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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter XIV – The Empress

Walking through the little East Texas airport was like entering a time warp. It was one of those Sputnik-inspired sixties buildings whose a sloping ceiling was presumably meant to suggest “flight”; walls of randomly colored, randomly spaced tiles meant, I guess, to represent “art” and massive, bowing, tinted plastic windows meant to suggest “cost-savings.” I had a light truck reserved – you can rent those without having to be twenty-five. Armed with a suitcase and a Map Quest printout I was all prepared to get myself to Cold Creek Community College.

About an hour’s drive. Fortunately I brought along I Hate My StepMom CD so I could listen to Congratulations, I Hate You by Alesana and Nightmare by Avenged Sevenfold on my way there.
Cold Creek Community College is yet another poorly planned, unsightly mess; mushrooming its way out of a partially abandoned industrial park. As a freshly minted member of the intellectual elite I felt a ripple of concern about what they were passing off as “education” in this place. They had enough parking to satisfy the Pentagon, and a library the size of a laundromat. The gaudily huge entrance sign beneath rotating floodlights did not prepare me for a compound of cattle trailers circled like covered wagons against the sciroccan blasts.

The “main building” might have once been somebody’s private home. The inside of the residence had been enthusiastically gutted; I had to negotiate my way through a maze of fabric-covered cubicle dividers, with no other guide than a series of handmade signs designed to assist students in locating the dean; presumably so they could complain. I felt pretty secure in my cover story and proud of the way I looked. Small black-rimmed eyeglasses, a blue linen pantsuit, and a briefcase; two can play at the game of Let’s Pretend identities. I was an Insurance Official.

The woman seated outside the Dean’s office looked as if she had once majored in animal husbandry, or was even, considering her big bones, the product of some such union. The words “blusher,” “foundation,” even “mousse”, were utterly alien to her. Charmian had not learned her wiles here. But she was friendly enough. She came to me blinking and smiling as if my briefcase contained gold bars.

“I’m looking for someone who can tell me about Charmian Carr,” I said in my most confident way. “I believe she was a student here about a decade ago.”

She stepped backwards under this barrage, her face wiped clean of memory or thought. After a moment she said, “Well, Dean Inglesleeve has been here forever. He probably knows everybody.”
I looked a tad less confidently at his barred door; what would it take to get inside? But instead she plucked at the sleeve of a bearded, bespectacled, Birkenstocked man scuttling past with a cup of hot coffee, and queried, “Dean? Someone to see you.”

He sucked me into his wake as he entered his office, threw up his blinds, pressed the button on his blinking answering machine, and swung his gladiator sandals up to his desktop.

“Coffee?” he offered first, and at my denial said, “How can I help you?” in a folksy way. I figured he couldn’t be more than fifty but he certainly looked like a refugee from a very different era. Somewhere hidden around this room there must be a pair of bongo drums.

“I’m looking for Charmian Carr,” I said, “She graduated from the Allied Health program. She’s due an insurance payout and this is the last address I have for her.”

He was listening out of one ear to a considerably less interesting stream of complaints from his answering machine, all of which appeared to concern the failures of “the boiler plant”. He turned it off.

“Charmian Carr?” he echoed. “I’d like to know where she is myself.”

We looked at each other across his messy desk. I didn’t know where to take that one. So I sat down. He helped me out.

“We usually don’t lose track of people,” he said, rubbing his balding gingery head. “She worked right here, in this office. We offered her a faculty position. After she called in sick I discovered she had sold her house on the Heights and moved away. We discovered some – er – financial improprieties in her accounts. I’m not making any accusations, you understand,” he looked hungrily at my briefcase as if to suggest that any “payouts” must belong to him – “But it would be helpful if she could explain. I assumed we’d at least be contacted as references for future employers, but nothing. Hasn’t been a peep out of her. Our alumni department is very clever at keeping track of everybody, and we are the beneficiaries of a great deal of loyalty and enthusiasm from our graduates – but nobody’s been able to find her.”

We blinked at each other. It seemed incumbent upon me to say something. I said, “That’s weird.” Then I added, “Maybe she got married and changed her name.”

An odd expression flickered over his face. Cynicism? Maybe some kind of private joke. Was he really another of her victims? I tried to remind myself, when you’re lying to other people, you always have to assume that it’s at least possible that they’re also lying to you.

