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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter XVI – The Magician

I was afraid to go back to the dean. This impersonation stuff is soul wracking; I don’t know how Charmian – whoever she is – can stand it. You can’t ever relax. More evidence that she doesn’t have a soul. I feared the dean might call the police on me, so I went instead to the college library, darting and lurking like Someone with a Secret. Like I think I said before, it was very small, and disappointingly, only incredibly young students stood behind the desk. But behind bulletproof glass I did notice a door labeled, Director, so I asked the nearest Goth child if it was possible to ask the Director a question.

Without looking up he buzzed me into the sanctum. I rapped upon the door.
“Come in.”

The harassed-looking woman behind the desk was on the phone. It gave me a chance to think of a cover story. Guilt gets in the way of everything. That’s what gives my dear old step mom her edge. A triumphant lack of guilt. For some enterprises – like transformations, say, or impersonations – salesmanship isn’t enough. You need actual magic. In sales you soon realize that a lot of being accepted has to do with whether you think you’re going to be rejected or not. In sales I’m comfortable, because it’s so impersonal. People might say they want American’s Next Supermodel salesperson but what they really want is someone they can be comfortable with and depend on. I can be that person.

In my private life it’s a different story. Since Penn and I went blooey and my official dating status is “desperate” I should be putting myself out there, but obviously I’ve been distracted. Some things I’ve gotta do.

Looking at the poor, exhausted library director groveling to some anonymous person about budget line items and “new collections” I suddenly had the weirdest memory of my mother. My mother could have pulled this off. Her big advice in life was, “Don’t think about yourself, just concentrate on the other person.”

Yeah, and we saw how that got her screwed over. I can’t stop thinking about how ludicrous I must appear to the other person – that’s if it’s anything personal that I want to get for myself. Am I feeling particularly unentitled? Or am I just ruined by seven years of knowing Charmian, whose feelers are oh so sensitive for anything you might want (or need) so that she can block it or obstruct it or mine it for a Shame Opportunity. Charmian the Beautiful, whose obstructive efforts are so graceful, so patently second nature, and so obviously pleasurable – to her. Why should anybody give me what I want?

You’ve got to hand it to me, though. I keep on trying. Whitney is a trier. “Whitney shows persistence in attacking her goals” was a typical teacher comment about yours truly. Attacking my own goals? Houston, we have a problem.

The woman before me with the tight curls and the loose dewlaps slammed down the receiver and barked, “What is it?”

I summoned up my inner magician. Nothing. OK, Sales. You say why you’re there and you wait for The Objection.

“I’m trying to trace Charmian Carr’s friends. Do you know of anyone who might be able to identify this person?” And I handed her the printout.

She didn’t look at it. She looked at me. Thoughtfully.

“Charmian Carr, eh?” she said. “We get a lot of inquiries about her. Maybe you should go to the police.”

I see we are at least talking about the same person.

“I have to find her first,” I said honestly. The real Charmian Carr. Or what’s left of her.

The woman shook out a pellet of nicotine gum and counted the few she had remaining. “Never had anyone looking for her friends before. It’s an interesting approach.” She gave my paper a cursory glance. “I couldn’t say,” she said finally. “I never get out of this damned hole. But I can tell you who would probably know. Mrs. Greenbelt. She’s our volunteer. She knows everything worth mentioning about everyone worth knowing.” She barked out an appreciative, reminiscent laugh, then shivered all over. Visibly reining herself in. “I was raised to believe gossip was a sin, Miss – er. Mrs. Greenbelt thinks it’s an art form.” She dismissed me. “I think she’s shelving in the basement today. Lucas or Mindy could buzz you down.”

Neither Mindy nor Lucas even looked up as whichever one of them it was – I swear I couldn’t tell – hit the buzzer. I was an unwelcome interruption to their intense conversation. Their warding, waving gestures appeared designed to tell me, “Take this whole library. Please.”

Down, down, down, into a world designated by wall art as a Civil Preparedness Bomb Shelter. I guess that’s a relief that the world won’t come to an end before I‘ve talked to Mrs. Greenbelt.

