The man was only 58, but the doctors had given him six months to live two months ago. Cancer.
Chianti listened to the sound of his respirator, sitting in the wheelchair there in the big empty room in the big empty house. Just them, the shortly dying man, and one of his servants. She couldn’t think of him as old at all—she was much older, even if she was also a nine year old girl, and Jake was so old he used archaeology textbooks to jog his memory.
“Age Eater,” said the man, “I’ve heard of you. Want to make me young again? Give me a second chance.”
Jake took him in. So did Chianti. She saw things normal people couldn’t, but not so much as Jake.
Jake said, “What do you think, Chianti? Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“Maybe, but it wouldn’t be safe to those around him. The world shouldn’t have to live through him twice.”
Jake ruffled her hair, to let her know it had been a good answer. “My apprentice makes a good answer. You knew when you called me that I wouldn’t give you that.”
The man lifted a finger, and the servant took a gun from his jacket and pointed it at Chianti. Jake didn’t move, but said, “it won’t fire.” The servant pulled the trigger at the floor, and the gun didn’t fire. The gunpowder had turned into what it used to be.
Chianti hadn’t noticed. She was thinking about Jake calling her his apprentice. He’d never done that before. He’d taught her some tricks, but she wasn’t an age eater. A fox might raise a bear, might even teach it fox like things, but it could never turn the bear into a fox.
She looked again at the shortly dying man, and saw more. “You knew before you called what Jake would say. Is this about your daughter?” Chianti hadn’t reached puberty yet, but she remembered having daughters, distantly, as if in a dream.
“What’s wrong with her?” said Jake.
Headlights flashed through the window.
“I had three children. Ever since Adam died, Lance and Monica won’t talk to each other. But they’ll run the company when I’m gone. They need to get along. Whatever they hate each over, take it from them. Eat it up till it’s gone from the world.”
Jake said, “I won’t promise that I can fix it. I won’t promise to do what you say. I won’t promise to do anything. But if I do do something, and you agree to it, the price will be all the years of your life.”
The shortly dying man laughed. “And what is that to me? Take it.”
The door slammed open. A beautiful, full-chested women of about 30, wearing a smart business suit and yelling, “Kenny, you dying again? Who are these people?”
Jake said, “I might be called a thief, a charlatan, or a counselor,” he stroked his chin as if considering, but Chianti had heard him give this answer before, “but the most accurate appelation is lawyer.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not re-writing the will again, are you Kenny? I earned it. All Lance did was be born with a dick.” She briefly pressed her fingers, not quite threateningly, not quite tenderly, to the breathing tubes that ran up his nose.
The dying man said, “My daughter, Monica.”
Jake said, “I’m an aribitrator. I say lawyer, because it’s about the law. I say psychologist, because it’s about people and reconciliation. I say charlatan because arbitration is nothing but smoke, mirrors, and those things which are real only because we believe they are. I say thief, because I’m paid for that flim flamery. What do you do?”
“I’m the CFO. Why do you have a child?”
Chianti introduced herself. “A pleasure to meet you, I’m Chianti. Uncle Jake didn’t have anyone to leave me with when the client called unexpectedly.”
She didn’t think the women even heard the last part. “What is this about, Kenny? What are we arbitrating?”
“The future of the company. The future of you and Lance.”
There was a timorous knock on the door. “Dad. You wanted to see me.”
“Come in, Lance.”
“Is Monica there? That looks like her car in the drive.”
“Yes, come in.”
He opened the door slowly. He was younger than Monica. His eyes darted around, but shied away from his sister.
Jake said, “So you’re Lance. The babe of the family. Pull up a chair, everyone in an intimate little circle. Except you,” he said to the servant. “You should call it a night. Go home. This is private.”
Kenny nodded to him, and he left, closing the door softly behind himself. Chianti wondered what he did during the day. Probably not dusting the banisters. His uniform didn’t quite fit.
