Dead Man's Face
By: Dale C. Uhlmann
Little Josh Spencer battered the stubborn, immovable juggernaut of an oak door so furiously that his knuckles were soon covered with ugly, red blisters. He wretched his slightly built shoulders and thin wrists as he violently tugged at the stiff brass knob that refused to yield. The door was too much for any eight-year-old, let alone an asthmatic like Josh, whose breathing was now becoming dangerously short and labored, as he felt the air to his lungs being choked off, like a chicken whose neck was being wrung. He knew, though, that he had to keep trying-he knew that he had to escape from that nightmarish room. If he didn't, he feared, he would end up like Sam.
Josh, an only child, had traveled with his mother, Claire, a twenty-four-year-old divorced woman from Indiana, when she had answered an ad, supplied by relatives living in that state, to work as a housekeeper for a retired surgeon and medical school instructor, Dr. C. L. Aranya, who was now living in Denver, Colorado. It seemed that nobody else in that area would take the job. They had traveled with Claire's newest live-in boyfriend, Jim, a twenty-seven-year-old unemployed ballroom dance instructor whom she had met in a bar. Instantly, the medium-height, but striking woman that night with the short, auburn hair and crystal blue eyes, and in the pale yellow cotton tank top and tight polyester Gap blue jeans, had caught the eye of the tall, dark-haired, and stubble-chinned man in the braided pony tail, blue denim jacket and jeans, and black Hard Rock cotton T-shirt. It wasn't long, after a few beers together, that Claire's rented condominium had made room for an additional resident, the latest in the line of live-in strangers that Josh had had to get used to. This one, though, had, to this date, stayed the longest, and had evidently planned on hanging around with them in Denver for the foreseeable future.
But life for the three of them was about to change that cold, early November evening. Josh had decided to venture out in search of Sam, his Black Labrador puppy, which they had adopted from the local animal shelter upon their arrival as a friend and companion for the boy. The dog had mysteriously disappeared, and had been gone for about a week. Somehow, Josh suspected that he had been kidnapped by Dr. Aranya, a tall, thin, eighty-four-year-old woman who had instantly struck Josh as some sort of bizarre cross between Cruella De Ville and Martha Stewart. There was something creepy about her, perhaps her cold, lizard-green eyes, or her long, wispy, gray hair that framed her face like the limp, damp strings on top of a wet mop. All in all, with her road-map face of wrinkles and crow's feet, she reminded Josh of a Mayan mummy come to life in a dubbed-into-English Mexican horror film that he had seen on T.V.
That night, Claire and Jim had been too preoccupied with what had become a nightly ritual to notice Josh's clandestine absence from the house. After having consumed several Absolut and Tonics, they had retired to the sanctuary of the house's main upstairs bedroom, where, at Jim's instructions, they had danced an obscene, drunken tango and then had commenced tearing each off other's clothes (a navy blue, white-blocked-lettered cotton/polyester sweat shirt and black corduroys for him, and a long sleeve, white knit crew neck sweater and GUESS cotton blue jeans for her), after which they had collapsed on the bed in a stupor of clumsy intercourse. Josh had become all too familiar with the routine, and, at the sound of the two's intense giggling and laugher, had known that it had been safe to exit the house without being noticed. Quickly tugging his bright orange and wool Indiana Pacers toboggan over his curly red hair, and donning a hunter green winter coat over his powder-blue, cotton/polyester sweats, he had grabbed his mother's keys to her employee's house from the kitchen windowsill and had set off, on a quarter-mile trek, and in the middle of a chilly, lake effect snow shower, to the place where he was sure Sam had been abducted, and imprisoned.
There, he had noticed that Dr. Aranya's split-level ranch house was dark, except for a light in the basement, and one from a room at the end of the second floor hallway. Nervously, silently, he had unlocked the front door, and decided to try the upstairs room first. Upon reaching the second level, he could hear the unmistakable sound of a dog's whimpering, and had recognized it right away as Sam's. To his delight, the door had been open.
It was a large room whose thick walls had been marred by chipped and flaking, pale-blue paint, and full of long, oblong cots, covered in dingy, white sheets. On makeshift balsa shelves nailed to these walls he had been surprised to see rows and rows of empty cages, the types he had seen in pet stores (although the half-consumed tin plates of food and water, and the dried feces on the cages' straw lining would indicate that they had been recently occupied). Was this some type of laboratory? The whimpering, which had never ceased, from his first entrance into this room, had led him to the end of a winding corridor, where he had eagerly awaited his reunion with Sam, and the chance to make what he had thought would subsequently have been a quick and easy getaway. It was then that he had seen it: sitting in the middle of a cage that, like the others, had been placed on its own balsa shelf, was, like a grotesque image in a drug-induced dream, a hideous facsimile of what had once been Sam. The thing in the cage had had Sam's head, but the body of a furry white, and rust-brown-speckled guinea pig. Josh could see the wine-red patchwork crisscross of jagged surgical thread that had attached the head upon the misplaced body, and the resulting stream of dry blood stains from each thread, whose crimson color had spoiled the purity of the body's pristine, white fur. The head had then started barking loudly and enthusiastically at the sight of his beloved young playmate, and, judging from some slight, almost imperceptible movement in the creature's hips, had tried, but in vain, to shake the rodent torso's stubby substitute for a canine tail. It had then occurred to Josh that the poor thing was unable to move its lower trunk, making the boy deathly sick to his stomach. Instantly, Josh's breathing had become painful and labored, and he had forgotten to take his asthma inhaler with him. Terrified, he had raced for the door, but Dr. Aranya, evidently alerted by the barking, had trudged upstairs and locked it.
Her young victim now pounded helplessly, and then collapsed on the floor. Dr. Aranya then unlocked the door, entered the room, and laid the now unconscious boy in the middle of her coffee brown leather living room sofa. She then called Josh's mother from her old, coal black living room land phone, and told her that she had found the boy outside her door, and suspected that he had been the victim of abduction and attempted rape. Claire then shook off the effects of the last Absolute and Tonic as best she could, got dressed, hopped into her 2000 silver gray Grand Am, and rushed over, alone (Jim had totally passed out, and was currently in such a deep, alcohol-induced slumber that he could not yet be awakened), to take her still unconscious son home. Once back there, in her kitchen, and in his mother's arms, Josh finally came to, his bright brown eyes staring at her in a blank expression of terror; his breathing was still shallow, and he could not utter a sound. Doctors later would diagnose his condition as the result of some unknown, extreme trauma from which he might never recover, and advised her to place him in a mental hospital, as a ward of the state, where he would have to remain indefinitely.
Six months later, with her son still in the same condition, and with no reasonable hope of recovery, Claire, in a frenzy of guilt and sorrow, would hang herself with a brown leather belt from the top rung of her shower curtain, and Jim, now without a meal ticket, would leave town. Dr. Aranya would have to find another housekeeper, but, in the meantime, she had other plans, which would affect other innocent lives-and hundreds of miles away, and in places she would never have imagined.
Like the film noire tough guys he had always idolized-Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan-Alex Roth wanted to take chances. Of that group, his favorite was Bogie; his Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, he was convinced, was "the stuff that dreams are made of." Like Woody Allen's neurotic nebbish in Play It Again, Sam,Alex, a young Jewish-American film student from Columbia University, considered Casablanca the greatest American film ever made. Unlike Allen's character, however, he was not myopic, nor short or plain-looking, but, rather, tall, 6'3," and striking, with naturally wavy, dark brown hair that he had recently decided to style as a permanent, and lake blue eyes, and popular with the ladies; their only link was their love of film, so much so that Alex had rebelled against his family's wishes and forsaken a safe, lucrative, but, from his viewpoint, dry and stale career as a tax lawyer, and instead had enrolled, after his undergraduate work at Columbia, in U.C.L.A's esteemed film school. There, he hoped to combine this study with his other love, music, and enter Turner Classic Movies' "Young Film Composers' Competition," compose an original score for one of T.C.M.'s numerous silent films that needed musical accompaniment, and win the $10,000 Grand Prize money that would get him started on a career he really loved. He badly needed the money; his family had disowned him, not only for this decision, but, more importantly, for another of his "calculated risks" or gambles that he was sure Bogie or Mitchum would have taken if they felt it was right-his courtship of a young Syrian-American girl he had recently met at U.C.L.A.
Her name was Fulla Al-Jada, whose first name, in Arabic, means "'beautiful flower.'" How apropos that name was. She had sleek, black, shoulder-length hair parted on the right side of her head, bright, flashing chestnut brown eyes, an oval face, deep, becoming mahogany complexion, and full, sensitive lips that would curl in either a warm, friendly smile, or an enticing pout. As Charlie Chaplin had once written about his one-time co-star/protégé/lover Edna Purviance, "'she was morethan pretty.'" In addition, she had a lovely Middle Eastern lilt to her voice that Alex found absolutely beguiling. To Alex, she reminded him of Princess Fatima from Disney's Aladdin, one of his favorite movies as a kid.
His parents had fully expected their only-and, frankly, spoiled-son to marry a "'nice Jewish girl'" from New York, but Alex didn't like Jewish girls. Like Groucho Marx, who said he had married gentile women all his life because he had found most Jewish females pushy, and conceited, he had been taken with Fulla the moment they had met at U.C.L.A. in the fall. She came from Detroit, where her uncle had raised her after her parents had been killed in a Lake Michigan boating accident when she was two years old. Unlike many traditional Arab girls, she was her own woman; fiercely headstrong and independent, she spoke her mind freely, but she also had a natural, self-effacing charm that everybody who met her, including Alex, instantly found irresistible. For her part, she loved his openness, and sense of humor, and the arts interested them both. In fact, she had taken both ballet and dancing lessons all her life, and had enrolled at U.C.L.A. to become a professional choreographer. They shared one other common link: her family, too, objected to their courtship. But while Alex's parents had merely ostracized him, Fulla's family wanted to killhim. Fulla's Uncle Faheem, her adoptive father, happened to be, much to her shame, the head of the Detroit Syrian mob. She had cut herself off from these disreputable ties and influence, and had refused any help on their part in achieving her educational and career goals, but she knew that her relationship with Alex was something they could not ignore, and would do something about. Like his cinematic heroes, Alex really was taking a realchance now, but, spoiled boy that he had always been, what he wanted, he was determined to have.
Now, Alex had decided, was the time to make the next move: to elope with Fulla, this, despite the fact that he had just received a most disturbing note, scrawled in blood-red ink, on a single sheet of three-ring notebook paper, from her uncle:
"I WARN YOU, YOU ZIONIST DOG, THINK WITH YOUR HEAD, NOT WITH YOUR DICK! GO FUCK YOUR OWN KIND, SOME HOT-TO-TROT JEW-TRAMP FROM THE SYNAGOGUE! LEAVE FULLA ALONE!"
"Well," chuckled Alex, crumbling up the note in his hands and jauntily tossing it, NBA style, with a Lebron James-like flick of his upraised right wrist, into the ceramic trash can a feet feet away, in the corner of the waiting room of the Justice of the Peace's office. "I guess I'm not Uncle Faheem's ideal choice for a son-in-law!" he joked. "Oh, well, remember what a hard ass Robert De Niro was to his son-in-law, Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents? He came around!" He then started buttoning up the collar of his sky-blue cotton dress shirt and adjusting up the silk, white-speckled, wine-colored tie and gold clasp he had chosen to wear with his slate gray, two-piece rayon suit for the civil ceremony he had arranged. Fulla, dressed in a simple, white pinstriped, navy blue double-breasted polyester jacket and matching skirt, her head adorned by a white lace wedding veil, looked on in dismay.
"Please, Alex!" she pleaded. "This is no joke. HE MEANS IT!"
"Hey, so do I," he smiled, embracing her warmly by her slim waist and drawing her closer to him. He gently lifted the front tip of the veil with his right hand and treated her full, pouting lips to an affectionate kiss. "You know by now that the more somebody tell me NOT to do something," he continued, still holding up the veil with his right hand while continuing to encircle his waist with his left, the more I'm gonna DO it."
"Oh, Alex," she continued, undaunted by his flippant attitude, "I KNOW my Uncle Faheem, and this marriage tonight…well, he WON'T like it!"
"Maybe, but I'm not marrying HIM. I'm marrying YOU, remember?" affectionately drawing her tighter to his stout, barrel chest.
"Oh, please!" pleaded Fulla; throwing up her petite hands in dismay, "listen to me! He hates the very though of us seeing each other. And when he finds out that we're married, I don't know WHAT he'll do!"
"Gee," Alex answered, in a tone of mock gravity, "you don't think it's because I'm Jewish, do you?"
"Oh, you don't take anything seriously, do you?" she complained, glancing downward in frustration.
Alex now did his best to prove otherwise. "Hey, 'beautiful flower,'" he answered softly, temporarily releasing his embrace to gently nudge her face upward by placing his extended left forefinger on her chin. "I'm serious about YOU; you know that."
"I know, she replied, but Uncle Faheem…"
"Look," he said, interrupting her, "this fucking blood feud thing of his…and my parents are no different…is so anal! This is the twenty-first century, for God's sake! What the hell do Jacob and Isaac, and the Seven-Day War have to do with US, here-NOW?"
"I know," she replied, glancing down again, self-consciously, but…"
"'But' nothing!" Alex replied. "I'm not a Jew, and you're not an Arab, okay? We're just two people who love each other and want to be together. What's so freakin' wrong about that?"
"Alex," Fulla tried to reassure him, glancing up and looking him squarely in his eyes, "I couldn't agree more. You know how I feel. I WANT to marry you, but…"I'm afraid…for you!"
"Hey, DON'T be, okay? We've got big things planned. I'm gonna win that ten grand, and compose scores for films, and you're gonna be a great dancer and choreographer; everybody on Broadway will come to see your shows-including my mom and dad! And OUR kids are gonna have something to be proud of! Come on, now, relax; the Justice of the Peace is waiting." He then drew closer to her, and kissed her passionately; their now tightly closed eyes shutting out all doubts and fears. Alex then released both her chin and the veil, which now again dropped around her forehead, and smiled. With his left hand, he then plucked a white carnation from a nearby vase on the oak desk next to his left arm, and placed it in his opposite lapel, while she retrieved, with her left, the violet corsage she had earlier temporarily placed next to the vase. He now took her right hand, now steady and firm, in his, and, opening the door to the outer lobby with his left, called out to the waiting Justice, "We're ready."
The ceremony was short and perfunctory-not exactly the kind of marriage that the two of them would have ordinarily preferred-but it had served its purpose, and the two had become husband and wife. Their wedding night was spent in Alex's off-campus college apartment, a simple one-level stucco brick dwelling that he and his cousin had recently renovated. He and Fulla would later need other accommodations, they realized, but for now, this dwelling would be sufficient, at least until, Alex was convinced he would win the "Young Film Composers' Competition" and come into some money to supplement the part-time A.V. University job he held on the side, helped out by the salary Fulla was earning from her secretarial position at the local real estate title office.
Following their wedding night together, the two slept in late, about 10 A.M., for it was Saturday, reclining leisurely in their nuptial bed. Fulla, clad in a sheer, snow-white lace nightgown, lay peacefully on her stomach; her face nestled comfortably in the soft, plumb-colored, cotton case of an oversized, fluffy down pillow. Alex, shirtless, and wearing only the drawstring pants to his off-white drawstring cotton pajamas, lazily opened his eyes, playfully grinned, and straddled himself across her rear side, the fingers of his right hand delicately caressing, between the nightgown's long, thin shoulder straps, the tender flesh, as soft as a baby's skin, of her exposed back. He tenderly kissed his bride's adjacent erogenous areas, from the nape of her neck down to the lower crest of her spine, and back up again. She smiled, eyes still closed, and purred softly, like a contented kitten. Then, Alex turned over on his back, drew up the loose matching, plumb-colored, cotton bed sheets around his lower body, just below his waist, leaned back on his own pillow, arms comfortably drawn back against his head, fingers interlocking and elbows extended, and, sighing contently. Fulla likewise gathered the sheets around her own waist, and gracefully adjusted her position to lie on top of her husband's bare chest, nestling her face in its warm, soft bed of dark, tousled hair. Her soft, bounteous cleavage, generously exposed by the nightgown's plunging bodice, pressed against Alex's barrel-chested, muscular upper frame. As the fingers of her left hand played with the particularly thick strands on his sternum, Alex, noticing her satisfaction, remarked, "Aren't you glad I didn't shave and wax it, like most guys do now?"
"You bet," Fullah answered, closing her eyes blissfully and smiling contently, "Give me a hairy chest any day!"
"As long as it's not yours?" he grinned.
"Oh, you silly thing!" she laughed, opening her eyes, glancing up, and gently, playfully slapping her right palm over his forehead. They both laughed as she again reclined in his arms, resting her head and the palms of both of her hands on the middle of his chest.
Then, Alex leaned to his left slightly, picked up the midnight-blue remote control on the nearby oak bed stand, with his right hand, and pressed the "ON" button to activate his 16" bedroom T.V. He then switched to "04" on the device's channel selector, and pressed the "ON" button for the D.V.D, which had been placed on a shelf just underneath the TV, on the same home entertainment stand. He then activated the "PLAY" button, to activate the D.V.D. that was already in the machine, and playing was a print of the 1926 Lon Chaney, Sr. silent film The Blackbird. This was the film that Alex was now competing with seven other students across the country to compose a musical score for. The film dealt with a criminal (Chaney, the "Man of a Thousand Faces") who masqueraded as a partially paralyzed bishop as a cover for his crimes. In the scene they were watching, the clip that he would be required to compose musical accompaniment for, Chaney's character had to duck behind a closed door, slamming it tightly, and quickly execute his change of clothing back into the Bishop, in order to avoid detection. It was an unintentionally funny scene, and both Alex and Fulla laughed uproariously.
"You know," he said, clicking both the T.V. and D.V.D. off, and laying the remote control on next to the right side of their sheeted legs, "I'll bet I could use some French horns there to REALLY bring out the frenzy and panic in that scene. What d' you think?"
"Sounds all right to me," replied Fulla.
"Y' know what I'd like to do more than anything else right now?"
"What?" asked Fulla, raising her head to make eye contact, and smiling in anticipation of a much more romantic answer than the one she would now receive.
"I'd love to discover a print of London by Gas Light, the 1929 silent film that's disappeared from the face of the earth."
"Oh, that!" she said, in mock disappointment, lowering her head again to his chest.
"It's a 'lost' film" he went on, now totally immersed in his life's dream, "but, because it's the last known movie ever scripted by Henry Greenberg, a rea l amateurwho seemed to disappear, too, after the film was completed, it would be a real find. Both T.C.M. and Eastman House would pay a lot of money to me for the restoration rights-and an extra fee for the music score I'd supply for it."
"Yeah," said Fulla, disconcertedly.
"What's the matter?"
"Well, this is the first day after our wedding," she complained, raising her head off his chest to again look him in the eyes. "I thought you'd have other things on your mind than that old silent movie you've been trying to find!"
"Who says I haven't?" he smiled.
"Well," grinned Fulla, lovingly wrapping her arms around his neck, "NOW you're talkin'!" She drew gently drew his face down to hers; they closed their eyes, and lovingly kissed each other's lips.
At that moment, their wedded bliss was interrupted by the breaking down of their bedroom door, and by four pairs of strong, rough hands that tore them apart from each other. What would happen then would be an act of horror that would violently alter both of their lives forever.
Alex felt his assailant's strong forearms force themselves under his armpits and up over the back of his neck in a full nelson that caused the blood to rush to his head, and his legs to almost collapse beneath him. He tried to thrash free, but his assailant's harsh, Middle Eastern-accented warning subdued him. "Don't move, or I'll break your fucking neck!" the muscular, stubble-chinned young Syrian shouted. Alex complied, and was dragged into his kitchen, where he was forced onto one of his own wine red, plastic fold-up chairs that the intruder had, with one, swift kick of his coffee brown, steel-toed work boot, dislodged from the table. There, he quickly pulled a coil of strong hemp rope from the right pocket of his black leather jacket, which he wore over a white cotton muscle shirt and slate gray denim jeans, and began to tie Alex's body, from his legs to his upper forearms, which he forced behind the seat's hard back, to the chair. Meanwhile, Fulla, who had wrung herself free from the grip of her own assailant, rushed headlong into the kitchen and made a valiant effort to rescue Alex, frantically trying, with both hands, to pull Hassan, Alex's medium-height, burly captor, away from her husband, but his strength proved too much for her. Instantly, he squeezed Fulla's wrists, yanked her away, and then, brazenly, slapped her across the face with his bulky right forearm. She collapsed on the kitchen floor, blood flowing freely from the left corner of her mouth, trickling down on her chin, and staining the purity of her white night gown.
At that moment, Hassan felt the blunt end of the barrel of a pistol on the back of his skull. He collapsed, face-first, just a few feet from Fulla, utterly unconscious. The tumult brought the other man, Mohammed, a tall, black-goateed Arab man in a battleship gray, hooded cotton/polyester sweat suit and ocean blue Adidas sneakers, and from whose grasp Fulla had escaped into the kitchen, to face their boss, Faheem, who stood over his fallen partner, his left hand, a midnight-blue onyx ring inlaid with gold on his forefinger, aiming the silencer directly at the nape of Hassan's neck. "You're lucky I didn't kill you for striking my niece," said Faheem, coldly and matter-of-factly, or, as William Faulkner would have remarked in his classic short story "Barn Burning," about his protagonist, a stoic, but vengeful and brutal sharecropper, "without heat." "But I don't want to waste the bullet," he said, placing the gun in his jacket's right pocket. He prided himself on self-control, and Hassan had breached that code in having emotionally struck out against Fulla, who, like a newborn fawn, rose unsteadily to her feet to confront her uncle, who looked up behind him, shrilly whistled, and called to Al-Azair, his faithful Rottweiler. "Get in here, you mutt! Why are you mulling around out there?" The dog meandered in, and sat down, submissive and docile at his master's feet.
Faheem was a short, but stout man, only about 5'7," but with an intimidating presence, and penetrating, oak-brown eyes. He had a thick, black, Turkish-style moustache that drooped down over the corners of his tightly drawn mouth, and was dressed impeccably this day in a three-piece, white pin-striped, slate blue Oleg Cassini suit, peach-colored shirt, with gold cufflinks, cherry-red tie, the fabrics made of the best of Middle Eastern silk, held by a solid gold stickpin, and, one of the few concessions he had made to the West, because he liked their appearance, alabaster-colored, suede Italian designer shoes. All in all, he seemed more like a stockbroker than a thug with delusions of grandeur than a crime boss. "Are you all right, Fulla?" he asked.
