“. . . BUT I SAY, LIFE’S TOO SHORT.”
She ignores him. Her lacquered fingernails agitate the cashew bowl.
He forges on. “Fifty-five. But firmer than I was at forty. Lotta fruit and fiber. And fish oil.”
He moves closer. A blast of breath in her ear. “So what’s your secret?”
“I eat six pounds of grapes a day.”
“That’s a lot of grapes.”
“Not when you squeeze them down to wine.” She turns to him. “The night is young. Fish elsewhere.”
She feels the ripple of his departure. Turns back to the bar and taps the bowl of her wineglass.
The young barman responds to her semaphore, picks up a bottle, and approaches with a boyish grin. His hair is surfed into a halo of gold.
“It’s the rioja, right?”
He twists the cork, dialing up the volume of his appeal. The woman tilts her chin. Not in answer to his question, but to pull taut a hammock of neck flesh.
She watches as he pours the glass brimful. Pirouettes her fingers about the stem. “Won’t you join me?”
“Join me later?”
“Aren’t you waiting for someone?”
Her fur coat swamps the adjacent stool but she wafts a finger in dismissal. “Just company business.”
“Well, if you’re wanting company, ma’am”—the barman motions a finger between his chest and hers—“that’s business too.”
Her purse snaps open. She pulls out three twenty-dollar bills. “What does that get me?”
She withdraws, jaw tight.
“Lady, this is Manhattan.” He taps the cash. “And that don’t get you a man.”
She rolls back her shoulders, hoisting her breasts. “Ten years ago, I would have been your fantasy. I looked very different.”
“Did you look like Spider-Man?”
She grimaces. Froths her hair with furious fingers. How young
is he . . . ?
He moves to take the bottle, but she snatches it by the neck.
“I’m not finished. Not yet.”
The barman gathers up one of the twenties. “That should cover it.” Glances at the bottle. “It’s just the dregs.”
She watches as he turns and walks away. His whole life ahead of him. And mine?
She inhales deeply. All her best years lay behind, spilled like the trail of a dancing drunk. Squandered. Scattered
The young Annie Torgus had graduated top of her class with a doctorate in psychiatry. Her specialty was the early diagnosis of suicidal tendencies. The perception may be that suicide is a practice of the poor, but evidence shows a life of dull luxury to be the sharper spur.
Renting costly offices on the Upper West Side, she imagines a wealthy clientele clamoring for her services. Anxious parents, perhaps, of a teenage girl who festers in her bedroom. To draw her out, Mommy and Daddy have applied a poultice of promises: a new Porsche, a trip to Paris, a pony in the upper field—but nothing has worked. So they urgently call upon Dr. Annie Torgus. And she comes at once, and at quite a price. Easy money.
But the young doctor is kept awake by the sound of her phone not ringing. Her debts rise and so, to raise her profile, she rushes to publish, submitting a lengthy article to the New Scientist
. With a racy title, “How the Kids Hang in the Hamptons,” the article exposes a culture of self-harm and suicide amongst the wealthy teens of New York. Snatched up by the New York Times
, her shocking data flies across the Sunday pages. Radio stations ring for interviews and television soon chases after, faster still once it discovers that Dr. Annie Torgus is young and big-breasted. But as the media spotlight intensifies, it becomes an invasive, burning heat, igniting her research and turning it to ashes. Dr. Annie Torgus, it transpires, fabricated the statistics and falsified the teenage testimony. The glitter she saw surrounding her career turns out to be knives, and, blow by blow, amid howls of derision from her peers, her professional reputation is destroyed. Sliced. Shredded.
Sued by everyone, she struggles on, living off store cards. Until she’s thrown out of her apartment at Broadway and Fourth, landing back in the swamps of Louisiana where she was born. And where the only local employer is Morphic Fields Penitentiary. The black brick structure looms like a mausoleum, and appropriately so, as more prisoners await their execution here than at any other facility.
