Back | Next



If you've lived a bad life, they send you to Hell. But if you've been truly wicked, they give you a tour of Heaven first. . . .

I didn't cry until I got back to my room and chased out Phillip and Robin. Then I didn't stop for hours.

Nice going, Mo! Sweet sixteen, and already beyond hope. Anyone else might have been satisfied to be a whore by now—but you've managed to become too clumsy and jaded to be a whore. A decent one anyway.

Hours went by that way. My pain became so large I could not bear it alone; some of it turned into anger, and spilled over onto Lady Sally.

Says I don't have the skills. The bitch. How the hell does she know? And where was I supposed to learn? Says I have no discipline. Let her try living with Big Travis, see how long she can keep a straight face. Says I don't like the clients. Christ, almost two years I've been tricking, and all I've ever had were creeps and jerks. Says I don't like screwing. Well, I used to, once. Maybe I could learn to like it again, if I had someone who wasn't a creep or a jerk, in a place that wasn't sleazy, and I didn't have to hurry. Maybe I could even learn to believe that it could be some kind of art. . . .

Says I don't like myself—

How the hell am I supposed to like myself? She doesn't want me. Big Travis doesn't want me. Even the Professor's turned his back on me. The only people that have ever wanted me have been creeps and jerks and . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .

I became aware of intense pain in my knuckles. I had been rhythmically banging my fists together, hard. I shook my fingers violently as if I were shaking off boiling water and got up from my bed to pace the room.

My side hurt, like a toothache. So did my head. My eyes were red and my nose plugged from crying. My belly was full of rocks. I catalogued all the physical discomforts, cherished them. They were perfectly satisfactory hurts. Sooner or later every one of them was going to go away. It was only a matter of waiting.

But the emotional hurts were not going to go away, no matter how long I waited. The loop began again:

Lady Sally doesn't want me. Big Travis doesn't want me. Even the Professor has turned his back on me. The only ones who've ever wanted me have been creeps and jerks and . . .

I still could not make myself complete the thought. The loop went into rewind:


. . . dna skrej dna speerc neeb evah em detnaw reve ev'ohw seno ylno ehT .em no kcab sih denrut sah rosseforP eht nevEven the Professor has turned his back on me—


I stopped pacing.

After a while I took a deep breath. Then another, and another. I went to the bathroom, washed my face, brushed my hair. I came out, tried the closet. The only outfit in a one-size-fits-all was a kimono and sandals. Not great, but you work with what you've got. I returned to the john and applied makeup with extreme care. When I was done I looked twenty-two years old and wealthy enough to carry off Eastern affectations. With the right resumé I could have applied for a job in a Tokyo bank. A vice cop or a hotel dick would have looked right past me.

I didn't really think this would work. But it was worth a try.

If it didn't work, then I would cut my throat.


As I stepped out into the hallway I saw the Mayor coming into the building through the Discreet Entrance; at least, it looked like him under that silly mask. It was dark outside; I had cried for a long time. I ignored him politely and went to the elevator, retraced the maze that led to Lady Sally's Parlor. I met no one along the way, and heard nothing; either the night was young or the soundproofing was excellent. When I reached the spiral staircase I heard party sounds from downstairs. I paused, listening for Lady Sally's distinctive deep voice, but I didn't hear it. I was nervous as hell. Suddenly I remembered the Mayor. If that was really him . . . did he, while he was at it, ask his famous trademark question? "How'm I doin'?" The giggle helped. Not enough, but some.

I squared my shoulders and descended the staircase.

There were three or four different parties going on simultaneously in the Parlor. No one paid any attention to me, so I scanned the room. One group of fifteen or so was watching two Chinese, a Marine and a transvestite play cards; they appeared to be wagering Peek Frean cookies. A slightly smaller group at one of the Parlor's two bars was having a liar's contest; the big Indian I'd seen earlier held the floor and his audience was loud and appreciative. A dozen people were singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" a capella by the fireplace, the men taking the Ray Charles part and the women giving the Betty Carter responses. On the other side of the room a man and a woman sat on the piano bench, facing a hushed crowd, and took turns blowing smoke figures. She took a deep drag on a cigar and blew a dragon; it had scales, and emitted a plume of smoke from its nostrils as it rose. He watched it until it dissolved, nodded admiringly, and blew an angel. With a halo and a harp. It hung motionless in the air for a moment, spread its wings, flapped them majestically, and ascended, shimmering into nothingness. They smiled at each other. In another corner of the Parlor, a stunning redhead and a priest shared a computer, gesticulating excitedly, typing simultaneously, watching the screen together, then gesticulating again. A couple with matching wedding rings sat on a couch nearby, holding hands and looking intently into each other's eyes, oblivious to the universe.