The stairs were strictly utilitarian, built of porous cement block in which antediluvian pebbles could still be seen. That theory that we are all breathing the very same air breathed by previous generations had never seemed so true to me before; this was definitely “used air: they were expecting me to breathe. Lucky I never got asthma, like Darby. Dad said I acquired my toughness from his side of the family. They had that kind of motion-triggered lighting that lights up as you approach and dies away the moment you leave. Not reassuring. Plenty of warning that I might well get stuck down here in darkness. If only I was a cast member on CSI I’d have one of those little flashlights. I cursed my total lack of preparation. No fake business cards, no miner’s helmet. I wasn’t even a good Girl Scout, much less a detective.

At the bottom of the stairs I was confronted by a pair of swing doors, so to escape from the spitting, hissing, sparking fluorescent light I pushed them slightly open and peered through. Just in case. If this was a more impressive institution of learning I would suspect I was an unlucky rat in a science experiment. I was hardly reassured by the musty, dusty, gloomy world before me. How could Mrs. Greenbelt stand it, unless she was the Cryptkeeper?

There she was at the end of a row of shelves, standing over a cart containing its own portable lighting unit. The buzz from the fluorescent light apparently did not bother her in the least, nor did she hear my call. I would have to take my chances and get closer.

She was a doll-size wisp of a person in a cardigan sweater set and an old tweed skirt. Her skimpy hair was encased in a hairnet and she wore huge thick glasses behind which her eyes revolved and swam independently of one another. She wore a magnifying glass on a chain of fake pearls and made liberal use of it. She took plenty time studying a book, checking her list, then looking at the book again as if she had already forgotten what she was supposed to be doing.

“Hello,” I said, loudly enough so that I could hear the echo.

She looked up annoyed. “No need to shout.”

Those big eyes swam over me, and her face lit up.

“What a pretty young lady,” she sighed. She consulted a watch pinned upside down on her sweater vest. “Tea-time!”

Not even the purblind have ever called me “pretty” so this must mean she had decided to be my friend. I followed her painful perambulation to a hidey-hole beneath the stairs. I wanted gossip and by repute she had raised gossip to an art form. We all know art takes time.

Very slowly she placed a tea bag in each of two thick diner mugs, and poured in water from a smoking electric kettle with such an unsteady hand I had to look away. She gestured me to a straight-backed chair of the kind schools have long since discarded, then settled herself down in a well-padded basket chair with an explosive sigh. I was afraid to ask for sugar.

I decided with Mrs. Greenbelt honesty had to the best policy if I wanted to keep explanation to a minimum, so I said, “I’m Whitney Quantreau, and I’m looking for somebody. They told me upstairs that you know everything.”

She continued to gaze at me beneficently. “You’re such a lovely, healthy-looking young woman,” she informed me. “Girls these days look so terrible. They just look terrible. They want to look terrible. It’s all I can do to keep from jumping back when I see one of them as if it’s a vision of the Antichrist. You on the other hand – ” she sipped her tea, completely unbothered by the fact that it was scalding hot. Pepper spray probably wouldn’t even work on her. “Are you a hockey player?”

I knew she meant well. I struggled to be complimented. I had the padding, what I lacked was the aggression. That “attack” so praised in school seemed to drain away when I hit the battleground.
“I was a left wing,” she went on. “But you can’t even say left-wing nowadays.”
“Not actually,” I temporized. “Do you know this person?”

I handed her the sheet with my thumb right next to my stepmother’s laughing face.
“Oh, goodness,” said Mrs. Greenbelt. She put down her tea mug and picked up her magnifying glass. “My, my,” she breathed as she studied the face. “I never thought I’d see her again.”
“Who?” I held my breath.

“Pearleen. That’s her name. She had a last name too. Probably. I could look it up for you.”
She touched the blurrily printed face and shook her head back and forth.

“Are you certain?” I inquired weakly. It seemed rude but her vision was so compromised and the picture was such poor quality. Maybe Pearleen was my stepmother like I was a hockey player.
“Oh, I’m sure nobody ever forgot Pearleen once they got to know her,” said Mrs. Greenbelt. “And look.” She pointed again to the picture, which under these lights was looking worse and worse, more of a Rorschach blot than an Identikit. “Here she is with Charmian Carr.”

“Charmian Carr,” I echoed, trying to damp down my excitement. “Didn’t she disappear?”
“Oh, yes,” breathed Mrs. Greenbelt, as big-eyed as a night-hunting lemur. “It was the scandal of the campus.”