The chairs were faded green leather, and she could feel the springs. Lance sat, staring at her, no doubt wondering what a child was doing in his dad’s sickroom, but not asking.
Kenny said. “You are my children. You will inherit my company and rule it in partnership. Monica, as the CFO, and you, Lance, taking over for me as CEO.”
“That is bullshit. Lance couldn’t run a popsicle stand.”
Lance fiddled with his fingers. “I could run a popsicle stand. But Monica would be better suited to being CEO. I don’t even know the company really. I could work in human resources.”
Monica said, “You’re not working anywhere in the company. Screw-it-up Lance with his invisible boo-boos. Kenny, we’d agreed, and now you’re not just bringing him in, you’re putting him over me?”
Lance snuck a drag from his inhaler.
“He needs it. He’s my son, so he has it in him, he needs a responsibility like this to drag it out of him. I’m depending on you to help out your little brother, like a good sister should.”
Lance put in that he wasn’t becoming CEO, but if he did, he wouldn’t need her help, but neither seemed to notice. Kenny said other companies would want to see a man across the table. Monica said they’d love to see a weakling. Kenny said she shouldn’t talk about her brother like that.
Jake said, “Look, I don’t give a shit. I mean, it’s my job, but it’s late, I skipped dinner, my niece is here—we were supposed to be going to LegoLand tomorrow, but now I doubt we will. So let’s hold hands, do some new age meditation crap, maybe cry a little, and call it a night. Pick it back up tomorrow. That sound alright?”
Kenny said that was alright, except there wasn’t to be any crying. Monica rolled her eyes, submitting that she was used to new age meditation crap from corporate retreats. Lance fiddled with his fingers.
“Then please, close your eyes and bow your heads.” They did.
“We go back, not through the years, but through memory, to the day when Lance died, the medical records tell me, of a heart attack. Tragic and unexpected at such a young age.” Their breathing slowed, deepened, like being put under by a hypnotist, but quicker. “What did you sit on? What color was the wall? What temperature was the air?”
He whispered in her ear, “Take it away, Chianti.”
“But I’m only nine!”
“You’ve been nine long enough. Time to grow up a little.”
Jake always said that going into the dream would be the first trick in the book if there were a book. It was just transient ruminations on life experiences—hallucinations of their aging.
They are in a club. The music is too loud, the lights flash, and the walls keep shifting into bookcases full of formal green and brown books, some with leather covers The spines of the books are dusted, but there is dust on top, because the housekeeper didn’t bother with that. Chianti thinks it is Kenny’s study intruding into the club.
Jake takes her hand, so she won’t lose him, and she leads him through the crowd.
She sees Kenny, the shortly dying man, looking much younger and fitter. She sees Lance, and he looks younger too—maybe 15. She guesses he hadn’t really been that young. His right shoulder is one fire. There’s Monica, looking exactly as she does in present reality, and a man between them all, shifting in form, because he is not a dreamer, but a man dreamt of by three different people, who dream him all different ways.
Kenny dreams him as his own self come again, but a little taller, a little brighter. Monica dreams him with a long forked tongue. Lance dreams him as a 19 year old with sharp ears and devil-may-care grin that promises fun and trouble. A dark angel to be worshipped and resented in equal measure.
Kenny sits with his arm around his favored son and lectures Lance. “And ya still haven’t found a woman?”
“Adam hasn’t either.”
“Adam is hopping through them all. That’s fine. Look.” He gestured to the dancers. “Plenty of nice women out there. Find one you like, then take her and make her yours. Adam’ll take you along next time, show you how it’s done. Maybe make a man of you yet, heavens knows I’ve half given up.”
It’s odd they’re saying that, because Adam is dying. His head swells like the bratty girl in Willy Wonka, who turns into a blueberry, except his head is more purple than blue. It pops, blueberry juice splashing into Monica’s Appletini, some spattering off the pink umbrella stuck in the drink. She sips it.
