“Do we have to keep this up? I’m so tired of it, Bert, and feeling guilty too. It didn’t used to bother me, but I haven’t been able to sleep.”
“Don’t go soft on me, Leesha. Not now. One more, that’s all I want. This will be the last time. Then, we’re off, off to Mexico, to the white sand and the golden sun and the carefree life. I know you want that as much as I do. We both deserve it.”
“Yes, I want it more than anything, to get away from here, from the person I’ve become.”
Felicia rested her head on the window pane, her knees pulled up tightly against her breasts, her soft white hands clasped around her legs with the anemic expression of a young woman painted by Bouguereau. She was looking down at Union Square from their room in the Saint Francis Hotel. She glanced over at the new Passport sitting beside her. She was looking at it for the first time. The name, her real name, seemed like the name of a stranger.
“I’ve had so many names. I’d forgotten the one I was given.”
Bert shrugged. It’s true. They had assumed so many different identities in the past few weeks. His own head had begun to spin.
“Do you ever think, Bert, of all the lives we’ve ruined? Does it bother you at all?”
“Don’t be silly, Leesha. They made their own choices, their own mistakes. They succumbed to the age-old human desires of greed, sex, power. How do you know if we ruined anyone’s life? They gained more than they lost.”
What about us, Bert? Have we gained more than we lost?
We’re smart, Leesha. You know we’ve never been taken.
“I don’t mean the stealing. Of course these rich people can afford that. They’ve always got more stashed away somewhere. I’m thinking about the ones … you know … the ones that … Oh, just forget it!”
Bert was meticulously, unemotionally working on the computer. The clicks of the computer keys annoyed Felicia who was now studying her Passport with the utter amazement of someone who sees herself in a mirror for the first time. Surname: Fairchild; Given Name: Felicia; Nationality: United States of America; Date of birth: 2 November 1992.
“Oh, so it’s those that are bothering you, is it?” said Bert matter-of-factly. “They were sad and unhappy, Leesha, bored with their lives, stuck in a rut like most people. That’s why they were so easy to fool. We gave them something better, something intangible. We gave them excitement, happiness, hope—we gave them a real life, even if just for a short while. What more could anyone want but to have their greatest fantasies fulfilled, then sent off peacefully to an eternal sleep with no more worries, no more cares?”
Felicia resumed looking out the window. Down below the people seemed so small and busy, scurrying around in their suits, driving nowhere particular in their fancy cars, thinking about trivial matters, lost in their tiny inconsequential personal worlds. It’s true. If you let your guard down even for a minute, life overwhelms you.
“You’re right, Bert. But, the faces, sometimes I can’t forget the faces. Doesn’t it bother you at all?” She looked over at him and he was still buried in his MacBook. “Must you pound on that infernal thing all afternoon?” She slammed her fists against the window frame.
Bert looked up from the computer, pouting. Felicia giggled. He slipped down to the floor on his hands and knees and crawled over to her like a dog with his moon shaped eyes pleading for absolution. She swooned and fell carefully out of the chair catching him around the neck. They rolled about kissing and laughing until Bert undid her blouse. She lay still while he undressed her. Then, he lay still while she undressed him.
Felicia had never seen her real parents. She’d been adopted by a couple named Fairchild. They also adopted her older brother, Maurice. When Felicia was just three, the Fairchilds were killed in an automobile accident. She and Maurice were split up. They were shuffled back and forth from place to place. They never saw each other again. She missed him dreadfully at first, but everything about him had faded over the years. During that time, she felt completely lost and alone. Then, she and Bert hooked up at a Project One concert. After that, Bert scripted her life as if she were a character in a play he’d written.
Bert Cameron grew up in a wealthy family. He had a temper and a mood and an inability to stay out of trouble. In one outrageous caper, he infiltrated his father’s office computers and sent out pornographic emails to all the clients. His father disowned him after that, kicked him out for good. Before he left, Bert hacked into his father’s bank account to teach him a lesson. He stole a hundred thousand dollars. He took off with his mother’s Mercedes and drove across the country down to Mexico where he sold it. He knew how to get the things he wanted. He was going to have them all.
Bert and Felicia cavorted around on the bed until the sun went down. They woke up in the blackness of the night to the noise of the city. Time meant nothing to them.
“I’m hungry. Are you hungry?” Felicia was walking out of the bathroom wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe. It was too large and too heavy for her.
“Yea, but I don’t want to go out. Let’s not go out, Leesha. Let’s order in. I want to go over this plan until I know it’s perfect. Call room service and order whatever you want. I’ll have the pizza.”
