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FREE SAMPLE. MIRA E. CHAPTER ONE. (SELF-HARM TRIGGER WARNING.)

Here, for reasons of the plot, is the first chapter of MIRA E.

If you have problems with self-harm, take care: this story features that topic in the opening sequence. Search for websites on help for self-harmers before you read on, if you feel that tackling a story like this might trigger an episode.
   It's just a story. Don't use the text as a banana-skin to slip on. Recycle that banana-skin without tripping over it. Avoid the pain.
 

INCIDENT BEFORE.



Zeke, slumping, pasted another body-dump story into his scrapbook with the loving care of someone who felt deeply for dead strangers.
   He sat back and popped the last square of white chocolate into his teeth.
   The ration rebounded and landed on the story of a woman found in shrubbery. Woman. Girl, really. Not much older than the crime-obsessed Zeke.
   He placed the chocolate inside his mouth, on his dry tongue, and let the food melt as he read the incomplete jigsaw.
   Detectives had high hopes. There were strong leads. High hopes wouldn’t bring the woman back to life. Girl, really.
   “Zeke.”
   “Oh hi, Annabel.”
   This was his informal mother, who detested all maternal appellations with the sideswipe that appellation is not a mountain range.
   Zeke developed his own sense of humour, one generation removed from funny. Annabel planted a hip against the door and wondered what to have for supper, having already decided.
   “What are we all having for supper?”
   Edible food, I’d hope.”
   “Are you still stuck in that vegetarian phase, honey?”
   “No, Annabel. I’m not in a vegetarian phase. If we all skipped meat, meals would be easier to arrange.”
   “I admire your lack of interest in killing animals.”
   “If we had to kill them, we’d have to eat them. Otherwise, that would be wasteful. As I don’t have to kill them, I don’t have to eat them. The same is true of plants, I know, but…”
   “A guy has to eat. Okay, guy. We’re doing the cheese thing.”
   “Not fondue.”
   “Hell no. Scrapbook?”
   “The latest news. They think she might be Miriam, two towns over. The one who ran off.”
   “Surely they’d know.”
   “Yeah, I guess. They’ll want to let her parents know for sure, before it’s splashed all over the papers. Though if you read between the lines of what this journalist says…”
   “It’s pretty obvious. Well, don’t get too caught up in it.”
   “You said that about the President.”
   “He’s gone now, Zeke. We have a new President.”
   “Don’t get too caught up in the new President’s business either?”
   “After he just pardoned the last guy? I don’t see that leading to an election result worth mentioning.”
   “Okay. I’ll do the cheese thing. And I’ll still go around saying I like President Nixon.”
   “Not my favourite cake on the stand. Still, you have different tastes.”
   “Yeah. The cheese thing again. Resentment.”
   “I’m just glad the timing was off, and that you weren’t tangled in Vietnam.”
   “We’re all tangled in Vietnam, mom.”
   “Annabel. You only call me the other thing when you want what you think you need, or when you want to stir up some disapprobation.”
   “What’s that fifty-dollar word when it’s at home?”
   “When it’s at home, it lives in a castle. Disapproval, with a side-serving of condemnation.”
   “The bread, to go with the cheese.”
   “You aren’t a vegetarian, it’s just that…”
   “Lately, I’ve gone off the taste of meat.”
   “So it’s about the taste, and not the killing.”
   “I guess that’s so, in Miriam’s case. Someone had a taste for her. Didn’t mind killing her to savour that taste.”
   “There’s no approval or disapproval. It would be nice if you didn’t spend all your time tracking murder cases. Or…it would be okay if you tacked a desire to be a detective onto that obsession.”
   “We’re eating in an hour.”
   “Yes. Stanley will have fixed the car or lost patience with it by then.”
   “Was that the door?”
   “I’ll check. Expecting someone? Your actual vegetarian friend?”
   “Where would Jess park her horse?”
   “On the grass. I don’t think you actually park those four-legged vehicles.”
   This last was said with a smirk aimed at Richard Nixon as Annabel fell out of the doorway and bumped down the uncarpeted stairs.
   Zeke left the scrapbook open. Why hide death from Jess? Annabel murmured at the door and he caught the word up.
   He waited until his blonde visitor knocked on the wall to signify her grand arrival. Then he swivelled the chair and removed an imaginary pipe from his mouth.
   The mad scientist was in the house. His actual vegetarian friend.
   “Mad scientist approaching.”
   “Come in, my dear. I was just ruminating in this chair.”
   “Well, you’ll have to wipe that clean with bleach. The last time my horse ruminated…”
   “They had to hose down the windows for three streets in almost every direction.”
   “Just not up the way, as…”
   “The only windows in the sky…”
   “Are those in our minds.”
   She sat her riding-attired self on his bed and removed the hard black hat. Now she was behind and to the left of his desk-chair combo.
   He watched her reflection in his desk’s mirror. She wheeled her head to catch his eye in the glass.
   “I could take up equestrianism, Jess.”
   “You make it sound dirty.”
   “Isn’t it?”
   “Mucky, perhaps. What would you call your horse?”
   “Whatever it was already called. Oh, I know. Yorba Linda.”
   “Please. Disgraced birthplace of our disavowed President Richard. F. Nixon.”
   “He was pardoned. Richard M. Nixon. I don’t know where you heard that F.
   “Traitor to the American People.”
   “Funny you should use a word that might just apply to you.”
   “Trait…who talked? Danny?”
   “Did you tell Danny?”
   “Maybe. Tell what?”
   “About being a traitor to the cause. What’s your beef?”
   “Argh. Okay. I gave up vegetarianism.”
   “Traitor. I’m having cheese for supper in an hour.”
   “So we have an hour. Slide that door closed, sport, and I’ll show you my emotional scars.”
   Zeke looked at Jess directly. Over-the-shoulder, up-from-under, imaginary pipe back in action. Wondering how to make light of a fluffball comment.
   You could do a lot of damage in an hour. He removed the pipe from his mouth.
   “Tell me, m’dear. Did you come by horse?”
   “Yes. Your mom let me park outside.”
   “And were you charged a million dollars for the privilege of domiciling the aforementioned equine in our fine country park?”
   “I don’t know about domiciling the nag. That’s a free lawn-trim my vehicle is dishing out for you. News straight from the equine’s molars. Now shut the door, and I’ll show you. Ditch the imaginary pipe. That thing’ll give you imaginary cancer.”
   “Guess your advice is sound. There’s no cure for imaginary cancer.”
   He stood with his back to her and went to close the door. Swish. Air-rush. The crump of her jacket on his chair.
   Something hard, in one of her pockets, clacked against the swivel-chair’s metal arm. Missing the leather padding. He imagined her in the chair. A door closed.
   Bedsprings squeaking. No, only the disembodied jacket claimed his chair. He went back there, draped the chair under the black riding-jacket, and reclaimed his seat.
