"Come on," Jessie prodded. "Call." She handed him the phone.
Reluctantly, Jack dialed, and waited, as it rang once...twice...three times... he started to hang up --
"What are you doing?"
"We don't want the damn answering ma -- "
"Hello?" came the soft, feminine voice on the other end.
"Oh, hello, is this the Gravelle residence?"
"Yes, it is."
"Uh, no. My name is Gravelle, but it's not Lenore."
"No? You mean you're not the Lenore Gravelle who lives at 2250 Lake Shore Drive?"
"I'm afraid not. Wrong number. You're close, though. I do live on Lake Shore Drive."
"Really? That's pretty amazing. I live on Lake Shore Drive too. At 2740."
"No, I'm not. Why?"
"I live at 2740."
"You do? Amazing. What are the odds of that happening? Well, it's a big building. Let me introduce myself -- Jack Romack, I live in 2-C."
"Molly Gravelle, 4-A. Hey, maybe we've run into each other in the elevator."
"Let's put it this way -- if you've ever seen me you'd remember me. I'm the guy with the, with the, well...with the thing on his neck."
"Oh. Ohhhh! Oh, yes, of course, yes. The man with the -- oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to -- "
"That's all right, you can't hurt my feelings. I'm used to it. I've heard it all."
"But, Mr. Romack, I -- "
"Call me Jack." Jack looked at Jessie and winked. "Hey, Molly, don't feel sorry for me. No one else does."
"But -- "
"Seriously now, have you ever heard of a charity for people like me? I sure as hell haven't. Not that I'm complaining or anything. Of course, when you're broke, facing eviction, eating cat food -- "
"Mr. Romack -- "
"Jack, I -- "
"Listen, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be bitter. Life dealt me these cards, I've gotta play 'em. Hey, look, I've taken enough of your time -- "
"No, Jack, wait."
"Yes... Molly?" He nodded to Jessie. They had another one, he could just feel it. (What gives? -- Ed.)
He knocked, even though there was a button for the doorbell right below the name "Gravelle."
"Who is it?"
"It's Jack. Jack Romack."
"Oh. Just a minute, I'll be right there."
(Editor's Note: Who are these people? Where are we? What is this?) (Beats me! -- Ed.)
Looking through the wrong end of the peephole he saw a myopic, distorted, wide-angle view of Molly's apartment, and then Molly herself, removing a bathrobe and hurriedly slipping into a pair of jeans and a shirt. She was beautiful, he thought -- and then he quickly backed away as she approached, unlocked the deadbolt, and opened the door.
"Hi," she greeted him cheerily.
"It's okay," he said. "You can look at it." And she did -- and without any sign of embarrassment or pity. He was impressed. She smiled and showed him inside.
"Can I offer you something to drink, Mr. Romack?"
"It's Jack, and yes, you can."
"I have some freshly-squeezed orange juice, Jack. Would you like some?"
He'd learned over the years to accept every kindness with a minimum of resistance. Never say no. It sets a mood, fosters brotherhood, generosity, giving.
"I'll be right back." She went into the kitchen. In the meantime, Jack looked around. Her apartment was decorated with pretty plain Jane, department store stuff. A sofa, probably a convertible, a small dining room set with four faux fifties style chrome-plated chairs, and a TV set, and a stereo, and some books, mostly art books. Hardly expensive, or pretentious -- hardly the home of someone who'd won thirty-five million dollars in the Illinois State Lottery. Well, that just left more for him and Jessie, he thought.
"Ahhh!!!" he suddenly screamed in agony. Molly rushed in from the kitchen.
"Jack, Jack -- are you all right?"
"I'll be fine, don't worry. It's just that I get these sharp, stabbing -- ahhh! -- there's another one..."
"What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, Molly, nothing -- besides, I'm not really sure what I'm even doing up here, and I've got these eviction papers to deal with and the bills are piling up and..." He started to leave, slowly.
"No, Jack, wait, don't go, please, let me... let me help you."
"Help me? How could you help me? How could you possibly help me? Do you have a cure for this? Can you remove it?"
"No, Jack, but -- please, sit down."
He did so.
"Recently, Jack, I came into some money. In fact, if you must know, I won the lottery a few weeks back."
"Yes, I did. Unbelievable, isn't it? Well, I decided that I'd give the bulk of the money to charity, and since you say there is no charity for people like yourself, and since you need it, why not give some to you?"
"You're, you're going to give me... some money?" Jack acted genuinely surprised and touched. "No, really, Molly, you don't have to do that."
"I insist." She pulled out a checkbook and began writing. "This should cover your immediate needs..."
She ripped the check out and handed it to him. He saw the zeros first. Ten thousand dollars.
"Wow. Oh no, I can't accept this, Molly, I can't."
"But -- "
"Jack, I forgot -- your orange juice. I'll be right back."
She rushed off. Wow, he thought. Not bad for one phone call. Oh, sure, there were the weeks of tracking her, leasing the apartment, establishing an alias as a man with a horrible deformity -- a sort of half-hand, half-foot protruding from his neck -- and all the work that goes into setting up such a scheme. (I'm baffled, really I am -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: The style is different. It's like a goofy mystery novel, with a touch of the macabre thrown in. Unless this is a different book, a different novel altogether.) (A different novel? -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: Yup.)
He was tired. He'd been working this game for years, since the late seventies, and he was tired, tired of the charade, tired of all the moving around. It was Jessie who wanted to keep it going now, not him.
Molly returned, a tall glass of orange juice in hand. He took it, emptied it in a couple of gulps, and, with mock satisfaction (he hated citrus juice) smacked his lips and stood up, ready to flee.
"Well, Molly, I don't know what to say, really, I -- "
"Jack, don't leave yet. I like talking to you."
