The author was born in Baltimore Maryland, graduated from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and worked at the Baltimore Sunpapers before entering library work. She is currently retired.
Harem of a Dead Man
“Sisters-in-love, on this Thanksgiving eve, let us remember to be grateful for the most beautiful man who ever lived, Gordon Lowell.”
A respectful hush fell over the group as we bowed our heads in silence. I glanced briefly at the portrait above the president’s chair: the head and shoulders of an exceptional man. Thick, black hair spilled over the dark brooding eyes of a soul in torment. High cheekbones marked the reserved nature of an aristocrat, while the full, sensuous mouth of a Renaissance cherub betrayed the hidden passions of a Byronic lover.
Finally, Mae tapped her gavel. The very same gavel Gordon used when he portrayed a grief-stricken magistrate in the film Judge Not the Weary.
“Heads up, sisters-in-love. As you know, our first order of business is to track down Gordon’s movies and preserve them in our own personal library. Not many of his films are still available. Fortunately, the Worship Committee has managed to find another very special one for us.”
She pointed her gavel to Georgina Finch and Alice Wilson, who acknowledged our applause with eager smiles.
Alice began, “Georgina and I got hold of a vendor in Minnesota who specializes in hard-to-find films. He traced one of Gordon’s earliest movies, Sandalwood Serenade, to a film library in Burbank.”
A gasp of awe circled the table. Sandalwood Serenade was strictly sacred cow stuff. In it, Gordon portrays a lowly camel driver who rises to the heights of Arabian royalty and acquires a harem, only to die fighting in a religious crusade. It reminded us of ourselves – a harem of lonely widows looking for our one true prince.
“Anyway, here it is.” She threw a plain, black DVD case on the table. “It cost a bundle so be careful. This isn’t the kind of stuff you can just pull off video streaming. I couldn’t even find it in a movie catalog. Frankly, nobody had ever heard of --”
“That’s sufficient, Alice.” Mae tapped her gavel.
“Melanie gets it first.” Alice passed the DVD along to Melanie, who sat to her left.
We always circulated movies to the left. Melanie would have it one week, then Daisy Morales, then me, then on around the table back to Mae, who would give it to Alice. That way we were sure all of us had seen it at least once. After that, it went into a special library in Mae’s climate-controlled basement, where any of us could borrow it upon showing ID.
“So far, we have seven, no eight, movies on DVDs circulating among us. Not bad for a club that was broke three years ago.”
“Thank you, Alice. And that brings us to our next item on the agenda – the treasury. Catherine, what’s in the budget right now?”
Catherine Jahelska opened her ledger and looked to the bottom line.
“Two thousand dollars, not counting the yearly stipend we have yet to kick in. Eighty percent of it came from our bake sales. The rest came from our investments in socially-conscious stocks. Fifteen hundred is appropriated for movie collection, five hundred for miscellaneous.”
“We’ll talk about miscellaneous in a minute. Right now, sisters-in-love, it’s time for us to renew our yearly vows.”
We bowed our heads again and joined hands around the table as Mae began a litany which we knew by heart and repeated fervently.
“We, the sisters-in-love, hereby re-pledge our hearts to Gordon Lowell, that no other man may ever take his place, nor lay claim to our affections, nor distract our complete and eternal devotion. And we dedicate our lives to promoting and preserving his art and memory forever.”
Somebody said Amen, but that was not in the original pledge.
I often wondered about that pledge. Five club members were married, including Mae herself. Were they forgiven for having made the minor mistake of taking a husband?
We had started chatting among ourselves. Mae called us to order.
“Sisters, as you know, today is Christmas Present Announcement Day. Every year we treat ourselves to a special gift. Last year, we had this beautiful portrait commissioned,” she pointed to the framed image of Gordon behind her, “the year before that, we purchased the actual shoes he wore in Wanderer, Come Home. But this year, I think you’ll agree, we’re going to give ourselves the best Christmas present ever.” She paused to look at each of us. “Gordon Lowell’s ashes.”
Daisy Morales raised her hand. “Just how are we going to do that?”
Mae exchanged a knowing glance with the vice-president, Martha Snyder, who smiled back with the satisfaction of a mouse stuffed with cheese.
“We’re going to steal them, of course.”
Stunned expressions revealed the general consensus that Mae had finally gone too far.
Alice Wilson got to her feet. “Madam President, I think this is a bad idea.”
“That’s because you don’t know anything about it yet.”
“I still think this is a bad idea.”
“Alice, you’re out of order. Sit down.”
What were they thinking, discussing this in front of me? Everybody knew I worked out of the downtown precinct. Why were they planning a theft within earshot of a cop?
“The groundwork for this has already been laid. The only step left is to send the right person out to Los Angeles to do the actual heist. And the perfect candidate for that job is sitting right here with us. Jan Davis.”
All eyes turned in my direction as Mae pointed her gavel to me. The pencil I’d been chewing on fell out of my mouth and rolled across the table.
“Of all the nerve. Are you crazy?”
“Jan, you’re the perfect one. You know how security systems work. You know how criminals act. You know how they think.”
“So now I can go ahead and turn into one, is that what you’re saying?”
“Listen Jan, do you think I’d ask you to just rip a vase out of a glass case and leave nothing in its place? A big, black hole for everybody to notice? You’re going to replace that vase with one just like it. No one will ever know the real one’s missing. And remember, it isn’t really a theft unless you know something’s missing.”
“Who made up that rule?”
