"See there? I think it’s getting darker.” Barb Carson was anxious that her first born daughter would not be blonde after all. Marilyn was born with scarcely any hair at all which hadn’t worried her at first. The brochures indicated it was a possibility based on the parents’ DNA. But after just a few weeks, Marilyn’s hair started to come in. It was soft and unimaginably fine with delicate little curls at the nape of her tiny neck. Light in color, it was hard to imagine Marilyn could be anything other than blonde.
"I mean, maybe we have the wrong baby,” she continued. “You read about that all the time in the Reader - babies switched at birth. It happens in every birth cycle.”
Ken was less concerned. “The probability of that is … well, you know I’m not good at math. The point is, it happens far more in fiction that in real life. That’s the reality of it.”
Yes, but I’ve been dreaming of getting my very own Betty since I was a little girl. What if they gave me a Veronica instead?”
Ken stopped waxing his surfboard and looked at his perfectly proportioned wife. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. You’re the one who wanted to outsource. If you remember, I was all for in vitro. You know, ever since I met you on that commercial shoot I’ve wanted to...”
Barb cut him off. “Ken! Focus! We’re talking about Marilyn here, not your fantasies.”
“Maybe if you had babies with Allan instead of me this wouldn’t be happening, is that what you’re saying?” Ken had either been drinking or the fumes from the surfboard wax was getting to him. Barb couldn’t tell anymore.
“Oh, fuck Allan! It’s not about fucking Allan.” Ken had always suspected there was something between Barb and Allan even though - or because - Allan was married to Barb’s best friend. “Honey,” Barb said trying to sooth Ken’s nerves. “I’m just concerned we didn’t get what we paid for. And you’ve worked so hard for this.”
It wasn’t long after boob jobs and elective Cesarean sections became covered by the NHP, and ADM acquired Dollywood, that DNA reconfiguration became commercially viable. Of course, the government subsidies for cloning didn’t hurt either.
It was ironic that the original Dollywood icon was anything but engineered. But country music theme parks were short lived and ADM was able to buy the property and its structures out of bankruptcy. Many of the buildings were turned into barns that housed sheep, originally, and later other species. ADM had perfected genetically engineered organisms - corn and soybeans - decades ago. Scientists had dappled in cloning, but it took the combination of the two - science and buckets of money - before any real headway was made. Now visitors to Dollywood were able to view models of the children they could order online from a catalog depicted in various stages of life. From infancy to teen years, samples of all available models were available for viewing in a natural setting.
The model selection seemed to work off a repeating spectrum of blonde versus brunette. The Ginger and Mary Ann models, as well as Betty and Veronica, continued to be staples. Lesser known models such as Chrissy and Janet sold well, but the Laverne and Shirley models failed to produce. Fortunately for ADM, their best sellers also produced their highest profits. The Christina and Brittany models were so close in similarity that the customers often couldn’t tell the difference and, more importantly, usually didn't care.
And that was just the Ewe Division. Another division was devoted to Rams and within each, a scientist granted a Race Card could work solely in the area of genetic pigmentation. The permutations were endless even given that the base DNA was solely from the mother and the father of the Just Like Ewe Designer Baby.
Offspring delivery options were varied and it depended entirely on the preferences of the mother. Barb worked through her entire pregnancy so she had the entire gestation outsourced. Even so, she elected to have the baby shipped directly after birth via The Delivery Stork at an extra premium. Barb felt it was best if she could bond with Marilyn as soon as possible but other, busier, moms opted for standard - even delayed - delivery.
Barb deplored the other young moms that put their “lives” above their children, choosing instead to “connect” via webcam. It was better since they added audio, Barb admitted, but it didn’t substitute for what she felt was essential human contact. It was very popular for parents to wait until after the “terrible two’s” - or even after potty training - although it was less common to wait longer than ten years. One benefit of delayed delivery is one could choose the baby’s native language, if not the same as the the parents’.
ADM was currently working on converting advances in seed manufacturing to reproductive applications. However, resistance to pests and higher yield had not yet found an audience in Congress.
Of course, ADM couldn’t assure that you would get exactly what you saw in a brochure or live at Dollywood. It didn’t work that way. The DNA of the child came directly from the parents so they could only do so much. But with mapping, certain genes were tweaked to get model similarity. Matrix similarity, a complex algorithm and certain mathematical improbability, couldn’t be promised, not if one wanted reproduction covered under the National Health Plan. But model similarity could be guaranteed and it was ADM’s motto: “Similarity: He’s just like you, only smaller. Similar to a ‘t’.”
Ken hadn’t told Barb that auburn was in his genetic history. He knew she would leave him if she knew. They were both blonde so it seemed certain their child would be blonde regardless of the model they chose. Usually, there was a discount if the child didn’t have to be rewired for the recessive gene but Ken had to pay a premium for it and it nearly bankrupted him financially and emotionally. His great-grandmother was dark haired and the dominate gene threatened to expose him. No doubt Allan didn’t have this problem, Ken thought. Allan was blonde and married a brunette, though Ken couldn’t see why. Midge was plain, the sort of gal who won “Miss Congeniality” but who never took the prize. I’m the prize, he thought. Why didn’t she pick me?
Not that it truly mattered. Ken was happy that Barb chose him over Allan. Both men were handsome when it came right down to it, but Ken had the cars, the vacation home in Malibu, Mexico, and a wardrobe to die for. Allan was a nice guy but it was Ken’s entire package that won Barb over.
None of that mattered now. Not if Barb was unhappy. Not if she didn’t have her Betty. Ken tried to conjure up his hero, Bruce Willis. He thought, “Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for conversation, but maybe you could just shut up for a moment?” Instead, he said, “‘I know you’re made to be strong, but you’re also so fragile, so human.’” (1)
“Don’t bullshit me, Ken. You never wanted to get married and you never wanted Marilyn either.”
Ken was crushed. She was right but he had become comfortable with her. He really couldn’t imagine any other life. He really didn't care if they had a Betty or a Christina or any of them. He had Barbie and that was all that mattered to him.
(1) From the movie, “Fifth Element,” provided by the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119116/quotes).
Chapter Two: Rooftop Raúl
Raúl had been in the country for nearly a decade but still hadn’t learned the language. He knew just enough to get around but mostly spoke his native language. He didn’t drive and didn’t vote. He paid taxes, though. At least, that’s what his employer told him. He was provided with a social security number but he knew it wasn’t clean. He didn’t use it except to collect a paycheck. He didn’t have a bank account or proper ID so he would endorse the check back to his employer for cash. Of course, the employer took a commission to “cover his costs.” But he didn’t complain. Raúl always found a way to manage.
Technically, he was homeless - he didn’t make enough to pay rent, not to mention the cost to get into an apartment: first month’s rent, last month’s rent, credit check fees, and a deposit. Every once in a while, he could sleep on someone’s sofa, a friend from a job site. But as job sites changed, so did his friends.
Luckily, he was a roofer and roofers were in demand. Especially, anyone who was skilled in tile roofs. He used to be a farmer in Mexico but he couldn’t compete with the vast amountsof corn that were being imported. He and his family stayed on the farm as long as they could, selling equipment, land, and animals whenever they fell short. Eventually, he had to sell the family farm because he couldn’t keep up with his mounting debts. The money was now in marijuana farming but the risks were too great. There was too much violence in it, whether you agreed to farm it or, worse yet, if you didn’t.
The farm had been in his family for over a hundred years. After he sold it, he moved his mother, wife, and two children to Los Angeles, in northwestern Mexico, to try their luck there. They all worked in a beachfront restaurant where Maria, his wife, worked as a waitress and Mamá made fresh corn tortillas. Little Raúl and Josefina sold trinkets to the tourists across the banister that separated the diners from the beach and it’s salty surf.
Raúl became a construction worker and learned his trade as a tile roofer but work was slow. Tourism dollars shifted north as the climate change and Border Reallocation made Los Angeles barely tolerable outside of winter months. While he looked for work, advertisements beckoned him to the United States, just a few miles north. Meat processing offered the most opportunities, it seemed, with various companies competing for workers in local newspapers. Each promised good wages for anyone willing to work hard and some even provided transportation across the border.
He phoned a number in the paper and was soon on his way to a promising career at a chicken processing plant in Stockton. The work wasn’t difficult, once he got used to it, but the farm got raided by immigration enforcement agents within months after his arrival. Many of his co-workers were rounded up and shipped home but he managed to hide behind a vat of entrails that reeked enough to repel ICE agents.
It didn’t take long before Raúl learned that he could find work by hanging out at Home Depot in the early morning hours when contractors would come by in their work trucks hauling their equipment in trailers and offering work to the lowest bidders. He made his way to San Francisco where construction was booming due to the relocation of Los Angeles residents who sought to retain their U.S. citizenship.
When Border Reallocation was passed, it was publicized as a necessary combination of NAFTA and daylight savings. As the climate warmed, tourism dollars moved north along with the best weather for relaxing and spending money. The United States reasoned it should maintain it’s relative position on the globe and it had the muscle and fire power to convince its neighbors. Mexico now included San Antonio, Phoenix, and Los Angeles while Canada ceded Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg.
San Francisco was the new LA and there was never any shortage of construction but wildfires were still a danger in California so tile roofs continued to be in demand. Raúl quickly earned a reputation as a reliable worker so he usually kept busy. Many nights, he would sleep in the Home Depot parking lot under a thin blanket he got from Goodwill, usually from the dumpster. Sometimes it would still be there at the end of the day, sometimes it wouldn’t.
Sometimes, he’d meet people at an impromptu fiesta at Muir Beach, a popular place for the wandering homeless, and he’d be invited home for a meal and conversation, sharing memories of home. But most of the the time, he’d sleep at the job site. The weather was usually good in arid San Francisco so he wasn’t the only laborer to think of staying in the yet-to-be-occupied beachfront homes. But the others would often get caught so Raúl was careful not to let anyone know his secret.
People never looked up, Raúl observed. White people, especially. They walked with their heads down, usually fiddling with their Readers. If they were to pass on the street, they hardly noticed Raúl’s existence, never made eye contact. He had been working on the same job site for nearly six months working on the roof of yet another mansion near the beach and it seemed no one, except his supervisor, knew he was there.
So when the sun went down, Raúl went up. Up to the roof in the cover of darkness, he could watch the evolving neighborhood of Presidio unfold before his eyes. No one could see him, in plain sight, because he was above the radar. He watched majestic sunsets while the neighbors across the street were oblivious, arguing with each as they put their baby to sleep. The parents were beautiful, both of them. They were fair skinned and blonde, and they had a beautiful new baby girl. The baby, it seemed, caused some stress in the relationship as Raúl noticed they argued more and more.
Money appeared to be tight for them, too. The house wasn’t well cared for and the couple had to sell the motorhome that had been parked between them and the little house next door. A good thing, he thought, since it blocked his view.
Fortunately, the house next to the pretty couple was small which allowed Raúl to see the beach and the ocean beyond. The same ocean that his family saw every night as they waited tables. The woman who lived there was elderly. Raúl saw her every morning when she came out to the driveway to retrieve her Download, tossed casually by some boy on a bicycle who apparently made only the one delivery. By then, he had come down from his rooftop nest and was sitting outside the gate waiting for the other laborers to arrive for work. But, the old woman never looked up. She never saw him.
Except this morning. Today, when she came out of the house, their eyes met. Hers were wild but without recognition behind a kitchen towel the old woman held up to her face. She said nothing to him but for a brief moment, Raúl thought she had meant to. She disappeared into her garage and moments later, she left driving quickly down the lane at an hour earlier than he knew was normal for her to leave the house.
As he watched her go, he inhaled the still cool, salty air, now tinged with her car exhaust, and he thought again of his family. Whenever he had any money, Raúl would send it to them with small presents since he was sure the cash he sent in envelopes never made it to Los Angeles. He would always include a short note to let them know that he was doing well, that he missed them, and that he lived somewhere with a spectacular view.
Chapter Three: Gladys
Nine billion people in the world and they all have to have waterfront, Gladys thought as she lay in bed. There’s room in the forest. Or the desert. Why can’t they live there? She usually woke up about an half hour before sunrise but waited until she could see light start to creep around the edges of her full length curtains before getting out of bed.
I can see in the windows of my neighbors, practically borrow a cup of sugar by reaching out my kitchen window. New houses were going up all around her. People from LA were buying houses side by side only to knock them down and replace them with monstrous, ugly homes. Often it was just two people living in nothing more than giant caves filled with silly, unnecessary things.
