shucks! I don't know how to fire this weapon."
"Barnett doesn't know you never volunteered for military service."
"He checks everything. He knows."
"The man's mentally ill."
"I think it's an act."
Dawn took the Thompson from Gene. "I think you're playing war games."
"You'd leave me unarmed?"
"A private eye doesn't need this kind of gun. You use brains."
"You wouldn't be moonlighting as a private eye if you thought telephone switchmen use all their brains."
"Tell that to my supervisor."
"Nine years on the job without a promotion, and I'd be doubting my competence too."
Gene looked at her under the flashlight beam. He gave her that lovesick gaze that didn't breakaway.
"I'm the fastest fixer of switching equipment that anyone will ever need."
"I still have to deal with your envy." Dawn spun around.
Barnett creeped toward them through the maze. The two moved ahead toward a faint bush of light at the end of the pit.
"There's no way out of here," Barnett cried from his own maze about ten feet below them. He looked up toward the astronomical observation tower.
Then suddenly Barnett hoisted himself up from a wide hole in the rock and surprised him with a kick in the face. Gene heard the air being cut and rolled away in time. Barnett lunged. Gene reached for a rock and smashed Barnett across the jaw.
"See?" Gene panted. "As a healing tool, this lowly rock works as well as a priceless crystal skull."
At the opposite end of the maze, Jim McCormick marched in with a line of military police. Dawn jumped up as he appeared in the fierce lights ahead.
She ran toward the light. Gene breathlessly stumbled toward the crowd hurrying toward them. A flock of bats, stirred by the light, battled Gene for the opening in the pyramid.
Gene flashed his light in Barnett's face once more. He didn't stir.
"Leave him, Gene. I'm moonlighting, too with the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. We tracked you two every minute."
Dawn ran into Jim's arms. "I thought they murdered you."
"Not with this on." Jim unbuttoned his shirt. He wore a bullet-proof vest.
"That's not funny. They usually shoot for the face."
Professor Gorton walked in alive and well. "A man sitting in the shadows is a lousy target."
Dawn screamed. "I saw you blasted in the belly with an automatic."
Gorton opened his jacket to reveal a bullet-proof vest. He took off his cap and gave it a punch. It clanged like the sound of metal. "They don't call me metalhead because I listen to heavy metal music at my age."
Dawn gave her old professor a warm hug. "We put a double vest on Millen." Gorton pointed behind him.
Dawn looked over his shoulder and saw her stepfather, Professor Millen walk in.
"Dad!" Dawn rushed into his arms and kissed him on the cheek.
"I hoped your third dad would receive such a welcome sometime. I'm sorry we never got to know each other." Millen sighed. "None of your mother's three marriages lasted more than a few years and I had to work in so many countries."
She put her fingers across Millen's lips. "Don't apologize. It's all right."
Millen took off his jacket. "That lookalike rubber mold vest sure exploded with fake blood when the bullets hit, thanks to Jim's men. Thank goodness the metal underneath held out."
"How'd you fake that fall over a three-hundred foot cliff?"
"Wires." Gorton and Millen said.
"Most of our props come from comic book movies. How do you think those superheroes fly on the screen?" McCormick confessed.
"What if they killed you for real?" Dawn screamed as her temper flared.
Gene hugged her from one side and Millen from the other.
"I thought they'd find my falsies," Millen laughed. "You should see what they make in special effects electronics nowadays."
"Special effects electronics? Now that sounds like a career I want to learn." Gene examined Millen's artificial intelligence equipment built into his jacket.
Dawn glanced at Barnett in amazement as the Guatemalan police carried him away. "That little billionaire will be free in twenty-four hours.
"And I'll take him back to the United States. He still fantasizes he's with the C.I.A. After his impeachment, we deported him. Uncle Sam wants him back."
"He told me, he intends to run for the President of the United States," Gene said.
"Let him run." McCormick grinned. "It's a free country."
"I better be back at work on Monday. You're the main guest on Monday night Bitch Box." She hugged McCormick. "Good to have you back."
Tears of joy flowed down her cheeks. Gene put his arm around her. Gene took his final steps out of the maze as Jim shined a flashlight for him to see the path out.
Jim shook Gene's hand at the entrance. "Good work there for a rookey P.I. If you didn't monitor that call, Dawn wouldn't be here. Thank your co-worker, Bob Stanton for his help. I'll see you as my guest on Monday."
"Didn't you know about this all along? Didn't you set me up to monitor that call in the first place? That call appeared on all lines that night, right?"
Jim twisted his mouth into a lopsided smile and narrowed his eyes to cobalt blue slits. "That's classified."
"I don't believe you work for both the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. I don't believe you moonlight for them. You're only a radio show producer." Gene shouted at Jim as he walked ahead.
"If you're such a smart private eye, then you tell me whether I create the headlines."
"So it's classified," Gene said.
"Or maybe it's the station's one-shot publicity stunt to win the ratings war."
Jim answered without turning his head. He motioned the police to take off with Burnett and slid into his own car.
"What about the forty million American dollars in that suitcase?"
Jim looked up at him. "Maybe it's counterfeit. You'll never find out. Why do you care? You're a national hero."
Gene backed away in horror. He understood and shook his head.
Then he pretended to play the role of the patsy. "No one must know I listened in on that phone call at work. Telling Bob could cost me my job. What if he told my supervisor I listened to private conversations out of boredom?"
