Chapter 2

THE LOCAL GIRLS HAVE A WAY ABOUT THEM

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The Warrior Babe of the Outland steered her Honda station wagon down Cypress Street, stopping every ten feet or so for tourists who were stepping into the street from between parked cars, completely oblivious of any automobile traffic. My kingdom for a razor-blade cowcatcher and Cuisinart wheel covers to cut my path through this herd of ignorant peasant meat, she thought. Then: Whoa, I guess I really do need the meds. So she said, "They act like Cypress Street is the midway at Disneyland  -  like no one actually has to use the street to drive on. You guys wouldn't do that, would you?"

She glanced over her shoulder at the two damp teenage boys who were huddled in the corner of the backseat of the car. They shook their heads furiously. One said, "No, Miss Michon, no we'd never. No."

Her real name was Molly Michon, but years ago, as a B-movie queen, she'd done eight movies as Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland. She had a wild mane of blond hair shot with gray and the body of a fitness model. She could pass for thirty or fifty, depending on the time of day, what she was wearing, and how deeply medicated she was. Fans agreed that she was probably somewhere in her early to midforties.

Fans. The two teenage boys in the backseat of the car were fans. They'd made the mistake of taking part of their Christmas break to go to Pine Cove in search of the famed cult-film star, Molly Michon, and get her autograph on their copies of Warrior Babe VI: Revenge of the Savage Skank, just released on DVD, with never-before-seen outtakes of Molly's boobs popping out of her gun-metal bra. Molly had seen them skulking around the outside of the cabin she shared with her husband, Theo Crowe. She'd snuck out the back door and ambushed them on the side of the house with a garden hose  -  sprayed them down good, chased them through the pine forest till the hose reeled out of its cart, then she tackled the taller one and threatened to snap his neck if the other one didn't stop in his tracks.

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Realizing at that point that she might have made a public relations error, Molly invited her fans to come along to help pick out a Christmas tree for the Santa Rosa Chapel Christmas Party for the Lonesome. (She had been making more than a few minor misjudgments lately, as she'd stopped taking her meds a week ago in order to save money for Theo's Christmas present.)

"So, where are you guys from?" she said cheerfully.

"Please don't hurt us," said Bert, the taller, thinner of the two kids (She had been thinking of them as Bert and Ernie  -  not because they really looked like the puppets, but because they had the same relative shapes  -  except for the big hand up their bottoms, of course.)

"I'm not going to hurt you. It's great to have you along. The guys at the Christmas-tree lot are a little wary of me since I fed one of their coworkers to a sea monster a few years ago, so you guys can sort of act as a social buffer." Damn, she shouldn't have mentioned the sea monster. She'd had so many years of obscurity between the time she'd been pushed out of the movie business until the revival to cult status of her movies that she'd lost most of her people skills. And then there was that fifteen-year disconnect with reality when she'd been known as Pine Cove's crazy lady  -  but since she'd hooked up with Theo, and had stayed on her anti-psychotics, things had been a lot better.

She turned into the parking lot of Pine Cove Hardware and Gift, where a half acre of tarmac was corralled off for the Christmas-tree lot. Upon spotting her car, three middle-aged guys in canvas aprons quickstepped their way into the store, threw the bolt, and turned the «Open» sign to CLOSED.

She'd thought this might happen, but she wanted to surprise Theo, prove that she could handle getting the big Christmas tree for the chapel party. Now these narrow-minded minions of Black & Decker were foiling her plans for a perfect Christmas. She took a deep breath and tried to exhale herself into a calm moment as her yoga teacher had instructed.

Well, she did live in the middle of a pine forest, didn't she? Maybe she should just go cut a Christmas tree herself.

"Let's just go back to the cabin, guys I have an ax there that will work."

"Noooooooo!" screamed Ernie as he reached across his damp friend, threw the latch on the Honda's door, and rolled them both out of the moving car into a pallet of plastic reindeer.

"Okay, then," Molly said, "you guys take care. I'll just see if I can cut a tree out of the front yard." She swung around in the parking lot and headed back home.

Slick with sweat, Lena Marquez slid out of her Santa suit like a baby lizard emerging from a fuzzy red egg. The temperature had risen into the high seventies before she'd finished her shift at the Thrifty-Mart, and she was sure she'd probably lost five pounds in water in the heavy suit. Wearing only her bra and panties, she padded into the bathroom and jumped on the scale to enjoy the surprise bonus weight loss. The disk spun and settled on her usual preshower weight. Perfect for her height, light for her age, but dammit, she'd fought with her ex, been pounded with ice, rang out good cheer for the less fortunate, and endured the jolly heat of the Santa suit for eight hours, she deserved something for her efforts.

She took off her bra and panties and hopped back on the scale. No discernible difference. Dammit! She sat, peed, wiped, and jumped back on the scale. Maybe a third of a pound below normal. Ah! she thought, brushing her beard aside so she could read the scale more clearly, this could be the problem. She pulled off the white beard and Santa hat, flung them into the nearby bedroom, shook out her long black hair, and waited for the scale to settle.