The group murmured excitedly, as if they thought this might be a good idea after all. I had seen this sort of mood shift before. I had witnessed it at rock concerts, where hysteria grew among fans until they had to be dragged off screaming. Now it was brewing here, among my civilized sisters-in-love.
“Martha,” Mae snapped her fingers, “show them the pictures.”
“Well, this whole thing was sort of my idea.” Martha shuffled the snapshots in her hand and passed them around the table. “Last month Harry and I took the kids to California, and of course I wanted to see Gordon’s ashes. I knew they were at Los Angeles Regional Mausoleum, but I didn’t know where until a guard told me it was in the Chapel of the Urns in the west wing. When I went back there and stood before his urn, it was – it was --” she choked up and covered her eyes, “it was a mystical experience.”
Sniffles traveled around the room. Tissues were popping out of pockets.
“I – I could barely contain myself.”
Mae patted her on the back and gave her a handkerchief.
“Anyway, it occurred to me that it was so – so deserted in that area, and security was so casual, somebody could really steal that urn if they knew how to get to it. Then I thought, well, why not us? We love him more than anybody, and if we replaced his urn with one just like it – well, it started to take shape for me, you know?” She blew her nose. “I thought maybe we could make a duplicate vase just like the real one. And if we were going to do that, we’d need pictures of the real one. So, I came back late that night, near closing time, and took pictures of it.”
“They let you take pictures in a place like that?”
“No,” Mae corrected me, “show them how you did it, Martha.”
Martha stood up and yanked her jacket open like a common flasher. Perched on her belt buckle was a miniature camera no bigger than a button battery.
The room applauded.
“My God,” I thought, “The CIA would be proud.”
“I got about ten good shots of the urn and two more of the cleaning crew.”
“The cleaning crew?”
“I figured that’s how we’d get you in, and we’d need some pictures of their uniforms.”
The photos circulated the table. I stopped each one as it slid my way, collecting them in my hand like playing cards. I had to admit, they were sharp reproductions for a small camera in a crypt.
“You really thought of everything,” I admitted. “I’m impressed.”
“Not half as impressed as you’re going to be. Look at this.” Mae lifted a black duffle bag onto the table, unzipped the top and pulled out an elaborately decorated vase.
A collective sigh of wonder filled the room.
She lifted the prized object, walked it down to my end of the table and sat it in front of me.
I looked at the pictures, then at the vase, then at the pictures, then the vase again.
“My God, Mae. It’s exact.”
And so it was. The cobalt sheen, the gold-leafed, Grecian stenciling, the filigree pedestal, the muted curves of the handles, the rounded shape of the domed lid – inch for inch, detail for detail, it was an indistinguishable twin to Gordon Lowell’s urn.
“Where did you get this?”
“I made it.”
As if to confirm my thoughts, she took out a magnifying glass and handed it to me.
“Go ahead, check it out.”
I accepted the glass and ran it over the surface of the vase.
“Impeccable. You should have been a forger.”
“I made it right here, in this basement, back in the utility room.”
“Jerry’s utility room. Well what do you know about that?”
I lifted the lid to look inside. Imprinted into the porcelain were the words ‘made by Mae Larkin’ in reverse.
“What happened here?” I tilted the vase to face her. “Why is the printing backwards?”
“Never mind that. It’ll come off with soap and water. Besides, nobody’s going to look inside anyway, are they?”
“No, I guess not.”
“So you see, Jan? All the work’s been done for you. All you have to do is go out there, switch vases and bring him home.”
“Oh, that’s all, huh?”
Catherine Jahelska jumped to her feet and brought her fist down on the table. “Sisters, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I say let’s do it.”
A burst of applause shook the walls.
“He belongs with us, not in some building that sounds more like a sports arena than a cemetery.”
Shouts of approval.
“Let’s send Jan to go get him!”
Riotous cheers and thundering applause.
“Have you lost your brains?” I shouted, “I could have all of you hauled off right now for conspiracy to commit grand larceny.”
“But you’re not going to,” Mae crooned.
She pulled a DVD case out of her sweater pocket and handed it to me. “Do you know what this is?”
I read the title on the case.
“Love Knows No Bounds. That’s my favorite movie, the one where Gordon searches for his love all over the world, then dies in her arms.”
She nodded. “Now I know you’ve been working very hard lately, double shifts and all that. But I want you to take this home, Jan, and watch it. Watch it all week if you want. It’s your week to have it anyway. Then I want you to think about what we’ve said here tonight.” She pushed her face up to mine and stared point blank into my eyes. “I know you’re not going to be so selfish as to deprive your sisters of this special Christmas gift.”
She smiled. She wasn’t club president for nothing.
I pocketed the movie. The meeting was adjourned. Most of us had turkeys to cook.
Later that night, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, I ran soap over my face and splashed water into my eyes.
“Damn that Martha Snyder, tracking down his ashes and getting everybody worked up about it. You’d think a grown woman with two children would have better sense.”
More water. More splashes.
“And Mae Larkin! Building a vase from scratch, plotting a theft and then expecting me to carry it out. Well if they think I’m going to help them with this, they’re crazy. Crazy even to think about it.”
Wrapped in a fleecy bathrobe, I slipped the silver disc into the black tray of the DVD player.
“Well, forget them. It’s time for the Little Theatre of Love. And what’s playing tonight? Love Knows No Bounds.”
Hands cupped around a mug of coffee, feet tucked into lamb slippers and propped up on a shaggy ottoman, I gazed at the TV flickering in the dark. Before long, Gordon Lowell appeared, his dark, intense eyes filling up the screen and flashing in my direction.
