I’m so lucky. I get this in the mail either tomorrow or the next day, in paperback. I read it as an ebook and I think my IQ jumped 25 points that week. Because it’s a thinking sort of novel. A literary mystery with a Tootsie center, which begs the question: how many licks does it take to solve this murder mystery? (Answer: 378 pages, the print length of the book).
I’ve gotten permission to post an excerpt from the book. A little background though: the base story is about an insane asylum assistant who reads the biography of an ex-patient, looking for clues as to why her boss, the asylum director, is in a near catatonic state. The excerpt below is from the biography. The murder part of the murder mystery is best explained by reading the book.
“Oh, enough about you! Let’s talk about me,” Monique said. Above her head, a string of outdoor lights — the ones shaped like chili peppers — shivered in the sudden breeze and went out.
“All right,” I said, tapping my last-ever cigarette on the rim of her piña colada. “What would you like to know about yourself?”
Hoping my breath was awful, I leaned toward her and leered. At least, I think it was a leer. I probably should have practiced that, because she didn’t even flinch. Instead, her mind wandered over to the poolside bar with her drop-dead body in tow.
“A Quaalude for me, and a Quickie for the gentleman.”
Monique was sipping her way through the cocktail alphabet, and I’d promised to join her at “Q.” Oh, I knew she was cheating. She had to be. No one could survive all that booze, so her drinks were probably virgins. So what? If we made it to “S,” she’d promised me a double round of Sex on the Beach under the Tequila Sunrise.
Don’t blame me. It was Monique’s idea of a birthday present.
Ah, Monique, I bet your real name is Monica, I thought, taking another drag. I’d told her to call me Dave, my best friend’s name. She just kept calling me “Sugar.”
I turned to watch her chat with the bartender, who might — in even dimmer light — have been as handsome as a bullfrog. Now, he could give lessons in leering. Whatever alternate universe Pedro came from, he had guts, balls, chutzpah. Whatever ugly guys have when they hit on gorgeous women.
Maybe he has a big attribute, hidden by the bar.
My Rolex buzzed the hour: three AM. I took one last puff and stubbed out my butt in the World’s Most All-inclusive Ashtray — where transfer-printed, grass-skirted pygmies danced the hula in the shadow of Angkor Wat.
Where was I, and what was I doing there?
“There” was “Bougainvillea-ville,” a Hell-hole hideaway in the Yucatan that had seen better days, and clientele, in the ’eighties. Where else should I have been, with Jenny?
Jenny was somewhere else, in the arms of some other guy. Her crumpled Note whispered from my pocket, even after all that time: I never loved you… don’t try to find me… I’m going back to Rick.
A local urchin was tugging on my shirt. He looked about eight. A scrawny eight. His face and feet were dirty, but his hands were clean.
“Mister señor?” The kid held out a hand and tried to smile.
What to do? I considered adopting him; celebrity adoptions were all the rage. But who’d give me a kid — even this kid — with my reputation? He’d be better off without me.
I decided on a small trust fund. I’d work out the details later, but to get things started, I tucked some pesos into his hand, ruffled his hair, then waved a wad of dollars at Pedro.
“Get this kid something to eat… for about ten years! And throw in a parent or guardian.”
Pedro made a quick call, then herded the kid up the steps toward the hilltop kitchen’s blazing lights. For the weeks (years? decades?) I’d been there, those lights had burned like a beacon all night, every night. If that was to keep the cucarachas in check, fat chance.
As Pedro lumbered back to the bar, the last customer belched, peeled himself off his barstool and announced, “‘To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia,’” before stumbling off, leaving the place to the three of us.
I watched to make sure he didn’t follow the kid, then resumed wallowing.
What the Hell was I doing there? Two obvious answers came to mind, both busting out of a plunging neckline. Monique’s twin peaks were back from the bar. At this point, I believe I burst into song: “America the Beautiful,” in homage to the “mountains’ majesty above her fruited plain.”
I don’t want to talk about it.