Oh yeah. Four pounds. She did a quick Tae Bo kick of celebration and stepped into the shower. She winced as she soaped up, hitting a sore spot there by her solar plexus. There were a couple of purple bruises developing on her ribs where the ice bag had hit her. She'd had more pain after doing too many crunches at the gym, but this pain seemed to shoot on through to her heart. Maybe it was the thought of spending Christmas alone.

This would be her first since the divorce. Her sister, whom she'd spent the last few Christmases with, was going with her husband and the kids to Europe. Dale, total prick that he was, had involved her in all sorts of holiday activities from which she was now excluded. The rest of her family was back in Chicago, and she hadn't had any luck with men since Dale  -  too much residual anger and mistrust. (He hadn't just been a prick, he had cheated on her.) Her girlfriends, all of them married or paired up with semipermanent boyfriends, told her that she needed to be single for a while, spend some time getting to know herself. That, of course, was total bullshit. She knew herself, liked herself, washed herself, dressed herself, bought herself presents, took herself out on dates, and even had sex with herself from time to time, which always ended better than it used to with Dale.

"Oh, that get-to-know-yourself stuff will send you full-blown batshit," said her friend Molly Michon. "And believe me, I am the uncrowned queen of batshit. Last time I really got to know myself it turned out there was a whole gang of bitches in there to deal with. I felt like the receptionist at a rehab center. They all had nice tits, though, I gotta say. Anyway, forget that. Go out and do stuff for someone else. That's much better for you. 'Get to know yourself'  -  what good is that? What if you get to know yourself and find out you're a total harpy? Sure, I like you, but you can't trust my judgment. Go do something for other people."

It was true. Molly could be  -  uh, eccentric, but she did make sense occasionally. So Lena had volunteered to man the Salvation Army kettle, she'd collected canned food and frozen turkeys for the Pine Cove Anonymous Neighbors food drive, and tomorrow night, as soon as it got dark, she was going to go out and collect live Christmas trees and drop them off at the homes of people who probably wouldn't be able to afford them. That should take her mind off herself. And if it didn't work, she'd spend Christmas Eve at the Santa Rosa Chapel Party for the Lonesome. Oh God, there it was. It was Christmastime, and she was in the Christmas spirit  -  she was feeling lonesome.

To Mavis Sand, the owner of the Head of the Slug saloon, the word lonesome rang like the bell on a cash register. Come Christmas break, Pine Cove filled up with tourists seeking small-town charm, and the Head of the Slug filled up with lonesome, disenfranchised winners seeking solace Mavis was glad to serve it up in the form of her signature (and overpriced) Christmas cocktail, the Slow Comfortable Screw in the Back of Santa's Sleigh, which consisted of  -  "Well, fuck off if you need to know what's in it," Mavis would say. "I'm a professional bartender since your daddy flushed the condom that held your only hope of havin' a brain, so get in the spirit and order the goddamn drink."

Mavis was always in the Christmas spirit, right down to the Christmas-tree earrings that she wore year-round to give her that "new-car smell." A sheaf of mistletoe the size of a moose head hung over the order station at her bar, and throughout the season, any unsuspecting drunk who leaned too far over the bar to shout his order into one of Mavis's hearing aids would find that beyond the fluttering black nylon whips of her mascara-plastered pseudo lashes, behind the mole with the hair and the palette knife-applied cakes of Red Seduction lipstick, past the Tareyton 100s breath and the clacking dentures, Mavis still had some respectable tongue action left in her. One guy, breathless and staggering toward the door, claimed that she had tongued his medulla oblongata and stimulated visions of being choked in Death's dark closet  -  which Mavis took as a compliment.

About the same time that Dale and Lena were having their go-round down at the Thrifty-Mart, Mavis, perched on her stool behind the bar, looked up from a crossword puzzle to see the most beautiful man she'd ever lain eyes on coming through Slug's double doors. What had once been a desert bloomed down under; where for years lay a dusty streambed, a mighty river did now flow. Her heart skipped a beat and the defibrillator implanted in her chest gave her a little jolt that sent her sluicing electric off her bar stool to his service. If he ordered a wallbanger she'd come so hard her tennis shoes would rip out from the toe curl, she knew it, she felt it, she wanted it. Mavis was a romantic.

"Can I help you?" she asked, batting her eyelashes, which gave the appearance of spastic wolf spiders convulsing behind her glasses.

A half-dozen daytime regulars who had been sitting at the bar turned on their stools to behold the source of that oily courtesy  -  there was no way that voice had come out of Mavis, who normally spoke to them in tones of disdain and nicotine.

"I'm looking for a child," said the stranger. He had long blond hair that fanned out over the rain flap of a black trench coat. His eyes were violet, his facial features both rugged and delicate, finely cut and yet with no lines of age or experience.

