Mike McNichols, A Body Given
A Body Given
Publisher: Glass Darkly, Dec. 2, 2012
Length: 256 pp.
ISBN: 1935959387; 978-1935959380
While I’ve been a fan of vampire stories since I was a kid, I didn’t start writing about the undead until my grandchildren attempted to convince me that these soulless monsters were just a race of unfortunate and misunderstood beings. Seeking to correct their misperceptions, I set out to write a short story that became my novel This Side of Death, which continues to remain largely undiscovered and, at least by my grandchildren’s reckoning, largely underappreciated.
Nevertheless, the story still wants to tell itself, as these things often do. I’ve discovered along the way that a vampire story is a great vehicle for exploring the depths of evil that plague the human race. My vampires try to be true to the traditional legends, so they are unkind and unmerciful along with being undead. They also expose the darkness that often lies dormant (and too often not dormant) in the hearts of living, breathing, human beings.
The vampire genre also allows for explorations of faith. Since the legends themselves are a reversal of the Christian Eucharist (the blood of the many for the one versus the blood of the One for the many), there are numerous parallels and metaphors that allow a writer to move between the horrors of death and the mysteries of faith.
There is a third book in the making that will probably end this series of vampiric journeys. It too wrestles with horror and faith, moving the story to a new location through the lives of both new and familiar characters.
In the first place [the church] can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community (!). The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1933
Monday, August 27, 2001
Marv Ferlitch’s eyes felt like they’d been sealed shut with a staple gun. His head was pounding unmercifully as he awoke. Hangovers were not new to Marv, but this one was the mother of them all.
He tried to remember what he’d been doing. The image of last night began to materialize in his fuzzy brain. The woman had responded to his advances and he only had to buy her one drink to get her to take him upstairs to her room. He had been at the hotel bar for some hours before she showed up, but he didn’t think he had knocked back that much booze. He always tried to stay reasonably sober for the ladies.
For some reason he didn’t remember anything after walking through her door. It must have been some kind of night for it to be so hard to reconstruct in his mind. He usually replayed his one-night-stands in his brain for at least two or three days afterward, depending on the evening’s level of success. Maybe they had done coke or something-he couldn’t bring up a memory. It was like the whole night had been extracted from his mind. Losing such a recent recollection made Marv feel as though he had lost a limb.
Marv strained to open his eyes to see if she was still with him. His body barely responded to his brain’s commands to move, but he finally got his limbs to slightly shift position. But when they did, pain shot through his body like an electrical current. He felt resistance at his arms, legs and torso, like belts or ropes holding him down.
His eyes finally peeled open. The light in the room was dim, casting dull shadows over objects he couldn’t quite identify. The pressure in his groin told him that his bladder was full. He would need to get up soon or there would be a disaster in the bed. As he squeezed his thighs together his body jolted at the sensation of the catheter that was inserted into his urethra.
He struggled to lift his head and look around, gasping at the pain that suddenly shot through the side of his neck. It felt like a wound, but he didn’t sense the presence of any bandages. He was able to open his eyes enough to see that this was not a hotel room, but some sort of hospital ward. It was a huge room, almost like a warehouse, and there were gurneys all around him-he was in one himself. There must have been some sort of an accident. Maybe that was why he couldn’t remember what happened and why there were apparently so many other people injured.
As Marv’s eyes slowly focused he saw tubes coming out of his body. There was no sheet to cover him-he was fully exposed and the tubes were everywhere. He blinked his eyes and realized that something was connected to each eyelid, making the effort almost unbearable. Small tubes were inserted into each armpit; smaller, wire-thin tubes pierced the circular area around his nipples, bloodstains making his breasts look like bull’s eyes at the center of two targets. As he shifted his weight, pain shot through every part of his body where these tubes were present.
Marv twisted his head enough to see where the tubes were connected. They funneled into a small mechanism that looked like a pump. From that pump a single tube entered a liter-sized bottle that was one-quarter filled with a yellowish liquid. The fluid dripped into the bottle slowly.
His body stiffened as he gathered the energy to scream. The flexible tube that ran down his throat into his stomach kept him from uttering anything more than a moan. He began to choke, vomiting up the water that had been systematically pumped into his stomach.
He heard footsteps running toward him. He hoped a nurse or doctor would help him, explain what was happening, bring him comfort and ease his pain. When he moved his eyes toward the face of the person who now hovered over him, he knew that such hope would go unfulfilled.
The needle entered Marv’s arm roughly and painfully. The horror that coursed through his body faded and he fell back into unconsciousness.
Saturday, August 25, 2001
Vickie looked up from her laptop to watch Sean and Joey race across the backyard in pursuit of a soccer ball. Even at five years old, Joey reminded her of her older brother Jay-strong, intense, wiry. She smiled as her two men played in the yard, reminding her how good her life was.
She thought back to when she and Sean were engaged. She recalled that they argued repeatedly about whether or not Vickie would take his name.
“Sean, Birdwell and Vickie don’t go together.”
“Of course they do. Victoria Birdwell. You could be the heroine in a gothic romance.”
“Exactly!” said Vickie. “It will never work. Let’s take my name instead. Vickie and Sean Ellington. I like it.”
“Victoria Birdwell is the perfect name for a writer,” said Sean. “Sean and Vickie Birdwell. All the future little Birdwells will thank you.”