Adam’s trachea rises like a ridged periscope from the stump of his neck, looks around with one beaming eye, and pokes fun at Lance. “Any time, Icky Wuggers, I’ll bring you along.”
The dream shivered. A talking trachea is not a sight any nine year old likes to see, however long ago her birth date might be.
It’s enough of a shiver for Kenny to note that there’s a nightmaric snake where his son’s head should be. “Are you okay, Adam?”
“Oh, fine dad.” His second hand holds a syringe to his first arm, and his third hand lifts a drink to his trachea. The plunger plunges. The shot goes down. “Never better.”
Chianti realizes Jake isn’t with her. Probably he hasn’t been for a while. That’s the problem with going into other’s dreams. They’re dreamlike for her too.
The trachea wilts like a dandelion in winter. Kenny tries to help him, but he can’t, because he’s in his office. He screams at his other children to help. Monica sips her Appletini, and Lance prances helplessly around as the fire spreads from his shoulder to his neck.
She came out of the dream a moment before they did, in time to see Jake re-taking his seat, slipping something into his pocket, and saying, “But I hear it wasn’t any heart attack. I hear he OD’d.”
And the three of them were wide awake, without knowing they’d ever nodded off.
Kenny said, “Where the bloody hell did you find that out?”
“Really, Mr. Drake? You expected me to solve a problem surrounding a death without even knowing the cause of the death? As for how, you’ve hired me precisely because I have ways. How often did Adam do drugs.”
“He fooled around some. Adam didn’t back down. If someone else dared him at a party, he’d do it, maybe.”
“Lance, how often did Kenny fool around with drugs?”
Lance looked away from his father. “All the time. All sorts. He’d snort, he’d smoke, he’d inject, but he never had any problems. He never got addicted. It wasn’t something he did by himself. He did it at parties, clubs. A social drug user, not someone looking for a cheap high in back allies. It wasn’t the experience, it just amplified the experience. That’s what he said anyway. He’d talk about it sometimes. Make fun of me for not being able to do it the same way.”
“So he was an experienced drug user, and unusually in control. Not someone likely to kill himself by accident.”
Lance said, “Maybe not, but if you play with fire often enough, eventually you’ll get burned, no matter how experienced you are.”
“The family ordered a toxicology report, then supressed the results. What were they? I can find out eventually, tomorrow or the next day, but it’s easier if you just tell me.”
Kenny said, “I did not hire you to sort through our dirty laundry.”
“You damn well did. You hired me to sort through the problem between your children, a problem inextricably linked to Adam, and to you. Whatever you may have heard, I am not a miracle worker. I can’t make a problem go away without addressing its root. But enough, I need to pee. Lance, could you show me the facilities.” He stood up.
Lance said, “Ah, yeah, sure.”
“I need to go too,” said Chianti, because she thought this was a chance for them to talk in private.
Lance led the way. As they left the room Jake called back to Kenny and Monica, “While I’m gone you think about how cooperative you want to be.”
The hallway floor was wood, with a thick, expensive but now faded carpet running down the middle.
Jake gestured to her. She shrugged, and he patted his shoulder.
Oh, yeah. “Mr. Lance, is your shoulder okay?”
He slowed and turned. “My shoulder?”
“It seemed like it hurt you.”
“I have a nerve condition.”
“What’s it called.”
“Uh, it’s just shoulder pain. This is the restroom.” He pointed to the door. “See you in a bit.” He left down a different hallway.”
Chianti said, “Where did you go while I had them in the dream?”
“The safe in Kenny’s office, where I found, among other things, the toxicology report. Men like him are predictable.” He took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, three words in his own handwriting jotted on it. “Adam had three drugs in his bloodstream when he died. Alcohol, no surpise. Cocaine, not much of a surprise. But the third was ketamine. Ketamine. It’s prescribed for asthma sometimes—I’m sure you noticed Lance sucking an inhaler earlier—but mostly it’s a painkiller. A powerful one. Ketamine is a also a common recreational drug, though not quite in the normal sense. Do you know what recreational activity ketamine is used for?”
