Chapter 1

It started with parties and ended in blood. I’m not a violent woman–who would have thought it would end in blood? Maybe it started on Helena Street. If you go back that far, maybe the blood makes sense.

Helena Street was where I was born and raised: a thousand feet of narrow, broken, asphalt that we called Hell Alley. It ran from Market Street to the service entrance of 63 Andriot, a block of condominiums, overpriced for the upper class. We were a century into the New World Order, and a quick flip through a history book showed a pretty familiar picture. The Haves did, do, and always will; the Have-Nots didn’t, don’t, and won’t. Helena Street was for Have-Nots.

“Connie!” my mother would call me in that fingernails-on-chalkboard voice: part panic and part rage. “Cornelia Phelan! You get home!”

I would grin and roll my eyes at my grade-school cronies and give them a slow wave. I’d stroll across the street and up the three feet of “walk” between the pavement and our front porch. When I got into the house, Mom would pinch my shoulder between her thumb and her fingers and shake me hard enough to make my head whip back and forth on my neck.

“Your Daddy will be here any minute and just look at the mess you left me. You expect me to do it all myself? I count on you, girl, and you let me down!”

It didn’t do any good asking Mom what she’d been doing all day when I’d been at school–she didn’t have a job–not one listed on the National Register, anyway–or why she counted on an eight-year-old to do her work for her. That just would have made her wild, and Daddy would have asked where I’d gotten a split lip, and I’d have had to dodge to keep from getting another one from him. One thing you had to say for my folks–they had the spirit of stick-together, those two.

So, we’d get the house picked up in time, and Mom would open a couple of cans of stew and put a plate of bread and a tub of margarine on the table and a six-pack of beer for them and a Big Red for me. Daddy would come home with beer already on his breath and kiss us both and drop his shirt on the floor and we’d partake of our gracious family meal. Afterwards, I’d go out back and play on my rusty swing-set, left over from the last family who’d lived in our particular rat-hole, and I’d kick the back fence as I swung forward and try not to kick the wall of the house as I swung back. Low profile–that was the ticket.

We shared the Alley with rats and other assorted vermin. We dodged pimps, pushers, and gangs. When we got old enough, some of us entered one or more of these bands. I never did. Just wasn’t a joiner, I guess.

Hell Alley consumed most of the kids I grew up with, but it was the making of me. Insult humor–Slapping, in our lingo–was very big in Hell Alley. I was good at Slapping.

A guy would say, “Hey, Girl! Good Girl! Come here and let me tell you something!”

And I would say something like, “If I was as good as you are ugly, I could work a miracle. What I’d do is turn your face inside out so nobody but you would have to look at it.”

And so on.

~*~

Slapping was only one of our favorite sports. Another was going to church. Mom and Daddy didn’t go to church; up too late Saturday to see much of Sunday. That’s how it was with a lot of the kids. My Aunt Bootsie–a sister of my Mom’s–used to drive down to the Alley in her purple electric mini-van and cram it full of us half-washed sinners. She’d take us to St. Philemon’s Cathedral uptown, near her two-story shotgun house, and line us up in the front pew where she could keep an eye on us from the choir. Afterwards, she took us to Joe and Sinkers for doughnuts and then back to Helena Street. I’d go in and see if Mom and Daddy were up yet. If they were, she’d come in and visit. They usually weren’t, and she’d go home.

We’d go through St. Philemon’s hymnals looking for material to use in another of our games. We’d get a packing crate or an appliance box out of the big dumpster behind 63 Andriot, do one-potato to choose a kid to be “it,” put the kid in the box, and sing one of those hymns. Then we’d cheer and dance around for a while and sit down and eat whatever cookies or chips we’d scrounged for the game.

Our favorite hymn was “Flesh is My Portion.” You know:

Flesh is my portion, blood is my cup,

Through these, Life is mine.

At this, Your feast, I eat and I sup

Flesh and blood Divine.

The grown-ups would all beam and say, “Ain’t it cute, the kids playing church like that? Baptism and communion and everything?”

They never caught on. We were playing Cannibal.