For her part, Monique was going on about my eyes — how blue they were, or was it green? How from the moment we first met…
Pedro delivered our drinks with a gracious grunt. Finally, something to keep the mescal in my gut company. And the worm. I gazed into Monique’s colored contacts, knocked back the Quickie and choked. Bourbon, rum, andwhat’s that sweet stuff? Orange liqueur?
A Quickie is bourbon in lingerie. There had to be faster ways to kill myself.
I could smother myself with a plastic bag…
I’d have settled for paper. It’s slower than plastic, but biodegradable.
For a fleeting moment, I felt like a bag boy again: eighteen years old, working at the market I bought later, when all the money rolled in. That was my first “Can-Too,” the first of the chain.
I grinned at Monique’s chest. To Hell with plastic. I could smother myself in her breasts! Suicide was a sin, but at least my thoughts could be held against me. I grinned at my own little joke, thinking, God has no sense of humor.
Monique’s voice droned on and on, with the hypnotic quality of a medieval chant, reminding me of what a friend of my mom’s, an ex-priest, used to say about religion: “The music’s great, but the lyrics stink.”
He’d completely missed the point. He must be in Hell by now.
I was jerked back to the table by, “That’s a sweet little ass you got, Sugar.”
I’d been sitting on my ass for hours; how did she know it was sweet? With all the droning, there was no chance to ask her, so my half of the duet only played in my head: Look, I know I’m attractive. It’s just good jeans — I mean genes! It’s only luck, so don’t go on about it.
Monique stopped chanting and stared over my shoulder, neglecting to blink. That was odd. Just a second before, her false lashes had been flapping flirtatiously.
Was someone creeping up on me? Her husband? Better yet, a boyfriend? Boyfriends were more jealous than husbands. Boyfriends were prone to rash, head-busting behavior!
But it was just Pedro, with a round of R: “Red Rasputin. Vodka, Grenadine, Pepsi-Cola.”
I knocked it back, and Monique leaned forward to whisper something. Let’s see, what was it? Oh, yeah:
“R is for Roofie.”
The last thing I remember is quoting Speedy Gonzales. “‘No mas tequila. Already muy loaded.’”
* * *
I woke up naked and hog-tied, on a filthy mattress on a filthy floor in the filthiest hotel room I’d ever seen. And I’d seen a few. I wasn’t born filthy rich, as You know.
The room was littered with empty beer and whiskey bottles. Another big empty loomed where a TV had been ripped from the wall.
My head was splitting. The smell of the mattress was gagging. My throat was dry as a witch’s — well, as You might expect, under the circumstances.
“Thirsty, Sugar?” someone drawled from across the room.
Ah, the twin peaks of Mount Monique! I should never have taken up climbing.
But I didn’t remember any climbing. Or Sex on The Beach. I’d missed the Tequila Sunrise!
Chafing as it was to watch Monique sipping soda in her shabby armchair, my attention was drawn to the door — creaking open — and Pedro, whose secret with the ladies was sawed-off and double-barreled.
Coke in hand, Monique sauntered over to close the door while Pedro lurched to the mattress and flopped down beside me. His bullfrog grin widened as he admired the Rolex on his wrist. Funny, I felt so naked without it.
“Monique,” I croaked, one eye on Pedro’s grin, “we didn’t…? Did we?”
She sipped. “What do you think?”
Pedro slapped a newspaper down on the mattress. It was the Mercury News, my home paper in San Jose. The newspaper’s main headline and article were blacked out, but I could read the date: October 27th. Yippee, it was still my birthday! I was thirty-six.
The paper also said: “James Canning Missing in Mexico. See page 5.”
Page 5? Remind me to cancel my subscription.
Pedro lit a cigar with my lighter, the one engraved, “Smoking will kill you someday, love, Jen.” Last year’s birthday present. Right before she dumped me.
“Canning. That funny name for supermarket guy,” Pedro said. “How much you worth, Jimbo? You can tell me. I am so trustworthy. You give me million dollars, I give you Coca-Cola. Fair trade? That’s peanuts for you.”
He kindly blew the smoke my way. “You sell a lotta peanuts at those markets?”