The movie began. It always began the same way, with a wedding. The woman he loves is marrying a wealthy man. A struggling poet driven to despair, he goes back to his meager flat and starts to drink. Then, at a rescue mission, he learns he has three months to live. He spends his final days on a long journey to find the woman he lost, just to tell her one more time that he loves her. He travels through mountains and deserts, then finally crosses the ocean to discover she is living in a palace in France.
In the last scene – oh that last scene – he staggers up the steps to her chateau in the driving rain and pounds on the door with both fists.
When she opens the latch, he gasps ‘Francesca, I love you,’ then collapses into her arms.
Holding him, she cries out ‘Oh Nicholas, I love you too. I’ll always love you.’
But he’s already dead and can’t hear her.
“Oh Gordon,” I cried in my dark room, watching the credits roll, “I love you too! I’ll always love you, but you’re already dead and can’t hear me.”
Shaking with tears, I turned my eyes heavenward. “How can I ever go on without you? How can I – how can I ever refuse to go get you? They’re right, the whole bunch of them. You belong here with us. You belong here with me.” Still sobbing uncontrollably, I shouted “Here I am, Mae. Send me.”
The clock rang out midnight. I didn’t care. Through eyes burning with tears, I punched in Mae’s number.
Three rings. Four rings. Five. A bleary, low-pitched voice gurgled into the phone, “Jerry Larkin here.”
“Jerry, this is Jan Davis. Is Mae there?”
Clunk went the phone.
“Mae?” A raspy voice called out, “Mae?” Louder, “Mae?” Loudest of all.
“What?” A voice yelled in the distance.
“It’s one of those halfwits from that jackass club you belong to.”
Footsteps. Tap, tap, tap. Clunk. Phone gets picked up.
“Did I wake up Jerry?”
“Never mind him. Did you watch your movie? All of it?”
“Yes.” Tears started again. “And Mae, I’m ready to go to California and bring him back.”
“I’ll go to Alaska if I have to. I’ll go anywhere.”
“California’s all we want, honey. Now listen, your flight out of here leaves at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon and returns Saturday morning at 6 a.m. I could only get second class tickets on two different no-frills airlines.”
“You were counting on this, weren’t you?” I sniveled.
“Counting on what?”
“Counting on me to say yes.”
“You saw your movie, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but --”
“Jan, I knew once you saw that movie again, no power on earth could stop you. I knew that just like Gordon, you’d travel the whole world over to track down your one true love. And the best part is,” she pressed her mouth to the phone, “you’ll be bringing him back with you.”
“But what about –”
“What about nothing, dear. You come over to the house tomorrow for dinner and we’ll talk about your trip. It’s all planned. Believe me, Jan, it’s all planned better than NASA plans a trip to the moon. Your every move has been thought out ahead of time by Martha Snyder. All we need is a good astronaut to step into space gear and go through the motions for us. That’s you, babe.”
“But Mae –”
“But Mae nothing, darling. Go watch your movie again. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
The line went dead. But not my pulse. It was racing, just like those astronauts’ pulses must have raced before stepping into space gear.
“All of it thought out, huh? I’ll bet.”
I looked around the theater-dim room, still flickering with the aftermath of Gordon’s death scene.
“Oh well,” I yawned, scratching my head. “I do have off tomorrow and it’s early for somebody used to night shifts. Why not?”
Again I reset the DVD and clicked the play button. Again I put my lamb-slippered feet on top of the shaggy ottoman and gripped a lukewarm cup of coffee, and again Gordon’s face appeared on the screen, making me catch my breath as if I had never seen him before.
Another miracle was about to begin.
Palm trees. A purple streak along the evening sky. A whiff of summer. I couldn’t believe I was in Los Angeles, making my way down a side street to a bed and breakfast inn picked out by Martha Snyder.
Outfitted in a gray suit and black heels, I cut the figure of a savvy business commuter. Except for a tear in my jacket from a last-minute encounter with my neighbor’s bulldog, I could have passed for a mannequin. Two travel bags strummed against my side. One was the duffle bag with Gordon’s replacement vase, the other an overnight bag with metal latches. Draped across my arm was a trench coat.
At the main desk in the lobby, I paid in advance and was handed a key. No reservations had been made for me. I had been reassured the place was never full. I walked up a flight of wooden stair reminiscent of the Gold Rush days of California. At the third floor landing I put my key into the lock of a polished cedar door which popped open as if on springs. Inside, a single bed and nightstand stared back at me under the glare of a tiffany lamp. A Delph pitcher and bowl sat on the nightstand as if the 20th century had never happened. This was the kind of place I would have chosen had I really been on vacation.
But I was not on vacation. I threw my belongings on the Aztec bedspread and locked the door behind me. The first order of business was to check the condition of Gordon’s replacement vase. It was in a vinyl-covered, sack-looking thing which sat upright as if it contained nothing more than a large thermos. On the top flap, Mae had penciled in a red heart for me. Nice touch. I unzipped the lid, reached inside and lifted the vase to the ceiling light. Nothing broken. Nothing chipped. I removed the porcelain lid. Not even a hairline crack inside. The only calamity was Mae Larkin’s backward credit line. But then, as she said, it would never be seen. The second order of business was food. I unsnapped the metal latches of the overnight case and popped opened the lid like a trunk with a body in it. Packed on top was a paper bag containing a thermos of coffee and two cheese sandwiches which Mae had put together herself. This was dinner. I was not to visit restaurants, or leave the room until it was time.