Like the THTV. Ridiculous invention. Of course, Gladys had one because some knucklehead in Congress made it practically mandatory - get one, or you won’t get any TV at all. Cocksucker probably owns the company, she thought realizing she was gnashing her teeth again, an old habit.
Like most politicians, this asshole used to be in showbiz, if you can call sportscasting showbiz. He saw where 3D television was going. Nowhere. Sports in 3D didn’t work unless you were trying to give the viewer front row seats which made for great effects, but eliminated the rest of the game. The viewer was too close to the action to see what was actually going on. Consumers didn’t like the 3D glasses and usually lost them as soon as the novelty of their new purchase wore off and were frustrated by having to squint to watch TV. Gladys skipped the 3D revolution altogether. If I wanted to see something in 3D, I’d just look out my friggin’ window.
But Ted Baxter, Senator Baxter now, thought it would be a shame if the viewing public couldn’t see his mature and distinguished head in 3D. In fact, he thought 3D didn’t do his visage justice so he aggressively pursued investments in, and later tax breaks for, holographic TV.
Talking Heads Television was first featured by CNN but soon found support among the sports networks. Sports had moderate success with the holographic technology but cars going around in circles looked exactly like cars going around in circles when presented in holographic form and NASCAR lost its massive following, and its sponsors, when viewers figured out how boring it really was. And, in golf, no one could see the ball. Still, THTV remained, thanks to its friends in Congress and a subsequent invention of glasses which could be worn to revert projected images back into 2D for sitcoms and other shows that didn’t translate well into holographs. (Children’s shows, it turns out, were traumatizing.)
Ironically, Gladys placed her THTV atop her antique console TV which hadn’t worked in years but which she never bothered to get rid of. The heads seemed to sprout out of the cabinet top, just above the grey/green of the long darkened screen. Better than these heads floating in midair.
Life used to be simpler, she reflected as she rolled over, eying the windows for signs of light. It used to be just her and Abner on this street, with modest homes at modest distances on either side. There was a nice couple across the street on the other side of the railroad tracks that that ran parallel to the lane. They were odd in a way Gladys couldn’t quite put a finger on. He was in advertising, she recalled. Don’t remember what happened to them. Their house was knocked down when they left and was currently being replaced by yet another home.
Abner had been gone for some years now which was fine with her. They had grown accustomed to each other as couples do when married for half a century but they bickered constantly, often about the neighbors. When the house to the north of them became occupied, for example, Gladys was sure there was a spell cast upon the couple, the wife to be particular. Odd things kept happening to the woman. Her hair would change color, sometimes more than once in a day, and her breasts kept changing sizes. Gladys was sure it had to to with the couple from across the street. She would have bet there was some hanky panky going on with Mr. Advertiser. What was his name?
It all ended when Mr. Advertiser and his wife moved away. Nevertheless, Abner always had an explanation for everything. Besides, he was smitten himself with the next door neighbor. Barb was tall, beautiful, shapely and Abner could never take his eyes off her - especially when she sunbathed. Her husband, Ken, was good looking too but impressed Gladys as emasculated by his wife. Certainly, that impression didn’t change when Ken came knocking at her door asking to borrow money and soliciting a promise not to tell his wife.
At last, she could see the first hints of daylight. Gladys pulled the covers back as she swung her feet to the floor. She stretched and twisted her upper back from side to side to loosen up the muscles that seemed to shrivel and grow tight overnight. A final roll of the head on her spindly neck and brief moment of pause before she placed weight on her feet and yawned.
“Uh oh,” she said aloud. Her jaw had locked open in mid-yawn. She tried to force it closed but it hurt when she tried to manipulate it. Out of instinct, she picked up the phone and dialed 911. “E! I ee e!” It was obvious the operator wouldn’t understand her cries for help so she tried to enunciate, “A-oo-u.” In her head she was shouting, Ambulance! but it was no use. She used the headset to tap out SOS in Morse Code but thought, I can probably drive myself to the hospital before this idiot can send an ambulance.
And yet she hated to leave the house without making her bed or having coffee on her deck overlooking the ocean with the daily Download. It was the only quiet time of the day, before construction work began on all sides and the neighbors started fighting. Clearly, she wouldn’t be able to drink and she quickly realized that it was getting difficult to swallow at all. The roof of her mouth began to dry out as drool pooled uselessly around her tongue.
She knew she needed help but she didn’t know where to turn. Literally, there was no one she could ask. She threw on her housecoat and started for the front door without giving a second thought to the blue curlers still in her hair. She fished her car keys from her purse and grabbed a kitchen towel to hold in front of her face to disguise her horrid, fixed expression, as if in a silent scream. Panic began to set in as she ran out the door, ignoring her Download in the driveway, wondering whether she would be able to hold the towel across her face and drive. She briefly made eye contact with a construction worker across the street and in that instant she transmitted her need to him and just as instantly dismissed him due to her inability to communicate with him.
The neighbors would not be awake as it was their habit to sleep well past nine. She jumped in her car and slammed it into reverse just as a train was approaching.
Chapter Four: Mikey
Mikey was excited as he waited to board the train. He had never been on one before although he was fascinated by them. He could hear them from his bedroom as they sounded their horns at the railroad crossing just two blocks away. If he was standing in the front yard, he could see them too.
All sorts of trains would go by their house. The trains with people going to work were silver and double-decker. These trains seemed as serious to Mikey as the people inside, all dressed as business people in shades of brown or gray, carrying briefcases or giant totes, carrying unimaginably serious things.
His favorites were the freight trains. Sometimes he would be on a walk with Mom and Dad, or waiting in the car to cross the tracks, when the gate would come down and the red lights would flash. He would beg to get closer to the tracks so as to count the freight cars, one by one, as they rumbled past, rattling and shrieking its high pitched squeals. Traffic would pile up if it was a long one and sometimes Mikey would count as many as a hundred cars. (Mikey wasn’t sure if there were two freight cars on top of a longer freight car if that should be counted as one or two.)
“Mikey! You have to wait for us, honey,” his mother shouted as he tried to board the train ahead of his parents.
Mikey was in a forest of legs, unafraid of the strangers around him and the hissing beast that awaited them. He positioned himself next to the yellow step stool alongside the conductor and waited as his parents dragged suitcases and jostled in line. He couldn’t help but be resentful of others who were getting on board while he was forced to wait.
“Hurry! It’ll leave without us!” He knew it wasn’t true, but he was excited. He looked up at the faces of the people he would be traveling with and tried not to see their stories. He couldn’t always shut it out, though, and he didn’t always know what it meant. Like this couple, they were old like his grandparents but he could sense they were happy even though she was very sick. She didn’t look sick to Mikey, but he knew somehow that she would die soon. He didn’t understand why and it made him sad.
“Okay, buddy. It’s our turn. Up you go,” his father said to Mikey before helping his pregnant wife up the step.
“This is Jessica’s first train trip, too!” Both his parents stopped to look at him and then each other. They hadn’t told him they were having a girl or the name they had picked out for her. They were still unsure if Mikey had a “talent” or if he was uncannily lucky. Or, if he was in tune with the universe in the way that babies seemed to be from birth. An innocence, an intuition perhaps, that gets drummed out of you, unlearned, as you get older.
Wally was a toy salesman which made him the coolest dad ever, as far as Mikey was concerned, but he'd just lost his job. Even though things were tight, Wally and Marcia Logan decided it was a good time to get away before the baby was born. The parenting advice was that a puppy for the older sibling made the adjustment of a new baby easier. Maybe not for the parents, but it gave the older sibling a responsibility and provided necessary lessons in nurturing. They had found their puppy on the internet and had arranged to go to San Francisco to get him.
Wally was concerned about what they would do for money after their trip but Mikey knew it would turn out and tried to reassure his father. Wally dismissed Mikey’s attempts at comfort as a heartwarming gesture by the most loving boy in the world, not fully understanding it was more of a prediction than an attempt to soothe. Besides toys, Wally had a passion for food and was always in the kitchen making something good to eat. Mikey knew that when they got back from their trip, his dad would start his own company with Auntie Nora and Auntie Tracy, and they would cook for all sorts of people. Mikey couldn't wait to taste everything they made.
Mikey could “see” things but he often couldn’t do anything about what he saw. Like, when Uncle Bobby got in a car crash. He raced cars and went super fast but he always finished the race. Mikey liked to go to his uncle’s house to see all his trophies and pictures of all his race cars. He wasn’t allowed to go to the races because his parents said it was dangerous. It was the danger that made Uncle Bobby his hero.
One night, Uncle Bobby came over to their house. It was Mikey’s fourth birthday party and everyone had come over to eat hot dogs and cake. All of Mikey’s aunts and uncles were there and his parents had rented a giant bouncy toy that he and cousins played in until one of them, Kevin, threw up in it.
The kids had punch with bubbles in it and the adults were drinking something else with bubbles. It was beer, Mikey knew, brownish yellow with foam on top. Uncle Bobby let him try some but he didn’t like it. Mikey didn’t want Bobby to like it either and kept trying to distract him so he wouldn’t drink it.
“Watch me, Uncle Bobby!” he shouted as he tried to do a forward flip in the bouncy toy. He kept landing on his back but he was sure it would impress his uncle. His uncle was more interested in the attention he was getting from his girlfriend, a blond woman that sat on his lap and liked to be tickled.
The blond woman died that night but his uncle survived the crash. Now the only thing Uncle Bobby raced was his wheelchair.
“I can’t wait to get to San Francisco to get Scrappy!” They had settled into their sleeper car on the upper level of the train. Mikey already had his nose pressed to the window so as not to miss any detail even though they hadn’t yet left the station.
“I thought we were going to name him Tiger,” his mother said.
“But he doesn’t have stripes,” he protested, already knowing that Scrappy would be brown with small black spots, and he'd be wearing a blue dog collar with a tiny gold medallion.
Mikey was still in his pajamas the next day as they were approaching San Francisco. He was reluctant to change out of his clothes the night before but when it got dark, all he could see in the window was himself. Now they were near the ocean and Mikey was searching for whales.
“Come on, honey, let’s get your clothes on. We’re almost there,” Marcia implored. Mikey let his mother dress him as he stood on the seat, still looking out the window. Soon they were in a residential area and there was a row of houses, lining a lane, that stood between the tracks and the ocean.
“Look, Mom! I want to live next to the railroad tracks too! Can we? Can we, please?” As she fastened the Velcro of his shoes the train began to sound its horn and Mikey could see a car up ahead trying to cross the tracks in front of the train. Mikey wanted to shout to the old woman but before he could cry out, the car jolted to a stop as close to the train as he’d ever seen someone get. As they neared, he noticed he could see into the houses that lined the tracks. He suddenly saw a dark haired baby with his pretty blond parents and he knew she wasn’t theirs. Maybe she was adopted like Uncle Phillip and Auntie Jan’s baby.
Then, Mikey saw the old woman who had nearly been crushed by the train. He could tell she wanted to cry but didn’t allow herself to. She was holding a towel to her face and was sure that underneath she was screaming.
Chapter Five: Sugar
She had to give him signals now. Just wanting sex wasn’t enough, she had to flirt openly with him or he would miss his cue. The signal was so often No that it had become the default answer. Now a Yes required clearer communication. Being coy and demure was lost on him. She felt straightforward communication was best. “I need some dick,” usually did the trick. She wasn’t sure at what point in their marriage it was no longer about the physical need as much as the emotional rejection and wondered if it was the same for Ken.
That’s not what it was like before. They first met on the shoot for a commercial but that wasn’t when she really noticed him. It was later when they were both in a movie where she was cast as a newcomer to a neighborhood and he was the one to show her around. She had traveled to a strange new world with a band of merry friends. They were welcomed by some in the community but the charm of Ken’s character - not to mention Ken’s - was what won Barb and her character over.
They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They had sex on the set and in his RV. The default was always Yes and No was a rare occurrence.They became inseparable and they became the next tabloid couple.Their union was inevitable and the country - indeed the world - watched as they became “Barben.”
That was a long time ago, she was thinking as they pulled into Allan and Midge’s driveway.
“Do we really have to do this?” Ken asked, bringing Barb back to the present.
“Midge is my best friend. She’s about to have a baby. Yes, we have to do this.”
