5. Junk food, fishing, and looking for nada…
“Ho-ho,” the fisherman says in a dry, midwestern nasal twang, and, at first, probably just like you, I think it’s a fake laugh, but he reaches into a soft cooler by his chair and pulls out the packaged snack by that name, an artificially-flavored cake-roll injected with an alarmingly white chemical cream that seems to be giving off its own spectral light.
I say, “No thanks. I’ve already had my recommended daily allowance of carcinogens today. Who the hell are you?”
“Mr. Franklin,” he says around a mouthful. He touches the brim of his snap-brim hat. “Nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Well, Mr. Franklin, I can’t say I’m too happy to make yours. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I’m taking a downright dim view of you right now.”
He pushes the rest of the Ho-Ho into his pursed mouth, pressing it slowly into his gaunt face with his thumb, making it obscenely disappear, inch by gooey inch, and then popping his thumb from the tight orifice at the end of this lewd performance with a loud wet pop! He licks his lips, licks his thumb, picks up Ho-Ho number two. Eyes it, eyes me.
“Oh really? And why, pray tell, is that?” he asks.
“How about kidnapping for starters? Being forced to drive here under threat of execution. Frog-marched at gunpoint by one of your goons. No offense intended," I add, just in case, into the surrounding darkness.
Mr. Franklin licks around the end of the second Ho-Ho, smacks his lips, and says, “Oh. That.”
“The night’s young, Mr. Molloy. First impressions can be misleading. Perhaps I’ll grow on you.”
“I’d like to know what I’m doing out here,” I glance around at the sand, the sea, the starry sky, most of it just a lot of blackness, “…in the middle of nowhere.”
“We have some questions for you.”
As my eyes become accustomed to the star light, I get a little better look at Mr. Franklin. He’s in his late fifties, maybe even midway into his sixties, narrow-faced, baggy-eyed, sober-looking, thin as a weathered fence-post in a three-piece suit, gaunt, grey; he looks like a parched scarecrow that survived, barely, a lifelong heroin habit.
“We? Do you mind telling me who “we” are?”
“We are US. Think of US as Fate,” he says, teasing the cream out of the tip of the Ho-Ho with a thin reptilian tongue, “unknowable, ineffable, unanswerable, inevitable. A real bitch. We make a demand, you fulfill it. Think of US this way, Mr. Molloy, and we will all be better off. I’m afraid you’ll have to think of US this way in any event. I’m afraid there is simply no other way to think of US.”
“Okaaaay….” I say, trying to decide if he’s joking or not and deciding, to my mounting alarm, that he’s not. “But if you wanted to talk, couldn’t you have just made an appointment like everyone else? This…” I wave my arms around to indicate, well, basically everything, “was unnecessary.”
Mr. Franklin leans momentarily forward and fastidiously flicks chocolate crumbs from what looks like his bank manager’s suit, only more sinister because real bank managers gave up wearing this kind of suit decades ago.
He looks up from his lap and fixes me with his colorless eyes. “What is necessary, Mr. Molloy? If you strip away all that is unnecessary from a man’s life, what are you left with? You are left with the instant that he ejaculates the seed that will conceive the children of the next generation. And, please note, only those particular impregnating ejaculates, not just any ejaculate. The rest of a man’s life is just a commute to and from those singular moments.”
This was not the time and place to argue metaphysics, not that if this were the time and place I’d have necessarily disagreed with Mr. Franklin, so I ignore what he just said and try to keep us focused on the business at hand, whatever it might be. In the meantime, I don’t really want to see what’s going on at the periphery of whatever’s happening here. I don’t want to get sidetracked. I know that there’s a disaster lurking somewhere off to the side that’s just waiting to happen. It’s out there in the darkness, waiting to blindside me. But I don’t want to think about that just yet. I’m not ready for it. First things first.
“You said you wanted to ask me some questions. What are they?”
“We understand that you’ve been contacted by a Mr. Knott.”
As usual, I debate whether or not to lie, decide there’s no reason to, at least not right now, and say, “Yes, that’s true.”
“We’d like to know what he wanted.”
“He wanted me to find a woman.”
Mr. Franklin leans back in the canvas chair, as if he were settling in to hear a good yarn. Problem is, of course, I don’t have much more to tell him. I tell him as much.