Felicia looked at the menu. She punched the numbers for room service into the phone by the bed. When someone answered, she ordered a chicken Caesar salad and an individual pepperoni pizza with mushrooms. She thought for a minute then ordered a bottle of Scharffenberger champagne.
Bert was back on the computer.
“Everything’s a go, Leesha. It’s perfect. This the best one, the last one. I had the ticket for the play delivered to him last week. He’ll be there. I know all there is to know about this guy Reese. The room next door is reserved. All the documents are ready for the switch. You work your magic on him tomorrow night. When he drifts off, we’ll transform him into Roger Hamilton, and then, goodbye Roger, hello Reese.”
Bert leaned back into his chair with a look of total satisfaction. The only thing that matters is to know what you want. Leesha was no rock, not like he was. But, she was strong enough. They’d got on well together, made a good team. He knew she didn’t have the stuff for the long haul. She wasn’t hard or cold. She would never really amount to anything. She was a nice toy that he found useful. That’s all. He would get her through this. Then, well the chips would fall wherever they fell, wouldn’t they?
“So, what’s he like, this Reese?”
“You don’t want to know. You really don’t. You can handle him, Leesha. That’s all the information you need.”
“You’re right. The less I know, the easier it is.”
Felicia was sitting back at the window in her soft thick robe. The square was lit up for some event. She picked up the binoculars to see if there was anyone interesting to watch.
“Oh my God! Come here. Look at that poor old guy walking toward us from Emporio Rulli. He looks so sad. He’s nothing but rags and dirt. He probably stinks. I’ve seen these homeless people up close. It gives me the chills. Just think, Bert, that could be us. I’ve dreamt about it. I swear to God. I’ve dreamt about it and I wake up with the shivers.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind? That could never be us, Leesha, never.” Bert bared his teeth like a wild animal. “Give me a little credit, okay? If there’s one thing I can do, it’s take care of myself. I can take care of you too. People like that, they’ve lost their humanity. They won’t ever get it back. They should be exterminated just like the rats and the other pests that prey on the rest of us. It will probably happen soon with this new President.”
Bert was on one of his rants. He’d gone over the plan. He knew it would work. The game had become routine, almost boring, but they had to follow it through exactly. He didn’t need some down and out low life daddy surrogate to trigger the limbic system in Leesha’s brain. The last thing he needed was to have Leesha turn into a squishy mess before the job was done.
“How can you be so callous, Bert? I was just making a point. Anyone can have a little bad luck.”
“Bad luck? Grownups make their own luck, Leesha. Don’t be such a child. It’s not for us to go against nature. The strong survive and the weak flounder and die. It’s simple. What would happen to the world if we had to listen to every bad luck story and take care of all the lost souls? I’ll tell you what would happen. The world would stop. The human race would go extinct. That’s what would happen. It’s a little late now for you to get sentimental, Leesha. What’s all this concern? You’ve never acted like this before.” Bert stood up abruptly. His eyes were wild. Felicia had learned to fear this look. She moved away from him to the other side of the room.
“Leave me alone! You have no cause to complain. I still do my part of it. Anyway, what does all this matter? All I meant to say was that I’d like to see you show a little emotion sometimes.”
“I keep my emotions to myself. That’s the way I like it.”
There was a knock at the door. An older man in a waiter uniform brought in a tray with their dinner and champagne.
“Will there be anything else, Sir?”
“Nothing.” Bert eyed the man suspiciously while he stood by the door for a moment, and then he left.
“He was waiting for a tip, Bert.”
“They put those on the bill, Leesha. Sit down, let’s celebrate.”
“How can I celebrate knowing what’s ahead?”
“Don’t think about it. All that matters is that we get the money. You’ll have everything you want when we get to Mexico and never a care. The sun and the surf will burn out the memories, and we’ll live in the only place we can live, in the present moment.”
“When the heart is involved, it really isn’t so simple. Don’t you have any room in your heart for other people, for me?”
“The only thing I share with the rest of the human race is my determination to get what I want, to shatter and destroy everything that gets in my way.”
Bert saw the look on her face.
“But … I do love you, Leesha. Of course I do.”
“Happiness isn’t everything, Bert. We have our obligations too.”
This conversation was leading them astray. Bert was beginning to fear that all the work he’d done was about to come to nothing. Leesha was such a child, but that’s what made her useful. He restrained himself.
“Yes, we do have our obligations, and my first obligation is to you, Leesha. Everything will change after tomorrow night. We’ll get out of here and start a new life. No more of this, I promise. Maybe we’ll even start a family.”