   Eye-contact via mirror. She was messing with her hair, destroying the imprint of the hat.
   “Gave up vegetarianism, Zeke.”
   “Why, oh sweetness?”
   “I love the taste of meat too much.”
   “What about all those dead animals?”
   “They die anyway. Might as well make use of them.”
   “Factory-farmed. Mechanised. The Ford method of production.”
   “Our President is not a Model T.”
   “It’ll take more than car jokes to rev this country up.”
   “We’re chasing the subject away. I didn’t want to eat meat. So my kind, considerate, caring family still made me cook the stew for the bastards. I wavered. Then I tasted the dish to see that it was good enough to serve. Good enough to serve was also good enough to eat. You’ll see sense too. One day.”
   She disappeared behind an unpeeling white sweater. That landed on his head. He could smell the soap she used.
   Soap he’d never liked. It was the cheap stuff at the end of the shelf, sold in bulk.
   Jess liked the texture. She lived on one of the cheap streets, at the cracked-paint end of town. On the wrong side of the town’s lack of tracks.
   Her horse was borrowed. The riding clothes, though they fit Jess well enough to be a second skin, were hand-me-down.
   “I’ve been cutting myself again. Come see.”
   He let the sweater fall to the floor. In the mirror her eyes were half-closed. She’d admitted to the crime, and didn’t want to see his response.
   Zeke half-heartedly swivelled left in his chair and braked to face her a little more to the right than intended.
   “Where?”
   “High up, between shoulder and elbow. I’m not stupid enough to go for the forearm, like Darcy. She’s still in a rubber room somewhere, on LSD. Or whatever the CIA pumped into her.”
   “Darcy is misunderstood.”
   “And I’m understood, right? By you. Wouldn’t show you if you had nothing to show in return.”
   “I only have unemotional scars.”
   “No bandages for those.”
   “You bandage wounds, ex-vegetarian. Not scars.”
   “Speaking of.”
   He raised both hands in objection. Her cream blouse strained against heavy breasts. She wore no bra.
   Her hands were at the top two buttons. He stared at her neck, where a metal starfish dangled on leather. So she’s wearing it.
   “Uh, why not just roll up your sleeve. Show me that way.”
   “I don’t mind.”
   “Well I’m embarrassed.”
   “You mean aroused.”
   “No. I mean…awkward.”
   “What are you, gay?”
   “Just show me in a way that doesn’t involve exposing your breasts or questioning my sexuality.”
   “No. It’s that or nothing.”
   “Okay. Nothing, then. Ah, I mean…stay clothed.”
   “You’d pass up the chance…blushing. Well, that settles it. Blushing means you WANT to see.”
   “I…”
   “Zeke. I’m not a tramp. Or a slut. And even if I were, what business would that be of yours? What business, what judgemental bullshit…other people. Didn’t mean to vent steam, sport.”
   “Then why…”
   “Leave my bra behind? I didn’t burn it. This is…we both admitted that we hurt ourselves. You, to turn everything numb. Me, to feel something. We’re approaching our problems from different ends. With the same effect. We hurt ourselves. Because we’re broken inside, and this is our fix. That’s why I let you give me this star. And that’s why I am wearing it. This is our fix.”
   “Fixation, maybe. Not sure I’m broken. Out of step with the world, perhaps. Still functioning. Just not at my best, dealing with the rest of the universe.”
   “I left my bra at home so there’s a barrier to overcome at your house. It’s time to share scars, and wounds, and war-stories.”
   “That’s inappropriate, given what people went through in our name on the other side of…”
   “I couldn’t point to Vietnam on a map. If we were older, I’d have a better idea.”
   “Not a great argument. If we were older, I’d have served there. You’d have kept the domestic front going.”
   “Domestic. Really.”
   “Yeah. Cooked the stew while my guts were blown across the jungle.”
   “That’s pretty fucking petty, Zeke.”
   “Petty. Are you going to show me your tits or not? Supper’s looming.”
   “It is not looming. I can’t show you my scars easily. There’s a barrier to overcome. If I go topless, that’s something I’m getting past. And if you’re gay, I’m not really giving anything up on a plate. Flashing to a queer doesn’t count. So all the angles are covered.”
   “Fuck.”
   “Want to see my scars?”
   “No.”
   “Tell me about the new thing. Around my neck. Mysterious gift.”
   “Deviant distraction. The beachcomber hauled it out of the pebbles down by Chlarson Lake. Passed the piece on to the witchy woman in the bauble store.”
   “She’s a Methodist. That’s practically witchcraft in my house. Methodism. One step up from Stanism.”
   “Huh?”
   “Worship of your dad, Stan. That’s Stanism. A lot of housewives around here wouldn’t mind bumping your mom off and consoling the guy. My mom has the hots for your dad.”
   “Uh, please. Your mom…”
   “Is not the most stable of people. If she’s stable, the horse bolted long ago.”
   “Will your horse be okay down there?”
   “Yeah. Good question. Maybe we should bring the horse up here. Where everything is safer. In the den of the axe-murderer.”
   “Where’s that coming from? What’s your point?”
   “You are obsessed with saving women.”
   “I can’t save them. There are news articles. Pieces of a jigsaw. Sometimes, all the pieces fit and the killer is brought in. Doesn’t make the jigsaw whole.”
   “Where do you bury them all?”
   “In my scrapbooks. Those go back years. So unless I’m guilty of killing random women when I was five, or in negative numbers, I am not the killer you are looking for.”
   “I don’t think you odd, just for lamenting the loss of those women.”
   “Could you cover your breasts with your arms, and then show me the scars…”
   “I want to break a barrier.”
   “You broke a barrier when you told me you hurt yourself. I…”
   “Well you can already see my breasts through the clothing. What difference does peeling a layer make to you?”
   “All the difference. I’ll be looking there and not at your scars.”
   “Ah, so not gay after all.”
   “I’ll look away. Hold your blouse up to your chest with one hand. Figure something out.”
   “Oh. You like to leave something to the imagination.”
   “Yes. I do. Don’t sell it to me cheap if it’s precious. I’ll think it cheap. And don’t offer me a moving target that stops for show.”
   “You might just be a little above average in the ordinary guy department.”
   “A little. I could more or less live on that crumb of discomfort.”
   “Either that or you are a MAJOR leg-man.”
   He didn’t look away. Instead, Zeke closed his eyes. There was a rustle, and shifting of position on the bed. Squeak of springs.
   Now he trusted her not to mess around and embarrass him. He was embarrassed anyway. Could you be more embarrassed? If so, what did embarrassment matter?
   It didn’t matter at all.
   “Okay. Here you go, sport.”
   He opened his eyes. As arranged via international treaty, her breasts were covered by the blouse. Held against Jess by her right hand.
   She raised her left arm to show the inner surface. The scratches were short and thin. He considered the cuts the only shallow things about her.
