We're sitting at The Crossroads, a little coffee café deal where you could get day-old bagels for twenty-five cents. She has one of those plus some crap with crème de menthe in it, while I nurse a coffee. In the neon world of "Open 24 Hours", nobody is around to listen to our discussion but the sleepy cashier and a crow whose screwy biological clock is making noise far up the street. Music plays from the corner speakers, the newest from Milgram and the Experiments, something tinny and inappropriate for the mellow midnight hours. I feel raw, unborn. My hands are jittery on the mug, so to distract myself and the girl, I start asking questions. "When did she run?"
"She ran when I was fifteen… So that would be, what, three years ago? Mom and dad were pretty busted up about it, said I must have known it was going to happen. Of course I didn't know anything, but they wouldn't stop. Then it was the Spanish Inquisition forever and ever, amen, until they drove me away as well. And here I am." She sips her green crap and stares into my face. "You don't look so hot."
"I look the way I look. You just didn't notice before because we were in the dark."
"Maybe." She looks at the photo in her hands. In her smooth, young fingers, the content looks somehow more obscene than it did in those of the Zebraman. Her pale skin seems to merge with the pallidness of her sister until the image starts to jump and contort, and I get nauseous. My coffee no longer looks like something drinkable. In the strange light, everything seems slightly hollow; almost as if the façade would drop around me like stained boxer shorts around a pair of ankles, with a tinge of guilt and a nasty smell.
I hear myself speaking, though my voice is part of the illusion, hidden in the frighteningly thin walls. "I'm sorry. It's been a while since I last held an actual conversation. Up till now, it's been monosyllable central."
"I know what you mean, but really, I don't. I don't usually talk to people because I have nothing to say to them. But you look like, you just, I don't know… Can't."
"It's not like I have anything relevant to say to other people."
"You have a lot to talk about," she says without hesitation, and that seems to be that. Never before have I heard a sentence with such a prominent period at the end of it. As if her words were a magic spell, I find myself wanting to explain the situation, and how taking that photo might have risked me failing a Job for the first time in a while. But then I would have to explain what a Job was, why I felt compelled to take the photo, and what I was doing there in the first place, and then I would have to backtrack through the forest and end up shooting the goddamned elk after all.
I stand up.
"Where are you going?"
"Somewhere. Keep the photo."
"You can't leave. You have to help me find her."
The straight brows arch. She slowly sits back down.
"What is this, some kind of game? Well, you're right, it is a game, but you don't understand the rules and I don't know how to explain them. This isn't some kind of glory quest, I am not a knight and your sister is not some damsel in distress. Judging by this picture, I'd say she's probably out of her misery by now. I'm not saying this to get you off my back. I'm telling the fucking truth, because that's all I got. I've got nothing else left to give. I can't help you. I'm sorry."Sorry again. God, I'm so fucking sorry today. I even feel sorry for other people, namely the cashier, who's having difficulty locating the panic button under the counter. It occurs to me that sooner or later, we all become hypocrites, but even more startling is the revelation that I meant every word I said. Something surges in my chest, blurring my vision, but it's not grief. It's just the cold wind blowing grit into my eyes as I step into the street, a part of me relieved and another part screaming obscenities, canceling each other out and leaving just the wind moving through an empty vessel.
It's two weeks later before I see her again. I've been avoiding the apartment and the Zebraman's shack, because now that I'm unprotected, I can't be too careful about where I'm seen. That's easy enough; this is a big city and I've been pretending to be a shadow for so long, I'm practically invisible. That leaves only one thing left on my agenda: Getting rid of this damned photo.
I don't mean the actual photo, of course. I assume Alice kept it, maybe started flashing it around town in the hopes that someone had seen her and knew where her sister went. It had occurred to me that I never did explain how I came by the picture, and that Alice had a pretty good visual description of me; if she handed the photo over to the police in connection with my looks, it could spell trouble. But really, what were the odds? Even if the police did care, there wasn't enough evidence to support a toothpick, let alone convict me of anything. Besides, Alice still had a family, or so she'd said. She might've been afraid of exposing Delilah's DLS, and then they'd get the brunt of it, assuming Del was as dead as I was sure she was.
Dirty Little Secrets. DLS. Sounds just like a disease. A filthy-sounding acronym for a very contagious problem.
Even if I no longer have the photo, I still had to bear the consequences left by taking it. If I'd left it there, I'm sure I'd never be in this mess; the Job would have carried me out on fairy wings, business as usual, and I never would have had to abandon the apartment. I wouldn't have met Alice, and my nightmares would be absent of chubby Delilah whispering in my ear while the cold, shining dark spreads open her thighs and her mouth.
I'm so immersed in my thoughts that I don't notice her on the other side of the street, yelling and waving her arms."Hey! You! Over here!"