Inside the tightly folded wax paper was a Swiss on rye, which I sampled immediately. I opened the coffee thermos and pulled out a note taped to the lid. It read, ‘we’re all so proud of you, dear. Good luck.’
“Proud of me.” I shook my head and wolfed down a pickle, eyeing the yellow-flowered wallpaper. “I’m thirty-five years old, sitting in a California walk-up, waiting to rip off the ashes of a guy I don’t even know and she’s proud of me.” I slugged down more coffee. “I guess if I wound up in jail, she’d still visit my cell to say she was proud of me.” I crumpled the note and reached for the cheddar on pumpernickel. “Oh well. Time and cheese wait for no man.”
Munching like a cornered rat, I stared down at the third order of business. Stuffed inside my overnight case was my cleaning crew uniform. This was no ordinary rag. This was a work of art. Martha Snyder had sewn it together based on her photographs of the night crew and it was as perfect a replica as the vase. I laid the costume pieces on the bed and counted them. If they were wrong, I couldn’t call her to find out. There was to be no cell phone contact between any of us while I was here.
Within the hour, I was suiting up.
Standing before the full-length mirror, I took inventory. White sneakers. Check. White socks. Check. Brown pants and blouse. Check. And on the left shoulder of the blouse, the blue and white insignia of the Caribou Cleaning Company – a buck with his antlers reared to attack.
I buckled a leather tool belt to my waist. Hanging from the belt were four pressure crowbars to loosen plate glass, and one tube of cement to put it back again. Over my short, brown pageboy, I fitted a gray wig and tied it up with a blue and white bandana. I smeared rouge over my face, rubbed it in, then picked up the burlap bag of cleaning brushes. Finally, I picked up the duffle bag with the fake vase. I was ready to go.
Los Angeles Regional Mausoleum was within walking distance. By ten o’clock, I was approaching its wide, granite steps and marble portico. This was no ordinary cemetery. This was a palace for the dead. Even the doorknob insets were ivory.
But wait. I stopped. A woman dressed like me was heading for a side door marked ‘staff.’ I fell into step with her. When she opened the door, I held it for her and muttered a greeting. Then I followed her down a narrow hallway to another inner door. There it was, a digital pad for punching in a code.
Punch. Punch. Punch. Punch. I tried to follow her fingers. Damn. There was no way I could catch the numbers. A six and a nine were all I got. I took the door from her as she opened it and I mumbled another comment about how hard it was to cross a street in L.A. She smiled and ignored me.
The door slammed and latched behind us. I was in. Not only was I in the building, I was in the main hall where people were bustling around like passengers in an air terminal. A single bell rang out the ten o’clock hour. Visitors were starting to leave.
A security guard waved to a man dressed in an outfit identical to mine.
“Goodnight, Bruce,” he called out.
Bruce kept running a floor buffer and waved without looking up. Then the security guard left.
I looked around for the west wing. Three corridors spanned off the main hall, but which way was west? Then a simple phrase etched above an archway caught my eye. Ah, there it was. Chapel of the Urns. Or what we would call down at headquarters, the plate-glass morgue.
From this point on, I was on my own. Neither Mae Larkin nor Martha Snyder could tell me what to expect by way of security issues. My heart pounded beneath my Caribou label.
“Jan,” I said to myself, “for a cop who’s been in shoot-outs, stake-outs, shake-downs and hold-ups, you know what? You’re scared to death.”
The alcove was small and deserted, as promised. I edged my way toward the arches, and at that moment, the overhead lights went dim. Now only the soft glow from the glass display cases sent aisles of light into the room. I threw a cleaning rag to the marble floor, got down on my knees and started pushing it ahead of me in wide, lazy circles, edging my duffle bag forward. Gradually I crawled my way to the last niche on the right, where gothic arches converged above stately columns. Gordon Lowell’s display case was where Martha said it would be, two feet from the last wall on the left.
I raised my eyes, first to the plaque with his name and dates, then to the magnificent blue and gold urn seated on a pedestal, glittering under a recessed spotlight. A smile crossed my face. This was a magic moment I was not about to lose too soon. Here I was, three-thousand miles from home, on my knees before the remains of a man I had fallen in love with hundreds of times, but never met in person.
“Hello, Gordon. Better late than,” I glanced around my cubicle one last time, “than never.”
Sitting back on my heels, I examined the display case. No inner doors. That meant the urn was loaded from the front. If the glass had been removed once, it could be removed again. I ran my thumb nail around the edge of the window. No imbedded wires. So far so good.
From my toolbelt, I pulled out the four pressurized crowbars to pop the plate glass window out of its frame. I had used them once before in a bank robbery to gain fast access to a locked building, but never for access like this.
Jamming one at each corner of the glass, I squeezed the vacuum pouches, hearing a tell-tale hiss each time. Finally, miraculously, the window wobbled to my touch and fell out into my waiting hands, just like it had in that bank robbery. Nothing stood between us now. Nothing. I opened the duffle bag, pulled out the twin vase and positioned it under the open window. Then I leaned forward into the gaping tomb and grabbed one handle of Gordon’s urn, dragging it ever so slightly toward me.
But wait. Just a minute. I felt a snag. Leveling my eyes to the base of the urn, I saw a button under the pedestal. I knew what that button did. It tripped a silent alarm in the security guard’s office. Cagey bastards. They’d thought of everything. Some of these buttons were sensitive enough for a ground tremor to set them off. I wasn’t sure I hadn’t set this one off by jostling the urn. One thing I knew for certain. That button would have to stay flat during the entire vase-switching process.
