I keep my room in the basement locked with a mechanism I installed myself. I built it with a schematic Bergdorf recommended. Bergdorf and associates have their employee benefits. Holly and Ivy may one day refer to me as Bluebeard to their friends, if they ever have friends as well-read as them; if they ever have friends besides each other. Regardless, I’ve never told them not to go in there. I have asked Penny though, and she’s reluctantly agreed. Not without a side comment of it being her house, and therefore her room. She couldn’t solve the lock anyway. There are a few books in there I don’t think would interest the twins very much until they are at least thirteen or fourteen. At fifteen, I definitely don’t want them in there. I expect to be far away by then. I also have a black lacquered wooden box in there Cruz calls my voodoo box, although he has never seen it. He is more or less right. Some of the things in my box are referenced in my books. Some things, in both the box and the books, I don’t understand at all.
Penny would be very annoyed, agitated really, if she knew what was in my room.
Penny and I have the same mom, but different dads. Rather, we had the same mom. We are eleven years apart in age and not as close as we were, once—three, four years ago. We are barely roommates. Death and illness can do that to families already built on fragile foundations. She trusts me with Holly and Ivy, and I believe the only reason is because Holly and Ivy trust me. Intuitively trust me in that curious way they operate. I worry my labors for Bergdorf will eventually disappoint them. Too, I worry how exactly they’ll manifest that disappointment.
Besides the modest bookshelf and voodoo box, I have a twin bed, an end table I use as a nightstand, a stool and a folding card table. My clothes, when clean, are stored in a small built-in closet. I pull the stool up to the voodoo box, sit, and comb through the drawers.
My newly developed aversion to fossils will be overwhelming at the gem and mineral show, so I search the box for a helpful item. I have a piece of lapis on a leather cord, but I won’t be able to tolerate the nausea and I can’t risk the poor decisions involved with being hammered. I have a piece of turquoise on another leather cord, but turquoise is powerful and unpredictable. These things in my box are payment for a contract fulfilled. I’ve yet to default on a contract. There are Marti Gras beads and random token coins, some metal, some plastic. A worn deck of playing cards. A Zippo lighter decorated with a pin-up model. Nothing seems appropriate except for my old standby—a snake rattle. I’m afraid it’s about used up; it looks fake, like dirty, opaque plastic, and it feels the same. I shake it and it still sounds good. I see a cockroach preserved in a little glass vial that I forgot about. There is also a golf tee that looks like it was carved from bone—another item I have forgotten about. I put everything back in the box and lay on my bed. Thinking.
Not thinking as much as thinking about not thinking. The possible severity or benefit of my task always weighs on a complex scale of pulleys and angles and intangible counterweights. This is what I think and try not to think about all the time. Instead I fall into a daze, imagine time passing, second by second, so real I can hear it, until I recognize there is a real timepiece somewhere, a watch, ticking away. And I don’t own a watch.
I open the cabinet in the end table, pushing aside empty beer bottles and half-empty matchbooks, some out-of-date condoms, annoyed by all the junk being in there, and pull out my dad’s valet box. The wooden box itself pulses with the ticking of the watch inside. The ivory carving on the lid, elk in woods, appears to breathe, wind through the tree leaves, blood through the elk’s heart. I haven’t looked in the box since I confiscated it from my aunt. Inside, among many of my father’s other adornments are two pocket watches: one gold, one silver. The silver watch is running. I pick it up and my nose starts to bleed. I hope it won’t actually bleed the entire next day. Everything has a side effect and every remedy issues other side effects. It goes around and around and never ends.
On my way to the gem and mineral show, I stop at Cruz’s Grandma’s place, a corner store with a back row full of remedies, of items for offense and defense. Cruz is working the counter. He says, “How did I miss this?” It’s a joke he makes all the time because people expect psychics to always know what is going to happen.