He said smoothly, “Maybe she’s in jail. Maybe she’s in a monastery in Tibet. People change. Who can possibly know the heart of another?” He picked up a rubber band and played with it, wrapping it round and round his stubby fingers. I watched mesmerized as he shut off his own circulation; the fingers swelling. Reddening.

I had the strongest sense that he telling me she was gay. Of course, with Charmian, who could be surprised? Charmian would do anything – if it was worth her while. What had she said to me?

Something about “containing legions”. Like those demonically possessed creatures in the Bible.
I tried not to fall out of “character”. My persona would be focused on one goal and not into character assessment. “You’d think she’d have some friends she’d keep in touch with,” you know, building up to asking him about them, but he said, “Or her family. But they keep coming to us. Last time I spoke to them they were thinking of having her declared legally dead.” He stopped with the self-torture and gazed at me strangely. I think I may have been open-mouthed at that point. Then he turned and raked the wall with a glance.

I followed his gaze. The wall was covered with eight by eleven color photos, dates beneath.
“Are these staff pictures?” I inquired, standing up.

“They are. Staff and faculty.” He shot his rubber band at one of them. “That was her last year.” He had good aim. I stood up to look at it. 1997. There were a couple of white haired women but no blondes. I didn’t see her anywhere. I peered closer, as if I might find her peeking out between others’ shoulder blades.

He came up behind me. “There she is,” he said. “Sitting in the front row.”

I gasped. This dumpy creature with the dark waterfall of Gina Lollobrigida hair and all the jowling couldn’t be Charmian. Even if she won the lottery and had every one of her bones and all of her skin replaced, this woman was just too short. It was impossible.

He was regarding me with wild surmise because of my gasp. I had to stop giving myself away. Focus. I was good at selling advertising because I was all about win-win. Figure out what they want and give it to them. Like a beginning con artist I couldn’t stop worrying that he would see through my interpretation. But he wanted Charmian too. If I had money – if she had money, and I knew she did – he wanted it. To keep the conversation going I said, “We only have a driver’s license photo but it doesn’t look anything like this woman.”

“Leave me your card,” he said. “We’ll make some inquiries.”

I hadn’t thought of that. I was planning to use my own name but my card doesn’t say anything about insurance. I felt I had lost him forever. I said stupidly, stiffly, hearing myself obviously lying, “I’ll get you one. They’re out in the car. ” And I got the hell out of there. Damn. I was bad at this. Was Charmian just naturally better at this kind of thing? Or was it simply because she’d had so much practice?

I checked in to the Sleep Inn along the highway and asked for the library. The desk clerk said the college had a library – except now I was scared of the college. But the nearest public library was in Kirkup, twenty-two miles away. To the soundtrack of Death of an Interior Decorator by DeathCab for Cutie, I drove there.

There had to be another record of community college doings other than their own. The librarian told me the local newspaper was the Hornet but everything was already on microfiche. Still, it was cross-referenced by subject matter. That could help me, right? I didn’t have to pretend to be anybody special. She didn’t look at me funny or even ask what I was up to. When I said I was searching for Charmian Carr, she taught me how to enter the name, then look up the resulting stories.

There were a lot of them. More than twenty. Some were only a mention, but others had pictures. Two stories were about her exclusively. Wow! I should have come here first!

“Turkish Vacation Turns Into Archaeological Dig,” read a headline. Here was a photo of the real Charmian, sitting in her office at the college. I scrolled down, searching for I don’t know what. This woman was never the Charmian I knew. It was impossible that there could be two Charmian Carrs out of Cold Creek Community College. My growing excitement was threatening to get in the way of my detective work.

It sure looked like Charmian had stolen somebody else’s identity, and that someone else had subsequently disappeared.

“Cold Creek Faculty Tackles Ionesco Play,” said the other headline, and there was the real Charmian Carr, dressed up in drag with a Groucho-like moustache and a tailcoat, bowing deeply for the camera. Behind her, laughing, stood my stepmother. Oh my God!

But who was she? The article gave the cast list but of course it meant nothing to me. I pored over the names, but nothing leaped out at me.

I asked the librarian if there was any way to get a copy of the article. Just like my father always said, as long as you’re willing to pay, you can get anything you want.

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