“How’s the hangover?” Conrad Linthor asks her.
“Better,” Billie says. The hangover is gone. Of course she still feels terrible, but that’s not hangover related. That’s Paul Zell related. That’s just everything else.
“Sorry about you know, uh, your dad.” That’s Ernesto.
Billie shrugs. Grimaces. As if on cue, there is a piercing scream somewhere far away. Then a lot of shouting. Some laughing. Off in the distance, something seems to be happening. “Gotta go,” Ernesto says.
“Ernesto!” It’s a short guy in a tall hat. He says, “Hey, Mr. Linthor. What’s up?”
“Gregor,” Conrad says. “Hope that wasn’t anything serious.”
“Nah, man,” the short guy says. “Just Portland. Sliced off the tip of his pointer finger. Again. Second time in six months. The guy is a master of disaster.”
“See you, Conrad,” Ernesto says. “Nice to meet you, Billie. Stay out of trouble.”
As Ernesto goes off with the short guy, the short guy is saying, “So who’s the girl? She looks like somebody. Somebody’s sidekick?”
Conrad yells after them. “Maybe we’ll see you later, okay?”
He tells Billie, “There’s a get-together tonight up on the roof. Nothing official. Just some people hanging out. You ought to come by. Then maybe we can go see Ernesto’s party sculptures.”
“I may not be here,” Billie says. “It’s Paul Zell’s room, not mine. What if he’s checked out?”
“Then your key won’t work,” Conrad Linthor says. “Look, if you’re locked out, just call up to the penthouse later and tell me and I’ll see what I can do. Right now I’ve got to get to class.”
“You’re in school?” Billie says.
“Just taking some classes down at the New School,” Conrad says. “Life drawing. Film studies. I’m working on a novel, but it’s not like that’s a full-time commitment, right?”
Billie is almost sorry to leave the kitchen behind. It’s the first place in New York where she’s been one hundred percent sure she doesn’t have to worry about running into Paul Zell. It isn’t that this is a good thing, it’s just that her spider sense isn’t tingling all the time. Not that Billie has anything that’s the equivalent of spider sense. And maybe room 1584 can also be considered a safe haven now. The room key still works. Someone has remade the bed, taken away the towels and sheets in the bathroom. Melinda’s red sweater and skirt are hanging down over the shower rod. Someone rinsed them out first.
Billie orders room service. Then she decides to set out for Bryant Park. She’ll go watch the chess players, which is what she and Paul Zell were going to do, what they talked about doing online. Maybe you’ll be there, Paul Zell.
She has a map. She walks the whole way. She doesn’t get lost. When she gets to Bryant Park, sure enough, there are some chess games going on. Old men, college kids, maybe even a few superheroes. Pigeons everywhere, underfoot. New Yorkers walking their dogs. A lady yelling. No Paul Zell. Not that Billie would know Paul Zell if she saw him.
Billie sits on a bench beside a trashcan, and after a while someone sits down beside her. Not Paul Zell. A superhero. The superhero from the hotel business center.
“We meet again,” the superhero says. Which serves Billie right.
Billie says, “Are you following me?”
“No,” the superhero says. “Maybe. I’m Lightswitch.”
“I’ve heard of you,” Billie says. “You’re famous.”
“Famous is relative,” Lightswitch says. “Sure, I’ve been on Oprah. But I’m no Tyrannosaurus Hex.”
“There’s a comic book about you,” Billie says. “Although, uh, she doesn’t look like you. Not really.”
“The artist likes to draw the boobs life-sized. Just the boobs. Says it’s artistic license.”
They sit for a while in companionable silence. “You play chess?” Billie asks.
“Of course,” Lightswitch says. “Doesn’t everybody? Who’s your favorite chess player?”
“Paul Morphy,” Billie says. “Although Koneru Humpy has the most awesome name ever.”
“Agreed,” Lightswitch says. “So are you in town for the shindig? Shindig. What kind of word is that? Archeological excavation of the shin. Knee surgery. Do you work with someone?”
“Do you mean, am I a sidekick?” Billie says. “No. I’m not a sidekick. I’m Billie Faggart. Hi.”
“Sidekick. There’s another one. Kick in the side. Pain in the neck. Kick in the shin. Ignore me. I get distracted sometimes.” Lightswitch holds out a hand for Billie to shake, and Billie does. She thinks that there will be a baby jolt maybe, like one of those joke buzzers. But there’s nothing. It’s just an ordinary handshake, except that Lightswitch’s completely solid hand still looks funny, staticky, like it’s really somewhere else. Billie can’t remember if Lightswitch is from the future or the eighth dimension. Or maybe neither of those is quite right.