Ken let out a deep sigh as he put the solar minivan into Park. Allan met Barb at the door and greeted her warmly with a hug and a kiss on each cheek. Midge was working to get out of the chair as Ken struggled with the NASCAR-like harness that kept his daughter secure.
“She’s beautiful,” Midge cooed as everyone finally gathered around the kitchen counter.
“And so are you,” Ken replied, instantly embarrassed that he’d said something he shouldn’t have.
As Allan poured wine for everyone, Ken couldn’t help but look at Midge. She had shoulder length, medium brown hair. It wasn’t smooth like Barb’s, but it wasn’t curly either. She had blue eyes and wore no makeup. When she wasn’t pregnant, she had a pleasant shape. Midge wasn’t as curvaceous as Barb and she dressed more simply. Not like the scoop neck, pink angora sweater and skin tight black leggings his wife was wearing with a long silver chain that supported a single pendant which disappeared into her cleavage. And yet, Ken thought Midge was beautiful, although he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the glow of pregnancy.
As if reading his thoughts, Barb said “I just don’t know why you’d want to do that to your body. Assuming you did it once, why would you it a second time? Really, you know it will never be the same.” She looked at Allan as she leaned over, placing her elbows on the counter.
Midge and Allan snuggled against each other and collectively shrugged their shoulders as if they were one body. “I can’t explain it, what it’s like to be pregnant and have a life inside you.”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a crazy ride. Not for the faint of heart” Allan said, laughing.
“That’s an understatement,” Midge said, an unstated meaning passing between spouses. “But it’s really beautiful, you know?” Allan kissed her.
Just then, Sugar joined them and helped herself to a glass of diluted wine. “Hey.”
“Look how big you are,” said Barb. Sugar was 13 and looked like her mother. The fact that Sugar didn’t look like her father reminded her of her own daughter.
“Marilyn’s not mine,” Barb said as she poured herself another glass of wine. “I’m certain of it. I called Just Like Ewe Customer Service today,” Barb used air quotes as she said this. “And I got a recording, ‘Thank you for calling Just Like Ewe Designer Baby Customer Service.’” Barb had affected a foreign accent. “She said her name was Jane, in Austin.” She resumed her accent, “‘We are experiencing a high volume of calls but yours is very important to us. That is why we are recommending you call back in’” - Barb made a tiny clicking sound and changed to a monotone - “‘one week.’” She resumed her accent, “‘Please us call back on’” - click and monotone - “‘December 21st.’ Can you believe it?”
“Where did you take delivery? Did you call them?” Midge asked.
Barb topped off her wine. “You bet your ass, I did. I gave General Hopsital a call and said, “Give me all your kids.’”
“All My Children,” Ken offered.
“Yes, All My Children. Isn’t that what I said?” She laughed as she put a hand on Allan’s arm. “So the girl, Laura, says, “Who’s your doctor?’ and I said, I worked with Dr. Luke and he gave me the wrong god dammed baby.”
Sugar pulled up a bar stool, amused by what was unfolding.
“So this Laura person put me on hold to look up my information. Right? So I’m on hold again, right? So she comes back on and she says” - here, Barb assumes a tone of righteousness - “‘I have your information right here. Dr. Luke delivered a Betty to you on September 1st.’ Bullshit, I said. What I got a was a Veronica. So Laura” - again with the air quotes - “puts me on hold for like the fifth time today,” she continued as Ken moved the wine bottle just out of her reach. “And then she says, ‘I just spoke with our legal department about your case’ and she says it like it’s a question. And then she says, ‘and they’ve informed me that General Hospital doesn’t make mistakes.’ And that was it! She just hung up!” She opened her mouth and pantomimed astonishment. “Isn’t that where you had Sugar?”
Everyone exchanged nervous glances. “I mean, if they gave me the wrong baby maybe they gave you the wrong one because Sugar doesn’t even look like Allan.”
Sugar’s eyes were the size of saucers even as she was entertained by the melodrama. Midge’s eyes met Ken’s as Allan suggested that maybe Sugar would rather be doing something else. Sugar didn’t budge as Barb blurted, “I mean, who’s Sugar’s daddy anyway?”
Chapter Six: Scrappy
“Gnarly, dude,” Shaggy said as he came in from walking Scoobert. “The water is, like, totally effervescent out there. Like, we should all go surfboarding.”
“Did you clean up after Scooby, like I told you?” Fred asked.
“I meant to but Scoob and I got hungry and we had to stop for a sandwich.”
“They’re here!” Daphne opened the door to a young couple and a little boy. “Come in, please. I’m Daphne and these are my friends, Fred, Velma, and Shaggy. And this handsome fella is Scooby,” she said scratching the dog behind his ear. “So nice to finally meet you.”
Mikey burst into the room and ran to the back of the house, ignoring his parents’ instructions to be polite to their hosts as they introduced themselves, “We're the Logans. I'm Wally, and this is Marcia. And that, briefly, was Mikey.”
From inside, Velma welcomed them in. “Don't worry about it. Follow me and I'll introduced you to the dogs.” They walked past the living room, down a short hallway to a small kitchen in the back of the house.
In a laundry basket lined with towels, were five fluffy puppies all eager to get to know the newcomer. “This one's Yabba and this one's Whoopsy,” Mikey said pointing to each puppy in turn. “And this one is Howdy and that's Yankee-Doodle.”
“Awesome. That's exactly what I would've named them,” said Shaggy.
“And this one's Scrappy. This is him,” Mikey said, scooping up the small dog. “Look, Mom, he likes me.” The dog that looked most like his sire was licking Mikey's face.
“Are you sure, honey? Maybe we should spend some time with all the puppies before we pick the one we take home. What do you think?”
“Aw, Mom.” Mikey relented but he knew he wouldn't be changing his mind.
As Velma went about making orange ginger cappuccinos for everyone, decaf for Marcia, Shaggy sat on the floor to play with Mikey and the puppies. Scooby looked proud of his brood, if a dog can be said to look proud.
“Where's their mommy?”
“We think she was kidnapped,” Fred informed them. “We've been trying to find her and think we've tracked her down to that mansion on the hill.” Fred pointed out the kitchen window to what seemed more like a castle under a dark cloud than what the Logans thought of as a mansion. It was a dingy gray, with turrets that stuck out at odd angles. Even though it was a sunny day, the house seemed to be stuck in an ominous fog.
“Who lives there?” Marcia asked.
“A fur trader by the name of DeVille. We know she collects dogs by the hundreds and we suspect it's gone beyond a mere interest and has become an obsession. We plan to go up there tonight, at midnight, to investigate.”
“Nuh uh! That place gives me the creeps,” Shaggy said. Scooby's eyes were large and he seemed to be shaking his head as if he wasn't planning on going either.
Velma changed the subject. “I bought this espresso machine after I got stuck in line at Central Perk while Joey was behind the bar. There was an altercation that made me seriously consider giving up coffee altogether.” She recounted the incident as she grated the orange rind and ginger root.
I'd like some joe.“I'm sorry. Was that inappropriate?” she asked as she served the steaming drinks. No one replied so she continued, “That's when Gunther, the manager, tackled the guy. It wasn’t like Gunther at all but that was all I needed. I left the Central Perk and bought this bad boy, here.”
Sure, what would you like?
Joe, what do you think?
I think you must want something or you wouldn't be standing here.
Seriously, could I have some joe?
Sure, what would you like?
Could I have some joe, please?
Listen, pal, you can have whatever you want. I have lattes, machiatos, ground coffee. I also have a drip, Morning Joe.
That sounds great. Morning joe, drip.
That’s like saying ‘Good morning, asshole.’ Phoebe, did you hear this guy?
Oh, for crying out loud. What does it take to get friggin' joe around here?
Sir, there's no need for that kind of language. And this is a coffee shop, okay? Not a pick up joint. People don’t hook up here.
Quit messing with me and give me some joe, right here, right now. Put it right in my hand. Just some warm hot joe. Got it?
“Can we go outside?” Mikey asked.
“Give us a minute to finish our coffees,” Wally said, adding, “This is really good. Will you give me your recipe?”
“Don't sweat it, dude. I'll take the little man to the park,” Shaggy said. To his parents, “It's just up the street.”
They only had to walk a short way to get to a small park on the water that had a swing set and a slide. No one was there except a girl, swinging. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood over her short cropped hair. She was dragging her feet in the sand, looking at nothing in particular, and she only looked up when Scrappy came into her view.
“You can pet him if you want.” She gave a small smile at the little boy's willingness to share what was obviously a new-found treasure. “Why are you sad?” he asked.
She wanted to be offended by his intrusion into her private space but at the same time she knew that he was only being friendly and she wanted to talk to someone. “What's your name?”
“I'm Mikey. That's Shaggy and Scooby over there. This is my new puppy, Scrappy.”
“My name is Sugar. You must be very excited to have a new dog. Do you have any other pets?”
“No and we came here from Seattle on a train to get him, special.”
“That is special,” Sugar said falling into a comfortable silence as Scrappy rolled in the sand, letting them tickle his belly.
“You're not the only one, you know,” Mikey offered. “I don't think Scrappy knows his mommy either. And on the train I saw a little girl who was adopted.” He was referring to the couple he had seen out the window of their sleeper car, the one with a baby who didn't look like her parents.
“Did my parents tell you something? How did you know?”
“I just know things.”
Sugar thought awhile, enjoying the sunshine and getting away from her parents for the afternoon. Her grandmother used to bring her to this park when she was little. They would play in the sand and build castles with buckets and shovels. She didn't live here anymore but this is where Sugar would ride her bike when she needed to find a place to sort things out.
“I'm not sure about anything anymore. My Aunt Barb came over last night – she's not really my aunt. She's my mom's best friend. At least, she used to be. Anyway, Auntie Barb got drunk and she started saying things like my dad's not really my daddy. After that, everyone started talking at once – my parents and Auntie Barb and Uncle Ken. I'm just confused. My dad – or should I call him Allan now? – has always been my dad. You know what I mean?”
“Yo, dude, we should get going. Like, I don't like walking home in the dark.”
“I gotta go, Sugar. Don't worry about anything. I'll tell my friends about you and everything will be okay. Okay?”
Sugar wanted to hug the little boy and already missed the unrestrained affection of his puppy. The sun still shone brightly even as shadows started to get long. As Mikey and his friends were taking the stairs that lead out of the park, Sugar could see a man on his surfboard, drifting towards the horizon, as if waiting for a wave that was not to come.
“Hey, man. Be careful where you step,” Shaggy said as they approached the house. “Like, you don't want to step in any Scooby doo.”
Chapter Seven: Now & Then
Would it be wrong if I said I didn't really want delicate delicates? They're sexy and all but also a pain in the ass, in more ways than one. Why should I treat them with such deference? I mean, they spend their days, their entire lives, torturing me and in return they must be washed by hand. Who wants to do do that? And, why?
Because I spent a fortune on my skivvies, that's why. And, again I must ask, for what? Men think it’s to get laid, of course! Well, okay, but in return I say, that's how we get to granny panties. Been laid, done that.
What do men do? Why, they just put their undies in the wash with their pants. It's all swirling in there together. So, then, what's the point? If their undies are allowed to co-mingle with their pants, what was the point in the first place? To get laid? I think not.
What are we afraid of? Genital contact with our pants?
Tsosumi’s thoughts were interrupted when her partner, Wynott, announced their client. “Barb Carson, this is my partner Tsosumi Then.”
“Nice to you meet you,” Tsusumi motioned to a chair. “How can we help you?”
Barb and Wynott sat opposite from Tsusumi in her sparsely furnished office. Now & Then had been in business for only a few months and had located in a strip mall between a pawn shop and a Federal Drugs, Wine & Spirits. They weren’t in the best neighborhood in town and business was pretty slow. Most of their clients were referred by friends of theirs who had been in the detective game much longer and were willing to help them get started.
“I don’t know where to begin. I have a baby that isn’t mine and my husband is missing.” Barb detailed her suspicions about how her baby had been switched at the hospital.
“I understand your concern,” Wynott said looking at Marilyn who was asleep in her Baby Tote. The baby clearly didn’t resemble her mother but it was possible she took more after her father. “When did you last see him, your husband?”
“We had a fight. I told him I wanted to try to exchange Marilyn for the Betty I originally ordered - I got her from Just Like Ewe. What I got was a Veronica when what we paid for was a Betty. Well, he sort of went berserk like I was trying to rip him away from his own flesh and blood. I mean, I really don’t know what got into him. Anyway, when I woke up this morning he was gone.”