   Damage markers. Precise. Uniform. Silence. Looking. More silence. Then…
   “What did you use, Jess? Laser?”
   “Sold my Atomic Death-Ray. Semi-blunt knife. I sterilised it.”
   “The cuts look…”
   “Yeah?”
   “Machine-made.”
   “A knife is a machine for cutting.”
   “Did you feel anything?”
   “Stings.”
   “I mean, emotionally.”
   “No. Didn’t work. I wanted to feel more human. Whatever that’s like. All I felt was stinging. Made me think of Darcy, in her rubber room.”
   “She’s happy there, they say.”
   “I didn’t do this to feel happy, Zeke. To feel something. But not to feel happy. I heard Darcy did it to feel good about herself. To experience happiness. That’s sick, twisted, and fucked.”
   “But doing that to yourself is okay if it’s about feeling anything but happiness.”
   “Yes, Kettle. Pot thinks that. Your turn. Blushing. Come on. Show me your scars.”
   “There aren’t any.”
   “Did you lie to me?”
   “No. I didn’t lie. Jess, I hurt myself to make sensation go away. That didn’t involve cutting.”
   “Oh. I thought hurting meant cutting, because it meant cutting to me. Go on.”
   “I can’t get into this with you. It’s sick.”
   “Fish through my pockets, will you? I’ll show you sick. My knife is there.”
   “You aren’t going to cut yourself in front of me…”
   “Why not?”
   “You’ll bleed everywhere, for one thing.”
   “Minimal blood-loss. Guaranteed. I’ll pass it off as woman’s trouble.”
   “Yes, I can see how that would be woman’s trouble. Vaginal bleeding from the armpit, and all.”
   She laughed too loudly at that. He went for the knife, taking his eyes off her. Peripheral vision told him that she’d dropped the blouse.
   He kept his head down and examined the cutting machine. There were three blades.
   “Oops-a-dandelion.”
   “Dropped something?”
   “My blouse. You?”
   “Pair of testicles.”
   “Well it’s high-time now you’re almost sixteen.”
   “The big November birthday. Could you put your blouse back on?”
   “And risk being cut, with blood everywhere?”
   “So what about bandages?”
   “I brought stuff for that. Try the other pocket.”
   “You should have cut yourself once. Ragged. At least you could explain that away somehow. Multiple scars generate multiple questions.”
   “No one will know. Will they? Are you going to tell?”
   “Only the newspapers. Are you wearing your blouse?”
   “No. I want that barrier to go.”
   “Next time. Okay?”
   “Oh. There’s to be a next time? On that promise…”
   “Notion.”
   “It’s a promise or I just sit here topless until your mom walks in.”
   “You’d never do that.”
   “Doing it now, sport. Of course, you could wrestle the clothes back on me. But you’d pretty much have to look, to do that.”
   “The alternative would be closed eyes and a lot of fumbling. Next time. Maybe. Depends.”
   “Close enough for a promise. Look away, then, you pervert.”
   Rustling. Bedsprings.
   He looked, saw her in the blouse, and then looked away. She might as well be topless, in that garment.
   This was going to be a long hour. With the cheese thing at the end of it. Extra rations for Jess. And…ah, the time.
   “Are you staying for supper, Jess?”
   “I like riding home in the dark. Experienced professional that I am.”
   “Another contest coming up.”
   “The biggie.”
   “Might even lose a prize. Will you stop cutting yourself before competitions?”
   “What’s the point of that?”
   “If you fall off, and hurt yourself, you’ll have to be examined. The cuts might come to light.”
   “Then I’ll deal with the problem when a problem arrives. What about you? Oh, no scars.”
   “One of these blades is sharp.”
   “Yeah. Sometimes I think about using that one. I reserve it for enemies.”
   “Will you cut me, Jess?”
   “Sure.”
   No hesitation. Absolutely. He rooted around in her pockets and found a wad of cotton wool and some kind of medical tape.
   There were sticking-plasters. He’d expected a field-kit. Something that would hold arms together.
   “Just to see what cutting feels like.”
   “Yeah. I said sure. Take your lumberjack shirt off. If your mom bursts in, we’ll pretend we’re getting it on.”
   “In a way, we are.”
   “Ooh, deep mysterious layers to you tonight. Here, I’ll unbutton the top two. Evidence for your mom. Unless you’d like to unbutton me. Be my guest…”
   “No, you’re my guest.”
   “That’s right. Local hospitality. The host’s blood is laid open to the sky.”
   “We should sit on the floor.”
   “You should lie on the floor. So you don’t flinch and lose an arm.”
   “Okay.”
   He lay in line with the bed, sliding the swivel-chair under his desk. Jess stood over him as he squirmed out of the lumberjack shirt.
   Just a guy in jeans. She looked to her left. The bed she’d vacated. To the right, the desk. And his 1974 scrapbook. Over the desk, a shelf with more scrapbooks.
   She knelt by his side, making much of the action as she took the knife from him and became a killer.
   Cocking her head, she strained to hear the wooden warning of shoes on the stairs. The light goldened, heading for gloom. Not yet.
   “No scars, I see. Talk about that.”
   “I…hurt myself. Just to make stuff go away.”
   “How did that work for you?”
   “Thought it did, actually. Then I had to start over.”
   “So…details…”
   “Ah, no. I just hurt my bones a little more, to see if it all made sense.”
   “How severe is the pain you need to throw yourself into, to dislodge the stuff from your head?”
   “Turns out, pretty severe.”
   “No cutting, though.”
   “So far.”
   “Coward.”
   “No. The pain I went for…wasn’t exactly cowardly.”
   “Tell me.”
   So he told her. Minute by minute, her eyes grew colder with disquiet. His voice held steady. Her heart pounded on her head’s door.
   Let me in. There’s been an accident. You’ve accidentally fallen for the wrongest guy in the town. Walk away. Crawl if you must.
   “Jess…”
   “Oh. I take back the cowardliness. But that was the start, you say.”
   “Then…”
   And he told her the rest. She warned herself not to waste time fighting back tears. If she started that battle, she’d lose.
   Instead, she went to the numb place in her head and read some indigestible books. On a timer, she packed that routine away and found the words to soothe the poor guy.
   “Zeke, that’s fucked.”
   “Yeah.”
   “Zeke.”
   “There’s more.”
   “Okay.”
   And she sighed at that. Slight shake of the head. She unfolded the wrong blade. The sharp one. Just to be sure, she tested it on her palm.
   A bead of blood burned red there. Jess was surprised by that. A ruby, glistening, putting up its own tent. Attracting customers to the Blood Fair.
   “What?”
   “I just fucking cut myself.”
   “Hardly bothersome, to you.”
   “It is. I used the wrong blade. The really truly sharp one. I always test, just to be sure.”
   “Then the test worked. Now you’re sure.”
   “I’m not sure of anything, Zeke. Your story distracted me.”
   “Though I note that you didn’t cry.”
   “I’m not the crying kind. That’s why I cut myself, remember. To feel. I must feel the world wobbling on my shoulders before I’ll cry. What is it you are trying to escape from?”
   “Intensity.”
   “So you do intense things to counter the intensity?”
   “I guess. When I was younger, I was the kid the older guys allowed along for the ride. Some of them went to Vietnam.”
