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Last Friday I had to say goodbye to my best friend.  Those of you who have read my blog know him as Muttboy, but his real name was Seamus.  He was the best dog I have ever known.  He was charming, loving, and sweet, and everyone who met him loved him.  I used to joke that people who did not really care for dogs made an exception for Seamus; people who liked dogs loved him; people who loved dogs wanted him to be their dog.  It wasn’t really a joke, though: he was truly an exceptional creature.

Last year when I started writing on this blog again, I had hoped to get back into the rhythm of writing and keep the posts flowing.  Soon, though, I noticed that something was wrong with Seamus, and the worry from this overshadowed any minor plans I had.

It actually started a little earlier, when we visited some friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving.  It had snowed shortly before our visit, and Seamus was reluctant to wade through the drifts. He seemed more wary and careful than I was used to seeing him.  At first I thought it was just age starting to catch up with him, but then he recovered by Christmas and I thought I had been imagining things.  In January, I noticed again that he seemed not quite right.  I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was sick.  Part of me thought it was just my paranoia–when it came to Seamus’s health, I tended to be a little hyper-vigilant.  Then, one night, he was clearly in distress.  He spent the night panting and couldn’t seem to settle down.  He even let out a whimper or two.

The next day I took him to the vet and we did a few tests.  His regular doctor noticed that the muscles on the top of his head looked as if they had atrophied slightly–the little point at the back of his skull was very slightly more prominent.  She worried that this might be a sign of cancer, so we focused on that.  Initial blood tests were ambiguous, so we tested again.  The second tests were normal.  We decided to take an x-ray of his chest and abdomen to see if there were any problems.  The films were also ambiguous.  It was possible that his intestines looked slightly askew, which could mean something else was in there taking up space.  After a few more weeks of tests and second-guessing, we decided to take Seamus to the big veterinary clinic down in Norwalk for a surgical consult.

The big vet is housed in an impressive building, and there are many doctors working there.  The staff is large and friendly, with vet techs, surgical liaisons, and specialists.  Our first step was to have an ultrasound done of his belly.  After shaving the hair off his belly, the doctors scanned him and found that he did, as we suspected, have a tumor on his spleen.  The doctor examining the images said she thought it looked like the less serious (that is, not cancer) form of tumor, partly because it was still relatively small.  After talking to the surgeon, we decided to operate.

Seamus came through the surgery very well, and he managed, despite being doped up, to charm everyone working at the clinic.  “He is the best dog,” said one.  “Everyone loves him,” the surgical liaison told me.

His surgeon, who is exactly the type of person you want to have cutting into you or someone you love–exuding a perfectly capable and confident air–said the tumor was about the size of a tennis ball.  Since splenic tumors are usually not discovered until they are really big–more like the size of a volleyball–this one was small.  He also said that there was no visible metastasis, another good sign.

Then, at the end of the week, we got the call from the lab.  The tumor was a hemangiosarcoma.

The hemangiosarcoma is the worst type of splenic tumor, and, as I knew all too well from my Google searches, the prognosis was not good.  Most dogs don’t live longer than three months after this diagnosis.  A few live six months.  Almost none make it a year.

I put a good face on it, though, and decided that I would enjoy my time with my dog and see that he lived the best life he could.  We started walking in the woods again even before the doctors had cleared him.  He was too happy and eager to walk for us to stay in the house, and the winter and spring of 2012 was unusually warm and free of snow.  The woods were calling.

At the end of April, Seamus seemed great until one day he was limping, holding his head down, and whimpering in pain.  We sped down to the vet to see what was wrong.  I was sure this was the end.  It wasn’t, though.  The day before, we had run into a big dog in the park where we walk and Seamus had forgotten his age and romped.  His old shoulders were not up to that kind of roughousing, and he had hurt himself.  Some painkillers and advice to take it a little easier seemed like a good ending.

In her examination of Seamus, though, the doctor had discovered that he had the beginning of a tumor in his anal gland.  These tumors are slow-growing, the doctor assured us, so we could decide later if we wanted to have another surgery.  Because of his dire prognosis, we decided against surgery.

Spring passed and summer came.  Seamus spent hours walking in the woods with me, and he always grumbled when I took the trails that would get us back to the car sooner.  He wanted to walk longer.  He wanted to spend hours bushwhacking and exploring all the interesting scents.  He trotted happily for miles.

We hit the six month mark.  No sign of slowing down.

Eight months.  He still seemed to be perfectly happy and healthy.  We took him to his local vet to talk about his anal gland tumor.  By this point it had grown large enough that it was starting to cause him some discomfort, and he was having trouble relieving himself.  His doctor was not sure surgery was an option: the tumor might have grown too much.  Nevertheless, we scheduled a consult.

The surgeon, in his cocky/confident way, assured us that surgery was possible.  “I could do it in my sleep,” he told us.  However, he wouldn’t want to operate until he knew there was no metastasis.  First an x-ray to rule out metastasis from the original cancer.  This came back clean, and the surgeon just shook his head.  “I guess there are always exceptions,” he said.  Next up: another ultrasound to make sure the new cancer had not metastasized.  This also came back clean.  Seamus was cleared for another surgery.

He came through this very well and within two days he was like a new dog.  His appetite was great.  He was energetic.  He was happy.  Most importantly, he was comfortable again.  We went back to the woods for more long hikes.  We celebrated Christmas with a long walk and extra treats.  In January we welcomed his new little human brother into the world.