Wynott and Tsosumi already had an idea where this was headed but they wanted to see what Barb would tell them. Fred Jones had called them earlier with what he learned from a little boy that seemed to have clairvoyant powers. Fred and his roommates met the boy when he came to adopt one of Scoobert’s puppies. Apparently, the boy had been for walk with Scooby and met a young woman - a teenager really - who just found out her father, Barb’s husband, might not be her biological father. Interestingly, the boy also had information about Marilyn although he didn’t speak to anyone else. He knew the baby wasn’t theirs.
“Perhaps your husband has become attached to Marilyn. Maybe he doesn’t want to give her up,” Tsosumi suggested.
Barb gave a heavy sigh. “But she’s not ours. I don’t understand.”
“Where could your husband have gone?” Wynott asked.
“I don’t know. I called Midge and Allan - friends of ours - he could have gone there. But they said he wasn’t there and, anyway, his car is still in the driveway. Good thing, too, we always keep the Baby Tote in the Solar Van. There’s no way I could have come in my vintage Corvette, unless I left Marilyn with our neighbor. Come to think of it, that might have been a good idea.” Barb seemed to allow herself a moment to contemplate the idea. “I don’t know what he’s thinking but it’s not about us, that’s for sure.”
Tsosumi spoke what Wynott could not, “Try to think about Ken for a moment. Can you do that? Just erase your mind of all your other thoughts right now and try - just for a moment - to think about him. Where would he go if he needed to get away with his own thoughts, his own problems, to sort things out?”
Barb wasn’t sure she had come to the right place. A woman by the name of Velma had called her out of the blue and said she had some information about Marilyn. At first, Barb thought it was Customer Service calling her back. More like, Customer Disservice, Barb thought. The woman said she didn’t know where her baby was but she felt pretty sure that Barb had a legitimate concern. After explaining who she was and how she came about her information, she referred Barb to Now & Then.
Tsosumi cut her off. “Think!”
Barb was speechless and was about to gather her Baby Tote and leave. “He likes to surfboard but there aren’t any waves out there. Not now anyway, it’s smooth as glass.”
“Mrs. Carson,” Wynott said before things got too heated. “Go home. Everything’s going to be okay. We know some people who can start looking for your husband.” Frustrating as it was, it was of no use to ask the Enforcement Brotherhood to help unless the missing person was eligible to receive Social Responsibility Payments, and then you weren’t sure if the Brotherhood was going to really do anything, or just register your loved one as missing and cancel all their checks.
“And, I can assure you, we can help you with your baby,” Wynott continued. Tsosumi’s anger was just below the boiling point. She softened her glare to a blinkless stare - cooling a degree or two - as Barb prepared to leave.
“This is my card, Mrs. Carson. Call me if you hear from your husband or if you can think of anything else. We’ll get started on the information you provided about your transaction with Just Like Ewe.”
Barb felt quite comfortable that Wynott had her best interest at heart, even if Tsosumi might be a bit of a bitch. She threw a cold glance over her shoulder at Ms. Then even as she gave Wynott a conspiratorial nod. “Thank you, Mr. Now. I look forward to hearing from you.”
“We look forward to getting started on your case, Mrs. Carson.”
Actually, Tsosumi and Wynott didn’t have any idea of where to start.
Chapter Eight: Ken
Raúl walked the streets waiting for the sun to go down. He stopped briefly at a park where a boy and an older girl - a babysitter, perhaps? - were playing with a puppy in the sand. The sun was starting to set and the temperature was falling to a pleasant degree. He wanted to stay and watch the sun set behind Alcatraz Carnival.
It wasn’t dark enough for him to retire to his rooftop retreat so he killed time by walking, carrying a small backpack with everything he owned. He’d eaten dinner at a food cart at the south end of town that made fresh fish tacos. The owner knew him and gave him a discount for being a loyal customer, and because he knew Raúl needed the break.
Raúl continued past the old lady’s house and wondered if she was all right. He had seen such fear in her eyes the last time he saw her. Was she afraid of me? he wondered. He crossed the street and let himself into the gate at the construction site and busied himself with the supplies and equipment in case anyone was watching. As it got darker, he moved the ladder to the back of the house and made his way to his rooftop perch.
He sat, looking through the night sky to Alcatraz and admired the beauty of the colorful lights of the Ferris wheel as they sprinkled their reflections over the surface of the water. He saw the old woman close the curtains on her windows and turn on lights from room to room. He lay down on the roof facing the lights on the horizon and noticed there was someone in the water on a small boat floating peacefully, or maybe a large log that had fallen from a passing barge.
Ken was lying on his back, no longer interested in paddling his surfboard. He had no idea how long he had been bobbing in the water, lulled to a peacefulness by the the gentle undulations of the water, and the warm breeze. He was thirsty but no longer cared. He watched his house on this shoreline, softly rising and falling, rising and falling. And then a bright light shone in his eyes and he would turn to look in the opposite direction.
He would stare at the lights of Alcatraz, blinking playfully as if powered by the laughter and gaiety of the carnival. Did Barb miss him? Did she know he was gone?
He turned back to see his house and thought about Barb and Marilyn. He loved them both so much it made him ache and he couldn’t help but think he wasn’t enough for them. He thought he wasn’t enough of a man for them. Still, his heart ached. He ached in his very soul. The light was in his eyes again and he turned to face the other way.
He remembered taking Barb to the carnival. She didn’t want to go on the rides. She was content to walk with him on the boardwalk around the perimeter with both her arms wrapped around one of his, her body snuggling into the softest parts of him. She stopped once to admire a scarf in one of the shops and he bought it for her and she wore it as she wore his heart.
Looking back at his house, he tried to remember where he ended and she started. He tried to remember who he was before she lived in his veins. Of course, Marilyn lived there now as well. The grip these two had on his heart was what he lived for and what would kill him, he was sure. The light was back so he tried to focus on the carnival lights instead.
Midge was so long ago. She used to be his best friend before she was Barb’s. They were close in college before she met Allan and he met Barb. That first year in school, they dated other people but they would always share with each other their heartbreaks when there were breakups and their hopes when they thought they had met someone special.
He looked back to the shore. His eyes had filled with tears and the lights from the houses had fractured into smeary stars. Before freshman year was over, they slept together. It wasn’t a decision they made lightly. They had been with other people but they didn’t find the intimacy they found with each other as friends. Why not take it to the next level? Who said friends couldn’t be lovers?
Looking at the carnival, he thought about how sleeping together changed their relationship. Things became awkward and they found they held back from each other the very things that made them close in the beginning. Once they were aware they were naked, they felt the need to clothe themselves.
And so, they drifted apart during the summer break. They managed to continue a relationship their sophomore year but there were walls between them. They continued to tell each other about their relationships, all but the details that made them human and vulnerable.
This time, when he looked back to the shore, he was looking directly into a blinding light behind which he could hear, “Yo, dude! It’s too dark to be out here surfing. Don’t you know the boogie man could get you? Besides, you don’t want to go to that carnival. That place gives me the creeps.”
Ken nearly lost his balance as the boat pulled alongside him and his reverie was broken. The light that had been a vision of clarity was now gone and was briefly replaced by a low growl of engines, and then silence, as the smooth side of a vessel, slick and wet, came so close as to appear as a whale that had crested the water.
Ken heard other voices and there was activity as his surfboard was manipulated to the swim platform. He was relieved and annoyed at being found, ready to resist and to quite resisting. He let the forces around him guide him, understanding and yet not understanding things that were being said.
Someone handed him some water. It burned as it touched the back of his throat but as he swallowed it he thought he would never stop drinking.
“Don’t let them take Marilyn,” he choked. And then he lay down and slept.
Chapter Nine: Midge
“Thanks, Fred.” Wynott hung up the phone and went to update Tsosumi on the progress of the case.
“Tell me you brought me coffee. My cup is empty and you know I can’t think without it.”
She was right. Without coffee, she wouldn’t be able to focus on anything other than refilling her cup. It wasn’t like she drank a lot of the stuff, but when she wanted it, her desire was elevated to a basic human need. Like potato chips. Or ice cream.
“What did Fred have to say?” she asked as he placed a cup before her. He knew she preferred red and was sure to always have a clean, red coffee mug available in the cabinet.
“They found Ken drifting on his surfboard, just as you suspected. Good hunch.” Tsosumi shrugged off the compliment as if it was redundant, stating the obvious. “He was pretty out of it though.” He gave her a summary.
“Did they check out the carnival?”
“After they had Ken settled, they went to Alcatraz. Turns out the current owner is legit. No leads.” The Carnival at Alcatraz had changed ownership several times over the years, and it was uncanny how often the carnival owner was mixed up in something illegal. It was to the point that whenever Now & Then caught a new case, they would send Fred and his gang to the island to check the owner for his aliases and known associations. This time, it was a dead end.
“What’s next?” Wynott asked.
“I think we need to talk to Midge Sherwood and Ken’s neighbor, a Mrs. Kravitz.”
They found Midge at home in a state of worry. “We found your friend, Mrs. Sherwood,” Tsosumi said with emphasis on the word friend after stepping into their comfortable but modest home.
“That’s great. Barb was so worried.”
“It appears that you’re the one who’s worried, Mrs. Sherwood. Care to tell me what that’s about?”
Midge stopped her pacing and looked at the woman in her home, aware of the insinuation. Just then, her husband came into the room. “She didn’t take much. Oh, hello.”
“Mr. Sherwood,” and introductions were made again. “Are you missing something?”
“Well,” Allan began, taking Midge’s hand. “We think our daughter’s run away from home.” He spoke to his wife, “All that’s gone is her backpack” to which his wife responded, “ I’m missing some saucers. Why would she take those?”
Allan turned back to Tsosumi and Wynott, “I just assumed that’s why you were here.”
“Actually, Mr. Sherwood, Barb Carson hired us to look for her husband and to investigate a possible Wrongful Baby Delivery.”
“It was the other way around,” Tsusumi mumbled under her breath.
“We’ve located Ken,” Wynott quickly continued. “What can you tell us about the acquisition of Marilyn by the Carsons?”
They all took seats in the living room as Midge explained, “Barb is my best friend but I think she thought a baby was an accessory. It was something to acquire, do you know what I mean?”
Tsosumi opened her mouth to speak, but Wynott cut her off, “Yes, I think we understand. Go on.”
“She had it in her head that she needed a baby but she wasn’t really interested in the pregnancy,” Midge said glancing down at her greatly expanded body. “She and Ken had their DNA drawn and sent to Just Like Ewe for replication. They have prototypes there, a menu of combinations of attributes. Barb wanted a girl, blond, with average to above average intelligence. But I guess she didn’t get what she wanted. She’s pretty upset about it.”
“Did she know about you and her husband?” Tsosumi asked.
Midge winced. Allan responded, “That was a long time ago and I really don’t know how that’s relevant.”
“Could it be relevant as to why your daughter is missing, Mr. Sherwood?” Tsosumi shot back. “Could it be that you’re resentful about bringing up a daughter that isn’t yours? Maybe you had something to do with making sure Ken felt the same regret. And what you about you, Mrs. Sherwood?” she went on, turning to Midge. “It would be easy to see how you could be jealous of your beautiful friend. A friend that wanted a designer baby so badly as to make an easy target for revenge.”
Midge burst into tears. Allan put his arm around her and took a moment to give her comfort. “I apologize for my partner,” Wynott started.
“It’s okay,” Allan said. Looking at Tsosumi, he went on, “I love my daughter and to me that’s exactly who Sugar is, my daughter. I will not let you or anyone else suggest otherwise. I’ve loved her since before she was born and I’ll love her as if she is a part of me until the day I die. What happened between Ken and Midge is in the past.”
“Does Ken know he’s the father?” Wynott asked.
“No. I never told him,” Midge said as if she were a ghost.
“Why not?” asked Wynott.
“Because we had both moved on. I’d met Allan and Ken was with Barb and we had pretty much agreed we’d rather be friends than … we just understood it couldn’t be more and I didn’t want to ruin that.”
“What does Sugar know?” Wynott asked gently.
“About the baby? Nothing, except that she knows her Auntie Barb and I chose different routes to motherhood,” Midge said placing her hands over her abdomen. “About her father, Allan’s been the only father she’s ever known. I’m afraid she’s upset and confused.”