She said she didn’t.
“It’s a few years before you’ll need to.”
Chianti said, “I do actually have to use the restroom.”
When she came out, he was looking at his phone. “It’s been too long since I’ve been to med-school. CRPS. Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. They actually have a name for it now. Used to be if you came to the doctor complaining of mysterious pain with no discernable cause, they told you it was in your head and stop worrying about it. It’s correct of course, but it took a dastardly long time for it occur to some bright light that saying it’s in the the afflicted’s head is just a round-about way of saying it’s centered on the nervous center. They prescribe painkillers for it now. Sometimes, they prescribe ketamine.”
They went back to the room. Kenny and Monica were still there.
He sat next to Monica, speaking quietly so Kenny wouldn’t hear. “It must’ve been a wrench when your brother died so young.”
“Yes. In some ways I expected it—he’d always messed around with drugs. But still, when it happened, I didn’t really expect it.”
“Then the family business was all on you. That must’ve been rough.”
“Not really. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“And CFO now at such a young age. I hear the board tapped you for it without pressure from your father. You must be good.” He smiled.
Her voice went higher, and she fussed with her hair. “Of course.” They leaned closer as they talked.
Chianti watched. It was always like this with Jake. It might be skill. It might be the gravitas of accumulated millenia. But she guessed it was magic, which hardly seemed fair. She was pretty, so Jake would be hoping, before the night was out, to slip into a back room with her and get a quick roll.
“Where is Lance?” said Chianti. “I’m surprised he’s not back yet.”
Monica checked her watch. “It has been a bit. Not skipping out on us is he?”
“That boy…” muttered Kenny.
Jake jolted to his feet, face gone pale. “Lance still lives in this house, right?”
“Yes,” said Monica.
“Let’s all go to his room. Right now, quickly, quickly.” He loaded Kenny’s oxygen tank on Kenny’s lap, atop lap blanket. “Hold that. Monica, lead the way.”
She must have caught his concern, because she’d gone pale too, and walked quickly out, Jake pushing Kenny’s wheelchair so fast that Chianti had to run to keep up.
Monica said, “This is it.” She pounded on the door. “Lance!” She tried the knob. “It’s locked.”
Jake reached past her and opened the door.
Monica would’ve asked how he’d done that if she hadn’t seen her little brother lying on the floor. She ran to him, but Jake pushed her aside and felt the man’s pulse, then put his cheek over his mouth. Chianti knew that was for show. Jake could feel at a touch.
He said, “Call 911,” and started CPR.
Monica called 911, stumbling over her words at times, yelling for them to hurry.
There were two pill bottles next to Lance. Chianti rolled them over with her foot. “Looks like he took high doses of ketamine and oxycontin. Then she noticed the note on the table:
I slipped ketmine in his drink. It was just supposed to be a prank. I didn’t think it would kill him. Ketamine doesn’t. The mix must have been bad with whatever else he was on. I’m sorry. I was jealous.
Kenny screamed when he read the note. He threw whatever was handy at Lance, and Jake kneeling over him. He screamed that the paramedics should be told not to come.
The paramedics came, and left with Lance, and made no promises.
They went back to the room.
Kenny said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish. I wondered about him, I suspected, but always told myself he didn’t have the guts. But that’s just like the coward, to do it with poison. You didn’t resolve things the way I liked, but you smoked the bastard out clear enough. And to think I was going to make him CEO.”
Jake said, “Mhmm. Want a drink?”
“Yes please.” said Monica.
He brought them glasses of whiskey from behind the counter. They tossed the liqour back.
“The problem,” said Jake, “is that while I think someone slipped ketamine in Adam’s drink, I don’t think it was Lance that did it.”
“What? He confessed.”
“Not the same thing. Monica, did Adam ever borrow any of his little brother’s Ketamine?”
She answered cautiously. “Sometimes.”