In April he started to have trouble relieving himself again.  Remembering what the doctor had said almost a year earlier about how slowly this kind of tumor grows, I thought we had some time.  This time, however, the tumor was seriously vicious.  By early May he was starting to get very uncomfortable, and the tumor was visibly larger than I had expected it to be.

In the middle of the month, he started drinking a lot more.  He went through four or five bowls of water a day and was peeing almost non-stop on our walks.  A quick Google search revealed that kidney disease was the most likely culprit.  Two weeks ago I took him back to his doctor to talk about his condition.  I knew he did not have a lot of time left, but I wanted to make whatever time he did have more comfortable.  His doctor agreed with my diagnosis: his kidneys were going.  She prescribed palliative painkillers and some high fiber food to help make things easier.

Last week the tumor had grown so much it had almost completely closed off his colon.  He would strain but couldn’t produce anything.  He had stopped eating unless I made the most tempting thing imaginable.

On Thursday I called his doctor.  It’s time, I told her.  I knew he was not going to get better, and I couldn’t bear to see him suffer any more.  He lived more than a year longer than he was supposed to, and I was very grateful for that time with him, but I knew it was over.

On Friday morning I got up early and cooked Seamus breakfast.  I made him scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese.  He looked at the dish with surprise but could not manage to eat more than a bite or two, and very small bites at that.  I grabbed his leash and led him to the car.  We were going to make one last hike in his beloved woods.

I parked in the lower parking lot, near the trails on the north side of the park.  These trails were more rugged, less traveled, and most interesting for a dog.  We started walking and Seamus trotted happily along in front of me, his tail held high and waving.  I wondered if I had made the wrong decision–he looked so good.  Then, after about half a mile, he slowed down.  He still looked happy to be walking, but he was not going to run and leap around like a puppy.

We came to a fork in the trail.  Seamus always wanted to go left, where the trail looped into even more wild territory. This day was no exception and I followed his bushy tail to the left.  After the trail starts to loop back to the main trail, we often used to go off the trail and bushwhack into the woods, following game trails or no trail at all.  Seamus wanted to do this, so once again I followed him.  We wandered through the woods, up and down, over rocks and downed trees.  He sniffed everything and walked slowly but happily.  Every so often he would look back at me with his lovely, sweet doggy grin, just to check in and make sure I was there and everything was okay.  When he needed to stop at a brook and get a drink, I waited patiently for him.  I talked to him, told him he was a good dog, scratched his ears.

After almost two hours, we made it back to the car.  It was a long walk but it was too short.  We drove home and waited for it to be time to go to the vet.  I laid on the floor with him and held him.  Seamus pressed himself back into me, snuggling closer.  Every so often I could feel him tense up in pain.  He never cried or let out any other sign of distress, but I could tell he was not feeling well.  I rubbed his ears, scratched his belly.  I kissed him on his forehead the way he liked it and dug my hands into the thick fur around his neck.  He licked me on the face and gazed at me.

Finally it was time.  A friend had agreed to watch the baby while we took Seamus away.  The vet’s office was ready for us.  I signed some papers and paid.  Then it was time to go into the room.

His doctor came in with a vet tech.  She explained the procedure and said we did not have to stay.  She said that as if she knew what my response would be.  I had to be there for my boy.  It was not right to leave him then.  It was my responsibility as his best friend, as someone who has loved him immensely for almost twelve years, to stay with him and comfort him on his way.

Watching him die was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I will always love that silly, smart, lovely dog.  I will always miss him.

Nothing Is Scary

Ira Levin’s masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, was published in 1967 and has aged remarkably well.  The references within the story are all very specifically located in time (the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1966), but that, perhaps counterintuitively, helps make the thing work so well today.  The minutiae of daily life that Levin presents are all clearly 1960s things(or are wearing 1960s fashions), but they still feel real and true, not like things that were added as stage setting to make the time period feel authentic.  The very ordinariness of the world he creates comforts and distracts the reader, allowing the frights to nudge their way inside quietly and almost unobserved where they can do the most damage.

I recently taught Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the class spent quite a bit of time talking about how little happens that should really terrify the readers but they were still terrified.  As I pointed out, nothing overtly supernatural or horrific happens until around page 241 (of 447 pages).  Levin’s book has the same effect (and it is probably something that King learned from Levin), with a lot of largely normal conversations between husbands and wives and friends and neighbors, cocktails, dinners, work, house decorating, and other domestic duties filling the pages.  Nothing happens.  And nothing is scary.

Perhaps the tension derives partly from the expectations of the readers: we know this is a scary book, so we keep looking for the monster in the background to make its way to the foreground.  When it doesn’t, we get even more tense and worried, knowing that the big reveal will be terrifying.  There is more to it than that, though.  Saying, “This is a scary book,” and then giving us a lot of nothing is a cheap trick, and Levin is not playing cheap tricks on his readers.  Instead, he manages to invest each small, insignificant conversation, each throw-away gesture with that slightest whiff of the uncanny.  The uncanny, as Freud pointed out so astutely, gains most of its power from the way homelike things (the German term Freud uses is “unheimlich,” which means “not homely”–more on this in future posts) are rendered strange or unhomelike.  So, when Rosemary and her glib, shallow husband, Guy, have a conversation about whether or not to invite their nosy neighbors over for a party, there are tiny, almost imperceptible signs of stress.  We as readers become engineers of the human soul, looking at the tiny fractures revealed not with some high tech scanning device but through little human (or inhuman) touches.