Slowly, more slowly than ever, I drew the urn toward me until a corner of the button was exposed. Then I pressed my right index finger over the nub and slid the urn the rest of the way, lowering the vase safely to the floor. Next, I lifted Mae’s vase onto the waiting marble altar, never once taking my eyes or my finger off that button.
Then a horrible thought froze me. What if Mae’s duplicate had a hollow base which would not press the button flat? Mae had no way of knowing about the silent alarm. If the base of the fake vase was hollow, this whole project might have to stop right now. I edged the vase closer to my finger, nudging the bottom of it with my nail.
Solid. Good girl. This was going to work after all. I slid my shaking finger back, jockeying the vase over the button until it covered the nub completely. Once it was in place, I sat back again and took a deep breath. Then, carefully, I lowered Gordon’s urn into the plush recesses of the duffle bag. Watching the delicate gold handles slip into darkness, I slapped the lid shut like a floppy hat and zipped it all around.
“Forgive me, Gordon,” I whispered, “this only proves you can’t choose your relatives or your fans.”
I took out my last tool, a tube of cement sealant, and squeezed it into the four sides of the open window. Then I repositioned the glass into the frame and held it still for thirty seconds. That’s all the glue said I had to do. When I took my hands away, the glass stayed. That was it. I was finished. I dusted off the window, picked up my spoils and left the alcove.
Out in the main hallway, Bruce was still running his floor polisher.
“Hey Bruce,” I yelled, staying out of the light. “Hey Bruce, over here.”
He shut off his machine and looked up at me with a huff. “What is it?”
“The door code is still 6914, isn’t it?”
“What?” He squinted, trying to recognize me.
I put my hands on my hips. “The door code, isn’t it still 6914?”
“Hell no, it’s 6892. They change it every month. Where’ve you been?”
“Mining diamonds in South America, genius. Where do you think I’ve been?”
“Well it’s been 6892 all month. It’s never been 6914.”
“Okay, okay. Thanks, pal. Remind me to promote you to supervisor.”
He restarted his engine. I walked down the hall, punched in the code at the keypad and heard the door latch spring open. Release. At the end of the hall, the staff door opened to the same four numbers. Out in the fresh air, I breathed a sigh of victory and smiled with my heart, as the love songs say. On my way back to the inn, I counted the stars overhead.
Back in my flower-wall-papered walk-up, I opened a bag of plastic bubbles and poured them around the vase to form a cushion of insulation for the trip home. Then I gathered up my clothes, the plastic bag, the make-up kit and the thermos and stashed them back into the overnight case. Once dressed in my gray suit and black heels again, I threw the overnight case down the hallway incinerator. None of it was to follow me home except the duffle bag. My final act was to turn in my key at the desk and leave for the airport. I accomplished all this in one hour.
When I entered the airport, the early morning editions had just been thrown into their racks. I picked one up and scanned the front page, then opened to page three and scanned down the left column, then skimmed every page for the headline that would put me on the wanted list. Nothing. No mention of any cemetery theft whatever.
“Son of a gun, they have no idea it’s gone. Or is it too early?” I checked my watch. “It’s only been a few hours. Still, you’d think somebody would have noticed by now.” I folded the paper and threw it back in the holder crooked. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why should anyone know it’s gone? You didn’t leave the slightest trace of a break-in.”
Now for security check. Getting through TSA with an empty duffle bag was one thing. Going back with a vase full of human ashes would be another. Ahead of me, four lines of people snaked alongside moving conveyor belts with plastic baskets full of wallets, keys, bags, items. At the end of each conveyor belt, television screens showed the contents of every handbag, suitcase and carry-on piece of luggage passing through, their bluish shadows wavering like ghosts. Not only would the contents of my duffle bag become visible, the contents of the vase would become visible. Health laws would never permit human ashes to cross state lines without a lot of questions. But I was prepared for this. I knew how to prevent Gordon Lowell’s last performance on a silver screen. I had brought along the one thing that bypassed every x-ray machine and inspection aisle.
In a hidden pocket of my raincoat was a red, plastic, biohazard bag I had stuffed there the night before. Finding a deserted, out-of-the way sofa, I began unfolding the tightly packed bag until it grew large, screaming the word ‘biohazard’ down the side in big, black letters. It was into this ignominious sack that I lowered Gordon’s remains for the next part of the trip. I sealed the bag shut by tying two strings together and surveyed it one last time. Perfect. I took out my badge and looked for the nearest authority.
In the distance, beyond the lines of travelers, a security guard tapped one of the inspectors on the shoulder and passed a small bag behind her, out of the way of the x-ray machines. The bag was about the size of mine with a red tag. Of course. Restricted material. Baggage containing medicines or radioactive materials were passed through and inspected differently. As a cop I had sometimes been asked to pick them up at airports and transported them to hospitals. Some were biohazard bags. Nobody wanted them. They were given up without a fight. I even remembered what they were called. Hot items.
With this in mind I approached the guard, pushed my badge in his face, then held the biohazard bag up to him. “Hot item,” I stressed firmly. “Police. Hot item.”
At the sight of it he backed away from me. “Get that thing out of here.”
“Where are they stacking?” I moved forward, holding it ahead of me.
“Back in C corridor. Over there, on that skid.” He pointed to a growing pile of red bags on an abandoned flatbed off the main hall. Nobody was approaching it and there were no lights.
“When’s the next pick up?”
“How should I know? Just get that thing out of here.” He backed up more as I pressed forward.