A miracle. I had myself a genuine miracle. Here was someone who knew everything, liked to talk, and didn’t punch a time clock. I took a cautious sip of my tea. Dusty. Green. Tasted like that diet tea everyone was in such a frenzy about a few years ago. So bad it had to be good. But after a few musty sips, I felt it growing on me. It was a keeper, just like Mrs. Greenbelt. The Tea of Knowledge, from the Tree of Knowledge.

“Miz Carr — that’s how she liked to be known, she was very fussy about not being known by her marital connections or lack of them – worked up at the college. She was – ” she halted, whether struggling with political correctness, generalized politeness or a lack of vocabulary I couldn’t say.
“Miz Carr was one of them dykes,” she said finally. “Her hormones were all of a whack. Nowadays she’d just get her sex changed.” She waved the printout at me. “See? She had a mustache.”
I was afraid to point out that she was in costume. I just hoped Mrs. Greenbelt had some actual facts and knew what she was talking about.

“Oh, she kept it quiet. She had to be subtle. But we don’t have much to talk way out here. She had a nice big house out on the Heights. And she used to invite students – girl students – to “live” with her.” She gave the word expressive air quotes, making moony eyes at me. “Helping them out. The poor ones. Doing them a favor. Oh, she could see ‘em coming! No questions asked.” She chuckled richly. “You know they say being a dyke was never against the law because nobody wanted to explain it to Queen Victoria! So there she was with her little girl gang and along comes Pearleen.” She shook her head thoughtfully. “I know I must have a better picture of her somewhere. Even though she didn’t graduate.” She gestured behind my head. “Fetch me down a Firewalker. 2004.”

At first I thought we were talking about wine. Or malt liquor, at the very least. But no, The Firewalker was a yearbook, apparently. All the slimy vinyl volumes she had neatly ranked by number. I wondered if Mork and Mindy – no, his name was Lucas – knew how to do that. Maybe Mrs. Greenbelt was more than just than a charitable deduction and a fire hazard.

She leafed slowly through the pages, studying them with her glass while she spoke.

“Pearleen was a good deal older than most students. Word had it she’d been a stripper out of Branson, Missouri. You’ve heard of Branson, Missouri?” she hissed. I waggled my head nervously like a mongoose captured by a snake. Should I say I’ve heard of Missouri?

“Where anything goes.” She bobbed her head enthusiastically up and down so both of us could picture it. I tried envisioning Charmian as a stunt pussy. No surprises there, but it was just too much for me. Mrs. Greenbelt poked my shoulder suggestively and gave her throaty chuckle. “At the Brass Pussycat on our honeymoon my husband had a cigarette taken out of his mouth by a whip-wielding houri.” Her head bobbed. “He liked it better than the army.”

Most people like their honeymoons better than the army Or so I thought. But I’m a beginner, as I keep finding out. What do I know?

“Of course that was a hundred years ago,” said Mrs. Greenbelt dismissively. She poked me. “He gave up smoking but he died of cancer anyway. Still, he was almost a hundred. So, anyway, we get a lot of students the government pays for to transition.” She worked her dentures from side to side and poured herself a second cup of tea. I shielded my own mug protectively. How old could she possible be? I thought she might be looking at the magic three-digit number herself.

“They get trained to do something useful, something there’s call for, like asbestos abatement and wiping old people’s butts. If they’ve been in a line of business they can’t follow anymore. Pearleen was getting on in years.”

Mrs. Greenbelt was a hoot. Literally. She hooted ecstatically.

“Here she is!” she exulted. “I knew I could find her.” She swiveled the page toward me.
There, in the center of a black and white portrait of The Future Caregivers of America, was my stepmother, crowned by amber waves of hair. Lots and lots of hair. My eyes were blurring as I located her name. Pearleen Purdy.

“I had a cat – Beazley he was, short for Beelzebub – who wouldn’t let any of the other cats sleep on my bed,” said Mrs. Greenbelt. “He’d hiss and chase them off. He’d fight them if necessary.” She blotted her huge eyes with a yellowed handkerchief. She was a lot more worked up over the cat than the hundred-year-old husband. “It was really kind of flattering.” She sighed. “I miss that cat. Now Pearleen was the same way. Miz Carr had several young women living with her when she invited Pearleen in. Some people complained she was running an unlicensed boardinghouse. But Pearleen put a stop to it. Pearleen ran them off.”

