I’ve been getting a lot of George R. R. Martin-style ribbing for the time it’s taking to finish the sequel to The Book of Paul, tentatively titled The Dead Mask. Reasons for the delay? Quite a few. Some health issues (involving surgery, mismanagement of same, and ugly recovery road bumps). Some family issues (due to the complete lack of educational opportunities in the public and private school sectors, we have had to homeschool our brilliant but woefully underestimated autistic daughter). Mostly though, Paul had to take a back seat (a very uncomfortable position for those who know Paul) to The Dream Palace series, my middle-grade fantasy adventure series.
So in thanks for your patience and support, here’s a chapter from The Dead Mask. It was hard to select spoiler-proof pages for those who haven’t read The Book of Paul, but for those who have, this chapter should provide a wince and chuckle. I’ll be posting a preview of The Dream Palace soon.
Della stared at her watch. She was out on a lunch date. It was her first date of any kind since the incident. This one loved to talk. About himself, naturally.
After the first three minutes she had learned everything she needed to know. Azzhole. After ten minutes she wished she had stuck to her guns and went for coffee instead. Much easier escape route. She poked at the lima beans in her HealthMunch™ salad like she was trying to harpoon a whale. They were too slippery. On the eleventh attempt she managed to spear one and felt a warm feeling of satisfaction that lasted all of two seconds before the fork tines made her think of The Striker.
Ick. She was having a hard time keeping him out of her thoughts…and dreams. Or more accurately, nightmares. Every single night. She had tried everything to stop them. Therapy. Hypnosis. Warm milk. Everything except sleeping pills. They were next on the menu she imagined, although she would postpone that route as long as possible. She hated taking pills of any kind. Especially birth control pills. They made her tits swell up like granite boulders. In the past, when her sex life was active enough to warrant prevention methods, she had opted for the sponge. When they discontinued them, she opted for a diaphragm – with enough spermicidal jelly to lube up a Lamborghini.
Right now, birth control was the least of her worries. She looked at the man across the table and realized she didn’t remember his name. Allen? Patrick? Engelbert? Della looked at her watch again. It wasn’t the only thing ticking. Della wanted a baby. She’d never given much thought to starting her own family before, her career path always the more important avenue, but now it was in her mind constantly. Along with thoughts of death. Death and family. Now that she had witnessed first hand how quickly death can come, nothing mattered more than family.
So a few months after the incident, Della started dating again. She was totally unabashed in her objective. She wanted to have a baby. A husband would be nice, though optional.
This nudnick wasn’t even in the known universe of contention. How many more lunches, coffees, dinners, blind dates, personal ads, chat rooms and wine appreciation classes would she have to endure? She was a celebrity for fucksake! Granted, being a local TV reporter wasn’t exactly high on the Page Six food chain, but still, she was FAMOUS! Wasn’t there some special celebrity dating service, where you could push a button and get hooked up with Johnny Depp?
Gratefully, she had an excuse handy to cut short this excruciating exercise. She’d received a last minute assignment to interview this gazillionaire philanthropist who was making a substantial donation of Egyptian relics to the Met this afternoon. Maybe she would head uptown early and kill a few hours sitting by the Temple of Dendur, picturing herself being fanned by a coterie of nut-brown, hard-muscled slaves as she drifted down the Nile.
Blaaaaaah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Her nameless, clueless lunch companion was so completely off the empathy meter that he wasn’t picking up on the endless stream of eye-rolling, watch-watching signals that Della was broadcasting in the vain hope of informing him that her boredom threshold had reached the point of no return. Then she looked at him across the table and had a moment of revelation.
“Life is too short,” she thought. “And so is he.”
Della hoisted her massive shoulder bag and rose from the chair and said, “This isn’t going to work.” She would have left it at that, but he pressed her.
“Why? What do you mean?” he asked. At least he didn’t say: “I thought we were getting along so well!”
Della felt her anger rise and gave him the more detailed explanation he craved. “It isn’t going to work because you’re a self-centered creep, you only make one-fifth my salary, and you’re five inches shorter than my acceptable parameters for breeding stock.”
He watched Della leave with his mouth hanging open and his mind scolding himself.
I knew I should have worn bigger heels today.
The Temple of Dendur
Dendur. Was she spelling that right?
Della looked at her trusty notepad, then walked over to the plaque and checked.
Yep. Dendur. Why not Dender? Or Dinder, for that matter. If the name came from hieroglyphics, how could they be so sure about the spelling?
Yet another ancient mystery that would remain unsolved for the moment. Her camera crew had arrived.
“Set up over there,” Della shouted as they approached, pointing to a football field sized wall of glass that occupied the entire north side of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bill, her cameraman and Phil, holding his fuzzy boom microphone, did as they were told while Della assumed her place in front of them, sandwiched between coteries of their press corps peers. Della herded the crew together. She focused her purple contact lens covered eyes into the glowing red dot below the camera lens and fixed her hair in the hazy fish-eyed reflection. It was hard to fix. Della’s hair was a force of nature. It defined “unruly.”
The hair, like her temperament, was a gift of her Brazilian parentage, though most days it felt like much more of a hardship.
Her producer, Jed Riley, liked the wild brown curly mane and encouraged her to keep it long and “funky,” as he would lamely say. Jed was a thirtysomething WASP from Westchester, with deep nepotistic connections at the network. In other words, he was on the fast track.
“Love that hair,” Jed would say in the hallway. “Sassy!” He said “Sassy!” like Phil Hartman used to on Saturday Night Live, hoping that would increase his “hip factor.”
Why does he bother? Della wondered, knowing that no matter what he said or did his stock would inevitably rise and rise.