“About how much does that route to motherhood cost?” Tsosumi wanted to know, referring to Just Like Ewe.
“It depends on the model you choose - the prototypes from the menu. It can get pretty expensive, especially the more recessive genes you start talking about - blond hair, blue eyes, no freckles, short toes, …”
“Short toes?” asked Tsosumi.
“It’s about the shoes.”
“Did the Carsons have money trouble?” Wynott asked.
“I don’t think so,” Allan responded. “Although, Ken isn’t getting the amount of work he used to.”
“Do you know Gladys Kravitz?”
“Their neighbor? We’ve never met her. We understand she’s a bit of a busybody.”
“Any reason to think she might have any involvement with Carson’s transaction?”
Midge and Allan both shook their head. “I can’t imagine she would know anything.”
Wynott thanked them for their time and added, “If we hear anything about Sugar’s whereabouts, we’ll let you know.”
Outside, Tsosumi said, “It’s time to pay a visit to Mrs. Kravitz.”
Chapter Ten: Gladys
“I wonder if I’m dreaming that I’m talking in my sleep, am I really?”
Wynott desperately wanted to know the answer to that question as they drove across the tracks to the lane that followed the shoreline. They entered a simple concrete driveway that led to a neat home that was dwarfed by its neighbors. An ample but unadorned lawn was kept green by hidden sprinklers and was bordered by hedges on either side of the lot. The single-story brick home had few windows in the front but, as Wynott and Tsosumi later found out, the feature of the home was the floor to ceiling windows that faced the window and the wide open deck just outside them.
The check battery light had come on shortly after they left the office and they were slightly out of breath from peddling the recharger along the way. They’d had the windows down which made Wynott reminisce to the days of two-seated bicycles. His mind alternated between thinking about riding a bike behind Tsosumi and what she might say when she’s dreaming when an old woman answered the door before they had reached the Welcome Matt.
I hate the Welcome Matt, Tsosumi was thinking, that stupid contraption. That’s why people shouldn’t watch shopping channels. I want to rip its batteries out its throat.
“Welcome. I’m Matt,” it was saying. It was a mechanical device dressed up as a butler that would bend at the waist and gesture towards the door with a sweep of its white-gloved hand. “Welcome, I’m Matt.”
Before Tsosumi could drop-kick Matt, Gladys said, “Who are you? I haven’t seen you in the neighborhood before."
“Welcome, I’m Matt,” intoned Matt.
“We’re from the firm of Now & Then. We’re investigating a possible Wrongfully Changed Baby and were told you might have some information,” said Wynott.
“Welcome, I’m Matt.”
“Listen, could we come in? Or I might have to hurt Matt,” Tsosumi said in all seriousness.
Gladys led them into a small interior that was darkened only by comparison to the brilliant view of the water beyond.
“I don’t mean to intrude, Mrs. Kravitz, but what are you wearing?”
Gladys was wearing something that looked like a chin strap that connected to head gear not unlike a jockstrap, as Tsosumi saw it. Gladys’s hair stuck out in tufts where the elastic bands left openings which made her look like she was more than a little crazy. The fact that she was still wearing her housecoat didn’t help. The contraption didn’t appear to inhibit her speech. Rather, it appeared to be holding something along either side of her jawline.
“These are massage packs. They’re supposed to massage my jaw. I’m like a pit bull, you know. My jaw muscles are so overdeveloped they can lock. Only, in my case, they lock in the open position. My doctor says I have to learn to relax these muscles so we’ll have to keep this conversation brief.”
“Mrs. Kravitz, are you aware your neighbors to the north have a new baby?” Wynott asked.
Gladys tried to keep her response to a nod as she gestured them to sit, looking oddly like Matt as she did so. She couldn’t keep herself from saying, “The kid doesn’t look anything like her parents, though.”
“Did you know they procured...”
“I think they say ‘adapted’,” Wynott interrupted.
“...adapted...,” Tsosumi corrected, “her from Just Like Ewe?”
This time, Gladys kept her response to a nod.
“How did you know that, Mrs. Kravitz?” Tsosumi wanted to know. “Are you close with your neighbors?”
Here, Gladys gave no response.
“Did you loan Ken Carson money?”
A tilt of the head was Gladys’s only response. Maybe.
“Is Mr. Carson a good investment, Mrs. Kravitz? Maybe the Carsons, Ken, had financial issues? Is Ken repaying his loan?” Tsosumi asked.
Gladys was silent.
“Look. Ken already told us about the loan. He told us it was to finance his purchase - whatever - from Just Like Ewe. We know that Barb doesn’t know about it. Yet. Is that part of the plan, Mrs. Kravitz, to blackmail Ken?”
“Blackmail? Why would I blackmail Ken?”
“Isn’t it true you and the Carsons had a legal dispute over the property line that separates you when they built their house?” Tsosumi had done her homework.
“No! That was when Abner... No!”
Wynott interjected, “Mrs. Kravitz, I - that is to say, we - don’t think you’ve done anything illegal. It was a very nice thing for you to loan Mr. Carson money so he could adapt the daughter Barb yearned for.” Gladys looked from Tsosumi to Wynott. “Mrs. Kravitz, we’re just trying to find their baby. Can you help?”
“There have been some sneaky Suspicions.”
“Where, Mrs. Kravitz? In Suspiciaway?”
“No, here. In the neighborhood. I don’t know what they’re doing here. They could be working at the new home construction site across the street. I don’t know. But they’re clearly Suspicions.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kravitz.” Wynott continued, “We’ll look into that. Can you tell me, do you know a young girl by the name of Sugar Sherwood?”
Gladys nodded meekly. “She’s the daughter of Midge and Allan, friends of Barb and Ken. They come over from time to time.” Her voice trailed off.
“Do you have any idea where she might be?”
Gladys nodded more emphatically.
“Please, Mrs. Kravitz, tell us what you can.”
“She’s at the convent.”
“How do you know this?”
“Well, I can’t be really sure. I saw her ride by the house on her bike and I happened to notice that she didn’t stop next door. She just kept riding. It wasn’t any business of mine but it seemed unusual so I kept an eye on her. Just to be sure she wasn’t getting into any trouble. You know, these kids....”
“Can you see the convent from here, Mrs. Kravitz?”
“No but she was going in that direction.”
“Then, how do you know that’s where she went?” Tsosumi asked.
“I suppose I don’t. But when I went into town I saw her putting up flyers for the fundraiser: Charity China Chuck: Chuck your China for Charity.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kravitz,” Wynott said. “You’ve been very helpful. I do hope you’re jaw is feeling better soon. Please give us a call if you think of anything else that would help us locate Mr. and Mrs. Carson’s baby.”
As they left, Matt stood stoically waiting for his next guest.
Worse than gnomes, Tsosumi thought as they headed to their car.
Chapter Eleven: Suspiciaway
Tsosumi and Wynott made their way to Suspiciaway by taking a mostly downhill route which was less direct but charged the car battery along the way.
“Let’s stop for coffee,” Tsosumi suggested.
“Why not?” Wynott didn’t drink coffee himself but he knew that if Tsosumi was happy, he was more likely to have a good day himself.
Tsosumi ran into Central Perk for a Tall Skinny With Legs while Wynott waited in the parking lot. When she returned, she asked, “What happened to our public radio station?”
“They’re just taking a break.”
“The announcer said, ‘We’ll be right back after this news break.’ So, where’s the news?”
“No, she said, ‘We’ll be right back after the snooze break.’ Apparently, listeners got fed up with the fund drives so the station did away with them. Now they just go off the air for ten minutes on the hour.”
Public radio wasn’t really Tsosumi’s thing but she figured it made Wynott happy so she let him control the radio dial. “Are we there yet?” she teased.
“Nearly.” Central Perk was located next to the east-west tollway. Just on the other side was Suspiciaway. “Have you ever been here before?” Wynott asked.
“Yeah, my cousin London - on my mother’s side - he lives there.” She was more serious now. “Sad, really. He’s been homeless for the last fifteen years. He just can’t stay sober long enough to get a job. I come by every once in a while to see how he’s doing and he gives me information.”
“What kind of information?” Wynott asked.
“The kind of information that’s useful to people looking for information, like us,” Tsosumi responded, playful again.
Wynott waited his turn at the tunnel light to cross under the tollway into Suspiciaway, unconsciously tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the silence that replaced their radio broadcast.
“Maybe we should find another station,” Tsosumi suggested.
“No, that’s okay,” Wynott said as he snapped off the soundless radio.
They crossed into Suspiciaway and found a parking spot in front of Discount Brides. “London hangs out a few blocks from here. There’s a park next to the jail where there’s a combination tent city - slash - holdover from the occupy-the-city-you’re-in movement from forty years ago. I think they’re pretty much one in the same but it’s hard to tell the crazies from the ideologists. London falls somewhere between the two camps.”
They walked past the storefront where women wearing a dusty shade of white modeled behind glass panes reinforced with steel bars. Some were foreigners. Some were older than the age normally considered “eligible.” Others had their children posing either to show they were hard workers or, otherwise, peaceful and well mannered.
“I thought Discount Brides referred to the dress,” said Wynott, clearly concerned.
“Guess not,” said Tsosumi as they passed a pawn shop. Someone had spraypainted an R and an S on the sign so it read PrAWNs & GUNS. “I love this place, the sign actually. It’s been that way for years. I just love the idea of people buying guns to shoot shrimp. I mean, that would be a sport, right?”
“But you wouldn’t be able to eat the shrimp if you shot it,” Wynott pointed out.
“Not unless you used a shotgun.”
“Hardly a sport.”
“Mr. Bridges! Mr. Bridges!” An old woman was running across the street to the park that housed a colorful tent encampment. Tents were almost uniformly blue but the people and their belongings were shades of brown or gray. The trees, however, were wrapped in color. They seemed to be wearing brightly colored turtleneck sweaters.
“They paint the tree trunks for pests,” Tsosumi explained. “Each year is a different color.”
They crossed the street to the park and followed the old woman. She had long, fuzzy white hair that stuck out from underneath a gray stocking cap. She had color in her cheeks and clear blue eyes, but she was missing a few of her gray teeth. She wore a shawl that looked like it used to be red and a skirt so full it appeared there were several underneath. She had black laced boots and gray gloves that were missing most of their fingertips.
“I’ve got your medicine, Mr. Bridges.”
“Thank you, Miss Poppins. I’m much obliged.”
London took the paper sack from the old woman and took a long swig from it. “That’s the stuff,” he said burping.
“Hello, London,” Tsosumi said as they approached.
“Ha! It’s my old friend whatshername.”
“Come on, London, I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Can Mary come?”
Tsosumi looked Mary over but readily agreed. “Sure. Maybe she can help.”
They helped London to his feet but it wasn’t easy getting him to the lunch counter at the convenience store. It was only a block away but London didn’t travel well by any means. They sat on bar stools which was problematic as there was nothing to support him. Tsosumi and Mary sat on either side of him, giving him a nudge now and then to make sure he stayed upright.
They ordered black coffee although no one was really keen to drink the sludge that had been on the burner since morning. It glopped into their mugs as the waitress filled them. She subsequently had little reason to pour refills. They all ordered the Special of the Day. Wynott was tempted to take a sample to a lab to find out what exactly the Special was and thought it was in his best interest not to eat too much of it.
“Do you know much about babies, London?
“Ha! What would I know about babies?”
“Ooh, I know a lot about babies.” Mary was excited. “I used to be a nanny, you know.”
“Do you know anything about babies that go missing?”
“I don’t know anything about missing babies. Just babies that nobody wants. I see them gettin’ dropped off at the prawn’s shop all the time.”
“Aw, phooey, Mary. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” London said leaning dangerously.
“I do. People drops their babies off and they get money. That’s what peoples do at prawn’s shops.”
“Can you see them from the park?” Tsosumi asked.
“If you’re awake. It happens mostly at night.”
“Got a blue tarp, Wynott? I think we’re going camping.”
Chapter Twelve: Wynott
Wynott spent the day laying out his clothes and equipment for their dream camping getaway to Suspciaway. He knew Suspicions were sneaky so he didn’t want to take anything valuable or that would give away the nature of their mission. As he laid out his equipment, he realized this would be a difficult endeavor.