I’ve only been to the botánica once. My second job for Bergdorf was to get him and his associates a red 14-day candle. At the time, I didn’t know there was anything greater than a 7-day candle, and growing up mostly Jewish, I didn’t know much about 7-day candles anyway. The botánica was the closest to home, and that’s how I met Cruz.
“Yeah, long time no see, eh?”
“You here for a pop? We have buy one get one on Coke products.” He steps out from the counter and leads me to the aisle of candles, herbs and oils, other items.
We stop in front of a section crowded with white paper envelopes decorated with colorful, sometimes creepily blunt, sometimes curiously humorous imagery. Cruz looks me up and down, trying to make a diagnosis, I figure.
I wipe away a tiny droplet of blood and Cruz exclaims, “Oh, bloody nose. I could smell the blood, but then I smell blood all the time. Here.” Without looking, he snatches a packet from the rack. The picture is framed by an overly thorny rosebush, in the middle is a child-like bust holding a white handkerchief to his nose. The child has a shocked look on his face and the blood on the handkerchief is in the shape of a crescent moon.
“What is it?”
“Alum, mostly. Some other stuff.”
“What do I do?”
“Snort it. Like cocaine. You ever done cocaine? You’ve done cocaine.”
“No. I’ve never done cocaine.”
Cruz shrugs. I’m guessing there is probably cocaine in the remedy. New remedy, new side effect.
“This way,” Cruz says. We walk down the rest of the aisle, then all the way across the store to the row of produce and down, turning up the next aisle, and back to the rear of the store, to the office and the receiving door. “Okay,” he says, pushing open the door. “Ciao!”
There is no good public place to snort anything, but the nosebleed is driving me crazy. I also have no good idea how to snort powder. I take a tissue out of my pocket, crispy with blood, and jam it back up my nose.
Parking for the show is free and packed with cars, trucks, and RVs lined this way and that so it seems they were lowered into place instead of driven. I have to park so far away that it may not even be part of the Commerce Center, but a vacant plot of land abutting an abandoned warehouse. I yank the tissue from my nose, wad the clot and stuff it back in my pocket. Tearing open the remedy packet, there is a gentle aroma of rose oil. The powder inside is pure white and fine. Pouring a tiny mound in the palm of my hand, I sigh and then snort it, one nostril and then the other. The bleeding stops instantly and is replaced by sweat, every pore on my body opening and letting go. At the same time, my vision sharpens and my everyday sense of despair is gone. I clean my face and get out of the car.
Admission is also free and, without surprise, the hall is crowded with people. There are rows and rows of display tables welling with specimens. Some vendors advertise with banners and other traditional signage, and some are anonymous, hobbyists liquidating their collections. It’s a spectacle and I think I might not find what I’m looking for as easily as I thought.
The silver watch works and so does the nosebleed powder. I don’t feel the ugly tugging of the fossils, and better yet, I can still hear the buzzing of the creatures in amber, but at a digestible tone.
As crowded as it is, everyone is seeking something particular, just like me. Even the children have dinosaur relics to capture their specific attention. Bypassing a table showcasing jeweler’s tools, and a table for a state park in Arkansas where you can hunt diamonds, the buzzing leads me to the first of many amber dealers. It’s the same across the next two rows; the mosquitos, the spiders, the dragonflies, none of it is what Bergdorf needs.
I’ve stopped counting tables halfway through the fourth row. At a large, six-table exhibit, I overhear haggling as I examine a specimen featuring what I’m told by another patron is a mantis-fly. I like the specimen, but I don’t know what I’d do with it.
The young woman arguing with the dealer is holding what looks like some fist weapon, huge brass knuckles made out of bone. The dealer says, “If I wanted to trade mastodon teeth for shark teeth, I’d trade directly with another dealer.”
“Look,” the woman says, “can we talk about this as professionals?”
“Okay. Okay. How do I even know they’re yours? That you didn’t swipe them from another table?”
