84. Baby, It’s Like This…

Maybe you’ve driven on icy roads.

Say you’re in a monster car of the Seventies. A Plymouth Gran Fury, a Chrysler Newport, a Coupe de Ville. Huge engine up front, rear-wheel drive, nothing to speak of over the tires. You know you’re driving on ice, you’re taking it easy, maybe not quite easy enough, but there are maniacs passing you, so you’re not the stupidest person on the road. Suddenly, for no reason, except that you’re driving faster than zero miles per hour on glare ice, you’re sliding sideways down a two-lane road. Then you’re sliding backwards. Wait! Now, briefly you seem to be in control, front bumper pointed forward. Except that the steering wheel spins loosely in your hand. And what’s that? Why, yes, it’s a curve in the road. A stand of trees. Big, healthy, going-nowhere-if-you-hit-them trees. Oak, it seems, from the look of those gnarled branches clawing toward the sky like the very fingers of death. And now, oddly, though you’ve got no time at all before you inevitably smack into a stand of oak at fifty or sixty miles per hour, you’ve also got time to note the dust on the dash. Time to notice those few cotton-candy clouds in an otherwise blue sky, with the sun, so low in the south, nonetheless blazing against the untrammeled snow. Time to run through those people in your life you will genuinely miss, who will perhaps genuinely miss you as well. Love! Regret! A few thousand other emotions, compressed into a few seconds, the emotional equivalent of a cosmic event, on the order of a star collapsing upon itself and then exploding again.

I stood in the perpetual dusk of the underworld, focused on the movement of Brimsnod’s lips. As I’ve said, she’s got a hatchet face, all angles, plenty of cheekbone, big eyes with those hooded lids that she could have bought from Charlotte Rampling. Brimsnod might have made a runway model for a certain kind of designer. One with a SM-inspired fall collection, revisiting in fashion terms the Nazi occupation of Paris. Her lips were a peculiar combination of narrow and plump, like cherries from a diseased tree.

Now those lips were in motion. “Let me tell you something,” she said to Doris.

“Jen Litely.” The words simultaneously oozed from her lips and shot like a rocket. My heart felt as if it had turned into a gray blubbery mass that limply flapped instead of beat.

“Jen Litely,” Brimsnod repeated. “Not really a spring chicken, not anymore. But nicely kept up, you got to admit.” This she directed to Doris. “Money in the bank, especially after Leo’s not-so-untimely death. Happy to reward her liberator, isn’t that so, Mister Fatman? Financially and, how do I put this? Corporally? Related to the body. Corpus. To go Latin on you.”

Duke put what remained of his hand to his forehead again. As much as anything gleamed in the underworld, Brimsnod’s eyes gleamed.

Doris turned to me. “Charles?” she said. This was not quite a question and not quite, yet, an accusation.

I exhaled. I drew a deep breath. I counted to three and said, “Baby, it’s like this.”

Tomorrow: Mistakes were made

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