I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Downtown Philadelphia | July, 2000
It’s early. Too early to deal. I’m back on the mirrored elevator with Zeke and Todd at the downtown hotel. Round two with Holcomb. I get this weird feeling that our reflections in the elevator doors are the old us from last time, and that they’re looking in wonderment at the future us, and I clearly shouldn’t have smoked up this morning like an idiot. The ride is just as uncomfortable as last time: we’re all doing our best to ignore our reflections.
We didn’t even speak in the lobby. Todd just came up to us in his (now I know to be) trademark hoodlum garb and escorted us to the elevator banks without taking his hands out of his hoodie pockets or making eye contact. No one is happy. Todd knows the outcome of my trip to Leah’s. Zeke knows. And of course Her Majesty knows. Without realizing it Balero has stepped sideways into a world of people who are really concerned with his welfare.
Holcomb is sitting with his back to us as we walk in, gazing through a window that looks out onto a dilapidated warehouse next door. At first I think he’s speaking to one of his handlers, or perhaps himself.
“I keep wishing for this to all be over so that I can fly first class and get a princess suite, perhaps indulge in a spa day. But I dasn’t draw attention to myself, you know. So incognito.” These last two words are whispered, languid and floral, stolen from the opening moments of some exotic lounge song. He swivels around in the chair and is, to my surprise, smiling. I had been preparing for the absolute worst. I’ve never been yelled at by an old drag queen, so I sort of had to imagine it on the ride up the elevator.
He rises as if underwater, arms floating, eyes half-mast. He’s wearing an elaborately sequined dark purple dress with a handful of beady necklaces and bracelets that make him sound like a babbling brook as he moves towards us. However high I am, he’s higher.
“Mario, darling! It’s so delicious to see you again!” His hands go to my face like a grandmother’s welcome, then he switches to a hug and his arms are around me, sharp alcohol stabs of perfume in my nose. He speaks in the loud whisper of the inebriated that is fully audible to anyone standing nearby. “I just wish it were under better circumstances.”
He gives Zeke a polite look as he pulls away, pulling hair from his eyes, his expression fading to neutral. He’s a little wobbly on his feet. I’m thinking we’re going to follow him back to the little collection of chairs by the window but instead he curls up on the bed like a kitten. Zeke shares looks with Todd, who silently puffs his cheeks. Welcome to my world.
“Come, sit! Relax. Tell me all about your adventures.” He pats the bedspread by his legs. “Have you had any breakfast? Todd darling, fetch these boys some rolls or something, will you?”
I break under the pressure and start talking. “Uh, your majesty…”
Zeke stops me with a sharp hand gesture.
“I already gave Todd the tick-tock. You were briefed, yes? Do we really need to go over this now? Your Majesty?”
Holcomb is perched on an elbow near the pillows. He throws a look in Todd’s direction, then back to us.
“Yes, I’ve been briefed. But I was hoping to get the gory details from you two darlings. C’mon, don’t be shy!” He sits up a bit more and does his best to widen his glistening, bloodshot eyes. His voice can only be described as sultry. “I want to know everything.”
I gave “everything” to Zeke the night before in his apartment, under our usual hushed voices because of the thin walls, Zeke’s face in his hands. I had a feeling that coming up here would be even harder than breaking the bad news to Zeke, but now I can see that this is only a formality, that the three of us are more or less putting on a show for Holcomb. And yes, if we ever find the damn device, back to Holcomb it goes. (Or does it? He’s barely able to function. I wondered which of his “handlers” would pocket the thing, leaving Holcomb a queen without a country.)
A few beats go by. Todd looks at the floor and nods. Zeke nudges my side. I guess I’m on.
I launch into it, starting with the car ride out to Leah’s house, careful to include fine details along the way. Holcomb’s smile doesn’t vanish for a second as I unravel the previous day’s events. If anything it only flushes and swells with each moment of tension and twist of fate. (During the parts with the gun he gasps and clutches his many necklaces to his bosom like he’s watching it on television.) He asks me to pause every now and then to go over one specific detail or another: the contents of Leah’s house and bedroom, how she handled the session, and—particularly—the state of her and her father’s health. Holcomb’s eyes, while squinty, are keen on this information. Behind them somewhere old wheels turn.