"A lot you care!" Fulla replied.
"You don't know how much, my loving niece," he replied. "I'm here to save you from a mistake that will ruin the rest of your life. Doesn't that prove it?"
"Who the hell asked you?" Fulla shouted. "You're my uncle, not my keeper! I told you before, I'll make my own decisions, and lead my own life!"
"Not as long as you're part of this family" answered Faheem coldly and flatly, again, "without heat." "I owe it to my brother and his wife, true Syrians, to make sure that you don't go astray."
"You leave my parents out of this!" Fulla demanded. "This isn't about them, damn it; it's about you-you and your crazy racial ideas!-your hate! I don't want any part of your life-the shootings, the car bombs, the filthy money from people's spilt blood, weaknesses and vices-the coke, the heroin, the hookers-all that, and more, has paid for my life and my home! I know that, and I'm ashamed of it-and I'm ashamed of you!-not of us, not of our people, but of you! You represent all the worst that Westerners think about us!"
"You've lived in this fucking West too long, girl! Why, when you sit down and cross your legs, you even show the heel of your shoe to others, like all those discourteous, spoiled Western girls you've been around. You're coming home with me-now!"
"No, Uncle! This is my home!" Fulla answered, punctuating the remark with a downward thrust of her left forefinger. She then marched defiantly up to Faheem and thrust her right hand and ring finger into his face. "See this? We were married last night?" She noticed the glimmer of shock, the only emotion that he could not now suppress, in his eyes. "Surprised?" I guess your spies didn't tell you that!"
"What have you done? What have you done? You have married a Jewish dog, and now your children will be mongrels!"
"Oh, dear Uncle Faheem, there you go again, those old ideas of racial purity of yours. You know, you and Hitler should have gotten together; then, what a Holocaust you too could have had! Yes, we're married, and there's nothing you can do about it!"
"Silence!" he said. The tone of his voice frightened Fulla; she had never known him to lose control of himself, but he had now. "I'll have the marriage annulled! You, get your miserable ass up!" he commanded Assan, who had come to, and who now groggily started to rise to his feet, rubbing the contusion that was already developing on the back of his head, and blinking at the near blinding headaches he was even now experiencing. "Mohammed, take Fulla into the Sedan outside, and drive her back to my house." Faheem then turned his attention to Hassan, "and you, you dog, if you want to redeem yourself, stay here with me, and do exactlyas I tell you! I have something that requires your talents!" He then cast a menacing glance at Alex, who still writhed and struggled against his constraints.
"No! No!" shouted Fulla, as Mohammed grabbed her forearms with both hands from behind, and forcefully dragged her from Alex's apartment. Once he heard the slamming of the door, Faheem walked toward Alex and announced, "Now, my son-in-law, I have something very special in store for you!"
The thick hemp of the tightly knotted ropes cut into the bare flesh of Alex's back, chest, and stomach as Faheem leaned over him, his outstretched left hand resting on the base of the chair above Alex's face. "What are ya gonna do, torture me?" Alex asked, while managing the best shitty grin he could in order not to show his victimizer how afraid he really was.
"It would be no more than what you Israeli dogs have done to us when you've taken us prisoner."
"Oh, so I'm a prisoner now, am I? What?-we're at war or something? Hey, let me give you a little geography lesson, bud. I'm from the Bronx, not Tel-Aviv."
"It doesn't matter, Faheem coolly replied. "You're still a Zionist mongrel, and now you've polluted Fulla with your vile blood!"
"Hey, get real, man! This is the digital age, the age of information-not the Dark Ages!"
This war knows no time or century, my friend," answered Faheem.
"So what're you thinkin' of? Huh? Putting electrodes on my dick? Pulling my fingernails out with pliers? Beheading me?"
"Yes" replied Faheem impassively. "I've considered all of these measures, and, as fitting as they might be for other dogs, not one of them will do. It must be something very unique."
"Well, I'm sorry, but I've already been circumcised!"
Faheem stared on silently and grimly, unperturbed by Alex's brave sarcasm.
"Oh, wait, I know," he went on, "You keep callin' me man's best friend. How about takin' a cue from Brunuel's An Andalusian Dog, and splitting my eyeball with a razor?"
"Oh," Faheem smiled slightly, "I'd forgotten that you're a film student. You would think of that! No, the punishment I've decided on you must always see, and live with, the rest of your life. Every day, your own mirror will be its cursed reminder!"
"Aw, come on, man," Alex said, the tension finally getting to him. "Let me go. Fulla and I love each other!"
"Would my niece love you, I wonder, without your handsome features? With a face like the one you will soon have? Hassan! "
Heeding his master's call, and pulling a scalpel out of his left jacket pocket, Hassan was now ready to do what Faheem commanded; they had planned this before they had even arrived. Instantly, Faheem stepped aside as Assan leaped in front of Alex with the speed and grace of a panther, straddled his lap, and held the scalpel, glistening in the morning sunlight that streamed through the front kitchen window aloft in his left hand while holding his face immobile by grasping his chin with his left. Rhythmically, forcefully, went the downward thrust of the surgical instrument that had often been called upon to save lives, and that now was being used to ruin one. Cleanly but cruelly, the scalpel's sharp edge hacked strip after strip of both tender flesh and soft muscle from the Alex's face. Bits and pieces of flayed skin, intermixed with blood and tissue, flew everywhere, soiling the eggshell white walls and freshly waxed celery green speckled white tile floor. Alex screamed and wailed in agony as, piece-by-piece, his face was being butchered beyond recognition.
"Now his nose," Faheem, impassively intoned from the north corner of the kitchen, his right hand pulling from his left pocket trouser an Arabian cigar wrapped in cellophane, which he now peeled away with his right hand, carelessly dropping the scraps to the floor.
Alex screamed like a man tortured by the demons of hell.
"Now his lips," Faheem commanded, placing the cigar in his mouth, and starting it up with a silver butane lighter that he had plucked with his left hand from his right trouser pocket, to which he then returned it. He started puffing contently away, filling the kitchen with the cigar's pungent, overly sweet odor, serenaded by Alex's anguished screams.
As Alex's cries reached a fever pitch, Al-Azair, the mud-brown rottweiler, which had followed his master into the kitchen, whimpered and bellowed in fright, and frantically dashed for the door. The poor animal battered the edifice with its body, which it had overturned in a paroxysm of fear, in an effort to escape from this Chamber of Horrors, and climbed to its hind legs, clawing frenziedly against the immovable barrier.
"Deeper, deeper! " insisted Faheem, the cigar clenched tightly between his teeth. "I can still see his Jew-face!"
Hassan responded, and scraped even more furiously with the scalpel until it reached tendons, and, finally, bone. By that time, Alex had passed out from shock, torrents of blood and piles of loose flesh spotting his bare chest and skin.
"That's enough; let me see," said Faheem, as Hassan let Alex's head drop to his chest. He drew nearer to inspect his henchman's work, his right hand yanking Alex's head up by the hair. He turned the hideous, now skull-like face to the right, then to the left, then to the right again. Then, he withdrew his hand, let the face that now longer resembled neither Alex, nor any other living human being now, drop down, and said, "That'll do. Let's go."
Their foul work done, they left the house, followed by Al-Azair, and leaving Fulla, whom they later released and drove back to Alex's apartment, to view the carnage, and tend to the living corpse that had, just hours before been her husband.
The months that followed were sheer torture for the couple. Visit after visit to plastic surgeon after plastic surgeon produced the same disappointing news: nothing could be done to restore Alex's face. Not even the famed Cleveland Clinic, that House of Medical Miracles, and host to both Presidents and world leaders, could help him. The damage done to both the skin and underlying tissues had been so deep, and the risk of infection so high, that even skin grafts were out of the question. And because of their patchwork nature, Alex was told that he would actually be better off looking for the rest of his life like, in his own words, Lon Chaney's Erik, the Phantom of the Opera. His face was a virtual living skull, animated only by the melancholy, sapphire blue eyes that illuminated the hollowed sockets. Hassan had done his work well. But if his cruel master, Faheem, thought that this atrocity would destroy Fulla's love for Alex, he was wrong. If anything, it had made her more devoted to him than ever, for this was no monster, but the man she loved, and she had quit her job in order to provide him with the love and support that, in this short time following this crime, he so badly needed.
But if Faheem had turned Alex into a monster, he had unwittingly done the same to his niece. Whatever familial love she may have felt for her uncle was long gone. Like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Black Cat," "evil thoughts" now became her "sole intimates." She was now possessed by what Poe had called "Perverseness." When she was not tending to Alex, and, unbeknown to him, not shoving a wash cloth in her mouth to stop herself from crying, she preoccupied herself with the thought of, one day, somehow, making Faheem pay for this unspeakable cruelty.
In the meantime, she was preoccupied with attempting to keep her husband's spirits up, trying to convince him-as well as, secretly, herself-that the next medical visit or phone call would bring the miracle that they both fervently hoped and prayed to God for. But as the weeks passed without any such word, he sought relief from his growing depression through alcohol, and often lay in bed all day. He had also ceased to regularly bathe or shower, and ate only sporadically, claiming that, if his faced looked like a skull, he might as well go all the way. He would read the same books and articles, over and over again, on his idol, screenwriter Henry Greenberg, who had penned London by Gaslight, the lost silent film he had always dreamed of finding and restoring. The rest of his time would be spent aimlessly playing the same clip from The Blackbird, while still scribbling down notes on a yellow legal pad for an accompanying musical score, although hopes for the "Young Film Composers' Competition," as well as for a normal life, now seemed like distant memories.
Still, some things were not mere memories, like the mounting bills that the two, both of whom were unemployed, could no longer pay, their meager savings now practically spent, and with no insurance to pay for the medical consultations, as well as for the pain relief and scar softening treatments that Alex required twice a month. There seemed to be only one solution, since neither could turn to his or her family for support, but it was a decision that was absolutely repugnant to Alex.
"No way, Fulla! No fuckin' way!" he insisted, downing a shot of Bourbon (his fifth of the day) from a glass that he shakily held in his right hand, and then shattered into multiple piece and shards when he then tossed it angrily into the kitchen sink. This outburst, however, failed to deter Fulla, who, clad in a beige terry cloth bathrobe and royal blue felt slippers while reading the morning paper that day, stood her ground.
"Alex, face facts," she argued. "The rent on your place is already overdue this month. We have no income right now, and our credit cards are all practically maxed out. What else can we do?"
"No!" Alex still said, wiping what were left of his lips with the left sleeve of dingy, battleship gray cotton pajamas, which he had worn, without washing them, for three weeks straight.
"Look, Alex," she answered, holding in her left hand a folded page from the local newspaper's classified section, "this place is hiring now. Some of my friends practically put themselves through college while dancing at gentlemen's clubs, and I've had dancing experience."
"It's not your dancing they'll be looking at, and you know it!"
"Okay, so I'll have to show my boobs and maybe my snatch a little! So what? It's not like I'd be having sex with anybody. It'd be strictly 'look, but don't touch.'"
"I said 'no!'"
"Then we're gonna find ourselves out on the street any week now. Look, honey, I'm not crazy about this idea, either, but it'd probably only be for a little while, till I can find something else. But these bills have gotto be paid, and we've got to continue your treatments. We can't do either without money."
"All right, Fulla," Alex reluctantly agreed, "do what you have to do."
The next day, Fulla auditioned at the La La Palooza Gentleman's Club, in downtown Los Angeles. What won the management over, as Alex had predicted, was not her expert choreography, but her statuesque 6'1," 42, 22, 34 figure. They decided to costume her endowments in a revealing two-piece, beaded, turquoise chiffon bra and matching belly dancer pants, with bright, yellow-gold lace veils hanging from the sides; three rows of silver bracelets on each arm, and a shiny gold ring navel completed her outfit. Billed as "Fulla, the Desert Storm," she became an instant hit with patrons, and was everybody's first choice for $25.00 table and $50.00 private lounge dances; for these latter shows, more liberalized touching by the customers was permitted, while management discreetly looked the other way.
As Fulla had thought, after a few weeks, the money she was earning was pumping much needed income into the household, but Alex still hated the arrangement. He had, long ago, re-evaluated their marriage as a farce, as "Beauty and the Beast," but now it seemed like a mockery. The thought of strangers, whom he regarded, despite the euphemism, "Gentleman's Club," as drunken perverts ogling his wife's body filled him with both rage and self-loathing, for he blamed himself for, in effect, having forced her into prostituting her God-given talents, and training. Finally, one Saturday night, he could bear this indignity no longer, and resolved to take matters into his own hands.
He dressed himself in an olive green, cotton pocket T-shirt, tan corduroys, and gravel-gray hunting boots, along with a camouflage-colored military flap jacket. Like a vampire, Alex had long ago determined that his face would never again cast a reflection in a mirror, and had turned the glass surface above his bedroom dressing table to the bone-white-painted wall, as well as having removed the medicine cabinet mirror, which he had replaced with duct-taped cardboard. So he finished dressing without the benefit of the mirror that he had had, just a few months, ago, fastidiously consulted daily for adjustments to his appearance, and donned a black wool ski mask, which he roughly pulled down over what remained of his face, shredding a few flakes of remaining dead tissue in the process for the dust mites on the floor to feed upon, and left for the La La Palooza Club.
He parked his used, off-white Accord as near as possible to the front entrance, so he could make a hasty getaway later, and entered the Club. Although the pink Fredericks of Hollywood teddy-clad young Korean-American girl who took his $10.00 cover charge at the door thought it strange that he should be wearing a ski mask in a public place, there were no house rules against this attire, and she let him in.
Once inside the Club, whose air was thick with the stale odors of cigar and cigarette smoke, Alex adjusted his ears to the booming R&B and Rap music, and his eyes to the neon lights. He then sat down on one of several royal blue, leather chairs close to the center stage, brightly lit by three phosphorescent blue spots, where he ordered Vodka. The other men who sat at the stage stared at the stranger in the ski mask, and wondered if he were intent on robbing the place, but their attention was now abruptly averted by an announcement from a young African-American D.J. in a black and gold Oakland Raiders cap, and matching cotton jersey and trunks, interrupting a Destiny's Child song for the next act.
"And now, gentlemen, get your hands together and give a warm La La Palooza welcome to tonight's featured attraction, the Arab bombshell-her boobs are two BIG weapons of mass destruction, y'all!-FULLA, THE 'DESERT STORM!'"
Instantly, the stage exploded in swirls of red flashing lights, accompanied by an old Eurhythmics' song, "Would I Lie to You?" Then, strutting from the runway, and up to the stage, was Fulla, her belly dancer outfit leaving little to the imagination. For her first number, she treated the crowd to an expertly performed belly dance, her lean and muscular stomach reverberating in perfect rhythm to the music, while clapping a pair of ivory castanets in each palm with her fingers, the nails immaculately filed, and adorned with black polish. She would occasionally pause, and toss, at various intervals, one at a time, the veils hanging from her waistband to the customers seated at the stage, and kneel before a particularly animated customer while shaking and fondling her breasts. This action, in particular, infuriated Alex, who, unnoticed by Fulla, because of the blinding lights, gazed silently on, barely restraining his indignation. The customer would then generously pull from his wallet a bill, ranging in denominations from one to ten dollars, and place it in the lining of her elastic waistband, which she would stretch and hold out with both hands, or underneath the front band connecting the two cups of the costume's bra. A few customers even shoved a bill or two in her bounteous cleavage, which generously spilled out over the top of the cups. With each donation, she would politely smile and say "thank you," even, though she secretly resented their leers and sexual jeers.
Now, with the second song, another old Eurhythmics' tune, "I need a Man," came the part she especially detested: she would have to strip, but she knew that most of the larger bills that she would make that night would come from this stage of the act. As lead singer Annie Lennox's voice began to fill the house, Fulla promenaded around the stage, dollar bills hanging from the front and sides of her waistband, and sexually gyrated to the song's suggestive lyrics. "Shit!" remarked one short, prematurely balding, and slightly paunchy young man, wearing a lavender toboggan. "I've got to get me some of THAT for a lounge dance!" The thought of this pervert possibly fingering Fulla was too much for him to bear. He drew back his right fist and punched him on the chin, causing the lout to spill his draft beer, which he held in his left hand, all over himself.
Meanwhile, Fulla had drawn her hands behind her back, and had deftly unsnapped her bra. Before she could strip it off and send it sailing into the crowd and bearing her breasts, Alex had leaped up on to the stage, and had placed both arms protectively around her bosom, in an attempt to cover her, and to carry her away. Instantly, as she looked into the eyes that shown through the mask, she knew that familiar desperation and sorrow, and recognized those arms that had often held her so lovingly. "Alex!" she exclaimed.
Before she could utter another word, two massive, body-builder-type bouncers jumped onto the stage and tore the masked man from Fulla, who quickly re-snapped her bra from behind her back. She then ran to the trio, shouting, "No! "No! Please don't hurt him!" but they had already subdued him. Alex's arms had been pinned behind him by a young, burly Hispanic man, while the other bouncer, a dark-skinned Mediterranean man in his early thirties, and both wearing navy blue La La PaloozaT-shirts and white Wrangler cotton jeans, marched up to Alex, and, with both hands, tugged up and off the ski mask, flecks of dry tissue flying into the musty air.
Instantaneously, Fulla covered her face with both hands in sorrow, and shocked cries went up from the audience. One young dancer/drink server, a cute, freckled, strawberry blonde girl in a candy-striped bikini, screamed and fainted onto the floor, the five Martinis on the tray crashing to the ground. All beheld the skeletal visage that had once been Alex Roth, whose eyes from the dun sockets now wept in mortification, tears streaming down his raw, bony face.
When the "monster's" identity was known, the management fired Fulla, and, worse, public disturbance charges against Alex would be filed. He would have to appear in Los Angeles municipal court, and soon the whole community would know about "The Monster behind the Mask."
Alex was charged with Disturbing the Peace and Disorderly Conduct, misdemeanors that would probably involve a fine and some community service. Because of the couple's financial hardships, Alex was assigned a Public Defender, who would plead her client's case before Municipal Judge Frank Sutter. Sutter was a judge who believed in "shaming" those who came before his Court by videotaping his hearings on closed circuit T.V., so that their friends, neighbors, and families would know of their transgressions. It was a form of punishment that he firmly believed had strong deterrent value, and, as a middle-aged Black man who had vivid memories of the violent inner city L.A. ghetto he had grown up in, he wished that more of his own friends, who were now either dead, the victims of urban violence, or who were now doing time, had been shamed themselves, and redirected down a different path. In fact, it had been those painful memories, particularly of his fourteen-year-old cousin, who been paralyzed from the waist down during a drive-by in which he had been tragically mistaken for another young Black teen, a member of a rival gang, that had led him to join the Air Force after high school, and then enroll in law school and take the Bar, before working as in the Prosecutor's Office, and finally running for Municipal Judge. His standard address to any young miscreant, minority or white, was always the same: "You know, I see a lot of my cousin in you, and that's a shame!" The Judge would then show him or her a photo of his wheel chair-bound cousin, and recount the story of his tragic fate, coupled with a "tough love" sentence that would invariably include a stiff fine and community service for a first offense, and jail, no matter what the excuse or circumstances, for the second. He made it clear that he did want to see the same person a third time in his Court, or else the sentence would be even stiffer.
He did have a sense of humor, however, which he delivered with extra sharpness for the camera. Once, when a neighborhood fence had stood before his Court, the Judge had sarcastically told the spectators-and the viewing audience-"wow, you're gonna want to stick around for this one, folks. This guy thinks BIG! He not only stole a stereo system, but a big-screen T.V., D.V.D., and entire living room suite, too!" Then, he addressed his bailiff, "Johnny, tell him what he's won!-an all expenses-paid trip to jail!" And when a teenage girl, clad in a light blue L.A. Dodgers jersey, black Levis cotton jeans, and flip flop sandals, and charged with shoplifting a pair of Reeboks from a Payless Shoe Store, had impudently smiled and answered his "grow up and take responsibility" lecture with a sarcastic "I turn eighteen next month" reply, he had been in rare form on that day. "Then act like an ADULT, you LITTLE BRAT!" he had responded. Then, he had screwed up his face in a mockery of her earlier grin and repeated, "'I'm gonna turn eighteen next month!'" He had then rhetorically asked, "You know what you do when you turn eighteen? You join the MILITARY! You get a JOB! I tell ya, young lady, you picked the wrong Judge to get sassy with this time!" He had ended up ordering her to pay the store for the shoes, fined her $300.00, and sentencing her to walk up and down the same Payless she had shoplifted from with a sign reading, 'I stole from Payless' for four weeks, from 4PM-5PM, after school, and to do community service during the weekends for that same period of time at the local Meals on Wheels. When she had started protesting the decision, he had simply replied that it would be either that, or jail.
He could be equally harsh with adults. Before Alex's hearing on this morning, and pleading "no contest" to a D.U.I. charge, was Jason La Rue, Casting Director of the L.A.-taped syndicated tabloid program The Patty Collinsworth Show, whose guests regularly ran the gamut from transvestite rodeo cowboys and trailer park beauty contestants, to Killer Clown Neo-Nazis and paternity-tested transsexuals. The show was nationally renowned for its excruciatingly bad taste. The medium-built, thirty-two-year-old man with the high forehead and receding, sandy brown hairline stood in a rumpled, two-piece charcoal gray suit, a red power tie knotted loosely and crookedly around the unbuttoned, dingy collar of his white cotton shirt, had spent the night in jail, before the show's executive producer had posted a bond that morning. He squinted while running his right hand over his pounding forehead. "Aw, what's the matter, Mr. La Rue," Judge Sutter asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "A little hung over from last night? No wonder! It's a good thing your vehicle is still drivable, and that nobody was hurt. You gotta remember, Mr. Roth, Denny's doesn't have a drive-through, so you can't try to make one out of its side window with your S.U.V.! Are you listening, Mr. La Rue?"
"Yes, your Honor," he answered sheepishly, leaning forward over the defendant's tan-colored podium at the front of the courtroom, just a few feet from the Judge's bench, and speaking into its outstretched black microphone.
