Linda Winkelman opened her eyes the slightest possible and found the light painful. An effusion of cinnamon and yeast that hung in the saturated air made her nauseous; there could be less steam, please. What she saw through a latticework of lashes was a large, echoing cavern—spotless. A center aisle stretched toward a hearth whence issued the smells of baking. This had to be a kitchen—it was hot and steamy; but not the sort of kitchen where you imagined a wizened granny happily concocting dinners for hungry threshermen. Walls and shelves glittered and bloomed with implements but a forlorn smell of buns gone wrong pervaded the ancient air. She was experiencing the kaleidoscope vertigo and ringing ears of a mild hangover. Walk it off, that was it. That must have been one hell of a party.
Her last memories were of the 7th Avenue local. That skanky man, the one with the smelly overcoat! Linda gagged and found that her mouth was taped shut. An unpleasant odor of unwashed citizen and a large hand reached from behind to remove the tape. “Ouch!”
“Sorry, my dear—that should help you breathe easier,” said someone from out of her sight.
“Who are you? Where am I?” No answer. Oh, Jesus, I’m not dreaming, there was no party. Register terror, please. A fresh smell of burning mixed with the stale cooking odors of many yesteryears.
Her brain was receiving messages from far away places of her body that now was not the best time to make any sudden moves. “Oh well, it’s now or never.” She tried to stand and was pulled up short. “What?” Her wrists and ankles were bound with white surgical tape. That brought her eyes wide open. Yes, she was tied up, definitely tied, and seated on a wooden bench at a long polished table. An empty spool and a pair of shears lay on the floor at her feet. Whoever had tied her up had taken a few turns around the bench, leaving a short tether, then apparently run out of tape.
Sweet reasonableness said she should now be in a blind, paralytic panic. Nope—no goosebumps, no horripilation or trembling, just wobbly was all. Here I am cool as a cucumber and mightily pissed-off. She held onto the anger and cherished it. She was tied hand and foot, a prisoner of person or persons unknown, most likely drugged and unconscious minutes before, and she was making plans. Linda started to laugh, the laugh became a sneeze, she reached to scratch her nose and was brought up short by the tape. The unrelieved itch was more demanding than uncertain prospects at the hands of her captors. She stood and the adhesive tape tore. With both hands still tied together she joyously scratched her nose. No longer attached to the bench, she could turn, and if need be, hop about. She tried unwrapping her hands with her teeth, but with minimal results. “Huh.” People did it in the movies all the time. Well then, feet first, hands later. Before bending to undo her ankles, she took a deep breath and looked around. Close by were tangy overtones of burnt eggs and cheese and haphazardly tended bread whose yeast had worked too long. A blocky, bearded, well-muscled man she recognized from the subway was occupied at the stovetop burners of an enamel, iron and nickel plate range. He wore a high starched chef’s hat and an apron knotted on his chest. He was stabbing at an omelette pan with a spatula.
Linda paused to monitor her heart rate. Good. Regular, not racing with terror, just like in aerobics class. Goes to show you never know how you will react in a crisis until the crisis occurs. “I assume that I have been kidnapped.” Her voice did not sound as confident as she felt.
The man looked up at her, still digging at the omelette pan. “You are conscious. Excellent. Sorry about the tape, but We like to observe the forms. Isn’t that what kidnappers are supposed to do—the tape, I mean? I’m new to this hands-on stuff. You were becoming restless and I had to inject you. I had feared I got the dosage wrong.”
“You chloroformed me, and shot me full of dope? I want you to untie me. NOW.”
“Damn!” The burly man started, jumped and dropped the pan. At the expletive, a moth dropped like a rock from where it had been fluttering at the ceiling in a mating frenzy with a light bulb. “No need to shout,” said the man. “Softly, please.”
“I am not up on the etiquettes of abduction. Untie me. Now.”
The man ignored Linda. He was on his hands and knees under the stove, muttering. The pan retrieved, he set it on the table and started unwinding the bandages. “Sorry about the chloroform, my dear, but My powers are limited these days and I have had to fall back on chemistry My wonders to perform. Deity become a footnote—a sad turn of events. But the she-witch, the succubus, who throttles your mind has been likewise affected; I am comforted. You hear voices?”