In the end, Sean won the battle. As Vickie watched Joey fly across the yard, she thought that “Birdwell” was probably a good fit for her son. The door to the kitchen flew open as Joey bolted inside.
“Hey, Mom. Can I have some milk?”
Vickie turned in her chair, closing the laptop and pushing it away from her on the surface of the kitchen table.
“Sure, Bud. How do you feel? Think you might be low?”
“Maybe,” said Joey, opening the refrigerator.
“Hold on,” said Vickie. “Let’s check your numbers.” She grabbed the blue backpack hanging on the hook next to the door. “Come here so I can wash off your hands.”
In the two years since Joey had been diagnosed with diabetes, the habits of checking blood sugar levels and giving injections had become a normal part of life for Vickie. She and Sean had wept together when the doctor identified Joey’s condition. For his part, Joey, always the courageous one, had taken it in his stride and proved himself to be a brave young trooper. He would never know a time in his life when he wasn’t dependent on his daily doses of insulin.
As Vickie scrubbed Joey’s hands at the kitchen sink, Sean entered and closed the door.
“Don’t believe a word this guy says, dear. I beat him fair and square.”
“No, I beat, Mom,” said Joey. “Dad isn’t as fast as me.”
“That’s for sure,” said Sean. “Any ideas for dinner, or is this Saturday night free-for-all?”
Vickie glanced at her husband. Since their days in high school, Sean had grown into a handsome, lean man. A series of terrifying experiences in Harbor Beach more than a dozen years ago had broken his nerdiness and set him on a more mature, confident course. When they started dating during their junior year at Cal State Long Beach, she knew she had rediscovered a treasure. They married right after graduation.
Sean’s short brown hair spiked through his Dodgers ball cap. At six feet, he towered over Vickie’s five-foot-three stature, but she liked that. She finished drying Joey’s hands and pulled her short blond hair back over her ears. From the backpack she removed the lancet and the glucose meter.
“Come here, Sport,” she said, hugging her son’s neck and kissing him on the top of the head, his light brown hair tickling her nose.
“Whoa. You smell like a horse that’s been rode hard and put away wet.”
Joey offered one hand and rubbed his nose with the other. Vickie pierced his finger and squeezed out a drop of blood, drawing it into the test strip in the glucose meter. She watched as the meter did its work.
“Sixty-eight, Joey. It’s juice and a cracker before anything else.”
Joey bolted to the pantry cupboard and retrieved a small can of apple juice. He handed it to Sean to open.
“Are you gonna shoot me up, Daddy?”
“Joey!” Vickie cast her shocked look at her husband. Sean grimaced at Joey and rolled his eyes. Joey looked at his mother and giggled.
“Good job on the pop vernacular, Mr. Father-of-the-year,” said Vickie, morphing her gaze from shocked to annoyed. She opened the refrigerator and scanned the shelves for things identifiable as reasonable dinner fare.
Sean cleared his throat in an effort to dodge the accusation. “We’ll do your shot right before dinner, pal. Drink the juice and then we’ll check your levels in a few minutes.” Joey downed the apple juice quickly. After dropping the empty can into the trashcan under the kitchen sink, he grabbed the cracker that Vickie handed to him, ran into the living room, and turned on the television. He stuffed the cracker into his mouth and chewed it as he fished in the TV cabinet for the game control.
“Only ten minutes on the video game, son,” Vickie announced. “I’m setting the timer.” She punched in the numbers on the microwave, and then returned to searching the refrigerator.
“We have Thursday’s spaghetti, Friday’s meatloaf, and something gray from... I forget.”
“I’ll have the spaghetti,” said Sean
“I want the gray thing!” yelled Joey, erupting again into giggles.
“Your son is a real comedian,” said Vickie.
Sean sat down at the kitchen table. “Did you call Jay back? I told him you would get back to him sometime today. He said he would be gone on Sunday.”
“Yes, I got a hold of him an hour ago,” said Vickie. “He said that it’s a hot, sticky August in Chattanooga.”
“He just wanted to give us his weather report?”
“No, you dope. He called to see if we were doing anything for Mom and Stephen’s anniversary. It’ll be ten years next month.” Vickie threw the unidentified gray mass into the garbage disposal.
“So, are we?” asked Sean.
“Probably not,” said Vickie, “at least, not until they get back. They’re going on another road trip in September. British Columbia, I think. They’re still on an extended honeymoon. Ugh-I think I just grossed myself out when I said that. She’s still my mother.”
“There are some things that should be neither imagined nor described, dear,” said Sean. “So, does Jay still like Tennessee?”
“He says he does,” said Vickie. “He seems to have fit in at the university and he loves teaching. Since Sheri is from there, it’s been easier for him to adjust to southern life. I think native Californians need a coach in order to adapt to that world.”
“Do you think they’ll ever move back to California?” asked Sean. “It would be great to have them close by.”
“I don’t think so,” said Vickie. “Jay seems to be happy to put Harbor Beach behind him. I can’t blame him, really. Sometimes I wonder why we stayed.”
“Our life is here,” said Sean.
“We almost lost our lives here.” Vickie glanced at her son in the living room. “If I thought there was any danger, I’d move us to Mars if necessary.”
Sean nodded and reached out, pulling Vickie’s slender body close to him. “I know. But we’re okay now.”