Jim sneered. "He didn't go to your supervisor. He called the F.B.I."
Gene continued. "My supervisor will find out Bob leaped over her head. She'll slap him with a bad work evaluation, and he'll be out."
"There's always good work available at the F.B.I.," Jim said.
Gene backed off. "Do you know how many people the phone company is laying off since the new technology came in from competing phone companies?"
"Lighten up!" Jim rested a domineering hand on Gene's shoulder. "Do you know the name of my commanding officer twenty years ago in Vietnam? Bob Stanton...your phone switchman."
Gene laughed in surprise. "You're joking. Bob Stanton?"
Jim shook his hand. "You broke a diplomatic money laundering syndicate reaching from Central America to Samarkand...nothing terribly important."
"All in a telephone switchman's shift," Gene snorted.
"Put that on your resume as a private investigator."
Gene looked him in the eye. "If you believed me from the start, why did you make my job so difficult?"
"I didn't call C.I.A. They handle diplomatic crime and immunity problems. F.B.I. doesn't get involved."
"What made you believe in me? Am I your vaccination for diplomatic immunity?"
"Preventing a California radio talk show hostess from assassination is strictly F.B.I." Jim yawned.
Dawn walked over to the two. "Gene's marrying a doctor of clinical psychology."
Jim looked up at her in surprise. "Then you're not going to sue me for sexual harrassment?"
"Not if you pay my attorney's fee."
"I loved you. I asked my wife for a divorce. I didn't harrass you. I wanted to marry you," Jim exploded.
She looked coldly at Jim McCormick. "You're a fine producer. You gave me visibility, made me a semi-celebrity."
"I made you a media legend." Jim said.
"The lady wants to marry me," Gene interrupted. "The lady doesn't defer to men. Is that the kind of wife you want?"
"Would you want your daughter to marry a man exactly like you?" Dawn smiled. "I asked both of you to answer that question."
Jim shook his head no. Gene nodded yes.
"Well, that takes care of that." Dawn tried to swallow the lump that lingered in her throat.
Millen came over and gave Dawn a slight squeeze on the arm. "Isn't anyone interested in learning the Mayan secrets of acupuncture? Or did we decide whether or not a government higher than the President of the United States is in power pushing drugs to pay off the national debt. Or maybe a quorum of scientists made a treaty with U.F.O. aliens who lied to us."
"Ask Barnett when he campaigns for President. If that expatriate's a billionaire, he must be smart." McCormick nodded. "Smart enough to fake auditory hallucinations." Gene said.
Dawn explained. "I told you normal people sometimes hear loud voices. The sound is caused by stimulation of the area of the brain corresponding to Wernicke's area, but only on the right hemisphere of the brain."
Gene turned away, exhausted. "I need a map to read you, darling." He walked into Dawn's open arms.
"We make an adventurous private eye couple. Do you want to team up with me and moonlight together?" Gene asked.
She thought a moment. "Yes, yes, I do." A sensuous light passed between them.
"I'm only a high-school graduate who repairs equipment for the phone company," Gene confessed.
"I stayed out of the military because my mother always sang to me, 'I never raised my son to be a soldier' during toilet training. I lied to my supervisor and told her I studied electronics in the Air Force. Actually, I took a correspondence course in television repair."
Dawn broke out in side-splitting laughter. "No, you're my hero. Promise me you'll never lie again to raise your self-esteem."
"I promise." He smothered her lips with demanding mastery. "Make me laugh," she whispered, and returned his kisses. As they walked to a four-wheeled vehicle, Gene and Dawn passed Barnett sitting in the back of a military police ambulance.
He glanced at them with wild, apeman's eyes. As Gene studied his expression, Barnett spat and taunted.
His stare drilled into her. "I'm the former Vice President of this Republic. I have diplomatic immunity and a billion bucks. Will somebody call me the most expensive American attorney?"
Barnett yelled a stream of epithets. Gene turned to him.
"You know, there's always honest work at the local post office."
"Next year I'll run for President of the United States, you bastards. And I want to hire you as my campaign manager, Dr. Whisper. How does two million a year and your own television talk show sound?"
Dawn's voice hardened. "Television trivializes, and I just cancelled your passport."
Jim McCormick cuffed Barnett and slammed the ambulance doors in his face. Dawn watched his amber, Teddy Bear eyes boring into her from the back window as the vehicle sped down the yellow dirt road.
"So the wizard stays in Oz," she sighed. "Do you think he faked schizophrenia?"
"I think power always corrupts. I even think power corrupted God way back when..." Gene said.
"Honey, All God is, is love. People don't kill out of blind rage. They murder because of loss of self-esteem. Love is self-esteem. It's pure energy that forever grows and recycles. Love is the life force." She pursed her lips. "I'm setting our wedding date for Monday. I only know you seven days. Do I get a day of rest and a committment?"
His seething, black eyes took her in. "Definitely. That's when the phone company goes on strike for at least three weeks."
* * *
10:00 A.M. MONDAY
The honeymoon cruise ship skimmed the white crests. Dawn and Gene stood on the deck embracing each other and gazing at the cloudless, blue sky. A swift breeze tore through Dawn's spiral, raven curls. She tied a purple scarf at the nape of her neck.
Above the deck Tanya planted her feet apart and watched the honeymooners through her binoculars. A massive scar on her forehead winded like a snake between her eyes where the spike heel caught her.