The big fright at the end of the novel is the charming line, “He has his father’s eyes!”  The woman who notes this says it with such motherly warmth that we first fall for the cliché and think, “Well, isn’t that nice,” until the real meaning hits.  The cliché and the real meaning of the phrase occur nearly simultaneously, and this conflict–the comfort of friendly domestic inanities colliding with the horror of satanic rape–echoes and intensifies the unheimlich horror we have felt throughout the novel.

I mentioned King earlier, and his novel shares some important features with Levin’s.  In both, the authors create scenes of “ordinary” domestic terror.  In one, the worries and insecurities of a young married couple who may not exactly agree on the relative importance of career and family gradually darkens into a horrific allegory: the quasi-desired baby is, in fact, the spawn of the devil.  In the other, the young family faces the prospect of complete economic ruin brought on by the father’s alcoholism.  The Torrance family’s fears are made tangible in the Overlook hotel: it both welcomes them into its warm, homely embrace, but also threatens to smother them.

In many ways, real horror does not come from ghosts, zombies, vampires, or any other frightening freak our imaginations can conjure up.  If anything, these creatures might be a welcome relief from the uncertainties and insecurities that truly frighten us (should I leave my husband? is my child really ill?) because they are, paradoxically, something real that can be met with whatever talismans or apotropaic charms ward off their particular evil.  Not knowing is terrifying.  Nothing is scary.

Domestic Vampires

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) is best known for her short stories in A New England Nun, and her attention to the local color of New England culture and language puts her in the same category as other northeastern writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and, yes, Stephen King.  I add King’s name here because he must be a fan of Freeman’s works, treading as they do the ground that King has found so amenable to his own dark stories: the insular New England towns filled with eccentric, borderline grotesque characters who are nevertheless palpably real and human.  Like some King’s vernacular stories (his novel Dolores Claiborne comes to mind), “Luella Miller,” first published in 1903, is told largely in the voice of one old woman in the town, who has seen everything with a sharp and unsentimental eye.

Lydia Anderson is another of Freeman’s nuns, and old woman who never married but has the history of the town–including (or esepcially) its scandals–right at her fingertips.  The story opens with a third person narrator speaking about the terror the townspeople feel for the abondoned house that once belonged to Luella Miller.  No on, not even cold and shivering vagrants, will enter the house if they know what’s good for them.  The house stands unmolested and solitary, and the children of the town are so afraid of it that they will not dare to break its windows or scrawl grafitti on its walls.  Once the house’s haunted bona fides are established, the narrator relinquishes the story to Lydia.

Lydia knew Luella Miller when she first arrived in town with the name Luella Hill.  She was a pretty, graceful, and dreamy girl who managed to land a job teaching school despite her inability to do any kind of work at all.  Instead, she has the oldest and brightest pupils take over the real teaching duties.  This continues for a time until Luella snags Erastus Miller shortly before she runs into the danger of losing her job; the couple moves in across the street from Lydia, who keeps her ye on them.

Soon a sort of scandal begins to color the perception of Luella.  She is apparently completely incapable of doing any work at all, including the basic domestic duties expected of all married women.  Although the town gossips about this development, it fails to generate any real feeling of ill-will.  Erastus takes on all of the house work in addition to his own work, and it is not long before he begins to fade away.  Soon he dies.

One after another, people from the town and neighboring communities come to help Luella take care fo herself, and one after another, the helpers fade and fall sick.  Each victim seems to be worked to death.  Despite the excessive mortality of her domestic help, Luella manages to hold a strong attraction for nearly everyone: people seem to be literally dying to help her out.

Finally the town catches on after Luella manages to kill off the handsome, dashing young doctor who was preparing to marry her.  No one will help her, and Luella begins to fall into the same sort of sickness that claimed the others.  Once, when she say how difficult it was for Luella to carry some items home from the store in her weakened state, Lydia gives her some help. Although it was only a small effort, it made Lydia desperately ill for weeks.

After Luella finally succumbs to her illness, the house stands, a monument to her life-sucking power.  Once a traveler who knew no better broke into the abandoned house to escape the weather, but he did not survive the night.  Later, after Lydia herself dies as an old woman, someone burns the house to the ground.

One interesting point about Luella’s predatory behavior is that she seems to be completely unaware of it.  Instead, she is portrayed as an innocent, childlike figure with her lovely blond hair and guileless blue eyes.  Nearly every description of her could instead be the description of a small child, incapable of fending for herself.  As such, she is a freakish woman who does not fit any models for femininity of the times: she is not the angel of the house nor is she the independent new woman.  She inhabits a space outside any recognized role.  Yet her insistence on maintaining some facade of domesticity places her in a dangerous spot.  She wants to take advantage of the life afforded by feminine domesticity but she is incapable of producing that.  Instead of nurturing life she instead seems to suck life out of anyone who attempts to help her.  Those who help her are only enabling her vampiric half-life.

Sabbatical

When I last wrote, I was about to get caught up in a storm of annoyances, mostly work-related: my department chair was leaning heavily on me to do her work for her, new committees were trying to seduce me into joining, and too many student essays awaited grading.  As a result, the blog took a hit.  Then intertia set in.  Then–most damming (not damning)–was the thought that if I returned to writing after a hiatus I’d have to explain it, and I hate that; it just seemed easier not to write.  So here I am, years later, explaining why I stopped.

