(From Death Be Not Loud: Ghosts Haunts & Tall Tales for Restless Nights by Jan Olandese https://www.amazon.com/Jan-Olandese/e/B071FK9L75
Stacy cautiously stepped into the elevator that Monday morning. She had her usual Starbucks Super Skinny Soy Sugar-Free Decaf Light Foam Double Shot Macchiato (she was vegan). Her smart black suit smacked of 1980’s yupsterdom: it was right out of John T. Molloy’s Dress For Success. She carried a small Mark Cross shoulder bag and wore plain but expensive pumps, mid height. Her hair was pulled back in a bun so tight no follicle dared rebel. Wire-rimmed John Lennon spectacles, pearl earring studs and light makeup finished her look. She was engrossed, rapidly tapping the surface of her smart phone with longish nails (but in pale French manicure, plain enough for the office). She might have passed for a telegrapher in the Great War. Tap tappity tap.
Ding! The elevator stopped with a slight lurch. Stacy looked annoyed, the jolt had bungled her message. Spell Check had converted juju to Jew Jew. As she made hasty corrections, someone entered the car; that is to say, first came the scent, which quite inundated the already stuffy little space. It was a dense cloud of Youth Dew, a particularly pungent, and to Stacy, virulent odor she associated with people she loathed: her mom, her analyst, her accountant, and her last bf, who had left Stacy for a sex change and a new life as Bobara. The small car, already a bit close, felt quite awash in a sea of Dew.
Stacy looked up. She saw no one except the same two other passengers who’d been there when she got on: a businessman with a briefcase and the elevator operator, a woman from one of those forgettable countries in Central America: El Mexico? Costa Mesa? She had no mind for these places full of teeming masses yearning to be legal al-, ah, documented immigrants.
Now the scent was gone, too. No one in the car had batted an eye, but she knew what she knew. Stacy had the self-confidence of Imelda Marcos due to a well-anchored ego, which overshadowed that of even Oprah. (Her self-esteem was anchored all right, but at which pier?). She shook any stray cobwebs from her alert little mind, checked to see if they’d reached the 25th floor, and went back to jabbing at her touch screen.
Ding! went the elevator. It was Stacy’s turn to get off. As was her habit, she totally ignored the operator to avoid ever having to tip (Louboutins cost money), and forcefully strode to the office, where she worked chasing down estates from which to siphon, er, auction. Her employer, Parker Bowles & Bloodhound, rivaled Christie’s in volume and occasional sly theft.
On her desk was a black notebook in which the ‘talent scouts’ as the well-paid private investigators were fondly known, placed prospects they’d unearthed through obituaries, word of mouth, bribery and computer fraud. There was one name underlined in red, with asterisks, the scouts’ way of subtly indicating which leads Stacy might most profitably pursue. This entry was the estate of “Lillian Froght-Lederhosen.”
Stacy scratched her head in such a way that had she been less careful about her personal hygiene might have suggested she was getting at the itch without displacing the lice. She knew that name. Lillian had been in and out of society pages as an heiress to some principality in Europe which had no industry outside of shielding white collar criminals from extradition to more civilized countries. She had notoriously been the first person snapped au naturel by early paparazzi: too naturel, the orange rind of her thighs as well as the undeniable beginnings of a second chin had been plainly visible for all to see (as they certainly did, in the exclusive issue of the fan mag which had offered the winning bid). Lillian’s pet charity was assisting those in need: you know, the mere upper middle classes. She loved the joy she saw on their faces when they were able to buy their first Mercedes.
Lillian had been the surviving spouse of the late billionaire Hargreave “Marlin” Perkins (of Perkinswear Bladderspill Protecto-Pants fame), whose nickname was derived from his penchant for hunting safaris. The walls of the cavernous entry to their home (they’d somehow latched onto the plans of an old SS colonel’s platz, and cloned them) were literally coated with the heads of those (mostly aging, mangy and senescent) creatures too slow to elude Hargreave’s wildly inaccurate aim. Giraffes to zebras, lions to jaguars, hippos and even a spectacular tsetse fly with an eleven-inch wing span: all the creatures to be found on the savanna could be seen there (from the neck up).