“I turned him down. He had a problem telling me who he was working for. Just like you. And I have a problem with that.”
“Mr. Knott is working for no one. He’s working for himself. He has a fool for a client.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a lawyer. Well, he was an attorney. He’s since been disbarred. With extreme prejudice.”
Ho-Ho number two, meanwhile, is in the process of disappearing, deep-throated in the snake-like manner so vulgarly identical to the previous Ho-Ho that it all smacks of ritual, or instant replay. When he finally finishes swallowing the cake-roll whole, he wipes his mouth fastidiously on a pocket handkerchief, and lifts the fishing pole out of the plastic holder planted beside his chair. He slowly, very slowly, reels in the line. One revolution per minute, I estimate. This goes on quite a while, as you might imagine, the line is really far out there, well beyond the breakers. He must have made one hell of a cast. I find myself watching, with a certain amount of unavoidable suspense, to see if he’s actually caught something. Neither of us says a word. This interval in my narrative would be quite excruciating if I were to continue it in anything resembling real-time so I'll spare you any further detail and skip to the climax. Eventually he’s got the dripping tackle up and I can see the large silver lure, bristling all over with cruel hooks and festooned with dangling Day-Glo rubber wiggly worms, smoldering phosphorescently in what little light there isn’t.
“Nothing,” he says, staring expressionlessly at the naked tackle. He doesn't seem surprised.
He holds up the big metal lure, a red dot near the tip, supposedly an eye.
“Nothing,” he says again with the finality of a bell-tolling. He scrutinizes the empty, dripping hooks. He looks up at me and says, “The ocean is depleted. What we have here is an exhausted planet, Mr. Molloy, a planet that is out of breath, out of energy, out of flounder, out of luck.”
I notice for the first time that the grey pants are rolled up above his knees, his bare feet sunk in the sand, like bony claws. He has the skinniest, whitest calves I’ve ever seen. It’s just one of those useless things you focus on, I guess, when you’re scared shitless.
I say, “What does this have to do with anything, Mr. Franklin?”
He says, “Think globally, act locally.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“We want to retain your services, Mr. Molloy.”
“We want you to find the woman Mr. Knott is looking for. But we want you to find her for us instead.”
I’m not really sure how this offer is any different from the offer that the fat man offered me, except that Mr. Franklin is offering it to me at gunpoint, which, of course, makes it instantly a lot more compelling.
“I’m a practical man,” I say, “I like to deal in specifics. Can we get down to a few? Who’s missing for instance? And why is everyone so interested in locating her?”
Honestly, I’m expecting more ring-around-the rosy nonsense, but Mr. Franklin begins promisingly.
“Her name is Nada Klone. Her real name is something else, of course. What she looks like, is, well….”
“Anyone’s guess,” I finish.
“No, actually. We have a photo. It will be provided.”
“Mr. Knott said that no one knew what she looked like. That it wasn’t even clear that she exists at all.”
“Mr. Knott,” Mr. Franklin interrupts himself and burps lightly into the back of his hand, “is a moron.”
“Is she in some kind of trouble? I mean, Mr. Knott claimed the man he worked for was in love with her. Why do you guys want her?”
I was trying to get a grip on just what the deal was here: was this girl a victim, or a victimizer? By finding her, just who would I be helping—and who would I be hurting?
“She’s an enigma,” Mr. Franklin says with the straightest face you can imagine. He didn’t seem to have any other kind. “A mystery, like the Mona Lisa, only she talks a lot dirtier.”
“Do you have any idea what reason she’d have to disappear.” And I’m thinking, Is she trying to get away from you?
“That’s part of the mystery. You see, Nada Klone is the kind of girl who gets involved with a lot of interesting characters. The kind of girl that Nada Klone is, well, it allows her to move among some surprising levels of society, both high and low. There’s just no telling where a girl like Nada Klone is going to turn up.” He says this with a wink, “Nope, there’s just no telling what kind of trouble a girl like Nada Klone may have gotten herself into. As for acquaintances, known hangouts, and the like, we’ve prepared a list. That, too, will be delivered to you. What do you say, Mr. Molloy. Have we a deal?”
I say what I always say. I say, “I can’t make any promises.”