I have a good reason now to resume writing, though, and it is a pretty good reason.  On December 21st, I turned in my grades for the fall semester, signaling the beginning of nine months off.  My sabbatical–delayed a year because of other commitments–officially starts with the new semester in the middle of January, but it really starts now.  During the sabbatical I hope to put in a lot of miles on my bike, but, more importantly, there is a book that is more or less patiently waiting to get written.  I know that it helps lubricate the writing machine to post some things on here, where the stakes are much lower and book editors are not casting a jaded, critical eye on my words.  I will talk more about the project in future posts, and maybe, if you’re all very good, I’ll even tell you the proposed title.

However, I want to start with a story that I just read and want to include in my analysis later.  The story perplexes me in some ways, and I want to try to play with some ideas and see how they do.  Throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

Madelene Yale Wynne (1847-1918) is hardly remembered today except for those of us who look into the dusty corners of nineteenth-century literature, and even I, a veteran dusty corner looker, had never encountered her before I picked up Alfred Bendixen’s anthology, Haunted Women.  Wynne is the daughter of the man who invented the Yale lock, and her largest accomplishment and source of recognition during her life was her talent for arts and crafts, especially metal working; she apparently wished to get other women invested in artistic production.  She seems to be a sort of female version of William Morris.

Wynne’s short story “The Little Room” was the most popular thing she wrote and first appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Later stories did not satisfy her audience as much as this eerie little gem did.  Bendixen calls it “one of the most effective ‘puzzle stories’ ever written.”

The story is told entirely in dialogue and opens with a young woman talking to her new husband, Roger.  The young Mrs. Grant tells, with a mixture of fondness and the slightest foreboding, of her Aunt Hannah, who is “New England…boiled down.”  Mrs. Grant’s mother had recalled a small room in Aunt Hannah’s house, a perfect little room with a comfortable couch and small bookcase.  However, when she visted Aunt Hannah again, the room wasn’t there; in its place was a china closet filled with gilt-edged china.  Moreover, Aunt Hannah claimed there never had been a little room her niece had described–the china closet had been a part of the house for as long as the house had stood.

The little room and the china closet take turns appearing in the house.  Whatever room is currently in existence is the one that Aunt Hannah insists is the eternal room, and she vehemently disavows any knowledge of any contrary room.  When young Mrs. Grant appears with her husband, the little room she remembered as a child was gone, replaced by the china closet.  A few years later she enlists the help of a pair of friends, Rita and Nan, to find out the truth.  The two friends visit at different times and each sees a different room.  When the two discover their experiences with the rooms differ, they immediately set out to settle things once and for all.  Upon arriving at the town where Aunt Hannah lives, however, they learn that the house has burned down.

It is an odd, haunting little story that lodges itself in your brain much the way the memory of the little room takes up housekeeping in Mrs. Grant’s mind.  It did not occur to me until writing down the synopsis that the reason the house had to burn down is because the two women who had had opposite experiences of the room were going to arrive at the same time: the room would have to have two opposite appearances at the same time, and that would never work.  Solution?  Fire.

More to the point, though, the rooms’ characters appear different to women who are at different stages of their lives.  Mrs. Grant fondly remembers the little room from her childhood, but that memory is overlayed by the altered reality after her marriage.  When she is no longer a little girl, the young niece, but is a grown, married woman, the room becomes a china closet, an emblem of domesticity.  Furthermore, the china occupying the closet is gilt, indicating the false, glittering promise of adulthood that, when scratched, is only a thin veneer that looks much richer than it really is.  The little room, on the other hand, shows the allure of imagination (through the books) and travel (a piece of cloth with exotic provenance, a large sea shell), neither of which are the “proper” concern of a married woman.

This short analysis scarcely shows the depth of the story.  There are many other elements that I will have to consider more closely in my more formal study: the books, for example, all have brown leather bindings save for one bright red volume.  If you are interested, the story can be found in Bendixen’s anthology, mentioned above, or you can find it online here.

The Black Kitten, Part 7

And that was our grand opening.  I was worried that Mr. Rich would be pissed off that I had manhandled one of his cutomers even though that customer was manhandling one of Mr. Rich’s employees, but I didn’t need to worry at all.  Instead of firing me or reading me the riot act, he was actually happy to see me the next day.  He said the best part was that none of the other customers knew what was going on because I took care of things quickly and quietly.  As a sign of trust, he said, he would give me what he called dossiers on customers in the future, and I soon got used to finding a file folder waiting for me at work.  The folders had a page or two on each customer, with a photo, the guy’s name, his occupation, and anything else that Mr. Rich–or whoever put the dossiers togther–thought would be important.

This got me thinking.  What kind of club knew who its customers were before they arrived?  I don’t know much about fancy country clubs, so I guess they must have some information on their clients, but the type of dirt Mr. Rich’s dossiers had was a lot dirtier than anything I suspected the country club might have.  Arrest records, for example.  Or sexual kinks.