“And then what?” I asked her. There wasn’t going to be a happy-ever-after at the end of this story. “What happened?”

Mrs. Greenbelt shrugged regretfully. “No one sees behind closed doors, but I think that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. If it had happened now, they’d take a trip to one of them elitist states and get married. Pearleen stopped attending classes regularly and started spending money. She didn’t want to be a butt-wiper! One look at her and you could see what she had come for. Designer clothes! She and Miz Carr took plenty of trips to Houston and Dallas.

She must’ve thought she’d hit Easy Street but maybe Miz Carr had problematic health conditions. I don’t know what was wrong. I was a cleaner then. I saw Pearleen in the Administration office, helping Miz Carr with her work. Doing her work, for all I know. Maybe she didn’t like it. Maybe the worm turned. Miz Carr used to say that she was bronchial, and the college was built on a swamp. I thought she must have died. If she didn’t leave a will, Pearleen must have cleaned her out and run away.” She smacked her shriveled thigh. “That’s what I think happened.”

“But why get rid of a body that died of natural causes?” I demanded. Answering my own question. To steal her identity. Duh.

“I think she murdered her,” I muttered rebelliously. I wasn’t giving Charmian-Pearleen an inch. I couldn’t wait to call her by her real name.

“And everybody else thinks they went to Rio and were happy-ever-after,” said Mrs. Greenbelt. “But the most interesting part was what happened after.”

“What happened after?” I was on the edge of my seat. That Mrs. Greenbelt is a born storyteller.
“Everyone who had ever known Charmian Carr started contacting the school. She still had parents and at least a pair of siblings – all of whom said they were comfortable with her lifestyle. But she ran away without letting them know! Nobody seemed to know where she had gone.”
“Odd,” I said.

“Very odd. Now Pearleen always wanted to see Europe. She wanted to go on a millionaires’ cruise. Maybe they went there.” She leaned forward. “But you know why didn’t they come back?”

“There was money missing. That’s what Mr. Butterbatch said. He was dead at the time.”

Mr. Butterbatch? I was willing to bet that name was slightly off, but otherwise Mrs. Greenbelt’s facts were irreproachable. No more Pearleen Purdy. Just a Charmian Carr with no right to the name. I longed to tell Mrs. Greenbelt the rest of the story, but I didn’t dare. Loose lips sink ships.
“So where’s the Heights?” I asked.

“It’s The Heights.” She corrected. “It’s just a dinky little hill but things are so flat hereabouts. It’s a cul-de-sac with Miz Carr’s old house at the top. It was sold at sheriff’s sale. Not too long ago, neither.”

“I’d like to see that house,” I said thoughtfully. I stood up. “I’m sure I can find it. Thanks for the tea.” I waved the book at her. “May I make a copy of this? I’ll bring it right back down.”

“You may NOT,” she said fiercely, glaring at me. “These are my own personal Firewalkers. You put that back. They have their own set in Reference.”

I mollified her somewhat by shelving the book carefully in its appropriate space.
Thanks a lot,” I said. “You have been really helpful. You really do know everything.”

She glowed. “Now you be careful,” she recommended. Whether she was referring to the perils of hockey or missing-person investigation, I couldn’t say. She walked me back to the swing doors on her way back to work.

“I love libraries.” She sighed. “Libraries are where it’s at.”

She hadn’t even noticed they’d relegated her to the basement. Maybe she thought crypts are where it’s at. Maybe she couldn’t see well enough to know where they’d put her. I wondered if she lived down here.

I had my foot on the third step when I heard her holler, “Number twelve! Get it right!”
She-Who-Knew-Everything was quite correct that Reference had Firewalkers. Lucas and Mindy allowed – even expected – me to Xerox one. For a price. They would have sold me a frame – any size – if I had wanted one. They seemed to be operating a nice little side business in memorabilia for people whose lives had been a straight slide downhill ever since the excitement of community college. But I wasn’t into recalling school triumphs to impress my friends. I wanted to impress a trustee into voiding my father’s will.

I enlarged Pearleen-Charmian’s face but it didn’t come out too well. Some people might have said it wasn’t her. Maybe she would say it wasn’t her. And what would I do then? I sighed. Contacting the Absent Miz Carr’s relations seemed the obvious next step.

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