Her Nightly Embrace
Before we start, there’s something you should know.
I see gods.
Usually in the corner of my eye. They just pop up from time to time, deities from the Hindu pantheon.
I never talk to them. I don’t want to.
They never talk to me, just watch in silent judgment. Occasionally they tut-tut and tweet about me to one another on their phones.
I’m not mentally ill. Honest.
Back when this started, I was switching from antipsychotics to mood stabilizers to antianxiety to antidepressant medications before I finally got it under control.
I haven’t been seeing many gods lately. That must be a good sign.
“What am I doing with my life . . . ?”
I pushed the thought to the back of my mind as I knocked on the door to the luxury suite.
“Who is it?” The voice of the man in the room was a little high-pitched, nervous. He wasn’t expecting anyone.
“Hotel security, sir,” I said. “We have reports of a leak downstairs, and it might have come from your bathroom. We need to take a look.”
“All right! Hold on!”
I heard a rustling of sheets and grunts as he pulled some clothes on. The man who opened the door was middle-aged, a little pudgy and balding, blinking in a bathrobe.
That was the cue for Hector and Dave to barge in from behind me. They used their fridge-like bodies to push through the door and take Hollis by the arms and carry him into the room. I walked in and put the Do Not Disturb sign out before I shut the door.
“What’s going on?” cried the blonde in the bed. She pulled the sheets up to cover herself. Dave and Hector deposited Hollis on the bed next to her. Her name was Bambi. Of course it was. She had, as Dave would say, big bazongas.
“Relax, honey,” Dave said. “This won’t take long.”
It was just as well that Dave and Hector dressed like plainclothes cops. They used to be cops, so they still had that vibe. Like them, I was in a suit and tie, so we all maintained a veneer of authority and intimidation.
I snapped a few pictures of Hollis and Bambi with my phone and emailed them back to the agency in London.
We were in the Hilton International Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. I’d spent the last five days tailing Hollis and Bambi, taking pictures of them canoodling in restaurants, kissing in the back of cabs, groping each other at the top of the Empire State Building and the usual tourist spots. Ironically, following them let me do the tourist thing, which I’d never done before in New York.
Dave pulled out a little video camera to film Hollis and Bambi for good measure. He made sure he got a shot of the lines of cocaine on the nightstand and the clothes and underwear scattered on the floor, leaving no room for doubt as to what Hollis and Bambi had been up to.
“Stop! What are you doing?” cried Hollis as he tried to hide his face.
“You motherfuckers!” screamed Bambi. “Get out! Get the fuck out!”
“Bear with us, sweetheart. It’ll just take a minute,” Hector said as he picked up her clothes and handed them to her.
My phone rang. London. I answered.
“I have Roger here for you,” Cheryl, our office manager, said.
“You still there with him, Ravi?” asked Roger, my boss.
“I have eyes on Mr. Hollis.”
“Good. Stay on the line. You’ll want to watch this.” A chuckle came over the phone.
Oh, God. When Roger says that, it means I’m about to witness something horrible. Roger lives for this shit. I don’t.
The smartphone on the bedside table rang. Hollis went pale when he saw the number, and answered with shaking hands.
“HOWARD! YOU SHIT! I CAN SEE YOU RIGHT NOW! YOU AND YOUR YANK FLOOZY! DID YOU THINK I WOULDN’T KNOW?”
Margaret Hollis must have been in Roger’s office, looking at the photos I had emailed to his computer. It wasn’t my idea to barge in on him like this, but she requested that we did to put the fear of Wife into him. Two years’ worth of pent-up rage after he smooth-talked and manipulated her into thinking his having a bit on the side was all in her imagination. Now she had hard proof and wanted him to know that he was well and truly fucked. We didn’t need speakerphone mode to hear her.
“YOU THINK YOU COULD LIE TO ME ABOUT WHAT YOU WERE UP TO ON THOSE TRIPS TO NEW YORK? CLIENT MEETINGS, MY ARSE! AND WITH MY MONEY! WELL, HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK YOUR BIMBO IS GOING TO LIKE YOU AFTER I STOP YOUR CREDIT CARDS AND FREEZE YOUR BANK ACCOUNT—EH? EH?”
“This is too intense for me,” Bambi said, who hastily and rather messily pulled her blouse and miniskirt on.
