One Door Away from Heaven

Page 6

"Seriously?" Leilani's eyes widened. Her hand paused with a forkful of pasta halfway between plate and mouth. "The dead singer?"

"He wasn't dead then," Geneva assured the girl. "He hadn't even begun to lose his hair yet."

"The compassionate young woman who saved him from the needle," Micky pressed, "was she you, Aunt Gen … or was she Kim Novak?"

Geneva's face puckered in puzzlement. "I was attractive in my day, but I was never in Kim Novak's league."

"Aunt Gen, you're thinking of The Man with the Golden Arm. Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak. It hit theaters sometime in the 1950s." Geneva's puzzlement dissolved into a smile. "You're absolutely right, dear. I never had a romantic relationship with Sinatra, though if he'd ever come around, I'm not sure I could have resisted him."

Returning the untouched forkful of pasta salad to her plate, Leilani looked to Micky for an explanation.

Enjoying the girl's perplexity, Micky shrugged. "I'm not sure I could have resisted him, either."

"Oh, for goodness' sake, stop teasing the child," Geneva said. "You'll have to forgive me, Leilani. I've had these memory problems now and then, ever since I was shot in the head. A few wires got scrambled up here"-she tapped her right temple-"and sometimes old movies seem as real to me as my own past."

"Could I have more lemonade?" Leilani asked.

"Of course, dear." Geneva poured from a glass pitcher that dripped icy condensation.

Micky watched their guest take a long drink. "Don't try to fool me, mutant girl. You're not so cool that you can roll with that one."

Putting down the lemonade, Leilani relented: "Oh, all right. I'll bite. When were you shot in the head, Mrs. D?"

"This July third, just passed, made eighteen years."

"Aunt Gen and Uncle Vernon owned a little corner grocery," Micky explained, "which is like being targets in a shooting gallery if it's on the wrong corner."

"The day before the July Fourth holiday," Geneva said, "you sell lots of lunchmeats and beer. It's mostly a cash business."

"And someone wanted the cash," Leilani guessed.

"He was a perfect gentleman about it," Geneva recalled.

"Except for the shooting."

"Well, yes, except for that," Geneva agreed. "But he came up to the cash register with this lovely smile. Well dressed, soft-spoken. He says, 'I'd be really grateful if you'd give me the money in the register, and please don't forget the large bills under the drawer.' "

Leilani squinted with righteous indignation. "So you refused to give it to him."

"Heavens, no, dear. We emptied the register and all but thanked him for sparing us the trouble of paying income tax on it."

"And he shot you anyway?"

"He shot my Vernon twice, and apparently then he shot me."


"I remember him shooting Vernon. 1 wish I didn't, but] do." Earlier, sadness had cast a gray shadow across Geneva's face at the counterfeit memory of her anguish-filled love affair with a he**in junkie; but now a flush of happiness pinked her features, and she smiled. "Vernon was a wonderful man, as sweet as honey in the comb."

Micky reached for her aunt's hand. "I loved him, too, Aunt Gen."

To Leilani, Geneva said, "I miss him so much, even after all these years, but I can't cry over him anymore, because every memory, even that awful day, reminds me of how sweet he was, how loving."

"My brother, Lukipela-he was like that." In spite of this tribute to her brother, Leilani was not inspired to match Geneva's smile. Instead, the girl's cocky cheerfulness melted into melancholy. Her clear eyes clouded toward a more troubled shade of blue.

For a moment, Micky perceived in their young visitor a quality that chilled her because it was like a view of the darker ravines of her own interior landscape: a glimpse of reckless anger, despair, a brief revelation of a sense of worthlessness that the girl would deny but that from personal experience Micky recognized too well.

No sooner had Leilani's defenses cracked than they mended. Her eyes glazed with emotion at the mention of her brother, but now they focused. Her gaze rose from her deformed hand to smiling Geneva, and she smiled, too. "Mrs. D, you said apparently the gunman shot you."

"Well, I know he shot me, of course, but I have no memory of it. I remember him shooting Vernon, and then the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital, disoriented, more than four days later."

"The bullet didn't actually penetrate her head," Micky said.

"Too hard," Geneva declared proudly.