Faith. Joy. Warm elbows, said the voice in Linda’s head, a woman’s voice. Bounce and forget, bounce and forget. “Norma Jean leFay from work,” said Linda. “Just something I have already heard. It’ll go away. And if you are saying I am nuts, I should point out I am the kidnapped one. You are the nutcase.”
“So, the Orange Virgin is with us, My own lovely adversary, the same. Thank you for the gratuitous tidbit. I would have uncovered your, ah... penetration on My own, of course, but...”
“Your ‘powers’ are limited? You have no powers. You are a sociopath. A rapist even. People are ‘conspiring’ against you and I hear voices? Paranoid schizophrenia. You need professional help.” Linda pulled back as her abductor leaned close to whisper in her face.
“Do you ever dream about the slaughter of pigs? No need to answer, we are not assigning guilt here. Or uniform tiny curls like the tops of Dairy Queen soft ice cream cones? Low cholesterol, the latest scientific breakthrough? Just wondering.”
This guy is certifiable, thought Linda. A slaughter of pigs. Linda harkened back to that morning’s brainstorming with Creative. “Pork-A-Dillos, yes.”
“Crackly salty tidbits of fried pork rind? My, but aren’t we just breaking all the rules. Read your Bible, darling—Leviticus Eleven, verses 7 and 11.” The man unwrapped another winding of tape and knelt to massage Linda’s ankles. “There, give it a bit till the circulation comes back, eh? Hope We haven’t made you too uncomfortable, but We had to get you out of the picture for a while. The Pork-A-Dillos led Us right to you. Funny.”
“Funny? I don’t think this is one bit funny.” There was an icy note of calm in her voice.
The Tevye guy babbled on. “We homed in on you like pigeon in a dovecote. We did it, Herself and I. The Fata Morgana, I mean. Much as I, she can make holes in time and start new solar systems spinning, upend the pyramids and unwind the skein of probability in a dozen different realities, but she can’t come back home till I let her.” He suddenly stopped, as though having said too much. He waved the omelet pan under Linda’s nose. “Just look at that—a quiche of welcome. I forgot all about it in the excitement.”
“The Fata Morgana. That is your partner? The voice in my head? You don’t have to be anxious about giving anything away; I most likely wouldn’t understand it anyway. Everything you have said so far is gibberish to me.”
“Sorry about that. And this, too. I was only trying to be helpful.” Her kidnapper batted his eyes at her and flashed a leer of many yellow teeth. “It was chloral hydrate, Mickey Finn, you know—that was what We injected you with.”
Linda rubbed her ankles. “That may be the name of the dope you used, but who are you? All of you. And where are we and why are we here?”
“I have been called The Rider on the Storm—a prime mover, if you will. For now you may call me, ahh... call me...” El patted his vest. There were usually papers if one had the sense to look for them. He consulted an inside breast pocket full of pens and mechanical pencils. There was a nametag. “Gershon Meyrowitz, since you ask. And this is a sub-cellar of the Hotel Taft. They walled it in when the hotel closed. And I do hope that you are asking a simple question of names, backgrounds and map coordinates. There could be a...”
“Problem? I’ll give you problems, buddy. For starters, I would be pleased to hear about just what the hell is going on.”
“My dear, charming and very, if I may say so, acerbic Linda, you shall have all the answers your heart desires. All in good time. A lot could be read into what you have only just now disingenuously spilled from your cupid’s-bow lips; nonetheless, I am prepared to reveal all to you, viz: what the countryside looks like beyond these walls, for your freedom while you are here will be unrestricted. You already have our names and our histories shall be forthcoming. As to the why-ness, I am prepared to discuss why my colleague and I are about what we are, though if you wish to explore the metaphysical aspects of why-ness, of Linda-ness, or the whatness of if... I shall have to refer to my notes.” He opened a loose leaf binder the size of the Chicago Yellow Pages. “Observe.” He riffled the pages under Linda’s nose. The pages made an appreciable breeze. They were blank. “While I am prepared, my notes are not.” He levered a pot lid open on a huge iron range, exposing glowing coals on the grates. “Metaphysics and the comforts of philosophy I fear, will not be ours today.” He dropped the notebook into the firebox and replaced the lid. “So much for instructions. Well now, like a spot of tea?” Without waiting for an answer, he started fussing with a kettle and cups.