To match it, Tanya still wore a fake scar in the shape of the letter 'z' pasted across her throat. She let the binoculars swing from a neck strap and slowly removed a high-powered rifle from an oblong piece of luggage at her heels.
For a long while she hid behind a white column that separate the second and third cruise decks. Tanya peered through the rifle's crosspoint and focused. She wiped beads of sweat from her upper lip on her blouse sleeve.
Tanya aimed and focused the crosspoint twice. Below, on the first level cruise deck, Gene embraced Dawn.
She buried her face against the corded muscles of his chest. Gene whispered into her hair as he took her lips in his. Dawn's body melted against his, and the world filled with him.
Tanya magnified her crosspoint and focused on Dawn's wedding ring for a split second as the sun glinted off the diamonds. On the horizon, Tanya's boat approached with the motor turned off. It skimmed alongside the wake of the honeymoon cruise ship.
Gene opened his eyes for a split second and caught sight of Tanya's boat. He instantly pulled Dawn back and pushed her behind a column. Above, Tanya took aim at Gene from the second level deck and slowly squeezed the trigger.
Another shot rang out from the third level cruise deck, directly above Tanya's perch. She keeled overboard into the water and floated past Dawn face up and staring wide-eyed as a dead fish.
Gene looked up at the third level deck to see Bob Stanton waving at him. "I watched her since last night." Bob ran down the deck stairs to Gene and Dawn.
"What are you doing on my honeymoon cruise?" Gene asked.
"It's a second honeymoon for us," Bob said. He rubbed the back of his neck tensely. "Anyhow, I saw what you folks are up to, right?"
Bob pecked Dawn on the cheek. She put her arm over his shoulder and led him toward the ship's recreation room. Gene strode beside him shaking his head in awe.
"Are you two private eyes in business to tackle the next world catastrophe-sized case?"
Gene nodded. "Where the hell did you learn to shoot like that, Bob?"
"In the Marines."
* * *
________________________________________________________ *INFP-- Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving personality temperment and type as scored on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (trademark): one of the world's most popular personality tests.
It's published/copyrighted by Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. 577 College Ave, Palo Alto, CA. 94306.
7:00 P.M. SUNDAY
Dr. Tanya Raniah Razani-Tamirova, diplomat, fourth generation Red Army Faction--and Kurdish exobiologist in Iraq, checked her rifle--a Kalashnikov, for firing. Death fascinated the young doctor--the aura and appearance of it. She threw the plastic replica of her own head (with the bullet hole between the eyes) down the incinerator, along with the meagre belongings of the deceased look-a-like actor she paid to play Craig.
Soldiers strolled below her high-rise apartment window, the evening after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Tanya had the Kalashnikov trained on a group of teenage women, below as they rocked their baby carriages.
The last recalcitrant rays of August sunlight washed Baghdad's crowded streets. A caravan of military tanks slid over a few feet between the mountain of the two horns, a yellow barren stone and stopped beside the Tigris.
Dr. Craig, an American pathologist, watched two cockroaches running across the carpet, onto the tile. "Machines don't break. Machines are better than people," he told Tanya. A cool breeze rushed over his damp chest.
On the horizon, a salmon slit swallowed a blue bay of petrified houses. In the distance the gas-burning oil wells presented an eternal flame of money. Hours passed.
Tanya watched the light above the gates of a mud-brick house below. She saw the carvings and wondered whether the crescent above the door stood for the downward curves of the Tree of Life.
Tanya bought a similar ancient, Sumerian relic in Basra, dated 3,800 B.C. She hung the same horned symbol on the doors above her office in the Russian Consulate in Los Angeles.
Fiction can truly design one's personality, she thought. Who am I this month? A player in the theatre of war, she pondered. To have diplomatic immunity, to commit diplomatic crime--as a mercenary and a research scientist--that is my life, but who am I tomorrow morning?
Governments made sure she found everything ready and at her disposal for each new exquisite fantasy. And the most dramatic of fantasies was not playing soldier of fortune in Iraq tonight, but war inside an intimate relationship.
Who am I this moment? Tanya studied her reflection in the mirrored window shutters. Soldiers of fortune are absolute suckers for dramatic solutions to a war, she thought.
Craig swallowed a handful of fava beans and washed it down with tea. "What are you doing?"
"Watching someone give birth."
Across the courtyard, Tanya lifted her binoculars toward a window with a half-drawn shade. Inside, a heavy, naked woman squatted on a birth chair. Her ten children encircled her, until her husband led them out of the room.
The woman bore down to push out the baby, twisting a prayer rug between her teeth and making animal noises. The gutteral sounds grew so loud that Craig shouted, "Who's making love with such emotion? It's very arousing."
Tanya laughed like a witch. "There's a woman having a baby across the street not making one, darling!"
"Well, it's unmanning me. I rather hear gunfire."
"Let the sword decide."
"Decide on politics or money?"
"It's an ancient Arab proverb. The sword gives life in the form of the ancient sign of the umbilical cord cutter--the Sumerian written symbol for woman. Think of it--woman symbolized by the knife!"
"Like a sharp tongue that cuts with nagging words?"
"Shut up, Craig. I'm paid well to finish this rotten job."
Her Kalashnikov again jutted out of the window. Between an opening in the tenements that rose above the mud-brick rectangles, her Iraqi contact watched her apartment complex and prepared to signal her at the right moment.