“Honestly? Whatever, man. I’m only trying to trade with you because you’re the only guy here with a shit-ton of shark teeth. And, your mastodon teeth suck, anyway, so I’m only trying to help you out.” I look for the exhibit’s mastodon teeth and see only two sets. In my uneducated opinion, they don’t look as good as the woman’s.
“Okay. If you can provide authenticity of the piece, and verify your ownership, we’ll talk. I’ll be here all week.” He hands her a business card.
“Yeah, you’ll be here all week.” She snatches the card from his hand as though he might rescind the offer, and stomps away. I almost walk away myself with the mantis-fly amber still in my hand. A hot trickle of blood reminds me to put the amber back.
Gushing in the men’s room, it looks like someone popped me in the nose, so I hide in a stall, packing my face with cheap, thin toilet paper. I didn’t think to bring the botánica powder with me, or I was ashamed to.
The toilet paper is saturated when I get to my car. It is nearly disintegrated, both plugs melted and not unlike a shed membrane of my own flesh as I blow them from my face into the dirt. This time, I snort two mounds in each nostril. My entire circulatory system wants to burst from my body despite the blood ceasing to pour from my nose. It gives me an uncharacteristic hard-on.
I run back to the exhibition without even noticing, leaping over rope barriers and cutting around cones like a parking lot Olympian, when I notice the young haggler smoking on the steps of the main entrance and slow down. “Hey,” she says, waving with her cigarette.
“Hi,” I return, walking slowly up the stairs and back into the hall. She has a curtain of wavy brown hair framing her face. Her face goes well with the hair. She’s a lot younger than me, but she has that mature air about her, not an old soul, but a concrete impression of experience.
If I could fly, and I feel as though I should be able to, I could find what I sought with the ease of a raptor after prey. And just as easily, I’m called to a curious object. My mind and body fight each other to race to the object, and something else keeps me at pace. Perhaps it is common sense. The table is just like all the others, but not quite. I make my way there causally, in fact, as if by accident, as if a silver watch and tincture of cocaine were not driving me directly there. The proprietor reminds me of Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park, a stereotypical paleontologist complete with pith helmet-style headgear. The banner at his exhibition reads Jurassic Cabin, Morrison CO. His entire display is just that: nothing is for sale, NFS cleanly handwritten on a notecard fronting each relic. Dominating the table is a small triceratops skull—a juvenile, I guess—and a stegosaurus plate, and in between, a few teeth, a claw, and an open binder of photographs.
“Look at that beauty.” I am stunned to see it’s the young female haggler, tapping on a picture in the binder. “Do you ever bring that out?”
Prideful, with his distinctly Coloradan accent, Richard Attenborough says, “Not much blue amber around, is there? And I guarantee—this is the only specimen I know of with an inclusion. So no, I never bring it around anymore.”
“Wow, never?” I can’t see what she is looking at, so I drift in closer. She smells like spice, like holidays. She turns to me, lifting the book and says, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” It’s a full size picture of a blue glob erupting from a hunk of petrified wood. The glob is translucent and at its center is a little polyp with tendrils.
“That’s amazing,” I say, because it is. Service to Bergdorf is complicated, strange and something different than natural.
“What’s your specialty?” she asks me.
“Oh,” I give her my standard reply, “I’m just looking for a gift.”
Her eyebrows arch into a sharp V. “Something special?” she asks. She’s reading me. I can feel it in the powder burning through my veins.
“Well, it’s a gift, so I’d say ‘special’ is an understatement.” There is no point in hiding my task.
She thanks Richard Attenborough and takes my arm in hers, leading down the row. She says, “We’re both ‘special’, aren’t we? I thought you were, but I couldn’t see it at first. Then I could smell you. After you saw the amber. Did you know what you were looking for?”
I answered true. “No,” I said. “Did you?”
“Not exactly.” She gestured with her free hand. “Obviously, I was compelled to this location, this event. But then again, I’m a geology student, so…carrot or stick? It’s funny, isn’t it? How it all works?”
