Mark looked around, comparing what he saw as he drove with the knot of humanity called Manhattan, New York. Well, one difference is the Muffler Man sized statue of Johnny Kaw, wheat farmer and folk hero. He appeared to be kind of like Paul Bunyan but this legend was manufactured wholey by Kansasans in the 1950s.
Many immigrants found New York City a crossroads and decision point on their journey into the new world. Manhattan Kansas presented a similar crux for Mark. He could decide to take 40N, or 40S. Mark took the lucky 1 Euro coin from his dashboard and gave it a flip. "Tails... 40S it is."
Mark passed Junction City and the Heritage Underwear Show at Geary County Historical Society, and Abilene, where he stopped to visit the American Telephony Museum. He reached Salina, where he sees the Bones of Snyder, an elephant with the Sells-Floto Circus. Probably the most newsworthy event in Salina's history, Snyder broke loose and rampaged through the streets.
As darkness fell, Mark took a hotel room, since he had no real sleep the night before, just a drugged stupor. He thought idly about Gordi and the diner waitress, and got to sleep without alcohol for once.
About 3.a.m, Mark rose near the threshold of consciousness, and sensed a presence in the room. He rolled over, and found that there was someone else in his bed. He became fully awake with a start, and abruptly shouted, "What??"
"Don't be alarmed," said a husky voice. "I mean you no harm. I... I want to help."
Mark reached over to the bedside lamp and turned it on. Blinking in the suddenly bright light, he saw the intruder. Natasha. She wore a black lace teddy, laces down each side and down the front, and a pair of black panties. Her legs were bare, but she wore a pair of black "f--- me" pumps strapped around the ankles. The only spot of color was a red ribbon, worn around her neck as a choker.
"Help? What kind of help can you give me?" Mark may not have admitted it consciously, but his body knew. His mouth was dry, and he felt blood rush to his lips and to other, less public parts. He drew the bedclothes over his waist and stomach more securely.
"I know you're lonely. I'm lonely too... we can help each other." She threw her right leg over him, and gently scratched his hairy chest. More of a stroke than a scratch, the nails left tingling streaks across Mark's body.
Mark's mind reeled, but some vestige of self-preservation prompted him to say, "No. You're on a mission from Nick. You're trying to trick me somehow, to get my hopes up and then destroy them. I don't trust you. You're a demoness!"
She twirled her nails across his chest, flicking his left nipple as she passed. Then she leaned forward and brushed her lips across the edge of his ear. A shiver went down his body, like the one he got from cheap wine but without the accompanying revulsion. Then she laid her hand flat on his chest and began to speak.
"I know, you have no reason to trust me. I can't blame you. I work for Nick now, and have for some time. But I wasn't always his employee."
"I made some mistakes when I was young, and a bad decision landed me here. It didn't matter much to me, until Nick picked up your case. We had to study you, backwards and forwards, to prepare for that night in Baltimore. I saw, by your actions and by your thoughts, how much you loved your family. How much you would do for them, if you could figure out how. We studied them, too, to find your weaknesses. "
"We aren't supposed to get involved with the clients, " she continued, "but your story made me care." She rested her head on his shoulder, and started to cry.
Mark was lost in thought for the moment, and started to stroke her hair. He realized what he was doing, blushed and pulled his hand away. "Now, now.... there, there." he said awkwardly.
Natasha, who had for a brief time relaxed into him as she finished crying, stiffened again when he pulled away. "I don't blame you. You don't know me from Adam... or Lillith, should I say." She rolled over, her back to him, her legs drawn up in a semi-foetal position. He could see her back framed below by the low cut neckline of the teddy, and above by the red of the choker ribbon, as her hair was spread across the pillow. She started speaking in a low voice, just loud enough for him to hear.
"When I was five, I was started on piano lessons and tap dancing classes. I was slated to be the perfect little daughter, versed in the womanly arts, available to perform and please. So, once a week, I walked grudgingly to the piano teacher's house to pound out my tedious exercises. I had a flair for it, so it wasn't as hard as it could have been, but I would still rather have been playing with my dolls and stuffed horses and toy cars."