“I’VE GOT YOU NOW, HOWARD! YOU’RE FINISHED, YOU HEAR ME? YOU’LL BE HEARING FROM MY LAWYER! YOU WON’T HAVE A POT TO PISS IN WHEN I’M DONE WITH YOU! ALL THE MONEY CAME FROM MY FATHER, ANYWAY! DID YOU TELL YOUR TART THAT?”
Bambi headed for the door. Hollis started after her, but Hector pushed him back onto the bed as Dave continued to film him.
“Bambi! Wait!” cried Hollis. “Darling! I’ll sort it out!”
But she was gone.
“YOUR JOB THAT I GOT YOU IN THE COMPANY? GONE! YOUR SEAT ON THE BOARD? GONE! YOUR CREDIT CARDS? FROZEN! YOUR CLOTHES THAT I BOUGHT YOU? I’M HAVING A BONFIRE IN THE GARDEN TONIGHT!”
“Oh, God!” he cried, and made a lunge for the window. We were on the nineteenth floor. He was that desperate.
“Whoa! Easy there! Settle down!” Dave said.
Dave set the video camera down to help Hector wrestle Hollis away from the window and to the carpet. He made a wailing, keening sound like a dying animal that had been shot. I noticed that the camera was positioned on the bedside table to catch the entire struggle. Dave was a consummate professional, after all. The footage reminded me of BBC nature documentaries in which tigers brought down a hapless gazelle. I could almost imagine David Attenborough narrating.
I’d almost forgotten I was still holding my phone to my ear when Roger’s delighted voice came back on.
“Enjoy the show?”
“As train wrecks go, I rate this one a seven,” I said.
“Good result, Ravi,” he said. “Come on home.”
For Roger, it’s not a good result unless someone’s world ends up in ruins. I looked at Hollis and saw a fat little boy caught with his finger in the cookie jar—whimpering, crying, trying to make mummy feel bad and forgive him. This is what my life had come to.
New York City was such a cultural boiling pot that all the gods were here. Not just Hindu gods, but all of them—Chinese gods, Japanese gods, even Yahweh Himself pulling multiple duty for the Jews, the Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Lutherans, and what have you. Fortunately, the city was so crowded and everyone was so busy that we could happily ignore each other as we went about our business, so I didn’t see any gods all week, and I didn’t even have to take my mood stabilizers to make them go away.
Hector and Dave were nice enough to drive me to the airport. They were always happy to meet someone from the London office. I wasn’t about to discourage their belief that London was more civilized and cool. They were still a bit punch-drunk from the hotel. We all were.
“So how long you been in the job, Ravi?” Hector asked.
“Seen a dead body yet?” Dave asked.
“Nope. Not planning to.”
“Good for you, brother,” Hector said. “Dave and me, we saw a ton of stiffs when we were cops. You never forget the smell.”
“Smell’s the worst,” Dave said.
Hector Camacho and Dave Kosinski were like the American versions of Ken and Clive at the London office, ex-cops who had become PIs because they liked to fuck shit up. I suppose every branch of the firm has guys like them. Ken and Clive made me think of violent, muscle-bound versions of the Thompson Twins from the Tintin comics, if the Thompson Twins were a gay couple.
“Now, Ravi,” Hector said. “No offense, but you don’t got the cop vibe. What did you do before you became a private investigator like us?”
“I was a high school teacher.”
Hector, driving, was so shocked that he nearly let go of the wheel to look at me quizzically. I would have hated to die in a crash in the Midtown Tunnel. I went to New York and all I got was a lousy car accident.
“You’re the new blood in the company and you never had any law enforcement experience?” Dave said.
“Back in the London office, Ken and Clive are the only ex-cops. The rest of us come from different walks of life. Ken and Clive trained us.”
“What the hell kind of pool is Roger hiring from these days?” cried Hector.
“Well, the Boy Scouts are still too young,” I said. “And too ethical.”
That at least got a laugh out of the guys.
“We’re just bustin’ your balls, brother,” Dave said. “You’re all right.”
“How long did it take you to get your license?” Hector asked.
“I don’t have one. You don’t need a license to be a private investigator in the UK.”
Hector had to struggle to stay in control of the wheel again.
“Are you shitting me? You mean to say any schmuck in England could hang out a shingle and call himself a private eye?”
“Pretty much, yeah. I was surprised, too, when I found out.”
“Holy shit, Dave! What are we doing here in New York? We could’ve been living large in London the last couple years!”