It was whispered he’d even got a shrunken head room, the contents of which he had inveigled from a powerful, deadly Kikuyu shaman. This witch doc-, ah, indigenous religious leader’s name was unpronounceable by westerners but he was known as Cthulhu’mon: his talent for creative sorcery and his otherworldly connections. He was inordinately successful at lifting hexes of other sorcerers, curing disease and eliminating, ah, “outperforming” his competition. Hargreave, whose hubris was a much longer suit than his IQ, often wore one of the wee pilfered heads round his neck: since he couldn’t bring Neu Karinhall with him, it reminded people not to mess with him (he thought. Which proved the adage “that’s what you get for thinking”).
Stacy had ever the sharp eye for future commissions (Chloe bags did not come cheap). She accurately assessed the Froght-Lederhosen Perkins estate as a Louis Vuitton spendathon. That would show that snooty little size 00 bitch from the Hamptons in the LV store; the one who’d sneered when Stacy’s Zirconium Card didn’t go through. She would follow up without delay.
Ding! heralded the elevator’s arrival. Stacy whisked herself in hastily, without her usual care. Her mental eye was on the prize. But alas. She’d caught her heel in the rift valley between the landing and car. In doing so, her always-full (but in this case, fortunately, lukewarm) coffee cup overflowed right into the elevator operator’s lap, smooth as a Phil Mickelson putt . . . ffffsshhhht. Stacy, more concerned with losing her latte than any possible bodily harm, eyed the operator, with whom she had ridden (and quite ignored) for several years now. “Miss … (Stacy squinted at the bespattered nametag) Peron,” she mispronounced. “Send your dry cleaning bill to my office.” And punctuated her comment with a return to her touch screen: tap tappity tap. The elevator whooshed shut. On the way down, Stacy again was momentarily overcome by a thick (though invisible Youth Dew) fog bank. Then it faded, and by the time she stepped off (more carefully this time) it had quite evaporated into the pine air freshener plus occasional sweaty armpit smell usually associated with the lobby.
Svengalita Peron, the elevator operator, was more than dismayed. It was one thing to be snubbed by Leetle Meess Buttface. It was quite another to be spilled on without apology. The years of rudeness now equaled more than their sum. Svengalita, on her break, took out her own cell phone and pushed M for Murder, her cute contact list reference to Uncle Cthulhu’mon, her father’s fellow 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason and golf partner (Cthulhu’mon was often in Costa Mesa, I mean Rica, for business: for on the side he was a successful purveyor of “Viagra.”
“Hello, Uncle? Thees ees Svengalita.”
“Galli, dear, are you all right? You never call unless you want something.”
“Uncle, no, eet’s serious now. I was coffee’d at work,” she wept. Little by little, Cthulu’mon was able to piece together what had actually happened. Interestingly, it tied right in with intel he’d received about the estate of “Big Bwana” Perkins, that fat, odious, mass wildlife extinguisher from Atlanta. He’d heard it was all up for grabs by a rip-off auction house with a fancy Anglo name. Cthulhu’mon had already cast a spell in this regard (the Estee Lauder Special). Those shrunken Zulu heads must be returned to their home continent lest disaster strike: the Gods were crazy, and had recently dropped not only Coke but Dr. Pepper bottles from on high to register the level of their concern over this sacrilege. The last one had nearly brained Ngufru, his rickshaw boy. (Cthuhlu’mon shuddered. Dr. Pepper, ptui! He’d used it to poison the giant pouch rats, mambo snakes, Madame Ngu, and some relatives). So, he thought, it all came down to this one American woman. Well, two birds with one stone, he thought to himself (he loved cliché as lions love white meat).