I wanted to belong here so bad my teeth hurt.

Between that and the ache in my side, I yearned to go to one of the two bars and order something with authority. Or slide back to my room for some of that Russian dope. The girl I had been, way back when I had first gone up that alley, would probably have done one of those things. Instead I looked for familiar faces. No sign of Lady Sally, my first choice; she'd have stood out even in this crowd. No Doctor Kate. Nor Phillip, nor Mary, nor Robin. Stranger at the feast. Oh wait, there was someone I knew—


There was no mistaking those ears on that bald head. He was standing by the bar, watching the two smoke artists. I wondered what he was doing in human form; surely the Moon was up by now? I realized for the first time that there were no windows in the Parlor. That's something I usually notice right away about a room. Perhaps Charles had to be physically touched by moonlight to go into his act. I started toward him, and saw that a real dog sat by his feet. I grinned, some of my tension going out of me. Maybe she was his artist.

You had to wonder what he'd be like . . .

He recognized me as I approached, and his face took on an odd, guarded expression. The phrase that popped into my mind was, like a dog wondering if he's about to be kicked. He knew I had seen him change, and we had not exchanged a word since. Awkward—

The girl I had been when I went up the alley would probably have said something like, "Hi, snoopy," or if I'd been really clever, "Give me your paw and you can have my maw, arf arf." Instead I said, "Hello, Charles. We haven't been properly introduced; I'm Maureen."

Can a face relax into a smile? His did. "Hello, Maureen. It's good to see you up and around. Uh . . . may I present my good friend, the celebrated author, Ralph Von Wau Wau?"

I followed his gesture, didn't see anybody.

"Down here, fräulein," came a voice from below.

I gaped.

"You got something against short people?" the German shepherd asked.

"Oh, stop it, Ralph," Charles said. "Maureen is new here, and you know you take a bit of getting used to."

The dog hung his head. "Aw, Curly, I vas chust teasing her a little." Now he mentioned it, Charles did look like an underweight Third Stooge.

"Ralph is a mutant, Maureen. A psych experiment with serendipitous results. High IQ and a surgically modified larynx."

Ralph barked with laughter. "Mein Gott! De t'ree uff us are Mo, Larynx, unt Curly!"

I took a deep breath, and then another. Then I squatted and held out my hand. "No offense, Ralph; it was rude of me to stare. Pleased to meet you."

He extended his paw and we shook. "Zat wass a fast recovery, Maureen."

"I'm learning about this place. Will you excuse me, Ralph, Charles? I'm eager to get to know you both, but right now I need to find Lady Sally; it's important that I talk with her. Do either of you know where she might be?"

"Priscilla will know," Charles said. "Oh, Priscilla! Here she comes—"

I gave Ralph a friendly scratch behind the ears, straightened up and turned to see Priscilla approaching. She wore sweatpants and a skintight muscle shirt. She was entitled. I would not have believed a woman could have so much sculptured muscle mass and still look totally feminine. She was astonishingly light on her feet. She had to be the bouncer.

And was. Charles introduced us—her grip was firm but not aggressive—and stated my problem. She nodded, murmured into her wristwatch, waited, then smiled at me. "Come on, hon."

She led me to a door directly opposite the main entrance, between the two bars. We went down a short flight of stairs, through a fire door, went right along a short corridor and stopped at another door. Priscilla knocked a complex pattern.

"Come in," came that distinctive voice.

Lady Sally sat behind an antique desk, on which were a computer, a printer and a Lava Lamp. The air smelled faintly of fine coffee, and a good stereo was playing good music at background volume. Books lined the walls. She nodded to a chair. "Sit down, dear. Thank you, Priscilla."

"Sure, Boss." Priscilla closed the door behind her.