“A whole lotta.” I breathed in deeply, but second-hand smoke wasn’t gonna cut it. “How about a smoke, and that Coke?”
“Oh, I am generous man, but smoking is bad for you. And no Coke.”
He motioned for Monique to fetch me some water. She filled a paper cup from the faucet and pressed it to my lips, saying, “Drink it, or the next one’s from the toilet.”
I drank it.
Pedro took a swig of Jack Daniels. “How you like your water, Jimbo? Your guts gonna do a little tap dance? ‘Montezuma’s revenge,’ eh?”
“Listen, Pedro,” I said. “This may be your first starring role in the re-run that is your life, but it’s not mine. Could you can the tourist crap?”
Pedro’s lips curled back. He had remarkably white teeth for a villain. I should’ve been more polite.
“Can? Tourist? Crap? Oh, Jimbo, you make me giggle. How much that sense of humor cost you, eh?”
But he’d already set the price.
I said, “If you want the money, I’ll need my phone and a pair of pants. And that Coke.”
“You want fries with that?” Pedro jumped up and cracked my head with the bottle. I saw rainbows, but didn’t black out.
Monique hollered, “Not so rough! Are you nuts?”
Panting and swaying, Pedro leaned toward me and belched. His breath burned my eyes. I lay there bleeding, head throbbing, wondering how the Hell I was going to get out of there.
I scanned the room again. One window. No extra charge for the bars. There was a copy of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” on the nightstand. Which of these geniuses was reading that?
In my cheeriest voice, I asked, “Who likes the classics? I’m a ‘Bullwinky’ fan, myself.”
Monique stared at me blankly. “Bullwinky?”
“You know, the moose. And Roscoe the flying squirrel?”
“Pedro,” she said, “how hard did you hit him?”
But Pedro didn’t answer. He and his shotgun were busy flopping back down on the mattress. When the bouncing stopped, my eyes came to rest on the blacked-out newspaper.
“What’s with the blackout?”
“What you mean, Jimbo? You wanna back out? No back out of this deal.”
“I give up,” I said. “I wish this was a dream sequence.”
“Dream sequence? How you know this notta dream sequence?”
“I just know.”
“How you know? You naked. People always naked in my dreams.” He waved the shotgun at Monique. “Whassa matter, her tits not big enough for your dreams?”
“Sure they are,” I said. “I just hate dream sequences.”
“Me, too,” Monique said.
Pedro jumped up again. “Me three! Funny, eh? Arithmetic. We got so much in common.”
“God? Shoot me now.”
Those four little words… they just popped out. I swear I didn’t mean them.
* * *
“Sign this,” a shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guy said, holding out a clipboard.
What do you know? Shimmery, naked, made-of-light sort of guys have no pubic hair.
Right, like You wouldn’t have looked.
He poked me with the clipboard. “Sign it. And stop looking down there. Your file doesn’t say anything about you being gay.”
I glanced at the clipboard. The paper on it was blank. “What is it?”
“Being gay?” He tapped the pen on the clipboard. “Surely you know —”
“What’s on the clipboard?”
Tap, tap, tap. “I couldn’t say.” He looked like he could, but he wouldn’t.
“Hey, is this the dream sequence?”
“No,” he said, but at least he stopped tapping. “You’re just dead.”
“Jeez. You’re shittin’ me. I don’t feel dead.”
“It’s one of the perks. And I Shit You Not. I never ‘Shit’ anyone. It’s part of my job description. Sign here,” he said, tapping the paper, again. “Sign. Sign. Sign.”
Tap, tap, tap.
“I don’t sign things I can’t read,” I confessed. “It’s kind of a thing with me.”
Made-of-light Guy grinned. Even his teeth were shimmery, and that gave me the creeps. I looked around us. Everything — or should I say nothing? — was shimmering, like the static you get when you turn off the cable, but the TV’s still on. Only see-through.
At least I was dressed. And sober.
“Trust me,” the guy said. “You’re just one in a long line of dead leading men. It’s your ‘last starring role in the re-run that was your life,’ so to speak. Could be worse. Could be a cartoon.” He tapped the clipboard again. “Sign right here. God requires faith, if nothing else.”