Vickie turned her head and looked over her shoulder out the kitchen window. “Yeah. I hope so.”
“Hi, Jay. It’s me again.”
“Vickie! Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just wanted to ask you about something. I’m thinking about entering a writing contest.”
“Good for you. I’ve been wondering when you’d get back into writing.”
“Me, too. With Joey starting school in a couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how I can find some time for writing again. I really want to get published.”
“You’ve been published. I’ve read your stories.”
“Sure, but those were in small, local publications. I want to do something bigger.”
“So the contest helps with that?”
“Maybe. It’s in a magazine called Pacific Coast Review. It’s sort of new out here. Have you heard of it?”
“Yeah, I have. I’ve seen it around the campus here. They’re trying to be a west coast New Yorker or Atlantic. Actually, I think it’s a pretty good literary magazine. at least by California standards. So the writing contest is going on right now?”
“Yes. It ends... let’s see... yikes! This is the August 2001 issue. The contest ends on August thirty-first.”
“Today’s the twenty-sixth. You’d better get on it, Vick.”
“Well, I think I’m going to do it. The winners will be announced pretty quickly-September seventh. They want a max of 4,000 words and there are a couple of prizes.”
“What are the prizes? Can I have one?”
“Sure. I’ll give you one you really need. It’s perfume.”
“Great. Thanks. What kind of perfume?”
“I knew you’d be interested. It’s some really expensive stuff. Wait-let me pull it up on my computer. Yeah, here it is: Andromeda. You could re-gift it to Sheri. One ounce sells for $2,000.00. She would be impressed.”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to create unreasonable expectations, especially for me. What’s the other prize?”
“It’s the one I really want. The winner gets published in Pacific Coast Review. They can keep their perfume. I want the fame and glory.”
“Good call, Vick. You should go for it. I’ve told you that you have the talent. You just need more exposure to readers and publishers. This might be a good way to do that.”
“You don’t think it’s cheesy to write for a contest?”
“Who cares if it is? If Pacific Coast is any kind of a literary magazine, then agents and publisher reps are reading it. Even if you don’t make the cut, it will get you back in the groove of writing.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m going to do it. Interested in proofreading?”
“Always. I remain your biggest fan, Vick.”
“Thanks, Jay. I love you, big brother.”
“And I love you, little sister. Call me soon.”
“I will. Bye.”
The priest closed his laptop and laid it on the empty seat next to him. He had considered traveling in regular street clothes, but he was tired, and the clerical collar often served to keep people from talking to him. He shut his eyes and attempted to stretch his long legs forward, finding resistance from the seat in front of him. The conference in Atlanta on human trafficking had been engaging and his presentation was well-received by the attendees. His notes were amended and now up-to-date. He had hoped to spend a few days resting in Savannah, but Father Mora’s call had changed that. A last-minute flight to Guatemala City had not been in his plan.
He looked at his reflection in the window. He had been told that he was handsome, but he preferred to compare himself to a mosquito: A sharp nose, deep-set eyes, perpetually pursed lips. He felt mosquito-like as he buzzed about the earth seeking to suck the life out of the modern slave trade.
His life as a clergyman in the Church of England had drawn him deeply into the rhythms of the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. He had come to love how the calendar of the church awakened his consciousness of the ongoing story of his faith. August was the middle month of Ordinary Time.
For Father Alec Sisera, there was nothing ordinary about this time.
The priest departed the plane carrying his single small bag. He had made this trip many times before and knew how to pack lightly. La Aurora International was familiar territory to him and he made his way to customs quickly. His clerical collar, while Anglican rather than Roman Catholic, usually expedited his passage.
He stepped out into the hot, humid day and scanned the line of cars along the curb. A young man leaning against a dusty Nissan Pathfinder bolted upright upon seeing the priest. He smiled broadly and waved.
“Padre Alec! Hello!”
The two men embraced, clapping each other on the back. “Hóla, Marcos. It is good to see you again.” The priest, tall and lanky at six-foot-two, towered over his diminutive friend.
“And you, Padre,” said Marcos. “Padre Mora said to bring you to his home-he is just returning today from Antigua. He said to assure you that there would be dinner. We should go now if you want to eat.”
The priest laughed as he settled into the passenger seat of the car. “He knows me too well. I have fallen in love with Guatemalan food.”
Marcos jumped in and slammed his door shut. He pulled the Pathfinder from the curb quickly, causing a cacophony of horns to sound from numerous taxis.
“Very nice car, Marcos,” said the priest. “Is it yours?”
“I wish it was mine, Padre,” said Marcos. “It is Padre Mora’s. He bought it used, but it is a good car.”
The priest looked out his window as they drove, reacquainting himself with the surroundings. “The message from Father Mora sounded urgent. I wish I could have spoken to him personally before coming here.”
“I think it is urgent, Padre Alec. I think he has found another maquilla.”
“Another sweatshop?” said the priest, adjusting the vent in order to breath the slowly cooling air. “But why is that urgent? We know there are many. Did he find another link to a big corporation?”
“I do not think so, Padre,” said Marcos. “But I think there is something very bad about this one. He did not tell me, but his face told me that something was different.”
“But you don’t know why this one is different? Many of them are bad places to work,” said the priest.
“Yes, but some are better than no work at all,” said Marcos. “I do not know for sure, but I think there is a greater evil in this one.”