The new controller, the man who sat second in line to the power in Iraq, stood near his car and dabbed at the tears in his eyes. He began a speech of hope for his people, promising more free education, more free medical care, and more free housing. His voice grew angrier when he spoke of the downfall of those in office who kill those who criticize the one opinion in control.
Around the bend of buildings, at a forty-five degree angle from Tanya's window, a circle of young mothers stood rocking their baby carriages. They listened to the speech.
One young mother was the potential assassin. Tanya glanced at the suitcase of money she received. One Russian working for one American expatriate hiding in Central America paid her two million American dollars for taking out the potential killer of the new and secret strong boss--not yet in office.
Below, the teenage mother, covered in her black abaya, chatted on high key to other teenage mothers. The male relatives who escorted them to the souk to buy vegetables laughed loudly. The women straightened their babies' blankets.
On a nearby high-rise rooftop, a pulse of light bounced off a mirror. Inside the room, Tanya froze with fear. She fought it, bearing down on the fear like a woman bears down to push her womb empty. Tanya took aim with her arms slightly parted. She hugged the ledge. The walls evaporated.
Tanya emptied the clip into the woman. The teenage mother, who rocked her two-year old, now clutched her pregnant belly as the rounds passed through her navel, keeping her upright and driving her back against Tawil's bakery window and then through the glass.
The other women and their male escorts whirled around by the impact. The noise stopped, and the newest one in control never knew his life depended solely on Tanya.
Tanya peered through high power infra-red binoculars as the woman below tore at her belly. White flashes whammed across the woman's eyes. Tanya turned up the high power and stared at the tattoo of three blue dots in the cleft of the woman's chin.
The full-lipped woman, a Mrs. Abdul Azziz Hamrah, also known as Om Ahmed (Ahmed's mother), fell. Her last scene before the final curtain turned the ancient Babylonian street again into a place where the air reeked of blood and manure.
The joy of directing and producing the scene was almost unbearable for Tanya. The power in her pornographic gun instantly catapulted her to stardom. "Capture it on film, Craig!" She commanded with a silent hand signal.
Instantly, Craig crouched at the window ledge with his videocamera. She found the ambient hum distracting.
"I hate video tape," she whispered. "If only we had 35 milimeter film and a solid camera. It's not going to be broadcast quality in Moscow."
"Try getting a field camera on the midnight flight out of Iraq with a forged passport in the middle of an invasion," Craig complained.
"Go away. Leave me alone. I can't function with you breathing down the back of my neck."
"You want this on tape or not?" Craig argued. She pointed to the window. Craig angled the camera, focused the long-distance lens for a close-up on the teenage mother's face in the street below. He checked the sound system. And the video tape whirred.
From Om Ahmed's body came a long, loud burrr...of stinking bowel gas, like rotten eggs. Her mouth twisted like rubber, dropping open loosely with a little broken groan.
Bloody vomit gushed from her lips down the side of her cheek into her collar. Her honey-colored doe eyes rolled up, so only the whites showed, red-veined and dirty.
The new strong boss to be and not yet in control, heard nothing of the incident. His car moved several blocks away now, and he found a new audience to listen to his speech.
The woman's whole frame sank from her own sight along with surrounding objects, leaving the pain standing forth as distinctly as a mountain peak, as if it were a separate bodily member. At last her agony also vanished. The Iraqi contact went on amidst the applaud of his people.
I sculptured a sphynx, Tanya thought. Why do they call it the Theatre Of War unless there's drama to be enacted?
The woman's khol-lined eyes, long-lashed, like an Egyptian queen, stared. Her tongue dropped to one side. The one knee that bent up when she fell, now flapped open wide apart.
Her baby's bottle broke and spilled juice in a winding stream to the banks of the muddy Tigris. The little boy slept in his carriage through the lightning grooves that marked his mother.
An old woman pulled off Om Ahmed's black abaya and edged her maternity blouse over her pale, oval face. A wrinkled face brushed her cheek. She unbared Om Ahmed. The woman's fat thighs flapped apart, haram--forbidden, for anyone to see in public.
Om Ahmed's shaved, pubic region shone through transparent, nylon panties. Her heaped-wheat belly rose like the dome of the Rock. As she gave birth, Tanya took notes. And the camera rolled.
A midwife squatted on one knee and ripped open the dead woman's belly with a razor blade. Twin boys rolled out like pink basket balls, wailing loudly.
"I ought to get a medal for the accuracy of my target," Tanya urged. "Clean through the navel, between the bouncing twin boys without even grazing them."
"With a Kalashnikov? It's incredible. What if you used your Browning 9 millimeter instead?"
"From this height? Are you mad?"
"Where did you learn to use a gun like a sewing machine?"
"In medical school. In Samarkand we use cadavers for target practice. That's why I left medicine for exobiology."
Craig gazed down at Om Ahmed's firm, wide breasts bared by every man's hands. Each nipple slowly sank from a brown bud into a shrivelled flatness, like two deflated balloons.
"Boy, you really knocked the wind out of her," Craig choked.
"A second later, and the new hope for Iraq and our contact would be swimming in that pool." All that prolific motherhood flew out of the cow-goddess while Tanya's Kalashnikov far above smoked a curl of sulphuric stink.