I signed, against my better judgment. “God, huh? Sure I can’t get that in writing?”
“No.” He snatched back the clipboard, leaving me to wonder which it was: No, I couldn’t get that in writing, or No, he wasn’t sure I couldn’t get that in writing.
I think he read my mind.
“A little humility wouldn’t hurt,” he said, his milky little eyes narrowing to slits.
My own eyeballs were starting to tingle; this whole thing was making my skin crawl. Or maybe it’s the shimmering, I thought, waving an arm through the scintillant soup, the malicious miasma. There was something about it that looked… well, the only word is “curdled.” I bravely stuck out my tongue for a taste, and got a mild electric shock.
“What is this stuff?”
“It’s Sparkling Ectoplasm. That’s vodka, nutmeg, cream and lemon juice. Plus our own secret ingredient that makes it fizz.” He leaned forward and hiccupped. “Big secret. It’s seltzer! Never, ever, think that He has no sense of humor. He hates that.”
“I’ll remember,” I mumbled, wiping my tongue on my sleeve.
“I know you will.”
* * *
The next thing I knew, I was a shimmery naked guy, standing on a sidewalk in Silicon Valley. Folks rushed by, dashing to their high-tech lunches. They couldn’t see me — which was good, considering all that naked business.
Naked, not naked, naked again… Someone can’t make up His mind.
With a fizzy “pop,” Monique appeared beside me. She was shimmery, too. “Sugar! How sweet. Did you miss me?”
“Mount — uh — Monique! What are you doing here? You don’t mean…?”
“Yup. Pedro shot me, too. All because he didn’t use the waste basket. I had to laugh, didn’t I?”
“Waste basket? What waste basket?”
And so she told me the gory, glorious details of my death: a wayward sheath, a slip, a fall… and a big old bang.
“That’s what I get for being raised a Catholic.”
Oh, well, so he slipped on a used condom and the gun went off. At least he didn’t shoot me on purpose.
Monique ran her fingers through her scalp. Did I mention we were bald? I thought not. Still, she had a very shapely scalp.
She said, “I never slept with Pedro, you know.” I hadn’t asked, but that didn’t seem to matter. “We tried once, but he’s got a dick the size of a cocktail weenie. I’ve got a clit as big as that.”
Monique blushed all over — think Sparkling Ectoplasm with a splash of cranberry — and glared at me. If she was daring me to comment, I didn’t.
She went on, “When he flipped it out, I got the giggles and burst into baby talk. ‘Who’s an itsy-bitsy boy, then? Who’s a dirty little fella?’”
“Are you nuts? No wonder he shot you.”
Monique shrugged and looked around us. “Where do you think we are? Some sort of Purgatory?”
I felt my chest swell. “It’s San Jose! It’s my home town! And isn’t Purgatory a big word for you?”
“I’m not an idiot, you stupid shit. That was an act.”
“No need to be rude, Sugar,” I said. “Hey, are you allowed to swear in Purgatory?”
“Obviously. But I bet it adds to the time.”
I looked her up and down. “I can live with that.”
She grinned. “You think? I had a nice, long talk with that shiny guy —”
“Long talk? I just got here!”
“I don’t think time works the way we’re used to. Anyway, after I signed the clipboard he said, ‘From now on, consider yourself an exhibit. No touching.’”
“What’s the penalty? We’re already dead.” I reached out to cup her shimmering breast, but my hand went right through her.
“No touching is the penalty.”
Suddenly, Monique wasn’t shimmering anymore, and hair was sprouting all over the place. Looking down, she said, “No more waxing for me. It’s just insane how fast it grows back.”
Huh, who’d have guessed it? She really is a red—
“Adam and Eve!” someone shouted. “You never heard of fig leaves?”
Yes, the people on the street could see us now, and one of them had a Brooklyn accent. A small crowd was forming. And hooting. And whistling.
Someone called my name.
This isn’t Purgatory. It’s Hell.