I’ve never met another agent before. I don’t know if they are imbued with the same skills and manners as me; what level of experience they have, and if that has its own rewards; or even how they are tasked. There was so much about this business that was not secret so much as it was unspoken. It was a learn as you go institution. At the same time, it was bound by firm tradition and procedure. So to be partnered up, so abruptly and without counsel, was both alarming and reassuring.
“I didn’t expect the amber to not actually be here. That was a little misleading, right?”
“Really?” she said, letting go of my arm, notching my stress a level up by at least one. “Have things been that easy for you?”
A spool of images reel through my mind so fast I can feel the friction burn on my memory. I think she can smell the searing matter. “Easy is relative,” I answer.
She thinks it’s funny. She smiles wide and I see she is missing both her eye teeth. She is still pretty, and young, and it makes me uncomfortably nervous. She snags my arm again, and drives me out of the Center. She’s strong for such a small frame. She says, “Our work here is done, my friend.” It occurs to me that we have not been introduced.
She leads me by the arm all the way across the parking lot, across the street, through a hotel lobby, to the hotel diner. Over the ten-minute walk, she tells me she’s from Nevada, that the bike she rides she built herself, that gems and fossils kept her from stripping, that she’s part of the Paleo Cult (her words), that she was unfairly fired from Mines; it’s rapid-fire information, casual and intimate, with no follow-up or follow through, as if she was reading off highlights of her life from a deck of notecards.
She orders a double bacon burger, rare, no bun, broccoli instead of fries. I have no appetite, but I’m so thirsty, I ask for two glasses of water, and when I drain them, I feel even more dehydrated. She talks about the gem and mineral show, about the items you can only find in patrons’ hotel rooms, things like paleontological porn zines and sex toys made out of quartz.
“Your turn,” she says when she finally takes a break, tearing into her stack of meat.
“I’m Abe,” I say.
“Honest Abe?” She has trained her top lip to inconspicuously hide her missing teeth, even when she eats. Sharing the spaces with me was a form of identification, a business card.
“That’s me.” I smile awkwardly. Anytime I smile, especially if it’s genuine, is awkward.
“I’m Rayne,” she says, extending a greasy hand. “Just kidding,” she says, picking up a heavily salt and peppered floret with the hand instead.
“Yeah, like a douchey Neil Gaiman character. I know. And no, my parents were not hippies. Just a couple of desert scumbags who had a disastrous moment of cleverness.”
I have no idea who Neil Gaiman is.
“Oh, man, your nose is bleeding.”
Rayne has steamrolled me. I haven’t felt so out of control since I was a boy in Hebrew School.
Dabbing at my nose, I tell her, “Look, what’s happening? I don’t know what’s going on.” My blood on the paper napkin shines.
Rayne rolls her eyes, licking her fingers. “We’re partners now. Orders from headquarters.”
“Your guy, my guy, the board. Neither of us can do it alone.”
“How do you know?” This is so weird. “Why?” I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know if I believe her. I’ve never had an experience like this before.
“You’re a freshman, right? A junior assistant, let’s say. Things are moving quick on this one.” She snaps her fingers. “They’re busy, they can’t counsel every individual secondary. Trust me. We’re on the same team.”
How can I deny it? It makes sense. It all makes sense in a way that has never made sense since Bergdorf first approached me. The intensity of this task has so far exceeded every previous job, and although I have no idea why or to what end—I never do—this task is more than a job, it is a project.
She gets up to use the bathroom. The server refills one of my glasses. I drink it and then drink Rayne’s. Specks of broccoli float in the pink sea of juice on her plate. I wipe my nose as nonchalantly as I can. I wait for, expect, Bergdorf to visit me; in the grease and blood, or from under the table. He doesn’t come. And Rayne doesn’t come back. The server asks if I want anything. “The check, I guess.”
“It was paid by your friend,” he says and walks away. I am surprised by surprises. It is pleasant and a touch revolting to feel that again.
Next: Episode 3, coming December 3