“Oh Bert, a family! Do you really mean it?”
That was the right approach. He had her now.
“Sure I do. Let’s celebrate.”
<> <> <> <> <>
At first, Reese had been hesitant. A free ticket to a play that he knew nothing about was not something he needed. Still, it might be fun. He hadn’t made any friends since he’d come to San Francisco. If he was really going to live here and start a new life, he needed to get out and see people. Interesting people go to the theatre. All he had to lose was a little time. He had plenty of that to spare.
On the way inside he looked at the playbill: The Misunderstanding by Albert Camus. He’d heard of Camus but knew little about him. He hoped he would be able to understand the play without having read it. He supposed there were others attending that hadn’t read the play. People go to these things to be seen. Besides, if it was a good play as he was assured by the docent, it should be self-explanatory.
Inside the theatre, the atmosphere was crushing. Strange people, strange smells, strange noises, opulent architecture, everything seemed out of focus as he walked in. He pushed his way through the crowd to the usher, a man in a black suit with a face squeezed red from a tie that was too tight and freckles all over his hands. The usher led him to his seat. Reese was early. There was no one yet seated in his row. He felt foolish, out of place. The seats slowly filled. After awhile the only unoccupied seat was the one just beside him. The lights started to dim. A beautiful young woman rushed in and squeezed in front of him just before the curtain fell and took the vacant seat. As she slipped past him, he noticed the sweet smell of her delicate skin and the bright sheen of her soft brown hair.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you. I’m a bit late to my seat,” she said. She leaned into him when she spoke and pushed the words out slowly, her breath as inviting as fresh baked bread and her teeth white and shiny like pearls. There was none of that overpowering smell of mint that smokers and drinkers use.
“No problem at all. I’m here alone. It’s good to have some company.”
The lights went out and the play started. He couldn’t tell if it was a comedy or a tragedy. He settled on a tragedy because no one was laughing. He’d heard this Camus fellow was something of a philosopher. A tragedy seemed more appropriate if that was the case. He wasn’t really paying attention. He kept stealing glances at the girl next to him. She seemed riveted on the dialogue between the mother and the daughter. Occasionally she looked over at him and smiled. He leaned over to whisper into her ear. She leaned toward him.
“It’s a strange play.”
“Yes. The girl seems awfully … hard … just like her mother says. I don’t much like her.”
“That’s to your credit I would say.”
Felicia was disturbed by the play—a mother and daughter plot to kill their male guests to steal their money. She began to reflect on her own life, and she grew very uncomfortable. She wanted to close her eyes and put her hands over her ears.
The play went on. Reese kept thinking about the girl sitting next to him. He wanted to speak to her again. One word would be a good start, but he couldn’t find the right one. There wasn’t any hurry. He could catch her at the intermission. There was something going on inside his chest, something feathery, billowy, and lumpy at the same time. Once when he looked over he thought he saw tears, but when she turned toward him she was smiling.
At last, the lights came back on. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust. People were leaving their seats for the toilets or the bar.
“I’d like to buy you a drink if you don’t think that’s too forward of me.”
“Forward? Oh no, thank you. A white wine would be lovely. I’ll go to the ladies room while you order if you don’t mind. I’ll meet you by the bar.”
Felicia knew that she had him. It was almost too easy. The play distressed her. Everything was too familiar. She had to get out of the theatre, away from the play. She feared losing her edge if they stayed. Bert would kill her if that happened. There was something else, something about Reese. He was different from the others. Or was it just the play that brought these feelings she couldn’t understand? Oh God! It was all spiraling out of control. For the first time she began to worry that she couldn’t pull it off. She fell into a panic. As soon as she was out of sight, she grabbed the cell phone from her purse and called Bert.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Leesha! Pull yourself together. You’ve never done anything like this before. You have to go through with it. There’s too much at stake. You know it.”
“Yes, I know. But, couldn’t we wait for a day?”
“Wait for a day! You are out of your mind. There is no waiting. We have the room ready. We have all the documents. Come on, Leesha. Think of Mexico. We’ll be there Sunday. You can take all the time then you want to rest and relax. You have to follow through tonight. It’s now or never.”
“Oh, God! All right. I’ve got to go. He’s waiting by the bar and the intermission will be over soon.”
She clicked the phone off and threw it back into her purse.
Reese kept his eyes focused on the entrance to the ladies room but somehow he missed her. She approached him from behind. She surprised him with her hands on his back. It felt like a caress, and it made him wonder. He turned and saw her looking up at him eagerly.