   “Not your war, Zeke.”
   “I wanted it to be. Now it’s not. So I hurt myself. Today I thought I’d…”
   “Best not say.”
   “Just to forget being vegetarian.”
   “Hell, I forgot being vegetarian. Didn’t cost me blood.”
   “Hesitating? Cut me.”
   “After what you told me, about escalating things. Maybe switching to a knife isn’t a good idea. You read about a lot of these murders. Read a lot about these murders.”
   “I read all about as many of the murderers that the law catches as I can. Right now, I think someone came back from Vietnam and didn’t get the usual treatment he liked over in Saigon.”
   “Huh? You mean prostitutes.”
   “Yeah. I spoke to one of the guys who went to Vietnam. He said…some of the guys who come back don’t actually come back. They’re different.”
   “How?”
   “They are exposed to stuff they wouldn’t normally encounter here. When they return, these guys want more of the same.”
   “So…”
   “They’ll roughhouse a whore, some. Beating a prostitute here is a way of getting back at Uncle Sam for sending guys over there.”
   “That last girl who disappeared. She wasn’t…”
   “As far as we know. Living two towns over. Who could say for certain…”
   “This isn’t going to stop. The bleeding, I mean. My stupid cut.”
   “I’ll get some paper from the bathroom.”
   Jess put her knife away while Zeke dashed to the bathroom. He caught sight of himself in the mirror. Shirtless.
   Do something about that, idiot.
   He grabbed the whole roll and nipped across to his room. Jess sat on the bed, holding her hand up. Zeke grimaced.
   “Here, oh menstrual one.”
   “Stupid thing to do, anyway. Could we meet somewhere in the middle, sport?”
   “How?”
   “I live a little more, and you live a little less. We settle the balance.”
   “Maybe. Press this into your hand. Keep it there. You should go to the bathroom and run cold water if this doesn’t work.”
   “It’s not a ruptured artery, calm down. Are you upset, Zeke?”
   “By what?”
   “I don’t know. Nixon’s resignation.”
   “That annoyed me. A President, toppled by his enemies. But President Ford made things right.”
   “So you feel better because a crook was pardoned.”
   Vietnam bothers me. And the Russians.”
   “Not the Dutch, though?”
   “Why the Dutch?”
   “Just choosing people at random.”
   “Don’t you need a permit to make fun of me?”
   “That’s the Zeke I know. Where do I apply for that permit?”
   “On the other side of midnight, over the hills, far away. Just next door to here and now.”
   “Could you do that with your imaginary pipe? I’m busy not bleeding to death. Ah. I’m staying to supper. How do we explain this?”
   “Paper.”
   “An axe made of it? This was no paper-cut, Watson!”
   “Oh. I showed you my…”
   “Careful, young man.”
   “Badge. CNA.
   “Canadian Nautical Alliance?”
   “The Campaign for Nuclear Armament. Here.”
   “Where do you dig them up, Zeke? The pin is quite shar. Argh! Fuck.”
   “Make a fist.”
   “No use to me.”
   “You have to climb into your sweater. Without blood-trails all over yourself. Close your hand and shield the cuts.”
   “Uh, yeah. Practical. Okay. We’ll agree to dress.”
   He tidied himself, recreating the image his mother would remember. Jess did her best to avoid spraying the walls with blood.
   Zeke sat in his chair. Jess plonked herself on Zeke’s bed. She extended her left hand for inspection. Blood smears.
   “You have some on your throat.”
   “That’s because you, young man, are Wampyr.”
   “Normally I don’t wear the cloak.”
   “Undead giveaway.”
   Jess moved her left hand to wipe the blood. Using her right hand would just bloody another five digits.
   Her left hand brushed the five-pointed star at her throat. Things quietened, after that. The adventure was done.
   “I guess that’s it for cutting ourselves tonight.”
   “Or doing what you do. Don’t do that, Zeke. I’m worried you’d injure yourself.”
   “Worried I’d injure myself when I hurt myself.”
   “It’s the escalation each time. Looking for a new layer of physical pain to take the mental pain away.”
   “And your own escalation?”
   “There isn’t really escalation in my case. Repetition. Once a cut heals. You are…”
   “Looking for something bigger than the thing you are looking for…”
   “I want to feel. That’s a small thing. You want to shut out the world. That’s a big door you are hunting after.”
   There were moments of tidying. An imaginary pipe was waved around.
   Laughter. Chatter. Creating a certain mood in the run-up to the cheese thing.
   He opened the door. Nodding, he beckoned his friend Jess. She followed downstairs, stopping halfway. He looked back at her silence. Light dawned in her eyes and fell from her tongue.
   “My hat.”
   She raced upstairs, though there was no need for urgency. Returning to a room that had gradually darkened while she was in it, Jess was forced to hit the light.
   The switch was on the left. Had she been outside, a right hook would have done the deed. She was one step in, and backhanded the fixture with her left.
   Forgotten, and now remembered.
   Across the room, discarded, unloved, lay her hat. She waltzed to it, and then gazed over at Zeke’s desk. The shelf above was crammed with scrapbooks.
   From 1973 back to his years of being a negative number. To 1946. Post-war fixation? Probably.
   The earlier volumes were thin. One or two years weren’t represented. Things changed in 1954. A large volume.
   Quiet again, for a few years. How far afield did his searching take him? She looked at the 1974 scrapbook on the desk. The girl found in the shrubbery. Miriam, was that?
   Jess turned back a page.
   He’d pasted in reports of Miriam Daniel’s disappearance. Zeke saw everything in terms of Vietnam, or Nixon. She couldn’t point to Richard Nixon on a map. Unless it was a map of Yorba Linda.
   Disgraced home of a disavowed President. She wanted to feel. Cutting herself with the blade, and the badge, had done nothing for her.
   Campaign for Nuclear Armament. Who would they arm? Everyone? You couldn’t arm everyone with the nuclear option. Someone would use it.
   They’d all go to war over the manner in which one attempted to eat a hardboiled egg.
   Downstairs, plod plod plod. Dressed as she’d been when she arrived, Jess left through the front door. Nervous.
   Suddenly anxious to check on her horse. She sensed Zeke behind her. Everything started to fall away from the street. Pain. Emotion. Jess didn’t have the time to get tangled in Zeke’s hurting.
   “I’m just going to head, Zeke.”
   “Yeah. Tired of the cheese situation.”
   “There’s a whole baked zebra waiting for me at home.”
   “Does that make you a lioness, with your blonde mane?”
   “Cannibalistic zebra, with my stripes.”
   “Stripes. Careful there, mad scientist. Too many coded references.”
   “Don’t do anything I would do.”
   “You’ll have to draw up a list. See you, Jess.”
   He listened to her clop-clop departure. Waved without really seeing. The consumption of cheese was an awesome prospect, dragging him indoors to talk of what Jess said and what Jess thought of the murder scrapbooks.
   No mention of cutting, of being seen as a slut, or of her offering the goods to him.