~*~

Every school has its pecking order, and the Alley kids were at the bottom of ours. People who talk about how children have to be taught bigotry have never been sent to school wearing the Wrong Clothes or, in our case, uniforms made out of the Wrong Material. Now and then, one of us would get fed up and fight back, and it was usually me. I don’t like being stepped on, and I don’t like people stepping on my friends. For the purpose of argument, everybody who got stepped on was automatically, if temporarily, my friend.

Like I said, I’m not a violent woman, and I wasn’t a violent kid. I slapped with words, when the choice was left to me. Some people have no sense of humor, though: if it wasn’t some upscale moron taking a swing at me when she couldn’t think of a comeback, it was a teacher shaving points off my grade because I participated in class discussion “not in a way conducive to the learning experience.” I got sent to the principal’s office so often, they printed me up a permanent hall pass. I kept it in my wallet, in one of those plastic pockets you’re supposed to use for pictures.

By the time I left fifth grade, the name Cornelia Phelan meant something: Troublemaker.

Middle school was better. Playing hooky and pitching bull weren’t listed in the curriculum but, as they say, “We learn by doing.”

I mean, being class clown is fun, but it doesn’t pay anything, and I was tired of being poor. Not ashamed of it–tired of it. So I started cutting classes one or two days a week and taking the El into the city, telling jokes on street corners for the tag ends of credit books. I did all right. Tag ends add up. I opened a bank account. Got a job walking dogs at 63 Andriot to cover where the credits were coming from.

Then, one day, when I was hitting on all cylinders on the corner by the Milky Way Chili Parlor, there stood Aunt Bootsie.

I had outgrown church about the same time I’d outgrown Cannibal, but I’d seen Aunt Bootsie every Sunday when she’d come for her weekly load.

Now she just stood there, looking at me, her arms crossed, her eyes half-closed.

My tongue seized up on me and my wits froze and I closed my mouth and stared back at her.

“I’m taking you home. I’ll call in to my office from there and tell them I’m taking half a personal day today. It’s time I had a talk with your parents.”

“About me cutting school? They don’t care.”

I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. Had to be a low sperm count, it sure wasn’t abstinence, and nothing was planned in my family. Mom and Daddy were their own pack of brats.

“I want the girl,” was what Aunt Bootsie had to say. “Either she comes with me, or I see to it that you both do time for neglect.”

“The gummint talk big,” Daddy said, “but they don’t care–”

“I do. I’ll see to it. You know I will.”

Mom and Daddy acted like they were thinking it over, but they were glad enough to see me go. Sure, they’d have to clean up after themselves and get their own meals, but they wouldn’t have to spend any money on me, probably wouldn’t report I was gone so they could still claim the tax credit, and they wouldn’t have my existence reminding them that they were supposed to be responsible adults.

“Don’t nobody ask my opinion!” I remember saying.

“That’s right, nobody’s asking your opinion!” Daddy said. “This is for grown-ups to decide.”

“I see one,” I said, pointing to Aunt Bootsie.

The old man gave me a black eye, but it was the last one he ever gave me, and I bloodied his nose for him while we were at it. So….

I packed my things in a couple of grocery bags and climbed into Aunt Bootsie’s purple van.

I never saw Mom and Daddy again. Never heard from them, never looked for them. Sometimes I wonder when and how they died. They must be dead, or they’d have touched me for money by now.

~*~

Aunt Bootsie bored holes in my head with fossilized maxims and poured in some sense. She drove me to school and dragged me to Mass. She made me take some business courses in high school, but I always told her I’d never work a permanent job in an office. I didn’t, either. The Friday night after I graduated from Day High, when my little schoolmates were drinking themselves green at the Prom and driving onto other people’s lawns, I did my first routine in a comedy club.

I got asked back. I got asked back with pay. I worked my way up from low joint to trendy dive to nightclub to cabaret. I wasn’t any household word, but I was working steady, and doing what I liked.

Twenty-one, and still Slapping. I Slapped ’em upside the head, and the harder I hit, the more they pulled their hair out of the way and drew targets on their cheeks.

One of those “talent hunt” shows caught my act and put me on worldwide holovision. I clicked.

TerraNet signed me to play the wise-cracking waitress on that comedy about the space station diner, PIE IN THE SKY. I took that show away from the guy who was supposed to be the star; I ate him up alive.

So TerraNet gave me my own show, and I buried anybody the other nets put against me, and I was In.

