“Ready to go?” Mowgli looks disgustingly fresh for someone who hasn’t had his eight hours of sleep. He is wearing dark brown slacks, a black button-down, and a charcoal-gray tie. In other words, he’s dashing. I refrain from rolling my eyes as he’s doing me a favor and doing it willingly. I nod, slipping my backpack-like carrying bag containing my laptop on my back, throwing my duffle bag over my shoulder then point at the garbage bag. Mowgli picks it up gracefully, and we’re out the door.
“Delilah!” Mrs. Sanderson, an old lady from across the hall, totters towards me, a smile wreathed on her wrinkled face. “I made you some chocolate éclairs!” She holds up a bag that is moist with grease. She knows that I love her éclairs even if I’m not crazy about chocolate, and she makes them for me at least once a week. “I know how much you love them.” She beams up at me—she’s five-foot nothing to my five-six. “Who’s this handsome boy? Is he your beau?”
“Mrs. Sanderson, this is Roberto. You remember him—you’ve met him before.” Mrs. Sanderson’s memory is failing as is most of the rest of her, but she remembers me and likes me for some unfathomable reason.
“Roberto?” Mrs. Sanderson squints up at Mowgli, trying to look at his face.
“Nice to see you again, Mrs. Sanderson,” Mowgli says obligingly, bending forward so she can see him better. He shifts the trash bag to his left hand and holds his right hand out. When Mrs. Sanderson places her bird-like claw into his hand, he kisses it, making her blush.
“Oh, it’s you! I remember you! You gave me a carnation once.” Mrs. Sanderson stares up at Mowgli with adoration. He’s not only kind to animals, but to the elderly and the infirmed as well.
“A lovely lady such as yourself deserves some beauty in your life,” Mowgli says gallantly. “It was the least I could do.”
“Oh, you,” Mrs. Sanderson blushes, a pleased smile on her face. “What would Mr. Sanderson say if he heard you?” As Mr. Sanderson is the same height as Mrs. Sanderson and in a wheelchair, not to mention deaf, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t say or do much of anything. “What’s your favorite pastry?”
“I love scones,” Mowgli says solemnly. Like I said, the boy has a hard on for all things British.
“I hate to break up this chat-fest,” I say, an artificial smile on my face. “But I have a plane to catch. Remember, Roberto?”
“A plane?” Mrs. Sanderson claps her hands, forgetting she’s still carrying the bag. “Where are you going, Delilah?”
“To, ah, Connecticut. My mom’s sick, and I thought I’d visit her. I’m going to be gone at least a week.”
“Oh, your poor mother!” Mrs. Sanderson says, her eyes moist. “My own daughter, Ellie, is no longer with us, but there’s no use talking about that.” She swipes her eyes with her hand. “Here.” She thrusts the bag into my hands and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Your mother is lucky to have such a good daughter.” Sure. The mother I haven’t seen since she and my father gave up on me when I was seventeen. Not that I blame them—I drove them to it. “Have a nice trip, dear. I’ll keep an eye on your place while you’re gone. See you, Roberto.” Waving to the both of us, she totters back to her apartment.
“Nice old lady,” Mowgli says cheerfully. As we go down the elevator, I tell everyone we run into the fabricated story about going to visit my sick mother in Connecticut. By the time we leave the apartment building, I’m beginning to believe it myself. Mowgli dumps the garbage before we head to our cars. “Shit, your face,” Mowgli says as he hops into his car.
“Huh?” I say oh-so-elegantly. What was wrong with my face? I have a perfectly good face.
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
I get into my car which is nearby and follow him carefully. As I do not drive often, I am soon lost in the sense that I don’t know where I am. I focus on Mowgli’s car—a black Saturn—and refuse to let any car separate us. I’m normally an assertive-not-aggressive driver, but not today. Today, I’m cutting off anyone who even thinks of getting in my way, not caring about the horns blaring around me. Mowgli is an excellent driver, but he has the tendency to coast through very yellow lights which forces me to run a few reds. Just what I need—to be stop by the cops for a traffic violation. It would be the ultimate irony, but I’m not laughing. I curse Mowgli under my breath, neatly maneuvering as a Porsche tries to cut me off. I must admit I get a kick out of besting a Porsche, and I give him the finger to punctuate my victory. After what seems like forever but is probably only twenty minutes, Mowgli pulls over to the curb. I’m not as lucky and have to circle the block a few times to find a parking spot.