“This is bullshit. You’re talking like some character out of Alice In Wonderland. I just asked a question; you didn’t have to answer. Thanks for the street theater but ‘shut up and sit down’ would have been more to the point.”
The man, Gershon Meyrowitz, looked crushed. “Oh dear, and I had so hoped to make a good impression. This being My first time and all...”
“You have certainly made an impression, you and that chum of yours. Forcible detention, abduction, shooting me full of dope and tying me up. And that getup! If I’d had my glasses on I’d have been laughing too hard to move. And now you give me some broken-down routine from the Kiwanis revue. Oh, I’m impressed all right.” Shoulders slumped, gaze averted, her captor continued about his tea business. She had hurt his feelings.
“Chum? Oh, you think I have a little helper. That female voice in your head, then? Delightful.” The kidnapper rifled through a bay of cabinets. “I believe we have some Oolong about somewhere...”
Some hours earlier, and on the other side of a shimmering picture wall, Morgana had watched windings of white surgical tape form up into a decorative macramé requiring a level of skill to which the average desperado would not aspire. “It’s El, sure as shit and twice as ugly. White Sow of Naxos, the old letch is putting on a show for her. What a lizard! He knows I am watching.”
Biff and the Manticore looked on bewildered.
“This Linda Winkelman is not an extraordinary person, but sharp-witted enough to give me the slip. Nothing in her life will have prepared her to be the priestess of the Fata Morgana, Queen of Heaven, Orange Virgin, Lady of The Wild Things, etc., etc. My priestess has selected herself, by exemplary deeds or conduct most likely. All I have got to do is catch up with her. We are going to join her in her past. Hopefully recent.”
The Manticore, not yet translated into the Cicerone of Biff, golem and quondam paramour of the Queen of Heaven, pulled enthusiastically at a newly-given rank, black cigar. “Hopefully? You exhibit a lack of precision I have come to expect from the goddess of life and joy.”
“Could you blow your smoke in another direction, there’s a good fellow. Realize those stogies are a plenary indulgence. Remember where they come from. Your continued supply is contingent on a devotion to my efforts.” Morgana unwrapped gold foil from around a sticky chocolate nougat. Biff looked on interestedly. “Sorry, this is the last one. Really, I can’t be spending all my time supplying treats for the personnel. Such a stew of life. Just look at that.”
“Where? I don’t see anyanyanyany...!” Biff clutched at Morgana as the facing wall fell away—no prefatory clearing of the throat brick-and-mortarwise, it was just gone. The room had become an open-ended box and, for all Biff could tell, they were flying and swooping at gut-wrenching acceleration through wispy swirling cloud cover toward what, at the rate it came charging up at them, could only be solid ground. Biff was going to be sick. They were going to be dead, and no chance to clean up after, crushed against the onrushing whatsis down there materializing through the clouds. He buried his face between Morgana’s breasts.
“Silly boy, how nice of you, but if you’re going to be sick, please do it in a bucket.” She grasped Biff firmly by the ears and extracted him. This all transpired in a misty might-have-been, for with godhead many things are possible, a place outside of common reality albeit Pi was yet infinite and four-and-twenty an even number of blackbirds. “This is grownup business. Pay attention, there may be questions later. We are going to crash the barrier separating us, our world, from another just like ours but not as nice. We are poaching on the sky demon’s preserve today.” The Queen of Heaven was peering closely into the mists where the wall had been.
“Uh... where are we?” said Biff brightly.
“We are here, where we have always been.” Morgana ruffled his hair and gestured
at the swirl and swoop before them. “All this is but a simulacrum for your education:
not real, but real enough.” Biff peered at the speeding maelstrom of colors and
shapes. “And where they are is midtown
The ground was covered with little specs hurrying to and fro. “Oooo... there are people down there. Just like us.” It looked cold and wet down there. And dirty. Very inhospitable.