*


The room at night was an empty non-shell of a box. Lifeless, though packed with stumble-stone items.
   Zeke staggered from bathroom to bedroom in a daze of emotions. He lay atop his bed and thought about pain crowding in on his views.
   Jess rode outside his thoughts. He contemplated dead women. Too-tight grey shorts constrained his arousal.
   He didn’t understand this feeling. Aroused by sex-murders. Zeke believed there was something wrong in it, but what?
   Was it the idea that there wasn’t anything wrong in it, after all? Miriam was around his age. Leila? In her early thirties, and a real honey.
   Jocelyn had a Jess-like name. She was from – he didn’t have to look. From 1959. That girl was seventeen, and still dead. A real sweet peach.
   So she’d be…32. That photo trapped her in amber at seventeen. He could relate to an older woman like that.
   Not the 32-year-old. Perhaps. Maybe. Yes. No. Confusion.
   Air keeled over and croaked. The room became his coffin. He stared into darkness, across the gulf, and counted scrapbooks in his head.
   Must be a dream. A strange dream of a dream. Sitting on the bed, looking over at the shelf.
   Light from the street cut across the wall and landed on his books. Diagonal slash.
   You can’t make out the volumes, but you know them by heart. The light is on 1954. You are living the year, in radio, through sport, by the make of car…
   Big case that year. The faces in the photos swam in three dimensions. Popping into Zeke’s reality.
   What’s in the 1954 file? See it? He stared at the face under a raised mask. Another memorialising photo of a dead woman.
   Reality. The skull lies under the skin.
   Not in this photograph. The skin lies under the skull, remember? Latina woman in a skull-mask.
   Disappearance. Wanted for questioning. Maybe she was entangled in a bank robbery. No evidence of that. Crazy stories. Weird Day of the Dead Mexican bullshine.
   In the photo, taken in the street, the young woman pushed a skeleton mask up off her face.
   Figures to either side of her wore the same masks down, concealing their features. A man and a woman. The flanking characters were above Marisol. She was at the bottom of the photograph, almost at the edge.
   Neat cutting. Trimmed professionally. Fixed to the scrapbook just right. Didn’t tell the whole story.
   The cuttings never did. Mystery. History. That was in the photo. Her life wasn’t pictured. Other things weren’t caught in that version of a snapshot from another era.
   Zeke lay on his bed, dreaming. Light crept from a pylon in the street, crawled over the sill, and told Zeke the curtains weren’t shut.
   In the dream, the woman in the photo stepped from nowhere into the light. She was wearing Zeke’s lumberjack shirt. Buttoning it up. Looking at him.
   Just the shirt. There was a glow around her. That’s how he knew this had to be a dream.
   “Hi. Ran out of clothes, huh? Steal my shirt. I’m not using it right now.”
   “The shirt will do. Do you have decent shoes? I don’t really need them. If I want to avoid attracting attention, though, then shoes would be handy.”
   “We all need shoes. I don’t think I have any shoes to fit you. This is all a bit weird, Cinderella.”
   “It’ll grow weirder. Believe me.”
   “You look like the woman in the photo.”
   “Photo? Explains a lot.”
   “On the shelf behind you. In the 1954 volume.”
   “Mind if I put on the light?”
   “Go ahead. Wouldn’t think you’d need to, as you’re glowing.”
   “That will fade soon. Fast-fade. Story of my life.”
   Click.
   She wore his shirt well. Something else that told Zeke this had to be a dream. His imagination created that body, for it wasn’t depicted in the photograph.
   Zeke lay uncaring as she turned back to him and looked him up and down. Her gaze loitered on his midriff. Then she started thumbing through his scrapbooks. The 1954 volume purred through her hands.
   “Do you usually sleep above the covers?”
   “I must have pushed the top layer down off me. Crazy dream-stuff, this.”
   “You aren’t dreaming.”
   “Of course I’m dreaming. The woman in the 1954 scrapbook rises in front of me, wearing my shirt. Glowing. Has to be a dream.”
   “Have it your way. Oh. This was taken in 1953. I see…the resemblance.”
   “What’s your name? Marisol Mendoza?”
   “If you like.”
   “See. Straight out of my dreams.”
   “That’s right. I’m your older woman fantasy.”
   “You’d be, what, around 40 by now. Looking well-preserved for 40.”
   “Must be the diet. Why would you have a photo of…Marisol Mendoza on your shelf? That is one hell of a coincidence. You won’t like coincidence…”
   “Zeke. No coincidence. I fell asleep on the bed, and had a dream about you. From my scrapbook. This is the dream.”
   “There must be more to it than that. Tell me about the five-pointed star.”
   “My friend Jess brought it with her tonight. I bought that in a bauble shop. The beachcomber gave the star to the shopkeeper.”
   “Beachcomber.”
   “Local handyman. He goes to the lake, looking for things.”
   “That lake. What’s it called?”
   Chlarson Lake.”
   “Did anything happen here tonight?”
   “We chatted. Jess and I.”
   “Something connected to the five-pointed star.”
   “Uh, no. Jess cut herself…”
   “Did the blood land on her five-pointed star?”
   “I don’t think so.”
   “Must have. She took the star with her?”
   “Yes.”
   “Then I have time in hand. No need to run right this second. Not if the star’s gone. There’s time.”
   “Before what? The dream ends when I wake. Has to be a dream.”
   “Pen, if you have one.”
   “Drawer. Left. The desk. Black marker.”
   “Thanks. This is a dream.”
   “How else to explain…”
   “Here. I’ll draw large comedy rings around your nipples.”
   “Dream’s growing stranger and stranger. Okay. Go for it.”
   “Using an actual marker from your own desk. A specific drawer.”
   “Amazing, the detail you throw in, to fill your own dreams. What next? Mushrooms on unicycles, riding front-to-back for charity.”
   “I’d love to stay and chat. Where does your friend Jess live? I don’t want to be near her when the shit drops down around my ears.”
   “She lives on the other side of town. What we’d call the wrong side, if we had a right side. This side isn’t really an improvement on the wrong side.”
   Chlarson Lake. The star was found there. What’s your name, again?”
   “Zeke. You are Marisol.”
   “Sure. If a man comes looking for me, don’t say I look like Marisol. That would just confuse the issue.”
   “Will he be evil?”
   “Misguided. Oh, and yes. He’ll be evil.”
   “Good to know. Want to borrow a pair of jeans?”
   “They’ll do. Thanks, Zeke. The story is, I broke in and stole some clothes. If anyone asks about me, don’t mention your friend Jess. Or a five-pointed star.”
   “Just keep it all under my hat.”
   “Damned straight.”
   “And now you just sweep out of my life, into a sea of intrigue, action, and adventure.”
   “Yes. Don’t take embarrassment too hard.”
   “Why would I be embarrassed?”
   “Answer that question when you wake in the morning and look at your nipples.”
   He rolled over and fell asleep. Strange, to dream that he rolled over in a dream and went to sleep so that he could have a dream within a dream within…
   Enough.
   Slumber. Marisol Mendoza warned Zeke about coincidence. Only the adverse kind mattered, he wagered.
   A good coincidence is a grand thing. Bad coincidence isn’t worth the money you didn’t pay for it.
   Dreams inside dreams inside dreams. With Jess on the road. She’s on horseback, and no one must know of the five-pointed star. Marisol Mendoza, the dead Mexican girl from 1954, said so.


*


Telephone. Ringing in darkness. A hazy frame of light clicked on. The frame turned to a rectangle as the door opened.
   A silhouette stomped into the room and there was clattering as the ringing silenced. She hated telephones.
   “Yes.”
   “Return to town. She’s here.”
   “Do you have a fix?”
   “Not great.”
   “What about the new machine? Can that trace her, or the five-pointed star?”
   “I’d have to be on top of the star for the new machine to spot that. We use eyeballs to find the star.”
   “You aren’t sure what you’ve found, Mr Man.
   “My senses are alert. I know she’s here. If I could develop a machine that replicates my senses, I would.”
   “With the money you’ve thrown at the problem, you still have nothing.”
   “Money is irrelevant. Wernher’s latest machine is irrelevant. My senses flare. The machine doesn’t match my sense of what’s happening. This proves that my senses are keen, though the machine’s senses are not. We fall back to old methods.”
   “A town has roads. We watch. Spread as wide as we are.”
   “Let’s spread a little less to the thin side. How long before you reach town?”
   “I can fly in. There’s a semi-local airport now. Your doing?”
   “Yes. I did what I could to influence the planning of that.”
   “Aren’t we wonderful?”
   “We are. They aren’t. I want this one. She annoys me.”
   “Do you desire her crude body dead?”
   “I don’t mind if she suffers.”
   “What about the network? If the machine doesn’t function, then your network won’t feed you signals worth talking about.”
   “May as well try the set-up. I’ll learn what doesn’t play, and adjust for next time. That’s what I did in 1954, when my van full of equipment was little more than junk.”
   “Should be easier, next time.”
   “The pace of human life is speeding up. We are making some progress with evil technology. Not today, it seems. Tomorrow, perhaps.”
   “Do you want me to keep on plugging away at the space business?”
   “You don’t sound confident. Come to town. Forget space.”
   “I think she’ll evade you. If that happens, I’ll have a choice to make. Either I join you in an intense crusade, or I get further into the space business.”
   “If she evades me, I’ll try to trace her next move on my own. You can stick with the space business if I lose her. But if we find her, we’ll have our fun. She’s almost certain to have the star with her this time out. Whether you follow up with space or not, you needn’t waste time hanging around with the NASA crowd.”
   “The NASA people amuse me. Speaking of flight, I guess I’d better move.”
   “Be suspicious of her if she is captured easily.”
   “What harm can she cause?”
   “There’s always the thing she doesn’t know. I don’t want her knowing that, except in the obvious way. Once she’s trapped.”
   “I wonder what we don’t know.”
   “We don’t know where her friends are. Move out. Fly in. We’ll see what’s worth learning.”