Mavis tweaked the little knob on her right hearing aid and tilted her head like a dog who has just bitten into a plastic pork chop. Oh, how the pillars of lust can crumble under the weight of stupidity. "You're looking for a child?" asked Mavis.

"Yes," said the stranger.

"In a bar? On a Monday afternoon? You're looking for a child?"

"Yes."

"A particular child, or will just any child do?"

"I'll know it when I see it," said the stranger.

"You sick fuck," said one of the daytime regulars, and Mavis, for once, nodded in agreement, her neck vertebrae clicking like a socket wrench.

"Get the hell out of my bar," she said. A long, lacquered fingernail pointed the way back out the door. "Go on, get out. What do you think this is, Bangkok?"

The stranger looked at her finger. "The Nativity is approaching, am I correct?"

"Yeah, Christmas is Saturday." Mavis growled. "The hell does that have anything to do with anything?"

"Then I'll need a child before Saturday," said the stranger.

Mavis reached under the bar and pulled out her miniature baseball bat. Just because he was pretty didn't mean he couldn't be improved by a smack upside the head with a piece of earnest hickory. Men: a wink, a thrill, a damp squish, and before you knew it it was time to start raising lumps and loosening teeth. Mavis was a pragmatic romantic: love  -  correctly performed, she believed  -  hurts.

"Smack 'im, Mavis," cheered one of the daytime regulars.

"What kind of perv wears an overcoat in seventy-five-degree weather?" said another. "I say brain him."

Bets were beginning to be exchanged back by the pool table.

Mavis tugged at an errant chin hair and peered over her glasses at the stranger. "Think you might want to move your little search on down the road some?"

"What day is it?" asked the stranger.

"Monday."

"Then I'll have a diet Coke."

"What about the kid?" asked Mavis, punctuating the question by smacking the baseball bat against her palm (which hurt like hell, but she wasn't going to flinch, not a chance).

"I have until Saturday," said the beautiful perv. "For now, just a diet Coke  -  and a Snickers bar. Please."

"That's it," Mavis said. "You're a dead man."

"But, I said please," said Blondie, missing the point, somewhat.

She didn't even bother to throw open the lift-away through the bar but ducked under it and charged. At that moment a bell rang, and a beam of light blasted into the bar, indicating that someone had come in from outside. When Mavis stood back up, leaning heavily on her back foot as she wound up to knock the stranger's nads well into the next county, he was gone.

"Problem, Mavis?" asked Theophilus Crowe. The constable was standing right where the stranger had been.

"Damn, where'd he go?" Mavis looked around behind Theo, then back at the daytime regulars.

"Where'd he go?"

"Got me," they said, a chorus of shrugs.

"Who?" asked Theo.

"Blond guy in a black trench coat," said Mavis. "You had to pass him on the way in."

"Trench coat? It's seventy-five degrees out," said Theo. "I'd have noticed someone in a trench coat."

"He was a perv!" someone shouted from the back.

Theo looked down at Mavis. "This guy flash you?"

Their height difference was nearly two feet and Mavis had to back up a step to look him in the eye. "Hell no. I like a man who believes in truth in advertising. This guy was looking for a child."

"He told you that? He came in here and said he was looking for a kid?"

"That's it. I was just getting ready to teach him some  - »

"You're sure he hadn't lost his kid? That happens, Christmas shopping, they wander away  - »

"No, he wasn't looking for a particular kid, he was just looking for a kid."

"Well, maybe he wanted to be a Big Brother or Secret Santa or something," said Theo, expressing a faith in the goodness of man for which he had little to no evidence, "do something nice for Christmas."

"Goddammit, Theo, you dumbfuck, you don't have to pry a priest off an altar boy with a crowbar to figure out that he's not helping the kid with his Rosary. The guy was a perv."

"Well, I should probably go look for him."

"Well, you probably oughta should."

Theo started to turn to go out the door, then turned back. "I'm not a dumbfuck, Mavis. There's no need for that kind of talk."

"Sorry, Theo," said Mavis, lowering her baseball bat to show the sincerity of her contrition. "Why was it you came in, then?"

"Can't remember." Theo raised his eyebrows, daring her.

Mavis grinned at him. Theo was a good guy  -  a little flaky but a good guy. "Really?"

"Nah, I just wanted to check with you on the food for the Christmas party. You were going to barbecue, right?"

"I was planning on it."

"Well, I just heard on the radio that there's a pretty good chance of rain, so you might want to have a backup plan."

"More liquor?"

"I was thinking something that wouldn't involve cooking outdoors."

"Like more liquor?"

Theo shook his head and started toward the door. "Call me or Molly if you need any help."

"It won't rain," said Mavis. "It never rains in December."

But Theo was gone, out on the street looking for the trench-coated stranger.

"It could rain," said one of the daytime regulars. "Scientists say we could see El Niño this year."

"Yeah, like they ever tell us until after half the state has washed away," said Mavis. "Screw the scientists."

But El Niño was coming.

El Niño. The Child.

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