He wanted Tsosumi and him to be comfortable but that was difficult to do while trying to blend in with the park’s citizenry. He was forced to ditch his brightly colored nylon tent in favor of the tarp Tsosumi suggested the day before. He hoped no one would notice it was so new as to still have the folds from its original packaging. His queen-sized air mattress was definitely out but he couldn’t help but try to imagine a scenario where he would not only be able to bring it, but dress it in 1500 thread count Egyptian cotton.
Of course, he planned to bring his 6x Generation 4.0 Night Vision Scope - he purchased one for each of them last Christmas - the best night vision scope on the market. However, he decided he would have to do without his 30m waterproof long distance audio recorder. It was too big and ostentatious for covert work. Ditto for the digital day/night camera.
He wondered how long they would be there and if they would have to spend the night. Clearly, they couldn’t bring anything that would provide too much comfort or warmth so he thought it was likely they would have to provide those for each other. They would need to stay huddled together and brave the elements together.
He shut his eyes and imagined being close enough to smell her skin when the phone rang in a shrilling buzz kill. “Yes, hello?”
“Are you close to being ready?”
“I just need to change my clothes. I’ll swing by to pick you up in about thirty minutes. Does that work for you?”
“Anytime. I’m ready to go.”
They hung up and Wynott turned his attention to wardrobe. He didn’t have anything old so this was a particular challenge. All through grade school his clothes were purchased from second hand stores. It wasn’t until he got his first job - a paper route in junior high school - that he paid full price for a pair of jeans. They were his prized possession and he wore them nearly every day in the eighth grade.
He was always unpopular in school. He suspected it was because his family was poor but Tsosumi never seemed to notice. They had been best friends since kindergarten and they played together with the neighborhood kids until high school when Tsosumi started to notice boys and boys started to notice Tsosumi. He never understood why Tsosumi never noticed him.
Now he paid designer prices for even his most casual of clothes. His favorite sweatshirt appeared to be ripped and threadbare in places but cost enough that he wouldn’t even consider it for a camping trip - much less this one. He’d gone to a thrift store earlier in the day to purchase old clothes. It was difficult just walking in, his disdain for anything used nearly taking over to keep him from browsing through the racks of clothes or, worse yet, touching them.
It had taken nearly half an hour for him to regulate his breathing to the point where he could get to a meditative state. It became almost an out-of-body experience as he moved through the store and started to contemplate purchasing, even wearing, those clothes.
He ultimately decided on old work boots with laces that were too short to thread all the eyelets, heavy cotton work pants that were slightly worn and dirty on the thighs, a heavy jacket in brown plaid, one left-handed dark blue glove and one right-handed black one, and a hooded sweatshirt. He supplemented all this with long underwear which he already owned in shiny black Gore-Tex.
He dressed and packed his gear and found Tsosumi waiting for him on her front step.
“Where’s all your stuff?” Wynott asked.
Tsosumi was wearing black from head to toe. She wore tight spandex pants tucked into black, rubber soled boots. She had a short black leather jacket with silver zippers with a lightweight hooded sweatshirt underneath. Her shoulder length, black hair was pulled back in a flat wide, black, headband and on her back was a small, black backpack.
“Nobody’s going to bother us. They’ll know as soon as we get there, we don’t belong. Best not to try to pretend we do. All we have to do is give them a little respect and they’ll respect us right back.”
Wynott was slightly breathless as she folded herself into the car.
They parked on the other side of the jail in order to avoid walking by PrAWNs & GUNS on their way to the park. Wynott lugged his duffel as they wandered, looking for London and Mary. They found Mary telling stories to a small group of people about what it was like to be nanny. She was using a park bench as a small stage.
Tsosumi caught her attention as she finished to light applause and slightly drunken jeers. “Hello, Mary. I see you’re entertaining the crowd tonight. Have you seen London?”
“He’s fallen down drunk again but not to worry. We rolled him over there. He’ll be fine until morning.” London was lying at the base of a brightly ringed tree trunk underneath a wool Army blanket, quite contentedly snoring.
“Show me the baby drop.”
“It won’t be happening ‘till later but it’ll be right there,” she said pointing to the front door of PrAWNs & GUNS.
“That’s not very sneaky, using the front door.”
“No. They don’t think we take notice, those of us that live here. They just think we’re a bunch of drunks or whatnot. And it’s true, some of us are,” she said, clearly referring to London. “But some of us are here because we’re with people we care about.”
“I guess that’s lucky for us, then. Where’s the best spot for us to keep an eye on them without being seen?”
“You’re good right here in the open. Like I said, they don’t pay no attention to us. Like we’re not really people.”
Tsosumi and Wynott found an unused park bench away from any overhead lights and sat down to wait. Wynott pulled a blanket out of his duffel to cover their laps and regretted it wasn’t a blanket for a picnic and a bottle of wine. They sat close under the blanket. Wynott pulled out his scope. “Where’s yours?”
“About that.” Tsosumi said. “Must’ve cost you a mint, that scope.”
“Are you still using that Heinz Sight?” Wynott asked as Tsosumi pulled it from her backpack.
She sighed. “I love that you got me such an expensive scope. Really. I just favor the Heinz. Pretty retro, right?” She held it, almost reverently. “It does the job and sometimes old things are good, you know?”
Wynott didn't know and was feeling hurt when a trim woman with dark hair carrying a small bundle approached the front door of PrAWNs & GUNS. Wynott and Tsosumi raised their surveillance devices to get a better look.
“She appears to be caucasian, about five foot four inches, a hundred and ten pounds.” Wynott sized her up. “The guy at the door is about five-six or five-seven, caucasian, maybe a hundred and thirty pounds. Large nose.”
They saw the woman hand the bundle to the man in exchange for a small package.
“Did you see that? I couldn’t make it out.” Wynott whispered.
“The bundle’s a baby, is my bet. And the package, that was $400.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s my scope. In the Heinz Sight, I could see it was twenty twenties.”
Chapter Thirteen: Raúl
Gladys hated this part of the construction process, the landscaping crew. They always came near the end of the project to install the sod and decorative shrubs. She watched through parted curtains as the white pickup pulled up to the curb across the street and three leggy young women hopped out. Their legs were smooth and tanned, gleaming above work boots and beneath short denim cutoff short shorts. They wore tight white shirts that exposed ample cleavage and midriffs and green ball caps with their company logo, Garden Hoes.
As they set about their work, Gladys took a look around at the neighboring houses and noticed she was not the only one to observe the landscaping crew. Typical, she thought. In each house, she could spot a pair of eyes peeking out of curtains or cracked windows. Men suddenly appeared in their front yards doing long overdue chores, raking or cleaning gutters.
The Hoes were not know for their landscaping skill but some in the neighborhood eagerly looked forward to their appearance as sweet compensation for the inconvenience of a construction site next door. Other neighbors, such as Gladys, found the Garden Hoes a necessary evil signaling the end of construction and the beginning of relationships with new neighbors. Regardless, the Hoes would not be back after today. Not until another home went up in the neighborhood and it was time for new neighbors to move in.
Most of the construction workers had already been let go as work on the project wound down. Raúl was one of the few roofers left but soon he'd have to begin looking for another project elsewhere. He had a good relationship with this builder but there wouldn't be any work for him until there was a roof to put on.
He often had to pawn his tools between jobs in order to be able to continue sending money home to his family. He planned to catch a bus to Suspiciaway over the weekend to see what he could get for his titanium lather's axe.
He watched the Garden Hoes at work getting dirty and sweaty as the day wore on. All three of them had light hair and light skin, although they all were bronzed by outdoor work. Most of his friends were dark skinned with dark hair and brown eyes. It had always been this way. His parents looked the same, as did his grandparents and his children. But more and more he noticed his friends from Northern Mexico were looking to adapt blond children even though their traditions tended towards natural birth.
There were some in his community that felt that their children would have more opportunities and fewer obstacles to success with lighter skin and hair. They might better blend into a North American society and even if they maintained their cultural identities, their first impressions – the ones that matter – would be of lives stripped of ethnicity. Lives predisposed to wealth and opportunity.
It was not for him, adaption. He could not imagine having children that did not look like him even if the differences were superficial. But he could understand his friends' reasoning. They often were in difficult positions, economically, and had trouble providing for their families, providing more than just the minimum. This, he could understand.
He agreed to help a couple who wanted to have their DNA altered for the purposes of adaption. They had given him a paper sack that looked exactly the same as his lunch sack, except it contained two glass vials of a milky substance, and a lot of cash. He didn't know how much. He didn't want to know. He left the bag closed and never looked inside it after his friends gave it to him.
He was supposed to take it to the pawn shop in Suspiciaway, the one that had graffiti so that the sign read PrAWNs & GUNS. He had been there before to buy or sell tools so he knew the place. He was to give the bag to the shop owner, a man with dark curly hair and a large nose. Raúl knew this man, although he didn't know his name. He would be going there anyway to see what he could sell his axe for so it would be no trouble to deliver the bag. His friends promised him payment, a fee for making safe delivery.
They said they were afraid to go. They were illegals and didn't want to get into any kind of trouble in a rough neighborhood. The Suspicions made them uneasy. Raúl was illegal too but never had any trouble in Suspiciaway so offered to take the package for them.
The Garden Hoes were dirty and wet from watering the freshly installed landscaping. They let their hair down as they took turns taking drinks from the garden hose. Men about the neighborhood were finishing up their chores as it started to get dark and the Hoes started to load up their tools into the back of their truck. Raúl worked until the last of the workers went home, promising to lock up and secure the equipment.
As night fell and the neighborhood lights came on, he knew he would only be able to stay a short while longer as a resident of this roof, the roof he built. He'd seen the residents of Suspciaway at the park by the jail and he was glad he wasn't one of them. At the same time, he never knew when he might become one.
He didn't want to attract attention to himself at the nearly abandoned work site so he looked forward to the errand. He caught a bus early Sunday morning to Suspiciaway, shortly after sunrise. The bus dropped him off in front of the jail long before PrAWNs & GUNS opened for business. He strolled around the perimeter of the park and bought a coffee with change from his pocket at the corner diner. The coffee was so terrible he couldn't drink it but the diversion killed a little time and it was nice to have something warm to hold onto in the cool morning air.
He made his way from the diner to PrAWNs & GUNS, passing a behemoth of a pink Cadillac with velvet seats parked on the western border of the park across from the pawn shop. There were four people in it who appeared to have made their home in it. As he approached it from behind he could see they were still sleeping inside.
He entered the shop at ten, just as it opened, with the paper sack in his hand. The shop owner was behind the counter adjusting the items in the glass case beneath the register. Raúl drifted around the shop, browsing for bargains, items he might send home as gifts. He had worked his way to the back of the shop and was sifting through the hand tools when the bell above the door announced the arrival of another customer.
He glanced at the front door and saw a man and a woman enter and head straight for the shop owner behind the counter. She was a slim Asian woman, dressed all in black, looking lethal in more ways than one. He looked less threatening and was dressed like a construction worker in new work clothes.
He went back to browsing the tools while he waited his turn for the shop owner, placing the bag near his feet while he picked up the tools, testing the weight of each one in his hands.
Chapter Fourteen: Raps
“D’ya like my ride?” London was showing off his car, polishing the chrome with the sleeve of his sweater.
“Does it run?” Tsosumi asked.
“Well, no, it doesn’t run but that isn’t the point.”
“What is the point?”
“I have the coolest digs on the block. That’s the point. Get in.”
London unlocked the doors and they all climbed in, sliding across velvet seats that were worn and shiny, nearly bald in places but otherwise intact. Tsosumi slid behind the wheel with Wynott across from her on the bench seat. London and Mary were in back.
“Where did you get it?”
“I did a favor for a chap named Raps. He asked me to get something over to General Hospital.”
“That’s a little bit far for you to go. What was it?”
“He didn’t say but I wasn’t going to ask too many questions after he told me what he was going to pay me.”
“What is this hanging from the rear view?” Wynott indicated the largest pair of white ladies underwear he had ever seen, trying not to betray disgust.
“Those are my girlfriend’s.”
“Ex-girlfriend, love,” Mary reminded.
“She must’ve been enormous,” Tsosumi said.
“DeeDee Goose. Yes, she was big and beautiful,” London said as Mary rolled her eyes. “But it didn’t work out, especially after she found religion. Fact is, she wouldn’t want to know I have these,” he said with a wistful look. “She’s Mother Superior at the Convent now.”