*


Life moved slowly. Zeke woke early, stomach-down, and eyeballed the room. Daylight. Quiet. No, some birds. A car, distant.
   He sat and failed to take in the missing shirt and jeans. His mirror showed a new side to him. Rings, drawn in pen, on his chest.
   The dream moved rapidly into his life now. She was here. The girl from the photo.
   Marisol Mendoza.
   She’d stolen his clothes and used him as a wall for her graffiti. Zeke thought this absurd. Then he thought it normal, and THAT was absurd.
   “Okay Zeke, old pal. What happened? Someone drew rings on you. Stole your clothes. And, by coincidence, this someone happened to resemble Marisol Mendoza. Dead in 1954. Murdered by person or persons unknown, out by Chlarson Lake.”
   He fished for another shirt. A pair of pants. It’s the weekend, buddy. You have the whole of Saturday and Sunday in which to solve this mystery.
   Hell, you are never going to solve this mystery. Clearly, you are still dreaming.
   “This isn’t a dream. Therefore, it’s real. Shaky observation, but it’s one I’m going with.”
   Zeke sat in his chair and reached for the 1954 volume. It was already on his desk.
   The 1974 volume was the deskbound tome, not this 1954 collection. He opened the scrapbook at the festival photograph. There she was.
   Marisol Mendoza. The other photo was of the woods, next the lake. Jigsaw pieces. An unsolved murder.
   Of course it was unsolved. She’d been in your bedroom last night, looking not a day over…
   Zeke didn’t like coincidence. What was going on? He felt rage swooping into the room. Jess. She’d set him up.
   Jess ran upstairs the night before, for that hat, and let the Latina chick into the room. Latina hid under the bed and then…
   Jumbled thinking.
   No, it’s not jumbled thinking. Marisol brought up the five-pointed star. That made sense in a dream. Awake, it was a cheap shot.
   An easy way for Zeke to introduce Jess to the conversation. Zeke was lured into talking about Jess. No more complex than that.
   You didn’t discuss the star. Chain of events. Murder. Star. Purchase. Gift. Bedroom invasion. You could have, should have, discussed the star.
   Taking the sting out of coincidence. No matter. This new development offered weirdness.
   He went to the window. Someone could have run a ladder up there. Flagstones below. So, no marks in grass to betray the presence of a ladder.
   What did it mean? He examined evidence. The ink on his chest. Missing clothes. How did she get out? He didn’t remember. The window was shut. Wasn’t it?
   Downstairs. The hall telephone. He called the wrong side of town and asked for Jess.
   Saturday. She’d be up early, getting ready for some shit-shovelling over at the stables. Mucky pursuit, equestrianism. How to handle this?
   “Jess, I wanted to talk to you about what happened after you left last night.”
   “Over the telephone? Did you…escalate things again?”
   “Nothing to do with confessional chatter. You know what I’m talking about.”
   “I don’t.”
   “Murder. In my scrapbook. From 1954.”
   “Uh. We were talking about the girl. Miriam. Two towns over.”
   “No. The Mexican slaying, from 1954. Unsolved. By the lake.”
   “I don’t remember, Zeke.”
   “You went upstairs to get your hat.”
   “I forgot my hat, yes.”
   “And did you do anything in my bedroom while you had my bedroom to yourself?”
   “Huh?”
   “Jess, this is important. Just admit if you’re behind this weirdness.”
   “What weirdness?”
   “Okay, play along.”
   “Zeke, are you angry about what you told me last night? If telling me made you feel bad…”
   “Someone wormed into my room after you left. Things were rearranged and a prank was played on me. Did you let someone into the room?”
   “No. What happened? You aren’t making much sense.”
   “A prank, based on the scrapbook from 1954.”
   “Oh.”
   “Do what you have to do over at the stables. Meet me in town for lunch. You are buying. This isn’t a conversation I can have over the telephone. I need to see your lying face.”
   “Well as lunch-dates go, this should be a peach. Maybe you should be the one buying.”


*


Noon. Light showers hit town. Zeke stood under an awning outside Zenna’s, waiting for the conspirator to show. He wore grey today. The café at his back was filling up.
   Ting! Another satisfied customer. Jess unfolded from the rain. A watercolour-moment. Not her equestrian gear. And not her mucking-out gear either. Just dark blue clothes.
   She stopped and stood firm, her posture practically accusing Zeke of colluding in Watergate-level conspiracy. The blonde’s hood was down. Her ire was up.
   The finest droplets bathed her. He just wanted to smash her face in. After telling her so much about himself, all lies, he’d been stitched up. She’d skipped supper and gone home in the arms of her mighty stallion.
   “You love that horse.”
   “Strong word.”
   Horse.
   That. I’ll buy you soup. You’ll stop scowling. Tell me out here.”
   “A girl climbed into my bedroom…”
   “Interesting. This annoyed you? Maybe gay after all.”
   “I’d bang you if you weren’t so far up yourself that you risk disappearing. Shit-can the homo slurs.”
   “Well I’m certainly bangable. Cleared that up. What about this other chick?”
   “Brunette. Strong-willed. Temper not far off. Asked about your five-pointed star. Stole my clothes, and left. But not before drawing circles on my chest.”
   “Then you woke up, and it was all a dream.”
   “Yeah. That was the point of the circles on my chest. Proving, come morning, that I wasn’t dreaming in the night.”
   “Evidence.”
   “I still have the circles. Faint. Spent an age in the bathroom trying to get rid of the marks.”
   “Could have planted those yourself. Binned some clothes. Or not even that. As I didn’t start out with a full inventory of Zeke-style apparel, I can’t say what’s not in your closet now. A girl, say.”
   “She bears a strong resemblance to Marisol Mendoza.”
   “Who is that?”
   “Was. The victim found in woods, near the lake, back in 1954.”
   “So?”
   “Her daughter turns up all this time later and asks me about the five-pointed star.”
   “My five-pointed star? Or just any five-pointed star.”
   “That’s a good point.”
   “A good five points, I’d say.”
   “Has to be the five-pointed star. Oh, and she was gl…”
   “Yes?”
   “Glad to see the back of you. She didn’t want to be near your place when the shit went down. If anyone shows up asking for Marisol Mendoza, I know nothing. Don’t know about any five-pointed stars or any of that business.”
   “I’ll think this over. Or possibly under. Meanwhile…lunch.”
   Zeke sat opposite Jess with his legs closed. Her left leg brushed his left leg. The whole thing wasn’t a dream. Except for the part about the glow. That could be explained. He laughed at himself. Bull. It couldn’t be explained.
   Jess eyed Zeke with suspicion. He’d confessed to hurting himself the night before, and now this story burst from his head to grab her attention.
   Because he’d missed his chance to eye her up and cop a feel. He seemed agitated. Maybe there was another girl in his bedroom last night.
   Crazy detail.
   Why drag the five-pointed star into the story?
   To drag you into the story, Jess.
   It’s your item.
   Just as his item is the murder scrapbook from 1954, with this Marisol Mendoza pictured inside.
   Why had she stolen clothes?
   “Okay sport. If I believe you, plug some holes here for me. Eat your soup. I’m thinking.”
   “Good soup. Eat yours.”
   “Why did she steal clothes?”
   “She didn’t appear to have any.”
   “Are you making this bullshit up because of what I did last night?”
   “No. I could have looked. Chose not to. How is your hand?”
   “It’s…oh. Well, it’s better. You can’t hardly see the marks from the…badge.”
   “Right. The badge. And the blade.”
   “How did she worm in?”
   “I made a tour of the house before I came to see you here. My guess is that you went back for your hat, opened the window, and she entered by ladder.”
   “Drivel.”
   “She warned me about her not being around you. Is that so I don’t go to your home asking questions…”
   “Start. From what you think of as the beginning.”