“Why do you say that?”
“When Padre Mora told me to contact you, I heard him say a word. He thought he was only speaking to himself, but I heard him.”
* * *
“Alejandro, what is this about slaves? You have found women who are slaves?”
Father Alejandro Mora poured two glasses of sherry, his salt-and-pepper beard hiding any hint of emotion. “Yes, Alec. This is worse than any of the cases you and I have seen.”
Alec took the sherry and set it on the low table before him and leaned back on the couch. Normally the warmth of his friend’s study would be a comfort to him, but on this day he felt the old anger rising within him. “Many of them are no better than forced slavery. Why is this one worse? And how did you find it?”
Alejandro sipped his sherry and settled into a wooden rocking chair. At sixty he was stocky and still fit, even though Alec noted that he was beginning to show his age. He slipped off his shoes and rubbed his socked feet together. “I didn’t exactly find it, Alec. It found me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Someone escaped from this one two weeks ago and was brought to me. She was sick and terrified, but the right person found her-a woman from one of our parishes.” Alejandro turned his head and called out to his housekeeper in the kitchen. “Reina-would you bring Father Sisera some bread and fruit? He looks like he is fading away.”
Alec reached for his glass of sherry and took a sip. “So a woman escaped from an oppressive sweatshop and has a story. I’m not unconcerned, Alejandro, but why did you have me come all this way? You have ways of helping these people.”
“Yes, we do,” said Alejandro. “But this is a story with a deeper evil. And it was not a woman who escaped.”
“But you said ‘she.’”
“Yes, I did. It was a she. It was a girl. She is ten years old.”
Alec’s grip tightened on the glass. He consciously relaxed his hand, forcing his rage to compartmentalize into a space far from his Christian center. He took another sip, then stood as the housekeeper entered the room.
“Buenos tardes, Reina.”
“Buenos tardes, Padre Alec. It is so good to see you.”
“It is good to be back. Thank you for the food. I am quite hungry, I must admit.”
“We will have dinner soon,” said Reina, turning back to the kitchen. “I hope you will like it.”
Alejandro waited until she left the room, then spoke. “Reina continues to amaze me with her grace.”
“She was one of the first we rescued, wasn’t she?” Alec sat back down and reached for the plate.
“Yes,” said Alejandro. “That was five years ago. Her daughter just married-a good man. Reina has blessed this house.”
“Alejandro,” said Alec, “you said that this person-this girl-was brought to you. Where is she now?”
“She is here, in my house. Reina watches over her.”
“Will I be able to speak with her?”
“That is why I have asked you to come,” said Alejandro. “Tonight you and I will eat and talk. Tomorrow you will meet Ana. You’ll assist me at the morning misa?”
“Yes, of course,” said Alec. “It’s what we do, right?”
Vickie scrolled down the page on her computer screen, gathering in the details of the contest. She had several ideas that would need to be sorted out, but she knew she would take Jay’s advice and submit her work for consideration. She continued to scroll until she found the section describing the prizes. The publishing piece was straightforward-win the contest, get published.
The contest was Pacific Coast Review’s event, but it appeared that it was co-sponsored by Morana International. Vickie did a quick search and discovered that Morana International was the company that produced Andromeda. That explained why the perfume was part of the prize. Now even starving writers like Vickie could smell like a million dollars.
Just out of curiosity, Vickie clicked onto the link for Morana International. The face page told her that the company was all about fashion and fragrance, and the COMPANY INFORMATION PAGE explained that Morana was run by the woman who founded the organization, who named it after herself. Andromeda appeared to be Morana’s current high-profile product-Vickie clicked on the link and watched as words faded slowly into view.
To think of a man
Over two hundred scents-citrus, exotic spices and synthetic musk-are combined to create the allure and sensuality that is unique to every woman. With Andromeda you will think of a man-and he will always think of you.
Vickie made a gagging sound and clicked out of the website. Neither she nor Sean were into expensive fragrances or jewelry or even clothes. She opened up a document and glanced at some notes she had made. As she scanned the page, she lifted her wrist to her nose and inhaled. The aroma of soap and cheap hand lotion was inoffensive, but it didn’t make her think of allure or sensuality. She looked at the contest site again.
Maybe some nice perfume wouldn’t be so bad.
Sunday, August 26, 2001
“Joey, where are your shoes?” Vickie tried not to sound exasperated.
“I don’t know.” Joey crawled out from under his bed. “They’re not here.”
“I found them!” Sean called from the kitchen. “They were under the sink.”
“How did your shoes get under the sink, Joe?” Vickie helped her son to his feet.
“I forgot that I put them there.”
“The next time I say ‘put your shoes away,’ that means in your closet, okay?”
“Now let’s get going,” said Vickie. “You get to go to the kindergarten class in Sunday school today.”
“Yay!” Joey ran from his room to the kitchen. Vickie followed him.
Sean was washing the soles of Joey’s shoes off in the sink. “Hey, Vick. St. Matthew’s is doing a men’s retreat somewhere up by June Lake at the end of September. I think I might go. There’s a meeting after church today.”
Vickie smiled. Their life at the little church had become a natural part of their rhythm as a family. She marveled at this, recognizing that it was danger and adversity that drew them into that faith community. She was happy that Joey would find this place of belonging to be normative in his life.