At least, I thought I was In. Then I went to my twenty-year class reunion. I was the only one of the Alley rats who showed up; maybe I was the only one who made good.

That was okay with me; it wasn’t the Alley rats I wanted to crow over, it was the classier-than-thou cliquesters. I mean, I was pulling down major credits, dictating contract terms to one of the Big Three nets; I figured I had some ego-strokes coming from the knew-me-when kids.

No. They weren’t going to give me that. They were doctors, lawyers, professors, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, and other such high-powered types.

“Still clowning around?”

“Rough life–ha ha!”

“I was just telling my husband–” marriage had recently become trendy, “–what good friends we were in high school, how I took you under my wing, and all that.”

And I said, “The only time I remember you taking me under your wing was the time I said, ‘If you had to rely on your memory instead of your ability to read at a distance, you’d never pass a test,’ and you got me in that headlock–”

Not the success I had planned. I stayed long enough to collect some new ammunition, and got a little of my own back before we called it a wrap, but I was given the old school set-down, and we all knew it.

I needed to tell Aunt Bootsie about it, and get some down-home, hard-nosed advice. I called her house, and a neighbor answered.

She was crying. Aunt Bootsie was dead.

“Those people you sent to clean her gutters? You know how she was–she sent them away and climbed up there herself. She fell off the ladder. She seemed all right, just a little dizzy; I helped her in and called the ambulance. She died before they got here. Last thing she said was, ‘I’m not as young as I used to be.'”

She had never let me do a thing to pay her back; not a house, not a car, not a coat, not a thing. She left me what little she had. I donated it all to the church. By the time the media got through sanctifying me, I wished I had torched it.

~*~

And now come the parties.

TerraNet threw one for my second Top of the Net award. Everybody had been invited, and everybody brought somebody.

Lester Mayrick, assigned by the studio to ride herd on me, kept busy reminding me of names I hadn’t forgotten.

Some names, though, were new to me, and some of them had Lester overawed.

“Socialites,” he whispered. “You know, with a capital S. The Good Society.”

“The which?”

“The Good Society. Very exclusive.”

“Oh, yes. They go to nightclubs and the management lets them say who gets in and who doesn’t. This is that bunch?”

“Yesssss.”

“So what’s so ‘Good’ about them? They sponsor a charity or something?”

“The Good Society is what the press calls them, dearest. They don’t call themselves anything; they don’t have to.”

“Money, money, money?”

“Some of them, yes.”

“Socially prominent?”

“Some. One of them’s a countess. They don’t have to be rich, though, or important, or anything else. If they’re in with that group, they’re Something, just because they’re in with that group.”

“Oh, really? And how does one get in?”

“They let ‘one’ in, I guess.”

“Well, did you ever,” I said. “How too, too utterly divine.”

Lester shook his head. “Are you just trying to be different, or do you mean to tell me you aren’t impressed, being in the same room with these people?”

“Can these people get me canned?”

“No.”

“Then I’m not impressed. –Who’s that with the bones? Her face looks familiar, but I haven’t seen a skeletal structure like that outside of the Smithsonian.”

“Shhhhhhh! That’s Marissa.”

“Who?”

“Marissa! Marissa del Hueso. ‘The Face.'”

“Ohhh. No wonder she looks familiar.” I’d seen that face done in everything from enameled copper to mashed potatoes, and on everything but the sides of milk cartons. It was a well-built face–over-built, I might even say–olive-colored, heart-shaped, strong cheekbones, big amber eyes, full lips. But it was small and closed–a face like a fist, if you want to know what I think of it. It was worth a million credits–since her press agent had insured it for that amount.

Notice he didn’t insure her body. Marissa had the frame of a rhinoceros. She kept herself thin, but that hardly helped: everywhere she took off a pad of fat, she exposed a lump of bone. She was Marissa, so it really didn’t matter, don’t you know.

“She’s supposed to be some kind of classic beauty, right?”

“Not ‘supposed to be.’ She is. The world’s top artists– photographers–what-have-yous–line up to beg her to model for them.”

“I would have guessed battle tank engineers.”

“Stop it, Connie. This is great! Studio’s getting fabulous pictures for the prospectus–Marcus Vadny’s here, too.”

