Authors: Jane Haddam
Open Road Integrated Media
T WAS SIX O’CLOCK
on the morning of Monday, May 5, and Norman Kevic was on the air—and in the air, too, in a way, since he’d been flying higher than a stratocumulus cloud ever since he’d snorted four lines of pure Peruvian crystal in the men’s room of the Philadelphia Baroque Rococo Club at five minutes before closing just a few hours ago. Of course, those four lines weren’t the last lines Norm had snorted, just as the Baroque Rococo wasn’t the last club he’d visited. The Baroque Rococo was a gay bar Norm liked to go to just to see if he could get thrown out of it—which he couldn’t anymore, because they knew him. He’d spent the rest of the night in a place called Bertha’s Box, about which the less remembered the better. It didn’t matter, because Norm never could remember what he’d done in Bertha’s, except for more lines. There were always more lines. It was six o’clock in the morning and Norm had to go to work—in spite of the fact that he owned a piece of the station and wasn’t about to fire himself. Long before he’d owned a piece of the station he’d been The Voice of WXVE, the King of Philadelphia Talk Radio, the Man of the Morning. He’d taken three days off with the flu back in 1984 and nearly been lynched. There were heads out there who stoked themselves up all night just to be cruising fast enough to take him in between six and ten. More to the point, there were heads out there who weren’t very stable. Norm’s mail was a steady stream of unidentified flying objects. A dead mouse with a bright purple satin ribbon tied in a crisp bow around its neck. A lifetime subscription to the neo-Nazi rag called
Black Storm Rising: The Truth About the Second World War
. An absolutely awful homemade carrot cake with a flic knife buried inside. The fans would send him anything. They were out there. And they had teeth.
The chair in front of the mike Norm was supposed to use had arms, and that was a no-no, because Norm was much too fat to fit into a chair with arms. He’d been fat all his life, to an extent, but lately it had gotten worse. Who said cocaine made you thin? There was a pile of books on the pull-out shelf next to the microphone and a note:
steve says don’t say asshole on the air again it’s going to get us in trouble.
Norm stared at the punctuation in “it’s” for a good half minute, then crumpled the note. It was Sherri who was the asshole as far as he was concerned. It was Sherri who ought to have been fired, except that he couldn’t fire her, because she was Steve’s assistant. In the old days, girls like Sherri didn’t punctuate words like “it’s” even if they knew how, because they knew
. They didn’t wear jeans to the office, either, unless the jeans were tight. They certainly didn’t stand in the open glass door to the broadcast booth in L.L. Bean baggies and overflowing flannel shirts, wearing no makeup and wire-rimmed glasses, looking at him as if he were a slug.
God. What had he been thinking of? Why? He had to stop doing those lines.
Sherri had taken her glasses off and was tapping them on her chest. The red light over the microphone was lit. Somewhere out there, a boy named Dig Watter, whose sole job was to make sure there was no dead air on WXVE for any reason short of the Rapture, was probably getting an ulcer.
“Listen,” Sherri said. “Just one second before you start. Steve wanted me to tell you—”
“Not to say asshole,” Norm said.
“That, too. To lay off the dead Jap jokes. That’s what. There’s a big Japanese-American community in the suburbs around Philadelphia. You’re getting a lot of people pissed off.”
“That’s what I do for a living. I get people pissed off.”
“Just pay attention,” Sherri said.
“You ought to lose some weight,” Norm said. “You really should. You’d be a very attractive woman if you only lost a little weight.”
“You’d be a very attractive man if you just grew a bigger dick,” Sherri said.
Then she stepped into the hall and let the door swing shut behind her.
Norm stared after her, furious, the red light blinking, nothing to be done about the goddamned chair right away, furious. What had gotten into these women anyway? It was all that crap with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Sexual harassment. They were the 1990s version of those old maids who used to see rapists under their beds. Christ.
Pile of books.
Big hand-lettered sign on his bulletin board:
THE NUNS ARE HAVING A CONVENTION.
He grabbed the mike, snapped it open with his thumb and said, “Good morning Philadelphia, this is Cultural Norm, the free-form house worm coming to you from the studios of WXVE radio—any minute now I’m going to turn into the voice of radio past—the living dead—no, I can’t be the living dead, I’m not a Republican—I’m not a Democrat, either—if politics gets any sillier I’m going to have to vote for Yeltsin—I wish I could vote for Yeltsin—this is the wrong chair I have in this studio, Sherri sweetie, go get me another one—and I’ve got news for the lot of you out there, yes I do, before we get down to business. Business today is a good long discussion of that ancient question: can masturbation be good for you? And how? We’ve got a number of guests coming in, including the Right Reverend Thomas Willard, pastor of the Paoli Pentecostal Church. I think the good reverend’s answer to our first question is going to be no—but you can’t tell, ladies and gentlemen, you really can’t tell. I mean, look at Jimmy Swaggart Anyway, before we get into all that, we’ve got more religious news.”
He could see Sherri through the glass door, down the hall in the small office where she sat typing letters with a radio on, monitoring the broadcast. When he said that about the chair, her hair snapped up and she leaned over to speak into her intercom. Now a young boy Norm had never seen before was scurrying in from the wings, dragging an armless side chair that was almost as tall as he was and twice as heavy. Norm kicked open the glass booth door and motioned him inside.
