Chapter 10

LOVE, KICKED TO THE CURB

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"You did what?" Lena said, then adding, "And take that bat off your head, it's unnerving to have a hat looking at you like that."

"Like what?" Tuck said.

"Don't change the subject. You blackmailed Theo Crowe?" She was pacing her kitchen. Tuck sat at the counter, wearing a gold oxford-cloth shirt that complemented the bat on his head while accentuating the sea blue of his eyes. The bat, for once, wasn't wearing sunglasses.

"Not really. It was only sort of implied. He'd figured out that I'd been in your ex-husband's truck. He knew. Now he'll just forget it."

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"He may not. He may have some integrity, unlike some people."

"Hey, hey, hey. Let's not point the finger here, my ex is still living well in the Caymans on money that I rightfully stole from an organ-smuggling doctor, while yours, need I remind you  - »

"Dale's death was an accident. Everything since then, all this craziness, has been your doing. You come into my life at the worst possible moment, like you had a plan all along, and things have gone more and more out of control. Now you're blackmailing my friends. Tucker, are you insane?"

"Sure."

"Sure? Just like that? Sure, you're insane?"

"Sure, everyone is. If you think anyone is sane you just don't know enough about them. The key  -  and this is very relevant in our case  -  is to find someone whose insanity dovetails with your own. Like us." He flashed what Lena thought was supposed to be a charming grin, which was somewhat defused by his trying to untangle one of Roberto's wing claws from his hair.

Lena turned from him and leaned against the counter in front of the dishwasher, hoping to steel herself for what she had to do. Unfortunately Tuck had just run a load of dishes and the steam from the vent in front was streaming through her thin skirt and making her feel inappropriately moist for righteous indignation. She spun around with resolve and allowed the dishwasher to steam her backside as she made her pronouncement.

"Look, Tucker, you are a very attractive man..." She took a deep breath on the pause.

"No way. You're breaking up with me?"

"And I do like you, despite the situation  - »

"Oh, right, you don't want to have anything to do with an attractive guy who you like, heaven forbid  - »

"Would you shut up!"

The bat barked at her tone.

"You, too, fur face! Look, in another time and place, maybe. But you're too  -  I'm too  -  you just accept things too easily. I need  - »

"Your anxiety?"

"Would you please let me finish?"

"Sure, go ahead." He nodded. The bat, now on his shoulder, nodded as well. Lena had to look away.

"And your bat is freaking me out."

"Yeah, well, you should have been around when he used to talk."

"Out! Tucker! I need you out of my life. I have too much to deal with  -  you are too much to deal with."

"But the sex, it was great, it was  - »

"I understand if you want to go to the authorities  -  I may even go myself  -  but this just isn't right."

Tucker Case hung his head. Roberto the fruit bat hung his head. Tucker Case looked at the fruit bat, who, in turn, looked at Lena, as if to say, Well, I hope you 're happy, you broke his heart.

"I'll get my stuff," Tuck said.

Lena was crying, and she didn't want to be crying, but she was. She watched Tuck pick up his things around the house and stuff them into a flight bag, wondering how he had spread so much crap around her house in only two days. Men, they were always marking territory.

He paused at the door and looked back. "I'm not going to go to the authorities. I'm just going to go."

Lena rubbed her forehead as if she had a headache but mainly to cover her tears. "Okay, then."

"I'm going, then..."

"Good-bye, Tucker."

"You won't have anyone to sex up under the Christmas tree..."

Lena looked up. "Jeez, Tuck."

"Okay. I'm going now." And he did.

Lena Marquez went into her bedroom to call her friend Molly. Maybe crying over the phone to a girlfriend would bring a sense of normalcy back into her life.

Sour Nerds? Cinnamon Geeks? Or Gummy Boogers? Sam Applebaum's mom was picking out a «nice» reasonably priced Cabernet, and Sam was allowed one item of candy from the rack at Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines. Of course the Boogers would last the longest, but they were all mundane green-apple finish, while the Nerds proffered a fruity variety and an impudent little top note of tang. Cinnamon Geeks had a rich nose and a bit of a bite up front, but their tiny certified-public-accountant shape betrayed their bourgeois origins.