Tsosumi brought out the sandwiches that Wynott had prepared as they settled in for the evening. Fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers on ciabatta rolls with arugula and balsamic. They were parked across from PrAWNs & GUNS and London’s new car had a good view of the front door. There wasn’t much traffic in and out of the shop but long after the shop had closed the woman they had seen before made another delivery.
“That’s the woman I gave the package to. At the hospital.”
“Are you sure, London?”
“As sure as I am of … Well, I’m sure of that, I am.”
There wasn’t much activity after that so they left the car and attended a small bonfire in the park with the other park residents that were sharing their fortunes, passed around in paper sacks. Saturday night was still celebrated in the park when there was nothing else to celebrate. Tsosumi was unafraid of joining in but Wynott thought it was best if at least one of them remained sober.
When there was nothing left to drink and the fire burned out, everyone retired to their temporary abodes.
“I don’t think there will be any more activity tonight. We might was well get some shuteye,” Tsosumi announced as they all climbed back into the Cadillac. London and Mary had no trouble falling asleep in the back seat. Wynott was too nervous to close his eyes while Tsosumi reminisced.
“Do you remember walking to school? I can’t believe how young we were. Parents would never let their kids walk to school these days. Such as shame, really. Probably accounts for child obesity, driving them everywhere. Tell them to get out and walk, is what I say.”
Wynott had trouble envisioning Tsosumi as a mother.
“Do you remember that time it was so windy we were afraid to lift our feet off the ground? We had my dad’s golfing umbrella. It was huge, like walking under a giant clam shell. We were convinced if we didn’t have at least one foot on the ground at all times, the wind would pick us up and we’d float away under our umbrella.”
“Preposterous,” Mary said from the back seat.
“Didn’t know you were still awake,” Tsosumi said lowering her voice to a whisper. She slid across the seat so Wynott could hear her.
Wynott wanted to put an arm around her but didn’t.
“I used to have a crush on your older brother,” Tsosumi said, apropos of nothing. Wynott knew this but preferred not to think about it. “Not that he ever noticed me. I wasn’t old enough for him to notice. Oh, well. He missed out.”
Wynott thought so, too.
“I love you,” Tsosumi said as she drifted off to sleep, her entire body leaning into him.
Wynott knew what she meant. She’d said it before. She loved his presence, the fact that he was always there for her, her best friend. Her business partner, not her lover. He wished she meant something else. More.
He sighed as he watched the windows steam up and willed the analog clock set into a chrome frame in the dashboard to advance towards morning.The clock would not move, however, and Wynott had to keep track of time by watching the stars, afraid to move his arm to look at this watch and wake his gently sleeping Tsosumi.
The streets were quiet until early morning when the buses started running and the garbage trucks made their rounds. London had flopped his head backward onto the headrest and was snoring loudly which didn’t seem to bother Mary or Tsosumi in the least. When Tsosumi rearranged herself so that her head was on Wynott’s lap, he used his knit cap to clean away enough fog to see out the windshield.
Just before ten, a man with dark hair walked past the car and crossed the street to the pawn shop. Wynott nudged Tsosumi awake in time to see him walk in with a paper sack in his hand.
“Time to go to work,” Tsosumi said wiping a little drool from her mouth.
Wynott wished they could stay in the car so long as Tsosumi wanted to stay close to him.
She stepped out of the car and stretched as Wynott gathered himself.
They entered the store and saw a large-nosed man behind the counter. The dark haired man was browsing in the back of the store.
“Are you Barry Schwartz?” Wynott asked.
“Don’t call me that. It’s Raps Barry now.”
“Sorry, the business licence from the city says Barry Schwartz.”
“Yeah, well, Barry Schwartz is dead. Nobody liked Barry Schwartz. Barry Schwartz had no street cred.”
“So, it’s Raps Barry now?”
“Got a problem with that?”
“Just thought we’d take a look around, Mr. Schwartz.”
“It’s Raps Barry. Looking for anything in particular?”
“I’m looking for something about the size of a rugby ball.” Tsosumi said. “Got anything like that?”
“Can’t say that I do, miss,” Raps Barry said giving Tsosumi an appreciative look bordering on obscene.
“Let’s just say that you did,” she said walking slowly to the counter giving her hair a slight toss. “What would it cost me? About four hundred bucks?” She asked leaning on the register and looked into Raps Barry’s eyes.
“Maybe,” he said pursing his lips a little. “But I’d make you a special deal.”
“Maybe I’ll just take a little look around. See if there’s anything I can’t live without. Anything special for me in the back room?” she asked raising an eyebrow.
“Tempting, but no. Nothing back there for you,” Raps Barry said straightening up.
“Do I smell talcum powder?”
Raps Barry looked at Wynott as if he wasn’t sure why he was still there. “Can’t say what you smell. I smell something rotten. In fact, you might be scaring off my customers with your stink. Maybe you should go take care of that, my friend, or I’ll have to do something about that.”
“No need for any trouble, Raps Barry,” Tsosumi soothed. “I can take care of my friend here.” She leaned across the counter and whispered, “He can’t give me what I want, you know, but I have a feeling you can. I’ll be back.”
Tsosumi gave Raps Barry a conspiratorial smile and turned to leave.
Both men in the shop watched her go, slightly breathless.
Chapter Fifteen: Ms. Kane
Wynott parked the car on the top level of the Guiding Light Lot. They got out and walked to the rail and enjoyed the view.
“What a beautiful day. You can see beach from here,” Wynott said squinting through his sunglasses.
“I hope we have this case wrapped up soon. I have a volleyball tournament there next weekend. Can you be there?”
Wynott sighed at the thought of watching Tsosumi playing beach volleyball but hoped it wasn’t audible. “No, I’m afraid I have plans,” he said as they made their way to the elevator.
“Let’s take the stairs,” Tsosumi suggested. “Good for the glutes.”
Wynott made another involuntary sigh. This time, at the thought of five flight of stairs.
They crossed the street on the second floor catwalk and took an escalator down to the hospital’s lobby. They asked the woman behind the Information Desk for directions to the All My Children Department. They were issued Visitors badges and the walked the hallway that took them to a tram shaped like an umbilical chord. They climbed aboard and waited for departure.
After passing through a short tunnel, they arrived at All My Children and entered through automatic sliding glass doors. A sign in the small lobby directed patients to the left for natural births where the lobby opened to a waiting room decorated in pastels and artwork featuring fluffy animals. A smoke glass door to the right was labeled by a small placard, Just Like Ewe. Inside were colorless workstations separated by carrels. It looks like a bank, thought Tsosumi.
They browsed the brochures on a table by the door and studied the informational posters regarding financing options for adaption. Phones rang softly in the background as couples were conferring with Adaption Specialists.
Wynott was lost in his thoughts about what a baby with Tsosumi would look like when she nudged him. “That’s her. The woman from PrAWNs & GUNS.”
They followed her to her desk. “May I help you?” she asked as she slid into a chair behind her desk. The nameplate read, Ms. Kane.
“Um, yes. We were considering adaption.”
“Don’t tell me. You’re thinking about getting a blond baby.” Ms. Kane looked back and forth between Tsosumi and Wynott noting that neither were blond. “We’ll have to get the blond from your side, of course,” she said to Wynott. “It’s very difficult to extract blond from....”
“Koreans. My family is originally from North Korea,” Tsosumi offered.
“It’s generally easier to get blond genes from Caucasians. Although, there have been known to be complications and it can sometimes be expensive.”
“How expensive, exactly?” Wynott asked.
“It depends, really. We have to get DNA samples from both of you and analyze them for their genetic structure. And, of course, you have to select your model from the brochure. There are other things to consider besides hair color, you know. Like intelligence or talent,” Ms. Kane suggested with a note sarcasm.
“Of course,” Tsosumi conceded. “Do you have recommendations? It’s really a lot for us to take in, you know?”
Ms. Kane spun around in her chair to get a traits comparison chart. Her dark hair was swept up in a french twist with soft tendrils of loose hair that framed her face and hung down the back of her neck. They were not enough, however, to cover up a small tattoo behind her right ear. It was a small heart with the initials RS.
“Here is a list of the traits to choose from in order of their recessiveness. The expense goes up as you move down the chart. Also, the more you traits you want to predetermine, the more expensive it gets. Kind of like pizza toppings.”
Wynott shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Let’s say we don’t have a blond gene between us. Is there anything else we can do?” Tsosumi asked putting her elbows on the desk.
“I’m not sure I understand you.”
“I don’t know. It’s just that we want a blond baby so badly.” Tsosumi looked into Wynott’s eyes with a desperate look and put her hand on his. She turned back to Ms. Kane. “We have money.”
“Well. It’s not like I have a secret stash of blond genes right here in my drawer,” Ms. Kane said with a nervous laugh. “I mean, really, what do you think this is? A drive-thru?”
“It must be hard for you, Ms. Kane. Dealing with people like us. People with dark hair that come here desperately looking for blond babies. It must make you wonder what all the fuss is about.”
Ms. Kane shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t imagine. But, what they say is true. ‘Blonds have more fun.’ I think they have more of everything, if you ask me.”
“Don’t I know it,” Tsosumi replied. “I know a woman - blond - with a gorgeous husband, house in Malibu, clothes, cars, her choice of careers.”
“That’s the story around here, too. I’ve been here for forty years. Forty-one, actually,” she said shaking her head. “What I don’t understand is how I can continue to be overlooked. I’m beautiful, if you haven’t noticed, and I’m good at what I do. Terrific, in fact. Have I ever been recognized for my talents? No, not once in forty-one years. Every year the Employee Of The Year Award goes to some bimbo with big boobs and blond hair.” She stopped, fearing she had said too much.
“I guess that’s just the way things are,” she said trying to regain her composure.
“Apparently,” said Wynott.
“I’m sorry,” Ms. Kane continued. “It’s just that I’m so passionate about what I do.” She turned back to Tsosumi. “Yes, I can help you get a blond baby.”
“You see, honey?” Tsosumi turned to Wynott. “I knew if we found the right person, everything would work out. Ms. Kane is obviously a professional and can clearly make arrangements.”
Ms. Kane was silent.
“What’s next, Ms. Kane?” Wynott asked.
“You can start with these forms. I’ll need both your DNA and a list of your preferred traits here,” she said pointing to the form. “Your bank information goes there. And, of course, gratuities are strictly prohibited.”
“Yes, of course, Ms. Kane,” Tsosumi said. “I completely understand. May we fill these out and bring them back to you?”
“Of course, please take your time. But, please, my arrangements are of a confidential nature. They’re cultivated from long term relationships and it’s a very competitive industry. You understand.”
“Completely, Ms. Kane.”
Chapter Sixteen: Sergeant Pennyworth
“Wakey, wakey. Eggs and bakey,” Tsosumi sang out as she banged on the Cadillac’s back window.
“Ha! It’s my old friend whatshername.” London rolled down a foggy window.
“What do you say we go out for breakfast?”
“Can Mary come?”
“Of course, London,” Tsosumi said, giving Mary a wink.
They took their places at the counter and ordered a round of coffee. Each, in turn, stared into his cup and wondered if it was safe to drink. Wynott felt the need to stir it, clinking his spoon around the cup but that wasn’t enough to get his nerve up. The bacon was another story and they each had some. Bacon and eggs. Bacon and pancakes. Buscuits and gravy with a side of bacon. And a BLT, hold the lettuce and tomato.
Conversation was limited as they slurped up their orders. Occasionally one could hear a muffled, “Pass a napkin,” as the fat ran down their chins and onto their hands. Except for Wynott who ate his sandwich which a knife and fork.
As they finished, they leaned their elbows on the counter and suspended their rounded stomachs before them, belching, some more discreetly than others. “Do you still know how to get hold of Pennyworth?” Tsosumi asked London.
“Ay,” London burped indiscreetly.
Fred Pennyworth entered law enforcement after many years of service to a vigilante crusader, mainly as his butler. During that time he was in a position to learn the the workings and members’ identities of the under-society that plagued the city. After a psychopath, distraught at having lost at a world-wide poker tournament that offered an unprecedented winner’s prize, killed his employer in a freak car accident Fred sought to continue the effort to rid the city of crime. After several failed attempts with spandex, he took the more traditional route and joined the Enforcement Brotherhood.
Fred and London became acquainted in rehab. Fred was undercover. London, three sheets. They became lifelong friends, nevertheless, and kept in contact over the years.
“How quickly can you reach him?”
“We’ve worked out a signal.”
“Good. Get a hold of him and tell him to meet us at PrAWNs & GUNS.”