“Look, there’s bio evidence from a crime scene in this bag. If it gets held up on some neglected cart, you’re going to have to answer to a lot of people back East.”
You certainly are. Mae Larkin, Daisy Morales, Georgina Finch…
He snarled slightly. “You shouldn’t even be in this area. There’s a back entrance for that stuff. Get it out of here now before an epidemic scare breaks out.”
“Where are the boarding gates?”
“You can’t get on a passenger plane with that. I’ll walk you back to the loading docks where the cargo planes are packing up.”
“Thanks,” I smiled, and moved past him. “I can find them.”
“And why isn’t that thing handcuffed to you?” He shouted after me.
“You think I want to lose the key?”
His eyes were on me the whole time I walked into shadows, past the proliferating nuclear stockpile in C corridor, past the exit signs and gate numbers and vacant doorways where nobody wanted to go. Finally, he lost interest in tailing me, and I disappeared into a series of waiting areas for smaller airlines. At the end of the concourse, I found the airline Mae had booked for me. All the waiting room seats were empty. Choosing a bench by the wall, I ripped off the biohazard bag and threw it into a trashcan with a swinging lid which creaked and never stopped. Then, with Mae’s pre-printed ticket in hand, I moved toward the flight desk. I had a special request. I wanted to keep the duffle bag with me on the plane and not in a luggage compartment.
One woman was ahead of me with a pet carrier tucked under her arm and the cage door facing me. I put my fingers up to the cage opening and tapped slightly. A wet, pink nose poked out and sniffed, then disappeared. Two lamblike ears jammed up against the cage door. A white, toy poodle was attached to them. Before I could tap the cage again, the carrier was whisked away and hauled onto the ticket counter. The woman ahead of me slammed her fist on the counter, making the poodle’s ears flip and the ticket-punching machine jump.
“I intend to take this pet on board with me.”
The clerk glanced at her boarding pass. “Mrs. Thompson, that carrier is too large to fit under a seat and it can’t go in the overhead. It has to go in the baggage compartment.”
Too big? It was about the size of Gordon’s vase.
Again her fist hit the counter. Again the ticket puncher jumped and the dog’s ears flipped.
“This is a pet, not a bag. I’m going to keep him on my lap.”
“I demand it!” Slam. Ears flip. Ticket-puncher jumps.
“I demand it!” Pet and ticket machine are traveling across the counter now.
“Mrs. Thompson, no baggage can be carried on your lap and a pet can’t run loose on the plane.”
“Oh come on,” I interfered, “let her keep the dog with her.”
“Ma’am,” he pointed his pen at me, “I’ll get to you in a minute.”
I pushed forward. “It’s not like this is a jumbo jet. I’ll bet you don’t have twenty seats to fill. Let her keep the dog.”
“Yeah, let her keep the dog with her.” Someone behind me chimed in. A small group was forming.
“Sir,” he pointed beyond me, “sir, this is not your turn.”
“Aw come on,” I persisted, “it’s a pet, not a bag.”
Voices behind me agreed loudly.
“Just a minute, ma’am,” the clerk held his hand up to me like a traffic cop. “I’ll get to you next.”
Suddenly an umbrella went in the clerk’s face. “If you don’t let me take this pet on board, I’m going to the manager’s office.”
He lifted the pet carrier off the counter and lowered it behind the desk. “Both the office and your boarding gate are down that hallway. Which one you choose is up to you.”
I nudged ahead in line, insinuating myself between Mrs. Thompson and the clerk. “You’re not kidnapping that dog, are you?”
“This lady needs to see the manager and you can go with her if you want to.”
Mrs. Thompson marched down the long west corridor, swinging her umbrella like a shotgun. I craned my neck to see which doorway she took, and just as I was about to fall over backwards, my own turn was called.
“Ma’am,” he urged, “ma’am, may I see your boarding pass?”
I snapped to attention, stepped up to the desk and pushed the duffle bag in his face. Then I slammed my fist on the counter, making the ticket machine jump.
“I intend to take this duffle bag on board with me.”
Outside the window, a rising sun sent a red path across billows of gray clouds. The plane would bank to the left, level out, then dip to the right, then level out again. Our one attendant lurched down the aisle like so much furniture on the deck of the Titanic. In the baggage room, Gordon Lowell was slamming into walls along with Mrs. Thompson’s poodle. Neither of them had made it past the desk clerk. And not even a bag of peanuts to ease the tension. This was a no-frills flight right down to the unlined vomit bags.
Unable to watch the sky any longer, I flagged down the attendant.
Grabbing onto the overhead hand rail, she picked her way toward me down the rocking aisle.
“Miss,” I tugged at her jacket, “can I go sit in the baggage compartment?”
Blank stare. No one had ever asked her this before.
“I’m sorry. Passengers aren’t allowed in the baggage compartment.”
“It’s just that I’m transporting a Ming,” better not say vase, “a Ming bowl and I’m sure it’s getting damaged back there. This is the roughest flight I’ve ever been on.”
“We’ve hit a patch of weather. But you don’t have to worry. All the baggage is secured.”
“What does ‘secured’ mean?”
“It’s strapped into shelving.”
“What kind of shelving?”
“Metal shelving. Would you like a magazine?”
“No. Do you have peanuts?”
“How long before we land?”
She checked her watch. “An hour.”
“Do we have enough fuel? This plane is so small for a cross country flight.”
“We’ve strapped an extra fuel tank to the wings.”
