JOHANNA COULD HEAR CAT'S PAWS MADLY THUDDING on the bathroom door, and the animal was crying in a human way--so frightened. Or was he merely hungry? She had fed the poor beast, but how long ago? No matter. The cat's cries receded, as though her front room had decamped from the hotel suite, floating up and away with utter disregard for gravity.
And time? What was that to her?
The whole day long, Johanna had not moved from her perch at the edge of a wooden chair. She sat there, wrapped in a bathrobe, as the sun moved behind the window glass, as shadows crawled about the room with a slow progress that only a paranoid eye could follow. One of the shadows belonged to herself, and the dark silhouette of her body was dragged across the wallpaper, inch by inch, extending her deformity to a cruel extreme.
Inside her brain was the refrain of a rock 'n' roll song from another era. "Gimme shelter," the Rolling Stones sang to her, and she resisted this mantra as she always did, for there were no safe places.
Perhaps another hour had passed, maybe three. She could not say when night had fallen. Johanna unclenched her hands and looked down at a crumpled letter, as if, in absolute darkness, she could read the words of a postscript: Only a monster can play this game.
THE BLACK VAN HAD NO HELPFUL LETTERING ON THE side to tell the neighbors what business it was about on this November afternoon. Here and there, along the street of tall brownstones, drapes had parted and curious eyes were locked upon the vehicle's driver. Even by New York City standards, she was an odd one.
Johanna Apollo's skin was very fair, the gift of Swedes on her mother's side. And yet, from any distance, she might be taken for a large dark spider clad in denim as she climbed out of the van, then dropped to the pavement in a crouch. Dark brown was the color of her leather gloves, her work boots and the long strands of hair spread back across the unnatural curve of her spine. Her torso was bent forward, her body forever fused into a subtle question mark as her face angled toward the ground, hidden from the watchers at their windows. They never saw the great dark eyes--the beauty of the beast. And now the neighbors' heads turned in unison, following her progress down the street. Dry yellow leaves cartwheeled and crackled alongside as she walked with a delicacy of slender spider-long legs. Such deep grace for one so misshapen--that was how the neighbors would recall this moment later in the day. It was almost a dance, they would say.
And none of them noticed the small tan car gliding into Eighty-fourth Street, quiet as a swimming shark. It stopped near the corner, where another vehicle had just taken the last available parking space.
The young driver of the tan sedan left her engine idling as she stepped out in the middle of the street. Nothing about her said civil servant; the custom-tailored lines of her designer jeans and long, black leather coat said money. And the wildly expensive running shoes allowed her to move in silence as she padded toward a station wagon. She leaned down and rapped on the driver's window. The pudgy man behind the wheel gave her the grin of a lottery winner, for she was that lovely, that ilk of tall blondes who would never go out with him in a million years, and he hurried to roll down the window.
Oh, happy day.
"I want your parking place," she said, all business, no smile of hello--nothing.
The wagon driver's grin wobbled a bit. Was this a joke? No man would give up a parking space on any street in Manhattan, not ever, not even for a naked woman. Was she nuts? He summoned up his New Yorker attitude, saying, "Yeah, lady--over my dead body." And she raised one eyebrow to indicate that this might be an option. The long slants of her eyes were unnaturally green--unnaturally cold. A milk-white hand rested on the door of his car, long red fingernails tapping, tapping, ticking like a bomb, and it occurred to him that those nails might be dangerous.
From Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell, copyright © 2003 Carol O'Connell, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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