"Luck," Micky clarified. "The angle of the shot was severe. The slug literally ricocheted off her skull, fracturing it, and furrowed through her scalp."

"So, Mrs. D, how did your wires get scrambled?" Leilani asked, tapping her head.

"It was a depressed fracture," said Geneva. "Bone chips in the brain. A blood clot."

"They opened Aunt Gen's head as though it were a can of beans."

"Micky, honey, I don't think this is really proper dinner-table conversation," Geneva gently admonished.

"Oh, I've heard much worse at our house," Leilani assured them. "Old Sinsemilla fancies herself an artist with a camera, and she has this artistic compulsion to take pictures of road kill when we're traveling. At dinner sometimes she likes to talk about what she saw squashed on the highway that day. And my pseudofather-"

"That would be the murderer," Micky interrupted without a wink or a smirk, as though she'd never think to question the outrageous family portrait that the girl was painting for them.

"Yeah, Dr. Doom," Leilani confirmed.

"Never let him adopt you," Micky said. "Even Leilani Klonk is preferable to Leilani Doom."

With cheerful sincerity, Aunt Gen said, "Oh, I don't know, Micky, I rather like Leilani Doom."

As though it were the most natural thing to do, the girl picked up Micky's fresh can of Budweiser and, instead of drinking from it, rolled it back and forth across her brow, cooling her forehead.

"Dr. Doom isn't his real name, of course. It's what I call him behind his back. Sometimes at dinner, he likes to talk about people he's killed-the way they looked when they died, their last words, if they cried, whether they peed themselves, all sorts of kinky stuff."

The girl put down the beer-on the far side of her plate, out of Micky's reach. Her manner was casual, but her motive was nonetheless clear. She had appointed herself guardian of Micky's sobriety.

"Maybe," Leilani continued, "you think that would be interesting conversation, even if sort of gross, but let me tell you, it loses its charm pretty quick."

"What's your pseudofather's real name?" Geneva asked.

Before Leilani could reply, Micky suggested, "Hannibal Lecter."

"To some people, his name's scarier than Lecter's. I'm sure you've heard of him. Preston Maddoc."

"What an impressive name," Geneva said. "Like a Supreme Court justice or a senator, or someone grand ."

Leilani said, "He comes from a family of Ivy League academic snots. Nobody in that crowd has a regular first name. They're worse about names than old Sinsemilla. They're all Hudson, Lombard, Trevor or Kingsley, Wycliffe, Crispin. You'd grow old and die trying to find a Jim or Bob among them. Dr. Doom's parents were professors-history, literature-so his middle name is Claudius. Preston Claudius Maddoc."

"I've never heard of him," Micky said.

Leilani appeared to be surprised. "Don't you read newspapers?"

"I stopped reading them when they stopped carrying news," said Geneva. "They're all opinion now, front page to last."

"He's been all over television," Leilani said.

Geneva shook her miswired head. "I don't watch anything on TV except old movies."

"I just don't like news," Micky explained. "It's mostly bad, and when it isn't bad, it's mostly lies."

"Ah." Leilani's eyes widened. "You're the twelve percenters."

"The what?"

"Every time the newspaper or TV people take a poll, no matter what the question, twelve percent of the public has no opinion. You could ask them if a group of mad scientists ought to be allowed to create a new species of human beings crossed with crocodiles, and twelve percent would have no opinion."

"I'd be opposed," said Geneva, brandishing a carrot stick.

"Me, too," Micky agreed.

"Some human beings are mean enough without crocodile blood in their veins," Geneva said.

"What about alligators?" Micky asked her aunt.

"Opposed," Geneva responded with firm resolve.

"What about human beings crossed with wildly poisonous vipers?" Micky proposed.

"Not if I have anything to say about it," Geneva promised.

"Okay, then what about human beings crossed with puppy dogs?"

Geneva brightened. "Now you're talking."

To Leilani, Micky said, "So I guess we're not twelve percenters, after all. We have lots of opinions, and we're proud of them."

Grinning, Leilani bit into a crisp dill pickle. "I really like you, Micky B. You, too, Mrs. D."

"And we like you, sweetheart," Geneva assured her.