“Yeah! Why didn’t anyone tell us sooner?” laughed Dave.
“You know how much time and money it took us to get our licenses?” Hector said. “The hoops we had to jump through? Then how much more it took for us to get permits to carry guns?”
“Well, in the UK, we don’t get to carry guns,” I said.
“Oh yeah. There’s the downside,” Hector said.
“Always a downside,” Dave sighed.
I was really glad we couldn’t carry guns back home. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Ken and Clive if they had guns.
My mother’s words whenever I misbehaved as a child were echoing in my head as I sat in coach on the Virgin flight back to London.
“Child of Kali, sowing chaos and mayhem wherever you go . . .”
I was feeling a bit shit. Did Roger really think I would enjoy watching that poor bastard Hollis see his world come crashing down on him? Was he still trying to toughen me up, teach me something about myself that he thought I didn’t already know? My problem wasn’t that it shocked or appalled me. My problem was that it didn’t shock or appall me.
I looked at the photos of Hollis and Bambi on my phone because I just needed to rub my face in my own moral decline.
The woman sitting next to me had just the right gleam of mischief in her eyes to pull me out of myself.
“Not my holiday.”
“Let me guess. Private eye.”
Her name was Ariel Morganstern, and she was from Rhode Island. She had red hair, freckles, a cute overbite, and a tattoo of the goddess Kali on her arm. She wore tight jeans and a black baby-T. She told me she had saved up the money from her banking job, had quit, and was now backpacking around the world.
I envied her.
Having a partner and coconspirator on a boring flight made life bearable.
“Your first time in London, then?” I asked.
“First time in Europe,” she said. “I’m so excited. Then it’s off to India after that.”
“You touring or doing the spiritual journey thing?”
“Spiritual—how’d you guess?”
“Your tattoo. Nobody picks Kali for the hell of it.”
“Good eye. Guess that’s why you’re a detective. Most guys don’t really see it. They’re usually looking at my boobs.”
“I kind of have a relationship with Kali, whether I like it or not,” I said. “Word of advice: Don’t swim in the Ganges. My relatives never did. If you want to visit ashrams and holy cities, go to Rishikesh.”
“Gotcha. So do you live in India?”
“Londoner, born and bred. My parents emigrated from India. We still have a lot of family there.”
“Say, what did you mean about ‘a relationship with Kali’? That’s kind of cryptic. Not everyone talks about the goddess of chaos, death, and rebirth.”
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them:
“I think I blow up people’s lives.”
“They’re usually bad people, but still . . .”
“Do you help people?”
“I try, but I don’t know . . .”
She looked at me and didn’t seem turned off. Just as well, I didn’t tell her that I had a tendency to see gods from time to time. And not in the figurative sense.
“Kali may be a goddess of death, but she’s also a goddess of compassion,” she said. “She liberates souls from the prison of their egos. Maybe you should remember that.”
So that was why she had an elaborate tattoo of Kali on her forearm. Of course I would run into a god even here, after they’d been so quiet on this whole trip.
“I wish I could say that applies to what I do, but I don’t think I’m setting anyone free.”
What was I doing opening up to a complete stranger on a plane? Maybe it was because we both knew we wouldn’t meet again after we get off in London. Maybe I needed to unburden myself of the weight of what I’d been doing since I had gotten the job at the agency.
Instead of recoiling in disgust, Ariel smiled, and it felt like a lifeline.
“I’m only in London for the weekend, then I’m off to Prague. Why don’t we hang out before I go? I bet you can find something to help me with.”
If this were a magical realist tale full of signs and portents, you might think Kali had sent an angel to reassure me, two nights at the Z Hotel in Piccadilly tracing the details of the mandala tattoos on her naked back and gently tugging on her nipple ring with my teeth, laughing away my existential angst. Skin on skin without malice or guile, solace and kindness, a brief escape but without redemption. Redemption was a myth, anyway. On Saturday, I showed her the sights and took her to my favorite cheap cafés in Soho. Ariel. Her name meant “Lion of God,” but I saw her as a luminous, mischievous spirit, one that slipped in and out of my life like a dream. By Sunday night, she was gone, flying off as angels do when their work is done. In another life, she might have been a demon, but here she had the right mix of mercy and crazy to help me feel better about myself.
The feeling lasted till I went back to work on Monday and stepped into the next pile of insane shit that made up my life these days.