“Oh. Hello. Here’s your wine.”
“Thanks. So, I’m Felicia, what’s your name?
He looked surprised at the name, like it triggered a memory. He stared at her for a minute before he responded.
“So, do you live here, Reese, or are you just passing through?” He felt the words as she spoke. They climbed up his arms like fingers and rustled through his hair.
“I hope to settle here. Right now I’m getting the lay of the land. How about you?”
“Lay of the land.” She laughed when she repeated his words.
“That’s a funny way to put it,” she said as she raised the wine glass to her lips.
“I’m from the mid-West. Chicago.” She looked around as if she were surveying each person in the room. “So, what do you think of the play, Reese?”
“I haven’t read it. My opinion probably doesn’t mean much. It’s a little slow and a little creepy. What do you think?”
“Not my cup of tea.” She laughed again, a nervous laugh, although she seemed in control of herself.
He had sex on his mind. It showed in his eyes.
“You know, I’ve got a cold bottle of champagne in my room over at the Saint Francis. We could blow off the rest of this play, Reese. The night’s young. We could start with the champagne and then go find some music, a place to dance, have some fun. Are you game for that, Reese?”
He couldn’t believe his ears. Was she actually coming on to him?
The bells were sounding for the next act as they walked out of the theatre toward Union Square. It was dark and cold outside. They were almost at the entrance to the hotel when they saw a homeless man standing in a dark corner. Felicia knew it was the same man she’d seen from the window the night before. She grabbed Reese’s arm and pulled him quickly toward the entrance of the hotel.
“Sorry, but that man gives me the creeps.”
“Just a minute,” said Reese. He went back and gave the man some money. “There’s no need to worry. We all need a hand from time to time.” He smiled and took her arm.
Felicia was astounded. Seeing Reese give the old man money like that, it twisted something inside her, twisted it back to the way it once had been when she didn’t wake up in the middle of the night in a terror.
They reached the room, and Felicia let him in. She turned on the lights.
“I’ll get the champagne ready,” she said as she went into the next room.
Reese stood by the window looking out. It looked dark and cold. He was thinking about the name Felicia. He’d had a sister with that name, but they had been separated as young children. For a minute he imagined the girl and his sister as one and the same, but he dismissed the idea as too absurd.
Felicia returned with the champagne. She watched Reese from behind standing at the window. She looked at him closely. A vague memory surfaced then fell back into the addled egg her brain had become. She’d put the drug into his champagne glass. It would all be over soon. He turned toward her and she almost dropped the tray.
“Are you okay? You look like you just saw a ghost.” Reese reached for a glass of champagne.
“Wait. Take the other one. I think that glass has a crack in it.”
“A crack? I don’t see it.”
“Let me take it away and change the glass. I’ll be right back.”
Felicia returned to the other room where the bar was located. She put the glass with the drugged champagne into the refrigerator. She poured a new glass for herself and went back out to join Reese.
“I’m feeling a little awkward, Reese. I know it was my suggestion to come up to my room, but now that we’re here, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
“I’m just looking for company, Felicia. No more than that. I’ll go if you want.”
“No. Stay. Let’s talk. Tell me something about yourself, and then I’ll tell you something about me.”
Felicia was growing more uncomfortable each minute. What am I doing? There’s a job to do, but here I am stalling and doubting and waiting for an answer. What answer?
Reese knew something was wrong.
“Look, I don’t want to impose on you. You are very beautiful, Felicia. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I had my hopes up back at the theatre, but I’m not the sort of guy to force myself on anyone. I really think it would be best if I just left before things progress any further.”
“Don’t leave. Please.” Felicia stepped forward, pulled him to her and kissed him on the lips before he knew what was happening.
Reese felt an odd mixture of lust and responsibility.
Felicia’s expression changed. She felt something she could not describe, a remembrance of something long ago. Then, before she could process that feeling, she became terrified. If Reese left, Bert would be furious. There was no telling what he might do to her. She knew at that moment, she was done with Bert. He was a parasite that had invaded her brain and turned her into a sort of zombie, caused her to do things, horrible things. She had to get away from him. She didn’t want to be alone. She would never get away from the fear of being alone. It grew inside her from the moment her parents were killed. She needed to get away. She needed answers. What if there were no answers?
“Nothing’s progressing unnaturally, Reese. Relax, drink your champagne, and let’s talk. I’m sorry. I’ve been preoccupied lately. I’m afraid something’s got the best of me, and I can’t get away from it.”
Reese wanted to stay. Something about Felicia drew him. There was no longer the prospect of a sexual encounter. There was something much deeper, something inexplicable but very real.