“By the way,” said Sean. “Don’t forget that my company dinner is coming up. It’s this Friday night.”
“Ugh,” Vickie groaned. “As if I didn’t suffer enough living with one scientist. We have to be with a bunch of them for a whole evening?”
“Come on, be a champ,” said Sean. “I work with these people, and they aren’t the eggheads you think they are. Well, maybe some of them are. Okay, so most of them are, but I like them and we work together. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun if I can just compete with the owners’ wives,” said Vickie. “They make me feel like such a peasant when we go to these things.”
“You’re not a peasant, Vickie,” said Sean. “You’re just as hot as you were in high school-back when you were as tall as me.”
“Yes, Mr. Beanpole, I remember. Well, by then maybe I will have won that writing contest. Then you can have a famous author as a trophy wife.”
“Cool,” said Sean. “I’ve always wanted a trophy wife.”
“And when I win,” said Vickie, “I’ll smell good, too-at $2,000 a bottle.”
“How can perfume cost 2,000 bucks?” said Sean. “What compounds are that expensive?”
“You tell me, Mr. Chemist,” said Vickie. “When I win, I’ll give you half a drop to analyze.”
The microwave beeped and Vickie opened the door to retrieve the bowl of soup. Lunchtime after church was always something easy and quick. She grasped the bowl with both hands and set it down quickly. “Crap!” she yelled, attempting to shake the pain from her hands. She looked down at Joey, who stood at her side looking up at her.
“Oh, Joey, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I said a bad word.”
Joey smiled at his mother. “It’s okay, Mommy. ‘Crap’ isn’t a bad word.”
Vickie nodded, giving him a grateful look.
“Son-of-a-bitch is a bad word,” said Joey.
Vickie froze, staring at her young son. “Joey, where did you hear that?”
“I don’t know.” He looked back at Vickie with an innocent face.
“Joey-I’m very serious right now-where did you hear that?” Vickie knelt on the floor and gently placed her hands on her son’s shoulders. “Did you hear Daddy say that?”
Joey shook his head. “No, Mommy. Not Daddy. Daddy wouldn’t even say ‘crap.’”
“Right. Of course he wouldn’t.” Vickie smiled and pushed Joey’s hair out of his eyes. “Come on, Joey. You heard this somewhere. You can tell me. I’m not mad at you.”
“Maybe I know.” Joey plunged a finger up his nostril and dug around. Vickie pulled his hand away from his face. “It was Mr. Ferlitch,” said Joey. “I heard him say it. He says it all the time.”
Vickie frowned. “You weren’t next door at his house, were you?”
“No. I can hear him when I’m playing in the back yard. He calls everything ‘son-of-a...”
“I get it,” Vickie interrupted. “Okay, go play.” As Joey turned and ran down the hall, Vickie looked out the kitchen window toward her neighbor’s house.
“Marv,” she said quietly, “it’s Judgment Day.”
All through the mass Alec had struggled to remain focused on what he was doing. While his Spanish was limited, he was able to follow the liturgy fairly well. He enjoyed being with the people of Father Mora’s parish and always felt renewed after each visit with them. Nevertheless, his mind returned over and over to what he expected to learn before the day was out.
Upon their return, Father Mora and Reina disappeared toward the back of the house as Alec remained in the main room. He was hungry and ready for lunch, but understood that his opportunity to meet this young girl was limited. Sweatshops across the globe could be anywhere from demanding to degrading, but the idea that children had been enslaved in order to produce disposable goods for North American and European consumers was overwhelming to him. He stood and paced back and forth in the room, running his hand through his thick, dark brown hair.
Alec and Father Mora, in cooperation with some ecumenically-minded Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders, had long given up getting the government of Guatemala to put an end to the abuses found in these oppressive sweatshops. The overseers of the shops were even worse, threatening harassment and even murder when confronted. The strategy of the church leaders now had a double focus: First, put public pressure on the corporations that benefited from the sweatshops; second, rescue the oppressed.
They had seen some progress. In certain cases, the sweatshops were a vast improvement over the harsh and desperate conditions that people might face without such employment. Some corporations had seen to it that working hours were made reasonable and conditions safe. But still others treated human beings like batteries that would fuel the factories and then be discarded when their lives were drained away.
Reina was one who had been rescued. After her husband died of tuberculosis, she and her fourteen-year old daughter were kidnapped and abused by a man who supervised workers in one of the worst shops in Guatemala City. Reina’s daughter escaped after two months of captivity and found refuge in a small parish church. The priest there contacted Father Mora.
When Father Mora and three Roman Catholic priests burst into the sweatshop, they found exhausted women working in cramped, stifling conditions. They were processing designer clothing that was due to be shipped to Miami. Reina was stitching sequins on blouses that would sell for $80.00 in the US. Reina was paid nothing. The others barely earned enough to buy some basic food items.
The supervisor was a monster, but he was also a confirmed Catholic. When the priests demanded Reina’s release with the threat of excommunication if he resisted, the supervisor caved in. Reina was taken in by Father Mora and found a new life in the shelter of his home. Alec noted that her English was becoming more refined and her cooking was still exquisite.
Alejandro returned and motioned for Alec to sit down. “Reina is bringing Ana now. It is better to sit; she will likely be frightened of you.”
Alec resumed his seat. “Will she speak with us, Alejandro?”
“I don’t know. It may be enough that you will see her.”