Lady Sally held up one finger, typed a few keys with her other hand, shut down the computer and put away the startup disk. "Now then, darling, what can I do for you?"

It was hard to get enough air. I had rehearsed this a dozen times, and couldn't remember my lines. "You've already done a lot for me, Lady."

"No, dear," she said. "I did that for myself. I hate a knife."

Maureen, quit waiting for a better argument to occur to you and say what you came here to say—

"Do you know a man called the Professor?" I blurted.

She looked surprised. "I am acquainted with a gentleman of that name. Is yours a swindler?"

"The best in the world," I agreed.

"Well, on the East Coast, at any rate. Yes, I know the Professor. Why do you ask?"

I hesitated, then went for broke. "If I dial his private number, will you speak with him for me?"

"You know him that well?"

"I lived with him for almost a year. And worked with him."

I had succeeded in surprising, if not impressing her. "And you left that to work the streets for that Travis creature?"

I shrugged and sat back in my chair. "I've kicked myself a few times."

"But why?"

I sighed deeply. "The best I can say it is that I started feeling sorry for the marks. It wasn't easy: you know the Professor's maniac thing about only conning creeps. But it got to me. Look: the Professor and I both screw people for a living—but the ones I screw are grateful afterwards. We both sell illusion; I just work cheaper. I know it doesn't make much sense."

"On the contrary, child," she said slowly, "it makes a certain sense to me. Why do you wish me to speak with him now?"

I sat forward and met her eyes. "You said I don't much like myself. I do and I don't. If I try to give you a big sales pitch for me I'll have trouble passing a lie-detector test; the best I can tell you is I'm not as bad as I could have been. But right after I first got here, I called up the Professor and told him where I was, and he laughed and said I'd finally gotten exactly what I deserved and then hung up, and I want you to call him up now and ask him why he said that—" I was crying now. "—because if he was right and this place is what I deserve, then dammit you gotta take me and teach me!"

She blinked at me.

I had shot my bolt. I met her gaze and waited for her reply.

And a speaker crackled into life somewhere on her desk. "Boss!" Mary's voice rapped, "Trouble in the Parlor! Sounds like one hostile. Pris is down; I'm on my way!"

Lady Sally was already loping up the stairs. I scrambled after her, hampered by a costume designed to keep the women from being able to run fast enough—


Richard Fariña once said, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, you're liable to fucking drown." As I burst into the Parlor, cursing at the pain in my side, the first thing I saw was the man who had put it there.

"God damn, Baby Love," Big Travis called happily, "you lookin' bad. You lookin' like some solid citizen bitch, like a growed-up lady been around the world. That ain't a bad look, that Jap shit; we'll make us some money with that." He gestured with his Saturday Night Special. "Bring it on over here."

He was crazy-eye high on crank. The room was full of quiet still people. Priscilla lay face down at this feet, also quiet and still; I saw blood on the back of her neck, trickling along her splendid trapezius. He had to have sucker-punched her; he could never have taken her in a fair fight.

I hesitated a second, then smiled joyously.

The hesitation was fake. My brain was already up to speed from making my pitch to Lady Sally, I was full of adrenaline from running, and I'd just been thinking about the Professor, who can invent a new identity in the time it takes to shake hands. Shifting mental gears took no time at all: Travis would think the hesitation in getting my smile on was because I knew I was in for a rough time when he got me home.

"Travis! Thank God you found me—they've been keeping me prisoner! Get me out of here, baby!"

It must be gratifying to see a girl you recently planned to torture to death light up with joy at the sight of you. He grinned so big I could see the insides of his ears. "I can do that," he said, nodding. "I don't see a problem in the world with that. Everybody here be nice people, we just motor out of here and," in mid-sentence his face changed instantly to total rage and he was bellowing "nobody be gettin' crazy!" 

It got even quieter in the Parlor. I could see one uniform cop (female), a couple of Marines, and three or four football players, all of whom looked dangerously close to having had enough of this shit. I remembered the moment in the alley, when I had been afraid that Travis was going to kill Lady Sally. I was tired of nice people being in danger because of me.

"Oh, I don't t'ink anyvun here iss crazy," Ralph Von Wau Wau said slowly and distinctly.