Wynott paid the check as the rest filed out to the curb. London and Mary sauntered to the park, taking frequent rest breaks - although Wynott was sure that one stop in a receded doorway may have included urination - as Now and Then made a beeline to the pawn shop.
The door bells rang out announcing their arrival just as Raps Barry finished entering a code on a keypad mounted to the wall behind the register.
“Oh, it’s you again. Lovely to see you,” Raps Barry said. “Something I can help you with? I see you brought your friend with you,” he continued never taking his eyes off Tsosumi.
“Yes, but it’s you I am interested in.”
Raps Barry gave a little smile.
“What is that?” Tsosumi asked pointing to the keypad. “An alarm?”
“Of sorts. It’s a geofence. It sets off an alarm if some of my product walks out the door.”
“Does that happen often? Products walking out the door?”
“It’s a rough neighborhood. You never know. Who is this guy? Boyfriend?”
“Shall we say, business partner. As it turns out, I’d like to do some business with you. Too bad it can’t be more but I don’t think your girlfriend would like it.”
“I saw her tattoo. The one with your initials. She’s your connection at the hospital, isn’t she?”
London and Mary were sharing stories with Sergeant Pennyworth as they came through the front door.
“Ms. Kane’s the one who brings you the babies, that much we know,” Wyott interrupted.
“I don’t care what you think you know,” Raps Barry snapped.
“And the sign,” Tsosumi continued. “I always wondered about that but your girlfriend’s tattoo helped me put it together. It’s not graffiti which explains why you never fixed it. The extra R and S on your shop sign are your initials. It’s a code, isn’t it?”
“A code for what?” Raps Barry paid no attention to the newcomers.
“You know what else? Some of your customers apparently think PrAWNs & GUNS is the name of the shop. Otherwise, why would they come and go with bags that have your logo on them, misspelled? Unless, that’s code too. Unless, that’s the way they identify themselves to you. Or, rather, the nature of their business.”
Just then a woman poked her head in the back door from the storage area. She glanced at the people who were crowding the shop and seemed startled when she saw Mary. “See you tonight, then,” she said abruptly shutting the door again as she made her exit through the back.
“Good night, McPhee,” Raps Barry replied but not before she had gone.
“Is she your night watch, Mr. Schwartz?” Wynott asked.
“You might say that,” Raps Barry replied.
“Sure, if she’s watchin’ babies,” Mary offered. “She’s a nanny, she is.”
Raps Barry shot Mary a look, at the same time registering her presence.
“Let’s say my partner and I wanted a baby,” Tsosumi asked bringing Raps Barry’s attention back to her. “A blond one. You could hook me up couldn’t you?”
Raps Barry shifted his weight and made a small move towards the storage area.
“Erica brings you babies from the hospital, the blond ones, ones with blue eyes or freckles. Right? You extract the recessive genes and implant the babies with geotracking chips and send the babies back. That’s what the geofence is for. Inventory control.” Tsosumi made her way to the counter. “You send the babies back to the hospital when you’ve extracted what you need and you keep track of them with your geofence in case you need more. Not that you ever have. Erica is up to her elbows in babies. It’s just an insurance policy. You know, in case Erica gets ideas of her own. She’s a smart girl, you know. Beautiful, too. But she herself has dark hair.”
“Except Erica made a mistake,” Wynott continued. “The Carsons ordered a blond baby and didn’t get it. What happened? Is Erica in the market for designer genes for herself?”
“No. She doesn’t need that. I can give her what she wants. She loves me. I see her for who she is, for her accomplishments, her talent. No one sees her like I do. I can give her the most beautiful baby in the world.”
“How can you be so sure?” Wynott was at the end of the counter now. “You have dark hair, too. You can’t give her what she wants, can you?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Raps Barry yelled as he turned and bolted for the back door.
London had lost interest in the conversation about babies - a subject that mattered little to him - and had decided to sleep off his breakfast. He was dreaming that he was a famous football player and was sorely disappointed when his nap was rudely interrupted and he found himself at the bottom of a pile of bodies all trying to fit through the rear doorway at once.
He grabbed onto the body closest to him and held on tightly in case he wasn’t dreaming and he really was a famous football player. Since he heard no whistle, it took a few minutes before Tsosumi’s voice penetrated, telling him it was okay to let go of Raps Barry. Seargeant Pennyworth had him in handcuffs and Wynott helped him pull Raps Barry to his feet.
“You see? She’s the most beautiful baby in the world.”
Chapter Seventeen: Now and Then
Barb Carson was cradling her second first born daughter. Marilyn was home and content in her mother’s arms. Ken hadn’t wanted to rename their first first born daughter. He was afraid he might feel differently about her if they called her something else. As if changing her name would somehow lessen his feelings for her or reassign them to their second first born daughter. Barb insisted, and he relented. The baby previously known as Marilyn was now Elizabeth who would always be their first first born daughter, to Ken at least.
Tsosumi and Wynott delivered Marilyn to the Carsons after she had her geotracking device removed at General Hospital and received a full physical.
“Ms. Kane was at the hospital when we brought Marilyn to All My Children. You should have seen her. She was so confused between wanting to adore Marilyn and fearing this was a baby she had seen before. You could tell she wasn’t quite sure but the bolt slid into place eventually and you could see it in her eyes. She knew it was over.”
“I’m just so shocked. She was so compelling in her role, so believable.” Ken was appalled. He stood with Elizabeth on his hip, shifting his weight back and forth to keep Elizabeth soothed.
Barb couldn’t help but think Midge and Allan had expressions on their faces that said “I told you so” but she overlooked it, even as Midge stood to pace the living room. Barb knew how they felt about adaption.
“I have to say, Mrs. Carson, she really is beautiful,” Wynott said of Marilyn.
“Thank you. She’s everything I ever wanted.” Ken felt slighted and bounced Elizabeth higher on his hip,
“Their m.o. was to return the babies to the hospital after harvesting their genetic material but they got distracted when Marilyn came along. Apparently, you have the perfect baby, recessively speaking.” Tsosumi explained. “Ms. Kane had a partner - her lover - who perpetuated the black market in blond and other recessives. If he had stuck to the plan, your baby would have been delivered on schedule and you would have never known.”
“What happened?” Barb asked.
“I think it’s just heartburn.”
“No, with Marilyn.”
“They fell in love,” Wynott answered.
“With each other? I don’t follow,” said Barb.
“No, with Marilyn,” Tsosumi explained.
“He was in love,” Wynott offered.
“Yes, and he thought there would be a day when his girlfriend would want more. A baby, perhaps. He thought Marilyn was his ticket to some sort of eternal happiness, although I’m not sure I understand the logic there.”
“I do,” said all three men as if kindred spirits.
“They swapped babies and thought you wouldn’t notice except they picked one with dark hair. Their mistake was in giving you the wrong baby.”
“Not to me she isn’t.” Ken looked at Barb to see if he was in trouble. Barb didn’t seem to notice that Ken had said anything. “Marilyn is beautiful.” Now, Barb took notice. “I’m sure we’ll adjust to loving them both. Equally.”
“Excuse me?” Barb hugged Marilyn closer.
“What will happen to Marilyn now? I mean, Elizabeth.” Allan wanted to know.
Wynott answered. “There’s a chance, a small one, that Elizabeth will be able to stay with you. Certainly, for the time being anyway. The final determination will have to be made by JurisCommerce after Elizabeth’s parents are identified.”
That could mean another loan from Mrs. Kravitz, Ken thought but said, “What will happen to the other babies in this - if I can call it - this Baby Mill?”
“All the babies were implanted with microchips. Geotracking will help us locate them and their families. We’ll just have to go from there.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Midge said, interrupting.”Have you found Sugar?”
Barb uttered a small sigh as everyone’s attention shifted .
“We have. She’ll be at the China Chuck today. We’ll be on our way as soon as we’re done here,” Tsosumi assured her.
“I’ll go with you,” Allan quickly offered.
“No, you won’t,” Midge said.
Allan looked it his wife confused. “I have to go. I need to be there. I need to assure her. Let her know...”
Again, Midge interrupted. “You need to be here, honey. Assure me. Oh my god, assure me right now.” She squatted. Right above a puddle of amniotic fluid.
* * *
“I’ll go,” Ken said after Midge and Allan had left in Barb’s Corvette.
“Are you kidding me?” she had said at the time. “She just ruined a Persian rug and now you want me to let her - I don’t even want to think about it - all over my car?”
“I’ll go,” Ken repeated, handing Elizabeth to Barb, adding to her consternation.
“When will you be back?” Barb nearly shrieked.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, baby.” Ken wasn’t sure who he was addressing. “I just need to make things right.”
They took the Solar Van and headed to Charleston where the China Chuck was already in progress. They parked and followed the crowd to a semi-demolished building where the storefront was missing but the other three walls remained. Sugar was taking money at a booth under a sign that read, “China Chuck For Charity. Chuck Your Chipped China For Chump Change.” According to the details, you could either donate your chipped china for chucking or pay chump change for the privilege of chucking it, or both. All for charity.
Who uses saucers anymore anyway? Tsosumi wondered.
Wynott was thinking, That’s Dresdon, they’re throwing away! What are they thinking?
“Step right up, my dears, chuck some china for charity. Yes? Ticket, please.”
There was a nun in full habit taking tickets outside the Chuck Hut. She was wearing the summer uniform of yellow, black having been determined years ago as a having a negative effect on recruiting and frightening small children. It was not her color. Her ample form was unfortunately well outlined under her robes - an ample bosom and a robust rump - with her pale complexion rising out of her collar.She looked somewhat like an egg.
“Mother Goose?” Tsosumi asked.
“Yes, my dear. Do I know you?”
“Not yet, but you know my cousin. London?”
“I’m sorry, not sure I follow. London?”
“I believe you had a - how can I say it? - relationship.”
“I’m a nun, my dear. What ever are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about some dirty linens that are hanging from his rear view mirror.”
The Mother Superior’s demeanor changed but only for an instance. “How can you be sure they’re mine?”
“It’s hard to imagine they belong to anyone else. There were stray feathers stuck in the fibers. Kinky. I would love to that story again or should I tell you?” Tsosumi bluffed.
“That certainly won’t be necessary. What do you want?”
“We’d like Sugar to come home.”
“How do you know she wants to go home? She might like it here.”
“Just let us speak to her,” Ken pleaded.
Mother Goose stared at Ken, seeing him for the first time, embarrassed that knowledge of her past might extend beyond the previous stranger. “I can’t stop you.”
“See that you don’t,” Tsosumi warned.
Sugar’s upbeat visage stonewalled when she saw her visitors. She was wearing a headband with a small yellow veil trailing behind it.
“Why are you here?” Her question was an accusation.
“We want you to come home,” Ken ventured.
“Why? Why should I go home? What for?” Sugar didn’t hide her anger.
“Because we love you. Your father loves you,” he corrected.
“And who is that, exactly?”
“It’s the man who held you as a baby, the man who loved you enough to change your stinky diapers for crying out loud,” he laughed to no avail. “Sugar, I can tell you right now, with no amount of uncertainty, that your Father loves you enough for his heart to break. I don’t know how to explain it but without you, he would not be complete. Something would be missing.”
“You may never know what it’s like until you have children of your own but when you do … “ he sighed holding his chest. “When you do, it’s like nothing you can imagine. It’s love squared. It’s love … I don’t know. I’m not explaining this very well.”
Sugar said nothing.
“You have a little brother or sister now. Your parents are at the hospital right now. Just go and see her. Hold her. Or him. It will be magic, I promise, but nothing like what your father feels for you. Not even close. Hold your baby brother or sister and then tell me that genetics matter. I can tell you, they don’t. It’s not everything, anyway. I love Marilyn as if it was my soul’s last breath,” he said referring to his first first born.
Sugar came out from behind the booth. She looked from Ken to Tsosumi to Wynott. Ken stepped forward to close the gap between them and wrapped his arms around her. He could feel her muscles relax as she relented her feelings betrayal, loneliness, and isolation.
“I love you, Uncle Ken,” she said into his shoulder. “Will you still come over to see me? And take me out for ice cream?”
“Of course, Sugar. Every now and then.”
That's all she wrote.
I'm working on the next adventure.
Here are my notes as I plot out The One About Water.
Drop by, if your interested.
I'm working on the next adventure.
Here are my notes as I plot out The One About Water.
Drop by, if your interested.