*


“Have you left anything out?”
   “No.”
   “Then an evil guy is coming to town.”
   “You should hide that star.”
   “Zeke, it’s a scam to get at the star here.”
   “Doesn’t make sense. She was in the house, and could have stolen anything. Besides…”
   “Go on. Entertain me.”
   “She wants to be far from you. If she craved the star, she’d be near you.”
   “I think she wanted you to think she wanted to be far from me.”
   “Uh…I just about followed that. Show me the star.”
   “Okay, sport.”
   Jess opened her jacket and unbuttoned her checked shirt. Top button only. Her finger strayed to the second button.
   Zeke narrowed his eyes. She handed the star over without further ado. He took a casual look around the room. Bad guys. None.
   “Want me to hide behind a newspaper and cover you, sport?”
   “Would you?”
   “The man in the gabardine suit is a spy.”
   Zeke studied the item. A leather thong ran around the centre of the piece – there was no loophole for a necklace.
   The front of the star was raised – each arm had three planes. He flipped the item around. The rear was flat. Zeke expected a marking on the reverse.
   No go.
   Just a star made from…well now. What was this metal? Iron? Not iron. Certainly not steel. Very like iron.
   What colour was it? A deep very dark red. Not black. And not red. Not iron. The star was not lots of things. Lots of not-things.
   “Aren’t you going to warn me about a camera?”
   “No, Zeke. That’s your job.”
   “Popular culture isn’t as popular as we thought.”
   “How much did you pay for my treasure?”
   “A dollar.”
   “Someone was robbed. How did you come to purchase the piece?”
   “I walked through the door of the bauble shop. The witchy woman knew just what I was looking for.”
   “So it was foisted on you.”
   “No. The beachcomber found this on the lakeshore, and handed it off to the witchy woman. Random. Not deliberate. I spotted…”
   “And you brought trouble to my door with your precious gift of a bauble from the bauble shop. If bauble it be…”
   “Coincidence. Marisol warned me of coincidence.”
   “Whoever she is, she’s not alone in disliking coincidence. What sort of person doesn’t need shoes?”
   “Someone with tough feet.”
   “When did she leave your house?”
   “Not sure of the time.”
   “How far could she walk in bare…no, that’s a crock. She hid her shoes outside, and then returned to them. Making you think she couldn’t have come far in bare feet, or gone far in them.”
   “Unless she was driven to and from the house.”
   “That was my next point. She might have used a bicycle. Barefoot.”
   “Look for signs of cyclists.”
   “Detective work. What of the original Marisol Mendoza? Did she give birth before her murder?”
   “Not to put a dampener on your investigative skills, Jess, but…it would be harder for her to give birth after her murder.”
   “I don’t like the coincidence. She resembles the woman in your scrapbook. Someone read your scrapbook, and hired a lookalike to annoy you. As a distraction from the real job. Stealing the entire contents of your family home.”
   “Ah, would that be a crime? With what’s in my home.”
   “She was in a shirt, on your bed. Last night.”
   “Yep.”
   “I remember a girl in a similar position on your bed last night. Without the shirt.”
   “Cute.”
   “My, you go from being certifiably gay…”
   “What’s that, anyway?”
   “Gay, with a pink certificate to authenticate the status.”
   “Pink certificate.”
   “Lavender, then. You go from that to…quite the dark horse. A blonde and a brunette in the one night. Sterling work, young man.”
   “I’m saving up for a redhead.”
   “That’ll cost you. They aren’t cheap. Not in this town.”
   “Here. A star for a star.”
   “Why thank ye, good sir.”
   Silence applauded the cessation of near-hostilities.
   The meal was consumed. Weather sprinkled the streets. Jess tipped generously and beckoned her guy.
   She went walking in the town with her hood down. Zeke made use of the facilities before he caught up with her.
   “What kept you?”
   “Bladder.”
   “Let’s go to the woods. The river. We’ll find a place to sit. Sheltered.”
   “Yeah. This light effort is a real raging storm. I’ve never seen evil weather this mild.”
   Fifteen minutes took them to the countryside. Another fifteen, and they were under a massive tree away from the water. They hunkered against bark made wonderful by its roughness.
   Jess forced a kiss on him that Zeke gave up resisting. She undid his coat and hefted his clothes so that she could examine his torso for drawings.
   “You must have scrubbed like a maniac to get rid of the ink.”
   “I thought of scrubbing as self-harming for cowards.”
   Cold hands on his torso. Raindrops in his hair. Noses, nuzzling. He wanted that to last for all time, and to stop.
   Was she involved in a conspiracy to slip a Marisol Mendoza clone into his bedroom? He tried to put a sense of order to events.
   Ride by on a horse. Stop off for supper. She dropped vegetarianism.
   He championed Richard Nixon. Vietnam hadn’t scabbed over yet. Would it ever? Jess resented the presence of dead women in the bedroom. So played a trick in smuggling a corpse-lookalike through the window.
   Zeke stopped nuzzling her.
   “Hey. That was getting through to me. I’m feeling something.”
   “Jess, are you involved in a conspiracy?”
   “No.”
   “Trying to feel something. Inventing a mystery, to grab my interest. Or weirdness along those lines.”
   “I’d love to be that inventive, sport. Hell, I’d rush out and get the long raincoat. Shades and a hat. Be your sidekick. Are you involved in a conspiracy?”
   “No. Or…not of my own design.”
   “Maybe you invented a woman of mystery, to make me jealous.”
   “Doesn’t make sense. You’d have fucked me last night, before supper, if I’d gone for the deal. Right?”
   “Yeah. Abso-fucking-lutely.”
   “Then jealousy doesn’t fit that picture. What happened was…divorced from anything we had in mind. You genuinely forgot that hat. Forgetfulness wasn’t an excuse to open a window and sneak Marisol into the room.”
   “You tell me you lost clothes to her. If she even existed. And the marks. The pen. Anyone could have drawn on you.”
   “Next time, I’ll get her to tattoo a fancy design on my back. Something I couldn’t manage myself.”
   “Deal.”
   “What do we do about this?”
   “Well. She’s gone. And she won’t be coming to see me.”
   “Keep the star hidden.”
   “Do you want it back?”
   “A gift is a gift. Don’t dare return something that’s meant to be more than a mere nothing.”
   “Are you sure the beachcomber found the star by Chlarson Lake?”
   “I could have a word.”
   “With? The Methodist? Witchy purveyor of baubles? Beachcomber himself?”
   “They can’t all be in on everything.”
   “That’s where you are wrong. Watergate…”
   “Hush now. The President did no wrong.”
   “Yeah? Why did he quit?”
   “Pressure. Other conspirators.”
   “I want a plan, Zeke.”
   “Okay. Talk to the people involved with the star. If we see Marisol again, we collar her.”
   “I haven’t seen her yet.”
   “Says you.”
   “Ha. Maybe you haven’t seen her at all.”
   “There might be a guy. Hunting around town for her.”
   “On what basis? Nothing to do with the star.”
   “I don’t know. She was here in town. And left traces. Rented a place, maybe. So there’s a guy on her trail. She’s a small-time thief hiding out under the guise of small-town life. Stole my clothes.”
   “What is missing from your home?”
   “A sense of normalcy.”
   “Goes double for me.”
   They went quiet. He ran his left hand through her blonde locks. The incident with a glowing Marisol Mendoza clone was a dream.
   And the marks on his chest could be explained. He made no feeble attempt to explain things away. Instinct told him there’d be more to the story, within the next few days.
   “Just keep an eye out, Jess.”
   “You too. Wow. Really getting wet here.”
   The comment sailed over his head. Rain stopped and killed the atmosphere. He hadn’t liked the atmosphere anyway.
   Jess turned away rapidly, in time to avoid sneezing all over him. At the edge of her vision, a Mexican girl watched with unblinking eyes.
   She sat upon a tree-stump. Green jacket, jeans, checked shirt.
   “Hola.”
   “That’s her right there, Jess.”
   “What’s your name, chica?”
   “Marisol. I thought about running. But I had to come back for the star. It’s mine.”
   “Says you. My boyfriend bought this for me.”
   “A man found my star by the lake. Where I left it back in 1954.”
   “Zeke…”