“Not to worry, Galli. Go on about your business. Yes, let them pay for the laundry. Yes, pad the bill!” (He shook his head. Svengali was adorable, but sooo dumb).
Stacy imperiously hailed a cab as if she were the maitre’d at La Grenouille and it, a dish-scraper trainee. This methodology worked for her today: a battered (off-)yellow cab pulled up to the curb and the door opened. She hopped in quickly, briskly shoving two aging nuns, a blind man, and his assistive animal out of the way.
“Upper East Side, the North Dakota. Make it snappy.” Tap tappity tap tap, without so much as a glance up, she was back at her cell.
“Yes’m.” The cabbie mumbled but said nothing further. Stacy was glad. She detested few things more than chatty help.
The driver nodded. His name, along with a likeness of his turbaned head, was posted up with his permit: Raj Patel. He was, however, one of the Nairobi Patels. He texted his boss “On way. C U.”
Tap tapity tap. Stacy worked her iPhone like a dentist probing for weak spots. She was thus so engrossed she didn’t notice that the cab had gone to the Bronx instead of the Upper East Side. When she looked up after what seemed an inordinately long ride, she found herself in a strange place: a posh-free zone.
“But, but,” she sputtered, and then was (for the third time that day) quite overcome with the now too familiar scent of Youth Dew. This was the concentrate, and it knocked her loopy. Visions of her ex trying on her pantyhose, back when he was still known as Bob, shared her mental screen with those of her analyst yawning in her face and telling her to “Get a life.” She saw red.
Then she saw the cabbie, whose new, fake name tag read Alamein “Al” Qaeda from Beirut, Syria. (His geography, like Stacy’s, was not the best: to him, one –istan country was the same as the next).
“This isn’t the North Dakota!” she whinged. “Where are we? Don’t you know your way around our country yet, or are you still in terrorist school?!” she added tactlessly (to Stacy, a headdress was a headdress).
“Thees way,” said Raj/Al. The passenger door opened and two masked men reached in and hefted Stacy, her purse, and her laptop onto the sidewalk. They tipped the driver and hustled her inside a nearby brownstone. It was dark in there, and then they put something over her eyes. She was led down a corridor that smelled of curry and then into what looked like a botanica, not that she would have known. To her, it was just a grubby little store selling seeds, pressed dried plants and potions. All in Espanol, which she disliked nearly as much as the smell of Youth Dew.
“Wh-wh-what do you want?” she begged of the older woman at the counter, who was tall, menacing, and immense, filling out her plus-size muumuu so that no fabric, stretch as it might, hung loose. Her aging, crepe-like neck was adorned with many strands of mardi gras beads in varying colors, and huge gold hoop earrings swung from her earlobes. She wore a nametag that said “Maria Celeste” and “Que puedo servirle?” Her frizzled Brillo Pad hair was wrapped in a colorful scarf. (“Another Arab!” thought Stacy).
“Dju need to dreenk thees, Senorita,” Maria stated, handing Stacy a coffee mug full of something hot, green and foul-smelling. Sewage?
“No way, lady!” Stacy verbally stamped her Tory Burch clad foot. But that foot was in her mouth, as it turned out.
“Dju dreenk or we pour down da t’roat, Seen’ta!” insisted Maria. She leaned forward and waved the beverage under Stacy’s pert little nose. Rather than choke, Stacy assented, and picking up the mug, held her breath and chugged.
The flavor, after all the fuss, wasn’t half bad. Vanilla and peanut butter, sort of, with an undertone of what? Gatorade? Wait. Wasn’t Gatorade on Forensic Files? They put antifreeze in it, right? OMG. OMG. All this proved too much for Stacy. Her small brain, on overload, took a swan dive into the vast Cloud of Unknowing. It emerged later, refreshed and blissful, having total amnesia with regard to the events of that afternoon, thanks to Maria’s little tonic.