"Good! Now, here's the deal. Because this is your first D.U.I, you'll get only forty-eight hours in jail, starting this Friday afternoon at five, to Sunday afternoon at five. When you get out, you'll start attending, every Tuesday evening, for the next three months, meetings of your local A.A., and be on Probation for thirty-six months. Also, you're gonna pay $2,000 in fines and court costs, with at least forty dollars due by Friday of every week until it's paid, and I'm restricting you to occupational driving only during your Probation. That means you can only drive to and from work. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"Okay. Now, one more thing," he quipped. "Tell Patty she wears too much eyeliner on that awful show of yours!" A gale of laughter then went up from the spectators. "That'll be all!"
"Thank you, your Honor," La Rue replied, and turning to leave, but, feeling faint, decided to sit in the public galley for a few minutes to clear his head. The Judge did not notice La Rue's sudden change of plans, because he busy studying the hearing schedule that he had now picked up, with his right hand, from his finely polished mahogany desk top. Then, placing the schedule back down, he adjusted with his left hand the rose-flowered, lake blue silk tie that he had worn with a peach-colored rayon shirt under his judicial robes, cleared his throat, and announced, reading from the schedule and not yet looking up, "Next case, Alex Roth."
Alex, dressed in the same clothes that he had been arrested in, and Fulla, wearing a purple, zippered rayon jumpsuit, over which, from her right shoulder, hung her black leather purse, and white Sketchers, marched up, side by side, from where they had been standing behind La Rue, to the podium, where they stood before the bench. Accompanying them was the Public Defender, Julia Sinclair, a bespectacled young woman with short, dishwater blonde hair, and wearing this morning a powder blue, polyester dress suit and white, ruffled cotton blouse.
"Mr. Roth," Judge Sutter began, "You've been charged with Disturbing the Peace and Disorderly Conduct at the La La Palooza Gentleman's Club. How do you plead?" As the Judge finally glanced up, having taken an extra few seconds to scan the list of remaining hearings that had been scheduled before lunchtime, he noticed, upon looking at him for the first time, that Alex was wearing a burlap hood with eyeholes over his head. "What the hell's the meaning of this, Ms. Sinclair?" he demanded.
"Your Honor," the Public Defender answered, "there are mitigating factors that you should know about."
"Ms. Sinclair, I should certainly HOPE so, but I am NOT going to consider ANYTHING until your client removes that damn hood! What's the meaning of this, Mr. Roth?" asked Judge Sutter of Alex. "Is this your idea of a joke? Who the hell are you supposed to be, 'The Unknown Defendant?' One thing I WON'T tolerate is anybody making a mockery of this Court! Now, take that mask off, or I'll put you in jail for Contempt!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that, your Honor," came the muffled voice behind the hood.
"Yes," Fulla added, leaving Alex's side momentarily, and rushing up to the Bench, two armed and navy blue uniformed guards intercepting her and holding both of arms steady while stopping her just inches from Judge Sutter. "Please don't force him to take it off here!" she pleaded.
The Judge then picked up and pounded the gavel loudly with his right hand, and called for Order. He then glowered at Fulla in anger.
"Your Honor," the Public Defender interjected, "you don't understand. I'd be glad to explain the entire situation to you now, in your chambers."
"Quiet, Ms. Sinclair! Bailiff," he now directed, and rising to his feet, "remove that hood!"
Responding to the Judge's order, a tall, rangy, red-haired man in a midnight-blue polyester suit and dark, matching leather belt, barbershop-striped rayon tie, and light blue cotton shirt, marched up to Alex, and, with one fell swoop of his left hand, tore the burlap mask from his face.
Immediately, a collective cry and gasp of shock and terror issued forth from the onlookers. Judge Sutter, who had seen more than of his share of horribly scarred burn victims of test flight crashes while in the Air Force, still recoiled, his mouth agape, at the death's head young man who stood before him. Then, regaining his composure, he shouted, "Kill the cameras! Kill the cameras!" After a few seconds, he said, "Mr. Roth, my deepest apologies for what I have just put you through. Whatever may have happened at the Club, all charges are dropped. You need help, and this Court will see that you will get it! Ms. Sinclair, please see me in my chambers. This Court will now call a recess!" He then picked up his gavel with his right hand, pounded it in official pronouncement, laid it back on the desk, and started for his chambers.
Fulla, who had rushed to her husband's side, began crying in relief. As the two, accompanied by Ms. Sinclair, started exiting the courtroom, Jason La Rue, the one spectator who had NOT shielded his eyes, or turned his face away, during this whole incident, calmly walked up to the three, and introduced himself to the couple, with a most unusual proposition to offer them.
In most American towns, the tacky, exploitative banners, promising the most bizarre attractions known to humanity, were now gone, along with the shrill barkers and the three-a-days. Special interest groups decrying the exploitation of its subjects-the "'humaniacs,'" as one frustrated New York showman had referred to them-had, along with the rising costs of the business itself, all but shut them down. But the old-fashioned "freak shows" were still thriving-having been given new life, in the electronic Age, by the tabloid media. People, both celebrities and non-celebrities alike, routinely paraded their public and private lives before the cameras in the voyeuristic genre of "reality TV," or, as in a "dog and pony" show, displayed their latest bodily transformation, from liposuction-induced weight loss, to breast enlargements, to trans-gender-bender surgeries, on the latest talk shows. It was in this climate that The Patty Collinsworth Show had found a loyal audience. A simple stage, furnished with about a dozen steel plastic folding chairs, and surrounded by lights, cameras, and a studio audience, a gallery of grotesques themselves, whose insensitivity and disrespect toward some of the more unruly guests were often encouraged by the host herself, had replaced the old tents and curtains. Patty, a tall, leggy ex-fashion model whose long, blonde hair was her trademark, was the combination ringmaster/barker. It was this modern-day sideshow that was the only place in which Alex could find any welcome or acceptance. The $5,000 fee that Jason La Rue had offered him and Fulla to appear on the show, to be taped four weeks from now, and aired within six weeks, was too generous to pass up. Because of the possible danger to Fulla, the show agreed to keep the names of her disreputable relatives confidential, but Alex would have to surrender his dignity and pride by, at one point, shedding his burlap hood, and bearing his horrible visage before the cameras. As in a true freak show, the curtain would have to drawn back at some point, and the "payoff" delivered; the customers would accept nothing less for their fifty cents paid admission, and tabloid TV was no different.
Alex had been scheduled that day as one of several guests on an episode entitled, "I'm No Different Than You." There was a young woman who had been born without a lower waist or legs, a middle-aged African-American man who had been born without arms, an eighty-year-old Taiwanese-American girl whose eyelids, ears, and bottom lip had been torn off by a pit bulldog, a six-year-old Latino boy suffering from such advanced aging that he now, tragically resembled Jabba the Hut on a bad day-and then there was Alex, who, dressed this day, as recommended by the show's wardrobe advisors, in a graphite-gray rayon suit, beige cotton shirt, and white-striped maroon cotton tie with a silver stick pin, shared, among other intimate details of his condition, the fact that hair festers, embedded in the crust of what remained of his skin tissue, were a constant source of irritation. Fulla, sitting next to her husband, and wearing a beige cotton pant suit, light orange crew neck top, and tan pumps, added that this problem alone had led to both staph infections and additional, painful surgeries.
Patty, smartly attired in a lavender, polyester, double-breasted jacket and matching skirt this day, had seen photographs of him un-hooded, and so she was somewhat prepared for his climactic unveiling. Still, actually seeing such a visage in the flesh was different, recalling Victor Frankenstein's reactions to his monstrous creation once it had been endowed with life: "I had gazed upon him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing that even Dante could not have conceived." To see what remained of the muscles of Alex's face actually moving, and the things that he now called his lips giving articulate speech to this living skull, was something that even surprised the normally unflappable, never-at-a-loss for-words host, who, noticeably, taken aback, addressed her guest in hushed tones. The normally disrespectful and unruly audience, who had been on their best behavior during the whole program anyway, given its sensitive subject matter, simply looked on, as they had on the other guests that day, in stunned silence. Like the "freak show" paying customers of old, they were, from the start of the program, both simultaneously repelled by, but drawn to, and fascinated with, each abnormality paraded before them. The show, in addition to the appearance fees they had all been paid, offered Alex and Fulla, as well as the other guests, what the Court, too, had provided them: references to counseling agencies. But this appearance, unbeknown to them, helped them in one other way: it had caught the eye of Dr. Rosalie Hernandez.
Dr. Hernandez had first become interested in the field of plastic surgery from her experiences as a child in Brazil. She had been born with an unsightly hair lip, and, because she was a member of an upper-class family (her father was an endocrinologist and her mother a government-appointed nutritionist), her parents had been able to afford the corrective surgery. However, she remained haunted by the sights of less economically advantaged children whose families could not pay for such benefits: those with grotesquely enlarged head and facial tumors, children who would always remain outcasts. It was these memories that had inspired her to attend medical school following graduation from college, and to pursue a career in plastic surgery. Over the past ten years, she had begun pioneering a new procedure, one that, she was convinced, would replace painful and often ineffective skin grafts and give horribly disfigured patients a chance at a normal life.
Conventional skin grafts involved transplantation of skin (but only inches at a time, due to potentially severe bleeding) from other parts of the patient's body-from the back, arms, buttocks, and legs, for instance-to rebuild lips, brows, and other portions of severely damaged and/or burned faces. However, the skin commonly had to be rebuilt every few weeks, requiring additional operations that may, in some cases, last years, and which still often produce artificial-looking scarred masks that neither appear nor move like pliant, real skin. This fact, plus the risk of infection due to the need to continually reopen old wounds in the same areas, had rendered impractical any such operations for as terribly a damaged face as Alex's. As Dr. Hernandez watched the program while tending to her lab work that morning, in a special room of her private Anaheim clinic, her heart went out to the young couple, and she was convinced that she had found a potentially ideal candidate for her revolutionary new treatment: full face transplantation requiring a single sheet of skin, and in only one operation.
She had pioneered the method with animals. In fact, she was busy that day tending to new test subjects, whom she had subjected to years of face transplants. As listened with one ear to Patty's interview with Alex and Fulla, she would, with both hands, lift various raccoons from the cages that lined the ceramic folding tables of her lab, check their blood pressure and other vital signs, and then return them to their cages. "Oh, you're shedding," she would chuckle at one raccoon, wiping the stray gray hairs from her white lab coat, which she wore over a wine-colored, short-sleeved, crew-necked cotton sports top and matching skirt, her sleek brunette hair, which she normally wore down, framing the delicate beauty of her high cheek-boned, dark complexion, was always done up in a bun while working. These raccoons no longer had their trademark black bandit masks, but faces of thick, white fur, donated by test rats. She smiled with satisfaction at the animals' data sheets, attached to a clipboard that she held before her hazel, bespectacled eyes. Their reactions were normal, and just as importantly, the transplanted rats' faces had taken to their recipients' skin seamlessly, with no need for additional operations. Moreover, none of their new faces had yet turned black, a potential side effect that she had feared, and the anti-rejection drugs she had administered to them, had, so far, not resulted in cancer. She was convinced that the procedure would work with humans-but she had to find the right one.
She had interviewed countless patients at her clinic over the last eight months. She had no definite candidate in mind, but she was looking for an adult-not a child, due to the high risks involved-who was truly disfigured, and who would be both mature and emotionally stable enough to accept and understand both the physical and emotional trauma that the process would entail. She could not be sure if Alex would meet those requirements until she had interviewed him, but she knew one thing: none of the earlier candidates she had met were suitable. One young man had been certainly disfigured enough-having been badly burned in an accident-but he had been looking for a specific type of face-a "Brad Pitt" face," he had insisted-so that he could attract as many beautiful girls as possible. Another, a middle-aged woman whose face had been severely scarred by a jealous ex-husband, had wanted to explore the possibilities of a male face, because, she had confided to Dr. Hernandez, she was a repressed transsexual who had always harbored a desire to live her life as a man. Still another, a thirty-year-old white male, whose face had been mutilated by shrapnel during combat in the Gulf War, had wanted an African-American face, in honor of his platoon leader, who had been killed while saving his private's life. Because these people had had a "hidden agenda" ("This is not a retail face shop," she had told them), she knew that they had had the wrong expectations, and were unsuitable. Others she had discounted because they had expressed discomfort over the very thought of "wearing" somebody else's face. But Alex intrigued her, and she was determined to contact The Patty Collinsworth Show's producers and try to get in touch with the couple, but before she did, she had an important phone call to make. "Doctor," she told the party on the other line, from the white touch-tone phone in her office, "I think I may have found the right subject. Would you please send the face to me as soon as possible?" The other party was her old medical school mentor, and she had had to call long distance from Anaheim to contact her, because she was presently living in Denver, Colorado. Her name was Dr. C. L. Aranya.
Only with a signed promise that The Patty Collinsworth Show would be the first to learn of the results of the operation, and with the understanding that Alex and Fulla would be contractually bound to a return visit, would the show's production company and syndication agent agree to release the couple's contact information to Dr. Hernandez. The two agreed to a consultation at the Doctor's private clinic. There, surrounded by the inviting, cream-colored walls of her closed-door consultation room, Dr. Hernandez, who was sitting on the edge of a white, cotton-sheeted cot in the room's west corner, interviewed Alex, who was seated, several inches from her, on a black, leather swivel chair, adjacent to its twin, where, to his right, sat Fulla. Dr. Fernandez asked him questions about his medical history, and mental stability. Then, rising from the cot, she had him lie down on it himself, while she examined his face-particularly his cheekbones, and what remained of his lips and nose-from all angles with a small, silver, electro-magnifying glass that she held in her right hand while he, clad in an iron gray, hooded, cotton/polyester athletic suit and white and blue-striped Nike high-top sneakers, waited, patiently and silently. Fulla, nervously fingering the buttons of her tan polyester sports coat that she wore this day over an aqua blue, short sleeve, notch-collared cotton camp blouse and matching skirt, along with plain black pumps, at the heels of which she had rested her purse, looked anxiously on. Dr. Hernandez then asked Alex to alternately smile, raise his eyebrows, and open and close his eyes and mouth, again and again. After what seemed like hours, she turned off the glass, gently placed it on an off-white ceramic desk to the left of the cot, and announced, "Okay, Mr. Roth. You can get up now and take the chair next to your wife."
Dr. Hernandez removed her glasses with both hands, folded them neatly, and, with her left, neatly slipped them into the pocket of her lab coat, which she wore over a bright pink, scoop-necked, short-sleeved, cotton sports top and beige rayon slacks. She thought a few seconds, and then said, "I think I can help you, Mr. Roth. A single sheet of skin, taken from a donor face, should take to the existing bones and muscles of your face. Believe it or not, there is an adequate amount remaining for a base."
Fulla sighed deeply, closing her eyes, throwing her head back, and smiling in relief, and while Alex, with his left hand, squeezed her right forearm affectionately. Then, he summoned up enough courage to ask the question that most concerned him at the moment: "What about the cost, Doctor? We have no insurance."
"That should be the least of your worries right now, Mr. Roth," she answered, in her slightly sing-song, Portuguese-accented English.
"What about the cost, Doctor?" he insisted.
Alex's slight raise in voice startled Fulla from her reveille, and her head snapped forward and eyes opened instantly.
"Because you will be the first patient," she calmly replied, "the clinic will cover all costs, including those of follow-up therapy."
"Good!" said Alex, visibly relieved.
"Thank you," answered Fulla.
"Now," Dr. Hernandez continued, rising from the cot and walking toward the couple, so that she could stand directly in front of them, for closer, continuous eye contact, "I want you both to understand something very important. Since this is such a novel procedure, there can be no guarantee of success, and complications could result."
"Such as?" asked Alex.
"Your new face could turn black, possibly requiring a second transplants, and/or skin grafts."
"Okay," answered Alex.
"You'll also have to take anti-rejection drugs the rest of your life, even though they'll raise your risk of kidney damage and cancer."
"Okay," Alex answered once again.
"And because of your agreement to a return visit to The Patty Collinsworth Show, you will have relinquished your anonymity, and so the clinic would not be legally responsible for any violation of your privacy."
"Okay," Alex said, for a third time. His mind had already been made up, regardless of the risks.
"But, Doctor," Fulla interjected, somewhat impatiently, "you haven't told us yet how this procedure works."
"Well, it's actually simpler than you might think, Mrs. Roth. My staff and I will employ microsurgery to connect two pairs of veins and arteries on both sides of your husband's face to the donor skin sheet. Then, I'll stitch about twenty nerve endings to restore both sensation and movement."
"Will there be any scars?" Fulla asked.
"No, only tiny, practically imperceptible sutures, which will dissolve later, to anchor the new tissue to your husband's scalp and neck, and around his eyes, nose, and mouth."
"And…will the new face…look like…Alex?"
"Fulla!" said Alex disapprovingly.
"No," Fulla insisted, "I've got to know!"
"I can only tell you that your husband should look similar to how he had before the…incident, since his existing bone and muscle will provide its base and scope…but I can't guarantee how completely it will resemble his old face."
"Can we see it first?" Fulla asked.
"Mrs. Roth," Dr. Hernandez answered firmly, "the consent forms that your husband will sign, and which contain the same information and conditions that I've just shared with the two of you, will stipulate that you will relinquish the right to choose or approve the donor face. It's already been matched to your husband's tissue, age, sex, and race. There are no second choices."
"I understand," Fulla assured her, "but I still need to see it first…please." Alex simply lowered his head and sighed, acquiescing to his wife's wishes.
"Very well," Dr. Hernandez, rising from her stool, reluctantly agreed. Rising from her stool, she asked them to follow her.
She led them down the hall to two bone white swinging doors marked "Staff Only." With the long, tapering fingers of her left hand, Dr. Hernandez deftly punched the security code on the plate located on the right-hand first door's center. They automatically swung open, and the three entered, the doors closing shut behind them.
Instantly, both Fulla and Alex began to shiver. Dr. Hernandez, who obviously was accustomed to the cold temperature at which this area was constantly kept, seemed unperturbed. With her right hand, she switched on the phosphorescent light on the north wall, and, with her left motioned her guests to follow her toward a lime green, ceramic tub that stood about fifteen feet away, in the center of the room. The tub resembled a whirlpool, except that it was filled with thick ice. She stopped, less than a square foot from the tub's left side, and with both hands, motioned them to approach the appliance's center. The two gazed into the tub. Through the chunks of floating ice, they could clearly make out a solid sheet of skin that was definitely that of a human face bobbing just beneath the surface. It was that of a white male, in his early-to-mid-twenties, they judged, with thin, closed eyelids over the empty sockets, full cheeks, slightly arched eyebrows, a high, aquiline nose, and a cleft, jutting jaw. Even though the face hardly resembled Alex's old countenance, it was a face-it was human." It only took Alex a few seconds to decide.
"Let's do it, Doctor," he said.
"Yes," concurred Fulla.
Dr. Hernandez silently nodded in assent, as she led them out of the room, switching off the light with her right hand, and letting the doors, which had automatically opened upon fifteen feet of their perimeters, close behind them.
Next came paper work, endless paper work, primarily consent forms, followed by processing…and waiting. Then, two months later, Alex was admitted to Almeida County General Hospital, which was helping to fund Dr. Hernandez's research. Alex's face would be removed during the operation and replaced with the donor face, surgery that would last eight to ten hours; he would then be hospitalized for about fourteen days.
Five days before Alex's scheduled operation, Fulla visited him early that morning, and explained that she had to return to Los Angeles for a few days to take care of some "business," as she put it, but promised that she would call him every night, and would definitely be back in time for the operation. Alex, who had been outfitted in an off-white hospital cotton smock, and hooked up by his right wrist to a coal gray, beeping vital signs monitor, smiled from his bed; his head was propped up comfortably against a white cotton case-covered polyester pillow, and a beige cotton blanket draped had been draped around his lower middle. The two embraced warmly and kissed goodbye. But when Fulla drove her 2001 metallic gray Honda Acura out of the crowded hospital parking deck and onto the expressway that balmy May morning, she was headed not for their Los Angeles apartment, but to a local Mediterranean food and herb market. Preparations for the real "business" she had had in her mind for some time, and which she felt she could no longer delay, could only be procured there. From an old Syrian woman that she had become friendly with, she purchased the ingredients for her Uncle Faheem's favorite meal, kibbe, a type of Middle Eastern meat loaf: 1 3/4 lbs. of finely ground sirloin, a pound of cracked wheat, and ten ounces of ground lamb meat, along with some mint springs, salt and pepper, baharat spice mix, onions, shortening, pine nuts, and, for this special occasion, an extra ingredient, just for her Uncle and his closest aids, especially Akeem, something that could be purchased only from the old woman's special, locked storage chamber in the back of the store-and for considerably extra. But, to Fulla, the price was well worth it-nothing would be too good, or expensive, for her Uncle Faheem and his "friends."
Fulla then stopped at their apartment and, after letting her purse drop softly from her shoulder onto the far right end of the sand brown kitchen table, and prepared the kibbe. Because she had spent far too many years recently savoring America's standard "meat and potatoes" cuisine, and because this was going to be such a "special occasion," she decided to use the best kibbe recipe she could find, one that she had found on an excellent website called "inmamaskitchen.com." She began, according to the directions, which she had earlier downloaded, and had laid out on the right side of the table, nearest her elbow, for easy reference, by soaking the cracked wheat for about an hour in water. She then placed the wheat, sirloin, onions, mint sprigs, salt and pepper, and baharat mix blend into a food processor, and reduced it all to paste. Afterwards, she meticulously prepared the stuffing, consisting of onions, pine nuts, and ground lamb meat, by frying them in fat, and then spreading this mixture over the entire dish, which she had placed in a sheet pan, over which she applied another layer of meat. Finally, after spreading this stuffing mix over the top, she started baking it, at about 190°, for about forty minutes. While she was waiting on the kibbe, she changed the clothes she had worn at the hospital earlier that morning, a short sleeve, powder blue, V neck knit sports top, Faded Glory cotton blue jeans, and cranberry red, and white-striped Sketchers, and pulled out from the bottom drawer of their clothes bureau a long, flowing, Islamic black lace gown known as an abaya, and a matching Islamic head scarf, of the same material, called an hijab. These ceremonial garments she pulled on over her white Lycia Maiden Form bra and panties, and replaced the Sketchers with plain, open-toed, tan flip flop sandals. For now, she would let the headscarf ride behind her neck and shoulders, and would only put it on later.