   “Yeah. Jess has a point. That would make you very young at the time. Say…non-existent, actually.”
   “I spent the night thinking, and decided it was better this way. To linger. Explain myself before I run. A man will come. For me, or for the star. I could have run. Hell, I did run. How I ran. You’ve no idea.”
   “She’s real, Jess. No dream.”
   “Yeah. So I see. She ran like the end of the world last night. So far that she’s still unaccountably here. Then where’s the conspiracy? I don’t know her. You don’t know her. Yet she found us by this tree.”
   “I was watching, in town.”
   “Me.”
   “Him. At his house. I tailed him to town. You showed up. Here we are.”
   “What’s so great about this star?”
   “Sentimental value.”
   “Your mother was murdered, and this is your inheritance.”
   “Excuse Zeke. He has this thing for murdered women.”
   “Yes. That makes sense. To me. Will you give me the star?”
   “First you don’t want to hang around town. Next, you are all over us like a rash. This bauble cost Zeke a dollar. But I’d be reluctant to part with it, on personal grounds. I don’t know what your scam is. Either this is part of your plan, or something changed…”
   “You want proof of my honest intention.”
   “Yeah. You’d settle for that, right Zeke?”
   “Maybe Marisol here is trying to steal my entire house. I don’t know. To give proof of an honest intention, I think you are going to spin us a line Miss Mendoza.”
   “You are very passionate, Zeke. The way your eyes take in mine. You think of the murdered girl I resemble too much.”
   “I think of the girl too much? You certainly resemble her too much. Are you her daughter? Is the evil man your mother’s killer?”
   “If things were that simple, we’d just call the cops.”
   Silence claimed the three. Dry period. Clouds of rough steel demanded payment. Only then would they deliver wet cargo.
   Zeke pictured Marisol tattooing an image of herself on his back, to prove something or other to a disbelieving Jess.
   A disbelieving Jess touched the star. It meant something. Symbolic? Or was the item evidence? A clue, in an unsolved murder from a time long-gone. Though not too long-gone that the cops gave up.
   Detectives review cases, right. So go to the cops. With what? The murdered woman’s child is playing a hunch, based on a bauble?
   Marisol almost sighed. She tapped fingers on her thighs while waiting. Then she realised Zeke and Jess were waiting for her to speak, to act, or else make good on the promise of proof.
   What would she do? Tell them without proving anything? Prove without the need to tell?
   “I left that bauble on the shore one day.”
   “It belonged to your family.”
   “Yes.”
   “Why not a crucifix?”
   “Would Zeke have given you a crucifix?”
   “No. I guess not.”
   “Would he give you a shape that means something to him?”
   “Zeke?”
   “I…”
   “You’re blushing. What the hell, Zeke?!”
   “The witchy woman didn’t know what I was looking for. I spotted the star myself. The piece reminded me of Marisol Mendoza. She’s wearing a similar item in the newspaper photograph. Though I cropped that out of the picture when I glued her image into my scrapbook. I have another newspaper clipping that shows the five-pointed star. Coincidence wasn’t coincidence. Was it a crime to play things cool? I thought I was dreaming.”
   “Now who is party to the conspiracy, Zeke?”
   “That’s all. Just that. I bought the star for you because it reminded me of a dead woman. And you want to feel things. So you are dead inside. And…”
   “Fuck! So who is she? Your girlfriend? Did you find out who she was? Maybe you hired her…”
   “I’m Marisol’s daughter. Zeke knows that. We were just messing with your head.”
   Zeke dropped his jaw at the blatant lie. The blonde stormed off. Zeke was left with a blonde-shaped hole in his life that he wasn’t sure he’d miss.
   Marisol Mendoza flipped the whole game around to her advantage with that simple untruth. Zeke approached and leaned against the bole of a giant plant.
   “Why did you lie just now? I’m guessing you are Marisol’s daughter. That’s not knowledge.”
   “She annoyed me, Zeke. Now she’s gone, what say we drop that lie. I tell you the truth, and I offer proof.”
   “Of what? Marisol Mendoza was your mother. The star belonged to her. It was found by the lake, close to where she was murdered…”
   “Far from where the murder took place. On the other side of the lake, actually.”
   “How would you know where the bauble was found?”
   “Maybe I asked the beachcomber.”
   “Detective work I was supposed to be engaged in.”
   “Finish the chain of events for me, Zeke.”
   “You are involved, somehow. Yeah. You discover the star went to the bauble shop. Too late. A clue to your mother’s murder is gone. You find out that I bought the piece. Not knowing I gave it to Jess, you stake out my house. And you sneak in. To throw me off, you strip. That way, I don’t think of you as a burglar when you rummage through my things. How am I doing?”
   “Inventive.”
   “One tiny problem. Aside from all the major ones I can think of. The sale of the star isn’t public knowledge. If the killer is hanging around, how is he going to know the star is in anyone’s possession? The star is a clue in a murder. So it should go to the cops. How will this evil man get wind of the situation?”
   “He’ll know I’m around. And he’ll get a better fix on the deal if I give you proof. Though special proof would do it for you. Without question.”
   “Sure. Proof would do it for me. How special?”
   “It’ll do your inquisitive blonde friend, too.”
   “She won’t care about anything now.”
   “Oh, she’s hiding over there. Watching to see what happens next. If I’m so interested in the star, I’m not going to let her walk off with it. Yet I seem to have allowed that to happen, right?”
   “Mm. She’s probably hiding. I don’t see her as the type to storm off over girl trouble. Not when she can have a catfight.”
   “Mexican cats always win those.”
   “Really? A rule?”
   “The law.”
   “What form does your proof take, and what does it prove?”
   “My proof takes the path of least resistance. I’m going to kiss you.”
   “What does that prove? That no man in his right mind would resist you?”
   “Kissing you proves what I say about the nature of kissing you.”
   “Riddles.”
   “I thought I could walk away. Run away. But no. Twenty years is a long time, and I’ll need allies in this fight. He’s coming for me, and I have to be ready. How I become ready, I’ve no idea. Today’s the day, though. I haven’t any longer than that. Time enough, in which to convince you. One day. Starting with a kiss.”
   “To wind my spying blonde friend into a coil?”
   “She and I could be friends. But I only have one day, at most. Scratch that. I’ll have an hour at most after I prove everything.”
   “What’s this about?”
   “A star.”
   “And a murder.”
   “Yes, a murder.”
   “If you know who your mother’s killer is, then go to the police…ah. Was your mother murdered by the police? Go to another police force.”
   “There are…cops who could deal with the problem. That is part of the problem.”
   “Not exactly squeaky-clean yourself?”
   “Oh, I’m farm-fresh. I mean. There are…cops. I want to keep those guys out of this for their own safety.”
   “The more you explain, the less sense this makes.”
   “Then let the kiss explain all.”
   “You aren’t going to draw circles on me again, are you?”
   “No. I could run rings around you, though.”
   “You seem to be running rings already. Jess, if you are hiding, just come out.”
   “Seems she doesn’t want to play. Maybe she likes to watch.”
   “Mar. Can I call you Marisol?”
   “I don’t know. Are you physically capable of calling me that? Maybe I should go. Hunt the blonde, and beat her up.”
   “Put the quills away, porcupine. You can’t be defensive if you are here to explain.”
   “Call me Marisol.”
   “I guess Jess doesn’t want to play. She could throw that star away out of spite.”
   “To make the gesture mean something, she’d have to throw it very far away.”
   “How does kissing me prove anything? By that, I mean anything worthwhile I can take to Jess as proof of. Of whatever…”
   “Kissing you proves everything.”
   “Then I go to her and tell her how you kissed me. And she hands you the star, on a plate?”
   “I think she’s still watching, so she’ll see how you kissed me. That is, how I kissed you. Pucker up.”
   At that, Marisol kissed Zeke. Watching, Jess saw proof.



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