“Where are we?” I ask Mowgli crossly as I spot him leaning on his car.
“Richmond District,” Mowgli says calmly, walking towards a nondescript apartment building. He presses a button and is buzzed in. I am fast on his heels.
“Roberto, you’ll be the death of me.” The door is opened by a Valkyrie who is only two or three inches shorter than Mowgli. She has reams of flaming red curls and brilliant green eyes—I’m sure both have been augmented. Her body is curved so generously, anyone would be a fool not to take that ride if it’s offered. She is wearing hot-pink leggings and a black t-shirt. I have a hard time believing she’s real. None of this shows on my face, however, as I am well-skilled in the Asian art of appearing inscrutable. “The way you drop your strays off.” She shakes her head as she lets us in.
“Vandie, you know you love me for it,” Mowgli beams and grabs the goddess in a bear-hug. They kiss the air around each other before letting go. “Girl, this is Del, my very bestest friend. Del, this is Vandie.”
“Trip,” I say with a pointed stare at Mowgli. Even though I allow him to call me by my given name, no one else has earned that privilege.
“What, you tripped?” Vandie booms, a puzzled look on her face. “Vandalia, please. Nice to meet you, Del.”
“Call me Trip,” I say through gritted teeth. “That’s what I prefer.” Why can’t Mowgli ever remember to introduce me the way I want him to? I introduce him as Roberto as per his request; he could at least return the favor.
“Come sit,” Vandalia orders, leading us towards a room exploding with colors. Three of the walls are painted red while the fourth one is a bright yellow. It should be offsetting, but somehow, it works. She has paintings by that odious SARK! strewn around the room, but that fits the atmosphere as well. And are those? Yes, there are Hummel figurines in a glass showcase next to the fifty-two inch-screen television. The décor is relentlessly upbeat, but it doesn’t seem fakey. However, I find it a bit difficult to breathe in the room and hope that I don’t have to be here for more than a week.
“I prepared breakfast.” Vandalia bustles to the kitchen before I can protest. I still have the bag of éclairs clutched in my hand, so I carefully set it on the coffee table.
“Listen, Del,” Mowgli says as we sit on the couch. “We have to do something about your appearance. Maybe Vandie can help.”
“Maybe Vandie can help with what?” Vandalia bounces back into the room, a tray in her outstretched hands. On it, there are three plates laden with pancakes, buttered toast, and sausage links. There are also three mugs of steaming coffee. She sets the tray on the coffee table before plumping herself down on a reclining chair. “Oooh, what’s in the bag?” She plunges a hand in the bag without looking, pulling out a gooey éclair triumphantly. “Yummy!” Without further ado, she crams half of it into her mouth. Anybody else would seem grotesque making such a movement, but she manages to make it erotic.
“You need to change your look, Del,” Mowgli says, digging into his food. He is eating rapidly as he has to get to work.
“What do you mean?” I take a cautious bite of pancake and nearly swoon. “These are fantastic, Vandalia.”
“You like?” She beams at me as she plows her way through a second éclair. “I used to be a sous-chef at La Maison downtown, but they fired me because I wasn’t temperamental enough for them. Said all great chefs are intense.” She placidly chows down the éclair, smearing chocolate on her chin.
“The cops are going to have a picture of you in the paper by tomorrow most likely,” Mowgli explains. “A sketch done by a cop artist. We need to make you look like someone else.”
“Cool,” Vandalia says, narrowing her eyes to stare at me. “The hair’s got to go. I can do that. I used to cut hair for amateur theater.” I stifle the impulse to ask if there’s anything this wunderkind hasn’t done. After all, she’s helping me, so I should at least act grateful—even if I wanted to kick her in the butt. “Then we can work on the makeup.” I flinch instinctively as I hate wearing makeup, and Vandalia rushes to reassure me. “Don’t worry, Trip. I have MAC makeup,” which is a nice sentiment, but completely misses the point.