Mr. Franklin regards me with his one-expression-fits-all face. He says, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like the kind of overwhelming confidence and eager-to-please suck-up answer that we like, Mr. Molloy. Oh dear, not at all.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s the best I can do right now.”
“Oh no,” Mr. Franklin says matter-of-factly. “You can do better. I’m certain of it. I think this is the kind of case that will end up becoming an obsession. I think it’s the kind of case that you will take to heart and make your very own. I predict,” he says, putting his fingers to his forehead and squinting out of his cold lizard eyes as if seeing into a future that consisted of nothing but endless miles of uninhabited frozen tundra, “that it’ll turn into a matter of life-and-death.”
“I guess what you’re saying is that I don’t have a choice.”
That’s, I think, the very least of what he’s saying, but I’m trying to put the best face on it, and even at that its looking butt-ugly.
“Choice?” Mr. Franklin repeats, as if he doesn’t understand the word. “You’re an amusing man, Mr. Molloy. Are you an amateur astronomer by any chance?”
I’ve lost him here. I say, “Huh?”
He’s been looking up at the night-sky the entire time, ever
since he gave up on trying to catch a fish, and now he’s saying something about the Perseides, a meteor shower apparently scheduled for any moment now, but more or less, right now. He is pointing up into the black at something specific, a quadrant, as he puts it, and I’m following his grey skeletal finger, sighting along it like an arthritic gun barrel, basically to amuse him, but I don’t see a damn thing, just black sky, a random scattering of shuddering pin-pricks.
He says, “Look just northwest of the Dipper.”
I say, “The Dipper?”
If I look hard enough and connect the dots, I can imagine I see the Big Dipper just about anywhere. Right now, I’m looking just about anywhere.
He says, “There, there…Do you see it?”
“Yes,” I say, seeing nothing.
Mr. Franklin looks pleased. He says, “Do you ever wonder at the bigness of it all, Mr. Molloy? The sheer immensity? Do you ever look up and think about the magnitude of possibilities? Do you ever have the feeling that there is something else looking back at you? A Great Spirit, perhaps, a Cosmic Intelligence? Is it likely, do you think, that it’s really all just burning gases, explosions, and chemical reactions. Nothing more?”
There is something else, alright, but it’s not coming from the heavens. It’s approaching us down the beach from the north, a ramshackle beast, like a walking picket fence made of three uncoordinated black dogs. This is what’s been happening off to the side that I’ve been trying not to think about. This is the catastrophe that’s been waiting for me.
The idea of running the hell out of here flashes briefly through my mind, but that seems ridiculous, I could certainly have been killed at any moment up to now if Mr. Franklin wished. As it is, I’ve got a queer feeling in my heart and it’s for good reason: when I look down there’s the red laser dot of a rifle scope jiggling on my sternum.
Mr. Franklin says warningly, “Steady there, Mr. Molloy. Steady.”
This is not going to be good, I’m thinking. Whatever this is, it’s not going to be good at all. I may actually be saying this aloud I’m thinking it so loudly and so insistently inside my thundering skull.
The shambling monstrosity coming towards me has slowly resolved itself into something a little less nightmarish, but every bit as ominous. What’s coming towards me now, it’s clear, are two large men, both in natty black suits, and between them is a woman taller and bulkier than either of her muscle-bound companions and she’s dressed in something black and slinky and glittery that’s showing off little bits and glimpses of her impressive cleavage and thickly muscled legs. She is being held on either side by the two men, but it’s not like she’s being forced, it’s more like she’s being escorted, like she’s been drugged, maybe, or hypnotized, and it’s her total lack of resistance that makes the whole thing seem even weirder and more disturbing than it should be.
The man on the beach chair interrupts my general confusion to say, “There may not by anyone in heaven watching, but we’ve been watching. We’ve been watching you for some time, Mr. Molloy.”
“That’s nice. I hope you were entertained. It’s nice to know I’ve been fucking up my life for someone’s amusement.”
I’m trying to sound cool, and I’m cool alright, my blood is freezing in my veins and I’m saying all this through clenched jaws to keep my teeth from chattering. I’m trying to sound in control of myself, but right about now, I feel that falling to my knees and begging for mercy may soon be the most powerful survival strategy at my disposal. Right about now it’s taking everything I have left to control my bladder and keep from squeaking out the words, “Please, oh please, you've got the wrong guy, just let me go.”