Reina slowly walked from the hallway into the main room. At her side was a small, frail-looking girl with large, fearful brown eyes. She wore a simple white cotton dress that contrasted sharply with her rich, dark brown skin. She gripped Reina’s hand tightly. The girl limped as she walked, a large wrapping of gauze and tape around her right ankle and foot. Alejandro faced the girl and smiled warmly, then spoke softly to her in Spanish.
“Ana, you look beautiful today. And I think your leg is much better.”
The girl stared at Alec and stopped, leaning closer to Reina. Alec smiled at her. “Hóla, Ana.” She remained silent.
“Ana, this is my friend, Father Alec,” said the priest. “He just wants to meet you. He is a good man.”
Ana’s fear subsided a bit at Father Mora’s affirmation. Reina led her to a chair and sat down. Ana crawled immediately onto her lap and laid her head against Reina’s chest. Reina stroked the girl’s hair.
“Will she speak with us, Reina?” said Alejandro.
Reina spoke softly into Ana’s ear. The girl shook her head. “Maybe not right now, Father. Maybe later.”
Alejandro nodded. “Perhaps I can tell her story. Reina, please correct me if necessary.”
Reina smiled, the novelty of being dignified by a man who was also a priest brought a radiance to her face.
The priest turned to Alec and spoke in English. “Ana’s parents died in a landslide during the big hurricane in 1998. A number of children in Ana’s village were orphaned. Ana was only seven years old when it happened. Some of the children were taken in by a Catholic orphanage just outside of Guatemala City. They were given very good care in that place.
“But some, like Ana, were found wandering along the roads and taken by men who were paid to find children to work in the shops. The children were exhausted and hungry, so they were easy to catch.
“We think that Ana was in this place for over a year. She said there were other children there, along with some women of various ages. My best guess is that they wanted the children because they could be easily intimidated and were unlikely to be missed.”
Alec watched Ana snuggle closely to Reina. “What happened to her leg?”
Alejandro looked at Ana’s bandaged ankle. “The children were shackled, like convicts. Their chains were locked to their worktables by day and to the walls of the dirty room where they slept by night. The steel shackle was manageable for Ana until she decided to attempt an escape. Much of the skin of her ankle and the tissue beneath was damaged when she forced her foot through the iron ring.”
“Did something happen to prompt her escape?”
Alejandro looked at Reina, whose face had hardened. “The man used her badly,” she said. Her arms embraced Ana and the girl nestled closer to her, slipping away into sleep.
“Yes, Alec. She was abused. I’m sure you can imagine the horror; I do not need to speak of it. Apparently Ana thought the risk was worth it.”
“Do you know the location of the shop?”
“Yes, we were able to locate it. It seems that this one operated beyond the scope of even the police. We alerted the authorities and there was a raid. But when they arrived the place was empty of people. The machinery was gone, but the chains and a few bodies of both women and children remained behind. I suspect that they have had to do this before, so relocation is part of their tactics.”
Reina stood, holding Ana like a baby. “Father, I think I must put Ana to bed now.” She turned and disappeared down the hallway.
“Reina has found a new daughter, and Ana a new mother,” said Alejandro.
“Alejandro,” said Alec, “do you know who is behind this shop?”
“No, we don’t know who owns the line of clothing that was being produced here, and if we did, we wouldn’t know if the connection was direct. As you know, there are often a number of middlemen involved.”
“Who do you suspect owns the clothing?”
“I don’t know specifically, but it has to be a big one, Alec. The quality of the materials suggests big money. It is probably either American or British. We found a few shreds of clothing tags with English writing, but there is something strange about the clothing. Look at this.” He handed a dirty, crumpled blouse to Alec. “Ana was wrapped in this when she was found. She took it when she escaped. Look at the label.”
Alec opened the neck of the blouse looked inside. The label indicating the company name and garment size was missing, but there was a circular patch sewn at the inside collar.
Alejandro moved next to Alec and pointed. “Do you see that emblem?” His finger touched a half-inch sewn circle that had, at one time, been stamped with a symbol of some kind. After its exposure to the elements after Ana’s escape, it had faded to a blur. Alec rubbed the circle with his fingers.
“It feels like some kind of leather. Very thin.”
“Yes. Ana says that it was her job to sort out these pre-cut circles so they could be sewn into the garments. It seems that little fingers are good at that work.”
“I see, but again, why is it strange?” Alec handed the blouse back to Alejandro.
“It is strange in two ways. First, why go to the expense and trouble to add a piece of leather to a label? I recognize that it is a kind of signature statement that gives the item authenticity, but it seems an unnecessary addition. People would buy the product even without that.
“Second, when I asked Ana about it, she did not use a word like gamuza or piel, which could mean leather or skin.”
“What word did she use?” asked Alec.
“She said carne. Flesh.”
“Flesh? What was she talking about?”
“Alec, I do not know, but I suspect something terrible,” said Father Mora. “When Ana told me this, she became so agitated that it took Reina an hour to settle her down so she could sleep.”
“Was Reina able to learn anything from her?” Alec lifted his glass of sherry toward Father Mora as the priest refilled his own.
“A bit. Ana said that boxes containing large sections of this leather — this skin — were laid out on a table where the women would use a special tool to cut circles out of the sections. She said she thought at first it was just some type of animal skin.”