Della, on the other hand, was feeling stuck, and to her thinking, “ethnicity” was the glue holding her back. She knew she was hired because of it, though the honchos would never admit it to her face. Channel 11 was weak in the blue collar, black and Hispanic demos and since Della had debuted, they had picked up two full points in every category. The producers were ecstatic. Della was less than overjoyed. She had started wearing the purple contacts lenses to take the focus off her hair and dark brown eyes. From a distance, they gave her a mischievous sparkle. Up close they looked scary.
Jed loved them too, thinking that they made her look even sassier.
What a jerk.
Still, she was far from miserable. Or ungrateful. Her parents had come from the slums of Rio and had broken their backs to get her a decent education. She loved them dearly and had broken her own back to make them proud of her. They were ecstatic too. Why not? She was pulling down seven figures in the biggest local market in the world. People recognized her and waved everywhere she went. She had a great loft in Soho. All that was missing was someone to mess up the satin sheets in her king-sized bed.
And someone to interview. Mr. Kelly failed to appear as scheduled. Nothing unusual there. “Big money, big ego,” Della shrugged like a Zen monk.
Still, she was glad to kill some time – sitting down, thank God – leisurely staring at the ancient red-brown stones and the placid pools that bordered the temple to the east.
When the guest of honor finally showed, Della was shocked at what happened next.
I walked right up to her.
“Not bad,” her expression said, as she looked me up and down. Nice suit. Nice face.
But what’s with the ponytail?
I ignored her wrinkled nose and proceeded to give her the best – and well, only interview of the day.
The formal endowment ceremony came next, with the requisite flashbulbs and canned speeches by all the assembled dignitaries, including, of course, the mayor, wearing his ubiquitous Yankee baseball cap again…to a semi-formal event.
Anything to hide that ludicrous comb-over.
Oh well. I made a mental note to contact his mistress with some badly needed grooming tips, but then I thought of Della’s reaction to the ponytail and wondered whether I should clean up “my side of the street” first.
Fuck it. I liked the tail. And so would she, eventually. One way or another.
“Let’s get out of here, eh?” I whispered to Della as her crew packed up their equipment. She was lingering near the empty stage, admiring the alabaster bust I’d donated, so I used it as the perfect segue to score some one-on-one points. “If you like the Nefertiti, I have something I think you’ll really enjoy.”
“And what would that be, Mr. Kelly?” she asked, accompanied by the standard “I know you’re hitting on me, and you know I know you’re hitting on me, but I’ll pretend I don’t know you’re hitting on me, at least until you’re clearly hitting on me” look.
I didn’t mind. “It’s a surprise,” I answered casually. “Interested?”
The “casual” delivery was still a slight surprise for me. Her response, especially given the circumstances, was becoming increasingly (though only a bit less strangely) familiar.
“Lead on,” she said, as I offered a wing. She took it. I led.
As we crossed Fifth Avenue, dodging between the taxis stalled in front of the museum, I heard his voice in my head again.
“What on earth are you doing with that SPIC?” Paul shouted, his brogue so familiar I could do a fair imitation on my own.
I ignored him and kept on walking, though the smile on my lips was fading with each step and every look in Della’s purple contact lens covered eyes.
“NOT in my HOUSE, William! DON’T you DARE bring that BITCH in MY HOUSE!”
JEEZ take it EASY! I shouted back in my head. You’re giving me a migraine!
I opened the townhouse door, or rather Grace opened it, smiling well, gracefully, at both myself and my companion. SEE! I thought, baiting Paul. Some people know how to behave in mixed company!
Paul kept his mouth shut, but I felt a chill as Della’s feet crossed the threshold.
Grace took Della’s coat, while I asked where the children were.
“Still in school, Mr. Kelly,” she answered in her flowery Irish lilt, “they’ll be getting home any minute now.”
“You have children, Mr. Kelly?” Della asked with a brisk smile and a surge of hopefulness.
“Please, call me William,” I replied with a surge of erectile tissue. “The children were orphaned when my father was murdered earlier this year. I’m their guardian now and big brother, of course.”
“Oh,” she said, with a mix of sadness, disappointment and some lingering hopefulness. “How old are they?”
“Seven,” I said. “Fraternal twins. Adam and Eve are their names. My father had a strange sense of humor.”
Della laughed a little. Paul not at all.
“You’re gonna PAY for that Billy!” Paul screamed in my mind. “If you show her the¾”
I happily cut off Paul and escorted Della upstairs.
“So what’s the big surprise?” Della asked as we climbed the elliptical staircase to the third floor.
“It’s right this way.” I answered, pointing down a dark corridor, the headache I’d joked about earlier firmly gripping my temples.
The corridor ended at the massive double doors of the chapel. Ancient. Bronze. Intricately sculpted with nightmare figures writhing in agony.
“The Gates of Hell,” I said proudly.
“Yikes,” she said, more than suitably impressed. “Is it okay to touch it?”
“It’s compulsory,” I joked, but not really.
“Well, this certainly is a surprise. And a pretty damn gross one,” Della softly said, rubbing her fingertips, interestingly I thought, across the swollen belly of a pregnant woman who was impaled on a giant stake.
“Damned indeed,” I agreed. “But it’s not the surprise.”
I turned the giant bronze key and opened the doors.
“Oh my,” Della gasped, staring above the altar at the giant crucified angel. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I can’t imagine that you have,” I admitted and hesitantly posed the question I’d been wanting to ask since I first saw her. “Have you ever seen anyone die?”
Della looked at me with an unfathomable expression. Fear? Curiosity? Dread? Excitement?
She paused for a long while before answering. “Only once,” she finally said, then qualified her statement. “I think.”
(to be continued)
Excerpt from The Dead Mask by Richard Long (Copyright 2015, all rights reserved)