“Why would Adam take a painkiller?”
Monica said, “Some people like to get high off it. It’s a bit like PCP.”
Jake said “Yes, but it’s popular for another recreational activity—date rape. The nasty thing about ketamine as a date rape drug is the victim stays conscious. She—or he, it happens—is instead immobilized. Usually not completely, but enough that she can’t resist. She can see her attacker, but the hallucinatory effects of ketamine make her memories confusing and unrealiable. It has other side effects, which are unpleasant for the rapist. Sweating, convulsions, vomiting. A turn off. The causes of its popularity are first, that it’s widely avialable, and second, that some rapists prefer their victims to be conscious.”
“So?” said Kenny.
“So Adam was a chip off the old block. Didn’t you say, “if you want her, take her and make her yours?” That is how you wooed your wife, is it not? I’ve no doubt the strategy still works at times, with the right sort of woman. And in your day, when many people at least still pretended to think virginity at the wedding was a serious matter… Well, as I always say, begin as you intend to finish. If you’re going to have an abusive relationship, why not start out that way? Eh, Kenny.”
The shortly dying man had turned red as a beet. Veins pulsed in his emaciated head. He’d tried to scream at Jake halfway through, but Jake always, always, had time to finish his monologues.
“What do you know? We loved each other, and she wanted me, she-”
“Yes, I’m sure it was like an old Bond film. You kissed her till she started kissing back. You even believe that. I know better than any what an unreliable monster memory is. More changeable than mountain weather. More pliable than a woman who had ketamine slipped in her Appletini.”
He turned to Monica. “It was an Appletini, wasn’t it. No, don’t start. I have my ways.”
Kenny said, “What are you going on about? Shut up and leave.”
“Not till I fulfill my contract. Refuse me at the end if you like, but you can’t refuse me this, because you can’t move very well. Not with the ketamine I put in your drinks. Lie still, and hallucinate with me.”
It was as if the drug had been waiting for his cue. Their heads lolled, their bodies twitched, and Chianti and Jake joined them in a dark backroom of the club. Lance and trachea headed Adam were there, along with Adam’s boys, who were pointing out to him the woman asleep on the floor. Kenny watched from the back of the room, not really there.
Adam sighed and put a hand where his temple would’ve been. “Dipshits, this is my sister.”
His boys laughed and apologized. Said they’d hardly ever seen his sister before, and the light was poor. She could wait it out here under their guardianship, or they could pack her in a car and drive her home.
Adam nodded along at first, but his tracheal smile turned lopsided. “Nah. Just do it like normal.”
“Seriously?” they said.
Lance argued—“are you insane Adam? You’ve fallen off the end of the world here.”
But it only decided Adam. “Have you not noticed how stuck up she’s been lately? She needs being taken down a peg. For her own good of course. Guys, whatchya waiting for?”
Lance tried to stop them, but Adam put him in a headlock, which he didn’t really try to fight.
Chianti couldn’t see it happening. That was a fuzzy space in the hallucination, at least for her. She felt Jake making sure it was so. He didn’t want her seeing explicit content.
Jake whispered in Kenny’s ears, but Chianti heard the whispering over the roar of the club. “Don’t make such a face. He’s only doing what you taught him. You were right, you know. One of your sons had a smidgen more natural worth than the other. It wasn’t the one you mourned.”
Eventually—it hardly took a moment in the hallucination, but she knew it was an eventually—they asked Adam whether he’d like to have a go.
“Nah,” said the trachea. “She’s my sister.”
Just before they left Chianti saw, that in Monica’s ketamine induced hallucinations, Adam had loomed over her, looking like a man with a trachea for a head, and said, “That’ll teach ya.”
Chianti wondered whether Jake making sure she couldn’t see it had done any good.
Jake said, “and a few days later, Monica decided to get back at him. She wasn’t planning to kill, but I doubt she was disappointed. What a happy family. But what’s done once isn’t done forever. Monica, would you like it to go away? People often think trauma is ennobling, but mostly, trauma is just traumatic.”