Even I had heard of him. “An actual, certified, card-carrying zillionaire playboy? At my party? What is he, slumming?”

“Well, yes. They all are. They don’t mix much with ordinary people.”

“Geez, I’m surprised they didn’t come in sterile bubbles.” Something was cooking inside me. It was just on the boil; the sound it made was, “This is my party,” but it smelled like, “In with that group.”

“So,” I said to Lester. “You know who they are; you know who I am.” I batted my eyelashes. “Introduce me.”

“Oh, no. Not I. You just snicker at them from afar, like a good little peasant, and don’t make your Uncle Lester blush.”

“Sure. Okay.”

I waited until Lester detached himself from me for a minute, and I drifted over to Marissa del Hueso. Something was going to give, here; even in Hell Alley, we had enough manners to come say hello to the guest of honor, and none of these people had even looked at me. They were going to look at me, now.

“Hiya Face,” I said. “Having a good time?”

“Lovely,” she said, her “classically beautiful” face immobile. “I’m so sorry I can’t stay longer.”

The dear little fairy–I’d frightened her away with my rough, peasant manner.

“Just dropped in on your way to somewhere else?”

“Yes.”

“Well, great, I’m glad you did. This party needs some class. Say, have a beer before you go. –Hey, Lester! Let’s have a beer over here for The Face!”

Marissa turned red, and then … she started to giggle.

It surprised me, but I’m not a pro for nothing. “Come on, Lester,” I said, “get the lead out!”

Lester brought a splash of beer in a sherry glass, and avoided my eye as he handed it over.

Marissa took her beer and tossed it off. Everyone applauded. She loved it.

And I found myself invited for a weekend cruise aboard Marcus Vadny’s yacht. Not invited by Marcus Vadny, worse luck, but by the group in general.

I accepted.

~*~

This was after my Aunt Bootsie died, of course. Aunt Bootsie would have said, “Put it in tin, or put it in gold with diamonds on it–look at it close. If it’s trash, it’s trash.”

But Aunt Bootsie was dead, so I went on the yacht. I didn’t kid myself; I knew I was there as a novelty, and because I had made Marissa laugh. I made ’em laugh on the yacht, too. I was invited to two weeks in Hanna Hobbs’ island villa off the coast of Uruguay. After that, they took me for a month of skiing in the Altai Mountains.

It was a kick, at first. Then it was a goal. I was with them, but I wasn’t one of them any more than a poodle is a pet owner just because he’s at a dog show. And I wanted to be one of them. I deserved it. I wasn’t a “good little peasant”–I wasn’t any kind of a peasant at all. I was Cornelia Phelan, and I was as good as anybody. That nagging little voice telling me that “trash is trash” got a pat on the head and a patronizing smile.

I learned the Inner Circle’s names and relative status quos, and the hooks that held them in place. Jocelyn Demmarie: she composed and sang intimate little songs, accompanied herself on her Yamaha Lasernova, and never performed publicly, only for friends. Hurst Sandbourne: He had written one book ten years earlier that was so–I believe the word is “dense”–that several careers and a small industry were based on trying to figure out what the book had meant. He was always “working on” another, but it had never materialized. Ivor DePere, who made obscene amounts of money ruining good paint and canvas. Zizi Takana, CEO of GreenSink, Inc. Hannah Hobbs, ex-wife of three entertainment moguls. Rula Urka, Lester’s countess. Marissa, The Face, the Queen Bee of them all.

And Darryl. Darryl Moran. He’d been a poor boy on a token scholarship when he’d started selling free-lance art criticism to small presses and local papers. He’d known his business, and he’d become a Power in the art world. That was when he’d started using his reviews as sticks and carrots. He had never said anything good about Ivor, which was a point in his favor. Of course, Ivor was bullet-proof–he could sell a nosebleed if he signed it–so it hardly mattered.

I despised Darryl for the way he trashed something precious: the respect of people who trusted his judgment. And then there was the way he treated his so-called “lover,” Honey Clayton. True, she begged for abuse, as long as it came from him, but that didn’t excuse him for obliging her.

He was 5’8″, wiry, with fine glossy hair and skin the color of bitter chocolate. His eyes were as black as the Pit, his lips were thin and wine-colored, his nose was long and narrow. He thought he was hypnotically handsome. So did Honey. I thought he was a low-down, sadistic, rat-faced, overrated, self-important lump of digestive waste.