Which brings me to my realization about just what kind of business I was now in.  The models, or hostesses, or whatever you wanted to call them who arrived in the black Lincoln from somewhere in New York were clearly high priced call girls.  I’m not sure where Mr. Rich found them, but it’s not likely he just went down to Whores R us and picked up a couple.  Some nights the girls were the same, but there was some sort of rotation, and I only saw repeats a few times.  Also, as the month progressed, Mr. Rich must have decided that this part of the business was going okay, because he started bringing in more girls, sometimes as many as eight.  Instead, he must have connections, and a guy with connections like that, who could fill out a file on his customers and then find women who were into whatever kinks those customers had, was either a great guy to have on your side or a great guy to avoid.  Maybe both.

Anyway, the business didn’t really bother me at all.  If the women wanted to make a living that way, who was I to stop them.  It’s not like the work I was doing before Mr. Rich hired me was any more dignified.  We were all just doing the shit work for rich guys.  I also noticed that not all of them were taking the guys upstairs.  For some of the customers, just spending the evening with beautiful young women who pretended to think everything they said was great was enough.

I don’t know what these rich guys were paying because I never saw any money change hands, at least not officially.  One night, I saw an older guy–he must have been in his seventies–spend all evening with one of the girls.  He talked all night long, about what I don’t know.  Telling war stories, for all I know.  At the end of the night, he tried to be all discreet and hand her a thick roll of cash.  Suddenly, everyone in the room seemed to go totally blind.  No one would look at the guy or the money.  The girl–the pale strawberry blonde from the first night–laughed an embarrassed little laugh and gently pushed his hand away.  When she did that I could see the outer bill was a hundred.  If all of the bills in the roll were the same, that had to be at least two grand.  If that was the going rate for talk, I wondered what it was to go upstairs with one of the girls.

I guess at this point I should tell you what the layout of the place was, not that it was all that complicated.  The Victorian mansion had a wide porch that ran around three sides, so you entered by climbing three steps to the porch and then going in the wide double doors.  Immediately to the left was a large closet and a small desk where Arianna sat to greet guests and take their heavy coats and gloves On the opposite side was another closet that had been left open to form my little alcove.  A broad staircase ran upstairs to six bedrooms on the second floor.  Mr. Rich’s office and a restroom flanked the stairs.  On the left side of the ground floor was the gathering room where guests could play cards, talk, or have semi-private meetings.  To the right was the lounge, with heavy overstuffed chairs and couches.  In the back was the kitchen, and the chef kept himself busy making fancy fingerfoods and sometimes a real meal.  And that was about it.  The third floor was private, and that’s where the girls stayed when they weren’t entertaining guests.

The rest of the first weekend was quiet.  I didn’t have to dig out my kubotan, didn’t even have to think about doing it.  More guests arrived the next night, and they all behaved themselves.  Sunday night came and was even more calm and quiet.  I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

Monday was one of my days off since Mr. Rich wanted to keep this a weekend and holidays sort of operation.  I was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking coffee and wondering what to do with my day when I heard a big truck pull up in the driveway.  I got up to investigate and saw it was a delivery truck from a big sporting goods store.  A beefy guy got out and started pulling things out of the back and stacking them in my driveway.

“What’s going on?” I asked him as I came out the side door.

“Delivery,” he siad.  No shit, I wanted to say back, but I held my tongue.

“What are you delivering?  I didn’t order anything.”

He pulled an invoice out of his pocket.  “Says here a Paul Rich ordered this stuff and wanted it delivered here.”  He looked at the invoice again.  “Oh, yeah, and I’m supposed to tell you ‘thanks for doing a good job.’”

“What the hell does that mean?”  I asked, but the delivery guy just rolled his eyes and gave me a “how the hell should I know look.”

I signed for the delivery and looked at the boxes and teh truck disappeared down the road.  One box had a big punching bag, one of those bags the size of a fifty-five gallon drum.  The other boxes had a weight bench and set of free weights.  I laughed when I saw that.  I guess Mr. Rich didn’t want me to get soft in my cushy new job.  I dragged the stuff into my garage and started setting up.  I could see he had a point, since I only had to wander around a high-class brothel a couple of nights a week, nothing to keep me in fighting trim.

It turned out to be a good thing, too.  As I said, the rest of the weekend went by so quietly I started to worry about getting too bored, and the rest of the month was almost as bad.  The last Friday of the night was different, though.  To start, Mr. Rich looked nervous or excited when I got to work that afternoon.  this threw me off a little, because he is alsways so cool you have to wonder if he’s really alive or if he just a corpse with an electric cable stuck up his ass to make him look lifelike.  He kept pacing around and licking his lips and checking on things he had already checked a hundred times.  Finally, I took my file folder with the dossiers of the night’s customers and went off to my little alcove to look them over.

The first one caught my eye, and I knew that Mr. Rich wanted it to catch my eye because he, or the someone who put together the dossiers, had marked the top with a red star.  The picture of the guy caught my eye first, because it was not the usual studio portrait type of thing.  Instead, it was a publicity shot from a bodybuildign competition.  The guy was posing in one of those tiny ball pouches in neon green.  His oiled muscles gleamed in the stage lights, and his skin had that weird orange tone that comes form tanning booths.  There was another picture of him in a white dress shirt unbuttoned to show off his steroid-enhanced chest.  His collar was popped, and his short hair was gelled into dumbass little spikes.  A real guido asshole, in other words.  I looked at his name finally and whistled low, under my breath.  If I told you his name, you might recognize him as the son of a local “businessman,” who had let’s just call them real good connections.  Junior here was now almost thirty and ran a chain of bodybuilding studios in the Boston-Providence metro area.  If popular opinion and gossip had any truth, then Junior’s business was just a convenient way for Big Daddy to dispose of some inconvenient income.  A vanity project and money laundering scheme all in one.