Two little kids come up and want Lightswitch’s autograph. They look at Billie, as if wondering whether they ought to ask for her autograph, too.
Billie stands up, and Lightswitch says, “Wait a minute. Let me give you my card.”
“Why?” Billie says.
“Just in case,” Lightswitch says. “You might change your mind at some point about the sidekick thing. It isn’t a long-term career, you know, but it’s not a bad thing to do for a while. Mostly it’s answering fan mail, photo ops, banter practice.”
Billie says, “Um, what happened to your last sidekick?” And then, seeing the look on Lightswitch’s face, wonders if this is not the kind of question you’re supposed to ask a superhero.
“Fell off a building. Kidding! That was a joke, okay? Sold her story to the tabloids. Used the proceeds to go to law school.” Lightswitch kicks at a can. “Bam. Damn. Anyway. My card.”
Billie looks, but there’s nobody around to tell her what any of this means. Maybe you’d know, Paul Zell.
Billie says, “Do you know somebody named Paul Zell?”
“Paul Zell? Rings a bell. There’s another one. Ding dong. Paul Zell. But no. I don’t think I do, after all. It’s a business card. Not an executive decision. Just take it, okay?” Lightswitch says. So Billie does.
Billie doesn’t intend to show for Conrad Linthor’s shindig. She walks down Broadway. Gawks at the gawkworthy. Pleasurably ponders a present for her sister, decides discretion is the better part of harmonious family relationships. Caped superheroes swoop and wheel and dip around the Empire State Building. No crime in progress. Show business. Billie walks until she has blisters. Doesn’t think about Paul Zell. Paul Zell, Paul Zell. Doesn’t think about Lightswitch. Pays twelve bucks to see a movie and don’t ask me what movie or if it was any good. I don’t remember. When she comes out of the movie theater, back out onto the street, everything sizzles with lights. It’s Fourth of July bright. Apparently nobody in New York ever goes to bed early. Billie decides she’ll go to bed early. Get a wake-up call and walk down to Port Authority. Catch her bus. Go home to Keokuk and never think about New York again. Stay off FarAway. Concede the chess game. Burn the business card. But: Paul Zell, Paul Zell.
Meanwhile, back to the hotel, Aliss the nemesis has been lying in wait. Actually, it’s more like standing behind a flower arrangement, but never mind. Aliss pounces. Billie, mourning lost love, is easy prey.
“Going to your boyfriend’s party?” Aliss hisses. There’s only one s in that particular sentence, but Aliss knows how to make an s count.
She links arms with Billie. Pulls her into an elevator.
“What party?” Billie says. “What boyfriend?” Aliss gives her a look. Hits the button marked Roof, then the emergency stop button, like she’s opening cargo doors, one, two. Goodbye, cruel, old world. That bomb is going to drop.
“If you mean Conrad Linthor,” Billie says, “That was nothing. In the Starbucks. He just wanted to talk about you. In fact, he gave me this. Because he was afraid he was going to lose it. But he’s planning on giving it to you. Tomorrow, I think.”
She takes out the ring that you left behind, Paul Zell.
Surely you’ve checked the jeweler’s box by now. Seen the ring is gone. Billie found it in the bed sheets that morning when she woke up. Remember? I was wearing it on my big toe. All day long Billie carried it around in her pocket, just like the business card. It didn’t fit her ring finger.
I slipped it on and off, on and off, all day long.
Billie and Aliss both stare at the ring. Both of them seem to find it hard to speak.
Finally: “It’s mine?” Aliss says. She puts her hand out, like the ring’s a cute dog. Not a ring. Like she wants to pet it. “That’s a two-carat diamond. At least. Antique setting. Just explain one thing, please. Why did Conrad give you my ring? You expect me to believe he let some girl carry my diamond ring around all day?”
“Yeah, well, you know Conrad,” Billie says.
“Yeah,” Aliss says. She’s silent for another long moment. “Can I?”
She takes the ring, tries it on her ring finger. It fits. There’s an inappropriate ache in Billie’s throat. Aliss says, “Wow. Just wow. I guess I have to give it back. Okay. I can do that.” She holds up her hand. Drags the diamond along the glass elevator wall, then rubs at the scratch it’s left behind. Then checks the diamond, like she might have damaged it. But diamonds are like the superheroes of the mineral world. Diamonds cut glass. Not the other way around.
Aliss presses the button. The elevator elevates.
“Maybe you should go to the party and I should just go to bed,” Billie says. “I have to catch a bus in the morning.”
“No,” Aliss says. “Wait. Now I’m nervous. I can’t go up there by myself. You have to come with me. Except we can’t act like we’re friends, because then Conrad will suspect something’s up. That I know. You can’t tell him I know.”