Now the kibbe was done, and, after carefully removing the sheet pan from the oven with a pair of yellow, green-flowered, Martha Stewart baking gloves, she placed it on a large, royal blue dishcloth on the center of their ceramic dining table, to let the food cool. Then, after waiting for about ten minutes, it was time to add the final ingredient from the thin, angular, four-by-four glass bottle she had purchased from the back room; she vigorously shook its contents, the special garnish that she had paid so much for, into the left side of the kibbe. The liquid quickly soaked into that side of the meat; although it was colorless, odorless, tasteless, it was oh-so-essential as a finishing touch. To mark the "special" side, she garnished it with an ample slice of tomato, and then placed it in a plastic tray that she covered with tinfoil. Finally, she was ready to call the Los Angeles Airport to confirm her plane reservations and rent-a-car for a late afternoon flight to Detroit.
Meanwhile, her Uncle Faheem and his men were busy, and, ironically, working up quite an appetite while up to an annoying, but necessary, task. Federal authorities were re-opening the case of Lawrence Fisher, a city council member who had spoken out against Faheem's "business" practices in the press, and whose death two years ago had been diagnosed as a heart attack, but had actually been sue to a fatal seizure caused by an injection of venom from the fangs of the newly discovered Arabesque Viper, whose poison cannot be detected in the bloodstream after twelve hours). After having been promised Immunity and Witness Relocation Protection, the County Coroner, who had been paid off by Faheem for his phony autopsy, was ready to testify as to the subterfuge, and the Feds had been granted a Court order to exhume the body on Saturday. It was now Friday; Faheem had to work fast.
At dusk, Faheem, Hassan, and Mohammed were granted entrance to the cemetery, having paid off the gatekeepers. There, Faheem, smartly adorned in a tan polyester Fedora and white, three-piece flannel suit, replete with pale green silk shirt and tomato red bow tie, busily puffed on his cigar as he directed Hassan and Mohammed, after they had dug out the grave with pickaxes, to lift the casket up on both sides and place it in the flat bed of the cherry red 4x4 Ranger truck they had driven in. As the two men struggled to raise the cedar casket to ground level, Hassan suddenly dropped his side of the box, pulling up limp, grimacing in pain, and complaining of a hernia. This sudden jolt, and the box's momentary collision with the ground, caused the casket's top glass to crack, and a jet of noxious, foul-smelling odor, which seemed like a bizarre blend of boiled-over antifreeze and backed-up sewer, to fill the night air.
"My God!" exclaimed Faheem, covering his nostrils and mouth with a white silk handkerchief, embroidered with his initials, that his right hand had immediately plucked from his jacket's breast pocket upon immediately assaulted by the odor, "Can't you fuckin' idiots do anythingright?"
"I couldn't help it," complained Hassan, like a small boy, "I'm in pain here!"
"If you fuck this up again," answered Mohammed in Syrian to his partner, "I'll give you a real pain-one that nothing'll cure!-Dickhead!"
"Hey!" protested Hassan, his two hands protectively fingering his right lower side. "Who the fuck asked you?"
"SHUT UP, BABOONS!" ordered Faheem. "Get your asses in gear and that fucking casket on the truck! Fulla called me from the airport twenty minutes ago. She's finally come to her senses and left the Elephant Man! She'll be here in about an hour and a half."
Grunting and groaning, the two men lifted the casket one more time, managed to gingerly lift it from the hole, and waddled awkwardly with their burden to the waiting truck, followed by their exasperated boss. As they were lowering the casket into the flatbed, Assan's hernia gave out again, and, just as before, he dropped his side of it, this time, so hard, that oatmeal brown and banana yellow bodily fluids began to leak from the sides. The putrescence, with the same noxious odor as before, now saturated the open truck.
"You fuckin' moron!" cursed Mohammed, again in Syrian. "Now, look what you did! The fuckin' lid slid off, too!"
"What?" asked Faheem, rushing to the truck, his handkerchief still covering his nose and mouth.
Sure enough, the lid had half-fallen off to the left, revealing a sight that caused both Mohammed and Hassan to instinctively jump out of the bed liner and vomit onto the neatly mowed ground. Even Faheem, who normally was not moved by anything (certainly not by the sight of death) had to stifle an involuntary gag or two through his handkerchief.
Still recognizable-although barely-was Mr. Fisher's face, but it was badly decomposed and maggot-eaten, the cartilage in his nose, and his lower mandible, hanging loosely from the hideous bed of mushy flesh, limp tendons, and bones covered by slime that glistened in the moonlight.
"Come on!" ordered Faheem to his two men, who reluctantly returned to the truck.
"It's a good thing I'm drunk right now!" Hassan admitted to his partner as the two rode in the flatbed beside the casket, and Faheem, still keeping his handkerchief to his face, since the stench was still potent, sat in the front seat and drove. "I won't remember a thing about this in the morning!"
"Shut up! And help me get this lid back on!" answered Mohammed, "or we may be keeping our stiff friend here company!"
About a half hour later, they arrived at Lake Michigan, where Faheem had his paid stooges at the pier take over the task from there, touting the casket out to the middle of lake and dumping it into its murky leagues. Afterwards, following a job far from well done, the trio returned home, to Faheem's magnificent, five-story mansion, where all three promptly removed and burned their odor-saturated clothes (for Hassan and Mohammed, the same they had worn on the night of their "visit" to Alex and Fulla) in the basement incinerator, including their footwear (particularly Hassan's and Mohammed's, since their soles were especially sticky with Mr. Fisher's bodily fluids and putrescence; the cost of his wardrobe, including his prized Italian designer shoes, Faheem would take out of their pay). Tomorrow, they would fumigate the truck. After all three had promptly showered, each one put on his best dress clothes for the evening, at Faheem's insistence, since he regarded his niece's homecoming as a special occasion. He dressed in a white fitted shirt, complete with his customary gold cufflinks, an opulent, navy blue three-piece suit, ruby red tie and gold stick pin, and, for this evening, imported Syrian, sand brown suede shoes, with matching socks made of, like the rest of his outfit, genuine Middle Eastern silk. His two associates wore plain, polyester, ash brown sport coats and dress khakis, light yellow cotton dress shirts and aqua green rayon ties, with simple, silver clasps and cuff links, black leather loafers, and matching cotton socks. As they waited patiently in the ball-room-sized living room, decorously carpeted in sable velvet, and complete with bar, Hassan joked to Mohammed, commenting, in Syrian, on (for them) their unusually formal garb, which replaced the same "work" clothes that they had worn on the night of their breaking into Alex's apartment, "You'd think we were dressing for own funerals!" Mohammed chuckled, about to help himself to a glass of genuine Syrian wine, but his right hand put the glass back on the bar counter when he noticed Faheem's disapproving grimace. It was clear that the best wine would be reserved for himself and his niece, not the hired help.
At that moment, a video camera flashed on an image of Fulla's silver gray Hyundai rental car at the security gate. Faheem rose from the plush nutmeg brown leather couch he had been sitting in, pressed the entrance button with his left index finger, and let her vehicle pass. He then jauntily opened the front door and was utterly speechless at the sight that greeted him: Fulla in traditional Middle Eastern clothing (disrupted not even by the sight of her Western style purse, which she had left in the rental car's front passenger seat), the tin-foiled-covered tray of kibbe in her black felt gloved hands.
"After a few stunned moments, the normally unflappable Faheem gathered his unusually rare mixed emotions-surprise, relief, and joy at her return, and her warmly beckoned her in, placing two hands on her shoulders and planting an avuncular kiss on her right cheek. "Come in, my dear," he announced.
"Hello, dear Uncle," Fulla smiled, nodding in appreciation. As she entered the doorway, she greeted Hassan and Mohammed, complimenting them on their attire. They smiled and nodded in return, and stood staring, as Faheem had, in amazement at Fulla's traditional garb.
"Fools!" Akeem interjected angrily, astounded by their denseness. "Since when does my niece carry trays around and wait on YOU? Take the kibbe into the kitchen, and stay there until I call you. I want to speak to Fulla alone."
She handed the tray to them, and grimaced in nervousness, when Hassan, who had grabbed its right side first, inverted it and handed it, left side facing Mohammed to his partner. But she tried hard to conceal her trepidation. "Come, Fulla," said Faheem, "Sit down on the couch, and tell me what's happened."
"Well," began Fulla unsteadily, seating herself on the cushion to her Uncle's immediate right. "I can't live with Alex any longer. He's turned into an absolute beast," she sobbed, pulling a beige Kleenex from her left pocket and dabbing her eyes, while Faheem sat by her right side, listening indulgently, and secretly delighting at her self-professed marital troubles. "He's turned away from me…he won't talk to me…he won't… respond to me…as a husband should to his wife, in bed. He says that every time he sees my face, he sees you…he sees our race, and he says he hates us…all of us…including me, for…what's happened to him." At this last admission, Fulla again pressed the Kleenex to her eyes, hiding carefully the concealed hunks of Vidalia onion that were inducing her tears.
"And?" asked Faheem, anxiously.
"And I've had a chance to do a lot of thinking, Uncle. I've decided that you were right after all."
"Really, my dear?"
"Yes, and I've learned who the real Alex is-shallow and self-centered, like his entire race. I've decided I belong with my own people. I've left him, and I'm gonna divorce him."
"I see," commented Faheem, secretly delighted.
"You were right about another thing, too, Uncle: I have lived in the West too long. That's why I'm here tonight, and the dressed the way I am-to make amends."
"Oh, no need for that, my dear niece," Faheem reassured her, embracing her warmly, as she buried her head in his right shoulder. "I knew you were just swept away by his handsome face. That's why I did what I did, to show you the true dog beneath the fur."
"Yes, Uncle," she replied, her face, which he could not see, twisted into a mask of hatred and bitterness at these words. She bit her cherry red lips in an effort to suppress her utter contempt for Faheem.
As he gradually released her and she raised her head, she forced herself to break into a broad smile, the same kind that she had often showed the patrons of the La La Palooza Gentleman's Club. "Remember, Uncle, the home-cooked kibbe we used to eat together. Well, I made fresh kibbe before I flew over."
"Oh, fresh kibbe!" replied Faheem, like a small boy who had just been promised a box of chocolates. "I haven't had good kibbe in ages!"
"I thought we'd have it tonight-you, me, and, just to show that there's no hard feelings, Hassan and Mohammed, too."
"As you wish," Faheem answered, although those two dolts hardly deserve such a sumptuous feast. Hassan! Mohammed!" he bellowed, as if calling his dog, which reminded Fulla of his favorite pet's conspicuous absence.
"By the way, Uncle, "she asked, glancing around the house, "where's Al-Azair?"
"Oh, I had to put him down," explained Faheem, jauntily pulling out four plush, royal blue, cushioned wooden dining chairs gathered around the large, oval, mahogany dining table. "He was never the same after that night. Wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, wouldn't come when I called him…just lay in the corner all day, whimpering and shaking."
"Small wonder," remarked Fulla to herself. "I'll bet you didn't have any sleepless nights, you sick bastard!" Her contemplations were then interrupted by Hassan's and Mohammed's arrival.
"You!" commanded Faheem of Mohammed, "get a spatula, some plates, silver wear, glasses, and that bottle of wine your friend was guzzling earlier. And you," he told Hassan, "bring in the kibbe, and put it on the table."
Fulla stood and watched silently as Hassan brought the kibbe into the dining room. As he neared the table, his hernia caused him to sway off balance, and the tray to drop lopsidedly to the table, causing Hassan to catch its left edge with his right palm, and to invert it slightly on its way softly and safely down.
"Oaf!" Faheem admonished him. Fulla was terrified to find that all that jostling around had not only undoubtedly disturbed the meat yet again, but also had, as she had discovered when she now unwrapped the tin foil, had bounced the land-marking tomato to the neutral middle of the tray.
"Tomato, Fulla? You know I can't eat it. It'll give me gas."
"Sorry, Uncle, I'd forgotten how delicate your stomach is," Fulla replied, secretly looking forward to the real "stomach ache" he'd be getting later. She then plucked the garnish from the tray with her left hand, and deposited it in the kitchen trash box.
Mohammed now returned with the settings and utensils. Fulla's right hand trembled slightly as she divided the kibbe into separate slices for each diner. But how was she to know which side contained the "extra special" ingredient? She would just have to trust her memory. Then, concealing her nervousness as well as she could, she sat down with her host and guests to eat the kibbe.
"Uuhmph! Good!" announced a contented Faheem, as he eagerly and gluttonously shoveled forkful after forkful into his mouth. "You know, Fulla, if I were on Death Row, I wouldn't mind having this as my last meal!"
"Oh, Uncle," she laughed. Meanwhile, Hassan and Mohammed smiled, enjoying the meal, too.
"No, I mean it, my dear. I'd die for another helping of this kibbe," he insisted, glancing in the direction of his two underlings, and asking, "Wouldn't you?"
"Oh, me, too," smiled Hassan, responding immediately to the cue.
"Same here," confirmed Mohammed.
"Well, boys," smiled Fulla, "maybe…just maybe…you'll get your wish!"
Before either one of the three could respond to Fulla's odd choice of words, Faheem started feel terrible wracking pangs in his stomach, and then began to gag, and cough uncontrollably, desperately clutching his throat. Within seconds, the other two started showing the same symptoms. But Fulla felt fine; she knew she had made the right decision as to which sections to serve the others…and had, with the help of "inmamaskitchen.com, made some damn good kibbe as well.
As all three fell, one by one, to the sand brown carpeted dining room floor, their faces now started turning a deep purple, and they gasped for breath that would just not come. As their bodies writhed spasmodically in agony, Fulla joked, "Kibbe to die for, hey, guys?" She was obviously enjoying the show. "I hope you enjoyed the Arabesque Viper venom, too," she gloated, delighted that the old woman from the Syrian store had not failed her, either. She then rose from her chair and, like some monstrous vulture circling around its kill, hovered over each of her victims, staring, with an impish grin on her face, one by one, into their eyes, and adding, "I made it just for you!"
As life slowly left all three men's tortured and traumatized bodies, and their eyes closed, Fulla helped herself to a plastic bowl and lid from her Uncle's kitchen cupboard, her gloved-and fingerprint-free hands-spooning the "safe" kibbe into a fresh new container. The remaining kibbe would make a full meal for herself and Alex, and if there was one lesson her Uncle Faheem had taught her as a child, it was to NEVER, EVER, waste food.
On her "red eye" flight back to Los Angeles that night, Fulla slept peacefully and contentedly. The fact that she had just turned into Lucretia Borgia bothered her not at all, although, eight months earlier, she would have been appalled at how coldly and callously she had planned and executed the whole deed. Still, not a glimmer of guilt disturbed her blissful slumber that evening. Again, perhaps Alex was not the monster her Uncle had created, but her. At any rate, she could not bother herself at the moment with what she now considered past history, for she had long convinced herself that all three had had it coming-and more. She could now think only of Alex, for his operation was imminent.
The world's first full face transplant had been scheduled on a hot, dry June Monday morning, at 7 A.M. After his prepping, and reassurances from Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Kenji Sasaki, a young Japanese-American anesthesiologist, both of whom had just changed into their aqua blue cotton caps and scrubs, that there would be nothing to fear, the couple now faced the promise of a new life. At last, they could put behind them the atrocity committed against them by Fulla's now late-and distinctly unlamented-uncle Faheem. When news of Faheem's and his associates' mysterious deaths had been broadcast by all the major local, network, and cable news outlets that very morning, Fulla had discussed their demise with Alex with all the emotion of a pest exterminator explaining a new brand of pesticide. Fulla did not reveal her role in their demise at all, merely and sarcastically explaining the sudden and unexplained deaths as probably due to "stomach trouble." If Alex had suspected anything else about the "'business'" that Fulla had told him that she had had to attend to during those last few days, he had not let on.
Alex lay there that morning in his private hospital bed, propped up against a light blue, cotton case-covered, polyester pillow, while waiting impatiently for the floor nurse and orderlies to switch him to a gurney and take him to the fifth floor operating theatre. As his legs nervously fidgeted beneath the tan cotton blanket that rode up to about chest-level, Fulla decided to break the tension by commenting on his headwear, the standard surgical sponge cap that all such patients wore prior to an operation. This one was a garish polka dot model that made him look like, in Fulla's own words, "a cross between Fireman Bill and Bozo the Clown." Even Alex had to laugh.
"Okay, Mr. Roth. Dr. Hernandez is ready for you," announced Jasmine, the medium-built, middle-aged, African-American nurse, who had just arrived, along with the orderlies. Her rose-flowered, white cotton smock and purple slacks of the same material contrasted with the two plain, aqua green cotton scrubs worn by the orderlies who had accompanied her, Paul, a tall, thin, lanky young man with a shaved head and a silver ring in his right ear, and Keenan, a short, compactly built, Latino-American in a neatly trimmed black beard. She motioned for the two men to help Alex scoot over to the left edge of the bed. Their stout arms then carefully lifted his back and legs onto the gurney, careful not to the mobile vital signs machine that would accompany him on his journey. Jasmine adjusted the gurney's movable backrest with her right hand, so as to make Alex more comfortable. "Ready for a little road trip?" she then joked.
"Sure," smiled Alex.
At that moment, Fulla lunged forward quickly, fighting back tears of anxiety, hugged Alex, kissed him good luck on his right cheek, and said, "See you later, honey."
"Okay, 'Beautiful Flower,' he whispered. "Pray for me."
"I will," she promised, and kissed his cheek again.
"You can wait in the third floor lounge area," said Jasmine. "The receptionist will call you when Dr. Hernandez is done." She then began pushing the top edge of the gurney, turned it around, and wheeled out into the hall, while Paul pushed from behind and Keenan guided the attached machine. Fulla followed, stood outside the room, bravely smiled, and waived goodbye with her right hand as the four boarded the staff elevator and were quickly swallowed up by its closing doors. She then nervously walked out of the room and into the corridor, and turned left down the hallway. As she headed for the visitors' elevators, she kept her promise to Alex, and prayed silently, not for herself (since she was not sure what God thought of her now, despite her rationalization that what she had done to her uncle and his cohorts had been justice , not murder), but for Alex.
Once she had boarded the elevator, she didn't have to wait long, for the lounge was only two floors down from Alex's third floor private room. As she disembarked from the elevator, entered the beige-carpeted lounge, and signed in, she shivered slightly. The air conditioning on this floor of the hospital seemed too high, and her solid raspberry, and white-striped, bare-shouldered cotton tube top and Old Navy polyester khaki shorts, adorned by a black and silver-studded designer leather belt, did not offer much protection against this unexpected chill. It was a good thing, though, that she had taken a short-sleeve, white, blue-pinstriped cotton blouse with her, which she carried under her right arm, just under her purse, for just such a situation. She draped it over her shoulders, and curled up, fetal-like, in a comfortable, coffee brown, upholstered chair. Despite the fact that the TV to her immediate left was blaring with the sound of SquareBob SpongePant s to entertain the kids whose parents had brought them that morning, she felt so cozy in the warmth of the jacket that she soon drifted off to sleep.
Soon, a kaleidoscope of swirling primary colors seemed to swim about her closed eyes, and she dreamed that she now was alone in the receiving room; her ears assaulted by omnipresent mechanical beeps and Code Red alarms. Nervously, she approached a gurney, on which flatly lay a man whose height, frame, and clothing that morning were undeniably Alex, but she could not see his face, since a white cotton blanket concealed his entire body. To the two sides of the gurney stood two orderlies, dressed as she had seen Paul and Keenan earlier, although their backs were turned to her. Strangely, she noticed that both seemed darker complected than the two young men who had attended her husband earlier. Then, when they turned around to face her, she gasped in shock. Grinning, like a pair of hyenas, were Hassan and Mohammed. Then, while still facing and smiling at her, they placed both of their hands at the top of the blanket, and slowly rolled it down to the patient's chest level. Gradually, she could see that the features being unveiled, starting with the hairline and the complexion, and then, one by one, the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin-were not Alex's at all. This she had expected, since he had, after all, been given a new face, but she had never counted on seeing, and on her husband's body, the face that she knew-and dreaded-all so well. Staring up at her, with those cold, piercing eyes, was her Uncle Faheem. He said but one thing, with a devilish smile on his cruel face, the tiny space between two of his front teeth crammed with little bits of the lethal Syrian meatloaf he had consumed that evening. "You were right. That WAS kibbe to die for!" Then, all three broke into a malevolent laugh, so loud that the sound threatened to burst her very eardrums. Pushing her hands tightly over her ears, she tried to scream, but no sounds would emanate from her mouth, which alternately opened and closed in a paroxysm of fear. Meanwhile, the dead men's hollow, satanic laughter grew louder…louder…and LOUDER!
Suddenly, she awoke abruptly to the cherubic, freckled visage of a wide-eyed, four-year-old red-haired boy in a bright green NFL cotton jersey, matching shorts of the same material, and open-toed, black sandals. Her thrashing movements and half-stifled cries had caught his attention, and proven more interesting than the Lucky Charms cereal, Play Dough , and other commercials that had interrupted SquareBob SpongePants . They stared into each other's eyes for a few seconds; to him, she seemed, her mouth agape, and slightly disoriented, like a fascinating new exhibit at the L.A. Zoo's Primate House. The corners of his mouth chewed vigorously, like a cow on its cud, on his Bubble Yum Gum; then, he blew a bright pink bubble so large that it seemed to cover his little round face. Then, after drawing the gum back into his mouth, he grinned proudly, and joyously ran back to the TV, for the commercials were now over, and SquareBob's adventures had resumed.
Alternately closing and opening her eyes, shaking her head, and trying to throw off the cobwebs from this horrifying dream, she decided to get up, and eat breakfast at the hospital cafeteria, and walk around the grounds-the last thing she wanted to do, following that dream, was to fall asleep again, so she scooped up her blouse with her right hand, tucked it under her left armpit, and left. A couple of hours later, she returned, but, remembering the area's earlier chill, took the time now to put on her blouse when she disembarked from the elevator, buttoning it up about half-way up, before re-entering the lounge. She then alternated her time between reading the various magazines and newspapers on the center mahogany table, returning to the cafeteria for lunch, and watching television. Finally, around 4 P.M., she heard her name being paged. She quickly rose to her feet, and walked to the receptionist's desk, where a curly, white-haired bespectacled woman informed her that the operation was over, and that she could see her husband now in the second floor receiving room. As she boarded the elevator, she shivered again, not from the frosty air conditioning that had wreaked havoc with her sinuses, but from the fear of what awaited her in that room, and from the still vivid memory of that morning's nightmare that she dreaded might, in some way, become reality.