Sam was learning wine words. He was seven and he very much enjoyed unnerving adults with his wine-word vocabulary. Hanukkah had just ended and there had been a lot of dinners at Sam's house over the last week, with a lot of wine talk, and Sam had joyfully freaked out a whole table of his relatives by pronouncing after the blessing that the Manischewitz blackberry (the only wine he was allowed to taste) was a "tannacious little cunt of a red, but not without a certain buttery geranium charm." (He finished dinner in his room over that one  -  but it was tannacious. Philistines.)

"You are one of the Chosen?" said a voice up and to the right of Sam. "I destroyed the Canaanites so your people would have a homeland."

He looked up and saw a man with long blond hair wearing a long black duster. A jolt went through Sam like he'd just licked a battery. This was the guy that had scared his friend Josh so badly. He looked around and saw his mom was in the back of the store with Mr. Masterson, the owner.

"Can I get these with this?" asked the man. He had three candy bars in one hand, and a small silver coin about the size of a dime in the other. The coin looked very old.

"That's a foreign coin. I don't think they take it."

The man nodded thoughtfully and looked very sad at the news.

"But Nestle's Crunch is a fine choice," said Sam, trying to buy time, and keep the guy from going off on him. "A bit naive, but an undergrowth of ambergris and walnut gives it legs."

Sam looked around for his mom again. She was still talking wine with Mr. Masterson, flirting about it  -  Sam could be cut up in pieces and put away in freezer bags and she wouldn't notice. Maybe he could get the guy to leave.

"Look, they aren't looking. Why don't you just take them?"

"I can't," said the blond man.

"Why not?"

"Because no one has told me to."

Oh no. This guy looked like a grown-up, but actually he had the mind of a dumb little kid inside. Like that guy in Sling Blade, or the president.

"Then I'll tell you to, okay?" Sam said. "Go ahead. Take them. You'd better get going, though. It's going to rain." Sam couldn't remember ever talking to an adult like this before.

The blond man looked at his candy bars, then at Sam. "Thank you. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men. Merry Christmas."

"I'm Jewish, remember? We don't celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Hanukkah, the miracle of the lights."

"Oh, that wasn't a miracle."

"Sure it was."

"No, I remember. Someone snuck in and put more oil in the lamp. But I will grant a Christmas miracle tomorrow. I must go." With that, the blond man backed away, hugging his candy bars to his chest. "Shalom, child." And in an instant he was just gone.

"Great!" Sam said. "Just great. Throw that in my face!"

Kendra  -  the Warrior Babe of the Outland, combat mistress of the hot-oil arena, slayer of monsters, menace to mutants, scourge of the sand pirates, sworn protector of the cud-beast herdsmen of Lan, and intramural Blood Champion of the Termite People (mounds seven through twelve inclusive)  -  enjoyed cheese. So it came to pass, on that twenty-third of December, with her noodles wet and congealing in the colander, that she did raise her well-muscled arm to the sky and call the wrath of all the Furies down upon her higher power, Nigoth the Worm God, for allowing her to leave the mozzarella at the Thrifty-Mart checkout counter. But the gods do not concern themselves in the affairs of lasagna, so the sky did not explode with vengeful fire (or at least not that she could see from the kitchen window) to incinerate the mingy god who would dare desert her in her most dire hour of cheese. What happened was nothing at all.

"Curse be unto yon, Nigoth! Would that my blade was not broken, I would track you to the ends of the Outland and sever your thousand and one eyestalks, just to make sure I got your favorite. Then I would feed them raw to the most heinous  - »

Then the phone rang.

"Helloo," Molly sang sweetly.

"Molly?" Lena said. "You sound out of breath. Are you okay?"

"Quick, think of something," said the Narrator, "Don't tell her what you were doing."

The Narrator had been with Molly almost constantly for the last two days, mostly an irritation, except that he had remembered how much oregano and thyme to use in the red sauce. Nevertheless, she knew that he was a sign she needed to get back on her meds ASAP.

"Oh, yeah, I'm fine, Lena. Just buffing the muffin.

You know, gray afternoon, storm coming in, Theo's a mutant  -  I thought I'd cheer myself up."

There was a long silence on the line, and Molly wondered if she'd sounded convincing.