“People, yes. Just like us, no. If they were just like us we wouldn’t have to be at all this jiggery-pokery, we could just walk right in and talk sensibly. Let’s move in for a closer look.”
The people became bigger; Biff could pick out individuals. The image blurred as Morgana swung back and forth looking for one particular individual.
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. You’ll have to trust me.” Sensing a presence more vital than the surrounding low-energy ambience of people at their daily grind, she slipped into the consciousness of a Broadway denizen. He leaned casually against a mock masonry store front with its chicken wire lathing oozing out in places where the neighborhood idlers, moochers and art critics had been picking at the appliqué bricks. He pressed himself into the wall, lit up a joint and eyed a tangle of boy prostitutes coming on across the street to the tunnel traffic from New Jersey.
“The local color, Biff, my dear. Perhaps when you’re older.”
There was more swirling and swooping. “There. Biff Bangtree, meet your long-lost sister, my priestess. She doesn’t know about you yet, but I think you’ll get along famously.”
“Why do I want a sister?”
“A genuine question, genuinely put, but the truth is too complex for a genuine answer. You want a sister because I say you do, that’s why.”
What they saw was the face of a pretty, auburn-haired woman, agitated and becoming more so. She was negotiating a revolving door with two large totes and an umbrella, her face screwed up in a lubricious clown grimace complete with protruding tongue, indicating intense thought on a tricky problem. Her struggles to get herself and her cargo into the rotating cubicle thence to the street had raised her skirt, exposing a quantity of calf and thigh. The show got appreciative looks, but no help from bystanders.
It was Christmas in New York, a time of tinseled windows, slush coming over the tops of transparent plastic rain boots. A wide-bodied Checker cab spun into the taxi stand at the corner, trying to use the parking lane for an illegal turn to catch the light at 33rd Street. A spray of brown slush stippled Linda’s panty hose all the way to her knee on that side. “What the fuck!” She flipped a bird at the departing cab and forlornly watched the mixture of oil and ice crystals trickle down her left leg. From the passengers’ compartment, five beefy, red-faced men packing camel’s hair coats and attaché cases registered conflicted emotions. One on the jump seat facing backwards gave a sheepish grin and a small shrug of excuse—sorry, the human condition, etc. A twenty-five-dollar tip for the driver if they made the to Dobbs Ferry. “Plus my stockings,” Linda Winkelman addressed no one in particular. People hurried by blank-eyed and self absorbed, wrapped up in their own concerns. The only witnesses to the drama were its participants. Only hip waders would have saved her from a drenching. “Just look at that!—low heels, two inches of slush on the sidewalk and I’m soaked.” Linda was a eyewitness to the immutability of natural law. She had wet feet.
“Cute cupcake,” the Manticore thrust his head between Morgana and Biff, “and she wears an expression of extreme distress. An easy conquest.”
“Too easy” The colors on the wall swirled and the woman faded in and out. Biff craned forward and caught himself as he went off balance, clutching at the back of the Fata Morgana’s chair lest by leaning too far he fall into the picture.
Morgana stared fixedly into the mists as the woman returned. “I do so hope she likes pigs. I’ve got a lot riding on this.”
Biff stared, too. The woman was blank and immobile. Had something gone wrong? Linda was standing stock still with her neck contorted as though she was trying to scratch her shoulder with her chin. Her ankles were crossed and she appeared to be looking backward while walking forward. She was balanced on one foot and her weight must surely drag her in an inexorable spiral to the ground.
“She’s the one, no doubt about it. But we want to enter this transaction a mite earlier. Some adjustments are indicated.”
Morgana stopped short; she felt confused emanations: hers was not the only power here. There was an interloper.
“I am the Queen of Heaven. I do not get confused.”
“You are not Queen here,” a voice spoke in her ear. A syrupy voice, moist and urgent. “Over the millennia you have been relegated to the shadow world of false legend and prophecies unfulfilled. I know, I wrote the Book. Oh, and welcome back.”
“And you get your book in all the motels. Yaddita-yaddita, smug as ever. A thing of small consequence, so does the telephone company. And without your blood-thirsty medievalisms.”
“What a pair we were, you and I, Morgana. And, I sometimes dream, again?”
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