As Fulla silently made her way to the Receiving Room, with its cold, massive scrub-green doors, which opened and closed periodically upon each visitor's approach or exit, she could get that terrifying dream out of her mind. Uncle Faheem's slightly gruff, raspy voice proclaiming, "kibbe to die for!" reverberated in her head. Worse, as she was greeted by a smiling Dr. Hernandez, still wearing her operating cap and scrubs, her surgical mask now down over her chin and hanging loosely around her neck, she swore that she could still hear all three men's demonic laughter growing in intensity as she followed the surgeon to gurney #13, where Alex, still sedated, awaited her. The laughter in her head was now so loud that she couldn't even hear the Doctor assure her that the operation had been a complete success, and that Alex had responded to the anesthesia and the surgery perfectly.
But as Fulla followed Dr. Hernandez around the room's West corner, she recognized Alex's familiar frame on the gurney, and the maniacal mirth abruptly ceased. The monster was now gone. The face that had replaced it, and which beckoned her from the propped-up pillow, was not Alex's; she had been prepared for that fact. What astounded her, though, was the way this previous dead flesh now pulsated with the natural rhythms of life, normal respiration and blood flow having transformed the cold pastiness into a healthy ruddiness. Dr. Hernandez had done everything she had promised; even the tiny, red sutures were almost imperceptible, and would she assured Fulla, fade over time. There was nothing about this face did seem natural or life-like. Better yet, this was no stranger, for Alex's identity seemed to shine through the newly affixed visage. She thought of it as nothing more than a mask; the true Alex, she knew, lay beneath. "Alex, Alex," she whispered, "it's Fulla."
When the patient slowly opened his eyes and smiled, she saw not the new face's heavier features, nor the cleft chin, but her husband's gentleness, soul, and essence in the same bright blue orbs that shine forth form the sockets that peeped out from around the transplanted skin, and in the corners of Alex's mouth, as the lips now curled around in that same engaging smile she had known so well, but which he had seldom shown since the disfigurement.
"Hi, there, 'Beautiful Flower,'" came Alex's voice from the once dead, now-living facemask. They embraced each other warmly.
"Do I look any… different? " asked Alex, tentatively.
"You sure do," smiled Fulla.
"Look at yourself, Mr. Roth," invited Dr. Hernandez, adjusting, with her beige, plastic-gloved hands a large glass visor above the gurney to face level. Staring at himself from the highly polished surface was no longer the torn, ravished, skeletal death's-head that he had had to endure for seven, seemingly interminable, months, but a rugged-looking, moderately handsome face that was undeniably human-and real. Dr. Hernandez had been right; the seemed to have perfectly conformed to the dimensions of his own, and even he saw what Fulla had seen-his own identity in the revitalized features. The gentleman who stared back at him from the mirror was, to him, no stranger, for in that face, he only saw…himself.
"You look like a W.A.S.P., but that's all right," Fulla joked.
As Alex turned his head alternatively from right to left, studying intently his new features, he laughed, but not at Fulla's joke, the truth of which he could not deny, but with a tone of perverse triumph that even Fulla could sense in his voice. This tone surprised him, because it did not seem to come from himself at all, but from some outside…even alien…force. But Alex quickly dismissed the notion from his mind. "That's whack!" he told himself, "probably just some side effect from the anesthesia. In any event, as he turned away from the mirror to look again at Fulla, his subsequent smile was so full of joy and warmth that even she forgot his momentarily odd laugh, and again embraced him lovingly. As Dr. Hernandez looked on, beaming, she couldn't help but feel like a medical Pygmalion who had crafted and created beauty, and had endowed the cold marble with life. If there were no serious after-effects, and the operation could be pronounced a complete success, then think of the thousands of other disfigured people she could help, she reflected, the lives that she could give back to them, too. For a moment, she felt almost god-like in what now seemed like her own omnipotence.
In the weeks that followed, a new life began for Alex and Fulla. Per their previous agreement, their first public media appearance following the operation was on The Patty Collinsworth Show , where they told the studio and viewing audiences about their readjustment to "normal" life, even given the "fishbowl" existence they were now experiencing as a result of the adjacent publicity. Appearances on Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Larry King followed, and Alex even received a book deal from Barnes and Noble to write his account of the experience. Soon, the couple had to get an unlisted number, due to the volume of calls from people across the nation-even the world-and to move to an Anaheim bungalow that Alex was able to buy with the lucrative appearance money. Meanwhile, he applied for the next T.C.M Young Film Composers' Competition , and started studying clips from a new silent film, The Magician , considered by many critics a forerunner of director James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein , and Fulla once again took up her graduate dance studies at U.C.L.A. Outside of Alex's regular return visits to Dr. Hernandez for monthly tests, antibiotics, and cancer-fighting drug treatments, life now seemed halfway normal for the couple, and they even contemplated having their first child together. But upcoming events would abruptly, and unexpectedly, put on hold that and other plans, for such a new life, they would discover, had come at a price that neither they nor Dr. Hernandez could have possibly foreseen.
The terror began about seven weeks later, during a five-day trip to Acapulco, the long-delayed honeymoon that Fulla would later remember as the beginning of the nightmare. Fulla would be convinced that the man with whom she had been sharing her hotel bed on that final, terrifying night had definitely not been her husband.
That evening, as the two, naked, were making love, Alex's thrusts, normally relaxed and gentle, suddenly became rough and violent, causing Fulla to scream in pain. "Alex, honey, please let up!" she begged. "You're hurting me!" Oblivious to her mounting pain, he buried his head in her left shoulder and drove ever harder and harder, while the mattress springs loudly squeaked in protest against the intensified assault.
"HEY, I MEAN IT!" insisted Fulla, pushing his sweat-drenched body back by his shoulder blades as forcibly as she could with her two hands. "LET UP!"
This resistance suddenly enraged Alex, who reacted in a way she had never known before. With his left hand, he brutally squeezed both cheeks of her delicate face, drawing them in and squashing the soft flesh in a vice-like grip that forced her mouth into a distorted pucker. "SHUT UP, OR I'LL SPLIT YOU IN TWO!" As he abruptly released her, she instinctively drew back defensively against her sky blue, cotton case-covered down pillow, pulling the matching bed sheets up around her upper body, and, terrified, staring at what was now a brutal stranger intent on rape, a stranger whose eyes no longer resembled those of her husband, but which were rock-hard and frosty cold. Alex's transplanted face was frozen in a monstrous expression of utter hate and evil, the mouth twisted into a hellish snarl, like that of a rabid dog. Then, like an abrupt change from a gale to a zephyr, Alex's eyes inexplicably softened, his face relaxed, and a warm smile replaced the snarl. The stranger was now gone; her husband was back.
"I'm sorry, honey," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I guess I just got carried away. Forgive me, baby?"
"Okay," she answered nervously.
"Come here, 'Beautiful Flower,'" he responded, now lying back against his own pillow, and holding out his arms lovingly. After about a minute's hesitation, Fulla gradually let the sheets drop from her body, and slowly, reluctantly, accepted his invitation, resting her head and hands against his chest as Alex, with his left hand, drew the sheets up over their lower bodies. He then draped his left arm over her bare back and shoulders and held her close, his right hand lovingly caressing her hair. Soon, his eyes closed, and he fell asleep. Fulla tried to sleep, too, but she couldn't get the memory of her husband's shocking change of personality out of her mind. As her wide open eyes continued to stare into the hotel room's darkness, she couldn't help but see, over and over again, a stranger's face that had seemed to bear the Mark of the Beast. She silently prayed to God that she would never see it again-not in her beloved Alex's face.
The two never mentioned the incident again, although a week after they had returned home, a strange event brought the disturbing memory back again. They were driving home one afternoon from one of Alex's regular follow-up appointments with Dr. Hernandez. He had been unusually irritable all morning, and without any reason that Fulla could see. Then, a charcoal gray squirrel darted out across the street. Immediately, instead of either slowing down or veering slightly and safely to the right to avoid hitting the animal, Alex accelerated and swerved to so violently in an attempt to hit the squirrel head-on that he almost went left of center, and had to jerk the stirring wheel of the cream-colored Windstar they had just purchased, having traded in the used Accord, to the right, in order to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming produce truck. Still, he had the temerity to shout, "FUCK YOU, DICKHEAD!" at the stunned truck driver, a middle-aged, gray-haired man in a light green John Deer cap and blue bib overalls over a white cotton T-shirt, who had blown his horn in warning. He then grumbled about having missed the squirrel, when he discovered that the rodent had safely made it across the road, to the brim.
"Alex, you could have killed us!" exclaimed a shocked Fulla. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," he bluntly replied. "Let's stop for some gas."
As he made an abrupt right turn into the nearest Sheetz gas station, he had neglected to use his turn signal. Immediately, a teenager in a blue L.A. Dodgers ball cap and matching jersey, and driving a bright, mustard yellow Honda, honked his horn in protest. Instantly, Alex slammed on his breaks, made a violent U-turn in the middle of the station, and pulled out in hot pursuit of the upstart, cutting off an elderly couple in a tan Dodge Bonneville. Alex drove with a demonic fury, tail-gating the Camarro ruthlessly and pressing on the horn with his left hand so strongly that his palm seemed glued to the center of the steering wheel, resulting in one long, sustained BEEEEEEP!" He was so close to the other vehicle's bumper that either he or Fulla, at any moment, would be sitting in the young man's glove compartment. The teenager was so frightened that urine started freely flowing from beneath his gray-checkered Joe Boxer under-shorts and down his bare legs, between the toes of his wicker basket brown sandals.
At that moment, a black and white L.A.P.D. cruiser pulled out across the street from an adjacent alley, blared his siren, and flashed his lights.
"Alex, pull over," advised Fulla.
"No!" he stubbornly refused.
"ALEX, PULL OVER!" she insisted.
"All right," conceeded Alex, "but that little pick's gonna get away."
"I SAID 'PULL OVER!'"
"ALL RIGHT, I HEARD YOU!" Alex answered, finally pulling over to the brim, beside a Mc Donald's.
The L.A.P.D. officer, a tall, lanky, thirty-year-old African-American man with a neatly trimmed moustache, stopped his cruiser directly behind Alex, turned off his siren with his left hand, and disembarked, firmly closing the driver's door with his right hand, and strode over to the Windstar. His immaculately polished black boots, as well as his silver belt buckle, both of which perfectly complemented his neatly pressed, navy blue polyester uniform and matching tie, with equally shiny silver clasp, gleamed brightly in the mid-day California sun. Alex, for some reason known only to him, and much to Fulla's astonishment, opened his driver's door with his left hand, leaving it open, and climbed out of the Taurus, striding over to the officer.
"Sir, please get back inside your vehicle," calmly warned the officer, as the two began approaching each other.
"Look," began Alex, waving both of arms, which protruded from beneath the fire truck- engine red knit golf shirt he was wearing with his khaki cotton shorts and sky blue, and white-striped Adidas sneakers that day, "I happen to know Judge Sutter, and if you'll be reasonable about this, I'll put in a good word for you."
"Please get back in your vehicle, sir…NOW!"
"Are you trying to tell me what to do?" asked Alex defiantly, not breaking stride.
"I'M NOT GONNA TELL YOU AGAIN, SIR! GET BACK IN YOUR VEHICLE!"
Fulla drew her hands up to her face. Tears of panic and humiliation flowed down her cheeks and onto the front of her rose-flowered, white sun dress as she watched Alex, who was now inches from the officer's face, take a right haymaker swing at him. Deftly side-stepping the blow, he paralyzed Alex with a left-hand fist to the solar plexus. With his right arm, the officer then forced him, face-first, to the ground, pinning him with his right knee to the small of his back. "Hey, watch it!" shouted Alex, spitting gravel and dirt from his mouth, his arms and legs beginning to bruise from the hard surface. "You're wrinkling my new face!"
"SHUT UP!" answered the officer, his patience long at an end, as he deftly snapped, with his left hand, cuffs over Alex's wrists.
Alex was charged with aggressive driving, road rage, and assaulting a police officer. This time around, Judge Sutter was far less sympathetic to Alex than he had been before. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail (all but seven for mandated weekly anger management counseling), fined $500.00, and placed on two years probation.
Fulla was now seriously wondering if more about Alex had changed than his face, whether he was really the same man she had fallen in love with, and had supported through all the personal hell and turmoil of the last year. A new incident would soon add to her growing fear and doubt.
One bright, sunny morning, Fulla slipped on her canary-yellow terry cloth bathrobe and peach-tone bathroom slippers, and stepped outside to retrieve the newspaper from the front porch. There, she discovered a stray tabby milling around their yard, evidently searching for breakfast. The cat instantly nuzzled the right side of its face around Fulla's legs, marking her as part of its new territory, and meowed loudly. "Well, good morning, sir," Fulla smiled. "How are you today?"
"My, you sound hungry. Wait here, and I'll get you some milk." She then stooped down, retrieved the morning paper with her right hand, and walked back inside, closing the door behind her with her left. She returned shortly, carrying a ceramic saucer of skim milk in both hands and laid it softly down at the cat's feet. As its head went directly to the bowl, its tongue began lapping the contents up vigorously, Fulla bent down and, with her right hand, began petting the cat's back gently.
"Well, it looks like we've got a house guest this morning," said Alex, as he, wearing his own, ruby red bathrobe, and royal-blue house slippers, walked out on the front porch.
"Why don't you introduce yourself?" Fulla said. "He seems to like people."
"Okay," smiled Alex.
It was refreshing to see Alex in a good mood for a change, Fulla thought to herself. Normally laid-back and easy-going, he had been extremely irritable, and hard to get along with lately; it seemed that the least little problem, such as a frozen Internet site, or low batteries in the entertainment remote, was enough to send him into a paroxysm of rage.
As Alex knelt down and started stroking the cat's back with his left hand, the animal instantly stopped drinking, jerked its head up, arched its back, and drew several feet back from the dish, hissing and screeching at Alex, and adopting a defensive posture.
"Well, what's the matter with you?" asked Alex, as he drew near again and held out his left hand as a gesture of friendship.
Immediately, the cat sprung into action. It fastened its teeth onto Alex's outstretched hand, and bit sharply into the soft flesh of three of his front fingers. Alex recoiled in pain, holding the injured hand with his right and shaking the fingers vigorously.
"What the hell!," Alex screamed in pain.
"Oh, Alex, you're bleeding. You'd better wash that off and put some peroxide on it."
"Peroxide? I'll probably have to get a fuckin' rabies shot!" Alex then audibly cursed under his breath, as he retreated for the bathroom medicine cabinet.
Fulla then turned, and looked at the cat. The animal still stood its ground, continuing to hiss and screech, seemingly ready to spring again if Alex returned.
"Honey, can you drive me to the emergency room?" called Alex from the bathroom. "This damn bleeding won't stop, and I'll probably have to get a shot after all."
"Okay!" replied Fulla, who then drove her husband in her own car, a new, bronze-colored Toyota Camry she had just financed, his makeshift gauze bandage saturated in blood, to the downtown L.A. E.R. When they returned, Fulla had just enough time to dress for her 4 P.M. U.C.L.A. choreography class. Fortunately, she merely had to change into her pink leotards, over which she wore a light, white windbreaker and hung her purse, along with ocean blue U.S. Olympic sneakers. After class, she decided to stop at the local ACME for some additional birdseed for their backyard feeder. Upon returning home, she parked the Camry in their recently re-blacktopped driveway, and walked to the backyard. There, her eyes beheld a sight she would never forget. Hanging from the top limb of the yard's large elm tree was the tabby, its neck garroted in a hemp noose, and both of its eyes cut from its bloody sockets. Fulla screamed in terror. Alex, his three fingers still heavily bandaged, ran outside to investigate, and stopped several feet from Fulla, who, upon seeing her husband, stared at him accusingly, her mouth drawn in an expression of loathing and disgust.
"Fulla, what's wrong?" Alex innocently asked. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed, as he turned his head to the right, in the same direction his wife's face was now pointed, and noticed the atrocity, it seemed, for the first time-or so Fulla felt he wanted her to think. "My God! What kind of sick bastard would do this? Wait here, hon. I'll call the police!" As he retreated inside the house to place the call, Fulla now feared for her own safety.
Fulla couldn't prove that Alex had molested and hanged the cat, but, judging from his recent behavior, she couldn't entirely dismiss the likelihood. If it were true, she now wondered how long it would be before she would his next victim. She couldn't believe that the gentle, intellectual young man she still loved could be capable of such brutality. As soon as that speculation crossed her mind, however, she realized that, possibly, she was being a hypocrite. After all, as cruel as this act was, this was merely an animal ; she had committed premeditated murder . But, she told herself, these had been cold-blooded evil men who had deserved their fate; even though she had taken the law into her own hands, what she had done, she yet again strongly believed, was justice . If God were going to hold her accountable for what He still considered a sin, so be it. She was prepared to accept His judgment, and her ultimate fate in the other world; in an afterlife that she believed was awaiting us all. But, she felt, there was absolutely no justification for mistreating and killing an innocent animal; if Alex could do that to a cat , she was convinced, he could just as easily so to a child-or even to her . If Fulla had not thought of him as a monster when he had had a monster's face, she most assuredly wondered if, normal face notwithstanding, he was not one now.
That evening, she slept beside him as every other night, so as not to arouse his suspicions, but restlessly. When she had finally drifted off to a sound slumber, she was abruptly awakened, at exactly 3 A.M., by Alex's screams of terror. Fulla quickly reached over to her immediate left, and with her left hand, switched on the bedroom lamp on their maple night dresser. Then, she turned sharply to her right, and looked over at Alex, who was sitting up in bed, streams of sweat running down his bare chest and stomach, and on to his white cotton shorts. Despite the warm, late summer evening, he was shaking like a man exposed to sub-zero chill. "Honey, what's the matter?" asked Fulla, scooting over to his right side, her two hands steadying his broad, but clammy shoulders.
"Oh, Fulla!" he exclaimed, turning his face toward hers. He was still trembling, and desperately trying to find the words to explain the fright he had just experienced. "It was terrible! I dreamed I was at some strange house-I even remember the address on the mailbox, 3371 Spruce Lane, Inglewood. There was this, like, eighty-year-old woman, okay?-I'd never seen before in my life. I took a rope, the same one I'd used to kill the cat!-Oh, my God, Fulla, I admit it! I did it! I did it! I don't know what came over me…some horrible, uncontrollable impulse! I just couldn't help myself! And…in the dream…I wrapped that same rope around her neck…and strangled her with it! Then, I took a penknife, the same I'd used on the cat, and cut both her eyes out-and placed them in a big leather satchel. And…in that satchel…were…hundreds of dismembered eyeballs, all staring up at me… staring up at me! Fulla, what's happening to me? " He forlornly lowered his head and covered his face with his outstretched hands.
Fulla, forgetting her prior fears and suspicions, now saw only her beloved husband, and in the grip of some unknown horror that evidently the cat had sensed about him and that neither one of them could understand; she only knew that they needed each other now more than ever before. She maternally cradled his head in the bosom of her beige lace nightgown and rocked him back and forth, reassuring him that everything would be all right, and that, together, they would find the answer.
Unexpectedly, that answer would come from a totally unexpected source, from an unknown address in Lakeland, Florida.
During the last several months, due to their newfound fame, the couple had received hundreds of letters from interested parties, including families of disfigured children, asking for their advice and help. Always they would recommend Dr. Hernandez's services, and be their liaison for a free initial consultation. The volume had gotten so large of late that Fulla had seriously considered hiring a private secretary to help out with what now had become the daily burden of handling the paper work. At their ceramic kitchen table one evening, shortly following Alex's horrifying nightmare, she ran across a letter from Lakeland, Florida, from a Martin P. Armstrong. It was a letter that had begun much the same as the others: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Roth: I had recently seen the two of you on The Patty Collinsworth Show…" But instead of asking for advice or help, this letter was much different:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Roth:
I recently saw the two of you on Patty Collinsworth. I must tell you that this new face is not the end of your troubles; it's only the beginning. I don't know where or how your doctor found this face, but I know whose it is-I recognized it instantly, because its memory, for reasons I will explain later, has never left me. Indeed, I live with it daily. Only evilcan come from this face-and tragedy-for the both of you, if it hasn't already. This is no joke or scam. I am deadly serious.
You two seem like decent people, and I want to help you. Please call me,
collect, at 555-598-3646. I know that I can't expect either one of you
to believe what I have to say out of hand, but, perhaps, if we can meet
together, here, in Lakeland, I can give you the proof that you need. I
urge you to call A.S.A.P., because, if I am right, time is of the essence.
Marvin P. Armstrong, A.S.C., Retired.
Fulla did not know what to make of this letter, but she was struck by the initials "A.S.C.," and decided to ask Alex about them. "Doesn't that stand for 'American Society of Cinematographers?'"
"It sure does," replied Alex, as he held the letter in both hands, scrutinizing it carefully. "If this letter's legit, then he's a retired cinematographer who's probably living off of his pension in Florida. Lakeland, right?"
"Well, he may be a crackpot or a nut case, but I'm wondering if it's not at least worth a call. What do you think, Fulla?"
"Alex, after what's been going on lately, I'm willing to try anything." She was especially insistent since, for five straight nights since the first nightmare, Alex had had exactly the same dream, and, each time, right at 3 A.M., had awakened in a panic, but with the dream's horrible details, even down to the same cryptic address, still vivid in his mind. She knew that they had no other choice.
"Okay," he agreed. "Let's get on the phone, and see what he has to say."
Fulla then made the call. Mr. Armstrong explained that he, indeed had been, first an assistant cameraman in Hollywood, and, then, later, a Director of Photography, from 1927 to 1981, and that it during the first year of his career, when he was only sixteen, that he had been privy to a terrifying secret that he was convinced held severe ramifications for Fulla and her husband.
None other than Henry Greenberg had mentored Armstrong; the screenwriter who had long been Alex's idol, and with whom the young cameraman had become drinking buddies with. In his email, Armstrong explained that Greenburg had had an obsession with realism, which led to the horror that he suspected was now haunting both Fulla and Alex. More, he could not reveal, he claimed, until he could talk with them face to face. He urged them to fly out to Florida at their earliest convenience, and gave them directions to his Lakeland apartment. After consulting with Alex, Fulla called the old gentleman back, again, collect, at his insistence, and informed him that they would be booking a flight on Friday morning, and to expect them some time during the weekend.
After they had arrived in Lakeland, rented a car, and booked themselves into a hotel, a Marriott, they phoned Mr. Armstrong, and told him that they would be at his apartment, around 10A.M., the next morning, on Saturday.