Om Ahmed played artist at this moment. She captured the strong boss's audience. A crowd of painted dolls with babies, and moustacheod men, mouths filled with pinola nuts and 'palace bread' came running from the bakery. The men carried towels over their arms.
Tanya didn't see the entire canvas that caught the artist's painting. "To a surgeon, assassination is a fine art," Tanya said dreamily.
"You never practiced medicine, why?" Craig asked. "What drew you into exobiology?"
"Science shapes politics genetically. Besides, I get to create the science news and broadcast it in my own way.
Tanya's thudding heart swelled until her longs no longer had room to expand. "It's the ultimate healing tool." She kissed the opening of her Kalashnikov and began to clean it.
"In Moscow someone gave me a Bible once. I opened it at random and read Isaac's blessing of Esau: 'By the sword you will live, and you will serve your brother. And it will be, when you are brought down, that you will break his yoke from your shoulders.' There's a message for me in it. I never forgot it when I left Russia."
Craig's staccato laughter echoed in the room. "I never heard a Russian scientist quoting the Bible before, especially not after a hit."
Tanya leaped to her feet and pulled Craig toward the window. They looked down as Om Ahmed disappeared into an ambulance. Far away now, the one in control resumed his speech as the television cameras rolled.
Tanya repeated by rote what she memorized from the Old Testament. "'And Yaweh will send you back to Egypt...in the road that I had told you that you would never see again; and you will sell yourselves there to your enemies as slaves, and no one will buy.'"
"What did you do, in Moscow, memorize the whole Bible?" Craig patted her on the buttox. Tanya pulled away from the heat of his palms.
"Samarkand and Moscow have little in common," Tanya said. Kurdistan is another story." She closed the shutters. "'Despoiled daughter of Babylon, happy is he who pays you back your payment as you paid us. Happy is he who takes hold and smashes your suckling babies against a rock.'"
Craig shook her violently. "Stop quoting the Bible. Stop it. You're ranting like a hallucinating savage panting after a territorial god."
Tanya took a deep breath. Something clicked inside her. She ran her fingers along the tense and tedious grey walls.
"That man whose life I saved is a rubber stamp in the hands of his rulers. He's the Soviet Union's only hope. He must live."
"Crap, he's nothing but a slimey drug dealer and antiquities smuggler," Craig slurred. "And he's going to be the next President. The question is--of which nation?
"Who will they make him next time? I'm not talking about the Russians. I'm talking about the secret government in the United States above the President who pays us to make and break Presidents all over the Middle East and Latin America and inside Russia."
She placed her Kalashnikov in an oblong lugguage piece and slid it under the bed. "It's time to go."
Craig put his American passport inside his shoe and took a forged Russian diplomatic pouch out of his suitcase. "Its amazing how far genuine birth certificates of dead American infants will go here."
"Who am I tonight?" Craig asked.
"Vladimir Sherveshidze of Tbilisi, a diplomat from the Abkhaz region of Georgia."
"Another fictive personality, another American dollar...I'm Dr. Delores Maldonado from Guatemala--a tropical diseases specialist. Does it matter? What's more important, is who I am next time. All identities can change."
"You took money from the Arab oil leaders, the American billionaires, the Japanese, the Russians. Don't you have any scruples?"
"Yes. I'm a doctor on a mission to heal the world, and my healing tools are my weapons. I'll always be a surgeon."
In an hour, they made the last flight to Moscow. By the next afternoon, Tanya and Craig sat in on the final session of a week-long international medical conference on tropical diseases.
During the flight from Moscow to London, Craig sprawled across two seats. Tanya watched him snore, open-mouthed for hours.
Tanya wondered why men always spread their knees so wide apart to take up the maximum volume of space. She kept her legs crossed, trying to squeeze into the tiny space he allowed her. Finally, she nudged his elbow from the seat's armrest.
Tanya hated herself for a moment until she remembered her brother looked like Craig. Only Sergei's rat-blue eyes squirmed in a row of subractions, dashes, horizontal worms. She visualized little equations inching up the pages of her diary.
She slipped the empty diary into her purse. Tanya studied Craig's features. His eyes weren't round. They were dashes, bat's eyes seen sideways, transparent drops.
Doctor Tanya Tamirova, exobiologist, studied her spiked poison ring that twinkled like a blizzard of gold. She designed a sunburst in reverse.
She suddenly remembered monitoring Doctor Dawn Whisper's radio show the last week of June. What incredible wisdom did Dr. Dawn impart on the air waves that night? Tanya laughed. Her mind drifted to that particular radio broadcast.
Doctor Dawn suddenly realized and broadcast on the air that her soul couldn't flush into the bay through her father's kidneys as he had told her at the age of nine. Millions of midnight listeners in southern California discovered a childhood secret: Doctor Whisper's father had announced to his daughter when she was nine years old, that he wished he had flushed her down with the condom.
Unfortunately, a conception took place, and from that day on Dawn would be trouble. She was born a girl. He asked the doctor to check twice. Maybe there was a mistake. Maybe Dawn was a boy, after all. He had no such luck.
Tanya merged with Dawn at the moment. We're so much alike, she thought, and yet so different. She spat feverishly with foaming white-lined lips. Her career hacked away at her.
Her salary as a prominent scientist was equal to what Doctor Dawn Whisper's secretary earned. The idea of unequal pay for equal work burned a hole right through Dr. Tamirova. Dawn would feel the same way, Tanya thought.