I took against him the minute I saw the round-headed weasel. The first words he’d said to me were, “I don’t watch much holovision, but I saw your show last week. Then I remembered why I don’t watch much holovision.”

I had answered, “Write it down, so you won’t forget again. If you ever developed an artistic sense, it could ruin your career as a critic.”

But, he was one of Them, and I put up with him and bided my time, intent on getting above him on Status Mountain, and rolling a few rocks his way.

In the meantime, I was holding my own; not one of the Inner Circle, but not a flunky, either. That took strategy and diplomacy, a little soft soap, and a sure hand at targeting my Slaps where they’d do me the most good.

~*~

The last thing I was looking for was a “bes’ frien'” to give me big-eyed disappointed looks while I worked. That’s what I got, though, and a more unlikely pal I could not have imagined.

It was Lester’s countess, Rula Urka, who introduced me to Jackie. I had won a couple of performance awards, and the Good Society had granted me something like Most Favored Minion status. The countess was particularly adept at dealing out treats like the Herringmaster at SeaWorld.

“I hope you take no offense, Connie,” the countess said one day, “but–who dresses you?”

“Who dresses me? Well, Nanny used to do it, but she was hitting the bottle, and we had to let her go. What do you mean, who dresses me?”

“Who has the dressing of you? Or are you buying your wardrobe … in the stores?”

The way she said it made it sound like, “Do you pick your clothes out of the garbage?”

“Well, in the stores, yeah,” I said. “Golly, you can get some really neat stuff at the Goodwill.”

Understand, I dressed nice. I dressed very nice. I paid plenty, and I was considered a fashion plate in most of the company I kept.

The countess nodded, as if my joke had confirmed a suspicion and said, “I am on my way to see Jackie. I will take you with me. Jackie Eastman. You will have heard of him, of course–of his public businesses–but this is something quite different. We do not go to the Jackie Eastman Fashion Outlet.” Rula smiled at the thought. “We do not go to Eastman’s in New York City. He is here, in this city, now, at the Tarlton Hotel, in the Lindauer Suite on the twentieth floor. Someone has phoned me, to let me know, and I have agreed to an appointment. My measurements, Jackie has by heart. He will take yours, ask you questions, and he will undertake the dressing of you.”

A young woman of twenty or so let us into Jackie’s suite. She greeted both of us by name. She smiled and said, “The countess is a dear and valued customer, and everyone knows Cornelia Phelan.”

I pointed at her. “You,” I said, “get a tip.”

“Jackie’s in the other room,” she said. “Through there.”

I expected Jackie Eastman to be a slim and sensitive gentleman with artificial waves in his hair. When I saw the real Jackie, sitting on the couch, scribbling on a 26 X 30 pad of newsprint, I thought he was the cutter. He was fat, fortyish, and funny-looking; about 5’7″, white as a beached fish, with a fringe of dark hair around a flat and freckled top. His eyes were brown and warm, but too close together. His nose was small but blobby. His tongue was too large for his mouth; it made his jaw look loose and his lips look soft and, I learned when he spoke to the countess, it gave him the slightest lisp. He had one of those 80mm “good tobacco” cigarettes burning in an ashtray on the coffee table. The ashtray was full of stubs.

He threw down his pad and came over to us. “Countess! Who’ve you brought me?”

I run into a lot of people who like to pretend they’re so out of the mainstream they don’t even know the year, much less who I am. When they turn that phony blank look on me, I have this urge to paint graffiti on it with my nails. Jackie’s look wasn’t blank, though; it was brassy.

The girl who’d answered the door said, “It’s Cornelia Phelan, Jackie. She’s been on HV for years. She’s very funny.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Jackie,” said Rula, with heavy impishness, “these girls, they get younger all the time. You should be ashamed.”

“Why? –Oh, I get it. Countess, shame on you. You should have your mind washed out with soap. Mina, do I make passes?”

The young woman laughed and patted Jackie’s arm. “He says he likes his women all grown up.”

“I’m a saint,” Jackie said. He retrieved his pad and pencil. “Now, let’s do business.”