That night was another restless one for the couple. Alex woke up, exactly at 3 A.M., his heart palpitating and in a cold sweat, as always, having had the same nightmare that had haunted him in Anaheim, for the sixth straight night. It seemed that the dream had followed him even to the East coast. More than ever, they were desperate for whatever explanation Mr. Armstrong could provide them.
The next morning, they drove their white rental Cadillac to an upper class apartment complex, surrounded by immaculately kept lawns, neatly manicured hedges and rose bushes, and orange groves. The only blemish on this idyllic scene was the weather, which was chilly and overcast, due to a recent, late September hurricane. Fortunately for Alex and Fulla, they had packed some warmer clothing for the trip, a powder blue, knit U.S. Olympic jump suit for Fulla, her right hand securely gripping a tan suede hand bag, and hooded, royal blue, cotton Adidas cotton/polyester sweat outfit for Alex. They parked the rental car in the asphalt driveway, disembarked, and, side-by-side, mounted the recently redone concrete staircase to the second level, and located apartment door #22. Alex pressed the Intercom button on the eggshell white door's upper left hand corner side with his right hand, and waited for a response. Soon, an elderly, yet strong, steady, whiskey-and-cigarette voice asked, over the machine, "Who's there?"
Alex looked at Fulla for a moment in slight surprise, since there really WAS a man living at this address after all, and then answered, "It's your visitors, from California, Mr. Armstrong: Alex and Fulla Roth."
"Just a minute," answered the voice. They then heard the unlocking of what sounded like several thick, heavy bolts from inside. Then, the door slowly opened, revealing a dignified, regal-looking old man, his still full white hair neatly combed, and parted at the side, and wearing thick bifocals, a plaid shirt buttoned to the top, a stone gray Cardigan sweater, dark blue denim jeans, held up by dark blue leather suspenders, thick, tobacco juice brown diabetic socks, and black felt bedroom slippers. Although ninety-five years old, and in a wheelchair, he seemed in full possession of his faculties. His still bright hazel eyes stared intently (just to make sure that they were not deceiving him) at Alex's face, a face that he was all too familiar with, from some distant time in his youth. To him, it almost seemed that this man he was staring at again, after almost eighty years, had, miraculously, returned from the dead. Then, after a minute or two, during which time Alex felt rather like a Monarch butterfly under a magnifying glass, Armstrong recalled the purpose of their meeting, smiled, and said, "Come in, please." As the two entered, he carefully re-bolted the door.
He then motioned for them to follow him into the living room, a small, yet clean and tidy area (what Hemingway would have called "a clean, well-lighted place") with plush beige carpeting, bone-white painted walls, a slate-gray sofa and two matching chairs, and a twenty-four-inch T.V., V.C.R., and D.V.D. on a center, oak counsel. On both sides of the living room were two Mahogany bookcases with top, sliding glass panels, all immaculately cleaned, with not a single smudge on either one, behind which were plagues, trophies, and other memorabilia from his past Hollywood career. The one on the far right featured framed photos from over a fifty-year period, featuring him posing with such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Mae West, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Dorothy Dandridge, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier. What really caught the young couple's attention, though, was a large, framed picture behind the glass in the bookcase on the far left wall, the only one on in that case (as if it had been designed as a kind of shrine) of a tall, striking, dark-skinned, Samoan woman with long, flowing black hair, and wearing a dahlia-patterned sarong. In the picture, she was standing beside, and holding hands with, a slightly graying, middle-aged Armstrong in a pair of navy-blue swim trunks, on the beach, in front of an ocean surrounded by palm trees, both barefoot, and smiling broadly. All in all, she reminded Alex and Fulla of movie photos they had seen in memorabilia shops of screen icon Dorothy Lamour; in fact, the whole setting could very well have been a scene from one of her movies. Noticing their interest in the picture, he explained that the lovely young woman was his beloved third wife, whom Marlon Brando had introduced him to in the early 1960s, one summer in Tahiti, where this photo had been taken. They were married shortly thereafter, and had lived happily together for over thirty years, until her death from cervical cancer nearly a decade earlier. Remembering that his visitors had not traveled across the country to reminisce about either his public or private life, he drew up his wheel chair to the sofa's right side, and motioned for his two guests to seat themselves.
"I know both of you must have many questions, but, hopefully, this will answer most of 'em." He then turned to his left, and, with his right hand, pulled open the bottom drawer of one of the two book cases, removing an old, tattered diary with a torn, apple-red cover. He then closed the drawer with his left hand, wheeled the chair directly in front of Alex, and placed the book in his outstretched right hand. "What's this?" Alex asked, as he placed the diary on his lap and began to leap through it with both hands. Fulla moved closer and studied its contents while looking over Alex's right shoulder.
"My friend and mentor," Armstrong began, "the man responsible for giving me my first big break in Hollywood, was Hank Greenberg."
Alex and Fulla turned and looked at each other in disbelief at the irony of the Alex's own idol being so closely connected to the amazing story that Armstrong was about to share with them. They then both turned in Armstrong's direction, so as to give their undivided attention to their elderly host.
"Hank had seen my work on some Sennett shorts," Armstrong continued, and recommended me to Brian Marshall, a producer at Paramount, where he was writing a screenplay for a new picture, a silent movie, called London by Gaslight."
Again, neither Alex nor Fulla could comprehend the irony that was beginning to seem all the more incredible to the both of them.
"Well, this was a picture about a mysterious killer in Victorian London, a strangler of young women-"
"A serial killer?" asked Fulla.
"Yeah, I guess you could call him that," Armstrong answered. "Anyway, as I said in my email, Hank was a perfectionist, a stickler for realism, and he wanted extra-special technical assistance for this picture. So, he figured, who better to consult with him on a story about a killer than…a killer? So, I don't know how or where-he must have had some connections, I dunno…but he found the perfect source to help him. He found… you!" revealed the old man, pointing a crooked, arthritic right forefinger at Alex. "Or, I should say, the man whose face you now wear, Mr. Roth. In fact, that's the killer's diary that you hold in your own hands."
"You mean to say," Alex replied, trying desperately to make sense of the whole bizarre situation, "that this new face came from a serial killer?"
"His name was Vincent Pluto," Armstrong continued. "His specialty was strangling women, with strong rope. That's why Hank wanted to use him as a technical advisor, if even un-credited; he wanted to know all about what brand of hemp the character would likely use, how he would target his victims, and how he would garrote 'em. As a return favor, he got Marshall to pay this guy for one day's work as an extra. If you ever see this movie-I understand it's lost-(Alex nodded in acknowledgment)-you can spot him in a brief scene, as a derelict who discovers one of the victims, in Hyde Park. Only Hank and I knew about his true identity; Hank confided in me, 'cause he knew I'd never rat on him."
"And this 'guy,'" Alex asked nervously, already anticipating the terrible answer, "did he do anything else to his victims-in real life?"
"Yes, he did," Armstrong answered. "He used to take a penknife to cut both of their eyeballs out and placed 'em in a big, brown satchel. Hank told me Pluto had quite a collection; I guess the sick bastard kept 'em as trophies. He wanted to use that in the picture, too, but Marshall wouldn't let him. He knew the censors would never allow it."
"And what happened to this… monster?" Fulla asked.
"Well, this is the part, I think, that most involves you folks. After he'd gotten all he could from Pluto, Hank turned him in to the police. The D.A., who was in Paramount's pocket at the time, kept Hank's and the studio's name out of the trial and the papers. Years later, after Pluto had been gassed, Hank got this diary in a package through the mail, without a return address. Hank couldn't help but read it. Most of what was in it, he'd already known about, except for one passage Pluto must have written in prison-how the hell whoever sent it to Hank got a hold of it, we'll never know-but it was this passage that really spooked Hank, so much so he couldn't bear to have it in the house any longer, and gave it to me."
"What was it?" asked Alex.
"He said he'd find a way, even if it was a hundred years or more years, to come back, " 'in another form, and in another body,'" and that when he did, even though Hank may have escaped him, his last surviving offspring wouldn't. He'd wipe 'em all out! And when I saw you, Mr. Roth, on Patty Collinsworth, with a face that only I'd recognize-maybe 'cause I've been just too damn stubborn to join the others from those days who've passed on-they say 'only the good die young,' and, so, maybe old bastards like me live forever, I dunno," he chuckled-"but you can understand my concern. If anything strange has happened to you-and I think it has, otherwise you two wouldn't have flown out here like this-I don't want to know about it. It's none of my business. But if this diary can be of any help, I thought it was my duty to give it to you."
Alex and Fulla thanked him, shook hands, and bade him goodbye. That night, while on their flight home, and, unbeknown to the two of them, some unknown force from beyond the grave was acknowledging Mr. Armstrong's help in another way. Shortly after Midnight, as he lay in bed, he was awakened by some inexplicable tightening of his throat. He began to gasp, as he felt some invisible, strong object cutting off his air. Then, something that felt like the fingers of two strong hands jerked his head to the left, in the direction of his oak bed dresser, on top of which sat his sheathed hunting knife. Suddenly, an unearthly voice in his head urged him to take the knife to his eyes, and…
Several days would pass before the Lakeland police, alerted by neighbors worried about his inexplicable absence, and by the foul, rotting stench of decomposition from his open bedroom window, investigated. When they did, they would find a shocking sight: his corpse, lying on the bed, his detached eye sockets strewn about his stomach, and the front of his white cotton, notch-collared pajama shirt spotted with blood and retina tissue. In the lower middle folds of the peach-colored nylon blanket was the hunting knife, bearing, not only his own blood, but his fingerprints. The County Coroner might have ruled it a suicide, despite the fact that there was no object in the room with which he could have possibly strangled himself-especially after having cut out his own eyes, an action that, the autopsy revealed, had put him into debilitating shock. Furthermore, the trauma to, and the red welts around the neck he had suffered, suggested that he had not only strangled, but had garroted himself. The official report: "'DEATH BY CAUSE OR CAUSES UNKNOWN.'"
As soon as they retuned home, and after having changed into more suitable California weather clothing, a pink cotton tank top and Guess polyester blue jeans for Fulla, and a hunter green pocket T shirt and rust brown Wrangler cotton jeans for Alex, Vincent Pluto's diary occupied the couple's every waking minute that first day back. The living room sofa on which the two would sit side by side and together read the diary, stopping only for meals and bathroom breaks, became their portal to another world, a place from which they would daily embark on a journey into the mind, and into the private hell, of a man whose evil, they were convinced, had not died in the C.A. State Penitentiary's gas chamber. The diary unraveled, page by page, the disturbing story of a psychopath whose life represented the dark side of the "Age of Innocence," the very antithesis of the glitz and glamour of the 1920s Hollywood that he had been drawn into by Henry Greenberg's self-admitted obsession with authenticity.
Paradoxically, though, the diary also revealed a genuine love for, and devotion to, someone named "'Cheryl Laraine,'" to whom the author referred to numerous times as his "'Angel of Light,'" and the one, he trusted, who would "'find the way.'" "'Find the way'" for what? For his own return, as Armstrong had speculated? If so, how? And who was "'Cheryl Laraine?'" Pluto did not explain how Greenberg, whom he referred to as that 'little Jew writer,'" had found out about him; these "'connections,'" as Armstong had referred to them, and which suggested an intriguing secret, second life led by Greenberg himself, was evidently a secret that the screenwriter had taken with him to his grave. One fact was certain, however: his "technical advisor" was a true sociopath, driven by both his own paranoia, and by what he regarded, in his own warped, private way, as a personal "'quest'" for 'perfection,'" a "'quest'" that, over a seven-month period, after he had moved from Milwaukee to L.A. in search of work, had cost twenty-four innocent women their lives.
Pluto talked repeatedly about his aversion to women's eyes, particularly of those whom he called "'tainted,'" or "'imperfect.'" These were women whose features signaled to him the presence of what he repeatedly referred to as "'impure blood,'": mulattoes, Asian Americans, Greek Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans, all of whom, he felt, seemed to "'crawl out of the damn woodwork in L.A.,'" which he felt was much more of an ethnic melting pot than Milwaukee had ever been, which may explain why his "'quest'" began so close to Hollywood. Most vehemently, he hated those of Native American heritage, who represented, what he had convinced himself was, the most "'primitive'" and "'inferior'" of races. All of these women, though, he claimed, possessed one trait that he especially despised: what he repeatedly referred to as "'deep, piercing eyes that could see right into a man's soul, read his every thought, know his every secret-even those that he wanted nobody else to know.'"
For him, Alex and Fulla discovered, it was the traumatic memory of having been sexually abused, at the age of five, by his thirty-year-old nanny, an Irish American woman named Maggie, who was 1/4 Cherokee. She was a "'big-boned woman,'" as Pluto had described her, who would easily overpower him, and force him, time and again, "'in the dark of the night,'" and in the private sanctuary of his bedroom, to "'pleasure'" her private areas with his mouth, to the point where he would nearly choke, and to allow her to perform fellatio on him, warning him, repeatedly that, if he refused, she'd "'break his little balls,'" and tell his parents that he was a "'sick, bad, boy'" who needed to be "'put away, for his own good.'" These warnings, she would deliver, with the "'most frightening'" of "'ice-cold, steel gray eyes'" that would cut through him "'like a stiletto.'"
Both of these memories-of nearly choking, of those terrifying, penetrating stares-would repeatedly play a role in his crimes, first, in his selection of female victims-street prostitutes, "'B girls,'" vendors, even shop and laundry women that he would repeatedly pass by one the streets of downtown L.A. on their mornings to work. All seemed to possess what he called the "'mixed blood'" that, he was convinced, was tainting their moral character in the same way that her Cherokee heritage had tainted Maggie's. He was determined, then, to "'wipe them out,'" and to save the children that, he had told himself, they were no doubt even now secretly defiling, as Maggie had, years ago. It would also, from his point of view, prevent them from "'breeding,'" and spreading their "'accursed, impure blood'" to other generations. The fact that he would strangle them with the strongest of hemp rope he could find, thereby completing the near choking that he had always experienced during Maggie's sexual assaults, and then brutally cut out those eyes that reminded him of his tormenter, seemed to explain his perverted modus operandi, if not his determination to keep the eyeballs of all of his victims. This was something that even Pluto himself could fully explain. "'I don't know,'" he admitted, over and over again, in the diary, "'I guess I just want to make sure that nobody else can ever use the damn things.'"
This statement, Alex and Fulla surmised, might explain his belief that somehow the woman referred to as "'Cheryl Laraine,'" his "'Angel of Light,'" would accept the challenge, of what he called her own 'quest,'" of discovering a means of bringing him-or at least what he referred to as his "'spirit,'" or his 'essence,'" back to this world. He talked repeatedly about his conviction that the human body, and all of its parts and organs, were merely "'storehouses'" for 'psychic energy,'" for the "'life force,'" and that, properly implemented, that force could live on, in "'another body,'" that his will to live-and to complete what he could not complete in life-would not die in the gas chamber, in what he called this "'shithouse.'" As Armstrong had informed him, that "'mission,'" as Pluto also euphemistically called it, was to gain revenge on Greenberg, whom he considered a "'turncoat'" and a "'Judas, Jew traitor'" by "'wiping out his 'seed' from the face of the earth.'" This, he vowed, as Armstrong had said, even if took him "'a hundred fucking years or more,'" and that "'Cheryl Laraine'" would help him do it.
When they had finished reading the diary, neither Alex, who was amused by the irony of this anti-Semitic's face winding up on the body of a young Jewish-American, or Fulla, could dismiss this diary as the ranting and raving of a mad man. There were too many weird, disturbing parallels to ignore-the killer's motives, his victims, his methods of dispatching them, plus Alex's intermittently bizarre, uncharacteristically, unmotivated actions during the last few weeks-those of a sexually deviant, irrational, violent sadist. Plus, that very night, exactly at 3 A.M., Alex was awakened from a sound sleep by the same nightmare. This, he admitted, to Fulla, was "driving him crazy," and that if they didn't find the answer soon, he wondered if he would have to be placed in the psychiatric ward, or if, eventually, he would really be driven to carry out what the dream was depicting. He also had to confide to her that which he had never told her before, that, each day, the obsession with the address of the woman in the dream, 3371, Spruce Lane, Inglewood, was growing stronger each day. The address he said, was "burning its way" into his mind, "boring a hole" in his head, more strongly each day-there were times, when his attention wavered, or when he felt like dozing off, that he could see the numbers and the letters as plainly as he could see his own face-"that damn face," as he now referred to it-in the mirror. Furthermore, he told her, he was beginning to feel an increasingly irrestible urge to drive to that very place, and to do that which he dared not admit to himself. As she tried to comfort him, he warned her that she might have to consider "locking him up," for her own protection.
"No, Alex!" she insisted, grabbing him by his bare shoulders and forcing him to look her directly in her eyes. "Before that happens, we're gonna get an explanation-from Dr. Hernandez. I've always suspected that knows more about this face than she's ever admitted. I'm calling her office the first thing in the morning!"
After she had placed her call, Dr. Hernandez agreed to meet with them late in the afternoon, following her regular clinic hours. There, in her private office, they sat across from her, Fulla's handbag resting in the chair beside the right elbow of her long sleeve, olive green notch-collared camp blouse, which she wore this day with a pair of lavender Ralph Lauren cotton slacks, and slate gray pumps, and the diary at Alex's apple red, and white-striped U.S. Olympic sneakers, which he was wearing with the company's matching battleship gray cotton sweats. They shared with her all that they had learned from Martin Armstrong, assuring her that they had no attention of revealing, to either the media, or the police, where she and her staff had gotten the face for the transplant, but that they needed to know, for their own mutual peace of mind. They then showed her the diary, particularly its references to the mysterious "'Cheryl Laraine.'" The name, they both noticed, seem to strike a response from Dr. Hernandez, whose eyes studied the first letters of the two names intently, and whose lips repeated "Cheryl Laraine" to herself over and over again. "Wait here," she abruptly said, as she suddenly jumped up from behind her desk and retreated to a spare room, whose door she abruptly closed so that the two could not hear the conversation she was about to conduct by phone.
When she returned, Dr. Hernandez wore on her face an expression of concern that neither one of them had seen before in her professional countenance and demeanor. She once again sat down behind her desk, and waited silently for a few seconds, torn between her loyalty to professional ethics and to the couple, whom she had grown to personally like, and empathize with. Finally, she leaned forward, and announced, "Listen, both of you. I can't tell you anything else now, other than the fact, that I had gotten the face from a professional and reputable medical source. It seemed the perfect specimen for the transplant-healthy, and perfectly preserved, and it came from…a person I had long trusted and admired." As she said this, she had to bite her quivering lower lip, as if being forced to accept the truth that she could now no longer deny. "In fact," she continued, tears beginning to form in her eyes and behind her glasses, "she was more than a teacher…more than a mentor…she was everything I wanted to be, and had ever hoped I could be. She was like a big sister to me!"
"Who was she?" Alex asked earnestly.
"Yes, please, Doctor, you've got to tell us!"
Dr. Hernandez removed her glasses with her right hand, placed them in the pocket of her white cotton clinical coat, worn over a short sleeve, alabaster-colored cotton crew neck top and tan cotton skirt, laid them on the desk in front of her, and held her hands in her two hands, sobbing uncontrollably. When she had finally gotten a hold of her emotions, she raised her head up, her eyes still moist with tears of regret and horror, and said, "She was my medical school supervisor, and she lives in Denver, where we'd made the arrangements for the shipping of the face."
Alex and Fulla leaned forward, anxiously for Dr. Hernandez' full revelation.
"Her name is 'Dr. C. L. Aranya'… 'Cheryl Laraine Aranya!'"
Following Dr. Hernandez' startling revelation, and, refusing to accept both the letters in her mentor's name, and the origin of the face as mere coincidence, Alex and Fulla persuaded the Doctor to accompany them on an emergency flight out to Denver. Dr. Hernandez had her secretary cancel her immediate appointments, and to close the clinic indefinitely, with paid time off for her, while Alex booked a "red eye" flight to Colorado for the three of them. Before they left, however, Dr. Hernandez placed one more call to Dr. Aranya, informing her of their visit. The old woman was most insistent that she would see only Dr. Hernandez, and not the couple; Dr. Hernandez humored her by agreeing to her terms, despite the fact that she had no intention of honoring them, but knew that the deception, though regrettable, could not, she reasoned, compare in what she now suspected her old mentor of. Besides, her patient's well being and mental balance-perhaps his very life-were at stake.
By the time they had arrived in Denver, and had rented an eggshell-blue Honda Accord at the airport, it was now only 7A.M., Colorado time. All three were experiencing severe jet lag, and, Alex, because he had refused to allow himself to fall asleep that night, so terrified had he become of the dream, was particularly tired, but they realized that if they didn't find the answers to their questions now, they most likely never would. When Dr. Aranya answered the doorbell, a smile at first crossed her venerable, wrinkled face, but she instantly frowned in displeasure, like a cat whose nose has been rubbed in its own litter box, at the sight of Alex and Fulla. She tried to close the door, but was stopped by Dr. Hernandez' left hand. She then let the door stand half-open, as Dr. Hernandez then withdrew her hand.
"I TOLD YOU," objected Dr. Aranya, "THAT I DIDN'T WANT TO SEE THESE PEOPLE! You broke your word to me, Rosie. I thought you'd never do that!" She again tried to close the door, but this time Alex stepped forward and held it half-way open with his strong right hand.
"Get out, all of you!" demanded Dr. Aranya, "or I'll call the police!"
"You can do that," Alex answered, "but I thought you'd at least want a chance to see your own father again, in the flesh, or, should I say, in my flesh?"
"Her father?" asked Fulla, who was standing directly behind Alex, in astonishment.
"Doesn't it make sense, Fulla? Who would a man like Pluto more likely call his "'Angel of Light'" than his own young, innocent,…someone who would be about Dr. Aranya's own age right now?…someone whose initials are "'C. L.?'"…someone who would have had a special reason to offer this face to a colleague she knew she could trust?…someone she knew would never question her motives?"
"I don't know what these people are talking about, Rosie," Dr. Aranya answered, relaxing her grip on the door long enough to allow Alex to withdraw his hand and once again allow it to swing open half-way. "Now, I'm going to give you one more chance to turn these people away. I'll talk to you, but not to them!"
"Then you'll never lay your eyes on this!" replied Alex, holding up the tattered old diary that he had been carrying in his left hand for their obstinate host to see.