“At first?” said Alec. “What does that mean?”
“One of Ana’s jobs was to gather up the cuttings from the skin and put them in a bin. She said that she was sweeping the discarded pieces from a cutting table when she saw something on the piece that the woman was about to cut. She said it was a tattoo.”
Alec stopped sipping his sherry. “What do mean, ‘a tattoo’? Like a brand?”
“No, Alec,” said Alejandro. “Ana said it was a picture of a nude woman with a snake wrapped around her. The tattoo of a sailor.”
“Alejandro, you’re not saying this was human skin, are you?”
“I’m saying we must find out. People who destroy the lives of children are capable of anything. We need to have that label tested.”
“Okay, how do we do that?” said Alec.
“We have to have it done by someone we can trust,” said Alejandro. “We cannot go to the authorities; that is too risky. It will need to be a private connection so that we can plan our next step.”
Alec finished his sherry. “I think I know someone who can help us.”
“Someone I met in California some years ago,” said Alec. “He runs a lab for a company just outside of Los Angeles. I think he will help.”
“Marv? Excuse me... Marv!”
Marv Ferlitch lowered his newspaper and took a pull on his cigar. “Well, hello pretty neighbor.”
Vickie suppressed the urge to throw up and smiled sweetly instead. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She remained in her front yard, separated from Marv’s property by a picket fence and a low hedge.
Marv rose slowly from the plastic chair on his front porch and removed his sweat-stained ball cap and tossed it on the seat. He hiked up his jeans in an attempt to suck in his mushy stomach as he sauntered over to face Vickie. She thought he might have been somewhat good-looking ten years earlier, but the party life and lots of sitting in the cockpit of passenger jets had taken its toll. Marv was tall and had a full head of black hair, but his bulgy stomach and unshaven face were repulsive to Vickie.
“What’s up?” said Marv.
Vickie crossed her arms over her chest. “In town for a few days? No flights for awhile?”
“Naw. I’m home until Tuesday, then off to Chicago. Want to go? I’m sure hubby won’t mind.”
“Thanks for the offer, Marv. I’ll pass.” Vickie took a deep breath. “Look, I know it’s a person’s prerogative to swear from time to time; I’ve been guilty of letting go once in a while myself. But could you just be a bit careful when you’re in the yard? Joey can be a parrot sometimes, and he seems to be quoting you now.”
Marv barked a laugh. “Getting the mouth a bit early, is he? He won’t be your angel forever, you know.”
“I know, Marv.” Vickie forced herself to remain pleasant. “I’m sure we’ll have all kinds of surprises before long. I’m just hoping to delay the inevitable for a while. Will you help me out?”
He took a long draw on his cigar and blew the smoke upward, keeping his eyes on Vickie. “Sure, honey. No problem. You can count on me to keep it clean from now on.”
“Thanks, Marv. I really appreciate it. Well, enjoy your time off. Hope the trip to Chicago goes well.”
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind? The windy city is fun this time of year.”
“That’s okay, Marv,” said Vickie, as she turned to go. “I’ve got plenty to do to take care of my boys at home.”
“Yes, I’ll bet you do,” said Marv to himself, leering at Vickie as she walked away.
Ogling Vickie got Marv to thinking about his next few days. The flight to Chicago was on Tuesday, which meant no late nights or drinking for a while. For that matter, his flight schedule probably forced him to be sober and celibate for the rest of the week. It was time to go out. There was always a lonely woman or two out there somewhere.
When he partied, no one cared that he was divorced twice and had only one rarely seen child from his first marriage. The women he met were more impressed — at least after a couple of drinks — that he was a USC grad and an airline pilot. It was great when he hit a bar after a flight when he was still wearing his uniform. Marv believed that his pilot’s uniform was a sex magnet.
Marv showered, dressed, and closed up the house. He could drink and fool around tonight and still recover in time for the flight on Tuesday. He drove to Long Beach and pulled into a high-class pub that he visited once in a while. It was still early, so he had dinner and waited for the real partiers that would inevitably arrive after the sun went down. He’d take it easy on the booze so he could keep from going home with someone who only looked good when both of them were loaded.
The news reports on the TV were bland: President Bush likes golf, plays fair, and doesn’t take mulligans; there just might be a planet hidden within the Big Dipper; unmarried cohabitation is up 72% in the US; in Afghanistan, the Taliban still hold eight western aid workers hostage. Nothing in the news interested Marv this evening. He was more interested in what might walk through the door over the next couple of hours.
After dinner he sat at the bar and nursed a gin and tonic, chatting with the bartender and a couple of customers who soon got bored with Marv and moved to other seats. Marv didn’t care. He wasn’t here to impress them. He would wait another hour and then hop to another bar nearby. He was still optimistic about his evening and he had a lot of practice in waiting and watching. For Marv, most of the activities of his life were just vehicles to get him what he wanted.
The woman who walked in the bar just after dark was breathtaking. Every man in the place watched her as she walked in. In the dim light of the bar she looked like an airbrushed supermodel with a face so perfect it might as well have been painted on. Her body, wrapped and outlined in a sheer black dress, was exquisite and suggested thrills beyond Marv’s most inventive fantasies. She wore dark glasses, which would be odd in any other circumstance. With her looks, she could wear anything she wanted.