I looked outside my window again where the sun’s path was now spreading wider across the sea of celestial waves, the same waves making us rattle. Strangely at peace, I sat back and contemplated exactly what I had accomplished thus far. Much. Much. Thanks to me, my sisters-in-love had a tangible relic of the matinee idol we adored. Thanks to me, the Wednesday night meetings in Mae Larkin’s basement would be filled with a little more of Gordon’s presence. Thanks to me, Los Angeles Regional Mausoleum had a plate glass window that would probably fall out on its face in three days.
When our plane finally made its descent, we hit four more air pockets and dropped ten feet on each of them. Then we hit the runway front-wheels-first and bounced all the way to the passengers’ gate on a broken tire rim. When we were finally able to form an exit line in the smoke-smelling cabin, the man behind me muttered ‘you’re better off on the ground.’
I glanced at the baggage compartment door. “Actually, you’re better off underground.”
Once I had my feet securely planted on airport carpeting, I looked around for baggage unloading.
“Hey,” I yelled to a cart driver, “where are they unloading bags for flight 486?”
Oh Lord. A baggage carousel. I had forgotten about those. I rushed up to dock 16 where suitcases were being hurled onto a circular conveyor belt. Bags were cartwheeling and landing upside down. Some were snapping open, their contents of shirts, socks and underwear spilling out onto the rubber highway. A can of shaving cream oozed a trail of foam which was now getting smeared and re-smeared into the surface padding.
Oh no, not that. For God’s sake, don’t throw that duffle bag like a beachball. But I heard loud crashes on the other side of the conveyor belt curtains and I knew that suitcases were getting pitched like so many bales of hay at a barn raising. I studied each overnight bag, each sports bag circling around that belt. No Gordon anywhere. Maybe this was the wrong carousel. I started to sweat again.
Wait. Wait a minute. Smaller bags were starting to show up. There was one like mine, only green. There was one in red. They were starting to appear now. One had circled twice and still no one had claimed it.
More shock waves sounded from beyond the baggage curtain. Suddenly a black duffle bag with brown straps circled toward me. Reaching between two passengers, I fumbled for the straps, yanked it upward and lifted it over my head, only to have it pulled firmly away from me by two beefy hands.
“Sorry lady, I have a world-class bowling ball in here.”
“You’ve made a mistake.” I gripped the bag tighter and pulled it toward me. “This bag happens to be mine.”
Again, he yanked the bag toward him. “Look, I ought to know my own bowling ball.”
“And I ought to know my duffle bag. See the little red heart in the corner? Mae Larkin penciled that in just for me. That’s how I know it’s mine.”
“Oh really? Well open it up and we’ll see what’s in it.”
I froze. “I can’t do that.”
“This – this is a rare archeological item and might disintegrate in open air.”
“So, you’re saying you won’t open this bag?”
“Okay, we’ll just have a security guard stick it under an x-ray machine.”
Oh no, not that again. I pulled harder on the straps, starting a new tug-of-war. The bag was bouncing in air now.
“Look mister, this is not your goddam world class bowling ball. See the heart in the corner? That’s mine.”
“Prove it,” he puffed between yanks.
Just then a woman’s hand grabbed his shoulder. “Charlie, Charlie, here’s your duffle bag. Here it is.”
A nearly identical bag slid between us.
“Here, this is yours, Charlie,” the hand said.
My bag snapped back in my face like a rubber band, almost knocking me over.
With one last snivel, my opponent inspected his satchel, then leered at mine. “I still say that thing has a bomb in it.”
“Take up golf.”
Clutching my prize, I made my way through the small crowd that had gathered to cheer us on. Battle weary, I moved toward the nearest exit and hailed a taxi.
On the way home, I shook the bag. No clinking. No clanking. He wasn’t in pieces. After all, I’d packed him in bubbles.
Getting from the cab to my front door was another story. The bulldog that had sent me off with a ripped jacket was now pouncing on me with a welcome home, scraping her paws over my belly, trying to get to the duffle bag. I held it over my head with both hands and turned circles down the pathway to my door.
“Down, Patsy,” I commanded, “down!”
“Don’t wrestle her, Jan,” my neighbor called out. “She’s not a police dog.”
“Would you call her off anyway, Mike? I can’t get to my door.”
Her leaps were getting higher. I raised the bag higher over my head and waddled sideways. My neighbor propped his rake against the fence and leaned over the pickets to watch me.
“She smells something in that bag. What have you got in there, a human head?”
“Big joke, Mike. Would you call her off?”
“Just let her sniff the bag. That’s all she wants. She’s not an attack dog.”
“I know that Michael, but call her off anyway.”
Suddenly Patsy heaved both paws on my shoulders, pushing me onto the ground. I threw myself over the duffle bag as if it were a hand grenade and did a full body roll onto my stomach.
“Patsy!” He thundered. “Get the hell back here. Now!”
Patter. Patter. Thump. Fence rattle.
Sitting up, I pulled my mud-smeared raincoat around me. Then I got to my feet, picked up my luggage, turned the key in the front door and kicked it open with my knee.
Inside, I dropped the duffle bag on the oriental rug. The front door slammed behind me as I leaned back against it to take a deep breath. A little over twenty-four hours ago, I left this house an honest cop. Now here I was, surveying the same territory, changed, compromised, an outlaw. A grin escaped me. I hugged myself and laughed.
The phone rang. It was Mae.
“You just got back, didn’t you?”
I looked down at the receiver, wide-eyed. “How did you know?”
“I timed you. Was I right?”