Rula chose some fabric and some designs for herself, and left. I was instructed to stay, to be measured by Mina and questioned by Jackie about my tastes and needs and so on. It was like being interviewed and groped simultaneously. The attempt had been made before, so I recognized the similarity.

The truth is, although Mina tried to put me at ease, and Jackie was as common as an old shoe, service this personal seemed unnatural to me, and it was obvious, and it put my back up.

When we were finished, I said, “Now I have a question: How much is this bag of rags going to cost me?”

Jackie lit a cigarette. “That depends on what you’re willing to pay.”

“I’m willing to pay something, I’m no cheapskate, but a dress is a dress, no offense.”

“I’m not offended.” Jackie picked up a pencil and began sketching something with swift, light strokes. “Nobody is going to send you a bill.”

“What is it, a free will offering?”

“The countess is taking care of it.”

“She is?”

“Enjoy it while it lasts.”

My stomach clenched and my fists kept it company. “You think it won’t last?”

“Like I said, that depends on what you’re willing to pay for it. They pick you up, they put you down.”

“Maybe,” I said, “and maybe not.”

“That’s right. And you know what it is that you can’t put down once you pick it up?”

“Yeah, I know. That’s not what I mean. I’m no parasite. You send me a bill. I only asked what it would be, that’s all. You send me a bill for all of this, you hear?”

He didn’t. When I came in for my first fitting, he told me everything had been taken care of. I asked how much; he wagged a finger at me and said it was rude to ask the price of a gift. I told him I wanted to buy an exact copy of everything for my evil twin; he laughed. I wrote him out a check for more than I thought the stuff could possibly be worth; he donated it to UNICEF in my name.

Finally, he said, “The Fashion Outlet has prices. The salon in New York has prices. For my private clients, clothes cost what I say they cost. What I charged the countess has nothing to do with you. For you, call this one on the house.”

“Why?”

“I like you.”

“Why?”

“God knows. Maybe you remind me of a real person.” He lit one of the cigarettes he smoked like smoking was a second career and winked.

Now, I’ve been winked at more than once. Dirty, flirty, and Harmless Bertie–I’ve seen a lot of types and felt a lot of reactions. Jackie’s wink, though, was like Jackie: one of a kind. It was like a kiss on my heart.

Like I said: Who needed it? I didn’t need that. I didn’t.

~*~

So it started with parties, and Darryl Moran, and Honey Clayton, and Marissa the Face, and Jackie Eastman. If I had to put a finger on the top of the long slide, I guess it would be that party just after I closed production on SYBIL WRITES, a dramedy about a psychic mystery writer who finds the solutions to unsolved cases as she turns them into short stories. Jackie rarely came to Good Society parties, but he came to that one.

Darryl attached himself to me, all provocative smiles and smoldering looks. He knew he made my skin crawl, which is what made it fun; that, and because it killed Honey Clayton’s soul.

When he was sure Honey had maneuvered close enough to hear, he leaned over to me and murmured, “That dress is ravishing.”

“I’ll ask Jackie to make you up one. It couldn’t look any worse on you than what you’re wearing.”

He took his arm from my shoulders. “This suit? This suit–”

“You’re right, it isn’t your tailor’s fault. You can’t put a suit on a jackass and expect it to do either of them credit.”

Honey moved to his side and put a hand on his arm. He drew her closer and kissed her forehead, his open eyes on me.

“Lucky girl,” I said, moving off in a parody of desolation. “Lucky, lucky girl.”

Now, this Honey Clayton had been one of the most beautiful women in the Terran Union–once upon a time: close to six feet tall, slender and curvaceous; complexion the color of coffee with lots of cream; hair like honey mixed with butter, and long, and silky-looking; eyes a soft, clear green–I had seen the pictures.

By the time I met her in person, Darryl had begun his work, and she had begun to fade. Now she was overblown; not obese, but puffy, like a rose about to start dropping petals. She was an unhealthy red from the nose across the cheekbones–most of the day; in the mornings, she was greenish-gray. Her eyes always had a dull glaze. She’d cut her hair, curled it, streaked it, done anything to it Darryl admired in anyone else’s hair, until it was fried lifeless under its expensive dressing. All this for love.