Tanya killed the young woman who was about to assassinate the new dictator of a new regime in the Arab world. She tasted the joy of being a soldier of fortune. She wondered why she loved the feeling so much.
Her mind wandered to startling statistics. What am I passionate about? Tanya thought. How many other female soldiers of fortune could there be? The pay is more than a doctor could earn anywhere in Central Asia, Kurdistan, or in Russia. Travel and luxury hotels are always free. And research on tropical poisons are a life-long intellectual pursuit. It's good to be an exobiologist, Tanya believed.
She held Craig's hand. Hers was leathery and calloused from use, and very strong, as if all her frustrated power found expression through her fingers. In contrast, his surgeon's hands were soft and pink like those of an eternal boy.
She held Craig's hand a bit tighter and thought of Dawn Whisper, who was almost her double. The two personalities could easily merge--except for one crucial difference.
Dawn clowned. Tanya was dead serious. Her cauterized heart had no room for play if adventure struck.
Dawn's passion was play. If it isn't fun, she wouldn't do it. Dr. Dawn Whisper took her play so seriously, she even subscribed to scholarly journals on the psychologoy of fun.
Craig was what New Yorkers called a catch--wealthy, widowed, and wicked. As a pathologist, he could hide behind the mask of a respectable profession. There was such a shortage of princes in New York.
He moved to Beverly Hills when his first wife mysteriously drowned on a separate vacation after ten years of marriage. There were no children. In Beverly Hills, Craig found other princes who challenged him. Finally, he failed at his toughest challenge: the ownership and control of Dr. Dawn Whisper.
Tanya held Craig's hand all through the long flight. She waited and listened, listened and waited. Her heart stretched a molecule at a time over a kettle drum probing for one shattering boom. Suddenly the old memories danced before her.
Once again, she was back in the villages outside Samarkand. She was sixteen years old. Tanya and her parents moved from Kurdistan eastwards to the dry mountains to escape the hunger. Snow glistened in the high deserts.
One day her father, Dogan, with gleaming, dark beard and eyes the color of potato skins, sneaked up behind Tanya's sister-in-law with an ax. As she hung clothes on the line, he came down on her head. When she turned in surprise, he caught her on the chin.
In a tiny village in Turkestan, surrounded by crystal lakes shaped like skulls, the bottomless lakes filled with monsters. Tanya saw her father's face in every man.
Her sister-in-law's blood trickled down the broken cobblestones and froze in tear-shaped droplets. Tanya watched the neighbors crawl down the winding streets to cover the sister-in-law with horse blankets.
Neighbors gawked at Dogan and Tanya and pinned her father to a wooden bench. Tanya threw a scarf over the woman's face out of modesty and watched her leg twitch like a freshly slaughtered chicken.
Then the mother-in-law wielded a hammer and beat Tanya's father on the head to the drumming of one-and-uh, two-and-uh, one, two three. The village police took her father to a Samarkand prison.
The sister-in-law survived. For the rest of her life she fingered the scars of six stitches in her jaw and another six in the back of her head.
"Heads will roll," was Dogan's last words as they led him away. That night he died in prison of a stroke amidst the vomiting drunks, mostly Russian workers, inside the same cell.
Six weeks later her mother shoplifted a dress from the main market place. A security guard tackled her. She died of fright on the way to prison. Tanya returned to Kurdistan and then to Moscow to study tropical poisons.
Outside her room, waves of snow lapped at the shores of her mountains. Wind-whipped sculpture stood below contemplating nature's dappling. Once Tanya sought scientific proof in the aristocracy of museums. Now she gazed on it in the simplicity of clay and the stone folk.
To be a paid mercenary, a soldier of fortune, in the armies of oil smugglers, battlefield robotics architects, and arms dealers pays a thinking woman what she deserves, Tanya reasoned.
At first her weapons were chemical. Tanya officially dealed in tropical poisons, herbs, and medicines for individual hits. She picked up a copy of Dr. Dawn Whisper's book and thumbed through the pages. Confessions Of A Feeling Woman, the title read--Dawn's first.
And what was Tanya's first book? Her empty diary...Instead, there were cans of unedited videotape stored in Moscow. She thought about Iraq and wondered whether her thinking was faulty. Should she rely, instead on feeling? Maybe she made decisions too quickly, before all the information came in.
Her mind drifted back to Baghdad. She wondered what the inside of an Iraqi brothel looked like--the sounds, smells, textures, colors and emotions. She imagined what the inside of an Egyptian prison was like, then a Guatemalan prison, a Brazilian brothel. She dozed off.
She daydreamed. Men chipped away at their old gods shielding themselves by the stomping of women's wombs. Golden fingers hammered golden notes into symbols to be worn around the throat so music could be frozen in time.
Men feared women's evil eye. The old curse was unfeeling. The family was more important than a woman's individual rights. Tanya remembered once asking her father the question 'why.' That was challenge enough to provoke him to beat her into pleasing him.
He tried to beat her into becoming a feeling woman. She continued to ask 'why' instead of pleasing him in silence. She remained a thinking woman. He died in prison.
When the divorce came, the children, house, car, and money would all go to the husband in Iraq. Without parents or siblings, a divorced woman went crazy. In Samarkand, one could always appeal to the Russians, Tanya thought.