The next thing I know, I'm back in the café, at the same table, in the same chair. Alice sitting across from me, drinking the same green-tasting shit as before. Even the cashier doesn't seem to have recognized us. I feel like I've slipped into an alternate dimension where every particle is the same, except it's noon outside and sunlight and fluorescence wage an epic battle in the space around the window. This time, I don't order anything. I am wiped out, blank as a broken Etch-A-Sketch. I let the warring lights swirl inside my emptiness.
"Well? Have you changed your mind?" Alice the DLS-positive ticket lady is asking me.
"I never had a mind to change."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She threw me off-balance, this Alice. To me, she didn't ask questions in their natural, chronological order. I felt like telling her how I got the photo in the first place to get it out of the way, but so far she'd shown no sign of getting around to that topic. So I just followed her flow. I'm good at that, following. "I'm just saying it wasn't my choice."
She frowns. "It wasn't your choice not to help me? Who's stopping you? The guys who took the photo?"
She thinks about this. "What's your name?" she finally asks, almost forcefully, as if that had been her first question all along.
"Thursday. Jack Thursday."
"What a coincidence."
"Look, I know you had nothing to do with this picture," she says. "All I want is for you to help me find her. It's not as if I can go around flashing this to everyone I see, can I? A girl can end up in big trouble that way."
"So can a man who doesn't think there's any point pursuing the matter." I reach for my glass, then remember I hadn't ordered anything.
"She's not dead."
"She is to me."
"You have no proof."
"You're getting colder."
She shows no signs of impatience, but instead goes strangely blank on the outside. Like how I feel. She's wearing a brightly colored scarf, and as she retreats, the scarf seems to get larger and larger until it dominates the features of her face. She doesn't actually move an inch, but that's the impression I get from her.
"You're the only person I can go to," she says. Even her voice sounds slightly muffled. "It doesn't matter whether she's dead or not, but I have to find where they've got her. And I know you can help. I saw you at the house."
I stare. "What house?"
"The Zebra's house."
"How do you know about that?"
Gradually, she comes out of her shell, her dark eyes looking into mine from under those deadly straight brows. "It doesn't matter, but I'll tell you. The only reason I know about him is from a letter my sister sent me a year after she ran away."
"I thought you two didn't keep contact."
"There was just the one letter, and it wasn't very detailed. It was written so that nobody would know who it was from if they happened to pick it up and read it, but I knew. Of course I knew.
"For one thing, it was addressed to 'Mina' from 'Lucy'. Those were the names we called each other when we wanted to get outside of ourselves, to be someone else. We were both fans of Bran Stoker's novel, and that was something Del knew our parents would never have known. They weren't big on that occult stuff. Anyway, that was how I knew it was her.
"Of course there wasn't a returning address, but the letter said something about an animal with black and white stripes that would take care of her, and that she loved me with all the heart she had left. You might think it was obviously Del writing to me, but you wouldn't understand who I was living with then. My family doesn't understand love; they'd probably think it was a man's letter to his mistress, or something else misplaced in the mail."
She pauses to take another sip. The air in the café seems to go on ringing with her words long after she stops talking. I feel like I'm in a vast, open space, completely exposed, rather than in a small well-lit coffee shop. Despite that, there's a certain density to the air, as if every particle has suddenly expanded several millimicrons. There's no point in trying to force words through that kind of atmosphere, so I stay quiet.
She notes my silence in that stern way of hers, then continues. "It wasn't a returning address, but there was one scribbled on the back of the letter, reinforcing the idea that it was a letter about an ongoing affair. I lied about the reason I ran away too, then. I told you it was because my parents forced me out, and that was partly true, but it was mostly the letter that did it. I came here to find her, and the next thing I know, the place is on fire. There weren't any bodies found either. So my sister wasn't there after all."
The air reverts to its previous state, as if it had been holding its breath this whole time. As if air could hold its breath… I talk to ward off the increasingly loopy feeling coursing through my veins. "And how did you know I wasn't the Zebra? He must have escaped the fire somehow." I get a bad taste in my mouth as I say the words. I really wish I'd gotten some coffee, now.
"I didn't know. You could be the Zebra, for all I know. What matters is that you have the photo. You must know something about what happened." She squints, finally catching on. "Unless you were the one that started the fire."
"Either way, talking to me like this is dangerous. I could be the Zebra. Now what're you gonna do? End up like your sister? Or maybe the tooth fairy put that photo under my pillow instead of a quarter. How would you know? If you keep this up, you're going to get yourself killed."
"Or worse." She nods. "Put out your hand."
I do what she says, and she places something in my palm. I look at it. It's a shiny new quarter.
"Get yourself something to drink. We're going out."