Honey was one of Jackie’s models; a live model, though she worked with holographers, too. Darryl Moran had seen her at Eastman’s in New York and had charmed her stupid. When he had whistled, she had come. When he hadn’t whistled, she had worried. He had played mind games with her until her head was inside out.

She still worked for Jackie. When she had started to, shall we say, “flesh out”? from moving too fast and drinking too hard, Jackie had put in a line for the full-figured woman and kept her on at top pay.

But she still came when Darryl called, like a rat in an approach/avoidance experiment. There was a glint in her eye tonight, and all of us who knew her could see this was going to be one of her more flamboyant toots.

Jackie joined me at the buffet. “I can’t stand to see him touch her. Or, worse, her touch him.” He grimaced.

“It is kind of like seeing a snail in the petunias, isn’t it?”

Jackie laughed. “That was funny, what you said about the suit.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

He lit another “good” tobacco cigarette, frowning again. “That’s nothing to be proud of: being some kind of Society pet.”

I didn’t like his tone. “You aren’t?” I said.

“I’m a vendor. And that’s as close as I want to get to them. If you’re smart, you’ll keep your distance, too.”

“Who said I was smart?”

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe you aren’t.”

“No, no, no; you weren’t supposed to agree with that one. How about if I make a signal?”

He wasn’t in a joking mood. These even-tempered, good-natured types are grim when they get broody. “You’re not the only one I’ve seen it happen to,” he said. “Trapped in the old neighborhood. You think the only way you can get out is to climb out over everybody you see, but that won’t work, because you’ll always see somebody else you think you have to climb over. I’m here to tell you, the only way out of it is just to turn your back on it and walk away.”

Instead, I turned my back on him and walked away. Started to, anyway.

“Honey won’t listen, either,” he said.

I turned back. “Listen, Bub, don’t put me in a box with Honey. You won’t see me making like a sheep, letting a pack of dogs drive me over a cliff. That’s one thing you never have to be afraid of.”

“I’m not. I’m afraid I’ll see you making like a dog.”

Well, that didn’t even deserve an answer. Trapped in the old neighborhood? I wasn’t trapped in the old neighborhood; I carried it with me, like a custard pie looking for a face.

I was on the other side of the room, talking to Marissa and Hurst, when two arms slithered around me from behind. One went around my waist; the other tried to go higher, but I blocked it.

Darryl chuckled in my ear and moved so close I could feel his body from his shoulders to his knees.

“Doctor,” I said, “I have this wart on my back.”

Darryl pressed his pelvis closer and said, “A sizable wart.”

“A corset would hold that in for you.”

“I meant this,” he said, pressing even closer.

“I know,” I said, “but I never speak ill of the dead.”

He was about to let me go when Honey swayed up to us. He kept his hold when he saw her.

Honey’s flush covered her face and neck down to her shoulders. Even her ears were red. She clutched her drink so tightly her fingers were white and her veins stood out through the puffy flesh. I could almost hear her teeth grind.

We stood there, frozen and silent, for an hour’s worth of thirty seconds. Then Honey pulled back her glass and flung the contents at my face. The glass was empty.

Darryl stepped back and roared with laughter. He threw his arms around himself and all but doubled over. Everybody wanted to know what was so funny, and he was just tickled to death to tell them.

Some of the other Socialites laughed, and some of the toadies. Not everybody. Certainly not Jackie. Certainly not me.

Honey’s unhealthy flush drained away. She looked defenseless without it.

Much as I despised her, I wished sincerely that she’d had something in that glass. I’d have poured my own drink over my head if it would have done any good.

I went over to her and spoke so only she could hear me. “Laugh, you idiot,” I said. “Laugh with them, so they can’t laugh at us. And let’s move on, fast.”

She didn’t laugh, but she focused on my face.

“At least smile,” I said, pretending to share a private joke with her. “And let’s start walking.”

The model in her responded, and she smiled charmingly. I put an arm around her waist, and guided her to the bar.

I left that party, then. As I went out the door, I turned and scanned the room for Jackie. Instead, I saw Honey clinging to her drink with one hand and Darryl’s arm with the other. She whispered something; Darryl looked at me with eyes that glinted malice, and mouthed a kiss.

That was really the beginning, I think.

Sideshow in the Center Ring

Back to SIDESHOW IN THE CENTER RING.


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