An angry spit exploded on the floor. Craig stirred and stretched. He studied Tanya through glazed-over eyes. She tried everything at thirty-eight--a tummy tuck, a breast implant, an eyelid lift.
All at once Tanya's freedom became meaningless. A little trail of grape juice left her purplish lips.
"Hi, doll," Craig whispered as he stretched and yawned a sulphuric vapor of fetid breath in her face.
"How do I look as a paid soldier of fortune?" She feverishly kicked the words. Tanya's throat clicked in tight knots.
Craig rubbed his fingers along her face-lift scars, just behind her ears. "You didn't pay attention to a detail, honey."
"You know you're getting a moustache."
Tanya glanced at him sharply, narrowing her black eyes to slits.
"A lot of Mediterranean and Central Asian women have this problem. I'll call my electrologist when we get to Los Angeles."
"Baby, it's more than a moustache. I hate to be the good friend who tells you, but you have one long, black hair on your chin. At thirty-eight, that's an estrogen imbalance."
"All right. That's enough. I'll check it out with my gynecologist."
"You're too old for the pill, baby."
She whipped out a compact mirror and looked at it. In a moment, Tanya fished for a pair of tweezers in her make-up pouch and yanked out the hair.
"A pathologist notices every detail," Craig said.
"So does an exobiologist."
She thought to herself: The men who came to strangle me were shrinking my world like the most delicately tinted of bubbles, shrinking in ever narrowing circles from the upward gush of my own infancy.
Tanya closed her eyes and leaned back lost in thought. The hum of the plane's engine soon lulled Craig into a restless sleep.
Why and how did I teach him to insult me? Tanya thought. Why did my body shrink inwardly instead of shoot out? Why did I relinquish power over myself to Craig?
Chase me through dark cellars as a child. Catch me as a mistress with an ax coming down on my head. Within this body, within the wrinkling tissues that rock gently in my sea of misery, is the source of a trillion lives.
Rock me quietly, Craig, Tanya thought. Hold me in your arms. I'm the last born of an old cycle and the first born of the new.
I'm a thinking woman, Craig. Metal shall become flesh, human become machine. You shall not drink more power from my body.
There was a taint of decay in him. In this spotty spin of fusion, I shall bury you, my lover, Tanya thought.
Craig awoke. He moved sluggishly and opened his moth-wing textured ego to her. Tanya trembled in his arms as he held her through the plane's turbulance.
She strung out those last few days in Moscow with him, but he grew worse. Craig was changing from a once serious pathologist to a man of multiple personalities. She wondered whether a tumor pressed on his right lobe.
He was growing more violent, consuming her. At last they arrived back in Los Angeles. Once inside his new condo, his patterns grew familiar.
"You can't tolerate responsibility, can you?" Tanya chastised him.
Craig barked. "Don't start treating me like Dawn did. She's a man-hater."
"A man hater? So that's what they call a feeling woman in America. Dawn and I are so much alike we can only be arch enemies."
Craig's evolving into the boot in the face, fist in the stomach kind of guy, Tanya thought. Dawn must be happy to get rid of such a bad egg once she cracked his macho shell.
"You should see a neurologist, darling. You had a seizure on the plane. Don't you remember?" Tanya begged him, but he ignored her.
"If something was growing on my brain, I'd have headaches."
"Don't you remember when you get violent?"
"Violent? Me? I'm a pussy cat in your arms, baby."
"What type of man's good for a thinking woman, Craig?"
Tanya asked the question 'why' again while she brushed her teeth the next morning.
If Craig was anything like her father, the wall would come up and cut her off in mid-sentence. Craig never cut her off. He listened. In fact, he rarely said anything at all.
"A man who punishes a woman for trying to control him?" Tanya probed further. There was stony silence from Craig's direction. He sat at the breakfast nook and laced his Reeboks.
In the days that followed, Craig's silence drank more of Tanya's power. The wealthy pathologist's patterns were growing. Tanya's world shrank to the threshold of the door.
That night she couldn't sleep. She turned to station K.W.I.N., Los Angeles. The Doctor Dawn Whisper show came on. She listened attentively to Hollywood's most outrageous radio talk show psychologist from midnight to four in the morning.
"Is your agoraphobic world shrinking?" Dawn Whisper asked her listeners. "Open phone lines, folks."
Craig drank more of her power. Tanya only moved in with him the week before--when Dawn Whisper tossed him out, right after he returned from overseas.
He tried to catch her in the act of thinking for herself. His body a sheet of light, a subtle electric fire, tried to peak hers. Tanya taunted him. He extended his ego on metal legs. Metal became flesh in a sea that was no longer the cold salty well of sanity. Two doctors in competition could never be two doctors in love, Tanya thought.
When Craig was unable to draw any more power from Dawn, he plugged into Tanya. In bed, he glowed up in a burst of color. He flailed out on his own note. Inside, there was utter silence.
Tanya was all pulses of strong light and textures. Inside her were nations of color. Each area of color moved and concentrated and throbbed for life. And every color was a nation that voted to be its own ruler. It was as if every cell in Tanya's body was a nation unto itself.
Only seven days together passed between them. Craig told her to plan a quick, simple dinner. She called the caterer.
Craig awoke from his nap in a nasty mood. "You call this fun?" "You can't stand to see me happy. Everytime you come back from one of your soldier of fortune hits with a suitcase full of money, you turn into a bitch." His eyes widened.