While Stacy was out: her abductors explored her computer, which was rife with scoop relating not only to the Froght-Lederhosen Perkins file, but several others of interest to Cthulhu’mon. You never knew. “Knowledge is power” was another of the shaman’s favorite saws (aside from his Makita 3.9 hp, which he found very useful when slicing and dicing: vegetables, wildebeests, Maasai tribesmen: it mattered not).
As Team Botanica was surfing its way through Stacy’s Sony laptop, out of nowhere they heard that Bach organ fugue made famous by Hammer Films and Vincent Price. Were they in Trouble? They looked heavenwards: guilty as charged. But wait! No!
As it turned out, it was only Stacy’s cell. Yanking it out of her bag, they first silenced it (it creeped them out) and then hacked into it, too: and look, here were photos! Not only those poor departed animals (“The karma!” Maria shook her head and the others nodded sadly), but the precise location of the shrunken head collection (a complete set! The Boss will be elated!), with the additional prize of a card index identifying each one. “Hoffa, J.” “Cooper, D.B.” Earhart, Amelia, “Oz, Wizard of,” to name but a few. This data was promptly forwarded to the Nairobi offices of Cthulhu Industries.
Cthulhu’mon was so glad (the gods were, too. Soda bottles abruptly stopped raining down from on high. As the gods were not likely to have given up their cola habit, he was certain they were appeased. For now. A shaman’s work is never done. But wait, one more thing . . . Cthulhu’mon pinched a small amount of various dark-hued powders and, tossing them into the air, uttered an incantation in an ancient language only the gods would recognize. No sooner said than done!
Stacy woke up refreshed, asleep at her desk. She felt wonderful! She decided to take off early (her clock said 3:30 p.m. but she felt as if she’d put in a full day indeed).
Ding! The elevator arrived at the 25th floor with a soft whhhhssssshhh. The doors parted. Stacy stepped in. The elevator operator was there as usual, but now in a clean uniform. Stacy blew by her and whipped her cell out of her bag. Tap ta….but wait a minute. What happened to her Don’t Bother Me, I’m Busy tap? Her screen had been somehow muted. Her phone was silent as a shoeless Will Mastin Trio. What on earth? Then she looked and it wasn’t her iPhone she was holding, but a cheap off-brand. Wha?? And her HAND. It was…light brown!! And the nails! Chipped frosted sea green polish. “OMG.”
This wasn’t her hand at all! It was that of Svengalita Peron, as she noticed, seeing the nametag on what was now her own uniform. It at least appeared clean, aside from some donut crumbles. Looking up, Stacy saw herself standing there, tapping on her iPhone. Tappity tap tap. But it wasn’t her own self at all, was it. It was Svengalita’s. Somehow Stacy had been traded down. ‘Way down. She spoke but the voice was unfamiliar and had the unmistakable accent of Costa Mesa.
“What floor, please?”
“The lobby, Buttface,” replied a smirking Svengalita in Stacy’s former voice.
For in fact the drought imbibed by Stacy had (unintentionally, mind you) killed her off. Her vegan body couldn’t cope with the various ingredients, from MSG to Spam to rhino horn powder to movie popcorn with “butter” to Alpo to canned scrapple to stale Dr. Pepper. Oh, and Twinkies. She had landed in her private Purgatory, where reservations had been made for the future, foreseeable or not.
But Svengalita, still alive, had somehow been migrated into Stacy’s body, all inclusive of Stacy’s job, her lovely apartment, her endless closet, and even Stacy’s shoe size. As neither girl was especially bright, there was no problem in terms of questioning fate. Svengalita knew a good thing when it landed on her head, like a Coke bottle on the Serengeti.
Reaching into her Mark Cross bag, Svengalita generously sprayed herself with her favorite cologne: she had unaccountably fallen in love with Youth Dew. Seated at the helm, Stacy in Svengalita’s former body, was now doused in it, and it spotted her crisp white collar and shirt front. She peered up at her former self who said in clipped, Anglo, all-business tones:
“Send the dry cleaner’s bill to my office.”