"Completely convincing," said the Narrator. "If I wasn't here, I'd swear you were still doing it."

"You're not here!" Molly said.

"Pardon?" said Lena. "Molly, I can call back if this is a bad time."

"Oh, no, no, no. I'm okay. Just making lasagna."

"I've never heard it called that before."

"For the party."

"Oh, right. How's it going?"

"I forgot the mozzarella. Paid for it, then left it at the check stand." She looked at the three cartons of ricotta sitting on the counter, mocking her. Soft cheeses could be so smug.

"I'll go pick it up and bring it over."

"No!" Molly felt a jolt of adrenaline at the thought that she'd have to push through a long girlfriend session with Lena. Things were getting so blurry between Pine Cove and the Outland. "I mean, it's okay. I can do it. I enjoy cheese  -  shopping for cheese."

Molly heard a sniffle on the other end of the line.

"Mol, I really need to help you with the goddamn lasagna, okay? Really."

"Well, she sounds as nutty as you are," said the Narrator. Molly swatted at the air to shut him up  -  did a finger-to-lip emphatic rocking shush mime. "She's a crisis junkie if I ever saw one."

"I need to talk to someone," Lena said with a sniff. "I broke up with Tucker."

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Lena. Who's Tucker?"

"The pilot I was seeing."

"The guy with the bat? You just met him, didn't you? Take a bath. Eat some ice cream. You've known him two days, right?"

"We shared a lot."

"Cowboy up, Lena. You fucked him and kicked him to the curb. It's not like he stole your design for a coldfusion reactor. You'll be okay."

"Molly! It's Christmas. You're supposed to be my friend."

Molly nodded at the phone, then realized that Lena couldn't hear her. True, she wasn't being a very good friend. After all, she was sworn protector of the cud-beast herdsmen of Lan, as well as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, it was her duty to pretend she cared about her friend's problems.

"Bring the cheese," she said. "We'll be here."

"We?"

"Me. Bring the cheese, Lena."

Theo Crowe showed up at Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines just in time to miss everything. Robert Masterson, the owner of Brine's, had called him as soon as he'd seen the mysterious blond man talking to Sam Applebaum, and Theo had rushed right over, only to find that there was nothing to find. The blond guy hadn't hurt or threatened Sam, and the boy seemed fine, except that he kept babbling about changing his religion and becoming a Rastafarian like his cousin Preston who lived on Maui. Theo realized midway through the interview that he was not the guy to enumerate the reasons why one should not spend his life smoking dope and surfing like Sam's cousin Preston because he: (A) had never learned to surf, and (B) didn't have the foggiest idea how Rastafarianism worked, and (C) would eventually have to use the argument: And look at what a complete loser I am  -  you don't want that for yourself, do you, Sam? He left the scene feeling even more useless than he had after the verbal bitch-slapping he'd taken from the pilot at Lena Marquez's house.

When Theo pulled into his driveway at lunchtime, hoping he might be able to patch things up with Molly and get some sympathy and a sandwich, he saw Lena's truck parked in front of the cabin and his heart sank. He debated shuffling over to the commercial pot patch and smoking a sticky bud before going in, but that sounded an awful lot like the behavior of an addict, and he was simply on a little slide from grace, not a blowout. Still, he came through the door humbled, not sure at all how he was going to handle Lena, who might be a murderer, let alone Molly.

"Traitor!" Molly said from over a pan of noodles she was layering into a pan with sauce, meat, and cheese. She had sauce on her hands up to her elbows and looked like she'd been engaged in some very messy surgery. The back door out of the kitchen had slammed shut as he came in.

"Where's Lena?" Theo said.

"She went out the back. Why, are you afraid she'll reveal your secret?"

Theo shrugged and approached his wife, his arms out to the side in a "gimme a break" gesture. Why was it that when she was angry her teeth looked really sharp? He never noticed that any other time. "Mol, I was just doing it so I could get you something for Christmas  -  I didn't mean to  - »

"Oh, I don't care about that  -  you're investigating Lena. My friend Lena. You just went to her house like she's a criminal or something. It's the radiation, isn't it?"

"There's evidence, Molly. And it's not that I got high. I found fruit-bat hairs in Dale's truck and her boyfriend has a fruit bat. And the little Barker kid said  -  " Theo heard a car start up outside. "I should talk to her."