"What should I do? Go back to Moscow and teach exobiology?"
Craig swung his arm across the table and sent the fruits flying to the carpet.
"You clean up this mess!" Tanya shouted a stream of epithets in Kurdish.
"Mess?" Craig shouted. "What mess? I'll show you what a mess is, you mail-order whore." He picked up the food and dumped it in the oriental rug. Then he opened the freezer and pushed out the contents and threw everything on the floor.
He shoved out the newly peeled apples, bobbing in water, and dumped them on the carpet. He lifted the milk, the tomatoes, the cold cuts--everything that the caterer's truck delivered, and threw them on the floor.
Tanya watched in torturous belief. She tried to analyze the man who only last month asked her to be his mistress. She memorized Craig, the stranger.
She looked at this pathologist who had both a medical and a law school degree. She looked straight down his heart. She felt the shudder of shrinking caves of powerlessness beneath her feet.
Craig backhanded her, and Tanya jerked her head away almost robot-like in the direction of the slap. An ellipse of color formed on her cheek.
Gazing into Craig's face was like looking into the glossy side of a toppling wave and seeing herself a failure. His square-jawed face extended so close to hers, she could smell his rancid breath.
In his eyes, Tanya saw herself as a child. For a split second she recalled her own mother telling her that she wrote in her diary on her honeymoon, 'today I died.'
"You're not supposed to hit me. It could kill the baby. The doctor said you're not..." Tanya controlled her emotions.
"You told the doctor I hit you?"
"He saw the purplish heel marks around my navel." Tanya stared at his feet.
"Those are recoil marks from your automatic weapon. Who are you? If you're so successful as a paid soldier of fortune and a world-renowned scientist, how come you let yourself get pregnant?
"How come you're willing to live here? And how come you told the doctor I hit you and then return for more? You're free and single. If you don't like our relationship, the door's open."
"You have some lethal obsession with me and Dawn Whisper.!"
"I'll never let either of you go alive."
"I know what you have in store for her."
Tanya's head sunk back into the muscles of her neck. She felt a turbulence around the bend of an artery.
"Get rid of it. I want you unencumbered. You heard what I said. Or do I have to perform it on you myself?"
"No. I'll see you dead first, Craig."
"Get rid of that child." He spat at her, mouthing the word, accusing her. The silent, infantile threat of her shadow overwhelmed him.
While he mumbled under his breath, Craig slowly unbuckled his belt and slipped it off. He wrapped one end around the knuckles of his right hand several times. Craig began slapping the heavy buckle against his left thigh.
Slowly, he inched closer to her. "You old biddy! You thirty-eight-year old discardable tissue!" Craig's words ran together, rhyming each lash of the buckle across Tanya's face, giving birth to a terrifying cadence.
Like batman, elongated man, aquaman, spiderman, superman, captain marvel, the green hornet of his childhood fictions, the thuds, punches, groans, and oomphs rained on Tanya's petite body.
They both breathed as one, breathed the lint of hate. When Craig closed in, he finished his sentence by whipping his buckle across her cheek. The metal smashed across her teeth, and Tanya sang out with pain. She flailed, clawing his face with her talons.
She ran toward the door, and another blow stung her spine, almost paralyzing her. Tanya managed to creep across the room.
"Come here, baby," he slurred. "I'm going to train you to be a real, American doctor."
Craig stood above her, swinging his belt, patiently stalking her. "Bitch! You're going to lose that baby!"
Tanya screamed for help. Only silence echoed back. Craig's face shimmered in a web of fluid. Tension linked them. Singing light flooded into his whole being.
Craig went for his little black bag and sorted through the instruments. A flash of light glinted off the surgical vacuum extractor.
"This worked fine on my rabbits."
He unzipped his trousers and kneed her in the small of her back. As she screamed and begged for help, he raped her until she passed out.
Craig tried six instruments before he found the right surgical vacuum extractor to lose her six-week fetus. A cutting pain seared through her, bringing her into full consciousness. It was all over. As she looked up she saw Craig bending over her, wiping her with a towel.
"How do you like it?"
She screamed, crawled across the carpet, and doubled over. A spike of adrenalin surged through the pain and dulled it.
When it was over, Craig's pulsing patterns rose and slid like colored lights. He couldn't be human, she thought. Inside had to be an electric grid that made him run.
Craig was human, all right. Too human. He took her pulse before he opened the door. She ran out into the hall of the high rise Los Angeles Condo naked, but he threw the bloody towel in her face, and her purse, and then her dress and shoes.
He followed her into the dark, empty hallway. "Make sure you see your gynecologist now. I don't want any malpractice suits. Don't worry. My patients never complain. Why should they? I'm the coroner's head pathologist at the City morgue."
"Stay away from me," she screamed. Tanya ran blindly and bumped into the wall. He handed her the dress, shoes and purse over the towel. Craig held open the stairwell for her.
She screamed again as she stumbled down the steps. I've got to stay calm, she thought.
His staccato voice echoed down the dark stairwell. "You'll be back a tougher soldier than ever, Doctor Tamirova."
"Only for revenge," Tanya thought as she disappeared into the street and hailed a taxi.
He went back inside and poured himself a cup of coffee, continuing to talk to Tanya as if she were in the room. "You're a thinking woman, a mean and lean man-eating machine. And machines don't break, people do. You'll be back for more. You always come back for more. You'll always be my mail-order mistress."