She glanced around the room and then, much to Marv’s delight, chose a barstool right next to him. He immediately sat up straight and sucked in his stomach. She ordered a martini and Marv signaled the bartender to put it on his tab.
“Thank you,” she said.
“No problem,” said Marv. The woman stared straight ahead, and Marv couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. Her perfect face was framed by thick, black hair with hints of red tinting. Even with the distraction of the sunglasses, she was gorgeous. When the drink arrived, the woman didn’t reach for it, but continued to sit still and quiet.
“Change your mind on the martini?”
“I like to let them sit a while.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“Classic. Vodka with a splash of dry vermouth.”
“And only one olive, I see.”
“I keep things simple.”
The conversation stayed on the surface as Marv did his best to avoid the pickup clichés that wanted to jump out of his mouth. This woman was too classy for that and he knew it. He started to perspire at the thought of missing a night that just might go down as the highlight of his own personal history.
“What kind of work do you do?” the woman asked.
“I’m a pilot. SkyAmerica.”
“No flights tonight, then?”
“No, nothing tonight. I’m off to Chicago on Tuesday. Then here and there the rest of the week. My work life is pretty erratic.”
“That’s a long time to be away from home. Who takes care of things when you’re out of town?”
“I’m single and I live alone. I just lock up and go. The neighborhood is pretty safe and I mostly keep to myself.”
The woman reached for her glass and turned it slowly in a circle on the bar, but didn’t lift it. She turned to face Marv, who did his best to look at her face rather than at the cleavage that he was certain was calling his name.
She turned her head suddenly and caught Marv looking at her chest. He was relieved to see her smile.
“I’m only in town for a little while.” Her voice took on a soft, sultry tone. “My hotel is just up the street. Would you like to come up to my room for a drink?”
Marv thought he would fall over and die. “Sure. That would be great.” He took a gulp from his drink, dropped some bills on the bar, and followed her to the door. He was a few steps behind her and jogged to catch up. Her steps were measured and it seemed to Marv that her feet barely touched the ground.
“Um, my name is Marv. I didn’t catch yours.”
The woman kept walking and staring straight ahead. After a few moments, she spoke. “I’m Janie.”
They walked for two blocks to her hotel. She remained silent as they rode the elevator and Marv decided not to risk saying anything that would divert them from their path. When the elevator opened they walked down the hall to her room where she unlocked the door with her key card and opened it, letting Marv enter first. She stepped inside, shut the door, and engaged the locks.
Monday, August 27, 2001
Maya Cortina knew she looked great. She would never have considered buying an outfit like this, let alone wear it to work, until the promotion. It highlighted the best aspects of her well-exercised, shapely figure and attracted the stares of both the men and women in the office. To work in the fashion industry had been her dream since high school. Now, with a degree from Rhode Island School of Design and a year in the industry, she was the assistant to one of the biggest names in New York, maybe even in the world. She gave herself a final appreciative glance in the mirror, running her fingers through her short, expertly-styled hair that was dyed black with red highlights — very similar to the boss’s — and left the restroom.
Maya unlocked the door to her new office, struggling to keep her laptop case balanced with the large latte that she gripped in her left hand. She glanced at the leaded glass in the boss’s door and saw that the lights were on. At 7:00 AM, the business day was in full swing. It occurred to her that the business never really stopped.
She booted up her computer and put her things away. She had been in this new role only two weeks and wanted to be noticed for her diligence. Two reports were due today and she wanted them turned in early. All she had to do was to print them and hand them over. This would be a good start to the day. She hoped the boss would be impressed.
As the assistant to the CEO, Maya drew both respect and derision from her co-workers. She didn’t really care; she planned to pass by all of them before long. She felt that she was tough enough to withstand the petty jealousies that came with the territory and didn’t mind stepping on a few small-minded people to achieve her purposes. She was confident that she was tough enough to get what she wanted in the business.
Maya’s toughness, however, didn’t keep her heart from jumping into her throat every time she encountered her boss. By now, she thought that she would have grown accustomed to being in the CEO’s presence and making sure she got what she needed at any time of the day or night. Yet she got a stomachache every time she walked into the big office.
As the printer produced the pages of her report, she took several gulps of her coffee — extra strong with two shots of espresso — and readied herself for the next few minutes. She gathered up the pages, carefully inserted them into a binder and walked to the closed door of the office. She made a fist and prepared to knock, making sure she took a deep, cleansing breath before entering.
Stories never emerge in a vacuum, but are an accumulation of experiences, imaginings, influences, and relationships. I am indebted to writers whose wonderfully chilling books have offered me inspiration and pleasure, especially Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and Elizabeth Kostova. Their stories continue to creep at the margins of my imagination.
I am also indebted to those who have been my helpers along the way, those whose input and correction kept me from going too far off the rails in my storytelling. I am grateful for the excellent editing job done by the skilled hands and eyes of my daughter, Laurelin Varieur, who is not shy about correcting my errors but also seems to know how my mind works. I was given hope that my story might hook readers when an early manuscript was read by my friend Lydia Van Hoff, who likes a creepy story as much as I do, and may have actually met a vampire or two in Northern Ireland. And I was expertly guided through the description of the effects of type-1 diabetes by my fine grandson Jacob Karnofel, who made sure I got all the highs and lows right and, like his siblings and cousins, did not hesitate to set his grandfather straight.
And I am thankful that you are about to read this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike McNichols