Kenny groaned, “take it!” his speech slurred by the ketamine. He sweated. He writhed as best he could.
Jake said to Chianti, “What do you think?”
Chianti said, “Take it from her. Give it to him. He deserves it.”
Jake flicked her ear and gestured.
She looked at Monica, understanding after a moment, but still not really understanding. “You want to keep it?”
“Of course. It’s me.”
She took Kenny’s hand. She felt the shame. She felt the way he wanted to have never existed at all. Kenny hid himself beneath his lap blanket. She realized it wasn’t his daughter he wanted operated on.
Jake said, “You made him who he was—a new version of you. So in a way, it was you who did it. In that way, the shame you feel is his as well.”
“Take it away.” he moaned from beneath the blanket.
“If we take this moment from you, you won’t have it, and you won’t ever be able to get it back. Do you really want to die without it? Just tell her. This can be solved without my intervention, with no magic but the gentle mysteries of word. Speak to her. Tell her you love her. Tell her you’re sorrier than any poet could describe. Tell her you would bear this heavy regret for all the years of your life, even if those years were a thousand more.”
But he only hid deeper in the blanket and said, “I don’t want it. Take it away.”
Jake nodded, so Chianti tugged at a chest hair. A shadow rose around the hair, and she tugged at it. It came out, into her hand. A reddish brown lump, streaked with snot green, constantly tyring to hide inside its self.
It was heavy. She shrank in her seat. Her breathing quickened, till she wished for a paper bag to breathe into. But Jake grabbed her shoulder, and the burden lightened. She gave it to Monica. It glopped onto her hand, and disapeared into her knuckles. The woman’s eyes rolled back. She wasn’t fainted, but in a fugue.
There was silence. Jake removed his hand. Chianti downed a glass of ice water.
Kenny removed the blanket from his face. “What are you crying for?”He pointed accusingly at Monica, who struggled to focus on his finger.
“Kenny this, Kenny that. I’m your father for Christsakes. Show me a little respect. You may be a girl, but you’re still a Havelstock, and Havelstocks don’t cry. I don’t care what you’re crying for, just stop.”
Jake said, “She’s crying because she took Adam’s chance to learn what you’ve just forgot. She knows now what murder means.”
“Murder? My daughter wouldn’t cry over murder. I called you here to fix her, not make her even more of a-”
He put a hand to Kenny’s chest. “I’m not some mechanic. We had an agreement, and, whether you know it or not, my side has been fulfilled. Here is yours.” He pressed down a little, and breathed in all the years of Kenny’s life.
Later, the doctor would say to Monica that it wasn’t old for senility to strike swiftly, like a thief in the night, but the thief was called a strokes. Even later, the mortician would comment to himself how smooth the body was, and how light, as if it had been emptied of everything and was simply a shell, though all the pieces were undoubtedly still there.
Before they left, Jake put his number in Monica’s phone. Partially in case the police made any trouble, but also, Chianti was sure, because he was still hoping for that roll.
They held hands on the long walk back to the car, going slowly, because Jake was stuffed. His belly was swollen, and there were crow’s feet around his eyes.
Chianti said, “Was that really okay?”
“Better than okay. You did a very good job.”
That wasn’t what she asked, and she knew he knew it, and knew he knew that she knew.
“An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. I have a present for you.”
She didn’t want it. But she stopped, closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and opened her mouth wide as it would go.
Jake tilted his head down and opened his mouth, wide as it would go. Like a mama bird feeding its chick. Something passed between.
Chianti swallowed and shivered. She felt cold. She felt full of shrewdness and human accounting. A close understanding of corporate tax laws, of how to bully what she wanted from people who didn’t want to give it to her, and never give them back what they deserved. She was ten years old, with puberty fast on its way.
She hugged her chest, telling herself that not even Jake could raise a bear into a fox, and almost being sure of it.