The hulking girl is on her knees now, on her knees on the wet sand and the pair of well-tailored apes have backed up a step or two behind her, and she’s just kneeling there, her big paws at her sides, doing nothing. She’s pulled her black evening dress up over her knees so she could kneel, and she’s kneeling there, her strong, square-jawed face calm and still and totally pale, her mascaraed eyes looking dull and spacey, but focused right on my face, as if I were a blank sheet of paper and she were faced with the world’s worst case of writer’s block.
Her hair, which is blonde and worn up, looks pretty good. I’ve never seen it this way before, even if it does show too much of her thick, muscular neck. The last time I saw her she was sporting an unfortunate red perm, ala the early Nicole Kidman; the last time I saw her was at Sooki Soo’s place, discussing cut-rate breast implants, because this was no girl, this was Trina T.
“Funny thing is,” Mr. Franklin says, “I think you’re beginning to see how all this involves you far more than you ever suspected. I think it’s becoming obvious that there really are no innocent bystanders in the great big scheme of things.”
“Mr. Franklin,” I manage to say, “This is really a very bad idea.” I’m not ashamed that my voice is cracking. I’m beyond any of that right now. “Mr. Franklin,” I say, “Let’s come to some kind of reasonable understanding.”
The ocean breeze is picking up. One of the men, the one on the right, I think, has done something to Trina T’s top so that one of her meaty shoulders is exposed, and also one small, chemically-enhanced breast that’s growing out of the melting muscle around the nipple of her left pectoral. It’s sort of hanging off her chest, like a white, diseased lemon. The horn of a tanker, miles and miles away at sea, on the edge of the horizon, only a row of seven, barely visible, shimmering lights, gives a few lonely toots.
It sounds like this: “Toot…toot…toot.”
I say, “Why are you doing this? Why are you screwing with my mind?”
Mr. Franklin shrugs. “I can’t help myself. What can I say? I’m an enabler.” He pauses thoughtfully. Then he adds, “But I’m also a disabler.”
What happens next I would like to forget. What happens next I would like to pretend never happened at all.
This is what happens next:
Behind Trina T, still kneeling on the sand, still half-exposed, still staring at me expressionlessly, like a cow at a fence, the two men in natty black suits have each produced a silver handgun from somewhere on their persons, like they’re both doing the identical card trick at the exact same time. Trina T slowly lifts her large hands, lifts her large, gnarled, broken fighter’s hands slowly to her lopsided pug’s face as if she were about to pray, because she knows what’s coming next, and she modestly covers her eyes so that I can’t see her disfigured expression when the small silver pistols talk to her.
Those pistols say, “Pop pop…pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.”
It’s that simple gesture that I know right away will haunt me to my dying day. It’s the way she lifts her helpless, busted-up hands with the French manicure to her face. That’s what I will always remember, what I won’t be able to forget, lying awake, staring at the shadows on a moonlit closet door at three a.m. for the rest of whatever is left of my life.
I would like to pretend this didn’t happen, that somehow this was all staged. But there are things that happen to a human head when it is hit by half-a-dozen-or-so hollow point bullets of unknown caliber at close range. What I have just seen happen to Trina T’s head is exactly what’s supposed to happen. What happened is murder but it's also a warning against further mayhem, I know this, but a warning about what? A wave of nausea passes through me when I think that could easily be Sooki Soo lying there with a head like a smashed bowl full of turkey chili. The temperature seems to have dropped about twenty degrees in the last ten seconds and another wave of nausea rolls through me and I realize it could be even worse: that corpse lying there with the head turned inside out could easily be me.
Trina T. is now lying face down, on the wet sand, loose and boneless and beyond care and the two men step forward, as if they really needed to, and they point their silver handguns down at the back of her already obliterated head and their guns once again say, “Pop-pop-pop, pop, pop, pop.”
Mr. Franklin rubs his hands together with a flourish. He says,
“Well, that’s pretty much that then.” He interlaces his long skeletal fingers and cracks his knuckles. He looks at me. He says, “Please Mr. Molloy, get a grip on yourself.”