I set the dossier aside and thought.  Clearly Mr. Rich knew the guy from somewhere, or maybe knew his dad.  That would help explain some of the things about him that made me nervous.  To get this place up and runnign so quickly, and to have access to the kinds of girls he was importing every week meant he had some connections of some sort.  His nervousness, though, didn’t seem like he wanted to impress a business associate by sucking up to his son.  There was something else going on, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet.  Plus, as far as I could tell, this was a strictly invitation-only establishment.  Why had Mr. Rich invited this guy?

I was looking out the window when I saw Junior the guido asshole drive up.  It had to be him.  No one else would drive a pimped out black Hummer like that with a vanity plate that read BODY1.  What a fucking asshole.  He got out of the car with his entourage of three ugly fucks who all seemed to be competing to catch his attention.  They were also all a lot smaller than him both in height and build.  This told me something.  Junior liked to surround himself with guys who were inferior to him, guys who couldn’t threaten his picture of himself.  If his dad really did have some shady connections, he might have been better off with a couple of ugly mugs with guns, guys who could cover his ass if things started to get dicey.  Instead, he went with a trio of ass-kissers.  My already low opinion of this posing musclehead went down even lower.

Then there was the way the four of them dressed.  All of the customers so far had dressed quietly and conservatively, in business suits or at least sober weekend country club gear.  These guys, though, were loud.  Junior had on baggy but obviously expensive jeans and a glaring white shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, showing off his fake bake.  He had a huge leather and fur coat draped carelessly over his shoulders and sunglasses with rhinestones at the temples.  To top it all off he had a thick gold chain around his beefy neck.  His boys were dressed in the same way, but a little less flashy.

They came in, making much more noise than the usual customers, but Arianna, to her credit, greeted them in the same warm and polite way she greeted everyone.  I gave them my usual unsmiling nod, but I tensed up when it looked like they thought Arianna might be one of the girls and not the hostess.  She was used to getting hit on by experts, though (she had previously worked at a very posh restaurant in Salisbury where drunk Hollywood types liked to hang out), and she easily herded them into the lounge.

For most of the evening, things looked okay, though a little louder than usual.  The meatheads were not causing any real trouble that I could see, and I was watching them especially carefully.  They all huddled in one corner of the lounge and soon got one of the girls to hang out with them.  She was a new one, and I remembered thinking when she arrived that she didn’t look quite like the usual girls Mr. Rich hired.  She was a very pretty and well-built blonde, but she had a certain trashy air that the other girls didn’t have despite what they were doing.  I realized now that Mr. Rich had hired her just for Junior and his crew.  They guy knew what he was doing, I guess.

As I made the rounds, I could hear Junior and his crew laughing at some joke he had told.  Judging by the way the girls was trying not to look hurt, the joke was probably at her expense.  I knew Mr. Rich didn’t like this type of disresepct, but since they hadn’t done anything too outrageous, I left them alone.  I was back in my alcove about fifteen minutes later when I heard a scream and then Junior’s voice cutting through it as he shouted, “You fucking skank!”

I was in the lounge bfore the echo from his shout died away, but Mr. Rich was there ahead of me.  He looked completely different.  Instead of his usual commanding presence, he was playing the bowing and scraping nobody.  “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to keep your voice down,” he was saying as I walked in.

“Fuck that shit,” Junior spit in his face.  “This place sucks!  What kind of skanks you have working here anyway?”

Mr. Rich smiled apologetically and held his hands up as if to say, “What can I do?”

I moved forward to stand right behind Mr. Rich.  I kept my eye fixed on Junior, and this apparently bugged him.  I was happy to bug him.  He had been bugging me all evening.

“The fuck are you looking at, you fucking monkey?” he yelled at me.  “I’ma kick your pucking ass!”

He walked over to me and stood right up against me.  I glanced over at Mr. Rich, and the change in his face almsot knocked me over.  The suck-up was gone, and the hardass was back.  He gave me a tiny smile and an even tinier nod.  I turned my attention back to Junior and looked him right in the eye.  Then I took a step back and took off my suit coat.  Arianna was right there to take it from me.

“ALL RIGHT!” Junior screamed and ripped–yes, literally ripped–his shirt off.  He stood there in front of me, flexing his juiced up muscles as if he were in one of his pansy competitions.

I didn’t take the time to admire his physique but punched him hard in the nose.  The entire room could hear the bone breaking, and the blood flew.  Junior screamed again and swung at me.  He was semi-blinded by the tears and blood in his eyes, so I didn’t really have to do much to avoid his wild punch.  I turned to the side and let his fist bounce off my shoulder.

I moved in again and fired two quick hits at his side.  He oofed out his breath and took a half step back.  I hit again and heard a rib break.  He screamed again and tried to bring his knee up to crush in my crotch, but I easily deflect it with my leg.  As he was off-balance on one leg, I kicked at his standing leg and hit his knee hard.  He went down in a screaming, bloody heap.

Mr. Rich came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.  “That’s enough,” he said.  I shrugged his hand away and knelt by Junior’s side, taking his face in my hand.  I squeezed his cheeks together and shook his face lightly.