“Well, I’ll leave you girls to it,” Mowgli says, cleaning his plate. “I have to go to work.” He stands up, pecks each of us on the cheek, then starts walking towards the door. He turns before he gets there. “Watch your back, Delilah. I will be seriously pissed if anything happens to you.” With that, he’s out the door, and it’s just me and the Valkyrie.
“Want to tell me what happened?” Vandalia asks, pulling her plate to her. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I look hard at her, trying to decide how much to reveal. She seems the type who will blab everything she knows to anybody who asks. “I know when to keep my mouth shut,” she adds, as if she can read my mind. “I just want to know if I’m in danger of being killed.” Her tone is cheerful, but her eyes are watchful. I give in because it’s not fair for her to put me up without knowing the risks. I tell her the bare-bones of the story with her exclaiming at the appropriate intervals. “That’s just like television,” she breathes, setting her plate back on the tray and dusting the crumbs off her lap. She stands up and stretches. “Ok, we have work to do.”
“Wait, hold on.” I think for a minute. If I am going to ask questions of Mr. DiCalvo, I don’t want to do so in disguise because then what good is the disguise? “Do you have a paper?” When Vandalia hesitates, I explain my reasoning to her. She leads me to her bedroom where she powers up her computer. Soon, we are surfing the web with a digital cable connection, and reading the Examiner and the Chron. The murder isn’t on the front page as I expected, but it’s there. There is no word of a suspect, which is all I need to know. The only new bit of information is that there is no sign of sexual intercourse. I browse some more, skimming over stories about our erstwhile mayor and his henchmen, each of whom he dubs with a ridiculous nickname that boys like so much. It’s his way of being in touch with the common man. Looks like the mayor is under suspicion again for greed, corruption, and a cornucopia of other goodies, though the Chron is coy about naming names. Just business as usual with Sam Davies, former pool hall owner. Purported devout Christian. Yeah, right. There is also a story about factory girls and women who have been disappearing in Juarez, Mexico. Four hundred in the last decade, without a trace. Most of these girls are young—not even in their teens.
The only other thing of interest is that the 49ers are tanking without Mariucci and that the Raiders have fallen completely off the radar. The weather is mild but drizzly, oh, what a surprise. The stock market is down; Dubya’s rating is up because of his constant attacks on any country that pisses him off except North Korea because we can’t afford to anger China; the economy is down; SARS is up. The comics aren’t funny, but that’s because the Chron doesn’t run Boondocks, the only strip worth reading. There’s some kind of bridal show coming to the Civic Center, so I make a mental note to avoid that area like the plague. There is a feature article about missing girls around the country, but I skip over that. The Chron is really a shitty paper which is why I never read it. I scan the rest of the headlines impatiently, but find nothing else about Sylvian’s murder.
“Well,” Vandalia says after we’ve finished reading the papers. “Looks like we don’t have to make the change quite yet. Why don’t I show you where you’ll bunk?” She leads me to a smaller bedroom which could accurately be called a walk-in closet. The walls are a rich red, which is not exactly what I would have chosen. There are weird, abstract paintings on said walls—the kind that always make me feel stupid. I don’t care—all I give a shit about is that I can connect to the internet, which I can.
“Thanks, Vandalia,” I say begrudgingly. It’s not easy for me to be indebted to someone. “I’d like to be alone now.” I set down my gear on the floor by my bed and flex my shoulders.
“I have to go to work, anyway,” Vandalia booms. “I’m a roving bit player for the masses. Right now, I’m in a Greek chorus in some sort of a modernist adaptation of Medea. Bloody boring, but it pays the bills. Here’s a key.” Vandalia hands over a key. “Use it wisely, hear?” Vandalia stares hard at me before turning on her heels and vanishing out the door. Something about her walk makes me wonder if Vandalia isn’t a he in drag. I file it away to ask Mowgli at a more opportune time. For now, I need to do some planning, then I have to ask me a man a few questions about a dead girl.