"I was in the school Christmas play, at first as a snowflake. As the years wore on I was rapidly promoted to reindeer and finally to elf, a singing/dancing role. I was in the children's choir in curch, and in the pageants went from sheep to wise man to the youngest Mother Mary that St. Joseph had ever seen. As the years passed, and I improved, I first gloried in the attention and applause. It was love, I thought, love I didn't get at home from my absent, self-obsessed parents."
"It was wonderful, and gradually I came to revel in the music itself, the interplay of moods and thoughts and actions. I would sing to myself, or to the neighbor's horses. I started looking forward to the piano lessons, as we delved into Mozart and Bach and Vivaldi."
"When I was ten, my mother bought me a guitar. I practiced night and day, pouring my heart into the new instrument. I could have music anywhere, any time, with my voice and my guitar. It was magical.
"When I was fourteen, my parents were about to divorce. They were both drinking heavily, and sometimes I wouldn't see them for days at a time. I had learned to fend for myself. One week, when I hadn't seen them for four days, I decided that I didn't need them any more. I packed a bag, and with my guitar and a few photos of my friends, took off for San Francisco."
"It was the Scene, and it was amazing. Even though I was only fourteen, I was tall and self-assured. I joined up with a woman I met at the bus station, she was waiting for her brother to arrive from Kansas. The three of us went back to their commune-house at 710 Haight Street, and I had a new home."
"I helped them pay the rent. We'd throw block parties, with wine and cold cuts and lots of weed and mushrooms. The folks would throw whatever money or food or clothes they could into the Rent Pot, and hang out and listen to us play. She played the drums, he played the bass, and we had a line of people wanting to sit in on all kinds of other instruments. It was just about perfect, and our Rent Parties grew and grew. Pretty soon, Bill Graham took notice."
"We played the Fillmore once. That is, I played the Fillmore once, but other members of our band went back again and again. Bill Graham just didn't like my voice, 'too refined', he'd say, 'too much opera, not enough blues. Check out Janis, and Grace.' I couldn't make the leap, though, I had been trained too well. Even though I could put beauty and emotion into my music, I couldn't swing."
"That's when I met Nick. He was flash, he was fly, he had the zoot suit with the reat pleat. He had all the best drugs and all the best contacts. He said he could make me soar like Grace, burn like Janis. He only needed a little favor back from me."
"Nick became my agent, and my coach. He booked me in the rooms, up and down the west coast. I jammed, I swung, I soared. And people loved me again."
"It was great, for a while. Then the crowds got smaller, and smaller. Nick said I was losing my draw, but that he could help. I just had to do a few more favors. He booked me at private parties. I stripped, I ran 'errands', I pleased his friends and customers the best I could. Every now and then I'd get a scrap of what I was looking for, a tiny bit of Love. After a while, though, I stopped expecting it. I got tired. I no longer believed that real Love existed. I didn't much care if I sang or danced or stripped or just ran 'errands'. Time dragged on forever."
"Then I was assigned to you. I saw the Love in your family, with you and your wife, and at first I thought it was some kind of elaborate put-on. The more I saw, the more I Believed, and I felt within me the first stirrings of Hope I had since I met Nick."
"You think I'm putting you on, that Nick sent me to tempt you into his domain. I'm here for me. And for you. But I understand if you don't believe me." Then she went silent, except for the slight catching of breath which told Mark that she was crying.
He felt his hearth ache, as he thought of the bright little girl and what she had been through. He knew his wife had similar dreams, and had them dashed long before he met her. He slid over toward her, to put a comforting arm on her shoulder, to tell her it would be OK, even though he wasn't sure how.
When he got close to her, though, the smell of cinnamon filled his senses. A surge of lust joined his aching heart, and he bent his face near her ear, to whisper his message. He stumbled, a bit, though, and his lips brushed the downy hairs of her neck, above the choker and below her right ear. An electric charge went through his lips, tingling, flushed his face and down his spine to the base of his back. She moaned softly, as a similar charge went through her, and she stopped crying.
She waited. It was up to him now.
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