"Lena wouldn't hurt anyone. She brought me cheese for Christmas, for Christ's sake. She's a pacifist."

"I know that, Molly. I'm not saying that she hurt anyone, but I need to find out  - »

"Besides, some fuckers just need killing!"

"Did she tell you  - »

"I think it's the pot that makes you reveal your mutant self." She had a lasagna noodle in her hand and was waving it at him. It sort of looked like she was shaking a living creature, but then, he was still a little buzzed.

"Molly, what are you talking about, 'my mutant self'? Are you taking your meds?"

"How dare you accuse me of being crazy. That's worse than if you asked me if it was my time of the month, which it isn't, by the way. But I can't believe that you'd imply that I need to be medicated. You mutant bastard!" She flung the noodle at him and he ducked.

"You do need to be medicated, you crazy bitch!" Theo didn't deal well with violence, even in the form of soggy semolina, but after the initial outburst, he immediately lost the will to fight. "I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. Let's just  - »

"Fine!" Molly said. She wiped her hands on a dish towel, then tossed it at him. In dodging it, he felt like he was moving in blurred bullet time in the Matrix, but in truth he was just a tall guy who was a little baked and the towel would have missed him anyway. Molly stomped through the little house, into their bedroom, and dropped to the floor on the far side of the bed.

"Molly, you okay?"

She came up holding a package the size of a shoe box wrapped in Christmas paper with a few dust bunnies clinging to it. She held it out to him. "Here. Take it and go. I don't want to see you, traitor. Go."

Theo was stunned. Was she leaving him? Asking him to leave her? How had this gone so wrong so fast?

"I don't want to go. I'm having a really bad day, Molly. I came home hoping to find a little sympathy."

"Yeah? Okay. Here you go. Aw, poor stoned Theo, I'm so sorry that you have to investigate my best friend the day before Christmas Eve when you could be out playing in an illegal pot patch that looks like the jungle plateau of the gibbon people." She held out his present and he took it.

What the hell was she talking about? "So it is about the victory garden?"

"Open it," she said.

She didn't say a word more. She put a hand on her hip and fixed him with that "I am so going to kick your ass or fuck your brains out" look that excited and terrified him, as he wasn't always sure which way she would go with it, only that she was going to get satisfaction one way or the other and he was going to be sore the next day because of it. It was a Warrior Babe look, and he realized fully, then, that she was having an episode. She probably really was off her meds. This had to be handled just right.

He backed away a few steps and tore the paper off the package. Inside was a white box with the silver seal of a very exclusive local glassblower, and inside that, wrapped in blue tissue, was the most beautiful bong he'd ever seen. It was like something out of the Art Nouveau era, only fashioned from modern materials, blue-green dichromatic glass with ornate silver branches running through it that gave it the appearance of walking through a forest as he turned it in his hand. The bowl and handle, which fit his hand perfectly, appeared to be cast of solid silver with the same organic tree-branch design seeming to leap right out of the glass. This had to have been made just for him, with his tastes in mind. He felt himself tearing up and blinked back the tears. "It's beautiful."

"Uh-huh," Molly said. "So you can see it's not your garden that bothers me. It's just you."

"Molly, I only want to talk to Lena. Her boyfriend threatened to blackmail me. I was only growing  - »

"Take it and go," Molly said.

"Honey, you need to call Dr. Val, maybe see if she'll see you  - »

"Get out, goddammit. You don't tell me to see the shrink. Get out!"

It was no use. Not now, anyway. Her voice had hit the Warrior Babe frenzy pitch  -  he recognized it from the times he'd taken her to the county hospital before they'd become involved as lovers. When she'd just been the town's crazy lady. She'd lose it if he pressed her any more. "Fine. I'll go. But I'll call you, okay?"

She just gave him that look.

"It's Christmas..." One last try maybe.

The look.

"Fine. Your present is on the top shelf in the closet. Merry Christmas."

He dug some underwear and socks out of the drawer, grabbed a few shirts out of the closet, and headed out the front door. She slammed it hard enough behind him to break one of the windows. The glass hitting the sidewalk sounded like a summary of his whole life.

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