It should have worked. When you are addressed by an attack dog with bared teeth and flattened ears, you generally lose your train of thought. But Travis must have been flying—he took it in stride, and there was never a second when he could have been jumped. All he did was grin again. "Tell you one thing, Rin Tin Tin: you crazy enough to come at me, you one dead son of a bitch." They stared hard at each other, baring their teeth.

Ralph dropped his eyes—

"Hostage," Travis said. "We need a hostage and then noobody'll bother us."

Inspiration came from Heaven. "Get that bald guy with the ears, Trav honey; they all like him."

He nodded approval and aimed his gun at Charles. "Head for the door, Curly," he said. "Don't fret: once we get a few blocks with nobody following, we turn you loose. Come on, Baby Love, we gone."

I moved to join him.

"Konban mangetsu ga mirareru-hazu-da," Lady Sally called out.

"Say what?" Travis said.

I pointed at her, then rotated my finger against my forehead. "High," I explained.

"Bikkuri-suru-na," she said softly. "Keihô ga hasse-rareta."

"Hey, burn that pig-Latin shit," Travis ordered suspiciously

She shut up. "High," I said again, hoping she got the pun. I hate puns. "The hell with her, lover, let's go!"

He nodded again and grabbed my wrist firmly. We followed Charles through swinging doors into a reception area. Travis paused in the doorway, thrust me through ahead of him. "Almost forgot," he muttered. "I owe that bitch for bustin' my damn nose." He turned and took a dead bead on Lady Sally's impassive face, steadying his wrist with his left hand.

I was caught leaning the wrong way. I wound up to punch him above the elbow, knowing I was going to be too late—

—and a dozen men and women stepped calmly and instantly into the line of fire.

Others joined them within seconds. They all stared fearlessly at Big Travis. He held his stance for several long seconds . . . then pointed the muzzle at the ceiling. "Fuck it," he said, and backed through the doors. As they swung shut he reclaimed my right wrist with his left hand and waved to Charles to open the outer door.

Then it closed behind us, and suddenly we were back in Brooklyn. It was a warm night. I smelled the streets for the first time in days, heard city-sound whispering in the distance, and over it the pounding of my pulse. I mustn't get caught leaning again. If I was lucky, I'd get a single, split-second opportunity . . .

Six feet from the door, Charles stopped and began undressing.

Travis made no comment until his sportscoat and tie were on the sidewalk and he was halfway through unbuttoning his shirt. "What is wrong with you, fool?" he said then. "You want to die?"

Charles took the undershirt off with his shirt, dropped them both. "Not in these trousers," he said, and unzipped them.

Travis giggled, moved so that he could keep an eye on the door, and watched as Charles dropped pants and shorts, and managed to step out of them and his shoes and socks without using his hands. A milkman couldn't have done it faster.

"What you figure to do?" Travis asked, smiling broadly now. "Sneak up on me while I'm tryin' to find your pecker?"

For reply, Charles changed.

And for the second damn time, it didn't work.

Oh, it affected Travis, all right. A man can be so stoned that he doesn't find a talking dog disturbing—but a werewolf transformation at arm's length is a different proposition. He gasped loudly, gaped satisfactorily, and turned to stone while Charles's body rippled and contorted. He would have been a perfect sitting duck target, except for one thing: among the muscles which turned to stone were the ones in his left hand. The one which held my right wrist.

If I tried to free my hand, or reach across his body and get to his gun with my left hand, I would break the spell. If I hit him, he'd probably pull the trigger. I didn't know if werebeagles were vulnerable only to silver bullets like werewolves were supposed to be—and once the change was complete, and Travis realized he was facing not a wolf but a beagle, he would start shooting. I decided my move, pitiful as it was, was to go for the gun: it would give Charles a chance to attack while Travis was shooting me. I tensed—

Then I remembered Lady Sally's last words—don't worry; the alarm has been given—and made the instant, intuitive decision to believe that she knew what she was talking about. I relaxed, waited to see what would happen.

And close to two hundred pounds of fighting female landed on Big Travis's shoulders with both feet.

Of course—Mary, who eavesdropped on everything in Lady Sally's House, had said, "I'm on my way," and then never showed up. Instead she had positioned herself at a window overlooking the front door. Any move I'd made would have screwed her up.