“Look at me,” I said quietly.  “Look at me.”  His eyes met mine.  “Remember this face.  If you ever see it again, you’re a dead man.”  I let go of his face, wiped his blood off my hands on his expensive jeans, got up, and left.

I should have written this last night, but the headache intervened.

When the first day arrived, I showed up early, all dressed up in one of my new suits, one of my ridiculously expensive shirts, and a dark blue tie.  I had the cell phone bluetooth headset stuck in my ear, and my wicked little ninja tool in my pocket.  I felt ready for whatever the hell this job was going to be.  My spot next to the door was waiting, and the hostess, a girl named Arianna, looked very good in a littl black dress.  Mr. Rich was waiting for us, and he immediately pulled me aside.

“I have some more employees arriving this evening.  They will be staying here for the weekend before going back home.  You’ll need to meet their car and unload their baggage,” he told me.  I nodded but wondered what sort of club hired employees who came in on the weekends and then went back to wherever they came from.

I figured that out soon enough as my headset buzzed in my ear.  The car had arrived, so I had to get to work.  The car, a huge Lincoln Continental with New York plates, was waiting by the back door, and three women got out.  They were all wearing form-fitting dresses that showed off their assets, and they all looked like models.  Hell, for all I knew, they were models.  The driver, a tough looking black dude in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie, opened the trunk for me and then stood aside.  “Have a nice drive up?” I asked him.

He lowered his dark sunglasses and looked at me over the tops.  “Man, I don’t get paid to have a nice time driving them.  And if I want to keep, you know, everything”–he made a brief gesture at his crotch–”I don’t notice anything, know what I’m saying?”

“Gotcha,” I said and pulled the three small suitcases out of the trunk and carried them inside and up to the third floor rooms that Mr. Rich had indicated.  The job was off to a good start.  I knew what I was supposed to do: I was hired labor.  It wasn’t much different than what I was used to doing, except this was a lot cleaner than hauling rocks and I was getting paid a lot more.

Soon, as dusk fell, a few cars drove up, rich-looking guys got out, and the cars drove on.  Several guys, usually driving expensive sports cars, drove themselves and parked in teh lot behind the place.  They were all a lot like Mr. Rich–fiftyish, wearing expensive suits, and looking like they knew how to handle themselves in almost any social situation.  Some of them gathered in the main downstairs room, where waitresses–not the women who had arrvied in the Lincoln, by the way–circled with trays of fancy finger foods and glasses filled with high-powered liquor, definitely not the kind of stuff you would get at the tavern.  A few more sat around a table in one of the smaller rooms, and I could hear the banter and laughter of a card game coming from that room shortly afterward.

The women didn’t make an appearance until later in the evening.  They came downstairs and made themselves at home in the overstuffed chairs.  I was circulating through the downstairs rooms at this point just to make sure everything looked quiet and sophisticated as Mr. Rich wanted, and I got a good look at the floor show.  One of the women, a beauty with long, flowing chestnut hair and a deep blue dress that revealed a lot of the smoothest cleavage a man could ever hope to see, leaned forward to laugh at the lame joke of one of the guys.  Another woman, this one a strawberry blond in dark green and skin so pale and translucent it looked like something only an angel could get away with having, seemed to be hanging on every word one of the suits was saying.  I caught a snatch of the conversation, and he seemed to be entertaining her with some tale of his business exploits.  I only heard a few words but I could tell teh story was boring as hell.  If nothing else, these women were damned good actresses.

The third woman was seated in another cluster of chairs near the fireplace.  She had long, straight, shiny hair as black as satan’s sin, and a blood red dress of some clingy material.  It was clingy enough that I could tell that she wasn’t wearing a bra, and I remembered the driver’s warning and quickly looked away.  I glanced back, though, becasue I could tell something was wrong.  She was not laughing and playing up to the guy the way the other women were.  Instead, she seemed to be trying not to show the shock on her face as her companion leaned in and leered.  He had a grip on her forearm and his fingers seeme to be digging into her flesh.  I backed into a dark alcove where I could be unobtrusive but still see what was going on.

The leering ape was one of the guys who had driven himself, I recalled, and it was a car that I was not likely to forget.  We see a lot of fancy sports cars up here–we’re not all that far from the Lime Rock race course, and most of the second home businessmen up here seem to own stock in Porsche–but this car stood out.  It was a low-slung Lamborghini in what one of my friends down at the tavern would have called “pussy magnet yellow.”  In other words, it was a huge, fast, very bright sign saying the guy driving it was an asshole.  I hadn’t like him when he came in, and now, seeing the way he was acting, I liked him even less.  I reached into my pocket and felt the reassurance of my ninja tool.

The ape had released her forearm but grabbed her other hand when she made a move to stand up.  He pulled her back into the cozy loveseat they were sharing.  I could see, even from across the room, the tendons in his hand stand out as he squeezed her hand.  She seemed to let out a little whimper, but I couldn’t hear it over the low rumble of conversation and tastefully piped-in classical music.  He reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out something I couldnt’ see, though I did catch a glint of light on something shiny.  He held whatever it was on the back of her hand and made a small, quick gesture and the woman flinched and bit her lip.  He grinned and leaned back so I could see a small trickle of blood flowing down her hand.  The next thing he did turned my stomach.  He pulled her hand to his mouth and sucked up the blood, still grinning.