“Just a minute ladies and gentlemen, this is my chair, let me sit down in it. Sherri sweetie didn’t bring it, though. She sent a boy. What she thinks I want with a boy is beyond me. He doesn’t have anywhere near as nice a chest as she does. His is flat What’s your name, kid?”
The kid blushed. “Mike,” he said. “Mike Donnelly.”
“Right. I want Mike off my mike and out of my booth right now or I’ll ask him what he thinks of masturbation and whether he ever commits it. There he goes. Into the hall. Into the sunset. What the hey. Now for that religious news I promised you. The Sisters of Divine Grace—you know, the ones that have that big college and academic conference center out in Radnor—well, the good Sisters have decided to have a convention of their own. That’s what I said. A nun’s convention. The Sisters of Divine Grace is the largest active Order—that’s a Church term for you pagans out there, an active Order goes out and teaches or nurses or whatever instead of staying in a cloister and praying all the time—anyway, they’re the largest active Order in the United States, with three thousand nuns in the contiguous forty-eight and another fifteen hundred between Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They also have a number of houses—religious houses now, convents to you bozos—in foreign countries, including what’s probably an obligatory one in Rome. Don’t quote me on that. I haven’t been to church since I peeked up Sister Bonaventure’s dress and found out she ran on wheels. Anyway, this convention is going to take place in our own fair ADI, right there in Radnor, for a week beginning the Friday before Mother’s Day and running through the Sunday afterward. The Sisters run Catholic schools for the most part, and this year they’ve coordinated their school schedules to get their vacations all at the same time. And here they’ll be. Little skirts. Little veils. Little prayer books. Thousands of them. Maybe I should have saved the masturbation program for them. What I’m trying to say here is that this is a major invasion,
, so major all the patent leather shoes in Philadelphia may disappear before our eyes in the next two weeks. We’ve got to be prepared. We’ve got to have a war plan. I don’t have one yet, but I’m working on it. Stay tuned. Or take on protective coloration. Anyone wearing a Miraculous Medal with a blue glass bead in it is probably safe. And now, just one more thing before we bring in our first guest.”
Down the hall, Sherri’s head rose slowly and swiveled in his direction. Norman Kevic smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Norm said, “do you know how to save a Japanese from fugu poisoning? No? Well,
Down the hall, Sherri picked up a big glass paperweight and threw it on the floor.
“…DO YOU KNOW HOW
to save a Japanese from fugu poisoning? No? Well,
Sister Scholastica Burke looked vaguely at the radio she had pushed up on the top shelf of the pantry when she’d first come in and frowned. Fugu poisoning. Masturbation. Pantry. Socks? She knew something about fugu, anyway, because they had several pounds of it down in the cold pantry, frozen solid and shipped from Japan, the gift of a friend of the Order’s Tokyo house. Sister Scholastica wasn’t worried about poisoning, though, because along with the fugu—which, if she understood it correctly, was an extremely poisonous fish people wanted to eat anyway—the friend of the Order was sending along his own personal fugu chef. That was supposed to help. Sister Scholastica had decided that the safest course was to skip the fugu altogether, which she intended to do by saying she didn’t like fish. She was a tall, red-haired, solidly middle-class product of traditional Irish-American, Irish-Catholic parents, still a couple of years shy of forty. In the old Church, she would have been a mere foot soldier for many more years to come. This being the new one, she was Mistress of Postulants at the Order’s Motherhouse in Maryville, New York, and one of the two or three women expected to end up Mother General in the long run, as a matter of course. In the short run, Reverend Mother General was just who she had been for the last seven years, and Scholastica had no interest in stepping into her shoes. Sister Scholastica didn’t have much use for anything at the moment. It was just after six o’clock in the morning. She’d been up long enough to chant office with her postulants and unpack seven cases of glazed fruit from Fortnum & Mason, gift of a friend of the Order’s in London. She had three more cases of glazed fruit to go, and then a big pile of something or the other that had been sent from Sydney, Australia. She was dead tired.
She was also feeling a little queasy. There was something about that joke about the fugu that she hadn’t liked, something about the way the man had said it, as if he meant it—but she had to be exaggerating, or exhausted, or something. Overreacting, most likely. Her best friend had been murdered a few years ago, and by someone she would never have expected. It preyed on her mind sometimes. She would have felt better if she’d been in Maryville. It had been Reverend Mother General’s idea to send her down here with her postulants to “help set up.” What Reverend Mother General really wanted her to do was spy. Scholastica wasn’t sure who she was supposed to spy on, or for what Reverend Mother was never that direct unless she was talking to Cardinal Archbishops.
When Fortnum & Mason glazed fruit, they did it right. They glazed entire pears and flawless apricots. Scholastica checked out the apricots, shook her head, and put the box on the nearest clear shelf space she could find. Then she looked across the pantry at Linda Bartolucci. Linda Bartolucci was a postulant, complete with black dress and little short veil. She was supposed to be unloading a large crate full of pâté de foie gras from France. Instead, she was sitting on the crate, reading something. Linda Bartolucci was always reading something. If she’d stayed in the world, she would have turned into one of those thick-ankled women who buried themselves in romance novels on the bus.