There is a position available and, faced with little local competition, she secures the job of chief psychiatric officer. Her duty is to monitor suicidal tendencies amongst the inmates. The urge to kill oneself is a prime indicator of insanity, and a suicide attempt is all too often used by appeals lawyers to certify an inmate’s unsound mind. A stay of execution frequently follows. The warden of Morphic Fields, who resents any disturbance to the natural delivery of death within his domain, decides to create the post of prison psychiatric officer to stifle this trend. On her first day, walking into the concrete bunker of her office, Annie Torgus assesses her job as this: to stop death-row prisoners from taking their own lives.
The irony is not lost upon her.
Her sense of purpose is lost forever.
She works alone, day after day, year after year, examining the inmates, declaring them sane and signing away their last chance of appeal. Clutching her clipboard and ticking the boxes, she idly imagines that Warden Duggin might eventually decide to extend her responsibilities one degree further, one gesture more—to have her swish her signature and then plunge her pen deep into the inmate’s carotid artery, ripping wide a hole, a gushing slash . . .
She splashes the last of the wine into her glass. Knocks it back. Thirty-five years she has been at Morphic Fields. Her whole life . . . a life sentence.
The glass stem lowers, unleashing her reflection onto the mirror behind the bar. She grimaces at the old woman who stares back at her. Hair too black, too brittle. Eyes rolled in wrinkles. And those hands, those ancient hands. Spotted, scaly, fatless claws—
The bitter self-attack continues until she slams down her fist and loudly orders another bottle, drags an angry cuff across her eyes. God, no wonder when people off themselves, they shoot their head.
She inhales slowly. Eases back a sleeve to expose her watch. It is later than she thought. She pulls her coat from the adjacent stool. He could arrive at any moment. She needs to compose herself. Remember why she is here. Remember at least his name.
She urgently fumbles in her pocket, retrieving a business card. Holds it at arm’s length, straining to read the small cursive print.
Christopher Hatchling—Senior Buyer, Phobos Books
On the journey out from Louisiana, idling hours at the airport, she bought a Phobos title: Pharaohs from a Far-Flung Star
. A brick of a book, it promised to “stun the reader.” If it falls on your skull, then perhaps
Torgus peeled back the gold-embossed cover and her heart sank as she scanned the trashy text within. But she plowed on, commending herself that she was, at least, doing some research. Then a thought burned her brain: If I’d done my research thirty-five years ago, I wouldn’t now be reduced to this
. Offering a tawdry publishing house what she knows to be an earth-shattering manuscript. How could they ever appreciate the prophecy it holds? So strange, so obscure . . .
But this raw material fell into her hands and it will be her salvation.
She pulls her spine straight. Lifts her chin. Reminds herself that Annie is short for Anstice—a Greek name, reflecting her roots. It means “resurrection.” She will rise again. I’m not finished. Not yet.
She pulls a small mirror from her purse. Checks her teeth for lipstick and her lips for teeth marks. Her habit is to bite down hard when nerves attack. The mirror twists in her palm as she searches the bar behind her. She’d like to see Christopher Hatchling before he sees her. She needs that fractional head start, to drop her face into a casual cradle of welcome.
The mirror picks up a man. His hair tumbles in thick curls. Dr. Torgus thins her lips. She had hoped for someone older, as suggested by the epithet senior
buyer. But Hatchling
it is. Fresh from the egg of ambition. He strides across the carpet, nose up and neck extended. She recognizes the gander-gait of a man arriving for lunch with a mystery woman. She waves her hand, and, as his eyes connect, his swagger slows.
“Dr. Torgus, I’m sorry I’m late.” I’m sorry I’m old.
She delivers a shallow smile, so as not to ripple more wrinkles. “You’re quite on time.” She takes a deep swig, fluffs her hair. “I can recommend the rioja, if you would like a glass.”
“Too early for me.” Too young, too young . . .
She tosses her hair and inside her head, the alcohol swills the rim of her skull. I can do this!
Her voice drops, husky now. Or haggard. She can no longer tell. “So, Christopher . . . are you ready?”
She lifts her bag between her legs, reaches deep into the old, brown folds. “I have something very special to show you.”
And from within, she lifts a tightly bound file.