"Only one of you was shot m the head," Leilani said, "but you've both got scrambled wiring for the most part in a nice way."

"You're a master of the gracious compliment," Micky said.

"And so smart," Aunt Gen said proudly, as if the girl were her daughter. "Micky, did you know she's got an IQ of one eighty-six?"

"I thought it would be at least one ninety," Micky replied.

"The day of the test," Leilani said, "I had chocolate ice cream for breakfast. If I'd had oatmeal, I might've scored six or eight points higher. Sinsemilla's not a boffo mom when it comes to keeping the fridge stocked. So I took the test through a sugar rush and a major post-sugar crash. Not that I'm making excuses or complaining. I'm lucky there was ice cream and not just marijuana brownies. Heck, I'm lucky I'm not dead and buried in some unmarked grave, with worms making passionate worm love inside my empty skull-or taken away in an extraterrestrial starship, like Lukipela, and hauled off to some godforsaken alien planet where there's nothing worth watching on TV and the only flavor of ice cream is chunky cockroach with crushed-glass sprinkles."

"So now," said Micky, "in addition to your perpetually wasted tofu-peaches-bean-sprouts mother and your murderous stepfather, we're to believe you had a brother who was abducted by aliens."

"That's the current story," Leilani said, "and we're sticking to it. Strange lights in the sky, pale green levitation beams that suck you right out of your shoes and up into the mother ship, little gray men with big heads and enormous eyes-the whole package. Mrs. D, may I have one of those radishes that looks like a rose?"

"Of course, dear." Geneva slid the dish of garnishes across the table.

Laughing softly, shaking her head, Micky said, "Kiddo, you've pushed this Addams Family routine one step too far. I don't buy the alien abduction for a second."

"Frankly," Leilani said, "neither do I. But the alternative is too hideous to consider, so I just suspend my disbelief."

"What alternative?"

"If Lukipela isn't on an alien planet, then he's somewhere else, and wherever that somewhere might be, you can bet it's not warm, clean, with good potato salad and great chicken sandwiches."

For an instant, in the girl's lustrous blue eyes, behind the twin mirror images of the window and its burden of smoldering summer-evening light, behind the smoky reflections of the layered kitchen shadows, something seemed to turn with horrid laziness, like a body twisting slowly, slowly back and forth at the end of a hangman's noose. Leilani looked away almost at once, and yet on the strength of a single Budweiser, Micky imagined that she had glimpsed a soul suspended over an abyss.

Chapter 6

LIKE THE SUPERNATURAL SYLPH of folklore, who inhabited the air, she approached along the hallway as though not quite touching the floor, tall and slim, wearing a platinum-gray silk suit, as graceful as a quiver of light.

Constance Veronica Tavenall-Sharmer, wife of the media-revered congressman who disbursed payoffs in airsickness bags, had been born from the headwaters of the human gene pool, before the river flowed out of Eden and became polluted with the tributaries of a fallen world. Her hair wasn't merely blond but the rich shade of pure-gold coins, fitting for a descendant of an old-money family that earned its fortune in banking and brokerage. Matte-satin skin. Features that would, if carved in stone, earn their sculptor the highest accolades and also immortality, if you measure immortality by mere centuries and expect to find it in museums. Her willow-leaf eyes were as green as spring and as cool as the layered shade deep in a grove of trees.

When he'd met her two weeks ago, Noah Farrel had disliked this woman on first sight, strictly as a matter of principle. Born to wealth and blessed with great beauty, she would skate through life with a smile, warm in even the most bitter wind, describing graceful arabesques upon her flashing blades, while all around her people perished in the cold and fell through the ice that, though solid under her, was treacherously thin for them.

By the time Mrs. Sharmer had left his office at the end of that first meeting, Noah's determination to dislike her had given way to admiration. She wore her beauty with humility, but more impressively, she kept her pedigree in her purse and never flashed it, as did so many others of her economic station.

At forty, she was only seven years older than Noah. Another Woman this beautiful would inspire his sexual interest-even an octogenarian kept youthful by a vile diet of monkey glands. By this third meeting, however, he regarded her as he might have regarded a sister: with the desire only to protect her and earn her approval.

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