“To the minute. I just walked in the front door.”
“Did you – is he?”
“Yes Mae, he’s here.”
A gasp of rapture traveled through the wire. She wanted to come over right away and get him. Jerry had the car, but she was going to take a cab.
I tried to interrupt her three times.
“Mae,” I started, “Mae,” I tried again, “Mae,” I finally shouted her into silence. “Mae, listen to me. I haven’t slept in twenty-four hours. I just got off a plane I thought was going to fall right out of the sky. I’ve been through at least three fights I hadn’t counted on, including a bulldog attack, and now I have just one request to make of you. I want eight hours of sleep before you come barreling over here to pick up your prey. Eight hours. Is that too much to ask?”
“Well I --” a few whimpers faded into a muffled consent. “I guess as long as you promise,”
“I promise you, Mae, you give me eight hours and I’ll give you an urn. I’ll hand deliver him to your door, okay?”
Done. The deal was closed. I hung up the phone and headed for my bedroom, toting Mr. Lowell under my arm. With uncharacteristic disrespect, I slammed him on the bureau. Then I fell back on my own bed and kicked off my shoes. In my stockinged feet, I stretched my toes to reach the bottom bedrail. I stretched my arms in the air, yawned, and crossed them behind my head. I closed my eyes. Billowy bulldogs jumped fences behind my eyelids. Soon the bulldogs were carrying vases in their mouths.
“How do you like that Mae Larkin,” I muttered to myself, “ready to come over here and snatch him right out of my hands without so much as a thank you. If anyone deserves to keep him, it’s me. After all, I’m the one who sweated for him. I could keep him on the mantle above the fireplace, and if my sisters-in-love wanted to see him, they could make an appointment.”
My eyes snapped open. I looked over at the brown-strapped, vinyl bag on my dresser and a new wave of sweat broke over me.
“What if I picked up the wrong bag at the airport? After all, I never really bothered to check if that heart was penciled on the lid. There must be hundreds of brown-strapped, black duffle bags in this city alone. I never opened it up. What if this really is somebody’s bowling ball, and Gordon Lowell is still going around on a baggage carousel at the county airport, or worse yet, stuck in the sports locker of a bowling champion?”
I sat upright and bolted for the dresser. Unzipping the bag, I peered into the recesses of the plushy interior.
A sigh of relief. Yes, an elaborately gilded lid gleamed within a sea of bubbles.
“Well,” I thought, “might as well take a look.”
I parted the mass of Styrofoam nuggets and carefully gripped two golden handles, raising the grave of Gordon Lowell into the morning sunlight.
“Beautiful,” I murmured, as the delicate filigree caught the November sun. “Even in death, as beautiful as he was in life.” I turned the body of the urn and watched it glisten in iridescent shades. Then I tilted it backward to examine the stem. The lid fell off and rolled under the bureau.
“Damn,” I muttered, “I thought these things were hermetically sealed.”
I tipped the brim forward to look inside. Again, sweat broke over me, only this time in rivers. Nothing. Nothing at all was inside the urn. No ashes. Not even a rim of dust. Clean porcelain except for the words ‘made by Mae Larkin’ printed in reverse.
“Mae’s urn.” I choked on the words. “This is Mae’s urn, the one she sent me off with.” I gripped my temples with one hand. “Oh my God, how did this happen? When did this happen? Think. Think!” I looked around the room as if the answer were there. “The vase-switching process. It must have happened then, when I had my finger pressed to the alarm button. I wasn’t watching the urns; I was watching the button. I must have put Gordon’s urn down on the floor next to Mae’s, then picked him right up again and put him back. How else could it have happened?”
“Oh my God,” I gripped my stomach. “This can’t be possible. It can’t be true. Think, Jan, think. You’ve got to do something.” I looked around the room one more time. “I know, I’ll glue the lid shut and just give them the urn. It was good enough to fool me. It might pass.” I stopped short. “No, no. They’ll want to look inside. That was the whole point of this rotten thing.”
Vase in tow, I stumbled into the kitchen to scrub off the bold, purple stenciling of Mae’s hapless signature. She was right. It came off easily. Then I made my way to the livingroom where the fireplace sat cold and empty. Furiously I shredded ten copies of the New York Times, five copies of the law enforcement digest, six copies of the state-wide phone book and a map of the downtown streets of Los Angeles. Kicking an iron dustpan under the grate, I struck a match to the pile, setting off the biggest, hottest bonfire this side of a crematorium. As flames engulfed the chimney, I pounded the residue to a pulp, sifting finer and finer ashes into the iron pan.
“Thank God for a criminal mind,” I prayed. “Mae Larkin, you don’t know how right you are.”
Christmas Eve. Snow flurries outside my window. Hands cupped around a mug of coffee, feet tucked into lamb slippers and propped up on a shaggy ottoman, I gaze up at the blue and gold urn nestled between two candlesticks.
The house phone rings. Indolently, I pick it up.
“Hello? Oh hello, Mae. Yes, I’m looking at him right now. He’s sitting on the mantlepiece above a roaring fire.
“What’s that? Of course you can pick him up tonight. I hate giving him up for Christmas, but it is your week to have him…Yes, I agree, looking inside is a mystical experience.
“Oh, and Mae, as long as you’re coming over, would you drop off my favorite movie, Love Knows No Bounds?... Yes, I would call that a fair exchange.
“What’s that? Oh no, I got over that a long time ago. Like you say, it isn’t really a theft unless you know something’s missing. See you at six o’clock then.
“Merry Christmas, darling.”