He's referring to the fact that I’m bent over, hands-on-knees, as if closely inspecting individual grains of sand, being sick.
Mr. Franklin says, “Really, Mr. Molloy, this is most unbecoming.”
I say, “Waaarrrgh, wralllghhhh.” What I mean to say is: “Fuck you, Mr. Franklin.”
He says, “Come, come now. We all have to die sometime. It’s in the rule book.”
When I’m done throwing up, when I’m done wiping the snot and tears and vomit from my face, when I’m done pushing myself up to an erect position, I look over at Mr. Franklin and whatever I was planning to say dissolves into a pathetic sobbing version of “Why did you do that?”
Mr. Franklin is pragmatic. “You needed to be motivated,” he says. “But now I think you’re finally coming round to the viewpoint that we’re all in this together. I think you’re beginning to experience the participatory nature of the cosmos.”
I ask, “What the hell do you want from me?”
The men in the natty black suits are doing something to Trina T now, as if they hadn’t done more than enough already; clothes are being ripped, limbs are being re-arranged. The whole thing is being made to look like something else. I’m not looking. By now I’m asking, for a fourth or fifth time, “What the hell do you want from me?”
You might say I’m getting hysterical. But yes, from Mr. Franklin’s point of view, you might interpret it differently.
Cool as a cucumber, Mr. Franklin replies, “I want you to find out why she was killed.”
“You killed her you son-of-a-bitch,” I cry. “Just now!”
I’m crying out of rage and frustration. I’m crying out of fear. It’s not just Mr. Franklin. It’s not just the brutal, cold-blooded murder I’ve just witnessed. It’s everything. It’s a whole life of bullshit and lies and the frustration of dealing with other people and their bullshit, lies, and frustration, all of the stuff we usually keep festering out of sight, all of it, the whole magilla stew boiling up to the surface.
“Stop playing games! You killed her! I just saw you!”
Mr. Franklin has his bony hands folded over his bony knees and he looks like he’s going to get up but instead he’s just taking up this homey down-on-the-farm pose. He says, “That’s now a matter for police inquiry.”
He says this like he has insider information.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” I ask, as if I don’t already know.
The ship, now so far out at sea it’s invisible, calls out to shore. It goes, “Toot…toot……….Toot?”
I know what the emaciated bastard is talking about. I know only too well what he’s talking about. My legs are shaking, my hands are shaking, my shoulders are shaking, my whole goddamn body is shaking. It’s as if I’m shaking apart. Fact is, I don’t know what’s holding me together at this point. I feel like I’m going to be sick again, but that’s impossible because there isn’t anything left inside me to be rid of. I’m empty. I’m so totally empty I feel light-headed. I feel almost like laughing.
I am laughing.
Mr. Franklin is laughing, too.
For a few moments there, we're both part of the same audience sharing the joke. Then he suddenly stops laughing.
He says, “You’re a suspect, naturally. You’re here, after all. Fibers, hair, footprints, DNA.” He holds up a hand and counts off each of his points, one by one, on a skeletal finger. “Even your fingerprints will end up on the murder weapon.” He holds up his other hand and he counts off those fingers, too. “Circumstances, opportunity, motive.”
He goes on. “History, physical evidence, prior connection with the victim, no credible alibi.” Then he has to reuse the fingers of the first hand. “Eyewitnesses, photographs, times, and dates, past criminal record.” He looks at me significantly, as if no one who’d used up that many fingers could possibly be innocent of anything. “That’s a lot of damn fingers Mr. Molloy. And they all point to you.”
“No one will believe it,” I say, but the fact is, I can believe it, it’s all-too-damn believable.
“Unless you find Nada Klone for us, whoever she is, wherever she is, dead or alive, you just killed her.”
“I don’t get it.”
“No one else knows what Nada Klone looks like.” He points to Trina T. “Unless you find her, we will arrange for that to be Nada Klone.”
I’m not laughing anymore. I’m not crying. I’m just standing there feeling extremely drained and completely sorry for myself. I’m all of a sudden feeling just totally bummed out. I say about the only thing I can think of to say under the circumstances.
I say, “Can I please go home now. Please?”
Coming soon: 6. Bad dreams, paranoid delusions, and breakfast in hell