“There isn’t much to say about me, Felicia. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”
“Try me.” Felicia looked into his eyes with her own wide eyes looking as if she was about to melt into him.
“I didn’t ever know my parents. I didn’t have a family. I was bounced around during my childhood but ended up on my feet alright. Eventually I found a mentor who helped me along. Without bragging I can say that I’m quite well set for someone my age. I won’t bore you with the details of the business I started other than to say that I sold it a few months ago, sold it for quite a lot of money. That’s why I’m here in San Francisco. I guess you could say I’m moving on to the next phase of my life.”
“You didn’t have a family?” The peculiarity of the whole situation, the similarities she had with Reese, things were beginning to click. She moved to the edge of her chair. Her eyes grew even wider. Her hands were shaking.
“Well, I did have a sister. We were separated when she was only three.”
Felicia jumped out of her chair and began to run around the room.
“My God, you’re my brother Maurice!”
The idea had occurred to him, but it was simply too bizarre for him that he could have found his sister in this strange way. Yet, here she was. He no longer had any doubts.
After they got over the shock, Reese wanted to know everything about her, but Felicia had to deal first with Bert. Time was growing short. He was waiting. She confessed everything and pleaded with Reese to help her.
<> <> <> <> <>
“Do you really think this will work, Felicia?”
“Of course it willl work. I know him. I know exactly how he thinks and what makes him tick.”
She called Bert.
“It’s done. He’s asleep in the other room. I’ve got his wallet with all his cards and about five hundred dollars in cash. Come on over. Let’s have a glass of champagne to celebrate, and then we’ll make the switch and finish the job.”
Bert was there almost immediately.
“You had me worried, Leesha. That call from the theatre really upset me. Don’t do that again.”
“I won’t have to, will I? This is the last time. Remember?”
Bert sat in a chair. She gave him the chilled glass of champagne with the drug. She picked up her own glass without any drug and toasted him.
“To Mexico! To Mexico and a new life.”
“To Mexico,” he said. He downed the whole glass in one gulp.
“Now, look. We’ve got some work to do. Let me see his wallet.” As Bert studied the cards and the license, he smiled. Everything was great. The documents he had made would match up perfectly. He replaced everything in Reese’s wallet with the new cards in the name of Roger Hamilton. He had the driver’s license ready to go with Reese’s picture. He would inject Reese with the Nembutal and Roger Hamilton would be found dead in his hotel room. Roger Hamilton was a fiction, a figment of Bert’s imagination. He had no family, no friends, nothing but a slew of credit cards. Reese was also untraceable. Bert had made sure of that as well. He’d thought of everything.
Felicia was watching Bert when he began to slump in the chair. He moved from the alert, edgy, tense man that she knew into state of deep sleep almost instantly. It was the first time she ever remembered him looking peaceful.
She called to Reese to come back into the front room. They switched all the documents back again.
“He’ll certainly be surprised when he wakes up as Roger Hamilton, broke and alone, just like he had arranged it for you.”
“Except that he wasn’t going to have me wake up,” said Reese with a scowl.
“Well, we’re certainly not going to kill him. I never participated in that part of it, Reese. You have to believe me. Yes, I set them up, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life. But, it’s over now. The nightmare is over.”
“Let’s not talk further about it, Felicia. It’s time to move on.
<> <> <> <> <>
Bert woke up the next morning with the worst headache he could remember. Then the real headaches started. He soon discovered that he was the one who had been played. He was Roger Hamilton and broke. Totally broke because that was the way he himself had arranged things. He couldn’t go back to Bert Cameron. There were warrants out for his arrest. The bitch hadn’t even left him a dime.
After he cleaned up, he went downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hamilton, but we cannot charge this to your room. There have been some discrepancies with your bill. We must insist on cash and you must go to the desk to settle the discrepancies.”
“Oh, well, that’s a surprise. Please accept my apologies. I’ll go to my room to get the cash and return in a jiffy.”
The waiter watched him with suspicion. When Bert passed out of sight, the waiter rang the front desk.
Bert knew they would soon be on to him if they weren’t already. He slipped out a side door. There was no way he could go back for his things. He had his Passport and the tickets. But, what could he do down there without a dime? What could he do here without a dime? He started to sweat. This was a new predicament. He had to think. He walked quickly away from the hotel. As he rounded the corner, he bumped into some homeless guy whose blank stare stopped him cold. He hesitated for just a moment then walked on mumbling to himself.
“Exterminated … just like rats,” he said under his breath.
He walked away into the glaring sun.