"What is it?" she asked.
"It's Vincent Pluto's diary."
At this revelation, the old woman's eyes lit up like twin lighthouse beacons. "Give it to me!" she demanded.
"Only if you'll see all of us!" insisted Alex. "Otherwise,…" His left hand then took a silver butane lighter from his right, camel-colored, leather jacket pocket, which he wore over a hunter green, polyester mock turtleneck, black corduroys, and acorn brown boots, all for the chillier Denver climate, and then flipped the lid open with his thumb; his two forefingers then deftly ignited the lighter as he held it inches from the diary cover's flaking leather.
"No!" she cried. "Don't!"
"Are you going to let us in, then?" asked Alex.
"Yes," the old lady responded. "I can see I have no choice. Come in." As soon as Alex had de-activated the lighter, closed up its lid, and put it back in his jacket pocket, she opened the door wide, let her uninvited-and unwelcome guests-in, and locked the door squarely behind her. She then escorted them to the living room, a modestly furnished area with, in addition to her venerable, tobacco brown leather sofa she had owned for over twenty years, three reclining chairs, each with a plain, pea green comforter, and an old 20" Zenith color T.V. on the center oak end table. Because she had evidently had had trouble hiring a new housekeeper following Claire Spencer's suicide, the thinning, asphalt-gray carpet needed vacuuming, and newspaper supplements and medical reports were strewn all over the furniture.
"Let me have your coats," she said. Alex handed her his flak jacket, Fulla, her ocean blue leather jacket, which she wore over a black, crew neck polyester sport top and plaid rayon skirt, along with hose, and lavender pumps, and Dr. Hernandez, her slate blue suede overcoat, which she wore over a plaid, double-breasted polyester jacket and skirt, along with hose, and black high heels. Dr. Aranya herself was dressed in a powder blue cotton/polyester sweat suit, over which she wore a white cotton housecoat, along with a pair of black Sketchers. After placing the coats on the far right arm of the sofa, she sat in the middle of the couch, while Dr. Hernandez, Alex, and Fulla all helped themselves, at her invitation, to the adjacent chairs. As they waited for Dr. Aranya's explanation, they could not help but hear the sounds of yapping dogs, screeching cats, and other, unidentifiable animals from some area on the second floor of the house.
"I don't know what the trouble is," Dr. Arnaya began. "I got you a good face, just as I'd promised, didn't I, Rosie? Look how it's conformed perfectly to your patient's muscle, face, and bone structure. Your experiment's been a success, my dear. You should be proud of that fact!"
"Cheryl," replied Dr. Hernandez, "you never told you where you got that face-who it belonged to-and why this face, and nobody else's."
"Rosie, you never asked for details-you were never interested in them. So, why ask now?"
"I'll tell you why!" interrupted Alex. "Ever since I've had this face, I've changed! I think strange thoughts…I do strange things-things that only Vincent Pluto would know about-and he talks about them-in this diary." His right hand then lifted the book from his lap and handed it to Dr. Aranya's now outstretched left hand. "In particular, an address," he continued, "3371 Spruce Lane, Inglewood. Sound familiar?"
"Can't say that it does," replied Dr. Aranya.
"Then, what about the theory that living matter may be able to exert its own psychic energy, or force of will?" asked Dr. Hernandez. "That was a theory that you'd posed on far more than one occasion, both in numerous papers, in our graduate seminars, and to me personally, when I started consulting with you about face transplantation."
"It's only a theory," my dear, Dr. Aranya reminded her. "I never made any claim to its verification."
"Well, now you have verification," Fulla told her. "It's here, in this diary you now hold in your hand-written by your own father, Vincent Pluto, who uses the same words you've as much as admitted you used to Dr. Hernandez, "'living matter,' 'psychic energy,' 'force of will.'" Believe me, it's all there!"
"So, you think I preserved my dead father's face all these years, and that he'd entrusted me to discover a means of restoring the tissue's life force? Why would he trust me to find the way?"
"' Find the way!'" repeated Fulla emphatically. "That's exactly the words he uses time and time again."
"Is that all you have to go on?" asked Dr. Aranya, cynically.
"No," answered Fulla. Alex, remember how she reacted when you tried to burn the diary?"
"I sure do," Alex answered. "Like it was the most important thing in the world to her, and that she'd do anything she could to prevent me from destroying it."
"Exactly!" replied Fulla. "Vincent Pluto is no mere name to her, and this diary isn't any ordinary book! It obviously means something to her!"
"Are you finished?" Dr. Aranya asked.
"Not quite!" Fulla answered. "Alex, Dr. Hernandez, look at her face! They say daughters generally resemble their fathers. Don't both of you notice the same cheekbone, forehead, jaw structure and mouth? Why, how could anyone deny that strong a family resemblance?"
Both had to agree, even Dr. Hernandez, who was more familiar with the face than either Alex or Fulla, but, because of that very fact, had ironically long overlooked the obvious, since she had been seeing the face as merely a piece of tissue all those months, nothing more. But now, as she looked back and forth, between Dr. Arnya's and Alex's faces, she, too, had to admit to the strong resemblance; indeed, she thought to herself, her former mentor could even be mistaken for Vincent Pluto in drag.
After a few, agonizing moments of silence, Dr. Hernandez finally said, "Come on, Cheryl, the secret's out. You might as well tell us what this is all about."
Dr. Aranya, paused for a few moments, realized that denying the truth any longer was futile, and said, "Well, Rosie, you always were my brightest pupil. I shouldn't be surprised that you'd discovered the truth, like that one chemical compound formula that nobody else but you, out of all the class, were able to solve during our first graduate seminar together. Yes, Vincent Pluto was my father. I never knew who my mother was; I was told she died in childbirth, after she'd given 'illegitimate' birth-that's what they called it back then-to me, and I was adopted, after my father, who'd raised me on his own during the first years of my life, by my Aunt Michelle, his younger sister. She was devoted to her brother, and told me about what a good man he was, how much he loved me, and how he'd been framed by a Hollywood screenwriter who'd turned in falsified evidence to the State, who sentenced him to the gas chamber on phony murder charges, all because my father threatened to reveal that he, not him, had written the script for a new movie he was making, and he pinned the crimes that had inspired the movie, or so he claimed, on my father. Both my aunt and my father believed in the power of the mind, of the spirit, to live on; even at five years of age, I could understand what my father was telling me when he'd assured me we'd never truly everbe apart. And because I showed an interest early on, in science and medicine, my aunt was convinced that I would eventually be able to use my God-given scientific talents to somehow bring him back. So she worked and slaved to finance the best medical school education she could for me, and I did it for one reason: to bring my father back, and to clear his name."
"Where did you get the face?" asked Dr. Hernandez.
"Somehow, my Aunt managed to make arrangements for possession of the body, which she paid the State California Medical School to perfectly preserve for her. Later, I came in possession of the body. By that time, my studies were convincing me that the best way to preserve his life force would be through either head transplantation-that was before our work together, Rosie, had convinced me that face transplants might be the more logical way, because, what could be a more personal suppository of one's life force than one's own face, which gives each of us our unique, human identity? I wish I'd decided on this earlier than on the other path I'd chosen, but we all learn from our mistakes, don't we?"
At that last remark, a loud crash issued from the upstairs room from which the incessant barking and screeching had continued. Instantly, Dr. Aranya sighed and shook her head, as if this was an annoyance that she had long learned to live with, and rose from her chair, followed by Dr. Hernandez, Alex, and Fulla. All three watched anxiously as Dr. Aranya mounted the stairs, and stopped at a room at the end of the second floor hallway. With her right hand, she pulled a key from her left house jacket pocket, and unlocked the same oak door that little Josh Spencer had futilely tried to batter down in his desperate try at escape. Like the boy roughly a year earlier, they followed the animal cries-and the strong stench of deification-- to around the room's winding corridors, passing, as Josh had earlier, vacant animal cages. But those they found around the room's far north end were far from vacant. In fact, they were filled with every monstrosity imaginable, all with Dr. Aranya's telltale, jagged, crisscrossed stitching at the each hybrid's neck. In addition to Sam, the former Black Lab with the body of a guinea pig, were several other cages (Dr. Aranya had been busy since Josh's unannounced "visit"), occupied by, respectively: a black rat with the head of the fluffy, brown, and white splotched guinea pig that had "donated" its trunk to Sam's head; a creature with the head of a white rhesus monkey attached to the dog's body; a freak with the rat's head atop the monkey's body, and, the piece de resistance, a thing with the yellow and orange speckled body of a wild cat, but with two heads: that of its long-eared original owner, and that of, attached to the head's immediate left, a slate-gray jack rabbit. The wild cat's head had been trying to attack its foreign counter-part (indeed, it was still snarling, and snapping at the rabbit's face, which was stretching its shared body's neck muscles in a desperate attempt to escape its assailant), and all of the twisting and turning had caused the cage, which had been placed carelessly too near the north edge of the shelf, to fall to the floor. Dr. Aranya calmly picked up the cage with both hands and placed it next to its mates. On a table to the immediate left was a cage with the jack rabbit's decapitated body, which Dr. Aranya evidently planned on using for some future project. Alex looked on in shock, Fulla initially screamed, and covered her eyes with both hands, and Dr. Hernandez looked on in revulsion, mixed with a natural scientific interest at the same time. Even she, though, realized that her trusted mentor had gone too far, and had committed gross animal rights abuse in the name of her own misguided scientific interests.
"These are my 'mistakes,'" Dr. Aranya admitted. "I decided to continue these experiments, even after Rosie had found the right recipient for the face, just in case it failed. In the meantime, I've proven that full head transplants are possible! I've created subjects that are perfectly normal animals in every sense of the word-their every instinct, every action, perfectly controlled by the brain. They can eat, drink, sleep, hear, make noise, and shit - oh, can they shit! Unfortunately, I've not yet found a way of re-attaching the spinal chord to the brain- nobody has, but, eventually, I will. For the time being, though, my subjects must, unfortunately, remain as they are now-quadriplegics."
"Cheryl," said Dr. Hernandez, "if this is what you've done with your skills and knowledge, then may God forgive you! But you don't know the extent of what you've really done! Cheryl, your Aunt lied to you! Your father really was a murderer, driven, partially, by past forces beyond his control, but mostly by his own hatred, prejudice, and cruelty, all of which he alone was responsible for controlling. But he chose not to do, and he used you-as well as me, and Mr. and Mrs. Roth-to further his own evil ends, as part of some diabolical plan he had formed years ago. But his plan isn't yet complete. He's now intent on using my patient, Mr. Roth, as a means of killing innocent people, and for the only reason that they're the last, living descendants of a man who did what was right, who turned your father over to the fate that he deserved!"
Enraged, Dr. Aranya took her right hand and slapped her former student across both of her cheeks. Nonplussed, Dr. Hernandez ignored the insult, and simply said, "You can be in denial all you want, Cheryl. I don't expect you to believe me, nor Mr. and Mrs. Roth, but you will, I know, believe your father. Read the diary." Dr. Hernandez then motioned for Alex and Fulla to follow her down the stairs, and out the door, leaving Dr. Aranya standing in the middle of the room, the diary still in her hands, to ponder her words.
That morning and afternoon, while her early morning guests were on their flight home, Dr. Aranya read her father's diary from cover to cover, hot tears of betrayal burning her cheeks. In the twilight of her life, she had to admit the truth: that her father was an evil man whose influence had totally misdirected the very course of her own life. She now realized, after having earlier rationalized the tragedy as one over which she had had no control or reasonable foresight of, that Josh Spencer's likely life-long psychological trauma had been her doing, as a result of her life-long obedience to her father's Machiavellian plan, and that she bore full responsibility. And if Alex Roth was right about the face's influence, she would bear full responsibility for its future crimes as well. Vincent Pluto's self-proclaimed "'Angel of Light'" now saw him as nothing less than the Prince of Darkness himself, a patriarchal anti-Christ who had, along with her Aunt, manipulated and betrayed her innocent trust in him, as well as having warped her idealism and her life, and she was determined to be finally rid of his now repellent memory, even at the cost of her own life.
For what would be the final time, she mounted the stairs, re-locked the door behind her to the laboratory, and, with her left hand, opened the lower right-hand drawer of a balsa cupboard near the rows of animal cages a large, tin canister of kerosene. She lifted the container out with both hands, and, while holding it close to her stomach, began furiously unscrewing the lid. She then walked around the room, emptying the contents all over the desks and cages, which caused the test animals to loudly protest in discomfort. Finally, she was ready. She withdrew, with her right hand, a matchbook from her left hand corner housecoat, opened it, struck the carbon liner with her right, and threw the lighted match into the middle of the spilled kerosene, near the cages. The cages instantly erupted into a ball of fire, eliciting the most blood-chilling blazing combination of screams from the monstrous menagerie that died of asphyxiation while the flames licked their rapidly charring carcasses. Meanwhile, the inferno spread around the room, igniting the rest of the kerosene, while Dr. Aranya calmly sat on a silver plastic folding chair in the middle of the room. She closed her still tear-filled eyes and began coughing spasmodically, the diary clenched in her hands, and on her lap, while she waited for death to claim her, all the while renouncing the devil of a man that she had once regarded as her father.
"Another transplant? Another transplant? You're asking me to go through this living hell one more time?" Alex couldn't believe that Dr. Hernandez could ask him to subject himself to a second operation, especially since the first had opened up a door to a personal hell that no other human being had ever known before. This, though, was the plan that Dr. Hernandez had discussed on the return flight, while Alex had at last succumbed to fatigue, and fallen asleep. Now, informed fully, once back in Dr. Hernandez' office for an early evening meeting, his first response was, despite Fulla's pleading to hear their friend out, refusal.
"No offense, Fulla, but what did you two smoke on the way back?"
"Mr. Roth…Alex…" replied Dr. Hernandez, 'I admit that there are risks."
"Yeah, tell me about 'em," answered Alex. " This face has damn near turned me into a cross between Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler. Whose are you gonna give me next? Jeffrey Dahmer's?"
"Alex!" interjected Fulla, who was seated beside her irate husband, disapprovingly.
"No, it's all right, Fulla," Dr. Hernandez, who now rose from behind her desk, assured her. "Your husband has every right to be both bitter and cynical. I accept full responsibility for not having checked out more carefully his new face's history. I was relying solely on my trust in Cheryl-Dr. Aranya-and her word, as she knew I would. I was wrong. But I haven't made the same mistake, I assure you, with this second face?"
"You mean you already have one?" asked Alex, incredulously.
"I couldn't tell you then," explained Dr. Hernandez, pacing around her desk, removing her glasses with her right hand and pensively dangling them from their left arm. "In fact," she continued, "I've told no one else, since I had no authorization for a second donor, either from the Hospital or the State Board. I did it on my own-I felt I had to-with my own funds, and without my staff's knowledge. That's why, this second time, I have to perform the surgery secretly, and alone, hence the risks I've referred to."
"What did you do?" ask Alex.
"Shortly after your new face had been shipped here, I made arrangements to acquire a second face, as a back-up, in case anything went wrong with your operation. I did this only after I had met you two…had become close to both of you…and couldn't bear the thought of letting either one of you down."
" Another face!" Alex muttered, hardly able to believe the news.
Dr. Hernandez went on: "I believe that the only way of divesting you of Pluto's influence is to do away the seat of his diabolical control-his face-and to replace it with a totally benign substitute. Come. Let me show it to you."
She then motioned for the two of them to accompany her. They followed her to same room where they had first laid eyes on Vincent Pluto's accursed face, which Alex now wore over his own skull. In the room was a second tub; identical to the first they had seen, in the far west corner. Dr. Hernandez invited them to peer into the frozen water, beneath the ice chunks. There, they saw a much different face than they had seen before, that of a young man, about in his mid-twenties, with smooth, thin jowls, high cheekbones, slender lips, slightly arched nose, and a small dimple on the right cheek. In some ways, these were closer to Alex's original features than Vincent Pluto's, and which seemed to convey the impression of cleanliness and innocence.
After several minutes of silent contemplation had passed, Alex tore his eyes away from the face, turned in Dr. Hernandez' direction, and said, "Doctor, I hardly know what to say, except-how we can be sure about this face? If Pluto's life force lived on through his dead flesh, then, what about… this?"
Dr. Hernandez was fully prepared for that question. "Alex, if such a thing as psychic energy does exist, I'm convinced that only certain types of evil are strong enough to survive death, and that, if Vincent Pluto is one of these special cases, he's the exception, not the rule. Besides, if this face truly does have anything to bring from its past, there will be nothing to be afraid of."
"How can you be so certain of that?"
"Because I knew the person this face belonged to-very well, I may add. But the rest I need not tell you, until later. But what I need to know now is if you're ready to risk this second operation. We'll be charting into even more unknown territory than before, because, this time, I'll have to first remove the existing transplanted face, something nobody's ever done before, and then transplant the new face. Again, keep in mind that I cannot guarantee success, especially under these conditions. She then sighed deeply and said, "I need an answer."
Alex and Fulla looked at each other for mutual confirmation. This was a decision that, like the first, both had to make together. Within seconds, first Full nodded, and then Alex, who turned to Dr. Hernandez and answered, "Yes. Anything's better than losing my soul to this living nightmare any longer."
"Good," smiled Dr. Hernandez. "I want to see the two of you here tomorrow, at 7 A.M. Before tomorrow evening, Alex, you'll be completely free of Vincent Pluto forever!"
Alex and Fulla then thanked her, and left for a dinner at their favorite downtown L.A. Middle Eastern restaurant. There, they did their best to think of the future that Dr. Hernandez had promised them-the kind that they had hoped would have been theirs following the first operation, one free of past tragedies and evil. When they finally returned home, around 9:30 P.M., Fulla recommended that they both retire early, but Alex, declined, explaining that he was too "keyed up" to fall asleep just yet, and that he'd stay up for about an hour or two, and write some additional music for "the Young Film Composers' Competition" for his assigned clip from The Magician, which he'd review again, on the living room's T.V. and D.V.D.
"Okay," replied Fulla, but don't stay up too late, okay? You need some rest."
"I won't, 'Beautiful Flower,'" he assured her with an appreciative grin. Then, he held her close, and the two passionately closed their eyes as they treated each other's lips to a loving kiss. "Good night," he smiled, as he then gently released her. "I love you."
"I love you, too, honey," Fulla smiled back, as she headed from the living room to the bedroom to change into her black lace nightgown. It wasn't long, after climbing into bed and turning off the dresser lamp light, that she fell asleep.
Later, around 2 A.M., Fulla was awakened by a furious clatter, first coming from the kitchen, and then from the garage. Then, still groggy, she distinctly heard the engine of their Windstar start up, and of its tires peeling out of the driveway. Now, fully awake, Fulla threw off the covers, bolted out of bed, quickly stepped into her black felt slippers, which had been lying on the foot of the bed, and raced to the living room, where the light was still on. Nowhere was there any trace of Alex, whom, she surmised, had fallen asleep in the living room when whatever impulse had now possessed him had manifested itself. Then, her eyes were diverted by the still burning light in the garage. Suffering from a strong feeling of impending dread that was making her stomach queasy, she, nonetheless, felt compelled to investigate the garage. Impulsively, she sprinted out the still open kitchen door (Alex had evidently left in a hurry), to the sounds of barking neighborhood dogs that had been startled by all the late night activity. When she reached the garage, she discovered that it, too, had been carelessly left open, its door fully up. "Oh, my God!" Fulla muttered to herself as she instantly saw that a coil of rope, which had always been kept in the garage's south corner, was gone. She then quickly turned off the wall switch with her right hand, hurried out the two-car garage, where her Camry still sat, to the immediate right of the spot now vacated by the Windstar.
She wasted no time calling Dr. Hernandez on the silver cell phone that her left hand hurriedly picked up from the kitchen table, and urged her to meet her at the couple's bungalow as soon as possible. There was no question in either woman's mind where Alex had headed, and where they themselves knew they now had to travel: 3321 Spruce Lane, Inglewood.
The distance from Anaheim to Inglewood was about forty-two minutes, and Alex had already gotten a head start on them. As soon as Dr. Hernandez had arrived, in her fire azure Mercedes Benz, she and Fulla were instantly headed for the L.A. freeway. They were both convinced that the fact that Alex's recurring nightmare always took place at 3A.M. was prophetic, that this was the exact time at which Pluto had planned to carry out his malevolent revenge against who ever now lived at 3371 Spruce Lane.
That person was Fran Lowenstein, a former Las Vegas showgirl and dancer. She had been attracted to a show business career at an early age, having grown up in Los Angeles, and attended Hollywood High School. Often, she would visit the Paramount Studio after school, to watch the Hollywood Illusion Factory bring to life another one of her father's fascinating stories. Her father: none other than Henry Greenberg. Because she was he and his wife Alice's only child, the couple indulged her interests by enrolling her in ballet and dance schools. Later, she moved to Las Vegas, where she began her career. It was there that she had met her husband.
Fran had fallen in love with Julius Lowenstein, a U.S. Marine from Santa Monica, CA, whom she had met while he was on leave in San Diego, and had had taken the time to attend one of her Las Vegas shows. When they wed in 1942, she decided to temporarily retire from show business, in order to prepare for the arrival of their first child. Julius, though, would never live to see their son, Dustin Henry, born; he was killed in the Battle of Wake Island. Equally tragic, the baby died, shortly after his birth, from a genetic, defective heart valve.
Fran coped with these devastating personal losses, and later, the death of her father, of a heart attack, in 1951, and her mother, of a stroke, in 1965, through her deep Jewish Orthodox faith. In the meantime, though, she never remarried, and had kept her married name, in loving memory of her late husband. She also resumed her dancing career. When she retired, in 1982, she bought a modest, split-level, stucco-brick house in Inglewood, and kept active-"maybe that's why I still have all my brain cells," she would joke-by teaching weekly ballet and choreography classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The now eighty-six-year-old woman, still striking, and slim, after decades of professional dancing, was loved and respected by all in the community, except by one: a dead man who had resolved to wipe the earth of Henry Greenberg's entire surviving lineage. Like a person who is struck by lightening on a golf course, she was merely an innocent victim whose only mistake, from this monster's point of view, was having been born with the name of "Greenberg."
As she slept peacefully that night in her bed, Fran had no idea of the danger posed by the young, troubled man in the Windstar, who, unknown to her, had just parked beside the curb adjacent to her house.