The gun went flying and he let go of my wrist as he went down. The shattered collarbone made him scream, but it cut off short as his face smacked the pavement. When the dust settled, Mary was seated on his shoulder blades, facing forward. Blood oozed from his nose and mouth and one eye; as I watched, it stopped. Mary put two fingers to the side of his neck, being careful to avoid the blood. "Doornail," she said with satisfaction. She got up nimbly and checked her jeans for stains. "Nice set-up, Mo. You played it just right."

It took me a few seconds to get my voice working. "My pleasure. I always thought Mary rose up into Heaven."

"An ungrounded Assumption," she said.

Charles, change complete, waddled forward on his four stubby legs, lifted one, and expressed an opinion—whether of Travis or Mary's pun I couldn't say. The former, probably, judging by his aim.

The front door banged open and Lady Sally came out the door fast and low with a shotgun in her hands, closely followed by Phillip, Doctor Kate, Robin, and others. The cop and Marines were among them, also displaying firearms now; there must be a gun-check in the reception area. "Film at eleven," Mary called to them, and they slowed and lowered their weapons.

Lady Sally approached me slowly, putting the safety back on her scattergun. She looked me in the eye. "Are you all right?"

I looked down at the fresh warm corpse of what had, until some forty-eight hours ago, been my favorite pet tiger. My lover. My owner. I had been smarter . . . and he more cunning. I was horrified to discover how much I would miss him.

"Yes," I said, "but oh, I have been so stupid," and on "oh" the tears spilled over and ran down my face. So many tears tonight . . .

She embraced me, and I felt Mary's big strong hand on my shoulder. "Step into my office," Lady Sally said, and led me past the crowd at the door and back into her House with her arm around me.

Back in her office she offered me a drink. I didn't turn it down to win points; I already felt smashed. "How did you know I spoke Japanese?" I asked.

"You said you were an Army brat. And your obi is tied correctly. I took a chance."

"Oh. Yeah. I spent the last half of junior high in Tokyo."

"Is that where the bad thing happened?"

I looked up at her. "You know about that?"

She shook her head. "Only that it happened. Not what it is. I'm not a mind-reader, child."

I snorted. "So you say."

She said nothing.

"Yeah, it was in Tokyo. My real mother died when I was born. When I was nine, Daddy married again. Captain Phyllis Langerhut. She was clever, very smart. I adored her from nine to twelve. I called her Mom. And I had a terrific crush on her best friend, Sergeant Alice. They were both terrific female role models. Strong, tough, independent. Dashing, you know? On my twelfth birthday, while Daddy was off in the States, they made their move. You know what they say about women in the Army? Well, once in a while it's true. And once in a very long while, they're aggressive pedophiles, too. Alice had talked Mom . . . Phyllis into marrying Daddy so they could have access to me.

Like I say, they were clever. They knew about power. I hated it and enjoyed it. So I belonged to them from twelve to about thirteen and a half. Then I told Daddy. And pretty soon Sergeant Alice was dead and Daddy was dead and Phyllis was dishonorably discharged and I was in an institution. After a month I cut a new door in it, and I met the Professor on the Greyhound platform at Port Authority. I started out roping for him, and by the time I quit him I was telling the tale and even running the store sometimes. He was the first man I ever . . ." I broke off. "You don't care about all this soap opera."

Lady Sally was looking at me strangely. "On the contrary," she said. "I am interested in everything about my employees."

* * *

I spent the next couple of years learning Lady Sally's House from top to bottom. Or rather the other way around. I spent the first year working in the kitchen, the laundry, maintenance, housekeeping, and Lady Sally's office, all of which are located in the basement. Then I moved upstairs and worked reception at each of the four entrances, and toward the end of the year I put in some time spelling Mary in the Snoop Room on the top floor. During all this time I was completing high school; the dean of the night school program gave me credit for a completely mythical freshman and sophomore year, on the basis of my test scores and because I had been doing very well in the genius program when I'd left junior high school; the fact that he was a regular client at Lady Sally's House was irrelevant. Meanwhile I was taking daily classes in The Art between shifts, from Phillip and Mary and others, and for the last six months I was allowed to sit in on Lady Sally's weekend master classes.

And on my eighteenth birthday, six years to the day since I had decided once and for all that I was utterly worthless, I became an Artist.

Just lucky, I guess.



Back | Next