The woman turned her head to the side and looked like she might be sick.  His hand shot out–the hand with what must have been some sort of small blade–and caressed her cheek.  His fingers did some sort of twinkling trick and the blade flashed again.  A thin line of red appeared along that perfect jaw.  The woman got up quietly and strode out of the room.  the other women glanced up, but they were paying too much attention to their customers to see much.  The ape got up and walked quickly after her.  I stepped in behind him, very quietly.

He caught her just as she was about to go up the stairs and grabbed her by the wrist.  Now that they were out of earshot of the others, the woman felt more bold and she hissed, “Let me go!”

“What’s the matter?  Don’t you knwo I’m paing for whatever I want, you stupid cunt?”  He flourished the blade and looked like he was aiming for her face again.

He never made the cut.  I grabbed his wrist with my left hand and pulled him around som he was facing me.  His eyes were startled, but that lasted only a second.  I popped him in the solar plexus with my wicked little tool, and his eyes lost their look of surprise and rolled back in his head.  I caught him before he could hit the floor and dragged him into the little control room with the video displays and dropped him into a chair.

In a few minutes, he sputtered back into consciousness.  “What the fuck–?” he managed to say before groaning in pain and pulling up his shirt to reveal two little puncture marks from the prongs of my ninja weapon.  I was also happy to see a huge, spreading bruise forming.  He looked up at me.  “Are you the mother fucker who did this to me?”

I stepped closer and showed him what was in my fist.  “That’s right.  If you give me any more trouble, I’ll pop you in the throat next time, got it?”  The cheap bravado left his eyes and his lip trembled.  Behind me, I heard the door open.

“Thank you, Calvin, I’ll handle it from here,” Mr. Rich said, patting me on the shoulder.  “Please see if you can get some bandages and antiseptic for Miss Lucas.”

The Black Kitten, Part 6

Bad headache, but if I don’t work on this stupid thing, I worry that it’ll die of neglect.  I promised one reader that this installment would be bloody, but I’ve rethought the timeline, so I don’t know how bloody it’ll get until I get there.  And without further whining, The Black Kitten, Part 6:

Mr. Rich’s grand opening was a month later.  It wasn’t much of a grand opening, and that was fine with me.  For some reason, the whole enterprise was giving me the creeps.  Part of it was the new suit.  Correction: new suits.  Greenaway made me three, and I don’t even want to think about what they cost.  Part of it was the pay.  Mr. Rich was paying me regularly, once a week, even though nothing had started yet.  I basically just wandered around for a month and tried not to think about things, but mental discipline was never my strong point, so I thought a lot of bad thoughts.

The opening, like I just said, was not very grand.  Mr. Rich seemed to think that being quiet and low-key was the way to go, “understated elegance” he called it.  For being such a hard ass, he sure had a soft way with words.  At any rate, the opening was scheduled for a Friday at the end of the month, and I had to be there, ready to do my thing, whatever that was going to be, by late in the afternoon so I could see to any last minute things before the doors opened at six o’clock.

During the month leading up to the opening, I had done more than just sit on my ass.  I did have to go back down to Greenwich to pick up my suits, along with a ridiculous pile of shirts, a couple of ties, enough socks for a week and a half, and a pair of fancy shoes.  This trip was mostly uneventful, except for one little thing that I’ll tell you about later.  It was really tiny, but it turned out to help me in a big way later.

Mr. Rich did give me some idea about the kind of work I would be doing.  He gave me a cell phone with one of those bluetooth headsets that clips to your ear.  The headset was tiny, so I guessed that, like everythign else in this little game, it was expensive.  Nothing but the best for Mr. Rich.  He told me that I should keep the headset on while I was at work.  He didn’t think I’d necessarily need to call him (I had to program the phone to respond to voice commands–if I said “boss” it would dial Mr. Rich), but the headset alone would be enought to warn off most trouble.

And that was my game.  I was the guy to keep trouble at bay, or, better yet, crush it underfoot before it could run crazy.  When the doors opened, I would sit at a small desk in a small alcove to the right of the door, where the guests wouldn’t see me right away (they would see the greeter first) but would soon get the idea that I was the establishment’s hardass.  Every so often, I was to cruise the premises, inside and out, to make sure things were going well.  I wondered about the surveillance cameras I saw earlier, and a couple of days before we opened, I saw a bank of small tv screens inside Mr. Rich’s office.  He told me that he might need me to man the screens from time to time, and he showed me a little joystick thing that I could use to move the cameras and zoom in if I wanted.

All of this was fine, but more than a little boring.  I wasn’t really looking forward to any fights, but the month before we opened was just so deadly dull I thought about starting something down at the tavern just for the hell of it.  Then, a week before opening, Mr. Rich gave me a little gift that made it all real, and I felt a mix of nervousness and excitement that made the sweat break out all over my body.  He gave me a little tool, a rod made out of some sort of machined metal–stainless steel ot titanium–with a chekcerboard texture cut into it, for grip, I guess.  It was about six inches long and had two prongs about an inch long sticking out towards one end.  It looked a little like the letter F.  I could hold it in my fist so no one would see it, with the two prongs sticking out between my fingers.  It was more versatile and more dangerous than brass knuckles, and I found out from a guy at the tavern that it’s called a ninja kubotan, and that made me feel even more badass.

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