Alex sat in the front seat, staring intently at the house. In his right- hand Corduroys' pocket was a penknife, the same one with which he had butchered the stray cat, and which he had newly sharpened before leaving the house. It was now more than suited for its new task. On the Windstar's tan upholstered front passenger seat was the coil of rope he had taken from the garage, and, on the passenger's front floor, a mud brown, dust-covered, leather valise that, without Fulla's knowledge, he had, under some irrestible, indefinable direction, been drawn to recover from some secret location in East L.A., the cob-web-strewn and mildewed cellar of an abandoned crack house. There, he had been directed by this same force to the left lower-hand corner of a brick wall that he could tell had been redone, but not disturbed, many years before. With a crowbar that he had impulsively taken with him, he had knocked down that portion of the wall and had recovered the object that Pluto had disposed of, because of its incriminating contents, during those last few hours when he knew that the police, alerted by Greenberg, had been hot on his trail. It contained-and still did-the "trophies" from the twenty-four women he had killed before his capture. Alex had, for the time being, hidden the valise from Fulla by placing it behind a large, apple red, metal gas can in the garage's north corner. Before this night was over, Pluto had determined, the valise would contain one more set of "trophies," by using Alex as his agent.
But Alex still retained enough of his own will-and humanity-to try to resist the growing impulse he was fighting to break into the house and consummate Pluto's revenge. He refused to budge, and stubbornly remained seated in the Windstar. Then, almost as if Pluto, from his special place in Hell, could sense Alex's rebellion against his power, decided to show him who was master. Instantly, Alex felt his throat tightening, and his neck muscles constricting. Reflexively, his hands went to his neck, clawing desperately at his trachea, in an effort to relieve the growing pressure. All the while, his breath was becoming increasingly labored, for oxygen was being cut off from his throat. He started wheezing, and thrashing violently about, as he tried desperately to lift, whatever invisible object was choking him, from his throat. When his eyes began to close, and his vision started to blur, and foam to stream from his mouth, he realized that it was no use, and that he must either acquiesce, or suffocate, and shouted, "STOP! STOP! I'LL DO IT! I'LL DO IT!" Then, as instantly as it had begun, the pressure on his neck lessened, and then ceased, and he opened his eyes. As he felt oxygen once again seeping into his lungs, he coughed and wheezed like a man in a fire-ravaged asbestos factory. The fingers of his right hand massaged his ravaged neck, while his chest rose and fell with each new painful breath he took. When he glanced up, and into the Windstar's visor, he noticed that the area around his Adam's Apple was now covered by deep, red welts. How could he possibly fight an opponent like this?
Realizing that any further resistance was futile, he reached over to the passenger side front seat and scooped up the rope with his left hand. Then, he bent over and grabbed the handle of the valise with his right. With both objects firmly in tow, he opened the Windstar's front passenger door with the free fingers of his right hand, climbed out, closed the driver's door, firmly, but quietly, with a push of his right elbow, and stood on the curb, sizing up the house, and trying to decide on the best method of entry. Suddenly, it came to him: the rope could be used to scale the house's west wall, and reach the second level, so that he could enter through the upstairs bedroom window.
Placing the valise temporarily on the ground, he took both of his hands and, guided by a special dexterity that was not, assuredly, his, he expertly flung the rope's front strands up over a second-story gable, tugged on the rope with both hands, and, make sure it was secure, picked up the valise with his right hand, shoving it tightly over his left armpit, and began to scale the wall. He was glad that this was stucco brick; otherwise, his boots would have slipped and slid over a smoother surface. As it was, he found that he had more than enough traction to make the steep grade. Soon, he was up over the gable, and facing the bedroom window.
He now calculated, roughly, the diameter and thrust necessary to burst through the glass. After about half a minute, he was ready. Pivoting slightly down, and to his left, he lifted his legs up; the heavy boots pointing directly at the glass, swung out, and, with all of his strength, flung his lower body squarely into the window's middle. The glass shattered into thousands of minute fragments, covering the windowsill and littering the bedroom's graphite gray carpet. Fran, who had been violently, awakened by the noise, reared up in bed, her mouth agape, and her crystal-blue eyes wide open in fright. Now standing in the middle of the bedroom, himself, covered in glass, was Alex. Letting the valise fall to the floor, he pulled, with his left hand, the penknife from his pocket, pointing it and menacingly in Fran's direction, and approached his elderly victim. His plan-or, Pluto'splan, was to abduct her at knife-point, scale down the wall with her, retrieving the rope, and forcing her into the Windstar, in which he would drive her to some secluded spot, and complete his "work."
" Who are you? What do you want?" she demanded, impulsively drawing up the beige cotton bedcovers up over the top of her battleship gray, notch-collared cotton pajamas. Alex said not a word, but continued to advance, flashing the knife before her like a butcher about to work on a sheep.
"No! No!" she pleaded.
Alex grabbed the bridge of her fluffy, white permanent in his left hand, and roughly jerked her head up to his eye level, the knife drawing nearer…and nearer. As the sharp, cold blade pressed against the tender flesh of her Adam's Apple, it was now 3 A.M.
Then, suddenly, a thick, white, ether-saturated cotton handkerchief was thrust, from behind him, over his mouth and nose, and pressure applied by the right hand of his unseen attacker. Alex instantly released Fran, who fell back against her beige cotton-case-covered duck-down pillow, staring in shock and disbelief. The ether soon took effect, as the knife dropped from Alex's hand, his eyelids began to drop, and his body became as limp as a rag doll. He slumped to the floor, buoyed up by Dr. Hernandez' two hands, while Fulla, who, like her, had scaled the wall with the rope when they had arrived and had spotted Alex's Windstar, and the damage to the upstairs window, climbed through the windowless-sill to assist her.
"He'll remain anesthetized for several hours," said Dr. Hernandez, as she gently let him fall completely to the floor, leaving Fulla attend to him while she checked to see if his intended victim was all right. When Fran told her that she was, Dr. Hernandez instructed Fulla to drag Alex down the stairs, and to place him in the Mercedes' back seat, while she explained the situation to the still frightened, and shaken, Fran.
After about fifteen minutes, Dr. Hernandez joined Fulla, and explained that she had told Fran that Alex was a patient under her care, and who was suffering from severe, psychotic delusions, that she would accept full responsibility for what had happened, and pay for the damage to her house. She also asked her to not notify the police, since a subsequent such, she told her; an investigation would uncover facts that might prove injurious to the reputation, and memory, of her father, Henry Greenberg. Fran had agreed to Dr. Hernandez' request for the time being, in exchange for a complete explanation later. She then drove Fulla, Alex, and herself back to her Anaheim clinic, where a grim task now awaited her.
Back at her clinic, Dr. Hernandez prepared for immediate surgery, while Fulla waited with Alex in a makeshift operating theatre, in a special room that the Doctor had earlier outfitted. After changing from the royal blue Adidas cotton sweats she had worn for her emergency trip to the bungalow over a pair of the same company's white sneakers, and into her cap, scrubs, and mask, she sterilized her hands, forearms, and elbows in steaming, soapy water, and then donned her surgical gloves. Now ready, she invited Fulla to use the cot that she had set up for her in the clinic's outer office, and to get some rest, agreeing to notify her when the operation was over, and assuring her that she was certain everything would go well. Fulla, who had hastily donned the quickest clothes she could find while earlier waiting for Dr. Hernandez, Alex's white, and wine red-striped cotton shirt, hastily buttoned up half way, and an old pair of Guess cotton blue jeans, worn over some grass-stained black, and white-striped Nikes, stretched out on the cot in a fetal position, her head resting comfortably against a powder blue, cotton case-covered, polyester pillow, Dr. Hernandez, her cupped, gloved hands held out about three inches above her waist, so as to remain sterile, flicked off the office's north wall light switch with her left shoulder blade, and left for the operation. As Fulla closed her eyes, she uttered a silent prayer that the Doctor was right.
Dr. Hernandez then entered the operating theatre, whose light she had earlier switched on, pushed the door shut behind her with her left shoulder blade, and approached the gurney, on which lay Alex, still unconscious, his jacket having been removed, and covered up, from the bottom of his mock turtleneck to his chin, in a white cotton sheet, his left arm connected to the vital signs monitor. She then bowed her head, closed her eyes, and, as she did in private, before every operation, offered, a prayer, in Portuguese, to the Holy Mother, asking that, in the name of her Son, she grant her the courage and strength necessary to complete this difficult mission, and crossed herself with her right hand. Now, opening her eyes and raising her head, she took a deep breath, and was ready.
With her right hand, she took from the sliding metal tray, to her immediate right, on which lay various sterilized scalpels, retractors, and other instruments, a number 2 scalpel, and held it between thumb and forefinger. She then bent over her patient, whose face had been raised, due to her earlier adjustment of the gurney's backrest. Gently lifting and nudging the right side of his face with her left hand, just under his temple, she drew, closer to the scalpel, and held in position, his head. Lower, now, went the scalpel to the cheekbone, which would be the site of her first incision. She pressed the finely honed instrument into the flesh, which instantly began to draw itself in under the pressure exerted by it sharp point.
Immediately, and to Dr. Hernandez' utter shock and disbelief, Alex's eyes opened wide, with a hate reflected in them that she had never seen before in her patient. His whole expression seemed entirely different from that of the normally controlled, subdued, and benign Alex; this was clearly the countenance of a malevolent mad man. Alex's mouth twisted itself into a snarl, as his right hand rose with such strength that it instantly snapped the two connections to the vital signs monitor, and grabbed her wrist in a grip so powerful that her hand went both pale and numb, and the scalpel dropped with a clang to the floor, as she screamed in agony. Then, with one sweep of his arm, he flung her by the wrist, as if she were a Frisbee, nearly halfway across the room, causing her to fall against a balsa table, and to knock various glass tubes to the floor. She sat on the glass-strewn floor, her back against the still standing table, as she, wide-eyed in horror, watched Alex rise from the cot, tearing the sheet away from around his neck with his left hand. As he menacingly approached her, he seemed amused by her fright, and a cruel smile fell across his mouth. He was clearly enjoying this game.
"Well, Dr. Hernandez," Alex-or the thing that seemed to speak in Alex's voice-said. "We meet at last."
"Alex!" Dr. Hernandez screamed.
"Alex?" he mockingly replied. "Alex is gone! I'm here now! My name is Vincent-Vincent Pluto! And I'm never leaving! This body is mine now, mine! Did you really think you could take it back, or that I'd let you, of all people, stop me? You were just lucky at the Lowenstein house. When I'm done with both you and this kike's A-rab wife, I'll go back, and finish with that old hag once and for all! But first things first." He then glanced at the metal tray, and, with his left hand, scooped up a number 5 scalpel, which seemed to him especially pointed, and lethal, and held it, point out, as he drew nearer and nearer. "I really prefer a pen knife for these sorts of things, but sometimes, even an artist, like me, has to make concessions," he malevolently grinned.
He was now only inches away from Dr. Hernandez, and about ready to lunge at her with the scalpel, when suddenly they heard Fulla's voice from outside the door.
"Dr. Hernandez! Dr Hernandez!" she shouted. "What's going on in there? Is everything all right?"
"Not a word, understand?" said Alex/Pluto, as he dangled the scalpel under Dr. Hernandez' chin, "or she'll get it first!" The human monster that had now totally possessed Alex's body adopted the most benign, and frantic tone of voice possible, and answered, "Come in, hon, quick! I need help here!" He then shoved the scalpel into his left corduroys pocket, and turned around to face "his" wife.
Fulla quickly grasped the brass doorknob with her right hand and entered the room, stunned to see Dr. Hernandez rising unsteadily from the glass-littered floor. "Alex, what's happened here?"
"Fulla, honey," "Alex" began, "she's crazy! She tried to kill me!"
"Don't listen to him, Fulla," Dr. Hernandez. "It's Pluto talking, not your husband? The face's totally taken him over!"
Fulla stared in disbelief.
"You see how nuts she is, Fulla? There's nothing wrong with this face! It's been all her doing! She injected me with some kind of serum to make me act nutty, and to have weird dreams! This whole thing's been just one big power trip on her part to have total control over me-and Armstrong and Aranya were in on the whole thing, too. She paid Armstrong to send the letter, and write up a fake diary, and her old teacher out in Denver to go along with the scheme. It's all bullshit, Fulla, bullshit!"
"He's lying, Fulla!" Dr. Hernandez retorted. "Why would I do such a thing? What possible motive would I have had? He's trying to trick you! Don't let him do it!"
"Fulla, who're you gonna believe? Her or me? This is Alex talkin,' "'Beautiful Flower-Alex!"
"Wait! Wait!" shouted Fulla, flinging her hands in consternation. "I don't know what to make of all this!"
"There's nothin' to 'make of,' sweetie!" the man who claimed to be her husband answered, smiling. How can I prove it to you? Tell me how to find the way!"
At the sound of that phrase, Fulla's blood ran cold, and her eyes widened in horror. She knew that Alex would have never used those words so emphatically, but that only one man might. "You're not Alex!" shouted Fulla. What have you done with him?" Realizing that Fulla was now convinced of her words, Dr. Hernandez ran to her side. Instantly, Alex/Pluto intercepted them, running in front of them and slamming the door shut with his back, while quickly locking it with a twist of his right hand.
The thing that bore Alex's name now instantly adopted such a cold, hateful stare, and such an evil grimace, that Fulla had no remaining doubt that her husband was gone, that a demon from hell had usurped his form. Immediately, his left hand went for his right pocket, and he withdrew the scalpel, pointing it menacingly at the two women, and whom he now slowly advanced.
"You know, Fulla," he began, "I should have fucked your brains out that night when I had the chance. It would have felt so good, stretching your every hole, and hearing you squealing like a pig, and begging me to stop! But I wasn't strong enough then to keep that kike husband of yours from holding me back, and stopping me from going all the way. But nothing's gonna stop me now!- nothing-from getting rid of the both of you! The world ought to thank me, really, 'cause I'll stop you from and that fuckin' Jew from breeding' more mixed-race kids! It'll clean up the gene pool, if you ask me! I think I'll skin you alive, like that cat I would've done to, after I ripped out its eyes. And you," he said to Dr. Hernandez, "I never liked spics much anyway! I think I'll disembowel you!" He then flashed the scalpel to and fro, grinned malevolently, alternating his face between Fulla and Dr. Hernandez, and asked, "which one of you bitches wants it first,huh?-which one?"
Immediately, while glancing around the room in an effort to find anything that could be used as a weapon, Fulla noticed a glass bottle, marked "Sulfuric Acid," on a mounted, metallic shelf, to her immediate right. Instantly, her right hand grabbed the bottle, and flung it, with all her might, into the man-monster's accursed face, shattering into a thousand pieces upon impact.
Its effect was instantaneous. His hands went to his face immediately, covering his eyes, and lowering his head, screaming in agony as the acid quickly began consuming the grafted skin, literally searing its way through flesh, sinews, and muscles. Funnels of gray smoke billowed from between his fingers, as his shoulders twitched violently in the most unendurable of pain. He then dropped his hands and reared his head up, his eyes wide open as his body went into shock, and both women could see the few remaining strands of the transplanted skin, dangling like limp, overcooked, spaghetti, from the both sides, and the chin, of Alex's earlier, flesh-stripped face. Fulla had never thought that she would welcome the sight of this horrible visage back, but she did. Within a few seconds, he passed out, and collapsed, headfirst, to the floor.
Fulla and Dr. Hernandez raced to his side, and lifted him up, with both of their hands, simultaneously, under each armpit, and placed him on the cot. "Now," said Dr. Hernandez, "you've got to help me clean him up, and get him ready!"
"For what?" asked Fulla.
"For the transplant," Dr. Hernandez replied. "That was quick thinking, Fulla! The acid's destroyed Pluto's center of power. I'm quite sure it's banished him forever. In the meantime, I'll attach the new face, just as I'd done the other one. Let's hope that he closed his eyes when the glass shattered, so that the acid didn't destroy the retinas!"
During the next nine hours, Fulla did what she could to assist Dr. Hernandez, handing her spare instruments (after having cleaned and sterilized her hands and donning plastic gloves, under the Doctor's direction), and wiping her brow with a white cotton handkerchief, duties that she insisted on doing, both because of the added stress she knew their friend had just been under, and because of the fact that she herself was so full of anxiety that she couldn't sleep now, even if she wanted to. Near the last two hours or so, she did accept Dr. Hernandez' suggestion to at least catch a catnap on the cot.
Fulla once again said a silent prayer-as she was sure Dr. Hernandez had done, too-that, this time, things would be different. Then, as soon as her head hit the pillow, she fell asleep. Immediately, or so it seemed (in reality, she really had slept nearly two hours), she was awakened by a smiling Dr. Hernandez, her mask pulled down over her chin, who told Fulla to come to the operating theatre.
There, Fulla almost wept in joy at the sight that greeted her still groggy eyes.
There, on the gurney, and propped up on a freshly provided, beige, cotton case-covered polyester pillow, was Alex, a white cotton sheet riding up just below his chin. His now wide-open eyes, as Dr. Hernandez had hoped, had been shut just in time to prevent vision damage, and they again expressed the warmth, softness, and humanity that Fulla knew could come only from Alex. But gone was the malevolent face. In its place, seamless and perfect, as if had always been there, was the innocent, benevolent countenance that she and Alex had seen earlier, in the second tub, at Dr. Hernandez' invitation. "Oh, Alex!" she exclaimed.
"Hi, there, 'Beautiful Flower,'" he remarked, with the voice she had always known, and loved, so well. Instantly, she ran to Alex's side, and, closing their eyes, they warmly embraced and kissed each other's lips. "Alex!" she exclaimed, as the two now opened their eyes, and he held her tightly, "you're back! You're back! And you're never going to leave me again!"
" Never, ever, Fulla. Dr. Hernandez's just told me what's happened. Don' t worry. He's gone forever! Hell has finally claimed him-and for all time."
Dr. Hernandez stood, beaming, to the gurney's immediate left, her hands clasped behind her back, and told them, "You couldn't have a more wonderful face than the one you own now. I should know."
"Oh, that's right," remembered Alex, now turning in his eyes in Dr. Hernandez' direction. "You were gonna tell us whose face this reallyis."
"I will," she replied. "It's my younger, half-brother. My parents adopted him from a British orphanage, when they'd visited friends one summer, on vacation. They fell instantly in love with him, and named him Joaquin. I couldn't have asked for a more cherished brother-and friend-than he."
"What happened to him?" asked Fulla, rising from the gurney.
Dr. Hernandez glanced down, sighed heavily for a moment, and replied, "he was studying for the priesthood, and, just as I was beginning research on face transplants, he had left on a commercial flight, for his visit to Rome, to see the Vatican. The plane malfunctioned over the Andes, and crashed into the mountains. There were no survivors. I asked my parents to please let me have his body, knowing that he would have wanted me to use it to help others, if I possibly could, and they agreed. It was his face, really, I had planned on using for the operation, until Cheryl had talked me out of it, arguing that the face she had selected was a better candidate." Tears began to form out of the corners of her eyes as she said, "Looking at you, now, Alex, is like seeing my brother returned to life."
Alex and Fulla smiled, in silent reply.
Dr. Hernandez glanced down for a few moments, wiping her eyes with a white handkerchief that her right hand had plucked from her jacket pocket, looked up and smiled, and said, "Well, now you know it all."
"Dr. Hernandez," asked Alex, "how can we ever thank you?"
"You don't have to," she smiled. "I really have you two to thank, since, with your help, we've proven that face transplants work. Now, we can go on with our work, and continue to help thousands of disfigured people all over the world lead normal lives. In the meantime, good luck and happiness to you both."
Alex and Fulla kept in touch with Dr. Hernandez, whom they both regarded as a genuine friend and benefactor. Life began looking up again for the couple, as Alex wound up winning the "Young Film Composers' Competition," and began a career, following his graduation from U.C.L.A.'s film school, in Universal's music department, and Fulla, shortly following her own graduation, eventually became a professional choreographer. Then, an unwelcome reminder of the past made its appearance. Alex received an email from William Butler, a film historian now living in Europe, who had discovered, in a collector's private archive, a badly decomposed, but still printable nitrate copy-no doubt, the only one still available, in all the world-of London by Gaslight, with German titles and subtitles.
Two years ago, Alex would have been delighted at the prospect of finally viewing, and arranging the financing for the restoration of this film. Now, because of the horror it had indirectly brought Fulla and himself, he was unsure of whether or not it should ever again see the light of day. He also had come to view his former idol, Henry Greenberg, in a whole new light. True, he had done the right thing, and turned a vicious murderer in-but not before he had protected him, and provided him with a day of on-screen film work, in order to fulfill his own plans, and satisfy his own aims. To Alex and Fulla, this was a tainted film.
Alex also calculated the astronomical cost that Turner Classic Movies and Eastman House would have to foot, not only to restore the film, but to provide English titles and subtitles. Film preservation was not cheap. Surely, he reasoned, that kind of money could be better spent on some worthy, charitable cause, such as Katrina relief. Still, on a return email, he asked Goldsmith to ship the print to him anyway, never mentioning his true intentions.
When the print arrived, in a steel, pebble gray canister, and cleaned of the silver nitrate residue from the decomposition, Alex took the canister in both hands, and, accompanied by Fulla, walked directly from the kitchen to their newly refurbished office/den. He placed the canister on the large, mahogany desk, pried off the lid, using a red-tipped, silver, flathead screwdriver as a wedge in his right hand, and removing it with his left. He then laid the lid on the desk, placing the screwdriver on top, and, cradling the reel against his stomach with his left hand, began un-spooling the film, inch by inch, with his right, letting it drop to the sable-carpeted floor. Fulla, who had been standing beside him, walked over to the paper shredder, located on the right end of the desk, bent over, activated the machine's "ON" button with her right forefinger, and stood up, looking on with approval, while Alex started gathering up the loose film with both hands. Then, a little at a time, he fed the film into the shredder, which, within five minutes, had completely obliterated, from the face of the earth, the only existing print of London by Gaslight. The explanation that he would later give Butler was that the film had been damaged en route, and had completely disintegrated upon his opening and inspection. Fulla leaned against Alex's right shoulder, as both of his hands encircled her waist, both smiling contently. They could take solace in the fact that both London by Gaslight and Vincent Pluto's diary, which had earlier met the same ignominious fate, were now but distant memories of an evil legacy that, like the accursed film it had inspired, would remain, justifiably, "lost," reduced to a thousand useless, minute fragments at the bottom of a paper shredder.