Now the story has been told down to every last detail and he’s laying back on the bed in an almost post-coital pose, moaning and running his hands through his hair.
“I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it! How thrilling! How intense! How bizarre!” And then more moaning, hands all over himself.
I mean, I get it. The man’s never been this close to one of these things since his time with Pickering back in the day. Maybe this second-person proximity is activating some weird pleasure centers in his brain recently unlocked by whatever the fuck drugs he’s on right now. I dunno. Something. For clearly he’s in the throes of ecstasy over here.
Todd saunters over and speaks through the side of his mouth to me and Zeke. “He’s been like this on and off for a few hours. Should be fine. Just needs to sleep it off.”
“What’s he on?”
Zeke and Todd are looking at Holcomb as they have this exchange, Holcomb suddenly a sick animal on a farm.
“Just Xanax. Well, and wine. Possibly some ecstasy. No one is allowed in his pillbox.”
Zeke turns fully to Todd.
Todd holds up a hand and closes his eyes. Just let Her Majesty be is the message.
The door opens behind us, scaring me half to death. No one else seems to notice or mind. It’s Blake, the one who walked in with Holcomb the last time we were here. Blake is also unmoved by Holcomb’s performance on the bed. He exchanges a few quiet words with Zeke and Todd. Zeke turns to me.
“I guess this kind of thing just comes and goes. With stress, mostly. Wasn’t like this when they left yesterday, but they figured it might happen once they got here. Hoped it wouldn’t. Risked it anyway, with what’s on the line, etc. Should be fine. Sort of a…”—Zeke rolls his eyes, trying to remember how it was put—“temporary lapse into a second persona. Part of him thinks he’s a ‘50s movie starlet or something. We could basically tell him we have the device right here, hand him a bar of soap, and he’d be just as happy. Dude’s old and seen some serious shit.”
“But he’s…”—I start, not quite knowing how to finish—“…I mean, he’s… The device is…”
Yep, nope. I was hoping there’d be something on the other end of that sentence when I got there, but no. Basically what I’m trying to ask is what happens when we actually do find the thing. Is it just handed over to him, or what’s his role in that? Zeke closes his eyes and nods as though he gets where I’m trying to go.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. These are not his true handlers. These are just his body guys.” Zeke says this openly, as if Todd and Blake wouldn’t mind, which in fact they seem not to. “Under strict orders to get him where he needs to go and, you know, protect and care, to bring back any and all things that might cross his path along the way, including the… it. If anything does come up it-wise, it goes straight to this guy named Roland. An old friend of his from the ‘60s. There’s a whole system in place. If he…”
Todd moves in and shakes his head. Nope. Can’t talk about that here. Zeke shuts immediately up and gives me a but you know where I was going look. I nod and look back at Holcomb, suddenly sympathetic to the burden he inherited. (Or created?)
Todd’s wide frame is between us and Holcomb now. His face is dark and he’s shaking his head. We’re ushered to the door of the connecting room. The meeting is not a success. Feared it would be so, he whispers as we step into the next room. Blake stays with Holcomb. He sits on the bed and puts his hand on Holcomb’s sequined shoulder as Todd closes the door on the scene.
The three of us stand in a circle and don’t say anything for a few seconds. Todd’s arms are crossed and he’s rocking back and forth on his feet, looking down. Zeke’s arms are crossed too. I cross mine.
“I can involve Roland at this point, but in the immediate interim you are to go through me. Understand?” Todd says this to his shoes but then shoots me a hard look. This takes me a second to adjust to, since at first I think he’s saying it to Zeke.
“Yeah, yes. OK. Um…”
Todd pulls out a card and hands it to me. It contains only a ten-digit number with a Baltimore area code. No name. “That’s my cell. Don’t lose it. Don’t share it. Be in touch within the hour.”
Zeke grabs the card from my hand and puts it in his pocket.