"You do? It doesn't bother you that I have this...this 'thing' sticking out of my neck?"
"No. In fact, I think you're a very attractive man. Sexy, even."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing! A beautiful young woman, a very sweet beautiful young woman, had taken a liking to him, was even, maybe, coming on to him. He wondered if Jessie would even look at him if she thought the "thing" was real. Doubtful. But -- he had to be careful, very careful, because everything, from the moment he entered, was being recorded. Jessie insisted they tape every sting in order to "review, analyze, and improve." But this was highly unusual.
"Jack? What's it like?"
"What's what like?"
"Having people stare at you, or look away, or whatever? What's it like, being you?"
"It's, uh, not easy. It's not easy." This part made him uncomfortable -- the third degree that usually followed the giving. And yet, Molly was different. She cared. She sat down next to him and took his hand.
"I sense a great power in you, Jack. A great power."
"Wh-what do you mean, Molly?"
"You've had a tough life, you've overcome your handicap, you've persevered, you're strong, a survivor, a wise and experienced passenger on spaceship Earth."
He smiled appreciatively and then tried to get up, but she stopped him, grabbing his arm. He felt an erotic jolt surge through his body, and he liked it, and he wasn't sure what, if anything, he could do about it. He could stop the tape, but then Jessie would ask what happened to the good-byes and so forth. He could claim to have a dead battery, but -- Molly suddenly pulled him down onto the sofa and moved in close, real close. What was she doing? he thought, half fearful, half excited. (This is getting steamy, Dad! -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: Uh, yeah, it is.)
"Jack?" she purred, now about an inch away from it. "How does this..."
She caressed, softly, the "thing."
He didn't feel anything, except that he knew he was in big, big trouble.
Sunshine filtered through the cracks in the blinds and Jack awoke, in a strange bed and a strange bedroom. Before he could get his bearings Molly entered, carrying a tray of coffee and rolls, and wearing nothing, absolutely nothing.
"Coffee?" she asked. Jack felt disoriented, to say the least. (That makes two of us! -- Ed.)
"What time is it?" he asked her as she placed the tray across his lap and propped him up with pillows into a sitting position.
"About eight-thirty. Do you want the paper?"
"You mean, I spent the night here?"
"That's right. You don't remember?"
"Well, I remember being here, in your apartment, and sitting on the sofa, in the living room. I remember drinking orange juice, we talked, and then, that's about it, that's the last thing I remember."
"Jack, excuse me, but I believe this is yours." She held up his cassette recorder and switched it on.
"... Jack? What's it like?"
"What's what like?"
"Having people stare at you, or look away, or whatever? What's it like, being you?"
"It's, uh, not easy. It's not easy." She switched it off. "Oh, I also put your deformity in a safe place. How do you take your coffee?" She smiled -- a warm, forgiving smile -- and he was really confused. Not only had he blown the deal, which was bad enough, he was falling in love, and that was worse, much worse.
"Oh, and are these yours?" She flipped him a book of matches from a place called The Copper Lantern in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
"I... I... don't know." Jack felt like his brain was being probed by an alien intelligence. But he didn't feel threatened. He didn't panic. He didn't run. Molly was friendly, almost a kindred spirit from, perhaps, the same galaxy. He trusted her.
(Editor's Note: Is this science fiction? That's not my department. My department is fiction. There's a big difference, you know.) (Hey, Dad? -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: What?) (I think I figured something out -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: You did? Good. It's about time. What is it?) (You don't see it yet? -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: No.) (Wait, and it'll become apparent, I think -- Ed.)
Molly pulled some clothes out of a drawer and started getting dressed on her way into the kitchen, leaving him alone to pick the crumbs off the sheets, and think. He thought about what she, Molly, was thinking. What was going on? How weird, how other-worldly, and yet... how familiar. She returned, dressed, carrying an attach‚ case, ready to go to work.
"You know, Jack, it's funny, but I have this feeling we've met before." He smiled. In a strange way he knew what she meant.
(Editor's Note: Come on, where's this going?) (You don't see it yet? -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: No.)
He rolled out of bed and picked his pants up off the floor. Then he dug the ten thousand dollar check out of his pocket and tore it into little pieces.
"You shouldn't have done that, Jack."
"Why? You still want to give me the money?"
"Well, to be honest with you, I'm not all that innocent myself. I mean, come on, that orange juice was laced with some pretty powerful elephant tranquilizer. You went down like a pretty ponderous pachyderm, you did." (See? -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: See what? The alliteration? All those p's? You mean... ) (Yup -- Ed.)
Jack was stunned. "But, why, Molly? Are you pulling a game too? What's your angle?"
"I don't have an angle, Jim. No game. Just a feeling about you."
"Wait. You called me Jim."
"Yes, you did, you just did. Why did you call me Jim?"
"I don't know. Why did you call me Maureen?"
"I didn't call you Maureen." (Bingo! -- Ed.)
(Editor's Note: Hot damn! So, now what?) (? -- Ed.)
"Yes you did. You called me Maureen, I'm almost positive."
"Well, I, I never intended to. Strange."
"Yes, strange," she said, almost wistfully. They looked at each other, into each other's eyes, for a long, long time. And then... Molly blinked.
"I'm late for work, Jack, as usual. Stay as long as you like, just remember to lock up when you go. If you want more coffee, it's in the kitchen." She was out the door before he could even react to her leaving -- he was still a little woozy from the tranquilizer -- in fact, he could barely stand up straight. Dizzy, he fell backwards onto the bed and within seconds he was sound asleep, and dreaming, dreaming about someone named Maureen, and someone named Jim, and a world that seemed to make no sense, no sense at all. And that's how it all began.
(This ends BOOK ONE.)